Author's Note – Thanks as always to MyAibou for the beta work and to Lunnaei for being my first ear. What would I do without you guys? 8D

Disclaimer – "Transformers" and all related characters, events, and concepts belong to Hasbro, Takara, and any other related owners/distributors/producers. I get no monetary benefit from this. My benefit is the enjoyment of dealing with beloved characters.

by DragonDancer5150

Chp 3 - Loss

Sand-choked engine protesting all the way, Sideswipe didn't slow his mad dash when he and Thundercracker left the flat floor of the lakebed. The red Lamborghini did his best to follow the road snaking between ever larger and more frequent boulders and denser flora, blinded to all but a few very short-range sensors as the maelstrom clawed at them both. More than once, the red Lambo turned too sharply or not enough, running off the road onto the broken, rock-strewn shoulder. Thundercracker clung for his life, helm tucked down between his arms. He gave a pained grunt as they drove over a particularly well-littered bend, the canopy of his chest bouncing against Sideswipe's roof, but he didn't complain, to the red Lambo's mild surprise.

Finally, the clouds of wind and sand thinned and gave way against the ragged landscape of the foothills just south of the Amargosa and Panamint Ranges. Sideswipe stretched his scanners back out and pinged his brother as well as Jazz, who was now carrying Ravage on his roof. He couldn't locate anyone else.

Jazz pinged him back, voice heavy as he spoke over the comms. "Sides, Sunny, we head straight back for base. I'm contactin' Ratchet now ta let him an' Wheeljack know we've got wounded."

"What about the others?" Sunstreaker's voice was taut with worry.

"And how the frag'd you wind up with Decepti-kitty?" Sideswipe would have snickered at the growl he got from the clinging jaguar if he weren't already confused and deeply worried. What had happened to Ironhide?

Jazz's tone was grim, a jarring shift from the usual cheerfulness in his scat-man-blues drawl. "Ironhide was picked up, an' he couldn't hold on when Ravage an' Laserbeak were slammed into his rear hatch. They fell out, an' I grabbed the one I could." Meaning, Sideswipe guessed, the one who was conscious and could grab and hold onto him. The Lambo could see where Ravage's claws had dug into Jazz's seams for purchase. "As for the others, we'll go back for recon once we're repaired."

"You won't find anyone," Thundercracker murmured into Sideswipe's hood.

"You don't know that, flyboy!" Sunstreaker retorted. Sideswipe could feel his twin's fear for their friends, a fear he wholly shared.

The Seeker lifted his head to pin a glare on the yellow Lambo. "Yes, I do, groundpounder!"

Soundwave's voice over Jazz's comm cut off any retort Sunstreaker had. "THUNDERCRACKER: CORRECT. RUMBLE AND LASERBEAK: UNREACHABLE."

"And if I can't contact Skywarp or Starscream, I doubt you'll find your people either."

"Not alive, anyway," Reflector mumbled, the forlorn tone echoed in triplicate.

Thundercracker snarled. "Don't say that!"

"Mechs, mechs!" Jazz cut in. "One thing at a time! We get back ta base, we get fixed up, we go out for recon as soon as we can. Even if everyone was offlined – an' that's an 'if', people – we'll recover their bodies an' hopefully figure out just what the frag we're up against, ya dig?"

There was a moment of silence, then Thundercracker shifted to look in Jazz's window. "Soundwave?"

The Decepticon communications officer and second-in-command – now functionally first-in-command, Sideswipe supposed – hesitated an instant before replying, and Sideswipe couldn't tell if it was from grief over his lost Cassettes or distaste at working with his enemies. "AGREED."

Sideswipe felt the tension in the air ease at least a bit.

The Ark's forcefields dropped as the Porsche and two Lamborghinis raced up the access road to the foot of the volcano the Autobots called home. Sideswipe thought that was unusual, in that the shields were never up unless there was an active threat. He didn't sense one. It only made him all the more nervous after everything else that had just transpired.

He spotted Bluestreak and Windcharger waiting for them in the entrance cavern under the belly of the buried Ark, even as he sensed the shields go right back up behind them. What happened here?

Before he could voice his question, Bluestreak started in on them, the gunner's manic chatter even more rapidfire than usual. "Are you guys okay? You look terrible! And what are they doing here? Primus, you all look like you've been through a grinder! Where is everyone else? Have you heard yet about what happened to all the humans in-"

"Will you shut up?" Thundercracker snapped, growling as he shifted to climb off Sideswipe's roof.

