The mysterious symptoms that had incapacitated Red Alert just after the first contact between the new Prime, Optimus, and the rebel leader Megatron were not unknown to him, though that incident had certainly been the strongest he had felt them. For several stellar cycles now, Red had been suffering in silence, hardly feeling that his woes were anything worth troubling over. It was a bug of some kind, or perhaps overwork, he had convinced himself, that gave way to deep nausea and infrequent but processor-splitting headaches.
There was, however, no way to deny there was something wrong upon his helpless, agonising collapse just after the conversation with Megatron had drawn to a close. It was a miracle that Red had managed to stay conscious for the duration, but he had been determined not to show a weakness and give the new Prime a bad first impression.
As for now, the security director lay offline, his optics dimmed black and his swollen lips slightly-parted. A steady expulsion of heated air from between betrayed his intakes to be functional, at least, but otherwise the figure seemed as fragile and lifeless as the cold berth upon which he lay.
Flame, the erratic scientist, sat by his partner's side, his own optics narrowed in pensive thought as he held one of Red's limp hands between his own. One of the team of medical assistants fussed over the dazed-looking mech, pressing a cube of warm energon into his hands and murmuring words of comfort and reassurance.
Ratchet reread the medical diagnostics, glancing to another junior member of his team and then back at the scribbled shorthand.
"Are you sure these are the results from his energon tests?"
The intern nodded, studying his own datapad. "We reran the tests several times and, apart from some anticipated fluctuations, the results were almost exactly the same."
"I don't understand how there could possibly be such high levels of xiomanthine in his systems... there's no way he could have ingested it accidentally, it's not something he'd come across in his duties... Run the tests again, just to make sure. I don't like it."
With a smart salute, the intern hurried away to rerun the results from their patient's medical tests.
Ratchet entered the private ward as quietly and unobtrusively as possible. Flame's optics raised to look at him; the scientist's expression was tense and drawn with worry about his partner. Nodding in sympathetic greeting, Ratchet strode the few steps to the berth and gathered up Red's limp wrist in one hand as he checked the pressure of the unconscious mech's energon-pulse. Carefully recording the data in his short-recall memory banks for filing later, the doctor laid his patient's arm down on the berth and looked back at the bright-coloured scientist.
Flame was an unusual mech. He made his living as a scientist, but not a very successful one. Though he proposed twice as many ventures as other specialists in his field, none of them were completed, either because of lack of funding from the council or from his own lack of enthusiasm and short attention span. Nevertheless, despite his seeming inability to follow anything through to the end, he always gave off the air of having a great plan that he would soon bring into fruition, some great, yet-undreamed-of ambition that he could barely keep to himself.
As a scientist, though, Flame had easy access to hazardous materials – and he did have a reputation of being more than a little careless. His history of work-related meltdowns and near-catastrophic accidents was legendary amongst the learned mechs of Nova Cronum, the facility which had trained him. One rumour, though probably exaggerated, suggested that the entire south building at the complex had collapsed after one particularly bad accident, which, of course, had Flame at its centre.
Was it possible...?
"Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?" Ratchet asked calmly, and Flame shrugged jerkily. Taking the gesture as a positive response, the doctor continued; "You're a scientist right? Are you based in Iacon?"
"Yes," answered Flame in his high, reedy voice.
"Have you been working in any proximity to xiomanthine recently?"
Flame's expression creased as he pondered the question, his red optics flickering offline briefly. "... No, I don't think so. Not normally the sort of thing I'd use. Why?"
Ratchet didn't answer, his brow furrowed with confusion. Xiomanthine was not a substance that was easy to come by; its potency and toxicity marked it high on the list of substances restricted by most inter-city councils, including Iacon and the science facilities at Nova Cronum and Altihex. If Red had not accidentally come into contact with it through Flame's working with it, then how could it possibly have found its way into his systems?
Shaking his head slowly, the doctor remembered his berth-side manner. Whether or not Red's unexpected and inexplicable illness was the result of his partner's carelessness in the lab, the fact remained that Flame's lover was still in critical condition, and that had to be causing the scientist much worry.
"How are you faring?" he asked gently, his optics dim.
Flame gazed at his own hands for a while, his focus tracing the licks of flame-shaped decals that adorned the metal plating just below his wrists. "..."
With a sigh, Ratchet sat next to the other mech. "I understand this must be a very hard time for you. Please understand we are doing all we can. My team includes some of the most skilled medics on Cybertron. Red will be fine."
"... Do you mind if I stay here with him?"
Ratchet hesitated. By rule, visiting times for the severely glitched were limited and strictly observed to avoid contamination and, in theory, speed up operation and recovery time. It was not often, however, that a mech as sick as Red Alert was admitted, and even rarer that his medical team would be unsure of the cause even so many orns after the first tests had been taken.
It had to be harrowing, to not know what was wrong with a mech you loved, yet still have the knowledge he could die...
