Fallout: Apocalypse
Chapter 37
By Nan00k

We (finally) meet some (un)familiar faces, Vortex enacts his plans, and in the middle of a war, some soldiers find a reason to celebrate. :)

Sorry for the lateness. Thank you for making this presentable, Shantastic!

NOTICE: There will be no update next week (we're back to once-a-Wednesday now) because I will be away on vacation (aww yeah). We'll return to a normal updating pace on May 23.

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Warnings: character death, foul language, violence, disturbing imagery and discussion, religious ideological discussions, theoretical science, and original characters
Disclaimer: Transformers © Dreamworks/Hasbro. The original characters found in this story were created explicitly for this story.


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Plumas NEST Compound
California

Völlige verwirrung. Utter chaos.

Words could not describe in any of the languages she knew—and she knew many—the sheer terror that wreaked havoc on her mind and spirit. But there was no time to give any of that emotion attention. Instead, it was work. It was a job.

It was all she could do.

It had taken both Ratchet and Hoist to transport Wildrider back to base. He had lost so much energon, the medic had had to give him a transfusion from his own lines before they'd left the little clearing, as well as some from Arcee a short while later, while they were still on the road. Even with that, he had barely survived the trip. It wasn't a matter of simply reattaching limbs, soldering energon lines or fixing armor, which Kass had foolishly hoped for.

His spark case had been nearly severed in half. Ratchet had used an emergency containment field to hold his spark together during the return to base, and the second they'd gotten him into the med-bay and onto a table he had removed it and started working furiously to rejoin the two halves into a single, functional whole. Mikaela had geared up without hesitation to join Kass in helping in any way she could, but almost as soon as she and Kass had taken their usual place on the table he had shoved them off again. Wildrider's spark was still there, barely, and was emitting a dangerous amount of radiation that, while it would not immediately kill the humans, could damage them or cause damage on the cellular level that would eventually cause problems. It was also damaging Wildrider's internal components, fusing wires and corrupting his systems. Once false move and the spark would be extinguished like a living flame.

They didn't have time for caution, Kass thought. She didn't care about getting burned by the radiation or the energon that pooled from nearly every twisted joint and shredded limb. Ignoring Ratchet's warning, she climbed up everywhere she saw a leak and patched every line she could reach. Mikaela had hooked up an energon drip and then clambered up to help her, quietly helping to hold the slippery tubes still, thankfully silent unless speaking about the injury itself. Words would do nothing but impede their process.

She didn't pay attention to the passage of time, though she knew it was hours before Mikaela finally dragged her off to get some water. They were both burned all over from energon droplets that had sprayed out during the various repairs. Kass had only stopped long enough to quench the choking thirst she hadn't realized she had and then went immediately back to work on Wildrider's fractured under-armor. It had to be resealed after they fixed the ripped energon lines. Kass had no idea how to properly install new plating, but she did so anyway, using instinct and experience to figure it out. She wouldn't distract Ratchet from the most important task, that of saving Wildrider's spark.

She was again forced to realize time had passed—a lot of time—when Ratchet eventually moved away from Wildrider's motionless frame and didn't come back. Kass turned around when she finally realized he'd disappeared, turning off her welder, and trying to toss her sweat-drenched bangs out of her face, although they were trapped underneath her face shield. When she finally saw him, Ratchet was leaning against the wall with a half-empty cube of energon in his hand, silently watching Wildrider without seeing Kass or Mikaela at all.

"Ratchet?" Kass asked, uneasy. She looked back to Wildrider, who was still offline. There were so many wires going in and out of his chestplates, hooked up to so many various medical scanners and tools that he didn't look… real anymore. He looked more machine than anything alive. Mikaela stood and wrapped an arm around her in a one-armed hug, giving support.

Ratchet sighed quietly. "He'll live," he said. His hands were again hands for the first time since that morning; they had been transformed into various tools for most of the day. "He'll be in emergency stasis until his spark radiation stops leaking through the crack in the shell. I managed to seal the crack, so it will stop within a few hours. It should, anyway."

Kass swallowed hard, her throat parched again. "And if… when it does?" she asked. She knew she sounded horrible.

"He'll recover, granted he sits still for more than five minutes if he ever regains consciousness," Ratchet replied. His optics dimmed into faint lights. "I… did not think I would be able to do this. Until his spark is stabilized, there are no promises."

She couldn't look at him for long. He was covered in energon—Wildrider's blood. She couldn't look at Wildrider either, who was still in pieces.

"Thank you, Ratchet," Kass said, forcing herself to look at Ratchet instead. Her eyes burned, this time not from the heat. "Thank you so much."

Ratchet gave her a sad look. "You did more than your fair share, Kassandra. And you, Mikaela. I'm sorry you had to be there, had to witness this," he said, sounding honestly sympathetic for the first time since she had met him.

Kass's grip on the welder weakened. "No, I'm glad I was," she said. She looked over and stared at Wildrider's blank faceplates, where one optic was still missing. "He needed me to be."

Because… because she had to be there for him. As family. As a friend. He had always been so noisy and sometimes scary, but he was Wildrider. He was supposed to be free-spirited, their unhinged, unrestrained, fearless friend. He'd protected her and made her laugh and…

He was her friend.

They managed to finish repairing his left leg before Ratchet finally kicked them out. He would finish the repairs, which were thankfully easier and less severe than spark injury had been. Following their usual routine by rote, Kass and Mikaela hung up their aprons and exchanged their boots for sneakers. They left their gloves—burnt and melted thanks to the energon exposure—and welder masks in their little closet. They would have to do an equipment check soon. As they left the med-bay, Mikaela hugged her and then turned to head to the barracks for a shower and some rest. Kass decided that she didn't want to leave for very long. She'd… get dinner, see her other friends, but she'd be back. She had to come back.

