A/N: I love Transformers Animated. YAY.

I wanted to see more of Sari and Ratchet, because of their squishiness, annnd… well, Ratchet's unexplored past on Cybertron just begs to be darkened up and vomited out as a horror story. Um. The flow of this piece is either very natural, or very stereotypical: it feels like an episode to me, but I don't know if that's a good point or a bad point!

I think I'm a little in love with Ratchet, too. Bad: y/n? Anyways. Excuse the liberties I've taken with Cybertronian-Energon theories, but I DO believe that every fanficcer has to stretch the bounds of his or her inorganic imagination regarding these little guys. So, here we go!

Takes place… uh. Before the Autobots hauled their ship out of the water? Eh?

Culture Gap

The Great War weighed on him, as it always would.

He didn't talk about it. Of course he didn't: not only was he not a dripping, numb-node whiner, he knew no amount of talking would make the past disappear from his memory core. It offered no relief to relive such scarred stellar-cycles, especially when predatory reminders lay in wait on their new home, tucked into every corner. Their relationship with the organics, comfortable in their Sparkless, yet technology-girded world, made his memories even more ponderous. While the rest of his team computed his experiences, Sari had no concept of battle between Cybertronians: surely it wouldn't even be relevant to her. It would not be lost on her due to her size, or her youth, but her unadulterated organicism.

Ratchet became queasy whenever he saw an in-depth repair on anything more complex than a toaster. To see squirming organics—pink or brown or yellow humans—worming themselves inside of a vulnerable dark cavity and jerking out live wires without care or respect made quiver in indignation. Similarly, whenever a technological creature malfunctioned… Sari would laugh and wipe the carbon dust away from her face after the 'refrigerator' exploded for the fourth time, but Ratchet's rheumy blue optics lingered on the tortured, blown-out shell, the circuits hanging from their raw sockets underneath the buckling metal, the craggy wires drooping into slag from the poisonous heat. Insides, innards, tubing.

Suddenly, he saw dying bots on berths, his own servos plunged deep into their abdominal cavities as he pumped the gasping bot's core piston manually, with his fingers, hating the feel of the gelatinous crude oil under his palm and the wounded chug of a pinless cooling fan.

He saw death, while she saw inconvenience.

But he couldn't blame her. Battle-scenes of Earth did nothing but confuse him: while the blind chaos of their gunpowder-scented clashes was horribly familiar, humans were such bumbling, fluid creatures, without clean bisections or units, that the explosion of their stretchy midsection to reveal more melting, wet organic substance simply made him quirk a brow—whereas Sari was more likely to be curled against the couch, turning a curious shade of chartreuse.

"How can you watch this?" She had moaned, hands flat over her eyes as another bomb hit and a scream pushed its way from the speakers. He shrugged.

"Easy. It doesn't matter to a 'bot like me."

Maybe he should have run it through his censors first, but he couldn't retract it. She became angry at him, then, for his 'insensitivity' he guessed (having tough plating on Earth was considered 'brutish', and human males were prized by females for the squishiness of both their coverings and emotions). Perhaps because the carnage wasn't relevant to his sense of fear meant he didn't care for organics—for her? Pah. She would understand someday.

Meanwhile, she was threatening to teach him more about himself than he ever wanted to know.

"Ratchet? Ra-atchet?"

The scruffy old Autobot refreshed his optics twice and looked back over his shoulder, unsurprised to see tiny, warm-colored Sari standing reproachfully in the doorway of their ship control room, hands on her hips. He was surprised, however, that said ship didn't at least warn him of her approach: but he was solidly convinced that Omega was still given to intuitive trust, even in this long-insentient state, and that Sari had earned his through the other 'bots. It was one of his… little fantasies that refused to clear up, even with time.

He made a noise at her and resettled his optic-magnifier, turning his attention back to the tortured, half-peeled interfacing of the ship's control panel.

"There you are," the little human huffed, stomping over the threshold. "It's a pretty day outside! Why aren't you partying with the rest of us?"

"I am outside. My my, just look at all that water," Ratchet mumbled absently, neglecting to look up from his work and cursing quietly when something tender and blue sparked under his tool. He reached for an iron sheet and snuffed it with a quick dabbing motion.

"At the bottom of the ocean does not count as outside," Sari sniffed. Distracted, Ratchet glared at the wall, refusing to honor the impetuous little creature with a visual link. If she abandoned her friends, slipped out of a party and rode an air-tight Trans-bot all the down here just to gripe at him, that was her malfunction. "In fact, it counts as crazy and anti-social and no fun at all!"

"I got work to do, kid."

"What? How?"

Given a context for the carefully arranged (if scorched) ship shielding along the wall, Sari now stared at the blinking, naked panel with acute trepidation, as though the half-exposed wires would break free and strangle her. Her hands intertwined below her chin, shoulders climbing to her ears.

"You're fixing the ship. You're… does this mean you're leaving?" She asked fearfully.

"No, we're not leaving. Not for a good, strong cycle, and that's if I can even get this fella running again," Ratchet grumbled, sitting back in his high-backed chair and flipping his magnifier up with a heavy resignation. The megacycles of tension weighed on his back pins: he shook as much pain as he could out of his creaking neck. "No, mostly I'm just chattin' to an old friend."

"Who? Where?" She demanded, hair flipping back and forth as she peered around the empty goldenrod ship.

"Nothin' you need to worry about, Sari," Ratchet promised her, patting the fragged control panel affectionately. The poor soldier was a mess, all the meticulous, intelligent levers and switches buckled and crunched against one another by the rolling distortions of any number of their crashes. He hadn't even begun to scratch the surface of 'operational', and that was without considering the crude materials available on Earth for in-depth patching. The crusty 'bot sighed again: which apparently was too much melancholy for Sari to bear. As she lifted her arms—a curious human signal to be picked up that he obligingly answered with one careful (operational) servo—she started in on him with the squawking tenacity only a youngling could manage.

"So… it's a beautiful summer day outside: Optimus is sunbathing, Prowl is off in a tree somewhere, Bumblebee and Bulkhead are playing something that would pass for volleyball and sucking down motor oil like crazy… and you're down here talking to yourself?"

"That's about the jist of it." Ratchet said grimly, gritting his mandibular in annoyance and setting her on the flattest portion of the intact panel.

"Well, that makes tons of sense," Sari groaned, wrapping her tiny arms around Omega's hulking gear-shifter for balance and glaring at him from under her feathery red protein-strands. "I seriously don't think I'm ever going to understand all of you Autobots."

"I think that goes without saying," Ratchet chuckled suddenly. "But you still have the easy side of it."

"What do you mean?" She demanded incredulously—as though it were all too easy to try and protect her hulking Autobot friends from Earth in general, play with them and understand them! The Medic analyzed the question for a moment, one servo at his chin. He wasn't good at inputting data (or 'giving lessons'), but his way would have to do for Sari: he doubted any of the other bots would bother to explain, and this was something she needed to internalize.

Also, whether he wanted to admit it or not, he still retained a good amount of guilt from the 'war movie' misunderstanding, and wanted to make good on it.

"Alright," he began, stowing his tools to the side. "What are these?"

Ratchet raised his fingers, indicating the glossy shards of blue regarding her from his squat face.

"Your… eyes?" Sari said slowly, squinting self-consciously.

"Nope. They're my optics."

He gently took hold of her face with one finger and turned it to the side, minding her delicate segmented strut-like support column. Confused, but trusting as ever, Sari let his looming metal appendage press at her, eyes wide.

"Optics, auditory units, olfactory sensors—"

He moved down, nudging her tiny hand open as she looked down at it in new wonder.


