They paused by an ancient airlock to scavenge ammunition from the dead. Vortex knew the ship, schematics unfolding on his HUD as the memories rolled through his mind. He remembered Mirage in the Golden Age, an alpha in a sea of alphas while he played at being Blast Off's bodyguard for diplomatic receptions and high class parties.
It was becoming easier. The further integration progressed, the less intense the reaction when an individual recollection was triggered. His history amassed, the puzzle becoming gradually less fragmentary.
"Ready?" Mirage said, his vocal patterns so familiar, so similar to those of Blast Off. Vortex could feel the shape of the collected events, the memories prompted by that association. But no files sprung open, no sense-recollection rose up to claim him. He no longer needed to relive each new discovery to appreciate the details of his own past.
He nodded, raising his weapon, prepared.
Mirage set out. Vortex would have gone the other way. He could smell the fumes of groundframes; the Stunticons were close. He would have liked to have hunted them, but he had a part to play, and First Aid was watching.
Voices sounded, and Mirage raised his weapon. "Take cover," he hissed to Vortex. The grid lit up around him, and Vortex stepped sideways into a shadowy recess. The Autobot vanished, and it was impossible to see exactly where he had gone. But his footfalls still rang, soft as they were.
Bombshell rounded a corner, Skywarp at his heels. Vortex held close to the shadows, optics dim, and fierce excitement welling in his spark. His quarry moved quickly: three astroseconds until they'd reach his hiding place.
Vortex crouched, weapon aimed. Skywarp was the priority – disable his warp field, put a bullet through his CPU.
But Skywarp stumbled, hand to his throat, and Vortex abruptly changed his target. He leapt at Bombshell, bullets flying before he'd properly locked on. Holes ripped through the lines at the Insecticon's neck, dents blossomed on his armour. The bullets ricocheted, smashing Skywarp's cockpit glass, clipping Vortex on the arm. Bombshell roared, meeting him head on. The Insecticon was strong, heavy. The ground rose up, and Vortex lost his grip on his gun. The weapon spun across the floor, and Bombshell's optics blazed with triumph. But Vortex had a backup, and the flare of understanding as the laser scalpel plunged through Bombshell's optic into the delicate circuitry of his central processor was beautiful to behold.
Vortex smirked, and heaved the body off himself. The Insecticon still struggled, voice burbling through a gash in his throat, limbs flailing and hands clawing at Vortex with no strength behind them. Don't look Vortex thought, as he cracked the back of Bombshell's optical orbit and severed the connections to his personality component.
"Where did you get that?" Mirage said. He became visible just as Skywarp completed his slow slide to the floor. His fine hands gleamed with oil.
Vortex shrugged. "Old me had it," he said. He reached for the gun and stood. "Next?"
Mirage almost smiled. "This way."
Again, it wasn't the corridor Vortex would have chosen, but he wasn't in full possession of the facts. Left to his own devices, he would have stripped Skywarp down. He'd always fancied a set of null rays. With weapons like that, he could take the base.
But the Autobot had a plan. He darted left, then left again, taking a circuitous route, but one Vortex knew as well as he knew the scratches on the glass of his feet.
"Where are we going?" he asked, knowing what the answer would be.
"Medbay," Mirage replied, and they were taking the long route, through the older portions of the base, the parts hastily constructed in the early years of the Decepticon campaign on Earth. The walls were thinner here, the portholes few. The seams had a tendency to leak, and the passageways had been largely abandoned in favour of the ancient ship or more carefully constructed additions.
"Smokescreen?" Vortex prompted, just so First Aid would know he had asked.
"It's in hand," Mirage said. "He'll be fine. Brace for impact in five, four..."
Vortex let his programming take over. He held fast to the thicker of the walls, feet apart, head down, and rotors flat to his back. When the world shook, he was ready. The walls creaked, but held. Cries sounded ahead, a storm of feet running in the opposite direction, towards the source of the quake. He slunk after Mirage, vision clear and balance perfect. Frag, his core programming hadn't worked so well in aeons. He sent a pulse of warm affection through the spark bond, gratitude for something First Aid would never know he had done.
Entering medbay was easy. Only Hook remained, and Mirage was already easing his body to the floor when Vortex turned the corner.
"Guard the door," Mirage said. "This shouldn't take long."
Vortex did as he was ordered, like a good little new-build. Hadn't Spinister always told him to live up to others' expectations until he had them exactly where he wanted them?
Then Mirage pulled a screen from the end of medbay, and Vortex froze.
Megatron lay in stasis, his armour polished to gleaming, his helm open and a dozen different cables anchoring him directly to a bank of machinery. Cables hung too from his waist and hips; a hose clipped onto his auxiliary fuel intake, feeding him energon a drip at a time. A glass dome sat over his spark, magnifying the glow, painting the room with a weak and watery purple light.
Mirage moved in, hand raised, face grim.
Vortex glanced from Mirage to the corridor. He couldn't miss this; not for his himself, not for his team. But a shadow moved in the corridor, and he realised too late he should have been alert.
Ravage sprung, claws in his face, one hip-mounted rocket discharging and carving a gouge through the edge of his thigh. He fired, and the shots went wild. The cybercat was too close, too fast. And she was not alone.
Soundwave sprinted through the door, weapon raised. He fired once, and Mirage cried out. Vortex tore at Ravage, getting a grip as her claws split his armour. He thrust a hand down her throat, and she flailed, choking. He swung her around, throwing her as hard as he could against the wall.
