Disclaimer: Not mine, no money.
Characters/Pairing(s): Lennox, Ironhide, Sarah, ensemble, Ratchet/Ironhide
Warnings: Character death, brief gore (mech and human), brief cannibalism, angst.
Summary: Wherein Will Lennox dies, but not alone; Sarah drops a bomb on Ironhide; Ironhide gives in; a new mech decants; and Prime takes a walk in the rain. ;D
Notes: Musical suggested listening thanks to TheMooglesLantern:
BOREALIS: Heartlines - Part I
2061 - September
Sinnertwin chewed, twisting his head to yank out another chunk of protoform from Ironhide’s midsection. Rippersnapper and Cutthroat kept his arms and cannons pinned, but they were going to be in for a surprise when Ironhide autodetonated his ordnance. He had to wait, though, just a little longer. He had to hold out until Will cleared the area.
The United Technologies Corporation convention for which Lennox and Ironhide had been asked to give a presentation on Human/Cybertronian TacOps had been an enjoyable foray out of the realm of retirement for Lennox. Their talk had been more a themed string of anecdotes than an organized lecture, but people laughed at the right places. Lennox had told them about the time Ironhide had crashed into a storage tank of fire retardant and come out bright slimy orange; and Ironhide, pretending to be more embarrassed than he was, had retaliated with the details of the incident wherein Lennox had carried on a lengthy conversation with an ordinary Army jeep. The food had been decent, the beer excellent. Then the Terrorcons had shown up.
Everyone’s out, Hide! Lennox tight-beamed. But Ironhide knew he wasn’t.
Not fair, that they should be so fast. Things that big were supposed to be slow. Elephants didn’t gallop, everyone knew that. The enormous hand reached for him and he couldn’t, he could not evade it. It closed around him, lifting him thirty feet up with no effort at all. God, this was the place he’d told his men over and over you never wanted to be. The place you wanted to avoid at all costs.
And yet, he’d also told them not to give up, even in a situation like this. Jhiaxus had closed his fingers around Lennox’s body, leaving his arms free. A mistake.
Jhiaxus crackled and rumbled at him in Cybertronian. No doubt detailing the dissection and torture to come.
Lennox kept a little device in his shirt pocket. Sarah and Ironhide knew he had it, but he didn’t mention it to anyone else. Well, Wheeljack knew about it – he’d made the thing for him – and any Autobot who bothered to scan him knew it was there. It was a simple thing, the trigger was mechanical. Nothing that could be jammed or hacked. Jhiaxus drew him up close to study him. Better and better.
He flipped the cap, pressed the button and pitched the little tube deep into the structures of Jhiaxus’ neck. Roaring, Jhiaxus threw his prize down, clawing at himself, digging around with fine manipulators. The tip of one claw connected with the cylinder just as the explosive went off.
Ironhide! Lennox couldn’t see him from where he’d fallen, even if he hadn’t been blinded by smoke and debris. The sounds of battle had increased then faded.
I’m fine, Ironhide lied. Silverbolt brought Rail Racer.
Did I get him?
Yes, Will. Prime was borrowing Ironhide’s sensory feed, as were Ratchet and First Aid. There was nothing they could do. An ambulance had been summoned, but they would arrive too late. The fall as Jhiaxus had thrown him had damaged too much of Lennox’s 78-year-old body. Ironhide could start CPR, had even learned to give the precise kind of shock to start a heart; but his aorta had ruptured and there simply wasn’t enough of Lennox’s blood left inside his circulatory system. He gave no outward sign of consciousness, heartbeat and breathing faltering, slowing.
Took his head off. Cleaner than he deserved, Ironhide told him, harmonics steady now as they wouldn’t be later. Chain explosions got the spark. As good a kill as I’ve ever seen.
Thanks…Hide… He couldn’t see, but he wasn’t cold any more. He felt warm, weightless. Nothing hurt. He knew where this was going. Love you, Sarah. Love all of you… Somehow he felt the contacts with Ironhide, with Sarah and Anna, with Prime all at once, in parallel, and could give equal attention to each. The human brain could do funny things with the perception of time. I love you. Only Ironhide was there with his physical body, yet he felt all of them near him.
Daddy, please, Daddy, don’t go!
Busted up, baby-girl. Annabelle. Anna Bella Button. I love you, Button. You be good, be strong Warrior Princess. I got that bastard… don’t tell your mom I said that…
I won’t, Dad. I love you!
Love you, love you, love you, I tell you three times… Wasn’t he supposed to float up, look down on his body? Watch the silver cord snap? The voices in his head were patterns of light and color, vague figures moving in a fog. Some stood close, human-sized; some he felt as much as saw/heard, hovering near, above, with fainter echoes from far away. The multitudes in the cloud mind, translated now to clouds, and strange-eyed angels.
