War Without End: Ratchet

Part Six


Prime's visits to the medcorner are few and far in between. He seems to avoid any opportunity to be within range of Ratchet's scanners as though he has something to hide. And maybe he does. Ratchet hasn't had a chance to do a thorough check up on his leader, not since fixing and reattaching his arm after the battle of Chicago.

And he certainly hasn't had the opportunity to check Prime's spark integrity or the functioning of his processor. Any other mech and Ratchet would have already dragged them in, strapped them down to the berth, and forced them into good health. He doesn't have that option with Prime, and with Ironhide gone, there's no one to help Ratchet wrestle him into submission.

Prime enters the medcorner with evident reluctance, optics skipping from the stacks of disorganized crates, the line of cleaned surgical equipment, and the pathetic facilities that have been given to Ratchet for his use. Personally, Ratchet's seen slum clinics that are better equipped than his allotted corner.

"Ratchet," Prime greets. "How's our new arrival?"

He resists the urge to give his commanding officer an incredulous look. "Settling in. He's a quiet one, thank Primus."

"Mmm. That reserve may be part of the problem," Prime muses aloud, referring perhaps, to the fact that none of the Autobots have warmed up to Drift in the week since his arrival.

One wonders why.

Ratchet lowers the datapad he'd been skimming.

"Drift isn't a spy."

"You're certain?"

"Being an Autobot or Decepticon is a choice," Ratchet retorts, staring at Prime, who doesn't look well to be honest about it. The mech's in need of a good wash and wax, his gears are making noises indicating ill maintenance, and Prime is... twitchy. "Isn't that what we told Wheelie?"

Prime's helm turns toward Ratchet. His optics spiral out and in, like he's having trouble focusing.

"Deadlock was a fearsome opponent. A sparkless killer."

"Deadlock doesn't exist anymore."

Can he get away with a subtle scan? Would Prime notice?

"That remains to be seen." Prime waves a dismissing hand and focuses on Ratchet again, with an eerie intensity. "You've been troubled, my friend."

Ratchet's spark gives a lurch of discombobulation. From suspicion to concern, he's not sure what to do with this unbalanced Prime.

"My spark is mourning."

"Of course. We all mourn. There is much we have lost." Prime might as well be reading a newsreel for all the inflection he's putting into his words.

Maybe there's a rationale behind Ratchet's suspicions.

"You keep saying that the war is over. I don't know how to believe that."

"What do you mean?" Prime's energy field reaches out with a tentative brush of concern probably meant to be comforting, but it succeeds only in making Ratchet uneasy.

He takes a step back. "Cybertron is destroyed as is the Allspark. We have no home, no future..." Ratchet drops the datapad onto his desk with a clatter, spark giving another painful lurch. "What's the point?"

"Earth-"

His head whips toward Prime, cutting off the empty reassurance.

"-is not the same."

It doesn't feel like home. And it never will. Not to Ratchet, and now, he knows, not to Drift either.

But Prime... He wants to believe it. Ratchet can see it in Prime's optics. He's convincing himself with every fabric of his being, maybe even writing it into his very coding. Prime wants Earth to be home. Desperately, almost madly so. Blinding himself to the humans' disdain, to the fact Earth could never really support them in the long run, to the irreconcilable truth that their species is on the slippery slope to extinction.

Ratchet shutters his optics. "We have no future, but we slay any Decepticon who shows his face. What happened to us? What have we become?"

His vocals are soft, a true confession, but he fears they've fallen on offline audials.

Prime's faceplate molds into a passable display of disappointment.

"They would never lay down arms, Ratchet. War is all they know. War, battle, and death."

And Ratchet realizes with his own wave of discontent, all the Autobots know as well. They fight because they don't know any different. They kill because they've forgotten the line between defense and offense. They war because grudges are stronger than hope, and a battle for ideals has turned into a fight to the death between us and them.

Ratchet is no better than the rest. He's turned his back on his vows as a medic. He claims to be a pacifist, but he has a running tally in his processor of his kill count, the designations he knows and the nameless sparks ended by his own hands. His medic coding is slashed to glitched ribbons.

This war is never going to end. Not until every last Cybertronian is dead. There will be one mech standing, an Autobot or a Decepticon, and he won't have the spark left to mourn.

Is there any hope for change left?

"But what if they did, Prime?" Ratchet asks, desperate for Prime to see the same realizations that are starting to haunt him. "What if, by some miracle of Primus, a Decepticon puts down his blaster and asks for a truce?"

Prime shifts, uncomfortable.

"The humans-"

"Slag them!" Ratchet's hands slam onto his desk, rattling the contents, sending a tool crashing to the floor. "Why is it their choice? Why are the humans deciding our fate?"

"This is their planet."

Prime's vocals are calm, rational. So at odds with his own thinking, and he can't even see it.

His placidity only rankles Ratchet further.

"Then let us leave!" he demands, frustration coloring his tone. He whirls toward his Prime, hand slicing through the air. "There's nothing for us here, Prime. No reason to linger!"

"The Decepticons-"

"The war is over!" Ratchet near-shouts.

His coding screams at him for daring to cut off his Prime, to raise his voice. Where is his subservience?

Prime straightens to his full height, which towers well over Ratchet's own. His optics a blue flash of disapproval.

"Ratchet," he says, harmonics layering his words with rebuke. "Earth is our home now. We'll defend it as such."

No.

Ratchet draws back, as though physically wounded.

No. Earth is to be their grave. They left a dying Cybertron so they could all deactivate somewhere else.

And Ratchet will find himself dumped in the ocean with the rest of the dead Cybertronians one day. His frame rusting and corroded by salt water, his coding torn to ribbons. He'll offline a medic with energon staining his hands. He'll die a traitor to his spark's calling.

The realization strikes him then like a jolt to his logic circuit.

Ratchet can argue with Prime until his systems overheat, but he'll never be heard. He can debate the urgency for making peace with the Decepticons, point out all the reasons the humans will never accept them as kin, and it won't matter.

Ratchet could draw up a diagram, fill up a datapad, or put on a presentation. But it won't matter in the end. Optimus Prime has closed his audials to anything but his own fractured hope.

No. Not Prime. Not really. He's Optimus now. That dead, useless relic nestled snugly next to his spark chamber doesn't mean a fragged thing.

Prime is broken somehow. Like the rest of them. Changed since Jazz's death and irreparably shattered after Chicago. Destroying his brother and mentor must have been the last blow.

Earth is his last hope. He can't see anything else beyond it.

Ratchet's helm dips. He ventilates quietly, resigned.

"You are Prime," he says and ignores the strange crawling sensation in his frame. The way his processor tics, coding contradictory. "You see hope where I cannot."

Hands land on Ratchet's shoulders, his energy field washing over the medic in a dank, cloying flood.

"Time is the great healer, old friend."

Ratchet flinches. It sounds so trite. Mechanical. Like he doesn't even believe his own propaganda anymore.

Ratchet nods, stripped of words. This mech is a stranger to him, a mech he no longer knows.

Or maybe Ratchet's the one to blame. Maybe he's the one who has changed.

His commander leaves a moment later, his comforting duty done for the day. One of the soldiers calls for him, and after a gentle pat, he makes himself scarce. He walks away, helm held high, a mech lost to his own delusion.

Only when he's out of scanning range does Ratchet let the shudder free, rattling his frame from crest to pede. He feels the strangest urge to scrub himself down, take heavy bristles to his plating where Optimus had touched him.

What now, medic?

o0o0o

Days pass. Then weeks. A month goes by and Ratchet's existence settles into a monotonous pattern of death and disappointment.

The Autobots continue to hunt down the surviving Decepticons, a task that gets easier with each passing day as the lone 'Cons get weaker and weaker from hunger. Teams are sent out constantly, cleaning up the mess from Sentinel's failed attempt to enslave the human population.