She stumbled lightly in her oversized boots as he removed his support from her arm, and gazed up at him so ardently—she wanted so badly to learn, to understand the best friends she'd ever had—that he had to smirk, small and cantankerous. He tapped her on the head, ignoring her flustered sound.

"Now, while we process each other, it's still not the same, see?"

"I think so."

Sari nodded, latching onto the gearshift again and seating herself on a nearby button. Her lanky weight wasn't even enough to depress it—which Ratchet was grateful for, as there was a good chance it would have sent a long jet of electric flames into the innocent ocean, but the Medibot was reminded once again how very, very small she was. He cleared his throat, searching his verbal banks again.

"Well, culture is harder to translate. We're foriegns here, and our coding and standards are different from you organics. Concepts get crossed, like wires. That's why I don't get riled up watching human war movies, Sari, and why you don't care about seeing some poor tutor-bot's insides laid out across a contaminated table for repairs. Some things you're afraid of… it doesn't compute. You think of me in your terms, and I think of you in mine. Hands; servos: eyes, optics. But sometimes, there's no compatibility: no… er, relevance. Got it?"

Sari took a moment to bite her lip, then looked up at him.

"Is that why you get funny whenever something explodes in Dad's lab?"

Those 'somethings' might have been 'someones' on Cybertron. He nodded, mouth thinning. Even if they didn't have Sparks to feel it, carnage was still carnage. She took a moment to think about that—about what it meant to him—and seemed to retreat inside of herself a little. He surveyed their little human guide out of the corner of his visual field, but focused on quietly picking up his tools again to assess the ship's more critical damage.

Just when he figured she had slipped into soft human stasis, and was content to pick away at his work, her voice came small and unsure from his side.

"Optimus said you fought in a war."

He flinched.

"We're at war now, whether Magnus knows it or not," he growled haltingly, snatching for an EMP diffusion-adaptor with suddenly stiff servos.

"Was it scary?"

Ratchet looked down at Omega's mangled control panel, blinking vapidly up at him, and felt something compress in his chest. He sighed.

"Yeah, kid. It was scary."

If she had asked him to talk about it, he would have shook his head. He would have grimaced, plucked her up by the scruff of her neck and set her back on the ground, telling her to get her caboose (or carburetor) back to wherever Bumblebee was and delete it. He wasn't talking; he didn't talk, after all, not to clean-nosed Optimus, not to anybody. But she simply stayed put and looked at him—regarded him, processed him—and he felt a little more vulnerable under this unassuming organic scrutiny than he would ever admit.

She simply waited, curled on her button. He couldn't tell her to get out until she said something—made a nuisance of herself—but he surprised himself when he began to output, if not to her, then to Omega Supreme's silent, silent panels.

"We Autobots won, but it was a long time before that even seemed to matter. A lot of… things happened. Things that I didn't sign up for, and things I would've been better off not internalizing."

"Like what?" She whispered.

Ratchet squeezed his chipped wrist with his good servo and swallowed.

Training was essential for any battle 'bot.

As Sparklings, they were crafted with potential and slant, but not set programming—that would have taken all the choice out of life—and every 'bot chose their occupation based on who they were. Ratchet was a Medic because of who he was, down to his Spark, though it wasn't something he could export or explain. Assembled in a tired time of war, he chose to repair and patch instead of shock and stab, and his downloading program was long and rigorous as well as specialized. In the beginning, however, every profession started out in the same place: Basics camp.

Rougher cycles on Cybertron meant rougher data-input. Instructors couldn't afford to be kind, and the data they distributed was often both true and unorthodox. One such instructor was a veritable legend at the Institution: a bulky, lacerated ex-soldier named Turretop, possessed of a slicing sense of cynicism and coding as harsh as a grinding stone. The veteran was brutal, and was regarded as an authority on Decepticon Seekers, of all things. He'd been in the war so long, it was said, that he refused to run on more than half-Energon capacity even in plentiful times.

He also had… rare information regarding the darker side of the war for Cybertron, such as sapping.

The Decepticons did it first, that they were sure of. In the high cycles of the war, Decepticons began dragging the bodies of the fallen Autobots off the battlefield by way of hovertrams, piling them high and wide to no explanation or sense. At first, the leading Autobots were infused with trepidation at the basic horror and insult of it. They assumed the enemy to be either mad from Energon depletion (they had effectively besieged the 'cons and cut off their supply for a near stellar-cycle now) or scheming. After cycles of this ominous act, they dared deploy a messenger to the Decepticon side with a simple request that the soldier's bodies be returned. The scout disappeared, sadly, but their request was honored in a dark way shortly thereafter.

The bodies were flung back, often over barricades, each one viciously dismembered—but most importantly, sucked dry of every last glisten of Energon. Sapped.

When a Bot went offline, his Spark was doused. His 'soul' and individuality engine disintegrated and could never be gathered again, but the pure Energon in his circuits and body—the still-functional power-source that had responded to that soul but moments before--always remained. It became static, but it remained. Energon gave Autobots their derma-plate malleability and healthy chromatic shine, and it would take stellar cycles to dissipate. The precious material slowly worked its way up through ever-rusting metal plates and chinks, decomposing along with the more delicate wiring and returning to the universe to leave a true, crumbling skeleton, not a corpse.

Decepticons mercilessly drained the corpses of the Autobot forces, glutted syrupy, tagged Energon into their dry bodies and threw the ravaged skeletons back over their defenses.

It was beyond sacrilegious. To organics, it was the act of sucking the air out of a dead man's slack mouth: it was chewing at his cold flesh to replenish one's own. There was also an unnerving sexual connotation to it, as Energon transfers in general were an intimate act, and the same wires were used to sap the off-line bots. It was the only case in which the feedback loop wasn't connected in an Exchange set up: or rather, the only case in the Autobot empire.

The Decepticons had darker uses for one-sided Exchanges, both online and off.

The solar-cycle Turrettop explained the gruesome aberration to his class, Ratchet was still too new to truly download it. Scare-tactics were as much at home in the data-room as the battlefield, and still-shining initiates always had trouble deciding what to believe. Once their instructor finished, the varied collection of 'bots stirred and beeped and chattered from their layered seating, some femme's interfaces paling to a sick grey as Turretop's dry, dead optics blazed outward at the class.

"But… that's cannibalism," Shortshock finally burst out, wide cyan optics stretching his clean faceplate. He was a wiry, insufficient soldier 'bot with long blue plating and an oblong face, looking all the more under-charged next to horizontal Medibot Ratchet. "That's virused!"

"Why would you tell us something so warped?"

Protests rose and fell like sine-waves, crashing in agreement.

"I don't believe it."

"I could never do that."

"Oh, I agree," Turrettop scoffed loudly. His battle-razed face buckled and sneered without affecting his blown-out optics, which set off shivers in half of them, but still they stared. "You'll never do it: it'll just happen."

His tone chilled them. The sizzles and whispers drained away from the classroom, leaving them all vulnerable and suspicious and not nearly as certain of their inherent Autobot goodness as they were before.

"See, they usually find out about it afterwards. In the right conditions, it's a dirty little reflex that manifests right before we go offline: we reach for Energon, no matter where it's stored. So there are those poor bots, coasting out of a black spot, back online and not processing why they suddenly feel so good…" He chuckled darkly, then shook his thorny green head, jaw cocked contemptuously. "Most malfunction. Usually mewling and puking half of the Energon away anyways. Useless crankshafts."

"That's just corrupt," someone muttered breathily, sounding as though they were going to eject from the mere idea. Turrettop's dry condemnation of the traumatized 'bots couldn't register with the younglings: it was all too raw and horrific. One maintenance femme shook her head, stuttering out:

"The idea is bad enough, but… I could never touch a 'con like that."

