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Let's Call the Whole Thing Off

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titlecard by WearManyHats

It was a semi-routine mission to exchange intel with the Autobot team of guerillas headed by Elita One on Cybertron. Jazz could have pulled rank and sent Bumblebee or Mirage but a leader had to be willing to do anything he'd ask of his underlings... plus he'd drawn the short straw and now he was squeezing through the deeper layers of his mostly-abandoned home planet. And he'd apparently taken a detour through the Tiny Pipes and Cramped Tunnel district on his way back to the space bridge.

He'd never been quite so deep below the surface, even before the war. Even down so far, the planet showed the signs of sickness. A thin film of congealed energon patchworked the plating of the walls, traces of rust hiding in seams and cracks, puddles of foul fluid he had to crawl through. He supposed it could be worse. Elita's nomadic team had set up in a pretty remote area this time and Shockwave's seeker goons and drones hadn't gotten wise yet.

He came to the end of the tube and it opened into a massive chasm. A wound torn deep by some battle or bomb or other long ago. He cycled his vents and swung a leg out to begin the climb down. The tear stretched too wide to backtrack and go around— going down and back up again had to be the quickest route, and Jazz suddenly very much wanted to be back on Earth with his friends and comrades again. It was easier to keep one's thoughts up when one wasn't wallowing alone with them.

Just climb down, one foot and hand at a time, don't think about the old scorch marks, the warped plating, the mangled stubs of what used to be conduits bearing energy and life now dark and— okay, Jazz, keep your cool. Just get across.

A strut of some kind protruding from the chasm wall held his weight just long enough for him to clearly hear the creak of breaking metal— and it snapped. Jazz fell, scrabbling helplessly at the wall to try and catch himself, but he jounced and ricocheted off the various outcroppings like the galaxy's least fun game of pinball, finally smacking his head against a pipe, and careening offline the rest of the way down.

 


 

Jazz groaned, his existence narrowed to dents and errors and pain. He felt something touch him— hands, big ones, gently prodding his helm. Struggling to boot the rest of the way up, he batted at the hands.

"Easy, little one. Don't be afraid. I won't harm you."

"Who're you callin' little?" Jazz blustered, though it came out as "hooyercalitl?...nnghfraggit."

The voice, warm and deep, chuckled kindly. "Ah, there's life in you yet, isn't there? Good, good, just hold still a moment more..."

Jazz's optics abruptly came back online, and most of his damage error reports cleared out. There was another mech hovering over him, a fellow easily bigger than Megatron, his face masked. Jazz quickly took stock of the stranger— white optics, unusual. Plating dulled and covered in the same stains and traces of scorches and marks as the plating around them at the bottom of the chasm. He practically blended in. No faction insignia. A neutral? Rare was the occasion when one of those outliers stuck their neck cabling out for the sake of their warring brethren, either Autobot or Decepticon.

"You should be feeling better," the stranger said. "It was a simple fix. Your self-repair can handle it from here."

"Hey, thanks, mech," Jazz said, sitting up gingerly. "That fall could'a had me out for orns. You a medic or something?"

The stranger half-shrugged. "I do what I can." He extended a hand. "I'm curious, though— very few have ventured this close to the Core in a very long time."

Jazz hesitated. He couldn't afford to make any assumptions about this bot's intentions, but he didn't want to seem ungrateful. He took the mech's hand and let him pull him to his feet. "The Core?" he asked, dusting himself off. "How deep are we, exactly?" The chasm hadn't looked like it went that deep.

"Quite deep," the stranger replied. "The First Shrine is only one layer down from here."

Jazz whistled. The First Shrine, also known less reverently as Vector Sigma's Waiting Room, where supplicants hoping to ask for new sparks would keep vigil, waiting their turn for a chance to foster a new Cybertronian life. "A lot deeper than I was shootin' for!" he laughed. "I was only trying to get across this hole, get back to Iacon. Don't suppose you can point me in the right direction, m'mech?"

"You're in luck. There's a main conduit not far from here that will take you all the way up to the first sublayer near the outskirts of Iacon." The stranger's optics seemed to smile at Jazz. "The only quicker route would be teleportation, and I'm afraid that's a bit beyond me at the moment."

Jazz laughed, deciding he liked this mech. Anyone who could keep that kind of attitude in these conditions had to be an okay sort. "That's perfect. Which way?"

"I can take you there myself." The stranger spread his hands, empty palms out. "Truthfully I'd be glad of the company, if you'll indulge a lonely old mechanism for a short while."

Aw, heck. "Lead on, friend," he said. He knew, in the back of his processor, that he was being far too trusting. But if the mech had wanted to do him harm, he'd certainly had the opportunity while Jazz had been out cold. And there was always the chance he was being led into a trap, but... somehow, weirdly, Jazz couldn't bring himself to doubt the stranger. He felt oddly at ease.

"Can't be easy," Jazz ventured, trailing behind the mech, "you the only one down here? For how long?"

"Since long before the war began. Oh, there have been a few who have come here, but... one way or another it would not have been prudent to approach them."

"So why me?" Jazz followed the mech into a side tunnel that was big enough that he didn't have to crawl, but his guide still had to stoop. "Most neutrals aren't exactly thrilled to see us."

The mech shook his head. "How I miss the days when there was no Autobot or Decepticon or neutral. Only Cybertronian." He cast a sad look over his shoulder at Jazz. "I know who you are, Jazz of Protihex, Autobot lieutenant to the Prime. Oh, you've never met me face to face," he said, ducking through a tear in the tunnel wall and gesturing Jazz through. "But I've seen you, heard of your comings and goings."

And Jazz had it on good authority that the seeker flock here spoke of him in hushed harmonics as if he'd been spit forth fully formed from the Unmaker's very smelting pool. "Yeah," he admitted, feeling inexplicably ashamed in this mech's presence. "I know I haven't exactly got the shiniest spark."

The stranger made optic contact over his shoulder. "I don't believe that. By all accounts you've done what you've done in the name of things greater than yourself, to protect others, and to hasten an end to this war. Those are noble intentions."

"Maybe." Jazz looked away from the mech's penetrating gaze. "Just wish those things I do weren't so unpleasant sometimes, noble intent or not." He brushed a hand against a stray scorch mark on the tunnel wall. "Who knows how much of this damage is my doin'. Y'know, it actually seems a little better since the last time I was here? How hopeless are we when the only way for Cybertron to start healing is for the Cybertronians to just leave?"

"Taking the war offworld did mitigate things. Some of the energon wells even show signs of restarting." His guide turned back and continued walking, this time down a considerably larger tunnel. "But I follow your circuit of thought. You fear if everyone returns home they'll only bring the fighting back with them. It's a worry I share, I don't mind telling you."

Jazz followed wordlessly, letting the other mech talk. "Sparks returning to the Well but no petitioners come to Vector Sigma for new ones... our people need this war to end, or it will end us."

"Don't I know it," Jazz muttered morosely. "Believe me, if there was a way to call the whole thing off, I'd be first in line."

"Do you mean that, Jazz?" the stranger asked quietly, turning to face him again.

Jazz drew himself up straight and looked the mech in the optic. "With all my spark."

The stranger nodded to himself, optics again seeming to smile down at Jazz as he grasped the smaller mech's shoulder. "Good." He let go and pointed down the tunnel. "Keep going to the end of this corridor, then turn right and follow the way uphill. It's a straight shot to Iacon from there."

"I really appreciate the assist, m'mech," Jazz said, already moving. "I owe you one. Say, I never did catch your—"

The stranger was gone.

"—name." Jazz scratched at a sensory horn. "Huh. Fast for a big guy." He shrugged and transformed to vehicle mode. It wasn't the weirdest encounter he'd ever had, to be sure, but he'd definitely have to remember to buy the big fellow a cube of good high grade if the bars ever got rebuilt.

 


 

"Draw me like one of your French bots."

"GAH." It took everything Sunstreaker had not to haul back and punch the individual lying draped over his berth; it was the last thing he'd expected to see when the door to his quarters slid open after a long shift on patrol. "Frag you, Jazz!"

"Hey, that's not a bad idea," Jazz purred, pleased with himself.

Useless to ask how he'd gotten in here, pointless to ask why. "C'mon, I haven't even been to the washrack yet." Despite the token protest, Sunstreaker palmed the door control behind him and crossed the room to join Jazz on the berth. "When did you get back?"

"About half an hour ago. Gotta file my report still, but it's nothing that can't wait." Jazz wasn't wasting any time. Sunstreaker knew from experience that trips to Cybertron tended to put the Ops mechs in a funk, and Jazz's way of dealing with it was to get nice and open-chested with someone as soon as possible. Sunstreaker could appreciate the feeling.

Sunstreaker let his chestplates part slightly, running a finger down the invisible seam in Jazz's. He traced the minor dings and scratches in Jazz's finish as he climbed atop him, mentally making a note to offer a buffing and wax later. That always made Sunstreaker feel better.

Chestplates separated fully as hands roved freely over plating. Spark chambers extended forward and split open, bathing the half-lit room in shimmering light. Sunstreaker stroked the edge of Jazz's chamber and the Ops mech groaned and shuddered. Jazz reached up and grabbed Sunstreaker's open chestplates, pulling him down.

Their sparks' coronae came into contact with a subsonic hum and a crackling of energy. They held there, the first frissons of pleasure tickling through their sensory nets. It took only a few moments for both sparks to find their synchronous frequency. Then Sunstreaker moved closer, and the sparks merged.

Tales of lovers being able to read minds, hear thoughts, see memories— that was the stuff of silly Golden Age romance holonovellas— but emotional resonance was real enough. Jazz was in a mope, for sure, Sunstreaker could tell, but a hopeful feeling tinged the dismal mood like— the humans called it 'silver lining'. Sunstreaker briefly wondered what the optimism was about. Maybe some juicy bit of intel brought back from Elita, but it wasn't any of his business. Not right now, at any rate, with waves of energy circling through the merge link, steadily pulsing faster, building in intensity.

Outside the merge, Sunstreaker's hands were still busy, cupped over Jazz's sensory horns, fondling them gently. Jazz kept his hands on Sunstreaker's spread chestplates, mindful that his usual habit of scraping fingers through his lover's finish would not be well-received with this particular lover. They clutched each other closer still, chambers almost touching, as the merged sparks spiraled closer to overload. And with a crash of pure pleasure, it struck, the two mechs going rigid, the room filling with light and ripples of stray energy.

Afterglow was the sound of pinging, cooling metal, of cooling fans purring white noise. Sunstreaker pushed up, their sparks separating. There was a twinge as the coronae parted, almost like two soap bubbles' surface tension stretching as they were pulled apart. It wasn't normal— Sunstreaker's chamber hitched at the split-second wobble— but it didn't hurt, so he ignored it.

"Oh, man oh man." Jazz stretched as his chamber shut and receded. "That hit the spot. You do something special this time, Sunny? Feel like I could go for two or three more of those."

Still straddling his prone commander, Sunstreaker barked out a laugh. "Seriously? I'll be lucky if I don't doze off in the washracks."

"Aw."

"And don't you still have to see Prowl? Has Ratchet even checked you over since you got back?" Sunstreaker poked and prodded until Jazz was more or less off the berth and on his feet. "And how did I turn into the responsible one here? You're terrible. Go."

 


 

Prowl didn't look up from his monitor when the door opened. "Ratchet really should have been your first stop, Jazz. I take it you have something significant from Elita to rep—"

Jazz, slouched casually in the seat on the other side of the desk, pretended to nonchalantly study the nearby wall as his chestplates fluttered ever so slightly.

Prowl sighed, half-smiling. "All right, then."

 


 

"The spectra of thy field electromagnetic is like unto a brown dwarf of Aludra—"

It was Mirage's favorite game. He put a hand between Bluestreak's doorwings and leaned gently in behind him, letting his engine send vibrations down his arm and into the younger mech's backstrut.

"—and a frequency afire with equations divine, o my spark, o star entrapped within—"

He called it private tutoring in classical Towers literature. His lovers called it torture.

...of the best sort, of course.

"—and unto Primus below do I sing harmonies of thy beauty and... a-and..."

"Keep going, you're doing just fine." Mirage had pressed his body inbetween Bluestreak's wings, his fingers tracing out symmetrical glyphs on the inner side of each panel. He mentally placed his bet on the third stanza. Mechs never lasted long where the Ode of Cantus Beta was involved.

"—speak to me of the circumference of thy primary cog and I shall... I sh-shall quote thee mine—" Bluestreak stuttered again as Mirage's hand drifted around and caressed the plating on his abdomen situated directly over the the referenced cog, known these days as the transformation cog. "... no formula I possess knows the mathematics of thy grace, yet I shall know them... and thy... c-crystalli-i-i-ne..."

Mirage paused in nibbling at Bluestreak's neck cabling, pretending to ignore the heat building underneath both their exoplating. "Something wrong?" he cooed innocently. "I know some of these old glyphs are tricky—"

Bluestreak tossed the datapad aside with a growl. He had the presence of processor to step forward before spinning around (whacking your lover across the face with a doorwing was a guaranteed moodkiller) and grabbing Mirage by the helm. Their lips met.

Kissing was a habit some of the Autobots had picked up from the humans. Mirage had been at first dismissive of the weird, fundamentally organic behavior, until one day he'd given in and let Bluestreak demonstrate the little Cybertronian spin that had been applied: electricity. Disengage a few minor relays and a low voltage charge was directed to the flexible metal of one's face. Which, by itself, did nothing, really. But if said charged face made contact with an uncharged one...

Oooh, what a delicious tingle.

Bluestreak's chestplates split eagerly and Mirage opened to welcome him. The two points of contact, face to face and spark to spark, formed a circuit of pure bliss. Mirage grinned without breaking contact, sensing the enthusiasm in the younger mech's mood, fringed as always with a touch of shyness and nervousness. Mirage pushed back with appreciation and acceptance, as always.

Whoever Bluestreak approached for interface was a telling thing; if a battle had gone badly or if he'd had a nasty shock of some kind, he usually asked the more protective and empathetic sparks on board. Trailbreaker, Hoist, even Optimus. But things had been going well of late, and Bluestreak was in a happier, more centered state of mind, and picked his partners for pleasure and fun over comfort. Mirage took it as a compliment; and besides, a confident and content Bluestreak was just a good thing all 'round.

Overload struck, and both mechs' sparks pulsed in time, trying to prolong the moment as long as possible. When it finally ebbed, Mirage gave his lover one last good kiss and stepped back. Was it his imagination, or did it feel as if their sparks seemed reluctant to part, one last little flash of light before separating?

"Whooo." Bluestreak swooned slightly on his feet as Mirage steadied him. "What was that? You saw that— that ...?" and he flicked a hand nebulously at Mirage's chest.

Post-overload Bluestreak was, ironically, not good with words. Mirage arched an ocular ridge. "Oh, just a bit of a flutter. Happened earlier today with Prowl, and he didn't make anything of it. I'm sure it's nothing."

Bluestreak didn't quite frown. "But I could swear I saw something jump into your chamber when we pulled out."

"Probably just a bit of stray energy. I wouldn't give it another thought, really."

"Are you okay?"

"Oh, Blue." Mirage bumped forehelms with him. "You're a delight. Don't worry about it."

 


 

Culturally speaking, interfacing was never a complicated thing for Cybertronians. How often, who with, and how public it was was all up to the individuals participating. Earth had necessitated some spoken rules, however, on top of the less defined unspoken ones.

 

1. Not during your duty shift.

2. Not in front of the humans.

 

Things were still pretty fast and loose, Cliffjumper's Addendum notwithstanding ("Don't make it weird") and the overall frequency of interfacing waxed and waned with the general mood of the crew from day to day. Sparkplug had figured it out, even if he didn't know the specifics ("Two mechs sneak off to the closet, come back twenty minutes later looking smug. I lived through the seventies. Give me some credit here, Ratch.") and it wasn't unheard of for a quickie to be stolen during on-duty hours. Infractions were generally overlooked as long as it caused no disruptions.

Sideswipe was pretty sure this counted as an infraction. But his business ties were older than the war, and no secrets were in play...

"... so that's ten units of mercury and one of caesium for your updated brewery schematics, and a new high grade recipe." Swindle rubbed his hands together in anticipation.

"Two of caesium." Sideswipe smirked. "I happen to know you're eager to get rid of the stuff, surrounded as you are by all that nice dihydrogen monoxide down there." He knew for a fact that the element in question was a waste by-product of the Nemesis' generators, and the Decepticons couldn't really dispose of it properly without making a mess in the ocean that would do a nice job of pinpointing the sunken ship's location to the humans, who likely wouldn't be nearly as subtle or careful about defending Earth as the Autobots were. Some of the more touchy Earth powers liked to periodically make noise about nuclear weapons where their alien aggressors were concerned, and the Autobots no more wanted their allies harming themselves than the Decepticons wanted to risk being atomized.

"What are you using the stuff for?" Swindle asked. "Surely not as an energon additive. Unless Autobots are into... slimy energon curds as a delicacy."

Sideswipe laughed at the mental image. "Oh, some of it'll go to Perceptor and the other science whizzes for some boring thing or other," he replied nonchalantly, "but the recipe I'm giving you now's got nothing on what I'm cooking up. It'll knock your gears loose, completely curd-free, guaranteed."

"Oho. What would it take to get my servos on that formula, then?"

"Ah-ah, Swindle, it's not ready for public consumption just yet. Just be ready to beg me for a taste when the time comes."

Swindle laughed. "You know, if I didn't have complete faith in your brewing prowess I'd condemn that as unfounded swagger. But for this deal, at least: ten mercury, two caesium. Here's the dead drop location." And he showed Sideswipe a datapad.

Committing the coordinates to memory, Sideswipe touched the screen to add his glyph of agreement. "Schematics and formula specs will be on a secure datapad, like always."

"Excellent!" Swindle subspaced the pad and stood, casually running one hand down the middle of his chestplates. "Shall we seal the deal? C'mon, friend... cast some shadows for old times' sake?"

Sideswipe looked around at their clandestine 'offices of business', a.k.a. a dusty abandoned warehouse, and mentally shrugged. He'd been on cheaper dates.

 

Chapter Text

one week later—

 

It was literally the middle of the night when Jazz snapped out of recharge. There were no alarms going off. Nobody on the emergency comm channels. Not even any noise in the corridor outside his quarters. Jazz blinked at the ceiling, processor reluctantly ticking up from a half-completed recharge cycle for no reason whatsoever. No internal errors came back from a quick systems check. Weird, he thought, and tried to drop back to sleep.

...only to be jerked alert halfway through the shutdown sequence by a strange fluttering sensation between his hip joints.

Jazz squirmed on his berth, hoping to untwist whatever cable or gear was out of whack in there, and tried again to— his entire pelvic gimbal convulsed, seemingly from the inside out, and he let out a yelp of surprise. A strange heat suffused his internals and his ventilation system opened up. The fluttering in his lower abdominal section turned into a full-on throbbing.

Vocalizer spitting something halfway between static and inarticulate nonsense, he rolled off the berth, intending to make for the medbay. No need to wake Ratchet just yet; if whatever it was worked itself out on the walk there, no harm done. He only made it as far as the floor directly beside his berth. Something inside him was triggering unfamiliar pressure sensors, and his processor was reading the data as pure, raw pleasure. Every actuator from his hips down turned to mush, and he found himself curled up nearly double, kneeling on the floor.

The ...thing... inside redoubled its efforts. Jazz could feel a distinct push-and-pull as more sensors he'd never felt before lit up. He was about to comm Ratchet— this was entirely too weird, no matter how good it felt— but it sped up again, and he let out a whine despite himself. His whole frame felt as if he'd been dumped into a pool of heated oil, all relaxed and gears slack, but at the same time, an electric tension in his struts grew stronger. Jazz pawed uselessly at the featureless codpiece armor beneath which parts vibrated and oscillated. It felt like interfacing, but not quite the same; his spark was quiet but his frame sang with frantic bliss.

What had to be overload finally struck, a heavy and solitary event low in the pit of his core internals, so unlike the social, open, back-and-forth of a shared spark merge, but no less enjoyable... if confusing and just a bit alarming.

He was still on the floor, vents going full bore, trying to work around his shock, when his systems betrayed him, dropping him back into recharge before he could call the medbay.

 


 

"Where is Mixmaster?" demanded Megatron, glaring around the war room. "I recall specifically ordering him to be present."

Through the pale glow of the hologram detailing their next raid target, Starscream scowled at the other officers as if holding them each personally responsible for the delay. Rare was the occasion Megatron deigned to let one of Starscream's plans make it to this stage; damned if he was going to let some jumped-up chemist blow it for him. /Mixmaster. Report to the war room immediately!/ he barked over the public comm.

/Er, Hook here,/ came the reply from the resident medic, showing a shade more discretion by using the command comm line, /Mix came in half a joor ago with... something./

/Something./ Megatron packed a novella's worth of impatience, annoyance, and warning into that single deadpan glyph.

/Lord Megatron, I apologize,/ Hook replied. /I don't know much yet, still running some deeper scans. Mixmaster's suffering some kind of... spontaneous spasms. Seizures, almost./

Soundwave, who had been seemingly ignoring the conversation in favor of studying the proposed raid plan, suddenly looked up.

"Fantastic." Starscream crossed his arms over his cockpit and stared at the ceiling. "I need that glitch's so-called expertise for my plan and he's gone and picked up some virus."

/Begging the Air Commander's pardon,/ snapped Hook, /but it's not a virus. If one Constructicon has it we all do, and we're all clean. It's the first thing I check. Thank you./

/Hook: state exact nature of Mixmaster's affliction./ Soundwave interceded before the medic's snide tone could set Starscream off. /Physical injury or processor fault?/

/Initial scan came back all systems nominal, which is why I'm taking a deeper look. I'll know more in a.../ Hook's voice trailed off. /...i-in a joor or s-so.../

/Hook?/ Megatron prompted.

If anything, Hook sounded almost breathless. /Apologies... Mixm-master is having another... episss-sode.../

"Tell me again how a gestalt link was a good idea?" muttered Astrotrain from the other end of the room. Megatron growled in warning, then spoke over the comm to Hook.

/Just figure it out. You have half a joor./

/...yes... ye-yes, Lord Mm... oh Primus—/

Megatron cut the comm channel, not bothering to hide his combined disgust and confusion. By the looks of faceplates around the room, he wasn't alone.

"Was it just me," Astrotrain, ever the enemy of subtlety, asked of the room at large, "or did it sound like he was... overloading?"

"Dismissed," Megatron snarled, turning for the door. "Soundwave, find out what is going on. I'll be in my quarters."

Just when he'd thought they'd broken their habit of waiting until their energon stores were bare to plan a raid; he couldn't even take this delay out on Starscream. Megatron couldn't muster up the energy to be truly angry at the moment. He needed a cube or two— they still had a modest reserve yet— then he'd be in a proper mood to storm the medbay for answers.

Hmm. Maybe a dram of coolant as well. His lower core had begun to heat up.

 


 

Mirage was in the corner of the rec room, sitting at his usual table, a half-consumed cube and datapad on the table in front of him. He was also completely invisible.

Hound knew he was there, of course, the minute he walked in, thanks to his specialized sensor suite. It wasn't unusual for Mirage to do his disappearing act around the ship when he was feeling moody or insular. Hound frowned to himself while pulling his daily ration from the dispenser. Mirage had seemed fine yesterday evening. What'd happened?

He was going to respect the implicit signal for privacy until he saw— detected, really— the spy trembling and rocking slightly back and forth. Quietly and casually, so as not to attract the attention of the rather cutthroat board game being played by a cluster of 'bots at the other side of the room, Hound moved over to Mirage's corner and sat down a few feet away from him.

"'Raj, you okay?" Hound murmured into his energon without looking at the blank spot in the corner.

It took a moment for the reply to come. "... yes, I think so." Mirage's voice was only just above a whisper, quavery with... pain? Sadness? "Just give me a moment, Hou- oooohhhh."

Abandoning all pretense of being by himself, Hound moved a bit closer and put his hand on Mirage's unseen shoulder. "What's wrong? Are you hurt?"

"Probably just—" Mirage suddenly curled up where he sat, forehelm touching the table, frame going rigid, practically vibrating under Hound's hand. Alarmed, Hound almost paged the medbay on the spot, but after a couple seconds Mirage seemed to relax.

"Mirage, what the dross?"

"I'm fine now, Hound, it was probably just some feedback from... something." Mirage decloaked, an odd grin playing at the corner of his mouth. "It's probably nothing."

Hound fixed the spy with a look as he slowly sat up. "Probably nothing? 'Raj, you're running hot. I can feel it through your plating."

"I'm fine!" Mirage insisted airily, leaning back against the wall. "Sometimes something causes a little interference with my disruptor and a few wires get crossed and I'll feel a little funny for a few orns. I'm sure my self-repair will sort it right out in no time."

"Okay, but... I've seen you feeling 'a little funny' and then there's whatever that just was," Hound said, gesturing up and down Mirage's frame. "Your disruptor faults ever put that big a smile on your face before?"

Mirage threw a quick look to the table across the room. The board game ("No! Not the robber! Damn it, Cliffjumper, I need that quarry!" "If you give me all the wheat in your hand I might be persuaded to put the robber someplace else..." "Wow, didn't take long for this to turn into Mafia of Catan, did it?") was still occupying the attention of the other mechs. Nobody had noticed the pair in the corner.

"No, I'll grant you that was a bit... unusual." Mirage grabbed his cube and downed the rest of the energon in one go. "Rather intense. Pleasurable, in fact. Only lasts a few minutes, it's nothing."

"Wha... how long has this been going on?"

"Hound, will you relax? This is only the third time it's happened in the past few days. I just couldn't get out of the rec room when this one hit. Oh, stop looking at me like that, would you? Don't call Ratchet, I know you're thinking it. Jazz will take me off the duty roster and I'm to go on a mission tomorrow."

"Exactly why I should be hauling you into the medbay myself," Hound retorted. "What if that happens while you're deep in the Decepticons' ship or whatever?"

Mirage's expression took on a distinctively mulish look. Hound gave him a gentle shove. "C'mon. Off duty's better than locked up in the 'Cons' brig. Or worse." Just to make sure he got there, Hound all but force-marched his friend straight to the medbay. Mirage offered up only token objection, tacitly acknowledging that yes, Hound had a good point. The medbay doors slid open just as they rounded the corner, and Tracks emerged.

"I wouldn't bother," said Tracks as he swanned past Mirage and Hound. "Our good doctor's not in a healing mood today. If anyone needs me, I'll be in my quarters, slowly deactivating."

"What in the..." Mirage peered after Tracks, baffled.

Inside the medbay, Ratchet turned to greet the pair by waving a handheld scanner threateningly in their general direction. "I don't see any smoking holes in either one of you, so unless you'd like to let me in on the joke, you'd best roll right back the way you came."

"Mirage had some kind of fit in the rec room just now," Hound said, ignoring the spy's indignant huff. "Had him curled up and overheated."

"Red Alert came in here claiming someone had hacked his motor controls, Tracks says he's being turned inside out..." Ratchet ran the scanner over Mirage's frame as he grumbled. "Did Prowl declare a prank amnesty day? ...ah, see? Normal readings across the board."

"Doc, I saw it happen," Hound protested. "Whatever it was had him shaking and practically locked up. Tell him, Mirage."

"He's... he's right," Mirage reluctantly admitted. "But it's not like I'm in any pain. It's just sort of... sort of like... well, an overload. Only from down here." And he pointed directly to his codpiece.

Ratchet was silent for several seconds. "Would you mind getting up on the berth here, Mirage?" he asked, strangely calm.

Now genuinely concerned, Mirage did so without protest. "Did Red Alert and Tracks have the same, er, symptoms?"

"Twice is coincidence," Ratchet said, left hand transforming into a set of tools. "Three times is a pattern. Spontaneous overload-like spasms centered in the lower abdominal core... Alright, just hold still, I'm just going to take a look, see what the scanner's not telling me."

Hound moved back against the wall, out of the way but offering his moral support as Ratchet unlatched the interlocking plates just above Mirage's pelvic gimbal. After a few moments of bemused prying, the medic activated his comm.

/Red Alert, Tracks, please report to the medbay... I may owe you both an apology./

 


 

"This structure was found in all three." Ratchet gestured to the hologram floating serenely over the center of the officers' conference table. "Identically situated in the lower anterior core, dead center behind the codpiece."

Ironhide leaned in, squinting at the strange apparatus. At first glance it could be mistaken for a small fuel tank, or a coolant pump. "Alright," Ironhide drawled. "I'll bite. What is it?"

"That's a very good question," Ratchet replied. "It seems to be the source of the spontaneous spasms Red, Tracks and Mirage are experiencing."

"But what is it, Ratchet?" Optimus studied the diagram intently. "How did it get there?"

Prowl reached out and manipulated the image, rotating it this way and that. "And is this some sort of Decepticon ploy? A bomb, or monitoring device, perhaps?"

"No," replied Ratchet, "and no. Trust me, this gets a lot weirder than that. Plus none of them have had any chance to be compromised recently. Red Alert himself confirmed this. The reason a basic medical scan missed it is because it seems to have integrated seamlessly into their systems, and I do mean seamlessly. If I didn't know any better, I'd swear it's supposed to be there.

"Took a quick scan of Tracks' code and almost didn't find anything," Ratchet continued. "But you know how all the basic functions like fuel pump regulation, coolant distribution, self-repair nanites and such— the code that governs that is spread out over hundreds of clusters, all the autonomic functions are."

"Yes, it's so if one cluster is damaged you don't suddenly cease functioning entirely," Perceptor put in. "But what does that have to do with this inexplicable implant?"

"There's code running this thing." Ratchet gestured to the diagram. "Distributed the same way."

Prowl frowned. "But that would take a master code surgeon. Or a hacker with unparalleled skill and long-term access to the individual's processors."

Ratchet nodded. "Again, seamless integration."

"Can they be removed?" Optimus asked. Ratchet held up a finger.

