“So ... what do we know about this guy?” Sam asked, flipping through the file folder as he hurried to catch up to Lennox. The hallway was utterly bland and assuming, painted in military-grade beige and white, with scuffmarks on the walls and a tiled floor that had seen better days, and he knew from experience that the conference room wasn’t likely to be much more comfortable. That alone told Sam that whoever they were there to meet wasn’t deemed important enough by the brass to merit special treatment. Yet he was still important enough for the USAF to fly halfway around the world to Diego Garcia, just to have this meeting.
Sam had to wonder about the military’s priorities, sometimes.
The NEST commander shrugged, hands in his pockets as he waited for Sam outside the conference room door. He was in the standard combat uniform, not service dress; another sign about the casual nature of this particular interview. “Not much--got a call at oh-dark-thirty and told to go talk to this guy; apparently he’s got some intel on some Cybertronian technology hidden here on Earth. He’s an American civilian, I know that much.”
“American--and they flew him all the way out here just to find out what he knows?” Sam said skeptically. “It must be something important, whatever it is.” Which then begged the question of exactly why *they* were the ones talking to him, instead of the CIA. Or the FBI, or Sector 7--or whatever had replaced Sector 7. Sector 7 and a half? Sector We’re-Not-Really-7-More-Like-An-8?
“Who knows?” Lennox tilted his head towards the room. “Guess that’s what we’re here to find out. Shall we?”
“Just a sec.” Sam fiddled with the tiny bluetooth headset hooked over his ear. “You still with us, Optimus?”
//I am receiving you just fine, Sam.// No matter how many times he did this, hearing Optimus’ resonant voice in his ear--made only slightly tinny by the limitations of the headset--never got old. It was like having a shoulder angel--albeit one of the large, well-armed and alien variety.
Optimus is my co-pilot, Sam thought to himself--not for the first time--and did his best not to snigger. Ambassador-consultant-liason-whatevers to the military did not giggle before important meetings. At least, he was pretty sure they didn’t.
“We’re good,” he told Lennox, giving him the thumbs up. The older man nodded, and opened the door.
The man waiting for them was nothing like Sam had expected. Admittedly he hadn’t been given a chance to do more than glance over the dossier that someone had shoved at him, but still, he’d expected someone a little less ... ordinary. Someone ex-military, maybe, or a scientist. Or maybe a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist, the kind who forgot to bathe and wrote manifestos, if you wanted to get really interesting.
The man sitting on the other side of the table, hands curled around a styrofoam coffee cup, wasn’t any of those things. He wore a button-down shirt, a tie, and an old-fashioned suit jacket, a little worn on the elbows and wrinkled from travel. He looked more like Sam’s grandfather than anything--elderly, a little stooped, and obviously tired.
Glancing over at Lennox, Sam took the initiative, walking over to pull out a chair on the opposite side of the table. Politicians he knew how to handle. Military personnel he mostly left to Lennox. He wasn’t about to interrogate the old man in front of him, Simmons-style, so what was he supposed to do?
“Um ... hi.” Great opener, genius. Let’s try to at least act like what we know what we’re doing. Offering his hand to shake, he decided introductions were the safest bet. “This is Colonel Lennox, commander of NEST, and I’m Sam Witwicky, human liason to the Autobots.” Which was a job title that he’d never, ever be able to use on any resume. Not that it mattered. He’d pretty much resigned himself to the fact that he wasn’t likely to have a ‘normal’ job ever again anyway. Especially considering what had happened with his last one. “I hear you wanted to talk to us, Mr.--?”
“Hughes,” the man said, half-standing to shake Sam’s hand briefly, then Lennox’s. If he was surprised at Sam’s relative youth, he didn’t show it. “I remember you. You were the kid the robots were looking for a few years back, right?”
Sam grimaced. Get your picture on an alien ‘Most Wanted’ poster and broadcast over every single media outlet in the world, and suddenly you’re famous. Yet another thing he could thank the Decepticons for. “Yeah, that’s me.”
Hughes gave him a wry look, oddly kind under the wrinkles and the weariness. “My sympathies.”
“Thanks. Part of the job, I’m afraid,” Sam said easily, used to dismissing it as if it were nothing important. Like echoes of fire and the memory of Megatron’s snarl--‘I can smell you, BOY’--didn’t still wake him up screaming sometimes.
Lennox shifted, slinging his arm over the back of his chair. “You have quite a bit of clout, Mr. Hughes,” he observed neutrally. “Enough to get yourself flown all the way out here just to talk to us. General Morshower even vouched for you; said this was important.”
Hughes gave them another of those wry, tired smiles. “No clout, Colonel. I’m a nobody important, just a retired high school teacher who was stubborn enough to camp out on your general’s doorstep. It took me almost a year before I could get anyone to listen, much less take me seriously. And the only reason I got even that far was because I--well, I knew a friend of his, once.” He looked down at the coffee cup cradled in his hands, taking a deep breath. In that moment, Sam realized that Hughes wasn’t just jet-lagged. He was scared. But of what?
Hughes lifted his head and continued, “I don’t mean any disrespect, sir--to either of you--but I didn’t come here to talk to you. I came here to talk to your robots. The--Autobots.”
*That* made Lennox’s eyebrows go up. He glanced over at Sam, but Optimus stayed silent, and all Sam could do is give him a helpless shrug. Lennox turned his attention back to their guest, leaning forward and folding his arms on the table. “Mr. Hughes, I don’t know what you’ve been told, but this is a military base. This is not some kind of zoo or circus sideshow where people can come to gawk at the aliens. The fact that the Autobots even *exist* was highly classified information up until a few years ago.”
Classified until the Decepticons decided to occupy and lay waste to downtown Chicago, Sam mentally translated. Hard to keep the existence of giant alien robots classified when they kept on destroying national landmarks and massacring large swathes of your population.
“Colonel,” Hughes said quietly, “I can assure you that ‘gawking’ is the last thing on my mind.” He sighed, rubbing at his forehead. “Honestly, I’ve been arguing with myself about whether I should do this for years. And I would love to ask you all sorts of questions about these ‘Autobots’ of yours. But let’s be realistic; you have no reason to tell me the truth, and every reason to lie.” He gave them both a level look, and oddly enough, there was no anger in his voice as he continued.
“So I’ll put my cards on the table. Yes, I have a secret, and yes, it’s about something alien. Something some people would say is dangerous. But before I hand over that secret to you, I need to know if I can trust you. If I can trust *them*. Or whether they’re just like the other ones, the ones who killed all those innocent people.” His face hardened into stubborn lines. “Because if they are … or if they’re just some kind of--of robot weapon for the military--then you’re not getting a single damn word out of me, no matter what.”
Despite himself, Sam was impressed. Hughes’ stubbornness was either very brave or very stupid, considering that right now the man was stuck on a base a thousand miles from anywhere, surrounded by people who could make him disappear faster than you could say ‘Guatanamo’, if they really, really felt like it.
Lennox didn’t look all that intimidated. He did look more than a little exasperated, however, as he leaned back in his chair and gave Sam a Look. It was one Sam was becoming quite familiar with--the one that said, ‘You’re the Autobot liason. So liase already.’
Sam considered his options--then did what any self-respecting bureaucrat would do. He kicked it up the chain of command.
“Optimus?” he said, looking up at the black globe of the security camera in the corner. Hughes blinked, glancing over his shoulder in confusion as if he expected to see whoever Sam was talking to.
There was a momentary pause. Then Optimus answered, //I do not believe he means us any harm. He obviously believes the information he carries is important; if Colonel Lennox is in agreement, I am willing to meet with him.//
“All right.” Sam pushed back from the table, standing up. “You’re in luck, Mr. Hughes. Optimus says he’s willing to talk.” He glanced over at Lennox. “With your permission, Colonel?”
Lennox frowned, but nodded. He didn’t much like ultimatums, but it wasn’t as if the man hadn’t been background checked, searched, and scanned to within an inch of his life before ever setting foot on base. If this was some kind of trap, they’d just have to find out the hard way, just like they always did. Pushing to his feet, he headed for the door. “Follow me, Mr. Hughes.”
It wasn’t far to the main hangar; one of several that had been converted for combined Autobot/human occupancy. The tropical heat outside was a slap in the face after the air-conditioned cool of the administrative building, and Sam kept an eye on Hughes. He’d been here long enough that it didn’t bother him, but the older man was obviously not used to it, and heatstroke was nothing to play around with. The main bay doors were closed, so Sam led them around to one of the human-sized entrances, swiping his security badge and pressing a palm against a panel to disengage the biometric lock.
Inside, the hangar was a well-lit, cavernous space filled with scaffolding, communications equipment, assorted human personnel--and Optimus Prime.
This spiel, at least, Sam had down pat. “Mr. Hughes, I’d like you to meet Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots. Optimus, this is Mr. Hughes.” He loved this part: watching the awe and wonder on people’s faces as they came face-to-face with a thirty-foot tall alien living legend for the very first time.
“It is an honor, Mr. Hughes,” Optimus rumbled, turning to face them and inclining his head with grave courtesy.
Nonplussed, Hughes adjusted his glasses, squinting up at the Autobot leader. “Huh.” He glanced over at Sam. “No offense, but ... I thought he’d be taller.”
“So what do you think, Bee?” Sam asked, lounging in the driver’s seat. The cool thing about riding in a sentient Camaro--well, one of them, anyway--was that long road trips got a lot more bearable when you could literally let the car do the driving. “Do you think this guy might be one of yours?”
The radio crackled to life, fuzzing through a brief burst of static before settling into a steady signal. “Hard to say,” Bumblebee said thoughtfully. Ratchet had finally managed to repair enough of Bumblebee’s vocal processors to allow the yellow scout to speak without relying on pieced-together audio clips and song lyrics. Talking, however, still took effort, and the resulting voice was underlaid by a buzzing rasp, occasionally warbling at the edges of the words with modulations Bumblebee couldn’t quite control. Still, Sam wasn’t going to look a gift Autobot in the mouth, so to speak; while he and Bee had understood each other well enough before, it felt great to just … talk to his friend. About anything. “Mr. Hughes’ description does not fit any frame-model I’m familiar with, but given how often we modify ourselves to adapt to different environments, that doesn’t eliminate the possibility.”
Sam nodded, and stretched a bit, watching the forested landscape whip by. It was barely September, but this far north the leaves had already begun to turn, splashing swathes of trees with vivid spots of yellow and red. The weather had stayed clear, thankfully, with the sun staving off an early frost, though to Sam’s mind that didn’t help much. He was a California boy. Compared to the tropical atoll that they’d just come from, even a warm Maine autumn was really damn chilly as far as he was concerned, no matter what anyone said.
Against the dark backdrop of trees, their little convoy certainly stood out. Optimus alone might not have gotten much more than a second glance here and there. Even with his vivid red and blue paint job, there were enough truckers on the back roads of rural Maine to allow the Autobot leader to blend in. But once you added in a vivid yellow Camaro, another bright yellow-green medic unit, an unmarked and obviously-military Humvee, plus a black and white police cruiser (with Autobot markings on the side, not Decepticon, thank god--it had taken Sam quite a while before he stopped jumping every time he got a glance at Prowl’s chosen alt--well, you had a combination guaranteed to cause rubbernecking no matter where they went.
“Fifty years,” Sam mused out loud. “Even after how we found Jetfire, it’s hard to believe. How the heck do you hide a giant alien robot for *fifty years*?”
(Two weeks earlier)
Now firmly ensconced on the scaffolded communications platform that allowed him to be eye-to-eye (or rather, eye-to-optic) with Optimus, Hughes had settled himself into a chair with a complete disregard of the military personnel around him and was regarding the Autobot leader with undisguised fascination. “I apologize, Mr.--er, Prime? I meant no offense. It’s just that you don’t look quite like what I’d expected.”
“No offense taken,” Optimus said graciously, the mobile plates that made up his face shifting upwards in an expression of wry amusement. “I find I am tall enough for most purposes, after all. And ‘Prime’ is actually a title. Please, call me Optimus.”
“All right--Optimus it is.” Hughes’ eyes were bright, and he didn’t seem the slightest bit afraid, leaning forward a bit in his enthusiasm. And while Sam was glad he didn’t have to worry about the elderly man having a heart attack at the sight of an Autobot, the fact that he wasn’t even *nervous* was just plain weird. Even the most enthusiastic scientist-types were more than a little wary around Cybertronians, if for no other reason than the fact that meeting giant aliens tended to drive home the point how small and squishable humans were in comparison.
“So you really are … people, then,” Hughes was saying. “Not some military experiment or anything. And you’re from another planet?”
“Yes.” Optimus inclined his head in acknowledgment, just as courteous in the face of a single man’s curiosity as he was when dealing with human heads of state. “Our home planet is called Cybertron, and we are indeed fully sentient--autonomous cybernetic organisms, in your language. We arrived here on Earth only recently, but have found allies amongst those of your military in our fight against the Decepticons.” He tilted his head to Lennox, who raised a newly acquired cup of coffee in acknowledgement.
“Decepticons.” Some of Hughes’ enthusiasm visibly dimmed. “Those are … the others. The ones that destroyed Chicago. They’re also from your planet?”
“I am afraid so,” Optimus replied, his voice heavy with regret. “It was never our intention to embroil Earth in our war, but circumstances dictated otherwise. And now that the Decepticons are here, they are unlikely to leave--not while Earth still has energy resources that they might plunder. So we remain as well, in order to stop them and protect this planet.”
“I see … I think.” Hughes frowned a little. “But you said that you’d only arrived recently? The others, too?”
“That is correct. Most of us have been here less than ten of your solar years. We have recently discovered that there were … earlier encounters, but none quite so overt.”
“Mr. Hughes,” Lennox put in, “We’ve done what you asked, and while I’m sure Optimus would be happy to answer any questions you have, we can probably give you the answers you want a lot faster if you tell us what you’re looking for.” Or to put it less politely: they’d been patient long enough. If Hughes wanted to continue to have access to the Autobots, he needed to come clean.
Hughes gave them a sidelong look, his mouth quirking into a wry smile. “Time to shit or get off the pot, eh, Colonel?”
Sam choked a little, and Optimus tilted his head quizzically. Lennox unbent enough to give the older man a sidelong grin. “You could say that.”
“You’re right, of course. I could dance around this for weeks, but it wouldn’t do anyone any good.” Hughes turned back to face Optimus, squaring his shoulders. “I came all this way because I needed to meet you. To see if they were telling the truth about the Autobots, and if they were …” he drew in a deep breath, “... then to ask you to help my friend.”
The plot thickens. “Your friend?” Sam asked. He had a sudden suspicion he knew where this was going ....
“Yeah.” Hughes glanced over at Lennox. “It’s a bit of a story, I’m afraid, so bear with me. It all happened back in ‘57--before your time. Way before his.” He jerked a thumb at Sam in illustration. “ You ever hear about the Rockwell Incident?” At the colonel’s headshake, he snorted. “Still too classified even for you guys, I guess.”
He leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees. “Rockwell is a little town in Maine; it’s where I was born and raised. Nothing really special about it, except that it’s where he crashed, just off the coast.” He looked up at Optimus. “These guys don’t really know what it was like back then, but you have to understand. Everyone was afraid. Afraid of the communists, the Russians, Sputnik, the bomb … I knew a space robot would freak them out, even if he was friendly.” He added defiantly, “And he was. He didn’t want to hurt anybody.”
“I believe you,” Optimus said gently. “What was his name?”
Hughes sighed. “I don’t know. He couldn’t remember anything, not his name or where he came from. I called him ‘Giant’.” Catching sight of Lennox’s expression, he shrugged. “Hey, I was twelve.”
“Did he look anything like Optimus?” Lennox asked, letting that slide. “Or have any symbols on him? Especially either of these?” Opening up an image file on a nearby laptop, he showed the other man the Autobot and Decepticon insignias. Hughes barely glanced at it before shaking his head.
“That’s just it. He didn’t have any symbols at all. He was just bare metal. And he really didn’t look anything like you, sir, other than you both being robots, anyway,” he told Optimus. “I don’t even know if he’s really one of your people. All I know is that you’re both from space, and you’re both alien. I don’t want him dragged into a war, but--I’m not as young as I used to be.” Hughes looked down at his hands. “I can’t protect him forever.”
“Protect him?” Sam asked. “From the Decepticons?”
“From them too, but ... mostly from us. Humans, I mean.”
A flash of memory--Bumblebee, half-frozen, strapped down to a concrete block and keening in pain--and Sam suddenly understood why Hughes was afraid. Not for himself, but for his friend. “What happened?” he asked softly.
“You have to understand, he didn’t know anything. He was like a baby. Well, he knew how to walk, and eat--that’s how I found him, he kept taking bites out of things--but not much else in the beginning. I taught him English, sort of. Once I figured out he wasn’t going to eat *me*, anyway.” Hughes smiled a bit at the memory. “He learned fast, though.”
He looked up again, and this time his attention was on Sam. “I don’t know if he was always like that or if something had happened to make him that way. But I know he never wanted to hurt anyone. I managed to keep him hidden for a while, but--” Hughes sighed. “I was twelve. And you can’t exactly hide a giant robot under your bed.”
“Believe me, I know the feeling,” Sam said, honestly sympathetic.
“Yeah. Anyway, there was this government agent. Mansley, his name was; I don’t even remember what department he said he worked for. But once he found out about the Giant ... as soon as he got proof, he called in the army.” Even after fifty years, the bitterness was clear.
“They tried to capture him?” Lennox asked, narrow-eyed. Did they even *have* anything back in the fifties that could have disabled an Autobot? Maybe if it had been one of the smaller ones ….
“Capture him? They tried to *kill* him! They didn’t care who or what he was, not once Mansley had made his report. All they saw was a threat to ‘national security’.” Hughes made mocking air quotes around the words with his fingers, then curled them into fists in his lap.
“Was he badly damaged?” Optimus asked. His compassion for the lost mech was obvious, even if Sam was sure Optimus had asked for strategic reasons as well. Still, he’d be willing to bet good money that Optimus had opened a private channel to Ratchet already. An injured mech was an injured mech. Decepticon or Autobot, it didn’t matter--not to Ratchet, and not to Optimus.
“I--everyone thought he was dead,” Hughes confessed. He looked up at Optimus. “I don’t know how much you know about Earth weapons. Have they told you about our nukes? Nuclear missiles, I mean?”
Sam stiffened, and Lennox damn near dropped his coffee. “You’re kidding. They tried to drop a *nuke* on him? On American soil? That’s insane!”
Hughes was ramrod straight, and met Lennox’s disbelief without flinching. “Yeah. They did. They were willing to wipe out our whole town and poison a good part of Maine, just to kill him.” He sighed, shoving a hand through graying hair. “I was never quite sure how it happened. I was--with the Giant at the time. The whole thing was the mother of all fuckups; everyone was on a hair trigger, the Giant had already destroyed a few tanks, nothing else they tried to shoot him with had worked, Mansley was freaking out … and somehow the missile got launched.”
“I do know of Earth’s nuclear weapons, Mr. Hughes,” Optimus said quietly. The Autobots’ reconnaissance had been quite thorough, even without resorting to the brute force invasions of the military networks that the Decepticons had favored. “Such a weapon would be enough to destroy one of us if we were close enough to the epicenter, though the resulting damage to any nearby humans would be catastrophic.”
“Yeah. It would have been.” Hughes’ voice was very quiet.
“Since Maine is still with us and not irradiated, I’m assuming something happened?” Sam asked. There was always the possibility that Hughes was a nut and making all this up, but … it was just unbelievable enough to be true. And given his own experience with unbelievable stories over the last few years, something told him Hughes was being terrifyingly honest.
“You could say that.” Hughes looked up, ignoring the humans to meet Optimus’ electric blue gaze. “The Giant--he saved us. All of us. Once he knew what it meant, that we were all going to die … he went after the missile. Kept it from falling--made sure it exploded out in space.” His voice was hoarse and unsteady, but he forced out the words anyway. “He sacrificed himself to save all of us.”
Hughes took an unsteady breath, visibly shaking himself out of the memory. “I thought he’d died for me. For us. They couldn’t find anything afterward. Just one little piece. But then … well, it’s complicated. Apparently he hadn’t been destroyed. Just really badly hurt. It took a long time--almost a year and a half--but somehow, he managed to find his way back.”
Optimus’ optics had widened a bit at that revelation, though Sam noted he didn’t look completely surprised. Just … thoughtful.
Lennox on the other hand, was obviously a bit taken aback. “Seriously?” he asked Optimus. “You’re seriously telling me that one of your guys could take a *nuke* in the kisser and walk away from it?”
“Most of us? No, Colonel,” Optimus answered gravely. “Even I would sustain critical damage in the face of such a weapon--more than I could repair on my own. But I have known other mechs, ones designed for deep-space exploration, for example, with armor or shielding capabilities that might have been able to withstand such a blast. So it is not beyond the realm of possibility.”
“Daaamn,” Lennox said, impressed in spite of himself. He glanced over to Hughes. “Your friend is one damn lucky robot, Mr. Hughes.”
Hughes gave him a crooked smile. “For a certain given definition of ‘luck’, anyway,” he replied. “I couldn’t believe it myself, to tell the truth. I’d hoped, but .... I honestly never thought I’d see him again. We managed to keep him away from the towns after that; a few other people knew about him, of course, but after what the army had done? Well, everyone knew what he’d done for us. No one was going to be calling the government a second time. He was one of ours now.”
“But I think surviving all that, and coming back, it must have done something. Hurt him somehow, inside where we couldn’t see. He was with me for about five years, and he seemed the same as he ever was.” Hughes smiled a little, remembering. “Let me tell you, having a giant robot as a friend? Best present any boy could ever ask for.”
“But then one day I went out to meet him, and he was just--sitting there. He wouldn’t wake up, no matter what we did.” He wrapped his hands around each other, knuckles white against the weathered skin. “For a while I was afraid he might be dead.” The pain in his voice was almost palpable, and Sam couldn’t help but think of Bumblebee. There was a painful knot in his chest at the thought of going out to the garage one day, only to find his friend was just ... gone. Offline, with no Ratchet to call, no way to know if he were dead or only sleeping … what would he have done, faced with something like that? Left with nothing but a heap of inert metal that looked like the corpse of his best friend?
“We didn’t know what to do. There wasn’t anyone we could could trust to help him. After a while, I did manage to figure out that he was still giving off an energy signature.” He gave a self-deprecating shrug. “Alien encounters are a wonderful incentive to turn into a science geek, I guess. I couldn’t make heads or tails of what it was--but it was there. It was *something*. So we hid him away, made sure the government couldn’t find him. I figured the least I could do was protect him until he woke up.”
“But he never did?” Sam asked, already pretty sure he knew the answer.
Hughes shook his head. “No. He never did. It’s been fifty years; I’d almost given up hope. But then you guys came.” His gaze never wavered from Optimus. “After the attacks, I saw the news; saw the pictures of the others. The ... Decepticons? And then I heard about your people, the ones who fought them. For a long time I wasn’t sure what to think, but after a while, I knew I had to take the chance. There just isn’t anyone else.”
He took a deep breath. “Please, Optimus. I don’t know if he’s one of your people, or something else, but he deserves better than this. Please. Can you help me?”
“I am humbled by your loyalty, Mr. Hughes. I assure you, we will do all in our power to help you,” Optimus said gravely. He glanced over to where Sam and Lennox were waiting; the colonel gave him a tight nod. He felt the same way Optimus did about leaving people behind. “Please tell us where he is. Colonel Lennox will begin making arrangements for transport, and I give you my word: the Autobots will do our best to ensure you are reunited with your friend once again.”
Author's note: If this chapter reads like an episode of 'House', I blame Ratchet. Ratchet-vision took over and there was no stopping the train after that. Dr. Ratchet, M.D.--or is that C.D.? Warning: possibly incoherent technobabble ahead!
The barn was set back against the trees, at the end of a winding gravel lane that obviously hadn’t been used in some time. Originally painted red and white, the barn’s colors had been muted by time and weather, white trim fading to graying wood, the stone and concrete of the foundation surrounded by brushy knee-high grass. A battered, slowly-rusting pickup and an old tractor stood vigil nearby, equally overgrown; silent companions, sturdy and unpretentious.
As the rest of the Autobot convoy pulled into the weedy turnaround in front of the barn, Ratchet opened his passenger-side door, letting Hughes get out first. The elderly human swung down from Ratchet’s interior with the practiced ease of a man used to driving farm machinery, stepping away to allow the medic to transform. “The old barn was already in bad shape when he arrived,” he remarked, continuing their conversation. “Falling part, really. So after a couple of years, we had this one built for him to sleep in, further back from the the road.” He paused, obviously thinking. “You know, I never really thought about that before. Whether that was normal, I mean. Do you guys sleep?”
Ratchet transformed, his structure reconfiguring smoothly from alt-mode, bright yellow armor twisting apart at the pivot points as he straightened up, flexing hands in a habitual systems check. “We do recharge from time to time, but it is a different process than organic ‘sleep’. It is mostly an energy conservation and self-repair mechanism; we do not risk erratic functioning or processing crashes by abstaining the way humans do.” Pausing in order to do a few more passive scans of the area, he continued, “Your friend. He ‘slept’ often?”
Hughes nodded, looking worried. “Just as much as I did. Is that a bad sign?”
Ratchet shrugged. “Hard to say. It could be, if he were a Cybertronian. Or it simply could be the result of low energy levels. Either way, I’ll know more once I have a look at him.” Assuming the human had told the truth; so far his scans weren’t picking up anything other than his fellow Autobots. Even if the strange mech was in complete stasis lock, he should be getting *something*. A spark-echo, the flutter of an EM field … some indicator of mechanoid life, no matter how small. A bit perturbed, he opened a channel to the others.
//I’m not picking up any life-signs, Optimus. Just the usual organic clutter. Bumblebee? Prowl?//
The other Autobots had just finished transforming, standing upright. Optimus was fully as tall as the barn itself, while Prowl and Ratchet--and Bumblebee, of course--were significantly shorter. Which was probably a good thing, considering that their goal lay inside. Human structures, like their inhabitants, could be ridiculously fragile.
Bumblebee shook his head as he straightened, sending a firm and wordless negative over the channel, a simple null data/no information found. Prowl’s reply was less immediate, and when it came, it had reservations layered into his negative--no primary data found/anomalous tangential information.
//I am picking up a great deal of nonliving metal within this structure,// Prowl clarified. //More than can be accounted for by human machinery.// Meticulous as always, the tactician presented the data without any associated conclusions, and Ratchet had to suppress an instinctive ripple of dismay, keeping it isolated from the others. Prowl’s data could mean nothing at all; or it could mean that the mech they had come for was already long past saving. Either way, making assumptions before even seeing the patient was a rookie mistake, he reminded himself, and firmly shunted his misgivings to one side.
“Wow … I know you guys do that all the time, but that just never gets old,” Hughes remarked as he watched the Autobots transform. Sam and Lennox’s team joined him, and Sam grinned.
“Tell me about it.” He nodded at the barn. “This is the place?”
“Yep.” Hughes headed for the main barn doors; they had been chained shut, a formidable combination padlock securing the whole thing together--and judging from the liberal amount of rust on both chain and lock, hadn’t been opened in some time. The chain was far thicker than Ratchet had seen humans use elsewhere, but still seemed incredibly flimsy. Any of the Autobots would have able to twist it apart with their bare hands, and even a sufficiently determined human could sever it, given the right cutting tools. From the slightly embarrassed expression on Hughes’ face, he apparently knew it as well. “Not very secure, I know. This is mostly to keep any punk kids out,” Hughes said apologetically as he dialed in the combination. “Couldn’t afford anything more subtle, and I couldn’t really put anything more fancy on it without making people wonder exactly what it was I was keeping in here.” The lock clicked open, and he began to unwind the heavy chain from the door handles. Then he hesitated.
“You guys do remember what I said, right?” Hughes said, looking over at Lennox and the two other NEST team members. Ratchet couldn’t help but find it ironic; they had apparently found the one human on the entire planet that seemed to trust the Autobots more than their own military. “No weapons. No matter what happens.”
“We understand, Mr. Hughes,” Lennox said reassuringly. Ratchet suppressed a snort. NEST was a chip off the old Ironhide block, with a firm belief in the idea of peace through superior firepower. All the warnings in the world wouldn’t keep them from acting if there really was some kind of amnesiac Decepticon in that barn and things dropped in the pot. Personally, Ratchet would have preferred they stayed behind; the only reason they were even there was because NEST’s human superiors had insisted on at least a nominal military presence to keep an eye on the retrieval.
“ … all right then. Good.” It was obvious that Hughes didn’t entirely believe them, but there was only so much the human could do. Looking at the doors, he scrubbed a hand through graying hair and gave Ratchet an inquiring look. “Er--normally I have to go fire up the tractor to pull these open. You think you guys can give me a hand?” A bit surprised, Ratchet glanced over at Prowl and Optimus. The barn doors were oversized, to be sure, but surely the human wasn’t that feeble? Why would you build a door you couldn’t open?
“Of course, Mr. Hughes,” Optimus said, nodding at the others. Prowl stepped forward, inserting the tips of his metal fingers around the metal-sheathed edge of one door, and tugged with delicate care. The wood groaned, but the door didn’t budge. There was a confused murmuring from their human contingent. What the hell …?
Prowl tilted his head, scanning the structure of the doors more closely. Then, resetting his feet, he pulled with a great deal more force. The door swung open with a protesting squeal, and the reason for Hughes’ request became obvious: almost the entire inside of the barn door was covered in metal plating.
The open channel lit up with belated realization, and Ratchet gave a low thrum of approval. //Clever human, using native materials to mask energy signatures.//
“What is all this?” Sam asked, moving forward to knock on one of the plates with his knuckles.
“Lead,” Hughes said with a certain amount of satisfaction. “Couldn’t do the whole barn, unfortunately, mostly just the walls and extra concrete for the foundation--but I tried to put up enough to cut down on any residual radiation and the like.” Bumblebee had already moved to pull the other door open, revealing--even more metal?
Ratchet blinked. //Well, at least this answers why we were picking up on nonliving metal.// There were stacks of rebar, coils of wire, piles of body panels from a thousand different human vehicles … it was a junkyard in miniature. Bending over to peer into the darkened interior of the barn, Ratchet wasn’t sure whether to be appalled or impressed--had the human been stockpiling parts for repairs? If so, this took pack-ratting to a whole new level. Was that a stack of *I-beams* against the wall? “Is this more camouflage, then?” he asked, curiosity getting the better of him.
“All this? Well, some of it, I suppose,” Hughes said easily, nodding his thanks to Prowl and Bumblebee before heading in. “You guys might have to shove some of this out of the way, sorry ‘bout that--guess I got a little overzealous.” Glancing back at Ratchet, he continued, “Mostly, though, I just thought he’d be hungry when he woke up.”
Prowl, already ducking his head to enter the barn, froze in mid-step. “Hungry?” he asked. The open channel flickered with intrigue/worry/interest as the four Autobots shared interlinked data, collating for all known species of metal-eaters. There were quite a few, ranging from benign to parasitic to predatory, though nearly all were non-sentient.
“Your friend is a metallivore?” Ratchet said, frowning. He stepped into the barn, picking his way through the piles of metal and giving Prowl an impatient rap to get the other Autobot moving again. “He actually consumes metal?”
“Yeah, he does.” Hughes said, sounding surprised. “You mean you guys don’t?”
“Only in trace amounts; we subsist off of energon,” Ratchet replied absently, shoving a few enormous spools of cabled wire out of his way with one foot. The path Hughes was following was clear enough, and reasonably wide ... for a human. Lennox and the others were certainly having no problems navigating; the Autobots, however, were finding it slower going.
“Huh. Strange.” After a moment’s consideration, the human shrugged. “Don’t worry. I don’t think he’d ever eat anything alive, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
For some reason, Ratchet didn’t find that very reassuring.
Hughes picked his way over to one wall, fumbling in the dark for a moment before finding the switch. “Well … here he is.” Cobwebbed fluorescent lights stuttered to life overhead, and Autobots and humans alike saw the barn’s original occupant for the first time.
//Well, he certainly lives up to his name,// Ratchet sent, amused. How the heck had Hughes ever convinced a mech that size to fit in here in the first place?
Sam whistled, impressed. “Wow ... you weren’t kidding when you said he was big!” Even seated, the Giant still overtopped Bumblebee by a decent margin, his helm and chassis taller than either Prowl or Ratchet. The massive gunmetal-gray form took up almost the entire back wall of the barn, and was seated in an oddly humanlike pose, arms folded and dangling over bended knees, head sunk down against the chest, optics shuttered and dark. For some reason an enormous tarp had been draped over him, tucked in behind his shoulders like a blanket, covering him from shoulders to knees. It only reinforced the impression that the Giant was sleeping, Ratchet had to admit. Admittedly, a fifty-year recharge was probably a bit excessive, at least by human standards, but still ….
Ratchet picked his way further into the open area where the Giant sat, looking the big mech over. Bumblebee and Prowl weren’t far behind, while Optimus, hampered by his greater size, waited patiently on one knee at the barn door, his head tilted to take in the scene.
“Okay, is it just me, or does this guy look nothing at all like you guys?” Lennox asked. Someone had to get the obvious out of the way, apparently. Lennox was knowledgeable enough about Cybertronians to be familiar with mechs of both Autobot and Decepticon make, as well as the standard protoforms from the new arrivals, and Ratchet had to admit this mech looked nothing like anything any of the humans had ever seen before. Compared to most Cybertronians, he was extremely primitive in structure; bulky, barrel-chested, with a simple cylindrical head and no distinct facial features save for optics and a hinged jaw of sorts. “He looks like something from an old sci-fi movie,” Ratchet could hear the human mutter under his breath. “‘When Mars Attacks’, I shit you not.”
“It is not just you, Major,” Prowl replied. He looked over the seated mech, scanning it minutely. “I have no data on any Cybertronian frames of this make. Nor does he resemble any of the other sapient mechanoid species that the Autobots have encountered thus far. Ratchet?”
Still embroiled in initial diagnostics, Ratchet squashed the urge to snap at the tactician and shook his head instead. “So far nothing is turning up in my medical databases that comes even remotely close to this mech’s structure.” There were odd resonances that were almost familiar on the molecular level, and the surface nanomachines, at least, seemed to have a few structural similarities to their own, despite an odd lack of the usual chromaphores. Frowning, he started another series of full-spectrum diagnostic scans, dedicating more resources to amplification and interpretation. It was obvious the mech had suffered a great deal of damage; there were large sections of armor that were far thinner than the rest, though oddly enough, there was no trace of those same injuries on the surface. It looked as if instead of rebuilding the mech’s armor from the inside out, as was normal for a Cybertronian, the mech’s self-repair nanites had been building from the outside in. An adaptive mechanism, perhaps, to keep from showing weakness even when damaged?
Another set of scans came back with null values; scowling, Ratchet smacked the side of the tool’s indicator display. “Armor composition is giving me fits,” he finally admitted to the others. “I’m getting both terrestrial elements and offworld ones, and I’ll need to run more extensive tests to figure out what is what. His outer armor is also unbelievably thick, which is making it difficult to get good readings of his internal components; it’s like trying to scan through the hull of a battleship. I am getting a few trace energon readings, though, and some residuals from an EM field.”
“Is that good?” Hughes asked, one hand laid protectively on the Giant’s lower leg.
“It is … promising,” Ratchet said carefully, not wanting to get the human’s hopes up unnecessarily. Opening another compartment, he unfolded a star-shaped amplifier, attaching the spidery ‘legs’ against the armored chest and processing the influx of new data. “The more points of congruence, the more likely it is that I can figure out a treatment. Many mechanoid species display convergent evolutionary characteristics, even when not created by the Allspark. Similar adaptations in energy processing or environmental requirements, for instance, just as organic carbon-based lifeforms do.”
“I’m … gonna pretend I understood that,” Hughes said after a minute.
“There are a few transformation seams, but not as many as there should be. Not for a mech this size,” Ratchet remarked to Prowl as he inspected them. “And no obvious indications of an alt-mode.” Crouching down, he scrutinized the lower torso and gave a satisfied ‘hrmp’.
“What did you find?” Prowl asked, glancing over at him.
“Access ports. Locked down tight, but at least he has them.” Ratchet stayed in his crouch, inhumanly still as he correlated the incoming data, inspecting the ports minutely. Access would be difficult--he disliked hard-lining any mech without prior consent, much less one from a different species--but not, Primus willing, impossible.
After a few more minutes to recheck his diagnostic data and his assumptions, Ratchet straightened. “All right,” he said flatly, sending a condensed packet over the open channel to the others so that they could check his analysis, “I have bad news and good news.”
“What have you found?” Optimus asked aloud, ever-mindful of their human companions. Vocal communication took much longer than direct data transfer, but it had not taken any of the Autobots long to find out that humans were quick to take offense at being ‘left out of the loop’, as it were.
“Well, the good news is he’s still alive. As far as I can tell, he appears to be in stasis lock, or something so close to it as makes no difference. His armor is like nothing I’ve ever seen, but it does have a nanomachine base. The nanites are inert, of course, but I may be able to manipulate them, even without access to any of his medical overrides.” Ratchet folded his arms, scowling at his erstwhile patient. “The bad news is that I have to activate those nanites in order to override them, and I can’t do that without getting past his armor.”
“Catch-22, huh?” Sam said.
Ratchet paused, taking a nanoklik to research the reference. “ … correct. Basically, I need to get a line in, both to give the nanites a charge and to get a better idea of what his internal structure looks like. If he was an Autobot, it wouldn’t be difficult. Even in stasis, there are several methods I could use. But this mech’s outer shell is locked down; there are literally no points of access. I could try to bore through his outer armor, but I would prefer to avoid that. Not only would it cause more damage, but I don’t know what kind of defensive routines I might trip.”
“I take it you have another option, then?” Lennox said. He had stationed himself against the wall of the barn, keeping out of the Autobots’ way while the other two NEST personnel maintained a perimeter watch outside.
“I believe so. Here, and here--” Ratchet pointed to the two small interlocked panels along one side of the mech’s torso. “Are access ports. Locked down, just like everything else, but if I can force a hardline in past the shielding, then I can get a probe in to figure out the Giant’s internal structure, and hopefully give his nanites a base charge from my own systems.“
“Risk assessment?” Prowl asked, frowning slightly as he went over the data, mildly displeased by the sheer number of unknown variables.
Ratchet shrugged. “Acceptable.” Were this an Autobot, he would have said nominal; that’s what medical overrides and firewalls were *for*, after all. A Decepticon would have been more risky, but not by much; Ratchet had been taking Cybertronians apart and putting them back together for far too long to be easily taken off-guard by anything a Decepticon might come up with. But an alien species was a whole different story; even taking precautions, he’d be going in blind. “I won’t be going any deeper than base level self-repair programs, so I should be able to cut the hardline at any time if I run into any problems.”
“What about moving him to better facilities?” Optimus said, his concern obvious. “It might be safer for both of you to have Wheeljack or even Teletraan-1 available in case of the unexpected.”
Ratchet considered it. “I don’t think moving him would cause more damage. But moving a mech this size that distance would be no small task, especially if we wish to do it without being seen. It could be done, but ....” He glanced over at Hughes, who was listening silently, his face upturned as the Autobots conferred. The human had waited most of his brief lifetime for someone to help his friend. Perhaps it was foolish, but Ratchet did not want to take the mech from Hughes’ care without at least trying to do what he could for him here. //I believe the risk can be mitigated with the appropriate precautions, Optimus. I would like to try.//
Optimus considered the request, then nodded. “Very well. I trust your judgment.” //Just be careful, old friend.//
//Always.// Ratchet turned back to the his patient. Kneeling, he looked over at Hughes. “I would recommend you give us some space, Mr. Hughes--Sam and the colonel as well. I would not want you to be injured by a reflex movement.” Or anything more intentionally deadly, for that matter. Hughes had told them about the Giant’s defensive mechanisms, though his descriptions had been vague at best.
The human hesitated, then nodded. Giving the Giant’s foot one last pat, as if to reassure himself of its solidity, he retreated towards the barn door, Sam and Lennox following behind.
Transforming one hand into a laser cutter, Ratchet began to carve his way past the interlocking plates that shielded the access port. There was no response from the mech, autonomic or otherwise, the self-repair nanites in the area staying firmly offline. Which should have made his job easier, but even the somewhat thinner plating over the port proved to be quite difficult to cut. It was slow going, especially since he did not want to damage the port itself. Cutting away at the joins with delicate care, Ratchet removed each small piece as he went, until finally the gleaming silver metal of the port itself was exposed.
Folding the cutter away, Ratchet paused, checking his datawalls and queuing up first contact protocols, just in case. Then, reforming his hand, he extruded a slim datajack, pulling the flexible metal line out and touching it to the port. The mech’s access port was completely different from any of the standard Cybertronian interfaces, which was to be expected. Focusing in on the datajack, Ratchet began the minute structural changes necessary to adapt the jack to make a solid connection. In a sense, it was like picking a lock--albeit with a lockpick that could adapt its configuration to accommodate the shape and function of any waiting socket. He could feel the shape and composition of the access port’s interior, sense the pull of the waiting connection points … another twist, an additional relay to accommodate the odd hexagonal data transfer interlock and he was … in.
From the inside, the signs of a complete stasis lock were unmistakable. Nowhere near as bad as some he’d seen, but a total systems shutdown, regardless. Now that he was inside the armor, however, he was getting a reassuringly solid spark-signal. Internal scans showed an interior structure just as densely layered as any Cybertronian, including the familiar indications of dormant weaponry. There was residual structural damage, with the remaining damage to the outer shell now impossible to miss. And everywhere were the echoing trails of directed-assemblers and a veritable army of internal repair nanites, all shut down in mid-function.
Frowning, Ratchet checked the mech’s other vitals. The spark-signal was strange, both familiar and not, but strong. Spark-containment was perfectly intact. No activity in any of the mech’s higher or lower processing functions, which was consistent with stasis. No response from even the most base-level autonomic functions, however, which was not. No major energon lines breached, power processing and conversion systems were ... very alien, but intact as near as he could tell. There was some evidence of prior damage to a few vital areas, but all of that had been well-repaired, unlike the more superficial damage he’d found earlier. Everything just came back empty. Barely a residue of energon left in the mech’s lines, with both main power and peripheral reserves drained of every last millijoule of energy.
It didn’t make sense. Why would any mech override their own autonomic warnings, just to run themselves into stasis lock for no good reason?
//I’m not seeing any critical injuries,// he told the others. He didn’t send over his scans; no need to swamp his fellow Autobots with diagnostic data. //It looks like he just … ran out of gas, as the humans would say. Not sure why--there might be power leak somewhere. It looks like he has an equivalent to a Cybertronian laser core; going to send a trickle charge, see if he responds.// The charge would be slow, but a great deal safer than trying to force energon into an alien mech’s systems. Assuming, of course, that a metallivore could even process raw energon in the first place.
