Author notes: Many thanks to NovocaineHeart and Dark Scimitar for leaving reviews to the last chapter. Somehow, I only got notified about one review…
This chapter never really wanted to sound just right. Even now, when merely giving it a last read to check for proper spelling, I had to tweak the one or other paragraph again. But it sat long enough on my to do list so here you go! Happy advent, everyone, and have fun reading!
– chapter thirty –
Taking One For The Team
Baffled, Jack and Raf walked closer to the cleft. Jack merely stared, his mind conspicuously silent for a change, whilst Raf – with curiosity shining in his eyes – crouched down and carefully fingered the metal. "This is really strange," he then mumbled. "There shouldn't be any metal here."
Perceptor took a couple of steps closer as well. Jack turned to look up at him and thus noticed that, while staring at the cleft with a pensive expression, his optics flickered momentarily before regaining a steady blue hue. "Rafael is right," the bot then declared. "And according to my sensors, this metal is not of geological origin but artificially created."
The other Autobots' expressions darkened all of a sudden. "Do you mean to indicate that this metal is Cybertronian?" Ratchet whispered into the sudden silence.
Jazz shouldered his way forward. "Are ya certain, Percy? If not…" He didn't complete the sentence, yet Jack didn't have the impression it was intended as a threat – rather as a reminder. It almost sounded like they had seen something like that before.
"Well, I'm reasonably certain it is an alloy native to our world and which the humans have not yet been able to create themselves," the scientist responded. "Still, I would like to run some more tests. With the shuttle's sensors we should be able to get a better idea about the composition, concentration and hardness. That would allow us to give a reliable answer about the nature of the metal – and maybe where it's coming from."
The saboteur ex-vented, sounding unsatisfied with this reply. The other Autobots present looked exceedingly unhappy at the turn of events as well. Before anyone could say anything else, however, Ratchet's head snapped up and sharply turned the other direction, to where the shuttle was parked at the other end of the base. Not a heartbeat later, he was rushing toward it, a heated "Scrap!" all they heard before he collapsed into his alt-mode and raced away, making humans and Autobots hurriedly jump out of his way. "What was that?" Jack asked and exchanged a look with Raf.
"One of his patients' condition changed," Arcee explained.
Raf blinked in surprise. "How would he know that?"
"He's probably running an uplink again," Jack said, remembering when the doc bot had last strained his processors like that.
That earned him the combined Autobots' attention. "And how would you know that?" Ironhide questioned and took several steps closer until he loomed over him.
Jack himself backed away, unsure why his comment had earned him so much interest. Arcee came to stand in front of him, and Jazz too intervened, grabbing the larger mech's arm and holding him back while saying something to him in Cybertronian. Raf sent Jack a quick glance, his forehead wrinkled in thought.
Ironhide harrumphed and pulled himself out of the saboteur's grasp, then stomped off, muttering to himself. Bulkhead threw him a glance before picking up Miko and hurrying after the black mech. "Did I say something wrong?" Jack wondered out loud once the three were out of earshot.
That got him a strange, difficult to define glare from Jazz, followed by a "Nothing that concerns you," spoken in an unmistakably dismissive tone, combined with an unspoken warning to stay out of it.
Distressed at receiving that much open antagonism from the saboteur, Jack turned abruptly and marched off. "Jack, wait!" Raf called, hurrying after him. Jack didn't stop, even when the younger boy had reached his side and struggled to keep pace with him. "Don't take it personally. I don't think he really meant to be rude."
"Yeah, well, if he didn't mean it, he could have made that clear." His anger at the saboteur resurfaced full force, making him wonder what kind of mech Jazz really was – the easy-going bot to talk to or the impassible comrade-killer.
They didn't get far before Arcee caught up with them. She didn't mention the incident, only crouched down to be more on eye level and said, "You two should see that you get some food and heed to bed afterwards. It's getting late."
Raf didn't seem to like that idea very much. "Won't it look… inconsiderate if we eat and get some sleep whilst the soldiers don't get either? They're still hard at work." He pointed at the closest hangar ruin where lots of men were still busy cleaning away the debris.
