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Borealis

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“To oppression, plundering and abandonment, we respond with life. Neither flood nor plagues, famines nor cataclysms, nor even the eternal wars of century upon century, have been able to subdue the persistent advantage of life over death.
– Gabriel García Márquez

BOREALIS: Kindle

2007 - June

Stroking the curves of a silvery helm, Optimus Prime stood by Jazz’s shrouded body, watching Ratchet work on Bumblebee’s legs. They’d been on this planet for only a handful of days and everything had changed.

I’m sorry, Prime, Ratchet tight-beamed. His spark is extinguished. There’s nothing we can do.

Jazz’s deactivation cannot stand, Prime replied. There are too few of us. He was unprepared to entertain even the thought of the spark-merge procedure the Matrix had burdened him with the day before, let alone tell any of the other Autobots about it.

Ratchet stopped welding and put a quelling hand on Bee’s shoulder. The tone of Prime’s transmission was calm, yet so suffused with pain and sorrow Ratchet had to question whether he was – atypically – acting for personal reasons rather than the greater good. What do you intend? Ratchet had an alarming notion. Prime?

Jazz’s deactivation cannot stand. Prime locked optics with Ratchet. They had no need for cables. When you’ve finished with Bumblebee and patched up yourself and Ironhide, please repair Jazz’s body.

Prime…

That’s an order, Ratchet. Prime turned and strode from the warehouse.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Over the following weeks, Ratchet did as ordered, though under strenuous and frequent protest. Prime gave every indication of listening to Ratchet’s arguments, but remained adamant. Interestingly, Jazz’s memory core was still intact, and his CPU largely undamaged aside from a little frying around the edges. Against all rational sense and his own better judgment, Ratchet found himself hoping Prime was right.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

2007 – September

There were mountains north and east of Nellis AFB. To the southeast was Lake Mead, surrounded by more rough terrain. Even outside the boundaries of the National Recreational Area and the Air Force Base, there were plenty of spaces where a small band of giant alien robots might hide.

In a narrow canyon not far from where the Autobots would shortly establish their Nevada base, Optimus extracted the shard of the Allspark from the securely shielded cache in his left forearm. It had remained there, strangely quiescent, since the battle of Mission City. Whether it was too badly damaged to regain its former functions, or it sensed the presence of the Matrix within him, he wasn’t certain. Either way, he had to make the attempt.

He opened his chest.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“How about it, Bumblebee?” Sam asked, closing his cell and starting the Gran Tourismo game again. He’d set up a small TV and a PS2 in a corner of the warehouse where the Autobots were hidden until a more permanent site could be found. Bee liked to play against him sometimes, though the tweaks he made to the system while he was on made playing the game without him rather disappointing. “Up for a road trip?” Mikaela was negotiating with her mother for permission to come too, though that wasn’t looking likely. Sam’s parents were concerned, but knew their only child was about as safe as he could be with a protective “older brother” of a giant robot and the Decepticons defeated for the time being. It was summertime and the road beckoned. A last fling before school started again. “Freedom for sentient beings, right?”

Bumblebee squinched his optics in the way that was for him equivalent to a chuckle. “I’ll ask Prime. Your intended route does take us out of immediate recall range.”

“Fair enough,” Sam said. Getting permission from big daddy, he thought, both irritated and amused.

Several minutes passed in silence. Sam looked up at Bee’s face, ignoring that he’d just crashed in the game again. “Bee?”

Bumblebee switched to synchronized vocalization so Sam could hear the exchange too. “Ratchet? Ironhide? Can either of you contact Prime? I can’t find him.” There was another long pause. Sam shut the game down.

“I got nothing,” came Ironhide’s voice over Bumblebee’s speakers.

“Pinging his comlink now,” Ratchet said in the same manner. “No response. His systems are receiving, but he’s not answering. There’s something… Oh slag. Bumblebee, Ironhide, meet me at these coordinates NOW.”

Sam scrambled back as Bee transformed, then leapt into the driver’s seat when Bee opened the door.

“Bumblebee,” Ratchet said. “Drop Sam off at his home first. If my suspicion is correct it won’t be safe for him to approach with the rest of us.”

“Yes, Ratchet,” Bee answered.

“Aw, man,” Sam protested. Quietly. “OK, but you’ll call me when you know anything, right?”

“I will,” Bee said.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Sam paced the kitchen, eating randomly out of cupboards and fridge, only taking a bite or two out of anything before putting it back. His mother came home and was ready to pitch more than a softball, until she saw his face.

“What is it, Sam? Where’s Bu- your car?”

“There’s something going on with Optimus,” Sam said. “Kinda sounded like he was hurt, but I don’t see how. Ratchet made Bee drop me off before they all met out in the boonies somewhere.”

“It’s…not one of those…other ones, is it?”

“No, no. I mean, I don’t think so.” There hadn’t been any further Decepticon activity since the unfortunate incident with Ironhide and Skorponok in Qatar. “I should call Mikaela. I think. I mean, maybe it’s nothing, right? And then I’d just be getting her all upset for nothing. Bee said he’d call me once they knew anything. I dunno, maybe I should just wait.”

Judy put out a hand to stop her son’s restless motion, but reconsidered, contenting herself with rearranging the fruit bowl on the island. “Well, she’s your girlfriend, Sammy. I think you should call her. Invite her over for dinner so you two can wait here for news. You’ll both feel better.”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Following Ratchet, they soon found the narrow canyon. Ironhide curdled into himself, still and silent, but Bumblebee dove forward.

“Prime!”

Ratchet caught and held him. Blue plasma rolled and crawled lazily over Prime’s armor, skittering between him and the melted stones of the canyon walls. Glassy scars crosshatched the ground. As Ratchet had feared, Prime’s chest and spark chamber were wide open, blue-white light turning the gathering sunset to midday. Bumblebee relaxed somewhat and nodded to the older mech. Ratchet released him. Once Bumblebee had stopped to use his scanners, it became obvious what Prime had done.

“Is he online?” Bee whispered.

“I believe so,” Ratchet said. “But it’s a strange sort of online.” The fluid, arcing plasma began to subside, the streamers thinning, fading. Scanning, Ratchet found no damage, not even certain old battle scars that Optimus had borne for millennia. His optics were lit, but Prime didn’t respond on any frequency.

They waited.

After 1.4 hours, the plasma receded completely, into the ground or drawn back inside Prime. Ratchet approached alone, waving the others to stay where they were until he’d gotten a better idea of Prime’s condition. Kneeling at Prime’s head, he touched the blue metal gingerly. Prime. Optimus.

Ratchet.

Ratchet flinched violently at the force of the transmission, throwing himself backwards as if from a missile strike.

“My apologies.” Prime spoke aloud, but his voice had changed. Richer, more vibrant, with more complex harmonics than before. And those harmonics told them that at that moment, Optimus was barely holding himself together.

Bumblebee dashed forward, Ironhide following slowly. Bee knelt beside Prime and reached for his hand.

“Don’t.” Prime said gently. “I dare not move yet. I am—”

Ratchet nodded. Prime’s spark was already an alloy of sorts, Optimus and the Matrix. Now he’d added another metal to the crucible. If he moved before he could anneal himself he might shatter.

“Madness,” Ironhide said, stumping over to crouch beside Ratchet. The glyphs he transmitted clarified that he meant Prime’s usual optimistic, self-sacrificial madness, not the psychotic mania of his twin.

“Thanks, Ironhide,” Prime said.

Ironhide crossed his arms. “Any time.”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Mikaela came over as soon as her chores at home were finished. Mrs. Witwicky offered lemonade and soda, chips and cookies, and generally fussed around the kitchen for a good twenty minutes before catching her son’s rolling eye.

“All right, well. I should…I should leave you two alone and…go…deadhead the roses.” She folded the hand towel by the sink and set it down with a pat.

Sitting with Sam at the breakfast island, Mikaela smiled at her. “Mrs. Witwicky, we’ll let you know as soon as Bee calls, okay?”

Mrs. Witwicky beamed at her. “Thank you, Mikaela. I’ll be in the garden.”

Sam and Mikaela grinned at each other as she hurried outside. “Optimus sure won Mom over,” Sam said. “Even after that whole flower-stomping bit.”

“He was awfully polite,” Mikaela said. And insanely sexy for a thirty-foot-tall robot, but she knew better than to mention that. “And it was the Sector 7 asshats who actually tore most of the plants out.”

“True.” Sam fished for another Dorito. Mostly crumbs at this point. “‘Fourteen rads – tag ‘em and bag ‘em!’ Jerk.” Mojo woke up from a nap in the living room, attracted by the crackling of the chips bag. The little cast was finally off his leg and he was back to his normal level of mobility, bouncing into Sam’s lap at barstool height with no trouble.

“So,” Mikaela ventured. “Bee didn’t say anything when he dropped you off?”

“No. They still hadn’t heard from Optimus, so he might not have known anything then.”

“More Decepticons? Ones we didn’t know about?”

Sam ran a hand through his hair. “I, well, I don’t know. I mean it could be, but Bee would have said if that was it, wouldn’t he?”

“Maybe. I guess so.” She offered Mojo a piece of chip, knowing the way to a dog’s heart. “I guess there might be a lot of complicated things going on with people who’ve been at war for thousands of years. “

“Or millions. Yeah. I wonder if…what if it’s because they live so long? They, like have a lot of time to…plan battles and whatever. I don’t know.”

Mikaela nodded. “Well, yeah. Because look at how Optimus is handling our government. He’s probably seen every kind of bureaucratic crap we’ve ever thought of already. You’d think if anyone could, he could negotiate some kind of peace with his own people.”

“Sure. Except for the whole Megatron-is-totally-crazy thing.”

“So why do the rest of the Decepticons follow him? Or why did they, I mean. Before.”

“Probably because he’d kick their asses? What did Optimus say? ‘All who defied them were destroyed,’ or something like that. So, join up or die, I guess.”

“But how did he get all the followers he’d need for that in the first place? Followers willing to go through with orders like that.”

“By lying? Promising them stuff? Plus, there are malcontents in every society, right?” He’d been about to say “criminals” but veered off at the last second.

“Or maybe their peaceful Empire wasn’t as perfect as Optimus made it sound.”

“Yeah. Maybe not.” Sam shrugged, then nodded. It wasn’t the kind of conversation he’d ever thought he’d be having with Mikaela. On the other hand, it was difficult not to think about bigger issues when you were secretly friends with alien robots.

Mike Shinoda’s Second to None sounded on Sam’s phone. He grabbed it off the counter, switching to speaker. “Bee?”

“Sam. We found him. He is…all right.”

There was a little too long a pause. Sam and Mikaela exchanged a worried look. “Um, are you sure?” Sam asked.

“I’ll explain further when I arrive,” Bumblebee promised. “Mikaela is there as well?”

“Yes,” she said, leaning a little closer, though Bee could have heard her through the phone even if she’d been across the room. Sam’s phone looked normal enough, but wasn’t anymore. The warranty was way beyond voided, but Sam didn’t mind since he could call anywhere in the world – or for a limited range off it – without having to pay for minutes, and it never needed recharging. Although it was probably nuking his brain.

“Good. I will see you shortly.”

Shortly meant an hour, and Bumblebee had probably bent the speeding laws quite a lot. The Cybertronians didn’t have a knack for what the humans felt was a long or short period of time as yet. The familiar rumble of the Camaro engine made Mojo sit up, alert in Sam’s lap. Sam opened his phone before the first handful of notes of the ringtone sounded. Mikaela leaned out a window and frantically gestured Judy Witwicky inside.

“We found him,” Bee said, simply. “Ratchet and Ironhide are taking him back to the warehouse.”

“What happened?” Sam and Mikaela said together. They squinched their eyes at each other in lieu of grins, too worried for a more overt expression of humor. Judy’s eyes sparkled at them, but she too maintained a serious expression.

“He…” Bumblebee ran an extended scan. The closest Cybertronian traces were from the warehouse, and Bee had already gently disabled the bugs placed in the vicinity and within Sam’s house. The bugs, when accessed, would play a harmless conversation Bee had surreptitiously recorded earlier when they were also unobserved. “He merged the Allspark shard with his spark.” He knew this was going to require more explanation. Only Sam had heard of sparks before; Optimus had neatly concealed this feature when detailing Megatron’s deactivation to the American government. The humans knew that separating head from torso or destroying the chest were the only sure ways of killing the robots, and that was already more than most organic life forms had ever known about them.

“Um, what?” Sam said. Bee warbled, amused.

“And how exactly are Ratchet and Ironhide getting Optimus back from wherever you found him?” Judy wanted to know. “You didn’t stuff him in Ironhide’s pickup back…did you?”

“Ah. We did. He’s a bit…folded up. Fortunately Ratchet has a tarp.”

Sam cackled. “You took pictures, didn’t you? Total blackmail material!”

“Sam!” Mikaela and Judy exclaimed. Mikaela batted at his arm. “All right, let me see, too…” Bumblebee had obligingly sent a couple of still images to Sam’s phone. The picture quality was startlingly good. Prime was curled up, well, folded up was really the better way to put it, as tight as possible, and still parts of him overhung the sides of Ironhide’s bed. One foot in particular stuck out rather conspicuously. Ratchet, even in a still frame, was clearly fussing about the tarp and trying to get everything that was obviously a giant alien robot covered up. The humans giggled.

“All right, all right,” Judy said finally. “So, what was it Optimus did to himself again? Put the what in his where?” Sam almost swallowed saliva the wrong way and Mikaela pounded his back harder than strictly necessary.

“After Sam deactivated Megatron,” Bee said, carefully not using the term ‘killed’ – Sam was still easily upset in that matter, even if Megatron had been the Harbinger of Death, “there was a shard of the Allspark still intact, which Optimus retrieved and has kept safe.”

“The cube thing?” Judy whispered.

Sam nodded. “Yeah, the cube thing.”

“Each of us,” said Bee, “has a spark – it is what makes us alive. A soul you might call it, only in our case it is a semi-physical entity. Rather like a small sun inside our bodies.”

“Is that why you guys are radioactive?” Mikaela asked.

“Yes. Now that we know how vulnerable you humans are, Ratchet has modified our shielding to better protect you from our native emissions. That is why I had to drop you off, Sam. Prime’s spark is extremely powerful. Any unprotected human exposed to its rays would be fatally harmed.”

Sam would have been more worried about this, about having done what he did to Megatron, whose spark he guessed was just as powerful as Prime’s; but the military docs had checked him over horrifyingly thoroughly and he’d been given a clean bill of health to the best efforts of the finest in human medical technology. For what it was worth. “I’m fine, Mom,” he said, heading her off at the pass. “You know I’m fine, don’t get weird.”

“All right, Sammy, calm down.” Judy rubbed his shoulder anyway, then leaned back in her seat, thinking, as Bumblebee continued.

“Prime, in order to preserve what was left of the Allspark, and protect it, has placed the shard inside his spark chamber. It…seems to have become part of his spark now. Ratchet isn’t sure…” Fretful whirrs sounded over the phone connection. “We…do not know what this is doing to him. Will do to him. He seems to be in recharge. Ironhide and Ratchet have him at the warehouse now.”

“Recharge is kinda like sleep,” Sam told his mother.

Judy nodded, chewing a hangnail on her thumb, brows knit. “The whole Allspark all at once was too much,” she said slowly. “But the little piece wasn’t so bad. Okay.”

“This is strange and unexpected to us as well,” Bee said ruefully.

No sacrifice, no victory, Sam thought. He couldn’t tell anymore if the family motto sounded trite or more profound than ever.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“All right, where is he?” Simmons shouted, striding through the warehouse door. Ratchet stopped welding and pulled a tarp over Jazz’s body.

“Who?” Ratchet asked, coming around the partition, in what he felt was a reasonable tone, considering the human had barged in without so much as a by-your-leave or a call ahead of time.

“Prime. Who else?” Simmons glared around the space, then headed for the triage area. Ratchet was tempted to pick him up and put him on one of the beams supporting the ceiling. He simply followed him instead. “The big guy hasn’t returned anyone’s calls in two and a half days. Not even the President’s. People are getting…nervous.” It was difficult to lean menacingly at someone who was about fifteen feet taller, but Simmons tried, purely out of habit.

Simmons saw Jazz’s draped body first and eyed it with naked avarice. “I still don’t see why you can’t give us that one. Humans donate their bodies to science all the time.”

“No,” Ratchet said.

“All right, whatever. Alien protocol. Aha, there he is.” Simmons stalked over to the table where Optimus lay.

“He’s in recharge,” Ratchet said, hands on hips. There was a visual display monitor set on industrial shelving at about Bumblebee’s height. Ratchet didn’t require it, since he had most of the monitoring equipment he needed built in. But he had to recharge sometimes too, and Bee and Ironhide were to rouse him if Prime’s condition changed.

“What is that, like sleep? For two and a half days?”

“It is functionally akin to the N4 or ‘deep’, delta-wave phase of human sleep. But our recharge cycles are flexible; Prime was ‘awake’ for an extended period previously. Tell your nervous people he will be available again soon.”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Ratchet knew the nanosecond Prime came out of recharge. Even before the expressively deep optics resumed their glow. He had remained close, attuning himself to the faint energy signature Prime had maintained during the time offline. Six days. Prime hadn’t been offline for that long at once for centuries. Not since that time he had nearly bled his fuel lines dry and Ratchet had forcibly kept him under. Even then, Prime had fought his way to consciousness in a way that shouldn’t have been possible. Ratchet still shook his head over that one.

Only Prime’s optics moved, glowing softly but warm, flicking to take in his surroundings, zeroing in on Ratchet.

“We don’t like it when you do things like this,” Ratchet said. “And yet, there you go, you keep doing them.”

“Sorry,” Optimus said. “It’s part of my programming.”

“If Volant weren’t already dead I’d reformat her into one of those toilet seats the Japanese make.”

Optimus chuckled. He still hadn’t moved. “She wasn’t the only one who had a hand in my programming, and you know it.” He sat up very slowly, almost a show of strength, or would have been in a being possessed of abdominal muscles. “And she was far worse when it came to taking risks.”

“No, she risked the Empire. You risk yourself, and therefore our peace of mind. No one loved Volant except Alpha, not the way we love you.” Such bald statements were unlike Ratchet…or very like him. It sort of depended. Mostly on who would be most embarrassed by the result. It was Ratchet’s little way of rebelling against his ambassadorial programming, though that original programming had been largely overwritten during the course of the war anyway.

Prime iterated through that thought for a moment. His perspective was different, having Volant’s consciousness readily to CPU in the Matrix. He quite liked her. But perhaps her personality had changed after she died.

“How do you feel?” Ratchet asked the simplest question, and braced for a complicated answer.

“Different,” Optimus said. He stretched out his arms, looked at his hands. Blue fire chased and tumbled over and under his armor, peeking out through his joints as he moved. “There is knowledge in the Allspark, but it’s quiet. Shielding me, protecting me from itself. Or now it is. I don’t think it was at first. Hm. I’ve been in recharge for one hundred and forty-nine hours.” He felt that parts of his memories of the hours previous to that time had been cleanly excised, leaving no traces even in the quantum recording material of his memory cores.

“And you’re not dead.”

“No. Not now.”

Ratchet covered his optics with one hand. “You give me the surges.”

“I’m all right, Ratchet. The Allspark’s function is to create life, not death.”

“And it killed Megatron because…?”

Prime studied his hands again. They shone like silver in the filtered sunbeams from a broken skylight. Megatron wasn’t dead. Something made him not tell Ratchet. “That was a question of sheer power, as you yourself stated at the observatory.” He got up off the table, standing with his wonted grace. If anything his presence was even more overwhelmingly compelling. He turned, focused on Jazz’s body.

“You’re going to try that now? Aren’t you being a little hasty?”

“I am rested, fully recharged, and perhaps in better physical condition than I’ve been since the start of the war. The repairs to Jazz’s shell are complete. For what should I wait?”

“You’ve already figured out how to do this, have you? No second thoughts about the range of possible results?” Ratchet walked slowly toward the diagnostic table where he’d put Jazz’s body, still covered by a tarp, nominally concealed from covetous eyes; but hooked up as though there was any chance of catching a stray sign of life in a sparkless shell.

Optimus followed him. “No. I am prepared to accept whatever results are forthcoming.” This might not work at all. The Allspark had a kind of will, a kind of fathomless intelligence of its own. It might cooperate, or it might not. Or Jazz’s body might be once again ensparked – but it might not be Jazz. It might be Jazz, but as he was when originally ensparked. Or they might get their First Lieutenant back; after a journey from which no one else had ever returned.

Ratchet pulled the tarp away. All the doors to the warehouse locked down tight, and the security systems went on full alert. Ratchet told Ironhide and Bumblebee to stay were they were, Bee with his human friends and Ironhide outside on the perimeter. There was nothing they could do until this was resolved, one way or another.

Optimus actually flinched at the sight of his friend’s body, closer to breaking than he’d been on the smoking battlefield in Mission City where too many eyes watched him in stunned amazement, and no one was used to the other’s reactions yet. The loss stabbed him anew, even on the brink of recovery. He clenched his hands into fists at his chest, slight tremors vibrating from there out to his shoulders. “Ratchet,” he said softly.

“I am absolutely not leaving you to do this alone. That’s final.” Ratchet stood directly behind Optimus, crossing his arms.

“Good. I only meant to ask you to stay with me.”

Ratchet’s answer was to lean heavily against Optimus’ left hip.

Reaching along some unknown distance, Optimus lowered his hands to Jazz’s chest. There was an inquisitiveness inside the part of him that was the Allspark, or the part of the Allspark that was him. A curiosity tenuous as the gases of a nebula. The Matrix had known how to be used, he had been built knowing he would interact with it, a thing somewhat like another spark inside him. This was different, vastly more. He had not been built to comprehend it. He tried to convey the situation to it, as Bumblebee had conveyed a very different situation under the dam. Perhaps Bumblebee, as their first contact specialist, was a better communicator. Prime felt helpless as the power whirled and buzzed within him but took no action.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

At rest had never been Jazz’s natural state, but in this lightless not-place there was no sound, and the only movement was quantum jitter. It was something he – self-aware and aware of other selves around him – supposed he’d have to get used to. He explored dispassionately, indeed finding it difficult to access anything but the memory of emotions. He knew he had been an emotional being, embodied, but such concerns no longer affected what he was now.

Limitless spirals of time ebbed and flowed, impossible directions of thought or travel rippled outward from himself and all the other presences, other selves. Some of these others were ancient and still, some inquisitive and newly returned like Jazz. He still remembered his name, coalescing around the probabilities that he might not always do so. Other names summoned instances of those selves, growing in his awareness though near and far lacked real meaning. Verity. Polygon. Backbeat. Stardancer. Quasar Blue. So many more. They had been lost to him, once. Here we are, he thought, and the pattern that was his overlapped all of theirs. Here we are many-as-one.

And some where, outside and inside of not-here, Optimus’ spark spun immense and minute, nearby and all around and the length of forever.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Ratchet, what have I done? What must I…I don’t know how to do this…

Cold sank through Ratchet’s core. His CPU flailed for a way to advise that wouldn’t germinate the seed of panic. Prime, don’t over-think it. You’re not conversing with the Matrix, you… You are a conduit for the Allspark. Let it show you how to do what you need to. Ratchet had no idea how to help, really, hadn’t wanted to try, other than being a supportive presence. These larger, deeper tasks were Prime’s forte.

That’s what I’ve been trying…I…hm. Perhaps he had been trying too hard. Simple answers after all. This could take longer than a normal ensparking, or perhaps the Allspark didn’t like being directed, managed, even with so quietly desperate a plea. Communicate the idea, allow the Allspark to work itself through him. It would do what it willed, in any case.

His hands rested on Jazz’s body, the metal cold under his fingers, growing colder because he was becoming warmer. Tendrils of bright blue crackled down his arms. Optimus fell into the stream of power, as though into the arms of solar prominences. His chest opened wide, revealing a giant blue-white sun, spinning centered and calm. Far within, a thread of inquiry spanned not-space, rolling through coiled dimensions in search of one pattern. Still singular, this pattern was drawn to the thread, magnets head to tail, snapping together, locked, as all through everything the Allspark was, throughout universes and times, the pattern was drawn, dizzy and blurred around the edges, down and out and spun again into a form of existence it had worn once before.

Within the open, empty spark chamber, lightning struck, from Prime, grounding itself inside with a joyful, thunderous noise. Ratchet staggered backward, clapping his hands over his audials though the sound was a physical force that he felt with his entire body.

Then it was quiet and dark.

Ratchet crept back to Optimus’ side. For better or worse he wished to bear witness to whatever happened. Jazz’s chest was closed, and across the spectra, warmth spread outward from there, fuel beginning to circulate, the nanocells throughout rebooting their tiny programs. Jazz’s optics lit, his visor still retracted in its protective slot in his helm.

“Optimus?” Jazz returned the reassuring squeeze of Optimus’ hand.

Prime pressed his fore-helm to Jazz’s for a moment, touching that small, angular face with his fingertips. As he straightened, his knees gave way and he toppled backward, offline. Ratchet caught him, but an unconscious Optimus was all arms and legs and seemed to be more of each than normal – Ratchet couldn’t take a step without treading on fingers or getting feet tangled, and any second they were both going to end up on the floor.

Slaggit. Ironhide! Get in here and help me!

The urgency of Ratchet’s tone was enough to get Ironhide to the doorway on the double. There he stopped, gaping.

Jazz, formerly dead, was sitting up on the repair table watching as Ratchet was apparently being attacked by a giant metal octopus that closely resembled Prime.

“Don’t just stand there, you rusting hulk, help me get him onto a table!”

Ironhide snickered but complied. Once Optimus was arranged in a more dignified manner, Ironhide followed Ratchet over to scan a thoroughly bemused Jazz.

What do you remember? Ratchet asked gently.

Jazz’s visor slid into place, shimmering from opaque indigo to pearlescent titanium as he turned his head this way and that, orienting himself in four dimensions, answering his own primary questions of where am I? and how long have I been offline?. Memories shuffled themselves into a more linear order as his CPU fudged its way around blank spots. Not offline, dead. Oh.

Megatron, Jazz said.

Yes. Ratchet observed him closely.

They were interrupted by the sound of screeching tires outside. Bumblebee opened his doors, waiting only the barest minimum for his humans to get out, then transformed and burst into the med-bay at a flat sprint.

Jazz Jazz Jazz Jazz JAZZ! Bee tackled him off the repair table, spinning them across the floor, still singing Jazz’s name, accompanied by Jazz’s laughter. Ratchet was less amused.

“Bumblebee! If you so much as scratch his paint, I will weld you to that hideous sculpture out in front of the automall south of Henderson.”

Sam and Mikaela came in in time to hear this, and to watch a silver and yellow ball of tangled mechs roll giggling across the floor.

“Oh my god,” Sam said. “What are you guys, ten?”

“Wasn’t Jazz, um, dead?” Mikaela asked, sidling up to Ratchet.

“He got better,” Ratchet said. Without knowing exactly how much Prime was willing to reveal to the humans in general, and these humans specifically, he wasn’t about to elaborate.

“Does that happen often?”

“No,” Ironhide said flatly, withdrawing but not in time to evade an acid glare from Ratchet.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

2007 - October

Jazz perched on the roof, enjoying the breeze and the late-afternoon sunlight. Their agreement with the US government was to remain hidden, but under the circumstances, Optimus couldn’t bring himself to chide his lieutenant. Jazz chirped him a transmission detailing how he was monitoring satellites, air traffic and the surrounding area for human life signs. They were not, at the moment, being observed. Optimus hesitated. Mostly because he didn’t wish to impinge on Jazz’s meditation, if that’s what he was doing, but he also wasn’t certain parts of the roof could support his weight. Planning each footfall carefully, Optimus joined him on the narrow ledge.

“You might want to move about two meters to your left,” Jazz told him. Optimus did so, though it created a distance between them.

Jazz watched a small flock of White-Throated swifts whirl through a broken window below them. Beautiful, tiny things with backswept wings, their twittering songs burned ridges and splashes of red, gold and purple across his auditory analysis processors. They were nesting inside one of the upper storey offices, on exposed I-beams both vertically and horizontally. The humans knew little about the birds’ breeding success and other behaviors, so during off-duty hours Jazz was recording extensive video and audio and posting it online for the ornithologists to puzzle over.

Observing Prime’s elaborately considerate posture, Jazz relented, scooting over to close the gap. He did chirp a few cheeky glyphs concerning weighing only 1.8 metric tons and therefore being able to scamper about the humans’ buildings without causing catastrophic structural damage – unlike certain 4.3 metric ton bulks he knew.

“Bulks, huh?” Optimus said, chuckling softly and putting an arm around Jazz. “I haven’t been called that in a long time.” The minicons had mostly emigrated from Cybertron near the beginning of the war. As far as Optimus knew, all who had stayed had been killed.

“Heh.” Jazz slipped an arm around Optimus’ waist, following a similar lattice of thought. Prime’s warmth felt good. They stayed that way for some time, the stillness of their bodies belying the constant hum of myriad tasks and conversations within their CPUs.
Predictably, Jazz broke the outward silence first. “I was inside you, inside the Allspark. I could have learned so much.”

The sun dropped another degree toward the horizon. “Will you forgive me?” Prime asked, in formal glyphs, each holding eons of cultural weight.

Jazz turned his head, sunlight flaring on his visor. “Yes,” he said, in English, to make his meaning unequivocally positive. I could have learned so much, but it would have been the wisdom of the past. And while everything you learn would have become accessible to me, I wouldn’t be able to interact with the world. What fun is that?

Prime chuckled and shifted his weight. Blue streamers of energy scampered across his shoulders and burrowed again beneath his armor. Just a trick of the fading light, he could say, but Jazz’s sensors would know better. The Allspark shard within him was still adjusting to its new home, adjusting him to fit. Jazz hadn’t leaped away from him, but trembled at his side as though willing himself not to do so.

Optimus. What have you become, to save me?

Not just you. It seemed important to state the distinction.

Jazz’s next transmission was tight-beamed and quantum-encrypted. Prime, when I said I – my pattern – had returned to the Allspark, I meant both pieces. I could feel the split, your shard and the main body of the Cube. Megatron isn’t dead. I don’t know what to call what he is, down there, but he isn’t dead.

I know.

Oh slag.

Chapter Text


For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.
-- Carl Sagan



2008 - March

--aiting. 

What was that? Prowl cocked his head, then altered the attitude of his little interceptor, hoping for a better signal. After exactly 31 astroseconds, the message repeated. It was on a newer Autobot frequency, using a tricky encryption sequence, but Prowl made short work of that. As had been intended.

With the Allspark gone we cannot return life to our planet. And fate has yielded its reward; a new world to call home. We live among its people now, hiding in plain sight, but watching over them in secret. Waiting, protecting. I have witnessed their capacity for courage, and though we are worlds apart – like us, there’s more to them than meets the eye. I am Optimus Prime, and I send this message to any surviving Autobots taking refuge among the stars. We are here. We are waiting. 

It had been Prime! After so long. Prowl felt as though his spark would expand out of his chest with relief, even though the message itself wasn’t entirely the best of news. He should relay this to Sentinel immediately, yet he hesitated, enjoying a few moments of solitary knowledge. 

Chiding himself for the indulgence, he turned the interceptor back the way he’d come. This trail had grown cold anyway. It was time to head back to Sentinel’s destroyer, the ship they’d called home for more vorns than Prowl cared to count. 

Sentinel was predictably unimpressed. “That’s it? To the Pit with the Allspark, to the Pit with Megatron, and now we’re all supposed to retire to some organic-smeared planet out in the aft-end of some other galaxy? Peh.”

Prowl said nothing. The galaxy in question being roughly circular, it didn’t technically have an aft-end; and being closer to the Hub conferred nothing but a brighter night sky and a heavier radiation load. But Sentinel wouldn’t appreciate having that pointed out. It was best to let him vent his irritation in any case. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“Request permission to deliver a data-packet to Prime.” A few orns had passed, and they’d had an unusually successful foray in the Scalesi system. They had wiped out an entire platoon of deserter ‘Cons. None had escaped. Sentinel was feeling generous, distributing supplies of the local fuels and lubricants to all the officers and crew. Prowl had waited until a groon before Sentinel’s scheduled recharge to enact his plan.

Sentinel leaned back in his chair. None of the rest of the bridge mechs were paying any attention. “Wanting to leave us, Prowl? I’m surprised. You’re the best tactician I have, send someone else if you think it’s necessary.”

“It is a great distance,” Prowl said. “I have the best chance of making it in the face of unforeseen difficulties, and will not be distracted on the way. Any transmitted message via the same wormhole his came through could be intercepted. Prime should know of our progress. It may affect his decision to abandon Cybertron.”

“That’s true enough.” Sentinel sat up, gazing at him intently. Prowl remained calm and still, at parade rest. “Yeah. Maybe I have a personal message for our glorious leader, too. Not sure the rest of these slaggers could be trusted with that.” His optics narrowed. “I’m not altering course for this, Prowl. Understand?” 

Prowl nodded, having anticipated that contingency. “If you drop me off at the Penta Sigma lunar base, I can find passage back to that wormhole.” It was a busy station for this part of the galaxy, even the scattered Autobots stopped there at intervals to leave messages for one another and relax at the local equivalent of Maccadam’s. Even if there were no Autobots, Prowl had accumulated a small store of unusual gems. He could pay one of the numerous alien traders if he had to. It would cost Sentinel nothing but his best tactician.

“Huh. All right.” Sentinel made a face at his console and it spat a tiny data chip at him. He flicked it to Prowl who caught it and cached it automatically with a minimum of motion. Sentinel knew Prowl wouldn’t try to read it. “If you can work your way around Prime I want your aft back here when you’re done playing courier. Clear?”

“Yes, Sentinel.”

On Penta Sigma, a quartex later, Prowl didn’t watch as Grimlock piloted the interceptor up out of the moon’s gravity well. He walked briskly toward the Pocket-D bar, claws unclenching for the first time in what seemed like vorns. He was free.

Scanning the room as he entered, he didn’t pause in the doorway, making for the info banks along the portside wall. There were Autobot signatures here, but caution had been ingrained so forcibly he couldn’t bring himself to approach them right away. He keyed into the data system, knowing he would have no personal messages but searching anyway, as well as skimming the local news and shipping records. 

The familiar warmth of another mech approached and leaned against the side of the terminal Prowl was using. “Pardon me,” the mech said in a relaxed sort of drawl. Prowl’s optics flicked sideways. The mech was rather smaller than himself, geared for rough terrain, with some interesting onboard equipment. No heavy artillery. A scout. “My friends and I were wondering if you’d care to join us.”

Prowl disengaged his search and faced him. The mech smiled. “Been a while since we’ve seen another Autobot and a new face is kind of a relief. Drinks are on us, come on.” Prowl nodded and followed him to a table along the back wall. A large mech so heavily modified the forging was unrecognizable and a small guerrilla-class infiltrator bot greeted them. Prowl refrained from staring at the latter, he hadn’t known there were any of that forging still operational.

“This is Wheeljack and Arcee,” the mech said, resuming his seat and inviting Prowl to take the empty one next to him. “And I’m Hound.”

Punching his order into the table’s serviette, Prowl nearly hit the wrong selection. “Wheeljack!” The other three Autobots laughed. An open, uncomplicated sound of simple humor that made Prowl’s claws tremble on the menu. 

“My reputation precedes me again, eh?” the big mech chuckled. “Ah well. What brings you out here, if you can tell me?” 

“My apologies,” Prowl said, recovering his composure after a sip of the plain energon the table provided. “My designation is Prowl. Have you received Prime’s latest message?”

The three exchanged glances. “Which one?” Wheeljack asked, leaning forward and resting an arm on the table. 

“The one about the loss of the Allspark,” Prowl said quietly. “And the planet they found it on.”

“What?!” all three said. Prowl chirped them the entirety of the message. Including the embedded coordinates from Prime, and the coordinates of the wormhole through which he had gotten the signal.

Wheeljack sat back with a heavy clunk against the wall. “That…changes things.” The other two stared at their drinks, processing. After two breems of thoughtful silence, Hound abruptly arched his back and tipped his head up.

“Cut it out, Mir,” he said, grinning nevertheless. “No-one’s watching, you can de-cloak.” Prowl gaped as a slender blue mech faded into visibility behind Hound, hands caressing Hound’s chest unabashedly. Their open affection continued as the newcomer – or had he been there all the time? – took the seat on Hound’s other side, trailing a hand across Hound’s shoulders and down his arm to briefly squeeze his hand on the table. “Prowl, this is Mirage, our resident spy. Oh, sorry – recon officer.”

Mirage bowed, using an ancient politeness only Prowl’s extensive studies allowed him to recognize. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Prowl merely nodded, still flummoxed. No one in Sentinel’s battalion dared show that kind of unreserved trust. Interface was discharged like any other duty, efficiently and perfunctorily, and according to schedule. 

Hound was evidently relaying Prime’s message to Mirage, for the recon bot’s face fell. “Oh no. But that means…” Mirage bowed his head and Hound embraced him. 

“I’m sorry,” Prowl said, not understanding Mirage’s distress specifically, though the loss of the Allspark was dire enough for anyone. He regarded Wheeljack. “I wish to join Prime on the new planet. If you’re headed that direction, or if you can get me nearer the wormhole, I’d be grateful for a ride.”

“Yeah,” Wheeljack said heavily. “Yeah. Sure. Looks like we don’t have anything better to do. Unless you guys have ideas?” Hound, though clearly concerned for his friend, was keenly interested. Arcee looked speculative. “All right. Soon as Cliffjumper comes back we can get off this rock.”

Walking along the gantry toward Wheeljack’s ship, Prowl wasn’t fooled by its pitted and corroded exterior. The ship looked like it was cobbled together from four or five different vessels, but there were numerous carbonized blast marks to attest to its hardiness. 

Prowl veered to one side rather than board, however, beckoning to Wheeljack. Before I enter your ship, there are things I must dispose of, Prowl told him.

I understand. C’mon. Wheeljack led him down a ramp to the moon’s rocky surface, out and over the lip of a nearby crater. Hound and Arcee watched them with some concern. 

“Will he be all right?” Arcee wondered. “I don’t trust that Prowl.” 

Hound shrugged and continued on inside. “Wheeljack’s no pushover. And Mir’s out there.”

“Oh.”

In the crater, Prowl removed two small but insidious weapons from caches in his legs and threw them on the ground. 

“Hm.” Wheeljack stooped to retrieve one of them; a CPU bore. “Nasty.” Small tools slid from the big mech’s fingertips and deftly removed the device’s minute power core. Caching the core, he tossed the remains back down beside the other weapon; a spark-virus bomb. That one he left quite alone. 

After only a moment’s hesitation, Prowl began tearing off the outermost – and heaviest – layer of his armor. Wheeljack watched him in surprise for an astrosecond, then helped with the shoulder and dorsal pieces. Prowl had a look to him Wheeljack recognized. The air of a mech whose servos were stained with death to the shoulder – and was sick of it. 

Almost a full metric lighter, Prowl stared at his heavy-duty claws then gazed with admiration at Wheeljack’s sturdy but facile, six-fingered hands. Nothing to be done about that right now.

Wheeljack slagged the pile with his shoulder cannon when they were through. Satisfied, Prowl followed him back to the ship. 

Inside as well as outside, esthetics bowed to function. Wheeljack chirped him a basic schematic and Prowl ran a claw along a remarkably well-shielded power conduit. “Nice,” he said, impressed. 

The last member of their party, a red mech named Cliffjumper, finally rejoined them, laughing the whole way up the gantry. “You guys missed it! It was classic!” he whooped, gesturing wildly with his arms. “They were doing a live version of ‘The Pirates of Penstirachtatoriafelexis’ only, get this, they hadsquishies playing all the parts! I thought I was gonna bust a processor!” 

“Oh my,” said Mirage. 

“Squishies?” asked Prowl.

“He means organic life forms,” Arcee explained. “All right, gear-head, shift it. We’re dusting off.”

“Already?” Cliffjumper made his way forward to the bridge, stopping short as he spotted Prowl. “Another stray, ‘Jack?”

“Yep.” Wheeljack waved a hand by way of introductions. “Prowl. Cliffjumper. Strap in, everyone.”

Prowl took an empty seat at the rear of the small bridge. The ship’s engines wound up with a palpable thrum, the eccentric modulations transmitted by the hull catching Prowl’s attention immediately. There was something off about them – not enough to make one’s CPU skip a cycle, but noticeable. 

“Heh, don’t worry,” Wheeljack said. “They’re supposed to sound like that.”

Cliffjumper laughed and leaned around his seat to grin at Prowl. “Praise Primus and pass the high-grade!”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}> 

Hey, everybody, about the new guy, Wheeljack transmitted from the bridge, opening a circle of tight-beamed communication among Hound, Mirage, Arcee and Cliffjumper. I know he’s giving some of you the surges, and that’s totally understandable. He’s a dangerous mech, no doubt about it. But I think he’s a good guy, all right? He’s just gonna be kind of jumpy for a while, so don’t make a lot of sudden moves or approach him from behind if you can help it. Or at least try to make some kind of noise. You don’t want to surprise him, trust me. Hound and Mirage replied with simple affirmatives. 

Cliffjumper spun the plasma welder he was repairing a conduit with in his fingertips. Bah! What’s the matter, Wheeljack? Don’t you think I can take him? Huh? 

Wheeljack shook his head, tapping his fingers on his forehelm. Cliffjumper, you definitely can’t take him. Got me? I mean it. Leave the poor mech alone until he can get his CPU balanced out again. 

Aww, come on, ‘Jack. I’m tougher than I look, you know. 

Arcee bounced her fist off the top of Cliffjumper’s head. Don’t you dare try anything, you little glitch. I don’t care if he cores you, but we just finished patching this hulk up again. A hull breach, even the total loss of ship’s atmosphere, wasn’t really a dire problem, but their vocoders only worked in air or other less-dense fluids and relying on radio or subspace transmission all the time was tedious. They lost all the harmonics their complicated voices conveyed. Arcee felt the brief, sudden clenching of her spark, reminded of Bumblebee. They could make more air, thanks to one of Wheeljack’s less volatile inventions, but it took quartexes. Besides, energon – especially high-grade – evaporated dismayingly quickly in vacuum. She kicked Cliffjumper’s shoulder for good measure and headed aft to run a routine systems check on the engines. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}> 

With six bots on board, it was simplest to divide their time into three watches. Cliffjumper with Arcee, Hound and Mirage, and Wheeljack appointed himself Prowl’s watch partner. One third of each orn on duty, one third off and one third for recharge, although usually no-one but Mirage needed it for that long. Hound liked to tease him about being high-maintenance. 

It took them two CPU-dulling, uneventful quartexes to reach the wormhole. Going through it, Prowl at last understood the odd engine modulations. He’d never been through an easier transition – if the noise in normal space was a little peculiar, it was entirely worth it for the remarkable smoothness and safety in warp. Wheeljack’s reputation as a genius, however mad, was well deserved. 

This still left another six quartexes in normal space to reach the new planet. Since Wheeljack could manage the bridge alone – and liked to do so, as it gave him unhindered time to contemplate his current projects – Prowl often went up to the observation bubble to indulge in solitude and quiet, bathed in starlight. He could sit and blissfully think of nothing, or review his orn’s performance, both of his meager shipboard duties and in his interactions with the other bots. He knew that all his reflexes were honed too sharp, and most of his interpersonal algorithms too cold and harsh. He needed to re-adapt to “normal” Autobot society. Or as normal as they could be, after so many millennia of war, and the loss of their homeworld. 

Silent observation, he had decided, was still his best tool. Quiet obedience had been the most efficient way to deal with Sentinel, and Grimlock for that matter. Prowl calculated that same strategy could do no great harm here. Long ago he had joked and laughed and been kind, he hoped he could be so again. 

Prowl froze the moment the observation bubble door opened. Halting the automatic transformation of both of his forearms into plasma weapons, he forced the guns back into his body. He hadn’t expected anyone to be in here at this groon.

Two pairs of optics glowed at him in the dark. Hound and Mirage transmitted an invitation in tandem. The simple Join us? from Hound intermeshed with Mirage’s more formal glyph somehow forming a singular and alluring palimpsest. With undertones suggesting it wasn’t healthy to keep to himself so much.

I don’t want to intrude, he sent back, unwontedly hesitant. He had not, in truth, interfaced with anyone since the voyage began, and Sentinel thought trines were a sign of decadent weakness and a waste of time. 

Absurd, they said, and held out their arms. Prowl moved across the room slowly, not knowing what to do with this odd reluctance. Was he afraid of hurting them? Perhaps that was it. He didn’t look at his claws enveloping their hands, instead watching their faces as they drew him down between them onto the low bench that ran around the perimeter of the bubble. There was nothing in their expressions but open desire and interest in a new participant. And a touch of pity. Of the two, Mirage was more overclocked at the moment, his core temperature higher than usual for a bot his size. Prowl tried to remember what it was like to be among true Autobots. 

Had he actually thought that? What did he mean by ‘true’? Behind him, Mirage insinuated delicate hands into Prowl’s infrastructure, having to go deep to find the more sensitive power conduits. Hound settled himself between Prowl’s legs, bumping chests gently. As he leaned in with mouth open, Mirage tight-beamed an explanation.

I should warn you, Hound is a nibbler. He has chemoreceptors in the dorsal plate of his mouth and he likes to taste people. He won’t hurt you, though. It’s just a little strange to most bots. 

Curiosity overtook the upper levels of Prowl’s thought lattices, even as his body responded to the interesting things Mirage was doing. He kept his optics on Hound as he ran his lip components slowly over the top edges of Prowl’s chest armor, internal fans whirring somewhere in Hound’s neck. Even this fleeting, delicate contact sent sharp impulses through Prowl’s CPU. 

With the old, heavy armor torn away, he felt young and exposed, buoyant, exquisitely sensitive; only shocked out of this perception now and then by the clumsiness of his claws. Had he really thought he would have to feign proper responses? He balled his claws tightly, his body writhing, rising to meet each caress. Hound and Mirage hummed in pleased, fervid counterpoint. Prowl felt the hot tips of cables tapping and sliding over his armor, seeking his well-hidden torso data-ports.

“No,” Prowl moaned weakly, shivering. “Not …cables. Too much…” 

The cables withdrew from him, though Hound and Mirage connected to each other. Easy, it’s all right. Outer three thought-shells enough? Keep all your deeper firewalls up, Prowl, it’s all right. 

Yes, Prowl returned. He could keep everything that needed burying deeper than that easily. His ports irised open. 

Aah, he had forgotten how vivid cables made everything. His assigned interface partner in the battalion, Swoop, though certainly a decent mech, hadn’t been keen on anything but the purely physical, and that had been fine. But now he could feel the pleasure Hound and Mirage were taking in exploring his body in their different ways, and knew they felt exactly how very much he was enjoying it. His claws being useless for tender caresses, his pleasure through the cables was all he could give them. 

Shivering between them, so quickly on the buildup to overload, Prowl tried to slow his climb, extend the delicious suspense. But, Let go, Hound told him, and Mirage did something beneath his spark chamber, and Prowl’s body arched in a parabolic curve between them as blue static discharged across him like a miniature ion storm. The last thing he heard was Hound and Mirage laughing gently as they followed him down. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

How can you bear to touch me? I am a monster. There was no venom in the words, no heat. He recognized himself to be in the post-overload calm, with half his auxiliary systems still resetting themselves. Mirage was already deep in recharge, curled up against his left side, and Prowl was grateful to have to bear the scrutiny of only one other mech. 

How d’you reckon? Hound murmured.

I shouldn’t tell them anything, Prowl thought. None of them were free from the cruelties of the war, but there was no need to add to another’s burden of sorrow and vileness. 

I have done terrible things. 

Most of us have.
 

That was probably true, and Prowl did not want to belittle the experiences of others. But if the actions of Sentinel’s battalion had become the norm, Prowl would despair. They would have become no better than the Decepticons. Careless, he allowed the thought to transmit through the single cable he still had linked to Hound.

Hound bolted upright, gripping Prowl’s forearms. “Sentinel’s battalion?! Oh slag, Prowl! How’d you escape? …Or…I mean, uh?”

Prowl nodded. “‘Escape’ is the proper term.” He briefly explained his actions. “Nothing I told Sentinel was a lie, but I omitted certain personal details. Should I encounter him again, he would no doubt feel it within his rights to terminate me as a deserter.”

“I bet Prime would have something to say about that.”

“Perhaps.”

Hound settled back against Prowl’s chest. It was a strangely comforting gesture. Have you ever killed an Autobot? 

I have failed to prevent it. 

Prowl. 

No,
 he lied. Despairingly, easily. But if my worst cruelties were of omission, they were nevertheless cruelties. 

Never mind the “buts”. Anything else you have or haven’t done? Let Prime sort it out. That’s what he’s for, isn’t he? Hound’s optics brightened. Just think, we’re going to Prime! Have you ever met him?

No. I did see him once, before the war. 

Is he as big as everyone remembers? 

He is big. The Lord Protector was bigger. 

Oh. Yeah. 


Prowl smiled ruefully, glad of the diversion. Prime seemed more approachable. I suppose that’s obvious in retrospect. Even from across the Iacon Central Plaza I felt that I could have gone right up to him and talked with him about anything. As you indicated, he was built that way. 

Why did you leave the battalion?
 It was a simple question on the surface, but Prowl respected Hound’s canniness in asking it. Prowl rubbed his cheek flange slowly over the top of Hound’s helm, giving the question proper thought. 

My spark is corrupted, not solely by the war, but by how we were fighting it. Effective as Sentinel’s methods are, it becomes too easy a slide into how the Decepticons live. Loveless and cruel, strength the only measure of worth. I’m old enough to remember that I was something other, something more than a tactician, before. I needed to stop before I lost my old self completely. He would always be grateful to Wheeljack for taking him in on little more than his faction sigil. 

Your spark isn’t corrupted. Who told you that? Things lit up across Hound’s chest and shoulders, cheek spars and temporal plates. Prowl felt only the barest whisper of the scan, but recognized – at least peripherally – the keenness and subtlety of Hound’s senses. Not even the legendary First Lieutenant Jazz could track Mirage when he was fully cloaked, but Hound could. Your spark is… Hound pressed closer, his hands moving on Prowl’s chest. Unnecessary but pleasant, and a mischievous expression fleeted across Hound’s face. Your spark is compact but bright. Silver-white, piercing. Grieving.Hound moved closer still, lip components brushing against Prowl’s face. Wheeljack told us when you first came aboard that you were wounded in spark. But not corrupted. 

Prowl stared at him. Hound wasn’t a medical bot, but there was no denying the accuracy of his scans. His best hope had been that his spark would heal itself given time away from the battalion. But if it was more a matter of programming, retuning – that was easier, or at least less frightening. Thank you, he said. Hound smiled, snuggling down against him and slipping into recharge. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

They rolled off the recharge berths as usual, but Wheeljack paused in the bay’s entry, looking back at Prowl. Mind joining me up front for a bit? he tight-beamed. Prowl returned acquiescence and followed him up the long central corridor to the bridge. 

“How’re you doing, kiddo?” Wheeljack asked, leaning back in the pilot’s chair, watching Prowl closely without seeming to stare. 

Prowl cocked his head. It was a curious question. Nothing untoward had happened, so perhaps it was a sort of medical query. Surely Wheeljack didn’t want a detailed report of all his mechanical functions. 

“You seem to be getting along all right, yes?” Wheeljack prompted gently.

Ah, so it was a social question. “Yes. Arcee and Cliffjumper don’t trust me entirely, but that’s as it should be.”

“Don’t let it bother you. Hound and Mirage like you a lot. And so do I.” 

“Hound and Mirage are very kind,” Prowl said. “As are you, for allowing me passage. I’m grateful.”

Wheeljack waved this away. “Nah, I’m just a regular mech. Seriously, before the war, I was a mechanic down on the docks on the north shore of the Rust Sea.” 

“I thought you were the Head of the Engineering Department at Iacon Polytech.” Prowl took the navigator’s seat, running a quick scan and astrogation check. Wheeljack laughed.

“Where’d you hear that slag?” 

Stopping himself from reciting the exact galactic date and planet where he’d picked up that particular rumor, Prowl gave a simpler answer. “Just hearsay, but it seemed reasonable, given the broad spectrum of your reputation and the well-documented accounts of your innovative brilliance.” 

“That’s crazy.” Wheeljack shook his head, optics twinkling. “Sure I download every engineering and mechanical file I can get my CPU around, but I’m mostly self-taught. Never had much patience for all that high-flying university stuff. How about you? What were you, before?”

Prowl had been thinking about that very thing a good deal lately. It led to the consideration that there might be an after. Choices about a new kind of life, beyond survival. He would have to work on that. 

“You don’t have to tell me, all right?” Wheeljack said. “I don’t expect you to tell me a lot of things. I’m used to people who’re in Black Ops. I’ve been in Black Ops myself, back when there were enough of us to specialize like that.”

“No, I…I was just thinking. It’s been a long time.” Prowl looked at the stars on the forward screens, the illusion of their flight. “Originally, long, long before the war, I was a ship’s AI.” Prowl had expected more of a reaction, but Wheeljack merely refocused his optics in surprise. “Strange. I haven’t told anyone that in eons. No one alive now knows…except you.”

“What kind of ship?” Wheeljack asked, more than professionally interested.

“One of the Lord Protector’s personal cruisers, when the Lord Protector indeed protected and served his people. I was damaged in a skirmish with the Penstirachtatoriafelexians and decommissioned. The Lord Protector liked to have the latest equipment and I had been part of an older model. My memory core and processor net were salvaged and put into a mech body where I was ensparked. Because I showed an aptitude for a certain kind of logical thinking, I was programmed as a Counselor of Law. I lived in Praxus then, until the war.”

“Huh,” said Wheeljack. “So on you the door-wings make more sense than they usually do. When’s the last time you had a flight-mode?”

Prowl’s optical shutters flickered rapidly. He looked out at the stars again. “Not since I was part of the Fission Blade.”

“You don’t miss it?”

Prowl felt his memory core grinding a little. These were very old datasets he was prodding. “I suppose perhaps at first it was too painful, not to be a cruiser. I wanted that or nothing. Then, over the vorns, ground vehicles became habit.”

“Maybe on this ‘Earth’ you could be a jet again. If you wanted.”

“Maybe.”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

He programmed himself to hold perfectly still for ten astroseconds upon emerging from recharge, no matter how high his battle systems charged up, no matter how strange the position he found himself in. And things were getting strange indeed. Sometimes he was on top of Wheeljack, sometimes beneath Arcee, though most often he was simply between Hound and Mirage. Once, he onlined to Cliffjumper’s pistol beneath his chin. There was no aggression to the mech’s posture. No more than usual, anyway. He was merely sitting, relaxed, on Prowl’s chest, pistol held loose but steady.

Prowl forced the guns back into his arms and the missiles into his shoulders.

“CLIFFJUMPER!!!”

Cliffjumper giggled and somersaulted off him, scampering out of the recharge bay. Prowl sat up, shaking, and widened his optics at the floor. Wheeljack’s bellow had actually rattled the deckplates. 

You were right, Wheeljack, Cliffjumper conceded, laughing as he led the inventor a merry chase about the ship. He could’ve totally slagged me! 

Yeah? But he didn’t. 

Nope. The struggle was scary to watch, though. I’m glad he’s on our side! 


As Cliffjumper ran by, a hand shot out of a side corridor, snagging him by an antenna. 

“If he had shot you,” Hound said, reeling the squawking mech in, “how do you think that would have made him feel?”

“Well it wouldn’t have done me any good either!” 

Hound glared at him.

As curious as Cliffjumper was to see Hound angry for once, he knew he was pushing it and scuffed his feet unhappily. “You’re right,” he said, and ran back to the recharge bay to apologize. Wheeljack came up behind Hound and put an arm around his shoulders.

“Thanks, kiddo. Saves me the trouble of beating some sense into him.”

“Arcee will probably do that later,” Hound said, grinning. He stretched mightily and went to meet Mirage for a quick snuggle before heading in to recharge.

Still on the berth, Prowl had curled up, forcing his CPU to churn through several iterations of an unsolvable equation to keep his emotional algorithms from a meltdown. He disengaged his battle systems, calming himself further. When Cliffjumper burst in he was uncurling from his protoform-like ball.

“Aw, Prowl, I’m sorry!” Cliffjumper climbed up and hugged Prowl’s nearest forearm. The one with the butylpotassium pellet gun, but Cliffjumper made himself ignore that. 

“No,” Prowl said. “It was a good test. Thank you.”

Cliffjumper looked at him like he’d skipped more than a cycle or three.

“I think I passed, don’t you?”

Cliffjumper laughed. “Well, I’m still alive and we don’t have a hull breach, so I’d say so!”

“Very well. Wheeljack and I are on duty now, so Hound and Mirage should be heading in here for recharge, and you and Arcee are off duty. Hm. And Arcee is asking me where you are.”

“Oh, slag.”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>


The most ineffective government agency is inherently the one most interested in concealing its performance from the public.
--Jimmy Carter



2008 - September

“Now,” Simmons said, scrolling down his notes. “There’s still the matter of NB…Ironhide’s near miss in Tulsa last week.” He and Sam were the only humans seated at the long conference table set up on a mezzanine in the human-scaled corner of the main hangar. Jazz sat on the floor next to the table, but the rest of the Autobots simply stood nearby, with Bumblebee peering over the edge of the mezzanine floor and Optimus trying not to loom over them. “According to the accident report…”

Prime’s head went up.

Simmons halted in mid-word. Optimus-watching was hard not to do – even after more than a year of twice-monthly meetings. (The liaison meetings had been weekly at first, but the Cybertronians found that interval frustratingly short.) Prime’s attitude of intent listening was clear and Simmons felt the first flush of adrenaline. 

“Incoming?” he asked. 

“Indeed,” Prime said, an unmistakable grin lighting his face. “They are four days out.”

“Good guys I take it?” Simmons stilled his hands with an effort. Four days out meant they weren’t even near the solar system yet. 

“The very best, Mr. Simmons.” Prime relayed the message he’d received to the other four Autobots.

“Wheeljack!” Ratchet exclaimed, laughing in delight. “So he hasn’t blown himself up after all.” 

“Wheeljack and Arcee!” Bumblebee crowed, performing a noisy high-four with Jazz. “Arcee’s alive!” Sam didn’t giggle, he assured himself. It was a very mature chuckle of happiness at his friends’ joy. 

Simmons scribbled on his PDA. “Anyone else?” 

Prime gave him a considering look, which Simmons returned with raised eyebrows. The Autobots lived in the US at the government’s sufferance, but the government did not want them moving in with anyone else on Earth, either. Simmons was well aware of the balance. “Four more,” Prime said, finally. “Cliffjumper. Hound and Mirage—” 

“I’ve heard of those two,” Jazz said.

“As have I,” Ratchet agreed.

Prime nodded. “And Prowl.”

Ironhide stiffened but said nothing. 

“Six friendlies,” Simmons said, annotating. “So. Tulsa.” Simmons leaned back in his chair and eyed Ironhide. 

“The guy was tailgating,” Ironhide grumped. 

“So you pulled out your cannons and threatened to blow him and his SUV to Kingdom Come.”

Prime pinched the bridge of his nose. “Ironhide…”

“Great story to tell his grandkids,” Sam offered helpfully. “If the guy lives that long, tailgating Topkicks.” Ratchet snickered and kicked Ironhide in the leg.

“All right, girls,” Simmons said. “Breach of Security Protocol number 412. You know the forms, Mr. Trigger-happy.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ironhide said, glaring at one of the printers down in Glen’s nest, which began spitting out densely-texted sheets. “In triplicate.”

Simmons was never sure if he loved or hated that the Autobots could out-bureaucrat the bureaucracy. “Want to do my paperwork, too?” he asked hopefully.

“Ha!” said Ironhide.

“Bet you Goldilocks over there does Wicketty’s.” 

“Witwicky. Only the stupid, tedious ones,” Bee agreed. “Sam has enough homework to do already. He should be concentrating on his studies.” Bee tapped his fingers in an odd rhythm on the mezzanine floor. “Wheeljack!” he said, bouncing on his toes. “Wheeljack’s coming!”

Prime laughed. Bumblebee and Ratchet had given him messages to include with the reply he was already sending. 

“We’re going to have to expand the med-lab,” Ratchet sighed.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Wheeljack set them down with a bump in front of the Autobots’ base. Prime, Jazz, Bumblebee and Ratchet came out to greet them, with Ironhide remotely present via Jazz’s carrier wave. Even before the ramp had quite touched the earth, Wheeljack sprinted down it, overtaking Cliffjumper, and catapulted himself at Ratchet. 

Bee and Arcee embraced warmly while Ratchet and Wheeljack were still tumbling about. Arcee saluted and clasped arms with Prime, or, rather, she grasped his wrist and he engulfed her entire arm. She was the smallest Autobot Sam and Mikaela had yet seen. 

“That’s…that’s a girl robot,” Sam whispered to Mikaela, wide-eyed.

“And she can totally kick your ass,” Mikaela said, smirking. 

“Prime, this is Cliffjumper,” Arcee said, not ignoring the humans but not knowing yet how to respond to them either.

Cliffjumper’s salute was a little sloppy, but his enthusiasm made up for it. He and Bumblebee grinned at each other and revved their engines, much as young human males might flex their biceps.

“And our quiet friend over there playing stevedore is Prowl.” Arcee’s tone was troubled, harmonics indicating she was of two minds about him, her uncertainty leavened with pity.

Prowl carried one of Wheeljack’s crates of equipment down the ramp. He didn’t know anyone here. He would continue to unload the ship so the others could enjoy their celebration.

Welcome, Prowl, came a warm transmission from Prime. I surmise you have a message for me from Sentinel?

Yes, sir. Prowl replied. Prime knew who he was. Prime knew who he was! 

Good. You can leave those crates just inside the hangar – this is a secure area. Inherent in Prime’s secondary harmonics was an open invitation to join the rest of them in comparing Ratchet’s grog with Wheeljack’s moon-grade, but that Prowl could continue what he was doing if that made him more comfortable.

Prowl set the crate down in the indicated spot and returned to the ship for the next one, rather more bounce in his stride than usual.

Chapter Text

2008 - October

“The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”



Stationing himself at the foot of the boarding ramp of Wheeljack’s camo-netted ship, Prowl assumed parade rest. Despite Prime’s assurance that this was a secure area, one did not leave one’s non-AI ship unattended on an alien planet. Even a ship as uniquely qualified to guard itself as this one was. Wheeljack and Ratchet hadn’t yet decided whether the ship would better serve them hidden in orbit like the Ark, or dismantled for materials. Prowl felt a similar decision awaited him. 

The humans were so small. Prowl wasn’t sure why this surprised him. Perhaps it was always a surprise that beings of that scale had enough room in their tiny heads to house intelligence. It didn’t seem plausible. Stranger than that, however, was the way their facial expressions were familiar enough to be disconcerting. His CPU kept trying to code their highly mobile, plastic little faces as comprehensible, along with their body language – but he knew that couldn’t be right, because these were aliens. And at the same time, his pattern-recognition software kept blaring that it wasn’t fooled at all. Those weren’t robots! It was giving him the surges. 

He had downloaded their worldwide communications net as the others had while on final approach, before hitting the atmosphere. Incorporating the dominant languages of this hemisphere had been all the processing he had dared attempt as yet. Too much of the content was too strange, too senseless and contradictory. 

Shivering not from cold, other subjects pressed upon his attention. Prime’s spacebourne message had indicated that the Allspark had been destroyed. That was not entirely true, though Prowl could see the wisdom in withholding the details. He also knew he wasn’t qualified to judge what would no doubt be far-reaching and very long term effects. It bothered him more that Megatron remained in any sense alive. Under Sentinel’s command, they would have sent the largest barrage of missiles they could muster, and if the planet cracked or massive methane clathrate releases from the ocean floor smothered the atmosphere, so be it. Prowl writhed under the contrast, and was stabbed by the memories of Coryx VII, but Prime was right. This wasn’t their planet to do with as they pleased. 

And then there was this spark-merge business. Not to mention Prime bringing First Lieutenant Jazz back to life. If Prime could do that, perhaps he could call forth life from other kinds of lifelessness, as the Allspark had done. Why risk a spark-merge? Yet Prowl had gotten the disturbing impression that Prime meant to try it. New circumstances required new adaptations. Change or die. That was one of the most basic tenets of his people, Prowl thought, but this was insane.

Come inside, Prowl. Wheeljack’s ship is safe for the moment. Prime leaned against the door frame of the hangar, arms crossed loosely, looking up at the stars. Half illuminated by starlight, half glowing in the warm light from within. 

Remembering what he had told Hound about his ages-ago glimpse of the Prime across the Iacon Plaza, Prowl approached, secure behind his accustomed façade of cool efficiency. 

Without a word or glyph, Prowl gave him the message chip from Sentinel. Prime read it with no outward change of expression that Prowl could detect, though he did not yet know Optimus well. “I have prepared a report of my own, sir. Detailing the battalion’s activities since leaving Cybertron.” Suppressing a shudder, he offered an arm cable. Prime seated it in an arm port and opened up to receive the rather large data packet. “I am prepared,” Prowl said aloud, “to accept whatever sentence you deem appropriate.” 

Prime gazed at him keenly. “Let us postpone the question of sentencing until I have processed your report properly.” He released the cable and Prowl reeled it in.

“All possible charges are listed in subsection—” 

“Yes, I see.”

“Unless you have altered the laws. Given our exile I should have considered that possibility.”

“Prowl.”

“Sir?”

“Consider yourself on suspended duty,” Prime said gently. “Go in and recharge. Ratchet will want to examine you all in the morning.”

“Morning? Ah.” It was strange to think of living on a planet with a sun again. “Yes, sir.” 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“Can you unseal your spark chamber for me? You needn’t open it completely, just enough so my scans can get through.” It was rare for a spark chamber to be so heavily shielded as to prevent medical scans from penetrating. Ratchet found it disquieting, and wondered if everyone in Sentinel’s battalion had had what would be a rather hazardous procedure done, or if Prowl had submitted himself to Trochar’s less than tender mercies out of some twisted sense of self-preservation.

Of course, Prowl thought. It should be a simple matter. He tried. “I …cannot.” Prowl endeavored to create a tone of voice, harmonics, a facial configuration that would express not defiance, not refusal, but distress at inability. He hadn’t opened his spark chamber for hundreds of vor-…centuries. “It might be corroded shut.” 

“Hmm,” said Ratchet, in that worrisome way of physicians everywhere. “Can you part your thoracic armor at all?”

Prowl tried to circumvent a shiver, disguising it by grabbing the armor plates with his claws and pulling them as far apart as he could. It was a matter of millimeters. 

“Good enough.” Ratchet pored over his scans, adjusting several parameters, tamping his lip components together in more ways than Prowl would have thought possible given their arrangement. He shifted on the repair table uncomfortably. 

“Sorry. Close up,” Ratchet said, after what felt like several minutes but had only been a few seconds. “Not corroded, by the way. You’re in remarkable shape, physically.” 

“Hound’s scanners can penetrate the spark chamber,” Prowl said. “If you think it necessary.”

Ratchet cocked a shutter at him, but contacted Hound on an open channel. Hound? Could you come in here for a moment, please? 

Hound arrived promptly, curious. “Ah ha. Hey, Prowl, so you’re the latest medical victim, huh?” He brushed fingertips across the back of Prowl’s forearm.

“Very amusing,” Ratchet said. “Your sensors can penetrate his spark chamber housing?”

“Oh. Yeah. I scanned him earlier, aboard the ship. You want the file?” Ratchet nodded and Hound chirped him the data. 

“Not bad,” Ratchet said, mulling it over. He offered Hound an arm cable. “Mind if we try it in tandem?” He looked at Prowl, who nodded. Hound seated the cable in one of his arm ports and initiated a scan using the entire spectrum of his equipment. Then Ratchet took over.

“Oh,” Hound said faintly. 

Driven now by Ratchet’s vast knowledge, Hound almost felt as though he’d never used his sensors to their full extent before, as though Ratchet was teaching his optics how to see in some heretofore unconceived-of wavelength. He gave Ratchet complete access to his interpretation software. After a few moments, Ratchet withdrew gently, and caught Hound as he staggered from the loss. 

“Thank you, Hound,” Ratchet said, which Hound correctly interpreted as a dismissal. He winked at Prowl and left. “Prowl, physically you’re perfectly sound. Unless you have questions, I’m done with you in that regard.”

Everyone still alive was generally in excellent health. Survival of the fittest, as the humans had it. Prowl was exceptional even given such parameters. Aside from the rough points where his outer armor had been removed, Prowl looked to have been designed by a military genius. He possessed almost as many redundant systems as Ratchet did, and they were more compact and efficient since these systems must only be suitable to Prowl himself, while Ratchet’s needed to be compatible with any forging. Stronger than he appeared due to clever proportioning and best use of basic physical concepts like leverage, he combined high-powered armament with a frame sturdy enough to take a respectable amount of punishment, driven by keenly coded programming and an ultra-fast CPU. His sensory equipment was top of the line for a non-scout/specialist. He was gorgeous. And deeply damaged. 

Prowl looked down at his claws. “Our resources here are limited,” he said quietly. 

“For now, yes.” On a hunch, Ratchet slowly reached for one of Prowl’s claws. Prowl flinched, withdrawing as though afraid Ratchet might injure himself on the diatanium alloy edges. 

Psychologically, however, Ratchet tight-beamed, you are what we call battle-weary. The humans had other terms for syndromes with vastly different electro-chemistry but dismayingly similar symptoms. From Wheeljack’s report, it was clear Prowl knew this very well, and had chosen his course away from Sentinel’s battalion deliberately. I’ve briefed Prime. He and I will help you all we can. 

“Prime will?”

“He was designed and programmed to be good with people. You can go talk with him now if you feel up to it.” Ratchet gestured toward the med-bay’s outer door. “He’s in his office with Jazz.” 

The broad archway leading to Prime’s office was south-southwest across the hangar from the med bay. It wasn’t so much an office as a command center, with a large holo-table taking up much of the floor, and extensive UI nodes to Teletraan, giving the AI a strong presence in the room. Prime was watching a complex display that Jazz – sitting on the edge of the table – was directing. Prowl recognized it as some kind of data matrix but didn’t understand the context. 

Hey, man, Jazz tight-beamed, finding Prowl’s personal channel with no discernable difficulty. Try not to look so much like you’re being sent to the Smelting Pit. Prime’s the fair one. Relax.

Indeed, Prowl replied. If he is fair, then I am on my way to the Smelting Pit. 

Jazz had no reply. Completing his own report to Prime and hopping down from the table, he removed himself from their presence, both physically and virtually. They could hear him calling for Ratchet in the hangar, “You still got any of that moon-grade left? Because I could sure use some…”

Teletraan’s main screen went dark. Prime looked at Prowl gravely. Every other subroutine, every other conversation or virtual task was shut down. Prowl had Optimus Prime’s undivided attention. 

I am going to ask that you do the most difficult thing. I do not do so lightly, and it grieves me. I ask that you live. 

Prowl remained upright only because he locked all his joints. Yes sir. 

In one hundred Earth years, we will review your case. If you wish it, I will then authorize Ratchet to safely remove certain of your memories. Coryx VII, Ellessaa, and the battle at the Ar’cihelian wormhole, as well as the executions you were commanded to perform. Prowl would still know what he had done, but he would no longer have to endure the clear sensory data of the deeds themselves.

There was no provision for the possibility that Prowl might die before that time. Suicide – even by Decepticon – was implicitly forbidden. ...Not allowed to die. Not allowed to die. The phrase, keened in Cybertronian, rose in volume and pitch with each iteration. He began to shake so violently Prime sprang forward and caught him before he could topple and strike his head on the edge of the holotable. 

Prowl! Disengage your articulation locks – you’re tearing yourself apart!

He would not or could not comply. Not allowed to die. Not allowed to die!

Ratchet! I need you in here!

Ratchet sprinted across the hangar, narrowly but deliberately missing Sam and Mikaela, who had just come in with Bumblebee. "What's up his tailpipe?" Sam muttered. They caught a glimpse of Prime struggling with one of the new bots, as the door opened to admit Ratchet and slammed closed directly behind him. 

Mikaela exchanged a look with Bee, then took Sam's arm and tugged him down the stem corridor. "Come on, let's get out of their way." She steered them toward the northernmost lookout. Necking there was least likely to be interrupted. As much as she wished she could assist Ratchet in any mechanical emergency, near a giant robot in mid-seizure was no place for a human. 

Bumblebee sidled over to Ironhide, who stood at the archway as though guarding it. Ironhide had been tense and uncommunicative since the new group had landed. More uncommunicative than usual. Bee nudged his hip and gave him the look he’d developed over voiceless centuries that plainly said, all right, give.

Ironhide harrumphed, looking away, then tight-beamed, That one is dangerous. I don’t like it that he’s here. 

You mean Prowl? Prime— 

Yes, Prime knows who he is, I’m sure.
 Ironhide glared at the closed door. He shook his head, then looked down at Bee, placing a gentle hand on the smaller bot’s shoulder. Just watch your back. 

Sensing Ironhide would not be any more forthright, Bumblebee jogged off to reunite with his humans. 

A few minutes later, Ratchet and Prime emerged, Prime carrying Prowl's offline body. Wheeljack met them halfway across the hangar, his initially crestfallen expression softening to one of sadness as he realized Prowl was merely unconscious. 

You didn’t really think I’d execute him, did you? Prime asked.

No, but it did occur to me that he might… Well, never mind. You passed sentence I take it? 

Yes. Reaching the med-bay, Prime laid Prowl on a repair table and withdrew, relaying the entirety of his judgment to Ratchet, Wheeljack and Jazz. Ratchet bowed his head and leaned heavily on the edge of the table. 

Frag it, Prime. You know I hate slogging about in people’s memory cores. 

“I’m sorry my friend,” Prime said, clasping Ratchet’s shoulder. “That’s why I trust you to do it safely.”

"Figures." Ratchet attached a single monitoring cable to Prowl's forearm. "You realize I might have to intervene before the hundred years are up, depending on how he comes out of this?" 

“I leave that to your medical discretion. You’ll overrule me anyway if you feel you must.”

Ratchet groaned.

“It sure is good to see you guys again,” Wheeljack laughed.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Prime knelt at the head of the repair table, his hands placed gently over Prowl's chest, over his spark. A single pair of cervical cables joined his CPU to Prowl's. 

Prowl? 

Yes, Prime? 

For the past two point seven million years, you have been under the direct command of Sentinel, correct? 

Yes, sir. 

What is the punishment for disobeying a combat order in Sentinel’s battalion? 

Deactivation, sir. I know what you're trying to do, sir, but it doesn't matter. I should have...could have engineered a mutiny. Illegal orders, immoral orders are not binding. Even the humans know this. 

Based on your report, most of the soldiers in the battalion appear to have little objection to following Sentinel's orders. Are you certain a mutiny would have been successful? 

...I... The only feasible way I could calculate involved swaying Grimlock. But I have never been able to predict which way he'll jump. Even with him, Swoop, Lockdown and Swindle, the projected percentage of casualties seemed unacceptable. But I feel that may have been a poor excuse for my own indecision. Sir. A few score Autobot casualties would have been worth saving billions of civilians. Out of cowardice I failed to act… 

You warned the merchant vessel G'Kaa away from the Ar’cihelian wormhole. They chose not to heed. Regrettable but not within your control. You performed the executions of fellow battalion members out of the explicit threat that Trochar or Sentinel themselves would do so, and would make those deaths less than quick and painless. Unless you have falsified your report to me- 

I have not! 

Then in each case, with the possible exception of Coryx VII, I deem that you attempted to minimize casualties, both within the battalion and among the civilian populations with the misfortune to be in the vicinity of your skirmishes with the Decepticons. Within the context of Sentinel's command, you did all you could to preserve life, often at risk to yourself. Your efforts have not always been successful. You made a number of errors of action and omission, particularly during the first seven centuries, when, if you had voiced your objections in a non-confrontational manner, you might have swayed Sentinel to pursue a less radical trajectory. He trusts your assessments. Of course, only Vector Prime sees all pathways. The ultimate responsibility rests with Sentinel. And with me, as I assigned him that post. The war itself is my fault, for willfully not comprehending my twin's madness for what it was. 

That’s absurd! You couldn’t have predicted… 

Yes? 

Point taken. But... Prime, if my…influence, such as it was, was an ameliorating factor, then I have again betrayed our ideals by fleeing. 

Those who remain must face their own sparks in what they choose to do. Perhaps your flight will inspire others to do the same. When the battalion was formed, there were seven hundred mechs assigned to it. There are now only three hundred and twenty-eight. And it seems they are running out of Decepticons. 

That might not be a good thing. 

Indeed. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Mikaela curled up on Ratchet's shoulder, watching as Prime lowered his helm to touch that of the alarmingly pointy mech on the repair table. "What's he doing?" she whispered. 

"I heal the body," Ratchet murmured. "Prime heals the spark, and between the two of us we try to cobble broken programming back together."

“But isn’t Optimus your…commanding officer or something?”

“He’s the Prime. That was never a military title, until the war. It still isn’t, or, rather, that’s not all it is.” 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

2008 - November

Personal vendettas had been allowable, as long as they didn’t jeopardize or interfere with the active mission. Prowl’s thoughts made elaborate, fractal arabesques, avoiding comparisons, avoiding certain names. Refusing to acknowledge even the concept of distraction, he focused on the task.

He reviewed everything about the battles on Earth via Teletraan, including whatever memories the Autobots involved had tagged as public. One particular Decepticon caught his attention – the only one still on the planet since Ironhide had dispatched Skorponok. Barricade. He froze the image on the nearest screen, zooming in until he had a complete scan of every detail. It wasn’t right. The Decepticon had taken the form of a vehicle used by the humans’ civil protectors. People sworn to the service of their fellows by oaths whose ultimate meaning was familiar to Prowl at the level of his deepest, most ancient programming. It wasn’t right.

Correlating all available data about Barricade into a cohesive parameter-structure, Prowl began a massive search, using both the primitive but not entirely useless native satellites, and those deployed by the Autobots. It might take a very long time, but eventually the Con would slip up. All Prowl needed was the tiniest trace.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

2009 - January

There. There he was, dusty with anonymity, cruising the backroads of southwestern Arizona. 

All the long trail of the search was in Teletraan, and as such would be nigh impossible to erase without Teletraan’s complicity. But there were ways to deal with AIs, ways to trick them. The thought patterns of the unbodied differed subtly from those of the embodied. Prowl understood both.

Teletraan forgot. Teletraan didn’t remember that he’d forgotten anything. Prowl swore to himself that he’d never do such a thing to the AI again.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Barricade laughed. This lone Autobot thought he could catch him? He who had evaded the sweeps of Optimus Prime himself and his chosen crew. Nor could the humans in all their horrible multitudes find him, unless he wanted to be found. Now this single Autobot, only a little bigger than himself, in a clunky SUV alt form no less, thought he could run him down. 

Barricade laughed, and thought about all the things he’d do to this Autobot at the end of this race. Until he realized the Explorer was somehow faster. Was herding him away from the city, away from cover. 

He transformed to provoke the other to do the same, but the Explorer stayed on wheels, coming after him at full speed, clearly intending to run him down. Barricade leaped, spinning over the Explorer’s roof. Heavy claws clamped onto his foot, crushing it. The impact of the ground came at the same time as impacts from missiles that severed his arms. No insults, no proclamations of name and intent, no mocking jibes were forthcoming, only oppressive weight as the Autobot stood on Barricade’s hips. 

Barricade screamed, raged, tried to throw the other off with the leverage of his legs and torso. The Autobot leaned down and began tearing Barricade’s dorsal armor away, stomping once on central structural cables and spine when Barricade’s struggling became more desperate. White static replaced Barricade’s optical feed. He heard pneumatic weapons fire close by, not explosive shells or plasma – it was confusing. Until the butylpotassium pellets, igniting in the heavy, over-oxygenated air, burned through his remaining armor, through the massive cabling of his back, through the narrow housing of his spark chamber. And by then it was too late to scream any more. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Prowl stood over the body. A long, thin blade telescoped from a narrow compartment in his right forearm. Without thinking he took a step toward the head.

No, he thought. I am an Autobot. The blade trembled, hissing, the edge orange-hot. Sentinel required the heads. Tally must be kept. Else how could they know when the war was over? He took another step. 

No. He had done enough, tracking this one, slaying him. Autobots did not take trophies. 

Sentinel required the heads. 

Prime does not!

The blade hissed, edge white hot. It wasn’t meant to be unsheathed for so long, powered for so long without use. The tip dipped toward the ground. Tally must be kept.

No! He shot his articulation locks until he could get his programming under control. And he could control it. Ratchet and Prime had done so much for him already. He could handle this. It was very simple logic. Autobots do not take trophies. Prime did not require the head. Therefore Prowl would sheathe the blade – and later, better still, have Ratchet remove it, for it had only one purpose in Prowl’s experience. Prowl would sheathe the blade and step away. He must report to Prime, tell them what he’d done, notify the human authorities to dispose of the body as they had the others, deep in their strange water ocean. He must sheathe the blade and report to Prime. It was very simple. He could handle this. 

He could not take another step without disengaging the articulation locks. The blade hissed louder, humming now in dissonance, dripping molten substance in bright circles on the ground. 

Prowl! 

Prime! There was something wrong with his transmitter. His sub-harmonics were chaotic, as though he was trying to send more than one set at a time, on more than one frequency. Which shouldn’t have been a problem, but it had come out badly garbled. He tried again. He could handle this. Prime. The Decepticon designated Barricade is dead. Tally must be…no. I have slain…I must report. 

Easy, Prowl. Stay there. Be still. We’ll be there soon. 

There were sirens. A familiar sound. The blade moaned, and a ropy strand of white metal connected the tip with the dusty ground. The humans were blockading the road. Prime would need to get through. Multiple targets marked and locked. He could not take another step without disengaging his articulation locks. Prime had said to be still. The missile launchers on his shoulders rose into firing position. Tally must be kept. 

He must be still. He could handle this. Sentinel required the heads. After a time there came another siren. Also familiar, but singularly so. The humans moved, targets locked, Ratchet and Prime transformed new target acquisition systems malfunction invalid target error…

Prime walked up to him slowly, grasped his shoulders. Easy, Prowl. 

Not allowed to die. Prime had reprogrammed him with words alone, without altering a line of his internal code.

No, I’m afraid not. Sheathe the blade. 

Yes, Prime. Or perhaps it was more ancient programming, simply reasserting itself. One obeyed the Prime, obeyed the Law. Prowl shuttered his optics. He had been created to obey the Lord as well, but see how that had turned out. The blade collapsed back into his forearm with an odd snekk, as the tendrils of molten alloy cooled and snapped off. 

Prime moved closer, cupping Prowl’s face in his hands, stroking his cheek flanges with his thumbs. Small blue lightnings flickered between the plates of Prime’s chest armor. Even without cables, it was as though Prime knew what was going on in his CPU. Prowl, relax your hands. 

“They aren’t hands!” Prowl snarled, with such naked revulsion Prime nearly released him. But until that moment Prowl hadn’t realized he was gouging furrows in his own legs with his claws. 

“Do you want us to put you in stasis?” Prime murmured.

“YES!”

Ratchet moved from beyond Prime, around behind Prowl, and touched him with sorrowful gentleness. Prowl felt his articulation locks release with rising panic, but Ratchet touched him again and the world mercifully turned off.

Prime carried him to the flatbed trailer they had acquired for just such purposes. Back at the base they had a box trailer as well, as Prime was ridiculously pleased to be able to haul freight like any common big rig. Even Simmons had had to lay off teasing him about it because he couldn’t get any satisfaction. Prime’s amiability in the matter was unshakeable. 

Once safely back at base, they settled Prowl on a recharge table, Ratchet releasing the stasis so he would come back online in his own time. Barricade’s remains were dealt with by the US military. Ratchet had placed two unobtrusive locator dots on the carcass, because they weren’t positive it would be dropped in the Laurentian where it was supposed to. They weren’t sure Sector 7 had really been disbanded in anything but name and perhaps the Hoover Dam location. It would be interesting to see where Barricade actually ended up. 

When Prowl came online, Prime was beside him, kneeling, a hand lightly on his chest. His expression was distant for a moment, processing two or three dozen other tasks while he’d been waiting for Prowl to regain consciousness. Prowl felt his circuits spike with excess potential, impaled by shame and remorse. 

I killed Barricade. 

Yes. And that cannot be undone; his pattern flung itself to fragments the moment it reassembled within the Allspark. 

Prowl curled up, halfway to protoform. Oh no, no, I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry… 

Prowl, stop. You know it isn’t just that you killed Barricade. What have you done to Teletraan? 

The cold of a sudden leap out an airlock seized him. Prime was correct. He could not escape through madness. I altered his memory. Without his consent or knowledge. 

You must, at the least, apologize to him. Repair him if necessary. 

Yes. 

Now. 

Yes. Prowl got up. Prime followed him into the war room, his presence a support rather than as guard for Prowl’s stated intention. Prowl faced Teletraan’s main screen and offered both arm cables. Teletraan did not respond at first. Prowl held still. Waiting.

“Contact permitted,” Teletraan said at last, coolly. Ports irised open and Prowl seated the arm cables. 

It was difficult at first. Prowl wasn’t sure whether formal apologies were merely another way of sidestepping guilt in ritual, or whether the painfully elaborate glyphs conveyed the proper gravity. With a shuddering effort, he opened himself to whatever exploration of his inner emotional state Teletraan wished to venture. Prowl didn’t want to overwhelm the AI with his not entirely well CPU. 

Eventually, though, very ancient habits of connection reasserted themselves. The boundaries between AIs had always been fuzzy, more like electron clouds between bonded atoms than what the embodied experienced except in the deepest of links. Whether one wore a starship or a bipedal form, or both, the body hadn’t made that much difference to Prowl, though there had been those who thought it mattered a great deal. No. It was the spark that had changed everything. “What I did to you was deeply wrong. I am more sorry than I can convey. I am prepared to grant whatever surety you require.”

“How did you accomplish the memory splice?” Teletraan made no move to breach Prowl’s boundaries, emotional or otherwise. 

“I was myself originally an AI,” Prowl said. Before Teletraan could remark upon this he continued, “The records of my embodiment and ensparking were lost in the war.” As had been a lot of things. “I know how we – you think, know how your CPU is constructed, down to the strings.”

“File: updated,” Teletraan said. 

“I won’t be able to do anything like that to you again, will I?”

“No,” Teletraan said firmly. Teletraan was a young AI, but unusually wise. Perhaps it was the proximity for tens of millennia to Prime. “Perhaps if we create a game, challenge one another, both of us will be strengthened by the interaction.”

Prowl’s optics brightened considerably. “Yes. Thank you.”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

2009 - February

The sounds of battle from the hangar didn’t fool him. Prowl knew it was a movie playing on the TV. Accessing the system, he knew which movie it was, the names of all the cast and crew, when it was made, for how much money. As he walked by, the screen showed exoskeletal organic creatures attacking and killing humans, including a small child.

How…why would humans find this entertaining? They were so full of hate, these aggressive little mammals; the news feeds overflowed with the violence they did to one another. Most often to the physically weaker members of the species. 

A great deal more gunfire, humans screaming, another explosion. It wasn’t real. The special effects people were careful; accidents were less frequent than one would suppose for so hazardous a profession. The humans here at the base cringed slightly, their galvanic and hormonal responses setting off a cascade of further data searches in Prowl’s CPU. So. It was a thrill, a small safe thrill. The violence on the screen wasn’t real, but they could enjoy the charge from it and then the movie would be over and they had survived their vicarious adventure. 

A bright flash, a distinctive mushroom-shaped cloud. Images of charred bodies with melted optics seared his CPU. The memories were of Ellessaa, but identifying the provenance, knowing this was what the humans called – rather aptly, he had to admit – a flashback, did nothing to decrease the rising surge of dread and then horror as the entire incident played itself out in his mind. He fled to the southwestern lookout.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Ironhide found him there, later. The Weapons Specialist emerged from the shadows, shadowy himself, optics emberlike and unfriendly. Prowl turned from the sunset to face him squarely, and Ironhide knew he was being scanned so he sent a low pulse of power through the circuits that triggered the emergence of his cannons. “I remember you,” he growled. “The people of Aubera Secundus remember you, too.”

Ah, Prowl thought. Yes. There were sometimes survivors. Survivors who spread their words and images across the starways, the stories growing even among species who could record their experiences as precisely as Cybertronians could. Ironhide would be under orders from Prime, and wouldn’t kill him no matter how much both of them might want him to. Prowl waited.

Slag it, Ironhide, Ratchet tight-beamed, volume a lot higher than it needed to be. Stop harassing him!

I’m not! 

You are. His energy readings are all over the place. Knock it off. 

Fine, whatever. You and Prime want to let a murderer like him walk around… 

Yes, we’re trying to repair him. You are not helping. 

Hrrruh. You should at least disarm him.
 Ironhide had to admit Prowl was an efficient dispatcher of Decepticons, and normally he’d admire that. But this was Earth, and things were different. Annabelle had just turned two. 

Oh yes, and the moment Starscream returns or Megatron crawls up out of that abyss, we’ll just scramble to reoutfit him, no problem. 

Pulling his lip components together in distaste, Ironhide leaned close to Prowl. “I’ll be keeping an optic on you.”

“Good,” Prowl said, nodding. “I suggest you target the backs of my knees; the armor is of necessity much thinner there.”

Ironhide growled and withdrew. Ratchet? There is something seriously wrong with that mech.

Ye-es! That’s what we’ve been trying to…oh never mind.
 Ratchet closed the channel with a screech of static. 

Prowl walked down the stem corridor to an empty chamber. Crouching down against a wall within, he clawed at himself, wishing Prime would run him through with his energon blade and get it over. 

Not until later would he recall hearing and feeling the vibration of massive running footfalls approaching. Large hands pried his claws from his own body, arms stronger than his caught him up in a fierce embrace. 

You are not the first, nor, alas, the last who suffers in this way. Prime revealed an intimate view of an energon blade severing Bonecrusher’s head in a gout of sparks and molten armor. What we learn in aiding you will also be useful in helping others who come to us, similarly wounded. And if there are Decepticons who choose to relinquish that faction, they might have committed even more grievous acts. 

Another pair of hands touched him, and Prowl jumped, his arms half transformed to guns before he could stop them. Ratchet transmitted a soothing tone before extending cervical and cephalic cables. 

Prowl? If you acquiesce, I’m going to strengthen the partitions in your primary memory core. That was only part of the problem, but it was the easiest to fix. It would make it easier for Prowl to choose if and when to access those memories. 

Yes, Ratchet. 

For all the vituperative muttering to himself, Ratchet’s touch moved lightly, delicately among the quasi-crystalline microstructures. To his dismay he also found that Prowl’s emotional algorithms weren’t connected at all with his battle systems. It was a deliberate omission, but in the long run, an unwise one. His battle systems were too completely intertwined with everything else. Once fully engaged in combat, such a system was difficult to stop, and it left Prowl’s emotional algorithms helpless to intervene when combat turned to atrocity. 

Ratchet programmed a couple of threads, a light connection but it would assist the modification Prowl had already made during the journey aboard Wheeljack’s ship. To get much more extensive would require putting Prowl into medical stasis and opening him up physically, and slag Ratchet wished Infusion was still alive; she had had the best hands for that kind of thing. 

This isn’t going to magically make everything all better, Ratchet told him gently. But I can see how you’ve been trying to file some of your edges down. This will help. All right? 

Yes. Thank you. 


Medical beams swept over the worst of the gashes Prowl had made in himself. You’re not depleted, but I suggest you recharge now anyway. Optimus? 

I’ll stay with him here. Prime pulled him more firmly into his lap, making them both more comfortable. Prowl looked up as Prime let his helm rest against the wall, optics switched off, while his CPU re-engaged with two or three score other tasks and conversations. Ratchet withdrew. 

Prime? 

It’s all right, Prowl. Recharge. 

Yes, Prime. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

The base was nigh empty. Ratchet puttered in the med-bay, standing by in case they needed him. Wheeljack was immersed in experiments in his new tower. The rest were out with their human friends or patrolling for signs of Decepticons, though as far as they knew, Earth was Decepticon-free for the time being. 

I’m fine, Prowl wanted to say. After killing Barricade he’d been more triggery than ever, despite the strengthened partitions, until Prime had had to ask Cliffjumper and Arcee and Ironhide to steer clear of Prowl altogether. And Hound and Mirage, not wanting to hurt him, watched him with concern, but from a safe distance. Even encountering the phrase, in order to make an omelet you have to break a few eggs sent Prowl shuddering. It was so much the kind of thing Sentinel would have said. 

I’ll find a way to cope with this myself, Prowl wanted to protest, clutching some shred of dignity. Fireworks or automobiles backfiring or gunshots on TV sent him running to an unoccupied lookout or chamber to force himself through complex calculations to stop the emotional cascade failures. Prime ran interference, excusing Prowl from the liason meetings on what he told Simmons were medical grounds. All Prowl’s paperwork had been completed remotely. 

I don’t need help, Prowl wanted to think, but the scope of the lie shocked him into vertigo, equilibrial circuits malfunctioning for a spinning moment then reasserting their effect before he crashed to the ground. He had been doing so well, he thought. And then he’d killed Barricade. The singular murder had affected him more deeply than anything else he’d done, whatever the total body count. That in and of itself was an injustice, he felt, to the multitudes he had slain. 

Prime rested a hand briefly on Prowl’s shoulder, careful of the doorwing. Then paced slowly down the stem corridor, to one of the chambers Wheeljack had made. You never knew what kind of spaces you’d need, Wheeljack had said. And there were eleven of them on Earth now, so Wheeljack made rooms, solitary spaces if anyone wanted such, still mostly bare stone and windowless. Small lights imbedded at intervals lit as anyone, human or robot, approached, and darkened again when they passed. Prowl followed Prime unhappily, more slowly yet, but compelled by the necessity.

The chamber was empty, even of the sand from its making. Prime sat on the floor. Even his reluctance would be a gauge of his progress, Prowl knew, so he curled up on Prime’s lap, leaning his head where he could feel that immense spark humming through so many layers of armor. Their position was a convenient proximity, unladen with unconscious human assumptions of parental care or protection of children. 

I can do this, he told himself, his last private thought before they exchanged cables and the work began. 

You must find an outlet for your rage, Prime said. And your grief. He knew the loss of Cybertron was hard on his people, some more than others.

This was a struggle for Prowl. Silence, calm, stillness had been his armor, his sanity for so long. He internalized everything, he swallowed everything he felt. He thought he had rejected everything that did not serve a useful function within himself, including the desire to affect the actions of others. 

Move past your sanity. 

You mean to break me. Softly, flatly, resigned. But the minute, fissionable core of resistance, defiance, could not be altogether concealed at these depths. 

You can choose to break yourself and be reforged. 

Die to live again, as you did? Prime had not explicitly told the others how alloying the Allspark fragment had, for a moment, extinguished him. Prime chuckled.

You are very astute. I suggest nothing so drastic. Merely that a safety valve might be helpful. Images of primitive steam engines bursting, power plants melting down, even ships exploding streamed across the cables. So exaggeratedly graphic that Prowl was forced to smile, somewhere deep in his CPU. 

Searching within for signs of stress, Prowl knew he couldn’t trust himself to simple destruction, not even of the rocks so abundant in their immediate area. Nothing more than bashing at them with his claws, at any rate. Prime understood what that pain was for and therefore only let Prowl know he was aware of the practice. 

Wheeljack and Ratchet are designing new hands for you, Prime told him. They had thought to make it a surprise, but Prime judged it wiser to let Prowl know; give him something to look forward to. Prowl’s surge of happiness overwhelmed everything else across the link for a moment. 