Soundwave fired again; the Autobot's optics shattered, his fuel tank split. Vortex swung his gun around, trained it on Soundwave, but Ravage was up again and on him, her teeth shearing through the muzzle.
Something else moved in the corridor. Vortex seized Ravage around the throat, holding her over him, squeezing until the metal buckled. It didn't stop her from tearing at him, holes opening in his armour, his visor cracking under her claws. But it did stop Soundwave from getting a clear shot.
And it gave Jazz just enough time to shoot Soundwave clean in the back.
The air shimmered, the shock wave hitting Vortex before he'd even registered it wasn't laser fire. He tugged Ravage close to his face, a shield for his data banks.
It wasn't enough to knock the cybercat offline, but the moment of confusion was all the time Vortex needed to tear her claws from his chest. She snarled and scrambled; he lost his grip, and she spun away down the hall.
Smokescreen fired after her, but she was gone.
"That's enough, Smokey," Jazz said. "See to Mirage. Vortex, get up." He paused by Soundwave's fallen frame, a quick glance, then he moved on towards Megatron. "Frenzy's in the control room, he's jammin' our signals. Vortex, I need you to get a message to the Ark: activate Plan B."
Vortex stood. He fetched his gun, the grip slick. "We heard you," he said. He accessed the bond, watching his spark-mate come back to himself with a shock. Feeling Hot Spot warm and comforting beside him, as First Aid tapped a code into the comms array on his arm and made the call.
Smokescreen knelt by Mirage, hands poised, but he didn't dive in. "Jazz?" he said softly.
"Help them," Jazz said to Vortex. He moved quietly, quickly. He stepped over Mirage, ignoring Smokescreen's pleading look, and disconnected the life support cables from Megatron one by one.
Smokescreen looked to Vortex, then back to Jazz. "He's going grey! I can't see why."
"Let me," Vortex said, but they were First Aid's words. He nudged Smokescreen aside, and opened the alpha's armour. "I need clamps and a welding torch. Now."
"This is a medbay," Vortex snarled. "Go fraggin' look."
Smokescreen scrambled to his feet, and Vortex made a closer examination of Mirage's injuries. His arms tingled, and his hands moved of their own accord. He let it happen, marvelling at his bond-mate's skill and speed, awed at his capacity for adaptation, and the depth of his knowledge.
Smokescreen returned, left again, fetched more supplies.
Jazz stepped closer, leaning up on his toes, reaching for the bulk of Megatron's open chest. He stayed there a while. Vortex heard only the shattering, saw only the change in light as the violet slowly faded.
"Primus help us," Jazz said quietly. "It's done." He crouched beside Mirage. "Can we move him?"
Vortex nodded. "Carefully," he said, and again his words were supplied by First Aid. "He's stable. We've bought him some time. You've got two hours to get him to Ratchet."
Jazz gave Vortex the strangest look. "Can you carry him and fight?"
Vortex grinned through the shredded tatters of his mask. "Sure."
First Aid slumped, and Hot Spot held him. "Are you all right?" he asked.
"Mirage," First Aid replied. "Two hours, I... can they get him out in time? I have to speak with Ratchet."
"I'll do it," Hot Spot said. "It's OK."
"No." First Aid drew himself up, straightening his struts. He stood, and took his leader's hand again in both of his own. "I know what's happening," he said. "I can see it, I can... Megatron's dead."
"He's... what? Are you sure?"
"Jazz unplugged him. I saw... His spark-light failed, I saw his frame. He's dead. Mirage has two hours, I need to explain to Ratchet, I don't know if enough of the equipment here survived the blast, we might need to take him back to HQ."
Hot Spot activated his comms. "Hot Spot to Ratchet, please pick up."
"Ratchet here," the response was immediate. "I was about to call. Prowl wants you both in the control room, now."
Ratchet hustled Hot Spot to the rear of the room. By Teletraan One's immense display, Prime debriefed First Aid. Prowl stood close by, data-pad in hand.
"I've never seen anything like it," Hot Spot said. He spoke quietly, his words for Ratchet's audials only. "It goes further than gestalt. He let me watch, he fixed Mirage through Vortex's hands."
"Stabilised," Ratchet corrected. He sighed. "I'm sorry, that wasn't called for."
"We're all on edge," Hot Spot said. "You don't have to apologise. I've been thinking... about what you said."
"You'll take Vortex as adjunct?" Ratchet said.
Hot Spot nodded. He put a hand on the closest stalagmite, as though to steady himself. "We need a balance of power," he said softly.
Ratchet huffed. "I like it about as much as you do, but what other option is there? Vortex is cognitively and functionally a new-build. I've run all the tests I can, he's new. Even if he wasn't protected by the treaty, we can hardly punish him for things he hasn't done."
"So we take him on," Hot Spot said.
"We do," Ratchet agreed. "And we watch, and we step in when we need to. We can guide them, together. Aid as well. He's going to need it."
Hot Spot watched his team mate; Aid stood to attention, but he was tired, drained. "It feels like an exercise in damage limitation," he said. "I should ask Red Alert to fill out a risk assessment."
"You either laugh or you cry," Ratchet commented.
"I think we're needed," Hot Spot said. He crossed the room in time to provide First Aid with someone to lean against. The medic stood carefully, back stiff as he rejected his exhaustion. Ratchet had seen it a dozen times.
