Sorry for have kept you waiting. I really wanted to update this story sooner, but you know how real life works.
Thanks and hugs to my dear friend and beta reader iratepirate, who always finds the time to revise my grammar.
Sparks flying around my head
"It's definitely a mutation," Ratchet said as he analyzed the unique pattern of the energy signature displayed on the computer.
The dots aligned on the screen, illuminating Optimus Prime's serious face. "What kind of mutation?"
Ratchet manipulated the image and highlighted the blurry trail above Knock Out's head. "Still too vague to look for a match, but it's a start. And we have Megatron to thank for that."
From her place on Bulkhead's shoulder, Miko stood up. "Wait, time out!" she said, forming a T with her hands. "What do you mean by that?"
Optimus turned to her. "Miko, every Cybertronian frame emits certain energy readings that create a field; that's the way we are configured on the assembly line. However, the Decepticons are different. Megatron inversed the polarity of his soldiers' energy fields in order to make them different from us."
"Different?" Miko frowned. "As in stronger, uglier… crazier?"
"As in megalomaniacs that thought they had the right to alter their configuration only to prove themselves unique," Ratchet said bitterly. "When Megatron stated that he wanted to make the Decepticons a new breed of Cybertronians, he meant it."
"Oh…" Miko seemed confused. "And what's the deal with this field? Does it make the 'Cons bad guys or something?"
Optimus shook his head. "Benevolence and malevolence are entirely sentient choices. This field only makes the Decepticons' electrical integrity different from ours. It has no effect on their ethics or behavior."
"But it seems that it affected the virus both Arcee and Knock Out were infected with, or at least the way it interfaced with the Decepticon's energy readings." Ratchet turned to the picture displayed on the screen and pointed to the almost transparent aura over Knock Out's head. "When Knock Out was infected, his energy field reacted, creating an electromagnetic signature that hopefully left traces on the device that released the virus. If that's the case, we should be able to track it down."
From his place beside Optimus Prime, Bumblebee beeped.
"Beaten by a human camera?" Ratchet retorted, somehow angry. "I missed the signature because I was focusing on the subject's fuel lines, Bumblebee. How was I supposed to know that the key relied on the simplest thing of all, the Decepticon's energy field?"
"The most valuable lessons come from the simplest things," Optimus Prime said. "We must be humble and thank Miko for her invaluable assistance. All our investigations may have been destined for failure if the image files she took of Knock Out hadn't captured the electromagnetic interaction between his energy field and the virus."
Miko grinned and rotated her pink mobile like a cowboy would do a gun. "See? I knew you would appreciate my obsession with photography someday."
Bulkhead didn't seem to share the general enthusiasm. "Still, you put yourself in danger, Miko."
"Relax, Bulk," Miko said, making a dismissive gesture with her free hand. "Knock Out was chained and behind bars. What could have gone wrong? Besides, he was eager to pose. I bet you a billion yen that he has hit the catwalk before."
Optimus turned to the screen again. "What matters now is our progress in tracing this energy signature to its origin."
Bumblebee chimed quizzically.
Ratchet looked at him. "Yes, Bumblebee. That would be M.E.C.H.'s headquarters."
"Or at least to the location at which the virus was manufactured," Optimus said. "Even if M.E.C.H. has abandoned the facility by now, we should be able to obtain enough data to create an antivirus."
"That would be helpful," Ratchet grumbled. "So far, the tests performed on both Arcee and the Decepticreep have been inconclusive. The samples I extracted from their fuel lines have been… evasive, to say the least."
"So what's next?" asked Miko.
"We are currently searching for similar readings all around the Earth." Ratchet pointed to the holographic map of the planet that replaced the image of Knock Out. "The human satellites that agent Fowler allowed us to temporally commandeer should hasten the search. I would say that we will have an approximate location within the night cycle, hopefully with a margin of error of less than fifty cyber-miles."
Optimus nodded. "Not a small margin, but for Arcee's sake we shall take any advantage and turn it into success. Let us not forget that time is running, and that it's not exactly on our side."
"We'll get that antivirus in time, or find what's needed to make it." Bulkhead punched his own hand and almost made Miko fall with the brusque movement. "No matter what, Arcee will be saved."
The usual manifestations of bravery and optimism ran freely through team Prime, the little commotion making enough space for Ratchet to take Optimus Prime by an arm and discreetly drag him away from hearing range.
