Author's note: I just discovered this part of the boards this morning. I tend to just lurk in the discussion threads, and have only posted once. But I figured, what the hell, I'll dive right in here and see what happens. About the story, it's an idea that just wouldn't go away until I started writing it. Figured it might make an interesting story, so I gave it a shot. It starts not long after "Predatory" and diverges quite a bit from the direction the show took. To summarize: Arcee and Jack are ambushed by the Decepticons, and nothing will ever be the same afterward. I've posted it in other places already--on Fanfiction.net (under the name, Fatal Intestinal Maelstrom), DeviantArt (username ftkerns), Fanstory.com (username phred), and SoFurry (Spiders Thrash)--but a little more exposure couldn't hurt, right? Just trying to get my stuff in front of as many readers as I can, hoping it'll help get people interested in the novels I'm trying to get published. ^_^ The story has been revised slightly since I first posted the early chapters on FF.net, so the most up-to-date ones are on Fanstory, SoFurry, and of course, here. I need to put the new version on FF, but I keep getting sidetracked by life in general. Mature content warning--violence and profanity. Also, the first chapter is pretty goddamn long. ### CHAPTER ONE The door burst open and two medics charged through, followed by a gurney propelled by three more medics and two camo-clad soldiers. One of the men paused to hold the door open for Arcee, in her vehicle mode, engine turned off to avoid startling everyone around her, pushed by a third soldier. On the gurney, a black-haired head lolled, jostled by the movements of the frantic medics. "Obviously, we can't enter the operating room." The woman pushing Arcee slowed as the medics rushed their patient down the long hallway. "I'll take you to a waiting room." "Thank you, Airman." Arcee kept her voice low, but that was the only control she exerted over it. Had she been physically capable of crying, she would've let the tears flow and not given a damn who witnessed it. "Any time. And please, call me Carla." "Okay, Carla. Would you be able to take me to a secure comm system so I can contact my base? My internal comlink was damaged in the fight, and my autorepair system is busy with higher-priority functions." "Sure." Carla passed a door, made a right turn at the next, and guided Arcee down another long corridor. Some of the base's medical staff hurried back and forth, only a few of them giving her more than a cursory glance. The personnel here had already been briefed on the existence of Earth's newest residents and their battle to protect their new home. Minutes later, Carla opened one last door and pushed Arcee inside. The ceiling was high enough for her to shift back into her primary mode, which she did slowly, trying to keep the noise of the transformation to a minimum. She bumped her head on the ceiling and crouched before taking a quick look around. Several couches and chairs lined three of the walls, with a table in the center, and a large TV hung on the fourth wall. Carla pointed at the TV. "That screen is connected to a computer with video phone capability. Just make sure it's set on HDMI-4." "Thanks." Arcee sat in front of the TV, looking at the CPU tower on the shelf beneath it and the keyboard on the wheeled cart to the left. "You're welcome." Carla walked over to her and reached up to touch her shoulder. "We'll let you know as soon as we hear anything about your friend's condition." Arcee tried to smile. "Thanks." Carla nodded, smiled, and walked out the door. Arcee waited for her footsteps to fade away and contacted the Autobot base. Optimus Prime appeared in a new window on the screen. "Arcee, how are you holding up?" "I'm...in one piece." Prime's next words came in a much softer tone. "How is Jack? Are his legs...as bad as they looked?" "I don't know for certain, yet. He'll probably be in surgery for a while. You saw his legs, though. It's bad." Prime closed his eyes and lowered his head for a moment. "How did this happen?" "It was an ambush. I picked Jack up at the hellhole he's stuck working in, and was bringing him home. Barely drove a mile before the Decepticons dropped on us. A dozen Vehicons came out of nowhere and surrounded us." Arcee shook her head. She didn't want to remember those terrible moments at the end of the battle. She wanted to delete it from her memory. But if she did that, she'd lose more than a traumatic memory. She would lose the rage that it inspired in her, and the need to make the 'Cons pay for what they had done. So, she forced herself to describe what had happened. But she also remembered the more pleasant moments before the ambush. She felt it was the only way to avoid losing her fragging mind.... # Earlier that afternoon... "Not that son of a bitch again," Arcee grumbled as a familiar car rumbled up to the window. She'd sat here in the parking lot all day, waiting for Jack's shift at the burger joint to end. Passing the time by listening in on conversations whenever Jack was taking orders at the drive-up window, and letting a podcast run in the background the rest of the time. She'd picked up several from a set of speakers inside the burger joint, and had found them entertaining enough to stream every day while Jack worked. And now that the end was in sight--only five minutes left until Jack could clock out--that bully Vince had driven up in the muscle car his daddy had no doubt bought for him. A blond girl rode in the passenger seat, blowing a bubble, popping it, and continuing to chew while watching Jack, looking at him but not really seeing him. In the back seat was another girl, clinging to one of Vince's jock buddies. Arcee didn't know the girl's name, but had seen her numerous times. The guy was different from the one she'd clung to in recent weeks, the fifth in a series of guys Arcee had spotted her with since the day she'd met Jack. She'd never seen this guy before, but with a mental shrug, Arcee noted him down as the girl's latest Penis of the Month. And now that she thought about it, the girl in the front seat was the third one Vince had picked up in the last couple of weeks. Oy. A sudden realization made Arcee want to shudder. I'm following these kids' social lives like a soap opera. Jack and I both need a vacation. "Hurry it up," Vince snapped before turning to share a knowing smirk with the rest of the car's occupants. "Yeah, here it is," Jack said, his voice grating with the effort it took to remain civil. He held four bags out to Vince, and the bully snapped them out of his hands and sneered. "They better not be cold this time. If they're cold, I'm having a talk with your manager." The couple in the back seat snickered. Arcee had to suppress a snarl. You little bastard. Keep it up and you'll find yourself wearing your rectum like a necklace. "They just came out of the oven," Jack said, fixing a scowl on Vince as he held out a handful of change. "They're not cold." "You better watch that attitude of yours." Vince jabbed a finger at Jack. "That's not good customer service. Keep up the rudeness and I might have to complain to your boss." Refusing to stand there and take your abuse amounts to "bad customer service." Right. For a moment, Arcee considered starting her engine, firing up her Sadie hologram, and doing something to scare the crap out of that punk. Maybe a full-speed charge straight at the car and a last-instant jump over it.... "Have a nice day," Jack said through clenched teeth, took off his headset and walked away from the window. Vince and his friends laughed uproariously. By the most beautiful coincidence ever, the Legion of News podcast's host grumbled, "Aaaaaugh, god damn, people are stupid!" and Arcee burst out laughing. Still laughing, Vince popped the clutch and screeched away from the window and down the street, shoving his left arm out his window and extending his middle finger at the space Jack had just vacated. Another burst of anger surged through Arcee, but she reigned herself in. Barely. Jack appeared from around the corner a moment later, slipping on his black jacket and running a hand through his hair. He glanced in the direction the bully had gone, scowling, and shook his head as he reached Arcee. "Yeah, I know," she said as he picked up his helmet. "I heard the whole thing." "It's really getting old. The only reason I haven't punched him in the face is because he'll probably beat the crap out of me. And even if he doesn't, I'd lose my job. Maybe get a visit from the police. Or he'd just get a bunch of his buddies and corner me somewhere at school." He put the helmet on and climbed onto her. "But you know...the more he does stuff like this, the more I want to pop him one anyway. There'll come a time when I won't be able to stop myself." "I really wish you didn't have to put up with that stuff." "Me, too. That's the worst thing about jobs like this. The customers can verbally abuse you as much as they want, but if you dare to stand up for yourself, the boss chews you out or even fires you." He let out a long sigh. "Sometimes, I wish I had a TARDIS and a box of wire coat hangers." Arcee snickered. "Wow. You're developing quite a way with words." "Well, the customers inspire me." Jack grinned. "Also, I think Rick Emerson is kinda rubbing off on me." "Glad I overheard someone in there playing one of his shows. It definitely makes the hours I spend sitting here pass a lot faster." "Sure does. Seven bucks a month to subscribe to a podcast is a lot when you're on minimum wage, but his show is worth every penny." "It does seem like a good way to get your mind off the crap you have to endure at work." She played back the bit that had cracked her up a few minutes ago, and Jack laughed. "That one's from last year; one of my favorites. I need to excerpt that line and use it as a ringtone." She chuckled and eased out of the parking lot. "So, where to? Home, grocery store...?" "Actually, if you wouldn't mind heading out of town for a few minutes, I'd like to find someplace quiet to just sit and have a moment of Zen. Maybe watch the sunset, while we're there." "Sounds good." She plotted a course that would take them to the desert terrain outside of Jasper. "No crises, no being shot at, no sitting here, overhearing people yell at you and insult you, and not be able to do anything to stop it." "Yeah. It's good to just get away from it all every once in a while. Even if it's only for a few minutes." He hesitated before adding, in a softer tone, "Especially if it's a few quiet minutes with you." Had she not been in her alt-mode, she would've raised a brow plate. There was something about the way he'd said that, and the image it brought to her mind--and the warm feeling that rose up in her...she couldn't identify the sensation, having never experienced it before. Well, not before she met Jack. Odd, that. But she liked it. "Yeah," she answered, matching his tone, "I'd definitely enjoy that." They cruised slowly through town, staying at the speed limit, taking their time. Not having to get somewhere at a dead run was a relief in itself. A relief that, naturally, didn't last long. Arcee's proximity scans suddenly received multiple pings as they reached the edge of town, and she slowed even more. "Arcee? What's wrong?" Jack frowned and took a slow look around. He knew her well enough by now to pick up changes in her mood even when she was in her alt-mode. "Proximity alerts--a dozen of 'em." "'Cons?" "That's what my sensors are set for." She sighed. "Good thing we're not heading to your house." "Yeah--or your base." "Contact left." Jack turned his head as a pair of Vehicons in their car modes appeared from around a corner, two blocks away. He faced forward and his mouth fell open. "Four more up ahead." "And four to the rear, plus two more on the right." Jack glanced right, then into the rearview mirrors. "Oh, hell." "Okay, here we go. Once we're outside of town, you know the drill." She increased her speed, zipping between two of the sleek black cars ahead--then, when they left Jasper behind, she let it all hang out, surging along the road at maximum speed. Jack gripped her handlebars and leaned forward, doing what he could to make himself a harder target. The twelve 'Cons sped after her, but couldn't overtake her--yet. She tried to contact the Autobot base, but the 'Cons were jamming her. "I can't get through to Ratchet or Prime. Gotta take these clowns out first." She turned toward the cliffs in the distance. "Okay, Jack, as soon as we reach cover, you hide while I deal with them." "Arcee, there's too many of 'em! Let's just--" "I can't call for backup as long as they're jamming me, and I won't risk leading them to your house or our base. Our only chance is for me to disable their jammers and get a message through." Jack hesitated for several seconds before releasing a frustrated groan. "Okay." "Good. I'll be a lot more effective if I don't have to worry about you being hurt." She scanned the stretch of desert ahead and detected a small opening at the base of the nearby cliff--large enough for Jack to fit into, but narrow enough and deep enough to prevent the Decepticons from reaching in and grabbing him. "Okay, get ready." She fishtailed, sending up a cloud of dirt to obscure her next move, which was to charge straight for the opening. Once there, she turned sideways and skidded, throwing up more dust. "Now!" Jack dismounted and reached up to take his helmet off. "Keep that on for a sec." Arcee scanned him and modified her Sadie hologram, projecting an image of Jack on her seat. "Okay, hide--and no matter what, don't let them see you." He removed his helmet, giving her a worried look, and reached out to place his hand on the side of her gas tank. "Be careful." "I'll be fine as long as you're safe. Now, hide!" She turned and punched it as he squeezed into the crack in the rocks, heading off at an angle that took her away from both Jack and the oncoming Vehicons. If they bothered to scan her, they'd know that Jack wasn't with her, but she held out the faint hope that they wouldn't be that smart. And as she'd expected, they continued to gain on her even though she was running at full throttle. But then, six of them broke off and headed straight for Jack's location. "Oh, shit." Arcee changed course to pursue the ones who'd veered off. The rest of the 'Cons stayed behind her and deployed their cannons. I won't get to him in time. Damn it! She dodged the first salvo from the ones pursuing her and headed for a sloping chunk of rock off to the right. She raised her front wheel a split-second before she hit it, climbed the rock like a ramp, and launched into the air. She shifted into her robot mode and aimed her arm cannons at the Vehicons ahead. Three of them hit their brakes and transformed, while the other three continued on to Jack's hiding place. Arcee aimed both blasters at the same point on the nearest one's face and ripped out a continuous stream into his optics and out the back of his head. The others hesitated, turning to stare at him as he collapsed, probably startled at how easily she'd dropped him. She retracted one cannon and extended a blade as she came down on the second 'Con, cleaving the top of his head. He staggered, but remained upright--until she shoved her other cannon into his neck and blew most of it away. She shoved him aside and he fell, the remains of his neck shearing off on impact with the ground. The third Vehicon, panicking, fired wildly. She spun and twisted, avoiding the blasts, and returned fire. She scored a few hits that drove him back and knocked him off balance. He recovered, but not before she plowed into him. He swung his right fist at her, but she blocked it and drove her fingertips through his optics. His body convulsed and went limp, sparks flaring inside his head and energon leaking from the hole she'd just punched through his face. Six rumbling engines came up behind her and stopped. She turned to face them. They shifted into their primary modes and stomped forward. She reentered her alt-mode and zoomed off to catch up with the other 'Cons before they reached Jack, leaving the other six in the dust. She got to them just as one of them stopped outside Jack's hiding place and extended his arm cannon. She shifted out of bike mode and drove her feet into the ground, launching herself back into the air. Her forward momentum carried her into the Vehicon's back and the impact threw him face-first into the cliff wall. The other two tackled her and pushed her away. She hacked at them with her blades and they lurched away and tried to bring their guns to bear. She lunged at the nearer 'Con, grabbed the barrel of his gun and forced it upward, shoved her own cannon under his chin, and sent a blast out the top of his head. She moved on to the next before his body started to fall. An impact from behind--one of the other six slamming into her. She rolled across the ground and came to a stop face-down. She pushed herself up onto her hands and knees--and all eight Vehicons piled on top of her, forcing her back down, grinding her face into the dirt. Immobilizing her. Jack! If they finished her off, he would die. Come on, don't panic. She pushed against the ground, raising herself an inch or two...but the combined mass of her enemies held her down. "Arcee!" Jack's scream was followed by the sound of human footsteps approaching. She gasped. Jack, what the hell are you doing? She tried to wrench herself free of the Vehicons' grip, but couldn't budge. Too many of them! Jack... A small thump came from somewhere above, and the weight on her shifted. She turned her head, trying to get a glimpse of what was happening. Finally, she spotted Jack--hanging on to one of the 'Cons' legs and trying to climb it. "What--Jack, no! Don't!" The 'Con turned his head, trying to see what had just grabbed onto him. "Hold still," one of the others said, reaching over as Jack pulled himself up to the 'Con's waist. The other Vehicon swatted him, the impact shooting him through the air. He hit the ground ten yards away, rolled to a stop--and didn't get up. "Jack!" Arcee froze, staring at his limp body, horrified. Then horror gave way to rage. Screaming, she threw herself from side to side, forward and back, wrenching herself out of the Vehicons' grasp. One of them lost his grip on her right arm, giving her just enough freedom of motion to strike. Her blade tore into his neck, not quite cutting all the way through, but destroying enough vital components to make it a fatal blow. A shower of sparks, a spray of energon, and the 'Con flopped over onto his back, now little more than a chunk of scrap metal. The rest shifted their grips, trying to keep her pinned down, but that only gave her more wiggle room. She pulled her left arm in, yanking one of the 'Cons toward her, jammed her cannon into his chest and burned through his armor until she reached his spark chamber--then she rammed her fist inside and ripped the spark out of his chest. Hands grasped her arms, pulling her away from him, but far too late. She cocked her right leg back and drove it into a Vehicon's chest, knocking him off his feet. She turned to the one on her left and cocked her fist back. He tried to dodge the blow, but she angled it downward, crashing her fist into the back of his head and slamming him into the ground hard enough to put a crater in the dirt. She looked around; none of the others were near her. She gasped and turned to find Jack--and the 'Cons were running straight at him. He pushed himself up onto his left elbow, shook his head, and rubbed a hand over his face. "What the hell--?" "Jack! Run!" One of the 'Cons reached him, coming up on him from behind, and raised his left foot, preparing to stomp Jack into the ground. No! Arcee whipped her guns back out and drilled through the Vehicon's head. The body sagged, slumped forward, and fell to its knees. Then it toppled over--falling straight toward Jack. Arcee bolted toward him. "Jack! Get out of there! Jack--run!" One of the 'Cons blocked her path and she backhanded him, sending him into a backflip and landing him face-down. Jack shook his head again and turned to look over his shoulder. He saw the 'Con falling toward him and froze. His eyes opened wider and his jaw dropped. "Jack, move! Get out of--Jack! Move! Jack!" The dead Vehicon crashed down on Jack's legs. He bolted upright and let out a long, drawn-out scream. Arcee lifted the 'Con off him, flung it aside, fell to her knees beside him, caught his hand and held it gently as he flopped onto his back, still screaming. She opened her mouth, but couldn't get her voice to work. She barely heard the approaching footsteps, some of them moving in front of her, surrounding her. "I'm so sorry, Jack," she finally whispered. His screaming stopped, but only because he was barely conscious now. Distantly, she heard the multiple clicks of the Decepticons deploying their blasters and pointing them at her. She glared up at the five remaining 'Cons. As much as she wanted to tear them apart with her bare hands, Jack didn't have that much time. "Walk away." Fury turned her voice as cold as the surface of her dead homeworld. "If you want to see tomorrow, walk away now." One of them took a step back, but regained his composure almost instantly. The rest stood their ground. If that's the way it has to be...let's get this over with. Arcee stood slowly. Three of them directly in front of her adjusted their aim as she moved. She charged just as they opened fire. She dropped under the beams and slid across the ground, plowing into their legs and knocking them over like bowling pins. She planted her feet under her and was back upright in a split-second, unloading a relentless barrage into their backs until they collapsed, molten metal dripping from the glowing edges of their wounds. She looked up and found the last two Vehicons. They exchanged a glance and backed up a few more steps. She launched herself at the nearer one. "Shit!" he blurted an instant before she slammed into him. She extended her blade and plunged it into his chest with enough force to lift him off the ground. She pulled the blade out--and drove it back in, again and again and again, until the Decepticon fell to his knees, energon vomiting from a dozen gaping holes in his torso. Arcee toppled the body with a casual shove and advanced on the final Vehicon. He retracted his guns, held his hands up, and backed away from her. "I surrender!" "I don't care." She continued her inexorable march toward him. "Mercy!" He stumbled and fell, kept one hand up and tried to scoot away from her. She planted her knee on his chest, pinning him down. "Please!" "No second chances." She put her gun under his chin, blew the top of his head off, and returned to Jack without giving the body another glance. She kneeled beside him, touched his hand gently, and tried to contact the Autobot base. No longer jammed--but her internal comlink had been damaged in the fight and couldn't get a signal out. "Jack? Can you hear me?" He moaned, but didn't open his eyes. She trailed a fingertip across his cheek, barely brushing his skin. "Jack? Oh, please don't--" Her voice broke and she tried to regain control of herself. "Don't leave me!" He opened his eyes slowly, twisting his face up, clearly in horrible pain. He smiled up at her, but it was shaky and lasted only a second or two. He looked around, taking in the scrapped Decepticons all around them, and moved his mouth for several seconds before he could speak. "Got 'em?" "Yeah. All of them." He smiled again. "That's...that's my girl." He started to fade out again. "Jack, stay with me! Please tell me you've got your phone on you! My comlink's been disabled." Groaning, trembling, he reached under his jacket and pulled his phone out. It slipped from his hand and bounced on the ground. Arcee picked it up, eased it open, and gingerly dialed Raf's phone. Come on, come on, pick it up. "Hey, Jack," Raf said after the second ring. "What's up?" "Raf, it's Arcee. We were ambushed, my comm doesn't work. Tell Prime that Jack's badly injured. Have him contact Fowler; we need Jack airlifted out of here immediately." "One sec." Raf's voice became fainter as he turned away from the phone. "Optimus! Jack's hurt--he needs an air ambulance." He returned to his phone. "Ratchet's contacting Fowler now. Wouldn't it be faster to bridge him back here, then straight to a hospital where people already know about you? Like, the new Groom Lake base?" "I don't think moving him is a good idea. I'd rather leave it to the medical professionals." She looked around at the Vehicons. "We'll also need a cleanup before any humans arrive; there's a dozen dead 'Cons here." "I'll let Optimus know. Hang in there, Arcee." "Thanks. See you soon." She closed the phone and slipped it back into Jack's pocket. Then she held his hand and waited for her friends. "Hang on, Jack. Help's on the way." # "And that's about it. You arrived a few minutes later, and then the air ambulance from Groom Lake, and I rode it back here with Jack." Arcee shook her head and wished there was something nearby for her to punch. "I still can't believe he tried to attack one of the 'Cons. When they let me see him, I want to ask him what the hell he was thinking." "His concern for you overrode his common sense." Prime's expression softened. "No one is immune to that, and we all make mistakes. Do not be too hard on Jack--or yourself." "If he doesn't sur--" She cut herself off and covered her face with her hands. "Tailgate, Cliff, and now Jack...I'll never forgive myself." "He is strong. Do not lose hope." "Right." She took another moment to pull herself together again. "Anyway, it'll probably be a while before he can have visitors. I'll give you an update as soon as I know anything." "Very well. In the meantime, is there anything we can do?" Arcee mulled it over for a long moment before answering. "Would you speak to Fowler? I want to tell Jack's mother what happened. He could be stuck here for months, and if he loses both legs..." She shook her head quickly. "She deserves to know--not to spend months wondering why her son disappeared, thinking he might be dead, or living with some bullshit cover story cooked up by the government." Arcee stared at Prime's image. "She needs to know everything, and I want to be the one who tells her." # "June Darby is on her way, Arcee," Prime told her over her newly-repaired comlink two days later. "Thank you, Optimus," she said softly. "I imagine it was a hard sell?" "Agent Fowler was surprisingly reasonable. I believe that he was aware of how he would feel if something similar had happened to a member of his family. He would not want to experience what Ms. Darby has been going through for the past forty-eight hours." "Good. Any guesses as to why so many 'Cons attacked us? Are they up to something?" "We have detected no further Decepticon activity in the area, but we cannot rule anything out at this point. We will inform you if our investigation turns anything up." "Good. If Jack was hurt because of some insane plan of theirs, I'll slaughter them!" "Easy, Arcee." "I know. I just...you know me. I'm just blowing off some steam." "I understand." "Yeah. Well, thank you again for doing this." "Jack is family. It was the least I could do. Please, keep us informed." "I will. Talk to you later." Arcee signed off and waited silently, sitting in her vehicle mode in one corner of Jack's room, watching him while her autorepair system finished its work. Trying not to look at the empty space where his legs should've been. Trying not to let her rage at what the 'Cons did to him overwhelm her. Wishing she could do more than just sit here silently. At least he'll live. Arcee hadn't dared contemplate what she might've done if he hadn't made it. Losing her home and so many friends over the centuries, losing Cliffjumper so recently and then seeing what had been done to his body...meeting Jack and thinking he was a pain in the tailpipe, then growing more attached to him despite her efforts to resist it... He was willing to die for me. Damn. And if he had, Arcee wondered if she would've been able to go on. This could have been the one that caused her to snap. The human phrase, Blaze of glory, came to mind. Not that there would've been any glory in it. Only the destruction--with extreme prejudice--of every Decepticon who crossed her path, with whatever weapons she could get hold of--her bare hands, if necessary...until one of them finally managed to extinguish her spark. That thought unnerved her in any number of ways. I never realized how strongly I feel until now. Not that she was sure exactly what she felt at the moment. More than friendship, more than a familial connection. She couldn't pin down the proper term for it, though, having never experienced anything quite like this before. Baffling. But at least it was something to occupy her thoughts while she waited. Better than dwelling on Jack's injuries or what he would face in the immediate future. Footsteps in the hallway. Arcee checked her internal chronometer and almost gasped. How had so many hours passed so quickly? The door to Jack's room eased open and June Darby poked her head in, looked around, and gasped when she found his bed. She rushed over to him and burst into tears. Another human stepped inside and closed the door. He wore the uniform of an Air Force general; probably the one in charge of this facility, Arcee guessed. He wore his shoulder-length, salt-and-pepper hair in a ponytail--more than a little unconventional, judging from her admittedly limited experience with human military. Maybe he had taken advantage of his rank to let a few of his personal quirks rise to the surface. "Last I heard from the doctor," he said, keeping his voice barely above a whisper, "your son is still heavily sedated. I'm so sorry they weren't able to save his legs. The damage was too...well, I'm sure the doctors have already spoken with you." Ms. Darby nodded, but was crying too hard to speak. "The good news is, his other injuries are far less serious," the general continued a moment later. "Just a few scrapes and bruises. His life isn't in any danger." She nodded again, and brushed a lock of Jack's hair away from his face. She gazed down at him for several long moments, leaned over and kissed his forehead, wiped tears from her eyes and made a visible effort at pulling herself together. "S--so, um, is Arcee around? I talked to her on the phone before I was brought here." "Yes, she is. She wanted to be the one who told you everything, which is why I haven't given you many details." The general turned, looked at Arcee, and smiled slightly. "Now, this is one of the reasons you were asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Arcee and her people...aren't exactly public knowledge." Ms. Darby frowned at him, arched an eyebrow, and sniffled. "What does that mean? Are you going to tell me they're aliens, or something?" "Well, as a matter of fact..." He waved a hand at Arcee, which only confused Ms. Darby even more. "You brought his motorcycle?" Arcee finally spoke. "Hello, Ms. Darby. I'm sorry we had to meet like this." She gasped and took a step back. "It talks!" "The motorcycle is only her alt mode," the general said. "Her what?" "Try not to freak out at what you see next." Arcee transformed into her primary mode, and was immediately thankful that Jack had been placed in a room big enough for her to fit into as long as she didn't try to stand up straight. His mother released a hoarse squeak, her eyes nearly popping out of her head. Arcee immediately