It was true: the concept of falling upon such a hated enemy with one's Exchange wires to push and suck the static Energon out of their slimy systems—it must be putrid. Damaging. It was exposing one's self—diving into—concentrated evil and gulping it down. Surely, that would warp someone into something malicious and unrecognizable.

"Never a 'con? What—and you'd do it to a 'bot?" Turretop leered, canon-stumps clicking in taunt.

The speaker was so offended that she didn't respond, mandibular snapping shut as she recoiled in her seat. Her instructor coughed, loud and wracking, and surfaced from the nasty health glitch with another acidic sneer.

"Energon is Energon. Doesn't matter who has it, it all ends up the same place after a sap."

"Have you done it?"

The classroom fell to dead silence, joints and slots and turbines and hinges frozen. Turrettop's face tilted up toward the squat, outspoken red Medic and something whirred deep inside his cavities: something that stank of slow, grim consideration. Ratchet stared down at his Instructors scrappy visage, Shortshock nearly trembling beside him, and waited. Finally, Turrettop nodded.

"Yeah, I've done it."

One of the engineer bots cried out in shock. The rest couldn't cap small emissions of static, some twitching or groaning.

"And I'm here today because of it," he continued gruffly, lacerated lip-plates curling. "Wouldn't have survived otherwise. The first time was backup programming: got no data of it."

"The f-first!?" The outburst came from a hulking artillery Autobot, frozen halfway to his feet.

"Second time," Turrettop said softly. "It was sentient."

It was enough that it could happen in the indecent dark of someone's backup coding.

That scared them: petrified them, made them want to go home. But the idea of a functional Autobot soldier purposefully hooking into an limp, offline bot stinking of hot carbon emissions and making the decision to intimately desecrate them was enough to quiet the entire hall again. Now, myth morphed to active, sparking sacrilege, and that sacrilege had both a name and a dead-eyed face.

He was also a war-hero for the proud, pure Autobots.

"Wait a click, here. Just what are you broadcasting? That we'll lose our sentience out there: have no idea what we're doing until someone's lying sapped in a ditch?" Ratchet demanded, unable to stay static in his seat. His thick servos were hooked onto his desk, chin propped out in something short of challenge. Turrettop's battered features sunk into a dangerous annoyance at the effrontery in the others' vocals, and he took point to face the youngling personally, blind or no. He took a few booming steps, craning over the base of his students' seating-area. All of them recoiled.

"I'm saying, kid, that war is madness. Madness, as a rule, is pretty slagging contagious. If you had anything in your logic drive, you'd just put yourself offline and be done with it. War like this ain't worth living through."

Ratchet stood in the chill air for a nanoclick more, all optics fixed on him. Then, finding nothing to respond with—locating nothing in his moral data to cope with this unprocessable affront--he retracted his servos and returned to his seat. He would have said he didn't believe it, but he did. He didn't have a choice.

Back on the floor, his teacher and hero moved on, stepping through the wreckage of their shattered values and raising his fist to reduce them to dust.

"Look at you protoforms. Servos squeaky clean, freshly sanitized: I hate to be so fragging standard, but you think war is all about what we would rather do? You think we have a choice—botically, unitally, universally?" He snorted deep in his barrel chest, turrets twitching. "Wait 'till you feel your Energon sloshing at the bottom of your capacitors, or trickling through your peeled tubing: wait till you hear the sensation of real hunger and your wires start to clot. Which'll short out first? Your optics? You think the bossbots will care anything about sending you out into the field with a bum coolant circulator? Logic drive? Compressors? No. No, because you can still engage a rock, and a well-thrown rock can win an empire, just like they say. They won't help you: you have to help yourself."

Then Turrettop smiled unevenly, revealing a cracked and yellowing mandibular crest.

"In war, you learn the true meaning of recycling."

Shortshock twitched next to Ratchet, exhaling barely loud enough to hear:

"Oh, stars."

Ratchet said nothing.

"That's… really horrible."

Ratchet nodded mechanically, exiting the fog that data-retrieval always left him with.

"That's war."

Sari curled up on her button, hands dropping from their busy, nervous hair-braiding.

"I know. It's always the same. Seems like it happens everywhere, no matter what planet you're on," she said heavily, hugging her skinny knees. "Everybody has something to fight about."

Ratchet agreed with all his parts: while things like love and affection were subject to mistranslations, mortal battle was an omniscient concept that no one failed to understand. Sad, that such madness could be so universal.

"So… you were out helping the fighter-guys on the front lines during your fights with the Decepticons." Sari seemed quietly proud that her friend had worked to patch up 'bots in need, and Ratchet nearly smiled at her glowing approval. Nearly. He nodded, and she looked at the stylized medical symbol on his arm. "Huh. I've always wondered how your big… red horn-things got chipped."

"Horns?" Ratchet raised his heavy white brow. Sari poked her forefingers up next to her temples with a pointed look, and the Medbot clicked, reaching up for the shattered piece on his frontalis. His fingers snarled and squeaked against the sharp fracture, making Sari wince.

"Yep. Bounty hunter, captive situation," he supplied, leaning back in his chair again. "Not exactly… proud of that one."

"What about your wrist?"

He was slightly impressed (in that fond, uncomfortable way) that she had noticed such an old injury, especially after he had the newly-recovered EMP mod to bulk out his plating.

"Same 'bot."

"How about this?" Tip-toeing from her perch, she threw her arms around his finger—right servo, third protrusion to the left, warped and permanently smoked down to the secondary joint, sensors dented sharply—and he shrugged, but twirled her around it until she let out a strangled giggle.

"These things happen. Solar-cyclic wear and tear. You've just gotta keep track of the more important scratches so you can remember the stories."

"Yeah," she said, sliding down to her knees on his always-warm palm. She waited a moment or two (until she knew Ratchet's attention was definitely elsewhere) before subtly snuggling in.

One would think young 'bots to be warm and full of noisy life, but they were chilly, glossy and ran ever-so quietly. Ratchet, on the other hand, was always low on coolant and the toasty heat seeped into his scuffed shell, giving it a sunshine-warmed-stone feel. Although she would never dare tell him, Sari loved listening to the grizzled chug of Ratchet's inner workings while sitting in his hand, an incidence as rare as it was enjoyable.

A flat silence slipped between them as they sat, close-mouthed and unsure, with the stillness of the hard blue ocean pressing all around them. Long as she watched the window, Sari could see no fish outside: it was too deep for them to breathe, or they were afraid of the ship. Possibly they respected Ratchet's privacy, as all intelligent creatures were generally compelled to do—except for little Earth girls, that is. Carefully, Sari tugged on Ratchet's wounded finger, curling with meekness when his sky-blue pupils squeezed and adjusted to pinpoint her.

"Did you ever see that happen?" She asked, as best and quick as she could. Ratchet made a vague noise. She bit her lip again, surprised with how much she didn't want to say it aloud, even with the old Cybertronian staring blankly down at her. Finally, she managed: "Was it true, what that teacher said? Did it happen?"

Perhaps she shouldn't have asked, but the wound was already open. It didn't take him long to decide how to progress: taking a cycle to stall and gather his data, Ratchet began a story that had never been put into words before, and would never again.

"My… friend, Shortshock—"

"The, uh--the one with the buzzers, like Bumblebee?" She tapped her fingers together, pantomiming a spark. She was anxious to show she had been listening, and she wasn't just dumb and just human and just nine. Mostly, she wanted to prove that he wasn't wasting this on her. "The one who wasn't good at much of anything?"

"Yes, that one. The screw-up. He, ah…"

Ratchet trailed off with a difficult sound, optics darkening.

"He wasn't sapped, was he?" She nearly shrieked, on her feet and grasping for meaning in his silence. Already, she liked him, this far-away 'bot: blue and skinny and unsure, nothing on his side but a full Spark. A real underdog, but not enough to be sad for. She liked his name, and didn't want him to die, or be sapped.

