They had hit a snag.
Wheeljack was used to hitting snags. Snags, he considered, were the finest facets of scientific research. Snags could highlight deficiencies, spin new ways of thinking, produce unexpected but delightful results or just plain explode. The explosions could probably be thought of as the least fun part of a snag by others, but secretly Wheeljack considered them the best - 83% of his body be damned, he had made things explode that had been declared fire retardant by experts. Experts like Perceptor.
Perceptor wasn't used to hitting snags.
Everything he did - had done so far - came off flawlessly. Mixing chemicals nobody had ever dared mix before would produce wonderful, even miraculous results. Hypothesising that Autobots could fly without any Decepticon programming needed had resulted in the creation of Jetfire and Jetstorm, and the even more incredulous creation of Safeguard. In fact, if the scientist so much as left a mug of Energon balanced precariously on the end of a worktable, then it would slagging well stay there until he moved it. Not even gravity messed with Perceptor's designs - if he told physics he was going to do something to them, then they would simply shut up and obey him.
His own mind, on the other servo, had different ideas.
Wheeljack scratched the side of his face with a wrench as he considered the mech lying on the berth in front of him. "Told ya." He said simply. There was no malice in his tone; the phrase 'I told you so' had long begun to lose meaning between the pair, and was now used more as an observation than a criticism. "I told ya. Get rid of 'em all, all of 'em at once, and you're gonna lose interest. Interest in everythin'. Not a good idea."
Perceptor scowled at him. "I don't need you to tell me 'I told you so', I need you to make it work!" He snapped. "My calculations show that a near-total level of deletion is possible. Perhaps I missed something, one last fail-safe file..."
"Fail safe files're there for a reason, 'Ceptor." Wheeljack sat on a hard metal bench next to the medicinal berth and patted his friend's slender arm with a clumsy servo. The new nerve pathways were still settling in. "I know you've explained a thousand times and I promise I've tried to understand a thousand an' one, but I still don't get why the feelin's have gotta go."
"They are hindering me." Perceptor said snippily. "Hindering my progress. If I had just installed a few more files within Jetfire and Jetstorm's programming, they would hardly have struggled with the Starscream simulation at all. And yet because my ethical boundaries prevented me from doing so, we almost lost them. Our most prized experiment."
"Mechs." Wheeljack corrected. When Perceptor peered at him over his amber glasses, Wheeljack remonstrated. "You referred to two mechs we saved and repaired as an experiment."
"You sound disappointed." Perceptor frowned. Wheeljack's large digits slide down his forearm and clasped around his servo. He pulled away from the touch. "It's not for you to decide," he said tersely. "I want them gone. Emotions, ethics, everything. Find a way to make it work that doesn't leave me a useless husk."
Wheeljack winced at the memory. It was as he had predicted: wiping all of Perceptor's emotions clean on the test-run had resulted in the Bot losing interest in everything - refuelling, recharging, even rising from the berth in the first place. What was the point? Wheeljack had waited barely a deca-cycle before reversing the process, fearing long-term damage and weathering the anger Perceptor had shown at his initiative. He had to admit that he was somewhat alarmed to discover that the disappointing results seemed to have done more harm than the test itself; but this fear bred within him a new-found resolve to help Perceptor overcome the one snag he had run into in his relatively short existence.
"I think I know how to solve it," he said.
Perceptor glanced over his shoulder, optics still narrowed. "Oh?"
"You said 'near-total level of deletion'. That's possible. 'Total deletion'. That's not."
"You need a reason, 'Ceptor. A reason to reboot in the mornin's. A reason to recharge at night. A reason to refuel, a reason to work. You need somethin' there to drive that reasonin'. I know you read all those old philosophers sayin' logic's the only thing you need, but when you've not got anythin' to parallel that logic, then you got no reason for the logic to exist." Wheeljack smacked the wrench against the back of his servo. "I'm not explainin' well. What I mean to say is, it's all very well havin' logic for your researchin', but you need some emotions for you. You're not a computer. Heck, Mainframe's as near as we got to a walkin', talkin' computer and you can still find him in the bar durin' downtime."
