June Darby shuddered, doubled over with both arms folded tightly across her stomach as she found herself recalling something she had learned in her days as a medical student. Fear is only chemical signals, she told herself; an emotion conceived by the amygdala deep inside the brain in response to external threats and stimuli. It cannot physically harm the sufferer, nor can it directly kill them. Fear is individual between people, often developed in response to negative experiences during the developmental stage. Some people are afraid of spiders, others are afraid of guns. Some people are mortally afraid of the silliest things – things that can never harm them, like worms or darkness. But one fear that she suspected to lie at the core of every human being was the fear of death. The fear of total oblivion… the fear of the Void.
It was logical to be afraid of 'the end', she felt. Not even an hour ago, she had experienced it herself. She had managed to keep her head at the time; even as her beautiful car had been ripped out from under her, flung into the air amongst the whirling dust and pylons. She'd even managed a smile, after cheating death for the second time since meeting her son's extraordinary 'friends'. But now, sitting alone in the designated human area of the Autobots' base, she found herself unable to move. She could barely breathe – gripped by the knowledge that one false move back there, one tiny lapse in concentration, could have allowed that freak tornado to snatch her up and devour her whole. A single sheet of white metal had been her lone lifeline, the only thing separating her from death.
June glanced up, casting troubled eyes toward Ratchet. The Autobot medic was standing before the translucent monitors nearby; inspecting some complex, futuristic diagram or other. She studied his drawn faceplates, watched him scan the alien text on the display before him. He hadn't noticed her gaze. His expression was solemn, focused. Fearless.
Bumblebee had seemed pretty afraid back then, in that single instant when he and Rafael both thought they'd lost her to the storm. Then, she remembered when Raf had lain dying on the examination table in Ratchet's lab only this afternoon. The scout was afraid then, too, though not as much as Ratchet had been. She'd never seen the medic so worked up, so distressed – so terrified by the thought of being unable to do anything.
The memories puzzled her. Autobots were made of metal alloy, as Ratchet had put it. Circuits and gears, wires and actuators, mechanical systems, sparks. They didn't have amygdalae with which to process fear, nor did they have adrenaline to tell them to run or fight. So… how did they feel fear? Why did they feel it? In her mind, machines were flawless creations in terms of emotion because they couldn't feel anything. Computers were designed to perform tasks without bias; they were objective, resolute. They were 'pure', untainted by compromising thoughts. Fear was an inhibitor. It could turn the most level-headed, intellectual of humans into a raving lunatic, given the right conditions. Such a thing was entirely unnecessary in machines… so why…?
Seemingly able to sense that he was being watched, Ratchet suddenly flicked his optics to the side. He caught her staring; June gave a slight start, taken off-guard, and dropped her gaze to her knees. How much pensive wonder had she let him glance undisguised on her face? The thought was unsettling. She heard the gentle creaking of metal as he straightened up, felt the slight tremble though the raised platform as he took a single step back from the monitors.
"Nurse Dar-" be began, but soon broke off with a shake of the head; remembering her frequent request. He sighed, and placed the knuckles of one hand against his hip. "June?"
The teal-clad human raised her eyes to his in response, straightening from her hunched pose with a falsely bright expression.
Ratchet's optic ridges inclined slightly, faceplates softening into a rare sympathetic arrangement. "Is everything alright?" he asked.
June dropped her cheery façade after a moment, shoulders drooping. "I suppose," she replied distractedly. Her gaze fell upon the low table before the couch on which she perched, tracing the videogame controllers that lay abandoned atop its surface.
"You suppose?" Ratchet repeated, tone guarded and cautious. "Forgive me for saying so, but… today has been a rather eventful one, even by our usual standards. I would have thought that you'd have fallen onto one side or other of the proverbial fence by now, all things considered."
"It's been a long day," she admitted tiredly. "I've just got a lot on my mind, is all."
The medic paused for a moment to study her dejected posture. "Such as?"
"You mean beside the obvious?"
"Well, I… yes. Beside the obvious."
June let out her breath in something that was neither sigh nor laugh, and rose smoothly to her feet. She crossed to the edge of the raised platform, resting her elbows on its railing. "Can Cybertronians feel fear?" she asked.
