Chapter 1: Beginnings
The one thing that never failed to impress Skyfire about Earth’s tropical basins - more than the the hum of insects and the crash of waterfalls, the strange plants stretching their fleshy petals to the sky - was the almost painful plethora of colours, stretching away into the distance as far as the optic could scan. He had begun his acquaintance with the planet in the far frozen north, where hues of whites and greys covered the land in thick drifts of ice and snow, and had then migrated to the Ark - lying wounded in a valley of browns and oranges that scorched in the mid-afternoon sun. The world would have felt so remarkably barren...had it not been for their sojourn to the Peruvian Andes to stop Megatron from using the Crystal of Power to end it all. In the midst of battle, Skyfire had not been able to resist staring at the foliage around the Incan temple, drinking in the dark greens and delicate pinks, the clear crystal water reflecting the deep blue of the sky. It had almost been too much to take in. Fortunately for his processors, Skyfire was a scientist: he was used to being awed.
Whenever the roster showed it was his turn to go out on leave, Skyfire would up his wheels and fly straight to South America; skim over the beautiful rainforests below, admire their beauty. Land, and study. Nothing escaped his notice - the tiniest flower was catalogued beside the longest snake. It was a relaxing task, and one that he looked forward to immensely each cycle. He’d brought Perceptor along once, to try to share the experience with a fellow scientist; Perceptor, apologetically, explained he was far more interested in the nutrients of the soil and how they could be applied in solving world hunger. Their visit was summarised in a dry, statistics-laden paper to be submitted to the United Nations, and Skyfire never bothered inviting anyone else.
And now, as he sat and sunbathed in a rare clearing, watching dragonflies dancing over an ancient oxbow lake formed from a broken Amazonian tributary, he was glad that he was alone. He loved the Ark, and the Autobots who lived there - but they were a loud bunch, who were either given over easily to drama (Tracks, Grapple, Brawn, Cliffjumper, Red Alert, Bluestreak) or Earth music (Blaster, Jazz, Cosmos) or general excited ruckus (Bumblebee and Spike Witwicky, mostly). Arguments raged daily, from plot developments in favoured human television programme As The Kitchen Sinks to strategies for defeating the Decepticons once and for all to someone absent-mindedly treading on someone else’s pede. Cybertronians were overtly social creatures and craved the company of others, even if that company was disagreeable, but Skyfire needed the odd time-out from the noise and tense atmosphere. Cosmos, he knew, felt the same. It was why he was so keen to fly off into space at the first opportunity.
Speaking of flying…
“I need to get back,” he sighed at nobody in particular. “Two days goes by far too quickly out here.”
He climbed reluctantly to his pedes and looked up at the sky. It was a beautiful shade of blue, welcoming and clear, but for once he didn’t feel like flying. The air was thick with the rich fumes of the tropics, heavy and dense, and whilst he knew that this shouldn’t affect him as an Autobot the humidity still made his processor feel sluggish. Transformation was slow, and when he did finally kick into the air it was with less finesse than those who had seen him fly would normally have recognised.
He skimmed low over the dense canopy of leaves, forcing his sensors into high alert, scanning the treetops for the rare marsupial life he sometimes witnessed and already thinking ahead to the missions he was going to have to fly the others in and out of. He liked ferrying the Autobots - generally - but sometimes they got a little bit too rowdy and he could end the day with odd aches in his chest cavity.
So absorbed was he in these predictions that when his sensors snagged on something unusual, he almost flew past it without noticing.
Nineteen miles out from his starting point, the canopy broke: not a natural clearing but a sudden, vicious tear in the endless sea of green. Blackened leaves and twisted spines of trees falling into a shallow pit - as if something hot had been forced down very quickly.
Meteorite, thought Skyfire.
Then he saw the traces of bright pink Energon splashed over the ripped edge of the tree line.
He immediately opened a communications channel to the Ark, already descending to a landing altitude. “Skyfire to Ark. Acknowledge, please.”
“This is Blaster, blastin’ at ya for the duration,” replied the cheerful, distorted tones of the Autobot’s resident beat expert. “What’s the haps, Skyfire?”
“I’ve sighted something unusual on my way back to base. Have Teletraan-1 track my location and prepare to dispatch medical assistance if required.” His internal sensors pinged and directed his attention to the centre of the tear. Heat, metal, more Energon. He frowned.
“Sure thing, Skyfire. I’ll holler out to Prowl and Ironhide too, get ’em on alert. You want me to scramble Powerglide to your position?”
Skyfire wasn’t listening. He was low enough now for his optics to verify what his sensors were telling him, and the revelation caused a sick, sinking lurch of uncertainty in his fuel tanks. He flew back up and scanned in a wide two-hundred mile radius. Nothing. He descended again and headed for the thing lying in the midst of the scorched foliage.
It was a Decepticon. Or, rather, what was left of one.
Skyfire’s pedes touched the ground roughly ten feet away from the fallen Cybertronian, his sensors raking over the blackened and broken outer shell. Recognising the severity of the wounds in the other he felt a burning at the back of his intake valve and forced himself to think only in terms of facts, to summon his inner analyst. He remembered his days at the Academy, and recalled the words of a former lecturer: “Examine. Do not empathise.”
Cross-reference relative height with wingspan. Search memory databanks. Identify. Decepticon Astrotrain. 96.7% certainty.
That was a good start. To continue:
Damage Report: Shattered optic, left. Dislocated shoulder ratchets: both. Damage to chest plating at 79.5%. Damage to wings (both) at 56.4%. Weapons damage in totality 89%. No Autobot weapon signatures detected. Severe pelvic plate damage. Spike missing. Cables frayed and torn, oozing thick, glowing Energon onto the scorched Earth below. The smell was overpowering, making his tanks roll in his -
His comm channel buzzed. “Yo, Skyfire. Talk to me, baby. What’s happenin’? Didn’t get an answer to my last message.”
Spark: active, but weak. Laser core has been damaged and dislodged from chest unit. Haemorrhaging. Medical assistance required urgently .
Skyfire shuttered his optics, cycled his vents several times, then looked again at the pitiful creature he’d found.
Astrotrain was one of the enemy. His death meant one less Decepticon to deal with in the grand scheme of the war, and as their principle means of ferrying certain Decepticons to-and-from high altitude missions this could only be a positive for the Autobot cause. Many Autobots, such as Brawn or Cliffjumper, would have left their logic there. It was a war. People died. And this crime scene had nothing whatsoever to do with them.
But Astrotrain was also a Cybertronian. At the very heart of things, he constituted a life - and all life was sacred. Skyfire was not a medic, had never taken the oath that Ratchet, Hoist and First Aid had dedicated themselves to...but he felt deeply in the very core of his being that right here, and right now, Astrotrain was not a foe. He was a victim, and he needed help.
Help that Skyfire was unable to give.
He passed a hand in front of his face, vents sighing softly. “Blaster. Put me through to Ratchet. Now.”
Blaster was many things, and one of them was a good communications worker; he knew when to probe for more information, and when to simply obey a command. Skyfire heard a click, and then felt Ratchet’s presence on the line. “Skyfire. Blaster says you’ve found something.”
“A wounded Decepticon. It’s Astrotrain. He’s been pulverised - I read over two hundred separate injuries and he’s losing Energon fast. His laser core’s also been pulled out of alignment. He’s offline. He needs help.”
There was no hesitation in Ratchet’s answer: he was a medic first, and an Autobot second. “Sounds like he does. But Teletraan-1 is reading you as still in South America, and you’re our ride, Skyfire. I can’t get down there without you.”
“I can transport him to the Ark myself.”
A pause. “It may not be safe to move him if he’s that damaged. Send me a datafile of your observations.”
Skyfire complied, and waited impatiently. Teletraan-1’s reception was not exemplary below the equator, and the data took a long time to transmit.
When Ratchet came back on the line, he sounded weary. “You should just be able to manage it. Fly slow and try not to make any sudden movements.” There was a pause and Skyfire felt that Ratchet was conversing with someone in the background of their call. When the medic spoke again, his tone was tinged with anger. “Bring him back, Skyfire. I’ll meet you at the entrance to the Ark with MARB. We can unload him onto the platform and bring him inside that way.”
“What about security measures?”
Ratchet’s tone was even more terse. “We’ll think about that after we’ve saved his life. Now move.”
The flight back felt torturously slow. Skyfire was not built to be as graceful as the Aerialbots in his alternative mode - he was larger and had a heavier centre of gravity in his midsection - but he could still perform impressive feats in the air and enjoyed doing so. Having to fly back on a flat trajectory, avoiding atmospheric disruption where he could, was supremely dull and by the time the volcano housing the Ark hoved into view, he had to shake his processor back into alertfulness.
His passenger, lying comatose in the depths of his cargo hold, did not stir once.
Ratchet was waiting for them outside of the Ark as promised, and Skyfire was surprised to see that he was alone - save for MARB (his Mobile Autobot Repair Bay) and several bags of tools and analytical equipment. There was something unsettling about this. He had expected a full security team and a fight.
Skyfire transformed carefully as he landed as close to the Ark as he could, ending up crouched to the ground in his robot form with Astrotrain’s lifeless husk lying across his arms.
Ratchet swore loudly. “Primus. It sounded bad, but…what the slag has been done to him?”
“A lot, as far as I can tell,” Skyfire grunted as they laid Astrotrain down gently on top of MARB’s waiting platform. “There are dents on the laser core which suggests it has been pulled out by hand. All limbs are dislocated and I’m not sure I found all of the pieces. And the damage to the pelvic region is…” He tailed off, searching for the correct term. “Extensive,” he finished, lamely.
Ratchet produced a tarpaulin from one of his kits and spread it out over his patient’s lower half. He caught Skyfire’s optic. “No need for everyone to see that,” he said quietly. Under his instruction, MARB began to trundle delicately towards the Ark’s open entrance.
“No,” agreed Skyfire. He looked at Ratchet. It had remained unspoken when they had been talking over the communications relay, but it had to be vocalised now. “Ratchet…are we doing the right thing?”
“I’m a Medic, Skyfire. Saving a life is always the right thing in my books.” Ratchet’s reply was confident, but sounded rehearsed - and Skyfire wondered how much of it truly came from the spark. “We’re fortunate you picked today to play at being a good samaritan,” Ratchet continued, “Prime and most of the others are at a ceremony in New York and won’t be back until this evening. With any luck we can stabilise him before all hell breaks loose.” He attached a medical instrument pad to the top of Astrotrain’s chest plate and began to read the figures with a frown. “He’s very nearly gone. If you had found him even half an hour later...”
Skyfire’s mind was elsewhere, and when he spoke he sounded suddenly anxious. It was unusual for him: he normally spoke in clear tones of confidence no matter the situation. “Does anyone else know what we’re doing?”
“Oh yes,” said Ratchet. He looked up, and his vents hitched. “I believe the answer to your question is up ahead.”
Their little convoy trundled to a halt.
Red Alert was stood in their way, just under the awning of the Ark’s impressive engine block. He had his arms folded, and his horns were glowing softly in the afternoon sun. “I can’t allow you any further, Ratchet. You know that.”
Ratchet’s reply was terse. “Red Alert, we have had this conversation. Astrotrain is now my patient, which means that he is under my care and you have no right to interfere. Move.”
“No,” said Red Alert, simply. Regulations were on his side, and he was not going to deviate from them. “As we have previously discussed, Astrotrain needs to be subjected to a full scan before I even think about allowing him inside the Ark. That is my duty of care to the Autobots who reside here.”
“Red,” Ratchet ground out between gritted denta, optics never straying from his patient, “he needs immediate medical assistance or he will die. I’m a Medic. I cannot allow that to happen.”
“And I cannot allow him inside without a scan - if I do and something is wrong, a good many more of us could die. For all we know, Megatron could have implanted him with a bomb. I will not risk tens of Autobot lives for one Decepticon.” His arms tightened around his frame, digits curling at the elbow joints. “I won’t allow it, Ratchet. The last patient we allowed in sans regulations was Perceptor, and we almost all rusted to death.”
Ratchet groaned in frustration. There was logic in what Red was saying - but a quick glance at the monitoring pad laid across Astrotrain’s rapidly cooling chest plate showed that there simply was not time to argue. He glanced up at Skyfire, noted the almost minute nod the other mech gave, and sighed. “I’m sorry about this, Red, but you’re really not leaving me much of a choice.”
Red frowned. “What are y-” He didn’t get any further. With a swiftness of movement that seemed to defy his large frame, Skyfire grabbed the Security Director, lifting him high up into the air, and clear out of the way of the Ark’s entrance. As Ratchet ran for the door, MARB dutifully trailing behind him, he heard Skyfire transforming and heading for the heavens. Red Alert, it seemed, was being put in an aerial timeout.