Ratchet snorts inelegantly at the thought. The whole plot never made much sense to him. Taking control of Earth for their natural resources, sure. But enslaving the human race? What can a mere human do that a Cybertronian cannot?

Sentinel's plan had reeked of desperation. Unfortunately, Ratchet can relate.

The Autobots bring Ratchet back bodies of dead 'Cons to be stripped for useful parts. He'll probably be able to make Sideswipe one-hundred percent now. Bee doesn't want anything to do with a 'Con vocalizer. Dino's grateful for the new circuits for his arm.

Pretty soon, the humans will be making another drop for a special ocean burial.

Ratchet's learned his lesson from Thundercracker. When no one's looking, he pries at the paint on the Decepticons' main sigils. He collects ident chips, stores them in a little box in his subspace.

Hundreds of mechs had been hiding on the moon, in a special stasis, waiting for the call from Sentinel. They've only managed to hunt down and kill half of those by Ratchet's count.

It's good for their alliance with the humans, Ratchet supposes.

And when Optimus runs out of 'Cons to slaughter, what then? What will bear the force of his grief and anger? Megatron is gone, for certain this time. There's no shard of the Allspark to bring him back to roaring insanity. He's searching endlessly for a battle he's already won several times over.

Two more arrivals turn out to be Decepticons. Prime and Mearing agree to shoot them down without a single protest. Ratchet doesn't even learn about it until after the fact because he'd been out in the field, participating in more rebuilding efforts.

Thundercracker and Skywarp tell him their designations, and Ratchet files away their identities. One day, he tells himself, he'll have to stand before Primus with all of this energon on his hands.

The only bright spot is that Ratchet's Seekers are fully recovered. Both of them are healed enough that they could fly anywhere they wanted, if the threat of being shot out of the sky wasn't so prevalent. Besides, as Thundercracker has asked so many times, where would they go, just the two of them?

Not that their current existence is any better. They're surviving. It's all any of them can do right now. Ratchet included.

He spends time with Drift. Maybe it's because only Drift understands and it's so hard to get away to see the Seekers. Maybe it's because they have a genuine connection in their sanity. Either way, no else seems at all interested in joining them. They don't think much of it though, and the only time Drift blips on their radar is when they feel like reminding everyone that he's a Decepticon traitor.

At least the cleanup in Chicago has reached the point where an Autobot presence is no longer required. They've recovered every last bit of Cybertronian tech – to the best of their knowledge anyway – and there's been talk of shipping the Autobots to a more permanent base. Something better equipped, like the one Sentinel had destroyed.

Ratchet's not involved in the decision-making. Lennox is the one who tells him about the relocation. Prime's been otherwise occupied. Ratchet's the second-in-command, but it's an empty title. Sort of like his position as the Chief Medical Officer of the Autobots. Hard to be the chief when he's the only one left. Who the frag does he command?

"Ever get the feeling you're not wanted?"

Ratchet tilts his helm, glancing over at Drift. They really do spend a lot of time together now. Understandable, considering that the other Autobots treat him as though he carries cosmic rust and the humans look at him as if he's a 'Con in Autobot colors.

"And I'm not talking about me personally," Drift clarifies, almost absently, as he sorts through a crate of assorted supplies.

Frankly, if Drift continues to make sense out of the madness that's Ratchet's disorganized medcorner, then the mech can spend all the time around Ratchet that he wants. His leader has luckily recognized that the only mech willing to tolerate Drift is Ratchet; therefore, Drift spends the entirety of his duty shifts in the medcorner as well. Or sent out on errands for the resident medic. Just little things to keep him away from the other bots.

Ratchet turns his attention back to his datapad. Where he is currently comparing the supply requisitions he submitted against what he was actually given.

"It's hard to argue the need for an alliance without a clear and present threat."

Drift makes a disbelieving sound. "Sounds like an excuse to me."

Ratchet can't argue. He doesn't bother to try. He feels like he's defending something he doesn't believe himself anymore.

"They don't want us here," Drift continues, though he switches to Cybertronian and lowers his vocals, as if fearing to be overheard. A logical concern considering their current location. "They don't care what we gave up for them. And if we don't give them what they really want, our usefulness is done."

Ratchet crosses the scrap metal off his list. "Some of them are grateful."

Lennox, certainly. And Epps. Samuel. There are others, too. Members of NEST. The people of Chicago they managed to save and pull from the debris. Strangers all around the world who aren't quite so xenophobic and have more open minds to the Autobot presence. Ratchet should know; he's seen the fansites.

"The majority aren't. And one thing I've learned over the eons, the majority dictates everything." Drift pauses, reconsidering as he pulls out a handful of tangled bits of wire. "The majority or those with more credits."

Again, Ratchet can only concede Drift's point. The former 'Con is being unusually verbose today. Ratchet is more than willing to encourage this. Being that disconnected from his fellow Cybertronians... It's simply unhealthy. It's enough to drive the sanest mechs mad, and Ratchet's seen enough of Drift to know the mech isn't all there to begin with.

"They haven't learned at all. Not even after Chicago. We gave up everything. And what do we have to show for it?" Drift frowns, tossing the ball of twined wire over his shoulder toward his discard pile.

"Prime made the only choice he could."

"I'm not talking about the past. I'm talking about right now. What else do we have to give? When will it stop?" Drift braces himself on the crate, shoulders hunched. "How many more of us have to die?"

"Am I interrupting something?"

Both Ratchet and Drift whirl toward the medcorner doorway, finding Lennox standing in the aperture, looking up at them with a faint frown. He's carrying a sheaf of papers as well.

Ratchet smoothly intervenes, though Lennox couldn't have understood any of the conversation. He owes this man and considers him a true friend. If there are any humans he wants Drift to actually like, this would be the one.

"Just a discussion. Did you need something, Colonel?"

Besides, Lennox may know of Ratchet's betrayal, but Drift doesn't. Ratchet needs to keep it that way. He can't trust Drift completely. Not just yet.

Lennox doesn't look convinced, his eyes trekking to Drift and remaining. The white mech has returned to digging through his crate though.

"I do need a minute of your time, Ratchet. I need your opinion on a couple of... strays I found."

Oh.

"Certainly." Ratchet turns to his assistant. "Drift, would you excuse us?"

Drift is the master of controlling his expressions, but Ratchet is the master of reading subtleties. Drift is curious, but he doesn't ask. He simply inclines his head and leaves, probably to find a quiet corner in which to sharpen his sword and meditate. He does that a lot, meditating that is. Though come to think of it, he sharpens his sword a lot, too.

At least, it's a quiet hobby. Unlike Sides' penchant for causing mayhem. Or Jazz being himself. Or Ironhide and his-

No. Too raw.

Ratchet forcefully disengages his thought patterns and shifts them toward Lennox. He steps further into the medcorner, lowering his voice.

"We got a problem." His fingers crinkle his papers loudly.

"I see." Ratchet drops into alt-mode, swinging open his driver's side door. "Let's talk."

Lennox accepts the invitation, and Ratchet slowly takes them out of the warehouse, sending Prime a quick databurst full of lies. Off to do some reconnaissance with Lennox, one last sweep of the city.

"Tell me," Ratchet says, once they are out of range of human ears and beyond sight of Autobot optics. A quick dampening field takes care of mech audials, and the only two bots on Earth truly capable of hacking Ratchet's systems both lie at the bottom of the Laurentian Abyss. Autobot and Decepticon together in death.

No. Best not to think of that either.

"Something weird's going on in Africa," Lennox starts without any preamble. He leans against the door, staring out the window. The lack of eye contact always seems to bother the humans.

"What do you mean?"

Lennox crumples the papers a bit more. "That's just it. I don't know. But it's something Cybertronian. Got enough energon detectors that can't decide what's what."

Ratchet's processor starts flagging possibilities. Bots coming in quietly, somehow slipping past the human's skynet?

"You got a file?"

