On down the line
An ensemble piece
Notes: About Dino/Mirage. A Cybertronian who knows a mech called Mirage will not suddenly refer to the same mech as Dino. Therefore this remains the English name for the mech – means that anyone speaking or thinking Cybertronian will call him Mirage. Same goes for Q/Wheeljack.
Also, partial character death fix-it.
Thanks to schwertlilie81 for helping with the headache that is movie continuity. Also to archaeopteryx feather, because this one has been a year in the making (as usual), and still wouldn't be up without her inquiries.
Rating mostly for expletives.
Song referenced by title and Mikaela: "Tuesday's gone", the Metallica version
Prime stands and watches his people pick their way through the destruction. Watches Sam being reunited with Carly, and Bumblebee trying to lighten the mood.
In all honesty, Prime would like to fall to his knees and pray or grieve, or both.
They have fought for millennia, wreaking havoc on dozens of planets, and for what, precisely? Their home, Cybertron, is a first cannibalized, then burnt out husk with no chance of reviving it to its former glory. There are eight Autobots who Prime knows to be alive, and maybe two hundred Decepticons still hiding on Earth. Less than three hundred of a race that once counted millions. Not even the humans, for all their immaturity, have managed that yet.
Somehow, Optimus can't help feeling that most of it is his fault. Megatron was his brother, he should have seen him drifting into dangerous territory. He should have suspected Sentinel buying into The Fallen's Cybertronian superiority bullshit sooner.
There are too many should-haves.
His two biggest regrets are now dead by his hand, and all he can feel is guilt.
Ratchet alone seems to get it. Before they start clean-up, he drags Optimus off to reattach his arm. For that, Optimus has to kneel. Once Ratchet is done, he lets Optimus rest his head against his chest armor and pats his helm as if he were a sparkling.
Optimus is glad, and feels guilty, because he has counted his losses ages ago, and Ratchet hasn't, so he withdraws sooner than he would have liked. "I'm sorry", he says. "I know –"
Ratchet huffs. "Stop it. I have no business breaking down now."
Optimus stands and squeezes Ratchet's shoulder once. It's a promise. If he is allowed, he will be there once Ratchet lets the pain hit.
There's a line. Finally there's a working line out of this place.
"Annabelle? Is that you?"
"Daddy! Ooh, mom was so worried. Mo-om! Daddy's on the phone!"
Rapid steps on the stairs. A small click, when the phone is put on speaker.
"Will? Is that you?"
"Oh my god. Oh my god. You made it out of that hellhole."
"Yeah…" There are too many others who didn't.
"Are you alright? When will you be home?"
"I've just a couple of bruises. Abrasions", he says. "Nothing serious. But."
"What? They won't give you leave."
She did not watch, or if she did, she did not understand. She's always resented the Autobots for taking up so much of Will's free time and for making him risk his life, and now he resents her because she has to ask. "That, too. I might be lucky and get off next weekend, once we're sure the city is clear. But. Ironhide," he adds. He doesn't want to be angry at his wife.
"Oh." He can picture Sarah bite her knuckles. "I'm so sorry." She's never really warmed up to 'Hide.
Annie is demanding answers about uncle Hide.
"Kid", he says. "It's a war. I know they said so on TV and everywhere. Mommy explained, right?"
"And in a war, soldiers die for what they believe is right."
"Ironhide died to save us." Lennox can't admit yet that his best bud was stabbed in the back and killed with the most hideous of weapons. Not in front of Annie.
"Oh", she says. No sniffle. He's glad she didn't get to know him well. "So he's in heaven now?"
"Yeah", he says. He wonders what the stereotypical fluffy angel would have to say about 'Hide demanding entrance, and smiles, genuinely, for the first time in days.
Pain rips him out of blissful unconsciousness. His mind is overrun by error messages. Right optic is out, left arm and wing not responding, ripped off, most likely. Long range sensors are down, there is hemorrhaging and a consequently low energy level.
Something thumps into his injured side, and he moans. He keeps his semi-good optic shut, because he really doesn't want to know who has found him – Autobots or their human pets would be slightly preferable over his own side.
Something big shifts its weight beside him.
"Sideswipe," a deep voice admonishes.
Autobots. Speaking English, so there has to be some of the vermin around.
"Can you save him?," the voice continues.
"But, Optimus!" That is one of the insects. Sounds suspiciously like the Witwicky brat. "He tried to kill me."
"Yes," Prime says. "And you almost killed him. Ratchet?"
"He'll probably make it. He's conscious, that's a good sign."
"Good." Prime has switched to Cybertronian.
Weary joints groan, so Starscream dares to peek. Optimus is squatting down next to him, his look is almost soft. In the background, the Witwicky brat continues to protest.
"You lost," Prime says.
"Whom?," he asks, though he doesn't really need to.
"Megatron is dead."
"Good." And he means it. "The others?"
"Shockwave and Soundwave are also dead. So is Sentinel."
Thank Primus. Irony of ironies, but this leaves him in command, technical as it is; a thing the others have always tried to avoid. "We surrender."
"Thank you." Optimus cracks a smile. "We'll have you repaired soon."
Starscream powers down his optic. He probably won't make it. He is so tired. "Don Carlos?"
"I'm sorry," Starscream says, and because he is, ultimately, a coward, he sends himself into stasis before Prime can answer.
"Please save him," Optimus implores via comm. He can't lose Starscream. Not again.
Ratchet nods. No doubt he has understood the reference. Earth opera, of all things.
Sam is loud and indignant, but his education isn't quite that good. Sideswipe snaps at him that Starscream just admitted to losing the war and that it's important to save him, just in case that there are some Cons willing to listen to the jet.
Optimus sincerely hopes Sam will have forgotten all about the incident before he can ask someone who knows or has internet access.
In the end, they have found Starscream and three other, low ranking survivors, all too injured to protest the capture. There is another, nearly bled out and in pain, half crushed in the control ship, who begs Ratchet to end him.
Ratchet wavers. It's against his ethic to hurt a patient – which the Con has become, now that Starscream surrendered.
"Can you save him?," asks Mirage.
Ratchet shakes his head. Not with the resources here, on this primitive planet.
Raj makes an impatient noise and comes nearer. Crouches down next to the Con. "You really want to die?"
"No." The voice is laced with static. "But."
Raj nods. He draws a knife, places the tip just above the Con's spark casing and ends the suffering. "Till all are one."
Ratchet murmurs along.
"Oi, Dino," one of their human watchdogs yells. "What was that about?"
"Dignity," Raj snaps.
A few minutes later they find a battered Wheelie and Brains near the engine. The little ones are raining insults on everyone, so Ratchet knows they'll be fine.
A familiar mobile number has tried to reach him since late in the night. As the morning after the battle dawns bright and sunny over Grant Park, birds twittering from the trees as if nothing has happened, Ratchet allows himself a little downtime.
The prisoners are stable, even Starscream. Ratchet is keeping them under until further notice. Wheeljack is currently little more than a spark chamber and memory core. He needs a total rebuild, something that requires time and a real medbay. Hopefully, the fragments will make it until then.
Prime will have to attend a debriefing in half an hour and is resting in vehicle mode. The Wreckers have collapsed in a heap. Sideswipe and Raj are standing guard with Bumblebee until the Wreckers are alert again.
"Mikaela," he says, as she tries the next time.
"Ratch. I saw. How are you?"
She doesn't have to explain. Their boarding the Xantium was a matter of public interest and he wasn't there. She'd tried to call then, too, but he didn't have the courage to answer.
"Holding on," Ratchet says.
"I," she tries, voice thick. "I keep thinking, if I'd been there…"
"Don't. It was cosmic rust."
She sniffles. Of course she knows that there wasn't anything left to repair. "I'm so sorry. If it were Sam… Look, I know it's not the best time. So, if you need someone to talk to, you call me, you hear? Anytime."
Ratchet makes a noise that he hopes sounds like an assent. He doesn't trust himself to speak.
"Okay. And I want a notice if there's a wake. I want to be there. He taught me to shoot."
"Good." More sobs. "Oh god, I'm sorry. I was supposed to comfort you, and here I go bawling all over you. Sorry. Be safe, huh?"
"Always," he promises.
"Okay. Bye. Love you," and the connection is dead.
Ratchet shakes his head. For all that she had an ongoing argument with Sam over those same words for two years – and Ratchet has heard all about that – she has always showered him with affection freely. He understands that he's part of her chosen family. There are worse little siblings to have.
For an insane moment he wishes he'd told her to come here.
"So their highest ranking officer who is still alive surrendered," Director Mearing sums up.
"Yes." The debriefing has gone on for three hours already as they try to find out what everyone was doing yesterday.
"Why didn't you just accept Megatron's offer of a truce?," Lennox asks.
Optimus dry washes his face. "I can reason with Starscream." Unlike the other two, Starscream has never personally betrayed him. There's no question about Starscream's potential for acting, subterfuge and insincerity, and he knows how to hold onto a grudge even better than Optimus, but…
"He called me a insect," Sam reminds everyone.
"He would," Optimus says.
There are looks, and he ignores them.
"Starscream is a semi-decent commander," he begins. "He's unlikely to take risks and thus experiences fewer losses than others."
Lennox nods. "You mean he actually cares for his troops."
"I mean his primary goal is Cybertronian welfare. I am sure he supported the essential plan, but I know he would have gone about it differently."