She hadn't heard anything about Danny in the last few hours. The medic on the base had checked her over, and then sent her to the local hospital to have an MRI and a CT scan to make sure he hadn't missed anything critical. Last she'd heard, Bluestreak was keeping tabs on her from the hospital parking lot. Kane, the soldier who'd gone with them, had come out periodically with updates, realizing how hard it must be for Bluestreak to wait by himself. At last report, Danny was much better off than Wildrider was, suffering only a severely sprained wrist, some lacerations that had required stitches, and some really bad bruises.

Kass just wished the city of Quincy was closer so that she could check on her. Barns was beside himself with worry, but he had stayed on base to remain available for the search teams. And honestly, Kass was glad he'd decided on that. She wasn't sure she could handle this on her own with just the mechs.

The mechs…

Walking outside the med-bay, Kass was greeted by a line of organic and inorganic faces. No NEST official, should they have walked by, would dare to complain about them blocking the path. Every eye and optic fell on her when she walked out the door.

Jazz and Thundercracker had been an absolute wreck at first, but when they'd realized that Arcee and Barns had taken up vigil outside the med-bay, they had joined their friends. Kass hadn't seen much of either of them, but now… she wanted to run the other way.

Mechs had only a few avenues to express grief. Jazz and Thundercracker had used every one of those by now. The way the two were entwined, as if terrified of losing the other if their grip slipped, was enough to make Kass's heart break yet again.

"He's stable," she said in lieu of greeting, knowing what her friends wanted to hear. Her whole body trembled and she felt weak enough to need to sit down.

Arcee wilted against the wall. "Thank Primus," she said, emotion ringing in her voice. Barns dropped his head into his hands and Jazz whined.

"I shoulda been here with him," the silver mech said. He offlined his visor, sounding agonized. "Primus…"

"This wasn't your fault," Thundercracker said quietly.

"It was!" Jazz cried, his loudness startling them all. He tried to push away, only able to get a few inches away before his strength failed. He kept shaking his helm. "It all was. I… I… I promised I'd be there for all of you. I was supposed t'be a leader, t' protect you." His vocalizer hissed with static and he started to shake. "I couldn't… I didn't do that."

Barns shook his head, tears running over his face freely. "Jazz, you did," he said, choked.

Jazz couldn't say anything else. He clung to Thundercracker's side and keened. Tears would have been an easier outlet, but the mechs had nothing else. Kass couldn't bear to listen to it. Barns curled up with Arcee and cried. The femme just stared at the med-bay doors with a far-off expression.

It was only them now. Arcee, Jazz, Thundercracker, Kass and Barns. Danny and Bluestreak were miles away, Vortex was missing, and Wildrider lay in a medically induced coma.

Wheeljack, Goddard… Rachel…

Kass took a deep breath and found herself turning away from her friends. She couldn't stay there.

"Kassandra?" Arcee asked, optics wide, the only one who had the strength to notice.

"I… I need some time," Kass said. She didn't try to smile, or promise false things, like that she was okay. "Please."

Arcee nodded and said, "Please rest, Kass."

Kass started to walk. She walked until the sounds of the keening and human sobs disappeared.

Outside the hangar, she found a bench and solitude. She sat down and stared at the ground. Bit by bit, things slowed.

After rushing around in a haze of panic-induced adrenaline, she now was feeling the crash.

Slowly…

Slowly, it all crashed back down to Earth, the free-fall over.

It was all over.

Rachel was dead.

Kass sobbed and gripped her head with both hands, her heart filled with grief.

Did anything ever go right for their hapless group? They were given peace—or what little peace an apocalyptic Europe could give them—and it was ripped away from them at every turn while trying to escape their devastated home. Wheeljack was first. Now Rachel. Wildrider was still far from safety. Everyone was a target for fate's cruel arrow.

It wasn't fair. Kass wept now that she was out of the med-bay and away from the energon soaked floors. She wasn't alone, though. She felt a familiar body come up close to her on the bench, solid arms wrapping around her shoulders in gentle reassurance.

"It'll be okay, Kass," Miles whispered.

She just cried and clung to him.

It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair at all.

0000

Decepticon Shuttle
Siberia

Galvatron was nothing like his previous form. Megatron had been skilled at maintaining order in the ranks, brilliant at leading his troops on the field; he'd never been adept with the details of running an army. He'd delegated those tasks to Starscream, Soundwave and others, commenting frequently that a well-run army capitalized on the strengths of its individuals. Starscream was good at micromanaging supplies, making sure their data logs were updated properly, and ensuring that all the minute details were worked out when preparing for battle. He was also highly skilled at tweaking weapons and tactical plans to maximize their impact on the enemy, frequently pulling a win from a loss through his preparation. After eons of following along behind Megatron and cleaning up his messes, Starscream had expected to have to always be there to keep the Decepticon army organized and operational.

But Galvatron… Galvatron spent every free minute obsessively organizing, planning and updating all of the ship's logs. He had removed Starscream from the role of "manager" and had suddenly become the one to receive constant updates on every aspect of the army's actions and plans. Starscream had thought that this precipitous change in his personality was just a malfunction Galvatron had suffered because of his unexpected—and unnatural—resurrection. Megatron had always been imperious and arrogant, a glitch in his systems could increase those tendencies to turn him into a domineering micromanager. It didn't mean anything except that his leader was interfering with aspects of the army that did not concern his thick bucket head.

That was why Starscream knew that if he was going to get into the data stream and see what Galvatron was working on, he would have to go to the command center when he knew no one but himself would be there. The sudden alarm that had been raised outside the shuttle had cleared most of the hallways, and Galvatron was busy harassing Soundwave again about surveillance and security. Without his symbiotes, Soundwave was limited in his ability to gather information, but Galvatron was less willing to accept that fact and far more impatient than Megatron ever had been. Starscream gladly took the window of opportunity to do a little research.