Lennox pulls out his Blackberry. "Sending it now."

Ratchet waits patiently, scanning the area for a suitable place for them to stop and have their chat. His HUD chimes when the file arrives, and Ratchet unpacks the information, scanning it. Energon detectors are flagging incidences, but they come and go, fading in and out. False readings?

No. Not at all.

The detectors simply aren't calibrated for this particular type of energon. Diluted in potency but packed with necessary nutrients, all the metals and materials a growing protoform might need to develop.

Fraggit all to the pit and into the Unmaker's embrace.

"Has Prime been told?"

Lennox shakes his head. "I'm not even supposed to know."

Ratchet curses internally, a shudder passing through his frame. The humans have found the hatchlings, and they don't even know it. They don't seem intent on informing the Autobots either. He can only imagine what they'll do once they realize what their devices are telling them.

"Is it Decepticons?"

"You could say that." Ratchet turns off of the main road and down a side street, one that will dump them at the edge of a local park. "They're hatchlings."

Lennox sits up straight, staring at the steering wheel. "Hatchlings... Babies? You mean robot babies?"

"Close enough." Ratchet mutters another vile invective. "That must've been where Megatron was hiding them. Fraggit."

"Wait a minute." Lennox holds up a hand. "How do you have robot babies without the Allspark. Thought you needed it?"

Ratchet pulls to a stop at the park and swings open his door, prompting Lennox to exit so that he can return to his root mode.

"They're sparkless. Drones with a higher capacity for intelligence and bare emotional protocols but no sense of morality or even true life as you'd understand it. Soulless, I suppose," Ratchet explains as he pulls up a piece of broken building for a chair, and Lennox parks himself on top of a picnic table. "The Allspark would've made them truly sapient."

Lennox is quiet, staring down at his clasped hands. "They're Decepticons."

"No. They can't make that decision for themselves." Ratchet ventilates noisily, lifting his gaze to the sky above. It's is a dull grey, threatening storms. "Slag, but I can't get to Africa."

Frustration makes his plating rattle. In this moment, he can understand the need for a flight mode. He envies his Seekers.

"What?"

Ratchet redirects his optics to Lennox. "What do you think Mearing will do once she figures out what they are?"

Human eyes widen, hands clenching into fists. Lennox has a daughter, a child. That changes most beings.

"She'll kill them."

"Or worse."

"Shit." Lennox sucks in a breath, and Ratchet can pick up the sound of his heartbeat increasing. "We have to warn Prime. She's not going to tell him either. I know she isn't."

Ratchet grits his denta. The thought of telling Optimus had never crossed his processor. Informing the Seekers, yes. Finding a way to Africa, yes. But telling his superior officer, his Prime? No.

"Ratchet?"

He stiffens.

"William, I am not certain telling Prime would matter."

Lennox stares. "They're babies. He wouldn't kill them."

"Hatchlings," Ratchet corrects. "Prime can't see anything beyond the Decepticon symbol anymore. More than that, he wouldn't act without Mearing's approval. He's made that quite clear to me already."

"But..."

"I can't accurately predict how Prime will choose anymore," Ratchet adds gently, his spark giving a flicker of disappointment. "And that very uncertainty makes me all the more confident that I can't tell him."

He no longer trusts Optimus to do what's right. Such a realization feels like acid on his spark. Once, Ratchet would have followed Prime to the pits and back because he believed. He believed that Prime had the right path. Prime and the Autobots both.

Now... now, Ratchet isn't sure what he believes.

Now, he has two Decepticon Seekers that he's protecting from the Autobots. He's watching his own kind get shot out of the skies by a species younger than his left aftplate. He's watching his Prime kowtow to the natives without a second thought to the survival or continuance of his own kind.

"He wouldn't kill them!" Lennox argues.

How pathetic is it that Lennox sounds far more certain of this than Ratchet?

He looks down at the small human, who has the kind of expression young ones of all species do when an adult is telling them that their favorite story is nothing more than just that. A story. That Primus is just a sparkling tale. That Santa Clause is a figment of a child's dream. That brave, strong, and honorable Optimus Prime is fallible and not as noble as they all believe.

That sometimes, Primes can break, too.

The Fallen did, after all. And he was once the best of them.

"Maybe he would; maybe he wouldn't," Ratchet concedes, all too gently, because it hurts to see the faith in Lennox when Ratchet knows he's lost his own. "But if it came down to a choice between the hatchlings and the human's favor, I don't know what Prime will do."

It hurts to admit, but it's the truth.

Lennox sits back heavily, the picture of defeat.

"This isn't right."

"William, nothing's been right in my world since the first mech died on my operating table and the first time I killed one of my kind to save my life," the medic replies with exasperation.

There's a chance now. A small one, mind. But a chance nonetheless. He can save these lives, if any of them have survived this long.

Lennox's hands flex over his knees. "What can we do?"

"Everything that we can." Ratchet raps his fingers over a thigh panel. "I'm going to contact Thundercracker and Skywarp. Together, we'll all come up with a plan."

He comms the Seekers using their encrypted channel, then sets up a relay so that Lennox can join in the conversation. Thundercracker is most likely to take this seriously, so Ratchet pings him first.

"Thundercracker."

A long moment passes where Ratchet gets no response. He frowns, pinging the Seeker again. And just for good measure, pings Skywarp as well. Had something happened?

"You rang?" Skywarp chirps, all too cheerily.

His trinemate responds with a much groggier, "This had better be important."

Ah, Thundercracker must have been in recharge. It explains the delay. Also, it would be logical if the Seekers recharged in shifts.

"It is," Ratchet answers with equal curtness. "Lennox has brought information that's simultaneously worrisome and encouraging."

"I'm listening," Thundercracker replies, sounding more alert now.

Skywarp clicks with curiosity. "Good and bad news, huh? Are we going to have to move again?"

"Perhaps."

Ratchet shifts his attention to Lennox, who's listening intently to the dialogue between the three. Ratchet had purposefully spoken in English.

"NEST technicians have been picking up strange readings in Africa. Energon readings," Lennox explains, hesitating for a moment before continuing. "Ratchet tells me that they are indicative of hatchlings."

A second of silence passes before Thundercracker and Skywarp try to both speak at once.

"You found them?"

"Are they alive?"

"What do you mean the squishies found them?"

"Does Prime know?"

"He'll kill them!"

Ratchet winces, the two Seeker's voices nearly indistinguishable as they pepper him with questions.

"At this point," he says, a touch loudly, to get their attention, "we are certain Prime has no knowledge of them. Only the humans, which doesn't make them any less in danger. And there's no telling how long it will take before Prime learns of their existence."

"Ratchet," Thundercracker says, his voice unrelenting. "You may hold illusions about the honor of your Prime, but Skywarp and I do not. He'll kill them if only because they're Decepticon in design."

"I'm not unaware of this, Thundercracker." Ratchet glances at Lennox, gauging the human's feelings on the matter, but for once, Lennox's face is devoid of expression. "We contacted you in order to discuss our next move."

"You said the humans found them?" Skywarp inserts.

"They found something," Lennox corrects. "But I guarantee that they're going to send someone to investigate, and I'm pretty sure Prime isn't going to know a thing about it. Prime might hesitate, but my boss won't. She's starting to trust the Autobots but unknown entities? Not a chance."

Skywarp mutters an invective into the transmission. "How long do you think we have?"

"A couple days. Maybe a week if she's trying to be sneaky, which I suspect she will."

Ratchet's fingers rap across his plating again. It's a nervous habit he thought he'd defeated quite a long time ago.

"Then we don't have much time. We have to get there, figure out if any of the sparklings survived, and do that before the humans get a team together."

"We can't leave them there either," Thundercracker says musingly. "They are indefensible, and we won't have access to energon converters."

"No," Ratchet agrees, realization pouring through him and setting his spark aflame, his coding twitching. "No, we can't."