"No need to worry about it," Arcee replied. "I know for certain they're organized into shifts, each and every single one getting time for nourishment and recharge."
"And what about you guys?" Raf queried, persistent. "I haven't seen 'Bee for a long while because he's so busy. I suppose the rest of you are tied up into cleanup work as well."
The femme actually smiled at that. "We're fine, don't worry. We're made of sterner stuff. And Bumblebee is just finishing up his cleanup duty. He will meet us after dinner; he insists on housing you both for the night instead of having you sleep in a building that could crash during the next earthquake."
"Oh!" Raf looked decidedly more happy at the news of getting to see his guardian again in a little while. "Okay. So let's get something to eat."
Jack could barely hide his amused grin. Arcee, however, openly shook her head in incredulity, then folded down in her alt-mode. "Hop on; I'll take you to the mess hall."
Jazz watched Arcee take off with the kids, wondering if Jack was still as angry with him as he had been earlier when their gazes had met after he'd had to shoot Silverbolt. His musings got interrupted when his comm alerted him to an incoming message. /Prowl to Jazz, come in./
/Whassup, Prowler?/ he responded immediately.
/Are you back on base?/
/Come to Hangar D please. I have need of your special talents./
He frowned at that. If anybot wanted something from him for his special talents, it meant he had to hack either a Decepticon or a fellow comrade. In this case, he had a suspicion who he was supposed to hack – and he didn't like that idea. Nonetheless, he turned on his heels and walked to one of the few hangars that still stood among the wreckage.
As thought, he found Prowl next to Silverbolt's already gray frame, talking to both the general and his second Colonel Greene. All three turned at the sound of his entrance. As usual, Prowl's expression made it impossible to guess at the tactician's thoughts; only the stiff posture of his doorwings gave away how tense the mech was. Hacking another bot was nothing they treated lightly, no matter whether the bot to be hacked was an enemy or one of their own ranks. Jazz locked optics with Prowl, and when the other mech nodded curtly once, he knew his suspicions to be confirmed.
Repressing the need to ex-vent warily, he closed the remaining distance and crouched down, determined to finish this job as quickly and efficiently as usual. He was a professional after all; his own sensitivity didn't matter here. "Somethin' specific ya're looking for?" he asked Prowl when plugging in.
"Anything about his time in Decepticon hands and leading up to his capture. We need all intel we can get about Megatron's fortress if we want to take it down."
Which ultimately meant that he had to get into Silverbolt's private files as well. He hated especially such invasive search orders – even dead bots had a right to privacy –, but apart from Special Ops, no other bot was equipped with the required hardware or had the necessary experience. So he dug in, first using the Aerial's tagging system before systematically double-checking every timestamp. It thus took him quite a while due to the timespan he had to cover, demanding a high level of concentration and thus draining a major part of his energy reserves. Nonetheless, he still noticed both humans watching him acutely while talking to Prowl. Most of their conversation was lost to Jazz due to his processors focusing on the hack, but what he picked up concerned him, his talents and why Prowl couldn't have done it.
Once Jazz finished, he compressed the data and sent it to Prowl for perusal and tactical analysis. Afterward, he tasked his processors with a defragmentation to avoid cluttering and a major processor ache in a few joors. When he stood, the humans still watching his every movement, the colonel asked, "Aren't you going to report your findings?"
Prowl explained before Jazz could, "He already sent me everything."
The general's eyes tightened unhappily. "And when will we see it? This concerns us as much as you."
Prowl acknowledged that with a nod and replied, "I promise to forward you everything once I have completed the tactical analysis. It might be too much information to be sent through your email system, however…"
Jazz let Prowl handle the humans and retreated to a corner. He felt exhausted, both mentally as well as emotionally, and intended to power down for some recharge. However, as soon as he was about to set his chronometer to wake him the next morning before offlining, someone stepped in front of him. Groaning at the disruption, he scanned for the spark signature and looked up at Arcee. "Was there somethin' ya wanted?" he asked.
