TRANSFORMERS PRIME: REMATCH An old enemy of Arcee resurfaces... CHAPTER ONE "You okay, Arcee?" Jack paused, leaning around her shoulder to aim a concerned look at her face. Usually, their wash-wax-polish sessions on the helipad atop the Autobot base ended with her completely relaxed, her eyes closed, an ecstatic smile on her lovely face. Today, though, her eyes were wide open and her expression distracted. She was stretched out on the huge tarps they'd spread out on the helipad, her chin resting on her crossed arms, staring at the blue sky and fluffy clouds on the horizon but not quite seeing them. "Earth to Arcee." Jack chuckled, scooted over to her waist, and gave her ass a light swat. "Hmm?" She raised her head, looked over at him, and raised a brow plate. "Just wondering what's on your mind." "Oh, sorry. You put so much work into this, I shouldn't have let my attention wonder." "It's okay. It's not a chore or anything; I love doing this." He smiled, applied more polish to her shoulder, and rubbed the buffing cloth slowly over her gleaming surface. "Peace and quiet, a hell of a view, and a few hours alone with the love of my life. I can't think of a better way to spend an afternoon." "Aw, you're so sweet." She closed her eyes and smiled, her face taking on the expression he'd grown used to seeing at times like this. "Just telling the truth." Grinning, he moved on down her arm, rubbing the polish on slowly. After both of them remained quiet for another moment, he said, "So, gonna tell me what's on your mind? Or is it private or classified or something?" "Well. . ." She sighed. "I actually didn't want to bring this up, but. . ." He raised an eyebrow and gave her another concerned look, but kept polishing. "If something's bothering you--I mean, I don't want to seem like I'm prying, but if it's something I said or did--" "Oh, no, nothing like that. It's just that I feel a little guilty. What you're doing for me. . .you spend so many hours at it, and it feels so good--but I wish I could do more for you." "You already give me everything I need." He finished polishing her forearm, gave her hand a tug, and she lifted it for him. He kissed her palm and held her hand in both of his for a moment. "It's enough just to be in love. Anything extra is a bonus." He let her hand rest on his lap and began polishing it. "Besides, I assumed that you'd be grossed-out by human sexual acts, so. . ." "Well, some of them. And others are so bizarre that I can't possibly take them seriously." She chuckled, but a disturbed look flickered across her face. "Especially after some of the research I did." "Uh-oh." Jack gazed at her for a moment, then his eyes opened wider. "Oh, no. You. . .you downloaded some porn, didn't you?" She looked away. "Well, I got curious. Just wondered if there was anything else I could do, something new I could try. Figured that maybe we were compatible enough for something. But the videos I saw. . ." "Oh, bloody hell. Do I even want to know which ones you saw?" I hope none of them involved a cup. . . "Well, almost everything about them was ridiculous. And in most of them, all the couples performed the same acts in almost the same order." She shuddered. "And parts of them gave me the creeps. One of the worst things about them all was the. . .uh, 'big finish' on each one." She shook her head slowly. "When fluid spurts out of a Cybertronian, it's because he's just been shot or stabbed." Jack chuckled. "Well, it's the same for humans, in most cases. This is one of the only exceptions." She aimed a lopsided grin at him and wiggled her brow plates. "Okay, judging by the reactions of the guys in those videos, I'm guessing it feels pretty good." "Yeah, it does." Jack blushed suddenly. "Not that I've. . .well, I mean, you're the first girl I've even had a chance with, but. . ." "Not speaking from experience, then?" "Right. Well, no experience with anyone else, I mean." His blush deepened. "That is. . .wow, suddenly it's really hot out here." She grinned again. "I know, you're talking about 'solo flights.' I'm still learning this stuff, but I've picked up a few things." She winked. "Uh. . .yeah." He shrugged and resumed polishing. "I mean, what teenager hasn't tried that at least once?" "I dunno. Like I said, I'm still learning." She winked at him again. "As long as you're thinking about me while you're doing it." "Every time," he said softly, and his face grew even hotter. "Wow, I had no idea human skin could turn that shade of red." He snorted, turned her hand over, and began working on her palm. "Like I said, I assumed you'd think it was gross, so I never brought it up." "Well, the first time we kissed, I thought it was really weird, but it grew on me. I have to admit, I'm a little curious about. . .certain other things. It still seems weird to me, but there's a part of me that kind of wants to experience it." "Well, maybe someday we'll figure something out. Some sort of new technology, or whatever." He smiled and finished polishing her fingers. "I'm in no hurry, though. Like I said, you already give me everything I need. Now, turn over; time to do your front side." She grinned and rolled over. He kissed her before applying polish to her chest plate. "Ah, my favorite part." She laughed. "So, you're doing this to get your grope on, eh?" "Like I said, I love doing this for you." He wiggled his eyebrows. She patted his ass and her smile turned wistful. He chuckled, but then a thought struck him. I can get off whenever I want, but she can't. At all. And now I've all but spelled it out to her. He tried not to wince. No wonder she wishes she could-- "You know," she said softly, "I've been thinking. About the Pretenders that have been captured. They have the right parts, and some of them sure seem to enjoy sex. If we could find a way to adapt that technology and. . ." A chill rushed through Jack. "That's Decepticon technology. It can't be trusted. At least, not without study and testing so rigorous and thorough that it crosses the line into full-blown paranoia." "Yeah, that's what worries me. Some of the defectors seem really sincere, but since their bodies are 'Con in origin, they could have all sorts of nasty surprises built into them." She traced a fingertip along his cheek. "Still, I'd like to give it a try someday." He held her hand again. "Only if we're absolutely sure it won't hurt you. I don't want to risk your life just so we can get our rocks off." She arched a brow plate. "So, you can get yours off all you want, but I can't?" She smirked and nudged his shoulder, hinting that she was just messing with him, but he could see it in her eyes--his comment had stung ever so slightly. Oh, crap, there it is. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that. You're right, it's not fair to you. But I really am afraid for you. If you get hold of an 'empty' Pretender body and link up to it, who knows what could happen? It could have hardwired firewalls, viruses, and other defenses that could cause permanent damage. It's not worth you dying." "Believe me, Jack, that's the first thing I thought of when it first crossed my mind. I wouldn't even try it without being absolutely sure it's safe. But someday, maybe. . ." "Yeah." He laughed softly. "We should at least wait until I'm eighteen. My mom's still a little weirded-out by our relationship; just imagine her reaction if she found out that we were using Pretender technology to hump it out." Arcee burst out laughing. "I just imagined the look on her face. Slightly terrifying." "More than slightly, for me. Ever since I was a little kid, whenever I got into serious trouble, she'd get this look on her face that made my blood run cold. Whenever I saw that, I knew I was in the deepest shit." "Yeah, I definitely wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of that, especially from my future mother-in-law." She smiled and rubbed his back. He patted her other hand and went back to work, rubbing the cloth gently over her chest. Arcee grinned, put her hands behind her head, crossed her ankles, and let herself relax. Whew. Jack smiled, but tried not to let his sudden relief show. Thought we were about to have our first big argument. He kept smiling and continued polishing, and soon lost himself in the moment, his thoughts wandering as he made his way down her body. He had almost finished with her feet when his comlink beeped. At the same time, Arcee touched the side of her head, indicating that she was also receiving a message. Jack picked up a clean towel, wiped the polish off his hands, and took the comlink out of his pocket. "Hey, what's up?" "We have just received some information that you two would want to see," Optimus replied. Jack raised an eyebrow and exchanged a glance with Arcee. Optimus sounded. . .unnerved. As much as the stoic Prime could, at least. Arcee nodded. "We'll be right there." # "Hey, Ratchet. How's it hummin'?" Ratchet leaned on his console and groaned. "Is no one ever going to let me live that down?" Jack chuckled. "Hey, when you hit on a guy's girlfriend, he's gonna get all territorial on you." He glanced at Arcee and winked. She laughed. "Take it easy, Ratchet. He's just winding you up." "Yeah, I am. It's just a joke." Jack smiled. "I figure it's better to laugh at stuff like that than let it get under your skin." "Ah, yes, of course. That's. . .wise." Ratchet slumped forward a bit more, clearly relieved. "It's just that. . .well, it was terribly embarrassing." "Don't let it get to you. You're not the only one who's ever done something embarrassing." "No kidding," Miko said from the couch over in the corner. "At least you never had your host parents walk in on you while you were double-clicking your mouse button." Ratchet stared at her in utter confusion. Raf, sitting beside Miko, shot her a mildly horrified look. "Wow," Jack muttered, and stared slack-jawed at her. Arcee looked at Ratchet, chuckled, and walked over to him. She leaned closer and whispered something to him. His optics opened wider and his mouth flopped open. "Ah, ahem, yes, um. . .hmm." He picked up a canister of glowing green fluid. "Anyway, I was just tweaking the formula a little more, and--" "Oh, no." Arcee held up her hands and backed away. "You keep that green shit away from me." "Ah. Of course. I'll keep working on it. Perhaps it can still be used to power equipment or weapons. Weapons that aren't built into our bodies, that is." "Good. I'll keep my fingers crossed. We definitely need something now that we're running so low on energon." A worried look crossed her face as she resumed her course toward the main console in the hub, where Optimus, Bumblebee, and Bulkhead waited. Raf glanced at Miko again, shrugged, and returned his attention to his laptop. He pointed at the video playing on the screen and said, "Anyway, what I'm wondering now is: Did River marry the Doctor, or did she actually marry the Teselecta? Because if Moffat really wanted to screw with us. . ." Miko's jaw dropped. "Oh, that sounds like something he'd do, alright." Arcee shook her head. "Oh, he damned well better not!" Jack snickered and Arcee chuckled. "It's your fault for getting me hooked on that show." "Hey, I do what I can." He grinned as they walked up to the other 'Bots. "Hi, guys. What's up?" Then he noticed that all of them looked shocked and angry. Uh-oh. "What is it?" Arcee said, going into all-business mode after seeing their expressions. "Bad news," Bulkhead muttered. "Just. . .horrible." Another cold sensation rose through Jack's chest. And the afternoon started off so well. . . Arcee crouched and reached out to take his hand. "We have received notice from Agent Fowler of possible Decepticon activity." Optimus closed his optics and opened and closed his mouth several times, as if needing to force his next words out. "Sixteen human bodies were found recently in the forests near the northwest coast. They were decapitated." Arcee gasped and covered her mouth with her free hand. "Shit," Jack said under his breath. "The. . .heads. . .have not been found," Optimus continued. Implying. . .someone kept them. Jack stared up at Arcee as a suspicion formed in his mind. Trophies. Oh, no. . . "What makes you think it's Decepticons?" Arcee mumbled. Optimus reached out to the console and pressed a button. On the main screen, a set of photos appeared. Most of them showed military personnel searching a wooded area; Jack recognized a few of them from the Groom Lake air base. One of the pictures was a close-up of a grayish-white material pinning a headless corpse to the ground. It looked part organic and part metallic, and had a distinct web-like appearance. "No," Jack whispered. "Oh, Christ, no. . ." He looked up at Arcee again, and almost recoiled from the look of sheer rage on her face. "I doubt she would've left that stuff laying around like that," Bulk said. "Unless she wanted it to be found." He turned back to Arcee. "Looks like someone's trying to get your attention." Arcee snarled. "Well, she's got it." CHAPTER TWO "How's our guest today?" General Sanchez said after entering the security hub. Ashanti nodded at one of the monitors on the bank in front of her and the two airmen stationed there. "I don't think I've ever seen a more pathetic-looking son of a bitch, sir." On the screen, Starscream sat in a decommissioned missile silo far away from Groom Lake, leaning against the wall with a thousand-yard stare, still missing both arms. "Understandable, I guess. He's just found out that yet another piece of intel he gave us didn't pan out. Looks like Megatron is rushing to scrap every project Starscream had any knowledge of." "Yeah, I can see how that would grind a person down after a while. He's still insisting that he wants to do everything in his power to help us take Megatron down, though. He does seem to genuinely want to get rid of the guy, but I doubt we can trust him any farther than that." "Me, too. To be fair, though, we did find evidence of 'Con activity at all the sites he told us about." The general shrugged. "Well, his replacement arms are almost finished, so that should cheer him up. They won't have the sharp claws or missiles his original arms had, but at least he'll be whole again. That should give him a little incentive to keep working with us." "Sounds good, sir. I have to admit, I have trouble looking at him without laughing." "Same here." Sanchez grinned. "How about the Vehicons?" Ashanti nodded at a set of screens on the left, which showed the fourteen Decepticon troops who'd surrendered a few months ago, in several other triple-max security sites. Their standard black and purple paint jobs had been augmented with differently colored markings to help everyone tell which one was which. "They haven't given us any trouble at all. Now that they don't have to worry about Megs or Screamy punishing them for failure anymore, they seem pretty mellow. Or maybe they just don't know quite what to do with themselves." She flicked a grin at Sanchez. "All of them have told us that Screamy was pretty abusive; smacked them around all the time, and every now and then he'd waste one of 'em right in front of all the others when things weren't going his way. So when Megs ordered them to chase him down and kill him, they gave it two hundred percent." "Ha. Guess we'll have to keep them far away from him, then, or one of them will finish the job out of spite." Sanchez turned to one of the other monitors. "Congrats on picking up the last of the Pretenders, by the way." "Thank you, sir. It was another easy one; he surrendered without a fight." Only four of the Pretenders who'd infiltrated Groom Lake had put up a fight, and Ashanti had taken each of them out herself. "I still have my suspicions, but the defectors have been model prisoners ever since we captured them. Especially the one using the name Rosalina Mendoza; we still haven't found any evidence that she killed a human and took her place. Same goes for the rest, but this one..." On one of the screens, Mendoza's husband, Lucas Conrad, joined her at the small table in the center of the room. Four guards stood nearby, holding EMP rifles, covering the Pretender from every angle. Ashanti pointed at the screen. "Derek, would you turn up the volume on that one, please?" "Sure thing, Colonel." The airman dialed up the volume on the microphone above the table. "About as well as can be expected," Mendoza said. She was still in her robot form, as per the rules Sanchez had laid down when the Pretenders began giving themselves up. They had to remain in their true forms so they would be easy to identify. Taking human form would imply an attempt to escape or sabotage, and would be dealt with accordingly. "How's Bobby doing?" Mendoza continued, referring to her and Conrad's adopted son. "He's okay, under the circumstances." Conrad pressed his lips together and took a breath. "He misses his mommy." Mendoza's glowing red optics opened wider and her lips quivered. "I miss him, too. Damn. I'm so sorry about all of this. I should've told you what I really am. I should've told you a long time ago." "Come on, we've been over this before. How would you have even brought it up? 'Honey, guess what? I'm an alien robot disguised as a human.' I wouldn't have bought it. And if you'd transformed to prove it, I would've freaked the hell out." "I know. Still, I should've. . ." She looked at the table. "I don't know. I guess part of it is that I lived as a human for so long, I kind of forgot what I am." She looked at her hand and brushed her fingertips over the wedding ring she still wore. "When Cybertron fell, I realized the war was utterly pointless. There was no reason to continue fighting, and barely any reason to go on living. Then a few of us found this planet, and I found you. You and Bobby made me want to live again." Slowly, hesitantly, Conrad reached out and slipped his hand under hers, brushing his thumb over her ring. She smiled and let herself relax, slumping forward a bit, clearly relieved that she wasn't being rejected. "Everything you've gone through because of me--I'll make it up to you, I swear. All we wanted was to live in peace, but now that I have a home and you and Bobby, I have something worth fighting for. I won't let the Decepticons hurt either of you." General Sanchez's phone beeped. He took it out of his pocket, glanced at the screen, and grimaced. "Oh, Christ." He looked up at Ashanti. "Get your team together, Colonel." "What's up?" He held the phone out to her. On the screen was an image of a smirking robotic face with glowing purple optics. The shape of the head reminded her a bit of Maleficent. She'd seen the face before, in video logs Arcee had shared with Groom Lake. She groaned. "Oh, that's just fantastic." "Yeah." Sanchez turned toward the door, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "Airachnid." # "Wow, it's cold here. I should've brought my jacket." Jack shivered and grimaced as torrential rain splattered against his faceplate. "Can't wait to meet up with everyone else and put my armor on." "Yeah, it's quite a switch from what we're used to." Arcee kept her speed at the posted limit for now. To avoid attracting attention from the locals as well as their quarry, Ratchet had ground-bridged the team into separate locations well outside the small town near the crime scene. It'd been a bit of a shock, going so suddenly from the hot, dry, pleasant climate around the Autobot base to the cold, wet, wooded region near the Oregon coast. "I can't believe the weather. It's only September, but it looks and feels like winter." Jack shook his head. "Actually, I can't remember a winter in Jasper ever being this cold." Arcee ran an internet search while scanning for vehicles and life forms. "Hmm. This whole region is basically a rain forest, so I guess that explains the climate." Jack shivered again. "By the time we meet up with the others, I'll be able to cut glass with my nipples." Arcee laughed despite the seriousness of the situation. "Don't get me all revved-up while we're on a mission." He grinned and patted her flank. "Hey, if it keeps us warm, it's all good." "Ha ha. Okay, let's try to keep our minds on the job, smooth operator." She detected a lone vehicle ahead, coming up fast. Or, rather, she and Jack were closing in because of its ridiculously low velocity. "There's an RV ahead, not even running at the speed limit. I'll see if I can get around it once we reach a long enough stretch of straight road." "Okay." Jack, shivering harder, looked around slowly at the mountains looming over them. "The horizon's so close. Kind of unnerving." He shrugged. "Must be pretty when the sun's shining." "Yeah. I'm looking at some photos, and the places where you can see the ocean make for some lovely sunsets. From the data I've found, though, the weather ranges from dreary to freezing most of the year." "Charming. I'm definitely keeping this whole area off my list of places to retire." Retire. . . Once again, Arcee was suddenly reminded of humans' all too brief life spans. Before she could stop herself, she imagined Jack a short time in the future, not even a single century, his body withering and failing and finally, simply. . .shutting down. What the hell am I doing? It wasn't the first time she'd asked herself that question. There were times when her relationship with Jack weirded her out--usually for only a split-second, but still. He was so soft, so fragile, so tiny. Weapon hits and impacts that a Cybertronian could more or less shrug off, would kill him in an instant. And even if that never happened, sooner or later she would lose him anyway, simply because humans weren't built to last. I'm setting myself up for a monumental heartbreak. Not that she could avoid it at this point. Ending their relationship would only hurt both of them. And once she'd taken that step a few months ago--that first kiss, her first realization of her feelings for him, both of them saying those three words to each other for the first time. . . Yeah. I can't just change my mind now, even if I wanted to. And I sure as hell don't want to. She reminded herself of the conversation she'd overheard between Optimus and Ratchet a few weeks ago. Ratchet had passed by one of the storage rooms that Jack, Miko, and Raf sometimes used when spending the night at the base, and had spotted Arcee and Jack sharing a private moment, him standing in front of her, her sitting and leaning over far enough to press her lips gently against his. . . Ratchet must've commented to Optimus about it. While walking into the hub, she'd heard Optimus say, "Have you ever seen her smile so often before she met Jack? I think she has been happier in the past few months than she was in hundreds of years previously." And he was right. She couldn't remember feeling this good, this frequently. Even if she never found a way to take their relationship to a more intimate physical level, as Jack had said a few hours ago, just being in love was enough. But is a few decades of happiness worth the thousands of years of sorrow that will follow? She held in a sigh. Don't think about it. Just...don't. "Hey, Arcee," Jack said, intruding on her thoughts. "I'm kind of curious about something." "Let 'er rip," she said, grateful for the distraction. "There was a moment in the base, when you and Ratchet were talking about the