Strange Creatures

According to the frustratingly short local measures, they were edging into range of eighty hours 'on the clock.' Eighty hours since Megatron had been brought down and the war for the Allspark had officially ended. Whether that put an end to the older Autobot-Decepticon war was a question awaiting an answer still, but Ratchet did not have time to ponder it. Not even if his own chronometer – which was not set to humanity's standard hour and would not be until he was good and ready to be bothered by such trivialities – told him it was just barely two Cybertronian days since he'd begun repair work. This, too, did not trouble him – he'd worked for longer, on more 'bots, against worse odds, and he – and most of his patients – had come out on top.

Which made the fact that he'd lost one of his squad that much more painful. Ratchet vented as he carefully extracted the fractured remains of Jazz's converter. Well, that wasn't going to do much good, unless he could get his hands on a forge, but Earth wasn't likely to have one built to the necessary specs. Earth lacked any number of tools and medical 'amenities', and while Ratchet had gone without them for quite some time in the name of finding the Allspark, he'd never expected to face settling on a planet with a tech base as low as Earth's. Field work was one thing, but when it ceased to be a temporary operational status and became a permanent state of affairs...

"Ratchet?"

"Mm?" The medic gave himself a shake that rattled his armor, and glanced over at his dragooned assistant. Ironhide had managed to field strip Jazz's weaponry systems, or at least, as much of them as he could without getting into the really delicate neural circuitry connections, but was now looking a little ill at ease. The weapons specialist was not a 'bot to hang about in med bays unless absolutely necessary, and while everyone had passed Ratchet's emergency field repair courses upon pain of being used as a lab example for the others, this wasn't his area. Unfortunately, 'Bee, who made a decent helper at need, was off-line, and Ratchet wasn't about to bring him back for this – not when he was two legs shy of a whole 'bot.

As for his newly found assistant... Ratchet glanced over at what was so incongruously, in Ratchet's opinion, called the 'break room' of the garage. Through a window, he could see Mikaela curled up on a set of chairs set all in a row, her jacket laid over herself. Human beings were fragile creatures, as were most organic life forms he'd ever encountered or heard tell of, and as unfamiliar as he was with their requirements, there was no way he would risk depriving her of rest if she thought she needed it. Ironhide might not be his first choice of orderly, but he would do.

"Ratchet?" said orderly asked again, a little more impatiently, and Ratchet realized he'd let himself wander off into his own thoughts again, without actually answering the question. Or even hearing it, really.

With a flare of vents, Ratchet forced his attention back to the weapons specialist. "Slagging inventory lists clogging up my mind," he excused himself. "Say that again, Ironhide?"

"I said, now what? Primus, Ratch," the other rumbled, scowling, "are you sure you should be doing this right now? You look like slag."

"Now pull the capacitor on that shield-mount and set it aside. Then lay the rest out just like you would if you were field stripping a gun-mount. Yes, I need to be doing this right now so I can move on to fixing 'Bee, and watch who you're calling slag, scratch-coat!" Ratchet rattled it all off, and shot the other a glare as he pointedly flicked a finger against Ironhide's badly scraped armor. Ironhide blew air out his vents and shook his head, unimpressed.

"Just sayin', doc, you're the only one of us who hasn't recharged since the shooting stopped. Mikaela's been off-line three times by now," he grunted, engine whirring with warning. Carefully placing the high-charge capacitor from Jazz's shield in with the ones Ratchet had extracted earlier, the weapons specialist paused a moment, staring at Mikaela, and Ratchet felt the distinctive shiver of active scanning.

"Carefully," he warned. "They're not made to stand up to many of those without consequences."

Almost instantly, Ironhide shut the scan down, though he continued to stare. Were he less preoccupied, Ratchet might've made some remark – at the least, he would've taken the opportunity to tease Ironhide for this newfound fascination. For this wasn't the first time Ratchet had caught him staring at Mikaela. For that matter, it wasn't just Mikaela who'd caught his interest: the weapons specialist had seemed unusually attentive to their human hosts since Megatron's defeat.