Starscream felt uneasy walking up to the commander's console, regardless. Ever since he had been rudely introduced to the purple menace after he had clawed himself out of the depths of the ocean crypt the humans had thrown him into, Starscream had felt Galvatron's shadow following him around the ship, always watching. Looking for weaknesses and mistakes. It felt like he had optics everywhere, particularly on Starscream.

There was a breakdown of command as it was. Starscream had been defrocked of almost every power he had held in this army, but it wasn't just him. Soundwave, whom Megatron had never felt a need to physically bully, was also dodging strikes from Galvatron's all-too-ready fists, and all orders now came directly from Galvatron, no other. It was a poor way to run the army; Megatron had known this. That's why he had seen the sense of appointing Starscream and Soundwave to their positions. They weren't the fools Galvatron was treating them as.

Why was Galvatron doing this?

Starscream snarled lowly and had his doubts. If he tried to break into Galvatron's personal logs, he would find worse punishment than just brig time. He did not trust that maniac. He could see something unnatural burning behind the lunatic's optics.

He should have just turned away, but it was more than just curiosity that pinned him where he stood, alone, in that empty hall.

Wicked whispers had been floating through his processors for orns now, all sounding like that insane mech he had been forced to listen to for nearly a joor. It was all crazy. It had to be.

Why do you think he never included you?

He found himself standing in front of the console and staring blankly into the dark screen. He let his clawed servos rest on the input panel and watched various cyphers appear.

Why do you think Galvatron rose at all? Not of his own power. Someone else's. Someone far more diabolical, yes?

Starscream knew how Megatron—Galvatron—had returned. Soundwave had been the one to organize it, being contacted by another mech who called himself the Fallen. This unknown mech had given them the power to resurrect the fallen Decepticon leader, much to Starscream's disdain. Megatron had only been offline a few planetary cycles. Starscream had not even had the chance to take any real control of their disarrayed army.

But then it all changed. Galvatron rose and Starscream fell under his shadow once again.

But that wasn't it, was it?

Think, Starscream. Why doesn't Galvatron include you in his plans? He's hiding something.

That was true. Starscream stared at the console and couldn't shake the slight tremor in his spark. Galvatron was even more guarded and suspicious than Megatron had been. The warlord let no one close, not even that monstrous Soundwave. He had left Starscream with almost no power over his Seekers. The few missions had been merely scratches at the Autobot forces. It made no sense.

Clinking against the smooth surface of the input panel, Starscream wondered. He thought traitorous thoughts. He remembered what Vortex had said. All of the things he had said. About his other world. About how it fell to ruin.

He thought about the drones.

What is he hiding?

Typing rapidly, Starscream easily overrode the safeguards on the data he was after. Galvatron used fear to control the questions and reduce the likelihood of snooping minds. He had no need for higher level encryptions, which had apparently not been changed since before Starscream had had brief power as leader. Still, Starscream did not link into the system. He didn't trust Galvatron, or Soundwave, not have put something in there to attack any mech trying to find out what the tyrant had hidden away.

It was too easy to break into the communication logs and data transfers Galvatron had accessed through his private console, which was ultimately linked with the ship's main systems. Starscream broke through the meager firewalls and was abruptly given access to everything. It was not what he had expected, nor what he wanted.

They weren't logs made by a commander about their army. They were commands from another source. Galvatron was cataloguing orders. Starscream recognized some, but not all of them, as orders Galvatron that had barked out at all of their soldiers, including Starscream. Many were… new.

Attack the cities, cause chaos, inspire fear—

He moved through the data as quickly as he could. He ignored things he already knew. Some of the information… was encrypted.

But among the lines of encrypted orders, he kept seeing certain words repeated. Starscream set a sub-process to breaking that encryption as he continued to read. It didn't take long before the program signaled decryption of some of those words, words that had been repeated time after time after time.

Drones. Drones. Drones.

Starscream's optics roved to the bottom of the screen and froze as his decryption program translated a command that had been highlighted as important.

Do not kill them.

Them? Starscream stopped scrolling.

The Autobots?

That wasn't… he had heard his troops complaining about insane orders such as avoiding causing damage to the Autobot troops they did encounter on missions and Starscream had been more angered by the mere fact that Galvatron was superseding the power of his own second in command than in the stupidity of the order itself.

Now, it did catch his attention.

It didn't make any sense, even now. There were no related orders before or after that could give any sane reason for why they would let their enemies in this Primus-forsaken war live. Starscream could barely believe their warmongering leader would ever consider such a command when he was all too willing to kill some of his own troops for the simplest of mistakes.

…And the fact that this was an order directed at Galvatron…

Who dared to order that monster—and why did the monster obey?

"What are you doing, Starscream?"

If it were possible, every wire in his frame would have fused together. Starscream leaped away from the console without even being able to cancel the data search. He spun and nearly tripped over his own pedes as he stared up into Galvatron's faceplates.

Starscream gaped. He didn't even have the ability to feel his terror properly.

"L-Lord Galvatron," he managed to say. He nearly fell back into the other consoles under the shadow of the larger mech. He tried to move around the main desk, to put as much room between him and the warlord as possible. "I—"

He cut himself off, knowing it was hopeless. Galvatron was smirking and was practically feeding off the terror that Starscream knew he was radiating now.

"Snooping around again, are you?" the Decepticon leader asked, moving in closer, his slow pace more terrifying than any flying fist.

"Merely reassuring myself of your grander plans, my lord," Starscream stammered. He bowed his head, still keeping his optics warily on the larger mech as he tried to skirt around the command console. "H-how foolishly done, though, sire. I have no reason to doubt your genius. I now berate myself for being so weak of spark. I have no doubts now."

Galvatron rested his dark hands on the console with predatory optics kept on the Seeker. "Do you?" he asked, in a falsely calm voice. Starscream knew violence lurked somewhere underneath. He couldn't escape it; the only way out of this was to make it less damaging.