synthetic energon. I caught the look that crossed your face for a second. You seemed worried about something." "Oh. That. Yeah. It's because our energon supply is almost depleted. That's why he's so desperate to perfect the formula, or at least figure out a way to use the stuff to power our weapons." "Oh, yeah. It's a shame that hardly any of the information we got from Starscream turned out to be accurate. You guys really could've used those energon stores." "Right. Heh, I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but I think Starscream sincerely believed his intel was correct. The look on his face each time he found out the energon mines and storage sites were either empty or had been blown up. . ." "I guess we should've expected it, though. I mean, if your second in command defected to your enemy, the smartest thing to do would be to change all your passwords and relocate all your assets because he knows where everything is." "Exactly. Oh, well, Starscream could still be useful." "I hope so." He fell silent when the RV came into view. After a moment, he said, "About the energon. That's, like, your blood, right?" "It's our power source, but it flows through our bodies in a manner similar to blood. The difference is, human blood never needs to be replenished except in cases of illness or injury; energon does." "So if you use it up and can't replace it . . ." "We shut down. Permanently." Jack shivered again. "And it also powers your weapons." "Right." "So . . . each time you fire your built-in guns, you're using up your life force?" "Only small fractions of it, but yeah. It was never a big deal before, since we always had more than enough energon. We could simply top it off whenever we needed to. But now the only stockpile we have is dwindling, so . . . well, I guess that's another reason why I'm glad that Groom Lake built all those upscaled human weapons for us." "Me, too." Jack grinned. "Besides, seeing you dual-wielding those huge shotguns is hotter than hell." His grin looked a bit forced, but Arcee was grateful for his attempt to steer the conversation away from the dark turn it had taken. "Well, if you're lucky, you'll see plenty of it today." "Can't wait, honey." Suddenly, a panel in the side of the RV up ahead opened and something spilled out onto the pavement. "What--?" Arcee swerved into the oncoming lane to avoid the sludge. "Goddamn," Jack blurted. "They . . . they emptied their toilet tank! Right in front of us!" "Marvelous." Arcee sighed. "Welcome to Oregon, I guess." # "Huh," Jack said as he and Arcee cruised into the town. "There's a porn shop right down the street from a school. Wonder what that says about this place?" "Well, considering my admittedly limited experience with porn, I'd put it on the same level as an RV dumping its shit three car lengths in front of us." "Sounds about right." Jack took a slow look around as she eased into the left lane and stopped at the traffic light ahead. He shivered again and took his hands off her handlebars to rub his palms together until the light turned green. "I'm getting some bad vibes. Not just because Airachnid might be here. Just . . . something about this town. Can't put my finger on it, but this feels like a bad place." "Let's hope we don't have to stay here very long, then." Arcee accelerated enough to keep up with the traffic. After passing three more traffic lights and coming up on a fourth, she switched on her left-turn signal and waited for the light to turn green. "Maybe it's just that small-town sort of vibe. This place is a bit like Jasper, only with hills and valleys, trees, and cold, pissing rain." "Eh, I dunno. I never got that kind of vibe from Jasper." Jack looked around again. "Everybody's driving SUVs and huge trucks." His eyes narrowed. "Oh, boy. Check out the bumper sticker on that Chevy in front of us." Arcee scanned it. "Huh. 'My wife, yes. My dog, maybe. My gun--NEVER!' Guess I haven't learned enough about the natives to understand what that means." "It reminds me of several guys I went to school with. Their parents moved there from places like this. They drove trucks on lift kits with huge tires, just like half the trucks around us now. One of 'em even had that same bumper sticker." Jack shook his head as Arcee turned left and accelerated. "No wonder I'm getting some bad juju off this place." "Speaking of guys you went to school with," she said with a chuckle, "this should cheer you up. I'm still keeping up with current events in Jasper, and found out that one of Vince's buddies was recently caught tooting rails in one of the school restrooms." Jack burst out laughing. "Which one? Archie Robertson?" "Bingo." "Ha! I've been expecting that to happen. That warms the cockles of my heart." "Glad I could help." After traveling several blocks, Arcee made another left turn. Jack shook his head. "The streets here are short. Don't any of them go through the whole town?" "Nope. There's a few main streets that run through maybe two-thirds of the place, but sooner or later they either merge into another street or dead end. There's just not a whole lot here. Which is sad, considering this is the biggest town on the Oregon coast." "How much farther to the rendezvous point?" "From here, it's a right turn onto Southwest Boulevard, another right onto California Avenue, and then a long stretch of windy road leading into a whole lot of nothing." She put a GPS display on her console, showing the route she'd plotted. This town's layout wrapped around a huge patch of trees where the decapitated corpses had been found. "A forest. Just like old times, eh?" "That bitch does seem to like woodlands." "Any sign of her, by the way?" "I haven't detected her yet." Arcee displayed a set of blips representing Bumblebee and Bulkhead and their human colleagues. "Optimus is too big to fit in between those trees without tearing everything up, but he's patrolling the streets around the forest. Bee's the only one small enough to maneuver in there, though Bulk can sort of get around if he stays in vehicle mode. Ashanti's team is setting up camp so they'll look like just another investigative team doing a follow-up." "Okay." Jack rubbed his hands together again and flexed his fingers, trying to work some feeling back into them. "Hope they've got a pot of hot coffee ready when we get there." Arcee chuckled. Once they'd passed out of sight of the last house on California Avenue, she scanned for signs of other humans--specifically, cops waiting for speeders to pass by. After finding none, she increased her velocity. "Let's see if I can get you there before your nipples get any harder." # "Found anything yet?" Jack looked around again as he headed for the nearest tent, holding his arms against his sides and shivering. His mom, already wearing her black armor, held a mug of coffee out to him. "Ashanti's team has just started searching, but so far nothing's turned up. Well, except the blood stains from the bodies. The trees keep a lot of the rain from reaching the ground, so it didn't get washed away." "Thanks," Jack said, accepting the mug and taking a long sip. He noticed her worried expression and said, "Those will be the last trophies Airachnid ever takes. Arcee will make sure of that." "From what you've both told me about Airachnid, I hope you'll forgive me if I worry anyway." She shook her head slowly. "To think she nearly killed you and I had no idea what was going on--" "Take it easy, June." Arcee transformed into her robot mode. "Jack won't be getting near the action, just like all the other missions we've done with Ashanti's team." "What if the action comes to him? For all we know, Airachnid might already be watching us." "That's what the ground bridge is for." Arcee turned and met Jack's gaze. "You know the drill, babe. If Airachnid gets anywhere near you, you hit the panic button and Ratchet will fire up the bridge." "Right," he muttered, not meaning it and not really caring whether he sounded sincere. There was no way in hell he would bail out on Arcee. "I know that tone, young man." June planted her fists on her hips and leaned toward him. "They may be letting you provide tactical support, but I'm still your mother and you're still underage. If things get dicey, you run like hell. Understood?" "Sure." He glanced around, making a show of looking at the tents so he wouldn't have to look her in the eye, and took another sip of his coffee. "So, which one's the observation tent?" His mom sighed and pointed off to the left. "Your console and monitors have already been set up. You'll find your armor and EMP rifle in there, too." "Good. I should go put it on before I catch pneumonia. I'll be right back." He jogged over to the tent, stepped inside, and looked around. It was empty, but a heater had been left running near his console. His armor was resting on a long folding table beside his station. He peeled off his rain-soaked sweater and shirt, looked around, shrugged and piled them under the table. He stripped his equally waterlogged pants off and dropped them beside his shirts. Crap, the rain even soaked through to my underpants. He didn't have a fresh pair waiting for him, though, so he had to live with it. He squatted in front of the heater for a few minutes, trying to dry off his skin before putting the armor on. He glanced down at his legs and brushed his fingertips over the "seams" in his thighs, where his real legs ended and the prosthetic ones began. He'd had several months to get used to the artificial legs and the dulled sensations in them, and had reached the point where he forgot they weren't real most of the time. He could've used makeup appliances to hide the seams, but hadn't bothered. Arcee was the only person who ever saw that much of his body. Besides, he wanted to keep them visible to remind him of what could happen when he got too close to the action. The tent entrance parted and he looked over his shoulder and found Arcee poking her head inside. "Oh, sorry if I'm taking too long. I just needed to warm up." He stood and reached out for his armor. "I just figured I should take a peek before I head out. I see what you mean about your nipples, by the way." She wiggled her brow plates. "Rowr." He blushed but made a kissy face at her. She laughed, then turned serious. "I also wanted you to have this." She held her left hand out. In her palm was an assault rifle that, while rather large by human standards, looked like a toy in her hand. He walked over to her, picked it up, and raised his eyebrows. "This is loaded with live ammo. It's kind of against the rules for me to have this." "I don't care about that." Arcee pointed at the gun. "It's loaded with the new ammo that's proven effective against Decepticons. If Airachnid gets too close, get the hell out of here--but if she gets between you and the ground bridge, don't hesitate. Aim for her optics." He stared at her and his face turned pale. She gazed into his eyes. "I know you don't want to be a killer, but just this once, please make an exception. If Airachnid finds you, she'll probably toy with you for a while, then kill you when she gets bored. So don't hesitate, don't even think about it, just react." She pointed at the EMP rifle beside his armor. "If she finds you, emp the shit out of her. Zap her several times, just to be sure. Then you finish her off with the hard ammo. Got it?" He nodded slowly. "Yeah. Yeah, I can do that." He managed to chuckle. "Hell, I tried to blow her up the last time we met, so . . . yeah. I can handle this." "Good." Arcee let the tension drain from her body. "Well, I should join the search." "Right. I'll gear up and watch your back from here." He placed the rifle on the table and reached out to her. She leaned closer and touched her forehead to his. He put his hands on her cheeks. "I love you." "I love you." She kissed him, letting him hold his mouth against hers for a long moment before pulling back. "Good hunting." He caressed her cheek, smiled, and turned to pick up his armor. # The plan was simple--find Airachnid, knock her out with EMPs, and then Arcee would do what needed to be done. Jack held in a sigh. There was no way in hell it'd be that easy. Minutes passed, then an hour, with nothing happening. Jack chugged the last of his coffee and tapped his gloved fingers on the side of the mug, watching the feeds from Arcee's and Bee's optics and the squad's helmet cams, and listening to their chatter. Occasionally, his mom radioed him from the med-team's tent, and every now and then Bulkhead grumbled about not being able to fit into the areas that Arcee could squeeze through. To pass the time, the airmen guarding each tent had started up a game of "Would you Rather…?" "Okay," one of the guards outside the entrance to Jack's tent said, "would you rather have quarters shoot out of your nose every time you sneeze, or have soft cheese pour out of your ears every hour on the hour?" After a long pause, the other airman said, "What the fuck is wrong with you?" "Hold on--I heard something out there. Off to the right." Uh-oh. Jack checked his monitors and found nothing but trees. A sudden crackling-snapping sound erupted outside and the airman cried out. The sound came again, and the other airman screamed and hit the ground with a thud. It happened twice more, father away, and then Jack's mom shouted, "What the hell?" That sound again--and his mom let out a truncated scream. Jack's heart pounded. "Mom?" He grabbed his helmet, jammed it on and secured it. "Mom, are you okay?" "Jack?" Arcee said, and the motion on her monitor froze as she stopped in her tracks. "What's going on? Is Airachnid there?" He checked the cameras around the camp. "I don't see her on any of my screens." The tent's flap whipped aside and Jack spun toward the motion. In the entrance stood a man with an odd, high-tech rifle and an all too familiar armored uniform. "MECH!" Jack lunged for the rifle beside his console. Something that looked like a lightning bolt spat from the man's gun and drilled Jack in the chest. He screamed. As he fell, Arcee's voice came from the console, so loud that it made the speakers crackle. "Jack? Oh, no, Jack!" Thudding, crunching sounds--her feet pounding the ground as she burst into a sprint. "Jack!" CHAPTER THREE What the hell? How am I still alive? Jack almost sat up, but forced himself to remain where he'd fallen as the MECH soldier entered the tent and stomped up to him. The armor, he realized. It could survive several hits from the average Cybertronian blaster, so whatever MECH had wouldn't be enough to punch through. "Well, shit," the MECH guy grumbled, squatting beside Jack and reaching out to roll him over. Jack punched him in the face. The armor's servos boosted his strength, the impact cracked the man's faceplate and knocked him stupid. Panicking, desperate to get away before the guy could recover, Jack put his hand on the back of the man's neck and yanked him forward, slamming his head into the edge of the console. The sharp, sickening crunch that followed snapped him out of it. He scooted away, eyes wide in horror at the sight of the body slumping to the floor, his neck broken. "Oh . . . Jesus . . . Christ!" Jack tried to look away, but couldn't move. His heart pounded and for a few seconds he feared he might vomit inside his helmet. "Jack!" Arcee shouted, her thumping footsteps coming closer, the ground shaking under the impacts. "Ar . . . Arcee . . . " Jack tore his gaze away from the body and crawled toward the entrance. More of those crackling sounds followed, and Arcee screamed. No! Jack burst from the tent just as she fell to her knees. The impact made the ground lurch and everyone nearby staggered. The augmented-reality software in Jack's helmet identified Ashanti's team, labeling each of them in his HUD, and flagged the nine MECH soldiers as enemy combatants. Several of them turned their weapons on Ashanti's team and the rest kept their aim on Arcee, preparing to zap her again. Jack charged the nearest one and tackled him from behind, and the beam from his rifle arced into a nearby tree and set it ablaze. The man regained his balance, twisted, and suddenly Jack found himself flat on his back with the rifle pointed at his head. "No!" Arcee screamed. The man spun toward her, taking his aim off Jack and trying to draw a bead on Arcee as she pushed herself back to her feet. The air behind him rippled, looking almost like heat waves--and suddenly, a small electric arc appeared at the side of his neck, in the gap between his helmet and his chest armor. He convulsed, let out a strangled scream, and collapsed. The remaining eight turned toward him, stared for a second, and scattered. The nearest one fired, missing Jack by mere inches. Jack rolled to the side and came up in a crouch, hoping he'd be able to dodge in the right direction the next time the guy fired. "No, you don't!" Arcee bellowed, cocking her right foot back. The guy looked over his shoulder just in time to see her foot rocketing toward him. "Fu--" Arcee punted him into a tree on Jack's right. His curse was cut off by the multiple snaps of her kick breaking half the bones in his body, followed immediately by the cracks of the rest shattering on impact with the tree. Bumblebee exploded from the forest, uprooting several trees, and tried to cover the MECH troops, but Ashanti's team had already engaged them hand to hand, and he couldn't get a clear shot. Jack averted his eyes from the pile of meat and blood that Arcee had turned the MECH guy into, and took a step toward her. She shook her head and pointed at the tent behind him. He hesitated, and she said, "Jack, we need you to be our eyes and ears! Several of our support personnel are missing--we need your help to find them." He took a breath, nodded, and returned to the tent. He froze at the sight of the body he'd left in front of the console. Shuddering, he dragged it out of his way, sat at the controls, and looked at the monitors. On Ashanti's screen, he caught a first-person view of her jamming a twelve-millimeter handgun into her opponent's throat and pulling the trigger. She moved on to her next target and her helmet camera panned away from the body before it hit the ground. The feed from Arcee's optics caught another of the MECH people sneaking up behind Jensen. Arcee lunged, clamped her fingers onto the sides of his helmet, and snarled, "Drop your weapons and surrender, or I'll pinch your head off like a zit." Jensen spun around and covered him. "And in case you think I'm bluffing," she said, "remember what I did to several of you guys the first time you clashed with us. Hell, look what I did to your buddy over there." She nodded at the guy she'd kicked into the tree. The man hesitated another second, grumbled, and dropped his rifle. Jensen forced him to his knees and continued covering him. Jack let out a relieved sigh and checked the rest of his monitors. He caught glimpses of Ashanti and her team taking down MECH agents while gunshots, bone crunches, and screams erupted from the speakers. Then, suddenly, silence. "Clear," Ashanti muttered. "Clear," her team repeated, one by one, confirming that all enemy combatants had been accounted for. Jack sighed and aimed the stationary cameras at the medical tent. "Come on, come on . . . " He found two airmen sprawled on the ground, but no other bodies. At least that means Mom isn't-- He didn't let himself finish the thought. He scanned the area surrounding the tent, widening his search over the next few minutes, and found nothing. He shook his head, rushed out of the tent, and ran over to Arcee. She gave him a quick, relieved smile before turning to scan their surroundings. "Hey, Jack." Miko's voice, coming from behind him. "Yaaahh!" He spun around and the air in front of him rippled. Miko appeared a few feet away, in her pink armor. Jack sagged, bracing his hands on his knees. "Stop that!" "That's gratitude for you." She took off her helmet, tucked it under her left arm, and held up her right hand. In her palm was a pocket-size stun-gun. "Oh. You zapped that guy." She nodded. "The one who was about to blow your head off. You're welcome." "Right. Thanks. Sorry." He straightened up and waved a hand at her armor. "Nice stealth feature." "I'm liking it. It gets me where I wanna go." Miko clipped the stun-gun to her utility belt and looked around. "Everybody okay?" "Ashanti's team is fine," Arcee said, "but our support unit--" "The med team's gone," Ashanti snarled, shoving one of the MECH agents toward the rest of the captives. "The security guards are all dead." Jack stared at her, suddenly unable to breathe. "My mom . . . " "The whole medical team is gone. No bodies, no trace of 'em. So they've been captured." Ashanti shook her head. "We're not getting a signal from any of their GPS locators." Before Jack could say anything, his comlink beeped. At the same time, Arcee and Bumblebee looked up abruptly. "We're receiving a transmission," she said. "Me, too." Frowning, Jack accepted the incoming call. "Hello?" "Well, hello, Jack," a man's voice said. It was familiar, but he couldn't quite place it. "Silas," Optimus said from wherever he was outside the forest. "Ah, you remember me." "Yes. You are the man who wanted Agent Fowler's 'Dingus'." Jensen snickered, but cut it off quickly. "What do you want, Silas?" Jack snapped. "We have your mother and Colonel McKenna's medical team. We will send you coordinates for an exchange, and you will bring Arcee--and only Arcee--to those coordinates. If anyone else shows up, the prisoners die, beginning with your mother." "You're bluffing," Arcee said. "If you kill them, you lose your bargaining chip." "Look at my men." Jack flicked a confused glance at Arcee and turned to face the MECH agents, who were on their knees with their hands on their heads. He heard a series of faint, muffled snaps--and the men twitched and grunted. They collapsed and blood gushed from their ears and noses. "Shit," Jack blurted. "Do not question my resolve again," Silas said. "You killed your own people?" Arcee stared at the bodies and shook her head slowly. "A few human lives are not a great loss compared to what we could gain from this exchange." "Bloody hell," Jensen muttered. "He's full-throttle insane." "No shit," Ashanti said under her breath. Arcee frowned suddenly and looked around. She tilted her head toward the sky, hidden by the trees. Jack heard it a few seconds later--the sound of a helicopter engine starting up in the distance. He strained his ears, but couldn't tell which direction it came from. A few seconds later, it passed high overhead. He looked up and managed to catch fleeting glimpses of something black and purple through the tree branches. The helicopter's engine faded into the distance. Silas spoke again. "Remember, you and Arcee only. If we see anyone else approaching, the prisoners die. If you try to call for reinforcements, the prisoners die. If--" "Alright, alright! We get it." Jack gnashed his teeth. "Where do you want us to go?" "Just start driving. Once we're certain you're alone, I'll send you the coordinates." Silas broke the connection. Arcee kneeled beside Jack. "I--" "I know what you're about to say. You want me to stay behind." Jack took off his helmet, shook his head, and looked into her optics. "He wants us both. Besides, he's got my