Thirty Days in a Second
Part One: When Portals Collide
"In light of knowledge attained, the happy achievement seems almost a matter of course, and any intelligent student can grasp it without too much trouble. But the years of anxious searching in the dark, with their intense longing, their alterations of confidence and exhaustion and the final emergence into the light-only those who have experienced it can understand it."
Footprints trailed a lithe blue form moving across the sunlit snow.
"Arcee to base. I've sighted the debris. Looks like the Decepticons didn't melt as much of the glacier as we first thought."
"Acknowledged." Optimus responded. His voice was a welcome warmth next to the Arctic cold. "I'll have Bulkhead and Bumblebee ready to assist if there is anything worth retrieving."
"Understood. Arcee, out."
The clear skies and midnight sun were dazzling. Arcee squinted and made out the scattered debris only a hundred yards ahead. Eradicon corpses and pieces of the Nemesis stuck out like dark beacons in the sparkling white.
But the calm didn't last.
A shadow passed overhead. Arcee muttered a curse and crouched behind a snow drift. She readied her weapon and inched sideways to peer at the slender jet swooping towards the ground.
Starscream seemed to have the same idea she did. He transformed as he landed and walked up to the rubble, using his foot to nudge a nearby Eradicon corpse. Arcee noticed he'd recently replaced his missing arm, and his new hand held a scanner similar to her own.
And in approaching the debris field first, he discovered what Arcee hadn't yet detected.
The area was crawling with alert and hungry Scraplets.
"What the-AAH!" Starscream shrieked. In seconds he was overcome by a swarm of hundreds. He transformed his hand and blasted wildly, nearly hitting Arcee's hiding place. Scraplets fell around his feet. He dropped his scanning device and touched the side of his head. "This is Commander Starscream. Requesting an emergency ground bridge to my coordinates!"
Arcee's optics widened. The Scraplets were zeroing in on her, too!
"Scrap!" Arcee leapt to her feet. "Ratchet! Open the ground bridge, now!"
"You!" Starscream cried. He covered his face when the Scraplet swarm descended on him again. They were all over his wings and sides, chewing and drawing energon.
Arcee didn't have time to say hello. Part of the swarm spun at her with their piranha-like teeth bared. She shot them down as they approached, but not even her quick reflexes could keep up with their sheer numbers.
A green spiral yawned open near the debris field. Seconds later, another one opened right on top of it. The competing ground bridges spit electricity and fog that melted the snow beneath them.
Neither bot realized the error, and in blind desperation Arcee broke free of the Scraplets, sprinted forward and dove into the portal. She tucked and rolled until she came to a stop.
"Ratchet, close the bridge!"
Arcee lowered her arms at the sound of a scream. She only had time to register she wasn't at the Autobot base before Starscream appeared through the portal. The green spiral exploded a nanosecond after his feet cleared it. Arcee saw his horrified face rush past her. Then the shockwave hit and everything went black.
Icy wind sent snow swirling. Its teeth bit into anything foolish enough to challenge its power.
Arcee's optics fluttered open. She gasped at finding a Scraplet inches from her face...
...and her hand passed right through when she tried to swat it away.
Scraplets littered the ground everywhere. The sky was dull gray like an overcast day with a slightly darker patch near one horizon. Nothing sparkled. Colors were dull, as if someone sucked half the saturation out of every surface.
Arcee jumped to her feet and swung her hands at the Scraplets on the ground. Her fingers never made contact.
Now on the verge of panic, she touched her helm.
"Arcee to base. Do you copy?"
Arcee amplified her signal. "Arcee to base! Do you copy?"
Her gaze fell across a dismembered Scraplet lying in an energon puddle. The snow was disturbed. She kicked the Scraplet and her foot sent it flying. Surprised, she jumped back. Her heel splashed in the puddle of energon. It wasn't dull like everything else. Several smaller puddles mixed into half-concealed footprints leading to the snow drift she used as cover.
Arcee set her blaster on standby and followed the trail. She aimed the instant Starscream's feet came into view. "Hello there, Starscream. Fancy meeting you here."
Starscream offered no response. Well, how rude!