sat and leaned against the wall, pulling her right leg up slightly and resting her arm on her knee, trying to look as casual and non-threatening as possible. "Relax, I won't hurt you." She managed a brief chuckle. "I'm sure you can guess why Jack never told you about me." "What...what the hell?" She flicked her eyes back and forth from Arcee to the general. He patted her shoulder and stepped forward, extending his hand. "I'm General Frank Sanchez. It's an honor to meet you face to face, though of course I wish it were under better circumstances." "Likewise, General." Arcee's huge hand enveloped his in a gentle grip. Huh. A general taking care of this personally, instead of having a subordinate handle it. But then, me being here is hardly an everyday occurrence. Maybe he just wanted to meet the alien robot. "I'm sure you two have a lot to talk about, so I'll let you get to it. If you need anything, just call the nurses' station." He pointed at the small control panel built into the rail on Jack's bed, smiled, and left her and Arcee alone. "Thank you, General," Arcee said before the door closed. "Any time, ma'am." "So..." Arcee trailed off, suddenly having absolutely no idea where to start. "So...you're a robot." Arcee grinned. "An alien robot. Pretty cool, huh?" Her smile faded and she scooted slowly over to Jack's bedside. "Even if he had told you about me, you probably wouldn't have believed him." "Not without seeing you like this. I have heard your name before, though." "How?" Without realizing what she was about to do, Arcee reached over and stroked Jack's hair. "Arcee," he mumbled. His mother stared at her for a moment, then shook herself out of it. "Well, I overheard him on the phone a couple times. I...I thought he was talking to someone he knew at work or school." "Never would've guessed, huh?" Arcee slid her left hand slowly, gently, under Jack's, and held it. "Not in a million years." June gave her another odd look, shook her head abruptly, and ran a hand through her hair. "What...what the hell happened to him?" Arcee nodded at the chair beside June. "Might want to sit down for this. It's a long story." She waited for June to shrug and sit down, still holding Jack's other hand. Then Arcee told her everything--the war on Cybertron, the death of her homeworld, the continuing fight against the Decepticons, landing on Earth and finding the 'Cons here. Losing Cliff--twice. Meeting Jack and becoming his guardian. And finally, the ambush that had landed him in this hospital. "In so many centuries of fighting, nearly being killed so many times I can't even count them all, there have been only a few times when I was absolutely terrified. The last two happened when Jack's life was in grave danger--the most recent being the ambush I told just you about. The only other time I was that afraid was centuries ago." She shook her head slowly. Jack's eyes fluttered open, closed, and open again. "Ar--" He looked up at his mother and blinked a few times. "M...Mom?" "I'm here." She tried to smile, but it was shaky at best. "How are you feeling?" "My legs hurt." Her face twisted with her effort to stop another burst of tears. "You gave me quite a scare." "I...did?" He almost drifted away again, but forced his eyes open. "You mean...all that stuff really happened?" All she could do was nod. "The De...Decepti..." He looked down at himself, blinked and frowned. "It fell on me. It...wait--that looks..." He fumbled with the sheet. "Jack, don't worry about that right now." June tried to catch his hand, but he pulled it away, struggling to fight off the sedatives, and finally lifted the sheet. Arcee closed her eyes. She couldn't bear to watch this. Jack's horrified moan snapped her eyes back to him. He was staring at what was left of his legs, eyes wide and mouth open. He drew in a deep breath, preparing to let it out in a scream. "Jack, please, try to calm down!" June cupped his cheeks in her hands and tried to get him to look at her. "Please--at least you're alive!" He continued staring, his breaths coming in quick, panicked gasps. Arcee leaned forward and took his left hand in both of hers. "Jack!" He snapped his head around to look at her. "Arcee?" "I'm here, buddy." He let a long breath rush out, grinned and motioned for her to come closer. She leaned over farther, and he put his arms around her. Whoa. Slowly, carefully, she slipped her hands behind his back and held him. She found herself smiling and lowering her head, resting her chin on his shoulder, and closing her eyes. "This feels like a dream," he finally mumbled. "Is this really happening?" "Yes." She pulled back just enough to look into his eyes. "I'm so sorry. If I'd gotten to you in time--" "No, you did everything you could." He leaned forward, touching his forehead to hers, and closed his eyes. His lips quivered with the effort of holding himself together. "I...I guess it was only a matter of time before something like this happened." "Jack..." "It's not your fault, Arcee." Yes, it is. I let you down. She kept it to herself. He had enough on his mind already. June stepped closer and put her hand on Jack's shoulder. He turned and put his arms around her. Arcee watched them hold each other for a long while. June wept and rocked him gently, while he continued to keep his emotions under control--barely. Finally, he reached over to Arcee and she held his hand again, still unable to think of anything to say to him--anything at all that would make this better. All she could do was hold his gaze and offer what she hoped was a reassuring smile, but couldn't keep it up for more than a few seconds. She leaned closer to cover her inability to hold his gaze, and put an arm around him, barely noticing his mother staring at her. # "So, you had the same idea, eh?" Arcee looked over her shoulder and found General Sanchez walking toward her. She cocked her head. "Idea?" Smiling, he leaned against the rail that ran along the edge of the roof, and gazed straight ahead. "I try to catch every sunrise and sunset. I miss a few because of everyday work, and the occasional emergency, but usually I make time for it. Taking in the sunrise helps me face each day, and the sunset gets my mind off any troubles that crop up during the day. Well, most of 'em, anyway." Arcee nodded and zoomed in on the pink and orange clouds near the horizon. "Jack wanted to take a detour out of town and find someplace quiet and take in the sunset; it was on the day he ended up here, so we never actually got to it." For now, she'd left Jack alone with his mom. They needed the time together...and there was something about the way June had looked at her that made her uncomfortable. She'd needed to get away for a while. "Sorry to hear that. Maybe when he's able to get around on his own, he can catch a few." Sanchez smiled. "The sunsets and sunrises out here are unbelievable." "Yeah, they sure are." She glanced over her shoulder again and smiled. She stood on the pavement in front of the building, and the roof was more or less at her eye level. "When I first came to this planet, I didn't give much thought to what the scenery looked like. Didn't really pay attention. It was so completely unlike anything I ever saw on Cybertron, it just kind of slid past my eyes." She waved a hand at the sky and smiled. "But now that I've seen it, I know what I've been missing. No sunset on Cybertron ever looked like this. It's just beautiful." "When I was growing up, I always took it for granted. Then one day, randomly, I just sort of noticed it, and kicked myself for not taking the time to appreciate it before. Funny, how you can sometimes miss things that have been right in front of you all along." "Yeah." She continued gazing at the sunset, wishing she could share it with Jack. "Too true." Sanchez remained silent for a few minutes, gazing out at the sky. Finally, he said, "So, how's our newest patient doing?" She smiled. "He took it really hard at first, but once he got it out of his system, he's had a pretty positive attitude, all things considered. Almost back to his old self." "Well, he's handling it a lot better than I would've. Don't tell anyone I said this, but if I'd looked up and seen something the size of a Vehicon toppling over on me, I would've just pissed myself and died." He laughed. Arcee managed a brief laugh. "I might have to share that with Jack, but I won't tell anyone else." "Well, if it helps brighten his day a little, then by all means. But if it spreads all over the base, you know who my prime suspects will be." He grinned. "Anyway, here's another bit of good news for him--one of the projects our research teams are working on happens to be highly advanced prosthetic limbs. I'll see about getting Mr. Darby fitted with a pair of kickass legs ASAP." Arcee grinned. "That'll really make his day." Sanchez smiled, turned back to the sunset and watched silently. When the sky had faded to black, he closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. When he opened his eyes, his face was as serene as any she'd ever seen. "Now that's the right way to bring the day to a close. Well, I should be going. Goodnight." "Goodnight, General." Arcee contemplated the night for a few more minutes. Again, she wished Jack could've seen it with her. Well, maybe we can catch the next one. Make up for the one we missed. # The next morning, Arcee smiled and waved as she approached the table in the hospital's cafeteria where Jack's mother sat. "Hello, June." "Oh, hi." June waved back and took a long sip of her coffee. She looked frazzled and seemed to be having trouble keeping her eyes open. "You okay?" Arcee lowered herself carefully to the floor and rested her arms on the end of the table. "Just had trouble sleeping. And by 'trouble,' I mean I was up all night, alternating between crying and nearly freaking the hell out. I finally gave up and went in search of a good caffeine delivery system. Aside from that, I'm still trying to wrap my brain around all this." "I'm sorry. I spent most of the night kicking myself for letting it happen--going over and over it in my head, trying to figure out what I should've done differently." "Hey, don't beat yourself up over it. It was pretty clear last night how much it hurts you. Sometimes, things happen that no one can stop." June took another sip and aimed a thoughtful look at Arcee. "Jack's certainly not holding it against you. He said you did your best." Arcee stared across the large room at the vehicles moving around outside the window. Finally, she said, "Obviously, my best wasn't good enough." "Well, it was good enough for Jack." Arcee managed a fleeting smile. "Yeah, but he's kind of biased." "Speaking of which...you and Jack...?" Arcee waited for her to finish the question. When she didn't, Arcee cocked her head. "Me and Jack...what?" "Well, you two got pretty touchy-feely after he woke up. So I can't help wondering if there's something going on between you." "We're friends." Arcee shrugged. "Uh-huh. I saw the way he looked at you." "What way? I didn't notice anything different about--" "Probably because you were too busy looking at him the same way." "What way?" What's she getting at? Whatever's on her mind, why doesn't she just say it? "I didn't just fall off the turnip truck, you know. I was a teenager once. I've seen that look plenty of times on kids who had a crush on someone." June arched an eyebrow. "Can't say I expected to see the same expression on a centuries-old alien robot, though." Oh. She's suggesting that Jack and I are... Her mouth parted slightly as it finally hit her. Wait a minute. Is that what I've been feeling? You've got to be kidding me. "Then there's the way your mood brightened when he hugged you," June went on. "And the way he calmed right down when he saw you, yet I couldn't even get through to him." June gazed at her and tapped her fingers on the side of her coffee cup. "So, I just have to ask--what exactly are your intentions toward my son?" "Intentions?" Arcee stared back at her, utterly at a loss. "I don't know. I have to admit, I'm a little confused." "Seems pretty obvious to me. And, frankly, it's kind of disturbing." "No kidding. I don't even know how to explain it. Sure, Cybertronians form close friendships and strong bonds, but as you've probably noticed, we don't have any...well, 'plumbing.' It doesn't work that way for us. So this is...something entirely new." June continued staring at her for a long moment before finally looking away and finishing her coffee. "Well, at least you can't have sex with him. That's good. He's a little young for that, anyway." Arcee raised a brow. Think I liked it better when she didn't come right out and say it. June shrugged. "But then, I suppose you'd think that kind of thing is gross, anyway." "It never occurred to me at all. But I'm sure we could figure something out. The difference in our sizes could be a problem, but we could work around that, too." Arcee flicked a sidelong glance at her; the look on June's face made her burst out laughing. June grinned and shook her head. "Now you're just messing with me." "Maaaaaaybe." Arcee winked at her, then sobered again. She doubted that she'd be able to maintain a good mood until Jack was released, with or without prosthetic legs. "Eh, I don't see how he could be interested in me, anyway. It'd be too weird." "Actually..." June sighed and raked her fingers through her hair. "I have to be honest with you; I think he might be. Last night, you were all he wanted to talk about. It was like keeping you secret almost overloaded his brain. He said the moment he realized how he felt about you was after you blew up the space bridge. You were badly damaged, your life signs almost down to zero. Jack said he almost died inside when he thought he was about to lose you." "He did? He really said that?" Arcee thought back to that day--Bumblebee carrying her through the bridge back into the base. She was offline, her systems trying to reboot and not entirely succeeding. She'd finally started to come back up just in time to hear Jack rushing to her side. The sensation of his hand on hers. His voice, trembling with raw emotion. "Arcee..." She'd managed to open her eyes and smile at him. Seeing the relief on his face had given her the strength to come back from the brink. And in the months since then...the times she had been unable to stop thinking about him. The burst of anger she'd felt when that girl, Sierra, asked him for a spin on his new bike. The anger that surged through her every time a customer at KO Burgers treated him like crap--which was pretty much constantly. The thrill that ran through her during the fight with Knockout, when she heard Jack's distant voice saying, "That's my girl!" And again, right after he was injured... And then...Airachnid. Oh, hell, Airachnid. Arcee shuddered. That battle was the last thing she wanted to dredge up now, but... "The other time I was afraid I'd lose Jack..." She took a moment to pull herself together, and forced herself to keep talking. "It was supposed to be a routine mission--no risk. Just a milk run, checking out some energon deposits Ratchet detected. We found a Decepticon ship." She realized that her fists were clenched and tried to relax them. "It was someone who captured me during the war on Cybertron. Airachnid. She tortured me. Murdered my partner right in front of me. Would've killed me, too, if Bee and Cliff hadn't gotten to me in time." June took one look at Arcee's expression and some of the color drained from her face. She covered her mouth with her hand and waited for Arcee to continue. "I kept telling Jack to stay hidden, but he wouldn't listen. Airachnid got the upper hand, immobilized me--and Jack showed up. Airachnid chased him through the forest, hunting him like an animal, while I tried to free myself. After I got loose, there was a huge explosion in the distance. I headed straight for the fire." She grinned. "You should be proud of Jack. Airachnid's the most vicious enemy I've ever faced; she went freelance, and now she hunts indigenous species for sport--and Jack not only held her off, he blew up her goddamned ship! All he had was his survival kit and a wooden stick he found near the ship, and he went on the offensive; lit the stick on fire and used it to cook off the energon supply. Turned the entire ship into a big hole in the ground." Arcee paused, smiling. The memory of it calmed her and excited her at the same time. Finally, she said softly, "He was amazing." A moment later, a realization sank in. Looks like June's right. Oh, hell. If Prime or the others found out about this...well, they wouldn't actually do anything, but it'd probably make things weird back at the base. June stared at her for a long moment. "I'm guessing that was when you fell for him?" "Well, even then, I still hadn't figured it out. Not consciously, at least." She shook her head slowly. "I should've, though. Sometimes, I'm as sharp as a bowling ball." June chuckled, glanced at her empty cup, and pushed her chair back. She hesitated, looked up at Arcee again, her expression unreadable. "So...when are you planning to head back to your base?" "Unless Optimus Prime recalls me for a specific op, my standing orders are to protect Jack." And a hell of a job I'm doing of it, so far. "Ah." June stood. "Well. Think I'll get some more coffee. Though I have a feeling I'll be needing something stronger today." # Arcee peeked into Jack's room. He looked over to her, grinned and waved. "Hey!" She smiled, squeezed through the door, and sat beside his bed. Then she saw the bloody tissue in his left hand. "Hey, what happened? Are you okay?" Jack's face turned red. "I was trying to get into the wheelchair a while ago, and my hand slipped and I fell out of bed. The pain meds they have me on must be messing with my eye-hand coordination. I faceplanted. Had a nosebleed for a while." He sighed, checked his nose for fresh blood and found none, and tossed the tissue into the wastebasket beside the bathroom door. "Don't tell anyone, okay? My dignity's taken enough hits already." "Your secret's safe with me." She smiled and nudged his shoulder. "Next time, though, let someone help you." "I need to be able to get around on my own. I won't always have someone nearby to help me." "I'll always be here for you." He blushed again, but smiled. An awkward silence settled over them. She tried to think of something to say. "I, uh...I talked with your mom this morning." "Oh?" His face turned even redder. "Oh. She told you what I said?" Oh, yeah, that'll make this whole thing so much less awkward. "Yep." "Shit." Jack grabbed his pillow and covered his face with it. Chuckling, Arcee tugged the pillow away, bopped his head gently with it, and placed it on his lap. She held his hand between hers. "Hey, don't be embarrassed, smooth operator. Actually, I feel the same way about you." He stared at her. "You do? Seriously?" "Yeah. I think I have for a while, now, but it didn't really sink in until this morning." He let out a long, relieved sigh. "I was so afraid you'd laugh at me or think I'm insane or a perv or something, so I kept it to myself." "Well, maybe that's why it took me so long to work out what was going on inside my own head. Something like this just hadn't ever occurred to me before." She grinned and nudged his shoulder again. "Might not be a good idea to mention this to anyone else, though. There's a certain someone we know who'd milk it for all it's worth." Jack rolled his eyes. "Miko." "Yep. I can so imagine her nicknaming you 'The Robosexual Romeo.'" "Oh, Jesus Christ!" Jack snickered, but looked horrified at the same time. "That'd make me want to go find a Decepticon and beg him to kill me." He shrugged. "Anyway, I suspect you'd want to maintain a professional demeanor, at least around Optimus and the others. So I'll keep myself under control around them. As much as possible, anyway." He winked. "I'd appreciate that." She chuckled again. Then she let herself think about how bizarre this was. "Do you think this could even work, though? I have zero experience at this kind of relationship, and this whole thing is a little...well, weird." He laughed. "My whole life, I thought we were alone in the universe--at least, there wasn't anyone else within our reach. Then, a few months ago, I was just admiring a really cool motorcycle when a pair of cars with nobody driving them tried to kill us--and after that, the cool motorcycle turned into an alien robot, and I was caught up in a war that started somewhere across the galaxy. I don't even know what 'normal' is, anymore." She looked away and sighed. "I'm sorry about all that--" "I'm not. If none of that had happened, I'd never have met you. I know I was kind of reluctant to get involved, but I'm glad I did. Having you in my life is worth it. I just wish I'd had the nerve to say it sooner." "Well, we can't change the past. All we can do is move forward. And we can start by making sure you never try to get yourself killed again. I mean, climbing up a Decepticon's leg? Really?" She sighed. "But then, you probably won't listen to me, anyway." "Well, let me put it this way. When you were pinned down by that pile of 'Cons and defenseless, I couldn't just stand there and watch them kill you. After the space bridge, being completely unable to do anything to save you...it just tore me up inside. That's why I doubled back to Airachnid's ship, hoping to find something in it to use as a weapon; it wasn't enough just to get away from her--I had to keep her away from you. And that's why I tried to take her out." He patted the back of her hand. "And that's why I did what I did a few days ago." "I'm supposed to protect you." She gazed into his eyes for a long moment and finally shook her head. "You could've died if--" He reached out to caress her cheek. "You're worth the risk." She closed her eyes and leaned closer, delighting in the unexpected sensation of his palm on her face. She smiled, reached up and placed her hand gently over his. "I think I've shown that I can handle myself," he went on, softly. "Sure, Airachnid almost got me at the end, but you were there for me. We can watch each other's backs. It's what partners do, right?" She nodded slowly. He clearly wasn't going to be talked out of fighting alongside her, so maybe it was time to give in to the inevitable. He sat upright and put his hands on her shoulders. "Now, I hope you won't think I'm being too forward, and I really hope you won't think this is disgusting or anything, but I'll never have another chance to do this and be able to blame it on the pain meds if it goes horribly wrong." He tugged gently on her shoulders and she leaned forward, wondering what he was up to. He kissed her. Just a quick one, only slightly more than a peck, but it was enough to catch her completely by surprise. Uh, what the hell? She stared at him and blinked a few times. Well, that was...weird. Her mouth wasn't that much bigger than his, not enough to make kissing impossible, but still...weird. When he backed away, his face had turned red yet again. He looked at her expression and drew in a quick breath. "Uh, sorry! I didn't mean--look, it's the meds, I swear! We can forget it ever happened if--" "Take it easy, Romeo. You didn't offend me." She smiled, though a bit perplexedly. "Well, that was most definitely not disgusting. Not quite sure how I feel about it, though." A smirk tugged at the corner of her mouth. "I don't know, I might need to try it a few more times before I have enough data to form an opinion." Jack laughed softly. "I think I can help you with that." He slipped his arms around her neck and kissed her again. Like before, the contact was brief, but for an entirely different reason. A sharp intake of breath came from somewhere off to the left. Both of them turned toward the sound--and there was June, standing in the doorway with her jaw dropped. Jack blurted something that sounded like, "Huahhh!" and jerked back. Arcee mirrored his action, but without emitting any odd sounds. Both of them stared back at his mother for a moment that seemed to last an eternity. "Well," Arcee finally muttered, "this is awkward." June arched an eyebrow. "No shit." CHAPTER TWO "Still no sign of Decepticon activity?" "No, Arcee," Prime said, frowning. "And that has us worried." Jack sat in his wheelchair and watched the 'Bots standing just inside the hangar door. General Sanchez had allowed them to use the hanger for their meeting since it was big enough to hold them all. "Yeah, they could be planning something big." Arcee shrugged. "Or maybe they're still recovering from the last time they got their asses kicked." "I'm sure that your wiping out a dozen of them single-handedly gave them pause, but we shouldn't make any assumptions." "True. Especially with a weasel like Starscream in charge." A light whap on Jack's shoulder drew his attention back to his mother. "Hey, kiddo, can you take your eyes off your girlfriend for more than three seconds?" She tried to make it sound like a joke, but he knew how weirded-out she still was, even after having two weeks to get used to it. "Gimme a few seconds." He turned back to Arcee and smiled as the early morning sunlight reflected off her freshly-polished surface, adding a nice gleam to her already considerable beauty. While waiting for the Autobots and their human friends to arrive, Jack and Arcee had taken a few minutes to watch the sun come up, which had become something of a morning ritual for them. This morning's sunrise was especially spectacular. Though, to be honest, it was the second most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. Arcee glanced over her shoulder, smiled and nodded at him before returning her attention to Prime. Jack grinned and nodded back before she turned away, and finally faced his mom and chuckled at the look on her face. "Boys and their hormones," Miko said, rolling her eyes as she and Raf walked up, a cola in her hand and a can of Jolt in his. She and Raf had been cleared to visit the Groom Lake base, though they were only allowed into a few areas. What? She knows? Jack tried not to blush. "Uh, what're you talking about?" Miko snorted. "Come on. I saw this coming miles away. Don't know why you and Arcee didn't." "Uh..." Miko raised an eyebrow at Jack. "Don't worry, I'm not gonna blab it to everybody." Jack sighed. "Thanks. We'd both appreciate that. It's, y'know, a private matter." Miko nodded, smirked, leaned over to Raf and whispered, "Leverage." Ah, hell. Jack's mom glanced at Arcee and shook her head slowly. "She's an alien, she's a robot, and she's an older woman--by at least several hundred years. Jesus Christ." "Well, that's one of the reasons I didn't tell her how I felt until I found out she already knew. And I can thank you for that, by the way." He smirked and reached over to prod her shoulder. She looked away and ran a hand through her hair. "Yeah, well, I wasn't trying to plant the idea in her head. I just wanted to find out if you two were already...you know." "Well, relax, Mom. It's not like you have to worry about catching us humping it out, or anything. That's something we'll never be able to do." Jack shrugged. "And that means you won't have to worry about me knocking her up. So, honestly, it's a win-win situation." "Except the constant danger you're in. Your life has been on the line for months, and I never even knew about it!" Miko and Raf exchanged a glance. "Uh, this might be a good time to go grab some more refreshments," she said under her breath, and he nodded--even though both of them had barely started drinking the ones they already had. They hurried over to the bench on the far side of the hangar, where a variety of sodas, fruit juices, and coffee had been set out. A pair of airmen hovering nearby turned to follow them, leaving another pair standing a few feet away. Ostensibly, they were here to assist and protect the visitors, but their true purpose--keeping the guests out of off-limits areas--hadn't been lost on any of them. Jack watched them go and turned back to his mom. She'd started this conversation with him several times over the past two weeks, but it always stalled before it could go anywhere. He wondered if it was because she knew, deep down, that he wouldn't budge, or simply because she hadn't worked out what she needed to say. What she'd learned after coming here was a lot to take in, after all. June waited for the kids to get all the way over to the bench before continuing in a tightly controlled tone. "Knowing how many times you've almost been killed will give me nightmares for the rest of my life." "It's not Arcee's fault. She picked a random spot to lay low, hoping the 'Cons would pass on by, and I just happened to walk up to her at the wrong moment. They attacked her, I got in the way, and she got me out of there. And since the 'Cons saw us together, I became a target, and from then on Arcee stayed with me to keep me safe." "That worked out pretty well, didn't it?" June waved at his stumps. "And you act like you're not even upset about it." "Sure, I am. But see, it could've been so much worse. If that Decepticon had fallen at a slightly different angle, I would've been pancaked." He shrugged and aimed a wry smile at her. "Obviously, I'd prefer to still have my legs, but I'm okay with this--because I'm alive." "Telling me how much worse it could've been isn't exactly convincing me to go along with this." Jack sighed. "Our entire world is in danger. If the Decepticons win this war, I'm dead anyway. And so are you and everyone we care about. I have a chance to help stop them, and I'll do everything I can." "You're a kid, not a soldier." She leaned forward and buried her face in her hands. "It's not really about you and Arcee. I mean, it'll take me a while longer to get my brain around it, but I guess I can live with it. What I can't accept is you putting your life in danger every day. I should just ground you until you're eighteen." Jack maneuvered his wheelchair closer to her and put an arm around her shoulders. "Arcee told me what you told her--that sometimes things happen that no one can stop." He waited for her to look up at him and meet his gaze. "This is one of 'em." She sighed and slumped forward. After a moment, she threw her left hand up. "Obviously, nothing I say will get through to you." "Finally. Progress!" He grinned and patted her shoulder. "It's okay. Really." He nodded at Arcee. "She's got my back. And I've got hers." June looked away and said nothing, but at least she didn't object again. Jack pointed at Raf's laptop, sitting on a folding conference table a few feet away, and held up an SD card, deciding to change the subject before she tried to keep arguing. Copies of the video on the card had already been sent to Fowler and those above him in the chain of command; Jack had asked Arcee to make one more copy for him. "This is Arcee's log of her fight with the Vehicons. I wanted you to see her in action, so you'll know I'm in good hands." # When the video finished, everyone stared at the screen with wide eyes. Miko grinned and shook her head slowly. "That was badass! That one 'Con looked like a Pez dispenser when you were done with him!" Arcee, sitting beside Jack with her knees pulled up to her chest and her arms around them, managed a brief smirk. The clip had ended after she had used Jack's phone to call for help, and reliving that couldn't have been easy for her. His mom covered her mouth with both hands. Her face had turned pale. "Jesus," she whispered. Jack put his arm around her and hoped she wouldn't notice his trembling. Living through that had been bad enough, but seeing it