Nineteen guns, Hide?
Yes, Will. I promise.
I love you, Sarah told him, knowing the finality from Sideswipe’s bowed head outside the kitchen window. She’d been an Army wife for over fifty years. Her tears didn’t color the facsimile of her voice over the comms. Always you. Only you, Will.
Sarah. Love you, Sarah. Sarah…Sarah……Sarah………Sarah…………
His signal was lost.
Ironhide dragged himself across the parking lot to the rear of the conference hall, leaving bits and pieces behind. Jhiaxus had blown a hole in the building. Arms mostly intact, Ironhide hauled the ruins of himself over the ruins of the wall. His legs and one hip assembly didn’t make the transit, but he couldn’t feel it. Too much was missing between his CPU and the lower half of his torso. Ratchet was yelling over tight-beam, already en route…via Thundercracker? Huh. All the deltas but ‘Bolt were off-planet. Ironhide switched off the little vitals transmitter Ratchet had installed in him vorns ago. Ratchet’s swearing grew in diversity and volume, but Ironhide ignored him. He could see Will’s body now.
After only a couple of wary glances at Ironhide, the paramedics and the telepresence doctor on call pronounced General Lennox dead at the scene, moving on to find and treat others who had been injured. Ratchet dropped from Thundercracker’s hull ten meters up and sprinted to Ironhide’s side.
Rail Racer stood motionless and silent at the edge of the parking lot. The bullet train combiner’s armor bore a few dents and scorch marks, but the Terrorcons had retreated after only a cursory exchange of blows once Jhiaxus had died. Silverbolt was tracking them, following their flight to the Torment, keeping his distance but making little effort to prevent them from knowing he was there. The battleship would relocate beyond Silverbolt’s scanner range as soon as the gestalt was inside anyway.
Swearing quietly, Ratchet moved swiftly over Ironhide’s chassis; capping energon and coolant lines, shutting down sparking components, cabling via neck cables not just to assess Ironhide’s physical condition, but to envelop him in shared grief and anger. To offer what solace he could, as he had done for three million years, more often than either of them wanted to think about.
Ironhide covered Will’s body with his hands, refusing to relinquish it until the coroner’s ambulance arrived. Not because he was himself particularly attached to the arrangement of atoms that had once been his friend but now most assuredly no longer contained that person, that...spark. But because he knew Sarah would want to know that he had been there, that he had watched over her husband's shell with due care.
She had slept alone in that bed for months at a time. But not lately. Not lately. His lean, old body had been better than any pillow. Gone. Gone, she had to keep reminding herself. She had needed to see the body. She’d seen his face, unmarked aside from a deep cut on the right temple. It was better than a lot of military spouses got, she knew that. They hadn’t brought her just a finger bone or dog-tags. DNA sample off a smear on a wall.
A hand larger than her torso curled around her, an enormous arm reaching through the bedroom window. Heavy, but pressing lightly on the blanket. Through the quilt it was harder to tell those warm fingers were metal, not flesh. Living, either way. The hand did not withdraw even after her sobs eased. Waiting for her to go to sleep. He’d refused to leave her vicinity since bringing Will’s body back. Ratchet had completed his repairs there on the farm. Seeing that, any anger she might have felt at his failure to guard her husband had evaporated. Ironhide hadn’t been able to save Will because the Terrorcons had been eating him; sawing bites out of non-vital structures first, keeping him alive for as long as possible.
She shuddered and the hand closed tighter around her; a precisely calculated squeeze. She patted his thumb. Ratchet was still outside with him, too. Or at least she hadn’t heard him drive away.
She knew Will had died keeping others safe. She knew he’d taken out a major bad guy. It hadn’t been a senseless, meaningless death. He’d gone the way he’d have wanted to, given a choice. He’d been spared a lingering slide into weakness and senility. None of that helped now, but it would later. She wondered how Prime felt. A member of her species had sent another member of his to the afterlife. How many more times would their races exchange roles as slayer and slain?
As always, his voice seemed to overflow her head, warming her entire being. How…how are you doing?
I am…well enough.
That little pause. As though it would have taken him so long to think of an appropriate response; to understand that she was asking more than just his immediate physical condition, to respect her need for communication and comfort and to focus on someone other than herself. To refrain from meaningless platitudes. He understood human language to contain as part and parcel such pauses, in addition to subtleties of tone and phrasing and body posture. Such things were important in his native language as well. She so loved talking with him.