Then she edged closer and saw the reason he didn't answer. Starscream was sprawled face down in a small pond of his own energon. His hands and arms had the same defensive wounds present on any bot who ran into Scraplets.
Arcee kept her weapon trained on the Seeker. She tapped his leg with her foot. It was solid. She gasped and braced herself for an attack.
The wind picked up in intensity. Snow splattered across Starscream's prone form. He looked vulnerable and frail, nothing like the confident, commanding mech who once blasted her arm off.
"Starscream?" She knelt and picked his arm up by the wrist. His hand dangled, lifeless.
Sighing, Arcee tried her communications system. She risked opening her signal to all known channels.
"Arcee to anyone, do you copy?"
Static feedback ripped at her audios. She shut down her communications array and shielded her face with her hand. The wind hurt almost as much as the Scraplet bites on her shoulders and legs.
Great. The Scraplets stop and the wind doesn't. What next?
Arcee knew she was dead if she didn't find shelter immediately. She ran past Starscream to examine the rocky cliff-she remembered Optimus climbing it to attack the Nemesis. It had a cave buried in the ice. She swatted the snow with her hands and discovered she could affect it.
Arcee used her hand blaster to melt the snow away from the cave opening. Not a shelter to write home about, but it would keep the wind and snow off.
I better go get Starscream. As much as I'd love to leave his sorry aft out there to freeze...I might need his help figuring out what happened. Is he still alive?
Dropping temperatures made every movement painful. Arcee trudged inexorably towards Starscream's location. The Seeker hadn't twitched since she left his side.
Jerk, you better be alive.
She rolled him over and brought her face close to his mouth. Air brushed her cheek plating. A bot with working intakes was a bot who still had a Spark in his chest.
Arcee slipped her arms under Starscream's armpits to sit him up. His head fell forward towards his chest and the cold left his limbs stiff.
"Ungh...you're-heavier-than you-look!" Arcee grunted. Her feet kept slipping in the wet snow. Starscream hung as a dead weight in her arms, and it took ages to pull his lifeless chassis into the tiny cave. She was happy to discover enough room to get all the way inside.
Getting out of the wind made all the difference, but the snowy floor of the cave quickly became slick with shed energon. Arcee lit her headlights to assess Starscream's wounds.
The Scraplets did a number on Starscream's arms and wings, but the source of the bleed was a fist-sized hole in the thinnest armor on his side.
"Scrap." Arcee groaned. The nature of the wound nauseated her. She twisted Starscream's unconscious frame for a better look. He still had pieces of a Scraplet embedded inside. Energon welled up in the hole and spilled out all over her legs.
He's dead if this wound rusts over. Scratch that. He's dead in another hour if I don't stop the bleeding.
Arcee was no medic, but she knew enough to perform basic emergency repairs. She took out the field medical kit assigned to every Autobot and unrolled it to expose a small array of clamps, tweezers, scissors, wire cutters, sponges, electrical tape, a compact welding torch, solder coils and metal strips for patching open wounds.
She picked the Scraplet pieces out of Starscream's wiring. Occasionally, she paused to wipe away energon. He was bleeding out fast. She grasped the edge of a small metal sliver. It looked like a tooth, so she pulled as hard as she could and found herself staring at jagged shrapnel. Suddenly, the small energon trickle became a flood and Arcee realized her mistake.
"Oh, come on! Stop bleeding, you idiot!" Arcee growled in frustration. She jammed a clamp around the first energon line she found. Mercifully, that stopped the bleeding. She pressed a sponge into the wound to sop up as much fluid as she could.
Once she had a clear visual, she stared at several frayed wires and an energon line chewed completely in two.
Great. Nice job, Starscream. Look at all these supplies I get to waste on you. I'm only sorry you aren't awake to feel this.
Arcee moved the clamp higher on the shredded energon line and cut off the unsalvageable piece. She unrolled the electrical tape with her dental plates, found the other half of the broken vein and taped the entire thing back together. Energon soaked everything. The adhesive in the tape wouldn't stick. She double-wrapped the line for added protection. Then she released the clamp.
No further leaks.
Arcee released the air in her intakes. Starscream wasn't in imminent danger anymore. Now she could focus on repairing his damaged wiring. Marrying torn wires back together seemed like a picnic. She worked diligently to connect every cable to its brother.