"All right," he responded warmly. "I'll grab a cube of energon for you when I go off-duty in a cycle or so, and I'll ask the shift doctor to take care of your needs."
"Thank you, doctor," was Flame's response, serious and unsmiling.
"Well, Red, how are you feeling?"
"A lot better, doctor, thank you," answered the ill mech his voice, though weak and hoarse, was confident. Ratchet smiled and scribbled several things in almost-illegible medical shorthand on his datapad.
Red Alert's condition had improved in leaps and bounds. Regaining consciousness after less than an orn in collapse, he had slowly been able to take energon and hold it down, his strength returning bit by bit until he was even able to sit up on the berth unaided and lean his back against the headboard. He could now managed almost a full cube before feeling queasy, a fact he had been quick to celebrate with his lover.
Speaking of Flame, the scientist had barely left Red Alert's berth side. Even in the small joors when no other medics were around, Flame would sit there, alert and vigilant as though on sentry duty, only stealing quick recharge naps when a doctor was in the room attending to Red or taking test measurements of his vital signs.
An untouched cube of energon sat on the work table next to where Flame was sitting. The doctor spared it barely a glance, for it had become normality for Flame to sit through the night with a cube of energon to sustain himself as he kept his silent vigil.
Flipping through information on his datapad, Ratchet met Red's optics and smiled. "Good news. We're going to run a few more tests to make sure that all harmful substances have been successfully filtered from your systems and, if all the results are positive, we'll be able to discharge you at the end of the orn – though if we do, you'll need to promise to come in for regular check-ups over the next deca-cycle or so."
"Are you sure that's necessary?" Red asked, though the relief at being discharged was clear on his face and in the squeeze of Flame's hand, which was gripped tightly in his own. The security director was not a mech who could easily lie idle when there were duties to be performed, and, as his strength returned to him, he had found it increasingly difficult being refined to his berth without even a monitor to gaze at. Ratchet had forbidden him from returning to his job of scanning the security feed while he was in the medical centre; even though it required no physical effort, the doctor wished to keep Red from any mental taxation until he was sure that his patient was recovered. "I don't think I'll need the regular check-ups..."
"I don't think you understand quite how sick you have been," Ratchet answered, glancing sternly at the mech on the berth. "I would much rather have you be safe and inconvenienced than dead with all your downtime."
With a petulant shrug, the security director conceded. "At least I'll get to leave. Excellent! Thank you for your hard work, doctor."
"Yeah... thanks," piped in Flame, flashing an almost-crazed grin towards Ratchet. Having become used to the scientist's extreme facial expressions and melodramatic ways of expressing himself, Ratchet simply returned the gesture with his own warm smile.
"I'll leave you to it for now. If there's any problems, call me up on the intercom, but with the progress you've been making, I doubt you'll deteriorate."
Leaving the room to the sight of Flame picking up the energon cube and gently tilting it to his lover's lips, Ratchet smiled to himself. Perhaps they weren't certain what had caused the mysterious symptoms, nor how so much xiomanthine had wormed its way into Red's systems, but at least the episode had not ended in tragedy.
It was less than half an orn later when Flame's distraught voice echoed over Ratchet's emergency medical radio, which was connected to the intercom in Red's private ward. The scientist had begged for someone to come – and, though Ratchet was not on duty and had tiredly been catching up on some overdue recharge, he snatched up his energy scalpel and all but sprinted through the corridors towards his charge.
When he arrived, there was already a duty medic there. Ratchet stood in the door, stunned, his optics taking in the scene; the doctor was checking Red's vitals. As for Red Alert himself, he lay face-down on the floor in a pool of energon, which seemed deepest around his mouth. He was offline.
Flame stood next to the intercom, the mouthpiece of which had fallen from his nerveless fingers, an expression of unbridled panic on his face.
"What happened?" asked Ratchet breathlessly as he helped the duty medic, a slender green-coloured mech, carefully pick Red from the floor and move him back onto the berth.
"I don't know!" cried Flame, his scarlet optics wide, round 'o's of shock. "He was fine, then he just -!"
Ratchet pressed the back of his hand to Red Alert's forehead, and, like he expected, it was burning to the touch. His fingers came away slightly damp.
"He's stable," said the other doctor, passing his scribbled report to Ratchet, "but critical. I'd recommend an immediate purge."
"I agree." Ratchet said softly as he studied the report. "... I'd advise running another energon test while purging. Flame, if you wouldn't mind coming with me, I'll show you to the waiting room."
"I want to stay," said the erratic scientist obstinately.
Ratchet shook his head firmly. "I'm sorry, but a system purge is messy business, and it will go a lot smoother for my team if you are not here to distract them." Seeing the helpless look on Flame's face, his tone softened. "... I know you're worried, but the best thing you can do right now is trust us. All right?"
"... Fine," Flame agreed grudgingly.