I heard Ratchet muttering, Sarah confessed. Ratchet was so …Ratchetty. She’d wanted to laugh even as Ironhide’s injuries made her want to throw up. It sounded like something went wrong, like before, when Galvatron…made the Allspark create life …wrongly? She couldn’t remember the word she’d heard Sam use. A 76-year-old brain wasn’t what it used to be, wifi chip or no. She remembered Prime in pain, though. And the distress of the Autobots around him, unable to help except by their love and presence.
There were worse things, she reminded herself, than simple death. (So what if there are? another part of herself shouted. Will was dead! Gone! She would never feel his wiry but strong hands again. Never kiss his thin but tender lips again. It wasn’t fair! They were retired! His hands, his shoulders, the silver ruffle of his short hair…) Her head ached with crying, but she didn’t care. It was nothing to the pain in her heart. You felt Jhiaxus die, right? Autobot or Decepticon, you feel them all die.
Yes. Jhiaxus had not followed Barricade’s path of individual dissociation – as close to oblivion as a Cybertronian could hope for, it seemed. (Barricade’s choice continued to trouble Optimus. Why had he rejected the bliss of oneness? Was everything that Barricade was truly lost? Had nothing he’d learned been shared?) A monumental struggle had exploded through the Allspark at the moment of Jhiaxus’ sparkdeath. A screaming, clawing attempt to subsume the other patterns into his, to make them merely subsystems within himself. The sheer weight of those gone before was greater than Jhiaxus could overcome, and he had slunk, sulking, to Galvatron’s moiety, where Galvatron had stamped him into submission. In all likelihood, Jhiaxus’ particular brand of amorality had been ignored for millennia because his successes were undeniable. There had been rumors about things that went on at his facility for just as long. Megatron, once his own reprogramming had taken the most ruthless turn, had given him free rein. It was doubtful that Jhiaxus would ever have chosen to return to a more restrained state, but Optimus had hoped that given enough time the scientist’s brilliance could once again have been turned to Cybertron’s good. Jhiaxus was a brilliant xenobiologist, theoretician and evolutionary designer. If we could have healed him it would have added greatly to our hope for the future as a species. His death is…another tragic loss.
Among staggering losses, Sarah thought. How do you bear it? Prime had been asked that many times, she was sure, and she might have asked before, herself. But she wanted to hear his voice, reassuring in her head, telling her things would get better no matter how soggy her pillow was becoming. Between Ironhide’s presence and Optimus’ voice, she could get through the worst all right.
Only with a great deal of help. And time. He could speak with many of the dead in the Allspark and Matrix, but Sarah could not. He knew his people’s sparks were as safe as they could be…he wouldn’t allow Galvatron to force them again.
Sarah gradually became aware of a big engine approaching. How many speeding tickets, Prime? He’d been at the embassy at the beginning of their conversation, she thought.
None. Thundercracker and Strake dropped me off at the highway. Thundercracker complained of drag the entire distance, but I do not think they minded. Seekers are one of the only groups of Cybertronians to have elaborate grieving and funerary rituals. Explorers and military frames, they were less likely than most Cybertronians to have their sparks gently fade and grow dim and extinguish.
They’re…they mourn him, too? She sat up, squirming out from under Ironhide’s hand, and peered past the bulk of his arm. Yes, there was Ratchet, blinking from his nap against Ironhide’s side.
Yes. As both a former honorable adversary and as someone who had become a valuable ally. Slow, heavy footsteps. Even getting out of bed and craning her neck, the eaves blocked her view of Optimus’ face, but he knelt beside his Weapons Specialist and his Chief Medical Officer and embraced them both. Sarah climbed out the window and was lifted – she wasn’t sure by whom – to Prime’s shoulder. Ironhide leaned his helm against Prime’s chest, where Sarah could reach.
In the morning, Sarah found that Prime, Ironhide and Ratchet had been joined by Jazz and Bumblebee – the First Five, as Sam called them, taking a none too subtle swipe at Sector Seven’s self-aggrandizing. Sarah herself had been placed in her bed when she had at last fallen asleep, but the window was left open, the robots’ engines keeping the nighttime chill at bay.
Soon the house would fill with their human family and friends. Anna and Nick and their youngest two were already there. Unaware as yet of the robots, or Jinny and Bryce would have been out there climbing them. Sarah welcomed the distraction. She had a lot to do before the funeral.
Nineteen guns for the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and CenCom of NEST, the Honor Guard crisp in their dark uniforms. That wasn’t counting Ironhide’s two cannons. The Autobots ringing the field kept their snickers to tight-beam and fired their volleys with proper decorum.
Thundercracker, Strake, Breakaway and a human pilot in an F-22 performed the missing man formation, while Optimus Prime gave the eulogy. It was a duty he knew he would be performing frequently for the next several decades, but at least he could. So many had died without rites or words, and so few were left to remember.
