"Just look at this . . . Dust in my grill, scratches on my finish . . . Ugh, I'm going to be buffing for days."
"So basically, the status quo will be maintained," Ratchet said drily, tilting his side view mirror to look at the red Aston Martin behind him. The sports car's headlights, always sharply angled downward, somehow approximated a glare even more than usual.
"Ha ha ha," Knock Out said sourly.
He swerved from side to side as he first tried to follow Ratchet's treadprints, then Bulkhead's, but his wheels were too close set for either. So he thumped along—left wheels in Bulkhead's oversized rut, right wheels sheering through the undergrowth—and cringed inwardly as the metallic brambles shrieked against his paint.
"Hey K.O., keep down the racket, will ya?" Miko popped her head out Bulkhead's window. She had changed from her armored exo-suit to a smaller, more flexible spacesuit so that she could fit inside the green SUV. "That sounds worse than fingernails on a chalkboard!"
"Sorry to inconvenience you, human. I wonder how quiet you'd be if your skin were being shredded off."
"Knock Out," Ratchet said in that annoying, warning tone of his.
"This trip was your idea, Knock," Bulkhead pointed out.
"Well, it's necessary, isn't it? That doesn't mean I have to like the journey," Knock Out grumbled. "Or the company."
"Sheesh, what a grump!" Miko leaned back, resting her crossed legs on Bulkhead's dashboard.
"Just ignore him," Bulkhead advised. "He always gets like this when his paint's scratched up."
"I heard that!"
"Yeah, well, it's true."
Miko had brought a tent.
"Uhhh, you do realize you'll have t' sleep in your spacesuit in there, right?" asked Bulkhead, as Miko rummaged through his vehicular mode for the rest of her supplies. "I mean, one of us, we can seal airtight, so I sorta figured Ratchet would—"
"Ratchet would what?" the Autobot medic demanded, crossing his arms.
"Well, yooou know . . . You're an ambulance . . . You got all that room in the back . . ."
"Junk in the trunk," Miko put in. When Ratchet glared down at her, she pasted on an innocent smile and hoisted a backpack, filled almost to bursting, out of Bulkhead backseat. "What?"
"No worries, Ratchet," Miko assured him, "tonight's gonna be real camping out, with a real tent and a real fire."
Knock Out looked over from where he was sitting, working on his chassis with a polishing cloth. "And what exactly are you going to burn?"
"Real wood!" Miko said, reaching into the backseat again and tossed down a log with a triumphant grin.
"Hoo boy," Ratchet mumbled to himself, rubbing a servo over his face.
Knock Out made a noise that was nearly a chuckle. "I'm almost beginning to not regret you being here, human."
"Hey! I still have a name, you know!"
"Good to know . . . human." The former 'Con smirked as he picked up a scanner, pacing away from the small group as he tapped the screen.
"Hey Knock, where are you going?" Bulkhead called. "We still gotta set up camp!"
The red mech turned around, raised an expressive optic ridge, and then sauntered away with his attention back on the scanner.
"Oh well, it was a long shot," Bulkhead said philosophically, stamping down the brush at his feet and kicking it aside to clear a space.
Miko helped by gathering up the thinner metallic branches and heaving them to the side of the clearing. The soil here—did it count as soil if it was made of metal?—was made up of tiny copper colored granules, like sand. She ran her hand through it, wishing she could feel it without gloves in the way.
"All right," Ratchet said, his manner at once begrudging and indulgent. "Let's see about this tent."
"Right! Let's do this thing, Doc-Bot!"
Secretly, Miko wanted to set up the tent with Bulkhead. He was her totally awesome Autobot partner and it had been a whole YEAR, and she had her cell phone ready and waiting to snap pictures of whatever hilarious mishaps occurred. She'd never set up a tent before, Bulkhead had never set up a tent before, the possibilities were endless! Bulk would probably set it up upside down or end up wearing it like a toga or—
Ratchet took the unprecedented step of reading the instructions first and had the tent put together in ten minutes. Right side up.
"There! Enjoy . . . and try to stay out of trouble." Ratchet picked up a datapad and went to join Knock Out, who was crouched and examining something.
Miko repressed a sigh. Then she brightened and looked across the clearing to Bulkhead. "Well, Bulk, while the doctors are away . . ." She picked up the electric guitar she'd brought with her gear. "It's time to play!" Then she frowned, picking up the cord to the amplifier. "So, uh . . . where can I plug this in?"