However, he had work to do, and that meant so did Ironhide. Ratchet was just about to remind him of that when Ironhide asked suddenly, "You're the one with the specialized med-scanners – do you get anything from them?"

Ratchet frowned and gestured broadly to the city at large, with its hundreds of thousands of human beings. "Of course I do. They're right there. Why?" And now confusion turned to concern, as he cast a scanner over Ironhide. "Are you getting blurring? Any sensor patchiness? Distortion?"

Ironhide shook his head. "No. But I don't get any spark reading off them."

And: Okay, Ratchet thought, revising his diagnosis upwards from minor sensory glitch to possible cortical damage. Won't that be fun to fix without a full field med bay! "Do you know what day it is, Cybertronian Diaspora Calendar?" he asked, setting down the trans-scanner power cell he'd been fussing over. "Can you tell me where you are?"

At that, the weapons specialist gave him an affronted look. "I know they don't have a spark," he informed the medic with frosty disdain.

"Then why are you looking for one?" Ironhide's vents cycled, and this time, Ratchet got the distinct impression that his friend was embarrassed – embarrassed, but also just a little on edge. Of course, this was Ironhide – edginess was normal, even if embarrassment was not. "Well?" he prompted, when the other didn't answer immediately.

"I'm not looking for a spark like ours, exactly," the weapons specialist corrected him. "I just..." He paused, engine whining in a somewhat strained, uncertain fashion. "Doesn't it bother you?" And when Ratchet only looked a question at him, Ironhide clarified: "There's nothing to feel! If you put his processor back together and ran a current through Jazz, you'd have as much reason to believe he's alive as you would from scanning them!"

Of all the complaints, Ratchet had to admit, he never would've expected this one, and especially not from Ironhide. Actually, he'd have been hard pressed to name someone of whom he would expect it. Bluestreak, maybe. Maybe. But Ironhide...?

"Are you certain you're all right?" he demanded. "You did take a hard couple of hits from Starscream and Blackout."

At that, the engine whine changed to a definite, deep and slagged-off growl. "I'm fine! Slag it, can you put the fragging diagnostics on hold for two seconds?"

"I'm a medic," Ratchet replied, and made it an apology as he quickly backed off. Not that he was afraid of Ironhide, but something in the other's voice had finally pierced through the eighty hours of salvage and repairs and the aches and weariness that came of not attending to his own injuries just because they weren't so serious as to merit putting himself in the queue before 'Bee or any of the others. He gave Ironhide an odd look, then glanced over at Mikaela once more, then back at Ironhide. "You're really bothered about this?"

"It's... uncanny, is what it is. Feels like a lot of drones walking around."

"You've never complained about this before."

Ironhide gave a soft rumble. "Never been up close before. You know how it is – get the job done, get out. We don't mix," he said.

Which was true, for a lot of 'bots. Probably for most of them, Ratchet included. Cybertronians had been in space for a long time, certainly, and certainly had encountered other intelligent species, but it was hard to live together. They were just such different kinds of beings, and the environmental considerations were so radically different – Cybertronian society was so much more intensely high-powered, so much more precisely organized to sustain its power-consumption-production cycle at a stable level. So very... fragile. As fragile, taken as a whole, as organic beings were, taken individually. The war had been devastating proof of this. It had also been quite the diplomatic deterrent: no species worthy of being called intelligent would willingly involve itself in Cybertron's fratricidal and seemingly unending war if given a choice.

Prime and others in the diplomatic corps did what they could to try to keep lines of communication open, but there was only so much one could do when the only guarantee one could make was that friendship with the Autobots would almost certainly bring down the wrath of the Decepticons at some point. 'Bots like Ironhide and Ratchet, therefore, might help out in the occasional battle where some organic ship or colony or navy could not help but be involved, and then they would stand and fight side by side with their allies of convenience, but that was a far cry from getting to know much about them. For the most part, relations, while civil and occasionally pleasant, were brief and did not last beyond any given mission.