"Yeah, man," Epps says. "Setting up an operation like this in a city is major idiocy."
Too many people, too many buildings hindering sight and clear shots. Modern human cities serve as many things, but not as fortification. Megatron and Sentinel, however, have always liked the grand gesture.
"I would like to begin negotiations with Starscream," Prime concludes. "So I'd like to know what I can offer."
"What would you like to offer?" the President asks.
And so, the haggling begins.
"Temporary refuge." It's painful to admit, but neither the humans nor the Decepticons are likely to make Earth a permanent home for their people. "We need to regroup, find out who is still alive, what resources are available and where we can move. We'll have to expect some Decepticon infighting within those groups that won't accept Starscream. Those who do need to get used to a semblance of peace again. We all need to learn how not to be soldiers."
"Hmm. How long is temporary?"
"Several decades," Optimus says.
The President twitches his nose, though there is no telling whether he disapproves or is merely surprised.
"This is what I would like to offer my fellow Cybertronians," Prime clarifies. "In return for a place to stay, we would supply you with technology. I understand you are worried about global warming. There are ways to improve your energy efficiency while avoiding nuclear waste."
Nods all around.
"However, I would like to offer these things to all of humanity."
"What about weapons, intelligence technology?"
"On the same terms. Though I would prefer you not ask me again."
"Hmm." The President seems less pleased now. One of the civilians near him whispers something into his ear.
"The medical sciences might be interested in your sensor technology."
This is making sense. "Again, on the same terms. No patents."
"But you will work with our universities." They would want some advantage.
"If we are to stay on your territory."
"Fair enough," Lennox interjects.
None too pleased about some soldier voicing his opinion, the President frowns. "I understand your Autobots have been helping out with some… international difficulties."
Optimus fights the urge to hunch. "I'm arfraid we cannot do this anymore. It does not reflect kindly on us, no matter how eager some of my people are for a distraction."
Director Mearing grins. "That's one headache less, really, Mr. President."
"If you say so. I'm going to discuss this with my advisors. Congress and the Senate will want a word in this, too. Provided Starscream agrees to the preliminary terms you stated."
"Thank you. I'll speak with him as soon as possible."
The meeting concludes. More troops will arrive shortly to evacuate the downtown area and collect everything of Cybertronian origin. It's going to be catalogued, then go wherever the President will let the Autobots set up camp. The bodies, too. No more human style burials at sea – they have proven to go wrong.
Prime promises help with the heavy lifting once his people have rested.
The Wreckers wake up early in the afternoon, taking over guard duty. Bumblebee collapses into alt mode to recharge, while Sideswipe and Mirage show no such decorum. They lie down on the grass, spooned together.
When did that happen? And is it a good idea to show it to outsiders? Still, Ratchet doesn't have it in his spark to admonish them. Not when... he shakes his head and envies them their youthful courage.
Recharge eludes him, so he settles down on the lawn in front of the music shell. Further away, the human rescue machine comes to life, as Prime said it would. Big trucks full of soldiers, ambulances. Tinny sounding announcements from megaphones. The baying of search hounds.
He should be productive, if he isn't resting.
However, before he can tell Roadbuster to keep an optic on the patients, a small figure steps out from under the trees. Human, male, graying hair. There's a thick layer of dust on his expensive shoes and his suit. Huh.
Ratchet goes to intercept.
"Um." The human smiles up at him shakily. "Hi. Dan Michalsky of the Chicago Tribune."
"Ratchet. Autobot chief medical officer."
"Okay. Hello, sir. Um. I was wondering if you'd be up for an interview."
Ratchet has to blink. It makes sense. Of course the humans want info not pre-digested by the government, but to approach an Autobot takes some courage. "I have to clear this with my commander."
"Okay. I've time."
Ratchet radios Prime. Prime okays it, provided that Ratchet will stick to the official version. And no pictures of mechs who can't argue.
The human is alright with that and takes out his high-end phone to record. First, he introduces himself and Ratchet to the camera. "So. This is some kind of improvised open-air medbay?" He is giving the area a sweep.
"Somewhat." Ratchet settles down and receives a grateful smile. "I currently have five patients, four of which are also prisoners."
"Oh, okay. Who are they?"
"I'm not at liberty to say."
A grin. "Alright. I take the others are resting."
"Those two look pretty cozy."
Ratchet imitates a sigh. "I have no gossip to share. And you'll have to ask later if you can use that footage."
"Sure." The human tilts his head, contemplating the pair. "So there is such a thing as robot gossip."
"Mech," Ratchet snaps. "Or Cybertronian. We are not machines."
"Right, sir. Sorry, sir."
The human Michalsky appears to be honestly contrite, so Ratchet accepts the apology with a curt nod.
"Back to the gossip and its subject. So you people can fall for someone, have illicit love affairs, the whole shebang?"
"Please elaborate on what you mean with shebang."
Michalsky squirms, and Ratchet has to hide a grin. Humans. So uncomfortable about all things sexual. Though Ratchet has to give the man credit to ask a question that only Mikaela has dared to pose yet. Everyone else was content to hear that the Autobots wouldn't be making babies anytime soon.
"Okay. I think we've established that you can care about each other. Romantically."
"What do you do for physical intimacy, except cuddle, and is it in any way tied to your reproduction?"
Ratchet grins. Nice save. "We reproduce not quite sexually. There are no different sexes, even if some mechs will decide to adopt female human gender characteristics when coming here."
Michalsky nods, seemingly boggled.
"We build the bodies of our offspring, then infuse them with a spark. What you would call a soul. Essentially, two adult mechs bring their sparks into close contact, and the excess energy is converted into new life." The other, more widely used method is lost forever, and he won't mention it.
"Depending on several factors, this also can be an intense emotional experience. A smaller scale sharing of emotion can be achieved by hardline connection."
"Right. Definitely not as messy as our way." Michalsky has turned a nice shade of red. "And. Does that make for more stable partnerships? I mean, you certainly know about the US divorce rates."
"Yes, I do know. And you are correct. If there is heartbreak, so to speak, it happens earlier in the relationship, when the concerned parties have invested less."
"Good. Thanks for clarifying that. Now, can you tell me what this battle was about?"
It is already dark when Optimus makes it back to the repair bay. While Ratchet is out there to help with the rescue effort, Roadbuster is monitoring the patients. Optimus keeps his distance from them except for a quick visual inspection.
Someone is trying to hail him via radio. He ambles out into the night before he answers.
"Prime!" Mearing's dulcet tones. Oh, joy.
"Your eyesore of a doctor is all over the news. Did you authorize that?"
"I did authorize an interview, yes."
"You will notice he kept to the official explanation of the events, madam." One in which the humans look a bit better than they should.
"But… there's two of your soldiers fraternizing! In front of the entire planet!"
Prime says nothing. He thinks it's a rather fortunate coincidence, publicity-wise.
"What are you going to do about that?"
"Wish them luck." They need it. Both are reeling for different reasons, and have the capacity to hurt each other greatly.
An intake of air. She's too enraged to articulate for a moment. "Prime, there are rules for a reason."
"They are your rules," he says. "We are not the US military."
"So you don't have rules regarding such an outrage."
"Not anymore." There's too few of them left to not allow his people comfort wherever they find it.
"Hah. So it's okay with you if they start popping out babies."
"I don't believe this will be an issue for some time."
"Right. This needs to be addressed in the contract."
So this is what it's all about. "Of course. I will speak with Starscream in the morning, and then notify you of the results."
... The picture is slightly grainy, the sound quality needs improvement, and the lighting is abysmal. Like most footage of our truly alien residents, really. However, the content is novel: it shows an alien sitting down and explaining himself to a human being, answering questions most people have wondered about the past three years.
Which means this was three years overdue.
You do not move into a neighborhood without introducing yourself to the people next door. I'm glad someone finally understood that. Though I am not terribly surprised that it was one of the aliens.
- comment in USA Today on Michalsky's video
While Starscream is still overrun by error messages when he comes to, at least this time he doesn't hurt.
"Buon giorno, Elisabetta," someone says. Sounds like the medic.
Starscream groans. Primus, he is going to die of embarrassment. Certainly. Please. Before he has to look Optimus in the face.
"Starscream." And there he is. Sounding soft, as if talking to a wild animal.
Starscream opens his one functioning optic. "Prime."
"I wish to offer a truce." Optimus' face is serious, and Starscream is somewhat glad they're going to talk shop.
"Right. The terms?"
"A cease-fire. The humans will provide a place on Earth where we can regroup until we have found a suitable home. In turn, we'll supply them with some technology."
"We do have a suitable home." Starscream frowns. Obviously the ploy with the space bridge didn't work – not a surprise, not at all, but nobody listens to him. He's always been Megatron's trophy Seeker to them.
"Cybertron isn't habitable anymore."
"It was, last time I checked. Onslaught has a team there. Only with the war we've never had the mechpower to actually do serious reconstruction."
"But." Optimus' optics are wide.
Surprise? Stupid. You don't leave the planet you've been fighting over without a defense. "Look. We can argue where to go later. Fact is the humans want us off planet ASAP, right?"
"I'm afraid so."
"I agree with them. You want peace, though, not only a cease-fire."
Starscream can't help the bitter chuckle. Optimus drops his gaze. No one is innocent, here.