"You may want to hold that question, Prime. I'm not quite done." Ratchet caught the hologram and turned it around. "I actually monitored Tracks as he had another episode; I got to see the whole thing, start to finish. Back here is a kind of reservoir that collects repair nanites and holds them there, until something triggers this piston-like mechanism to engage. That's where the spasms happen. The piston and the socket both are packed with sensors, and the corresponding code reads it as intense pleasure. While that's going on, the nanites travel down the center of the piston, and upon this overload-equivalent, they're released up into this larger chamber."

"For what purpose?" Perceptor put in. "And why these three?"

"Four."

All optics turned to Jazz, who had been unusually silent the entire time. Ratchet pinned Jazz with a particularly sharp look. The head of Special Operations and Bane of Decepticons simply wilted where he sat and nodded as if confessing to an unspeakable crime.

"When we're done here, medbay." Ratchet smoothly turned back to the hologram. "This main chamber here has a line tapped into the energon filtration system. It's a negligible drain, as far as I can tell, but the kicker is what it's feeding." And Ratchet manipulated the hologram to split apart in cross-section.

There within the tank-like structure of the mysterious mechanism, nestled in a little bundle of hair-thin wires, hung a tiny point of bright light.

"A spark."

Chapter Text

"They're taking pallets of building materials... looks like steel and copper." Bluestreak peered through his scope. "I see where the Stunticons have the workers held up. No casualties, I think. Can't quite see what... ah, there's what they were after. Starscream's at the gas tanks."

"Tough times in the mighty Decepticon empire," Ironhide said, charging his favorite cannon. "Hydrocarbon gas has to make the thinnest, weakest energon in the galaxy."

Optimus put a hand on the barrel of Ironhide's weapon. "Don't fire around the tanks. That gas supplies power to an entire community of humans. Let's get in close and engage them hand-to-hand if possible. Bluestreak, when we get their attention, fire warning shots at the Stunticons. Draw them away from the humans. Sunstreaker, Sideswipe, and Windcharger, you will keep them too busy to form Menasor, while Bumblebee will get the humans out of harms' way. Aerialbots, distract Thundercracker and Skywarp, get them away from the tanks. Ironhide and I will deal with Starscream."

As far as Decepticon energy raids went, this seemed ill-thought-out; more a crime of opportunity than anything else. It was a natural gas refinery that was undergoing expansion to its facilities. The lax security brought on by lengthy construction had made it vulnerable. Optimus wondered where Megatron was keeping himself this time but wasn't going to complain if the warlord didn't show up. It'd be just like him, however, to stage this block-fisted raid as a diversion while enacting something more dastardly elsewhere.

Red Alert was back at his post monitoring all the sky-spy inputs for just such an occurrence. The security director had openly defied Ratchet's orders to remain in the medbay the second the alarms had gone off. "I don't care if it's a spark, an energy parasite or Thanagarian snare-beast in there," Red had declared, rubbing his abdominal plating nervously all the same. "I have a job to do!"

Parasite, betentacled alien creature, or actual spark— Optimus just hoped a paroxysm with bad timing wouldn't prove Red Alert's undoing.

"On my mark... Autobots, roll out!"

Bluestreak's first shot clipped off the top of Wildrider's helm with a cheery 'ting!' Sunstreaker, Sideswipe, Windcharger and Bumblebee charged in vehicle mode down the slope towards the Stunticons and their human hostages, and the Aerialbots took flight.

That was when the battle plan curled up and died. Optimus always expected it to. Such was the nature of war. The battle plan had never died quite like... this.

He'd made it to the bottom of the steep hill they had been using as cover, and then it hit him, like a kick from a combined gestalt. Optimus buckled to his knees as something pulsated powerfully within him. He was just as shocked by its intensity as its suddenness. Was this what the others were experiencing?

"Prime!" Ironhide was at his side in an instant, laying down cover fire as he crouched. "Are you hit?"

"No, I—" Optimus tried to stand, only to tumble backwards and awkwardly catch himself against the rocky hillside, sliding down to a sitting position. "— happening to me too—"

"What!" Ironhide took his optics off the fight to stare at his leader. "Prime, what— no! Stop it!"

Optimus would have laughed if he'd been at all capable of it. The image of the piston and canal apparatus from Ratchet's medical hologram was at the very front of his processor, and he could swear he could feel it moving as it hit the sensor nodes— back and forth, in and out and back again— Great Primus, was it speeding up?

Distantly Optimus was aware of Ironhide yelling at him to get up and 'try to hold it in or something', of Starscream pointing a null-ray in his direction, and of the sounds of fighting coming close. And then overload: a rolling, searing climax that made his optic feed blur into static, his hands clench and gouge the earth to either side.

Elsewhere inside him, the Matrix hummed with interest.

 


 

"And where were you this time?" demanded Starscream, marching right up to Megatron. "The only thing that keeps this from being a complete embarrassment is the fact that we did manage to get away with two full tanks—"

"YOU'RE WELCOME," Skywarp bellowed from the other end of the cargo level where Hook was attempting to straighten his wing from the unnatural right angle it had acquired in an argument with an Aerialbot. Starscream ignored him.

"— we probably could have gotten the entire reserve if you had bothered to act like a decent leader—"

Megatron grabbed his second-in-command by the collar fairing and gave the seeker a little shake in warning. "I'll decide if my presence is required or not, Starscream. You should be flattered I trusted you to take the lead on this simple mission. I'll be sure to hold your hand next time."

"Don't bother!" Starscream was really warming up to the argument now, moving in to get in Megatron's face, helm-to-helm. "Maybe the rest of the Decepticons will see what competent leadership looks like now that I've brought back enough fuel to keep us going for months!"

"Weeks," corrected Thundercracker, deadpan. Starscream ignored him too.

"One brief flash of adequacy does not a leader make," Megatron growled, pushing his chestplates aggressively against Starscream's cockpit. "If you think for one moment I'm—" He stopped short.

Starscream, his cockpit already half-folded out of the way, paused and narrowed his optics. "You're what?" he scoffed.

Megatron abruptly shoved Starscream away from him and stalked stiffly out of the room without another word. Starscream was left blinking and confounded and thoroughly wound up in the spark; he turned after a moment to Thundercracker.

"Nuh-uh." The blue seeker immediately held up both hands and backed away. "I don't do angry-'facing."

"Skyw—"

(*bamf!*)

"... I hate you all."

 


 

"How many?" Starscream almost checked his audios for errors.

"Six," Hook repeated. "Including myself, now. Sort of."

Starscream peered across the table at the medic. "How sort-of is it? Either you've got an overload-inducing parasitic implant or not."

"The mechanism is there, but there's no spark in mine." Hook handed Starscream a datapad. "And sparks they are, if a bit on the small side, indistinguishable in frequency and spectra from any spark ignited by Vector Sigma."

With a practiced scientist's eye Starscream looked over the medical readings. Mixmaster, Dead End, Runamuck, Breakdown and Wildrider (and the Stunticons' den had to be a fun place for sure right now) all with second sparks in strange apparatuses. Hook was right; Energy parasites, while exceedingly rare, had telltale signs clearly differentiating them from a normal spark. Processor boggling over that, Starscream paged down and stopped.

"But... the nanites— that's absurd."

"Got to that part, did you?" Hook scrubbed a hand down his faceplates. "I skipped a recharge cycle trying to figure out just how that happened."

"The structures aren't foreign metal? The repair nanites are building these things from the inside from the mech's own protoform?"

"And the code changes and the thrusting and the..." Hook twirled a hand in the air and let the sentence perish unfinished. Starscream could tell this was really getting underneath the medic's plating. Usually Hook didn't present data until he had all the answers and all possible solutions ready.

"Feedback over the gestalt link is that bad?"

Hook made a face that told Starscream he'd rather donate his transformation cog to an adolescent human science class than answer that question. "Please tell me this is some kind of Autobot sabotage. I hate to admit it, but if more of us turn up... this... well, every time we muster for battle or raid, it'll be a roll of the dice if you wind up writhing on the ground in pleasure. You'd be beyond easy pickings. You can't shut it off, you can't just power through it, and, Starscream, this is the worst part— I can't remove the apparatus. Any incision or cut or damage heals almost instantly. Cut the energon tank tap cable in Breakdown and it grew back while I watched. Self-repair in that area is operating at almost ten times efficacy."

Well, that was certainly disturbing and bizarre, and— "Wait a moment. That raid yesterday... Optimus Prime fell before he could actually join the fight... just buckled to the ground and shook."

"You don't think..."

Starscream pinged Soundwave's comm. /Soundwave... I believe we are overdue for some Autobot intel./

 


 

Hands on hips, Ratchet stood in the doorway to his office and surveyed the medbay. "This is getting out of hand."

Eight. There were eight Autobots in the medbay. All six medical berths were taken: Red Alert, Tracks, Mirage, Jazz, and now Groove and a very put-out looking Cliffjumper sat, boredly lounged or (in Groove's case, currently) enjoyed a surprise overload while the others did their best to try to ignore the moans and giggles of gratification.

Numbers seven, Optimus Prime, and eight— Ratchet himself, to his eternal embarrassment— had retreated to the medbay office. Prime had been oddly reserved since his collapse in battle, as if lost in thought. Ratchet vented noisily, palmed the door control, and sat down at his desk opposite Optimus.

"I've got us all on medical leave for the moment," Ratchet began, "though other than the incapacitating overloads there's nothing life-threatening going on. I'm going to have to start calling everybody in to screen them for ... whatever the smelting frag this is. Even though I know that'll turn this ship into a Benny Hill sketch. And we still don't know anything about these spark parasites."

"I don't think they're parasites, Ratchet," Optimus said quietly. "The Matrix protects me against such things. And it's been unusually active since... this." He placed a hand over his lower abdominal segment.

"Wisdom of the Primes have anything useful to say about all of this?"

Optimus shook his head. "Nothing like this has ever happened before, as far as the Matrix knows. It just seems very interested. It's difficult to put into words."

Ratchet never had any idea what to make of Optimus when it came to the Matrix. Things always got a little too mystical and metaphysical whenever that artifact 'woke up', and things Ratchet couldn't lay hands and sensors on made him nervous. But he trusted Optimus to figure it out, one way or another. So he turned to more concrete matters.

"Jazz seems to have the most, er, progressed development out of all of us," Ratchet began, calling up a hologram. It was the cutaway diagram of the tank-and-piston array again, showing the little spark inside the spherical chamber. "Turns out the nanites going into this thing undergo a reformat of sorts. Some revert to base protomatter, some are shedding all but the neural crystal and gathering in clusters, and some are busy building this."

He isolated the chaotic jumble away from the rest of the array. Without the outer structure in the way, the little frayed knot of wires and rods took on a startling and recognizable shape.

A little round cage half-obscured the tiny spark, the bare scaffolding of a spark chamber in miniature. A dense clump of wires and gears beneath that. Nearby, a lump of crystal glittering with nanite activity. Directly attached to that, two miniscule nodules of translucent blue. And four distinct offshoots of delicate pencil-thin struts.

"Prime... they're building bodies."

Optimus sat up straight, staring at the image for several seconds. Then he looked at Ratchet and held out a closed fist over the desk. Ratchet extended his own fist, and with a synchronized downward pumping motion, Ratchet flattened his hand out, while Optimus extended two fingers. Ratchet groaned.

Optimus sat back in his chair, satisfied. "Scissors beats paper. You get to tell Red Alert."

"At any rate," Ratchet said, turning off the hologram with a scowl, "I could try removing the array, but these are the most overzealous nanites I've ever seen. It could just... grow right back. On the one hand, like I said, these things aren't actually hurting us. On the other, we're eight of us out of battle duty, including our Prime and both medics."

"First Aid is...?"

"No, but he's catching everything Groove is feeling through their gestalt link. Which means Defensor is off the roster now as well. If the Decepticons happen to catch wind of this it could..." Ratchet frowned and shifted in his seat.

"Ratchet?"

"Oh, come on!" Ratchet unconsciously grabbed his codpiece. "It hasn't even been a joor since the last one!"

Optimus got up and came around to Ratchet's side. "Do you... want me to leave?"

Composure already lost and vents roaring, Ratchet shook his head. "D... datapad."

Optimus found the item on the corner of the desk and tried to hand it to Ratchet, but the medic again shook his head, now rocking his hips forward and back. "...just... t-turn it on."

Streams of data filled the screen, faster than Optimus could follow. "Innn-installed a... remote monitor..." Ratchet was determined to remain professional in the face of the building wave of processor-blowing bliss. "— in myself. Nnnneed to— Primus! ah! need to see real-time—"

"Easy, old friend." Optimus steadied him with an arm around his shoulders. "Let the monitor do its job. The datapad is recording everything, just ride it out."

Ratchet said something that might have been "oh shut up" but was lost in the static his vocalizer was reduced to. Optimus patiently held him steady as the pulsating intensified and he finally stiffened in overload, then relaxed, optics closed in the afterglow.

The calm moment was shattered by the medbay comm. /Uh, Ratchet? It's Silverbolt... something weird just happened./

Ratchet put both hands over his face and mentally asked Primus what he'd done to deserve this.

 


 

"Well?" Mirage was waiting for Hound as he left the medbay. "Do you...?"

"Nope," Hound said, patting his midsection plating. "Still factory settings in here, so to speak. How're you holding up?"

"I feel perfectly functional," Mirage rolled his optics. "and grateful Ratchet's kicked most of us out of the medbay. I was growing weary of Cliffjumper narrating his overloads."

As they turned to head towards the habitation suites, Hound barked a laugh. "He does that during interfacing, too."

"I have him recite the Lay of Logarithmus. Only way to deal with a chatty lover."

"Every time?"

Mirage cast him a sideways smirk. "He has it memorized. I'll have you lot civilized and cultured one way or another."

"But... seriously. Are you okay?" Hound cast a meaningful look at Mirage's abdominal section. "Is it really true you have a... a little spark in there?"

"And that it's constructing itself a cassette-sized chassis? Yes." Mirage flattened a hand over the area in question. "To be perfectly honest... I am rather concerned. What if Prime is wrong and these truly are some kind of parasites, waiting to— to burst out of my body like in that horrid film Ironhide is so fond of?"

Hound smiled ruefully and put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "First off, I think you're built a little sturdier than John Hurt. Ratchet's patched up worse. Second, wild speculation is Red's job, you shouldn't take work away from him."

"You joke," said Mirage, crossing his arms, "but that was theory number four on Red Alert's list. Just ahead of your base variety Decepticon virus. Between his conjecture and the command staff having Very Serious Discussions every few hours, I'm feeling very— how would the smaller Witwicky put it?— wiggled out."

"That's 'wigged' out."

"I'm about to join Tracks in composing melodramatic soliloquies of woe and impending death, and you're correcting my Earth slang?"

"Sorry. I'm sorry." Hound ducked his head to hide the smile that wouldn't quite go away. "Why don't you recharge in my quarters tonight? Nothing's going on while everyone's getting checked out, I could keep you distracted."

Mirage immediately brightened. "I daresay you could."

"Yeah, I've got like a whole terabyte of dirty Gygaxian limericks."

In spite of Hound's ghastly taste in poetry (or perhaps because of it) they did end up in Hound's quarters, poring over Moonracer's latest installment of her illustrated serial Click & Clack, a fiction set during the age of Guardian Prime involving a pair of mechanics who moonlighted as secret detectives, one incompetent, the other highly intelligent. Whenever intel came back from Cybertron, it was always certain one or two files of Moonracer's magnum opus came with it, to an appreciative Autobot readership. Mirage claimed to like it purely out of irony ("Her understanding of how detectives work is shakier than a faulty gyroscope, that's why it's funny."), but both he and Hound agreed Moonracer could tell a decent tale when she wasn't too busy taking potshots at Shockwave's drones.

Hound was pretending to compose irate fanmail ("Dear Moonracer: That cliffhanger was so evil you should just go join the Decepticons") when Mirage let out a low moan.

"Ah," he said mildly. "Was wondering when that was going to fire up again."

Hound set the Click & Clack bookfile aside. "Y'want me to call Ratchet?"

"No, no, it's just more of the... hmmm... same. They've got their servos full right now anyway." Mirage, optics shuttered, slowly arched his back, vents fully open and straining to speak. "I suppose there are worse ways one can be on medical leave."

Hound watched the sensuous display with keen interest, sensors mapping the rippling heat and moving parts in his friend's graceful body. "Does it really feel like interfacing?"

Mirage cracked open one lambent optic. "I could show you."

Hound caught his shoulders as both mechs let their chestplates fall open. Spark chambers followed suit. Hound had to hold Mirage steady as the he gave himself wholly over to the strange doings within. Their sparks met.

Mirage was equal parts frustrated, worried, enjoying himself, and intensely curious, belying his outward cool flippancy. Hound projected reassurance and his own curiosity, letting himself fall deeply inward toward the sensations in their merge.

It was like and unlike the pleasure generated by spark interface; overload by merging came in like an ocean wave— the peculiar mechanism in Mirage's pelvic housing was building a charge more like a crashing river about to break down a dam. Hound now moved with Mirage, swaying back and forth, as lost to the pleasure as the spy.

Mirage returned Hound's amazement with wry amusement. "Here— it— comes!" said one of them. Hound had no idea who.

Doubled overload: spark and array at once.

The two mechs clutched at each other, shouted static, and slumped as they dropped unceremoniously offline.

 


 

"Hound came to me at about 0700 this morning saying his sensors were picking something up in his own chassis," Ratchet reported at what seemed to be the tenth meeting of senior officers and science staff that week. "I'd already cleared him as unaffected, but when I opened him up for a look, I actually saw the new device finish differentiating the spherical chamber component."

"But he's not carrying a miniature spark," Prowl mused.

Ratchet. "Correct. Just like Hoist and Brawn. But what I find interesting is that between me clearing Hound and him coming back with this, he and Mirage interfaced."

There was a moment of silence around the conference table. "So?" said Ironhide.

"So," snapped Red Alert, "Spark-to-spark contact is how energy parasites propagate! I knew it. Is this some relative of the kremzeek?"

"An energy parasite still wouldn't explain the hijacking of our repair nanites," Perceptor interrupted before Red could work down his list. "Such intricate and deliberate construction speaks of a sophistication a simple energy-based lifeform like a kremzeek does not possess."

Jazz tapped the table. "Back on point, Ratchet, are you suggesting that interfacing is how this thing spreads?"

"How would a virus or anything transmit via spark? That doesn't make any sense." Ironhide threw his hands up.

"Actually," said Perceptor, "there's evidence that sparks are composed at least partly of tightly compact coherent data in quasi-physical form. It's been theorized that the transmission of more than emotional resonance is possible over a spark merge, but the research and documentation regarding such theories was, unfortunately, lost when—"

Ironhide let out a sharp laugh. "Well, frag; everybody interfaces with everybody, we're doomed!"

Jazz elbowed him. "You wanna give Red his schtick back?"

"No, no, I'm perfectly willing to share the load," Red Alert muttered archly with a thin look at Jazz. "The sooner we figure out how these things work and how to remove them, the better."

Ratchet nodded. "And how it all started, which brings me to Jazz."

Jazz's visor flickered uncertainly. "Wh-what'd I do?"

"Energy decay readings indicate yours is, so far, the oldest, er, installation. And going by our timeline, this started not long after your last trip to Cybertron. We need to know if anything unusual happened."

"I turned in my report, tell 'em, Pr—" Jazz had turned to Prowl, only to find the tactician with his head down on the table, quivering in his seat. "-uh-"

"...disregard me for the moment."

"Uh— anyway, nothing happened. For once."

Red Alert had already called the report in question up on his datapad, heroically ignoring Prowl's cooling fans kicking on. "What about this neutral mech you encountered? I don't recognize him from your description."

"Not much to describe, m'mech," Jazz offered with a shrug. "White optics, facemask, kitted up in either impressive camouflage or just really dirty. Friendly, thank Primus. Knew who I was, but that's not unusual these d—" Jazz cut himself off, a look of shock coming over his faceplates.

Prowl had the quietest and most discrete overload any of them had ever heard, and sat slowly up.

"Jazz?" prompted Ironhide.

Jazz stood from his seat and paced in a tight little circle before retracting his visor and pulling a hand down his face. "Okay. These were his exact words: 'I know who you are, Jazz of Protihex.'"

"But... you're from Polyhex." Prowl said, confused.

"Not... originally." Jazz leaned on the back of his chair. "Ironhide, you might remember the major gang problem Protihex used to have, way back before the war?"

Ironhide nodded. "Yeah. And an illegal weapons problem, and a corrupt city officials problem..."

"Right. Wretched hive of scum and villainy. Anyway I wasn't two groons fresh outta Vector Sigma when my mentor got mugged in the streets. He was a small-time arms dealer and I guess somebody had a problem with him, and somehow he kicked it; I wasn't there. But after that I fell in with one of the gangs. Ain't proud of it, but I had to survive somehow. I wasn't in with those glitches for about a quarter-vorn when Iacon had like half the planet's Enforcers come down on Protihex like the fist of an angry titan. That's when I boogied outta there. Stole my gang leader's latest credit haul and set up a new life for myself in Polyhex. Clean slate."

Red Alert actually looked a bit offended. "And you never told us this why...?"

"It is literally ancient history, Red," Jazz retorted. "By the time people stopped caring about Protihex and especially by the time the war rolled around, it didn't matter anymore. And ain't a one bot in here the same person he was that long ago. But that's not the point. When I set up in Polyhex I had all new bona fide fake credentials to prove I was Polyhexian, new paint job, about that time I finally settled on a designation, and I never told another burning spark about Protihex. Not a one."

"So how did your neutral friend know?" Prowl asked.

"That'd be the sixty-million energon cube question, my friend."

"I think we're getting off track," Ratchet cut in. "The prize-winning question is not how Jazz ran into an old gang buddy—" ("Hey!") "—but still remains what the dross to do about these sparklets and the freaky hardware."

"And if interfacing truly has anything to do with the spread of this mysterious malady," Perceptor added. "This merits further research and possibly experimentation."

Ironhide scooted away from him.

"Prime?" Prowl said. "You've been quiet."

"I think there's more going on here. Something we're missing." Optimus looked up from the datapad he'd been studying— a live feed from the monitoring device inside him that Ratchet had insisted on installing, just to be safe. The frame being built in the spherical chamber inside Prime now had individual fingers curled into little fists. "Every time an overload hits, the Matrix seems to take notice."

"Well, er, no disrespect intended, Prime, but for those of us what're mere mechs yet," Jazz asked, having resumed his seat, "what does that mean?"

"I do not know." Optimus rose. "The rest of you carry on with the investigation. I think it is high time I see what exactly has the Matrix so active."

 


 

Past the voices of Sentinel and of Zeta, Guardian and Prime Nova, past Primes whose names history had forgotten, by accident or design, but whose wisdom and experience remained indelibly within the Matrix. None of them had any insight to their strange situation.

Optimus delved deeper still, deeper than he had ever gone before. The truly ancient voices of Prima and Primon were hard to understand, but they beckoned him inward, deeper. Yet even the primordial Primes offered no enlightenment. Instead the ethereal echoes of the first of their kind simply seemed to... step aside.

A warmth filled the Matrix. Meditation on the Matrix naturally left him bereft of all physical sensation, but Optimus nonetheless had the sense of someone drawing him closer. Of someone else's pain. Of an abiding loneliness and sadness.

//You're so far away,// said a voice.

Optimus tried to focus on it. He caught glimpses of white optics, the fleeting impression of scarred and corroded plating. //Who are you?//

//So very far.// The voice was straining now, as if speaking took immense effort. Optimus could feel it drifting away. //I am about to pass a point of no return. What happens next depends on you.//

//What do you mean? What is happening?//

//—depends on you all—//

Optimus was flung back to awareness with the force of a concussion blast, back into his own wires and metal. He awakened on his own berth, into a body in the throes of another pulsating solitary overload.

 

Chapter Text

Shockwave sat quiet and still, safely ensconced in his tower stronghold, but his mind ranged far afield.

Each drone an optic, an audio, a sensor. There were thousands actively sweeping the oily skies and ruined causeways of Cybertron, and at any given moment, Shockwave could remotely inhabit a few hundred of his choosing.

Only a dozen heavy tank-drones served as his avatars at the moment, as they trundled ever deeper through the planet's labyrinthine mantle. There had been some anomalous seismic activity near the outer layers of the Core. He had narrowed it down to a specific area and determined it prudent to investigate and further fortify the location. Allowing the Autobots to seize control, even for a short while, could prove disastrous.

As his drones drew closer, he noted the lack of fresh explosive residue in the atmosphere and filed the datum away. If Elita One's squad was involved, they were being unusually subtle in their sabotage. There was also a lack of energy signatures, either from weaponry or spark ambiance, but that was in keeping with the insurgents' tactics, so he kept all drones' sensors on full scan.

He began to see signs that the plating had been disturbed the closer the drones got. New scrape-marks in long silvery streaks, whole sections of clean paneling that had obviously not been exposed to the war-tainted atmosphere until very recently.

How curious, Shockwave mused, and sent the drones further in, only to be thwarted by a dead end.

Not quite. The chamber itself was precisely where it was supposed to be, albeit in extensively rearranged plating.

After only a nanosecond's processing, Shockwave stationed the tank-drones on alert where they were, and left them to borrow the senses of as many small flying drones as he could manage. He sent them streaming down through dozens of tunnels and conduits at a time, radiating outward from each sector, both confirming known topography and mapping whatever new disturbances had manifested, and most importantly to determine what had become of the most critical artifact on Cybertron.

It wasn't possible. It was too large, too integrated with the planet's outer Core structure to move so quickly and cleanly. There should have been traces, evidence beyond shifted plating. Shockwave instructed every drone on the planet to search, pulling his consciousness back to his own shell. He would wait a moment more for preliminary reports, but it was all but confirmed—

Vector Sigma was utterly gone.

 


 

Spike Witwicky arrived at the Ark to the sight of Ravage being escorted out at gunpoint.

It was hardly an unusual occurrence. Spike knew the drill and gave the feline mech wide berth. Ravage glared sullenly at the young human as they passed each other, and Spike returned the look with a sideways I See You Eyeballing Me glance of his own. Ravage wouldn't try anything, not here alone. Taking a swipe at one of the Autobots' favorites might be cheaply satisfying, but only in the half second before every gun, cannon, and turret reduced the cassette to a smoking scorch mark on the ground.

Spike jogged into the cargo bay between Ironhide and Warpath just as Ravage took off into the distance. He caught up with Hoist and Windcharger a little further in, intending to ask where Bumblebee was— he could always count on Bee to level with him about what was going on— but the yellow mech was there... lying on the deck flat on his back, optics dark.

"Bee!" Spike ducked under Windcharger's arm, mindful of the scanner Hoist was holding. Bumblebee didn't look damaged, but still— "What happened? Ravage didn't—"

"Nah, Bumblebee's fine, just knocked himself offline." Windcharger snickered.

Spike threw a look up over his shoulder. "How? What's going on?"

"Ha! Question of the vorn, right there."

Hoist reached over and actually gave Windcharger a sharp tap on the helm. It was the closest Spike had ever seen the good-natured part-time medic get to real irritation. "Shoo, 'Charger. You're supposed to be on the bridge. And be sure to notify whoever else is on duty with you if you're having a paroxysm!"

"Peroxiwhat?" Spike frowned, turned to Hoist. "Hoist, what's— " He stopped short when Bumblebee's middle started knocking. Spike happened to have rested a hand on the armor of Bumblebee's abdomen, and he could just barely feel something *tink tink* from the inside.

Just then Bumblebee rebooted, optics flashing on and systems humming up to speed. "Oh... hey Spike."

Spike's eyebrows went up. 'Oh hey' was it, really? "Bee, you've got something knocking loose in here," Spike said, poking his friend in the area in question. "It's not another squirrel, is it?"

Bumblebee sat up, exchanging a look with Hoist. "He's right, I can feel it. Now it's moving?"

"Better get to Ratchet or 'Aid," Hoist said, helping the scout to his feet. "Sorry, Spike, we're having kind of a weird time right now."

And as one's life included alien mechanoids and space superscience to a degree that was several miles south of Asimovian, one's definition of weird had gone plaid long ago, so Spike was virtually compelled to ask: "How weird are we talking here, Bee?"

With a rueful shrug, Bumblebee transformed and opened his driver-side door. "Hop in and I'll tell you on the way. Well, what I know, anyway."

Three minutes later at the medbay doors, Spike nearly forgot to get out of the car. "... how many of you?"

"At last count, twenty-one." Bumblebee patiently gave his driver's seat a bit of a nudge, and Spike absently levered himself out of his friend's cabin. "That's why I'm worried about what Ravage might've seen. I had one of what we're calling paroxysms. Or seizures. Or pelvic overload. We can't seem to pick."

At the word 'pelvic' Spike had to quash the urge to stick his fingers in his ears and sing the anthem of denial ("La La La Can't Hear You") but he wasn't a kid anymore dammit, and he could feel how the mood in the Ark had gone a little cattywampus since his last visit. 'Bots they passed in the hall all seemed to have absent looks ranging from worried to annoyed to oddly satisfied.

"At any rate, we're pretty sure Ravage saw me having one," Bee was saying, transforming, "and if the Decepticons figure out so many of us are compromised like this, we could be in big trouble."

"Twenty-one, that's, what—" Spike let out a low whistle. "—about half the Autobot forces on Earth. Geez."

Spike knew the numbers. There were fewer Decepticons, but they were a formidable enough bunch to keep the superior numbers of the Autobots busy. The strength of both sides had reached a kind of equilibrium, which was why Spike suspected their stay on this planet was taking a lot longer than any of them had predicted.

"Last I heard, Perceptor and Wheeljack were running tests to see what's causing this," Bumblebee put a hand on his midsection and shrugged. "Personally I'd settle for knowing what it's doing in there. The construct is... twitching; wasn't doing that before. It kind of tickles."

Just then First Aid appeared from within the medbay. Spike was surprised to see the young medic looking rather frazzled. "Sorry, Bumblebee— Groove and Hot Spot seem to have synced up and I swear they're having them while I'm on duty on purpose. Ah, hello, Spike! How did finals go?"

Spike barked a laugh. "Forget finals! I'm gone for two weeks and what the hell?" He rapped a knuckle on the plating over Bumblebee's little aberration. He even got another faint *tink tink* in response.