Starscream remained insensate while Arcee welded the metal patch over his wounded side. Light from the welding torch sent bursts of brilliance through the small cave. When she finished, she brought her knees to her chest and sat back against the cave wall.
He needs energon, but I can't spare any...wait!
Arcee rushed out into the bitter wind. Every pain sensor in her body complained, but she bravely ignored it and trudged to the site of the portal explosions. Her scanner was gone-chewed into pieces by the Scraplet swarm. She prodded at bodies with her foot until one made contact.
Arcee didn't question it. A dead Eradicon didn't need the energon in his fuel tank anymore. She used her blades to split the Eradicon's corpse open from chin to codpiece and extricated its full fuel tank.
All this trouble for a fragging Decepticon, Arcee thought. Her lips curled in distaste at her own actions. I better grab his scanner, too...
Windblown snow erased her footprints as fast as they were laid down. Arcee only recognized the path to the cave by the large snowdrift nearby. She stashed the scanner and carried the fuel tank in both hands so it wouldn't leak. One inside the cave, she propped Starscream's head up on her knee and lined the outlet pipe up with his mouth. Gravity did the rest. She heard the energon trickle into his mouth and sat him up to make his body swallow it. This went on for several minutes-pour, sit him up, lay him down, pour again...
"Come on...get yourself out of stasis!" Arcee hissed impatiently.
Starscream coughed and energon dribbled down his chin. He started to swallow on his own. He remained unresponsive, but coughing and swallowing were a sign that his systems were online again. Arcee laid him back and checked his patched side to make sure it held.
Something about the environment nagged at Arcee's consciousness. She couldn't put her finger on it when exhaustion over-clocked her systems.
Putting aside her disgust, she stuck the fuel tank outlet hose into her own mouth and sucked out a few mouthfuls of energon. It was cold, but tasted fresh. She cast the tank aside. It clanged hollowly, empty.
"Thanks, Starscream. You hogged most of the fuel."
Exhausted, Arcee sat back against the side of the cave and shuttered her optics. Recharge found her in seconds.
A crackling noise woke Arcee from her slumber. She quieted her intakes and listened, which was easier to do without the wind roaring outside. The sound came again. She focused on its source.
Starscream's hand scratched against the wet cave floor. Arcee's attention went immediately to the Seeker's narrow face. His eyebrows drew together. He grimaced and moaned.
Oh, he definitely felt his wounds now.
"Wake up." Arcee slapped Starscream lightly on the cheek. She did it harder when he didn't respond the first time.
"Uhhh..." Starscream opened his eyes. "You!"
Arcee caught his wrist before he transformed his hand into a blaster. "I wouldn't try that if I were you. You got chewed up pretty good by those Scraplets and you're not in any condition to fight me."
Starscream pulled his hand free and clutched at his side. "This-isn't the Nemesis..."
"Oh, wow, aren't you smart? We're still in the Arctic. The ground bridge portal freaked out and exploded."
"That sounds like a feedback loop," Starscream said. "How absurd! Ground bridge portals are the most stable-"
"It happened once before, when you decided to play zombie apocalypse with Skyquake's body."
"I'm not in the mood for your boring tales of woe." Starscream snapped. He let his head fall back and wiped at his face. His energon-stained fingertips left purple streaks in their wake. He didn't appear to care.
"Well, I've been here since-" Arcee froze and looked outside. There were no clouds or sun, yet the sky cast light. Her internal chronometer still registered exactly five seconds past midnight.
Time literally stood still.
"Starscream, what does your chronometer say?"
"Twenty-four hundred and five seconds. It's been there since I regained-" Starscream gasped. His optics were fixed on the mouth of the cave. He kicked his feet. "No...n-no, not again! Not again! Get away!"
Starscream's heels went right through a frozen Scraplet lying near the entrace.
"Now do you see?" Arcee went on. "The same thing happened to Jack, Miko and Raf. Two ground bridges opened too close together, and-"
"-the crossed energy streams knocked them out of phase," Starscream finished for her. He held his side and sat up against the side of the cave. Just that small effort left him gasping. He had to be in agony. "Such a...variable...came up in theory when I was building the space bridge. I never considered it...possible on a smaller scale. The margin for error...did you call for your bridge when I did?"
