"I really wish you'd reconsider, Jack." Arcee kept her voice barely above a whisper even though Jack was the only other person in the repair bay. She sat in the same spot she'd occupied since Ratchet attempted to fix her near-fatal damage from yesterday's battle with Airachnid. Jack stood in front of her with his hands enveloped in hers, gazing up into her softly glowing optics. The Pretender body she'd begun using as a remotely-operated platform sat across the chamber, its eyes closed, waiting for her to link up to it again.
"Not happening." Jack reached up to her, and she leaned down to meet him halfway. He stroked her cheek and blinked rapidly, trying to hold back more tears. He'd done enough crying since finding out how dire her condition was.
"Jack, please." She brushed a lock of hair away from his face. "When we board the Nemesis, I won't really be there. You'd be risking your life, but-"
"I've been doing that since the day we met." Jack smiled and patted the back of her hand. "Honestly, I'll be able to handle this a lot better if I don't have to worry about you getting killed right in front of me, for once."
She sighed. "And I have to worry about the same thing happening to you-while I'm stuck here."
"You're not exactly helpless." He pointed at her Pretender doppelgänger. "You'll be there, right beside me. You'll have my back, like you always do. And I've got yours." He stepped forward and embraced her. "Besides, you're not exactly safe, either. If we can't get the parts you need, you'll-" He cut himself off and held his breath for a moment. "If I stayed behind and ... things didn't work out, I couldn't live with myself."
"I know." She rubbed his back gently. "Jack ... if the operation isn't successful, as a last resort I could upload part of myself into my Mini-Me. It doesn't have enough storage capacity to hold everything, but I could pull it off if I only transfer the most important files."
He stepped back and frowned up at her. "What do you mean?"
"Software for my basic functions would fit into its memory core, and my most recent memories. I'd have to give up a lot, like most of my memories of Cybertron." She shrugged. "But given what happened to my planet, maybe forgetting it would be more of a gift than a curse. Anyway, even if the worst happens, I could survive, in a way. You'd still have me."
"Hold on." He shook his head slowly. "I'm no computer expert, and I don't know if Cybertronians are even remotely similar, but when you transfer a file, you're not actually moving it; you're making a copy and the original stays right where it was before. Is that how this would work?"
She glanced away for a split-second, enough for him to know she was full of it.
"No, it's not like that. I'd-"
"Don't lie to me, Arcee."
She winced. "I'm sorry, Jack. I didn't mean to ... Okay, you're right, it'd just be a copy of me. But still-"
"No. If it's not you, I don't want it at all." He shook his head frantically. "I can't lose you. I can't ever lose you. And I sure as hell wouldn't ever want to replace you."
She closed her optics and hung her head. "I didn't think-I just wanted ..."
"I know, honey." He took a breath and smiled. "Come here."
The corner of her mouth quirked upward. She started to move closer, then glanced off to the side. "I hear footsteps; the rest of the team will be here any second. With Starscream."
"Let 'em get an eyeful, then; it's the least of our worries."
"True enough." She leaned over, getting close enough to kiss him. He rested both hands on her smooth metal cheeks and lost himself so completely in the moment that he didn't even hear everyone else enter the room.
"What?" Starscream blurted. "Are my optics malfunctioning? What is she doing with that ... that meatbag?"
They parted and turned their heads. Starscream stared back at them with his mouth hanging open. Optimus, Ratchet, Bulkhead, and Bumblebee surrounded him. Raf rolled his eyes and headed for the stairs leading up to Ratchet's main console. Ashanti, Jensen, Case, Washington, Dawson, Chang, the Pretender defector named Mendoza, and her human husband Lucas Conrad stood in front of them, grinning at the scene they'd walked into. Jack's mother stood a few feet away from them, in front of her medical team, arching an eyebrow and shaking her head.
Arcee narrowed her eyes at Starscream.