Holding the door for the bright-bodied scientist, Ratchet led him down the long walkway towards the waiting room, his expression grim. Flame was quiet, the features of his own normally-expressive face drawn and unreadable and his scarlet optics dimmed. The transition from hysterical to such introvert calm was jarring and unexpected, but everyone dealt with stress and worry in different ways.
Seeing Flame through to the waiting room and making sure he was comfortable, the white-bodied medic left to compare the initial results from the on-call doctor with the record from when Red Alert had first been admitted. His thoughts kept drifting back to the complete turnaround in his patient's health– Red Alert had been almost well enough to leave, and then, in the flicker of an optic, he was back at death's door.
Gritting his teeth, Ratchet thought to the results of the energon scan that was doubtless going ahead even as he walked. If the results, as he expected, carried the same high levels of xiomanthine, then it would be time to face the unpleasant truth that Red Alert was, deliberately and with cold precision, being poisoned.
"What?" Ratchet snatched the medical report from the junior doctor who had brought it. "That can't be right!"
"We ran it through six times, sir," answered the smaller mech nervously, "and it's definitely not a glitch in the machine... that's the facts."
The medical officer stared in disbelief at the datapad, gripping it so hard it seemed he hoped that the figures would change with his squeezing fingertips – but the truth before him was undeniable.
There was no xiomanthine in Red Alert's body fluids.
In a sudden fit of helpless frustrated rage, Ratchet flung the small pad against the wall and buried his head in his hands. "What the frag is wrong with him!"
"Sir?" asked the junior medic worriedly, reaching his hand to lay it on his superior's shoulder. "Perhaps you should go and get some recharge... you've hardly had any since he came in."
Ratchet knew the sense in his student's words, though his mind was racing and he could not bring himself to sleep while a patient was in critical condition. Weakly, he raised his head from his hands. There would be no defeat, not just yet, not until every possibility was exhausted. "... there was no trace of any other heavy metal in his system?"
Making an irritated tutting noise, the medical officer shook his head. "If he's not being poisoned and it's not because of xiomanthine, then what the frag could it be? He's clean from viruses, he programs his firewalls himself and they're some of the most advanced I've seen...! It's not a bug, not any type of parasite..."
"Ratchet," came a voice from the doorway, and Ratchet looked over to see the on-call doctor who had first responded to Flame's cry for help.
"Pharma," he greeted the other medic, who wearily took a seat and stretched back.
"He's stable. We performed a full system purge, but it didn't look like there were any recognisable toxins in his body. He regained consciousness for about a breem and talked to me, but he wasn't making much sense through that fever. When he passed out again, I called Flame back in to watch over him and I've left him to sleep it off."
Ratchet sighed heavily, his optics offlining with the weight of his exhaustion. Pharma, whose lilac and silver frame was quivering as catecholamine reaction fluids slowly drained themselves from his limbs, let his head fall back. "I tell yer, Ratch, if there was any alien metal in his body, we would've found it by now."
Only half listening, Ratchet considered his colleague's words. It was true; almost every metallics test they could think of had been exhausted during the course of Red Alert's mysterious illness and, apart from the initial high levels of xiomanthine, all of them had turned up negative.
It hit him like a thunderbolt.
"Pharma," breathed the white-bodied medic, sitting straight upright, his optics wide. "Have you run an organics test?"
Pharma onlined one of his golden optics. "No, why would I?"
"I'm going to run one..." Ratchet's own optics danced with a new-found excitement. "If it's not a virus and it's not metallic, then it can only be organic!" and, convinced of his own sudden stroke of genius, he strode swiftly away.
"But Ratchet," Pharma called after him as he rose painfully from his bench, "we don't have any facilities to deal with disease..."
By the time the exhausted Pharma staggered into Red Alert's ward, Ratchet, who seemed to have had new energy leant to him by his idea to test for organic presence, had already started a close examination of the spent energon that still stained the floor. The white mech was on his hands and knees on the floor, scrutinising the microscopic components of the energon with a careful optic.
Red was awake again, though very weak. Flame had helped him in to a sitting position and was feeding him energon by means of a small scoop that he used to lift tiny mouthfuls to his partner. Through dull optics, he watched the doctor scrabbling on the floor, then glanced at Pharma with a wry smile and shrugged feebly.
"Ah!" Ratchet rose to his feet, one finger carefully outstretched and his expression triumphant. "Magnify my fingertip, Pharma... about three thousand times should do it."
As Pharma was examining the tiny organism Ratchet had found in the energon, the medic looked over at Red and Flame.
"Have either of you had any contact with organic matter?"
Red's optics widened slightly, and it was Flame who spoke for both of them. "Nope, not at all. Why?"
Just as Ratchet was about to answer, Pharma interrupted, having seen what it was that Ratchet had caught on his finger. "... it's... it's a tiny organic component...! Almost a perfect sphere, with hundreds of little spikes poking out of it..."