"He needs a refuel break," Ratchet said.
"We all do," Optimus replied. "We reconvene in fifteen minutes. Prowl, contact Blast Off, and get an ETA from Cosmos. Skyfire, be ready for launch in twenty five minutes. Ratchet, do you have everything you'll need?"
"We'll see," Ratchet said.
First Aid vented deep. "Permission to provide assistance?" he said.
Optimus looked to Ratchet before answering. "I'm afraid not," he replied. "I've asked too much of you already."
Ratchet was convinced First Aid was going to argue, but the Protectobot closed his mouth again and gave a solemn nod. "I understand," he said.
"You're planning to go into battle," Hot Spot said, as they walked slowly back to their room. "I don't need the team link to see that."
First Aid sighed and rubbed the seal around the edge of his visor. "Vortex is hurt," he said. "Mirage could die. Smokescreen has a fractured arm. I know he can use it, but it's only a matter of time before it breaks. There will be more casualties, they need me."
"Not like this," Hot Spot said. "We'll refuel, get some rest. You'll be ready for them when they get back, you can help them then."
"I'll refuel when we're in the air," First Aid said.
"You can't go against Prime's direct orders."
"He can," a smooth voice said. Blast Off caught them up, a cube in his hand. Half drained, it filled the hall with the heady fumes of shuttle-grade energon. "Under Cybertronian law, a bonded pair have the right to provide mutual assistance where no crime has taken place. Not even your Prime can refuse him."
"How do you know this?" Hot Spot said.
Blast Off gave him the most dismissive look he had ever experienced. "I read." He turned that look on First Aid. "Out with it," he snapped.
Hot Spot went to get between them, but First Aid caught his arm. Discomfort flared in his energy field, and vanished as abruptly as it had appeared. "Please bring him back safely," he said.
Blast Off huffed. "You have two breems until I leave the Ark. If you present yourself on time in the launch area, I will condescend to allow you space in my cargo hold."
"Uh, thankyou," Hot Spot said. "But he's staying here."
"Of course," Blast Off said, and walked away. "He always does exactly what you tell him."
"He didn't turn grey," Vortex said to Smokescreen. They jogged through the hallways, Jazz up front, Smokescreen to the rear. Vortex carried Mirage over his shoulder, the mech's innards dripping down his back.
He'd always rather fancied being covered with Mirage's alpha caste fluids, but this was not the scene he'd envisaged.
"What, Soundwave?" Smokescreen said. "Yeah, he's not dead. Dunno if we can kill him."
"You don't open up a carrier mech," Jazz said, glancing back. "They're rigged. Unless you got all the time in the world, you shoot and you hope."
Yes, Vortex thought, I remember, and this time the moment of recall failed to stir even the slightest anxiety. He'd connected to First Aid, the bond had brought them together, and the medic hadn't recoiled, he hadn't registered fear or disgust or concern. Instead, he'd stuck around, with no hint of realisation.
His presence was very welcome.
The lights failed, and Jazz slowed. Vortex could just make him out in the glow of his own visor. Then a brighter red lit the hall, and a siren began to wail.
"Busted," Jazz said. "All right, stick close, we're almost there."
There were two corridors to go, but the siren wailed, and the base echoed with distant footfalls. Jazz broke into a sprint, and Vortex held tight to Mirage, trying to reduce the impact to his broken components.
The floor juddered, and Vortex stumbled. He gripped the wall and forged on, faster now.
"The tower's rising!" Jazz called out. They turned a corner, the final stretch. At the end, the floor slowly rose. Jazz transformed, accelerating hard. Smokescreen followed suit, flipping onto two wheels. He hit the base of the wall with his free tires, using the steep incline as a ramp. Jazz transformed again, his momentum seeing him clear through the gap between the floor of the tower's landing bay and the corridor ceiling. He landed in a crouch and rolled, gun blazing. Rubber screeched as Smokescreen hit the floor and skidded to a halt. Then he was out of view, and Vortex was the only one left.
He booted his thrusters. No flashy moves for him, just a swift flight through the gap.
The tower floor was chaos. Vortex ducked behind a pile of crates, and lay Mirage carefully on the floor. Then he prepped his weapon, aimed, and opened fire. Astrotrain fired back, Scrapper beside him, Dead End to the rear.
Smokescreen huddled to Vortex's left, Jazz had vanished. They needed to vanish too. The crates failed fast, disintegrating under concentrated laser fire.
The floor shuddered, and Vortex's tank lurched. They'd stopped. The scream of lasers and the rattle of bullets wasn't enough to hide the boom as the gears engaged. Chains clattered, and the doors opened onto sky as blue as his bond mate's spark.
"Now!" Jazz yelled, and Vortex had time to spot him dropping from the ceiling onto Astrotrain before the sky was again obscured. Scrapper backed away, trying to get a bead on Jazz. Dead End went with him, still firing on the crates. A shot got through, hit Vortex in the knee, but Smokescreen thumped him on the shoulder.
"Mirage!" he shouted. "Get him to Cosmos!"
Vortex scooped up their wounded, and tried to stand. He slipped, his knee burning, and tried again. Silhouetted against the bright blue sky, Cosmos resolved from rounded shadow into a ship the like of which Cybertron had never produced.