"Yes, actually," she responded. "A word if you please? Sir?" She gestured outside.
Not in the mood for a serious one-on-one – especially since he had the hunch her topic would be Jack – he said, "Can't it wait 'til tomorrow? Ah'm exhausted."
The femme's expression was serious. "I can see that and I'm sorry to disturb you like that, but it's kind of urgent."
Ex-venting, he scrambled back to his pedes. "Fine. Ya got mah attention." He invited her to lead them outside which she promptly did. They didn't go far; seeking privacy would have been no use anyway since the cleanup crews were literally everywhere.
When she stopped, she turned around and faced him. "It's about Jack – but you probably already guessed that." She left him no time to answer because she immediately continued, "You should talk to him first thing tomorrow."
He frowned. "Why?"
"Because I think you owe him an explanation." He sent her a quizzical stare and she elaborated, telling him about his emotional breakdown earlier this evening, before concluding with, "He's been through a lot lately. It's a miracle how much he was able to endure before it became too much for him. But seeing you shoot Silverbolt, a fellow Autobot, shook his confidence in us. He even thought about leaving. I believe that if you explain the whys, he'd be able to trust us again."
He sighed. "Can't you take care of that?"
"I don't know what went on in your processors."
She had a point, he had to give her that. "Why does he need to know the whys anyway? He's just a kid."
Arcee grew even more serious, straightening to full height. "Jack is important," she said. "He may just be a human and still a kid in everyone's eyes, but not only did he go to Cybertron to restore Optimus' memories, he headed to Megatron's fortress – twice – to save first you and then help retrieve Prime and the two Aerials. I think that especially in light of the latter he's earned an explanation of why the one surviving Aerial got shot not even a day later."
Jazz usually wasn't one for explaining his motives to others but if it helped set the kid's mind at ease, he'd have a spark-to-spark with him. "Al'right, Ah'll talk ta him."
"Thanks, sir." Arcee eyed him appraisingly for a moment, then instructed, "And when talking to him, you can apologize too."
Jazz narrowed his optics at her tone. "Why?"
"Cause your rude dismissals hurt him. He's earned to be respected and that includes you." She paused for a moment, then changed the topic, observing, "You should get some recharge before keeling over."
He sent her an icy glare. "Ah was about ta do exactly that when ya interrupted," he shot back, ignoring her rebuke about how he had treated Jack. She only grinned at that which made Jazz huff; he was slowly getting angry with her. "Go scamp before Ah report ya ta Prowl for loiterin'."
She snorted but obligingly turned away and folded down into her alt. "Empty threats. Have heard those more often than I can count. Ratchet's much better at it than you. Good night, sir!" And off she was, rendering his desire to hurl curses at her rather futile.
Before he could head back to his corner, though, he received a data package via comm from Perceptor, followed by a message to him and Prowl. /I need to talk to you. This is serious./ As if he hadn't heard that before. Resigning himself to the fact that he wouldn't get any recharge soon, he rewrote his energy distribution and tapped into the emergency reservoir. A little alert on his HUD informed him that he had energy left for another joor before stasis lock would offline him. He hoped to get some recharge before that time had run out.
He found tactician and scientist next to the cleft near Hangar A, the latter crouched down and carving out samples from the metal. "Make it quick. Ah'm running on emergency energy and desperately need a recharge," Jazz informed Perceptor preemptively because the mech tended to ramble once immersed in a topic.
If Perceptor was surprised or insulted, he didn't show it. He stood and subspaced his samples before plunging into his report without preamble. "The shuttle's scans confirmed my suspicions. The metal didn't develop on Earth. It's synthetic and Cybertronian in origin."
That orn really sucks, Jazz thought. Prowl's lipplates thinning at these news indicated the tactician wasn't happy about that either. "Anythin' else?" Jazz asked. "Give us the rest of the bad news while we're at it anyway."