Reconfiguring the hardline, he started low, sending over barely enough charge to feed a handful of nanomachines. There was no response, the power sucked away into the hungry vacuum of the mech’s systems to no apparent effect. Gradually Ratchet increased his output, watching carefully for any sign of overload. The charge was building in the mech’s reserves, he could tell that much: power levels rising, glacially slow. He was starting to feel the draw on his own reserves; his auxiliary systems were robust enough to handle the load for now, but he was going to need a serious amount of energon later ….
Then a handful of core processes lit up. Within a nanoklik, the mech’s systems all came online, an avalanche of overlapping programs and processors lighting up, cascading into movement and thought and life--
--and the Giant opened his eyes.
Or rather, unshuttered his optics. Even knowing it didn’t necessarily mean anything, Ratchet found himself somewhat reassured by the complete lack of Decepticon-red optic lenses. Protective plates irised open to reveal white optics; an uncommon color, but not unheard of. The glow brightened as more systems came online, the mech blinking reflexively, then tilting his head down to where Ratchet still knelt at his side. Then he tilted his head the other way, oddly birdlike.
“A-to-mo?” The mech’s voice was resonant, a deep base rumble that seemed to vibrate through Ratchet’s frame. Even for a mech this size, it was … impressive. //Looks like he just needed a wake-up call,// Ratchet said, sending his amusement and relief along with the words.
“Giant!” Hughes darted forward, dodging Lennox’s abortive grab for his arm, his lined face alight with relief.
“Ho-garth.” Ratchet hastily disengaged the hardline as the mech shifted, leaning forward. The tarp covering him slithered off the metal shoulders as the Giant put a hand down in a familiar gesture. The elderly human climbed into it without any hesitation, wrapping his arms around a finger to steady himself as he was lifted into the air. Cradling Hughes in front of his chest, the Giant blinked down at him. “Hogarth. … diff-erent?”
“Just a little bit.” Hughes grinned up at his friend, patting the heavy plates of the Giant’s torso. “People do that. Are you all right? I’m so glad to see you again!”
“Hogarth.” It was amazing how much confusion and affection the mech could put into a single word.
“He may not understand how long he’s been … asleep,” Ratchet put in quietly. Which apparently caught the Giant’s attention, those pale optics turning to inspect him once more, then flicking to Prowl and Bumblebee. The simple features shifted into a concerned frown.
“Ato-mo?” The words seemed to be coming easier as the Giant continued to vocalize. Ratchet made a mental note to check on language-processing as well, once they got him to better facilities.
Hughes shook his head, smiling. “No--not Atomo. This is Ratchet. That’s Prowl,” he continued, indicating each of the visible Autobots in turn. “And that’s Bumblebee. They’re called Autobots. They came to help us; they’re our friends.”
“Au-to-bot ... friend?” Another head tilt, and the mech’s other hand lifted, a finger poking gently at Bumblebee’s chassis. “Me-tal.” Bumblebee allowed the surprisingly delicate touch, patting the outstretched fingers with his own much smaller hand.
“Yes, metal,” Bumblebee confirmed, faceplates shifting into a smile as blue optics looked up into white. Stepping to one side, he offered his own hand to a waiting Sam, lifting him up. “And this is my friend, Sam.”
Confusion turned into delight. “Sam.” The Giant looked down at Hogarth. “Friend. Like Hogarth?”
Hogarth smiled, one arm looped around one of the metal fingers that cradled him, looking as if he could stay there forever. “Yes. Friends … just like us.”
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
“You know, I like to think that I’m used to the whole ‘giant robot’ thing by now,” Sam remarked. “But that? That is just *weird*.”
Watching the Giant gnaw happily on a steel I-beam, Bumblebee was forced to agree. Rust sticks were one thing--while they ‘tasted’ good (though not quite in the human sense of the word) and provided trace metals, no one actually expected them to produce enough energon to allow a mech to function.
The Giant, apparently, was a mech of a different color. Or no color, as it were. They had been forced to move out quite a bit of Hughes’ stockpile of metal in order to allow the large mech to exit the barn, and now the Giant was happily eating his way through a good portion of it as the Autobots conferred. Bumblebee did his best not to wince, doorwings flinching downward, as the Giant finished up his I-beam and popped a yellow door panel--well-seasoned with rust--into his mouth, chewing with every evidence of enjoyment.
“It is--not usual,” Bumblebee said diplomatically, not wanting to offend either the mech or Hughes. Not that either appeared to be listening. Hughes was currently holding up a length of copper pipe encouragingly, “--here, try this one! I remember how much you like copper--” The Giant plucked the pipe delicately from the human’s hands with two fingers, eyeing it appreciatively for a moment before crunching down on it like an oversized piece of human candy.
“It may have worked out for the best, though,” Bumblebee added, looking over at the rest of the group. “Optimus brought along extra energon, but it looks like Ratchet needs it more than the Giant does.” In point of fact, the medic was in the process of throwing back another cube, even as he continued his rather heated ‘discussion’ with Lennox.
“--I’m telling you, Lennox, he’s not an Autobot. I don’t think he *has* an alt-mode, Earth-based or otherwise--we’ve tried everything we could to get him to transform, and none of it is working,” Ratchet snapped, glowering down at the human.
And it was the truth. The Autobots had tried everything they could think of to show the Giant how their transformations worked: uploading a basic adaptive set of protocols; talking him through it in English, one baby-step at a time; showing him how it was done by transforming back and forth themselves … and absolutely none of it had worked. The Giant had been fascinated--a little *too* fascinated at times, such as when he’d picked up a transformed Prowl to inspect the underside of his alt-mode (and thank Primus for Prowl’s unflappable calm--it had been difficult not to allow battle protocols to take over when those blunt, strong fingers had closed around the tactician. Bumblebee had been in the hands of much larger mechs far too often not to know what kind of damage that strength could do, especially when all the Giant had to do was *squeeze* … ) --but utterly uncomprehending, even when Ratchet showed him the transformation seams on his own armor.
“All right, fine, I get it,” Lennox snapped back, equally frustrated. “But if that’s the case, then how the hell are we supposed to get him to Nevada? ‘Cause let me tell you, I’m pretty sure he’s not going to fit inside any rig that Optimus can pull.” Optimus’ normal silver trailer--the battle-platform in alt-mode--was obviously out of the question when it came to transport, but bringing in a different one wouldn’t help much either. Even the oversized trailers the humans occasionally used wouldn’t work--while they were long enough, the Giant was far broader in the chest and shoulders than even an wide-loaded rig could easily accommodate. “Even if we find a flatbed big enough, there’s no way we can clear the roads all the way from Maine to the embassy. All it would take is one idiot with a cell phone to get a good look at what we’re hauling, and pictures of the big guy will end up splashed over every major news network in the country.”
“I understand, Colonel,” Optimus said calmly, mindful of the frayed tempers around him. “We had anticipated having to accommodate either a larger size or an inability to transform, but dealing with both was always going to be a challenge. Still, we must find an alternative. It is no longer safe for the Giant to stay here.” It went without saying that the large mech was now a target--both by Decepticons and unscrupulous humans.
Bumblebee glanced back over at the oblivious mech, who was chewing on some steel cabling and patiently listening to Hughes as the elderly human told him stories of his offspring. It was hard to know how much the Giant understood. Even after five years on Earth, English appeared to be the only language he had learned, and that imperfectly--though the mech did seem to comprehend concepts better than he could vocalize them, if Bumblebee was any judge.
“We could try to fit him into a C-17, maybe, but it would be a fucking tight fit,” Lennox said, frowning. “And if he panicked, it would get really hairy, really fast. Not to mention that still leaves us with getting him to the nearest airfield without anyone noticing, though that at least might be more doable than taking him across state lines.”
“It may be possible to use the Xanthium, now that it has been rebuilt,” Prowl suggested, arms folded as he contemplated the Giant’s dimensions and coordinated several searches for alternate Earth-based transport vehicles. “It is not subtle, but if we use a night landing, all the humans will see is the ship and not necessarily what it carries.” He tilted his head. “Or perhaps he could be carried externally by one of NASA’s shuttle carrier aircraft …”
“--um, folks?” Hughes interrupted, raising his voice to be heard over the discussion. “Dumb question, maybe, but--why can’t he just fly himself?” Suddenly the focus of all eyes--and optics--he cleared his throat a bit uncomfortably. “I mean, maybe I’m missing something obvious, but if we can figure out a way to show him where to go, I’m sure he could get there.”
Ratchet wore an expression Bumblebee wasn’t sure he’d ever seen on the medic’s face before. It was an odd combination of disbelief, slow-dawning realization, and a healthy smattering of skepticism all at once. “You mean … he can fly *without* configuring into an alt-mode?”
“Well--yeah. It’s like you said; he doesn’t have one. He just flies with his feet,” Hughes said, pointing at the (rather sizeable) appendages in question. Which did have thruster-configured ports on their undersides, of course, but Bumblebee had assumed--as had everyone else, apparently--that those thrusters were meant for an alt-mode that the Giant could no longer remember he had. After all, what flight-capable mech would choose to do so in an unwieldy--not to mention aerodynamically unstable--root form? Bumblebee had only ever seen Seekers use their engines like that, and then only for short bursts during close-quarters combat--and the Giant was about as far as you could get from a Seeker and still be a mechanoid species.
“Fly, Hogarth?” the Giant asked, looking down at the human.
“Not yet, big guy,” Hughes said, patting him on the hip in reassurance. “We’re still trying to figure how this all going to work.”
Bumblebee looked back over at the others, somewhat doubtful. Even if the Giant *could* fly, was it wise to send him alone? They had no other flight-capable mechs.
“Well … that changes things a bit,” Lennox said, scrubbing a hand over his head. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but … clearing a flight path is a helluva lot easier than clearing the interstate, and I could probably arrange for a fighter escort. But do we really want to send an amnesiac mech on a cross-country trip by himself? Would he even make it all the way to Nevada?”
“It is a concern,” Ratchet said, his doubtful look fading into a more thoughtful frown. “My initial diagnostics didn’t show any damage that would knock him out of the air, but there’s really no way to be sure, short of getting him into the medbay for a proper set of scans. His energon reserves are still very low, but that at least is fixable--especially if he keeps eating the way he does,” the medic added pointedly as the Giant picked up another handful of rebar to chew on.
“I’m pretty sure if he can make it into low Earth orbit, he can make it to Nevada,” Hughes pointed out wryly. “Though he might rattle a few windows along the way.”
Ratchet nodded. “Point. If we can get his power reserves topped out, it might be safe enough to try. Though I still wish we had a flight-capable Autobot that could accompany him.”
“Fly--with Hogarth?” the Giant asked, surprising all of them. All of them except Hughes, Bumblebee couldn’t help but notice. The elderly human shook his head.
“I can’t, big guy--I’m pretty sure you’d be going too high and too fast for me to come along. These old bones aren’t nearly as insulated as they used to be,” Hughes said regretfully. “Not to mention I really wouldn’t be much help pointing you in the right direction.”
After a moment, Bumblebee came to a decision. “I could go,” he offered. “ I can help with navigation and communications. I’m smaller, lighter--”
“--and less armored than any of us,” Ratchet said, scowling. “If something happens and he crashes--”
“--I can always shift to cometary mode,” Bumblebee pointed out. //Don’t worry,// he added over the open channel, layering on confidence/amusement to gently rebut the medic’s worries. //This is hardly the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done. I’ll be fine.//
//Your logic is flawed--surviving past danger has very little bearing on the risks inherent in your suggested course of action,// Prowl put in, a mild snap of chastisement over Bumblebee’s blithely reassuring--and skewed--analysis. //However, I must concede that otherwise your reasoning is sound. If one of us must accompany the Giant, you would be the best choice. Still, just because the Giant can fly does not mean he *should*. There are alternatives.//
//But not good ones,// Bumblebee retorted.
//I would not say that. Merely less expedient ones.//
“I think,” Optimus said aloud, before the discussion could once again devolve into squabbling over appropriate risks and percentages for success, “that ultimately it is not our decision.” He looked down at Hughes and the seated Giant thoughtfully. “I cannot recommend that the Giant stay here,” he told them both. “We would do our best to protect you, but we have no Autobots stationed nearby, and we would not be able to respond swiftly in case of an attack. Both of you are welcome to stay at the Autobot embassy, however, for as long as you would like.” Optimus paused, then said firmly, “You are a free mech, and I do not wish you to feel coerced into joining us. Whatever decision you make, I promise the Autobots will respect it.”
The Giant tipped his head downward to look at his friend. “Hogarth?”
“Don’t worry, big guy. I’m along for the ride either way,” Hughes said, understanding the unspoken question. He grinned up at the big mech. “You’re not getting rid of me that easily.”
The Giant looked over at the other Autobots, then back at Optimus. His broad, simple face, lacking the myriad tiny faceplates that allowed the others to shift expression, was still oddly contemplative. Considering. And in watching him, Bumblebee was suddenly ashamed. They had been treating him like some kind of drone or mechling, making plans without ever considering the Giant’s own feelings. He of all people should have remembered that the lack of a voice did not necessarily mean a lack in intelligence!
“I--go,” the Giant said finally, standing up to look southward, over the trees. “Fly to Ne-va-da.” He tilted his head, looking down at Optimus, then over at Bumblebee. “... Bumble-bee fly with? I keep safe.”
Ashamed of his earlier doubts, Bumblebee stepped forward. “I would love to,” he said as firmly as his damaged vocalizer would allow. //It’s been a long time since I had a chance to fly with another ‘bot,// he sent to the others, not bothering to suppress the associated memory-fragments of flight/fear/exhilaration. //This will be great!//
Amusement rippled through through the other Autobots at his enthusiasm, and Optimus wagged an admonishing finger. “No side trips or sightseeing, either of you. And if you could keep the aerial acrobatics to a minimum, I’m sure your fighter escort would appreciate it.”
“And neither one of you is going anywhere until I’m satisfied that the Giant is fully recharged and in good condition,” Ratchet added with every ounce of his (rather considerable) medical authority.
Bumblebee snapped off a human-style salute, giving the Giant a conspiratorial smile. “Yes, sir!”
“Mr. Hughes is welcome to travel with us, of course,” Optimus added. “We will not be far behind.”
“Guess I’m turning into a snowbird in my old age after all,” Hughes remarked, smiling. “I have to check in with the wife, but otherwise I’m good.”
“All right--let me get on the horn,” Lennox said, suiting action to words as he pulled out a cell phone and began to dial. “Time to get this show on the road.”
They couldn’t just take off, of course. Even with Lennox’s clout as commander of NEST, fighter escorts took time to arrange. In addition, there were human authorities to be notified, flight plans to be cleared, and the inevitable jurisdictional wrangling to be sorted out. Thankfully, the Autobot side of things was easier--Optimus merely informed the embassy to expect a new arrival. That left the rest of the double- and triple-checking of the Giant’s systems to somewhat harassed Ratchet, who after the third inquiry on the Giant’s condition snapped, “Slaggit, Optimus, I’m a medic, not a xenobiologist!”
(Whereupon the human contingent of their little group nearly died laughing, much to the other Autobots’ consternation. Finally Bumblebee, in between buzzing giggles, took pity on them and suggested they search the human internet for ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Dr. McCoy’. The half-offended, half-pleased expression on Ratchet’s face once he had done so? Priceless.)
Eight hours and multiple phone calls later, they were finally ready. The Giant had relocated to the open field further away from the barn, and after a last check of his power levels, Ratchet stepped back. “He’s topped up and as ready as he’ll ever be. All yours, Bumblebee.”
Personally, Bumblebee couldn’t help but think it was the other way around, an impression only reinforced when the Giant carefully lowered himself to one knee and held out both cupped hands for him to step into. The gentle care with which he was lifted was very reassuring, however, even if tucking himself into the crook of one bulky arm and reconfiguring his hands to lock into the seams on the Giant’s chest armor made him feel more than a little like an oversized sparkling. Humming with anticipation, he reconfigured his outer armor, slicking down the plates as flat as possible to reduce wind resistance. Flipping down his battle visor, he looked down--way down--to where the others waited.
//All systems go, Optimus,// he sent, cheekily adding a recorded fillip of NASA launch chatter for verisimilitude.
Lennox stepped forward. “Ok, the F-16’s are on their way from Hanscome--they’ll rendezvous with you en route and hand off as needed.” He was grinning. “If you can, try and keep it under Mach 2, big guy.”
“Will try,” the Giant rumbled. This close, the big mech’s voice vibrated through Bumblebee’s frame, even as the scout wondered if the Giant really knew what Mach 2 *was*.
“Be safe,” Hogarth called, waving at them both. “We’ll see you soon!”
The Giant nodded, glancing at Optimus and the others. He stepped backward for some additional distance, waiting until the humans had retreated safely--then bent his knees and leaped into the air, thrusters igniting with a roar. Bumblebee’s *yeep!* of suprise was lost in the thunder of their ascent as they climbed, the ground dropping away with incredible speed. This was more like riding a rocket than flying with an Autobot jet, and he was suddenly very grateful for the Giant’s protective grasp, metal fingers cupped carefully around his smaller form.
They reached cruising altitude within seconds, clouds whipping past in a blur of white mist before breaking through into the clear blue of the upper atmosphere. Bumblebee could both feel and hear the thunderous roar of the Giant’s thrusters changing pitch as the massive mech rolled over into a horizontal cruising position, head up and optics watchful. The pressure of the air against his armor was enormous--it had been a long time since he’d done anything like this in anything other than cometary form!--and he tightened his grip, shifting a few dorsal plates to reduce wind resistance as his outer armor heated up. The movements, tiny as they were, caught the Giant’s attention, and those round white optics looked down at him.
//Bumblebee hurt?// The words were sent in English, accompanied by a flickering mosaic of pictures: honeybees, both in flight and on flowers; an assortment of crying human faces, and ending with a particularly pointed image of a squashed tomato.
Bumblebee let his amusement show. //No, I’m fine--don’t worry, I’m not so easy to squash!// As many Decepticons had found out over the course of the war. It was weird, using English in an open channel--but despite their best efforts, the Giant had been utterly baffled by even the most rudimentary Cybertronian vocabulary. English had provided a common language, at least, and once shown how to access Earth-based satellite transmissions, the Giant had taken to the internet like a duck to water. Google’s image search seemed to be a particular favorite for the big mech, who insisted upon adorning every transmission with related imagery, as if he were afraid his English wasn’t good enough on its own.
One large hand shifted slightly, cupping the smaller Autobot more firmly as the big mech adjusted course. //OK,// the Giant sent, and Bumblebee couldn’t help but laugh at the accompanying set of smiley faces, some of them quite--unique.
There was a flicker of movement at the periphery of his sensor range, and as Bumblebee turned his head to investigate, two F-16’s fell into position on their flank. The fighter jets were keeping a respectful distance, with nothing threatening in their radio chatter. He felt the subtle flinch tremoring through the Giant’s armor at their arrival, however, the big mech turning his head slightly to regard each plane in turn.
Bumblebee wished he dared transform a hand enough to wave at the jets, but having fingers ripped off by wind shear was not his idea of a good time. Instead he did his best to project reassurance and calm in his field, sending, //They’re friends, don’t worry. They won’t hurt us.//
He received only a low, uneasy rumble from the Giant in answer, along with a few fragmented, inchoate images of fighter planes. But as the F-16’s made no attempt to fly closer, the Giant seemed to relax. Bumblebee chirped an update back to the others, as well as the base, and settled in. They were travelling at around Mach 1.6, as far as he could tell--he was a ground mech, after all, not a Seeker--and had already left the eastern seaboard far behind.
The rest of their flight proved uneventful--well, as uneventful as being carried by an alien mech could ever be. Bumblebee sent off status updates to Optimus and Red Alert, and gave the Giant a few course corrections when needed, but otherwise tried to keep the channel quiet. As much as he wanted to learn more about the alien mech, he didn’t want to distract the Giant while they were in the air.
A little over an hour later, they were in Nevada, and on course for Yucca Mountain. Their fighter escort peeled off once they had reached Nellis airspace, and as they began to descend, Bumblebee pointed out the embassy’s main entrance--a tunnel mouth bored straight into the side of the mountain that was more than big enough to accommodate Cybertronian-sized occupants. //Home sweet home,// he sent cheerfully.
//Home?// There was another odd resonance to that echoed word--a flicker of light and color, too fast for Bumblebee to process--but the Giant’s satisfaction was evident enough. The big mech was already dumping his speed, angling around in order to land where his passenger had indicated, and as they drew closer, Bumblebee spotted quite a few waiting mechs, more than just the usual posted sentries. It looked like most of the Autobots currently off-duty had decided to come out and gawk at the new arrival.
//Hey, Bumblebee--decided to get yourself an upgrade, didja?// came Jazz’s cheerful hail as the Giant neatly flipped himself end for end. Using his thrusters to kill the last bit of his forward momentum, he landed in a cloud of dust and blowing sand. Jazz was no fool--he stayed well clear until it was obvious that the big mech had made a solid touchdown.
//Well, it’s like the humans say: walk softly, and carry a big mech,// Bumblebee retorted, unlatching one arm to reconfigure it back into a hand and push up his battle visor. He grinned at Jazz. //Though I think we might have gotten it a bit backwards.//
Stepping out of the waiting crowd, Jazz surveyed them both with hands on hips. “Just a little bit, yeah,” he said, tilting his head back. “Wow--I haven’t seen anyone this guy’s size in a while. Guess we can’t call Optimus ‘Bigbot’ anymore, huh?” He waved up at the Giant. “Welcome to the embassy--I’m Jazz!”
“Jazz,” the Giant echoed as he knelt, unclasping his hands from around his passenger. Unlatching himself, Bumblebee nimbly jumped free from the big mech’s lowered hands. The Giant stayed on one knee, his head turning, watching the approach of the smaller, brightly-colored Autobots with no trace of fear. He seemed just as fascinated by them as they were of him, leaning forward to inspect Wheeljack more closely as the engineer poked at an ankle-joint. Bumblebee couldn’t help but smile, optics crinkling upwards, and Jazz sent a silent inquiry, inviting him to share the joke.
“We all look like a bunch of sparklings next to him, don’t we?” he said out loud, using English for the Giant’s benefit. “How long you think before people start demanding rides?” Autobot fliers had been rare even at the start of the war--now they were almost nonexistent. There were still a few of the big shuttle-mechs out there, to be sure, but most hadn’t been seen for hundreds of vorns, scattered between the stars in search of the Allspark. Gestalts and cityformers were even more rare, and there just weren’t that many other Autobots built to the Giant’s scale anymore. Between his size and his ability to fly, Bumblee felt pretty confident that the Giant was going to end up very popular, especially among the younger ‘bots.
Jazz laughed. “Oh, I’m sure they’re linin’ up already,” he replied, pointing to where Bluestreak was climbing up on an extended hand, gesturing with his hands as he talked enthusiastically to--or perhaps at--the bigger mech. Sideswipe, along with most of the others, wasn’t far behind, though Sunstreaker was keeping a more cautious distance, optics narrowed. “C’mon, help me herd all of these cats inside before this turns into a total three-ring circus. The big guy has been pretty patient with us so far, but I think we can find better things for him to do than sittin’ in the dirt all day.”
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Three days later, the rest of the Autobot convoy arrived, albeit in not quite such a spectacular fashion.
Pulling up to where Jazz and Mikaela were waiting, Optimus, Ratchet and Prowl let their human passengers disembark and transformed, gratefully shaking accumulated desert grime from their tires as they responded to a flurry of friendly pings and hails. “Hello, Jazz,” Optimus said aloud, glancing down at his third-in-command. “How have things been while we were away?”
“Oh, nothing unusual, jus’ the normal mayhem and chaos,” Jazz said cheerfully. “The Giant’s been settlin’ in pretty well so far. He’s out with Bumblebee and Bluestreak right now, zoomin' round the back forty. Well, B and B are zoomin’--the Giant’s prob’ly stompin’.” Crouching down, he offered a fingertip to Hughes in an approximation of a human shake. “You must be Hogarth--pleased to meetcha! Heard a lot of good things about ya.”
“Likewise,” Hughes said, smiling. “Mr--?”
“Jazz. Just Jazz, no ‘mister’ needed,” Jazz said easily. “And this is Mikaela--our resident mechanic an’ Ratchet’s right hand human.” He waved a hand in her direction, as if there were any other gorgeous--and somewhat windblown--women standing around to be introduced. Smiling wryly, Mikaela stepped forward to shake hands as well.
“Welcome to the embassy, Mr. Hughes. It’s always nice to meet another part of the alien meet and greet brigade--though with your credentials, we might have to make you a founding member.”
Clasping her hand, Hughes shook his head. “Not so sure I deserve that. I will admit, though, I’m just glad I’m not the only one with giant robot friends anymore!”
“I can definitely understand that,” she replied. “But here--there’s no point in standing around in the sun when it’s more comfortable inside. That way we can get you settled in and gossip properly.” She flashed a grin at Jazz before turning back to the older man. “Can I help you with your duffel?” Sam, she noticed, had already claimed a worn black suitcase that she assumed was also Hughes’.
“Oh no, I have it. I don’t think I’m quite so old as to have to make a pretty lady carry my things,” Hughes said easily, smiling at her. “Where are we headed to?”
“Oh, right this way. Sam and I can show you around and get you settled ….” Jazz gave her a nod as she and Sam began to usher the older human towards the main entrance to the embassy, then straightened up again.
“Anything new to report?” Optimus asked his third in command. He would have already notified Optimus of anything critical, of course, but that didn’t mean other concerns might not have cropped up in the meantime. Thankfully, Optimus had learned long ago to step back and let his officers do what they did best, trusting them to bring him the information he needed, when he needed it. Micromanaging a civil war that spanned thousands of years and multiple galaxies, after all, was both ineffective and untenable. Not that Jazz hadn’t known a few mechs that hadn't done their best to do it anyway ….
“Not much. It’s been pretty quiet so far,” Jazz reported, rocking back on his heels thoughtfully. “Some of the usual squabbles between the humans who want us gone and the ones who want us here, but nothing that their authorities haven’t been handling. Only thing interestin’ is a hit on possible Decepticon activity from further south. Reports are comin’ in about a black and white that’s terrorizin’ the local street racers down in New Mexico--comes outta nowhere and gets in the middle of the racers, then chases ‘em down and bashes ‘em off the road. Never bothers arrestin’ nobody, though, and local law enforcement says it ain’t any of their guys.”
Optimus frowned. “... Barricade.”
“Well, it’s either him or Prowl doing some moonlightin’ on the side--” Jazz glanced over, grinning at the tactician’s unimpressed look. Ratchet snorted. “--but I think I woulda noticed that. So yeah--prob’ly Barricade. Not quite sure what he’s up to, though.”
“How many humans have been injured?” Ratchet asked wearily, obviously dreading the answer.
“Well, that’s just it. No deaths so far, and no major injuries--just some bumps and bruises. Well, and a bunch of trashed cars, but if it is Barricade, he’s been real careful to avoid killin’ anyone,” Jazz replied, letting his puzzlement echo openly, curling around the edges of his field. “I gotta admit, I can’t really figure out why.”
Optimus gave a thoughtful hum. “I do not like it, but we may have to allow the local authorities to handle this for now. We are stretched thin as it is; we simply do not have the manpower to go after Barricade right now, especially if he’s not overtly threatening the humans.” He gave Jazz a direct look. “I know I don’t need to tell you to monitor the situation, however--if things escalate, we will need to be able to move quickly. In the meantime, I will have Sam and Colonel Lennox see about warning the local authorities to be cautious.”
“In the meantime, we could all use some time to rest and refuel.” Optimus laid a hand on Jazz’s shoulder. “Thank you for keeping watch over the Giant in our absence. There is still much we do not know about him, but regardless, I am glad you were here to welcome him--and us. It is good to be home.”
“Well, my friend, it looks like you’re at least as smart as the average human,” Ratchet remarked to his patient.
The Giant, who was currently sitting on the floor of the medbay, since they hadn’t yet gotten around to fabricating berths configurable for a mech his size, paused to look down at the smaller mech. “I not dumb,” he said, tilting his head in puzzlement.
“No, you most certainly are not,” Wheeljack agreed, and added another spiralling arch to the structure they were building. Their resident mad scientist had been more than willing to help with Ratchet’s evaluation of their newest arrival, and had eagerly thrown himself into designing a series of cognitive and sensory tests for the Giant that took into account the big mech’s non-Cybertronian origins.
He had also, in a fit of inspiration, designed an oversized version of a common sparkling toy to keep the big mech entertained while Ratchet ran his tests. To the watching humans, the result looked like nothing so much as the mutant offspring of a Rubik’s cube and a collection of Tinkertoys--with the uniquely alien addition of parts that could disappear and reappear from subspace, and holographic panels that, when combined with their solid-state counterparts, created an almost infinite number of configurations. The resulting possibilities were limited only by a sparkling’s imagination, and the Giant had taken to the device with fascinated delight.
The current result of his and Wheeljack's combined efforts was almost twelve feet tall, and looked like what might happen if a particularly spiky cathedral had collided with a conch shell. Glowing a soft blue-green and haloed by a growing latticework of arches, it gleefully defied both gravity and a few minor laws of physics. Ratchet had to admit it was impressive. Mostly, however, he was just relieved he didn’t have to rescue any more of his medical equipment from the Giant’s curiosity.
“Wheeljack’s right, of course,” Ratchet said, placating them both. “Still, it never hurts to have the test results to back it up.” Just because a creature was sapient didn’t mean they were necessarily all that intelligent--Ratchet could think of a few Junkions, and even a few Autobots, that fell into that particular category.
“Your vocal processing modules, though--” Ratchet shook his helm. “To be honest, I’m amazed you’re managing English as well as you are. It’s no wonder the Cybertronian language modules didn’t work--you just don’t have the vocal capability to reproduce the sounds.”
The Giant nodded in grave agreement. “Words … hurt.”
“I’ll bet,” Wheeljack said sympathetically. Cybertronian, with its wide variety of high-frequency metallic sounds, was a particularly bad fit for a creature who apparently had evolved vocalizations that stayed well down in the bass and below range. “I’ll see if I can’t figure out something--maybe an external vocalizer of some kind, though linking it up to auditory processing would definitely be a challenge …”
Used to Wheeljack’s fits of inspiration, Ratchet ignored the inventor’s continued musings. “In the meantime, English seems to be an adequate substitute. There’s certainly nothing wrong with your comprehension.” He gave Hogarth, who along with Mikaela was observing from a nearby scaffolded platform, a nod of acknowledgement. “Which Mr. Hughes already knew, of course.”
Hogarth smiled, giving the Giant a wave, which the big mech returned before returning to his--castle? Sculpture? “It didn’t take him long at all to start reading English, that’s for sure--and he understood me almost from the beginning. Seemed to make sense.”
Ratchet nodded. “Spatial recognition is through the roof, and self-awareness and deductive/inductive reasoning abilities are well-established. Logical analysis is a bit more shaky, as is anything beyond base level mathematics, but neither of those seem indicative of any damage. It’s entirely possible his species simply uses systems for both that are completely different from our own.” He disconnected a diagnostic cable from the Giant’s ventral port, replacing it with a more direct hardline. “With your permission, I’m going to do a deep scan of your core processes,” he said to the big mech. “So far you seem to be in remarkably good shape, but prolonged stasis lock and energon starvation can cause errors in core programming, including self-repair and spark containment protocols.”
“O-kay,” the Giant rumbled, not appearing overly concerned. Ratchet wasn’t sure whether the big mech’s calm was simply due to a lack of experience with hardline hacks--either malicious or benign--or just a part of the big mech’s placid personality, but either way, he wasn’t about to complain.
//Keep him distracted, ‘Jack,// he sent, opening a private comm channel. //This will feel a bit weird if he’s not used to deep-level intrusions, and the less he resists me, the more accurate my scans will be.//
//No problem, Ratchet. Teletraan is linked in for backup, right?//
Ratchet settled down, focusing his attention on his patient as he proceeded past the Giant’s initial datawalls, diving deep into the big mech’s alien coding. Luckily, Ratchet’s millennia of experience encompassed not only Cybertronian physiology but also that of several once-allied alien species, which at least had gave him a basis to chart analogues and differences.
The Giant’s code unfurled itself before him, complex intertwined ribbons of sensory data, analytical functions, and decision-making trees that shifted and changed with each touch, each added data-spark. Tracing them back, he was relieved to find no corruption, no truncations, dead-ended loops or worse. The Giant’s memory-archives were still sealed, of course, folded tight under layers of encryption that he made sure not to touch. Ratchet knew his limitations. He was no code specialist, and trying to break open that encryption was both dangerous and unethical, especially when it could force corrupted memory files upon an unprepared mech. Instead he merely verified that new memory nodes were well established and organizing themselves properly, with no data interruptions, then moved on.
//Looks good so far,// he sent to Wheeljack, trusting the engineer to relay any needed reassurances to their observers. //His code is pretty resilient; there’s nothing complex enough in here to be easily corrupted, unlike, say, Prowl’s tactical algorithms. It might not be fancy, but it looks like it's served him well. Autonomic parameters are well within acceptable levels, no false lines and a minimum of deadwood … I’m going to go deeper, and check over his higher cortex code now.//
This deep, there were a great many more obstacles, mostly interlocking datawalls and aggressive guardian protocols that had to be diverted, avoided or simply suppressed. But even those were surprisingly primitive; the Giant’s species had obviously not been forced to adopt the defenses that millennia of warfare had forced upon the Autobots, much less the insanely paranoid tangle of defenses usually found in Special Ops mechs. Ratchet moved past them, to the flickering cascade of the Giant’s higher cortex processes, letting the code stream past as he logged and analyzed the patterns he found. Here too, there were surprisingly few issues; a few old reroutes, some worn-in oddball behavioral responses, but nothing abnormal. //Looks good here too,// he reported, a bit distracted as he monitored multiple datastreams. //A surprising lack of aggressive responses, but I’m not going to com--//
He’d been lulled into complacency, Ratchet would think later. Everything had seemed so stable, so normal. He’d followed the data cascade out of habit more than anything … only to find himself teetering on the edge of the Pit.
//--oh. Oh, Primus …..//
//Ratchet? What’s wrong? Status!//
//Primus, ‘Jack. I--// He could feel the chasm sucking at him, a gaping, ragged wound torn so deep, it warped everything around it. He reached desperately for Teletraan, anchoring himself with the AI’s unflappable calm.
//--I don’t know if I can fix this.//
The artificial cavern, carved out of solid rock, had been one of the first areas outfitted by the Autobots when they had taken over Yucca Mountain. It now served as the embassy’s communications and command center, with retrofitted human technology shouldered up next to recovered banks of equipment from the Ark. The arrangement was awkward, to say the least, and more than a little rough around the edges--most of the equipment had been jury-rigged to work together, and it showed in the mismatched consoles and the tangled webs of cabling snaking along floors and walls, filling up a good third of the available space. The rest of the area, however, remained open, and was currently occupied by the rest of the Autobot command staff: Red Alert, Prowl, himself and Optimus, all standing or sitting around the central holotank according to personal preference.
Speaking of rough around the edges … Jazz thought, watching as Ratchet entered the briefing room. It wasn’t unusual for Ratchet to be running late, especially now. Between battles, combat injuries, routine maintenance requirements and the backlog of repairs for the remaining stasis-locked survivors of Sentinel’s crew, there never seemed to be enough hours in the day for their only resident medic, and right now, it showed. Ratchet looked worn, and whatever it was, it went beyond simple tiredness, if Jazz was any judge. Catching Optimus’ eye, Jazz sent him a quick comm burst, tightly shielded and wrapped in layers of worry/concern. //Ratchet’s not looking good.//
//Ironhide?// was Optimus’ reply, tinged with layers of old grief and remembered betrayal.
//Maybe. Part of it, anyway.// Jazz twisted the grief of that thought into wry amusement. //Overwork, definitely. May need to stage an intervention. Again.//
//Hmm … you’re probably right. Thank you, Jazz.//
Five mechs--all that was left of the Autobot officers, at least on Earth. As welcome as it was to no longer have to squash themselves into human-sized buildings, the extra space made it even more difficult not to notice the emptiness where Ironhide’s solid bulk had always been. Still, this was hardly the time or the place to be maudlin; shaking away his concern, Jazz made sure to ping Ratchet a cheerful greeting as the medic folded himself down into his usual seat, then continued on with the original thread of the conversation.
“Anything new shake loose with the Tomb, Optimus?”
Optimus rubbed two fingers against his helm, letting a bit of his exasperation show. “I’m afraid not,” he admitted. “I will continue with our negotiations with the Egyptian government, and our allies here in the U.S. have said they will continue to do what they can, but we have made very little progress. The Egyptian officials are understandably very concerned about the damage that has already been done to their historical sites, and are quite reluctant to allow us to dismantle another one even further in order to remove the shells of the ancient Primes.”
Ratchet scowled. “The Primes died saving Earth from the Fallen--considering that without their sacrifice the humans wouldn’t have a planet to squabble over, I hardly think a few mud walls are more important than making sure their bodies are not desecrated further.”
“Unfortunately, they do not agree,” Optimus said somberly. “I believe I have made a small amount of headway by explaining how revered the Primes are to our people; the remains and artifacts of their own great kings have been stolen by other nations in the past, and this approach seems to have made them more sympathetic. They have agreed that Egypt has no claim on the shells of the Primes--but they will not extend that consideration to the Tomb itself, and we cannot seem to come to any agreement on how or when Autobots will be able to reclaim them.”
“Sounds like they’re stonewallin’ ya, Optimus,” Jazz put in, tapping his fingers against the rim of the tank.
“Much as I would wish otherwise, I have to agree. We knew from the start that there were several factions that would like nothing more than to obtain the contents of that tomb for their own purposes,” Optimus said. He vented a small sigh. “Not to mention the other humans that have tried to infiltrate or negotiate for access. Have there been any further attempts upon the Tomb, Red Alert?”
The security chief took a nanoklik to double-check his feeds, then shook his head. “Other than the pair of ‘treasure hunters’--” and the sardonic inflection of the words made it clear how unlikely Red thought they were actually what they had claimed, “--that Arcee caught six months ago, we’ve had no further incursions past our perimeter. The Tomb and the shells of the Primes are now fully seeded with surveillance microdrones, and Dino and Arcee are still on watch. Inferno is currently en route to relieve Dino for the next few orns.”
Red Alert hadn’t mentioned the outer cordon that the Egyptian government had thrown up around the Tomb of the Primes, Jazz knew, only because the security chief considered the human guards to be both insulting and a potential liability. The Egyptians had made their interest in the tech sealed within both the Tomb and the pyramids very clear, and while the remains of the sun harvester within Giza was too slagged to yield anything useful to human scientists, the same could not be said for the Primes. Only Optimus’ swift intervention had kept the bodies of his ancient forebears from being carted away piecemeal for human experimentation. Optimus might be loathe to impose his will on human governments, but when it came to the remains of the ancient Primes, there was simply too much at stake for the Autobots to depend solely upon their allies’ goodwill.
“Good,” Optimus said, giving Red an approving nod. “I will continue with my efforts on the diplomatic front. If this government continues to prove uncooperative, we will simply have to maintain our stance. Perhaps the next will be more amenable to negotiation.” Human lives, bright-sparked and swift as they were, were ephemeral by Cybertronian standards--lasting barely a vorn if they were lucky--and human rulers even more so. With Megatron and the bulk of his Decepticons now off-planet, the greatest threat to the Tomb’s security was gone, and Optimus was nothing if not patient. If it came down to a test of wills with the humans, Jazz had little doubt that their Prime would win.
“In the meantime, we may have a larger problem to deal with,” Prowl put in. “Early this morning, we received surveillance footage from one of the humans’ unmanned drones.” He leaned forward, and tapped in a quick sequence on the holotank. Five images snapped up into the air; grainy, unfocused and flat, they were obviously of human origin. Even as poor as they were, their subject was obvious--a F-22, caught in mid-flight over a flat, dun-brown landscape. That in and of itself was not necessarily remarkable. The fact that the F-22 was *blue*, however, was.
“Slag. Thundercracker?” Jazz said, abandoning his relaxed pose to lean forward and scrutinize the pictures. A subtle ripple of dismay and exasperation spread through the room, echoing from one field to the next.
“It appears so,” Prowl confirmed. “This came from our liasion with Nellis, who reported this picture was taken near the borders of Iranian airspace. Air Force intelligence confirms that their drone encountered the enemy fighter just long enough to transmit these images, then was shot down.”
“What the frag is Thundercracker doing on Earth?” Ratchet growled. “Thought Megatron had rounded up all of those fraggers to take back to Cybertron.”
“That is unknown at this time,” Prowl said evenly. “However, I have found three points of concern regarding these images--”
“Only three? You’re slipping, Prowler,” Jazz remarked, grinning at the tactician’s annoyed sidelong glance. A mech’s entertainment was where he found it, after all, and poking Prowl never got old.
“The first point,” Prowl continued, as if he hadn’t heard the interruption, “is that while Thundercracker has taken an Earth-based alt-mode, he has retained his customary coloration. Unlike Starscream, he is not even bothering to try and blend in as a fighter jet native to the region. The second is obviously the location where this was taken. Current Earth geopolitics place Iran firmly in opposition to the United States, who along with most of the other NATO nations have now openly declared themselves our allies. And the third point of concern is that the drone caught these pictures at all. By my calculations, the drone was well within engagement range for at least fifteen Earth-seconds before dropping offline. Against a Seeker, that means it survived at least 12.047 seconds longer than it should have, given their disparity in armament, speed and maneuverability.”
“Mebbe the Cracker was toying with it?” Jazz suggested. Personally, he didn’t think so, but the possibility at least needed to be aired. “Wouldn’t be the first time Seekers decided to play with their food.”
“Perhaps. But given the circumstances of this engagement, I find it unlikely.”
“You believe that Thundercracker *wants* to be noticed?” Red Alert said, arms crossed as he frowned at the pictures. “What could he possibly gain from announcing his presence on Earth? Is he trying to divert our attention from something else?”
“Hmm …” Jazz tilted his chair on its back legs, balancing it absentmindedly as he took Prowl’s analysis and combined it with his own, turning over what he knew of the Decepticon Seeker. “Gotta say, Prowl’s right. If this were Skywarp, that’d be one thing--but the Cracker ain’t stupid. Keepin’ his colors, lettin’ a drone get a good look at him--if Megs an’ company were still on Earth, I’d think this was a feint. But since they aren’t, looks t’ me like Thundercracker is goin’ out of his way to give us the finger.” Jazz exchanged a look with Prowl; out of all the assembled officers, the tactician was the only one who seemed to understand where Jazz was coming from. “He’s claiming turf, Seeker-style. An’ he’s daring us to come after him.” Which seriously upped the chances that Skywarp had also landed on Earth. Another uneasy possibility presented itself to him. “Prowl, Red--did we ever confirm whether Megatron took Starscream with him when he pulled out?”