Wheeljack was waiting for him on the other side of the entrance, and had been watching events outside unfurling on the security monitor just inside the door. “Red’s gonna be mad as hell,” was his only comment.
“Where’s Hoist?” Ratchet barked in return as the two of them made their way down into the depths of the Ark, one on either side of the stricken Decepticon.
“Already in the Medibay setting up,” returned Wheeljack grimly. He cast a critical optic over their patient. “Really, Ratchet?”
“Yes, really, Wheeljack. He might be a Decepticon on the battlefield, but right now he’s just a repair job.”
“That’s…not what I meant. I meant ‘really’ as in ‘do you really think he’s even gonna make it’.” Wheeljack raised the tarpaulin covering Astrotrain’s lower half and baulked, misstepping and almost falling. “Primus! What the scrap did they do?”
“Exactly what it looks like they did.” Ratchet said evenly. He wished he could tell Wheeljack that this was the worst he had ever seen - but it wasn’t.
The rest of the journey was made in silence.
Chapter 2: The Tides of War
Ratchet had listed the somewhat extensive injuries on a data-pad, alongside several recommended courses of treatment and the likelihood of any of it working. Skyfire stared at the numbers helplessly. In his line of work, data was worked with, manipulated, explored, written about. But it wasn’t acted upon. He wasn’t a mechanic like Wheeljack, or an architect like Grapple.
He didn’t like making decisions, and he had already made a difficult one today.
“Why me?” He asked plaintively.
“You’re the one who found him,” said Ratchet simply. “And therefore, you’re responsible for him. Under Cybertronian Law, any and all medical decisions for an incapacitated mech have to be made by a proxy, and in this case that proxy is you.”
Skyfire cycled his vents and looked back down at the words, which blurred under the pressure of his thoughts. He rubbed a hand over his aching jaw plate. Upon landing, Red Alert had taken him by surprise by punching him quite viciously in the face and, whilst Red was not widely renowned for his melee prowess, it had left a dent. He had waved Ratchet’s concerns over it away - it was a badge he needed to wear, if only to pacify the Security Director.
He looked up and cast his optics around the Medibay, ignoring Ratchet’s intent gaze. The patient himself lay on a recharge berth in the centre of the room, wires and tubing hooked up to a variety of machines that hummed and beeped in the silence of the tense atmosphere. Once he had been stabilised, a quick blast of a pressure hose had washed away all of the dirt, Energon and corroded metal to reveal the true extent of his injuries - which, as Skyfire had correctly surmised, were in their hundreds. There was no part of Astrotrain’s anatomy that had not been damaged in some way, and he would have to be disassembled piece by piece in order for them to repair him.
Wheeljack was working quietly at a console in the corner, running samples of the patient's Energon through the system to ensure that it had not been infected whilst he had lain in the Amazonian basin. Red Alert stood over him, watching the results. Hoist was at the other end of the bay working on a detached arm, testing that the pistons in the forearm were correctly coordinating with the fingers. Astrotrain’s wings had had to be detached as a pair, and lay on the floor towards the west end of the room. Skyfire felt his own twitch in sympathy, and suppressed a shudder. Fliers could stand a lot of things, but damage to their wings was not one of them.
It had been two hours since they had begun work, and less than ten minutes since Ratchet handed him the data-pad and gave him an ultimatum. It was a simple enough prospect to understand. The rest of Astrotrain’s body was fixable - but his laser core was not.
And without a working laser core, the spark simply could not survive.
Ratchet cleared his vocaliser quietly. “Replacing a laser core is extremely risky, and as parts...they’re hard to come by. We only have two here on Earth with us.”
“The alternative?” Asked Skyfire, already knowing the answer.
“He dies.” Said Ratchet bluntly. “You’re his proxy, Skyfire. I need you to make that call.”
“I’m not so sure he should be,” said Red Alert from the other side of the bay. He fidgeted when the others looked at him. “Look, Skyfire is under Optimus Prime’s command, and we’re talking about extremely limited resources that are being used in a war effort. As our commander, surely the decision should be up to Prime.”
“For what it’s worth, I agree,” said Hoist. “Most of the other parts we’re replacing can be easily manufactured from spares in the hold. Laser cores, though - they have to come from Cybertron itself. And it's not like we can just saunter back up there when we feel like it.”
Ratchet glanced at him. “Would you be making the same observation if it was an Autobot lying on that berth?” He asked.
“You already know the answer to that,” said Hoist, truthfully. “But to clarify: no, I would not. There is a stark difference between doing the best we can as compassionate beings for an enemy, and deliberately throwing away a future Autobot life in the process. What if we use the laser core today, only for two Autobots to be irreparably damaged tomorrow?
“On the other hand, what is the point of having parts if we don’t use them?” Argued Ratchet. “For Primus’s sake, Hoist, we’d end up with a closet full of parts and an army that’s dead on its pedes. Wheeljack?”
Wheeljack groaned. “I’m not a Medic, guys. Don’t drag me into this.”
“Outsider’s opinion, then.”
Wheeljack glanced at Red Alert, then back at Ratchet. Both were glaring at him. “I…”
He was spared the decision. Red Alert’s horns flashed, and he tapped distractedly at the data-pad he carried. “Prime is back,” he said flatly. “I’ve asked him to come down to the Medibay at once.”
Ratchet threw up his arms and went to check on one of the machines monitoring Astrotrain’s body heat. Skyfire watched him absently, curiously aware of his own spark thumping uncomfortably inside his own, untarnished, unbroken laser core. He was anxious - but he couldn’t accurately place why. Fear of being told off? Chewed out? Rejected? No. Logically, he knew Optimus Prime would be angry with him - as forgiving as their leader was, he had brought an enemy into the heart of their lives and asked them to spare resources to fix them - but Prime was not unreasonable. The others might not be so forgiving, but Skyfire was not afraid of them, nor their cold shoulders. What then? That Astrotrain would die? He was an enemy. They had never exchanged words before, and barely exchanged blows: they were two strangers. And if Astrotrain died, then there would be no loss for Skyfire or his friends.
And yet…a death was a death. One less of the Cybertronian species. There were so few of them as it was.
The door to the Medibay opened, and Optimus Prime strode into the room, tailed by Prowl and Bumblebee. “All right, Red Alert,” he said, “I’m here. What is it that couldn’t wait until -”
“Primus!” Exclaimed Bumblebee, who had noticed their patient first. “Is that Astrotrain?”
“How was the ceremony?” Ratchet asked innocently as the trio advanced into the room, Bumblebee gaping at the occupied berth in consternation.
“Fine,” said Prime, absently. “Ratchet…explanation, please.”
“That would be down to me,” said Skyfire, stepping forward. He was fixed with a mild blue gaze, and he felt the anxiety beating hard inside him lessening. “I was on my way back from leave when I found him, and requested that I be allowed to bring him back to the Ark for repairs.”
“A decision not approved of by the Security Director,” added Red Alert, drily.
“The decision was taken by myself and Skyfire without the blessing of the Security Director,” said Ratchet. “I would like it noted that Hoist and Wheeljack assisted me with repairs after the fact. If any blame is to be taken, it’ll be shared fairly between the two of us.”
“I see.” Prime rubbed at the back of his helm, processor working overtime as he tried to take in all of the ramifications stemming from this single act of innocent charity. “He was alone when you found him?” He asked Skyfire.
“Yes, sir. I scanned an area spanning two hundred miles and didn’t sense another living spark. From the looks of the area I found him in, he had been beaten elsewhere and then dumped.”
“Probably another failed coup,” said Prowl. “Remember when he and Blitzwing attempted to overthrow Megatron?” He whistled softly as his optics passed over all of the machines dedicated to keeping Astrotrain’s spark pulsing. “He must have really messed up this time.”
“What’s the prognosis?” Asked Prime.
“Not good.” Ratchet passed him his own data-pad. “The internal and external damage to his arms, torso, pelvic plate, legs, wings, hands and feet can all be fixed. But his laser core is severely damaged and cannot sustain his spark for more than…seventeen hours, at a guess.”
“You need to replace it.” It wasn’t a question, but Ratchet answered anyway.
Prime looked at the figures on the data-pad screen. He didn’t understand many of them, but he needed to focus his attention somewhere and he was aware of the six pairs of optics following his every movement. “How many laser cores is the Ark carrying as spares?”
“Two,” said Hoist.
“That’s not enough,” said Prowl, instantly. “We can’t waste one of those on our enemy.”
“Yeah!” Said Bumblebee. “What if one of our guys gets hurt, and we can’t fix him up?”
Ratchet cycled his vents rather loudly, and the two of them fell quiet. There weren’t many Autobots who could frighten the others into submission without speaking, but Ratchet was one of them. “Prime, he’s dying. Right here, right now, on a berth in the Ark. If we don’t intervene, that makes us responsible.”
“And if someone else dies because we intervened? We would be responsible for that, too,” said Red Alert. “Astrotrain could fly off out of here the moment he’s repaired and turn around and murder us all.”
“Slight exaggeration there,” murmured Wheeljack.
Prime looked around at the small group. Red Alert looked defiant, but faintly embarrassed; Wheeljack was unreadable as ever; Ratchet cross; Hoist indifferent; Skyfire troubled. Bumblebee had his back to him but he could see the nervousness skating over his frame. Prowl was pensive.
Finally, he spoke. “It’s not my decision,” he said. “And it’s not Skyfire’s, or Ratchet’s, or Red’s. The laser cores held in reserve belong to all Autobots, and therefore the decision to use one should be taken by all Autobots.”
“You want to call a vote?” Asked Ratchet, bluntly. “Well, we all know how that is going to turn out.”
“With all due respect, old friend, we don’t.” Prime handed the data-pad back. “You called me down here to make a decision. I have made one.”
“Fine.” Ratchet shrugged. “Then we had better schedule the vote quickly. The clock’s ticking on this one.”
It took over five hours to summon the fifty Autobots currently scattered over the Earth’s surface back to the Ark. Most arrived tired, dishevelled and out-of-sorts: Tracks had been out on the town with Raoul; Inferno and Brawn were only just returned from a serious gas leak in Nebraska and were both filthy and cross; Cosmos had almost crashed in his haste to arrive; Gears was annoyed that his recharge had been interrupted. Ratchet and Omega Supreme were the only Autobots not in attendance. Ratchet had refused to leave his patient, already registering his vote as a ‘Yes’; Omega Supreme was instead wired in to Teletraan-1’s communications relay. The low rumble of his acknowledgements made the flooring vibrate underfoot.
This is a mistake, Red Alert thought to himself as he watched his comrades file into the increasingly claustrophobic Command Centre, their expressions a mixture of annoyance and bewilderment. This is going to be a calamity. Someone is going to get hurt.
The other Autobots spoke of him as paranoid, and it was a jibe he took with good humour; he recognised that he was an overly-careful mech given to always assuming the worst in a situation, but he privately preferred to think of himself as practical as opposed to cynical. He saw the worst in others, yes, and when he came to predict their behaviour he tended to focus on the negative personality traits first - but his rationales were always softened by acknowledgements of the more positive aspects of his associates, and ultimately he wasn’t as unfair as the others assumed.
He folded his arms and looked around him. In his visualisation programming he could already see the fights breaking out, the hurt spilt between friends, the irreparable damage being sewn into the fabric of their team. And worse, he could also already see the end result of Prime’s democratic process in sight. It would be a tie, or a very close call; and the side who ultimately lost would hold far more power over matters in the future through a veritable torrent of social guilt. He shuddered.
Silence fell. Optimus Prime had stepped up to the front of the room, shushing questions left and right as he went. Anxiety settled into Red Alert’s processor, and his horns lit up in a faint glow. There was going to be trouble. He felt Inferno tense beside him.
Prime’s tone was sombre. “I know that news in the Ark travels fast, but I have asked the six Autobots in the know to keep things to themselves, and I believe that my orders have been followed.” He peered into the crowd for any sign that they had not been, but the optics that stared back at him contained only curiosity. Satisfied, he continued. “A situation has arisen that concerns every last Autobot stationed on Earth, and to that end I have summoned you all here to participate in a democratic vote, the outcome of which will determine the fate of one of our enemy.”
An interested murmur fanned out amongst the crowd. He allowed it to die down before continuing.