Knock Out's buzzsaw whirred as he slashed through a tangle of foliage. Sweeping the branches away with the flat of his blade, he shifted his hand out again and began dusting the soil away from a telltale glow.
"You've found one, then." Ratchet stepped beside him.
"Yep." The simple word held more than the medic's usual self-satisfaction; there was an exhilaration in his tone, a tremor of excitement. He sat back on his heels as the two of them gazed at the thrumming spark and the proto-material growing around it, already half-encasing it.
"By the All-Spark," Ratchet murmured, and the phrase had never been more appropriate. "New life on Cybertron . . . Our planet is alive . . . Our race is alive."
"I don't know about you, but I've always felt alive," Knock Out teased. "And it seems well and good now, but you'd better brace yourself for an onslaught of protoforms, old timer." Knock Out couldn't stop grinning as he stood and dusted off his knees.
"Well, you'll be the one dealing with that, won't you?" Ratchet smirked, recording the coordinates of the spark. "Now you know why I stayed on Earth."
"I should've guessed. Ah, there's another one!" The former 'Con pushed his way over to the base of a small hill.
Ratchet's optics brightened. "This one's much farther along . . . Look, main structure's formed and the digits are just about ready to separate . . ."
"Hey, what are you guys doing?" Miko called as she and Bulkhead approached—Bulkhead walking, Miko perched on his shoulder. "Whoooa."
She stared down at a silvery . . . figure? person? . . . curled up, half covered in soil. Its gleaming skin looked smooth and pliable, almost liquid, if liquid could be made solid.
"Oh man, look at that! Ha HA!" Bulkhead held up a hand for a high five. Both medics just looked at him in bemusement. He lowered his hand and cleared his vocalizer. "Um . . . right. Hey Miko—pretty cool, huh?"
"Yeah! So that thing's one of you guys before you get all . . ." she made complicated gestures with her fingers as though she were working on an invisible Rubix cube. ". . . transformy, right?" Miko knelt on the edge of Bulkhead's fingers as he lowered his hands.
"It's an early stage protoform," Ratchet said, crowding over Knock Out's shoulder to look at his scan results. "If all goes well—" He gave a yelp as Knock Out, without looking up, shoved the Autobot out of his personal space. Ratchet glared at him as he rubbed his upper arm, but the former Decepticon didn't seem to notice. "As I was saying, if all goes well it will separate from Cybertron's surface and become a fully functional being. At which point it will indeed be 'one of us guys before we get all transformy.'"
"—if you're going to use the formal medical definition," Knock Out added, deadpan.
"Woohoo! Baby Autobots, FINALLY!" Miko jumped in place on Bulkhead's palm, pumping a fist into the air.
"Something like that." Ratchet looked amused.
"How long, Doc?" Bulkhead asked eagerly. New allies, new friends, new lives. New lives for a new Cybertron. "It's gonna be crazy seeing new faces. I mean really new, not just 'I've been out in space, now I'm back'. We haven't had any new bots since . . . geez, since Bumblebee and Smokescreen's cohort came online."
"Too many factors for an exact estimate—soil type, amount of energy produced by the hot spot, viability of the spark, and so on—but for this one, not long. A matter of months, perhaps even weeks."
"We should dig him up and take him back with us!" Miko mimed a shoveling motion.
"Oh no," said Ratchet. Knock Out, optic ridges raised, actually looked a little shocked at the suggestion. "For one thing, that would disrupt the absorption of nutrients. For another, natural separation is very important to proper mental development."
"The Doc's right, Miko. Don't worry, this guy'll be fine. Protoforms know what to do. Like baby birds."
Miko turned to stare at him. "Dude, baby birds need their mouths stuffed full of ground up worms every five seconds! They're like totally helpless!"
"Not those little fluffy yellow ones," Bulkhead argued. "Chicks. Fluffy little chicks."
"If any of them have a chicken as their alt mode," Knock Out said, "I'm sending them straight off to Earth."
Smiling wasn't a totally foreign experience for Ratchet, particularly now that the war was over and he got to spend time relaxing with his human friends (and his Cybertronian ones, when they visited) rather than worrying about their imminent demise.