Vortex ran, and Smokescreen covered him. The loading ramp seemed so far away, but Vortex slid and scrambled and pushed ever on, and suddenly he was there, and Cosmos welcomed him with an odd shift of his energy field. Smokescreen followed him in, hitting the floor hard, and rolling.
A cry of rage split the air, and Jazz appeared in the doorway. "No room for four," he said, and Vortex heard the familiar whine of root mode thrusters powering up. Jazz grinned through someone else's energon. "I'll see myself out."
"Prepare for take-off," Cosmos said.
The floor again shifted, and Vortex dropped to his knees. He gave his frame over to his bond mate, watched as he lay Mirage out flat on the floor, as his hands deftly reached to re-secure clips and check conduits for leaks.
Smokescreen groaned, but his energy field when he brushed against Vortex was exultant. "Can we have visual?" he said.
"Of course," Cosmos responded. "What was I thinking." A long screen lit up, curving the full circumference of the hold.
It was real-time view, Vortex realised, three hundred and sixty degrees of sky and sea. Jazz flew Decepticon-like beside them, showing clear on the screen, matching their pace.
"Nice," Vortex said.
"Thankyou," Cosmos replied.
"No," Smokescreen said, "thank you. We'd be halfway to the scrapyard if you hadn't come for us."
"Don't mention-" Cosmos paused. "I'm picking up multiple contacts about five klicks behind us and gaining. Jazz?"
"I hear ya," Jazz replied, his voice clear over Cosmos' PA. "Skyfire's on his way, backup's coming. Just fly."
Smokescreen frowned. "You sound worried, Jazz," he said. "What can you see?"
"Nothing we can't handle," Jazz said, but the spaceship's energy field shimmered with something other than confidence. "Cosmos, speed up. Skyfire's en-route, don't wait for me."
"I'm not leaving you behind!"
"Who is it?" Smokescreen demanded, and Vortex stared at the view-screen as though five klicks would reveal anything more than specks at this resolution.
"It's Shockwave," Jazz said, "and he's not alone."
'Mnemonic prioritisation complete.'
Speeding in alt through the Ark, First Aid struggled not to skid on the smooth metal floor. Couldn't think of that, Ratchet would fix it. Yes, that's it, Ratchet, think of Ratchet. And Vortex, his hands in Mirage, guided, stabilising.
He decelerated long enough to regain traction, then spend down the ramp and into the warm light of evening, Hot Spot close on his tail.
On the Aerialbots' long landing strip, Blast Off sat in shuttle mode. Skyfire had already launched, his ion stream clinging to the cloudless sky; the soldiers were gone.
"Are you sure about this?" Hot Spot said.
First Aid transformed, and it felt like he was falling apart. He clung to Vortex, to Mirage and the emergency measures essential to keeping him alive. The notification scrolled again, 'Mnemonic prioritisation complete', and he dismissed it. His energy field was a mess, his attention split and his processors aching. Brawl caught him looking and waved; Blast Off made a scan, the only acknowledgement he could expect.
"I'm sure," First Aid said. He was shaking; even before he spotted Onslaught his hands were trembling and his armour clattered at the seams.
"Fifty astroseconds," Blast Off announced, and Onslaught picked up the final crate from the pile. Brawl stepped up into the cargo bay, and took it from him, handling it in the careful way Brawl reserved for explosives and tigers.
First Aid vented deep.
"You don't have to," Hot Spot said, but Onslaught was heading over, and First Aid felt the burn of fear and humiliation without being able to grasp the reason why.
"So you're coming," Onslaught commented, addressing First Aid. He obviously took First Aid's inability to respond as assent. "And you, Commander?" Onslaught said to Hot Spot.
"Yes," Hot Spot said. "If there's space."
First Aid stared at him, but couldn't find the words.
"Twenty astroseconds," Blast Off said. "I am not merely expressing numbers, this is a countdown to lift-off, and if you are not on board when I reach zero, you will be left behind."
First Aid jolted into action. He had to move. Away from Onslaught. Why Onslaught? He didn't know, just... something. No, it was gone.
"You heard him," Onslaught said. "Load up." He stalked back to the shuttle, and First Aid followed without thinking.
Hot Spot stuck close. "I'm with you," he said.
First Aid didn't have the wherewithal to argue. He stepped up into the shuttle, and a flash of nausea gripped his tanks. He doubled over, trying not to gag, but the feeling was gone as quickly and completely as it had come. Brawl stepped up, grabbing him by the arms.
"I gotcha," he said, and First Aid didn't think he was going to let go. But his grip loosened as soon as First Aid tried to move.
Hot Spot sat awkwardly, but Onslaught gave him a look. "Officers traditionally sit up front," he stated.
"Not this time," Hot Spot said. "But thankyou."
Onslaught nodded acknowledgement, although not – First Aid thought – approval, and vanished into the cockpit.
"Take-off in five," Blast Off said, his cargo bay door closing. "Medic, attend to strap nine A, it is two notches too loose. Commander Hot Spot, I suggest you buckle in."
"I tied that right," Brawl huffed. He sat heavily, and gripped the cargo netting as Blast Off took to the air. "You're that guy," he said to Hot Spot. "Red optics. What's with that?"
"Brawl," First Aid said, likewise clinging to the netting, one hand on the strap that still needed to be cinched. He strained to remain upright, to hold his own as Blast Off accelerated.
Brawl gave him a bright look. "I brought you your tiger," he said. "Cons slagged the place up good, they got out."