“Earlier today, Skyfire discovered and rescued a Decepticon who had been left for dead by his own. For this act of mercy and compassion, I commend him. But the damage this Decepticon has sustained is severe, and as of such his laser core requires replacement.” There was a dead hush over the room now. Optics were torn between Optimus and Skyfire, who shuffled further into the shadows of the corner to avoid their gaze. “There are only two laser cores left on Earth,” said Optimus. “And you must vote as to whether one of them is used to heal the Decepticon.”
“Which Decepticon is it?” Asked Perceptor, always one for gathering more data before launching into a course of action.
“Astrotrain,” replied Optimus. “Normally I would ask that you all go away to think over your decision, but in delaying we risk permanent damage or spark-death and so I must ask that we decide here, and now, what will happen.”
“Well that’s an easy one,” said Brawn without an ounce of compassion. “The answer is obviously no.” He looked around for agreement, and several mechs nodded slowly.
“I think not,” said Perceptor mildly. “The purpose of a vote is to ascertain the consensus of the many, not the opinion of the singular.”
“Eurgh, you and your fancy terms. What’s to discuss? Astrotrain’s our enemy. He’s dying. Great! One less dirty Decepticreep to worry about.”
Bluestreak shifted uncomfortably on the spot. “Yeah, but…this wasn’t on the battlefield or anything. He was injured and helpless and Skyfire saved him. Seems kinda sparkless to just let him die after that because we don’t want to share.”
“Share, nothin’. They’re our laser cores and we’re gonna need them the next time Megatron comes up with a harebrained scheme to take over the world.” Brawn folded his arms. “Might even be happening right now!”
“Me Swoop am say save,” said Swoop, quietly. The other Dinobots, who were clustered around him, peered at him curiously.
“What?” Brawn rounded on him. “Are you out of your stinkin’ processor? Why?”
Swoop looked at him disdainfully. “When me Swoop injured on Cybertron, Carly and Spike show me Swoop compassion. Since Cybertron, me Swoop learn more about caring for others. It important part of life. Me Swoop am Autobot. Me Swoop say yes, save. Show good.”
“I agree,” said Cosmos softly. “We’re meant to be the good guys. If we don’t do this, save someone who needs our help…we’re no better than Decepticons, surely?”
“This is a war,” cut in Ironhide. “There ain’t no such thing as black an’ white when you’re under fire, and with supplies as low as laser cores are that qualifies fer me. I’m sayin’ no.”
“As am I,” said Mirage. “I applaud Skyfire for his show of mercy, but we cannot risk Autobot lives for ingrates like Astrotrain.”
“Says the Towers mech who’s never wanted for anything,” sniffed Grapple. “How many laser cores did you burn through on Cybertron, Mirage?”
Cliffjumper rallied before Mirage could splutter a response. “Hey! You got a problem with him, you got a problem with me!”
“Oh, I’m veritably quaking,” replied Grapple coolly. “What are you going to do, headbutt my knee struts?”
“Cool it, you two.” Prowl stepped between them, pushing them both gently to the side. “This is just a discussion, no need to throw insults into the mix.” He put his hands on his hips. “As for me, I also vote no. Laser cores are just too valuable to spend on an enemy unit.”
The speakers built into Teletraan-1’s sides rumbled into life. “Statement: incorrect. Laser cores: for all Cybertronians.”
“That’s a ‘yes’ for Omega Supreme, then,” said Wheeljack.
Brawn had clearly had enough of the forum. Shaking with anger, he spun on his heel to face Wheeljack. “And what about you, paddleface? You’re normally much more talky when there’s a discussion on, where are all of your clever opinions?”
Wheeljack’s optics flashed and he looked away. Quietly, he said: “Personally? I’d rather be a samaritan than a murderer.”
Brawn grunted in disgust. “Figures. You clever types with your philosophy and your hypotheticals.”
“All right,” said Prime. “I think that’s enough for weighing up the pros and cons of our venture; it’s time for the vote.” He glanced over at Red Alert, who had volunteered to chronicle the exercise. The mech’s face was buried in a data-pad, busy with note-taking. Prime groaned internally, hoping that his Security Director was more concerned with quotes verbatim than his own slightly skewed thoughts and observations.
“So, how are we gonna do this?” Asked Brawn. “White flags in the air for yes, guns for no?”
Prime ignored him. “All of those in favour of using the laser core, please stand to the left. All of those against, to the right.”
He was suddenly aware of Red Alert’s optics fixed to the side of his face, and resisted the urge to frown in annoyance. Red had been in favour of a private vote to ensure continued peace amongst the troops - but Prime knew his mechs, and knew that simmering tensions were far harder to deal with than outright fury. Put simply, he wanted to know which Autobot stood on which side of things; it would make the fallout easier to weather. Not wishing for his decision to influence the others, Prime himself had also already placed his vote with the Security Director, pretending not to notice the look of sour disapproval on Red Alert’s faceplates as he did so.
Red Alert waited for the shuffling of pedes on floor plates to cease before he began counting the two groups that had formed as columns in front of Teletraan-1’s mainframe. He finished just before Prime, creating a simple list in his permanent memory file.
FOR: Ratchet, Optimus Prime, Blaster, Bluestreak, Hound, Jazz, Wheeljack, Perceptor, Grapple, Hoist, Cosmos, Tracks, Omega Supreme, Skyfire, Beachcomber, Skids, Seaspray, Silverbolt, Fireflight, Skydive, Groove, First Aid, Hot Spot, Bumblebee, Swoop. 
AGAINST: Ironhide, Mirage, Prowl, Sideswipe, Sunstreaker, Trailbreaker, Red Alert, Inferno, Smokescreen, Warpath, Powerglide, Pipes, Quickslinger, Air Raid, Streetwise, Blades, Brawn, Cliffjumper, Gears, Huffer, Slag, Sludge, Snarl, Windcharger, Grimlock. 
Observations: Majority of ‘soldier’ class Autobots on ‘Against’ side. Fortunate that Sunstreaker and Sideswipe agree. Both Superion and Defensor teams split. Commander biased towards the ‘For’ side.
Should have abstained from the process.
“It’s a tie,” he said glumly, waving a hand at the two groups. “Split evenly at twenty-five a piece.”
“No - we’re forgetting someone,” said Prime, thankful that their ranks numbered fifty-one. “Teletraan-1, you are as much an Autobot as the rest of us, capable of independent thought and feeling. Your critical power systems are also housed by a laser core, and therefore the forfeit of one of our spares to a Decepticon is a decision which also concerns you.”
There was a pause as Teletraan-1 formulated his response. A simple string of clauses that were to seal the fate of the Autobots’ continued existence on the Earth.
“Taking all available information into account, I vote in favour of the motion.”
There was a collective groan from the nay-sayers. Brawn in particular looked furious, muttering under his vents.
“Looks like the ayes have it,” said Wheeljack, from the left side of the room. He didn't look happy. Nobody did.
It was almost as though they wished they had lost.
Chapter 3: The Human Element
WARNING: ERROR. ERROR. ERROR. EMGENYSR1.DLX NOT FOUND.
ABORT / RESTART / RETRY?
“You did what?”
Chip Chase’s eyes were wide behind his glasses, which quickly he took off, polished on his jacket, and put back on his face. He squinted through them at Wheeljack’s back. “Nope, cleaned these puppies up and I still don’t see a Decepticon sigil anywhere on you…”
Spike Witwicky was leaning on the back of Chip’s wheelchair, mouth hanging open. “I dunno,” he said eventually, “we leave the base for less than a day and you fellas go and pull something like this! Thank god we weren’t gone for a week or Megatron would be in here with his feet up already!”
“That’s an extremely over-exaggerated outlook on events,” Perceptor said somewhat coldly from behind him. “Our decision was to save a wounded Cybertronian, not surrender outright to the Decepticons.”
Spike waved a hand. “Same diff! How many times has that Astrocreep hurt one of you guys in battle? Bet the Decepticons never offered to patch you up when they captured you and Seaspray. In fact I seem to remember they almost made you kill each other!”
Perceptor sniffed - a quick pull of his intake vents. “Well, you have just proven my point. Our actions prove that we’re nothing like they are, and I for one am proud of that.”
Wheeljack put down his tools and stared hopelessly at the circuitboard in front of him. Hypothetically, he was supposed to be fixing up the defence systems to be twice as sensitive as before - a routine upgrade as far as he was concerned, but his processor just wasn’t in it. “Look guys, with the vote as tight as it was, there’s plenty of hard feelins around. Don’t go around stirrin’ it up. It’s bad enough that Carly got into a shoutin’ match with Hound two seconds after comin’ back.”
“Well, she’s well within her rights to! Last time the Decepticons captured her they tried to drown her for entertainment. They’re a bunch of creeps.”
Wheeljack grunted. “She could always just leave,” he pointed out. “It’s not like she lives here or anythin’.” He thought of the muted glares that had greeted him in the break room that morning and felt his spark sink. At least his two best friends had been on his side of things.
That’s a dangerous way to start thinkin’, ’Jack. He scolded himself. It’s their prerogative to be mad at what happened. Tie-breaker decision left with Teletraan-1? I give Red Alert two days before he spurts out some mad conspiracy theory about that.
Raoul was lounging in the corner, half-listening to the conversation around him. He was more concerned with replacing the batteries in his boombox; Perceptor had managed to create some standard-sized power cells that would hopefully last long into the next lifetime, and he was eager to try them out. Autobot politics didn’t interest him much, and the most he had taken from the events of the previous day was that Tracks was no longer speaking with several of his erstwhile friends. Fine by me, he thought vaguely as he replaced the battery cover. More time for us to hit the road with these tunes.
He flicked the ‘on’ switch, and Europe’s Final Countdown rang out across the laboratory. He grinned. “Sweet! I love this jam. They played it at the club the other night and the floor went wild!”
The Autobots paused in their work to listen, Perceptor cocking his head to one side. “I fail to see how such a generic tune could alter the physical structure of flooring,” he commented eventually.
Raoul sighed as Chip and Spike suppressed their smiles. “You gotta stop bein’ so literal, ’Ceptor, it drags the room down. And no, that don’t mean that gravity increases or some shit like that.”
“You don’t say,” returned Perceptor mildly, and Raoul realised he’d been had.
He grinned. “Hey I like you, Mister Microscope Man. You’re smarter than you sound.”
“So how long is this operation going to take, anyway?” Asked Spike. “Sounded pretty intense from what Prime was saying. I’m surprised you’re not in there, Wheeljack.”
“Not my field,” said Wheeljack. “Surface repairs and analyses, sure, but once it gets down to the nitty-gritty stuff it’s best left to the pros.” He swung around on his seat to address them properly. “The operation itself…I can summarise it in one word: nasty.”
“Yeah? Like how?” Asked Chip, and Wheeljack felt vaguely unsettled by the curiosity gleaming in his eyes.
“Yeah,” he echoed, suddenly uncomfortable. “It’s…uh, it’s…”
“The best comparison I can draw is that it is akin to a human heart transplant,” interjected Perceptor, “but without any general anaesthetic or blood in your entire body. And instead of cracking your rib cage open, they tear it out and replace it - all whilst keeping your heart inside your empty carcass.”
“Lovely,” said Spike, who had turned green. “And here was me thinking - wait a minute, what do you mean, no anaesthetic?”
“Anaesthetising a Cybertronian is not like putting a human to sleep, Spike. You must disconnect several ancillary systems in order to induce a forced recharge; but several of them are tied directly to the maintenance of the laser core, and so forcing them to shut down whilst removing the components around it could kill the patient. Instead, the internal and external sensors on the Cybertronian frame are switched off - so that none of the incisions hurt - but the sensors tied to the chest plate and laser core are not.” His optics narrowed in sympathy. “I pray Astrotrain does not recover consciousness during the operation. The significant damage to his processing unit hypothetically should prevent his surface systems from coming online, but…well, there is always a risk.”
Spike was shocked. “So he could just…wake up? With Ratchet’s hands stuffed in his chest?”
“Yes.” Said Perceptor, simply.
Raoul whistled softly. “Wow. That is nasty.”
“It is,” said Wheeljack. “And if it were to happen, maybe we were all best votin’ no.”
OPTICS OFFLINE. SENSOR GRID OFFLINE. EM FIELD OFFLINE. VOCALISER OFFLINE. RESTART REQUIRED. SHUTTING DOWN.
Sparkplug sat quietly in Bluestreak’s passenger seat and felt awkward.
As a matter of fact he had been feeling awkward for their entire journey, and was beginning to wish that he hadn’t asked for a lift into town. He normally liked riding with Bluestreak. The (comparatively) young Autobot was always full to the brim with stories, facts, observations and general prattle: the problem was not getting him to talk, but rather diplomatically asking him to shut up. But whilst he’d appeared eager to accompany Sparkplug to the city’s premier bookstore to pick up the latest title in a series Spike was following - a simple surprise gift from a loving father - he had yet to say another word, despite Sparkplug’s coaxing. They were thirty minutes into the trip and twenty-nine of them had passed in silence.