The clacking and clatter of the gathered crows at the memorial surrounded her with their empty condolences and trite phrases. She wanted it to be over. She wanted to go home. But she was an Army wife, she had duties to uphold, facades to build strong and impenetrable. The robots stayed nearby, silent. Ironhide, Sideswipe, Ratchet and Prime. The cloud mind hovered, subdued but attentive, at the edge of her awareness. They didn’t need to say anything. They understood.
Slowly days and nights passed and the house emptied of Sarah’s younger brother and Will’s older sister, and the handful of cousins, and the older grandkids. Everyone filing away to their own lives. Soon the house was quiet but for Sarah and the dogs. Silence and absence like a punch in the chest every time she came in the door. There was too much food in the fridge. His clothes were in the closet, military neat, like his tools in the barn and garage. She knew some women got rid of their husbands’ stuff the moment they got the official notice. Others kept everything enshrined. She hadn’t decided yet, but she didn’t think she would keep everything.
Anna and Nick would help, whatever she decided to do. She did not want to sell the farm, though she would probably sell the last of the animals, except a couple of chickens, and let most of the vegetable plots go fallow. The house held memories, but they weren’t memories she was afraid of.
There were the Witwickies, the Madsen-Whitmanns and the Eppses as well, though poor Nick’s family had disowned him when he’d married Anna. They did not like the robots and they really did not like augmenting humans. It was unnatural. Sarah didn’t think it was a specifically religious objection, but kind of a general American, Puritanical distaste.
Spiral had expedited most of the paperwork – not that it was paper any more, and not because Sarah couldn’t have done it herself. Spiral and Prowl liked to help with irritating and unthinking bureaucracy, taking what Sarah suspected was a somewhat predatory delight in outmaneuvering even the most arcane and convoluted regulations, and flummoxing stubborn bureaucrats. Want that in triplicate? Oh, we made five extra copies. Did you know that Section 12.5, subsection 16 of the Nevada State Probate code requires Form C as well as Form T? No? Well, we have both anyway. Have a nice afternoon.
They were kind of scary.
As for everything else, Sarah did what needed doing, like she always had.
Two months later.
“We could wait to bundle his engrams until you join him,” Ratchet said, watching Sarah water the geraniums that grew in enthusiastic variety around the foundation of the house. “I’m certain the two of you discussed this, but your wishes are paramount at this time.”
Sarah refilled the can and continued on her route. “We did discuss it,” she said. “We decided it would best be left up to the survivor. I don’t want you to wait.” She stopped and smiled up at Ratchet, including Ironhide in the brightness of her regard. “I want to see him decant.”
“Hmm,” said Ratchet.
“Go ahead and talk to Smokey if you think you must. We’ve been thinking about this for years. It’s not going to be a shock.”
“Sarah Lennox,” Ironhide said, chuckling, “the last thing anyone could accuse you of is emotional fragility.”
Sarah’s smile turned mischievous. Ironhide felt an inexplicable urge to transform and run for the hills. “You do know, don’t you, Ironhide, what his stipulation is for the body he wants?”
“Oh Primus,” Ratchet murmured, guessing, starting to laugh.
“He wants a spark of your spark, Hide.” The slip in tense wasn’t a slip. As far as Sarah was concerned, something vital, something integral to Will was still alive in the flickering code of the crystal memory shard Perceptor had shown her.
I believe you’ve been outflanked, Prime contributed helpfully from the embassy.
“THAT PUNY, STUNTED, MALFUNCTIONING, MISBEGOTTEN…!”
“Ha!” Ratchet shoved him, smacking his chest armor for good measure. “You’ll have to give in now! Last request!”
“…BOTTOM-DWELLING, MUD-SUCKING, ANENCEPHALIC AUSTRALOPITHECINE…!” A low growl started deep in Ironhide’s engine, building to a looming rumble, and then a roar. The cannons spun out of his arms as he clenched and unclenched his fists, and Ratchet laughed. Prime! You fish that Pitspawn Jhiaxus’ spark out and embody him so I CAN KILL HIM AGAIN!
Sarah kept on around the geranium beds, giggling.
“Fine!” Ironhide snarled. He retracted his cannons, then grabbed Ratchet around the waist fast as a striking snake. “You’re my merge partner!”
“What! Nonsense! Our honored friend deserves the tribute of Prime at least! Or better yet, Chromia! That ought to satisfy his peculiar sense of propriety.”
“Ohhh no! You promised! When you shared the datafile on your and Prime’s merge, you said for me you’d be willing to go through that again!”
He’s got you there.
“Shut up, Optimus! I only said that because I knew you’d never want to! Stop being childish!”