"Y-yes, my lord," Starscream said. His optics went to the door closest to them. It led out to Galvatron's quarters. The doors that led to the rest of the ship would give him the best opportunity to flee, but Galvatron stood in the way.

Galvatron still had Megatron's habit of dragging things out, only this—this was even worse. The darkness in his optics was so much more terrifying now. Starscream didn't try to hide the tremor in his limbs.

"Tell me, Starscream," Galvatron began, falsely calm. His optics trailed downward to the console screen and seemed disinterested, as if this were a regular conversation. "Just what do you think of those plans?"

"G-genius, of course, my lord," Starscream said. He shuddered when Galvatron pushed past the console. The Seeker didn't dare to move away. He'd learned that was a mistake that only promised a punishment harsher than staying still.

The titan before him took on a mockingly surprised tone. "Why would you ever doubt them, then?" Galvatron asked.

Starscream looked over at the doors again before forcing himself to return his gaze to Galvatron. "I… I assure you, my lord, I do not—," he tried to say. The whole room pressed inward; he immediately felt drowned in claustrophobia.

Galvatron moved even closer, white smile sick. "Why doubt them before, Starscream?" he asked quietly. Starscream shuddered when the titan's face came just barely to a stop before his. When Galvatron spoke, it was worse than being struck. "That you would need to break into my ship's data streams to reassure yourself?"

Mega-vorns ago, before Megatron had disappeared, trapped on this miserable planet, Starscream had been used to arguments that led to violence. It had almost become a routine, to push and challenge his ignorant leader. The punishments weren't always a constant; sometimes it was just words.

But Starscream had always known when the violence was coming. Galvatron didn't just use words. Words were never enough to sate the fire that undoubtedly replaced his spark.

He knew before Galvatron even moved that the talking was over, but Starscream's speed was not enough for Galvatron's mass. The tyrant's fist slammed into Starscream's canopy and sent him reeling him backwards, crashing into the command deck. Galvatron fell upon him and his larger hands easily caught Starscream's throat, nearly hurling him into the air. Another solid hand shot into his chest, breaking through the gold canopy glass carelessly.

Starscream felt a flood of terror surge through him as he grappled uselessly at the hands clenched around his chassis, hands that could so easily crush through the metal straight to his spark. Galvatron loomed over him and radiated barely constrained rage.

"You think you can challenge me for your mistakes? ! You claimed to have lost your best soldiers when that damn teleporter and his mate got scrapped. You blame me for your failures—!" Galvatron hissed.

Something dark snapped inside Starscream's processors, resonating with the oddly poignant grief in his spark. "They wouldn't have been lost if you hadn't sent them on an insane mission to bring down Prime!" he shouted back, before he realized his words were condemning daggers directed straight at his own spark. The stolen data all too readily surfaced and he used it foolishly. "We wouldn't be losing so many of my troops if you were sending them to kill the Autobots, not let them live—!"

"Your troops? !" Galvatron roared, sending both over the tipping point.

Starscream screeched when Galvatron crushed into his chestplates. Instinctually, he brought his legs up and kicked as hard as he could, firing his turbines for adding force. It was enough to dislodge the hand on his throat, but Galvatron kept hold of his chassis. Starscream was thrown viciously away from the command deck and he skidded across the floor before slamming hard enough to bend his wing.

Pain flooded his systems and before he even had the chance to think about getting away, Galvatron was already upon him. Starscream tried to duck out of the way and was suddenly screaming in hysterical pain when one of the crushing hands latched onto his injured wing and pulled hard enough to bend it back even further. The pain almost sent him into emergency stasis. He saw a blur of purple—pain—

"STARSCREAM!" There was the distinct sound of a cannon whining. "GET DOWN!"

Starscream couldn't even turn right-side up to kick away from Galvatron, but luckily it didn't matter. Galvatron's roar of pain and rage startled him, but not as much as the sudden absence of the warlord overhead. Starscream managed to shut down his pain receptors in his wings long enough to turn over. He managed to catch Galvatron crashing into the floor only spaces away, his body convulsing. The lights overhead and behind him also began to flash wildly out of control.

Vortex was standing half-way between the doors and where Starscream lay, his forearm transformed into a cannon, glowing brightly from discharge. The helicopter was pointing his weapon directly at the fallen Decepticon leader boldly. Starscream gaped as it became clear Galvatron could not get up, his body unresponsive.

How did… how did Vortex incapacitate Galvatron so easily? It wasn't a plasma cannon, or any sort of ballistic weaponry. It hadn't done anything to Galvatron's frame. It…

Starscream stared in recognition at last. A hypersonic wave distorter? That was used for short-circuiting machines, not mechs. But that—was enough to work. It had to be. Galvatron's insanity had to stem from his unnatural state, a resurrected spark, though Starscream doubted it was a real spark at all. Galvatron's sensor systems were clearly overly-sensitive. A weapon like this could incapacitate him in a way brute force never would.

Vortex kept his weapon trained on the downed Decepticon leader, who was snarling and trying and failing to get up, twitching uncontrollably on the ground.

"Get up and go!" the helicopter shouted, to Starscream. "Now!"

Starscream gaped. "You—!" What the frag was going on—? !

The gun dropped out of sight when Vortex grabbed Starscream by the arm and hurled the larger flier forward, surprisingly causing the jet to stumble. "MOVE!"

There was no argument there. Starscream scrambled to his feet. He tried to think of a way out of this. He had to get off the ship, away from Galvatron's rage. The lunatic would think Starscream had planned this, but even if Vortex hadn't interfered, Starscream was a dead mech walking. He had to get out—

The open doors had beckoned him closer haphazardly, but just as he started to move, Soundwave appeared and quickly headed toward the two mechs still standing. Starscream immediately retreated; there was no way he could take on Soundwave, not like this!