First Aid cocked his helm at the noise and produced a scanning device. "You can feel it moving, yes?" Bumblebee nodded. "Happened to Cliffjumper this morning. Let's see what's going on before we drag you into the medbay proper..."

"Is Ratchet still backed up in there?" Bumblebee asked. "I thought everyone'd gotten checked out by now."

"No, Brawn bent a torsion bar in his back trying to settle a bet with Sludge, just our usual brand of— ah, here we are." A hologram sprung up above the scanner's screen, and Spike peered at the image of the thing inside his friend for a long moment.

It was all twig-thin struts, hair-fine wires, and petal-delicate gears, but there it was, curled up head-down inside the sphere Spike knew for certain he'd never seen in a Cybertronian before. Even so, its positioning, the shape —

"Huh. I didn't know you guys could get pregnant."

Bumblebee just stared at him.

First Aid's visor flickered. "—er, we don't, Spike, that's not how we work."

"Really?" Spike gestured to the unmistakable shape of arms, legs, a little helm. "Because that sure looks like a robotic fetus to me."

"It's simply impossible," First Aid insisted. "New people come from Vector Sigma, we don't... incubate... immature versions of ourselves..." He trailed off, staring at the holographic image.

Bumblebee put both hands over his middle. "'Aid," he said, very quietly. "They have sparks..."

 


 

"... indicates a level of coordination and logistical capability that the Elita One detachment simply does not possess," droned the recorded message from Shockwave. "Investigation is ongoing, but at present I have no data that contradicts my initial findings. Lord Megatron... Vector Sigma is gone. I require response as soon as possible to determine what course of action should be taken."

Megatron, Lord of Decepticons, already utterly undone, grabbed at the edges of his berth incredulously. He wanted to swear, to blast the comm channels with summons for his lieutenants, wave his charged cannon around until the Nemesis' atmosphere was rank with ozone—

But of course he was in no condition to do anything but writhe at the moment. How humiliating. If only it didn't feel so... ! He fought to keep his hands clamped to the sides of his berth. Scratches and scrapes at one's codpiece had become something of a dead giveaway.

But Primus, could this little episode just hurry up and be done? He had to respond to this. How could Vector Sigma be gone, under Shockwave's very (figurative) nose? Was Shockwave playing solitaire in his little watchtower this whole time?

Megatron heard metal creak. He was leaving dents in the berth railing again. And with one mighty surge from within, he overloaded. The warlord arched helplessly off the berth, frame pulsing with pleasure, mouth open and optics tightly shuttered.

After several agonizing, blissful moments, he sprawled strutlessly back down, vents roaring.

Hook and Starscream had better figure this out soon, he thought darkly. Under very different circumstances, Megatron admitted he'd actually rather enjoy this. But if what was happening to a disconcertingly increasing percentage of his troops was also his lot, he also had a surprise construction project underway inside his very body. And that made him very, very uneasy.

He finally got up from the berth and stumbled over to his console to vent the waste heat, directing it to the outer conduits where it would dissipate out through the ship's hull rather than internally. The absolute last thing he needed was for any of his underlings to know he'd caught their current trouble as well. Seeing his master laid out in the throes of ecstasy might give Starscream that extra confidence boost he needed to finally put a knife through his spark.

And now this business with Vector Sigma.

Megatron replayed the message from the beginning, in a better frame of mind to give it his full attention now. Video and spectral data accompanied it, only confirming what Shockwave was saying. Too cleanly done. Too quickly done. And even as clever and effective as Elita One and her soldiers were— credit where it was due, even Megatron had to acknowledge— this was not like them at all.

Was it Prime's doing? His so-called head of special operations— this was especially heinous but it could be just his sort of deviltry. On Prime's orders, or done behind his back? Did they know what they'd done?

Megatron swept out of his quarters like an acid thundercloud. "Starscream! Soundwave! The bridge, now! Open a channel to Optimus Prime!"

 


 

"Trailbreaker and Warpath were our control," Perceptor said, gesturing to the lab's primary holoscreen. "Neither have been affected by the affliction; current hypothesis posits this may be no coincidence due to the fact that they have been exclusive with each other of late. And as you can see, there was no observable change post-interface."

/Interfacin' for science,/ Ironhide muttered over a private comm to Ratchet. /Ever hear of something so crazy?/

/Medical academy. Entelechy's classes on spark frequency modulation./ Ratchet smiled off into the distance. /I made so many friends that semester./

Perceptor, detecting the comm chatter, gave them a mildly peeved look but continued. "For the purposes of this test, the affected mechs are separated into two categories: construct-negative for those whose perplexing new chambers are empty, and construct-positive for those who are bearing the sparklike occurrence and experiencing convulsions."

"Volunteers've been a bit scarce," Wheeljack cut in, apparently baffled as to why. "But we've got three, at least. Sideswipe, construct-negative; Trailbreaker, unaffected; and Grimlock, construct-positive."

Perceptor continued. "Trailbreaker and Sideswipe concluded their session and we were able to capture something quite remarkable via the monitors..."

The holographic display shifted, this time to show an isolation room off the main lab. Readouts and graphs and secondary displays of bits of internal components— both normal and abnormal— off to the side. And if it weren't for the cables dangling from half a dozen medical ports each, Trailbreaker and Sideswipe might have been having any ordinary interface.

'Ordinary' for this pair being taking their sweet time about it.

"... pitcher got busted for doping, so..." Trailbreaker murmured into Sideswipe's shoulder as he supported the smaller mech against his bulk, sparks' coronae lazily intermingling. "...hmmm... doesn't look like the Cardinals will get anywhere this season."

Sideswipe's engine purr nearly overshadowed his response. "...nah... seen the relief pitcher's stats? He's—"

Perceptor skipped ahead, sparing everyone a further twelve point eight three minutes of Earth sports inanity irrelevant to science. Ironhide surreptitiously contacted Smokescreen to change a bet concerning the Cardinals' upcoming game. When playback resumed, both mechs seemed properly engaged in the act, and there was no talk of anything, let alone balls foot, base, or basket.

As the pair braced for overload, Perceptor highlighted the readout coming from Trailbreaker's processor. Code whizzed by as entire sectors of the crystalline structure flashed with activity— completely normal during overload as excess spark energy and stimulation triggered a cascade through a mech's systems But in this case, just after the climax and immediately before the soft reboot—

"There!" Perceptor cried, putting the playback into ultra-slow-motion. "Trailbreaker's root autonomic code sectors, observe."

Ironhide blinked uncomprehendingly but Ratchet half-staggered away from the wall he'd been leaning against. "It... it's branching off from preexisting... self-repair, nanite programming, yes, that explains a lot... but—"

"Yeah, the call's coming from inside the house," Wheeljack said.

Ironhide held up a hand. "Someone want to use simple glyphs to fill in the 'Bot who didn't attend Iacon U?"

Wheeljack turned to him as Perceptor paused the experiment's presentation. "See, we thought maybe the code was being changed by a virus, possibly a trojan, some outside source, but we would have seen any kind of intrusion or viral interference just then. Even the most subtle virus can't hide all its traces or completely erase its tracks, especially when it's actively working. All the code changes— they're generating from within preexisting code. Mostly alterations to nanite behavior—"

"Leading to this," Perceptor took up the tale and brought another view up. "The monitor inside Trailbreaker, anterior view, lower abdominal core."

"Well, smelt me," Ironhide muttered. Trailbreaker's innards— cogs, cables, fuel and coolant lines— were actually shifting neatly out of the way as silvery streams of nanites swarmed in.

Optimus Prime at that moment entered the lab, taking up a spot behind Ratchet and gesturing for them to continue, having been watching through Ratchet's transmission up to that point.

"But wait." Wheeljack held up a finger. "There's more." And back to the main camera, zoomed in and full-spectrum capture on the space between Trailbreaker's and Sideswipe's open chestplates. "Right at the instant of overload..."

In slow-motion, they could clearly see the incandescent spot where the two sparks met. Visual data was filtered, focused, and—

With a tiny flare, almost hidden amongst the coruscating sparklight, a third spark signature bloomed into the sensor readings, flickering and quivering. Then the two mechs' much larger sparks separated, and with a rubber-band-like wobble, the little one zipped back, skimming along under the larger corona and straight into Sideswipe's open chamber, just before it closed.

Silence in the laboratory.

"This facility boasts a sensor suite salvaged from my own personal lab in Altihex," Perceptor said. "The data does not lie. While quite small, that was, my friends, a spark, now ensconced comfortably within Sideswipe's lower anomalous chamber."

"You realize that's one more of our heavy hitters we can't send into battle," said Ironhide. "And it's only a matter of time before the 'Cons put gear and gear together and figure out what's going on over here."

"Perceptor," said Optimus, putting a hand on Ironhide's shoulder. "What are the adverse side effects of this phenomenon? Have you found anything that could potentially be life-threatening?"

Perceptor exchanged a look with Wheeljack and Ratchet before replying. "Prime," he said, "whatever this process is or what its end result will be, I do not as a habit like to speculate. But I would dare say... it seems especially designed to fit Cybertronian physiology. Almost as if it were meant to be there as much as a transformation cog or fuel pump. Aside from the inconvenience of spontaneous overload, no one affected appears to be in any measurable danger."

"I see," Prime mused, nodding thoughtfully.

Ratchet gave his leader a sidelong look. "Prime, if you have any insight into this..."

"I believe something momentous is happening, my friends," said Optimus. "I almost didn't realize what until Spike happened to mention something to Bumblebee— "

/Red Alert to Prime— we are receiving a priority transmission,/ the security director interrupted over the comm. /Megatron is demanding to speak with you immediately./

Optimus drew in air through his vents. "They know about our status?"

"Callin' to gloat." Ironhide scowled.

/Megatron declined to state the nature of the call,/ Red Alert replied pointedly. /If anything, he seems angry. He insists on speaking with you./

"Very well. Route him to Teletraan's main console. Officers to the bridge, and all able Autobots to ready alert, just in case." Optimus turned and transformed on the way out of the lab, Ironhide and Ratchet at his rear wheels.

Once they arrived at the bridge, Optimus waited until Prowl, Ironhide, Jazz and the rest of the officers were beside him, then nodded to Blaster and Red Alert who were cabled into the comm system as was standard procedure when parleying with the Decepticons, better to intercept any piggybacked intrusions into the Ark's mainframe.

"Prime." And it really was poetry, the way Megatron could take one title and make it sound like thirty different aspersions on Optimus' base construction. "I would congratulate you on your ruthlessness, if the repercussions of your latest atrocity weren't so dire."

/Does anyone know what he's referring to?/ Prime asked over the command channel. After a chorus of negatives, he replied aloud to the sneering warlord looming large on the forward screen.

"While I don't doubt you'd label many of our actions atrocities, I'm afraid you'll have to be more specific, Megatron."

"I'm in no mood to banter," Megatron snapped. "I know the space bridge has been accessed by your operatives recently. Do you deny responsibility for the actions of your underlings?"

/Jazz?/

/You all saw my report! Nothing happened, for the hundredth time!/

Prime found he was in a decidedly non-banter mood as well. "Megatron, what are you talking about?"

Megatron answered with a low growl, "I speak of Vector Sigma's destruction, Optimus Prime."

And the screen switched to video of an empty chamber, Cybertronian in configuration but unfamiliar... until one by one each Autobot recognized the layout. After all, every one of them had been first activated there.

Shock rippled through the bridge of the Ark. And to judge by the noises coming from Megatron's end, it was the first the rest of the Decepticons had heard of this as well.

"Is this some kinda joke?" Ironhide demanded. "Just what by the Unmaker are you playin' at?"

"Shouldn't I be asking you that, Autobot?" sneered Megatron. "Is this or is this not some calculated ploy to prevent the Decepticons from adding to our ranks? Do you not realize that unless Vector Sigma is recoverable, you have damned us all, Autobot and Decepticon alike, to extinction?"

/Blaster, send a pulsewave to Elita One to request verification of this event,/ Prowl sent out through the comm. /And analyze that video data. Down to the last pixel./

From his perch in the communications hub, Blaster nodded grimly. /You got it./

"Megatron, I assure you, whatever has happened to Vector Sigma is not our doing," Prime said. "I never would have sanctioned such an act. I didn't even think it was possible."

"Yes, I understand," Megatron drawled, voice dripping with sarcasm. "Plausible deniability, such is the way of special operations. Did you also 'not sanction' crippling half my army with this humiliating overload virus as well?"

That pronouncement took a second to make the rounds, and by the time Prowl barked over the comm to not react, everyone had, of course, reacted. Jaws dropped. Optics flashed wide. Ironhide let out a particularly loud choking sound of static and gears grinding before he got control of himself. Only Optimus and his consummate poker-face maintained most of his decorum.

"Lord Megatron," a familiar monotone said from off-screen on the Decepticons' side, and Soundwave stepped discreetly into frame just behind Megatron. "Intel: Autobots likewise affected."

It wasn't often the canny old warlord was caught flat-footed, but Ironhide was going to make holo-captures of the magnificent look of utter confusion on Megatron's face just then. No matter where this absurd disaster was going, he was going to frame that bamboozled face and put it on the rec room wall.

But Megatron recovered quickly. "So your sabotage scheme backfired, I see. It matters little, I suppose, in light of what you Autobots have done to Vector Sigma."

/Ol' Buckethead's slipping,/ Jazz commented. /Ain't like him to just show his hand like that./

/The condition spreads via interface. I for one would like to know who's been hopping the fence,/ Red Alert muttered darkly.

/Rest assured there will be brig time involved,/ Prowl said in a tone to match.

/Wait, does this mean they've got the little spark-things too?/ Ironhide mused. /Well, this is rich./

Over the comm byplay of his officers, Optimus addressed Megatron. "I believe I know what is happening, both with Vector Sigma and our strange condition. I propose a ceasefire to discuss the matter as it relates to the future of our species."

A long silence followed.

Finally, Megatron responded. "Very well, Prime. I'll play along for now. Two officers accompanying, no weapons. Name the location."

 


 

Megatron, Soundwave, and Starscream took a wide circular approach to the meeting site, a sort of natural amphitheater in the stone formations at the far end of the land designated as Mt. St. Hilary National Preserve (not that there was anything on this mudball worth preserving— once its energy sources were properly plundered, anyway). The brightly-colored figure of the Prime was easily spotted from the air, standing to one side of the little hollow. Pacing nearby was Ironhide, rust-red nearly matching the dusty ferrous rocks around. And there in the dappled shadows of nearby foliage lurked Jazz.

/Soundwave, scan them,/ Megatron ordered.

A full processor intrusion was out of the question, for the moment— the Autobots would know immediately, and such an act of aggression would end this little chat for certain; Megatron didn't want that to happen until after he learned what Prime was up to, at any rate. But the technopath could do a simple surface scan and gauge a mood, or the general intent of a mech without so much as a tickle on the sensors.

Soundwave reported: /Jazz: cautious, curious, nervous. Ironhide: restless, slightly worried, very curious. Optimus Prime: hopeful, calm./

/So, Prime perhaps knows something that the rest of the Autobot scum don't./ Starscream purred. /How interesting./

/Yes, but at least it doesn't seem to be a trap./ Megatron descended, and the three Decepticons landed neatly on the other side of the amphitheater's basin. /Both of you, follow my lead. We find out what Prime's got before anything else happens. And Starscream, keep it on mute for once in your existence./

"Megatron," the Prime greeted them. "Thank you for coming. I would not have asked if it weren't important."

"It had better be," Megatron rumbled. "You have a lot to answer for if I find this has all been some elaborate trick, some... desperate ploy to end the war by condemning us to death by attrition."

Ironhide bristled. "We're just as surprised about Vector Sigma as you are, Megatron! Maybe you oughta take a closer look at that sparkless monster you've got watching the place. You have any idea what kinda creepy dross Shockwave does back there?"

"Ironhide, stand down," Optimus waved his underling back.

"Shockwave does nothing without my say-so," Megatron said, crossing his arms. "His loyalty and obedience are above reproach." /Soundwave, remind me to get a secondary report from Sunstorm in the future. Perhaps Shockwave could do with a little more oversight./

"I believe the disappearance of Vector Sigma has something to do with the... condition that has affected many of us," Optimus said. "No, it was not my doing, nor that of any of my Autobots. But that these two things occurred nearly simultaneously cannot be a coincidence."

"That's nonsense," Starscream snorted. "If you didn't cause the virus to distract from the sabotage of— oh, just the future of our race— then I don't see what one has to do with the other."

Megatron shot him a warning glare and tapped pointedly at the bare space on his arm where his fusion cannon would normally be, reminding the seeker that the weapon was yet within easy reach from subspace.

"Hear me out," the Prime said, holding up both hands in a placating gesture. "It's not a virus. You've likely discovered the sparks, the nanites building frames inside your very shells? Vector Sigma may be lost, but Primus has not abandoned us to extinction." Prime rested a hand on his midsection. "These aren't a virus, they aren't parasites, they're— our children."

It was a fine day for stunned silences, it seemed.

Megatron could tell by the looks the other two Autobots were giving Prime that this was as confounding to them as it was to the three Decepticons facing them. The Prime had used a word in English, a ridiculous human language. Children? Immature, juvenile organics? Optimus, famed orator that he was, simply didn't commit malapropism, so the word choice had to be deliberate. Why not use the proper Cybertronian term for a new person?

The implication made Megatron very apprehensive, and he very studiously ignored the tiny thing inside him wriggling. /Soundwave?/

/The Prime: believes what he is saying. I am unable to discern more without invasive scanning./

"This is insanity," Starscream cut in. "You expect us to believe we've suddenly become..." The seeker twirled a hand as if trying to pluck the proper term out of the air. "... viviparous? Or do we lay eggs now? We are Cybertronian. Superior machine life. We do not... gestate."

"And yet..." Optimus Prime replied, with a truly insipid little shrug that made Megatron want to hit something. "Consider that our war has left our home planet so ravaged and unstable that just making it all the way into Vector Sigma is prohibitively dangerous. Even Shockwave only sends drones into those deep reaches anymore. Just making the trek to call forth new sparks was as likely to claim as many lives as it brought into being, and all known Keys to Vector Sigma are either long lost or destroyed. We are doing a fine job of making ourselves extinct, Megatron, Vector Sigma or no. And... I estimate it would take me no longer than an hour to name every single known surviving Cybertronian. That is how few we are, how close we are to being nothing more than a cautionary tale in the history texts. But... Primus is giving us a chance."

Megatron stared across the amphitheater at his old adversary for a long, heavy moment. "To do what, exactly, Prime?"

"To save ourselves."

/Lord Megatron,/ whined Starscream over comm, /the Prime's obviously finally cracked a motherboard. Look at how the other two are gawping at him. Let's just end this right here, right n—/

/You will keep your null rays offline and in subspace if you know what's good for you,/ Megatron snarled back. /Yes, look at the stupefied Autobots and how hopeful and foolish they look. We can use this, Starscream. Prime wants so badly for peace? Let's give it to him. Let's help them puzzle out this little parasite mystery, all the better to snatch whatever eventual cure out from under them. The price for this ceasefire will be paid in energon, one way or another. And if this nonsense about 'children' is true? How many have been confirmed as carrying?/

And Starscream betrayed no outward smirk, but the coy flicker of his optics spoke volumes of smug deviousness. /Fifteen new Decepticons to mold into deadly warriors, my lord./

"Come, Prime. Let us discuss terms for this ceasefire."

 

Chapter Text

The rec room was abuzz, almost literally. Comm activity was a near-palpable tingle on everyone's receptors whether one was on a channel or not, and the low hum of multiple vocalizers all conversing in several separate and serious conversations made the normally casual room feel more like the old Senate floor just before a debate.

"— milk us for every drop of energon they can and then when they get bored with that, they're just gonna go 'nuts an' bolts to this' and start shooting again." Cliffjumper waved his mostly-empty cube to punctuate his point. "This happens every time there's a ceasefire, and every mechanism on the planet knows it. It's Decepticon for 'extort the Autobots'."

Smokescreen, leaning back in his seat and absently rubbing little circles on his abdominal plating, gave Cliffjumper a look. "Aren't we kind of ignoring the dweller in the room? The fact that no more Vector Sigma means no more new mechs?"

"Whady'a call the bitty chassis you've got forging in your middle, then, Smokey? You reformat into a symbiote carrier when we weren't looking?" Windcharger tapped his own for emphasis, then paused and frowned downward. "Hey, settle down in there."

"I just don't know." Smokescreen shrugged. "I see what Prime is saying, but... we're growing new people like the humans do? I mean, I kind of wanted to be a mentor someday, but this is just too weird."

Inferno pulled his energon ration and glanced around the room. He'd just come from having Hoist do a quick check just in case (chamber still empty, and he wasn't sure if he was disappointed or relieved) and he knew this was Red Alert's usual time to come to the rec room. The security chief was absent, however.

/Whoever requested Wolf Rilla's charming classic film Village of the Damned for tonight's movie night—/ As if on cue, Red Alert's voice over general comm told Inferno he was holed up in the security center. /— I would like to thank you for entry number five on the list of banned movies and for your utter lack of sensitivity towards our situation./

Cliffjumper laughed. "Oh, come on! That was funny!"

"Somewhere there's a bridge missing its troll," Windcharger muttered, whacking Cliffjumper in the back of the helm as he got up.

With a sigh of vents Inferno drew another cube, stashed them in subspace, and left the rec room. There was a nanoscopically fine line between Sarcastic Red Alert and Panicking Red Alert, and the chief was sounding a little sharper than usual. Probably hadn't emerged from his den of vidscreens in a while. Inferno was relieved when the security office door opened to him without delay. He was on the very short list of mechs Red Alert allowed to just walk right in with impunity; if he'd been unable to enter, Inferno knew that things were really bad.

"Brought you a cube, Red." Inferno came up beside Red's platform and nudged his arm with the energon. "Off your schedule today."

Red Alert took the cube without looking away from his ever-changing bank of security feeds. "Yes, well. The clockwork's well and truly gummed up. Thank you, Inferno."

"Probably should take a break," Inferno prodded gently. "Teletraan and the 'Bots at the helm can keep an optic on things for a bit."

"Ceasefire protocol to establish, negotiations to fine-tune, security measures to revise— did you know that jumped-up hack artist Hook is going to be here? Access strictly limited, of course, but here. Medical information exchange, my shiniest axle."

Inferno nudged Red more firmly. "C'mon, at least cycle down for an hour or two, while things are still hanging. You're getting all anxious... might not be good for the lil' bit."

Red Alert fixed him with a sidelong glare. "The 'lil' bit'. You really think Prime's right about this?"

"Well, yeah," Inferno shrugged, half-grinning. "Ain't steered us wrong yet. Actually kind of exciting! Haven't been any fresh faces around since the Aerials were sparked."

"Auuuuggghhh." Red Alert got to his feet and paced over to the fold-away berth (that was supposed to not be there, per Ratchet's orders) at the corner of the room behind his security station. "I can't do this, Inferno."

"Sure ya can!" Inferno gave his friend's shoulder a companionable shake. "You can handle ceasefire protocols in recharge, you've done it before."

"I appreciate the vote of confidence, I really do, but that's not what I meant." Red Alert paced the room aimlessly. "I can't mentor a new mech. It's impossible."

"Oh. Well, you won't be doing it alone, and—"

"Inferno, you don't understand," Red said, pacing in a little tighter a circle. "I am disqualified by virtue of my glitch. The priests at Simfur denied my petition to be eligible to foster a newspark."

Inferno frowned. "Now, Red—"

"I'm testy, impatient, rude, and— and paranoid, besides— and if anything the war has made my processor defect worse—"

"Red." Inferno started to cross the room towards him— Red Alert was, fittingly, going to trip the very condition he was ranting about if he didn't calm down.

"How could I possibly be fit to— to... oh." Red abruptly stopped pacing, grabbing at his chair for support.

Inferno came up beside him, carefully, watching for the telltale sparking of his friend's helm. "You okay? Need me to call Ratchet?"

Red Alert shuttered his optics and pulled in a long vent of air, shaking his head. "No, no... just about to h-have a— oh my."

Inferno couldn't help but grin. He guided the now-trembling Red Alert back over to the berth and pulled the smaller mech into his lap. "See, even your litl'un wants you to relax and stop worrying."

"Seditious scraplet," Red Alert muttered, half-groan, half-chuckle.

"Old rusted cogs at the temple. I'm glad they're gone." Inferno drew Red closer, embracing him from behind.

Red Alert stilled momentarily at what once would have been near-blasphemy. Inferno's hand wandered down to Red's codpiece and found it warm and vibrating.

"The old system was broken, even you gotta admit that." Inferno stroked the plating in time to the slowly-building rhythm of Red Alert's hips' rocking. "Know who else got turned down? Me. Didn't have the right friends, y'see."

"The— ah!— there were rumors about corruption, but... I... never guessed—" Red Alert gasped and thrust into Inferno's hand, as if trying to will the gestational array to speed up.

"You're not glitched. You're not defective. And look at how well you take care of all of us miscreants. You are gonna be a fantastic... parent."

Inferno had taken two glyphs in Cybertronian— 'creator' as in an artisan or inventor, and 'mentor' to denote an experienced, older mech who would guide and teach a new-sparked individual in his first decivorn of life— and had neatly portmanteau'd them together. Cybertronian was a language well-suited to adaptation, like its people, and Inferno's Urayan drawl had made the new word sound tender and familiar, even though mentoring and human-like parenting weren't really quite the same.

Red Alert squirmed and rocked in his arms, making a strangled noise. "Inferno, I'm not ready, I'm—"

"— not doin' this alone. You got all of us, right here with you." Inferno bent down, right over Red Alert's thrown-back head. As Inferno caressed the hot metal of Red's codpiece and abdomen, he kissed the upturned face.

"You got me," Inferno murmured, and Red Alert went rigid with overload.

 

 


"Unbelievable!" Starscream stalked into the command trine's hab suite, wings hitched high. "Smelting fragging pit rusted dross."

"Someone's in a mood," Thundercracker remarked mildly into his energon.

"Don't you start. Where's Skywarp? Stupid ceasefire. If we can't blow off steam taking potshots at the humans, we can at least go fly maneuv— oh, come on, really?" Starscream only had to turn around to find his other wingmate, sprawled out on his berth, languidly stroking his cockpit canopy.

A wide, lazy smile was plastered across Skywarp's faceplates, optics half-lit. "Sorry, Screamer. Not much in a flying way right now. Heh."

Starscream raked a hand down his face and skulked over to the energon dispenser to grab a cube; now that rationing wasn't going to be a problem for awhile, he might as well indulge. "And how long has he been at it now?"

"About a quarter-groon or so." Thundercracker shrugged. Skywarp's involuntary pelvic episodes were at least consistent, if not predictable: long, slow, and invariably putting the seeker in question in the most mellow, easygoing mood of his existence.

"Oh, good, only another quarter to sit around and watch him fondle himself," Starscream muttered sarcastically.

Thundercracker spared a sour look for his commander. "Get sand in your gears, Star?"

"Megatron." Starscream made a sweeping gesture with his cube as if that should explain everything. "I don't get him at all these days. He won't even argue with me. He just stomps off to his quarters— while I'm talking to him, no less! I haven't gotten a good 'face in weeks!"

"I can help you with thaaaaaaat," Skywarp singsonged from the berth.

Thundercracker put down his cube and crossed his arms. "Maybe if you just asked somebody instead of waiting for Megatron to get all hot 'n bothered and throw you to the deck..."

Starscream scowled. "Everything's gone glitched insane around here. This whole business with these glorified little space barnacles—"

Skywarp giggled. "Don't be mean. You'll hurt Skywarp Jr.'s feelings." Starscream gave Thundercracker a narrow see-what-I-mean look and the blue seeker shook his head, sighing.

"C'mon, Star, let's just join in. Nice and easy trine merge... you'll feel better."

Starscream's armor rattled in mild irritation, but he gave in, chestplates parting as he and Thundercracker crossed the room to an utterly delighted Skywarp. "Might as well. Things can't get any weirder."


 

It was the strangest ceasefire in the long history of the Cybertronian civil war. It wasn't, of course, the first time a common problem had bridged the faction gap, but heretofore these had always been outside aggressors or threats of some kind. Quintesson slavers, Ammonite infiltrators, the odd mega-swarm of spacegoing metallivorous worms... the usual.

This time there was nothing to shoot at, no joint battles to plan, no hostile but grudgingly respectful inter-faction camaraderie. There was no common threat, only common anticipation. Neither Autobot nor Decepticon quite knew what to do with themselves.

Except the medics, engineers and scientists.

A neutral site was set up just off the edge of Autobot territory, consisting of a single building hastily thrown together by the Constructicons, Hoist, and Grapple. Autobot command had watched the collaboration rather nervously, expecting it to result in a pile of rubble and more work for the medics, but surprisingly, other than a few snide remarks feigning surprise that their respective enemies weren't using abaci and slide rules, the Cooperative Cybertronian Gestational Research Center was up and running in just a few days' time with no incidents... barring the revival of a few old professional rivalries from long before the war.

"That's an awful name," Starscream groused upon hearing it, looking over the simple tridecagonal structure as the finishing touches were being made. "Awkward, clumsy. Should expect as much from grounders, I suppose."

"Then perhaps we could give it a moniker worthy of a seeker's flighty charms," Perceptor replied brightly. "Is 'Nest' to your liking?"

Starscream loomed over the much smaller mech. "Just what are you insinuating, Autobot? I'm some common organic bird?"

"Only that it might be apropos should you decide you'd rather have your little one away from your more unstable comrades," Perceptor replied genially, as if he didn't have the famously mercurial Air Commander staring him down.

Starscream hesitated for a moment. "I'm not... I don't have a..."

Perceptor actually had the audacity to reach out and give Starscream a friendly pat just above the codpiece. "Are you certain? You haven't experienced any twinges, twitches, knocks or oscillations? Statistically chances would seem to be in favor of it. Well! Good luck to you all the same." And he strolled off, humming a tune to himself.

It took Starscream a few seconds to work past his shock; then he was screaming over the public comms for Hook.