"There were thousands of them," Ratchet explained calmly to his stunned patient, "in the spent energon on the floor. They must have been inside your body; there is no other way organic matter would have found its way into this facility. They are not visible to the unmagnified optic, so you would not have seen them if they were on your fingers or in your energon."
"But... how..." Red's voice was scratchy and faint; it was clearly taking him great effort to talk at all.
"Let's worry about the 'hows' and the 'whys' later," Ratchet advised soothingly. "First we need to flush all of the organic contamination from your body and then make sure there are no lasting effects."
He glanced at Pharma who shrugged uncomfortably, both of them thinking the same thing: organic poisoning on Cybertron was extremely rare. Usually only explorers who had not observed proper decontamination protocol after returning from off-world expeditions fell victim to organic infestation, and, because off-world safety protocol was so rigidly enforced, such cases were few and far between.
Neither Ratchet nor Pharma had experience treating organic-based malaise, and both only had their basic training guidelines to go on. Knowing better than to mention this to their patient, however, both doctors gave their most reassuring berth-side smiles, nodding when Flame asked them if they would be able to find a remedy.
Red's head lolled to the side, a dribble of the energon Flame had been feeding him escaping from the corner of his mouth. The eccentric scientist, who had been a lot more subdued since his partner's mysterious symptoms began, caught the errant droplet with his finger and carefully wiped it away.
"Sorry..." mumbled the security director, his optics dimmed in a mixture of frailty and shame. Flame shrugged and put the half-empty cube aside.
"S'awright. You can have some more when you feel a bit better."
The scientist thoughtfully licked the remnants of the spilled energon from his fingers, his optics distant. With a brief smile at his berth-ridden partner, he rose to his feet, patting his hands against his hips to work some feeling into the plating numbed by countless joors sitting in the same position.
"Where are you goin'...?" asked Red weakly. Flame smiled jauntily.
"Jus' out for a walk, stretch my pistons. I'm not getting any fresher sittin' watching you all the time."
As Red Alert heaved an unsteady sigh, Flame excused himself and slipped quietly from the ward. Ratchet glanced again at Pharma, who tilted his head slightly while reaching for a beaker of cooling fluid from the workbench above Red's head. Silently, the white medic shrugged and took his leave, exiting the room and closing the sliding door behind him.
On hearing the click of the door sliding back into place, Flame, who had gone only a few steps down the corridor, looked back, frowning slightly at the medic.
"... everything all right, doctor?" he asked, though the tone with which he spoke made the words sound more like a churlish "why are you following me?"
Ignoring the less-than-polite note in Flame's voice, Ratchet watched him with the neutral optics of a doctor as he walked forward to stand by the other mech's side. "How are you faring?"
"It can't be easy," continued the doctor kindly, "having a mech so very dependent on you."
The simple question clearly took Flame by surprise, for he had obviously been expecting something else entirely, but he was quick to recover himself. "Ah... not really," waving one hand in a flippant gesture to brush away any suggestion of hardship, his burning crimson optics twinkled as that unreadable (yet slightly-manic) smile returned to his face. "If Red needs me, then he needs me."
"You are a strange mech," observed Ratchet calmly.
"You think so?"
"Mm. The way you left, it most certainly seemed as though the stress of the situation was getting to you, yet now you deny it."
Flame laughed. "Inscrutable, am I? Heh."
In all seriousness, Ratchet voiced his niggling doubts: "you know, if you were to decide to take a processor scan, it would be free and very quick. The Iacon team is the best psychoanalytical group on the whole planet."
Though he had not meant it as a joke, Flame dissolved into uproarious laughter, slapping his hand against his thigh with a metallic clang. "Ha! It sounds like I'm not the one who's suffering from stress, doctor – you're seeing things that are not there."
Ratchet flashed a humourless smile in response to the teasing. If he was honest with himself, he did not like Flame. There was something in the careless joviality of the scientist that did not always ring true, some hidden ambition, some deep-buried lust for... for something. Though no psychoanalytical specialist, Ratchet doubted that it was a lust for a power; if it had been, Flame would have long-since left his humble, ill-funded laboratory and used his not inconsiderable skill to cause some mischief, much the same as Megatron. No, though he had had plenty of opportunity, Flame had not taken such a path. His goals were something different, and that he was not honest and open about them put Ratchet on edge.
Nevertheless, Flame was trusted by Red Alert, a mech whose trust was notoriously hard to gain, which meant that Ratchet, though grudgingly, had to admit to himself that there was something likeable in the eccentric flame-coloured robot.
Sighing in a mix of resignation and exasperation, the medic conceded defeat. "If you are tired, there is normally a spare berth in the shift duty room, next to the waiting room. Please rest yourself as you wish." A gentle expression crossed his face as he swallowed his pride. "We appreciate all the care you are giving to Red. You have my great thanks."