through Arcee's eyes--actually witnessing the Decepticon falling on him, crushing his legs under tons of metal--was almost more than he could handle. A movement in the corner of his right eye caught his attention and he looked up and found Arcee gazing at him with a sorrowful expression. Her left arm moved toward him but stopped, as if she wanted to comfort him but was holding herself back for the sake of decorum. The mere sight of her lifted his spirits. He smiled and gave her a small nod, and her face regained some of its usual confidence and hint of humor. One of the guards behind him whistled softly. "You're right, kid, that's pretty impressive." "See, Mom?" Jack grinned. "I couldn't ask for a better partner." "I guess you're right about that," his mom said softly. Reluctantly. "Nobody else would hand out that kind of curb-stomping for you. Well, nobody except me," she added with a wink. Jack laughed and patted her shoulder. "I'm glad you're both on my side." "Damn right." She managed a small smile, and looked up at Arcee and gave her a quick, small nod. Arcee's brows lifted, then she grinned and nodded back. Finally. Jack let a long, slow breath out. "I'm curious," one of the other guards said, "the changing-into-vehicles thing; how do you do that?" "Huh," Arcee shrugged. "Never had to explain it before. It's just...something we can do. Parts shift around into a different configuration." Miko reached over to poke Jack's shoulder. "Hey, if you could turn into a vehicle, what would it be?" "Uh..." He arched an eyebrow. "It never occurred to me." "Fail." She laughed. "Me? Something fast and hot. Like a Lamborghini." She prodded Raf between his shoulder blades. "How about you?" He aimed a smirk at her. "A TARDIS." Jack facepalmed. "Why didn't I think of that?" "You probably have your mind on other things." Miko flicked her eyes toward Arcee, and Jack tensed up. When she didn't elaborate, he relaxed again. "I think I'll go grab a drink." He wheeled himself toward the bench, but hesitated, wondering what Miko might say while he was out of earshot. Nah, Arcee can handle her. He continued on to the bench, poured a cup of coffee, and turned around. Uh-oh. Gonna need both hands on the wheels. He grabbed a lid and fastened it to the top of the cup, held the cup between his thighs, and returned slowly to Arcee and the others. That'd be just what I need now--spill hot coffee and burn my junk off. As he approached, he spotted another airman walking toward the group. Arcee greeted her with a smile. "Hello, Carla." "Hi. I've got some good news for Jack; his new legs are ready." Jack increased his speed. "Right on." Carla turned around and grinned. "I thought you'd like that." She unbuttoned her jacket and slipped it off. "Since I have firsthand experience with that type of prosthetic, I figured I could explain the basics." "Well, I am a little curious." Jack parked beside his mom, removed the lid and sipped the coffee, winced and decided to wait for it to cool down a little more. "Well, check this out." Carla pointed at her left arm. "Not my original one." Jack leaned forward for a closer look at it. "You're kidding." "Nope. I always figured, if I was gonna be wounded, it'd be in combat--but no, this happened when I was on leave, visiting my family. Drunk driver swerved into my car just as I was getting out of it. Took the door--and my arm--clean off." She stepped closer to give him a better look at her arm, flexed her elbow and wiggled her fingers. "The skin appears pretty real until you look closely or touch it. You can use makeup to hide the 'seam' where your limb ends and the prosthetic one begins, but I hardly ever bother since I'm wearing a shirt or jacket most of the time. And as you can see, it has the same mobility as a real arm." "Nice. How does it work?" "The artificial bones inside are surgically attached to your real bones, right where the amputation was done, and they fuse together." "Oh, right," Raf said. "I remember seeing something on the news about a cat who'd lost its leg getting a prosthetic that fused with its bones." "Yeah, this is kind of a more advanced version of that. There's also a neural link that ties in with your brain, which allows you to operate the limb as if it really is a part of your body, and it also lets you feel sensations. It's not exactly like the real thing; it's pretty rudimentary at this stage, but you will be able to feel things on your artificial skin. And it should continue to improve as the team develops new upgrades." "Sounds good." "Hold on a sec." Arcee raised a brow. "I just checked; there's nothing even remotely like this on the market right now. So exactly how experimental is this?" "It's the kind of thing we do here. A few of us volunteered to test these new replacement arms and legs, and the team working on this project is still making improvements, but I've had my new arm for almost a year and haven't had any problems with it." Arcee pointed a finger at her. "Just so you know, Jack is not to be used as a guinea pig." "Don't worry. There's a couple dozen people here who have prosthetics like mine, and none of us has had any side-effects." She put her jacket back on. "That's good to know." "It's okay, Arcee, I'm willing to give this a shot." Jack turned toward the door. "Okay, let's get started." # "Uhhhh..." "Oh, he's finally waking up!" Familiar voice. "M...Mom?" Jack forced his eyes open. Everything was blurry. He blinked slowly and his eyes focused gradually. He was in bed, in a hospital room. His mom on the right, leaning over his bed, smiling. Arcee on the left, sitting on the floor yet still towering over him, grinning and reaching out to take his hand. Oh, that's right. New legs. He looked down and grinned at the sight of what appeared to be two complete legs under the white sheet. "How ya doing, kiddo?" His mom rested her hand on his shoulder. "Uh, groggy." "Guess they had you on some good stuff." "Feels like." He fumbled for her hand, patted it, and turned to smile up at Arcee. "Hey, gorgeous." "Hey, yourself." She stroked his cheek with a fingertip. "How are you feeling? Other than groggy, that is?" "Really gotta take a leak. How long have I been out?" "Four days." Arcee held a hand up to calm him before he could freak out. "The doctors said the procedure is painful and they had to keep you sedated for a while." "Still hurts a little." Jack pulled the sheet down and stared at his legs. After a few seconds, he found the spot where his stumps ended and the prosthetics began. The ends of his real legs were sore, and below that...he wasn't sure. He thought he could feel the mattress under him, but couldn't help wondering if it was just phantom limb syndrome again. "They said the worst of it is over, but you'll be sore for a while longer. They took you off the IV this morning, but you'll still need to keep taking the pain meds in pill form." He nodded and took a few deep breaths. His head cleared a little more. He tried to flip the whole sheet back, but it flopped across his lower legs. "Aw, crap." His mom and Arcee pulled the sheet off so he could take a look at his new legs. He stared for a long moment and finally let a goofy grin spread across his face. "Huh. There they are. The skin looks the right color." He tried to wiggle his toes, and laughed when it actually worked. "How does it feel?" his mom said. "Not like before. The sensations are...I dunno, dull, I guess. But at least I can feel something." Still laughing, he tried to swing his legs over the edge of the bed; they jerked and twitched and he frowned. "I imagine it'll take some getting used to." "Probably. Might as well get started, though." He managed to get his legs over the edge and place his feet on the floor. "You might want to take it slow." "I'd like to, but I really need to get into the bathroom." He pushed himself up, lost his balance, and staggered. Both his mom and Arcee reached out to steady him. He regained his equilibrium and let out a slow breath. "I'm okay. Just need to get the hang of this." He took a single step, waited to be sure that he would remain upright, and took another. "Okay. So far, so good. Still not sure if what I'm feeling is actually real, though." Suddenly, something metallic yet warm trailed up the back of his left calf, and he shivered and grinned. "Ohhh!" He looked over his shoulder and found Arcee leaning toward him. He realized that she'd just brushed a finger along the back of his leg. "Okay, that settles that. Me likey, by the way." "There's more where that came from." She winked. "Gyahh!" His mom grimaced, looked away, and rubbed her hands over her face. Jack laughed and continued on to the bathroom, taking each step slowly, but stopped when his mom snickered. He glanced over his shoulder. She looked away again, trying to hide her grin by holding her fist in front of her mouth and clearing her throat. Arcee cocked her head and raised her left brow. Oh. The hospital gown. It's open in the back. And I'm not wearing anything else. He blushed and shrugged. Eh, what can ya do? "Nice ass," Arcee said with a smirk. He grinned and played a quick drum solo on his ass cheeks before stepping into the bathroom and closing the door. Arcee burst out laughing and his mom snorted. When he finished, he opened the door, stepped out, and leaned his shoulder against the wall. "Well, I'd like to get dressed now, so..." His mom headed for the door and pointed at the closet behind her. "They put your stuff in there. I'll wait outside for you." "Thanks." He waited for her to close the door behind her, and looked up at Arcee. "So...I, uh, need to get dressed. Which involves taking this gown off." "That's about how I figured it'd start." She gazed at him for a moment. "Oh, you want me to turn around?" "Well..." She grinned, scooted over to the wall, sat cross-legged and leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. And stared straight at him. "I'm not allowed to see my boyfriend naked?" Oh. Right. "Ah. Good point." His face grew hot. Again. He shrugged and slipped the gown off. Okay, what the hell. That smirk reappeared. "Interesting." "Interesting? Good 'interesting' or bad 'interesting'?" "Remember, I have no frame of reference for any of this. At all." She wiggled her brow plates. "I like what I see, though. You're in pretty good shape." He glanced at his arms; they did appear slightly more muscular than they used to. "That's probably from pushing the wheelchair around and lifting myself into and out of it." He walked over to the closet and slid the door open. Then he laughed. "I'm walking! Been a while since I could do that." Arcee's expression changed from its mixture of curiosity and amusement to relief. "I was afraid it'd never happen." "That thought crossed my mind." He put his underwear on, losing his balance in the process and bracing his hand against the wall to hold himself upright. "Well, even if prosthetics like these weren't available, there are plenty of others that'd work." Another thought struck him and he winced. "Oh, man, I really don't want to see the bill for this." "Well, since they're still kind of in the experimental stage, the cost might be waived." "I hope so. On what I get paid at KO, I'd never be able to pay these things off." He shrugged and finished dressing. "So, what now?" "I imagine you'll need breakfast." "Oh, right. Guess I am kinda hungry." He cleared his throat and took a breath. "Then maybe we can, um, catch a movie or something?" "Oh, our first date? Sure, sounds fun." He grinned and picked up his coat. His left leg twitched and he grabbed onto the edge of the closet door. "Whoa. Can't do any dancing until I get used to these." "Oh, Carla mentioned some exercises she did to help her adjust to her new arm. She and a bunch of the others found them quite useful. Maybe you can join one of the classes?" He thought it over, nodded, and smirked. "Interesting." # After breakfast--well, lunch, technically--Jack decided to check out those exercises Arcee had mentioned. Arcee contacted Carla and asked for some info, and later that afternoon Jack found himself standing on the pavement outside the same hangar the Autobots had used for their meeting a few days ago. Carla--having apparently been assigned as his and Arcee's official liaison because of the friendship she'd formed with the 'Bot--was there with two off-duty personnel. "Hi, guys," Carla said as they walked over, and nodded at the other two. "This is Airman Trent Wilkes and Airman Bobby Delaware. Trent, Bob, Jack Darby and Arcee." "Good afternoon," Delaware said, and Wilkes simply smiled and tossed off a quick salute. "We're meeting out here because Arcee wouldn't fit in the gym." Carla chuckled. "There's no reason she can't join in if she wants." "Thanks." Arcee stood off to the side and clasped her hands behind her back. "No problemo." Wlkes pointed at his left leg. "In case you're curious, that's the one I had to get replaced. Lost it when an enemy rocket hit a little closer than I would've preferred." "With me, it's both legs," Delaware said. "Plane crash. Luckily, I wasn't the pilot at the time, so I don't have to take the blame for it." "Ah. Well, nice to meet you guys." Jack chuckled and waved a hand at his legs. "Both of 'em. Twenty-foot-tall robot fell on me." Wilkes whistled softly. "Now that's a story you can tell the grandkids someday." Jack chuckled and exchanged a wry smile with Arcee. "Well," Carla said, "since you two are new to this, we'll start at the beginning. I found that Tai Chi helped calm my mind after the accident, and it's a good way to adjust to new limbs like the ones we were given." "Ah, martial arts?" Arcee suddenly looked a lot more interested. "I've picked up quite a bit from the Jackie Chan movies Jack got me hooked on." "Fantastic. Love Jackie Chan." Carla grinned and rubbed her hands together. "Okay, let's get started." Jack watched her slow, graceful movements, and did his best to mimic them. His legs weren't quite as twitchy as before, but he still had a way to go. "Not bad, Jack." Carla stopped for a moment to point at his feet. "Remember to keep your feet in full contact with the ground. If you put all your weight on your heel or the ball of your foot, you can lose your balance." "Okay, thanks." Jack kept going, gradually noticing his movements becoming smoother as he lost himself in the balletic motions. "One of the things that drew me to this," Carla said after a long while, "is that it looks almost like a dance, but when you think about its true purpose, it becomes totally badass. This, for example." She swept her arms around, stepped back, then forward, and thrust her right hand out with her palm up and her fingers straight out. "The first motion deflects your opponent's blow, and the second jabs him in the eye or throat." "Okay, I'm sold." Arcee grinned and began moving along with Jack and the others. Jack soon found himself standing still and simply watching her. She makes it look like she's been doing this for centuries. But then, she'd probably searched YouTube, analyzed a bunch of Tai Chi videos, and incorporated the results into her combat suite. Too bad humans can't learn things that easily. A distant rumble approached, growing louder. Jack frowned and looked over his shoulder, and relaxed when he saw Bee driving up. He smiled and waved, and turned back to watch Arcee. "Beautiful," he said softly. I could watch that all day. And all night. And the next day. Bee stopped and one of his doors opened. Footsteps approached, followed by the sound of Bee changing into his primary mode. "Hi, Jack." "Hey, Mom. What's up?" Jack kept his eyes on Arcee. "Wow." His mom stopped beside him and watched her for a moment. "I never thought a robot that big could be so graceful." "That's my girl." He finally tore his gaze away from Arcee and looked at his mom. He frowned at her troubled expression. "Hey, are you okay?" At the same moment, Bee walked over to Arcee and emitted a series of beeps and buzzes. Jack didn't understand any of it, of course, but it sure as hell sounded urgent. Arcee stopped moving and her jaw dropped. Jack glanced back and forth between the two 'Bots. He pointed at Bee. "Okay, what did R2D2 just say?" "He said that Prime and the others just got a message from Fowler. Someone--" "Someone broke into our house," Jack's mom said, crossing her arms tightly over her chest as if hugging herself. "Fowler had some of his people staking it out, keeping an eye on it while we were away, and they spotted a half-dozen or so people in some sort of armor picking the locks and slipping into the front and back doors." "What?" Jack stared at her and shook his head slowly. Other than burglars--who probably wouldn't be wearing armor--he could only think of two other groups who'd be interested in his house. "Fowler's men went in after them, and now they're in the hospital in Jasper." She shivered. "Multiple gunshot wounds." "Shit." Jack put his arms around her and looked at Arcee. "Sounds like professionals. MECH, maybe?" "Could be. I can definitely see how they'd have a grudge against us, given what happened the last time we ran into them." Arcee shook her head, clearly troubled by the implications. "If it's not MECH, then somehow the Decepticons managed to recruit some humans." "Either way," Jack almost whispered, "they know where we live." CHAPTER THREE "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," General Sanchez said as he entered the hangar. "Again, I wish the circumstances were better, but..." "As do we," Prime said, lowering himself to one knee and leaning forward so the general and his aides wouldn't have to twist their necks quite as far to look at him. "Do we have any information on the families of Raf and Miko?" "Agent Fowler has teams keeping an eye on both families." Sanchez took a seat between a colonel and a major, and placed a tablet computer on the table that had been set up here for the briefing. "So far, everything's pretty quiet in both locations. No further incidents at the Darby residence, either." Raf and Miko, seated at the far end of the table, slumped forward and sighed. Jack, to Raf's left, glanced at June and tried to give her a reassuring smile. "That's a relief," Bulkhead said, crouching beside Optimus. Bee sat behind Raf, leaned over so the kid could see him, and gave him a thumbs-up. Arcee watched Sanchez unfasten his uniform jacket and tug on his shirt collar. Huh. Everything's quiet, yet something's bugging him. She kept it to herself for the moment. "What about the agents who were staking out our house?" June said, bracing her right elbow on the table and running a finger over her lower lip. "Last I heard, they were in the hospital. Will they be okay?" "They didn't make it." Sanchez rubbed the bridge of his nose, picked up his tablet and studied something on its screen. June covered her mouth with her hand. "Examination of the bodies revealed something we didn't expect." Sanchez held the tablet up and pointed at it. "What was originally thought to be bullet wounds were, in fact, something else entirely. The projectiles were very small--each about the size of a BB--but they packed a much bigger punch than any gun currently available to us." He turned the tablet so that the screen faced the kids and the Autobots. "And then there's this--a set of photos taken by the agents before they entered the house." Arcee crouched behind Jack and his mom, and zoomed in on the tablet. The current image was of three men in black armor and helmets picking the lock on the front door. "That doesn't look like the armor the MECH guys had when we ran into 'em," Miko said. "Their armor was green." "There's no reason to believe they use the same suits for every operation." Raf shrugged. "Maybe the green armor was meant to blend in with trees, or something. And the black suits are for nighttime missions." Sanchez nodded and smiled at him. "That's a good theory. Not correct, as it turns out, but in any other case, you'd be right." He tapped a button on the screen and it switched to a video clip. "You may want to look away for a few moments, kid; this isn't pretty." Raf braced himself and kept his eyes on the screen. "I can handle it." Sanchez took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Alright," he muttered, rather than argue. "Fowler's men had button cameras on their jackets, and recorded...well, this." On the screen was a first-person view from one of the agents entering Jack's house. Through the empty living room, into the hallway, a quick look into the bathroom. Then a left turn to June's bedroom. A humanoid shape moved in the darkness, barely discernable from the room itself. The figure snapped around to face the agent--and in the dark hovered a pair of small, glowing red lights. Optics, Arcee realized as the agent released a startled grunt. A sharp, metallic click--the all too familiar sound of a Cybertronian arm cannon deploying. Rapid muzzle flashes pierced the night. Miko whipped her hand up in front of Raf's eyes, blocking the sight of blood spraying across the screen. She flinched, but didn't look away. The image spun as the man collapsed, and stopped at an upward angle. The other agent rushed into the camera's range, firing his pistol off to the left--until he was perforated by dozens of shots from another intruder's weapon. Sanchez turned the tablet back around, ran the video backward, and advanced it frame by frame. June held her hand over her mouth and released a muffled, "Christ..." Even Miko looked badly shaken. Raf stared at the table, trembling. Miko patted his shoulder. "That wasn't MECH," Jack muttered. "That wasn't even human." Arcee shook her head and kept staring at the tablet as the general turned it back to them and held it up. Is that...? No, it can't be. "Okay," Sanchez said softly, "what do you guys make of this?" The video had been paused on the first muzzle flash from the intruder; the flash illuminated its metal body--a monstrosity whose only resemblance to a human was its number of arms, legs, and eyes. "No," Arcee whispered, leaning forward for a better look at the image. On the upper-left part of the robot's chest was the Decepticon insignia. She looked up at Prime. "Optimus...what the hell?" "I don't know." He stared at the tablet with his mouth hanging open in shock. "I have never seen anything like that before." "Oh, man," Miko said. "That can't be good." "So," the general said, "there's a new player on the field." "New, but working with the Decepticons." Optimus stared numbly at the image. "If they can now impersonate humans..." "Then they can hurt us in ways I don't even want to think about. But since it comes with the job, I have to." Sanchez placed the tablet in front of him, untied his ponytail, and ran his fingers through his hair. Maybe trying to put himself at ease, Arcee guessed. "So, you've never encountered anything like this?" "No, General. On Cybertron, there was no need to mimic organic life forms, and on the rare occasion when our battles were waged on inhabited planets, disguising ourselves as organics was impractical at best, due to the differences in our sizes." Raf took a deep breath and tried to pull himself together. "Created by the 'Cons, maybe?" "That'd be my guess," Arcee said. "We could probably detect them the same way we're able to detect the 'Cons, but since the five of us can't be everywhere at once, these...whatever they are...could infiltrate almost any military base or research lab. Or anything else. The 'Cons could start attacking humans whenever they want." "Well, speaking of attacks on humans, that's exactly what--" A soft beep from the tablet interrupted the general, and he picked it up and read a new message that had just popped up. He sighed and pushed his chair back. "That's exactly what happened. A camp we'd recently set up was attacked a few hours ago. The bodies were transported here; they've just arrived." "How many bodies?" "Everyone at the camp. Soldiers and the investigative team--eighty-nine, total." He stood and looked up at Prime. "I'm a little hesitant to bring up the subject given your refusal to share any of your technology with us, but--" "I am sorry, General, but I have already explained why we can't do that," Prime said. "I understand your concern. Believe me, I do. I even support your decision. I don't even want to imagine what might've happened if, for example, terrorists got their hands on any of your weapons." Arcee nodded. "We saw our homeworld die. The last thing we want is to let that happen to Earth." "Not to mention the possibility that such technology could be used against you if it fell into the wrong hands. But things are changing." Sanchez opened another image on the tablet and held it up. "This is a still from one of the camp's security cameras. If I'm not mistaken, this guy resembles the Vehicons that Arcee fought before Mr. Darby was brought here." "That's what it is, alright." Arcee had to fight the urge to clench her fists. "I also recognize the forest in the background." Jack leaned forward, his face suddenly pale. "That's where Airachnid's ship crash-landed." Sanchez nodded. "There was a young man camping in the area where she and Arcee duked it out. He'd just arrived and set up his tent. The sounds of your fight caught his attention and he grabbed his camera." He looked up at Arcee and a grim smile flickered across his face. "He took pictures of your first fight, Airachnid's ship, you pinned to the side of that cliff, and your rematch. He had dozens of pictures of you beating the shit out of Airachnid." "That must've been the tent Airachnid was approaching when I caught up with her. She was planning to kill a human and take his head as a trophy." Arcee's mouth curled in disgust. "She called it 'sport'--but there's no sport in killing someone who can't possibly defend himself against you. She's nothing but a third-rate serial killer. If I ever get my hands on that bitch, I'll beat her like a rented mule." Jack started to reach out for her hand, but restrained himself. She flicked a glance at him and softened her expression briefly to let him know that she appreciated the gesture. Sanchez nodded. "Well, the witness came to our attention when he contacted the local authorities and showed them the photos. We interviewed him, examined the photos, and I sent a team to the crash site to investigate the remains of Airachnid's ship and whatever else they might find there." Prime frowned. "You hoped to reverse engineer whatever you found." "Given the threat the Decepticons represent, yes. But I assure you, I'm more interested in defensive measures than offensive weapons. On our own, we've already developed weapons that can wipe out a continent and leave it uninhabitable for thousands of years; merely thinking of the ones we could build with your technology is enough to give me nightmares." Sanchez looked at Jack and chuckled. "We couldn't salvage much from Airachnid's ship, though; you did a real number on it. Destroyed the hell out of it." Jack blushed, but managed a quick smile. Arcee grinned at him. "We returned to the site to remove anything that could be used as a weapon," she said, "but there wasn't much except scrap left after the explosion Jack set off. Wish I could've seen Airachnid's face when she realized her ship was about to blow." "The team did find a few pieces of what we assume to be Airachnid's 'skin' which was shot off during the fight," the general continued. "They also found remains of the webbing she used to immobilize Arcee and Jack." "Oops." Bulkhead winced. "We must've missed some of it." "The webbing is being analyzed now. If we find a way to neutralize it, we'll inform you immediately. Obviously, you'll need a defense against it if you run into Airachnid again." "And I hope I do," Arcee growled. "We would be grateful, General," Prime said. "However, the matter of Airachnid's armor..." "I understand--if we find a way to punch through Decepticon armor, that weapon could also be used against you. But we'll need such a weapon if they continue attacking us directly--and we'd be fools to assume they won't. As Arcee said, you can't protect the whole world at once. And since this is our home, too, we should join you in defending it." "You have a point. But you must understand, we are concerned about other uses which might be found for our technology. I am not worried about it being used against us as much as I am about you using it against yourselves. You could easily wipe yourselves out--and it would be our fault." "As I said, I understand your concern. But now that the 'Cons have attacked us directly on more than one occasion, your war has become our war." The general turned and waved a hand at the hangar door. "There's something I need to show you. If you'll follow me, please." He stopped at the door and waited for the others to join him. Arcee hung back for a moment, waiting for Jack as the others walked to the hangar door. He stepped up beside her and raised an eyebrow. "How did those new 'Cons find my house?" "Any number of ways. Since most of them have already seen you, Raf, and Miko, they all have a visual record of you, and could've used that to track you down." "They could've ID'd you from a picture in your high school yearbook," June muttered, shivering. "Or one on your Facebook page. Or even one of the pictures I emailed to my parents. They could've intercepted it. Or they could've hacked into the DMV and found your motorcycle license. Oh, my God. Arcee was right about you becoming a target as soon as they saw you with her." "Guess it's a good thing Arcee came back for me, that first day," Jack said. He tried to grin up at her, but could hold it for only a few seconds. "In more ways than one." She smiled, glanced at the others to be sure they weren't looking in her direction, and leaned over to caress his cheek. She looked into his eyes for a second, sharing a brief, quiet moment with him, glanced at the other 'Bots again, and shifted back into all-business mode when she joined them at the door. "Over there." Sanchez pointed at a large airplane not far away. "I assume your optics include a zoom function?" "They do," Optimus said. "Okay. Take a look at that, then." Frowning, Arcee zoomed in on the plane. She found men and women unloading plastic bags on gurneys, pushing them down the plane's cargo ramp and wheeling them into a nearby hangar. "Body bags," she whispered. "Damn." "I'm afraid that's a sign of what's to come," Sanchez said, stuffing his hands into his pockets and shaking his head. "If this continues, we won't have a chance in hell. I know you don't want to give us weapons, but we need something. How about defensive measures--better armor for our troops, something that can withstand a shot or two from your blasters? Or personal forcefields? Anything to prevent more massacres like this one." "General..." "Please, at least consider what I've said." Sanchez pointed at the bodies. "Look at that. Enough parents have lost their sons and daughters, don't you think?" Arcee shared another look with Jack, and turned to Prime. "I have to admit, he's got a point." "True." Optimus stared at the plane as the rest of the dead were unloaded. "We...will see what we can do." # "They were so young," Optimus said softly. Arcee leaned against the wall back at the Autobot base and watched as he read the dossiers of the people killed in the latest Decepticon attack. Given humanity's track record, she wasn't thrilled about handing any Cybertronian tech over to them, but without some serious technological leaps forward, no human would have a chance of surviving a full-on assault by the 'Cons. "Many of them were less than