When it was confirmed that the Air Commander was indeed 'in a family way' as Sparkplug put it, Perceptor offered to host him a 'baby shower.' An hour later Prowl disseminated a memo to all Autobots with a polite but firm plea not to bait the Decepticons.

The... well, Nest (because of course it stuck)... was a large central main room, big enough for a dozen mechs comfortably, ringed by ten smaller rooms to be used as laboratories, infirmaries, or any purpose that the situation required.

Starscream and Skyfire fell in together in a lab by themselves as if the intervening ages and animosity hadn't happened at all, to everyone's surprise. Or at least that's what Skyfire assured everyone was the case; the pair disappeared for great lengths of time in their lab to examine the process and chemistry of the gestational nanites.

"Science talk for having lots of overloads," Ironhide snorted.

Drag Strip sidled up to him, leering. "Feeling left out, Autobot?"

"You keep your chestplates away from me, you—"

Subsequently Megatron issued an edict that no Decepticon shall proposition an Autobot, do-I-really-have-to-say-it-you-smelter-fuel-Stunticon.

Swindle coincidentally turned up AWOL at about the same time, only to later turn up on the coast of northern California forlornly picking seaweed out of his seams. Hook, after comparing notes and timelines with Ratchet, had discovered Swindle's indiscretion, whereupon the rest of the Stunticons had punted him out of an airlock at the bottom of the ocean and told him he could walk to the Nest and fragging-well just recharge there 'till all were one.

Once that scandal had come to light, it didn't take long for Prowl and Red Alert to suss out who had been on their side of the illicit affair.

"You will remain in the brig until your offspring's emergence," Prowl said, as the door locked into place.

On the other side of the bars, Sideswipe sputtered. "But... but I haven't even started having overloads— we don't even know how long that'll take, Prowl!"

"This is normally the part where I'd say you should have thought about that before you interfaced with an enemy combatant," Prowl replied, "but to be absolutely fair there's not even the slightest chance you could have anticipated this particular situation."

"No fragging kidding," Sideswipe muttered, hand over his midsection in what was becoming a common unconscious gesture.

"Which is why I've brought you something to occupy your time." Prowl slipped a datapad between bars.

Warily, Sideswipe took it and turned it on. Its screen filled with multiple files. "Uh... what is all this?"

"Any and all data concerning the ongoing research of the gestational process will be remotely updated to this pad every hour, on the hour," Prowl said, looking a few shades smugger than usual. "You will review and at least attempt to understand every aspect of what is happening to us. By the time emergence happens, whenever and however that may be, I expect you to be an expert on the subject."

Sideswipe, optics filled with horror, stared at his commanding officer over the top of the datapad. "I— Prowl, I'm not a medic or anything, I don't know what half this stuff even means—!"

"There's a messaging function that will forward inquiries to the research teams. I suggest you start asking questions." Prowl turned to go.

"But—"

"A summary of your conclusions in my inbox at the end of every day, Sideswipe." And with that, Sideswipe was alone.

...so to speak.

 


 

The basic terms of the ceasefire were simple: a modest stipend of fuel-grade energon given to the Decepticons in return for their peaceful cooperation in research of the common condition. Peaceful, and in this case the Autobots were insistent, included not raiding, attacking, or otherwise harassing the humans.

One week into the ceasefire, the factions still largely kept each other at arms' length, outside the occasional salvo of snark and suspicious looks around the grounds of the Nest. Megatron had made it thunderously clear that the Decepticons were to abide by the terms of the ceasefire to the letter until the situation had come to its conclusion, one way or another.

Which wasn't to say that there weren't a few hiccups. Already two more Autobots, Fireflight and Gears, had been sent to the brig for picking fights with some of the more easily-antagonized Decepticons- or for letting themselves be provoked; it didn't matter which and Optimus wasn't about to let a few hotheaded brawlers ruin the fragile, if bizarre, peace.

Those cooperating in the research efforts seemed, thankfully, better able to compartmentalize. Mixmaster and Wheeljack got along like a house on fire, but thankfully for all within potential blast radius, their rancor was limited to purely verbal expression. Sideswipe took to transcribing the more entertaining arguments word-for-word from lab recordings and sending that to Prowl instead of the assigned summary, if he were feeling particularly passive-aggressive that day.

There wasn't much to go on in the first weeks that hadn't already been discovered. Tiny frames slowly, steadily becoming more substantive, little clusters of neural crystal gradually blooming into more fractally complex configurations. The little protoforms would twitch or squirm occasionally, but otherwise presented no discomfort to their hosts.

The 'pregnant' mechs soon reported feeling in need of a bit more fuel than usual, so energon production was stepped up, refined mostly from the readily-available geothermal source beneath the Ark itself. An additional quantity was added to the Decepticons' stipend with the proviso that it be reserved for carrying mechs, though the Autobots had to accept the possibility that energon might not be getting distributed equitably. There were a great many things about this entire business that they'd simply have to accept on faith.

Megatron was making himself conspicuous by his absence, which normally would have been a red flag during such a cooperative venture. Yet by all intelligence from passive espionage to basic word-of-vocalizer from Decepticons, Megatron was simply holed up in his quarters much of the time, when he wasn't meeting with Optimus to fine-tune the ceasefire agreement when needed.

"He's sulking," Starscream sniffed when Skyfire worked the subject of the tyrant's activities into conversation. "Either he's jealous mechs are getting special treatment and he's not at the head of the line, or he just doesn't know what to do with himself if there's nothing to shoot at. Typical of the unscientific brute, really."

"A quiet Megatron is a suspicious Megatron," Red Alert said at the next officers' meeting.

"I know, and I agree," Optimus replied, gently. "But until and unless he actually does anything, and so long as they are abiding by the treaty, we must keep to our side of the bargain."

"He's right, Red," Jazz said. "If actin' funny were all it took, well, let's face it— there'd be some of us who'd never get out of the brig."

"There are days when I'm tempted," said Red Alert, smirking at him. Jazz flipped him a jaunty rude gesture.

"Anyway," Ratchet cut in, fiddling with his ever-present datapad, the one synced to his internal monitor. "Megatron may have to go to the back of our processing queues for the near future. I have a feeling things are going to get more interesting shortly."

Prowl inclined his head. "I'm afraid to ask."

Ratchet turned the pad around. In the dark haze of the interior of the gestation chamber— dark, for the little ones' spark chambers had finished closing up days prior—

From a face mostly obscured by a curled-up fist, two points of blue light blinked back at them.

 

Chapter Text

Today's excuse if anyone asked why he was skulking around the Nest grounds, Ironhide decided, was he was on hand to do any incidental heavy lifting, or to make sure the area was clear of humans. Mostly true, in either case, as Starscream thought himself too precious for manual labor, and the humans by large did not know the true reason for the truce.

Optimus and Megatron had readily agreed on that point— humanity was a race divided, endlessly squabbling amongst itself, but as the Decepticons had discovered on a number of occasions, nothing could get disparate groups of humans to get their collective shit together quicker than an outside threat. They might have been fragile, but they could be frighteningly effective at war if given proper motivation.

And a sudden population explosion in a group of suddenly cooperative alien interlopers? Even Optimus was skeptical the humans would accept the same story used to explain the likes of the Protectobots and Aerialbots— 'recruits from Cybertron'. It was technically the truth, even if humans were ignorant of Cybertronian reproductive practices (or rather what they used to be).

For now, at least, only Spike and Sparkplug Witwicky, Carly Spencer, and Chip Chase— their most trusted friends on this planet— knew what was going on.

So Ironhide patrolling the Nest to keep organic looky-loos at bay was a perfectly valid excuse. He wasn't keeping an eye on the 'Cons, no sirree.

He was nobot's fool. He knew Skyfire could keep Starscream on point, and the Air Commander was shockingly honest and impartial in scientist mode. But Ironhide trusted Hook and the rest of the Constructicons about as far as he could throw their combined form. The odd random Decepticon who'd come in to be examined or participate in experiments, even less.

So when Dead End rolled cautiously onto Nest grounds in the small hours early one morning, all alone and unannounced, Ironhide carefully ambled out to where he could clearly be seen. Dead End cruised around to the other side of the building; Ironhide happened to stroll out the entrance on that side. Dead End backed off and transformed to wander aimlessly closer on foot, and Ironhide gave up trying to act aloof.

"Didja drop a buffing cloth, there?" he said pointedly. "Need help lookin' for it?"

Dead End stopped in his indecisive tracks and gave him a particularly sullen glare. The Decepticon huffed audibly through his vents and stalked glumly right toward Ironhide, stopping in front of him.

Ironhide tensed a little. Dead End wasn't bad by himself, if one could get past the metrotitan-sized pessimistic attitude. Without his gestalt-brothers, and certainly without Motormaster around, Dead End could generally be readily convinced to just buzz off without a fight.

"You're not on the regular volunteer list," Ironhide commented, dropping the circumspect act completely. "Y'got business here, Dead End?"

Dead End's optics shifted everywhere but at Ironhide. Then the Stunticon slowly, carefully, raised a fist... and tapped Ironhide on the forearm with his knuckles.

It barely qualified as a tap. The action hardly even made any noise, it was so half-sparked.

And Dead End just stood there.

Ironhide squinted an optic. "Um. What was that?"

"I hit you," Dead End mumbled.

Ironhide was torn between confusion and open derision. He settled for a bit of both. "So is this the opener to a really good joke?"

"I hit you," Dead End repeated more firmly. "I violated the ceasefire. Lock me up."

"Okay." Ironhide pinched his nasal bridge. "You're gonna hafta skip to the punchline. Maybe Decepticon humor is too sophisticated for an old 'Bot like me."

"Look, just—" Dead End shifted from foot to foot. "Just put me in a brig cell or whatever. I just— I can't be in the Nemesis right now."

"So... you got kicked out too?" Ironhide asked, trying not to smirk.

"No, I— augh, what's the point." Dead End Turned away and started to stalk off, but caught himself after a few steps and let out a great gust of vented exhaust: Cybertronian nonverbal for frag all this to the smelter.

Ironhide watched bemusedly from where he stood, content to just let Dead End strut and fret his hour upon the stage, as it were. The Stunticon was a pessimist, but he wasn't suicidal, or an idiot. Ironhide felt reasonably sure he wasn't here to try anything more nefarious than a mope.

"Can I just stay here?" Dead End finally asked in a rush. "The Nemesis isn't— it's not safe right now."

That got Ironhide's attention. Sure, the Decepticon warship wasn't exactly Six Lasers Over Cybertron on its best days, but what would be 'not safe' enough to chase out the 'Cons' poster-bot for cynicism? "That's sayin' something. How do you mean?"

"It's Vortex. And Shrapnel. And maybe Astrotrain, and..." Dead End scowled. "But mostly Vortex. Sick fragger."

Decepticon ranks peppered with sadistic sociopaths and entrenched infighting, news at eleven. "Motormaster not have your back? Soundwave, maybe?"

"Now who's telling jokes?" Dead End snapped. "Motormaster's very busy avoiding the carriers like it's cosmic rust. Soundwave's got better things to do. I even tried to tell Thundercracker. He told me I was big enough bot to handle it myself. He just doesn't get it."

Ironhide crossed his arms. "What, all of a sudden you don't have the ball bearings to deal with whatever those fraggers'd do to you?"

A flash of real, quite lively anger bubbled up from underneath Dead End's irritable apathy. "You don't get it either, you big stupid Autobot," he growled. "This isn't about me."

Belatedly Ironhide noticed Dead End's hand had come up to cover his lower core. Oh.

...Oh.

Ironhide stood aside and gestured through the open entrance. "Go on in. You're gonna bunk with Swindle, though, 'till we figure out how to handle... this."

"Whatever." Glum and detached once more, Dead End simply walked in.

 


 

"I want to be sure Dead End is not in trouble for taking refuge here," Optimus said, as Ratchet ran a high-resolution imaging scanner through its paces over his chassis. "It shouldn't be viewed as desertion."

"Hold still," Ratchet grumbled.

Across the lab, Starscream snorted. "It's not desertion if there's nothing to desert. We're still at ceasefire; as long as everyone's where they belong once hostilities resume, Dead End can be morose wherever he likes."

"Still, it's encouraging to see him concerned for the welfare of another," Optimus said. "Less encouraging that he fears for the safety of his little one coming to harm from his own side."

Ratchet knocked his leader in the helm. "Hold still. Use your comm, you're messing with the scan. And what're you thinking? Asylum here at the neutral site?"

/I'll discuss the matter with Megatron at our next meeting./

"Dead End isn't listed as one of the eleven carrying Decepticons," First Aid remarked.

"Eleven?" said Starscream. "I thought the reserve of energon for carriers was low. It's fifteen. Including myself."

"Megatron lied. I'm shocked." Ratchet fiddled with the scanner's controls with one hand and with the other held Optimus still. "Withholding information like that could prevent adequate medical care if something goes wrong. And we really should monitor everyone, just to get a handle on what a 'normal' gestation looks like to begin with."

"Our mighty leader is thinking strategically," Starscream said airily, poring through a datapad. "What he doesn't want to acknowledge is that all data is of strategic importance. You can bet your transformation cogs if I were leading the Decepticons—"

"Scan complete (thank Primus)," Ratchet interrupted. "Well now. You've put on weight, Prime. Nearly half a ton."

Optimus sat up. "But the circumference of the chambers has remained static. It must be getting rather tight quarters for him in there by now."

"See for yourself." Ratchet called up a wireframe image of the scan.

What once had been bare struts and open framing was now mostly-enclosed by smooth, featureless plating. The tiny thing was curled up, legs and arms pulled in, one fist shoved partway in his mouth. His optics were shuttered— actual, fully-formed shutters— and his head was completely enclosed in a plain, round helm.

"Half a ton is a bit much for its size," Starscream muttered. "This is going to really throw off my balance in the air..."

"Some of that weight is in the array itself," Ratchet replied, taking the pad out of the seeker's hands to add to the data.

"The chamber itself doesn't seem capable of expansion," said First Aid. "The mechlet must be rather dense in construction. Likely to continue nanite-aided growth after it's emerged, I should think."

Starscream peered down at the smaller Protectobot. "'Mechlet'?"

Ratchet studied the hologram thoughtfully. "That's a good guess. Seems to be following an organic model so far. Y'think this might be spontaneous mass adaptation imitating life we've most closely associated with for so long?"

"Well, they'd better get bigger, anyway," Starscream said, half-scowling at the curled-up figure that, rendered life-size, would fit in just one of Prime's hands. "They'd be useless that small. Soundwave's brats notwithstanding."

Optimus smiled ruefully behind his mask. The usual simmering tension between factions during previous treaties had put in no appearance this time around. He felt it was in large part due to the nature of their common problem.

It had nothing to do with death. No invaders, no enemies. Instead Autobot and Decepticon worked shoulder-to-shoulder to explore this mystery of new life.

The mechlet— and Optimus would have to ask First Aid where he'd gotten the word, it was perfect— inside squirmed and kicked, as he often did. Optimus responded in kind, lightly drumming his fingers on his abdominal plating, and the little one paused. When Optimus stopped tapping, the mechlet gave one mighty kick. Optimus chuckled quietly while the medics and scientists chattered in serious tones about this theory or that.

He excused himself, leaving them to tease what they could from new data, and strolled into the central great room of the Nest. The mechlet kicked again.

"Easy, little one," Optimus rumbled, pitching his bass harmonics downward, his voice sending low-frequency vibrations through his metal. The mechlet wriggled excitedly for a moment— startled? Frightened? Happy? He wished he knew.

"I can't wait to meet you," he murmured. "As big as you're getting, I hope it's soon."

Across the way, emerging from one of the other labs, came Tracks and Wildrider, having what appeared to be civil conversation. When Tracks stumbled, struck by an oncoming overload, Wildrider actually caught him by an arm, steadied him, and guided him over to the wall to lean against. Wildrider then furtively glanced around, spotted Optimus, and transformed to roll sheepishly out... mortifying, for a Decepticon to be caught in an act of courtesy to an Autobot, apparently. Optimus shook his head.

It might be hard, perhaps, for some of his Autobots to get back to fighting when this was over. It was maybe a fool's hope to want this peace to continue, but... well. Alpha Trion hadn't reformatted an idiot. Optimus knew Megatron well enough; his old rival planned on having new soldiers, and not much else. Prime had plans to propose that all the new people resulting from this miracle be classed as protected neutrals until they could make informed decisions about which, if any, side to take in the war. A more permanent treaty for their offsprings' sake would be ideal, if they could just weld Megatron to one spot for a day or several. But Megatron was as scarce as ever, his public appearances brief, his exits typically abrupt.

Another impatient kick from within.

Optimus tapped a reply. One miracle at a time, he supposed.

 


 

Soundwave was not by nature a nervous or paranoid mech, but he could swear someone was following him around, and had been for days.

It was barely a tickle of a mind, but he could sense it. Always nearby— very nearby. The innate sense of the minds around him was something he had had all his life; his long-dead mentor had called it a gift from Primus. Soundwave was given to be a bit more prosaic about it these vorn, but he was nonetheless grateful to whatever quirk of Vector Sigma had granted him the ability. It meant knowing exactly where he stood, for one, and very rarely being caught by surprise by anyone's actions. And not once had it ever failed him. Been blocked, thwarted, occasionally fooled (but not for long and never twice), but never failure on his part.

His cassettes were accounted for. He'd recalled them once he was certain it was 'someone' trailing him and not a sensor ghost, for their own safety. It wasn't Mirage. The Autobot spy was never this sloppy, and word was he was starting to have trouble maintaining invisibility while overloading.

Soundwave finally decided to cut his daily haunt through the Nemesis short and see if he could get his unknown stalker to stop being coy. With one processor thread watching his private security feeds, he headed into his quarters and locked the door.

... the presence was still there, inexplicably inside his quarters despite having seen no one enter behind him.

Irritated, he was about to initiate a thorough— and unpleasant— telepathic scan of the area, when Frenzy gave him a hesitant mental nudge.

/Boss, I think it might be the scraplet./

Soundwave pulled himself up short. The research teams had agreed that the cluster of neural crystal that formed in each active "gestation" chamber could potentially function as a processor. Soundwave had reservations, to say the least. They weren't nearly sophisticated enough, had not shown evidence of any real programming, and—

But there it was, a quiet presence, dormant inside him. No wonder it had felt as if someone were following him.

If it was a processor capable of consciousness, it really was a true mech, spark and all. Prime had been right.

The non-carrying Decepticons had been giving their affected comrades suspicious sideways glances since this whole thing had started, and the prevailing hope was that any day now, the think-tank at the so-called Nest would discover their crucial mistake and find a way to destroy what were surely insidious parasitic monsters. Any day now.

The little mech inside him— the one that wasn't a symbiote— stirred drowsily, in both body and mind. The as-yet simple processor flared briefly with interest and curiosity, then settled once more.

This... changed things, somewhat.

/Hook: Prime's hypothesis confirmed. Begin independent research into possible upgrade methods./

/What? But... acknowledged./

 


 

As usual, Sideswipe didn't so much boot up as half-my-processor-took-a-two-minute-vacation-without-me slog back to fully online in a process that took nearly as long as the overload episode itself. He made himself lie still and quiet on the berth for several minutes. Past experience had proven that trying to talk, move, or even think complex thoughts right after one of these overloads, and, well... Sunstreaker had a baker's dozen short videos ready to hit the internet the instant a blackmail-ish mood took him.

Sideswipe was equal parts horrified and proud. Embarrassment via Youtube was usually his thing.

"You back with us, Siders?" His current visitor, Huffer with the daily energon delivery. "Sunny couldn't make it just now. Sleeping off another one."

"Yeah, that happens." Sunstreaker's overloads tended to drop him straight into deep recharge for a couple hours, which meant his usual resting cycle was pretty much shot. According to the polls, he wasn't the only one keeping weird hours these days. Gestational overload followed no discernible schedule for any of them. The timing seemed completely random.

Except for Prowl. Whose overloads came at precise fourteen-point-six-two hour intervals. (Seriously, what a freak.)

Sideswipe took his daily ration through the bars. "Thanks, Huff."

"Yeah, yeah." Huffer turned to go. "Oh, your thingy beeped while you were having happy-time."

Sideswiped briefly wondered what it would take to bribe Ratchet to reattach Huffer's head backwards. "Real cute, buddy. Next time you clank chests with someone could be it!"

Hmm. He picked up his 'homework', the datapad linked to the ongoing research. Sure enough, there was a batch of new scans and nanite analyses to pretend to understand. But first, he dashed off a quick message:

[okay so we know what causes baby but has anyone wondered how to keep it from happening]

After a moment, a reply: [Do you mean a possible contraception equivalent?]

[yeah that see it's nice we've got a bunch incoming but unless we all stop interfacing we could be up to our cranial vents in baby]

A longer pause.

Sideswipe smirked. [even more baby if they end up having same equipment of their own maybe]

An even longer pause.

[exponential baby]

[YES, THANK YOU, SIDESWIPE, WE'LL LOOK INTO IT.]

He snickered. That was Ratchet. On a good day Starscream was fun to needle (from the safety of the brig and a remote connection, of course), Perceptor fought back by formulating all his replies into alliterative haiku, but Ratchet always resorted to the double-stress glyph-lock.

Sipping his energon, he brought up the new material. More structural scans. Oh hey, Bluestreak's little sparky had little nubs on the front rim of his helm, almost like the beginnings of a chevron. That was adorable. And like all the rest, the mechlet had developed a line of anchor points along his armorless spinal strut, attached to the inside of the gestation chamber.

Sideswipe made a note of the development on another datapad. So far the attachment to the inner chamber wall looked like a regular thing, something that was supposed to happen. Like the outer plating (thin though it was) forming, and the optics lighting up at a certain stage.

And Sideswipe was perversely determined to not only become the expert Prowl had sarcastically ordered him to be— he intended to literally write the book on the new Cybertronian reproductive cycle.

Of course, How is Babbybot Formed, How Bot Get Pragnent was merely a working title.

Sideswipe thumbed through the other scans, turning them each this way and that a few times. Something was different. It was most pronounced in Jazz, on the spherical chamber itself, rather than the mechlet within.

Arcing over the curved surface, was that a... a seam? No, that was a series of seams. The chamber was becoming segmented.

All levity dropped, one hand resting nervously on his midsection plating, Sideswipe sent a simple query to the research teams to ask why nobody had apparently noticed and made note of the chambers' impending ability to possibly open.

It looked like birth-day was upon them.

 


 

Jazz was awake, again in the middle of the night. Somehow he'd rolled off the berth without realizing it and was half-kneeling beside it, fumbling underneath for the stash of energon he kept squirreled away.

By Primus, he ached. Everything from armor inward, neck-down and up from the hip joints, throbbed dully. Not pain, precisely. But definitely an ache.

And he'd had a full cube before turning in, why was his tank churning so? It was just regular energon. Why did he suddenly, absolutely have to get another cube in him right the pit now?

He downed it on the spot, kneeling there on the floor. Through the haze of his half-booted processor he felt mildly sheepish. He'd seen empties intake energon with more dignity.

...and he still didn't feel any better.

His vents were open, going full bore, but he wasn't overheating. His systems seemed to swing back and forth just short of giving actual errors. Carly had once described to him the experience of a human malfunction called the flu, and he could swear this was what a 'cold sweat' felt like.

Jazz tried to stand up, to get back on the berth. He only ended up more on the floor. So he simply braced himself on all fours, trying to remember how that standing thing worked.

The ache pooled more deeply, centering on...

There was a twinge and a click, barely heard over his roaring vents; Jazz absently brought a hand up to his abdominal section. And he came suddenly, dizzyingly alert.

His plating was open.

And there was something pressing against his hand.

 

Chapter Text

/Ratchet! RATCH!/

/—what— Jazz?/

Jazz could only see so much past his alt-mode bumper without opening his chestplates. Just the edges of the open core plating (which wasn't supposed to do that in root mode) and his hand, cupping something round. /It's coming out!/

/What is— oh! The mechlet?/

/Nah, doc, it's a bag of Funyuns. Transscanned a vending machine and you know how that first transformation is always a little tricky YES, THE MECHLET./ His internal components clenched. The round thing in his hand wobbled like an unbalanced gyroscope.

/I'll Funyuns you, you little... you're not at the Nest, are you?/

/No, I'm in my own quarters,/ Jazz shot back. Like he was going to power down with all those Decepticons tooling around. /Ratch, just get in here, I don't think I can override this!/

/I'm already en route. Gonna take me about twenty minutes to get to the Ark, though. Looks like all us medics were out here at the same time. Just stay calm, Jazz. Can you ping me a self diagnostic?/

Sure. Run a routine self-diag. No problem, just— oh Primus, he could see it now, a curve of shiny silver under his hand— Ratchet, just shoot Ratchet the info, don't think about it being a tiny mech with a tiny spark and—

/No error reports. Any pain?/ Ratchet, bless him, was all calm professionalism. For however long that lasted.

/No. No, it's just—/ Another internal clench, more faulty gyro wobbling. /— ugh, really uncomfortable./

/All right, just sit tight. Unless something really, obviously goes wrong, let's assume things are proceeding as they should./

Assume—? Right, he was the first. He'd tolerated the poking and prodding to a certain extent. He understood why they'd want to watch him in particular, but Jazz had never been entirely comfortable with scrutiny. The spotlight, sure, but not scrutiny. He had no control over this specific spotlight. Fortunately he had long ago perfected the art of Just Not Being Around, and he had drawn the line at letting Ratchet put one of his monitors inside his chassis. It transmitted too much information for Jazz to be comfortable with in his line of work. Security risk, was how he justified it.

So aside from the overloads, he could neatly avoid thinking about it at all. What was that human aphorism about a river in Egypt? He was swimming in it.

/Feels like my insides are pushin' and pullin' all at once,/ he said over the line. The round thing— was it a helm? It seemed far too big, and at the same time not nearly big enough.

/Just try to keep calm. Panicking would probably be bad for the both of you./

Both. There was another person coming out of him and— /I'm not panicking!/

/Come on, you're a better liar than that./

/Rrrrratchettt—/ Jazz tried to sit up, steadying himself with his free hand grabbing the edge of his berth. Still mostly hunched forward, he rode through another wave of clenching.

/Simmer down. Can you describe what's happening?/

/N-not really. Lower core plates opened on their own. I've got a hood and bumper in the way, but I can sorta see somethin' coming out. Got my hand on it, just feels round./

/Hmm. Well, just keep supporting him with your hand, don't try to push or pull anything. General medical consensus is that this is an autonomic process, so just let your components do what they're doing./

Jazz leaned back, arching his spinal strut. That seemed to help with the ache, a bit. The squirming bulge emerging from his middle budged a little further out, and he tried to explore the domed surface with his fingers, finding no defining telltale features.

His frame, on autopilot, squeezed all at once, and he doubled over again. There was a sudden sharp sting from further within, accompanied by a muffled snap! disturbingly like a cable breaking.

Alarmed, Jazz strained to see over his chestplates. A slender energon line (he'd certainly slit enough in his day to know what one looked like) slithered out from inside him and flopped over his hand. Energon, casting a pale pink glow on the proceedings, spattered on the floor.

/Ratch— I just snapped a line!/ Automatically he reached for the damage report to ping the medical frequency with, but there was nothing. /It... no damage. I can't tell what happened—/

/Easy, Jazz,/ Ratchet cut in. /Could it be the tank tap line? The mechlets have been drawing on the parents' energon the whole time./

/I... yeah, I think so./ Jazz watched the thin, segmented cord go dim. /There's not much energon. Just a few drops./ No need to panic. Probably supposed to happen. Probably.

/We figured that might happen when it came time. It should seal up on its own./

/Can you hurry up? Lights and sirens and all that?/

/There's nobody else on the road, I'm going top speed, and— pitssakes, Jazz, just stay calm and I'll get there as soon as I can./

/Okay. Okay./

One good strong wrench. Systems redlined for a long second, and

With a metallic pop! the little interloper was free.

Jazz slowly sat up, completely oblivious to the churn of his insides and exoplates resettling into proper positions, and the horrible ache fading away. All he could do was stare at the thing in his hand.

It was... a sphere. Segmented almost like a beach ball, shiny plates fitting perfectly, smoothly together, ever so slightly scuffed in a few places from scraping past the many cables and lines of Jazz's inner core workings. The spent energon line dangled from a small portlike indentation along one seam. Had the entire gestation chamber just... popped out whole? Had Starscream's sarcastic jab about laying eggs been prophetic? Had he given birth to a tether-ball, what?

Suddenly it rocked to one side, tipping precariously out of his hand. With a panicked squeak Jazz caught it in both hands, sparing it a two-foot drop to the floor. The sphere continued to lurch this way and that; he could feel mass shifting within, perhaps some sort of gyroscopic inertial mechanisms.

"Hey now, hey," he muttered. "chill out, buddy, I gotcha..." He turned the sphere carefully in his hands, tentatively tapping at a random seam. What was he supposed to do now? At a loss, he held it up to one audio.

Something inside was... murmuring.

Jazz's vents hitched.

Carefully, slowly, he got to his feet, cradling the little sphere against his chestplates. He got up on the berth and sat, legs loosely crossed, and brought the sphere up close to his face. "Someone in there? C'mon, lil' guy, you gotta help me out here."

At the sound of his voice, the sphere stopped trembling. Then its plating shifted. Jazz grinned. "Yeah, that's it. C'mon out now."

The sphere's plates slid fitfully against each other for a few seconds, as if it were unsure what to do, but then, one of the seams separated. Jazz retracted his visor and peered into the narrow, darkened slit.

There were two little blue optics glowing right back at him.

"H-hey there." His vocalizer was doing something funny. "That's it. It's okay. Can ya open up all the way? C'mon out and say hi. It's just me. Y'know, the mech you been ridin' around in for more'n ten months now?" Jazz let out a chuckle. "Way past time you introduced yourself!"

The optics blinked and there was a burst of high-pitched nonsense noise from inside the sphere. Whatever was in there knocked around inside for another couple seconds, and the plating opened further in fits and starts. And there, nestled in his hands, wearing the plates of the gestation chamber like a turtle shell, was a tiny matte-silver mech.

Jazz could only stare.

The mechlet stared back.