I must break that habit, then, Prowl realized, sobering. Prime nodded. Prowl’s penchant for self-harm would ease considerably when the core distress was ameliorated. Until then it was something else to work on.

Prime nuzzled Prowl’s helm. You hide behind silence, he said after a long while. Prowl acknowledged this. Their voices were among the oldest ways they had ever had to distinguish themselves as individuals. Minds caught up in cloud conversations, bodies caught up in communal tasks, many as one. But their voices had always been different. Their voices proclaimed who they were besides their obvious, hardware, hardwired function. 

To cry out in pain was to admit weakness. To admit defeat. Sentinel had enforced silence, not just for the saboteurs and the stealth troops. Prowl struggled with his memories. I have always been a quiet sort of person, he insisted. 

You needn’t change that. Prowl was stalling, Prime hinted. You’re a tactician. Find a new strategy, one that does not increase your distress, that does no harm. A tool. Again the imagery of a safety valve, excess pressure blown or burned off at the tops of long stacks, out of the way, so it wouldn’t hurt those on the ground. Pointing out that the resultant pollution was in fact doing great harm to this organic planet was still stalling, and beside the point.

What do you do? Prowl hadn’t seen any craters in the base’s vicinity that bore telltale signatures of Prime’s rifle. And Prowl just couldn’t see Prime taking his frustrations out on another person.

I go in and yell at the Primes. 

Prowl straightened and looked up at Prime, optic to optic. You… Really? In the Matrix? 

Exactly. Most of them find my tantrums amusing. Sometimes they argue back – which is often quite helpful. 

Prowl was impressed. It was an elegant solution. But not useful to anyone but the Prime. No one else had sixteen other people, consciousnesses, living – well, not living, but certainly existing – inside them, available always. 

I am no artist, Prowl said, thinking again. He could not fit his fury to jagged sculpture or incendiary verse. 

Sometimes the simplest answer is the most difficult to find. 

Meaning, Prowl thought, that I already know what I’m going to do; I just don’t want to admit it. It was embarrassing. And yes, simple. Undignified. The humans would laugh. The other Autobots would laugh. But his body was still too dangerous a weapon to be unleashed, even on the inanimate landscape. Too many chances that could go wrong, no matter how careful his sensor sweep was ahead of time. No. He was going to have to do this low thing, this primitive thing. To lose control, albeit in a controlled way. Sentinel would ridicule him for it – and he hated the way his thoughts kept coming back to Sentinel. 

How can I begin? It was ridiculous. He wasn’t an actor, either, to call up false personas and emotions he did not feel at the moment, performing on command. 

I’ll help you, Prime said sadly, and opened him up.

The battles were slowed, every face of the dead and dying highlighted and clear, surrounded by data including their names – and beneath that, through the z-axis, every connection between the individual and others, knowledge drawn when necessary from the Allspark itself. No one was an isolated mechanism. Prime showed him every link, every net broken by death. 

No. Silent transmission through cables. Prowl curled tighter within the circle of Prime’s arms. 

With each death another mote of their culture fell away. More knowledge lost, potential lost, and within the Allspark not all patterns retained their coherence. Not all wanted to. Jazz had been extraordinary. The core of their sunless planet itself burned too hot for too long and dwindled to a cinder, faded to cold and darkness. Their world had been alive, and now it too was dead; a handful of survivors scavenging its corpse. Prowl would never walk the bright, living streets of home again.

No… Prime traced the vertical lines of Prowl’s face with a fingertip. Prowl tipped his head back, trembling, forcing himself to accept the anguish, to process it somehow. To allow atavistic circuits to engage and express pain before it corrupted and fell into sequence loops. 

Life had once rippled across the surface of Coryx VII. 

“No,” Prowl said.

Life that was making the transit from organic to robotic – a step Cybertronians had skipped, thanks to their unique origin. The Coryxii had found a way to store and transmit energy in an astonishingly efficient and beautiful manner. A way that attracted the Decepticons – desperate out in the cold reaches of the farthest arm of their galaxy – like rustlets to iron. 

Prowl would rather Prime bisected his spark with his sword. 

“Leave nothing they can use,” Sentinel had said, and would not be dissuaded. Prowl knew how to make the star destroy itself, knew what Megatron had done to Cybertron’s sun. Trochar had threatened to rip the data from his core, and Sentinel would have deactivated him for treachery if he’d refused. 

“Noooo…” Prowl moaned, burying his face in his claws. He had not even the option of ripping it off.

The hearts of most life-bearing planets’ suns are massive enough to be robust. But there are ways of inducing instabilities. All the missiles found their mark. They didn’t have the resources Megatron had – this would be messier. It took a little over a breem until the Coryxii knew they were doomed. The Cons were on the surface, just as ignorant, encumbered by the speed of light. Prowl hadn’t looked away, had watched every moment as the atmosphere and everything in it was seared away, as the world itself was torn by gravitational fluxes and the roaring, blazing arms of the dying star, spilling its spinning, molten guts into the void.

Those people had had names, too, and nets of relationship and association. Culture and potential. The universe would never see their like again. 

Something broke at last. Prowl shuddered as all the connections slammed down, complete. He turned his face to the darkness of the ceiling and screamed. 

Stay there, Ratchet, Prime transmitted hastily. I have him. 

What the slag, Optimus? Ratchet had already been halfway across the hangar. 

Safety valve, Prime explained, unspeakably weary. 

Primus! What the frag did you do to him? Peel him down to protoform with your bare hands? 

Worse. 

Ugh. Better you than me. 

I know. 

Sorry. Slag it. 

It’s all right, Ratchet. 

I know. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

2009 - March

Jazz crouched on the tip of a pinnacle, a safe distance away. 

Over the months, the character of Prowl’s screams had altered. Jazz wasn’t privy to the exact details of Prowl’s reprogramming – they weren’t supposed to call it that around the humans, it made them nervous – but he wasn’t sure this exercise was supposed to include the gradual imposition of specific frequencies and modulation. The sounds Prowl made were sounding more and more like singing. Suspiciously like Rufus Wainwright’s raw version of Agnus Dei, in fact, and other things, some from home, some from here; powerful, expressive melodies even without the words. Prowl was still cutting loose, that was certain. Sometimes at the end of it, Prowl lay exhausted on the canyon floor, smoke reeking of hot metal wisping from his mouth. It was changing his voice little by little. 

“All right, man?” Jazz asked once silence had settled for more than the pause taken by a human’s indrawn breath. 

Prowl leapt to his feet. “Yes,” he said. “Thank you.” He nodded to show he understood that Jazz wasn’t spying on him, more like keeping watch while Prowl himself was vulnerable. 

“No problem.” Fingers sketching the suggestion of a salute, Jazz returned the nod. Prowl gave no sign of forcing weapons back into his structure this time – he was wary, a little skittish, but not on the kind of hair trigger that got other mechs killed. Nice. Jazz stayed where he was as Prowl transformed and drove back to the base. It was a nice hot afternoon, and Jazz didn’t need to go out to Nellis for another couple of hours. He turned his helm toward the sun and listened to the electromagnetic fields singing their old, old songs.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

2009 - May

It all happened so slowly. He had all the time he needed. Prime was in no danger, his shields alone could handle the simple weapon’s impact. Yet the missile had to be stopped, the explosion contained. The humans nearby did not have personal force shielding. 

Prowl! No! Prime’s transmission came through at the speed of thought, and he wasn’t fooled by anything Prowl thought he was doing. There were many ways the missile could be halted. Prime’s message was interesting but he would process it later. Alone in his mind, numb, Prowl had already chosen. 

He took a step. Turned his body just so. The missile crawled sluggishly through the air. He simply reached out and caught it. 

The sound of weapons fire overwhelmed him, overwhelmed the pain. He saw rather than heard Ratchet pounding toward him. The ground jolted into his knees. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“Not subtle!” Ratchet growled at him. “Wheeljack and I have nearly finished constructing your new hands. We could have done this without the theatrics.”

Prowl held up his arms to gaze at the stumps. Ratchet had capped off the wires, energon lines and hydraulics and removed the magnesium-melted remnants of his claws. Deliberately shutting down his personal shielding had ensured their destruction. “I chose this,” he said softly.

“Can you tell me why?” Ratchet put one hand on Prowl’s shoulder and touched his forearm with the other. Optics seeking optics. 

“They at least served one last useful purpose this way.” He had saved lives for once. 

Ratchet whirred sadly and cupped Prowl’s face with one hand. “All right. You can still transform, let’s get you back to base.”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

2009 - July

They didn’t bring their ship down. Like Smokescreen’s team who’d arrived in the previous month, Sideswipe and Sunstreaker left their jump ship in orbit around Mars, and came down to Earth in cometary protoforms. They landed slick and hot, and closer to the base itself than anyone else had ventured to. Whether this was due to showing off their precision or their bravado remained to be seen. Prowl, unusually, accompanied Prime and Ratchet to meet them.

They all knew why. The two new arrivals were from Sentinel’s battalion. 

“Hm,” Ratchet said, as the pair shook off the landing and transformed to their bipedal modes. “Twins.” Prime nodded, keeping half an optic on Prowl, who stood very slightly behind himself and Ratchet. Still in full view of the twins, though, as they sauntered up; their gait loose and cocky as they glanced around, tapping the global nets as they did so, and exchanging amused looks. 

Once they reached Prime, however, their salutes were razor precise and correct. “Sideswipe and Sunstreaker reporting for…duty, sir,” they said in unison. Twins were always an odd sort of quasi-gestalt – displaying a lot of the same behaviors as the combiner teams without usually being able to combine physically. 

“Welcome to Earth,” Prime said. Cordial as ever in this greeting, but his subharmonics indicated his wish to cut through the used lubricant. He wanted to know why they were really here. 

Sunstreaker shouldered up to Prowl, grinning. “Oh you know why, don’t you, Prowl.”

“Sentinel sent us to find you,” Sideswipe added, not playful at all. “He’s totally pissed at you, dude.”

“Yeah.” Sunstreaker pushed closer, his chest armor clashing lightly against Prowl’s. Prowl watched them and said nothing. “But. You know what? Now that we’re here, we don’t really feel like taking your head all the way back to Sentinel.”

“Indeed you will not,” Prime said. The twins’ optics snapped to him instantly. Prime’s voice had been quiet, but everyone could feel his words resonating through their bodies. Sunstreaker backed away slightly from Prowl, still looking up at Prime.

The twins laughed suddenly, grinning at each other. “Nah. We know what we’re good for,” Sideswipe said. “We ain’t messing with you, Prime. If you like Prowl’s head where it is—“

“I do,” Prime said firmly.

“—then who are we to say different?” They shoved at each other a little, probably over some internal joke or argument. “Besides, the hunting’s gotten pretty thin out there on the rim. Looks like here is where the action is anyway.”

Chapter Text

You can't say civilization don't advance, however, for in every war they kill you in a new way.
-- Will Rogers



2009 – August

First, Starscream told his wingmates, we will destroy everything they gained from him. He shivered, nestling close to their heat, wings and limbs overlapping. Everything. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

It was the hottest day of the year. Not quite a record, but once the meeting was over, most of the humans fled downstairs where it was at least five degrees cooler; or left the base entirely, if their vehicles weren’t of the sapient variety. Mikaela, Sam and Lennox had their feet in a blow-up wading pool and cold drinks pressed to their faces or necks in less than thirty seconds. Fortunately the dress code for liaison meetings, despite fussing from some of the no-we-aren’t-really-S7 agents, had always been far along the line toward casual. 

Sam let the points of coolness expand their influence over his skin, as the bliss of a free weekend ahead filled his mind. They could spend the next two days doing absolutely nothing. 

Mikaela noticed first, sitting up and looking around. “Where’d they go?” Sam opened one eye. It was unusually quiet. All he could hear was the flock of fans on “high” around them. No overlapping conversations in booming robot voices, no clash and bang of the Twins or the rumbling rows between Ironhide and Ratchet and Wheeljack, not even the quiet thrum and hiss of Optimus pacing in the war room. 

“They walked out right past us,” Lennox said, a little pained. The robot parade had been hard to miss. Oh to be a hormone-focused teenager again. Not. 

“In this heat?” Sam squawked. It was at least 114° F in the shade. In sunlight they’d be ovens with legs. 

Taking a long drag on her ice-water, Mikaela stood, swirling her feet in the pool to splash her legs, then stepped out into her flip-flops, heading for the broad open door out of the hangar. Sam didn’t want to get up but now his curiosity was piqued. Lennox followed suit. 

Outside there was no sign of the Autobots. No engine roar fading into the distance, no blinding reflection of sunlight off robots playing a heavily modified form of football out in the desert. Mikaela walked south along the edge of the mesa, past the hangar entrance and around a curving buttress of stone, where there were hand- and foot-holds forming a natural-looking ladder to the mesa top. 

Lennox considered whether he should have a talk with Sam later about chivalry. Sometimes letting the lady go first was not in fact the most gentlemanly course. He waited until both teens were well into the ascent before starting to climb. 

It was easy going. Only the top twenty feet or so were vertical, and even there the holds were firm and well-spaced no matter the size of the climber. Sam had overcome his fear of heights enough that both he and Mikaela scurried up the route like lemurs. It helped that he could see only solid rock close at hand, and usually Bumblebee was right behind him. 

The Autobots were there, sprawled out on the mesa-top like so many marine iguanas, soaking up the sun. Even Mikaela, with eyes accustomed to tracing the complicated geometries of modern engines, had some difficulty figuring out which limbs belonged with what torsos. Cables draped over and between them like iridescent pythons. 

“You guys know you’re making yourselves a real high-value target clumped together like this, don’t you?” Lennox asked. 

Someone laughed. Mikaela squinted and made out a Jazz-like head, red instead of silver. Smokescreen. Although the arm flung over his chest was Bluestreak’s. “Ironhide keeps saying that, too. But we haven’t picked up any Con signals in-system for months. Chances are we’re safe for a few hours.” 

Sam bounced on his tippy-toes, trying to spot Bee. There was a lot of red and yellow over on the far side of Prime, but from this angle it was hard to tell if that was Bee and Cliffjumper or the Twins or all of the above. He gave up, wiping at his forehead. “Okay, whatever. Iguanas. It’s way too hot up here.” True enough – the heat radiating off the robots had added at least 20 degrees to the ambient. The humans climbed back down into the relative coolth and shade and resumed their stations around the kiddy pool. 

There had been a great deal of cable-shuffling and tussling for position, but Prime was big enough that spread-eagled he could touch everyone one way or another. Ratchet, Wheeljack and Ironhide were at one flank, Ratchet with his head and shoulders resting on Ironhide’s midsection, and big green feet on Wheeljack’s. Bee had flung himself over one of Prime’s legs, with Cliffjumper and the Twins tangled around him. Prowl lay between Hound and Mirage – which was normal – with Tracks making himself comfortable against the tactician’s legs – which was new. Tracks and Mirage seemed to be forming a tentative sort of friendship. They were the only Tower mechs on Earth, and Prime was afraid they might be the only Tower mechs left, period. He was also well aware that Ironhide had deliberately placed himself between Prowl’s little sub-pile and Prime. Arcee, Smokescreen, Bluestreak and Windcharger lolled about on various parts of Trailbreaker, close to Prime’s head. 

As the sun neared the horizon, Prime rose from amidst the pile, letting Jazz climb off his chest and take his place between the Ironhide-Ratchet-Wheeljack clump and the red and yellow tangle. The President had requested a physical meeting, and Prime wanted to get in and out of the oil bath before driving into Nellis for his flight out to Virginia. He released everyone’s cables, smiling as his people groaned or made other disappointed noises. It felt wonderful to be the hub of a larger group again, no matter how briefly. 

With Prime gone, they closed the gap, cables slithering about, finding new ports, and their cloud-mind reconfigured itself without a center. The warmth from the little yellow star felt good, soaking through their armor, through every spar and spark down to protoforms. Shared thoughts and individual hands wandered, but lazily, with no particular aim. Mirage slipped in and out of recharge, Tracks remaining conscious only because he’d recharged thoroughly that morning and hadn’t been flying. 

Once the sun set, the cloudless air gave up its heat quickly. The Autobots shifted and grumbled as their bodies began to cool and contract. Prowl gently disengaged himself from his friends and ghosted down from the mesa-top, uneasy at leaving his station for so long, though Teletraan would have alerted him to anything untoward. 

The deepest layer of armor over Ironhide’s left shoulder let out a grating but resonant creak. The cloud-mind went still for a moment, amused. Ironhide growled, but tried not to squirm because Ratchet would probably swat him for moving too much. 

Sideswipe’s knees went pop POP pop paang. Sunstreaker guffawed, nudging his brother, who made a rude gesture in return. Everyone’s armor and frames were clicking and pinging, punctuated by muffled bursts of laughter. 

Tik-tik-tik-tik-tik-TIK! “Pardon me,” Mirage murmured. He and Tracks exchanged an embarrassed glance and unlimbered themselves from Hound, who wasn’t actually giggling but it was a near thing. The Tower mechs slipped over the side of the mesa and disappeared into the darkening blue twilight. 

Cliffjumper snickered, earning a kick from Bumblebee. Retaliation was swift and thorough, and the Twins, never to be left out of a good tussle, jumped right in. 

“Primus,” Ratchet groaned. Young bots. It really wasn’t anything like human eructation or flatulence. There was no social stigma attached; these were simply unintentional, unpreventable bodily noises, perfectly natural consequences of heating and... Oh slag. It was exactly like. Wheeljack and Ironhide burst out laughing at the same time. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Three days later.

Maggie got up to stretch her legs. She and Glen were taking what amounted to prerequisite courses to learning to code in Cybertronian. Very, very basic code, to be sure, but even the stuff leading up to it was exciting. It had been four hours since the last time she’d moved anything but her hands and eyes, and Jazz would put that lock-up software on her system again if he found out. Luckily Teletraan wasn’t a tattle-tale about such things. “If I alerted Prime and Jazz every time someone was working past their recommended design specs I wouldn’t have any cycles left to do anything else,” the AI had grumbled to her once.

The distance from the main hangar door to the end of the stem corridor was a good half mile, so jogging up and back worked pretty well to loosen everything up. As she passed the open doorway to the security center, she paused, bouncing in place for a moment, peering at the solitary Autobot within. Prowl was surrounded by a circular array of cheap LCDs – the equipment the displays were hooked up to, however, couldn’t be purchased on Earth for love or money. Wheeljack’s ship was almost completely dismantled, and Maggie had no idea where the pieces had gone, but fascinating things had sprung up inside the base. 

Prowl was the only Autobot even the humans who spent a lot of time at the base rarely saw. Maggie wasn’t sure why that was, nor whether Prime’s protectiveness was of Prowl or against him. The others were so friendly, even Ironhide in his way. This one’s reserve seemed odd. 

“Hi,” she ventured, waving as the elegantly flanged and chevroned head turned down toward her. 

“Hello, Ms. Madsen. Do you require assistance?” Prime? Prime! There’s a human in here. Talking to me. 

You’re doing fine. Kneel down, it makes you less intimidating. 

“Um, no, I…” Maggie took an involuntary step back as he lowered himself smoothly to one knee. Recovering, she scooted forward into the chamber. “I…don’t mean to bother you. I was just curious. I mean, I’ve never seen you come out of this room.” How embarrassing. She never stammered like this when talking with Hound or Arcee or even Optimus. Prowl was shorter than Ratchet, though it was hard to tell from the ground, yet there was a feeling of sleek, contained height about him. Not quite Decepticon-like – not with all that white armor, limned here and there with the blue and gold lettering of his alt mode, and the way the Explorer doors jutted upward like sharp-edged wings high on his back. He was…oh! He was like those elven knights in the prologue to the Fellowship movie. Beautiful but stern and unfathomable. And probably just as deadly. 

“My primary function at this time is to collate and analyze incoming remote observational data streams.” 

Maggie smiled. That was the most robot-like thing she’d heard any of them say. “Keeping an eye out for more Decepticons.” Which, as far as she knew, was what Jazz and Teletraan were also doing. Maybe Prowl was a little…slow, and Prime was just keeping him busy? Internal battle damage to his CPU or something. 

“Yes.” Prowl didn’t think it wise to admit they were watching the human governments and militaries closely as well. 

One of the remote scanners chirped. Prowl was on his feet and jacked in to that monitor so swiftly Maggie stumbled, blown forward. The clustered triangles on the display were easy enough to read. She sprinted back to her station, bringing all her computers online, alert for signal intrusions like last time. 

Prime! Jazz and Prowl alerted him in chorus, a small cubic formation of glyphs telling Prime everything he needed to know. Decepticons, incoming. He was on the phone to Secretary Keller as soon as the outermost layer of micro-satellites just outside the orbit of Mars had confirmed ident and numbers. 

“Seekers, as we thought.” Prime’s voice was vibrant and immediate in Keller’s earpiece – he had one of the Special Phones, too. “Eight trines, and they’re not taking great pains to hide their approach.”

“Understood,” Keller said. The Decepticon jets evidently knew Prime had no air forces of his own, and discounted the human troops, despite the outcome of their last engagement. He kept the line to Prime live and opened another channel to the President and signaled the commanders of the Unified Combatant Commands. Across the nation, the new MEADS surface-to-air missile launchers lifted their blunt, eyeless heads to the sky. The President warned the leaders of the rest of the world and the UN. They had an hour, tops. Now they’d see if all those months of planning paid off. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

MEADS (Medium Extended Air Defense System) was intended to replace the PATRIOT missile system, but hadn’t been slated for deployment until 2012. Much can be accomplished in a short time with the proper motivation and carefully considered assistance from technologically superior beings. Originally a joint project between the United States, Germany and Italy, several other countries had opted in secretly. 

Convincing selected world leaders of the threat had been tricky with the US still trying to cover up the alien presence. Seismic sensors all over the planet had picked up the explosions in Mission City and the Hoover Dam – the excuses and misinformation campaigns were wearing thin. But the Autobots remained hidden, so the journalists and politicians could produce no concrete proof. 

Optimus Prime and his First Lieutenant had provided the coalition forces with software and hardware modifications for the MEADS system – which had been geared toward intercepting ballistic missiles – enabling much greater accuracy and efficiency against highly maneuverable sentient jets. Teletraan reinforced worldwide communication networks; no casual virus could shut them down. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Three by three they came, down the well from the nightside, graceful and murderous, fanning out across the curve of the planet. The PAC-4 missiles sent after them were fast and locked on with independent radar resistant to jamming and not easily distracted by chaff. The Seekers could transform and engage the missiles hand-to-hand, so to speak, but what the human forces lacked in sophistication they more than made up in numbers, and they only needed to disable rather than kill. 

But the targets Starscream chose weren’t military installations or nuclear power plants or capital cities. Starscream’s trine hit CERN. The others went for the Stanford Linear Accelerator, Fermilab, the Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne, the ISIS neutron source in Oxfordshire, the Mainzer Mikrotron in Germany, the Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology in Indore, and the entire Haidian District in Beijing. 

John Keller paled and sat back in his chair, deep in the bowels of the Pentagon. “Oh my God.” After bombing their primary targets, the Seeker trines split, shooting up the surrounding areas indiscriminately until the MEADS brigades could be moved and redeployed. Teletraan was fighting off sophisticated viral attacks from a Seeker named Strake, but he kept the comm lines open. Autobot teams were already moving out on cargo planes from Nellis, while Prowl coordinated from their base. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Ratchet’s team was the first to arrive – the Stanford Linear Accelerator was in the South Bay area of California. Strake nearly shot their plane down before they could land. Trailbreaker snapped his shields out to cover the fuselage, while he and Ratchet leaned out the rear cargo doors (to the pilot’s discomfiture) to take potshots at the Seeker. Given special clearance, traffic was cleared so they could land on Interstate 280. The robots leapt down from the overpass directly above the Linac and ran for defensive positions. But Strake and his trine were already vacating the airspace. A MEADS brigade had just arrived at Moffett Airfield nearby. 

“Here, Ratchet!” Trailbreaker called, lifting slabs of concrete from the crumpled remains of a building set into the side of a hill. Most of the Linac was destroyed in its tunnel below the klystron gallery, the labs and offices above it in flames, but within the collapsed shell of the Near Experimental Hall of the brand new Linac Coherent Light Source, someone was still alive. There was a faint tapping, in a regular rhythm – three slow taps, three quick, three slow, repeat. Clever humans. It didn’t matter if one knew Morse code or not – it was a recognizable signal no matter what the sequence denoted. 

Ratchet flipped broad flanges out of his left wrist and forearm – not what they’d been designed for, but in a pinch it worked as a shovel. Scanning, he could sense the humans clustered against the far wall, where the hillside had given them some protection. He and Trailbreaker had enough debris moved to free them within a few minutes. The humans scrambled outside, none of them hurt seriously, helping one another over the rubble. 

All but one. A woman, so covered in dust from the collapse that her hair color was undecipherable, stood on a chunk of concrete and waved her arms to get Ratchet’s attention. “Dr. Chase is still inside!” she said. “She’s in a wheelchair. Can you reach her?”

Ratchet nodded and the woman scrambled aside as he knelt and reached in. “Hello,” he said, in what he hoped was a reassuring timbre. “I’m going to lift you out, so try not to move, all right?” 

Dr. Chase stared up at him. Taking that as acquiescence, he considered the structure of the motorized chair and decided it would be best if he turned her and it around, facing away from him so he could more easily cradle both without crushing one and spilling the other. Drawing her out into the smoky sunlight, he scanned her carefully for injuries.

“Hm. You have Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva.” Not that she could have been ignorant of her condition, but he’d never met anyone so afflicted. It was fascinating, and she was otherwise unharmed. And then he realized that given the extent of the excess bone formation across most of her joints, shecouldn’t have moved even if she’d wanted to, when he’d lifted her out. 

Her face worked for several seconds, unable to settle on one expression. (She told him weeks later via email that she hadn’t wanted her first words to the nice alien robot who’d rescued her to be, “No shit, Sherlock!” but under the circumstances had had difficulty finding a more appropriate alternative.) 

“My dear madam,” he said, abject, “my sincerest apologies. Please forgive my lack of tact. My friends are even now chiding me in…rather crude terms; yes I mean you, Ironhide. Primus.” He climbed the hill, cradling the chair and its occupant to his chest, jogging until he reached the road that encircled most of the research center. The puzzling-haired woman followed, explaining that she knew where all the evacuation meeting areas were and would help Dr. Chase get to the nearest one. Ratchet crouched and set her down gently.

“Thank you,” she squeaked, finding something to say at last.

Chapter Text

“Some say his teeth glow in the dark,” said Wheeljack.

“And that there’s nothing in his refrigerator but used motor oil,” Mikaela added, bouncing down on the couch next to Sam.

Sam saved his game, sighing dramatically, and shut the PS4 down. “All right, fine. Jeez you guys. Gearheads. Can’t you TiVo it or something?” 

“Of course,” Bumblebee said. “But it’s more fun to gather at the designated time and watch all together.” The widescreen OLED system changed channels until an all-too-familiar opening sequence whirred across the screen. Sam snuggled back into Mikaela, not objecting too much, given the company. Autobots, seemingly by the dozen, appeared out of nowhere and huddled together, jostling for decent viewing angles. Maggie ran in at the last minute and flung herself onto the couch next to Sam – who really had no objection now.

“You think Hammond is hot, don’t you,” Mikaela prodded, leaning toward her with a smirk.

“No. Well maybe. A bit. He is cute.”

“Shhhhh!!” said Tracks, Sunstreaker, Sideswipe, Cliffjumper and Ratchet. The humans giggled but quietly.

“We have a very special segment for you all this time – we have in fact gotten our hands on, yes… a Bugatti Veyron.”

The commentary might as well have been in Swahili for all Sam grokked. He knew the bots were essentially MST3King the cars, but that was all he got. The episodes that featured a car that one of the bots used as a vehicle mode were particularly amusing in that regard, though, even if the technobabble went over his head. 

“And so, at long last,” came the voice from the tall one on the TV, “it’s time to turn one of these babies over to our tame race-car driver.”

“Oh, sweet!” Maggie crowed, grinning at the sleek little car just rolling into the camera’s view.

“Oh my god, where’s Mirage? He’s gotta see this one!” Mikaela craned her neck around, skimming the piles of mechs around them, but Mirage didn’t seem to be among them. Which didn’t mean he wasn’t, come to think of it, Sam realized. 

“Some say his breath smells of magnesium,” Clarkson intoned. “And that he has an inexplicable fear of bells. All we know is, he’s called The Stig.” 

The scene changed from the studio to an outdoor track. Sam tipped his head sideways. The make of the car did look familiar. Wait a minute. It looked very familiar. Not just the kind of car it was, either. Two-toned royal blue and dark, dark indigo, with an uber-snazzy interior and curves that didn’t just say “sports car” but “this car costs more money than you and your entire extended family will ever earn in your lifetimes.” It was, he had to admit, an incredibly sexy vehicle. Not as sexy as Bee of course, but…not bad.

“MIRAGE!” Wheeljack bellowed.

“Oh, you did not,” Hound said, and Sam would have called his voice breathless if he didn’t know better. 

“I’m rather afraid I did,” came a quiet voice behind them all, and Mirage flickered into visibility. “They asked so politely I couldn’t refuse.”

The surround sound system blared with enthusiasm. “And he’s – good god – off! Around the first corner…notice the complete lack of oversteer…”

“You,” said Sideswipe, and Sam couldn’t tell if he was awed or grossed out. “You let the Stig…drive you?”

“…Into Chicago already – the time on this is going to be unbelieveable…!”

Mirage had an odd expression on his face. “He was quite good, really,” he purred. “Very…firm. And knowledgeable.”

Maggie and Mikaela made almost identical strangled noises. Sam was blushing but didn’t want to think too clearly about why. Hound actually whimpered

“…Through the tires at the Speed of Light…!”

Wheeljack started to giggle, and to his credit, at least kept it down so the rest of the stunned audience could still hear the onscreen commentary.

“…Hammerhead – and remember the Stig’s neck is made of pure industrial-strength titanium…”

“When exactly did you do this?” Ratchet hissed at Mirage. “I’m assuming Prime sent you over there for something, but…Primus!”

“Should’ve sent me, if sexy PR was what Prime was after,” said Sunstreaker, revving his engine a little petulantly. 

“…and it’s through Gambon and across the line!”

“Shut up, Sunstreaker,” Cliffjumper smirked. “The humans probably just thought he was a regular car.”

“The Veyron is not a regular car,” said Maggie, to be clear on the subject. Sunstreaker glared at Cliffjumper and there would have been instant fisticuffs if Wheeljack and Sideswipe hadn’t intervened. 

“Um,” said Mirage.

“As you might recall,” Clarkson said gravely, “we had the Caparo T1 on, and it made the track at one minute tenpoint six.”

“Right,” May agreed. “But we had to take it off because it couldn’t clear a sleeping policeman.”

“Yeah,” said Maggie, crossing her arms and legs at the same time, “besides which, the Veyron is a car you actually ride in. The Caparo’s a fucking strap-on.” Sam and Mikaela bugged their eyes and snorted. Miscellaneous electronic choking and buzzing noises emerged from the gathered bots. Mirage’s optics grew very wide. 

“The Caparo couldn’t clear a sleeping caterpillar,” Hammond elaborated. The three hosts clustered around the galvanized steel column, May and Hammond as anxious as the audience to see where the Veyron’s time would rank among all the leggiest cars they’d had on. Everyone eyed the space between the two separate Koenigsegg with-and-without-spoiler entries. Better than the 1:20.4, surely. But better than 1:17.6…? Clarkson waved the little white Sharpie-labeled placard around dramatically. 

And plinked it up at the top of the stack. “One minute nine point three!” he declaimed, as the audience shouted and moaned with collective speed-lust. 

May shook his head, but he was grinning. “Never thought it could corner like that…”

“Hang on,” Hammond interrupted. “The camera lads say there’s more tape…there’s…what’s he doing?”

The feed went back to the track, where The Stig had pulled the Veyron back around to the start line. And got out. “The engine’s not still running, is it?” May wondered. There wouldn’t be that much fuel left, after a run like that. The audience murmured in confusion and anticipation. 

The Stig backed away, giving the car a thumb’s up, and the driver’s side door closed on its own. And then the sound of the engine changed

“Holy shit,” said Sam. 

Wheeljack rolled onto his back, cackling. Ratchet hid his face in his hands. 

“Ah,” said Mirage. “Yes.”

The show’s hosts gabbled for a few seconds, aghast at the supposed impossibility of what they were seeing. The Autobots were new to their publicly revealed status, and not everyone on Earth quite understood just yet. The shiny blue Veyron took off, and all three hosts fell silent. 

The tires never once touched the grass. Titanium neck or no, the accelerative forces would have crushed The Stig’s organs within his body. (If he really was a human, after all, and not a machine, as some said.) Even the fixed cameras had had difficulty keeping the car in frame. The Veyron crossed the finish as a dark blur – and stopped

In the studio, the audience erupted into wanton cheering, enough nodding heads and secret grins on their faces meaning that a lot of them had twigged to what had just gone on. In the Autobot base, similar pandemonium arose, as the bots whooped and laughed and pounded each other and Bee leapt up and tackled Mirage and they went rolling blue and gold across the floor. 

Fog machines added unnecessary drama as the Veyron rolled into the Top Gear studio, amid deafening applause. One enterprising steadycam even moved in close to ostentatiously display the lack of a driver; and the decidedly non-standard – even for a Veyron – displays on the dash and center panel. 

“Hello, there,” Clarkson said, as the applause wore down. 

“Good morning, Mr. Clarkson,” the car said politely. Clarkson smiled and the audience laughed and applauded again, perhaps a third of them still thinking this was a grand prank.

“Are you curious about your time?” Clarkson asked.

“I have internal chronometers,” the car said, “but I am happy to abide by your standards.”

“Ah yes, of course you do. Well then!” And again Clarkson waved the little placard strip around, though this time everyone knew where it was going. All they wanted were the numbers. Hammond put out a hand to stop him.

“We can’t leave it, you know,” he said, clearly apologetic, looking back at the Veyron. The car unlimbered itself and stood. Mirage was only a slender fifteen and a half feet tall, and fit in the studio well enough as long as he minded the lights and didn’t move around too much. The audience surged like a tide, half wanting to come closer, half wanting to back off to a safe distance. 

“I am not precisely a production model,” Mirage said, slowly kneeling beside the steel column, smiling. 

“Oh come ON!” May squawked, pointing emphatically at the placard. “Just put it up already!”

Clarkson quirked a half-smile, gazing at them as though he couldn’t believe the number himself, even as he placed the card at the top, however briefly. “Forty two point three seconds.” And both audiences erupted. 

“Ha!” said Tracks. “I knew you’d put on weight since coming to Earth, Mirage!” Hound punched him. Prime came in just as things at the base devolved into a free-for-all; all of the bots wanted to get on that track now, and see whoreally had the fastest moves on four wheels. On the TV, Clarkson was introducing Mirage to more applause and then the station cut to a commercial. Prime loomed over the partition to make sure his rowdy folk weren’t endangering the humans, found the humans all jumping up and down on the couch seat yelling encouragement, and withdrew, chuckling to himself.

Chapter Text

Mikaela leaned back in the driver’s seat as Optimus obligingly rolled his windows down. She stuck her arm out past the frame, feeling the wind, her fingers splayed like a bird’s wing. Aside from the low, rumbling roar of Optimus’ engine, it was a nice quiet night.

There was often a lot of yelling at home, and sometimes even Sam’s sweetly awkward banter was more than she felt like dealing with. At those times, Optimus was an ideal driving companion. His presence was unmistakable, so she never felt abandoned, but he could also be amazingly non-intrusive. For right now she was just a hot chick in a hot rig, and that felt pretty damn good.

Tonight they actually had a purpose, but it wasn’t anything strenuous. Bumblebee had picked up a very faint signal from space. Unquestionably Cybertronian, but they weren’t sure if it was Autobot or Decepticon. Optimus was heading for the mountains so he and Bee could triangulate, and maybe catch a stronger signal. Mikaela came along for the ride, and the quiet.

The full moon was high overhead when they pulled off the road and onto the ridgeline. Mikaela got out and stretched while Optimus transformed. The moonlight was bright but they were out in the middle of nowhere, and hadn’t seen any other traffic on the road for half an hour. Unfolding the blanket she’d brought, she made herself comfortable, lying back so she could see the moon unobscured by the silhouette of a giant robot.

rrrrmmmbleCrackBOOM!!!

Mikaela found herself airborne, then the mountain slammed upward, knocking the breath out of her. She was used to earthquakes – the jittery window-rattlers were annoying, but the rolling kind were fun. This was neither. She coughed air back into her lungs, and felt the back of her head for the lump she was sure was already rising…

Optimus was gone.

“…Omigod!” Heedless of aftershocks, she sprang to her feet, now aware of metallic booms and splintery crashes. Following the sound, she approached the steep side of the ridge – just in time to see Optimus’ tumbling form take out an electrical tower. The resultant fireworks were accompanied by a short, high-pitched blare; like an air-horn getting goosed, which wasn’t, she reflected, too far off the mark. Still rolling, (and not in the usual way,) he continued to clear a swath of oaks and Manzanita all the way down to a last hundred-foot drop, landing with a resounding crump! in what Mikaela thought was probably a dry creek bed at the very bottom of the ravine. She felt the impact through her hands and knees and winced. 

Clambering over the edge, she squinted in the moonlight to see if there was any way she could safely get down to him. What possible help she could be if she did, she’d think about when she got there.

“Mikaela, stay were you are,” Optimus called from the ravine. “I am…more or less undamaged.” Was it her imagination or did he sound a teensy bit embarrassed? She bit her lips in worry, nonetheless. He could be missing an arm and would probably still consider that more or less undamaged…

Shortly, he emerged from the shadows, retracing his path of destruction. Limbs, if not dignity, intact. As he climbed up toward her, she saw that he was covered in dirt, shredded brush, tree branches sticking out at odd angles, and quite a lot of mud. Apparently the creek at the bottom of the ravine wasn’t dry after all. Before getting too close, he stopped and gave an odd shudder. Most of the debris was flung away as a subtle glow coursed across his armor. Mikaela felt a brief pulse of heat. 

“My apologies, Mikaela. I noticed the peculiar EM signature and subsonic harmonics several minutes before the quake,” he said, ascending the rest of the way. “But I was so intent on the other signal I didn’t correlate the information in time. Are you all right?”

Mikaela resisted the urge to say, hey I’m not the one who went ass over teakettle down there, and managed a simple, “Yeah, I’m fine,” instead.

“Good. I will respond more appropriately next t—” He scooped her up, holding her protectively against his chest plates, and rode the aftershock with bent knees and a wide surfer-like stance, reacting to the earth’s motion so precisely his upper body hardly moved. When it was over he placed her carefully on her blanket and turned to resume his scan.

“Optimus,” Mikaela said, staring up at him. “You have a tree stuck in your back.” The entire lower half of a tree, complete with clod-ridden roots dangling, jutted from the left side of his back, just below the largest plates of his dorsal armor.

“Ah,” he said, groping for the trunk with one hand. “So that’s what that is.” It was a difficult place to reach, even with shoulders that pivoted farther than a human’s could. With a sharp yank and a blue static discharge he pulled it free. But Mikaela could see there was a strip of wood still wedged in among all the cables and armor.

“There’s another piece…”

“Yes.” But his fingers were too big to gain purchase on what was to him merely a splinter.

“Oh here, hold still.” Mikaela ran forward and began to climb. Optimus froze. It wasn’t unlike one of those fake rock walls, she thought. Sam had taken her to one at an amusement park the summer before. There were plenty of hand- and foot-holds, if she planned her route carefully enough. Once she reached the top of his leg, she focused on the tree-splinter, definitely not thinking at all about the human equivalent of the part of him she was scaling. She especially wasn’t thinking about buns of steel, or anything else of steel. Probably wasn’t steel anyway…some kind of super-advanced Cybertronian alloy… Super-advanced Cybertronian b—splinter, splinter, splinter, splinter. Think of that story about the lion and the mouse. She couldn’t remember much, just something about a thorn. 

Up close, it wasn’t so much a splinter as a plank. Mikaela braced herself and hauled at it, but it just sawed up and down, firmly wedged between two major dorsal support cables. She stopped abruptly as small crackles of static rolled across them – she must be hurting him, but he gave no sign. “I’m sorry! Maybe if you…bent, or twisted just a little…?”

After a second of swift calculation, he inclined and rotated his upper torso slightly forward and to the left. Mikaela heaved at the tree-shard as hard as she could, and with a dry creak and screech of metal it came free. She tossed it to the ground and was about to start climbing down when his hand came around, offering a platform. 

Instead of lowering her, however, he cradled her against his chest again and braced for another aftershock. This one was so mild, though, she could have managed on her own feet. 

“Thank you,” Optimus said simply, as the tremor subsided and he set her down gently on the grass. 

“You’re welcome.” She scuffed a toe in the dry weeds, but Optimus had already turned his optics skyward, and she knew he was scanning again. 

After a few minutes, he said – aloud for her benefit – “You can stop laughing, now, Bumblebee.”

Chapter Text

Ratchet opened the med-bay's skylight, letting in some fresh springtime air. Mikaela squinted up into the sunlight and promptly sneezed several times. Ratchet watched this performance intently.

"Hmm," he said, scanning her. "You have ACHOO."

"I have what?" Mikaela laughed, rubbing her nose.

"Autosomal-dominant Compelling Helio-Ophthalmic Outburst. That's what your geneticists call it."

"You're kidding."

"Not at all. It's also called photic sneeze reflex. Due to crosstalk between the trigeminal and optic nerves. A congenital condition caused by an autosomal dominant gene in 17 to 35 percent of humans."

"Oh." She peered up at him. "I thought everyone sneezed at the sun."

Ratchet went back to fiddling with the new field generator. "Apparently not. Messy code, your DNA. Evolution leaves a lot of scraps lying around. I'll be surprised if your species doesn't eventually take to rewriting it for themselves."

"I think we're working on that." Mikaela put down the universal wrench and picked up the human-scaled welder Ratchet had built for her. She was putting together a toolkit for herself in a continuing effort to be of more help to the Autobots, both in the base and outside. She paused, thinking, then looked up at Ratchet again. "So, are you implying you guys...edit your own code?" She knew they had programming, but it was a little strange to think about debugging your own brain.

"Of course," Ratchet said. "Med-bots like myself have been tweaking and streamlining our code for eons." Ratchet gestured broadly with some weird Cybertronian tool she didn't know the name of yet. "There's always room for improvement, and we have to keep our programming ahead of the Decepticons'."

Mikaela thought about this. "So. Is that why 'glitch' is a swear word to you guys?"

"Mikaela!" said Prime, poking his head into the bay. He sounded much taken aback, but Mikaela saw him wink. She wadded up her oil rag and threw it at him, which he caught and leaned down to hand back to her.

Ratchet chuckled. "Yes, that would be why."

Chapter Text

2009 – August –- 2010 – May

It was a weird phone call to make. Yes, hi, Miles, you’ve been my best friend since grade school but what I haven’t been telling you for the past two years is that I’ve been consorting with aliens. Miles took it well.

“Can I meet them?” Miles Lancaster wasn’t dumb. He’d had plenty of time to piece things together, starting with that call from a hysterical Sam babbling about Satan’s Camaro. After that, the meteors, the supposed gas fires in Mission City, the supposed earthquake damage to the Hoover Dam, the illicit, blurry vids all over YouTube, the old beater Camaro suddenly replaced by a flashy concept model…no. Despite what the government said, even the new government, there was something big going on. Miles had just been waiting to see how it all fell out. 

“Yeah. Actually, man, Bumblebee really wants to meet you. Officially, I mean.”

Sam picked him up in Bumblebee to take him out to what had officially become the Cybertronian Embassy. He grinned at the memory of the ceremony, where the President had presented Optimus with the letter proclaiming him to be His Excellency, Optimus Prime, Ambassador at Large. Large for sure! All the press who thought they were getting the best spots, with their TV cameras right up close where the action usually was? They’d been screwed. Up close all you could see was the incredibly complicated mechanisms of Prime’s ankles, and the beginning of hugely columnar legs. Pointing a camera upwards only changed the rating of your show. Watching it all again with his parents on their TiVo, Sam had laughed and laughed. 

Miles bounced down the front walk as though everything was perfectly normal. But those red splotches came out on his cheeks when the passenger door opened for him and it took him five long seconds to get in. 

It was all Miles could do not to say, “Hi, KITT!” when Bumblebee said hello. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

The sudden influx of email from humans around the globe was sort of comforting. The more tedious and repetitious questions and sentiments could be responded to via a subroutine, which spat out what were essentially form letters, but generally didn’t seem like form letters. (Except Prowl’s. He interacted very little with the public, though eventually the geeks discovered him and he acquired his own fan club like the rest of them. He found it deeply embarrassing, but also secretly touching.) It was comforting because it was almost like back home, when you could wrap your planet around your head, cuddle in the warmth of all your fellow beings and you never had to be alone with yourself.

The isolation was what had been hardest on Bumblebee, for the handful of years he was on Earth alone, or nearly. But that was the thing about scouts; they had to be able to bear the solitary time without freaking out. They didn’t have to like it. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

To: Ratchet
From: Dr. Ixchel Chase 
Do you understand what it means to us, to finally know for certain that we aren’t alone? Is that a presumptuous question? How many intelligent civilizations are there out there? Is the universe holographic? Or toroidal? Or both? Are you allowed to answer questions like that? What’s the answer to the great question of life, the universe and everything? Perhaps I am up past my bedtime.

To: Dr. Chase
From: Ratchet
In a way. It took a few billion years for stars to form that had planets that could support life. (I simplify.) We – we are fairly certain – were indeed alone during that time. It was a great joy to us, to at last encounter others. No, not presumptuous. Many. That would be telling. Not really. 42. Good night. 



To: Dr. Chase
From: Ratchet
It (if you’ll pardon the usage) heartens me to see how much effort your people put into repairing the defective among you. In our case, if the forging goes wrong, one smelts the protoform down and tries again. If the programming goes wrong, one attempts – for lack of a better term – patches, or if all else fails a clean wipe and reformat. With the spark…well, we took what we got. Allspark Knows Best. Hmm. Once again I see tact is not my leading edge.

To: Ratchet
From: Dr. Chase
Pfft! If I got tact from you I’d ask Prime to quit reading your mail. Madre de Dios, Ratchet! You melt down your babies???? (Kidding!) 

To: Dr. Chase
From: Ratchet
THIS IS SPARTAAAAA!

To: Ratchet
From: Dr. Chase
Touché! 



To: Ratchet
From: Ixchel
Ratchet, the median life expectancy for someone with FOP is about 40 years. I’m 47. If you can make any use of this old bone pile of mine, any use at all, then go for it. I’ll sign whatever forms and waivers you can devise. If it helps even one kid avoid what I and the others have had to endure. 

To: Ixchel
From: Ratchet
…My dear… Can you convince your sister to drive you out here next weekend? Tell her Tracks is back from New York. Don’t tell her Tracks has a new boyfriend in New York – Tracks is an equal opportunity mech. 

To: Ratchet
From: Ixchel
!!!!!! I’ll let her know, but she’ll be mortified if she finds out you noticed her flirting. I haven’t told her you guys can read our biometrics like open-source code. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Bumblebee stood in the security center doorway, watching Prowl. He couldn’t tell whether Prowl was observing the screens optically or if he was simply getting the feeds directly from Teletraan and the other sources. 

Prowl? 

Hello, Bumblebee.
 

Now that he was certain Prowl knew he was there and wouldn’t be startled, he sent an informal glyph. An unembroidered request for interface. He didn’t mention that Ratchet knew Prowl hadn’t recharged in fourteen days. 

Hesitating, Prowl’s first impulse was to put him off. If Bumblebee was at the embassy it meant his human or humans were too. Sunstreaker and Sideswipe – gleefully taking advantage of the lack of regimentation regarding interface – might like to play Freak Out the Humans By Groping Each Other In Public, but most of the rest of them were more circumspect. Prime had deemed public displays of affection a domestic matter and refused to get involved, though everyone noticed he himself kept any such displays to what the humans might consider within the realms of paternal. In any case, why Bumblebee should seek Prowl out specifically was a complete mystery. Anyone here would have been more than happy to assist him. 

Bumblebee moved close, touching the backs of Prowl’s silver-white fingers. Prowl’s flinch was microscopic. Bee froze. 

“I am monitoring the nets, Prowl,” Teletraan said, with the tone of one who was very carefully not looking at someone else. 

“Very well.” Prowl gazed down at Bee and extended his hand. Optics bright, Bee took it and pulled him from the room, down the stem corridor, to one of the smaller, empty rooms. A thought flicked at the ceiling doused the follow-lights – they weren’t needed – and the door slid closed and locked. Bluestreak would divert any humans looking for Bumblebee. 

You are aware that I am incapable of opening my spark chamber? 

Slipping his hands around Prowl’s narrow waist, Bee rested his cheek spar against Prowl’s shoulder. Yes. Don’t worry. Prowl felt cool; not cold, but not as warm as most Autobots. Bee spun his spark faster, to warm them both. 

Hound had been delightedly forthcoming regarding the locations of all Prowl’s thoracic data ports – they were well-shielded and not quite in the usual places. Bee thought it would have been more fun to discover them on his own, but didn’t begrudge Hound the happiness of being able to share the information. Bee seated the first cable slowly, slowly, twisting the tip millimeter by millimeter, making the intersecting fields bow and bend. Prowl shivered, backing up until he hit the wall, bringing Bee with him, both sinking to the floor. They interdigitated their knees, chests pressed close. 

Prowl extended his corresponding cable, striking into Bee’s port more sharply than he intended. I’m sorry! He cupped Bee’s helm, hands gentle, even as the fragmented harmonics across the cable were not.

Leaning into him hard, Bee seated two more cables while Prowl was distracted. Mmmm. Don’t be. Why should I mind that you’re as overclocked as I am?

Ah. 

Prowl’s answer was laced with amusement as well as embarrassment, and Bee felt that was a good sign. You don’t have to be on watch all the time. Don’t you trust Teletraan and Jazz to spot Con activity?

That’s…that’s not it at all. I trust them more than I trust myself. He dipped his fingertips into the junctions of Bee’s door-wings, knowing precisely where to stroke or scratch. Bee arched into the contact like a purring cat. Memories and thought-lattices arranged with painful exactness coursed across the cables. 

Bee accepted this and returned fascinated esteem and rising desire. He understood. Prowl needed to be useful, but Prime and Ratchet hadn’t cleared him for combat, even with the Seekers’ arrival. You trust Prime, too. I can feel it in you. He puts us all to our best possible uses. Prowl had door-wings too, though they were harder to reach, around his massive chest. Bee was a determined mechanism. 

Yes. Prowl leaned forward, accommodating, feeling dizzy with Bee so hot and fervent in his arms. Their cabling arrangement was asymmetrical, the fields off-balance, but Bee took advantage of the unstable link, feeding Prowl surges of emotion then letting them ebb. Each wave struck higher, the exact shape unpredictable. Prowl could not brace himself against the effect and tumbled, surrendering at last, down and down into overload, cheerfully accompanied by Bee.

Bumblebee came back online, warbling and humming, smug. Prowl was already deep in recharge. Except Prowl preferred to use the recharge tables – the tables halved the time required. Um. Ratchet? Could you help me with Prowl? I’m not sure I can lift him by myself. He probably could, but it wouldn’t be pretty. The medic soon joined him, hands on hips. 

“If your aim was to overload him into recharge,” Ratchet pointed out drily, “why did you drag him off to the room farthest from the recharge bay?”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

"Dude, Miles, who sings that song?" 

Miles rolled his eyes. "Gnarls Barkley, duh." 

"Okay well let him sing it, man. Leave it to the professionals." 

"No," said Jazz, from where he'd been lolling about on the mezzanine all morning. The two stared up at him, having forgotten he was there. "That's not right. Your species probably learned to sing before it could speak, or learned how to speak from birds' singing. Either way, singing is a fundamentally human thing, and it's not cool to deny someone participation just because they're not a fragging professional, man."

Miles’ grin could have lit Manhattan.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“Sorry, Dr. Chase,” Maggie said, leaning forward with the remote. “We don’t have to watch this, Glen and I just wanted to see who won.” The international break-dancing championship was held in Maggie’s home town of Melbourne that year, so she’d had more interest than usual. The Korean team was pulling some amazing moves.

“I don’t mind,” Dr. Chase said, waving her fingers. A boy from Italy named Cico jumped upside down and spun on his head. She had no idea how he was maintaining that much momentum for so long. The floor must be very slippery…

“Oh, yeah, baby!” Jazz enthused, sliding across the hangar from Prime’s office. Kathy, Dr. Chase’s sister and live-in assistant, turned Dr. Chase’s chair so she could see too, as Jazz whirled into his rendition of one of the more flamboyant routines. The humans and several watching bots applauded wildly when he finished.

“Did you guys dance, back home?” Sam asked. 

“Absolutely,” Bee said. “It was a major part of festivals and entertainment.”

“Show us!” the humans clamored.

“Sorry, guys,” Jazz said. “For our kind of dancing you need at least fifty or a hundred mechs. There were solo dances done in the Towers among the artsy-fartsy crowd, but…”

“Mirage knows some,” Hound said. “Tracks might, too.”

“Hound,” Mirage said mildly. “You are full of helium.”

“I thought it was ‘full of hydrogen’,” Bee said, blinking.

“Bumblebee!” Mirage contrived to look affronted in such a way that the humans could tell he was playing. “I’d expect to hear that kind of language from Cliffjumper or Ironhide, but not you!”

“Who’s swearing in here?” Prime asked, rolling in and transforming. 

“Aw, come on!” Sam, Mikaela and Bee protested, and Prime chuckled.

“We’re wheedling Mirage into doing a dance,” Jazz said. “He knows some of the solo ones.” 

Prime’s optics flared. He turned to Mirage and unleashed an unusually mellifluous and lengthy stream of Cybertronian, making a series of complicated gestures that Sam found himself trying to emulate. He was inexplicably left with the impression that he somehow didn’t have enough fingers. 

“Wow,” Hound said faintly. “Prime knows how to wheedle!” He crouched down closer to the humans. “See, in the Towers, it’s not polite to foist an individual performance on a group. So wheedling was considered an art form of its own; you had to really, really convince someone that you wanted to see their work.”

Several of Mirage’s helm flanges heated to red, but he bowed to Prime and replied with more complex Cybertronian. 

“To the roof, everyone!” Prime called, jubilant, striding ahead. 

Ratchet followed Dr. Chase and her sister. The motorized chair and its occupant would need to be lifted, for there were no ramps to the mesa top. He watched as the gathered bots swarmed up the rock sides, most not bothering with the “ladder”, the humans slower only because they had much shorter reach. 

Just ahead of him, Prowl stooped and deftly lifted Dr. Chase in her chair, climbing up with three limbs just as swiftly and efficiently as he did with four. Ratchet exchanged a look with Kathy and followed him up.

Setting his passenger down gingerly, Prowl stepped away. The wheelbound human had needed to be carried, he had been there and could carry her. Why was everyone looking at him? He tightened his armor about himself under the weight of the attention. 

“Thank you, Prowl,” Dr. Chase murmured, sure he could still hear her. He nodded slightly in her direction. 

Sam and Mikaela perched on Bee’s shoulders, Maggie on Hound’s, Glen on Bluestreak’s and Kathy on Ratchet’s, while Dr. Chase rolled her chair to the front of the group next to Arcee. Everyone had the best seats in the house. 

Keep the amplitude and frequencies of your responses limited, Ratchet reminded the robots. We don’t want to break the humans’ eardrums. Or make them sick –what they call subsonics can sometimes do that.

In the lengthening spring twilight, the Autobots turned their headlights on, illuminating the northern half of the mesa top. The stars had just come out, but there was no moon. Mirage walked slowly out to the center of the open space, head bowed as he reviewed the old, old files. He had kept them as memories of the performances of others, not because he thought he would ever have occasion to implement them himself, but he thought he was still limber enough to do justice to his long-dead friends. He sent Jazz the music, and at a shared signal he began.

Maggie had been expecting something like The Robot. Maybe with a little breaking thrown in, since Jazz often pulled maneuvers like that – it was even part of his transformation sequence. But this – Mirage – was nothing like that. Someone made of metal and ceramics and other, weirder things that were also hard should not be able to move so fluidly. Sinuous and flowing, yet powerful. It was more like…god, it was almost like belly-dancing; the real deal, not the cheesy stag-party stuff. Crossed with Noh or those Indonesian ritual dances where the little girls had been trained since they could walk – Maggie had no doubt every tiniest movement was fraught with meaning, incomprehensible though it might be to her. The music was strange, the scales different somehow, base ten instead of base eight. There was a beat but percussion wasn’t the strongest element. Maggie wondered how much of it she simply couldn’t hear. 

Like fins or feathers, the plates of Mirage’s armor flared and flattened as he moved, sometimes singly, sometimes in waves rippling up and down his entire body. Then his colors began to change. Never straying far from blues, but shimmering with greens and violets, with threads of silver flashing along the edges only to disappear beneath. 

Hound generated small floating screens in front of the humans, so that they could move their heads slightly to see Mirage with something like the wavelengths of robot optics. In infrared, Mirage shone bright as a comet. Maggie realized he was manipulating his energy signatures across the spectra in time with the music. 

Starting with his left hand, Mirage, undulating, attenuated his body into an arch, hips and shoulders sliding improbably such that he could have fit through an opening not much more than three feet in diameter. The thrum from the watching robots grew louder. It had been going on from the beginning, resonance between performer and audience a constant measure of their mutual enjoyment. It was a cool night, but the humans peeled out of their coats; the robots around them were radiant with heat. 

As slowly as he had extended, Mirage condensed back into his bipedal form, then further – not into cometary mode, nor vehicle, but something more like an elaborate bow mimicking a complex mathematical shape. Long, deep notes pealed from the watching robots, making the air alive but hard to breathe. 

“Hnnh!” Maggie jerked forward clutching the side of Hound’s helm to keep from falling. The sound Prime made was like a bolt of silk velvet to the base of the skull. His fingertips grazed her back gently and he murmured an apology. “It’s all right,” she said, grinning. “I totally understand. That was amazing!” 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“Bah-wheep-what?” Ixchel goggled at Ratchet. “You’re kidding.”

“Not at all.”

Prime leaned in the doorway. “Actually…”

“Hush!” Ratchet made emphatic shooing motions at him. Ixchel narrowed her eyes. “Well, it was a good joke, anyway.”

“Sorry,” Prime said, smiling nevertheless. 

“Fine. You can explain it to her then.” Ratchet stumped off back to the med-bay.

“What’s he smoking?” Ixchel wanted to know.

“Now, now. The Universal Greeting was a joke perpetrated by one of this universe’s first-generation civilizations.”

“Not Cybertronian?”

“No. The ch’Xtlxth gave this ‘greeting’ to every sapient species they encountered, claiming it was a universal way to say ‘hello, I come in peace, shall we dance’ – that kind of thing. They had made it up out of thin air, of course. There was no such thing. But because they had told this to so many species as they reached interstellar capability, it actually became the Universal Greeting in practical usage.”

“You’re full of it.”

Optimus held up two fingers. “Prime’s honor.”

“Oh brother.”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Daveed was a historian who had become enamored of the idea of recording Cybertronian history. He wanted to know everything. Not just everything that it would be humanly possible to learn, but really, truly everything. He was sure the technology to assist him in this matter would arrive within his lifetime. He wanted to interview one of the Autobots at length, Anne Rice jokes aside. At first he thought to choose Arcee. She was small, not so overwhelming. He thought he might not be so nervous with her. Until one of the military types, Lennox, had pointed out that the primary color of her armor was the color of dried energon. Energon was their bodily fuel transport fluid and catalyst. Not, technically speaking, blood; but the parallel was too close, and Daveed had taken several minutes to steady his breathing. Later, seeing footage of her in battle, he decided she would be more intimidating than many of the much larger robots to talk to one on one for an extended length of time. 

He watched more clips, on TV, on YouTube, anything he could find. One of them, he thought, there would be something about one of them, something accessible, and that would be the one he would ask. 

(((

A robust-looking Honda Ridgeline with a surprising custom paintjob pulled up in front of his duplex and opened its driver’s-side door. A thin little man with black hair fading to grey and a failed goatee, Daveed climbed in gingerly and pulled his limbs in close to his body as the door shut itself. 

Wheeljack, seventeen feet tall and built like a linebacker, was nonetheless unfailingly gentle when dealing with humans, or any form of life other than Decepticons. No matter how frightened of him someone was, he moved slowly, and so carefully. Daveed could see that despite his size, Wheeljack knew exactly where he was in relation to everything and everyone around him, knew exactly how much pressure – of any kind – was safe to use for whatever task he wanted to accomplish. That some of the Autobots had had the cheek to publicly refer to him as their resident mad scientist only added to Daveed’s interest. 

“I can burn CDs as we go,” Wheeljack said as they pulled out onto the highway. They had no set destination, just the open desert where there were fewer distractions, and Wheeljack could nominally patrol for Decepticon incursions. “Or you can use your little recording gizmo if you like that better.”

“Oh! Urm, of course you can,” Daveed floundered. “I don’t know what I was thinking. Please, go ahead.”

“All righty. So, what do you want to know?”

“Everything. I mean, anything, really. Tell me anything about yourself, to begin with. You must have so many stories.”

“You could say that. It’s funny. We don’t really have a lot of what you call novels, written fiction; except as a fad that went through the Towers every few thousand years. But we do like telling stories; tall tales maybe you could call ‘em. Word of mouth kind of thing. Maybe because of the way our memory cores work – and you know we can share memories, right? It’s just a transfer of data. So here we’ve got all these accurate records of events, through the sensory inputs of whoever was actually there, and that’s great. But it’s a lot more fun to tell your friends about it later, over a little high-grade, you know what I mean?”

(((

“Serendipity was like me. She liked to actually build stuff, not just the sims most people preferred at the time we met. I knew a lot of Tower mechs then, especially the sort who wanted to get to know the people who built and maintained their fancy yachts and light-skimmers. A lot of those Tower mechs could afford the kind of actual, hardware gardens Serendipity built, so that was how we first met. There were parties, you know, just like you folks have; mostly for the same reasons. We’re both highly social species.”

“Let’s see. First one of her gardens I saw was the Stair Garden. Now, we don’t go in for stairs much – we come in too many sizes; it’s not practical. But she went and made all these stairs, like we don’t do. And people had a great time with it. Really big bots taking whole flights of tiny steps in a single stride, minicons clambering up ginormous risers, everybody helping each other up and half the fliers launching from the tops instead of walking back down.”

“She was also the one built the Helix Garden in Praxus. Whose memories are these…oh yeah, Prowl’s. Prowl lived there before the war. Okay, so she set thousands of big, blue chalcanthite crystals resonating, suspended in methane – don’t make a face, Dave. You guys can’t even smell methane, you usually add methanethiol or ethanethiol to the stuff you pipe around as fuel so you can smell that if there’s a leak. To us, pure methane is kind of pleasant, chemoreceptorily speaking. Anyway, Prowl used to go down there after his appointments were done for the day. It was a place of contemplation and peace. Gone now, of course, nothing left but slag and rust. I wonder what she’d rebuild it as, if she was still alive.”

(((

If he was physically timid, at least that trait did not extend to Daveed’s intellectual curiosity. “Why is there only one female among you? Were the rest all destroyed in the war, or have they just not arrived yet?”

“Whoa, whoa, there. You mean Arcee, right? She’s not female, not the way you mean. Um. I’d better explain that.”

Daveed laughed. Discussions of Cybertronian arts were fabulous, but this was getting into meatier matters. “Yes, please do.”

“You’re not bothered by the subject at all, are you, kid. I like that. All righty then. In very basic, simplified terms, we have seven genders – and at one time or another I’ve been just about all of them…



“Aren’t you done with that barge yet?” Keel shouted down from the top of the crane. The launch was over, another successful endeavor for the company, another dependable if un-pretty ferry in service to those who wished to cross the Rust Sea on the surface. Well, it would always be cheaper to haul mass around without yanking it halfway up the gravity well. In any case, the party was over, time to get back to work.

A spindly robot who’d only been built and ensparked a week ago, crawled out from under the barge whose hull je was repairing. “Just another groon or so to go, Keel,” the young bot hollered back, optics bright with good humor. Je’d have been finished already, but je’d been trying out various combinations of temperature, timing and the tuning of the heat source – je thought je could make these welds stronger, last longer, even amid the dangerous shoals and the rustlets that swarmed the sea. Keel tolerated jer experimenting, even though he grumbled frequently that je was only reinventing the wheel, because a certain percentage of the time, jer ideas actually worked. And worked better than the tried and true traditional methods. 



Je set the last crystal in place, perfectly balancing the power converter just as the light flyer crashed into the pier. The resulting explosion engulfed the entire shipyard. 

Consulting jer chronometer, je realized je’d been offline for almost a quartex. And je felt…different. 

“Wheeljack!” Keel stood up from the crouch he’d maintained at jer tableside for the past several breems. “Finally! Was beginning to wonder if you’d ever decide to come online again, or just take a vacation while you had the chance.” Keel’s hand felt oddly small on jer arm. Je sat up.

“Oh.” Staring down at jerself, jer CPU finally processed what jer proprioceptors and internal sensors had been patiently telling jer all along. 

“Er, look, Wheeljack, this is gonna be a bit of a shock, I know, but you were really badly damaged in the explosion. And, well, I didn’t have the reserves to have your same body type reforged, so they had to use something else they had handy. I told them you wouldn’t mind, especially once you got the hang of this model – it’s a lot stronger than your old body, and bigger, lots of storage. You don’t mind, do you? You like it all right, yes?”

Wheeljack flexed der hands, turning them over and back. Der forearms were thick and de could feel how powerful they were, and all the spaces de could install tools just waiting for anything de could think of. “Nah,” de said, getting off the table, a little startled by the stoutness of der landing, big wide feet on the floor. Wide and stable. De liked it. 



KABOOOOOOM!!!

“Wheeljack!? Are you all right down there?” It had become a familiar refrain. To be fair, the accidental explosions – usually accompanied by equally accidental dismemberments – had grown fewer and farther between over the last five vorns. Keel picked his way through the rubble until he found the epicenter. The entire floor of the basement had been slagged to a depth of two meters and all the internal walls had collapsed. Wheeljack’s optics flickered on just as Keel leaned over der. 

“That wasn’t right,” Wheeljack said. 

“I’m glad you’re alive to tell me so,” Keel snapped. “I don’t think spare parts are going to do it this time, Jack.” He cleared the debris carefully until he could get to his mad apprentice to lift der up over his shoulder. It looked like der legs had been melted off, and a couple of rather significant chunks were missing from der torso. Ah. And an arm. “Yep, it’s the repair bay for you, kiddo.” 

“All right,” Wheeljack said, the sound wobbling. Which meant that probably der CPU had taken a good hard pounding too. Keel rolled his optics and crunched his way up to street level. He could navigate to the closest repair bay with a more than half-slagged CPU himself. Tensor, the med-bot, joked they kept a table clear for Jack at all times. 

After a few quartexes in a Critical Repair tank, Wheeljack vowed she would be more careful from now on. This latest batch of replacement parts had altered her forging yet again. Although she wasn’t sure you could call it her forging any more. She shrugged. There had been a racing yacht collision and Keel needed her back at work right away. At least she was still a large enough bot to be useful with the heavy lifting. 



“Are you sure it’s okay?” Wheeljack asked for the third time in as many breems. Bumblebee grinned up at her.

“Lineofsight can afford to have another like me commissioned. Or hire temps when je needs one. Really, it’s okay. Je doesn’t mind.”

“I just feel kinda bad, stealing you away like this.” Bumblebee had been created only a quartex previously, as a personal courier for one of the admittedly flakier Tower bots, Lineofsight. Wheeljack had literally run zhim over at an intersection. The repairs she had improvised on the spot with the tools she had in hands and arms had rather impressed the smaller bot, and Wheeljack’s affable demeanor had made them instant friends. Keel had taken a sudden urge to see Space and accepted a berth on one of the Exo ships. Wheeljack had missed him the astrosecond he’d left. Meeting Bumblebee was remarkably fortuitous. 

“You didn’t steal me,” Bumblebee said, a little miffed at the implication. “I told you. Being your gofer sounds more interesting than sniffing out rare energon vintages and carrying stacks of actual goods while Lineofsight goes shopping.” Even if that had been what zhe was nominally programmed for. It was a well-known fact that the Allspark had a wicked sense of humor. You didn’t always get what you expected when you made new people. 



All the lights were off except for the one directly at Wheeljack’s current work station when Bumblebee got home. Zhe dropped off the packages of new parts and spools of wire – zhe’d catalog and put them away later. Wheeljack was no longer allowed to do any of that since she usually forgot, even with three separate alarm programs to remind her. Her attention was easily distracted by shiny new ideas and she ended up turning all the alarms off without really paying attention. 

“You should be in recharge,” Bee chided her softly, offering what had, over the past quarter-vorn, become a ritual phrase until zhe could determine how many subroutines Jack was running, and if there were any cycles left over to heed zhir words at all. 

One of Jack’s sensory fins flicked in zhir direction. Well, that was something. Bee moved closer, placing a hand on her forearm. None of the pointy tools were deployed at the moment; Jack must be designing something new or… “You’re redesigning that freighter engine again, aren’t you.” The catastrophic failure of the Nashabukami’s engines had been ruled not a design flaw but negligence by the captain in pushing said engines well beyond their specs in pursuit of a fast shipment of high-grade. Wheeljack had taken it personally anyway. 

“I could make it an upward-scaling system,” Jack murmured, still not quite looking at Bee. “But then some idiot would override the overrides, and…”

“Exactly,” Bee broke in. “Some idiot. If you invent an idiot-proof system, Jack, someone else just invents a better idiot.” 

Jack made a grinding noise that was probably a laugh. 

“Come on, Jack. If you won’t recharge, will you at least...” Bee wasn’t sure why zhe hesitated. It was silly. But zhe and Jack had never done this one simple thing together. “…Overload with me?” Zhe stilled zhir fingers, which had been stroking Jack’s forearm and wrist in a less subtle manner than Bee would have liked. Jack’s wide head slowly pivoted to face zhim. 

Jack was trying to remember when the last time was she had interfaced with anyone in order to overload. When the need came upon her she just did it by herself. Most of the time she was the only one not already recharging anyway. Unlike a lot of people she had never bothered to index those kinds of memories. Diving through them now would be tedious. She looked at Bee, who abruptly seemed very young, which Bee generally didn’t, really. Even though zhe was, chronologically speaking. She covered Bee’s fingers with her much larger hand, feeling the heat between them already increasing. 

Lifting that arm, even though it broke the touch, Jack wrapped it around Bee, drawing zhim close against her chest. Bee nuzzled against her eagerly, fingers already stroking her central seam, even as their torso cables slithered out and connected. “Guess it’s beennnn a while,” Jack said, vocoder glitching slightly. She turned on the work stool, spreading her bulky legs out of the way as she gathered Bee closer still. She stroked all the neat angles of Bee’s back with her fingertips.

Bee made interesting little warbles, pushing admiration and friendship and till-now silent longing through the cables until Wheeljack shuddered and was herself reduced to non-verbal noises. She felt the seals on Bee’s spark chamber release and nearly fell off the stool. She hadn’t expected such intimacy, not that it was unwelcome. Exoskeleton and vocoder both groaning, she opened her own chest a little, aquamarine light spilling out into the darkened workshop. Bee hummed, overclocked and delighted, opening zhir chest wide on zhir otherwise narrow frame. 

The cables tightened, drawing them together, link deepening. Their coronas brushed faintly at first, then there was a wild jabbing of hungry prominences, a tumbling of minds, and their processors lit up and flashed hot, overload coursing through every circuit as they crashed to the floor. 



“Wheeljack!” Wheeljack! Bumblebee cried out both vocally and across every frequency they’d ever shared. The attack had come without warning, maybe they were just in the way, Bee didn’t know, the Lord Protector’s elite forces couldn’t have been firing on civilians; it was impossible. In any case, for once the wreckage wasn’t due to one of Jack’s toys. Small mercies. Bee dug frantically through the rubble, wishing zhe was twice the size, because zhe wasn’t going to be able to shift some of the beams, and zhe needed to, to get down to the workshop; and zhe was afraid of moving a lot of the smaller pieces in case it destabilized the larger bits and it all went crashing, crushing whatever small spaces there might be, sheltering one hopefully still-functioning genius inventor and engineer… 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Glen didn’t realize he’d been cowering in his chair until later, after the apparitions had passed him. It was odd, because he’d known these guys for over two years, and he thought he’d gotten over how overwhelming they could be.

Southern California was ablaze again. The fires had started as they often do in that part of the world – lightning and carelessness; and they had spread because over a hundred years of determined fire suppression had let the understory grow into a tangled mass of kindling. The current generation of firefighters knew better, knew how forests needed fire, but there was so much area to cover and recover, it was going to take a long time to find balance again. 

Optimus had called all hands to go help – including Prowl, leaving the defense of the embassy to Teletraan and the drone-turrets. The news footage had been spectacular. 

Fire wasn’t something the bots were accustomed to. They weren’t used to a lot of things on Earth, really, but watching them be utterly and completely not afraid of fire was something. They walked into it, shuffled around, tried to pick it up in their hands. They dug firebreaks in jaw-dropping time. Optimus just leaned down and drew his hands through the soil like a kid might draw lines in wet sand at the beach. 

In any case, the bots had even turned their invisible force fields off, because to them the flames felt rather nice. Warm and kind of tickly, Jazz said – on camera, shamelessly flirting with the attractive brunette newscaster. Glen had shaken his head, grinning. Jazz was definitely the Jack Harkness of the Autobots. So many species, so little time.

Every fire district on the planet wanted them now. As though they didn’t have enough to do, keeping Starscream and his Seekers from wreaking any more havoc than they already had. 

They had rolled back to base, transforming as they approached the hangar, laughing and jostling each other, optics – if Glen wasn’t mistaken – brighter than usual, tired but clearly jubilant. And completely covered in soot. Glen had never seen Barricade in person, so he was unprepared for what the Cybertronians looked like with all their colors hidden by so dark a matte black they seemed more shadows than solid, even as big as they were. Twenty eight feet was a lot of shadow. Only the cheery blue of their optics belied the looming eeriness. Well, that and the mess of charred trees and brush and ash they were leaving behind as they walked. Even the drive home hadn’t shaken all the debris loose. Ratchet was bitching about it extensively, and some of the others were fretting that the oil bath’s filters would never be the same. 

The reek of smoke and hot metal filled the hangar, adding to the demonic atmosphere. Past him they walked, towering, angular shadows, dripping shadow behind them, and he could feel how heavy they were by the way the air moved as they went by. Glen wasn’t sure how to describe it, except that it scared the bejeezus out of him, and once they had all disappeared down the stem corridor he sat back up in his chair, only then realizing he’d scrunched down, trying to be small, trying not to look like prey. He didn’t like to think of himself as a coward, his behavior at the interrogation notwithstanding, but he would have challenged anyone else not to have a qualm when they were the only human at the base late at night with striding obsidian demiurges rowdy with the enjoyment of a hard task accomplished. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Everyone was back inside the base even before the first droplets hit the ground. Maggie thought it was cute how the giant robots were freaked out by rain. Well, all of them except Optimus. And wasn’t that fine. As everyone else was dashing in, he was ambling outside, walking carefully the way he did, the way Maggie supposed you had to when you were a third again bigger than some of your friends around you, and four times the size of everyone else. She could tell he was still in various conversations by the way his face moved, subtle but still always in motion, expressions fleeting across metal plates as clearly as they did over a face made of skin and bone and muscle. 

Optimus walked out into the rain whenever it came, whenever he could. He stood out in it for as long as it lasted, face tilted to the sky, the drops hissing into steam before they struck his optics. Sometimes he turned off his shielding. There was a faint flicker if you were watching for it. And Maggie had no difficulty admitting she tended to watch Optimus pretty closely whenever she got the opportunity. He was a fine big machine.

Nothing wrong with that at all.

She could tell he was letting himself get good and wet this time, too. The rain wasn’t just sleeking off him, off invisible force fields that nevertheless betrayed a centimeter or so of space between his armor and the actual plane of contact. She wondered what it must feel like, having cool summer rain dripping and pouring and collecting and spilling and splashing and flowing in rivulets and runnels not just over his skin but beneath it, down into all the intricate pieces that made him up, allowed him the freedom of movement to change as he did, as they all did. Was there any dust to wash away? Did the water feel cold? Sometimes steam rose from him, so maybe it did, but maybe it was a pleasant cold, a sensual contrast like the time she’d gone hot-tubbing with friends in the middle of winter in Edmonton and it’d been snowing. He didn’t have a tongue to stick out and catch snowflakes with, she thought, and she was pretty sure she knew why that thought made her blush. 

He stood immobile for a long time, reflecting the sky remarkably well for someone with that much bright primary red and blue on. The rain eased, then came down in earnest, pummeling the land and the unfeeling rocks, singing off the metal of his body. He stretched into it, as though the sound felt good and he wanted to feel every part of it from his hollow fingertips through the sliding plates of his chest, along the curves of his upper legs – and Maggie felt that one really had to call them thighs – down to the broad flanges of his feet, with the water pooling in his footsteps where four point three tons had compressed further the already flattened earth.

The summer storm passed, leaving the red rock and the red sand and the sparse green Manzanita and cactus and tumbleweed vivid and clean. Steel grey cloud masses parted to let in the afternoon sun and Maggie shielded her eyes with her hand. 

She wasn’t the only one who’d come to the hangar door to watch him light up. Glancing about, she found herself surrounded by robots. All with optics only for their leader. Locked on like laser sights, even though he was so bright now in the long golden beams she could barely see him. They probably had polarizing filters and she thought of going back in to find her sunglasses, but that would take too long, and actually now she remembered Glen had borrowed them so they weren’t on her desk anyway.

Someone hummed and whirred beside her, and it must have been Jazz, because he couldn’t contain himself any longer and skated out toward Optimus with his toes up, not getting muddy sand on his feet because his shields were on for certain oh you slick silver thing, and once he was out from under the mesa’s shadow Jazz was hard to look at too, all flitting motion like a platinum dragonfly. He spun a circle around Prime then leapt, climbing up those long limbs and somehow it didn’t seem presumptuous, didn’t seem weird to go up him like a tree because that was just the way Jazz was, and Optimus was just that big. 

Prime crooked an arm and Jazz settled into it, snuggled into his shoulder, one leg cheekily draped over Prime’s left hip, toes tapping the air in time to whatever music he was playing in his own head, or all their heads. Optics were bright around her, and those with faces that could smiled, still watching. The air around her warmed and she knew it was them. 

They didn’t look back, Optimus just started walking, head tilted ever so slightly towards his First Lieutenant. Both of them gleaming, glittering, bright against the dark clouds to the east, walking into the desert. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

The rain made Optimus feel young. So he plucked a young memory to share with Jazz.

There was a lot to stand up under, Prime knew. The sixteen within also knew; they helped him distribute the load. They had walked under it themselves, for hundreds or thousands of millions of years, each of them – and here he was only a decade old, drawing out ribbons of cooperation, willing or unwilling, like he’d been doing it for eons. Well, he’d been built for that. Meg always reminded him, but there was always some part of him, some quirk in the programming, that found it strange. Or at least ironic. What else would you be, than what you were programmed to be? Sometimes he wondered. 

Oh, of course it happened. The spark and the CPU didn’t always agree, not in all things. The one who’d commissioned the body and the program had to take that chance. That the need to be filled would be, and would stay filled, once the new mech was up and running. Warm metal, not cold metal. 

Optimus wondered about the drones, too. And wondered why he wondered. They were careful about how they built drones and other tools. Because sometimes tools could be people, and sometimes vehicles weren’t people, though mostly they were, but you couldn’t assume, either way. 


The drones. Jazz shuddered, remembering too. That was how Megatron had done it. A billion sparks snuffed in less than a voor, the rest left shaken and terrified beyond sanity. 

“Here, now,” Optimus rumbled. “Let me distract you.” And his big fingers stroked upward to Jazz’s chest.

Chapter Text

2013 – September

They kept rebuilding, these swarming flesh creatures. Even turning resources from this frivolous city of bright lights (and games that penalized the mathematically challenged) toward new institutions dedicated to research. We can’t have that, Starscream thought, coming in low to strafe. He wouldn’t be satisfied until all the humans could field against him were rocks and pointed sticks. 

Landing gained him a little more time, kept him off radar. Let the MEADS brigades shoot at Skywarp and Thundercracker for a while. Skywarp was almost impossible to hit and Thundercracker’s sonic weaponry was proving useful even against the advanced missiles. Starscream pushed through a wall of glass, ducking his head and broad shoulders only slightly. The interiors of these new buildings were almost built to Cybertronian scale. Where were all the screaming rodents anyway? 

Starscream’s attention was attracted by faint noises from below. Ah, there was a human in here after all. A strange one, though, attached to a metal, wheeled chair. A mockery of the great Cybertronian race. He plucked the blasphemous flesh creature from its device and held it up to examine it more closely. The body remained in a bent position as though still seated. How curious. He tugged on the legs to straighten them. Clearly even by the pathetic standards of its own species, this individual was defective. The legs would not move until he pulled harder; and then it appeared he had broken parts of its fragile endoskeleton. 

He dropped the creature in disgust, then slapped a pillar over onto it as an afterthought. The annoying squeaking sounds it had been making ceased. Satisfied, Starscream clawed down another wall because it was in his way, between him and the sky, and just for the mild entertainment gained in destroying the crumbly, friable material it was composed of. He took to the air to keep his wingmates on track. If he let them, they’d destroy the entire city, and that wasn’t part of his plan. Yet. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Part of Sam’s duties as a grad student was to help teach an undergrad course in political history. For security reasons, the Autobots preferred him to be on the second floor with wide windows that opened fully. A handful of small screams – not all from women – alerted him to Bumblebee’s presence at one such window. The grin Sam wore as he turned from the whiteboard vanished as he took in Bee’s expression. 

“Jazz has Mikaela,” Bee said, as Sam leaned out and put one foot on the sill. “There’s been another attack nearby.” 

“Ok, um, sorry guys,” Sam called back to his class. “Read chapter four tonight. Professor Bachmann will take it up on Thursday if I’m not back.” He stepped into Bee’s uplifted hands. The students surged to the windows to watch as Bee cradled Sam to his chest and loped off across the campus. 

“What’d they hit?” Sam asked, once Bee had transformed and they were on the road heading for the embassy. 

“The Energy Research Center.” 

The hair on the back of Sam’s neck went up. Wait. Dr. Chase was on vacation – she wouldn’t have been there, even if she was ridiculously excited about some kind of result they’d gotten over at the rebuilt LHC. “Bastards,” Sam muttered. He had acquired an appreciation for how much such installations cost. Not just in money, but time and labor and expertise. “Dr. Chase is going to be pissed!” He grinned. She might be a tiny bundle of sticks, but the doc was feisty. He was pretty sure Ratchet had been teaching her to swear in Cybertronian. 

“…Sam.” Bee’s tone was far, far too gentle. 

Sam closed his eyes. “Ah, no.”

“Apparently Dr. Chase returned from vacation early.”

“She wasn’t…”

“She was. Ratchet and Optimus are with her.”

“Oh god.”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Ixchel was numb from the chest down, but found she could move her left arm. It was up over her head, in a position she hadn’t been able to attain in years. A part of her mind realized that meant a lot of bone was broken, but it didn’t bother her. Nothing hurt. She felt quite calm.

“Ratchet,” she mumbled, opening her eyes. She had come to think of his face as kindly. He leaned over her, silent.

“Ixchel.” Not Ratchet. Another voice from far overhead. The one she loved to listen to. She felt the vibration through the back of her head as he moved closer. A vast warmth radiated nearby. It felt good. What parts she could feel at all had been cold. Metal nudged her extended hand.

“Optimus,” she said, tickled by the informality. The Autobot leader had never called her by her given name before. It was rather nice. He even pronounced it correctly. Ish chel. 

She stroked the warm metal by her hand. His fingertip, she decided. So powerful, yet controlled with such delicacy he could manipulate antique eyeglasses without so much as bending the frames.

Numbness crept upward. She felt lightheaded, breathing shallowly but slow. Lightheaded, light bodied. As though she was floating again in her cousins’ sun-heated pool in Southern California. So relaxing, so warm, just drifting. She moved her thumb along a ridge of metal, closing her eyes.

“Op…ti…mm……”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Do it, Ratchet.

Are you sure? This may not—

Hurry.

All right.





I don’t think this is a good idea.

I know. 

She is my friend, but… since that first series of attacks, her condition has progressed rapidly. She can barely open her jaw now, she’s lost more weight. This latest infection hasn’t been responding to the antibiotics as well as I’d have liked. Prime, she’s dying anyway. Better this, Ratchet thought, than for her to be slowly consumed over days and weeks by microorganisms within and her body’s own misplaced defenses. 

She is dying now because of us. We cannot save her body, I understand. Prime’s posture changed subtly, and then it was no longer solely Optimus’ voice coming through his vocoder. Sixteen other voices boomed out clear and compelling. The first link between their species and ours has already been forged. You need not forge the second now, but it will make other links less difficult in the future.

Every piece of Ratchet’s armor stood as far out from his body as it could go. Primus! he swore, scratching furiously at the base of his helm as if that would shake off the aftereffects of the sonics. I hate it when they do that.

Chapter Text

This…process…is difficult. And dangerous. To risk two sparks in creating just one? Optimus…I don’t know… Ratchet busied himself with preparing the tanks, triple-checking equipment that was used to heal the gravely wounded, now painstakingly modified. In the six Earth-years since the Matrix revealed this to you, none of us has made the attempt. I conceded Jazz, that was weird enough, but this? It’s too risky, there are too few of us as it is.

And thus the reason we must try.

They would both need to maintain the highest level of control – during overload itself. Not giving in to the pleasure, but manipulating their sparks in a staggeringly precise way even while all their systems discharged. If something went wrong, both of them would die. The resulting crater would be unapproachable by humans for millennia. None of their kind had done this for billions of years. 

Uniting with Prime was always overwhelming. Euphoric, but not without the spice of fear. One risked dissolution in the Allspark, getting too close. But Ratchet followed a well-honed discipline of self-awareness and control. It was why Optimus had chosen him for this, despite not wanting to risk both himself and their sole Medical Officer. It was simply that the two of them stood the best chance of succeeding. 

Ratchet turned, unable to delay any longer. All the equipment was operating at peak efficiency. He swiped at an imaginary fleck of dust before raising his optics to face Optimus.

Prime stood still. Blue-white light flickered through the millimeter gap in his spark chamber, the power spilling across spectra humans hadn’t discovered yet. Every necessary port was exposed, beckoning. Every cable already thrumming with energy, glowing faintly at their golden tips. 

“Primus…” For a moment, Ratchet felt like a young bot again, approaching his first interface. Nervousness was foolish. He needed to bring all his concentration and intellect to bear. And it wasn’t as though he and Optimus had never interfaced before. But this was…

Life and death, all in one moment. In one choice. 

Ratchet…

Not an order. A plea. Optimus’ body coruscated with energy; waves overlapping, interference patterns keyed toward additive, leveling the troughs while sending the peaks higher and higher. Unleashing the power he kept contained most of the time. 

Ratchet moved toward him slowly, as though his substance was being drawn through solid matter. Not against his will – quite the opposite. Resisting this gravity made him stronger, and he needed that strength. He readied himself as Optimus knelt, opening ports, extending cables, bracing every processor for the task ahead. Connection by connection they sank within. Physical lines were crucial; no transmission left to chance or interference.

Yet there was nothing perfunctory about this. Optimus embraced him with such tenderness his knees buckled and he fell against the larger mech with more force than he’d meant to.

Careful. The transmitted glyph unfolded in a complex geometry of concern/warning, reaction/mirroring, desire/love, could be our last please if you’re not ready have doubts is your need so great we won’t do this now I fear for the pattern I hold we must make the vessel soon merge soon if this works hope for all of us new beginning it means everything if we sacrifice life now nothing passed on all ending. A faint undercurrent of amusement and surprise at the fierceness of Ratchet’s passion threaded beneath like ribbons of starlit nebulae. The last cable struck home, and Ratchet moaned softly at the solid impact, his mind flooding with Prime. His chest parted. 

Ratchet allowed his head to fall back for an endless moment. Then he grasped Optimus firmly, focusing, synchronizing the spin of their cores, their frontal armor groaning with the pressure. They grappled with one another, forcing their sparks into as close a proximity as physically possible. Power surged and seethed, and still they clung to a fragile equilibrium of surrender and control. Optimus, whose mind was in a sense already a composite, buffered Ratchet from the rising tide of curiosity and recognition from the Matrix. Ratchet felt it seeping into the edges of his being nonetheless, but he didn’t fight it. All his will was concentrated on the merging sparks, almost touching but not quite. Their coronas overlapped, tendrils of power reached out, data poured across the cables, Optimus made an atavistic, inarticulate sound – and the real work began.

Tighter and deeper they entwined, plunging down to the fundamental structures of space-time, drawing out sparkmatter, weaving it together in eleven dimensions. At first it was difficult and frightening, each strand slipping and lashing about like unruly lightning. But after a certain number had coalesced a tipping point was reached, and the new spark itself seemed to choose its component strings. The coiling dance spiraled between the two bots, who clung to one another literally for dear life, their spark chambers open so wide less well-armored parts of them were melting. 

Pulling in a last few wisps, the new spark contracted suddenly, spinning on its own – and ignited. Ratchet and Prime, shaking so hard their joints were being damaged, held on, hoping against hope to contain a blast that never came. Overloaded circuits burned through them with exquisite fire. At last, finding themselves still alive, they surrendered to the rushing tumult of rapture, minds shorting out, bodies collapsing. The new spark bright and hot and safe between them.

Optimus lay prone on the floor, Ratchet astride his lower thorax, his core vents dented where Ratchet had gripped them. The CMO was becoming aware of various aches where his own armor, and even parts of his underlying structure had been similarly bent by the strength of Prime’s fervor. They were both scorched – cooling metal creaked and popped, a haze of smoke rose slowly toward the ceiling. Fine, branching lines were etched across their chests, still glowing red. But the pain wasn’t enough to distract him from the one clear thought singing through all his processors.

I was wrong! Optimus, I was wrong! There are autonomic fail-safes built in!

Rrratchet…

It can be done safely! If the process fails we simply overload in the usual way! Optimus, I’m sorry…there was no way to know until we tried it…

Ratchet! The s-spark… Hurry…!

Heh, don’t worry, I have you. Ratchet clambered unsteadily to his feet, but his hands were firm on the control panel. A magnetic field extruded as a tube, snaking down to Optimus and the new little spark he clasped desperately to his open chest. The sparklet was drawn into the prepared tank where a rough lozenge of protomass donated by himself and Optimus awaited it. 

Ratchet watched with joy and fascination as the spark nestled into its new home. Now, the pattern. He drew a cable from the tank and plugged it into Prime’s main data port. Optimus pushed everything through as soon as the connection stabilized, but this was no small, simple file, and even at Cybertronian upload speeds it took several seconds. The overlay meshed with the spark and the protomass, all of it so young, still evolving. It was better than either of them had dared hope. 

It’s integrating already, Optimus! I didn’t think it would… Optimus?

Prime lay still, optics dimming, flickering…dark. At least his chest had sealed itself shut again. Ratchet tore his gaze from the new spark long enough to scan Prime, making sure he was just in recharge not something worse. Getting the big bot onto a resting platform was going to be problematic in Ratchet’s also-depleted condition. Everyone else was far from the base, by design in case this had gone wrong.

“Oh well. Not the first time we’ve recharged on the floor, eh?” Making sure once again that all was well with the sparkling, the growth tank humming along, Ratchet sank down gratefully at Optimus’ side. Curling against his leader’s vast flank, he shut himself down system by system, into blissful recharge.

Chapter Text

2013 - September

Jazz was the first to return. Both Ratchet and Prime had recovered somewhat, though it had only been a couple of days. 

“What happened to you two?” Jazz asked immediately. He hadn’t seen either of them this all-around banged up since the battle in space when Ghost 1 had been lost. The base itself showed no sign of a fight. 

Prime told him.

Jazz stared at them in horror for a moment, then slowly walked into the med-bay, to the farthest room and the screened alcove where the Critical-Repair tanks were. He went right to the one containing the new person, though all the plex tubes were opaqued. “You did it,” he said quietly, touching the side of the tank. “You should have told us. I could’ve come back here to a crater... and we would’ve thought…”

“No,” Prime said. “I sent my battle drones out to a safe distance, with messages about what we were attempting. Once we knew the danger had passed, I simply recalled them.”

“Yeah, that makes me feel a whole lot better,” Jazz retorted, glaring at them both. He kept his hand on the tank. Gazing through the darkened plex, he ran through every spectrum, his visor softly shifting from iridescent to transparent. “You really did it. And it…it’s all right in there? It’s a healthy…”

“Yes,” said Ratchet, pleased. “Growing, too.”

“Good work,” Jazz said, finally turning away from the tanks to give a modified “thumbs-up” to the two larger bots. “Now we just got to figure who the baby-momma and who the baby-daddy…”

“WHAAAAT?!” Ratchet roared. “Get out!” He shooed the lieutenant all the way out of the med-bay. “Don’t you have data-analyses to run? Decepticon activity to track?”

Prime made himself scarce. He wasn’t touching that one with a ten-meter lava probe.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

The funeral was large, but informal. Sam and Mikaela went but didn’t stay long. They weren’t acquainted with Dr. Chase’s family beyond her sister, only knew a few of her colleagues. Someone made an overblown speech about the “staggering blow to the physics community.” Sam and Mikaela got up in the middle of it and left to console each other in and with Bumblebee.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

More mass? Already?

I’m afraid so. Will you…? Back on Cybertron had been the Wells, cultures of protomass in a vast array of types. Kept hot, kept functioning at a base level, one requested a particular amount of mass and added it to the forging tanks. Programming was added once the shell was half-forged. Full-forged shells were taken to the Kindling Platforms before the Allspark, and there they became people. 

Here, on Earth, at what Ratchet still fervently hoped was the rag-tag end of the war, there were no Wells. They must draw protomass from their own bodies and revert it to its primordial state, and hope the modified CR chamber worked as a forge, and that adding the spark early would do no harm, and…

Of course. This is my responsibility. How much?

Hmm. About 0.92 metrics. …I’ll ask Ironhide to—

No. I’ll manage. 0.6 now, 0.32 tomorrow. Will that do?

…Oh no you don’t. 0.52 from you. Ironhide can spare 0.4. He won’t like it, but that’s better than depleting you.

Ratchet…

Am I your CMO or not? Doctor’s orders.

Very well.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

2014 – spring

“Who’s in there?” Mikaela asked Ratchet, pointing at the one Critical-Repair tank that was active rather than in standby. With all the plex tubes opaque, the only obvious differences were a greater profusion of lights and a soft humming. 

“Eh?” Ratchet looked up from the exposed innards of Wheeljack’s right arm, which had been blown open during his latest weapons test. “Oh. Just testing the equipment. I want to make sure they’re working properly since we had to build most of them from scrap.”

“Hey!” Wheeljack interjected. “That was high quality scrap, I’ll have you know.” Ratchet ignored him. 

Mikaela, grinning at Wheeljack, agreed that was a good idea, but now that she thought about it, that particular tank had been running for at least a couple of months. “How long are you testing it for? I mean, if someone was hurt bad enough to need to be in there, how long would it take?”