"Well…" Perceptor began but then hemmed and hawed. Prowl sent the scientist a glare which prompted him to continue. "The scans also revealed that the metal percentage in Earth's crust has risen whilst the liquid components' percentage dropped. Further in-depth scanning has then uncovered a weakening of this planet's magnetic field."
A bomb exploding right into their faceplates would have had the same effect. "Excuse me?" Prowl asked disbelievingly while Jazz at the same time heatedly demanded, "What?"
Perceptor grew nervous at their combined stares. "The metal is messing with this planet's magnetic field," he rephrased. "My guess is that it will get worse when the metal continues spreading – and it is growing, at an alarming rate even."
"So this planet is being cyberformed?" Prowl queried to be absolutely certain.
Primus, why does it always happen ta us? Jazz cursed silently. It was bad enough that they had to fight Decepticons and the Star Seekers at the same time. Now this planet's life's existence was at a risk too. "How do we stop it?" Because they could not afford a second Archon, a former Cybertronian colony that had accidentally gotten cyberformed after receiving a replica of the Well of All Sparks due to its richness in energy. Archon's original lifeforms had become extinct because they were unable to adept to a metallic world. The same fate was now threatening Earth and its organic inhabitants.
Perceptor shrugged. "Honestly, I don't know. This is beyond me, especially since this planet is made of Unicron instead of rock."
"Ah'm not a scientist but doesna Cybertron have a magnetic field too? Our planet's made of Primus. Why should Earth not keep its field?"
"True, but I can't answer you this one. All I know is that the magnetic field is growing weaker. And we should experience the first effects of that soon."
"Disruptions in radio transmissions for one. And I don't know if the organic life can tolerate high-level radiation."
Prowl crossed his arms, his optics turning distant; his processors were apparently hard at work trying to solve this dilemma. Jazz too tried to think of a solution, but with his sluggish processors, he found it extremely difficult to concentrate at all.
Eventually, Prowl opened an open comm link to Ratchet. /Do you have a few breems? We need to discuss what happened with Unicron./
The response, when it came, sounded as exhausted as Jazz felt. /Give me another breem to finish up./
When Jazz rubbed his faceplates tiredly, Prowl remarked, "You should get some recharge. I can take care of this here."
"Sounds like one of ya better plans," the saboteur responded, earning himself a glare. He chuckled. Before he could leave, though, they overheard one of the human soldiers reporting to his commanding officer and comrades:
"Two tornados passed by Las Vegas this evening, at an interval of only an hour. They didn't hit the city, but the winds untiled a couple of roofs in the western suburbs and uprooted several trees."
Major McKinley frowned. "First these earthquakes, now tornados. I wonder what is happening with the weather. The news reported hurricanes in Europe and snow storms in Mexico."
Prowl walked over to the humans. "Excuse me," he addressed them, "exactly how long have these unusual phenomena been observed?"
The major shrugged. "I'm not entirely certain, but the report about the latest hurricane in Europe was in just this morning's news, and the snow storm in Mexico happened yesterday." He regarded Prowl pensively. "Why? What interest do you have in the weather?" Good question, Jazz thought, wondering like the major about Prowl's sudden curiosity.
"I believe these unusual phenomena are just symptoms of something bigger."
Prowl shook his head. "That I do not know yet."
It was a lie; Jazz knew the tactician and his postures well enough to detect that. /It has somethin' ta do with the cyberforming, am Ah right?/ he sent via comm to the tactician and Perceptor while the major said, "'Kay. If you do, we'd be glad to know it too."
"Of course," he promised Major McKinley before replying to Jazz, /I think so. I have no proof yet, but the reports of Team Prime mentioned haywire weather during the planetary alignment. This time it might be in correlation to the weakening of the magnetic field./ The last was intended for Perceptor who immediately immersed himself in research. Prowl turned and headed back to Hangar E.
Jazz was confused. /Ah donna remember that part from 'Bee's report,/ he sent back, switching to a private line. /Are ya privy ta data Ah'm not?/ He fell in step with the tactician, and Perceptor hurried after them.