He had barely any features to speak of—no kibble, unless you counted the still-attached chamber plating. No coloring, only a silver in so fine a matte that it was nearly velvet. Almost no nasal strut at all, and the mere suggestion of a helm. But there were two nearly-invisible nubs atop the head, in perfect echo of Jazz's own stubby sensor horns.

"Primus." Jazz carefully rebalanced the mechlet in one hand and used the other to hesitantly brush a finger over one absolutely tiny arm. The mechlet let out a 'meep!' and clutched at the finger with both hands, with a grip that was several shades stronger than he expected from such a little thing.

"Hey, m'mech. M'mechlet." Jazz let him keep the finger for now. "My mechlet... huh. Feels a little funny to say out loud. But it's true, innit? You're my mechlet." He grinned. "And I'm your Jazz."

The mechlet's optics shut as he mimicked the grin, high-pitched vocalizer replying in pure gibberish, all chirps and beeps and warbles. Still mostly curled up, he let go of Jazz's finger in favor of attempting to put his own hand in his mouth.

"All right, silly." Jazz chuckled and gently nudged the little fist out of its owner's mouth. "Let's boot up all the way now. What's your name, kiddo? Do you know it yet? S'okay if you don't right away, y'know, so..."

The mechlet only wriggled a bit more vigorously, stretching limbs out from the confines of his ball shape for the first time. He made a happy little croon. At least, Jazz thought it was happy-sounding. It certainly wasn't a designation. Or a word of any sort.

Jazz frowned. Most newly-activated Cybertronians were nonstop chatterboxes, full of questions and boundless curiosity. He'd been no exception, himself. Sure, this little mech here hadn't exactly been constructed in the usual manner, but to not be able to access basic vocabulary programming?

Suddenly the door to Jazz's quarters flew open, and the lights blared to full illumination. The mechlet squealed in alarm and pulled in all his limbs, and the chamber plates snapped back into sphere configuration, closed completely up again. Jazz protectively clutched the little ball against his chestplates without consciously realizing he'd even moved.

"Jazz, are you—"

"Ratch! Primus, can't you ping first?!"

Ratchet, clearly still in emergency mode, froze in the doorway, optics cycling in confusion. Then he scowled, planted his hands on his hips. "Hurry it up, doc, lights and sirens, doc," he parroted.

"You scared him!" Jazz retorted, indignant.

Ratchet finally seemed to notice the object tucked up against Jazz's bumper, mostly hidden in his hands. The medic stepped all the way in, letting the door shut behind him. "In my defense, if you'd kept me updated over comm..."

Jazz relaxed, slightly. He could feel the sphere trembling. "…yeah, sorry."

Ratchet approached the berth. "Can I see him?"

For a moment Jazz had trouble actually uncoiling from his defensive huddle. He managed to hold the sphere out a little, letting Ratchet get a good look.

"Is that... the gestation chamber itself?" Ratchet leaned in, momentarily taking the dangling energon line in two fingers. Jazz felt the tingle of light medical scans washing over him and the mechlet both.

"Yeah," Jazz said. "Do you think it's supposed to be that way? He had it open 'till you came in, looked me right in the optics. Then he rolled right back in."

"That's... huh, that's actually quite clever defensive design," Ratchet tentatively ran his sensitive medic's fingers over the surface of the chamber. "And there he is, all right. Remarkable."

"C'mon, lil' guy," Jazz coaxed. "Open back up, it's just Ratchet. He didn't mean to spook you."

"Just a second. I want to make sure your insides are in order." Ratchet prodded Jazz's arms out of the way, pulling a more powerful handheld scanner out of subspace.

Jazz absently let the medic poke about his middle, contemplating the sphere in his hands. "He won't talk, Ratch. He just kind of babbles. D'ya think something's wrong with his processor? Can we give him a language download or something? I can't find any frequencies, does he even have a comm unit?"

"One thing at a time, Jazz." Ratchet ran the scanner over the sphere, then looked up at him. "We're rather off the map now. The answer to most of the questions we've got right now is 'we don't know yet.' You're fine, by the way. Minus a certain spherical mass, but we know where that went."

"If I could just... get him to..." Jazz had lost track of which seam was the opening.

"How about you describe what happened, start to finish," Ratchet said. "Maybe the sound of your voice will draw him out again."

So Jazz did, starting from the near-mindless need to get an extra cube of energon (which, as it turned out, was two— to judge by the pair of empty cubes on the floor— and he found it both amusing and distressing that he only actually remembered the one) all the way to how the chamber had just popped right out. As he spoke, Jazz took a clean rag from his subspace and wiped the spots of shed energon clean from the sphere's surface and the dangling cord. It seemed to work; or at the very least the mechlet was growing bored with hiding. His protective plating slid back open as Jazz finished up.

"Well, how about that," Ratchet murmured, as the mechlet eyed him warily from inside his half-open shell.

"Yeah," Jazz said, letting the mechlet grab his finger again. "He's so small, Ratch." If he'd been human, the mechlet would have been the size of... what was that rough-skinned ball-shaped fruit Sparkplug was so fond of? Cantaloupe.

Ratchet was consulting his scanner again. "High levels of nanite activity. Especially in his processor housing. He's going to keep growing for awhile, I think."

Jazz poked carefully around behind the mechlet's shoulder, trying to feel where he was attached to the chamber plating. He succeeded only in making the tiny mech giggle and flail around. Jazz chuckled. "He doesn't have much extra room in there. Is the chamber gonna grow with him? Baby's first alt-mode is 'one of Metroplex's ball-bearings'?"

Ratchet snorted, catching one of the mechlet's hands in his fingers to examine the delicate digits. "Again, Jazz, we don't know. Yet. Primus, that armor is paper-thin. It's a good thing that chamber is so sturdy or we'd have to put padding on everything."

Jazz started to relax a bit. So the little guy wasn't going to stay that fragile and breakable forever. Hopefully. "And I'm assumin' the growing includes the processor? Can you even understand what we're sayin', lil' bit?"

Ratchet turned the scanner's screen toward him. "Look at that reading, Jazz. That tiny processor is lit up like one of those winter trees the humans drag into their houses once a year. He might not be able to properly use the data, but he's taking it all in, that's for certain. And his nanites are still hard at work in there."

"Huh..." Jazz regarded the strange mech that had come from his own metal. "So eventually he'll be able to talk."

"That's my going theory at the moment," Ratchet replied with a shrug. "I need you to bring him down to the Nest. The research teams could get a lot of useful data from him."

Jazz half-hunched over the mechlet again. "Nuh-uh, doc. Starscream and the Constructicons can experiment on their own— "

"Passive scans only! Unicron's exhaust, Jazz, we're not going to let anyone hurt a mechlet. No open-chassis examinations, we all agreed on that weeks ago, if you'd kept up with the reports." The mechlet meeped worriedly at Ratchet's raised tone, and the medic collected himself. "Perceptor's fancy scanner's out there. Ten minutes and we'll have what we need. He won't be out of your sight at any point. I'd also like to get a more detailed scan of you, as well."

Jazz frowned. His mechlet burbled and wiggled. This was really, really weird.

He of course lived by the practice of protecting the weak and innocent, and they didn't get much weaker and more innocent than a helpless hour-old mech, but... he had to wonder if some of those programming changes hadn't affected more than his nanite colonies. The very thought of letting a Decepticon within a mile's radius of this bizarre little surprise of his lit up a giant neon NOPE sign in his processor. And he'd only just met the mechlet.

"How about I get Skyfire to keep Starscream busy while you're there?" Ratchet offered. "And as for the Constructicons, Hook's on board with the rest of us. We trust him not to do anything untoward."

"For now," Jazz said quietly. "This probably means the ceasefire'll be over soon."

Ratchet made a rueful face and clapped Jazz on the shoulder. "Regardless, we still need to get a handle on what's what. You're the first, but the rest are close on your tailgate, my friend."

The mechlet had lost interest in Jazz's finger and was slowly curling back up, his little optics dimming. "Well, okay, but can it wait 'till morning? I only had a couple hours' recharge, and it looks like th' bitlet's tired too."

Ratchet considered it, then nodded, and gave the closed-up sphere a pat. "All right. But 0700, I want you at the Nest, you and the Funyuns both."

"We are not calling him that," Jazz growled at the medic's back as he turned to go.

"So think of something better, wiseaft," Ratchet said, and palmed the door open. Out in the corridor Jazz could see more than a few pairs of optics trying to peer in, before the door shut again, and Ratchet's muffled voice ordering the small crowd of curious eavesdroppers to disperse. The news was probably out, Jazz supposed.

"We're gonna be a bit popular for a little while, you'n me," he said to his offspring, who was muttering inside his shell. He put the sphere down on the berth between himself and the wall and started to lay back down.

The mechlet squeaked faintly and the sphere wobbled and rolled right into the wall, then spun in the opposite direction. Jazz caught him before he could pinball out of reach. "Hey, hey, easy, I'm right here. Not goin' nowhere, okay?" He slid the sphere closer and curled an arm around it, forming a little corral he couldn't roll out of, his hand cradling the warm plating that had the distinct feel of living metal.

It seemed to work. The mechlet immediately calmed and was still.

Jazz set his internal alarm, then an alert to wake if the mechlet moved, just to be sure.

It was still awhile before he could settle back into recharge. He was too busy watching the sphere.

 


 

Two hours shy of his scheduled wake-up, Jazz came online to the sight of tiny hands on his bumper. For one absurd moment he thought maybe one of the humans had gotten in, then he remembered.

"Where you goin', bit?" he said, and the hands fell back. The mechlet appeared at his shoulder, gamely crawling up onto his upper arm, beeping cheerfully when he made optic contact with Jazz.

Jazz couldn't help but grin back. The mechlet looked a bit like a turtle, carrying his retracted shell around. With one hand keeping the little one steady, he carefully rolled to his side facing the wall. "Really wish you'd start talkin'. Be nice to know who you are, and all."

Of course the mechlet didn't reply, instead concentrating on the very important task of surmounting Jazz's shoulder, a climb made difficult by short, uncoordinated limbs and the restrictive curve of the chamber shell. Jazz simply kept a steadying hand on him, retracting his visor when the mechlet managed to pull himself up all the way. From there, the little mech seemed content to imitate a speed bump, peeking out from underneath the dome of his chamber plates.

Jazz kind of wanted to warn the mechlet that he had no idea what he was doing. He'd known his own mentor for about a decacycle, but it might as well have been only two groons as he'd said. How an oily minor weapons dealer like Rotorbolt had managed to get approval to foster a newspark was lost to history, but Jazz's bet was on either bribery or blackmail. He'd been one of Emirate Xeon's go-to bots for less-than-legal dealings in Protihex, and looking to move up in the world. Rotorbolt must have thought having a devoted underling would help his prospects, and had asked Vector Sigma for a clever, resourceful spark. He'd gotten Jazz... for all the good it had done him. Rotorbolt had left the newspark that would eventually name himself Jazz at home to go on some private errand, only to turn up grey and cold at the dark end of one of Protihex's skid rows.

Several million years later, the mechlet grabbed Jazz's nose and babbled, pulling himself up to sprawl clumsily against his carrier's faceplates.

Jazz laughed. "You got it backwards, kiddo. It's facehugger, then chestburster." He took the mechlet up in both hands, sat up, and settled him in his lap.

Jazz had always accepted the chance that he simply might not make it back from any given mission or battle. But the thought of it now... it made his coolant pump skip. He remembered all too well those first few cycles after realizing his mentor, the mech who'd promised to take care of him, was gone. And he'd been a mech capable of reasoning, communicating, and defending himself to some extent. The mechlet—

Primus, this war needed to end.

At least if the worst happened, Jazz had faith in his fellow Autobots. Someone'd step up and take care of... tiny whoever.

"Really need to figure out what to call you. At least until you say otherwise." He let the mechlet grab at his waving fingers. Catching the smallest one, the mechlet promptly stuck it in his mouth. His meaningless vocalizations began to take on a distinctly fussy harmonic, his face scrunching into a miniature frown.

"Uh..." Jazz felt his fuel tank hitch. "What's wrong, lil' buddy?"

The mechlet's cries got a touch louder. Jazz's fuel tank seemed to be about to protest the overabundance of energon he'd dumped into it earlier.

An idea hit him, and he reached under the berth, this time unerringly finding his stash right away. He pulled out a full cube of energon and dangled it in the mechlet's view. "I betcha this is what you need, now that you can't mooch off my tank anymore!" he said brightly, opening the cube easily with one hand. "Let's just... er. This... might be a problem."

The cube was roughly two-thirds the size of the mechlet himself. Who apparently knew fuel when he saw it, and was reaching for the enticing pink glow, still whimpering piteously.

"Hang on a klik, now, let's just... figure somethin' out..." Jazz awkwardly maneuvered the mechlet until he was more or less sitting upright. He brought the cube up to the little mech's mouth and very carefully tilted the corner in.

"There we— whoops—"

Energon sprayed as the mechlet gulped, then sputtered; too much at once? The poor thing's vents gaped wide, blowing a fine luminescent mist as the little mech's system forcibly cleared his airways. In something that was totally not a panic, Jazz put the cube down and fumbled for his cleaning rag.

"Sorry, sorry!" He wiped energon droplets away, and wow, did that mechlet look unhappy. Jazz frantically inspected him, trying to make sure there wasn't any left in the vents. Fuel intake line malfunction? Had something been built wrong? The mechlet seemed to be venting fine now, but he'd now added 'rather upset' to his noise repertoire. Okay. Calm down. You'd have trouble too if a giant mech dumped half a giant cube in your mouth all at once.

"Okay, okay, we're gonna figure this out. Ain't never done this before, so..." Jazz ran his free hand down his face. "I'm just gonna go ahead and apologize for everything in advance, how 'bout."

Jazz dipped a finger into the cube. The mechlet seemed game to try again, eagerly grabbing for the energon-coated digit and opening his mouth wide.

For a second, Jazz thought it worked. They'd have to rig together some kind of special dropper-bottle, of course, but—

The mechlet coughed, sputtered. Energon droplets everywhere again. Jazz actually froze up, at a complete loss. He was subcommander of the Autobots, renowned for his ingenuity and quick thinking, and he had no idea what to do.

The mechlet wailed. The sound hit a high, shrill frequency, and it was as if a switch flipped somewhere inside Jazz. His fuel tank gave a sharp contraction, and Jazz clamped his mouth shut before he could make the situation worse by purging on the already distressed mechlet. But what came up was not half-processed energon, but... something solid?

He spat it out. It was an uneven ball of congealed energon— and the only thing that kept Jazz from immediately chucking it into the waste chute was the fact that it was still bright pink and glowing, like proper potable fuel. Energon usually only achieved this semisolid gel state if it were shed from a mech's body and left to stagnate, or if it was tainted by certain contaminants. This seemed... fine, if one could overlook the gross state of matter. Well, almost: there was a vein of silvery substance running through it, a bit like a cat's eye marble.

Jazz did a bit of reshuffling, crossing his legs and nestling the mechlet between his knees so he could have both hands free for a moment. The mechlet continued to keen disconsolately, closing up momentarily into his sphere to knock about, then unfurling again to continue crying. Jazz pinched a bit of the gelled energon off and inspected it closely. It had the density of a soft, heavy foam, and when he popped the fragment in his mouth, his glossa detected nothing harmful, other than the strange texture.

Aware that his offspring was growing increasingly more unsatisfied with the state of affairs, Jazz considered. If the mechlet's intake and ventilation systems were as undeveloped as the rest of him, it stood to reason that liquid energon could be too fluid, going where it ought not, if there were valves or lines that just hadn't 'grown' in yet. A more solid form of fuel, perhaps chunks could be more easily handled by the immature fuel intake?

"Huh." On a hunch, he proffered the gelled energon to the mechlet, holding it right up to the open, squalling mouth. Tiny optics flew open, and the mechlet grabbed desperately at the congealed fuel.

"Easy, easy now. I still don't know what I'm doin', y'know." Jazz let the mechlet sort of gum smaller chunks off, bit by bit. The mechlet's cries immediately quieted into little murmurs, slowly the entire ball of fuel disappeared, and not once did he sputter or choke. Now apparently sated, the mechlet lazily curled halfway up and began idly playing with his own feet, cooing as if the whole incident hadn't even happened.

/Ratchet... I'm comin' out to the Nest a bit early./

 

Chapter Text

Jazz had never driven so safely in his life.

The mechlet had at least dozed off again, closed up in his little ball and securely strapped in Jazz's passenger- side bucket seat. As it was, the sphere barely fit inside the already low-slung sportscar altmode, even if Jazz had had plenty of practice transforming around delicate or awkward un-subspace-able cargo. Even so, he hadn't been this careful with something in his cab since that one time with the dud neutron bomb.

After taking twice as long as usual to get there and avoiding every minor bump in the road as if it were a minefield, Jazz pulled up to the Nest and initiated the slowest, most deliberate transformation ever. He had the sphere in hand before his wheels had completely left the ground, standing slowly and inspecting the sphere. The mechlet inside gave a slight wobble, but did not emerge, apparently still in recharge. Jazz grinned to himself, cradling the sphere in the crook of an elbow.

"There we go. Safe n' sound." As he ran his other hand gently over the domed surface, the energon tap line abruptly snapped cleanly off, leaving the little port bare. Jazz caught the cord before it could drop to the ground, peering closely at the indentation left behind. It looked like a regular cephalic medical interface port, only in miniature. Jazz subspaced the cord (maybe the medics would want to look at it or something) and gave the sphere a pat. If there was a port, there was a possibility of getting a proper look at the mechlet’s processor— maybe. One thing at a time.

"So," rasped a familiar voice. "That’s the little scraplet that you started this all with."

Jazz half-turned, putting the sphere out of Starscream’s direct line of sight behind his shoulder, and spared the seeker a glare from the corner of his visor. "Gettin' real tired of the insinuation that I deliberately played Typhoid Mary to a rust plague."

By the time Starscream worked the reference out, Jazz had already skulked past into the main central room of the Nest, keeping his frame between his mechlet and the Air Commander. "For all we know, you little reprobate, that's exactly what happened," the seeker said. "Tell me something: now that it's out of you, what's the parasite done so far? Tried to eat you? Suck your lines dry? Reprogram you?"

"Guess you'll have to find out on your own, won't ya, Screamer? If I had my druthers you wouldn't be inside a parsec of my mechlet."

"So is that it?" Starscream attempted to peer around Jazz, in a kind of I'm-interested-but-I'll-pretend-I'm-not way. "Not much to look at, is it?"

Jazz made for the primary med lab door, pinging Ratchet to let him know he'd arrived. "Bet you weren't much to look at fresh off the kindling slab yourself, pal."

"I beg your par— "

"Jazz! Did you bring him?" Bluestreak appeared literally underneath Starscream's wing. "Grapple said you'd had emergence— oh!"

Runabout shoved past, absently knocking Bluestreak right into Starscream's leg. The seeker primly danced aside with a noise of disgust, as if he'd stepped in something.

"That the bit?" the battlecharger demanded, as he and his brother flanked Jazz far too close for comfort. "Look, 'Muck, it's just a ball!"

"No, the bit's inside, right?" Runamuck started to reach for the sphere, and Jazz pirouetted neatly out of the twins' reach.

"C'mon, fellas, personal space, yeah?" Now he had the mechlet tucked in like a football, and he was certainly ready to make a dash for the endzone if the 'Bot-to-'Con ratio didn't improve.

"Just wanna see..." Runamuck pouted.

Runabout gave him a shove. "You'll scare the bit, you moron!"

Silverbolt sidled in, getting between the bickering battlecharger twins and Jazz. The Aerialbot leaned in close, and this time Jazz allowed it.

"Is it... I mean, do you have to..." Hand over his abdominal plates, Silverbolt made an uneasy face. "So is it actually an egg?"

"Nah," Jazz chuckled. "He's just curled up. Might still be in recharge, or he's just bein' shy."

"Me Grimlock want see!" Primus' rusted pistons, how had the Dinobot snuck up from behind like that. Grimlock's fearsome t-rex head suddenly looming over his shoulder wasn't, surprisingly, doing anything for Jazz's recharge-deprived nerves, and the crowd was growing. More blue optics than red, for now, but where was Ratchet?

"All right everyone. Let's give Jazz some room." And there was Optimus and his perfect timing, precisely ten seconds before Jazz would have folded into alt-mode and zoomed off between someone's legs. The small crowd parted to make way for the Prime. "Most of us here will have our own little ones to worry about soon enough. Jazz and his mechlet need to see the medical team right now anyway."

The gathered mechs grumbled a bit but dispersed, Autobot and Decepticon alike; it was still sort of surreal, this ceasefire. "Thanks, Prime," Jazz said. "Too early in the morning to be this popular."

Starscream, having lingered, made a derisive blat of static. Jazz ignored him.

Optimus gestured for the medical lab doorway and Jazz gratefully let his leader escort him inside. "Of course," said Optimus. "But I do have a bit of an ulterior motive. May I... may I see him?"

This was one mech Jazz had no qualms about holding his mechlet out toward. "He's doin' the roly-poly right now— that's the gestation chamber he's in. Just pops out whole, looks like."

"Is he— ah!" Optimus had put a hand on the curve of the sphere. The mechlet (perhaps sensing another mech's touch?) opened his shell partway.

"Hello, little one. Welcome." Optimus touched the tiny round helm gently, garnering a half-second wide-optic stare and a cautious beep.

"I'm right here, lil' guy." Jazz turned the sphere so that the mechlet could see him. At once the shell whisked wide open, the mechlet burbling happy nonsense and reaching for his parent.

"Yeah, hey yourself, bitty-bot!" Jazz grinned and let his mechlet grab clumsily at his fingers.

Optimus chuckled. "Well, he certainly knows who his parent is."

Behind them, Starscream hmm'd. "I wonder if that’s a preprogrammed response, or if they merely imprint on the first face they see." At Jazz's sideways look, the seeker huffed. "What? I am a key member of the research team, and I have no small stake in this endeavor myself, need I remind you."

"An excellent question, my erstwhile colleague!" Perceptor said, looking up from a console on the other side of the lab. "Like as not, I would think, it's simply that being inside Jazz all this time has made him familiar with the unique vibrations of voice and metal peculiar to our esteemed subcommander."

"I... suppose that's possible too," Starscream muttered.

"Just bring him over to the scanner, Jazz, if you please." Perceptor moved over to the central berth and patted it. "Bless me, he's so... small."

"Gee, Perce, what were you expecting?" Jazz snorted. The mechlet had spotted Perceptor and had gone still again, optics wide and round with curiosity.

"It's one thing to look at a scanner readout," the scientist huffed good-naturedly. "Quite another to see it in reality. Ah... Ratchet reported he is incapable of communication, correct?"

"So far," Jazz replied. "Well, no words. He did manage to get across when he was hungry. Which reminds me, where's Ratch? He should be here for this."

Perceptor pointed over one shoulder to the isolation bay at the back of the lab. "Gestational overload. One of his last, if your timetable is our exemplar."

"Well, might want to get it on official record or whatever," Jazz said as he wiped an overlooked spot of dried fuel from the inside of his mechlet's shell, "not to give 'em liquid energon. Lil' bit's systems can't handle it."

"Dare I ask how you learned this?" Starscream said. "And what exactly are we supposed to fuel the little leeches with?"

"Here ya go," Jazz replied, a touch too cheerfully, plucking the bit of congealed energon he'd pinched off earlier out of his subspace. Starscream narrowed his optics suspiciously at the still-glowing snippet and gingerly took it from Jazz's outstretched hand.

"What is it?"

Jazz quirked half a grin. "Apparently? Cybertronian baby food."

Starscream blinked dubiously at him, clearly trying to figure out whether Jazz was screwing with him or not.

"Why don't you make yourself useful and analyze that sample," Perceptor chimed in, "while we perform the scans."

"Make myself useful?!" Starscream repeated, shrilly. "You pompous—"

Equally high-pitched laughter filled the lab; an offended seeker was evidently the funniest thing the mechlet had ever witnessed. A low bar, admittedly, but Jazz nearly stripped a gear trying to keep a straight face. Starscream, scowling and muttering about wretched bossy so-and-sos who hadn't changed one whit since the universities at Iacon were standing, turned away to stomp out of the medlab, presumably to go to his own shared space with Skyfire.

Jazz tight-beamed to Optimus, /Permission to tell Percy and Screamer to just clang and give us all a break?/

/Denied./ Prime was almost certainly smiling behind his mask. /Wheeljack and Skyfire already have plans to lock them in a room together when the war is over. Plans I know nothing about./

Ratchet emerged just then, swaying slightly as the door slid open. "Ah, there's my favorite vending machine. Bring the Funyuns?"

Jazz was going to miss the slightly delirious good mood overloads put their medic in. "Heya, doc! Just in time to scan all the things. Also, bite me."

"Just place our new arrival in the center of the berth here," said Perceptor, bringing the sensor arm of his instrument around to bear. "Now we can get a good look at what makes you tick, my little friend, without your parent's components in the way!"

The mechlet had other ideas. When Jazz put him where the scientist had indicated, balanced on his open shell-back like a bowl, he pulled it shut, rolled over, and opened again to crawl over the berth-top toward Jazz. Jazz tried putting him down and then immediately backing away, but that only made the mechlet squeak and close up again, and roll in the direction his parent had gone. Luckily Perceptor caught the little sphere before it could careen to the floor. They had to have Jazz gently hold the mechlet in place and then scan whatever parts were being still at the moment, which the mechlet did not like at all— he couldn't close up with Jazz's hands in the way, but squirmed away from the scanner arm and babble angrily.

Jazz called a halt when he could feel the mechlet's tiny body begin to heat from stress, and Ratchet agreed. For now, it seemed, they would have to content themselves with what little they'd managed to get.

 


 

This far away from his gestalt 'brothers', the sympathetic echo of overload was little more than an annoying tingle. Swindle sighed through his vents and ignored it. It wasn't difficult; he was still very much persona non grata among Bruticus' components (the rest of the Decepticons weren't terribly pleased with him either, but at least most of them were still on speaking terms with him), and they had shut him out of the gestalt link as much as they possibly could.

They'd had a lot of practice doing that.

Bruticus had been the first success to come out of throwing five already-existing mechs together and hoping Shockwave had gotten it right. Swindle sometimes envied the camaraderie and support the Autobot gestalts displayed; he supposed it came from being created as gestalt right off the assembly line. But no, that probably wasn't the magic formula. All the other teams had been created linked from the get-go after that, and the only Decepticon combiner whose members weren't a complete dysfunctional mess was Devastator.

Ah, well. Swindle opened his energon ration— generously provided by the Autobots— and took a sip. He was doing just fine without four other voices in his head. He certainly didn't miss Vortex. Besides, it was starting to get interesting around here.

He'd been keeping his audios open all morning, and opportunity was in the air.

Yes, yes, new Cybertronian life, species not doomed, all that. Very nice, let's all interlock hands and perform the kum-bah-ya ritual. But he'd caught a glimpse of Autobot Jazz's little... mechlet thing... and he knew things would be looking up if he could just play it right.

This was no fully-built mechanism, ready to download occupational files and begin training with a mentor. This was a helpless, vulnerable, needy creature. Swindle was already looking through the internet at how humans handled their altricial young.

There was a mint to be made here; very soon just a few more of the little scraplets would pop out, and demand would quickly make itself known. Padded pens to keep them contained and safe while parents worked. Baskets as berth attachments to keep them close by but out of the way during recharge. Gentler, smaller specialized cleaning products. Obnoxious noise-making toys. Perhaps a car seat or some kind of sling-type carrying device, or—

"Decepticon."

Swindle started. He'd been casually loitering by the doorway of his temporary lodgings, bot-watching as useful gossip about the new infant robot made the rounds, and hadn't noticed Prowl come up beside him. Normally this would have been cause for concern. The former constable of Praxus had had precious little patience for Swindle's entrepreneurial spirit even before the war. But with the ceasefire and with the fact that Swindle hadn't so much as made a sketchy eBay post since this nonsense started, Prowl had no reason to be glaring at him right now.

"Prowl," Swindle said with a cordial nod. "Something I can help you... with..."

The Autobot was leaning heavily against the wall. "Decepticon Swindle."

"Ye-e-e-s. I am authorized to be here, unless the political situation has changed," he added, pointedly. "Are— are you all right?"

Prowl swayed unsteadily and made a vague reaching gesture. "I... require that."

"Uh." Swindle frowned and tried to edge away without making it terribly obvious. "I haven't got any contraband on me, as we discussed."

"Energon—" Prowl moved, snatching the full cube right out of Swindle's hand. "Confiscating."

"Oh, come on!" Swindle knew better than to just immediately grab it back, not with this mech. Equal parts baffled and insulted, he could only watch as Prowl knocked the cube back and downed the entire thing in one long pull.

Discarding the empty cube, Prowl sagged strutlessly against the wall and turned too-bright optics back on Swindle.

"Well, I don't have any more, if that's what you're after," Swindle snapped, irritated. "That was my ration for today, you know. I hope you enjoyed it. May it give you unprecedented exhaust odor!"

"What's going on here?" Ah, here came good old Ironhide, ready to stare down the closest Decepticon any time so much as a foul word was uttered.

"Look," Swindle began, "I realize I'm nobody's favorite these days but our treaty does demand some common civility, right? I've been unjustly deprived of fuel here, and for no reason I can—"

"Ironhide, do you have any—" Prowl made to push himself off the wall only to slide along it for a step. "I need energon."

"Prowl? You alright there?" Ironhide went to Prowl's side.

"He wants more? He just stole mine," Swindle protested, and was ignored.

Ironhide took one look at Prowl's overbright optics and hmm'd. "I'm callin' First Aid."

"I didn't do anything to him, I swear." Swindle held his hands up.

"What? No, this's prolly something else. Was kinda expecting it to happen sometime, all this weirdness going on." Ironhide waved him dismissively away. "Go on, this don't concern you."

"Do you have any more energon?" Prowl asked, stumbling toward Swindle again.

"Primus' sake, Autobot, you know very well I don't, because you—" Swindle had to physically stop Prowl's faltering advance with a hand planted squarely on the Autobot's chestplates. "All right, I enjoy a good prank as much as the next mechanism, but this is a bit much."