"I will retain command over my faction," he demands. "You'll name me Lord Protector."
The medic makes a soft protest in the background, but is ignored.
"If you'll keep your mechs from making trouble for us or the humans," Prime concedes eventually. "No. You'll make them co-operate whenever necessary. We have a common goal, and we do not need infighting."
"Good. You have yourself peace, Prime."
"So it would seem, Lord Starscream." Optimus takes Starscream's good hand between his palms. "I hereby charge you with the safety of Cybertron."
"I will do my utmost. My Prime." Almost, he stumbles over the possessive pronoun. Bad memories are being overwritten.
Prime's hands squeeze his, and that's it. Not the fanfare he has secretly wished for, but the ritual does count. They have the medic and a couple of Autobot onlookers as witnesses.
So, what now. "I need my communicator back online to contact my troops."
"Ratchet will see to it. I'm going to inform the humans of our agreement."
"You did what!"
The human reaction matches that of his Autobots.
"He will keep his mechs out of trouble. I urge you not to attack any Decepticons until we know about their allegiance."
"And you believe him." There are deep lines on Mearing's face.
"The title carries weight," Optimus tries to explain. "Take monarchy. No matter what you might personally think of it, the title of 'king' still touches something in you, doesn't it."
"Hail, Theoden King," Epps quotes from beside Optimus' knee.
"Exactly. I'm calling unto the Cybertronian collective unconscious by naming him Lord Protector."
"Indeed." The President nods. "I hope you know what you're doing."
It turns afternoon until Ratchet has Starscream somewhat mobile again, and his comm. is working. Night falls before Starscream has actual results.
Thundercracker and Skywarp are commanding the skeleton crew on the Nemesis, and are mostly relieved to hear of anyone alive. They promise to relay the message to everyone out there. Then Starscream spends one Earth hour arguing it out with the planetside troops, who are, fortunately, more confused and worried than actually rebellious. They know the space bridge collapsed, and that they have no way off planet if not for the Nemesis.
"They will return once I know where they're supposed to go," Starscream explains to Prime and two human soldiers.
They nod, but no information is coming forth.
"Whoever is in charge on your side might want to make that decision soon," he snaps at the two humans.
The darker of the two holds up his hands. "Easy, man. No killing the messengers."
"He won't." A glower from Prime. "Did they all respond?"
"They did. I have no idea if they are going to follow through with their promises, of course." It is likely that they will obey, but one always has to account for all possibilities.
"You could call them back one group at a time, to assess their opinion," the lighter faced of the human suggests.
Not so stupid. "I was going to do that. However, there is one who requires a pick-up."
"Who is that, why can't he make it on his own, and where is he?"
"Barricade. As of Soundwave's demise, he's the CIO. Megatron left him with a number of protoforms in Namibia."
Optimus makes a surprised noise, but the humans are faster.
"Namibia. Huh." The dark-skinned human echoes Starscream's thoughts on that exactly. Personally, he'd have picked Siberia. Less dust, more pipeline leaks.
"Namibia, yes. Near the border to Angola. There are oil platforms and ore mines to be raided. For the hatchlings."
"Whose are they?" Prime asks.
Starscream looks away. "We didn't keep records."
"How many of them?" Prime inquires further.
"Fourteen." If Barricade manages to keep them all alive until the humans get moving.
"Um. So what you're actually saying is that one of your officers is babysitting Decepticon offspring in Africa," the light-skinned human paraphrases.
"Oh-kay. Right. Rescue mission. How big are they? And what's the nearest airport to where he is? Preferably not in Angola."
After the initial introductions, there is a long silence while the President and Starscream size each other up.
"Why did you survive?," the President asks eventually. "Why the lowest ranking of four?"
Starscream smirks. "I can be very annoying, sir. But I know better than to deliberately, ah, piss off Optimus."
Next to him, Optimus ducks his head.
"He has a temper, that one."
The President looks between them, obviously trying to guess the subtext. "You two know each other. From before."
"Yes," Starscream agrees. "Geekdom is universal."
The President cracks a smile; someone behind him chuckles, then apologizes.
"Why the rift?"
"Friends do not always agree on everything, Mr. President," Optimus rumbles.
"Indeed. May I ask what the disagreement was about? What drove you to war?"
"Cybertron is drifting," Starscream says. "It was knocked out of orbit long before I was… born?" He waits for confirmation that it is the right word. "Without a sun, it is difficult to produce energon, and our native sources were running out. Much like your oil."
"People were starving. The poor died first, obviously, and were glad to listen to Megatron proposing desperate measures for desperate times."
"You were one of them."
"I was with the armed forces. Until they couldn't pay me anymore."
Optimus throws Starscream a glance. It's not the entire truth, but close enough Prime doesn't protest.
"So our war was a disagreement on method more than a disagreement on objectives," Optimus sums up.
"That's a lot of dead people for a bit of ideological difference."
"Yes," Optimus says.
Starscream nods. But Megatron was never as big on philosophy as he was on power, and the Fallen was just too caught up in his aspirations to godhood. As was Sentinel. "We have run out of resources to continue the disagreement. We might as well reconcile and be productive for a change."
"So very pragmatic," Optimus teases.
Starscream has to hide a smile. "If you wanted melodrama, you should have left Megatron alive."
Optimus looks away. Still feeling guilty. For finally realizing that Megatron would not have been a beneficial influence on any peace process.
Starscream resolves to thank him properly sometime and turns his attention back to the humans. "So what is it exactly that you want as payment for the property and manpower?"
The President blinks, and might be realizing that Starscream was named Lord Protector for a reason.
"Ladies and Gentlemen. Gentlebeings. It is with great relief that I stand before you today. The battle in Chicago, my beloved home, has served as a turning point in the intergalactic war that was brought to our doorstep five years ago. During those five years, Megatron sought once to destroy us by imploding the sun, and twice to enslave us. He wished to use us to rebuild a planet his own actions have brought to the brink of destruction.
"Megatron, as you have already heard, is dead. Neither did those Decepticon officers survive who implemented this latest plan.
"I wish to express my heartfelt gratitude to the army, the navy, the Autobots, and a few fearless individuals who managed to save us all. I urge you all not to blame the Autobots – without them, we would long be dead or enslaved.
"We are fortunate that the new Decepticon commander, Starscream, has agreed to a truce.
"The United States of America have offered the Cybertronians a place where they can regroup and get used to peace again. Eventually, they are going to search for a new home – a planet they can shape to their needs…"
"Good evening, gentlebeings," Prime rumbles. "I would have liked to address you under happier circumstances. Countless died in Chicago, because one of my people was able to fool me. For that, I am sorry.
"Since the President has already given a summary of the events until today, I will not bore you by relaying them again.
"It is very fortunate for us that the President offered us refuge here. While our track record forbids us to take any sides in your conflicts, we are willing to repay this offering. My technicians are going start working with the MIT and other assorted universities for better use of renewable energies and medical technology.
"We need very little – water, metals and sunlight, which is thankfully free. We also need space, given our relative size, but we are not looking to take over your land. I realize some of you might fear a hostile take over, so to speak, but in truth you have very little that would tempt us to steal from you.
"What we have found, however, is that your species is inventive, resilient, highly intriguing and makes for interesting company. We all have traveled in very small parties for a long time,
we're a highly inhomogeneous group at the moment, and it is nice to sometimes be in the company of people who understand our respective idiosyncrasies." Prime's face twitches into a smile. "We have made friends, in other words.
"Most of us would like to call this planet home, if only temporarily. I know it won't be easy for our two species to get along. We are going to do our best, and for the sake of my people, I ask you to do the same. Thank you."
If you have something to hide, and don't want people to notice that you're hiding anything at all, where do you put it?
If Siberia isn't an option?
Sam stares at the text Optimus has sent him and isn't surprised. The dust is going to be hell on their joints, though.
At any rate, they're hoping to offer Sam a job, once they have their funding in order.
"I will not be transported like some invalid!"
Optimus dry washes his face. He doesn't really need this argument.
"It's a two thousand and five hundred kilometer walk," Ratchet snaps. "You're going to climb on the transport tomorrow and sit tight if you know what's good for you."
Starscream hisses back wordlessly for a moment. "You are going to reattach my wing and I'm going to fly there."
"Could you do it, Ratchet?" Optimus asks.
He has to duck a wrench.
"I was just saying," he argues. "After all, it's going to take a week to go there."
Ratchet sighs, and Starscream grins smugly.
One has to give it to the jet: being a pain in the aft can work wonders.
Bee trills a soft greeting when he approaches Ratchet in his spot on the grass.
"Hey there, kid."
Bee smiles and sits down next to Ratchet.
"We're the leftovers," Ratchet says. There are the Wreckers, who are currently drooling over the remains of the master pillar. Sides and Mirage have snuck off into the darkness for privacy, and lastly Prime wandered off with Starscream to discuss some mission.
Bee frowns, sighs. Snuggles closer until Ratchet is forced to wrap an arm around his shoulders. It's a reminder of times when Bee was younger. Well. In all this chaos, Ratchet has forgotten that he is not the only one. "You must be missing him something terrible."
"So do you," Bee radios back.
"I – I was right there. But I didn't expect it, didn't even think to question why Sentinel crashed on the moon of all places…"
Ratchet adjusts his hold, and is glad for the change in topic. "Why wouldn't we? The Matrix was here. He would have known about it."