By the look on the Autobot leader's face, it was obvious that he didn't share his soldiers' fervor.
"How bad is it, Ratchet?"
The doctor lowered his gaze and shook his head slightly. "I've been monitoring Arcee's vital functions; the nanomites in her fuel lines are overriding her firewalls. Only the EMP bracelet I placed on her wrist prevents her systems from shutting down."
Optimus Prime was no scientist, but the look on his friend's face said more than any explanation.
"How long until the nanomites reach her spark chamber?" he said, unable to hide his preoccupation.
"No more than two solar cycles, perhaps less… You were right when you said that time is our biggest enemy."
"Then we should make the best use of the time we have left. Ratchet, redirect the primary active processes of our main computer to narrowing the search for the electromagnetic signature. I'll have Bulkhead and Bumblebee take the kids home. We will be on high alert during the next two days."
Neither of the two Autobots noticed the slim shadow that disappeared down the back corridor.
I'm sorry, Ratchet.
Two hours later, the serious, yet always kind face remained motionless. Ratchet had always been one of those bots that was easy to read, and even though he was currently unconscious, Arcee could see through his offlined optics that he was worried about her.
She lowered her head. Hitting Ratchet with the circuit nullifier had been one of the hardest things she had ever done, as hard as it had been to introduce a phantom directive into the main computer's programming and make it warn of massive Decepticon activity on the other side of the planet. When the alarms triggered, she had been certain that Optimus Prime would order her to remain in the base in order to keep her safe. Like everybody else, he was worried about her and wouldn't put her at risk. Ironic, as she was about to die anyway.
She put a hand on Ratchet's arm, making sure that he was comfortably placed on his recharge berth. He would have a pit of a cranial unit-ache when he came back online, but at least he would be innocent of Arcee's violation of the Autobot code.
She had always respected the rules religiously, loyalty being her most sacred asset. This time, however, her actions had been guided by something higher than loyalty: the welfare of her team. As a long experienced soldier, she had found that, so far, all of her ethics and behavior codes had fitted well. This was the first time they had proven to be enemies, and also carriers of severe doubts about her own integrity as an Autobot warrior.
Her mistakes were her own, she reminded herself as she walked down the long corridor with guilt as her only companion. Her wrist still hurt; the same wrist that had hit Ratchet in the back with the circuit nullifier. It was also the same wrist that wore the EMP bracelet that kept her alive.
She shook her head, frowning when she caught a glimpse of her own image as she sped through the corridor. Arcee was familiar with regret. As a soldier, she knew well that things didn't go as planned all the time. And every time it happened, regret turned out to be the only partner she had. But even in the worst times – when two, deceased faces flashed painfully before her optics – she remembered that she wouldn't let it happen again; she would never endanger any of her teammates no matter the reason. And, in her opinion, her own life was the most insignificant reason of all.
"Scrap," she said in low voice as she placed a hand on the wall to support her weight, which had suddenly become unbearable. It took her some astro-kliks and a quick internal scan to realize that her equilibrium chip had malfunctioned. A pulse from her EMP bracelet managed to stabilize it almost immediately, but it was an alarming reminder of the foreign agents that were working inside her body with the only mission to terminate her. She had to get rid of those nanomites as soon as possible, or at least take them as far away as she could from her fellow Autobots to prevent any contagion from spreading.
She consulted her internal chronometer for the seventh time since she had started what felt like a very long walk through the corridor. Ratchet would be offline for at least three breems, and Prime and the team would take at least twice that time to realize that there was no Decepticon threat in China. It was more than enough time for her to complete her plan.
She snorted. Plan? The truth was that after entering the Ground Bridge she would stand in unknown territory, but at least she would have the certainty that no harm would come to Bulkhead and the others. They would disapprove of her methods, of course, but they had an important mission to fulfill on planet Earth and she was determined not to become an obstacle.
She stopped when she reached the door of the brig, taking a moment to ponder her next course of action. Removing the prisoner from his cell – especially considering that he may still be the key for Ratchet to create an antivirus – was definitely not one of the most intelligent things she had ever done, but once again she remembered that she had to take care of her most precious treasure, and that was the safety of her kind. She wasn't going to leave an infected and potentially contagious mech inside the base; she would die a million times before doing that.