Ratchet grimaced, face hardening. He fought with the terminology and the weight of it, straining to find a compatible delivery. In the end, rather than risk softening it for the girl, he settled for a tense grunt:

"No. He killed and sapped a 'Con."

The words were simple enough, but her face drooped in shock. At the same time, he could see her trying to understand what that meant for him. Using her own terms and vivid fears, Sari questioned sapping: how it would be to viciously tear into another human being's insides and swallow and swallow just to stay alive, and how it would be to wake up afterward with no idea what you'd done save for the slick taste of meat in your mouth and a blooming knowledge of fullness. When she spoke, he could hear the struggle in her.

"But he's an Autobot," she began, looking up at him beseechingly. "I thought… I thought that meant he was a good 'bot."

"In war, Sari, even good bots do bad things," Ratchet murmured and gingerly returned her to her button-perch.

The instant Shortshock snapped out of stasis, Ratchet knew something was malfunctioning. He'd been on the bench for cycles, still as scrap metal, but the word pulsed out of him before his optics opened:


Shortshock gasped and stared upward at the bright Bay lights before bolting into a creaking sitting position, servos slapping to his front. Ratchet saw the busy flicker of an internal diagnostic scan spasm through his friend's face, and flinched when he howled again:


The sound echoed nastily even in the noisy ship. Soldiers on other benches looked over with incomplete faces and battered expressions, metal grafts sliming over their blurry optics or patching plate-stripped arms on. Ratchet had come running the instant he heard Shortshock had been admitted, but it was strange to find him online when his stasis-reading had been so deep, and the Energon so low--

"Shortshock, dial it down—" Ratchet warned him, stepping up to his bench. Then Shortshock looked him full in the face, and his confused anguish hit Ratchet like an EM slam. Images flooded into the Medbot's receptors, riding his processor for a rigid nanoclick before shuddering off into some sort of mangled… sense. Energy-field empathy. Suddenly, unbidden and chilling, he knew why the other 'bot had been found tangled with an off-line Decepticon, and knew the only reason Shortshock wasn't in the same state.

As Ratchet took a numb step back, Shortshock clutched at his own face, words hiccupping up and out of his speakers for no one in particular.

"N-no. I didn't mean to, I didn't—but I needed it, and I knew—he was--" He took a deep, shuddering breath and turned his glossy optics to Ratchet again, trembling. "H-he was already non-op, but I'd tried too hard to get him into the pit and I couldn't see anymore—just black, and explosions--th-then my servos were in his b-back, and—"

Shortshock screamed, short and sharp, and Ratchet felt the blind fear invade his server. Past the disbelief that Shortshock—weak-sprung Shortshock—could have done it, the vibrating empathy field made him understand the nauseating, involuntary grope for life. He'd seen something like it on an Organic study: already looping in his CPU was the file of an arachnoid creature eviscerating his bruised and dripping enemy with a gouge of his serrated claw, then quickly shoving the steaming offal into its pulsing open mouth.

Ratchet shuddered.

"What's the damage?"

Even though he saw them sprinting up the ship's hallway, Ratchet couldn't find a fast excuse for the white-plated Prime-Medics, mouth opening on mute vocals: meanwhile, Shortshock was screaming and spasming, lanky body condensing into a knot on the brightly-lit medical berth. The lead medic touched him, recoiling as a rogue spark snarled out from Shortshock's half-sheathed electrodes.

"Soldier, can you hear me?" He tried to local-scan the bot's optics with a blue-tipped finger, but his subject kept twisting away. "What's your damage?"

"Tough luck. He's glitching," one of them grunted, reaching for his emergency kit. It was true: the scuffed blue bot was stuck, skipping on the same three audiobits of his anguished scream. The crew adapted fast, and Shortshock was forced from his ball into a quaking prone position, his frontal access port flipped open in the dry air.

"Code three-four-nine, with recurring freezing. We need an emergency infusion of Energon, stat."

They advanced on him, holding the precious ultra-magenta beauty high in their wrapped servos. The glow of it seemed to reach the soldier as words hadn't.

"No!" Shortshock snapped, convulsing back into operation. His cyan optics flickered around wildly, taking in the medics and the Energon and quaking from his core. "I should be off-line! No, Creator, please, don't waste it on me—you're wasting it--!"

Shortshock erupted in a new, raw wail, driving his feet into the base-board of his bench and lashing blindly at the tense Medics, trying to force the infusion away. One of the medics cursed as the thrashing 'bot began to spark again: Energon was both precious and highly combustible, and their response was to wrench the poor soldier flat, snap in his restraints, smother the sparking wire with a heavy sheet and prepare a painful Intra-Port line as the sonar-expulsion kept going and going and--

"Stop, for Spark's sake! You heard him! He doesn't need it."

The small cluster turned to look at him, glaring at the intrusion. Shortshock flickered into meek, thrumming silence at the sudden halt, optics wide and glossy. His head clanged limply to the side. Ratchet shook his head and cleared his throat, pistons pumping fast and silent in his chest cavity.

"He doesn't… need it."

Maybe something like suspicion crackled through the Prime-Medic's covered faces—none of it added up, especially with the soldier's odd words and the fact he should have been offline hours ago—but Ratchet stepped forward and held up his EMP-generator tagged servo to show his Purpose, clamping down on the waver in his vocals.

"I've scanned him already. He's operational. Go… go find someone else."

A soldier screamed in hot agony further down the line, blowing a light-socket, and the confused Medbots hardly wasted time looking at him after that. Once they were gone, Shortshock's thin grappling mod whipped up and clamped around his shoulder, yanking him down.

"Ratchet—Ra—put me off-line. Please!"

"Absolutely not," Ratchet growled. Shortshock moaned as his friend released the cold restraints, internal agony still ripe and throbbing under every plate.

"I won't--I'll forgive you, they'll forgive you for it: just please—you know what I did—I sa-sapp—sa-"

"No! I won't douse you, not for something like this!" Ratchet snapped back, peeling the still-grasping appendage away and snatching his thrashing comrade around his wrists. He shoved himself close to Shortshock's flickering, shuddering face. He spoke with as much conviction as his processor could hold, jerking Shortshock sharply. "You couldn't help it."

"Y-yes I c—please, please, Ratchet—it felt like—I shouldn't feel like this, you don't know--"

"It was just once, and it was just a Decepticon," Ratchet hissed.

A stellar-cycle or two ago, he would have surprised himself. Now, malice came quickly. They were a long way from Institution, and his first lesson on-field was a true hatred of their enemy. He'd repaired their carnal handiwork and sent silent soldiers limping off with no hope of even a leg or arm prosthesis; he'd had so many 'bots flat-line under his surveillance that he was hearing the residual, dooming note in his stasis.

No, he'd seen too much cruelty not to know their slagging sub-Cybertronian natures and celebrate another dispersed filthy spark: no Decepticon would shudder at sapping an Autobot, and that made Ratchet want to do much, much more than patch.

He clamped down into Shortshock's carpal plating just enough to pinch him.

"You're online, Shortshock, and you're sentient enough to hate what you did. Isn't that enough?"

His skinny friend fretted and twitched, aspirating shallowly. The glug of his coolant could be heard clearly, pulsing underneath through his substructure and dredging up sticky condensation. They remained there for a solid cycle, Ratchet radiating a soothing, if grim frequency: slowly, Shortshock powered down. When Ratchet carefully disengaged one of his wrists, though, the damp bot slapped the numb servo to his chestplate a click later, groping frantically. The noisy assault intensified, the soldier hissing and prying upward with his fingers like something was wedged underneath his armor.

Squeezing through his tubing. Crawling around.