A low, staticky hum of dismay vibrated around the holotank at his question, Prowl and Red Alert glancing at each other before shaking their heads. “We handed over all of our stasis-locked Decepticon prisoners, as per the terms of Optimus’ agreement with Megatron,” Red said slowly, his displeasure still plain. Optimus’ command to give back the Decepticon prisoners--especially the officers--had not been a popular one. “Among those were Soundwave and Shockwave. But Starscream’s shell was no longer where Colonel Lennox had reported it being by the time our retrieval team arrived; reports state that our forces had searched the area, but the assumption was that the Decepticons had retrieved him before we could get there.” The aftermath of Sentinel’s betrayal and the destruction of Chicago had been chaotic, to say the least, and neither Prowl nor Red Alert had been on Earth at the time. Optimus and Jazz--who had still been confined to a berth, his newly-rebuilt lower half still missing vital connections--had done their best to coordinate aiding the humans, recovering the fallen, and maintaining the fragile truce that had been established with the Decepticons, but there were only so many places their small band of Autobots could be at once.
“And Thundercracker’s loyal--but not necessarily to Megatron,” Jazz said. “Slag. I should have seen this coming.”
“You think he came to retrieve Starscream?” Red said, bristling in dismay.
“Yeah. But not just him--I’m pretty sure we’ve got the entire Command Trine on our hands. The Iran thing--that’s got Starscream’s screechy little clawmarks all over it. And Skywarp isn’t gonna to be coolin’ his heels on Cybertron when two-thirds of his trine is on Earth.”
“Any idea *why* those glitchheads are still here?” Ratchet asked, more than a little exasperated. “What do they expect to achieve all on their own?”
Jazz shook his head. “Not sure. Screamer’s a hard one to predict, ‘specially if Megatron ain’t holdin’ his leash.” He gave the others a somber look, tipping his chair back to rest on all four feet. “Could be Megatron playin’ games--could be Starscream and company goin’ AWOL. Could be his buddies are coverin’ for him while the Screamer is recovering, though that’s not likely, given Thundercracker’s stunt.” He gave a human-style shrug, tilting his hands upward. “Hate to say it, but short of trying to infiltrate Iran, we’re gonna have to wait and see.”
“No action will be taken inside Iran except as a last resort,” Optimus said firmly. “That entire region is unstable; we cannot risk inciting further hostilities from the humans, either against each other or against us.” Egypt, clusterfrag that it had been, was bad enough. Jazz might have still been in stasis-lock at the time, but he’d seen the records--and they were *still* dealing with the political fallout.
“I don’t like it, but we will simply have to keep tabs on the situation,” Optimus continued. “Prowl, Red Alert--coordinate with Teletraan-1 and our military contacts in order to optimize monitoring of Earth’s airspace. Given a Seeker’s reach and speed, we will need all the forewarning we can get.” He sighed. “If we had even one flight-capable Autobot ….”
“Well, technically we do, if you count the new guy,” Jazz pointed out. He glanced over at their resident medic. “Might not get any points for style, but he’s got size and he’s got speed. Right, Ratchet?”
“Assuming that the Giant is willing, this is true,” Optimus said in a mild rebuke at Jazz’s assumptions. “That does bring up the question of our newest resident, however. Ratchet, care to give your report?”
Ratchet scrubbed a hand over his faceplates. “Primus--I don’t even know where to *start*.”
“At the beginning?” Jazz suggested, grinning as he collected the expected dirty look from the medic.
“Hnh. Well, first off, our new ‘friend’? Is really fragging old,” Ratchet snapped.
“Old in the human sense, or in ours?” Optimus asked.
“Optimus, he’s *ancient*. Older than you, older than me--Pit, he’s older than Kup. But younger than the Allspark, if that helps, and don’t ask me to narrow it down much more than that, because if he’s got a chronometer, I couldn’t fragging find it,” Ratchet snapped. “I had to take decay readings off his spark-chamber to get that much.”
“That’s … not impossible, but it seems very unlikely. Are you sure?” Red Alert said doubtfully.
“Very,” Ratchet replied, giving the other mech a sardonic look. “It may simply be typical of his species, though there are some indications that his lifespan may have been artificially extended. He doesn’t carry any markers for mechanoid senescence, but even so, most mechs don’t live for billions of years without falling afoul of *something*. Most of his pre-Earth memory nodes have been archived. I wasn’t about to monkey with them without his permission, but there are holes--long gaps where no new data was processed at all. My guess is stasis-lock, and given the pattern in those gaps, I’d be willing to bet a crate of high-grade that they were artificially induced.”
“There are organic creatures that go into stasis on a regular basis,” Prowl said thoughtfully. “I believe the Earth term for it is ‘hibernation’. Could the Giant have done something similar, perhaps to survive an energy shortage or some other unfavorable circumstance?”
“Possible, but I didn’t find any subroutines that would fit that description,” Ratchet replied. “Just the normal emergency shutdown protocols in case of critical damage, exhausted fuel reserves, and the like. His self-repair abilities are insane, by the way--he makes us look like organics in comparison. I’m pretty sure his self-repair assemblers can fix anything short of a spark-chamber breach, given enough time and materials--including normally non-regenerating vitals like cortex processors, not to mention laser core and power plant components.” He shook his head ruefully. “That mech has isolation and self-repair protocols like you wouldn’t believe, and they’re almost all on the autonomic level. Between that and his armor, I’m not surprised he managed to survive a nuclear explosion.”
A ripple of interest/intrigue went through the room, chasing away the lingering echoes of their earlier dismay. Red Alert leaned forward, intrigued. “His armor?”
“Unbelievably thick, unbelievably strong, and definitely not terrestrial in origin,” Ratchet said succinctly. “Last time I saw armor like that, it was on a sparked battleship. Wheeljack’s still running an analysis of the alloy--we think he incorporates portions of the metals he eats into his outer armor and his other vitals as well as converting them into energon, and don’t ask me how he fragging does either of those things, because I haven’t a clue. Let’s just say I don’t want to have to cut through it anytime soon. He could probably take a hit from Megatron’s fusion cannon and keep going. He wouldn’t like it, it would hurt, but it wouldn’t kill him.” Ratchet frowned, arms and shoulders tightening in unease. “That’s not all. There’s weapons beneath that armor, as well.”
“That’s hardly unusual,” Jazz pointed out, feeling a prickle of foreboding at the medic’s obvious discomfort. “Most mechs are armed, right from the moment they’re sparked. Even with all that armor, I doubt the big guy would have survived this long without some way to defend himself.”
Ratchet shook his head. “I know that, Jazz, but this ... this is something else. If he were Cybertronian, I’d think he was one of the most extreme examples of a warframe design I’d ever seen; he’s got more weapons hidden under that armor than--than Ironhide.” The hitch on the name was inevitable, and Ratchet bulled on. “Fission cannons, particle dissassemblers, things I don’t even have *names* for.” He paused, then added sourly, “Wheeljack, of course, is as happy as a pig in mud with all this.”
“But you’re not?” Optimus said, projecting reassurance/concern to the obviously distressed mech.
“Optimus--he’s a slagging walking *tank*. Normally I wouldn’t care--Primus knows I’ve seen enough warbuilds in my time--but there’s something else.” Ratchet paused, rubbing a hand over his helm. “He’s been hacked, Optimus,” he said, deliberately using the harshest possible word for it, baldly resonating with overtones of horror/betrayal/rape. “By someone who knew damn well what they were doing. The link between higher processor functions and his battle processor has been completely severed.”
A shudder went through Jazz’s frame, and he saw it echoed in the flinches of his fellow officers--Red’s twitch, the almost imperceptible jerk of Prowl’s doorwings, Optimus’ sudden horrified stillness.
“That’s--that’s insane, Ratch,” Jazz blurted.
“Yes. It is,” Ratchet said tiredly. “I’ve only ever seen it once before; I never thought I’d see it again.” He looked down to where his hands rested on the holotank’s edge. “The Giant has no capability for higher thought in combat. Once a defensive subroutine is triggered, his battle processor takes over; but without the link to his main cortex, he cannot distinguish between friend and foe. Everything is simply a target. *Everything.* And he will continue to fight until he is either offlined, or he has no more targets.” The words dropped into the sudden silence like stones.
“Surely there is something we can do?” Optimus said. “His self-repair--”
Ratchet shook his helm. “This damage is millions of years old, Optimus--maybe even hundreds of millions. Whoever did this knew how to reroute his self-repair routines, and now the damage has been incorporated into his system as part of his normal specs. After so long, even if we could re-establish a connection, I doubt his battle processor even knows how to talk to his cortex anymore. It would take a team of code specialists and vorns of effort, at the very least.” His fingers tightened on the metal of the tank until the joints whined in protest. “Even if I tried … I’ve seen something like this once before. It was in the early days of the war; the local Autobot garrison had cleaned out an illegal pit-fighting operation in Iacon and brought the survivors in for repairs. Most of them were in bad shape, but there was one …” His voice stuttered, and he stopped, resetting his vocalizer.
“He was a creator-mech. That made it even better as far as those Pit-spawned slavers were concerned. Take a mech who wouldn’t, *couldn’t* kill, right down to his spark, turn him into an insane berserker, and then sit back and rake in the money as he tore apart other mechs for their amusement. Of course, that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t remember once it was over; his sensors were still functional and writing to memory, after all. He knew exactly what he’d done.”
One hand folded into a fist, tight enough to make the outer metal creak. “We were going to try and go in anyway, fix the damage, but we didn’t get the chance. He helped get the others out, made sure they were safe. Told us what had happened. Then he found a quiet corner and ripped his own sparklines out.”
“... Primus,” Optimus breathed.
“You don’t do this to a mech you want as a soldier,” Ratchet said wearily. “You do this if you want a killer, even when every instinct a mech has is screaming against it. Medics, creators, artists--those rare Maker-sparked mechs who otherwise would rather die than kill. And the result …” He shook his head. “You can’t put the Giant into combat, Optimus. Ever. He’ll be a danger to everyone and everything around him if we do. I’m sorry, but he’ll never be able to fight against the Decepticons. He will always be a liability.”
“No,” Optimus said firmly, walking over to place a hand on Ratchet’s shoulder. “Not a liability. A civilian, and a friend.” He looked at all of them, and Jazz felt himself straightening under that regard. In that moment Optimus was utterly a Prime, his words a clarion call that rang through their frames, right to the listener’s very spark.
“Perhaps this is a sign, but I do not believe we are so far gone that there is no longer a place with us for those who cannot fight. We were once more than soldiers--and if it takes a mech like this to remind us that we can be so again, than I will welcome him.”
Some plot-notes: I'm using the DOTM novelization ending, not the movie ending--hence Megatron is still alive, has declared a truce with Optimus and returned to Cybertron to rebuild. Will it last? Who knows ...
For the curious, the Autobot embassy is located at the now-defunct Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, which is both government-owned, eminently defensible, and already conveniently Cybertronian-sized. :D
Chapter 6: Colors--Sidestory
Because everyone comes from somewhere ....
Long, long ago ....
These are the colors of joy: deep blossoming indigo, true emerald green, happiness in bright firework bursts of vivid color.
Scarred-silver paths, old and new, wind beneath your feet. This is your world: ochre-obsidian rivers of flowing magma rich in their bounty, the crunch of newmetal between your jaws. Living crystalline spires reach into the sky, elaborate fractalled arches glowing in shades of aquamarine and garnet, flecked with a thousand metals from the world’s heart. Beneath them are sheltered the colors of home, and of kin: flares of yellow-bright humor, filament-threads of bright gold and silver twining, an intricate filigree of bonds created and bonds chosen; the deep glowing maroon of family, the sienna-gold overlay of love and peace.
These are the colors of creation: silver-white and metallic grey, pedes and helm and small dangling limbs furled together, unfinished and unlovely. A blank face and dark optics, an awkward burden with no colors to call its own, and you know that this is wrong, that this must change, and you set your face to the place you know must go. So you walk, all of you; step by slow step, eyes turned to the sky, heeding the call of the Mountain.
The Mountain waits for you, all of you. Singular and sharp-edged, embedded in the earth, a searing pillar fountaining into the sky in a kaleidoscope storm of colors without names, electric-shot and coruscating, flaring outward in lightning waterfalls that change whatever they touch. The Mountain is singular, the Mountain is life, and the others fall back, waiting. To linger near the Mountain is to be changed, sometimes forever.
But you know what is needful, what this grey awkward thing that burdens you must become. You take a step, slow and sure, and bare your heart, unfurling the living metal of your frame away. Lifting the thing in broad hands to the Mountain as the firestorm engulfs you, blinding whitegold and sparksilver pouring over your face and arms in benediction. One single, eternal moment ... and your burden stirs with a vibrating cry, a cascade of hues blossoming outward like a thousand jewelled and sun-sparked wings from the lithe and beautiful thing that you have created, the Mountain filling optics with light, granting it all the colors of its life to come.
Time passes, cycles beyond counting. The world changes.
These are the colors of rage and of fear: dull damaged aubergine, vibrating yellow-green edged with jagged scarlet-rust. They are all that is left to you when everything you know has been taken away, when there is no Mountain, no kin, no doubled moons to call you home. There is only despair, and they use it against you, make it so that there is nothing left in the world but targets painted in scarlet-rust and black death, searing blue flames and the vibrating screams of your own rage. World after world, and never any color in it left when you are done, only cinerious smoke and ash and shards of color fading as you watch, all overlaid by a crimson-rust-rage that you cannot escape until everything living is dead dead dead and there is nothing left moving to kill ....
This is the color of sorrow, and of despair: ash-gray and white, dull and dead as your outer shell.
The rust-red fury is gone. Your memories are faded, tight-closed and walled in obsidian, deep where you cannot lose them, inside where life used to be. There are no others; they are all broken, left gray and dead on a thousand worlds. One by one the colors leave you, dimming, bleeding away until nothing is left but the ashen corpse-white echo of life, transparent and silent. You watch the last few sparks float into the sky, up to the haloed stars … and then there is nothing. Nothing but the waiting, and the gray.
This is the color of hope: a rainbow you cannot see, vibrating always at the edge of your vision.
You have waited on this gray, dead world, just as you always do. You have waited, but they have not come, and as you watch the slow turn of an airless sky, you think you can see it beyond the glare of the stars. A color that is no color at all, silver-spark-bright and singing. You take a slow step, something in you changing, pointing you into that sky. There are no colors anymore, but something in you remembers. Remembers the Mountain. Remembers a burning cascade of light, filling your husk from the inside out.
You know what you must do.
You step, a slow step, and leap for the edge of night, hands stretched out to catch hold, to follow that shining thread you can almost see. Dun-gray dust swirls around you, the dead world dropping away; you have become a ghost, searching for all the colors you can no longer name.
But that no longer matters. The Mountain is waiting, out there between the bright-burning stars.
It is waiting, and when you find it, you will be home.
Spoiler warnings for Dark of the Moon, as well as non-explicit references to alien sex of the non-sticky variety. Just in case there are people out there squicked by either ...
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
After the meeting, it did not take Optimus long to make a decision. It was not a pleasant one--but like so many of them, it was necessary.
//Wheeljack--can you spare a moment of your time?// He made sure the channel was tightly shielded, encrypted only for the engineer’s attention. He did not think the Giant would have learned how to hack open comm signals in such a short time, especially Autobot-encrypted ones, but harsh experience had taught him not to take unnecessary chances.
//Of course, Optimus. What’s up?// The reply was both immediate and upbeat, though the data on the edges was a bit inchoate--but that was normal for Wheeljack, who wasn’t happy unless he was working on at least fifteen projects at once.
//I have another task for you, Wheeljack--a rather unpleasant one, I'm afraid.// Optimus said, overlaying the apology with command-priority indicators. //You are aware of Ratchet’s findings in regards to the Giant, correct?//
//Yes--I was there when he found the damage.// Sorrow, underlaid by an unwilling engineer’s interest at just how the hack was accomplished and the possibilities in making whole what had been broken. //It’s appalling, the idea of doing that to a mech … even Megatron never went that far. It’s amazing that he’s still sane.//
//I agree. Unfortunately, given the nature of what has been done to him, I’m afraid we need to put precautions in place. I wish I did not have to ask this, but I need you to begin researching a way past the Giant’s defenses. He is a formidable mech; if he should be attacked and lose control--//
//--I understand,// Wheeljack replied after a momentary pause. //Although--it doesn’t feel right, designing a weapon specifically to hurt a friend. Decepticons are one thing, but the Giant … //
//I know. Red Alert and Prowl have been tasked with developing contingency plans, and I want you to prioritize a nonlethal solution if at all possible. But in the end I have a responsibility to more than just the Giant--I must do what is necessary to protect all of us, human as well as Autobot.//
//I understand. I just--I hope it’ll never come to that.// Wheeljack’s concern faded slightly, though it did not disappear entirely. It had only been a few days since the Giant’s arrival at the embassy, but it was obvious that the inventor had already taken him in hand. It was possible Wheeljack had focused his attentions on the Giant in lieu of Que, who still lay in stasis-lock after the battle in Chicago. Or perhaps the Giant had simply responded to Wheeljack’s obvious interest and ebulliant personality. Either way, Optimus found himself grateful for the result. A single elderly human was a fragile tether indeed, and the Giant would need protectors as well as friends if they hoped to keep him safe and sane. //What are we going to tell him?// Wheeljack asked. //Or are we going to tell him anything at all?//
//It would be safer if I did not,// Optimus said, unhappy with the thought. Given the Giant’s armor, and the analysis of the big mech’s hidden weaponry; tactically speaking, it would be better for them if the Giant didn’t find out about any countermeasures until it was too late to mount a defense. //But … I do not wish to be yet another creature who uses the Giant to his own ends without his knowledge or consent. So yes, I will tell him. And if he chooses to leave our company because of it, then I will accept that decision.//
//I’m glad. I like the big guy--I hope he stays with us anyway.// Wheeljack sent over a quick pulse of reassurance/comfort to Optimus, letting him feel his approval. //Which reminds me--we’re going to need to set up regular shipments of scrap metal if he does end up staying for the long term. He’s already chewed through most of our non-vital stockpiles, which weren’t all that big in the first place, honestly. Nellis has been donating whatever surplus scrap they can spare, but we really need a more balanced--and more consistent--diet for him.//
//Hmm, that is an issue. I will speak with Colonel Lennox and Sam--it should not be difficult to arrange shipments through our human allies. Especially since it appears that the condition of the metal doesn’t matter greatly to the Giant.//
//The humans will want payment,// Wheeljack warned him. //I’ve looked into the prices of metals on Earth--given the quantities we’ll need, feeding the Giant will put a significant dent in our Earth funds.//
//That is a concern--but one I think we can solve without too much trouble if I ask Prowl to step up his day-trading activities. Given the overlap in the various stock exchanges, he should be able to increase our Earth income to support both our needs and those of the Giant without trouble.// Earth-based embassies required Earth-based funds, after all, and human charity was far too changeable--not to mention subject to the whims of political leaders--for the Autobots’ needs. Optimus let his amusement show as he added, //I will simply have to listen to him grumble about the misappropriation of his tactical abilities and the overly simplistic nature of the human financial markets for a few orns--a small price to pay.//
//Better you than me,// Wheeljack sent cheerfully. //All right, I’ll get started on finding a solution. Let me know if you need any help talking to the Giant, okay?//
//Of course. Thank you, Wheeljack.// That was one unwelcome task achieved, at least. Now to tackle the other--and the sooner, the better.
As it turned out, the Giant was not difficult to find. The big mech was just outside the embassy, sitting with Hogarth upon a rocky ridge overlooking the desert below. The sun had begun to set, gilding sagebrush and broken rock with golden light, and the pair’s chosen spot afforded an excellent view as the heat of the day faded into the welcome cool of a desert evening, throwing deep purple shadows over the gentle curves of the land.
“Giant, Mr. Hughes, good evening,” Optimus said in greeting as both heads turned at his approach. “Would I be intruding if I joined you?”
Hughes glanced up at the Giant, who inclined his head in a nod. “Not at all, Optimus.” The elderly human pushed himself to his feet, dusting off the seat of his pants with both hands. “What can we do for you?”
“I was wondering if we might take a walk. I need to speak to you both, and this might give us a chance to do so more privately.” Optimus tilted his head in acknowledgement at Sunstreaker, currently on sentry duty above the main embassy entrance. The golden mech was several hundred yards distant, and either through indifference or politeness appeared to be ignoring them entirely, but was still more than close enough to overhear if he chose to.
“Sure,” Hughes said easily, shielding his eyes as he looked up towards Optimus. He gave the Giant a grin. “I think even a couple of old geezers like us can manage to walk for a bit.”
The Giant gave an affirmative rumble, and shifted his weight, standing smoothly--then crouched again to offer his outstretched hand. Hughes clambered into the broad surface of the Giant’s palm without hesitation, settling himself cross-legged and holding on to a curled finger-joint as the large mech straightened slowly. Optimus was once again struck by how careful the Giant was with his human friend, his movements as slow and careful as if he carried a priceless Vosian crystal-sculpt. It was evident how thoroughly the Giant knew his own strength, and reassuring to see how carefully he restrained it when dealing with smaller, more fragile creatures.
Optimus turned to lead the way along a well-smoothed path. Most of the largest boulders and other impediments had been removed for the convenience of Autobot alt-modes, which meant the ‘path’ could be more properly considered a road by human terms, if a rather pitted and uneven one. Still, it was more than adequate for walking down, with few hidden hazards, while still allowing them to stay safely within the embassy perimeter.
“I know this is a difficult thing to talk about,” he began, addressing himself to both of them. “Ratchet told you of the damage he found, correct? Of what had been done to the Giant?”
Hughes sobered, his mouth tightening. “He did. It ... explains a lot.” He glanced up at the Giant, who was listening placidly as they walked, the bigger mech slowing his steps to accommodate Optimus’ shorter stride. “He also said there was no way to fix it?”
Optimus could hear the forlorn hope behind that question--that somehow the Autobots, strange as they were, would be able to help. He shook his helm soberly. “I’m afraid not. Not here, at least. Ratchet is one of the finest medics I have ever known, and has done the impossible more than once. But for damage such as yours--” he addressed himself to the Giant, glancing upwards, “--we would require code specialists, facilities and materials that we simply do not have here on Earth. If someday we reclaim Cybertron, then perhaps there might be a chance. But for now, there is little we can do.”
“Is o-kay,” the Giant said, though it was impossible to determine whether the reassurance was directed at Optimus or Hogarth. “It not hurt.”
Hughes frowned. “It’s not okay,” he said fiercely. “Maybe you don’t remember it, but that doesn’t make it okay.”
“No, it is not,” Optimus agreed, stepping over the tumbled rock of a washed-out gully and glancing back at his companions. “And I wish there was more that we could do. Unfortunately, our war has cost us many things. This, it seems, is to be another one.” He hesitated, gauging the tenor of the conversation thus far, carefully choosing his words. “There is also another concern. I am grateful that both of you have accepted my invitation to come here to our embassy, and I believe there is a great deal we can learn from each other. But if we are attacked …. “ He stopped, turning to face the Giant fully, meeting that calm white gaze. “We will protect you--but I must also consider the safety of the Autobots and the humans under my care. That is why I have asked certain of my staff to find a way to stop you, should your injury end up causing you to threaten others.”
Hughes frowned, bristling a little. “Define ‘stop’.”
“I do not yet know. Our priority is to find a nonlethal means of restraining the Giant, should his battle-programming take hold. But--should the worst come to pass, and such measures are ineffective--it may involve lethal force.” It was a hard thing to consider, and an even harder thing to say. But the Giant deserved all of the truth.
“What? I came to you to protect him,” Hughes snapped, his hands tightening as he pulled himself to his feet. Standing, he glared down at Optimus from the Giant’s cupped hand, as if he could protect the much larger mech from Optimus through the force of his indignation alone. “Not to kill him whenever he--he becomes inconvenient! Especially for something that’s not his fault!”
“I remember, and my promise stands,” Optimus replied, lifting an open palm in helpless contrition. “I will do everything I can to safeguard the Giant, Mr. Hughes. But please understand, I cannot allow that promise to endanger innocents. I swear to you, the countermeasures I propose will be taken only as an absolute last resort, after all other efforts have failed. But I will not deceive you both into believing that those measures do not exist.”
“Great, so telling us makes it all better? Killing one person to save a hundred--or a thousand? Do you know how often I’ve heard that excuse? It was bullshit then and it’s bullshit now! I--”
“Ho-garth.” The Giant hadn’t raised his voice. This close to both of them, he didn’t need to. The rumble of that name silenced the angry spate of words, and Hughes swung around to face his friend. “Hogarth. It o-kay.”
“No. Giant--no, it’s not,” Hughes said stubbornly. “Just because they’re mechs--”
“Hogarth.” The Giant tilted his head, lifting his free hand to touch the elderly man’s shoulder with the tip of one finger. “Remem-ber … the deer?”
“It is bad to kill. Guns kill.” Hughes shook his head in mute denial, but didn’t interrupt. Neither did Optimus, who could hear the resonance of memory in those words. “I choose, Ho-garth. I not kill. Not any more.”
Hughes opened his mouth as if to argue further, and the Giant shook his head slowly. “I *choose*,” he said again, and looked down at Optimus. “You will stop me. Thank-you.”
“That’s--,” Hughes began--only to bang his fist against one armored finger in frustration as words failed him. “You’d think I’d have learned by now that life isn’t fair, but … it’s just not right! You shouldn’t have to because of what someone else did to you.” He uncurled his fingers, and laid his hand against the sun-warmed metal. “They should be the ones to pay for it, not you.”
Optimus stepped forward, carefully placing his hand on the Giant’s gray-armored forearm. “I agree--and I am sorry, Hogarth. I promise you, if we ever find a way to repair the Giant, we will do so--and if the worst happens, we will do only as much as is needed to prevent the Giant from harming others. Nothing more.” It was not the promise he wanted to give. But until the war was truly over, it was all he could offer.
“I--” Hughes seemed to slump a little in defeat. “All right. But if the Giant ever wants to leave--”
“Then we will not stop him,” Optimus said firmly. “He is a free mech, and the Autobots will not imprison him against his will.” The threat that the Giant posed to the humans did not change that. All mechs were dangerous, to a greater or lesser degree. Humans, as well.
“--all right.” Hughes scrubbed a hand through his windblown hair, then sat back down, moving in careful increments. “Oof. Old hips aren’t used to this anymore.” He patted the broad surface of the Giant’s palm once he was settled, and the Giant resumed their slow walk. “If the Giant is staying … I was wondering if I could ask a favor.”
“Of course. What do you require?”
“Well, my wife’s been pretty patient so far; she knows how important the big fella is to me. But I have to get back to her sooner or later. And, well … she’s never met the Giant. Not while he was awake, I mean. The kids either. And I know it’s an embassy, and protected by the government and all of that, but--would it be possible for them to come and visit? To meet him?”
“Of course,” Optimus said without hesitation. “Your family is more than welcome, though I might suggest a few precautions for their safety. I would be happy to assign Autobots to transport them from Las Vegas, for instance.” There were few Decepticons left on-planet after Megatron’s withdrawal, but that did not mean those that remained were any less dangerous. Especially if Prowl’s suspicions were true and Starscream was one of them. “Just let us know when they are likely to arrive, and I will have Red Alert handle the arrangements.”
“Thanks, Optimus.” Hughes sighed a little in relief. “It’s a bit odd, not having to keep the Giant secret anymore. Too many years of worrying, I guess. It’s hard to let it go. But in the long run, maybe this will be better. No more lying, no more secrets. Not to mention I can finally show everyone just how cool my best friend is.” He flashed a smile up at the larger mech.
“Ne-vada different,” the Giant replied. His optic shutters and jaw-hinge shifted subtly upwards as he gave them both a peaceful smile. “Bigger. Less trees. More friends. ” Stepping carefully over an imposing barrel cactus, he shifted his attention to Optimus. “No more hi-ding. I will stay.”
“Thank you,” Optimus said, relieved. “Both of you ... I am honored by your trust.”
With a vented sigh, Ratchet put the last tool away, tucking it into a fitted drawer along with its fellows. These days his med bay looked more like a salvage yard than a proper medical facility. Every possible flat surface short of the main treatment tables was strewn with scavenged parts, bits of plating and armor and disconnected internals, almost all of them scavenged from the shells of those Autobots who had not survived the Ark’s crash. Morbid as it was, it was the only way Ratchet would have the necessary materials to make repairs, and after the retrieval of Sentinel Prime and his control pillars, rescuing the rest of the Ark’s surviving crew had been the Autobots’ top priority--albeit one temporarily derailed by Sentinel’s betrayal and the Decepticon attacks. There were so few of them left, making each loss a crippling blow; the lost crew of the Ark was badly needed, even now.
But stasis-locked survivors required repairs, major ones. They needed raw materials, parts, and energon, not to mention more than a single overworked medic’s attentions--all things the Autobots were critically short on. Even with the support of many of Earth’s nations, the shortage of materials had forced both Optimus and Ratchet to make the difficult choice to perform a cold-blooded kind of triage; stripping the bodies of dead friends for spare parts and armor, and choosing who to revive first not according to injury or affection, but by how badly a particular mech’s skills were needed. It hadn’t been the first time such choices had been forced on them--but it never seemed to get easier.
Prowl had been one of the first revived; sending their primary tactician with Sentinel and the Ark had been a calculated risk, and his loss had been a crippling blow to the Autobot cause. The news that Prowl had survived the crash, along with many others, had been cause for joy and relief. But there was a dark side to that joy, as it soon became obvious that most of those survivors could not be immediately revived. Recovered by the Wreckers and a rebuilt Xanthium from their dusty entombment on the surface of Earth’s moon, and laid out in careful rows deep within the embassy, they were monitored, protected--but still, every time Ratchet passed their silent ranks, the blank faces and crushed limbs of friends and fellow soldiers were a reminder of how many mechs still needed treatment. Leaving them in stasis might be their only option, but it still didn’t feel *right*.
Shutting the drawer with a bit more force than was strictly necessary, Ratchet turned away--then hesitated as his optics fell on Que’s battered form. Laid out on a nearby berth, the engineer was unmoving, locked into stasis ever since Soundwave had tried (and almost succeeded) to execute him during the battle for Chicago. Wheeljack had worked overtime ever since his arrival to fabricate the replacement parts (and helm) his fission-sparked creation had needed, and now only minor repairs and a few final tests were needed before Que could be brought out of stasis safely. Wheeljack would be overjoyed to have Que back, Ratchet knew, and a second engineer’s help would be invaluable ... he pinged Teletraan reflexively, checking on Que’s vitals. They were holding steady, and he reached for a nearby clamp.
“Don’t you dare, Ratchet,” Mikaela said sternly from across the room. Bent over her own human-sized workbench on the far side of the bay, she took the screwdriver from behind her ear and pointed it at him threateningly. “You promised me you would take a break. Don’t make me call Wheeljack--you know I will.”
Ratchet paused, amused by the threat. “That's new. Don't you usually threaten Wheeljack with me? I’m not sure it works the other way around …”
Mikaela grinned. “I’m an equal opportunity tattletale, Ratchet. If I can sic you on Wheeljack when he forgets to recharge, then I can do the same to you--*especially* when you don’t follow your own advice. And if that doesn’t work, then I’ll turn Optimus loose on the both of you.” She narrowed her eyes at him, squinting in a mock-attempt to look threatening. “Do I need to bring out the big guns?”
“No, no.” Ratchet lifted his hands in mock surrender, giving up before Mikaela could make good on her threat. “All right--but I expect you to comm me if anything changes.”
“Of course,” Mikaela replied, shooing him off. “Brains will be back any minute, and Wheeljack and I can hold down the fort. Now scat!”
“Yes, all right, I’m going ....” Shaking his helm, Ratchet beat a strategic retreat out the main doors of the bay. His began heading toward his quarters; he desperately needed to refuel and to codify the sensory impressions, memories and other miscellaneous data of the last few orns, and a recharge would help both processes along more efficiently. Despite his own best intentions, however, his footsteps slowed as he passed the locked doors that led to the critical repair bay.
He knew there was nothing he needed to do in there. None of the CR chambers were currently occupied, thank Primus. The bay’s sole occupant was in stable condition, constantly monitored, and neither state was likely to change anytime soon. And yet …
And yet it didn’t matter. He needed this, needed to make sure. Ratchet shuttered his optics, hesitating a moment more. Then he transmitted his override code for the door, and stepped inside.
There is no sex on Cybertron.
Among all the myriad inhabited worlds of the known universe, the process of swapping packages of genetic material in order to create offspring remains, for the most part, a purely organic trait. It is also one that most mechs find inefficient at best and mildly disgusting at worst, involving far too many fluids, specialized sexual organs, and frantic grapplings in the pursuit of ideal partners, both real or imagined. It is, for lack of a better word, utterly unappealing--alien in the purest sense of the word--and certainly nothing a sensible species would ever *choose* to engage in when there are far more sensible ways of creating offspring.
Thus, there is no sex on Cyberton.
There is, however, love.
Love, in the beginning, is affection and interest, touch and exploration. The sparking of EM fields, the flaring of armor to expose surface weaknesses; the interlinking of limbs and digits to share sensations, electrical pulses, merging and exploring their differences, the parts that fit together and the parts that remain separate. What was two or three or more are now one, if only temporarily--nothing so deep as a symbiosis, nothing so interconnected as a gestalt or so irrevocable as a bond, but rare and precious nonetheless. It is accepting another into your dedicated systems, allowing weapons to be bared and stroked, the slip-slide of subtle adjustments, the transscans that allow you to fit closer, better, intertwined until you feel their flares of delight and pleasure as you do your own.
It is risk, a weakness--to trust your partner not to rend and tear at delicate systems, to choose to bare your vulnerabilities in exchange for theirs. But the risk adds to the spice, the trust to your pleasure, bonds of friendship and need and affection all intertwined until in the end … it is all love.
Bumblebee’s call had been the first sign of trouble. The databurst on what he and Sam had discovered--the Decepticons’ infiltration of the human space program, their control over the components of the space bridge, their need for Sentinel to make their plan come to fruition--had been both compact and damning; the Autobots’ reaction, immediate.
The tacnet sparked to life between one moment and the next, Optimus already issuing commands. //Bumblebee, rendezvous with Sideswipe and Dino. Sentinel, they shall be your escort--I am en route--//
//Sam is with me, Optimus. Sideswipe, Dino, take the outside flank, you aren’t hampered by human passengers--//
//I am already on my way, Optimus. Sending my coordinates and projected route--//
//--we’ll intersect with Sentinel in a couple of breems, Optimus, don’t worry--//
Ratchet was already moving, sweeping additional emergency medical supplies into storage compartments and subspace alike. Neural blockers, armor sealant, energon boosters and other specialized additives, woven-metal patches to hold together vital components and torn limbs … a medic never knew how badly or well a battle would go until it was over, and Ratchet had learned the first rule of battlefield medicine early on--better to have something and not need it, then to need it and not have it. The first scenario was only mildly inconvenient. In the second, mechs died.
//Lennox has been notified and is coordinating with Mearing. The base is on alert, and NEST is rolling out support.// Ironhide, dark and focused.
//Contact.// Bumblebee’s interjection was fast but calm, slicing through their interwoven communications as his combat-data went live and priority-flagged, ticking over as it relayed situational analyses, weapons-assessments, vulnerabilities. //Decepticon Dreads, three of them, coming up fast from the rear. Big black SUVs--sending alt-mode datascans.//
//--got it Bee, no sweat, Dino and I’ll take these fraggers out--// Sideswipe, his conditional status also ticking over into combat-priority, weapons systems primed and online.
//Stay with Sentinel, Bumblebee, at all costs.// Optimus’ orders were clear and calm, though Ratchet could hear the buried fear behind them. The Autobots couldn’t afford to lose Sentinel a second time--not now. //Ironhide, roll out to intercept. Jazz, coordinate with NEST, link in and monitor the human emergency frequencies.//
Sentinel didn’t need to tell them he’d made it safely to his escort, of course, just as the rest of the Autobots didn’t need to be told that Sideswipe and Dino had engaged the Dreads. The continuous feed of combat data--positions, system statuses and enemy movements--over the tacnet ensured unified coordination and response without any extraneous chatter, letting the Autobots act and react almost instantly to changing threats.
//Simmons is down. Last scan showed he and the other human were injured but still alive. Location approximately 3.2 kilometers behind current engagement area.// Bumblebee reported.
//Dispatching aid,// Jazz replied, the subliminal babble of multiple human frequencies overlaying his end of the channel.
//Snagged one of the Pitspawn--c’mere little fishie! He’s on the hook, but I can’t get a lock-//
//I have a lock, Dino, stay clear--//
//Thanks for the assist, Bee. One Dread down for the count--maybe not stasis, but the fragger’s not getting up anytime soon. Now for his friends. C’mere you little--//
//Other two are gaining,// Bumblebee reported, his worry leaking through the channel. //Trying to block, but--slag!// There was a sudden flurry of activity, weapons and transformation-data rolling over the tacnet, then subsiding again. //Sam’s going to yell at me later, but we’re clear. Lots of collateral damage, but Sentinel has some more breathing room now.//
//Approximately 8.4 klicks to intercept,// Ironhide reported. //Sentinel, take the route I’ve marked--it’ll give us the best place to ambush your fanclub.//
//Dino, Bumblebee, Sideswipe, stay on Sentinel. // Ironhide’s anticipatory air was unmistakable. //Sentinel still has some distance on the Dreads. Once he’s clear, I’ll engage--those fraggers won’t know what hit them. I’ll need you to box them in.//
Tracking the others’ positional data was as easy as thought, Ironhide and the others racing through twisting streets in their running battle as Sentinel’s tag remained steady, barrelling straight for NEST. Ratchet pinged for medical updates reflexively, relieved when only minor alerts came back--some dings and dents, systems running hot under combat conditions, but still safe. Still unwounded.
Beyond touch and exploration is a second kind of love. It is one of thought and memory, that pushes past the limitations of the physical, daring to link deeper, beyond comms and data-transfers, processor to processor. First to share admiration and longing, fleeting dreams and fascinations--then to go even deeper, daring to share memory-nodes for another’s perusal, secret gifts opened one after the other. To link to another’s senses, to see through their optics, taste their joys and sorrows. And sometimes to go even further, to the pentultimate expression of trust; to lower datawalls and guardian protocols, to let another into the very core of the mind, to blur the edges of mine/yours/ours until your thoughts twine together, plural minds now intertwined into a profound communion.
To hack into another mech’s mind by force is rape: brutal, damaging and irrevocable. But this, freely given, freely shared; it is something more, something precious.
It is love.
Ironhide’s ambush went off perfectly. The frontliners tore the Decepticon Dreads apart in short order, and no other Decepticon ambushers materialized as Sentinel barrelled into NEST headquarters with the remainder of his escort, human guards alert and ready for any further attack. Ratchet could feel Optimus’ relief, Sideswipe and Dino’s jubilation at beating back their attackers and coming away (mostly) unscathed, Ironhide’s satisfaction that Sentinel was safe, protected--
--and then Sentinel turned, and killed Ironhide.
NEST headquarters dissolved into chaos. The Autobots reeled in disbelief, unable to comprehend the betrayal of a Prime--*their* Prime, just as much as Optimus was--as Sentinel turned on them, ripping apart their interlinked communications, using their own tacnet against them as he tore into NEST with a strength and skill that none of them could hope to match. The screams and shouts of the humans were lost in the roar of the explosions, the fragile concrete and steel of the building shaking under Sentinel’s unleashed wrath. Sideswipe and Dino shrieked defiance and rage, Bumblebee lethally silent as he dodged another volley of shots with pure acrobatic skill, Optimus comming frantically //Sentinel! Sentinel stop this, what are you--//
--then Jazz sliced the connection, severing Sentinel from the tacnet.
It didn’t stop the battle, the thunder of explosions and the screaming chaos without, but a bubble of silence seemed to descend within, one measured in nanokliks. //Sentinel. Sentinel betrayed us.// The message was so distorted by grief and rage that in the confusion, Ratchet couldn’t tell who had sent it. Perhaps they all had.
//Hold on, all of you. I’m coming,// Optimus sent, grief and grim purpose bleeding through.
//Sentinel is going after his control pillars,// Jazz said coolly, reaching out and re-establishing broken connections from a thousand miles away, steadying them all. There in spirit, despite his still-damaged frame. //He’s moving--//
Jazz kept talking, the others responding, but it didn’t matter. Ratchet was moving, had been moving from the moment Ironhide’s status-marker tripped over into critical systems failure, armor breach, power reserves falling, laser core compromised, coolant cores compromised, backups failing …. Something else exploded, a section of girders falling with a thunderous crash, and two pedes weren’t fast enough so he transformed in mid-run, accelerating around the corner and into the main hangar bay with the screech of rubber on concrete.
Ironhide was there, a dissolving pile of battered armor, scarcely recognizable. Ratchet didn’t bother to brake, transforming and skidding to a stop on one hand and knee-plates. He hadn’t truly thought he’d need this--had never considered that he’d need more, not so soon, not for this reason--but that didn’t stop him from yanking out the container of corrostop he’d tucked away several days before, spilling it over his hands and Ironhide’s dissolving torso. There wasn’t enough, not nearly enough to cover everything, but if he could save the spark core, the main cortical processor banks because Ironhide was a frontliner, and no warframe was stupid enough to put primary processing and memory cores in their helm, that was just asking to have them blown off--
--Ironhide’s torso gaped wide, a yawning chasm of devastation. His helm and faceplates were gone, nothing more than a half-dissolved puddle of rust, but the hole in his chassis wasn’t getting bigger, and the spark core gleamed inside, untouched, core integrity still intact. Even so, new alerts were still chasing each other, Ironhide’s vitals failing in cascades too fast for him to contain, piling up like human screams. His spark core might be whole, but the crumbling armor showed Ratchet that the laser core that powered it was *gone*, power plant nothing more than a collapsing husk of metal shards, the vital lines that fed the spark corroded into uselessness. Ironhide’s spark flickered, containment fraying around the edges, failing ….
Ratchet yanked his chest armor open, ruthlessly suppressing the alerts and warnings that tried to scream in protest as he bared his own fragile internals. What he was doing was insane, he knew. It went against every single medical and safety protocol he’d ever learned, ever taught. This was something to be tried only in a sterile bay, with CR chambers and other medics nearby, not in an ash-filled and crumbling building on an alien mudball of a planet, not on a patient so thoroughly contaminated by acid rust that no medic should even be *touching* him without containment measures in place. If the corrostop hadn’t been enough, if he introduced it into his own vitals, if Sentinel came back and blew his fragging helm off while he was defenseless--there were too many ifs and not enough time, and he ignored all of them.