Perceptor was nodding slowly. "I need one emotional strain to be left behind for the purpose of self-preservation," he clarified. "Alright. Which emotion?"
Wheeljack shook his head. "Ain't gonna be so easy, 'Ceptor. Limiting yourself to one emotion is possibly more dangerous than having none at all, because it could come to rule your life so easy. I got faith in you - you're a mentally-strong Bot - but rulin' yourself with only one feelin' could turn out to be like madness."
"Then we shall have to use the patented Wheeljack Method, I fear." Perceptor slid smoothly from the berth and stood with his arms folded, gazing steadily at his comrade as he tapped one foot impatiently against the floor. He caught Wheeljack's confused look. "The Wheeljack Method," he said impatiently. "Trial and error."
It was more error than trial. Desire and lust were ruled out on the drawing board (to a few half-hearted jokes that didn't settle too well with either of them). Curiosity looked good on schematic but was a nightmare in practise; when ruled by an overwhelming desire to know everything about anything, Perceptor could barely walk down a corridor without being distracted by a ceiling tile or an air vent. Wheeljack quickly replaced it with hope, but this caused a processing glitch when anything that ought to have gone right went wrong instead. Anger and despair barely lasted a nanoklick; jealousy and envy provided a good basis for wanting to improve scientific research, and a bad basis for wanting to still be a free Bot whilst doing so. Sadness and sorrow hindered more than curiosity or hope, and worry and frustration turned every small thing into a cybermole hill that had to be conquered by unnecessary, fussy, irritating nit-picking.
A stellar-cycle later, they were still no closer to finding what was wrong. Wheeljack was not used to snags invading his thought processes for so long, and Perceptor was growing wearier and angrier with every passing failure. They began to avoid one another when they weren't experimenting, and any social discourse they were forced into was spent carefully ignoring the other's existence, even if it meant talking to mechs they never had any intention of knowing beforehand. If Ultra Magnus had noticed anything then he certainly didn't say anything; Perceptor's research, despite his personal hiccough, continued as smoothly as it had done before, and if a few more things were exploding in Wheeljack's lab than usual then it just meant he was having an unusually bad streak of usual bad luck.
The situation came to a head when the emotional roster landed on pride. After watching Perceptor prance about the Institute for half a deca-cycle, sweeping those less important than himself (which was to say everybody else) to one side and correcting any small mistake others dared to make in his presence, Wheeljack snapped.
"Slag this! Slag this, slag you, and slag everything!" He shouted. Perceptor, who had been sat at the desk with his legs crossed elegantly one over the other as he preened over his latest report, arched an optic ridge.
"Something wrong?" He smirked.
"Yes. This. This whole situation is wrong." Wheeljack fumed. "I have spent the last stella-cycle and a half experimenting on you, and all I got to show for it is a bruised ego and a few colleagues who are never gonna speak to either of us again. And for what? Some stupid notion you got that you're not bein' callous enough. Well I say, slag this. You think you can run yourself and your only friend through an emotional wringer and come out the other side smellin' of success? Then guess what, you're there. You don't need to get rid of your emotions, 'cause I doubt you had 'em in the first place. That's it. I'm done with this. I'm done with you."
"What's the matter?" Perceptor purred, sidling up to Wheeljack's retreating back. "Can't stand to stare one of your many failures in the faceplates?"
Wheeljack hit him. He didn't mean to swing so hard, nor did he mean to cause any damage; nevertheless the punch sent the fragile scientist sliding across the floor and into the back wall with a smack and a scream that was heard several decks above and below.
"I'm not like you, 'Ceptor," he said with some difficulty as Perceptor struggled back onto his feet and glared at him from beneath cracked glasses. "I don't see my fellow mechs as experiments. The only reason I was tryin' to help you was to make you happy. Ironic, I know. I just can't stand to see someone I care about so deeply goin' through these ridiculous experiments to make himself into a monster when he don't realise that he's fine just the way he is. Goodnight. I don't wanna see you again for a while."