mother. I'm not letting that slide." "Jack . . . " She hesitated, glanced at the others, and finally reached out to touch his cheek. "Did you get a look at that helicopter?" "Not really. Just a flash of color here and there." He held her gaze. "Airachnid's colors. For some reason, she's working with MECH. That's why Silas wants us; we must be part of whatever deal she made with him." "You do know what'll happen if she gets her hands on you, right?" "We'll just have to make sure that doesn't happen." He stepped closer to her and motioned for her to lean toward him. When she did, he kissed her, then he stepped back and put his helmet back on. "I love you. Now, let's go." # Arcee headed back into town, retracing the route she'd taken upon arrival. The rain came down harder than ever, the wind whipping it sideways into Jack's faceplate, and the air around them was even colder than when they'd come out of the ground bridge. Fortunately, Jack had left his armor and helmet on, instead of changing back into his civilian clothes. At this point, he no longer cared about keeping a low profile. Arcee hadn't needed to ponder it for more than a split-second; she had arrived at the same conclusion before she'd even shifted back into her alt-mode. It didn't matter how many people stared at him and his armor and the assault rifle and EMP gun on his back, and her own huge guns clamped on wherever she'd found room for them. She and Jack were about to face not only Airachnid, but MECH as well, so screw it all, he would need the extra protection when the shit hit the fan. Once they reached Highway 101, she turned north and kept pace with the traffic, and waited for Silas to contact them again. Before they'd left, Optimus and Ashanti's team had agreed--reluctantly--to monitor the situation as best they could from a distance, and to maintain comlink silence in case MECH had figured out a way to listen in. Once the hostages had been freed, Arcee would signal the others and Ratchet would bridge them in to neutralize both MECH and Airachnid. Yeah. Like it'll be that easy. Arcee kept it to herself, even though she was sure the same thought had already crossed Jack's mind. They continued on in silence for nearly twenty minutes before Arcee couldn't let it stretch out any longer. "You sure you're ready for this?" "You mean, I might have to use this gun on some of the MECH troops as well as Airachnid, so will I be able to handle taking someone's life?" He thought it over for a few seconds. "I'd really prefer not to go down that road, but if any of them hurt you or my mom, then I'll do what I have to do." "I'm sorry, Jack. I know you didn't want to become a killer, and I didn't want to put you in that position." "You didn't. Airachnid and MECH are the ones responsible for all this. Besides, I've already killed one of them--accidentally, but still. I hope taking lives doesn't get any easier, but like I said, if they hurt either of you, I'll do what needs to be done, and I'll find some way to live with myself afterward." "I meant, it's my fault for coming back for you when we first met. You wanted things to go back to normal, but you'd already started to fill a hole that had just been punched through my life, and I couldn't give that up." "I'm okay with that." He placed his right hand on her side. "If you hadn't come back for me, I wouldn't have found my soulmate. I probably would've spent my entire time in high school trying to get into Sierra's pants, and if by some miracle I actually succeeded, I'm sure I would've regretted it." Arcee was glad she couldn't wince while in her vehicle mode. Once she'd realized she was in love with him, she suddenly understood the hair-trigger bursts of anger she'd felt whenever she'd seen Sierra chatting Jack up. Thinking about it still irritated her. "From what little I've seen of her, yeah, I can't see that working out." "Right. She was popular, but that only means most of the popular guys have probably already banged her. So when I said I would've regretted it, I was talking about the, 'Ow, hey, it burns when I piss!' kind of regret, in addition to the more obvious kind." Arcee burst out laughing. "I hadn't even thought of that. And even if she doesn't already have the clap, I can't see you getting along with someone who hangs out with that dick biscuit Vince and his buddies." "Yeah, the fact that one of her friends was recently caught Hoovering coke into his nostrils shows what kind of a judge of character she is." Arcee snickered. "You have nothing to be sorry about. Without you, my life would've been completely empty." Jack smiled and patted her gas tank. "I wouldn't give this up for anything. Whatever happens today, I want you to understand that." "I. . .thank you, Jack. It's not gonna stop me from worrying myself sick, but it helps to hear you say that." "I worry just as much about you." He patted her again, returned his hand to her handlebar, and took a deep breath. Before he could say anything else, his comlink alerted him to an incoming transmission. "Oh, boy. Here we go." Jack opened the channel. "Yeah?" "I see you've followed my instructions," Silas replied. "We did. Everyone else agreed to stay out of it." Jack glared at the road ahead. "Where do you want us to go?" "I'm texting you the coordinates. Be there in an hour, or there won't be anyone left for you to save." Silas disconnected. "Did you get the coordinates?" Arcee said softly. "Yeah, they're in my HUD." Jack read them off and Arcee plotted a course. "Got it. Damn, that's a considerable distance from here, and in the opposite direction from the way we've been traveling. We'll have to move fast to get there in time." "Okay." Jack leaned forward and tightened his grip on her handlebars. "I'm ready." Arcee accelerated toward whatever waited for them. # What . . . can't . . . can't move . . . June opened her eyes slowly upon darkness. As they adjusted, she began to make out blurry shapes. She blinked and shook her head, and her eyes focused gradually. She was in what appeared to be a hangar or warehouse. On the wall, she realized suddenly. Near the ceiling. She looked around, but could barely see anything. She looked down to find whatever was keeping her immobilized. She was wrapped in a web-like substance that seemed to be metallic and organic at the same time. A lot of it. A cocoon that covered everything below her neck. There was only one probable explanation for it. Her heart pounded. Okay, okay . . . try to stay calm. At least I'm still in my armor. But my helmet's gone. She tried to hold in a gasp. I hadn't even put it on yet. It's still in the medical tent back in the forest. She became aware of breathing on either side of her. A glance to the left showed her the rest of the medical team; to the right was a guy she'd never seen before, with glasses and long, prematurely thinning hair. All of them were encased in cocoons. Past the unidentified man, June spotted a half-dozen more cocoons--empty ones. Her pulse jumped again, and she took a few deep breaths. Footsteps in the distance. She faced forward. The only source of light came from a set of large monitors at the far end of the cavernous room. Under them was a bank of control panels and one office chair. A man in some sort of green armored uniform walked over to the chair and sat. After hunching forward to take a look at one of the smaller monitors, he leaned back and said, "They're right on time." Loud, echoing clicks followed, from the darkness outside the pool of light cast by the monitors. June held her breath, not daring to make the slightest sound. A spidery shape faded in from the left, dwarfing the man at the console, and June clamped her mouth shut to stop a sudden scream. The largest monitor switched to an image of Jack riding Arcee past what appeared to be a set of warehouses. "Mmm," Airachnid practically purred, and reached out to brush her razor-sharp fingertips over Jack's image. "Yes, there he is. My Jack. We have some unfinished business." A cold surge rushed through June, as if all the heat in the building had been sucked out in one second. On the screen, Jack and Arcee were surrounded by two dozen people in armor similar to the one at the console. All of them pointed rifles at the two new arrivals, and Arcee screeched to a halt. Audio pickups--probably from one of the men--fed one of their voices through speakers on the console. "Get off the bike and raise your hands." Jack hesitated, sighed, and dismounted. June shook her head frantically, but tried to reassure herself--at least Jack still had his armor on. That would give him a chance to reach cover if they started shooting. "Jack," Arcee said, her voice so low that the mics almost didn't pick it up, "if I tell you to run, you run. Without hesitation. Got it?" "But--" He cut himself off and sighed. "Yeah. Got it." "Raise your hands!" the MECH guy snapped. The electromagnetic clamps on Arcee's shotguns, pistols, and knife disengaged. She transformed before they could hit the pavement and snatched the shotguns out of the air. She glared down at the men and said, "Show us where the hostages are and everything will be okay." The instant the words left her mouth, all the soldiers opened fire at the same time, hitting Arcee with something that looked like lightning bolts snapping from the end of each rifle. She screamed, convulsed, and collapsed. "Arcee!" Jack took a step forward, but stopped when she tried to push herself up. "R--" Her face contorted and she shook her head. "Run!" Half of the MECH people turned their guns on Jack. "No!" Arcee swung the shotgun in her left hand around, slamming it into them with the force of a speeding train and sending them tumbling across the pavement. On another monitor below the main one, a set of lines representing heartbeats and EEG readouts flatlined. Jack backed away and hesitated again. The surviving men zapped Arcee a second time. She screamed, went limp, and twitched for several seconds--but then she tried to lift her other shotgun. "Jack . . . go! Run!" They fired another burst into her, and finally she fell and didn't move again. June gasped. "No . . . " Run, Jack! Goddamn it, run! He finally snapped out of it, turned, and bolted out of the camera's range. Airachnid laughed and turned away from the monitors. "Remember our deal," the man in the chair said. "Of course. You can have Arcee once I'm done with her. But first, it looks like my dear Jack wants to play a little hide and seek." She skittered on her spider legs back into the darkness. "I'll make sure Arcee doesn't go anywhere until I'm ready to deal with her." The man took a radio from one of his front pockets. "Once the robot has been brought in and immobilized, stand guard. Leave the boy to our . . . guest." June struggled frantically, but couldn't budge even a fraction of an inch. She shook with fear and rage, and tears streamed down her cheeks. Jack! Airachnid's voice took on a singsong quality as her clinking footsteps faded into the distance. "Oh, Jack, I'm coming for you!" CHAPTER FOUR "Try to relax," Arcee had said moments before arriving at the set of fifteen warehouses and the huge gravel lot surrounding them. "Once they have me, they'll let your mom and the team go." "No, they won't." There was a time when he might've believed it, not that long ago, but not now, not after the things he'd witnessed. "When Silas realized he couldn't steal the DNGS, he tried to destroy it; he won't leave any loose ends this time, either." A few seconds had passed before she spoke again. "You're right. Sorry. I didn't mean to sound patronizing." "Don't worry about it. You were just trying to make me feel better. But you're part of my family, too, and I couldn't bear to lose you any more than I could handle losing my mom." "You won't lose either of us. I won't let it happen." "Got a plan, then?" "Not . . . as such. But I'll figure something out." And moments after arriving, she was unconscious and he was running from the same MECH bastards who'd stunned her. Airachnid would soon be pursuing him if she wasn't already, and with every step he took, the crunch of his boots on the gravel gave away his position. He stopped behind one of the warehouses and scanned it with his helmet cameras. His armor's software detected no heat signatures, so the building was empty. Unless MECH had developed armor that could mask its wearers' body heat. Screw it. I've got to get off the gravel and under some sort of cover or I'm dead. He ran to the door, opened it and threw himself inside. He gave the interior a quick sweep as he closed the door gently behind him, and let out a slow sigh when he saw that the lights had been left off. He switched his cameras to light-amp mode so he could avoid tripping over something and alerting his pursuers. He crept across the floor, thankful that his black armor blended in with the darkness. He reached up, pulled the assault rifle from his back, and held it in his shaking hands. Christ. I shouldn't even be in this situation. I've got no business even carrying one of these things--and here I am, getting ready to kill people with it. If I can even bring myself to use it. He took a deep breath, let it out slowly. Well, I have to. And I will. For Mom, and for Arcee, I'll do what needs to be done. The sound of crunching gravel reached him, starting faint and growing louder--closer. He looked around; the cavernous room contained large stacks of pallets and crates. He darted between them, heading for the center, well away from the windows, and then toward the back, hoping his own footsteps weren't loud enough to be heard outside. He crouched behind a stack of pallets in the corner, and switched out of light-amp mode to avoid being blinded if the enemy troops entered the warehouse. He aimed the rifle at the door and tried not to contemplate what he was about to do. Shit. I've got to be out of my mind. # Scraping sounds echoed through the interior, making June's heart lurch. She looked to the left, and a few seconds later Airachnid appeared, now in her bipedal mode, dragging Arcee into the pool of light cast by the monitors and control panels. June gasped. No . . . Arcee was encased in webbing--an entire cocoon of it, just like June and the med team and the still-unconscious man stuck to the wall beside her. Only her head was visible. Her eyes were closed. June's heart pounded and she struggled to keep her breathing steady. The man at the console raised an eyebrow. "You couldn't wrap her up even more thoroughly?" "The last time I captured Arcee, I used just enough webbing to pin her to a hillside. I won't make that mistake again." Airachnid left Arcee in the middle of the floor and turned away. "Don't worry, Silas, I'll unwrap her for you soon enough. But first--" "Yes, 'your' Jack." Silas pointed at one of the screens. "One of the cameras caught him slipping into Building G. I'll have my men keep him pinned down until you get there." "Oh, that wouldn't be any fun at all. Tell your men to leave him. I'd like to give him one more chance to make things interesting before I finish him off." Silas stared at her for a moment and sighed--though it seemed more out of annoyance than concern for a human child. He leaned over the console and said, "Break off. Our guest wants to play with her new toy for a while." "Understood, sir. We're standing down." "Much appreciated." Chuckling, Airachnid shifted into her semi-spider mode and skittered away. Bitch! June resumed her struggling against the cocoon. You so much as bruise him and I'll . . . I'll . . . She sobbed. Oh, who am I kidding? What the hell could I possibly do against that fucking monstrosity? Silas waited until Airachnid was well on her way, then he touched a control and a half-dozen flood lights on the ceiling came on, illuminating Arcee's body and the webbing covering it. He touched another control. "Enter." Another door opened and a small team of people in MECH uniforms appeared, pushing carts loaded with an assortment of power tools--including saws, torches, and other cutting devices. "Wait until the guards return," Silas said. "Then remove that webbing and cut the robot open." # What the hell? Jack frowned at the sound of crunching footsteps receding. They'd been almost on top of him. Why had they suddenly left? Oh, shit, Airachnid's coming! He didn't know her as well as Arcee did, but his last encounter with the spider-bitch had taught him enough. Whatever deal she'd made with Silas, it had to be motivated by revenge--and she probably intended to take her sweet time with him. He holstered the assault rifle and drew the EMP gun, and took deep breaths, trying to keep his pulse from racing out of control. He snarled, trying to psych himself up for the inevitable appearance of the only 'Con so terrifying that she'd given him nightmares for weeks after that night in the forest. Come on, you bitch. Bring it. Even if you kill me, I'll make it hurt! He risked a glance out one of the windows on the left. The MECH troops jogged past, heading back to the spot where they'd taken Arcee down. The gravel crunches faded away, leaving him in silence for nearly a full minute. Suddenly, the shriek of metal tearing overwhelmed him--it seemed to come from every direction at once--and he screamed and snapped his head back and forth, panicking, trying to see what the hell was going on. Light washed over him and rain splattered the top of his helmet. He looked up--and there was Airachnid, peeling the roof off the building and flinging it over her shoulder. "Jack! How nice to see you again!" Grinning, she shoved her right hand toward him. He stumbled backward and bumped into a crate. Before he could figure out which direction to run, Airachnid swatted the pallets in front of him aside and pinned him to the crate with her palm. The impact jolted the EMP gun from his hands. His heart slammed against his ribs and his lungs seized up. "Well, that was disappointing. After our last encounter, I was hoping you'd keep me entertained for a while." He forced himself to breathe and glared up at her, refusing to give her the satisfaction of seeing him flinch. But if this really was the end. . . I love you, Arcee. If only I could say goodbye. "Still . . ." Airachnid leaned closer to him. "There's something I'm curious about." She smirked. "I've had my eye on you two ever since you discovered my new hunting grounds. I recently came into possession of a few floater cameras; similar to your UAVs, but much smaller. Small enough not to be noticed by you or your new friends." She traced a razor-sharp fingertip down the side of his helmet, leaned even closer, closed her eyes, and said in a mocking tone, "I love you. Now, let's go." The breath caught in his throat again. That had been the last thing he'd said to Arcee before they headed out of town and waited for Silas to contact them. What else had Airachnid seen? "What sorts of kinky things has Arcee been up to?" Airachnid chuckled, purred, and looked him over carefully. "I just might like a sample of it. Take off your armor." "What?" "Take off your armor, or I'll go straight back to the prisoners and pull your mother's head off like you'd pick a grape." What--Jesus! He held his hands up. "Alright, alright! Just . . . don't hurt her!" He fumbled with the latches on his helmet, finally unlocked them, and lifted it off. Airachnid smiled and stroked his cheek. Then, before his brain could process what was happening, she thrust her head toward him and pressed her mouth against his. What the fuck? He tried to push away from her, but the crate behind him prevented him from budging. "Mmm," Airachnid purred as she pulled back and looked him over again. "You're not the first guy I've kissed, but you're definitely the most intriguing. Possibly because of your connection with Arcee. I might just have to keep you around. . .as a pet." His jaw dropped. That's fucked-up, even for you. "Who knows," she continued, "I may be able to give you something Arcee can't. I've heard comm chatter about a colony of Pretenders here. I never had a need for that sort of technology before, but once I get my hands on one of them, I'll be able to have all kinds of fun with you. And it would drive Arcee insane." Jack's stomach churned. Kiss me again and I might puke right down your throat. Airachnid tapped his chest plate. "Well, hurry up, get out of that armor. I want to see what could've given Arcee such an extreme case of meat fever." Keep it together. Wait for your chance. He held his free hand up and glanced at her finger. "Uh, okay, but I don't think I can take this off with you pinning me down like this." "Of course. I'm not unreasonable." She pulled her hand back, but kept it close enough to grab him if he tried to run. Okay. Here goes nothing. Moving slowly, he leaned over to place his helmet on the floor--in a spot a few inches away from his EMP rifle. He grabbed it, threw himself to the right, rolled, and fired blindly. Airachnid grunted and slumped over, sprawling across the pallets and crates. Her spider legs twitched as her systems tried to recover. "Whah duh fuh?" she mumbled. Jack stumbled and fell. He sat up, raised the gun and emped her again, and this time she flopped over and stayed limp. He let the gun recharge and zapped her again, just to be sure. Then sheer panic took over, and he grabbed his helmet and ran for the door. # "Pitiful." Silas sneered and shook his head at the image on the main screen. He'd just watched Jack take down an alien robot the size of a building with minimal effort--and June had seen the whole thing from her cocoon high on the wall. She let out a sigh of relief. Way to go, Jack! She hadn't entirely believed it until now, but he really could take care of himself. But what the hell was with Airachnid kissing him? From what he and Arcee had already told June about Airachnid, the rogue Decepticon seemed to have some sort of twisted infatuation with him, but none of them had guessed it went that far. A soft grunt from the right caught her attention. She turned her head and found the civilian beginning to wake up. He winced, shook his head, forced his eyes open, and looked around slowly. He sighed and stared straight ahead in a sort of resigned, detached manner. "Hey," June whispered, and the guy twitched and jerked his head toward her. "Oh," he said hoarsely, and glanced at the rest of her team. "They brought her a new batch, eh?" Now that he was looking straight at her, she could see that the right side of his face was covered with dried blood and three of his upper front teeth had been knocked out. "Guess so. How long have you been here?" "Dunno. Days, feels like. I headed up into the woods to take some pictures--I'm an amateur photographer, just trying to find some scenery that I haven't already shot several hundred times. And look where it got me. Wasn't in the forest five minutes before a couple guys came running through the trees, with this huge spider-robot thing chasing them." "Yeah, I know her. Well, my son ran into her a couple times." June nodded at the screen. "You just missed him knocking her ass out." "Really?" He looked at the screen and laughed. "Good for him." He looked down and raised an eyebrow. "Huh. Another one." "She's with us, actually." "Ah. Explains why she's all tied up." He looked back at the screens just as