With a flounce and a wave of one hand, Flame turned and carried on down the corridor without another word.
With the aid of Pharma and an internal infestation specialist named Ambulon, Ratchet succeeded in isolating several of the tiny organics from the scraping of Red's polluted energon he had taken from the floor. The trio had placed their sample in a sterile container to send to Nova Hex, a sub-facility at Nova Cronum that had a reputation for ventures with organics, for analysis. While waiting for results, an advisory was sent by the Hexian researchers as a general safety precaution, recommending that Red Alert and all mechs who had been in direct contact with him since his admission to the medical ward undergo decontamination baths in several different types of solvent and strimming fluid.
To Ratchet and his team, it was little more than an inconvenience; as medics, all were used to sterilising their hands as regular procedure, and the full-body sterilisation was the same procedure but a little more time consuming. Flame, however, had protested at first, insisting that if he had contracted organics from touching Red, then he, too, would have fallen sick by now. He relented only when Pharma had calmly explained to him that he had a choice of decontaminating himself or being held in quarantine until enough time had passed for the staff to be sure any organics would have died.
When Red was returned from the long process, his once-pristine paint had faded after being exposed to the quick succession of powerful chemicals. In a medically-induced coma to ease the sometimes quite painful process of decontamination (especially painful if there were any open wounds that strimming fluid might leak into), Red was unresponsive but otherwise seemed much stronger than he had been as he lay on his berth. Ratchet noted the improvement in his vital signs to Ambulon, who was closely scanning every inch of their patient's frame to verify that every last of the microscopic organics had been eradicated.
"The preliminary results came back from Hex," Ambulon answered in his quiet, solemn voice, "and they say that the organics are some kind of germination vessel rather than an autonomous being in their own right, which is probably why this infestation was not fatal."
"It was quite a violent reaction he had..." Ratchet pointed out uncertainly.
"Simply because our bodies are not designed to process organic matter," Ambulon answered dismissively. "In the same way that organics are unable to process most heavy metallic matter. It's not a surprise that his body rejected these tiny eggs so violently."
Seeing the sense in Ambulon's soft reasoning, Ratchet let the matter drop and instead allowed himself to watch his colleague scan Red Alert's legs. "Has he been visited by any off-worlders or offworld trekkers?"
"He's only been visited by me," Flame interjected in a voice that was not without petulance. The scientist's sudden words caused Ratchet to start slightly, though not visibly; Flame had been so quiet it had been too easy to almost completely forget of his presence in the small room, especially when he normally made himself known with flair and flamboyance.
Ambulon sat back, a sigh of satisfaction escaping his lips as he finally stretched his aching backstruts after joors strained bent over Red's supine form. "Good news. No sign of any alien formations, organic or inorganic. Give him some energon when he comes round and see if he can keep it down. If he can, I'd estimate about three joors for him to regain his strength and then, hopefully, we can discharge him."
Ratchet looked over at Flame to see how the scientist was taking this good news, but it seemed that the exhausted mech had fallen asleep, his head propped up on one hand and his slack-jawed mouth hanging open in a most unflattering way.
Shaking his head at Ambulon, who smirked in return, Ratchet beckoned the other doctor over. "Pharma's on duty tonight?"
"Good... these two are in good hands..." Ratchet raised his optics skyward in an unvoiced plea. "Both of them as foolish as each other, of course. No regard for their own health, work themselves to death..."
"Listen to you bickering," Ambulon teased gently. "Let's leave them to their rest."
Mocking each other in light-hearted camaraderie, the two medics left the ward, dimming the lights as they went.
At first, Red Alert had improved as per Ambulon's prediction. Two joors after he had come out of the anaesthesia and onlined his optics, he was strong enough to walk, though he did have to lean quite heavily on something after the initial steps. It was a huge improvement.
Able to move from the berth on his own for the first time in several deca-cycles, Red was overjoyed. When he spoke, the excitement in his voice was obvious. Listening to him, Ratchet had found it unexpectedly poignant that the mech, who held a position of such high rank within the internal Iacon security hub, had expressed such amazement over the tiniest thing, such as walking on his own.
Their relief was, however, short-lived. Late in the second joor after regaining consciousness, Red sat on his berth after stretching his stiff legs and easing the pistons, which had begun to lock through lack of use, and complained of dizziness. Half a joor later, he was whimpering to be offlined.
Red's deterioration was extremely rapid. Hardly any time at all after complaining of unbearable pain in his head, behind his optics and in his upper chest, he was once again offline, though this time Pharma had wired him to an artificial support machine to regulate his erratic intakes, which had begun to hitch and sputter so much that the senior doctor had deemed them unreliable and potentially dangerous to Red's health.