The stalemate only lasted a few deca-cycles. Perceptor broke it by ringing the bell to Wheeljack's personal quarters one evening. He was carrying two small cubes of high grade as way of a physical peace offering; Wheeljack provided the spiritual one by stepping aside and allowing him in.
"I'm sorry," Perceptor prefaced, barely inside.
"Got rid of your pride, then." Wheeljack grunted, snatching the proffered cube and slamming it down moodily on his desk. "Guess that didn't work, either."
Perceptor discarded his own cube and leant back against the wall by the door. "I think it might have, had it not hurt everyone else around me." He paused. "That was never my intention, you know."
"You can't help it," Wheeljack shrugged. "You've always been selfish. No - that's wrong. Self-absorbed. Once you start thinkin' and tinkerin' with an experiment, nothin' can shift you and you don't notice anythin' else. It's not a fault, I guess, just the way you are."
"Yet you care for me all the same."
Wheeljack shrugged. "As part of me as your one-track mind is a part of you." He replied vaguely.
A short silence. Then: "I think I've solved it."
Wheeljack felt anger boiling beneath his thick metal skin. "Oh yeah?" He tried to say it lightly, but resentment came bubbling out with the words, staining the air between them. "That the real reason you're here, then? To discuss the experiment? Of course it is. Make amends so you can carry on usin' me as a soundin' board. Go on then, what is it?"
Perceptor broke in anxiously. "No, Wheeljack, I didn't mean -"
"I don't care what you mean. You're only here for one thing. Spit it out."
Perceptor stared at him with tired, hurt optics. "Love," he murmured finally.
"What?" Wheeljack snapped.
Perceptor smiled sadly. "The reason I'm here. The one thing we haven't tried. Love. Try love."
Wheeljack stared at him. "Love?" He echoed. And then, before he could stop himself: "Are you even capable of feelin' such a thing?" He regretted it almost as soon as the words were out, but he was also gratified to see the extent to which they impacted on his erstwhile friend.
"Yes," said Perceptor, simply, even as the sad smile tugged at his mouth. "And it's my last resort, because as selfish as you think me, I didn't want to incorporate what I think is between us into my experimentation. I didn't want to lose the one thing that is already sustaining me, or exaggerate it to such an extent that it becomes a cruel parody of what it was. You're right, you are my only friend. My only confident, my only ally. And the only thing I care about. As much as I wanted to purge myself of all feelings, I also didn't want to lose you. Another branch of my deep-rooted selfishness perhaps, but an essential one."
He considered the floor for lack of anything else to look at. "Turns out I ought to have listened to my selfishness all along." He mumbled. "Love, I think, is the answer. Yes. I'm sure it's right."
And, like so many other things Perceptor turned his servo to, it worked. Many on the Science Council, when they had seen the final results of the deletion, assumed that Perceptor was now cold, aloof, uncaring. Well - more so than usual. Some said that he looked at them as a Decepticon looked at a prisoner - something interesting that could be turned into something useful, but something that shouldn't have too many processes wasted on it. Spare parts. Experiments. Not living sentient beings, but test subjects to be dissected and shaped as he saw fit. Hatred began to spread to such an extent that soon no-one dared speak to him outside of the laboratory environment incase those awful dead optics turned the whispers and gossip towards them instead.
No-one except Wheeljack, who stuck by Perceptor's side no matter what, forever hovering in the background of Council meetings, or working discreetly just off to one side as Perceptor showed off their latest project to Bots who may as well have had VIP stamped to their faceplates in his bored-sounding monotone. Wheeljack, who still held a few acquaintances here and there and absorbed the hurtful defamation of his friend in an effort to deflect the blows from one he knew at spark couldn't feel them.
Yet he did so anyway, because he knew they were wrong. The driving force behind that clinical mask, those dangerous optics, that purposeful stride and unflinching tone, was a simple, unthinkable emotion. Love. Love for life, love for their race, love for the stars in the sky at night and the colleagues who now turned their scent rectifiers up at his presence. But most of all, love for the one mech who could look into his flat, logical gaze and not see a snag in loving him back.