It was a whispery, watery little place.
That had been Jazz's first impression of the tiny blue-green world that Bumblebee had called them to – a planet so far out on the fringes of galactic space that its star hadn't even been dignified with so much as a number on any star map that Jazz had ever seen or downloaded, whether Cybertronian or otherwise. No need, then, to match up the natives' – humanity's – name for their world to anything already existing in the Cybertronian registers: its name was announced straightforwardly, no filters in between: Earth.
Of course, being Jazz, he had immediately followed up Bumblebee's linguistic links anyway and begun putting words into constellations that would sing sense for him: Earth. Soil. Dirt. Ground.
Ground. Humanity had named their planet for its upholding, with all the firmness and supportiveness, centrality, encompassingness, breadth and depth that that implied.
It was a whispery, watery, fragile, swirling little planet, whose radio and telecommunications were so 'quiet' as to seem unsure of themselves to Cybertronian sensibilities — and it was terra firma, base, solidity, ground. It was unfair to wonder whether its inhabitants, in settling on this name, were compensating for an intuition of just how delicate, how close to dissolution their world stood. Jazz had driven too many strange roads to let his own view get mixed into the views of others like that.
Besides, it was a matter of principle – there was a difference between a certain gloriously unpredictable collision of worlds and the submergence of them into a thick, smeared confusion, like a spread of warped mirrors.
Still: small watery world – vast terra firma. Inconstancy and ground. He supposed he must have seen dozens of such worlds, home to an amazing diversity of wetware life that embodied for him the same perceptual paradox, yet for some reason it struck him. Quietly, as was the wont of this world, but it had struck him. So many species that he'd met had looked up at the sky to draw the name of their world, or to an aroundness, or to something else on the world's surface that they desired or needed. This species, on its fragile (to him, to him!) world, had looked down and named its support: Earth. Ground. It was an idiosyncrasy that was not without its charm.
But maybe it had touched deeper than he'd thought, and drawn something to the surface – old pieces of himself.
Generally, Jazz didn't worry about forgetting himself – he might once have tried, but he'd found that the past haunted, and besides, he couldn't afford the habit of ignorance in his line of work. Every so often, it was true, something would erupt into the forefront of consciousness that had managed to creep up on him, and then he might have a bad moment or several.
But of necessity, beyond even the necessity of his work, he'd had to find a way of dealing with remembrance. And what troubled wasn't even the remembrance that most might imagine it would be: people expected that the officer who'd come to be Prime's first lieutenant, who'd come up through special ops from the beginning, and been with Optimus since before he'd been Optimus, would wrestle with the destiny and deeds to which his task delivered him. And it wasn't that he didn't struggle with that – he did, he had to. But he could own his deeds, at least; and he'd chosen to be special ops because he was, frankly, good at it and he wasn't one to back down from its intensity.
What haunted him in all its innocence was the destiny he hadn't been able to own.
Like most Cybertronians, whether Autobot or Decepticon, he'd never fought in his original form. By the time the shooting had started (which had been well after he'd gotten himself squarely into the middle of what would become the war in Kaon), he'd been modified, but not just by a simple gun installation or other weaponry mounts. He'd outgraded more than once before he'd ever gotten a gun installed, changing models with a frequency that would've seemed suspicious had anyone beyond his benefactors known of it.
And suspicion would've been warranted, because it'd been an illegal set of outgrades, done through the back-alley 'body-snatchers', who, operating under the radar of the medical establishment, had snatched parts, and sometimes nearly complete shells from the 'fritz-bin' before they were sent to the smelting pits for recycling. Not every model and part that they managed to scavenge was usable for anything but subcomponents, but some of them were, particularly discards from other outgrades or upgrades, and so piece by piece, they could build a shell capable of sustaining life.
Had Jazz had any other way out of himself and his cohort than such amateur operations, he would've taken it, but on pre-war Cybertron, the law had been clear: a cohort worked, a cohort made its members to be what they needed to be; everyone had a place, and no one could not have a place. Thus if no one could be 'discarded' and left without the work he'd been made for, the correlate was that a cohort had a claim on its members that could not be simply overridden by an individual's discontent. And if sometimes a cohort agreed to relinquish that claim on one of its members, so that the 'changer' could be outgraded provided that there was another cohort to take him, every changer Jazz had ever heard tell of had been a transport. And as rare as changers had been, even more rare had been the transports who hadn't changed to other transport shells but had gone to structure shells.