First Aid tightened the strap, and waited the final few seconds for the floor to return to its regular position, and the g-forces to drop away. As soon as he could move without falling, he dropped into the seat between Hot Spot and Brawl.
"Thankyou," he said, but he hardly heard his own voice. His optics were drawn to the small area of clear space between the crates and their feet. He shuddered, reaching for Hot Spot's hand.
"You OK?" Hot Spot said quietly. To their left, Brawl got out his largest gun and began his checks.
No, First Aid thought, but he couldn't put his finger on why. The hostile grind of Blast Off's energy field, the sensation of being observed, the flat stretch of purple floor, they pulled at something in his databanks, but all he saw was Vortex, all he felt was the warm comfort of his bond mate cradling him in his arms. "I'm fine," he said. "Just worried."
"ETA three hundred astroseconds," Blast Off announced.
"We'll get 'em back," Brawl said.
Hot Spot squeezed First Aid's hand, but said nothing.
Cosmos fled, and the Rainmakers gave chase. Jazz fell behind; Vortex lost him in the grey mass of Shockwave's army. The Rainmakers were his vanguard, other seekers his wing. Guardian drones plucked straight from the ancient days of Cybertron filled the sky. They were legion, and Vortex fought to see a speck of blue sky between them.
"Jazz, come in," Smokescreen said. "Jazz, what's your position?"
His comm screamed static, and Cosmos cut in. "Cosmos to Optimus Prime. We've lost contact with Jazz. Repeat, we have lost contact with Jazz."
The acknowledgement was broken, splintered shards of the Prime's deep voice.
"We're being jammed," Cosmos said.
"Frag," Smokescreen swore. He looked up at the screen. "They're gaining."
"Blast Off's coming," Vortex said, but Blast Off had not yet cleared the continental US, and mile after mile of water stretched away below them.
The floor tilted, and Vortex seized hold of Mirage. "Smokescreen, hands!" he snapped, and First Aid took over. "Hold this, please, keep him steady. Cosmos, what's going on?"
"New coordinates," Cosmos said. "I'm coming in to land."
"Uh." Smokescreen glanced up. "We're in the middle of the ocean."
"There's an island." Cosmos sounded distracted. "They'll meet us there."
Vortex nodded. A part of him picked up the echo of First Aid's voice, relaying this new intelligence to Blast Off. Their flight path levelled out, and Smokescreen vented loudly. Vortex itched a shard from his shredded mask, energon dribbling into the cracks.
Dark smoke blossomed behind them. Fire glimmered on the surface of the sea, and still Shockwave's forces advanced.
"Jazz," Smokescreen said quietly. He wiped his hands on his thighs, and got a better hold on Mirage's shoulders. "Fraggit, get outta there."
"Prepare for landing," Cosmos said. "It's likely to be bumpy."
Bumpy wasn't the word Vortex would have used. He sprawled over Mirage, pinning the Autobot's frame with his own, holding him tight to the floor. Smokescreen wedged against them both, face twisted and doors shaking.
When the impact came, Smokescreen braced them, groaning with the pressure. Vortex held Mirage as still as he could, fluids sloshing into his pectoral vent. He closed his filters, drawing air in only through his helm.
"Fragfragfragfragfrag." Smokescreen grimaced, but Vortex had been in enough crash landings to know that this wasn't one. Green filled the viewscreen, and smeared the cameras. Trees rose up, branches and trunks thwacked the hull.
"We're good," Vortex said, as the spaceship came to a shaky halt. "Cosmos?"
"They're right behind us," Cosmos said, and Vortex tried to see, but the screen was nothing but leaves on all sides.
Cosmos' ramp extended. Smokescreen backed out, taking Mirage's feet. Vortex moved off him, sneezing slag from his vents, and slid an arm under the alpha's shoulders. As soon as they were out, Cosmos transformed, shrinking as he shifted his mass.
The Rainmakers were on them, and Vortex had no choice but to leave Mirage on the churned forest floor. He crouched beside Cosmos, aiming his pistol up. Pathetic; he needed his lasers, his glue gun. He needed a rocket launcher, a scatter blaster, ground-to-air missiles. The sky split with the cry of laser fire, the ground smoked and steamed, trees burst into flame.
"Over there!" Smokescreen yelled. He held Mirage in his arms, and jutted his chin to the south. Vortex nudged Cosmos, and they ran. Null rays tore the ground at their feet; Vortex's armour stung, Cosmos yelped. Smokescreen tucked himself behind a thin wall of rock, and set Mirage down again on the filthy organic mulch.
Vortex slid in beside him, his damaged knee smoking.
"Where's Cosmos?" Smokescreen looked back. Vortex tucked himself close to the rock, and aimed up. The seekers were coming around, preparing for another strafing run.
"He was behind me," Vortex said, but his voice was lost in the wash of a sonic boom. Silverbolt emerged from the massing clouds, guns blazing, wings gleaming in a rare ray of sunlight. Two of the Rainmakers split off, heading straight for him, but Acid Storm maintained his flight path.
Another sonic boom sounded, and another. Vortex shook his head, trying to reboot his audials. When he looked up again, a bulbous green and yellow form was already bursting from the undergrowth on a collision course with Acid Storm.