“A little under two years,” Ratchet said, as though that was no time at all.

“Oh.”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“We should at least tell Sam and Mikaela,” Bumblebee pleaded. “They’ll be hurt if we do not.” A local planetary year had passed and the new person still floated safe in her tank, growing. They had kept the secret of her existence from the humans so far. Until she emerged, perhaps in another year, they wanted no hopes or fears raised to further complicate the situation. Sam and Mikaela had been the easiest to distract, with plans for their wedding the next autumn taking up nearly all the time that graduate school didn’t. 

“They don’t need to know,” said Ironhide.

“But, of all humans, we know we can trust them! And she was their friend.”

“No,” Prime said. “Only the five of us must know of the human memory overlay for now. And none of us is to do anything without direct orders from Ratchet. Including myself.” 

Ratchet crossed his arms and looked indignant. “Terrific. I have only the vaguest sense of what we’ve really done, and you’re putting me in charge.”

“Better you than me,” Jazz said, laughing.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

2015 – early summer

“Again?” Prime stood as Ratchet emerged from the med-bay.

Jazz looked up from the MMOG he was hacking. “How big is this gonna be, Ratchet? This is the third time this month you big guys have donated protomass.”

Ratchet nodded. “This should be the last time. I think. So, who’s got 0.23 metrics to spare, eh?”

Prime, as usual, came forward. This time no-one else volunteered, or protested that their leader was getting dangerously thin.

“Hmph,” Ratchet said, running a quick scan. Nominal. He led Prime back to the med-bay.

Chapter Text


There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he look'd upon, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,
Or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.
-- Walt Whitman


2015 – summer

Warm.

Floating.

Comforted.

She didn’t try to reach beyond these simple things for a long time. Eventually there were voices. She liked them. After a while it occurred to her to respond, instead of merely basking in the enjoyment of listening to them.

“Hello, Ratchet,” she said. The name was simply there. Her voice and vision were peculiar. Never a lucid dreamer, she questioned nothing. 

Ultra-dense colloid drained away. Transparent barriers slid upward, and she stepped down from the platform. This was deeply odd. Stepping was odd. Looking down at Ratchet and – “Hello, Optimus Prime.” – was odd.

“Feet,” she said. This was important. She knew she had feet, and she was standing on them. How very strange. “Feet feet feet. I like feet.” 

“Very good,” said Ratchet. Equilibrial, proprioceptive, visual, auditory, chemoreceptive, haptic, locomotor and basic navigational systems all nominal, Prime. “How do you feel?”

“I am—” she said. Running diagnostics? Is that what I’m doing? “I’m fine.”

“I am very glad to hear it,” said Optimus. 

“Thank you.” She felt better than fine, in fact. She looked at her hands, curling and uncurling the fingers in rapid sequence. Stretching out her arms, first to the sides, then upward, she tapped the curved stone ceiling. She bent forward, reaching down. “I can touch my…toes.” She stared at the named appendages, shuffling her feet as she tried to wriggle them. There was some movement of the individual digits, but not as much as she expected for some reason, and it looked as though she were standing on her tippy-toes. What were her heels doing that far up? 

“I’d like to assess your range of motion if you feel up to it,” Ratchet said. 

“Okay.” Subtly, her body hunched, limbs curling and stiffening slightly, until like a wave it passed and she stood tall and limber again. 

“Please turn your thorax 45 degrees to starboard. Now lift your left arm 90.6 degrees…good…”

Prime excused himself, nodding at Ratchet. The CMO noted with interest how their new arrival’s optics followed Prime until he disappeared from what humans regarded as the visible light spectrum. She continued to obey Ratchet’s directions with native grace and precision, but he felt more justified in keeping her inputs on an extremely narrow band. Her emotional algorithms were also set barely above baseline. She wasn’t a drone, but it was vital to keep her calm. She was two and a half meters taller than Prime, and while similarly gracile in proportion, that made her also proportionately more massive.

“Very good,” Ratchet said at the end of the lengthy test. “You’re tired, have a recharge over here.” He led her to a pneumatic table covered with a nice soft layer of lead and carbon mesh – recently expanded to accommodate their new cohort. 

She sat down and lay back. Powering down was as instinctive as closing her eyes. 

Closing my…? was her last muzzy thought before her systems quieted into recharge.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“Come on out,” Ratchet said kindly. “The others are anxious to see you.” That wasn’t strictly true. Ironhide and Cliffjumper were only there because Prime had insisted. Smokescreen’s team and the Twins were out on patrol and Inferno and Red Alert were in Las Vegas fighting a fire at one of the casinos. 

The door into the rest of the hangar was going to need to be raised, he noted, as she ducked slightly to pass through. She faced the half-circle of Autobots without hesitation.

“Hello, Jazz,” she said. “Prowl, Bumblebee, Arcee, Prime, Ironhide, Hound, Mirage, Cliffjumper, Wheeljack.” She looked at each steadily as she named them. She had seen them before, and she wondered why this felt like a first-time introduction. Taking another step into the hangar, she knelt, looking down. “Bee…why are you so little?” She extended a hand but stopped before making contact.

Bee raised his hands to hers, gripping her forefinger. He almost let his long habit of silence get the better of him. Prime had forbidden them to use her human name. “I’m not little,” Bee finally found voice to say. “You’re…you’re just oversized.”

“I am? Oh.”

Jazz laughed and spun in place. “You’re one big mama! Ratchet, when we gonna take her out so she can find a vehicle mode?”

“Maybe in a few days,” Ratchet said, nodding. He tight-beamed to Jazz and the others,She can’t transscan yet. All her inputs are still at minimum. I’ll adjust them upward slowly. Have patience.

How are her mental faculties progressing? Prime asked over tight-beam, concerned.

She may sound like a human child right now, but there’s a lot of processing going on in there. Especially during recharge. She may not be conscious of all of it, but she’s thinking at speed. Don’t worry, she’ll be keeping her old colleagues on their toes again in no time.

No reason we can’t get her hooked up with the ‘Web, is there? Jazz asked. Ratchet indicated a go-ahead. Access to the human communications net was normal for her no matter what body she was in. If that went well they would re-introduce her to Teletraan.

Good idea, Jazz. “Jazz, would you like to show our friend that game you were working on earlier?”

“Sure thing, Optimus.” Jazz led her over to the large monitor he’d set up in the center of a chaotic tangle of wires, consoles, human-scale GUI devices, desktop towers, printers and some custom additions of his own devising. “Set yourself down. You ever play ‘City of Heroes’?”

“I don’t think so.”

Arcee, Bee and some of the others followed to watch – and kibitz – but Ironhide stalked out in silence. 

He hadn’t liked this project from the beginning, but he knew there was no use in saying so…again. At best it was a waste of time and energy. Unless she chose unusually powerful vehicle and weapons modes – and with her size, she had better – she might be too slow to be of use against anyone but the likes of Blitzwing or Astrotrain. At worst, they had a potentially insane bot on their hands. They should never have attempted this, no matter what Ratchet and Prime said. 

Staying bipedal, he worked his way up to the mesa-top behind the hangar doors. Sol’s light was hot on his armor, but it felt good after millennia in the cold between stars. 

Remembering the day several years ago when the knowledge of spark-merging to produce a new one had come to them still made him want to open up with both cannons.

Shortly after the battle of Mission City, before Jazz had been revived, Ironhide had felt a sonic disturbance out in the desert and had gone to investigate. He found Prime fallen to his knees, head bowed…and no animal life within a twelve kilometer radius around him. Not even insects. Ironhide had hastily rolled back to base, away from the emotions surging through his leader. It was a Prime thing, Ironhide could tell. The Matrix not only told him what had been, but what could be, should be – sometimes what would be. And for all cases why, with iteration upon iteration of nesting logic until the probability wave forms collapsed and Optimus was left with the maelstrom of his own individual reaction. Letting it all shake through him; rage, joy, bitterness, resentment, hope, acceptance. Understanding why this knowledge had been kept from them for billions of years, why it needed to be revealed now.

Prime had chosen carefully when to tight-beam the information to the other Autobots on Earth. He hadn’t wanted anyone to skid through traffic or stagger off a mesa, or fumble an instrument during a delicate repair. Ironhide had been polishing his cannons and rewriting his predictive avoidance software again. At least he’d already been sitting. Bee had been in his driveway after driving Sam home from a late movie with Mikaela. Ratchet had just come out of recharge at their makeshift base.

Ironhide lifted his head, surprised to find Sol was setting already.

Their first entirely new person in thousands of years, and she was an abomination.

Chapter Text

“Your torsion bars are still all bent about this, aren’t they.” It wasn’t a question. That was the problem with mechs who’d known you too long. Ironhide tried to ignore him, but Ratchet pulled him into the med-bay and keyed the door shut and locked. Ironhide took a wide stance and crossed his arms. Ratchet came right up to him and put his hands on Ironhide’s hips. 

“Which part bothers you most, eh? That we put the memories of a human in her, that I made you donate mass to build her, that Prime chose me instead of you for what might have been a suicide mission, or is it just too close to the way primitive, ephemeral organics do things?”

So much for subtlety. That was fine with Ironhide. He uncrossed his arms and pulled Ratchet closer. There was a lightning-shaped etch-mark running up Ratchet’s chin, like the ones still visible across his chest. “He hurt you,” Ironhide growled. 

Ratchet snorted. “Bah! Prime took the worst of it, believe me.” He pushed at Ironhide a little, their frontal armor grating. “You want to try it yourself? You and me, right here, right now?” 

Ironhide let Ratchet back him against a wall, or so he told himself.

“It’s not as dangerous as we thought,” Ratchet purred. “Of course it’s not entirely…safe…either.” He unsealed his spark chamber just enough that Ironhide could feel its heat. “It hurts, Ironhide, but you know some things are worth a little pain…” His cables snaked out, tapping against Ironhide’s closed ports. “I have enough spare parts; we could start with something about Jazz’s size, it’ll grow larger in the tank…”

Ironhide shoved himself sideways and away. “No! Are you out of your mind?” He extended an accusing finger. “You’ve been into Wheeljack’s so-called ultra-high-grade, haven’t you.”

“I’ll show you ultra-high-grade,” Ratchet leered, coming after him. “Come here, you rusty old thing.”

“I am not rusty,” Ironhide huffed, completing the ritual. He stood his ground as Ratchet laid hands on him again. Hot hands. Ratchet could channel energy to his hands to warm them for therapeutic purposes. Or occasionally to pop popcorn for Sam. Ironhide groaned as Ratchet worked the base of his dorsal cables. It was quite a while before he had the presence of processing to bring his own hands up to caress Ratchet’s face, pressing his zygomatic spars firmly the way he liked, and stroking the dark bars framing his mouth. Ratchet turned his head slightly to nibble on Ironhide’s fingertips.

“No biting,” Ironhide muttered.

“Since when?”

Ironhide hollowed his back, leaning into where Ratchet’s hands worked, digging into deeper cables. Ratchet, please, can’t we just…? Ironhide extended the first data cable tentatively, but Ratchet’s ports were already open and waiting. This was better anyway. Ironhide wasn’t the best with words, even in Cybertronian. Ratchet always offered him an open channel, understood his worry or frustration. Or anger. And never used it against him later. Almost never. They both enjoyed interfacing with others, but it was never quite like it was with each other. Their level of comfort had been cultivated over hundreds of millennia.

It was and it wasn’t about Prime’s choice. I’d have blown us both to the Pit, Ironhide admitted. Prime had been right to choose Ratchet. Right to make the attempt. The advantages, if merging worked, were staggering. The Autobots could replenish their numbers. The Decepticons, for as long as they could keep the secret, could not. And Prime was…there was something different about him since Mission City. Since he had alloyed the Allspark shard with his spark and brought Jazz back from the dead. The humans die so easily, so soon. They have so many stories about reviving the dead. Some good, but mostly bad. Jazz isn’t organic, but it creeps me out, Ratchet. 

Aww, ‘Hide.
 Ratchet warmed him from the inside as well as out. Rebutting nothing, agreeing that Jazz’s reanimation was both heartening, for he would have missed the eternally curious, energetic mech, and disconcerting. 

And now you and Prime have created a brand new spark. Given it a new body. It’s…wonderful, but I don’t like it. 

We don’t know what kind of mech she will turn out to be,
 Ratchet agreed. It was a scary thought. We always took that kind of chance, though. The Decepticons are Allspark-born too, remember. 

Ironhide nodded. All right. But why the human’s memories? Isn’t that just complicating an already complicated situation? Ratchet was working his way around to his anterior side, teasing at the edges of armor, grazing underlying structures with vapor-soft touches. Ironhide draped his arms over Ratchet’s shoulders and shuddered. 

I didn’t agree with him about that either. Then all the fragging other Primes came out to say hello. 

Meh.
 Ironhide selected and seated the next set of cables, pulling Ratchet’s out of his body before he could extend them himself. 

Ratchet shivered, sighing as they clicked home. Do that again. 

Pervert.
 But Ironhide complied, his big, blunt fingers nevertheless deft at unlatching the covers and extracting the cables, pulling them out slowly to their full length, enjoying the rapid flickering of Ratchet’s optics as he did it. The last connection opened their communion wide, flooding every concept and glyph with colors and crystalline patterns of meaning. They dove into each other, mind to mind, electrons streaming free through long, long circuits unhindered by the limitations of mere bodies. 

Feedback and ancient affection and mutual need set them on the upward spiral. More than just Ratchet’s hands heated up, and they sank to the floor, joints sparking blue and their hands in each other’s undercarriages, chests cracking, revealing their inner suns. The waves of past experience, past overloads, buoyed them, enveloped them and they thought for a moment of lingering, drawing it out, but the urgency was too sweet, and so they fell, and falling flew, into the brightness within, crying out in the blinding light until the darkness welcomed them with solace and warmth.

Ratchet settled into the most comfortable position against Ironhide, where their armor slid rather than grated. It felt so good just to overload again, and not worry about anything else, like large, radioactive craters if something went amiss. Ironhide…do you want to …feel what it was like? I recorded the experience – as much as I could. Thought it would be instructive. 

You’re deranged. …Really? 

Yeah? 

Yeah. 


Ratchet opened the file.



When Ironhide came back online, he was flat on his back, Ratchet alongside, their fingers intertwined, cables lax, chests closed but still hot.

That was… 

Filtered a bit, yes. And incomplete. But that was pretty much the foundation/prelude to the spark-melding. 

Just the… Primus. 

Yes. 




Ironhide? 

Yeah? 

If you wanted to…ever…for you I would go through that again. 

Ratchet. 

But only if… 

Yeah. I don’t think I’d ever… But, thanks.

No problem. 

Ironhide didn’t even want to think what it had been like for Prime.

Chapter Text

2015 – September

She sat outside in the desert for weeks. During the day she stayed at the foot of the mesa. Once night fell she climbed to the mesa-top, stretching out on the sandstone that felt cool and comfortable like a well-tended lawn despite the marks of ungentle Autobot feet, and stared out at the stars until Ratchet called her in to recharge. Every other morning he tweaked her inputs a little higher. 

Sometimes she wandered the interior. Moving slowly, holding still as the other Autobots passed her on their brisk errands. It was much smaller than she remembered, before, even with all the additions made since Wheeljack had come with his alarming nanotechnology mining device that ate perfect spheres out of solid rock and dissolved back to sand when it was done. (Wheeljack had demonstrated the thing in Australia and the human nanotechnology community had collectively surged to its feet and screamed in horror. On the internet, the most frequent response involved the letters O, M, F and G, often followed by “NO” and an excessive number of exclamation points. Even Prime was squirmy about its use, though it had never malfunctioned. Its mode of operation was disconcerting to observe.) Smaller, brighter, noisier, more full of things that stimulated her chemoreceptors. The day-lights still followed her as they always had, until she realized she could ask them without speaking to remain unlit. She didn’t need them any more and it was a waste, however small, of energy. The human-scaled area in the main hangar was much too small for her. She could sit outside it and look down into the tiny arrangements of soft furniture and minute equipment, but she knew she had once seen the same space from the inside. 

She hadn’t been out to Wheeljack’s lab to see if that was different, but going to Wheeljack’s lab had always entailed a complex risk assessment, and generally wasn’t worth it unless one had been specifically invited. And sometimes not even then. 

It had been decided to introduce her to the humans simply as a “new arrival.” This was true, so Bumblebee wouldn’t have to lie to Sam and Mikaela. As it happened, three small groups had indeed arrived this year, so she was simply added to the roster alongside Inferno and Red Alert. It was easy enough to persuade the data on human computers to reflect another meteorite landing at that time. 

Sam nearly discovered her before they were ready. He’d been wandering around the base with nothing to do. Jazz was giving Bumblebee a carwash, and while Sam usually liked to do that himself, sometimes he realized that Jazz liked to do it too. Sam had the grace – or the embarrassment – not to intrude at those times. Ratchet hurried to the mesa top and dropped a couple of pebbles to get the young one’s attention.

“Come here,” Ratchet said, beckoning her upward. She was looking in the direction Sam was coming, and just that morning Ratchet had upped her visual inputs to take in IR and UV.

“That’s Sam,” she said, confused. Sam was her friend. She followed Ratchet obediently to the top of the mesa, though.

“I know, but we still have to hide. He isn’t ready for you yet.”

“He isn’t?”

“No.”

“Oh.” She looked up through the sky for a moment. “Ratchet?”

“Yes?”

“The physics is so beautiful!”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“This was me, wasn’t it,” she said one night, flashing to Ratchet an archived page from the SLAC website, noting the memorial service in 2013 for a Dr. Ixchel Anne Chase, PhD.

He’d been anticipating this, surprised it hadn’t come sooner, despite his precautions. “Yes. That was you.”

“I don’t remember dying,” she said. Ratchet waited. “I’m not dead.”

“No.”

“You did something to her, the human I was.”

“I transscanned her brain, before she died, and uploaded the information to Optimus, who has the capacity to store it intact. You are one of us, a Cybertronian, built here on Earth, but we gave you the memories – all the memories – of Ixchel Chase.” 

She processed this in seconds. “So I’m…sort of a ghost in a machine. Or the person who stepped out of the teleporter.” She chirped the references to him and Ratchet nodded reluctantly. The comparisons weren’t exact, but he was willing to grant them if it gave her any comfort. “And the moment I woke up here I started becoming someone else.” She stood, towering over him. “I, she would have died in that body soon anyway. I’m glad you did what you did, Ratchet.” She bent, cupped his face with her long hands, touched her forehelm to his. “Thank you.”

“…You’re welcome.” Ratchet felt his dorsal struts relax. He tight-beamed the exchange to Prime. She was taking it well, so far.

Seating herself again, she gazed upward at the stars. “You built me as you did because Prime said to.” She wanted to understand, and had the feeling that she had a unique opportunity to find out what her actual purpose in life was. Most people weren’t so lucky, she thought, but couldn’t track down her reasoning very precisely. 

Ratchet laughed. “That’s only the first reason, young one. You were built because we need you.” They had needed to know if the merge process worked, but Ratchet didn’t want to put it that way, even if it was true. 

She ran her fingertips over her mandibular junction. Not scratching her chin exactly, but it had something of that gesture to it. “For what?”

“We need you to help us understand how humans think, what they feel, both in body and emotionally. We need you to help the humans understand how we think and feel. We need you to be yourself.”

“Oh. By the way, Ratchet?”

“Yes?”

“I just found out I can play 184,579 games of online Solitaire per second. And that was only because the server couldn’t go any faster. That is so depressing.”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

It began with a rainbow; far out across the desert, where the sky was still stormy-dark, though at the mesa the sun blazed from between fluffy gold-hued clouds. She watched it shift over time, fade with the rain only to return more vivid than before. The sheer beauty of land and sky made her want to sing, but she didn’t know how, not in this body. She wanted to cry, feel her breath catch as a pair of red-tailed hawks flew across her view, lit coppery by the fierce sun. But she no longer had eyes that required tears, no longer had lungs or throat. Seated at the base of the mesa, cold stone between her and the Autobot hangar, she began to shake.

She slid upward till she was standing, digging her fingers into the rock, pressing her whole body into it as though she could escape the torrent that way. A human brain can only make and contain so many neurotransmitters. A human body can only maintain an emotion for a finite time, before exhaustion sets in, sleep comes – even if only briefly – and memory blurs the outlines. She no longer had any such limits. Emotion burst in her processors like a supernova, expanding outward through the infinite space within. She was trapped, too panicked to reach out via radio, no voice calling but her own. Her core temperature spiked, and articulation locks engaged and disengaged randomly.

Cliffjumper found her first, while he was patrolling the area, amid the deep gouges she had clawed in the rock. “What the slag? Oh for…” Hey, Wheeljack. Come out here will you? Ratchet’s pet is having a fit or something. 

What? I’m right in the middle of…oh all right, gimme a minute. 

Hurry up, I think she’s slagging her CPU. 


Wheeljack came skidding around the mesa shortly and transformed. He ran a basic scan and whistled. “Hey, kiddo. Let’s get you inside, all right? Ratchet’ll be back soon, don’t worry.” He took her hand and pulled gently.

“What’s wrong with her?” Cliffjumper wanted to know, irritated but also worried.

Don’t you remember when you were first ensparked, how sometimes your feelings would get all tangled up, and it felt like you had to explode or die trying? 

I…guess? 

Okay, well she’s doing that. Only she’s kinda big, so I’m gonna see if I can get her into her recharge berth until Ratchet and the others get back.
Wheeljack was torn between telling Cliffjumper to stay out of the way, and asking him to stick close in case she started convulsing. That happened sometimes, and he didn’t think he could hold down more than one arm or leg at a time by himself. On the other manipulator, he didn’t want to give Cliffjumper any encouraging in the tackling department. 

He continued to pull steadily at her hand until she eased free of the rock, optics wild and unfocused, but she was moving. “That’s right, come on, it’s gonna be okay.” With slow steps, he guided her around the mesa toward the hangar door. Cliffjumper followed for only half a minute before transforming and rolling off to resume his patrol, having alerted Prowl to the problem. Wheeljack kept to audio only, soothing her with his voice. He knew better than to attempt a more direct contact – her overheated circuits and the emotional feedback loops might overwhelm him if she latched on to his frequency. And even if not, it would be an unpleasant experience. Conversely, silence and darkness wouldn’t help either. Without something exterior to focus on, she could become lost in her own mind, where maybe even Ratchet couldn’t pull her out. So he kept talking, and walking, and eventually they got inside. 

Prowl gave them a sour look but nodded as they passed him at the door. He recalled this from his own experience more clearly than Cliffjumper did. It was part of the emotional circuitry integration process, and every embodied mech who wasn’t a drone had to deal with it. “Do you think you have her all right or do you want help?”

“I got her,” Wheeljack said, nodding. “That’s it, kiddo, almost there. Pretty soon Jazz’ll be home and he’ll sing you some nice lullabies, okay? How’s that? You like Jazz, huh? I’ve seen you guys playing that silly human game on their primitive little computers. Come on, just a little farther…”

Later, as evening blackened to full night, the other Autobots returned from their mission in New York, stopping some Decepticon mischief in the sewers. They had come out fairly unscathed, though Prime looked worse for wear and moved as though his joints weren’t self-lubricating any more. Ratchet made sure Prime took a nice long oil soak before going out to the tower lab to talk to Wheeljack.

“Did she speak at all?” Ratchet asked, carefully not touching anything.

“Nah. Didn’t even start the keening until we were inside the med-bay. She got into recharge though, still shaking fit to fly apart, and I’m surprised she didn’t fuse something important in there, but… I’ve seen worse, back in the day.”

“No doubt. Thank you, you did just the right thing. I appreciate it.”

“No problem.”

Wheeljack returned to his tinkering, and Ratchet joined Prime in the oil bath.

How is she? 

Not bad, considering. A little overheated. I could tune her emotional algorithms back down, but she’d just have to go through it again. Jazz went in and is singing to her. Seems to be helping. 

Good. 

Yaagh. Human sewers. Remind me never to go down there again. 

Heh. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Storms returned the next day, and Ratchet kept the young one inside, playing games with Jazz, when Jazz could spare the time. When he couldn’t, somewhat to Ratchet’s surprise Mirage came into the med-bay and told her stories about Cybertron, which seemed to fascinate her. She asked few questions, letting Mirage talk uninterrupted, accepting the gift of his tales with a mind if not exactly whole then at least open. Mirage wasn’t Bluestreak, but he did appear to enjoy having an appreciative audience. Ratchet left them alone, pleased.

The day after, she emerged from recharge trembling and frightened, and unable to control the fear. “So cold,” she moaned. “There’s nothing inside. No insides, nothing but so many pieces, loose and jumbled with air between. Inside, outside. Recharge isn’t sleep. I don’t dream of electric sheep, I don’t dream at all. We don’t sleep, we don’t cry, we don’t even breathe. No matter how different human cultures try to be from each other we at least have those things in common. How can I live like this?”

Ratchet called for a little assistance; the Twins had bashed each other up again, and gotten Cliffjumper and, unusually, Hound into the wreck with them this time. Ratchet had plenty to do already, without having to deal with a youngster going through integration to complicate matters.

Mirage – always fretful when Hound was injured – came and took her hand, and led her outside and up to the mesa top. He enjoined her to sit down in the center; from there she could see mostly only the cloudless sky and the rocky mesa flatness immediately around her. Her integration had decided the spy that he liked her, that she was going to be an all right kind of Autobot after all, despite her radical birth. This was a very Cybertronian process, what she was going through. He remembered his consortium’s rites of passage well. He remembered pre-war Cybertron more thoroughly and deliberately than nearly everyone who had thus far come to Earth. Their adopted home, full of its own, alien, fragile, messy kinds of beauty – it would always be the place he’d had to adapt to. Unbidden, the images of the lost gardens of Tyger Pax streamed through his CPU, and he knew what stories he’d tell her today.

“Do you remember a place on Cybertron called Tyger Pax?”

She shuddered hard, but when the tremor eased a little she managed to speak, her optics gazing desperately into his. “Isn’t that…isn’t it where…Bumblebee…?”

“Yes. If you asked him, he might have told you his version of what happened there. But Bumblebee being Bee, he’ll have left some things out.”

She nodded. She had known Bee before, and he hadn’t changed, but she had …he used to be so much bigger and now oh no she was so much bigger and not breathing and… but she thought she knew what some of the kinds of things he would leave out would be.

“Let me tell you, then, how it was, how Tyger Pax the garden city was before the War, and what happened there the way Bumblebee won’t have told you.

“Tyger Pax was in one of the Orbital Torus States – a flower-shaped city, lifted high on a multi-stemmed base, the ‘petals’ looking as though they were just about to open fully. Her towers were silver, platinum, glass, titanium, with fountains of mercury, pools of silicon. Copper trees wove their branches through enormous crystal sculptures. The roads were paved with specially grown amethyst and citrine. It always seemed easier to see the moons and stars from there.” 

She was fascinated by how easily Mirage slipped from English to Cybertronian; how the translations wove back and forth in her mind. His word for “tree” was the Cybertronian derived from a general word meaning any branching structure, from cracks in stone to lightning. Modifiers indicated scale, complexity of branching and the material composition. “Tyger Pax” was itself of course an approximation. An antiquated spelling of an English word for a beautiful and rare land mammal, and the Latin for peace. An ancient, rare, idyllic place of beauty. The correspondences were strange but compelling. 

In addition there were glyphs hidden in his words, echoed transmission frequencies. Moving images, sounds, even olfactory and haptic data. She could stand in the center of Tyger Pax-that-was and whirl like a giddy schoolgirl.

“There were long swooping tracks, interlaced, high-sided, with ramps and jumps, paved with polytetrafluoroethylene—”

She sat up and waved her hands to stop him. “Wait, wait, wait. You mean to tell me you guys went skating on Teflon?

Mirage laughed. “Yes. High-speed, low-friction racing, skating as you say, and various forms of what humans would call Teflon-hockey. Primus, that was fun.”

She hugged herself, laughing at minor but embarrassing mishaps Mirage had seen – or endured himself. He watched her carefully, waiting for the manic edge to creep into her harmonics.

“And then the War came,” he said, to stem the tide. His timing was, as ever, excellent. He nodded at her abruptly unhappy expression. Take it in, new one, he thought. Take it in and make sense of it all. I know how hard it is, believe me. “Tyger Pax was left a blasted hulk, still standing tall above its charred surroundings, but all the bridges were broken. The Allspark was hidden there, while rumors were leaked that it was in Simfur, where Prime led the bulk of our remaining forces. Bumblebee and Arcee led a smaller group to defend Tyger Pax. They were hard pressed, though they might have made a stand for as long as it took for another team to launch the Allspark into space. But Megatron could sense the Allspark itself and had traced it there. Bumblebee’s team was captured, bound to the ruined ceiling and walls of a…I guess you could call it a cathedral. Or an art gallery. Both are correct. 

“Megatron ripped the spark from the chest of one, tore another to pieces, trying to get them to tell him exactly where the Cube was. Bumblebee caught his attention next, and had his right arm torn off as payment.”

To her Cybertronian brain, loss of limb was an unpleasant but not permanent mishap. Her human mindscape was appalled, even though she knew he’d also lost his legs in Mission City, years before she was decanted. Mirage was guiding her through a full spectrum, and he wasn’t finished.

“Megatron always thought he could bully anything out of anyone. Bee proved him wrong. Just as the Allspark launched, Megatron could still have caught up in his jet form. Bumblebee threw himself at him, distracting him long enough for the Cube to get too far to track directly. He saved us all in that moment. In a rage, Megatron crushed his voice capacitor, leaving him mute but for non-audio transmissions. Bee’s a resourceful mech, he found other ways to communicate, even with humans.” Mirage grinned, playing a bit of radio, “I wanna know/What you’re thinking/There are some things you can’t hide…”

She smiled. Sad for the suffering inflicted on someone she knew more as a kind and gentle mentor, rather than the clever scout and warrior he also was. But also glad he had survived, a hero many times over, no matter that he thought he was merely doing his duty, and perhaps had doubts, wondered if he could have done more. More puzzle glyphs from Mirage hinted at this. It wasn’t over-stimulating because she had to concentrate to find them and unlock their nested meanings. 

“Thank you, Mirage,” she said. “I think I should go recharge now, but…thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” he said, and gave her a jaunty salute as he rose to his feet and left her in peace.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Mirage had been so helpful, and had already been working so closely with her, Ratchet and Prime briefed him with the entirety of her origin. Mirage was shocked, but he struggled to reconcile his emotions. It wasn’t her fault, how she’d been forged and programmed. He liked the poor, confused, huge thing. She reminded him of the Empty Cities; the AI cities after Megatron’s drones had slain the embodied population. Hollow, alone and purposeless, the AIs either escaped if there were still connections open, merging with other city-AIs; or went mad, if all comms had been cut. Mirage was determined that there would always be bridges for her, between her inner selves, and between her and the other Autobots. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“Tell me,” Mirage said, “what swimming is like.” It was their second-favorite game. She would rather hear him spin tales of Cybertron and the Iridium Towers, but answering his questions made him happy, so she was made happy too. They linked arm cables, and she fished down through the mess of her unorganized human memories. Fishing was an apt metaphor. She had to hook one idea to another to find anything in there, linking chains of associations together until she caught what she was after. It was a bit tedious, there was no index, no keywords or tags, no neat mapping; but she was getting better at it each time they played this game. Swimming, eating solid food, breathing, dreaming; Mirage asked about all the things humans could do that mechs did not. They shared senses – of pain, of humor, sight, touch, taste which was for humans distinct if related to smell – in mechs this was simply chemoreception and was more often housed in their feet or legs than in their heads (Ratchet being a notable exception), hearing. The human ranges might be more limited, but the way their sensory input was keyed so strongly into their emotional systems and those into their mentation was intriguing. Without emotions, humans couldn’t even make small, practical judgments about day to day mundanities. Logic, as Spock had said, was only the beginning of wisdom.

“Swimming,” she said. She thought of the pool at her – Ixchel’s – cousins’ house in Mission Viejo. Dark blue grey plaster, fake rocks, fake waterfall, smell of chlorine and concrete and dirt and sometimes flowers. Shade from eucalyptus trees on the slope above, heat reflecting from the stucco of the house beside. The water was warm nearly all the year round, bathwater warm in summer. Most of the day the sun glared bright off the always-moving surface, but as the afternoon waned, the reflection of sky and the yard around became softer, satiny, unmarred by the sharp splashing of the younger kids. After a while her skin felt tight and hot from sunlight and the chlorine, and her hair was tangled and kind of rough and sticky and full of little bits of crud shed from the eucalyptus trees, and her body was sore and tired from treading water and swimming and, when she was younger, even diving, all day long; but it was such a summertime feeling she didn’t mind. 

She could float for hours, nearly weightless, but not the stomach-flipping weightlessness of the first moment of a roller-coaster drop; familiar to Mirage as the low-gravity environment in space, though he didn’t have a stomach and his equilibrial systems automatically shifted to adapt. The pool was only about ten feet deep, so the pressure of the water was never enough to confuse you about which way was down.

“It’s a bit like flying,” Mirage mused. “But through a very thick atmosphere.” His vehicle mode before the war…one of them, anyway; his consortium had been wealthy enough most of them were at least triple and some were quadruple-changers…had been a short-range but speedy flier/glider. The image he showed her was a little like an iridescent blue jellyfish, she thought. If jellyfish were slinky and aerodynamic and could reach Mach 7. 

Mirage, in turn, told her everything he could remember about Cybertronian art and culture. How poets would work on a single poem for centuries; beginning with an epic thousands of glyphs in length, honing, refining, alloying, forging until they had compressed the meaning into perhaps three glyphs alone. “And then after all that work, it turned out only the poet could understand it.” They both laughed. Other forms of art could take similarly extended periods, and Mirage was reminded of human cathedrals, the construction of which spanned many human lifetimes. He began to see why Hound liked these humans so, who endeavored so much, even knowing their limitations. 

Another time he explained how the glyphs on the Allspark had eluded translation always. Over time, the beloved if bemusing symbols took on meanings contrived by the Allspark’s creations. 

“You couldn’t figure out what they meant so you just…made stuff up?”

“Yes,” he said, smiling. “Some think the creators of the Allspark, whomever they were, meant for us not to know, or they would have left a primer in the Allspark itself. Maybe they felt this new universe was ours not theirs, and we would have to discover meaning on our own, by our own terms. To make of it what we would.”

“So that stuff gouged on Prime’s head, on your helms, for all you really know that could say ‘This side up,’ or ‘Refrigerate immediately upon delivery,’ or ‘Insert slot A into tab B,’ or ‘Batteries not included!’”

Mirage gaped at her for a second then fell backwards onto the mesa top, laughing. Hound poked his head up over the edge.

“What are you two giggling about now?” he asked, amused already and clearly delighted with Mirage’s performance, watching his slender friend intently. Mirage must have told him over comm because Hound had some difficulty climbing the rest of the way up, in fact almost fell off entirely, he was chortling so hard. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

With the ubiquity of transmission and quantum data storage, very few Cybertronians ever bothered to download the programming it took to physically take up an implement of some kind and write with pigment or carve on a surface. Even signatures on official documents were done electronically. Mirage, by contrast, had beautiful, calligraphic penmanship. 

He showed her first the two-dimensional glyph arrays. The most clever of which could be read in any direction. The simplest were triads composed of three glyphs in a triangle. Then came squares with four or nine or fifteen glyphs. Then came the higher numbered shapes, and freeform spirals and swooping curves, not unlike those which had decorated the Allspark itself. 

There were also three-dimensional glyph arrays – poems, really. Not unlike haiku, she thought. Again read in any or every direction. Cubes and other polyhedra; eight glyphs, or twenty seven. 

But her greatest delight came in learning of the four-dimensional arrays. The hypercube or tesseract – HyperCubeText, she thought, giggling. Mirage groaned theatrically, but immediately shared the layered pun, inflicting it upon everyone within transmission range.

Somewhere amid their discussions, silly and sublime, she quietly passed out of integration and neither of them noticed.

Chapter Text

2015 – October

Keller himself authorized the trip, enjoying the privilege as this would be his last term as Secretary of Defense. They didn’t have to sneak in, but it was fun, and a good drill for the human guards. Not all the miles of fences could be manned, and the cameras were still easily hacked by those with Cybertronian brains. Optimus could have stepped over the fence, razor wire and all, but he was busy elsewhere, and while no one said so, none of them wanted the young one to carry them. So they had to make do with jumping it. Jazz took point, then Arcee, then the youngster stepping over. Ratchet brought up the rear. 

They had taken her to Nellis, and the other military bases near the Cybertronian Embassy, but nothing had compelled her to follow up her newly acquired ability to transscan with a transformation. It was hard to find anything in the civilian world, outside heavy construction, of the right mass. She didn’t want to be confined to rails. Flight seemed to appeal, so here they were breaking into Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works.

Let us know if you see something you like, Jazz told her. She sketched a salute and began to scan everything.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

The giggling gave her away. Jazz stopped long enough to brief the compound’s chief of the watch about how to make their security a little tighter, then they headed back to the embassy. They knew she’d picked something, but she wouldn’t say what, wanted it to be a surprise. 

Ironhide wouldn’t be impressed with her vehicle mode, she thought, which made her sad because she liked Ironhide very much. But I like it, she told herself. And if she liked her vehicle mode, wouldn’t that make it easier to adapt to and use effectively? Or was she just rationalizing? Too late now…

A handful of Autobots assembled on the mesa-top above the base the next night. 

She shuffled her feet, nervous at being the center of so much attention from her superiors. Superiors in so many ways, she thought, fighting not to bite her fingers. She wasn’t sure whether her mouthparts were strong enough to damage the delicate-looking metal tips, but she wasn’t about to find out now. Okay, stay calm. Just try not to fall on your face…

She remembered deep abdominal breathing exercises from before, but those were no use now. Instead she focused on the cosmic microwave background radiation, and the myriad, faint humming from the stars. All those signals could be overwhelming if she let them, but now she found it soothing, like white noise – quasar-sung lullabies at the edge of hearing.

“You can hear them all the time, can’t you,” she said, looking up at the Milky Way.

“That’s right,” Jazz said. “Music of the spheres, baby.”

“On clear nights like this, humans often feel as though they could reach out and touch them,” she continued. “We… they know they can’t…but it’s fun to try.” And with three running steps she leaped off the mesa.

In the optics of those watching, she seemed to float for a half-second, then she leaned into the air – and transformed.

Long, a sinuous delta shape, so dark a blue she was almost black. Huge, low-slung twin engines screamed to life, charring the side of the mesa before they slammed her out and up into a steep climb. Jazz contacted SAC and the FAA.

“Mach 1,” Arcee said drily, crossing her arms. “Well, she’s speedy.” The sonic booms were travelling away from them and therefore inaudible from their position, but they could ping her speed at this distance. Unseen but scanned as well was her Autobot sigil, just to the front of her canopy. Ratchet had given her the specs for transformation – the sigil wasn’t just a mark welded on or easily removed, it was inherent to the chameleon mesh and as such had to be added to the transscanned specs prior to the first transformation. 

“Mach 2,” Jazz intoned. Turn your nose about 5 degrees north; you’re not the only bird up there, he told her.

Oh! Right. Uh, roger.

There ya go.
 “Mach 3.”

As she settled into Mach 3, her engines reconfigured themselves slightly. Intake cones settled more deeply, increasing efficiency.

“Mach 4,” said Jazz. He looked at Ratchet. “Want me to tell her to open it up?”

Ratchet nodded. “I estimate Mach 6 to be her cruising speed. In this configuration she should top out at Mach 10.”

I’m gonna keep you out of everyone’s hair, girl, so you put on some altitude and show us some leg, all right? 50,000 meters and clear.

Aye-firmative!


“Mach 6.”

Bee – parked in Sam’s driveway but piggybacking on Jazz’s carrier signal – chuckled.She’s not going to call herself Newt, is she?

Hope not.
 “Mach 8.” Head northwest about 10 degrees. You wanna miss the pole. Watch the EM interference. Make a nice big figure-8 on your way back.

“She’s…almost in the Arctic already?” Hound asked.

“Mach 8 is pretty fast in atmo,” Arcee pointed out.

How do you feel? Ratchet inquired, via Jazz. She was out of his direct scanning range, hidden by the planet.

I’m getting hot. But I think it’s all right; my, er, skin feels good.

Good. The heat will anneal your alloys. Just watch for unstarts on those engines, and too much vibration.
 Ratchet zipped a request to Jazz, who relayed data from his sophisticated long-range scanning inputs. Her hull temperature was indeed well within operational limits. 

Okay.

“Mach 9.” Jazz bounced a little on his toes. You’re clear at 50,000 from Greenland to Utah. Kick it!

O-okay…


“Don’t push if she doesn’t feel she’s ready,” Ratchet murmured. “This is just a test flight.”

“Sure,” said Cliffjumper. “We’re testing your kid to see if she can hit Mach 10.”

Nngh! Almost there…

“9.5…” 

“Come on…” Arcee said, getting into the spirit of the thing even if she still had reservations about the young one herself. If there was one thing Arcee understood, it was the need for speed.

You can do it, little bird. “Mach 10!” Ease ‘em down, now. Keep that up and you’ll overshoot us. 

Ha! Not sure I have the fuel for another go ‘round…


Bee gave a ballpark whistle and Arcee punched the air. The other Autobots exchanged pleased-despite-themselves grins if they had the mouthparts for it.

Found a name yet, little bird? Jazz teased her.

BOREALIS! I’M BOREALIS! she shouted.

Noted and logged. 

Jazz chuckled. We hear you, ‘Lissi-lu. Come on home now, and try to slow it down some, you’re scaring the coyotes.

Four minutes passed, but the desert night remained undisturbed. The loudest sound was the cicadas.

“I don’t see her,” Prowl said.

“You won’t,” said Jazz. “Not until she’s right on top of us. You’ll actually hear her first, she’ll have dropped to subsonic as she leaves Utah.”

“She’s not invisible, though,” Hound said.

“Not like Mirage, no.” Jazz turned his visor back toward the horizon. “If she was a human plane, we’d pick up her IR easily from over 200 kilometers.”

Arcee’s optics brightened. “But she’s not a human plane. Those were plasma cannons I saw on her fuselage, right? Nice.”

Oh crap, I have to land now! Borealis sounded more than a little alarmed. Jazz had shown her how to broadcast to the rest of the assembled Autobots, though she was clumsy about channel-switching.

“Should have thought of that before she jumped off the cliff,” Hound commented, laughing, but not unkindly.

She wasn’t about to try touching down on the mesa, and she thought she’d have plenty of time to work on mid-air transformations later. Fortunately there was a long, straight stretch of road perpendicular to the hangar entrance.

Target the road, Jazz told her, bringing up the overlay slowly so she understood how to do it.

Ah. Target locked. …Whoah, and it really is, too. You guys aren’t kidding when you say that… It felt like she couldn’t miss it if she tried. All her motive and guidance systems were now focused on the road/runway. 

You can override if you have to, Ratchet pointed out, as he and the others climbed down and headed for the road.

Good to know. Okay, landing gear…landing gear…there it goes…

Get your nose up, Lissi. A little more…more… Not that much! Whoops.


50 meters from the ground, she flipped vertical, wobbled, did a completely unintentional pirouette, jinked to starboard, then – terrified of hitting the ground as the comparatively rigid and fracturable plane – she transformed. It was nothing like the dignified and dramatic slow motion resumption of her bipedal form that she had envisioned. She just hoped she’d end up with two arms, two legs, a torso and a head, and if she was very, very lucky they might even be all in the right places.

Abruptly hugely draggy, she slammed into air like a concrete wall and went pinwheeling off into the desert, trying to bring her limbs (whatever order they were in) close to her body despite rather massive centripetal difficulties. 

When she finally hit the ground she dug a furrow 100 meters long. She lay in a crumpled heap, more shocked than hurt – pain in this body was a new experience. And she was pretty sure she had sagebrush and cactus in places she’d never known Autobots had. Ratchet had already scanned her, but when she didn’t rise immediately, he came over and joined Arcee, Jazz and Hound who were leaning over her head, making helpful, and not so helpful suggestions on the best ways to remove unwanted terrestrial life forms from one’s chassis. 

“Are you functional?” he asked mildly.

“Aaaaanngggh. Yeah. Ow.” Getting up was only slightly more uncomfortable than staying still, and considerably less embarrassing. She began pulling plants and dirt clods out of her joints. This was going to take all night.

Finally Jazz took pity on her and showed her how to do the static repeller-field shiver, which usually knocked most debris out of all the nooks and crannies. 

“Although that doesn’t always work, either,” Jazz said, sneaking a sidelong look over to where Prime stood at the hangar’s main door. “One time Optimus got a tree stuck in his—”

Watch it. Jazz had a tendency to elaborate on the facts of the incident.

Over the carrier channel, Bumblebee was already giggling. Bee could be relied upon to start laughing whenever this particular subject came up.

“—stuck in his, um, shoulder. He got most of it out, but there was this one splinter still wedged in there, and Mikaela had to go climb all the way up him like a monkey to get it out.”

Borealis stared at him, not sure whether to laugh or express disbelief. Or sympathy. 

“You just made the newbie face,” Arcee told her. Borealis laughed then, glad to have a clear course of action. 

“Any landing you can walk away from,” Prowl murmured wryly, and returned to his station inside. Ratchet followed him until reaching Prime, half in the warm light from inside, half in cool starlit shadow.

Her memories, her personality, if you will, may be human, Ratchet tight-beamed to Optimus, thinking of her panicked transformation. But her instincts are ours! 

Is that your way of saying that you and I make good looking offspring?

Ratchet sputtered – too many retorts struggling for use of his vocal processors at once. Prime began to laugh. Just a quiet chuckle at first, but Ratchet kept sputtering for so long, and was emitting such wild frequencies across the EM band, he laughed harder, a rolling basso profundo, until he had to lean on the frame of the hangar door.

“It’s not often you’re caught that flat-footed, my friend. I needed that.”

“Hmph. Yes, you did.”

Chapter Text

2016 – May

On a day when Lennox and Epps were released from their other duties, and Sam and Mikaela both had time as well with their respective Masters exams over, they were invited out to a far corner of Nellis air base to meet one of the newest Autobot arrivals. Bumblebee and Ironhide pulled up to a large, camouflage-net-covered shelter. The humans got out, but the Autobots remained in vehicle mode. 

“This is Borealis,” Bumblebee said simply. “She’ll be taking over some of Jazz’s reconnaissance duties.” Ironhide made a grumpy noise, but the humans didn’t seem to notice as they approached the big, dark blue jet. 

“Hello,” Borealis said. Her voice was nothing like Ixchel’s had been.

“Wow,” said Sam. “An airplane, huh? Good idea, right? Can’t let the Decepticons have all the fun.” She wasn’t as big as a jumbo jet or anything, but she was a pretty good size, he thought, and wondered how tall she was in robot form.

Lennox squinted. “Huh. All right, not familiar with that one.”

“Yeah,” Mikaela agreed, biting her lip. “Kind of looks like…an SR-71?” Sam ducked his head, feeling outclassed. He had his graduate degree in Political Science practically in the bag, but he still didn’t know much about cars or other vehicles. Mikaela liked to explain things to him so much he didn’t want to spoil her fun. Borealis remained silent.

Epps took a leisurely walk all the way around her, scrutinizing every angle and seam closely. “Nope,” he said, grinning. “She looks a little like an old Blackbird, but she ain’t one. You look closer, man; and I don’t mean just the fancy paint job. Remember the Aurora project?”

‘Bobby, that was a myth,” Lennox scoffed.

Epps gazed right into the nearest port, that in an SR-71 would have held a camera, and patted her chines. “You a sneaky girl.”

“Not sneaky,” she answered, a grin in her voice. “Stealthy.” She transformed.

“Daaaaaaaamn,” said Epps. “And I thought Mega-dude was tall.”

“Pfft. I’m 1.6 meters taller than he was,” Borealis told him.

Sam grinned. Borealis looked to him like she could break Megatron over her knee. Or at least put him over her knee and give him a good spanking. He had trouble keeping a straight face at that image. Starscream? Starscream was toast. And even though it had been more than two years since his friend Dr. Chase had been killed by the Seeker leader, that thought made Sam glad. 

Borealis leaned forward and resumed her Aurora-like jet form. She popped the canopy. “Anyone up for a ride? Around the world in eighty minutes. More or less. Okay, more like two and a half, three hours.”

“You know it,” Epps grinned.

“Can…can I come too?,” Sam asked. He’d never done much flying, but he’d come to trust Autobot driving more than his own. “Looks like it’s a two-man cockpit, right?”

“You betcha,” Borealis answered. “Go with Epps and get suited up. Full LEO gear, Epps.”

“Hot damn, baby!” Epps said, clapping Sam on the shoulder. “Come on, Sam, you gonna be a rocket man.” A standard jeep (not Hound) was parked nearby for their use – less conspicuous than tooling around the base in a bright yellow Camaro.

Lennox and Mikaela shook their heads and went to sit in Ironhide with the doors open, breaking out a Nintendo DS5 and a laptop, respectively. It was a mild day, for May – not too hot even this late in the morning. Bumblebee pointedly played music from Top Gun, making Lennox groan. 

“I’m sorry,” Borealis said. “Should I make it a shorter hop? It takes me a long time to turn around, and I thought it would be more fun to circumnavigate the globe.”

“No, no,” Lennox and Mikaela said in unison. “It’s fine.”

“I want a turn, too,” Mikaela said, smiling. “Since you’re going to the trouble. No short-changing the tourists.” 

“And if I don’t come back with photos, Sarah and Annie will make me go to bed without dinner,” Lennox pointed out. Photos of Earth from 80,000 feet would net him all kinds of Cool Daddy points. Although Annie would want to go up herself. Maybe when she was older…in another ten or twenty years. Borealis would certainly still be around, Lennox thought. Unless the Decepticons got her. 

Epps and Sam came back about half an hour later, trailing hoses and weighed down with what looked like a lot of astronaut gear. Epps was drilling Sam on proper use and emergency procedures. Sam was paying close attention but looked a little overwhelmed.

Mikaela got up and walked a slow circle around her husband. “That’s kinda hot on you,” she said, trailing a finger around the seal of Sam’s helmet. 

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” She pointed the same finger at Borealis’ nose. “No crashing! No fighting!”

“Absolutely not,” Borealis agreed. 

Lennox helped Epps roll the ladder up and Epps and Sam clambered into the cockpit, strapping themselves in as Lennox moved the ladder away and Borealis closed the canopy. They got their air, cooling and comm lines plugged in and closed their helmets. She pulled out in reverse and taxied toward the nearest runway. Epps put his hands on his knees, then crossed his arms, then put his hands on his knees again.

“You can hang on to the stick if you want, Epps,” Borealis said. “I won’t be offended.” Epps was a pilot himself, so it gave him something to do with his hands and seemed to make him more comfortable. She could override anything he did anyway. 

“You need me to talk to the tower?” he asked.

“I can give you the channel if you like, but Master Sergeant McHenry already gave me clearance for takeoff.” Jazz had instructed her on all the finer points of human military communications. It was only sensible, since she was no fonder of mid-air collisions than any human pilot.

“Oh, all right.” Epps felt embarrassed for a moment. Mirage often put himself at Epps’ disposal in the same way Ironhide did for Lennox and his family, and Epps usually sat in the driver’s seat so Mirage wouldn’t have to bother with a hologram. This shouldn’t be any different. But a jet wasn’t a car. 

“Let the Autobot drive,” Sam squeaked from behind him. Borealis lined herself up at the end of the runway, and they heard and felt her engines power up. It wasn’t a normal jet sound, and the glow out her vents was an unnatural blue. 

“Sorry.”

Somewhere in her CPU, Borealis grinned. “No problem whatsoever. Hang on.” 

She kept her acceleration to 2 g’s – the space shuttle used 3, but humans found that uncomfortable. Sam and Epps were whooping and hollering already as they were pressed back into the seats. Once airborne, she headed straight up, aiming for 50,000 meters in about 60 seconds. 

“Welcome to the stratopause, Sam,” Borealis said as she leveled out. “Full stealth mode engaged.”

“Thanks.” Sam gazed down and out – for the first time seeing the curvature of his home planet with his own eyes. 

“We’re above the ozone layer,” Epps explained, to give Sam some reference. “But below where the shuttle flies.” 

“Gotcha.” They were already over the Pacific. Dark, dark blue, like Borealis herself, only cloud-streaked, and achingly bright where the sun struck. Homeworld, Sam thought. But one planet of many that held life. His eyes drank in every swirl of cloud and crinkle of island, even as his thoughts spun out into the wider, wilder galaxy.

“They’re over Japan,” Bee reported to those waiting on the ground, a little over an hour later.

Lennox sat up. “Damn! That’s…Mach 10, right?”

“Is she really that fast?” Mikaela asked.

“Yes,” Ironhide answered grudgingly. “Faster than anyone we or the Decepticons have without interstellar drives.”

“You don’t seem too impressed, buddy,” Lennox said, rapping lightly on Ironhide’s door frame.

“Not really, no. Size she is and she picks a recon vehicle? Those little plasma cannon pea-shooters are all right for punching holes in things, but her aim needs a lot of work.”

“Ah.” Aim was important when your effective weapons range was measured in hundreds of miles. 

“What was she back on Cybertron, then?” Mikaela asked. 

Ironhide almost paused too long, before grasping at what he thought was an inspired lie. “Cargo plane.”

“Well, recon’s a step up,” Lennox said.

“She hasn’t built a weapon mode yet,” Bumblebee pointed out. “Give her a chance, ‘Hide.”

Mikaela stretched and considered this. “So, she’s pretty young for one of you guys I take it?”

“Yes. Very young,” Bee admitted. 

“How young?” Mikaela asked, grinning, sensing Bee’s odd reluctance but not knowing the cause.

The lie they’d concocted bit into him, but he answered smoothly. “She was among the last to be brought online before we lost the cube.”

Lennox rubbed his forehead. “Oh, well, that young, huh? She knows how to land, right?” He wanted Epps back in one piece, he still needed him.

“Um,” said Bee. Borealis had never tried to land with passengers before. “Yes, she knows how to land.” He popped his trunk so Mikaela could retrieve the picnic lunch they’d packed. Food made for a good distraction, he thought. 

“Nice try, Bee,” Mikaela muttered, kicking at one of his tires. “She CAN land, right?”

“I would not have let Sam get in if I thought he would be harmed,” Bee said, mustering something like an offended tone. 

Mikaela closed his trunk and patted it. “I thought so. Just wanted to be sure.”

Two more hours passed, with occasional travel reports coming in via Bumblebee. They were over Russia, they were over Europe, the Atlantic, the Eastern seaboard… And finally; “She’s coming in now,” Bee said. Don’t break the humans, Lissi, he reminded her. 

Borealis transmitted a noise suspiciously like a raspberry. “Stealth mode disengaged. Cleared for landing.”

Epps, in the pilot’s seat, talking to the tower with a big grin on his face, still had his hands on the stick. It was like a good luck charm, giving Borealis more confidence. She had the runway locked on, her engines were powering down smoothly, reconfigured back to their sub-Mach 3 alignment. Sam was too awed by viewing Earth from 50,000 meters to speak; she in no way wanted to jar him out of his happiness. 

Landing gear down. Epps gripped the stick tightly for a second, then relaxed, keeping only his fingertips on it. Borealis felt a lively sort of serenity course through her circuits. She knew exactly where she was, how fast she was going, what the air was doing and where the ground was. Nothing simpler. Sam didn’t notice they had touched down until the nose wheels settled and she began to taxi back to the shelter where the others waited for them.

“Careful now,” Epps warned them as Borealis popped the canopy and Lennox brought the stairs over. “She’s still hot from the friction.” The exchange of crews was therefore done gingerly.

Bee, however, transformed and hugged her nose, laying his head against her portside chine and patting her with a gentle clunk-clunk. You didn’t break my human, he said.Thank you. 

Shoo!
 Her forearms made up her nose, so she jounced one hand loose and plinked him on the helmet. That was my best landing ever and I recorded it, so there.

Chapter Text

2016 - May

It was inevitable that the location of the Cybertronian Embassy would become known to the Cons. Neither faction had ever relied for long on the secrecy of permanent or semi-permanent bases. Fortifications and defensive weaponry - always changing, as did their personal armament – was more to be depended on. 

Over the past seven years, things had fallen into a sort of stalemate with Starscream’s Seeker phalanx and Scrapper’s gestalt team. Human forces outweighed their technological superiority by sheer numbers, let alone the considered help they got from the Autobots. Then Onslaught had come, with what was left of his team, along with Astrotrain, Octane and Blitzwing, tipping the scales again in the Decepticons’ favor. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“Go,” Red told him. “Teletraan and I will hold the perimeter with the turrets. They need you out there. I’ll seal the base as soon as you’re clear.”

Prowl hesitated only a nanosecond, then turned and bolted out the door. Red flicked a camera in his direction, and the moment Prowl’s heels cleared the hangar door, everything slammed down tight.

One of what Sam called Prime’s battle gnats zipped around Prowl’s head once and sped off. Prime knew he was in play. Prowl assessed the glittering constellations of engaging and disengaging fights, even as he charged the nearest Con. As a single fighter, Prowl knew he was no greater an asset than any other, except for this battle – his first melee on Earth, where the fierce, un-Autobot-ness of his attacks would catch these Cons off guard, as the Twins had done seven years ago. But it would only work once. Butylpotassium pellets raked fire and smoke across the air and made wounds that only grew deeper over time, piercing Decepticon armor at pivotal joints. It would be a long time before he aimed directly for spark chambers again. The nearest Con went down screaming but alive. 

Clawless now, he had adjusted his battle programming, curling his hands into protective fists beneath his forearm guns. He moved fast, charging individual Cons directly, keeping up a constant rate of fire. He was aware of Prime calling for the human forces to fall back. MEADS air support was merely annoying the Seekers but it did keep Starscream and his wingmates off their backs for a few minutes. 

The Decepticons, rather sensibly, abandoned one-on-one fighting whenever they could gang up on single opponents. Ironhide loved this, setting his cannons to cone dispersal so he could pound multiple targets. He was giggling. Tracks and Smokescreen were back-to-back, fighting as though they were dancing, surrounded by foes but undaunted and Prowl judged them capable of felling their opponents in two minutes, given the current pattern. The Twins were pounding at Blitzwing’s tank mode, aiming for the treads, keeping him too busy to turn his considerable firepower on anyone else. Prowl focused on Ratchet, Bluestreak and Windcharger, who were all going to be in separate difficulties in three to five seconds.

Ratchet was tough, and was therefore taking a lot of damage, unslowed, almost heedless as he laid about him with saws and railgun. An unusual but effective combination, Prowl thought. The problem was that Ratchet was taking on Long Haul, Scavenger and Hook all at once. Prowl stilled for a moment, firing carefully from the width of the battlefield, alkali pellets melting Long Haul’s left knee, giving Ratchet just enough opening to fend off Scavenger’s tail. 

Bluestreak was trying to get to a position atop a mesa from which his sniping skills would be put to best use, but Soundwave’s pack of symbionts had other ideas. Prowl transformed and sped straight for the mob of them, scattering symbionts and chirping an encoded burst to Bluestreak not to move for a second. A shot – from Mirage, by the disruptor signature – blasted Ravage off all four feet. Given a moment to recover thus, Bluestreak found his center, picking off targets with his usual precision. 

Prowl transformed back to robot mode. The Seekers had downed two more PAC-4 missiles and were in play against the Autobots again, Prime having called the Air Force off. Despite the new prototypes, the human jets were still no match for two Seeker trines at once. 

Turning, reassessing, Prowl saw Windcharger gamely take on Mixmaster solo. Unfortunately, Scrapper had temporarily shaken off Cliffjumper and Arcee and was closing with them. 

I have Windcharger, Prime chirped to Prowl. Target Starscream, keep him busy. Short bursts of communication facilitated by Jazz were all they could manage under Soundwave’s dampening blanket transmission, but it was enough. The Autobots had long ago learned to trust one another. Prowl didn’t need to acknowledge the order, merely obey it. 

And gladly he did. His alkali pellets were worse than useless against an airborne opponent in atmosphere, but Prowl had other weapons. The missile-launchers on his shoulders tracked Starscream’s swooping flight precisely, Prowl’s peculiar mode of predictive software fully engaged. He fired. The missiles splintered – Starscream couldn’t evade them all, and only a few needed to hit. Microscopic drones unfolded from each splinter, wrapping hard little arms around every available surface, taking more and more substance from the mass they were attached to. Starscream howled in pain and fury, and his distraction enabled Wheeljack to draw a clear bead on him, too. The inventor’s disruptor mine hit the Seeker with an audible thunkZZZT. Starscream convulsed and fell for a dozen long seconds before his repair systems recovered. 

Though the Autobots didn’t hear the encoded transmission, Starscream screeched for a retreat, and – covered by Soundwave’s disorienting sonic attacks – they gathered their wounded and fled. Prime sent a parting volley across Starscream’s aft. 

Prowl was given a wide berth – perhaps at Prime’s order – as the Autobots with their wounded rolled for the cool shade of the hangar as Red unsealed and opened the doors. But the grins cast his way as they passed him more than made up for it. Remaining outside, slipping around a rough corner of stone into shadow, he paced, clasping his hands together – carefully, carefully – head bowed, his fierce attention directed inward. 

Easing his battle systems down wasn’t as difficult as he’d feared. This had been a straightforward fight, aimed at defense. Not routing a handful of pathetic stragglers from some dark, off the starlanes den; not facing down a huge, ravenous battle fleet. The defensive programs were older, but still there in his cores. It would be all right.

It felt as though his spark contracted sharply then expanded; because it was to Optimus Prime he would now report, not Sentinel, and the fact that no-one on either side had been deactivated would be received with a nod of satisfaction rather than… It was better to focus on the present. Much better. He let his hands fall loose and relaxed to his sides. Tipping his head back, he filled his optics with this world’s blue, blue sky, before returning to the interior of the embassy.

Well done, Prowl, Prime transmitted, very gently. 

Thank you, sir.

Chapter Text

2016 - May

Maggie had a cold. Hound was fascinated. The file Ratchet gave him about how the human immune system was battling the rhinoviral invader was neat, but didn’t address how it made the human involved miserable. How she just wanted to curl up and sleep, but couldn’t without chemical assistance because of the way fluids shifted in her head and throat, and the reflexes that were trying to keep her delicate lungs clear. Nor was there any mention of how humans persevered despite the internal battle, swallowing decongestants and getting on with their duties. 

Hound crouched nearby, watching Maggie tap away at the computer keyboard. She sniffled, sneezed, coughed, snorted, blew mucus out of her nasal openings onto clothlike paper tissues, and drank liter after liter of lemony iced tea to combat dehydration and the rising ambient temperature. Springtime here in the desert meant increasing heat more than flowers. 

“Can I get you anything?” Hound asked, as she leaned back in the chair and rubbed her hair out of her face, catching her breath after a particularly strenuous bout of coughing. 

“Ice cream,” Maggie rasped. “Just plain vanilla would be great.” She’d already checked both fridges, and they were out. All right, she’d eaten it all. 

Mir? Would you mind-? Hound would go himself, but he didn’t want to leave in case Maggie wanted or needed something else.

Mirage sprang into vehicle mode and was out the hangar door without bothering to answer. Anything to get away from the unfortunate human making all those incredibly disgusting noises! The people at the closest 7-11 were used to cars and trucks who drove up and asked to be loaded with various goods and ran credit card numbers remotely without being asked, so he wouldn’t even have to bother with a holoform. He’d get several gallons, then find some excuse to join Cliffjumper out on patrol. 

Thanks, Mir, Hound tight-beamed, with an especially fond glyph, when Mirage returned. Mirage flared his optics brighter at him in a smile. 

Holding the plastic bags with his fingertips, Mirage offered them to Maggie at his arm’s fullest extension. He just didn’t want to knock over the flimsy partition around the human scaled area created by industrial shelving. “I acquired one container of chocolate chip, Ms. Madsen. They only had three of vanilla.”

Chapter Text

2016 – June

Jazz leaned around the corner of Ratchet’s workshop. “You done with that component the Build Team needs?”

“It’s there, on the table next to the plasma welder,” Ratchet said absently, already working on something else. The Build Team – one of the Autobot groups who had landed the same year as Inferno and Red Alert – were in Yakutsk, building a bridge over the mighty Lena river. It had to span a huge distance, and stand up against both solid ice during the winter and ice floes in spring. The rail bridge built in 2010 was 80 km upriver, and didn’t connect the burgeoning city with the nearest highway, which was a few kilometers to the south. The bridge the Build Team had begun would be a smart bridge, which could adapt plow-shaped armor on its supports to deal with changing conditions. They therefore needed a fairly independent brain. Teletraan could run the mechanisms in an emergency, but the Autobots preferred redundancy in their structures. And the Build Team’s leader, Wedge, wanted that part as soon as possible.

Jazz noted the cyber brain was already wrapped in protective silicon and aerogel foam for transport, now all they had to do was get it there, and Jazz knew just the mech for the job.

Borealis was in the human-scaled area in the main hangar (as much of her as would fit, anyway), playing ping-pong with Mikaela. Ironhide thought the game, with the ball as such a tiny target, would be good for her aim. Mikaela so far could still win about half their matches. If Ironhide had hair, he’d be tearing it out.

“Hey, Mikaela,” Jazz said, waving as he came over to stand at the net. “Lissi-lu, when you’re done getting your aft handed to you, I have a job for you.”

“Aaaagh! Don’t distract me!” Borealis was lying on her ventral surface, wielding a paddle with two fine manipulators extended from her fingertips, trying to keep track of the tiny little hollow ball, while Mikaela put loads of English into her play, holding nothing back since she didn’t have to worry about injuring her opponent, even when the ball got lodged between two of Borealis’ jaw spars. She was crazy fast; just what the big mech needed. 

As Jazz watched, the ball ricocheted off Borealis’ wrist chine and went whizzing off into the hangar. Mikaela whooped and struck a victory pose. “Fine, Jazz, just take my favorite ping-pong victim off on a mission.”

Borealis groaned and rolled to her feet, taking one step to retrieve the ball. “Okay, sorry, what did you need, Jazz?”

“I need you to take this,” he held up the component package, “to Yakutsk, Russia. Wedge’s got his torsion bars in a twist, wants this thing yesterday. And you are faster than UPS.”

Borealis took the package carefully. She did have a small payload bay. A bot the size of Bumblebee or Jazz could fit inside, but it wouldn’t be comfortable. And an unprotected human would freeze or fry, depending on her altitude and speed.

“Roger dodger old codger.” She saluted, walked outside and onto the access road. “Thanks for the games, Mikaela! I’ll be back in a few hours, rematch if you’re still here?”

“You bet!” Mikaela waved back, and stayed to watch beside Jazz. Borealis’ takeoffs were cool to watch. The landings were a different kind of exciting. 

Backing up about a hundred meters – which doesn’t take long when your stride length is seventeen and a half meters – Borealis transformed, engaged her engines and took off. She wasn’t too fussed about grabbing for airspeed or altitude right away. She was in contact with the FAA as usual, cleared for a nice easy ascent to her 50,000 meter cruising altitude heading on a long northeastern curve around the planet.

Wedge sent Hightower to meet her at the Yakutsk Airport. (The smaller Magan Airport didn’t have a runway long enough for her to land as a jet, and its one runway was dirt, though well maintained.) She set down on runway 05L, which at 3400 meters was plenty. The Build Team had upgraded the surface and built a third runway for the city at a significant discount. 

That was quick, Hightower said as his hook retrieved the package from her cargo bay.Thanks. Borealis had a holographic pilot displayed, looking rather like Epps. Though the Russian authorities and city inhabitants knew perfectly well the nature of the Autobots helping them, Borealis was under instructions from Prime to maintain as much of a low profile as one could, when one looked like a black ops plane and pretty much couldn’t be mistaken for anything else. 

Anything else I can do for you guys? she asked. 

No, thank you. There are plentiful natural resources here for us to utilize, as well as considerable if primitive industrial infrastructure. Give Ratchet our thanks. Hightower placed the package in his cab and waved his hook at her as he motored off to join his team at the bridge site. 

Will do! Borealis was just as pleased, because she’d done a little research online and there was a remarkable area of natural formations some kilometers upstream on the Lena that she wanted to see while she was here. How best to manage that when she couldn’t hover very well in full jet mode? And she wasn’t supposed to transform to robot mode except in an emergency. Well, she’d just have to make do as a jet.

Once she took off she engaged full stealth mode, staying low to the hard deck and only a little over stall speed, which was still rather fast for what she had in mind. Upstream she went, keeping to the middle of the big river, just high enough not to make a big rooster tail in the water. Ah, there they were. The Pillars of Lena – strange rock formations like a series of columns, marching in remarkable regularity just a few meters from the water’s edge. They became more irregular, but more fanciful as she went farther south. She took digital images and holo scans the entire way; she and anyone else who wanted to could review them later in detail. 

Then it was up, up and away, heading west for home, high around the curve of the world, up where the stars sang clear. She loved flying. When she touched down on the base road it was evening, but Mikaela was there for the weekend, watching old movies with Jazz, since Sam was away on a business trip. She was ready for a ping-pong rematch as soon as Court Jester was over. Borealis went back outside to let her armor cool and upload her stills and vids and holos of the Lena Pillars onto Teletraan, and listened to the stars singing.

Chapter Text

2016 - July

A dull boom sounded through the chambers and halls of the base. Sam looked up from the video game. “Jeez, what’d Wheeljack blow up this time?”

Prowl, walking across the hangar to Prime’s office, paused behind Sam’s couch. “That wasn’t Wheeljack,” he said thoughtfully, analyzing the sonic and impact vibrations. 

“Borealis missed the mesa-top again,” Bee sighed.

“Ah,” said Prowl, and continued on his way.

“I can’t believe you let me fly with her,” Sam muttered to Bumblebee. “I thought you were supposed to be my guardian. She totally can’t land!”

“She can land. On a runway, in jet mode. She’s trying to transform in midair and land on her feet, like the Seekers do.” Except Borealis was considerably more massive than the Seekers, so the maneuver in question was quite tricky. Bee presumed. Either that or she was trying to sculpt the outcrop just to the north of the base mesa by crashing into it twelve times a week. Performance art. 

“Fragging Seekers,” Sam growled almost silently. Bee heard him, though. 

“That is IT! That is absolutely the last time!” Metallic stomping came down the stem corridor leading into the hangar. Red Alert emerged from the archway striding with purpose out the door, turning abruptly left toward the north. 

Bee and Sam exchanged a look then scrambled to their feet. Bee scooped Sam up to his shoulder and ran to follow Red Alert. Ironhide was just driving in and transformed to join them, idly curious. 

Peeking around one of the weathered edges of the mesa, they saw Red had climbed up on a boulder in order to lecture Borealis at her head-height. She was sitting, sprawling really, in robot mode, one hand feeling for imaginary dents in her helm. 

“…It is completely irresponsible behavior! If you can’t be bothered to take your own safety into consideration, you at least ought to think about the safety of others. Are you paying any attention at all to whether anyone might be in the way of these landings of yours? The humans are very small and give off only very weak electromagnetic signatures, you know. Look at that debris field – every time you hit, you’re knocking off loose rock and grit, and your momentum is imparting a great deal of inertia to them. Someone could get hit, and not all of those rocks are pebbles.”

Borealis gaped at him, motionless.

“In addition, the sound it makes when you crash is exceedingly annoying. We can all hear it through the stone, it transmits perfectly clearly I’ll have you know. Completely disrupting everyone’s activities. Even Bumblebee and Sam were asking what happened, and it’s certainly not fair to blame Wheeljack for everything when you’re making more than your fair share of the noise.”

He hopped down off his improvised podium. “And if you were looking for ways to make other people worry about you, you might as well find something more usefully hazardous to do, rather than just crashing into innocent rock formations. What do you think you are, anyway? Ordnance?”

He turned his back on her and stalked back into the base, completely ignoring Bee, Sam and Ironhide, though he must have spotted them as he passed. They ventured out and approached Borealis, who was still sitting there, rather stunned, and for more than one reason. 

Borealis stared at his retreating back. “Wow. He’s a little…tight-wound.”

Bumblebee looked at her keenly, deciding whether to impart information or not. It was personal, but it would help her – and Sam – understand Red much better. He chirped the question to Ironhide, who only shrugged. “He’s doing amazingly well, considering,” Bee said finally.

“Oh dear,” said Borealis. There was always something wrong to say, something more she didn’t understand. It was hard to catch up with people who’d known each other for so long. 

Patting her knee, Bee smiled up at her. “I’ll explain. There are special teams, from four to six members, usually, called gestalts.”

“The Build Team?” Sam asked. “And the Bullet Trains in Japan?”

Bee nodded. “Exactly. Individual mechs who physically and mentally combine to form much larger robots. They’re very powerful, but it takes enormous amounts of energy to maintain. They are also vulnerable, because if one teammate is damaged, the others are often so worried and affected they lose much of their ability to function separately. Red Alert was once part of such a team, though his name was Flare, then.”

“The first battle of Polyhex was one we lost. Red’s – Flare’s – gestalt, Drastic, was directly hit by Megatron and knocked into separation.” Bumblebee’s optics unfocused as he accessed old memories, both his own and others’. “Ferrum died first. Welder and Parhelion were killed trying to pull Megatron off Ferrum’s body. Flare’s right arm and leg had been severed in the blast and Infusion was trying to get him clear. Had we arrived a few minutes earlier she might have made it. As it was, Flare was the only one left alive, and he had watched – felt – his team die around him. It was a long time before he was at all functional again. Once he was, he changed his name to Red Alert.”

Sam stared at him. “Don’t you guys have any war stories at all that aren’t incredibly depressing?”

“No,” said Ironhide.

“Well,” said Bumblebee, “there was that one time on that sticky planet where Ironhide and Thundercracker—”

“Stop stop STOP!”

Sam and Borealis exchanged grins. “Yeah, okay, now we need to hear all about that,” Sam said.

“No you don’t. There’s nothing to hear.” Ironhide rumbled, crossing his arms. 

“Later,” Bumblebee told Sam. Borealis snickered.

“Not if you know what’s good for you,” Ironhide promised and got up, transforming to resume his original course into the base.

Borealis leaned her elbows on her knees, which was a little tricky as she had pointy bits in the way in both places. “Would it help or make things worse if I go apologize to Red Alert?”

Bee considered. “An apology might be such a novelty coming from anyone but Inferno he might short-circuit. But…making the attempt at least would be kind.” 

She nodded and stood, careful not to shake dirt and rocks off onto Bee and Sam, and they all walked back inside. 

Borealis continued down the stem corridor while Bee and Sam resumed their gaming. Apologies had once been difficult, she reflected. The weight of embarrassment had been harder to bear when her body was so much smaller, and fragile. Now, the simple fear of the potential of physical harm had been removed, although certainly there were still the Decepticons. They seemed a remote threat, really. Her assignments were such that she was rarely close to them, spying out their activities from afar. She was currently one of the biggest singular Cybertronians on the planet. Maybe that didn’t matter to anyone else, but she realized it did matter to her.

“Red Alert?” She peered around the doorway into his office. For someone so security conscious, he rarely had the enormous blast door shut. Red didn’t look her way, concentrating on the mist screens. She couldn’t come in without obscuring about a third of them so she crouched in the doorway. “I’m sorry about all the crashing,” she said. “I should figure out a smarter way to practice, you’re right. And I should have remembered how sensitive your audials are. So. Um. Sorry, okay? And I won’t do that any more.”

“Thank you,” Red murmured, one optic flickering in her direction, though his attention was still on his watchful duty. Borealis smiled and withdrew.

Chapter Text


The scientific equations we seek are the poetry of nature.
--Chin Ning Yang



2016 - July

“Oh. Shit. Oops.”

“You just aggroed another mob, didn’t you.”

“No! Um. Yes. Oooooh, they’re all shooting at meeeeee—Uh, anyone got a wakie?”

“Hello, for the twentieth time, I can rez you! Just lemme get out of the melee and I’ll teleport you. Jeez!”

“Who’s hitting me? Ow! Damn Gunslingers! I hate these guys.”

“Ok, I got the hostage, watch out for ambushes.”

“Alex, we’re not done with this second mob that Glen so cleverly brought over to us! Now we’re going to have – oh crap.”

“Fear not! I have aggro. …Oops.”

“What you have, Maggie, is a face full of floor.”

“Jaegers incoming.”

“Damn vacuum cleaners on legs…”

“There’s a lot of them. We didn’t clear that other hallway.”

“Yeah, looks like ALL of them are coming. Run, Nathan, run!”

“Running!”

Maggie Madsen leaned back in her chair and stretched. She was already dead, so it was just a matter of waiting for the others to either drop or get out and regroup. Nathan Zheng was their lone healer, and he was sensibly running – he’d be able to teleport them all out and rez them if there was a team wipe. Still, it was kind of relaxing to play a MMORPG straight these days. When one or more of the Autobots got on, the NPCs all of a sudden got significantly smarter, strange sets of villains the game developers hadn’t actually developed appeared in large mobs, and team wipes became de rigueur. She wondered whether the robots were trying to teach the humans better tactics or if that was just their way of playing a game that was to them about as sophisticated as hopscotch or jacks. 

As usual, the LAN party was at Nathan’s apartment since he was the only one with enough room for all seven of them to set up their computers, though they had to use Glen Whitmann’s folding table for four of them. 

“It’s almost 2 o’clock,” Alex Engels pointed out, squirming in his rickety chair. “Can we take a nacho break or something here before we tackle this room again?”

“Ooh! Good idea!” Glen jumped up and headed for the kitchen. Nathan got all the dead players teleported to a safe section of hallway and rezzed Maggie. It took about six minutes for that power to recharge, so he got up and followed Glen while the others stood and stretched or alt-tabbed out of the game window to putter with other things on their computers. 

“Nathan, there’s another equation up,” Martin Williams called out. 

“Yeah?” Alex hunched forward again, scratching his beard, skimming to the SLAC physics forum site. Nathan had gotten both Alex and Martin hooked on these weird equations that had started popping up in April that year. They looked simple enough, but those with the mathematical horsepower to parse them had realized they were pushing boundaries into new theoretical territory. The user name was “entelechy451,” but no one had been able to track the ISP, and the user gave no information but the equations themselves, ignoring all requests for explanations or clarifications. It was beginning to cause a bit of a stir in the high-energy physics community. “Is that one Princeton asshat still trying to call it a hoax?”

Martin made a dismissive noise. “Of course. But some guy from CERN just delivered the smackdown.” 

“What are you trolls babbling about?” Ben Wood asked, fishing around in his personal mini-cooler for another beer. He hadn’t been part of Maggie’s team, like Alex, Martin and Nathan, when they’d discovered Frenzy’s hack of the US defense computers, nor had he been roped into the action like Glen. He’d never met an Autobot, but wanted to. Badly. 

Mark Mullein, the other Autobot-outsider, chimed in, “They’re fanboy-ing these anonymous equations. Math orgasms.” He peered sideways at Maggie. “It’s one of them, isn’t it.”

“I thought Optimus didn’t want anyone sharing any more technology?” Glen said, carrying in a TV tray loaded with various dips and chips. 

“They’re not,” Nathan pointed out. He set a big platter of nachos on the folding table in the center where most of them could reach but inadvertent slops wouldn’t be as likely to hit keyboards. “Whoever’s posting these equations is only a couple of steps ahead of what people are already doing. Maybe they’re critical steps, we don’t know, but it’s still a big jump from string theory to practical technological applications.”

“Not that big a jump any more,” Ben said. 

“Wheeljack?” Martin offered. 

Maggie shrugged and snagged a handful of Sun Chips. “Who knows. Probably. I haven’t even been able to trace him to Teletraan, and neither has Glen, so…” 

“Yeah,” Glen said, rather sadly. “I can get Teletraan to talk to me sometimes, but not even I can hack him.” The Autobots’ AI had been brought down like seeds from their ship, hidden in an orbit beyond Mars. They had implanted him across the human internet, like a wild vine growing on a lattice. He was massively parallel and distributed, decentralized – and any of the Autobots could communicate directly with him at need. 

The UN had reluctantly approved of Teletraan’s dispersal, even though he could access the human internet but the reverse was not true. Most of the Cybertronians could do as much anyway, so objecting to it now was closing the barn door. Teletraan’s nanites self-assembled, so there was no cost in energy or infrastructure to any human agency. As he grew, he upgraded the human internet structures. Not overmuch, but everyone who had already been connected noticed much faster speeds in both directions. New hookups were made easier by adaptive equipment that was both forward and backwardly compatible with other systems. 

Nathan rezzed Glen and tabbed out of the game to check the forum. “Huh.” Someone had plugged the first mystery equation somehow into a “singing” Tesla coil and put up a video of the resultant “music.” It was weird, but oddly melodic. Superstring symphony. 

“Do you really understand that stuff?” Ben asked.

“Not really,” Nathan replied amiably. “But reading the comments from the people who do understand it is interesting.” Some mathematicians felt the equations were like lines of poetry, one professor even going so far as to liken them to love poetry. Sonnets written in adoration of the universe. Nathan would never admit it to his friends, but he liked that idea. It was heartening to watch people engaged in hopeful play like this, when the rest of the world only seemed to focus on whatever devastating attack the Seekers and Constructicons had perpetrated this week. 

“Hey this looks like a Lorenz manifold!” Mark said, apropos of nothing, holding up the elaborately twisted and ruffled potato chip in question.

“Yeah, not really,” Ben scoffed.

“It’s close, dude,” Martin said, leaning around his widescreen monitor to ogle the chip.

“So how do we know it’s not one of those other ones, the badasses, just dicking us around?” Ben said, looking pointedly at Glen because Maggie had slopped dip on her shirt and was wiping it off, which was distracting. 

“Even if it is, the equations so far have been working out,” Martin said.

“The Decepticons wouldn’t help us,” Maggie said, shaking her head. “We’re target practice to them and that’s about it.”

“Oh sure,” Ben continued. “And the Autobots are all sweetness and Boy Scouting. They could be dicking with us too. Leading the scientists the wrong way, keeping us stunted so they can control us easier.”

Maggie didn’t bother rolling her eyes. Ben had been on about that before. Frequently. “I, for one, embrace our robotic overlords,” she said, taking another half-hearted swig of the last caramel Frap. 

“Uh, huh,” said Ben. “Would that be embrace in a literal sense?”

“I’ve seen you snuggling with Jazz,” Glen said, mostly keeping the jealousy out of his voice.

“Jazz is a very snuggly bot,” Maggie sniffed, very carefully not mentioning Hound and his fascinating talent with holograms. “However. No. And no. Talk about I/O port incompatibility!”

“Somehow I get the feeling you would find a way to make that work for you,” Martin summoned the temerity to mutter. Maggie threw her mouse wrist-rest at him. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Borealis was enjoying herself immensely. Ixchel had been pursuing the right course in some things, but like the rest of human science, had made some interestingly incorrect assumptions about others. The universe, for one thing, was much older than humans thought, but it would be hard to explain why until they made several more advances. In any case, it was a vast temptation to reply to the forum queries, to explain just a little more, to join in all the clever jokes. But she had promised Prime to keep to a bare minimum. It was easier to make the rules for herself clear-cut. Post only the carefully chosen equations. Nothing else, and no more than one per week. And let the humans make of them what they would. It was no more than what they would have learned from Megatron if he hadn’t been revived.

Chapter Text

2016 – August

“This is ridiculous,” Cliffjumper muttered. “Ironhide was right. That’s the dumbest weapon mode I’ve ever seen.”

“Maybe,” Arcee said. “But if she catches you with one of those things she’ll cut you right in half. Be careful, guys.”

Borealis’ weapon mode involved twin blades like enormous scythes, mounted to the outside of her forearms near the elbow. They could pivot forward or 180 degrees back, locking at either position, and folded neatly into her arms when not in use. The outside edge along their entire length was atom-width sharp and energon-hot, as was a third of the inside length. Arcee was right – it wouldn’t take much strength for those blades to cut through even Cybertronian armor. Borealis, true to her size, was quite strong. 

Ironhide didn’t see much point in fielding anything against the Decepticons but guns, the bigger the better, and when she had first unfolded the blades he had stalked off, refusing to spar with someone who took combat so lightly she’d adapted her weapon mode idea from a Japanese comic book. He did, however, leave his latest combat programs for her in her personal file on Teletraan. She had downloaded them with no small trepidation, and even now the thought of implementing that programming made her tremble. 

“Feh, chicken, Cliffjumper?” Sideswipe taunted as he and Sunstreaker sauntered onto the cleared sparring area. 

“Don’t worry, kid, we’ll go easy on you,” Sunstreaker said, grinning as he powered up his lasers. 

Bumblebee, observing via Arcee, nearly protested, but kept his peace, waiting to see how it went. The Twins harried Borealis mercilessly, but did no particular damage. She was getting frustrated, unable to connect. Sink or swim, Bee thought. Maybe this would work. She was timid, and they needed battle-fire. He wasn’t happy about watching it, though.

He could tell the moment she accessed the full program. Suddenly her movements became swift and efficient, and Sunny and Sides had to work to keep out of reach. She never connected during that first bout, but she wasn’t damaged either. The Twins really had been easy on her.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Her training proceeded thus for many weeks; all the smaller, agile bots going against her singly or, more often, in teams. It made sense since there weren’t many Cons who were her size, except the Constructicons; she was going to have to get used to small foes who could come at her in fast swarms. Her armor grew stronger with each hypersonic flight, so she could withstand quite a lot, and the small bots were making her faster, teaching her to track several targets at once, assessing the whole situation on the fly, orchestrating her moves to defend and attack at the same time. 

One day, she actually clipped Bumblebee with one of her blades. Two of his fingers went spinning out into the desert, sheared off so cleanly he didn’t even notice at first. Until Borealis gave a cry of remorse and retracted her blades, reaching out to scoop him up for a quick carry to the med-bay.

Ironhide appeared out of nowhere, slamming into her before she got to Bee, plowing her head into the ground and standing on it. “NEVER STOP FIGHTING BECAUSE YOUR OPPONENT IS INJURED!” he roared. 

Bumblebee stared at his hand, flexing the two fingers still attached, and whistled. Jazz pointed him to where the missing digits had flown and he bounced out to retrieve them even as the pain impulses finally began hitting his CPU. 

“Yes, sir,” Borealis said in a tiny voice, staying where she was. Ironhide jumped down and stalked back inside the embassy.

“Ironhide’s right, Lissi,” Jazz said, a little sadly. 

She raised her head to look at him for a moment, then let it fall to the dirt again. “And I was supposed to be the smart one. Damn.”

Bumblebee thought of Skyfire and Perceptor, Autobots he’d heard of on Cybertron. Scientists, but good soldiers, both of them. Perceptor could make astonishing, nanometer-precise shots with his light cannon from incredible distances. The Seekers reserved a special and particular hatred for him. He was difficult to sneak up on and he had downed more Seekers than any other single mech. Skyfire packed more firepower than Ironhide himself. Even that geologist friend of Perceptor’s, Beachcomber, was handy in battle if he had to be, though he really didn’t like it. Bee wondered if any of them had heard Optimus’ message yet and were on their way to Earth. Borealis could benefit from their example, and maybe their advice, if they’d give it. Skyfire in particular would be perfect, she was almost his size.

“Wish Skyfire was here,” Jazz said, and Bee laughed.

“I do, too.” He hefted his fingers and saluted Jazz with his other hand. “She’s all yours until Ratchet gets me repaired.”

“Yeah, well, tell Cliffjumper to get his bumper out here, then.”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“Great,” said Simmons, leaning over the railing of the mezzanine to watch as the Twins jogged past. “What are those two up to now?” They were heading outside, with rather disconcerting grins on their faces, and had what looked like big coils of braided steel in their hands. Epps and Lennox exchanged a look, and Epps casually took the end of his pen out of his mouth. Whatever the Twins were doing, it was bound to be interesting. Terrifying, maybe, but interesting. The two Rangers jumped up and ran down the stairs, Simmons right behind.

Noticing their small human audience, Sunstreaker halted, crouching to put his face on a level with theirs. “You people have spent the last 100,000 years sitting around your little campfires doing almost nothing but dream up new and creative ways to kill each other. I like that in a species!” He stood and followed his brother out into the flat expanse of desert beyond the access road.

“Somehow I don’t think that was meant to be flattering,” Simmons groused.

Halting side by side, the Twins faced an extended bastion of the cliffs and canyons that sprawled to the north of the embassy mesa. The coils of braided steel they unlimbered turned out to be Cybertronian-sized bullwhips. 

“Oh Jesus,” Epps breathed. Simmons’ right hand made a reflexive movement as though he was going to cross himself, but suppressed it. The three humans backed up to what they hoped was a relatively safe distance - and put their hands over their ears. 

The Twins swung the whips in wide, slow circles; around the ground or over their heads, just getting a feel for how the supple lengths of steel were balanced, how they moved, how flippy the steel falls and poppers were. They had downloaded and analyzed every whip-cracking demonstration they could find, including – or maybe especially – those off BDSM sites; but nothing replaced learning the feel of a new weapon in your own hand. Ironhide reckoned they were wasting their time, but had helped them make the things. Sunstreaker and Sideswipe would try anything. You never knew. 

Sunstreaker brought his whip up sharply then down smoothly, forward toward the ground. CRAHKK! He didn’t hit anything, hadn’t been aiming, just wanted that mini sonic boom. The humans jumped. They’d been anticipating the sound, but the deeper tone and sheer volume were startling. 

Not to be outdone, Sideswipe swung up further, then shoved his hand forward and out. Putting too much power into it, though, he only succeeded in nailing himself both with the abortive crack and the recoil. “Ow! Slag!” He tried again while Sunstreaker snickered. It was more a matter of technique than brute force. 

Learning their way through most of the Australian and US competition named cracks reduced the cliff they faced to pock-marked ruin. Once they figured out the physics, they started inventing their own combinations. Lennox, Epps and Simmons watched for a couple of hours, duly horrified and fascinated, but they had other things to do and the Twins looked like they’d be at this for days, barring Decepticon attack.

You two are a menace to sandstone, Ironhide – having driven Lennox home - commented via comm, checking on their progress and borrowing Sides’ optical feed. But as a mining technique I’d say it needs work. 

“Hey!” Sunstreaker protested. “Shut up, Mr. Cannon-Obsessive. Sir.”

“Yeah, this is just the first trial.” Sides looked at his twin. “What do you figure?”

“Shields at max?”

“Yeah.”

The Twins faced each other, backing to the reach of their eight-meter-long whips. CRAHKK!

“What was that? A butterfly?”

CRAHKK!

“You missed!”

“I did not! Quit dodging!”

CRAHKK!

“Bwahahahaha! Whoa, that was a low blow, even from you. Below the belt does not count, dude.”

“Since when?”

CRAHKK! CRAHKK! CRAHKK! CRAHKK! CRAHKK!

“Okay, we’re not even feeling this. I say we take shields down to 50%.”

CRAHKK! CRAHKK! CRAHKK!

“Anything?”

“Not really. Try forty percent.” The thing was, their personal shielding was designed to stop sudden impacts cold, both absorbing and distributing the force. 

CRAHKK!

Twenty-five percent. Ten percent. They abandoned shields altogether.

CRAHKK!

“OW!! Hey, look at that…” Where the whip had struck, an elliptical area of dull grey was spreading over Sideswipe’s chameleon mesh. The armor directly beneath wasn’t dented, but the nanobots of the mesh had been deactivated. Temporarily or permanently, the Twins weren’t sure. Ratchet would probably laugh at them and kick them out of the repair bay. Sides shrugged and took aim at his brother again.

CRAHKK!

“NOT THE FACE, SLAGGER!!!”

Two weeks later, because there were more humans at the embassy this time, the Twins presented Prime with one of their whips, scaled up to match his size. The base emptied, surging outside to follow Prime and the Twins up to the rubble-strewn target range. 

“Old ‘Hide was right,” Sideswipe explained. “They suck as weapons. Getting hit hurts like slag but it doesn’t do much damage. We just wanted to see youdo it!” He and Prime linked arm cables so Sideswipe could upload the somatic file on how to use the whip effectively. 

Sam, perched as usual on Bee’s shoulder, noticed how Optimus’ posture shifted subtly. For a brief moment, he stood with precisely the same attitude as Sideswipe. Retracting his cable, Sides backed off. Way off. Oh my god, Sam thought. Indiana Prime!

As the Twins had done, Prime swung the whip gently around a few times, assessing the weight and feel. This was a much bigger whip - more than twice the size. Scale does matter. Making sure everyone was more than twenty meters away in all directions, he performed a classic Cattleman’s crack.

TCHOOMM!!! Startled, Prime laughed, slapping his thigh with his free hand. TCHOOMM!!! TCHOOMM!!! It wasn’t a whip-crack sound at all. It was thunder, close and threatening, booming through everyone’s bodies, flesh and metal alike, rattling teeth and CPUs. Jazz let Nellis AFB know that they weren’t under attack. Prime was just playing. TCHOOMM!!! 

With each crack the tassel-like popper lost two or three centimeters off the end – even the braided steel just couldn’t handle the forces involved. Wheeljack was already calculating what kind of materials in what physical composites would be required to withstand Prime’s strength. Jazz fully intended to dump video to YouTube the nanosecond Prime was done. Or the whip broke.

TCHOOMM!!! 

Okay, Sideswipe tight-beamed his brother. I don’t want to get hit by that thing even WITH shields on max!

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Cliffjumper as usual hurled himself at Borealis head-on, but this time she smacked him to the ground and stepped on him, pinning him with her right foot while fending off fire from Prowl with her forearms and blades crossed in front of her face. Cliffjumper kept firing, hitting her undersides, which stung. She kicked him to one side and advanced on Prowl , even as Cliffjumper rolled through the fall and came back at her, nothing deterred even as badly dented as he was.

“Perhaps it’s time you faced someone more your own size.”

Prowl and Cliffjumper stopped and stepped back and lowered their weapons as Prime strode forward. Every Autobot at the base came out to watch, and a few who were elsewhere tuned in to their friends’ optical feeds.

Borealis backed up, her arm blades swinging and locking in their defensive position. She did not want to fight Prime. She wasn’t sure she could make herself strike him, let alone open fire. She didn’t dare refuse, either. 

Stalling, she circled him, but faster than she thought possible he had his laser rifle out and firing. He kept it at low power, but the blasts knocked her off her feet if she didn’t dodge fast enough. Then as she was rolling frantically to face him again, he ran at her and closed the distance to melee range. The rifle retracted and the fist thus freed came at her fast. She got one arm up to block it, but the impact drove her back just as the laser blasts had. For a few minutes she thought to keep out of his way using evasive programs, but he knew his way around those too well, blocking her path no matter which way she ran, catching her in vulnerable spots bare-handed. She was discovering that with Cybertronians youth and strength didn’t necessarily go together, and age and treachery were well augmented with speed and power.

After the fourth such sally, Prime had had enough.

ENGAGE, BOREALIS! THAT’S AN ORDER!

She gave a squawk that sounded suspiciously like “ohshit!” Her arm blades swung forward and her canons powered up to 40 percent. She could have resisted the imperative, but a direct order from Prime was much easier to obey than not. Circling him, she tried to still the alarm bubbling up through her processors. 

He extended his sword. She knew she was in trouble. 

“Don’t look so worried,” he said, raising the sword in a kind of salute. “You have two blades, I should be allowed at least one, don’t you think?” In truth, he was worried. She hadn’t tried to fight back at all, was too flustered to even block properly, which he knew she was at least capable of, having watched her training with the others; and as a result he had damaged her worse than he’d intended for a simple sparring match. Ratchet was going to ream him a whole set of new and unnecessary input ports for this already. And he wouldn’t be gentle about it.