two years older than Jack," Optimus continued in a low voice. "Human lives are far too brief as it is, without the Decepticons cutting them short." Someday, I'll lose Jack, Arcee realized suddenly. Even if he survives this war, even if it ends within his lifetime, he'll grow old and eventually, his body will simply shut down. In only the blink of an eye, compared to the average Cybertronian lifespan. She winced. I hadn't even thought about that before. Still, it was too late to back out of their relationship now. Not that she could even if it were an option. Knowing his life would be brief didn't change how she felt about him. If anything, it made her feelings even stronger. "Humans are such a violent, primitive species," Ratchet grumbled. "It'll be a miracle if they don't destroy themselves even without help from our weaponry. But if we give General Sanchez what he wants, they'll only kill each other with it." "How are we any different? We waged a war that destroyed our home." Prime looked away from the huge screen and shook his head. "And now we've brought our war to a world that already had more than enough problems of its own." "I suppose you have a point. But you're the one who was so adamant about keeping our tech out of their hands. Are you sure you're making the right choice?" "I'm still concerned about the things they could do with our technology, but if we do nothing, each time the Decepticons attack humans and we're unable to get there in time to stop it, the humans will be swatted down like insects." Arcee grimaced again. Every time she thought about that happening, she couldn't prevent herself from imagining Jack crushed under a Decepticon foot or seared to a crisp by one of their guns. I won't allow that to happen, even if it means giving humanity something that can be misused. "Maybe we can start small," she said, and the others turned to look at her. "Improved armor, like Sanchez suggested. Better armor for their vehicles. Maybe figure out how to make some sort of cloaking device like the thermoptic camouflage used in that anime Raf likes." "Hmm." Ratchet raised a brow. "Invisibility would certainly give them a chance to evacuate a site when it comes under attack." Prime nodded and returned his attention to the main screen of Ratchet's console. "That is a good start." Arcee pushed off from the wall and waved a hand at the screen, which continued to scroll through the dossiers. "There's also the matter of weapons. All the 'Cons need to do is launch more simultaneous attacks than we're able to counter, and the loss of life--" "I know." Optimus advanced the screen to the next file and continued reading for a moment. "I don't want them to be defenseless, but we would be taking a terrible risk if we arm them." Arcee started to respond, but soft voices echoing up the tunnel behind her drew her attention. She looked over her shoulder and found Jack and June approaching. His mother had accompanied them back to the base, and he'd given her a brief tour while Prime and the others contemplated their next move. Jack met her gaze and smiled. She gave him a quick nod and turned back to Prime. "Some things are worth the risk." # "Hey, Arcee," Jack's smile faded as he and his mom walked up to her. "You okay?" "Just thinking." She'd been sitting in one of the chambers the Autobots used as storage rooms, staring at the floor and trying not to think about human lifespans. She sat up straighter upon hearing his voice and smiled at him and June. "How's the tour going?" June shook her head slowly. "Every time I start to adjust to everything that's been going on, something else comes along and throws me for a loop. I had no idea this place had practically become a second home for Jack." "Oh, speaking of homes..." "Yeah," Jack said, "since the 'Cons know where we live, we need to relocate. We were just discussing that a while ago." "I know it has to be done," June said with a sigh. "But I liked living in Jasper." "I guess the other 'Bots and I have screwed your lives up pretty thoroughly," Arcee said. "Since the alternative would be to not have you in my life, I'm okay with the way things have turned out." Jack walked over to her and took her hand in both of his. Arcee chuckled and nudged his shoulder. "Someone like Sierra would've been much safer for you." "Eh, she didn't even know I existed until my new motorcycle caught her attention. If someone is only into you because of what you drive, that's a relationship that'll never go anywhere." Jack grinned. "Besides, safe isn't nearly as interesting as what I've seen since we met." "Sounds like you've been hanging out with Miko too much." "I'm not that fearless." Jack leaned against Arcee's right thigh. "One of these days, that girl is gonna get herself killed." "Actually, I think she's calmed down a bit since she found out that you lost both legs in our last fight with the 'Cons. She seems to have finally realized just how much any of us can lose in this war." "Well, then maybe it was worth going through." Arcee let her hand rest gently at his side. "So...about relocating--any idea where it'll be?" "Agent Fowler's working out the details," June said. "In the meantime, General Sanchez has offered us quarters at Groom Lake." She managed to smile briefly. "Never pictured myself living on a military base, especially one like Groom Lake." "That's one of the reasons I hope Miko is losing her 'ready-fire-aim' mindset," Jack said. "I can totally see her wandering into a restricted area because it simply didn't occur to her that there might be something dangerous inside." "Oh, yeah." Arcee laughed. "Or even if you don't get anywhere near anything hazardous, all you have to do in a place like that is walk through the wrong door and armed guards will drag you into a room with no windows and give you the jelly-finger." Jack burst out laughing and June tried to hold her composure, but lost it after a few more seconds. "Eww!" she finally said. "Glad to see you're in better spirits," Jack said once he'd caught his breath. "You were looking pretty grim earlier." "Well, finding out about Decepticons who can pass for human, and seeing what they did in your house, shook me up. But Optimus and Ratchet are kicking around ideas for defensive measures we can help the general set up. And they're considering limited co-development on weapons systems. So things are looking up." "Glad to hear that. Bit of a surprise, though. I thought Optimus was pretty dead-set against anything like that." "Sanchez is putting together a team to work alongside us in the field; Optimus objected at first, but since we're guests on your world, he realized that we should be more willing to follow your rules." She smirked. "Especially since Sanchez stated an intention to send his team after the 'Cons with or without our help." "He seems like a decent guy," June said. "Hell, Jack and I owe him for those prosthetic legs and not making us pay through the nose for them." "Speaking of which, how're they working out?" "I'm still getting used to them, but I'm glad to have 'em. I'm really surprised at how fast I healed after both surgeries, too." "I overheard one of the doctors saying something about nanotechnology," June said. "I guess it's another one of their experiments." "Well, whatever it is, I'm grateful for it. I might've been stuck in that hospital bed for weeks or even months without it." He yawned suddenly and glanced at his watch. "Whoa. It's almost two in the morning." "You're kidding." June looked at her watch and ran her hand through her hair. "Okay, you're not kidding." "There's some cots in another storage room." Jack waved a hand at the door. "I'll grab one for you, then you can pick a room to crash in. Or would you rather bridge back to Groom Lake?" "That ground bridge thingy probably uses a hell of a lot of power each time it's turned on. It's probably better to spend the night here and drive back in the morning." "Yeah, Ratchet tends to gripe if it's used too frequently. Though that could just be Ratchet griping for the sake of griping" "Hey," Arcee said, "tomorrow morning might be a good time to give you that spin on Jack's bike that you asked for my first night in your garage." June blinked several times before she remembered what Arcee was talking about. "Oh, right--you were sitting right there, weren't you?" Arcee grinned. "Bulkhead will be transporting a few pieces of the Vehicons I wasted back to the Lake for Sanchez's research teams to test weapons on. Just parts of their outer shells--their 'skin,' you might say. We can ride out with him in the morning." "Sounds fun. I've been wanting to take Jack's new bike for a spin since he got it." June grinned. "It'll be kinda surreal, now that I know you're his bike. But then, almost everything in the past few days has been a little weird." "Don't worry, after a while, the weirdness will seem perfectly normal." Jack chuckled and led her down the corridor to another storage room. "That's what worries me." June tossed him a lopsided grin. As Arcee followed them to the next room, a giggle caught her attention and she looked into the room on her left. There was Miko, grinning at a pipe framework with some sort of webbing stretched between each end. "Uh, Miko, what's up?" Arcee raised a brow. "What's that thing?" "It's a hammock! Found it in a store room." She rubbed her hands together. "I've always wanted one of these!" Okay...and what exactly is a 'hammock'? Arcee connected to the internet, but before she could start a search for the term, Miko climbed into the webbing--which instantly flipped over and dumped her face-down on the floor. "Whaaaa-uhhff!" Miko rolled over, sat up, and grimaced. "Damn it!" Arcee stared at her, cocked her head, and blinked. Jack sighed and shook his head. June stared for a few seconds, turned and aimed a puzzled look at Jack, and pointed at Miko. "Uh..." "Miko's just being Miko." He stepped into the room where the cots were stored. "She'll either figure out how it works and go to sleep, or she'll knock herself out cold." "Ah. Okay." Miko climbed back into the hammock. She remained stable for about two seconds, then it flipped her over and dropped her again. She sighed. "Ow!" "You'll probably want a room far, far away from hers," Jack said with a chuckle. He picked up one of the cots and handed it to his mom. "I know I do." "Good idea. Thanks." June flicked her eyes back and forth between him and Arcee, cleared her throat, and took a few steps farther into the tunnel. "Well. Goodnight, you two." "Goodnight, Mom." "Goodnight, June." Jack headed in the opposite direction. Arcee followed, glancing into Miko's room just in time to see her fall out of the hammock again. Arcee shook her head and kept walking. Jack passed several rooms that were either full or nearly full, found one that had only a few crates of car wax and polish that the 'Bots sometimes used, and set up his cot behind a pair of them. He sat on the cot and smiled up at Arcee. "Well. See you tomorrow." She smiled, crouched, and leaned closer until their mouths were inches from each other. "Goodnight, partner." "Ah, not junior partner?" "Not anymore. Not since...well..." She glanced at his legs. "I've been promoted, then. Sweet." She chuckled. "You earned it." She moved closer, as did he, and their lips met. Briefly, like the first time, a quick peck. Then, after gazing into each other's eyes for a moment, another kiss--this one lasting several seconds. Huh. That still feels weird. One corner of her mouth curved upward. But I kinda like it. "That was perfect." Jack stroked her cheek and smiled. "Thanks. Not bad for a girl who doesn't know what the hell she's doing, eh?" "Well, I'm learning as we go, too." Jack mimicked Optimus Prime's deadly-serious vocal mannerisms. "Our ignorance will be a beacon lighting our way into the uncharted future." Arcee burst out laughing and gave him a gentle push. He lay back and laughed with her. "I think you'd better get some sleep, Jack. You're getting a little doofy." "Yeah, I guess it's a good thing I'm not trying to use a hammock." He waited for her to stop laughing and said, "Goodnight, Arcee." "Goodnight, babe." She leaned over to give him one more quick kiss, and headed back to the base's main hub. A small smile remained on her face through the night. # "And here we are," Arcee said, slowing as she approached the Groom Lake base's front gate. "Already?" June chuckled. "Darn. I'm having too much fun." "Maybe we can do a few laps around the parking lot later on. Or cruise around outside the base, if you want." "Cool. I haven't been on a motorcycle since I was around Jack's age." "I didn't know you used to have a motorcycle, Mom." Jack dug out his ID and handed it to the guard at the checkpoint. "I didn't. Got a lift one day from the only person in school who wanted to date me." June shook her head and sighed as she handed her ID over to the guard. "She wasn't my type, though." Jack glanced over his shoulder and arched an eyebrow. June snickered. "You're not the only kid who ever had a run of bad luck in romance." "Oh, I dunno, I think I got pretty lucky." He grinned and patted the side of Arcee's gas tank. "Uh...yeah, you've got a point. At least you didn't keep striking out all through high school like I did." After passing through the checkpoint, Arcee and Bulkhead split up, the former taking Jack and his mom to meet Carla and settle in to their temporary quarters, and the latter dropping off the pieces of Vehicon armor at one of the weapons testing facilities. A few minutes later, Arcee met up with him in the huge building, which looked like an ordinary warehouse. "Hey, Arcee," Bulk said as she walked over to him, taking a slow look around the interior. He had to crouch to keep his head away from the ceiling. He pointed at a dark-skinned human in high-tech armor beside him. "This is Ashanti McKenna. She's on the taskforce General Sanchez is putting together." He flicked a sheepish glance at her. "Uh, sorry, but nobody told me your rank." "Major. But just call me Ashanti. We're pretty informal around here." She nodded over her shoulder at a handful of guys in white coats at the far wall, mounting part of a Vehicon's chest plate on a rack. "You got here just in time. We're about to start throwing stuff against the wall and seeing if any of it sticks." "Just like that?" Arcee raised a brow. "Well, most of the pieces were sent to one of our labs for analysis, but we were given a few pieces to play around with. I figured we might as well hit 'em with the biggest stuff we've got and see if any of it works." Arcee zoomed in on the lab-coat guys and watched them wheel a pair of huge metal plates over and place them on either side of the target to keep the bullets contained. One of them turned, gave Ashanti a thumbs-up, and all of them hurried out of the way. "I'll start with armor-piercing rounds." Ashanti turned and walked over to a cart holding numerous clips of ammo. Attached to a clip on the back of her armor, Arcee noticed, was a huge sniper rifle, an assault rifle, and a shotgun. The diameter of the sniper rifle's barrel appeared to be at least sixteen millimeters. Ashanti plucked the massive rifle from its clip and inserted an equally large magazine. Holding the gun in one hand, her bicep bulging but not straining, she tapped her tiny earpiece with her free hand. "Clear?" She listened for a moment and nodded. She remained standing, aimed the sniper rifle at the target, and punched a round square into its center. Arcee zoomed back in and found a considerable dent in the metal, but no hole. "Close, but not quite." "Huh. Have to go bigger, I guess." She popped the clip out and looked at the cart. "Or...how about something a little hotter?" She picked up another clip and inserted it. "Clear!" She listened, nodded, aimed and fired. Arcee zoomed in on the chest plate and found a glowing-hot spot where the explosive round had hit, but still no penetration. Ashanti stared at it for a moment. "Hmm. If we can put this kind of bang into an armor-piercer, we might have something." "It's pretty resistant against our own weapons," Arcee said. "Might be a good idea to adapt it into armor for your troops." "I was just thinking about that." Ashanti unloaded the sniper rifle, switched the safety on, and returned it to the clip on her back. "Even if it can only take a shot or two from your directed-energy weapons, it could make the difference between survival and finishing the day at room temperature." Arcee nodded. "So, Ashanti, what exactly will you be doing on the team? Sniper?" Ashanti smirked. "Sometimes. Usually, they have me doing the heavy hitting, but I have other talents as well." "Well, when you're sniping 'Cons, I recommend aiming for their optics. Putting armor on those would blind us, so it's a vulnerable point." "Thanks." Ashanti glanced at her watch and then at the door. "The rest of my team should've been here by now." She tapped her earpiece. "Guys, what's keeping you?" She waited for a few seconds. Frowned. "Do you read me?" Arcee and Bulkhead exchanged a worried glance. Ashanti tapped her comm again, switching channels. "Col. Watson? Can you read me? Colonel?" Arcee activated her own comm. "Jack? You there?" Nothing. She tried calling Jack's cell. Again, nothing. Bulk shook his head. "I've tried to get through to Jack and our base--no joy." "We're being jammed." Ashanti grabbed her assault rifle from the holster on her back and flicked the safety off. -clickclickclickclickclick- "Wait--what the hell was that?" Arcee turned slowly, sweeping the warehouse's interior. "Sounds familiar, but..." "Oh, no," Bulkhead moaned, backing toward the door. -clickclickclickclickclick- Ashanti snapped her rifle up to point at a spot high on the wall to the left. "Sounds like it's coming from the air ducts." "Bulk? What's--?" "I've heard that sound before." He looked at her, his eyes wide, his face almost panic-stricken. "In our base, when--" A vent cover near the ceiling popped off and clattered to the floor, causing several nearby personnel to turn toward it and stare in mild confusion. "Scraplets!" Bulkhead shouted. Ashanti raised an eyebrow. "What are--?" "Oh, shit!" Arcee deployed her arm cannons and backed toward the door. "I don't say this often, Bulk, but..." The vent filled with tiny metal beasts. They swarmed out over the wall and ceiling, clung to them, and looked around, scanning the floor for their prey. "What?" Ashanti lowered her rifle ever so slightly. "Aw, those are cute." Hundreds of Scraplets opened their mouths in perfect unison, revealing row upon row of pointed teeth sharper than any razor blade. "Whoa!" Ashanti snapped her gun back on target. "What the hell are those?" Arcee stepped aside to give Bulkhead a clear path to the door. "Run!" CHAPTER FOUR "What the--" Jack's mom turned, frowning at the sudden eruption of rapid popping sounds in the distance. "Is that gunfire?" Jack yanked his phone out of his pocket and ran to the door. His left leg jerked and almost buckled, and he braced his free hand on the door frame. Neural link must've misfired again. Still got some bugs to work out. He took a careful step forward, let out a quick breath when the leg held his weight, and continued down the front stairs. Carla was a few feet away, having stopped in the middle of getting back into the Humvee she'd used to drive him and his mom to their new rooms. She stared off to the right and reached up to the tiny radio clipped to the front of her fatigues. She pressed the talk button and opened her mouth--then frowned. She plucked the radio off and looked at it. "No signal." She put the radio back, reached into the Humvee, and tapped a button on the control panel. "Car's radio is down." She pressed more buttons and her frown deepened. "Cut off from the base's intranet, too." The gunfire continued, followed by a burst of zapping sounds. "That's Arcee," Jack blurted, running to the Humvee. "Those are her guns!" He glanced at his phone. "No bars. Damn it!" He ran around the front of the vehicle and opened the passenger-side door. "Jack!" His mom ran toward him. "What the hell are you doing?" "Sorry, kid," Carla said, pointing at the stairs. "You're a civilian. Get back to your room and--" "I haven't been a civilian since I got mixed up in all this stuff." He got in and put on the seatbelt. "Jack--" "I've been fighting alongside Arcee for months. She needs me--and I need to be sure she's okay." "Kid--" "You'll have to shoot me. You want me to stay here, you gotta shoot me. Otherwise, I'm going." Jack faced forward and waited. Carla grumbled a stream of profanity and started the engine. The driver-side back door opened and both of them looked over their shoulders. June jumped in and slammed the door. "Mom--" "June--" "You'll have to shoot me." She buckled up and crossed her arms over her chest. Jack shook his head. "Mom--" "You think I'm gonna just stand here while you put your life on the line again? Like hell." "Mom, you have to let go sooner or later." He faced forward again. "Maybe when you're eighteen. Definitely not today." She looked at Carla and raised an eyebrow. "You gonna drive, or what?" # Carla whipped the Humvee around the corner of one more building--and stomped on the brakes at the sight of Bulkhead backpedaling straight toward them. A few yards past him, Arcee swatted frantically at a swarm of all too familiar little metal atrocities climbing up her legs. Carla threw it into reverse and backed out of Bulk's path. "Dear God," June whispered. "What are those?" "Scraplets." Jack released his seatbelt and flung the door open, remaining in his seat just long enough to snap one last instruction at his mom and Carla. "They can't take cold temperatures--find some fire extinguishers!" "Jack!" His mom reached for him, but his feet had already hit the pavement. "Arcee!" His heart pounded and his breath almost caught in his throat. He ran toward her--then he realized that he didn't have anything to fight the Scraplets off. He turned back to the Humvee. "Tire iron!" Carla gaped at him. "Are you nuts?" "Those things don't attack humans!" He ran to the rear of the Hummer. "They eat metal, but they'll leave us alone." Carla nodded, pulled out the lug wrench, and handed it over. Then she drew her gun and sprinted toward Bulkhead. "Mom!" She twitched and focused her wide eyes on him. "Fire extinguisher. Hurry!" He turned, ran over to Arcee, and started bashing at the Scraplets gnawing on her legs and feet. "Arcee! Get down here where I can reach the rest of 'em!" She kept swatting at them with one hand while aiming her cannon at the swarm flowing out of the warehouse. She pointed it for several seconds, but nothing happened. She stared at it, her eyes brightening and her jaw dropping as a horrifying realization sank in. "My guns aren't working. They've been disabled!" She retracted the gun and continued swatting at the Scraplets. Jack knocked several more of the little bastards off her left leg--then a dull pain in his right leg made him stagger. He looked down and found a Scraplet biting through his pants and his artificial skin. "What the hell?" "Jack!" Arcee stared in horror as another Scraplet joined the first. "It's the prosthetic legs--they're metal underneath." He grabbed the little monsters, yanked them away, and threw them at the pavement with every ounce of strength he could muster. They bounced, rolled, pushed themselves up, and staggered--then they faced him again, dented but still functional. "Carla--they can detect the metal in your--" "Yeah, I noticed!" Scowling, Carla lifted her artificial arm, which had three Scraplets chewing on it. She pressed the barrel of her handgun against the nearest one's right eye and blasted a round clean through its head. It tumbled to the ground and the other two shifted their attention to her gun. One of them leaped onto the gun and sank its teeth into the barrel. Carla grabbed it and pulled it off. She blew its brains out and tossed it aside. The last Scraplet made the mistake of chomping down on the end of the pistol's barrel. Carla pulled the trigger before it could do any damage and sneered as it hit the pavement with a sharp plink. "Eat that." More Scraplets swarmed Jack's legs and he slapped frantically at them. "Gaaaaahh!" "No!" Arcee lunged at him, grimacing in pain but trying to ignore the Scraplets now covering most of her body. She grabbed the Scraplets on his legs one by one, pulled them loose, and crushed them with her bare hands--all while the others continued chewing on her. Jack kept swinging the lug wrench at the Scraplets on her legs. "Arcee! I can't reach the rest of 'em! Come on, help me out, here!" "Got to get those off you," she muttered, still grabbing them from his legs and smashing them even as they bit into her hands. "Never mind me!" he snapped. "The worst they can do is chew my legs off--the rest of me is still meat. Now, get down here so I can reach the rest of--" Running footsteps approached from the left and right. Before Jack could turn to see who was coming, his mother yelled, "I found a fire extinguisher! Now what?" "Fire away! Arcee first!" Arcee turned her head toward the other set of footsteps and pointed. "Ashanti--help Bulkhead!" Jack glanced around until he found Bulkhead--sprawled on the ground, grunting, kicking and swatting at the metallic bugs covering his whole body. Off to the right, a muscular woman in black armor ran toward him, holding a P90 in each hand. Hands trembling almost too much to aim, Jack's mom hosed his legs down with the fire extinguisher. The Scraplets convulsed and fell to the ground, twitched for a few seconds, and finally stopped moving. I said Arcee first, damn it! Jack pointed at Arcee and yelled, "Hurry!" June aimed at Arcee's torso and sprayed the Scraplets. Past her, the armor-clad woman opened fire with the two P90s, hitting the Scraplets on Bulkhead with short bursts, somehow managing to put a round or two through the optics of each of the little beasts. The things dropped like rocks--but more flowed out of the warehouse doors. Between the fire extinguisher and the tire iron, Jack and his mom dislodged most of the Scraplets from Arcee's body. Grunting and trembling, Arcee fell forward, rolled over, pulled the remaining ones off and smashed them into the pavement. A flash erupted from the right, and the sound of a ground bridge opening pierced the air. Jack spun to face it, wondering if it was the 'Bots or 'Cons coming through. Prime and Bee materialized and stepped out of the vortex. "Sorry I disappeared like that," the soldier muttered, slapping fresh clips into her guns. "Those little shits ate my rifle and shotgun." She turned to look at the Scraplets coming out of the warehouse. "Oh, great. We're screwed." Still shaking, Arcee waved the new arrivals off. "Scraplets! Stay back!" Jack planted himself between Arcee and the Scraplets. "You and Bulkhead get the hell out of here. We'll handle the rest." "I won't leave you!" "Nor will we," Optimus said, deploying his arm cannon and advancing. Arcee shook her head frantically. "Something here has disabled our weapons and comlinks!" She turned to the soldier and nodded at the warehouse. "Ashanti, are there any other experimental weapons in there?" "Should be. I'll see if there's anything that hasn't been eaten yet." Ashanti jogged through the mass of Scraplets. One of them jumped at the P90 in her left hand. She whipped her other P90 up and shot it in the eye without breaking her stride. She disappeared through the door a moment later. June stepped up beside Jack and pointed the fire extinguisher at the oncoming swarm. "You guys fire up that bridge thingy. We'll hold 'em off." Jack managed a quick, lopsided grin. "Wow, mom. I didn't know you were such an ass-kicker." "Neither did I." "I'm not going anywhere," Arcee grumbled, pushing herself up and clenching her fists. "Not unless you go first." The swarm reached Jack and his mom, flowed around them as she opened up with the extinguisher, and zipped straight toward the much larger snack. Arcee's mouth fell open and her eyes widened as they swarmed up her legs. "No!" Jack lunged at her, swinging the tire iron, knocking the little horrors aside only to see them jump right back onto her. The ground shook as Prime and Bee ran toward them. More resounding thuds came from behind Jack, and he turned to find Bulkhead smashing the nearby Scraplets with his fists. Suddenly, the Scraplets near the warehouse scattered. A high-pitched whine came from inside--and the nearby Scraplets stopped in their tracks. Ashanti appeared in the doorway, holding a massive rifle with a barrel as thick as one of her thighs. She looked around at the disabled Scraplets, raised an eyebrow, and aimed at another group of the creatures. There was no visible beam or muzzle flash from the cannon, but the Scraplets in her path collapsed. Arcee screamed and swatted at the tiny machines covering her. June blasted away with the extinguisher and Jack kept beating on them even as a dozen of them bit into his legs again. That whine split the air again. Suddenly, the Scraplets fell from Arcee and thumped onto the ground--and Arcee cried out and collapsed. At the same moment, Jack's legs buckled. He fell over and his legs twitched for several seconds before he was able to regain control of them. Panicking, he turned to Arcee and found her face-down on the pavement and unmoving. A cold sensation enveloped his heart. Releasing an incoherent scream, he scrambled over to her and fell to his knees, reaching out to touch her cheek. "Arcee?" Her eyes were half open, her mouth frozen in a grimace of pain, "Arcee!" When she didn't respond, tears filled his eyes. "Oh...no..." In the corner of his eye, his mom turned toward Ashanti. "What did you do?" "Not sure. This was the only weapon that was still intact. Looks like some sort of EMP projector, judging by its effects. I didn't know it would..." Ashanti looked away, turned, and headed for Bulkhead. "I'm sorry, kid. I'll be more careful from now on." Jack glared at her. "Jack..." June reached out to touch his shoulder. "She was trying to save us." I don't care. He wiped his eyes with his sleeve. "Just...go help Bulkhead." She nodded, patted his shoulder, and ran over to join Ashanti, who continued zapping the approaching Scraplets, but kept her weapon pointed away from Bulkhead while June hosed them down with the fire extinguisher. Suddenly, Arcee moved her right arm and tried to sit up, her motions jerky, and looked around. She's rebooting. Jack sobbed and threw his arms around her neck. "Ar...Arcee? Come on, babe, say something." Several agonizing seconds passed before she mumbled, "Owwww." Jack didn't even try to stop crying. "Welcome back." "Th...thanks." She pushed herself up onto her elbow and put her hand behind his back, her movements still a bit spastic but smoothing out as the seconds passed, and held him gently. "What...what in the hell was that?" "EMP weapon, I guess. Seems it just stunned you, but for a minute, I thought...I thought you were..." He sobbed again. "It's okay." She rubbed his back slowly. "Heh. You're not getting rid of me that easily." He grinned, held her a moment longer, and pulled back so he could look into her eyes. "She is unharmed," Optimus called out to Ashanti. "Merely stunned. Finish those things off!" Ashanti turned and aimed her weapon at Bulkhead. "You hear that?" "Yeah--just stunned." Bulk squeezed his optics shut and braced himself. "Let 'er rip!" She pulled the trigger and he grunted and flopped over onto his back. The Scraplets fell off and remained where they came to rest. Ashanti walked off and continued