"But Optimus never said a word about him leaving Cybertron to find the Matrix. Optimus didn't know about the Matrix in the first place."
"That he didn't." Sentinel's betrayal dates back a long time, this much is obvious.
"So, I should have been more suspicious about Sam's data. And I had the chance to shoot him…"
"Did you? He was a Prime, kid. A Prime with an experimental bio weapon." Ratchet nuzzles Bee's helm. "You saw what it did." His – Ironhide's – core processors and memory are destroyed. Optimus has not offered to use the Matrix, and Ratchet has not asked. They have no guarantee that whatever they bring back will be Ironhide. "None of us had a reason to suspect anyone but the humans, and the Decepticons."
"No. There wasn't anything we could have done differently." Now to just believe that himself.
Bee nods into Ratchet's shoulder. A tremble runs through the kid; he is trying not to sob and failing.
"It's alright, kid." Ratchet strokes Bee's shoulder, taking comfort in the warm frame against his.
On the morning the first convoy is to depart, Starscream stands beside Optimus. Prime sneaks a look whenever he believes no one will notice. Starscream has washed up; he's also received some of their solar energon and put it to good use. If he were human, Optimus would be drooling right now.
In the sun, Starscream gleams with a magnificent bronze shine. It's a good look on him, mature and understated, unlike the flashy colors he was sporting when they first met. He has also reformatted to something more Cybertronian, as he has no reason to fool humans anymore. His weight is distributed differently, and he got rid of the bird-like legs, which makes him stand taller than Optimus.
"I can see why you fell for him," Ratchet says over the comm.
Optimus grimaces. He has no idea if he really is still in love, or merely remembering how nice the crush felt back then. Starscream has to feel something for him, but whether it delves into the romantic, as he implied, is uncertain. Back then, Starscream never once gave a hint that he even noticed Optimus' attachment.
"My Prime," Starscream interrupts his thoughts. "I will now go and scout the premises as instructed."
"Meet me once you are done, Lord Starscream." They could talk long distance via comm. just as well, but Optimus wants Starscream's company, and the mech is dying for any chance to stretch his wings.
Starscream steps off a ways and ignites his thrusters, transforms once he is above the buildings. Their human audience – the inevitable curious crowd – oohs and aahs.
As if he hears, Starscream does a triple barrel roll. He is obviously not above accepting flattery from mankind.
Starscream stands in the middle of a runway that consists mostly of potholes. There are two hangars, neither of them big enough to allow him or Optimus to stand in them. One has an enormous hole rusted into its side. Sand has blown in.
A few derelict houses, presumably barracks, are huddled together near a few dreary looking palm trees. Some investigation turns up a non-functionial well and a place where the generators once were.
They'll need most of the destroyed battleships just to make a decent medbay and control building. Living quarters for two hundred mechs are definitely out.
This place is currently not worth half of what the US want as lease.
Starscream is pacing in front of Optimus. "We'll have to rebuild from scratch!"
"Hmm." Optimus doesn't want to have to think he was tricked.
"Even if we recycle everything, we're going to be short on living quarters. There's just no way the humans can keep any of it as research material or for memorial purposes."
"Starscream… it's the least we can do."
"We'll have to call down the Nemesis, then. There's space enough on that ship. Private quarters for everyone. Also, we have a couple of shuttles. They can set up a foundry on Mars for us, where we won't have to pay for the iron."
"The humans won't like it."
"So what? I don't give a frag what they like or not. I don't like that red place they gave us, either. It's dusty. There's a dried out salt lake in the vicinity. If there is precipitation, the air might turn corrosive. We'll need a functioning well and a way to stay clear of all that fragging weather this planet has."
Optimus sighs. Starscream is right. Of course he is. "Call the Nemesis, then. How long will it take them to get here?"
"Depends. Ten to fourteen Earth days?"
Optimus nods. "Good. We'll sort out the crew before you call the planetside troops in, though."
Starscream plops down in front of him. "Of course."
"Thank you," Optimus says.
Starscream cocks his head. "I'm just looking out for my own best interest."
"That you do." And it is why Optimus agreed to naming him Lord Protector. It's the highest rank to be given out on Cybertron. Keeping it will be Starscream's priority. And he's just honorable enough to be wanting to keep that oath, too.
Starscream looks off into the distance. "Doesn't mean it's always working."
"Hmm." Optimus draws his knees up and rests his chin on one to study Starscream in the dim light of Earth's night. The bronze armor has an almost ethereal shimmer to it.
Eventually, Starscream catches him staring, and looks right back.
During the days, Starscream is acting like the family dog, Will thinks. Starscream is going back and forth between the new base and the various convoys, but always, always returning to Optimus. Most evenings, he can see them pouring over some kind of holographic display – Will guesses they plan to dig and have most of their facilities underground, except for some fantastically big structure.
But it's not night now, it's afternoon under a clear blue sky, with the Rockies looming in the distance. Prime has excused himself to go for a walk – there's a river near the road – as he's done before. He apparently likes closer looks at some of the nature. Starscream touched down no five minutes later to amble after him.
Half an hour later it's time for a break, and while the rest of his men invade the gas station and diner, with Wheelie and Brains following to scare the staff, Will walks over to the sunny spot where Ratchet is sitting in altmode.
"So, doc," Will says and leans against the CMO's door. "What's Prime's and Starscream's deal?"
"I'm not certain. Optimus isn't talking about it."
"C'mon. You've got to know something."
There's an electronic sigh from Ratchet. "I know that they were something like friends before the war. I'm also quite aware that Optimus was a little in love, and Starscream was oblivious. However, newest evidence points to the fact that Starscream figured out Prime's feelings, albeit too late."
Will scratches his neck. "If you were talking about a human, I'd guess he went off and married someone else."
"You guys do that?"
"In a manner of speaking. We do form long-term partnerships. Megatron went after him."
"Oh." What a mess. "This didn't turn out well?"
"Not at all."
"But Starscream stayed with Megatron. That doesn't make sense."
"He had little choice."
Will frowns. "But… you mean, Megatron was the classic abusive husband?"
"No. It has nothing to do with that." Ratchet pauses. "But I understand that even you humans form relationships with varying degrees of commitment."
"'Course." Will can practically feel new lines being etched into his face at that revelation. "So you're telling me that you people know a kind of marriage that binds you literally until death."
"Yes. Neither of them could back out of it."
"That's a bit sick, you know." Even without having to go through that, even with loving Sarah as much as he does, Will's stomach rebels at the mere thought.
"Please remember that you're looking at an anomaly. They never took the time to get to know each other, if the gossip back then is to be believed."
"Still." Will ponders being bound like this to anyone. "I don't think I'd have the courage for that."
"Neither have I," Ratchet says. "And as proven, there is a very thin divide between courage and recklessness."
Optimus is watching something in a stream when Starscream finds him.
"You shouldn't be wandering off on your own like that," Starscream admonishes, and not for the first time.
"Do I really need a bodyguard?" Optimus is not looking at him.
"You're the Prime."
"That is not an answer." Optimus stands up. "Thank you for worrying, though."
Starscream has to evade his gaze. "I mean that even if you didn't need to be protected, you have the rank to warrant an honor guard."
"So do you."
Starscream shrugs. It's a very useful human gesture.
"We can guard each other." Prime smiles.
"We could." It's not like they're not around each other every possible moment. For reasons Starscream doesn't quite understand yet, he is drawn to Optimus, to the glossy armor with the slightly unsophisticated flame decal, the voice, the shy, warm smiles… just like back then. Unlike back then, he will not make rash decisions, and bide his time until he knows what he wants.
"You realize that people will talk." There's a teasing glint in Prime's optics.
"Aren't they talking already? I vote that we let them. Denial will only further the gossip."
Optimus smiles. "Is there anything to deny?"
This time, Starscream doesn't manage to hold Optimus' gaze and turns his sight to the snow-capped mountains.
Instead of commenting on Starscream's cowardice, Optimus traces his arm with a feather-light touch, then walks off.
Sam's phone calls are the only thing keeping Bee sane during the trip to Nevada. He's guarding the last convoy – which is transporting ships – with Sideswipe and Mirage.
They are very, very, annoyingly in love.
Or maybe not. Maybe it's just a case of desperately needing someone to hold on to. Bee has no idea whether he wants them to work out or not.
So, he's envious. It's not a big feat to figure that out.
His own emotional support is either dead or a hundred miles down the road. So, he's eagerly awaiting the evenings when Sam calls to respond to the texts Bee sends. It's an odd way to commiserate, certainly, but it's working out. Sam can bitch about the debriefings, the journalists and about Carly, who hates those journalists with a passion.
"One intruded into the office today," Sam whines on the evening of day five. "Mr. Banzos wasn't really enthusiastic about that."
He thought I was cool, Bee answers.
"Yeah. You are cool. Uber-cool. But he's not paying me to have a cool bro. I might lose my job."
I'm sorry. I know Optimus wants to offer you a job. Something PR related. We need advice on making an online presence, and about which deals to accept.
"Err… Bee… that's really nice and all…"
You would be working behind the scenes. As an advisor. We won't ask you to make speeches or hit the talk show circus. Optimus is the one to ask if you want drama.
A laugh. "Right. Good. I can be an advisor." He sighs. "I'd have to move, huh?"