The reverse outgrade, from structure to transport, had been unheard of before the war. So far as Jazz knew, he was the only one who had ever done it, because structure cohorts were not like transport or mixed cohorts. They were gestalt minds, grounded in each other, one with each other and with the flows they tracked and manipulated: telecom data, power lines and generator hubs, space-lane traffic, geological flows. As in mind, so in body: they fit together in fields precisely organized for their tasks; or they might interlock with each other to form larger structures, either in a modular fashion or so that organa shared vital parts. Temporary detachment from that whole was possible in some cases, depending on how the physical whole fit together. 'Localization' was possible for every gestalt and organon, even on the job, as attention focused on some contact from the outside, somewhere on the collective body. But permanent detachment of an organon? No gestalt would consent to such a voluntary amputation – prior to the war, it'd been thought that no gestalt could.
That had turned out to be incorrect, but structures who had survived the destruction of their cities and detached permanently were... not the same. They couldn't be – a structure without ground was a structure at loose ends, but an organon without a gestalt? That was a contradiction – it didn't make sense. It more than didn't make sense, it deformed: it cut sense from ground and for a structure... well, that changed everything.
And that was exactly what Jazz had been counting on when he'd outgraded. As to why...
Before the war, neuropsychologists had been divided over whether the minds of individual structures survived in the gestalt merge or not. That individual organa retained memory of other times when they had detached had been well-known. It was what happened in the meantime, and the relationship between gestalt and detached organon, that had been the subject of controversy: was a gestalt merge a coordination of the individual minds into a totality in which individual organa retained some form of self-awareness? Or was it more radical than that? From without of the gestalt merge and its task, whatever it might be, the evidence had been inconclusive, yet if once a transport outgraded to fully participate in that merge, if once the gestalt accepted him, there was no 'returning' with reports. Such a one, if there were such a one, did not make report, he was the very stuff of reports, every word of him.
For organa like Jazz, on pre-war Cybertron, had had a way of speaking that differed from the way transports spoke: they had trouble with singulars – some didn't use them, some would wander in and out of 'I', 'we', and 'they', apparently without ever noticing or tripping over the difference. Some wouldn't use pronouns at all, and wouldn't discriminate verb conjugations the way transports or even other structures would. Did that mean that they had some sense of themselves that tended towards the plural, indicating a sense of numerical difference-in-unity? Or were their pronoun usage patterns – or lack thereof – simply a linguistic effect that corresponded to nothing but the necessities of Cybertronian?
And then there was the 'inside'/'outside' issue. Cybertronian, unlike most other languages on record, was rich in terms that clustered around that duality. Naturally so, for primary, robotic form didn't make for a clean cut between 'interior' and 'exterior': the armor plating that was the outermost layer of Cybertronian anatomy didn't cover everything, and basic structure often was exposed between 'more outside' layers of body matter. Consequently, a variety of terms existed for describing degrees of interiority and exteriority in the absence of an actual, continuous surface to mark off definitively what was 'inside' and what was 'outside'.
Structures were more closed off more often than transports, because alt-modes in general were bounded by a continuous armored surface. This was especially true of structural 'alt-modes,' in which structures spent most of their time, assuming their task permitted them physically to detach and take a robotic mode in any case. Despite this, structures, more than any other group of Cybertronians, tended to use the 'middle' terms that lay between the fixed and abstract concepts of 'interiority' and 'exteriority'. They even used the middle terms to use to describe something wandering through or around a group of themselves, even when they were not merged with their brethren. Such habits, which appeared to defy the logic of the body reflected in language, just rendered the question of whether organa structures had a sense of discrete bounds at the organa level within the gestalt, or not, more perplexing.
One might have imagined that to solve the mystery, one had only to pose such questions to organa structures who were equipped to merge. But it was not nearly so simple, because fundamentally, it wasn't a matter to be explained. It wasn't a question to be answered. It was a phenomenon to be lived. Jazz had lived it for uncounted years, and for too many of them he'd lived it as a kind of disjointed dying that he couldn't have done with.
For like all structures who detached for a time from their cohort's gestalt mind, Jazz would come to himself, when he came to himself, fundamentally disoriented. It wasn't that the contrast between the gestalt perspective and his singular one had been so vast that it left him reeling and confused. It was that he'd had no contrast – he was simply there at a certain point, as if he'd taken up where he'd left off hours or days or weeks earlier.
And in those times between detachments? the curious might ask.
That… that was where the confusion truly began. In that time between detachments were events – events that he did know of (sometimes) once detached. But they were not memories. A memory was something one had lived through. It was an event that took the form of a 'mine' or a 'to me'. What stretched in skips and leaps between his memories seemed more like a story he'd heard somewhere-he-couldn't-recall-where, one that told of things that had happened to someone he knew. But he couldn't make the story his. It was remote, existed in a kind of perpetual and unbreachable third person. Despite all trying, he could only look at it, not enter into it. It resisted every effort to put it into his perspective.