zapping the rest of the Scraplets. June walked back to Jack and Arcee, eyeing the critters warily as she passed them. "Are they...dead, or whatever? Or just stunned like Arcee and Bulkhead?" Another cold sensation rushed through Jack, like ice water flooding his guts. Bumblebee uttered a series of beeps and buzzes, and Optimus nodded. "We will make sure they are no longer a threat," Prime said. He and Bee began walking around, stomping on the Scraplets, grinding them into the asphalt. Jack smiled, stroking Arcee's cheek, and leaned forward to touch his forehead to hers. "I love you," both of them said at the same time. Prime and Bee stopped in their tracks and turned to stare at them. Bee cocked his head and released a beep that, from the sound of it, probably translated as, "Huh?" After a long pause, Prime simply said, "Arcee...?" She winced. "Oops." Jack glanced up at the other 'Bots. "Yeah. Oops." In the corner of his eye, Bulkhead started to reboot, jerking and twitching as his systems came back online. Arcee looked over her shoulder at Bee and Prime, started to speak and hesitated, and finally shrugged. She turned back to Jack, raised a brow, and gazed at him for a long moment. Her smirk reappeared and she shrugged again. "Oh, screw it." She leaned forward and kissed him--a long, passionate one, this time. When they finally parted, Jack had a huge grin nearly splitting his face, and the other Autobots looked more confused than ever. Jack cleared his throat and shrugged at them. "We can explain later." "Yeah. First things first." Arcee, still trembling slightly, pushed herself up into a crouch, and then stood. She swayed but regained her balance quickly. "Whoa. You sure you're ready to move around yet?" "I have to be. I have a feeling this has only just begun." She turned to Optimus. "How'd you know we were in trouble? We couldn't call for help." "That is precisely how we knew." Prime continued crushing the Scraplets. "Given what happened the last time your comlink was jammed, I decided it was best not to take any chances." "Well, thanks for dropping in." She frowned at the warehouse. "Now, how did those things get in here?" She looked at Carla and arched a brow. "You weren't experimenting on them, were you? Trying to find a way to weaponize them?" "Not as far as I know. They must've been brought in from outside." "The 'Cons could've smuggled them in," Jack said. "Since some of them can impersonate humans now, they could've brought a container filled with Scraplets in a routine freight shipment." Ashanti shook her head. "Well, that's just terrific." Arcee extended her left cannon and pointed it at a spot of empty pavement several yards away, but it wouldn't fire. She snarled and retracted the gun. "Could one of the projects on this base be used to jam our comlinks and weapons systems?" Prime said to Carla. "None that I know of, but then, I'm not privy to most of the projects here." "My husband works on one of the R&D teams," Ashanti said. "He might know something, or he might know who does." Prime shifted into his alt-mode and opened his driver-side door. "Please take us there." "There's one other thing we'll need if the 'Cons really are attacking," Arcee said to Carla. "Guns. If there's anything on the base we can use, we need it now." # "Okay, here we are." Carla stepped aside to let Arcee squeeze through the door. On her hands and knees, Arcee eased forward and stopped when her back-fins caught on the edge of the doorway. She backed up, turned and changed the angle of her fins, and tried again. The one behind her right shoulder hit the wall and she backed off. "Son of a..." She turned and twisted again, and finally scraped through the doorway. "You'd think I'd get the hang of this after doing it so many times in the last couple months." She crawled on into the next room. Jack followed, getting a good look at her backside before she moved out of the way and crouched in the corner. He grinned and his mom rolled her eyes. "Try to keep your mind out of the gutter. This is hardly the time or place." "I'm a teenager." He shrugged. "Can't help myself." He stepped through the door and took a slow look around. The walls were lined with racks holding a truly frightening collection of guns, most of which weren't familiar at all. Still more weapons and other gadgets rested on large tables in the middle of the room. He whistled softly. "No wonder this place is so deep underground." "The lab where these are developed is on the other side of the base," Carla said. "This is just where we keep some of the prototypes." "Some?" June muttered, raising an eyebrow. Carla chuckled and walked over to the far wall, where a set of enormous guns hung. In fact, they looked big enough to fit Autobot hands. "This was one of the first things we did when this base was constructed," Carla said, waving a hand at the weapons. "Since your guns are built into your bodies, we figured they wouldn't be easy to replace if they're disabled or destroyed. General Sanchez and a few others decided to whip up something you could use as backup." Eyes wide, Arcee crawled over to the wall, easing her legs carefully between the tables. She flicked her eyes over the enormous weapons and reached out for one that looked like a pump-action shotgun. "Those are scaled-up version of modern weapons," Carla continued. "We're not able to build directed-energy weapons small enough to be portable, so we focused on simply making everything bigger. The ammo in those are long-range, high-heat sabot rounds; we think they'd be enough to burn through Decepticon armor and deliver an explosive payload inside the target, but we haven't actually had a chance to test them. We were just about to bring a few of these guns over to the warehouse to try them out, but then the Scraplets crashed the party." "Well, there's no time like the present." Arcee hefted the shotgun and smirked. "Me likey." Jack grinned. "Sexy." She made a kissy face at him and picked up an identical gun. "And the ammo?" "In that cabinet." Carla pointed. "The guns also have electromagnets built in; you turn them on and off by hitting that button above the grip. We figured holsters, belts, and whatnot wouldn't really work, what with the transforming and all. This way, when you're not using the guns, you can attach them to your legs or back or whatever." "Nice." Arcee grinned, pressed the buttons, and hung the shotguns on her back. "Pistols and rifles have those, too?" "Yep." She picked up one of the huge handguns, shook her head, and put it back. "Too small." She plucked a larger one from its rack, nodded, and placed it on her right hip. "Ammo?" "The next cabinet." Carla pointed again. "And there are bandoliers in the corner cabinet. They've got magnets, too, so when you fill it with extra clips and shotgun shells, you can just slap it on wherever." Arcee nodded, loaded the shotguns and pistol, and filled up on extra ammo. Then she looked around and selected an assault rifle that appeared to be a variation on the P90. "This one looks like it ought to fit Bumblebee's hands." "Ammo." Carla pointed at yet another cabinet. "Okay," Jack said while she loaded another bandolier with extra clips, "how about armor for me and Mom? I'm hoping you've got something stronger than Kevlar." "Not here, unfortunately." Carla stared at him and sighed. "I'd tell you to find someplace to hide and ride it out, but--" Jack merely raised an eyebrow and walked over to Arcee. Carla sighed again and rolled her eyes. "Yeah, yeah, I'd have to shoot you, I know." She shook her head. "I'm not giving either of you weapons, though." "I've never needed one before." Jack smiled up at Arcee and walked out into the hallway. "Now, let's meet up with Optimus. Arcee, can you change into your alt-mode?" "I'm afraid not. Those Scraplets really messed me up. Autorepair systems are doing what they can, but it'll be a while. Bumblebee can give you a lift. I'll have to stay on foot." She squeezed through the door and followed the others back to the freight elevator that had taken them down here. Once they were back in the open, she handed the rifle and ammo to Bee and explained what they were loaded with and how to use them. He nodded, handed them back, and transformed. Arcee clamped the rifle and bandolier onto his hood. "Which building did Optimus and Ashanti go to?" June said, squeezing into Bee's back seat and looking around. Suddenly, a series of shouts and screams came from somewhere off to the right, followed by a burst of P90 fire. "Oh." Some of the color drained from June's face as she spun toward the sound. "Probably that one." # "I wonder what the 'Cons want," Jack muttered as Bee roared across the base with Arcee running beside him. "If they've infiltrated us, they're probably after one of our projects." Carla checked the ammo in her clip and re-inserted it into the assault rifle she'd taken from the armory they'd just left. "They're either afraid we're about to come up with something that could hurt them, or they know we already have something." Bumblebee whipped them around one last corner--and found Optimus straight ahead, plunging his blade into a Vehicon's chest. Ten other 'Cons surrounded him, closing in. Arcee drew the shotguns from her back and charged ahead. "Company's coming," one of the 'Cons said, looking over his shoulder. "Who is it?" Another took a step toward Prime. The first one stared for a long moment, clearly horrified even though his nearly featureless face couldn't show any emotion. "It's...Arcee." "Arcee?" The other stopped in his tracks and whipped his head around. "But there's only ten of us!" "Shit,' another one blurted. "I'm outta here!" He bolted. Three others looked around, spotted Arcee, and ran after him. Optimus lopped the head off another Vehicon who got too close. "Nine." Arcee stopped long enough to aim at the first Vehicon who'd run. She shot him in the back and smirked as he fell. The other three skidded to a stop and stared at the huge, white-hot hole the explosive had torn through his armor. "Pussy." Arcee shot one of the others in the chest, knocking him off his feet and sending a fountain of sparks and energon into the air. The two beside him entered their car modes and continued their flight. The rest of the 'Cons turned to stare at her. She flipped the shotguns over, held them against her sides, and racked the pumps, chambering another round in each. She flipped them upright and took aim at the nearest Vehicon. Bee screeched to a halt and opened his doors. Jack took the hint and bailed out. He waited for his mom and Carla to join him, and all three ran for cover behind a building far enough away to keep them out of the line of fire--for the moment, at least. "Well, those guns actually work." Carla chuckled. "Sweet." Huh. Jack frowned as Bee grabbed his rifle and aimed it at another 'Con. Why aren't they shooting back? Are they being jammed, too? If so, it was no wonder they wanted whatever was causing it. Bumblebee unloaded with his machine gun, blasting multiple small holes in the Vehicon's chest and sending him staggering backward. He fell, rolled over slowly, and tried to get back on his feet. Arcee walked past the fallen 'Con and blew the back of his head off with barely a glance at him. She aimed her other gun at another Vehicon. He dodged, but not quite fast enough--the sabot round tore through his left side before he could get completely clear. He dropped to one knee, pushed himself up, and staggered away. Arcee lifted the previously-fired shotgun and used the edge of the nearby roof to chamber a fresh round. She aimed at one of the four remaining 'Cons, placed the other shotgun's pump against her right upper arm, and racked it. He took a step backward. Arcee pointed the second shotgun at him and fired both straight into his chest. Before he hit the ground, she tossed the guns up, grabbed the pumps, cocked them Sarah Connor-style, and flipped them again, putting the grips back into her hands, ready to keep shooting. The three remaining 'Cons shifted into their car modes and roared away from her. Jack, his mom, and Carla stared at Arcee. Even Optimus seemed taken aback. Bee let out a soft, slow whistle. "Wow," Carla muttered, shaking her head slowly. "She learns fast." Jack grinned, even though the thunderous bangs of the enormous shotguns had left his ears ringing. "That's my girl." Prime pointed at the building beside him. "Ashanti is in there with at least one human-size Decepticon." "The 'Bots can't fit through the door. I've got this." Carla scrambled over to the building, staying in a crouch, and reached out for the knob. The sound of metal on pavement came from behind Jack. In the corner of his eye, his mom glanced over her shoulder and gasped. Before he could turn around, something slammed into the back of his head and he slumped forward, barely feeling the asphalt scraping his left cheek. As darkness closed in on him, the last thing he heard was Arcee's voice. "Jack!" Then there was nothing. CHAPTER FIVE I'm coming for you, Jack. Arcee sat in the trailer, her legs pulled up to her chest and her arms around her knees, staring at the wall, barely noticing the vibration from the ground zipping under the tires. Just hang on. A motion in the corner of her eye drew her attention to the rest of the squad riding in the trailer that Optimus was currently hauling across the desert. Ashanti sat to her left, checking her ammo and shoving the clip back into what appeared to be some sort of anti-tank rifle, her face frozen in the same expression of intense rage she'd had ever since the mission briefing. Past her, the rest of the team--all of them human--waited for Prime to reach the target zone. If any of them were nervous, they didn't let it show. Poor Ashanti. There was still a chance that Jack was alive, but Ashanti didn't even have that small comfort. Arcee couldn't stop running the briefing over again in her mind: "The Scraplets were a diversion," General Sanchez said shortly after the briefing began. "Moments after they attacked, several labs all over the base were hit--at exactly the same moment. Right down to the second." "One of them was my husband's lab," Ashanti said, staring at a random point on the table, her lips quivering with the effort to hold her fury in. "When I got there, Jamie...changed. Right in front of me. His skin just sort of...split apart. All over. Shifted around, folded, unfolded..." Tears streamed down her cheeks. "It wasn't Jamie. It was a thing that killed him and turned itself into a copy of him." Arcee walked over to the table and sat on the floor. "It's possible that he was a Decepticon--" "A Decepticon all along? No." Ashanti squeezed her eyes shut and held her breath until she regained control of herself. "His body was found less than an hour ago. He's been...dead...for nearly a week. The body was so well-hidden that it wouldn't have turned up without the thorough search of the entire base ordered by General Sanchez." Arcee winced, unable to stop herself from imagining the same thing happening to Jack. Sanchez reached over to put his hand on Ashanti's shoulder. After a moment, he looked around at the others and said, "The...imposter had Jamie McKenna's team begin work on a new project six days ago." "Let me guess," Arcee said, forcing her mind back to the matter at hand. "A device that would monkey-wrench Cybertronian weapons?" "Yeah. We all thought it was a good idea; without something like that, a purely human squad wouldn't have a chance in hell in a fight with even a single Decepticon. But now the project's true purpose is pretty obvious." "Well, it backfired, then. The Vehicons' weapons were just as inoperative as ours. Maybe they weren't able to fine-tune it, or they had something going on in another lab that would prevent their own weapons from being jammed, but weren't able to use it in time." "Could be. We're still assessing casualties and damage, and finding out what was taken. It'll be a while before we have a clear picture." Sanchez shook his head slowly. "One thing we know for certain--not only can the Decepticons mimic humans now, they can duplicate specific individuals." Ashanti crossed her arms tightly over her chest. "Almost a week. I was living with that thing for almost a week, and I never even noticed anything different about him." The implications didn't take long to sink in. Arcee's eyes grew wider and her lips parted slightly. "Shit." "Yeah." Ashanti took a deep breath and tried to get hold of herself. "I can't dwell on that right now. There's still a job to be done." Ashanti looked up at Arcee. "Even more than that, I don't want you to go through what I'm going through now. We need to rescue Jack and his mom." Arcee held in a sigh. Rescuing them shouldn't have even been necessary. I'm sorry, Jack. I've failed you again. A nudge against her left leg made her twitch. She glanced down to find Ashanti giving her a concerned look. "You okay?" "I'm fine." "Uh-huh. About as fine as I am." Ashanti shook her head. "It wasn't your fault." "I should've seen that little bastard sneaking up behind me. It's my job to catch things like that." Instead, she'd only noticed the first humanoid 'Con after he had clocked Jack on the back of the head--and with her full attention on him, she'd missed the one aiming an EMP rifle at her back. "Jack!" Her eyes snapped open and she lurched upright as the last of her software finished rebooting. A quick look at the spot Jack and June had used for cover confirmed her fear--they were gone. "No..." A large, metal hand touched her shoulder. She lunged at her shotguns. "Easy, Arcee." Prime's voice. She looked over her shoulder, found him kneeling beside her, and put the guns down. "What the hell happened?" "You and I were stunned by a weapon similar to the one Ashanti used against the Scraplets. When I woke up, Jack and his mother--" "They're gone. I know. Are they...?" "The Vehicons returned after we were incapacitated and captured them. That means both are safe, for now. If they wanted our friends dead, we would have found their bodies as soon as we rebooted." Arcee stood, staggered and braced her hand against a nearby roof until she regained her balance, and picked up her shotguns. "I know what you're thinking, Arcee, but running headlong into the thick of things won't help them. We need to regroup and come up with a plan." "Fine." She switched on the guns' electromagnets and clamped them onto her back. "I have an idea." "Arcee, listen to me." Ashanti's voice jolted her back to here-and-now. "It wasn't your fault. In combat, things like this just happen." Arcee nodded, even though she wasn't convinced. "June said something similar not too long ago." "Well, she was right. And we still have a chance to save them." "I hope so." Arcee looked down at her. "You sure you're up for this?" "I need to do this. If I don't, then the bastards win." Ashanti picked up her helmet, strapped it on, and looked Arcee in the optics. "Never let the bastards win. No matter what." She managed a bitter chuckle. "I can hold it together until this is over. I'll turn into a blubbering mess after we get back to Groom Lake." Arcee nodded and tried to keep her thoughts on track by going over the rest of the briefing in her head. "This is the latest intel we got from Bumblebee." Carla picked up a tablet from the end of the conference table and tapped an icon on its screen. A video captured by Bee's optics popped up on the TV--a shot of a half-dozen Vehicons in their car modes, racing across the desert, literally in the middle of nowhere. Miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles, as the saying went. Even on maximum zoom, the 'Cons looked tiny against the wide-open Nevada backdrop. "He followed them at extreme range, barely close enough for him to keep them on his sensors. And then, well, this happened." Everyone stared at the screen for several seconds, waiting. The Vehicons were suddenly blocked from view by the sand erupting all around them, creating a sort of miniature sandstorm. When the clouds dispersed thirty seconds later, the cars were gone. The image zoomed and panned rapidly as Bee tried to reacquire his targets, but the desert landscape remained empty in every direction. "Obviously," the general said, "we'd really like to know what just happened there." Carla looked at Arcee, Optimus, and Bulkhead. "Do the 'Cons have teleportation capability?" "No," Prime said. Then he frowned. "Unless they have developed a new, miniaturized form of space bridge technology." "There was no evidence of the vortex that a space bridge produces," Arcee said. "This was something else entirely." "No matter what it is, at least we know where they vanished. We will investigate the area." Arcee nodded and met Optimus's gaze. "As I said before--I've got an idea." "We are almost there," Prime's voice came through Arcee's comlink. "Get ready." The humans stood and filed toward the rear of the trailer. Arcee checked her shotguns and her pistol one last time before scooting over to join them. Her built-in cannons should be functional by now, but she'd be a fool to assume the 'Cons couldn't jam them again. Besides, she'd taken a strong liking to these new guns. They had proven surprisingly effective, and the sheer brutality of them was so gratifying. "We will keep them distracted," Prime said as he slowed and came to a gentle stop. "If you find a way to co-opt whatever they used to disappear, we will follow you in as soon as we've dealt with the Decepticons out here." "Got it." Arcee crouched, bracing her feet under herself, and looked around at her squad. "Comlink silence once we go." Ashanti nodded and gripped the door handle. "In position," Prime said. "Good hunting, Arcee." "You too, Optimus." She nodded at Ashanti. "Go!" # Out the door and immediately down on the ground, laying flat in the dirt as Prime detached from the trailer and sped away to meet up with Bumblebee and Bulkhead. Arcee ran another quick diagnostic and snarled at the results. "Problem?" Ashanti said softly, staring through the scope of her anti-tank rifle. "My autorepair systems aren't finished yet; I still can't use my vehicle mode. The Scraplets really screwed me up." Arcee zoomed in on Prime as he was joined by Bee and Bulkhead, and all three headed for the spot where the Vehicons had vanished into thin air. She tried to keep herself laser-focused on the mission; the last thing she needed was to think about just how deep those little monsters had gnawed into critical parts of her body. "Well, if we're lucky, you'll be able to do it by the time we find Jack and his mom. You'll need to get them out of there fast." Before Arcee could reply, the sand five hundred yards away erupted, spewing into the air like a fountain--and Vehicons emerged from the resulting clouds. "I caught a glimpse of a tunnel through the sandstorm," one of the humans, Josephine Chang, said, peering through her helmet goggles. "There's an opening in the ground and a sloping tunnel." "I see it, too." Ashanti pointed ahead. "Looks like they're using some sort of air cannons to stir up the sand and dirt and hide where they're coming from." Ten Vehicons in car mode headed toward the Autobots, followed by ten more roaring out of the dust clouds. "Stay close," Arcee muttered, pushing herself up and advancing on the Decepticons' position, forcing herself to move slowly so she wouldn't outrun her team. Ashanti, Chang, and the rest--Chad Jensen, Tyra Case, Gary Dawson, and Deedee Washington--ran along behind her, staying near her feet. A third wave of 'Cons materialized from the mini-sandstorm and engaged the three 'Bots. Arcee frowned and zoomed in on one of the Vehicons. "Whoa. Those guys are more heavily armored than the ones we've been fighting." "This is gonna take too long," Ashanti said. "Arcee, go on ahead and hold the door open for us." Arcee almost hesitated. She didn't want to leave them without protection--but then, if the entrance closed before she could reach it, all of this would've been for nothing. And if that happened, she might never see Jack again. "Okay. If we're lucky, the 'Cons will be too busy out here to notice you guys. See you in a few." She charged ahead, checking her cannons' status while drawing her shotguns. Both of her energy weapons were offline again; the 'Cons obviously had their jamming device up and running. Far off to the right came the zapping sounds of Vehicon arm cannons and the pops and booms of the scaled-up slug-throwers the three other 'Bots had brought with them. Great. The 'Cons can jam our weapons while leaving theirs functional. That's just goddamned wonderful. She ran straight into the dust cloud, briefly wondering if any more 'Cons were on the way out, but not really worrying about it. If any suddenly appeared in front of her, they'd get a faceful of 140mm, explosive sabot rounds. Sure would be nice to see what's in front of me, though. The artificial sandstorm was bad enough, but the setting sun had forced her to amplify the available light. And the problem with that was, all someone had to do was shine a spotlight into her optics and she'd be blind until she could switch them out of light-amp mode. Which would only take a second--but that was more than enough time to take a blast through the spark chamber. The ground under her feet dipped, and seconds later, she found herself in a sloping tunnel leading deep underground. The tunnel was more than large enough for Optimus to stroll through, and its walls-- This looks like one of the corridors on the Nemesis. Arcee's jaw dropped as she deactivated her light-amp mode. Had the Decepticons somehow hidden their ship underground? Without anyone noticing? If so... No, that can't be it. Burying something that big, even out in the desert...no, someone would've picked up on it. A surveillance satellite, aircraft passing over, even a tourist looking for interesting scenery to photograph. Besides, why would they do that in the first place? What else could it be, though? Building a base like this, right under everyone's noses, seems just as unlikely. The sound of footsteps reached her auditory sensors and she turned around, raising one of her shotguns. She relaxed when Ashanti and the rest of her team appeared at the mouth of the tunnel. Washington moved her goggles up onto her helmet and looked around. "Not what I expected." "Same here." Arcee "holstered" one of her shotguns on her back, freeing up her left hand, and rested the other gun on her shoulder. She turned and headed deeper into the corridor. Ashanti glanced at Washington. "Double-D, you're on point with Arcee." To Jensen, she said, "Chad, cover our six." "Any idea where they might be keeping Jack and Mrs. D?" Washington said as she caught up with Arcee, covering the corridor with her abnormally large assault rifle. "I have no idea what the layout of this place is, yet. Their location would depend on why they were taken." "True," Ashanti said. "The human-size Decepticons breaking into their house implies they were singled out for some reason." "Yeah. That's what worries me." Arcee pointed her shotgun straight ahead, and began scanning for organic lifeforms. She kept her sensors restricted to short range to reduce the chances of nearby 'Cons detecting her scan. "For now, the only thing we can do is start looking." # After wandering through the corridors for what seemed like hours, Arcee's scan picked up faint human life signs. Trying not to get her hopes up just yet, she pointed down a corridor that branched off to the left. "Got something," she whispered. She and Deedee increased their pace. "I wonder why we haven't run into any opposition," Case said, turning to make sure no one was coming up behind them. "Maybe everybody's out there, fighting the 'Bots," Dawson said. Chang laughed softly. "If they thought Arcee was out there, they probably figured it'd take all of 'em to have a chance of surviving." Arcee grinned, but it faded quickly. She continued tracking the life signs, and her spark practically leaped in her chest when the signal grew stronger. She moved faster, until she was jogging down each corridor, turning a corner, and continuing on. Finally, one last right turn brought them to a corridor that ended in a single door. Arcee crept up to it and did a more thorough scan of the room on the other side. "I'm picking up two humans," she whispered. "And three...well, they're not typical Cybertronian signatures, but very close. They're human-size." "Looks like we've got a few of the imposters, then." Ashanti leveled her anti-tank rifle at the door and glanced at Arcee. "This locked?" "Yeah, but not for long." Arcee pried open the panel to the door's right and reached inside. "Be ready to move as soon as I have it open." "Got it. Dee?" Smirking, Double-D took a pair of large, cylindrical devices from a pocket. "These work on Cybertronians the way flashbangs work on us, so you don't want to be within twenty feet of 'em when they go off." "You sure they'll work?" "We never got a chance to test them until the 'Cons attacked Groom Lake. They work, alright." "Guess we should thank the 'Cons properly for the opportunity to try 'em out." Ashanti looked up at Arcee again. "Can you tell where in the room they are?" "Far end, in the left-hand corner. More than twenty feet away, luckily." "Good. Just open the door, Arcee. We'll take it from there." Arcee nodded and kept working. She completed the bypass seconds later and the door slid aside. She caught a glimpse of two of the small Decepticons looking over their shoulders at the door before Double-D hurled the flashbangs across the room. A bright light burst in the air and suddenly Arcee's sensors scrambled. When her vision cleared, she was on her hands and knees, barely able to maintain her balance--and the boom of Ashanti's rifle shattered the air. "Scratch one," she muttered, shifting her aim to a new target. Arcee shook her head and managed to get her feet under her. "What the hell?" "Guess the range on those things is longer than we thought. Sorry." Double-D flicked an apologetic look at Arcee before charging into the room. "As long as they got the job done, it's all good." Arcee fired up another systems diagnostic and let it run in the background as she followed Ashanti in. "We'll need at least one of them alive." Ashanti nodded, but said nothing. Arcee looked around as they crossed the chamber. Consoles and monitors lining the walls, benches and tables on the floor, some empty and some holding spare parts and half-completed devices. And on the far end, a row of smaller tables--human-size--and on two of them... Jack and June. Both of them appeared to be unconscious. On the floor near them were the two surviving 'Cons. Both were still recovering from the grenades Deedee had lobbed at them, just now raising themselves to their hands and knees. Dawson whistled softly and nodded at the third 'Con, slumped against the wall; above the body, the round from Ashanti's rifle had punched a hole in the wall after exiting the back of the Decepticon's skull. "Nice shot, boss. Turned his head into a canoe." Ashanti smirked briefly. "When I find the one who murdered Jamie, I'll make sure he sees it coming." She glanced at Arcee and nodded at the tables. "Go on. We've got these pieces of shit covered." Arcee hurried over to Jack and his mother. A cold fist closed around her spark at the sight of dried blood trailing from his nostrils, but at least he was still breathing. A soft moan from the other table drew her attention. June turned toward her and her eyes grew wider. She tried to sit up, but something held her down. There were no visible restraints on her; it