Still, his mouth almost ached from all the beaming he was doing. Cybertron was even more fertile than he had expected, and the hot spot—one of many, if the reports were to be believed—had so many rooted sparks that he and Knock Out were constantly watching their feet as they walked, to avoid treading on any. Bulkhead and Miko had quickly lost interest and returned to camp; Ratchet found this a relief, considering their combined talent for causing havoc and Bulkhead's propensity for stepping on things he should not.
"Look at this," Knock Out called, gesturing him over. He moved his scanner over a medium-large protoform, still nebulously shaped, but with arms and legs developing, then moved across to a second protoform, similarly sized, nestled in the shade of a metallic boulder. The readings were identical.
"By the Matrix," Ratchet's face ached from that smile again. "Split-sparks."
"Mm-hmm. The split must've been right before they rooted, they're pretty close together . . . Sure to end up in the same cohort."
"Have you ever known twins not to?" Ratchet countered.
"I wonder whose they are," Knock Out mused, tapping a finger to his lips. "Purplish glow, you can just see it through the epidermis here—"
"You know color doesn't mean anything," Ratchet said brusquely. He didn't have any desire to gossip about who was procreating with whom. Knock Out, on the other hand, did.
"Supposing they belong to Magnus . . ."
"They belong," Ratchet lifted an optic ridge, "to themselves."
"Yes, but suppose they're his sparks, whisked out here on the wind," Knock Out persisted. His grin grew until it erupted into a small laugh. "The horror. Two more of him, marching around the place. 'Report, soldier.' 'Stand your ground, soldier.' 'Who gave you permission to go racing, soldier?'"
"I'll bet you hear that last one a lot," Ratchet said drily. "What do you make of this? Over here."
Knock Out crouched, leaning one arm on his knee. "I think it's going to have a beast-form, like Laserbeak. Only bigger."
"Laserbeak? Laserbeak was a drone," Ratchet scoffed.
"Oh no. Nooo, she was a mini-bot. Soundwave encouraged the whole 'drone' thing, of course. It made her less of a target. But you can't fool a physician, can you?" He winked.
Ratchet made a sound somewhere between a laugh and a snort as he offered Knock Out a hand up. "No, you cannot."
He watched the former Decepticon start off again, placing his pedes carefully. Here was another cause for relief; Knock Out was proving unexpectedly . . . what was the word he wanted? Competent? No, Ratchet had already known that; Megatron would never have stood for anything less from his CMO. Incompetent Decepticons were dead Decepticons.
Engaged. That was it. Actually interested in his work, excited about the new generation. Ratchet hadn't been expecting that, hadn't expected Knock Out to suggest a trip out to the nearest hot spot, to the detriment of his finish, just when an older, more experienced medic happened to be visiting. Ratchet had never been seriously concerned about Knock Out attacking Team Prime (well, not after the first few hectic days, anyway), but he had sometimes worried about what kind of not-so-tender mercies his friends were experiencing at the servos of their new medic. Seeing Knock Out patiently scouring the ground for new spark-growth eased his mind, even if he did absently flip from hand to buzzsaw in time to the little tune he was humming.
Ratchet wondered if Knock Out would take a compliment the wrong way. He thought about it and decided, yes, he probably would. It would smack a little too much of "Good job not being as horribly selfish as I thought you were, ex-Decepticon!" Especially since Ratchet was, admittedly, not known for compliments.
Instead he settled for asking the red medic's opinion on the effects of energon storms on growing protoforms (Knock Out had some interesting observations) and commiserated with him when Miko, who had somehow managed to power up her electric guitar, started playing death metal.
"Bulkhead, I needed that!" Ratchet howled.
"Yeah, well . . . it's still useable. Probably."
Bulkhead looked uncomfortable as Knock Out examined the scanner, turning it over in his long claws. Miko had cut off the plug end of the guitar cord, Bulkhead had pried the back off the scanner, and together they had twisted the exposed wires of the amplifier to any piece of circuitry available until they found something that worked.
"Mmm, I'm impressed," Knock Out said.
"Ha! See?" Miko crossed her arms, glaring defiantly at Ratchet from her perch atop Bulkhead's shoulder, her guitar across her lap.
"—that you didn't electrocute yourselves," the red mech finished, handing the defunct piece of equipment back to Bulkhead.
"Pfffft!" was Miko's well-reasoned reply. "Let's show these guys how we roll, Bulk." She stood up on his shoulder, holding her guitar. But just as she raised her arm for an epic first chord—
"Careful, Bulkhead, you have something on your chassis," Knock Out sing-songed, slapping the Wrecker's back so heartily that the human was nearly dislodged.