Flame, as always, was by his lover's side almost always, only occasionally taking a break at a medic's suggestion to walk around the medical building. Most of the doctors had come to regard him as a friend, and, when he was on one of his walks, it was not unusual to see him talking animatedly to the doctors, all of whom had the greatest sympathy for his partner's mysterious suffering and the greatest admiration for his devotion. Though the task of caring for Red was taking its toll, the scientist often slumping tiredly and falling asleep in the middle of conversations, Flame was clearly revelling in the attention.
It was then that a strange pattern in Red's symptoms emerged. He spent most of the time either offline or screaming for relief from the burning, fiery pain that coursed through his systems, igniting every receptor in his battered body, never unhooked from the regulating machine that Pharma had hooked his systems to. However, just as soon as it seemed he was recovering and his vital signs began to normalise, another violent bout of whatever was attacking his systems would occur, leaving him crippled and near-death.
There were no clues to what could be causing the recurring attacks. Careful monitoring of Red's energon levels, which were being pumped into his capillaries by means of drip, showed that all was normal. Ratchet had demanded another organics scan, but it had turned up nothing. Heavy metals tests, virus tests, firewall monitoring, internal corrosion and corruption tests, all of them turned up negative. Yet still Red suffered.
Ratchet's ideas were exhausted. Every test he thought to try had failed, and he was no closer to discovering either the problem or a cure. Rarely resting and working harder than he ever had before, he found little time to recharge, but the strength of desperation (and drinking several cubes of energon at once) kept him going. He was determined not to lose Red Alert, remembering the concern and worry on the face of the new Prime when his security director had first taken ill.
The white-bodied medic liked Optimus Prime, appreciating the friendly way the new leader approached his subordinates and enjoying finally serving a Prime with a sense of humour to match his own. He did not want to see the worry on that kind face morph into grief for the loss of a warrior.
Fatigued and drawing blanks in his mind, Ratchet sat in front of the numerous screens in the staff hub room which displayed visual feed from every ward in the complex, nursing a half-drunk cube. Though he was staring at the flickering lights of the monitors, he was not really paying attention as he swirled the fluorescent liquid around in its transparent container, carelessly allowing some to slop over the edge onto his lap.
Cursing quietly at the sharp feeling of cold energon on his warm plating, the medic looked down at the mess he had made and passed a hand over his optics.
"You too?" asked his intern, Pipo, an intelligent and enthusiastic mech who was quick to learn. Ratchet stared at him for a moment. He hadn't seen Pipo come in.
"What are you doing here?" he asked tiredly, surprised at the state of his own voice, which was slurred and thick. Mentally, he shook himself. Acting like a bedraggled drunk was all right if he was alone, but to do so in front of a student... Ratchet wished that he could hide the tell-tale puddle of energon on his thigh which was even now dripping to the floor noisily.
Pipo jerked his hand toward the back room of the hub. He looked as tired as Ratchet felt. "I was sleeping in the cydopamine crate." He nodded his head toward the embarrassing energon spill and, for a moment, Ratchet wished the ground would swallowed him. "Looks like you chose to use your drink for a pillow. Gotta be more comfortable than packing alloy, though."
Ratchet pushed the cube from him, his appetite gone. "... when you next on duty, Pip?"
"Joor and a half," Pipo answered, perching himself on a stack of small boxes that contained filed datapads and staring over at the screens behind Ratchet. "Thought I'd come get some rest before 'cause I was up four orns doing tests, but I only managed to recharge for about a breem and a half before the crick in my neck came along." As though to demonstrated his point, he tilted his head to the right and the trapezial pistons in the left of his neck groaned in noisy complaint.
"I know what you mean," Ratchet answered good-naturedly, massaging his temples with the thumb and forefinger of one hand. "I think I've forgotten what my berth looks like. Of course," he added, suddenly solemn and subdued, "it will all be worth it if Red Alert walks away from here."
The offhand comment caused Pipo to seek out the screen which displayed the visual from Red's ward – which was not a hard feat, as Flame's bright colours made the relevant monitor easy to find – and it was quite by coincidence that he happened to look at the exact time as Flame's behaviour was such that he became uncomfortable.
"What's he doing?" he asked his tutor, pointing Ratchet's attention to the screen.
The medic's intakes hitched as he watched the scratchy feed playing on the security monitor that displayed the fragile Red Alert on his operating bunk. There was no one else in the room except his distinctive partner, who was frowning and running his hands over Red Alert's body.
Even as Ratchet and his slack-jawed deputy watched, Flame rose from his position by Red's side, his hands raising away from the offline mech, and padded to the door, almost gliding in how little weight he put into each step. Slowly sliding the door back, he poked his head out, and, though not quite visible on the limited scope of the stationary security camera, it was obvious he was looking back and forth.
Satisfied the corridor outside the small ward was empty, Flame closed the door again and moved back to the side of the berth.