was as if the table itself were pulling her down. Arcee leaned over to look at the control panel at the end of the table, under June's head. The controls were labeled with Cybertronian text, but that was the only thing about it that was the least bit familiar to her. "Hold on a minute. This...this isn't Cybertronian technology. And it sure as hell isn't human." She studied the panel carefully, that cold sensation around her spark growing stronger. When she found nothing related to life support, she shut everything down. June sat upright with a gasp, rolled off the table, and almost fell. Arcee reached out to steady her and deactivated Jack's table with her other hand. "June, are you--?" "I'll be okay, I guess. But Jack..." "What the hell did they do to him?" "I'm not sure. They put something...a probe, I think...up his nose. It...it..." She sobbed and shook her head. They...what? "Is it still active?" "No. It came back out after a few minutes. He's been unconscious ever since then." Arcee stared at Jack and stroked his cheek gently. "Jack? Come on, partner, wake up." He groaned softly. "Jack..." She leaned closer and whispered, "I need you." He moaned again, turned his head slightly, opened his eyes halfway...and closed them. Then he forced them open again. "Ar...cee...?" "I'm right here, baby." She touched her forehead to his. "Whatever they did to you, it's over." "They..." He tried to sit up, grimaced and held his hands to the sides of his head. "Oh...Jesus..." Arcee placed her hand on his back and held him until he managed to sit upright. "Jack...what did they do to you?" He shivered and crossed his arms tightly over his chest. His mom lurched forward, stumbled, and braced her hand on the table to hold herself up. She made her way around to Jack's side and put her arm around his shoulders. "They...they had this...machine...thing." He shuddered and held his breath for a moment. "Looked like a centipede, but...metal. It..." He touched the crusted blood under his nose. His hand shook and Arcee held it gently. "I know. June told me what it did." "It...it interfaced with my brain. I--I--I don't know how, but it..." He looked up at her and his lips quivered. "Jesus Christ, Arcee, they know everything! They know where the Autobot base is. They took it from my brain, somehow." No... She rubbed his back. "It's not your fault. There's nothing you could've done." Behind her, Ashanti drew in a long, slow breath. "That must be how the duplicate of my husband was able to fool me so completely. I bet they used one of those brain probes on him." "Bloody hell," Jensen muttered. "Bad enough that they can look like us--but if they can even copy our memories and personalities..." Arcee turned to glare at the two Decepticons, who were still pulling themselves together, looking around with twitchy jerks of their heads. "Well, this base has got to go, then." "Damn straight," Ashanti said. Arcee kissed Jack's forehead and turned to the 'Cons. "Okay, you two. We've got some questions for you, and you're gonna answer them immediately." "We're telling you exactly two things--jack and shit," the one on the left snarled, turning to sneer at the young human behind her. "And Jack won't be--" Arcee didn't let him finish. She raised her right foot and slammed it down on his head, crushing it like a beer can. There was just enough time for him to release a truncated scream before his head was flattened in a shower of sparks and a splatter of energon. The remaining 'Con recoiled in horror and scooted back against the wall. Arcee glared down at him. "How about now?" CHAPTER SIX "What's this base for, anyway?" Arcee said, keeping one of her huge shotguns jammed against the back of the human-size Decepticon's head. "Stockpiling resources and weapons, upgrading some of the Vehicons, studying human wetware. Stuff like that. And the name's Burcham, by the way; Howard Burcham." Jack glared at him. You did more than just "study" my brain, you son of a bitch. "Kind of an odd name for a Decepticon," Arcee said. "It's my cover identity." "Eh, whatever." She shrugged. "So, stockpiling, research, whatever else--you can't do all that on the Nemesis?" "Sure, we could, but Starscream wanted to keep this little operation to himself." Arcee raised a brow. "So, he's hiding stuff away here in case Megatron reactivates." "Among other things, I suppose," the 'Con muttered. "You okay, Jack?" his mom whispered again as everyone turned another corner and crept down another corridor. His head ached, throbbing with every beat of his heart, and his nasal passages felt like someone had drilled them out and filled them with lava. And if he turned his head too quickly, everything spun around him. "I'm feeling better," he muttered, and tried to give her a reassuring smile. He faced forward again and kept his eyes on Arcee. He smiled again--a real one, this time. Merely seeing Arcee when he opened his eyes had done him a world of good. "You sure?" "Yeah." He glanced at his mom. "How about you? How're you holding up?" "Not...great." She crossed her arms tightly over her chest and shivered. "We'll be home in no time." He smiled at her again and returned his gaze to Arcee and "Burcham." "How'd you build this base so close to Groom Lake without anyone noticing?" Arcee said after peeking around the next corner to be sure no one was there. "Nanotechnology. Dirt, rock, and sand were converted into everything you see here--floors, walls, ceilings, consoles, everything else except some equipment we brought in later." Burcham smiled. "Pretty proud of that, are you?" "Well, I'm an engineer, so that sort of thing is what I do. And I have to admit, I'd rather spend my time building things than destroying them." He caught Jack glaring at him. "I'm sorry for what they did to you, kid. For what it's worth, I wasn't involved in that." "That's not worth a whole lot right now," Jack said through clenched teeth. "If you weren't in on it, then what were you doing there?" "Repairs. I'd just finished working on one of the Vehicons who came back from Groom Lake. I was packing up my tools when the shit hit the fan." "Uh-huh. Sure." Arcee reached over to touch his shoulder. When he looked up at her, she gave him a reassuring smile before continuing her Q&A session. "And why here? What made Starscream pick this location?" "Under the base is an energon deposit--one of the biggest I've ever seen on this world. It's shielded against sensor scans; Starscream wanted to keep Megatron from finding it as much as he wanted to keep the Autobots out." Hmm. Jack tried not to get his hopes up. If these guys and Megatron loyalists start fighting it out, they'll be too busy to pester us for a while. And when one side wins, the survivors should be too weakened to be much of a threat. On the other hand, having already seen what these 'Cons did at Groom Lake, it might not be a good idea to let them keep this base. Arcee glanced down at Jack and mouthed the words, "Arachnid's ship." He knew what she meant instantly. If that much energon was stored underground, cooking it off would blast the ungodly hell out of this base. He nodded to let her know that he was on the same wavelength. She winked at him before turning back to Burcham. "So, Starscream is building his own private army, eh? I noticed on the way in that the Vehicons have upgraded armor; have they been given any other new toys to play with?" "Improved weapons and cyberwarfare suites, among other things. They'll have a lot less trouble hitting you than they did before, since you won't have as much luck throwing off their targeting systems. You, on the other hand, will have an even harder time keeping them in your sights." He shrugged. "At least, until you update your own combat software. Assuming you get out of here alive, that is." "Jam my targeting systems as much as you want, I still can't miss at this range." Arcee tapped the back of his head with her shotgun to remind him of its presence. "Our chances of seeing tomorrow will be much better than yours if you shoot your mouth off again." "Actually, I'll have to disagree with you, there." He pointed at the next door less than a second before it slid aside and revealed another humanoid Decepticon. The new arrival glanced at each of their faces and grinned when he landed on Ashanti's. "Well, small world, isn't it--sweetheart?" What? Jack looked at Ashanti and almost recoiled at the look of intense fury on her face. Uh-oh. "You can see why she kept me so busy," the second 'Con said to Burcham. "Look at the set of arms on her. She pretty much had her way with me every night." He grinned. "I gotta tell ya, she's a real screamer." "You're already in enough trouble," Arcee said, shaking her head. "I'd shut my cake-masher if I were you." He deployed his arm guns. "Oh, I don't think so." Ashanti snapped her huge rifle up and leveled it at the mouthy 'Con. He stared at her for a second, then chuckled. "Human weapons are so loud. If you shoot me, someone will hear it. Probably many someones." "You killed her husband." Arcee shook her head again. "I think she's beyond caring about a little noise at this point." Jack's jaw dropped. Oh, crap... The 'Con chuckled again. Then he shifted into his alt-mode--a young, red-haired man with a ponytail, a white lab coat, and a brilliant smile. "Come on, honey, you couldn't shoot--" Ashanti lunged at him, jammed the barrel of her gun into his mouth, and backed him up against the wall. His eyes looked ready to pop out of their sockets. She pulled the trigger and Jack nearly jumped out of his skin at the sharp bang that reverberated through the corridors. The back of the 'Con's head exploded and shrapnel and a splatter of energon hit the wall. He slid down the wall, hit the floor, and slumped over. Burcham stared at the body and backed away. "Sh...shit!" Arcee prodded him with her shotgun and he froze. Ashanti caught Jack's wide-eyed stare and muttered, "Just settling a score. Let's keep moving." "Someone had to have heard that," Burcham stammered. "You'll have Starscream's Vehicons swarming all over you any minute." "Then I'll kill them, too." Ashanti took point. Burcham glanced around at Arcee, Ashanti, and the rest of their team. "Damn. You guys are cold." Arcee nudged him with her gun. "Okay, first you're gonna take us to your armory. Then you're gonna take us to the command center--and you're not gonna give us any trouble, are you?" # The armory was a quick stop. Arcee skimmed her optics over the replacement arm cannons and blades on the shelves until she found several stacks of cylindrical devices about the size of a human forearm. She grinned at the sight of them and handed them out to the team. "So, what're these?" Jack said. "Some sort of pipe bombs?" "Something like that," their captive Decepticon muttered. "Similar to your C-4, but enhanced with a small amount of energon to give them a much bigger punch. Just one of these would take out most of a city block." Oh, holy hell. Jack's jaw dropped as he counted the number of charges Arcee had grabbed. "You sure you've got enough of those, Arcee?" "Overkill is my favorite kind of kill." She smirked again and handed him a pair of charges. She nudged Burcham with her shotgun. "Now, on to the command center." "What you're planning is pretty obvious." His glowing red optics locked on her, but his expression seemed more resigned than angry or hostile. "Don't try to stop us, and don't take the time to warn anyone once we plant these. If you do, you'll just die." Once everyone was carrying as many of the charges as they could hold, Arcee armed the rest of them and picked up a detonator. "Get moving. You won't want to be anywhere near this level when I set these off." "What about the civilians?" Jensen said, nodding at Jack and his mom. "One or two of us should escort them out of--" "I'm not going anywhere," Jack said. "Neither am I." His mom crossed her arms over her chest and scowled. "It's only a matter of time before Jack gets wounded again, and since I'm a nurse, he'll need me." "Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence, Mom." "Any time, kiddo." Arcee crouched in front of him and leaned over to look into his eyes. "Are you sure, Jack? I'd really rather you get out of here as fast as you can." "Even if all these guys escorted us out, the moment we run into any Decepticons, we're dead. And I'm not leaving you to go it alone." "We can get them out of here, ma'am." Jensen stepped up behind Jack. "If we have to, we'll--" His mom pushed between them. "You'll what?" Jack's eyes widened. "Uh, easy there, Mom." Arcee sighed. "He has a point about being vulnerable without me to fight off the 'Cons. And since I can't leave until I blow this base off the map..." June nodded, braced herself visibly, and motioned at the door. "Alright. Let's get it over with, then." # "Quite a setup," Jack whispered as they crouched around the corner of the final corridor leading to the base's operations center. From what he could see through the doorway, the huge chamber was lined with control panels and enormous monitors on the walls, and crewed by Starscream, Knockout, Breakdown, and several Vehicons--and probably a couple dozen more who were out of sight. "Yeah," Arcee whispered back, crouching behind him and peeking around the corner. "All we need to do is find the control panel for the reactor." "It's at the far end," their captive said, also keeping his voice low. "To the left of the main console where Starscream is standing. You can set the reactor to overload from there, and when it blows, it'll ignite all the energon beneath us." Jack raised an eyebrow. "So, now you're helping us?" "I don't want to die. And...well, what they did to you...they crossed the line." The 'Con held his gaze for a moment, then shook his head slowly, suddenly looking as weary as anyone Jack had ever seen. "This isn't the first time I've had...issues with the things we've done, but...I don't know, maybe it's time to walk away from the whole damned thing." Jack and Arcee watched him for a moment and exchanged a look. "If you blow this place up," June said to Arcee, "just how big will the explosion be?" "Big enough to vaporize the whole base and everything near it," Burcham said. "Seems like putting your base this close to that energon stuff was kind of a bad idea, then." "Given the method of construction, it's not like we put a lot of time or effort into it, and setting it up at a safe distance would've put it too far away to be practical. As long as Starscream, Knockout, and Breakdown can escape if the worst happens, that's all they give a damn about." Arcee nodded and glanced at their captive. "If you start running now, you might reach the minimum safe distance before the reactor blows. And remember, if you stop to warn anyone, you reduce your chances of surviving the next few minutes." "Don't worry about that, consider me gone." He turned and strode back the way they'd come, stepping carefully to prevent his feet from clanking on the floor and alerting anyone nearby. "Time to kick things off." Arcee held up the detonator and pushed the button, blowing the charges she'd left in the armory. The explosion sent a shockwave through the walls and floor, and Starscream staggered and grabbed the main console. He looked around frantically. "What was that?" Knockout said from somewhere off to the left. Starscream turned to scowl at a nearby Vehicon. "That is exactly what I want to know." "It must be the Autobots," the Vehicon said. "They drew our forces away and destroyed them, then they found their way inside the base." "How could they have wiped out everyone I sent after them?" Starscream bellowed. "After all the upgrades I gave them--the improved weapons, the extra armor?" "The Autobots appear to be using some sort of improvised weaponry that is impervious to our jamming. And, well..." The Vehicon looked away. "Some of us...retreated." "They what?" Starscream lunged forward and the 'Con flinched. "I didn't upgrade them just so they could run away!" He backhanded the Vehicon and sent him stumbling out of sight. "Uh-oh," Arcee muttered with a grin. "Someone's cheese is sliding off his cracker." The Decepticon leader screeched, "Get back out there and finish them off!" Arcee released a barely audible chuckle. "I love how his voice goes all high-pitched when he's agitated." "I'm on it," Knockout said, smiling slightly. "It'll give me a chance to try out some of the new toys I've put together." He turned and headed for the doorway. "Okay, here we go," Arcee said, tapping buttons on her detonator and linking it to the bombs everyone held. "I'll keep them busy while you guys plant those charges. As soon as they're set, run like hell. I'll cover you until we get topside." Everyone nodded. Jack touched the back of Arcee's hand and smiled. If things went wrong in the next few minutes, not only could he lose her, he might actually see her die--but he tried to block that thought out and keep any trace of it off his face. He and Arcee both needed to face what was coming with clear heads. "Go kick some ass, babe," he said. She nodded and smiled back. "Let's blow some shit up." She patted his hand, stood, and walked straight into the control room. "Hey, Knockout!" He stopped in his tracks and stared at her with his mouth hanging open. She smirked. "How's the door?" He continued staring, shook his head and blinked, as if he couldn't believe his optics. Starscream stared at her for a half-second longer before shaking himself out of it. He lunged at the main console and shrieked at the Vehicons. "Why are you just standing there? Go after her!" Jack glanced at the console. He's gonna seal the room! Ashanti nodded toward the doorway, clearly thinking the same thing, and charged through it. Her team followed and Jack brought up the rear, keeping his widening eyes on Arcee. A Vehicon lunged at her from the right. She extended her arm blade and backhanded him, carving a groove across his chest armor. The blow knocked him off balance, and Arcee landed a mule-kick that sent him reeling into another 'Con directly behind him. She sprinted into the middle of the chamber. All the 'Cons kept their attention on her. Jack smiled slightly, grimly, and darted off to the left, over to the wall, well out of everyone's way. Ashanti rushed past him, anti-tank rifle in her right hand and one of the charges in her left. Her team fanned out across the control room. Jensen heading to the right and crouching behind the nearest of the dozen support pillars holding the ceiling up. Deedee passing him and taking cover behind another pillar. Chang, Dawson, and Case dashing along the walls to take up positions on the far end of the room. Arcee yanked her other shotgun off her back and aimed both at two nearby Vehicons. Before they could move, she blasted a round into each of their chests. They staggered back, scraping their hands over the incendiary that had burned into their armor--then the explosives in the bullets detonated. A hole about the size of a human head erupted out of each chest plate, but somehow they managed to stay on their feet. Arcee lunged at the nearer 'Con, placed her shotguns on his shoulders, and used them to rack the pumps. She jammed one of the shotguns inside the hole in his chest, angled it toward his spark chamber, and smirked at him as she pulled the trigger. He fell to his knees and she ducked behind him, propping the body upright with her shoulder and using it as a shield while they hosed her down with their blasters. She pointed her other shotgun at the second Vehicon and fired a round through the hole in his chest. She held both guns against her shield's sides, pumped a fresh round into each, and jumped behind one of the pillars, letting the corpse topple over. The second Vehicon fell--straight toward Jack. His heart almost punched out of his chest and he bolted without looking where he was going--anywhere was better than directly under the dead 'Con. The body crashed to the floor more than ten feet away, but even that was too damned close. When he regained his senses, he found himself in the center of the room--right in the middle of the battle. Oh, crap! In the corner of his eye, Arcee popped out from behind her pillar and whacked another Vehicon with a double shotgun blast to the face, then dodged back behind the pillar. Jack looked around frantically, gasping for breath as his heart pounded, trying to find an escape route that wouldn't take him into the path of enormous, stomping robot feet. What the hell am I doing here? His mind flashed back to that terrifying day aboard the Nemesis, not long after he'd first met the Autobots, with towering robots nearly crushing him, Raf, and Miko underfoot and explosions going off all around them. What the hell was I thinking? Arcee reappeared, grinning and aiming at Starscream. He threw himself to the side just as she pulled the trigger, and the round blew out one of the monitors behind him. She unloaded with her other shotgun, ripping out another Vehicon's right knee. She used the pillar to pump the shotguns--and they merely clicked. Empty. No... Jack took a step toward her, reaching out-- A hand grabbed his left arm and yanked him in the opposite direction. He snapped his head around and cocked his fist back--then relaxed when he saw Ashanti over his shoulder. "I've got this, kid. Keep your mind on the job." She pulled him toward the wall. A nearby Vehicon picked up the sudden movement and spun toward them. He stared for a second, until the surprise wore off--then he aimed his arm cannon down at them. Ashanti whipped her rifle up and no-scoped him dead-center in his optic strip. An enraged roar came from the back of the room, near the door--Starscream's voice. Jack glanced at him as Ashanti pushed him behind a pillar. Starscream pointed his right arm at Arcee. Jack gasped. Starscream had three missiles mounted on his arm--and Arcee had her back toward him. She clamped her empty guns onto her back, unaware of what was about to be unleashed upon her. "Arcee!" Jack shouted, putting everything he had into it despite the sharp, throbbing pain still lancing through his head. "Behind you!" She spun around and found Starscream aiming at her from across the room. She did the last thing Jack expected--she ran toward the Decepticon. A mixture of shock and confusion crossed Starscream's face before he launched the first missile. Arcee leaped and rolled in the air, and the missile streaked beneath her and blasted a console into shrapnel. Arcee's feet hit the floor and she continued running, all in one smooth motion. Starscream took a step back, starting to panic, and adjusted his aim. Arcee grabbed the pistol off her right hip and aimed at him. The second missile launched. Jack's heart almost climbed into his throat. Arcee squeezed the trigger--and drilled the missile before it had traveled more than two inches from its launcher. Starscream disappeared in a ball of flame and a shockwave ripped through the air, slamming into several nearby 'Cons and almost knocking them off their feet. One of them slumped against a pillar and slid to the floor. Jack looked at him, squinting, and almost burst out laughing. One of Starscream's fingers had drilled through the Vehicon's forehead. Jack looked back at the door and found Starscream flat on his back. What was left of his right arm was a twisted mess. He stared at it and his face went blank, as if he could barely comprehend what he saw. Jack exhaled and leaned against the pillar. He took another quick look around and found the charges planted on control panels by Ashanti's team. He remembered the charges in his hands. Oh, yeah. Guess I should've been setting these somewhere. A movement in the corner of his eye drew his attention and he turned toward it. Knockout had stepped out of the cover of a pillar to the left of the main console, and was cocking his right hand back. Clamped in his hand was a metal sphere. He threw it at Arcee--and only then did Jack realize it had to be a grenade. One of the "new toys" Knockout had mentioned, probably. Across the chamber, Arcee crouched behind another pillar, reloading her shotguns, while three Vehicons converged on her. The grenade arced through the air toward her. Jack sucked in a deep breath, but before he could call out to her, she jumped out of cover and her eyes widened at the sight of the three 'Cons and the grenade. She dropped the gun in her left hand, charged the nearest 'Con, and leaped. He lashed out at the same instant, but she sailed over his blade, braced her hand on his shoulder and kicked her right foot out, swinging it around until it connected with the grenade like a bat hitting a baseball. The impact bounced it straight back toward Knockout. His jaw dropped and he hurled himself to the side. Arcee, still airborne, leveled her remaining shotgun at the grenade and fired. The grenade exploded behind Knockout, the flash nearly blinding Jack. Squinting, he barely made out a rain of shrapnel tearing into several nearby Vehicons. Knockout staggered, throwing his arms across his face, and a few dozen chunks of razor-sharp metal embedded themselves in his forearms. He stared at the damage with wide, horrified eyes. "My paint job!" Arcee landed directly behind the 'Con she'd used for the boost. She spun and drove her right foot into his back, sending him staggering into a console. Jack blinked and shook his head. Gradually, his vision cleared. He looked up and found a Vehicon towering over him--with the barrel of his arm cannon mere inches from Jack's face. A cold, invisible fist wrapped around Jack's guts and squeezed. "Jack," Arcee whispered, and he turned around. She stared back at him, eyes wide, mouth open, lips quivering slightly. "No..." "Drop your weapons and surrender," the 'Con snapped. "All of you. Now!" "Jack!" His mother rushed forward, but Chang grabbed her arm. Jack held his hand up. "Stay back!" The Vehicon pressed his gun against Jack's head. "Surrender!" Jack met Arcee's gaze and shook his head slowly. Don't do it. If you do, we're all dead. Arcee hesitated, then nodded almost imperceptibly. She raised her optics to the 'Con and the fear and uncertainty faded from her face--and was replaced by rapidly building anger. She picked up her discarded shotgun and strode forward, until she was standing in front of the Vehicon. The remaining 'Cons--the three who'd almost cornered her, two others standing between Starscream and the intruders, and Knockout, Breakdown, and Starscream himself--locked their weapons onto her. Starscream still had one arm left, and it had a full load of missiles. Arcee jammed one of her shotguns under the Vehicon's chin. "You hurt him, you die. Simple as that." The 'Con stared back at her, his expression unreadable. Jack darted out from under the cannon and gave her a thumbs-up. The Vehicon fired his weapon and turned his head, and discovered too late that Jack had slipped away from him. Arcee pulled the trigger and turned the Vehicon's head into scrap. She turned to face the rest of the 'Cons and raised her other shotgun. Two of them took a step back. She tossed her other gun up, grabbed the pump, and cocked it. Another toss and her finger was back on its trigger. This time, all of the Vehicons backed up. Arcee glared at them and sneered. "Fuck off." The three nearest 'Cons flinched and backed away. The two in front of Starscream turned their heads slowly, giving the room a visual sweep, and found Ashanti's team covering them all with their weapons--weapons which, they had already seen, were quite capable of inflicting lethal damage. Starscream glowered at Arcee. His arm twitched and trembled. His fist clenched. His eyes glowed brighter and his mouth twisted into an enraged snarl. Breakdown exchanged a look with Knockout and Starscream, and backed toward the door. "I don't get it," he mumbled. "We've been jamming her targeting systems." Arcee arched a brow at him. "I've just been eyeballing it." She shifted the shotgun in her right hand to point directly at Starscream. Knockout's mouth fell open and he raised his hands slowly and backed up to the door. Once he was standing beside Starscream, he muttered, "Sir, I do believe a retreat would be in order. We still have the rest of the Autobots making their way into our base; they could be on top of us any moment now." Starscream scowled at him for a long moment, but finally lowered his arm. "Damn it. Fine, go." He waited for Knockout and Breakdown to squeeze past him, then turned and ran after them. The surviving Vehicons glanced at each other, turned, and bolted. When they were out of sight, Jack let a long breath rush out. His mother ran to him and threw her arms around him. Tears ran down her cheeks. He held her for a long moment and looked up at Arcee. "I doubt he'll give up that easily." "We don't need him to. All we need is enough time for me to overload the reactor." Arcee hung her shotguns on her back and strode over to the console Burcham had pointed her toward. After looking it over for a moment, she nodded. "Yep, that's the reactor controls, alright." She entered a series of commands and held our her left hand. "Charge." "Charge." He lifted the cylinder and placed it on her palm. She attached it to the panel, armed it, and turned back to Jack. "Let's get moving. We've got about ten minutes to fight our way out of here." CHAPTER SEVEN "Well, here we go again," Arcee muttered as her sensors detected another group of Decepticons ahead. "Didn't take 'em long to regroup." Ashanti nudged Jack's shoulder, pushing him into a side-corridor, and tugged on June's arm, pulling her into cover as well. The rest of her team split up, some joining her and others taking cover in the opposite corridor. "How many?" June whispered. Case peeked around the corner and shrugged. "Uh, I'd say...enough." Arcee did a quick visual sweep as she ducked into cover beside Jack and his mom. "Fourteen Vehicons and thirty-two of the humanoid ones." The 'Cons pointed their guns at her. She unloaded with both shotguns before ducking back around the corner and racking the pumps. "Okay, fourteen Vehicons and thirty humanoids." The 'Cons opened fire, sending countless streams of energy and projectiles zipping past. Arcee held her guns up and stayed out of the line of fire, waiting for it to stop long enough to lean out of cover and whack a couple more of them. Loud, clanking footsteps--the Vehicons charging down the corridor. "I've got this one." Case pulled a cylindrical grenade out and stepped into the open to lob it. One of the Vehicons appeared around the corner just as the grenade left her hand. She froze for a split-second, staring slack-jawed as the grenade struck the 'Con's crotch and deflected straight back toward her. "Scatter!" Arcee dropped her shotguns, scooped up Jack in her right hand and June in her left, and bolted. The grenade detonated. Its shockwave staggered her and she fell to her knees. Shrapnel peppered her backside and she hunched over, covering Jack and June with her body. She looked over her shoulder and found the 'Con regaining his balance and shaking his head as if to clear it. Ashanti and her team were sprawled on the floor but picking themselves up or scooting away from him, raising their guns and taking aim. He pointed both cannons at Arcee. She pulled the pistol from her hip and drew a bead on his optic strip. Ashanti's entire team emptied their clips into him. He staggered backward as the explosive bullets blasted small chunks out of his chest armor, but remained on his feet. Arcee shifted her aim and punched a round into the right side of his head. A fist-size hole burst out of the left