"HEY!" Miko's booted feet scrabbled as she began to slide down Bulkhead's broad, inclined shoulder, protectively clutching her guitar.
"MIKO!" Bulkhead caught her in a cupped servo, then glared daggers at the red mech. "Knock Out! Cut it out!"
The medic dropped into a familiar pose, hand resting on his jutted hip while his other servo made a sweeping gesture of feigned innocence. "Problem?"
"Ahem." Ratchet said. "Knock Out, need I remind you that organic life forms are extremely fragile?"
"Oh, relax. The frail little thing is still functioning, isn't she?"
"Hey, who you calling frail?" Miko demanded, standing up.
"You." Knock Out flicked the side of his finger against the human just hard enough to send her toppling backwards in Bulkhead's hand.
"Knock Ooout . . ." came the growl.
Miko crossed her arms. "Ignore him, Bulk, he's not worth it. C'mon, let's start the fire before it gets too dark to see." She slid off the green Autobot's hand as soon as he lowered it and off they went.
Ratchet watched them go, then looked at Knock Out, who had started pouring over the day's data without a qualm. What had that one report said? Oh yes . . .
"Despite his general willingness and occasional ability to interact appropriately with Autobots (see Appendix A through F for exceptions), former Decepticon 'Knock Out' shows little to no concern for organic life forms. His categorical indifference towards Humans and love of racing has resulted in several non-fatal traffic accidents, resulting in his ground bridge privileges being revoked. (See Appendix G for details.) Recommend that his contact with organics be minimal and supervised."
All right, the report was from Ultra Magnus, which meant a lot of dour, disapproving exaggeration, but still . . . He wished he hadn't given in to Miko's begging and pleading. He should've left her back at the Autobot's base . . .
"I know my paint job's dazzling, but do you think you could help me with this? Once you're done gawking at me, of course."
"Of course." Ratchet glared at him. "And I wasn't gawking at you!"
"Whatever." Knock Out smirked.
While the medics conferred about the day's findings, Bulkhead scooped a space out in the sand and set the log in the center. Two grocery bags full of sticks and twigs, poking through the thin plastic, provided the rest of the kindling.
"Are you ready . . ." Miko said in her best announcer voice, holding up a stick as through it was a microphone, "to set things . . . ON FIIIIIIRE?"
"Sure am . . . fire is the number one source of fun in the Wrecker's rulebook. Right, Wrecker?"
"Right!" She slapped her tiny hand against Bulkhead's massive one. "Now, uh . . . got any matches?"
In the end they all sat around watching Ratchet trying to start the fire with his blowtorch.
"I don't know why I even agreed to this," he grumbled. "This is highly dangerous and against all regulations . . ."
"Hey, Ultra Magnus. Lighten up." Knock Out was lounging in the sand, legs crossed, lazily digging the tip of one pede into the casing of his foot to make his heel-tire spin. Vrrr, vrrr, vrrr.
A cube of high-grade energon rested next to him, courtesy of Bulkhead. The expression of tight-lipped disapproval Ratchet was currently giving Knock Out was almost identical to the one he'd aimed at Bulkhead when the bruiser had pulled out the high-grade and announced that they should celebrate the new generation of Cybertronians with a drink.
"Maybe you'd like to do this, Knock Out," the orange and white medic snapped.
"Oh, I'd just love to, but I can't." He held up his right servo and cycled through his transformations—hand, buzzsaw, drill, back to hand. "That's what you get for installing a blowtorch, old timer. Suddenly all the world wants a weld."
"What the purpose of this is, I can't even fathom," Ratchet said, watching the kindling crackle and curl. "Your suit is climate controlled, Miko, and we have headlights if you need light—"
"It's not about light or heat, it's about atmosphere," Miko said. She sat bolt upright. "There! There! You got it!"
A tiny orange-red flame caught at the edge of the log, creeping across its surface and into its heartwood.
Ratchet was not particularly jubilant. "Finally," was all he said as he stepped back and picked up his cube of high-grade.
They sat in silence in the growing twilight, the three bots holding their energon cubes, Miko poking at the fledgling fire with her stick.
"You know . . ." Ratchet took a pull at his drink as he watched the flames begin to leap, tentatively, over the top of the log. "This will be the first generation of Cybertronians born in peacetime."