Vortex shot into the air, thrusters igniting in a pall of smoke as Mirage's fluids burned from his plating. Acid Storm banked hard, but Cosmos clipped his wing and sent the two of them spinning into the trees. Vortex dived after them, chasing the trail of destruction. He leapt in before he knew who was where. Acid Storm roared, and Cosmos howled. Vortex aimed straight for the seeker's face, and Cosmos must have seen what he was doing, because he began to shriek and flail and kick, as good a distraction as any.
Vortex crashed into the seeker's shoulders, seizing his head. Dark fingers wrapped tight around a rotor and pulled, and the sensation was stunning, but it wasn't as good as tearing at the flier's cables, pulling them from his throat. Vortex snarled, his gun forgotten. Acid Storm tried to speak, but his mouth spat oil, and his optics blazed. Hydraulic fluid spilled onto the leafy ground, and Vortex shuffled back, leaning up, and plunged both fists through the glass of the tetra jet's cockpit.
Cosmos went quiet.
First Aid huddled close to Hot Spot, optics locked on the view from the small round window in the cargo bay door. His spark gave him Vortex, fitting scavenged null rays to his arms while Cosmos retched into the undergrowth. It gave him companionship and caring, and a fierce and predatory need to leap into the fray.
"Prepare to disembark," Blast Off said. "First Aid, I suggest you ensure yourself and your commander are properly strapped in. De-pressurisation in five."
Onslaught emerged from the flight deck. "Brawl?"
"Ready," Brawl confirmed. He stood, armed to the teeth and then some. The contents of the crates hung over him, all save one that gave off a familiar rich and appetising scent.
Without further announcement, the cargo bay de-pressurised, and the door slid open. Brawl leapt out, a gun in each hand, bellowing a joyful roar. Onslaught followed, and Blast Off turned, bringing the two into view as their thrusters engaged and they were swallowed by the clouds.
The door closed, and First Aid unclipped himself. He pressed his face to the thick glassy crystal of the window. Where the clouds thinned, he could see specks of people, contrails and laser pulses. It was chaos.
"Where do we disembark?" Hot Spot asked.
"You don't," Blast Off replied.
"Excuse me?" Hot Spot went to stand.
First Aid looked up at the nearest camera. "But we have to help," he said.
"I'm under orders to keep you out of the line of fire," Blast Off said. "I believe you are on medical leave."
"But you said," First Aid began, and Blast Off talked over him.
"Never take a statement of fact as a promise," he said. "Your assistance is required. When I have completed my assignment, we will locate Vortex and extract him."
First Aid leant his head on the wall, vents working hard.
"You'll be safer here," Hot Spot said, but he wasn't looking at Aid, he was looking through the clear crystal of the porthole into the clouds.
"You'd rather fight," First Aid said. He pulled a cloth from his arm and rubbed at his visor. Something felt wrong, but he couldn't diagnose the cause. He braced himself as Blast Off made another gradual turn, and began again to accelerate.
"Where are we going?" Hot Spot said. He beckoned Aid back to his seat.
"I have a task to complete," Blast Off said. "I will need additional fuel. You can access my auxiliary fuel intake via the panel to the left of the cargo bay door. I will tell you when I am adequately energised."
As far as First Aid could tell, Blast Off was already adequately energised, but that feeling of wrongness persisted and he couldn't find the words to express himself. He fetched the energon, and Hot Spot held the cube steady as First Aid fought for the focus to release the appropriate hatch.
"Are you all right?" Hot Spot whispered, as though Blast Off wouldn't be able to hear him.
First Aid shook his head. "No, yes, I'm fine. Really."
"Contact," Blast Off noted, and his energy field blazed. Something whirred, parts moving that First Aid couldn't see. The movement vibrated through the shuttle, joined by a subsonic grating whine. "Energon!" Blast Off snapped, and First Aid hooked up the intake. Pink liquid sloshed, spilling over First Aid's hands, dripping on the floor.
The whine grew louder, higher, and the energy released. A shock wave rocked them.
"What's the situation?" Hot Spot asked.
Blast Off didn't answer, and First Aid didn't notice. He stared at the energon on the floor; light hit its surface, turning it momentarily silver-white. His spark glowed hot; his mate reached for him. Something shifted in his mind, and he felt that hum of perfect connection only the spark bond could engender. The thought that he was missing something vanished as though it had never been.
Hot Spot touched his arm. "Aid?"
"Hmm? I'm sorry, I don't know what came over me." First Aid took his cloth and wiped the spillage from the floor. "All gone now."
Explosions shook the ground: bombardment from the air, and the impacts of jets and guardians as they fell to earth one final time. The forest burned, a chemical soup of fog and smoke invaded vents and clogged filters. Vortex saw in infra-red, watched monstrous drones stagger under the weight of their weapons, saw flocks of seekers fresh from Cybertron wheel in formation and dive as prettily as any Air Show in long lost Vos.
He covered Smokescreen, Mirage in the grounder's arms. Cosmos floated unsteadily above, his transformation incomplete. At least he could still shoot.
They made for the hills. Across the valley Prime's voice echoed, and Shockwave answered. Vortex stamped on his envy; he thrust himself into the spark bond, covering himself with First Aid's gentle calm, dousing the lust for retribution. His new self did not know Shockwave. Only his old self remembered the Detention Centre, the vorns of waiting formless and numb in the dark. His only contact had been Shockwave, his only chronometer those infrequent checks made by his gaoler on his core code and his databanks.