“Who exactly is being childish?”
The argument continued for some time, the robots tussling and throwing each other around out in the back fields. Sarah went inside and had lunch, had a nap and even had time to tidy the place up a bit before Anna and Nick and the kids arrived for the weekend.
“You’re certain you have the new protocols installed properly?”
“Of course I do.”
“Ratchet, I gave them to him myself,” Perceptor said, crossing his fine-arms over his chest.
“You’re stalling,” Ironhide smirked.
“It’s really not that bad,” Perceptor insisted. “Nothing like what you and Prime went through. The worst part is choosing.”
“For you, maybe. The tank hasn’t completed its filling cycle, Ironhide. I know it’s difficult and I am irresistible but try to exhibit a little patience.”
“I’ll make certain the tank is ready when you are,” Perceptor sniffed.
“Whose side are you on?” Ratchet accused, waving his arms in defeat and allowing himself within Ironhide’s grabbing distance. “Table, you barbarian. Table!”
“What difference does it make?” Ironhide asked, yanking Ratchet to his chest with a resounding clang.
“None, really,” Perceptor said.
Do I need to come in and mediate? Prime offered.
Oh, they’re fine, Perceptor assured him. Ratchet is clattering in his armor with cold feet and Ironhide is, as per usual, not helping.
“Perceptor!” both of the above worthy mechs growled.
Or, by “mediate” did you mean participate? Perceptor nibbled on a fine-finger as he watched Ratchet drag Ironhide up onto the table. Ironhide nipped at Ratchet’s jaw spars and chest armor, biting his hands, too, when Ratchet tried to shove his face away for a moment so he could get them situated comfortably.
Just a thought. Although by the sound of it, Perceptor would want in on the action, and Prime wasn’t comfortable with the idea of merging with Perceptor until he could be certain the Allspark wouldn’t swallow him whole. Much to Perceptor’s frustration, but that was a difficulty for another day.
No offense, Ratchet said, somewhat alarmed, but let’s not complicate this.
Very well, Nervous Nellie. The tank is ready, by the way. With a tender – if mildly exasperated – glyph, Perceptor left them to it, closing and locking the door behind him. Ratchet hoped he’d be able to unlock it when they were done. Perceptor’s idea of encryption gave him a processor-ache.
“Quit stalling,” Ironhide rumbled, yanking Ratchet close, settling his arms around Ratchet’s body. He opened his thoracic ports, rearranged his heavy chest armor to gain easier access.
Ratchet stroked his audials. Suddenly eager? Their mouths were too busy for talking.
With you, yes. Ironhide’s cable tips caressed Ratchet’s ports, circling slowly before seating, clicking home, their favorite complement and container. You and Prime got it right first try. Everyone else since is just riding your bumpers. No better housing could Ironhide think of for his friend’s ghost. What else to call it, when it was patterns the Allspark collected, too? They meant to re-embody Will, as far as Ironhide was concerned. Not much different from the Graveyard Legion, once he’d thought about it.
Show me that unbowed spark, Ratchet hummed, doing some rearranging of his own, narrowing the imaginary distance between them. Their horizons converged.
Their love was old and stubborn and deep and abiding and through the metal and blades and guns and too sharpened wit that made them up, they pulled each other close, closer, closest, allowing a connection deeper than any Ironhide had before attempted. Their love was old and stubborn, and once set upon this course they refused to give up, refused though their pleasure in each other’s sparks warmed them so, felt so good, so hot. They set themselves the task and would see it through, and slag what the Twins had said about radioactive craters.
I will go with you my friend. I will go with you beside me down this road, even though I find it strange and uncomfortable and I do not like the risk it places on our sparks. I do not like the weapon it places in our enemies’ hands. But for you my friend, for our other friend, I will do this thing. And we’ll show them how it’s done.
I do love you, rusty aft. I knew you’d kindle strong and true once you turned your spark to the task.
Celadon green, bright and hot the new sun spun between them. Calm, with a palpable awareness and intent.
“Hmm!” Optimus had felt something. A subtle…not a surge exactly, but a shifting of energies within the Allspark, noticed only because he’d been watching for something of the kind. Lennox had had brief physical contact with the Cube. Optimus hadn’t been paying attention at the exact moment of Lennox’s death; now he wished he had been.
Ratchet staggered up, thankful for the Vector protocols, and fed the spark into the tank, watching it nestle and sink quietly into the waiting protomass, solemnly purposeful, focused on its task. Keying the download sequence from the crystal memory shard that held Lennox’s last preserved mindstate, Ratchet wobbled back to Ironhide on the recharge table and accepted the hand Ironhide extended to help him up. The two of them leaned on each other, limbs shaking, shutdown imminent, but they watched the tank and the new life within.