Instead he dug his hands deep into his core, transforming fine manipulating digits into spreaders, hooking out the lines he needed. Cybertronians adapted, it was what they did, what they were. Vorns of war had changed him, altered his frame: to bear heavier armor, to accommodate increased subspace storage needs for weaponry as well as tools, to partition off pain and still function, to add redundant internal systems that could support an injured mech’s for a time. He pulled a laser scalpel from subspace with his free hand, and sliced down, severing auxiliary sparklines. Alerts shrieked, flickering as they piled up almost too fast for his subroutines to shunt aside, and Ratchet snarled as he scoured the corroded remains of Ironhide’s sparklines away and jammed the still-glowing ends of his own in their place, sealing them into the gaping sockets.
“Not this time, you fragger. I’m not losing you to something like this!” Firewalls tried to slam into place, to reject the foreign spark energies; he overrode them. The drain on his core was immediate, the pain--whether it was Ironhide’s or his own, he couldn’t tell--excruciating even through the partitions. Humans shouted and ran about them, things exploded, but it didn’t matter. Megatron himself could have had his cannon to Ratchet’s helm and he wouldn’t have noticed. Crouching over Ironhide’s remains, he cradled that wounded spark core against his own, waiting for the others to come.
//Stupid fragger,// he told that silent, flickering spark. //How come you didn’t see it coming? Why didn’t you *duck*...?//
//He couldn’t have known. None of us did.// Optimus’ sending was a gentle intrusion into the memory-cycle, enfolding him with careful strength. Ratchet stirred, his systems cycling up out of recharge as arms surrounded him, blue digits reaching out to twine with his own dark hands. Optimus settled behind him, making the subtle adjustments needed to cradle Ratchet’s smaller frame into the curve of his own with the ease of long familiarity. //In the face of such a betrayal, we all did the best we could. And you did even more than that--you saved him.//
//Did I?// Ratchet onlined his optics and lifted his helm, knowing what he’d see. Ironhide’s spark rotated slowly, glowing blue-white in its containment chamber, safe and secure. The chamber was designed much like a CR tank, but intended only for the vital task of supporting a disembodied spark; as a result, it had multiple redundant back-up systems and containment shielding. The original spark-chamber and most of Ironhide’s vital memory and processing cores--which now floated in a silvery nanite solution, slowly regenerating acid rust-damaged sectors--had been saved by the corrostop … but almost nothing else. Ironhide’s frame was gone, right down to the protoform, nothing left but a pile of filings and rusted shards. On Cybertron, before the war, building another would have been--not easy, perhaps, but definitely achievable, and likely taken only a few orns. To do the same on Earth--would be a monumental task.
//It doesn’t feel like it. I hate seeing him like this,// Ratchet confessed, knowing Optimus would keep his fears secret and safe. He was their Prime still, in all the ways that Sentinel had foresworn. //He’s so vulnerable .… He’d hate that.// He turned one arm over, looking down at the extended conduits that connected him to the unit, allowed him to feel the steady flickering energies of Ironhide’s spark--and hopefully, for that spark to feel him as well. //I know he’s safe. I just ... don’t want him to think he’s alone.//
Sparks were strange things; complex, densely layered energies that existed in dimensions beyond even Cybertronian science. A spark contained all a mech was--their ‘heart’ and ‘soul’ in human terms--but spark-thought, spark-memory was very different than the more conventional data stored in a mech’s cortex. Some sparks guttered at even the first hint of deprivation, much less after such a profound trauma; others would burn steadily, utterly unperturbed by millennia of isolation. Ratchet wanted to believe that Ironhide’s spark was strong enough, stubborn enough to hang on, no matter what--but in all honesty, there was just no way to know for sure.
//Teletraan is always with him,// Optimus said gently. It had been a simple enough task for the AI to dedicate a few primary nodes of his personality matrix to the constant monitoring of Ironhide’s spark. //The rest of us, also--we all spend time with him, and we will continue to do so. You’ve kept him safe, Ratchet. No one could ask for anything more. Ironhide will return to us in time--and I believe he will have a few choice things to say to you about the risks you took when he does--but in the meantime, his spark will not be alone.// His grip shifted, his helm lowering to rest upon the top of Ratchet’s own. //And neither will yours. We are safe, and finally at peace--even if that peace is tenuous. We have time, Ratchet. Time to rebuild, time to mend; and time to rest. Please take that time, old friend. For our sake, if not your own.//
//Mikaela sicced you on me, didn’t she?// Ratchet sent, his field heavy with rueful acceptance.
//Jazz, actually,// Optimus admitted. Ratchet could feel the fine faceplates shift against his helm as Optimus smiled. //He watches out for all of us. Even you.//
//Don’t you mean ‘especially you’?// Ratchet retorted, but relaxed with a final vented sigh, letting the last resisting tension of his frame go, his outer armor loosening, claspers reaching out to hook into Optimus’ heavier plating, overlapping and drawing him close. Letting himself rest against that deep-rooted strength. //But … you’re right. Thank you, Optimus.//
//Of course, old friend. Always.//
Beyond touch, beyond thought and memory, is the rarest connection of all. It is the truest expression of trust and faith, the deepest any mech might know another. It is a choice that cannot be forced. Never taken lightly, it is a careful approach, a gradual inclusion, drawing shielding aside layer by careful layer. This is your heart, bared for another, terribly vulnerable under the all the layers of armor and weapons and datawalls that have formed over millennia. But for some there is no resisting that spark-deep call, the need to no longer be alone in the dark. It is drawing closer, falling together until the final barriers are gone and you are no longer alone, but a binary star, a trinary, a galactic swirl of coronae overlapping, sparks twining together until there is nothing left in the universe but joy.
Some sparks will touch, share their selves, their joy, then retreat again to rest behind layers of shielding and armor. Others find a resonance, a kinship that can forge an unbreakable bond. And some, a very few … some choose never again to be apart, to create something new and unique from what once had been two wandering sparks.
It is not sex, not as organics understand it. But for all the creatures given life by the Allspark--it is love.
Author's note on corrostop: yes, it's a cheesy name, don't blame me, blame G1. :D My justification for Ratchet making/having a batch on him is that no medic worth his salt is ever going to let any soldier, even Sentinel Prime, run around with what amounts to a incredibly lethal biological weapon without having a batch of the cure on hand, just in case. Remember kids: friendly fire isn't!
Author note: there are nonexplicit references to mechpreg this chapter, though it's closer to plant reproduction (plantpreg?) than any kind of human pregnancy.
“So, you got the briefing, right?”
Martinez shot the other airman a wary look. “...yeah?” He might be new, but that didn’t mean he was an idiot. Of course he had. Everyone got the lecture on transfer--’Welcome to Nellis. Keep your nose clean, your gear in order, and for the love of god, whatever you do, do NOT piss off the giant alien robots living next door.’ Of course, ‘next door’ meant a hundred miles and the better part of a mountain away, but everything was relative. And as far as military briefings went, he had to admit it was certainly different.
Thompson gave Martinez a sidelong glance. It was an ominous look--an I-know-something-you-don’t-know kind of look. Martinez wasn’t sure what it meant, but it definitely put all his ‘new guy’ instincts on alert.
“So okay, here’s the deal. They’re not too bad, once you get to know them. Though those NEST fuckers? They’re nuts.” He gave a shrug as if to say, Rangers. What can you do? Martinez nodded in agreement. “But the giant robots are actually pretty cool. You’ll probably see them pretty often on patrol. We keep an eye on our side of the fence, they keep an eye on theirs--it works out pretty well.”
The fenceline was new, Martinez remembered from the briefing. It had been put in place after Yucca Mountain had been officially given protected status as Earth’s first interplanetary embassy, in order to separate off the embassy grounds from the rest of the Nevada Test Site. Still, as tall and intimidating as it was, topped with barbed wire, sensors and too many cameras to count, it was pretty obvious the fence wasn’t there to keep the aliens in--especially considering most of the aforementioned aliens were large enough to just step over it--so much as to keep humans out. There were the thrill-seekers, the gawkers, the wandering hikers … and then there were the other, more serious threats. After Chicago, public sentiment about their resident aliens was decidedly mixed. Most of the population had decided that the Autobots were the lesser of two evils, but that still left a lot of grieving and angry individuals who were more than willing to try something stupid.
“What do they look like?” Martinez asked, his curiosity getting the better of him. “Are they really that big?” He’d seen footage from Chicago, of course--who hadn’t? Plus some of the more-classified stuff in the briefings. But it was still hard to believe it was all real. Exactly when did *aliens* become normal? Much less aliens that could look like--well, anything?
“Nah, not really,” Thompson said, with all the assumed nonchalance of an old hand. “A lot of ‘em are only around fifteen, sixteen feet tall, really--when they’re standing up, that is. Mostly they like to stick to car form out here; really fucking nice ones, too. You’ll see them from time to time--there’s a Topkick, a Camaro, a Corvette …”
Martinez choked a little. *Only* fifteen feet tall? “A Corvette? Out here?” He waved a disbelieving hand at the broken rock and scrub that stretched for miles in every direction. Even the so-called ‘road’ they were bumping over wasn’t much more than two gullied tire tracks following the fenceline, all over terrain that would murder something as low-slung as a Corvette.
“Guess alien robot undercarriages are a bit more sturdy than ours,” Thompson said, amused. “Anyway, so if you see a car on the other side of the fence that really doesn’t look like it belongs there--look for the insignia. They all have that red face-symbol on ‘em, though sometimes it can be hard to see. And watch out for the Camaro. You wouldn’t think something that color would be hard to spot, but that fucker likes to sneak up on ya.”
“Sneaky … Camaro. Right,” Martinez said dubiously, still not entirely sure Thompson wasn’t pulling his leg.
“Hey, believe me or don’t, I don’t care,” Thompson said. “They might be robots, but they can move fast and quiet when they want to.”
A distant *boom* shook the earth. Martinez jumped.
“Well--except for that one, maybe.”
Another *boom*, this one even louder; Martinez’ fingers tightened around his weapon as he craned his head, looking for the source of the noise. “What the hell …?”
A head came into view, over the top of a nearby ridge. It rose up--and up--and kept on rising as the rest of the robot climbed into full view. Surmounting the ridge, it began walking towards them, each unhurried step impacting the earth with a metallic *boom* they could feel vibrating through the air. Massive, barrel-chested and gunmetal gray, it most definitely did NOT look like a car, low-slung or otherwise.
“Holy shit--what the fuck is that? I thought you said they weren’t that big!”
“They aren’t,” Thompson said, stopping the humvee. Folding his arms over the wheel, he gave Martinez a shit-eating grin. “Except for that one.”
“Jesus fucking--what the hell does *that* turn into? A fucking troop transport?”
“Dunno. Never seen him do anything but walk around. Don’t worry, though--he’s friendly.” Still grinning, Thompson honked the horn a couple times.
Martinez damn near throttled him right on the spot. There was hazing the new guy, and then there was just plain stupid. “Are you *nuts*? Do you WANT to get stepped on?” That giant head was swivelling towards them, the round glowing eyes clearly visible even from this distance, and Martinez cringed a little in spite of himself. Maybe he’d watched Independence Day a few too many times, but damn it, he knew what happened to dumbass soldiers the minute the giant robot showed up! If he got disintegrated by death-lasers or phasers or something, he was going to kick Thompson’s ASS.
Thompson just laughed, the fucker.
The giant robot tilted its head, as if it was contemplating whether or not to unleash the death-lasers. Then it lifted an equally giant four-fingered hand and waved.
“Smile and wave at the nice robot,” Thompson ordered. Martinez shot him a death glare, but did as he was told, giving the alien a somewhat half-hearted wave of his arm.
“Aaand there’s another one,” Thompson commented, as a silver sportscar topped a nearby rise. The car streaked towards the larger robot, moving unbelievably fast and with a complete disregard for any obstacles in its way. It hit the edge of a gully and launched itself into the air, ‘Dukes of Hazzard’-style; Martinez goggled.
“Is that a *Porsche*?”
Thompson squinted at it. “Umm--yup. Porsche 911, looks like.” Spot-the-sportscar was apparently a favorite pastime while stuck on fenceline patrol.
“Ho-ley shit.” Martinez winced as the car landed hard on the other side, but the thing didn’t even slow down. It sped toward the giant robot, trailing a cloud of dust and flying bits of brush. Then the Porsche spun out moments before hitting one of those massive feet, and just--broke apart.
It was one thing to see it on film. But this--it was--the car was suddenly no longer a car. It split along invisible seams, and bent and *twisted* and suddenly it was a silver-armored robot--alien--that launched itself towards the bigger robot’s knee, grabbing hold and swinging itself upward with all the speed and skill of a monkey climbing a tree. “Holy fucking shit,” Martinez said again.
The new arrival scaled the bigger robot’s torso without hesitating, and the bigger one didn’t seem to mind, even offering a forearm as a convenient handhold along the way. One last flip and twist, and the new robot was sitting on the big one’s shoulder. Martinez belatedly realized he had left his hand hanging in the air like a dumbass, frozen in mid-wave, as it turned to look at them, visor glinting blue in the sun.
And then it waved too.
Martinez gave them another feeble wave, then dropped his hand and manfully resisted the urge to clutch at his rifle like it was a security blanket. “Giant robots. Holy shit.”
“Yep,” Thompson said. He gave the two aliens an casual salute, and then started the engine, giving Martinez an evil grin. His work here was done. “Area 51, eat your heart out. They got *nothing* on us. Holy shit indeed.”
A long time ago, in a system kinda far away ...
The first explosion is always the hardest.
At least, that’s what his mentors had always said. Thankfully, Wheeljack’s own first explosion was many vorns behind him. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to make them hurt any less.
“... ow,” he managed, the word coming out metallic and edged with static as his vocalizer rebooted. He ran through the usual checks, noting familiar errors--apparently he’d lost several sets of chemoreceptors in the blast, which autorepair was busily replacing--and cycled his optics, noting a familiar presence currently piggybacking onto his diagnostics. “Oh--hi, Ratchet. How are you?”
“I was just fine until a certain idiot decided to blow himself up. *Again.*,” Ratchet said, his annoyed resignation prickling against Wheeljack's scorched sensory arrays. “Though it looks like you got lucky--you’re a little crispy around the edges, but at least you didn’t lose any limbs this time.” Ratchet slid hands under one shoulder and an arm-joint, roughly boosting Wheeljack upright--then paused. Wheeljack felt the prickle of medical scan, and Ratchet’s frown deepened.
“Is there something you want to tell me, ‘Jack?
“Uhm--don’t mix dibenzotetracyclin with chlorated santrinium?”
“You know what I mean.” Ratchet gave him a narrow-opticked stare. “Don’t play dumb, Wheeljack. You’re 3.48 mechands heavier than you should be, and last I checked, explosions don’t cause people to *gain* weight.”
“Much less add mass to their protoform.”
“And since I know for a fact you haven’t suffered any protometal-deep injuries in at least the last half-vorn, that really only leaves one reason for you to be taking on additional mass.”
Wheeljack squirmed under Ratchet’s unrelenting scrutiny. “It’s not what you think,” he protested.
“Oh really?” Ratchet crossed his arms across his chassis with the scrape of armor on armor. “Because what I think is that you’re building out a hatchling frame. Tell me I’m wrong.”
“Okay--so it is what you think. But it’s not as bad as you think!” Wheeljack replied, holding his hands up placatingly before the looming Medic O’ Doom. “I thought this out, really I did. The Decepticons have been quiet for over three vorns now, we’re far from any action, we’re well-stocked with energon and raw materials--”
“--and all of that could change at any moment,” Ratchet snapped. “Frag it, Wheeljack--you’re not a creator-spark, you don’t have an excuse for this kind of idiocy! What the Pit were you thinking, trying to sparkbud in the middle of a war?”
“... honestly, Ratchet? I was thinking that this might be my only chance,” Wheeljack said urgently, suddenly serious. “Ratch--how long has this war been going on? Hundreds of vorns. And it could be hundreds more before it’s over, assuming anything’s left by then.” He sat up the rest of the way, wincing as new damage reports pinged for attention. “I could be offlined tomorrow. So could you.” He tilted his head, vocal indicators flickering wryly. “And since when have I ever waited for it to be safe to do anything?”
“Point,” Ratchet acknowledged, but his frown still didn’t fade. “But Wheeljack--this isn’t some experiment you can set aside. You’re going to have to sacrifice enough protometal to seed the new frame, plus spark-energy and energon, assuming you get the spark to take. And after that … this isn’t like going to the Allspark. It’ll be *vorns* before you’ll be dealing with a fully adult mech.”
Underneath the disapproval, Wheeljack could tell Ratchet was genuinely worried. In wartime, the risks inherent in creating new mechs were daunting. He’d have to take his weapons offline for the latter part of the process, and if they ran short on supplies … well, sparkbudding was tricky even at the best of times.
Ratchet shook his head, sitting back on his pedes. “At least tell me *why* you decided to do this.”
Wheeljack shrugged, misaligned plating popping back into place as it moved. “Because I wanted to see what would happen, of course.” What better reason was there to do anything? He smiled at his friend. “Besides, think how great it’ll be to have two of me around!”
Ratchet groaned, covering his faceplates with one hand. “Primus help us ...”
It was dark where he was. A long dark, like the time before light--but that didn’t bother him. Nor did the flickers of memory-files--No prisoners. Only trophies.--that flitted past from time to time; divorced of the fear and terror of the moment, the regrets of things left undone, they no longer had the power to hurt. The hurt was past, and now--now he was waiting.
It bothered him, a little, that he didn’t know what he was waiting for. There were countless possibilities, of course, and he yearned to explore them. He wanted to stretch his hands--where were his hands, anyway?-- out to them, turn them over and uncover their secrets, delight in new discoveries … there was just so *much* there, he could feel it, just barely, maddeningly out of reach ….
And then there was another. A voiceless call, beloved and familiar.
He knew that touch, that spark, as familiar to him as his own. Father-brother-twin, wise and patient and endlessly curious.
That name, easier to remember than even his own, pulled him up to the surface, away from the dark. Memory followed, and thought and feeling as connections were established, belated reports flooding in of damage done and repairs made, changes and new connections forged to his frame. He cycled his optics, focusing down from haloed smears of color and electromagnetic variances, belatedly registering Ratchet’s unobtrusive presence in his systems, monitoring his vitals. “Wheeljack,” he said again in delight, looking up at that masked face. “You’re here!”
Wheeljack’s faceplates shifted upwards to reveal the smile behind the mask, the vocal indicators to either side of his helm flashing a warm rose-mauve. “So I am,” he said in mock-surprise. He reached out and knocked his knuckles gently on the front of Que’s helm. “Heard you got yourself in a bit of trouble, so I decided to come and give Ratchet an assist. How’s the noggin, kiddo?”
“Functioning normally,” Que replied automatically. “Was there something wrong with--wait. Soundwave. Oh … I remember now.” He sat up, double-checking his diagnostics. “No, everything is reporting fine, well within parameters.” He patted his helm gingerly, as if to check it was securely attached--then froze. “My helm!” He did a quick trace, checking over his repair-logs, which reported total integration of a replacement Cybertronian-standard helm and faceplates, with no residuals remaining. All that careful work on custom faceplates, simulated keratin, even his human emotive patterning--all gone! He twisted around to give the resident medic a look of betrayal. “Ratchet!!”
Ratchet scowled at him, unimpressed. “Don’t whine at me, Que. That ridiculous helm of yours was in a million pieces, and I’m not going to waste my time putting it together when I have other patients to see to. If you want to look like your stein-human again, you’re going to have to do it yourself, just like the last time.” He snorted, and disconnected the monitoring linkups with a sharp yank.
“It’s *Einstein*,” Que snapped, bristling at the insult to his work. “Not stein-human--and he was a great thinker, way ahead of the other humans of his era! That helm--”
“That helm was fragging ridiculous,” Ratchet barked, losing what remained of his patience. “AND a liability--you went into a firefight with Decepticons without so much as a battlemask, you idiot! If you’re going to rebuild the stupid thing, then at least armor your sensory centers better--do you know how many fused cores I had to replace?” He transferred his glare to Wheeljack. “I’m blaming *you* for this idiocy, just so you know.”
“Don’t ‘Ratch’ me, Wheeljack.” Ratchet slammed a hand down on the berth. “Out! Both of you--if you’re well enough to whine, then you’re well enough to walk, and I have other patients waiting.”
Que cringed in spite of himself. “I’m sorry, Ratchet. I didn’t mean to--it’s just …” He slumped. All that work ... “I was really proud of it.”
Ratchet bristled, armor expanding, fully intending to deliver another sharp rebuke. Then he deflated with a huff, unable to stay angry in the face of Que’s disappointment. “I know, Que. And you’ll be able to build it again. But right now we needed *you*, even without the fancy helm.” He reached out and wrapped a hand over the engineer’s shoulder, letting Que feel the relief and reassurance in his field. “If Barricade had managed to get another shot in, there might not have been anything left of you to save. You had a pretty close call, you know.”
Que straightened, belatedly embarrassed by his outburst, especially in the face of Wheeljack and Ratchet’s obvious concern. “I’m sorry--you’re right. Maybe I should design some heavier armor to integrate into my frame?” Another memory triggered, belatedly surfacing from unarchived files, and he flinched. “Bumblebee! He was--is he all right?”
Ratchet snorted. “He’s just fine--came close to getting his helm blown off too, but thanks to Wheelie and Brains, Soundwave got distracted, and that was all ‘Bee needed to get the drop on the slagger.” He tilted his helm towards the hallway. “He’s been waiting to welcome you back, you know, along with a lot of other mechs. Go on. Wheeljack and I can spare you for a few more orns while you integrate your repairs and let everyone get used to your new look.”
“Right,” Que said, obediently hopping off the berth and pinging for location-IDs. Topspin and the others were still on-planet, he noted with relief. “I should check in with the Wreckers too, make sure they don’t need my help.” He headed for the exit, still thinking. There was just so much he’d had to leave half-done! “And I’ll need to set up my workshop again. Wow, look at all the *space*; this gives me a lot more room to work than the Xantium. Solid bedrock as well, that will help--you’ll help me find where they stashed all my equipment, right Wheeljack? And help me rebuild my helm? I have some ideas for improvements--and I need to talk to the humans about the grapple-gloves I gave them …”
Ratchet shook his head ruefully as he watched Que bounce out of the medbay. “He really is a chip off the old block, isn’t he?” Humans had more oddly appropriate sayings ….
Wheeljack just grinned, indicators flashing a cheerful yellow. “Yup! Isn’t it great?”
“So, have you decided yet what you’re going to tell the U.N. next week?” Sam asked as he climbed the ladder to the nearest convenient Autobot-high gantry, one of several built into the command center in order to accommodate human occupancy amongst Cybertronian-sized equipment. Once at the top, he plunked himself down, dangling his legs over the edge in complete disregard of ambassadorly dignity.
Turning away from his contemplation of Red Alert’s surveillance data, Optimus tilted his head in a nod. “Indeed I have.”
“Well? I have to admit, I’ve been wondering what you were going to decide. Can you give me a heads-up, at least, so I know what kind of fallout I’ll have to deal with afterwards?” And there would be fallout, Sam knew from experience. In politics, there was *always* fallout, no matter how innocuous the announcement. Especially when it came to dealing with giant alien mecha.
“It has been a difficult decision,” Optimus admitted. “As you know, we have already shared some minor technologies--the energon detectors and other necessary devices to locate Decepticons. But Earth’s governments have not hesitated to press us for more; and some of the reasons they give are sound. There is much good we could do for your people, and your planet is vulnerable. The Decepticons are not our only concern; there are other predatory species in the galaxy. Now that we have made contact with Earth, it is possible that others will follow.”
Optimus glanced over at Red Alert, who (near as Sam could tell) was currently monitoring their surveillance linkup with NEST, in addition to the Autobots’ own network of microdrones. “However, we also cannot ignore the possibility of our technology being abused rather than used for the benefit of mankind. And given the fractured state of Earth’s current geopolitics, there is simply no practical way to control how such advances are used by various governments once the information is released.” He vented a sigh.
“So you’re thinking of just saying ‘no’ until we get our act together?” Sam asked. Technically he was the Autobots’ liaison to Earth, not the other way around--that role, at least for the United States, had been de facto assigned to Colonel Lennox after the last fiasco (and the one before that, and the one before that) involving White House-appointed bureaucrats. So if the Autobots decided Earth wasn’t ready to have access to Cybertronian technology, it was his job to explain that to the Powers That Be, regardless of how little he wanted to have that particular discussion.
“That would be the easier solution,” Optimus admitted, with another glance over at Red Alert. “However, I do not believe it would serve us well in the long run.” Sam cocked his head as the Autobot head of security made a sound that resembled nothing so much as a metallic snort. Apparently there had been some disagreement on that issue.
Optimus folded his hands behind his back thoughtfully. “It is my belief that the human race is too accustomed to shaping the world around them to accept such an edict. A denial of access to our technology would likely be viewed as an insult at best, and a threat at worst. It would also be impossible to build a true alliance if the Autobots are seen as reclusive interlopers, or … what was the term? Arrogant ‘nannybots’? That are making decisions for the humans instead of with them.” He smiled wryly at Sam. “My first impulse then was to give some of our technology freely to the humans to prove our goodwill, but Jazz has persuaded me otherwise.”
“Jazz?” Sam echoed, surprised. “How come?” He had a hard time envisioning friendly and easygoing Jazz as a hard-nosed negotiator. Now *Prowl*, maybe …
“Jazz has made a study of most of Earth’s dominant cultures. He believes--and I now agree--that while the humans would initially show gratitude for our technology, such a gift would also invite suspicion, and possibly foster an unwanted dependence on Autobot largesse. Those in power would wonder what the Autobots hoped to gain by such a gift--what was ‘in it for us’, as Jazz put it. They would also not hesitate to make further demands as time went on. Jazz also pointed out that in many Earth cultures, gifts are often not as valued as that which is earned, and that reliance upon the charity of others often invites scorn. Which is, curiously enough, counter to many human religious teachings. Needless to say, it is a complex situation.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” Sam said slowly, swinging his legs back and forth as he thought it over. “I hadn’t looked at it that way, but I think Jazz is probably right. At least as far as the U.S. is concerned, anyway, giving anything away for free is probably a bad idea.” He smirked. “We want Earth to respect you guys in the morning.”
Optimus nodded gravely. “Yes, respect is essential for building any kind of alliance,” he said seriously, and Sam had to hide a snigger behind one hand. Ok, he really hadn’t expected Optimus to get that one. He was a bad person, really he was.
“As a result, we have put together a compromise,” Optimus continued. “We do not want to favor one human nation or corporation over another or unintentionally upset the balances of power that the humans have worked out amongst themselves.” (Personally, Sam thought that the balance of power on Earth could use some upsetting, but he kept his mouth shut and let Optimus talk.) “So we will license certain portions of our non-military technology to the Earth as a whole. The U.N. shall be Earth’s representative body in this matter--we will propose that every country be expected to contribute in proportion to their overall GNP, and will share equally in the released information. Yes--even the ‘bad’ countries,” he added, forestalling Sam before he could do more than open his mouth to protest.
Sam thought about arguing anyway--then exhaled, letting out the air in a gusty sigh. He was pretty sure he could already hear the outraged screams on that one “That’s not going to be popular,” he said, more out of the vague sense that he should put up *some* kind of protest, even a token one. And getting all those countries to cooperate? Including the angry, isolationist ones? The horsetrading on that was going to be *murder*.
“No, I am afraid not. But we cannot pick sides in this--or use the judgments of a select few nations about who is undeserving of these advances.” Optimus didn’t move, or fidget, but simply stood tall and unyielding--and Sam was pretty sure he was seeing a sneak preview of what the U.N. was in for in a week’s time. “We will be open to bargaining in regards to the eventual price of this ‘licensing’. But there will be a price.” Optimus levelled an electric blue gaze on Sam, who found himself unconsciously straightening under that regard. “We cannot control the use of our tech once it leaves our datafiles. But we can make it clear that any nations who use it to advance their own military and weapons technology will soon find their neighbors have Autobot assistance in devising countermeasures to defeat those weapons, entirely free of charge.”
In this, Sam knew from previous discussions, their two species were very similar. Both humans and Cybertronians were both highly adaptable and aggressive by nature, and there was no tech anywhere in the galaxy that couldn’t be adapted for use as a weapon, given enough time and creativity by the sentient in question. Give one mech a shovel and he’d use it to dig a hole. Give a second mech that same shovel? Chances were good he’d decide to hit his neighbor over the helm with it.
Free will at work; something even the ancient Primes had been forced to face. They had died to ensure humanity’s right to exist, to determine their own path, and suddenly Sam had a new appreciation for how difficult that choice must have been.
“Do you think that will work?” Sam asked. “Or will it just speed up a new arms race?”
“We will do our best to ensure that it does not,” Optimus said gravely. “Prowl’s projections are favorable. But ultimately, humanity’s fate must rest in their own hands.” Which didn’t mean that Optimus wouldn’t feel eternally guilty if humans did end up annihilating themselves with borrowed Cybertronian technology. Sam felt his gut twist at the thought of all the ways this could go wrong.
“Man--now I’m almost wishing you guys would say no,” he said finally, reaching desperately for some humor to deflect his own paranoia. “That’s a lot of ‘ifs’.”
“Yes. But there is also the possibility for great good to come of this as well.” Optimus’ expression gentled, and he tilted his head at Red Alert. “While it is always prudent to plan for the worst, I often find that expecting the best can yield surprising results.”
Red Alert tilted his helm, glancing sidelong at them both. “Surprises are not always good ones,” he said dryly. “And just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” The security head’s delivery was utterly deadpan, but Sam had gotten better at reading Cybertronian body language, and he couldn’t help but snicker. Red Alert’s reputation as humorless was not entirely undeserved--the mech was more than a bit of a workaholic--but he had a wry sense of humor, one that humans and Autobots alike rarely saw coming.
“So what tech will you guys be giving access to first, since weapons are off the table?” Sam asked.
“Energy production, I believe. Your nuclear fission reactors are quite … inefficient,” Optimus said, which Sam knew was Prime-speak for ‘unspeakably primitive and prone to failure and how the Pit did humans ever decide that stockpiling enormous amounts of mutagenic radioactive waste was ever a good idea anyway?’ “We can offer several improvements that will not only increase output, but also greatly reduce the half-life of the byproducts produced by your existing reactors. In time, I believe the advances we can offer could remove humanity’s dependence on burning carbon fuels, which would benefit Earth in many ways.”
Sam nodded. “Yeah, good idea. Countries will be falling all over themselves for a piece of something like that. Are you--” There was a blurt of sound from a console across the room--an odd, multitonal beep--and he jumped in surprise. “What was that?”
Optimus and Red Alert seemed to be equally surprised. “An incoming transmission,” Red Alert said, tilting his head and reaching out a hand to link up with the console in question. “Encrypted *very* well, but definitely intended for us. Teletraan-1, can you pinpoint the source?”
“Affirmative,” came the AI’s reply. “Source: Cybertronian vessel, designation Axalon. Current location: Solar system, nearing Uranus orbit. Encryption key identified for Blaster, Communications Head, Third-In-Command. Shall I open the channel?”
“Blaster?” Optimus turned, shifting his attention to the holotank. “And so close! Affirmative, Teletraan--open the channel and accept incoming communications.” The tank fuzzed, Red Alert’s data breaking briefly into a blue-green swirl of light, then coalescing once more into an entirely new image--that of a broad-shouldered, visored mech with a vivid red- and yellow-armored protoform.
“There ya are, my mechs! Optimus, good to see ya--how’s it hangin’?” the mech said cheerfully, and Sam couldn’t help but notice that whoever the new guy was, he certainly had Earth slang down pat. “Pretty little system you’ve got here. I like the locals--they’re noisy, but interesting. Been listening to their transmissions ever since we hit the edge of the heliosphere. Wacky stuff!”
“It is good to see you too, Blaster,” Optimus said with genuine pleasure, moving within better view of Teletraan’s pickups. “In retrospect, I suppose I should not have been surprised that you would pick up on my transmissions so quickly.”
“Yup. Heard ya loud and clear, and with an invite like that, how could we say no? Especially since I heard you sent Megatron packing back to Cybertron. Speaking of which, I’m pretty sure Springer wants to talk at ya about that.” Blaster pulled a wry face. Despite the inhuman mouthparts and the visored optics, it was a surprisingly humanlike expression.
“I’m sure he does,” Optimus said wryly. “He’ll have to get in line behind Prowl and Red Alert, I’m afraid. Nevertheless, it will be good to see you both. How many others are with you?”
“Besides my mob, you mean?” Sam blinked. That was an odd turn of phrase--did he mean the ship’s crew? “We’re a bit of an odd collection, I’m afraid--not too many heavy hitters on board. We’ve got Springer and Kup, plus Hot Rod and Cliffjumper, plus the geek squad--Seaspray, Hoist, Grapple, and Perceptor. Oh, and Cosmos is hanging out past the Kuiper Belt keepin’ an eye on the local interstellar traffic. You know how he gets about gravity wells.”
“That is good news,” Optimus replied. “In truth, all of you are badly needed; especially yourself and the ‘geek squad’.” He didn’t quite do air quotes around the words--much to Sam’s disappointment--but watching Optimus, with his natural gravitas, attempt Earth slang was amusing enough without it anyway. “Will you be arriving soon?”
“Pretty soon, yup. Perceptor figures we’ll be there in about 1.23--I dropped off the seven extra decimal places just for you, see how nice I am?--of the third planet’s solar orbits. Since you guys don’t have an urgent need for reinforcements anymore, we’re conserving fuel and taking the scenic tour of the system instead of burning straight in.” Blaster grinned, leaning forward. “Which should give you more time to work on the locals. Have ya talked at them yet about renaming their planet? Cause I have to tell ya, Planet Dirt? Kinda dumb. You know all the other kids in the galaxy are gonna laugh at ‘em, right?”
“Oddly enough, that particular topic hasn’t come up yet,” Optimus said drily. “But I will take it under advisement. Perhaps you can discuss the issue with Sam when you arrive.” Sam waved helpfully at the tank pickups.
“Can do! Been looking forward to picking your brains anyway, kid,” Blaster said cheerfully. “Never had an alien get that up-close and personal with the Allspark before, and I’ve got a ton of questions about Earth.” Sam was starting to think he might be in trouble--time to break out the contingency plans. Maybe he could hook Blaster up with Miles?
In the holotank, Blaster continued, “We’ve got some other news too, I’m afraid.” The cheerfulness faded, replaced by something a great deal more serious. “We’re getting some weird vibes coming out of Cybertron. Word on the street--well, according to Cosmos, who probably hasn’t ever set pede on a street in his life, now that I think about it--anyway, word is that Megatron is having problems keeping the rank and file in hand. Lotsa unhappy rumblings … and the Command Trine has gone missing. They’ve been trying to keep it on the down-low, but well--Starscream is kinda noticeable, especially when he isn’t around slagging off Megatron.”
Optimus nodded. “We know. We believe they may actually be on Earth, though we’ve only confirmed Thundercracker’s presence thus far. It is surprising that they would break with Megatron after so many vorns of loyal service, but we are aware and monitoring the situation.”
“Optimus--it’s not just the Command Trine,” Blaster said, now utterly serious. “This is pretty big--we estimate Megatron’s lost about half of his aerial forces so far. Mostly Seekers and other airframes, though there are a few helos and other frametypes sprinkled in there too. And the thing is, we’re not talkin’ about the usual infighting. They’re not making a huge stink about starting a new faction, or trying to go after Megatron. They’re just disappearing, going AWOL one and two mechs at a time.” He lifted hands in an open-ended shrug. “We don’t know for sure where they’re going, but Skyfire and Cosmos have plotted the last-known trajectories of the ones we could track, and most of them seem to be heading for this part of the galaxy. If the Command Trine is on Earth--I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet they’re coming here. Which means you’re going to have a whole lot of Decepticreeps on your hands, and soon. Pit, some of them are probably in the neighborhood already.”
“That is--not good news,” Optimus said slowly, frowning. “And we have no idea why they’re suddenly abandoning Megatron?”
“None,” Blaster confirmed. “‘Course, with Seekers, who knows why they do anything? But I’d bet Springer’s stash of highgrade that Starscream is behind it somehow.”
“This is certainly troubling news. Thank you for bringing it to my attention, Blaster--I will have Red Alert and Prowl begin working on an analysis immediately.” Optimus gave Blaster’s image a grave nod. “And I look forward to the Axalon’s arrival; it seems you will be needed even more than I had anticipated.”
“Always happy to help, even if I do get to be the bearer of bad news,” Blaster said cheerfully. “All right, I don’t wanna use up all my interstellar minutes on one call. You have our frequency--yell for help if you need us and we’ll come in engines hot, OK?”
“Thank you, Blaster. Please remain vigilant in your approach; if there are Seekers in-system, I would hate to see you fall victim to an ambush.”
“Pft. Any Seekers dumb enough to mess with us are going to get their afts handed to them--Springer’s been itching for action for a quarter-vorn now, and Hot Rod isn’t much better.” Blaster gave them a human-style salute--although, Sam noticed, he used the wrong hand. “OK, see you crazy mechs soon! Axalon, signing off.” The tank image winked out of existence, and Sam looked at Optimus.
“More Decepticon jets. This is going to be a problem, isn’t it?”
Optimus vented a sigh. “Yes, Sam. This is a going to be a very big problem indeed.”
“And here I thought we were done with this slag,” Ratchet grumbled to Jazz as they headed into Operations. The cavern was looking nominally better than it had a few months ago; Wheeljack and Que’s combined efforts had gotten more of the recovered equipment from the Ark up and running. Which meant less reliance on jury-rigged human tech, which was all to the good; if Jazz never saw another ‘blue screen of death’ again, he would die a very happy ‘bot.
“No rest for the wicked,” Jazz said cheerfully. “At least Blaster gave us a heads-up about our imminent Seeker infestation before they decided to drop in and bomb our afts back to the first Golden Age.” They headed for their usual seating arrangements, acknowledging pinged and spoken greetings as they went.
Most of Optimus’ war council had already arrived. Red Alert and Prowl were early, as always, while Bumblebee was filling Ironhide’s position as field commander, and looking none too happy about that fact. Bumblebee, for all his cheerful demeanor and brightly-colored exterior, was just as much a warframe as Ironhide, and every bit as deadly. He was also positively allergic to anything that smacked of commanding more than a unit at a time. But with Ironhide in stasis and all other higher-ranked Autobot warframes still offworld, that left only Bumblebee to fill the gap, no matter how little he might like it.
The human half of their conference was also in place--for the most part. The only two actually physically present were Sam and Colonel Lennox, with the now-Defense Secretary Mearing and General Morshower ‘conference calling’ in via the holotank. The U.N. Security Council, Joint Chiefs and the White House would get the highlights once the meeting was over, but for right now, Optimus had emphasized that this conference was to be by invitation only. Personally, Jazz thought that edict had been made not only due to security concerns, but also because the more humans you got in one place, the more things they seemed to find to argue about.
Optimus stepped into Operations, his field somber, scanning the cavern. “Is everyone present?” he asked, mostly for the humans’ benefit. “Yes?” A few affirmative nods and pings, and he settled himself into his usual spot. “Very good. Then let’s begin. I’m sure everyone has been briefed on Blaster’s report?”
“Such as it is,” Morshower’s image said, the man frowning down at something out of range of the visual pickups. “No offense, Optimus, but this isn’t exactly solid intel. Do we have any proof at all that this splinter group of Decepticons, assuming that's what they are, is even headed our way?”
“Blaster and Cosmos’ reports have always been reliable, General,” Prowl said. “And while they might be short on specifics, if they believe that the Seeker defectors are heading towards this system, then it is almost a certainty that they are correct.”
“Blaster’s a solid mech,” Jazz agreed. “Don’t let him fool ya--that cat can crunch data-loads that would make most Cybertronians melt their circuits, and turn Earth supercomputers into little charcoal briquettes. If he says they’re coming, then they’re coming.”
“All right--given all that’s true, what do we do about it?” Sam asked, glancing between Autobots and human leaders. “*Can* we do anything about it?”
“At the moment, I’m afraid our options are limited,” Optimus replied, obviously unhappy at the admission. “The Decepticons have always had the advantage in aerial combat, and that is not likely to change, especially with Starscream as the leader of this new faction. Without the Aerialbots or any Autobot shuttle-mecha here on Earth, we must rely on the Xantium and Earth’s defenses to defend against Seeker incursions.”
“Neither of which is going to do us a damn bit of good if those Seekers decide to get serious,” Jazz put in bluntly, saving Optimus from the necessity of doing so. “In space, the Xantium might be able to hold them off, but in a planetary atmosphere? A couple of trines are gonna rip her to shreds, no matter what the Wreckers do. Hell, the Command Trine could probably do it all by their lonesome. And pitting Earth pilots against Seekers? They’d be toast just as soon as the Decepticreeps stopped laughing.”
Colonel Lennox and General Morshower both had nearly-identical frowns of displeasure at this news. “Wait just a damn minute,” Morshower interjected, scowling. “Our F-22s went head-to-head with Starscream in Mission City. They might not have taken the bastard out, but they managed to hold their own.”
“You had seven F-22s against one Seeker, and lost half your fighters within ten earth-seconds of engagement,” Prowl said bluntly. “Against a trine, they wouldn’t have lasted even that long. Against a full wing, it is unlikely your fighters would even have managed to get off the ground. Seekers are the masters of the air; their frames are designed to withstand g-forces that would pulp an organic. Their reaction times are measured in nanoseconds. At Earth’s current level of technology, any human pilots that engage Seekers in combat? Are dead."
Both men bristled, but before Morshower could argue further, Mearing stepped in. “Very well,” she said, leaning forward, eyes narrowed. “If the Autobots can’t fight them in the air, and human technology isn’t up to the task, does that mean you’ve reconsidered your stance on human access to your weapons technology, Optimus?”
“I’m afraid not, Secretary Mearing,” Optimus said firmly. “While the Seekers are a possible threat to Earth, thus far they have done little except shoot down drones and violate several nations’ airspace. If we were to release Cybertronian weaponry into human hands, we would be replacing a nascent threat with the far more certain danger of humans using those weapons against other humans, to the detriment of the entire planetary population.” He regarded her levelly. “Only in the face of an overwhelming and immediate threat to Earth as a whole would I consider that option.”
“Which brings up a good point,” Sam interjected smoothly, neatly forestalling another round of Mearing vs. Optimus. “Why *aren’t* Starscream and company doing anything? They haven’t gone after any Autobots, or even after any U.S. military assets--at least none that weren’t getting into their faceplates. Why? And why are they here, on Earth? I mean, if they couldn’t manage to kick Optimus’ tail *with* Megatron’s help, what makes them think they’ll do any better by themselves?”