"Look inside. Please look," Shortshock whispered. The pure shock on Ratchet's face didn't make any difference: the lanky bot grabbed his friend's hand and pushed it against his unnaturally warm undercarriage, wincing. "I feel like something's… in me."

The breach of basic privacy was forgotten as Ratchet opened the soldier's hatch with almost-steady hands. A brief scan and some well-integrated medical data told him everything: aside from some superficial mechanical trauma, Shortshock's exposed innards were spotless, every wire and sparkplug in place. All of it thrummed with fresh, ready, innocent Energon.

"Oh, stars," Shortshock sniffed.

Ratchet, once more, said nothing.

"But it was just once, though, right? He didn't do it again?"

Sari drooped down to her boots as Ratchet shook his head, sadly stripping her blue underdog fantasy away piece by piece.

"'Fraid not. I don't know when he did it again, or how bad it got before I registered it, but… he sapped, and he started altering because of it. I tried to block it, because he was still ShortShock: still bad at pretty much everything. Always subspoken, still using that primordial little phrase; staticking at odd times. But through all that, he started stalling and spacing. He'd be manic one nanoclick and running low the next, then hot as an engine and suddenly sparking to pick a fight. I can't blame myself for avoiding it: there was enough happening out on the field without worrying about one of our own."

Sari took a minute to absorb her dense, sad disappointment, then searched Ratchet's craggy face for hope.

"Did you try and stop him?"

"Once," he said heavily. "Just once."

It surprised him as much as Shortshock when Ratchet's open servo went slamming into the other bot's buccal-panel, creating a loud clang that filled the dark room to the dusty brim.

"What was that for?!" The taller 'bot cried, half-dashed across a bench from the blow. After the sudden impact-spark retreated, his thin fingers flitted around the dislodged piece and cupped it protectively, half-glaring, half-gaping at his friend.

"Your optics, that's what!" Ratchet shot back; his next move was to grab for his shaking friend's face, but the soldier dodged away between two cargo boxes, limbs coiled and radiating a ready aggression: a quick, toothy anger that was as new as it was unnatural. Ratchet fell back and clenched his servos, glaring at him. "Go ahead, scan yourself! They're tinted!"

At first, he was insulted. He stuttered, then protested, sneering and fuming weakly. Then the words began to wear on him, and he furtively initiated the request, scanning himself. It finished with a muted, nervous beep, but by that cycle Shortshock's optics had already faded back to their clean blue. The foggy film of near-purple had bled away, presumably into the thin space air, leaving Shortshock with a lost expression.

Still, he had seen it.

"Care to output?" Ratchet rumbled, still steaming on the inside as the other bot shrank at the bite in his voice.

"I… it doesn't compute," he protested, back to nursing his rattling plate. He stared around the empty cargo sector—where Ratchet had half-bullied him, under pretense of sneaking a look at some new mods—but eventually settled his visuals on the floor, shoulders creeping higher in the silence. "I don't understand."

This was the Shortshock he knew: the one who hated being called out for errors and shrank when confronted. Still, a deca-cycle ago that same Shortshock had pegged a field-tech in the gut over a sparkling miscalculation, then rolled the poor bot into a ditch without anything more than a disconsolate hiss. Ratchet had to agree: it didn't compute.

The medbot pushed up next to him until he could feel his core-heat, snagging a shoulder-plate to steer the younger bot by.

"Then I got one thing you'll understand: your allegiance is as much your trend of code as your assembly," he said sharply, staring into his friend's down-turned optics. "And if I didn't know any better, I'd say you're spiraling. You haven't been acting like an Autobot lately, according to my files. Times are just as hard for you as they are for me, but I know what you've been doing on the field: I've recorded you, for Spark's sake, and my next stop is Prime-level if I spot you doing it again. Get me?"

He had expected animosity—had banked on denial and a shouting match--but the soldier's reaction still surprised him. Shortshock's face twitched up, a sudden viciousness flickering across it like a physical blow. Before Ratchet could react, it was gone, and it had taken something out of Shortshock on the way: he stood without a trace of vertical mech-tension, aspirating quietly near Ratchet's hot exhaust grating.

"I'm just recycling," he finally whispered, and there was a dull, gleeful edge to his vocals that drove Ratchet mad in a nanoclick.

"That's cannibalism!" The Medibot spat, shaking the other Autobot out of uncensored rage. "You said so yourself, it's disgusting!"

"And it was just a Decepticon," he returned, and Ratchet stalled, mouth half-open, at the sound of his own words. In the tense silence, a hot, creeping energy reclaimed Shortshock's long, slouched body, optics sparking readily, and Ratchet fought to keep his servo on the other's suddenly near-sizzling plating. "The least they could do is give us a boost after their Spark flies off. After taking so much from us, we take from them. Good cycle. Serves them right, doesn't it?"

Somehow, he was still looking for approval. A month ago, he might have had it: but now, just like two months into the Campaign, Ratchet had seen too much.

"It doesn't serve anybody! You can't just… sap them! It's doing something do you," Ratchet persisted. He tapped at his comrade's structure, shock growing at the answering sizzles of small-scale combustion. Shortshock pulled away, brushing off the traces of carbon. " Can't you register that heat? That's not standard!"

"But I feel good. I'm fighting better, but it's not for me! I'm helping the cause," he continued earnestly, servos hooked into claws. "We'll win, this way. Plus, it—I swear, I know what I'm doing, but it's not as bad as you think. It doesn't hurt, and it works."

Shortshock searched Ratchet's face for disgust and found it in plenty, etched in every plate. He countered it with a grim, distant concern, shaking his head.

"If you had any logic, you'd be emulating me. Doing the same thing. I… wish you would, b-because your stats are so low."

His last words made something skip in Ratchet's chest: they were not conniving or heated, but ardent. Shortshock's goodwill had not withered. He wanted Ratchet safe and charged. Because they were friends. Because he was still… sentient.

Ratchet growled, blocking the trend.

"My stats may be low, but I'm not: I'd never stoop so far as to plug my wires into some filthy 'Con's cold ports," he rasped, leaning into the other bot's face. "Never."

The soldier sneered, back supports rattling erect in a sudden pulse of animosity.

"Then don't expect me to teach you how, you waster."

Quicker than expected, Shortshock stooped and dealt him a near-painless E-pulse in the knees, which sent Ratchet stumbling back into an empty cargo siding. He impacted with a dull, dusty boom, shin-pistons tingling harder than he could bear: one bungled step and the heavy Medic was across the floor, the tenacious electricity swarming up to his CPU.

"You're fried," he managed after the first, hard clicks had passed. He gagged once, twice, gritting his mandibular against the non-pain and the quick fear that came of being laid prone: especially by a friend. "You process me? You are corrupted, and halfway to converting!"

Shortshock, a fearsome blankness in both face and body, sheathed his shockers with a short snap and turned away, slowly picking his way out of the dusty cargo hold. Ratchet almost let him go, absorbed as he was in his own handicapping and the utter disappointment slugging through his system. He almost made it.

Right before Shortshock's silhouette phased into the pure light of the Cybertronian day, however, Ratchet slammed a fist into the empty cargo container, making Shortshock stall. A nanoclick passed, dust settling.

"How does it feel?" Ratchet muttered.

The other Autobot waited, not turning back.


Ratchet forced himself to his knees, smearing the heavy condensation off his exhaust grates. Low coolant. He winced, finding the filthy words again.

"How… does it feel to do it?"

A low, creaking sound came from the doorway, and Ratchet shifted his field up. After a moment of blindness, he could register nothing but Shortshock's wide optics in the half-light: each orb blazed a poisonous color found in neither Autobot nor Decepticon camps, but somewhere inbetween.

"Better than it should," he whispered, and disappeared.