Earth, though, was shaping up to be a mission like no other. No wonder Ironhide was paying more attention. He likely ought to, as well, and he would, just as soon as he got his poor, battered cohort back up to specs – or at least, as up to specs as was possible. Still, now that Ironhide had mentioned the thing about sparks and the lack thereof...

"You're right," he conceded after a few minutes' passive scanning. "It is uncanny."

Ironhide gave another rumble, a discomfited clash of base tones. "Epps said that he and his squad were attacked by Scorponok. One of their soldiers – Figueroa – was wounded. His heart stopped, and his brain activity, too. Epps said he was dead for almost two minutes, but then he just... came back," the weapons specialist said, sounding baffled.

"What do you mean, 'came back'?" Ratchet demanded. His friend shrugged.

"His words, not mine. I don't know what he meant."

"You're sure he said that this Figueroa was actually dead – not just near death, but dead? And he... restarted? Figueroa restarted, not some new person?" Ironhide just nodded, and Ratchet frowned, looking down at the shell laid out before them. Two minutes, he thought, searingly. Fraggit, if I'd had those two minutes with Jazz...! But when a Cybertronian's spark went, that was it. There was no 'return': even if the shell was reused to house another spark, it would never be the same person. There were no second chances.

Before the war, that fact had been firmly established in Cybertronian law and culture as that which made the difference between Cybertronians and drones. You could rebuild a drone and its AI countless times. You could multiply it – distribute the programming and synchronize memory across a huge number of units. You could shut those units down completely, then restart them with no ill effects. A Cybertronian, though, could not be so duplicated, nor resuscitated: it was the spark that separated life from its simulation.

From what little Ratchet had ever heard on the subject of xenobiology, there was less certainty of how to make that distinction among organics, although organics themselves certainly were adamant about making it most of the time, and not just between themselves and drone computers but between themselves and other, non-intelligent organics. They talked about mind and personality, which Ratchet understood, as Cybertronians had those, too. He just had no real notion about that in which those inhered for organics, but he'd assumed there had to be some spark-equivalent. From 'Bee's reconnaissance report, he'd gathered that heart and brain comprised the equivalent system in humanity – after all, heart failure and brain failure caused practically instantaneous death.

But if Ironhide's report was correct, then that couldn't be right...

He found that he was scanning Mikaela actively, and hastily made himself stop. There were far too many other ways to fatally damage a human being, after all.

"Nothing?" Ironhide asked, unsettled enough, even, to forgo the chance to snipe at Ratchet for the slip.

"Nothing spark-like, no," Ratchet answered. "There must be some explanation, though, some isolable factor or energy..."

Ironhide vented heavily, shook his head, and began working on disassembling Jazz's energy cannon. Ratchet, after a moment, returned to his own, more delicate salvaging, and for a time, neither 'bot spoke. But eventually:

"You don't think they're drones?" Ironhide asked quietly.

"No," Ratchet said quickly. The weapons specialist grunted, but a low vibratory hum told of his uncertainty. The medic growled in response, but then said tiredly, "I don't know, Ironhide. I'm not a philosopher – it doesn't much matter to me, unless there's a way of getting that postmortem... delay... to work for us, too. But whatever it is humanity may have, I've got a feeling it's nothing we can adapt for ourselves." He shook his head. "I still don't know why you're hung up on this. You've never been into this sort of thing before."

"Just feels different now," Ironhide said, engine whirring agitatedly.

At that, Ratchet stared out of the garage at the soldiers and their vehicles passing to and fro, the soldiers casting furtive looks towards the garage and its occupants. Yes, it was different, indeed. It's a whole, new, sparkless world... With a quick shake of armor panels, he tagged Ironhide with a laser-scanner. "Come on," he urged. "Let's get this done."

Ironhide flashed an affirmative and bent over his task once more, as Ratchet once again fell to inspecting the power cell.

But he couldn't resist just one more scan of the break room. Temperature, matter ghosts, one slow, shifting energy field where Mikaela lay peacefully sleeping.

And not a spark to be found.

Dammit, Ironhide! With a gentle cycle of vents, an unsettled Ratchet reluctantly returned to his work.