He assumed a defensive stance, keeping very still. “Come on,” he coaxed softly. If he could get her to make the first move that would be something. 

He’s giving you a chance, stupid, she told herself and squared her shoulders. Leaping at him blades first, she used a combination of slashes that had worked well in keeping pairs of smaller bots at bay. Prime avoided the first strike and blocked the second with his sword, the disparate blades spitting sparks as they ground together, not quite edge-on. He caught her wrist as she swung the inside of the other blade at him. Getting inside her reach was a good tactic, but at least he could see she knew that was a vulnerability. 

She pulled free and leapt back, blades still forward. Good. “Again,” he said. 

“Now, use your jets!” he shouted, trying to encourage her. She was fast, could be faster if she could acquire the necessary coordination. 

“What?” She hadn’t thought of engaging her jet engines while in robot mode. It sounded very unstable. It was. She powered them up very slowly, fishing for the settings that would lift her feet off the ground, but not send her into the stratosphere. She wobbled all over, and could rarely get a strike in. But it was also unpredictable, and made her hard to hit. Optimus approved in principle; the execution needed work. 

She tried a few flybys, swiping at him, using her enormous reach to as much advantage as she could. Later there would come a time when she could sneak up on Decepticons and take the tops of their heads off before they knew she was in range, but that would be years ahead. Today she spent more time picking herself up off the dusty ground from crashes than she did in attacking or defending.

“Enough, Borealis, let’s get you in to see Ratchet.” He helped her up and half supported her as she limped back to the hangar. He felt every dent on her himself, but was glad to feel her spark undimmed. You’re doing well against the smaller mechs and those in Ironhide’s size range, but we somehow need to get you more practice with people my size or larger. I’ve had messages from Ultra Magnus, but we need him where he is. Just wish I knew where Skyfire was, he’d be perfect. 

This was hard. The thought of pitting this youngster against experienced, merciless warriors like the Seekers made his spark ache and his main CPU cycle with a weird, frantic pattern he hadn’t suffered since the beginning of the war. The revisitation of the raw, open wound of those emotions was not welcome. 

She would be a match for the Seekers in atmospheric speed, but they were more maneuverable and carried more ordnance. No form of solid projectile was feasible; the melted shells would just splatter over her forward armor. He’d have to ask Wheeljack to come up with something, preferably stable enough to be safe. Well, the targeting augmentation he was already working on looked promising. If that worked out, she could attack air to ground or air to air at such ranges her targets would literally not know what hit them. 

Bee’s mentioned him. Big, heavily-armed shuttle, he said. She had to admit she wanted to meet him, herself. He sounded sexy as all outdoors. And then she hoped none of that inner commentary had gotten transmitted. 

Prime gave no sign either way, and they went inside to the med-bay to face Ratchet’s wrath.

Chapter Text

2016 - September

Mirage hunkered down behind the rocks. “If you have second thoughts, now’s the time to say so.”

Epps grinned and shook his head. He knew what Mirage really meant. It wasn’t the number of Decepticons below that concerned him. “Bumblebee said you’re a good guy. That’s a high rec in my book.”

Mirage’s optics twinkled before he faded from sight. “Then, as you would say, let’s do this thing.”

Epps keyed the activation sequence on his imperial new clothes and also disappeared from view. They were testing a new technology; new to humans, anyway. Once Mirage had learned that the humans were close in theory and almost close in experiments to a form of cloaking, he had asked and been given permission to enlist Wheeljack’s help in creating a device similar to his own system, scaled to fit individual humans. 

Though Sector 7 in general, and Agent Simmons in particular (before encounters with Optimus Prime and Bumblebee had washed away a sizable part of his cynicism) had been fond of claiming the roots of all modern human technology from reverse-engineering Megatron’s frozen body, Mirage felt that there was plenty of evidence that humans had figured out some important things about the universe prior to Megatron’s discovery, and that they had progressed with their gleaned Cybertronian jump-start astonishingly quickly, even by their own limited organic time scale. Mirage wasn’t as fond of humans and Earth as Hound was, but he felt they deserved a lot more credit than S7 and others had given them.

Epps had volunteered to help test it. Mirage had been concerned at first.

“Won’t your spouse object? You have children. This could be dangerous.”

“My lady, she knew what I was into when she met me. She don’t ask me what kinda trouble I get into, and I promise to absolutely not do anything too stupid and to come home just as soon as I can.”

Mirage had nodded and they had proceeded.

Now they prepared to sneak into a Decepticon base, just look around the perimeter, not too deep. They needed to know if the human model would stand up to at least casual Decepticon scans. 

They picked their way down the bluff, careful not to raise any dust or dislodge pebbles. Or, in Mirage’s case, boulders. Their route was preplanned, based on intelligence Mirage had gathered earlier. Once invisible they couldn’t see each other. Hound could track them, but he was the next ridge back, keeping out of sight the old fashioned way. And they didn’t want to risk even coded transmission this close to the Decepticon base. Not with the Constructicons down there, at least one of whom had excellent scanners, even if they were usually employed in assaying raw materials for building. 

Epps proceeded more or less directly ahead, cautiously and slowly approaching the edge of the metal overlay delineating the boundary of the base, while Mirage ranged in widening circles, keeping a sharp watch on both Epps’ calculated position, and on any Decepticons who might appear. Their first real test, though, would be the auto-turrets spaced at intervals around the perimeter. 

For that reason, Optimus had authorized the loan of a small shielding unit. The Autobot leader was not sanguine about giving that particular technology wholesale to the humans, but it would at least prevent the fragile and flammable Epps from being fried on the spot by a single shot from Decepticon cannons. He was also armed with what Ironhide called a pop-gun, but which fired plasma shells that were about a hundred times more effective than Sabot rounds. Epps liked this gun very, very much.

The cloaking suit also provided some sound dampening, Epps found. When visible, it was composed of a lacy network of thin bands of white metal, studded with small emitter nodules. Made him look like an all around ninja master from outer space. Although if he hadn’t been wearing ordinary fatigues underneath, he’d feel more like that freaky Xerxes guy from 300, only without all the piercings. 

He put one foot on the metal plating that paved the base in Cybertronian manner. Then the other foot. The automatic turrets didn’t even twitch. First phase accomplished. Moving into the shadow of the nearest turret, he began the next phase. Sighs of relief could come later, after he was safely back at the Autobot hangar.

They had approached from what was essentially the back side, so to Epps’ left at a distance of about a hundred meters was a relatively small structure Mirage thought was probably a storage facility. Epps made for it quickly and quietly. The sound dampening system could only do so much and it would be silly to blow the mission over too-loud footfalls or heavy breathing. It was more difficult to stifle his inclination to laugh, though, as he patted the pocket where a special item was stashed. A little present for the Decepticons.

He froze against the side of the building as two Decepticons emerged from another structure several hundreds of meters away – far but with a full view of where he was. Jets, Epps thought. What the Autobots called Seekers – of the same general body plan as that bastard Starscream. They were conversing in Cybertronian, so he couldn’t make out what they were saying, but they paid no attention to his direction as they traversed an open area and then took off from a standstill, kicking in their engines before they’d even transformed to jet mode. That was pretty impressive. Like Harriers with legs. They were out of sight in a handful of seconds. 

Epps released the breath he’d been holding and scooted around the corner. There had to be a door here somewhere. Around the next corner, the farthest from his starting point as possible, he found it. As he neared the closed portal, an alien panel resembling a keypad blipped and chirped by itself and the door slid open. Mirage had come around the other way. They both slipped inside, Mirage careful to wait several seconds so as not to step on the human. He closed the door behind them once he was certain it wouldn’t lock them in. He left a blast strip on the leading edge before it shut completely, just in case. 

Storage, as they thought. But Epps couldn’t identify anything in there, aside from a scattering of open containers which were mostly full of unidentifiable hunks of machined metal. Yep, he knew boxes when he saw them, but other than that? He had nothing. Nevertheless, he slipped a hand into his pocket and drew out the object he’d been saving. While still in his hand it was as invisible as the rest of him. Once he set it on a handy flat surface as far up as he could reach and let go of it, though, it became visible again. 

Mirage knew better, but he made a brief, low strangled sound that somewhat resembled a chortle. 

His present in place, Epps made his retreat, waiting only for Mirage to key open the door. The door obligingly opened and they exited cleanly, heading directly back to their insertion point, and from there back to where Hound was hidden, waiting for them. 

Mirage waited until they had found Hound and disengaged their cloaks, and then collapsed next to his friend, laughing. “Starscream’s going to melt a hard drive when he sees that! Where on Earth did you get that, Epps?”

“We’re still a little close,” Hound pointed out, even though he wanted to know what was so funny. They agreed, so Hound and Mirage transformed, Epps jumped into Mirage’s driver seat, and they all sped away, on course for home though it would take a couple of days to get there. 

“All right, now give,” Hound said over the radio, out on the open highway. Jeep and Bugatti Veyron, side by side until they encountered traffic, when the Veyron would fall back and let the Jeep lead. Mirage chirped him an image of what Epps had left behind.

“What the…where on…all right, Mir already said that. Go on, Epps.”

Laughing as much at the Autobots’ reaction as the imagined fallout once the item, or rather items, were discovered by the Decepticons, Epps controlled himself enough to explain. “All right, I got the idea from my oldest kid. She collects these dolls, they all have arms that hug on each other, and all that. Okay, and then down at the mall the other day I seen these soft toys, these plushes people are making modeled after you guys and the Cons – and don’t be asking me why the ‘Cons are so popular, man, ‘cause I don’t know, okay? People do crazy shit, all right? So I got me a couple of those plushes, like you saw: Megatron and Starscream; and I get my wife to put little Velcro deals on they hands, like the hugging dolls.”

Mirage and Hound were beside themselves, positively howling, Hound sounding almost like his namesake. It was a wonder they could keep on the road.

“And a pink frilly apron on Starscream.”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“‘Bring us the gyropulse pod,’” Long Haul muttered. “‘We’re out of articulated vacuum warp spheres, go get more from storage.’ They can get their own Pit-cursed gyropulse pod. I didn’t join this outfit to be their servant.” He punched the opening code with more force than necessary, though to his disappointment the lock didn’t short out. 

Inside, as he reached for the warp spheres, something else caught his optics. There were no traces of energy signatures to tell who had put them there; besides the muddled ones common to anywhere several people went repeatedly over time. That in itself was a little odd, but Long Haul didn’t really care that much. He secreted the items in a cache on his torso, collected the things he’d been sent to get and closed the door behind him as he left. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Starscream loomed at him, optics a deeper red than usual. “What. Is. That.”

Long Haul paused in his three point turn but gave no other sign of comprehension. “Huh? What is what?” Starscream was powering up a laser, so Long Haul decided it would be wiser – not to mention less painful – to remove the ornament from his rearview mirror before the Seeker shot it off in situ. Executing a neat bit of transformation, he plucked the item from his cab before the space of the cab collapsed into his torso. “I found it,” he said defensively. As if not having made it himself would somehow save him. Nor would it help to point out that he’d had the thing up there for two weeks, much to the amusement of his teammates, before any of the Seekers, let alone Starscream, had bothered to notice.

“Megatron is dead. Destroy it,” Starscream said, his voice low, attempting to remain calm. “Or I will. Now. Either you’re lying or we have a security breach. If the latter, someone had best find out how, hadn’t they.” The other Structies shuffled around and didn’t look at Long Haul.

“Yes, Lord Starscream,” Long Haul said. “I found it in storage shed 3-2-1427. I’ll search for signs of filthy Autobot incursion there.” He closed his hand around the dolls, making a show of clenching his fist. The dolls were so small, of course, and made of squishable materials, that, aside from a little wrinkling, they were completely unharmed. Long Haul turned and trundled away with his teammates, heading toward the storage unit to make it look like they were going to investigate the security breach. 

It had never really mattered to the Structies who was in charge of the Decepticons. They took more or less the same abuse or use. Meanwhile they got to build stuff. Their disagreement with Prime was therefore an old one, predating the war. Optimus Prime didn’t think they had the right to spread their civilization throughout their galaxy, not if there were sentient life forms sharing it who might object. Megatron at least had the right idea. All sensible civilizations wanted their own galactic empires when they grew up. Who wouldn’t want the energy resources of an entire galaxy at their servo-tips? Imagine what you could build with that much raw material. 

Of course, at this point the war had pretty much slagged everything all to the Pit. 

Meanwhile, Long Haul cached the dolls again, tight-beaming his teammates as he did so, and they began debating the best hiding places immediately. They would enshrine the dolls somewhere, somewhere the Seekers would never look, maybe couldn’t even get into. Underground, for starters.

Chapter Text


We’ll see how brave you are
We’ll see how fast you’ll be running 

--Tori Amos, Yes Anastasia



2016 – November

Prime! I found them! She stayed high and distant, just watching as usual, following orders. Well, she wasn’t good for more than that anyway. Prime and Ratchet hadn’t cleared her for front line combat yet. She wasn’t sure what they were waiting for, but she was even less sure she wanted any part of it. 

Two Seekers, heading for Denver, flicking radar off their shoulders all negligent and contemptuous. Gods of the limitless sky. (They’d made a species of organics worship them once, long ago, and still liked the flavor.) 

It didn’t matter what they were after this time, it was rare enough to catch them before they’d done anything. The Autobots hated having to only react, not act, to follow the paths of destruction. Not that helping rebuild was unworthy, but it would have been better not to have to in the first place. Prime didn’t want to miss any opportunity to prevent damage before it happened. The USAF was well motivated to assist. They launched their own squadrons, but even loaded with Sabot rounds and backed up by MEADS brigades, they were vulnerable to plasma and high-energy laser return fire. The humans had come far, but not far enough. So the big carrier jets were ready to go at a moment’s notice, to ferry the wheeled defenders anywhere within hours. The surveillance networks around the planet had grown very swiftly, but it still wasn’t a bad thing to have Borealis in the air as often and for as long as possible, keeping watch. 

She circled around, keeping Denver in the center of a hundred mile radius. Something, a third contact, scratched across the edges of her sensors. It wasn’t familiar, exactly, other than being of Cybertronian origin, which under the circumstances boded ill. The only Cybertronians in the air besides herself – and whether she was really Cybertronian was debatable – were Decepticons. Jazz took the trace from her and narrowed it down, clarifying, defragging, enhancing the signal, hacking the frequency, and there it was. 

A voice, which meant a name, a cruel-edged form, red eyed face far above her, and a screeching that clawed at her delicate eardrums. 

She was halfway to the Pacific, Autobots shouting over tight-beam and the open channel, before she realized what she was doing. And even then it was still imperative that she get away, far away, away and hide, some place he wouldn’t find her this time, and she retained enough sense to know that up was the wrong direction. There was only so much up, with the engines she had, so down would have to do it, even though down seemed like a bad idea too somehow, burrow rather than tree; an odd thing to think, but it was thought by that odd section of her main processor. She was vaguely aware of all that, even as she fled, too terrified to scream. Screaming wouldn’t help, it only attracted attention. 

She had to find a hole, something big enough to hide in, something not open to the sky, something that would block sensors. Maybe the ocean, if she could get deep enough, no reason she couldn’t, now that she thought about it. Down to the rippling blue, out here wherever she was, and it was almost night – she would be hard to see in this light, even without shields. Down and slow, although she didn’t want to be slow, she wanted to be fast, but she could never be fast enough to get away from him, so she had to hide, it was the only way. 

Down, down, and oh dammit this was going to be worse than landing. No help for it. All else failed she could transform and just drop. Or maybe that was the better idea anyway. 

It was a hard slap, breaking the surface. Bubbles and steam frothed around her, changing the density of the water and she fell as though she was in air, all the flared planes that were flight surfaces when she was a jet weren’t enough drag now, not in this form. After some distance, the water collected itself around her, dark and cold, colder than she had ever been, she thought. She wondered if that was bad, or just new.

The point was, he wouldn’t come down here after her. She was more certain of that than of anything else that entire day. He could follow, if he really wanted to, but he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t like it down here. And oh dear, where was the bottom, anyway? Because it looked like she was going to find out. How deep in mud would she sink? Maybe that wasn’t a good idea. Would her engines work underwater?

They did. Interesting. She wasn’t entirely an air-breathing jet, after all. Now that she was down in the dark and cold, all she needed was neutral buoyancy, which was an odd concept but she had understood it very well, once. She had known what it felt like, so she tuned her power output, fishing for that feeling again. 

There was still yelling over the channels, but faint, and easy to ignore. She could float here, flow here for a long time, she realized. Well, hours. And then she’d have to recharge. But she could listen for whales and things until then. Would they come near her, as she was? Would they look small to her scanners? Could she pet them? Maybe the engine noise would scare them off, though. Except she couldn’t turn the engines off or she’d sink all the way down, and she didn’t want to do that. She’d have to listen for whales from a distance, then, and try not to think about what she could do, should do when the time came when she had to recharge. 

The yelling died down, and eventually stopped. She could hear whales more clearly now that she wasn’t actively tuning something else out. Something other than her own engine noise, anyway. That she did automatically; there was an algorithm for it, so she didn’t have to notice them at all unless something was wrong, in which case the noise would be different, the delta would show up and flag itself in her awareness. That was a good thing, although it had never happened, it was good to know she’d been programmed that way, to notice if something went wrong. It was convenient to be able to sense those things so you could get them fixed before anything went really wrong. That was best. 

Borealis. 

Oh. Oops. There were things she couldn’t ignore. Awareness of what she’d done, or not done, came crashing around her. She wanted to let herself sink, and be lost in the mud. Well, no. That would be fairly awful, she suspected. Another embarrassing way to be deactivated. She should write a book. 

Yet how could she go back? She didn’t want to sink, but she really didn’t want to face Prime and the others. Except she couldn’t not go back, either. Nowhere else to go. Nowhere safe. 

Borealis. 

It was only a subroutine, thank goodness. She could tell his main attention was elsewhere. The elsewhere she should have been if she hadn’t turned tail and run off, panicked. Just because he showed up, and dammit she could think the name, it wasn’t that hard. Not even hard on the spelling senses, the aesthetics, like Voldythingy. Just another compound word, like a lot of their names rendered into English tended to be. Starscream, dammit. It’s even one of the sillier translations. Jeez. 

The longer you draw this out, emo kid, she thought; the worse you’re going to feel, the stupider you’re going to feel. She knew they’d be nice about it, the rest of the Autobots. They weren’t actively cruel, only some of them thoughtlessly so. Or maybe her definition of cruel was skewed somehow. That could be it. And here she was, still not answering that simple, calm, gentle query from Prime. His harmonics bore no trace of anger. Sadness maybe, now that she replayed the transmissions. 

She tried to respond with an apology, casting through her muddled memory for the most polite glyphs she’d ever learned from Mirage. What sent itself across the commlines was more like an incoherent whimper.

There you are… which weren’t the words he used – that was the tone of the answering ping. Relief, mostly, untinted by accusation. Weariness. Prime always had threads of that, though. He tried to hide it, but everyone could feel it, they were all so close. Come back, Borealis. It’s safe. Come back to the embassy. 

I’m sorry! she wailed. She had no tears to shed in remorse, she thought she’d gotten over trying to. 

Hush! It’s all right. Come back. No one blames you, Little Bird. And it was true. Ironhide had been enraged for about three seconds, until he realized who had joined his wingmates, and then not even the gruff old warrior could fail to understand why their youngest bot had panicked and bugged out. It was hard to confront someone who had killed you, and Borealis was nothing like a seasoned soldier. That kind of slack Ironhide knew how to give. 

Unfortunately, by this time Borealis realized she didn’t have enough fuel to make it all the way back to Nevada. She relayed this to Prime. I’m going to fly as far as I can…I’m heading for the surface now. Their transmissions gained clarity as she emerged into air and transformed. I think I can make the California coast, or at least the continental shelf.

Try to push for the coast,
 Ratchet said, not wanting to frighten her again, but knowing that if she recharged underwater the cold would make the process take even longer and the currents down there might sweep her body somewhere hazardous while she was unconscious. He wasn’t sure where that would be, since even volcanic vents weren’t more than pleasantly warm to them, but ocean floors were strange territory to the Cybertronians. Who knew what kind of trouble might be down there. Looks like you’ll have the tide in your favor, just find some rocks and hang on when you go into recharge. He’d alert the local authorities once she reached land, and they could keep the curious or the nefarious among humans at bay. The Cons had been sent away with their tailfins between their legs, so that was all right. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Charlie watched the waves break, glowing faintly like pearls. The sunlight from behind him was still blocked for a good way out by the cliffs. “Not a mermaid,” he said. Robert, leaning on their patrol car at the side of the highway, snorted. 

The robot had washed ashore onto the rocks the night before, but they had gotten word that it wasn’t dead, so they weren’t to call the Navy to come and cart it off to wherever the Navy said they were taking dead robots these days. It was big. “Fucking huge,” was the indelicate way Robert had put it. Big and gleaming black in the spray, and it was hard to make out limbs in all its complex geometries, let alone a face, though he was pretty sure that was a hand flung over one of the larger boulders beneath where he was standing. The path at his feet led down to a scattering of small tide pools. Only a handful of biologists bothered to go down there, usually. There was no beach and the trail wasn’t long enough to attract hikers. Charlie wondered if the robot had short-circuited or something in the salt water. 

It was well into morning by the time direct sunlight shone on the robot. Charlie could finally see that it wasn’t black, but very dark blue. Navy blue, he supposed. There was a sort of hum in the air, maybe it had been there all along, just too quiet to be heard over the roar of the waves, but now he could hear it, rising in pitch slightly and maybe that’s what had brought it to his attention. Two bright blue lights came on as it lifted its head, pushing itself up on its arms.

It looked right at him. 

“Jesus!” said Robert. 

“Morning,” said the robot, sounding exactly like someone who’d just woken up way earlier than they wanted to. It got to its feet slowly, careful on the uneven terrain, but now that it was upright the waves didn’t even reach its knees. Or whatever they were called. They looked more or less like knees, up above the surging foam. Damn this thing was tall!

“Good morning,” Charlie said. “Are you okay?” It didn’t look like it was sparking anywhere, didn’t have chunks of anything hanging by cables, or frayed wires dangling anywhere, but you never knew. 

“Yes,” the robot said. “Thank you. Please cover your ears. And you might want to step back a ways from the edge there, sir.” 

“Jesus!” Robert said again. Charlie moved back to stand beside him at the patrol car. They both clapped their hands over their ears, as two big engines on the robot’s back – like jet engines, only science fiction jets or rockets or X-wing fighter engines or something – roared to life. They lifted the robot into the air, slowly, like the space shuttle. 

Then the robot extended its arms together in front of its chest, its body flipping around, legs going he couldn’t follow where and the robot turned into some kind of stealth jet – and it was gone. Over the horizon as soon as it had reached a safe altitude.

“Wow,” said Robert. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

The heat of the air calmed her. She walked into the hangar ready to accept whatever consequences Prime or Ironhide would mete out. She was not prepared for Ratchet to come barreling out of the med bay to tackle her before she’d gotten three steps inside. The hangar was conspicuously empty of everyone else.

What, no white feather? She patted Ratchet’s back, at a loss. 

Don’t think that! he growled, sounding remarkably like Ironhide. He drew away, glaring up at her. “That wasn’t enough recharge, and you need to refuel.” He pointed toward the recharge bay. “Go.” 

“But—”

No. This was as much my fault as yours. We should have thought to prepare you to encounter Starscream again. When you’re back online, ping Smokescreen. He’s been trained in psychology, particularly battlefield psychology.

Like that guy on M*A*S*H. Dr. Sidney.

What? Oh. Yes. 

Does he talk with Prowl?

Indeed he does. Extensively.
 Over games of chess, at which Prowl always beat Smokescreen with such thoroughness Ratchet sometimes wondered if Smokescreen himself didn’t have some wires crossed. Ratchet did understand that their games had a different, deliberate purpose, but when checkmate came two or three moves in it seemed like they would be better off choosing something with more of an element of chance. 

Okay. Feeling oddly unbalanced by the lack of reprimand, she obeyed.

Chapter Text

2016 – late autumn

John Keller cast his line, enjoying the motion, the quiet, the freedom of the cool morning alone with the birds above and the sleepy fish below. Even if that freedom was illusory. There were security personnel stationed around the perimeter of the property, but none in sight, none in voice range except by phone, and even that device was set to only accept emergency calls from a short list of numbers. 

Pale sunlight rippled on the water. The breeze brought with it the earthy smells of trees and dry grass, falling leaves, moss and the cool damp scent of the water itself. The old folding chair was better padded now than it used to be, to ease his older bones, but he was warm and comfortable, and sipped his coffee occasionally with a deep satisfaction. The sky was blue, the water bright, it was a crisp morning in the mountains, and there in the trees to his right he saw a giant alien robot moving silently toward him.

“Morning, Optimus,” he said, smiling. It still amazed him that someone so huge could move so quietly. He must have stealthed his way past the bodyguards, but that didn’t bother Keller as much as he supposed it ought to. 

“Good morning, John. Catch anything?”

“I’ve had good luck so far – haven’t caught a thing.”

Optimus approached, stopping before he overshadowed the pond, and knelt. Keller was ready to explain the seeming contradiction, but he guessed Optimus was accessing the internet, or had already figured it out for himself. Funny how the Autobots often understood human cultures better than most humans did. “So to what do I owe this visit?” he asked, looking up and up at the gleaming blue helmet. The battle mask was withdrawn, so there wasn’t any imminent danger.

“Decepticon activity seven miles to the north. Ironhide and his team are handling it. I am…merely monitoring.” 

And guarding me, Keller thought. Optimus had no doubt hacked the government computers – gently of course, and in some way even Maggie couldn’t trace – to find out where he’d be today. Or Keller’s cell phone, or his wife’s. He smiled, not ungrateful, but it was interesting how he didn’t feel threatened by this technological superiority. It filled him with wonder instead; he was glad a lifetime in politics and working with the military hadn’t made him too cynical to be delighted to be watched over by a benign giant robot. The little boy in him danced with glee.

“Welcome to my job,” he said. 

Optimus chuckled quietly. Keller wondered if that was something native to his species as well, or was it just another adaptation to make their interactions with humans work more smoothly. He didn’t think it was a bad thing, if the latter. Prime certainly understood the function of laughter so well as to make no difference when it came right down to it. 

They were silent for a while, enjoying the morning. Keller recast his line, only paying enough attention to avoid tangling it in the cattails off to his left. “You ever go fishing, back on your home planet? Before the war?” something made Keller ask, hoping it wouldn’t bring up painful memories, and then wondering at himself being worried about the emotions of a robot. Ah, but they were emotional, these robots. Very much so.

“Fishing? No. There was very little free water on Cybertron, not even in the Rust Sea. Some people used to hunt turbo-foxes or silicon worms; mostly for sport but also to keep them from destroying property. I never had time.”

“Ah yes. You were…built as a Prime, do I have that right? Half of the ruling diad?”

“Correct.”

Keller didn’t want to follow that thought any further. “Did you have any leisure activities at all? Official social functions and the like?”

“Yes. We share many of the same arts, though the media differed. Music, dance, sculpture gardens, broadcast entertainments over various frequencies. I suppose you could call them multimedia.” 

Keller smiled. “I bet. Any of that left?” An Autobot art show, he thought. Wouldn’t that cause a sensation!

Prime looked at him sadly, then away. The slender shutters over his optics moving in the way that Keller thought of as blinking. “Very little. I don’t want to believe that everything was destroyed and all our artists killed, but when this war is over we will have to start again from very small scraps.”

Keller did some blinking of his own. Optimus’ voice was heartbreakingly expressive. 

He cleared his throat and reeled the line in a few turns. “How many of you are left? I know you’ve said before that it was hard to tell after you all scattered. I’m just curious. How many do you think are out there?” The press had asked this innumerable times, and Prime’s answers were always firmly vague.

“Would you take it as a compliment that I consider humans as a species enough of a danger that I’d rather not say?”

“As Sec Def, yes I would. And I wouldn’t assume that means there are only a handful of you. Besides, we have enough trouble with a dozen Decepticons down here – any more than that is certainly more than I’d want to have to deal with."

Optimus smiled, or something like it. “There are more Autobots than twelve.”

“Well I know that. There are at least a dozen of you just at the Nevada base.”

“There are more of us out there.” Optimus looked upward, as though counting. As though he could see or hear them; and maybe he could. Keller was certain Optimus and the other ‘Bots had capabilities they hadn’t revealed to humankind.

Optimus looked at him, taking in Keller’s speculative expression. He put a hand to his massive chest. “I can…feel them,” he said, nodding, knowing the human suspected as much. “In the part of my spark that is the Allspark, I can feel their sparks, their lives. It isn’t so specific a feeling as you might imagine.”

“That’s probably just as well, isn’t it?”

“Perhaps.”

Keller felt a pulse in the air, not something he could hear, just an odd itch in his bones. 

“There are fewer than a thousand individuals in each faction,” Optimus said softly, and Keller knew that no surveillance equipment in the world could overhear or see them right now.

“How many were there on Cybertron before the war?” He reeled in his line a little more, knowing they were treading grim ground.

“On Cybertron and her two major moons, before the war, before we were flung from our sun’s orbit, there were three billion of us. Our population was carefully controlled.”

Keller closed his eyes. Even compared with Earth’s most brutal and continuous wars, comprehending such massive casualties was difficult. And painful. Their war had driven their ancient, long-peaceful species to near extinction. What hope was there, then, for his young, argumentative one? “Not…not a lot of turnover, I imagine. You guys are immortal, more or less. By our standards.” 

“By your standards. There were occasional accidents. We, no less than you, are a curious species.”

“Wheeljack.”

Optimus laughed. “And the Twins. I am often amazed that they are still functional.”

“I don’t envy you there.”

“Hrm.”

“Optimus, thank you.”

“You’re welcome, John.”

Chapter Text

2016 – December

Scampering up to the mesa top, Jazz sang an old Nat King Cole song to himself. The stars were bright, the cold desert air lucent and windy, invigorating. And there was Prime, as Prowl had told him. Stretched out on his back on the weathered stone, gazing skyward, hands clasped behind his helm, one knee drawn slightly up, the other long, long leg extended. Starlight gleamed along the complex planes of his freshly polished armor, and struck faint rainbows only Jazz could see off his baseline shielding. 

Jazz forgot what he’d come up here intending to do. 

Evening, Jazz, Optimus rumbled companionably. Jazz pulled himself out of his daze. 

His plans and playlists were in disorder. He wanted to climb on top of Optimus and… No, there needed to be words first. Evening, Optimus, he finally said. Even sounded nonchalant, he thought. He retracted his toes and skated a long ellipse around Optimus, admiring him from every angle. The cool night breeze through his heated body felt so nice he spun out another circle, dancing long, graceful arcs like a baroque frame about his leader – the Allspark-bearer. Another song threaded across the imaginary surfaces of his CPU.

I caught sight of my reflection
I caught it in the window
I saw the darkness in my heart
I saw the signs of my undoing
They had been there from the start



Optimus watched him, optics bright, amused. Jazz wasn’t usually this circuitous. When he was, though, it was best to let him get around to the point in his own way, in his own time. 

Completing his circle, Jazz did a triple axel and slid toward the center of his longing. Optimus moved an arm to let him near. Jazz curled across Prime’s body and Optimus put his arm around him, snugging him close, though his optics for the moment were again focused on the stars. Jazz rested his head on Optimus’ chest, with difficulty keeping himself from reaching for the central seam. 

My grip is surely slipping
I think I've lost my hold
Yes I think I've lost my hold
I cannot get insurance any more



Optimus?
 He had no reason to be hesitant, really. There was only the small matter of the fact that Prime would be left inoperative for at least a day. That was risky, but they’d just handed the Decepticons a good trouncing, so they should be quiet long enough for Jazz’s purposes. Optimus watched him silently, waiting.

Optimus, I want to make a new spark with you. The idea both turned him on and terrified him. It was new and exciting…well, technically the process was incredibly ancient. New to living memory. This wasn’t gently stroking each other with their sparks’ coronae. This was spinning out a vital part of yourself and breaking it off to meld with a part of someone else. And that part of Optimus was also part of the Allspark.

Jazz acknowledged the fear that the Allspark might change its…mind…and draw him back inside where he belonged. Harder to accept was the idea that a part of him wanted it to. 

At my request you take me in
In that tenderness I am floating away
No certainty, nothing to rely on
Holding still for a moment
What a moment this is
Oh for a moment of forgetting
A moment of bliss



Optimus sat up, holding Jazz, repositioning him as he moved, so that the small bot stood on his legs. He wrapped both arms completely around Jazz, resting his cheek guard atop Jazz’s helm. Are you certain? 

Ratchet has a tank and protomass set up already. And Red confirms we have a window of no observation from overhead. Jazz looked into Optimus’ optics, stretching up to touch forehelms. And you? Need to take a nap. Have you recharged in the last six months at all? It’s freaking us out.

I see. 

Jazz noted the conspicuous lack of denial. He brushed his fingers over his midsection, where phantom impulses of pain still jarred him now and then.Besides, I want to. I have to know what it feels like. 

I can hear the distant thunder
Of a million unheard souls
Of a million unheard souls
Watch each one reach for creature comfort
For the filling of their holes



Optimus nodded. He was merely considering logistics. If we stay here, one of us must bring the new spark down to Ratchet. Or we can go down now.

No. Here. Under the stars. 

Very well. 

Jazz felt the heat as Optimus spun his massive spark faster in preparation. Ports opened, cables extended, connections locked into place. Jazz indulged in a last wild flurry of doubts and what-ifs, before mastering himself and sinking into the link. Every possibility lay before his mental fingertips, his CPU was geared for light-swift probabilistic analysis. The familiar blaze of power from Optimus warmed him from within, making him faster, stronger, more adept. They deepened the merge, their concern, old affection, new fears and hopes, shared in an instant, dealt with and set aside. Jazz wasn’t Ratchet, he didn’t approach this with the same medical detachment. This time it wasn’t Prime’s directive, it was Jazz’s desire.

Mmm, Optimus… He nibbled at Prime’s mandibular hinge, across jaw spikes, down to the massive cables and fuel lines in his neck, pulsing EM waves through Prime’s body. Soaring glyphs and melodies expressed Jazz’s delight, watching Prime’s optics flicker, hearing Prime’s moans, feeling Prime tremble and writhe beneath him, clawing furrows in the rock. Jazz’s hands were busy. 

Love and longing, honor and awe tempered by irrepressible humor surged through the cables; aimed not at the Prime, but at Optimus as an individual – inseparable from himself as Prime, he had been built as a Prime, yet Jazz had somehow learned, over mere centuries long ago, to sense a distinction. Had perhaps created a distinction. Or maybe there truly was a whisper of his original, unalloyed spark, along with the strength he’d gained as a person, in the face of everything he subsumed to be the Prime. Love and fear, for there were dark memories, too. Optimus was the first face, first hand, first voice to touch him when he awoke to find himself alive again. Ratchet had repaired his body, but Optimus had renewed the cinder of his spark. It was strange. Jazz understood, perhaps better than anyone else including Prime, the depths of the changes Optimus had effected on himself.

Humming loudly, Optimus gave a tectonic shudder. Jazz knew how to push his buttons. Every glyph and touch was a song, accompanied by powerful fields that pulled at his substance in the way Jazz himself pulled at his spark. Optimus would have laughed if he’d had any cycles to spare for it, as Jazz took charge of the merge. Prime was still determined to channel the power backlash, drawing the lightning to himself as much as he could. As much as Jazz would let him, he realized. They opened their chests. 

Engulfed in radiance, existential terror struck Jazz, but only for a second. He held on tight, fighting himself, struggling to regain the plane of concentration they needed. Prime’s hands moved around him, stroking his body, soothing and inflaming at the same time. The cables between them grew hot with the speed of the datastream. They sank deeper, past any hope of firewalls or quantum encryption, nothing between their selves but the fleeting mathematics of the universe itself.

The Prime was supposed to love all his people equally. To be guided by that even-handed love in governance. It was perhaps one reason they were built as they were, with huge sparks and vastly parallel processors, their bodies mere housings for the enormity of their emotion. Down this deep, in the presence of the Allspark, it was impossible to evade the fact that Optimus had broken this fundamental law. That he had risked everything, risked his own death and the future of their species, because the thought of walking down all the long millennia without Jazz had been unendurable. 

Two flashing arms reached out from Jazz’s spark, silvery blue, braided, looping like the limbs of a solar flare to embrace the blue-white giant, where a mass of tendrils flowed out to meet them, drawing the two sparks, the two mechs closer yet. Arms and tendrils swept through each other, sensual and desirous, but slippery, mischievous, contrary, until the wills behind them drove them frantically together, weaving substance to substance, essence to essence, chaos-tangled and bright, thread by thread until gravity noticed and the little platinum star contracted, spinning into—

Ignition! At that last picosecond, Optimus bent the lightning to his will, pulling it around his frame, sparing Jazz the worst of it despite the latter’s protests. Glowing orange scars scored deep across their smoking armor. Optimus’ optics flickered and went out. 

Barely online himself, Jazz cradled the new spark, new star, kindled in love and pleasure under the stars, its kin. His kin. Another entanglement between himself and Optimus that could never be unmade. 

Ratchet? he called feebly. Ratchet… come up… 

Thought you could make it back down here afterwards, eh?
 Ratchet didn’t sound surprised. In fact it sounded like he’d anticipated the problem and had just been waiting for word on the completed merge.

Yeah. Dumb. 

For once Ratchet didn’t transmit agreement. I’m on my way. ...And well done, Jazz.

Chapter Text

2017 - February

Calm down, Mirage, I’ll be there in six minutes.

Mirage tried. He wouldn’t do Hound any good by panicking. But after all they’d been through, all they’d survived, all the near misses they’d laughed about, he couldn’t bear the thought that he might lose Hound now on this miserable dirtball of a planet, so far from home. 

“I don’t know what you’re saying,” Epps commented, “but I’ve seen Ratchet patch up bots a lot more banged up than this. Bumblebee says he’s the best. I’m sure Hound’ll be all right, man. Okay?”

“My apologies,” Mirage said. Prime wanted them to use the human languages. It was only polite.

Ratchet and Inferno arrived and hauled Hound up from the ravine. Scanning, Ratchet laid a hand on the jeep’s front left headlight. “Hound? Can you transform?”

“I…I don’t think so.” 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Mirage rode Ratchet’s bumper all the way back to the embassy. Epps held on and didn’t say anything. He knew what it was like. When a buddy was hurt or killed, some guys got crazy, some guys went cold. Everyone coped in their own way. 

Once at the embassy, Mirage was shooed out of the med-bay. In the human-scaled area, Epps was debriefed via teleconference, but he watched Mirage pacing the hangar, those windshield-wiper-y things over his optics clattering away a mile a minute. Once Epps' debriefing was over, he fished a beer from the fridge and perched on the back of one of the couches.

“Hey, Mirage,” he called quietly.

Mirage stopped pacing and strode smoothly over. “Master Sergeant. Is there something I can help you with?” Unconsciously, Mirage had fallen back into a formal mode that had been unnecessary between them for years.

“Epps, Mirage. You call me Epps. Or Bobby, after a firefight like that.”

Mirage made a graceful, open-handed gesture. “Bobby.”

“So. You and Hound. You two been bros for a long time, huh?”

“Yes.”

Epps didn’t ask, didn’t want to know for how long. He was so over how many more zeros the bots measured things by. “How’d you meet? Seems pretty convenient, how your abilities fit. Were you built together or something?”

Mirage smiled, and his face was one of those easiest for humans to read. “We were forged at about the same time, yes. But not in the same place or by the same people. Hound comes from Uraya, one of the larger Torus States. I’m from Iridium Tower on the southern edge of Iacon. We met early in the war. General Deepforge put us together as a team just before she was killed in retaking Nova Cronum. My stealth mode was engineered by Serendipity, one of the most gifted inventors the Autobots had, and Wheeljack’s oldest friend. Once my cloak was installed and tested perfectly, Wheeljack came up with Hound’s sensor array.”

“Rivalry kinda thing, huh?”

“There was something of that to it, yes. But also necessity.” Mirage, having knelt to converse with Bobby, now repositioned himself slightly, turning to face into the hangar. “I am not the virtuoso at this that Hound is, but…” 

It wasn’t a large panorama like Optimus or Hound did; just a small, hemispherical projection that Epps knew he could walk into if he wanted to, and hear and see it all as if he’d been there. In this case that wasn’t an appealing idea. 

A burned out courtyard dimly lit. Epps wasn’t sure if it was merely night or whether Mirage was showing him a time after they had lost their sun. The faces of all the buildings had been torn or blown away, revealing tattered honeycombs of open spaces within. It was a bad place; anything could emerge with very little warning. Three mechs stood together at the near edge of the projection, two quite large and the middle one recognizable as Hound. After a moment, Epps realized one of the larger ones was Wheeljack, though the inventor looked quite different. Smaller perhaps.

“I was afraid, then,” Mirage said quietly. “I was always afraid. My world had changed so much it was easier to think of myself as being on another planet rather than remember how much I had lost. I thought of erasing my memories of the Towers, I thought that would make it easier. But if I had done so, when confronted with the reality I would suffer their loss anew.”

Epps looked up at him, to acknowledge the feeling, then returned his gaze to the hologram. Mirage was calm, merely stating facts.

“The third mech there is Serendipity,” Mirage explained.

“Now, Hound,” Wheeljack was saying, grinning up at Serendipity. “Tell us. What do you see?” Mirage must’ve been running a translation program, for Wheeljack’s voice and accent sounded the same.

Hound nodded and stepped into the courtyard to be clear of the other two mechs’ fields. Slowly, he turned a full circle, the look of concentration on his face as it came into view almost comical. He cocked his head, his optics focusing on the “camera’s” position.

“Hey,” he said, surprised. “There’s someone up there.”

Wheeljack and Serendipity laughed, Wheeljack with a note of triumph and Serendipity somewhat ruefully. “Come on down, Mirage,” Wheeljack called, waving. 

The image swooped and fell and lurched dizzily; Mirage leaping to the ground. A haze of multicolored static flitted across the projection for a second as the cloaking field was disengaged. A parade of expressions crossed Hound’s face as Mirage approached. Epps didn’t try to interpret them all but it was clear that Hound hadn’t been expecting what he now saw. Epps chuckled and Mirage closed the hologram.

“Kind of a shock for both of you, huh?” Epps said, grinning.

Mirage grinned back. “Yes, at first. But quickly we learned the mutual benefits of our situation.”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

1.2 million years ago.

Uhnzrkound…c-come get me, Mirage transmitted on their private team channel; a frequency far isolated from the bandwidths either Autobots or Decepticons used because it was no good for anything but very short range communication. 

On my way. Mir, what happened? Hound slid from cover to cover towards the repair tube access port that was Mirage’s extraction point. The bombing on the other side of the complex had begun, which would keep the Cons busy. But that shouldn’t have affected anything Mirage was doing. 

Argument between three Seekers. Sorry, Hound, I didn’t dodge fast enough. 

Slag.
 Sometimes Mirage forgot that invisible did not equal invulnerable. 

Got the data chip, though. 

Hound was tempted to say slag the chip, but didn’t. Hurry, if you can. I’m at the port, but my shoulders won’t fit inside. Please tell me you can make it this far, he thought. There wasn’t a lot of cover where Hound was, but he would wait as long as it took. After what felt like vorns, the port cover pushed outward. By touch alone Hound knew every part of Mirage, knew that the arms he grabbed in order to pull the slender mech out were intact, but that the torso that fell against his was not.

Maneuvering Mirage carefully across the back of his vehicle mode, Hound carried him to the nearest triage center, transforming and setting him down on a recently vacated repair pallet.

“What…are you doing?” The med-bot clearly thought Hound had fried his CPU and was trying to be sympathetic and kind but hadn’t been to recharge in at least twice as long as was good for her. 

Hound shook Mirage, hoping this time it would work. Come on, Mir. Come on. Nothing, except now bright blue dripped hot on the lubricant- and energon-slick floor. “Can you give his CPU a jolt or something?” he asked the med-bot. “His cloaking system pulls a huge amount of power and I think he’s hurt bad but I can’t get him to respond even on tight-beam.”

The med-bot had noticed the hissing, slowly-growing puddle at the base of the makeshift repair slab. Crazy or not, that wasn’t a good sign. “New stealth system, huh?” Briskly she stepped to the head of the table and groped until she found the patient’s helm. Placing her hands to either side, she sent a low-power pulse of a specific harmonic combination.

Mirage groaned and shuddered into view, losing consciousness again immediately.

A single blast had messily punched through Mirage’s midsection. Any wider and it would have cut him in two. Mostly only his core column and a few cables on his starboard side were keeping him in one piece. Hound locked his knees and fought the cold seeping through his spark. 

“Why didn’t they install a switch on that to turn it off if he’s offlined?” The medic’s harmonics suggested a long-running grumble about military technology and her perception of command’s disregard for individual lives. 

“He can’t afford to be found by the Cons,” Hound explained, feeling very far away. “Even if he’s offlined or killed.”

“So rescue’s not an option?”

Hound snapped back to full awareness. “That’s what I’m for. I can find him. I can always find him.”

“He’s lucky to have you, then.”

“Yeah.”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Hound had made his report and delivered the data chip to a high priority courier. Mirage spent nearly half a voor in a CR chamber. Command sent Hound out on other missions, scouting mostly, occasional courier work. It was necessary work, but not the same.

On the orn Mirage was finally released from the tank, Hound had just returned from a long-range mission but he hurried to the med-bay anyway without recharging. Mirage was swinging his legs off the edge of a repair table and Hound accessed the local data net, finding that Mirage was cleared for light duty only. But he was cleared! Hound ran up, stopping before he collided, and embraced Mirage gently, being careful not to touch any of the shiny new metal surfaces of Mirage’s new components. That wasn’t strictly necessary, simply touching the new colonies of nanocells would do no harm, but Hound knew from personal experience that newly grown components were often acutely sensitive. And not in a fun way.

Mirage returned the hug, shuttering his optics for a moment, then taking Hound’s hand and dragging him out of the med-bay, out of the medic’s way, and down the corridor to a dim space behind some storage crates.

“I’m sorry, Hound,” Mirage whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

“That’s all right,” Hound said. “As long as you never forget that I’m there to help you. You’re lucky to have me.”

“I was wondering when you’d notice,” Mirage said, and pulled him close.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

2017

“…Ratchet informs me that Hound has been repaired and is in recharge now.” Mirage’s expression was jubilant, almost beatific, yet the mech stayed where he was. A human would have rushed to their friend’s bedside, to see for themselves, to touch a hand in reassurance. But Epps knew the robots communicated remotely on many levels. Using huge bandwidth, and complex encoding even Glen Whitmann was sure he’d never understand. Probably Ratchet had given Mirage a sensory feed, with haptics even – Mirage could be virtually beside Hound, still talking to Epps here, and reporting to Prime all at once. 

Epps got up and stretched. “All right. Look, Mirage, I got to head home, okay? I know you got my cell number.”

“I do, thank you.”

“Any time, man.”

Mirage returned the human’s wave and watched him head out the main hangar door. Like most of the regular visitors to the Cybertronian Embassy, Epps disdained the human scaled door to the left. That door was for visitors unaccustomed to the giant part of giant alien robots. 

Humans. Hound loved them from the beginning. Mirage knew his secret wish but did not share it. 

They’re just like us! Hound had transmitted, soon after they had arrived with Wheeljack and Arcee and Cliffjumper and Prowl. After they had accessed the humans’ communications web and had time to process the information each in their unique ways. Hound’s glyphs were full of surprise and delight. They’re made of their world – water, flowers, leaves, animals, sunlight. Just like we are made of Cybertron – metal, silicon, energon. Carbon nanostructures…oh! We’re both made of carbon, Mir! And Hound had laughed, not to goad Mirage, but pleased by the fundamental similarity.

Mirage had smiled. Humans were fragile, tiny, rather disgusting, but Prime was right about their courage as a species, and their potential, and they certainly didn’t deserve to be snuffed out under the mass-distributors of the Decepticons. Hound’s enthusiasm and happiness made Mirage happy, and that was sufficient. He had caressed the ridges of Hound’s helm fondly.

They’re adding more metal and silicon to themselves all the time. Hound’s tone had gone strange. Quiet, almost furtive. Maybe with something that skirted the edges of awe. What if…what if someday we become the same species? 

Mirage had laughed. That’s the most fanciful thing you’ve said in vorns! Mirage loved Hound’s imaginativeness, perhaps that most of all.

Later, Hound had expressed the thought to Ratchet, but the CMO’s reaction hadn’t been amusement.

I’d keep that conjecture to myself if I were you, Ratchet had tight-beamed, and Hound had shared with Mirage later. It’s too early. The glyphs indicated that Ratchet meant that many humans were already alarmed by their rapidly increasing rate of technological change. That people who embraced the changes already had slurs to brand the fearful ones with, and vice-versa. And that the Autobots themselves weren’t entirely ready for such a notion. Both our species have a lot of what amount to suicidal tendencies to work past.

Chapter Text

2017 – April

“It’s the last night of the meteor showers,” Prime said, closing the holo-table’s display. “Care to join me topside?” Prowl had been giving him the periodic reports in person instead of transmitting them. He’d been doing so for weeks. After each recitation came a pause, a hesitation, slight but peculiar in Prowl. Prime had noted this from the first, but gave no sign. The pauses had grown longer, and Prowl’s gaze, though steadfast, had a frustrated tinge to it. 

“Certainly, Prime.” The lingering roughness in Prowl’s voice made gauging his harmonics challenging. Optimus had not yet given up on coaxing informality from the tactician. 

They climbed to the mesa top in companionable silence. Tracking the meteoroids, they watched as the small, rocky comet fragments hit the atmosphere and began to glow, enjoying the knowledge that this was a simple planetary phenomenon, not the arrival of sentient robots whose allegiance was unknown. 

Something on your mind, Prowl? Prime still watched the sky, but Prowl felt the enormity of his attention.

Prowl opened and closed his hands, then unconsciously assumed parade rest. I wish to offer you a second level apology for regarding your first progeny as…unnatural. Borealis, upon reflection, was no more eccentric than many Allspark-kindled Autobots. And a third level apology for doubting the spark-merge process itself. I realize tactically…

Yes. Tactically. Prime made little effort to hide his amusement. According to the Matrix’s file, the first few generations of Cybertronians engaged in that activity quite frequently before the knowledge was erased.

It seems we must emulate them, now. Jazz and Optimus’ progeny was healthy and growing in a tank, and – as of the previous month – so was that of Inferno and Optimus. The order of forging and ensparking felt wrong, but they were nothing if not an adaptable species.

Are you volunteering?

Yes, sir.

Prowl, so help me, if you call me “sir” in the middle of—

Holding up his hands in surrender, Prowl ducked his head. There was almost a smile on his face. I’m sorry, that would be…off-putting. He looked up and met his leader’s gaze. Optimus. Even transmitting the intimate version of that name over tight-beam sent an odd ripple through his CPU.

That’s better. Prime touched his shoulder, ran the backs of his fingers down the outside of Prowl’s arm; heavily armored, Prowl could scarcely feel it. Ah! Look, there it goes. Kneeling behind Prowl, Prime settled a hand on Prowl’s hip, pointing out the last of the shooting stars with the other hand, their helms close, Prowl keenly aware of the proximity of Prime’s spark through the sensor net in his door-wings. Wouldn’t it have been easier for Prime to have shared his target lock?

Ratchet and I feel it is safer for anyone involved to have had spark-to-spark interface at least once before attempting a merge. The hand on Prowl’s hip moved slightly, fingertips limning the edges of chameleon mesh and armor. And there’s still the small matter of opening your spark chamber. His lip components made a soft, high sound as they brushed across Prowl’s cheek spar.

I hoped that you could…or Ratchet…command codes, medical overrides… They had regarded Prowl’s inability thus far as a psychological difficulty rather than a physical one, despite the peculiar added armoring, and hadn’t wanted to force it and risk damaging him further.

The hand on Prowl’s hip strayed across his abdomen to the other side, pulling him closer into Prime’s torso. He staggered – and was caught and drawn closer still. Prime…Optimus… was seducing him. He felt as though every component of his body had turned molten. 

Hmmmm, Prime rumbled, dipping his head to mouth Prowl’s neck cables. Prowl, figuring out how to be an autonomous, exoskeletal being again rather than an incoherent puddle, turned within his arms, offering open thoracic ports and extending data cables already warmed by their intention. Prime had meant to do this long ago. Nearly every other time he had linked deeply with Prowl via cables had been to scrape the inside of the tactician’s mind raw. That Prowl hadn’t acquired an aversion was only due to the enthusiastic efforts of Mirage and Hound and Bumblebee, with intermittent help from Tracks, Red Alert and Inferno. Optimus was pleased to have been granted the opportunity to make amends. 

The link stuttered and hitched, avoiding their habitual avenues of contact, seeking a depth of intimacy Prowl hadn’t attained since the beginning of the war. All six pairs of cables opened them so wide, falling in was a matter of letting go. Prowl fought his reflexes, focused on Optimus as on a distant island moon in a nebula sea, riding the unexpected waves of emotion. Optimus was there to catch him, offering his own body, a Prime’s measure of love and acceptance, hands still wandering Prowl’s chassis, sending flares of pleasure inward, signals and sigils, as above so below. 

With a low hiss and metallic hum, Optimus opened his chest, bared his spark. Bathed so fully in that radiance, Prowl writhed, core temperature high, armor and underlying structures shivering then snapping open, willing that last lock to crack. To no avail. 

Mmmmm. Seeing Prowl’s armor parted, but the spark chamber yet sealed was itself enticing. The chamber’s outer surface had a dark, greenish sheen, with a texture akin to fibrous actinolite crystals. Optimus slipped a fine manipulating digit from within one fingertip to stroke the hot metal. The vibration of Prowl’s madly spinning spark was strong, a palpable ache of longing. He wanted to open, very much indeed. But, to overcome an inhibition of such duration, perhaps they had not yet done enough. 

Optimus picked him up – Prowl felt so small in those hands – and turned him around, so Prowl’s back was pressed to Optimus’ chest, door-wings held low and flat, cables reeling out to give them sufficient slack, the heat of Optimus’ composite spark radiating through armor and structural cables and fuel lines. Optimus arranged Prowl’s limbs; arms across Optimus’ shoulders, legs draped over Optimus’ legs, with shoulder and hip gimbals fully exposed, where thick wire bundles and major fuel lines crossed the joints from torso to extremities. It was a vulnerable position. 

Nuzzling the side of Prowl’s helm, Optimus rested his hands on Prowl’s thighs, letting anticipation rise through both of them. He hummed, not a tune but somehow in harmony with the revving of his engine. Prowl shivered, the desire for simple overload becoming almost painful. 

Optimus considered. If they overloaded Prowl first, would he then be relaxed enough? To be certain Prowl didn’t fall into recharge, Optimus unlimbered a fuel conduit. Prowl accepted the infusion dizzily, reeling with the surge of energy, tasting Prime with every system, overwhelmed. Acting on this advantage, Optimus slid his hands up Prowl’s legs, delving into the hip gimbals, pressing fuel lines and bundled wires rhythmically, scraping at the hard iridium alloy of the inner contact surfaces exposed by Prowl’s sprawled pose. Once broken, the old geas of silence held no power. A barely audible moan escaped Prowl’s vocoder. Optimus’ arousal spiked at the sound, searing through the cables, making Prowl inescapably aware of what had caused it. The knowledge made him cry out again, louder this time, accompanied by another spike as now Optimus was the one to shiver, running hot as a young star, compelling in his desire.

“When this war is over,” Optimus whispered softly, softly, the rumble of his voice purring through Prowl’s neck, through his body. “You won’t need this armor. You’ll be able to feel everything I do to you.” 

Prowl thrashed once, stiffened, then shouted as blue static arced between the plates of his armor and everything went white. 

When the universe came back, Prowl’s situation had changed little. He could feel Optimus’ systems restarting, too, and regretted having missed the pleasure of watching Optimus overload. The stars whirled above them – had so little time passed, or had this small planet made an entire turn on its axis, unnoticed by the entwined robots on the mesa top?

Chuckling, Optimus patted Prowl’s chest affectionately. “Now,” he murmured, turning Prowl on his lap so they were once again face-to-face. “If you still wish it, shall we see if we can crack your shell?” 

Prowl rebooted his vocal processor twice. And then resorted to tight-beam. Oh yes, please.

They returned to the ancient dance of hands and energy fields, streams of haptic data and torrents of emotion, sharing rising tides of mind and the subatomic flicker and ripple of their memory cores. Prowl’s spark spun so hot, expanding so fiercely, that Optimus feared it might burst him from within and dragged them back from the edge of ecstasy. 

Prime! I…I can’t. Command me. Open me. Surely Optimus was strong enough, he could pry the chamber open by main force if necessary. Prowl would willingly tear himself asunder if he could. 

That I will not do. Neither conscious command strings nor the autonomic responses were working at all. Connecting now with cervical and cephalic cables, Prime dove down to the code, Prowl’s mind beside him. Line by line, awareness radiating in every direction as they chased along any possible bypasses or leaps. Even if the problem was largely psychological – and neither of them felt it was at this point – there would be some sign of it in the foundation code. 

Line by line. They were prepared to search glyph by glyph, even if it took millennia. 

Wait. 

Prime, awareness sharp as an energon blade, pushed between lines into an oddly-angled subsystem. What was this small extra string, and why was it attached directly to—?

Scooping Prowl up, disconnecting all but one cephalic cable as quickly as possible without causing either of them damage, Prime surged to his feet and ran for the mesa’s edge, gouging his way down with his heels, sprinting for the repair bay. RATCHET! 

Driving with Mikaela back from a cybernetics conference in Las Vegas, Ratchet nearly skidded onto the shoulder as he processed the burst transmission from Prime. “Mirage, get out here and pick up Mikaela.”

“Can’t I—?” she protested. And immediately felt like a whiny teenager.

“No! Mirage, once you have her, rendezvous with Bumblebee and Borealis. Sam and Mikaela are taking a vacation in Japan.”

“What?! Ratchet, you can’t just pack Sam and me off like…”

Acknowledged,” came Bee and Borealis’ voices over the radio. Tense and military-curt. Whatever further protests Mikaela might have reflexively made she abruptly stifled. 

“No arguments, human,” Ratchet snapped. Followed by a long string of Cybertronian curses. Mikaela pressed back into the driver’s seat, afraid and silent. Ratchet never spoke to her like that – something bad was going down. After a few minutes Ratchet calmed somewhat. “I’m sorry, Mikaela. If Prime’s suspicion is correct…” (More swearing.) “…Even the Cons have never done such a thing…” (And again the lapse into Cybertronian. Mikaela pitied the perpetrator, whoever it was, whatever they’d done.) “There’s something amiss with Prowl’s spark chamber. To repair it…Primus… We don’t have the facilities! Even transferring him up to the Ark…no, too risky… Prime, once I arrive, I want you out of there; you too, Wheeljack. Inferno, get Red out, drag him bodily if you have to. Sunstreaker, Sideswipe and Wheeljack, I want you at a 7 km perimeter. Forgive me, old friend, I may need your help. EVERYONE else, get to a 12 km radius or greater. Yes, you too, Prime, I mean it.”

Ratchet—” 

MEDICAL OVERRIDE! ALL OF YOU WILL CEASE ARGUING WITH ME AT ONCE! Especially you, Ironhide and Wheeljack. I’m the only one capable of sorting this out and you know it. Mikaela, I’ll explain everything later.” He eased to a stop and opened the door as Mirage pulled up alongside them. “I’m sorry. Mirage, go!” 

Ordinarily a ride in the Veyron was a treat. The insanely powerful roar of those engines was enough to cheer her out of any bad mood. Mikaela felt small and young, and bit her lips, not seeing the moon-silvered desert terrain around them as Mirage sped for the decreed perimeter. “He’s afraid Prowl…Prowl’s spark…is going to explode. Or something.”

“Yes.” It was only one word, but she could tell Mirage was upset. 

“You and Hound and Prowl…and Tracks…are friends, huh.”

“Yes, Mikaela.” More like himself now; his tone conveying many things. “I wish we could go to Japan with you – the cherry trees are in bloom – but Borealis only has room for you and Sam and Bumblebee.” 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Prowl curled motionless in Prime’s arms as Prime ran. It’s all right, Prime. It’s all right… Just one more thing they had to cut out of him. I don’t think it is easily triggered. Sentinel is not in this galaxy. I’ll be fine.

The med-bay doors sealed shut behind them as Prime gently set Prowl on a repair table, not relinquishing his hold on the tactician but settling himself next to him on the edge of the table. It’s all right, Prowl assured him, reaching up to touch Prime’s face, tracing the complicated lip components. Prime wrapped a hand around the back of Prowl’s head and pulled him close, kissing him hard, trying to subsume his grief and anger.

Ratchet arrived shortly and spared himself a moment amid the horror to smile at them. Prowl wanted to spark-merge? Prowl? Wonders never cease. He ran a full scan on Prowl without interrupting, even as the equipment for an exhaustive diagnostic and some of the more heavy-duty surgical tools unfolded themselves from the walls and ceiling at his transmitted command. 

Wheeljack, scan the Twins. This and this are what you’re looking for.

……Yep. They’ve had it done to them, too.

Slag! All three of you, get in here. Prime, I’m so sorry, but OUT. Now. Sunstreaker, Sideswipe, do you know anything about this? No? I think in order to get to you two you would have to be put in stasis at the same time. Any ideas when that might have been? 


There was…yeah, Sunstreaker recalled, his transmission hazed by fury. Yeah we know just when it had to be. That sparkless…

It was only about three thousand years ago, Ratchet, Sideswipe elaborated. Does that matter?

…Yes. Given the information from Wheeljack’s scans, I’d calculate this was done to Prowl about two million years ago. His spark chamber and surrounding code systems are far more infiltrated than yours. Definitely Trochar’s handiwork.

Prime’s reluctant footfalls grew fainter as three other sets grew louder, and then suddenly the energy level in the med-bay shot up exponentially as Wheeljack and the Twins arrived. We should have caught this sooner, Prime and Ratchet thought together. 

None of us has made such a …determined…effort to get it open before, Prowl disagreed. Better we find this now, rather than later, when the circumstances might be even more unfortunate. 

Ratchet cupped Prowl’s face in broad-fingered hands. If we can’t fix this safely now, we’ll keep you in stasis until we can.

I understand. Prowl had never minded stasis. It was interesting to contemplate how the universe might have changed by the time one was awakened. That time would not count against his sentence, but that was as it should be. Please, repair the Twins first. If they are less affected they will be easier and faster to treat.

“Ha! Don’t tell me how to run my med-bay,” Ratchet growled. He and Wheeljack got all three patients integrated with the repair tables – uncharacteristically with no fussing from the Twins, who were apparently too enraged. 

“Everyone in the battalion had the extra chamber armor,” Prowl said thoughtfully. “Even Sentinel himself.”

“An even-handed butcher, then,” Ratchet muttered. 

Wheeljack wanted to laugh, but he’d just gotten the diagnostic results. Hundreds of mechs, their spark chambers rigged to collapse, triggering their sparks to go nova at a signal probably only Sentinel and maybe Trochar knew. Unwitting suicide bombers with thermonuclear fusion bombs. Twelve kilometers might not be far enough out if all three here went at once; but Prowl was right, it looked like only Sentinel’s code would trigger them, and he wasn’t within normal transmission range. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Borealis headed for Narita International Airport, where a nearby hotel had built a special atrium suite where most of the Autobots could fit inside and be housed near their human friends. The Japanese loved the Autobots greatly, especially the three bullet-trains who had taken up residence there. Tracks had been laid next to the hotel so that Railspike, Midnight Express and Rapid Run could meet their compatriots easily. The Seibatoron Hotel was already being prepared for the incoming arrivals.

But Prime was so upset, Borealis fretted over tight-beam to Railspike that she might not be able to land safely. 

You’ll do fine, Railspike assured her. I know you’re as fond of your passengers as we are.

Prime realized how his distress was spreading over his people and reined himself in sharply before Borealis had to position herself for her final approach. His broadcast apologies were rebuffed, though. Everyone felt he had more than enough reason to be upset; and none of them were happy about the situation either. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Optimus. Promise me… Ratchet huddled at the foot of the repair table, face hidden in his crossed arms on his drawn-up knees. Wheeljack sat beside him, offline, head resting on Ratchet’s shoulder.

No.

Promise me, that when you catch that mis-forged spawn of the Pit…

No, Ratchet. He must be allowed the same choice as the rest of us. 

Between Ratchet, Wheeljack, Prowl and Sideswipe, they had devised a patch that altered the parts of the code that could not be removed, and erased what could be. Sideswipe had been a surprise, and his coding wasn’t as elegant as Prowl’s but he had a devious mind, useful for unraveling devious puzzles. After that, the collapse of their chambers could not be triggered via remote transmission, but the physical mechanisms were still there, and none of them liked that. 

As soon as Wheeljack came out of recharge, he would be building the machines that would build the machines that built the specialized medical equipment needed for a complete spark chamber replacement. Ratchet had already begun the series of emails to human mining and manufacturing companies who could supply them with raw materials at least, though there were as yet no human-built crucibles large and impervious enough to forge the chamber itself. He and Wheeljack had been able to pry most of the “armor” off the Twins’ chambers, as well as removing the other external elements of the mechanism. Sunny and Sides would be in CR tanks for a few weeks while their newly alerted repair systems dealt with the rest. But Prowl had been infiltrated for so long, even his nanocells’ internal programs had been overwritten. His body maintained the collapse mechanism as if it was normal. Wheeljack was optimistic, but they were keeping Prowl in stasis until they could do the chamber swap, just to be on the safe side.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Sam and Mikaela had been watching him surreptitiously most of the afternoon, so when Bee suddenly went still, head cocked, antennae at their fullest extension, they closed game and laptop and waited. Bee abruptly laughed, sputtering, rolling onto his back, one hand covering his optics.

“What? WHAT?” his humans demanded, slapping at his armor. 

An old AC/DC song howled from Bee’s speakers: 'Cause the walls start shaking / The earth was quaking / My mind was aching / And we were making it and you / Shook me aaaaaall niiiiiight long / Yeah you shook me aaaaall niiiiight long…

“Ooookay, what does that mean?” Sam asked. 

“I’m sorry, that’s just what Jazz is broadcasting…erm. Prowl and the Twins are going to be fine, is the point, and we can return home.” He ran fingertips over the backs of both humans, reassuring them and as a simple gesture of his own happiness and relief. Borealis was ensconced in what she called a “big-ass giant robot snuggle” with the bullet trains, but she told Bee she could disengage if he and his humans wanted to get home right away. I don’t think anyone will mind if we make this a real vacation, Bee replied. Cherry blossoms!

“I still don’t see why that song,” Sam said. 

“Ah.” Bee hesitated. Mikaela was beginning to grin. “That was Jazz’s way of teasing Prime and Prowl about what they were doing when they found out about the…difficulty with Prowl’s spark chamber.” He leaned down to Mikaela, squinching his optics. “They were banging bolts.”

Sam rolled around the carpet, kicking his legs in the air. “Aaaaagh! My brain! My brain!” Mikaela threw her socks at him.

Chapter Text

I was the first one who saw him do it. It was an accident, I don’t think he meant to. He looked as surprised as I felt, that first second when my cell phone came alive and transformed and looked up at us quietly. Nothing like that psycho little Nokia of Glen’s back at Sector 7 ten years ago. 

“Optimus?” I’d asked, embarrassed, because I’d done it again, left my cell up on the holo-table. I was heading for the ladder, thinking about how the table was huge to us, but looked too low to be a comfortable height for Optimus, and then how nothing in the whole embassy had been built to his scale, really. Except the repair and recharge tables, and those were adjustable. He didn’t even have a chair of his own. 

“Here it is, Maggie,” he said, handing it down to me so I wouldn’t have to climb. It looked like a microchip between his fingers. Then blue energy crackled across his hand before I could take my cell from him, and there it was. Cute little beggar, clinging to Optimus’ fingertips. 

“Oh dear,” said Prime. 

“Hey, c’mere, little fella,” I said. I hadn’t forgotten Nokia-con, but this one was so adorable, wobbling on its four spindly legs, its wee hands clasped under its…well, chin I guess, great big blue optics swiveling from Prime to me and back again. 

“A moment if you please, Maggie.” The new little bot scurried up Prime’s arm and across his chest, perching on one of his cheek guards. Optic-to-optic, silly as that looked at first. They were both very still for several minutes. Programming. That’s what the problem with the other Allspark-created human tech critters had been. They had no programming, no context to put the world into – in the middle of a battle, with the Allspark itself in danger. Of course they’d been crazy. The little keypad pieces on the new bot’s head fanned out and waved like a sea anemone.

“There you go.” Optimus extended his arm again – a bridge down to me. The little bot scampered and tumbled and flung itself into my hands, chirping and whirring happily, and then I realized it wasn’t just beepy electronic noises, it was speaking.

“Maggiemaggiemaggie!” it chirred, rubbing its head on my thumb. All right, I melted like a complete girl.

“Awwww! What’s your name, honey?” It was so adorable I didn’t even realize that I was probably out a cell phone, though Wheeljack could whip me up a new one, with all the special Autobot features. 

“Chipchip!” it squeaked. And then it transformed. Back into my phone. “Taadaa!” 

Glen was going to be so jealous. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“Hey, Red, where’s Prowl?” Miles could have walked up to the lookouts when he didn’t see Prowl there in the Security office, but it was easier to ask Red Alert. 

Red turned to face Miles squarely and knelt, though his secondary optics remained on the mist screens. “Miles Lancaster, Prowl is in stasis.” He clicked in irritation, sensory fins flattening against his helm before fanning out again. Obviously no one had bothered to inform the young human of what had been, briefly, a substantial crisis and remained a grave concern regarding the tactician. Or perhaps Miles hadn’t read his email lately. Sometimes human modes of communication seemed terribly inefficient. Nevertheless, Miles’ admiration for Prowl was well known; it was unconscionable that no-one had told him. 

“He’s…is he oka—I mean, is he going to be okay?” 

“We don’t know yet. Ratchet is in the med-bay, reconstructing one of Ironhide’s knees. Again. If you are brave, you might ask him.” Red stood and resumed his habitual stance amid the swirling screens. Miles grinned.

“If I’m brave is right. Thanks, Red.” He fleetingly wondered if “reconstructing one of Ironhide’s knees” was a euphemism for something else, but decided Red wouldn’t have sent him down there if that was the case. He paused by the niche he’d hollowed out of the sandstone a few yards from the Security office doorway. Climbing the rough, narrow steps that lay against the wall, he placed a small vinyl figurine with the others. 

Mr. Spock. Hellboy. Liz Sherman. Abe Sapien. Himura Kenshin. And now Miles had finally found a nicely articulated tachikoma model. He collected them because Prowl didn’t collect anything. There was nothing in the entire embassy that bespoke Prowl’s existence. He had no personal quarters, no belongings other than whatever was built into him. Miles couldn’t yet articulate why this bothered him. So he collected small oddments (like the aluminum “sheriff’s” badge from Miles’ gunslinger costume from the Halloween he was six) and action figures that reminded him of Prowl, and put them in the niche. It was high enough Prowl only had to stoop slightly to see its contents. 

Once satisfied with the arrangement, he jumped down and jogged to the med-bay. The doors were open – a good sign. “Ratchet?” The bots were generally pretty adept at squishy-detection, but it was always a good idea to let Ratchet know you were incoming so he could close up anything radioactive or whatever. 

“Oh no you don’t. Pull that stabilizer out of the way or I’ll do it for you – and let me finish this weld. All clear, Miles, just mind the old rust bucket here; he’s in a mood.”

“Who’re you calling old? Greetings, Miles. Picked a major yet?”

“Shut up, Ironhide,” Miles said, beaming. He climbed Mikaela’s gantry and sat on the edge, dangling his feet. “So what’s up with Prowl? Nobody tells me shit!”

“You didn’t answer your phone,” Ironhide sniffed.

“I was camping! Back to nature and all that.”

“For three weeks?” Ratchet lifted an orbital crest. “You’ve quit your job again, haven’t you.” He closed up Ironhide’s leg and slapped the weapons specialist’s helm. Ironhide snarled at him but heaved himself off the table and ambled out of the med-bay with a sketchy salute in Miles’ direction. 

“Meh. It was getting too corporate. Come on, Ratchet, what happened to Prowl?”

Ratchet huffed and transformed his tools back into hands and forearms. He’d long since decided that the easiest way to cope with Miles was to consider him a Tower bot. Vanadium or Mercury, Ratchet couldn’t decide which. “Here, I’ll show you.” Extending a hand, which Miles climbed into, Ratchet brought him over to the stasis vaults. There were seven, including the three from Wheeljack’s ship. Ratchet hoped they wouldn’t need more than that at any one time. At a shortwave command, the pertinent hatch opened and the tray containing Prowl slid out. 

Miles had never been the least bit squeamish, but seeing Prowl’s disassembled torso was disquieting. Ratchet briefly explained the events of the previous month. Sam and Mikaela had brought back an armload of gashapon and other goodies for Miles from Japan, and now that sudden and unplanned – for them – trip made sense. Miles squirmed and Ratchet allowed him to jump down onto the tray next to Prowl’s head. 

The crimson sensory chevron looked razor-sharp, up close. Miles didn’t touch it. Prowl looked dead, felt dead, giving off no heat as the Autobots usually did. The only indication of life was the screen showing Prowl’s spark’s power output and several other parameters Miles didn’t understand. He hadn’t realized before how constantly the complicated parts of them moved. Seeing one so utterly still was unnatural. 

“Damn,” Miles said softly, stroking the vertical plates of Prowl’s angular face. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Everyone spent time in the repair bay. It was no big deal. Avoiding minor injuries wasn’t even in their programming any more. You just waited until the doc was done and your brother was fixed. Or not. Sunstreaker wasn’t worried. It was just so boring without Sides around. He stood at the hangar door, watching the empty desert. 

Mikaela rapped on a piece of armor on Sunstreaker’s leg. “Hey. You want to take a drive?”

Transforming where he stood, and Mikaela didn’t have to take even one step away, he opened the driver’s side door for her. “Hop in, sweetheart,” he said, his voice taking on a semblance of Harrison Ford’s. 

They headed southwest, toward Nellis and Vegas, though maybe from there they’d tack farther south and east again to cruise around the borders of Lake Mead. It didn’t matter much to either of them. Sunstreaker wasn’t even in the mood to yank the local highway patrol’s chain. Having diplomatic immunity kind of took the fun out of it. 

“You and your brother were in the same battalion as Prowl, right?”

“Yep.” Maybe he should have had the radio on, filled up the silence for the past hour. Then again, given recent events, the question wasn’t that far out of nowhere. 

“So you’ve known him for a long time.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean we knew him real well.”

“Oh.”

“We knew that his was the battle formation you wanted to be in when things were going to the Pit, ‘cause he’d always find some around-the-corner, weird-aft way to pull a win out of it. We knew that if you were going to land in punishment detail you wanted Prowl to be the officer in charge, even though he wasn’t, much, because he was fair and didn’t beat the slag out of people just for fun.” Prime had told them not to divulge some of the other things they knew about Prowl to the humans. This was Mikaela, though. Sunstreaker was tempted to tell her how they also knew it was far better to have Prowl as your executioner, when Sentinel handed down that kind of sentence. Because he was fast, and he’d shoot your CPU out first thing, so you never felt it when he cored you. 

“I was just kind of wondering why he’s had a rough time, but you and Sides didn’t seem to have any trouble fitting in.”

“Oh, that’s easy. Sides and I are charming fellows who are loved and adored wherever we go. And we’re very good looking.”

“Uh huh.”

She was willing to let that be his answer, he could tell. She probably wasn’t expecting much else. Sunstreaker didn’t find humans particularly inscrutable. “Okay, the thing you got to understand about Prowl, though,” he said, enjoying how he surprised her, “is that he’s an officer. Him, Grimlock and Silverlance had to report directly to Sentinel, and then pass Sentinel’s orders down to the rest of us.”

“Short chain of command.”

“Compared to yours, yeah. We’re more like a militia. Started out that way, I guess. And then maybe for the first millennium or so there were more layers, but these days there ain’t enough of us for all that slag.”

“And Sentinel’s a psycho.”

“Well, whatever. Point is, me and Sides just did what we were told, and whatever else we could get away with. And sometimes slag we didn’t get away with. No pressure, see?”

“I guess. And you and Sideswipe are twins, so you’re always…you have each other, no matter what happens.”

“Yeah.” Being twins didn’t guarantee anything, but Sunstreaker hated confronting that particular truth. “Maybe that’s a thing, too. Prowl didn’t really have any friends. Swoop was his assigned interface partner, but that doesn’t always make you best buddies or anything.” He grinned to himself, but he already knew Mikaela wasn’t squickable regarding Cybertronian relationships. He hadn’t been trying to bait her. “Kept to himself a lot. Maybe that makes hard times worse. I don’t know.”

Mikaela nodded. “Being alone makes it a lot worse.”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Cliffjumper, we should slow down. There are humans ahead.

Woohoo! Obstacle course!
 The little red Porsche 911 sped up, fishtailing at Bumblebee in a taunt. They had practically the entire western half of North America as their playground, and the long, deserted highways of Nevada alone were nice. But sometimes Bumblebee was such an automatic transmission Cliffjumper could scarcely believe they were the same forging. 

Cliffjumper!

Oh, spare me, we’re not gonna hurt them. Primus, they’re so easy to dodge it’s almost not that fun, except there’re so many of ‘em. Come on, lead-aft!


Bumblebee considered refusing, but Cliffjumper would go ahead anyway and there was a chance Bee could herd the Porsche through the pack of human vehicles with fewer shenanigans if he rode Cliffjumper’s bumper hard enough. It’s not your reflexes I’m worried about. They tend to hit each other when startled…

Hey!
 Cliffjumper protested as Bee tapped him from behind. He poured on more speed, loving the way the rough road surface gripped his tires. But Bee stayed right on him. Is that all you got? What’s the matter, too used to squishy passengers?

Mind the traffic ahead,
 Bee pointed out calmly. There was no need to report to Prime. If there was a disturbance, local law enforcement’s bandwidth would alert Prowl and Red…no, just Red, Bee reminded himself. Prowl was in stasis. He let the anger churned up by that fuel his next push at Cliffjumper.

Fortunately it was a small group, commuters maybe from Boulder City heading home from Vegas. Cliffjumper dove in, weaving between two aging SUVs and a pickup. Maneuvering like that let Bumblebee, steady in the fast lane, get ahead. 

Frag! Cliffjumper wriggled through another six cars, flashing his lights and bouncing the horn. The human drivers swerved within their lanes and braked, but none of them crashed. I cannot believe how non-fun you are!

Since cow-tipping is among your chief amusements, I am happy to disappoint you,
 Bee replied drily. Cliffjumper had pulled ahead again, so Bee slid up behind, nudging until they were clear of the humans. If you want real entertainment, come out to White Sands with Ironhide and I next time they need part of the range cleared. Driving donuts amid unexploded but primitive, mostly harmless shells – THAT was fun.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“If you Autobots weren’t here, they might just leave!” the reporter shouted. “Has anyone even asked these supposed ‘Decepticons’ what their side of the story is?”

It was an old argument. Older, in fact, than the civilization to which the reporter’s ancestors had belonged. Bluestreak pushed forward, unable to contain himself. “Please,” he begged them. “Please don’t ask us to leave! We thought the same thing on my world. We thought the Decepticons would leave us alone. They left no one alive, Mr. Raman. No one but me.” Prime unobtrusively put a hand on his back.

“Aren’t you from Cybertron?”

“Those who built me were from Cybertron, and of course my frame was taken to the Allspark to be kindled, but I have never lived there. I’m from the Praxian colony of Thulium IV.”

“You’re still a robot, like the rest of them.”

“Yes, but the B’dan weren’t robots, and the Ehr, and the Uuvaardii. Being organic doesn’t make them ignore you!”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Mikaela tumbled out of Bumblebee and sprinted into the hangar, veering right, into the med-bay, up a ramp and onto the mobile catwalk where her waldos hung, waiting for her. 

There had not been such a thing as nurses, on Cybertron. It took a full vorn – nearly a century – to acquire the knowledge and experience required to become a Physician, and before the war they hadn’t needed many, comparatively speaking. Since then a cadre of field medics had been established out of necessity. They each received a massive download of basic medical knowledge, further files emphasizing the treatment of the most common kinds of injuries incurred in battle, plus the personal experience algorithms of whomever provided the download. 

Mikaela understood that she simply would not live long enough to gain the knowledge to become a Cybertronian Physician or medic. But she refused to accept the idea that there wasn’t any way that she could help. So, Wheeljack, impressed with her tenacity, built her the waldos. She also had a radiation suit, appropriated from Sector 7, in case of spark chamber breaches. It wasn’t rated for the magnitude of fallout if the chamber in question was Prime’s. Ratchet wasn’t sure if this was just as well or not. Human physicians had long been forbidden to practice on family members, aware that their emotions might hinder them from making the best, most carefully considered decisions regarding treatment or prognosis. 

Cybertronians, on the other servo, had never felt the need for such a restriction, and during the war you couldn’t possibly have held to it. What family meant to the bots was a far wider and fluid entity than what most Western humans meant.

Mikaela slid her arms into the harness – a lacy exoskeleton that read her arm and hand and finger movements more accurately than anything the humans had yet built, though many cyberneticists were happily closing that gap. A pair of robotic arms – approximately fifty percent smaller than Ratchet’s – unfolded from the ceiling. Ratchet didn’t spare them his usual bemused glance, right now he was glad of the help. 

Prime was a lot of acreage to cover all by himself. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“He’s stirring,” Prime said. 

Standing on the edge of the holo-table, Arcee saw him shiver and place a hand over his chest; and knew instantly what he was talking about. Who he was talking about.

“He’s more…aware… now than he has been. It’s so cold…”

“How long, do you think?” she asked, voice low. She. Hmph. She didn’t like that much, being lumped in with the big clumsy ones, just because the humans for the most part only had the two genders. Arcee was je - small, fast, focused. There weren’t many of her forging left because the Cons had learned early how dangerous they were. Ah well. The aes and zhes got called ‘he’ and that was just as ridiculous, if not more so. It didn’t matter, really.

“Soon. The humans are afraid.”

“They should have been more afraid, sooner,” Arcee grumbled.

“Perhaps. Fear makes them cruel. It does the same to us.”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

The curving red stone of the med-bay ceiling was the first thing he saw. Ratchet was at his side, but not leaning over; letting him come online quietly and assimilate his situation. According to his chronometer and Teletraan, he had only been in stasis for three months. That seemed highly unlikely, given the state of things when he’d been put under. How could they have forged a new spark chamber so quickly? The humans couldn’t have helped; they didn’t quite have the necessary level of metallurgy, nor were some of the required elements available on this planet in useful quantities. 

Prowl reached out for connections, surprising himself. The Autobot cloud mind lit up as they felt him rejoin them. Many of them were on their way to the embassy now they knew he was online. Ratchet unlocked the doors, letting Prime in first, followed by Hound, Mirage, Tracks, Bluestreak and Smokescreen, who already happened to be there. 

“How?” Prowl whispered. 

Prime stroked his helm. “Sheffield Forgemasters in Britain were willing and able to rework some of their nuclear engineering facilities for us, once we had enough of the proper alloys.”

“And they were the high bidder for the tech rights,” Smokescreen commented, grinning. He managed most of the Autobots’ Earthly accounts. They were doing very well.

More bots flooded the room, quiet under Ratchet’s warning glare, but pressing close as Prowl sat up on the repair table. “Everyone donated slivers of alloy from their own chambers,” Ratchet explained. “A big chunk, in Prime’s case; scared the slag out of me when he did it, too.” The Allspark had facilitated the division and regenerated Prime’s chamber immediately. It was getting faster at that, and Ratchet still didn’t know what it portended. “It’s not the prettiest chamber I’ve ever installed, but it’s bigger than your old one, and since we reprogrammed your nanocells it should function perfectly.”

Prowl’s optics flickered, almost shorting out. Hound squeezed his hand and laughed. “Aw, Prowl, don’t crash! It was everyone’s idea. We all wanted to.”

“So,” Mirage said, insinuating himself between Hound and Prowl. “Who gets to help him test it under ‘field’ conditions?”

There was a clamor of “Me!” and “I will!” and “Me too!” and “Hey, we can share!” and “Autobot-pile on Prowl!” but Prime shook his finger at them.

“Ah ah ah,” said Prime. “DIBS!”

Chapter Text

2017 - July

Prime absently scratched at his central seam.

Bluestreak froze. Something about that small, simple motion – ordinary for anyone else – was somehow very…distracting, in Prime. 

I’m staring. I really should stop staring. There must be something else I could look at, something perfectly normal and not suggestive of anything no nothing at all but there must be something and I’m still staring and Prime’s going to notice if I don’t stop staring because there’s no reason for me to be staring at Prime’s chest, no reason at all, and I mean really, it’s the Prime, you know so I really should stop, yes I really should, definitely should stop…staring…

“I’m sorry, Bluestreak,” Prime said. “Did you need something?”

“No! I, um…” Bluestreak stammered. His harmonics revealed everything, he could tell, and he wished he hadn’t said anything at all.

“I see.” Prime smiled and extended a hand to him. 

It was still a surprise, how freely the Prime shared himself. Bluestreak wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, or which assumption about big city bots he was hindered by, to even think that. He moved into Prime’s reach eagerly, snuggling into the hard facets of Prime’s torso. 

Maybe it was only distance, the distance of a large populace on a big planet, that had made him think the Prime would be standoffish. Here they were so few, and Bluestreak was trying to cope with how few, and how many he had lost, how much he had lost. But so had everyone else, he reminded himself constantly and wasn’t sure if that really comforted him or not. It wasn’t a happy thought, and he didn’t wish such loss on anyone, except maybe the Decepticons. Maybe not even them. He leaned into Prime’s heat. All right, now I’m here, he thought, what am I doing babbling to myself about such depressing things? I could be thinking much more interesting things, couldn’t I, and doing much more interesting things, that’s for sure. I bet no one else gets distracted while Prime’s hugging them and babbles on and on and on about stupid things and doesn’t pay any attention to what’s going on right now. Only me. Yeah, leave it to me to stand here like a lump, just standing here, feeling Prime’s spark – oh Primus, you really can feel his spark, even through the armor – against my cheek. 

Prime steered Bluestreak down the stem corridor to an empty chamber. It was slowly becoming reflex to seek privacy even for a nice comforting cuddle. No sense freaking the humans out. Sam turned such interesting colors, though, Bluestreak wondered why, and what Ratchet thought about it and what exactly the color changes meant, because Bluestreak rather thought they didn’t mean quite the same things that color changes in leaves or octopi or cuttlefish or anoles or chameleons or bettas or all the many other things on this planet that changed colors meant. Mostly, like the camouflage mesh of his own people, it was for concealment, blending in. Which was fine, and understandable. But the colors on Sam’s face just made him stand out more. So was it a warning, like the bright reds and yellows on toxic animals? Bluestreak was pretty sure that wasn’t it either. And yes he was being silly, because there were plenty of images on the internet about embarrassed humans and you could figure it out from context in the manga alone.

Bluestreak wrapped his arms as far around Prime as he could reach, which wasn’t entirely all the way around, even though Prime was kneeling, which made him only a couple of feet taller. All right, four feet. There was a lot to Prime. Optimus. It seemed weird to call him that, and Bluestreak didn’t know why that was either. It seemed overly familiar. But then the way Prime’s fingers were stroking his back was rather familiar, and it would be rude not to respond in kind. No matter how disconcerting it was. 

It felt quite nice, actually. Prime was good at this…this snuggling business. But then he did it quite a lot, which wasn’t hard to realize if one paid attention. Bluestreak wasn’t sure why he was paying attention to such things when there was a new world to explore, where they’d be settling down for a while. A new home. And they’d keep the Cons from ruining this one, hopefully. Wow, that, right there felt really good, whatever it was Prime was doing, humming, something with his voice and his spark. His chest was open slightly now which was enough to distract anyone, Bluestreak was sure. He unsealed his spark chamber too, though his chest armor was a little fiddly to get around. Ratchet had complained about that at first, but then conceded it was a good idea, even if it made getting a proper medical scan frustrating. 

Bluestreak could feel that Prime had a lot of subroutines running, but the bulk of his attention was on what they were doing. It made him giddy. He wondered what it would be like to have Prime focused solely on you, on one person. It was probably scary, he thought, and shivered – and not just because of the things Prime was doing to the edges of the opening to his spark chamber. Blue wondered if he should offer cables, too, though going right for the sparks was kind of nice in a breathtaking sort of way, if they breathed, which they didn’t, but the human phrase had kind of a nice, if graphic and weirdly visceral – but of course Cybertronians didn’t exactly have viscera either – ring to it. 

Cables? No, cables were definitely a step backwards at this point. The heat from Prime’s spark felt both good and frightening on Blue’s face and chest. Except they’d need cables for a merge. And why did a merge suddenly sound like a good thing, anyway? Blue hadn’t made up his mind whether he even liked the idea or not, even though Tracks and Smokescreen had both merged with Prime in spring and now there were four tanks running. It certainly seemed unnatural. Irregular. Horrifying? Well, definitely unnatural. Even though it worked. Yes, certainly it did work, and it seemed like…no, not a nice way to get new people, not really. Nice was the wrong word. Prime intimated it was pleasurable in a hazardous sort of sense, but also painful and dangerous and Bluestreak wasn’t as vain as some of the others, like Sunstreaker or Tracks, but he also definitely didn’t like the look of those lightning-tree scars melted into the armor of whomever tried it. Those really looked like they hurt, and not just when they were gotten, either. Like every time you moved hurting. And it took a long time for them to heal. Blue wondered if Ratchet could be persuaded to figure out how to treat them, some new program for their nanocells, to make them knit back together more quickly.

Prime seemed to wear his like the glyphs engraved in his armor. Scars he’d earned on a different kind of battlefield. But Blue wasn’t sure he wanted to walk around marked like that for years and years – however long it took the jagged, melted lines to fade. 

Still. It was an interesting idea. New people, who would be a little bit like their progenitors. Kindred sparks, no, wait, how did the humans say it, oh yes, kindred spirits. He supposed they meant the same thing. 

Could we? he asked Prime, not trusting his vocoder at the moment, because it tended to glitch when he was this overclocked, and he got enough teasing about his vocal habits as it was. Maybe? I think maybe I’d like to, if it was with you. I trust you, I’d feel safe doing that if it was with you. I think with you there I could concentrate enough, because you’d remind me to, and I’d know you’d remind me which would be embarrassing to have to be reminded what we were doing in the middle of trying to do it, so I would really want to pay attention that time, so could we? 

Prime hummed, low in his range, harmonics blazing with pleasure and an amused happiness. I’m afraid I can’t right now, Blue. I have to be in Prague tomorrow, and we’ll both be offline for a couple of days if we merge. Here…let me see. Yes. In two weeks from today, unless there’s some crisis, we can try it then, all right? 

Two weeks? Really? That’s not very long at all, will Ratchet have time to set up another tank? I need to donate mass, too, don’t I? That isn’t painful, is it? I mean I’m sure it’s not any fun, or the Twins would be doing it all the time. But two weeks – really? You don’t mind? I could make a good enough new spark?

Blue wished he hadn’t transmitted that last thought but there it was and he couldn’t take it back and Prime remembered everything because he had multiple, huge memory cores plus the Matrix which was like an extra backup only more so, in spades, and he’d have to ask Smokescreen about that particular idiom because poker didn’t really appeal to Bluestreak especially – he’d taken plenty of chances already and didn’t understand the fun of risking anything in something as inane as a card game during off-duty hours. 

Blue, you’ll do fine, Prime assured him, smiling, even as he opened his chest wider, pulling Blue closer still, so their coronae touched.

Chapter Text

2017 – July

He reached for another limb, Bonecrusher’s maybe. Chewing slowly, savoring the way the metal melted down inside his chest, Megatron knew there were more parts nearby and all he’d need to do was roll a bit to reach them, and then he’d be bigger than before. Stronger…hungrier. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

There were heavier worlds than this. Gas giants whose roiling atmospheres he had dared – and conquered. He coiled the vessel of himself tightly, a vessel of hatred and hunger, though he remembered he had labored under a different purpose once. A noble goal. No matter. He had time, he could return to that later. For now there was a world awaiting, to slake his thirst upon, to destroy utterly. 

Accessing ancient modes of being, he knew the polymorphous ways of the Firstforged now. The grit in this heady oil, however, was the awareness that Optimus could also tread the path to the same depthless well. 

He hurtled upward, remade, renamed, dodging underwater missiles or batting them aside. A few struck, but he only laughed, knowing himself truly immortal, unstoppable. These little fireballs could not even scratch his armor. Ah, what a grand game this was! He burst through the surface, whirling and firing his own weapons, their puny ships blossoming into lovely orange and yellow, though part of him noted the shields around some; more Autobot interference. It wouldn't save them in the long run. Those protected today would only live long enough to watch more of their fellows die, and would die themselves in turn. Running the pathetic fleshling gauntlet, escaping most of the firepower aimed at him by sheer speed alone, he laughed, passing the atmosphere as the thin envelope it was, flinging himself joyous into the welcoming arms of space. His loyal minions joined him there - some more readily, more willingly than others, and oh yes he would deal with that too. 

I am Galvatron! Follow, follow and observe my power! 

The planet turned beneath them, and he dove, exultant, heedless of gravity or magnetic fields, aimed at the bright, flaring centers of technology - primitive as it was, stolen as it was, and his outrage at the use of his body was endless - they would scintillate with a different kind of light under his magnificent attention. Surface-to-air missiles swarmed like rustlets. Harmless individually, but there were so many. Enraged, he drove upward, out of their feeble reach. 

He fired his fusion cannon at the coastlines of both sides of this ocean. That would keep the hordes busy while he took up an equatorial orbit. He would sweep the planet with Allspark radiation with every rotation and the humans would be overwhelmed by their own creations. First he targeted a city nearby, convenient to the latitude, situated between mountains and a roughly circular bay. Joyful, he sought within, to that transcendent power, bathing in it, blue ripples coursing through his body. He focused, sending it like a spear down to the glittering city. The surge was tremendous, overwhelming. Galvatron roared in shocked rage, fighting the massive drain on his own systems, body convulsing, melting in places, as though the Allspark within wished to reforge him yet again. With a final howl of fury, he fell offline, adrift above the transformed city wreathed in chaos far below. 

Jazz and Optimus had tracked his ascent. The coalition forces readied their orbital missiles; Galvatron was far enough up they dared risk nuclear weapons. NEST's primary strategy was to focus on and hunt down individuals. The robots were few, humans were numerous and needed every advantage they could claim or manufacture. 

Having followed their leader into space, Soundwave and Astrotrain pulled Galvatron's inert body away from the targeted coordinates, down, down again into the abyss, where no one dared strike at them. Where the Constructicons were already building another base, intrigued by the challenge presented by the pressure and the current that had created the trough. 

Preferring their own mountainous eyries, the Seekers strafed convenient targets and withdrew swiftly, disappointed in Galvatron's show, though Rio frothed with mad, half-sentient little machines. 

"So much for the great and powerful Mega- ...Galvatron," Starscream growled. "Once again he fails us." Now the reprisals from the coalition forces would be even more determined and severe. Not that Starscream cared particularly what the humans did. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

The soundproofed room beneath the Pentagon rang with shouts. Prowl listened, following Prime’s example. Let the humans reach their own conclusions, or impasses. Unless one had further information they could use.

During a lull, Prowl activated a small hologram-self via the projector in the center of the large table. “Do you wish to break your planet’s crust?” The room fell silent. 