"SOUNDWAVE! GET THEM!" Galvatron bellowed from the ground.

Vortex charged on fearlessly. Soundwave transformed his arm into a powerful looking cannon and Starscream started to turn to duck the incoming attack—

But Vortex didn't seem to have the same idea. He pointed his own gun, not at Soundwave, but at the floor. Specifically, he aimed at a small black box Starscream only then realized was laying there. Soundwave didn't notice—at least not until Vortex fired on the box and it exploded outward with a thunderous force. Instantly, smoke and sparks blocked visuals.

There was a moment Starscream was vaguely certain something was wrong about that. He couldn't figure out what it was, but he knew there was something strange.

It soon ceased to matter. Vortex only stopped long enough to reach back and grab Starscream again and haul him through the smoke. They didn't even brush against Soundwave, though they could hear the screaming rage of Galvatron at the front of the command center. Starscream had enough time to think he saw Soundwave's bulky form stumble in the smoke and then they were out of the room.

"STOP THEM, SOUNDWAVE!" Galvatron's echoing scream reached them. Starscream stumbled in fear; the technopath would be on them in seconds—

"Forget him!" Vortex shouted, ignoring the danger. He was already running full speed, letting Starscream go to catch up on his own. "Just go! Move!"

The corridor was suspiciously empty, but Starscream didn't care. If anyone at all came out in front of them, he'd kill them without hesitation. All that mattered was survival now. He heard Galvatron's roar all the way behind them and knew they only had a very short lead.

All at once, the sheer insanity of the situation sunk in, namely what had just occurred in the command center.

"How did you do that? !" he demanded, more stunned than angry, shooting the rotorcraft beside him a wild look. More importantly, how did Vortex manage to sneak a weapon like that on board. He had been stripped of weapons when he had been detained!

"Do what?" Vortex asked as they ran. He kept up easily with the Seeker.

Starscream resisted the urge to stop to grab the other mech and beat the answer from him. "No one knows how to bring that psychopathic nightmare down!" he exclaimed. Galvatron was built for more than war. He was indestructible. Starscream would know; he had looked for weaknesses many times.

"I learned from an expert," Vortex grunted, refusing to explain further. Starscream snarled, but knew there was no time to drag it out. They had to get off the ship.

"Soundwave will be hunting us down," he said darkly. It was only a matter of time. Soundwave could track them easily, especially on their own ship.

Vortex grunted. "No, he won't. Just move!"

They headed, as expected, directly toward the launch bay. It was the clearest route to the outside. Starscream saw no sense in asking how Vortex intended to escape; for his part, the Seeker would easily outpace the helicopter and any other following mech in his wake. He didn't have to care about what happened to Vortex after that; he only needed to be concerned with himself.

An unsuspecting frontliner, a mere grounder, stepped outside the main bay doors, fortunately seeing them after they saw him. Vortex opened fire and the grounder went down hard. Starscream was alarmed by the sight of the downed mech's armor; he was already injured. Judging by the sound of plasma cannons firing somewhere in the launch bay itself, the coup was not just being operated by Vortex alone.

"Come on, come on," Vortex hissed, not stopping for Starscream to hurry up, after the Seeker had unintentionally stalled by the doors, now suspicious. "We only have a minute before the whole damn ship's on our afts!"

That was true. Starscream's mind was partially on that fact and it gave him the initiative to follow Vortex through the dark launch bay, which was now deathly quiet; he would have no chance against Galvatron if he ever got caught. But now, more curious, the Aerial Commander had to wonder just how the frag Vortex planned this. Was it the Autobots—? It seemed too implausible—

There was a huge white form at the end of the launching bay, where the doors had been lowered. Starscream raised his null-rays to attack, but Vortex shocked him by waving erratically at the new, massive figure that Starscream recognized as an Autobot. Just fragging perfect.

"GO!" Vortex yelled, running straight at the unidentified Autobot. Starscream had no intention of rushing straight into an Autobot prison after escaping this one, but—

The sound of explosions and weapons' fire not too far away from where they were told the aerial commander to shut his vocalizer and just move as directed.

"Vortex, does he have it? !" the unfamiliar Autobot demanded. Starscream took a moment to look at the new, gigantic mech, but a name escaped him.

Almost.

"Yes, so let's move it!" Vortex shouted, dodging past him. He motioned impatiently at Starscream, who edged around the Autobot flier warily. "Go, Starscream!" Vortex snarled, shoving the jet forward. "Where the frag is—? !"

The giant white shuttle shot an incoming Decepticon over both Vortex and Starscream's head. "He'll be there!" he shouted back, letting the other two mechs run past him as he gave them cover. "We have to go first!"

Go—where? Starscream doubted the shuttle could move fast, but his bulk would be a good shield. Starscream looked beyond him and stared at the cold emptiness of the planet beyond them, rushing up to the edge, ready to jump out to transform—

But his companions beat him to that plan. Vortex yanked him away from the ledge and Starscream's angry screech was cut off when both strange mechs crowded his space, the wind from the mountains slamming into his armor.

"Hold on, we're warping out!" the white shuttle said. He held his arms out expectantly.

Starscream flinched. "Teleporter…!" He sputtered. "You're insane, we can't all teleport at the same time!" Even if they did, Soundwave could still follow—!

"Do it, or stay behind to die!" Vortex snarled, interrupting his panic. He latched onto the shuttle's arm, leaving one remaining for Starscream.

Behind them at the shuttle bay interior doors, he heard plasma rifles fire. Starscream knew he had no time. He dove at the two mechs and sank his clawed hands into the teleporter's arm. The shuttle barely flinched and then—

The world disappeared and then righted itself a moment later. Starscream was used to the jumping thanks to Skywarp, but it never failed to be disorientating. He righted himself instantly upon landing wherever they were. His internal geographic registrar was momentarily offline due to the shifting of time and space.