Lennox stares at him. "Even if you do find some alive, there's no way that we can hide this, Ratchet. Moving the Seekers was different. This..."

He shakes his head, words failing him.

Thundercracker easily picks up the slack. "Do you realize what it is you're suggesting? What act you are committing yourself to?"

"Nothing worse than I've already done. And it is something I should have done a long time ago."

He's betrayed his Prime in more ways than he can count. This would only be the final twist of the wrench.

"You won't be able to go back," Skywarp warns, and he actually sounds sad.

Ratchet huffs loudly. "I gave up that option from the moment I pulled your sorry frames out of the rubble. But all of this is moot if none of the hatchlings survived."

"Then that's our first point of business," Lennox insists. "We need to get you to Africa, Ratchet. Somehow."

Thundercracker's contemplative hum resonates through Ratchet's speakers. "The human is right. We cannot make firmer plans without knowing what we're dealing with."

"He can't do it alone," Skywarp adds with a surprising amount of logic. "Flight by Seeker isn't exactly subtle though."

"I'm certain I can construct a reason to scout in Africa," Ratchet grunts, processor already drawing up several plausible lies. "Prime will send me with a team."

"Perhaps I might volunteer for this mission then."

It takes several embarrassing seconds for Ratchet to realize that the offer doesn't come from Lennox, Skywarp, or Thundercracker. The voice is familiar to him but not an individual who should be privy to this conversation.

In a flash, Ratchet whirls. He scoops up Lennox with one hand, ignoring the man's shouted protest, and his free hand shifts to his blaster. Battle systems surge into alert, targeting the lone mech standing at the edge of the park, hands spread and palms up, indicating his intentions.

Drift.

Had the bot followed him?

"Drift," Ratchet growls and ignores the demanding pings both Seekers are sending at him. He's already cut off the relay so that only he can hear them. "What the frag are you doing here?"

"Following you," the white mech responds with his usual bland tone. "I haven't reported this conversation to Prime. Nor do I intend to."

Ratchet refuses to lower his weapons, though his spark surges within him. Drift could ruin everything, and Ratchet can't have that. The lives of the sparklings are on the line, along with William's career and his family. Ratchet's own life. The lives of the Seekers.

"Why wouldn't you?" Ratchet demands. He doesn't know that he can trust Drift, no matter how much their hopes for the future seem to coincide.

Drift remains calm, hands still showing a willingness for peace. "Because we want the same things."

Lennox squirms in Ratchet's free hand. Much like an unruly sparkling.

"Ratchet, put me down!" he hisses.

Ratchet ignores him. He can better protect Lennox if the man is in reach.

"And that would be?"

"An end to the war." Drift's energy field trickles outward, a bare brush of sensation against Ratchet's own. "Peace perhaps. A home."

Ratchet makes a fair approximation of a snort. "Earth is our home."

"You don't believe that any more than I do." Drift arches an orbital ridge, looking pointedly at the crumpled remains of Chicago around them.

Shifting his weight, Ratchet's aim doesn't waver. His cooling fans kick on with an audible whine, battle systems sending his systems into overdrive.

"It's that easy for you then. To betray the Autobots as you did the Decepticons. Your loyalties are fragile, aren't they?"

Drift flinches. Visibly. The remark hits too close to home. It might even be a bit out of line. But Ratchet's not taking it back. There's too much at stake.

Drift lifts his chin. He forces defiance onto his faceplate.

"The Autobots have betrayed themselves," he says.

An observation that Ratchet has noticed himself.

Drift still isn't attacking, hasn't made a threatening gesture. Silence sweeps between them. Lennox gives up on trying to get free. The Seekers ping Ratchet again.

Does he dare lower his weapon?

"I don't know that I can trust you," Ratchet retorts with blunt honesty.

The idea, however, of blasting Drift's spark then and there doesn't sit well with him either. There are many things Ratchet may be forced to do in the future, but spilling Drift's energon today is not one he wishes to add to his tally.

Drift's hands drop, hanging at his sides, not even defending himself.

"I know."

He doesn't offer proof. He doesn't beg his case. He puts his spark in Ratchet's hands.

Fraggit.

Ratchet ventilates loudly. He supposes trust really is a moot point. He only has two choices here. Offline Drift now and make up a story, or let the mech live and give Drift a chance to prove himself.

It's not in him to be a cold-sparked killer.

"Goddamnit, Ratchet! Put me the frag down!"

"I was offering you protection," the medic says sourly, though he finally consents to letting Lennox stand on his own two feet.

"I don't need it." Lennox steels himself and storms toward Drift, glaring up at the former Decepticon. "You really want to help?"

Drift's optics cycle down as he shifts his gaze to the small human. "I want to do what my spark is telling me is right."

"Could get you killed."

"Tomorrow is never promised."

"Heh. He'll do." Lennox grins and shifts his attention to Ratchet. "Put the blaster away, Ratch. I think he's telling the truth."

Ratchet hesitates a second but takes his battle systems offline. His blaster collapses back into his arm with a whirr of gears.

"And you consider yourself the best judge of character?"

"One of us has to be," Lennox snarks, and it's so familiar that Ratchet aches inside. It's exactly what Hide would've said. Probably what he would've done, too.

Not to mention Jazz.

"Besides," Lennox cuts through the realization, "we can't be in a Cybertronian standoff forever. We've got hatchlings to rescue."

o0o0o

Ratchet is not a fan of travel by human contraption. He remembers Cybertron fondly, the shuttles and trains – insentient and self-aware alike – that could transport a mech from one place to another. The human idea of a long distance transport, however, isn't so sturdy.

It's akin to rattling along thousands of miles in the air in a tin can, and Ratchet doesn't like it. Being strapped down in his alt-mode doesn't make the journey any easier to bear. He's shut down all but his primary systems just because everything else was sending him errors. There's an enduring sense of vertigo, and his tanks churn.

If he doesn't have to climb into another C-17 it'll be too soon.

He supposes he should be glad that NEST has been supplied the transport at all. There's no other method for a few groundbound Autobots to cross the ocean.

Drift, Ratchet notices, doesn't seem to have a problem with their accommodations. He is, of all things, recharging. Either that or meditating. He didn't even hesitate when it came time to strap him down.

Sideswipe, on the other hand, is as uncomfortable as Ratchet, but instead of turning inward, he's turned his discomfort outward. He's been joking with the technicians nonstop, to the point where their patience must be as frayed as Ratchet's. He rocks back and forth on his wheels in the limited confines of the netting until one of the soldiers snaps at him to stop.

Taking Sideswipe hadn't been part of the plan. But their leader had insisted, citing that Ratchet would need backup, reliable backup since he didn't quite trust Drift just yet. Ratchet couldn't think of a logical argument that wouldn't raise suspicions. It was hard to keep from getting assigned Leadfoot or Roadbuster as well. The less mechs on this mission the better.

Besides, as Ratchet pointed out, this is merely an investigative exercise. Nothing to be concerned about. No Decepticons to fight. Just investigating some weird readings in Nambia, Africa. Maybe even fix a malfunctioning sensor or two. Sparkling play.

The C-17 banks hard, aiming to land. Ratchet stifles a groan, disliking the way it jars his stabilization gyros. He turns off his optical sensors and focuses on being very, very still. And quiet.

"Gonna be all right there, Ratch?" Sides asks, and were he in root mode, Ratchet doesn't doubt that the frontliner would have been poking him.

"Fine," he grits out as the C-17 starts to shudder around them. It doesn't seem to bother the humans any, but all Ratchet can imagine is the plane crumbling to bits around them.

Cybertronians are made of stern stuff, but an uncontrolled fall from such heights would result in a messy offlining, parts strewn across the savannah. It makes his tanks churn just thinking about it.

Sideswipe laughs. "Didn't think there was anything you were afraid of."

"Not afraid."

Being cautious is not the same as fear.