In response he received a data package from Prowl and set his processors to integrate the data. He only gleaned the one or other line, but it seemed that the tactician had really received different information to what Jazz had known so far. The reason became clear when he found out who the reports were from. "Slagging medic!" he grumbled; trust Ratchet to tell Prowl everything and him nothing at all, especially when he was on the injury roster and thus on medical leave.
They entered the hangar to find it almost quiet. A few soldiers on graveyard shift were at their monitors while several bots had sat down to get some rest after the afternoon's 'excitement'. Somewhere, a radio was broadcasting the most recent news, among them the unusual weather all over the world. Prowl stopped and listened with interest. Perceptor too paused for a moment before heading over to the groundbridge console. He plugged in and downloaded several data packages, then brought up a map of Earth, with all reported weather mayhem pinpointed. It caught Prowl's attention and he headed over. For an astrosecond, Jazz thought about letting them have at it while he finally got the rest he needed, but then he decided against recharge, instead hearing the bad news right away rather than finding out later.
Mindful of the humans present, Prowl switched their conversation to Cybertronian. The Autobots would find out earlier than later anyway; gossip tended to be faster than the wind. "There is no conceivable pattern," he noted. "This is all over the place."
"Does it have ta have a pattern?" Jazz asked.
"Normally, one would think that the point of the cyberforming's origin is also the point of origin of anything happening to the planet," Perceptor explained. "Meaning it should spread out from the Decepticons' fortress as it is the place where that light beam we witnessed from the Ark hit."
"And it's not?"
"No. As Prowl noted the weather phenomena happen all over the world. As for the metal, I do not know how far it has spread or if there are other points of origin as well. My research at least indicates that the weather is partly influenced by the magnetic field. I'm guessing that its weakening is the reason of these unusual phenomena." Perceptor threw a glance over his shoulder at the humans but they were focused on their own duties, ignoring the mechs. Taking that as a good sign, the scientist changed the map to a simulation of Earth's future if the cyberforming was allowed to continue.
"How long does Earth still have?" Prowl asked once the screen had been switched back to the map.
"Uncertain. It's still a gradual process, but it could speed up anytime for any reason."
Behind them, footfalls heralded the arrival of another bot. All three turned simultaneously; it was Ratchet. He stopped short at their looks, got wind of the radio newscast still running, then ex-vented tiredly. "That is exactly what we had wanted to avoid," he said, closing the distance. "We honestly thought that with his transcended form, the Matrix's power would merely put Unicron in such a deep stasis that the planet's magnetic field stayed intact."
"You mean this is happening because Unicron's spark was extinguished?" Prowl asked.
Perceptor shook his head. "No. Merely exterminating Unicron's spark wouldn't have caused all that is happening now. It is the cyberforming."
"And who's fault is that?" Jazz asked rhetorically, already knowing the answer to that question.
He nonetheless received a reply. "Mine I'm afraid. By surrendering the Keys to Megatron, I gave him the chance to misuse it."
Everyone turned around, staring in surprise; even those almost in recharge perked up, wide awake again. Then many shouts of "Optimus!" and "Prime! Blessed be the AllSpark!" rang through the hangar, scaring quite a few of the humans who were, apparently and understandably, still on edge after what happened with Silverbolt. When some of the bots then ran towards their leader, needing to touch him to ensure he was real and not just a figment on their processors, quite a few weapons were drawn. Prowl quickly explained the situation, thus dissolving most of the tension.
It skyrocketed again when Ratchet headed toward Optimus, but for an entirely different reason. Chasing away bots that blocked him, he roared angrily, "Slagging glitch!" switching back to English, probably to allow the humans to understand what was going on. The Autobots knew better than to stand in the furious CMO's way and quickly scurried out of his path. "Who allowed you to get up? You were almost scrap metal! You shouldn't be moving, lest of all walking so soon!" Ratchet loudly ranted at the taller mech.
Optimus patiently listened to the complaint, then laid a servo on the medic's shoulder. "I am well enough for this," he said. "Trust me, old friend. I will return to medbay should I run out of energy."