Not necessarily. Most of it could be done online. Also, I don't think we'd be able to offer a job to Carly. She's a MA, and very pretty, and genuinely nice, but, well. Not someone who you want to be stuck with during a battle. Besides, Ratchet would like to hire Mikaela once she is done with college.
Sam splutters. "What! How. You guys are still talking to her?"
Ratchet is. I understand they are very close.
More spluttering. "I thought she hated you guys!"
Did she say that? I didn't want to pry about the details. Not that he'd been there to do that, cavorting all over the planet playing vigilante. Bee shoves that thought away, he's carrying around his fair share of guilt already.
Sam groans. "This is so fucked up. Any idea why she lied?"
"Right. I have to think about this, and talk it over with Carly. So, how are you? The lovebirds still treating you like air?"
You won't believe it, but Starscream actually yelled at Mirage today…
"Wow," Leadfoot says. "What a decrepit shithole."
"Word," Epps agrees. The place is in fucking ruins.
"Yo, Prime! We're gonna start digging the medbay."
Optimus looks over from where he is talking something over with Will and Starscream and nods.
Leadfoot makes a pleased sound. "Epps, you guys move the equipment over to those dives there. One of them bigwigs can help you unload. And then stay outta the way. Things shall go boom."
The Wreckers are true to form. The place rumbles all through the night from the explosions they use to carve tunnels into the hillside.
When there are no explosions, Epps is kept awake by Cybertronian yelling. Ratchet has woken the three captured Decepticon soldiers, and they obviously disagree with Starscream about the truce. They stop arguing once he decks the biggest loudmouth over the newly repaired helm, as if they don't accept command that doesn't use brute force.
In the end, Will is taking Ratchet and his team to fetch Barricade and fourteen robot babies from Ondangwa Airport.
Despite the fact that all 'bots have expressed their dislike of Barricade over the years, there has been quite an argument on who would be allowed to accompany Will. Like a bunch of kids when promised a puppy.
Ratchet won because of his size and expertise. He's packed a vat of something he's been mixing in his hangar turned workshop the past day – pinkish gray goo looking like liquefied entrails with glitter to Will.
Barricade is already waiting on the runway, sitting there in a police car altmode, when the plane touches down. He is surrounded by several vehicles of the Namibian Defense Forces and a bunch of journalists.
The Africans have no idea they're guarding more than one mech. Starscream has been adamant about leaving them in the dark about the little ones. Too easily stolen. Prime agreed.
Will and Ratchet descend the ramp to greet the preening captain overseeing the operation.
"Thank you for finding him for us, sir," Ratchet says. "We have been looking for him for years."
This is true. Ever since Mission City. Will walks around Barricade. There's no Decepticon logo to be seen anywhere – he's displaying Autobot sigils instead. One has to give the mech credit for effort and creativity. After all, he has cooked up their cover story.
"We can only guess Prime's latest broadcast shook him up so much that he finally came out of hiding," Ratchet lies.
"It's been a pleasure," the captain says. "We could not wish for a calmer guest. Especially if he's been through as much as you believe."
Hah. Right. Playing at mute, Barricade is.
Ratchet has to pose for some pictures before he's allowed to examine his ostensible patient. After a scan, Ratchet declares Barricade fit for travel, then makes a show of explaining that Barricade will now have to enter the plane's cargo bay.
Take-off is twenty minutes later, around sundown, dusk painting the desert into fairytale colors. Orange, pink, purple. Sarah would have a field day with her camera. Maybe they can have a vacation here and look at all the wild animals, once Annie is a bit older and won't mind the long flight so much.
Eventually, they have reached cruising altitude, and Ratchet transforms. Very slowly, so not to disturb the plane's balance. Eventually he is sitting there, cross legged, a bit hunched over. "I've brought some food." He flicks a finger against the vat.
Barricade exudes mistrust, but he does pop open his trunk. There are electronic chirps, and then round red optics are blinking owlishly into the dim light of the cargo hold.
"Well, I'll be," Walters says.
Yes. Because what Ratchet is helping out of the trunk are oversized crosses between baby vultures and praying mantises – all spindly limbs and big eyes. They don't quite manage to be cute.
Still, Ratchet displays an unusual amount of gentleness and patience.
"Um," Graham says. "They're small. Sir."
"Much too small for their respective ages, at least."
There is a rumble from Barricade which makes the little ones skitter up to Ratchet faster until he looks like a Christmas tree gone wrong. Fourteen, Will counts, just as Starscream promised.
Barricade unfolds, with the same consideration for balance as Ratchet. It is where the similarities end. The mech is spiky, showing teeth, and grumbling in his native tongue. A police car from hell. The bitlets titter back at Barricade until he issues an electronic sigh and holds out his hands for them to climb back.
The adult mechs have a conversation that sounds not quite like an argument. Eventually, Barricade hands over one hatchling at a time, so Ratchet can assess its health properly and then feed it by dripping some of the pinkish goo into its mouth.
For a while after their meal the bitlets are more active, scaling the two adult mechs up and down. One of them, a little bigger than the others, dares to leave the safety of its fellows and skitters over to stare at Lennox.
"Hello," he says.
It chirps and scuttles backwards until it clatters against Barricade's foot to hide behind it.
Ratchet chuckles, but Will doesn't find it particularly funny. They might not be cute, but they certainly act like toddlers. Once upon a time, Ratchet and Optimus and even Starscream must have been like that, too.
Food for thought.
Three hours into the flight the hatchlings have fallen into recharge on Barricade's backseat.
"They're a nice bunch," Ratchet tries to strike up a conversation.
"Whose are they?"
"Dunno. No records."
Ratchet nods. "Why?"
"Ah. So this is the rest of how many?"
For being in altmode, Barricade manages the shrug extremely well. One of the hatchlings chirps in protest.
"We never did that," Ratchet says. "It seems too cruel to bring so many into this world when you're only expecting some to live."
"Why not spark only a few? You'd have a guarantee that they'd make it."
"Soldiers," Barricade grumbles.
"Cannon fodder," Ratchet corrects. "And that's the real reason you didn't keep records." So everyone could fool themselves that it weren't his own who were dying. Like that thing with human execution commandos and the one rifle that doesn't have a bullet.
Barricade says nothing.
"I can find out, you know. Once they've grown a little."
"Not a good idea."
Yes. Some of them are bound to be Megatron's, and the three older ones might as well date back to The Fallen. "We wouldn't hold their parentage against them."
"The humans might. Ever google 'nature versus nurture'?"
Ratchet nods and wishes he had kept his mouth shut on Cybertronian reproduction.
Starscream has escorted the flight all the way from the coastline to Nellis Air Force Base, and then guards the small convoy.
There is a big yahoo when they arrive at the base late at night; everyone comes out to meet the hatchlings.
The hatchlings, however, take a good look at everyone surrounding them and refuse to budge from Barricade's interior.
"They don't know you imbeciles," Starscream finally loses his patience. "Step back a little."
Both Mirage and Sideswipe raise their chins in mutiny.
Optimus doesn't look like he is going to step in, either. Probably hoping to test Starscream's leadership skills.
"I hope you remember being this young," Starscream says. "Have you ever been afaid of being stepped on?"
The bluff works. Mirage finally breaks his gaze and shuffles backwards. After a few more seconds, Sideswipe gives up, too, and Starscream is free to step near Barricade. The hatchlings start chirping, so he reaches out a hand, and one by one, they climb up his arm. They look no worse for wear.
Eventually, the last one is out and Barricade can transform. He snaps to attention. "M'lord. Barricade reporting for duty." As if he wants to show up the two miscreants.
"At ease. You have guarded your charges well, I see."
Barricade mumbles something that is supposedly a thank-you.
"You have built nests?," Starscream asks Optimus. There weren't any when he left this morning.
"As to your specification."
"Very well. Barricade, you will continue to watch over them until we have found suitable caretakers. Anyone who wishes to be introduced to the sparklings has to clear this with you." Starscream glares at his audience to drive the point home. "Caretakers will be picked by suitability, not by rank or age." Meaning that childish behavior will lose points.
"I will show you the way," Optimus says.
Someone snorts. Starscream ignores the implied criticism, figuring that Optimus, who has parented Bumblebee, will at least know what not to do. "Lead on, then."
Most soldiers seem not to have a good opinion of the hatchlings. Optimus hears them whisper among themselves as he passes with Starscream and Barricade. "Critters," they say, and, "ugly as sin."
Behind him, Starscream bristles.
"We can evaluate their opinions and behavior," he says, in Cybertronian. "Once we are actually leasing this land, we will not have to accept someone else's employees anymore. Particularly not those who seem to despise us, or ours."
"We'll have to get the funding in order soon."
They enter the caverns that will become the medbay. In the future big operating room the Wreckers have set up four crates, filled with soft material, a makeshift berth for the caretaker (which is more luxury than everyone else has) and one more vat of sparkling grade energon.
Barricade takes the droopy-optic'd hatchlings from Starscream and sets them down in the nests, all the while introducing them. There is one who will likely become a helicopter, five jets and eight groundframes.
Beautiful, the lot.
"You are handling them very well," Optimus says to Barricade. "You're a good caretaker."
Barricade actually lowers his gaze. "Thanks, Prime, sir."
"No. Thank you. Good night."
Starscream leaves with him.
"I'm surprised that Megatron didn't make an exception for his heirs," Optimus says once they are out in the night, and alone.