Sideswipe laughs again, and when the C-17 gives another telltale shudder, abruptly shuts up. Thankfully.

They land several minutes later with no small amount of relief from two-thirds of the Autobots. Ratchet waits with growing impatience for the humans to unstrap him from the netting, eager to stretch his limbs and emerge from his cramped alt-mode. Subspacing mass is never comfortable for long periods of time.

"We'll refuel and wait for your signal," the NEST soldier says at the bottom of the ramp as Ratchet is the last to descend. "Mearing has placed a ten hour time limit on this excursion."

The medic bites back a snarky response. "Whatever the director wants," he replies blandly and gestures for Drift and Sideswipe to follow him. "Apparently, we have a curfew. Let's get moving."

"What're we looking for?" Sideswipe asks, moving past Ratchet, taking point as his optics scan the horizon for any possible threat.

"Anything unusual that could explain the strange readings we've been getting."

Snorting, Sideswipe wheels ahead of them, blades sliding in and out of view. "Probably just some Decepticreep trying to be stealthy."

"Or a glitch in the systems," Drift offers.

"Let us hope it is the latter," Ratchet replies, pulling a scanner out of his subspace.

He has an idea of the location of the hatchlings, but it would be a challenge to make the discovery appear random. And he still hasn't decided what to do about Sideswipe.

"Let's go."

Neither mech argues with him.

It's early yet. They had timed their arrival to coincide with sunrise, which would leave hours of exploration without having to resort to night vision. Cybertronians could see decently in the dark but not the minute details.

Though reluctant to return to altmode, for the sake of expediency, they shift into their wheeled forms. Sideswipe continues to lead with Drift bringing up the rear, occasionally pinging Ratchet with narrow-banded queries.

"What to do," he asks, "about Sideswipe?"

As the humans say, Ratchet will cross that bridge when he comes to it. Maybe he won't need to do anything. Maybe all of the hatchlings will be offline.

Which is the worse outcome?

It's just past midday when the dull repetition of scanning across the African savannah is finally interrupted. Sideswipe bursts out of altmode, battle systems coming online, just as what appears to be a tiny scrapyard comes into view.

"Decepticons!" he hisses.

Ratchet recognizes the ping of a 'Con as well. His spark leaps in his chest. He can't see anything like a hatchling, but there's evidence of habitation and not human either. Several numbers of oil drums and large pieces of broken machinery are in view.

No, not machinery. Even as Sideswipe's blades slide into view, the two piles of seeming scrap shift into average-sized mechs. Mechs, Ratchet's scan tells him, without a spark. Left behind, perhaps, with the intention of guarding the hatchlings, but their programming leaves little room for anyone else.

"Sideswipe, don't!" Ratchet yells, starting forward.

Wheeled pedes are faster than his own, and Sideswipe is quick. The drones fire; they don't know anything more than to register Autobot and threat. Sideswipe easily dodges, cutting one down and leaping on the other, crushing their rusted frames with an echoing crumple.

But there are more Decepticon pings. Not drones this time but the hatchlings. Ratchet's scanners find them in the oil drums, what ones still live at any rate.

Sideswipe, running high on battle routines, turns his attention toward the pathetic camp and the stirring hatchlings. To what his sensors tell him are Decepticon in programming.

No.

Ratchet moves, and Sideswipe doesn't see him coming. He tackles the frontliner to the ground with a nauseating crunch of metal on metal, shock flaring from Sideswipe's energy field.

"Stand down!" Ratchet snarls, grappling with Sides, trying to pin his wrists down and keep those deadly blades away from his internals. He has the height and weight on Sideswipe, but the mech is crafty.

"They're Decepticons!" Sideswipe splutters, confusion making his struggles weak and ineffectual.

Ratchet slams an elbow against Sideswipe's chestplate. "They're hatchlings!" he hisses, optics flaring.

Sideswipe stills, optics cycling outward.

"You knew?"

Hurt washes through his field, battering at Ratchet's own igniting guilt.

His helm lowers, though he doesn't relax his hold.

"Yes."

He admits his betrayal, for he can think of no other word for it.

Sideswipe's plating clamps down, his frame trembling with restrained emotions. His energy field is equally reined in and unreadable.

"What the frag is going on?" he demands and surges upward, every ounce of strength into the motion.

It takes Ratchet by surprise. He tumbles to the side, slamming into the unforgiving ground with a painful crack of gears now out of alignment. Ratchet groans, pain washing through his sensor net.

Sideswipe snarls, optics blazing. He stalks toward Ratchet, who rolls to his pedes despite the pain.

"Why?" he demands, spitting that ache of disappointment.

Ratchet's uninjured arm forms his blaster, though he hesitates in lifting it toward Sideswipe. The mech who is more than comrade, who is family.

"You already know the reasons."

Sideswipe shifts forward. "Ratch-"

His optics widen, energy field flaring outward in surprise, a dull clank echoing through the dry savannah. Sideswipe drops, revealing Drift standing behind him, sword pommel aimed toward Sideswipe.

Ratchet had half-forgotten Drift had accompanied them.

"He's still alive," Drift says, nudging Sideswipe with a pede and flipping the smaller mech over. The edge of his blade rests on Sideswipe's chestplate, aimed over his spark chamber. "Or...?"

"No!" Ratchet's hand slashes through the air, horror striking at his core. "No more killing. I'm done with it."

Drift stares at him for a long moment, expression and sword unwavering. Then, he takes a step back and sheathes the weapon.

"The hatchlings?"

Casting a lingering glance at Sideswipe's unconscious frame, Ratchet hurries into the makeshift camp. There's nothing to be done for the two drones that Sideswipe dispatched, but there are a dozen or so oil drums scattered around the campsite. He takes a brief moment to pop his shoulder back into place, gritting his denta at the flare of pain the action produces. He'll have to tend to it properly later.

Ratchet activates his scanners, searching for signs of life. Only seventy-five percent of the drums ping back with active systems.

He peers into the first. The Decepticons had packed the hatchlings three to a drum, leaving them little room to grow in any sense of the word. Not, he supposes, that it matters since they hadn't supplied a proper nutrient bath to support development in the first place.

Such a waste. What had Megatron been thinking? Disposable warriors alone?

Ratchet reaches in, pulling out a frame that drapes over his hands. It is limp, too limp, systems cold and dead. Nubby winglets sprout from the hatchlings back. It would've been a flyer. Seeker, perhaps.

His spark aches. Ratchet gently lays the empty frame aside, reaching for the next. It too lacks anything resembling an active, online system. It is a sturdy, broad frame. A warrior mech perhaps. Or a builder, a constructicon.

The third is another Seeker. Or would've been. Once upon a time, outside of Megatron and Prime's war. Ratchet's helm dips. And there are eleven more drums. He dreads what he'll find.

"Ratchet?" Drift stands alongside him, expression neutral but energy field a light press of anxiety against Ratchet's own.

His glossa feels heavy, though he doesn't need it to vocalize. "Half of them are offline," Ratchet says, hazarding a guess. "The rest are so low on energon that they are close to it. Most are probably in desperate need of repair from nutrient-starved metal decay."

His hands tremble where they cradle the empty mech of the Seeker. It's grey without life and metal tinted with rust.

"I can't help them here."

Anger surges, threatening to override the dismay.

He wants to hit something, destroy someone. There's no one to direct his fury at, no one to hurt to ease the pain. Megatron is offline, and his own leader is miles away. They aren't the only mechs to blame. Ratchet knows he should turn his blaster on himself, too.

Primus. It's just so senseless.

"Then do what you can," Drift says. He looks at the tiny frame in Ratchet's hands almost distantly, but his optics give him away. "We knew it would come to this."

Yes, they did. They had planned for this possibility.

Ratchet glances at Sideswipe's unconscious form, guilt warring with dismay and anger. Until his emotions are such a tangled mess he can't define them.

"As soon as I call the Seekers, the Autobots will be alerted."