"Excuse me, Swindle." As gentle as ever, First Aid inserted himself between Swindle and Prowl, and thank Primus someone in this idiotic yet profitable war remembered their manners. "Prowl, can you run a diagnostic for me?"

"Do you have energon?" Prowl replied, switching his disconcerting focus away from Swindle.

"Think it's a lockup," Ironhide put in. "He... did kinda poach the Con's fuel, and that ain't like him."

"Oh my. Swindle, I'm sure we can comp you another cube," First Aid said over his shoulder. "But right now I need to see to Prowl."

"Well... I suppose that's acceptable," Swindle conceded.

That was when Prowl collapsed. There was a minor clatter of metal as First Aid caught him before he could tumble completely to the floor. From the doorway of the medlab across the central room appeared most of the rest of the Autobot senior staff, and Swindle decided he had better places to be than under possible close scrutiny. He had mechlet crib schematics to mull over anyway.

And he'd be back to collect the cube he was owed later.

 


 

First Aid, ignoring the knocking sensations Groove or Hot Spot was feeling from a kicking mechlet, ran what scans he could as he and Ironhide supported Prowl. Their second-in-command's leg actuators didn't seem to be working, and his engine had kicked on at a low idle. There was a great deal of tension in Prowl's core endostructure.

"Prowl?" First Aid attempted to fine-tune his scan. "Prowl, look at me. Jazz reported one of his first symptoms was an overriding need to fuel. Are you experiencing any aches, pressure perhaps?"

Prowl glanced around, as if confused to find himself there, even though he had all but taken up full-time residence at the Nest some months ago. "What's going on? I—" He paused, grimacing. "I feel extremely unpleasant."

"I think you might be having emergence," First Aid told him. He carefully felt along Prowl's abdominal plating, though unless it actually popped open he wasn't sure what he was looking for. "You seem disoriented; may I connect to your systems and run a diagnostic for you?"

"What— emergence?" Prowl blinked. "Everything aches. What's happening?"

Optimus moved in, putting a hand on Prowl's shoulder. "Emergence of the new mech inside you, Prowl. Don't worry; if Jazz's experience is any indication, this should be nothing to fear."

Prowl shook his head, optics flickering in a way First Aid did not like at all. "New... new mech."

"That's right," Jazz piped up, at First Aid's elbow. "Like my lil' guy here."

First Aid couldn't help but turn away from his patient to look, of course. He'd seen the preliminary report from Ratchet, but there it was, the first new Cybertronian since his own creation. A tiny mech all curled up in his partly-open ball-shell, keen blue optics staring right back. Incredible.

"Vector Sigma is gone," Prowl said, vocal harmonics gone flat, drawing First Aid's focus again. "Impossible. New people— impossible—"

"Uh oh," came quietly from Ratchet, and the CMO pulled out a medical cephalic cable.

"Can't get to Vector Sigma," Prowl muttered. "No key. New mech, impossib—" He staggered, doorwings flattening, as Ratchet plugged in. "Vector Sigma is gone. No new people. Inside— inside me, impossible—"

And he went limp, optics dark, held up by Ironhide and Ratchet. "A crash?" First Aid asked.

Ratchet shook his head. "No, but it was close. Managed to get him into a soft reboot before the logic loop picked up too much speed. 'Hide, help me get him into the medlab, this mechlet is still on his way out."

Word had gotten out, of course. Another crowd began forming as they carried the offline Prowl into the lab. First Aid couldn't fault their curiosity, but this was a medical matter, not a dance recital. And Jazz was going to start hissing like a housecat if one more Decepticon tried to poke his mechlet's shell. /Hot Spot, can you come play bouncer over here for a bit?/

/Sure, Aid./ The Protectobot leader ambled through the throng of red and blue optics and took up a position beside the door as it slid shut. /Anyone on the guest list I should let in?/

/Hook, if he's here. Anyone on the Nest research teams, for now. Let everyone know Prowl is going to be okay./ First Aid caught himself rubbing his abdominal plates. The sympathetic sensations were really quite distracting, but he couldn't bring himself to block or dampen the gestalt links from Hot Spot and Groove. /And thank you./

/No problem. Sorry, I think mine's the one kicking. Or turning somersaults./

/It's fine, just warn me if you're having an overload. That goes for you too, Groove./

/Yes, mom./

They settled Prowl on a berth and set it to support him in a reclined position. Ratchet linked the offline mech's internal monitor with the nearby console, while remaining connected via cable. "I'll ease him up out of the reboot and make sure his logic circuits don't fixate again. Aid, you keep in front and... er, catch, I suppose."

Jazz barked a laugh, prompting the mechlet to giggle in response. "Catch! The chamber doesn't come flying out at high velocity, Ratch."

"Oh, Primus." First Aid would never get that mental image out of his processor. Nevertheless he hovered close over Prowl's midsection... just in case... just in time to see the ventral seam shift and the panels bulge outward. "Ah— he's starting to open, I think. Jazz, is there anything I should do to help? Is he in pain?"

"No, not pain, really, just pressure and parts moving that don't usually move that way." Jazz hummed thoughtfully. "T'be honest, I'm not sure if you should help or not. Or even how. Mine just kinda... popped out on his own."

First Aid watched the monitor readout. Prowl's internal workings were indeed shifting, cables and struts normally used in transformation now acting in concert to push the spherical component of the gestational array toward the front of the chassis. The lower section, with its piston nanite injector, was fairly firmly anchored, giving only slightly as the sphere was, bit by bit, pushed further out of place. From the outside, the surface of the chamber was now visible. Prowl's body stiffened and shifted with each wave of internal movement; it seemed this really was a truly automatic process. "Jazz," said First Aid. "Is this proceeding about the same pace as what you experienced?"

Jazz, sitting on a nearby unoccupied berth with his mechlet in his lap, shrugged one shoulder. "Looks that way. Energon tap line should break off any minute now."

Sure enough, moments later the monitor showed the sphere strain against the thin energon line and pop loose from where it was attached to the underside of Prowl's main fuel tank. The hole it left behind was quickly sealed by self-repair, and the dangling cord emptied the negligible amount of energon out as it fell away. It seeped from a transformation seam in his lower back.

"Won't be long now." Jazz grinned down at his mechlet. "You're gonna have a buddy soon, bet you'll dig that! Hey, Ratch, how's that reboot coming? Prowl shouldn't miss this."

Ratchet waved distractedly in Jazz's direction. "Just restarting the sectors that tripped up now. He'll be back online in the next minute or so."

As Ratchet disengaged the cephalic cable, First Aid watched the bulge slowly protrude further out for a moment, then busied himself cleaning up the energon shed from the umbilical. "Systems keep flirting with redlining," the younger medic commented. "But look, there's a pattern."

"Huh, you're right," said Ratchet. "Cooling ramps up just before a push, to stop overheating before it even starts. I wonder if—"

"Oh!" First Aid hastily steadied Prowl, whose body suddenly arched up off the berth. The tactician grunted, his optics flickering for a brief second just as a sharp pop sounded from inside his chassis. First Aid carefully braced the sphere between both hands as, finally free of its anchor, it was easily pushed clear.

The sphere trembled and shook as he held it there, as if fighting to get free. One seam began to split. "What— what do I do?"

"Hang on—" Jazz got up, mechlet tucked up under his bumper. "Turn 'im toward Prowl."

"Why?" First Aid asked, even as he did so, orienting the opening to face Prowl's head.

Optimus came away from the wall where he'd been quietly observing. "The first thing a mechlet sees should be his parent," he said. Jazz grinned up at his leader.

"Prowl? C'mon, boot up now." Ratchet flicked the mech's audio.

Prowl gave a slight shake of his head, optics flashing abruptly back online. "Ratchet?"

"You're okay. Run a system check and access your short term memory." The CMO patted Prowl's shoulder. "And then there's someone you need to meet."

"What..."

First Aid could see the exact instant Prowl remembered what was going on. Shock flickered across his faceplates and he started to sit up, only to freeze as his gaze fell on the object in First Aid's hands.

The sphere opened a little wider. An inquisitive beep rang out in the suddenly quiet room. Seemingly oblivious to everyone else, Prowl slowly took the sphere— and the mechlet inside— from First Aid.

"Hello," Prowl said, gently reaching into the opening. "I'm—"

The shell snapped shut on Prowl's fingers with a sharp clack! causing hardened warriors and jaded medics all to flinch as one. From inside the newly emerged sphere high-pitched giggling echoed. Jazz's mechlet chirped and twisted as far as his own open chamber would allow, clearly curious about the noise.

Prowl's free hand fluttered hesitantly over his sphere's surface and he tugged at his trapped hand, doorwings perked high in consternation. The shell had closed right on the knuckle joints, neatly preventing him from simply slipping out. And the mechlet still evidently thought this was fantastically amusing.

"I..." Prowl's doorwings drooped sheepishly. "I may need help prying myself loose."

 

Chapter Text

"What I'm calling 'mechlet grade' energon is produced through a minor alteration of the normal fuel processing that occurs in the primary fuel tank. The energon is then concentrated, rendered semi-solid, and infused with nanoparticles composed primarily of cybertronium and other trace metals and polyceramics, as well as a culture of live nanites."

Starscream was in his element. It felt like the old days long before the war, giving lectures at the science academy between stints in the research labs at Iacon. How grand, to have the full and respectful attention of everyone in the room once more!

"In essence, the parent continues to contribute to the development of the mechlet after separation. I withhold speculation on just how long this period of dependency lasts until further observation of the mechlets." Starscream had almost said 'specimens.' He'd committed that apparent faux pas already in front of Optimus Prime and had gotten a look of disappointment so dense it had its own gravity well. Fine— so these creatures were to be considered people. Starscream continued to reserve judgment, even as the ramparts of his doubt took a few blows.

"And the parent... purges up this mechlet grade?" Megatron looked as if he wanted to grab the nearest mech and shake them until the nonsense stopped (Starscream would never admit to sympathizing with Megatron but here they were) but as the would-be despot was, at present, communicating via vidscreen from his quarters on the Nemesis, no such punching bag was to hand. Alas.

"Not a purge as such," Prowl spoke up, pointedly addressing the roomful of officers and scientists rather than the screen. "It's an unusual sensation, but not as unpleasant as a bad fuel purge." He had just experienced the phenomenon being discussed, and was even now feeding the mechlet held in his lap.

Or, trying to. The ridiculous thing had kept grabbing the wad of congealed energon in its fists until it extruded messily between the short, blunt fingers. Prowl was left with a handful of smushed pasty bits, which he was deftly slipping into the mechlet's mouth piece by piece and not letting it use its hands.

"There's a particular vocalization the mechlet emits, a simple but unique harmonic," Perceptor put in, "that triggers the parent to produce the special fuel globule. Quite a neat little system, really, ensuring that the parent need not have to guess at when or how much energon the little one needs, and risk under- or over-fueling by mistake."

Megatron's glower filled the screen. "It also keeps a number of my warriors tethered to these helpless, useless creatures. How are they expected to accomplish anything? And who's to say this 'period of dependency' even ends at all? I'm still not convinced this isn't a plot of some kind. Rather a good way to keep us all distracted and occupied, slowly guzzling down our hard-won energon."

"All good points, o wise Megatron," Starscream interrupted, quite by accident blocking half the screen with a wing. "And I would share your concerns, except the drain in energon is only marginally more than what the carriers already require... for now, at least."

"The little ones have gestational arrays themselves," said Perceptor, "albeit as yet nonfunctional. One would presume this would indicate potential to mature and bear mechlets of their own one day. We simply do not know the exact timetable yet, but I do not believe we have been unduly burdened forever."

Ratchet leaned forward at the holotable, punching at a datapad. "Comparing nanite levels and activity in the two we've got so far— their processors are increasing in complexity. They are aware and learning."

Right on cue, Prowl's spawn hurled a gob of mushed mechlet-energon right back into the Autobot's face, where it stuck to a cheek plate.

/Hey, does that count as assaulting a superior officer?/ Skywarp was, like most of the robotic population on this backwater planet, watching the conference by remote.

/Shut up,/ Starscream retorted, and packaged the video data to send to every Decepticon who had ever been shot or interrogated by Prowl.

Who, unflappable as ever, merely peeled the energon blob from his face. The mechlet shrieked with laughter. There was a rustling as half the room's occupants reset vocalizers in an effort to stifle their own laughter; the other half glancing around at each other as if not quite comfortable with the strangeness of the situation. The only other mechlet simply sat quietly in Jazz's lap, seemingly as attentive as an eager university student.

Learning, were they? Interesting.

"—anyway—" Ratchet was valiantly wrestling down a smirk. "I wouldn't discount these new people just because they didn't step forth fully programmed and ready to go. It looks more and more like this is going to be the new normal."

Megatron frowned. "Only if we carry on as before, recklessly spreading this condition to other Cybertronians."

"So," Optimus Prime spoke up, "We do not 'carry on as before.' It's become clear that business as usual simply isn't working. The old ways drove our mighty empire into this... this interminable war. Once the pride of our people was our adaptability; so— we must once more adapt." He gestured to the pair of black-and-white mechs sitting with their progeny (Jazz's curled up in its shell, Prowl's doing its best to take a bite off the edge of the table). "I propose an indefinite extension to our ceasefire. Autobot and Decepticon alike will soon be preoccupied with the care of the future of the Cybertronian race, and to resume hostilities now would be to all but assure our mutual destruction."

Starscream watched his leader's face go curiously taut, then frustrated, to foul.

"What nonsense," Megatron finally muttered, and cut the channel.

Optimus Prime turned from the dark screen with a sigh of vents. "Perhaps not the right time for such negotiations."

/I would be amenable to an extension, if my support carries any weight,/Starscream boldly tight-beamed to the Prime. Despite the constant snark, and even the presence of Perceptor, Starscream found he rather liked being part of a respected scientific community again. He had actual clout here, such as this strange arrangement was.

/Thank you, Air Commander,/ Prime replied. /I appreciate the gesture. But politics right now are still too delicate, even you must agree./

Starscream quashed a huff. Squeamish Autobots, what was a little usurping among comrades? /True. My offer remains open./

"We've put together a memo tentatively outlining what to expect when emergence occurs," Hook said. "Bearing in mind our, er, small sample size, individual experience may vary, of course, but it doesn't promise to be anything that can cause damage or undue distress to a mech's systems."

"I still want every carrier here at the Nest over the next few days. Might get a little hectic, but we can at least attempt to contain the chaos." Ratchet accepted a datapad from Hook, frowning at it thoughtfully. "And keep everyone in energon when it hits, so we don't have any more incidents."

"Perhaps the carriers should remain in someone's company until after emergence?" Prowl at least had the grace to look a little embarrassed, simultaneously trying to pry his mechlet's fingers off the underside of his alt-mode bumper. "The initial fueling fugue state was very disorienting."

"Agreed," Starscream said. "Now, what about designations? Or... are we falling back on the old serial number standby?"

"A bit off, isn't it?" asked Red Alert. "One should name oneself, not someone else."

"Suggestion:" spoke up Soundwave from the back of the room. "Temporary designations until mechlets able to choose for themselves."

"S'what we were thinkin'," said Jazz, indulgently letting his mechlet play with his fingers.

Starscream inwardly scoffed. His get would not be so coddled.

"For now, you're Riff." The saboteur grinned at the room at large. "'Cuz he's a lil' bit o' Jazz."

Primus, he'd found a pun that worked in both Cybertronian and English. Starscream outwardly scoffed.

"And yours, Prowl?" Optimus asked.

Said Praxian had his mechlet firmly in both hands, the little one's inertial gyros making the closed-up sphere lurch fitfully against Prowl's hold. From inside its shell there came a muffled yelling. Not angry, nor afraid, just... yelling.

Prowl's smile was less effusive, and a great deal more wry. "Imp."

 


 

Just shy of a full planetary rotation later, the proverbial floodgates opened, beginning with the Protectobots ensconcing themselves in one of the Nest's side rooms with a small stockpile of energon.

First Aid pushed back the strange fog transmitted over the gestalt bond when Hot Spot and Groove ticked over at once. Fugue state was a good way to put it, brief though it was; First Aid found himself about to drink from a cube before he could shake himself out of it. He was going to handle this like a pro, no problem.

"For pete's sake, Aid." Blades chided him, as he steadied a cube for the loopy Groove to drink. "Just dampen the link, like me n' Streets are doing."

"It's an important part of my function as a medic," First Aid managed to say through the driving-but-secondhand need to fuel. "How much... oh, here, Hot Spot—" He handed over the cube he was holding— "how much better can I treat my patients if I know exactly what they're experiencing?"

"Uh." Streetwise tapped at First Aid's shoulder.

Hot Spot peered blearily into a cube empty of all but a drop or two and whined. "But— why is the energon gone?"

"Ener-gone," Groove singsonged giddily, flopping down across Blades' lap.

"That was fast, Spot." First Aid put hands on hips. "Didn't even see you intake."

Streetwise, giving the junior medic the oddest look, snagged another cube and passed it to Hot Spot. "That's because you drank it, Aid."

"What? Don't be silly. I had my ration a few hours ago."

Streetwise and Blades exchanged a look. First Aid ignored them and reached for another cube to hand to Groove. Come to think, he could use a topping-off... it was going to be very busy around here, he'd need the energy if he intended to be of any help to anyone. He quickly tipped the cube back, stopping when half its volume remained, and handed it on to Groove.

"Aid, are you sure you fueled already?" Blades squinted.

First Aid nodded, but that was a mistake. A wave of dizziness made his gyros buzz for just a moment and he braced himself against the berth Hot Spot was sitting on. "Yes, yes, I had some just now."

Blades's squint intensified. "...what."

"You feel a little spacey, bro," murmured Groove. "S'my job."

First Aid straightened up, steadying himself with effort. "I'm fine, don't worry! Feedback is just a little stronger than I was expecting."

Twinges from within, followed by a pulse of tension. Groove made a face and curled up, still mostly in Blades' lap. Ah, here it comes, First Aid thought, retracting his mask to smile at his brothers. "All right. According to Jazz, this should feel—"

"— like Superion's punching me very slowly," groaned Hot Spot, leaning forward and putting his helm in his hands.

"Goodbye, spontaneous overloads. I'm going to miss you." Poor Groove had rolled over and stretched out, more or less trapping Blades on the other berth.

"Heeeeeelllp," mock-whispered Blades, rotors and hands up, optics dilated imploringly at First Aid.

"Everyone just keep calm." First Aid knelt in front of Hot Spot. "Blades, you're doing fine, just keep an optic on his lower ventral plates. They'll be opening soon." He did his best to project confidence and reassurance to his brothers. Prowl's hiccup with his logic/tactics processes aside, both previous births had seemed rather easy, so this should be a piece of...

A wave of internal push-pull-twist hit Hot Spot, Groove, and First Aid with greater intensity than before; even Streetwise and Blades cringed. The white noise of fans kicking on filled the room.

"Maybe... I should tamp down on the link... a bit." First Aid shook himself and tried to sit up. In front of him, Hot Spot's ventral seam had parted, and First Aid could see the tangle of cables bulge from within. "Oh, Spot, you're open! Blades, how's— nnnnggggh."

"Uh... Aid..." Streetwise was staring at him.

First Aid stood. Or he tried to, managing to make it to one knee down and a hand braced on the berth. "Just a moment. Going to check on Groove."

Streetwise grabbed his shoulder. " Aid. "

Between pulses of pushing, Groove lolled onto his side, giving First Aid the strangest look. "Hey, bro... by any chance is there anyone you'n Ratchet forgot to check when this all started?"

What a silly question. Of course there wasn't anyone—

One sharp pinch. Groove's energon tap line had broken off. A second pinch immediately after, from Hot Spot. Then a third

First Aid, utterly speechless, could only ride out the next wave of contractions, carefully supporting the gestation sphere emerging from his own chassis.

 


 

"...so because he'd ruled himself out too early on and the gestalt bond synced everything up, First Aid's now a proud if surprised parent," Hoist reported, supporting a laboring Ratchet from behind.

The CMO, for his part, laughed through clenched dentae. "Typical physician's arrogance! We really are the worst patients."

Hook blandly announced to no one in particular, "I am checking everyone. Again."

Ratchet was still laughing when his mechlet finally emerged.

 


 

Someone had set up a large holoscreen in the main room of the Nest displaying what looked suspiciously like one of Smokescreen's betting spreadsheets. The layout had been trimmed down to three columns only, listing all gestating mechs, time of emergence, and the name of the mechlet. Most of the slots in the last two categories were yet blank, and a row had to be added for First Aid's little oversight, but bit by bit the empty spaces filled in over the next few days.

After Jazz's Riff and Prowl's Imp came Cinder, Gyro, and Patch, from Hot Spot, Groove, and First Aid respectively. Ratchet added his Fix to the list shortly after.

Grimlock and Swoop had taken the term 'nest' quite to spark and had somehow barricaded themselves with crates and spare deck plating in one of the smaller side rooms, with the other Dinobots playing guard and nursemaid. This lasted nearly six hours before they came out, all five— no, seven now— in dino mode. Grimlock's fearsome tyrannosaur silhouette was marred by the addition of a tiny raptor-like mechlet clinging to his massive foot, little stub of a tail peeking out from the open shell; Swoop's visibly-winged offspring rode on the pteronodon-bot's back, tiny claws keeping him securely in place.

When asked what had taken so long, Grimlock primly put his snout in the air and said "Him Sparkplug say quality time important for babies. So me Grimlock have Dinobot quality time."

(Slug and Snarl grumbled that they'd had quite enough 'quality time' and promptly vanished entirely from the Nest grounds.)

"Well, of course!" Wheeljack beamed. He'd had to fend off the usual nay-sayers and doubters regarding Grimlock's and Swoop's competence, and was proud to be vindicated. For all their... idiosyncrasies... and their admittedly rocky early days, the Dinobots were much, much more intelligent and perceptive than most Autobots gave them credit for.

"My mechlet is best mechlet," Grimlock continued, with his usual unshakable certainty. "Him already know own name!"

Wheeljack's resonator fins flashed curiously. "Oh, yeah?"

Grimlock wiggled a toe, gently jostling the sauroid mechlet. "You tell him Wheeljack!"

The mechlet... growled.

"See?"

"Um," Wheeljack looked back up. "That's not a..."

But Grimlock toothily grinned. "You heard him."

And so, just ahead of Swoop's little Flit, the name Grr adorned the board.

 


 

When Blaster's shy mechlet eventually opened up enough for the cassette-carrier to finally get more than a peek, the corrugated appearance of the little one's chestplates prompted some concern— but then Rewind spotted tiny blue lights within the razor-thin gaps.

A trip to the scanner confirmed it— four miniature sparklets in four tiny frames deeply integrated with the mechlet's systems. Immature, unseparated symbiotes.

Blaster and his cohort had been wondering how or even if their unique arrangement would work in this new method. Under the Vector Sigma system, sometimes sparks split after being ignited. Twins were the usual result of this uncommon occurrence, but very rarely, a handful of smaller sparks would spin off but remain closely linked with the larger original. When this had happened, the frame-builders had to scramble to construct or find small bodies to house the satellite sparks, and to retrofit the waiting original shell to carry and maintain its dependent 'siblings'.

But now— it looked like that wouldn't be a problem. Perceptor predicted that eventually the mechlet, whom Blaster had designated Boomer, would be able to fully open his chestplates and the symbiotes themselves continue to develop until they differentiated and detached.

"You realize what this means, don't you?" Perceptor asked, having hastily gathered the science team together.

Skyfire, Starscream, Wheeljack, and Hook answered with blank looks, and Perceptor patiently ticked off points with his fingers.

"Riff has Jazz's sensory horns. Imp's face bears the same general shape as Prowl's. Boomer arrived with symbiotes like those kindled with Blaster. Grimlock's mechlet is, simply put, nearly a tiny copy of the Dinobot himself." He spread his hands and smiled. "We are not merely reproducing in a manner similar to organics, we are passing along traits as they do as well."

Skyfire rocked back on his heels. "Oh my."

"But the mechlets' frames aren't straight copies," said Starscream. "These bodies aren't constructed from schematics; so... what, are the nanites just taking general cues from the template of the parent or... Primus. We don't know how this works."

"Hereditary traits. Cybertronian genetics." Hook held up his hands in mock surrender. "I need high-grade."

"An entirely new field of scientific study. Oh my." Skyfire looked like he wanted to swoon.

Wheeljack had started pacing erratically around the lab. "And medical. Better get the docs in on this too. The humans have put a lot of time into how this works for them, maybe we could look at their... their... energon. —no, that's not right, humans don't have energon. They have hemoglobin, but they don't drink it. Isn't that funny? We drink energon and energon flows through our lines. Does that make us vampires? Heh." Wheeljack stumbled, caught himself against Skyfire's leg. "I... what was I saying? I'm— sure I put a couple cubes of energon in my subspace..."

The babbling stopped about the time Wheeljack's tap line snapped, and shortly thereafter, Gizmo took his place on the announcement screen.

 


In the back of his mind, Spike wondered how "Robot Midwifery" would look on his CV. It would definitely raise some eyebrows on a college application. For now, though, he concentrated on not getting his fingers pinched in Bumblebee's innards, pulsating strangely as it was in there.

"Hold him steady, Hoist. I think I see it." Somehow or another, the gestation chamber had become stuck, and it was causing Bumblebee actual pain beyond the expected dull ache of emergence. And Bee had had the luck to be at the Ark when it happened instead of at the Nest. Ratchet and First Aid were both figuratively up to their optics in mechlets, both others' and their own— but Hoist was more than happy to fill in, even if the emergence process had proven itself to be something of a non-event, medically. So far, anyway.

Poor Bee— Spike had to withdraw a bit when another wave of pushing hit, and there was a distinct scraping noise coming from the open plating in his friend's abdomen. If Bumblebee's expression and erratic cooling fans were any indication, it felt about as pleasant as it sounded. Spike patted Bee's leg in sympathy. "Hang in there, buddy; pretty sure I can get at it now."

The exposed mass of cables and struts around the sphere relaxed, and Spike caught a good clear look at the culprit: there was a tiny spur of metal on one of the struts directly pushing from the side of the sphere. The spur, likely some remnant of old battle damage that otherwise wouldn't have interfered in any other function, had hooked into a seam on the gestation sphere and was preventing it from moving.

Spike reached back in, ready with a pair of flush-cut pliers in hand. "Ready?"

"Do it," Bumblebee said, optics clamped shut.

"I've got 'em, Spike," Hoist added, bracing Bee around the shoulders.

Quickly, before the pushing could start back up, Spike snipped the offending bit of metal off. The sphere practically tumbled free, caught in both of Bumblebee's waiting hands, as Spike scooted out of the way.

Almost immediately the sphere opened, and the tiny mech inside thrashed and wailed. Bumblebee, his armor not even fully closed yet, pulled the mechlet close against his chestplates.

"Hey, hey, you're all right," Bee crooned softly. "I know, that took longer than it should have. I'm sorry. I really could've been better about my checkups..."

"Gonna tell Ratchet you said that," Hoist muttered. "Quick scan says you're both fine. He's got a bit of a gouge on his shell, though."

Spike could see the mark Hoist was talking about; a deep scratch a few inches long on the outside of the chamber which, thankfully, didn't seem to interfere with the movement of the plates. It was the only evidence of the ordeal besides the fingernail-sized chip of metal Spike had cut. He held it up.

"Hard to believe something so small made such a big difference, huh, Bee?"

Bumblebee only had optics for the mechlet in his arms. "Not hard to believe at all," he said. "Hello, Burr. Welcome to the world."

 


 

"Momento." Raoul held up a finger. "I thought you guys all got built full-size and booted up at this one place on your planet."

Tracks nodded, reaching out to steer the little silver sphere away from rolling into the wall. Unlike the other emerged mechlets, who so far were only happy if constantly held by their parents, Tracks' mechlet wanted to explore. This usually just meant 'rolling in a random direction until picked up or hitting something' as the day-old mechlet hadn't quite grasped that he couldn't see where he was going when in ball-mode.

"That... isn't the case any longer, by all accounts," Tracks said. "We seem to have undergone some kind of... reformat or adaptation en masse. Prime is convinced it's a miracle of Primus."

"What do you think?" asked Raoul, sidestepping the sphere as it wobbled by, mechlet inside babbling cheerily.

"Honestly?" Tracks again stopped his intrepid offspring from colliding with his own foot, this time tapping gently on the shell until the mechlet giggled and opened up. "While I trust Prime, this is all patently ridiculous. I think I'm still waiting for the... something to drop. Is it penny or shoe?"

"Either, I think."

"Yes, well. Dropping these helpless, trusting sparks in our care? We fool Cybertronians who haven't known a sane cycle in literally thousands of vorn? Don't get me wrong—" Tracks 'beeped' the mechlet's barely-there bump of a nose, setting off more giggling, and the Autobot grinned back in spite of himself. "—now that we've been properly introduced face to face, I wouldn't give him up for anything, but... this can't be wise. We're at war, and I never planned to be a mentor, much less... this. I can't help but feel as if I'm about to make a colossal mistake. Or many smaller but equally disastrous ones."

"Amigo, amigo." Raoul cut him off with a rueful smile and shaking of his head. "We humans have been doing this forever, you wanna know the secret?"

Tracks leaned in, nodded hopefully.

"There is no secret."

One of these days Tracks was just going to tip the human over like a bowling pin. "That is immensely unhelpful, Raoul."

"What, you think bein' a space robot makes this all special? Nobody else ever made mistakes with their kids, or did it during tough times? I was six when my mami snuck us over the border. Dealin' with coyotes, hiding from patrols, just surviving the desert. And wasn't just me she had to worry about, she had a baby in her arms too, my little sister. I didn't even realize how much danger we'd been in back then until years later.

"And she didn't have nobody to turn to. If she could do all that," the young mechanic continued, bending over to pat the mechlet's shell as it rolled by once more, "and I turned out just fine— you got this."

That... did put things into perspective, somewhat. Tracks scooped his mechlet up from the floor mid-roll, and the little mech squawked indignantly. Already, he noted with pride and amusement, the mechlet was asserting himself. Well, as much as one could when one spoke only nonsense noise and could only crawl or roll blindly around.