His new self would not care. Onslaught, though, he cared. And Brawl. And Vortex followed their progress in the bland statistics of the gestalt bond. Brawl let through more, occasional flashes of anger and triumph. Onslaught was measured, controlled.
Vortex saw more of Blast Off through the spark bond than he did via his own team link. First Aid was keeping him fuelled, energy for the cannons Vortex had watched destroy whole cities. Expensive toys, but the effect had always been worth the cost.
Straight ahead a Dinobot roared, and flame turned the infra-red view into a bloom of yellow and orange. Smokescreen stumbled, and Vortex caught him without thinking.
"I'm good," Smokescreen said. "I think I hear Ratchet up ahead. We're almost there."
A shift in atmospheric readings caused Vortex to look up.
"Run," Vortex ordered. He slapped Smokescreen between the doors for emphasis. "Run!" A deep red patch glowed in his vision, blue at the edges, cooling. It fell towards them, invisible through the smoke, little fires in its armour flickers of orange and yellow.
Vortex leapt, shooting for the sky. He rose in alt, aiming for the gap between the Guardian's massive arm and its body.
He would have made it, were it not for the bomb.
The Guardian began to vibrate; its sparkless frame hummed. Vortex pushed himself harder, faster, his thrusters straining, his damaged rotors bending with the force of his acceleration. Below him the Guardian shook once, a powerful convulsion, and tore apart from the inside. A bloom of razor metal and liquid heat rose up to meet him, and Vortex could do nothing to escape.
The tower exploded in a flash of violet light. First Aid pressed himself to the porthole, Hot Spot at his side. And still the lasers pulsed, pouring down into the Decepticon base, lighting up the ocean from beneath.
The guards were dead, the waves littered with their parts. Hot Spot couldn't help but be grateful they'd always been held in a curious kind of stalemate with the Decepticons before, if they had been capable of this.
It went on forever, and Hot Spot stared, transfixed. First Aid tensed, his whimper lost in the ongoing roar of Blast Off's cannons.
"He's hurt," First Aid gasped, and it was as though the words opened a floodgate. Hot Spot winced, and clutched his chest. First Aid shivered. "We have to go. Blast Off, Vortex is hurt, we have to go!"
The lasers pulsed once final time; the ocean boiled. The lasting flare of Blast Off's energy field ebbed to a moderate background tingle. Their view shifted as the shuttle moved off, abandoning the wide circle of his former flight path.
Vortex lay on his back in the mud. He didn't know how long he'd been there, his chronometer was broken. A wall of scorched metal loomed to his right, some piece of the dead Guardian. Above him, trees swayed burning in the wind. The sky flickered orange and pink.
Fires blossomed, smoke rose, and a fine stinging rain began to fall. Vortex raised his hand to scratch away a splinter from his helm, and it fell immediately back. The impact jolted through his arm, through his chest, his spark. He was heavy, tired. He knew he was leaking, but he didn't know from where. Everywhere, he thought, and couldn't help but laugh.
He'd almost won. He'd almost proven to them all how safe and virtuous and new he was. The perfect soldier for them to train and mould. His mate could have been his, forever.
His spark thrummed weakly. The bond was open, but the images were fewer now, the impressions faint like the echo of a dream.
Someone knelt beside him, and Vortex looked up into optics as blue as glacial ice.
"Can you hear me?" the newcomer said. He was a flier, and Vortex knew his name, it was on the tip of his glossa. But this wasn't his mate, and the memory slipped from grasp. "We can't move you," the flier continued. "Not right now. Help is on its way."
"Reassuring," Vortex said, and his voice rasped. He coughed, oil bubbling in his throat, spilling over his lips.
The flier smiled. Vortex rebooted his optics, and he was gone. Moved on. Rain pooled in his vents, his head ached.
His comm beeped, his spark stung. Rain dripped inside his helm, a steady and unwelcome trickle. He reached for his mate and felt only helplessness, desperation. Had he been captured? But no, Vortex would have known.
He scanned for his team. They all functioned. Beyond that, he couldn't tell.
The trees rustled; planes rushed overhead. Vortex's spark ignited, a hit of warmth and need and pain that cut his vents and left his processors reeling. His bond mate burst from the green, and fell to his knees beside him. Proximity, Vortex thought, but no notifications filled his viewscreen. No warnings, either, no readings from his sensors. The overlay was dead, the text gone.
"I'm here," First Aid said, and his hands were warm inside Vortex's chest.
"I'm broken," Vortex whispered, but First Aid shook his head. Purple light stained his face, his arms. He touched the casing of Vortex's spark, and the pain ebbed away.
"I've got you," he said. "You're going to be all right."
Blast Off headed for Onslaught. He had disgorged the Protectobots in the gross stink of the tropical forest. The enemy was routed, their trajectories indicating they fled for the space bridge. For Cybertron, he thought. He would have to follow, eventually. They would bring this war full circle.
He spared a glance for the parts scattered at his feet; some still twitched, some groaned. A Guardian's guiding lights flashed on and off, its paint already grey. Sparkless, it hadn't the decency to know it was dead.
Onslaught stood with Prime, at the centre of an impact zone. The ground was stripped to rock, the bones of the island scorched. Colourless metal steamed at their feet; a single optic stared blankly up, as though surprised at the gaping hole torn through its owner's chest.
"I was successful," Blast Off said. As though that had ever been in any doubt. "As you appear to have been."