“They’re probably just building up their forces,” Lennox grumbled.
“That is a possibility,” Prowl agreed. “Starscream, especially, will require more time to recover from the damage you and Sam inflicted upon him in Chicago. It is also likely that for the moment, at least, Starscream is consolidating his position. Seekers might be unparalleled at aerial combat, but their defection from Megatron’s forces leaves them with a very large problem.”
“No ground support,” Bumblebee said quietly, optics narrowed.
“Correct. Without Megatron, they have no supply lines, no medics, and no ground forces to hold any territory they might take.” Prowl laced black-armored talons together as he continued. “Even Seekers have to land eventually. Which means they need a base of operations, and that base requires defenders. They require energon--midgrade or better, and a great deal of it--in order to fly and to fight. And with battle comes battle-damage, which requires mecha skilled in repair, ideally medics, as well as the raw material and facilities to support those repairs.”
“And you can bet your aft that Starscream knows all of this too,” Jazz put in. “He wasn’t Megatron’s second-in-command just ‘cause he’s pretty.”
“Which is why he’s camped out in Iran,” Mearing said sourly, finishing the thought aloud.
“Yep. I’d bet a month’s supply of Sideswipe’s best moonshine that the Screamer made Iran an offer they couldn’t refuse. Literally.” It wasn’t a new conclusion, honestly, and most of the Autobots had probably already figured it out, but Jazz figured it was best to get it out into the open with their human allies as well. “With Iran, he gets a defensible base of operations, access to their refineries and their oil reserves in addition to solar and nuclear options, and borders that are well-defended by the resident humans. Hard to pass up somethin’ like that.”
“While Iran gets an alien air force that is superior to everything else on the planet,” Mearing added. “Wonderful. So it’s no longer a matter of if Iran goes after its neighbors, but when? I don’t think I have to tell you that this is a powder keg, people.”
“That’s assuming that their new ‘air force’ would cooperate,” Bumblebee pointed out. “Starscream isn’t about to take orders from a bunch of humans. Not unless it serves his purposes. And he’s certainly not going to put Seekers into the line of fire just so some human can build himself an empire.” He glanced over at Optimus. “Seekers are difficult to slot into a military command even at the best of times. You have to be able to outmatch them on their own terms; only the L--only Megatron ever managed to do it for any length of time.” He gave Sam an apologetic look. “No offense, but I can’t see humans being able to do that anytime soon.”
“None taken,” Sam said wryly. “I went head-to-head with Starscream once, and that was enough for me. I’m not looking for a round two.”
“Speak for yourself,” Lennox said, giving him a feral grin.
“You, sir, are a crazy man,” Sam told him.
“And you’ve been hangin’ around Sideswipe too long, I’m thinkin’,” Jazz added, amused but not surprised. If there’s one thing this planet had taught him, it was never to underestimate an organic, no matter how squishable they were.
“Lennox’s suicidal tendencies aside, can we get back to the topic at hand?” Ratchet added before the conversation could derail any further. “So they’re in Iran. They’re not leaving Iran, and there’s frag-all we can do about that right now. But they’re probably not going to launch a full-out assault on anyone anytime soon. That pretty much cover everything?” He scowled, tapping a finger against the rim of the holotank. “Do we have any confirmation on how many of the fraggers are even here yet?”
“That’s the one good thing about their location,” Red Alert said sourly. “Most of Earth’s military satellites are already tasked with keeping close watch on that region. While their surveillance technology is still substandard--”
“Hey,” Lennox said, and Mearing frowned a little at the slight. Red Alert barrelled on without noticing, and Jazz resisted the urge to vent a sigh. Typical.
“--we’ve still managed to acquire images of their base of operations, and optical confirmation of at least four distinct Seeker frametypes. Starscream, Skywarp, and Thundercracker have all been identified. The fourth we believe to be Acid Storm, though given the poor quality of the images, we do not yet have full confirmation on that ID. Once Wheeljack and Que finish work on Sky Spy, it should be able to augment our surveillance network considerably. At that point we will be able to track Seeker movements both on-planet and off with a great deal more accuracy.”
“Great. Fragging Rainmakers.” Ratchet grumbled. “If he’s here, the rest of them aren’t far behind.”
“Rainmakers?” Sam asked.
“The Rainmaker Trine. The moniker got slapped on ‘em during the war, and it stuck. We can give you the full briefin’ later, but let’s just say Acid Storm ain’t called that for no reason,” Jazz told him.
“Oh yay.” Sam pulled a face, but left it at that.
“If these Seekers are so badass,” Lennox put in, “They’re not going to like us spying on them. They’ve already taken out most of the UAVs we had in Iraq and Afghanistan--what’s to stop them from doing the same to your new spy satellite?”
“Sky Spy is designed to both cloak and defend itself from Seeker attack,” Red Alert replied. “Its AI is a budded node-branch from Teletraan-1, and has a certain degree of sentience, which will allow it to predict enemy movements and react accordingly. Getting it off-planet and into orbit will be the greatest point of vulnerability, which is why we will not be relying on a standard launch, but sending it up in the Xantium under the protection of the Wreckers.”
“We wouldn’t stand a chance at keeping Sky Spy online and unhacked if Soundwave were still in-system. But Starscream generally has better things to do than play hide n’ seek with satellites,” Jazz added, leaning back and lacing fingers behind his helm. “Especially ones that are really good at not gettin’ caught. As long as we’re only watchin’ and not attackin’, Sky Spy is probably safe. For a while, at least.”
“So we’ll have intel, but we’ll be able to do damn-all about it if these Seekers actually do decide to attack?” Mearing asked, her expression making it clear that she was Not Happy with this situation.
“At the moment, aggressive action will only provoke an equally aggressive response,” Optimus said evenly. “I believe a multi-pronged approach would serve us best. Seekers are known for their arrogance, which is unlikely to sit well with the Iranian government. At the same time, Iran cannot provide everything that the Seekers will need in the long-term; something Starscream knows quite well. If we keep diplomatic channels open on both the human and the Cybertronian fronts, compromises may yet be reached that will stave off hostilities even longer. The time thus afforded will allow us all to put other countermeasures in place; additional surveillance, more missile defenses, and hardening human infrastructure against possible Seeker attacks.” He looked down at the human contingent, his expression grave. “I will not pretend such things will be easy--they will take a great deal of effort, resources and political will, both in the United States and elsewhere. But they are necessary.”
“The ol’ carrot and the stick, eh Optimus?” Jazz put in, amused.
“Indeed.” Optimus’ expression, if anything, grew even more somber. “If there is one thing our war has taught me, it is what happens when you back mecha--especially warframes--into an untenable position. Starscream may yet follow in Megatron’s footsteps, and decide to take what his mecha need. But if there’s any possibility of averting that course … then I believe we owe it to both ourselves and Earth to do our utmost not to embroil yet another world in our endless war.”
“Just so long as the solution doesn’t involve Earth paying tribute to alien overlords,” Mearing replied, leaning back and crossing her arms. “I have no objections to diplomatic overtures, of course. But I doubt very much this administration--or the U.N., for that matter--will agree to be shaken down by a bunch of arrogant alien flyboys.”
Lennox snickered a bit at that, while the rest of the assembled humans and Autobots reacted with varying degrees of amusement and/or exasperation. Except for Prowl, of course, who maintained his usual imperturbable calm.
“All right--we can hammer out the nitty gritty details later,” Sam put in, with the resigned air of a man who foresaw a lot of paperwork--and meetings--in his future. “But at least we’ve got a basic handle on the situation, right?”
“In the most general sense, yes,” Mearing said grudgingly. “Both the general and I will have to take this to our superiors, of course, and I can’t make any guarantees on their response.”
“Of course,” Optimus replied. “I will ensure that Red Alert and Prowl are available for any additional information your government might need.” Within reason, of course, but Jazz knew Optimus was too canny a diplomat to say so.
“Yep, looks like things are gonna get fun again,” Jazz said cheerfully, leaning back and kicking his pedes up onto the edge of the tank, ignoring the dirty looks he was getting from Red and Prowl. “Decepticons and Seekers and politics, oh my!”
Jazz paused in mid-step, tilting his head. He’d been heading--reluctantly--towards a mandatory checkup at the medbay, but he didn’t have the sharpest audials on Earth for nothing, and he was sure he’d heard … something. Something out of place amongst all the familiar clanks and thumps and voices created by the embassy’s occupants, both Cybertronian and human. Frowning, he upped the gain on his audial arrays, listening intently. Vorns of war had taught him to pay attention to noises, *especially* the quiet, out of place ones.
But now, as hard as he listened, he heard nothing. No encrypted frequencies, no sounds of distress. Just the murmur of distant conversation, the thrum of distant machinery vibrating along his frame--wait. Jazz opened up his range, focusing down on the subsonic frequencies as he placed the tips of his fingers against one rough stone wall. There it was--faint, more felt than heard, rising and falling in a rhythmic pattern he didn’t recognize.
“Curiouser an’ curiouser …” Jazz murmured. Tuning out the background noise, he followed that barely-audible thread, letting it lead him down the winding, still mostly-unoccupied tunnels. It grew louder as he walked, the vibrations transmitted by the stone to the sensitive sensors on his manipulator-digits slowly becoming louder. A turn and a few more steps, and he could hear it clearly now … a rhythmic pattern, rising and falling in a distinct melody, quiet and low and utterly alien in a way that Earth music no longer was.
The source of the song was easier to track now that he knew what to listen for, and eventually his meandering progress ended in a cavern just off of the embassy’s main tunnel. This close to the entrance, the hollowed-out space was enormous, large enough to accommodate even the largest chunks of salvage from the Ark with room to spare. Which, Jazz realized, was probably why a certain oversized mech had chosen it. Tucked in between the gleaming silver bulk of Optimus’ trailer--the battle-platform in alt-mode--and a dusty, oversized excavator, was the Giant.
Oblivious to Jazz’s presence, the alien mech sang quietly to himself in a rumbling croon, his optics half-shuttered. Jazz, music-lover that he was, had listened to every scrap of song that Earth had to offer. Safely stored away within his memory-archives were human symphonies and Cybertronian concertos, folktunes and pop songs and everything in between; precious relics all, many the last known copies of works sung or performed by mecha now long-dead. In comparison, the Giant’s song was no masterpiece. It was painfully simple, even primitive, a single melody line sung in a metallic baritone. Repetitive, with no counterpoint, no harmonics, looping over and over again. And yet …
… and yet there was something else underneath it, something more. Jazz listened, fascinated, as the song echoed off the cavern walls, using them, building layers of the Giant’s voice into alien harmonies. Thrumming, the stone vibrated and sang in turn, a ghostly geologic chorus of echoes supporting the lone singer at its heart. It was beautiful. Not to mention completely unexpected, coming from such a quiet mech.
Jazz wasn’t sure what gave him away--perhaps a stray flare of enjoyment in his field, or the ping of metal upon metal from one of his internals--but the Giant broke off in mid-note, shuttered optics opening as he turned his head towards where Jazz stood, half-concealed by an outcropping of rock.
Somewhat sheepishly, Jazz stepped out of the shadows and lifted a hand in greeting. “Sorry ‘bout that. I didn’t mean to disturb ya.” It was difficult to read the laconic mech’s body language. Not only were the broad, simple planes of the Giant’s features unable to convey the tiny shifts of mood and emotion that Jazz was used to, but the shifting energies of his field weren’t much better … powerful, but blank of anything but the broadest brushstrokes of interest or emotion. Even as someone who prided himself on being able to read a mech, regardless of battlemasks or visors, Jazz still found the Giant’s natural poker face a unique challenge to interpret.
This time, however, Jazz was pretty sure what he was seeing was embarrassment. It was obvious the Giant had not expected an audience; the sidelong tilt of that head and the self-conscious shift of his pedes made that quite clear. Walking towards the big mech, Jazz made sure his field held only warmth and appreciation. “That was an amazin’ song. Never heard it before--is it from your world?”
Watching the Autobot approach, the Giant inclined his head. “Yes.” He thought for a moment. “Sing … baby-song.”
“Baby song?” Now close enough that he could talk to the larger mech without shouting across half the cavern, Jazz hooked thumbs into the seam between thorax and hip joints, looking upwards. “Somethin’ like a lullaby, then?”
The Giant tilted his head, obviously researching the human term. After a klik, he gave a somewhat uncertain nod. “... yes? Lull-aby. Baby-song.”
Jazz couldn’t help but feel a surge of pity; a sparkling-song, sung to calm and soothe a new-made mech. Somehow the memory of that song had remained, even when everything else familiar had been locked away. It was probably all the big mech had left to remind him of home.
“I understand,” he said gently. “I can leave if ya want, but … would ya mind if I listened?” A song like that deserved to be heard. To be remembered by more than just a single spark.
The Giant regarded Jazz for a moment. Then, after a glance over at the waiting bulk of the silver trailer and the empty cavern beyond, he nodded solemnly. “O-kay.”
Settling back, Jazz shuttered his optics as the song began again, the Giant’s voice thrumming through his frame. He would be late for his check-up, but it didn’t matter. For this, he’d risk the wrath of Ratchet and take his dents like a mech. Some things were more important, and though the others might not agree, something deep inside his spark told him that this was one of them.
“Hey, Lennox!” Sam called out, flagging the other man down. Lennox didn’t appear to be in too much of a hurry, which Sam hoped meant nothing was exploding or attacking or otherwise in a state of emergency. (Although, with both Wheeljack and Que in residence, Sam was rapidly learning that explosions were part of the natural order of things.)
“Sam? What’s up?” Changing direction, Lennox headed towards him, a laptop tucked under one arm and a M-4 slung over the opposite shoulder. Sam wasn’t quite sure what that particular combination meant, but after over two years working with NEST, had learned that it was often better not to ask.
“Have you seen Bumblebee? Hound’s bringing in Mr. Hughes’ family from the airport, and I kind of wanted him to be there to greet them, since he’s pretty much the friendliest face we have at the embassy right now.” Sam rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. “I’d ask one of the others to do one of their locator ping-things for me, but I don’t want to bug any of the guys on duty for something this low priority, and everyone else seems to have run off somewhere.”
Lennox shook his head. “Nope, haven’t seen him in at least a couple hours. Want me to put out an APB?”
“Nah, it’s not important. I can do the usual ‘meet and greet’ routine by myself, and I think Hound’s friendly enough for first impressions. I’m just a bit nervous, I guess. These are the first civilians--well, other than Mr. Hughes, anyway--here at the embassy, and I don’t want them to get scared off by any of our more, er--colorful ‘bots before they get a chance to get used to them.” Sam smiled wryly. “I’m probably just freaking out over nothing.”
“Well, considering these folks lived next door to our resident Giant, I don’t think you have to worry too much about them freaking out,” Lennox replied. “It never hurts to be prepared, though. If anything, you might want to think of this as a dry run. These might be the first civilians to visit the embassy, but I’m sure they won’t be the last. And *I’m* no damn good at making people comfortable, so that’s going to be aaalll you, Mr. Liaison, sir.”
“Gee, thanks. Glad to know you’ve got my back, Lennox.”
“Just telling it like it is, kid.” Lennox tilted his head in the distinctive ‘I’m listening to an earbud’ gesture. “And the gate guys just checked in; Hound’s back. Looks like you’re up.”
“Great.” Sam wiped his palms on the sides of his pants. He’d met tons of foreign dignitaries and generals. Hell, he worked with the alien ruler of an entire *planet* every single day. (Though Optimus had never stood on ceremony the way some of those lesser bureaucrats had, thank God.) He really should not be this nervous about meeting Hughes’ family. Still, maybe he could call Mikaela in for backup? She didn’t like having to play the ‘pretty secretary’, as she once put it--and boy, that had been one of their more epic fights--but she did have a knack for putting people at ease …
… but before he could work himself into a total freakout, Hound’s familiar green hood came into view. His Land Rover alt-mode was pretty mundane compared to some of the more flashy Autobots, but in this instance, Sam and Mr. Hughes had chosen substance--and extra passenger seating--over style. Even on the relatively short trip back from the Las Vegas airport, Hound had still managed to acquire a fine coating of road dust. Given that they were trying to keep this visit low-profile to avoid both media and Decepticon attention, however, Sam was definitely not going to complain about Hound’s less-than-sexy appearance. Even if the idea of sending a Lamborghini to pick up their guests--and why the hell the ever-practical, ever-paranoid Red Alert had ever chosen that particular alt, Sam would never know--had been really, really tempting.
The road up to the embassy proper from the perimeter gate was a fair distance, and Hound didn’t appear to be in any great hurry, so it was at least five more minutes before their resident tracker pulled up. Sam gave him a cheerful wave. “Hi, Hound! Glad you’re back. Any problems?”
“Nope. Not even any traffic,” Hound replied as Hughes stepped out from the driver’s side. “Smooth sailing the whole way, as Seaspray would say.”
“Great!” Sam hurried forward, opening the passenger side door. The woman who emerged smiled at him, dark eyes crinkling upward in a round, motherly face. “Thank you. You must be Sam?” In contrast to Hughes, she was dark-complected and comfortably round, with a long, straight fall of graying hair tied back in a ponytail and a face wreathed in laugh lines.
“The one and only,” Sam confirmed. “And you must be Mrs. Hughes. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.” He shook her hand. “I’m glad you could all make it,” he said honestly. “It’s not every day we meet a family that’s kept someone like the Giant a secret for fifty years!”
“Thank you, Sam. I must admit, while I never doubted Hogarth’s stories about the Giant, after all these years, I’d given up on the idea of actually ever being able to talk to him. Much less a whole mountain full of other robots as well!”
“Well, we haven’t filled the *entire* mountain just yet,” Hound rumbled, amused. “That might take a few vorn.”
“Well, close enough, anyway.” Her smile turned impish. The rest of the Hughes’ clan had managed to unload themselves from the rear seats, and now a younger version of Mrs. Hughes stepped forward. “Hi Sam, I’m Parvati. And this is my older brother Dean, his wife Sarah, and their new daughter, Annie.”
“Our very first grandbaby,” Hughes put in proudly as he walked over, slipping an arm around his wife’s waist.
“Congratulations!” Sam said. “I’m sure the Giant is going to love meeting all of you; he’s definitely turning out to be a people-person. Er, robot.”
“He’s not the only one, of course,” Hound said. He politely rolled back a few feet to give himself some extra clearance, then transformed, the forest-green armor of his Land Rover alt breaking apart, shifting and reconfiguring. Straightening up into all twenty feet of his normal height, he looked down at them with amused blue optics.
Sam couldn’t help but notice that Hughes’ son had tightened his grip on the their baby, his wife gasping and shrinking back a little at their first sight of Hound in his mechanoid form. Hound, bless him, continued on, pretending not to notice. “It’s not often the rest of us get visitors, at least of the non-military kind. I for one would love to learn more about human culture and societal structure. Babies, for example, are fascinating. So helpless, but they grow so fast on their own, with hardly any outside inputs at all--”
“--but before we let Hound drag you off for cultural exchanges,” Sam interjected, “We should probably let the Giant know you’re here, since he’s the one you came to see.” He grinned up at the xenobiologist. “Sorry, Hound, you’ll have to wait your turn. Which reminds me--do you have any idea where the big guy is?”
“Oh, of course,” Hound said easily. “He’s at the overlook with the others. About three hundred yards away,” he added for their visitors’ benefit. “Not far at all.”
“Great--no point in having them trek all over the desert looking for him.” Sam fished around in his jacket pockets. “Okay, I know I brought these … aha. Here we are.” Fishing out a bunch of card IDs, he untangled the the clips and began handing them out. “Here you go, just to make you all official.” Mr. Hughes, of course, already had one, as did all the humans that were regulars at the embassy. They were less for identification purposes--the Autobots’ sensory arrays being more than adequate to the task of discerning one human from the next from more than a half-mile away--and more as a last-ditch warning system.
No matter how careful the Autobots were, accidents happened. All it would take would be a single mech distracted at the wrong time, or a human in the wrong place under massive mechanoid feet. A several-ton mech versus a couple hundred-pound human equaled squish, no matter what planet you were on, and Sam really, really did not want to have to deal with the fallout on that any more than the Autobots wanted to deal with the guilt of inadvertently harming any of the fragile biological sapients around them. Hence the IDs, which Wheeljack had rigged to emit a high-frequency alert anytime an Autobot was within a certain distance. Encoded with its own unique priority-marker, the signal was impossible to block or ignore, slicing through every proximal mech’s normal processing queues.
It was, Bumblebee had admitted privately, a little bit annoying. But it was a small price to pay for their human friends’ safety.
Hughes and his family clipped on their new badges without demur (although the baby was exempted due to size and wriggliness), and Sam let Mr. Hughes lead them up the trail to the overlook. After several months of rambling around at the embassy, the older man knew both the mountain and its newest inhabitants quite well, and along with Sam, regaled them with the story of his arrival and the Giant’s welcome. His enthusiasm and Hound’s easygoing manner were infectious, helping to overcome his family’s nervousness. Which was a very good thing, as far as Sam was concerned. The Giant might be gentle, and to Hogarth, an old and trusted friend, but his sheer size tended to intimidate most new arrivals. Given how rambunctious some of the younger Autobots could be (or even some of the older ones--exhibit A: the Ironhide vs. Mojo Incident), the last thing Sam wanted was for Hughes’ family to freak out--
--and then they rounded the last curve, only to discover that apparently Wheelie and Brains--plus Bumblebee, Bluestreak, and Sideswipe--had already taken care of the problem.
By covering the Giant with graffiti.
Bright, colorful, *alien* graffiti.
In that moment, Sam made a profound discovery: that he apparently had the previously-unknown ability to screech *exactly* like his mother. “Wh--what the hell … Bumblebee! What do you guys think you’re DOING?”
The Giant looked over at them. Then, spotting Hughes, he smiled, half-shuttered optics tilting upwards. “Ho-garth,” he said. “We found colors.” He lifted a gaudily paint-streaked arm up for their inspection, wiggling multicolored fingers--neon green, yellow, blue and red--at them.
“I can see that,” Hughes said, grinning. Next to him, his wife had a hand over her mouth to hide her smile, her eyes dancing, while the rest of his family looked torn, as if they weren’t sure whether to be appalled or amused. “Was there a particular reason you were looking for, er, colors?”
Bumblebee and the others were also liberally smeared with paint, mostly around the arms and the hands, though Wheelie and Brains were by far the worst. Apparently their contribution to the endeavor had included dipping themselves in the buckets and making ‘paint-angels’ on the broad gray surfaces of the Giant’s armor. “Hey, it’s da Boss!” Wheelie shouted cheerfully from his seat atop one broad gray shoulder. “Sorry, Boss--we were gonna get ‘im scrubbed all clean an’ prettified again before ya got here, but I guess Hound’s faster ‘n he looks.”
“Bumblebee … “ Sam resisted the urge to put a hand over his face. For some reason, it never made the problem go away. “*Why* did you guys suddenly decide to decorate the Giant?”
“Oh, that’s my fault, Sam, sorry about that,” Bluestreak said before Bumblebee or anyone else could respond. “It was just that I was wondering why the Giant was gray, and if he’d always been gray or just chosen to be gray, like I have, because I like this color, you know? Plus it makes it easier to stay hidden, and it doesn’t show dirt as bad, not like Prowl’s white, not that Prowl ever seems have problems with keeping his armor clean and boy, for someone so shiny can he ever sneak up on you, but anyway it just seemed strange to me that the Giant didn’t have any other colors and I wanted to know if he was that way because he wanted to be or maybe because he’d forgotten how to change his armor like everyone else does. And if he did, then maybe we could help him remember how to do it and then he could pick some different colors besides gray for his plating, unless he doesn’t want to of course, but he didn’t really seem to understand what we were talking about. So first we showed him how it’s done, and then Sideswipe went and got the paint to give him some ideas, and then--”
“--I think I get the picture, thank you, Bluestreak,” Sam said dryly.
“Sorry, Sam,” Bumblebee added, approaching their little group. He crouched down, sheepishly rubbing the back of his helm. Behind him, Bluestreak tried to pretend he was invisible, while Sideswipe perfected his best ‘I regret nothing’ pose. “We knew Hound was bringing in Mr. Hughes’ family, but … well, the Giant seemed to be having fun, and we kept thinking we still had time before you all arrived ...”
“Please don’t worry about it, Bumblebee,” Hughes said, still smiling. “The Giant’s a big mech. If he’s having fun, who am I to stop him? You forget--I’ve got kids of my own. Believe me, I’ve seen worse!” He waved them forward. “Speaking of which … Giant, everyone--this is my family. This is my wife, Anjali; my daughter, Parvati, and my son, Dean. Plus his wife, Sarah, and their new baby, Annie. Everyone, this is the Giant. My very first and best friend.”
“And these other reprobates are Bumblebee, Bluestreak, Sideswipe, Wheelie and Brains,” Sam added, indicating each of them in turn.
The Giant tilted his head, looking down at the new arrivals. “Fam-i-ly.” There was a resonant quality to the word. The large mech leaned forward, reaching outward with a multicolored finger, and touched Hughes’ son on the shoulder with delicate care. “Dean. Dif-ferent.”
Hogarth nodded. “Yes.” He smiled at his son. “We named him after my stepdad,” he explained to Sam. “He knew the Giant too, and even helped me hide him. But he died a few years back, before the Giant woke up.” He looked up at the Giant, his voice softening. “He was the coolest guy I ever knew.”
Dean the younger shifted his baby daughter a little closer on his shoulder, looking up into those round, white optics, then chuckled. “Damn. I’d seen him in the barn, but--you’re right, Dad. He’s even bigger than I expected!” He reached out, and very carefully ‘shook’ the Giant’s fingertip. “I know I’m not the Dean you knew, but I’m glad I finally get to meet you, sir.” He looked around at the assembled Autobots, smiling helplessly. “Damn. This is just so *cool*.”
Sam grinned. “I know the feeling, believe me.”
Parvati moved forward, inspecting the outstretched hand, patting the heavily jointed palm, while Mrs. Hughes inspected the paint smears and glyph symbols with the air of someone who was contemplating how best to clean it up. “Wow, look at your *fingers*,” the younger woman marveled, poking at the digits in question. “And your wrist, too ... the joints all look so simple, but they’re really not, are they? Just really well covered by your armor. Can you move them for me, so I can see how they flex?” The Giant obligingly did so, and Parvati peered downward, expertly-bobbed dark hair swinging into her eyes as she twisted to look at them from all angles. “Full range of motion, and look at how the inner parts slide against each other. This is amazing! I’ve never had the chance to see them move before,” she confided to the watching Autobots.
“Parvati is working on her PhD,” Hughes remarked to Sam. “My girl’s an engineer through and through. Though why she picked robotics is a total mystery, of course.” He gave his daughter a wink, and she stuck her tongue out at him.
“Of course,” Sam agreed, still smiling.
“So you guys can change colors as well as shapes?” Parvati asked the watching Autobots.
“Oh yeah, pretty much all of us can,” Sideswipe replied easily. “Changing your shape to blend in somewhere doesn’t do a whole lotta good if you can’t change what your plating looks like.” He held out an arm for inspection, and Sam watched in fascination as vivid yellow rippled over the surface, replacing Sideswipe’s usual fire-engine red in seconds. “‘Course, some of us are better at it than others. Bumblebee? Kicks aft at it,” he added, tilting his helm at the mech in question. Suddenly finding himself the focus of all eyes, Bumblebee struck a pose, and his bright yellow armor shimmered into a mottled pattern of tan and gray--a perfect copy of NEST’s digital desert camo.
“Whoa. I’ve never seen you do *that* before, ‘Bee,” Sam said, impressed.
“The Bee-meister is a mech of many talents,” Sideswipe said, grinning. “He can blend in anywhere. ’Course, that’s what he’s designed for. Why do you think Optimus sent him in to do forward recon, once we got word the Allspark was on Earth? Now Optimus? Optimus is really bad at it. He can change his colors a bit, but nothing like Bee can.”
“Really? How come?” Mr. Hughes asked.
Bumblebee shrugged. “Primes are made to be noticed,” he said simply. “That’s their function.”
“Hunh. That … explains a lot,” Sam said thoughtfully. He’d always wondered why Optimus had chosen such an eye-catching custom chrome-and-flame job for his alt. Apparently Primes were incapable of being subtle. Who knew?
“So you guys really are perfect chameleons,” Parvati said admiringly. “How does your plating change? Is it a electrical charge, or a chemical reaction, or something else?”
“It’s a bit of both,” Bumblebee said, the roughened edges of his voice audible as he did his best to explain. “The nanites that make up the topcoat over our armor are specialized to resist corrosion and abrasion, and also to provide smooth sliding surfaces along transformation seams and joints. A bit like-” he paused, obviously searching for an Earth parallel, “-like your Teflon, only much more advanced. These particular nanites are also heavily loaded with chromophores, which allow us to designate and change our colors according to personal preference and function. So Sideswipe is red pretty much only because he likes being red; he could be almost any other color he wanted. In fact, for a while he was silver, until his brother got here and took exception to it.”
“--said I was trying to one-up him, the fragger,” Sideswipe muttered.
“Optimus is the same, more or less,” Bumblebee continued. “Except his coding is geared towards being visible. So even though it’s technically possible, it just doesn’t ever occur to him to change his plating into something less eye-catching.”
“While Bumblebee here is an infiltrator,” Sideswipe added. “It’s his function to blend in anywhere, anytime, even behind enemy lines. The Bee-bot might not be as badaft as me n’ my brother, but even I gotta admit that if he doesn’t want you to, you’ll never ever see him coming.”
“What about the Giant?” Mr. Hughes asked. “Did you guys manage to show him how to do it?”
Bumblebee shook his helm. “I’m afraid not. According to Ratchet and Wheeljack, he does have chromophores, but not many, at least compared to Cybertronians. So far we haven’t had any luck at all triggering them. I’m sure they do something, but whatever it is, changing the color of his plating doesn’t seem to be it.”
“No colors,” the Giant agreed. He didn’t seem to be particularly bothered by the lack, however.
“It kinda makes sense, when ya think about it,” Wheelie put in, swinging his tire-feet back and forth, occasionally bouncing them against the edge of one shoulder-seam. “Da big guy here doesn’t seem ta have an alt, neither. Somethin’ his size? Hiding’s not gonna work real well. Maybe his species didn’t even bother.”
“Makes sense, I suppose,” Mr. Hughes said thoughtfully. “Still, that’s kinda too bad. I was looking forward to seeing him in red and blue.” He grinned up at his friend, eyes twinkling.
“Su-perman,” the Giant said happily. He picked up a half-empty five gallon bucket of red paint between thumb and forefinger, offering it to them. “You paint?”
“Ohhh, no.” Sam decided he’d better put a stop to this before it really got out of hand. “I think we’ve all had enough paint for one day, big guy. Time to clean up, guys. Unless you all want to explain to Ratchet why you’ve got bits of latex embedded in the seams of your armor?”
“Whoa, no need to bring out the big guns,” Sideswipe protested, lifting hands placatingly “Don’t worry, it’ll all scrub off.”
“I hope you’re right, because the Giant’s gonna take a lot of scrubbing,” Sam replied, amused. “And I don’t think Mr. Hughes is going to be the one doing it. I’m sorry about this,” he added, turning to Hughes’ family. “I know this wasn’t what you expected …”
“Are you kidding? This is great; it’s not every day I get to see a car wash where the cars are the ones doing the washing,” Dean said, grinning. “I can’t wait to see what happens next!”
“Hi, Ratchet,” Mikaela said, giving the medic a casual wave as she headed for the human-sized cubby-slash-kitchenette to make her all-important morning coffee. Working without caffeine was an ugly, ugly thing, and the Autobots had learned quickly to accommodate their human friends’ cravings for the substance. (Wheeljack, always a fast learner, had also learned to keep a stash of chocolate on hand for bribery and stress-relief purposes. Which just proved yet again that Wheeljack was a genius at more than just making things blow up, no matter what anyone else said.)
“Mikaela,” Ratchet returned with a nod, heading into the cavern that housed the main part of the repair bay. Then after a minute, he came back out, faceplates folded into a puzzled frown. “Mikaela--was Wheeljack in here earlier? Or did you see anyone taking any equipment out of the bay recently?”
Mikaela blinked, trying to cudgel her two active pre-coffee brain cells into functioning. “Umm--I don’t think so to the first, and no to the second. Why? Is something missing?”
“You could say that,” he said grimly. “Take a look.”
“Okay …” she wandered to the wide expanse of the cavern mouth, peering inside. Enormous, Autobot-sized tables, several repair cradles, all the usual bits of machinery and tools … wait. “Woah. Did you clean up in here, Ratchet?” Usually the repair bay was full of the rather macabre results of Ratchet and Wheeljack’s salvage efforts. For as long as she could remember, the bay had been strewn with disconnected limbs, chassis, and helms, plus mostly-unidentifiable (although she was working on that) internal components, laid out over every bit of available flat surface as the Autobots scavenged what they could from the dead in order to repair the living.
This morning, however, revealed a med bay with tables almost entirely devoid of parts. There were still a few miscellaneous bits and pieces left behind, but …. Mikaela looked up at Ratchet, a knot of apprehension slowly coiling in her gut. “If you didn’t clean up … then who did?” Between Red Alert’s professional paranoia and NEST’s security, it seemed impossible that anyone would have been able to penetrate the embassy’s perimeter. Much less doing so and managing to steal multiple Cybertronian-sized spare parts, all without being detected. “Maybe Que did it?”
“Perhaps,” Ratchet said grimly. “And if he did, I’m going to make him regret he was ever framed.” He tilted his helm in a way Mikaela knew meant he was comming the others.
“Negative, Ratchet,” Teletraan said aloud to Ratchet’s query, making Mikaela jump. “Neither Que nor Wheeljack has accessed the repair bay in the last twelve point six joors. However, the Giant has accessed the bay twice in that same time frame. Further analysis of camera footage confirms that he has left the main embassy with a great deal of metal that matches the missing parts.”
“What?? Why didn’t you stop him?” Ratchet snapped.
“The Giant’s access is currently unrestricted,” Teletraan replied, unperturbed by Ratchet’s ire. “He is also frequently observed carrying large amounts of metal for consumption purposes. His behavior was well within the bounds of normal allowances.”
“Oh crap,” Mikaela said, looking up at Ratchet in horror. “You mean--the Giant might have been looking for a snack?”
Ratchet’s expression was equally appalled. “He can’t--you didn’t--slag it, Teletraan, I NEED those!” He lunged back down the hallway, transforming as he went. “I need the Giant’s current position NOW, Red! If I lose those parts …”
Mikaela watched Ratchet speed out of sight, sirens blaring, tires screeching against stone as he tore towards the main entrance. “Huh.” She ran a hand through her hair, wondering if she should let the others know. Of course, chances were Ratchet had just broadcast his predicament to the entire base, Sam and NEST included. No--better to let the Autobots sort this out. She’d just be in the way--and more importantly, still lacking her coffee.
Ratchet headed towards the entrance of the embassy, sirens wailing as both humans and mecha scrambled out of the way. //How could you lose a mech the size of the Giant, Red? If he eats those parts …!// he commed furiously, thinking of Beachcomber, Smokescreen, and all the others, so close to being pulled out of their long, cold stasis … of Ironhide’s spark, exposed and bare and waiting patiently for a new frame. If he lost those vital components to the Giant’s appetite …! He screeched out into the open, throwing himself down the road.
//I’ve got him, Ratchet,// Sideswipe replied, his comm echoed by location-affirmatives from Red Alert, Prowl, and Bumblebee as they provided more exact coordinates for Ratchet’s quarry. //Looks like he didn’t go very far--he’s up on the plateau above the embassy.//
//Sideswipe--how much has he already eaten? You have to save what you can--//
//That’s just it, Ratch. He’s--you’d better get up here, because I’m not sure WHAT he’s doing,// came Sideswipe’s reply, suffused with chaotic indicators of puzzlement.
//I’ve commed Sam, Ratchet,// Bumblebee interjected. //He’s getting Mr. Hughes--we’re right behind you.//
Ratchet turned sharply, taking the winding road up to the plateau on the far side of the mountain at speeds more suited to Bumblebee’s alt than his own, dust flying. It took barely a breem for him to surmount the last rise. Sideswipe’s familiar red frame came into view, and Ratchet transformed without slowing down, lunging towards the Giant--
--only to be yanked to a halt as Sideswipe wrapped a hand around his arm, pulling him backwards.
“What do you think you’re DOING?” Ratchet hissed, shaking off the frontliner’s grip. “Let go, Sideswipe! I have to--”
“Ratchet, Ratch--just stop for a minute, willya?” Sideswipe pointed at the massive grey bulk of the Giant some sixty yards distant. “He’s not eating your precious parts. In fact, near as I can tell, he’s just … playing with them? Or something.”
Ratchet stopped. “What??”
Sideswipe gave him a helpless look, lifting his hands in an open-ended shrug. “Take a look.”
Ratchet gave him a fulminating glare, then turned to where the Giant was--kneeling? That broad gray back was turned to them, blocking their view, but the mech seemed to be bent over, staring intently at something on the ground. He walked forward, circling around to get a better look.
Sideswipe was right. A quick scan showed all the stolen parts, without so much as a bolt missing. They had been laid out on a broad expanse of flat ground, each a careful distance from the next. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to where the Giant had placed them, however. They made no pattern that Ratchet could recognize, either symbolic or otherwise, and the Giant didn’t seem to be intent upon doing anything with them once they were on the ground. He just stayed where he was, watching his stolen treasures. After a few moments, he reached out with a careful finger, nudging a disembodied lower-leg unit as if he expected it to do something.
“What the frag?” Ratchet looked back at Sideswipe, then up at the Giant. Regardless of whatever game the Giant was playing, he needed those parts back. The thought of the sheer amount of organic grit and debris that had already infiltrated delicate receptors and unshielded connections was bad enough; some of those parts were irreplaceable! He stepped forward, reaching downward to collect the nearest bit of armor--
--only to be forced backwards, stumbling as a blunt-fingered hand as large as his entire chassis swooped down to block his path. He scowled up at the Giant, refusing to be intimidated. “Look, I don’t know what you’re playing at, but I *need* those. Move out of the way!”
The Giant shook his head, his jaw and optics set in an oddly stubborn expression. “No.” When Ratchet tried to walk around the blocking hand, he placed his other in the way, curling over the stolen parts protectively. “No,” he said again. “Help fix.”
“If you want to ‘help fix’,” Ratchet said with strained patience, “Then you need to take these parts back to the slagging medbay. Letting them sit out here in the dirt isn’t going to fix anything!”
“Fragging--” He switched to comms in exasperation. //Bumblebee! I need Hughes up here to talk some sense into the Giant. NOW, please.//
//We’re coming, Ratchet,// Sam replied. Obviously patched in by Teletraan, his message was typically human, conveying only a single line of simple auditory information, devoid of the modifiers that Cybertronians habitually used. Ratchet scowled, impatiently pinging Bumblebee for an ETA as he continued his standoff with the Giant.
Bumblebee arrived in a cloud of dust less than a klik later, and Sam hopped out of the driver’s side door almost before the yellow Camaro had skidded to a stop. Hughes followed more sedately, climbing out the passenger side. Ratchet transferred his scowl to the elderly human.
“Finally. Tell me you can talk some sense into him, Hughes. Otherwise I’m going to call Optimus and let *him* sort this out.”
Hughes gave the medic a quick glance, but his attention almost immediately returned to the Giant’s kneeling form. “Don’t worry,” he said easily, unfazed by Ratchet’s bad temper. “I’ve got this.”
He walked up to the Giant, reaching out to pat one of the big mech’s protectively curved hands. “Hey, big guy--what’s going on?”
The Giant tilted his head downwards. “Ho-garth.” He lifted his hand a little, and nudged one of the stolen parts--a helm, thankfully devoid of faceplates, Ratchet noticed--with the tip of one finger. “Many bro-ken. I help fix.”
“You fix …?” Hughes looked over the field of spare parts, so carefully laid out, and something in his face changed. “Oh.” He laid his own hand next to the Giant’s finger on the dusty curve of the helm. “ Giant--I’m sorry, but that won’t work. All of these pieces--they can’t go back to where they belong. Not anymore. The people these belonged to--they’re dead.”
//Go back to where they belong? What the frag does that mean, Ratchet?// Sideswipe sent. Ratchet ignored him, vaguely acknowledging the query with occupied/processing/silence, as he watched the scene play out before him.
“Dead?” That enormous helm lifted, the Giant looking at the rest of the parts, lying dusty and unmoving on the ground, confusion filtering into that wide-lapping field.
“Yes. A long time ago,” Hughes replied. The irony in his answer didn’t escape Ratchet. Given the Giant’s immense age, the Autobots who had died on the Ark had done so relatively recently--just not by human standards. “They can’t fix themselves anymore, Giant. So Ratchet needs to use them to help other Autobots that are still alive. That’s why he needs them back.”
It was a simple explanation, and one that should have been easy to understand. Instead, it seemed to confuse the Giant even more. He picked up a nearby arm-assembly, cupping it in one hand protectively, as if it were an injured petrorabbit. “Ratch-et take … no! Parts belong to-gether.” Ratchet could feel the press of the Giant’s upset, his dismay spiking through his field. Behind him, Bumblebee’s engine revved a little, evidence of his unease. If the Giant’s distress ended up activating defensive subroutines … this could get very messy, very fast.
Hughes, however, didn’t seem to be afraid. He moved closer, around the helm until he stood in front of the Giant, looking upwards at that broad, simple face. “Giant … Giant, you have to listen to me. These parts--they’re not like yours, they don’t fix themselves. I know you’ve seen Ratchet work. This is part of what he does, replacing broken pieces, repairing mecha when they can’t get better on their own. These parts … they don’t mind. I’m sure their owners would be glad they were being used to help other people.” He gave his friend a sad, understanding smile. “Autobots and humans are both a bit more breakable than you are, buddy. Sometimes we need help getting better … and sometimes we just can’t be fixed. I know it seems strange, but that’s just how life is for us.”
The Giant stilled, looking down at his human friend. “Ho-garth … uses parts too?”
Hughes blinked. “Well--not yet, no. I’ve been pretty lucky that way.” He knelt down, and with a grunt of effort, hefted up a processor interlink module in his two hands, turning it over contemplatively. “But I might need fixing too, someday.” He glanced over to where Ratchet still waited, and there was something oddly knowing in the human’s expression. “If that ever happens--believe me, Giant, I’d feel damn lucky to get a human doctor that was even half as dedicated to making people better as Ratchet is.”
The mech in question resisted the urge to shuffle his feet, a bit embarrassed by the human’s open admiration. It wasn’t as if he was a human medic, after all … repairing organics was far outside his experience, and the idea that Hughes would trust him to try was … well.