"Mmm." Knock Out tilted his head back to look at the emerging stars. "No being shot at, scraped up, chased by vampire-zombies . . ." The others gave him a odd look, which he ignored as he took a drink. "Lucky little bastards."
"Aw, it's gonna be so boring now," Miko complained. She kicked a stray twig into the firepit. "I mean, we had some good times, right, guys? Kicking 'Con tailpipe, Wrecker style!"
"More like wrecking my tools, Miko style," Ratchet said snidely. "A tradition that's carried on to this very day."
Knock Out snorted, finishing his cube.
"Y'know, Miko's got a point," Bulkhead said, putting his hand low so Miko could crawl onto his servo. Bulkhead carefully set her on his shoulder. "The war wasn't all bad. We had some good times."
"And some bad times," Ratchet said. "Lots of bad times. Do you want a list?"
"Don't be such a downer, Doc," Miko advised.
"I'm just sayin' everything that happened brought us here today, y'know?" Bulkhead passed a cube of high-grade to Ratchet, who passed it to Knock Out. He took a swig of his own drink. "It made us tougher. Stronger."
Ratchet grimaced, remembering his own disastrous attempts to make himself "tougher and stronger" with Synthetic Energon. Knock Out spun his heel-tire, drank, and said nothing.
"Stir up the flames, Bulk. I wanna see them get sky high!"
Bulkhead accommodatingly pinched a branch between his fingers, rolling the log with it until the stick too was alight. He dropped it onto the flames. They all shifted and watched the flames leaping and casting writhing shadows. Maybe they didn't get sky high, but they were still oddly mesmerizing.
"Y'know the best fight I ever had?" Bulkhead set down an empty cube. "I was on Floron III—this was when I was still a Wrecker—and we'd just finished fighting through 'Con territory to get to this Autobot outpost. Eh, tiny place, not much to look at. Anyway . . . I was walking through the market, hoping to find some decent high-grade—" He picked up a new cube. "—when who do you think I saw? Breakdown!"
Ratchet glanced over at Knock Out, who was no longer spinning his wheel, just pushing it back and forth with the tip of his pede and looking into his cube. "Bulkhead . . ."
"I mean, I hadn't even known he was on the planet, what are the odds, right? So I charged him, we got into it, and we musta busted most of the stalls in the marketplace. Heh—at one point we both got stuck under this loose piece of awning, couldn't see a thing, but we were still hitting each other." He chuckled. "Nearly lost my hand that day, but I took off a pretty good part of his arm. Wonder what that slagger was doing there."
"He was buying insecticide." Knock Out's voice was matter-of-fact. "Our ship had an infestation of nano-gnats and we were passing through the system, so I sent him to get insecticide. Then he staggered back, half dead. So we never got any after all."
He took another draught as an uncomfortable silence settled. Miko was studying her gloved hands, clasped on her knees. Ratchet watched Knock Out for a moment, then turned his attention to the fire instead. Bulkhead cleared his vocalizer, his plating creaking as he shifted.
"Listen, Knock, I didn't mean . . . Uh, look, it was nothing personal, you know?"
Knock Out's pale face tilted towards him, a subtle gesture worthy of Soundwave. The dark red plates of his optics gleamed and flickered in the firelight, but his round, red irises, always hard to see in strong light, were invisible.
"What I mean is . . ." Bulkhead paused.
"Bulkhead," Ratchet muttered, making a slight, sideways gesture with his hand. But Bulkhead had to make this right.
"What I mean is . . . yeah, we were enemies but even after he turned 'Con, I still respected Breakdown, you know?"
Bulkhead fought a grimace. He hated it when Knock Out was like this, when he suddenly became alien and aloof. They all did.
"Yeah, sure, I respected him. As a fighter he was—scrap, there was just no one like him. Sure, there were stronger bots—Megatron—but, man, he had style. It was an honor to take him down."
Knock Out tossed back the rest of his energon, dropped the cube, and gestured for another. Ratchet's lips tightened for an instant, but he passed one to him.
"So, uh." Bulkhead rubbed the back of his neck and spoke in a rush. "What I'm trying to say is I'm sorry if I pissed you off just now and this probably sounds weird but I kinda miss him too."
Knock Out looked at him. "What do you miss about him?"
"Well—" He struggled for an answer. "I guess I miss fighting him."
Knock Out pushed to his feet and walked away, cube still in his hand.