Jack held up a hand as if to say, Just a moment. He turned back to Arcee, grinned and wiggled his eyebrows. She smirked and inched closer, and they shared another long, passionate kiss.
"Like a boss," Jensen said.
June snickered despite her attempt to maintain a stern expression.
"Ick," Starscream muttered.
Jack and Arcee held the kiss until his mom cleared her throat loudly.
"We're not interrupting anything, are we? I mean, if this is a bad time, we can come back later."
They finally moved apart and Jack blushed. "Uh ... ahem ... sorry, Mom." He turned around and sat, leaning back against Arcee, and she let her hands rest gently on his lap.
"Sorry, June. We just had to get it out of our systems." Arcee grinned.
A very slight smile tugged at Optimus's mouth. He looked around at everyone else and waved a hand at the console behind him.
"Let us begin the briefing."
"This is what you'll be up against." Starscream pointed at the schematics on the main monitor. "The Nemesis has dozens of turrets mounted on its hull, in addition to its main cannons." He pointed at another graphic. "The corridors and most rooms onboard are equipped with cameras and ceiling-mounted blasters. One advantage you'll have is Megatron's refusal to calibrate the internal sensors to detect organics. He never considered humans a legitimate threat."
"He will soon," Ashanti muttered.
"Where are the manufacturing facilities located?" Optimus said.
Starscream pointed at a specific area of the ship's schematic. "In the same section as Knockout's laboratory. There, you'll be able to custom-build whatever parts the two-wheeler needs." He flicked a narrow-eyed glance at Arcee.
She gave him the finger before linking up to her Pretender body. She closed her optics, opened her Mini-Me's eyes, and walked it over to Jack. She put its arm around his shoulders and walked with him to join June and the team.
"Her name is Arcee." Jack scowled up at Starscream.
Starscream started to scowl back, but seemed to remember his encounter with Jack's EMP rifle a few hours ago, and put on a nervous smile. "Oh, of course. My ... apologies." He tapped his fingertips together, shuffled a few feet away from Jack, and turned back to the screen.
June stared at him for a moment, turned and gaped at Jack. "What did you do to him?"
Arcee leaned over and whispered, "It was glorious. He nearly made Starscream oil himself. I'll tell you all about it later." She grinned at Jack and stroked his cheek.
Jack blushed, but smiled.
Starscream aimed an unsettled look at them, shuddered, and locked his attention on the monitor.
"What sort of opposition will we be facing once we board the Nemesis?" Ashanti said.
"The full complement of the ship's Vehicon crew. Which, by now, will likely be comprised mainly of those with jet alternate modes, with only a few of the car-mode ones remaining."
Jack smirked up at him. "That's because Arcee killed most of them." The subtext was clear in his eyes: So show her a little respect.
"Er, yes, of course." He gave Jack another nervous look and smiled shakily. "I must admit to being rather impressed by her performance as of late. I do wonder, however, what you humans can do against an entire ship filled with enemy Cybertronians?"
"To save Arcee's life, there's nothing I won't do."
"Yes, I can see that. Well, I'm certain your...dedication will go a long way toward achieving your goal."
Arcee had to fight the urge to shake her head. "Still, we'll be facing far more 'Cons on that ship than we did in the underground base we glassed a few months ago. Might be a good idea to see if the Vehicons who surrendered are willing to help."
Bulkhead laughed. "Since they still want to kill Starscream's ass, I vote yes."
"Easy, Bulkhead." Optimus rested a hand on Bulk's shoulder. "He seems sincere in his wish to help us defeat the Decepticons, so we should extend at least basic courtesies." He gave Bulkhead a look that clearly said, "For the moment."
Starscream let out another nervous chuckle. "While we were enemies in the past, I am no longer affiliated with that faction, and our goals are now the same. When I said I was willing to do whatever it takes to bring Megatron down, I meant every word." He turned back to the monitor. "Getting back on topic, there are also the higher-ranking Decepticons who will no doubt impede your progress-Knockout and Breakdown, if Megatron decided not to terminate them for playing a role in my attempt to overthrow him. Also, Soundwave and, of course, Megatron himself."