"After that, it… ah, it got even worse."

"Worse? How can it get worse?" Sari wailed, nearly tearing at her hair in anguish. "That was worse: you said it was bad before, and now it's worse, but there's nothing after that! There is no 'worser'! You can't tell me that!"

She didn't want to hear about Ratchet's friend tazering him. She didn't want to hear about Ratchet's friend no longer acting like a friend at all, but an enemy, but after a moment or two of grim silence she looked up at the towering 'bot with damp red cheeks. Embarrassed, because it had to be even worse for him, and his sad, chipped face showed it. Still, he was telling her about it. He trusted her with it.

"How… bad?" She asked from behind her knees.

Ratchet took a deep breath, one servo pressing against his parietal plate, optics entrenched in his lap.

"One field-check, after we'd nearly blown Ortu to scrap trying to reclaim it… I, ah—" Ratchet fidgeted in something like dull, deep pain, then swallowed it down. " I caught him with his wires in an Autobot. His name… I knew him. Knew the 'bot, even with his tubing slopping out of him like magma-flow. But Shortshock-- I don't even think he registered me."

Her eyes widened, heart skipping two, three beats.

"He ate an Autobot?" She gasped.

"Yeah. His own kind."


"He was smart about it. It was plain he'd been sapping Decepticons for a near stellar-cycle by the time I noticed. After that, he started fetchin' our boys' bodies back to HQ, just like the patriotic bossbots would've had it, 'scept he claimed they were 'from the other side' and that the 'Cons had gotten to 'em first. Every one, sucked dry."

Sari rattled her head at the horror of it, pigtails whipping her cheeks.

"That's crazy! That's wrong. He ate Autobots!" She whimpered, thinking about her friends—her cold-skinned, warm-Sparked Autobot friends with their comforting hands and perchable shoulders and bright colors. She made a low, hurt sound, pressing her face into her hands. "How could he do that?"

"Once a 'bot starts sapping seriously, their logic drives crash," Ratchet mumbled miserably. "There's something about that Energon transfer that destroys them, taints their processors: I hear it puts a glimmer of the dead 'bot in you, like a trace-Spark in the back of your central processor. Makes you hear things. But it's addictive, and sooner or later it isn't about the Energon anymore. Shortshock—I never saw him take rations. Not once. He must've… got all his Energon from the casualties."

Then Ratchet's face crumpled in shame—real shame, old and ripe and straight from his insides—as he remembered what he had done to stop it.

"I was useless. I let him do it: I couldn't even bring him in like I said I would. Guess that part of me just… didn't want to admit it was even happening. Too much to download."

Sari couldn't absorb it either. Her fantasy had fallen so far that she simply couldn't think about Shortshock at all, or about Ratchet living through such sad times: instead, she wiped her cheeks and cleared her throat, fumbling for a question.

"But… you said the Decepticons did it all the time: why didn't they go crazy?"

"Anybody who saps goes… 'crazy'—and evil," Ratchet explained to her. "Sapping is plain, sick evil. The Decepticons can do it because… some kind of programming is missing in their thorny insides: the programming that protests and refuses and doesn't let them do the act without self-destructing, a little at a time."

Something clicked inside Sari, small and final.

"They don't have a conscience," she whispered.

"Un-con-shus." The Autobot tried the human word carefully, weighing the syllables. "Maybe. Can… 'unconscious' destroy humans without ever screwing with their mechanical stats?"

"No, a consience," Sari corrected him brusquely, then waved her hands. "But, yeah, that's exactly what it does. That's guilt: it can make you feel so horrible that you get sick and sometimes even die, even though it's all in your head. A conscience only happens in good people, and it keeps them from doing bad stuff."

"Well then, missy, I think we've got another clean translation," Ratchet murmured.

Somehow, Sari wasn't as thrilled as she thought she'd be.

Ratchet's profession as a Field Tech had taken him into many scorched battlegrounds, mostly with a small crew of his own profession: whether or not they got separated was their own business, but they healed what they could, where they could. Every so often, however, he was trusted with an assault team. He rolled along as their accompanying Medic, charged to split his initiative between the personal state of his team and the good of the mission if threats came to blows, which was always a hard call to make.

Dull as it may seem, he never expected to find Shortshock in the back of his briefing room, small, trim feet crammed together, face as blank as the day he was assembled. Something felt bad about it, right from the start.

Still, they were a healthy team of six, which he felt more than adequate to rein in the skinniest bot: to discourage any… behavior. The mission itself was so classified that, instead of an upfront debriefing, they were to receive updates at specific broadcasting hot-spots, groping along step by step. At first, it went well. Shortshock was mostly silent, only emitting the occasional static once in a while, as though nervous. It was unsurprising.

Ratchet felt his hopes for a safely dangerous mission fall to knee-level when they were told to split up four-to-two and progress through the subterranean thorough-ways, but motored it dutifully behind his Colonel, their gunner and former friend.

Shortshock's orders were to blast through rubble and take out any threatening debris. He followed them seamlessly, with small self-conscious jerks and noises, until they had to stop for a base check-in and any updates therein. Freshly transformed, they stretched and stared. The empty cavern thrummed with the impact of deafening explosives overhead: they were underneath the largest battle of their time, but certainly not the largest to come. As their leader deftly probed his channels for a link to HQ, disaster struck: a gargantuan black rock shuddered free from the ceiling in the aftershock of an explosion and whistled down in the darkness.

Shortshock was quick, if nervous. It was his job to protect them with his stingers: it was the only mechanical skill he had to offer. Usually, he strained to impress. Usually, saving a fellow soldier would have been a compulsive and earnest act, compatible with both his mission and his programming.

Now, optics dry and wide, he stayed perfectly still until he was certain it was 'too late'.

Ratchet and the Colonel reacted quickly, wheeling away. Their gunner, a heavy she-bot with orange and green plating, was drenched in the rock's shadow, but managed to throw herself out of the way right as it hit with a girder-rattling shudder. Instantly, Shortshock recovered with an anguished sound and shot the rock to pieces. The debris was overpowering. The scattered Autobots coughed in the thick, tar-black dust, calling out to each other haltingly, then falling into silence as the explosions slackened above them. Slowly, they gathered themselves: once their leader had checked the girl himself, he stormed over to the clanking soldier, grabbing him by his neck and yanking him to optic-level.

"What was that?!" He demanded. "Are you trying to get her sparks knocked out?"

"Sorry, sir. It won't happen again," Shortshock mumbled, avoiding his superior's blazing optics. "I-I stalled."

The Colonel snorted, but the frail, bumbling behavior was all-too natural in Shortshock for him to give a damn. Cursing his assignment, the lead 'bot pressed on, failing to notice the odd, calculating spark blooming in the others' optics after his back was turned.

Whether or not anybody registered it, Shortshock was smart. Smart enough to use his mediocrity to his advantage; smart like one could be only when ravenous.

They never reached the next check-point. The chaos was quick and skilled: it enveloped them in the old tunnels, Decepticon Seeker calls stabbing in from every direction as the cavern ceiling crumbled inward. The enemy poured in, smoke-shielded and vicious. Ratchet armed his magnetizer and deflected as many attacks as he could, both suffering and dealing blows. Soon, the acrid smell of thin oil and spilt Energon filled the underground cage, lending sights and sounds and sensations to many, many stasis-terrors to come.

The old cave wasn't up to the mechanical carnage: the 'Con attacks finally cumulated in an all-out collapse of the gritty stone walls, which cleanly separated Ratchet, the gunner and Shortshock from both their Colonel and the Decepticons. The battle was no more: instead, it fell to slaughter.

They heard him go offline.