His engine thrumming with displeasure, Ratchet grumbled audibly but relented. Jazz knew he would nonetheless keep a very close optic on his patient. They simply couldn't afford losing their Prime.
Turning toward Perceptor, Optimus asked, "Do you have an idea of how to stop the cyberforming?"
Perceptor shook his helm. "No. This is out of my league. We'd need an expert on geology, somebot like Beachcomber. Better even would be one of the mechs who were supervising other planets' cyberformings, but they are long gone to my knowledge."
Prime became pensive. "I will consult the Matrix then." Turning to Prowl, he asked, "Can you send me all relevant data you have?"
"And what do we do in the meantime?" Trailbreaker asked, proving once again how nosy the Autobots were; like Jazz had thought, the mechs had listened in to Perceptor's explanations.
"I'm afraid there is nothing we can do right now." Optimus turned to Ratchet. "We should talk to Rafael though. He is knowledgeable and innovative. But most importantly, we can trust him to keep it silent for the time being."
"I will speak to him in the morning." He then threw a shrewd glance at Optimus. "Since there is nothing we can do just yet, you have time to return to medbay to getsome rest." He crossed his arms over his chassis. "This is nonnegotiable, Prime." Ratchet added a glare for good measures.
Optimus chuckled. "Noted. If you'd like to accompany me to ensure I actually arrive there?" he joked, earning a warning growl from the medic. "There are a few details about the latest system scans you might be able to explain to me. I'm no medic after all…" Gently but firmly he maneuvered the CMO out of the hangar.
Jazz shook his helm; leave it to Prime to counter Ratchet's well-known temper with diplomacy. A servo on his shoulder pulled him out of his thoughts. "Go get some recharge too," Prowl said. "If things turn dire, we need all servos well rested."
Since the tactician had a point, Jazz nodded and headed back outside to search for a quiet corner.
Jack woke to the sun blinding him through Bumblebee's windshield. He lifted a hand to shadow his eyes. A soft chirr-beep came from the dashboard, sounding a little like 'Sorry!', then the bot was changing positions. Jack was now nonetheless awake and slowly worked himself into a more upright sitting position. He was stiff and his neck hurt. "How late is it?" he murmured groggily. In response, the radio display came on a moment later, informing him it was just past six. A glance to the backseat told him Raf was still deep asleep. "Could you let me out? I need to use the bathroom."
Bumblebee beeped at him again and drove over to Hangar E, halting right in front of the adjourning barracks with the lavatories. Jack laboriously climbed out and patted the mech on the roof before heading inside. Since he was hungry again, he also took a detour to the mess hall to grab a sandwich.
When he returned half an hour later, he found Raf awake, sitting dazedly in the passenger's seat, his legs dangling out of the open door. Next to him stood a stone-faced Agent Fowler, and behind Bumblebee stood Bulkhead with Miko in his cupped palms. The girl was currently throwing a tantrum, loudly saying – almost screaming – "No, no, no, no, nonononononono!" over and over again. Confused, Jack turned to Fowler. "What's going on?"
Instead of the man answering though, Raf spoke up. "My parents called. A couple of houses in their neighborhood have started turning metallic, and people are becoming scared. After that, the latest earthquakes and the tornados yesterday, my parents decided to leave Las Vegas. They're heading north to my dad's sister's family." He paused for a moment before quietly adding, "They want me to come along." His hands balled into fists.
Jack now had an idea why Miko was upset. "Her host parents called too, didn't they?" he asked Fowler.
He nodded and said, "Yes. Her parents from Japan too, after they found out from her host family where she is. They have been adamant that she leaves the area." Above them, Miko's mantra stopped and she started crying. Bulkhead seemed at a loss of what to do to calm her down again.
Raf hopped out of the car, his expression becoming stone-faced. Without another word, he headed inside, to the lavatories as Jack found out when he followed him to make sure he was okay. When Jack returned a moment later, he found their little group had grown. Arcee was there, along with his mother. "Jack!" the latter called upon noticing him. "There you are. How are you feeling this morning?" She closed the distance, gave him a brief yet thorough once over, then hugged him tightly.