"From what you've told us about Soundwave," Ashanti said, "he'll be hard enough to deal with, but your intel on Megs ..."
"What intel?" June glanced around at the 'Bots and Ashanti's team.
Starscream's optics flicked around, another one of his nervous tics that had grown more pronounced since the last time Arcee had seen him. He looked down at June and said, "Before you or your offspring met any of us, Megatron had disappeared into deep space, searching for resources and more troops to build up our army. I was in charge of the Decepticons for three years. Then, one day, Megatron returned." His voice took on a quieter tone. "But he came back ... changed. It was subtle at first, and I thought it merely the effect of traveling alone for so long in the darkness between the stars."
"But it was more than that," Optimus intoned. "Somewhere out there, he discovered a large deposit of dark energon."
"Dark energon?" June arched an eyebrow.
"The Blood of Unicron."
"Wait a minute," Miko's voice came out of nowhere, and everyone looked around. She disengaged her armor's stealth system and appeared between Bulkhead's feet. "Megatron's into some sort of occult shit? He's using the blood of a unicorn?"
Everyone stared at her. After several seconds passed, Ratchet rolled his optics.
"Unicron. The Chaos Bringer."
Miko took her helmet off and arched an eyebrow. "Oh, that clears it right up."
"According to legend," Arcee said, "Unicron is the brother and eternal enemy of Primus, our creator." She shrugged. "If any of the stories are true, it all happened a very long time ago. Who knows how much information has been lost or distorted over tens of thousands of years of war between us and the Decepticons. It may not be true at all, just scraps of data distorted into myth as some of us tried to fill in the blanks over the millennia."
"Whether the legends are entirely true or not," Starscream said, "dark energon is real enough, as you've seen for yourselves. Being in its proximity had already ... altered Megatron. When he returned, he was ... not quite himself. Then, soon after his return, he rammed a shard of dark energon into his own spark; now that it flows through him, who knows what he is capable of."
Arcee turned to June and said, "He also used dark energon to revive a mass grave filled with Cybertronian corpses that he found here on Earth, left over from a battle thousands of years ago. It allowed him to control the reanimated bodies; he planned to turn all the dead on Cybertron into a zombie army and bring them through the space bridge the 'Cons had placed in orbit over Earth."
"That's why you had to blow it up?" June shivered.
"Yeah. It was our only way back home. We hoped we could someday find a way to revive Cybertron. But destroying the bridge was the only way to prevent millions of Cybertronian zombies from turning Earth into a smoldering ruin."
Jack slipped his hand into hers and she managed to smile shakily back at him. She'd told him long ago about her horrific discovery of Cliffjumper's remains, reanimated by dark energon and turned into a mindless, uncontrollable ... beast. He knew what sorts of memories this conversation had brought back to the surface.
"According to the legends," Starscream continued in that same quiet voice, "Unicron occasionally takes control of lesser beings and uses them as his heralds. I believe that is what happened to Megatron. He intends to bring about Unicron's return."
"So you believe Unicron is real?" Ashanti said.
"Given the things he is said to have done, it would be foolish to rule it out. He has added components to himself for thousands upon thousands of years. The records I've seen in archives depict him as the size of a planet, and as millennia have passed since then, he could be even more massive now." Starscream fidgeted again. "It is said that he devours planets."
"Huh. I figured a guy like him would be right up your alley."
"Make no mistake, Unicron is a threat to everyone. If Megatron has encountered him, or at the very least, attracted his attention, your world is in even greater danger than it would be from any Decepticon. The Megatron I once knew simply wanted to conquer your world. Unicron would obliterate it."
Everyone took a moment to let this sink in. Optimus turned back to the schematics.
"If that is Megatron's plan, this may be our best chance to stop him."
"And how will you do that? It'll be difficult enough for you to board the Nemesis, manufacture the parts you need, and escape."