"Are you asking me if I'm prepared?" Drift questions, hand lifting and touching the limp arm of the hatchling Seeker. He's careful, as though the hatchling were still alive and delicate, and it matters.

"Yes."

"Are you?"

Ratchet vents shakily.

"No." He crouches, gently lowering the hatchling next to his fallen nestmates. "But for the first time, I feel like I'm on the right path."

He moves to the next oil drum, reaching in and drawing out a live hatchling. The small, lightly armored frame twitches in his hold. A wordless sound of hunger floats to Ratchet's audials. Are his instruments even small enough to spike such tiny lines? He may have to force the energon down the hatchling's intake.

"Then let's contact the Seekers. And you can tell me what to do until they get here."

Ratchet carefully drops to one knee, laying the hatchling over a thigh paneling as he scans the delicate frame. The little mech – or femme he supposes – will need repairs for certain, a heavy infusion of necessary metals, and energon as soon as possible.

"Got any medical training?"

"Some."

Well, Ratchet will just have to work that then.

"They won't have spark pulses," he says almost absently as he eases the hatchling to a better position. "Can you separate the living from the dead at least?"

"Yeah, I can do that."

"Then get started."

Drift inclines his helm sharply and turns on a pede, heading for the oil drum furthest from Ratchet's current position.

With the other mech occupied, Ratchet pulls out the emergency energon rations he had brought – not nearly enough – and tries to energize the hatchling in his hand.

-Thundercracker?-

There's not even a moment's pause before the Seeker answers.

-You have good news?-

-Depends on your definition.- Ratchet bites back a wave of bitterness. -I found the hatchlings. They're close to offlining. We'll need to transport them out of here.-

-Then lucky I already thought of a plan!- Skywarp inserts into the comm cheerily. -We can be there in about two Earth hours. Or less if TC puts some burn in his thrusters.-

-You? I'm afraid to ask,- Ratchet replies, paying strict attention to the hatchling in his hands.

The little mech is shaking but seems to be accepting the nourishment. And there are still more to assist.

-You should be,- Thundercracker replies with a glyph of disdain passing through the comm. -It's undignified. Starscream would've never stood for it.-

-The old Screamer would've understood the sacrifice,- Skywarp retorts petulantly.

There's a moment of awkward pause. Then, a gruff response spills into the comm.

-We'll be there as soon as possible. Thundercracker, out.-

The transmission cuts off abruptly, and Ratchet can only imagine the sharp discussion that will probably ensue between the two. Reminders of the mech their trinemate used to be haven't been received well. Skywarp lacks tact sometimes. Thundercracker isn't as forgiving as his composed nature implies.

There's nothing left to do now but wait. Wait and tend to the hatchlings who managed to survive all this time.

It's a slow and spark-rending process. Drift is quick, efficient, and compassionate as he separates the living hatchlings from those who hadn't. He lays out the empty frames in a long, spark-breaking line, while carrying the survivors to Ratchet personally.

By the time they have emptied the oil drums, Ratchet has twelve hatchlings to tend. Twelve. Out of thirty-six. Four Seekers, three airframes of other design, and five potential grounders, warrior or civilian class. They aren't nearly enough to repopulate Cybertron, to begin restoring their species.

Are they worth it?

For a long, long moment, Ratchet asks himself this question. Even as he works to spike tiny energon lines, drawing from his own reserves so that the little ones could live.

Twelve hatchlings aren't going to revitalize his species. In the long run, they aren't going to make much of a dent in the slide toward extinction. It's like slapping a piece of tape over a ruptured fluid line. Energon's still going to leak out but a bit slower.

He asks himself again. Are they worth it?

Are they worth betraying the Autobots and his Prime? Are they worth completely siding with the Seekers? Dragging Drift into his treason? Making an enemy of his friends and the humans alike? Are they worth risking his very spark?

Looking down at the tiny, tiny grounder curled in his palm, Ratchet already knows the answer. Yes. They may only ever be drones because he doesn't have the Allspark, but they are alive. They are still Cybertronian.

Yes. They are worth it.

"You know," Drift says quietly, kneeling next to Ratchet and trying to coax a Seeker hatchling to swallow some diluted energon. "There's still a chance."

Ratchet lifts an orbital ridge. "For what?" he asks blankly.

Drift doesn't look at him, too distracted. "Perceptor's research. Methods to enspark frames without the Allspark. It's possible."

"You couldn't mention this before?" Ratchet demands.

The white mech lifts his shoulders and moves one hand up. "It wasn't relevant before."

Ratchet struggles to rein in his temper. It's really a battle. Not that it usually isn't.

"How?"

"I'm not a scientist. Perceptor was always mumbling about spark energy and how it replicates itself over time."

"Do you have any of his research?" Ratchet tries not to let himself hope. He's not a true scientist either, but he is a medic, and perhaps he can intuit hints from Perceptor's notes.

Drift's hand gently strokes the Seeker in his lap, trying to soothe the tiny hatchling into a restful recharge. It seems to be working.

"No, only the bits and pieces I picked up during his rambles," he admits. "I can forward you the vids?"

-Ratchet!-

The medic startles at the sudden comm that slices into his attention with all the force of a shout. He recognizes Prime's ident code and his systems snap into sharp awareness.

Should he reply? Should he pretend ignorance?

Ratchet glances at Sideswipe, still offline, still lying in a crumpled heap several yards away. The Seekers are inbound, should actually arrive any minute now.

Drift's looking at him. He must have seen Ratchet startle.

He could lie. He could answer the comm, tell them that everything is all right. That they are still searching, and no, he doesn't know why Sideswipe isn't answering his comms. He'll make sure to ask though.

Of course, they could also be contacting him because they've detected the presence of the Seekers. They've probably also figured out where the Decepticons are heading. Maybe the Autobots are already scrambling to intercept and want to give Ratchet fair warning.

The options ping back and forth in Ratchet's processor. He hovers on the fence, his choice staring him in the optics with a suspicious glint of Decepticon crimson.

He makes the choice, he believes, that's the first strike of finality. He ignores the comm. He dismisses his Prime.

Another ping hits him not but a minute later. Ratchet ignores it as well. He watches as Drift flinches.

"You ignored him," he says.

He has no doubt been pinged since Ratchet hadn't responded. In all likelihood, Sideswipe was tried next. Not that Sides could answer.

Ratchet inclines his helm. "Yes."

Easier, he believes, to not speak than to try and lie to his Prime.

Drift carefully sets aside the recharging hatchling and rises to his feet, gaze turned toward the horizon.

"How long?"

"I suspect they are already on their way. Luckily, human transport is slower than Seekers when they're in a hurry."

"Speaking of..." Drift gestures to a pair of dark spots in the sky, growing larger at a fast clip. "Here they come."

Ratchet rises to his pedes, still cradling one of the hatchlings. His optics zoom in on the approaching Seekers. Is that a net? Did Skywarp somehow convince Thundercracker to sling a net around his alt-mode?

No wonder Thundercracker had claimed it undignified. Copters hauled freight, not Seekers. And Seekers certainly didn't fly around with nets strapped to their chassis.

"This is your brilliant plan?" Ratchet demands as Skywarp transforms mid-descent and lands with a firm thump on his pedes.

The darker Seeker chuckles as he reaches up to guide the net down as Thundercracker does a strange half-transformation that allows him to land without getting too tangled in the heavy coils of whatever substance they've braided together.

"I wanted to carry a cargo container between us," Skywarp replies with a smirk. "But it was not only too heavy but also too bulky. Besides, we didn't have an extra pair of hands to attach it."

Thundercracker gives his trinemate a sour look. "It also slowed us down considerably." His gaze shifts to Ratchet. "The Autobots are coming. We had to take out three of the human jets before they'd leave us alone."

"We didn't kill them," Skywarp adds hastily. "We gave the squishies time to eject."