Airachnid rebooted and pushed herself up to her hands and knees. "Hope the kid keeps running. That bitch is fucked up." "Yeah, I know." "I mean, seriously fucked in the head. She caught one of the guys I mentioned a minute ago--speared him through the chest with one of those spider legs, right in front of me. Horrifying enough, but the thing that really made me shit myself--she kissed him before he died. I mean, while he was dying." "What?" June shuddered. "Yeah. I don't know, must be some sort of disturbing sexual thing--if a giant robot can even have something like that. Or, hell, for all I know, she believes she's capturing her victims' last breath or absorbing their souls or some stupid shit like that." Shut up. Shut up! June shivered and tried not to think about the kiss she'd just witnessed. Jack had probably been a split-second away from being butchered right in front of her. Down on the floor, Silas looked up at them, and a cold sensation rushed through her guts. Silas returned his attention to Arcee without changing his expression. And then, before she realized what was happening, she burst into tears. "Hey," the guy said, "sorry if I upset you. Been here so long without eating or drinking anything, I guess I'm starting to lose it. Or maybe it's from being pistol-whipped by one of those chucklefucks down there. And since I was never in very good shape to begin with, the spider-bot caught up with me before I even made it back to my car. Dumped me in here with a few others." He glanced to the right and saw the empty cocoons. "Oh. Guess I'm next, then. Dunno why she didn't just get it over with in the forest, though." "From what I've heard, she gets off on hunting people." June sniffed and drew in a deep breath. "Likes to play with them first." "Oh, lovely." He shook his head. "Yeah, major mental case. Must have some severely bad programming, or something." "Yeah," June muttered, keeping her eyes on Arcee. Come on, wake up! Wake up and keep my son alive! The door opened and the troops filed in. Silas pointed at Arcee. "You keep your weapons on her at all times." He turned to the men who'd been waiting and said, "You start cutting through the webbing. Once it's removed, open the chest and go straight for the heart." # Got to get back to Arcee. That had been the only thought in Jack's mind since he'd escaped from Airachnid--mainly because, if he let anything else cross his mind, his thoughts might drift back to the gut-churning seconds before he emped her and ran like hell. The problem was, Airachnid was between him and Arcee, so the only direction he could go was farther away from her. Got to find a way to circle around. Or something. He darted into another warehouse, eased the door shut, and took a look around. This one was packed with Humvees, other vehicles, shelves and workbenches packed with tools and spare parts. Why didn't I shoot the bitch? He sighed and darted past the Hummers. If he'd taken just a second to pull out his assault rifle and drill Airachnid through the eye socket, he could've ended it right then. The bullets would've punched through her optics and ripped her CPU--or whatever the hell was in there--into tiny pieces. But no, he'd panicked and run instead, and now she was still chasing him. She could kill him, his mother, and the love of his life--all because he couldn't pull the trigger. Don't think about it. Just don't. He crouched as he slipped between the vehicles, awaiting the sound of those spiky spider legs stabbing into the gravel outside, hoping he'd even be able to hear it over the roar of rain slamming into the metal roof. The drizzle of a few minutes ago had turned into a downpour, the rain coming down so thick and hard, it was like the sky was vomiting on him. If we live through this, I want to get back to someplace hot and sunny as soon as possible. Poor Arcee might start to rust if we're stuck here much longer. His helmet cams caught something on the floor off to the right, and a block of text popped up at the edge of his HUD. He stopped, turned, and stared. Duffel bags packed with C-4. Hot damn. He had no idea why they'd been left there--maybe one of the MECH pricks was about to load it into a Humvee but got distracted by something--but he didn't care. It would be a hell of a lot better than using a small stream of energon and a burning stick, like last time. Oh, yeah. If you've done anything to Mom or Arcee, I'm gonna blow your ass to hell. He grabbed the two bags, slung them over his left shoulder, and crept up to the rear door. He strained his ears, but heard only the cold, pissing rain. He took a slow breath, let it out, and opened the door. If we live through this, I should see about getting Miko's stealth gear added to my armor. He looked around and almost groaned. He'd emerged from the last warehouse in the row. Ahead of him was several yards of gravel lot and a small lake beyond it. Come on, think, damn it! For a moment, he considered using a C-4 charge to blow up this warehouse and move around with a little more freedom while everyone's attention was on the fireworks. But then, that'd bring Airachnid and an assload of Silas's troops running straight at him. Besides, I'd probably just blow myself up because I don't know what the hell I'm doing. He sighed and headed for the lake, skidding down the slope toward the water until he was out of sight. Then he made his way across to the next row of buildings. Maybe there'd at least be something useful in one of them, and if he could work his way around to the front of the lot and find Arcee . . . He poked his head up over the edge long enough to catch a glimpse of Airachnid--looking considerably less amused now--skittering from one warehouse to the next, peeking into the windows. He ducked back out of sight. She'd catch up to him in only a few seconds. He looked around again for something--anything--he could use against her. The only thing in sight was a pile of rubble beside the nearest building. Chunks of concrete, some cinder blocks, a few scraps of metal. Maybe part of a parking lot or a building that had been demolished. He turned and looked out at the lake. Turned back to the rubble and found a sufficiently large chunk of concrete. Oh. Lightbulb. He crawled over to the pile--carefully, slowly, hoping with everything in him that Airachnid couldn't pick up the sounds of his hands and feet on the gravel over the sounds of the rain and her own multiple footsteps. He reached the pile and picked up a concrete slab, thankful that the servos in his armor gave him enough strength to lift it. He spun and flung it out over the lake, and dived for cover around the warehouse's corner. Then he held his breath and waited as the chunk of rubble plunged into the lake. Airachnid scampered into view, stopping at the edge of the lake and cocking her head. "Oh, going for a swim, are we?" She chuckled. Jack let himself relax ever so slightly. Go on. Go for it, you bitch. Yeah, I'm swimming away--go find me! He held absolutely still, not making the slightest sound. Just a few more seconds and-- She pivoted suddenly and stared straight at him. His heart nearly launched through his ribs and a cold fist clenched around his guts. Airachnid grinned, baring her long, sharp, metal fangs. He screamed, turned, and ran--but her hand clamped onto his right ankle, yanking him off his feet and slamming him face-first into the gravel. He flailed, panic overtaking him again--but he froze when her voice came from a point inches away from the back of his head. "Nice try." CHAPTER FIVE June let out a scream that made everyone almost jump out of their skins--everyone except Silas. He glanced calmly up at her, looked over his shoulder at the monitors in time to catch a glimpse of Airachnid clamping a hand around Jack's torso and carrying him out of the camera's range. Silas returned his attention to the still unconscious, still cocooned Arcee with a smirk and waited for his men to finish cutting through the webbing that kept her immobile. June stared at the screen and wept. "Shit," the man to her right said softly. "I'm sorry." "Yeah, June," Dr. Madsen, on her left, said. He and the rest of the medical team had regained consciousness in time to watch Airachnid overpower her son and drag him out of sight. "I'm so sorry." All she could do was continue crying. Finally, once she was able to catch her breath long enough to force a few words out, she shrieked, "Silas, you murdering son of a bitch!" She burst into tears again before she could continue. He flicked his eyes up toward her, but didn't move otherwise. "Finally," one of his men muttered, turning off his blowtorch and standing up. "We've cut through the last of it." "Good." Silas remained motionless, simply watching as four other men pried the webbing away from Arcee. When they'd pulled the last of it off, he nodded at her chest. "Open her up." A fresh burst of sobs wracked June until she could barely breathe. A movement on the screen caught her attention. The air seemed to ripple near the spot where Airachnid had grabbed Jack. The two duffel bags he'd dropped levitated and flitted to the left, vanishing behind one of the warehouses. What the hell? After a few confused seconds, it sank in. Stealth armor. Miko! How did she follow--oh, who cares? Jack still has a chance! She had no idea what sort of insane stunt the girl might pull, but it could be Jack's only chance at survival. One of Silas's men approached Arcee with a saw designed to cut metal, and June's heart lurched again. Wake up, Arcee! Oh, please, wake up! The saw started up, filling the warehouse with a horrible, echoing, mechanical scream. June sobbed and squeezed her eyes shut. She couldn't bear to watch what was about to happen. A thud, crunching of numerous bones, and a grunt came from across the room, barely audible over the shrieking saw--but then the saw stopped. June opened her eyes just as the saw hit the floor and the man who'd been wielding it flew through the air. He landed, skidded and rolled to a stop a few yards from June, his neck broken and his skull shattered. She gasped and looked over at Arcee. Her eyes were open and she was sitting upright. From her pose, June figured she'd just swatted the man off her chest and out of the gene pool. Before the rest of them could recover from the sudden shock, Arcee backhanded the four nearest guys, crushing their bones and pulping their internal organs and sending their bodies tumbling toward the darkened edges of the room. Finally, the others aimed their rifles at her. "No," June moaned. Only the top half of Arcee's body had been freed; her legs were still cocooned, her mobility severely limited. She leaned back, swinging her legs upward, and lashed out at another nearby man with her left arm. He leaped backward, but she caught him and hurled him at the group directly in front of her. He slammed into one of them and knocked him off his feet. Arcee slammed her webbing-encased feet down on the others, flattening all but three. The result was much like someone stomping on a ketchup packet from a restaurant. Arcee rolled to the right as the remaining men opened fire. The bolts from their rifles arced into the wall behind her. She snapped up the chair in front of Silas's console and pitched it at one of them, plowing it into his chest and sending him cartwheeling all the way to the far wall. Two men left. They shifted their aim, tracking her as she rolled back into a reverse somersault and landed face-down. She rolled to the left just as they fired, and the blasts missed her by mere inches. She threw herself forward, scooped them up in her right hand, and grabbed at Silas. He turned and tried to run, but she clamped her fingers around his leg before he could get out of her reach. She tossed him into the air and caught him, pinning his arms to his sides. "Okay," she snarled, "now we can have a little talk." "Arcee!" June yelled. "Airachnid dragged Jack away somewhere--I don't know where, none of the cameras were pointed in the right direction." Arcee stared at her with a suddenly horrified look. She turned to glare at Silas. "Where did Airachnid take him?" Silas gazed back at her, unflinching, and said nothing. "I won't ask you again. Answer my question, or--" "Or what?" Silas kept his cold stare aimed straight at her optics. "Would Optimus Prime approve of you torturing information out of me? Is that something he would do?" Arcee hesitated. She glanced at the monitors and her expression hardened. "No, he wouldn't. But he's not here, is he?" She pushed herself upright. The webbing around her legs flexed enough for her to bend her knees, and she lifted Silas and his men to a nerve-rattling height. "Tell me where Airachnid took Jack, or I'll--" "You're not a murderer. At least, you're not if you're as noble as your leader likes to believe." A hint of smugness seeped into his face. "You won't--" Arcee raised the two men in her right hand and rocketed them straight down. June cringed. Beside her, the civilian snickered weakly. "Whoa. Nice technique." Arcee brought Silas up to her eye level and growled. "Don't question my resolve." His eyes opened wider and his face paled, but he recovered quickly. "Kill me, or inflict enough pain for me to pass out, and you won't get any answers. Your lover will die before you can find him." Arcee's glare intensified; she appeared to be considering squeezing the life out of him anyway. "Arcee," June said, "get us out of these cocoons and I'll see if I can find any information on that console." Arcee nodded and began pulling and tearing at the webbing around her legs. Once she'd finally freed herself, she ran to the back of the room and clamped onto the June's cocoon. She pulled gently, increasing the force gradually until the webbing tore away from the wall. "Okay, June, tell me if I accidentally hurt you and I'll stop." Keeping Silas clamped in her left fist, she braced the back of her hand against the cocoon and pulled on it with her free hand. The webbing came off in short strips, but after several minutes, she'd ripped enough of it away for June to extract herself. "Thank you!" June tried to hold more tears in, wiped her eyes, and headed for the console. "Cut everyone else loose. I'll see if I can find anything in the console." "I could do this a lot faster if I didn't have to hold on to this bastard. We need to find something to tie him up with." "What about the webbing? Is it still sticky enough?" "Maybe, but the only manageable pieces are small. Might not be structurally sound enough." "Well, lower him to the floor, then, but don't let him go." June waited for Arcee to bring Silas down to her eye level. "Silas, you know what's really nice about this new armor we've got? It gives your strength one hell of a boost." She cocked her fist back and drove it into his face. The impact broke his nose, splattered blood over his mouth and chin, and snapped his head back. It lolled forward and his eyes remained closed. June stared at him. "I. . .I didn't kill him, did I?" "Nope. He's still breathing. He'll wake up with a bitch of a headache, though." "Good. That's the least he deserves." June turned back to the console. "Free the others. I'll let you know if I find anything." "On it." Arcee reached up to pry Dr. Madsen loose. "And find where they put my guns. It's time to do some hunting of my own." # Oh, hell. Jack stared at the cases lining one side of the carved-out, underground chamber as Airachnid carried him past them. Sixteen of them. Guess I found the heads from those bodies in the forest. His stomach churned and he looked away. "I see you've noticed part of my collection." Airachnid chuckled. "This is only one of the chambers I've prepared for my trophies. Only one quarter of them are full, so far." Oh, holy shit! Those sixteen corpses must not have been the first in this area, then. How long has she been at this? "You'll be joining them soon enough, Jack." Airachnid smirked at him. "How soon depends on how long you can keep me entertained." He glared at her, trying to will himself into a rage so he wouldn't give in to sheer terror. If I still had those bags of C-4, I'd keep you really fucking entertained. They passed through more empty tunnels alternating with more display chambers. Jack tried to keep track of the twists and turns, but couldn't--mostly because he couldn't bring himself to look at those blankly-staring severed heads. After a while, he kept his eyes closed so he wouldn't have to catch a glimpse of one even accidentally. "Here we are," she finally said, several minutes later, and he opened his eyes reluctantly, finding himself in a huge, round chamber. "My home away from home. As you can see, I managed to salvage a few things from the remains of my ship before your friends came to clean up the mess." He looked around. Six tunnels branched out from here at equidistant points; this was the center of her lair, then. Between the exits were makeshift consoles and monitors, somewhat like Ratchet's setup, only this one served far more sinister purposes. On the far side of the room was a stack of three large, glowing blue cubes. Energon. Where. . .? It came to him a second later--cubes like these wouldn't have survived the explosion of her ship, so she must have raided some of the Decepticons' energon supplies before Megatron moved them or blew them up. If she has more stored somewhere, Arcee and the others could really use it. If I can bring some of it out-- He glanced to the left and almost gagged. On a table at the edge of the room was a freshly decapitated body. The blood trickling off the table and dripping into a puddle on the floor had barely begun to congeal. "Oh, pardon the mess." Airachnid laughed. "You and your friends arrived before I had a chance to tidy up." Don't puke. You're wearing a helmet. Don't puke. It'd be really, really bad. His stomach churned again, and he looked away from the table. Airachnid hoisted him abruptly. She held his hands against the ceiling and fired a quick burst from one of her web-launchers, enveloping his hands and gluing them in place. She took her other hand off him and he dangled at least thirty feet above the floor. "Now, let's see about getting that armor off." Airachnid slid her fingers over his body, searching for the latches that held each piece of armor in place. "I'd really like to know what Arcee finds so appealing." "What Arcee and I have," he muttered, "you can't even understand. You're simply not capable of those sorts of feelings." "Oh, know me so well, do you? After we met so briefly?" Airachnid smirked again. "Are you kidding me? When we met, you hunted me like an animal. Like I'm nothing more than a vermin. You tried to kill me. That told me everything I needed to know about you." "Hmm. Fair point." She shrugged and continued fiddling with the latches on his armor. "Not that it matters. I don't need your consent for what I have in mind. And believe me, taking you away from Arcee will merely be the beginning." "What is it between you and Arcee, anyway? You want to fuck me just because she and I are in love? Why don't you go find your own boy-toy?" "There's more to it than that. When you destroyed my ship, I admit I was quite angry at first, but once I cooled off, I realized how impressive it was. Someone as small and fragile as you, taking out my entire ship. How can I not find that intriguing?" She stroked the side of his helmet and slid her sharp fingertips under his chin. "And once I get my hands on a Pretender and integrate that technology into my body--" My skin is never gonna stop crawling now. He glared at her, suddenly realizing that he didn't have to force himself to be angry--she was quickly cranking him up into a genuine rage. "I remember that night. For you, that was the night I blew up your ship, stranded you on this planet, and fucked up your entire life. But for me?" He smirked. "For me, it was Tuesday." She pulled back a few feet, stared at him for a long moment, and placed her hands on her hips. "Alright. Since you're such a badass, you'll be able to escape with no trouble at all. So, go on. Escape." Something thudded on the ground behind her and she glanced over her shoulder. Jack looked down and found a metal cylinder roughly the size of a human forearm rolling to a stop between Airachnid's legs. What the hell? That's an anti-Cybertronian flash-bang. Where the hell'd it come from? He burst out laughing and Airachnid whipped her head around to scowl at him. He smirked again and said, "Okay." He closed his eyes a split-second before the device detonated, filling the chamber with a nearly blinding light and an electronic pulse that overloaded Airachnid's systems. When he opened his eyes, she'd collapsed on her right side, staring blankly at the table with the headless body on it. From what he'd already seen of those flash-bangs, a direct hit should keep Airachnid out of commission for at least a couple minutes. He hoped it would be enough. He swung his legs up to his head, braced his feet against the ceiling, and pulled. The webbing around his hands stretched gradually, and finally ripped free of the ceiling--and Jack plummeted straight down. He tried to flip himself upright, but only managed to hit the ground face-down. His armor prevented him from breaking any bones, but the impact still knocked the wind out of him. Get up! Get up, damn it! He pushed himself onto his hands and knees, and finally managed to suck in a breath. The air in front of him rippled and suddenly he was looking at a girl in pink armor. His jaw dropped. "Miko?" She glanced down at herself. "Well, I'm either Miko or Private Donut." "Damn, I'm glad to see you--but how the hell did you even get here?" "Hitched a ride on Arcee." Miko grinned and started prying at the webbing around Jack's hands. "Just clamped onto her rear end and stayed there until right before she drove into the lot with all those warehouses." "She had to have noticed the extra weight." Jack moved his elbows apart, twisting and prying the semi-organic gunk around his hands, while Miko continued pulling. "She probably did. Maybe she just didn't say anything in case MECH was listening in." Miko sat on the ground and waved a hand downward. "I have an idea. Crouch or sit or whatever, and hold your arms out." When he did as she'd asked, she scooted forward, braced her feet on his chest, grabbed the webbing with both hands, and pulled, throwing her entire body into it. The webbing continued to stretch for several more seconds--then it finally slipped off Jack's hands and Miko flopped onto her back. She flung it aside, stood, and nodded at one of the exits. "By the way, you dropped something back at that warehouse." She jogged over to the exit, leaned into the shadows, and picked up a pair of duffel bags. The C-4. Hot damn. He grinned and slung one of the bags over his shoulder. Then he turned to look at Airachnid. I can finish the bitch off right here. I can do what I should've done in that first warehouse. He kept staring for a few more seconds, sighed, and unzipped the bag. "Uh, Jack. . .?" "I could've ended it earlier today, but I hesitated, and she almost killed me. I can't let her go again." He pulled one of the charges from the bag. "I'm not sure how to arm one of these, but I have to try." Airachnid twitched suddenly, violently, and