Sparkplug squirmed. “Okay,” he said. “I honestly can’t take this any more, and turning on the radio would be rude. You’ve either gotta tell me what’s wrong, or turn this expedition around. I’m not good with sulky silences.”
Bluestreak’s vocaliser crackled. Sparkplug always found it somewhat odd that Autobot voices in vehicle mode seemed to come from the ceiling, when every piece of human logic told his ears that they should emirate from the radio. He must have seen too many episodes of Knightrider. “Sorry, Sparkplug. Guess I’m just a bit…what’s the phrase? Out of sorts?”
“Yeah. What’s the matter?”
“You know about the vote?”
Sparkplug hummed under his breath. “Yeah. Yeah, I heard about it. Sounded tough.” It was a deliberate understatement. One thing his oil rig buddies had always maintained was that Sparkplug was an excellent conversationalist: if there was something to be said, he could usually be relied upon to get somebody else to say it.
“It wasn’t for me; as soon as Prime asked us to choose, I knew what I was going to say. After Praxis, I couldn’t have felt any differently if I’d tried. Watching your home burn…the people you’ve known for millennia vanishing in chemical fires right in front of you…I…I fight when I’m required to, Sparkplug, and I fight well. I shoot to kill. But the vote wasn’t being conducted on the battlefield and I couldn’t throw away a life like that. Do you understand?” Bluestreak sounded plaintive, pleading, as if he needed Sparkplug to acknowledge that he was right.
There was no hesitation in Sparkplug’s answer. “A war isn’t the same as a battle. Each day of a war is different and requires something different from you. Yesterday it required compassion, and that’s something you were able to give. You should never feel ashamed of that.”
“You sound like you speak from experience.”
“I was drafted into the US Army when I was eighteen - if you know our history, then you’ll also know why. I saw active combat, and it’s not an experience I intend to think about. But I still try live by the lessons it taught me. Number one of which is that there’s no such thing as black or white, or even grey for that matter. Human beings are a wonderful mess of colours. It was helpful to hate my enemy when they had their guns in my face - but between the fights they were human, same as me, with families and troubles of their own.”
“I...don’t really think of the Decepticons in that way,” admitted Bluestreak. “I certainly don’t feel that Starscream or any of the others deserve my empathy. It was more that Astrotrain was there, you know? In the Ark. Lying in the Medibay, dying. In bits, from what Skyfire told me after. I couldn’t imagine not helping him.” He chuckled drily. “I couldn’t imagine Ratchet allowing it, for one thing.” His tone grew sombre once more. “But then this morning, there’s this horrible atmosphere, like we’ve all forgotten how to talk to one another. The vote was so close, and those who were against us helping must all feel let down somehow.”
“They’re your friends. I won’t pretend that they’ll understand, but if they truly care about you then they’ll respect your decision.”
“Really? Because when I said good morning to Prowl it felt like it was an effort for him to return the greeting.”
Sparkplug sighed. “It’s going to take time, Bluestreak. Prowl and the others will get over themselves. They might say or act in a hurtful manner in the meantime, but there will come a day when all of the bitterness disappears and life will return to normal.” He grinned. “Hey, I’m divorced, I know what I’m talking about.”
“I guess,” said Bluestreak, who didn’t know what a divorce was. They drove on in silence for several more miles.
“Any time, Bluestreak. Any time.”
SECONDARY REBOOT SUCCESSFUL.
WARNING: MULTIPLE SYSTEM FAILURE. BEGINNING INTERNAL DIAGNOSTICS.
ERROR. INTERNAL SENSORS OFFLINE. ERROR. EXTERNAL SENSORS OFFLINE. ERROR.
DISCOMFORT THRESHOLD 100%.
ERROR. EMERGENCY SHUTDOWN FAILURE.
ERROR. TERTIARY REBOOT FAILURE.
Blind, dumb, paralysed.
Unable to move. Unable to scream. Unable to stop feeling.
Voices in the darkness. Panicked. Ragged. Brittle.
“What the slag do you mean he’s awake?”
The operation was in its seventh hour when First Aid arrived breathlessly at Wheeljack’s laboratory door. Vents hitching, steam pouring from his outer skin, hands covered with Energon, he grabbed at the scientist and shook him wildly as an alarmed Perceptor tried to pull him away.
“Please,” First Aid panted, “please, Wheeljack, tell me you have a null ray in here somewhere!”
“Primus! Yes, yes I do!” Wheeljack managed to disentangle himself from First Aid’s clutches, backing away towards the eastern wall where a locked supply closet housed his more dangerous creations. He stared at the trembling young mech. “You…what the scrap is going on?”
First Aid let out a small sob. His knee struts buckled; Perceptor caught him under his arms and held him up gracelessly, optics wide with concern. “He’s awake,” First Aid croaked. “I only looked away from the instrument panel for a second and he rebooted himself. We’re not done. We’re nowhere near done. And I can’t put him back under.”
Chapter 4: Falling Further
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All hell had broken loose in the Medibay.
First Aid’s trembling announcement had hung in the air long after he had dashed out of the room to find a null ray, and it was joined by several klaxons from various consoles and the very worst swearing Ratchet could provide - Cybertronian and English. Hoist still worked silently, head down optics focused, obeying every cursed instruction he was given and ignoring every unfair criticism.
Red Alert stood by the door and watched, trying desperately to keep his morning Energon ration in his fuel tanks. When Prime had approached him and asked him to observe the operation as in the interests of security, he had accepted without really considering that he would be witnessing the very goriest of Cybertronian surgery. He was used to seeing his comrades patched up from weapons fire; on a bad day, the odd limb might needed re-attaching and there would be a little bit of lubricant or energon to wipe on a hand-towel.
He was not used to seeing a Cybertronian ripped apart in the interest of saving its life.
He was especially unused to seeing Ratchet panic. He could be a grump - he could even out-grump Gears if patients were being uncooperative. But he was calm, and steady, an excellent Medic with an excellent berthside manner who always knew the right thing to say, the right thing to do. He seldom raised his voice; he seldom insulted others; he seldom questioned his own approach.
Right now, he was doing all three.
“Where the hell is First Aid? He’s been gone for ten minutes now. Shit. Maybe you were right, Hoist, we need to re-enable his vocaliser; it’s putting a further 5% strain on his processor that we could filter out to his cooling fans.” He groaned. “But if his screams are too sharp, they could shatter the titanium glass coating on the laser core. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
Red Alert tried to tune out of their conversation. The idea of being totally helpless, reliant only on the mercy of others…it resonated with him, and it frightened him. He thought of the time his logic circuits had malfunctioned, of how difficult it had been to think, to recognise his surroundings or focus on what was being said.
Factor in excruciating agony on top of that…
His fuel tanks lurched and he pushed the memories aside. He was there to ensure that the Autobot Medics did not come to any harm, and he could not do that whilst wallowing in self-pity and revulsion.
He leapt back as the door sprang open and First Aid ran in, followed closely by both Wheeljack and Perceptor. Wheeljack was carrying the bare skeleton of a null ray rifle; he looked troubled.
“First Aid says he’s awake.” He said bluntly as Ratchet looked up in relief. “You want me to shoot him, or?”
Perceptor balked. “Wait…that’s your plan? I thought you were going to fashion some sort of medical instrument to help!”
“We are helpin’,” said Wheeljack as he produced an energy cell and pushed it into the ammunition slot on the side of the rifle. “I’ve been hit with one of these before. It takes all your sensors offline at once whilst the energy behind the beam holds your systems stable. It’s meant to disable you, not deactivate you.”
“Why not just deactivate his chest plate sensors? It’s a far less dangerous course of action!”
“No,” argued Ratchet, still bent double over his patient, “it’s a far more dangerous course of action. Shutting down the sensors normally opens up a barrage of maintenance triggers that will put further strain on Astrotrain’s CPU. He can’t take any more. A short sharp blast from a null ray will theoretically put him in a form of suspended animation.” He grunted. “Hurry up, Wheeljack, my backstruts are killing me.”
“But even if it were to help, the effects only last for a couple of minutes!” Perceptor protested. He cast a quick glance over the operation. “You have several hours to go at the very least.”
“Yeah,” said Wheeljack, lining up to take a shot over Ratchet’s shoulder. “That’s why I gotta stand here and shoot him every time he wakes up.” He looked apologetically at Astrotrain’s lifeless face. “I’m real sorry about this.”
He aimed for the chest and pulled the trigger.
Eighteen fragging hours.
Ratchet could barely move. He had slumped down at his desk on the far side of the Medibay after barely managing to stay stood up long enough for a decontamination shower; the scalding hot water hadn’t done a thing to help his aching joints. Everything hurt, from his neck support to his pedes. His processor was rammed with data and desperately needed the purge a good recharge cycle would bring. He could feel his thoughts trying to bulge out through his optics, which were too dry and stung in the harsh lighting. His fingers were the worst. They were painful to the touch and ached in long, drawn-out throbs that skittered across his entire frame. An Energon cube sat on his desk waiting for him, but he didn’t want to touch it and bring fresh agony to his overworked systems.
He believed he was alone. First Aid had fallen into a sort of faint, and had been placed on one of the non-emergency berths in the other room. Hoist had been collected by Grapple, who half-marched, half-carried him out. Wheeljack had muttered something vaguely about needing to rest; Perceptor had chased after him. He had forgotten that Red Alert was there to observe, and was still observing him now; when he spoke, Ratchet jumped.
“You look exhausted. Do you want me to help you back to your quarters?”
“Nnn,” said Ratchet. He groaned. “No. I’m fine. Forgot you were here.”
Red Alert appeared in his field of vision, taking a seat on the other side of the desk. He looked as shattered as Ratchet felt, and faintly unwell. “I don’t know how you do it,” he said quietly.
“S’my job.” Said Ratchet. “You just…do.”
Red Alert hummed. “You should rest. I can call someone to come and get you, if you don’t want me to -”
Ratchet shook his head impatiently, wincing at the fresh pain the movement brought to his neck. “Got to monitor him. Laser cores very fragile - calibration can fail - got to…” He sighed. “Ah, slag. Too tired. Can’t process the words properly.”
“Yes, and too tired to help your patient if he does need you,” said Red Alert, with surprising gentleness. “Look…take one of the spare berths next to First Aid. I’ll sit here and monitor the systems. If anything looks wrong, I’ll wake you.”
Ratchet considered this. Of all the mechs you could leave in charge of a delicate array of sensors and monitors, Red Alert would be the best - his idea of ‘anything wrong’ could easily range from ‘this button doesn’t click right’ to ‘I think Megatron is right outside of the door’. But…
“Why d’you care?” He asked groggily. “You voted no. I saw you.”
Red frowned. “I did,” he said. “But the decision has been made. The laser core has been used. No sense in allowing that sacrifice to go to waste, is there?”
Red Alert's logic was sound, and if he had been more awake then Ratchet would have hailed this as a miracle; but as it was, he didn’t have the energy to argue, and allowed Red Alert to help him to a berth in the other room. He was asleep before his head touched the plinth.
“Are you all right?” Asked Perceptor for the third time.
“Yes,” ground out Wheeljack, also for the third time, and it took every single cog in his entire frame not to start screaming obscenities at his friend, at the room, at the world. They were stood by the energon dispenser in the breakroom, backs to the curious gaze of the several mechs sat behind them. Wheeljack was watching the Energon cube as it filled with agonising slowness, trying his best to ignore Perceptor’s concerned kindness. He just wanted to be away from here, in his quarters, staring at the ceiling and trying not to think.
“Hey fellas,” said a voice behind them. It was Bumblebee. “How did it go? Is…everything okay?”
“As far as we can tell,” replied Perceptor when Wheeljack’s expression hardened to a stony glower. “The patient is stable and it seems that the transplant was a success. We’re just waiting for his systems to absorb enough power to be able to come online again.”
“Is it true he woke up during the operation?”
Wheeljack groaned, leaning his forehead on the dispenser. “Where did you hear that, Bee?”
Bumblebee looked embarrassed. As much as he enjoyed being in the know, he didn’t like to be thought of as a gossip. And he had heard this from Tracks. “I, uh. Apparently First Aid was running around in a panic?”
“Yeah,” said Wheeljack wearily. “Yeah, he was, wasn’t he?”
A fourth voice joined their conversation. Brawn. “You shoulda let me in there to have a crack at the ’Con. I’d’ve put him back to sleep.”