"How thoughtful of you," Drift mutters, giving the Seekers a distinctly untrusting look as he edges closer to Ratchet. This would be the first time he's met them faceplate to faceplate.

"Only one net," Ratchet observes.

"If we're going to be fighting off squishies every hundred miles, we can only afford one net," Skywarp replies with an edge of hostile indignation.

Ratchet glances at the numerous hatchlings, Drift, and then himself. "It'll mean more than one trip."

"We know. Luckily, we're faster than the Autobots. It'll be close." For a second, Thundercracker looks worried until his gaze seems to zero in on the hatchling in Ratchet's hand. "Is that...?"

"Four Seekers," Ratchet informs him and carefully tips the tiny one into Thundercracker's eager fingers, the Seeker being extra-careful of his clawed digits. "Eight other survivors as well."

Skywarp's wings visibly droop. "Only twelve?"

"They were starving," Ratchet counters softly. "We're lucky to have saved so many."

A low growl resonates in Thundercracker's chassis. "Luck has nothing to do with it."

If only the Autobots could see the Seekers now, carefully cradling the hatchlings that Ratchet has managed to stabilize as they bristle with protective subroutines. As they risk everything for a dozen lives that don't matter much in the long scheme of things.

To be fair, not all Decepticons are like Thundercracker and Skywarp. There are many glitched slaggers that'd be better served with a merciful offlining. But they still deserve the chance, the opportunity, to show that they are more than propaganda has made them.

Drift shifts his weight. "The Autobots are coming," he reminds.

"Right." Skywarp nods perfunctorily. "Enough of this soft-sparked moment. Ratchet, into the net with you. And as many of the hatchlings as you can fit."

With his knowledge of Seeker carrying capacity, Ratchet has already made several calculations.

"No," he says. "Take Drift first. He's lighter."

Ratchet, on his own, outweighs the Seekers. He would slow them down.

Thundercracker gives him a long look. "No offense, 'Con traitor. But right now, the medic's worth more."

"None taken." Drift waves it away. "I'm inclined to agree with you."

"I'm also heavier. And the one mech the Autobots are least likely to shoot on reflex."

Calculating travel time round trip, Ratchet estimates that it'll be close. Real close. The Seekers might not get back before the Autobots arrive.

A lighter burden makes for a faster trip. The Seekers can take Drift and the hatchlings the first round and be back faster than if they took Ratchet and fewer of the hatchlings. Simple mathematics.

Skywarp has already started carrying recharging hatchlings toward the net.

"And if they take you prisoner, what then? None of us know enough to keep these hatchlings alive."

"I can live with being a prisoner," Ratchet replies, and his gaze cuts to Drift. "But I know very well that they won't give Drift that option." They'll see the former 'Con as returning to his roots.

Leadfoot, especially, will take great glee in extinguishing Drift's spark. Oh, his glorious leader might have a moment of hesitation. He might want to take a minute to ask Drift some questions. But his order will likely come moments too late. Leadfoot will shoot to offline, and their vaunted leader won't shed a proverbial tear afterward.

Thundercracker huffs loudly. "The Autobots-"

"This isn't up for debate!" Ratchet snaps, sharp enough to cut off Thundercracker's protest. "We don't have the time to argue, and none of you are in a position to force the issue. Take. Drift."

Quiet settles between them before Skywarp swears a string of vitriol that's a lovely mixture of several languages, foreign and domestic. It's almost refreshing.

"Get in the net, grounder!" he snarls, grabbing Drift by the arm and shoving him toward Thundercracker.

"This is a foolish plan," Drift protests, stumbling from the force of Skywarp's shove.

But he obeys. If anything, Drift is a soldier. He knows when to obey.

There's a look in Thundercracker's optics, like he's going to argue, but he doesn't. Instead, he helps Skywarp get Drift situated, then packs the hatchlings in and around the smaller mech. It's not the ideal situation, but desperate times.

"How's the weight?" Skywarp asks his trinemate.

"I can handle it," Thundercracker replies, which isn't precisely the answer any of them are looking for. "Though if it comes down to combat, I'm fragged."

Skywarp grins. "That's what I'm here for, sweetspark." He pats Thundercracker on a cheek spar, a touch of condescension in his tone.

"Shove it up your afterburner," the blue Seeker retorts, but it lacks heat.

Chuckling, Skywarp circles his trinemate, probably checking to make sure everything is nice and secure. Wouldn't want Drift and the hatchlings to tumble out after all.

"Everything set?" Ratchet demands, his chronometer ticking down the passing minutes, reminding him that the Autobots are only getting closer. The Seekers will probably pass them along the way.

"Yeah, we're good to go." Skywarp steps back, passing a critical optic over Thundercracker. "I still say this is a bad plan."

"Your opinion is noted." Ratchet turns his back on all of them. There's a secondary reason he opted to wait for the second round. "Get going. Time's wasting."

Thundercracker is the first to take to the skies, shifting fully into his jet mode once the netting draws taut. Skywarp flies around him in a few circuits, checking the integrity of the lashings, before the two of them rise higher into the air.

-We'll be back,- Thundercracker transmits. -Try not to get yourself slagged before then.-

-Duly noted,- Ratchet retorts dryly.

He glances at Sideswipe. The mech is still unconscious. Hopefully, he'll remain that way. Until then, Ratchet has his own duties to attend.

They'd managed to fit all of the hatchlings into the first load. There are, however, supplies here that could be useful. Mainly, parts.

It's a dirty, spark-rending job, but someone has to do it. They'll need the parts for the survivors. Ratchet doesn't have the supplies or the equipment to fabricate his own.

There's a long line of empty hatchling frames waiting for him to attend to them. He doesn't want to. But practicality wins out. There are no supply lines that he can rely on. They will not be receiving help from the humans. The Seekers could, in theory, leave the planet, but they cannot safely return.

Ratchet grinds his denta, forcefully locks his emotions away, and bends to the grisly task. It must be done.

Time passes; he tries not to count the minutes ticking by.

His proximity sensors shriek with alarm. But the warning comes too late. Ratchet stirs from his concentration to the sensation of hot metal sliding against his neck components. Not a killing blow but incapacitating enough that he won't be able to defend against the next likely attack on his spark chamber.

"Why?"

The single word carries a heavy weight, crouching on Ratchet's shoulders with confusion and despair and betrayal.

Ratchet doesn't move.

"I used to be a medic once," he replies, slowly withdrawing his hands from one of the last empty frames so that they dangle loosely at his side. He consults his chronometer, surprised by how much time has passed.

The blade doesn't waver but Ratchet can sense the tremble in Sideswipe's armor nonetheless.

"You're a medic now," he insists, joints creaking as his weight shifts. "You're an Autobot. They were Decepticon. Why?"

"The lines aren't so simple anymore." Ratchet half-turns, keeping his actions measured and nonthreatening. "And I am still an Autobot."

A noise of disbelief resonates in Sideswipe's chassis. "Prime's coming. He thinks you were attacked. He's worried."

He can see the sneer curving Sideswipe's mouth.

"Worried about the medic who turned on his own allies." Only now does Sideswipe's blade waver, the edge of it tapping against Ratchet's neck cables with a quiet ring of metal on metal. "I don't know what to tell him."

Ratchet turns, ever so carefully, so that he can look Sideswipe in the optics. His spark is heavy.

"Tell him the truth."

"I don't know what the truth is!" Sideswipe shouts, and his energy field flares with frantic emotions.

Ratchet straightens, part of him worried that Sides might snap and attack. A larger part of him, however, has fought alongside the frontliner for centuries, and he would trust Sideswipe with his spark.

"Then you have to figure it out for yourself," Ratchet replies, keeping his vocals calm and quiet. "But I had to save them."

"They're Decepticons!" Sideswipe hisses.

"They were hatchlings," Ratchet corrects gently. He doesn't think that the lone twin had seen the little ones. "Drones without the Allspark but still living beings. And Prime would've killed them all."