Red Alert's entire frame was heaving as his intakes, currently supported by the ventilator, as he was not strong enough to filter his own systems of impurity, struggled to regulate. One of Flame's deep scarlet hands rested against the side of the security director's helm for a moment before stroking up in a smooth, tender caress. However, his fingers did not stop at the crest of Red's head; carrying on past the suffering mech, Flame's grip curled around the main wire that hooked his partner to the artificial ventilation machine.
It took but a careless flick of the wrist to disconnect the life-giving machine from Red's helpless form.
For all his training, for all his experience, Ratchet was paralysed, hardly even able to turn to Pipo, who was equally frozen in place. Their fatigue was all but forgotten, as was the wetness of the energon spillage that still covered Ratchet's upper legs. Though his optics were registering the terrible sight, some part of the medic's processor refused to believe that it could truly be happening.
At first, it seemed as though the disconnection had had no effect. Then, after about a half-klik had passed, Red's body shuddered in a full spasm, his expression contorting into one of unconscious pain. Head falling back and lips falling apart in a silent scream, Red vomited the scant amount of energon he had been able to keep in his systems, the precious liquid spattering over his chest as another violent spasm caused him to jerk uncontrollably. Without any means of regulating his intakes or filtering his systems, he was choking on his own unprocessed fluids. As his patient tossed fretfully, Ratchet found himself rising to his feet, knowing he was watching the security director dying.
About a klik and a half after the disconnection, Flame hurriedly pressed the support wire back into the still-open panel on Red's chest, making sure it was secure and standing back as his partner slowly calmed down. An unhealthy purple pallor lingered around Red's cheeks and his torso and upper arms were covered in his own expelled energon. Though the trembling of his weak frame steadily subsided, it was clear his condition was still critical.
Ratchet's finger was on the button of the intercom that would have connected him to the on-duty surgeon, but his call was halted as, like a mirror image, the monitor showed Flame reaching for the same intercom in the ward.
"Help," gasped the scientist's voice through Ratchet's medical radio, echoing from the radio of the stunned junior still sitting frozen in place. Flame sounded desperate, his voice ragged and hoarse with worry. The white-bodied medic's crimson hand fell slowly away from the intercom in disbelief. "There's something wrong! Come quick!"
A heavy silence fell. Half a dragging klik into the choking noiselessness, Ratchet turned his stunned face towards his assistant, who gaped back in dull disbelief. Neither of them wanted to accept what they had just seen.
"Mobilise a team," the doctor finally managed to whisper to the wide-opticed intern, who nodded and sped away, seemingly glad of the excuse to tear his attention from the flickering screen which showed Flame sitting next to his partner and stroking his hand as though nothing had happened.
When Ratchet opened the door to the small private ward, Flame was emotionally explaining his version of events to the emergency response, his near-entirely fictional narrative punctuated with flamboyant, dramatic gestures. Unable to bring himself to look at the scientist for much longer, the medic instead turned his attention to the patient laying motionless upon the berth.
The angry flush on Red's cheeks had faded; it seemed that, once again, it had been caused by circulating energon being forced through the tiny pores in his cheek plating as the pressure in the thin capillaries within the dermal plating grew dangerously high. Someone – whether Flame or the on-call surgeon, Ratchet didn't know – had carefully wiped away the leaked fluids on a sterile chamois, which, now stained purple, had been abandoned on the workbench by the berthside.
Red's intakes were now stable in a regular pattern, and it was clear he was no longer relying so heavily on the artificial respirator to filter his systems. Though cerebral scans still suggested he was fully unconscious, his azure optics, which had previously been greyed offline, were now lit with barely-there cerulean pinpricks, which glowed faintly. Passing his crimson hands before his patient's line of vision, Ratchet nodded to himself when there was no response. Those optics, though online, were unseeing, staring blankly upwards.
Turning his attention back to the still-talking Flame, Ratchet beckoned one of the response team aside and whispered to him. The mech whispered in the audio of Pharma, the head doctor of the response team, who nodded slightly and turned his attention back to Flame, interrupting the near-hysterical tirade to suggest, as was normal practise after such an event, that Flame join them in the downtime room with a calming beaker of warm, potent oil.
Readily agreeing, Flame left the room, accompanied by two of the three members of the response team. The third member, the mech that Ratchet had first whispered to, watched the officer grimly.
"You're certain?" he asked, his voice stony.
"Absolutely," Ratchet answered, his own tone equally flat. "I would not dare make such an accusation if I had any doubts. Every single time Red Alert's condition has deteriorated, it has directly followed a period of time when Flame was alone in the ward with him. As for his original sickness, it was caused by excess xiomanthine – a poison – in his systems. The more I think about how he could have ingested it, the more I realise it could not have been an accident."
"And what should I tell Red Alert?"
The white-bodied medical officer was silent for a moment, staring hard at the unresponsive form of his patient lying comatose on the berth. With a flicker of his own optics, he tilted his head towards his subordinate in acknowledgement of the question and then sighed heavily. "Don't tell him anything yet. Wait until he is strong enough. Then, when he is able to walk again, tell him everything. I won't have secrets kept from my charges by lying to them."