Something fragile inside Wheeljack broke. He whipped around, knocking his Energon cube out of the dispenser bay and onto the floor where it shattered into a million pieces. “Yeah?” He snapped at the startled Minibot, who jumped back and held up his hands in defence. “We shoulda called you, should we? So you could beat up an offlined, defenceless mech in the name of mercy? We shoulda done that, should we? Proud, heroic Brawn, champion of the battlefield, fully able and willin’ to take on a mech who can’t even move, much less fight back? Brilliant, Brawn. Slaggin’ brilliant. I’ll bear that in mind next time I got a war crime on my hands.”
The room around them fell into a dead silence, tens of pairs of optics fixing in shock on the scientist’s back. Wheeljack was mad, eccentric, over-excitable and keen - but he was never loud. Never angry. Never vicious.
Perceptor coughed softly. “I think we had better continue our discussion in private, Wheeljack,” he said gently, reaching out to take his friend’s arm, to lead him from the room.
Wheeljack knocked his hand away. “There’s nothin’ to discuss,” he snarled. “I’m goin’ to recharge.”
“Oh, will you shut up? Just for once in your slaggin’ life will you be quiet?”
Wheeljack stamped out of the breakroom, aware of every single Autobot around him gawping at him. His faceplates felt hot under their scrutiny. Fine. Let ’em look.
After he had gone, Bumblebee patted Perceptor’s arm; the scientist looked distracted and hurt. Brawn cleared his vocaliser, looking embarrassed. “Hey, I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said. “I was just joshing around.”
“Probably best not to,” returned Bumblebee acidly. “Your sense of humour stinks.”
Chapter 5: Mind Games
Astrotrain awoke to a world of darkness and disorientation. His CPU baulked as his internal and external sensors activated in tandem with his front-facing consciousness programming, plunging his systems into an immediate Energon depletion as his body rushed to wake itself. Memories twisted and folded together in his damaged recall centre; time dilated, stretching out to infinity and then back again with a sharp jolt of pain as his internal chronometer tried to reset itself; his limbs contracted and spasmed as his spark energy filtered through the foreign laser core, asserting its dominance over his newly repaired frame. He tried to remember his name, where he was, what had come before - but everything was garbled, broken. Distorted snippets of words, snatched glimpses of faces, places.
He became aware of voices around him. He didn’t recognise them, and panic leapt into his spark. He tried to move but his body wouldn’t obey - it felt strung out, unfamiliar. His subroutines were telling him that he was in a great deal of pain, but he couldn’t feel it. Everything felt wrong. Everything was wrong.
There was a sudden light pressure on his shoulder strut and he flinched. “Easy now,” said one of the voices, worryingly close. “You’re waking up from one heck of a nap, and your optics are still offline. Take your time.”
That doesn’t sound like Bombshell.
The thought wandered into his consciousness and he snatched at it greedily, pulling it into his recall centre. Bombshell. What was a Bombshell? Logic circuits which had been lying dormant, awaiting activation, sprang to life. Automatic recall of Bombshell with personhood i.e. can speak i.e. being like me. Activating memory core. Subject: Bombshell. Index: short-term memory. Searching.
Memory association located. Subject Bombshell - Decepticon - ally - leaning over him with an electroaxe dripping with fresh Energon, grinning behind his mask, his optics dancing with a maniacal glow -
Panic hit him like a brick wall, and around him the voices of the Autobot Medics were drowned out by the blare of klaxons as several life support machines crashed into emergency mode. His internal and external sensors finally aligned themselves with his overworked CPU and pain rippled through him in short, sharp waves of brilliant cold. His optics onlined briefly, against his repair protocols, and he screamed as the light sliced into them. It was too much for his processor to take: his cooling vents stalled and his frame began to overheat, giving off hisses of steam as it reacted with the moisture in the atmosphere.
The last sound he heard before off-lining was a particularly virulent stream of Cybertronian curse words.
Skyfire stood outside of Wheeljack’s door, and hesitated.
Prime had dispatched him to run a security perimeter around the Ark whilst the operation had been in progress; he’d worked in tandem with Prowl in the Security Suite and had been grateful for his choice in partner. Prowl was excellent at maintaining his work life and personal life in two different spheres, and for several hours Skyfire had felt as though nothing was different - even though he half-suspected that the perimeter sweep was to keep him out of the way of the other Autobots. Given the guarded looks that had greeted him upon his return he had to admit that this was probably a correct summation. The various cold shoulders did not stop him from hearing about Wheeljack’s outburst, however, and after spending a couple of hours in recharge he had awoken and immediately walked to the fellow scientist’s quarters.
Now he stood, and hesitated, and wondered what he was doing there. Before he could decide on a course of action, however, the door clicked open to reveal Wheeljack stood groggily on the other side of it. “You gonna stand there all day or you gonna step inside?” He asked, flatly.
Skyfire followed him into the room. It looked exactly as he had always pictured it: a carefully categorised mess of spare parts, blueprints, bits of human miscellany and the odd data-pad poking out from a precariously balanced pile. The berth was covered with the skeleton of a canon, and obviously hadn’t been slept upon.
“Lemme guess,” Wheeljack continued as Skyfire studied his surroundings with interest, “it’s all over the Ark that I told Brawn where to stick it, and now you’re here to make sure I’m feelin’ all right, or some scrap like that.”
“Are you feeling all right?” Asked Skyfire.
“No.” Said Wheeljack. He waited for a few seconds, then shrugged. “Well, that was relatively painless. Bye-bye.”
Skyfire cycled his vents. He didn’t often spend a lot of time with Wheeljack - most of his own work was either done in solitude or bounced off Perceptor’s talkative sounding board - but he had always considered him a friend in the same way that most Earth school children seemed to consider all of their classmates friends, a concept once explained by Chip Chase when the subject of childhood birthday parties had been brought up by Carly in front of a panel of confused Autobots. A mutual kinship born of surroundings and interests; it had sounded pleasant and familiar. They were all scientists. Ergo, they were all friends.
“Actually, I came here because I heard about what happened in the Medibay,” he said carefully, pretending to examine a diagram that appeared to be a replication of Perceptor’s Transmat Reduction Beam device. “It sounded…difficult.”
“Difficult?” Wheeljack echoed morosely, staring at Skyfire’s back. “Difficult? Nah, you heard Brawn. It’s a chip of Energon, shootin’ an unarmed mech repeatedly in the chest every time he reboots and havin’ to listen’ to the crackles in his firmware as he shuts down again. Difficult? It was easier buildin' the Dinobots.” The bitterness in his tone was masked only by the self-loathing. Wheeljack was generally a positive mech, but when his confidence fell it fell hard.
Skyfire rubbed the back of his helm. “Perhaps you should have let Brawn in there to deal with it,” he said quietly, finally turning to face the other mech.
Wheeljack gave him a black look. “I don’t hate anybody enough to foist Brawn on them,” he said tersely, remembering the time Brawn had forged a personal vendetta against Perceptor for what seemed like forever. “He’s slaggin’ annoyin’.”
Skyfire pretended not to notice the sharpness of his tone. “Okay, Brawn is a bad choice. But one of the other soldiers, at least. You’re not a fully trained Medic, but you’ve fixed up enough of us to qualify as being unsuitable for causing deliberate harm.” He coughed. “That…sounded poor. You’re an excellent fighter. But striking at an unarmed mech is beyond you, and I believe it has affected you adversely.”
Wheeljack stared at him. Then he shrugged, and said: “You wanna know why I wear this mask? Here, let me show you.”
With a series of clicks, the mouthpiece split down the centre and pulled back into Wheeljack’s helm, fully revealing the bare face underneath. Skyfire’s intakes hissed in surprise. Everything below Wheeljack’s optics was a ruin - the metallic flesh torn, melted, twisted, tapering away to nothing just above the mandible. His lower jaw was a basic mesh skeleton, the entire structure held together with thin skeins of wiring, and at the base of his throat the vocaliser lay in ruins.
Wheeljack shrugged as Skyfire gaped, sliding the mask shut again. “Now you know why I don’t refuel in the breakroom.”
Skyfire’s speech centre scrambled to sound normal. “How did it happen?” He croaked. Slag, he thought.
“Decepticon chemical weapon deployment in Iacon,” Wheeljack said simply. “Hit me full in the chassis, splashed everywhere. Fortunately for me Ratchet was the Medic on duty or I’d’ve been toast - but he couldn’t save my good looks. The material used on Cybertronian faceplates is just too weak to sustain that kinda damage, and in the middle of a war you can’t just trot off to the Towers to find yourself a good cosmetic surgeon.”
“Right,” Skyfire said, rubbing his own face in sympathy. He realised what he was doing and stopped, feeling the rushing heat of embarrassment hitting his processor. “So…um, forgive me, but I’m not sure why you’re telling me this.”
“Because Astrotrain was the Decepticon in charge of the deployment,” said Wheeljack. “The deployment that totally ruined my face and changed my life. Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to just chug some Energon? How painful it can be sometimes? Trust me, it’s pretty bad. So no, I had absolutely no problem shootin’ Astrotrain. Not even shootin’ him whilst he was unarmed and helpless because it was the only merciful thing to be done - if I wanted to be a real afthole, I coulda just let him suffer through the operation.” He turned away. “My problem is that there are some Autobots on this base who think that what I did was the right thing to do. Like, hah, stickin’ it to the Decepticon we just saved, even though he couldn’t fight back! Awesome!” He picked up a screwdriver from his desk, twirled it between his fingers. “Good guys and bad guys,” he murmured. “How can we be the good guys when we’ve got even one Autobot jokin’ about that?”
“It was just a joke,” Skyfire reasoned. “You know Brawn. He’s an idiot.”
Wheeljack looked at him. “Yeah? And what’re those idiots gonna do when Astrotrain wakes up for real? When we’re decidin’ what to do with him? They didn’t want to save his life when he was down and out; are they gonna want to when he’s up and armed?”
Skyfire didn’t answer. He didn’t know either, but with a cold rush of coolant he began to see what Wheeljack was driving at. Brawn was an idiot, there was no doubt about that. But he was an idiot adrift in the midst of a sea of anger and resentment, and all it would take was one misplaced word or action to cause a riptide that could tear their entire movement clean in half. And Decepticons weren’t exactly famed for their gratitude or friendship. And Astrotrain in particular was not known for his oratory prowess or loyalty.
He sat down on the floor and watched Wheeljack tinker absently with a circuitboard, processor racing as he considered the future.
His inescapable conclusion was that things had already begun to go terribly wrong.
And it was all his fault.
Optimus Prime looked at the data-pad he had been given - the second he didn’t understand in less than two days - and immediately gave up. “Can you summarise this?” He asked Ratchet hopefully.
Ratchet shrugged. “It basically says that I think too many systems came online at once and overloaded his CPU, which triggered an involuntary shutdown. However, Hoist was present when it happened, and he has a slightly…different analysis.” He held out a second data-pad, this one from the Ark’s central archives. Prime looked at it, then looked up with a slight glaze to his optics. Ratchet withdrew it and sighed. “It is his belief that Astrotrain…panicked.”
Prime looked skeptical. “And ‘panic’ can offline a CPU?”
The Medic looked abashed. “Well…the truth of the matter is, we don’t know; that’s why I haven’t discounted Hoist’s theory outright.” He traced a nervous finger over the pack of the data-pad in smooth, concentric circles. “We still don’t know a lot about Cybertronian psychology,” he admitted. “Oh sure, we can rebuild processors and fix memory data cores with no problems, but we don’t really understand how they work for each individual Cybertronian. Take Red Alert, for example. He’s highly strung, and he senses things on a far deeper level than most. As a result of this, his programming built itself around that personality trait, providing him with an extra sensitive data net and the ability to track Decepticons during combat. He's a perfect marriage of build and personality, even though he might drive us all up the wall sometimes. Now take Mirage. A little snooty and distant, sure, but he’s capable of being extremely sociable and has a wide circle of friends…yet his chief talent is to turn invisible, which seems the very antithesis of his core personality. Why these two Cybertronians are different, I could not tell you. I can fix their components, but I can’t tell you what makes them unique.”
“…Their spark?” Suggested Prime.
“Yes, the spark. The one Cybertronian component we can’t fix - well, outside of a badly damaged laser core. But how does the spark interact with the processor and CPU? How does it shape a Cybertronian consciousness? That’s what we don’t know. Hoist insists that Astrotrain looked frightened before he crashed, and that it was the fear that stalled him. We know from past engagements with him that he can be a bit of a coward - Red Alert’s profile on him specifically illustrates that, as the Decepticon ‘bus’, he relies on the other Decepticons for support. Therefore, Hoist speculates that his systems are able to cope with a large amount of fear, so whatever knocked him back offline must have been one hell of an internalised trauma. It was a defence mechanism."