Starscream was more concerned with who else was around him rather than where. He immediately located the other two mechs, who had also slipped away from each other after they hit the ground. Vortex had actually fallen over, obviously unused to the teleporting. The teleporting shuttle also looked weak as he moved away, hand to his helm.

"Where are we?" Vortex asked, struggling to his feet. Starscream glanced around wildly.

"Northern Italy. It was as far as I could get with three of us," the shuttle replied. He looked drained, clearly from the jump. He suddenly looked beyond Vortex with brighter optics. "Ah, yes. Our fourth."

Starscream braced himself the moment he felt the air dozens of feet away from them shift. Another teleporter? !

He regretted turning around, because the new mech to appear was yet another massive mech. Eons of war taught Starscream to seek out a sigil even before looking for a recognizable face. The Decepticon logo blazed back at him and Starscream almost shouted in alarm.

"Relax, he's friendly," Vortex growled, cutting his hysteria off sharply. Starscream floundered as he tried to take in what was in front of him. His optics trailed off traitorously to the largest mech present.

White-colored and impossibly tall, the shuttle mech towered over them, scouring the area with bright blue optics. Blue. Autobot. It didn't quite fit his gaunt expression, however, once his mask was retracted.

"It is safe here," he stated, more to Vortex and his other Decepticon friend than anyone else. Starscream hated being ignored. The shuttle spoke to the new Decepticon. "You had me worried."

"Situation: contained," the huge Decepticon replied. "Must not remain here for long. Location only temporarily secured."

Part of Starscream's processors skipped. He couldn't believe this was happening.

It could have been the insanity of teleporting out of Galvatron's clutches so spontaneously. Mostly, though, it was because he was more than certain the new hulking Decepticon was none other than Soundwave.

Ignoring Vortex's warning hiss, Starscream stepped closer to his unwanted saviors. "Who the frag are you? !" he screeched angrily to the white Autobot. "I demand an explanation!"

A chuckle started him. "You don't recognize me like this, do you, Starscream?" the white mech asked in accented English, turning around completely. He smiled thinly at the irate Seeker. "My, and here I was thinking you haven't changed a bit."

The familiarity was disturbing. "Who—?" Starscream began, but the larger flier cut him off.

"I am Skyfire," he began, looking directly into Starscream's optics, direct and unafraid. He gestured to the other Decepticon commander beside him. "And this is Soundwave."

Tilting his helm slowly, Skyfire ignored Starscream's shock. "And we have come to save you all."

0000

Plumas NEST Base
10:00 AM

The base was quiet when she got back. Bluestreak had been nearly silent for the whole ride back from Plumas District Hospital. He had made a fuss about her condition, but Danny wasn't going to be allowing any special treatment. She wasn't hurt that badly at all. Not compared to the others. A sprained wrist and some bruises were nothing. Once the doctors had said she was fine, Danny had insisted on leaving—she refused to stay in the hospital a moment longer than necessary.

She was still grateful to be back on familiar ground; once Bluestreak drove over the base limits, they could see a whole wall of familiar faces waiting for them near Hangar B. Danny all but flew out of the Datsun when Bluestreak rolled to a stop, her only thoughts directed toward reaching her friends.

"Danny!" Barns shouted, the first to reach her. He embraced her and nearly lifted her from the ground. He sounded frantic. "Oh, thank God. Oh, Dieu merci! Comment t'es? !"

It took everything she had not to cry right then and there. "Barns!" She clenched her eyes tight and hugged him back until her wrist ached and her bruised chest screamed. "I'm okay. I'm okay."

Everyone—at least, those that could be there—gathered around and Danny reluctantly let go of Barns to look up at the rest of them. They all looked horrible, just like her. Sleepless eyes for the humans, shaken and vacant optics for the mechs…

"Danny… " Kass began, eyes shining. She hugged the shorter woman, mindful of her injuries. "I was so worried about you. You looked… I thought you weren't going to make it."

Judging by how Jazz practically had to restrain himself from picking her up, probably to hug her, and by how Arcee was fidgeting the way Bluestreak was prone to … they all had.

"I'm sorry… I'm sorry, guys," Danny said. She looked past Thundercracker, hesitant. "Lieutenant Kane said that Wildrider was okay. Please… is he…?"

She couldn't bear it, not knowing for sure. Wildrider had fought so hard. He had been torn to hell and back before Danny had managed to crawl away from the debris that had thrown her dozens of yards away from the fight. By the time she had gotten back…

It had nearly killed her. She didn't even care about her own injuries. They didn't matter at all. Wildrider… had nearly given everything just to protect her.

"He'll be okay," Kass said in a quaky voice. She rested a hand on Danny's shoulder and tried to smile. "We're okay."

It could have been easy to believe that, if this was just another day after a real problem, like a drone fight. They'd always been freaked out then, but they'd also always said they were okay. "Okay" was the word they used to reassure themselves that their tiny little group was still intact and safe for a least one more day.

Except…

Danny had not believed it when Lieutenant Kane had told her, as gently as he could, about Rachel.

They would not be okay. Because their group was no longer intact.

Her eyes trailed upwards, to the two mechs that deserved the most patience and kindness now. Thundercracker was seated and Jazz was leaning against the Seeker's shoulder now. Both watched Danny without saying much even when she first showed up. She could see grief fresh in their optics, in their faceplates.

Danny bit her lip. "Jazz, TC… I'm…" She took a deep breath and blinked back tears. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

"…It's okay," Jazz said. He glanced at his mate before looking back at Danny. Both seemed like they were trying to just focus on her. "I'm… I'm so glad you're okay, Danny. We both are." Jazz opened his mouth, but his vocalizer trailed off into a hiss. "I'm… just…"

He stopped talking entirely. Thundercracker gripped his shoulder and all seven of them fell silent.