"He's- none of them were his," Starscream whispers.
Oh. Oh, Primus. Optimus stops. It's almost certain that some of the miniscule jets are Starscream's. Flight capability is too rare. "Starscream… if I'd known…"
"It's not what you think."
Optimus doesn't quite believe that.
"Neither the Fallen nor Megatron had qualms about, ah, ordering the lower ranks," Starscream says. "But I was not forced."
Prime hums, and tries to understand. "There are plenty of ways to make a mech do what you want without holding him at gunpoint."
"Yes." There is a lengthy pause. "I've always wanted one of my own, though."
Ah. "I take it you kept private records." It would explain why there are so many flyers in that batch.
"No. Some things you just know."
The hatchlings don't like the noise of construction outside Barricade's badly lit refuge, so he takes them outside for the day, letting them exhaust themselves by exploring the local environment. The energon is doing them good – he's never seen them this lively. The older ones even band together to fashion towers out of rocks, only to collapse them again.
Around midday, he is being pinged by one of the Autobots, Bumblebee, who wants to bring the Lennox-human, too.
Could be worse. Barricade agrees.
Bumblebee and the human approach on foot and keep their distance. The hatchlings ogle them, then decide they are boring adults and continue playing.
"You want one for yourself?," Barricade challenges.
Bumblebee shakes his head. Wise mech.
"I was thinking," says the human, "we give our children toys. Not that they need most of those." He offers a smile that looks self-deprecating. "I was thinking along the lines of fingerpaint, maybe some legos."
Barricade has to google those words. These things sound interesting, good for fine motor control and to see how creative the bitlets are. Not so far from what Cybertron once had. "How do you propose acquiring toys?" Stealing is probably not a good idea.
"Bee and I are going to the next town for pizza and other stuff. We could buy some. I might have made a few people chip in."
Ah. So the Lennox-human heard the comments, and acted on it. Very good. He can see why the Autobots consider him an ally.
"They'd just eat the legos," Barricade says. They've tried to see what a cactus tastes like, too. They are so fragging behind in their development, it's not even funny. "The finger paint is water soluble, no?"
"Oh yes. Definitely washes off." Lennox sounds like he's speaking from experience.
"Then I won't mind a donation of finger paint. Thank you."
The Lennox-human looks totally surprised for a moment. Didn't expect Barricade to have manners.
Two hours later, the two return bearing a box with the colors, a gallon canister of water and some towels. Barricade nods at the good thinking.
"Why are some of them crowding around you?," Bumblebee asks.
"You'd like me to carry a couple nests out here so you can watch them? I understand that the bigger ones aren't tired?"
Barricade nods. So Bumblebee trudges off and returns with two nests. Barricade lifts everyone in who needs recharge, which leaves the two older jetlets and his own youngling to entertain.
"You wanna say hello?," he asks Bumblebee.
The mech is indeed very young. "Sit down, then."
Bumblebee does as instructed and trills at the bitlets. Unsurprisingly, Intrigue is the first to move. Bumblebee lets him poke at his fingers – blunt and very much trying to look human. Intrigue has never met an adult mech who didn't have some sort of claws, so naturally he takes an interest.
The jets (Barricade suspects Starscream made them with Soundwave) eventually are taken over by curiosity, too, and soon Bumblebee has them crawling all over him. "They are so cute. What's their names?"
"Intrigue's the grounder. Jets are Raindance and Sunburst."
"Hello there. I'm Bee." He reaches out and tickles Intrigue's side by tapping out a rhythm.
Barricade tenses, but Trig giggles and squirms and tries to retaliate. The jetlets catch on. Obviously, Bumblebee does not have enough hands, so he admits laughing defeat.
It's. Well. Barricade never has thought to do that. To be playful and undignified himself. It's a good thing that Bumblebee is so young. Barricade resolves to show Starscream the recording and keep the yellow officer in mind as a babysitter.
In the evening, Starscream climbs the hill where Barricade has taken the hatchlings. They are currently brightly colored – that would be the finger paint – and trying to evade Barricade's efforts to clean them.
Not caring about the spectacle he's making of himself, Starscream engages in a mock hunt, chasing them around until they are tired and let themselves be picked up for washing.
"You're a good parent," Barricade comments via encrypted comm., once the younger ones are settled in their nests in the medbay, and the older hatchlings are clinging to their respective creators.
Starscream withholds an answer for a bit to nudge Sunburst carefully from a wire he's exploring. Bitlet should be past that stage by now. Should know his manners enough not to do that. "I suck slag," he sends.
"You did what you could. Not your fault Megatron would have slagged them if you'd have been too obvious."
"I shouldn't have made them, then."
"You really believe that?"
Starscream cycles air for a sigh. Not for the first time, he wishes he could just claim the two – like with Barricade's own, there's no other creator left to contest him over them. But there is no telling what his supposed underlings will do if they find out.
One day, he promises himself. For the time being, he'll cherish the few moments he has with them. He takes them for a walk through the half finished medbay, talking to them quietly, telling them what those things are that they are seeing. Sneaking a few screws for them to play with.
"Optimus." Will grins despite not feeling like it. He's just finished a phone call with Sarah. He'll be off next week, from Saturday on to Wednesday. But the Bots will hold a wake on Saturday, he can't miss that no matter how much Sarah insists he should attend a barbecue at her folks' instead.
"I would like you to inform your superiors that we are expecting the Nemesis to touch down tomorrow night, or the day after, at the latest."
"The Nemesis is…?," Will prompts.
"Starscream's flagship. I would hate for anyone to be panicked by it. It is quite big."
Will's face is growing hot. "And you're telling me about this only now?"
"It is sufficient time to warn everyone."
Right. Here's the ultimate prove that Optimus is not willing to ask for permission if it pertains his people anymore. Will can't blame him – America doesn't have a very good history of making this kind of decisions.
"I have also released a press statement and invited a few journalists to watch the event. From a safe distance."
Will grins. "Here's to hoping Starscream won't have to slag his captain in front of them."
After touchdown near midnight, it takes a good human hour until anyone emerges. The Autobots behind Starscream bristle at being left waiting.
TC and Warp are out first, followed by the crew. "Lord Starscream. Optimus Prime."
Starscream nods his appreciation, then follows up with introductions. "We will have an officers' meeting in the morning. Nine hundred hours local time. Until then, if you absolutely cannot recharge, I expect you to mind the base's borders, and to keep out of fights." He turns to glare at Sideswipe before fixing his stare on his troops.
There's a mumble, of 'yessirs', which is good enough considering most of them are nearly recharging on their feet.
"Welcome to Earth," Optimus says. "It's nice to meet you in a setting that is not a battlefield."
There are a few polite smiles.
"If you have any questions, please contact Starscream or myself."
"Umm…, Prime, sir?" Grindor shifts uneasily. "There was something about hatchlings?"
Optimus smiles indulgently. Grindor is the only helicopter on the Nemesis. "Barricade is looking after them. If any of you want a look, Starscream can take you."
"They are recharging now," Starscream adds. "Usually they wake up around sunrise."
"I suppose it can wait, m'lord."
Starscream nods. Good. It's better if some people do not seem overeager.
The meeting is… interesting. Most of it they spend puzzling out a new command structure. Barricade is formally the best to deal with base security, Bumblebee will check his work. Thundercracker has the patience to buckle down and figure out details, so he'll get to deal with human legal paperwork along with Prime. Bumblebee and Mirage are to handle publicity, appear in interviews and the like. Depending on the contact, along with Skywarp.
Starscream and Sideswipe will handle the monetary end. It's one thing to let a human medic look at one of their optics to figure out how to make a blind human see again, and quite another to let them poke at their holograms. The latter can be used for entertainment and communication purposes, and will therefore be sold, along with the quantum computing and everything else not immediately live-saving. Also, even simple things like their logos need to be trademarked and copyrighted and whatnot. Bumblebee says there are a few toy companies interested in selling action figures of them.
This is downright weird, given the only toys their children have are a couple gallons of donated finger paint.
To make more money, they'll send a shuttle and some mechs up to Mars for a mining operation. Looking at Earth's current needs, rare ores and copper are things to make money with.
Starscream is to recall the teams now.
"They want a high price for a temporary home," Thundercracker remarks at the end of that discussion.
"We do not know where else to go," Optimus says.
"Cybertron still exists," Starscream points out. "As I already told you, we do have a team there."
"So have we," Ratchet snaps. "Even if it might be smaller than yours. But we'll have to calculate with three hundred plus mechs, not twenty. Also, we don't want to scrape a living, we wish to rebuild. Can Cybertron really support such plans?"
Can it? Starscream frowns as he recalls Onslaught's latest numbers. "Not as of yet."
"What we need is a sun," Barricade growls.
"We could hack what's left of Sentinel's memories, build a new space bridge," Rivet says. He's Hook's unlucky successor. Decepticon CMO, for whatever it is worth. Megatron never listened to the medics.
"The idea isn't all bad," Ratchet finally allows.
Optimus doesn't seem to hear.
"Do it," Starscream says. "Get Barricade to help you, he's good with code."
Optimus Prime is still quiet when the meeting finally breaks up. Bee follows him.
"Sir?," he radios.
He's being given a look he can't decipher.
"There is a chance to regain Cybertron", Bee ventures. "Are you not happy?"