“But what could he had been so afraid of?” Asked Prime. “You have him magnetised to the berth. He would just have seen the ceiling.”
“He wouldn’t have seen anything,” said Ratchet. “His optics only onlined briefly after his systems went into the crash, and I doubt they would have been able to process any visual data. So whatever he was scared of, it wasn’t us. It was some sort of internal trauma.”
Optimus was nodding slowly; he had caught on. “A memory.”
“Exactly.” Ratchet folded his arms. “I ran a diagnostic on Astrotrain’s internals at the time of the crash. He was datamining his memory core. Now, this is perfectly normal; the average Cybertronian activates their memory core at least 96% of the time. We rely on it for almost everything. But the fervency of the mine was startling; it looks as though his CPU was almost scrambling through it in desperation.”
There was a slight pause.
“Meaning…” Ratchet said finally, “that when we do manage to wake Astrotrain up…there’s a small possibility that he might not even remember who he is.”
Chapter 6: Disenchantment
Spike Witwicky would be the first to admit that he wasn’t the brightest human on the planet.
In fact, in terms of mathematical and scientific prowess, he was probably somewhere around the lower side of the median. He did excel at engineering, but only in a visual sense. He could see how the parts went together, and why the systems worked - yet would not, in most cases, be able to explain why, even if he had a blueprint right in front of him. To Spike, the world was straightforward and physical. Part A slotted into Part B to make Part C rotate. This would generate the electricity used for Component D. He could demonstrate this easily, but writing about it was another matter, and school exams were a nightmarish experience for him. To that effect, he had left school at 16 with a rather lacklustre set of qualifications and immediately joined his father on his oil rig to learn a trade - a dream which had come to a rather sharp stop after their rig had been destroyed by Megatron’s ilk. He now he spent his days acting as a human liaison with the Autobots, a position officially recognised by the United Nations with a small stipend and all living expenses paid. Not that Optimus would accept his rent money - he saw Spike as the Autobot’s friend, and thus saw no reason to charge him for the small living quarters (actually a maintenance closet) he sometimes occupied. Spike spent the money on entertainment for his newfound friends instead, enjoying their reactions to various titles during Movie Night every Friday.
After all, you couldn’t rent from Blockbuster with a jar of Energon.
But then Spike had met Carly Spencer, and his world had become rather more complicated. Carly was smart, and confident, and self-assured. She was seldom wrong, and even when she was she treated the failure as a learning exercise. Hell, the first time she’d met the Autobots she’d immediately run off to try to blow up Megatron’s underwater base, thoroughly impressing the warriors of the group, before proving her scientific prowess by reversing the effects of Wheeljack’s latest invention which had charmed the scientists. The Autobots were a highly sociable bunch and she’d been accepted into their ranks with surprising ease, which made Spike’s inability to relate to her feel even worse than it was; they were both humans, and yet she could communicate better with their alien friends. She seemed to know everything about everything, absorbing information like a sponge, whilst he still struggled to remember how to set the VCR. But he knew that he wanted to know her, and why he wanted to know her, and so he had swallowed his pride and gone to see the only person he knew could help him.
Perceptor had been somewhat surprised - although, in microscope mode, it was hard to tell at first. “You want me to what?” He had asked, not looking up from the sample he was scrutinising.
Spike, face already red, had cleared his throat and looked around the laboratory several times before asking again. “Um, help me retake my school science diploma,” he had said, awkwardly. “There’s a college that sends you all the materials, and then you have to take a test…” He watched as Perceptor transformed back into his robot mode, marvelling at how much taller he was. Where did all those spare bits go? “Please?”
“I am not participating in an exam on your behalf,” Perceptor had said curtly, and Spike felt his face redden even more.
“No!” He’d gasped. “That’s not what I’m asking you! I want you to…you know…be my teacher.”
He was rewarded with a curious blue gaze. “Why?”
“Why do you want to do this? Forgive me for saying so, but you simply don’t seem to share the same passion for the sciences as, say, Carly. Your area of expertise is in engineering.”
Spike had scuffed his boots on the floor, noticing with a guilty start how dirty they were. He’d tracked mud into the lab. “Yeah, well, I want to share something with her."
“Oh.” Perceptor had looked even more awkward than Spike had felt. “I see. Well…all right, then. I suppose I can help you with the syllabus - but you’re on your own with the Carly side of matters. I have no understanding of human courtship, and one episode of that ludicrous television programme Grapple enjoys has convinced me that I would rather remain ignorant of it.”
“As The Kitchen Sinks?” Spike had said. “Don’t worry, Perceptor. That show has no idea how human courtship works, either.”
They were two months into it now. Spike was finding the work hard, but he was grateful that Perceptor seemed to be gifted with infinite patience; it was clear that the Autobot considered the syllabus woefully inadequate (and in some cases downright wrong) but he held his tongue and just focused on helping Spike understand things to the best of his ability. And it was actually fun. After a few weeks he’d found his mind waking back up, taking onboard new concepts with a gentle thrill of excitement. He’d even surprised his mentor on several occasions by understanding things before they were broken down for him, and Perceptor had seemed pleased.
This morning, however, he was completely out of sorts. Cross, rude and impatient - all traits Spike would never have associated with him otherwise. It didn’t help that Spike himself was finding it hard to concentrate with the drama of Astrotrain’s arrival surrounding him, and after only an hour of work they both mutually gave up with a grunt and a sigh.
“Do you think Ratchet’s gonna be able to figure out how to wake Astrotrain up?” Spike asked after a loaded pause.
“It’s probably best for us all that he doesn’t at this stage,” Perceptor said wearily. He was sat on the floor beside the human, surrounded by comparatively minuscule books and papers, and looked thoroughly miserable. “Or perhaps Astrotrain could just do us all a favour by waking up in the middle of the night and flying away like a bad dream.”
Spike had inherited his father’s keen social skills, and his mother’s gifts for observation, but he had no conversational finesse and knew it. Still, he felt he owed it to his teacher to try to help, and so after another uncomfortable silence he said: “Have you spoken to Wheeljack since yesterday?”
“No.” The answer was as gloomy as it was short. “And he hasn’t spoken to me, either.”
“Maybe he’s embarrassed.”
Perceptor gave him A Look. “Wheeljack does not suffer from any sort of embarrassment,” he said. “It’s not in his programming.”
They were spared any further painful conversation by a ding from the intercom. It was Ratchet. “Perceptor, I need you in the Medibay. Now.”
“Sounds like a line from As The Kitchen Sinks,” Spike muttered as they climbed to their feet. “Uh, thanks for your time, Perceptor. I’ll catch you around.”
The Medibay was filled with the sounds of beeping monitors and needles scratching on chart paper. Carly sat on a console and watched the Autobots work: Ratchet was weaving wires into a complicated-looking knot with Perceptor’s assistance; Hoist was checking on the patient’s vitals; Prowl and Red Alert were conferring in low tones by the door; Wheeljack was in a far corner, tinkering with a computer system.
“So, you’re planning to download Astrotrain’s memories and then immediately re-upload them...why?” She asked, directing her question at the room in general. It was her experience that if you wanted something answered succinctly, you asked lots of Autobots at the same time because they were all only too eager to share their experiences, forming a clumsy but complete consensus. They seldom fought over this; it seemed Cybertronians as a whole were gifted with a peculiar drive to share information with whomever was asking. It was probably why Megatron monologued a lot.
It was Hoist who responded. “It’s based on a theory of mine, which I have run past Smokescreen - and he agrees. We have tried to wake Astrotrain up twice now with little success. After thirty seconds of operation, his CPU overheats and his systems force a shutdown, but not before he seems to suffer a great deal of fear. We have checked and re-checked his systems, and there is no physical reason for this to happen - therefore, I can only conclude that he is reacting towards a perceived threat internally, which can only be a memory.”
“By downloading the memories and then re-uploading them slowly to his memory core as he reboots, we create a more gentle awakening,” continued Ratchet. “Rather than being hit with a load of data at once, as per a normal reboot, he’ll just come around gradually.”
“A normal reboot? You mean, you Autobots don’t have lazy Sunday mornings where you’re so dopey you can’t even remember what day it is?” Asked Carly. When Ratchet looked at her blankly, she whistled and shook her head. “It’s one of my most favourite things,” she said. “You wake up to a blissful haze, all warm and snug in your bed, and there’s this moment of absolute peace and calm before your mind suddenly starts to remember all your worries and responsibilities.”
“Sounds awful,” said Red Alert, predictably.
“No, it’s wonderful.” She allowed herself a moment to remember, before refocusing on the task at hand. “But I’m confused,” she said. “I thought that the essence of what makes an Autobot an Autobot is in the spark, which is just an abstract electrical impulse. How are you downloading from it?”
“We’re not.” It was Perceptor’s turn to play expositor. “All hardline data - namely memories and knowledge - is not stored in the spark, but in the memory core of a Cybertronian mind. After all, what are memories but visceral snippets of information stored in the mind for future reference?”
“So...what’s in the spark?” Asked Carly.
“The thing that makes each Cybertronian unique: their personality.”
Carly hummed. “That doesn’t make much sense. Arguably, a personality is simply a build up of emotional reactions to various life experiences that can all be classed as ‘hardline data’. Which, by your own admission, is stored in the memory core.”
Perceptor frowned. “I believe you are ascribing to John Locke’s school of thought, wherein human beings are born as blank slates and develop their habits, preferences and mannerisms through external stimuli,” he said dismissively. “That theory might work for your species, but Cybertronians are different.”
“And what if he wakes up and immediately attacks you?”
“His weapons systems are offline,” said Ratchet.
“He could still use his fists,” said Carly.
“Correction: he could try,” replied Ratchet, who had once won a fight against Ironhide after the latter decided that he was quite well enough to leave the Medibay against the former’s orders.
Carly sighed. “You guys really are aliens, aren’t you?”
Ratchet smiled at her, then gestured at the door. “We’re ready to proceed. I said you could stay during the set-up, but you need to go now. Medical personnel and security staff only.”
“I can fire a gun,” said Carly indignantly as he held out a hand to help her down from the console.
“Sorry, but you’re not on Red Alert’s books.” He lowered his hand to the floor and watched as she stepped off daintily. “Why don’t you go for a ride into town with Bumblebee and Spike?”
Carly pulled a face. “I have some reading to do,” she said as she headed for the door.
Once she had quit the room, Prowl coughed lightly and stepped forwards. “Look,” he said, “about this data transfer. I…have an idea.”
He told them.
“You want to what?” Ratchet snapped.
Prowl held up his hands in self-defence. “We still don’t know what happened to Astrotrain, or why. He’s a Decepticon, and they’re used to lying - clue’s in the name. Chances are when he finally deigns to grace us with his consciousness, the first thing he will do is figure out the best way to not tell us what happened out there. This is our opportunity to get the truth from something that can’t deceive us - directly from his memory chip.”
Ratchet growled. “That is highly unethical, and as the Ark’s Chief Medic I cannot allow it.”
“I agree,” said Perceptor. “It’s one thing to transfer the memories to ensure the comfort of the patient, but it’s quite another to rummage through them without the patient’s permission.”
Prowl threw up his hands. “For Primus’s sake, he’s a prisoner of war from the opposite side,” he said. “We won’t be torturing him. He doesn’t even have to know. But we do. Right, Red Alert?”
Four pairs of optics turned on the Security Director. He blanched. “Yes,” he said guiltily, “it is in the Ark’s best interests to know precisely why the Decepticons turned on one of their own.” But, a small voice he didn’t entirely like continued in his mind, it’s an extreme perversion of justice - not to mention a total abuse of the doctor/patient privilege, something that you’ve always relied upon to shield you from the criticisms of the other Autobots. How many times have you gone to Ratchet with something you needed help with, safe in the knowledge that he would never share your secrets with anyone? He found himself speaking again before he had entirely considered what he was about to say. “However, I feel such an approach would be doomed to failure from the start. The memories extracted would take the form of visual and audial data with no emotional or knowledgeable input, and from my prior experience working with security on Cybertron, statements made in such a way are entirely unreliable.”
“What do you mean?” Asked Prowl, curiously.
“All right, consider this. Let’s say that Optimus sends Blaster on a covert operation to associate with the Decepticons, and that Cliffjumper is unaware of the plan. He sees Blaster getting pally with Soundwave and duly arrests him as a traitor. He was entirely within his right to do so because, according to visual and auditory data, Blaster has betrayed the Autobots. However, when you factor in Blaster’s own knowledge that he is doing so under orders, the charge becomes moot.”