The door slid open in silence, as silent as her own steps. She was becoming more and more uncomfortable, but she had no choice.
She found her target standing by the back wall, his gaze fixed on the grey, sterile surface. Arcee frowned. Had the Decepticon gone insane? If that's how the virus started its terminal labor, then she had even less time than she had thought.
Her first impression turned out to be wrong – and hence a relief – when she noticed that the Decepticon was actually trying to get a reflection of his face in the unpolished surface. Arcee couldn't help getting annoyed. Like herself, he was dying, and yet the vain jerk longed for a mirror instead of a cure? That Decepticon scum was, by far, the most arrogant and shallowest mech Arcee had ever met. She cursed the virus for the weak – and very embarrassing – feelings she had been forced to compute in his presence. Fortunately, her current resolution was so strong that she was sure that she had overcome those bizarre lapses.
"You shouldn't turn your back on the enemy, Decepticon. Had this been the battlefield, you would be terminated already."
However, he didn't seem surprised to hear to her voice. "Why, but if it isn't my not-so-beautiful other half," he said, turning around. "Sorry if I disappointed you by not being startled, schöne Frau, but would you believe me if I told you that I felt your proximity?"
Yes, Arcee believed him. The same thing happened to her; every time she walked away from the despicable 'Con, the nanomites corroding her circuits made sure to remind her that she needed him close.
"But now that you are here, you could make yourself useful." He approached the energy bars. "How bad is it?"
Her first thought was that Knock Out was talking about their situation, but once again it proved to be wrong. The blasted Decepticon turned his cheek to her, the dim lights of the cell illuminating the scratch that altered his perfect facial features slightly.
"Worse than you think," she said curtly.
He stepped back, scandalized. "What?" His amazement turned to anger immediately. "Well, this is all your fault! Yours and your stupid boyfriend's!"
Bulkhead had only reacted to provocation. Arcee appreciated him, but she didn't appreciate being over-protected. Despite playing in a team, she had always been a loner that feared failing her friends more than she feared termination itself. That was the reason for her presence in the brig in the first place.
"The final countdown has started, and yet here you are talking about trivialities". She was aware that every nano-second counted, so she felt no need to clarify that Bulkhead was not her boyfriend.
"Do you call this trivial?" He instinctively tried to point at the scratch on his cheek – which was barely noticeable, to be honest – but the manacles behind his back kept his arms restrained.
"Now it is trivial, but in two solar cycles it will be nothing, because that's absolutely what you will be."
His optics widened in shock. Finally, it seemed that his egotistical processor had gotten the picture.
"It has started its final phase. Either we get a cure or our systems will shut down irreversibly."
"And where's that cure?" he said, approaching the bars again. "Your poor excuse for a medic had a picnic stripping me down. He should have come up with an antivirus by now."
"The samples extracted from both our fuel lines were insufficient to create an antivirus."
"Well, that's wonderful!" Knock Out kicked the wall. "I told you he was a good-for-nothing antiquity, didn't I? Now release me! Since you Auto-fools have proven to be nothing but absolutely incompetent, it's on me to find a slagging cure. Release me!"
Despite his rant, he seemed genuinely surprised when Arcee typed a code on the wall panel and the energy bars disappeared.
"That… was more intelligent than I gave you credit for," he said, stepping out of the cell. "Now remove these manacles and take me to a laboratory. It's time for a real scientist to take over."
What he got was the canon of Arcee's blaster at the back of his head. "I won't waste precious time embarrassing you about what a real scientist is, Decepticon. Now walk."
"Where to?" He tried to look at her but she pushed him and forced him to walk.
"I said walk," she said, using the most severe tone she had heard coming out of her vocalizer.
"Empty house?" Knock Out asked as he looked around the Control Room. "Where is everybody? Is this Autobot movie night? Are you showing a human horror movie, by any chance?"
Arcee didn't reply, too busy typing on the computer. She had made sure to keep Knock Out at a safe distance from her. Despite the fact that his hands were manacled behind his back, she had no doubt that he had all kind of nasty tricks in storage.
"It would be easier if you tell me what you are doing, femme. Perhaps you haven't realized it, but my life is at stake whilst you waste precious time fooling around!" It was remarkable how his voice could go from calmed to crazed in the blink of an optic.
Arcee approached him and pointed her blaster at his face. He cringed, narrowing one of his optics by instinct.