"Are you sure? It seems he already has more than a slight problem trusting people -"
"Then I shall recommend to Prime not to place him in a position of responsibility until we can measure the extent of the damage this will cause. I imagine it will have lasting effects on his ability to trust others, which, I imagine, will jeopardise his ability as a rational security director."
A team of enforcers was called to the hospital complex and Pharma, being the most senior member of staff, showed them the damning video footage of Flame tormenting his sick partner. It was all that was needed for an immediate arrest, however, the cunning scientist seemed to have got wind that he was suspected and had took flight. Though the burly policemechs and the medical staff searched the whole complex several times, there was no sign of their elusive quarry.
Without Flame around, Red Alert's recovery was, perhaps unsurprisingly, relatively swift and painless compared to the numerous complications and agonies he had already experienced. Through careful monitoring and physical therapy, he was able to stand within a deca-cycle, and able to walk with a support not long after.
As per Ratchet's recommendation, the medics had not told Red of the true source of his trials until well after he was able to walk. He took it hard. For several orns, the security director sat upright on the berth, his back against the headboard, staring down at his own entwined fingers. Several times his doctors tried to strike up conversation with him in this state, but he remained silent, or if he did acknowledge then his reply was little more than a soft grunt.
Then, several orns after Red had been told of his lover's betrayal, Ratchet bumped into Ambulon, who was leaving the ward room. The specialist closed the door behind him, checking and double-checking to make sure it was fully closed and that their patient inside might not hear them talking. "I've run a final check on his vital signs. He's strong enough to be discharged whenever he feels able."
Ratchet nodded wordlessly. Though Red's body might finally be strong enough again to go about everyday life, the same might not be said for his psyche. The security director had not easily trusted people, and he was not easily coping with the fact that the one mech he had trusted most had been torturing him for his own gain.
Ambulon's voice lowered and he had murmured, with a conspiratorial tone, "I heard that Flame's laboratory was raided the other day." Though advanced and respected in his field, the specialist had a bit of a weak spot for gossip. "They found a container full of xiomanthine."
"Yes," Ratchet answered gloomily, "it makes sense, doesn't it? Who's the only one that had both the means and opportunity to have got those impurities into Red Alert's systems? Flame. He had the means – xiomanthine from his lab and, if the rumours are anything to go on, he had received several shipments of organic matter for use in his experiments towards Primus-knows-what end. He had the opportunity; he was the only one that Red Alert would take energon from, after all." A heavy sigh. "I wish I knew his motive."
Ambulon looked back towards Red Alert's closed ward door. "..."
"Frag!" Ratchet swore, letting his fist fly into the wall in frustrated anger. "How could I have been so blind!"
"Weren't we all? The answer was staring us in the face the whole time."
"And telling us it was no trouble at all to look after a sick loved one," Ratchet growled bitterly. With another grunt of rage, he slammed the heel of one hand straight into his forehead and swore again. "Damn! He was mocking us the whole time!"
The other medic laid a kindly hand on Ratchet's shoulder. "You should not be so hard on yourself, my friend. Red Alert is still alive. That in itself is cause for celebration."
Sagging in defeat, the white-bodied medic shook his head slowly. "..."
"Now pull yourself together," the specialist ordered gently. "You can't present a face like that to a patient."
Taking a large, measured inhalation, Ratchet filtered the air slowly through his systems before dragging his hands down his face as though to symbolically rip away the mask of depression. Allowing himself a moment to regain his composure, the doctor nodded to his colleague. "Thank you for your dedication, Ambulon. I'll see you later."
Ratchet slid the door open to Red's room; the mech on the berth did not turn his head to look at him. Those dull blue optics barely flickered.
"Hi Red," Ratchet spoke kindly, walking over to the berth and checking the chart that Ambulon had left. As the specialist had said, all of Red Alert's measurements were at long-last back to normal. "How are you feeling?"
Ratchet ploughed on regardless of the heavy silence. "I've just been talking with my colleagues and we all agree that you seem healthy enough to be discharged. Obviously you'll be able to stay here until you feel you're ready, but as soon as you wish, you have my permission to leave – but please report to one of the interns before you go so we know you've gone. Oh, and please do keep coming in for check-ups, at least until we can be sure you're out of danger."
At last there was a response, though how positive it was Ratchet would never be sure. It was true Red Alert's head turned and those optics stared into his own.
It was the look of cool dislike and obvious distrust in the security director's gaze that unsettled Ratchet, whose voice died in his throat as he stared at a wound that no amount of doctors, hospitals or medical breakthroughs would ever be able to cure.
Note: Münchausen's Syndrome by Proxy is a disorder in which a person deliberately causes injury or illness to another person, usually to gain attention or some other benefit.