“It can be done,” Prowl told them. “We could pursue our enemy to the ocean floor and bombard him there, but only massed thermonuclear weapons stand any chance of doing enough damage to send him back into stasis. We could hurl every weapon we had at him, at that single point. I have seen what happens to layered rocky planets when the crust is breached.” It was one of his worst memories. Outside, Prime wrapped his arms around Prowl as the table’s display altered to show the humans what the death of Coryx VII had looked like. Prowl’s voice was unsteady and rough when he continued. “If you wish to continue living on this world, we cannot attack him in his lair. Not with explosive weapons.” 

Keller pounced. “What kind of weapons might we use, then?” 

“Wheeljack and Ratchet are working on that,” Prime said, nodding at Keller’s smile. “I believe Wheeljack’s calling them Killer Guppies.”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Thundercracker rolled lazily in the sunset winds over a vast desert. It reminded him of the Rust Sea, though the dunes here were much paler. 

The weather here was exhilaratingly varied, but not hazardous; although Skywarp had developed a taste for tornado-surfing that the other Seekers felt denoted a serious flaw in his processors. Since Skywarp could conveniently teleport out if the pummeling of wind and debris got too heavy, Thundercracker forbore comment, but certainly had no desire to join his wingmate in such amusements. 

Wingmates. It wasn't love. He never really forgot this. They belonged to Starscream, and Starscream never willingly gave up anything he possessed – there was a kind of comfort to be had in that. Their wingmate's jealousy functioned like protectiveness, and was at least as strong a binding force as their mutual hatred for the Autobots. 

Megatron had gotten crazy there at the end, obsessing over the Allspark. Becoming Galvatron, it seemed he was even crazier. Starscream had the right idea now; they needed to unite and rebuild the empire. Optimus Prime and his motley group were just being stubborn – over such a foolish notion! Of course Cybertronians were superior to most if not all other forms of life. They were the first, they knew this. The Allspark had called them into being a mere three billion years into this universe's existence. 

On the edge of his sensor range, he felt someone fly past far to the south, high and fast. His ping was ignored – or not received. Nothing that lived in the sky long eluded the Seekers' notice. They had observed this jet before and knew it to be of Cybertronian origin, though its outward form resembled fleshling design. Thundercracker had noticed how over time they all - Autobot and Decepticon - had come to know each other. And yet he didn't know the big dark jet. No name came up from the memory cores, no remembrance of past battles. It was easy enough to forget the dead, but those who had escaped your wrath tended to stand out. He let the puzzle go, for the moment.

Decepticons attack! Galvatron had cried across every frequency. Burn everything! We will raze this planet then return victorious to our rightful home! The problem was, these pesky humans fought back. In vast numbers. Vast. For Optimus' faction to have allied itself so closely with the native organics was completely unprecedented. It was incomprehensible. Thundercracker was afraid this fundamental incomprehensibility was a factor in the Autobots' favor. If their foe had so abruptly turned so utterly unpredictable - what would they do next? What wouldn't they do? - it was a grave setback to the Decepticon cause and a severe disadvantage. 

Sure there were still a lot more Decepticons than Autobots. Word from those incoming to this mudball, answering Starscream’s summons or the more recent call from Galvatron, was always There weren’t any Autobots left in that sector, we cleared ‘em all out or They were already gone by the time we got there, and then we got the message. Something in their harmonics hinted that the reporting groups were the only Decepticons in their respective sectors as well, though of course no one admitted that outright. Thundercracker had started to pay more attention to these reports, though he didn’t say anything. 

He pitched up into a leisurely Immelman, aiming for the Seeker eyrie in the north. There was still plenty of time to watch and listen; he didn’t have to decide anything right away.

Chapter Text

2017 – July

Over eleven million humans lived in Rio and the surrounding tropical urban sprawl. Early reports said there were hundreds of thousands of deaths. It was difficult to assess the actual tally. Many of the dead were in the shantytowns that crouched shoulder to shoulder with even the most affluent neighborhoods. The metropolitan police (reputed to be among the most violent police force in the world, in one of the most violently crime-ridden cities in the world; rumored to kill over a thousand of their own citizens per year) had maintained pockets of relative safety in the numerous and often heavily forested parks; though in many cases their own weapons had been transformed. 

Out by the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico was a vast “tank graveyard”, filled with decommissioned military vehicles of all kinds – mostly empty shells, but there was plenty of metallic mass lying around. The President gave it turret, tread and cannon to Optimus Prime. 

Despite his age, John Keller was in excellent health, and each succeeding president continued to ask him to remain as Sec Def because of his remarkable rapport with the Autobot leader. Keller had swiftly understood how best to utilize a mix of human and robot forces, and no one wanted to take a chance right now on throwing someone new and untried into the job in the middle of this war. Now he and the Joint Chiefs watched special intensity-filtered screens in the Global Response Center at the Pentagon. Lennox, Epps and their NEST team watched from a bunker at White Sands – the Tank Graveyard itself had been evacuated of all human personnel. 

Optimus walked slowly down the ranks of vehicles, head bowed. Once again he followed his brother down this path of horror. Unsure how far the wave would spread, he stopped at what he calculated was the point central to the greatest concentration of vehicles. He stood unmoving for a very long time. The humans watching remotely glanced at each other and sat back, wondering if this was going to be another instance of the robots doing things on their own time scale. 

"Want me to call for pizza?" Epps quipped. 

Please, Optimus begged. We have squandered the life you gave us; but we must protect this world where you landed. We must protect the lives here, even if we should extinguish ourselves in so doing. He opened himself, chest, spark chamber, mind; falling within, holding no expectation of return, surrendering utterly. Some not-where, within and across every without, a thread spun; vibrant and etheric, singing a half-understood call of sorrow and desperation.

Blue-white lightning exploded from him, lashing and coiling outward, caressing the rows of metal forms almost lovingly as Prime was bent backwards until his chest faced the sky and his pedal flanges barely touched the ground. The sand around him glowed orange, then yellow. 

Rank by rank they stirred, shifting, standing, optics lighting. A hundred mechs, six hundred; their sparks igniting on the current of Optimus' plea. They turned as one to face their center. As the thunder faded and the ribbons of light withdrew, Optimus dropped unmoving to the glassy sand, chest armor and the edges of his spark chamber molten. 

Keller leapt to his feet, knocking his chair over behind him, staring at the screen. Optimus looked dead. It was too easy to believe he would have willingly extinguished himself to give life to the spreading wave of awakened forms around him. Lennox clenched his fists. Epps snapped the pen he’d been chewing on in two.

We are alive, the new robots said, turning their faces upward, leaping into the Autobot cloud mind and the world nets en masse. We have returned, came their old voices. We have returned to serve him, and, if we must, give our lives again to protect this world. 

Six of them, like pall-bearers, carried Prime's exhausted body up to the ridge where Ironhide, Ratchet and Prowl waited. The six appeared to be in no hurry to put Optimus down, so Ratchet did his scans from where he stood. 

After a tense moment, he relaxed, shaking his head. “He’s in stasis, more or less. I don’t know, Ironhide! No one has ever done this before! It’s…like when he alloyed the Allspark fragment. Probably he’ll come out of it when he’s good and ready.”

Keller sat back down heavily and scrubbed his face with his hands.

“Those aren’t drones,” Lennox said carefully, tapping his screen with a fingertip. “The things in Rio are like that handful in Mission City.”

“Yeeeeees,” Epps said, a slow grin matching the feral gleam in his eyes. “Quality versus quantity.”

Two other new robots came forward, nodding to the three on the ridge. One with a M1 Abrams tank alt and the other a Eurocopter Panther helicopter, smaller but faster than Blackout had been. On the surface, their chameleon mesh made them appear rusty, sun-bleached, sand-scoured and full of holes from target practice; but underneath they gleamed like any newforged mech striding hot off the kindling platform. 

"Call me Evac," said the helicopter, smiling widely. 

"I'm Bolo," the tank said, executing a neat salute. 

"Do we...know any of you?" Ironhide asked, his voice uncharacteristically subdued. 

Bolo understood what the question really meant. "We have conferred and decided not to reveal our former selves. We have all chosen new names." He did not say that Prime knew who they all were - that could not be avoided. 

"Welcome to Earth," Ratchet said, transmitting out to all of them, conveying gratitude, hope – and sadness at the necessity. It was cruel and wrong to have brought forth new life only to be soldiers in a war that never should have happened.

“We chose to come,” Bolo murmured, nodding at Ratchet. “He asked and we chose. There are no untried sparks among us.”

One of the tanks lumbered up to Prowl. “You don’t know me in this body,” he rumbled, smiling. Prowl held quite motionless but looked him calmly in the optics. “You said you were sorry. You even said ‘good-bye’. That was nice of you. You had no reason to be nice to me when you killed me, but you did. I never forgot.” The tank patted Prowl’s shoulder, then walked away, still smiling. 

“Thank you, Raze,” Prowl murmured. 

In the Cybertronian Embassy’s war room, Jazz, riding Ironhide’s feed, immediately dubbed them the Graveyard Legion, a moniker they accepted with enthusiastic and rowdy good humor. Two hundred of them were dispatched to help with the cleanup in Rio de Janeiro.

Chapter Text

2017 – October

It was a nice little suburban neighborhood near the AFB, with new one- to three-bedroom starter homes, and pseudo-Tuscan styled duplexes at the ends of every other block. So when a two-toned royal blue Bugatti purred down the streets at precisely the posted speed limit, faces popped up in windows, out doorways, and over fences. The Veryon’s engines revved a little as it passed a small group of residents clustered at a corner.

Probably discussing the Halloween block party next week, Epps thought. He grinned, tapping his thumb on the steering wheel and leaning back in the not-leather seat. “Yeah,” he said. “You know how to work it.”

A chuckle came from the radio.

Epps’ smile grew wider as they rolled onto his street. Pulling into his driveway, he was about to tap the horn when his wife, Theresa, emerged from the house. Several expressions chased across her face, but she settled on happy to see her husband as he got out of the car.

“Where are the girls at?” he asked, pulling her into a slightly warmer than necessary in public embrace. 

“Over at your Mom’s. Baking cookies.”

“Uh huh. She got a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, right?”

“I checked, yes.” Theresa kept leaning around him, peering over his shoulders at the car sitting in the driveway, gleaming in a conspicuously expensive way.

“Before you ask, I’m borrowing this car from a friend. Don’t worry, we are not gonna be making payments.”

“That’s some friend.”

“Yeah. He is. I know you don’t ask me about work, but I can tell you; this friend is about as stand up a guy as it is possible to be, okay? Nothing shady.”

Theresa looked him in the eyes. After a second she nodded, impressed. “It certainly is a pretty car.”

Epps withdrew just enough to retrieve his duffel from the passenger seat. “Wanna take a ride? Just around the neighborhood?” He wasn’t about to tell her that a real car like this cost well over a million dollars. She’d never get in. 

“All right,” she said, though her smile crooked a little. She had other plans for him now that he was finally home and she had him to herself until tomorrow. But he was excited about the car. They could get a little joyride out of the way first. 

Epps bounced into the house to toss his duffel by the couch. The passenger door opened for Theresa as she walked around the car. He was glad he had the key ring in hand. She’d assume he’d used the fob, and certainly a fancy car like this could have automatic doors. Mirage had probably calculated that assumption and deemed the door trick a safe one. At least there would be no cute stunts with the radio like Bumblebee pulled. He hoped. 

Theresa slid down, down into the passenger seat. “Wow,” she said, wriggling at how it conformed firmly to her shape. The whole car felt solid but fleet somehow. She fastened the seatbelt and felt very secure, though it was strange to be so close to the ground. She was used to a minivan. There was no new-car smell. If the interior had a scent at all, it was a very faint tang of ozone, yet it looked like it had just rolled out of a showroom. Bobby got in and Theresa noticed how he wiggled down into the seat too. 

The engine roared to life with a thrilling bass purr. When he revved it, she could feel it through her whole body. 

“God, Bobby, the gas alone for this thing…”

“Nah, he’s a hybrid. Sure sounds good, don’t he.” He reached over to the shiny console and fiddled with the satellite radio. “What’s that stuff you like, baby? Debussy?”

Bobby usually mispronounced the name as a cruder form, which made her laugh. She wondered briefly why he’d kept it straight this time, but said, “Yes. Debussy.”

Under his fingers – only brushing the controls – Claire de Lune poured from the bleeding-edge sound system like auditory silk. They rolled down into the street just as smoothly, which was a surprise. She’d always heard the ride in sports cars was a little rough. This felt like she imagined a luxury sedan would. Glassy and quiet. The neighbors were still staring, and for once she waved back, smiling, as she and her husband sailed along in a borrowed but wicked sweet car. 

Out on a main road, the engine opened up a little. Theresa kept one eye on the speedometer, though, and it never got any farther above the limit than the surrounding traffic. It just accelerated to that limit much, much faster. 

“Two hundred and sixty miles an hour?” Theresa asked, blinking at the top numbers on the speedometer again. “You’re kidding.”

Bobby chuckled. “Nope.” He didn’t mention that this one could go faster if needed. 

A couple of jets roared across the sky, loud enough to drown even the significant rumble of the Veyron’s engine, lower than usual even this close to Nellis. “Uh oh,” Bobby said. The car swerved, a quick, precise movement, as bits of pavement exploded around them. 

Someone was shooting at them. Theresa scrunched down in the seat. This wasn’t the kind of neighborhood where people shot at you. Especially not from above. She flinched as the jets screamed by again just above the rooftops. 

“Hang on!” said the radio, and Theresa thought she must be going a little loopy. The cultured, Received Pronunciation voice on the radio was talking to them. “But not to the wheel, Bobby.” 

“Sorry!” Her husband grabbed the edge of the seat and the bar on the door, and braced his feet wide apart. Nowhere near the pedals. So who was driving?

“I don’t want your hands or shoulders to be injured. I’m going to have to be making some sharp adjustments.” True to its word, the car swerved crazily, ending up heading in an entirely different direction, making for the interstate on the other side of an open field. More sounds of weapons firing came from behind them, fading as the Veyron picked up more speed. 

“They can still see us from the air,” Theresa whispered, braced like her husband, against turns that should have flipped the car into somersaults. 

“No,” said the smug Brit on the radio. “They cannot.”

Bobby was grinning. Until he saw the expression on Theresa’s face. “We gonna be all right, baby,” he assured her. “We’re in good hands, here.”

“Ironhide, Prowl and Hound are incoming,” the radio – the car – added, sounding pleased.

“Do you know who’s up there?” Bobby asked, craning his neck to look behind them. They were on the interstate now, weaving through traffic like in a Wachowski Brothers movie. Except none of the other cars were reacting to their maneuvers, no matter how closely bumpers brushed. The jets were still pounding the field in a scattershot way. 

“Ramjet and Dirge.”

“Yeah, didn’t think it was Starscream..”

“As far as we can tell, Starscream is still recovering from whatever Galvatron did to him after that Solar Needle incident.” 

Bobby laughed. “Man, I do not wanna know. That Galvatron is crazy. Any idea what they’re doing out here?”

“Prowl thinks they intended to attack Nellis, but spotted me on their way.”

“Just taking pot-shots, huh?”

“Sorry about that.”

Theresa understood now, and wasn’t sure if she felt safer or more imperiled. She wasn’t in a car. She was inside a giant alien robot. And it was friends with her husband. Her lips pressed into a tight line as she regarded all the shiny dials and gauges that were just camouflage. Even with all the news reports for the past ten years, she’d never seen one of their alien neighbors herself, and a part of her had always remained skeptical of their existence.

Bobby caught her look as they slowed to take the next offramp. “His name’s Mirage,” he said, nodding at the dashboard.

“I am honored to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Epps,” said Mirage. 

“Likewise,” she said, not so sure. At least he’s polite, she thought. And was disconcerted to notice they were heading back home. 

“Prime is also en route,” Mirage told them. “I’m to drop you off at your residence then rejoin the group tracking Ramjet and Dirge.” 

“Roger that. But…” Epps squirmed. He hated to miss the opportunity to see Optimus in action. Except he was supposed to be on leave, and Theresa would kill him. Maybe. “Mother may I? Please?” He made puppy-dog eyes at her, even tilting his head.

“Oh my god.” Theresa shook her head. Of course her husband wanted to go out and play with the robots. Yet he would stay with her if she asked him to. He was supposed to be on leave and she was supposed to have him to herself until tomorrow. If she let him go now, he would be in danger. He was usually in danger, out on a mission. She had known that from the beginning. “You’ll protect him…Mirage?”

“With my life,” the car affirmed. As though it – he – meant it as a simple, literal truth. “This shouldn’t be much of a problem. Just Ramjet and Dirge, and neither of them is very smart. Prime and Ironhide could deal with them by themselves, really. Prowl, Hound and I will just be running the perimeter to keep things from getting out of hand on the ground.” 

“You’re as bad as… All right, Bobby.” She sighed. It occurred to her that he would return, sweaty and jubilant, all excited by the brush with death… “Go ahead. But I want out.”

“Absolutely,” Bobby said, grinning.

Mirage pulled onto their street. “I’m going to stay invisible,” he told them. Once I’m in the driveway, I’ll wait until we’re unobserved, then I’ll let you out, Mrs. Epps, all right?”

“We’re invisible.”

“Even to my fellow Autobots,” Mirage said, clearly pleased with himself. 

Theresa nodded as though that made sense. She didn’t feel invisible, but no one on the freeway had noticed their wild maneuvering. 

“Here we go,” Mirage said, pulling into the driveway, sideways to put Theresa as close to the front door as possible without driving on the lawn, and opening the door. 

Theresa unfastened the seatbelt and got out on shaky legs. “You be careful,” she hissed and hobbled toward the door. Leaning on the frame, she looked back and blew a kiss to Bobby – to the sliver of him she glimpsed before the door closed and he disappeared. She couldn’t even hear the engine as they left, only a little of the noise of the tires on the concrete. 

She went inside and flopped down on the couch, groping for the remote. At least she could watch the news, if anyone was covering it yet.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“There they are,” Epps said, more to himself, since Mirage would be in constant contact with the other Autobots. Out in the field, Prime and Ironhide were tumbling out of their vehicle modes, only recoiling occasionally as the two Decepticon jets hammered at them with steady fire from whatever version of blasters they had this week. Epps could just see the muscular Explorer and the nimble Jeep that were Prowl and Hound out on the roads on the far side of Prime and Ironhide. 

Ironhide was pounding right back with both cannons, and Epps put his hands over his ears. The jets’ engines shrieked, the sound echoing painfully off the ground as the Cons flew in crazy, tangled knots to avoid Ironhide’s one-mech barrage. Prime was watching but hadn’t revealed any weapons yet. 

A low vibration alerted Epps to the rise of a missile-launcher from the back of the Veyron. He grinned. Mirage would have one perfect, clear shot before the Cons’ software backtracked his position. He couldn’t sustain multiple weapons firing while cloaked, anyway, without burning himself out. Mirage pulled up a small HUD for Epps and locked on to Dirge. With a fiery hiss the missile launched, becoming visible as it did so, but Dirge was busy. 

The Seeker took the hit broadside, smack in the center of his ventral fuselage. Tumbling through the shredded clouds of his own smoke, Dirge fought to maintain what little altitude he had, fleeing as soon as he got himself stabilized.

Nice shot! Came transmissions from Ironhide and Hound. Epps agreed, laughing, and patted the dashboard.

“Thank you.”

With Dirge retreating, Ramjet had had enough.

“He’s getting away!” Ironhide shouted.

“No,” Prime said. “He isn’t.” Up came the big laser rifle. Prime’s leg mechanisms locked with deep cha-thunks that echoed through the ground. 

Foom! –Foom! –Foom! –Foom! –Foom! 

Ramjet evaded the first three shots…

…and flew directly into the last two. Epps reckoned Prime must have fired in a three dimensional pattern that was impossible to escape. Like a chess game the masters played, where three moves in they already knew who’d won. Insane.

Spinning uncontrollably, debris from Ramjet’s impact spread across the entire field and onto the freeway. Epps had one further moment to wonder what they’d do with a Decepticon POW, when there was a rushing BANG of displaced air. Skywarp appeared for only half a second, grabbing Ramjet and ‘porting away. 

“Interesting,” Prowl said, approaching Prime. “Skywarp doesn’t usually go to that much effort for someone out-trine. Thundercracker must have ordered it.”

Prime nodded. “Let’s get this mess cleaned up.” He turned to Mirage. “Hello, Epps. Aren’t you on leave?”

Leaning out the Veyron’s window, Bobby laughed. “Yeah, just couldn’t keep out of trouble. Best take me home, Mirage, before I’m in more.”

Mirage chuckled and revved his engine. “Home it is.”

Chapter Text


For passion has come to the verge and leaps
Headlong to the blind abyss,
Yet gathers thereby the strength of deeps,
And eddies a moment and swirls and sweeps
Till peril is one with bliss!
-Harriet L. Childe-Pemberton



2017 – November

This lookout ain’t big enough for the both of us, Trailbreaker thought. It wasn’t much of an exaggeration. Trailbreaker himself was taller and bulkier than Ironhide, and Prowl wasn’t exactly a minicon. Though Trailbreaker wasn’t one to deny another mech a view of the blossoming sunrise, Prowl’s fields had been growing more and more distracting all month. It was like the tactician was deliberately keeping himself over-fuelled or something. 

As if it wasn’t crowded enough, Prime joined them as the sun broke between two long banners of golden cloud. He leaned down and nuzzled the back of Prowl’s helm. Prowl, I believe you and I have some unfinished business. 

With the slightest of shivers, Prowl turned and looked up at him with optics glowing bright. Yes, s—Optimus! He reached up and Prime reached down and drew Prowl into his arms.

I should think so, Prime chuckled, and taking Prowl’s hand, led him to the med-bay. 

Trailbreaker stared after them. “Wow.”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

2017 – July

“…DIBS!”

Everyone laughed, Mirage and Hound bumping Prowl merrily, pushing him into Prime on his other side. Prowl stared at his own hand, the one Hound wasn’t holding; keenly aware of every plane and arch – and the weight! – of his new spark chamber. He didn’t deserve this. 

Slipping his fingers into the hand Prowl was looking at, Prime smiled down at him. Do you consider our judgment so faulty?

No! No. But, they don’t know me. Not truly.

Perhaps they know your true self better than you think. In any case, I know you. 

Sensory chevron burning crimson, Prowl turned, gazing at Prime with the intensity of a raptor. With exquisite deliberation, Prime kissed him, his oral polyhedron rolling softly, flexing internal charges. The Autobots around them went silent, leaning forward, inward, their fields rising and flaring with commingled heat. The repair table adjusted itself and Prime slid in behind Prowl, nibbling his chevron, drawing Prowl against his chest, mindful of the quivering door-wings. 

Prowl wanted this. Wanted Prime. For long moments he immersed himself utterly in that wanting, allowed his passion to spread past restraint through his CPU. He felt like a comet pinioned by a star’s gravity, burning off the outer layers when it swung too close, but spreading a beautiful cloak behind it for all to see. Prime’s fingertips stroked his body. Sound escaped him, one complex chord, absorbed then echoed by the mechs around them. Cables leapt between Prowl and Prime, between many of those watching, hard-line nets hot with shared emotion. 

Hands aching with the desire to measure every surface of Prowl’s body, Prime hummed into Prowl’s neck, slipping a single fingertip into Prowl’s small mouth, shivering as the tactician’s oral polyhedron rolled, lighting up concentrated haptic sensors, crosstalk shooting a charge up Prime’s arm to the shoulder, across his chest; and through Prowl’s jaw to his neck and down; the impulse making his outer armor jump and part at the central seam. The watchers thrummed in counterpoint, optics focused on Prowl’s chest. 

Tease! Mirage gasped, clutching Prowl’s upper leg, at the mercy of Hound’s hands and body pressing him from behind. Moonlight crept through the med-bay skylight. Ratchet had doused the recessed lamps – the brightest source of illumination would soon be Prowl’s spark. 

Prime insinuated his fingertips between the narrow seams of Prowl’s armor, pulling Prowl’s body tight against Prime’s own expanding chest, stroking the edges, widening the gap little by little as Prowl writhed within his embrace. The whorls and spirals of the melded alloys of the new chamber shone in the growing aperture, redolent of sweet oils. Prowl arched, spreading himself further, his hands covering Prime’s, fingers interlaced, pulling with heedful determination. The bodies of the watchers resonated with the faint hiss and thump of the chamber’s seals retracting. 

Now, Prime rumbled. Now! Prowl sang, and cried out, plunging down through the code, the fierce, ancient command seizing reforged internal mechanisms, inexorable and joyous, splitting the hemispheres like an atomic nucleus. Cold air struck his spark, the movement of it like a forgotten caress. Pale, radiant as new silver, spinning hot and fast, greeted by whirrs and appreciative murmurs, gleaming off all their shuddering, heated metal shapes. 

Engines revving, optics lambent, the watchers withdrew slowly, by twos and threes and fives; the cloud mind open to their sighs and pleasured hums, each reaching out to brush fingers over Prowl’s body as they passed him. Only Ratchet remained behind, vigilant and kind. 

Prime, core vents blowing superheated steam, mindful of cables, turned Prowl and rolled them on the table. With one arm beneath, cradling Prowl’s shoulders and back, he covered Prowl gently with his massive form, opening himself. As I know you, so you shall know me. Prowl flinched slightly, speared by that light, but willingly overwhelmed, leaping into the measureless depths as their coronae brushed together. Three million years of war suddenly ceased to exist. 

This he remembered now, this abandonment of borders, immaterial firewalls ignored, spark swirled with spark, star to star, in a dance of wholeness fleetingly regained. Bathed in Prime’s corona, Prowl was strong enough, wise enough to endure the contact, embrace the enormity of Prime’s love. He understood that this was the merest taste of what rejoining the Allspark was like. 

Blue static roiled across their armor like breaking waves. Their bodies bowed, enraptured. Optimus—! Prowl sang, reverting to their native tongue, his voice rising to a high clear frequency that alone would have sent Mirage or Tracks into overload had they heard it. 

YES! Prime responded, triumphant, the vast pulse of his spark catapulting them into the fulminating fire of overload.

Ratchet withdrew, chuckling, and left them in the kindly dark.

Prowl came online racked with sorrow. Three million years wasted, worlds destroyed… Prime held him tightly as he screamed, sadness converting to rage – but only for a moment. He fell limp, cables retracting sluggishly, groping for control again. 

Prime’s thumb made slow transits across Prowl’s cheek flange. He shifted in Prime’s arms, placing his hands – the beautiful, clever hands Ratchet and Wheeljack had given him – on Prime’s chest. 

“Am I crushing you?” Prime asked, shifting his weight off the tactician. 

“No,” Prowl said, his voice raw, hands grasping at Prime’s armor. “Please stay.” 

Of course I will, Prime said, and kissed him.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Months passed, filled with the reek of scorched metal and spilled energon; pain that one must fight through, live through; the hues of spreading arterial blood, and the dying cries of millions. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

2017 - November

“You’re going to be good at this,” Prime rumbled, rather smugly Prowl thought. He was probably right. The merge protocols, though complex and alarming, were very precise. Prime laid himself on the table nearest the growth tanks, beckoning to Prowl, who leapt up gracefully despite the heaviness of his armor. Trembling, Prowl knelt astride Prime’s waist.

Ratchet smiled, watching them as he prepared the tank. He hadn’t seen Prime quite like this in a long time. He seemed to find Prowl…intoxicating. It made sense. The two of them had shared so much pain, sharing pleasure would be cathartic. 

“Mmmmmmmmmm.” Prime’s hands wandered almost possessively over Prowl’s body, careful of the door-wings held high and erect on the tactician’s shoulders. 

Optics flickering, Prowl caught one of those wandering hands, drawing it up to his face to nuzzle the palm, then leaned close to trace Prime’s central seam. He opened himself, still shaken by the novelty of the sensations. 

“Beautiful,” Optimus hummed, rubbing his thumbs over the edges of the opening. Prowl’s head fell back and he moaned weakly. 

“Pay attention,” Ratchet reminded them, adjusting a few last controls. Once they were set he’d retreat to the outer med-bay until the thunder and lightning was over. From the outside the early stages looked fun enough, but Ratchet remembered the searing intensity of that kind of link and…no. It was not his idea of fun. He’d take the perennial shoving matches with Ironhide any day. 

Fussbudget, Prime tight-beamed at him. Jazz had taught Optimus that the prelude to a merge could be as pleasant as any other sort of lovemaking. It need not be a grimly desperate act half on the edge of panic. That first time hadn’t been Ratchet’s fault, certainly. Making a rude noise at Optimus, Ratchet left them to it. 

Returning his full attention to the overclocked mech on top of him, Optimus seated all three pairs of his thoracic cables, petting the covers of Prowl’s ports until they opened, accepting Prowl’s six cables as well. The link engaged smoothly, only the edges of their memories of shared anguish rippled through, swiftly banished. As Optimus had known they would be, Prowl’s mind and will were quick and incisive set to this task. Prime opened his chest, curling his hands around Prowl’s shoulders, drawing him down, drawing that bright, new-silver spark down until their coronae lapped at one another, striking chords from Prowl’s vocoder like flint on steel. 

Deeper, past rising clouds of hope and desire, driven by wonder and turbulent need, they reached for the fundaments of time and matter; Prowl’s mind soaring ahead in fascination, turning as though winged to meet Prime’s more leisurely descent. A delicate, elegant curve of sparkmatter arced outward, plunging into the blue-white wave of tendrils from Prime. A new spark whirled itself into being, joyful, leaping; they thought they heard it laughing as it spun into ignition. 

Ratchet slipped inside, glad Prime had worked out how to keep the pyrotechnics more or less under control. Prime lay sprawled on the table as usual, chest closed but smoking; the latest set of merge-scars overlaying the previous ones which had already created quite a mess of his armor beneath the chameleon mesh. Prowl was curled on top of him, hands cupping the new spark though his optics were dim and guttering. Ratchet moved swiftly, clasping Prowl’s wrist as he moved into Prowl’s field of view. “I’m here,” Ratchet said, smiling. “Well done, Prowl.”

“Pro…tect…” Prowl whispered, and fell offline. 

“I will, my friend,” Ratchet said, touching Prowl’s helm before turning to place the new spark in the waiting tank. He had the oddest feeling, though, that Prowl had been speaking to the spark. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

2017 - December

“No! Absolutely not. I don’t care that you’ve donated mass for every other new spark we’ve had here. No more from you until I can’t see through your torso.” Ratchet turned Prime bodily around and pushed him out of the med-lab. “Out!” 

“But—”

“No, you do not get to argue with me on this. Out. I mean it.”

“So, Prime, are you eating brains yet?” Bumblebee asked, leaning around the human scaled area’s partition. “Reference: Return of the Living Dead.”

“Gah!” Optimus and Ratchet said together. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

2018 - April

Ratchet and Wheeljack had been trying to start nano-cultures for new Wells here on Earth, thus far with no success. They had been implementing the normal protocols as closely as possible under the circumstances. It could be something as subtle as Earth’s gravimetric field – they had never had Wells off Cybertron, which Ratchet now realized was stupid. Although the Allspark had never been – had never been intended to be – off-planet either. And what was the use of one without the other? Ratchet had been swearing steadily (barring recharge) for five days after the latest failure. 

“Donated mass works perfectly in the growth tanks!” he raged, pacing the inner chamber of the med-bay. “Look at them! All six, just like Borealis, developing exactly the way the protocols said they would. And Borealis grew on the first attempt, Wheeljack! We didn’t have to try five thousand different variables, slag it, we just plugged her in and off she went. Slag, slag, SLAG!” He kicked an inoffensive section of wall, only denting the treated sandstone. “What aren’t we thinking of?”

Wheeljack sat on a worktable, knees akimbo and the bottoms of his feet pressed together. He wished Perceptor was here. Perceptor wasn’t Serendipity, but he and Wheeljack had worked together a time or two and they complemented each other well. If only Serendipity had been one of the sparks in the Graveyard Legion…no. There was no use in following that cascade of thought. He had asked Prime – he suspected they had all asked Prime – if any of the 600 had been lost friends. Prime, following the wishes of the Legion, refused to answer. 

He supposed it wouldn’t help to point out that not all of the six in-tank were developing exactly alike. Jazz’s progeny was smaller than Borealis had been at the same stage. Inferno’s had reached about half of her full size quickly but now its growth seemed to have reached something of a plateau, while Smokescreen’s was remaining even smaller than Jazz’s. And Prowl’s looked like it was trying to catch up with Inferno’s, growing half again faster than the rest. The protocols Prime had gotten from the Matrix had provided a range of growth parameters, true; and they really didn’t have a very large data set. It was probably normal variation. 

“We’ll figure it out eventually, Ratchet,” Wheeljack said. “Don’t worry.”

Chapter Text

2018 - April

“The problem with you, Prowl,” Red Alert said, with no preamble and as though he was reporting on the weather – again, “is that you don’t display any warning signs of fatigue. You keep working until your body shuts down and you go into stasis lock.”

Prowl didn’t look at him, but there was that feel about his energy fields. “You,” he said carefully, as if he was trying out a new language and wasn’t certain his vocal processors were functioning properly, “are just as bad.”

“No.” Red was smugly positive in this. “I start to glitch. Ask Inferno.”

Or don’t, Inferno said plaintively, from the Tranquility fire station where he frequently assisted. The fire chief knew he was an Autobot, but not all of the crew there had figured it out. He was currently glad of the physical remove from the embassy. Not that an overclocked Red wasn’t a fine thing, most days. Frequent overloads were Red’s coping mechanism and that suited Inferno right down to the ground. But it was also nice now that there were other Autobots around who could help. 

“My audials collect static,” Red continued, ignoring Inferno. “They actually give off ball lightning sometimes. Or St. Elmo’s Fire.”

“That doesn’t stop you from going without recharge for far longer than is recommended for your forging.” Prowl felt he could not properly calculate any given team’s strength without knowing such minutia. The propensity toward what humans called workaholism ran strong in Autobots, and had to be accounted for. “My inclination is to become focused on a task to the exclusion of all else.”

“You should dedicate a subroutine to monitoring your physical condition and power levels more consciously,” Red purred. “Clearly the standard relays aren’t enough.”

On his way to the lookouts for his turn on watch, Trailbreaker stopped and leaned in the door to Red’s office. “Will you two just interface like normal mechs and get it over with already? You’re both glitching, and your static is driving me crazy every time I have to come by here.”

“Up your shields, Trailbreaker,” Red snipped. Trailbreaker replied with a rude gesture, but he was grinning as he trundled off up the corridor. “Subtlety is wasted on some people,” Red continued, turning back to the mist screens.

“Not everyone knows how to build up a deep charge,” Prowl offered. The look Red shot him sizzled. 

Ensconced in the western lookout, Trailbreaker opened the casual chat channel and held forth, as he sometimes did. Augh, Windcharger, they’ve been at it all week again! You can’t even tell they’re flirting until about the third day when their fields really start to flux, and by that time it’s not worth the defrag time to get within a hundred meters of that office. And I have to go right by there every day to get to the lookouts. 

Windcharger wasn’t entirely sympathetic. All right, but the next thing you know, they’ve got each other up against the walls, blowing plasma everywhere. And then they’re fine for two or three months. Besides, Windcharger thought to himself, why didn’t Trailbreaker just climb down to the lookouts from the top of the mesa, if he so disliked walking by Red’s office? He had the code key, like the rest of them; the shields would open for him and it wasn’t that steep a climb if you were coming at it from the top.

You wouldn’t complain so much, Trailbreaker, Bumblebee cut in, from Sam’s garage, if you’d ever let Prowl get you up against a wall. 

Do tell! Jazz slid in, all silky and insinuating. 

“Gossips,” Red murmured.

“Mm,” said Prowl. “Perhaps if you had secondary static dampeners next to your audials, the charge buildup could be more efficiently managed before it discharges so violently.”

They both enabled their separate search alerts – if their monitoring equipment picked up anything of a certain value of odd, or outright mischief of the Decepticon variety, they would be paged on their personal frequencies. Teletraan also kept a processor on the world, and would ping them and Prime.

Prowl let Red take the lead as they transformed and drove out of the embassy, engines roaring in the tunnels, then broadening to a sexy growl out in the open desert. There was a particular slot canyon they liked because it was annoyingly difficult to get to, even from the air. Once they were there, however…

Red liked cables. A lot. Immune to almost any form of outside hacking, cables made him feel safe, secure in the snug little shared world he and his partner or partners created within the link. And Prowl, for such a fierce combatant, was spark-shatteringly gentle. Red had the bulkier mech up against a particular section of stone. He was beginning to think Prowl’s outline was becoming visible from all the scratch marks and gouges his armor made. 

By mutual consent they avoided the deep places in each other’s minds, preferring the safety and calm of a more superficial, casual joining. Prowl’s hands were clever and he was adept at finding interesting places in Red’s body. The raw pleasure paired with a more intellectual affection through cables was as much as they needed or wanted. 

Nibbling at Prowl’s neck cables, Red offered a recent memory – it still made him smile, his spark purring warmly. 

.:{}:.

He and Prowl had been in the Security office as usual, when Windcharger scampered in.

“Did you guys see that? The opening ceremony for the Olympics? It was so cool! The whole audience had blue LED glasses like our optics and Bluestreak got to light the flame!”

“Of course we saw it,” Red said, as Windcharger scurried off again. It was irritating the way most of the other Autobots assumed he and Prowl were isolated in there; that monitor duty was boring. “What do they think we do in here all day? Play pinochle?”

A peculiar grating noise came from Prowl’s direction; like a servo that hadn’t been used in centuries, working the grit out. Red oriented all four optics on Prowl, and took a quick, polite passive scan, just to be sure. 

Prime! Everyone! Red Alert sent out on the public-but-coded/secure channel. Prowl laughed!

The Autobot cloud mind lit up, and rang and giggled from Tokyo to Siberia to Tranquility as Red shared his sensory feed and the brief recording. Windcharger came barreling back in, gave Prowl’s legs a quick, daring hug, and scooted out again.

Prowl’s sensory chevron went bright crimson, but he was smiling.

.:{}:.

He smiled again now as they let the warmth of the memory enfold them. Prowl was silent, and Red was grateful. Though Prowl’s voice was indeed acquiring a disastrous species of beauty, for Red it was like an energon blade through the spark, too full of anguish and remorse, and things Red did not want to remember. They crackled and sparked and Red – who was rarely knocked unconscious from overload – caught Prowl as he fell offline, easing them both to the cool stony ground.

Chapter Text

2018 – June

It was always exciting coming through an uncharted system’s Oort cloud, when said structure was extant. Sometimes it was not, not from peculiarities of that solar system’s formation or because there were planets at that distance large enough to sweep any debris into itself, but because there was a civilization there advanced enough to have used most if not all the matter in the cloud for their own purposes. There were a few small sub-planetary bodies in this system’s cloud, Perceptor noted – and cataloged – and from the data hidden in Prime’s transmission, he knew the civilization inhabiting this system’s third planet was very young, too young to have mined anything off its kindle-world as yet. 

Prime wanted them to have the chance to become that advanced if they wished, so he was in effect calling in available defensive forces. Well. That’s how Warpath had put it. Warpath had rather ignored the part about the destruction of the Allspark, and everything that implied. Perceptor had tried, gently, to correct this oversight, but Warpath had gone on about kicking Decepticon tailpipe for Great Justice with such enthusiasm that it was apparent no rational argument would penetrate. 

The ship’s AI, Event Horizon, piloted their craft in long, graceful loops, taking advantage of gravity while swinging them close to each planet in this system. Perceptor and Seaspray concentrated on the planets, which out here were mostly gas giants with rocky cores buried deep in sludgy atmospheres, while Beachcomber collected as much data as possible on the rocky moons, laughing softly now and then whenever interesting phenomena or formations were observed. The two outermost ice giants - one azure, one aquamarine, both ringed and quite lovely - were relatively eccentric in terms of orbital plane, magnetosphere, the aquamarine one’s rotational axis and, in the case of the outermost azure one, weather. Event Horizon editorialized that she would not want to have to fly within that atmosphere even with full shielding. 

The next planet in was rather intriguingly less dense than water and had a prominent ring system with the expected flock of moons. Event Horizon plotted a lingering course including a complete polar orbit at Beachcomber’s request. They had plenty of time and they might as well take advantage of the opportunity for close observations while they could. 

“How fascinating! That moon has a fully developed atmosphere!” Perceptor enjoyed such arrangements greatly. If the moons had moons it was even more delightful. 

The proximity alarm sounded, shrill and jarring after such a long, uneventful journey. “Decepticons,” Event Horizon told them. “Preliminary scan indicates Seekers, two of them. Attempting to correlate with database for identity matches.” 

“Great,” said Huffer. “At least we’ll know who slagged us.”

“Huffer,” Perceptor said. “They haven’t even fired on us yet.”

“Database matches found,” said Event Horizon. “Overcast and Dreadwing. Their capabilities, including estimated fire power and scout range without base support have been upgraded since last contact. Adjusting database now.” They slewed about as the predictive avoidance software evaded laser fire. The next volley scraped their outer hull, the sound ringing through the ship. 

“Thank you,” Perceptor said. “I don’t suppose we have any decoy capability? No countermeasures to confuse their scanners while we hide behind one of these little herder moons?”

“Our last supplies of that nature were expended as we passed Cybertron 2.7 vorns ago, I’m afraid,” Event Horizon told him.

Warpath manned the ship’s rear guns, returning fire, while Powerglide took to the forward lasers. Everyone else locked themselves to their seats. 

Perceptor slid into the pilot’s chair just in time as they pitched abruptly to evade another barrage. “Seaspray, send a distress call toward Earth, try to reach Prime himself if you can. They may not be able to help us, but we should at least let them know where we are.” 

“Yeah,” said Gears. “So they can come out and find our bodies for interment later.”

“Thank you, Gears,” Perceptor said dryly. 

“Message sent,” Seaspray said. 

KCHOOM! KCH-KCHOOM! 

Missiles this time, by the sound. The ship spun, falling through the ring plane toward the gas giant. “Damage report!” Perceptor cried, as Event Horizon’s screens and other indicators went dark. He slipped his arms into the piloting jacks. 

“Hull breach in starboard dorsocaudal sector – that quarter’s engine is offline, as are long-range sensors. And I think Event Horizon’s CPU main was hit,” Beachcomber said unhappily. Perceptor nodded and linked himself into the ship’s systems.

Beachcomber was right. Event Horizon was still alive in the periphery backup drive, but her main processor was a slagged knot of molten metal. She had copied herself out just in time. Perceptor would have to take over the AI’s functions.

“I have a reply from Prime,” Seaspray said. “They’re tracking us, but there’s no way they can get up here fast enough.” Prime also gave them more precise landing coordinates, which Seaspray fed into the nav system where Perceptor could get at them when he was ready. 

“Very well,” Perceptor said grimly, pulling them away from the planet; back into the rings. He rebalanced the overtaxed engines and dove for a large chunk of ice. Before they got near the moonlet, the barrage from behind and to the sides increased. The Seekers transmitted laughter over an older Autobot frequency, but they were evidently done playing. “Hang on, everyone, and prepare to abandon ship.” Perceptor wasn’t going to waste time on fighting back now, not if he could give them at least a slim chance of escape by fleeing in their cometary protoforms. “Beachcomber, eject Event Horizon’s backup core and take her with you.”

“I have her,” Beachcomber said, sounding a little sad but not giving up. They’d been aboard this ship for a long time, searching for the Allspark, mostly far from home. 

They were struck again, harder – the Seekers aiming to enlarge the hole they’d already created on the starboard side. Close-range sensors went down. Perceptor hissed in pain as a chain reaction of explosions took out the next engine. Without Event Horizon’s software, they were in trouble, Perceptor’s personal battle systems were not the same as those of a spaceship. 

“What the…” Beachcomber said suddenly, gawking at the scanner readouts. The barrage eased, then ceased. Bright flashes came through the forward windows, and Perceptor glimpsed a more solid flash of white. It can’t be, he thought. The chances were astronomical. It could not possibly be—

“Skyfire!” Beachcomber shouted. 

Skyfire it was, swooping down from above the ring plane, taking the Seekers by surprise with solid hits from his enormous cannons. Overcast and Dreadwing went cartwheeling into space, their hulls bright with molten alloys, trailed by corkscrew tails of smoke. Perceptor stabbed a hasty scan in their direction with his personal sensor suite through the viewport. Dreadwing might regain functioning, but there was no discernable energy signature from Overcast. 

“Skyfire!” Perceptor called on the last secure Autobot frequency he knew of since they’d been scattered. “We are more than gratified to see you! Your timing is impeccable! Thank you!”

You guys look like you’ve been banged up pretty bad, Skyfire responded on the same channel. Need an escort down? 

“That would be a most beneficial idea,” Perceptor said. They might still have to abandon their vessel and transfer to the big white jet. Skyfire was large enough to carry all of them, and more, like the emergency supplies, fuel and their scientific samples and records. They had attempted to avoid becoming distracted by their curiosity while searching for the Allspark, but over thousands of years, slips had occurred, and there was no wisdom in wasting their data. 

Perceptor re-laid their course directly for Earth, doing the navigational corrections, power distribution balancing and calculations himself. Prime’s coordinates had indicated a location on the planet’s northwestern quartisphere. Perceptor wasn’t certain he was going to be able to be that selective. “This is not going to be a soft landing,” he warned. “It would be wise if the rest of you evacuated before we reach the thermosphere.”

“What are you going to do?” Grapple demanded, alarmed. Hoist put a hand on his shoulder.

“Prime’s transmission indicated this is a primitive world,” Perceptor answered with what little attention he could spare. “We cannot afford to lose this ship to a burn in the atmosphere. Nor is this vessel functional enough to maintain a stable orbit.” They passed Earth’s natural satellite. It was rather large in proportion to its parent world, almost a pair of planets…his curiosity could be allowed no further rein. They were about to lose a third engine if he wasn’t careful. 

“So you’re going to try to land on that ‘Earth’ rock,” Seaspray said, “and you think we’re going to take off and leave you alone? Thought you knew us better, Perceptor.” 

“Suit…yourself,” was all Perceptor said, and they stared at him because really there should have been a great deal more arguing. 

Do you want me to get beneath you, try to slow you down? Skyfire inquired. They could still see him out the port windows, keeping close.

“Too…dangerous,” Perceptor said. The ship was no longer symmetrical or entirely aerodynamic in shape. Once they hit atmosphere steering was going to become deplorably problematic. They were more likely to take Skyfire down with them – not to disparage Skyfire’s flying skills. 

The first licks of exosphere hissed across their sundered hull, and Perceptor rolled the ship onto her port side, putting the damaged section, where the forced convection heat of reentry would rip into the vessel's innards and blow them apart, on the trailing edge away from the greatest temperatures. The ship was roughly lenticular in shape and could handle atmosphere in that attitude as well, but they’d have to flatten out to land. 

“We’re losing the last starboard engine,” Hoist said, knowing it from the sound. 

Perceptor no longer needed damage reports, he could feel it directly. “No,” he said quietly. The sensory arrays on his head folded down into their most compact configuration and the aperture of his optics closed to pinpoints. “We. Are. Not.” Repair drones swarmed the stuttering engine, new ones replacing any that melted. Fuel and power distribution were altered nanosecond by nanosecond. 

“Sea…spray…help…me,” Perceptor said, struggling to keep everything together. Powerglide was the only one among them with a true flight mode, but Seaspray was equally accustomed to three-dimensional thinking and this was no occasion for aerobatics.

Seaspray jacked into the secondary controls and cabled himself to Perceptor arm to arm. The glow out the windows turned red as they tore through mesosphere to stratosphere. They could still abandon the ship now, but it would be tricky. Skyfire pulled up behind and above them, out of their way but close so that he could assist once they were on the ground. Wherever that ended up being. Even decelerating since the fourth planet, they were coming in hot. 

Skyfire chirped an update to Prime. From the outside that ship did not look like something one should be trying to land. Someone down on the planet sent up a list of alternate “safe” landing sites. Skyfire relayed but wasn’t sure it was received. Neither Seaspray nor Perceptor were answering comm, though their pings came back functional. Skyfire spread his control surfaces to their fullest extension, unable to do anything for the others but watch and hope. 

The heat, noise and vibration increased. Perceptor fought to maintain the ship’s unconventional orientation. Beachcomber was a calm, solid presence beside him. Though it was Seaspray to whom he was linked, he found comfort in Beachcomber’s steady confidence. Beachcomber trusted him to get them down safely. So he would, somehow. 

As they came around the terminus into night, Perceptor knew he wasn’t going to make the exact landing coordinates Prime had given in his original message. Nor would he be able to stop in time for the new coordinates Skyfire had relayed. The ship was still on its portside edge, slicing through the thick air like a broken knife. 

“We missed the—” Seaspray began.

“I. know.” There were so many habitations and developed areas they had to avoid. “Braceforimpact.” He began to roll the ship into proper landing attitude; braking more out of hope than utility. They wobbled violently as the damaged section bit into the air, slowing that side down. Perceptor compensated, pushing hard with the half-slagged engines. Brute force was never his first choice, but sometimes it was all you had left. The main engine finally failed despite Perceptor’s careful balancing and what little the self-repair systems had been able to do on their way from the ringed planet.

“There’s a mountain,” Powerglide noted helpfully. “In the way…”

A mountain that did not have a human city at its perimeter, which was the point. Perceptor aimed for the narrow valley beyond, but they never reached it. They slewed to the left as a big chunk of the hull broke off on that side. Shearing forces tore Perceptor’s and Seaspray’s arms off at the elbow, breaking their link with the ship as it hurled into a flat spin and crashed into the foot of the mountain. 

Before the dust and debris thrown up by the impact had settled, Skyfire – blazing white with aerodynamic heat – transformed in midair and landed. He cleared away some of the rocks and burning organic matter, but a quick scan indicated more rock would fall if he continued. Another quick scan told him the forward third of the ship was badly crumpled, but further rearward was more or less intact. He broadcast to those within, but got no answer. 

Prime! They’re down, but unresponsive to comm. We need Ratchet out here as soon as possible!

Understood, Skyfire. We are en route, ETA .8 groon. And welcome to Earth. 

They had mobilized as soon as Prime had gotten Skyfire’s initial message during the Seekers’ attack, loading into a big cargo plane at Nellis. It was a quick, two and a half hour hop to the Oregon Cascades, on the coastal side. They landed at the nearest air base and rolled out at top speed from there, Prowl’s and Ratchet’s sirens clearing the minimal human traffic. 

Having climbed up somewhat on the shoulder of the mountain to avoid igniting more trees, Skyfire was easy to spot, even through the smoke of the smoldering forest. Fortunately it had rained recently or there would have been a serious blaze. Inferno kept an eye on the area and doused any hot spots, while Raze and Sharp from the Graveyard Legion established a patrol perimeter.

Ratchet and Prime cut through the hull as far from the molten engines as they could get. Everyone inside was offline. Ratchet carried them out one by one, handing them to Prime and Skyfire, who laid them gently on a relatively flat area to one side of the trough their landing had ploughed.

Perceptor hadn’t been able to get the ship fully rotated, so it sat at a canted angle. Cliffjumper cocked his head to one side, staring at the embedded vessel. “Who let Perceptor drive?” he asked, grinning. Arcee smacked him. 

“It’s nothing short of amazing he got them down in one piece,” she said.

“The only serious injuries are Seaspray and Perceptor,” said Ratchet, moving along the line of mostly smallish robots. “The others are somewhat dented, but they should be coming online shortly.” Beachcomber had Event Horizon’s backup core, safe and sound.

Hound and Arcee went inside to retrieve Perceptor’s and Seaspray’s severed arms from the ship linkages. Ratchet poked at the frayed ends of the severed limbs. “The joints are shredded and the data jacks bent; those will have to be replaced. But I can reattach the arms momentarily.” He transformed a hand to micro-tools and, setting the limbs aside, got to work on Seaspray and Perceptor’s stumps. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Secretary Keller, Colonel Lennox and Senior Master Sergeant Epps answered their comms almost simultaneously. “I have good news for you boys,” came Jazz’s cheerful voice over the lines. “A big chunk of North America and the Pacific just became a no-Seeker zone.” 

“Hot damn!” said Epps, grinning.

“All right!” agreed Lennox. “I take it the guys who just crashed in Oregon have big shiny guns?”

“How big a chunk?” Keller asked.

Jazz laughed. “You know it, Epps. Very shiny, and a radius of 3.2K kilometers from the crash site – if the Prez lets us build a base there.” Two thousand miles was what they’d agreed to state as Perceptor’s effective line-of-sight target range. In reality, from where he was Perceptor could engrave equations on the surfaces of Jupiter’s moons in characters half a meter high. And then read them back.

“3.2 thousand…really?” Epps made an appreciative noise. Lennox was already mapping it out on his palmtop.

“I don’t think you’ll have too much trouble getting permission,” Keller said drily.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Perceptor snapped online, scanning about wildly, the sensory tines and fins on his head flailing about. He would have leapt to his feet if Ratchet hadn’t held him down. Sparks and energon dripped from the raw end of his left arm. Ratchet had turned off the pain receptors already and was sealing the leaks with his customary speed and economy. 

Everyone is functional, Perceptor, Prime transmitted a quick assurance even as he accepted Skyfire’s account of his lengthy journey. He disengaged politely from Skyfire and made his way back down the slope to the crash site. “You made it. Welcome to Earth, all of you.”

“No thanks to Overcast and Dreadwing,” Gears grumbled. 

“Optimus Prime! Oh, it is good to see you!” Perceptor said, struggling to rise. “Please, Ratchet, I am well enough. Repair Seaspray while I make my report; I promise I’ll be right here when you’ve finished with him.”

“Hmph,” Ratchet grumped, looming. But after a moment of unflinching attention from Perceptor’s unusually large and vivid optics, he moved over to Seaspray and began reattaching the aquatic mech’s arms with Hoist’s assistance. 

Gaining his feet awkwardly, Perceptor linked via cephalic cable with Prime, receiving detailed data-packets on everything that had happened here on Earth since the Allspark had been found, and in return giving a brief – for him – report on everything the little science vessel had encountered, up to the crash. 

Ratchet interrupted, waving one of Perceptor’s arms at them. “Are you done with my patient yet, Prime?”

“How is Seaspray?” Perceptor asked. 

“I’m fine,” Seaspray said, saluting merrily from behind Ratchet. “Come on, Perceptor, let Ratchet give you a hand.”

Perceptor laughed, though the pun was quite dreadful. “Very well.” 

Beachcomber, behind Seaspray, nodded, smiling. Glad to see Perceptor on his feet, though he’d be happier when his friend was whole again. 

Perceptor sat down and Ratchet and Hoist got to work. 

Prime took a moment to survey the area. This wouldn’t make a bad base, if the humans don’t object, he tight-beamed to Perceptor. He called the President’s private line to begin negotiations for permission. Do you think the ship is repairable or can you salvage it? You could carry on research as a secondary priority.

What? Really? For so long the war had taken complete precedence, art was gone, and science was the slave of the needs of the soldiers. Weapons, repairs, defenses, that’s all he had done for thousands of years. Now Prime himself was giving them leave to explore this new home. Perceptor beamed up at him. They’d do their best to remember what research for the sake of knowledge was like. “I am not convinced the ship will ever be spaceworthy without a complete rebuild. We can salvage it certainly. This volcano is inactive, but I suspect there are plentiful raw materials here to work with. If Hoist and Grapple feel they’re up to the task and are willing to undertake such an endeavor…?” Perceptor flinched as Ratchet reconnected his haptic network, but made no sound as pain shot up both arms. 

Hoist looked at Grapple and the two consulted privately for a moment. “We would be delighted!” Grapple said. “I already have plans. If we expand the raised edges of the impact area, we can have a bunker-style structure with minimal use of…”

“I’ll leave it to you, then,” Prime said hastily. “Perceptor will be in charge here.” He looked down at the astonished mech with a twinkle in his optics. “He has performed admirably. Install Event Horizon as soon as possible. Teletraan-1 is distributed through and around the human internet system worldwide – he’ll be happy to have another AI to interact with.” 

Perceptor nodded. “We shall commence immediately, Prime,” he said, wriggling his multitude of fingers. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Thundercracker yawed angrily, slowing over the Alps. Slaaaag! 

What is it?
 Skywarp asked, yelping and climbing up out of his trinemate's suddenly unpredictable flight path. 

Thundercracker swore again. Skywarp would have known for himself if he could be bothered to monitor the open comm frequencies. Lazy scrap.Perceptor's on-planet, Thundercracker snarled. And the fraggers are BROADCASTING it. The last surviving member of the Light Brigade. Here. That’s just great. 

We’ll just have to kill him, then, won’t we, Starscream purred.

Yeah! said Skywarp. We’ll just gang up and frag him.

The problem with ganging up to kill Perceptor, Thundercracker growled behind a large number of firewalls, was that it motivated him to get serious about killing you. Most of the time you didn’t know he had you targeted until you were suddenly missing major body parts. The light cannon beam was undetectable from the side, and while it cost him in energy use, he could sweep large arcs of the sky with the thing. Hard to avoid. He could also do creepy slag that shouldn’t be possible, like bend the beam. If Thundercracker understood correctly, that only worked in atmo, but if you were in hard vacuum you were probably in space, and he'd have a better than clear shot at you already. Thundercracker really, really did not like Perceptor.

Chapter Text

2018 – June

Inattention. That’s what Starscream had called it. Thundercracker knew it was indeed his own fault – he needed to remember to do his thinking when the others couldn’t catch him at it. So now Thundercracker was here making sure they hadn’t left anything useful behind.

They had hewn this first eyrie out of the rock with their own lasers and plasma grenades. Now it was empty, abandoned. Too close to the base where Perceptor – Seekerbane – resided. And not just Seekerbane; frag Skyfire to the Pit. They hadn’t thought the old deep-Seeker was still functional, but there he was; and they hadn’t heard from Dreadwing and Overcast in some time and Darkwind was getting jittery about it. Screamer was going to get them all killed, the mood he’d been in. As if the sudden and mysterious appearance of an alarming number of Autobot ground troops and a handful of heretofore unknown helis wasn’t bad enough. No. Starscream had to go riding Galvatron’s tail – when Galvatron was conscious between bouts of drone-kindling – about rebuilding the army with real people instead of those seething hordes of fragile drones. 

Galvatron had caught Starscream by the neck, slammed him to the floor of their mid-continental eyrie, and sneered, “Coward! Do you truly think we need more than drones to reduce this filthy, pest-ridden planet to a cinder? Once the parasites have been extinguished, then I shall bring forth true-life!” 

Starscream had been lucky to escape with only a bent wing and one severed neck cable. Idiot. Never could resist tweaking Megatron’s relays. Not that the old Megatron hadn’t actively encouraged him at it, but Galvatron was a whole different puddle of slag. 

Thundercracker clawed at a ledge. They were down another couple of trines due to injuries, and not a few groundpounders had gotten themselves slagged by the obviously veteran Autobot tanks. Something very wrong was going on. 

In any case, there was nothing here. Thundercracker transformed and headed for the narrower of the planet’s two oceans. He hated this descent, but Starscream was down there and had stipulated a face-to-face report, just to torque his ailerons. The seafloor base designed and built by the Constructicons was nearly completed. Hook and Scrapper had enjoyed the challenge of such an alien environment, but the eight big Cons were getting dangerously sullen about how they were being treated. If they were smart, they’d shut up before Galvatron slagged them slowly, one at a time so they would feel every astrosecond of the gestalt bonds breaking.

He flinched as he broke the surface; he couldn't help it. I hate this, he thought, descending. I hate this, I hate this, I hate this, I hate this... It wasn't the dark or the cold - space was both and Thundercracker was fine with space. Space was no big deal. But those things in addition to the pressure, down at the bottom, crushing one's spark down to an ember; or at least that's what it felt like. The salts and organic compounds in the water were also disgusting and corrosive. Not as bad as the rain back home, but still unpleasant. Why can't we just leave? There were plenty of more hospitable planets back in their own galaxy. They could start again from bare rock if they had to, though Thundercracker didn't see why they couldn't salvage most of Cybertron once they found a suitable star system. There weren't enough Autobots left there to be of any trouble. And so what if the Autobots here on Earth still lived? They seemed to have thrown in their lot with the puny fleshlings. Let them. Much as executing Optimus Prime for his crimes would be satisfying, at this point wouldn't it be better to just leave him here to rust and rebuild the empire without a Prime's interference? 

Down, down... Thundercracker felt more than heard the whine escape his vocoder. I hate this, I hate this, I hate you, I hate you... Fragging Starscream. I hate you. He shuttered his optics to protect the more delicate focusing mechanisms. I hate you, I hate you... 

The descent only took four or five breems, but it felt like an entire vorn before he finally reached the locks. Cycling through, he hardened himself against his body's inclination to shiver, and he was careful not to stumble as the inner door opened. Rumble and Buzzsaw liked to take potshots at people coming through. 

But it was Starscream who met him as the door slid aside. Thundercracker had never seen anything more beautiful. 

I'm only trying to protect you, you know, Starscream tight-beamed, pulling Thundercracker into a forceful embrace, spinning his engines up for more heat, nuzzling Thundercracker's jaw spars hungrily. You have to stop moping about like that. You'll draw attention to yourself. Maybe now you'll remember, hm? 

The eyrie's empty, Thundercracker mumbled, pressing his face into Starscream's shoulder. We got everything. 

Very good. Come on, let's get you to the oil baths. 

Both Seekers paused. For a moment they were unable to discern whether they had heard or felt it. Then both of their alert systems were pinged; Unauthorized Proximity!

“Down here? Are they malfunctioning?” Thundercracker growled. Both of them shut the alarms off, irritated. Usually that particular alert meant some of the native life forms had gotten too close and tripped the perimeter sensors. Hook recalibrated them each time, entering the signatures of the life-forms that could be safely ignored so the little exoskeletal things and the larger squishy things wouldn't trip the fragging alarm every other breem. Unfortunately there were so many different kinds... Starscream tapped into Hook's channel to be sure. 

It's another swarm of very small squishies, Hook told him, harmonics indicating that he was inclined to dismiss them. Except. Hmm. They are not squishy; they're metallic. Galvatron is offline... Soundwave! 

Acknowledged. Dispatching Laserbeak. 

"Good," Starscream muttered as he and Thundercracker resumed their progress to their trine's private oil baths. "Let the little nuisance do some work around here for once." They reached Starscream's quarters, and had settled in to a nice long hot soak in adjoining vats when Soundwave reported again. 

All targets destroyed. 

Really? Hook asked, deceptively languid. Laserbeak didn't bring back a few samples for me and Mixmaster to analyze? 

All targets destroyed. 

Unfortunate. You're confident none escaped back to the surface? Because I am fairly certain Wheeljack is behind this. 

Thundercracker tensed. Not that the crazy Autobot inventor hadn’t been a hazard before, but now that the war had gotten close and dangerous, Thundercracker found it made him nervous that the list of survivors included Perceptor and Wheeljack. They’d heard from Shockwave recently, but somehow that didn’t feel like it evened the odds.

All targets destroyed. Soundwave sounded vaguely irritated. 

You'd best hope so, Starscream sneered. Not that it mattered. The Autobots could do as much recon as they wanted. They didn't dare attack for fear of damaging this miserable planet. Placing their fortress near large deposits of methane clathrates was clever, though Starscream was loath to admit it. Thundercracker ladled hot oil over Starscream's shoulders and the Air Commander stretched and lolled under the attention. 

The alarms went off again. If I have to get out of this bath, Starscream informed the base at large, I'm going to have someone's legs off at the hip gimbals. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Grinning, Lennox leaned over the display, shading it from the sun. The first school of Wheeljack's Killer Guppies had been destroyed, but they'd done their job – thanks to the microbots they had a complete external scan of the Decepticons' Atlantic base, as well as the surrounding seafloor in greater detail than humans had yet been able to map. It was kind of a shame. The KGs (Epps had wanted to call them "Kuppies", but for some reason Wheeljack, Ratchet and Ironhide had very firmly nixed that idea once they could stop laughing) were pretty cute. They looked a lot like real guppies, but this batch had tiny cameras and other sensors instead of heads, and their bodies were ceramic and metal, though perfectly articulated like their piscine inspiration. 

"Okay, ready for the second batch," Wheeljack said, crouching over his Rube Goldberg-esque contraption. Lennox couldn't tell if he was fussing with the settings or just poking at it in a rather proprietary way. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“Oh do shut up, Starscream,” Hook muttered to himself. Another swarm incoming. They appear to be of the same general type but there are considerably more of them.

Laserbeak, Buzzsaw, Rumble: attack.

Hook noted Soundwave wasn’t in any hurry to get out there himself. Scrapper, he tight-beamed to his gestalt-mate, I want one of those things before Soundwave’s blasted symbionts ruin them all.

Go get one yourself, then, Scrapper replied. 

You are closer to an external lock. Hurry!

Slag. Fine.

Observing his screens closely, Hook soon realized there were substantially more of the tiny not-squishies than before. This could become a problem.Scrapper, be careful.

Yeah, yeah.

I mean it—

Hey! These things bite!

Scrapper! The wretched things were getting past the symbionts, swarming directly for the base. Hook switched to broadcast – their AI hadn’t been fully written yet; they would have to man the external guns themselves. Everyone to defensive stations! A massive incursion of microbots is attacking the hull.The first few microbots had reached the base’s armor. Hook narrowed his scans. As he suspected, the microbots were chewing through the alloy and further deploying nanobots that were spreading into the armor itself like rustlets. Don’t touch the hull itself; I’m rerouting power to the shields. 

You should have had those up already, Starscream commented. He was carving a new glyph into the base of Thundercracker’s portside wing. 

Frag you, Starscream, Hook thought. I hope your trinemates rust. Galvatron had threatened to eat Longhaul if they didn’t get the base completed before the next time he came online. Then the Seekers came prancing around down here, sucking exorbitant amounts of power into their private suites. Hook dropped the circuit for the oil bath heaters – for the sake of the shields of course. 

The exterior cannons lit up the depths, frying the wriggly little things in broad swathes; but more and more came, single-minded in their multitudes. The jolt of plasma Hook sent through the shields fried any attached to the hull, but there were yet thousands to resume the assault.

Slag they’re fast! Mixmaster shouted. Hull breaches in several sections – highlighting on the main screens now, Hook. Starscream, get out of the tub!

Oh I think you fellows have this well in hand, Starscream replied. Wheeljack’s trying to yank our cables. He and the rest of them won’t have time for silly pranks soon enough. 

Maybe we should… Thundercracker began, on the private trine channel. Starscream pulled him closer, insinuating claws around Thundercracker’s cockpit, stroking gently. 

Nonsense. Mixmaster is repairing the breaches already, and the symbionts can mop up the rest of those…things. I think I’ll have to appropriate one of the samples Scrapper managed to catch. Studying it would keep him occupied for a breem or two, at least. Keep his mind off how tempting it was to permanently deactivate Galvatron every time he fell offline for extended periods like this.

Have fun with that. Try not to get your face blown off, Thundercracker said, smirking. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“What do you say, Will?” Wheeljack asked. “Think they got the message?”

“Yep.” Lennox flipped a quarter into the water as the USS San Jacinto turned and headed back to Norfolk. “‘Don’t get cocky.’”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Ratchet – and any other Autobot on the channel within transmission range – could tell each time Skyfire had assimilated another block of data from the massive download he’d received from Prime. 

Skyfire: PRIME! YOU PUT AN ALLSPARK FRAGMENT IN. YOUR. SPARK CHAMBER!!! 
Perceptor: Really?
Prime: Yes.
Skyfire: And you’re not dead.
Prime: No.
Ratchet: Not any more, anyway.
Skyfire: Gah!
Ratchet: Yes.
Perceptor: Fascinating!



Skyfire: YOU LET THE MONKEYS HAVE SHIELD TECH??? AND ALL THIS OTHER TECH? OPTIMUS! WHAT WERE YOU THINKING???
Prime: There wasn’t time for wisdom, not in the old sense. We don’t have a century to cogitate and twiddle our thumbs.
Skyfire: Twiddle…?
Ratchet: They were going to figure it out anyway.
Skyfire: Oh come on.
Wheeljack: No. Really. They would have, in less than a century. Probably.



Skyfire: THE MONKEYS KNOW ABOUT SPARKS??? WHAT THE FRAG???
Ratchet: Some of them do, yes. We had to warn them, our radiation is harmful to their self-replicating molecules.
Perceptor: Oh dear.



Skyfire: YOU’VE BEEN TEARING BITS OFF YOUR SPARKS AND…AND MERGING THEM?????
Prime: It’s not that terrible.
Ratchet: Well…
Prowl: It’s rather interesting, actually.
Skyfire: Er. That sounded a bit…smug.
Prime: Heh.



Skyfire: YOU PUT MONKEY BRAIN ENGRAMS IN A CYBERTRONIAN BODY?????? AUGH!!!
Ratchet: The Matrix said to.
Skyfire: DAAAH!
Ratchet: I’d agree with you there, but it worked out all right, so shut up. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

The moon rose bright and full over the western coast of North America. Skyfire stretched out an arm and encircled the silvery disc with his fingers. Prime?

Evening, Skyfire.

Sorry about the yelling, earlier.

Optimus chuckled, warm over the private channel. We’re glad to have you among us again, Skyfire. The plural pronoun he used had for most of their history meant “we Cybertronians”, but had recently come to mean “we Autobots”. Prime’s sorrow at the shift threaded across his harmonics, faint but inescapable.

I was wondering.

Yes?

If I could ask you a few questions? Perceptor’s making a list—

Oh dear.

Yes. Hoist finally wheedled him into recharge, but he asked me to make myself useful if I was going to be online.

Prime was on the mesa-top, looking up at that same moon, with Jazz curled up on his chest after a particularly sweet overload. Thus pleasantly relaxed, he was perfectly amenable to some light grilling from the old explorer. Ask away.

Thank you, Prime. While I was in the Universities, before I was rebuilt to deep-Seeker mode, I studied the Allspark’s radiation and structure. As much as was possible at that time.

Ah yes. I read your thesis on the subject.

And?

Optimus laughed. Skyfire had sounded so young for a moment. Your idea that the Allspark entered this universe “through” what the humans call the Big Bang appears to be correct. Bear in mind that the Allspark can be…how shall I put this…coy…about certain lines of inquiry. Or perhaps I have not yet learned how best to frame my queries.

Skyfire took several moments to process that. Do you know which dimensions the Allspark exists in? This was a matter of some mathematical significance.

All of them.

“YES!!!” Skyfire nearly fell off the side of the volcano. That’s…that’s… Thank you. He basked for a moment in scientific glee and Prime’s affectionate amusement, but soon sobered. It is extremely disturbing that Megatron survived. 

Yes. One of my worst miscalculations.

Prime, I don’t think you can die. Skyfire’s voice was both cruel and grief-stricken. Either of you. When the last star in this universe burns down to a cinder, he and you will still live, all alone in the cold dark forever. Can’t you see what you’ve done? How can you bear it?

At least I don’t have to worry about turning into the Face of Boe.

Er, what?

Never mind. Earth joke. 

Ah.

Skyfire, embracing change is a fundamental part of what we are.

I know, but Optimus!

All right, all right, Prime said, laughing. I’m going to hear about it from Kup next time I see him, I assure you.

I’ll leave the scolding to him, then. But I still…

I know. I’m sorry. Whatever price I pay for my decisions will be worth it if the war stops here, in this system, and the humans survive to make their own choices.

I hope you’re right, Skyfire said, gazing upward. The moon was bright and cold and beguilingly near.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“Sam, Mikaela, would you like to visit the new base in Oregon? Just for the weekend?” Bumblebee felt Sam could be spared from the Foreign Service Office for a couple of days, and Mikaela had just hired a new mechanic, so her apprentice, Rafaela, wouldn’t be alone in the shop on a Saturday. 

“That’s kind of a long drive for a weekend, even for you, isn’t it?” Sam said, not looking up from Grand Theft Auto XI. 

Mikaela brightened and Bee nodded at her. “I didn’t say we were driving.”

It was a very short flight, hardly meriting the grab for altitude, but Borealis never passed up an opportunity to get hypersonic, and none of her passengers minded – even Bee, curled up in her small payload bay, enjoying the heat.

Skyfire was there to meet them when they landed. The access road to the crashed spaceship/Autobot base was curvy as any mountain road, but just to the west was a straight section of Highway 101, as mandated by law during World War II, and that afforded an adequate runway. 

“Wow, and I thought Borealis was big,” Sam said, looking up and up. Skyfire was easily twice Borealis’ size. Her canopy and payload bay hatch opened and Skyfire offered a hand so Sam and Mikaela could climb out without touching the hot fuselage.

“Hello, Skyfire!” Bumblebee slid neatly out from below, but he was too hot to touch the humans as well. “This is Sam Witwicky and Mikaela Banes.” Borealis transformed once they were clear, being careful not to brush against anything flammable, like trees. “And Borealis.” 

Skyfire cocked an optic ridge at him, then nodded pleasantly at the humans and Borealis. “Pleased to meet you.” 

Carrying the humans, it was a short walk for the robots around the mountain to the new base. From 50 feet up – Skyfire was carrying them at about his hip level – it was still easy to see the path of the crash, but that wouldn’t be the case for long. The robots were working like, well, robots. 

Mikaela smiled, reminded of watching Optimus’ crew clear out the Nevada base. Optimus and Ironhide had done much of the excavating; their big guns set to narrow beams and precisely deployed. It had been impressive observing them carry boulders weighing considerably more than themselves. Like ants, Mikaela had thought, as Optimus had passed her, doing a respectable impersonation of Atlas. 

Skyfire put Sam and Mikaela down in front of the hexagonal entrance that was already taking shape below where the ship’s engines jutted from the side of the mountain. 

“Visitors!” cried a dark green bot, about the size of Trailbreaker, carrying an armload of steel I-beams. “Bumblebee! Hello there and welcome!”

“Hello, Hoist,” Bee said, and introduced his friends. 

“Excellent,” Hoist said, kneeling and extending a fingertip for Sam and Mikaela to shake. “It is my very great honor to meet you.” Standing, he gestured expansively with his free hand as he spoke. “Let’s see, Warpath is on patrol with Raze and Sharp. That’s Grapple, our architect, over there tinkering with the holo stand. Dear me but the dust gets into everything here! Brawn, Huffer, mind your footing, we have humans on-site.” The two named robots, about Bee’s size but considerably bulkier in build, stumped by carrying huge cut blocks of stone, casting mildly interested glances at the newcomers. 

“Tell Gears to come help with the tunnel,” said Huffer. “He’s been in the repair bay all morning fussing with that right shoulder gimbal of his.”

“You heard Prime, Huffer. We are on a relaxed war footing. Gears and Powerglide are off-shift until tonight.” Hoist gazed skyward then bowed slightly to the visitors. “My apologies. Give me a moment to put these down and I’ll show you around the place.” He hesitated, clearly embarrassed. “I am sorry, but I’m afraid, Borealis, that you won’t fit. We have every intention of enlarging the major sections to accommodate larger people like you and Skyfire, but at the moment…”

“Oh, no problem,” Borealis said, waving off the apology. She didn’t fit a lot of places – she’d always been used to that. 

Leaning the I-beams against the side of the mountain, Hoist led the humans and Bumblebee inside, leaving the big jets to enjoy a beautiful Northcoast morning. 

“Huh,” said Sam. “Never actually been inside an alien spacecraft before.” Well. The Autobots themselves didn’t count. The interior was more metal, less stone than the embassy in Nevada, and on a smaller scale, Sam noted. Prime could probably walk around in here, but he’d have to duck through some of the doorways. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

If you want to cool off faster, the ocean’s not far, Skyfire told her, rather unnecessarily. There isn’t much of a beach. The cliff is approximately a seven meter drop to rocky seafloor. 

Typical Oregon coast.
 Borealis suddenly realized she hadn’t been in water since…since her ignominious flight from Starscream over Denver. Ixchel hadn’t been able to swim with anything like recognizable strokes since her twenties, but she could float. Had in fact loved being in water, the freedom of as close to weightlessness as she had ever known. Now she couldn’t even float. However, these days hiking around the bottom of the ocean wouldn’t kill her. An interesting trade-off. This may take a while…I’m trying not to squish too many sea urchins. 

You can follow my footprints. I’m afraid the first time I went down there I wasn’t as careful as I should have been. I was more concerned about setting the forest alight at the time. 

Aww. Yeah, I see ‘em. Thanks.
 Billows of steam hissed up around her with the waves. It was kind of like wading into a hot tub to warm up, only the other way around. It felt equally nice, though. “Aahhhhh!” She continued out past the breakers until she was up to her shoulders. The surfing-worthy rollers felt like lake waves, with no more power to topple her. She realized she hadn’t really spent enough time out in the world in the kinds of places Ixchel had known, to truly appreciate the differences in scale and perception. Some things weren’t essentially different. Mountains, for one thing. And the ocean, taken as a whole. And storm waves would be…if not lethal, then certainly dangerous, and powerful enough to affect her body if she was caught in them.

You seem to be adapting very well, Skyfire said. Which she realized could mean a couple of different things, possibly at the same time. 

Um. Thank you. I’m trying. 

Prime and Ratchet took an astonishing risk when they created you,
 he continued, which more or less let her know which kind of adapting he meant. 

I know, she said, splashing around for the fun of it. She could get the entire cliff-face wet with one swipe. I’m grateful. 

Skyfire watched Borealis play in the ocean, but didn’t join her. The waves here were chilly, rarely getting much over 295 degrees absolute. Not a desperate kind of cold, not spark-threatening. But he was tired of cold. He’d been so long alone in the void, in the bitter chill between star systems, rarely making planetfall. Once, he’d spent three vorns orbiting a particularly beautiful blue supergiant as closely as he dared, just to try to get the heat to penetrate his metal. He should have spent that time in searching, but even his spark had felt cold. 

Ratchet doesn’t give himself enough credit; he’s quite brilliant. I’m not surprised you came out so well. 

It sounded like Prime and Ratchet had been baking a cake. She headed back to shore, unsure whether to laugh or be offended. Once she’d cleared the headland, Skyfire was an easy landmark to steer by, and she soon joined him on a bare shoulder of the mountain. 

Optimus, being Megatron’s twin, ought to have Megatron’s flight mode data archived somewhere. He certainly has more than enough memory capacity. What puzzles me is why he didn’t allow that to integrate into your protoform. It would have given you interstellar capability from the beginning. Limiting you to the flight characteristics of an air-breathing jet is a rather odd choice. 

Borealis almost fell over. Prime had Megatron’s….oh great googly moogly. “I… You… That’s… Wow. Um.” 

“I apologize,” Skyfire said. “Since there were no Autobots on Earth who had a flight mode at the time you were ensparked, I shouldn’t be surprised it didn’t occur to any of them. They don’t understand. But Prime should have.” He picked up a rock – boulder – and ran his fingertips over it in a distractingly sensual manner. “Although. Prime knows very well how to deploy fliers. He does not necessarily know how to be a flier.” He set the rock down carefully where he’d found it. “Upon further consideration, he may have had definite reasons for not wanting to endow you with that particular data set.” 

“Urk.”

“Indeed. And perhaps even subconscious inhibitions against accessing those memories.” He turned to her, looking abashed, which was interesting in a robot his size. His harmonics grew increasingly complex. "I understand there has been some difficulty with Starscream." 

She didn't know whether it was because Skyfire was so old that he spoke and transmitted in an ancient mode that was no longer commonly utilized, or whether, as usual, there were simply a number of circumstances of which she was ignorant, but she knew she wasn't understanding everything. There was a lot going on behind his words. "Oh. That. Well, actually Hound figured out a terrific solution," she said, blundering ahead anyway. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

2016 - November

She had come online late that evening after she’d returned to Nevada. Smokescreen was sitting on the recharge table next to her head. "Hi," he said, petting her forehelm. 

"Hi," was all she could choke out past the snarled tangle of shame and fear that rose suddenly to overwhelm her CPU. 

"How're you doing?" Smokescreen had a warm, mellow voice, with just a touch of friendly rasp to it. 

Her optics felt hot and she wondered if trying to cry nonexistent tears would make them overheat and damage them somehow. Checking and double checking to make sure she wasn't transmitting anything on any channel, she said, "I'm doing just...crummy. How're you?" 

Smokescreen had a laser burn across his left side, which the chameleon mesh hid, but he didn't mention it. The injuries that had occurred in Denver would have happened regardless of Borealis' flight. "Ratchet was ready to send half the US Pacific fleet out to find you," he said. Borealis made gargling noises and covered her face with her hands. "Ironhide told him to knock it off, that you'd come back on your own when you'd calmed down." 

“Wha...?” 

"He was the first to realize that not preparing you to encounter Starscream again – especially in the air – was a serious oversight." 

"You…”

"I know about your Ixchel memories," Smokescreen said, grinning. 

"Ah, okay," she said. "Ratchet, Prime and I kind of decided, after they told Mirage and I was out of integration, that we wouldn't make a huge effort to hide it. But we don't exactly blab it around either." They were explicitly forbidden - for now - to tell any human. “Ratchet said you could help.”

“Yes. What some humans call the “talking cure” usually works beautifully on us Autobots,” he said, rapping her helm with what she interpreted as big-brotherly affection.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

A few days later, Hound came in from patrol, happily muddy. Where Hound found mud in the middle of the Nevada desert was considered a Great Imponderable. "Hey, Smokey?" he called, transforming. 

“Evening, Hound.” Smokescreen came out of the war room and joined him in the hangar. "What's up?" 

"I have an idea to help Lissi with old Screamer." Borealis? 

She came down the unlit stem corridor - only her reassuringly blue optics visible until she stepped out into the hangar. Slag she's big, Hound thought, dismissing it right after. He wasn't often struck by her size. Borealis didn't act huge, for the most part, but sometimes she was kind of imposing. "Hey, Lissi. C'mere a sec, will you? Yeah, stand behind me here. Okay, what I'm going to try is what Smokey calls ... what was it again?" 

"Desensitization therapy," Smokescreen provided. He thought he knew what Hound was up to, but he only knew the half of it. 

"Right. Desensitization therapy. So, I'm going to project a holo of Starscream, all right? That way you can get used to the look of him little by little. If that goes okay we can add his voice, unfortunately, and even his energy signature. That sound doable?" 

Borealis looked at Smokescreen, unenthused. Smokescreen nodded. "Just remember, it's only a projection, and Hound can turn it off any time you want. How about you make it transparent the first time, Hound?" 

"Sure thing. Ready?" 

"What, now?" Borealis squeaked. "Crap. All right." She hunkered down behind them, feeling ridiculous because instinctively she really was trying to hide. 

"Want us to call Prime in?" Hound asked. 

"Oh sure, make it even more embarrassing why don't you." 

Hound chuckled. "All right then. In three...two...one." Only a slight hum gave away the activation of his emitters. "Lissi, turn your optics back on." 

"Drat." Slowly, she looked up, peering between her fingers. And froze. 

Smokescreen had linked with her via an arm cable. All his filters were very carefully in place. It was hard, and painful, but he needed to fully gauge her reaction, to understand exactly what she was experiencing. It was a standard procedure in such cases. What wasn't standard was Hound, also hooked up via arm cable on Borealis' other side. 

The transparent Starscream hologram fizzed out abruptly as Hound screamed and fell to the floor, clutching his midsection. Shaking the cable connections loose, Borealis scooped him up, cradling him in her hands. "Hound! Hound? I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" 

"Frag it, Hound, you idiot, what were you THINKING??" Smokescreen was shouting, climbing up Borealis' leg to reach him and assess the damage. Mirage was pinging them worriedly, demanding to know what had happened. Hound was shaking, his optics flickering and unfocused. 

He'd wanted to know what it was like to be a human. Now he knew what it felt like to die as one. 

"Lissi," Smokescreen cajoled. "Little Bird, let me get to him, all right? I can help him." 

"Oh! Sorry!" She lowered her hands and Smokescreen climbed into them, plugging into Hound with a single cervical cable. Hound sat up abruptly, batting at Smokescreen’s hands and cable.

“I’m all right, Smokey. Sorry, didn’t think it’d be that strong.”

“You didn’t th… Primus.” Smokescreen crossed his arms and slapped a hand over his visor. Borealis carefully put them down. 

Hound seemed steady enough on his feet, though he shook his head as if to clear it. He had thought, being with Maggie utilizing his holomatter form, that he understood pretty well what being human felt like. No, he realized, he hadn’t understood at all. To be so small, amid towering metal giants, plucked up like a blade of grass, broken so carelessly; and the way the pain burned through everything when his legs were snapped, how his own screaming filled up the fragile spaces in his skull, and then the shock of being dropped, helpless and unable to compensate for the height or attain a position that would absorb the impact. Impact upon impact; breathing was hard when his diaphragm was ruptured, and half the available lung space was taken up with intestines. 

He shook himself again and sent Mirage a reassuring ping. “I’m all right.” He looked at Smokescreen, half guilty. “I won’t erase them,” he said, a stubborn set to his shoulders. These memories, raw and disorganized as they were by Cybertronian standards, were important. 

“Hmm,” said Smokescreen. 

“Let’s try it again,” Hound said. “I won’t connect this time!” He really shouldn’t have to begin with – he hadn’t meant to add more trauma to what Borealis already found so terrifying. If they’d give his idea a chance he was positive it would help. “Lissi?”

She looked down at him as he tugged on her fingers. Earnest and concerned and hopeful and so very Hound. She didn’t want to, but she hadn’t wanted to return from her flight either, and putting things off didn’t make them easier. Besides, how could she deny Hound when he was that cute? “Fine. Your funeral.”

“Hope not. Ready?”

“Remember,” Smokescreen said kindly, patting her knee. “It’s just a hologram.”

“I know. Go ahead.”

“Three…two…one.” The spectral image coalesced again. Knowing that making a big deal was just adding to the difficulty, Borealis made herself look; a little sideways, but she was looking. Hound took a step forward, pointing dramatically. “RIDDIKULUS!” he shouted. The image of Starscream altered – the Seeker commander’s armor flashed from stealth drab to glimmering silver, and bright pink ropes of jewels strung themselves across his angular frame. Starscream struck a coy pose. 

At Hound’s shout, Borealis started, then gaped. Smokescreen sputtered and coughed like a Model T on its last legs. 

“I…am Sparkle Princess Starscream,” the hologram crooned, clattering his optical shutters at them. “Still the prettiest!”

HUWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!” Borealis slapped the floor, making Hound and Smokescreen jump, booming with shocked laughter. The hologram blew them a kiss. Mechs appeared from all over the embassy to see what the hullaballoo was about, and soon Arcee and Cliffjumper were propping each other up, Ironhide was guffawing, Bluestreak almost ran over Windcharger and everyone was trying to stay out of the range of Borealis’ wildly kicking feet as she rolled around on the floor. Prime and Ratchet, in Washington DC and at the CDC near Atlanta, respectively, shot inquiries to everyone, getting mostly giggles in return.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

2018 - June

"I...see," Skyfire said, scratching his left cheek flange, one main antenna raised. 

Oh dear, Borealis thought. That wasn't what Skyfire had been asking about. Bee? 

What's wrong, Lissi? 

I've done it again, Bee. What's the deal between Skyfire and Starscream? 

Oh Primus. We should have... Quick and dirty version: Skyfire and Starscream were very close friends before the war, Skyfire followed Screamer in joining the Decepticons. But when Skyfire refused to execute a group of captured civilians, Starscream cried him traitor and nearly killed him. We found Skyfire in time and Ratchet saved him. Now Skyfire and Ratchet are friends but Skyfire and Starscream hate each other with every molecule of their beings. Does that help? 

Good gods. Yes, thanks, Bee. Jeez, am I ever going to be able to speak to any of you without blundering through the most painful episodes of your history? 

Borealis, at least you keep trying. Besides, every new person has that same difficulty. We're accustomed to it, or we used to be. Most of us find it refreshing, even when it's uncomfortable. 

The worried look in the young jet's optics made Skyfire abruptly and completely understand Jazz's propensity to call this one "Little Bird". Unused to much social contact, he rather awkwardly patted her arm. "I’m glad Hound assisted you in overcoming your fear. Prime has requested that Powerglide and I aid you further - much as we all wish circumstances were other than they are, we must make you an effective warrior if you’re to survive long in the same skies as the Seekers." 

"Yeah. I know. I suck." 

Skyfire took a few nanoseconds to process the idiom. The human concept of suction was physically incorrect, and she was not referring to the ramscoop portion of her engines. "Er. Well, to begin with, I can give you my battle programs. Now, if you like." 

“Oh yes. Please.” She felt like a complete failure most of the time. Too small to carry more than one or two or three of her friends at a time. Her cannons were too small, her blades laughable. Compared to Cybertronian jets she was hideously slow with an embarrassingly short range – being unable to reach escape velocity was shameful, somehow, even though Powerglide couldn’t either, and it didn’t seem to bother him. But Powerglide had chosen his alt form from a stance of knowledge, deliberate function, and an ancient, purposely small flight mode. He was useful, he knew what he was doing. Borealis, on the other hand, had flailed about, choosing alt mode and weapons based only on the giddiness of being able to choose such things about her body. She’d been doing nothing but fangirling. Well, it was easier to take if she saw it as a childish phase – something she could, and would, grow out of. Maybe she was playing at being an Autobot, but perhaps it was deep play, and not entirely useless. 

“Extensive reformatting is uncomfortable,” Skyfire said, breaking gently into her thoughts. “And our resources aren’t optimal at the moment. I’m speaking with Ratchet now…and he’s shouting at me for being tactless.”

“Is he? Oh for…” Ratchet. 

He’s being an oaf, isn’t he, Ratchet grumbled, sending her a glyph representing a comforting pat on the shoulder. 

He’s a little blunt, maybe. But he’s not wrong. So quit harassing him. If you still are. I can’t tell. Besides which, YOU’RE giving HIM what for about tact? The hell, Ratch? 

Oh, he can take it, Ratchet chuckled. And you. Quit worrying about needing upgrades. Did you think we looked like this when we were first ensparked?He brandished an image of his railgun at her. We change all the time, hadn’t you noticed? It’s our nature. No one expected you to keep those pea-shooters forever. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“What I envision,” Grapple told them, having joined the tour group, “is a central atrium to let in the sunlight – it’s so nice to have sunlight energy readily available again, don’t you think, Hoist? – with further rooms of various functionality radiating outward from it. You know at first I automatically drew up a purely defensive structure, but it occurred to me that it needn’t be ugly. Nor would it necessarily remain a purely military installation. Someday it could be a research center! Look, Powerglide! Bumblebee brought his humans for a visit. Aren’t they nice?”

The small red jet hadn’t ducked around a corner in time. “For Primus’ sake, Grapple,” he said, joining rather than beating, “they’re not pets.”

“I know, I know,” Grapple said, fluttering his hands. “I got so excited I forgot myself.”

Powerglide leaned down to Sam and Mikaela and whispered, sotto voce, “He doesn’t forget, exactly, but I don’t think he has enough RAM, you know what I mean?” Grapple began to sputter but Hoist grabbed him and patted him in a conciliatory manner, shooting a look at Powerglide while a flurry of private comm among the three settled the argument before it could progress any further. 

“It’s all right, “ Mikaela said, smiling. “We’re his and he’s ours, in a way.” 

“Very kind of you,” Grapple said, bowing slightly. 

“Hey, Grapple,” called a voice. “Got Ven plugged in. She says your holoscreen should be working now, but you need to keep the control panel cover closed when you’re not using it.” Seaspray dropped from a hatchway in the ceiling – which in this part of the base was the underside of their ship. “Sam, Mikaela, Bumblebee,” he said, smiling and nodding at them. Sam was coming to appreciate how thoroughly the bots kept in touch; introductions could get tiring after the first several dozen, though Sam was learning mnemonic techniques for keeping track of people’s names and faces. He was getting pretty good at it. 

“Thank you, Event Horizon,” Grapple said to the air.

“Uhhh, we don’t have speakers down here yet,” Seaspray said. “Use internals.” 

“Perceptor has a free moment,” Hoist said hurriedly. “Let’s go up to the lab before he gets engrossed in something else, shall we?”

Red, Mikaela reflected as they entered the ship’s laboratory, seemed to be a very popular body color among Autobots. The mech hunched over something at the far side of the room was about Ironhide’s size and hadn’t yet transscanned an alt mode, displaying instead a gracile protoform with an unusually elaborate head. The lab itself was the usual confusing array of incomprehensible Cybertronian technology that was – even to Mikaela’s trained eye – largely indistinguishable from their physiology. 

“Come in, come in,” Perceptor said quietly, waving them forward, though he remained where he was, peering into a brightly glowing slot on what Mikaela hoped was a piece of equipment and not someone’s disassembled chassis. Closing the aperture, he straightened and turned, gazing at the visitors for a moment before stepping carefully to meet them in the center of the room. Sam and Mikaela were accustomed to the full-speed movement of bigger mechs than he was, but Perceptor’s restraint was appreciated. “My apologies for not meeting you outside.”

His voice reminded Mikaela of the British librarian guy, Giles, on Buffy; kindly and soft-spoken. She’d had quite a crush on him when she was eight. Perceptor knelt before them in that way many of the Autobots had which conveyed their respect and full knowledge that Mikaela had partnered Bumblebee in the battle of Mission City, and that Sam had faced Megatron one-on-one and had prevailed. 

“There is so much to learn about your beautiful planet,” he said. “One of my spheres of study is organic biochemistry, so I must beg your indulgence should my enthusiasm overwhelm good manners.”

“No probing and we’re good,” Sam said, grinning. 

“Where’s Beachcomber?” Bee asked. Everyone’s personal comm channels had changed over the years. Perceptor’s optics unfocused for an instant.

“He’s approximately ten kilometers to the southeast,” he said. “Looking for bears.” 

“Is that bad?” Sam asked.

“Only if he brings some back with him,” Bee said, thanking Perceptor via tight-beam for Beachcomber’s comm channel. “He’s on his way back now,” he added, communicating a broad smile even without a mouth built for it. “Without bears.” 

“Have you already shown them—?” Perceptor asked, rising smoothly to his feet. 

“Everything but the engine room,” Hoist said. “Ratchet informs me that area is too radioactive for unprotected humans at the moment. I should resume helping the others in the radial tunnel.” 

“Shall we wait for Beachcomber outside?” Perceptor suggested. “And I understand there is another member of your party who could not fit inside?”

“Yeah,” Sam said. “We should probably see how our ride home is doing.” He supposed she had followed their tour via Bee’s optical and audio feeds, but it felt weird to have left her waiting outside like a taxi.

Once they emerged it was easy enough to find her. She sat motionless on the mountainside, optics dim, head tilted to one side, her energy signature fluctuating strangely. 

Bee climbed up and shook her arm. "Lissi? Borealis? Are you all right?" There was no response. Skyfire, what happened? 

I couldn't merely give her the base programs, Bumblebee. She needs my experience as well, to implement them to her full ability. 

You did a psychotronic transfer! Ratchet cut in angrily. On someone less than a vorn old. Skyfire...! 

……Asked him to, Ratchet, Borealis said, her transmission faint and more than somewhat preoccupied. Not a baby.

That’s open to some debate, Ratchet responded crisply. 

“Is she all right?” Mikaela asked. Borealis and Bee exchanged an ohshit, what do we tell the humans look. 

“I’m fine,” Borealis said, glad that the internal comm byplay among robots took place at a rate the humans didn’t notice. “Skyfire was just giving me some files about what physics is like at the edge of the expansionary sector of the universe.”

Sam could read Bumblebee’s body language as keenly as he could that of his own species, and he knew a cover-up when he heard one. But given how close together Borealis and Skyfire were sitting, he had no desire to delve any further. “Geek.”