side and he slumped over, twitching for a few seconds before the last of his systems failed. A glowing blue pool of energon spread across the floor from under his head. Arcee turned back to Jack and his mom. "You okay?" "Yeah, I'm good. Mom?" "Great. Nearly killed by a dick-bounce. I'm just peachy." June blinked and shook her head, and leaned over to take a quick look at the intersection. Jack patted her shoulder and looked up at Arcee. "You okay?" "Got some shrapnel in my ass, but I'll survive." Arcee rushed back to the intersection and picked up her shotguns. "The clock's ticking." "How much longer?" Ashanti said, crouching in front of her and leaning out just far enough to aim her gun. Arcee checked her internal chronometer and winced. "Under six minutes." Ashanti grumbled a string of curses. She leaned farther into the corridor and shouted, "Did you hear that? Less than six minutes before the reactor blows!" "Easy enough to reverse once we dispose of you." Starscream's voice, sounding as if he were speaking from the far end of the corridor, with everyone else between him and the intruders. Typical. Arcee clipped one of the shotguns to her back and grabbed the detonator. She turned to look into Jack's eyes. If I push this button...if we don't get out of here in five minutes... She had lived for many centuries--hardly a long time compared to other Cybertronians, but still... Jack had lived for sixteen years. Barely a single heartbeat compared to the amount of time she'd had. He gazed back at her and his face turned pale. Then he braced himself and released a long breath. "I know you'll get us out of this. Do what needs to be done." June flicked her eyes back and forth from Arcee to Jack, and seemed to realize what was about to happen. Her mouth opened slightly and her face turned white, but she didn't protest. Can't put this off any longer. If the 'Cons get past us and stop the meltdown, this was all for nothing. Arcee put her thumb on the button and gave Jack one last look. "Get ready." She waited for him and June to run to the end of the corridor and squeeze themselves into a doorway. "I love you." Click. The floor lurched, knocking her off her feet, and a blast of heat enveloped her. For a few seconds, her entire world was nothing but fire. Then the flames dissipated, leaving her in partial darkness. Smoke, she realized a moment later. Smoke had filled the corridors. She glanced to the left and found Jack and June on the floor, gasping for breath. A cold sensation rose up inside her. Oh, hell. Humans need oxygen. Jack sat up, coughing and sucking in labored breaths, and gave her a thumbs-up as he helped his mom stand. There was still enough air, obviously--but that wouldn't last much longer. Arcee turned, looking for Ashanti's team. Wherever they were, she couldn't see them through the smoke. Before she could scan for life signs, one of the humanoid 'Cons emerged from the smoke and aimed a rifle at her. It looked similar to the EMP rifle Ashanti had used on the Scraplets. Possibly the same one that had knocked her out at Groom Lake, allowing Jack and June to be captured. Shit. One zap from that thing, and I'll be completely useless. She whipped her shotgun up. The smoke behind the 'Con swirled and parted as something moved through it. Ashanti appeared behind him, slipped her left arm around his neck, and jerked him backward. His arms flailed, exposing his chest. Ashanti raised her right hand. Her fist clutched a huge, serrated Bowie knife. She plunged it into the 'Con's chest, all the way to the hilt, piercing his spark, and he thrashed and screamed as arcs of energy spat out of the wound and jumped to his arms and hands. She yanked the knife back out. The blade, designed to cause more damage on the way out than on the way in, ripped vital components from his chest, and he collapsed, energon vomiting from the hole she'd just punched in him. Two more of the humanoids stepped out of the smoke and froze at the sight of Ashanti and their dying comrade. She glared at them, stepped over the body, shifted the knife to her left hand, and pulled her P90 from the holster on her back. They pointed their guns at her. Arcee aimed her shotgun at the one on the left. At the same moment, Ashanti drilled the other one through the right eye. His head snapped back and he toppled over, firing his guns wildly into the floor and walls. Arcee blew a gaping hole through the remaining 'Con's chest and stormed past him before his body hit the floor. "In case you're wondering," she yelled, "your control center was just vaporized. Try resetting your reactor now." Starscream's enraged growl came from somewhere beyond the smoke. "You might want to clear out of here." Arcee laughed. "This place is gonna fry in about five minutes." "Then you'll burn with it!" Running footsteps. Sounded like all the 'Cons at once, storming her position. Arcee checked her ammo; one round left in each shotgun, twelve in her pistol. She had two extra clips for the handgun, but that was it. Ashanti and her team took positions a few yards from the intersection, resting on one knee and keeping their aim steady, and waited. Arcee glanced behind her and found Jack and his mom. She crouched, aimed her pistol at the intersection, glanced over her shoulder and said, "Stay under cover." Still coughing, Jack nodded and gave her another thumbs-up. He and June ducked back into the doorway. The smoke parted and all of the Decepticons emerged. The remaining Vehicons pointed their blasters at Arcee and the smaller ones covered the humans with their arm-mounted machine guns and Arcee with their EMP rifles. Uh-oh. Arcee fought to keep her expression confidant as Ashanti's team opened fire. She almost shifted her aim to the human-size 'Cons--if she got zapped by two dozen of those EMP guns, she doubted that she'd ever get up again--but she stayed focused on the Vehicons. Their huge directed-energy weapons would incinerate the humans one shot, so they had to be taken out first. Aw, screw it. She hung the pistol on her hip, charged straight toward the six Vehicons, and pulled her shotguns. The 'Cons opened fire. She kicked her legs out from under her, hit the floor and slid toward the nearest pair. Their beams seared over her head and moved downward as they tried to correct their aim. As she slid between them, she jammed her shotguns under their chins and sent a 140mm round through the top of each Decepticon's head. After a quick glance to either side to reacquire her targets, she whipped the gun in her right hand around and smashed it into the back of a humanoid's skull, sending him reeling straight into a shotgun blast to the face from Dawson. Clanking footsteps alerted her to the rest of the Vehicons charging from the left. She flung both shotguns at them, spinning the weapons into the nearest 'Con's legs and tripping him. She whipped the pistol off her hip and drilled him in the optics as he fell. The 'Con directly behind him grabbed the body and held it up, using it as a shield while firing at her. She jumped to the right and the beam lanced past her, missing her by mere inches. She fired several shots at him to prevent him from locking onto her, then shifted her aim to one of the others and popped three rounds through his optics. She snapped her gun toward another Vehicon and kept firing--then her gun clicked and the slide locked in the open position. She grabbed one of the spare clips, ejected the spent one at the same moment, and shoved the fresh magazine in, all in one motion. "Behind you!" Jack shouted. Arcee whirled and found one of the humanoids aiming his EMP rifle at her. She blew his head off and turned back to the oncoming Vehicons. Suddenly, she was face-down on the floor, twitching, barely able to move. In the corner of her optics, Ashanti and Deedee crouched beside her, using her body as cover, and blazed away at the 'Cons. She counted seven humanoid 'Cons sprawled on the floor, their bodies perforated, still-molten metal dripping from the holes and energon spreading across the floor. "Jack," she grunted, trying to move her head. "He's busy." Jensen's voice, coming from behind and to the left. Arcee managed to turn toward the sound--and almost screamed at what she saw: Jack struggling with one of the humanoids, his hands clamped onto his rifle--and the 'Con swinging him around like a toy, bashing him into the wall again and again. Somehow, Jack managed to keep his grip on the rifle while kicking at the Decepticon's built-in gun to keep it pointed away from him. Jack! Regaining control over her functions bit by bit, Arcee pushed herself onto her hands and knees. The 'Con slammed Jack against the wall again. Jack's eyes lost their focus and he almost fell to his knees, but he shook himself out of it and kept his hands on the EMP rifle. He braced his feet against the wall and pushed, sending the Decepticon stumbling backward, toward Jensen. When they reached him, Jack lunged, snatched Jensen's sidearm, and jammed it against the 'Con's chest. Before the Decepticon could react, Jack emptied the clip into him. The bullets punched through his armor and traversed his body, ripping through his spark chamber and exploding out of his back. His glowing red optics faded out before he hit the floor. Jack wrenched the rifle from his hands and stared at the body for a split-second, shocked at what he'd just done. "Get under cover, kid," Jensen snapped, yanking the pistol from Jack's hand and returning it to his holster. Jack shook his head abruptly, looked around and seemed to suddenly remember where he was. He ducked behind Arcee, smiled and reached up to stroke her cheek. He hefted the EMP rifle, stepped past her, and zapped one of the three surviving Vehicons. "How much time left?" June's voice, from behind and to the right. Arcee checked her chronometer and gasped. That can't be right. "What? How long?" "Barely a minute. What the hell happened?" "One of them 'emped' you before we could drop 'em all," Deedee said. "Hold on--did you say one minute?" "Yeah." Arcee managed to scoop up her gun and began firing at the 'Cons, who'd taken cover around the corner. Not that there was much point in it, now. "I'm sorry, Jack. I'm so sorry..." "We're not dead yet." He emped another 'Con and drew a bead on a third. "Arcee? Can you hear me?" Her jaw dropped. "Optimus?" "Our comms are working again, as are our weapons. Whatever you did, it was successful." Damn it, why didn't I think of that five minutes ago? "Optimus, you need to get out of here. This place is less than a minute away from going up like a supernova!" "We have almost reached your position. Call Ratchet and request a ground bridge." "I'm on it." She established a link with the Autobot base. "Ratchet--lock on to my signal! Bridge! Now!" Up ahead, the remaining Decepticons--including Starscream and his two cronies--turned abruptly to the right. A look of confusion crossed Starscream's face, and quickly turned to utter horror. "Say hello to my little friend," Optimus rumbled. One of the Vehicons turned to fire at him--and was hit by hundreds of incendiary rounds in mere seconds. When his lifeless body toppled over, his chest looked like Swiss cheese and parts of his back resembled a lace doily. Starscream bolted down the corridor directly ahead of Arcee, followed by Knockout and Breakdown. They disappeared around the corner at the far end. A greenish flash of light erupted behind Arcee. She glanced over her shoulder and grinned with relief at the sight of the ground bridge opening. Prime's weapon shredded several more Vehicons before the rest turned and ran. He stepped into view, holding what looked like a gigantic helicopter minigun. "Daaaaaaamn," Deedee shouted, grinning. Bee and Bulkhead appeared from behind Optimus, turned the corner, and started to pursue the fleeing 'Cons. "No!" Arcee shouted, and they stopped. "There's no time--we need to evac now!" Optimus dropped his minigun and transformed into his truck mode. His doors opened and he said, "Jack, June--get in!" Bee and Bulkhead shifted into vehicle mode, and Ashanti's team ran to them. Chang glanced at her watch as she threw herself into Bulkhead's back seat. "Only a few seconds left." "Roll out!" Optimus surged forward. "Maximum overdrive!" The other 'Bots punched it, roaring full-throttle toward the bridge vortex. Arcee didn't waste time running a diagnostic--with the lingering effects of the EMP added to the Scraplet damage, if she tried to transform, either nothing would happen at all, or she would fall apart. So she simply ran. Brilliant light overwhelmed her optics a split-second after she transitioned to the far end of the bridge--then the shockwave hit, slamming into her back and rocketing her into the wall. When she picked herself up, the ground bridge had closed and the three other 'Bots were on their sides or upside-down, having been rolled by the blast. Shaking, Arcee crawled over to Optimus. "Jack! Are--" "We're okay." He pushed the door open, crawled out, and reached in to help his mom out. "Got the seat belts fastened just in time." Arcee put her hands behind his back and embraced him gently while June staggered away, giving Optimus enough room to return to his robot mode. When Arcee finally pulled back, she looked into Jack's eyes, smiled, and stroked his cheek. "Is everybody okay?" Bulkhead said, sitting and leaning against the wall. "I think we're all in one piece." Ashanti reached up to pat his hand. "Thanks for the lift." "Any time." "You okay, June?" Arcee reached out to touch her shoulder gently. "Jack and I should be checked out thoroughly." June crossed her arms over her chest and shivered. "Especially Jack. After what they did to him, there could be lasting damage if we don't get him to a hospital." "I'll bridge you back to Groom Lake," Ratchet said from the main console, and punched in the coordinates for the human base. While waiting for the portal to open, Arcee and Jack met each other's gaze and smiled. She leaned closer and they kissed, not even noticing whether anyone was staring at them. After what they had just survived, a little thing like that didn't even matter. # "You still haven't had those fixed yet?" Jack said, waving a hand over the gouges left all over Arcee's body by the Scraplets as he and June stepped out of the Groom Lake medical center's front door. "I wanted to be sure you were okay first." She crouched in front of him and leaned over to hug him. "You are okay, right?" "I was terrified that the 'Cons might've implanted something in my head, but the doctors didn't find anything. Nothing but the kind of injuries you'd expect from having a robotic centipede the size of your middle finger shoved up your nose and rooting around in your brain. Plus smoke inhalation and assorted scrapes and bruises. And a bump on the back of my head where that humanoid beaned me." "I was also worried about possible permanent damage," June said. "Amazingly, it's nothing that won't heal, given enough time. The doctors did say that Jack needs to take it easy for a while, so no more getting shot at, okay?" Jack chuckled. "Well, I'll try to avoid it. Can't make any promises, though." He turned back to Arcee. "So, how'd the debriefing go?" "General Sanchez showed us the base's explosion. It was recorded by a surveillance satellite that was keeping an eye on the area. The blast was over a mile and a half across, launched sand and dirt two miles into the air, and left a crater nearly a mile deep. Good thing there weren't any inhabited areas anywhere near it. I guess Burcham--or whatever his real name is--wasn't kidding about all the energon under the base." "Jesus." Jack's jaw dropped and he shook his head. "Glad we weren't there for that one." "Me, too. One or two more seconds and we wouldn't have made it." June's face turned pale. Arcee winced. Probably shouldn't have mentioned that. She put a smile back on and tried to change the subject. "Well, I should head back home. Repairs, and whatnot. Ratchet's gonna be extra cranky because I put it off for so long. Wanna come, or would you rather finish settling into your temporary quarters here?" "Well, almost everything we own is still at the house, and we can't go back there now that the 'Cons and whoever else knows we lived there." Jack shrugged and smiled. "Guess I'll tag along. It'll give us time to talk." "I'd like that." Arcee activated her comm and contacted Ratchet. "Arcee here. We--" "Yes, ground bridge. Coming up." Arcee exchanged an amused glance with Jack. Oh, yeah. Extra-extra cranky. She looked at June and said, "How about you? Heading back with us, or staying here?" "Actually, I've been offered a position on the medical staff here, and I need some time to think it over." June shrugged. "The pay's definitely better, and I can't go back to work at the hospital in Jasper because the Decepticons or MECH could find me there." She snorted and shook her head. "Decepticons. MECH. I'm talking about this stuff like it's normal." Jack grinned. "You'll get used to it." He frowned. "Speaking of jobs, mine's probably history. Even if we could go back to Jasper, a medical leave of absence only lasts so long before you get canned." The ground bridge crackled into existence at the far end of the parking lot, well away from any parked vehicles. Arcee and Jack walked toward it, and June followed along for a moment. "Not that you'll miss it," Arcee said with a chuckle. "Oh, hell, no, I won't miss it. But I'll have to find another way to bring in some extra money. And then there's school." "Yeah," June said, "since you're a target now, you can't go back there, either." "I won't really miss that place, either. Though it's kind of a shame that now I'll never have a chance to get even with Vince for all the crap he dished out to me." "Well, you may not need to." Arcee snickered. "I've been checking up on current events in Jasper, and if the rumors are true, Vince was recently caught watching clown porn and punchin' his munchkin." Jack's jaw dropped and June burst out laughing. "I shouldn't laugh at that, but I can't help it." June's face turned red. "It's gonna take a belt sander to get that image out of my head." Jack shuddered. Arcee grinned. "So, Jack, Vince will probably be on the receiving end of a little torment, for once." "Glad to hear it. I'm usually not a vengeful guy, but that bastard had it coming." "And on that note, I should let you two take off." June gave him a quick hug. "I'll catch up with you later." "See you soon, Mom." Arcee smiled and waved before stepping through the portal. She found Miko, Raf, Bulkhead, and Bumblebee in one corner, facing a large TV. Bee's shoulders slumped and he let out a startled beep. At the same time, Miko threw her hands into the air and whooped. "Hah! In your face!" "Wow. Smooth move, Bee." Raf reached over the back of the couch to nudge Bee's arm. "Rocket right between the legs and nothing but air. Next time, aim a bit higher." Miko jabbed at her controller and giggled--then suddenly she lurched back from the screen. "Hey--what the hell?" "Looks like you got sniped while you were...um, not paying attention." Raf chuckled. Bee pointed at her and released a series of honks that sounded like laughter. Miko arched an eyebrow at him. "Okay, Raf, what'd he say?" "He said that's what you get for teabagging him." Arcee shook her head, but chuckled. "Teabagging, Miko? Classy." Miko rolled her eyes. "Adults." "Good to have you guys back, finally," Bulkhead said, waving. "I heard I missed some major action," Miko said. "A fair bit, yeah." Arcee winked at her. "If you refrain from the teabagging, I'll make you a copy of a few of the highlights for your scrapbook, straight from my video logs." "Sweet!" "Here's a preview: Jack took out one of the human-size 'Cons himself." "Really?" Miko stared at Jack. "Yeah." Arcee grinned and stroked Jack's cheek. "He was magnificent." Jack blushed, but also looked troubled for a brief moment. "Alright," Ratchet said from off to the right, "if you two can pry yourselves apart, I need to get to work on your wounds before something falls off." He pointed a thumb over his shoulder, at one of the tunnels leading out from the hub. Arcee raised her hands. "Okay, okay, I'm going." She glanced at Jack and blew him a kiss before following Ratchet down the tunnel. "See ya later, babe." # "So." Ratchet put away the last of his tools and turned to stare at one of the monitors. "You and Jack." Arcee arched a brow plate and took a moment to look herself over before speaking. The chunks the Scraplets had taken out of her skin had been repaired, but a few traces of the damage still remained. The scratches and seams would finish healing within the next few days, though. Her internal systems weren't at one hundred percent yet, but with some rest, she would be as good as new. "Yeah," she finally said. "Me and Jack." She gazed back at Ratchet and waited for his reply. "I'm merely curious. Just wondering...why?" "Why not?" "Well, aside from the fact that our bodies don't work the same way theirs do, humans are so...small. And fragile." Ratchet crossed his arms over his chest, turned to her, and cocked his head. "And squishy." "Ratchet." She raised her brow again. "Don't make it weird." "Oh, perish the thought!" He rolled his eyes. "This is, of course, perfectly normal. I would never suggest there was anything out of the ordinary about it." He grumbled something and pointed at her. "I gave your autorepair systems a head start, but you'll need to rest so they can finish their work and your body can recharge. I want you to stay right where you are until tomorrow morning, at least." "Fantastic." Arcee sighed. "You know how much I hate sitting on my ass." "Well, I'm sure Jack will be happy to keep you occupied." Ratchet rolled his eyes again and walked off. He stopped at the tunnel leading back into the hub. "Well, here he is. Imagine that." "Hey, Ratchet." Jack nodded at him and headed for the table where Arcee lay. "Be gentle with her." Ratchet continued on his way, leaving Jack with a slightly bewildered expression. Jack shrugged and resumed his course toward the repair table. "Honey, I'm home." Arcee laughed and sat up. "Hold on a sec." She slid off the table and stretched out on the floor so Jack could reach her more easily. "That's much better." He leaned over to kiss her. "How're you feeling?" "Pretty damned good, now." She grinned and held his hand. "How about you?" "A little sore here and there, but I'll survive." That troubled look crossed his face again. "Hey, what is it?" "Well...when I was trying to fight off that one 'Con..." "Yeah, the one you perforated with Jensen's gun." She smiled and nudged his shoulder. "Which was awesome, by the way." "Maybe. I've just...never taken a life before." "It's war. He was trying to kill you--and he would have, if you hadn't pulled the trigger in time." She brushed his hair away from his eyes. "That's what I keep telling myself." "And even if you hadn't, I would have." She nodded at the floor and he sat and leaned against her. She let her hand rest gently at his side. "That's the main reason I wanted to obliterate that base. I know it would've been a good idea to take it intact and find out exactly what they knew, what they were after, how deeply they've infiltrated your military, and what they'd stolen from Groom Lake. Or just let Starscream's and Megatron's factions duke it out, then go in and mop up the survivors. But I had to blow that place off the map and wipe out as many of those bastards as possible." He turned to look up at her, and she met his gaze before continuing. "Because they hurt you. I had to make them pay." He reached up to caress her cheek. "Well, I'm glad you're on my side." "Me, too." She chuckled. They remained silent for a few moments before Jack spoke up again. "So, uh, how're things going otherwise? Are Ashanti and her team okay?" "Amazingly, none of them were hurt during the fight, aside from smoke inhalation and whatnot. I think Ashanti will be okay, eventually She held it together until after the debriefing, then she started crying and couldn't stop. She's taking some time off for bereavement, but the general said there's a promotion waiting for her when she comes back." "Not much of a comfort, I imagine, but at least she'll be in a position to help fight the Decepticons." "Yeah, her whole team actually did okay. So did you. Looks like Optimus and I--all of us, really--underestimated humans." She smiled and nudged Jack's shoulder. "Maybe you'll be riding into battle alongside us sooner than we expected. Not just getting caught up in events, I mean, but as part of a team." "In any other case, I wouldn't consider that something to look forward to. But for you, I'd dive into any fight without a second thought." She hesitated. She still didn't like the idea of Jack putting his life on the line every day. But on the other hand, he had kicked ass in that base. She smiled and nodded. "Well, with both of us taking on the Decepticons, I'd say they're totally fucked." Jack burst out laughing. "That's my girl." She grinned. "I think beating them just became a little more possible." "I hope so." He looked up at her. "Hey, if this war does end sometime soon, what will you do then?" She stared at him. "I...never even thought about that before. The war started long before I even existed. It's all I know--I've been fighting the 'Cons my entire life, ever since day one. I can't even imagine what it would be like not to start each day knowing there's always another battle to fight." "Well, I hope you get a chance to find out." He grinned. "Maybe we could buy a house and move in together." "Heh. It'd have to be a big house. We'd have to make payments. Which means I'd have to get a job. Wow. I don't know if I could handle that." Jack snickered. "I just pictured you flipping burgers at KO." "Jesus Christ!" Arcee shuddered, but laughed with him. "I think I'd prefer being shot at." He laughed for a moment longer and shrugged. "Well, General Sanchez would probably figure something out. Like, have you guys working with Ashanti's team to take down human terrorists or arms dealers or whatever. And maybe he or Agent Fowler could work out some sort of internship for me so I can keep working with you." "I hope so. And I hope you're allowed to. I mean, the age thing doesn't make much sense to me because I was even younger than you when I started fighting, but I know it's a big deal to humans." "Well, let 'em try to stop me. If all else fails, I'll just Miko it and slip through the ground bridge when nobody's looking." She chuckled. "If you can do it as well as she can. I swear, it's like she turns completely invisible." "Yeah, maybe she can train Ashanti's team to be ninjas." She grinned and checked her chronometer. "Say, the sun'll set in a couple hours. Wanna sit up on the helipad and watch it?" "Sounds good. I think we could both use a couple hours of peace and quiet." He raised an eyebrow and aimed a mischievous grin at her. "Yeah...just you, me, the sunset...and a few gallons of car polish." "I don't think my motorcycle mode will need that much." "I wasn't talking about your motorcycle mode." She waved a hand over her body. "Polishing all this will take quite a while." "Yeah. It will." He wiggled his eyebrows, stood, and dusted the seat of his pants off. "I'll meet you up top in a bit. Just gotta grab a sufficient amount of polish from the supplies room." Grinning, he headed off down the tunnel. "Ah." Arcee suddenly realized what he had just suggested. "Oh!" She stood, grinned, and walked to the tunnel, somehow remembering to move slowly so Ratchet wouldn't get any grumpier. As Alec Hardison might say...Heeeey! # "Arcee, what did I tell you?" "Relax, Ratchet. It won't kill me to ride the elevator up top and take in the sunset." Arcee headed for the cargo lift. The main console beeped softly. Ratchet shook his head as he turned to the console and accepted the incoming call. General Sanchez appeared on the main screen. "Good evening, everyone." "General." Optimus smiled and bowed his head slightly. Arcee changed course and joined him and Ratchet. "I wanted to update you on a new development. We've just received a message from the Decepticon who went by the name of Howard Burcham." Sanchez held up a tablet, turning it toward the camera for a moment to show them a text file on its screen. "It's a list of people on this base that are humanoid 'Cons in disguise. Well, allegedly, that is. It's possible that he really did have a change of heart and is trying to atone for his past actions, but it's also very likely that this is an attempt to make us suspect and distrust each other." Optimus exchanged an alarmed look with Ratchet and Arcee. "This definitely needs to be investigated, but it should be done carefully." "I agree. On the other hand, everyone here at the Lake is aware of the Decepticon infiltration of the base, so they should understand. Still, we'll have to be delicate. This is a slippery slope. Could turn into a witch hunt if we're not extremely careful. Also, we don't have a means of actually detecting these human-size Decepticons--which are called 'Pretenders,' by the way, if what Burcham said is true." "I believe we can help you with that; we should be able to detect them with a thorough scan. We should also be there to back your people up, in case any of these Pretenders go on the offensive once they're discovered." "Sounds like a plan." "We will be there shortly. We'll need to get started before they find a way to evade our scans." "Thank you. Until then." Sanchez nodded and signed off. Arcee pointed at the ground bridge tunnel. "I should--" "No, Arcee." Ratchet speared her with a frown. "You'll take it easy until further notice." He waved a hand at the elevator. "It's not the end of the world if you sit out one mission, especially after being barely two seconds from getting vaporized on your previous one. Go enjoy the sunset." "Well...okay." Arcee turned back to the elevator, but Optimus's voice stopped her. "Jack will be with you soon. Bumblebee is helping him gather the car polish you'll be needing." A very slight smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. "Ah. Uh, about me and Jack..." "No explanations are needed. Such a thing is rare, but it has happened before." Optimus rested a hand on her shoulder. "None of us can afford to let this endless war dominate our lives. After everything we've been through, we all deserve some measure of happiness, something to remind us that there is more in our future than death and destruction." "Thanks, Optimus." Smiling. Arcee turned and walked to the elevator. "I'll see you later." The lift took her to the helipad. She walked across the pavement and picked a random spot to sit, propping herself up on her right palm and facing the sun. It was still well above the horizon and its light hadn't yet taken on that faint reddish evening hue. Beautiful. The sky was so blue, with wispy clouds just beginning to turn orange. Smiling, she waited for Jack to arrive, looking forward to spending a few quiet hours with him. As much as she disliked being out of the action, it wouldn't hurt to take the night off. Yeah. Just enjoy it while it lasts, before anything else goes horribly wrong. CHAPTER EIGHT "So, how do I look?" Jack turned slowly, giving Arcee a long look at his new suit of black armor. "Sexy." She grinned, sitting with her legs crossed in the parking lot in front of one of Groom Lake's armory buildings. "How well can it hold up against Cybertronian weapons?" "Optimus tested the material with his own guns, and it was able to take an average of four hits before it