Hogarth continued, without waiting for either Ratchet or the Giant to reply. “You trust me, right?”
The Giant nodded, obviously still upset, but listening.
“Ratchet--he’s helped us both so much; he woke you up when no one else could. It’s all right, Giant. You can trust him with this, too.” Hughes looked over to where Ratchet was waiting and waved him over. “Why don’t we help him get all this back inside? Maybe you can even watch for a bit. I’m sure Wheeljack would be happy to explain things too, even better than I can.”
The Giant hesitated, looking down at the part he still held. Then, looking at Ratchet, he slowly extended his hand, uncurling his fingers to offer it to the medic. “O-kay,” he said reluctantly, still uncertain, but obviously willing to trust Hughes’ word. “We fix. To-gether?”
Ratchet bit back the urge to snap at the Giant, even as he took the part. As much as he didn’t want an oversized, metal-eating, parts-stealing mech cluttering up his medbay … there was something in the way the Giant had protected what he’d stolen, as if they were abandoned mechlings.
“All right,” he said, with an exasperated vent. “You can help fix.” He looked over the scattered bits of metal. “But no more stealing parts. Or eating them! Got it?” The Giant nodded. “Good.”
Primus. At this rate, his repair bay was going to turn into a daycare.
Grumbling, Ratchet turned to glare at Sideswipe and Bumblebee. “Well? Those parts aren’t going to walk themselves back to the repair bay, you know. Get to it!”
The Axalon, as it turned out, was not a small ship. It was no dreadnaught, one of the immense, sky-darkening battle-hulls that Cybertron had once sent to war, but it was no mere shuttle, either. In human terms, Jazz supposed, it would be called a ‘cruiser’, even though the comparison was tenuous at best. In reality Axalon’s size was just shy of the former Ark’s armored bulk and far outmassed any naval cruiser that had ever floated upon Earth’s oceans.
Which meant that entering Earth’s atmosphere unnoticed, especially now that the humans were aware of their presence and actively watching for Decepticon arrivals, would be next to impossible. There had been a brief discussion on the possibility of leaving the Axalon in orbit, or aiming for a moon landing next to the remnants of the Ark in order to allow the crew to land on Earth in cometary mode. However, with at least two confirmed trines in residence on Earth and the potential for more to arrive at any time, leaving a minimally-crewed cruiser in orbit was just too much of a risk. While Axalon’s defenses could handle the occasional bored Seeker, holding off a coordinated assault was another matter entirely.
So, in the grand Earth tradition of turning lemons into lemonade, Optimus instead had chosen to turn the Axalon’s arrival into a media event. All of Earth’s media networks, from CNN to Xinhua to the National Inquirer, had been informed of the ship’s arrival. While the threat of Decepticon attack still made it too dangerous for most heads of state to attend, there still were more than enough ambassadors, celebrities and high-ranking military officials in attendance to make up for it. The news media had descended into a veritable feeding frenzy at the prospect, and was currently being kept at bay (barely) by fencelines and a one-mile perimeter enforced by both NEST and Nellis MPs. Meanwhile, local law enforcement had been tasked with wrangling the local protesters, wannabe alien-abductees, and hundreds of other spectators, all of them eager for their first glimpse of an alien ship in person. There was also a fair amount of rubbernecking at the tall, gray figure of the Giant, who had decided he wanted to be there to meet the new arrivals as well. Given that this was his first public appearance, the Giant appeared to be handling the attention with his customary aplomb, waving cheerfully at fans and protesters alike.
What the humans would make of the Axalon, Jazz wasn’t sure. This would be the first time a Cybertronian ship had landed peacefully on Earth, after all. But ultimately, despite the security concerns, he agreed with Optimus. There was no stuffing this particular cat back into the bag; better to make their fellow Autobots’ arrival an event, something celebratory and wonderful. Perhaps the sight of the Axalon would rekindle the humans’ own dreams of space exploration. At the very least, if all went well, it would give them an excuse to party, which in Jazz’s estimation was never a bad thing.
The Autobots, of course, had taken their own precautions. While most of the Earth-based Autobots had turned out to welcome the Axalon, Red Alert and Prowl had stayed behind, with the embassy’s defenses on full alert. Both Sky Spy and Norad were closely tracking the Axalon’s entry into Earth’s atmosphere, and the Xantium was standing by, engines hot, in case the Axalon needed support. In the meantime, Springer and his crew were keeping their weapons at the ready, watching for a Seeker ambush.
So far, though, there had been no signs of Decepticon activity at all. Either Starscream hadn’t felt sufficiently motivated to harass the Autobot ship on re-entry, or the sneaky fragger had something else in mind. Either way, Jazz resolved to worry about it later as the Axalon came into view, a tiny black silhouette against the blue dome of the sky.
Cybertronian spaceflight, for the most part, didn’t require the long runways for takeoff and landing that the recently-decommissioned human space shuttles had, but mindful of Optimus’ wishes, Springer was making a long, slow approach anyway, letting the humans get a good look. She was a pretty ship, Jazz had to admit. Her silvery hull might be a bit battered around the edges, pocked by weapons-fire and no longer pristine, but she had been well-designed, and her lines were still clean. Engines glowing white-hot from atmospheric maneuvering, the ship made another wide, graceful sweep about the open patch of desert left clear for landing--Blaster’s doing, Jazz would be willing to bet, the mech never passed up an opportunity to showboat--then dumped the last little bit of momentum and touched down, landing struts unfolding to sink into the hard-packed earth. One of the many advantages of an AI-enhanced vessel was that they took relatively little time to prep for either takeoffs or landings, and the Axalon was no exception, taking only minutes to complete postflight protocols. Then the main hatch spiralled open, and as Optimus and the rest moved forward to greet the new arrivals, a red-and-gold armored form appeared, took in the new planet, and jumped down without waiting for the ramp to extend.
“Bah weep gra na weep ninny bong,” Hot Rod announced, faceplates spread in a cheerful smile. “We come in peace, dirtlings!”
Optimus paused, and Jazz spared a moment to be thankful that the human dignitaries were still safely out of earshot. Except for Sam, who facepalmed, and Epps, who was far too inured to Cybertronian insults, thanks to the Wreckers, to do anything other than roll his eyes. Another vivid mech appeared, this time in orange and yellow and minus the brightly painted flames. Making a more sedate entrance, Blaster walked down the newly extended ramp and smacked Hot Rod upside the helm. “It’s ‘earthlings’, ya glitch. Do we have to have another Earth cultural indoctrination seminar? Huh?”
Hot Rod shook his helm, lifting hands placatingly. “No, no--Earth. Earthlings! Got it!”
Optimus chuckled. “It is good to see you, Hot Rod, Blaster. I’m glad you made it safely.” He stepped forward, extending his hand in a human-style handshake to Blaster, who took it easily. The gesture also allowed their fields to overlap, reflecting the resonances of Optimus’ wry humor and gratitude for their arrival as well as Blaster’s own bright flare of interest and exasperation in an entirely different greeting, one imperceptible to human observers.
The rest of the Axalon’s crew soon followed, disembarking in no particular order; despite the presence of both Springer and Kup, it was clear this was not primarily a warframe-crewed vessel. Perceptor, for one, wasn’t far behind Springer, his primary, secondary and tertiary optics all visibly readjusting to the wider spectrum of light offered by Earth’s sun. It had been almost a centivorn since Jazz had last encountered the researcher, and he couldn’t help but note the obvious changes that the war had made. The sleek lines of the Perceptor’s frame were now bulked out by heavier armor, his assay mods visibly supplemented by additional weaponry. But his plating was still the same old red and blue, that field just as curious and open as ever, and Jazz couldn’t help but grin as Perceptor beelined straight to where Wheeljack and Ratchet waited, pulling them into a three-way embrace.
//Scientists--they certainly don’t waste any time,// Jazz sent to Blaster, amused. Even from this distance, he could feel the familiar narrow-banded hum of a multilayered, compressed data transfer as the three mecha shared memories, data and observations, renewing their megavorn-old acquaintance in astroseconds. //I’m kinda surprised they didn’t just open up and interface on the spot.// Explorer-sparked mecha, coded at a spark-deep level to push boundaries and make new discoveries, were more than a little notorious for their willingness to interface. It didn’t matter if it was a new particle, a new star system or a new acquaintance--you just couldn’t keep them from exploring the unknown. And if the unknown was a ‘who’ rather than a ‘what’ …. well, making new friends--or in some more-Decepticonly cases, enemies--was all part of the fun, now wasn’t it?
//They probably would’ve, but I made sure to have a little talk with the guys ‘bout the humans’ reproductive hangups,// Blaster said wryly. Not that interfacing had anything to do with reproduction for Cybertronians, but exposure to Earth’s internet had taught Jazz that humans associated a lot of things with sex, most of which made no sense whatsoever. //Glad to see my ‘Earth 101 seminar’ wasn’t a total waste of time, Roddy aside.// With a last tightly-layered, intertwined burst of affectionate glyphs to Optimus, Blaster headed over to where Jazz waited, leaving Optimus to deal with a newly-disembarked Springer, Grapple and the rest. He stuck out his hand again, grinning. Jazz clasped it, then pulled the much-taller mech down into a human-style bear hug, affectionately back-slapping Blaster with the resounding clang of metal on metal.
“It’s good ta see ya, my mech,” he said, letting his field reflect just how much Blaster had been missed. “How’s the mob?”
A bit startled at the alien greeting, Blaster was too adaptable to let him throw it for long--after a nanoklik, he returned the hug with interest, making Jazz’s armor creak with his enthusiasm. “Tucked up right n’ tight, of course, but eager to get out n’ cause trouble.” Which wouldn’t happen, Jazz knew, until they were someplace less exposed to both human cameras and Decepticon attack. Blaster released him and stepped back, looking his friend over. “And I see you’re no longer half the mech ya used ta be--do I spy Ratchet’s fine work on those welds?” He poked an exploratory finger at the smaller mech’s repaired thorax, which Jazz batted away.
“Yep, he patched me up good,” Jazz confirmed. “Took ‘im a while--we’ve all been running on the raggedy end of the supply chain since we landed--an’ it’s gonna take a few vorn before autorepair stops sendin’ me pain-residuals, but all things considered, I’m a lucky bot.”
“I’d say.” Blaster rapped Jazz none-too-gently over the helm with folded knuckles. “What were you thinking, tackling *Megatron* of all mecha like that?”
Jazz took the hit, ducking his head ruefully. He and Blaster both might have started out as civilian frametypes, but hundreds of vorn of war had turned them all into soldiers, whether they liked it or not. That still didn’t mean you went up against the likes of the former Lord High Protector of Cybertron--especially without Primely backup or a helluva lot more firepower than Jazz had ever possessed--expecting to come out still in possession of all of your limbs. Or your spark, for that matter.
“I was thinkin’ that we were fightin’ for the Allspark, Blaster,” he said, suddenly serious. “An’ I was thinkin’ that we had a very small, very squishable human tryin’ to get that Allspark away from Megatron, and that anythin’ I could do to keep Megatron distracted from said human? Was worth it.” He shrugged. “Though I’ll admit gettin’ up close and personal with the Slagmaker was prob’ly not the best idea I’d ever had.”
“Yeah. I’m thinkin’ that’s a--what do the humans call it? That one’s a contender for a Darwin award.” Blaster poked at his thorax again, then clasped Jazz’s shoulder and shook it a little. “Good thing Ratch is so good at savin’ us from ourselves.”
“Ya said it.” That Ironhide’s spark still lived was proof enough of that. “C’mon, let me introduce you to Sam and the others. You guys are gonna have a lot to talk about.” Jazz gestured at the two humans standing fearlessly in the midst of a growing huddle of Cybertronians as Optimus performed introductions. Many--especially Hoist, Grapple and other, more practical-minded mecha--merely made their greetings and then headed away to reunite with old friends. Others, however, were obviously more fascinated. Hot Rod, especially. Ignoring a bristling Bumblebee, he had crouched down to poke an exploratory finger at the two humans.
“So tiny!” he exclaimed. “How can your species even *think* with such tiny little processors?”
“I’m gonna tie Hot Rod’s vocalizer in a fraggin’ knot, I swear,” he muttered. Jazz chuckled.
“Don’t worry, Optimus is too smart to let him near the human dignitaries. An’ I can guarantee Sam and Epps have heard a lot worse from Roadbuster and his crew.” Now that Springer was on Earth, maybe he’d be a restraining influence on his Wreckers. Though somehow Jazz doubted it.
“True enough. And--oh look. Perceptor’s headin’ straight for your big friend.” Sure enough, the researcher was making his way towards the Giant, with Wheeljack, Ratchet, and Seaspray in tow. Blaster grinned, his visor glinting in the sun as he turned his helm to watch the little band of scientists. “How did I know that was gonna happen?”
“Because your mob does exactly the same thing whenever they see something shiny?” Jazz replied dryly, but obligingly redirected them toward the Giant as well. “‘Sides, you can’t tell me you’re not curious about the big guy. He’s been something of a nine-day wonder ‘round these parts.”
“Well, duh. But I wasn’t going to interrogate the poor mech,” Blaster said.
“Not when you could have Perceptor do it for ya?”
It didn’t take them long to get within audial range of the group clustered around the Giant’s massive pedes. Seaspray was deep in conversation with Mr. Hughes, while Perceptor appeared to be doing his best not to explode in sheer scientific glee as he inspected the Giant from every angle, sensory arrays and all three pairs of optics spiralled wide to capture every possible scrap of observational data.
“This is a truly extraordinary find, Wheeljack, and a most serendipitous one, indeed! To find a such an ancient specimen of a mechanoid species, on a planet so dominated by organic life--I do not believe I have ever heard of such an occurrence before.”
“He’s pretty cool, yup,” Wheeljack agreed, rocking back on his pedes to tilt his head up at the Giant, vocal indicators flashing a cheerful violet. The Giant obligingly crouched, lowering his massive chassis downward to inspect the new arrivals more closely.
“His core temperature doesn’t seem to be significantly below the ambient--oh, I see what you mean. Yes indeed, he is extraordinarily ‘cool’,” Perceptor said, looking up into white optics. “So expressive, as well--I’ve never seen a chromatic range like this before. And with such a delicate touch in field-manipulation! Is it instinctive or deliberate, I wonder?” He tilted his helm, and Jazz could feel the subtle meshing of fields as the researcher extended his own, scanning at the same time. “Such nuanced high-frequency bursts--you *are* doing that deliberately, correct?”
The Giant nodded. “Find colors,” he rumbled happily.
“Which presupposes you lost them at one point, I would assume? How fascinating! This is something worthy of careful study indeed. Perhaps in time we can even learn to decipher your dialect, so that we might converse properly.”
Jazz glanced over at Ratchet and Wheeljack; but they seemed as clueless as he was, glancing between each other and an oblivious Perceptor in confusion. He looked over his shoulder at Blaster, who lifted his hands in an open-ended shrug.
“Your guess is as good as mine, dude. I’ve got no idea what Perce is goin’ on about.”
Jazz sighed. Why was it always up to him to ask the obvious questions? “Perce, what the Pit are ya talkin’ about? What colors?” He double-checked, just in case the Giant had suddenly decided to change the color of his plating … nope. Still gray as gray could be.
“Why, his colors, of course,” Perceptor replied, waving a hand to indicate the Giant. When the others did nothing but give him uncomprehending blank stares, he added impatiently, “Surely you have noticed his field? Unless … yes, perhaps standard ranges are the problem?” Perceptor tilted his helm, analyzing the discrepancies. “If all of you refine your optical range to between 200 to 300 picohertz, increase sensitivity 6000% from standard, and optimize for plasma oscillations and molecular rotation, it should become obvious."
“His what?” That was from Hughes, who had joined the ranks of the confused, if the human’s face was any indication.
“Well, yeah, he’s got a field,” Jazz said carefully, not sure where the scientist was going with this. “But it’s not like he does much with it--” He glanced over, automatically shifting his optical parameters as Perceptor had directed--and stopped short. “Whoa! When did he start doin’ all that?” And how the Pit had he missed it?
“I take it he hasn’t always been so colorful?” Blaster said wryly, obviously doing his own scans.
“Nope. When we first met him, he was pretty blank. He started adding a few variances in once he’d been at the embassy a while, but I’d assumed he was just pickin’ up a few tricks from us.” The Giant’s field now, though, was a far cry from that eerie, empty blankness; what had once been static, washed out colors that had only hinted at emotion was now full of life, ebbing and flaring in intricate patterns and bands. Jazz tilted his head, trying to decode what he was seeing. There were a few shifts in hue that were obviously analogous to Cybertronian cues--an obvious swath of good humor, tinged with patient amusement, if he was any judge--but there was a whole lot of other jumbled combinations in there that defied interpretation.
“Okay, Perce, I think I’m seein’ what you’re seein’, though it looks pretty confused to me.” Jazz looked up, meeting white optics. “I think we need to teach ya how to unscramble your field, big guy,” he told the bigger mech easily.
“Unscramb--Jazz. Do not let presumptions obscure your observations. Can you not see the patterns?” Perceptor reached upwards, as if he could comb his fingers through the broad flares of that field. “This--all of this--is deliberate, is it not, my friend?”
The Giant nodded.
Perceptor turned back to the other assembled Cybertronians, beaming. “He isn’t confused. He is *communicating*!”
“Eh?” Ratchet glanced at the Giant, then at Perceptor.
“Uh--guys? Mind telling me what’s going on?” Hughes said, frowning a little. “I’m not seeing any of these colors that you’re talking about.” He moved a little closer to the Giant, placing a weathered hand on the big mech’s pede protectively.
“Not seeing--oh yes! I do sympathize; organic optics can be rather limited in their range, can they not?” Perceptor said, undeterred by the skeptics--human and Cybertronian--around him. “Perhaps if we compress the data down into human-visible wavelengths, and increase the intensity? Hound should be able to replicate it easily, I would think …”
A quick ping, and Hound ambled over, giving Blaster and the other new arrivals a welcoming wave. “What’s up, Perceptor?”
“Hound, may we impose upon you to project a modified visual representation of the Giant’s field? We’ll have to compress the range down into a spectrum visible to organic optics, of course, so we will have to make do with an approximation rather than a direct translation. Given the magnitude of this discovery, however, I believe Mr. Hughes will forgive our scientific inaccuracy.”
“Sure,” Hound replied easily. “That’d be no problem at all.” He looked the Giant over, doing a few scans of his own even as Perceptor sent him the data the researcher had already collected. Perceptor was equipped for detailed observations on a scale that none of the other assembled mecha could even dream of, and the better the data Hound had to work with, the better the resulting holoprojection. “Hmm … very nice sets, Perce, thanks. All right, here we go …” Hound turned to the Giant, activating his holoemitter in order to recreate what Perceptor had seen. The air around the Giant’s gray frame shimmered, wavering--
--then bloomed into a brilliant corona of color and light.
Hughes sucked in his breath in surprise, startled by the intensity of the lightshow. Even Jazz had to admit he was impressed; Perceptor’s scans had obviously picked up an immense amount of detail that Jazz’s own more mundane sensory arrays had missed. It was those details that Hound now faithfully reproduced, the softlight projection ebbing and flowing in a vivid aurora around the Giant’s frame. Every Cybertronian was used to registering fields, of course; the broad swathes of resonances and hue that conveyed emotion and subtext, the mechanoid equivalent to human body language. But the Giant’s field was far more complex, with intricate fractal blooms of color, tiny firespark bursts of light and shadow all overlaid on an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of background hues--scarlet reds, sapphire blues, sun-bright yellows, and every color in between--that was almost dizzying to watch.
“Wow …” Hughes breathed. “You’re doing all this?” he asked the Giant, who nodded.
“That’s *amazing*,” Hughes said admiringly, stepping backwards to get a better look. He wasn’t the only one, Jazz noticed. Hound’s holoprojection had caused a rising murmur of surprise and interest from the distant human spectators. There was an accompanying cascade of associated clicks and flashes from digital cameras as they all turned to focus on the lightshow, and several of the Autobots proved susceptible to the distraction as well, rubbernecking with varying degrees of interest and curiosity.
“After you sent me the Giant’s scans, I wondered about his truncated vocal capacity,” Perceptor was explaining happily to Ratchet and Wheeljack. “Old damage or other structural factors could have been the cause, of course, but I saw no evidence of that in the preliminary data. This led me to hypothesize that perhaps the Giant’s species did not primarily use audible signals in order to communicate. Cybertronians use comms and glyphs in addition to vocalized speech, after all, and there are several organic species who communicate primarily by way of olfactory markers, just as a singular example. Neither of which seems to be applicable in this instance, of course, but with further study--”
Registering the rising sub-channel hum of interest from the other Autobots as they relayed Perceptor’s observations, Jazz ignored it in favor of the puzzle in front of him. “So you think his species uses their fields as--what, the big mech equivalent of morse code, Perce? Flashy lights? Giant robot texting? ‘Cause I’m pretty good at pattern recognition, and so far I’m not seeing anything that resembles one in there.” He softened his skepticism with wry affection, extending his own field to show the Giant he didn’t mean it personally. “‘Course, I’m nowhere near as good as my main mech here. Blaster, you gettin’ any hits?”
Blaster was practically vibrating with interest, leaning forward to sample as much of the Giant’s field resonances as he could. But he shook his helm. “Nothing so far--sorry guys. If there are any symbols in there, I’ve got no references for anything like ‘em.”
That wide-lapping field changed, suffused with warm saffron around the edges, and the assembled Autobots could feel the Giant’s patient amusement. “Colors impor-tant,” he said again. And deliberately opened a comm to them all, sharing a rapid sequence of Earth imagery--Monet, Rothko, Kadinsky, Pollack, painting after painting with no glyphs, many with no figures or grounding at all, just color upon color upon color …
“No num-bers. Just light,” the Giant said simply, looking down at Hughes. “Colors.” He spread his simple four-fingered hands outward, as if encompassing all of them. “Light. Dark. They go on … for-ever.”
With Megatron’s defeat, the Autobots had settled down on Earth, determined to make it their new home. The Decepticon withdrawal, however, did not make them complacent; with both the ever-vigilant Red Alert and Prowl in residence, Ratchet doubted that was even possible. The Autobots had done their best to ensure that every security precaution that could be taken--at least, without totally isolating the embassy--had been taken. As a result of the combined efforts of Wheeljack, Que, and the Wreckers, Sky Spy was operational, and with Teletraan-1 synced up with both human military networks and the quietly-expanding Cybertronian ones, there were very few places on Earth inaccessible to Autobot surveillance. That, in addition to the guard rotations, fixed defenses, and any number of nasty surprises (courtesy of Special Ops), had solidified the Autobots’ hold on their adopted home. Attacking the embassy might not be suicide, but any Seeker who tried it was guaranteed to get their tailfins shot off, at the very least.
Which didn’t mean that the Autobots were stupid enough to assume they had eliminated the threat of Decepticon attack. Any Autobot who ventured out alone was potentially at risk, and Ratchet had been a high-value target for most of the war. He was used to it--and to refusing the guardians that Optimus had tried to assign, even before there had been so few Autobots left that there was no way to keep even the noncombatants from the battlefield. So Ratchet was used to going where he was needed, and doing what needed doing, and occasionally Decepticons would make a play for the Autobot’s legendary medic--only to find out the hard way that Ratchet was just as capable of dismantling mecha as he was at putting them together.
What he had failed to realize, though, was how much the humans--and the Giant--had changed all the normal rules of engagement. And for that, Ratchet could only blame himself.
Their little group hadn’t actually been far from the embassy. They had ended up only a few miles away, down on the lower northeastern face of Yucca Mountain. The field excursion had become necessary once it became obvious there was simply not enough room inside the embassy, not if Hound and Cliffjumper were to show off both their transformative abilities and their alts. Ratchet, for his part, was there to play lecturer and provide explanations (carefully edited down to accommodate Earth’s current tech level) to their human guests.
The visit had been inspired by Hughes’ daughter. After her visit to the embassy, Parvati had returned to MIT and promptly begun a crusade to open up official scientific exchanges between the university and the Autobot embassy. Who could possibly be better suited to teach them about robotics, after all, than the giant robots themselves? Her cause had proved popular among her fellow graduate students and robotics professors, all of whom joined the call for access. It had taken six months of bureaucratic wrangling, hoop-jumping and red tape, but in the end, MIT had agreed.
The resulting infighting between the various department heads and associated research labs about who would be allowed to go had been epic and bloody--in the very literal sense, for Ratchet had been informed that there had been at least one bout of fisticuffs involved between two prominent and very elderly tenured professors. In the end, thanks to Parvati, the mechanical engineers had won first dibs, and MIT’s Robotic Mobility program ended up first in line. Which is how Ratchet had ended up playing nursebot to a group of wide-eyed and very enthusiastic humans in the middle of the Nevada desert as they watched Hound and Cliffjumper show off.
It was hard to tell who was more gleeful, the graduate students or their professorial mentors, but ideas were flying faster and more furiously than any Seeker. And while many of those proposals were amusing in their naivete, there were some that were surprisingly innovative in their thinking. Ratchet had never had the same steadfast faith in the humans that Optimus had; he had never needed to. He believed in his Prime, and that was enough. Still … it had been a long time since Cybertronians had discovered an organic species as aggressively adaptable as their own. And while humans might not be able to transform their frames as Autobots did, Ratchet was starting to think that they might very well transform their little corner of the universe, if given half a chance.
The Giant had decided to accompany them as well. Not only was the big mech was well-used to rambling about the embassy environs at this point, he had also developed more than a little proprietary fondness for Hughes’ extended family. His presence was surprisingly useful, both as a walking, talking example of non-transforming alien tech and in helping to put some of their more skittish visitors at ease. As enthusiastic as they were, no human was likely to forget the destruction of Chicago anytime soon, and the Giant’s simple, distinctively non-Cybertronian appearance often helped a great deal in soothing those fears. Once the humans in question overcame their initial fear of being stepped on, anyway.
Despite all their precautions, they had little enough warning. The Giant was the first to notice, his head snapping upwards, optics widening as his field flared neon-bright with alarm. Registering that flare, Ratchet broke off in mid-word, the first tingle of foreboding sparking along his internals. An astrosecond later, Red Alert’s emergency-priority comm blared through their channels, overriding normal comm chatter and layered in urgent signifiers of warning/alarm. //Ratchet/Hound/Cliffjumper: we have incoming--two Seekers just outside of--//
--and then space twisted in an dizzying wash of transdimensional energy, and Skywarp was on them.
The Autobots were already moving, Hound and Cliffjumper abandoning their maneuvers and closing ranks towards Ratchet. But Skywarp had teleported at speed; banking hard, he used that momentum, his engines an audial-shattering roar as he mounted his attack against the two ground-bound Autobots. Ratchet saw Cliffjumper go flying, side armor cratered by a devastatingly accurate plasma shot. Hound veered off in the opposite direction, doing what he could to try and draw the Seeker’s fire.
As much as he wanted to go Cliffjumper’s aid, Ratchet knew where his duty lay. If any of their civilian guests died … he spun on one pede, taking the few short strides to the huddled group of humans.
“Listen to me!” he barked to the cringing, panicking professors and students, amping the volume of his vocalizer to cut through the thunder of explosions and cannon-fire. Transforming was the work of seconds; once in his alt, he threw open all his doors. “All of you, get inside! Move!” The terrified humans didn’t argue, scrambling for the safety of his passenger and rear bays, climbing inside with frantic haste. It was a tight fit--Ratchet’s alt had never been designed to hold nine humans--but adrenaline proved enough to overcome the limitations of the space, the humans cramming themselves in like sardines. The last was barely inside before Ratchet slammed his doors shut, peeling out in a cloud of dust.
//Run!// he ordered the Giant, pushing every bit of authority he had into the word. What had they been thinking, letting the big mech out into the open like this, especially with fragile organics nearby? If Skywarp’s attack triggered his battle protocols …. //Get to the embassy, Giant--that’s an order!//
The tacnet flowered into life, Ratchet distantly welcoming Prowl’s dispassionate calm even as he cringed at the damage reports from Hound and Cliffjumper. Nothing fatal, not yet--but Cliffjumper was offline, and with Skywarp on their afts, two other Seekers inbound and backup still at least a half-breem away, their odds of survival were dropping rapidly. Ignoring the panicked cries of the humans he carried, he pushed his engine to the limit, into speeds that the Earth vehicle he resembled would never have been able to achieve. He knew a grounder stood no chance of outrunning an airframe, but he had to try, had to hope that Hound and Cliffjumper could keep Skywarp busy long enough for him to get the humans to safety--
--and then Ratchet lost even that hope as a blast hit him full on, scorching his plating and sizzling through his circuits. //Prowl--Skywarp’s fragging got null rays! What the fra--// Transformation hadn’t been in the cards before, not with all the humans he had aboard--now he couldn’t even if he wanted to. Another blast--this one knocked him off his wheels entirely, the humans screaming as he tumbled sideways, his systems all desperately trying to compensate for the crippling charge of the null-blast, warning flags piling up as system after system dropped past minimal functionality.
//We’re coming, Ratchet,// Optimus’ voice was calm, though Ratchet could feel the focussed determination behind the words, the unspoken support of the others as they mobilized, joining the tacnet in a practiced cascade.
//ETA for reinforcements: two kliks,// Prowl added, sorting and handling the frantic flurry of battle-data with customary aplomb, neatly partitioning the chaotic comm-chatter.
//Skywarp’s going after Ratchet, Optimus!// Hound called, his glyphs broken at the edges, interrupted with damage-indicators. //He’s not even trying to finish us off--Ratchet’s the primary target!//
Primus on a fraggin’ pogo stick--could things get any worse? Ratchet frantically tried to reroute, applying patches to damaged systems, cutting off nonessentials in an attempt to become at least marginally mobile. The damage, though, was interfering with self-repair as well as his higher processes, the null-ray residuals making it difficult to process as efficiently as he normally would. The only reason he was still even online was due to the resiliency of a medic’s frame, which had been designed to safely absorb energy spikes from damaged patients. Right now, though, that was a cold comfort indeed.
He saw Skywarp bank, engines screaming, to make another run and knew Optimus would never arrive in time. Ratchet hardened his outer armor as much as he could, taking pain receptors offline and steeling himself against the next attack--
--only to have all this sensors muffled, the sky turning dark, as the expected impact never came. His frantic scans registered only metal--metal all around them, so thick that Ratchet could only distantly able to sense Skywarp’s distinctive energy-signature, and for a fraction of an astrosecond, he had the sudden, ridiculous thought that they had somehow fallen into one of Cybertron’s ancient caverns, surrounded by layer upon layer of metal, filums thick. Then his higher processors caught up with the analysis, and he realized the truth. The metal above them was alive--and it belonged to the Giant. A Giant who was not escaping as he had been told.
//Giant! What do you think you’re doing?? Get out of here before you get hurt!// Ratchet barked, backing up his comm with every Earth-image he could find that meant 'danger’, trying to reinforce that imperative. The massive frame over them didn’t move, curling tighter instead. Ratchet belatedly realized the Giant was crouched turtle-like over Ratchet’s incapacitated alt, his helm tucked and arms and legs folded protectively to either side, trying to leave as few openings as possible. There was the distant scream of missiles, and that massive frame jerked. Ratchet could hear the dull booming as they impacted upon the Giant’s backplates. //Please, Giant!// he pleaded, frantic. The big mech wasn’t fighting, wasn’t even looking at his enemy, his helm tucked under and optics tightly shuttered, but who knew how long the Giant could keep his battle-protocols in check?
//Not fight. Keep safe,// was the Giant’s stubborn reply, the English words accompanied by pictures--suits of human armor, fragile Earth-mollusks huddled safe within their bright-hued shells. More impacts, this time closer, louder; Skywarp was obviously using larger ordnance in an attempt to dislodge the big mech. The Giant shuddered in reaction, his metallic groan resonating through Ratchet’s frame. The Giant wasn’t linked to the tacnet, Ratchet couldn’t access his damage reports without a hardline--but it was obvious that the big mech’s armor, as formidable as it was, did not make him invulnerable.
//Optimus, Prowl--we need backup here NOW. The Giant’s not leaving! If he loses it--// Ratchet didn’t normally make a habit of shouting at his Prime, but given the circumstances, he thought a little extra volume was justified as another rapid-fire series of impacts *boomed* against the Giant’s armor and shook the ground beneath them.
//We’re almost there, old friend.// Optimus’ reassurance was laden with worried modifiers he couldn’t hide. //But so are Thundercracker and Acid Storm. Hold on, all of you--we’re coming as fast as we can.//
//I’m even closer than that--and coming in hot, Optimus.// Springer’s comm was strong, the rest of the Wreckers pinging in with their positional data, confident and eager. //Don’t worry, we’re used to Seekers. Those fraggers won’t know what hit them.//
His sensors deadened by the double-thickness of the Giant’s armor, Ratchet had to rely on the tacnet to see Springer’s arrival. The veteran triplechanger dropped out of the sky in his new Earth alt--an AS565 Panther--like a gleeful Grim Reaper. He fired on Skywarp, forcing the Seeker to break off his attack, even as one of the Axalon’s shuttles disgorged the rest of the Wreckers. Roadbuster, Topspin and the others were firing even before they landed, adding their fire to Springer’s as they set up a defensive line. Thundercracker and Acid Storm were now in play, Ratchet registered distantly. Damage reports piled up, the field of battle expanding, shifting both outward and upward as the Seekers pounded away at the defending Wreckers. Even under the Giant’s sheltering bulk, the roar of nearby weapons-fire was deafening to the point where Ratchet had to damp his inputs and caused the frightened humans to cry out at each new explosion.
Then Optimus came within weapons’ range, along with a full complement of the Autobot frontliners, including Kup and Hot Rod. That proved the tipping point--Thundercracker apparently deciding that even two-thirds of the Command Trine wasn’t going to take on the Wreckers *and* Optimus without backup. The battle ended as abruptly as it began, all three Seekers piling on the thrust to retreat at supersonic speed, disappearing from sensor range in seconds.
For a nanoklik, silence reigned. The Giant shifted, cautiously lifting his helm--and then fell to one side with a rumbling groan, his chassis impacting against the ground with an audial-shattering crash.
“Frag--” Ratchet’s systems still weren’t at a hundred percent, but he had rerouted enough to regain transformation capability--and there were patients out there that needed him. A quick scan verified that none of the humans inside him had suffered more than minor abrasions and contusions from being knocked about. He sent an urgent comm to Blaster: Flipsides would need to put band-aids over the humans’ bumps and bruises. Ratchet had bigger things--and mecha--to worry about. “Optimus--take custody of the humans, I need--”
“I understand, old friend,” Optimus replied, his resonant voice soothing. “Everyone--it is safe now. If you could all disembark from Ratchet, I promise that we will protect you.” Their human visitors were understandably dubious, alternating between adrenalized excitement and fear, but after a few moments of Primely convincing, Ratchet was finally free of his passengers and able to transform. He wasted no time in doing so, staggering as he stood up on his pedes, gyros still recalibrating. Cliffjumper was offline, but stable--he would need some major repairs, but nothing that required priority attention. Hound was also banged up, but had gotten off fairly lightly, considering he’d been up against no less than three Seekers. But the Giant …
… the Giant had taken the brunt of Skywarp’s attacks, and it showed. The big mech’s armored chassis was still intact--scorched beyond belief, and still smoking in a few places, but amazingly free of fissures or impact cratering. But the rest of him hadn’t been so lucky--one pede had been blown clean off, the fingers of another hand scattered across the desert in smoking sections, and other, smaller pieces lay even further away. The Giant was obviously dazed, his optics half-shuttered as he lay on his side. Which a low rumble, he tried to push himself upright, digging at the ground with what remained of his truncated hand.
Ratchet hurried over. “Easy, big guy,” he said briskly, running scans on the damage. The lines of damage were clean--that would help when re-attaching new limbs. “Don’t try to get up just yet. Let me figure out what I need to fix first.” Wheeljack and Que arrived in a cloud of dust and twinned alts, transforming and rushing forward. “Que--you’re on parts retrieval. Wheeljack--help me lift this … whoah!”
The Giant had lifted his helm, obviously fully online once more. That, Ratchet had expected. He hadn’t expected a previously-hidden transformation seam to iris open atop that domed helm, however, or for a small telescoping antenna topped by a brilliant blue-white comm beacon to emerge. The beacon strobed, emitting repeated comm-pulses strong enough to nearly flatten the nearest mecha. Wincing, Ratchet frantically damped down his receivers, even as all the other nearby Autobots did the same.
“Giant, what the frag do you think you’re …?” The comm-pulses seemed to double, an odd echo reverberating back to the source. Then they tripled, quadrupled--Ratchet lost count, staggering backwards for badly-needed distance … only to stop at a tiny metal *tink* as something knocked against his pedes.
Already off-balance, he looked down, and took in the sight of a disembodied, Giant-sized finger-joint. Lit up by a tiny blue pulse on one end, it was rocking back and forth, knocking blindly against his armor. With a surreal sense of calm, Ratchet stepped to one side. The finger-section promptly rolled forward, homing in on its owner, over divots and flattened brush, until it reached the Giant’s damaged hand. Once there, a miniature transformation took place, sections sliding backwards, tiny struts and connectors extending, connecting and sealing, the finger-section pulling itself into place. And it wasn’t the only one--every single damaged part, large or small, was moving, rolling, hopping, or wiggling its way determinedly back to its owner, putting themselves back together, socketing into place.
Autobots and humans alike watched, dumbfounded, as the Giant reached down, assisting those few parts that couldn’t quite make it on their own. Extending his damaged leg so that the wandering pede could reconnect, the Giant watched calmly as armor extended back over the bared struts, the newly reconnected conduits and tensors, the pede reattaching itself cleanly. Moments later, only scorch marks remained to show it had ever been blown off in the first place.
“What. the. frag?” That was from Sideswipe, who was peering at a laggardly little screw still rolling its way back to the Giant. “Ratch … what the--how the--?”
“Hunh.” Bumblebee pushed back his battlemask, his field bright with commingled curiosity and humor. “Well, now we know why he took your parts on a walkabout, Ratchet.”
“...a species that can repair itself,” Wheeljack said slowly, vocal indicators strobing with excitement. “You, my friend, are one amazing mechanism!” He reached out to touch, then to tug on the Giant’s newly re-attached fingers as the big mech looked on, bemused. Ratchet started to protest--then, as Que joined in on the impromptu experiment, shook his helm in resignation, throwing up his hands.
“I have no idea how you did that,” he told the Giant, “and right now I don’t care. If you can’t listen, at least you’ve made sure I have one less idiot to fix.” He turned, stomping away to attend to the rest of the injured. “All right. Next!”
Chapter warnings for nonexplicit mentions of infanticide, non-mammalian mechpreg. Many thanks as always to Fractalserpent and White Aster, who are the awesomest of betas!
In the wake of the attack, the atmosphere at the embassy was predictably tense, with all the Autobots on full alert. Optimus had called a command-level conference immediately, and with the addition of Springer, Kup, and other senior Autobot staff from the Axalon, the cavern that housed Operations was now a great deal more crowded, filled with bristling and angry mecha, many of them eager to strike back at Ratchet’s attackers. Sam and Epps were both present as well, as Autobot-allied human representatives, and their worry was plain to see.
“This has fucked things up big time, guys,” Sam was saying, drumming his fingers anxiously on the tabletop. Prowl noted that the young human, for all his acquired diplomatic expertise, became a great deal more blunt when dealing only with Cybertronians. No doubt Sam’s tendency to speak his mind had only been encouraged by his association with Bumblebee and the rest; frontliners were notorious for their lack of patience with diplomatic doublespeak, preferring direct action to roundabout words.
“It’s bad enough that Skywarp made a play for Ratchet. But they also did it on American soil, violated American airspace, and damn near killed a bunch of American civilians in the process. If they’d succeeded--” Sam shook his head, grimacing, “--I don’t even want to think about the fallout. As it is, there’s a whole lotta saber-rattling going on in Congress right now, as I’m sure you guys know. The Pentagon has been sending me hate mail and lists of demands ever since this shit went down. They want to mobilize NEST, they want Starscream’s head on a pike, and they are *this* close--” Sam pinched his fingers a bare fraction apart in superfluous illustration, “--to starting a war with Iran in order to do it.”
“Technically, didn’t Skywarp attack Ratchet on Cybertronian soil? The mountain bein’ part of the embassy and all that?” Jazz pointed out. Behind that careless facade, however, Prowl could tell the saboteur was worried. The Autobots’ position on Earth was still precarious, and their alliance with the humans even more so. If they retaliated, they risked sparking a war. If they didn’t, they risked the ire of their allies, many of whom were still all too willing to blame Autobots and Decepticons alike for the destruction of Chicago.
“Technically, yeah, they did. But they violated U.S. airspace to do it,” Epps replied. “The Air Force really gets cranky about that sort of thing, ya know? You had a whole lotta high ranking flyboys crapping their pants over that little ambush--and they’re not gonna be happy if you tell ‘em there’s nothing they can do to keep it from happening again.”
“Mearing has been quite vocal on that point as well,” Optimus put in. “And she is correct; Earth’s nations do have the right--and the responsibility--to protect their citizenry.” Optimus’ field was sober, his faceplates folded in concern, and Prowl could feel, as all of them could, the distress of their Prime beating against his plating. “I must also confess to some concern that Starscream’s faction has attacked us so openly. Starscream’s arrogance is legendary, but to send a single trine to ambush Autobots so close to the embassy seems reckless in the extreme.” He turned a troubled look to his senior staff. “If Starscream truly intends to provoke a war between Iran and the United States, we may be forced into conflict whether we want it or not. Is there anything that can be done to defuse this situation?”
“Y’mean other than tearing off Starscream’s wings and making him eat ‘em?” Springer said, optics narrowed. “I still say we need to go after ‘em. Letting the Decepticons establish any kind of position on Earth is stupid, Optimus. It’s not like Starscream has Megatron to hide behind anymore. Let me and my crew go in--we’ll hit ‘em hard and fast and take ‘em out. Let the humans squabble and squawk about territory afterwards--at least we won’t have to worry about Seekers sniping our afts every time they get bored. Or worry that Starscream will decide to start handing over weapons tech to the Earthers, either.”
“I hate ta say it, but Springer’s got a point,” Jazz put in. “The longer we let the Decepticons get dug in, the harder they’re gonna be t’ do anything about later.” He shook his helm. “I know you were hopin’ ta be able ta negotiate, but Starscream’s shown his hand. He doesn’t want peace. He wants Earth as his own personal playground, and he’ll play dirty to get it.”
“There’s something bothering me about all this, though,” Ratchet put in, leaning forward. Prowl noted that while the damage Ratchet had taken from the ambush had largely been repaired, thanks to Wheeljack and Flipsides’ combined efforts, the medic’s plating was still scorched and battered in places. “Why the frag did *Skywarp* have Starscream’s null rays? The power draw on those things is enormous; Skywarp must’ve been draining his tank dry to support them as well as his transwarp capabilities, even for such a short time. And why wasn’t Starscream part of the attack? Since when does he let Acid Storm fly with his trine?”