The spark busied itself, ignoring them. They fell offline, only faintly scarred but steaming, propped up against each other like bookends. Perceptor came in to check on them and was tempted to arrange them more comfortably. But he supposed they’d recharged together often enough like this, or under much worse conditions. They’d be fine.
Two hundred kilometers above the north pole, Borealis flew aerobatics, dancing with the aurora from which she’d taken her name.
She didn’t need any further rationale or justification for her existence, she really didn’t. She was happy as she was. But Mikaela’s angry words of 26 years before had stuck with her. She was secure in the love and regard of the Autobots, but the experiment that was her had not been repeated. Until now.
Soon there would be a Son of Ironhide! Was the universe ready?
2063 – June
The protoform of the tall, slender mech who stepped down from the growth tank was plated with a thin layer of nickel-iron, marked by intricate, angular Widmanstätten patterns, like and unlike glyphs. Patterns found on meteorites, and a natural alloy found plentifully on Earth, including making up most of its core.
Sarah stood on a movable gantry that had been raised to sixteen feet, putting her at about the twenty-foot-tall mech’s head height. Her hands were buried in her skirt, balled in the fabric, but she wasn’t trembling. She searched inside herself for revulsion, for terror, and found only curiosity and a half-unconscious exhilaration she dared not yet give name or full rein to. The protoform did not look like Will.
He didn’t sound like Will. She had wondered if he would. She couldn’t remember what Dr. Chase’s voice had sounded like; she’d only met her once or twice, almost fifty years before. Borealis’ voice suited her Cybertronian body – as did the new mech’s.
“Hello,” she said, lifting her hands to clasp the railing. Ratchet and the others spoke quietly, processed their scans. The new mech embraced his progenitors, seeming surprised to look them optic to optic. He flattened his hand on the top of his helm, moved that hand across to Ironhide’s helm, striking it at about optic-level. Ironhide bared denta and the others laughed. Sarah snickered. He could at least take some consolation in being a little taller than Ratchet, she thought. He examined his own hands and limbs; stretching arms and back, curling and uncurling his fingers, touching his chest. He still had to look up to meet Prime’s gaze, but not quite so far. His optics returned to her again and again, drawn like deep-Seekers to novel stellar phenomena, watching her as she watched him.
He crossed the chamber, four sets of glowing blue optics following his movement, watching, waiting. There was no sound, no sign, no posture of alarm in any of them. They had prepared for this, all of them. They had learned from Borealis’ experience. Will had known what was coming. They were being careful.
“Hello, Sarah,” he said. “Your designation is Sarah.”
“Yes. Have you…have you chosen a name yet?”
Oh, Will, Sarah thought but didn’t say. “That’s a good name.”
“Noted and logged,” Prime said, and Ranger felt ten meters taller in the warmth of his regard.
Ranger stood to attention. “Recognizing that I volunteered as a Ranger, fully knowing the hazards of my chosen profession, I will always endeavor to uphold the prestige, honor, and high esprit de corps of my Ranger Regiment.
Acknowledging the fact that a Ranger is a more elite soldier who arrives at the cutting edge of battle by land, sea, or air, I accept the fact that as a Ranger my country expects me to move further, faster and fight harder than any other soldier.
Never shall I fail my comrades. I will always keep myself mentally alert, physically strong and morally straight and I will shoulder more than my share of the task whatever it may be, one-hundred-percent and then some.
Gallantly will I show the world that I am a specially selected and well-trained soldier. My courtesy to superior officers, neatness of dress and care of equipment shall set the example for others to follow.
Energetically will I meet the enemies of my country. I shall defeat them on the field of battle for I am better trained and will fight with all my might. Surrender is not a Ranger word. I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy and under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country.
Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission though I be the lone survivor.” Ranger relaxed and extended a hand to Sarah and she clasped his fingertip. His hands were more like Prime’s than Ironhide’s or Ratchet’s. More human. The forming robot-bodies were influenced by the spark, by the chosen programming, but also influenced these things in turn. It was a complicated process.
Borealis shifted position, in essence moving closer to Sarah and Ranger, though she was sphynxed down in a crouch to take up as little room as possible. She took Ranger’s other hand and turned it over, tracing a seam between plates on the palm. Even the arrangement of these mimicked that of a human hand – in more detail than Prime’s hands did. Heart Line, Head Line, Life, Fate. Borealis displayed her own palm. Tessellated with a myriad of smaller plates, whorled with gripping ridges and input pits for the array of sensors in her hands. They resembled human hands only superficially. Borealis had explained, as they were preparing for this eventuality, that she had always liked Ratchet’s hands – two thumbs struck her as practical and strong, and the spatulate end of the middlemost finger made flipping the bird an eye-catching display.