"Still haven't got it, doctor?" she said, forcing him to approach a nearby scanner."That doesn't speak much for the scientist you claim to be."
Without adding more, she brusquely made him bend down and hit his head against the scanner.
"Ugh! I didn't have any idea that you liked it rough. I usually like to be on top, you know…"
She frowned, increasing the pressure on his head. "I'm going to say this just once, Decepticreep", she said, leaning down. "We are facing a terminal shutdown situation. Next time you make a joke – especially one of that kind – you will know what my blaster feels like firing upon your rims. Are we clear?"
Knock Out narrowed his optics, partially blinded by the intense light of the scanner. "Mm… So we're not in the best mood tonight, are we? Understandable, given the fact that we are about to die. Can you at least tell me what are you doing?"
"You said you wanted a cure. Well, this is the next best thing."
"I don't see how smashing my face against a blasted scanner can provide a cure," he growled, pushing his head back and managing to break Arcee's grip.
She pointed at the hologram that had just appeared over the main console. "Step back and take a look at the map that is about to show."
"Map?" Knock Out looked more confused by the minute.
"I said step back!" Her blaster was much more convincing that her words, scorching the floor at few cyber-inches from his feet. She wouldn't hesitate to shoot the Decepticon, but she needed him functional.
"I insist that filling me in wouldn't kill you faster than the virus," he said, ill-humored but obedient in getting away from her. "Do I have to remind you who the only scientist in the room is? This is getting annoyingly repetitive."
Arcee didn't reply and turned to the scanner. What followed wouldn't be pleasant, but it had to be done to acquire the location she was looking for. She had to be quick, she had to be efficient, but most of all, she had to make sure she wouldn't black out. Her last stand was yet to be made and she couldn't afford to let the nanomites win the battle so early. She also had to keep in mind that the mech standing so close to her had disposed of many Autobots on his dissection table. Perhaps even Cliffjumper…
She suffocated the painful feeling that almost made her choke. She had to focus on her mission.
Her actions were faster than her thoughts. In a nano-second, the EMP bracelet was off of her wrist. But that was not the case of the pain; that attacked immediately, disrupting her equilibrium chip again and making her stagger. Her main systems started to malfunction, giving her a little taste of what death felt like. Perhaps she had even less than those two solar cycles that Ratchet had said.
"What… is happening to you?" she heard the Decepticon behind her.
"T-the map… The map!" she managed to yell within the agony as she placed her own head on the scanner. Hopefully… miraculously her own energy signature would complete the mix. Ratchet hadn't dared take that step in order to avoid hurting her, but she would do it a million times if necessary if the reward was keeping the Autobots safe.
She returned the bracelet to her wrist when her inner alarms announced stasis lock. Her legs were barely able to sustain her, the gyros inside her head continuing their insane twists for some astro-seconds more before she could get a clear image of Knock Out. Fortunately, his attention was focused on the hologram above the computer.
She should have felt satisfied by the red dot blinking on the map, but experience had taught her that there was no such thing as anticipated success.
"Is that the location I think it is?" Knock Out asked, turning to her. "You took a scan of our energy fields and rerouted it to a net of satellites, most likely of human origin, to track an electromagnetic reading… not bad."
She stood up laboriously, ordering her systems to return to optimal status as soon as possible, or at least something similar.
"If there's an antivirus or a way to create it, that's the only place to find it," she said, doing her best to control the shaking of her legs. She couldn't afford to show weakness in front of Knock Out.
"And what is that place? A laboratory? A military base?"
Knock Out looked around. "And where are your Autobot friends? Now that we have these coordinates, they can open a Ground Bridge and retrieve the intel." Arcee could hear hope in his voice.
She denied it with her head. "This is not their problem. I'll go to that human base and obtain the antivirus myself."
"That's the first intelligent thing I've heard you say." Knock Out leaned on the ledge of the console and crossed his legs, getting comfortable. "You have my blessings, milady. Go, save the day! And don't forget to bring me a souvenir."
Arcee typed the coordinates into the computer and the portal opened, the shining light engulfing her severe face. "I'd get my aft off there if I were you, Deceptiscum, because you're coming with me."
The way in which amazement took the place of arrogance on his smooth facial features was priceless.
To be continued.
Knock Out watches human horror movies. We all knew that.
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