“It is obvious that Ratchet was the target of this ambush,” Prowl answered, deciding to address the simplest aspects of the situation first. “Moreover, it is highly probable that Starscream ordered Skywarp to take Ratchet alive--hence the null rays. The rationale behind this kidnapping attempt has yet to be determined, though there are several obvious possibilities.”
“They need a medic,” Ratchet put in, frowning.
“That is the most likely, yes.” Pausing for a moment, Prowl considered the data available to him, reflexively discarding assumptions and unsupported conclusions. “Starscream may have been more badly damaged than we believed. It is also possible that one or more of the new arrivals has sustained damage that requires more expert attention. Or their goal may be simply to deprive us of our only fully-framed medic.” He spread his hands in silent illustration of the possibilities. “Regarding Springer’s proposal: tactically speaking, mounting an effective attack will be difficult, but not impossible, especially with human military support. Starscream’s faction now includes three full trines, five helos, and assorted other airframes, including one explorer-class shuttlemech. He has also attracted an unconfirmed number of tankframes and other frontliners. Given our current inability to secure either Earth’s airspace or its orbital territory, however, it is impossible to predict with any certainty how many more will rally to Starscream’s call.”
“So what yer telling us, Prowl, is that any fight is gonna be a big one. And there’s gonna be collateral damage.”
A silence fell over the gathering. “Do we have a better read on where they’re located?” said Springer at last.
All optics--and eyes--turned to their security chief, who hunched a little lower. “The Takht-e Suleyman Massif,” Red Alert finally said, apparently examining something on the floor.
That gave Springer pause while he accessed and translated the proper portions of the human internet. “*Where* on the massif? Red, I don’t got time to search under every piece of scrap in a thirty-filium radius!”
“You’re beein’ awful cagey, Red,” Jazz commented, watching him closely. Red Alert shifted uncomfortably under the attention. “I would’a thought you’d be first in line to demand we clip Starscream’s wings. Is there somethin’ going on we should be worryin’ about?”
“I--” Red Alert glanced at Prowl, somewhat shamefaced. “Sky Spy picked up on something. At first I thought they might just be drones, and I didn’t want to say anything until I knew for sure what it was, and whether it was a threat. But …” Red Alert, Prowl noticed with belated alarm, was actually fidgeting, his field suffused with conflicted apprehension. The Autobot security chief hadn’t suffered a significant code-glitch in quite some time, not after Smokescreen had taken him in hand and he’d settled into his new duties as Optimus’ head of security. But right now he seemed closer to a major code conflict than Prowl had seen in centivorn. “I--” Red Alert vented harshly. “Teletraan-1, bring up the tagged images from Sky Spy.”
Multiple images shimmered into three-dimensional life in the holotank. Some were moving, while others were single frames, caught between one moment and the next. All of the pictures, however, were a far cry from their Earth counterparts, with the crystalline clarity and wealth of associated field-data characteristic of Cybertronian imaging technology. And what they showed, in image after image, from multiple angles, were--
Sam was squinting up at the holotank’s display. “What are those? Drones? Some kinda minibots like Wheelie?”
“Primus,” Ratchet said softly, optics spiralled wide. The tiny figures were half-hidden more often than not, almost invisible against the bulk of the far larger airframes around them, tucked behind engine mountings, or beneath wings and pauldrons. But there was no mistaking the shape of them, the characteristic movements as they clambered fearlessly over Decepticon warframes--warframes who seemed to be going out of their way to accommodate the tiny mecha. “Those are *hatchlings*.”
There was a moment of stunned silence. Prowl glanced about the rest of the table; most of the other Autobots present seemed to be just as taken aback as Ratchet was. Then the cavern erupted into a cacophony of protest and disbelief.
“What th’ frag--”
“When I get my hands on you, Red--why the Pit didn’t you show us this before--?”
“Hatchlings? Where the frag did *they* come from? There’s no way--”
“We gotta get ‘em out of there, who knows--”
“No Allspark, no factories to assemble frames, not within lightvorn, how the Pit did they--”
“You’re telling me Starscream’s hiding behind a bunch of sparklings? *Decepticon* sparklings??”
Optimus’ resonant voice cut through the babble. “Hatchlings …” he said softly, blunt, battle-worn fingers reaching out as if to touch the nearest softlight image. “How is this possible, Red Alert?”
“That’s what I wanna know, too,” Kup put in, pushing forward to scowl at the images. “Ain’t no way the Decepticons in this sector have been makin’ hatchlings. There ain’t near enough resources for that--haven’t been for ages. Not and still be able ta fight. And if any of those mechlets are over a vorn old, I’ll eat Hot Rod’s new spoiler.”
“Whoa whoa whoa, guys,” Sam said, waving his hands frantically. “Would someone mind telling me what the heck is going on here? You said these were … hatchlings? As in babies? As in *robot* babies? But I thought--without the Allspark, yanno …” he trailed off uncertainly.
“You believed that without the Allspark, Cybertronians could no longer reproduce, and our species was doomed to eventual extinction.” Prowl said evenly, ignoring how the others flinched at his words. “This is true, but not for the reasons you assumed.”
“What d’you mean?” Epps said, frowning.
Prowl glanced at Optimus. //Permission to release this information, sir?//
Optimus nodded gravely. //Permission granted.//
“There are three methods by which Cybertronians might reproduce,” Prowl told the listening humans. “The first, and the oldest, is the Allspark. A frame is created, and brought to the Allspark, which imbues it with a spark. A … soul, in human terms, though the correlation is inexact.” A ‘soul’ was hardly as measurable, as physically present as a spark, after all. Without such evidence, how could the humans know if such a thing even existed at all?
“But you can’t do that now, ‘cause the Allspark is gone,” Sam said quietly, his shoulders hunched, obviously still feeling responsible for the Allspark’s destruction.
“That is correct.”
“The second way is to sparkbud--to split a new spark off of your own, and build a new budded frame around it out of your own protometal,” Ratchet said, taking up the thread of explanation with a medic’s authority. “Any mech can do this, but it’s risky. It takes a great deal of time, and plentiful resources.” He curled his fingers into a loose fist, looking at the softly-glowing images in the tank. “And a sparkbudded hatchling will always be an exact copy of his creator. Frametype, coding, right down to the memory seeds they carry. You’ve seen Que--he’s fission-sparked, and it’s pretty obvious who his creator is.”
“So, if you were to sparkbud, we’d end up with some kinda … mini-Ratchet?” Epps asked, obviously amused, though Prowl wasn’t sure why.
“Yup! Complete with a little mini-welder and a mini-bad temper,” Jazz said, grinning. He leaned back, lacing finger-components behind his helm, the very picture of nonchalance.
Ratchet shot him a glare--but Jazz had, with his usual foresight, pre-positioned himself well out of thumping range. “Essentially, yes, though obviously the sparkling’s full framing and abilities would take many vorn to develop. There was a third way that our species once reproduced, but that too is now lost to us, just like the Allspark. So in a way, you were right. All that’s left of the Cybertronian race are a handful of warframe frame-classes, plus a very few medics, engineers, a few scientist-classes, and a scattering of random foundational frametypes. While the survivors can still reproduce through sparkbudding, the ability to create new classes of sparks, new frametypes to fill the void left behind by the deaths of so many … that is now impossible.”
Silence descended. Words had power, Prowl reflected, and Ratchet’s words had brought forth a truth that none of them had wished to face: that they were a dying species. The Cybertronian race was destined for extinction, even if that process would take millennia.
Unless … Prowl absorbed the data in front of him, the images of the hatchlings … and found the first glimmer of hope in his spark. “Perhaps,” he said slowly, feeling his way around this newsparked idea, as unsupported as it was, “--Starscream has reverted back to his core coding?” It was impossible to ignore one’s prime directives forever; that Starscream had managed for so long did not bode well for the Seeker’s sanity. But still, if he’d managed to reconcile the irreconcilable.… Caught up in this new analysis, it took Prowl a moment to realize that every Autobot in the cavern was now staring at him.
He reflexively fact-checked his statement and found it still in line with the preliminary data, although he intended to speak with Red Alert about the inadvisability of withholding information. Had he had missed something in his analysis? “What is it?”
“Core coding--Prowl, Starscream is a *Seeker*,” Jazz replied, his faceplates folded in a pained expression normally reserved for Red Alert’s more erratic security protocols. “Remember them? Wings, big guns, attitude problems? Coded to fly really fast, blow slag up, an’ not much else?”
“Of course I do,” Prowl replied, ruthlessly overriding his annoyance at his fellow officers’ obvious skepticism. “I fail to see, however, how that is anything other than tangentially pertinent. Starscream might be Seeker-framed, but his prime directives are still that of a creator-mech.”
Once again, Optimus sliced through the noise, this time with a tight-banded and authoritative glyph. //Silence.// The others’ protests died, and he turned optics to the waiting tactician. “Prowl ... please explain.”
Upon reflection, Prowl could see his error. Most--if not all--the Autobots currently present had only ever known Starscream as the Decepticons’ viciously deadly second-in-command. What Prowl had assumed was common knowledge was apparently no longer so. He felt a ripple of dismay at that thought. They obviously would need to institute more backups of officers’ memory-archives--though the logistics of how to keep such backups safe escaped him at the moment.
“Prowl,” Optimus prompted again, and the tactician rerouted back to the query at hand.
“Starscream was sparked as a Vosian creator-mech. He specialized in warframes, with the typical Vosian preference for aerial types, and from all accounts, was quite skilled. This was common knowledge before the war, at least in Praxus and Vos,” Prowl said evenly, giving his Prime the answers he sought. “I do not know exactly when he joined the Decepticon ranks, but given that the Autobot datafiles list him only as a Seeker, I would surmise that his reformatting occurred either before or soon after he joined the Decepticons.”
“Prowl--that’s impossible,” Ratchet blurted. “It’s just--there’s just--there’s no way a creator-sparked mech could--”
“Um, guys?” Epps called out, waving a hand in the air for attention. “Sorry, I know this is obviously something important, but mind explainin’ to the peanut gallery what the fuck a creator-whatzit is?”
After a brief pause, Ratchet answered. “Creators … were once our third means of propagation,” he said quietly. “They were a specialized subclass of mecha whose sole function was to create new life. Hatchlings. They were … there’s no human word I can find for what they were. They were artists, engineers, parents. They could spark any kind of mech; even create new mecha, create entirely new frameclasses.” He looked down at the humans, and Prowl could feel the echoes of old grief and regret in Ratchet’s field. “But creator-mecha … aren’t soldiers. *Can’t* be soldiers. Which is why Starscream can’t possibly be a creator-spark. That fragger has more blood on his talons than probably anyone other than Megatron himself.”
Epps frowned. “Wait--okay, I get there bein’ some noncombatants and all … but you’re sayin’ they’re all dead? That every single one of these creator-guys refused to fight?” He shook his head. “I know every war’s got a few guys who won’t pick up a gun, but....”
Ratchet bristled, plating shifting forward in aggravation. He began to reply--then stopped short as Jazz pushed himself away from his wall.
“I’ll take this one, Ratch, if ya don’t mind?” He glanced over to the human-scaled gantry. “Epps … ya got a kid, right? A little girl?”
Epps nodded, frowning, obviously not sure where the question was heading. “Yeah, I do. Why?”
“Remember when she was just a baby? All warm an’ soft, wriggly an’ helpless? The first time ya saw those tiny fingers and toes, and she looked up at ya with those big eyes, like ya were her whole world?” Jazz said, his words reflecting the warm resonances of his field. Then his vocalizer hardened. “What would you do, Epps, if someone tried to hurt your little girl?”
Prowl could feel Epps bristle from across the cavern--quite an achievement, he reflected, from a species that had no fields to speak of.
“I’d kill ‘em,” Epps said without hesitating, and given his military credentials both as a Ranger and a member of NEST, Prowl didn’t doubt that the man meant it.
Jazz nodded, unsurprised by the answer. “What any parent would do, right? But it’s wartime, and the bullets are flyin’, and your commanding officer slaps a gun in your hand, and orders you to kill the enemy. Only the enemy ain’t soldiers. They’re babies--soft, helpless, newsparked little things full of promise, just like your Rainey. And the only way you’re gonna survive the war is if you go kill those babies.” Jazz leaned forward, his words flat, uncompromising and ugly. “Could you do that, Epps? Could you walk down that line of innocents, smilin’ up at ya like you’re their whole world--and still put a gun to those little heads and pull the trigger?”
Epps recoiled as if he’d been slapped. “No! What the--what the *fuck*, Jazz? What kind of sick question is that? I’d never kill a kid! Not on accident, and sure as hell not on purpose!”
Jazz straightened, his field smoothing out into its normal resonances, tinged a little with chagrin. “Sorry, Epps. I needed to make ya understand. Giving a weapon to a creator-mech and tellin’ ‘em to go fight the enemy … it’s like giving a human parent a gun and telling them they gotta go massacre their kid’s kindergarten class, or tellin’ an artist to torch the Louvre. Creators are made to spark life, to nurture and shape and protect it. Killing mecha, snuffing out the promise of that spark--they just can’t do it. And when you have a class of mecha who won’t kill, won’t defend themselves, an’ the whole world around ‘em is at war … well, they don’t tend to last long.”
“We tried to protect as many as we could, for as long as we could. But it wasn’t enough. I do not know of a single creator mech who has survived the war,” Optimus put in somberly, his field resonant with shame. He bowed his helm, as if in apology to those vanished sparks. “I was their Prime, and I failed them. We all did. We were so caught up in our war and our rage that we failed to defend the defenseless, and in so doing, we sacrificed our future.”
Optimus lifted his helm and fixed his gaze on Prowl, who reflexively straightened under the regard of his Prime. “The possibility that perhaps one might have survived--even if that one might be Starscream--cannot be ignored. Prowl--are you certain?”
“I am,” Prowl said simply. There was no corruption in his memory archives, no chance that he had mistaken Starscream for another. Whether as a creator or a Seeker, the mech was simply too distinctive.
“That’s--Prowl, that’s just not possible.” Ratchet’s earlier indignation had faded into something more plaintive, his field crackling at the edges with dawning horror. “That … even if you’re right, and Starscream is a creator … To kill like he does, to *revel* in it like he does ...”
Prowl inclined his helm soberly, allowing the others to feel his regret, his sorrow. “Yes. I am sorry, Ratchet. But we must face the truth. Starscream may very well be Cybertron’s last surviving creator-mech--and he is, in all likelihood, insane.”
“Slagging--drone-humping--motherfucking piece of shit!” Mikaela panted, leaning all her weight on the tool in her hands. Wheeljack had helpfully machined an entire set of human-sized tools and adaptive devices to assist Mikaela when working on Cybertronian-sized parts. Unfortunately, those tools weren’t always enough--not when prying apart slagged metal and corroded connectors required more brute strength than finesse. Bracing a foot against a nearby bit of plating, she gave it another yank. “Powersuits,” she gasped, stray strands of hair falling into her eyes. “Cyborg muscles. A motherfucking *Gundam* is what I need to deal with YOU, you piece of--”
“Um …. I’m not a Gundam, but maybe I can help?” Red and white hands reached over her own, hooking blunt thumb-units into the partially open seam in the metal, and with an expert twist, Flipsides broke apart the corroded latching mechanisms.
Mikaela grinned over her shoulder at the small mech, bringing up a hand to swipe her hair back into place. It was a measure of how strange her life had become, she reflected, that she now considered a six-foot-plus alien robot to be ‘small’. “Thanks, ‘Sides--I’ll take you over a Gundam any day, believe me.” Working together, they eased the cover open, exposing the intricate layered circuitry underneath. Taking in the fine coating of lunar grit that covered the interior surfaces, Mikaela sighed. Vacuuming moon-pebbles out every tiny little crevice she ran across wasn’t her idea of fun, no matter how badly it needed to be done.
Leaning over to get a better look, Flipsides made a pleased noise. “That looks good,” he said, reaching out to lightly touch several parts of the surface structure that, near as she could tell, looked exactly like all the others. “Hardly any corrosion at all. Smokescreen was lucky; your moon was a pretty good place to crash, relatively speaking. No atmosphere, no liquids or xeno-organisms to infiltrate the damage .... If the Ark had crashed on Earth, we’d be replacing corroded and organic-fouled neural circuits for *months*.”
“I know you’re right,” Mikaela said ruefully, looking at the gray powder now liberally smeared over both hands. “But holy *crap* am I ever getting tired of suctioning rock dust out of you guys’ frames. You guys have way too many nooks and crannies for dirt to get into, you know that?”
“True,” Flipsides said easily. “Human bodies are much better at keeping out organic contaminants, I will admit.” He stepped back, flashing her a quick smile. Unlike many of his larger brethren, Flipsides had very mobile faceplates, and was able to convey a surprising range of humanlike expressions. His quick adoption of human body language made Mikaela suspect he’d had some help, possibly from Que’s emotive-patterning files.
More importantly, Flipsides was a great deal more calm and levelheaded than either of his mechkin brothers. Both Rewind and Eject had been banished from the medbay by Ratchet within a week of their arrival, after one too many games of soccernastics. Or had it been basegolf? Truthfully, she hadn’t really paid that much attention. They were likeable enough, she supposed; enthusiastic and friendly, much like their boss, Blaster. In a way, they were a lot like the jocks Mikaela had known in school. Cute and eager to please--though nowhere near as fixated on getting into her pants, thank God--fun to hang around with when you wanted to party, but otherwise a lot more tolerable in small doses.
Flipsides, on the other hand … well, she knew it was silly to apply human measures of age to the Autobots, most of whom were likely older than her entire species, but he just seemed older, more mature. He was certainly calmer, and his quiet competence had been a huge asset to Ratchet in the medbay, even if his lack of size meant he couldn’t do all the repairs the bigger ‘bots could. That, at least, Mikaela could sympathize with. Being tiny and squishable--or crushable--in a world built for much larger mecha had to be tough, and it was probably a good thing ‘Sides had Blaster looking out for him.
Picking up a handheld vacuum attachment, she clicked it on, sweeping the feathery antistatic filaments over the exposed section of Smokescreen’s cortex. “Ratchet said Smokescreen was almost ready to be brought back online, right? Assuming we don’t find any new damage?”
Flipsides nodded. “According to the repair logs, he should be back up and mostly functional soon. Ratchet and Wheeljack have taken care of almost all the major damage, and autorepair can handle all the little cosmetic stuff.” He climbed over a pile of struts, expertly winding his way across the cluttered medbay table to the other side of the offlined mech’s helm. “Good thing, too--we could really use him. There are a lot of mecha out there whose coding could use some attention. Ratchet does his best, of course, but he’s just not equipped for that sort of thing. Not like a code specialist is.” He checked on a couple of diagnostic lines, making sure they were still secure.
“Hunh. So if Ratchet is like a mechanic, a code specialist would be like a--software engineer? He goes in and debugs your guys’ brains?” Mikaela asked.
Flipsides paused, tilting his helm, obviously querying Teletraan’s files for the terms she’d used. Watching his faceplates scrunch up in pained distaste at the answers he received, Mikaela grinned. “I take it I’m off base?”
“Well … not entirely,” Flipsides said, obviously searching for a way to phrase his answer diplomatically. “But … I wouldn’t ever call Ratchet a ‘mechanic’ where he can hear it, if I were you. Cybertron did have mecha who were equivalent to your ‘mechanics’, but they only worked on machinery: unsparked drones, surface cleaning and modifications, things like that. Calling any medic a mechanic is kind of an insult; it implies they aren’t skilled or knowledgeable enough to be trusted with the sparks of sentient mecha.”
Mikaela winced. “Ouch. Got it.”
Flipsides straightened from his crouch, giving her a reassuring smile. Patting the side of Smokescreen’s battered blue helm, he moved over and picked up another suctioning tool, starting to clean the other side of the exposed cortical circuitry. “You’re close, though. A code specialist is, um--more like a human psychiatrist, I guess? But also a bit like a software engineer too. They fix mecha who have developed glitches in their coding that normal repair protocols can’t handle, like corrupted memory files, damaged datawalls or firewalls … things like that. Sometimes they just guide a mech’s own systems into properly identifying the damage, but a lot of the time, especially for really severe glitches or codebase corruption, they’ll go in to rebuild and repair what they can. Or, if the damage is too severe, to isolate the problem so that it can’t cascade into other systems. They’re highly specialized, on a par with fully-framed medics; Smokescreen has probably forgotten more than most other mecha ever knew about Cybertronian coding.”
Mikaela paused in her steady sweeps over the dusty surfaces, looking down at her patient’s helm with new respect. “Wow. That is impressive. Wish we had something like that.”
“Well, humans are very adaptable,” Flipsides replied easily, using a narrow-tipped siphon to clean tiny, almost invisible spaces with exacting precision. “Perhaps someday you will. Given how difficult it is to repair organic systems, your species has made amazing progress already.”
“If it at first you don’t succeed …” Mikaela agreed, frowning down at a bit of scorching under her fingertips. “Teletraan, you there?”
“Good--can you mark this damage down for Ratchet’s review? Slight scorching, in the um--shit. ‘Sides, what’s this section designated as?”
Flipsides lifted his helm, peering over Smokescreen’s battered yellow chevron. “Anterior section 18923.299, on the fourteenth sub-” he switched to Cybertronian briefly, spitting out a crackle of technical terms with no English equivalents, “-on the zt axis.” It would have been much easier for Flipsides to comm Teletraan-1 directly with the information, Mikaela knew, and she appreciated the small mech’s consideration. It was much easier for her to learn when she could hear the terminology being used in context.
In the beginning, Mikaela had done her best to help, but there had been so little she could really do. Still, she’d done what she could. Mostly she'd been on cleanup duty, or moving bits and small supplies around while Ratchet and Wheeljack made repairs in--to her, at least--an eerie near-silence, working together in an effortlessly alien synchronicity. And while the last thing Mikaela wanted was to interrupt critical repairs in order for Ratchet to give remedial lessons in Cybertronian anatomy, it had been frustrating not to be able to at least learn by watching or listening. Despite Ratchet’s kindness and Optimus’ patient understanding, it had made her feel like an outsider; a dumb monkey sitting on the sidelines, watching miracles being performed with offhand expertise.
These days, Ratchet and the other Autobots were far more familiar with human mores. In deference to their human allies, most Autobots took care to communicate verbally in addition to using comms whenever possible. Mikaela wasn’t sure if NEST, or even Sam, for that matter, really understood how much the mecha they worked with had slowed down their normal modes of communication for them. But it was something she would never take for granted, and her work with Ratchet and Wheeljack had made her very grateful for the efforts made on her behalf.
She bent her head to her work once more, carefully cleaning the areas around the damage. The moondust came away in staticky layers, fine as flour and abrasive as sandpaper. Once disturbed, the powder would drift and cling to absolutely anything. Trying to use liquid to wash it away just made it stick harder. It was nasty stuff, really. It would have done a number on any earthly electronics, and even the Cybertronian components looked worn in places. The sections that seemed clear often harbored more dust, deep in crevices and joins. Another sweep of the vacuuming fronds exposed more circuitry beneath. And also... wires? Except that they didn’t look like any wires she’d ever seen.
“Flipsides... what is this?” Mikaela asked, crouching down to look more closely. The tracery of wire-like stuff looked similar to something she’d seen deep in other damaged mecha, threading in and out of every component. She knew that she wasn’t supposed to touch those dull webs -- Ratchet had made that very clear. But these wires were brighter, a faintly glistening silver.
The mechkin abandoned his work, moving over and crouching down beside her. “A good sign,” he said, and from this distance, Mikaela could see thin wafers sliding down behind his optics, could hear the lenses click into place. It totally wasn’t fair that humans came without magnification vision. “Protometal goes dormant in stasis, starting from the most recent pieces integrated down to the oldest. Smokescreen probably incorporated this particular sensory bank back when he was a mechling.”
Mikaela blinked. “Protometal? Mech-what?”
“Protometal, along with the spark, is what makes up the core of a Cybertronian,” Flipsides replied absently, still studying the newly-cleaned section. “Ratchet hasn’t told you about protometal yet?”
“Not really. I’ve heard the term in passing, but I’d never thought much about it before.” The term had usually been used in the context of critical repairs, and she certainly hadn’t been about to interrupt Ratchet with dumb questions when he was in the middle of saving someone’s life!
“Well, it is a complicated concept,” Flipsides said easily. “Honestly, I’m not sure Earth-based science has the terminology to describe it properly.” He straightened, lifting a hand and flexing the finely-jointed fingers thoughtfully. “Protometal--I guess the closest Earth parallel would be the human nervous system, though they’re not really equivalent. It’s the … substrate, the foundation, of all Cybertronian frametypes. It’s not really solid or liquid but a malleable substance like nothing else. It’s essential for frame integration; along with the transformation cog, it’s what gives Cybertronians our transforming capability.” He concentrated--and the plating in his forearm folded outward, parts shifting to the sides, exposing vulnerable internal struts and the complex internals for Mikaela’s inspection. “My frametype doesn’t have as much as the bigger mecha do, but you should be able to see the protometal down in the joins … here, and here.” Flipsides tilted his arm helpfully into the light as Mikaela squinted down at it. “See it? That’s what healthy protometal usually looks like. It’s threaded through almost every part of an adult mech’s frame. Sparklings, of course, are mostly protometal; as they get older, they learn to incorporate larger pieces, larger frames.”
“Sparklings. Those are like--the hatchlings that Sam and the others were talking about?” Which, quite frankly, was breaking her brain in more ways than one. Baby robots were hard enough to wrap her mind around, much less the idea of *Starscream* as a parent.
Flipsides nodded. “Yes. Sparkling is another word for hatchling--they’re interchangeable, pretty much. Mechling is usually used for an older mech who still isn’t quite an adult, like Que or Hot Rod.”
“So … a hatchling is like a baby. And a mechling is like a kid? Or a teenager?” Mikaela said, feeling her way around the new concepts. “This is so weird. I’d never thought about you guys having babies like humans do. I guess I thought you always just … well,” she mimed snapping two pieces together in the air, “-built new people whenever you needed them, you know?”
“Oh, we do that too,” Flipsides said easily. Then he sobered. “Or we did, when we had the Allspark. You built a frame--or a bunch of frames--with basic coding, brought them to the Allspark, and let it enspark them with life. Much faster than sparking hatchlings, even if results were often a bit more … predictable? Unimaginative? But with the Allspark gone … well, we can’t do that anymore.”
“I’m sorry,” Mikaela said softly.
Folding his armor back into place over his arm, Flipsides gave her the ghost of smile. “It’s okay. It … was a shock, when Blaster got the news. I guess we thought the Allspark would always be there, no matter what. No matter how many of us died.” He looked down at Smokescreen’s darkened optics and reached out to pat the side of that battered helm. “Which is why the hatchlings--and saving as many mecha as we can--are so important to Optimus. We’ve lost so many…. We always thought we’d have the Allspark to help us rebuild, you know? Now--without it, without creator-mecha--well, Optimus will be our last Prime.” He looked over at her. “I can’t even begin to imagine what that must feel like.”
Mikaela frowned. “Wait--what about that other thing Ratchet was talking about? The whole budding thing? Can’t Optimus just … make a mini-Optimus?”
Flipsides shook his head. “He could, but … Primes are sparked as dyads. Every Prime has a Lord Protector, every Lord Protector a Prime; twin sparks, created together. Optimus could perhaps create a Prime-spark, but without its twin, the hatchling would be hopelessly unbalanced. Glitched.” He looked grim. “Such a spark … likely would not survive long.”
“Optimus has a *twin*?” Mikaela tried to imagine Optimus having a brother and failed. Optimus Prime had so much presence, could infuse so much power into the barest word … it was impossible to imagine another mech that could even come close to matching him.
Flipsides gave her a surprised look. “Of course. He wouldn’t be a Prime if he didn’t,” he said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "Even now, Megatron is still his brother, still the Lord High Protector of Cybertron. Even if there’s not much left on Cybertron to protect.”
Mikaela gaped at him, speechless. Flipsides cycled his optics, tilting his helm to one side. “You honestly didn’t know?”
“No! Why didn’t anyone tell me? Does Sam know about this?” And if he did and hadn’t told her, Mikaela was going to strangle him. “How can--how does that even work? Optimus--he isn’t anything like Megatron!” Megatron was a monster, a ruthless, genocidal war machine bent on conquest. How the hell could patient, self-sacrificing Optimus have someone like that as a brother? “They don’t even look alike,” she added somewhat desperately, struggling to make sense of it all.
Now it was Flipsides turn to be confused. “No. Why would they?” He paused, obviously querying Teletraan once again, and realization dawned. “Oh--no, dyads aren’t like human twins. They’re more like--two halves of a whole. Or they should be.”
He looked downward, refusing to meet her eyes for the first time. “But the bond between Optimus and Megatron was broken a long time ago. Maybe this truce will give them a chance to come to terms, but it’s been so long …. It’s almost too much to hope for.”
“After everything Megatron’s done, I’m surprised anyone would be willing to forgive him,” Mikaela said. She only knew bits and pieces, her own experiences added to scraps of war stories told by Sideswipe and the others, but even those had been horrifying enough. Stories of whole planets laid waste, stripped bare by Decepticons … betrayals and broken treaties and atrocity upon atrocity, all told by Autobots who’d been fighting for so long that they couldn’t imagine living any other way.
“I know it’s hard to imagine,” Flipsides said softly, “but we weren’t always this way. We didn’t always hate each other like this.” He hunched his pauldrons in an oddly humanlike shrug. “Ratchet would call me naive, but … I still have to hope. That we can go back to that, someday ….”
Mikaela was pretty sure she was in Ratchet’s camp on that one, but it would have taken a far more heartless person than she was to tell Flipsides that. She laid a gentle hand on one red- and white-armored arm, giving him a smile. “I think that there are worse things to hope for.” Which was nothing but the truth, no matter how unlikely it was that Flipsides’ hopes would be rewarded.
On the other hand … they’d already seen Optimus come back from the dead. How hard could one more miracle be?
Smokescreen was not an impatient mech. He was sparked to be careful, to be poised and exacting; a code specialist who didn’t have those skills was, quite frankly, not very good at their function. And while Smokescreen had never been quite as well-known for his work as perhaps he could have been--he’d been a bit too unconventional in his solutions, a bit too willing to take risks when the odds merited it--he was still very, very good at his job.
Still, every mech had his limits.
He recognized the darkness around him, of course. Even with higher functions shut down, the spark knew this place -- and how fascinating was that? There were things missing, differences between what he had known before, and what he still knew now … yet somehow those things seemed unimportant. Distant. His spark recognized stasis, that protective blanket of darkness, both like and unlike recharge. Dimly, he knew that stasis meant his frame had been damaged, remembered distant echoes of fire and desperation and a final, shuddering crash …
… but that hand was played. What pain there had been now safely resided in a frame that could no longer register it, and tucked safe within the darkness, Smokescreen was … bored.
As if summoned by that thought, the darkness changed. There were … impressions in it, sensations without feeling. Vibrations, subtly changing …. Curious, he rose towards them, only to come up against a barrier. He reached out, explored it. The walls were familiar, had Ratchet’s purely utilitarian resonances, and he recognized them as surgical code. Blocks, to keep him under, keep him safely in stasis.
Ratchet, always the worrier. With a deft twist, Smokescreen flickered his way past, untangling the blocks and setting them aside. He was tired of being safe; his spark flared, *reached*--
“--so this color means ‘friend’. And this one means ‘family’?”
There was the familiar sensation of fluctuating fields, their variances changing, shifting. Another, far deeper voice reverberated against his audials, the sound thrumming through his frame.
“Yes. Many colors, friends.” He could feel the prickle of a powerful field upon his haptic sensors. Which were now online, Smokescreen belatedly realized.
“Wait--so you’re saying--so that color means ‘friend’. But so does that color, and that color--that whole spectrum. Really? Plus those colors over there? And these variances all mean family? Why are there so many--”
“Friends are impor-tant.”
Well, yes, Smokescreen would have to agree with that …
“Friends, diff-erent. Family-friend. Parent friend. Hogarth … soul-friend. Diff-erent than Autobot-friends. Friends important. Differences … are also important.”
Okay, now that was just too interesting to ignore. Smokescreen shunted aside internal diagnostics as they reported their litany of recent repairs and pushed himself fully online. His optics flickered, an unfamiliar rocky ceiling snapping into focus. Secondary optics shifted--yes, there was Ratchet, watching him with a resigned air, annoyance/happiness prickling over his plating.
“I don’t know why I even bother trying to keep you under, Smokey. One of these days you’re going to come back online and find your internals still in pieces.” Ratchet’s tone was acerbic, but his field was warm. “Welcome back, my friend. Your first patient has been waiting for you.”
“My first … what?” A massive shape leaned into his optical range, blocking out the lights overhead. Gray plating, haloed by a brilliant field, and an alien, blunt-featured helm all came into view. A four-fingered hand--as large as Smokescreen was tall--waved hello.
“Smokescreen, this is the Giant,” Ratchet said drily, his amusement plain. Perceptor and Wheeljack both poked their helms into view around the strange mech’s bulk, pinging him with greetings of welcome/joy. “Giant, meet Smokescreen. I’m sure you’ll both have a great deal to talk about.”
Sam yawned, scrubbing one hand--the one not clutching his coffee--over his eyes as he waited for the main door to the embassy to rumble open. Normally he would have taken the smaller, human-sized entrance to the outside, but right now, he wasn’t feeling especially motivated to face the day. These red-eye flights back and forth from D.C. were going to be the death of him. He’d gotten back at 3 a.m. this morning and managed to catch a whole four hours of sleep before his jetlagged self had been rousted out of bed by an apologetic Teletraan for another conference call. So as far as he was concerned, sunshine was the enemy, and anything that postponed the inevitable for a few extra moments was good in his book.
A full night’s sleep. Was that too much to ask for? Apparently the Pentagon thought so. Not to mention the U.N. And the President. It was a sad day for humanity when giant alien mecha were more respectful of a man’s need for sleep than his fellow humans, Sam thought grouchily, squinting his eyes against the glare as the door finally swung open. He stepped forward--
--only to stagger back again as a wave of noise--shouting and whooping, engines revving and tires squealing--assaulted his ears. The last vestiges of Sam’s jetlag vanished in a wash of adrenaline as he ducked outside, craning his neck, looking for an attack.
“Teletraan, what’s going on? What’s wrong? Are we under--” he stopped short, goggling at the sight of Hound and Mirage--dancing? Were they dancing? Because that sure as hell looked like two giant alien robots doing a very undignified boogie, with Dino tire-skating in gleeful circles around them. And they weren’t the only ones. Everywhere Sam saw Autobots whooping in delight, shouting in Cybertronian and English, back-slapping each other--adding the clang of metal on metal to the noise--hoisting weapons or closed fists high. Some of the bigger ‘bots were even tossing the smaller ones in the air, or transforming into their alts and making donuts in the sandy gravel, flinging dirt everywhere in gleeful abandon.
Spotting a bemused Hughes and the Giant sitting off to one side, safely out of the madness, Sam hurried over. “What’s going on?” he half-shouted, trying to be heard over the noise.
“Not sure,” Hughes said, shaking his head in bemusement. “Was a pretty normal morning--then next thing you know, boom! Instant party.” He shrugged. “Guess they got some good news?”
“Good news? The best!” Sideswipe jumped down from a nearby boulder-pile. “Teletraan-1 just got the word from Cosmos--they’re coming!” He did a fist-pump, then grabbed an unimpressed Sunstreaker and tried to twirl his brother around. “Reinforcements in spades, oh yeah!”
Sunstreaker scowled, shoving his brother away. “Getoff, you glitch!”
Sideswipe just grinned, alien faceplates spreading in fierce delight. “Two gestalts! Two! And Skyfire! Those fragging Seekers aren’t gonna know what hit ‘em!” In lieu of Sunstreaker, he grabbed Cliffjumper instead, swinging the smaller mech around. “Best! Present! Ever!”
“Two! We’re gonna stomp Starscream’s aft so hard, he’ll have footprints on his backside until the next Golden Age! Oh yeah!” Sideswipe ran off, a flailing Cliffjumper tucked under one arm like a football.
Sam watched them go, blinking. Then looked over at an unimpressed Sunstreaker. “So … reinforcements?” He didn’t recall this kind of impromptu party breaking out when they’d heard about the Axalon.
Sunstreaker gave him a flat, unimpressed look. “Obviously.” He stalked away.
“Riiiight … okay. Not getting any answers there,” Sam muttered. Then he spotted a familiar form, and brightened. “Bumblebee!” He waved a hand, and the yellow mech waved back, weaving and half-dancing his way through the rambunctious throng to where they were. “Bumblebee, what’s going on?”
“Sam!” Bumblebee’s faceplates weren’t really equipped to smile, but the yellow mech was obviously happy, his doorwings perked high. “That’s right, you were asleep. We just got word--two new groups of Autobots are heading to Earth. Including the Aerialbots and the Protectobots and Skyfire. We’ll finally have some air support, and two gestalts to boot!”
“Ges-whats?” Hughes asked.
“Gestalts--like the Constructicons. Remember them, Sam?” Seeing Hughes’ incomprehension, Bumblebee elaborated. “They’re individual mecha that are designed to join together into one huge combined form. They’re powerhouses on the battlefield; with both Superion and Defensor on Earth, we’ll finally have the upper hand against Starscream.”
“Oh wow, no wonder everybody’s partying.” Sam glanced over at Hughes. “This is great. We’ll have our own fliers, and the Giant gets to have guys his own size to stomp around with!”
“That is good news,” Hughes agreed, glancing up at the Giant. “The more, the merrier, right?”
Mrs. Hughes emerged from the base interior, did the same double-take as Sam had earlier, then headed over, two coffee mugs in hand. She handed one over to Hogarth, smiling. “Anyone care to fill me in?”
“Bumblebee was just telling us the news,” Sam told her, resisting the urge to dance a bit himself. “They got word, there’s--”
Sam never got the chance to finish his sentence. The words were buried underneath the noise of an explosion, quickly followed by more concussive blasts that shook the mountain underneath them. The ear-shattering thunder of engines quickly followed, rocks and fire raining down upon the embassy and the Autobots caught outside.
“Inside, quickly!” Bumblebee shouted over the din, doing his best to shelter the three humans. Caught by surprise, the Autobots scrambled for cover, running for emplacements or opening fire on the Decepticons dropping out of the sky.
A massive--and unfamiliar--shuttle darkened the sky high above the embassy entrance, disgorging tankframes and Decepticon frontliners. It seemed impervious to the artillery pounding at its plating, and more than happy to return fire, its blasts tearing the outside structures apart, rattling the mountainside. And beyond it, streaking in--Seekers, coming in low, racing across the desert at supersonic speeds.
Long experience had Sam ducking, grabbing for both of his friends. “Go go go--get inside!” Ignoring a nearby explosion, he pushed them towards the embassy entrance. “We need to get under cover!” The middle of a battle between giant mecha was no place for civilians, much less ones as elderly as Hogarth and Anjali.
“Giant!” Bumblebee shouted, firing several blasts of his plasma cannon at the nearest Decepticon frontliner, sending the other mech reeling backwards. “Go! Get them inside, keep yourselves safe!”
With a nod, the Giant turned. Sam yelped as he was unceremoniously scooped up into a broad, gray-armored palm along with the others, and lifted upwards with dizzying speed. “What the--whoah!”
“Keep safe,” the Giant rumbled, cradling them carefully as he ran for the entrance. For a mech his size, it was only a few long strides away; still, Sam could feel him flinching at each new explosion, could hear the familiar sounds of battle beyond those massive shoulders. The pounding of the Giant’s feet against the earth simply added to the din. Darkness swept over them: the embassy’s main entrance, the main blast doors already rumbling shut as they passed into the safety of the mountain.
“Are you both all right?” Sam asked, helping Hughes and Anjali disentangle themselves as the Giant carefully lowered them to the ground.
“I--I think so,” Mrs. Hughes replied, obviously shaken, eyes wide and scared. “What just happened? What’s going on?”
“Those were Decepticons,” Sam said, his face grim as he turned to lead the way to safer environs. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same .... “And it looks like they just decided to declare war.”
Bumblebee ducked under the swing of an energon blade, hammering a closed fist into a vulnerable join in the Decepticon frontliner’s thorax. Armor crumpled under the blow, hampering the jointed struts underneath, and he followed it up with a point-blank blast from his cannon even as he kicked his opponent away.
-Runabout- a subthread reported, recognizing the black-and-red frame of the Decepticon frontliner under the higher-priority processes of his battle processor: threat assessments, combat conditions, added to the constant ebb and flow of information from the Autobot tacnet. Instinct had him feeding in that designation to Teletraan, who ensured the intel was disseminated at the speed of thought.
//Runabout here--// he reported, even as the Decepticon snarled. Runabout had a good-sized hole in his chassis, courtesy of Bumblebee’s earlier attack, but that didn’t seem to be slowing him down much. Snarling, the Decepticon opened fire, sending Bumblebee diving for cover. //Keep an eye out--he and Runamuck are usually together--//
//--was about to drop on your aft, ‘Bee, but I took ‘im out. He’s not offline, but I got a good shot in--he’s goin’ nowhere fast,// Jazz reported. A flicker of the tacnet showed the saboteur spinning between two tankframes in alt-mode, a dervish of speed and small-arms fire that kept the heavily-armored Decepticons off-balance and annoyed, even as the Wreckers rolled in. //One down, eleventy-billion ta go--how the frag did they sneak up on us like th--whoa!//
Jazz dodged, pouring on the speed as a Seeker missile exploded where he’d been a moment before. Debris rained down, clanging against nearby mecha, dust and roiling flame fogging the battlefield. One of the Decepticon tankframes--Bludgeon, the tacnet told him--transformed. He took a moment to shake an angry fist at the sky, apparently not pleased with his own side’s aim. Then he backhanded an attacking Dino with brutal ease, sending the smaller mecha flying.
New damage reports rolled in, a background hum of status-indicators. Dino, Bluestreak, Roadbuster, Kup … along with Ratchet’s acknowledging pings as the medic maneuvered for access, doing battlefield repairs when and where he could. So far none of the damage was serious, nothing that threatened deactivation, but Dino had been knocked offline by that last hit and Bludgeon obviously didn’t intend to give him a chance to recover. Through the tacnet, Bumblebee could only watch as the big mech brought his pede down in a crushing blow on the frontliner’s chassis--
--only to be knocked backwards by Mirage. The saboteur hit Bludgeon high, shimmering into sight as he launched himself onto the tankframe’s broad back. He slammed a energon needler into the join between cervical plating and helm even as Hound came in and tackled the tankframe, knocking the Decepticon backwards, away from Dino’s limp frame. Mirage fired at point-blank range, and Bludgeon roared, convulsing as energon-laced spikes tore through his internals.