A single helicopter was landing on the tarmac, beyond the line of helicopters that had already come back. They were all sore reminders. Danny tried to keep her eyes away from them and ignore the sounds of soldiers shouting.

"What now, guys?" she asked, gazing up around at her friends. No one seemed sure.

"First, we're taking time off. Just us," Jazz said. He cupped Kass closer and patted Arcee on the shoulder, trying to be comforting. Danny never realized how small he looked once he lost his own confidence. "Maybe we can go somewhere else."

"What about working here with the Autobots?" Danny asked, surprised. She was even more surprised when Arcee didn't object; the femme just listened with a dejected expression.

Jazz smiled thinly. "I need a break," he said simply. The way he said it was unnatural for him. He seemed too tense. Too fake with his smile. Too still.

Danny sighed and leaned into Barns' shoulder. He was playing with his grandfather's compass, a nervous twitch that came out whenever he got upset. Kass sat down with Bluestreak and Arcee ended up leaning against a military jeep, her optics far away. In the background, Danny could hear men shouting, but as far as they had to worry about, their world was right there, between them.

"Jazz, they're calling for you," Bluestreak said quietly. He was looking over at the source of the shouting. Danny hadn't even noticed.

Thundercracker snarled. "They can wait," he said, suddenly aggressive. "NEST doesn't need us. We need this time to ourselves."

Danny agreed with him and had turned around to seek out any incoming soldiers coming to demand their attention. They needed time to—to mourn—to celebrate Wildrider—to just…

Be a family.

She had thought about suggesting that they go to the woods, for some silence, but then reminded herself they needed to be nearby for Wildrider. She looked back over at the hangars, wondering if they could just hide out near the med-bay in the meanwhile. Ratchet would understand, she hoped.

The sound of footsteps, running, made her grimace. She turned wearily back to the edge of the row of jeeps and wasn't pleased when she saw Major Lennox rushing up to them.

"Jazz!" the blond soldier exclaimed. He dared to look happy. It made Danny's stomach churn. "All of you, I'm glad you're all together. I gotta get you to see something."

"Will, not now," Jazz said gravely. Arcee frowned deeply and Kass' shoulders went up defensively.

Lennox dared to grin, like a madman. "No, man, you're going to want to see this."

"We don't care," Thundercracker began, a growl in his voice. "Leave us—"

"…TC…?" Bluestreak suddenly interrupted, startling them. He had spoken so quietly, it had been enough to break through the anger and mistrust. Danny found herself gazing up at the gunner, who looked oddly… speechless.

Kass frowned and tried to follow his line of vision like the rest of them immediately did, past Lennox. "Blue, what is it—?"

Her question died about the same moment all of them finally found an answer to it. No one reacted at first. Danny almost didn't see it, focusing at first on Lennox and then the few soldiers trailing behind him, all smiling in the same odd way.

Danny saw it after Jazz did, judging by how the mech had suddenly stood and then frozen. She froze, too. Literally, every muscle in her body stopped working, save her heart, which skipped a beat anyway. She couldn't move. She couldn't breathe.

Standing in the midst of soldiers and covered in mud, metal, and what looked like splashes of blood, Rachel Cooper was no less than a dozen yards away.

Barns dropped his compass straight onto the cement and Danny heard Kass take a deep, scraping breath. Danny thought she was hallucinating, but Rachel didn't fade away. She remained right there. Right there.

"Hey," she said, breathless, bruised, bleeding—alive. Rachel grinned, the gesture somehow both showing off an arrogance inherited from Jazz, and a collective calm only Thundercracker could have had. "Hey, guys."

Danny couldn't stop herself from bursting into tears, but everyone ignored her. They were all focused on Jazz who let out a strangled sound, like metal grinding on metal, and had fallen to his knees as his hydraulics locked up. Thundercracker just stood in a half-upright pose, his face stuck in what had to be the most emotional expression she had ever seen him wear before.

All at once, things just kind of fell into place.

"You're alive," Jazz was half-screaming and half-sobbing in that static-filled way mechs did. "You're alive!" Thundercracker stumbled closer as Rachel moved forward to them both.

"Yeah. Yeah." Rachel smiled more, but she failed to hide her own tears. She didn't pull away when Jazz grabbed her up, both desperate and fearful to touch her. Instead, Rachel clung to his hand, laughing and sobbing. "Sorry. I'm sorry, dad. I'm sorry."

"Oh, Primus, never—oh, oh, Primus." Jazz brought her close in a gentle hug, the only one the mechs could offer the humans. Thundercracker crouched with them, encircling Jazz with his own arms. "Primus!"

It was surreal to see Rachel there again. Danny felt part of her mind remain in a frozen state as she tried to keep up with the flurry of emotions and motions around her. Thundercracker and Jazz were saying things rapidly to Rachel, who just kept nodding and brushing away tears. Arcee and Bluestreak stood back with mirrored expressions of awe and bewilderment. Danny wasn't sure how to react. She was so happy, it almost felt like terror.

"I can't believe it," she said, crying still. She didn't think she'd ever stop at this rate.

"Me neither," Rachel said, louder, wet laughs punctuating her words. She moved away from Jazz slightly, looking around their circle with bright eyes. "I'm sorry I couldn't get back sooner. I'm so sorry."

Barns had prayed quietly in French before walking over and embracing Rachel fiercely. Rachel hugged back just as strong, both ignoring her dented armor. Danny sobbed quietly and remained where she was; she didn't trust her legs to hold out.

Thank Primus. Thank God.

"How'd you get out of there?" Bluestreak asked, shaking so much he was making rattling noises. He looked like he was trying to contemplate some crazy science fact that Wheeljack had sometimes tossed out there to make them all go nuts trying to figure out. "The crash…! They said…!"