Prime sighs. "It is a very slim chance."
"We all know that. But we'll have Wheeljack to work on it, once Ratchet repairs him."
"This is not what worries you."
"Sentinel," Prime says. "I wish I cold have made him see reason. The initial idea was good – this system is rich in resources, and we could have traded with the humans…"
Bee makes a snorting noise. "Megatron wouldn't have agreed to that."
"Would Sentinel have seen reason?," Bee asks.
More silence. Obviously, Prime needs to puzzle that one out.
Bee excuses himself. The Wreckers will need to make a server for the Cybertronians to host their website. He needs mugshots and profiles of everyone. PR is not easy.
"So, Optimus," Starscream interrupts Prime's funk. "What is it with the silent treatment?"
"I just needed to think," he says.
"Right. In the middle of a meeting."
He really shouldn't have spaced out like that.
"You're moping, not thinking," Starscream concludes. "What about? You can't be worried about desecration."
It's not something their species has qualms about. They have always recycled everything but spark chambers and memory cores. And as you learn in a war, dead mechs, as opposed to dead men, do tell tales.
"The Matrix," Optimus finally says. "He let me keep it. It's not making sense."
Starscream blinks. "Since when do madmechs need to make sense?"
"He was talking to me about godhood," Optimus snaps back. "I offered the fragging thing to him, and he refused. It doesn't make sense, unless he had doubts."
"You wish he had doubts?"
Of course Optimus wishes that. He shutters his optics.
"Maybe he hoped he could convince you to support him. He knew the Autobots accepted you as leader, and the Decepticons respect you."
"We always appreciate warriors who can kick aft. Sentinel was no such warrior. Backstabbing coward."
Optimus smiles despite himself. "The humans have this saying about pots and kettles."
"Oh, you!" Starscream stomps his foot, then sobers up. "I do like to pick my battles, I won't deny that. I might not be a tactician, but I'm a good enough dilettante to know when something is hopeless."
Optimus nods. This is why Starscream survived this long, and his troops with him.
"It is called the Matrix of Leadership, isn't it."
"Yes." He wonders what Starscream is getting at.
"Was he a great and wise leader? Compared to you?"
More questions Optimus cannot answer. "I'm not wise." He's never felt more uncertain than in the last two weeks.
"Maybe so." Starscream touches his shoulder for one fleeting nanosecond. "Neither was he. And none of them would have looked up to him as much as they do you."
It is safe to claim that Mikaela Banes has a bear hug. Also, Epps' wife would be jealous if she saw him now. The girl isn't dressing quite as skimpily as before, but still hot.
Mikaela lets go. "Thanks for picking me up. I'm surprised they let you off base long enough."
"Ratchet can't walk in here," he points out.
Another squeal. "He came!" She picks up her luggage – just an overnight bag – and storms off to the exit.
When they finally make it to the parking lot, she pats one rearview mirror. "Hey, grouch."
Epps shakes his head. Women.
If a degree weren't an absolute necessity for engineers, Mikaela would drop out of school and move to the Autobot base in a hurry. It's not like there is much left in Tranquility for her, except an aunt and some cousins who wouldn't want higher education if it were free.
She trails after Ratchet for a tour. The hangars look pitiful, and the stacks of parts outside are somehow, saddening. She's seen these parts as fully functioning ships on TV.
The Nemesis is pretty cool. Even though the mechs manning her are, well. Decepticons. Big hulks with red optics too small to look anything but evil. They stare at her, some nod at the introductions.
"I'll just convince them with my talent as a medic," she declares as they are outside again.
"I'm sure they'll learn to appreciate you," Ratchet says. "We have too few medics for the number of mechs we're expecting to arrive."
"Hmm. You mean more than the couple hundred already on planet?"
Ratch makes a humming noise, either because the info is classified or he's not sure. There are quite a lot of US soldiers about still. No surprise if he's not comfortable spilling plans to them. None of them are likely to have an Autobot sigil tattooed on their back.
"So… you mentioned something about hatchlings?"
"Yes. Up there. Barricade is watching them."
It's her turn to harrumph. Are-you-ladiesman217-Barricade. Not someone she would let look after any kids, that's for sure.
"They are not pretty, compared to your species' standards," Ratch says.
"I'm human-pretty enough for the entire base. No need for you to follow our completely arbitrary standards."
As they approach the little ones, Barricade, despite a lack of organic parts, eyeballs her.
"Hi," she says.
"I'd like to meet the hatchlings, please." Mikaela tries for a winning smile.
"I promise not to break them."
Barricade looks at Ratch as if trying to confirm that she is serious.
"She is a very skilled mechanic. She knows how to handle delicate things," Ratch says.
Barricade looks at her as if hoping to drill a hole into her head. "Very well, then."
Slowly, she approaches the kids. They mostly are thigh-high to her, all gangly limbs and comic-book optics. Currently, they are decorating a boulder with paint. The result is something she guesses a two year old would produce – big splotches, some simple patterns.
"Hi," she says.
The ones in her line of sight turn to look. Two scamper around the boulder to take a peek. With the way they bob her heads, they remind her of the baby raptors from Jurassic Park. If she were a lesser being, she would probably squeal. They are too cute for words.
"Can I help a bit?" She takes a couple more steps.
One of the biggest ones pads towards her. She holds out her hand, he takes it into his long spindly fingers and examines it. Holds it before his face, until Barricade spits something in Cybertronian.
"They might bite," Ratchet translates.
Mikaela frowns. "You mean, like our little kids have to see what everything tastes like?"
"Yes. We're hoping they'll outgrow that soon."
"That's okay. I'll watch out for it." They can probably break skin with their nibbles, as opposed to tooth-less babies. "What's his name?"
More Cybertronian from Barricade, then, "Intrigue."
"I can see that." She laughs. "So, kidlet, am I acceptable?"
Intrigue looks at her quizzically. He probably doesn't know any English.
"Why don't we see what you guys are making, hm?"
During the next hour, all fourteen poke at her, then she teaches them to leave hand prints and generally makes a mess of her clothes.
The soldiers look at her very oddly when she turns up for dinner.
Ratchet is waiting for Mikaela outside the mess tent. He's been standing there for a few minutes, listening to her waxing poetic about how cute the hatchlings are.
Eventually, she wanders outside. "Hey," she says. "Wanna go for a walk?"
It's a good idea. Ratchet offers a hand and she accepts the lift to his shoulder. For a while, she just clings to some kibble while he strives to put some distance between them and the camp. On a hill, he stops and turns so she can look at the base.
"So… how are you?"
"I keep busy. It helps."
"Hmm." She strokes his armor. "It's easier to forget the loneliness then."
Yes. "Why leave Sam?"
She sighs. "I don't do romance, Ratchet. I can fake it well enough. I mean, everything seems to be about romance these days, I just have to mimic. But. Something in my brain is broken."
He takes the time to do a scan. "Your neurotransmitter levels are in acceptable ranges for women your age."
Mikaela chuckles. "Thanks. I needed that. I still don't know what being in love really feels like. I get sex, and I get love, but not the butterfly in the stomach sensation. Or the possessiveness that comes with romantic relationships."
This is odd.
"Remember what you told me about Starscream, Skywarp and Thundercracker? About being trinemates. That's what I want when I think about the future. I don't have it in me to be a wife. A mother, maybe, but not a wife."
Ratchet hums. "I gather this is not an acceptable behavior for humans."
"No. No, it's not." She takes a breath. "Loving Sam and sleeping with him at the same time didn't compute for me. I felt… smothered. Having to be everything for him when he wasn't for me. I found myself ogling other guys. Then the adrenaline from Egypt faded and I wondered what the hell I was doing. So I left."
Ratchet rumbles a assent. "I suppose such reasoning wouldn't have computed for Sam."
Another giggle, slightly off. "Like I said. It's not something our culture allows for. There's not even a word in English for that trine kind of relationship." For a while, she is silent. "Why did you never tell him?"
"I –" Grief digs claws into his spark and squeezes. It hurts. "I'm a coward, Mikaela."
"You're not." She reaches out a hand and strokes the side of his helm. "You both were pretty abrasive. Did you ever have reason to think he felt the same?"
Really? "No. But then, I was very good at hiding my own feelings."
"I'm sorry." The hand continues stroking. "I know what it's like to be acting so much it becomes second nature."
They are silent until the moon rises, then Ratchet returns Mikaela to the tent she shares with the few female soldiers on base.
Carly and Sam step outside airport, waiting for Bee to pick them up. It's not even ten in the morning, but already blazing hot, nearly a hundred degrees.
"You'd move here? For them?" Carly asks.
"Not to the base." Sam digs around for his sunglasses. "I'm too much of a city slicker for that. But Vegas? If you agreed."
She offers a little smile. "I think I could live with Vegas."
"Great." It's not decided yet, Sam is well aware, and it all depends on Carly finding work here.
They keep silent until Bee drives up and chirps at them.
"Hi, Bumblebee." Carly pats his door.
They climb in, Bee pulls onto the road.
"Everything going well with the Decepticons?" Sam asks eventually, just to break the oppressive silence. They are driving to a funeral, after all. Making light-hearted conversation seems somewhat wrong.
"'s okay," a sound clip proclaims.
"I'm sorry, Bee. I wish…" Sam trails off. "I wish I would have figured it out better. Sooner."