Bluestreak's megamile-a-minute word tumble normally grated on Sideswipe's audios too, but he could hear the very real nervousness in the other's voice right now. Any other time, he'd defend a fellow Autobot against the sharp word of a Decepticon, but this time he couldn't bring himself to, finding he couldn't fault the Seeker. He watched and felt the injured jet move slowly and with obvious effort. Thundercracker's face was an unreadable mask, but Sideswipe could guess well enough the pain he must have been in. The Lambo knew he'd be short on patience himself in that state.

Sunstreaker had transformed to root mode beside them, and he wasn't in as forgiving a mood as his twin, turning on the Seeker. "You shut it, 'Con! You shouldn't even be here. The least you can do is-"

"Mechs!" Jazz had had to wait for Soundwave and Reflector to float themselves out of his cabin and for Soundwave to help Ravage off his roof. He transformed as quickly as he could to shift over and step between them, fixing the yellow Lambo warrior with a rare look of authority. It reminded Sideswipe why the jovial Special Ops officer was third-in-command of the whole Autobot forces. "Yes, Sunstreaker, he should be here. They need our help right now just as like we need theirs if we're gonna get our friends back from whatever is behind that windstorm." He paused to cast a quick, warning glare from behind his visor at Thundercracker and Soundwave. "Just don't make me regret that decision, dig?"

Soundwave stared back impassively, but Thundercracker gave an almost imperceptible nod. Satisfied, Jazz moved to Bluestreak, who stood wringing his hands like a distressed sparkling, doorwings hitched high behind his shoulders. Throwing an arm around the younger mech, he steered Bluestreak – and by extension, everyone – toward the tunnel that led up into the ship. "C'mon, guys. Let's get to the Med-bay. We can debrief each other there."

"Ratchet and Wheeljack are already waiting for you guys. I'll let them know you're here." Ever an impulsive one, Windcharger didn't wait for confirmation before he transformed and took off ahead of them.

Thundercracker grimaced as the rest of the group followed on foot. "I'll take your medic, but you can keep your mad engineer. I don't care to leave in more pieces than I've come in."

Ravage, riding once more in Soundwave's arms, rumbled her agreement deep in her chest, the jaguar's audio pinnae laid flat to her head, her optics narrowed.

Sunstreaker smirked. "Don't let Ratchet hear you talking like that about his best friend, or you might just leave reformatted as a flying toaster."

The Reflector trio had tucked themselves behind Soundwave as the mixed group passed through the empty corridors of the Ark, but triplicate grins crossed their faces at that, smug as if they knew something they shouldn't. "It's a wonder he hasn't done that to you!"

Viewfinder, Spectro, and Spyglass served their faction as recon and espionage scouts – much as Bumblebee did for the Autobots – so Sideswipe couldn't have said that it surprised him they knew about the trouble he and his brother often got into with the snarky medic. He laughed with a shrug. "We're just smarter than that, is all."

They reached the Med-bay just then, and Jazz ushered everyone inside. Windcharger was there talking to Ratchet by one of the nearer repair berths, where also the Autobots' human friend, Sparkplug, stood on the berth itself to participate more easily in the conversation. Across from them, Wheeljack looked up from a table and winced at the sight of the incoming group – whether in sympathy for the myriad of injuries or the fact that Decepticons were so close, Sideswipe couldn't tell. The usually easy-going and compassionate engineer always seemed to get twitchy when members of the other faction got within less than shouting distance. Sideswipe thought he remembered being told that Wheeljack had been captured once and survived being held hostage for an amazingly long time, back before he and his brother had joined the war. He wondered if the other's reaction now had anything to do with that.

Ratchet just swept a practiced glance over everyone, presumably triaging his patients. "Washracks first, decon stat. Now." He pointed at the short hall that led off to one side. No one argued, especially once they got to the room and saw that the system was already programmed into Decontamination Mode in preparation for them. The Autobots' chief medical officer took no possible threats to his patients lightly, especially when it came to such a powerful and unknown foe.

The Med-bay washracks were technically one big rack, a single room with spray nozzles all around the walls and ceiling and even the floor to accommodate several mechs at once if needed. Spike had once likened it to the showers in a boys' locker room.

Ratchet poked his head around the corner as the group, Autobots and Decepticons alike, shuffled in and sank gratefully into the scouring jets of water and cleaners. "Make sure to get every grain of that Pit-possessed sand out of your systems. Help each other if you have to . . . and no fighting in my washracks! Thundercracker, I want to see you first. And Ravage. And Sunstreaker, don't think I didn't catch that limp."