groaned. Jack's stomach almost launched into his throat. "Oh, shit!" Miko blurted. Airachnid bolted upright, shook her head, and looked around. Jack turned toward the exit and gave Miko's shoulder a push as Airachnid spotted them, snarled, and hurled herself at them. "Run!" # "Miko? Can you hear me?" Arcee gave it a few seconds and shook her head. Still jammed, same as her previous encounter with Airachnid a few months ago. It could've been a device the rogue 'Con had in her lair, or maybe even something she'd installed in her own body millennia ago. I shouldn't have let Miko ride along. Should've left her with Ashanti's team. Miko could've been their ace in the hole, but still. . . I shouldn't have gambled with her life. Who knows what kind of trouble she might throw herself into? Arcee tried to shake it off. There was nothing she could do about it now. All she could do was hope recent events had drilled some sense into the girl's head. She crouched again, studying the rain-soaked gravel, looking for Airachnid's distinctive spider-leg footprints, scuff marks on the pavement, snapped branches on the trees around her--anything that might give her a clue as to where Airachnid had gone. Once she'd freed June's medical team and the civilian, one of the nurses had found some rope which they'd used to tie Silas to a chair. Arcee had scanned for other human life forms to be sure he didn't have any reinforcements, and had found none. She'd left the med team to keep an eye on Silas while she headed off in search of Jack. June hadn't been able to access any information in the console, and Silas clearly wouldn't tell them anything. Beating him to death wouldn't get them anywhere, as much as she wanted to, so she had simply gone hunting. Two hours later--nothing. Poor Bulkhead must be worried sick about Miko. Hell, all of them are probably worried about all of us. But until I can disable the jammer, none of us can radio out. She moved on, looking around and grumbling. This place was literally in the middle of nowhere, nothing but tree-covered mountains on all sides and constant, pouring rain. Not a single house, gas station, or even an outhouse in sight. Only a winding road that appeared to lead from nowhere to nowhere. She continued walking, and almost missed it. In the corner of her optic, there was a small pile of gravel that didn't look right. Arcee crouched, leaning over to take a better look. The gravel lining the road had been moved--sculpted into the letter M with an arrow beside it. It was small enough that Airachnid wouldn't have noticed it unless she'd been examining every square foot of the ground as Arcee had been. And since Airachnid already had Jack, she wouldn't have had any reason to look that closely. Thank you, Miko! Grinning, Arcee followed the arrow, scanning the ground in front of her, looking for the next marker. She found it a few minutes later; an M and an arrow carved into the trunk of a tree a quarter-mile down the road. It appeared to have been carved by a standard Bowie knife that came with the armor Jack and Miko had been given; ineffective against any 'Con bigger and better-armored than a Pretender, but it clearly had its uses. Arcee continued onward, following each marker Miko had left, until the trail dead-ended at a hillside. Frowning, Arcee scanned the ground in front of her. Nothing but grass and trees and-- Hold on. She stepped up to a mass of vines and shrubs, and scanned it more thoroughly. It's hollow. She scanned one more time, for explosives or other booby traps, and yanked the bushes away, revealing a hole in the ground barely large enough for Airachnid to wriggle through on her belly. Being smaller, Arcee was able to walk through the tunnel without much difficulty, half-crouching as she advanced. It gradually widened enough for her to walk upright. After nearly five minutes of creeping through the dark tunnels with both shotguns in her hands, she began to wonder if she'd missed one of Miko's pointers and wandered into an abandoned mine shaft. But then she emerged from the tunnel into a slightly larger chamber lined with display cases. Many of them were. . .occupied. Too many. Arcee grimaced. My fault. All of these. If I'd finished Airachnid off the last time we fought, none of these people would've died. Rescuing Jack had been more important to her at the time, but the few seconds it took to tear the webbing off him had given Airachnid the opening she needed to burrow into the ground before Arcee could get to her. Don't think about it. Focus on what you need to do now. She kept going, deeper underground, passing through more chambers filled with Airachnid's trophies. Many more than the sixteen that had drawn her and Jack here. Goddamn it. Another long tunnel, another trophy-packed chamber. Arcee tried not to look at any of the cases, but one caught her attention and she stopped in her tracks. Her optics opened wider and she cried out softly. "No. . ." The shotguns slipped from her hands and hit the dirt floor with a double-thump. "No, no, no, no. . ." She staggered back until she bumped into the wall. "Jack. . ." Her legs buckled and she collapsed, slumping against the wall. "Jack!" Her entire world imploded. Unable to form a coherent thought, she opened her mouth and released a long, echoing scream. And she didn't stop. She stared at the horror in front of her and screamed. . .and screamed. . .and screamed. . . . CHAPTER SIX "He's awake," Dr. Madsen said, and June turned to scowl at Silas. "About time." She strode toward him. "Now you can answer a few questions." "We've been over this before." Silas grimaced ever so slightly, but other than that, he didn't acknowledge the pain of his broken nose or the blood all over his face. "You already know I have nothing to say." He smirked. "And I know you're not going to torture or kill me. You're a nurse; you're not a killer." "My son could die at any moment, all because of you." June grabbed the front of his armor and pulled. The servos in her armor boosted her strength and she lifted him and the chair he'd been tied to. "That's more than enough to make me a killer." "If you had it in you, you would've already been working me over." He kept smirking, and June was horrified by the things she suddenly found herself contemplating. "Put him down, June," Madsen said softly. "He's not worth what killing him will do to you." "My son is worth it." She glared at Silas for another moment, but realized there was no way she could intimidate him. She dropped him; the chair landed at an angle and tipped over, and the side of his head struck the concrete floor with a satisfying thud. Tears trickled from her eyes as she turned away. I can't do it. I just can't. She looked up at the monitor that had showed her, nearly an hour ago, the gut-wrenching image of Airachnid carrying Jack away. But if we don't find a way to disable the comm jammer at the very least. . . She whirled on Silas. "You know what? If anything happens to Jack, Arcee will take it out on you. And you saw what she did to your men. I don't even want to think about the things she'll do to you if Jack. . ." Her voice faltered and she stormed off, unable to even finish the thought. When she reached the wall, she braced her hand against it and slumped over slightly. Footsteps came up behind her. "June?" Dr. Madsen's voice again. "Don't lose hope. Arcee will find Jack." "I know." But will she be able to save him? June shook her head. "I wish we were back in Jasper, the way things were before he met her. I wish we didn't know about any of this. I don't know if Jack's alive or dead, and look what it's turning me into." "Why did you ask to be assigned to the field unit, if I may ask? You were offered a position on the base's medical staff; you could've stayed there instead of getting involved with all this." "Jack couldn't be talked out of going on missions with Arcee. Believe me, I tried." June shook her head, turned and leaned back against the wall. "I could've grounded him, could've prevented him from hanging around her and the others, but then he would've hated me for it. And even if he'd listened to me, he couldn't have stayed out of this one. This thing with Airachnid is personal." "I guess I can see how you wouldn't be able to stay out of it, either, then." "There's more to it than that." She sighed. "Back in Jasper, I always worked long hours at the hospital, and often didn't get home while he was still up, let alone in time to cook dinner. He'd usually have to microwave something and spend most of the evening alone. Well, until he started hanging out with Arcee. But I was hardly ever there for him, all because I was trying to keep the rent paid and the fridge stocked." Madsen nodded. "So, since Jack won't let anyone stop him from joining the battle. . ." "This is a chance for me to be there for him and do everything I can to keep him safe. And also to simply spend time with him. I missed out on a big part of him growing up. It won't be long before he's an adult and moves out and has his own life. I need him to be my kid for what little time is left before he grows up. If it's not already too late." If he makes it through this. . . She aimed another glare at Silas, still on the floor; everyone had left his chair where it had tipped over. She turned back to Madsen, met his gaze, and shook her head slowly. "I'll tell you right now, if that psychotic bitch out there kills Jack, my being a nurse goes right out the window. I'll fucking murder that bastard Silas for putting my son in this situation. I won't have anything left to live for." "Jack is smart, resourceful, and level-headed. He's survived things that most adults wouldn't live through." Madsen put his hand on her shoulder. "He'll be okay." "I hope so. I just. . ." She shivered and crossed her arms tightly over her chest. "I don't know, I just have a bad feeling, all of a sudden. A really bad feeling. . ." # "I have no idea where we're going. All these damn tunnels look the same." A long, drawn-out scream echoed through the tunnel and he stopped in his tracks, heart pounding and blood running cold. He looked around frantically, unable to tell which direction the scream had come from. "Jesus! That sounded like Arcee!" She screamed again, then again, and again. "That fucking bitch is torturing her!" He charged into the next chamber and glanced around at the four tunnels branching off from it. Damn it! Which way? Finally, the screaming stopped, and he felt as if ice water had been pumped into his guts. No. . . "Oh, shit," Miko blurted. "Jack, look." "What?" He turned to stare numbly at her. If Arcee had stopped screaming because she had died, nothing else could possibly matter. "That." Miko pointed at one of the display cases lining the wall to the right. In it floated Jack's severed head. "What?" Despite the terror and grief overwhelming him, he approached the tank and stared at it. "What?" "What the hell's going on?" Jack tore his eyes away from the tank. "Doesn't matter. I've got to find Arcee. Gotta find her. Gotta. . ." An idea clicked into place and he activated his armor's sensors. He scanned for Cybertronian life signs and picked up two--one behind him and moving around, and the other up ahead and stationary. "Why didn't I think of this before? This way!" He ran toward the motionless blip in his HUD. "There's another one!" Miko shouted when they entered the next chamber. She stopped at the row of cases and pointed at one containing Jack's head. "Oh, hell. Airachnid must've made a bunch of these just to screw with Arcee." Miko's eyes opened wider. "If Arcee thinks you're dead--" "We've got to hurry!" Jack burst into a sprint, charging through the tunnels and not caring what might jump out of the darkness. He had to find Arcee before-- There! He stopped, almost stumbled, and stared into the next chamber, his heart pounding hard enough to shake his whole body. Arcee sat on the floor a few yards away, slumped over, not moving. No, it can't be! She can't be d-- Then he noticed her optics flicking around slightly and her lower lip quivering as she stared off into space. Another chill rushed through him. She looked as if she had snapped like a twig. Finally, Arcee reached out and picked up one of her shotguns. She held it in her hands and stared at it. Then she turned it around and held the barrel against her chest. Suddenly, Jack couldn't breathe. The ammo in that thing was designed to punch through Cybertronian armor--and Arcee was aiming it at her own spark chamber. A single shot would be enough. She placed her thumb on the trigger. "Arcee! Don’t'!" Jack bolted toward her, popped the seal on his helmet and yanked it off. "Arcee!" She turned her head, stared straight at him, but didn't seem entirely aware of him. Or maybe she simply couldn't believe her eyes. Jack slowed and reached out to her. "For fuck's sake, don't do it! Put the gun down!" She shook her head slowly, but didn't move otherwise. ". . .Jack. . .?" "It's me, it's really me." He looked over his shoulder and found the tank containing his head. "That's not real! We found several others, one in each room. Airachnid must've made them, somehow. Maybe they're holographic projections. I don't know--it doesn't matter, it's not real, please just put the gun down!" He sobbed and tears ran down his cheeks. He pulled his gloves off, dropped them, and placed his hands on the side of her leg. Finally, her optics locked onto him and she seemed to believe he was really here. "J. . .Jack!" "Put the goddamned gun down, Arcee! Don't. . .I can't bear to see you. . ." She looked down at the shotgun as if seeing it for the first time. Trembling, she took her thumb off the trigger, moved it aside, and put it down carefully. "Oh, Jack, I almost--" "I know." He hopped over her leg so he could stand directly in front of her, and held his hands out. "Come here." She leaned over and put her arms around him. "I thought--" "And when I heard you screaming, I thought the same thing about you." He rested his head on her chest and closed his eyes, and the soft humming of her spark, cooling system, and other internal mechanisms gradually calmed him. Arcee stroked his hair for a moment and then kissed his forehead. "I can't believe you were going to--" Jack couldn't finish the sentence. He looked at the shotgun and shuddered. "I'm sorry, Jack. When I thought you were dead, I. . .my world ended. There was nothing left for me, not even killing Airachnid." "Well, I'm still here, and so is Airachnid." He reached up to caress her cheek. She moved her head closer until their lips met. When they finally parted, he whispered, "I love you." "I love you, too. I love you so much!” She put her arms around him again, clearly not wanting the moment to end. Jack didn't, either, but with Airachnid somewhere nearby, it had to. Reluctantly, he pushed away. "Come on. Let's finish this." She nodded, smiled shakily, and stood. She picked up her shotguns and glanced at the tunnel behind her. "I want you and Miko to head back to the MECH base. I took out all of them except Silas, and he's tied to a chair in the main warehouse. I freed your mom and her team." "That's great, but I'm not leaving you." "Jack, please, I don't want you getting hurt or--or worse." "You just tried to kill yourself. I'm not letting you out of my sight." He put his gloves and helmet back on. "Let's get moving. I've got an idea." # Concentrate. Focus. Stay on target. Seeing Jack's head in a display case in every other goddamned chamber made it impossible no matter how hard Arcee tried. Not only was it simply a horrible sight, but what it had almost made her do. . . Airachnid has to die. Whatever it takes. She forged ahead, scanning for both her nemesis and the energon stockpile Jack thought might be in her lair. There was a trace of energon, but Arcee had restricted her scans to short-range to reduce the risk of Airachnid zeroing in on her. Jack hadn't explained his plan in case Airachnid was able to listen in, but he and Miko were carrying duffel bags packed with C-4 and they were looking for an energon supply. It wasn't hard to put two and two together. They entered another chamber and Arcee averted her optics from the cases lining the walls. "I wonder how she copied Jack's head so exactly." Miko stopped and looked one of the trophies over. "I. . .I don't know," Arcee muttered, really not wanting to even think about it. "Cloning would take too long. Maybe some sort of stem-cell replication." "She said something about gear she'd salvaged from the wreckage of her ship. Maybe one of the pieces was, I dunno, a nanotech factory or something." Jack shrugged. "Anyway, Airachnid's obsession with us has taken a weird turn. And I mean, really weird. Like, just fucked-up bizarre." "What do you mean?" "Well, just before Miko rescued me, Airachnid hung me from the ceiling and was starting to get all rapey on me." "She. . .what?" "It's like she wants to hump me just because you and I are together now. Makes my skin crawl." He shuddered. “Then, of course, there's that whole thing about killing me after she's had her fun.” Arcee's mouth fell open. She turned to glare over her shoulder. "I am gonna kill that fucking cunt!" "We will. Let's keep looking." She pushed on, sweeping the area ahead of them for the next several minutes, and began to wonder if there really was any stockpile. Then her energon detector pinged and she turned to the left. "Oh, hello," she muttered. "Got something?" Jack whispered. Arcee nodded and motioned for him and Miko to follow her. She led them through tunnel after tunnel, chamber after chamber, moving faster as the energon signal grew stronger. Finally, she turned one more corner--and there it was. "Wow," Miko muttered. "Yeah." A few feet ahead, energon packed into cubes was stacked from floor to ceiling--enough to keep the Autobots going for the next few months, possibly a year or more. Or blow this entire mountain off the map. She sighed. "We can't take the time to grab much of this with Airachnid so close." "Even a little would help. You could keep it for emergencies." Jack pointed at the top of the pile. "Grab a couple of those; Miko and I can carry them out." Arcee hesitated, sighed, and plucked two cubes from the top of the stack. She handed one to each of them, grabbed a few more to carry out herself, and looked at Jack. "Okay, now what?" He slipped the duffel bag off his shoulder, unzipped it, and stared at its contents. "Hmm. How much would be too much?" Miko shrugged. "I'm not too familiar with that stuff," Arcee said. Jack shrugged. "Fuck it." He placed the entire bag on the ground, touching the side of the stack, and began arming the charges, hoping he was doing it right. Once he finished, he took the other bag from Miko and repeated the process. He picked up the detonator and flipped the safety cover up, revealing the button that would send Airachnid and her entire lair into orbit. He took a slow breath, closed it, looked up at Arcee and gave her a grim smile. "Let's go." # "Oh, Jack," Airachnid's almost singsong voice echoed up the tunnel, and Jack's heart almost jumped into his throat. "I'm coming for you!" Arcee turned toward the voice's general direction and snarled. Miko looked around and threw her hands up. "We've been trying to find our way out of here for half an hour, and I don't think we're any closer." Arcee looked like she was thinking something over--then she sighed, deployed her arm cannons, and turned toward the wall. "Get behind me." As soon as they were out of the way, she looked into Jack's eyes. "She'll come running when she hears my blasters, so as soon as I punch through to the surface, you run like hell. And Jack, don't drop that detonator." He nodded. "Let 'er rip." She aimed her guns at an upward angle and fired. Instead of the typical short bursts, a continuous beam lanced out of each blaster and vaporized the rock and dirt in their path. "I hear you," Airachnid called out, much closer now. "There's no need to rush off. I was starting to have so much fun!" "Oh, kiss the darkest part of my pasty white ass," Jack grumbled. A few moments later, Arcee ceased fire. Jack looked up and found a long, sloping tunnel stretching into the distance, with a pinpoint of light at the end. Arcee picked him up and lifted him into the mouth of the tunnel. She picked Miko up and placed her beside him. "Go! I'll be right behind you." Clamping the energon cube under his left arm and the detonator in his right hand, Jack scrambled up the incline. Daylight! I thought I'd never see it again. Arcee waited for them to get a good distance ahead before picking up the remaining energon cubes and squeezing into the tunnel. Jack reached the surface, dragged himself out of the hole and stood in the pouring rain, waiting for Miko and Arcee to join him. When they emerged, Arcee waved her hand frantically. "Go! Go!" He and Miko burst into a sprint, charging down the hill at full speed, and Jack heard Arcee's earth-shaking footsteps right behind them. Then came another familiar sound--Airachnid was using her spider legs as a drill, enlarging the tunnel Arcee had blasted. He risked a glance over his shoulder--and there Airachnid was, shifting into her spider mode and standing in the tunnel entrance. She looked at Jack and chuckled. "Running out on me--how rude! I had such wonderful things planned for us." Jack glared at her. The closest you'll get to a bang from me is the two bags of C-4 and all that energon blowing you to hell. Miko put her hands on her hips and laughed. "Bitch, you have no idea how screwed you are!" "Oh, really?" Airachnid smirked and raised her hands, aiming her palm-mounted blasters and web launchers at them. "You don't actually think you can win, do you?" "Now, Jack," Arcee whispered. "It's got to be now." Jack held up the detonator and lifted the safety cover. Airachnid's eyes locked on to it and darted over to the cube under his arm. Her jaw dropped. "Jack!" He sneered. "Winning!" He jammed his thumb down on the button. A column of flame vomited from the tunnel and enveloped Airachnid--and a split second later, the hillside under her ripped apart. Then it was as if Earth itself punched Jack in the face. He wasn't sure if it was a shockwave or a car-size chunk of the mountain slamming into him, but it sent him flying. When he finally hit the ground, he rolled and tumbled, bouncing off trees and rocks, and it seemed to go on forever. When he finally came to a stop, he looked up and found Arcee scrambling toward him--and pieces of the mountain plummeting out of the sky. She grabbed Miko, scooted her over to Jack, and threw herself over both of them, shielding them from the debris. The rain of dirt, rocks, and boulders seemed to last another eternity. Finally, there was silence. Arcee looked around, sighed, and sat beside them. Jack and Miko picked themselves up and stared at what was left of Airachnid's lair. Where a mountain had stood a few minutes ago, there was now only a crater. Arcee's mouth hung open. She shook her head slowly. "Holy shit." Miko whistled softly. "Meanwhile, somewhere in Hollywood, Michael Bay just came in his pants." Arcee chuckled and looked around. Her smile vanished. Jack leaned over to see past her. At least a dozen yards away, Airachnid lay sprawled on the ground, burning but