Sarah smiled up at the deep-Seeker. Borealis meant to reassure. The new mech was another step along the bridge. More human, for now. Until he changed, either by choice or mishap. No doubt Ironhide would take up his programming and training as soon as possible. No one better. It made her feel proud.
She’d had two years to mourn the loss of her husband. To be torn by the knowledge that some part of him would survive – would indeed survive forever, in the spark-pattern that would, perhaps billions of years from now, eventually rejoin the Allspark. The same ultimate fate awaited her. Anna, too, and Nick, and however many more generations if they so chose.
And yet, Smokescreen had warned her that, confronted with the reality, her physical and emotional reactions might be more extreme than she anticipated. That was to be expected. They were treading new ground. There was no one who could tell them how to feel, what was normal. They’d have to learn to adapt and cope on their own. Ixchel Chase had been a far more solitary person, and Borealis’ origin had been kept secret for almost twenty years. She hadn’t been married, she’d had no children. The ripples of her personal decisions had not gone as far. No, that wasn’t fair. Dr. Chase had been extraordinary, had been more than the disease that confined her to a wheelchair.
“We should probably,” said Prime, “open the door and go out before the Twins and Atrandom start duct taping people to walls. Or each other.”
“And before Wheeljack drinks all the high-grade,” Borealis agreed.
“And no, Ranger,” Ratchet said, “you can’t have any high-grade yet. It would fritz your systems!”
My husband, the Range Rover, Sarah thought, watching a mist screen broadcast of Ranger and Ironhide doing donuts over at White Sands. They’d be flying over to Croatia to clear minefields in a few days, and Ironhide had wanted Ranger to get in some practice. Ranger didn’t have Ironhide’s heavy frame-type, nor Ratchet’s mass, though he was proportioned somewhat more like Ratchet. Gender he, but a different class than Ironhide. Sarah figured she’d remember it better when she was a robot, too, and it would matter more. It still seemed odd to her that Ratchet, Skyfire and Thundercracker were all the same gender, though it made a little more sense that Skyfire and Thundercracker were the same class, if vastly different sub-classes.
Well, the Range Rover was practical. Shiny black, he looked good parked next to Ironhide in the driveway. She could fit a month’s worth of groceries – for herself, any guests, and the dogs – inside him. That particular phrasing hadn’t been weird for decades. And she’d never have to take him through a car-wash. Or worry about tire pressure or plugging in (the world was being dragged, kicking and screaming, but steadily, into a post-petroleum infrastructure. Most personal cars these days were either entirely electric, hybrid, or some kind of fuel cell. Certain innovations in battery technology had definitely helped…) or checking fluid levels. Or changing the wiper blades. She hated that. No matter how often she checked she always seemed to get them on backwards the first try. Will had harassed her about it with devoted but merciless glee.
So, Sideswipe tight-beamed. He lounged near where she stood on the mezzanine. He would be, as he had been for years, her stand-in vehicle while Ranger and Ironhide were overseas. Is he weird to you, or what?
Or what, Sarah replied, keeping a straight face. Sides snerked. He had the best face for it. Is this weird to you, Sides? She’d never heard him or his twin make any comment about the human engrams either way. As far as she knew, neither had ever participated in a spark merge.
Me? He widened his optics. What he thought? He was a frontliner; he wasn’t here for thinking. Except. He considered the last time he had interfaced with Prime. Not that long ago. Mm. (Nothing like Sentinel. Sides wasn’t stricken by that comparison, not the way Prowl too often was. To Sideswipe it was just an interesting contrast.) Most of the Autobots had been something other than soldiers before the war. Optimus encouraged even those who had been sparked as military to consider what they might want to become. Sunstreaker and Sideswipe were warframes, with aggressive sparks, but maybe Prime was right, maybe that didn’t have to be all they were. I don’t… I don’t know, I guess? We adapt. It’s just a thing we’re doing right now.
Not knowing is okay, too, Sarah said.
“I see you’ve been self-overloading properly.” Ratchet closed the medical link and retracted his cervical cable. Only two, maybe three small adjustments to Ranger’s sensory inputs and emotional algorithms would be necessary to bring him up to Cybertronian standard. He was progressing months faster than Borealis had; but Ranger had been kindled locked and loaded, so to speak.
The relative openness regarding Ranger’s origin, compared with Borealis’, was a relief as well. They wouldn’t be forthcoming to the general human populace – not even to the embassy staff – but they weren’t keeping him hidden.