"Yes. Yes, I did. And guess what? This situation happened, and you and I are stuck in this theory you never wrote home about!" Arcee wanted to strangle him until his optics popped out. She frowned, folding her arms. Was Starscream for real? "You mean to tell me you never explored this possibility?"
Starscream glared at her, his optics hot coals in the darkness. "Do you think I had time to play with every variable during a war? This situation-the probability of it occurring is so minute!"
Arcee glowered back. Him with his red optics and Decepticon insignias. Why, out of all the people in the universe, did she have to get stuck with Starscream?
"We're in your improbable situation together now. And as much a I hate to say it, helping each other may be the only way we'll get out of this alive. So if I can stand to work with you and you can refrain from killing me...we'll get along just fine."
"Hah!" Starscream turned his head away. "This whole mess is your fault."
"Yes, your fault! You Autobots can't keep your servos out of Decepticon business! Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll just be on my w-ARGH!" Starscream collapsed against the wet floor, both hands clutching at his side. He coughed and wiped his mouth. Energon stained his hand.
Arcee could not believe she felt sorry for him. She pushed his shoulders until he laid down again. "You just had a Scraplet chew its way under your armor. What? Do you think the energon all over the ground is mine?"
"You..." His optics moved from her face to his patched side.
"Yeah, but I'm no medic and I don't know how well tape is going to hold your pieces together. You shouldn't move around until your healing systems take care of the worst of it."
"Of all the people I get trapped here with..."
"Oh, stop whining. Would you rather be stuck with Megatron?" Arcee took small delight in seeing Starscream's pupils dilate in terror. "I guess he wasn't too happy with how you ran the show."
"Shut up about that!" Starscream spat. "I don't know how he managed to wake up! He was brain-dead. No CPU activity after your little stint inside his head. What were you doing in there in the first place?"
"I don't think that's any of your business." Arcee refocused on Starscream's portable scanner. It was far more complicated than her own. Even worse, the controls didn't respond to her touch. "Now shut up and rest while I try to figure this thing out."
She ignored Starscream's optics watching her fumble with the handheld device.
He started to laugh at her. It did not help her concentration.
"Shut up," she hissed.
Starscream swiped the scanner out of her grasp. He pressed a switch on the side and the screen came to life. "It helps if you turn it on first."
Frag you, Arcee thought. "Autobot handhelds are touch activated, okay?"
He ignored her and worked his thumbs over the touch screen. His optics narrowed at the readings. "Hm."
Starscream pointed the scanner at her. At the wall. At the pale light outside.
"According to the scanner...you exist, I exist, this cave exists, the wind, snow and low temperature exist..." His gaze shifted up to meet hers, "...but the rest might as well be empty space. It isn't even registering the sky."
"You sound just like a scientist." Arcee grumbled.
"Actually, I am a scientist." Starscream answered snidely. He let her see the scanner for herself. Sure enough, it showed signals-and a lack of them-exactly where he pointed out.
Arcee covered her face with both hands and let herself fall back against the cave wall. She didn't understand the situation. She felt so alone and cut off from everyone she cared about. The unknown terrified her, but pride wouldn't let her show it in Starscream's presence.
Starscream set the scanner down. "I'm setting my internal chronometer to measure the present time. You should do the same. We need some method of keeping track until we figure this situation out."
Nodding, Arcee did the same. "On my mark-now."
A means to measure the seconds in a timeless space did little to quell her unease. It offered as much comfort as a candle in a blizzard.
"Do you want me to patch your wings?"
Starscream's optics widened. He shifted uncomfortably away from her. "Ah, no, no...they require very precise care and should only be handled by a professional. The wounds aren't that deep. I'll be flight capable in twelve hours. I plan to recharge until then, so if you don't have any pressing matters..."
Arcee sneered. "You wish."
"Tch." He turned his back to her and went quiet again.
Arcee curled up on the ground. The whole three inches of distance she had between herself and Starscream didn't make for a restful slumber. Starscream's recharge was anything but peaceful. For hours, off and on, he twitched and groaned in the grips of his dreams.
Arcee closed her eyes, hoping against hope that this was nothing more than a nightmare.