still intact. Probably just temporarily offline. Growling, Arcee stood and pulled the shotguns from her back. "Time to finish this." CHAPTER SEVEN "Well, here we are." Lucas Conrad stopped at the door leading to the lab where several Pretender bodies awaited analysis. Beside him, the Pretender using the name Rosalina Mendoza placed a hand on the door and hesitated. Ashanti stood behind them, holding her rifle in Mendoza's general direction but keeping it aimed at the floor--for now. After seeing what one of those things had done to her husband--and to her for nearly a week after it murdered him--there was no way she would completely trust any of the others until they proved themselves trustworthy. "You okay?" Conrad said softly. "I know this can't be easy for you." "Not really." Mendoza braced herself and pushed the door open. Ashanti followed them into the lab and looked around. Four robotic bodies lay on tables in the center of the room. They ranged from silver-gray to charcoal to jet black in color, and from a weird sort of Giger-esque appearance to full-on nightmare fuel. Mendoza walked over to the nearest body and pondered it for a moment. "This one went by the name Allison Palmer. Not a close friend of mine, but . . . " She sighed. "I hate to say it, but I'm not surprised she put up a fight. She always was hot-headed. I hope she didn't hurt anyone before you took her down." "She got off a few shots." Ashanti pointed at the scar on her left cheek. "One grazed me, but that was the last thing she ever did." "Glad to know it wasn't worse." Mendoza pointed at the small hole in the Pretender's chest. "Good shot. Right through the spark. Clean kill." "Spark," Conrad muttered. "What is that, anyway?" "In human terms, I guess it'd be where a Cybertronian's lifeforce is. Maybe you'd call it the 'soul.' There's no exact translation, but it's close enough. If you shoot me in the head, there's a chance I'd be merely disabled until repairs could be made; replace the damaged components and restore my memories from the most recent backup, and there's a chance I could come back almost the same as I was before. Damage my spark beyond repair, though, and I'm dead. There's no coming back from that." Conrad looked away and shivered. Mendoza reached out to take his hand. When he relaxed, she turned back to the corpse. "Anyway, remove the processor and memory modules from her head and replace them with your own equipment, and do the same with the spark chamber, and you could use the body as a remote-operated vehicle. You could control it from the base or a mobile operations center, or an Autobot could link up to it." "Hmm." Ashanti raised an eyebrow. "That would be useful for infiltrating an organization like MECH, if it's safe for the 'Bots to use. We'll need Ratchet to do a thorough investigation and verify your claim first." "Fair enough. I just . . . after all the harm my people have caused, I hope we can at least do some good, no matter how slight." Mendoza closed her optics and wrung her hands. "We owe it to all those who died, on this world as well as our own." Ashanti nodded slowly, hoping Mendoza really meant it. "Well, maybe if--" Her comlink beeped. "Col. McKenna?" General Sanchez's voice. "Right here, sir. I hope this is about our missing team members?" "It could be. Our satellites detected a massive explosion about forty miles southeast of the town where they were abducted. Given what happened the last time Airachnid picked a fight with Arcee and Jack, I wouldn't be surprised if they tried to blow her up again." "Definitely worth investigating, sir. Where was the blast, exactly?" "Mountain range between a tiny town named Coquille and an even tinier one called Winston. Fortunately, there were no people living anywhere near the explosion. Exact coordinates have been sent to your armor; it'll be in your HUD when you gear up." "I'm on it, sir. I'll assemble my team as soon as someone arrives to guard Mendoza." "They're already on the way; should be there any moment. I've also informed the Autobots; they'll be on the scene before you arrive." "Good to hear, sir. If Ratchet can bridge us there, we'll handle MECH while the 'Bots take care of Airachnid." "We're on the same wavelength, Colonel. You have a go." # End of the line, cunt. Arcee strode over to Airachnid's body and shoved the barrel of her shotgun into her face, jamming it right between Airachnid's optics. Without sparing even a split-second to gloat, as much as she wanted to, she pulled the trigger. Airachnid's left arm snapped out and knocked the gun aside. The round grazed her cheek and drilled into the rubble under her. Arcee whipped her other shotgun around, but Airachnid blocked it with one of her spider legs. Before Arcee could recover, Airachnid clamped a hand around it, wrenched it away from her, and flung it away. It crashed through the trees, tumbled out of sight, and finally splashed into a creek somewhere behind her. Arcee drew her pistol and jumped backward. Airachnid flicked another leg out, knocked her off her feet, and swatted the handgun away with a third. Arcee snarled and lunged at her--but caught a spike on the end of a fourth leg in her face. Sparks flew, pain seared through her left cheek, and she batted the leg away. She raised a hand to her cheek and found a long gash under her eye, in almost the same spot as the one Airachnid had given her all those centuries ago, when she had tortured and murdered Tailgate right in front of Arcee. She deployed her arm-mounted blades and charged again, lashing out furiously, trying to move faster than Airachnid could counter. Airachnid shifted into her bipedal mode and blocked every blow with her back-mounted spider legs. No way you're getting away from me this time, you bitch! Arcee continued punching, kicking, and swiping with her blades, hoping to land at least one solid hit before-- Airachnid lifted her right arm and shoved the blaster emitter on her palm into Arcee's chest. No! Arcee threw herself to the side. Airachnid fired and the beam drilled into Arcee's chest, burning through her armor before she could dodge it. A blast of heat ripped through her from front to back and she screamed. Her legs buckled and she collapsed. "Arcee!" Jack's voice, distant and muffled through the nearly overwhelming pain. She pushed herself up--but Airachnid's foot slammed into her and sent her rolling downhill. She couldn't tell how far she fell, but she didn't stop until she hit a tree. The impact uprooted the tree and jarred her sensors. An impact shook the ground nearby. She turned her head and found Airachnid striding toward her. "I've waited so many centuries for this." Airachnid sneered and crouched, jamming her knee into Arcee's chest and pinning her down. Arcee grunted and managed to raise her left hand. She extended her middle finger and shoved it into Airachnid's face. "While I appreciate the offer, I'm afraid I'll have to decline." Airachnid grabbed Arcee's wrist and forced it to the ground, shifting her weight to keep her pinned. "You see, I've got my eye on someone else." Snarling, Arcee slid her right hand under her back and grasped the knife clamped to her metallic skin. It was all she had left. She had to make it count. Airachnid cocked her hand back and rammed her fingers through the wound in Arcee's chest. Jack appeared at the top of the hill just in time to see the blow. He froze in his tracks and drew in a long breath. "No!" # A sensation as cold as ice closed in around Jack's heart as he stared down at Arcee and Airachnid. Arcee's eyes were wide in shock and her mouth open as if she were trying to scream, but couldn't. The knife in her right hand slipped out of her fingers and slid down the hill. Jack released an incoherent scream and flung himself toward Arcee, skidding and stumbling, but somehow staying upright. Airachnid yanked her hand out and energon spurted from Arcee's chest. Airachnid flicked it off her fingers and turned to smirk at Jack. "Well, now there's nothing standing between you and me." He reached Arcee stopped. She stared at him and clamped a hand over the hole in her chest. "No," she moaned. "Go! Run!" "Forget it." He put his hand on hers. "Please, Jack," she whispered. "Get out of here." "No." Jack stroked her hand. "If you go, we both go." He stood and faced Airachnid. "Well, you've certainly grown a pair since the first time we met." Airachnid leaned closer until her face was inches from his. "Most intriguing." This is insane. What could I possibly do to her? He tried to keep the doubt and fear off his face, tried to banish all feelings except his rage. He glanced at Arcee, at the energon trickling out of her wound and splashing onto the ground . . . . . . at the human-shaped distortion in the air a few feet from her outstretched hand. The air rippled ever so slightly, like heat waves. Miko! The knife Arcee had dropped scooted a few inches closer to her hand. Jack forced himself not to react. He turned back to Airachnid. Gotta distract her. He focused on his rage, let it build and push him to the snapping point. "Now, where were we?" Airachnid reached out to stroke the side of his helmet. "I really hope Arcee lives just long enough to watch--" Jack swung his left arm out and shoved her hand away. Then he cocked his fist back and punched her in the face. Even though the armor prevented him from breaking every bone in his hand, it still hurt. Even though his armor boosted his strength, the blow barely scuffed her finish. But it did catch her by surprise. She flinched and stared in shock, her mouth hanging open. Finally, she arched a brow plate. “Well, it seems this is my lucky day. I like it rough.” In the corner of Jack's eye, the cloaked Miko continued dragging the massive knife toward Arcee's hand. Jack stepped toward Airachnid and jabbed his finger at her, trying to keep her eyes on him and off the knife. "Don't you fucking touch me!" He stepped aside, moving away from Arcee, and tried not to smirk when Airachnid's optics remained locked onto him. "You're completely out of your goddamned mind. You think I'd ever let you do anything with me, you piece of shit? You'll have to rape my dead body." "Oh, Jack." Airachnid sighed. "And we were off to such a promising start." "Promising?" He glared straight into her optics, making sure she understood that he meant every word of what he was about to say. "Okay, you want a promise, here's the only one you'll ever get from me. I am going to kill you!" Her jaw dropped again. The knife appeared to levitate as Miko lifted it and lowered it carefully into Arcee's hand. "No matter what it takes. No matter what it costs me. No matter if it kills me. I'll rip the spark out of your chest, and I hope you live just long enough to watch me piss on it before you die." Airachnid stared down at him for several seconds. Then she snarled and reached out to grab him. He stood his ground, not letting his glare falter. "Ladies first," Arcee grunted, hauling herself upright. "What?" Airachnid spun toward her. Arcee plunged the knife into Airachnid's chest. The specially designed blade pierced her armor and slammed in to the hilt, missing her spark chamber but not by much. Airachnid screamed and almost toppled over. She clamped her hands around the knife and tugged, then seemed to realize that the serrated blade would tear her up on the way out. "I've waited centuries for this," Arcee hissed. "Bitch!" She braced her other hand against Airachnid's chest and yanked the blade out, shredding wires and cables and circuitry, ripping them out of the wound in a spray of energon. Airachnid staggered away, whimpering, pressing her hands over the wound. She slumped against the hill, turned to glare at Arcee, and let out an enraged roar. She aimed her hand blaster at Jack. Arcee fell again, but dragged herself toward him, trying to get between him and Airachnid. A familiar crackling, humming sound filled the air somewhere off to the left. Jack spun around and almost leaped with joy at the site of the ground bridge's green vortex. Optimus, Bee, and Bulkhead emerged and looked around. "Over here!" Jack waved his arms. They looked downhill and found him. Then they saw Arcee and burst into a full-on sprint down the slope. Airachnid roared again, looked around frantically, and finally turned and ran. She scrambled up the hill, falling and picking herself back up, until she reached the pavement. The three 'Bots ran over to Arcee, their footsteps shaking the ground. "No," Arcee mumbled, "don't let her get . . . get away . . . ." "You are more important," Optimus said, turning and activating his comlink. "Goddamn right, you are." Jack rushed over to her and pulled his helmet off. He stroked her cheek and leaned over, touching his forehead to hers. "Ratchet, we need a ground bridge now! Open it right on top of us!" "But that could--" "Arcee is badly injured. Do it now!" Jack took one last look up at Airachnid as she shifted into her helicopter mode. The transformation happened slowly, the extensive damage making her scream in pain as parts moved into the proper configuration. She rose into the air and sped away as the vortex appeared only a few feet from Jack and Arcee. "Come on, let's get you out of here." He looked down and found her eyes closed and her face slack. That cold fist gripped his guts again as Optimus scooped her up in his arms and ran for the ground bridge. He stumbled after them, barely able to breathe. "Arcee . . . oh, no . . . " # The door burst open and June screamed. She backed away from the door, but stopped when a team wearing familiar black armor flowed into the warehouse. "Ashanti?" They turned quickly, sweeping the room, and finally relaxed. The nearest one took her helmet off. "Yeah, June. Are you all okay?" "More or less." June turned and nodded at a man on the floor nearby. They'd used the scraps of Airachnid's webbing as a makeshift mattress to keep him as comfortable as possible. "We've got one civilian survivor. He's been here for at least three days; the MECH people really worked him over and he's badly dehydrated, starving, and has multiple fractures, bruises and cuts, some of which are infected, and his front teeth have been knocked out." "We'll get him to the hospital right away, then." "Great," the man mumbled. "Go through all this . . . and end up with a hospital bill for the rest of my life." "Well, don't worry about that." June smiled. "I think the Lake's hospital can eat the cost this one time, given the circumstances. Right, Dr. Madsen?" "Absolutely." The civilian managed to smile briefly. "Thanks, but I can live with a bill. Just . . . whatever you do, don't send me back to that goddamned town. Anywhere but there." "Oh? Why?" Madsen finished disinfecting a nasty gash on the man's arm. "It's a shithole. Mostly because of the people." His eyes closed and he started to fade out. Madsen slapped his cheek gently. "Come on, focus, stay with me. What kind of people are they?" Madsen glanced at Ashanti. "Colonel, we'll need a ground bridge to the Lake immediately. Have them bring a gurney." "On it." Ashanti moved away and spoke into her comlink. "The kind who go shopping in their pajamas, think Larry the Cable Guy is fuckin' hilarious, and can't find their own asses with both hands and a ouija board." The civilian shook his head. "Man, don't even get me started on those banjo-twangers. They've been driving me insane for the past twenty years." “Why stay, then?” Madsen closed his medical kit and glanced at Ashanti. “Can't afford to leave. Trying to save up enough money, but . . . ” "A med team is standing by," Ashanti said before turning to face Silas, still strapped to the tipped-over chair. "Get him up." Her team picked Silas up, tore the webbing off, and gripped his arms to prevent him from running off. Ashanti glared at him. "A lot of people are dead because of you." "Acceptable losses." He smirked. "Since your robotic friends are being kept secret from the public, you can't even put me on trial. And as Nurse Darby and the others have seen, I won't give you any information, even if you try to torture it out of me. Which you're not allowed to do." She stared at him for a long moment. "You know, I think I have a better idea." She raised her assault rifle and aimed it at his crotch. "I shoot your dick off, and if you can get to a hospital before you tap out, you can go free." "You wouldn't--" She pulled the trigger. June screamed and flailed, then put a hand on her chest and tried to slow her breathing. Silas, for the first time since she met him, finally had fear in his eyes. He looked down at his crotch, mouth hanging open and eyes nearly popping out of his head. Ashanti shook her head slowly. "Well, fuck me. I missed." She glanced around. "This place must be colder than I thought." Her team chuckled. "Okay, guys, as soon as the bridge opens, take this piece of shit through and lock him in the deepest, darkest hole we've got." She turned, listening to something coming over her comlink. "Yeah, open it right in here if you can." She nodded and continued listening. Her smile faded. "Are you sure?" After another moment, she closed her eyes and sighed. "Okay. I'll let her know." June took a step toward her. "What is it?" She sucked in a quick breath. "Jack? Is Jack--" "He's okay, June. Not a scratch. But Arcee . . . " "What? She's hurt?" June lifted her hand slowly and covered her mouth. "How . . . how bad is she?" "Not . . . " Ashanti winced. "Not great." "I need to see her and Jack. Now." Ashanti nodded. "They're about to open the bridge. I'll take you straight to Jack." The green vortex flared into existence in front of them and a med team emerged with a gurney. "Huh," the civilian muttered. "Fuckin' cool." Ashanti waited for him and Silas to be escorted through, then turned to June. "Okay, let's go." June followed her into the bridge, wringing her hands, dreading what she might find on the other side. CHAPTER EIGHT "Hey, Arcee. Welcome home." That voice . . . she hadn't heard it in many centuries. At least a thousand years. Bright light surrounded her, but so did a thick fog. Or maybe the fog was all in her head. It was hard to think straight. Figuring out who had spoken seemed to take forever. It couldn't be him. It just couldn't. "T . . . Tailgate?" "I'm here, Arcee. So is Cliffjumper." "Hey, 'Cee. We've missed you." A second voice, lost to her less than a year ago. "Cliff . . . ?" She shook her head, looked around for a way out, but could find only diffuse light that seemed to go on forever. "This can't be happening. You're dead. Both of you." "We noticed that, actually." Tailgate chuckled, his echoing voice coming closer. Finally, the fog parted and he appeared. Body type similar to Cliffjumper's, but gray instead of red; a sight she hadn't seen in so long . . . . "What the hell is going on?" she snapped. The last thing she remembered was fighting Airachnid-- "No," she whispered. A chill rushed through her. Airachnid had shot her in the chest, point-blank, a sustained burst at the maximum setting that burned through her armor and into vital components. Then the evil bitch had stabbed her fingers, the tips sharper than any razor, through the wound. The damage was severe, maybe even fatal. Arcee clenched her fists. "No!" Cliff appeared behind Tailgate, the fog swirling around his red and gunmetal body as he stepped out of it. He had both horns now, even though one had been torn off in his final battle. He smiled as he walked over to her and put his arms around her. "You've returned to the All-Spark, as we already have. You're home." "No, I'm not!" She pushed him away, and he staggered before regaining his balance. "I'm not dead, goddamn it! I'm not ready to check out!" "Neither were we," Tailgate said. "Most people aren't given a choice." He shrugged. "I'm not thrilled with the way I went out. Blowing up Airachnid's base and getting caught in the explosion would've at least been heroic, but instead I was tied up, hanging from the ceiling, barely functional, when that asshole stabbed me right through the spark. At least it was quick; there's that, I guess." Arcee closed her optics and snarled. She didn't want to remember Tailgate's death. But it had happened right in front of her, and that horrible image would remain burned into her memory forever. "It was the same for me," she finally admitted. "I hit that bitch with everything I had, and Jack blew her up, for fuck's sake--but she got away. Again." She turned, looking around frantically. "Jack?" "So, she killed you, too?" Tailgate hung his head. "I'm so sorry it ended that way, 'Cee." "It didn't." She opened her eyes and glared at him. "I'm not dead! If I were dead, I wouldn't be conscious and talking to you now." "Come on, don't look at me like that. I've missed you so much." "I miss you both, too, but this isn't real. I'm imagining this. And I'm not staying." "It took us a long time to accept it," Cliff said. "But we don't have a choice." He held his arms out to her and approached her again. "Come on, 'Cee. We're back together. Let's just--" "Step back." She held her left hand up and clenched her right fist. "I won't accept this." She backed away from him and looked around again. "Jack! Please, be out there somewhere. Please . . . ." "Arcee, there's nothing you can do. Just let go." "No!" She whirled back toward Cliff and snarled. "I've only recently found something to keep me going besides the next battle. I'm not letting go of that." "Is it this 'Jack' you keep calling out to?" Tailgate said. "Who is he?" "My boyfriend," she answered without hesitation. Tailgate cocked his head. "Your what?" "It's a human thing." Cliff chuckled. "I guess 'Cee has gone native on us." "I love him. He's my soulmate. Even if I had nothing else to live for, I have him. And I won't let go." "I'm so sorry," Tailgate said with a sigh. "I won't pretend to understand how much this guy means to you, but it's obviously a lot. But it's too late. You've already passed over to--" "Bullshit!" She pointed at Cliffjumper. "How did you die? Did you take a bunch of 'Cons with you?" "I don't remember. I hope I did, at least." "You don't remember, but Tailgate remembers his death?" She took a few more steps back. "He remembers because I saw it happen. But you? I wasn't there. I didn't see how you died, so you don't remember it. This is all in my head. I'm badly injured, but I'm not dying. Not yet. This is just something my mind is conjuring up in--" She cut herself off. She had almost said, in my last moments. But that would be accepting death. It would mean giving up. And she couldn't do that. Not when she had-- "Arcee?" Another voice, behind her. Soft, gentle, without the slight electronic sound Cybertronian voices had. Human. Jack. Arcee whipped around and there he was, emerging from the fog, looking around, trying to find her. A sense of relief flooded her and she broke into the biggest, brightest smile of her entire life. "Jack!" He continued looking around and calling her name, his eyes growing more afraid, his movements more frantic. He couldn't see her. "I'm right here, Jack." His head turned toward her, continued past, his gaze not even landing on her. "Arcee . . . ." Tears trickled from his eyes and he sank to his knees. "Don't leave me!" "I'm not! I'm right here!" "I love you, Arcee! Please, hang