"Thank you, Raoul. Sometimes I forget how dark it gets up my own tailpipe."

The human threw back his head and laughed. "Hey, s'why you keep me around, yeah?"

"In fact..." Tracks eyed his squirmy mechlet appraisingly. "I think I know what to name him. That is, until he chooses a designation for himself."

"...uh, okay, what?"

"Well, let's see. 'Raoul' is a good one."

"Oh no."

"But I think with a little Cybertronian spin on it—"

"Aw, c'mon."

"According to a little research, it seems your given name is derived from, at its root, an old word for 'wolf.'"

"Traaaaaacks."

"And there are mechanimals on Cybertron that sort of resemble your canine predators, add a diminutive modifier glyph— yes, that's good." He said the Cybertronian word, testing it out. "On Earth, though, we'll call him—" pause for effect, relish the red coloration of pleased embarrassment that had overtaken Raoul's skin from the neck up— "Lobo."

 


 

Optimus Prime was alone, kneeling on the floor of his quarters, hands pressed to the cool deck plating.

Once, long ago, such a pose would have signified piety, a mech in prayer drawing as close as possible to Primus below. It also happened to be the ideal position for emergence, to kneel and lean forward so gravity could help pull the gestation chamber out. Curious coincidence, that.

This was a test. Vector Sigma's vanishing, the strange new ability to reproduce unaided, the truce. It was all a test, and Optimus was sure the price of failure would be tragedy beyond recounting. Possibly extinction. And if they proved unworthy of this desperate, wonderful gift, did Cybertronians really deserve a place in the universe?

A sharp tug and metallic snap from within pulled him up out of the morbid turn his thoughts had taken. Optimus cradled the emerging sphere in one hand and lowered his head. He could feel warm energon dripping across his fingers from the detached umbilical.

"We will not fail you."

Whether he was talking to Primus or the new spark about to begin its life, he wasn't altogether certain. Both, probably.

Optimus' body kept twisting and pushing inside, and he rode the not-pain in silence, all his focus on the quivering thing inching further out, bit by bit. All the while the Matrix fairly sang with anticipation, data-ghosts of Primes past more active than ever. Some seemed rather distrustful; this was too strange, too different. Most were happy, hopeful. And there was a distant but distinct sense of love being projected from... somewhere.

Almost sooner than he expected, the final push came, and the sphere broke free from the gestational array. Optimus hunched over, bowed protectively around the sphere as his inner workings churned one last time to their default configuration. He was sitting up just as the chamber slowly opened.

The little one's optics were wide and sharply focused, and when Optimus retracted his mask, the mechlet babbled and kicked exuberantly at the inside of his shell. Optimus chuckled softly and tried to let the mechlet grab his fingers but he was too excited to stop waving his short arms around to latch on.

"Are you glad to be out, at last?" Optimus asked, gently stroked the mechlet's cheekplate— such soft metal!— and carefully stood to sit on his berth. "I'm so happy to finally meet you." For a short while he was content to simply sit and look at the tiny mech. The fine matte of uncolored armor, the delicate perfectly-formed joints in the fingers, the raised ridge on the front of a round helm.

The mechlet's burst of energy was quickly spent, and he went from wriggling to drowsy in short order. A few more minutes of listening to the recharging mechlet's vents, and Prime opened a channel.

/Optimus to Ratchet. Successful emergence— we're both fine./

/Good to hear, Prime. Still wish you'd had 'im here, where we could've kept an eye on things./

/It felt right to be here when the time came./

/If you say so. Anyway, not to diminish your moment, Prime, but while you were out, Mixmaster, Scavenger, Long Haul and Scrapper all popped. We've got four brand-new red-optic'd mechlets over here./

/Oh? And... how are they reacting?/

/I gotta say... pretty well, actually. The Constructicons are all huddled up around the bitlets. And I'd make an actual wager on this being the first time Hook has actually smiled in his entire life./

/That's encouraging to hear. I know we've had our doubts about how the Decepticons were going to treat their little ones./

/Ehhh. We’ve still got the rest of the lot to go, so let's not break out the high grade just yet. Anyway, I'll put yours up on the board for you. Have you given him a mechlet designation yet?/

Optimus considered the mechlet recharging peacefully in the open shell, without a single care. He'd had a name in mind for days already, because he'd been wondering what an old friend of his would have made of all this. A friend he hadn't seen since before the launch of the Ark; whom he wasn't even certain he was alive or not by now, out there among the stars for who knew how long. In any case, Optimus hoped Ultra Magnus would have been honored.

/Dion./

 


 

Megatron's clenched fist hit the wall again. There was already a dent.

He refused to kneel. Megatron of Tarn, leader of the mighty Decepticons, bent no knee to anyone, not the gladiatorial masters, not the Senate, not to any Prime, and certainly not to this— this glorified scraplet currently pushing its way out!

He'd be glad to be rid of the thing. It had been hard enough hiding the symptoms of his condition from the rest of the Decepticons; thankfully no one thought his sudden hermitage was anything more than an extended fit of pique, and that was fine with him. It was almost over, and they'd devise a way to upgrade the little pests into fully-functioning warriors, hopefully before the Autobots figured it out.

If the Autobots even had the struts for that. To judge by the reports coming in from the Nest, they were all too besotted with the useless wriggling things to form a coherent line of thought. An attempt at a scoff turned into a gasp of vents as an intense contraction struck him. He fought to remain standing, braced against the wall, and snarled. It was almost over, almost—

Megatron stumbled to his berth, sphere in hand, vents winding down in fits and starts.

"Well," he demanded of the thing in his lap, "what now, hm? What am I supposed to do with this? Primus giving us a chance, my skidplate. This is Primus having a joke at..."

The sphere opened. Two little red optics stared at him.

"... my expense..."

What little energy he had for vitriol seemed to dry up under the mechlet's wary gaze. He found himself reaching inside the chamber shell before he realized what he was doing. The mechlet latched onto the warlord's fingers in a surprisingly strong grip, seeming to use the hand to hide behind, peeking at him from between the fingers. Megatron almost snatched his hand back, but the mechlet made a soft whimper.

He found he could not reclaim his hand.

 

Chapter Text

"You know Ratchet said you could come up to the Nest like two days ago."

Sideswipe crouched, braced against the wall of his brig cell. "Nope. Prowl said until after emergence. So that's— hnng... what he's getting."

Sunstreaker shook his head and turned to his mechlet, who was busy inching across the floor like a little silver-shelled turtle. "Hey, Flash? Can you say 'passive-aggressive dunderhead'?"

"—bthththp," replied the mechlet, pausing to grin up at his parent.

"Close enough." Sunstreaker patted the shell.

"Oh, ha ha," Sideswipe snarked. "Prowl gives me an inch, it's a test. He's waiting for me to grab the mile. Well, I'm not going to give him the satisfaction."

"Yes, stay cooped up in here. That'll show him."

"It'll be a fun story to tell the kiddo. 'Did you know you were born in jail because Prowl is a huge—'" Sideswipe's intakes drew in sharply, and his vocalizer spat static, almost masking the muted snap of the umbilical line breaking free.

"Need any help?" Sunstreaker sat up from where he'd been lounging on the floor of the brig, the better to keep Flash in easy reach as the little one crawled around.

Sideswipe managed a haughty, if tired, smirk over his shoulder at his twin. "Bro. Please. I've got this locked down. You see that stack of datapads? Prowl gave me all this busywork, said I'd better be an expert. Probably thought I'd just blow it off. Well, I've— hooo.— I've written the book on this. An actual book. With charts and pictures and all that dross. He won't be expecting that."

"Passive-aggressive dunderhead with a crush." Sunstreaker picked up Flash and got nose-to-nose with the mechlet. "C'mon, you can say it. Dunnnn... derrrr... head."

"I do not have a"

Sideswipe's denial was cut short as, with one last push, his gestation chamber was free. He spent several seconds venting heavily, sphere in hand, and slowly turned in place on the floor to sit against the wall. For a few moments he rested, letting his plating close up and stressed systems wind down.

"See?" said Sideswipe. "Textbook emergence. Nice and clean. No surprises, no... uh..."

"What?" Sunstreaker leaned in, tucking Flash in the crook of an arm. "What's wrong?"

Sideswipe was turning the sphere over in his hands, frowning. "Something funny with these seams. See, look— it doesn't look like the others at all."

Sunstreaker could see it right away, his practiced artist's eye for detail focusing on the long continuous seam that bisected the sphere almost in the same sort of line of the stitching on a baseball, though less deeply curved. The parallel plates that formed the mechlets' retractable carapace in this instance instead oriented one direction on one side of the main seam, perpendicularly on the other.

"Yeah, that does look weird," said Sunstreaker. "Should we call R—"

Sideswipe let out a startled squawk as the newly-emerged chamber in Sideswipe's hands broke apart. Into two separate pieces.

"What in the—!" Sideswipe hastily, awkwardly juggled both halves in the attempt to not drop them, alarm stabbing across their linked sparks that something had gone terribly wrong. Horror turned quickly to realization, however, when four tiny blue optics peered back at them— two from each half.

"Twins." Sunstreaker sat back down, next to Sideswipe on the floor. "Primus, Sides, it's twins."

Sideswipe, for once in his existence, was completely speechless.

They were considerably smaller than the other mechlets, each a little under two-thirds the size of Flash. Both remained curled tightly in their half-shells, more compactly than the typical posture of a mechlet. A short length of energon tubing dangled from just under the chestplates of one twin, corresponding to a closed-up port on the other, neatly explaining how both had been able to draw from Sideswipe's systems.

The one in Sideswipe's left hand squirmed and squinted, whimpering. The twin on the right began looking around, nervously trying to curl up even tighter, and began to keen. This prompted the whimpering on the left to escalate into keening in turn.

Sideswipe, hands literally full, nearly locked up. "What— no— stop— it's okay— what—"

Flash, for his part, watching from the crook of Sunstreaker's arm, was starting to take on a distinctly distressed expression himself; Sunstreaker let his mechlet hug his free hand for reassurance lest there be three wailing mechs who couldn't articulate the source of their complaints.

"That's not fuel-me crying," said Sunstreaker. "Sides— put 'em back together."

"I— what—"

"Bring them closer together. They can't see each other." Sunstreaker cocked half a wry grin at his brother. "Remember how we got, those first few vorn? Whenever they tried to separate us?"

Sideswipe stopped sputtering in sentence fragments and quickly, gently, maneuvered the two tiny mechlets closer to each other, drawing his knees up a bit to cradle the pair in his lap. When one realized the other was in grabbing range, grab he did— both grabbing clumsily at each other, cries subsiding into murmuring and babbling. Sideswipe and Sunstreaker exchanged a knowing, yet astounded look.

"Wow."

"Yeah."

"Twins, Sunny."

"I know."

Percy and the others only recorded one spark from me 'n 'Breaker," Sideswipe said wonderingly. "It must've split after that. But how're— whups!"

One twin mechlet, or both at once, had pushed-pulled enough so that their chamber shell halves matched up, and slotted together with a snap, into a single sphere once more.

Sunstreaker let out a thoughtful blip of static. "How 'bout that."

Sideswipe held the bisected ball up to one audio. "They're... they're kinda beeping to each other in there. Wow."

"Suppose they've got a bond like us?"

"Gotta be. Wow."

"What're you gonna call 'em?"

"... uh..."

 


 

"Are you serious?"

"I hear an awful lot of judgment in your voice, Bee. You named yours after an irritant, y'know."

"Yeah but— Ping and Pong?"

"—I panicked, okay?"

 


 

The mechlets, it seemed, had their own schedule. The exact moment of emergence appeared to happen within a window of a week either direction of the amount of time Jazz's gestation had taken. The template was therefore more of a broad suggestion, and how Starscream was caught at the Nest when the overwhelming need to fuel up hit him.

"About time," the seeker muttered foggily, stumbling into the lab space where he and Skyfire had set up. He reached muzzily into his subspace to grab another cube, discarding the first he couldn't quite recall having drank. It was a bit like being overcharged, the scientific part of his processor distantly noted. An active processor scan during this stage might look similar to that of a mech on high grade energon.

It was the dead of night, though, and no one was about on this side of the building to perform such a scan; Starscream himself was certainly in no state to do it himself. Most of the mechs currently at the Nest were either in recharge with recharging mechlets, or up and about with active ones, all in a few of the side rooms that had been set up as mechlet safe-spaces for observation. Even if a sizable number of Decepticons were treating it like a second home these days...

The mechlet inside Starscream, which heretofore had been exceptionally quiet and still, began to knock around in earnest. The internal rattling drew the seeker up short, hand over the suddenly restless mechlet, and he looked around.

"...Primussake." This wasn't his lab. It was the medical lab, two rooms away. At least no one was around to see him stumble around like an overcharged reveler freshly ejected from Maccaddam's. Starscream lifted his cube, downed the dregs, and hobbled on unstable legs into the isolation bay and managed to find the door control panel after slapping stupidly at the wall for several seconds. He could at least get this ludicrous, unseemly affair over with in private.

The scientist in him analyzed each push of his internals, the magnitude of the dull yet intense ache that came and went. He didn't moan or whine about it, instead enduring the discomfort in silence. In the absence of an appropriately supportive audience to attend his every complaint, there was no use in voicing any. At least 'labor' had turned out to be a relatively short event. He'd made the mistake of giving in to curiosity and asking about how humans did it— and the matter-of-fact way Ratchet had said "oh, for them it can take half a day or more. Spike says his mother was in labor for thirty hours." had him wondering if there was anything about the irritating organic species that made any sense at all. If Cybertronians absolutely had to have anything in common with an inferior form of life, at the very least they did it more efficiently. And with less issuance of... fluids. He supposed that was something.

He wound up kneeling on the floor as his joints turned to goo halfway to the berth. Starscream smiled despite himself when he felt the sphere crack open well before it was completely clear. Tiny hands reached out, grabbing onto Starscream's fingers, and inquisitive chirping filled the room.

"Ha! Well, of course you're a bold little thing! Just remember who's in charge and we'll get along fine."

The mechlet popped free, almost impatiently. Starscream turned the sphere to give his offspring its initial examination as his own plating returned to default. As mechlets went, this one looked little different from the others, save the subtle features that marked the little one a kind of proto-seeker— a set of minute shoulder protrusions that could be jet intakes one day, a short, glassy opaque ridge in the center of the chestplates, and— if this one was anything like Skywarp's— ah yes, there, behind the shoulders, fitting perfectly into the interior curvature of the shell: tiny winglike nubs.

"Seems to be of average mass," muttered Starscream to himself, hefting the mechlet in his hands. "Basic configuration is— "

The mechlet was giggling.

Starscream frowned. "Stop that. I'm trying to assess— "

More giggling, accompanied by exuberant kicking. Starscream tried to pin the little feet down, only for the mechlet to grab his hand and burble with delight.

"You're being ridiculous," Starscream informed him with a scowl, and the mechlet (what else?) laughed again. The Air Commander sighed. It wasn't even remotely the same as taking custody of a newspark from Vector Sigma. The mechlet's undeveloped processor couldn't understand 'hold still' or 'calm down'; on the other hand, it meant that at least the mechlet was laughing out of a sincere feeling of happiness rather than a desire to mock.

...ah well. Let the little sprocket giggle. Starscream could do a more thorough examination in a short while, once the mechlet had dropped into his first recharge, as they usually did soon after the excitement of emergence had burned through what little energy they had. For now, the mechlet was trying to decide whether he'd rather chew on Starscream's finger or grin up at his parent as if he'd discovered the most wonderful thing ever.

Starscream smirked; probably should enjoy the adoration while he could, but—

Noise from outside, in the main medlab. The isolation room wasn't properly soundproofed, being more of a simple side room for a modicum of privacy than a true isolation bay, so Starscream could hear the distinct chokk-chkk-chkk-chk! of a transformation cog engaging, and then footsteps across the lab.

Likely one of the Autobot medics. Starscream turned back to his mechlet, who had settled on chewing in an exploratory manner on each of the seeker's fingers in turn.

"...suppose I should give you a designation now," Starscream said, quietly so as not to alert the mech in the lab. He didn't feel keen on dealing with a fussy, mechlet-sappy Autobot just yet. "Absurd that you can't just tell me who you are. But you'll fly proudly under your own true name someday, of that I have no doubt. Won't you, Fledge?"

Fledge commemorated the moment by dropping into recharge, the tip of Starscream's middle digit still in his mouth. Starscream huffed through his vents, amused, and more than a little run down himself. He carefully rose to his feet.

"...Lord Megatron. This is a secure channel. No one else is here."

Starscream, free hand outstretched to the door control, froze. That was Hook's voice, out in the main medlab.

"What have you to report?" came Megatron's voice, though rendered tinny and flat. Speaking through a vidscreen console, the one on the far side of the lab— now what, Starscream wondered, could Hook be reporting that he felt he had to skulk about so?

"I've run every simulation I can think of," Hook was saying. "Run what tests I could without arousing the Autobots' attention— and then there's the projected material costs— "

"Hook." Megatron cut in, sharply.

Starscream could hear Hook blow a quick, frustrated sigh loudly through his vents. "My lord, I would strongly advise against any attempt at upgrading the mechlets."

Not upgrade? But wasn't that the point of this whole farce? To make nice with the Autobots until Decepticon numbers could be bolstered enough to tip the balance of power?

"I expect your explanation to be very convincing, Constructicon." Predictably, Megatron sounded annoyed. Starscream smugly stood by the still-closed door, all the better to sweep in at the right moment and refute Hook's doubtlessly erroneous data.

"We would need to find or construct fully-functional processors for each one," Hook was saying. We could manage bodies, with a little time and the right supply of raw materials and parts, but the processors— anyone who was qualified to build one is either missing or confirmed deactivated. We could scavenge from the dead, but that's if we find any that aren't too badly damaged or corroded. And, I must be blunt, that's a very big 'if.'"

That was... a very good point, Starscream had to admit. One could jury-rig and spot-fabricate a great deal in Cybertronian anatomy but there were no shortcuts for a serviceable processor. Even refurbished and reformatted from spark-dead frames, they had to be in near-perfect condition or the result was catastrophic cognitive failure at worst, dangerous psychosis at best. And at this point in time, one would have better chances of tripping over a new key to Vector Sigma than scavenging a processor in decent condition.

"Shockwave could devise a way to accelerate their development, then," Megatron mused. "Modified CR chambers, perhaps."

"And that would have been my suggestion as well," Hook said, "except for the nature of the mechlets' sparks."

"What of their sparks?"

"It isn't just that they're smaller, they're... compacted; and it would seem that a great deal of that tiny processor is being devoted to keeping it from expanding too quickly." Another weary sigh from Hook. "I'm not sure if you're familiar with the Guardian trials on Luna-1...?"

"I know many atrocities were committed there, before the war," Megatron rumbled. "A small part of the long list of crimes against Cybertron for which the Senate had to answer."

"The Guardian trials were just one experiment, and it didn't last long, fortunately, because it was a complete failure," Hook continued. "They were attempting to create more Guardian-class mechs faster than Vector Sigma would spark them. So they transplanted volunteers' sparks into the larger frames. A normal spark can expand to sufficiently animate a larger body than the one it had ignited in, but only so far, and not very fast. When it's forced, as it turns out, you guarantee any number of lethal problems."

"Such as?" Megatron prompted.

"Chronic degradation, progressive flareup, dissolution, implosion, explosive meltdown—"

"Enough."

"—zero-point collapse syndrome— "

"Enough!"

Megatron's shout, even over the vidscreen, caused Starscream to jump. In his arms, Fledge stirred, blinked dim red optics, and dropped back into recharge.

"Primus," Starscream whispered, letting his vents cycle to settle his systems. He had heard of the experiments Hook spoke of, long ago. He hadn't considered it relevant in hundreds of vorn now, let alone in light of their current scenario.

He looked down at Fledge. Even powered down the little scraplet wore a faint smile.

The effects Hook had described... slow deaths, agonizing deaths, all of them. There was a long list of beings Starscream wouldn't mind seeing dead, but he would at least have the decency to kill them quickly. And they were supposed to be better than the long-dead amoral Senators, Unicron take them— it was why they'd started the war in the first place!

"My lord, I beg you to reconsider the plan," Hook said. "We wouldn't get capable warriors out of it, not for even a short while. The only thing it would accomplish is a waste of time and materials. A-and a waste of sparks."

Silence from the other side of the door. Starscream held absolutely still.

Finally Megatron spoke. "... I will take it under advisement." And there was a flat blip of static as the connection was cut and the screen shut off.

Starscream tried to place the tone in Megatron's voice. Annoyed? Angry? He'd never heard his leader speak in such a way. Hook was, granted, one of the few mechs whom Megatron trusted to give the unvarnished truth, and telling the Decepticon warlord something he might not want to hear was a privilege very few enjoyed. So Starscream knew Hook wasn't exaggerating or falsifying his report to some ulterior motive.

But confound it all, Starscream had been studying these mechlets for months now; he should have been able to predict the outcome of any sort of upgrade attempt. He should have been the one to tell Megatron to back down from—

Well, no, if he was being honest. Megatron wouldn't have listened to him. And even if Hook's prognosis carried more weight, was it enough?

Or would all this have been for nothing?

 


 

There was a pen in the middle of the bridge.

Ironhide stood beside the command chair and peered over at it, parked as it was in the open space before the main viewscreen. It was crude, but sturdily constructed— someone had taken apart a cargo crate, cut the panels in half, and had welded the pieces back together in a rough octagonal shape with a solid bottom. Large caster wheels were mounted to the underside at each corner. He was about to ask the mechs on duty— Red Alert and Grapple— what the thing was doing in here when a little silver ball rolled into view from inside. It hit the inner wall of the wheeled pen and unfurled into a mechlet.

Ah. Right. "Uh, whose... is this?" he asked, trying not to go cross-optics at how strange this all still was. Used to be you could just ask a newspark what he was doing; you certainly couldn't plonk 'em down in a box while you worked.

"Guilty," said Grapple, getting up from the comm station. "Looks like he came back online just in time for my shift to end."

Ironhide cycled his vents. Sure, they were at peace (sorta) right now, but they needed to figure this out before their treaty with the Decepticons inevitably fizzled. Life had to go on, naturally, and while Ironhide was glad to see that no one was actively shirking their regular duties, with half their number toting the little beepers around it was getting... interesting.

Leaving the mechlets in someone else's care for a duty shift wasn't an option, yet. Apparently their trigger-noises for the parent to make their special energon were each unique, matched parent to mechlet; and their fueling 'schedules' were all over the clock. The bots with the big processors were trying to find the line of code that would let the parent produce at will, and thus be able to store mechlet-grade for later consumption while the parent was away or otherwise indisposed. But until then it was... Take Your Mechlet To Work Day every day. And Zeta's ball bearings, it was awkward.

Like, now: Grapple's mechlet let out a funny-sounding burble and the engineer, on his way over to the pen, paused and made an odd face, putting a hand up to his mouth. There was a glob of the congealed energon in his hand when he pulled it away.

"Takes some getting used to, doesn't it?" Red Alert commented from his usual spot at the bridge security station.

Grapple reached into the pen and scooped the fussing mechlet up. "You're telling me. I haven't had this much energon come out of me since the last time I got shot. All right, all right, don't overclock yourself, Weld. Here, you little guzzler."

It was weird to hear Grapple use that tone. Gentle, indulgent. Not a bad weird, though. Ironhide took the command chair. "Anything to report?"

"Starscream finally had his," Grapple said offhandedly, focusing on getting the fuel into Weld. "Couple hours ago. We were pretty sure he'd take off back to the Nemesis after, but he's hanging around, apparently."

Ironhide switched comm controls to the command chair's console and logged in. "He was the last one, right? Unless we have any more... popups."

"For a grand total of forty little new sparks rolling around." Grapple huffed. "Going to have my work cut out for me."

Ironhide tilted his head. "How d'ya mean?"

Grapple tapped the wheeled pen with a foot. "First prototype. Not my most elegant work, obviously, but we need an entirely new subset of tools and methods to deal with the care of mechlets. Keeping them safe and occupied, and such."

"Swindle says he has some ideas," said Red alert, his tone making 'ideas' synonymous with 'gross malfeasance.'

Grapple snorted and made his way out of the bridge. "Swindle can have ideas 'till he rusts; he doesn't have a dog in this fight, as Sparkplug would say!" And the doors hissed shut behind him.

Ironhide chuckled. "Crib Wars, Grapple versus Swindle."

"Primus, please no." Red Alert cast him a droll look over his shoulder. "We don't need another act in the circus that is our collection of ridiculous crossfaction rivalries."

"Might make good reality TV. Could air it instead of that show about the bearded humans that make the duck translator devices."

"Glad to know you'll be able to retire as a comedian if the war's ever over. It's good to have backup programming."

Ironhide grinned, satisfied. Red Alert's sarcasm barometer was well into cheerful, so at least that meant nothing terrible was happening.

"We should devise a cover story," Red continued, "though not necessarily in the form of scripted reality entertainment, mind. But the humans are going to find out eventually. They always do, somehow."

"True." Ironhide would leave such word-wrangling to those better suited. "Could just say a storkbot brought 'em."

Red Alert looked down at something. "Do you hear what I have to put up with, Ward? No respect at all."

Ironhide got up and strolled over. Sure enough, there was a mechlet, small enough to rest in a lap without bumping into the console. Red's little one— Ward— was currently recharging, shell sprawled wide open with stubby limbs askew.

"He ain't in the way there?"

Red Alert made a self-conscious sort of half-laugh. "He, ah, protests if I try to put him down. He recharges like a block of solid concrete, but Primus forfend I should be more than a picometer away."

"Heh." It was kind of funny; for mechs who couldn't speak and did little more than fuel up and recharge, their nascent personalities had been mostly apparent from the start. Given how 'simple' their processors were, Ironhide had been expecting something like drones: responsive, but homogenous and devoid of character. The mechlets, on the other hand—

Riff preferred to be close to Jazz while quietly watching everything around him; Imp had no restraint whatsoever and seemed to take Prowl's efforts to contain him as a personal challenge; absolutely everything not nailed down that Scamper got his hands on went straight into his mouth, keeping Cliffjumper quite busy; Dion readily cuddled up with anyone willing to hold him, Optimus or not; by contrast Silverbolt's Radar refused to come out of his shell for anyone but Silverbolt... and Slingshot, to everyone's bafflement.

Ironhide shrugged to himself and went back to his station. "You're handlin' this easy, Red. Kinda figured you might be worried the bitlets would be spies or something."

"Give me some credit, Ironhide, I'm not unreasonable. The mechlets' processors won't be able to handle speech for a few years, according to the current projections, so there's little worry they'll roll off to spout Autobot secrets to the first Decepticon ankle joint they bump into." Red Alert sniffed, gave Ironhide a half-shuttered look over his shoulder. "I know it's a slow day, but is needling me really your best hobby? Do you need something to do? Sunday crossword, a little sudoku? Quick interface to get your own mechlet to worry about, perhaps?"

"Whoa now, let's not get crazy."

"If you hurry you can catch Grapple." Let it never be said that Red didn't give as good as he got. "Not squeamish all of a sudden, are you?"

Ironhide harrumphed, ignoring the fact that it had been months since many of them had had any interfacing. "No, nothin' like that. I'm just not sure I'm programmed to handle this kinda complication."

"'There but for the grace of Primus go I', eh?" Red Alert asked, not unkindly. "It's actually not that bad at all, you kn— wait a moment. Activity at the Nest."

One hand curled around the mechlet in his lap, Red Alert called up the remote feed showing the central Nest room. Ironhide leaned forward in the command chair, frowning at the sight of the two mechs stalking through the entrance.

"Astrotrain and Blast Off," Red Alert noted, plugging in a wrist cable to the security console. "Long time no see, gentlemechs."

Ironhide mentally reviewed the list of known Decepticon carriers. "They're both parents," he said.

"Yes, but how curious that this would be the first time they've bothered to turn up at the Nest." Several side screens flickered to zoom in from different angles. Blast Off was carrying a small crate as he veered off in the direction of a side room.

"Something tells me Blast Off ain't there to hug it out with Swindle," Ironhide muttered, and activated a comm line. "Ironhide to Optimus— Astrotrain and Blast Off just showed up over there. The Combaticon's got some kinda care package, better check it out."

"Wait— what's Astrotrain got in his...?" Red Alert found the right camera angle. Astrotrain was reaching into his hold just as Optimus appeared at the other side of the room. The triple-changer spared the Prime one sneering look, pulling something out.

But before Ironhide could warn Optimus, the thing Astrotrain pulled out was revealed to be not a weapon, but a little silver sphere.

"Astrotrain?" Optimus could be heard saying, as Ratchet and Jazz fell in beside him. "Do you need assistance with your mechlet?"

Astrotrain had no words for the Autobots, instead bending over to set the sphere on the floor and give it a shove, sending it rolling. Ratchet, closest to the poor thing, scrambled to catch it before it could collide with a wall. And while everyone's attention was on the carelessly-launched mechlet, Astrotrain turned about and marched back the way he came; an empty-handed Blast Off reappeared to follow, and just as quickly as they'd arrived, the pair were gone.

Ironhide gaped. "Did he just—"

Red Alert was holding Ward up close to his chestplates. "He did."

 

Chapter Text

/Astrotrain! Get back here and explain yourself this instant!/ Starscream was on the local public channel, because of course he was. /If you do not return to the Nest immediately I will have you and Blast Off grounded! That is an ORDER!/

The central room was suddenly framed from every doorway with muttering Autobots and a handful of Decepticons peering out to see what the fuss was. Jazz ducked back into the medbay quick enough to confirm that Riff, Dion, and Fix were still fine, safely ensconced in their penned-off corner of the floor. Riff had gone half-open speed-bump shell flush to the floor and was probably in recharge while Fix was attempting (unsuccessfully) to climb on top of him, and Dion rolled around in a little circle beeping merrily to himself.

Jazz allowed himself a grin and a quick chuckle— must be nice to be that easily entertained— and turned back to the hubbub brewing in the main room. Starscream continued to squawk imperiously over the public comm.