“So…we could download the memories, see what Astrotrain did, but not understand why he did it without askin’ him,” said Wheeljack. “Which would make the whole thing pointless if we’re doin’ it as subterfuge.”
“Precisely,” said Red Alert. “And, as Ratchet and Perceptor rightfully say, it is an immoral exercise anyway.”
The assembled group stared at him. In his time on Earth, Red Alert had installed over two hundred security cameras in and around the Ark and had an almost encyclopedic recall of where every Autobot was meant to be and when; controlled the Duty Roster to such a tight degree that even shift-swapping less than thirteen days in advance was forbidden in case it upset the delicate equilibrium of his timetable; and had once even lectured Optimus Prime on allowing humans to move freely about the downed ship, insinuating that any of them could have been Decepticon spies (Raoul, definitely; Carly, probably; Chip, likely; Sparkplug, possibility; Spike, probably not). And now he had just openly decided against collecting Decepticon memories as intel, despite the fact that they probably contained valuable insight into their enemy.
Wheeljack shrugged. “Well Prowl, it’s four against one, and one of the four is the Security Director who’s technically your boss anyway.”
Prowl sighed. “Okay, okay. But I will be making a report to Prime saying that I suggested this, and I expect you all to remember this conversation in the days to come.”
“Agreed,” said Ratchet. He looked at the group apprehensively. “Okay. Are we ready to do this?”
“No,” said Wheeljack. “So let’s get on with it.”
A meeting. Optimus Prime shuddered internally as he walked a seemingly endless corridor towards the command centre, pretending to study the data-pad in front of him. How very unlike Brawn.
He had been summoned less than an hour previously, just as he had been making his way to the Medibay to supervise the memory transfer being performed on Astrotrain. Red Alert had taken his place so that he could attend whatever it was Brawn wanted him for - at best, a civilised discussion regarding their prisoner - at worst…he didn't want to consider it.
Optimus Prime valued each of his Autobots individually for their talents, perspectives and experience, and he knew that their cause would be weaker without even a single one of them. Ironhide was his closest friend and wisest warrior, although given over to hot-headedness during negotiations with the humans; Bumblebee was still developing as a protege, weaker than most soldiers but with a friendly and open nature that had earned them the trust and friendship of Spike and Sparkplug Witwicky in their early, tentative days on Earth; Hound was a dreamer whose encyclopaedic knowledge of Earth’s flora and fauna was essentially useless on the battlefield, but paired up with Mirage he made a good infiltration unit and was useful in spying operations; Red Alert was an overbearing bore when it came to regulations, but with Wheeljack’s assistance had made the Ark an impenetrable fortress for their forces to call home. For each flaw there was a strength, and the Autobots as a whole fitted together with one another in a brightly coloured and particularly loud jigsawesque mosaic that he found simultaneously comforting and fatiguing.
He had read accounts of human military practises kindly provided by Chip Chase on a data disk after his ‘gladiatorial’ fight with Megatron some years ago, and recognised many Autobot tactics hidden in the texts. The best one to describe Brawn’s fighting style had been that of a ‘berserker’, a Norse warrior of old whose principle mode of fighting had been one of fury and ravenous anger; the idea was that they would simultaneously psychologically scare and physically beat their rivals into submission. Prime himself had seen Brawn in such a fit of anger, and his spiky personality had made him unpopular with all but the strongest of his fighters. If the scales had balanced differently, he had thought to himself, Brawn may well have made a good Decepticon.
Even after several millennia of warfare, Autobots were not adverse to in-fighting and Brawn was usually to be found at the centre of any fray (unless the space was otherwise occupied by Cliffjumper, but his friendship with Mirage seemed to have mellowed that fiery Minibot somewhat). Prime remembered the time Huffer had remarked that Perceptor was not often seen on the battlefield; less than an hour later Brawn was to be found in the Medibay, hounding at the bewildered scientist over his service record. He seemed to delight in provocation and mischievousness, even as he scolded Bumblebee for the same, and several times Prime had had to have a ‘private word’ with him over his attitude towards others.
He had known before the vote how Brawn would react to the suggestion that they allow Astrotrain to continue to function, and had thus allowed the hardheaded soul to take the floor for the ensuing discussion. He had needed Brawn to be the one to do it - to draw out the adverse points of view, to force a consensus amongst both the ‘yay’ and ‘nay’ factions. But he should have kept a closer optic on him after the operation had begun and internally cursed himself that he had not. Brawn was a troublemaker, and the Astrotrain issue was the biggest playground imaginable.
Fortunately, Red Alert had foreseen this and drawn up a quick report on all that had been said and done in the ‘nay’ camp following the vote. Prime had chided him for it, but still accepted the information. The data-pad seemed to burn with guilt in his hand.
Finally he reached his destination. Six Autobots were waiting for him. He frowned. Not the entire ‘nay’ vote, then - just the ones who felt the betrayal of the others most keenly. Brawn, Mirage, Cliffjumper, Powerglide, Sideswipe, and Sunstreaker.
The other Autobots shifted uncomfortably as Brawn stepped forward. He had never minced words with anybody - and that anybody included Optimus Prime, a trait which inspired nervousness in others even when they were in agreement with him. He was never rude, or disrespectful; but if Prime asked for his opinion then he gave it…and most of the time, gave it when he wasn't asked.
“We wanna talk to you,” Brawn said, quite unnecessarily, “about this Astrotrain situation. We’re not happy.”
“As I can imagine,” Prime replied gently. “Please, I want to hear your concerns.”
“Our concerns?” Brawn chuckled. “Prime, you saved a slaggin’ Decepticon. That’s our concern.”
“I understand that, Brawn, but we have already held a forum on this decision. It was agreed democratically by the Autobots under my command that we would save Astrotrain, and it is a decision that I expect all Autobots to therefore abide by - although I hear from various sources that fights have already begun to break out over the issue. I can’t pretend that I endorse that. It’s healthy for you all to exorcise your feelings with those who voted against you, but using violence and cruel language is not the way to do it.”
Prime stopped himself before he went any further. He had not come here to lecture them.
“Hoist started it,” Sideswipe muttered from behind Brawn. They both ignored him.
Powerglide stepped forward. “We wanna know what you’re plannin’ to do with Astrotrain once he’s awake,” he said bluntly. “You gonna lock him in a cell, or what?”
Prime looked at them all, considering. Finally, he said: “I haven’t thought that far ahead. My main concern has been that of the Chief Medic’s - namely, to save his life.”
Sideswipe gaped. “You’re kidding, right? We’ve got to lock him up! He’s the enemy!”
“Yeah, and don’t give us that ‘he’s our patient’ scrap that Ratchet has been peddling,” said Brawn. “It’s not flying, Prime. He’s an enemy unit, and he’s in our camp. We don’t want you to go soft on him just because he got a few dings in his armour!”
Prime recalled the extensive list of injuries Ratchet had given him. “It was not a ‘few dings’,” he said firmly. “And believe me when I say that, no matter how we deal with Astrotrain, my priority will always be the continued safety of my Autobot brethren. My compassion extends to all Cybertronian life, but my comrades are my chief concern.”
“And what if your Autobot brethren demand that Astrotrain be put on full trial for the crimes he’s committed against us?” Brawn asked. “And what if they find him guilty and sentence him accordingly? What will you say then, Prime?”
Prime met his accusatory gaze calmly, faceplates not reflecting the building anger he felt deep inside his spark. The resentment burning on Brawn’s own face was unsettling. “I would say that it is a cruel and tragic waste to spend a laser core on an enemy only to execute him,” he said quietly. “And as leader of the Autobots, I would preside over such a trial. My judgement would take this into account.”
Brawn smirked and shook his head. “Your compassion will mean the death of us all,” he said coldly. “You just wait.”
The five Autobots behind him looked at one another anxiously. The conversation was obviously not going the way they had intended; but at the same time, Brawn was the only Autobot with the nerve to say what they were all thinking. It appeared that they had reached an impasse, and were spared as the doors to the command centre clunked open, and Wheeljack walked in.
He ignored the other Autobots in the room and headed straight for Prime, a strange light burning in his light blue optics.
“Astrotrain’s awake,” he said. “I think you’d better come, Prime. We have a problem.”
Midnight. The Ark was on power-down status; whilst Autobots did not have set recharging patterns, they had agreed with the humans that they would shut down as many Ark systems as possible between twelve a.m. and seven a.m. in order to conserve energy freely provided from North America’s national power supply. As of such, corridor lights were either dimmed or switched off entirely; heating components were cooled to merely comfortable temperatures; workstations were shut off and entertainments such as televisions were dismissed. The only systems not affected were those of the external security countermeasures, mostly because even the most stubborn of human contractors could see that asking Red Alert to turn off any of his systems was a waste of time.
The lower server room was an exception to the rule. The lights were always switched off, but that was because they never needed to be on in the first place; the entire room was suffused in the gentle red glow provided by banks and banks of server terminals which dominated the area like the still ranks of a silent army. Fans whirred and hard-drives buzzed as a stranger moved amongst them, searching for an output monitor.
Eventually, one was found.
RETRIEVING FILE ASTRO01986.MEMORY.DAT FROM SYS.BACKUPDEL.MATRIX-09
FILE RETRIEVED SUCCESSFULLY
DOWNLOADING TO EXTERNAL DEVICE
The monitor flashed once, then switched off with a descending whine. The cooling cathodes beneath the surface of the glass glowed silver against the red. A door opened and closed. Silence fell. Everything was as it had been before.
A security camera winked in the corner of the room.
Far away, on the other side of the Ark, a small exclamation mark appeared on the upper left hand corner of the Security Director’s personal data-pad and began to flash with an exaggerated urgency. But the Security Director would not see it until it was already too late.
Chapter 7: Fraying
The Cybertronian spaceship formerly known as Nemesis lay at the bottom of Earth’s ocean, creating a jagged purple bruise on the seafloor. Many of the ship’s erstwhile usable sections had collapsed and immediately flooded on impact all those years ago; many more were damaged but functional. Few, such as the throne room, were completely dry, and these were used to house the meagre electronic apparatuses the Decepticons managed to run on a regular basis.
One of these systems included the Tracker Bugs, a relatively new process developed in tandem by the Constructicons and the Insecticons in a rare show of solidarity in the face of adversity. They had been Megatron’s brainchild in the wake of Swindle's betrayal of his team mates, but like most of their beloved leader's ideas the reality was left to others to create. Two weeks of hard brainstorming had come to little until Bombshell humorously recalled the time they had managed to control an Autobot into betraying his colleagues. Scrapper had immediately jumped on the idea of small, implantable devices resembling cerebro shells that could be inserted at the base of the circuit stem, just behind the jaw, containing a high-powered tracking chip with a code unique to each Decepticon carrying one. The system had been completed and implemented without exception. Even Megatron had allowed an implant to be made.
And now, one of the little green lights on the tracking panel had lit up and was pulsing in a delicate jade signal. The Decepticon on duty looked in disbelief at the neat little label that had been placed under the glass, and then triggered his internal communicator.
What is it? The reply snapped. I’m busy.
He cut to the chase: We have a problem.
Don’t be so melodramatic. What’s wrong?
The Decepticon circled a curious digit around the silver band at the base of the filament. Astrotrain’s Tracker Bug just activated.
The reply wasn’t audible, but he felt the screech nonetheless. Impossible! I terminated him myself!
Did you remove the Tracker Bug from the circuit stem?
I have to report this to Megatron.
Further silence. Then: If you tell him I will personally see to it that you are terminated with extreme prejudice.
Oh yeah? Like you personally saw to Astrotrain?
The internal line went dead.
Far above and many miles away, Swoop perched on top of the Ark and stared gloomily at the sunrise. Wheeljack stood behind him and observed his sadness in silence.
Red Alert had visited him earlier to inform him that the Dinobot had been seen going up to the roof hatch, and that any damage caused to the external cameras would be Wheeljack’s responsibility - just as all other damage committed by the Dinobots invariably was. Ratchet made ’em too but I get all the blame, Wheeljack had thought to himself resentfully as he followed in Swoop’s footsteps. There’s somethin’ to be said for the power of intimidation. Maybe I can start throwin' around medical equipment when I'm pissed.
He’d expected Swoop to already be in the air, circling high above the Ark to play chase with Powerglide or the Aerialbots as they came back from patrol, but the Dinobot was simply seated, legs crossed underneath him, staring abstractedly at the blood-red sky.