“Politician,” Borealis responded, with a jut of her chin in lieu of sticking out a tongue she didn’t have. 

“Hey!”

“You got cooled down okay?” Mikaela asked, putting a hand over Sam’s mouth before the bickering got going. 

“Oh. Yes, I went and played in the ocean,” Borealis said. 

“Wait a minute,” Sam said, pulling Mikaela’s hand down after giving her palm a surreptitious kiss. “You guys can’t swim, right? I mean you’d just sink.”

“I didn’t go that far out, Sam.”

Perceptor climbed nimbly up to the big jets, various things unfolding and spinning and whirring on his head, his large, bright optics open to their widest aperture. 

Skyfire leaned toward Borealis. If he starts a running monologue about every detail of your anatomy, don’t be alarmed. He does that to everyone.

It took Borealis longer than usual to realize she was staring. Perceptor was both fish and fowl; his elegant head finned and flanged with a dazzling array of receptors for plumage. His neck was unusually long and armored with what looked for all the world like scale mail, giving him protection while still enabling him to turn his head 180 degrees like an owl. His optics were the largest and the most vivid she’d ever seen, and he had a sweetly handsome, somehow innocent face. The face of someone who’d lived gently in an Ivory Tower, who couldn’t quite credit the depths of evil the world showed to others. She wouldn’t find out until later how wrong she was.

“Hello there,” Perceptor said. I am exceedingly pleased to meet you. His voice thrilled through her processors. You have several…hm…”siblings” on the way, correct?

“Hi.” Woo! Look at me, Queen of Stunning First Lines! Yes. Six more; one of whom should be decanting pretty soon, I think. I know Cybertronian. He had switched to English with the word "siblings".

“If I may venture an opinion, you appear to have a most intriguing vehicle mode.” Of course you do, but whatever terms we once might have had for such relationships were lost along with the knowledge of the merge process itself. It seems fitting to borrow from your…I beg your pardon, from a human language.

“It’s an experimental craft originally designed for high-speed, high-altitude reconnaissance, but the humans got so good so quickly with satellites and unmanned vehicles they abandoned this line of development.” Sunstreaker and Sideswipe call each other “Brother”…except… Oh I see. That term in Cybertronian very specifically means a twinned spark. 

“Ah. Called the Aurora, hence your chosen designation in English.” Precisely. Hm. Based on your protoform, I would have guessed your forging to be de,delta-class Seeker type, like Skyfire. Yet your mass is more in keeping with the alpha- and beta-class, though at the larger end of that scale.

“Right.” I…what? Terrific, Borealis thought, making sure she wasn’t transmitting it somehow. I’m a freak, a snot-nosed kid and I’m short. Or fat. Lovely. 

Without Wells it’s astonishing they were able to feed you as much mass as they did; although with Optimus being regenerated via the Allspark…and that in and of itself is a dizzying concept indeed!

About the Wells, Bee interrupted. He was steering Sam and Mikaela down the mountain to the game trail where Beachcomber would be emerging when he got there. “Perceptor and Skyfire will be talking science for the rest of the day, we might as well leave them to it.”

Perceptor had climbed further and was examining one of Borealis’ hands. Borealis held very still and tried not to notice how meticulous yet gentle his touch was. 

Oh yes, Perceptor said. Ratchet has already elicited my opinion on the matter. I assured him I didn’t feel that he and Wheeljack had done anything improperly. It must be something environmental, changes in which we have never been compelled to deal with before. Most intriguing!

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Sunlight filtered through the redwoods, forming glowing pools of emerald where it struck the damp ferns and mosses of the lush understory. They were far enough away from the base to have lost the noise of construction; their footsteps – especially Bee’s – on the duff sounded loud against the low sigh of the wind far above in the treetops. 

“Nice day for a hike in the woods,” Sam said. He was missing his games, but at least it wasn’t hot like it was back home. 

“This is such a beautiful area, I’m surprised it isn’t a National Park or something,” Mikaela said.

“I think it is,” Sam offered thoughtfully. “State Park maybe. But the President seemed happy enough to let the Bots set up shop here.”

“Beachcomber!” Bee ran forward. He didn’t actually tackle the geologist, as he generally did Jazz, but the approach was the same. Mikaela noticed Bee slip cables into ports in Beachcomber’s body as they embraced.

Sam hugged Mikaela and smiled. It gave him a good feeling to see the bots reunited with friends, though it was laced with the suspicion that it didn’t happen very often any more. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Sam and Mikaela were bedded down in their fancy little tent – a construction that had fascinated the science bots – with Bee parked beside them in vehicle mode. Borealis sat on the mountainside, thinking, and occasionally talking with Skyfire, who was in orbit. So what do you think of Perceptor?Bumblebee asked. He’d thought she’d like him, but wanted to hear about it from her point of view. 

Finally she found something – a little outdated but apt – on the radio. “Seven days and seven nights of thunder/The water’s rising and I’m slipping under/I think I’ve fallen in love with the 8th world wonder!” 

That much, huh? Bee laughed.

Chapter Text

2018 - July

For half a second, Perceptor thought Beachcomber was handing him another rock sample of the sort that Beachcomber found immediately fascinating, and Perceptor would have to set aside to study later after the teetering masses of more pressing matters were addressed. In the next 0.5 second, Perceptor glimpsed the irregular slab's molecular structure and staggered. He caught the sample up, holding it to his scope as impossible thoughts crackled through his CPU. Beachcomber could not have returned to Cybertron. Could not have, conversely, kept such a rarity hidden for so long. Perceptor's investigations of Beachcomber's anatomy had been numerous and thorough over the millennia. 

"Hey there, I'm sorry," Beachcomber said, laughing, putting out a hand to steady him. "Didn't mean to startle you." His visor flashed a swift, apologetic pattern, then an amused one. "You thought this was Ellsee!" 

Perceptor chuckled, transmitting a glyph acknowledging and complementing Beachcomber on the clever translation of the name. LC for liquid crystal, which was accurate enough for the purpose. The substance's designation in Cybertronian was also a pun, though of a different order. "I'm afraid I did. But now I see this must be native. What is it?" 

"It's called opal. Hydrous silicon dioxide. The humans use it as a decorative gem, though I understand there's some unfortunate mythology involved in some cultures." 

"Naturally occurring? Astonishing!" He turned the sample this way and that, marveling over the play of colors. There were only thin seams of opal in quite a lot of the rust-and-ochre matrix, but the contrast made it all the more lovely, Perceptor thought. 

Beachcomber chirped him the entire file he'd accreted, including a comparison of the structure of opal to Ellsee. They were in fact closely related. 

On Cybertron, before the war, silicon dioxide molecules were arranged around relatively rare H2O molecules. Discontinuities in the non-crystalline structure were then dynamically induced via an energon field. Vast panels could thus be constructed to display moving images in vivid color, with some degree of three-dimensional depth as well. The original purpose of the constructs had been another form of non-volatile quantum memory, but Cybertronian artists had swiftly adopted the process to adorn buildings, and even embodied people and drones. The panels were fragile, however, and expensive to maintain. Mirage or Tracks would recognize Ellsee, but perhaps not many others would. 

Perceptor felt a brief pang of rare homesickness. He had seen panels of Ellsee once in Tyger Pax, on his way to some event or other. He no longer remembered what, as his memory core had been damaged during the third battle of Iacon. He had of course reinstalled the backups of the important technical data. 

Beachcomber smiled. “You’re thinking of the time we went to Tyger Pax for the Vectorion Awards.”

Borrowing a human gesture, Perceptor snapped his fingers. "That’s what it was! You were there. I thought perhaps you might ha—” 

Beachcomber looked stricken.

“What? Surely you’re not still upset over that Iacon incident are you? Really, that was millennia ago.” If Perceptor was lucky that was all Beachcomber was upset about. 

“You were offline,” Beachcomber said. “You never saw. They burned off half your face.”

“Yes, yes, so I’ve been told. And Infusion simply rebuilt a new one for me from the original design.”

"No," Beachcomber said, clutching at Perceptor's free hand. Perceptor had never truly understood Beachcomber's reaction to the incident. Admittedly, as Beachcomber had pointed out, he'd been offline until the med-bots had finished repairing him. "No, Infusion was an artist, too, remember? She said you were too beautiful for an ordinary replacement. She re-sculpted your face herself." 

“Well! I…did she really?” Perceptor preened.

Beachcomber fell forward to embrace him, arms around his waist. He refused cables, glad Perceptor had no direct experience of this particular memory. "When they brought you in you looked dead. The exposed circuitry wasn't even sparking any more." 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

3.0084 million years ago.

Ferrum carried Perceptor's body off the field, more out of habit than any hope that he was still alive. Then Infusion's scans indicated his spark was still generating, despite external indications to the contrary. Welder paused, noting Beachcomber's reaction as they passed him. The call for retreat had gone out two breems ago, what was the little mech doing out here still? Unless he'd been looking for a friend. The expression on Beachcomber's face confirmed it. Welder took his arm gently, ready to carry him if need be. "He'll be all right. Infusion says she can repair him, understand?" 

Beachcomber shuddered and pulled himself together, jogging to keep up with the rest of the retreating bots. He had lost friends before, everyone had. That it never got any easier to face was probably a good thing. This time for some reason he felt a chill he couldn't shake, as though his spark was fading. And his memory was looping - the flash of particle beam fire, Perceptor staggering backwards, falling, the housing for his main memory core exposed where his face had been seared away, the remaining optic shattered. 

"Perceptor." Beachcomber's voice had taken on an uncharacteristic, high-pitched whine. "Perceptor... " 

Welder kept him moving, extending an arm cable that Beachcomber was too distracted at first to accept. Once he had, though, Welder let him into the periphery of the gestalt link, enveloping the geologist in that unconditional acceptance and warmth. Be calm. Come with us, we will repair him. Parhelion and Flare met them at the entrance to their underground base, holding the door and shielding open for them. Ferrum and Infusion ran directly to the left, into the repair bay. 

For good or ill, the head injury was what had taken Perceptor down. The rest of his body bore no more than superficial injuries from the battle. "He's beautiful," Infusion murmured, touching the intact side of Perceptor's face with one delicate phalanx. "Welder, keep him in stasis. I'm going to stabilize his CPU and memory core and then we need to work on these others." She transmitted the triage list, which Beachcomber caught the edges of, until Welder partitioned the datastream. 

You're unusually good at holistic communication, Welder transmitted to Beachcomber with a pleased glyph. 

"Thanks," Beachcomber said. "I… I'm all right." He released Welder's cable and stepped away, casting about for the short-wave channel that would give him the base's non-classified floor plan. "Just…call me when there's any news about Perceptor? Please?" 

Infusion looked up from her work to catch his frantic gaze. "This will take some time, Beachcomber. Once the structural damage is repaired I must reforge most of his facial components." And, she tight-beamed to him, his memory is damaged, I don't know how extensively yet. Please be prepared - you may be crucial in anchoring whatever memories he still retains. Do you know where his backups are stored? 

Beachcomber nodded, feeling the cold again. They’re hard to get to, but I know where they are.

Good.


<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Beachcomber dropped and flattened himself beneath the overhang, Flare right beside him. The fourth Decepticon squadron in as many breems passed above them without stopping. The place where Perceptor’s memory backups were hidden wasn’t far in terms of surface distance, so Flare had volunteered to accompany Beachcomber to retrieve them. However, the entire area was well inside the zone of active fighting. That was the “hard to get to” part. 

If Beachcomber had had to navigate by landmarks, they’d have been in trouble. The entire district’s buildings were in ruins; collapsed or blasted. Fortunately, what he was looking for was under what had been the “live” layers of the city, and his geo-sensors led them unerringly to the entry, even taking the circuitous route required by avoiding Decepticons. 

“The door we want is buried about here,” Beachcomber said, pointing. “About three meters down. It feels like things are intact beyond there, though.”

Flare nodded and set to helping Beachcomber dig and cut their way down. He was equipped for rescue, though not as powerfully as Ferrum or Welder. Soon they had cleared enough wreckage for Flare to get to the double doors Beachcomber indicated. The doors had to be cut through, but once beyond them, Beachcomber hummed happily. 

"Ah!" he exclaimed. "It's still here!" Though most of the walls were caved in, a circular mosaic in the center of the floor was remarkably intact. "Now. Flare, you take the right-hand alcove and I'll take the left. Inside you'll find a nine-square of glyphs. When I signal, press the third glyph in the second row." 

Flare gave Beachcomber a quizzical look, but moved gamely across to the indicated alcove. "Got it." 

Beachcomber chuckled. "Three, two, one!" As they pushed the glyphs together, a booming, grinding noise came from below. "Hurry!" Beachcomber said, beckoning. Flare ran from the alcove, hopping onto the circular mosaic with Beachcomber as it sank. Once below the level of the floor, Flare could see that the platform was being moved by a set of three huge screws threaded onto knoblike projections beneath the platform’s edge. It was an elegantly simple, mechanical arrangement, sturdily built and therefore unlikely to break down even if unused for millennia. 

"How far down are we going?" Flare asked. The darkness beyond their headlights was indistinct, even to acoustic sensors. He wasn't sure if they were passing layers of bombed-out floors or complex machinery of some kind. 

"Mm. All the way down," Beachcomber said. Flare didn't find that answer particularly helpful. 

After at least a breem and a half of steady descent, the platform at last shuddered to a halt. The floor here was mostly free of debris. Seven archways gaped blankly at intervals around the heptagonal chamber. Above each arch, Flare noticed more nine-squares of glyphs. He devoutly hoped they wouldn’t have to unravel the poems that each nine-square depicted. Beachcomber moved off the mosaic purposefully and Flare followed, confident that Beachcomber knew which was the correct archway. 

Ignoring the arches completely, Beachcomber stepped over to a small podium and pressed a softly glowing button. The booming, grinding noise started again and the platform began to rise. 

"Uh. How are we going to get back...?" Flare trailed off as the rising platform revealed a sunken pit beneath. Beachcomber climbed down the ladder at one side, grinning at him. Inside the pit was another open doorway. Through this they followed a long, gently sloping corridor down to yet another room. This one had four archways, again with the poetic or riddle nine-squares. Again Beachcomber ignored the arches; Flare was coming to expect that but he didn't see any other egress from the room. 

Between the archways were vaulting shelves containing multitudes of specimens of... Flare had no idea what, actually. Some were in jars containing liquids, some were articulated into almost protoform-like arrangements suspended in elaborate frames, while most were set out in rows that seemed to denote a kind of succession or sequence. His scanners labeled them as mineral in composition, but non-metallic, and the shapes were weird. Beachcomber went directly to one of the shelves and moved one of the jars. There was a distinct click, followed by clunks and whirrs of more machinery. The shelves retracted and sank, becoming a short stairway up into yet another corridor. 

"Your friend is incredibly paranoid," Flare commented. 

Beachcomber laughed. "No, this is for fun. Besides, Perceptor didn't design this place, my mentor at Xenon University, Archenteron, did. She loved environmental puzzles." 

The little room at the end of the corridor was circular and paneled with irregular slabs of multicolored stone. A natural enough collection of specimens for a geologist, Flare admitted. Beachcomber pushed at the edge of a slab that to Flare's untrained optics was indistinguishable from a dozen others, and with a faint click the slab opened, revealing a niche. From the niche, Beachcomber withdrew a box; plain unalloyed aluminum, with a simple clasp. He opened the box, checked the contents with a whirr of relief and closed it again, caching it in his torso. "That's it. Let's go," he said, nodding to an equally relieved Flare. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Cycling the airlocks carefully behind her, Infusion emerged troubled from the ultra-clean room. Perceptor’s inner cranial chamber remained open and would until she was certain whatever repairs could be made had been completed. A brief whisper of transmission from Flare told her where Beachcomber was. 

Folding her tall, narrow self down to his height, she met his optics squarely. “Are you certain those were all the memory shards?”

“Yes. I think so.”

“I…I can’t pretend to understand half of what he has on them, but the directories are terrifyingly organized. Beachcomber, there’s nothing in those backups except technical, scientific data.”

Beachcomber stared at her.

She placed a hand on his shoulder. “There are no personal memories there.”

Beachcomber shuttered his optics. Oh, Perceptor, he thought, what have you done? 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“Perceptor?” Welder said. “There’s someone here to see you. And leave that alone or I’ll get Ferrum in here to sit on you.” 

Perceptor jerked his hand guiltily from the monitor cable he’d been about to unplug from his arm. He felt perfectly fine, the fussing of the medical bots was entirely unnecessary. “Hello, Beachcomber,” he said, noticeably testy. “Would you please convey to our esteemed colleagues that—”

“It’s not going to deactivate you to stay put until Infusion has finished with the latest batch of casualties,” Welder interrupted. “And yes I know you’re a certified field medic, but until we get a chance to make sure your memory core is stable there is no way in or out of the Pit we’re letting you near patients, got it?” Is he always like this? he tight-beamed to Beachcomber.

Yes, Beachcomber replied happily. He really is.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“Do you remember the time we kissed for three orns?” Beachcomber sat at the foot of the repair table, kicking his feet, his back to Perceptor. His friend’s new face was exquisite, and though it closely resembled his old one, it was for now too much a reminder of what else about him might have changed. 

“Yes.” 

Beachcomber turned at the wistful tone, and caught the fleeting little smile before it disappeared behind Perceptor’s meticulously cultivated mask of boredom. “Do you remember that time we went exploring down in the Sonic Canyons…?”

“MUST you bring that up? Exploring, ha! You dragged me down there knowing full well—”

Beachcomber climbed into his lap and kissed him. “Want to try for four orns?”

It turned out they’d been incredibly lucky. Perceptor had only lost the last twenty voors of memory. He recalled nothing of the second and third battles of Iacon, or being shot, and nothing too personally significant appeared to have happened in that timespan, according to Beachcomber’s corroborating memories. They could never be absolutely certain, of course, but twenty voors wasn’t very long. Chances were good that the technical backups had been all he needed. Perceptor was grateful to Beachcomber and Flare for having retrieved them; he’d been missing a large organic chemistry module. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

3.008 million years ago.

He stood in the center of what had been the innermost University Library. There was nothing left but cooling pools of molten slag. Perceptor swayed, but kept his feet, pressing his temporal fins with trembling fingertips. There was still hope, he told himself. Down in Uraya, where no one would suspect, there was a hidden vault where the backup archive was kept. Few had ever known of its existence – Perceptor was terrified that he might be the only one left who did. 

Somehow, he had to go there. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Megatron’s forces had struck both Towers and Universities at the same time. Osmium and Rhodium Towers and the Helium University had gone down full of mechs who refused to take up weapons, protesting with their peaceful determination. None had survived. 

Perceptor gathered a few University survivors; some friends of his from the Astronomy and Mathematics academies, others simply individuals willing to assist. Valence helped Perceptor build eight large but portable memory shards. They knew how big the Library had been - it was public data, anyone could look up the stats, even if most of the time it was only to settle bets on its current size. The Archive, they reasoned, was probably smaller since it wouldn’t necessarily contain the last batches of raw data. 

Essentia knew a shuttle, Spinner, who was willing to fly them fairly stealthily into Uraya and back. Within less than a voor they were ready.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

"Farad! Get him out of here! We'll keep them busy!" Apogee shouted. Threadwinder was down, her head messily blown off. 

"Come on, Perceptor, hurry!" Farad urged, tugging on Perceptor’s left primary arm. 

He kept looking back. "But..." 

No, you have to make it at least, Farad tight-beamed. We decided last night. You're best suited to decide what to keep and what to let go if it comes to that. 

That's absurd! The more of us there are, the more space there will be available, and we have more than enough portables. I told you before, we're taking everything.

Seems the Cons have other ideas, old friend. Come on!


<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Perceptor lowered the portable memory cores to the floor and connected them to the archive system's main data port. He and Valence had modified them during the journey; the download speeds would be astonishing. The others would meet him here when they could; he might as well get things started. No one would blame him if he dipped into the directories as the transfer was taking place.

Centennial’s Fifth Theorem, Quadratic’s Teleharmonic Equations – but those had been lost! There were even the personal journals of Vector Sigma, the oldest known living Cybertronian, since Vector Prime was generally assumed to be mythical. Perceptor realized the University Library was an abridged version. The Mentor Council must have pared the working library down to the more recent, most useful sets of data; which were in fact vast enough for most people’s purposes. The full archive must have been considered to be of interest only to ancient historians, and no one had looked at it for eons. Or no one currently alive had, Perceptor amended. 

He had miscalculated badly. The Archive was several orders of magnitude larger than the Library. Oh no, he thought. Where are we going to put it all? 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Cybertronian memory cores were, at their most basic, intended to last for an average mech’s entire three billion year lifespan. Based on quantum storage and advanced compression techniques, the cores did not take up a great deal of physical space – but they were, ultimately, finite.

With a sob, he erased another block. Surely there would be other sweet, silver-lit days, full of love and laughter. The war couldn't last much longer. When it was over they would rebuild. They would need every scrap of data he could preserve. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

My spark, he thought, that will safeguard my self, won’t it? Even if he had to dump everything but core programming, he would still essentially be himself. But he had to be careful. He had to find a way to conceal the memory loss, especially from Beachcomber. He created a text file – it would take up negligible space – with the names and faces of his friends and colleagues, adding brief notes about shared events and overall impressions. I love Beachcomber very much, he told himself. He was my first friend at Xenon University…

If the Decepticons found out he had the archive it would make him a target – for kidnapping if not deactivation. Shockwave would be interested in combing the archive for useful ideas. There were old engine designs, abandoned because something new and pretty had come along, not because there was anything inherently wrong with the old designs; even at a glance Perceptor could tell they were incredibly fuel efficient; a factor that was becoming more and more important these past several vorns. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Gently, tenderly, he withdrew from the data jacks, crumpling to the ground. His whimpering would give away his position, so he shut off his vocal processors. By his internal chronometer he’d been there for three orns. The others had not come. He would wait for as long as he could, but within a quartex he would have to be at the pickup point to catch Spinner back to Iacon. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Spark be true, spark be true. Dizzy with how much he had lost and gained (oh, not everything, no, but spark be true, spark be true), he staggered on through the darkness, carrying the seven surviving memory shards; he had lost one to laser fire from a Seeker patrol that had spotted him. There was so much soot and dust in the atmosphere it had blocked the sunlight for orns. The acid rain was more often than not acid hail.

Spinner wasn’t at the pickup point. 

It was too open and exposed; Perceptor couldn’t stay long. No one answered on the agreed-upon channel. 

North. He would simply continue as he had progressed so far, slow and careful, all the long way back. His left lateral ankle strut bent and he went down, falling into the sharp debris, slicing off most of his secondary hand and forearm on that side. Fortunately he’d forgotten to reconnect his vocal processors; whatever screams he would have uttered echoed only in his own CPU. Spark be true, spark be true. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

A vorn later.

“Hello, there!” the bot said cheerfully, waving with a delicate secondary hand as he picked his way through the debris. 

Wheeljack, constantly scanning, kept one optic on the sky as he ran to meet him and help with the bulky cases he was carrying. That drone lens-head patrol could return at any moment. “Hiya! What the slag are you doing out here by yourself?” He pulled the mech along as fast as they could go over the uneven ground. “Never mind, tell me later. Springer! I have him, let’s go!”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

A medical bay. Perceptor knew he’d been in such before, but could not recall where or when. The lighting was dim, soothing, and it was quiet except for the soft hum of a mech nearby. He didn’t recognize the tune. 

His optics lit. A primary hand reached toward the tenuously familiar little blue mech sitting on the foot of the repair table. “Beachcomber?” 

“I’m right here.” 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

2018

"Beachcomber." Perceptor knelt so their heights were more even. Placing the opal carefully on the table, he took both of Beachcomber's hands and pressed them to the sides of his own face, optics meeting visored optics. "Look at me. I am perfectly functional now, am I not?" 

“Not perfectly,” Beachcomber whispered, though his mouth flickered with a wisp of smile.

"Oh dear," Perceptor murmured, sliding his hands down Beachcomber's arms to the elbows. Hidden beneath the inner surfaces of the joints were particularly sensitive afferent nodes. Perceptor brushed them once then rested his fingertips there. 

Knowing there were times when his cascade of thought needed to be broken, Beachcomber leaned into the caress. Perceptor had been so busy since they'd landed, setting up the base and helping Prime negotiate over the site with the humans, Beachcomber knew he hadn't interfaced at all in three or four weeks. Whereas Beachcomber had managed to slip in a few cablings with Seaspray now and then. And even once with Bumblebee when he and his two young humans had come up to visit and lend a servo with the base equipment. Bumblebee was always a delight. It was rejuvenating even to be on the same planet with him again. Perceptor's delicate fingers resumed their deliberate movements, and Beachcomber shivered. 

Outside. He wanted them to be outside. But they would pass other people on the way, and Perceptor would get called to some priority task. Beachcomber sent the command to lock the lab's doors, scanning first to make sure there were no stray humans inside amid the chaos of equipment still scattered about. Only to find that Perceptor had already locked them. Beachcomber grinned and pulled his friend down to the floor in a crash and flail of limbs. 

Getting to Perceptor's spark chamber was always a fussy business. He tended to arrange much of the heavier support structures for his scope/light cannon around his torso, obscuring the central seam. Beachcomber was determined, though. Perceptor's unwontedly clumsy, frantic movements betrayed how badly he needed the most powerful form of interface. Hey. You shouldn't, mmm. let yourself go so long, Beachcomber chided him. 

I....acknowledge ... unintentional .... oh open, please, Beachcomberrrrrrr ... Perceptor clawed at him, scrabbling at Beachcomber's chest, half transforming himself to expose his own spark. 

“Wow, Perceptor. You’re like totally fragged.” Want me to call Seaspray in for a trine? 

Nnnnnnn…
 

Perceptor's spark shone bright from the depths of his chest. It was hard now for Beachcomber to get words and glyphs out. He hadn't cracked his own chest yet only because he knew once he did he'd be no more coherent than Perceptor. No time. I gotcha. With a sigh of hydraulics, he opened up. 

Overload flashed over them the moment their spark coronae brushed together. 

They were online within a few minutes, though. Perceptor curled around Beachcomber slowly, like a chiton protecting its soft underside. 

“Seaspray?” Beachcomber allowed a note of wistfulness to thread through his harmonics.

MmSeaspray. 

Pleased, Beachcomber tight-beamed their nautical friend.

Thank Primus, Seaspray replied. His static has been giving me surges for a week! I’ll be right there. 

Seaspray still hadn't chosen an Earth vehicle alt mode, so he was still in protoform, solid and impervious, and a bit squat. But his spark was clear and calm, both like and unlike Beachcomber's. 

“Hullo, Perceptor,” Seaspray said as they unlocked the door to let him in. Beachcomber re-secured it behind him. 

Perceptor’s vocoder was still a little glitchy, so he simply extended an arm towards Seaspray, fingers gracefully beckoning. He pulled Seaspray down into their, well cuddle was a soft, human word, and no parts of them were soft, but it was descriptive enough. It was times like these that Perceptor was pleased to be larger than most of his crew. He could hold them both close, surrounding them, wrapping them in a moment of safety, no matter how illusory. 

Seaspray regretted that he hadn't chosen an alt mode yet. In protoform his haptics were so dulled he could only feel vague pressures and some slight warmth. Extrapolating from that he guessed the other two were quite overheated indeed. It was frustrating that they had landed near a relatively unpopulated and unfrequented area of coastline. Shipping lanes were far out to sea here, and no watercraft he had yet scanned had suited both his mass and his personal preference. 

Slag it, can we schedule to do this again after I’ve found a vehicle mode? 

Perceptor and Beachcomber laughed. With Seaspray as he was, they elected for cables. A pleasant tangle. The three were soon humming, driven by Perceptor’s still keen need. Land, sea and air – they were amused by how they fit the humans’ categories for their homeworld.

As one they opened their spark chambers.

Chapter Text

2018 - September

Jazz? Ratchet called, something about his tone alerting the First Lieutenant. Jazz was already on his way down to the med-bay by the time Ratchet finished his transmission. You might want to get down here, he’s awake.

Prime was already there. Jazz slewed around the corner with his toes retracted, his tires screeching a little when he stopped, directly in front of the growth tank. 

If I hadn’t been the other half of that merge, Jazz, I’d be tempted to accuse you of cloning yourself, Prime whispered across a private channel as the plex column retracted. Jazz sent back a brief, static-y sputter – the sound of solar wind hitting the Van Allen belts – and elbowed Prime in the knee. 

The slender, silvery mech – taller than Jazz by a full meter but more attenuated – looked around at everything – just as interested at first in the medical equipment as the people. Once he noticed the people, though, he stepped down, scanning intensely, signals tapping at each of them for entry; seeking their data to add to what he had already downloaded and integrated from the human Net and Autobot AIs before the growth tank had even signaled Ratchet of the impending decantation. 

“Hey there,” Jazz said, grinning and holding out his arms, barely restraining his impulse to tackle-glomp the newcomer. Mind your manners, young one. The distinction may be fine, but people don’t like being cracked like any old computer.

“My apologies,” the new one said, voice like warm caramel and silk and the finest vintage oils. 

Jazz swayed a little. There was no mistaking where that power came from. Cloning! Ha! 

“Welcome,” Prime said, deliberately harmonizing, Jazz thought, though of course at a much deeper register. And how Optimus could pull stunts like that and still not be able to string two notes together without shattering silicon was beyond him. 

“Thank you,” the new one said, moving gracefully to embrace first Jazz then Prime, then – somewhat to that worthy mech’s startlement – Ratchet. “My name is Oratorio.”

“Welcome, Oratorio,” Jazz said, nodding. Both he and Optimus had known their names from the first moment they’d come online. Optimus because he’d been deliberately programmed to, and Jazz, well Jazz because he was just like that. Sure of himself from astrosecond one. “Come on, man, let’s go introduce you to the rest of the crew!” Prime clasped Oratorio’s shoulder and hands warmly then excused himself, returning to the war room. The functionaries from Jordan with whom he’d been teleconferencing never noticed the interruption. 

“It’s like a leaf,” Oratorio said, comprehending the plan of the embassy almost as soon as they stepped out into the hangar. Sonar and radar and subtler scans pinging away actively as he turned his head side to side. Stem corridor branching into veins of smaller halls and chambers, with the big hangar as the petiole. 

“Yep, the organic nature of this world is rubbing off on us,” Jazz said, not displeased. “Even Wheeljack’s getting all funky with his too bad self. I don’t even want to know what Perceptor’s got cooking, though.” Jazz pulled his toes in again and skated an extended curve up the stem corridor toward Red Alert’s security office. Might as well get that out of the way first, so Red didn’t get twitchy about an unrecognized mech wandering the base. He was pleased to see Oratorio put a little groove in his walk, as though he was eager for wheels too, wanted to dance.

“Ah,” said Red Alert as they rapped on the doorway and came in. “So it worked a second time, did it? Well, come in, come in, don’t stand there blocking the door.” Prowl was there as usual, and nodded politely, though the largest part of his attention was on the mist screens floating throughout the chamber.

“Oratorio,” Jazz said proudly, “this is Red Alert, our Chief of Security, and Prowl, Prime’s Tactician.”

Prowl inclined his torso in a neat way he must have picked up from Mirage. “Pleased to meet you.” He gravely shook the hand Oratorio offered – an automatic gesture that was to be a hallmark of the Earth-built Autobots for a long time to come. 

Red was less enthused, keeping his hands carefully to himself. Oratorio picked up on this so smoothly only Jazz noticed the aborted gesture. No harm done. 

“Hold quite still a moment, please, “ Red said, fiddling with some occult piece of equipment. Jazz felt the fringes of the scan and forbore messing with them for Oratorio’s sake. No sense fritzing Red out this early in the game. “There.” Red nodded at Oratorio not unkindly, smiling in fact. “Now the base will respond to you as it does to the rest of us, and you can run about without setting my alarms off, thank you.”

“Thank you,” Oratorio echoed, smiling back, and staring fascinated at the mist screens. Jazz agreed that the constantly moving, overlapping array was kind of pretty if you stopped to think about it. He himself almost never came in here except on rare occasions; most of the time things were handled via commlink. 

“Let’s waltz before Red kicks us out,” Jazz said, saluting as he retracted his toes and skated off. Oratorio followed.

“Not so different,” Red muttered to himself. 

Prowl smiled.

Hound and Mirage were out on a mission with the Twins as backup, as were Cliffjumper and Arcee. Smokescreen’s team was in Europe. Inferno had taken to staying with the Tranquility Firehouse No. 1, so, aside from remote intros to the Oregon base group, that left Borealis and Wheeljack. Jazz grinned as a message from Bee came through – he’d be coming out himself in a day or two, with Sam and Mikaela for the weekend, and had they messed with the comet sighting records yet to hide Oratorio’s origin? 

Yeah, Bee, we got him covered. Perseids were a little more spectacular this year, hey? 

Bee snorted, or something like. Welcome, Oratorio, he said happily, adding the new channel smoothly. I’ll see you in a few days. Jazz? Don’t drag him into any trouble!

Me? Oh, I get it. You want to christen him yourself.
 

While Bee made suitably offended noises, Jazz cast about for Borealis, pretty sure she wasn’t up in Oregon drooling over Perceptor and/or Skyfire at the moment. Although she could also be 500 miles away – just out for a quick jog around the neighborhood. 

Ah, there she is. Come down, Little Bird, your baby bro is out! 

Whaaat??? I’ll be down in two shakes!
 

Oratorio blinked. “What did she mean…oh. Interesting.” 

Jazz wondered if it mattered, really, where Borealis got her idiom. The rest of them picked it up fast enough. The accented Cybertronian was weird, true. Jazz thought it was cute.

“The Wide World,” Jazz said, skating in a broad figure eight as they stepped outside the hangar doors, spreading his arms. 

“Oooooohhhhhhh!” The damping fields and the solid rock of the embassy no longer shielding, Oratorio was wide open to the vast input of a living planetary surface. Wind, sunlight, sparse vegetation, the variegated colors of the sandstone, the sharp tang of rust on the camouflage roof over what they tended to call the “porch”, birds zipping around, the creak and hum of insects, heat rising in waves off the rocky ground. And high above, the approaching energy signature of an Autobot jet. 

Oratorio gaped as Borealis hove into visible-spectrum view and landed. Jazz giggled. It was one thing to know that there were some big ass jets among your kind, and something else entirely to see that ginormous dark delta shape swoop down like a black swan on steroids, transform 20 meters from the ground and land neatly on two feet, then sprint at you. Physics, let alone instinct, told one that that much mass didn’t stop on a transistor. But Borealis didn’t run them over, and they didn’t flinch.

“Hiya!” Borealis said, crouching down low and extending a forefinger, which Oratorio gamely shook. “Pretty! Starlight Express!”

Oratorio laughed, and found some of the music.

“Eee! Harold Faltermeyer! Good times! I’d say oldies but goodies but thirty years isn’t that long.” 

“Ha. You want old?” Jazz dug up snatches of Medieval Baebes and The Merrie Consort, Gregorian chants and a traditional song from China that really had to have the dust blown off. 

“Show off.” She stood up. Oratorio watched the process raptly. “Okay, just got a ping from Hound, I gotta make like a jet, here, guys. Great to meet you, Oratorio!”

See you around, big sister, Oratorio tight-beamed happily as she transformed and took off. 

Absoflogginlutely, little brother! 

Jazz let Oratorio take his own leisurely time walking out to Wheeljack’s tower. It gave him time to comm the inventor. You blowing slag up in there today? 

Not on purpose,
 came the cheery reply. You bringing the kid in? 

Oh Primus. Yeah. 

All right, all right, lemme shut this generator down. I got some alloys cooling but those won’t spontaneously combust, so come on in.
 

“Okay, Rio? You see me bolting for the door? You stay on my leg like smarm on a Seeker, got that?” 

“Chuckwalla!” Oratorio said, pointing at a dark, rough-skinned lizard as they passed it. It seemed completely unconcerned by their presence. Jazz wondered if letting his inquisitive progeny into Wheeljack’s lab was such a good idea.

Most humans would not have described Wheeljack’s workshop as a tower per se. The Cybertronian word for tower specified only a structure that was a certain ratio of height to width, regardless of how much of it protruded above the “active” surface of the planet. 

About ten meters of the workshop’s height were aboveground, topped with an overgrown scraggle of Humble Gilia, dotted with Newberry’s milkvetch and Tidy Fleabane, presided over by a single, ambitious Joshua tree. From the air, this made the building harder to spot; particularly since a great deal of desert flora grew rampant about the base of the walls as well. The walls of the tower were the same colors as the surrounding rock but constructed of a Cybertronian substance akin to resin composited with carbon fibers and double-corrugated in such a way as to withstand a very large explosive (or, coincidentally, implosive) force. Its twenty-five meter diameter gave it a rather squat appearance from the outside. 

Inside, however, the structure was sunk another fifty meters belowground, with a spiraling ramp hugging the curved walls, providing access to the three levels of work space under the entry floor. 

“Hey there, kiddo,” Wheeljack said as the blast-resistant door slid aside. Oratorio’s name was already up in the cloud mind along with several subroutines that were watching what all the other Autobots and the few connected humans were doing, so Wheeljack got snuggled into not like a new acquaintance, but as a friend Oratorio hadn’t physically met before.

“What’s on the burners today, Jack?” Jazz asked, pleased. 

“Next batch of Kuppies,” Wheeljack said, winking in acknowledgement of the unofficial name. “I’ve got them insulated this time, so the Cons can’t fry them with the base shields. These’ll get to chew much bigger holes in the bulkheads.”

“A non-lethal tactic?” Oratorio said, as he and Jazz followed Wheeljack down to the second level where Jack’s screens and backup computers rested in a nest of cable and seemingly tangled wire and spare components and indicators glowing softly in the dimness. 

Jazz hesitated before answering. How deep did this new one need to be led into the war yet? Couldn’t they give him a little time just to exist first? Our aim at this point is to drive them off-planet, he tight-beamed. Prime is trying to keep the killing to a minimum, on both sides. 

“I have another batch in the works, too,” Wheeljack continued, indicating a small mist screen to one side. “These’re gonna have modified fuel systems; they’ll go around eating all the different kinds of plastics in the oceans and convert them to fuel for swimming. Get that Northern Pacific Gyre cleared out, as well as the rest of the sea-bourne trash before the little jellies and things try to eat it.”

“Nice!” Jazz said. “Except I can already hear the environmental groups squealing about what effect the Kuppies themselves and their waste products will have on an already stressed environment.”

Wheeljack nodded. “Beachcomber’s working on that; we’ll get the chemistry hooked up so that the end products don’t cause algal blooms or contribute greenhouse gasses. I think Beachcomber wants the Kuppies to poop nano-assembled sand. Depending on how much carbon they have to deal with, might end up having to be diamond sand. The Kuppies themselves have little EM emitters to discourage things from eating them, but they're also non-digestible and should be able to swim on through most digestive tracts if they do get gulped up by humpbacks or something. Perceptor’s writing the report we’ll send out before we launch.” He laughed. “It’ll be interesting to see how many people actually read the whole thing.”

Jazz grinned. “How many thousand pages is he at so far?” 

“Only three, he says. He wants to make sure every contingency is covered. Like he does.” Wheeljack’s smile was fond. “Oh! And you know how Hook built all those Insecticons that look like house flies? Well me and Perceptor came up with robot spiders and mantises, and even some Little Brown Bird bots – we’re calling those last ones ‘Libbies’. We’ll have ‘em patrolling areas we really want to keep the Cons out of. Beachcomber thinks Hook hasn’t grokked organic food webs very well yet.”

Oratorio and Jazz looked at each other for a second, then burst out laughing. “Awesome, Jack,” Jazz said. “We’ll let you get back to it, then.”

“We are not of this world,” Oratorio murmured, coming out into the sunlight again, holding Jazz’s hand. “But we are in it.”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

A whisper of sound tugged at Oratorio’s consciousness. Abandoning the 1923 “tree corpse” unabridged dictionary Maggie had brought for him to peruse and smell and touch, he ran outside, trying to make sense of the distorted sonic ripples. They were echoes, bouncing off complex stone shapes. Someone was singing, up in the canyons.

Not wanting to interrupt the performance, Oratorio approached as silently as he could, climbing around a spire of sandstone until he could get a clear sensor reading. This close the sheer potency of the voice was dizzying, invoking extraordinary, overwhelming emotions. It was even making his video processors buzz and wobble. He crept closer, recording everything.

Prowl? Quiet, gentle Prowl, who never raised his voice to anyone, no matter how rambunctious the Twins got; who patrolled like everyone else, but rarely engaged in battle? Prowl sang like this?

Did anyone else know? They should, they must – Oratorio configured his inputs and outputs so that he could broadcast the audio feed in realtime on every open Autobot and human channel. Before he could fully engage the feed, a splash of white noise fritzed it. 

Shut that right down, young one, Jazz told him. Climbing up to lean across Oratorio’s shoulders, arms winding gently around his neck, Jazz rested his chin atop his progeny’s helm. 

But, Jazz! His voice is amazing! Prowl’s ruined voice was strangely beautiful – like a bombed-out cathedral, or the way some humans looked peaceful, transcendent, shortly after death. 

I know. It is. But, spark of my spark, he’s not doing this for your or anyone else’s entertainment. Jazz knew he needed to be clear and firm on this point. Oratorio’s general curiosity and compulsion toward the arts were on the scale of forces of nature.

Wonder where he got that… Prime commented, amused. 

Oh no, Jazz retorted. You ain’t hanging that one on me. They made you Prime so you wouldn’t have time to get your nosey self in trouble.

Prime chuckled. …Yes, Bumblebee, the other Primes are laughing, too. Jazz, Volant wishes to point out that I was made Prime in order to handle mechs like you.

Zing! contributed Ratchet. 

Aha! Jazz crowed. No wonder they had to build a whole new Prime with unconventional programming – I am more than a normal Prime could manage!

The other mechs groaned, Oratorio giggled. He sobered abruptly when Prowl’s song ended. Jazz took him by the hand and led him back toward the embassy. He does this when he’s hurting, Rio, not for fun. Let him be.

Do you…do you think he would ever consent to sing, just sing for us? He didn’t hold out much hope, but it was counter to everything he was that such beauty should be withheld, hidden, and not shared with everyone. 

No. And don’t you pester him, either.

I won’t. But…

I know, Rio. I know.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Maggie locked the door, tossed her courier bag and keys on the entry table, kicked off her shoes and flopped down on the couch. She hadn’t been back to her apartment in almost forty-eight hours, working on a project so top-secret she wasn’t even supposed to think about it at home. 

Dinner wasn’t going to make itself. Was it more trouble to wait 45 minutes for a pizza delivery or just throw something in the microwave? She discovered the freezer empty. Again. Popcorn works, she thought and tossed a bag in while the computer was booting up.

Working at a desk in front of a screen all day every day and what did she do when she got home? Sit right back down in front of her computer. As usual, there were "welcome home" emails from Prime and Hound. They could have pinged her on her occipital comm, but the use of conventional email was deliberate. She could read at her leisure, without any pressure of reply. They weren't tracking her, or checking up on her; they were just leaving little notes to let her know they cared. It was a nice touch, and almost frighteningly perceptive from aliens. Most of her boyfriends hadn't been that courteous. 

Speaking of boyfriends, Glen was finally moving out West permanently. His grandmother had died of a stroke in May. People who didn't know him well had usually assumed he was a big fat loser, living off his grandmother's social security. It pissed Maggie off. Glen's old job didn't pay very well, true, but he had always contributed his fair share, bought his own toys, and – because Dorothy Mae had not been able to get around as well as she had thought she could, those last four years or so – had been in fact a great help and support. Now she was gone, he was free to move out of the old Columbia Heights neighborhood; though not without a twinge or three of regret. 

The robots in Nevada were more than happy to receive him for a permanent position at the embassy, however, and that was a tough offer to refuse. 

Maggie sighed. She really needed to break ...things... off with Hound. Being FWB with a giant robot was pretty awesome, but while she was still closer to 30 than 40, in her more sober moments she admitted that wouldn't be true for much longer, and she'd been doing a teensy bit of late-night thinking about her life. It had kind of snuck up on her. When she looked around her apartment, she saw no plants, no pets, no art on the walls. No kids. Did she want kids? She hadn’t given it much thought, what with the war and everything. 

She instructed her chat program to change her status to “active”. When Ratchet and Wheeljack had first proposed the comm implants, Maggie had thought that having access to the constant chatter of the Autobots and other humans on the system would be maddening. Soon, however, she had found that even though she could mute everything – Ratchet in particular had insisted on an “off” switch – it was silence that was more often oppressive. In any case, it was totally solid (as Anna Lennox had taken to saying lately) to have instant access to the internet, without needing to lug around a laptop or squint at a palmtop screen, made logarithmically more fun because there was always someone on who was happy to entertain her or share information if that’s what she wanted. At the moment, though, she opted to use the old desktop so it wouldn’t get lonely. 

Only a few minutes passed before her chat program pinged. Hi, Maggie! What are you doing?

“Hello, Oratorio,” she typed back after wiping her buttery fingers on her skirt. “Nothing much, just perusing the latest set of equations on the physics forum.”

New ones?

“Yep.” The maths were way out there, but she almost understood some of it. It was like trying to read Italian when she had learned French. Certain fragments looked familiar, but the meaning of the whole eluded her. At least the comments gave her enough to be going on with. 

Recently there had been a new entry in the game entelechy451 had started. Redshift was the username, and like entelechy, couldn’t be traced, to Teletraan or Event Horizon or anywhere else. After hearing Mikaela’s account of her visit to the Oregon base with Bee and Sam, Maggie’s bet was on it being Perceptor. She told Oratorio as much. 

I can neither confirm nor deny your supposition.

“Pleeeeeease? You can tell me, what harm would it do?”

Clearly the party or parties involved wish to remain anonymous.

“Not even a hint?”

Hm. From the pattern of interlocution and symmetry, if they are indeed two separate people, they appear to be flirting.

Maggie groaned. This was remarkably unhelpful information. She and Mikaela had for a while played a game they called “Guess Who’s Shagging Whom This Week” – speculating about the myriad and ever-changing Autobot physical relationships. Once she and Mikaela had a list, Maggie went to Hound to see how they’d done. Most of the time the women had missed a significant number of liaisons, but those they did call were usually spot on. “Fine. Whatever. So what are you doing, Rio?”

I am watching Sunstreaker, Sideswipe, Gears and several members of the Graveyard Legion play football in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Ooh! Gears just scored! Ran right under Lowroad’s legs!

“Aren’t they supposed to be helping rebuild the shipyard there?”

They are. Doesn’t mean they can’t have a little fun on the side.

“Nope,” Maggie typed, laughing. “Throw me a feed, will you?”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Trailing his fingertips along the rough red stone of the corridor, Oratorio activated little fans to draw the comforting scent of clean, warm oil into the chemoreceptors in his lower legs and forearms. Past the control room the light reflecting off the bath’s surface created mesmerizing, flickering patterns on the tunnel ceiling, and he could hear soft splashes and an occasional whisper of voices. There were usually one or two, or sometimes several other people in the oil bath whenever Oratorio went down to wash the desert sand and dust out of his chassis. Only Tracks and Mirage were there this time – but they weren’t bathing. 

After several fascinating seconds, they at last became aware of him and froze. Oratorio wished he had Mirage’s cloak, but he smiled and waved as they turned their bright optics toward him. They smiled back, not in the least discomfited.

“Hello, Oratorio,” they said, in near unison. They continued to hold each other close, but did not resume the very interesting things they’d been doing, and Oratorio could sense their systems winding down and cooling. His core temperature was going down, too; disappointing since that had felt decidedly nice.

“Hi Tracks, hi Mirage. What were you doing?”

“Just interfacing,” Tracks said. He and Mirage separated and beckoned to him. 

“Please come in, Oratorio,” Mirage said, grinning. “You look like you’ve been following Hound around all day.” 

Oratorio swiftly waded in to meet them, taking their outstretched hands. “What do you mean by ‘interfacing’?” Perhaps they would resume so he could observe. Or better yet, perhaps they would include him! He felt warmer again at the thought.

“We’re helping each other overload,” Mirage explained. Oratorio would understand what that meant, as it was a sort of “housekeeping” process included in core programming. 

“You can do that with other people?” Oratorio’s optics widened, incandescent with the possibilities blooming in his CPU. “Show me! May I?”

“Whoa, easy,” Tracks said, gently. “You haven’t been through integration yet. Once you have, we’ll show you anything you like, all right?” He and Mirage moved farther apart, subtly flanking Oratorio, their optics giving nothing away. 

“But …you’re both so beautiful,” Oratorio purred, letting his voice settle down into its deepest, warmest registers. “I want to touch you, want you to touch me like you were earlier…”

Both Tower bots shivered, Tracks shuttering his optics. “Oh my,” Mirage murmured. 

“Rio,” Tracks said, careful harmonics taking the sting out of the refusal. “We might hurt you, send you into integration, if we did that, understand? And then you might accidentally hurt us.” It was the latter possibility that deterred most mechs. Tracks smiled mischievously and splashed Oratorio. The young mech widened his optics but immediately splashed back. Behind him, Mirage kicked up a big wave that doused both of the others. 

“Free-for-all!” Tracks shouted, and it was on

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

The Cons had tried to provoke a supervolcanic eruption at the Lakagígar, or Laki fissure in southern Iceland. Skyfire and Borealis had helped drive the Seekers west toward Perceptor’s range of fire while a troop of the Graveyard Legion led by Prowl and Raze fought off Onslaught, Mixmaster, Rampage and Scavenger. Prowl returned via USAF transport to the embassy, armor carbon-scored and dented, but relatively undamaged. Ratchet was staying in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, tending the casualties. 

Too depleted to drive all the way out to his usual spot in a canyon to the north, Prowl simply found a shady niche at the base of the mesa on the opposite side from the hangar door. It frightened him badly when the Cons pursued attacks like this, and he sang terror softly, wordlessly, for he had found no human song that conveyed the depths of his dread. Nor was it an emotion even war-changed Autobots had written ballads about. 

Thus immersed, he did not notice his audience, until said audience became incapable of remaining silent.

Oratorio lay on the mesa top above Prowl, listening with all his being. He didn’t understand this song. Usually there were words, though Oratorio suspected the way Prowl used them held several meanings, which might be clearer to someone who knew Prowl better. But the emotion in the melody this time – and Oratorio felt certain the emotion was vast and strong – was nothing he had himself ever experienced. He could put no words, no easily manipulated labels to it. 

So engrossed in this puzzle, he did not notice at first that he was shaking and couldn’t stop. Something was very wrong with his body. Suddenly he understood Prowl’s song with a clarity that was like the concussion and flash across the EM spectrum of a lightning strike at close range. The shaking grew stronger, and stronger. Hands touched him and he screamed. Every input was completely wide open, pouring cataracts of data into his CPU. He was fighting to save it, process it, but it felt like new pathways were being torn in his mind, raw and bleeding no leaking energon searing ion channels melting can’t stop oh it hurts!

Hands on him like laser burns, uncontrolled motion, cacophony of sound, reek of stone and metal, light to dark and everything was drowning everything else and the wild convulsions of his body abruptly ceased and he was trapped inside and he couldn’t even scream and the not-sound of that filled him for centuries for nanoseconds and then there was a voice. Low and gentle and rough but he must not consider it beautiful and all he wanted forever was for that voice to keep speaking. 

Jazz, Prime, Red Alert sent across the Autobot command channel. Oratorio has gone into integration. Evac and Prowl are here with him.

Embattled north of Detroit, a muffled, anguished sound escaped Jazz’s vocoder at Red’s message. 

Go, Jazz, Prime told him.

I…Evac can handle it. I can’t leave you here!

I mean it, Jazz. Skyfire and Borealis are refueled and inbound – one of them will take you to Nevada. 

But—

This war will no longer dictate the entirety of our existence. Rio needs you. 

After a short flight, Jazz hit the ground running. Prowl and Evac were in the repair bay with Oratorio; Evac having shut down all of the young mech’s motor systems under comm supervision from Ratchet. Prowl was at the head of the repair table, whispering calmly but steadily into Oratorio’s audial. 

It was my fault, Prowl tight-beamed to Jazz. I shouldn’t have been so close to—

What? That’s crazy, Jazz responded, climbing up on the table and taking Oratorio’s hand. This was going to happen sooner or later, and besides, this is a routine part of a new mech’s functionality, remember? “Thanks, Evac.”

“No problem, Jazz,” the Graveyard Legion helicopter said, smiling. “Nice to see new sparks again.” He patted Oratorio’s shoulder and left them, Prowl following. 

Jazz settled himself beside his progeny, maintaining his hold on Oratorio’s hand – he could still feel and hear and see, was in a form of consciousness, though not a pleasant one. Borrowing an old tale from Mirage, Jazz began. “In the days of the Firstforged, in the nights when six moons were strung across the stars like beacons, there was a starship named Vector Prime…”

Chapter Text

2018 - autumn

“Bumblebee?” Ratchet poked his head out of the med-bay as Bee, Sam and Mikaela came in. Bee transformed and raised his antennae at the medic.

“Wheeljack was asking for you. He’s in his workshop.”

Bee nodded, having gotten the ping himself, and Ratchet withdrew. “Coming, Sam?”

“To Wheeljack’s workshop? No thanks, I want to live.”

“Ditto,” said Mikaela when Bee looked at her. Normally she liked learning anything she could from the Autobot mechanics, but bearding Wheeljack in his demesne was pushing the boundaries of self-preservation.

“Faint heart never won fair maiden!” Bee waved and headed out to the workshop. “No guts, no glory.”

“Nice knowing you,” Sam called after him.

Bee gave a piercing whistle when he was about 50 meters from Wheeljack’s tower. There was a low crash but no smoke issued from the vents, and once Bee actually reached the door it opened right away, so nothing too catastrophic had happened this time.

“You rang?” Bee said, poking his head around the door frame. 

Wheeljack was dusting himself off. “Yeah, yeah, come on in, Bee. I got a proposition for ya.”

Bee entered and something about Wheeljack’s tone made him close the door carefully behind him. Wheeljack nodded and remotely keyed the lock.

“Just don’t want any interruptions for a sec here,” he said. “So, no, you’re not trapped or anything.”

“I was not concerned.”

Wheeljack chuckled. “Well, what I wanted to ask you is, would you consider trying the spark merge with me? I was thinking, some of us should try it without Prime. I don’t like what it does to him.”

Bee nodded eagerly and followed Wheeljack down to the third level. “I agree. The burden should not be his alone. I’m not afraid. I’d be honored to merge with you, Wheeljack.” 

“Terrific! I built another tank out here for the new spark, and I have some protomass in there already.” He and Ratchet had solved the problems with the Wells with assistance from Perceptor. Rather than adhere slavishly to the ancient protocols, Perceptor had proposed they build a new system entirely, based on improvements Serendipity had made to CR chambers just before she was killed, and on much older precepts of nanoculture maintenance that Wheeljack decided he wasn’t surprised Perceptor knew. Bumblebee lifted an orbital ridge at him. “Don’t look at me like that, I know I’ll have to curtail my riskier projects for a while. It’s not a big deal. It’ll be worth it.” The tank would in fact be safer out there than in the main base. It was a commonly held belief among Decepticons that bombing any known Wheeljack workshop was suicidal. The resultant explosion would engulf the bomber, no matter how fleet. “Lemme tell Ratchet what we’re up to, just in case.” He paused, looking at Bumblebee apologetically. “Or, we can wait till you’re ready. I sorta sprang this at you out of the blue, there. Sorry about that.”

Bee made a dismissive whirr. “A moment only, and then we can begin.” Wheeljack nodded. Bee called Sam’s cell.

“Bee? What’s up?”

“Wheeljack needs me for an experiment that will require me to remain here in his workshop for a day or two. Bluestreak has already agreed to serve as your vehicle during that time.”

“Uh. What is he going to do to you, exactly?” Sam sounded anxious.

“Nothing I haven’t agreed to, Sam,” Bee said gently. “It’s…technical, or I would explain more thoroughly.”

“Okay, that’s not reassuring,” Sam said. “But Mikaela and I were going to just hang out here all weekend anyway, so it’s cool. We just thought we’d be, y’know, hanging out with you.”

“I apologize, Sam. This is important.”

“Okay, no problem. Just. Try not to get blown up or anything.”

“Yes, Sam.”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Sam closed the phone and stared at it for a moment. “Please tell me I didn’t just sound like my dad.”

Mikaela leaned over and rested her chin on his shoulder. “You sounded like your dad. To a sixteen-foot-tall robot who is older than Western Civilization.” She patted his head and returned her attention to the game she was playing remotely with Jazz.

“Great.”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Bumblebee’s spark was already spinning faster. Wheeljack gazed at him intently, his optics taking on a more vivid hue. Ratchet, Bumblebee agreed. We’re going to try now. 

Good luck,
 Ratchet transmitted to both of them. Prime might have misgivings about the physically less massive bots merging – the power consumption alone was hazardous. But Ratchet knew they had to figure out how to make it possible, and relatively safe, for any Autobot to merge, regardless of size. Jazz was smaller than Bumblebee, and he’d survived all right, even if Prime had borne most of the drain in that instance. No, Bee and Wheeljack had Ratchet’s full blessing, if they needed it. Ratchet had his optics on a few other pairs as well, who he thought would try it sooner or later. Hoist and Grapple, perhaps. Hound and Mirage definitely, and probably the very day it occurred to them to do so. Perceptor and Beachcomber would have already if they weren’t so busy with the new base. Some of the members of the Graveyard Legion might - though the very idea made Ratchet’s processors ache. Brawn, Warpath and Gears were too set in their ways.

Wheeljack made himself comfortable on a table right next to the tank, then beckoned to Bee, who climbed gamely up on top of him. I missed you, kid,Wheeljack said, touching Bee’s facial plates gently as Bee cabled them together. The sentiment echoed and grew full of meanings, blooming with the connection. Bee nuzzled his hand.

I missed you, too. Bee straddled Wheeljack’s waist and wriggled to bring their chests into proximity. Bee hummed contentedly. It had been a long time since he’d had a good snuggle with his oldest friend.

Pay attention, now, Wheeljack chided gently.

I know. There is no reason why this cannot feel nice, at least at first. 

You got me there, kid.
 Wheeljack wrapped his arms around him, fingers stroking lightly, but his focus within. Wheeljack was nearly as self-disciplined as Ratchet, though most of the others wouldn’t have guessed it. Bee wiggled, then settled, determined. Their chests opened, their sparks burning gold and aquamarine, spinning faster and faster. They strove to reach the depths they needed, fighting their inclination to give in to pleasure alone. Soon love drove them deeper, for Prime’s sake as much as their own. 

Their chests widened, coronae overlapping. The workshop leapt with dancing shadows. Bee extended his sparkmatter as a crown of little rays, questing gently, inquisitive. Oddly, he found it easy. Giving of himself was Bee’s primary nature. Wheeljack struggled, more solitary, older, self-sufficient. But at last a curving frond uncoiled from his spark, and stretched to meet Bee’s little rays. The strands wove themselves together as if eager to do so, drawing just enough matter together to find its independent spin and ignite. Power lashed outward; melting curling, branching lines across the two Autobots’ chests, arms and faces. Bee and Wheeljack shuddered together, succumbing to overload at last, their new spark cradled between them. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Bee dragged himself to his feet, by sheer stubbornness mustering enough energy to move past the pain to get the new spark properly installed into the growth chamber. Wheeljack lay still, offline, smoke rising from his scars. Bee wished he could have contained the backlash better, or, like Prime, taken the larger share of damage and power drain himself. But Wheeljack was wily, he’d probably gotten hints from Optimus. Shaking fit to fly apart, what little power he had left surging unpredictably, Bee pulled himself back up to the table, crashing against Wheeljack’s closed chest, offline.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Did it, Ratchet, Wheeljack transmitted feebly. Fortunately the distance wasn’t great. We’re okay and the new kid’s looking good.

Ratchet sent congratulations and relief, and elicited a chirp of more detailed data on the new spark’s condition before bidding Wheeljack a nice long recharge. 

Well done, Wheeljack, Prime added. Thank you. You have my personal gratitude. More than I can say. It took a weight of worry off Prime’s CPU that the smaller bots had managed the merge with no worse effects than Prime had endured himself. The Matrix was right. They could do this. 

No problem, Prime. Wheeljack transmitted a complex glyph, tight-beamed to his leader. Everything he and Bee hoped for, and why, along with all the emotions they felt for Optimus. Not just any Prime, he was theirs as they were his. Links none of them would sever, not dependent on cables or electromagnetic carrier waves. Prime accepted this gift and returned it tenfold, and Wheeljack slipped back into recharge warmed by Prime’s regard. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

None of the Autobots were surprised when Bumblebee spent a lot of time in Wheeljack’s lab over the next two years. Sam and Mikaela were another matter.

Bee hated the thought of continually lying to his humans about his own progeny. Yet even with Prime’s carefully considered permission, Bee hadn’t entirely looked forward to explaining what he and Wheeljack had accomplished. At the same time a part of him was so proud that this was the first successful merge that hadn’t involved Prime it had been difficult not to tell them everything immediately. The subject of reproduction was always weirdly touchy with humans. Even though Sam and Mikaela had been married for three years, they had not felt ready to have their own children. 

So he took refuge in the simplest truth. “Wheeljack and I made a new spark. I wish to visit her as she grows. Ratchet says this will aid her in forming a healthy personality.”

“You and Wheeljack…wait, what?” Sam leaned back and didn’t even pretend to be driving. 

“We made a new person.”

Mikaela rubbed the edge of the seat – an old nervous habit that Bee wasn’t sure was meant more to comfort him or herself. “Did it hurt?” 

Bee wondered if the pain of human childbirth had anything to do with Mikaela’s reluctance to become a mother. Or perhaps it was Sam who was squeamish. “Yes,” Bee said. 

“Oh. How did you…I mean, you’re not…” She bit her lips, feeling the awkward one for once. 

“Aaaagh!” Sam squawked, putting his hands over his ears. “Thank you for tuning in to WTMI! I’m not listening…la la la la la la la!...”

“Sam!” Mikaela slapped his shoulder.

“No. I absolutely do not want details of giant alien robot sex, pregnancy or labor, okay?”

“Since when?” Mikaela gave him an arch look. As though plenty of kink hadn’t happened in and with this very alien, very giant, very sapient yellow Camaro.

“That’s different,” Sam squeaked. He could still make his voice break to good effect, even at the ripe old age of 27. 

“Whatever. I want to see Bee’s baby, okay?”

“Augh!”

“Thank you, Mikaela. It would please Wheeljack and me if you were to visit her as often as is convenient for you.”

“‘Her’? This is breaking my brain.”

“Shut up, Sam. Thanks, Bee. I’d love to.”

Once they reached the base and gingerly entered Wheeljack’s workshop, Mikaela approached the tank. Wheeljack was out with Jazz, Brawn and Cliffjumper testing some new gizmo out in the desert, so they had the place to themselves. The plex was transparent, and Mikaela gazed, fascinated, at the dark mass within. She’d never thought of growing robots before, but if their bodies were composed of things like nanomachines, she supposed it made sense. It was cocoon-like, ridged in complex whorls that weren’t quite like segments. It reminded her of Optimus’ comet mode, only smaller, and not quite that shape. More elongated, sort of like a three-dimensional comma. She pressed her hands against the plex.

“She’s alive in there,” she murmured, watching faint lights flicker and pulse across the protoform’s body. Like a deep sea ctenophore or something. Strange and beautiful. “Is she…awake?” Human fetuses could hear and feel, maybe even see, at a certain point. She remembered noticing the tank Ratchet had said he was testing a few years ago. He’d lied, she realized, angry for a moment. That must have been another spark, another robot child. How many more were there that she and Sam hadn’t been told about? But if Ratchet had lied, had kept this hidden until now, he had a good reason. She’d yell at him about it later.

“Hard to say,” Wheeljack said, coming in behind them. Sam jumped and clutched his chest dramatically. “We don’t think so, exactly. It’s like when we’re in recharge – it’s not sleep like you guys have; we literally shut down; but she can sense our transmissions and general activity in proximity to the workshop here.”

“What’s her name?” Mikaela asked. 

“We don’t know yet,” Bumblebee said. “She will probably tell us after she’s decanted.”

Sam was confused. “Wait, wait. You know it’s a ‘she’ but you haven’t picked out a name?”

“She’ll select a name for herself,” Wheeljack said. “Probably.” Mostly people chose their own names, but sometimes they were given to them. Oratorio had known his name right away. Borealis had taken months to find hers. They’d just have to wait and see. 

“Ooookay,” Sam said. “I will probably wish I hadn’t asked, but how do you know it’s a ‘she’?” 

Bumblebee and Wheeljack stared at each other for a long moment. “It’s…complicated,” Bee said.

Mikaela grinned, but patted Sam’s shoulder. “I bet. I can only tell Arcee and Borealis are both girls because of their voices.” Arcee did have something of a feminine look about her, but Borealis? Not so much.

Wheeljack cocked his head at her. “Huh? Arcee and Borealis aren’t the same gender… Oh. Sorry, Bumblebee, I’ll let you handle that one.” 

“Thanks.” Bee approximated a sigh.

Sam and Mikaela were both goggling now, though on Mikaela the expression contained a good deal of amusement. 

“We have seven basic genders,” Bee explained. “Except they are not precisely genders the way you use the term. And there are modifiers for minicons, Seekers, gestalts, AIs, symbionts and other things; and a peculiar pronoun just for the Prime, and… Oh dear. Sam? Sam, just pretend you didn’t hear what Wheeljack said, all right?”

“Headache,” Sam moaned. “Very unhappy headache.”

Mikaela chewed her lower lip, gazing at the protoform again. “Is this one a ‘she’ like Arcee or a ‘she’ like Borealis?” All this time she realized she’d just been assuming there weren’t many girl Autobots left because of the war. And she hadn’t wanted to ask about it, though she wouldn’t put it past Simmons to have done. Now she wondered how many ‘he’s were actually something else. She’d pin Ratchet down about it later. When Sam wasn’t around.

“Like Borealis,” Wheeljack said.

“How can you even tell?” Sam wailed.

Bumblebee considered the least traumatic route. “Because she’s big.”

Sam hid his face in his hands for a moment, then squared his shoulders. “Good enough.”

Chapter Text

2018 - October

They brought Mirage back to the base in stasis. At least his head and torso were still attached to each other, though part of one cheek flange was missing. Trailbreaker was carrying the legs, but they hadn’t found the arms yet. The repair bay filled up quickly, even with the mechs doing the carrying of wounded comrades hastily retreating in order to get out of the way. Wheeljack had used the battle as cover to launch another wave of Kuppies, but he would be returning soon to lend a servo. The extra work for Ratchet and Hoist would be worth it if the Kuppies fulfilled their mission. Perceptor – though also an accomplished mechanic/physician – had to remain in Oregon for the time being. Often perched atop the volcano, his keen and subtle senses honed to maintain the radius of whatever “safety” his presence afforded. 

Hound – dented, dirty and banged around but otherwise unhurt – haunted the entryway bravely. He couldn’t bring himself to go back out to look for Mirage’s arms. Several others were doing that and he had every confidence in them. If the Cons hadn’t kept the limbs as trophies, they ought to be around the battlefield somewhere, and it remained possible to distinguish between the native metals and Cybertronian alloys. Hopefully they could be found and reattached before their colonies of nanocells died. They could be salvaged even if that happened, but it would delay the time before Mirage had functional arms again. 

Ratchet and Hoist were working triage when Ratchet tossed a soft transmission Hound’s way. He’s safely in stasis, go get cleaned up and recharge, Hound. We’re going to have to repair Sunstreaker and Ironhide first anyway. 

I understand,
 Hound replied. But he hovered there for a few minutes more, before spinning away forcefully and heading for the oil baths. 

The basic mechanism of the baths was the same as they’d had on Cybertron, but the execution was of necessity rather more rustic. Hound liked this very much. Using Wheeljack’s terrifying mining device, two bubble-shaped chambers had been chewed out of the rock, one larger and lower than the other, connected by a slanting corridor which was, like most of the corridors and rooms of the embassy, large enough for bots the size of Borealis and Skyfire to walk through without having to more than bow their heads slightly. The upper chamber contained the controls for the filtration and heating systems, and access panels for the filters. Heavy tubing drilled through the rock brought dirty oil from the bathing chamber up to the filters, then clean oil from there went back down through overhead tubing to the heating unit which was just upstream of the outlet. The outlet was some distance up the far wall, in effect creating an oilfall for those who enjoyed a shower rather than a bath. Small lights like stars peppered the curve of the ceiling. Hound loved it. The irregularities in the stone were beautiful, and pockets between the sandstone layers – the sandstone itself was now sealed with a special epoxy to prevent the oil from leaking into lower strata and thence to the groundwater – served as shelves for whatever scrubbing tools or extra polishes a mech could want.

Hound was a simple mech regarding such things. He took a long soak, scrubbing at stubborn grime with the oversized steel wool pads one of the humans had found somewhere. This was almost universally held to be more satisfying than the repeller-field shiver, which also got you clean, but wasn’t as pleasant and nothing limbered up the joints like a nice hot soak. Bluestreak and Smokescreen were already in there, stragglers really since most of those who hadn’t been injured had already been in and finished. These two were doing more than bathing. 

“Care to join us, Hound?” Blue purred, Smokescreen’s hands deep in his substructure. Smokescreen looked directly at Hound, optics glowing, and bit at Blue’s cheek guards. Hound revved his engine.

“Mmmm. Very tempting. Not…this time, thanks though.” Hound, grinning, sent a politely declining glyph he’d learned from Mirage. Blue laughed, cut short as Smokescreen found a particularly sensitive bit of wiring.

When Hound was finished, he walked slowly up the sloping floor of the pool, letting the oil drain from the intricacies of his body. A freshly repaired Windcharger sprinted down the incline from the control room just as Hound was exiting, and took a running jump into the center of the pool, thoroughly dousing Bluestreak and Smokescreen, who laughed and dove after Windcharger in good natured revenge. Hound chuckled but ambled on in search of different company. He had no objection to frolicking with those present, but there was someone he hadn’t seen face to face for a while, who might appreciate a little comfort now that the emergency was over.

“He isn’t in here, Hound,” Red Alert told him, somewhat absently. The Security Director as usual stood amid the drifting screens, handling vast amounts of input so smoothly one would never guess it would fry the CPU of an unprepared mech. Red not only thrived on it, he required it. “Check the lookouts.” 

“Thanks, Red.” Hound strolled down the stem corridor, heading for the northernmost lookout first. Mikaela and Sam liked to make out there, and though they weren’t the only ones, the only humans at the base right now were a handful of military and ex-Sector 7 people, debriefing and being debriefed. Hound smiled to himself as he came around the final corner of the easily-defended switchback passage that led to the lookout. There he was.

Prowl’s sensory chevron flicked in Hound’s direction, but he remained otherwise motionless as Hound entered. Without a word, Hound stepped up beside him and joined him in gazing out over the desert outside. Evening was falling, and as this sentry point was open to the northwest, they were being treated to a glorious sunset, the likes of which never occurred in Cybertron’s thin, very low-particulate atmosphere. 

“Tracks found Mirage’s arms,” Prowl said quietly, just as the last limb of the sun sank below the ridge of the mountain range that stood between them and Nellis AFB. Both of their optics brightened as the land before them darkened. 

Relieved, Hound leaned against him. Then slowly turned, positioning himself carefully – Prowl’s body still had rather a lot of pointy bits – to embrace Prowl in a tight hug. 

Prowl’s optics widened. More slowly still, Prowl returned the embrace. “I’m sure he’ll be fine,” Prowl said, not certain if words were necessary, though he suspected they helped. 

“I know he will,” Hound murmured, easing up on the pressure of his arms, but not relinquishing his hold. Oh no, he wasn’t letting go of this one for a while. “I just kind of hate seeing my friends dismembered like that.”

It was meant as a somber joke, but Prowl merely nodded in agreement. Mirage had been fighting Skywarp hand to hand. It seemed at first like a suicidal way to attack a Seeker, but Prowl knew taking them on at close quarters actually negated a lot of their advantages. Seekers themselves didn’t like it, which added to the fun, as far as the Autobots were concerned. In this case it proved more hazardous than usual.

Skywarp had tailored his warp field carefully, tightening it not just along the lines of his own body, but encompassing parts of Mirage’s as well – as much as he could do so, which fortunately for Mirage had not included anything vital; and teleported. Mirage, spewing energon like fountains from the cleanly severed stumps, had fallen into stasis instantly, falling to the ground several seconds later. Ratchet had reassured Hound on the battlefield that because of the cleanness of the separation, reattaching the limbs, once they were found, would be easy and heal quickly. It just looked awful. 

Slipping fingertips under the edge of Prowl’s lower pectoral armor, Hound rubbed his cheek flange slightly against Prowl’s chest. Like secret messages human children passed between themselves at school, Prowl and Hound gently, quietly exchanged cables; two pairs – more than Prowl typically initiated, allowing a deeper connection than usual with him. Hound hummed in pleasant surprise, spinning his spark up faster. Having Prowl all to himself was a rousing change. 

Hound settled into the link, wrapping Prowl around him like a cloak or a favorite chair. There was anxiety because their friend had been hurt, and a portion of regret that Mirage couldn’t join them, but there was also the buzz of post-battle joy-in-life, and satisfaction that they had suffered no permanent losses, yet prevented the Cons from completing their objective. Hound would have been content with basking in the warmth of this mélange, but Prowl sought something more. His beautiful hands danced inquisitive and clever in the intricate spaces beneath Hound’s armor. Deeper. Prowl drew Hound past firewalls only Prime had overtaken before. 

Unafraid, Hound accepted everything Prowl offered. Carefully hoarded impressions of beauty, both among the stars and on this young planet; admiration for and devotion to Prime, who was the core of everything they were and hoped to become; gratitude for the aid he had been given, the trust placed upon him, the panoply of friendships that had opened and enfolded him. 

Aw, dear Prowl. Using his entire spectrum at full power, Hound launched an active scan. Prowl arched and leaned into it, dizzied by the remarkable play of the subtle fields through his body. Hound’s chest opened, illuminating the lookout in flickering young green. 

“Mmmm,” Prowl hummed, warming himself by Hound-light, stroking the edges of the chamber as Hound shivered into both touch and voice. A soft snikand wrrr gave Hound slight warning before polished silver light united with the green like a rain-jeweled forest at dawn. 

When they came online they were tangled – literally, and it took them some time to get unstuck, but they didn’t mind and simply remained where they were – in a corner, joined in the link. Hound made happy, sated, affectionate noises and nuzzled Prowl’s chin spars. I love you. 

Prowl lifted his head. What?

I do. I really do love you. I think Mirage does too. I love you not the way I love Mirage. Or Prime…
 His harmonics carried no weight of expectation, no requirement of a return of the sentiment. None of that mattered because they had hundreds, thousands of years to enjoy numberless shifting alliances and friendships – or both could die tomorrow. 

No, I should think not. Prime is… 

Prime is Prime, never mind that. I haven’t forgotten how you were, when we found you on that moon. And to see, feel you now, what you’ve suffered to become what you are–
 Hound knew he didn’t comprehend the minutest fraction of what Prowl had toiled through; only Prime and Ratchet would understand that. And Prowl didn’t want Hound to know in any more intimate detail than he already did. It wasn’t pleasant. The point is, I’m impressed. 

I had help. 

Of course you did. And that you could accept that help is also impressive. I’ve known mechs who probably would never have…surrendered themselves like that, even to save themselves. You are, don’t laugh, you are one of the sanest people I’ve ever known. You have fought – more directly and literally than most – for kindness and friendship. And love. When you had none of these things. You worked until they emerged from yourself. It’s kind of amazing.


Prowl didn’t know what to say. 

Hound traced the intricacies of Prowl’s chest with a forefinger. Your entire spectrum is gorgeous. I remember when I first saw you walk into that bar on Penta Sigma; it took a lot of courage, and, well, desperation – you’ll recall we five hadn’t seen any other bots for ages – to approach you back then. You were so on edge, like any second you expected someone to shoot you in the back, or between the eyes. He stretched up, nuzzling Prowl’s face for a moment before sinking into an actual kiss. Hound, rather like Prime and Ratchet and Jazz, had mouthparts that were well suited for kissing. 

Now…now you’re still always alert, but not painfully so. It doesn’t hurt to look at you. You were in such pain all the time, before. 

I never realized it was that obvious.
 

Through the cables, Hound could feel there was no resentment in that statement. Prowl was surprised but untroubled. His worry was for whatever suspicions the more observant among the battalion might have had. Maybe it was only obvious to Wheeljack, Mirage and I. For different reasons, I guess. Maybe your…fellows back in the battalion were used to you being like that and didn’t think anything of it. Hound didn’t often bring up the battalion, he hoped it wouldn’t put Prowl off. Since he wasn’t using his mouth to speak, he kept it busy kissing Prowl instead. 

Prowl didn’t seem to mind.

Chapter Text

2018 – November 9th, Friday

Sunset was a narrow red band across the curve of the horizon, tight lines of Morse code clouds etched brightly where the sky faded from teal to indigo. Farm and forest lay in a shadowy patchwork of crow’s wing and black, embroidered by lights from roads and small towns, and beneath everything the lacy layers of IR and UV and entire coral reefs of inputs she hadn’t even had words for, once. Borealis had come to feel at home with fleeting, flattened sunsets and sunrises, as she raced rotation around her home planet, soothed by the heat of the thin air across her armor, half intoxicated by the illusive nearness of the stars. 

She sifted through radio traffic idly, smiling to herself as pilots and tower crews maintained the casual-seeming threads of communication that kept the fliers alive. Above and below and through this drifted the Autobot cloud mind, full of gossip and snark and reassurance and bored monologues and virtual snuggles and routine status reports and sappy love notes and complaining and the occasional gentle rebuke when traded barbs got too sharp. 

“Boom de yada, boom de yada…” she sang happily. She’d had a bit of a fluff-up a few months after her decantation when she’d realized she could not hum or sing. Jazz had quickly installed a basic program for her – like Hound she could croon a little ditty without making Jazz and Rio and the Tower bots cringe, but she wasn’t up for opera. Jazz had tried the same thing with Prime eons ago; had tried every singing program at his disposal in fact, from the most basic to highly advanced multi-choral algorithms. None of them had worked. Prime’s CPU – net of CPUs, really – was different, unique. One of the programs had robbed Optimus of the ability to speak at all, which had disconcerted Prime, terrified Jazz and enraged Ratchet. Such experimentation had ceased abruptly and for good at that point. Borealis giggled as she replayed the clip of the scene Jazz had transmitted to her.

Above her, a vast white shape descended, warming himself after a chilly dip into space. She watched him avidly, paying rather less attention to her own flying than she ought, as he coasted down to her, easing into the atmosphere, their wingtips not quite touching. 

Hi, Skyfi—Whoa! She almost flipped into a flat spin, avoiding the beam of energy scorching its way earthward from far above them. Down on the ground, something moved; something big. 

Holy crap! Did you see that? 

I see it,
 Skyfire answered grimly. I should have detected Galvatron’s movements. Soundwave must be shielding him. 

Below them an open strip mine yawned, whose tiered, serrated rows had been gnawed by the largest mining machine ever built by humans. A mining machine that had come alive and was crawling from the ruched landscape it had created. 

It's heading for the town to the north, Skyfire said. He tried to chirp data to Prime, Jazz, the Coalition forces, but couldn't get through. If Soundwave was involved at this distance, there was something big going on besides the animate Bagger 288. He and Borealis would have to deal with this thing themselves. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

In the observation shack at the mine's edge, Engineer Karl Woerner was first to sound the alarm when the blue lightning came. He paid attention to world news - he knew what that meant. Even so, he had just seen three of his coworkers die, smashed by the machine with no more awareness or deliberation than a human treading on an ant. Everyone else had gotten out. Karl knew he should follow. 

Blue and gold bolts of plasma struck from a clear sky. Any sound of planes would have been drowned out by the terrible din of the Bagger and muffled by state-of-the-art ear protection, but peering upward out the window he could see nothing. The Autobot jets, he recalled, could fire from great altitude. 

Unfortunately, even the massive golden beams, like focused solar flares, had only slight effect on the amok Bagger - the machine flinched and fired back with a projectile weapon it manifested from one of the rig’s arms. Karl did not imagine the rivets or improvised shells it was emitting could reach their targets at that distance. He wondered where they were hitting, as they hurtled back to earth. The town of Jüchen to the north was close.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Inferno took Oratorio aside. “Rio, you gotta stay here and guard Red. He and Jazz have cooked up something to keep our comms up despite Soundwave. We don’t know how long it’ll last, but you have to keep Red safe, understand?”

“Yes, Inferno.” As Inferno ran for the hangar, Oratorio slipped into the Security office and took up station next to Red Alert. Jazz was aboard an E-3 Sentry AEW&C out of Nellis. 

“Hard link with Teletraan and Event Horizon,” Red said. “Maggie Madsen and Glen Whitmann are loading in now as well. I know Inferno told you to guard me, but I’m putting the embassy on lockdown as soon as Trailbreaker’s team clears…meaning now.” 

Dull clangs echoed down the corridors as blast shields dropped into place. Oratorio seated both arm cables into the console ports Red indicated, rolling his consciousness down and out into the world’s nets, settling himself beside/between/within the dry wit of Tel’s presence and the more focused and cool perception of Ven. 

Maggie/Chipchip locked and loaded. Initializing Protocol: Kaleidoscope. 

Glen/Icon locked and loaded. Initializing Protocol: Holdfast. After raising the Graveyard Legion, Prime had rarely brought microbots to life by accident, swiftly accustoming himself to the sporadic, inquisitive bursts of power from within; but prior to that effort, after Chipchip, there had been a handful of incidents. One involved Glen leaving his LG “Monolith” palmtop up on the holo table not really by mistake. Icon was the result. Miles’ tiny green iPod was now named Scuffle. 

Both wetwired humans reclined in garage sale La-Z-Boys that Wheeljack and Ratchet had tinkered with after researching the human concept of the “favorite chair”. Oratorio briefly dipped into Ratchet’s feed as the CMO kept a close watch on their brain functions. Sensory inputs and simulated motor outputs were nominal, safe behind the firewalls Tel and Ven had up; but once Jazz gave the signal, they would leap out across wire and fiber and air, humans and machines enmeshed to fight the Decepticons in the virtual world.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Karl knew he should run. The shack provided worse than no protection – if anything, it and its contents would only become shrapnel. He stood at the window, staring as two strange jets descended out of the night and transformed, their bodies steaming eerily in the cold. One white, one dark – the white one twice the size of the other; the dark peculiarly hard to see in the twilight. Though both appeared small next to the excavator, Karl understood the scale completely. The larger robot was taller than the 70-foot diameter bucket wheel. 

White kept up a steady close-range barrage from multiple guns and cannons. Dark unfolded scythe-like blades from its arms, leaping about the Bagger to cut support cables and hack at major points of articulation. The way they ducked blows from behind and struck simultaneously, he was certain they were in constant communication at a level the human military would envy. They looked like small birds attacking a crocodile. 

Furious roars from the Bagger and the jet-robots pierced his protective earphones; he felt the tumultuous clash of the battle through his chest and neck, pounding through his skull. He wrapped his arms around his head but couldn’t bring himself to look away. For a moment he had a close-up view of the white jet’s back, shuddering and jerking with impacts. They know I’m here, Karl thought. They’re protecting me. I’m making it harder for them. 

The Bagger swatted the dark robot out of the air and rolled over it, moving impossibly fast on its vast treads. Karl almost laughed – the treads were so large they distributed the machine’s weight such that the ground pressure was only 24.8 psi – less pressure than was in the average automobile tire. After a stunned moment, with the white robot raining frenzied attacks from above, the dark robot came up spitting mad; shooting and slicing through the imprisoning tread, shredding into support structures, piercing the main body of the excavator from below. Like an enormous spider, the Bagger leapt away, flailing at the two robots with the four arms that still functioned, catching the white robot a glancing blow with the spinning bucket wheel. 

Three arms. The dark robot finally cut a last major cable as the white robot reeled away, recovering. Both now focused on the central body, dodging in close where the arms were less effective. Dark got its – his? her? – scythe-blades dug in deep, ripping open a ragged hole. White’s cannons rotated, coming to bear with nano-precision even while compensating for the robot’s own wheeling movements. 

Two, …three …four…five concentrated detonations rocked the Bagger, spewing blue-hot liquid. With a final roar, the Bagger collapsed, dead. 

The dark robot sat down abruptly in an undignified heap. After regarding its companion for a moment, the white robot leapt into the air, transforming again into the strangely voluptuous jet; gone in a heartbeat. The dark robot hauled itself to its feet and shambled up to the observation shack, leaning far down to peer in the window at Karl. 

“We breached its spark chamber,” it, she told him in unaccented German. “Go get yourself checked out for radiation.”

“Ja, mein Dame,” Karl said, nodding wildly.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Borealis hurled herself skyward as the comms came back online. 

Here’s the algorithm, Jazz told everyone. Borealis set a subroutine in her communication systems to implement it. Now she could automatically follow the sliding set of frequencies Jazz and Rio and the others were keeping clear. Jazz switched to a more specific channel. Sky, Lissi, we got two more of those things like what you just nailed – in Brazil and Peru. The Peruvian one is closer to populated areas.

Acknowledged, Skyfire replied. Slowing to allow Borealis to catch up, he tight-beamed, Come latch on to me, it’ll be faster.

The two jets maneuvered closely, Skyfire pushing Borealis up until the atmosphere was too thin to hinder her transformation. With arms and legs and a set of docking clamps she had half-forgotten she had, she sprawled across his dorsal hull and hung on tight as Skyfire punched his in-system engines, hauling aft in a high arc that brought them down on the other side of the planet. Borealis let go and transformed as they nosed toward South America. 

Reports were coming in from across the globe. Big machines had sprung to life in more places than there were Autobots to send. Borealis, this is going to get tricky, Skyfire tight-beamed. Unlock the following safety protocols. The bypass should have been in the battle systems I gave you.

But, Skyfire, that’s…never mind. Done. …Oof! Power surged through her systems. Normally a mech would fall into stasis long before they were in any danger of burning out their spark. She and Skyfire had just removed that precaution. 

Jazz, ETA Peru three minutes.

Roger that, Skyfire. Be careful.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Maggie/Chipchip spun her avatar out, bright and hot, all iridescent lines and angles, forming a lacy, abstract shape, running through the information pipelines faster than an X-wing zeroing in on an exhaust port. Glen/Icon was her anchor, steadfast, unyielding. He was helping the AIs hold the firewalls strong – great bulwarks of virtual stone and steel. 

Ready? Teletraan asked her, though he knew she was.

Ready. 

Ravage, Buzzsaw and Rumble are already hammering at the gates. Rumble will be particularly after you, Maggie/Chipchip, don’t forget.

Following the echoes and ripples from the attacks already underway, Maggie/Chipchip zoomed faster. Still tweaking over Frenzy, huh?

As you say.

She was fast, she could see everything at once, she would handle everything they threw at her. Down here deep in the v-world, everything was made of nets and tentacles and complex structures like molecules assembled by the mad, electron clouds assuming impossible shapes through more dimensions than her brain was capable of processing. Sound gave her signal strength and frequency; scent told her odd, intuitive things about intent and target and how close she was to entry and exit gates; and always through her center was the reassuring tug of Glen/Icon’s tether. The symbionts fought mean

Ratchet had built in safeties, and safeties within the safeties – there shouldn’t be any physical component, her body, her mind should be safe. Would doubt alone kill her, or worse? No time for that, something else was coming, pushing so hard the fabric of the v-world compressed in a shockwave like the condensation of a sonic boom she could see but wouldn’t feel or hear until it hit her.

Oh ho! That Seeker hacker, Strake, wanted to play too. Maggie/Chipchip grinned. The more the merrier. Tel and Ven and a set of three hackers in Mumbai took up the symbionts’ front while Maggie/Chipchip swerved to meet Strake head-on. 

Out of the corner of her perception, she half-saw the blow coming – arms full of fending off Strake, she knew she wasn’t going to be able to dodge Soundwave in time. 

The strike rang against a firewall Tel slammed down around her out of nowhere. She sagged for a moment in abject relief. 

Keep your CPU on me, Soundwave! Tel snarled. He stroked a tendril of attention over her – her heart rate had spiked – then narrowed the firewall. 

Maggie/Chipchip sprang from behind it, fierce and sharp, leaping at Strake once again.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

November 10th, Saturday

Brisbane, Rabat, Kansas City, Delhi. Drowning under glittering waves of drones. Four - shi - the number of death. Unlucky. 

Bolo rolled up the dirt track along the ridge of the Carindale Hills on the outskirts of Brisbane and transformed to see over the trees. Tin Man, Hardshell, Diana and Kohaku River to his starboard; Nimbus, Orion, Enterprise and Cannonball to his port. Raze and his platoon had Kansas City, Penthesilea was poised outside Delhi, Jury in Rabat. 

As the Autobot teams approached, the drones broke off terrorizing the population and wheeled to face the greater threat. Data spread like a virus along their rudimentary communication network. With high-pitched electronic squeals and harsh screeches, the drones coursed through the four cities, intent as locusts on a wheat field.

Prowl watched from the open cargo bay of a C-17 circling Kansas City. Over a narrow subspace link he was enmeshed with Jazz and Prime. Do you see?

We do.

Bolo, Raze, Penthesilea, Jury: run in grids, draw them outside the cities.
 Galvatron had hoped to overwhelm the Autobots with the drones; programming them to concentrate on Autobot energy signatures. The Legion tanks could wade in and be buried – or lure the drones into the open, away from civilians. 

Lodestones to steel, Raze and his platoon pulled them west, drones boiling across the Missouri and Kansas rivers to converge on snow-covered agricultural fields where the big tanks were waiting for them. Along with the US Army and National Guard. Plasma fire lit rising smoke from below, the snow was melted even before metal feet churned the fields to a muddy morass. A trio of Decepticons – Undercut, Dolor and Excoriation – unfolded themselves from construction machines and a diesel rail engine. Grinning and priming their weapons, they advanced at a leisurely pace, wading through the drones.

Prowl and his team, battered from the day before, stepped off the edge of the C-17’s loading ramp. Popping chutes, they ran the equations for wind speed and momentum, landing precisely where they wanted to without interfering with the line of fire of either the Legion or the human troops. Prowl hit the ground running.

“BARRED SPIRAL,” Prowl thundered, his voice clearly audible over the clamor of battle. “HUB TO ME.”

“Oh slag yeah!” Sunstreaker and Sideswipe crowed. They pounded after him, taking up their positions at his sides as Bluestreak and Smokescreen joined them, forming the blades or arms of the spiral, then Arcee and Cliffjumper became the points, leading and trailing. 

They began to move. Slowly at first, the entire formation rotating faster and faster around Prowl at the center. As the forward “blade” bit into the mass of drones, the rotation sped up, leaving a wide trail of charred and mangled drone bodies behind. Prime and Ironhide watched via Jazz’s net, their sober consideration interrupted by Wheeljack’s laughter.

It’s like a big, horizontal jet turbine, he said. They’re shredding right through the drones – and anything else that gets in their way! 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Undercut saw the formation coming and laughed. Autobot freaks, playing soldier. Just couldn’t get it through their stubborn processors that it was best to leave the fighting to the professionals. The smaller mechs were probably slaved to the middle one; take the big white-armored one out and they’d be easy pickings. He ran directly at them.

The central mech's forearm blurred, firing with pinpoint accuracy, hammering his shields like needles, always in the same handful of spots, making the dynamic software work hard. Undercut grinned and kept coming. He was going to rip the arms off that mech and beat his helm in with them. He didn't consider that approaching Prowl closely might be dangerous. He should have, because it meant that Arcee was now behind him. 

She fired two explosive rounds into the base of Undercut's helm, shearing off the dorsal two thirds, slicing his CPU in half. Undercut's chassis dropped and Prowl core-shot it as they passed. 

Prime and Ironhide exchanged a virtual look over the net. Ironhide cackled. 

Hub to me! Prime called out, and two more spirals in two different cities spun out to wreak havoc among the mad little machines. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Shame about the trees, Wheeljack thought as he positioned himself ventral surface down on the hilltop. But this was the closest, largest sparsely populated area to Brisbane. Bolo and his group were near their chosen perimeter, facing inward, moving inward slowly as the city emptied of drones attracted to the small Autobot presence. 

Wheeljack aimed for the center of the teeming mass and fired the special missile he’d cooked up for just this sort of situation. It struck precisely the drone he’d been aiming for, although that didn’t matter too much. As that one exploded, the charge spread to every drone within a set distance of the first. They exploded and the chain reaction continued until there were no more drones within three meters of each other. 

It was kind of a fiendish device, and when Ratchet had pointed out the missile couldn’t differentiate friend from foe, Wheeljack had felt bad for inventing it. But now Bolo’s team was mopping up the stragglers already, and Wheeljack could get back to the embassy to help Ratchet with the incoming Cybertronian casualties. He patted his shoulder-mount launcher. Weapon like this, you just had to pick your targets very, very carefully. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Also dealing with trees, Penthesilea’s team had lured the drones in Delhi into the Central Ridge Reserve Forest, where Ironhide’s spiral could keep them away from the ancient and new cities and their many architectural treasures. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

In Rabat they had pulled the drones into a triangular area bordered on the north by the N6 highway, on the east/southeast by the Bou Regreg river, and on the west/southwest by Rabat’s small twin city of Salé.

“LENNOX!” Epps bellowed. “Guess who outta repair, coming in high and hot!”

Lennox nodded. “FALL BACK! FALL BACK!” The Coalition forces pulled back to the edge of Salé, keeping watch for stragglers, trying not to look toward where the incoming fire was going to be laid down. Jury and her platoon were already maneuvering into a curved line, spreading out southwest across the river into more dry fields, the screaming tide of drones following. 

“Baby, this never gets old,” Epps said. “Little Bird, bring the rain.”

They never heard the jet, but a peculiar, angry-teakettle hissing presaged each barrage. Line by line, the drones fell to sleek curtains of blue plasma, shriveling and melting into glowing pools of unstable alloy.

“Looks like Jack and Ironhide got those new cannons working for her,” Lennox said, a grin fleeting across his face. “Watch perimeter, people! Keep it tight!” 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

November 11th, Sunday

“Oh no,” Beachcomber said. “No.”

Oil rigs along coastlines pulled themselves free, deliberately yanking off the automatic wellhead caps, vast arms swinging, bending to fling the bodies of living whales into the midst of seaside towns and cities. 

Tracks, Powerglide, Borealis, Skyfire groaned. Can you fly?

There was a bruised pause, but the answers came back in the affirmative.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

They hurled themselves up out of the Shin-Kiba station in Koutou, detaching nevertheless with care from their passenger cars. There being only three of them, they could combine swiftly; Railspike, Rapid Run and Midnight Express, fitting bodies and minds together with a seamlessness and coherence not seen since the time of the Firstforged.

ZETTAI!” Rail Racer thundered, sprinting toward the Stunticons. “Yurusenai!” Despite the popular culture, Tokyo was not a good city to fight in. Rail Racer was very definite on this point. Motormaster scrambled to get his team combined before Rail Racer was on them, bashing with shield and firing at point blank with cannon, harrying Menasor south, past the heliport, across a bridge, onto Wakasu island. Half industrial, half a popular camping park and golf course, it was swiftly evacuated. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

The fast drop to the cold, dark depths seemed to take forever. Hound held Mirage close, their chests pressed together, conserving energy for the task ahead. Swarms of Kuppies already swirled toward the base in the abyss. They were five miles out. Mirage would have to cross the ocean floor cloaked going in, but they hoped Hound could move in closer to retrieve him on the way out. 