If it were possible for a mech to go pale, then that's Sideswipe's reaction. He rears back, optics cycling outward, weapon lowering in his shock.

"You're wrong."

It's painful how much he sounds like Lennox in that moment, desperate to believe in the purity of the Prime. That he's been pointing himself in the right direction during the war.

The low drone of a powerful engine captures both of their attention. Ratchet looks up, catching sight of the human transport; Sideswipe doesn't have to. No doubt he's been in contact with them from the moment he onlined.

Now would be a good time for the Seekers to return, Ratchet muses. Barring that, he's prepared for whatever may come.

"I don't know what's going on," Sideswipe says, his vocals growing steadier. "But if you surrender, I'm sure Prime will understand. You know how he is. Soft-sparked and all that."

Oh, Sideswipe. If only Ratchet could believe that. But it's not their glorious leader making the decision anymore. It's the humans that stand behind him, pulling his strings.

Ratchet tries his private comm. -Any chance that you two are about to swoop in and retrieve me?-

There's no answer. Frag.

The opportunity to fight his way free has long since passed. He can already see their Prime and the Autobots he brought with him dropping from the C-17 without waiting for the plane to land.

Ratchet does what he can. He straightens, keeps his weapons locked and his battle systems offline. The Autobots are his friends, his family. He can't imagine harming them.

Ratchet doesn't respond to Sideswipe, and the frontliner adds nothing else. Perhaps it's better that way. He doesn't have words or excuses or explanations. He can't begin to put into mere words all of his reasons. Ratchet suspects that most of the Autobots won't understand anyway.

They are none of them the ideal they used to believe.

Somehow, just watching their Prime approach, flanked by Dino and the Wreckers, Ratchet feels his resolve strengthen. There's no logical reason behind his reaction, but his shoulders straighten, his chin tilts up. Defiance brightens his optics, but sadness resonates in his energy field.

"Ratchet," Prime says, intonation indicating he intends to say more, but he falters. He stares at the medic, flanked by his Autobots including Sideswipe.

There's an invisible line in the sand.

Ratchet stands on one side, surrounded by the detritus of an abandoned campsite, pieces of parted hatchlings arranged neatly on the ground behind him.

The Autobots are on the other side, silent and uneasy. The Wreckers don't speak for once, have no insults to offer. Dino's staring, too shocked to raise his weapons. Sideswipe still hovers between anger and dismay.

"Ratchet," Prime begins, trying again. "What have you done?"

He performs a systems check, attempting to calm the frantic whirl of his spark. The way his coding screams at him to cease defying his Prime.

"Something I should have done long before now, if I'd had the courage."

"Where is Drift?"

"With the hatchlings," Ratchet answers, and his hands clench and unclench at his sides. "And no, I am not going to tell you where. He, the hatchlings, and the Seekers are safe."

"Safe?" Prime's tone is measured, gentle, like one might speak to a frightened sparkling or a cornered turbo fox.

"From you." A tremble radiates up Ratchet's strut, and he fights to keep himself from betraying that weakness. "I'm tired, Prime. Tired of the war. The killing."

He watches Prime's fingers flex.

"The war is over."

"Is it?" Ratchet's helm tilts to the side, surprising himself with how calm he is. "When we're shooting our kind out of the sky still. When we hunt them down like sparkless beasts. When we can't see beyond the next kill? Oh, no. Prime, for you the war will never be over. No matter how many Decepticons you slay. Or how many Megatrons you kill."

Beside Prime, Leadfoot bristles. Dino gapes. The others stare at Ratchet as though he's lost his processor, like his spark has been replaced by Starscream's.

He has even managed to shock Optimus into silence. For once, the Prime is bereft of speeches, of sanctimonious preaching about honor and the ideals of the Autobots.

Ratchet vents quietly, spreading his hands, palms down. I have given all that I can give, the gesture says. Summarily, it also indicates his willingness to surrender.

He won't raise his weapons to his friends. There is another, more nagging, part of him that won't allow it either, but such is a different matter.

"Leadfoot. Sideswipe. Secure the prisoner," Prime says carefully, his optics never leaving Ratchet, something in their glow reflecting dismay.

Both Autobots hesitate, glancing at their leader, their Prime. The others can't seem to decide who deserves their attention more, their medic or their Prime.

A sensation of static electricity fills the hesitant silence. Ratchet startles, his plating twitching. The atmosphere feels at once, both sharp and tight.

Then, it snaps.

Skywarp bursts into space just behind Ratchet, or at least he assumes it to be the darker Seeker since Thundercracker can't teleport. Ratchet hadn't realized Skywarp was well enough to access his warp drive. He's even less certain that they have enough energon to compensate for its use.

"Well, what have I stumbled upon here?" Skywarp asks, his tone bright but his words sharp.

He looms over Ratchet from behind, draping his arms over the medic and peering over Ratchet's left. It's a lover's hold, something intimate and sure to invoke all the wrong ideas. Protesting would be a waste of time.

"Skywarp!" Dino hisses.

Weapons spring to life on his arms, pointed instantly at the irritating Seeker.

"Aww, you remember me." Skywarp leans heavier on Ratchet. "How sweet. I'd love to stay and chat, relive old times and all, but I'm only here for one thing."

Prime steps in front of Dino, blocking the mech from firing at Skywarp and possibly taking out Ratchet as well.

"Let Ratchet go."

"Sorry, Prime. That's not what he wants." One of Skywarp's arms drop from Ratchet's shoulders, curling instead around his waist almost possessively. "Is it, medic?"

He can feel the tension in Skywarp's plating, the hum of battle systems that are online and actively tracking potential threats. Skywarp is poised to leap into the sky at a moment's notice and take Ratchet with him. Thundercracker must be nearby or near enough.

"I'm sorry, Prime," Ratchet says and surprises himself with the level of sheer remorse that flickers in his energy field. "But this is goodbye."

Seekers have a flair for the dramatic. If Ratchet had wanted to say anything else, the opportunity is stolen from him.

Skywarp's hands suddenly wrap tightly around him, no longer in a parody of a lover's embrace, and he powers on his thrusters with a fast burn. Ratchet smells scorched grass before his tanks drop into his pedes, Skywarp pushing them up into the freedom of the skies, leaving the Autobots on the ground below, staring up at their departing frames.

-Show off,- Ratchet grumbles.

Skywarp's arms tighten around him. -Would you rather I let you go back? Rot in the Autobot's idea of a brig?- His energy field flares with irritation, and a surprising dose of concern. -Course, the humans might have a different punishment in mind.-

-No-

-Then stop whining.-

Below them, Africa is a wash of greens and browns. Skywarp can't keep up this speed for long, not carrying Ratchet. No doubt they'll meet up with Thundercracker somewhere.

Skywarp's fingers rap a nonsense rhythm against Ratchet's plating, where his hands rest against side panels.

-Do you regret it already?- The Seeker sounds oddly sober.

Ratchet doesn't answer immediately.

He thinks about the orders Prime had given him, grudgingly obeyed. He thinks about Lennox and Mearing and the contrasts between them.

He remembers saving the Seekers and how he used to be a medic. He remembers what that had meant once upon a vorn.

He remembers the hatchlings and his files call up Drift's words, the possibility of supplementing their doomed species.

-No,- Ratchet finally responds. -I don't regret anything.-


a/n: So. This is the end of what I wrote for the scifibigbang. It can stand on its own.

But it's not the end of the story. Just the end of Ratchet's POV. I left a lot of unanswered questions and lot of open ends that I intend to cover, utilizing other characters. I'm planning for Optimus Prime, Prowl, Sideswipe, Drift, and Thundercracker and anyone else that readers might want to hear from.

Feedback is very helpful to me. If there are any specific questions you have, feel free to ask. If I don't intend to answer them in a future installment, then I will gladly answer it for you.