Even worse, however, was the inverse phenomenon. As opposed to the distant thinness of the story-memory-not-memory, there was the inescapable thickness of a wordless body-memory. The body he woke to in detachment was filled with strange aches and odd delights that confused and bewildered, because if he could not help but feel them, he remembered nothing of how he'd come by them. There, where he was most sunk in himself, in the dumbness of his body, he was utterly incapable of recalling if it'd been he who'd earned its pains or learned its enjoyments, or if he felt someone else's hurts and pleasures. Heavy with strangeness, freighted with a thick smearing of mind – singular, plural, both and neither – and metal, he lived inhabited by little habits and twitches: the half-aborted impulses of he knew-not-whom. And like most organa structures, he wouldn't have been terribly surprised if a limb had unexpectedly transformed because to be a structure was to be "susceptible to the influence of air and earth," as one poet had put it.
One might have thought that the "story" might help, that the story-not-memory in its distance would bring perspective, put a stop to the reeling. But it did nothing to tame such anarchy: even if he could on occasion deduce a causal link between one of its events and body-memory, the two were fundamentally irreconcilable. Deduction could sometimes coordinate them but coordination preserved their essential difference,for how could something as intimate as what he felt be made to belong to an event he couldn't grasp as his?
If he could've believed, as he'd known other structures had, that that disorientation and confusion were the signs of the deficiency of a detached state, and so the solution was simply not to detach often or for long, it might've been bearable. If his horror of that disoriented confusion had been the result of a malfunction, he could've hoped for repair. For a long time, in fact, he had hoped to find that he was malfunctioning. He'd gone back again and again to the medics, claiming that there was something wrong, and again and again, the diagnosis had come back clean. He'd tried insisting – there had to be something wrong if he felt this way. But the experience itself was not uncommon. Or at least, what he was saying – what he was able to say – sounded no different from what other detached structures would say, and they happily returned to merge back into the gestalt. No one seemed able to grasp why he should be so radically discontent with the same solution, if there were nothing medically wrong.
Jazz himself at the time hadn't thought any differently from the medics, or he'd not have kept searching for a problem that admitted of repair. It had been a long, slow, agonizing road to self-clarity, but at a certain point, he'd come to accept what he was being told: that there wasn't anything wrong with him. And with that acceptance had come the startling realization: if there wasn't anything wrong with him, then that meant that he didn't want to be fixed. What he wanted was to be saved. And salvation was escape from the gestalt merge, whatever the cost.
But the path to salvation had been barred by a law that, as he'd discovered, embodied the incomprehension of others. The medics who had been perplexed by him before had been horrified that he now seemed to be requesting their participation in a gross violation – for permanent detachment would injure the gestalt and its organa as surely as the death of an organon.
Even presuming permission were granted, no one knew what that would result in – transport-to-structure conversions were difficult, and success was hard to assess. The gestalt's stability was about the only measure anyone had, given the difficulty of communicating with organa. Would a permanently detached structure be stable enough to fill the role required of him in another cohort? No one knew. The only certain thing was that the gestalt mind opposed any such alteration, as did individual organa so far as could be ascertained, thus the medics could find 'no good reason' to support his request to outgrade and quite evidently they never would.
So he'd thought, at least, and nearly despaired, until one day, after the latest refusal of his plea to change, one of the junior medics had drawn him aside and virused him.
"Just something to keep you quiet, and to keep a bit of you quiet from the gestalt – under the radar, even in the merge," the 'bot had assured him. "Little something I figured out. We're going to take a walk – I've some friends you should meet."
That had been his induction into the underground economy of frustrated would-be changers – 'bots who couldn't outgrade, couldn't change cohorts, but couldn't simply do nothing, either. Among them had been some would-be medics, and a few medics who'd been would-be something others as well... and who'd been willing to try to cut him free, if he'd run the risk. By then, they'd hardly had to ask – he'd taken the offer without a second thought.
He'd still had to wait a year before the attempt could even be made. But the year up, they'd made good on their promise. And ever afterwards he'd relied on the trade-in-kind and hospitality of such clandestine groups for fellowship and survival, because a 'bot without a cohort was a 'bot without society – without work or purpose, and so without easy means of addressing his needs, whether physical or social.
It'd been tens of thousands of years since he'd made the shift, turned transport, and buried all record of what and who he'd been behind a labyrinth of false files and profiles. With Cybertron destroyed, it was likely now that he alone could betray himself. Not that it mattered anymore, of course – even if someone tumbled to him, it was not as if he would have any cause to think anything but that Jazz must've outgraded at some point after the war had begun, as many other structures had. Even if suspicion had been roused, by now it was unlikely anyone would care about pre-war scandal and outlawry. And that was fortunate, because although he might have fooled Optronix for awhile, he was almost certain that Optimus knew. For that matter, Ratchet had figured him out very early on.