Onslaught nodded, and the Prime spoke. "Good work," he said, and continued before Blast Off could express his opinion of the Autobot's approval. "Onslaught, we will speak again soon. Excuse me." He stepped away, heading towards his officious Praxian lieutenant.
Onslaught knelt, and wrapped his hands around Shockwave's inert, plain head. With a snarl, he twisted and wrenched it clean from the corpse.
"Trophies." Blast Off sniffed. "How vulgar." But Onslaught dug his thumbs in a crack in the metal. He grunted, and the plating split. Oil coated his hands, sliming the databanks as he tugged the memory chips free.
"We've lost enough," he said, "don't you think?"
Blast Off elected not to reply. "What next?" he asked.
Onslaught shrugged. "We rest," he said. "We gather our strength. We plan." He dropped the broken head, and it hit the ground with a pathetic thud. "Sooner or later, we will go home."
Vortex awoke to the smell of disinfectant. There was polish too, Earth-made, and beneath it all the softer, tantalising scents of his bond mate. Good alloys, fresh paint, a trace of energon.
"This isn't the Ark," he stated. The bond had not yet opened; strange. Not fully. First Aid abandoned his chair by the door, setting his data pad down.
"You convinced them," he said. "We both did. We're home. Primus, forgive me."
Vortex pushed himself up. He flexed what remained of his rotors, and stretched. "Home?" he said. So this was First Aid's sanctum, so clean and white and scrubbed. He hadn't expected anything less. He smiled; his mask was missing, no doubt First Aid would make him another. "You saved me. Again."
First Aid nodded. He drew a shaky vent, and Vortex reached for him, but he stepped swiftly back. "No," he said. "First, we talk."
And then? Vortex thought, but an odd note struck in his spark, the harmonics slightly off. "What's wrong?" he said.
"You lied to me." First Aid pulled open a nearby drawer, and set a small plastic box within Vortex's reach. Then he backed away again.
Vortex opened it. Inside sat a fractured data crystal. Oh frag no. His smile faltered, and he reached up to his helm. He hadn't noticed at first, but now he knew to look it was obvious: the expansion slot for his databanks was empty, integration had ceased. There was nothing new to discover.
He shook his head. What he had lost... But it paled in comparison with what he could lose, what he might already have destroyed. "Blast Off gave it to me," he said. "I couldn't tell you. Not then. How could I?"
First Aid gave him a steady, penetrating look. "How could you keep it from me?"
Vortex stared at the crystal, trying to match its fractures, to work out how it could be fixed. "I was going to tell you."
"When you'd had a chance to get to know me!" Vortex reached out again through the bond, but hit a blank wall. He ran a search of his databanks, then a second, not wanting to believe the results of the first. Twenty-eight point two percent integration. Twenty-eight point two percent of his memories, his life, had filtered through into his databanks before the crystal had been destroyed. He touched the fragments gently with his fingertips.
"No," First Aid said, and it was clear that he could access Vortex even if Vortex couldn't currently access him. A vision slipped through, white fingers and a delicate iridescence. "It's broken," First Aid said. "It can't be repaired. And there's no backup this time."
"Frag." Vortex threw himself back on the med-berth, his blades clattering. The box tumbled to the floor. His optics fixed on the ceiling. He didn't ask how it had happened. He could see a mirror of himself in the sliver of thought First Aid had given him. Could see those white fingers exerting a crushing pressure, could feel the guilt, the determination. The fear.
He would have done the same.
"I'm sorry," Vortex said. "OK, I really am. I didn't want to hurt you."
First Aid went to reply, but his optics dimmed, and Vortex felt his spark warm ever so slightly. Whatever the medic was about to say died in a crackle of his vocaliser.
It presented an opportunity. "I've got less than thirty percent," Vortex said. He sat up again, wishing his mate would just come to him. "I can't be the person I was before. Please."
"But you were trying to be," First Aid said.
"I lost everything. Everything my team wanted from me. Everything they thought was valuable. I thought if I could just let it integrate, let you see it didn't change me, you'd be OK with it." Vortex shrugged. "I couldn't think of anything else."
First Aid stooped and gathered the fragments back into the box. He sighed. "I can't trust you," he said. "But I..." He gestured to his chest. "I can't keep this up."
"Then what?" Vortex said. A dozen different tactics presented themselves, each one a manipulation, each one taking what he knew of First Aid and the bond, and twisting things so the medic would have no choice but to do what he wanted. He dismissed them all.
First Aid set the box aside. He took a cloth and wiped down his hands, then tossed it absently into the waste chute. "We're trapped," he said at length. "We don't have a choice. You'll come to me, and you'll hold me, and I won't be able to help myself."
Vortex edged off the berth. "And after that?"
"And then we'll forget," First Aid said. "Just for a little while... who we are, what we've done to each other."
Vortex reached for him, and this time First Aid did not step away. Vortex smiled. "Will that be so bad?"
First Aid allowed his embrace. His armour heated, the bond spiralled open. He looked up at Vortex, one hand already straying to caress the edge of a rotor.
He whispered, "Yes."
Thankyou to everyone who made it this far, I hope you enjoyed the story. Although I've stopped updating on this site, I decided to update this one because I didn't want to have it sitting here unfinished.
If you're interested in reading more stories by me, I post everything to my AO3 account, at archiveofourown users / ultharkitty (copy and paste the URL and get rid of the spaces). If you have any questions, send me a PM.