Ratchet thought for a second. "We experience a psychosomatic phenomenon comprised of electrical signals in response to stimuli that are perceived as threatening," he explained. "It could be interpreted as 'fear', yes."
The medic faltered, faceplates drawing a confused blank. "I'm sorry?"
June gestured aimlessly to the side. "It's unnecessary," she said. "You're robots – no offence – you don't need to feel fear. You don't need to feel anything. Emotions compromise logic. They serve no purpose in beings like you."
"Would you prefer it if we wandered about as mindless drones, incapable of thinking for ourselves?" Ratchet asked, sceptical.
"Well, no… but that's not what I said," the nurse replied. "Thought and emotion are two different things."
Then was June's turn to hesitate. She watched in confused silence as Ratchet stepped forward; he approached the platform on which she stood at a reflective pace, as though taking a moment to formulate a more detailed answer.
"I do not believe that the two concepts are entirely unrelated," he began, looking her straight in the eye as he came to a halt before the platform. "Neither can be measured, or experienced by anyone other than the one in whom they originate. They cannot be seen, touched, heard, tasted or smelled – they are internal processes that stem as a result of experiencing external stimuli, in response to or analysis of a given situation. Neither can exist without some sort of prompt, and the two are often interlinked with one another: it's very rare for a thought to not have some kind of emotional quality associated with it, even if that quality is indifference."
"The same can be argued of anything from that perspective," June said, almost amused by his soliloquy. Ratchet raised an eyebrow, inviting her to continue. "There is a theory that humans are always doing something, even when 'doing nothing'. In other words; people who claim to be sitting still and not doing anything are, in fact, sitting still – and, therefore, doing. They are also breathing, involuntarily of course, as well as many other automatic processes. It just depends on how literally you want to take things. In what you said, from that point of view; indifference would be the default emotion for every living creature."
"But if that were the case," Ratchet replied thoughtfully. "Couldn't it also be applied to machines that are not of Cybertronian origin? Indifference, to my understanding, means 'to not feel'. One who is indifferent shows no interest, concern or sympathy toward anything – a quality I have observed in all human-made machines."
"Yes – but it's not a sentient decision," June reasoned.
She suddenly seemed to catch herself, startled as though having heard another speak complete nonsense. Ratchet perplexedly watched her smile in wonder toward the distant ceiling; she leaned back on her heels, both hands gripping the rail to support her weight as she took a steadying breath.
"Listen to us," she began in a quiet laugh. "I'm almost glad Jack's not here to watch me have such a serious philosophical discussion. He might not recognise me."
The medic similarly restored his usual air, drawing himself up importantly. "Indeed," he said. "Though… it certainly makes for a welcome change of pace to be able to sincerely debate such trivialities. Typically, the others are more interested in mindless pastimes than intellectual conversation… like watching perfectly good vehicles smash into each other, or building paper volcanoes."
June's expression fell all of a sudden, chest beginning to tighten again. "Volcanoes…" she repeated, dropping her gaze to the floor.
Ratchet realised his mistake at once, and let both arms fall limp to his sides. Of course… how topical. "I'm sure the others will be fine," he assured quietly, more to himself than the nurse. Subconsciously, almost, he cast a glance over his shoulder at the nearby monitors. They were worryingly void of commlink channels, though his fellow Autobots' remote life signals remained strong. "Arcee and the others will return shortly with Optimus from the earthquake-damaged zone. We just have to be… patient."
The nurse gave a distracted smile, beginning to twist the hem of her pale cardigan between her fingers. "Is this how you always feel?" she asked, uncertain. "Unable to do anything… forced to wait, anxious but safe on the sidelines, as they risk life and limb on a daily basis?"
"It is," muttered Ratchet. He gave a heavy sigh, turning wearily to head back toward the monitors. A part of him began to wish, as he apprehensively tapped a few keys on the wide touchpad beneath the screens, that Cybertronians really did conform to June's suggestion. The helplessness was wretched, unsettling; a familiar adversary writhing deep within the medic's spark. He'd give anything to abandon emotion at times like these. She was right – emotion did indeed compromise logic. "It is indeed."