But it was highly unlikely that anyone else would. It was unlikely, because most would look at his person and at his behavior and find absolutely nothing structural about either. Granted, he wouldn't be thought a typical transport, either, but eccentricity was on his side when it came to disguising his origins. The unexplored, the uncontrolled, conflict, messiness, speed, chaos – he thrived on such, which was in part what made him so effective as a special ops agent. On the more whimsical and bizarre side, he was infamous for cheerfully showing up back on base from his off-shifts with a coating of mud or dust or damp or muck that covered him inside and out, courtesy of off-road explorations, and soaked in the scent of whatever he'd passed through. And small though he might be now, he moved like few could, whether in war or out of it.
Even his more civilized pursuits evinced a certain willingness to, as it were, 'roll in it.' He would sink down into languages and music without a second thought, and for weeks and months blissfully revel in warping the minds of friends with strange new concepts and offending their sensibilities with new sounds.
It was hard to see anything structural in any of that. Other 'bots didn't see in his enthusiasm a structure's total dedication of self to function. They didn't see the drive to merge with the situation, to take it all in, process it in and through himself, put everything in order. They didn't see in his verbal agility and love of languages the drive to master what he had struggled with for so much of his life. In his willing descent into the grit and scent and wet of a world's wild places or grimy back-alleys, and into chancy, dangerous situations, no one remarked the quiet, joyful satisfaction of someone who, in his explorations, no longer need fear the things of the world, but could immerse himself in them and feel that immersion as a descent into self rather than a being-dissolved in the foreign.
And they didn't see either, on the other side of joy, the formless horror that, despite shell-swaps and years between him and that last merge, still assaulted him at times. Things lost their definition then, felt like one spreading, invasive mass threatening to engulf and submerge him, and he had to hold onto himself and just endure it. If he could afford to do it, then he would settle somewhere by himself and shut down every comm line and scanner he had and just be there. Because transport though he was now, when matters tilted suddenly into the overwhelming and the unbearable, primitive structural impulse relied first and last on the return to ground, made of the relation to base something intimate without words that underlay even the gestalt.
Earth was ground for humanity. And though no Autobot had ever thought to come here, it'd become their ground as well – maybe their last. All their hopes and fears had come to rest on this little patch of solar dust he'd not expected to like so well so soon. Funny, fragile place that nevertheless reminded foreign visitors of its standing – or that it was a place to stand.
They'd lost a lot of worlds to get to this point, and their own not least. Maybe Jazz felt that loss more deeply than others – maybe he felt the urgency of the appeal of a world called 'Earth' a little more personally, in a way. He would never know.
What he knew was the roar of engines, and Ratchet shouting warning: "It's Megatron – retreat!" A quick glance left showed an alley he could dive for, but the earth had quaked, and then a shadow fell over him, even as Ratchet snapped again: "Move! Fall back!"
And he would have, but he could feel the others at his back: Lennox's men, still too close and dithering over lost ground, and Ratchet among them. Ratchet, who was a thin-plated medical transport and not the one to stand... No.
So he'd held a moment, intending to break for cover as soon as the others were just far enough from harm. Just a moment he'd stood there, aware of Megatron bearing down on them, of the shiver of the earth before that relentless advance, of the broken glass and asphalt and heat shifting under his treads... One moment he'd stood. And then another. And then one more, because this was not going to be a route...
Numbing heat and a rush of static lit the air, made it tremble. Even as he'd staggered, the pain had slammed into him again, this time like a sun gone nova and the world could not endure. It heaved and cracked, and then the fire swept through and blew it to dust and heat. For one panicky, horrific instant, he was absolutely lost – free-falling and adrift without even a sense of 'this way up', and as time seemed to warp into eternity, he could feel himself thin out, armor plating going brittle from the scouring, dissolving into the chaos of that atomic dust...
And then suddenly, jarringly, he hit deck, and hard enough to make him groan, but he blessed that pain nonetheless. For the burn and shock of that impact told him where he was – told him that he was, and here, as of themselves his claws worked gratefully into that shattered little ground. For a second he lay there, comm lines down and optics shuttered, with nothing but nothing in his head, just sensors opened onto earth and feeling: Hereiamhere I am. Here. I. Am.
And here he would stay and stand. He didn't think it, but he knew it as a certainty that seared through him, wordless, swift, and visceral. It pulled him to his feet, where he paused a moment... and then turned around.
"Jazz, what are you doing?" Ratchet snarled, uncomprehending, desperation in every tone. A round of bullets shot past overhead, and Jazz watched Megatron flinch, then growl. "Jazz!"
Sorry, doc, he thought fleetingly. Then, lifting his face to his enemy's, he dug his heels into the earth...
Author's notes: This is what comes of mixing dissatisfaction with a cheap, cinematic death in with Levinas and strange ideas about sexual difference in Cybertronians. I would have added Jazz's vignette to the end, but it really doesn't fit there, especially considering that the rest of the series develops chronologically. Thanks to Witchtree for her patient beta-reading and suggestions! All the remaining flaws are mine.