“Yes,” Ranger said. “Every other day or so.” It was a pleasant enough little rush of energy and buzz of excess charge across his armor. The effect on his CPU had felt weird at first, but everything ran so much smoother afterward, he didn’t mind the brief blackouts.
“Have you given any thought to interfacing partners, post-integration?”
His prior self would have been uncomfortable with the question, but Ranger found himself regarding it as just another medical concern. He’d been watching the others, all of them. To his Cybertronian mind, the differences in gender shone starkly beautiful and obvious. He was amused at his former self’s confusion. Will had given up on the complexities of Cybertronian notions of gender and dismissed it as unimportant to the ways in which he interacted with the robots. And he’d been correct, really. Gender for the robots, like with humans, did come with a certain set of assumptions. But maybe because the robots had more than two – or three – they were a lot more flexible about those assumptions, and did not hold them as graven in titanium if further data proved them incorrect for a given individual. The fact that Ratchet and the others accepted the new forgings among the Water Babies with little fanfare aside from figuring out pronouns and parameters, was telling.
And they were all beautiful and attractive in different ways. The robots’ promiscuity was making more and more sense to him the more he thought about it, the more he watched everyone. The more he felt the things in his body that he felt, looking at them. They were built to touch each other, fields overlapping, minds overlapping; built with good hands and lovely fingers and such a variety of mouths and so many places under the armor that showed warm in infrared when they weren’t shielding for it.
“Borealis told me how she dove into the intimate side of life, once Bumblebee introduced her to the basics. And then Rutile waited three years before he interfaced with anyone. Mostly because he was shy about approaching Prowl and Silverbolt.” Ranger didn’t blame him. Prowl and Silverbolt were… Not scary. That wasn’t it at all, though Ranger was certain from both sides of his nature that both could be scary as hell if they wanted to be. There was an intensity about them. “Is what Rutile did considered abnormal?”
Ratchet shrugged. “Not abnormal, no. Unusual, certainly. As Borealis put it; weird is okay. As long as someone isn’t hurting themselves or others – and yes I know that can be a tricky definition; believe me we have entire libraries of definitions – then whatever they want to do in that wise is fine.”
“Then I want to wait, too. Whatever she and I decide to do after, we’ll deal with it then. But I’ll wait until Sarah…crosses over too.”
“Very well. Better put that up on the cloud mind, though, or you’ll have half the population trying to seduce you once you’re through integration.” Ratchet waggled his optical crests at him. “And some of them can be unspeakably hard to resist when they put their minds to it.”
“I bet!” Rio had whistled at him just this morning.
Another summer storm rolled in and Prime rolled out to meet it. Fleeing Autobots dodged around him, making for the safety of the hangar, sheltering against the horrors of dreaded hydrogen monoxide. Ranger snickered at them and followed Prime out into the deluge. The grin left his face and he stumbled a little when Ironhide chirped him an image of the remains of a mech who’d been caught shieldless in the acid rain back on Cybertron. He’d known before that it wasn’t funny, exactly, but no one had actually shown him why. Unless you could get under cover and neutralize the acid, Ironhide assured him, it was a slow, excruciatingly painful way to die.
All right, all right, I get it, Ranger said. You don’t have to get graphic. And why have you let humans laugh at you all this time? Why didn’t you show us? Them?
We have illustrated the consequences to those few humans who asked, Prime said. If the humans understand that we too are vulnerable in some ways, then perhaps we seem less frightening. But there is otherwise little to be gained in sharing such gruesome reminders. And it doesn’t hurt us for there to be things humans may tease us about.
Like families do, Ranger said.
“Fair enough.” Ranger continued in Prime’s wake, out into the desert. Rain drummed against his shields and he dropped them, curious. It felt good, striking his armor, running down inside, along his protoform. The musical ringing of the water against metal was echoed nearby as Prime dropped his shields as well. It felt really nice. He wasn’t cold, he wasn’t getting soggy, it wasn’t dripping into his eyes, his clothes weren’t getting heavy and sticking to him.
He stretched out his arms, leaning back to expose his chest plates better. It felt better than nice. The rain turned to hail, the musical, ringing sound vibrating through him; making his engine rev, his core temperature creep upward.
From twenty meters away, Prime’s field brushed then enveloped him, wrapping him in a kind of warmth that wasn’t so much physical as emotional. Happiness, contentment. Simple enjoyment of a simple joy. It was making him feel even nicer. In fact…
The nanosecond that thought began to form, Prime withdrew his field. The feeling of loss was nothing more than a soap bubble, swiftly popped, leaving no trace. Ranger nevertheless noted it.
Ratchet hadn’t been kidding when he’d said some mechs were going to be hard to resist. Prime hadn’t even been trying.
Table of Contents