//--Hound, pull Dino back to the NEST emplacements,// Prowl ordered coolly. Bumblebee could hear the rising and falling multilayered feeds of tactical chatter, the hum of weapons-fire, battle-data rolling over the tacnet from Prowl’s location. The Autobot tactician was fully engaged with a heloformer and two frontliners, maneuvering to get a clear shot. Prowl continued, answering Jazz, //Astrotrain dropped in from low Earth orbit while Sky Spy was on the far side of the planet--the Seekers came in low, under human radar. Threat assessment: Conehead trine, Command trine minus Starscream, four frontliners, two tankframes, one airframe, one shuttlemech and one rotary frame.// Known designations and enemy profiles pinged back and forth across the tacnet as the battlefield shifted and more of their enemies became known. -Hailstorm. Jetblade. Bombshock. Thrust. Dirge. Skywarp-
//Heads-up, folks--looks like Thundercracker is the mech in charge,// Blaster reported. //I’m gettin’ encrypted comm traffic from him like nobody’s business, and Starscream’s nowhere to be found.//
//I have an angle on him--just need to line up a good shot,// Bluestreak reported, distance and elevation calculations humming behind his glyphs. //Having trouble getting clear, I’m in too close and there are too many airframes, plus Skywarp keeps popping in and out and--// Bumblebee relegated Bluestreak’s constant updates to a secondary monitoring channel; the Praxian sniper was on the far side of the embassy grounds, too far for him to assist.
Sideswipe and Sunstreaker’s side of the tacnet came alive with vicious satisfaction. Their combined efforts had knocked Dirge out of the air, the Seeker spiralling downward, trailing smoke and flame. //Think you’re hot slag, do ya? Let’s see how you like it--fuck!// Another flurry of code over the tacnet, this time acknowledgements and responses as Inferno’s active-status tripped over in a cascade of damage reports and redlined errors. //Fragging Skywarp--got the jump on us! Inferno’s down.//
//Acknowledged.// Prowl again, fitting in the data, shifting tactics and reprioritizing new targets over the tacnet as Autobots fought, taking damage and falling under the Decepticons’ unrelenting push towards the embassy. //Ratchet--//
//Got it, already on my way--//
//Negative.// The imperatives on those glyphs were jarring, absolute in their command. //Do NOT expose yourself, Ratchet. It is almost certain that the Decepticons are targeting you; we cannot risk losing our only fully-framed medic needlessly.//
//Slaggit, Prowl, I’m not going to--//
//I am falling back, Ratchet.// Optimus this time, glyphs resonant with authority. //We will get Inferno to cover.// Optimus was currently engaged in exchanging fire with both Astrotrain and a pair of Decepticon grounders. The grounders, at least, weren’t stupid; they were keeping their distance, pummelling Optimus with missiles and small-arms fire.
Despite their best efforts, they were only slowing the advance, Bumblebee realized even as he spun and fired and fought. Runabout retreated, falling back towards the tankframes and the protection of their greater firepower, though not without a few more shots in Bumblebee’s general direction. Ignoring his former opponent for the moment, Bumblebee dodged towards the swirl of artillery and explosions that marked where Optimus was. The Wreckers apparently had the same idea, converging on their Prime’s position, using it as a rallying point like they had so many times before.
They’d faced worse odds, but that still didn’t mean these were good. Even with the arrival of the Axalon, the Autobots simply did not have the sheer numbers needed to repulse such an attack without casualties. The attacking force was much smaller than they’d faced in Chicago--about the same numbers as Egypt--but the Decepticons still had the advantage when it came to firepower. Lennox and the other members of NEST stationed at the embassy had already fallen back, taking cover behind the Autobot lines, manning emplacements and doing their best to sabotage the Decepticons’ advance. But unlike Chicago, their tactics no longer had the element of surprise, and there were no human structures here in which to hide. Between the Seekers’ aerial superiority and the tankframes holding the line on the ground, the Autobots were being forced back, one wounded mech at a time.
Bumblebee transformed, screeching between explosions as he weaved through a gauntlet of cannon-fire, heading towards the thick of the fray. They needed to take out the Seekers. If they could cripple the Decepticons’ air support, the groundframes would be forced to fall back quickly enough. Transforming again, he leaped over the slagged, burning remnants of a NEST sentry post, firing upwards at the nearest Decepticon--an unknown rotary, blades folded to either side of his pauldrons as he sliced his way through the smaller Autobots around him.
Bumblebee dodged a swing of the airframe’s plasma-edged blade. Giving ground, he looked for weaknesses, trying to lure the big mech into an opening he could exploit. Out of nowhere came the audial-shattering crack of a sonic boom at close range--the abrupt change air pressure beat against his plating, knocking him off his pedes and sending systems into redline from the overpressure.
Fragging Thundercracker! He could hear the others cursing, even as they scrambled to recover lost ground. The longer they stayed outside the mountain, the more they risked being overrun. They should retreat, let the Decepticons exhaust themselves against the embassy’s defenses. But if they allowed themselves to be pinned down, the humans would undoubtedly find time to mobilize--and then more human pilots would die trying to defend their airspace against Seekers who didn’t care whom it belonged to.
A boulder took the brunt of a nearby missile hit; Bumblebee ducked as flying debris rattled against his plating. He returned fire, letting Optimus and the Wreckers concentrate their firepower on the heavily-armored tankframes while he did his best to take out the frontliners. The lines were forming up, the Decepticons digging in. Bumblebee spotted a few smoking frames to the rear -Bombshock, Ransack-, and Dirge had been grounded. But that still left far too many Decepticons in the fray, including Skywarp, who was fragging impossible to get a bead on at the best of times. And who, Bumblebee realized with belated alarm, was nowhere to be seen. Where was--
//Wheeljack!// The engineer’s spike of alarm rippled through the tacnet, along with Cliffjumper and Seaspray’s dismay. //--slag, Skywarp’s got Wheeljack, he dropped in behind us! Come back here, you fragging--//
//Cliffjumper, Seaspray, don’t expose your position-// Prowl ordered, but it was already too late. Skywarp thundered into the sky, an offlined Wheeljack wrapped tight in grappling cables, banking and twisting through a hail of energon blasts as Cliffjumper roared in rage. Que and Seaspray were right behind him, firing impotently upwards, hampered by their unwillingness to hit their fellow Autobot. Springer leaped into the air, transforming in a last-ditch attempt to try and intercept the Seeker--Ramjet and Astrotrain hammered him from above, sending him into a smoking, twisting spiral towards the ground.
//Wheeljack!// The cry came from multiple voices, multiple minds. Ratchet and Optimus and Jazz and himself, raging at their helplessness, still pinned, still groundbound as they watched Thundercracker swing in, taking up position on Skywarp’s wing as the two Seekers streaked away. They fired and fought and raged, but Bumblebee knew there was nothing they could do to keep the Seekers from escaping with their prize--
--when the air above the mountain twisted in a wash of cross-dimensional energies. A riptide of air sucked in to fill the sudden vacuum, and a massive white-armored bulk dropped out of the newly-opened spacebridge, streaking into Earth’s upper atmosphere.
//Skyfire!// Bumblebee shouted joyfully, not caring who heard.
He wasn’t alone. A rear hatch opened, and five smaller figures launched themselves, transforming in midair to a familiar quintet of Cybertronian airframes, clad in bright Autobot colors. Engines igniting, they cut through the air, faster and more maneuverable than any human craft, roaring down to engage the Decepticon Seekers.
The shuttlemech wasted no time in joining the engagement, thundering down from above with the roar of atmospheric engines. //Skyfire here-// came the welcome call, even as the tacnet flowered open in enthusiastic welcome.
//-Fireflight/Skydive/Slingshot/Air Raid/Silverbolt- reporting in,// came the overlapping hails from the Aerialbots, colored by concern, enthusiastic glee, and the five-toned intermingled glyphs characteristic of a gestalt team. //Looks like you got an infestation, Optimus,// Air Raid added. //Mind if we help clear the air?//
//Skywarp has Wheeljack,// Prowl interjected, his message laden with imperative modifiers. //We cannot allow him to get away. If any of you are in position to intercept--//
The fighting on the ground hadn’t lessened, but it was obvious the battle-lines had shifted. The Decepticon airframes were in disarray, taken off-guard by the unexpected challengers to their domain, trines maneuvering, trying to form up and beat off the new wave of attackers.
//Understood,// came Silverbolt’s reply, echoed by acknowledging pings from the rest.
Bumblebee couldn’t afford to spare more than a tertiary processing thread for the dogfight that followed, not with the Decepticon groundframes pressing their assault. It was obvious that the Decepticons had been taken by surprise by the unexpected reinforcements, and the frontliners and tankframes were scrambling to push the Autobot defenders back before *they* were the ones caught out in the open. Even with most of his attention focussed on the enemies in front of him, though, it was impossible to ignore the furious aerial battle overhead, airframes and Seekers jinking and spinning through the sky in a firestorm of energon blasts and missile fire.
Skyfire and Astrotrain were also in the fray. Less maneuverable, they were far more heavily armed and armored than their lighter brethren, powerhouses of the air. The tacnet flared with warning; Bumblebee threw himself sideways to avoid a stray cannon-blast as the two shuttles roared low. Skywarp had been forced back around, he noticed, unable to get clear--
//I’m on his tail/got him boxed in/force him down--got him!// the jumble of gestalt communication resolved into Silverbolt’s command-comm. //Wheeljack’s clear, though Skywarp’s still in the fight. Bringing him down to you guys-//
//Drop him here, Silverbolt, if you can. I’m already working on Inferno, might as well have two idiots for the price of one-// Ratchet, harried and acerbic, even as a swell of relief resonated across the tacnet.
Bumblebee transformed, streaking to the forefront to join Sunstreaker and Hot Rod. Bludgeon had fallen back, too heavily damaged to continue the press forward, and Prowl had been quick to exploit that opening. Bumblebee and the other frontliners were now the point of a wedge formed by Optimus and the Wreckers, providing the firepower to splinter the Decepticon advance and allow their heavies to close with their enemies.
The whirl dissolved into a swirl of fire and fury and close-quarters combat, higher processes overridden by the demands of battle, of action-reaction-defense. Transforming, tearing at plating, firing at joins and at faceplates, exploiting vulnerabilities there and gone within astroseconds: this was what Bumblebee had been made for, and something deep in his spark exulted in it, in the test of his prowess and the imperatives of war. He smashed a taloned fist into Runamuck’s faceplates, spun as an energon blade sizzled over his head. Sidestepped out of the way as Optimus lent his strength to the battle, charged forward to tackle a snarling Bludgeon, metal fragmenting, flying with the impact.
//--c’mon c’mon so close almost there lining up yes yes GOT HIM yes!--// Bluestreak’s victorious glee broke through his priority queues. The tacnet belatedly added information to the sniper’s ramble: Bluestreak had finally gotten a clear shot at Thundercracker. The Seeker was falling, trailing fire--one wing had been sheared completely off by Bluestreak’s shot, energon igniting in the air and across the Seeker’s blue plating.
The reaction from the Decepticon forces was immediate. In a flash of purple, Skywarp flickered into sight on one side of his falling trinemate, grapples reaching out, latching on. Another localized warp, and they were both clear of the fray, streaking away with all the speed Skywarp could muster.
//They’re making a run for it!// Fireflight, caught up in the chase.
//It’s lookin’ like they’re not the only ones, either,// Jazz said, and Bumblebee had to agree. With Thundercracker out of commission, the Decepticons were scrambling to disengage, both on the ground and in the air. Astrostrain swooped low; a few managed to make it aboard before the shuttleframe took off again, Skyfire hot on his tail. The rest transformed into alts and peeled out in all directions, scattering, leaving their offlined battle-brothers behind as they ran. //Tryin’ to chase down Seekers is a fool’s game, but we might be able ta box in the grounders now that the Aerials are here. You want us ta go after ‘em?//
//Negative,// came Optimus’ command. //Red Alert, Prowl--track the Decepticons’ movements, and alert the human authorities. Capture as many as you can here at the embassy, but recovering our wounded and the defense of Yucca Mountain has first priority. We cannot afford to spread ourselves thin hunting down stragglers.//
//Got it,// Jazz replied, overriding the grumbles from both Wreckers and Aerialbots. There were a few scattered shots from Decepticon stragglers, and Silverbolt had his hands full corralling Slingshot and Air Raid into line. Still, the worst seemed to be over. //Alright, we’ve had our fun. Report in, kiddies--time for cleanup duty.//
Bumblebee kept his weapons ready-hot, his sensor arrays on their widest possible range as he moved through the embassy outskirts, checking for traps and offlined Decepticons. He didn’t think the Decepticons had bothered with mines or any other nasty surprises--their objective had been to strike hard and pull out with their prizes, near as he could tell--but that didn’t mean the Autobots could afford to get cocky. Soundwave might no longer be on-planet, but Starscream was a sneaky son of a glitch. Bumblebee wouldn’t put it past him to have used this ambush as an opportunity for surveillance or sabotage in addition to testing their defenses.
Thus far, though, he hadn’t found anything. Not even any Decepticons playing ‘possum’, as the humans liked to put it; all the frames he had found were well and truly offline, and not likely to wake up anytime soon. Not without a medic’s help, at least. He prodded Ransack’s half-slagged frame with one pede. As much as he liked a good fight, the aftermath never seemed to get any easier. Nor did the realization that with Megatron offworld, the Allspark gone … there just didn’t seem to be much point to it anymore.
//Southeast inner quadrant, clear,// he reported in, flagging the appropriate area for Teletraan.
He left Ransack behind for pickup. Hoist and the others would be along eventually. He wasn’t sure what Optimus intended to do with this new batch of Decepticon prisoners. It wasn’t like giving them back to Megatron--again--was an option. Though given these were technically defectors, Bumblebee didn’t think much of their chances if Megatron ever got his talons on them. Which would undoubtedly factor in to whatever decision Optimus made. Thankfully, though, that wasn’t his problem.
Stepping over a buckled segment of fractured armor plate, he topped a small rise--and stopped short in surprise as his optics picked up a familiar gray frame down below. What was the Giant doing out here? Bumblebee had assumed the big mech was still safe inside the mountain with Sam and the others.
“Giant?” The yellow frontliner hurried over, pinging Ratchet with an update as he went. He didn’t think the aftermath of a battle was likely to trip the Giant’s defensive protocols, but that still didn’t mean it was anything they wanted the gentle mech to see. “Is something wrong?” he asked, looking him over for damage or other signs of distress. The only indicator he could find, however, was in the Giant’s field, which was unusually muted, flowing with dark, desaturated swirls of color.
“Friends broken,” the Giant said sadly, looking at the scattered bits of broken weaponry and other battlefield debris at his feet. He took a few careful steps forward, obviously trying very hard not to crush any of the metal bits underpede. It was a difficult task, to say the least.
“Don’t worry,” Bumblebee said, loading his field up with comforting resonances. “We took a few hard hits, but it’s nothing Ratchet can’t fix.” He moved closer, reaching out to pat the nearest gray leg in reassurance. “Are you looking for anything in particular?”
The Giant nodded. “I find parts, help fix.” Scanning the area, he took a couple long strides over to a jumbled heap of torn up dirt and fractured metal. Crouching, he dug fingers into the pile, and pulled out a long, curving piece of plating.
A blue piece of plating, with a purple Decepticon insignia emblazoned on it. As the Giant straightened, Bumblebee could see the shape more clearly. It was a wing. More importantly, it was *Thundercracker’s* wing. Bumblebee winced.
“Um--Giant. That’s not … well, that mech …” Bumblebee fumbled for words, not sure what to do. Let the Giant take it back to Ratchet? Tell him just to leave it? It certainly wasn’t going to be of any use to anyone, though he knew the Wreckers would probably try to tack it to the wall as a trophy given half a chance. “That’s not from one of ours, Giant,” he finally said, settling on a compromise. “We’re not going to be able to use that to fix anyone. You can just leave it there, if you want ….” He trailed off, craning his helm upwards. “Giant?”
The big mech’s simple faceplates had shifted into an unhappy frown as he turned the wing over, looking at it. One finger traced the insignia, then the slagged edges where Bluestreak’s shot had torn through the metal. The Giant looked up at the sky--then downward, round white optics meeting Bumblebee’s worried blue.
“Parts belong to-gether.” The words had an odd resonance to them, and Bumblebee belatedly realized that the Giant’s dark field was changing, the dark colors now shot through with threads of bright green, brilliant white arcs lighting up the edges of inchoate shapes.
“What? Giant, I don’t think--”
“Parts belong to-gether,” the Giant said again. Cradling the wing as if it were a sparkling, he took one long step back. Then another. “I fix.”
“What? No, wait--!” But it was too late. The Giant crouched, then leaped into the sky, the thrusters on his pedes igniting with a roar.
Bumblebee stumbled backwards under the backwash, flinching at the heat and pressure that beat against his sensory arrays. In the few astroseconds it took him to recover his footing, the Giant was already a tiny black shape receding into the distance. Heading east to Iran--and to the Decepticons.
//Starscream won’t abandon us.// Thundercracker’s comm broke Skywarp out of his ever-tightening spiral of worry, the other Seeker’s calm providing, as always, counterweight to his wing-partner’s frenetic speculations. Thundercracker couldn’t hide his apprehension entirely, though, and an undercurrent of resignation/sorrow filtered through. //Not when he still needs us. For the hatchlings’ sake, if nothing else.// Though all that might change once the clutch of hatchlings became fully-framed, adult warframes. Most of them would be Seekers--that much they already knew, given Starscream’s obsession with creating ever faster, ever stronger airframes. And Skywarp wouldn’t put it past Starscream to decide to create new trinemates for himself, especially if he deemed the current ones no longer of use.
Warnings for violence, and mentions of hatchling (infant) neglect and/or abuse, though nothing explicit or acted on. And much, much gratitude to Fractalserpent, who stepped in as co-author for this chapter, and who was invaluable in making Starscream and co. a great deal more badass and Decepticon-ly!
The leaden weight of Thundercracker’s frame was a heavy drag on his speed, even with the other Seeker clinging as close as his injuries allowed to Skywarp’s underchassis. Dirge’s trine hadn’t fared much better; under normal circumstances Skywarp might have been inclined to gloat, but right now it wasn’t very comforting. They’d left the Aerialsnots behind, at least, and none of the natives’ pathetic craft stood a chance of catching them in the air--but that didn’t lessen the apprehensive clench of his spark as he thought of what lay ahead.
Starscream … was not going to be happy.
Thundercracker stirred, effortlessly reading his wing-partner’s worry. He opened a limited comm-channel, careful not to let his own pain bleed over to his trinemates. //--don’t worry, ‘Warp. Was my call. My idea.//
//I don’t think taking the blame will be enough, TC. Starscream … he doesn’t listen to us anymore. This could be worse than him ripping up your plating. This--what if he finally breaks the trine?//
Next to losing the sky entirely, it was every Seeker’s greatest fear. The breaking of a trine: the loss of the two mecha that guarded your wings, that made the whole greater than the sum of its parts, whom you trusted to command and be commanded by in turn. For thousands of vorn, ever since Cometary’s death, the greatest weakness and the greatest strength of their trine had always been Starscream. Without that strength… none of them would survive. Not now, when there weren’t even enough Seekers left to fill an entire flight, much less any that either of them would consider as a wing-partner.
Out between the stars, a broken trine might be able to survive … for a while. Until Megatron caught up to them, at least. But on this mudball, full of hostile natives and even more dangerous Autobots … a broken trine stood no chance at all. Skywarp just wished he knew whether Starscream was still sane enough to see that.
//Starscream won’t abandon us.// Thundercracker’s comm broke Skywarp out of his ever-tightening spiral of worry, the other Seeker’s calm providing, as always, counterweight to his wing-partner’s frenetic speculations. Thundercracker couldn’t hide his apprehension entirely, though, and an undercurrent of resignation/sorrow filtered through. //Not when he still needs us. For the hatchlings’ sake, if nothing else.// Though all that might change once the clutch of hatchlings became fully-framed, adult warframes. Most of them would be Seekers--that much they already knew, given Starscream’s obsession with creating ever faster, ever stronger airframes. And Skywarp wouldn’t put it past Starscream to decide to create new trinemates for himself, especially if he deemed the current ones no longer of use.
Though given the hatchlings’ age--or lack of it--they wouldn’t need to worry about that for at least a few decavorn. Or at all, if his newest creations failed to measure up to Starscream’s exacting standards.
//You’re right, TC,// Skywarp said, resolutely pushing away his worries, focussing on the problems nearer to hand. Get back home. Survive Starscream’s wrath. Get Thundercracker fixed. Thundercracker’s wing … they’d been forced to leave it behind. And they’d already used most of their scavenged cybertronium and other offworld metals for other repairs. Without raw materials, without a true medic or engineer, could Thundercracker even be fixed? On Cybertron, even without a medic, Thundercracker’s self-repair would be able to take care of the damage on its own. He might be groundbound for a decavorn, but his wing would heal. But here ….
No. One thing at a time. Get back home. The rest … the rest he would have to leave to Starscream.
Primus help them all.
Processors restarted, rerouted around new damage. System after system reported in, a cascade of redlines, pain-responses and self-repair reroutes that flooded his cortex with reports of -torn plating, overstressed circuitry, weapons offline, transformation cog offline, gyros damaged, equilibrium compromised- too many to handle, to comprehend. Not that it mattered against the all-consuming red agony of his missing wing. He remembered vaguely that he’d blocked off the worst of the damage earlier; why wasn’t the block working? And why was he lying on the ground, on his damaged side, with autorepair pinging irritated reports of -error error organic contamination- at him?
The rest of his memory nodes came online, unarchived files responding to his muddled query, attaching a source to the familiar ache in his frame: a null ray blast, at point-blank range. Starscream had been angry, had--
His audials and optics came online, but understanding lagged a nanoklick behind, sensory input taking second priority to damage reports. It took a moment to put meaning to what his audials were telling him: Starscream, still verbally shredding Skywarp and the rest of their ill-fated retrieval team, vocalizer crackling with furious static as his voice rose to a hunter’s shriek.
“--you! Any of you! Even if you had succeeded, did you really think the Prime was going to let you keep his precious medic? Or the rest of Autoscum? Especially without any human hostages to leverage? How dare you go behind my back! You pathetic, half-clocked pieces of scrap--I should take you apart myself! The hatchlings can obviously put those processors to better use than you can!” Starscream’s familiar frame was a smear of white, red, and blue, haloed and indistinct as Thundercracker’s optics tried to focus, but the movement as he wheeled on Skywarp’s darker form was unmistakable. As was the prickling against Thundercracker’s plating--the building charge of a primed null ray cannon. “And as for *you*, Skywarp--”
Desperation had Thundercracker rerouting around damage queues, forcing up battle protocols enough to ignore his injuries, to push himself to his pedes. Once there, he staggered, tensors still numb from the aftereffects of the null ray. Skywarp stepped back, shouldering up to steady him, the two sides of their trine standing together against the third. Other than a brief status-inquiry check on Skywarp, Thundercracker kept his focus on Starscream. They couldn’t falter in this; not if they hoped to salvage what was left of their trine.
“Enough, Starscream.” Thundercracker kept his voice calm, tamping down his anger and building frustration. It was Starscream who’d gotten them into this, after all; who’d called them to Earth. At the time, Thundercracker hadn’t questioned it. Starscream had been Megatron’s second-in-command for hundreds of vorn. Over the course of the war, his ruthless cunning had eviscerated any number of would-be challengers in order to secure his position, and Skywarp and Thundercracker had always backed him, regardless of the cost.
For while it had been Starscream’s mad strokes of brilliance and strategic genius, balanced by Skywarp’s lethal fighting skills, that had lifted all of them to the very top of the Decepticon hierarchy, it was Thundercracker’s solidity, the ability to see things as they were and keep the others from flying too far in pursuit of their obsessions, that had kept them there.
It was a truth few grounders truly understood: that within the trine, all Seekers were equal.
Starscream, ruthless Air Commander of the Decepticons, answerable only to Lord Megatron himself, was also their trineleader--but only when the trine needed him to be. For the secret behind the Seekers’ mastery of the skies was not in the speed and precision of their flight, or even in their absolute command of three-dimensional space. It was in the flexibility of their trines: the ability of Seekers to bond and fly in threes, to exchange positions with a flicker of a thought and a brush of a wingtip, to provide three ever-changing faces of offense and defense that sliced through lesser aerial formations before their enemies even realized what they faced.
Rigid hierarchies, the formalities of Primes and Protectors, of officers and subordinates, might work well enough for grounders, might be necessary to maintain order and a chain of command. But Seekers--all Seekers--were lords of the air, each and every one. Not for them were the inflexible formations of grounders. In the sky, sacrificing the wings to protect the helm only served to ensure the death of the entire trine. Decisions were made in the circumstances of the moment, shifting and as changeable as the winds upon which they flew; not the stolid unity of a gestalt, but a three-part dance in which all the dancers fought and flew as one.
This equality was essential to being a Seeker--and was something that Starscream seemed to have forgotten.
“That is enough,” Thundercracker repeated, straightening painfully as Starscream wheeled on them both. “Yes, we made another run on the Autobots, and failed. But we had no other choice; our supplies are critically short. The hatchlings--”
“What about them?” Starscream snapped. “They are Decepticons, not pathetic whimpering Autobots! They will grow and build their own frames, as I created them to do, and be all the stronger for it! And if they can’t manage even that, then they deserve to die.” Starscream’s words were harsh, unyielding, and Thundercracker knew that he meant every word. But he’d known Starscream long enough to also hear the desperation behind those words, the frustration of a creator unable to tinker and build the way his spark demanded... and the madness of a mech kept from his function for far too long.
“With what?” Thundercracker demanded. “Look around you, Starscream! What are the hatchlings going to use on this mudball of a planet? Dirt? Rocks? Where are they going to get the cybertronium they need, or any of the other metals? Are the hatchlings supposed to build suitable frames out of the natives’ pathetic alloys? Even if we had the facilities, we cannot demand large quantities of rare earths from the local humans, much less trithyllium or any other essential ores--they don’t have it for us to take!”
Starscream scowled, wings flaring. “And repairing your worthless circuits, how many parts will that take? You come crawling back with fourteen damaged mecha, and dare to whinge about my *hatchlings*?“
Thundercracker bristled. “You think that matters? Our supplies might have kept the hatchlings on the edge of stunting for a quarter vorn -- do you know what led me to this? To calling a raid -- do you? I found they’d pried open the humans’ shameful excuse for a mainframe, down in that Pit of a military bunker. They’d pulled it apart, Starscream, were doing their best to incorporate silicon chips and fragging *vacuum* tubes. Trying to thread their protometal into dead metal -- they brought me the parts in their talons, hoping I could give them what they needed, and I could do nothing! A medic could at least incubate--”
“--they do not need medics! They will learn! They will survive--”
Thundercracker barrelled on, not giving the other mech a chance to recover. “Yes, the hatchlings will survive. Even without a medic. Even without parts to incorporate or the metals they need. But if this goes on for long enough, they won’t be Seekers, Starscream--they won’t even be warframes. It will take them ten times as long to come into their adult frames, and when they do, those frames will be stunted: small, weak, with armor no better than the native machines. Is that what you want your newest creations to be? Throwbacks? Weakling *grounders*?”
“So I should scrap them now, then, and spare them such a fate?” Starscream snarled. “Is that what you want, Thundercracker?” He paced around them both, talons flexing, as if considering the idea. “Perhaps you’re right. If their only potential is to become useless grounders, then they are hardly worthy of being called my creations. Better to destroy them now, before they realize their worthlessness.” He paused in front of them both, scarlet optics narrowed and considering. “Or I could decide to scrap certain other useless mecha. Deactivated frames would provide the metals I need, and many of the parts. The hatchlings, after all, have not failed me. Yet.”
It was not the first time Starscream had made such a threat. But there was a distant madness in that scarlet gaze that Thundercracker had never seen before, as if Starscream were not looking at his trinemates, nor even fellow mecha, but just … raw materials. As if they were no more than convenient assemblages of spare parts.
“Starscream--” Starscream’s trinemates, his creations, all the others that had rallied to Starscream’s call--were they all so easily discarded? Thundercracker was afraid to ask. Ultimately, it didn’t matter; emotional appeals would not persuade Starscream, were not what the trine needed. Long experience told him that reason and cold, diamond-edged practicality were far better weapons to use in a battle like this. “If you scrap the mecha here, your creations will have no defenders. You don’t think the local squishies won’t take advantage of that? You saw what they did to Lord Megatron. A hatchling would stand no chance at all; the humans would steal as many as they could get their paws on, just to take them apart, piece by piece--”
He could feel Skywarp bristle instinctively at his back, a ripple of revulsion and deep-coded protective fury that washed outward, through the rest of the nearby warframes, the electric spark of weapons shifting towards readiness prickling against his sensors. In this, at least, all them were in agreement. They’d rather see the hatchlings dead than left to the humans’ tender mercies.
Thundercracker continued, ignoring the inquiring pings from distant sentries disturbed by their battlebrothers’ unease, the nearly inaudible chirps of distressed--but still well-hidden, thank Primus--hatchlings. “We can’t afford to lose any of our warframes, Starscream.” Including the ones they’d had to leave behind in that last sortie, Primus damn it. “Turning Sharkticon won’t help us--not unless you want to drive them right back into Megatron’s claws. None of us want to see the last Seekers of Vos turned into ground-crawling drudges, into scrap-plated Constructicon haulers. But if we are to stay, we need to find a better way. Either by finding some weakness we can exploit in order to take what we need, or--” he hesitated, steeling himself for the inevitable explosion, “By asking for help.”
Starscream wheeled on them, weapons humming with charge, wings and plating bristling with barely-leashed aggression. “Never! We are Seekers! We are Decepticons, the rightful inheritors of Cybertron! I will see every last hatchling deactivated, and you with them, before I crawl to the Autobots and beg for their help!” The tacnet sparked to life as the watching Decepticons stirred, priority-indicators shifting towards combat-readiness, the air rife with tension. Brawling among the ranks was common, even necessary. It helped establish the ever-shifting hierarchy of precedence among Seekers, lesser airframes, and grounders. But to have all three members of the Command Trine on the verge of open war … that was far more serious, with far-reaching consequences.
Thundercracker felt Skywarp shift, ready to step forward to shield his wingmate’s damaged side. He moved instead, angling his frame between them. “Then find us a better way, Starscream!” he threw into those furious faceplates. “Give us the weapons we need, the leverage we can use. You’ve never failed us, not in hundreds of vorn of war--find us the way, and we will fly with you, fight for you! But do not ask us to sit here and rust while we watch the hatchlings--your creations--become stunted, wingless shadows of the mecha they might have been!”
“You dare--” Whatever else Starscream might have said--or done--was lost, however, as a high priority comm sliced through their queues.
//Lord Starscream, Commanders--we have incoming.// Acid Storm, terse as always. His trine had been out on a long-range patrol; now they were heading back towards the base, and fast. Which begged the question: why? Who--or what--were they chasing?
//If it’s those pathetic Aerialsnots--// Starscream began, only to receive an instant--and very emphatic--reply from Acid Storm.
//It isn’t. It isn’t even an airframe. It’s that strange alien mech; the one that kept Skywarp from grabbing Ratchet. I never would have believed it, but he’s got thrusters, Starscream. He’s not even in an alt, and he’s flying alone--but he’s coming in fast, and he’s going to be over you in just a few more kliks.//
A flurry of annoyance and shared indignation met that news, the trine setting aside their argument to close ranks against this new threat. Thundercracker watched his wingmates’ optics narrow as they considered the news, wings tilting upward.
//Take him down,// Starscream ordered. The mech might be armored enough to withstand Skywarp’s attack, but there wasn’t a mech created whose armor could stand up Sunstorm if his trine let him off the chain. //I don’t care what he is; he’s an Autobot and he’s in our sky.//
//Yes, but--// Acid Storm’s confusion rippled over the comm, overlaid with glyphs of reassessment/uncertainty. //Creator ... he’s carrying-//
//Raze him from our airspace, Acid Storm, or I swear to Primus that I will strip you all for parts!//
A nanoclick passed, an eternity for a Seeker. //But--// Acid Storm started, and Thundercracker came to a decision.
//Escort the mech in, but keep him at least a filum from the hatchlings,// Thundercracker ordered, countermanding Starscream and layering his message with authoritative modifiers. He could feel the shock flare in Starscream’s field, followed by rage as hot as afterburners. With a sense of inevitability, he watched that cannon barrel swing toward him, glowing white-hot with gathering charge.
Thundercracker’s support vanished as Skywarp lunged forward. Starscream fired; Skywarp knocked the other Seeker’s arm to one side, sending the blast wide, talons gouging inward as he grappled with their furious wingmate. With Thundercracker’s frame as damaged as it was, though, even the backwash of the null ray blast was enough to throw him backwards, knocking still-fragile systems reeling. There was the clash of metal on metal, Skywarp’s shouting blurring with Starscream’s furious shriek.
Flat on his back, tanks roiling, error codes shrieking warnings across every processor, Thundercracker still noticed the intruder. Just a dot on the horizon to his blurry optics, chased by three smaller dots, but rocketing closer by the nanoklick.
And headed straight for them.
“Get the hatchlings away!” Thundercracker shouted -- or tried to, the glyphs garbled, his vocalizer glitching with the damage done by the blast. What did Acid Storm think he was *doing*? He scrabbled at the ground, talons scraping into the dirt as he tried to push himself up, tried to force combat protocols and weapons-systems to the fore. The mech was still coming, impossibly fast; Thundercracker could feel the subtle changes in local electromagnetism, the planetary field fluxes that heralded the shockwaves of their intruder’s passage. Vibrations reverberated painfully over his plating as heavy pedes pounded the earth, mecha scrambling to draw up formations. Several grounders transformed and fled, spiked wheels churning up the stony soil -- mecha carrying concealed hatchlings, he hoped. No human-made bunker would be safe for the soft-bodied little protoforms, not during a Cybertronian firefight.
Starscream and Skywarp were a tangle of snarling, screeching metal. Another concussive null ray blast ripped through the ground, blasting dust and pebbles into the air -- and then the vibrating roar of thrusters overtook everything else, pounding against audials, beating against the air. Warframes staggered backwards as dust and sand roiled upwards, clouding the air. Visibility dropped to nothing even as his sensors reported something huge and impossibly dense right on top of them--
A shadow dropped over Thundercracker’s prone form, heat searing against his backplates. With a strut-shaking *boom*, the heat vanished as suddenly as it had come. Thundercracker cycled his optics, trying to bludgeon his sensors into functionality as the dust cleared. He lifted his helm … and found himself in the shadow of an immense mech, as big as a gestalt.
The creature looked down at him with round white optics, tilting its helm consideringly. Then it crouched, leg-components folding with disconcerting suddenness. His spark lurching, Thundercracker scrambled backwards, trying to gain some distance, to bring his weapons to bear. The mech rumbled, a subvocalized tremor Thundercracker could feel more than hear, then reached out, fingers cupped.
In those primitive, four-fingered hands … was his severed wing.
“Parts … belong together,” the big mech rumbled--in English, of all things--apparently oblivious to the bristling warframes surrounding them both.
Thundercracker stared up at the big mech. Then looked over at his wingmates, both of whom had frozen in mid-struggle--Skywarp’s talons still firmly embedded in Starscream’s cervical cables--to stare at the interloper. Slowly, Thundercracker climbed to his pedes, trying to ignore the way he staggered on the way up. The mech didn’t move, except to proffer the wing again, its field warm and friendly, as if coaxing him to take an energon treat.
An Autobot had flown over seven thousand miles, charging alone into enemy territory … all just to give him back his wing? Was the creature glitched?
“Don’t just stand there, fool!” Starscream hissed, apparently having lost patience with Thundercracker’s dithering. “Take it!” Before the big mech decided he wanted to to keep it as a toy, or a trophy, Thundercracker knew Starscream meant. Or even to crush it in front of him; if the mech were a Decepticon, he probably already would have, just to show how powerless Thundercracker was to prevent it.
Stumbling forward, Thundercracker snatched his wing out of those broad hands. Holding it close, he retreated again to a safer distance, watching the big mech warily. He looked like a warframe, was armored like a warframe--but he wasn’t acting like one. Where were his weapons? The alien mech didn’t seem inclined to leave, either. Now that it had delivered its prize, he stayed where he was, tilting his oddly blunted helm to look down at the mecha surrounding him.
//Is he … trying to defect?// Skywarp asked over their trine-channel, echoes of bafflement/unease underscoring the message. //Or surrender? Or is he just glitched beyond belief?// They could attack, they all knew, their forces had fallen into formation, the Rainmakers still circled overhead, awaiting their command … but even surrounded by warframes, the big mech didn’t seem frightened. Uneasy, perhaps, but not afraid. Why? And where had this thing come from?
“Your orders, sir?” Blackout asked, his frame tensed, rotors spread in an unsubtle threat. The tacnet was quiescent for the moment, waiting … thrumming with the subliminal hum of position-checks and charged weapons-systems. One word from any of the Command trine, and their forces would attack, their assembled firepower ripping this thing to shreds. Perhaps it was the knowledge that they had the upper hand … that made them hesitate.
//Could be an opportunity,// Thundercracker offered, never taking his eyes off the big mech. //You wanted a hostage, Starscream. Wonder what the Autobots would give to get this thing back?//
Bumblebee’s frantic transmission took only seconds to reach all the Autobots on base--but in those few seconds, the Giant had already broken the sound barrier, disappearing over the horizon and leaving panicked chaos in his wake.
Apparently Primus had decided to once again teach Optimus a fundamental lesson: that just when you thought you had planned for every contingency, the universe itself conspired to prove you wrong.
Optimus was already moving; he had been conferring with Lennox and several of the local NEST officers about how to handle medic stations and duty rosters, but Bumblebee’s comm changed everything. Turning on one pede, he charged towards the base, even as Teletraan and Prowl handled the sudden surge of overlapping, frantic comms. The babble came from multiple sources: from the humans, already on edge and ready to shoot anything they perceived as a threat out of their airspace, never mind that the Giant was not likely to be in American airspace for much longer; from the Aerialbots, who were eager for another fight and already in the air, wanting to chase down the wayward mech; and from worried and confused ground-bound Autobots.
//Why would he--?//
//Why didn’t you stop him, Bumblebee??//
//--I tried, he was too fast, I never expected--//
//If the humans try to shoot him down--//
//Frag that, if the *Decepticons* try to shoot him down--!//
//We need to roll out, Axalon is on standby, Optimus, Prowl, orders--?//
Optimus ignored them all, except to send an imperative negative to Prowl’s requests for mobilization. Sending troops after the Giant--especially newly arrived Aerialbots, who could be overly aggressive at the best of times--into the Middle East would not prevent a disaster. It would only create a larger one. But at the same time, he had given his word to Hogarth that he would protect the big mech, and a Prime’s oath was not lightly given.
No. He would not just stand by and watch the Giant die. Nor would he watch another world tear itself apart. Not again.
He ran for the main cavern and his trailer, Autobots scattering out of the path of their Prime’s charge. Then a much larger mech, resplendent in white and red with broad, folded wings, stepped deliberately forward, blocking his way.
“Move, Skyfire! I need that flight tech--if I can get into the air, perhaps I can catch the Giant, reason with him--”
“You cannot do this, my Prime.” Skyfire’s expression was calm, his stance determined. And given his size, Optimus knew, there would be no way he could move the shuttlemech without harming him.
“I must do this! You do not understand what is at risk. If the Decepticons attack the Giant--”
“I understand enough,” Skyfire interjected firmly. “Optimus, my Prime--do not misunderstand me. I know of Jetfire’s gift; it may give you the freedom of the air, but you are still a groundframe. You are not built for that kind of speed. You will never catch him. Not now.”
Ratchet barrelled up in his alt, transforming as he went, vents blown wide with exertion. “Listen to him, Optimus,” he snapped. Energon and soot were still liberally smeared over his plating, evidence of the patients he had left behind, and Optimus felt another pang of guilt. “You’re not a Seeker, frag it! Even if you could go fast enough to catch the Giant, there’s no way you could carry enough energon to make it far enough--you’ll be empty within a thousand miles. You CAN’T do this!” He gave Skyfire a significant look. “Not alone.”
Skyfire nodded. “I am low on energon, but I have enough reserves to make it to the other side of the planet. I can take you to Iran, my Prime.”
“And I’m coming too,” Ratchet added.
“Ratchet, you are needed here. There are too many damaged mecha here who still need your attention, and you are too valuable to risk,” Optimus protested, feeling the situation spiral even faster out of his control.
“All the wounded are stabilized. Wheeljack’s back online, and with Hoist, Que, and Flipsides all here, there’s more than enough expertise at hand to make sure they stay that way. And I think our only Prime is a little bit more important than I am. Besides, it’s obvious those fraggers want a medic, and badly. If they’re desperate enough to do something like this, then it’s better I go to them before they decide to escalate things further.” Ratchet scowled at him. “I’m not staying behind, Optimus. If you go, I go.”
//Optimus: I am mobilizing an insertion team to accompany you. Jazz is en route and will be there within a klik,// Prowl said, his comm suffused with glyphsets of frame specs, Autobot movements and availability.
//Negative, Prowl,// Optimus answered, wide-banding the channel to include all the Autobot command staff. //The more Autobots and weaponry we bring, the more inevitable the battle we are trying to avoid will be. Except for Skyfire--// he hesitated, glancing over where Ratchet still stood. The medic scowled at him, his expression promising dire consequences if Optimus tried to leave him behind. Reluctantly, Optimus bowed to the inevitable. //--and Ratchet, I will go alone.//
//Optimus--// the protest came from multiple mecha, multiple minds, dissolving into a chaotic cloud of //--too dangerous!--are you glitched?--let us help let us guard--//
//Enough.// Optimus sliced through it all, invoking a Prime’s immutable authority. //I will do this thing.// It seemed madness to try it all, much less with their only Prime and only Earth-based medic. But something in his spark told him this was right, was necessary in a fundamental way that had nothing to do with logic or reason.
He turned to Skyfire. “Skyfire--are you sure you wish to do this? You may be giving yourself over as a hostage, or worse. Starscream … may not be inclined to be reasonable.” Skyfire and Starscream had been cohort-mates once. But the war had driven them apart long ago, as it had so many, and it was unlikely that Starscream had forgiven that betrayal. Optimus and Ratchet might be useful as hostages, if worse came to worst; Skyfire had no such protection.
“I do,” Skyfire said simply. “It has been long enough. I will protect you, my Prime, for as long as I am able. Shall we fly?”
Optimus inclined his helm, acknowledging that courage the only way he could. “We shall, my friend.”