failed." "Good. That'll at least give you a few seconds to get under cover if you start taking fire." She reached out to hold his gloved left hand. "How many of the features we heard about actually made it into the final design?" "Most of 'em. Servos that boost the wearer's strength, speed, and agility, GPS locator that turns on in emergencies, software that calls for help if the wearer is knocked out or badly injured." He lifted the helmet. "And this has a heads-up display with augmented-reality software and a targeting system that links wirelessly to whatever guns I'm carrying. Not that they actually gave me any guns, but they did let me have one of their EMP rifles." "Well, I'm glad you've got something to defend yourself with, at least." "Same here. Since I've already found myself in the middle of more battles than I can count, they wanted to do whatever they can to keep me in one piece." He chuckled. "They also fitted Miko for an armor suit of her own simply because of her habit of going all Leeroy Jenkins on us." Arcee laughed. "Well, since we haven't been able to stop her, at least this'll make her a little safer." "Yeah. I just hope it doesn't encourage her to be even more reckless." "Says the guy who tried to climb up a Vehicon's leg without planning ahead any further than that." She grinned and nudged his shoulder. "Ha ha." He blushed. "Okay, fair point, I guess." He waved his hand off to the left. "Say, if you're curious to see this armor in action, Ashanti should be giving it a test run right about now." "Sounds interesting." Arcee shifted into her motorcycle mode and Jack climbed on and put on his helmet. As they cruised across the base to the training facility, his helmet-mounted camera scanned everything he looked at and popped up information about it in his HUD. Kind of distracting, but he figured he'd get used to it soon enough. It was too useful--and too cool--not to give it a chance. "They've set up the demo behind the building so the other 'Bots could watch," he said as they arrived at the training facility. Arcee's chuckle came through the speakers in his helmet. "Now I'm imagining them trying to fit inside there." Jack laughed. A moment later they cruised around behind the building. Optimus, Bulkhead, and Bee crouched over on the right, gazing down at seven armor-clad humans surrounded by a couple dozen of the Lake's personnel, including Jack's mom and a small medical team. Optimus glanced at him and Arcee, nodded, and returned his optics to the people a few yards away. Arcee parked beside Optimus. Jack dismounted and moved a few steps away so she could return to her primary mode. She sat beside him, leaned back and propped herself up on her hands, and crossed her ankles. "Good morning, guys." "Arcee. Jack." Optimus nodded again, keeping his attention on the armored soldiers. Bulk waved and Bee beeped a greeting. Jack reached up to take his helmet off, but stopped when it scanned the crowd and labeled the ones in the center, whose faces were hidden by their helmet visors. Ashanti stood in the center, unarmed, wearing black armor. The six surrounding her carried long metal pipes that looked like high-tech quarterstaffs. Jack didn't recognize any of their names--Nelson, Wilcox, Owens, Blanchard, Watkins, Keller. The demonstration was already underway, Ashanti pivoting slowly, trying to keep all six of them in view as they circled around her. "Hey, Jack," his mom said from behind him, "if I'd known we were going to be wearing the same thing, I would've picked out a different outfit." He turned and found her walking toward him, covered in nearly identical armor, sans helmet. "Oh, hey, Mom. Never thought I'd see you wearing something like that." "Same here." She turned to smile at Arcee. "Good morning. You're looking especially shiny today." Arcee grinned. "Jack's got the whole wash-wax-polish thing down to an art." "Well, the fact that I enjoy it so much doesn't hurt." He wiggled his eyebrows at Arcee. "You're not the only one. Funny, how something can be so relaxing yet so...stimulating at the same time." She winked. "Oy." His mother shook her head. "I could've done without that mental image." "Okay, we'll behave. For now." Jack grinned and turned back to the demo just as Owens launched at Ashanti, swinging his staff around and aiming for the back of her head. She ducked under the blow, spun, and kicked his legs out from under him. Before he hit the ground, she drove her right foot into his side, sending him rolling across the pavement. His staff flew from his hands and clanked across the ground. "Oh." Arcee leaned forward, locking her optics onto Ashanti as she rolled, dodging swings from Wilcox and Blanchard, and grabbed the staff Owens had dropped. "I am so analyzing her moves and adding them to my combat suite." Ashanti swung her staff before she was entirely upright, blocked a lunge from Wilcox, and jabbed it into his faceplate, knocking him off balance. She lashed out again, swept his legs out from under him, twirled the staff and crashed it down across his chest while he was still in midair. He slammed into the pavement, cracking it on impact. "And that would be why I'm here." June winced and put her helmet on. "Let's see, heart rate and respiration are normal--under the circumstances, at least." She stared at him for another moment, waiting for the computer system in her helmet to finish its analysis. "From his movements, he's just dazed. Damn good armor they've come up with." "Yep," Miko said, and Jack's heart almost launched through his ribs. He spun and found her standing behind him, clad in pink armor and carrying a helmet under her left arm. "It's got an experimental layer of padding under a layer of non-Newtonian fluid to help absorb impacts." Arcee stared at her for several seconds, and finally looked at Jack. "How does she do that?" He shrugged. "I don't even ask anymore." Arcee chuckled. "Nice look you've got going, there." Miko rolled her eyes. "Whoever decided to make it pink is gettin' kicked right in the fuckin' nuts." Jack snickered and Arcee burst out laughing. Jack faced forward just in time to see Ashanti hit Owens so hard that her staff snapped in two. "Gah! Oh, that had to hurt." His mom shook her head. "That looks like a concussion." She ran toward Owens, waving her arms, and the nearby medical team followed. Ashanti crouched beside him and put a hand on his shoulder. "Shit. Guess I got carried away. Sorry, bud. Try not to move." Arcee shook her head slowly. "Guess she's still got some issues to work out." "Well, considering what she's been through..." Jack sighed. "That's not something you get over quickly." Arcee looked at the ground. "If it were me, I'd never get over it." "Same here, babe." He took off his helmet and reached up to touch the back of her hand. When she met his gaze, he smiled. "But don't worry, you're not getting rid of me that easily." He winked. She chuckled and slipped her hand behind his back. She opened her mouth--but then she stopped, turned and frowned slightly. At the same moment, Ashanti looked up, as if distracted by the same thing. Owens sat up, removed his helmet, and waved June off. "I'm fine." "I'm still gonna check you out, just in case. Now, hold still while I link up with your armor and take a look at your stats." He sighed, shrugged, and sat still while she connected her armor's wireless system and waited for the relevant info to pop up in her HUD. "Again, I'm sorry," Ashanti said. "Don't worry about it, Colonel. We won't know just how much this armor can take if we don't hit it with everything we've got." "According to these readings, you're okay." June stood. "I still want you to check in with the hospital and get a more thorough examination." "Go ahead." Ashanti took his hand and helped him to his feet. "Best not to take any chances." "Right away, Colonel." He grinned. "Think I've had my ass handed to me enough for one day, anyway." Ashanti nodded, turned, and walked off. "What's up?" Jack said. "Just got a message from Double-D. They're ready to grab another Pretender in one of the labs. Ashanti's team is gathering now." "Are we invited?" Arcee hesitated, her desire to protect him clearly kicking in. "Well, they asked me to be there, just in case." She smiled. "I wouldn't mind the company, though. I think we can get away with it if you keep to a safe distance." "Sounds good." He smiled. "Shall we?" She grinned and transformed. "We shall." # "So," Case's voice came through the speakers in Jack's helmet, "you think this one'll fight, run, or surrender?" "The last four in a row gave up without a fight," Chang said, "so my money's on surrender." Jack kept quiet, settling for listening in on the team's chatter and watching the video feed from Arcee's optics in his HUD. He leaned against Bulkhead's side, staring at the building a few dozen yards away, ready to whip the EMP rifle out of the holster on his back. Not that he had any intention of engaging the Pretender, but if she happened to head in his direction, he would do what little he could. And if Arcee were in any danger, Bulk would have to physically restrain him to keep him out of the fire. Arcee waited outside the target building, staring in through one of the windows as Ashanti's team flowed into the lab and covered the disguised 'Con and her coworker. The audio feed from Ashanti's helmet mic picked up their voices. "Whoa!" The man--Lucas Conrad, who was human, as far as anyone could determine--threw his hands up. His eyes widened and his mouth hung open. The Pretender--going by the name Rosalina Mendoza--raised her hands slowly, aimed a sad look at Conrad, and stepped in front of him. "Take it easy, Lucas. They're here for me." "What?" He stared at her, utterly confused. "What the hell are--" "I'm sorry, honey." Still moving slowly, she took off her lab coat and tossed it onto a workbench, sank to her knees, put her hands on her head--and transformed. Huh. This one wasn't nearly as monstrous as the Pretenders Jack had seen in Starscream's underground base. Kind of pretty, but in a rather creepy, somewhat HR Giger sort of way. Conrad let out a startled grunt and stumbled backward until he bumped into another bench and knocked a circuit board to the floor. "Poor guy," Jack muttered, remembering the look on Ashanti's face when she confronted the Pretender who'd murdered her husband and taken his place. "...the hell?" Conrad mumbled. The realization sank in over the next few seconds, and he tried to sit on the stool beside the table, missed, and fell. Betrayal, disgust, and grief mixed in with the horror on his face. "Jesus...you killed--" "No, I didn't!" Rosalina--or whatever her real name was--aimed an anguished look at him. "I didn't, I swear!" "When did you kill her?" He pushed himself to his feet, and Jensen reached out to steady him. "How long have we--" "I didn't. There was never a real Rosalina Mendoza. It's been me all along." "Come on," Ashanti grumbled, moving around to place herself between the Pretender and Conrad, keeping her assault rifle aimed at the Pretender's head. "Disarm yourself--and don't try anything, or we'll scrap you." Mendoza nodded, pointed her right arm at the floor, and deployed her cannon. She grasped the barrel with her other hand and disconnected it. She gave it to Dawson and repeated the process with her other gun. "Get up," Ashanti snarled. Mendoza stood, keeping her hands raised, and gave Conrad one last sorrowful look before trudging out the door. "I'm sorry, Lucas. I'm so sorry." Ashanti and her team followed Mendoza through the hallway to the door. "Guess I'm up." Bulkhead started his engine. Jack stepped away and gave him a thumbs-up. Bulkhead cruised over to the waiting soldiers and opened his rear passenger-side door. Mendoza climbed inside and sat motionless. Arcee stood beside him, keeping her huge pistol pointed away from him, but making sure the 'Con could see it. "Okay," she said. "Let's go." # "'Howard Burcham' seems to have given us good information," Ratchet said as he stepped into the main hub of the Autobot base. "I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but a Decepticon is being straightforward with us. For now, at least." "My first instinct was to say they're up to something." Arcee leaned against the stairs beside the main console, where Jack had climbed up to her shoulder level. "But who knows, maybe he really was being honest about some of them opting out of the war." "Perhaps." Ratchet stepped up to the main console and brought up an image of the recently arrested Pretender. "While being questioned, this one claimed that she and a few others simply wanted to settle here. According to her, the death of our homeworld caused them to reconsider the path they took all those years ago. Some of them even started families with humans to blend in." "So," Jack said, "they've gone native?" "So they would have us believe." Ratchet shrugged. "I doubt it's true, but a small part of me hopes it is. Optimus must be rubbing off on me." He nodded at the image of Mendoza on the screen. "This one even has a son. And you've already seen her husband, Lucas Conrad." "A kid?" Jack flicked a puzzled glance at Arcee. "That's possible with a human and a Cybertronian?" Ratchet rolled his eyes. "It's called adoption." "Oh." Jack's face grew hot. "Right." Arcee chuckled and nudged his shoulder. Ratchet shrugged again. "Still, to have such intimate relationships with humans and keep them fooled, Pretenders would have to be capable of mimicking all the proper body parts. At least the external ones." Jack arched an eyebrow. Hmm... "I analyzed her cannons," Ratchet continued. "They haven't been fired in a very long time; decades, possibly a century or more. Not even once." "Huh." Arcee cocked her head at the screen. "That's not what I'd expect from a 'Con. I wonder if some of them really could change their ways." "I find it hard to believe, but the investigation into this particular Pretender has turned up some evidence to support her claims. There was never a human named Rosalina Mendoza, at least none who resembled the shape this one took. This Mendoza's history goes back only ten years; she seems to have appeared out of nowhere, and the oldest records--high school transcripts and such--are spotty at best." "That could be a good sign," Jack said. "If she didn't murder anyone just to take her place, then maybe she's sincere about what she's told us so far. And if she's sincere, maybe the other Pretenders are, too." "They're still questioning her, so we'll find out sooner or later." A red light flashed on the panel, accompanied by a buzzing sound. Arcee and Ratchet turned toward it, frowning, and didn't move for several seconds. "There's always something," Ratchet grumbled. Arcee touched the side of her head, where her ear would be if she were human, and spoke. "Got it, Optimus." Ratchet tapped another control and a new video popped up on the monitor--a live feed from a satellite. On the screen, a series of explosions ripped the ground apart, flinging dirt and debris high into the air. The blasts started in the northeast corner of the screen and moved south. Jack caught a few glimpses of robotic forms flitting through the plumes of dirt and smoke, firing at another robot a short distance ahead of them. "Those are Vehicons," Arcee muttered. "Think they might be chasing another Autobot?" Jack said. "Maybe Wheeljack? Or someone new?" "Can't tell from here." Arcee shrugged and touched her head again. "We're on it, Optimus. We'll meet you there. Bulk, Bee, let's gear up and roll out." # "Okay," Arcee muttered after returning to her primary mode. "Let's find more trouble and poke it with a stick." "That's the spirit." Jack grinned as he took cover behind a tree and scanned for movements with his helmet camera. Beyond several hundred yards of trees was a clearing, and the 'Cons and their quarry were heading straight for it. Jack's mom climbed down from Optimus's passenger-side door and joined him. As soon as she was clear, Optimus detached from his trailer and shifted out of vehicle mode. The trailer door opened and Ashanti and her team rushed out and took positions behind nearby trees. Bulkhead rolled up, towing his own trailer. His doors opened and a team of medics emerged. Bulkhead detached from the trailer and transformed. "One mobile med-lab, ready and waiting." "Let's hope we don't need it." June smiled at him, gave Jack a worried look while patting his shoulder, and jogged over to join the med team. Arcee crouched in front of Jack. "You're far enough from the action to give you enough time to evacuate, but if the fighting gets too close, you signal Ratchet and have him bridge you out of here." His first reflex was to insist on staying with her, but they'd had this conversation before. She wanted to protect him, but he wanted to do the same for her. So he merely smiled and said, "Sure." She appeared to stifle a sigh, clearly seeing through his bullshit. Not that he'd tried very hard to sell it. He held up his hands. "Hey, I'll retreat if you retreat. Now, go out there and kick some ass." She shook her head and laughed softly. "So, if you get into trouble, I'll just have to come rescue you. Guess I can handle that." Jack grinned, blew a kiss at Arcee, and climbed into Optimus's trailer. She returned the gesture, smiled, and reached into the trailer to pluck her pistols, shotguns, and an enormous knife from the racks lining the passenger-side wall. She clamped them to her back and hips, grabbed the rest of the weapons, and passed them out to Bulkhead and Bee. "See you soon." "Be careful out there." "You mean, 'Good hunting.'" She winked. "That, too." He watched her join the rest of the 'Bots as they fanned out around the edge of the clearing. He sighed, took a seat at the console opposite the weapons racks and flicked his eyes over the bank of monitors above it. He had spent the last three weeks learning how to use this stuff, in addition to the high-school courses he'd started taking online; this wouldn't be the same as being right there with Arcee, but he still had her back, even from this distance. On the main screen was a shot of the entire area from a satellite with tactical information overlaying the image, and the others showed live feeds from the Autobots' optics, the soldiers' helmet cams, and the UAV circling overhead, each in its own window. On the main screen, metallic shapes flitted in and out of sight, staying mostly hidden by the trees. Blaster bolts seared through trunks, set leaves ablaze, and took entire trees down. Jack took a deep breath and reached out to the touchscreen panels. "They're still heading straight for the clearing. Just a few seconds away." A huge, gray robot demolished a tree at the edge of the forest, almost tripped over the remains, and bolted a few dozen yards into the open before he seemed to realize that he'd lost all his cover. Jack stared at the screen. "Oh. That's not an Autobot." The screen showing the feed from Arcee's eyes zoomed in rapidly. "Are my optics malfunctioning? Am I really seeing this?" "Huh," Bulkhead grunted. "It's Starscream. But what happened to his arms? They're both gone." "Well, I blew one of 'em off," Arcee said. "The other...well, whoever's chasing him probably had something to do with it." Starscream continued forward in a blind panic, sprinting toward the Autobots. Arcee laughed. "Hah. His shit's all fucked up." The UAV's camera caught a clear view of his pursuers. A smirk tugged at the corner of Jack's mouth. "Yep, he's being chased by Vehicons, alright." "Looks like Megatron didn't like Screamer's little side project." Arcee sighed. "Almost a pity it didn't work out for him, really. Better to have a coward in charge of the 'Cons than a complete monster." The Vehicons began emerging from the trees. Jack whistled softly. "Megatron sure sent enough of those guys after him." "Probably doesn't want him falling into enemy hands," Ashanti said. "Think of the intel we could get from this guy." "Like we could trust anything that asshole says," Arcee muttered. "He could be desperate enough to cooperate," Optimus said. "Unless this is a trap." Jack shifted his eyes to the main screen. The Vehicons were plainly visible now, chasing Starscream across the clearing, opening up on him with their blasters now that they had a clear shot. "I doubt Starscream would let 'em do that much damage just for a ruse," Bulkhead said with a chuckle. "Unless Megatron didn't give him a choice." Somehow, Starscream managed to dodge all the blasts, jumping erratically from side to side as he came within reach of the treeline near the Autobots. "The opportunity is too good to pass up." Optimus headed for the clearing, treading carefully to keep the sound of his footsteps down. "Col. McKenna, choose your targets." "Got it," Ashanti said. "Give 'em hell, guys." Her sniper rifle discharged with a sharp crack and the Vehicon closest to Starscream pitched forward and tumbled to the ground along with the shrapnel that had once been his head. The 'Cons beside and behind him stared in shock at the body, as if unable to process what had just happened. "Looks like the new ammo works." Ashanti laughed softly and blew off another 'Con's head. One of them finally scored a lucky hit on Starscream's back, knocking him off his feet. He rolled over, staring wide-eyed at the Vehicon and scooting backward, grunting and gibbering in sheer terror. In the window showing the feed from Optimus's eyes, Arcee darted past him. "I've got this." "Be careful, Arcee." "I just want to see if I can make 'em all shit themselves." She grinned. "Figuratively speaking, of course." Jack's heart began pounding as she strode into the open, stopping a few feet away from Starscream. The nearest Vehicon skidded to a stop and stared at Arcee. "Oh, fuck!" Optimus, Bulkhead, and Bee joined her, standing far enough apart to cover most of the 'Cons. The Vehicons looked around frantically, snapping their guns back and forth, trying to cover all of them. "Stand down and you won't be harmed," Optimus said. "You're outnumbered and outgunned," the 'Con said, keeping his cannon on Starscream. "Think so, eh?" Arcee raised her right hand and snapped her fingers. A bullet from Ashanti's rifle drilled through his optic strip and a split-second later his head exploded. "You are surrounded," Optimus said. The 'Cons looked around. One of them, trying to sound defiant and failing, said, "We're only detecting a few humans and the four of you." "Just because you can't detect them doesn't mean they're not there." Arcee raised both hands and snapped her fingers again. Two 'Cons at the rear of the group lost their heads. The rest of them spun around and aimed their blasters in every direction, clearly beginning to panic. "I will only say this once more." Optimus stepped forward. "Stand down and you won't be harmed." "Like we can go back to Megatron empty-handed," one of the 'Cons mumbled. "You can take your chances with him." Arcee pulled the shotguns from her back and held them ready. "Or you can take your chances with us." Jack grinned despite his fear for Arcee. That's my girl. A few of the Vehicons glanced at each other. "At least this way, it'll be a quick end," the same 'Con said. All of them turned their guns on Starscream, clearly hoping they'd be able to escape once their objective had been achieved. Starscream shrieked and scooted back until he bumped into Arcee's feet. "Help me!" Wow. Jack shook his head slowly. Don't think I've ever seen anyone look so pathetic. "Fire at will," Ashanti ordered her team, and five more 'Cons dropped, partially or completely decapitated.. Arcee leaped over Starscream, blasting two 'Cons in the face with her shotguns while in midair. She landed in a crouch between him and them, held the pumps against her legs, and chambered a fresh round in each gun. Bulkhead charged into the middle of the group, mowing them down like a bulldozer. "Arcee," Optimus said, "protect Starscream." "Ugh. If I were physically capable of it, I would've just thrown up in my mouth a little." Still, she planted herself beside Starscream and blew away the next Vehicon who pointed his gun in their general direction. Optimus joined the battle, taking down several Vehicons with his guns, then switching to blades when the rest got too close. Off to the left, Bumblebee dived, rolled, and came up in the middle of a group of four 'Cons. He jammed his gun under one's chin and sent a bullet out the top of his skull, kicked another's legs out from under him, knocked the third off balance with a punch to the side of the head, and dropped the fourth with a bullet through the optics. Jack flicked his eyes over the monitors and his heart jumped again. "Arcee, three of 'em are trying to slip around behind you." She turned and unloaded her shotguns into two Vehicons' chests. Glaring at the third, she lifted her guns, placed the pumps against each other, and racked them. She pointed both at him and he held his arms up and dropped to his knees. "I've had enough! I surrender!" He detached his cannons, flung them away, and put his hands on his head. Another Vehicon swiped his blade at Bulkhead. Bulk blocked it, clamped onto the 'Con's wrist, turned and pulled. The Vehicon screamed as Bulk ripped his arm clean off. Bulkhead spun around, swinging the arm like a baseball bat, and caved in the side of the Vehicon's head. Jack whistled softly. "Glad we're recording this. Miko is gonna want pictures of that." Bulkhead chuckled. Three 'Cons near him stared for a moment, looked around, and fell to their knees. They disarmed, tossed their blasters aside, and raised their hands. The view from Arcee's optics jolted suddenly, and the feed from Bee whip-panned toward her. On Bee's screen, a Vehicon had just tackled Arcee and knocked one of her shotguns away. She blocked his next blow, but his follow-up sent her other shotgun spinning out of sight. The 'Con extended his blades and stabbed one of them at her. She dodged, drove her left fist into his face, wrapped her right arm around his neck and twisted, turned, and flipped him over onto his back. She planted a foot on his chest and plucked the pistol from her right hip. The 'Con kicked it out of her hand and drove his other foot into her midsection, sending her staggering backward. He got his feet under him and launched at her. On the other screens, the rest of the 'Bots aimed their guns at him but couldn't get a clear shot. Jack's heart pounded and his hands trembled. Arcee drew her other handgun--but the 'Con swatted it out of her hand, tackled her again, and knocked her to the ground. He pinned her down, drew his blade back, and plunged it toward her chest. Jack sucked in a deep breath, preparing to scream. Arcee deflected the blow, punched the 'Con in the face, and extended her arm blades. He rolled off her to get out of her reach, and she used the second or two it gave her to get back on her feet. Snarling, she charged him, raising her left blade, and he moved to block it. With her right hand, she pulled the huge knife attached to her lower back and rammed the blade into the Vehicon's chest. She yanked it out and he clamped his hands over the wound. She used his momentary distraction to flip the knife over and hilt it in the top of his head. He let out a warped scream and fell to his knees. Jack let a relieved sigh rush out and collapsed into his chair. The remaining 'Cons had stopped in their tracks and stared at her. Some of them backed up a few steps. She snapped the blade off in the 'Con's head and toppled the body with a casual shove. She faced the others and sneered. "Who's next?" Several more Vehicons dropped to their knees and disarmed, and the rest turned and ran. Moments later, the only Vehicons left were the fourteen who had surrendered. "Huh." Bulkhead took a slow look around and raised a brow plate. "Never expected we'd be taking prisoners. Where are we gonna put 'em?" "We'll figure something out," Ashanti said. "Jack, contact the base and request trucks to haul these guys out of here." "On it." He sent the request and relayed the reply. "They're on the way. Ratchet will bridge them to the Autobot base, and then bridge them here." "Thanks, kid." Arcee picked up her guns and turned to scowl at Starscream. "So, that just leaves him." She didn't quite point her guns at him, but held them in his general direction. Starscream flinched, glanced around, and his eyes grew even wider. "Oh, hell," he whimpered. "Stand down, Arcee." Optimus looked down at Starscream and a very slight smirk appeared. "He is unarmed." Arcee stared at him and blinked several times. Jack raised an eyebrow. "Uh, did he just...?" "Really?" Starscream's left eye twitched. "Fucking seriously?" "Who could resist?" Optimus walked off to help Bee and Bulkhead watch over the Vehicons. Arcee watched him for a moment, shook her head, and refocused her attention on Starscream. Now that she had a chance to gaze steadily at him, Jack could see just how damaged he was--scrapes and dents all over his body, and several burn marks from blaster hits he'd taken. "So," Arcee said, "I take it Megatron's back online and not too pleased with your little underground operation." "He...knew everything." Starscream groaned and shook his head. "From the very beginning. My plotting against him, everything I did, he was watching it all and laughing at me. Then he grew tired of it and decided to get rid of me." "I figured it'd be something like that. But what are we gonna do with you, I wonder?" He looked around frantically and stuttered. Finally, an idea seemed to click into place, and his eyes widened. "I want to join the Autobots!" When he saw the look on Arcee's face, he scowled at the Vehicons. "Well, why not? Look what they did to me!" "You kinda brought that on yourself." "Perhaps." He slumped to the ground and grumbled. "Yes, I've made mistakes. Made some very poor decisions. I admit, my reach exceeded my grasp. But isn't this a bit much?" "I dunno." Arcee chuckled. "Seems just about right, to me." He managed to sit upright, but then his face took on the most dejected expression Jack had ever seen. "I can't go back to the Decepticons. But I was Megatron's second in command. I have information that could tip the balance in your favor, and I'm willing to tell you everything." He met Arcee's gaze. "No need to worry about my motivations. More than anything, I want to stick it to Megatron, and if helping you is my best shot at him, then I'll do anything you want." The ground bridge appeared in the middle of the clearing and a half-dozen military cargo trucks appeared. "We will consider your offer," Optimus said. Wow. Jack stood, walked behind his chair, and leaned on its back. He kept an eye on the monitors until the prisoners had been secured and the trucks rolled out. Then he stepped out of the trailer, took off his helmet, and waited for Arcee to join him. When she appeared, he smiled up at her. "What do you think?" "There's no way we can trust that weaselly bastard, but like Optimus said, the opportunity is too good to let it slip through our fingers." She shrugged. "Maybe our luck is changing for the better." "You're quite the optimist, all of a sudden." "Thanks to you." She grinned and stroked his cheek, looked up at the sound of the other Autobots' approaching footsteps, and stood. "We will escort the convoy to the holding facility," Optimus said. "You go on ahead and brief Agent Fowler and General Sanchez." "We'd be happy to." Arcee smiled and shifted into her alt mode. "Shall we, Jack?" "We shall." He smiled and climbed on, pausing to wave at his mom, and put his helmet on. "Let's go home."