"We blow up the ship," Ashanti said, and everyone turned to stare at her. "Take what you need, then attach a few charges to one of their energon stockpiles and detonate them after we're off the ship. At the very least, we could cripple the Nemesis, if not blow it out of the sky."
"I cannot condone such extreme measures, Colonel. The Vehicons and Pretenders who defected are proof that we do not have to remain enemies forever. We must not lose hope that some of the Decepticons, if not all, can change their ways."
"With respect, sir, your civil war has raged for how long, exactly? Arcee said tens of thousands of years; have you lost count of how many? A hundred thousand years? A quarter-million? Even longer?" Ashanti placed her hands on her hips. "This is an opportunity to finally end it, or at least deal the enemy a crippling blow, before more innocent bystanders are killed."
Optimus winced and looked away.
Starscream looked for a moment as if he were trying to suppress a smirk. "The human has a point."
Optimus speared him with a stare. "We will not sink to your level. We would be no better than Megatron himself."
"I understand your reluctance, sir," Ashanti said. "Also, if the Nemesis is above a highly populated area when we board, then obviously we can't risk it. But if it's over open water or a large enough piece of unpopulated land, I'd strongly recommend taking our shot."
He turned to stare at the monitor. After he let a moment pass in silence, Arcee decided to change the subject.
"The point will be moot if we can't find the Nemesis in the first place." She arched a brow plate at Starscream. "You said you have a way to track it?"
"If Soundwave hasn't found the backdoor I set up long ago, yes. Granted, it's Soundwave, so that is a rather big 'if'."
"Is this backdoor just a tracking device, or does it let you do other things?"
"It's a piece of software I planted in the ship's computers in case of emergency. Its functionality is limited, but it will allow us to track the Nemesis and, if we're lucky, manipulate some of the internal security systems."
Bulkhead chuckled. "I would've thought you'd set up a way to take over the whole ship."
"Oh, the thought occurred to me, but software that extensive would've been easy enough for the average Vehicon to notice. Soundwave would spot it even if he were offline." He sighed. "I had to make do with something that would let me slip in unnoticed, and hope I could take it from there."
"It'll have to be good enough," Jack muttered.
"Very well, then." Optimus nodded and looked down at Jack and Arcee. "We're ready when you are."
A bright light flashed for a split second as Jack transitioned from one end of the ground bridge to the other. He hurried out of the vortex to make room for the rest of the team, keeping his EMP rifle aimed straight ahead, and found the 'Bots and Starscream waiting for him.
Ashanti's team came out of the vortex behind him, followed by his mom and two medics, Harris and Alvarez. The rest of the medical team waited at the Autobot base in case of wounds severe enough to require evac. June had, of course, joined the field team to be there for her son.
Jack took a slow look around and shivered. The only other time he'd been on the Nemesis was by accident, and he'd quickly lost count of the number of times he'd nearly been shot, blown up, or stepped on. And the high, dark gray walls with purple highlights, reminded him of Starscream's underground base, where he'd been tortured for information.
He pulled himself together. Focus. For Arcee, I can get through this. Failure isn't an option, and all that shit.
Arcee's Pretender body walked over to him and gave him a reassuring smile. She shifted her rifle to her left hand and reached out to put her right hand on his.
"Gonna be okay?" she whispered.
"Yeah. And so are you." He held her hand for a second, smiled, and forced himself to turn all-business.
"It actually worked," Starscream mumbled, looking around with a mixture of surprise and apprehension. He shook it off and added, "The cameras are broadcasting a recorded loop showing an empty corridor, and our life signs are masked, but we can't expect that to last the duration of our stay."
"Move out, then," Optimus said, keeping his voice low.
Everyone headed in the direction of the ship's repair facilities near Knockout's lab.
"Good luck," Ratchet said over the comm, and the ground bridge evaporated.
Jack looked at Arcee. "How's your connection?"