Wheeljack was unsure of how to proceed. Swoop was undoubtedly the second-smartest of the Dinobots, but was note often given to introspection; his stillness was worrying.
Better just hit the nail on the head.
“Hey, Swoop,” he said mock-cheerfully, plonking himself down next to his creation. “You waitin' for the boys to come back? They're gonna be a couple more hours.”
“Me Swoop am wait for nothing. Me Swoop am alone.” Swoop said quietly. “Me Swoop am no Dinobot now. Just Autobot.”
Wheeljack was taken aback, and felt a pang in his spark. Autobots did not have children, and he had found the concept of biological reproduction limited and crude when explained to him by an embarrassed Sparkplug, but he had built the Dinbots and felt responsible for them all. It was true that they weren’t as sophisticated or bright as regular Autobots, but they were beings of incredible emotion and a very tightly bonded group. It wasn’t their fault that most of said emotion tended to be anger, or that their bond was one forged in combat. Or that Swoop felt emotion more keenly than the others, making him the most sensitive creature to inhabit the Ark - despite what Grapple would have others think.
“Well,” he said, patting Swoop gently on the wing, “bein’ an Autobot ain’t so bad. You can hang out with me and Perceptor.”
Swoop’s wings drooped, shying from the contact. “Me Swoop am no scientist,” he said glumly. “No spend time with scientists. Numbers, too confusing. Me Swoop am like fight. Action. Fly.”
Wheeljack tried to remember who had been in the ‘yes’ camp. “Skyfire,” he said eventually. “You can go flying with Skyfire. He’s fun.”
“Skyfire am scientist too,” said Swoop with familiar Dinobot disdain. “Study plants, animals, nature. Me Swoop am not want to take walk in nature.” He leapt to his pedes and balled his fists at the sunset. “Me Swoop am want fight!”
“And you can,” said Wheeljack, also standing. “You can fight the Decepticons when we need you.” He sighed. “I know things are hard right now, Swoop. I know the others are mad at you for speakin’ your mind. But it’ll blow over, and…I’m proud of you for doin’ so. It’s hard to go against your friends.”
Swoop sagged. “Dinobots not friends. Dinobots am team. It like…” He squinted hard, trying to find an analogue that he could accurately explain. “It like Ratchet no want Wheeljack. It like Wheeljack be told, be Ironhide friend now. Perceptor no want Wheeljack. Be Mirage friend now. Wheeljack no want Ironhide, Mirage. Wheeljack want…” He frowned, struggled. “Wheeljack want…like his spark. Like him.” He touched his creator's chest with a single slim finger. “Yes?”
The pang in Wheeljack’s spark grew more painful. “Yes,” he replied softly, “yes, Wheelja- I understand. I’m so sorry, Swoop. I’m sorry this happened. I wish I could undo it, but…I can’t.” He thought of the tension in the Ark, of the muted glowers and hushed words, of Brawn’s fury and Ratchet’s distraction. I wish I could undo it, but I can’t.
“It’s quiet,” said Red Alert. “Too quiet. I don’t like it.”
Inferno rumbled his acknowledgement from the security station adjacent to the Security Chief’s. “Ayup,” he said. “Specially seein’ as we have a Decepticreep guest on the premises. You think he’s a spy or somethin’?”
Red Alert frowned. He hadn’t been permitted to stay in the Medibay following Astrotrain’s awakening; something had gone wrong - very wrong - and Ratchet had thrown out everyone save for Hoist and First Aid. Even Wheeljack had been told to leave, but not before delivering a message to Optimus Prime. It was all very secretive, and Red Alert didn’t like secrets. Therefore the first thing he had done after being rudely ejected from his post was seek out the peace of the Security Suite, himself dismissing Jazz as he did so. Jazz had protested that he still had three hours of his shift left; Red Alert had told him to put the time on his clock and enjoy himself. He could still feel Jazz’s puzzled gaze on the back of his helm. It was irritating and distracting.
“No,” he said, “I don’t think Astrotrain has been outfitted with any sort of ‘bug’ - at least, none that I recognise. I did several sweeps of his component parts before reassembly, and they were all clean.”
Inferno looked at him curiously. “Reassembly? They did take him all to pieces, then?”
Red Alert hummed a response that could be in the positive or the negative, hoping Inferno would drop the topic.
“Better’n he deserved,” the fire truck observed in a muted growl. “Number o’ times he came on to us all gunfire blazin’ and now he’s laid up all plush in our home.”
“Yeah,” said Red Alert distractedly.
“Takin’ up our resources and our manpower and our hospitality.”
“It’s enough t’make your circuits fry.”
There was a pause.
“Red,” said Inferno eventually, “why do I get the feelin’ you’re not totally invested in our conversation?”
Red Alert looked up at him quickly, then pretended to be busy with something at the keyboard in front of him. “I’m just concentrating. That’s all.”
Inferno swept an arm out as a gesture to all of the security screens in front of them. “On what? There’s nothin’ happenin’ anywhere.”
“There’s always something happening somewhere,” said Red primly. “And it’s my duty to make sure it’s not happening to us.”
He was pleased that he sounded so calm.
Internally, he was panicking.
He shouldn’t have gotten so close. Red Alert was a mech who lived his life through banks of monitor screens, all security footage and written reports. Separated from the action. And when he did have to get directly involved with fighting, his instincts tended to take over: a hyper-sensitive sensor net allowed him to participate without even thinking about what he was doing. Enemy over there, blast. Enemy over here, blast. Structural stability compromised, rescue civilians. And so on.
But this case was different. He had been physically present when the patient - no, the prisoner - had been brought to the Ark’s front doors. He had watched the laser core transplant with his own two optics - had been stood less than twenty yards away from the grisly scene. And he had sensed Ratchet’s fear when Astrotrain had finally woken up and the machines had all started going haywire - had heard the rapid beat of the Medic’s spark as he was grabbed roughly by the arm and shoved out of the Medibay.
Astrotrain was not a number on a case file, or a grainy image on a CCTV screen. He was a person. A Decepticon, yes. An enemy, definitely. But…a person.
And I voted no, he thought. I said no to saving another life.
He looked up again at Inferno. His friend was frowning down at his own screen, no doubt correcting the colloquial spelling in Jazz’s earlier work before pinging it over to the Security Director. Inferno knew that Red Alert hated any sort of personality in reports; that they ought to be dry, concise and factual with only minimal personal observations. Inferno knew a lot of things about Red Alert. He knew not to speak to Red Alert before he had consumed his morning Energon ration. He knew that when they went on patrol, Red Alert had to drive at the front - no exceptions. He knew that Red Alert hated music of any kind because it confused his sensor net, and refrained from blasting tunes out of his radio when they were travelling together.
They had been best friends for over three million years of solid Autobot duty; the Grapple and Hoist of Autobot security. An unbeatable duo who were not necessarily universally liked, but appreciated all the same.
And now, for the first time, Red Alert felt a rift opening between them. A crevice that, if split wide enough, would hit lava and scorch everything in its path. We voted together, as we do everything together. If I tell you that I think I made a mistake, would you be able to understand?
Inferno met his gaze. “Least if Astrotrain gives us any trouble we could scoop out his insides and use him as our own space bus,” he said brightly. “I reckon Skyfire could use a rest.”
No, thought Red Alert as he forced a smile and went back to his own work. You wouldn’t understand. Oh Primus. Help me.
Optimus Prime rubbed at his tired optics and wondered if this nightmare would ever come to an end. “Explain it to me again,” he said. They were stood in the observation room, a tiny office at the front of the Medibay with a large plexiglass window (strengthened with transparent titanium alloy courtesy of Grapple) that allowed its occupants to look out into the main area without incurring any harm from communicable diseases or uncooperative patients. The entrance was separate to that of the main Medibay, and it was this room Prime had been summoned to. He had not seen the patient up close and, looking out from the safety of the observation room, he wasn't sure he wanted to. Yet.
“The memory transfer was a success,” said Ratchet patiently, tapping a hypospanner distractedly against the palm of his hand. “Astrotrain’s systems rebooted and came online just fine - no overheating in the CPU, no deficiency in his memory core. Everything was fine.”
“Was,” repeated Prime, turning to stare again through the glass at where Astrotrain bucked and writhed against the emergency restraints deployed on his berth. “What went wrong?”
“Theoretically, nothing - only that we gave him an Autobot laser core. And, Prime, it shouldn’t matter. It’s constructed in exactly the same way as a Decepticon core, works in exactly the same way as a Decepticon core. The only physical difference is that we bathe ours in nanomites to ensure that there’s no harmful bacteria on it to damage the spark. But Astrotrain’s internal systems detected that the hardware had been changed, and as soon as he saw my face…well, his systems put two and two together.”
“And he realised his laser core - amongst other parts - had been replaced with Autobot technology.” Ratchet began twirling the hypospanner between his fingers. “It’s a form of psychosomatic malfunction called Allograft Revulsion. Essentially, the Cybertronian mind is unable - or unwilling - to process that certain integrants of their physiognomy have been transplanted from another source, leading the patient to believe that their frame is rejecting the parts.”
“So…Astrotrain’s mind has tricked him into believing that his form is rejecting the laser core?”
“Alongside everything else we’ve replaced. It’s not actually happening - his systems are all ticking over quite nicely, or would be if he would stop panicking - but his mind is deliberately misinterpreting data being piped through from his sensors.”
“What do we do?”
Ratchet placed the hypospanner on a nearby desk and shrugged. “There are two options. Option A - we wait it out. On the plus side, it’s easy enough for us to do. But on the downside, the longest case of Allograft Revulsion on record is…” He squinted at the window as he performed a rough calculation in his head. “…Over two hundred and sixty Earth weeks, or approximately five Earth years.”
Prime shook his head. “Considering the current political state of the Ark, I don’t believe such a wait would be possible,” he said. “What’s Option B?”
“A direct neural interface with the patient, performed by a mech with a similar process build. The interfacer would correct the error in the interfacee’s mind via a small injection of code directly into the sensory input node.”
Prime looked back out at the Medibay. Hoist was attempting to take a reading from a monitoring pad strapped to Astrotrain’s chestplate with little success. He had known Hoist for years - centuries - millennia. He was a calm and capable mech with a gentle attitude, one of the only beings in existence capable of putting up with Grapple and his moods. And, right now, Hoist was scowling in frustration at his patient. This cannot continue, Prime thought. Not for Astrotrain and not for us. “I assume you have drawn up a list of possible candidates for a neural interface?”
Ratchet folded his arms, avoided Prime’s gaze by looking at the hypospanner he had abandoned. “Yes,” he said.
Ratchet smiled thinly. “And every last one of them participated in the no side of the vote.”
Before they could continue, a klaxon sounded overhead. The calm tones of Teletraan-1 sounded over the tannoy system. “Decepticons are attacking an oil rig in the North Sea. I believe they are targeting the rig for Energon production.”
Prime triggered his internal radio and patched himself through to the command centre. “Thank you, Teletraan-1. Please dispatch Ironhide, Mirage, Bluestreak and Seaspray aboard Skyfire - have them report directly to me as the situation develops.”
He looked at Ratchet. “I need to go to the command centre so that I can monitor the situation,” he said bluntly. “In the meantime…can a neural interface be performed by an Autobot who does not share a process build with Astrotrain?”
The Medic shrugged. “Hypothetically,” he said. “But realistically, it would almost certainly go horribly wrong.”
Prime nodded, already heading for the door. “Write me a report. Make some recommendations from the yes camp. Bring it to me in person as soon as you’re done.”
“No,” said Ratchet.
Prime stopped. “What?”
“I said no.” Ratchet put his hands on his hips. “You are not Astrotrain’s proxy - that duty falls to Skyfire, and he has already vetoed what you seem to be suggesting. I am taking that decision as the final word - and, as a side-note, I would refuse to endanger the life of one to save another anyway. Especially if there is another option available.” He picked up the hypospanner again, tapped it against his knuckles. “I’m sorry, Prime. I was keeping you updated on Astrotrain’s progress out of respect to you as our leader - I wasn’t asking you to make a decision.”
“I could order Skyfire to change his decision.”
“You could,” said Ratchet, “but you won’t. As invested as you are in saving a life, I don’t believe you would go so far as to sacrifice another. You don’t have it in you.”
Prime looked back at the Medibay one final time. Hoist had finally managed to take the reading, and had sagged onto one of the observation benches to tap at his data-pad. He looked exhausted. Beside him, Astrotrain continued to fight against the restraints, red optics blazing with a heat that seemed to be full of loathing.
“Perhaps I should,” Prime said.