on." He leaned over, braced his hands on the ground, and wept. "Please . . . !" "I'm staying with you, Jack! I love you!" She turned to Cliff and Tailgate. "You guys are among my closest friends, but you're not real. You're not really here. And neither am I." They stared at her, their expressions hurt, sad, wistful. They reached out to her, took a step forward . . . . She turned away, walked over to Jack, crouched in front of him, and placed her hand gently on his back. Her hand passed through him. He cried even harder. She tried to put her arms around him, but he was as insubstantial as a dream. "Jack!" She stretched out on the ground, tried to move her face in front of his. "Hear, me, please! I love you! I don't want to leave you!" Suddenly, he faded away. She stood, trembling with fear and building rage. "No . . . !" The light around her grew brighter. She clenched her fists, looked up into the sky, and screamed, releasing one final burst of rage. "I can't leave him! I won't! I love him!" The light increased until it blinded her. Then everything faded away. # "How is she, Ratchet?" Jack stopped pacing, stared up at him, and tried not to be afraid of what his answer might be. June stepped up beside Jack and wrung her hands. Ratchet glanced over his shoulder at the tunnel leading to the med chamber. "I did everything I could, Jack, but--" "What?" The helmet slipped from Jack's fingers and he stumbled backward. His mom grabbed his shoulders to hold him upright. "She's . . . you couldn't save her?" "What?" A look of utter confusion crossed Ratchet's face, then realization dawned and he shook his head frantically. "No! I didn't mean it that way! If you had let me finish--" "Okay, just a misunderstanding, then." June put her arms around Jack and arched an eyebrow at Ratchet. "If you could answer the question, please, Doctor?" "Of course, Ma'am." Ratchet crouched in front of Jack, leaned over to awkwardly put a fingertip on his shoulder, and tried to reassure him with a smile. "Arcee will live. She lost a lot of energon--nearly all of it; she used most of it up drilling the tunnel to the surface from inside Airachnid's lair, and bled out most of the rest after that wretched creature stabbed her. We used up our reserves to replenish her supply." Jack sighed with relief, leaned over and braced his hands on his knees. June hugged him, let out a sigh of her own, and smiled. "Thanks, Ratchet," he said once he'd regained control of himself. He stood upright and took in a slow breath. "You said you used up your reserves?" "I'm afraid so, Jack. We had just enough for Arcee." Ratchet patted Jack's shoulder again. "It was worth every drop." Damn right, it was. Still . . . "So, now, if any of you are wounded--" "We've already thought about that, as much as we'd prefer not to. Also, even if none of us ever receive another scratch, eventually, our bodies will use up what energon we have left." Ratchet stood and looked around, as if unable to focus on anything, and for a few seconds he looked completely, utterly lost. He looked over his shoulder, at the tunnel that led to his lab, and pulled himself together. "Which is why I must perfect the synthetic energon formula as quickly as possible." Jack nodded, turned to head for the med chamber, and hesitated. "I know you said she'll live, but about what you said before that . . . ." "Yes. That." Ratchet looked toward the med chamber and closed his eyes. "Arcee is badly wounded. Airachnid did more than stab her; she injected something through her fingertips that severely damaged vital components and affected many of Arcee's primary systems. It's what humans call nanotechnology. I was able to purge the nanotech agent, but by then the damage was done." An ice-cold fist wrapped around Jack's guts and he took in a shaky breath. "What do you mean? How bad is she?" "Her Transformation Cog and several other critical parts are damaged beyond repair; she can't transform and, in fact, she wouldn't last long in a combat situation. She can still move, but only if she's careful. We don't have the replacement parts she needs, and we lack the facilities to manufacture new ones." He looked away and sighed. "I'm sorry, Jack." "You did everything you could. Thanks for giving it to me straight." Ratchet nodded and trudged off to his lab. Jack picked up his helmet, walked slowly through the tunnel to the med chamber, and found her stretched out on the floor. His heart raced and his hands shook. What had Ratchet meant about Arcee's primary systems? Some of them, or all of them? Had her memories or cognitive functions been affected? Oh, fucking hell, what if she has brain damage? What if she doesn't remember me? He pressed his lips together and squeezed his eyes shut. Don't start crying in front of her. Not until you find out how badly she's hurt. She turned her head toward him. Her blue, softly glowing optics found him and she smiled. "Arcee?" he whispered. "Hey, Jack. I assume Ratchet gave you the news?" June patted his back and slowed, letting him have a private moment with Arcee. He hurried over to her, pulled his gloves off, dropped them into his helmet, and placed it on the floor. "Not in much detail, but yeah. He said you'll be okay." "Well, I'll live, and I'm still intact up here." She lifted her right arm slowly and tapped the side of her head. "'Okay' might be overselling it a bit. I'm still in a lot of pain, and I'll be out of action until we can get our hands on some replacement parts. Which means, I'm pretty much permanently out of commission." Her lips quivered and her face twisted up. If she'd been physically capable of it, she probably would've burst into tears. "Oh, Arcee . . . " Unable to hold his own tears in any longer, he gave up the struggle and let them flow. "Hey, take it easy. At least I'm still alive. Even if I can't operate in the field anymore, I'll always be here for you." She brushed his hair away from his face with her fingertip. "Come here." He approached, wiped his tears away, and leaned closer to her face. She lifted her head, meeting him halfway, and kissed him gently. She closed her eyes and put her hand behind his back, embracing him awkwardly. When they parted, she smiled shakily at him. "I'm glad that's one function Airachnid didn't damage." Jack laughed and stroked her cheek. "Isn't there anything we can do? I mean, Groom Lake built a new pair of arms for Starscream, so can't they make the parts you need?" "His arms are pretty crude, and they're not nearly as complex as something like a T-Cog. Ratchet looked into it, but none of us think it would actually work. Even if they could do it, it'd probably take years to build something that'll do the same job and be small enough to fit in me." "Well, there's got to be something." An idea suddenly hit him. "The Nemesis would have a manufacturing facility, right? A lab or factory or whatever, for building spare parts for the 'Cons?" "Yeah, but thanks to that ship's stealth systems, we can't even find it, much less board it and mount a full-on assault." "We can figure something out. Starscream should be able to track it, or tell us where it's likely to be." "If his information is accurate, it's still too dangerous." "For you, I'd do it anyway." "I know you would, but please don't." She pushed herself upright, grunting and wincing, and took a moment to recover from the increased pain her movements had caused. When it subsided, she held her hands out and Jack stepped between her legs and put his arms around her. She slipped her hands behind his back and rubbed him gently. "I'll find a way." He rested his head on her chest and closed his eyes. The soft, even humming of her inner workings was gone; in its place was a somewhat louder, stuttering sound with occasional rattles and grinding noises mixed in. Jesus . . . "I won't stop until you're whole again." "I know you wouldn't, but I can't . . . . If I lost you, I--" She cut herself off and squeezed her eyes shut. An image of Arcee holding her own shotgun against her chest flashed through Jack's mind, but he forced it away. "We'll figure something out." "Well, in the meantime, there might be something that can help. Something that can at least let me get back into the action, albeit on a limited basis." He leaned back, tilted his head upward, and met her gaze. Some of the color drained from his face. "One of the Pretender bodies," he muttered. "Before you freak out, just listen." She chuckled and held his hands. "Ratchet can run a thorough scan on it, go over it with a fine-toothed comb, and if he finds anything suspicious, we'll abort. But if I can remote-operate one of those things, I can still help out on missions, instead of sitting here and being a burden." "Arcee--" "Please. My mind's made up, and Optimus has already okayed it. Reluctantly, but . . . anyway, Groom Lake is sending one over in the morning. We'll see what Ratchet finds, and take it from there." Jack shivered. So many things could go wrong . . . . He forced himself to smile and tried to lighten the mood. "You sure you're not doing this just to get into my pants?" She snickered, leaned forward, and brushed a fingertip over his lips. "Easy there, Romeo. If this works, when we take that next step, if we ever do, I don't want to rush it. I want it to happen naturally. I want it to be wonderful." "So do I." He nodded slowly. "Well, like I said before, we should at least wait till I'm eighteen." He chuckled. "Right. I figure it'll take us at least that long to get used to this. And who knows, maybe it won't work at all. But if it does, we can keep going on missions with Ashanti's team, and I'll still be able to keep you safe." She smiled. "And I'd be able to do things with you that I can't now, like simply walk on a beach with you and not worry about accidentally stepping on you or punting you into the ocean." He managed to laugh at that. "Yeah, something like that would definitely ruin the mood." He pointed a finger at her and said in a mock stern tone, "Flatten me, and you'll have to sleep on the couch until I get over being pissed." She laughed. He held her right hand between both of his. After a few seconds, his smile faded. "This makes me really nervous." "Me, too. But if there are any booby traps built into that body, Ratchet can find them." Arcee touched his chin with her fingertips and nudged gently, and he looked up at her. "I need this, Jack. I need to stay in the fight, and to protect you." She gazed into his eyes until he let a breath whoosh out and slumped against her. "Okay, Arcee. Then we'll make it happen, whatever it takes." # June leaned against the wall, watching Jack and Arcee with a smile. Even after so many months, she still had . . . issues with their relationship. But now, seeing them like this, and knowing what they'd already gone through for each other . . . "That's really sweet," Miko said, and June twitched and clamped her mouth shut to stifle a scream. She turned and found the girl standing nearby, hands in her pockets, smiling at the couple across the room. "Kiddo, if you keep sneaking up on me like that, you're gonna turn my hair gray." June reached out and flicked one of Miko's pigtails. "Without my stealth armor, too. Damn, I'm good." Miko grinned. "Speaking of which, I hear you used it pretty effectively out there. First you saved Jack's life, then Arcee's." Miko shrugged and blushed slightly. "Well, I figured, if I'm gonna keep rushing into the middle of things, I should at least make myself useful once I'm there." "Well, I'm glad you did." June put her hand on Miko's shoulder. "Thank you." "Any time, Ms. D." She turned back to Jack and Arcee, grinned, took her phone out and snapped a photo of them kissing. "Guess I picked up this new phone just in time. Camera's so much better than the one on that burner I used to have." June shook her head, but laughed. Across the room, the two lovebirds continued holding hands, kissing, and talking softly. June sighed. Yeah, they're both serious. There's no keeping them apart now. She looked down at the helmet in her hands, remembering the things that had gone through her mind in the MECH base--her wish that she and Jack had never stumbled into any of this, her wish that he'd never met Arcee . . . . "When they first got together," Miko said, "I thought it was pretty weird. But come on, look at 'em. They just work, y'know?" "Guess so. I was kind of hoping I'd have grandchildren, eventually, but that won't happen now." "Well, maybe someday they can build one for you." Miko winked. Oh, yeah, because our lives aren't weird enough already. June shrugged. "Maybe. Oh, well, as long as Jack's happy, it's good enough for me." "Yeah, he seems pretty happy, alright." Miko watched the couple share an especially passionate kiss and cleared her throat. "Whoa, that was a good one." She tugged on her shirt collar and turned around. "I'll be on my cot." Uh, did she just . . . ? June watched the girl walk away, arched an eyebrow and shook her head. She turned back to her son and his alien, robot girlfriend. And merely thinking that kind of weirded her out. Especially since . . . Uh-oh, it's definitely heating up over there. She chuckled and cleared her throat loudly as she approached. Jack and Arcee parted abruptly and turned to look at her. Jack's face turned red. Arcee glanced at him and grinned. "Hello, June. How're you holding up? You went through a lot today." "I'm fine, which kind of amazes me. Hard to believe it's only been a day; feels like a lot more." She tucked her helmet under her left arm. "It's nothing compared to what happened to you two, though." A haunted look flickered over Arcee's face. Jack reached up to touch her cheek. June glanced back and forth between them. "Uh, what's that about?" They exchanged an uncomfortable look. Finally, Arcee spoke. "Well, since your son is my boyfriend, I shouldn't keep anything from you. When I was searching for him in Airachnid's lair, I . . . I found . . . " "You know how Airachnid likes to keep severed heads as trophies, Mom. Well, somehow, she made a bunch of fake heads that looked like me, just to screw with Arcee's mind." June sucked in a quick breath and covered her mouth with her free hand. "I found one of them." Arcee's lower lip quivered and she stared at the floor. "I thought it was real. And . . . well . . . that damn near finished me. I turned my gun on myself." She touched her chest, where her spark chamber was. "Right here. If Jack hadn't found me when he did, I would've--" She shuddered. "I couldn't have faced you after that. Couldn't bear the thought of telling you that I'd failed to keep your son alive. But more than anything, I simply couldn't have gone on without him." Jesus . . . June walked up to her and reached up to touch her arm. If she loves him so much that she'd actually-- "I'm thankful you didn't do it. Seeing it happen would've destroyed Jack." June took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I'm damned glad he has you in his life. I doubt he would've ever found anyone else who's as right for him as you are." Arcee stared at her for several seconds, and broke into a huge, relieved grin. "Thank you, June. That means more to me than I can say." "Me, too," Jack said. June hugged him and smiled up at Arcee. "Since I didn't say this when I should've, welcome to the family." "Thank you." Arcee beamed. June patted the back of Arcee's hand and then glanced at her watch. "It's pretty late, so I should get back home. Jack, I assume you want to stay here?" "Yeah. I'm starting to have trouble keeping my eyes open, now that you mention it. I'll grab a cot and set it up here. I don't want to leave Arcee alone right now." "Actually, Raf thought of something better." Arcee pointed off to the left. "He brought an inflatable mattress and a blanket from home. Guess he figured you'd be spending the night." "Oh, wow. I owe him one." Jack picked up the mattress and grinned. "Built-in pump; sweet." He inflated the mattress and placed it on the floor beside Arcee. "I'll bring you a change of clothes in the morning." June smiled and kissed his forehead. "Thanks, Mom." He took his armor off and placed it on the floor near his makeshift bed. He stretched out on the mattress, covered himself with the blanket, and said, "Goodnight." "Goodnight, Jack, Arcee." "Goodnight, June." June returned to the hub, pausing once to look over her shoulder. Jack had turned on his side, facing Arcee; she lay on her side, facing him, smiling, resting her head on the back of her hand and holding out her other arm, palm up. Jack reached out and placed his hand on Arcee's palm, smiled, and closed his eyes. "Feels like it's been forever since we had a chance to relax," he said softly. "Can't believe the last time was only this morning." "Yeah. It's been a hell of a day." "Hell of a day." Her smile faded. "Jack?" "Yeah?" He opened his eyes. "What's wrong?" "While Ratchet was working on me, I had . . . I don't know, a dream or a hallucination. I was in a white void and I saw Tailgate and Cliffjumper. They told me I'd rejoined the All-Spark." Jack frowned. "That's . . . you mean they told you that you were dead?" He propped himself up on his elbow and caressed her hand. "I figured out what was really happening, but for a moment, it really scared me. I went into a full-throttle panic." "I bet. I've heard about things like this happening to humans when they're severely injured or near death. Their brains are starved for oxygen and they start hallucinating. Not sure what'd cause it in your case, though. Lack of energon, maybe?" "Probably that combined with the kind of damage I was dealt. Ratchet said I was running on fumes when he started working on me. If the others hadn't bridged in when they did . . . " Shit. June leaned against the tunnel wall and stared at them. Jack's face turned pale. "Christ, Arcee . . . " "Yeah, it scared the shit out of me when he told me just how close it was." She rubbed her thumb gently over the back of his hand. "What scared me even more was the thought of leaving you behind. Before I figured out what was really happening, the thought of spending the rest of eternity without you--" Her voice faltered and she took a moment to pull herself together. "It was terrifying. I'd prefer complete and utter nonexistence to what I thought I was facing." Tears filled June's eyes. She held her breath, wiped them away, and resumed her course back to the main hub. Jack's voice echoed softly far behind her. "That's how I felt when you passed out, right after the 'Bots arrived. I was so terrified, it almost paralyzed me." He took a slow breath. "I barely remember anything that happened when we entered the ground bridge. I know I was crying. I vaguely remember begging you not to leave me." "Huh. I saw you in my hallucination, too, and that's what you were saying. I must've been just conscious enough to hear you. You may have pulled me back from the abyss, Jack." "I always will, Arcee." June emerged into the hub, looked around, and wandered over to the couch in front of the large TV. She sank onto it, placed her helmet on the cushion beside her, leaned back and closed her eyes. She took her gloves off and tossed them in the helmet's general direction without opening her eyes. She doubted she'd be able to sleep after everything that had happened today, especially the conversation she'd just overheard. But maybe she could at least have a few minutes of quiet before asking Ratchet to fire up the ground bridge. Then a thought came out of nowhere, and suddenly her eyes were open again. Airachnid's still out there. She rubbed her hands over her face and sighed. Yeah. Definitely not getting any sleep now. CHAPTER NINE "Rise and shine, Jack." "Grrrnnnffff...." Jack forced his eyes open and found Miko leaning over him and nudging his shoulder. He looked around slowly and rubbed his hand over his face. He was still on the inflatable mattress on the floor beside Arcee, but she had scooted closer to him during the night. Her hand rested gently on his chest, covering most of it. She smiled and kissed him. "Good morning." "Hi, honey." He sat up, yawned, and rubbed his face again. "Feels like I slept for about five minutes." "More like two and a half hours, but still not very long." She pushed herself upright slowly and winced, still clearly hurting from her wounds. "I wanted to let you sleep, but Ashanti's team brought the Pretender body over a while ago, and we figured you'd want to be here for the link-up." "Definitely." He stood, sniffed, and grimaced. Oh, I need a shower. But if Arcee's mini-me was ready, it could wait. "Did the body pass Ratchet's tests?" "He checked every inch of it and found nothing. Ashanti's team will be standing by, just in case, but we're sure it's a blank slate. It'll just be a matter of copying and adapting parts of my software and establishing a wireless link." "Good." He nodded and hoped he didn't look too worried. "Oh, hey, what'll you do for a power source?" Arcee grinned. "We finally found a use for Ratchet's synthetic energon. Since it won't be in my actual body, we won't have to worry about nasty side-effects like the ones we saw when he tried it on himself." "That's a huge relief." Jack picked up his armor and put it back on. "So, I assume you'll have to scan a human before the new body can transform?" "If I were trying to pass as a human, yeah." She gazed down at him for a moment, her expression unreadable. "Is that what you hope for? I mean, would you want me to be human so we can be together?" "We're already together. And honestly, it'd be pretty weird if you looked human. It'd feel like I'm with someone else." "Besides," Miko said, "this is a dead Pretender we're talking about. Wouldn't that be like fucking a corpse?" "Jesus Christ, Miko!" Jack shuddered. "Why did you put that image in my mind?" Arcee shook her head, but chuckled. "It doesn't work that way with Cybertronians." "That's right," a new voice said. Jack turned around and found the Pretender known as Rosalina Mendoza walking into the room, followed by her human husband, Lucas Conrad. She was still in her robot form, but had put on a shirt, pants, and shoes, and was wearing a white lab coat identical to Conrad's. She was pushing a mobile operating table with a sheet-covered body on it. Ashanti's team came in close behind them, keeping their weapons pointed at the floor, but making sure Mendoza was aware of their presence. "Humans decay after they die," Mendoza continued, "but since we're metal, that's not an issue. You just install new components and software, and you have a whole new person. Or, in this case, a remotely-operated mobile platform." Arcee aimed a not-quite-trusting look at her before turning back to Jack. "It was common practice before Cybertron fell. We'd upgrade our bodies, or sometimes transfer into entirely new bodies. The Vehicons, for example, start out with identical bodies, sort of like military uniforms." One corner of her mouth quirked upward. "Or the Stormtroopers in Star Wars. When they get promoted far enough, they're given unique bodies and software upgrades, and the original bodies are held in reserve for newly 'born' Decepticons. At least, that's how it was before Cybertron became uninhabitable." "So it's not a corpse at all." Mendoza waved a hand at the body. "Everything that was once Allison Palmer is now gone. What's left is kind of like a CPU case without a hard drive, motherboard, and processor. Ratchet and I have already installed the wireless receiver and other hardware and software Arcee will need to operate the body remotely, as well as the required pieces of her own software. So, we're good to go." "Ratchet, Optimus, Bee, and Bulkhead will join us as soon as you're ready to get started," Ashanti said. Arcee grinned. "I'm ready now." Ashanti nodded and tapped her radio mike. "Optimus? Colonel McKenna. Arcee's given the okay on the procedure, sir." She listened, nodded, and looked up at Arcee. "They're on the way." "Thanks." Arcee smiled and reached over to stroke Jack's cheek. He smiled and held her hand in both of his. Mendoza pulled the sheet off, revealing a slightly Giger-esque Pretender. Jack noticed right away that the bullet hole in its chest had been repaired. There wasn't even a trace of the wound. "So," Miko said, "I assume this body's, like, anatomically correct?" She walked over to the table to take a look for herself. Mendoza chuckled. "Lucas and I have been married for ten years; if Pretenders didn't have all the necessary parts, he would've noticed at some point." Jack took a quick glance at the body part in question, blushed, and looked away. "Yep, it looks right." Miko raised an eyebrow. "It's metal, though. Wouldn't it feel like metal? Y'know, when you're doin' it?" "Well, no, I mean, I would've noticed that, too." Conrad's face turned red. "It feels like a human's ... well ... you know." "When we're disguised as humans," Mendoza said, "our skin and hair and everything else is indistinguishable from real humans. This particular part is no different." "Huh. So you're part organic, then?" Miko cocked her head. "No, our bodies are equipped with a liquid polymer that has mimetic properties. Just analyze a sample and a very convincing copy can be made. Skin, eyes, sexual organs, and so on." She grinned and wiggled her brow plates. "We also have nano-factories that can reformat any substance into any other substance. Male Pretenders, for example, can manufacture synthetic semen. And, of course, females use the same process to make the proper, um, lubricants." "Heh." Miko grinned at Jack. "Think of the possibilities." "Oh, I am." Jack's face grew hotter and he cleared his throat. "Me, too." Arcee laughed and brushed a fingertip over his lips. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though." "Right. Of course." He tugged on his collar and tried to divert his attention so his blush would fade away. Fortunately, four pairs of footsteps began vibrating the floor, their thumping rhythm growing louder as they approached, and the four other Autobots emerged from the tunnel. Jack smiled at them, grateful for the interruption. Arcee rubbed her hands together. "Okay, let's do this." # "Hey, Jack." June walked over to him, carrying two cups of coffee. She held one out to him. "Hi, mom. Oh, thanks." He took the cup, sipped, and rubbed at his left eye. "You look like you didn't get much sleep, either." "I kind of did, but it wasn't that restful." She yawned. "I actually intended to head back to Groom Lake and bring you a change of clothes, like I promised, but I decided to sit down for a few minutes and let everything sink in. The next thing I knew, it was morning." "Still better than I did. Arcee said I slept about two and a half hours, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't in one solid stretch." He shivered and took another sip of his coffee. "Kept having nightmares about Arcee--" He winced. "Arcee dying in her fight with Airachnid. I'd wake up, go back to sleep, and have a dream even worse than the one before it." June put her arm around his shoulders and turned to watch the Autobots and their guests. Mendoza and Conrad stood at one end of the table, talking in low voices about info on their tablets. Optimus sat beside Arcee and rested his hand on her shoulder. Bumblebee stood nearby, fidgeting. Raf sat on a stack of crates that put him at Bee's shoulder level, and pecked at his laptop keyboard while staring at Arcee and Jack. Bulkhead crouched nearby and Miko leaned against his right foot. Ratchet stood at the monitoring station, watching the readouts intently. "Okay," Conrad muttered, "looks like we're ready to go." "I'm initiating the link," Arcee said. The Pretender's optics glowed red, flicked around, took in their surroundings. Arcee raised a brow plate. "Whoa, this is weird. I've remote-piloted drones before, but this is...I can actually feel sensations. I can feel the table under my back. Her back. Its back. Whatever." She leaned forward and prodded the body's shoulder. She glanced at her own shoulder and chuckled. "This'll take some getting used to." The body sat up, looked at her and pointed at the damage on her chest plate, where Airachnid had stabbed her yesterday. Ratchet had repaired it, but it would take a while to heal completely. Arcee's mouth fell open. "That looks a lot worse from this angle." "It's far better than it was when Optimus carried you back to base," Ratchet said. "But given enough time, your autorepair system will have it looking as good as new." "Glad to hear that." Jack took a step toward the Pretender body. "So, uh ...." He trailed off and sipped his coffee again, possibly just to have something to do other than stare awkwardly. Arcee pointed at her smaller body. "That won't do at all." The body looked up at Arcee and a green light came out of its eyes and washed over her. "And...scan complete. Let's see if this works." The Pretender transformed. Its surface split up into hundreds of tiny square sections, shifted around, changed color. Seconds later, it was identical to Arcee, only human-sized. And, June noted after giving it a quick look-over, it had a feature the real Arcee didn't have. Uh-oh. That means she and Jack can ... oh, boy. June caught Jack checking out the area between Mini-Arcee's legs and nudged his shoulder. He blushed again and kept his eyes aimed above her waist. "So." Arcee smiled nervously at him. "What do you think?" "This is exactly what I was hoping for." He stepped closer, still looking apprehensive but trying to push himself past it. "That's a relief." Mini-Arcee slid off the table, shifted from one foot to the other, raised her hands and flexed her fingers. "Everything seems to be working." Miko grinned. "So, Arcee, this means there's two of you now, right?" "Kind of." "I can't even tell you what I'm thinking right now." Jack looked from one to the other and back, his mouth hanging open for a moment. Finally, he placed his coffee on the table and slid his palms slowly over Mini-Arcee's chest. "Sorry, I just had to get this out of my system." Arcee grinned and raised her hands to her own chest. "Oh, I'm liking this." "Heh. So am I." "And just out of curiosity ...." Arcee reached down and traced a fingertip over Mini-Arcee's crotch. "Oooh! Now that's weird--feeling sensations in a body part I don't actually have. But I like it already." She grinned and continued exploring for a moment. "Looks like we've got a solid connection," Mendoza said with a chuckle, looking up from her tablet and smiling at Conrad. "Hmm, yes," Ratchet muttered, keeping his attention focused on his monitors. "Data flow is nominal. Still no malware detected. Everything appears--" He glanced over his shoulder and stared blankly at Arcee. "Um...what in the name of the All-Spark are you doing?" "Oh! Uh ..." Arcee turned abruptly, as if she'd forgotten everyone who was watching. When she regained her composure, she arched a brow plate and said, "Playing with myself, obviously." Miko snickered. June cleared her throat. "Listen, if you two are thinking about--" "We already agreed to wait a while," Jack said. "This whole thing will take some time to get used to, so we're not rushing it." "That's good to hear." Arcee nodded. "Until then, Jack and I can take care of whatever urges we might have, ourselves. Now that I'm starting to understand how good it must feel, I'm definitely trying a few things when I have some time to myself." Jack's face turned bright red again. Miko took her phone out of a pocket and poked at its screen. "Arcee, in case you need any help with that, I'm sending you a website address. It's where I got my favorite dildo." June, Jack, Raf, Conrad, Mendoza, and Ashanti's team turned to stare at her. She looked at each of them and shrugged. "What?" "Heh. Well, first things first." Arcee smiled at Jack. When she spoke next, her voice came out of her smaller body. "So, Jack, there's one thing I definitely want to try now." She embraced him. When he recovered from the surprise a few seconds later, he hugged her right back. They held each other for a long moment. "This feels really good," she said softly. "It's not all awkward like it was before." "Yeah. It's really nice to be able to actually put my arms around you." He held on for almost a full minute longer, then stepped back far enough to look into her optics. He inched closer, as did she, and their lips met. Both of them closed their eyes and held the kiss until a bright flash and loud clicking sound startled them. June twitched and looked around. She spotted Miko holding her phone up and grinning. "Just had to have a picture of that." June reached over and flicked one of the girl's pigtails. Jack cleared his throat, stepped back, and held Arcee's hands. "I really should take a shower and grab something for breakfast, but after that, maybe you can take the day off. We could take that walk along the beach you mentioned. And whatever else comes to mind." "That is a good idea," Optimus said. "You've both earned some downtime after recent events." "Yeah." Arcee aimed a lopsided grin at him. "Under normal circumstances, I hate sitting on the sidelines, but just this once, I'm okay with it." "Alright, then." Bulkhead stood and shifted into his vehicle mode. "I'd be happy to give you a lift." June took a step toward him. "If you don't mind, I'd like to tag along, too. At least on the way back to the Lake. This armor's starting to chafe." "As long as you don't keep hovering over us," Jack said with a chuckle. "My team will be nearby," Ashanti said. "Just in case." "Fair enough." June nodded, though a bit reluctantly. I'm not thrilled with the thought of leaving them alone, but I can't stop trusting either of them after everything they've already survived. And I have to let Jack grow up sometime. She opened Bulkhead's back door, sat, and closed it. Jack slipped his arm around Mini-Arcee's waist and smiled up at Real-Arcee. "Shall we?" She grinned. "We shall." # "This is so weird," Arcee muttered. "What is?" Ratchet glanced at her and back to his monitors, searching for new anomalies. "All of this in general, but in particular ... riding in Bulkhead's front seat." She laughed and shook her head. "I'm sitting inside Bulkhead." "I suppose that would put everything in a different perspective." "Yeah, it does." She leaned against the wall, crossed her ankles, and closed her eyes. Miles away, Bulkhead parked outside the building that housed Jack's and June's quarters at the Groom Lake base. June got out first, stretched, and patted Bulk's hood. "Thanks for the lift." "Anytime, Ms. D." "Time for a nice, hot bath." June raked her fingers through her hair and climbed the front steps. "Have fun, kids--but not too much fun." "I promise to be on my best behavior." Arcee held Jack's hand as they followed June up the stairs. Bulkhead transformed back into his primary mode. Arcee glanced at him, craned her neck to look up at him, and stared. "Whoa. Now I know how humans must feel around us." "Yeah," Jack said, "it can be little unnerving when the guy walking past you has a foot that's bigger than your entire body." Bulkhead chuckled. "Heh, yeah, makes me wonder how Miko can be comfortable getting anywhere near me." "Well, I don't think Miko's capable of experiencing fear," Arcee said. "Either that, or she does feel fear, but gets a rush out of it." Jack shrugged. "Not that I'm complaining. If she hadn't gone running into danger without a second thought, Arcee, my mom, and I might be dead now, and Airachnid would still be out there, murdering people." "Well, I'm glad she could help. She sure has come a long way." Bulk pointed at one of the buildings across the base. "Well, you guys enjoy your day off. I'll just pick up a couple things while I'm here; Ashanti said the cleanup crew found a few pieces of Airachnid at the explosion site, so I'll be hauling them back to the base." He looked into Arcee's optics. "Let me know if you need anything, okay?" "Sure thing, Bulk. See you later." He waved and walked off. Arcee and Jack entered the building, passed June's door, and stopped outside Jack's quarters at the end of the hall. He slid his ID card through the lock beside the door and was rewarded with a soft beep and the click of the door unlocking. He pushed it open, stepped aside, and waved Arcee on in. "After you, my dear." She smiled, walked past him, and took a look around. It was a standard room with a bed in an alcove at the far end and a bathroom, closet, and tiny kitchen through three doorways in one wall. A TV hung on the wall near the door and a small desk with a laptop sat against the wall on the right. She'd talked with Jack through the window a few times, but actually standing inside his room was rather surreal. Jack closed the door and took his armor off. "I'll just be a few minutes." He stepped into the bathroom and closed the door. "Take your time." Arcee kept her optics on his ass until the door closed. She grinned and almost immediately shook her head at the sensations her new body suddenly experienced and the thoughts they sent flitting through her mind. She considered taking a quick look at the website Miko had mentioned in the silo, but decided not to get herself all worked up right now. The muffled sound of running water came from the bathroom. Arcee walked over to the window and gazed out at the brilliant blue sky and a few wispy clouds here and there. She let her mind wander for the next few minutes. Back in the silo, Arcee frowned. Something in her chest had grown noticeably hotter. She opened her eyes and looked to the right. "Hey, Ratchet? Feels like something's overheating." He grabbed his tools and ran over to her. He ran a scanner over his body and frowned at the readout. "Part of your cooling system is failing. I'll have it whipped into shape in no time." In Jack's quarters, the water stopped. A minute later, he stepped out of the bathroom, finished drying his hair, and tossed the towel onto the bathroom floor. He blushed as he walked past Arcee. "I forgot to grab some clothes before I started showering." He crouched by his bed and lifted the sheets, revealing three drawers built into its base. He opened the one on the right and picked up a pair of briefs. Arcee gazed at his ass and grinned, trying to pretend nothing was wrong. "Mmm-mmm." His face turned an even darker shade of red. He laughed, stood, and faced her. "And that wasn't even my good side." "So I see." She slipped her arms around his waist and kissed him. At the Autobot base, Ratchet adjusted one last setting and sighed. "That should do it. Now, let me run one more scan to be sure I didn't miss anyth--" Something in the center of Arcee's chest snapped. She screamed at the sudden sharp pain. Ratchet jumped slightly, but regained his composure in less than a second. He put a hand on her back to help support her and eased her gently down until she was laying on the floor. "By the All-Spark," he muttered. "I heard something break off and slam against the inside of your chest." "Arcee?" Jack said. His face had turned white. I must've screamed here, too. Shit. "It's ... it's nothing. Just a couple things Ratchet needs to patch up." "It sure as hell didn't sound like nothing." He cupped her face in his hands. "What's wrong?" Ratchet checked his scanner again and his optics opened wide. "Oh, no!" "What?" Arcee grunted. "Don’t say, 'Oh, no.'" "Arcee!" Jack stared at her, his expression growing more horrified as the seconds passed. "What's happening? Did Ratchet miss a booby-trap?" "No, nothing like that. It's just damage from the fight with Airachnid--Ratchet didn't repair it as well as he thought, that's all." In the silo, she grasped Ratchet's wrist. "What the hell do you mean, 'Oh, no'?" "Airachnid caused more damage than I thought." He shook his head. "Damn it, how could I have missed this?" "Beat yourself up later. How bad is it?" "Your primary systems are damaged beyond repair. I thought I could keep them working until we could figure out a more permanent solution, but ..." Arcee stared at him. Oh, you'd better not be saying what I think you're saying. "There's ... nothing I can do." He closed his eyes and rubbed his hands over his face. "How long have I got?" "Unless we can get our hands on the parts you need ... perhaps ... a few days." She gasped. "What?" In Jack's quarters, a voice at the window startled them both. "What's going on?" Ashanti said, flicking her gaze all over the room. "I heard Arcee scream." She noticed Jack's lack of clothing and raised an eyebrow. "And it wasn't the good kind of screaming." "Arcee was just about to tell me what's wrong." Jack stared into her optics. "Right, Arcee?" "I'll be fine. Ratchet just needs to tweak a few things." "Goddamn it, tell me the truth!" She stared at him, not wanting to drop this on him but not knowing how to avoid it. "I ... I didn't want to worry you." "I think that ship has sailed. Please, tell me what's wrong." "Alright, alright." She took a moment to compose herself. "My wounds are worse than we thought. Judging by what happened a few seconds ago, I'm pretty much falling apart on the inside." "You mean you're ..." He stared at her and trembled. "Dying, apparently. He said I have a few days." "Wh--" He collapsed onto the bed and Arcee tried to grab him. His face twisted up and he burst into tears. Arcee put her arms around him. "This is why I didn't want to tell you." He shook his head. "There's got to be something we can--" "We don't have the parts I need, and can't make them in time. All Ratchet can do now is turn off my pain receptors so at least I won't hurt anymore." She stroked his cheek and leaned forward to kiss him. "I'm sorry, honey, there's nothing--" "No." He stood and paced to the door and back. Arcee watched him, and swore she could see and hear the gears turning in his head. "I won't accept that," he mumbled as he continued pacing. "I'm not losing you." He stopped abruptly and his expression changed subtly. Arcee had seen that look before--it meant the pieces had clicked together in his mind. He pointed at Ashanti. "Bulkhead said pieces of Airachnid were found. I need one of them. A big one." "Why?" Arcee said. Jack grabbed his underwear, put it on, and picked up his armor. "I want to have a little talk with Starscream." # "You sure you want to do this?" Arcee said softly. "Open the fucking door." Jack glared at the door, a three-foot-thick chunk of metal that stood between him and Starscream. It, and a number of other new security features, had been installed in the abandoned missile silo before the Decepticon defector had been incarcerated here. Ashanti sighed and nodded at the guard, who leaned over his console, typed in a code, and pushed a button. The door unlocked with a deep, echoing thunk. Arcee glanced at Ashanti. Ashanti nodded. "We're ready." "Wait here, Arcee. I need to stay focused if I'm gonna pull this off." Jack hefted the bit of Airachnid that had been recovered--a partial segment of one of her spider legs, nearly as long as his arm. He propped it on his shoulder, partly to look confident and casual, and partly to put his hand a bit closer to the two rifles on his back, one an EMP gun and the other loaded with Cybertronian armor-piercing rounds. Arcee sighed and held his hand for a moment, then walked over to Ashanti's team. "If he makes the slightest move toward you--" "I know." He smiled. "I'll be fine." The door swung open and Jack strode into the chamber beyond. Starscream sat, leaning against the far wall, staring blankly until Jack stepped through the doorway. His expression cleared and his red, glowing eyes tracked Jack with every step. He aimed a sinister smirk down at the young human. "Well, a visitor at last. Not one I expected, though." "I'll get right to the point. We need your help." "Well, I am here to serve." He kept the smirk on. "What do you require my humble assistance with?" "Arcee's badly injured and needs a lot of her parts replaced. Parts we don't have." Jack scowled up at him. "Parts we can only get from one place--the Nemesis. And you're going to help us track it down, board it, and take what we need." Starscream stared back at him for a moment, then burst out laughing. "You're insane! What makes you think I'd go anywhere near that ship now that everyone onboard wants me dead?" "If Arcee dies because you refused to help, you're next." "Oh, yes, it would be such a shame if she were to--" Jack tossed the spider leg out in front of him. It hit in the middle of the chamber and scraped a few more feet across the floor. Starscream stared at it, recognition dawned on his face, and he looked back at Jack. Jack didn't let his glare falter. "That looks like--" Starscream began to stammer. "Is--is--is that ... is that Airachnid's?" "She didn't need it anymore." "Arcee ...?" "No." "You?" Starscream laughed again, but this time it was less certain, and tinged with sudden fear. Jack continued glaring, but smirked at the same time. "They'll probably be finding pieces of that bitch for the next month." He drew the EMP rifle from his back and aimed it at Starscream. "And just in case you still don't take me seriously ...." He zapped Starscream, knocking him out long enough to holster the EMP rifle and pull out the other gun. He walked up to Starscream's slumped-over body and waited for him to reboot. Starscream grunted and twitched as his systems gradually came back online. His eyes flicked around, locked on to Jack's assault rifle, and opened wider. "You've already seen what our new ammo can do to you. So, to make sure there's no misunderstanding--if I lose Arcee because of you, I will fucking kill you." He shoved the barrel of his rifle into Starscream's face. "Is that clear?" "Jesus Christ," Jensen muttered in the corridor outside. "He is nuts." "Yes! Perfectly clear!" Starscream flinched, scooted away from Jack, and for a moment appeared to be trying to push himself through the wall behind him. He managed to pull himself together somewhat a few seconds later. He smiled and laughed nervously. "As I said, I am here to serve." "Be sure you stay that way. We'll be in touch." Jack picked up Airachnid's leg and left him there, trembling and shifty-eyed. The door closed and locked. "Wow." Ashanti shook her head and grinned. "Jackson Darby takes no shit." He walked over to Arcee, leaned against the wall, and stared at his shaking hands. His heart pounded and he took a few deep breaths. Arcee took his hands and said, "I love you!" "I love you, too." He let out another long breath, kissed her, and waved Airachnid's leg at the door at the far end of the corridor. "Okay, let's go save your life."