Jack coughed. "Mom, you're chocking me," he brought out breathlessly.
She let go again, sending him an embarrassed grin. "Sorry," she said, without sounding apologetic at all.
Bulkhead bent down and Miko came running over. "Mrs. Darby," she began, her face tear-strained, "you have to tell them they can't send us away!"
Jack's mother frowned. "What are you talking about?" Fowler quickly brought her up to speed.
Before she could give Miko any sort of reply, however, heavy footsteps heralded a new arrival – or rather three: When Jack turned around to look, to his surprise and excitement he saw none other than Optimus Prime heading toward them, accompanied by Prowl and Ironhide. Behind Jack, Bumblebee transformed, but Jack didn't care. He was not the only one joyfully shouting "Optimus!" and meeting him halfway, then hugging one of his legs.
The mech's engine rumbled in a chuckle. "It is good to see you well," he greeted them. In that moment, Raf returned, a backpack in one hand and his laptop in the other. After the initial moment of shocked surprise, he too was happy to see Optimus recovered.
Miko quickly regained her wits. "Please don't send us away," she requested from Optimus.
Jack's mom came up behind her and put her hands on the girl's shoulders. "It's not up to them to decide," she gently said. "Your family only wants what is best for you, for you to be safe. By staying, you'd hurt them." She threw a glance at Jack, her expression telling him that he'd done exactly that when he refused going with her when she needed to take Raf to the hospital after he had been infected with dark energon. But her expression also said that she wasn't angry about it – not anymore at least.
He'd apologize for that later. Right now his friends' stay was at risk. "Seriously, Mom, you're letting them go just like that?"
"I'm not their mother, Jack. I cannot hold them here if their families want them to come home."
Raf looked down at his feet, clutching his laptop to his chest. Above him, Bumblebee beeped at Optimus pleadingly – if Jack understood the tone correctly. But all Optimus did was put a hand on the scout's shoulder and gently say, "Let him go, old friend."
Miko whirled around. "You can't do that!" she shouted up at Optimus. "We're part of Team Prime."
Optimus went down on a knee to be closer to eye level. "I know, Miko, and you will be sorely missed. But you need to be with your families, especially in times as dark as these." And as if to prove his words correct, another earthquake shook the base. It wasn't as powerful as the last, but enough to make the buildings rattle and creak dangerously.
Once the earthquake had ceased, Miko pleaded with the present Autobots, "But you need us! What are you going to do without Raf's abilities?"
"Miko," Optimus gently said, catching her attention. "Sometimes being in charge means to let someone go. We all have had to make sacrifices for the team. You will be safe when with your families."
Jack regarded the battle-hardened, serious expressions of Prowl and Ironhide who stood close by, watching silently. Bulkhead crouched down next to Miko. "It's not fair," she lamented.
"No, it isn't," the warrior agreed, putting a single finger on her shoulder. "No matter what happens, you'll always be my partner," he said. "I will come find you once this is all over. Remember that, Miko." She started crying again, hefting her teary gaze on Bulkhead. He gently picked her up and held her to his chassis. Miko plastered herself against him, the only way she had to hug him.
Taking a deep breath, Raf squared his shoulders and looked up at the Autobots. "Thanks for everything and… good luck." Optimus nodded regally at his words. Raf sent him a sad smile, then walked over to Bulkhead. "Come on, Miko, let's go."
Bulkhead set her back down, and she wiped away some tears with the back of her hand. "How can you be so calm about it?"
Raf shrugged. "Like they said, everyone has to make some sacrifices. Now it's our turn to take one for the team." He walked a few steps toward Agent Fowler, then glanced back over his shoulders. He gave them a little wink. "See you, guys. 'Bee."
But no matter how strong his façade was, when Raf turned their back on them to follow Fowler, Jack saw the tears streaming down the younger boy's cheeks.