"Solid. Good thing it's on a frequency the 'Cons never use. I'd hate to alert them to our presence just by being here. Or having the connection cut off by their jammers."
"Yeah, I'd feel a whole lot less confident without you here to help." He managed a sly grin. "Also, I'd be pretty upset if your new body got left behind."
"Me, too. I'm looking forward to, um, trying out its more intimate features once this is over."
"Oh, me, too."
"You said you were going to wait until you're eighteen," his mom muttered, and Jack blushed.
"Well, for that, we are. Doesn't mean I can't watch Arcee take it for a solo flight."
"Please don't put images like that in my head, for fuck's sake."
"Sorry." Jack blushed again and grinned at Arcee as they reached the door to the repair bay.
"No life signs detected," Optimus said. "No movement. The way appears to be clear." He reached out to the panel to the door's right and pushed one of the buttons. The door slid aside and he stepped through, swept his enormous rifle over the room, and moved aside to let the others enter.
Arcee stared up at the 'Bots as they stepped past her and the humans. "Wow. Still not used to seeing things from this perspective."
"The equipment you need is over there." Starscream pointed at the far corner of the room. "Since there is no one onboard who is the same size as Arcee, there are no parts that would fit her. You will need to manufacture them here."
"That's about what we figured," Arcee said.
"Yeah." Bulkhead pointed at the lozenge-shaped device in Bumblebee's left hand, the Cybertronian equivalent of a USB drive. "Good thing we brought a copy of your specs."
"Right." She headed across the room. "Let's get to it, then."
"Yeah," Jensen said, "it's only a matter of time before something goes horribly wrong."
"Stop right there," Ashanti said. "If you jinx us, I'll make you wash the gravel in my driveway. Rock by rock. With a toothbrush."
Jensen's eyes opened wider, but he kept his mouth shut as they caught up with the rest of the team.
Optimus and the others found the control panels they needed and began tapping buttons. Arcee stared up at the underside of the nearest console.
"I want to help, but I can't even see the controls from here."
Jack chuckled. "Welcome to my world."
She tossed him a lopsided grin, took cover beside a nearby console, and kept an eye on the door. Jack joined her and kept his EMP rifle aimed at the door. In his HUD, the blips representing the rest of the humans moved into cover beside other consoles and waited-all except one.
"Hey, Mom. Can't stay away, eh?"
"Just worried about what you two might get up to if I leave you alone." She winked at him, but couldn't quite hide her nervousness, even through her helmet visor.
Optimus turned suddenly to look over his shoulder. "I've picked up three Decepticons approaching."
Jack's pulse jumped suddenly.
"Jensen," Ashanti grumbled.
"What? How the hell is that my fault?" Jensen crouched and took aim.
Starscream chuckled nervously. "Perhaps a few of you should try to draw them away from us."
"Not a bad idea," Bulkhead said. He walked over to Starscream and clamped a hand onto his shoulder. "Let's get on it."
"What?" Starscream's optics nearly popped out of his head. "Me?"
"Your idea. It's only fair." Bulk looked around at the rest of them and his gaze settled on Optimus. "We'll buy you as much time as we can, Boss. Take care of our girl."
"I'm with them," Jensen said. "If that's okay, Colonel?"
She nodded. "Take Dawson and Case with you. We'll hold the fort until you get back."
"On it," the three of them said, and followed Bulkhead as he dragged Starscream to the door.
Arcee waited for the door to close behind them, then pointed her rifle at it.
Jack took a moment to look her over, trying to burn the image into his memory, just in case. In addition to the rifle, she had a pair of handguns magnetically clamped to her waist, a sawed-off, lever-action shotgun on each hip, and a sniper rifle clamped to her back. All were loaded with the ammo that had proven so effective against 'Con armor recently.
Sexy as ever. He smiled, but couldn't hold it for more than a moment. He took a long breath, focused his attention on the door, and waited for the shit to hit the fan.