They heard the snorting snickers of the long-winged Decepticons as they tortured him—it was done with talent and efficiency, just enough to purge their needy animosity—and threw his warped parts to the ground. It was quick. Trapped in the dark, Ratchet stood and listened—listened, and learned, and feared. He hated, most of all.

The 'cons took off the moment they were done, hissing into the unseen sky. Silence filled the half-caven, broken only by settling debris and the drip of water: the ambush was done, and the ground battle had moved elsewhere. Booting up his poisonously-green night vision, Ratchet turned to his remaining team and began to say something that would get them out of there and into the sunlight again--but it was flushed from his vocals by a loud clank and a cry.

The sound, high and female, couldn't have been from Shortshock, and that did not bode well at all.

Ratchet, stunned, looked up to see his Institution partner slam the girl from behind, digging one servo into her abdominal ridges and driving his sharp, sparking elbow across the back of her neck. Sloppy and nervous, the blow failed to knock her out: instead, she writhed in the pain of the hefty accompanying shock as she crashed to her knees. In a panic, she tried to transform, wheels spinning at her sides, but another dose of electricity derailed the attempt. Her attacker sheathed his electrodes and latched onto her back with maliciously hooked servos, tearing at her scapular plating until the shrieking sounds of warping metal could be clearly heard over the gunner's newly hysteric screams.

Ratchet watched it all as though he were frozen: as though he could possibly fail to understand what Shortshock's intentions were. He only shuddered back to life when the poor girl cried his name in between two wracking screams, and he barreled forward, oil pumping hot and unsteady through his numb limbs.

"What are you doing?!" He roared, closing the gap with one clenched servo raised. Shortshock did not look up, only hissing in rage when the girl's plating-pins snagged his wires. He thrashed, tugging harder and harder, every wrench making the other bot spasm. "Disengage! Get off of her, stat!"

He dove into them with a back-breaking crash and metallic squeal, shoving his hands in the steaming seams between the two colors of plating. He ripped at Shortshock exclusively, trying to shove the gunner away with his magnetizer. When it kicked in (and something snapped very close to him, like a tender joint or a wet wire because Shortshock refused to let go of all of her—the clean-up crew would find her wrist on the floor later), she went tumbling across the filthy floor and stopped in a steaming, gasping heap. He turned his attention to Shortshock, and rightly: the mad Autobot's left shocker gouged at him, skinny form twisting stupidly underneath his bulk, an enraged buzzing pouring out of every seam of him.

Ratchet was trained enough to deal with mechanical combat, but he never shone at its more selective details. Running on burning Energon and oil fumes, he managed to pin Shortshock's limbs down with a laborious grunt, but soon the soldier's sharp knees were slamming into his wide, vulnerable abdominal section, left exposed by the slapdash position. Optionless, he let his weight fall flat (which wrenched and impacted the bot's poised knee-joints in a torturous squeal) and punched Shortshock in the face as hard as his springs would have it. Then, rising to his knees, he flung the body several yards away, staggering to face the shaking, oil-spattered soldier, who was almost on her feet.

"Go, get out of here! Get back to base!" She didn't understand: she didn't know and it showed, her frightened expression flickering in his green vision field. He pointed the way they had come, aspirating so hard he could barely vocalize: "Run!"

She ran, the weak sparks twitching from her mangled back-ports shining long after the rest of her was lost to shadow. She would survive.

Alone now, both Autobots struggled to their feet. Shortshock rose slowly, nursing his busted knees; Ratchet scrambled upright, barrel chest heaving. When the faintly twitching 'bot dared look him in the face, Ratchet scraped his forearm across his dripping chin and took a dangerous step forward.

"You didn't know whether you wanted to kill her and eat her, or just eat her, did you?" He hissed, voice roaring upward to fill the boulder-packed cage. "You just couldn't make up your mind!"

"Can't think when I'm low," Shortshock said blankly. His optics weren't focusing: he was clearly somewhere else inside his short-circuiting little processor, and Ratchet couldn't swallow that distance. He stormed forward to yank him back to the scorch marks painted up his arms and his chipped fingers and the fact of what he'd done.

"You wanted to put an innocent soldier offline with your own two servos so you could sap her? She's an Autobot for Spark's sake: you're an Autobot! What is wrong with you, you son of a glitch?!"

Standing still and slim in Ratchet's fizzling green vision, Shortshock offered no explanation. He had no rambling justifications of his wet-mouthed violence. He simply stared at Ratchet like a dumb, blood-hungry organic, a toothy tension crawling up his body. Finally, propelled by something deep in his coding, Ratchet thrust his fist in front of him, magnetic prongs snapping with an air of menace.

"I should kill you."

Shortshock began to shake, erupting in a long, grating laugh.

"You should kill me? You think… I'm the only one?!" He screamed, claw-like digits roaming and clinging all over his shuddering body, prying into crevices and seams for things and sensations. "Half of us couldn't survive without it—you think those hydrogen-injected rations actually hold? You should know! They've aired down the Energon so much we can hardly function, and still they want us to fight! Why else do you think the old 'bot told us about sapping? Why? We need it to stay online."

"Like hell we do!" Ratchet bellowed, even though he had felt his compressor gelling over, felt his tubes drying out and watched the dropping bars of Energon, darkening so much faster than they should as his oil stung at the edges of his brittle innards—he had felt hunger

"You ever think that the things you do to stay online aren't worth living through?! You're nothin' but an Allspark-forsaken defector!"

Glossy and clean in the dark cave, Shortshock's dead-center crest flashed. Ratchet booted up his magnetizers afresh, sending out two brief, furious pulses. The ore-laden rocks around him rattled.

"I'll rip that crest off of you."

Shortshock took a hurried step back, maniacal energy vanished into the green dark. He seemed to shrink.

"But--I still want us to win," he said quietly, optics flicking minutely from side to side.

"It's not about winning!" Ratchet snarled. "It's about fighting the battle in a way that you can function with yourself afterward! We are not Decepticons and we do not fight like Decepticons. We do not murder, we do not torture, and we do not sap!"

The wiry 'bot took a moment to look up at him—sentient, solid—then shook his head in a facsimile of surrender. A blank calm shuddered through him: under what Ratchet now realized were scuffed, darkened plates. Tainted colors.

"I think I'll send in my resignation, then," he said heavily, pointed electrodes sliding out along his poised elbows with a snapping sound. They charged up, fracturing the dark with thorny fingers of white energy. The other bot stepped back, recoiling from the power. "Just as soon as I fetch poor Ratchet's body back to base."

"I won't be your next meal," Ratchet hissed, bracing his legs on the cold stone.

"You don't have a choice!"

Hot red flooded Shortshock's wide optics, turning him into the monster Ratchet had allowed to run free, and he lunged for the Medibot's throat with an echoing cry.

"You filthy 'Con!"

They fought with all they had. They bit, kicked, punched and thrashed, Shortshock wedging electrodes deep under loosened red plates and sending agony ripping up the other's innards. Oil vomited from Ratchet's wounds as he twisted and forced Shortshock's head back with the feral crescent of his magnetizer, shoving until the edges bit into the others' wiry throat and using those same weapons to warp the defector's chest plating off pin by pin. It was close, fast and primitive, saturated with gurgling near-screams. By the time Ratchet had rammed his EMP mod in Shortshock's mouth and blasted his cranium apart like a curling, sparking flower, red optics flashing into brittle grey chips in the blank oblong face, it was too late.

Just like Shortshock, he had spent too much of himself taking the enemy down.

Victory felt heavier than he'd expected it to be. Endlessly silent. His fist was imbedded in the smoking shell for cycles: he couldn't register anything, because he had no Energon to register it. None. His circuits were empty and burning; the feeling was leeching away from his limbs and his night vision was reduced to meager, fearful smears of white in a fizzling sea of dead green. Flickering, flickering.