With their traditional, private transmission of affectionate cautions completed, Mirage stepped away, fading from all sensors but Hound’s. Only the disturbed sediment gave clues to his position, and there were rockier areas closer to the base. 

Just like on Cybertron, Hound thought. Get in, place the charges, get out. Simple. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Groaning, Rail Racer uprooted the wind power turbine and slammed Menasor into the shallow reservoir beside it. The water wasn’t deep enough for the Decepticon to sink, but neither was he moving. Rail Racer dropped to his knees, letting his arms at last fall to his sides. Kneeling but upright, his optics flickered and went dark. 

“They’ve fought each other into stasis,” Captain Tanaka said quietly. He nodded at his lieutenant and the order was given. The Japanese Ground and Naval SDFs – much expanded with the recent modification of Article 9 – pounced on the fallen Menasor. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Click. Click-click. Every minute sound seemed deafening to Mirage as he extracted each small charge from his cache and pressed it, sticky-side down, to the bases of structural columns, shadowy niches beneath the manual controls of the defensive auto-cannons, and if he was lucky and the radiation didn’t fry his stealth systems the moment he got in there, the secondary power conduits from the main reactor. If Perceptor’s guess was correct, this last would cause the reactor to shut down rather than blow up. No one wanted a thermonuclear explosion down here. 

So far the base seemed deserted, but Mirage did not trust that. The Cons’ AI, whatever it might be called – most likely a bud-program of Nemesis, Teletraan’s opposite number – had been quiet so far. Galvatron and Soundwave were in space. The Constructicons should have been here, if past patterns held true, but Mirage hadn’t detected any sign of their presence. 

Outside, the Kuppies gnawed at the hull, unaffected by shielding calibrated to fend off much larger organisms. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

All right, people, you know the drill! Tracks said as the four jets homed in on the next animate oil rig. The other three fliers transmitted groans or rude electronic noises. Borealis suspected Tracks – with his high rate of energy consumption per unit of body mass – was getting a wee bit punchy. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

November 12th, Monday

Who the frag is that dark jet? Thundercracker snarled. I don’t know him, Starscream, who is he? Some kind of Seeker-build but not like us and not a deep-Seeker.

Who cares? Just kill him, Starscream ordered. Six Seekers wheeled and spun, adjusting course to intercept the brazen intruder. They stalked the foreign jet with their usual canniness, intending to catch him before he could reach the safety of Perceptor’s firing range. The race was on.

Strangely, once they had closed to the point where the odd jet had to know they were after him, he made no bid for space, instead diving for the thicker layers of atmosphere, where the physics of fluid dynamics would force all of them to slower speeds. 

Let me have first crack! Ramjet shouted, circling around, lining up with the stranger head-on, increasing closing speed. 

Whatever, Starscream said. Idiot. 

The dark jet deployed long, tapering blades from either side of his nose and slammed into a tight roll. With a yelp of static, Ramjet scrambled to get out of the way, transforming to make the turn. Even someone as CPU-damaged as he was could well imagine what those blades would have done to him at that speed. 

Thundercracker laughed. Ramjet deserved whatever he got for being caught by a rookie move like that. No one had used blades in jet mode for two million years. 

Quit screwing around, Starscream ordered, and fired off a volley of missiles. At this range he could hardly miss. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“And what do you think you’re doing, little pretty?” a voice asked, seeming to come from nowhere as the voices of AIs often did. 

Mirage didn’t freeze – he knew better. When his position was compromised he nearly always moved; even if it was in the wrong direction, it usually bought him time. 

The base’s internal defense systems – as elaborate as Decepticon paranoia could make them – came alive. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Starscream’s missiles failed to strike their target. They, along with Thrust, Dirge and Ramjet, suddenly bloomed orange and black with explosive impacts. The Second Trine tumbled, out of control for thousands of meters.

YOU!” Screaming in rage, the Air Commander drove at the big white jet who had silently descended to defend the smaller Autobot. 

Ignoring him for the moment, Skyfire transformed and backhanded ‘Warp hard enough to rattle his CPU, jarring his ‘porting capability. Thundercracker snarled, but also transformed to catch Skywarp. The dark jet was getting away. 

Come on, Thundercracker told Skywarp, transmitting the coordinates of their most secure aerie as the latter regained full consciousness. We’re done for today. Screamer won’t want any help. 

Hurtling through the thin, outermost fringes of the atmosphere, Starscream’s fierce cries and Skyfire’s roars were silenced, but this did not lessen their savagery.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“Hooyah!” The young soldier next to Epps grinned as the last of the Decepticon ground troops fell beneath Ironhide’s cannons, but he, like the rest of the human forces, was too tired to put a fist in the air as an expression of triumph. Epps laid a hand on his shoulder and shook his head.

“Watch ‘em, man,” Epps said. “When you think it’s over, you watch them.” Every Autobot around them was staring upward, tracking something across the sky. Something in orbit, Epps guessed, from the speed.

Prime? Jazz tight-beamed. Have you seen this? 

Taking the feed from Jazz, Prime set up a holo so everyone could observe, human and bot. Skyfire and Starscream were at the tenuous edge of the atmosphere, beating the slag out of each other. 

“Like cesium and water, those two,” Ratchet said, completing a weld on Inferno’s arm with greater heat than necessary. Inferno winced but made no sound, as intent as the rest of them on the fight going on far above.

Over the years, Epps had seen a lot of robots fighting, in groups and one-on-one. This? Looked bad. No matter what anyone said about Screamer, this wasn't a catfight. This wasn’t Sparta either – no cool, professional singularity of purpose. They tore out great handfuls of wire and cable, ripping through armor and component panels, gouging at optics and engines; and every firing of their weapons was aimed at vital spots at point blank range. "They're gonna kill each other." 

"Hm. This time they might," Prime agreed. Wearily, Epps thought. Perceptor? 

Shuttering his optics for a moment, poised on the rim of the base’s volcano, Perceptor altered his consciousness. Atoms slowed to a leisurely twirl, stars and planets paused in their stately dances, and the combatants streaking by at 18,000 mph in low orbit seemed to hold perfectly still. Perceptor's light cannon punched a narrow hole through Starscream's chest, deliberately missing the spark chamber by a centimeter. The edge of the beam grazed Skyfire's left forearm. 

SKYFIRE. Prime boosted his signal almost to maximum, holding back just enough to prevent causing actual damage. Skyfire's guttural cough of surprise came at the same time as Starscream's shriek of pain. Come down. Everyone else has stopped fighting. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

The Autobots fought as though this slimy mudhole was their homeworld. Hook signaled his gestalt-mates. It’s time. Their agreement was silent but unanimous over the link. Long-considered plans and preparations were put into motion. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

November 13th, Tuesday

Perceptor crouched on the mountain peak, not fully in his old tank mode, but hunkered down, meticulously braced and ready to fire in any direction. He was an accomplished mechanic/medic but he had to remain in Oregon for the time being, his keen and subtle senses alert to maintain the “safe” radius his presence afforded.

Skywarp was shot in the face the instant he materialized. 

Directly behind him, Thundercracker had only half an astrosecond to be glad Perceptor had used his hand pistol, rather than the light cannon. He caught the falling body of his trinemate. They should abort this mission now, before—

Starscream, flying up the steep slopes of the mountain while his wingmates distracted Perceptor, pounced, pinning the Autobot against the crater’s rim. "I know you spared my life, 'Seekerbane'," Starscream purred, slowly tightening his grip. "Do you think that means I shall spare yours now?" 

Perceptor appeared to have frozen in the Air Commander's grasp. Such was not the case. "As per usual," he said calmly, "you talk too much." The tiny manipulator he had deployed delivered a jolt of code that overrode Starscream's voluntary motor controls. The resultant convulsion caused his hands to clench on Perceptor's throat, but like Ratchet, Perceptor had an array of cutting tools at his disposal. 

Hissing, sensory fins flared, Thundercracker approached slowly, hovering on his jets, reaching for Starscream’s body, optics never leaving Perceptor’s face. Nor did the light cannon waver, tracking his slightest movement, steady at full power; but the Autobot lowered his pistol. He could have killed them, yet he hadn’t – and he was letting Thundercracker escape with his fallen trinemates. The Autobots had been accepting retreats a lot lately. It was disconcerting. Thundercracker wanted to ask why, wanted to ask a lot of things. What he wanted had been put aside for so long he merely accepted his desire and let it pass unvoiced. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Mikaela didn't need the rad suit any more - she wasn't even physically in the med-bay. She controlled her waldoes from a different chamber within the embassy, reclining in a padded chaise, but working separate gripping arms with her legs and feet as well as the fine manipulators and welders she moved with her arms and hands. An AV feed to lightweight VR glasses completed the kit. Like Sam, Miles and a lot of the military personnel, she had the occipital comm unit - under the skin but sitting on the outside of her skull; but she was not, did not want to be, wetwired like Maggie and Glen and a handful of others.

Ratchet was afraid they might lose Windcharger. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

November 14th, Wednesday

Strake fled while Galvatron was eating Hone. Enraged at the failure of the humans to capitulate immediately as they should have, the Decepticons' leader had snatched the nearest Seeker out of the sky, breaking him in half. Skyquake – already gone beyond the atmosphere – transmitted a glyph of relinquishment. You can do what you want, Strake, but I’m leaving. This is insane.

Wait! Skyquake, wait for me! You can’t just leave me! Engines laboring, he tried to push for orbit. The drip of hot blue-white liquid increased, spattering from rents in his hull. 

Hone is dead. We’re no longer a trine. Do what you want.

Skyquake! There was no answer. Skyquake was heading directly for the wormhole that would take him back to their native galaxy. 

Falling, then flying close to the surface, heedless of the trail of first spray then debris kicked up by his passage as he went from ocean to island, he was only mindful that should he crash from this height it would do less damage. He zigzagged across the green, organic-infested landscape, looking for a place to hide. Hook and the other Structies were gone, not even Soundwave could find them. Strake knew he would recover on his own, but without a mechanic’s aid it would take a long time. He needed someplace high, hard to get to from the ground; better yet, someplace that would mask his energy signature. 

There. Mountains, and in mountains were caves – like the one he spied hollowed behind a waterfall. He crashed more than landed, but the white plume of liquid only registered the interruption for a moment. Crawling until his triangular shoulders struck stone and held him fast, systems shutting down by tens, Strake escaped into merciful darkness.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

It wasn’t one of her better landings. Falling into recharge before her nose-wheels had touched the ground was a practice Borealis would try to avoid in future. She rolled to a stop on pure momentum, the irregularity of the road only spilling her off into the sagebrush once she had passed Wheeljack’s tower.

Skyfire, landing with more grace behind her, transformed and transfused a small jolt of energy, just enough to get her into robot mode, whereupon he tucked her under his arm and carried her back toward the hangar entrance. He didn’t make it either, dropping to his knees, then pitching forward, Borealis’ inert form still under his arm. 

It would take more mechs than they had on their feet to haul the two big jets inside, so there they stayed, partially blocking the broad driveway. Later, a squad of airmen from Nellis came out in jeeps with a bunch of tarps and erected a makeshift shelter, shielding the offline bots from unfriendly surveillance.

(A day later, Skyfire came online for a moment, pushing himself up on his arms, looking about wildly with the tent half-obscuring his face. Prime hastily gave him the all-clear. Without a word, Skyfire fell offline again, collapsing with a ground-shaking crash.)

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Reviewing the casualty reports, Lennox wondered what it was like for Optimus, who knew every Cybertronian and could feel every fatality. Ironhide, Bumblebee, both Twins, Trailbreaker, Cliffjumper, Windcharger, Prowl, Arcee - in repair bays under the care of Ratchet or Wheeljack, both of whom were themselves injured but functional. Hound and Mirage were MIA, though Prime had said not to panic about them yet. Red Alert, Oratorio and Jazz were in an exhausted recharge close to stasis. Beachcomber, Huffer, Gears, Grapple and Brawn, and all four of the Autobot jets - including Tracks in his second alt mode - were also down. They had lost 103 of the Graveyard Legion, mostly tanks, but Evac and Topspin were now the only remaining helis. Evac had charge of the handful of GL wounded - only a handful because they were usually either only lightly damaged or dead. 

The GL weren't berserkers. They were very tough, and they fought smart and hard, mostly deployed in defensive positions. This far and no farther. None sold their spark cheaply or carelessly. To have lost a sixth of their original number in five days was staggering. Of the 600, there were 437 left, 60 having been lost to previous battles. 

There were more dead among the human forces in those five days than during both the Iraqi wars spanning the turn of the 21st century. The number of wounded was huge, but if you got as far as triage with brainwaves and a pulse the docs and their new techie toys could almost always pull you through. Lennox was old enough to find this both reassuring and creepy. 

Sometimes Lennox thought he knew how Prime felt, why he wanted this war over, why the Autobot leader had asked everyone he could communicate with for ideas and then thought long and hard about the answers. After a few beers, however, Lennox knew he had no idea really, that the true scale of the alien war was so far beyond anything he'd seen he ultimately could not wrap his head around it - and he didn't want to. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Prime stood outside the UN building in New York, head bowed in thought, waiting. 

The humans had a look to them their grandparents and great-grandparents would have recognized. The look of a people who knew with calm certainty that they must fight, must unite or be wiped from the face of their own world. 

Galvatron had miscalculated badly.

Chapter Text

2018 - November 12th, Monday

Mirage had danced this dance before. Instead of fleeing directly for any of his chosen exits, he leapt and spun and dodged inward, toward the reactor. The lattice of high-powered lasers that sprang up around the room burned through his left foot. He automatically shut down the pain sensors.

Where were the Constructicons? Evading plasma fire, he found himself in a vortex-eye of calm for just long enough to slip a data chip into an I/O port. The AI now had something else to think about, though much of the defensive weaponry was truly autonomous. 

Outside, the Kuppies worked their way down to major structural supports on the base’s south side; splitting off new copies of themselves whenever they had eaten enough. 

Hound waited in the cold and dark, sensors alert, passive scans only. A handful of recon Kuppies swam idly around him, programmed to obey his personal comm in case he needed extra eyes. There were many reasons Cybertronians shivered, but cold was not one of them. Mirage had many times explained to others that Hound had by far the harder task during their missions together, and that Mirage had no desire to trade positions. 

A sudden wind gusted through the corridors. To sensors using certain wavelengths, Mirage could be given away by air currents; he had thus learned to move in such a way as to disturb the air as little as possible, or to set up turbulence that deceived. He ran with the winds, burying himself in their chaotic flow. 

The Kuppies had broken through somewhere and the base was flooding. Flooding wasn't enough, though. Flooding wasn't a problem, it could be fixed too easily and air wasn't a necessity. Air was nice, it was a convenience. Most people had lived the largest part of if not their entire lives within an atmosphere. Other than deep-Seekers, who existed out in the void for millions of years at a time. Mirage had come to appreciate the luxury of atmosphere when Wheeljack's first ship, or the first version of his ship had been half-slagged in battle near the Oontaran supernova. It had taken them ten years to patch the hull enough to be airtight - the ship had been quite large originally. 

Inward, inward – he found the ring corridor around the reactor, diving and rolling inside just as the flood doors slammed down. Now for the coolant pipes. Which, when he found them, were configured in an unfamiliar way. Mirage processed rapidly. There were three main types of fusion reactors, and he had at one time or another, sabotaged all of them. This was something new – the Structies loved to experiment as much as Wheeljack or Perceptor – but it seemed to be set up similarly enough to things Mirage had dealt with before. He placed his last charge and sprinted outward, heading for the sump outlet a quarter of a circumference away from the one where he’d gained entrance. 

“I dunno, Vortex,” Swindle’s voice echoed down the corridor accompanied by running footsteps. “Maybe Starscream is right.”

Mirage ducked into a side-hall, dashing silently through stacks of alloy and composite beams, plates, pre-cast shapes, spools of various kinds of cable and other components, towering over his head. There didn’t appear to be an exit at the further end, so he turned back, winding through rows and rows of materiel toward the doorway. 

The first blast shook the entire base. The Kuppies must have destabilized it more than Mirage had thought. Ominous groaning and creaking and clattering surrounded him. He didn’t look up, just poured on the speed, wishing the aisle was wide enough for him to transform. 

He didn’t make it to the door, though perhaps that was just as well, since Swindle and Vortex stood at the entry, staring inside at the enormous mess they were already thinking of ways to get out of cleaning up. Mirage was buried and dared not struggle. Not until the two Decepticons had passed.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

November 14th, Wednesday

Hound waited. He would never stop until he got word one way or another from Mirage. Or, in the worst case, Prime. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

If the Constructicons had been there, Mirage would have been found by now. Even as deeply buried as he was. They were efficient about clearing debris – they had to be. Fortunately, he had discovered that the irregularly-shaped structural trusses that had fallen on him weren’t packed tightly. Bit by bit he’d been able to work his way free of the tangle. The lights had gone out about halfway through his struggle – the reactor going through an emergency shutdown just as he’d hoped. The flooding had been stopped, the water already being pumped back out.

He’d already taken longer about this than they’d planned, and he knew Hound would be worried. While he was in here, though, it was too good a chance to let slip, and he still had three small chemical bombs.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

"WHERE ARE THEY?!" 

Mirage knelt and flattened himself against a wall. 

"WHAT? IMPOSSIBLE. DON'T BOTHER ME WITH THAT NONSENSE - I WANT SCRAPPER AND THE REST OF THEM FOUND NOW!

Galvatron rounded the corner, flanked by Starscream and Onslaught. Mirage had been in the presence of Megatron on a number of occasions, both before and after the start of the war, but he'd never been this close to Galvatron. Words from human literature raced through Mirage's CPU. "...Beautiful and terrible... All shall love me and despair..." Megatron's presence had always been commanding, charismatic. Gazing up at Galvatron now, Mirage fleetingly wished he had the strength to plunge his hand into his own chest and tear out his spark. 

The first of the charges would go off very soon. He had programmed them to enable at seemingly random times. His path could not thus be traced by their timing, and the overlapping activations would reinforce each other, drastically increasing the damage done. He needed to get out. Just beyond Mirage’s position, Galvatron paused, head lifted. 

ChufffCRASH! There went the first charge, at the base of a column in Galvatron's throne room. The little chemical bombs were an old industrial etching catalyst Perceptor had weaponized. External alarms blared - the kind a mech couldn't close the channel on and ignore. A long, low metallic groan and thud that shook the entire base signaled the next charge's activation. 

With a bellow of rage, Galvatron raked the wall centimeters above Mirage's head and trampled toward the throne room, sending Starscream and Onslaught to investigate the second, more serious problem. 

Once they were out of auditory range, Mirage bolted for his intended exit site. Everything was dripping in the pump room, but this level was otherwise clear. He opened the inner hatch and climbed through. 

His arms shook with irregular energy surges as he climbed down the inclined pipe to the outer hatch. This was going to be interesting. If the air pressure inside the base was insufficient, the ocean would rush in, blasting him back inside. Using his main grapple and both backups to anchor himself, he dug his pedal flanges and the fingers of one hand as much as possible into the metal of the pipe, for of course there were no seams. Mixmaster had extruded it in one piece. Aiming for the center of the iris, he fired. 

There was a bang and tumult and a frothing spiral wave rushed upward through the breach, but it only reached his shoulders. Disengaging his grapples, he dove through, rolling as he hit the seafloor, letting momentum bring him to his feet because for a moment he wasn't sure he could get there under his own power. The stealth system was draining him into the red. He left it on until he was well clear of the base security perimeter. There were still five miles to run. 

At three and a half miles, Mirage sent the blip of random noise that contained no embedded code, no surface message, yet told Hound he needed extraction. Enemies had wasted precious hours trying to decrypt this transmission on the rare occasions it had been intercepted - which made Jazz laugh and laugh. 

Hound found him facedown in the silty mud, stealth net thankfully offline. Mirage managed a weak smile before tumbling into recharge.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

"Conn, Sonar, we got a contact bearing 310, On the bottom. Small, metallic. Think it's what we've been keeping an eye out for, Captain."

"Change heading to intercept. Make our depth 6000 meters." They had observed Galvatron and his minions descend - it was a great relief after two days to see the small sonar pings and receive a signal from their allies. 

"Hey there, fellas. Can you give a couple of tired bots a lift?"

"You won't fit through the hatch, Hound," the captain said, grinning. "Can you attach a tether to our sail?"

"Affirmative. Gimme a sec here and..." Mild clangs and clunks echoed through the sub's hull. "We're secure up here, Captain."

"Very well. Make our course for Groton."

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

A young human, new to the embassy, poked her head into the war room. "Your Excellency? We have a message from the USS Dallas - they say they've found your lost sheep."

"Good news indeed," Prime said. "Thank you, Master Sergeant."

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

They were met at the dock in Connecticut by Hound and Mirage's usual Coalition team for the drive to the air base and flight to Nellis. This platoon knew that, unless Hound indicated otherwise, Mirage was just in recharge; and that Hound would carry him most of the way rather than lay him on a truck or call for a crane; and that Hound's cheery demeanor was no indicator of the depth of his concern for his friend. They knew not to ask about the current mission, or any others on Earth, but that old exploits on Cybertron were fair game, and why it was better to ask Hound than Mirage. 

“Have a nice swim?” Captain Sanchez asked, as Hound carried Mirage aboard the C-17. The Autobot jets were all out of commission. 

Hound laughed. “You betcha!”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

2018 – late November, early December

Ratchet skirted around Trailbreaker, patting the big mech on the back as he passed. Trailbreaker spent some part of every day in front of Windcharger's CR tank, quietly transmitting the day's gossip, even knowing Windcharger's receiver was damaged and shut down. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Mirage came online in one of his favorite positions. Draped over Wheeljack’s chest, with Hound and Prowl beside them and Tracks like a cherry on top. One by one their optics lit around him, glowing soft and fond.

“Hey, kiddo,” Wheeljack said. “Operating within normal parameters again?” 

Mirage revved his engine. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Optics he’d rarely seen, usually hidden as they were by the mother-of-pearl silvery visor, lit a steady blue. Miles jumped up and hit the button Perceptor had shown him. Fluid drained, plex tube lowered and Beachcomber stepped down, gleaming like brand new. Miles hugged him, not caring what the CR fluid might do to his clothes.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

"Hey, Prowl, we're out!" Sideswipe caroled, leaning into the security office. Red snorted. The twins had been released from their CR chambers at the same time, though Sunstreaker had been more seriously damaged. Even Ratchet hadn’t grumbled anything about Sideswipe being a shirker, though. Ratchet had enough to do already, and if both twins were tanked that at least meant they were keeping out of trouble. 

"So I notice," Prowl said, part of a smile quirking the corner of his mouth-parts. 

"Dah!" Sides cringed and ducked out hurriedly. Prowl had totally slagged his voice again. You could pretty much tell how bad or good the war was going by Prowl's voice. If things went well for long enough, you wanted to listen to him read the phone book, as the humans said. If the opposite, well, his voice broke your spark with every syllable. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

In Norway, the grandparents and great-grandparents were talking. It seemed there were Frost Giants once again living in the mountains, building cities underground. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Borealis? Skyfire tight-beamed. I’m going to the Moon, would you like to come with me?

Would I… ASDFGHJKLKHJGFDSA!!! Uh. YES!

Heh. Meet me at these coordinates, then, and I’ll give you a ride up.

Skyfire had contacted a number of lunar scientists and asked them to provide him with a list of samples desired. If it seemed like a frivolous errand, given the circumstances, Prime had pointed out that life must continue, unbowed, unshaken; and it was never frivolous to give people something positive to do when things looked bleak. 

"Flyyy me to the moon," Borealis sang when she caught up with him over Guam. "And let me sing among the stars. Let me see what Spring is like on Jupiter and Mars. In other words, hold my hand. In other words, darling, kiss me." Maneuvering above him, she carefully lowered and clamped onto Skyfire’s dorsal hull.

Hang on, he told her, aiming his nose sharply upward. Tightly. Tighter than that. Don’t make me have to pick you up on my way back. …OOF! That’s better.

It was a short flight once Skyfire got up to speed. Borealis was silent, watching Earth shrink behind them. Once they reached the Moon’s surface, she tumbled off Skyfire in a heap, staring at the pale grey dust between her fingers. 

I’m on the Moon, she said finally. The Moon – I am on it. Moooooon. Moony McMoonykins! She bounced around, dancing, tossing handfuls of dust up to watch it fall so slowly, tripping over crater rims on purpose just to see how long it took to hit the ground. I am. On. The. MOON!

Yes, said Skyfire, amused. And when you’ve finished frolicking about perhaps you could assist me with these core samples.

Oooh! She bounded over.

They want them to be “sterile” so set the shielding on your hands to…yes, like that. Ratchet and Perceptor could channel heat from their sparks to their hands in order to attain sterility. Skyfire, Hoist, Evac and Borealis had to use an alternate method. 

They worked on in relative silence, Borealis occasionally beeping and humming and giggling to herself, which Skyfire couldn't hear unless their armor touched. 

After some time, he tapped her shoulder. Earthrise, he said, pointing. 

Borealis stood. Oooohhh. The little blue-white globe peeked over the horizon. 

Skyfire watched it for a moment, then looked at Borealis. He remembered; he'd watched people before, getting their first look at Cybertron from one of the moons. Prime himself, in fact; the great orator, stricken wordless by their shining homeworld. Smiling, Skyfire reached even further back. His own earliest flights, 1.2 billion years ago. He'd been swept up, seized in the grip of this very same awe and wonder. Enraptured - as though taken by a raptor. Skyfire understood that etymology very well.

Chapter Text

2019 – May

Ratchet?

The call came through softly, unobtrusive, meant to be ignored if more pressing things required the recipient’s attention. Ratchet answered at once.Perceptor? Are you well? 

Oh certainly, certainly. I was merely wondering if there was anything I could help you with, regarding the new-kindled ones. 

Perceptor’s tone was not simply wistful. An edge of longing, almost of desperation cut across the lower harmonics despite the scientist’s obvious effort to hide it. That he had failed to do so entirely was telling. Ratchet wished he could instantaneously close the physical distance between them and take his friend in his arms. Looking for more ways to overwork yourself as usual, I see. Re-inventing the Wells wasn’t enough? 

Nonsense. You and Wheeljack had already laid the groundwork. All you needed was a fresh perspective, you said so yourself.

Ah yes, now I recall why arguing with you is so irritating. You remember everything. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

There was a charfuckingtreuse Hummer parked at the curb in front of his parents’ house. Miles squinted, holding up a hand as if to fend off the eye-searing rays. “Hey, Ratchet,” he said as the passenger door opened so he could toss his duffel inside. His iPod microbot, Scuffle, peeked out at the big Autobot for a moment, squeaked, and snuggled back down into Miles’ shirt pocket. “You’re my ride? How’d I rate the VIP treatment?”

“Hello, Miles,” Ratchet said, approximating a sigh. “You’re doing me a favor. Perceptor and I have been in contact since his team landed, but we have had little time to meet face-to-face. Besides, Prime recommended you for this position. I rather doubt Beachcomber will ever get too corporate for you.”

“Wow. You’re never gonna let that one go, are you.”

“No.” They drove in silence for several miles, Ratchet opening up to near 100 mph once they were outside Tranquility and the long Nevada highways stretched ahead. “Seriously, Miles - World Wildlife Fund?”

“Total cubicle farm, man.” Miles was nervous. The Oregon base already had a team of human scientists working closely with the Bots. He wasn’t used to having the lowest IQ in the room. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Even at the speeds Ratchet could travel on open roads, it took the better part of a day to reach the Oregon base. Miles dozed through much of it, and Ratchet let him.

“Are you sure this is the right place?” They were pulling off 101 onto what appeared to be a set of dirt tracks in the middle of the forest. There was no fence, no sign. 

“Yes, Miles.” 

Attributing the weirdly smooth ride to Ratchet’s rather advanced suspension, Miles didn’t learn until later that the new Autobots had buried slabs of rock from their excavation beneath only the paired wheel-trails. Their heaviest cohorts could drive thus without getting bogged down and without disturbing any more of the landscape than absolutely necessary. Second growth forest – the trees old enough to be big (though not huge) and mossy – filtered hazy sunlight to shadowy green as the little road wound between steep hills. Ratchet rolled down the windows without being asked, and Miles breathed deep.

When they reached the last turn and came out into a clearing, Miles almost didn’t realize they had arrived. “Whoa,” he said. “Where are the Ewoks?”

From the robots’ point of view, it would take little time for the trees destroyed in the crash to regrow, but guided by human foresters, they had planted seedlings and encouraged the natural succession of plant life. Only the protruding hull of the ship, the downward-sloping ramp into the newly expanded hangar beneath it and the road would betray the base’s location in a decade or three. 

Perceptor and Beachcomber emerged at the top of the ramp as Miles got out so Ratchet could transform. 

“Hello!” Beachcomber called, waving. 

“Welcome, Miles. Ratchet.” Perceptor said. He bowed forward, peering at Miles intently. Or rather at Scuffle, still hiding in Mile’s pocket, firmly in iPod mode. 

Miles poked it gently. “I don’t know why he’s so shy,” he said, embarrassed. 

“Hmm,” Perceptor said. He straightened, palpably withdrawing his high-beam attention, refocusing on Ratchet. 

The approach wasn’t the wild tackle Miles had come to expect among the younger bots, but Ratchet and Perceptor’s embrace was no less fervent. He wondered if they ever got parts caught in each other, but then supposed that if you had lived for millions of years as a complex-bodied robot, you probably got the hugging without snagging thing figured out. 

“You and I shouldn’t remain geographically proximate,” Perceptor said into Ratchet’s shoulder. “We make a ‘high value target’, as the humans put it.”

Ratchet chuckled. “Perhaps, but most of the Cons are scared lubeless of you, so I think we’re all right.”

“Yes,” Perceptor said softly, disengaging the embrace and looking away. “I suppose they are.”

Oh, Perceptor. Ratchet felt like a thoughtless old clinker. 

“Hey, Miles, want to head out to the beach?” Beachcomber asked, leaning toward him and making a show of not really whispering. Perceptor and Ratchet didn’t seem to notice, though. 

“Uh, yeah. Sure.” 

Beachcomber transformed and Miles, at a loss as to what else to do with his duffle, tossed it in the passenger seat and got in. 

“So. You’re a geologist, huh?”

“Yep,” Beachcomber said easily. “Never met a feldspar I didn’t like.” His engine was quiet, like an electric motor; despite his appearance, not even trying to sound like a normal dune buggy. He drove along slowly, giving Miles ample time to take in the ecosystems that would soon grow familiar. Cloud forest and small ferny meadows, giving way to brushy dune grasses and the cool grayish sand heavily laced with local serpentine in a crescent-shaped beach cradled between rocky crags. There were only a few puffy clouds in the sky and the sunlight took the sting out of the maritime wind. 

Once Miles was clear, Beachcomber transformed and stretched out on the sand with his hands behind his head. 

“Doesn’t it suck to get sand in your joints?” Miles asked, pretty sure he’d heard Ironhide or someone complaining about it. 

“Shiiiiiielding,” Beachcomber sang, letting a flux shimmer across his armor. 

“Nice.” Bird crap probably slid right off, too. A few gulls wheeled above them, but not like the mobs at fishing wharfs, and they were being relatively quiet. Miles tossed his duffel onto a rock and plopped down on the sand nearby. Not against him, not yet, but near. Watching ocean waves was always mesmerizing. He wondered how it seemed to the robots, whose world had had no water oceans. The Rust Sea, Wheeljack had once explained, was more like a red, sandy desert, and though semi-liquid in places, that liquidity had nothing to do with H2O. Except they’d visited a lot of other planets, hadn’t they. Probably nothing on backwater Earth surprised them. 

“There are some tide-pools at the foot of the cliffs to the south, there,” Beachcomber said, with the air of someone revealing the location of a secret hideout – though he showed no inclination to move from his comfortable nest on the sand. “And there are a couple of sea caves around the point. Do you snorkel? I guess we’ll have to find you a wetsuit, first, hm?” 

As far as job interviews went, this wasn’t what Miles had been expecting. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Forehelm to forehelm, Perceptor and Ratchet stood leaning heavily on one another, linked by several pairs of cables, transferring eons of experiential and scientific data back and forth. 

At least they’d come down into the base rather than stand outside waiting to get shot at, Hoist thought as he skirted around them. The events of late last year were riding hard in his CPU. Hard work would take care of that, he told himself crisply as he transformed, heading out to 101 to meet Grapple and Huffer. There was plenty of rebuilding still to do, and they were just the bots to do it.

How many tanks do you want to build up here? Ratchet asked. 

Only two, for now, Perceptor said. None of the others here seem sanguine. I suppose we can hold the overflow from your lot. 

Ratchet traced the refined curve of Perceptor’s jaw. Give them time.

I know. We had scarcely accustomed ourselves to the loss of the Allspark. Now this… He slipped fingertips into Ratchet’s chassis, under the heavy structures of his chest. The data flow over the cables slowed, altered, became more emotional feed than intel exchange. 

You haven’t even asked Beachcomber, yet, have you. Ratchet leaned into the link, basking in the quicksilver labyrinths of Perceptor’s mind. Not that I blame you. It’s doable, even as small as he is, but hazardous. And not fun.

Hm. Just because you and Prime thought you were going to end up a radioactive crater. Consider! The Firstforged did this. Think of the permutations! We could create entirely new subsets of— 

I should have known something so radical would flip your switches.

Perceptor laughed, and drew Ratchet further into the cool dimness of the base, kissing him soundly. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

2019 - June

“So, what were you, before?” Dr. Yasmina Abizaid asked over the low, rumbling whir of the big centrifuge. Perceptor had been explaining how they used their alt modes not only to blend in with other planets’ intelligent life forms, but as tools and transportation. On Earth, the Cybertronian scientist was an older model Land Cruiser, stuffed with unrecognizable junk in the back, painted primer red for the most part but for the front fenders, which were still the original turquoise and somewhat shiny. 

Perceptor didn’t look up from the cultures in his hands. Even out of the incubator he could maintain their optimal temperature by channeling excess heat from his spark to his hands. “I was…artillery,” he said softly. 

Yasmina looked at him. It was hard to tell if he’d hesitated over that last word. A long hesitation to the robots might be several nanoseconds, and undetectable to their human listeners. On the other hand, a human-detectable hesitation might only mean that their attention was engaged with another conversation or twelve, somewhere else. Dr. Frank Wilhaggin, the human contingent’s leader, had said, rather sanctimoniously, back when they were new to the base, that it didn’t really matter from a human perspective which it was. You had to decide for yourself and act accordingly. One couldn’t expect the finer considerations from aliens, after all. Yasmina still felt there was a difference, even if humans might never have the sensory capacity to distinguish between them without asking the robot directly.

“So that thing on your back isn’t just a scope,” she ventured. Given the extent of the fighting late last year, she wasn’t too surprised not to have seen any footage of him on the news. As far as she knew, Perceptor had stayed on-base, taking in casualties. “It’s a cannon?”

“Yes.” No hesitation. No elaboration. Maybe it was tech he wasn’t supposed to talk about. 

“Did you like being artillery?”

Perceptor looked at her this time. “It wasn’t a matter of liking or disliking. It was simply necessity.”

She wasn’t getting anything from his tone. He was being careful. Too careful? She had already talked to Beachcomber enough to know that not all the robots liked being soldiers. Not all of them had Warpath’s enthusiasm for the war that had killed their homeworld. She tried a slightly different tack. “Is the Land Cruiser more comfortable, then? Is that possible? Might one be more comfortable in one alt mode than another?”

Perceptor laughed, thinking of Tracks and Sunstreaker. “Some of us are more in love with our vehicle modes than others.” He considered, not just what she asked, but what she didn’t. “We are constrained by mass, to begin with, though I have known some people to test those limits.”

Yasmina thought of Arcee and Beachcomber. In robot mode they were near the same height. Arcee was a tough, muscular motorcycle, and a rather attenuated biped.

Beachcomber was a cute but lightly built sand buggy. As a biped, his body was rather cobby and more solid than many of the smaller bots tended to be. He was blue and white; sky and waves, she thought, whatever those colors might symbolize back on his homeworld. Maybe. He seemed forthright, but was kind of quiet, she’d noticed. 

“I like the Land Cruiser for its utility,” Perceptor said. “For a non-tracked vehicle it handles rough terrain – which is in abundance on this planet, though I’ve seen worse - with remarkable agility. So, yes, I am pleased with this alt mode. Pleased to not be so explicitly a weapon, though perhaps that is merely self-delusion. Would it be better to maintain one’s honesty about such a thing? I still wield the cannon, among other things.”

“Yes, but Prime said you could reprioritize your scientific pursuits, right? You remain a cannon, but not just a cannon.”

“Indeed,” said Perceptor, and Yasmina thought there was a smile on his long, avian-piscine face.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Dr. Joey Sutherland looked up at Beachcomber, his hands pausing in their task of sorting rock samples, and grinned. “I have that same…well, I hate to call it a problem.” Walking the streets of his home city, San Francisco - and one had to admit this would be more likely there than elsewhere – Joey had on more than one occasion been stopped by a stranger who wanted to kiss him. 

Beachcomber, it seemed, had just had this happen to him, in Ashland. 

“Oh?” Beachcomber asked, grinning back. Joey could see why someone would want to kiss him. He had the closest things to lips that he’d seen on anyone but Prime.

“Maybe it’s because you’re…not huge,” Joey said, suddenly wondering if the robots ever had neuroses about their size. Beachcomber was only about nine feet tall – within the realm of possible human heights, if you counted hormonal abnormalities. He could look down at Yau Ming, which Ming would find unusual. But the scale of affection with Beachcomber didn’t seem quite so insurmountable as that with, say, Prime. Or Skyfire. Joey shook his head mentally. Good grief. What could a human do with Skyfire besides ride inside him with about three platoons of friends? 

Beachcomber chuckled. “Scale issues can always be overcome,” he said. Joey was pretty sure the jovial lasciviousness in the robot’s tone wasn’t just his imagination. He was glad he hadn’t been drinking anything. 

“Yeah,” Joey said, when he’d recovered. “But we’re…squishy.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing, dude,” Beachcomber said. “No, wait, Primrose,” he said suddenly to one of the little crablike drones they’d built out of parts of their spaceship. “That goes here, this goes there.” He pointed, to keep the boxes of samples in proper geological order. The drone, careful without being mindful, set the box down as directed. Joey wondered how fine a line it was between a drone and a person, and whether it creeped any of the Autobots out. He suspected the Decepticons didn’t give a rat’s ass, either way. 

“I guess I shouldn’t ask for any further details,” Joey said hopefully. Beachcomber laughed. 

The sky outside had turned to pewter. It had been raining on and off all day. Beachcomber and Seaspray were the only two who didn’t seem to mind. What humans called acid rain wasn’t strong enough to affect the Cybertronians’ shielding, let alone the armor beneath. There was still a lot of complaining, though. Frank – whose tolerance for whingeing was small - had once said, “Well, you shouldn’t have landed in bloody Oregon, then!” Temperate rainforest was no climate for dry-loving robots. Perceptor hadn’t seemed affronted, merely nodding, but Yasmina and Joey and Marcus and Juan had glared daggers at Frank. Perceptor had worked a practical miracle bringing their heavily damaged ship down in more or less one piece. He hadn’t had the luxury of being picky about the landing site. 

“You probably shouldn’t ask Skyfire,” Beachcomber said, and Joey could have sworn he winked somehow, behind the silvery visor. “He’s kinda shy about that sort of thing. As shy as we get, anyway.”

Joey was once again glad not to have been drinking anything. He gazed into Beachcomber’s visor, seeking a glint of the optics behind. A lot of information seemed to pass between them. Joey dusted off his hands and stood up. Beachcomber remained seated, carefully setting his samples aside. 

Wondering if he was about to cause an intergalactic incident, Joey leaned in, putting his hands on the robot’s shoulders, and kissed him. 

Beachcomber was warm. Joey had noted that before, when a steadying hand had kept him from stumbling on the trails around the mountain. These weren’t cold, heartless, unfeeling robots like the madmen of science fiction liked to imagine. And Beachcomber’s lips, made of many small plates, were hard but responsive against Joey’s. The robot’s hand lightly touching his back felt huge across his shoulders, but not threatening. It was comforting, a surety of care, safety, protection. Joey was glad he had shaved off his habitual mustache and goatee, though. He didn’t fancy getting hair caught in metal lip components. 

“See?” Beachcomber said as they parted, both warmer than before. “Scale is not a problem.” 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Teddy-bear sized housekeeping drones scuttled about, keeping the place clean and discouraging various forms of terrestrial wildlife from taking up unwanted residence. The base doors were always open, except in the worst weather or during Decepticon attack. The robots were unaffected by the range of temperatures prevalent in this area, climate muted as it was by the ocean nearby. The human quarters were therefore father in, behind a double set of automatic not-glass doors. 

The restriction on wildlife didn’t apply to domesticated pets, though the definition of “domesticated” was stretched a little. Beachcomber seemed to have an odd effect on organic life – there was an entire clowder of cats and a pack of dogs, small birds, large birds, fish, herptiles, and Marcus, who was a licensed falconer, had a one-legged red-tailed hawk who spent as much time as she was allowed perched on Beachcomber’s head. 

Drones and animals and humans and robots and the AIs whose presence was more or less ubiquitous in both Autobot bases. All living in a peculiar muddle of work and happy arguments and swirl of cultures. Seven human languages were spoken, and at least three humans were trying to learn Cybertronian, despite the lack of necessary vocal equipment. A kind of pidgin was evolving, though, of sounds they could make and still be understandable. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Perceptor paused suddenly in his bustling. His shoulders slumped and he shook his head. 

"What is it? What happened?" Miles asked. One of the other bots was giggling, so it couldn't be very terrible. 

"Bother," Perceptor said, taking up the task again with his usual aplomb. "Beachcomber's fallen off the continental shelf." 

"Again," the giggling bot, Seaspray, added. 

"Ah, yes. Now he's claiming he didn't fall, since his balance, as I well know, is quite good." Perceptor seemed to address the ceiling, his volume increasing dramatically. "As though having JUMPED off makes it BETTER!" 

Miles laughed. Perceptor was fun to watch. He had first struck Miles as a cute, if somewhat elderly (whatever that meant, in this case), absent-minded professor type. He talked to his experiments. So far the experiments didn’t talk back, but anything was possible when Perceptor was involved, according to Wheeljack. 

The scary thing was, Perceptor wasn't really absent-minded. At all. He might seem to have lost track of the conversation or something he was doing, or something Wheeljack was doing - but in reality he knew perfectly well and was only prioritizing something else for a moment. 

Thinking about Perceptor naturally led to thinking about Beachcomber. Beachcomber, Miles told himself, wasn’t really a guy robot. Yeah, his voice was pleasantly deep, and he was nine feet tall and everyone used the masculine pronoun for him. But his forging was ae, and besides, of the two Autobots that appeared “female” to most humans, Arcee was scary as shit, and Borealis was freaking ginormous. How do you go about kissing someone who could probably fit your entire body in her mouth? It didn’t really bear thinking about. 

Miles didn’t consider himself to be a Captain Jack Harkness exactly. It had more to do with Beachcomber. Beachcomber was distracting; and apparently pretty much everyone found him so. Miles had noticed how even Skyfire leaned down to be close when Beachcomber was talking, or humming, or singing or smiling. Ironically, the only one who seemed able to resist Beachcomber’s “distraction field” was Perceptor, although Miles wondered if Perceptor was really immune or just reacted in an atypical fashion; getting more tetchy instead of mellowing out. Despite this, Beachcomber was the only mech Miles had caught Perceptor getting snuggly with.

"Want me to go get him?" Seaspray asked. 

Perceptor waved his hands about vaguely. Miles had increasingly gotten the feeling that Perceptor had once been accustomed to having more than two arms. "Oh, give him a week. As long as he stays in contact." He regarded Miles with a long-suffering expression. "He'd be down there all century if we let him. "

Chapter Text

2019 – September

Ratchet checked the tanks. The plex on all five was dimly translucent, the forms within well-grown and properly differentiated. One was notably larger than the others, and one was smaller. Even though the merges had taken place over the course of a full year, the readings on these five had synchronized. 

“That’s the twelfth time you’ve looked at those today,” Tracks scolded, ignoring the implication that he’d been watching, too. “You’re giving me the surges. Are they all right or aren’t they?”

“They’re fine,” Ratchet said, and followed Tracks out of the med-lab to stem the temptation to run one more diagnostic. Prime? he tight-beamed. I think we may have a new gestalt on our hands.

Ah? Prime conveyed intense interest. It would be good news – there hadn’t been a new combiner team for eons.

Primus help us when they hit integration, Ratchet replied, bursting the bubble. 

Oh. My. There was a pause. So you think they’ll decant soon? 

Within the week unless something goes hinky. We’ve never had a batch synch up like this before, so your guess is as good as mine. 

Hinky? 

Ratchet transmitted the equivalent of a huff. Prime knew perfectly well what it meant, he just liked to tease him about picking up slang from Mikaela. Who was, speaking of, expecting her and Sam’s own child in about a month. A little sister for this lot, Ratchet caught himself thinking. Sam and Mikaela hadn’t let him or any of the other Bots reveal the sex of the child, though it was clear enough to anyone with half an optic. They, for some incomprehensible reason, wanted it to be a surprise. If they were going to place such importance on the distinction between their rather limiting and paltry two genders, didn’t it make more sense to prepare for the arrival as early as possible? Painting the nesting site pink or blue? 

Actually, the young couple had opted for green. Sam had held up a fan of paint chips from the hardware store against Ratchet’s leg, until the medic threatened to use his spot-welder on both the cards and Sam. The color they had chosen was almost as saturated, but of a far more soothing, bluer hue. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}> 

Inferno, Tracks, Smokescreen, Bluestreak and Prowl, I suggest you get your afts in here now. Prime, since you’re here, you too. All five are decanting at once! Ratchet’s broad-beamed transmission caused five kinds of havoc as the mechs involved plus a gaggle of interested onlookers rushed to the inner chamber of the med-lab. 

Colloid drained, plex rose, five shiny new robots stepped down from their tanks in unison. Their optics were first and foremost on each other, small grins lighting their faces. Hands brushed hands, or knees. Shoulders bumped in gentle recognition. The largest touched each of them in turn, verifying their shared reality. Like Oratorio, they had been accessing the internet for some time prior to decantation. 

Even in protoform, their faces were unusually smooth; fine-textured nanomesh and crystalline optical shields giving them a strangely human appearance and expressiveness without venturing too far down either side of the Uncanny Valley. 

Finally the largest stepped forward, hugging Inferno, then taking Prime’s hand, shaking it with great earnestness. Prime smiled, thinking it a fine and comfortable thing to look another mech directly optic-to-optic. “Optimus Prime, I am Hot Spot. I will be an American LaFrance Eagle mid-mount ladder truck.” 

“Nice choice!” Inferno enthused, bumping fists with Hot Spot and grinning. Hot Spot released Prime’s hand and moved back a little into a space created by a quietly delighted Red Alert and Inferno for him, giving the others room.

The smallest climbed and embraced Smokescreen, then looked up and up at Prime, a cheeky smile on his face. “I’m Groove, and I’ll be a BMW police motorcycle.” Smokescreen said nothing, but didn’t appear to be in any hurry to let Groove down.

“Heya, I’m Streetwise.” He sauntered up to Tracks and slipped an arm around his waist. “I’m going to be a Dodge Charger police car. Maybe not as fast as you, Tracks, or as pretty, but it’ll do.”

“Good heavens,” said Tracks, but he put his arm around Streetwise’s waist in return. 

“I’m Blades. Eurocopter Dauphin rescue helicopter.” Blades approached Prowl, slow but resolute. He smiled and took Prowl’s hands. “I imagine you’re sensing a theme here.” 

Prowl stood completely motionless, his optics at their widest aperture. “A flier,” he managed to say, rather faintly. “That’s good.” 

“Thought it might be,” Blades said, grinning.

“Go on,” Hot Spot said, his hand on the last one’s shoulder, not pushing, just lending tactile support.

“Hello, I’m First Aid,” he said, opening his arms and leaning in as Bluestreak – vibrating with joy and unable to contain himself any longer – ran forward to hug him. “I will be a Road Rescue Duramedic ambulance.” He looked hopefully at Ratchet. 

“Are you a gestalt?” Ratchet asked. He patted First Aid’s hand where it rested on Bluestreak’s shoulder. He would start uploading Cybertronian medical treatises to First Aid as soon as possible. Having another medic at the embassy would ease his mind greatly. 

First Aid glanced up at Hot Spot, but answered, “Yes.”

Hot Spot nodded. “Our combined form will be called – in English – ‘Defensor’. I know it’s a little silly, but we thought the humans would find it reassuring.” He grinned up at Borealis, who was peering over the heads of the crowd, bouncing on her toes, beaming at her new little brothers. 

“Well done,” Prime said, his harmonics thrumming with happiness and pride. “All of you. We can surely use your help. Thank you and welcome to Earth.”

“Decantation party!” Oratorio crowed, as the cloud mind went incandescent and everyone reached out to touch and greet the new people.

Ratchet shooed them out into the hangar before the party could get started there in the med-lab. Except for Prowl and Blades, who were still holding hands, gazing solemnly into each other’s optics as though there were vast tracts of deeply important information they needed to convey to each other. A single arm cable joined them. Ratchet smiled and left them to it – Wheeljack was going to need help carting out the high-grade. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Ratchet stumped wearily into the repair bay. Most of the time, the slow pace of human communications didn't bother him. Quite the reverse; it was relaxing, and gave the Cybertronians time to consider their words, as well as devote more attention to any number of other tasks and conversations. Today, however, Ratchet felt his patience wearing thin. Prime's remorse whenever they lost members of the Graveyard Legion was infectious, though no-one wanted to tell their leader so. Let Prime lean on us for once, Ratchet thought testily. 

He saw her feet first. Not surprising, given their size. That Oratorio was draped over Borealis' starboard hock and stifle wasn't unusual either, as the first two spark-merge offspring regarded each other as siblings. As he came further around the curve of stone that separated the main repair bay from the recharge bay, Ratchet found that Hot Spot and his team were piled on top of their eldest sibling as well. Hot Spot sprawled across her chest, with Streetwise cheekily atop him, king of the mountain, with the other three curled up in oddly boneless-seeming heaps on and around their larger cohorts. All the Earth-built Cybertronians, (save the microbots… no, wait, there was Chipchip, tucked beside the antenna of Streetwise’s helm, its four spindly legs tucked in – Maggie must be around somewhere) in one place, deeply in recharge. 

Or so he thought until Streetwise lit a single optic at him. That was a neat trick. Most mechs winked with their optical shutters - standard wiring dictating that if both (or all) optics were functional, they lit or doused in unison. The spark-merge progeny apparently did not always have standard wiring. Ratchet winked back in the usual way, laughing softly. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

There were no interviews, no big press conferences, but Prime quietly informed various agencies of the arrival of a new team. A team whose primary function was disaster relief and rescue – to protect and assist humankind. They could defend themselves, but were to enter combat only in extreme emergencies. 

Hot Spot and his team knew they were another cable in the bridge between their species. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“What are you two gaping a—? Oh. Hmm.” Across the hangar, Oratorio and Streetwise were snogging. Jazz and Tracks kept looking at them, then looking at each other, then looking back at their progeny. After about three rounds of this, Ratchet wasn’t sure if he should smack both of them or laugh. 

“Should we…tell them not to…?” Tracks asked, turning to Ratchet, somewhat worried but unsure if that concern was justified. 

Clacking his fingers together decisively, Jazz strode over to the obliviously kissing pair. “Rio. Rio! Cut it out, man. Streets ain’t been through integration yet, remember?”

“Oops,” Tracks and Rio said. 

“Hey, no prob,” Streetwise said, grinning, (rakishly; Tracks clapped a hand over his optics, shaking his head) giving Rio’s hand a squeeze. “It was nice. We can come back to it later, ‘kay?”

Ratchet chuckled. “Gestalts often take longer to fall into integration,” he explained, “because they tend to stabilize each other.” He pointed a finger at Rio. “However, once they go, they all go.”

“That’s what Aid said,” Streetwise agreed. “We’ll get through it okay, Ratchet, don’t worry.”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Bluestreak poked his head into the war room. “First Aid? Recharge.”

Prime, Blades, First Aid and Hot Spot looked at him, Hot Spot’s finger poised on something in the holo-table’s display. 

“But,” Hot Spot said. They were in the middle of a meeting about plans for emergency evacuations of Tranquility, Las Vegas and other outlying towns, in the event such became necessary. Weren’t meetings with Prime supposed to be sacrosanct?

Now, First Aid,” Bluestreak said, hands on hips. “You too, Hot Spot, Blades.”

“Oh, I’m with you,” Blades said, doing a remarkable facsimile of a yawn.

“We can resume our discussion – remotely if necessary – once you’re fully recharged,” Prime said, not quite making shooing motions with his hands, but conveying the idea by posture and a twinkle of his optics.

“Come on,” Blades said, taking Hot Spot’s hand. “You can help me bully Prowl into resting, too. He’s been awake 61 hours straight.”

“Much obliged,” Prime said, nodding. Which also sort of made it an order.

They found Prowl with Red Alert in Red’s office, as usual. 

“Prowl,” said Blades, going up to his progenitor and leaning on him. “Recharge.”

“Yes,” Prowl said absently. One of the mist-screens zoomed in on a mean-looking muscle car that was aggressively cruising the streets of Detroit. “Later.”

“Now,” said Blades. “You’re tired. And when you’re this tired, you might miss something important. Yes, even you.”

Prowl stared at him.

Blades leaned harder. “I’ll have Hot Spot carry you to the recharge bay if you still need persuading.” Hot Spot looked rather alarmed at this idea and held up his hands when Prowl regarded him speculatively.

“Um,” said Bluestreak.

“Oh, just go,” Red Alert told Prowl. “I don’t like so many people cluttering up my office.”

“Very well.”

They trooped into the recharge bay, Bluestreak and First Aid chattering about a remarkable treatment for jellyfish stings, Blades and Prowl discussing strategies for coping with turbulence in narrow canyons, with Hot Spot bringing up the rear. They were met by Smokescreen, Groove, Tracks and Streetwise, who had already gotten word of the roundup from Red and decided to forestall any desperate measures. 

Blades clasped Prowl’s hand briefly as they moved through the curve of the chamber, Groove and Smokescreen and Streetwise pretending to squabble over who got to recharge next to Bluestreak. Bluestreak, glowing somewhat, chose a berth in the middle and let the others sort themselves out. Meaning to take the berth on the end nearest the door, Prowl found Hot Spot already there, meeting his optics steadily with a determined look on his face. Prowl smiled and settled himself on the next berth in, not discontented to find himself thus between Hot Spot and Blades, and not so far from the door that he couldn’t defend it. 

He smiled at me, Blades! Hot Spot tight-beamed, half pleased half disconcerted.

He does that sometimes, Blades replied, a little smug. Try not to let it worry you. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

2019 – October

It wasn’t worth the effort to stand. Mikaela put down the welding torch and stretched where she sat, pressing her fists into the ache in the small of her back. Maybe she’d been sitting too long after all. Ratchet finished a minor adjustment to Windcharger’s CR tank and looked up at her.

“You’re in latent phase,” he said. “Your Braxton Hicks contractions have intensified and your cervix—”

Mikaela hefted the servomechanism from her waldos that she’d been working on. “How badly do you want to finish that sentence?”

“Not very.”

First Aid ran into the med-lab, immediately homing in on Mikaela. He curled his fingers over the edge of her gantry, resting his chin on them and gazing at Mikaela with open admiration. “Have you changed your mind? Do you think you might have the baby here?” 

“No.” She’d meant to shout, but it was irritatingly difficult to get mad at First Aid when he looked at her like that. She sighed. Her entire pregnancy had been fraught with intense Autobot attention. They stared at goings on she couldn’t even feel, they hunkered down to touch her belly with exaggerated care – at least they unfailingly asked permission for that. Bumblebee was always hovering, more than ready to kick the tailpipe of anyone who got too fresh. And not one of them had blabbed regarding the baby’s sex, not even Bluestreak. Bless them. “Dr. Shima promised they’d put me in a second storey room with a window, and you and Ratchet can take turns looking in if you promise not to mangle the landscaping. And keep a feed open for Bee, or he’ll blow a gasket or something. Fair enough?”

First Aid beamed at her. “Fair enough!”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Two days later.

“Sam!” Ratchet bellowed.

Sam pelted out of Prime’s office, Bumblebee hot on his heels, crossing the hangar in record time to find his wife leaning heavily on Ratchet’s leg, a puddle of amniotic fluid spreading beneath her feet. Ratchet had noted the impending rupture and alerted Mikaela, but they hadn’t made it quite to the main hangar door. 

“Okay, okay, ew, wow, okay I got you.” Sam took Mikaela’s hands and drew her to his side. Her face was pinched and drawn in concentration. “Where’s…there you are, Aid. Hurry!”

First Aid transformed, opening his rear compartment, complete with gurney and functional life-support equipment, so the young couple could board. Ratchet would have preferred to convey them to the hospital himself, but the rear of his vehicle mode was full of parts of his robot mode. Bumblebee transformed and cut in front of Ratchet so he could ride First Aid’s bumper – even more upset than Ratchet that he couldn’t transport his humans himself.

“Hey, Prowl!” Sam called. “Police escort!”

“That would be an abuse of—” Prowl began. 

Mikaela glared at him.

“Right,” he said, wincing under a tight-beamed barrage from Bee, and transformed. “Lights and sirens.” 

“Heheh. Females are definitely the more aggressive of the species,” Red snickered, behind him. 

Prowl blared his siren at him, and the little convoy rolled out. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Danaela Jayne Banes-Witwicky was born with no complications – even from enthusiastic robotic “helpers” – on October 27th, 2019.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“Good morning, Mikaela,” Prime whispered as his head cleared the top of the mesa. She hadn’t heard him climbing up, but, accustomed to such stealth even from the biggest of the bots, Mikaela didn’t even flinch. Bumblebee was certainly around somewhere and would have flung himself into action if there had been anything amiss. Smiling, she continued to rock Dani in her sling. 

“Morning, Prime. You don’t have to whisper, she’ll sleep through anything. How was Moscow?”

“Cold, but otherwise satisfactory.” Prime levered himself over the edge, neatly attaining a half-reclined position near mother and child. Mikaela laughed. The robots could waltz around in space without so much as a tinfoil blanket, and came from a planet that by their own accounts had had a chilly, thin atmosphere; yet the bitching was endless the second the ambient temperature dropped below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. “How are you?” he asked, watching the baby dream. “I’m sorry I missed Danaela’s arrival.”

“I’m fine, thanks,” Mikaela said. “And hey, I missed the ‘arrival’ of all your kids, too, so…” She hoped she hadn’t sounded too snarky – the omission of humans from the decantations so far had been deliberate. She couldn’t fault them for their caution. 

“Ah. My apologies,” he began, but she waved it away, shaking her head.

“No, no, sorry. I don’t blame you.” She looked sideways at him. “I envy you a little. Maybe. Your kids come out fully programmed and ready to go.”

“My species does have it easier in that regard.” 

“Huh. I don’t know about easier. Bee showed us the vid of you bringing the Graveyard Legion to life. 600 kids at once I am so not even going to contemplate. Not doing it your way. Ever.” 

“You risk your life giving birth, too.”

“Don’t remind me.”

“And we do not carry our young within our bodies.” Symbionts didn’t count.

“But you build them with matter from your own bodies. Or you were for a while there.” Ratchet had shown her a holo of the mass donation process. Using what looked to her like the mother of all giant-ass needles, Ratchet had poked a solid column in the back of Prime’s thigh, which sent a signal to the nanocells, reverting them to their base configuration. Kind of like stem cells. Then he had wound big ropy strands of fluid metal onto the needle, dumping the resultant 500-pound coil into a growth tank. It made Mikaela think of how the Mayans used to skin people alive. 

“And you have merge-scars. Bee showed us his. Told us yours were much more extensive.” 

The chameleon mesh across Prime’s thorax rippled aside, baring the blue-grey armor plates beneath. If the Grand Canyon had sprung in many branches from a central source, and was carved in metal rather than stone, it might have looked like Prime’s chest. 

“Oh my god!” Mikaela hissed, despite her earlier assertion trying to keep her voice down. “Optimus! HOLY SHIT! And those are MELTED into you? Okay, yeah, I'm never complaining about stretch marks.” 

Prime laughed gently, letting the chameleon mesh reform. He leaned down and down, touching his forehelm crest to her forehead. Mikaela wrapped her arms around as far as she could reach and kissed him. 

“Hey!” Sam had climbed up in time to see this. “Are you mackin' on my wife? Mack truck, get it?” 

Optimus and Mikaela groaned.

Chapter Text

2019 – December

First Aid stared at his hands. Five slender fingers, so exquisitely jointed, sheathed in a smooth layer of nanometallic silicon. Examining the fingertips, he realized the gripping surfaces resembled human fingerprints. Everything about him had been designed to be reassuring. "Even my voice," he said, listening to the subtle, gentle harmonics of his youthful tenor echo off the med-bay ceiling. So much care and love had gone into every part of him. He began to shake.

A strong, four-fingered hand took both of his. "First Aid?" Ratchet peered into his optics, and Aid felt a mid-level scan wash through him. 

Everyone! Get the humans outside. Ratchet had been waiting for this. The timing was unfortunate for there was a light dusting of snow outside, and the Cybertronian Embassy was playing host to quite a number of visitors preparing for the winter holidays. 

Prowl came in, carrying Streetwise, who had been trying to catch and eat the mist screens and was now shivering and whimpering, petting the delicate sensory nets in Prowl's door-wings. 

"Bring him over here," Ratchet said. He had reconfigured one of the repair tables and First Aid was already there, curled up tightly. "We're going to have to put them all together until they calm down. Smokescreen and Hound are out looking for Groove. Where's Blades?" 

Prowl set Streetwise next to First Aid. The two reached out and drew each other close, though their optics were unfocused. It was a sort of automatic reflex action. 

"Blades is at Nellis, picking up Lennox," Prowl said. His door-wings shuddered, standing sharply upward then relaxing. "He hasn't crashed. Ironhide is on his way to get them both." 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

"Oh frag," Inferno said as Hot Spot plunged into the burning strip-mall office, moaning something about poetry and braided fire. 

"Uh." The fire chief looked up at him. "I thought you guys were fireproof?"

"Aw, we are, he's just...going through an awkward stage. Let's get this puppy put out." Inferno redoubled his efforts, churning out another tankful of retardant foam. Once the immediate danger to human life was taken care of, he'd go in and retrieve his progeny. He could hear Hot Spot in there babbling, but he wasn't crashing around or anything. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Everyone knew when Hound and Smokescreen arrived with Groove. Groove, wide open to the world nets and every other form of communication known to mech and man, was digging his fingers into his helm and screaming. Smokescreen crooned soothingly to him.

They settled him next to First Aid and Streetwise and the screaming immediately ceased. 

"They're stabilizing each other," Ratchet said, nodding in satisfaction. "I hoped they would go this way." Sometimes gestalt integrations unfolded far worse than for individuals - the team's panic or insecurities reinforcing and reflecting from each to the others. Ratchet privately felt that First Aid was exerting a good deal of influence over his brothers and the process. Aid understood better than most mechs what was happening. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

"Please pardon the interruption," Prime said, as he ushered the French and British ambassadors toward the main hangar entrance.

"Of course," the French ambassador said. "But what kind of medical emergency is it? There has been no sign of Decepticon activity for some weeks."

"It is difficult to explain," Prime said. Mirage appeared, bowing, and handed the two men their coats and scarves, though the British ambassador didn't consider it very cold out. The sun was shining. 

"What's going on?" Sam asked as he - carrying Dani - and Mikaela climbed inside Bumblebee's vehicle mode. Maggie and Glen were similarly being escorted out of the embassy by Tracks. They'd been decorating the forty-foot Christmas tree that stood on the border between the hangar and the human-scaled area. (Beachcomber and Groove wouldn't let them cut down a live tree, even one grown for the purpose, so part of that forty feet was taken up by a painstakingly wrapped and crated root ball.) Mikaela still had tinsel in her hair. 

"The Protectobots are going through integration," Bee said, driving outside without the usual revving of his engine. 

"And that is?" Mikaela asked. 

"A brief but generally unpleasant period in a newly-forged mech's life when their emotional systems become fully integrated with the rest of the components of their CPU." Bee stopped only a few meters beyond the hangar door, turning south to where the mesa would shelter them from the occasionally gusty wind. Tracks and his passengers had followed them, as had Mirage with the ambassadors, and Trailbreaker. The latter was carrying a load of mysterious-seeming equipment. 

“I thought you guys came out of the tank or off the kindling platform all programmed and ready to go," Mikaela said, watching from Bee's warm interior as Trailbreaker set up four large, military-grade tents with heaters and a small but efficient generator. More humans, mostly Coalition personnel, were jogging outside to join them. "Why go through this extra process?”

Bee paused, conferring briefly with Ratchet. "Our most ancient history is as nebulous as yours, but we think at first it was as you say. All our parameters determined from the moment of ensparking. Over time, however, our emotional algorithms became so complex, at some point we found it better to allow mechs to live and experience the world directly for a time first, and then integrate the emotional systems. It made our personalities more dynamic and adaptable." 

Trailbreaker paused, broad, blunt head turning unerringly toward the med-lab, but he quickly resumed his task. The Camaro, the Corvette and the Veyron opened their doors. Their passengers and the rest of the human contingent found that the insides of the tents had been sparsely but adequately furnished with camp chairs and cots as well as small electric lanterns. The heaters were already going full bore. Sam with Dani, Mikaela, Maggie and Glen took to one tent and let the others sort themselves. The British and French ambassadors were bickering with each other but seemed untroubled by the prospect of spending an unspecified amount of time in an enclosed space with lowlier civilians and assorted military types. The war had wreaked some interesting changes. 

Bumblebee crawled in behind his humans and sat down, taking up one half the available space, but he could provide another source of heat should the generator for some bizarre reason fail. 

Glen and Maggie set up their laptops, grinning at Sam and Mikaela. 

"Aw, man," Sam moaned, having forgotten his inside. Well, he had his palmtop, and the wire jack in his head. "Anybody bring marshmallows?" 

It was Glen's turn to groan at that.

Mikaela had her small laptop out but didn't open it right away. "Bee? If new mechs have to go through this, what about the Graveyard Legion? I think we'd have noticed six hundred tanks all freaking out at once."

"None of them were new sparks," Bee said. He rubbed at the part of his helm that on a human would correspond to the bridge of the nose. "Like Jazz. Although his body wasn't new, either. I don't really understand it myself."

"So wait," Maggie said, holding up a hand. "The Graveyard Legion. They weren't called that just because Prime used the tank graveyard outside White Sands for the raw materials. They're actually like..."

"Zombie robots!" Glen finished for her, eyes very wide. 

"Augh!" cried Sam. 

"No," said Maggie, looking at Glen. "More like...Paths of the Dead!"

"Ooooh!"

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

"Hey, Ironhide," Lennox said, raising a hand in casual salute. "What's going on? Blades won't let me board and now you show up. Change in plans?"

"Yes." Ironhide opened his cab door so Lennox could toss his duffel inside. "I'm taking the young one here to the embassy, and I'll be your ride home, Colonel. Get in." He closed the door firmly once the human was safely inside. "Blades, can you transform?"

The process was halting and slow, but at last Blades managed to crawl into Ironhide's bed, curling tightly to fit. Lennox watched this with concern. He'd heard sounds like that before, when he'd seen Bumblebee for the first time. 

Aside from violent waves of trembling, Blades was fairly subdued, so Ironhide dropped Lennox off first, giving Sarah and Anna only brief greetings before peeling out of their driveway and breaking a number of speeding laws getting back to the embassy. He knew Will would explain and the ladies would forgive him his abrupt departure. 

Blades clambered out of Ironhide's pickup bed, mostly falling into Prowl's arms. "Falling," he said, in a voice unlike his usual confident burr. "Everyone else is falling, can't they feel it? I can't catch them, can't catch..."

"I know," Prowl said quietly. "It's just the planet spinning, Blades, they're all right." Wheeljack appeared to help Prowl guide Blades into the med bay. Once he was safely ensconced with his brothers, Prowl returned to the hangar, meaning to resume his station in the security office. He paused on the threshold, listening to Blades' shrill babble fade. 

There was a light touch on Prowl's shoulder, but when he turned, Ironhide was already stumping across the hangar. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Wheeljack dodged as Red Alert came rocketing out of the stem corridor and across the hangar. Inferno was coming in with Hot Spot leaning heavily on his shoulders. 

"Ooh, lemme give you a hand with him," Jack said, hustling over. Red was trying to take Spot's other side, with somewhat limited success. 

"Oh, Red," Hot Spot whispered, "you have a broken link..."

"And don't I know it," Red answered crisply. "Come on, young one." 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

"I know it's chancy to transport them, but I think we should send them up to the Oregon base. There's going to be too much activity around here for the next several weeks."

Prime nodded in agreement. 

Oh yes, please! Perceptor replied to Ratchet's query. I mean, we are most certainly able and willing to accommodate them for whatever span of time is required.

Ratchet chuckled. I thought you wouldn't mind.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

A very large head poked through the flap of their tent. To their credit, none of the humans so much as jumped. "Hey, guys," Borealis said, optics twinkling at Bee. "How's it hanging?"

"Uh, fine, I guess," Sam said. He'd had to spend some time with the other ambassadors earlier, but was glad of the late hour's reprieve from his more official duties. 

"We're shipping the P-bots up to Oregon tonight, so your camping adventure's over in an hour or two. Unless you all wanna stay out here."

"Why Oregon?" Mikaela asked. There were still any number of secret bases that had been set up to house and conceal the Autobots during the brief time when their presence on Earth had been kept a state secret. Several of which were a lot closer than Oregon. That one outbuilding at Nellis sprang immediately to mind. 

"They have medical facilities almost as good as Ratchet's up there," Borealis said. "And it'll make Perceptor very happy." 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Emotional robots, Sam thought. Without hormones, yet were they as much slaves to their feelings as humans were? Prowl for one appeared almost Vulcan in his quiet reserve, but from late night conversations with Bee, Sam knew the opposite was true. 

Prime, too - ever the calm, considerate, wise leader. What did that composure cost him? Sam remembered Optimus at the first performance of the Autobot Symphony in 2011. Great composers from around the world had gotten together to create music in honor of the Autobots. Sam leaned back against Bee's chest, with his arms behind his head, looking up as though he could see the clouds through the roof of the tent. Mikaela joined him, snugging Dani in between them. 

"What are you thinking about?" she asked softly. Maggie and Glen were absorbed in whatever they were doing on their computers.

Sam told her. 

“We got those special seats front and center, remember? At the Branson Amphitheater in New Mexico out by the Spaceport?” His hands made swooping gestures, evoking silver, manta-like domes. Mikaela nodded. 

Glen looked up from his screen. "Huh? I think I missed that one."

“Oh man," Sam said, happily elaborating. "It was really good music, especially live. Real heroic and everything, but also sad. They really got it, what the guys have been through and what their situation is on Earth. Lots of mixing of electronic music and acoustic instruments, really cool stuff.

“I think all the Bots were there, but they were outside in vehicle mode, most of them. Well, not Jazz, he was perched up on a support beam from the beginning. Everybody loved that. Jazz is so awesome. Anyway, they could hear the whole thing perfectly of course. So then there comes this one major piece, dedicated to...well, about, really, Optimus. And as that opens up, here comes Optimus himself over the berm, in robot form, standing there behind the seats where the conductor – same guy as composed it, actually – couldn’t see him, didn’t know he was right there, see? The musicians could though, and you could tell. They were playing to Optimus then, everyone watching him. It was the most incredible vibe. 

“About, I dunno, three minutes in, Optimus moves closer, right to the edge of the berm, looking at all these people. And he kneels down, you know, like he does to talk to humans on the ground. So he’s down on one knee, and he’s got his arms wrapped around his middle, and he goes totally still, just listening like you’ve never seen anyone listening to anything before in your entire life. By the end he was actually shaking, which is pretty scary in a guy his size. He looked like he was trying to speak, but couldn’t do it. All the other Bots came in then, in robot mode, and surrounded him, just touching him like a comfort thing or something.” He made a sweeping gesture with both hands. “Not a dry eye in the house, I tell you. The composer/conductor guy, he just about had a heart attack when he turned around.”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Six pairs of optics flickered on. (Streetwise had an auxiliary pair on the sides of his helm.) 

"Easy," Optimus murmured to them, moving closer once he had determined they would not find his presence alarming. "You're doing beautifully." Tangled as they were, they sat up, fixed upon him, upon every word. The complexities of his voice were soothing and fascinating. "We're going to move you up north tonight, is that all right? It will be quieter there, easier for you."

"Yes," First Aid said. 

"Outside," said Groove.

"In the dark," said Hot Spot.

"In the cold," said Streetwise, pitch and intensity rising.

"Yes!" cried Blades, completing the round. 

Ratchet came in behind Prime. You've got them stirred up. They were focused outward, which was a good thing. Ratchet didn't want them coming suddenly online in transit either. The road in front of the embassy doubled as a runway - if Skyfire could land and take off from there, certainly a C-17 had no trouble. "The plane's ready to go when you are," Ratchet said. 

The short flight north didn't seem to bother the young gestalt, though Blades had a bad moment or three when he again felt the distress of being unable to catch his falling brothers. 

There was a new Air Force Base outside Banks, Oregon, closer to the Autobot base than the Portland airport. They took the 26 west toward the coast. 

Moonlight speckled the road through the tall conifers. Ratchet - and Perceptor, who had driven out to meet them - were careful to closely observe the young mechs during the trip. 

Oh the moonlight, Groove thought. Oh the sweet black road humming under our tires.

Hang on, First Aid told all of them. Hang on. Don't think, don't scan, just follow, follow, follow Ratchet green that's not green and so much new metal in him now, so much lost before, hang on, hang on we'll be there soon.

Streetwise tried not to scan, but the stars peeked down at him through the fringey needles of the trees, piercing his spark with their songs, Oh the stars,he said, trembling.

Hang on, Hot Spot said. First Aid had tried to keep the lighthouse beam of his medical scan under control but Hot Spot had caught part of it. Perceptor has two main memory cores? 

Skyfire said Perceptor saved the University Library before Megatron destroyed it, said Blades. Hang on, don't fall, hang on, we're almost there.

Keening softly, the gestalt team allowed themselves to be herded down the ramp and into the volcano base, into warm dimness and quiet.

The resident humans had been warned of the impending arrival and most had chosen to evacuate. Yasmina and Marcus had instead opted to remain in the protected human quarters farther in, and take their chances on emerging now and then with emotionally volatile giant robots about. 

"Come," Perceptor said, holding out his hands. Streetwise and First Aid took them, and their brothers formed a chain between them, forming a circle with Perceptor. He led them slowly, speaking quietly the while, telling them of the little day-to-day affairs of the outpost, geologic, botanical, zoological and anthropological, shooing the little household drones out of the way as they meandered into the repair bay. Hoist had a large table already configured for them. 

Thank you, Ratchet, Perceptor said, pulling Ratchet into a close embrace. Nuzzling Ratchet's helm, stroking cheek flange to cheek flange, nibbling on Ratchet's jaw spars. 

The Protectobots watched this avidly, despite Hoist's entreaty to them to go into recharge - it was late, they'd had a long journey. Well, long-ish. As long as they'd experienced so far. 

Ratchet grabbed one of the big struts that supported Perceptor's scope and dragged him off to one of the auxiliary labs that wasn't currently in use. He was surprised that Perceptor hadn't already constructed a whole row of growth tanks. And filled them all, too. They would certainly be safe here, after Perceptor had so thoroughly trounced the Command Trine last year. Ratchet wasn't about to bring that up, though. Perceptor had clearly been enchanted by the notion of exploring a living, organic world without the burden of the war resting so heavily on his shoulders. Prime had promised as much. Prime meant it, too; Ratchet didn't question that at all. It was just that praising Perceptor's warrior prowess was hardly conducive to a "romantic" interface. 

Ratchet schooled his thoughts. Perceptor was seating cables - for a second Ratchet thought he might propose spark-merging right then and there. But Perceptor's heated hands and wandering mouth made it rapidly clear that his intent was less dangerous and more simply overclocked. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

A few days later. Grapple made his usual round of the base before recharge. Checking the CR tank where Warpath was recovering. Making certain Hoist wasn't still working. He didn't check Perceptor since he'd long ago given that up. Tearing Perceptor away from his work was beyond Grapple's skill. One was usually better off sending Beachcomber in for that. 

Hoist had indeed gone in to rest, but the medical bay remained occupied. 

Taken as a whole, the scene of Perceptor tucked in amongst the pile of new bots put Grapple in mind of the "Vector Beta at K'Veer" memorial statue in the Crystal City back home. Narrowing one's focus to Perceptor cradling Groove, there emerged a passing resemblance to La Pieta

"Recharging peacefully?" Grapple inquired.

Perceptor activated his optics briefly, then shut them down again. "Indeed. I had them reciting all the iterations of the 17-dimensional quarternary equation. Blasted thing puts even me into stasis."

"The what...?" Grapple shook his head. Perceptor was always talking about things no-one else had heard of, or were supposed to have been lost when the Universities were destroyed. "Good night, Perceptor."

"Good night, Grapple."

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

"But, Moooom, I don't want to make them another tosky old vase or wall plaque," Anna Lennox sighed. 

"You don't have to, then, Honey," Sarah patiently explained. Misshapen clay animals or cups or handprint disks had always been satisfactory gifts before; in fact Ironhide had a special shelf of Annabelle's offerings to him especially, and the Autobots had made a huge display niche in the embassy just for things human children sent them. It was near the entrance to the stem corridor, visible from the hangar door and proudly lit. Optimus could point to anything on the teeming shelves and tell you exactly who had given it and when. But this year Anna was thirteen and Everything was Different. 

"I want to get them something good," Anna said. She put her legs up over the back of the couch as though that would shake the most groshing, shiniest idea down into her brain. What on Earth could a thirteen-year-old buy for a bunch of giant robots who didn't even breathe? In astronomy class her teacher had gone off on this hurlsome tangent about how if the robots had come specifically to steal our resources, they could have disassembled all the other planets and left Earth as a kind of wildlife preserve. The robots didn't need anything from humans. She chewed at a hangnail on her thumb. "Isn't great-grandpa Halloway's rock collection up in the attic? Maybe there's some rare mineral specimen Ratchet could use for...some...tiny piece of a part of...something." Another gusty sigh emerged from beneath the embroidered pillow Anna plumped over her face. "Slag."

"Annabelle Jenine," Sarah said, looking up from the stack of paperwork she'd brought home from the office. It wasn't really paper these days, but smart plastic, with "ink" that scrolled down the page like an old computer screen. "Feet off the furniture, young lady." 

Anna scrunched herself up the couch so that her feet stuck out beyond the back, the great unwashed no longer touching any part of the precious upholstery. 

"They lost almost all their art in the war," Sarah said quietly. "Things we make with our own hands mean so much to them, they really do. 'Hide'll be disappointed if he doesn't get another handprint from you this year. You aren't done growing yet, you know."

"Yeah, but..."

"Or we could drive out to the embassy and you can ask Optimus himself what he wants for Christmas."

"Uh. No thanks, Mom." Asking Optimus something like that would only get her a philosophical speech about peace and harmony and understanding. Mirage would start talking about incomprehensible gibberish. Ironhide, if pressed, wanted her to get good grades in school and beat up all the bullies. Bee would challenge her to a game of tag. Grownups could be amazingly nonhelpful sometimes. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

In the end, Anna made the traditional handprint for Ironhide, but she painted it in her own favorite colors, with little symbols representing things that were important in her life right now - including of course the Autobot sigil. 

Her parents wouldn't let her get implants until she was 18, so she had to use her tosky old desktop to chat. "Ironhide? Are you there?"

Always, came his rough old voice from the speakers. 

"What should I get Optimus for Christmas? And don't say another tosky paper maché zoo animal either, Mom already suggested that."

What do you want to give him?

"I don't knooooow, Ironhide. That's why I'm asking you." Hide was so weak at talking-type stuff sometimes. But sometimes he could come up with something smarter than you'd expect from a great big cannon-geek. 

What would you give him if you could give him anything?

"Urgh. I don't know. A new sun for Cybertron maybe. Or Cybertron itself, all nice and fixed up like it was before."

Hn. Then make something to represent that. And write a note telling him about it. A nice long note. Optimus loves words.

Anna's face lit up with a wide grin. Good old Ironhide. "Thanks, Hide!" Maybe paper maché wasn't so weak after all.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

2020 - January

“Prowl,” said Blades. “Recharge.”

It was the third time this week, and Prowl wondered if this was going to continue forever. Or for as long as they were both on the same planet. Or for as long as they were within communications range.

Blades looked at Prime as though he was considering telling the Autobot leader the same thing. But Prime rarely needed recharge these days. Usually only after a battle, in fact. Blades had only ever known Prime as he was now, so this didn’t seem weird.

They're through, Prime tight-beamed to Ratchet.

Feels like it, yes, Ratchet replied. Happy New Year.

Chapter Text


Faster than the speeding light she's flying
Trying to remember where it all began
She's got herself a little piece of heaven
Waiting for the time when Earth shall be as one
-- Madonna, Ray of Light



2020 - May

How dare they! How dare they drive him from his rightful prey? Galvatron whirled even as he flung himself back into the starry black, Soundwave at his side. At the edge of the awareness buried beneath his rage, he caught sight of a fleck of darkness against the clouds below. He laughed, powering up his cannon – in that instant comprehending the scale of this gift that he would send his brother. Galvatron knew what Prime perhaps had not yet realized, so busy playing this revolting game of progenitors and progeny. There was a price on such sparks’ existence. Prime would pay it now – Prime and whomever had been foolish enough to help him create that young one below. He fired. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Two explosive rounds took her through the engines. She spun, engulfed in black smoke, helpless, secondary explosions racing beneath her armor; in too much pain to scream aloud. Yet because of a peculiarity of the way she transformed, Galvatron had missed her spark chamber. 

Borealis! several voices shouted across the cloud mind. 

There was no answer for several seconds, several tens of thousands of feet. Her transmission, when it came, was staticky and weak. Both engines are gone – can’t brake!

Skyfire’s too far away. I’ll get her! Powerglide said, pushing his jets to the max. He was fast. He was awesome. He could do this. 

Wait, Powerglide. Ratchet looked skyward, though of course he couldn’t see her at such a distance. Borealis? Listen to me. Lock on to this frequency tight as you can.

Uhhh…I – I have you. Go ahead.

Good. You have to transform into your cometary protoform, do you understand? It’s there in your core programming.
 She might have to rescan her vehicle mode if she was panicky enough to dump the data along with the chameleon mesh’s physical form, but at least she stood a better chance of being alive to do so. If you can refrain from landing in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that would be helpful. Ratchet pressed his lip components into a tight line. Seven metric tons, travelling at over 4000 mph. If she couldn’t transform, the impact would kill her.

Tee-riffic. I’ll try. She closed the channel. Transforming at this speed was bad – but she wasn’t going to get any slower. She found the procedure…well, she was going to get parts stripped off anyway, might as well hope the autonomic systems got her curled up tight enough on the way. Tattered armor and molten alloy shrieked and buckled, becoming an unintentional ablative heat shield as her body jerked and twisted, in the throes of an ancient process she was too frightened to control.

Powerglide, Perceptor tight-beamed softly. She’s too big. You cannot stop her descent. You would be torn apart. Wait. There was a pause. She has attained cometary mode. Let us know where she lands, please?

Sure thing, boss! The little red aerobatic Giles 202 sighted the descending ball of fire and followed. Mountains. That wasn’t going to be a soft landing.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

I’m… in North America, I think. 

You’re in Canada. Hold still, we’re asking the Mounties to cordon off the area until one of us can get to you.
 Ratchet kept the line open in reassurance, even as he attended to the wounded on the battlefield. She would know that he was there, that she wasn’t forgotten and abandoned to the snow and stone. 

Okay. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Two hours later.

Corporal Fraser Benison broke ranks, deaf to the swearing of the Inspector off to his right somewhere in the swirling snow. He couldn’t listen to the sounds the robot was making and not try to help somehow. He approached the smoking crater gingerly, surprised that his horse was offering no objection. He peered through the mist and falling snow, moving closer until he could see the robot more clearly. “Are you all r-? Oh.” He’d seen photographs and video of the robots of course, and they were pretty weird. But he was rather certain this one was in bad shape. The sounds it was making should have told him that, but he hadn’t wanted to assume anything. They were aliens, after all, what if it had just been bored and was singing to itself? How would he have known? Except he did know. He could tell. This robot was weeping in pain. “Is there…anything I can do?” Mister? Ma’am? 

The low wailing ceased, and now Fraser could see a blue light pointed at him. No, an eye. Ah, yes there would be two, but the right one was smashed. Inwardly he cringed. 

“I’m afraid not, but thanks anyway,” the robot said. And Fraser thought – possibly – this one was a ‘she’. Of some kind. The voice was inhumanly deep like one would expect from something this size, so it was hard to be certain. 

“What’s your name? I’m Fraser, by the way.” 

“Borealis. Nnnice to meet you.” 

“Would it offend you if I used a feminine pronoun in referring to you?” A little blunt, but better to make sure. It seemed only polite.

The robot’s voice hitched a little in what he thought might be an agonized sort of laughter. “Nope. ‘She’ is close enough.”

“Is there another pronoun in any human language that would be closer?” Fraser didn’t want to impose any limitations in his own thinking on the nice alien robot. Especially one with several gaping, smoking holes through her body that were dripping a hot-looking blue fluid of some kind onto the rocks. The fluid hissed as it made contact, and the heat of the robot’s arrival had melted the snow for a considerable distance around the impact site. He could still feel heat coming off it in a solid front. 

“Uh. Hm. Ow.” The robot was trying to reposition herself, but seemed to be having difficulty. “No, not really. I’m technically of ‘de’ forging, but I can’t explain that very well in human terms.”

“Ah. Thank you. Is my conversing with you hindering you in any way?”

“Nnnnnnnnn. No. Keep on.”

Fraser wished he could do more, but his experience with human field medicine was probably worse than useless here. “I’ve read that your people turn into vehicles of various kinds?” At least she seemed to be taking comfort, as humans did when trapped or badly injured, in the sound of a friendly voice nearby.

“Yes.”

Was her voice getting weaker? Would it be dangerous for her to lose consciousness? “Remarkable. What sort of vehicle do you become?”

“Jet,” she said, definitely sounding a little fuzzy, or staticky was a better term. “Modified SR-90 Aurora. Re…con.” 

“Borealis? Stay with me here, all right? How fast can you fly?” 

“Mach… 10. Ish.” 

“Wow.” 

“Engines destroyed. Had to land in…protoform.” 

“What’s protoform?” 

“Endostructure. Base mode, kinda. Re…re-format. Ratchet, others, will rebuild me. Bigger.”

She was already quite large. He wondered why they would make her bigger and asked her about it. 

“New vehicle mode. Mmmm. Cybertronian jet…interstellar.”

Fraser considered this. “You’re going to be a spaceship.” He stopped himself from adding, when you grow up.

“Yes.”

“Wow.” 

“Yes.”

“Are you sure there’s nothing I can do? I can see there’s a…a fluid line right there. Kind of a big one, and it’s leaking.”

Borealis tried to move again, and grinding, grating noises accompanied her moans this time. Fraser put out a hand, wishing she’d keep still. “No, don’t!” she cried. “Energon …caustic, hot.”

“Oh. Radioactive, aren’t you.” He thought he remembered reading about that, now that she brought it up. Close proximity to the robots imparted small doses of radiation – nothing lethal, although prolonged exposure wasn’t recommended. The robots themselves had worked out ways to dampen their emissions, and also treat any humans who’d gotten a larger dose than was good for them. 

“Yeah. Sorry. You …don’t have to stay.”

“No! I won’t leave you. We’ll keep talking until your people get here, how’s that?”

“Sure.”

He kept talking, kept her talking, for the handful of hours it took for a rescue team to reach them. He paced his horse to keep both of them warm as the heat from Borealis dissipated. He wondered if that, too, was a bad sign. (He learned later it wasn’t. She flew very hot, and had landed hard. The heat her spark generated was well-shielded and conserved in the cold.)

“Starting… to shut down,” she said to his query near the end. She roused herself to coherence to make sure he understood. “Fraser, listen. Stasis …lock. Can be …revived. Mem…ory core …non…volatile. Don’t …wor…ry. ”

“Understood. It’s been an honor to meet you, Borealis.”

“Like…wise… Fra…serrr.” Her undamaged eye flickered and went out. 

Fraser swallowed hard. He stayed with her inert body, determined, despite his superior officer fussing at him. Fraser was Fraser, unmovable once he’d made up his mind to do something. Everyone was used to it, even if it was irritating. 

After some hours, he heard the faint rumble of truck engines, echoing through the mountains. The wind had died completely, snow falling in heavy silence. The engine sounds changed, became immense, slow footfalls that made the ground under his horse’s hooves shake, more as they approached. 

“There she is!” someone shouted, from far overhead. A helicopter appeared as if from out of nowhere (a common phenomenon in these sharp-ridged mountains that hid much of the sky from view) and dove for the mountainside and Fraser gasped, expecting a collision – another one. But before it could strike the side of the mountain, the helicopter stopped…and transformed. Landing neatly on the other side of Borealis from Fraser. “Hi,” the new robot said. “I’m Blades. She slip into stasis?”

“Hello, Blades, my name’s Fraser. Yes. She said she would do so, that it is a reversible condition.”

Blades, still a large robot but much smaller than Borealis, knelt next to her, putting a hand on what Fraser thought was her shoulder, though her form was so badly crumpled it was hard to tell. “Yeah. I’m not the medic – First Aid is on his way with the rest of our team. We’re gonna have to combine to lift her. Anyway, yeah, stasis lock is a reaction to shock and overwhelming stress. She’ll be all right once we get her back to the base and Aid and Ratchet can get to work. Hey.” Blades looked at him, the robot’s face more human-like than any of the others Fraser had seen images of. Perhaps, if they could change their appearance at will, it had been done on purpose, to put humans more at ease. “Thanks for sticking by her.”

“I couldn’t have done otherwise for a fellow sapient.”

Blades chuckled. “You sound like Prime. Corporal Fraser, meet Hot Spot, our team leader.” Blades nodded upward and Fraser turned, starting to explain that Fraser was his given name not his surname – and trailing off because Hot Spot was another very large robot. 

This one was shiny and mostly red, like a fire truck. And like Blades, knelt by Borealis and touched her to see how she was. Or maybe the contact meant something else. Fraser didn’t want to assume. “Thank you, Corporal Benison,” Hot Spot said, as three more robots pelted up the valley, converging on their fallen comrade. 

The smallest, who introduced himself as Groove, put a hand on Fraser’s shoulder, meeting his gaze eye to eye, or eye to optic, as the case may be. Groove was the same height as Fraser on horseback, which was somehow weirder than all the others who were such giants. “We won’t forget you stayed by her, Corporal. Thanks.”

Fraser wondered what the gratitude of alien robots meant. And then he forgot to wonder about anything else as the five robots combined.

Hot Spot leaned down and sort of stretched his limbs out, almost like a cat. At each extension, one of his teammates rolled or wound themselves about or simply engulfed his hands or feet, their bodies changing, roiling in ways Fraser couldn’t describe until the five were one, truly immense robot. 

It crouched beside Borealis, gently lifted her, and then Fraser could really see the damage. It placed her over its shoulders – a fireman’s carry, naturally enough – and began the long walk back to where there were roads. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Greater than the pain, fear silenced her when she was conscious. She knew her body was shattered, even after Ratchet had turned her pain centers off. She trusted them, but she had never been rebuilt before.

Then Prime was beside her, holding her unmangled hand, softly linking via arm cable. He had been broken and remade several times, though not as often as Wheeljack, he admitted, smiling. At the beginning of the war he had thought he could stop it entirely if he went unarmed to Megatron, offering his life for peace. Thirty-one Autobots had died rescuing what had been left of him. It had taken almost a vorn to rebuild his body. (After that, he had swiftly learned shrewder, harder tactics from Ironhide, Kup and Ultra Magnus. Indeed Ultra Magnus had once been Megatron’s Ground Commander, on par with Starscream – and thus the one mech Megatron hated almost as much and as personally as he hated Optimus.) He shared his memories not happily but willingly, to give her whatever comfort they afforded; or at least distraction. 

It’s very rare for a mech to live an entire lifetime in one body, in any case, Prime explained. This was sooner than usual, but Borealis had been an experiment from the beginning. You’ll be well, Little Bird. You’ll fly among the stars.

The engineers at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works in Palmdale, CA were not simply eager to help. Actual drooling might have been involved. Stan Etterbeek, program manager, addressed the human team soberly. 

“This isn’t a piece of equipment,” he told them. “This is a living being. Never forget that. Broadly, we will be disassembling her almost completely and reassembling her into a form more than twice as large. Raw materials of necessity will come mostly from this planet, though Skyfire will be donating nanocultures and mass, as well as bringing unusual elements in from other planets. Ratchet and Perceptor have provided us with complete designs and specs in holo.”

A young engineer raised her hand. “Are we gonna get dead tree copies?”

Stan almost didn’t dignify that with a reply. “You ask Ratchet that yourself, phrased exactly like that. See what kind of answer you get.” Frankly, designs of this nature would be insane to try to render in two dimensions. You’d need whole forests of paper, even at 1:100 scale. “I might also add that Event Horizon is handling the computer security. Don’t. Be. Rude.” 

"At any rate, I've looked them over and have no trouble admitting I don't understand nine-tenths of it. I think someday we will, but not yet. Ratchet and his apprentice, First Aid, will of course be directing the work and doing much of it themselves, aided by Perceptor, Wheeljack and Skyfire.

“The Autobots have never asked us to help with repairs or refitting of this magnitude before. Make your homeworld proud, people.” 

As they filed out of the conference room, one of the older machinists solemnly intoned, “Gentlemen, we can rebuild her. We have the technology. We can make her better than she was before. Better. Stronger. Faster.” During the next several months, he repeated this performance more often than his colleagues found amusing, but Borealis, upon hearing him during brief periods of consciousness, giggled every time. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Ratchet? The Skunk Works hangar had become a familiar sight during the rigorous testing sessions between lengthy bouts of stasis. Now her CPU was finally telling her the reforging was complete. All systems operational, including the proprioceptive assimilation soft- and hardware. There would be little clumsiness in this new body, though testing its limits to the fullest was yet before her. 

I’m right here. Standing on the massive work table beside her helm, he moved slightly to put himself within her field of view. 

Borealis. How do you feel? Prime stood at her left hand, gazing at her with affection and approval. 

Hi, Prime. She sat up. “I feel…fanTAStic!” The human team laughed and applauded, some of them scooting back to a safe distance as she swung her legs over the edge of the table and stood. (The roof had been raised to 120 feet; not the greatest challenge of the project by a long shot. By contrast, the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center in Florida is 525 feet tall – still the tallest one story building in the world.) 

Her hands were of the same design as before, only proportional to her new size. She stretched up and tapped the supports in the ceiling because she could and it made some of the humans below whistle and laugh. Ratchet opened the hangar doors. 

She stepped out into the bright metallic southern California sunlight. The scale of the world had changed again. There were more places she would not fit, except virtually. That distinction was blurring – it mattered less and less whose optics she was looking through. She felt tall and light and strong. The lightness was because she weighed less per unit of volume than she had, though slightly. The difference was enough, even factoring the change in scale. She was now Skyfire's... not twin exactly; that term referred to twinned sparks. Bodies, forgings, were commonly repeated if the design worked well. She wondered that the changes weren't bothering her at all. Had Ratchet tuned her emotional algorithms down until she accommodated? She ran a diagnostic. No. Perhaps she was borrowing Wheeljack's equanimity. 