"Not your fault." Another sound clip.
Sam smiles. Better than 'The Unforgiven' by Metallica, he supposes. "Well. It feels as if it was my fault."
"You're not the only one." This time, Bee is using a bit of song lyrics.
"Guess every 'Bot on that base is guilt-tripping, huh."
"It's Sentinel's fault," Carly declares eventually. "His delusions of grandeur. His betrayal. He went behind everything he was supposed to believe in. None of you made that decision for him."
She's right, of course she is right. "I know that," Sam agrees. "Doesn't change the fact that I feel I could have done something differently, too."
Carly stares at him, and he is reminded again of how very few life-altering decisions she had to make, compared to him. That she's not lugging around heaping helpings of regret. Not Optimus dying, not Maggie and Glen nearly being offed by Frenzy, not having deprived the 'Bots of their major means of reproduction. Carly also doesn't have bits of Cybertronian data floating around in her head, disjointed knowledge of times past that isn't really much help when it comes to plain old survival.
"Well," Carly says eventually, as if she knows what Sam is thinking. "Don't you think I regret working for Dylan? I still feel I should have seen what an asshole he was."
"Hmm," Sam agrees. It's not on the same scale, but, well. Arguing it out who had it worse will not help.
Bee is silent on the matter, so the conversation tapers off once more.
They call it a wake, not a funeral.
Will found the terminology funny, until Ironhide explained it one day, shortly after Mission City.
Once, long before the war, dead mechs would be laid out in their home for a Cybertronian week, so everyone who knew them could come by and pay their respects. There would be energon and conversation. Finally, a medic would come by, collect the body and leave an urn with the spark chamber and memory core.
Given that Ironhide's remains are still infectious material for the mechs, there is a coffin lined with lead instead, and because they're lacking a house, they are holding it outside, in front of the hill that is going to serve as a tomb.
Apart from Will's team, there are a few other humans in attendance. Sam and Carly, and Mikaela, of course. Maggie and Glen. Director Mearing. The ex-Sec Def John Keller. Simmons. Sam's old roomie Leo. A couple of journalists who look like they feel very much out of place, among the giants and those who aren't afraid to be stepped on by them.
Starscream and Barricade both have turned up for Ironhide's wake. The bots don't seem to mind – it's about paying respect, after all.
Eventually, Prime steps up and delivers a speech in Cybertronian. It sounds ritual in parts, and at the end, the attending mechs all mutter a couple sentences along.
"We are here today," Prime finally switches to English, "to remember Ironhide. Weapons specialist extraordinaire. Caretaker. I'm sure I wasn't the only one here he taught how to shoot, though I would bet that I'm the only one who ever argued the necessity. In the end, I gave in. Who am I to order troops to fight, if I'm not willing to pick up a gun at all? Who am I to claim pacifism and sit back while my people die?" An electronic sigh. "Sometimes I believe I listened too well."
Prime turns, goes down on one knee in front of the coffin, and touches a hand to it.
Eventually, he rises, to be followed by a procession of mechs. Ratchet, who doesn't say anything at all, just kneels, his every part telling of regret. Bee, who also keeps uncharacteristically silent. Sideswipe shares a story about a prank gone wrong. Another memory from Dino. Mikaela, who says, "he not only taught me to shoot, he also taught me to aim always ten inches behind where you're hitting." After that, she ambles over to Ratchet, and puts a hand on his shin. Odd, but it almost seems like he is leaning on her.
More people, until Will can't possible put it off any longer. "Bud," he says. Whatever more words he has laid out in his head, they don't want to emerge. "I'm sorry," he finally manages, and flees.
Carly tugs at Sam's arm, once the bots have carried the coffin into the tomb.
"Can't we leave now?" She makes hopeful big eyes at him.
"So I killed him once."
Carly raises an eyebrow, then pointedly stares over to where Mikaela is still hugging Ratchet.
"I'm not here for the view," Sam tries to explain. "Megatron has been one scary opponent, and, well. It's just right to see this through to the end."
A sigh, but she gives in, clinging to his hand while all the D'cons emerge from the Nemesis.
Prime does his Cybertronian speech again – Will knows very little spoken Cybertronian vocabulary, but on this second run can guess at the religious undertone, about the Well, and Primus, and forgiveness. The big guy doesn't offer anything in English this time. Like Will and Ratchet before, he seems to be too caught up in regret to be coherent.
Starscream is next. He stares down at the urn for a bit, then says, "Hate, like love, is an attracting force. It's safe to claim that we both knew that. I have waited too long for this day."
And he stalks off.
He returns later to see Shockwave and Soundwave off, being a quiet, brooding presence in the background, while others say their bits. Apart from Starscream, Barricade and Thundercracker, none of the Cons bother to make their announcements in English.
There's a big dinner later. Sam comes over to talk to him and Epps, asking about the construction efforts. Wheelie and Brains arrive to annoy everyone and provide comic relief in the process. Carly hits it off with Maggie and, thankfully, Mikaela isn't there. The future medic has left with Ratchet for a walk, no doubt those two have a lot of catching up to do.
Mikaela has by now learned to take Ratchet's silences. She sits on his shoulder, a small, warm, comforting presence, and lets him wallow in peace while they watch the sunset, again.
Eventually, she starts humming, some kind of blues, and it takes him a while to find the lyrics. Sad, not quite fitting, and yet. "Do you know where the train is going?" he asks.
"Do any of us?" Mikaela chuckles, then he can feel her straighten up and sober. "I don't know if I'm on the right track, though, with school. I don't need the degree to be your apprentice, do I?"
Ratchet resets his audios. "You wish to abandon your education?" For me?, he doesn't add.
"I… look, I just can't sit in class, living the easy college live, when you need help with all the new mechs, and there are hatchlings to raise and…," she trails off. "I don't know. You're my family, and it just feels wrong not to be here. There are correspondence courses. I wouldn't be exactly abandoning my education, just doing it in a different order."
"For me." He needs to hear this, and fears it at the same time.
He can sense her shrug. "You're trine. Family. I need to be here for you and for myself, too. You'd do the same, or at least you'd try to."
"Are you certain… it is not romantic? What if I ever decide to pursue a mate?"
Mikaela harrumphs. "I won't go celibate over this, either."
"But your primary relationship would be with me, and mine not with you."
"Trines aren't made up of two people, neither are families. My affections might shift, or include others. Who knows? I don't think I'll have reason to be jealous, if we manage to talk things out on a regular basis, not just assume."
Ratchet clicks and lets it all settle. He can't tell what it all means. He does know, however, that he desperately needs a friend to relate to, someone who will not judge or will reprioritize the friendship without alerting him to the changes. He also knows that he does like teaching.
"It would be an honor to have you as my apprentice."
Mikaela sighs. "Thanks."
Optimus finds Starscream staring at the crypt, late in the night. "You made the headlines," he says.
Starscream doesn't visibly react. "I am aware, thank you."
"Was it your intention?"
"For once, I was not trying to usurp the limelight." Starscream sounds amused. "Though I won't deny my propensity for drama. Nor the fact that cameras seem to love me."
"So you are now here for the less dramatic part?"
An electronic snort. "Not at all." Starscream raises a hand to his shoulders, and nudges something in the shadows. It gives a small chirp.
Starscream has brought hatchlings. Optimus focuses his sensors, and finds two of the little ones. Their signatures nearly vanish in Starscream's fields, so much so that they have to be his spark-children.
"I dare say that this visit is much more headline-worthy than the one earlier," Starscream finally explains.
"Imagine. I not only was in a relationship with my commander that turned sour, I also cheated on him and managed to hide the evidence."
"You're here for their other creator?"
Starscream shifts his weight. "We weren't close. However, he was also more to me than I can publicly acknowledge."
Finally, Starscream looks at him. "If Primus is willing." Again, his hand raises to caress one of the sparklings. "They deserve to know of him and their siblings."
Soundwave. It has to be. "You should claim them."
"Once things have calmed down. Once I know where I stand with the planetside troops."
They share a moment of silence.
"I am sorry, you know," Starscream offers eventually.
"Megatron put quite the effort into the courtship. If I'd stopped to think about what I actually appreciated in him, if I'd just paid more attention, listened to Jetfire less…"
"Don't," Prime begs. "It's useless, and…"
Starscream tilts his head. "And what?"
"I don't want to hope for things I've already lost."
He must have sounded more tortured than he thought, because Starscream peers at him intently. "You do? Hope, that is?"
Optimus can't move suddenly. Not even to nod.
"There is a proscribed mourning period," Starscream says. "It would be remiss of a Lord Protector not to observe it."
"I understand." Optimus lowers his gaze. It's going to be a long time before anything happens, then.
"Do you?" A clawed hand enters Optimus' field of vision, entreating. Optimus takes it and squeezes. Starscream squeezes back, then raises their joined hands to brush a kiss over Optimus' knuckles. Almost, you can hear the static crackle with pent up desire. "One vorn until I can announce a decision about making things formal. Use it well."
"Yes." Optimus wants to grab and to hold on forever, but steadies himself. Starscream is not one to adhere to societal standards unless it suits him. The mourning period, it is Starscream's way to say he needs time before making another serious commitment. Time he didn't take the first time around. The waiting will be pitfire, and yet so utterly worth it.
For further information about what Mikaela is and isn't feeling, the search term is "aromantic".