A rock fell nearby, but he couldn't hear it: he only felt it. His world shrank. Something vital slowed deep inside of him, cooling and stilling as the oil kept bubbling out over his scarred abdomen. Crashed on the floor of a cold cavern, servos crammed into an Autobot defector, Ratchet could feel himself shutting down, and it was the most excruciating electron-by-electron sensation he had ever experienced. He was dead.

Then something flared to his left, warm and real and suddenly, graciously, he couldn't feel a thing.

Ratchet fell silent, optics glazed and empty.

"No!" Sari inhaled the word, struggling to her tingling knees. She waved her arms, desperate to catch his fading eyes. "No, no-no, you can't end it there! You have to tell me what happens!"

"This isn't a story, kid," the old Medibot said tiredly. "This is real."

Sari clapped her hands to her mouth, face crumpling in immediate shame.

"Oh, no—I didn't mean it like that! I didn't… mean that it wasn't real," she pleaded. "I just… I need to know what you did."

"I can't remember." Ratchet's shoulder-plates jerked, like the weight atop them was too much to abide a shrug. "It's nothing but black. I rebooted in the medical bay. They said they'd found me right by Shortshock—said they knew he'd defected, and it was alright what I'd done and I'd be pardoned--but that's as far as they went. Didn't say anything about what we were… like when they found us."

"So… did you…"

The little human looked up at him, searching. Her hope burned him.

"You… you didn't, did you?" She whimpered.

"I hope I didn't," Ratchet rumbled softly, rheumy blue optics fixed on the floor. "Creator, I hope I didn't."

There was a sad silence, the two dear strangers dealing with their tangled, finally-translated insides. Finally, Sari spoke.

"I think that's what's important."

"What do you mean?" Ratchet asked, vocals shot. Tired beyond imagination, he looked down at the little nine-year old organic female and saw something slow and pristine happen on her face that just barely prepared him for what she said next.

"I think… that if you're still afraid that you did that—that you might've… drained him without meaning to, even if it saved your life, I think that's what makes you human. Er, A-autobot."

Sari nodded firmly and looked up into Ratchet's loose face.

"You worry, but I don't think you did, Ratchet. I think you survived all on your own. I don't think you could've done that to your friend, not in a million years."

Her faith made his chest heat up in a quick, pleased way—a way that healed--and he found the first real smile in stellar-cycles spreading across his prickly jaw like a crack in an ancient rock. She smiled back, and it held just as much power as his, no matter her size. Ratchet shook his head.

"Whatever you say, kid."

And that was the end of his story: with it, she put some small piece of him to rest.

Then he did something unnecessary and primitive and unprecedented. Gruff, but still mindful of her diminutive (and squishy) organic state, he scooped her up from the control panel without warning and brought her to his chin then—optics narrowing as through preparing for a blow—pressed his stiff lips to the side of her head. Sari made a surprised noise, which switched into a high-pitched shriek as the hot electricity suddenly slammed into her temple, conducted through Ratchet's shining derma-plating. She tumbled away into the shade of his flat fingers, red pigtails standing on end with her fingers dug into her head.

"Yeow! Why did you do that?" She demanded, the high pitch making him flinch.

"Oh, well. Uh. I mean, I—" The 'bot stumbled, genuinely flustered, caught between his confusion and Sari's distressing reaction. "I saw that—been seein' that… oral-contact thing a whole lot around here and—well, after I got the gist of what it meant, I always figured that was what happened."

She gaped at him.

"That we shocked each other? With our mouths?" Sari took an admirable minute to recover before she laughed, battling her pigtails back into the gravitational norm, an incredulous grin on her face. "No!"

"It was my best guess!" Ratchet huffed.

"That's hilarious!" Sari sputtered, now rolling along the Autobot's palm in glee. Ratchet fought the sudden urge to flick her off of it like a know-it-all little insect, but settled for a juvenile challenge, delivered with a raised lip.

"Well then, little missy, why do you do it if there's no buzz?"

"Kissing? Uh." She looked upwards and scratched her head, brows screwing up under her bangs. "It feels nice?"

"Wanna tell me why?"

"Because it just does!" She squeaked, cheeks reddening with the impasse they were nearing: but thankfully, Ratchet pressed the mistranslation no further. The old bot simply shook his head in dull aggravation, regarding her finiky organic self with new, fond mistrust.

"That just—"

"I know, I know: doesn't compute," she muttered, tone both resigned and curiously happy. Now, they had an understanding of misunderstandings, and any kind of bond with cranky Ratchet was a bond to keep.

They sat still for another moment, until Ratchet, incompatible with both inaction and creeping embarrassment, set her down on the floor and made some grumbling excuse for her to leave, apology of any sort notably absent. The little human caught onto his finger before he succeeded in retracting it, however, then tightened her arms around it in a tiny, concentrated hug. He nearly jumped, then froze.

"Still—thank you, Ratchet," she said shyly. "For the story… and everything."

The fact that her left cheek still burned slightly didn't matter. It didn't matter if he had misinterpreted the classic human gesture into something Autobots would understand, or whether it was 'wrong', or a bungled mutation of both their cultures. It simply mattered that it came genuinely from him. Ratchet waited until she let go of him and carefully looked at his fingers, then down at her. She was precious, faithful little Sari, his guide to people-skills and the great, barbaric world of earth; whining, cantankerous Sari, who he let sit on his palm every once in a while because he secretly liked her quiet somnolence and trust and the way she curled against his fingers like a nosing kitten.

If organics made 'bots soft, he thought, maybe there was something to be gained from a weakening of the shell.

"Sure thing, kid," Ratchet managed, still barely stunned by her. The rare, soft tone earned him a starburst of a smile, and she immediately turned tail to leave him to his work.

He followed her tapping little footsteps with his auditory units, mouth quirking as she stopped at the doorway. His recovery was admirable, but also a call to make up for lost face. Trying to sound as crotchety as possible (just to keep her toes on the line and her impression of his nasty temper uncorrupted) he drawled:

"Yes, Sari?"

"Do you want me to bring you some motor oil?" She asked hopefully.

"Nah," he answered, and felt her wilt behind him. Her plan had failed, and her party would forever be one 'bot short. Right when she was about to drag herself out, however, he stood up and turned around, flipping his magnifier up and into its mod-slot and smirking at her. "If I got one good servo, I can get it myself. Just make sure those two primitive sparklings haven't guzzled it all, and I'll be up in a click. Maybe even for some of that… 'volume-ball' slag."

"Okay!" She shrieked, sprinting out the door with a new energy: one that he and his malfunctions and his grumpiness and his happiness and his absence on a beautiful summer day… cleanly figured into. Ratchet reached for his tools and took another moment to pat Omega's peaceful, if cold flanks, mouth still curled at the edges.

Creator, but he loved that little girl.

The Medic's record was spotless: the General knew a good soldier when he saw one. They knew it was kinder to keep silent, so keep silent they did.

Rolling into the rock-trap a doomed mega-cycle after the gunner's call came in, the rescue party found Ratchet with his servos plunged so deep into ShortShock's cold vitals that they were forced to carve the dead 'bot's limbs away and take his mangled torso into surgery with the paralyzed, deep-stasis Medibot. Problems didn't cease there: it took three megacycles and twice as many technicians to peel the other bot's skeleton away from Ratchet's throbbing invader wiring, still tingling with stolen Energon.

The scans revealed nothing more than the obvious. Soldier-bot Shortshock was sucked dry, and, separate from the heavy mechanical trauma sustained from their battle, Ratchet's finger—right servo, third protrusion from the left--was permanently disfigured from being jammed into Shortshock's flaming core during the convulsive sap.

As any good soldier knows, these things happen: and, even if their stories are lost to the dark, the scars never fade.