Sideswipe suppressed a snicker. His brother's pain from that last fall had been throbbing across their sparkbond, but Sunstreaker was a proud, vain, and stubborn mech even with friends, let alone enemies. He'd been fighting to hide any weakness in front of the Decepticons. Heh, trust Ratchet to notice anyway. Though, honestly, if he hadn't and Sunstreaker had tried to not say anything, Sideswipe would have. In private.

Nine mechs washed and decontaminated themselves and each other in silence. The weight and horror of what had happened were finally starting to settle in earnest on Sideswipe's shoulders, robbing him of any relief he might have enjoyed at rinsing the grit from his joints. He could only guess the others were feeling it too. Optimus Prime, their ever-present and seemingly undefeatable commander . . . gone. Prowl, Ironhide, jovial Trailbreaker, uptight Mirage, Gears, Hound, Cliffjumper, gutsy little Bumblebee, staunch Brawn . . . mechs he respected, admired, teased, played pranks on, laughed with and fought alongside, all of them suddenly gone.

Even the mighty Megatron, annoying Starscream . . . the red Lambo stole a glance over at Thundercracker. The powerful Seeker's faceplates were as unreadable as before, gaze pinned on the spray nozzle in front of him, but Sideswipe thought he could read it in his dimmed optics and the hitch of his mangled wings. He'd lost his trine. For a Seeker, trine was everything, even if he didn't get along with his trinemates. Sideswipe didn't know where Thundercracker stood with Skywarp, but he couldn't imagine anyone getting along with Starscream. Still . . . the loss of the loud and arrogant Air Commander as well as the teleporter had to be weighing heavily on the remaining Seeker.

And Soundwave. The tall communications specialist was a mech of few words and a formidable presence on a good day. He was also a symbiotic host, a rare kind of mech who formed natural bonds with up to five symbionts. The single other mech like him that Sideswipe had ever heard of was Blaster, one of the countless Autobots who'd been left behind on Cybertron when the Ark took off on its original mission. A host shared portions of his spark with his symbionts, so the loss of even one was a deep wound from what Sideswipe understood. Soundwave had just lost two. The Decepticon was crouched on a knee cleaning his remaining Cassette with a gentle care the Lambo would never have guessed from him. Ravage whimpered softly, rubbing her head against his arm, trying to comfort. There was a sense of grief to both of them, and Sideswipe found himself actually feeling sorry for the pair.

Behind Soundwave, the Minibot-sized Reflector triplets had been furtively keeping their bigger and stronger brethren between them and the Autobots. Frankly, Sideswipe couldn't blame them. As a primarily defensive entity, they weren't combat mechs and tended to stay out of battles between the factions unless ordered otherwise. Sideswipe had seen one or more of them nearly deactivated by shots that would have caused moderate but survivable wounds on another mech. Here, now, in the middle of what they surely saw as enemy territory, they looked small and scared to the Lambo warrior. That normally would have given him a sense of smug satisfaction, but now he couldn't feel anything but sympathy.

Slag, this is so messed up!

/Tell me about it./ Beside him, Sunstreaker paused from grimacing at the sand-scour scratches on his arms to put a hand on his twin's shoulder. /We're gonna get to the bottom of this, though, bro. A dozen-odd mechs don't just cease to exist. And just because we can't scan them or comm them doesn't mean they're dead. They're out there somewhere, and we're gonna find them. Frag, even the other 'Cons./ He scowled, glancing at the ones in the washracks with them, but his words were sincere. /I don't like it, but . . . Jazz's right. I guess. So long as they're willing to work with us too, without shooting us in the backs. Besides, they may be sludge-spewing pipe-suckers, but they're our sludge-spewing pipe-suckers. Whatever that was out there does not get to frag with our business!/

Sideswipe studied the yellow Lamborghini warrior for an instant, admittedly a little surprised at the other's stance. His twin hated the Decepticons even more than he did. Still, under the vanity and the vicious abandon in combat, Sunstreaker was a good spark who did the right thing whether he liked it or not. No one knew that better than Sideswipe. He nodded and covered his twin's hand with his own. /Got that right./

Jazz had been watching them, probably guessing that the two were talking and waiting until they were done. As Sideswipe let go of his brother's hand and turned to shut off his bank of nozzles, the Special Ops officer gestured. "C'mon. Let's not keep the good doc waitin' any longer."


AN: Since I'm taking this from as early in Season 1 as I am, Blaster obviously hasn't joined the "active" roster yet, so I'm kind of assuming he's still back on Cybertron somewhere in an underground resistance cell along with many of the others that eventually would make their unexplained way to Earth as time went on. :3 And there may be widely-accepted fanon – or even canon – for what "kind" of mech he and Soundwave are, but I've never run across it, so this is the headcanon I operate from in regards to them and their Cassettes.