"This suit saved my ass," Rachel said. She threw her head to the side to shake her hair out of her face. She looked liked she had had rocks thrown directly at her face, honestly. "Not to mention the river. Drones didn't keep up and I managed to get away." She smiled, the gesture weak compared to the confidence Rachel generally had. "I'm okay."

"I'm glad," Jazz said, voice fritzing. He and Thundercracker let their hands down on either side of her. "I'm so glad."

Rachel smiled and hugged both hands wordlessly. Danny smiled so much it hurt.

Oh, Wheeljack… you brought her back to us. The suit… it had to have been him.

Danny hugged her friend and reveled in the emotional chaos. Piece by piece, the worst two days of her life were fading.

Wildrider would get better. Rachel was with them, safe. They'd find Vortex soon. They would be together again and safe.

"Thank you," she whispered into the air, knowing someone was listening. She knew Wheeljack was.

It was still slow motion after that. Rachel did her best to assure her friends she was alright, despite her sorry state. While Jazz fussed about her going to see an army medic, Rachel began to recount her harrowing and bizarre escape down a steep cliff-side into a raging river. Danny still found it difficult to believe her blond friend was actually there with them. It was just… mind-blowing.

And then, of course, they weren't alone.

Barns looked behind her abruptly, his eyes narrowing slowly. That prompted her to spin and look for the next big crazy thing to be thrown their way. However, it wasn't too odd a sight. After giving them the space to mourn and then celebrate for that morning, the Autobots had finally decided to move in to talk with the refugee group. Danny had expected it, but perhaps not like this.

It wasn't just Prowl and Ironhide; Sideswipe and Hound also were trailing behind the two commanders, plus Epps, who looked like he was prepared to do some peacekeeping. Danny watched warily as the group of Autobots approached, Prowl leading the pace. He looked to Jazz and Thundercracker specifically first, probably asking permission, but neither mech told the Autobots to back off. Arcee moved forward a bit in front of Barns and Danny anyway.

And then, Prowl smiled—faintly—at them. Danny slowed to a stop as she turned around to properly face him and the other Autobots. Prowl… never smiled.

What…?

"It's good to see our missing friends have pulled through," he said in lieu of greeting. He nodded at Jazz and Thundercracker, and then Rachel, before the smile faded properly back into his usual blankness. He suddenly drew back into a stiffer pose, hands behind his back. "But I must insist we focus on the more pressing matters now."

"Like?" Arcee asked, frowning. The eight of them present exchanged uncertain looks.

Prowl inclined his helm. "The drones. According to your report, Danny, our suspicions of the drones actively building their numbers instead of arriving en masse have been confirmed," he said, looking directly at Danny. She was surprised at the attention, though he was correct. She had told Lieutenant Kane everything she had seen, so NEST would know about the builder drones. "We have also confirmed Barnaby and WJ's theories that the gamma ray mapping can lead us to their locations. It is time to decide what to do with this information."

"We have got to kill them, that's what," Ironhide said, impatient. Sideswipe rumbled in agreement.

"While they're still grounders?" Lennox asked. He nodded, as did many of the humans. "That makes sense."

"I only saw fliers," Rachel added, shaking her head. She must have been exhausted and hungry, but she seemed intent on standing strong for the large debriefing. She ignored Jazz and Thundercracker's worried glance. "But the weird thing was, they didn't try to follow me after I fell into the river. I think it was the cold that kept them from tracking me, but they didn't really try that hard."

Jazz frowned. "Drones not tryin' fer a kill…" he trailed off. "That ain't right."

"They wanted to stay put," Thundercracker surmised.

Prowl nodded. "That may be because of what Danny and Wildrider witnessed. They stay close to the building site. The theory seems to be correct."

"Until it's time to move on," Epps muttered, grim.

There was a low murmur among their group and the air was suddenly buzzing. Danny did not like the threat of violence, but this was different. They weren't preparing for a drone attack, or a Decepticon invasion.

Their attitudes were… more aggressive. Danny couldn't help but feel a twinge of nervousness in her gut, though when she thought about it, she wasn't entirely sure it was fear. It could have been excitement.

There was something odd about Prowl's posture, too, as he turned away to look out at the airfield. His doorwings were still, but his body language was tense, almost defensive. Like he was avoiding stepping on something underfoot. Danny watched him carefully, intrigued. He knew something they didn't. He was a genius, after all.

Slowly, the Praxian moved, opting to slow down as he turned to face the group again, every eye and optic on him. Prowl paused before speaking, but when he did, Danny was surprised to hear, just faintly, a tremor of something.

"The drones. They aren't indestructible, nor innumerable," the tactician announced, looking at each member of the circle. His words hung like a cloud overhead. "They have to build themselves."

Rachel frowned darkly as she gazed back up at the mech. "And if you kill the builders…"

"They can't continue to build, since they lack the limbs," Thundercracker said, optics just a little wider.

"And then our problems are solved," Epps added, grinning despite the ill look in his eyes.

A strange silence fell over them and Danny looked at each human and mech present, from the stoic Thundercracker and Prowl to Sideswipe and Rachel, who were practically radiating glee.

"So…" Hound said, the silence thick to break through.

"So," Lennox began, glancing around their mismatched army appraisingly, "our simple two-sided war has become a race to find the drones and kill them." He looked up at Jazz and Prowl, daring to smirk. "And then use that to drag Galvatron and the Fallen from their hiding places and kill them, too."

"I like this plan," Sideswipe said, his smile sick, but shared by many.

Jazz's visor burned bright, matching his grin. "Let's do it."

.


End Chapter 37.


.

A/Ns:
-"Bucket head" – YEAH I WENT THERE
-For the record, Skyfire has an Australian accent. Starscream doesn't care to know this, however.
-…What, you were expecting someone different to be time traveling super heroes? ;) More will be explained soon, no worries.