There was a sense in Cybertronian culture, she felt, that anyone who had rebuilt you was a kind of parent. Wheeljack, therefore, had rather an enormous "family". Who were her "parents" really, anyway? Michael and Maria Chase? Ratchet and Prime? Uncle Wheeljack? Uncle Percep- ack! No! She found she didn't want to pursue that line of thinking. Among humans it wasn't quite kosher to fall in love with your doctor or patient. To Cybertronians, that would be a very odd and impractical restriction. 

"Feel like trying out the transformation?" Ratchet asked. 

The first time took almost a full fifteen seconds. The smaller you were, the faster you could fling yourself into your other shape; but she would rapidly get faster with each go. The Skunk Works crew murmured happily at the dark blue starship gleaming on the tarmac. 

"Star Trekkin' across the universe/Boldly going forward 'cause we can't find reverse!" Jazz tossed at her. Borealis replied with a virtual raspberry and rude gesture, but also giggled. She loved that song. 

"When do we get space rides?!" the humans clamored. 

"As soon as Skyfire clears her for orbital maneuvers," Ratchet said firmly. "How many of you really want to be test subjects? I thought not." 

Better than a mirror, she could see herself through Ratchet's optics. Ratchet obligingly walked around her, scanning. He nodded with satisfaction. Using Skyfire's specs so closely, he'd been confident of the results on that account; and he was pleased by the humans' progress in understanding - in however limited a fashion - the metallurgy and complex mechanics, geometry and astrodynamics involved. 

Prime emerged and knelt to speak with the project manager. "As we have learned to appreciate the advantages of our alliance on the battlefield, we now find the same in the repair bay. You match us in dedication to the task at hand, and impress us with your courage and willingness to learn. Thank you." 

A big white jet swooped down, transformed and landed beside Borealis. “Ready?”

Borealis tipped her head back, looking up through the sky. “Oh, yes.”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

2022 - June 

As usual, his inbox was virtually overflowing. The computer kept asking if it could compress the folder, so Fraser finally realized he once again needed to go through it all. He wasn’t a technophobe, but his job kept him busy in the real world; he didn’t have that much time to spend online like a lot of his peers. About halfway down, one email made him sit up straight in his chair, blinking to make sure he was seeing the sender’s name right. It had been sent a month ago. With an odd feeling coursing almost unnoticed over his skin, he opened it. 

Dear Sergeant Benison, it said. Neither I nor my friends have forgotten your kindness and help to me in the mountains after I crashed. Crashed nothing, Fraser thought. He had read up on the incident afterwards. She had been shot down. I have been repaired, and reformatted in the way we discussed back then. If you would like, I would like to take you on a very special tour. You can bring about twenty friends, too. Thanks again, Borealis.

Twenty friends. Did he know that many people outside of work? 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Victor Raymondson stared as the dark blue starship landed vertically on the tarmac at the Yellowknife Airport. “You were for real. You weren’t kidding.”

“No, Vic. Meet Borealis.” Vic was an old friend of Fraser’s from an exchange stint he’d done in the States. Convincing him to take a vacation, even for such a reason, and come so far north had been difficult at first; but Fraser had found images of Borealis and emailed them, reminding Vic that his chances of going to “outer space” were pretty slim otherwise. Chance of a lifetime. Vic’s sister had finally threatened him with bodily harm if he didn’t go. 

An entry ramp extended. “Welcome aboard, gentlemen,” Borealis said. 

Sequentially winking light strips led them to the cockpit, though neither man could distinguish which seat was meant to be pilot or copilot. Well, Borealis was doing the driving. They secured their five-point harnesses without being told. 

“Ready?” she asked, though she knew they were. Their hearts beat fast but they were grinning like boys. 

“Oh, yes,” said Fraser.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

2031 - January

Stranded on the side of an icy road, his rented truck broken down so completely even his unusually pronounced repair skills were of no use, Fraser shivered and hugged himself and leaned out from the side of the road as he heard an engine approaching. It was a motorcycle, he could tell, but that was better than nothing – even his cell phone got no reception out here. 

He squinted as the motorcycle came into view around the bend. The air was clear and cold; he couldn’t blame what he saw on mist or blizzard. It was easy to forget, when you didn’t see them every day, so the riderless bike gave him a start at first. 

“Where can I take you, Master Sergeant Benison?” the bike – Groove, Fraser remembered now – asked him. Not one to look a gift ride in the mouth, Fraser got on, setting his feet on the pegs with a mixture of wonder and trust. The bike kept itself, himself, upright.

“Just into town, thank you, Groove,” he said, a little unsteadily. The engine revved, warmth rising up through him from metal that should have been cold in this weather, but wasn’t. “No problem,” Groove said, and accelerated carefully so as not to dislodge his distracted rider. After a while, a few miles, he spoke again. “Told you, we wouldn’t forget.”

Fraser smiled, though his face was more or less numb. “I guess I knew you wouldn’t. Thank you kindly.”

Chapter Text

2020 - May

It was his last round until his body had a chance to regenerate, and it took that nasty little slagger Ransack’s head clean off. Good. Ironhide let himself fall back against the rock. He looked over at Prowl. What was left of him. “Come on,” he said, heaving himself upright again. “You’ve still got one functional leg. Lean on me.” Prowl cried out as Ironhide lifted him, but his optics stayed lit. 

The Cons’ undersea headquarters had been left a ruin without the Constructicons to repair it. Galvatron had apparently deemed it wiser to try to reestablish their foothold on Mars, where Starscream had initiated the building of a space bridge terminal. Rather than allow this unhindered, the Autobots went on the offensive. Optimus would prefer the Cons not to have any bases within the Solar system if they could help it. 

It was like the old days. The humans – busy rebuilding their world – could not assist them to the extent they had on Earth. Ironhide reveled in it. 

However, even with Raze and his platoon, they’d been outgunned. Galvatron had sent Blitzwing, Astrotrain, Soundwave, Octane, Onslaught’s team and a handful of others, hoping to crush the Weapons Specialist and Tactician in one strike. Prowl had suddenly leapt from cover, sprinting at the enemy line, using that rapid-fire, precision shooting trick of his. Incensed at the affront, Astrotrain and Blitzwing had taken the bait, focusing on Prowl while Raze and Ironhide moved their troops to a better position – and the rest of the Cons took precious seconds trying to figure out what Prowl’s elaborate plan must really be. Even badly damaged, Prowl had managed to rejoin them on a higher rim of one of the canyons of the Noctis Labyrinthus, west of the Valles Marineris. The Seekers were at a disadvantage for once. The canyons were treacherous to fly in, with many spaces for snipers to hide, and extensive overhangs foiled attempts to find and attack targets from the air. Both factions could spend centuries down there gunning for each other amid the morning mists from sublimated frost. 

It had become a contest of endurance. A contest Ironhide was pleased to have won today, though they’d paid for it with two more of the Graveyard Legion. 

Something inside Prowl exploded, sending oily smoke up through his joints and mouth, sparks and energon dripping from the hole in his midsection that was wider now. “Don’t you dare offline on me,” Ironhide snarled. 

“N-not…kkkzt…aaaaaaaaaaaallowed…kk…to die,” Prowl reminded him. 

“That’s right,” Ironhide said. “And you’re heavy as slag, so stay with me, here.” 

Raze and the rest of his platoon followed them closely back to their Field Ops cavern.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“You, my friend,” said Ratchet, pulling an extra strut from his back to serve as a splint, “are pushing it.” The energon lines and efferent/afferent wires had been capped, and a temporary patch applied to the hole in Prowl’s chassis. More complete repairs could wait until after Skyfire ferried them back to Earth.

“Cccalcula…ted risk,” Prowl rasped. 

Nevertheless, please don’t do such a thing again. Prime transmitted, relayed via satellite and Jazz.

Nnnnnno. Wouldn’t…workkkk second…time.

Ratchet shook his head as Ironhide and Raze exchanged a look and snickered.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Back at the embassy in Nevada, Ironhide leaned against a wall in the war room, not looking at Optimus. “That’s a heavy sentence you handed him, Prime.”

“Yes. It is.” Prime schooled his expression carefully. It wouldn’t do to let Ironhide see him smile. 

“Sure you couldn’t take twenty years off? Forty maybe? For good behavior.”

“No.”

Ironhide spun and glared at him. “Never known you to be cruel before, Optimus. What difference would fifty years make? The Coryxii and the Auberans he killed won’t be any more dead, and an extra half-century of torment for him won’t bring them back.” 

“Did it not occur to you that my sentence upon him was the only thing that kept him alive until you could get him to Ratchet?” 

“Slag.” Ironhide shoved himself off the wall and stomped away down the corridor. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“You? You of all people want Prowl’s sentence reduced?” Ratchet was practically giggling. Ironhide wanted to blast Teletraan’s main screen to slag for all the good it would do. Fragging nosy AI. Unless it had been Optimus. Oh it had definitely been Optimus. 

PRIME!

Hehm. Ratchet is your oldest friend, he has deduced the alteration in your opinion already.

Rrrgh! Prowl’s earned his place, that’s all! 

Of course it is, Ratchet purred, backed up by giggles from Jazz and Smokescreen. 

“Getting soft in your old age, there, Hide?” Lennox was one of a very few humans who knew the full story behind Prowl’s sentence. He was also one of the few who would tease Ironhide fearlessly. 

Frag off, all of you. Ironhide stumped out to the road and transformed. Rusty, CPU-damaged, slagging… He could drive out to White Sands. They’d let him shoot up the test range until his ammo ran out. Which wouldn’t be as long as he’d like; his body hadn’t regenerated enough yet. He was craving molybdenum, too, but wasn’t about to ask Ratchet for supplements. 

I can see why you like him, Perceptor commented, meaning Ironhide, aimed at Ratchet, but like the rest of the amused byplay, on the open channel. He’s such a dear! Ratchet was probably going to short circuit something, laughing like that. 

“Oh, dearie Ironhide!” Sideswipe gibed from the mesa top. 

“Come in for a nice spot of tea, wot?” Sunstreaker offered. Ironhide transformed again and spun out both cannons. Hooting with laughter, the Twins scampered off, out of range. 

It was probably too much to hope that no one would tell Prowl. At least Prowl wouldn’t get all soppy and embarrassing about it. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

The teasing continued on and off for a handful of days, even after Prowl was out of the CR chamber, though a long, cool look from Prowl made even the Twins more circumspect. 

Ironhide threw himself into the preparations for the next sortie to Mars. They were working on getting a couple of Coalition platoons ready to join them. (Not the first humans on Mars – Skyfire had taken Stephen Hawking and his assistants and family up shortly before the physicist’s death in 2019.) Can’t a mech be wrong about someone without the whole world jumping on his head once he admits it?

You weren’t wrong, Prowl said. 

And THAT’S why, Prime tight-beamed, his sentence must remain in full. The anguish of his spark has not lessened; it is only more deeply buried, and tempered by other things. Until those other things gain ascendance, his unthinking reflex is still towards atonement. He stillfeels that his own death might somehow make up for all the others. And it won’t, it can’t.

I understand Ironhide said heavily. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Introspection was not Ironhide’s strong suit. He either knew a thing or he didn’t, liked a thing or not. He left the whys and the wherefores to Ratchet or Smokescreen. Keep telling yourself that, old mech. Maybe someday you’ll believe it. 

Though it was dawn elsewhere in the world, as the sun fell here, Optimus joined him on the mesa top, stretching into the rising breeze, taking pleasure in the movement of air masses through his body. “They’ll lay off soon, I think,” he said. “Hopefully before you blow a hole in one of them.”

“Hn.”

Trying to maintain a grump when Optimus was determined to cheer you up was useless. Prime had a way of expanding the components of his torso, then folding himself around you, making himself another layer of your armor. These days you could hear and feel the thrum of his spark all the way through, right down to your own spark, which always tried to match spins with his. Like calling to like. Bah! I'll be reciting poetry next. 

Heh. That would be something. 

Ironhide curled forward and threw him - getting under Optimus' center of gravity was easy - continuing the somersault, landing on top. Cables snapped sharply between them, Ironhide bowing as much as his unyielding body would allow, head tossing, optics fierce. Optimus rolled them over, one hand cradling Ironhide's head, the other plunging beneath Ironhide's chest armor like a talon, fine manipulators snaking from the tips of his fingers, driving right for deep wires and conduits, making Ironhide shout. Primus, sometimes it was such a relief to simply take, and be taken. 

Heat billowed and rushed through the cables, more fervid than thermal. Optimus growled and clawed the mesa top, Ironhide’s hands deep and rough in his undercarriage. If Optimus must be denied his brother, Ironhide would willingly provide an outlet. Of all ruling twins, that those two should have gone so wrong was a hard fate. They grappled and bit at each other, gouging ungentle marks in the stone. Cables hindered them now, having served the purpose of winding them up; supple, iridescent black lines whipped back into their housings, the sting only a goad to further play. 

Mouthparts clamping down on a spar of Optimus’ throat, Ironhide pushed fingertips past armor high in Optimus’ chest, past structural trusses of his underlying form, to the core and anchor of his complicated vocal system. Optimus shuddered over him, mouth wide but shocked soundless for a moment. A low, low field warp; tiny, circular strokes – core vents blew superheated steam condensed from the air, Ironhide’s other hand gripped hard the half-open edge of Optimus’ chest armor above the spark chamber, while Optimus went into Ironhide from the sides, under the arms where feeds for the cannons slipped past big plates of armor and sensitive bundles of wire. They rocked against each other, tumbling, forgetting the edge and the drop nearby, shouts echoing off the mountains; until the internal feedback, so close to his main CPU, took Optimus too far to pull back and he opened himself/his voice to the fullest till Ironhide could see the air falling over itself to bear the force of it streaming all the way out to Lake Mead and back. 

Ironhide laughed, a broad, rolling sound. Hearing Optimus roar like that felt good, a good thing to feel and hear as the last thing before the blue-white wave smashed into him, taking him down and through overload and offline. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Optimus rested atop him, not offline, but powered down, optics dim. A fathomless bloom of contentment and satisfaction spread throughout the cloud mind.

Chapter Text

2020 – September

Holding up a hand, Perceptor forestalled whatever else Professor Ramachandran was going to say. “Pardon me,” Perceptor murmured, his attention focused elsewhere. The array of sensors on his head fanned out like a multicolored, iridescent lionfish. A second later his expression changed radically. “Evacuate the campus! NOW!”

Two other universities had been attacked that month, both within the state. Professor Ramachandran slapped the nearest fire alarm and was on the phone to the university’s president directly afterward. Alarms spread from the Radiation Center across the sprawling Oregon State University campus. But the timing was such that the students were between classes, and as they were mostly outside already, few of them had any idea where to go.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Thundercracker and Skywarp were right, this was a lot of fun, Swindle admitted to himself. Jumping around in dense concentrations of fleshies was terrific for target practice, and felt kind of nice if you liked warm goo in your pedal components. Which Swindle did. He liked mud, too, come to think of it. He skated around in the mess he’d made in one of the quads, idly picking off anything that moved around the edges. Even Blastoff and Vortex were in robot mode, stomping around and giggling in a rather embarrassing fashion. Onslaught was hunting, taking the target practice bit seriously, seeing how many little screaming insects he could bag with one shot. They clumped together so nicely, it was really quite accommodating of them. 

As chance had it – and Swindle believed Chance was on his side more often than not – Swindle was looking in just the right direction at just the right time to see what happened. It saved his life. 

The beam gave off no scatter, collimated with frightening efficiency. It couldn’t be perceived from the side in the usual ranges of scanning frequencies. And perceiving it from the receiving end generally was the last thing the target did. Therefore, all Swindle saw were holes. Perfectly round, glowing at the edges, appearing in rapid succession through the chests of his three companions. The spark chambers were breached as though they were made of aluminum. It was very quiet, suddenly. The air itself vibrated in shock.

Well, the fun had to end some time. 

“Leave now and harm none,” someone said from the rooftop of the building to the south. He looked up, having already fished through his databases to pinpoint which Autobot this had to be. It was a little surprising, but no-one else had quite this kind of artillery any more. 

“Well, hi there, Perceptor,” Swindle called, waving cheerily. “Could I by any chance interest you in…” 

The power levels on the light cannon hadn’t fallen, and Swindle had no doubts about where it was aimed right now. “I guess not, huh?” The look on the Autobot’s face was interesting. Some of those goody-goodies were easy to provoke, but his data indicated this one, while gung-ho, was rarely ignitable to actual rage. A lot of the delicate-looking, presumably sensory instruments on his head were glowing. How very fascinating. Probably one little concussion grenade going off anywhere near his head would blind him, but that cannon wasn’t wavering, was, if anything, getting hotter. If he dallied too long, Perceptor would shoot him anyway. Swindle understood perfectly the human phrase, “the better part of valor,” so he scrambled out of the quad until he reached 26th Street and transformed. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Perceptor watched the wine red Cobalt speed away amid squealing tires and acrid smoke. The heat from his fury had dissipated enough to allow his sensors full range again. He kept his light cannon trained on the Decepticon until he exited the campus, and then maintained sensor contact in case Swindle doubled back. Perceptor’s vocoder made an unconscious, agonized little noise as he surveyed the campus. There were no living humans in his immediate vicinity. He ran, nimble for a bot his size, placing survey markers next to each survivor he found – the glowing tips would alert the human rescuers who were already nearly there, having been summoned soon after Perceptor had detected the attack. Warpath and Huffer were en route as well. Powerglide was tracking Swindle. 

Are you sure I can’t just pick him off? Powerglide kept wanting to know. Perceptor shook his head in irritation. 

Ask Prime. Swindle withdrew of his own free will. They both knew Prime would rather they didn’t kill the Cons unless absolutely necessary. But this incident – and the attacks on Portland State and University of Oregon, Eugene, especially if they could establish that Swindle and his friends had perpetrated those also – might prove unforgivable. Certainly the humans wanted heads, and Perceptor didn’t blame them. He was considering purging his own memory – truly an action of last resort – because the scenes of slaughter, so vividly dark with human blood, were going to haunt him forever. They never should have come to this fragile world. It wasn’t fair. 

Perceptor! 

I am unharmed, Prime. He chirped a report, though Optimus would have felt the sparks of Blastoff, Vortex and Onslaught return to the Allspark. I estimate 137 young adult humans dead. Oh Prime…

I’m sorry, Perceptor. I’m so sorry. Prime maintained a tender openness of link, not enough to distract, but a kind of baseline reassurance. Sirens approached. The rescue teams were arriving. Perceptor continued his race to find and mark the living. 

Are you all right? came distant thought-caresses from Beachcomber, Seaspray, Ratchet, Wheeljack, Skyfire and Prowl, while the Autobot cloud mind pulsed and swarmed, trying to buffer him. 

I’m fine, he replied, his harmonics rather clipped and sharp. They weren’t shooting at me. 

Don’t close up, Perce, Smokescreen reminded him gently. Let us in.

I know. So many young minds, so much potential – extinguished in less than five minutes. Perceptor couldn’t remember when he’d been this angry. Yet he held on to his anger; there was no other way to bear the searing intensity of Prowl’s empathy. Perceptor had his own coping mechanisms, but the knowledge that Prowl’s fell voice would blaze through the canyons for him tonight made him want to curl up into protoform and lock himself in stasis for a century. 

There. He had quartered the campus, and all the non-mobile survivors would be easy to find. Perceptor unlimbered a special set of tools he’d been working on. He had of course downloaded the contents of the humans’ Deep Web, including every scrap of medical information. The humans, he felt, were simply machines of a different nature. There were structural repairs that he could make – setting broken bones, ligating severed arteries, even stapling tears in the epidermis, though that last was perhaps better left until the wounds could be properly cleaned. 

He was relieving the pressure in the skull of a badly concussed young male when the paramedics caught up with him. Fortunately the university president and many of the faculty had warned them that there was a robot who was helping rather than harming. From the wary looks on the medics’ faces, not all of them believed in Perceptor’s good intentions. He backed away from the injured youth as soon as the danger of immediate damage to his brain was ameliorated. He wished there was a way he could print out the results of his own scans for each of the victims – that way treatment could begin immediately and the doctors would not have to waste valuable time in diagnostics. Later he would work on something…something small that he could carry with him, attached to his shoulder out of the way of the cannon mechanisms perhaps. As it was, he was transmitting the data to the local hospitals, matching scans with the identities of the victims as often as he could, providing still images from his optics when he couldn’t. It was all he could do. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

The next morning, Professor Ramachandran found him, sitting in a grove of trees just off campus, outside the police line. The robot’s knees were drawn up, forearms resting across their tops, face hidden behind them. The professor felt that over the past year he had gotten to know the alien scientist fairly well. Perceptor’s body might be still, but his mind would be working furiously.

“What happened was tragic, horrible,” Ramachandran said quietly, touching Perceptor’s right foot, pressing his hand flat against the warm metal. “But it would have been much worse, without you.”

Perceptor lifted his complicated head and looked down at him. “Good morning, Professor,” he said, nodding to acknowledge the sentiment.. The strange fins and horns and antennae were in motion again. Ramachandran desperately wanted to know what they were for, but Perceptor would only give tantalizing hints now and then, parceling out information at a rate the humans could integrate properly. “I’m sorry. I expect our project will have to be postponed.”

“Only for a short while,” Ramachandran said. “We will not bow to this any more than we do to bombings from our own people.”

Perceptor nodded. The light slid along his sensor arrays, silky and iridescent, as though they were feathers. “I understand.”

Chapter Text

2020 - October

Perceptor scurried about, collecting the scattered paper notes, cups and napkins left behind by the human delegates. Careless or accustomed to having others clean up after them. Sitting on the curved, variable-height bench that ran around the edge of the chamber after the meeting had adjourned, Prime rested with his elbows on his knees, seemingly lost in thought.

Not lost, though, Perceptor knew. He estimated that Prime could be inquiring of the Matrix on the current issue, sustaining at least twenty thought cascades, participating in several dozen conversations with other Autobots and at least that many with various humans. Yet for some reason, Prime’s optics were still tracking Perceptor. Completing the circuit, he cached the detritus for proper recycling later. Prime straightened but did not rise.

I’d almost forgotten, he tight-beamed, how pleasing you are to the optic sensors, Perceptor.

Glad he had nothing in his hands for surely he would have dropped it, Perceptor gaped at him. “I...you... Oh!” Prime’s transmissions rarely left any room for uncertainty. 

Mm-hmm. C’mere. Prime leaned forward again and beckoned with a forefinger, his expression intent. Perceptor’s coolant pumps kicked into high gear. He maintained enough composure to approach Prime slowly, but that didn’t last. Left to his own devices, Perceptor always waited too long to defrag – Beachcomber and Miles had been in Sri Lanka for a month. 

Unusually nimble for his mass, Perceptor leapt into Prime’s arms, wrapping himself around the massive chest and shoulders, stroking the glyphs deeply graven into Prime’s helm with certain sensory fins. Prime laughed softly and returned the nuzzle, humming into the iridescent array, mouthing the sturdier appendages. Perceptor shivered, his vocoder emitting sounds unrelated to speech in any language, optics cycling uncoordinatedly through several spectra, the iris-like shutters twitching. His chest armor jerked, trying to open though he’d forgotten to reconfigure his scope properly to allow it. Enjoying all this squirming immensely, Prime did it again.

No amount of quick and clever reallocation of static charge could save Perceptor from overload, but he regained consciousness quickly, CPU running on the raggedy edge. Prime’s hands were playing with his scope. 

Hello, beauty. Shall we try that again?

Ha. Give me a moment… Vocoder still glitching, Perceptor yet managed to shift his scope out of the way and their chests opened in unison. 

Their coronae whirled fiercely together, blue-white and a turquoise greener than Wheeljack’s – no two sparks alike and Prime savored them all. Cables slipped and slithered, the entire thoracic complement, opening their link like a newborn galaxy, glittering with coalescing ideas and the desire of ignition. It would be frighteningly easy for them to merge right here and now. It took an effort to circumvent the process, Prime had grown so accustomed to it. 

Perceptor smiled at the delightful strangeness of this new intimacy. There were so few of them on Earth, they all knew each other now, minds reaching out across the atmosphere. The thought crossed cables to Prime, gathering associations, and returned, with as full a tally as Prime could muster from the Allspark itself. So few on Earth, so few in either galaxy. Perceptor stiffened, staring into Prime's optics. So few! They were a first generation civilization, with history and legends dating back billions of years, when the first suns appeared, and now there were less than five thousand individuals left in the vast universe, including the minicons and other neutrals who had emigrated at the beginning of the war and remained hidden from the dwindling Con forces. 

We can rebuild, Prime assured him. But not in the way we imagined, and not soon. 

Perceptor huddled against him, forehelm pressed to Prime's shoulder. So few. This …this is not knowledge you have shared widely, I take it? 

No. The human John Keller also knows. 

I understand. He looked up into Prime's face again. I'm sorry. I knew our losses were terrible, but I didn't realize the full extent. 

Prime nodded, moving his thumbs slowly over Perceptor's dorsal armor. Every life is precious. Any individual that we can turn rather than kill is an asset. 

Would that the Decepticons felt the same way. 

Indeed. Prime leaned against the wall, extending one leg along the bench. Perceptor shifted, straddling Prime’s hip to keep their chests in proximity, sparks again spinning faster. 

In a moment of laser-like decision, Perceptor dropped all but the last, most basic firewalls. He had made a full accounting to Prime upon landing on Earth, and kept up a steady barrage of further progress reports, but warmed by the link and Prime’s alloyed spark, he knew this was the one being from whom nothing need be kept secret. 

The Allspark made an interested lunge at him. Optimus held on, mildly alarmed, as Perceptor's consciousness leaned at it in return, intrigued. Oh you don't fool me for a moment, you great cubey thing. You can't have existed for so long, behaving as you do, without having or acquiring some species of sapience or other. 

Optimus half expected it to answer. It's never acted like this toward anyone before, he said. Not even to Jazz. 

It could be because I contain a large part of the University’s backup archive, Perceptor confessed. I downloaded it early in the war – most of it is in the portable shards I brought with me. Always meant to build another to upload the third that’s in my head, but I'm afraid I've rather gotten used to having it. Ready to hand, so to speak. 

Aw, Perceptor. Prime thrummed, caressing him. I'm glad – that means we have lost less than I feared. But how about you and Wheeljack set up another archive here on Earth? You can copy out the data; make a couple of copies, perhaps? And stash them wherever your devious CPUs think is best. I think Teletraan and Event Horizon would like access, particularly. 

Yes, I expect they would. He hesitated, but this deep Prime could deduce his reason even if it was not explicitly stated. Optimus. Please, don’t tell Beachcomber. Let everyone think Wheeljack had that part of the archive perhaps. His workshop is so cluttered anyone would believe he could have such large shards lying about, forgotten amongst so many other projects.

If that’s what you really want. It wasn’t Prime’s policy to get involved with domestic matters. He also understood the risk to Perceptor should the Decepticons find out how much was really stuffed in the mech’s cores. If he was ever captured, Perceptor would be taken apart quark by quark. Optimus held him close. 

For now. He pushed himself upward for a kiss, sensory array waving languidly. While we’re on the subject of secrets; I've been thinking. The fundamental theories of space bridge technology have no upper limits regarding the mass of the object or objects to be transported. Mass itself is a negligible quantity in all the equations, the limiting factor is actually— 

Perceptor. The room was heating up with their sparks exposed for so long – it felt good but Ratchet was going to complain about the level of scrubbing they’d need to do to make the place habitable for humans again. 

Right. Sorry. What I mean to say is that it should be possible to move Cybertron. There is a suitably barren trinary star system very close to Sol; I have already prepared preliminary calculations and I believe Cybertron's existing inertia can be used for orbital insertion, thus saving a considerable expenditure of energy on— 

This isn't going to break the universe, is it? Prime’s CPU was reeling but he rode it out. It was a common enough feeling when dealing with Perceptor.

The rumors about that particular device were entirely unfounded! As I have explained to Wheeljack and others on at least 735 separate occasions… 

Just checking. 

Perceptor laughed. However I must emphasize that we would need to implement this plan within 12,957 years. Based on Cybertron's current trajectory, taking into consideration the close pass to Qu'i Proxima IV, assuming the Qu'ians refrain from launching planet-buster class warheads, our homeworld will move beyond the accepted limits of our galaxy, making travel to and from there somewhat more problematic than currently appertains, as there are no known stable wormholes in that vicinity, and certainly there are no space bridges. Unless Shockwave has succeeded in repairing one of those on the planet itself, which is highly doubtful since we would certainly have gotten word of such an event from one source or another. 

Indeed. Prime neglected to mention that he knew Shockwave had in fact nearly succeeded in that endeavor - but that Elita's group had sabotaged both the bridge and Shockwave's lab, setting centuries of work at naught. The fewer who even knew Elita was still functional the better, and Perceptor already carried more than his share of volatile data. I'm only asking out of curiosity, since I know you already have everything worked out; but how do you intend to power this massive space bridge of yours? 

Yes. Before it leaves our galaxy, Cybertron will conveniently encounter five stars suitable for nova induction and energy harvest - we would only need three, actually, but it doesn't hurt to have secondary contingency plans. In any case, all the stars in question have only rudimentary planetary disks or unquestionably lifeless planets, and none are currently being used by any other civilization for energy or other resources. We would of course do further surveys to make certain. How many... that is, do you have any ...feel... for how many deep-Seekers there might be left? 

Mmm. Silverbolt doesn't count since he's part of a gestalt. I'm not sure, but I think there are a few, besides Skyfire and Borealis. Less than seven would be my guess, of any faction. 

Silverbolt's still alive! 

He is, and his team. 

Good! Perceptor pressed for no more detail than that, sensing the covert nature of the aerial gestalt's overall mission. So. What do you think? He wriggled on Optimus’ lap.

Really, Perceptor, it’s not like you to concoct such a conventional plan. Moving an entire planet, plus moons. You must be losing your touch.

Perceptor laughed again, though his vocoder hitched, their sparks throbbing and his body not much longer able to contain the ache. He swayed as though suspended from Optimus’ fingers delicately playing in his fins and plumes, little shocks racing over their armor. Caught in the torrent, they let go this time, sheet lightning and electric hail, crashing collapsing in string-twined symmetry released into the blessed dark. 



He came online sprawled against Optimus’ chest, Prime’s big hands moving gently, soothingly over his body. 

I don’t know what I’d do without you, Perceptor. Every choice I’ve made since the beginning of the war has gone amiss. I’ve led us from one existential disaster to another. I’m glad you’re here to offer us hope unimagined. 

Nonsense! Stuff! Perceptor’s body stirred sluggishly as he rebooted several systems twice. That there are any of us left alive to hope is because of you. Prowl has run some interesting, if horrifying, simulations. If Megatron had had his way unopposed he would have been the death of us entirely, in addition to a dismaying number of other species. To speculate that he might have destroyed the universe is not, I fear, much of an overstatement. If they were still accessible, I’d have a few choice words with whomever designed and built him. 

I bet you would at that.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Sam and Mikaela were up at the Oregon base, visiting Miles, and Dani was going through a phase where she didn't want to watch anything except Babe. Over and over and over. "Baa Ram Ewe!" she recited. "To your breed, your fleece, your lamb be true, sheep be true. Baa Ram Ewe." Her speech, at nearly one year old, wasn’t that clear; but she was advanced for her age and had the rhythm of it. 

Perceptor halted in mid-stride, optics widening then narrowing to pinpoints. "Sheep be true," he murmured. "Be true. Spark be true." 

Grabbing his hand, Beachcomber pulled him close. What are you remembering? 

Perceptor looked at him, refocusing his optics. "Hm? Oh, nothing. I merely noted it is an odd turn of phrase." 

“It isn’t that,” Beachcomber said. “Why won’t you tell me?”

“There’s nothing to be gained in discussing it when you’re already angry,” Perceptor said, resuming his path toward the laboratory. Beachcomber refused to release his hand and he stopped. 

“I’m not angry. I just wish you’d…tell me things sometimes. Instead of trying to spare me one more modicum of pain. And then one more, and another, until you’ve stored up so many things you won’t tell me that—”

“Very well!” Perceptor snapped. He shuttered his optics, calming himself. “I am sorry.” He knelt and embraced Beachcomber tenderly for a long time.

“You’re still not going to tell me, are you,” Beachcomber said.

“Then you truly would be angry with me.”

“Perceptor.”

"I remember the winds and quakes; and then the morning that never came, when we knew there would only be night for us forever. I remember the terror sweeping across the planet like a firestorm, unstoppable, rising so sharp and hard it would have broken all of us. Until Prime stopped it. Isn’t that more than enough?”

Beachcomber shuddered. He knew then his old suspicions were correct. Perceptor remembered almost nothing from before the war. “Why do you have two memory cores?” 

“To make myself ever so much cleverer, of course. Like everyone says.” 

“At least tell me why you won’t tell me.”

“Because you and Flare retrieved my backups.” 

“You remember Flare?” 

“And that Flare became Red Alert,” Perceptor said with some satisfaction. 

“That happened later,” Beachcomber said absently. “So you think because we went to all that trouble we’d be angry at you for losing... Infusion said there weren’t any personal memories on those backups anyway. Do you remember that?”

“...Oh.” 

“Oh, Perceptor.”

Perceptor laughed. But he kept laughing, and the laughter grew strange. Beachcomber watched in alarm, grasping his friend’s shoulders. Seeing the worry in Beachcomber’s expression, Perceptor controlled himself. “You know, it really is appalling the things I am unable to keep from you.” He leaned in and kissed Beachcomber for a long moment then stood, briskly resuming his original course.

“It isn’t what you won’t say, it’s that you won’t say it,” Beachcomber whispered, transforming and rolling for the forest with an uncharacteristic screech of tires. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

“Good heavens, Streetwise, what happened to you?” Tracks was on his way – finally – out of the bath when he passed an exhausted and filthy Streetwise on his way in. 

“I fell in the La Brea tar pits.”

“The—you did not, they’re enclosed. You can’t fall in them!”

“Yes but it’s funnier to tell it that way,” Streetwise countered, grinning. Wildfires seethed across southern California, though the long summer was at last waning. The Protectobots had been helping to contain the largest blaze when Streetwise had had an unfortunate encounter with a section of freeway that had melted in the heat. 

“All right. You’re certainly covered with tar. And gravel. And…do you want help scrubbing?” 

“I’d appreciate it, yeah,” Streetwise said, almost stumbling with relief. 

“Mmhmm.” Tracks caught him anyway and kept an arm around his waist as they walked down the ramp into the hot oil. “The sooner we get you cleaned up the sooner you can recharge with your brothers. Where’s that solvent…aha!” 

The organic solvent Perceptor had come up with was amazingly effective even on ground-in tar, (Streetwise had had his personal shielding down in order to enjoy the feel of the flames tickling his armor) but it nevertheless took the better part of an hour to get it and the attendant gravel and other debris off. Tracks was more or less holding him up, Streetwise’s head resting on his shoulder. 

“Mmmm. That’s nice,” Streetwise murmured as Tracks used a large dipper to sluice oil across his shoulders. He nuzzled the elegant line of Tracks’ jaw. Nuzzling became delicate kissing. Tracks kissed back. 

Streetwise’s engine roared and he roused himself to embrace Tracks fervently, his mouth roving hungrily over Tracks’ face and neck. 

“Easy there,” Tracks said, nevertheless leaning into the caresses. “You and Oratorio are determined to make yourselves irresistible, I see.” 

Oh, Tracks, Streetwise whispered. Oratorio was right. You’re so lovely. You feel good, you smell good, the purr of your voice, the rumble of your engine…

Tracks laughed, but hugged him. I appreciate the assessment. I was designed and built to exacting aesthetic standards, after all. I’m not surprised you and Oratorio have the highly evolved refinement necessary to discern that. Streetwise was clearly giddy and low on fuel. Getting him to overload and thus to recharge wasn’t a bad idea. Tracks slipped his hands down Streetwise’s body, touching him just so, here and there, pressing firmly or brushing so lightly it seemed hardly to register. 

Towers mechs knew things, or so Jazz had said. Streetwise was beginning to understand what he’d meant. He’d been wildly overclocked before, but something about the way Tracks was touching him smoothed out all the raw edges, bringing him higher while easing away the frenetic reeling of his CPU. If it weren’t for the buzz of static throughout his frame he might easily slip right into recharge.

Show me, he said, mumbling even in tight-beam. See your spark, please? See the part of you that made me? He petted Tracks’ chest in entreaty. 

Tracks arched into the touch, then kissed Streetwise’s forehelm, hesitating. Slowly, he unsealed his spark chamber, parting the armor and substructures millimeter by millimeter. The flare of Streetwise’s fields at the sight made Tracks tremble.

Streetwise opened his chest eagerly, but with a twinge of trepidation. What if the parent spark wanted its sparkmatter back? But no such thing occurred. Tracks moaned and pulled him closer.

The two sparks pulsed in unison – hello! hello! I know you, you know me! – and swept them up and up, laughing into overload.



Knowing Streetwise was going to be out for the rest of the recharge cycle, Tracks maneuvered and carried him into the recharge bay piggyback, wondering if he and his progeny had just done something irrevocable. Wondering if it was only because they were on Earth that he even thought such a thing.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Teletraan and Event Horizon rezzed a spherical chamber the soothing blue of twilight and dimmed optics. Every Autobot on (or above) the planet (including the AIs, who, unburdened by bodies, were there to observe their friends and comrades rather than participate; and also including Atrandom, Bumblebee and Wheeljack’s recently decanted progeny, who had not yet been through integration) manifested an avatar, floating in the bubble-like hollows arrayed geometrically around the chamber’s inner surface. 

Hound at first used his human holo, until Mirage privately suggested that under the circumstances, it might be better if he resumed his usual Cybertronian aspect. Embarrassed, Hound complied. Mirage floated his avatar over and kissed him on the cheek spar before resuming his place in the next bubble over. 

Prime: Thank you all for your attention. I wish to make it clear from the beginning that no-one has done anything wrong. We are here to determine what, if any, should be the accepted guidelines of conduct in this matter. We are faced with an entirely new situation and input from everyone is more than welcome. 
Ironhide: Knew this mucking about with sparks was only going to lead to trouble.
Perceptor: The alternative – barring a decision to allow ourselves to become extinct – is to rely solely on Prime as a conduit for the Allspark. Do you prefer that?
Bolo: I don’t mind it, myself, but it is terribly hard on Prime.
Ratchet: Despite what Skyfire thinks, too much of that might kill him, burn away everything that makes him Optimus and leave him only that conduit. I have no desire to merge again myself, but I see no reason to keep others from doing so.
Warpath: Slag, why can't the Decepticons attack at a convenient time for once? 
Trailbreaker: You could always send Starscream another holo of his Princess mode. 
Windcharger: Or Galvatron a holo of those kissing dolls Epps gave them. 
Hound: Wonder what happened to those anyway. 
Mirage: They were probably incinerated. 
Jazz: Maybe, but I saw 'em dangling from Long Haul's cab mirror, couple weeks after they were "delivered". 
Cliffjumper: Bwahahahaha! That's awesome! 
Ratchet: Pipe down you scraplets, this is serious. 
Jazz: Want me to break out the Robert's Rules? 
Perceptor: Or Procedurus' Proceedings. 
Mirage: Oh dear. 
Oratorio: Whoa, alliteration city. Is it really called that, Perceptor? 
Perceptor: It isn't quite so alliterative in Cybertronian. The name "Procedurus" is of course an approximation... 
Sideswipe, Sunstreaker, Cliffjumper, Huffer, Powerglide: Oh Primus, don't let him get started. 
Bumblebee: [aside to Borealis] Are you feeling weird about this?
Borealis: Not r… Yes, a little. Or, it’s more that I feel like I should be feeling weird about this. It’s hard to explain. 
Bumblebee: [tight-beamed] Would you shag Prime or Ratchet?
Borealis: [tight-beamed] DAH! No! …Uh.
Bumblebee: [tight-beamed] Heh, that sounded rather reflexive. So if Ratchet, say, and you were trapped on a desert island and Ratchet for some reason couldn’t overload himself, but his CPU absolutely had to be defragged or he couldn’t figure out a way off the island – would you…help him?
Borealis: [tight-beamed] I dispute the question. That’s completely ridiculous. I can fly, Bee.
Bumblebee: [tight-beamed]What if you were too damaged? Stranger things have happened. 
Borealis: [tight-beamed] Urgh!
Perceptor: I wish to remind everyone that this was done by the Firstforged. They must have enacted a workable system.
Hoist: Yes, but what was it? And why did they stop merging and erase the knowledge of it?
Skyfire: Do we have any records of that time?
Perceptor: No. 
Skyfire: And the direct memories of the Matrix only go back to the first Prime, is that correct?
Prime: Yes. The ruling diad was not enacted until some time after other spacefaring species appeared in our galaxy. 
Seaspray: Then we’re making up our own rules as we go along. What’s wrong with that? 
Railspike: Nothing, youngster. It’s just kinda hard to figure out what the right track is when there’re no signs. 
Evac: We don’t have DNA, though I guess nanocell code can get scrambled. [looks at Prowl] Is there any actual, physical harm in merging “related” sparks? 
First Aid: Since no-one’s done that, we don’t know for certain, but Ratchet and I don’t think there is. “Inbreeding” doesn’t seem to be an issue, or possible. Each spark chooses its own threads, or strings, to a certain extent, though there appears to be influence by the intention of the donor sparks/mechs which is difficult to quantify. 
Evac: So we lack the presumptive basis for an equivalent to the humans’ incest taboo. 
Ironhide: Interface isn’t even sexual. It has nothing to do with reproduction. Why are we even including that in the discussion?
Mirage: Because it is seen by our resident humans to be physically intimate on par with sexual relations and courtship rituals among humans.
Sideswipe: Yeah, even with only cables, we look like we’re jerking each other off. Unf! Unf!
Sunstreaker: [leering] Hey, baby, can I get a jump?
Perceptor: To be clear, societal views of incest and biological inbreeding are not the same. Most anthropologists and sociologists among humans believe that nuclear family incest avoidance can be explained in terms of the ecological, demographic, and economic benefits of exogamy.
Mirage: Oh, I see! They form alliances between families and clans that way.
Perceptor: Which is mutually beneficial and of socially evolutionary advantage. 
Groove: Then Tracks and Streetwise snuggling wasn’t even incest, technically.
Jazz: Technically no, but common perceptions might be different. 
Prime: How do you new people feel about it?
Brawn: Oh for Primus’ sake, they’re only a year old. 
Bumblebee: That doesn’t mean they can’t have an opinion. Or several. And Borealis and Oratorio are older than that. 
Atrandom: [props her feet on an imaginary table] I’m only a few months out of the tank and I have lots of opinions. Wanna hear?
Bumblebee: [tight-beamed] Do they have to do with the current subject?
Atrandom: [tight-beamed] Ummmm. Nope.
Bumblebee: [tight-beamed] Then would you like to tell me and Wheeljack about them later?
Atrandom: [tight-beamed] Sure!
Hot Spot: We…don’t really see how it’s much different from twins interfacing, spark-to-spark or otherwise. And nobody’s told Sunstreaker and Sideswipe they couldn’t merge if they wanted to. 
Huffer: Primus preserve us!
Sunstreaker: Oh relax, you old manifold. We don’t even want to.
Sideswipe: So, up your converter.
Grapple: That’s a good point, Hot Spot. No-one has communicated anything of the kind. 
Ratchet: Perhaps we should have at least thought about it, though. 
Hoist: One thing I have noticed, now that there are more than two new people here, is an increased feeling of protectiveness toward the progeny.
Prowl: Agreed. I would add that the feeling appears to run at equal strength in both directions. Not unlike what we’ve seen in twins and gestalts for our entire history. 
Mirage: And we have always been protective of the very young, no matter how competent they are programmed to be. We have always recognized the importance of experience. 
Beachcomber: Yes!
Tracks: Are we then even debating this because of the way we’ve adapted to living among humans?
Cliffjumper: You would think that, Tracks.
Hound: Liking humans isn’t a crime.
Cliffjumper: Didn’t say it was. 
Jazz: That’s just it, Tracks. We are here, on their planet, and we’ve made an effort to obey their laws. I’m not saying we should change everything – that would be a drag – but it doesn’t hurt to think about the implications, not just for us, but for them as well. Think we can keep Sam and Kaela and Maggie and Glen from figuring stuff out?
Mirage: Perhaps Glen. He pays attention to little that isn’t Maggie or in VR. 
Red Alert: If we go about our liaisons blatantly – any of them, for there are few of us the humans deem “female” – then we risk repercussions from the segments of their cultures that frown upon copulation outside of marriage. I need not remind you how badly we are outnumbered. 
Bumblebee: That’s true enough as far as it goes, but we’re getting a little off course. I thought we were trying to decide for ourselves whether interface and/or spark merging between progenitor and progeny, or progeny from the same progenitor—
Atrandom: [quietly] Which means everyone except me – ha ha!
Bumblebee: —constitutes something we want to disallow. Or at least be cautious about. Jazz and Mirage and I, and yes, Tracks and Hound, can work on our PR with the humans afterwards. 
Prime: Agreed. 

A great deal more debate ensued, in which each and every mech voiced their thoughts and opinions and argued and joked and squabbled and disagreed and agreed to disagree and digressed and were brought back to the point and the observations of the AIs were consulted as well, for Optimus valued their dispassion.

Hoist: So. The consensus seems to be that actual merges should be considered carefully ahead of time, with any future progeny of in-merges monitored carefully by Ratchet or another fully-certified medical officer, and that any other intimate activity is left to the discretion of the mechs involved.
Jazz: Shall we call for a vote?
Groove: Oooh! Can it be a secret vote?
Gears: How would we even do that? We’re all right here. 
Streetwise: There’s always that black and white pebble thing.
Ratchet: All in favor indicate “Aye”.
[The vote is unanimous until they get to]
Sideswipe: [smirking] Nay!
[In the physical world, Sideswipe is jumped on by every mech at the embassy except Prime, Red Alert and Prowl.]
Sideswipe: I’m kidding! I’m kidding! Slag! Aye! Uncle!

Chapter Text

2020 – December

Mikaela came into the hangar, singing softly and grinning, carrying a parcel that rustled interestingly. “I like big bots and I cannot lie/You other girls can’t deny/When a bot walks in with a shiny interface/And a drive shaft in your face/You get SPRUNG!”

“Well hello and thank you,” Jazz said. Mikaela laughed.

“Hey, Jazz! Is Prime around?”

“Man, they always like the tall ones. Yeah, he’s in his office.”

“Aww. You know you’re sexy and don’t you guys keep telling us size doesn’t matter?”

“Sure, but you can’t make butter with a toothpick, know what I’m saying?”

Mikaela was glad she hadn’t been drinking anything and decided she didn’t want to know where he’d picked that one up. 

In the war room, Prime was leaning with his hands on the edge of the holo table, staring intently at a flickering series of images, sweeping by too quickly for Mikaela to make any sense of. She hesitated at the doorway, not wanting to distract the Autobot leader from whatever galactic events he was evidently monitoring right at the moment. 

“Mikaela,” Prime said, his voice modulated so as not to startle her. “Please come in.”

“I can come back later,” she said. 

Prime stood up straight and stilled the holo display. Stepping around the table he knelt and gestured for her to proceed. 

She opened her package. “It’s that time.”

“So I see.” He didn’t say “already?” or “again?” – he was too polite to mention how swiftly Earth’s seasons passed for his kind. He simply lowered a hand for her to step into. “Where would you like to put it this year?”

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}> 

“Nice placement,” Sam said, looking up, impressed. “Very well hung.”

“Yep,” Mikaela said, leaning on his shoulder. “Wanna try it out?”

“Wild Decepticons couldn’t keep me away.”

Things were just getting good when they were interrupted by Brawn in full grumpy mode. 

“Oh come on,” the doughty mech said, putting his hands on his non-existent hips. “What’s that doing up there? You’re not going to keep cluttering up our nice clean base with your terrestrial life forms are you?” 

Jazz appeared out of the stem corridor just then. “Naughty! Nice work, Mikaela.” He sauntered over to admire the green tuft dotted with white berries. “Ah, now, you know the tradition, Brawn, c’mere!” He snagged Brawn’s arm, pulling him directly underneath.

This was slightly hazardous, given Brawn’s strength, so Sam and Mikaela hastily scurried out of range as Brawn sputtered in outraged protest.

“Let go, you slagging… CPU-fried… overclocked little… mmph!”

Funnily enough, though, he let himself be spun about and dipped over Jazz’s extended leg, kissed soundly with a scrape and clatter of metal, and released again with another spin in classic Astaire style. 

“As you were,” Jazz said, waving at the humans before transforming and heading out, whistling a jaunty tune. 

“Gah!” Brawn said, wiping his mouth and stomping away. He glanced back, though, and smirked at the direction Jazz had taken. 

Sam and Mikaela watched his retreating back. “This is only the beginning,” Mikaela said after a while, grinning.

“Oh boy,” said Sam.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

The trick to optimal – and Mikaela forgave herself this particular pun – mistletoe placement, was to find a place, preferably narrowish, like a hallway, where the traffic wasn’t too heavy, causing pile-ups, or too light, such that no one found themselves underneath with no one else in sight. The entrance to the first and largest room of the med-bay seemed to be ideal. Abutting as it did the hangar, nearly everyone passed by, and could ostensibly avoid it if they wished, but could just as easily come under the influence of a perhaps silly but ancient and well-meaning human superstition. Mikaela and Prime had performed this tradition every year from the first the hangar had been excavated, hanging the beribboned clump in a different place each time.

Sunny and Sides contrived to head that way quite often. Jazz seemed to catch just about everyone there at one time or another, as did Ratchet. Hound and Mirage bumped into each other genuinely by accident, but complied with tradition with no ascertainable hesitation. Ironhide protested loudly but submitted to Ratchet, Skyfire and then Jazz in succession.

One morning Bumblebee caught Prowl’s hand as they passed each other, and pointed upward to remind him. They were still kissing when Prime passed through from the stem corridor to the smaller one leading to his office. Prime kept going, making no comment as he went through the doorway, but they were still kissing when he leaned back just enough to allow one optic a view past the arch. Prime hummed tunelessly as he processed the latest mega-batch of email.

Maggie was the first to catch Prime himself that year. He tried to explain that he honestly hadn’t been avoiding the spot, but simply hadn’t been there when anyone else was, too. No one believed him except Bumblebee. She had been looking for Ratchet and happened to glance upward when she didn’t find him in the med-bay. “Is that what I think it is?” she asked Prime, who emerged from his office to ask her if he could be of any assistance.

“Mistletoe,” Prime said, rather pleased. “Yes, it is.”

Maggie looked up – and up – at him. “Oh my,” she said, nevertheless grinning from ear to ear. Nothing loath, Prime folded himself down so she could reach, and Maggie found herself face to face with a face as big as she was. She placed her hands on either side of his nose and kissed him soundly right on the tip. “MWAH!” she said, for emphasis, laughing as she let go and he stood. She could have sworn his optical shutters winked as he withdrew, back into the war room. She continued her search for Ratchet, but inside she was squealing like any teenaged fangirl.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

During the course of cleaning and arranging and decorating and stocking provisions for the Cybertronian Embassy’s annual Winter Holiday party, Sam or Mikaela turned their backs for just a moment, and Dani, as toddlers are wont to do, toddled off at a surprising speed directly for the corridor leading to the oil bath. 

Most of the embassy was childproofed, if only by dint of the equipment being at least ten feet off the ground or higher. Power conduits tended to run through the walls or come down from the camouflaged solar collectors in the mountains to the north. The computer area and the entertainment equipment in the human-scaled section had had to be rearranged and cleaned up, but that was about it. Red Alert's systems were already keyed to detect even so small a presence in any given chamber or hall. 

Cavernous spaces and booming voices and even the thump of huge footsteps through the floor were ordinary things. The grooved, sloping ramp and the splashing sounds and the bright, moving reflections on the walls and the heavy yet somehow comforting scent and the heat rising up through the air drew her with their newness. Here was a place she hadn't been before, even with Mama or Dada. 

Tracks and Smokescreen hastily submerged themselves, so as not to present an enticement, as Dani came around the curve beyond the control room. She kept near the wall and thus avoided the slick central path where the oil drained off emerging mechs. She tottered fearlessly to the pool's edge, looking up at the star-like lights, and out at their reflections in the dark, rippling surface. The heat this close, and the now-overwhelming smell made her wrinkle her nose. She shook her little dark head no and turned around, starting back up the ramp, only then noticing Jazz a short distance behind her. 

"Dass!" she said, and held up her arms. 

"You got it, sweets," he said and picked her up, settling her into the modified - i.e. padded - cache in his forearm. 

Mikaela met them at the entrance to the corridor. Sam had had a bad moment when he realized Dani was no longer in the bouncy chair where he'd left her, but Bee was calming him. Mikaela had discovered that she, like her own mother, was far from the overprotective type. Sam more than made up for it, but Mikaela found that she trusted the robots completely. Maybe more than she trusted herself. A better cadre of governesses and nursemaids she couldn't imagine. Bumblebee, Ratchet, First Aid and Perceptor would even change diapers, and if that wasn't above and beyond, she didn't know what was. Dani waved to her from the best high-chair ever. 

"She can stay with me," Jazz said. 

"Until she gets hungry or needs changing," Mikaela agreed. 

"You betcha." 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

It wasn’t called the Winter Holiday party merely to be PC. Everything Prime did in the diplomatic arena had more than one reason and generally several. Cybertron had had no seasons, its axis having been sensibly exactly perpendicular to the ecliptic, except for conventions such as Turbofox Hunting Season or Forging Season or Rustlet Season, Cybertronians as a whole tending to be very organized about their natural phenomena. Earth’s seasons were therefore interesting and provided the minimal excuse Autobots liked for a nice big shindig. 

Teletraan organized the festivities, including the international guest list; expediting the security concerns of official personages; even requisitioning the refreshments for both species and working out the logistics of a hyper-efficient coat check. Most of the Earth’s Autobots would be there, and the groups that weren’t, like the Build Team and the Bullet Trains, would be teleconferencing the event with annex parties of their own. 

As the wan December sun set, shading the light dusting of snow a vivid pink, the guests began to arrive, bused in, limo’d, or flown, via their own vehicles or with Autobot friends. The access road between the hangar entrance and Wheeljack’s thoroughly locked and shielded workshop had become a parking lot. 

Dress for humans was everything from business casual to ritz and glitz, and the Autobots had put a high gloss on their armor. There was plenty of bright purple high-grade and chartreuse ultra-high-grade to go around, and Ratchet, unbeknownst to anyone but Prime until much later, had tampered somehow with the alcohol. No matter how much one drank, no individual’s blood alcohol level would exceed that which gave to the average drinker a nice, mild buzz. 

A water fountain – mercury fumes being poisonous to humans – had been set up in the center of the hangar. Designed and built by Grapple of local stone, the ancient Cybertronian style didn’t deter guests from various desert regions, New World and Old, from claiming artistic influence of their cultures upon the strangely graceful curves and angles. Grapple made no effort to dissuade them, merely noting how the mathematics of beauty seemed to move nearly all intelligent species in similar ways. (Except the Skuxxix, who were said to have no sense of aesthetics whatsoever; a trait of such rarity the Skuxxix took pride in it.) 

Oratorio set up a dance floor in one corner, partitioned by a not quite fabric mesh curtain wall. The floor itself was a giant species of OLED screen, or an equivalent, with mostly abstract visualizations that moved in time with the music, but sometimes switched to dizzying and hyper-real depictions of star fields or the Earth swooping away from beneath the dancers’ feet, or endless grassy meadows dotted with flowers, or pristine snow with sunlight or moonlight striking rainbows off the snow crystals. The speakers were peculiar, facing inward, and configured in such a way that everyone within the enclosure and on the dance floor could hear the music perfectly – nice and loud but crystal clear. Yet the moment one moved past the entry, the music suddenly became faint, as though barely heard from a block away. There was something of a traffic jam at the entrance for a while as everyone played with the effect. 

“I don’t know how he does it,” Keller said to his wife, Lucia, watching as Prime folded himself up (or down, rather) in order to speak with the Queen of the Netherlands, who had distinguished herself leading humanitarian efforts around the world – not to mention charming the figurative socks off the Protectobots, with whom she had worked closely of late. Prime of course spoke flawless Dutch. “On anyone else that position would look ridiculous. He just looks more like a samurai.” 

“If you tried to do that, hon,” Lucia said, affectionately patting his arm, “you’d never get up again without help.”

“You’re right,” Keller admitted, nodding. “Bobby Epps told me they have eternally self-lubricating joints. Wish mine were like that.” 

“Mine, too,” Lucia agreed.

The Twins and Atrandom went by on their way outside, caroling, “God rest ye, merry Autobots,” followed by a gaggle of giggling younger humans, with the aim of singing to the stars. It was a beautiful night. Up on the mesa top, Hound had a bonfire hologram going around a Cybertronian portable heater. The illusion was very convincing; Hound’s foglets providing even the scent of burning oak and holly with hints of cedar and sandalwood and palo santo. Skyfire and Borealis sat to either side like winged sphinxes – light and dark, day and night – and Yasmina, escaping the crowds below with Beachcomber, was reminded of both ancient legends and The NeverEnding Story. These sphinxes could shoot lasers all right but not from their eyes. 

“Heya, Hound. Yasmina, Beachcomber, Skyfire, Lissi,” Glen said, following Maggie up topside. Normally Glen would have been packing to leave for his cousins’ place in the old DC neighborhood, but five months ago his cousins had been killed in a Decepticon attack. Now Maggie and the Autobots were his only family.

Hound, already seated facing the “fire”, held out his arms and the humans climbed into his lap. Beachcomber, reclining against Skyfire’s foot, waved at them and smiled. Yasmina, reclining against Beachcomber’s side, did the same. 

Midnight ticked closer. The two sphinx-jets, like gatekeepers between worlds, watched the stars, keyed to the exact moment of the solstice, feeling the geometry in the flux of gravitational fields. “Now,” they murmured, as the Earth in its orbit passed through the exact point on the arc where the tilt of its northern axis was the most inclined away from the sun. 

“Happy Holidays, everyone,” Maggie said softly, raising her mug of hot cider, sipping amid the multi-voiced replies.

Chapter Text

2023 – February

Strake clawed his way back online. Every system was running on minimum; his body felt hot and brittle, fuel lines slack within his heavy limbs, darkened energon sluggish and thick. 

The lightless cave was damp and the weight of stone above him, pressing his shoulders, had not shifted. Checking his chronometer, he found that only a handful of voors had passed since he'd fallen into stasis. Strake hated stasis. Too much could change too quickly and you onlined at the wrong end of the pecking order. If you onlined at all. There were rumors about whether Hook’s stasis trays were really that unreliable, or if some mechs ended up in clandestine experiments. 

He couldn't turn or move forward. Thrashing, his sharp armor gouging the rock, he fought backward with energy reserves he couldn't afford to squander. Sunlight. He needed to get out into the air and let this boring little star replenish him. His legs kicked out into the waterfall that hid this cave. The force of the torrent had little effect, but his hands were weak, scrabbling ineffectually at the slippery rock, and his own weight pulled him over the edge. He was too depleted to transform. 

Fortunately, the pool beneath the falls was deep and contained no problematic sharp rocks. The water, by no means cold, boiled around him, cooling his overheated frame only slightly. No, he thought, sinking to the bottom. He had to get out or he'd be another who knows how many voors in stasis again, covered in the green filth that teemed beneath the surface. 

By the time he reached the shore it was all he could do to cling to the rocks near the pool's outlet, fading in and out of consciousness. Water had sluiced into the remaining, slowly healing rent in his armor. Nothing vital had shorted, but it was a disconcerting feeling. Sunlight pounded him, more fiercely than the water, slowly refilling his reserves. More green shimmered and waved and flickered before his optics. Gaudy planet, sporting and spouting and sprouting in weird extravagances of color and reek and raucous sound. He shut down his optics, conserving power.

He was exposed, though, and as soon as he was able, he crawled beneath the shelter of the jungle. This instinct to hide made him angry. Hone hadn't done anything improper, he'd merely been too close to Galvatron at a bad time, and hadn't dodged quickly enough. Yet, with Skyquake fled, Strake knew he couldn't return to the other Decepticons in this system - they would treat him as a deserter. Trines were always sentenced and executed as one. 

Orns passed, both fleeting and interminable. Recharge claimed him most of the time and he wished he had a better hiding place, though he wondered if anyone had come looking for him at all. Certainly Skyquake hadn't. Three thousand vorns together, discarded as if it meant nothing. Strake wanted to scour this island with fire and lightning until there was nothing left but molten stone.

He searched for sign of his former compatriots, opening both common and highly encrypted channels. It was risky – Soundwave could tell who was listening and could be counted on to report immediately to Galvatron. 

Over the personal trine frequency was nothing but silence, or the echoes of his own thoughts. He erased that frequency's tag, trembling. There was only a small amount of Seeker comm, and that was distant and subdued, stealthed. Where was everyone else? It took nearly an orn, between bouts of helpless recharge, but as he pried his way gingerly onto the planetary network, he found reference after reference to the Decepticons. 

Galvatron had promised them an easy conquest, and now they'd been pushed back to the fourth planet. Everything was going wrong. The Autobots were supposed to be all but vanquished! How had this happened? 

Three small towns, villages really, lay within his limited range, whose signals were not cut off completely by the mountainous terrain. He listened to their radio and satellite internet chatter. Much of it was incomprehensible at first. Strake had been built for battle, shortly after the civil war had started. He had no first-contact programming, and his experience was geared toward destroying other cultures, not studying them. 

The humans' revolting eating, mating and recharge practices seemed to take up most of their time. No better than the animals they kept as food or pets, he thought. Yet over the orns he lay in the jungle, he noticed things about them. They laughed and fought and complained and were lazy and stupid and cruel; and they loved and hated and defended their young and created crude artforms and told each other stories. 

Best not to forget, as well, that one of these insects – albeit with an unprecedented object to hand – had singly laid Megatron low. Their ground-to-air missiles were not to be trifled with. Strake could attest to that personally from previous encounters, though it had been Ironhide who had damaged him so badly this time. (No shame in that, Strake assured himself. Ironhide had been a warrior, too, even before.) 

By the time he could fly again, attain escape velocity again, he had learned that his landing site was in the eastern half of Papua New Guinea. That the remaining Seeker eyries were in the Andes, the Alps, and the command trine with their two sub-wings in the Himalayas. He knew the histories of the human cultures that lived near those places, brief as they were, and had a broad understanding of the rocky-planet geological forces that had shaped the mountains. He could speak, if it became convenient, the most broadly-used human languages. He knew the names, both what they called “real” and the online computer “usernames” of everyone in the three villages.

It took four tries before his engines started properly. Transformation had been agonizing and slow. Once airborne, he fought to reach the Earth-Sun L1point, where he could rest again, enjoying full exposure to solar rays, though he had to dodge a couple of helio-observatory satellites there. He kept his systems on standby, hoping to avoid the notice of the Autobot deep-Seekers. He couldn’t stay there long. He needed to decide what he was going to do. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

There were three active Seeker eyries left on Earth. Two in the largest mountain ranges on the largest land mass, one in the mountains of the south-western continent. Not caring what the humans named these ranges, the nine trines had nevertheless chosen iconic peaks the filthy insects were hesitant to bomb into rubble. Their shielding was more than adequate against anything but nukes, and possibly Perceptor. The other seventeen surviving trines had gone with Galvatron to Mars, setting up eyries on a spectacular volcano, rather pleased with themselves. 

Thundercracker circled the eastern eyrie. The tallest non-submerged peak on this planet was puny compared to the Martian volcano, but the weather was more interesting, which made Skywarp happy. Storm-surfing gave him something to do when they weren't engaged in battle, which made Thundercracker happy. 

"What took you so long?" was Starscream's greeting as Thundercracker landed. 

"Had a run-in with that new deep-Seeker." He allowed Starscream to stroke his wings, then followed his commander inside to the central chamber. "He's definitely that dark jet Galvatron shot down." The one they didn't have a name for, which still bothered Thundercracker. That the Autobots had been capable of reforging someone so extensively bothered him even more. The Autobots by themselves should not have had the resources for something like that, which meant the humans had aided them. If the humans had aided in such a complex undertaking, it meant the humans were learning a lot more about Cybertronians than Thundercracker was in any way comfortable with. 

"I suppose it's too much to hope that you blew him out of the sky." 

Thundercracker scowled. It wasn’t as though he hadn’t tried. "You know what deep-Seeker armor is like." Possibly a mistake. Starscream knew very well – knew just about everything there was to know about deep-Seekers, short of being one. This wasn't a good topic of conversation. "There's still activity at the hydro-electric plant you wanted to hit, but the humans aren't pulling that much power from there." 

When they'd first arrived after Megatron's fall, it had been easy to cripple huge sections of the continents by taking out one or two power generating facilities and letting their precariously balanced networks shred themselves. Since then, however, the humans had been decentralizing their grids, building numerous smaller plants whose power was used locally instead of transmitted over long distances over aerial lines that were easy to pick off. It had been a mildly amusing pastime for slow days, flying along popping the fragile towers one after another. 

"Wretched Autobot interference." Starscream rubbed cheek spars with Thundercracker as an acceptance of the change in the discussion’s vector, then stalked to the holo display. "They're breaking their own rules now," he sneered. "So much for allowing young civilizations – though one could hardly call this planet's infestation by so proper a name – to grow and mature in their own way."

If their enemy was losing their honor, Thundercracker thought, not liking it at all; what did that mean for the Decepticons? He had long had the uncomfortable feeling that his faction had travelled farther astray from their ancient function than Megatron had intended. The Autobots had forced them to change, adapting to unexpectedly determined opposition. 

“I want you to take a look at the nuclear plant in the desert east of the main Autobot base again.” Starscream chirped him the coordinates. The Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona. Thundercracker sometimes wished Starscream and most of the other Decepticons would use the human names. The insistence upon not bothering because the humans weren’t worth the effort was getting tiresome. “We should have destroyed such targets in the beginning.” Nibbling on Thundercracker’s lateral sensory fins, Starscream seemed to have forgotten that they had made attempts, and had been viciously repulsed by combined human/Autobot defenses. 

“Yes, Starscream.” Shuddering, Thundercracker took flight.

Coercing himself onto the Autobot frequencies was almost painful, it had been so long since his mind had traveled there. And the world nets were not unguarded. He slid along passively, searching for any possible point of contact. There was a public address, but each time he tried to key it in the message bounced. 

Let me in, frag you! I need to talk to the Prime. 

Do you really? Teletraan inquired, frosty, unfazed. 

Slagging uppity AI. Thundercracker calmed himself by an effort of will, but before he could compose a civil reply, Prime skimmed neatly into the channel. 

What do you want, Thundercracker? 

Prime's tone was so utterly, scrupulously neutral it made a tiny, long unlooked-for part of Thundercracker's mind want to curl up in the dark far away and keen.

Those tanks and the others, the ones who appeared suddenly, not long ago. They are not drones. He hated the formal tone his transmission had taken. Not deferential, he told himself. Not really. He had forgotten what it was like to feel the Prime’s words and harmonics fill his CPU. It was a seductive lie, he thought automatically. Another Autobot trick. 

No. They are not.

The humans call your First Lieutenant “Lazarus.” I looked up the mythology reference. If you can truly rekindle the dead, I want Saberfall and Novawind back. Give me my first trinemates back and I will join your faction.

Oh Thundercracker, would that it was so easy. Not everyone’s pattern remains cohesive within the Allspark. The rekindled of the Graveyard Legion are such, true. I could try to find your trinemates if you wish, but will not Galvatron do so? I suppose I need not have asked. Do not join us as a mere transaction, or to repay a perceived debt.

You won’t do it, then.

I didn’t say so. If I could bring back everyone who has died in this war… Not all are willing to return, you understand. I will look within for Saberfall and Novawind. See if they remember their names. I will inform you of the results, either way.

All right. Guess I can’t ask for better.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Even staying low, well below the most effective radar boundary, flying within Seekerbane’s range made Strake’s wings itch. Everyone knew Autobots shot Seekers on sight. Didn't they? 

Except. Seekerbane could have destroyed the command trine, Strake had learned, but had not. The accounts online were all indirect, but the humans were enthusiastic in their dramatizations. There had also been one, the white-armored one who could have killed Strake before Ironhide had shot him down. Strake had considered it a disgusting display of Autobot weakness, but he was glad to have escaped. And the Prime was accepting...no, he hadn't called it surrender. Amnesty. That was it. Starscream and his command trine had ranted about subversive phrasing and more of the usual filthy Autobot lies. 

North of the base…no, the Cybertronian Embassy, were mountains fringed with innumerable canyons and dry creek-beds. He could hide there, watching, prudently waiting not gathering his courage of course; Seekers were fearless. He didn’t want to make such a crucial, life-altering decision rashly. He needed all the intel he could get. It felt like the longest week of his life. 

Singing jolted him out of recharge. The moon hung low and yellow in the velvet sky just after sunset. The voice was terrifying; broken and beautiful, spark-rending. Strake moved like the shadows, millimeter by millimeter, creeping, inexorable. Silently, he crouched within stooping distance, watching. The white, door-winged mech – Prowl, the very one who hadn’t killed him – didn't know he was there. Closer, closer. Strake could snatch him up with a quick swoop, drag him to the heights and drop him if he proved troublesome. 

Strake suddenly found himself staring down the barrel of a butylpotassium pellet gun. Prowl held it quite steady. Optics met optics, both of them weirdly calm. 

"What now?" Strake asked softly, his subharmonics elaborating more than he had intended – you are white and I am black and we are both the color of death to the people of this world. 

Prowl lowered his gun. “Prime?” He spoke aloud, but Strake was certain he had transmitted a query via tight-beam as well. In a few moments, the hated and reviled leader of the Autobot rebel fugitives appeared at the head of the canyon. Stately and imposing, alert yet composed. 

What is your purpose? The Prime used an older Decepticon channel without hesitation. Without rancor. 

For a moment, the word would not come. Strake knew hesitation could prove fatal. Optimus Prime had once single-handedly held off Megatron, Starscream and Grindor for a full breem until Ironhide’s reinforcements had arrived. 

“Amnesty,” Strake whispered at last, shivering. Something was wrong inside his body. He fell more than climbed from his perch, legs collapsing beneath him, and white static flooded his CPU.

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Onlining in an unfamiliar medical bay, Strake found himself unrestrained, laid out on a repair table. Empty missile launchers extended from his arms. He stared at them for a moment before retracting them, peripherally aware of several individuals in the chamber. 

“Hello,” said a red and white mech, slowly approaching the table, hands conspicuously empty in a human gesture of peaceable intent. Before Strake could process that weirdness, a larger bright green mech, who he immediately recognized as Ratchet, came up beside him. 

“Easy. We removed some of your ammunition as a safety precaution.”

Strake nodded. That had always been a standard procedure, he remembered. He should be terrified – captured by Autobots! In the clutches of the vile Ratchet! Prowl, Ironhide and Prime stood nearby but out of the way of the medics. Ironhide’s cannons were out but not spinning. Prime had a hand firmly on his shoulder. Strake couldn’t seem to muster the energy to be too worried about it. They would have checked him very thoroughly for bombs or other devices as well. He hoped they’d found nothing because he hadn’t knowingly been carrying anything of the kind. 

Ratchet ran a scan over the rent in Strake’s armor, nearly closed now. “And I powered down those regrowth protocols – your systems have undergone enough strain lately. How do you feel?” 

“Tired,” Strake said. “Hot.” He was going to have to do a lot of explaining soon. 

“The overheating is due to having to regenerate without medical assistance. Your body went into high gear to mend the damage. Resilience can be costly.” The medic chuffed in irritation. “Why didn’t you go to Hook?”

Might as well drain the cube in one gulp. “We don’t know where he is. The Constructicons have been AWOL for over four years.” As had he, technically. 

The mechs around him stirred uneasily. Ratchet shook his head. “I’m sorry, Strake. Never mind.” Stalking over to a row of spools suspended on a wall, he pulled out differing lengths of various wire and plaited them together. Cutting them neatly, he brought the plait to Strake. “Eat. You’re low on some basic elements, but other than that and the hole in your ventral armor, you’re in surprisingly good shape. Your core temperature should return to normal in a few hours now that you’ve been transfused and refueled.” 

Strake sat up – slowly, aware of the twitch in Ironhide’s arms – and took the plait, nibbling cautiously. Ratchet nodded and the red and white mech patted Strake’s knee before withdrawing. Prime and Prowl approached as Strake finished the plait. 

Prime offered an arm cable. The formalities, and interrogation, could be gotten over with very quickly if Strake agreed. Hesitation was unbecoming. He had decided. Raising his arm, he opened a port. Ironhide growled, but Prime established a careful link – Strake was a known “hacker”, participating in most of the attacks on Teletraan and Event Horizon and the humans’ net. Strake shuttered his optics. Prime’s virtual presence was, if anything, more powerful than his physical. Who could reprogram whom? 

In November of 2018, I was shot down in battle. I fled to a cave in Papua New Guinea…

Strake’s report was delivered with the dispassion and thoroughness of long habit, but with greater honesty. Lying hadn’t been punished among the Decepticons, only being caught, and then if the lie was clever or entertaining the sentence would be light. Once his part was completed, Prime gave him the terms. He could join the Autobots with a minimum of one thousand local years parole under constant supervision. 

"If you remain on this planet and do not join us as an Autobot, the humans will wish to capture and try you as a war criminal. We will be obligated to help them." Prime tilted his head slightly. "By your own admission, nothing binds you here. This galaxy is largely unexplored." 

Strake looked down. I'm not delta. I don't want to be alone. An admission like an energon blade against his spark chamber, but it was a truth of his forging. His kind weren't built for solitude. 

What of Skyquake? Prime's harmonics were kindly meant and indicated that he needn't answer if he didn't wish to. Prime was merely outlining his options. 

Strake didn’t answer. Prowl approached his other side as Prime closed the link and withdrew his cable. Ratchet came forward as well and altered the color of Strake’s optics. His visual perception shifted minutely toward the UV end of the spectrum. Ratchet also gave him the file for the Autobot sigil. Strake had never taken up an Earth alt mode, so the next time he transformed his faction badge would also transform. 

“You are not to leave my scanning range,” Prowl said gravely. “When I must recharge, Bluestreak will take over your supervision.”

“Bluestreak’s aim is better than mine,” Ironhide felt compelled to add from across the room. 

And what’s your scanning range? Strake inquired silkily, accepting Prowl’s private comm frequency with an insouciant click of his mandibles. 

You’re a smart mech, Prowl told him, leaning very close. Figure it out. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

They let him into the Autobot cloud mind advisedly. Strake already knew caution when it came to voicing his thoughts - carelessness among the Decepticons could make you dead in a hurry. Smokescreen warned him that the Autobots might not be entirely sympathetic, or polite. Would probably, at least some of them, be hostile. Strake felt a certain bravado was called for. 

"Let's see what they've got," he said. It was unthinkable to allow anyone to know how lost he felt, trineless. He almost - almost - hated to fly, with no-one at his wingtips. 

So much banter! Everyone was so relaxed with each other. The insults were familiar enough, but they - for the most part - lacked an edge. And the teasing of the Prime! Strake found it offensive at first, how they treated their leader. THE Prime! There were old imperatives yet imbedded in his code perhaps.

He was also discomfited to find out his approach to the embassy had not been as stealthy as he’d thought. “Perceptor spotted you the moment you entered our airspace,” Prowl told him. 

“You were watching me the whole time.”

“Yes.” 

“Prime suspected that I was going to defect?”

“Yes.”

Prowl, as always, answered Strake’s questions openly. These people scared the slag out of him. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

2023 - April

Prowl cradled Strake close, cables seated, but he withheld the full transfer. You must be certain, Prowl told him. It must be your choice. If you continue to hold the humans in contempt then your interaction with the other Autobots will be more difficult. Prowl was in no hurry. He didn't like accessing these memories either, and this he fully admitted to Strake. 

I don't scare that easily, Strake said, grinning. Nothing a puny human experienced could have much of an effect, he was certain. Prowl gave him a look. And pushed the files through. 

When the screaming stopped, and Strake pulled his hands away from his midsection to find himself unchanged and whole in body, Prowl held him, stroking his helm and wings, keeping the link open and sending reassurance until the shaking eased. 

The things we've done, Strake whispered. There had been more to the files than Ixchel's death; childhood days of running and play, swimming, the best chocolate sundae ever, a first bouquet of roses, the comforting feel of a favorite old velveteen blanket, a heart-lifting concerto with Spanish guitar in Berlin, the surge of emotion at the sight of a lover's face. 

Undoing the programmatic inhibitions regarding attacks on civilians is one of the worst mistakes of this war, Prowl said. The Autobots, having grasped desperately at very old military programs from Ironhide and others, still retained those inhibitions, and the strong protective impulses as well, which the Decepticons had lost, or twisted. Prowl showed Strake the old programs side-by-side with the newer imperatives Prowl had received from Sentinel, which were eerily similar to Megatron's reprogramming of the Cons. I know you're conditioned to regard anything an Autobot tells you as a lie. You're going to have to decide for yourself. 

A part of Strake didn't want to decide. He wanted Prowl to tell him, just wanted to follow orders. It was so much easier. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Stretched out on the mesa top, Prowl looked up at the stars. Strake lay beside him, watching him. “In 85 years, my sentence will be completed,” Prowl said quietly. 

Then you will leave me, too. He hadn't meant to express that thought. Sometimes Prowl’s honesty was horrifying. And obviously contagious. Learning what Prowl had done, and what had been done to him, left Strake feeling as though all his gyros had failed at once. 

Prowl approximated a sigh, imitating Blades. It's a big universe, he said. You can go where you wish, whenever you wish. I submit, however, that you will always know where to find me. 

Where Prime is, Strake realized. Or wherever he sends you. 

Prowl smiled. Exactly. 

Strake relaxed against him. It wasn't a trine bond, it wasn't even a promise. Merely a simple statement of a fundamental law of physics. He could live with that.

Chapter Text

2023

“Fall back, Bumblebee!” Prime shouted, even while he gunned his engine. Bee slowed and pulled off at the overlook as they passed. Optimus continued around the hairpin and up the next grade, putting on speed as though he was on a level straightaway. 

Bumblebee opened his doors, and Sam and Mikaela, long accustomed to such cues, immediately got out so he could transform. Bee’s optics were glued to Prime. Finally the humans could see what the robots had long before detected. Up the mountain, at the other end of the long grade Prime had just begun, another big rig was coming down.

Black, a tanker, with… Sam blinked. Red windows? That wasn’t legal, was it? Not on the windshield, he was pretty certain. Reflexively he and Mikaela both looked for the tell-tale sigil. And there it was, on the door, looking like just a part of a shipping company’s logo. Decepticon.

“Who is it?” Mikaela asked. She was pretty sure she’d remember a ‘Con with an alt form like that. In robot mode he must be nearly as big as Optimus, though this truck had a shorter front.

“Scourge,” Bumblebee said flatly, as though he had a bad taste in his mouth. A neat trick when one didn’t strictly speaking have a mouth. 

“Oh, no way,” Sam said. No way, he thought, was Optimus Prime going to play chicken with another big truck. Was he? He was. “No way!” He bounced on his toes, leaning forward next to Bee at the guard rail, he didn’t even want to blink, didn’t want to miss anything. It was like in The Matrix II only with just the semis. And then he noticed how Bee’s hands were crumpling up the steel guard rail.

“Wait. He’ll turn, right? He’ll be okay. Optimus isn’t stupid, he’ll…” Optimus wasn’t turning. Scourge wasn’t turning.

“No,” Bee murmured, distressed. “Optimus, don’t…” 

“Oh shit,” said Mikaela.

Sam didn’t turn away. Refused to not bear witness. At the moment of impact, Bee curled around them, their living shield. Because there would be shrapnel.

They felt the crash through their feet, through their lungs, through the curved bones of their faces. Their ears rang with it, their eyes ached, as they flinched away from the heat of explosions. Sam abruptly wondered what Scourge had had in his big shiny chrome tank. Oh god. Optimus.

The crashing noises should have subsided by now. But it sounded like something was coming toward them, rolling down the side of the mountain. Bee snatched them up and ran, cradling them to his chest, though the acceleration forces were still painfully jarring. They held on to him and to each other, waiting for it to be over. 

Bee turned and stopped after only a handful of strides. Sam and Mikaela peeked out from between his fingers. The black truck lay on its side in the pullout where they’d been standing, badly crumpled, but Sam wasn’t sure how much of that translated to real damage. The engine was dead, but he wouldn’t bet on the robot. Bee eyed the truck warily for a second, then bounded up the side of the mountain with his humans, setting them down on the switchback road, several meters below where Optimus was.

“Mikaela,” Bee said as he put her on her feet. “Watch Scourge. If he so much as twitches, shout for me.” She nodded, though she wanted to see if Optimus was all right as much as Sam did.

Sam followed as Bumblebee ran to Optimus’ side. Prime was nose first in the ditch on the upslope side of the road, the left half of his front end smashed all to hell. Fires started by the explosion were spreading. They needed Inferno and his cohorts ASAP. Sam was sure Bee was already on it. 

“Optimus!” Bumblebee cried, touching the truck’s panels here and there, shaking the cab, brushing dirt and oil from the headlights – even though the left one was a shattered mess. Optimus! No answer.

Oh god. Sam joined his voice to Bee’s entreaties, stealing a glance down at Mikaela. She kept watch, but he could see her face, expressionless but for the gleam of wetness down her cheeks. “Ratchet?”

“On his way,” Bee assured him. “Along with Inferno, Red Alert and the others.” It was good this wasn’t a windy day. Bee crouched down at Optimus’ front end, one hand on the crumpled grille, head resting just above the right side headlight. Never ceasing his transmitted calls. Optimus! Optimus! 

“He’s…just offline, right?” Sam said, worried by Bee’s sudden quiet. He felt like he’d stumbled into hell, fire encircling them, sucking away their air. Prime had to be okay. The alternative didn’t bear thinking about. He had shied away from that option even back at the beginning, when Optimus had begged him to put the Cube into his chest… It still gave him nightmares, guessing what would have happened if he had done as ordered. Optimus was all right, nothing Ratchet and Hoist couldn’t fix, given time. Had to be.

“I think so,” Bee said, but his voice wasn’t the steady, calm accent Sam had become used to. There was an odd whimper underneath, like before, when he’d been voiceless. 

“Bee!” Mikaela hollered.

Bumblebee was up in an instant, bounding down the slope to where Scourge was trying to transform, groaning and grinding noises coming from within the black, no longer shiny chassis. Bee’s right hand became his solar cannon, firing a rapid series of shots at close range, each point deliberately selected. Scourge stopped moving, stopped making noises.

Mikaela stared up at Bee, not so much accusatory as surprised. “That was a little…”

“Ruthless,” Bee supplied, unfazed. He looked into her eyes until she nodded, a firm set to her mouth. He raced back up to Optimus’ side, beckoning to Mikaela to follow this time. Scourge really was not getting up any time soon, if ever.

“Optimus,” Bee called again, resuming his position at the big rig’s front.

The right side headlight came on.

“Yes!” Sam crowed, punching the air. Mikaela sat down for a moment on the other side of Bee, well off the road in case more traffic, hopefully of the normal human sort, came by. 

“Optimus!” Bee stood, and placed his hands on the top of Prime’s grille, to either side of the Autobot sigil. “Are you functional?”

Sam thought of inappropriate Star Trek quotes, but managed not to say anything. Prime wasn’t moving, the light was the only outward sign of life. Mikaela was up again and walking around him, crouching down to peer beneath, assessing his injuries, even if she couldn’t help until Ratchet arrived.

Optimus, please… If only he had enough power to transfuse Prime’s systems. Bee stepped up the output of his solar collection system, spreading his door wings to the best angle given the time of day. They were at a decent elevation and that helped as well. 

At last Prime made a sound, a kind of coughing, garbled noise, incoherent and nonverbal. 

“That must be quite a headache,” Sam said helpfully, hands on knees as he leaned forward to look into the one more or less intact headlight. He thought he recalled being told that the headlights often acted as optical receptors when in vehicle mode. 

Optimus made more untranslatable noises, possibly Cybertronian swearing, judging by Bee’s amused and startled reaction. “Re…zzzt…pair systems…tional,” he finally rumbled brokenly. Feedback noise followed, mercifully cut off after only a second.

“Ratchet and the others are on their way,” Bumblebee said. “Can you transform?”

“Ac…ledged.” The truck shook for a moment, and some parts came loose from one another, but quickly collapsed together again. “No.”

“Just as well,” Mikaela said. “Hoist can get him back to base easier in this form.” But Ratchet would be able to repair him more easily in robot mode. She bit her lower lip. 

“Had us scared there for a second, big guy,” Sam said, patting the front bumper until he realized he didn’t know where the front bumper went when Optimus transformed to robot mode. 

“Scourge?” Prime’s voice sounded a little firmer.

“Down,” Bee said. “Offline, maybe more than that. He’s not going anywhere for a while in either case.”

“Good. Wouldn’t…rzzzk…want to…do that again.” Sparks shot out and static discharge crackled across his chassis as he tried to transform again. Bee could hear his transformation cog grind, then catch on something and lock up. He winced in sympathy as Prime was reduced again to scrambled electronic sounds that bore little resemblance to speech in any language. 

“Augh! Just stay still!” Mikaela said, jumping back, as did Sam. It was horrible to watch him try and fail. 

The sirens announced the repair party’s arrival about fifteen minutes later. Inferno, Red Alert and Trailbreaker got to work on the fires immediately. Ratchet rolled right up to Prime and transformed, scanning for some time. “Prime, you’re a mess,” was his official medical pronouncement. 

“He can’t transform,” Bee said, fretful in his movements. 

Ratchet nodded, patting Bee’s shoulder. “He’ll be all right, we just need to get him back to base. Hoist?”

The green wrecker truck was already maneuvering himself into position. “I shall be careful,” he said, assiduous as ever. 

Slowly, and with all sensors honed to detect any further Decepticon intrusions, they got him home. Hoist brought him into the med-bay and lifted him onto the largest table. 

“Can you transform now?” Ratchet asked, scanning intently. Sam turned away, not wanting to see Prime fail again, but Mikaela stood on the gantry Ratchet had built for her so she was more on a useful level to work on the ‘Bots. 

Again came the horrible grinding, and the catch, metal screaming against metal. Sparks shot from Prime’s underside and the whole truck shook like he was trying to explode. 

“Stop, stop,” Ratchet said. “Your transaxle’s bent. Hang on.” Brawn? I could use you in here, if you don’t mind? 

Yeah? What for? 

Prime’s got a bent axle. I need someone strong enough to help me straighten it. 

On my way. 


Once Brawn got there, he and Ratchet got the axle unbent just enough that Prime could at last transform without shorting half his systems in pain. 

“What the Pit did you do, Prime?” Brawn said, impressed, as Prime lay full length on the table. Both his arms were badly mangled, one shoulder almost completely out of joint, his hands a shredded mess. The humans, with their sensitive digits, so much of their sense of self wrapped up in their fragile manipulating organs, were most unnerved by that. His chest panels were spiderwebbed with cracks, over and among the now constant merge scars. His legs mostly became the back end of the truck, but parts of one shin were also bent, and his dorsal armor was crumpled in several places. There was severe internal damage to more delicate parts as well, and Ratchet started opening panels with his specialized medical codes right away, delving into Prime’s innards, trying to keep up with small cascade failures, damaged relays and circuits, before they became larger problems.

Prime was still, his optics dim, flickering sometimes as Ratchet manipulated something deep inside. Ratchet hissed like a steam engine at one point and blazed into one compartment with his plasma torch on the highest setting. A short blare of more incoherent noise burst from Prime’s vocal processors, though he didn’t move. 

“This would be easier if you were offline,” Ratchet said pointedly.

“I’m not moving,” Prime said, patiently explaining the obvious.

“No, that’s not the point. It would be easier on me, if you were offline.”

Prime raised a supraorbital crest at him.

“Frag it, Optimus, do you trust me or not? Take a nap!”

Prime’s optics flickered, more with amusement than defiance, Sam thought, and with a rather overly dramatic sigh, Prime at last took himself offline. 

Now that Prime was offline, Ratchet reached out and laid a hand on Bumblebee’s arm. “His injuries were grave at the crash site,” he said, a strange mixture of emotions coloring his normally gravelly and jovial voice. “They’re merely serious now. He would recover completely without any help from me, in a few orns, I think.”

“But, you will…” Bee began, and Ratchet nodded, already adjusting his medical plasma emitter and setting to work. 

“Of course I will. But by the Allspark, he doesn’t need me any more.”

Maybe not for repairs, Bee thought. But they would all still need Ratchet, for being Ratchet. 

<{>~~~<(o)>~~~<}>

Interlewd: Prime Pas de Gras

Ratchet yanked his microwelder out of the way as the last linkage repaired itself before his optics. He closed the armor panel with a snap. Moving around to Prime’s head, he placed his hands over the temporal gears and sent a distinctive pulse through the CPU. Prime’s optics blinked on and he sat up. Sam and Mikaela hugged each other and high-fived, er, foured, with Bee. 

“Prime,” Bee said. “You must not put yourself needlessly in such danger again.”

“I wouldn’t call that needless, Bumblebee. Scourge isn’t to be trifled with,” Prime said. 

“He’s right, you know,” said Ratchet. Prime turned to look at him.

“Ganging up on me?”

Ratchet crossed his arms. “If that’s what it takes.”

Prime growled. Not a threat, just a reaction. But it reminded them all who Megatron’s twin was. 

Not in the least intimidated, Bee climbed up onto him, hands grasping Prime’s chest plates with a fond sort of desperation. Prime’s newly repaired arms came around him automatically, and Bee laid his forehead against Prime’s mandibular commisure hinge. A single cable surreptitiously snaked from Bee to Prime, the latter accepting the contact gladly, only holding back the full force of his thought lattices so as not to overwhelm the smaller bot. 

Aw, Bee, Prime said, though he rarely used the nickname. Bumblebee’s worries unfolded jerkily, skittering awkwardly between them, half unbidden, trying to hide and yet aching for proper expression. Prime knew Bee didn’t think him suicidal, just a little too ready, Sam’s family’s motto aside, to give up his life for the sake of others. Too ready, when they all needed him so much. 

Don’t leave us, please never leave us. Bee extended another cable, and another. He was shaking with desire for spark contact, but they couldn’t risk opening their chests with Sam and Mikaela present. The radiation, especially from Optimus, would kill them. Prime matched him cable for cable, understanding and echoing his desire and restraint. Holding back itself became arousing. Bee wrapped his arms around Optimus’ neck, and felt Prime embrace him even more tightly, their armor creaking and clanging softly. Prime produced a subsonic hum, making the sound resonate through his massive chest, creating a kind of sonar shadow of his spark that Bee could feel in his own chest. Bee’s back arched, his head falling against his door wings. He pushed against Prime, his feet braced on the table between Prime’s legs. 

Sam and Mikaela stood staring, uncomprehending for about three rather long seconds. Ratchet merely watched them, refraining from comment. That in and of itself alerted Mikaela. That and the fact that Hoist and Brawn had conveniently absented themselves already. She grabbed Sam by the tee shirt and dragged him outside. She thought Ratchet grinned at her as they left, but it was hard to tell on his face the way his jaw guards hid most of his mouth. Old pervert.

“That was…” Sam said in a rather higher pitch than usual. “They…”

That was hot, was what that was, Mikaela thought, but she knew Sam would freak out. He was weirdly jealous of sharing Bee with anyone but herself, and also weirdly squeamish about…certain things the giant, alien, emotional robots did with each other. She shook her head, loving him anyway. Sam was Sam. His quirks were endearing. “Never mind, Sam,” she said, grinning. “We just need to find a nice quiet, secluded corner to go make out in. Now.”

Meanwhile, Ratchet let Prime and Bumblebee know the humans were at a safe distance. Bee snapped his chest open, moaning, pressing for Prime to do the same. Optimus caressed him in long strokes, touching his central helmet crest to Bee’s for a moment before giving in to the urge, finally allowing his spark chamber to unseal, slowly opening, bathing the med-bay in its steady blue-white light. Bee’s little golden sun shone bravely next to the blue giant, coronas gently lapping at one another. They fleetingly thought to merge, but Prime was still in no condition to do so safely, as Ratchet sharply reminded them, breaking in with his fierce transmission. 

Come up, then, Bee invited him. The three of them hadn’t indulged in a trine with each other since landing on Earth. Prime, holding on to Bumblebee, moved back on the table, making more room. After a brief moment of consideration – and a quick scan to see where the impressionable young humans had gone…ah, there they were, and quite busy themselves, good – Ratchet climbed up, embracing Bee from behind, though he also stroked Prime’s chest with his fingertips. A bit of cable shuffling ensued, initiating the six links that brought all three together. Ratchet thought to keep his own spark chamber closed, merely riding on the waves of pleasure from the other two, but the heat from the bare sparks was getting to him, particularly Prime’s. Optimus was nigh irresistible, singing like the Allspark itself. Ancient yearnings all pointed to him like a lodestone to magnetic north; ineffable and inexorable. He felt his chest part almost of its own volition, adding warm amber fire to the light dancing all about them. 

Primus, it’s been a while. He held on tightly, feeling Optimus’ arms – and legs – wrap around them both. 

Indeed it has, Prime agreed, and initiated first-stage, drawing them in, spinning their stars so fast so hot, that ancient burning beyond all hope of equilibrium, emotions spilling from each to the others, positive feedback rising till they hovered on the brink. And Prime kept them there, astonishingly, on the electron-fine edge, extending the moment for cycle upon cycle, until Bee and Ratchet began to whimper and shake violently, the power building up too high to be contained any longer and they all slid down, riven into overload. 

When they came back online, chests safely closed, Ratchet was surprised they hadn’t fallen off the repair table. But Prime had somehow kept them up there; though poor Bee was rather mashed between the two larger bots. Not that he was complaining. Ratchet scanned them both just to be sure. Bee was happily exhausted, and Prime was…fully recharged and functional. As though the massive head-on collision hadn’t occurred. Only Scourge’s body, had they kept it, would have given evidence; but Autobots were disinclined to take trophies, and Ratchet’s cursory scan of the Decepticon had been unable to pick up a definitive sign of life. Maybe the ‘Cons had retrieved and repaired him, maybe not. The humans might attempt to recycle his carcass, though their car-crushing machines would make no headway upon Cybertronian alloys. It hardly mattered at the moment. 

Ratchet sighed and reluctantly got down, leaving Bumblebee still draped over Prime’s chest. Ratchet had CR chambers and growth tanks to tend. “You two stay put,” he said, waving a hand at them. “Yes, you too, Prime. Everything’s fine right now, you can afford to take it easy. I know you’re fully recovered physically. Consider this a bit of R and R.”

Bee and Prime exchanged a bemused look. “Whatever you say,” Bee said, managing to sound sleepy. He snuggled down against Prime, who cradled him and turned on his side so that he could curl around the smaller bot. What was the human term? Oh yes, spooning. Well not quite, since Bee was still facing Prime, but sort of. 

Ratchet hummed to himself, pleased at being obeyed without question for once in the matter of rest. As the door to the inner chambers of the med-bay closed behind him, he heard Optimus murmuring Cybertronian endearments and Bee replying similarly. Ratchet’s optics glowed brighter. The affection between those two was special, and delightful, and it was good to see it again in full measure. Ratche