/Astrotrain! Blast Off! I order you to respond or Megatron will hear of this! Astrotr—/ "Rust it all, they're out of range already. Insubordinate glitches!" Starscream grumbled. "Bah, shuttles."

Jazz slipped around through the growing crowd and into the room Blast Off had gone into. He had a sneaking suspicion that the box the Combaticon had dropped off had contained a second mechlet. As Jazz entered the room, Swindle and Dead End turned to meet him, and Jazz saw he'd been wrong. It wasn't a mechlet in Swindle's arms.

It was two.

"Blast Off's and Onslaught's," Swindle said, answering Jazz's unspoken question. "Ons didn't even have the decency to do it personally. Typical."

"Just... dumped 'em on you?" Jazz eyed the pair of spheres, wondering offhandedly which was whose. "Why you?"

"Because it's his fault for clanking with an Autobot and bringing scraplets back home to spread around," Dead End put in, meeting Swindle's irritated scowl with a flat stare. "What? We should just be glad it wasn't actual scraplets."

"It used to be customary when closing a—" Swindle cut himself off, hastily flashing a well-practiced smile at Jazz. "... er."

Jazz snorted. "Swindle, like I don't already know about how you keep Dead End in his Duragloss polish habit. Sideswipe buys the stuff wholesale. But that ain't important right now."

"— yes, quite." Swindle vented air noisily, looking down at the two spheres in his arms.

Jazz jerked a thumb back over his shoulder. "Take 'em to the medlab. Better make sure they didn't hurt the poor bits."

"Oh Jazz." Swindle let out a sad chuckle, shaking his head as he walked past. "Don't worry. My brothers don't care enough to hurt them."

Well, here's me never complaining about a fellow Autobot's issues ever again, thought Jazz, watching Swindle precede Ratchet into the medlab. Astrotrain's mechlet had figured out that Ratchet was not Astrotrain and had begun wailing.

Around the room, a smattering of worried cheeping went up from the mechlets-in-arms who weren't in recharge. The respective parents hastened to comfort or leave the room, since it had been established very early on that if one mechlet was unhappy, any others in audio range would quickly be crying in sympathy. Jazz heard someone humming, and was surprised to see it was Bonecrusher of all people, crooning an old Yussian work-song to the wriggling mechlet in the crook of Long Haul's arm.

Bonecrusher caught Jazz staring and bristled, looming over Long Haul and— Winch, was it?— with a death-glare at the Autobot saboteur. Jazz took the hint and scooted smartly on.

In the medlab as Ratchet and Hook checked the trio of unlucky mechlets over, Jazz sidled past to where his own was. Riff was back online, trying to pull himself up onto the jury-rigged pen wall; it was shin-height to Jazz, but hampered as Riff was by his chamber plates and unable to stand, the mechlet could only bump into the wall and pat it very determinedly with a little hand.

Behind Riff, Fix and Dion had both curled up almost completely shut and were murmuring fretfully, wide blue optics peering up at Jazz as he knelt beside the pen. He turned Riff over, grinning as his mechlet latched onto his hand.

Taking a page out of Bonecrusher's very unexpected playbook, Jazz sang softly— "Do you remember the twenty-first night of September? Love was changing the minds of pretenders, while chasing the clouds away..." Sure enough, the three mechlets quieted and settled down.

Jazz sang on, keeping an audio trained on the goings-on behind him. Astrotrain's mechlet's crying had by this time settled into quiet staticky whimpers, tiny vents hitching piteously.

"Okay," Ratchet said at length. "Other than having come out of a complete rust clod of a triple-changer, this one seems to be fine."

"Likewise for these two," Hook reported from the neighboring medical berth. "As far as I can tell, anyway. This one only opened up long enough to hiss at me." He turned to Swindle. "Do you know when they last got fueled up?"

"Doctor," Swindle said, "The other Combaticons haven't been on speaking terms with me since this whole thing started. Blast Off didn't even say anything when he delivered the 'package.'"

"No communication at all in the gestalt? For nearly a year?" asked Optimus. "That seems extreme."

Swindle pulled a face at him. "I think you've vastly underestimated my gestalt brothers' capacity to hold a grudge."

"What about Astrotrain, Hook?" asked Ratchet. "You're his primary physician, do you have any idea what's going on there?"

Hook answered him with a withering look. "One: I patch Decepticons up, I don't chat about how their cycle is going. Two: Astrotrain is a disagreeable git all the time. There's no telling what's kinked his cables. Best guess? He just didn't want the mechlet." He gestured at the mechlet in question, who had rolled to the furthest corner of the berth; retractable railing had been installed to prevent little spheres from making random gravity checks.

Jazz could see the poor guy from the corner of his optics. Curled up, peeking from a slit in his shell, probably scared of all these mechs who weren't 'parent.' Probably hadn't exactly been treated with much care by said parent, for that matter.

"Perceptor says he's close to finding that line of code," said Ratchet with a worried look over all three abandoned mechlets. "It would just be a simple subroutine, then, to hock up an extra serving or two of mechlet grade."

"In the meantime, could we ask for donations from the other parents, perhaps?" Optimus came over beside Jazz and picked Dion up. "Take a small portion from several globules to make up a ration for these."

"Hmm. As a stopgap measure, but I don't like the idea of doing that for too long." Ratchet frowned to himself and drummed fingers on the berth rail. "We don't yet know all the particulars of this fueling method. There could be specific reasons for portion size, proportion of additives. Could be detrimental to a mechlet to short-fuel for an extended period."

"You'd give up enriched energon for Decepticon mechlets?" Hook asked doubtfully.

Optimus, supporting Dion in one hand against his broad chestplates, inclined his head. "I do not see any faction markings on any of the mechlets. It is Autobot policy to lend aid to neutrals who have real need, if we are in a position to give it. For all intents and purposes, these new sparks are neutral in our conflict. And they certainly need aid."

Hook stroked his chin. "... well, when you put it like that."

Jazz caught the sound of jet engines outside. The pitch was wrong to be Astrotrain or Blast Off having second thoughts. He opened an encrypted comm to a mech elsewhere in the Nest. /Say, Mirage, can you do me a solid and check the weather out there?/

/Certainly. One moment./

Jazz quietly warbled another round of "ba de ya, say do you remember? Ba de ya, dancing in September..." grinning at Riff's enthralled expression as he continued to casually eavesdrop.

/Thundercracker just arrived,/ Mirage reported. /He and Starscream are conferring rather earnestly at the entrance... drat, they've switched to encrypted comms. Whatever it is, Starscream looks upset./

/When is he not riled up about something?/ Jazz tapped a light rhythm on Fix's shell, drawing the mechlet out a little.

/This looks a shade more serious than his usual 'Megatron bent my aileron' sort of snit,/ Mirage replied. /And the way he's holding his mechlet, it's... a far cry from the disaffected scientist he's purported to be of late./

/Howso?/

/Protective. I'd almost say fearful. Oh— hmm, looks like whatever it is, Thundercracker concurs. My, what a frown. Be advised, he's headed your way./

/Gotcha./ And presently, Thundercracker appeared in the doorway.

"I will take one of them," the blue seeker said, with the air of someone volunteering to deliver cursed jewelry to Mordor.

"Are you certain, Thundercracker?" asked Optimus. "All projections point to this being a long-term responsibility."

"I was a mentor. Twice, before the war." Thundercracker moved to the berth where Astrotrain's mechlet still cowered. "And I've been around Skywarp's little one. I have a good idea of what I'm getting into, Prime."

"I don't suppose you know what crawled into Astrotrain's cogs and died?" Jazz ventured over a shoulder.

Thundercracker cradled the mechlet gently in the crook of an arm and favored Jazz with a sideways look, faceplates impassive. "That's Decepticon business, Autobot. It'll get handled."

Oh really now. Jazz coolly went back to singing to Riff and Fix. /Mirage, Bumblebee, let's get together, have a playdate for our bitlings in about forty-five minutes. We can gossip./

"I... I'll take charge of these two," Swindle was saying. "Oh, don't look so shocked, all of you. I'm not a complete scoundrel."

Hook muttered something that sounded suspiciously like 'yes, some parts are missing' but Jazz was busy segueing into "little darlin', it's been a long cold lonely winter..."

"I'm going to go see if I can lend some processing power to finding the regurgitation code," Ratchet said, rather bravely pushing past Thundercracker on the way out. "If you've both got gestation arrays, we could probably trick your systems into producing mechlet grade with the right subroutine."

"Too bad we can't just pop off to the store and pick up some formula, like humans do," Swindle commented, patting one of his newly-adopted.

"What are you talking about?" Thundercracker gestured nebulously at his chestplates with his free hand. "Don't they come equipped with... nozzles, or something, to feed their larvae? Why would they buy something from a store?"

Jazz saw his leader gather himself to offer enlightenment and commed, /Don't correct 'em, Prime. Decepticons trying to explain humans is hilarious./

But Swindle surprised them again. "Oh, well, yes, but sometimes a human can't or won't use the inbuilt mammary system, for any number of reasons. So they developed chemically identical substances as a substitute."

Hook was staring at him. Swindle huffed.

"What? We apparently have a larval stage ourselves now, it wouldn't kill us to take hints from a species that's been doing it that way for awhile already."

Hook waved a hand at him. "No, no, you're brilliant. That's— that's so obvious, why didn't I— /Mixmaster! I have a project for you./"

 


 

"Did I hear correctly? Thundercracker has taken custody of Astrotrain's mechlet?" Mirage entered a seldom-used room on one of the lower decks of the Ark where Jazz waited. "And Swindle volunteering to take on two? Swindle."

Jazz opened his mouth to respond, but at that moment Riff, cradled in his arm, let out a squawk. Jazz felt his tank gurgle and he held up a hand. "One sec, 'Raj."

It was like all the mechanics of a bad tank purge without any of the nausea of malfunctioning equilibrium sensors or overdoing it on high grade. He felt the lump travel up his intake and pop up into his mouth. Jazz removed the glowing glob between two fingers. "Yup. Still weird."

Riff babbled impatiently, reaching up with grasping hands. Jazz chuckled and held the blob of fuel so that Riff could nibble away at it, while hanging onto Jazz's hand as if to prevent him from withdrawing too soon.

Mechlet held carefully at his chestplates, Mirage shook his head. "Yours is so proper about it. Figment here just grabs the whole globule and attempts to cram the entire thing in his mouth at once. Makes a frightful mess of himself every time."

"Heh. Anyway, to answer your question, yeah," Jazz said. "Thundercracker and Swindle stepped up."

"Thundercracker might be a decent enough sort, but... Swindle."

Jazz shrugged and sat down on a crate. "I feel ya, but Optimus believes we should give 'im a fair shake. Swindle was pretty serious about the whole thing, and he did pretty much get all but kicked out of his own team. Overheard him sayin' that the best revenge would be raising the bitlets well."

Mirage considered that. "... not exactly the noblest of sentiments, but I can think of worse motivations."

The door slid open, admitting Bumblebee, who was patting a giggling sphere. "Got here as quick as I could. Someone found the ramp between decks and I had to go mechlet chasing."

Jazz barked a laugh as the door closed. "Sorry I missed that! Burr okay?"

"He seems to be. At least, he hasn't stopped laughing about it. Should have named you Goofball." Bumblebee patted his mechlet's shell fondly and set him down on the floor with Riff and Figment. "So what's up?"

"So," Jazz said, "Interesting dynamics in Decepticon circles lately, m'mechs."

"The abandonment of three mechlets at once," mused Mirage. "We should be glad it was only three, I say."

Bumblebee folded his arms thoughtfully. "The 'Cons at the Nest all seem okay with their little ones. Even kind of happy, with some. I saw Dead End actually making toys for his."

Mirage blinked. "Toys?"

"He put washers on a bolt and welded a nut on the end so the washers rattle. According to the endless tambourine noises coming out of their quarters, it's a big hit."

"Huh." First improvised lullabies and now this. Jazz watched Riff crawl toward Burr, who was still giggling and rolling back and forth between Bumblebee's feet like a little metronome. Of course— sensory input and stimulation. Human intel was all over how infants needed it, and would suffer without sufficient levels of it. It made sense mechlets would benefit from the same. And the 'Cons were beating them to it! We really need to step up our parenting game. "Well, what else have you noticed about the 'Cons? Specifically, who's not at the Nest."

"Mostly the ones who didn't have mechlets," said Mirage. "The ones who did, we haven't seen since their emergence: Soundwave, Wildrider, Runabout and Runamuck. Skywarp and Breakdown never bothered with coming up here."

"And the ones who've hung around..." mused Bumblebee, "it's been nearly a week since the last one had emergence, Starscream excepted. We all kind of figured they'd go back to the Nemesis, but, well, none of them seem to be in any hurry to head home."

"Awhile back Dead End mentioned some names." Jazz frowned. "Mechs he was worried might have designs on hurtin' the little ones. Vortex, Shrapnel, Astrotrain."

"Thank Primus he was wrong about Astrotrain, at least," said Mirage, with a worried look at Figment, who was busy exploring the back of the empty room.

"Was he, though? For all we know Astrotrain and Blast Off intended the kiddos to snuff it, and only dumped 'em a the Nest to demoralize us." Jazz paused as a shudder rattled the armor of all three mechs. "And if Swindle hadn't mentioned that thing about humans' formula, it might've been a close thing if Percy and Ratch couldn't find the code fast enough."

"So what's this about, Jazz?" asked Bumblebee. "There is something hinky going on, but I'm not sure I can put my finger on it."

"Exactly." Jazz stood. "We haven't had a complete picture in months, and all the blank space is over in the Nemesis. 'Raj, you up for a little recon?"

"Absolutely," the spy said. "...but, Figment..."

Jazz put his hand on his friend's shoulder. "Right after he fuels up next, so you'll have as much time as possible. Bee and I will look after him 'till you get back, share mechlet-grade with him if necessary. This is strictly recon, in and out, take no chances. And if you don't wanna risk it, say so and that'll be it, no pressure."

"No," Mirage said, squaring his shoulders. "No, I will go. Ordinarily I wouldn't have hesitated, but..."

Bumblebee retrieved Figment and Burr from the floor and smiled wryly. "Yeah. Everything's different now."

 


 

Megatron did not relax until he heard the lock engage behind him, as soon as his biosign left the door sensor's range. And right on cue, at the back of his quarters from behind a makeshift barricade surrounding his berth, there was a low rustling.

At least the little thing was quiet. The vast assortment of noises that came out of the other mechlets had him first grateful that his quarters were soundproofed, then concerned that something might be wrong with the thing that had come out of him. Save for calling for fuel (a downright polite-sounding peep) and the occasional soft murmur, the mechlet— and he had yet to give it a name— was almost unnervingly silent.

It rolled toward him as he approached the barrier, which was made up of mostly paneling from broken storage containers, a couple shelves taken directly from the nearby wall, and a chunk of scorched purple armor plating from one of their failed 'superweapon' projects. The mechlet unfurled and stared up at him, red optics wide and solemn.

"Well?" Megatron asked, as he'd already done many times since emergence, "What am I to do with you?"

No answer was forthcoming, of course, save that the mechlet closed up to roll over to his feet as he stepped over the low barrier. It opened back up to crawl on top of one massive foot, and would have wedged into the ankle joint underneath the flare of shin armor but Megatron picked it up. The mechlet had already gotten stuck up there once, and once prying a curious little mech out of his leg was enough.

"This is a fine mess you've put us in," Megatron said, though there was no heat behind his words. "You should have been in full armor by now, training to fight. Learning how to fire a weapon, to be a weapon. But here you are, yet a sniveling... infant."

The mechlet responded to this hollow accusation as it always did: it pulled Megatron's hand closer and peeked up through his fingers. Megatron had yet to figure out if it was trying to hide or was merely deriving comfort from the mass of the warlord's hand so close. In some vague process in the back of his mind, Megatron thought he should be insulted; these hands were constructed for power, for crushing, brutal strength— they were not for cuddling.

Still, Megatron never snatched his hand away when the mechlet did this.

"You and your tiny spark and useless processor. Thus is the mighty Megatron thwarted once again." With a reproachful tap on the mechlet's nose, Megatron sat down on the berth. "Ah, it would have been glorious. A decisive victory on this muddy, miserable planet at last. We could have overwhelmed the Autobots with sheer numbers in short order, hunted down their forces in deep space. Perhaps you would have led a battalion yourself."

Would have, could have. Why relegate these aspirations to past tense? The mechlets continued to develop, to... mature. A Decepticon victory could still be realized; it would simply take more time... however long it took for the little ones to become battle-ready.

But it would, naturally, force the Autobots to arm and train their own numerous offspring in turn, and...

...and like as not they'd all be back where they'd started.

The mechlet, poking tiny fingers into the knuckle-joints of Megatron's hand, cooed softly to itself and offered the warlord a shy-seeming smile.

"Hmmph. Ridiculous thing."

Megatron tried to imagine it, him, fully grown and properly armed, a towering mechanism of strength and power, like himself. The image failed to render in the face of the reality in his hands.

/Lord Megatron. We need to talk./

Botheration, it was Astrotrain. Using the kind of harmonics that told Megatron he was in for one of the triple-changer's tiresome head-butting moods. /What do you want, Astrotrain?/

/You, here on the bridge, where a leader should be,/ Astrotrain snapped back. /Or anywhere outside your quarters for once. I don't care. I refuse to say this over comms./

Megatron growled, warningly, both over comm and out loud. The mechlet's optics widened and it clutched his thumb tightly. Megatron cycled his vents and extricated his hand as he stood.

"You must excuse me. There's a fool needs denting." He set the mechlet down just underneath the berth— it seemed to like the small, dark niche and would likely doze off— and went to see what sort of fight Astrotrain was spoiling for.

 


 

For a few moments, all was quiet in Megatron's quarters. The mechlet rocked back and forth, then rolled cautiously over to the barrier. The shelving wobbled as the mechlet's shell bumped into it, and the little mech paused, unsure.

He crawled along the barrier, first one way, then the other. He tried making a little sound. Nothing happened. The big person didn't come back. The mechlet pulled his shell shut and rocked for several seconds more. He found the barrier again, and rolled along it, momentarily distracted by the intriguing sound it made, a gentle metallic scraping resonating inside the sphere as the shell brushed against the ramshackle construction.

When he rolled into the wobbly part again, the shelf rocked and tipped over with a clatter. The mechlet held still, and slowly opened his shell again. Inch by inch, he crawled up to the fallen metal slat, peering out into the room beyond. The big person wasn't there, either.

The floor was so open and wide, though. The mechlet, emboldened, hitched himself over the now-minor obstacle of the shelf, venturing out a hand to touch the floor on the other side. He called out again. The big person still did not appear.

It was a few minutes more before the mechlet could work up the courage to leave his familiar patch of floor, but curiosity won out. He rolled across the floor in a lopsided figure-eight, testing the limits of his newfound freedom.

The sphere blundered close to the door, and the sensor lit up, registering a biosign very similar to the only mech authorized to pass the security protocols specific to this particular lock.

The mechlet froze. It seemed like part of the very wall had vanished, but he knew that hissing sound. When the big person went away, and when he returned, the mechlet had heard it. A cavernous corridor stretched out beyond the opening.

Was that where the big person went?

Eagerly, the mechlet closed his shell and rolled forth.

 


 

Mirage ghosted through the dank conduits of the Nemesis as easily as ever. Perhaps moreso since a goodly percentage of its occupants weren't even there. He kept all his sensors on high alert all the same. The Venn intersection of Decepticons still present and Mirage's least favorite enemies was very nearly a single circle.

Soundwave was quickly accounted for with every one of his cassettes, which was unusual, gathered in the ship's comm-security hub. Mirage watched through a vent between decks as Soundwave went about his usual duties; the ship's network was registering nothing out of the ordinary (and wouldn't, if Mirage did his job right) to interrupt the mundanity of the room. Except...

Ravage was curled up on the floor while Buzzsaw recharged atop his back, one wing draped partly over the little sphere nestled at the felinoid's side. As Mirage looked on, Laserbeak drifted down from Soundwave's shoulder and began repeatedly pecking into the open slit in the mechlet's shell. Before Mirage could become properly alarmed, a high-pitched squeaking filled the otherwise quiet room. A tiny hand flailed out from inside the sphere.

Laserbeak wasn't attacking— it was a game. Each time Laserbeak stuck his bill in, he'd allow the mechlet to grab the tip, or just barely miss before quickly pulling back. It was a game the mechlet— called Echo, according to the Nest announcement board— quite enjoyed, if the noise was any indication. Figment often made a similar sound when something excited him.

Rumble and Frenzy, performing maintenance on some weapons nearby, looked over and grinned, shoving playfully at each other. Even Soundwave, who as a rule never took his optics off the bank of monitors when on this duty, turned to briefly observe the game. Nothing was spoken aloud; when this cohort was alone they often communicated entirely telepathically.

As he moved on, swift and silent, Mirage wondered... it was speculated that Soundwave's singular ability had been granted via secret experimentation, in the form of a mod similar to Mirage's own invisibility cloak. If it were a naturally spark-granted gift, like Windcharger's magnetic field manipulation, it was possible Echo might inherit the trait.

(The 'heritable traits' phenomena had been given a new twist; Windcharger had to have Grapple build a crib of non-ferrous plating after waking from recharge the morning after emergence to find his mechlet literally crawling the walls. On the other hand, it was convenient to be able to walk around with little Grip simply magnetized to a shoulder or leg... or inconveniently, face. Windcharger resigned himself to a foreseeable future as an energon-dispensing climbing gym while the scientists worked themselves into a fresh tizzy over the implications. Mirage was just thankful he didn't have to try to keep tabs on an invisible mechlet.)

The vents took Mirage as far as the living quarters before they became too small for his frame, so he crept carefully out into the corridors themselves. As he assessed a blind corner, Skywarp teleported in at his back, nearly on top of him, and Mirage had to leap out of the way and flatten himself against the wall as the seeker strode past.

"— aaaaand vwoop! Just like that," Skywarp was cooing to a mechlet in his hands. Delighted-sounding burbling was the only reply. "Ha-ha! See, it's not scary. Just have to triangulate very carefully and know where you're going! Maybe I'll teach you how. Maybe. Not right now, though. It's almost time for As The Kitchen Sinks. TC will scrap me if I forget to record it again—" Mirage skirted past as Skywarp and his mechlet (Primus preserve them all, the very idea of two teleporters) disappeared behind the door to the trine's suite.

As he rounded the corner, however, the sight of another mech had him against the wall again, utterly motionless. Megatron stalked past, expression set in a dour grimace.

Behold, the hermit emerges, Mirage thought, training sensors to the local airwaves. No comm chatter, and Megatron did not appear to be in a great hurry. Mirage trailed him as far as the lift and turned back. His mission was to ascertain the state of the parental Decepticons and their mechlets. Following Megatron around too closely was asking for trouble. If Mirage were discovered it would be seen as a violation of their treaty, and that was a risk too far for now. So he crept on, checking at each door for sounds and energy signatures. The living quarters were curiously, eerily empty, even taking into account the Decepticons who were at the Nest.

Soon enough, he found Motormaster, Reflector, Onslaught, and all three Insecticons tucked away in the back of a storage unit, sitting around an upturned crate playing Praxus fold-'em. At least, four of them were. Bombshell and Kickback hung behind Shrapnel's shoulders, conferring in whispers.

"— gonna lay it out for him any minute now," Onslaught was saying, having discarded a few cards. "I don't know what's been going through Megatron's processor all this time, but at least Astrotrain's got a plan."

"It's barely a plan," grumbled one of Reflector's components, the Viewfinder. "and it's going to go bolts-up if Astrotrain does something foolish. Which he will."

Motormaster coolly put his cards down. "I fold. Crap hand. And Reflector, if you're so concerned about Astrotrain's negotiating skills, maybe you should go back him up."

"Pit no." Reflector's Spectro component snorted.

"Then quit grinding your gears and quit skulking around behind me, you miserable camera," Onslaught snarled, turning to aim a half-sparked kick at the Spyglass component. "I know you're trying to look at my cards."

Shrapnel was arranging and re-arranging his hand thoughtfully. "We should have gone too(too). All of us together at once(once), we could take on Megatron(tron)."

"Your memory's faulty, bug. That never works," Motormaster said. "It's Astrotrain's idea, he can be first in line for a fist to the faceplates for a change."

"Long as Megatron finally does something about the problem, I don't care." Onslaught tapped the makeshift table. "Deal me two more, Ref."

Conspiracy to overthrow the leader, the official Decepticon pastime. Mildly interesting but hardly unusual. Mirage tried to contain the urge to roll his optics and left them to it. It was something to tell Jazz about later, but he still had to find the remaining four mechlets.

He followed the sound of arguing voices and musical beeping until he came upon Drag Strip, sitting in front of the entryway to the common mess hall with a datapad, from which the tinkling music was emanating. It was a vaguely familiar tune... Tetris? Mirage shook his head. For as much as the Decepticons liked to disparage humanity, they had little trouble enjoying the organics' culture and media.

Brawl stood in the middle of the corridor, a full energon cube in hand. "C'mon, lemme in. The bigscreen's in there. I promised I wouldn't do anything to the stupid scraplets."

"What, the wifi's down on all your datapads? Watch your dumb wrestling on one of those." Drag Strip shifted on his stool and kept playing his game without so much as looking up at the Combaticon. "Or go topside and shoot at rocks or something, you're good at that. But you're not going in the mess right now."

Brawl leaned over, possibly attempting to loom threateningly over Drag Strip. "What'd they bribe you with?"

The datapad emitted a cheery little jingle as Drag Strip paused the game and looked up at Brawl. Mirage was interested to note the racer looked positively bored. "You don't have a better offer and we both know it."

"You little—"

"Nothing doing, pal. I can see which way the road's turning. Now take your fuel and get lost, there's a human twerp in Berlin whose high score I gotta beat."

As Brawl stalked off, Mirage shook his head bemusedly. Interesting dynamics, Jazz didn't know the half of it.

The entryway Drag Strip was guarding— it was not equipped with a door, but there was a long metal plate clamped across the bottom. It only came up to a little below Mirage's knees; a barrier that most mechs could simply step over. But...

As he leaned carefully in, close enough to tap Drag Strip on the helm if he were a less professional mech, Mirage's suspicions were confirmed. The plate was an improvised 'baby gate' to keep the four remaining mechlets from rolling off down the corridor. Not that there seemed to be any danger of parental inattention, apparently: the twins Runabout and Runamuck recharged on a pair of portable berths in one back corner of the large room, the two of them curled up together in such a way as to cradle two little closed spheres between. Wildrider, in the midst of plucking a mechlet-grade globule from his intake, sat at a table with his arm around a squirming mechlet who appeared to be trying to crawl away while on his shell-back like an overturned turtle. And Breakdown was... sitting on the floor making little encouraging noises and gestures as his mechlet, several feet away, crawled slowly toward him.

And somehow this unlikely group had convinced Drag Strip to stand guard. Interesting, and would be amusing if it weren't so bizarre.

Mirage mentally composed his report as he retraced his steps. There clearly was some need for the lower-status Decepticons to band together for the protection of the mechlets, or they'd have all been in their own quarters. And the Autobots had certainly been expecting some opposition against the ceasefire and negative reactions to the mechlets. This seemed to be something of a slow boil— Astrotrain had the for-what-it-was-worth support of the card players for some sort of challenge to Megatron's authority, which only spurred Mirage on. He had no desire to be on the Nemesis when that little detonation went off. He made a note to suggest that Jazz drop hints that the Decepticons at the Nest could encourage their fellow parents to relocate. Quarreling Decepticons very rarely cared about what or who got caught in the crossfire.

He very nearly tripped over the silver sphere that rolled out of an adjoining corridor.

Oh my, what's this now? Mirage recovered quick enough not to step on it as it gently bumped into the wall with a muted tink. He quickly scanned up and down the corridors; surely the parent was close behind, nearby somewhere. Was it Skywarp's? It was too far from the mess hall to have gotten here so quickly, and he doubted Soundwave's would be out unaccompanied.

There was nobody. Just a tiny mechlet peeking from his shell in an empty ship hallway. And one invisible spy. Mirage bent down close as the mechlet opened up.

It was no seeker's mechlet, that much was certain. Mirage tried to find some familiar feature, some nub or ridge on the delicate matte plating that would give him a clue as to from whom he had emerged, but identification eluded him.

At least he seemed to be in no distress, Mirage noted. Wide red optics took in their surroundings as the mechlet stuck a finger in his mouth and hummed quietly as if very carefully deciding which way to go.

My apologies, little one, but there's only one way you must go for now. Mirage caught himself before he actually picked the mechlet up. A mechlet hovering in mid-air would not go unnoticed by Drag Strip, that much was certain. Instead he nudged at the open shell, setting the mechlet rocking. The mechlet made a curious noise, optics flicking in the direction Mirage's hand had touched.

Come on, time to roll out now, Mirage thought, gently tipping the mechlet again. If he could manage to get the mechlet to just close up, he could simply roll the little sphere back down to the mess. Drag Strip or one of the others would merely see a wayward mechlet and take it back into safety.

Silly thing, just close back up, I'll get you back to your—

Footsteps, from around the bend. Mirage froze, then carefully made for the wall again. The little wanderer's parent, no doubt, coming to—

Oh no.

Vortex.

 


 

"This has gone on long enough, Megatron. I demand action."

"You demand, Astrotrain?" Megatron advanced on the triple-changer slowly, one heavy step at a time. "I cannot begin to tell you how little in the mood I am for your demands."

"No, you're just in the mood to stay in your quarters all cycle and let the Autobots do whatever they want while we sit on our axles and rust," Astrotrain snapped back. "What happened to the plan? Destroying the parasites and robbing the Autobots blind before crushing them all?"

Megatron kept walking, deliberately forcing Astrotrain to step out of the way, and the Decepticon leader stood in front of the command chair. Its raised dais caused Astrotrain to have to look up to meet his gaze. "Have you not been paying attention? There were no parasites. Only future warriors. Working with the Autobots was merely to allow us to determine the truth, and now—"

"—and now what?" interrupted Astrotrain. "Put the little energon-suckers in battle-ready frames, right? And how're we doing on that? It's been cycles now. All I see is those little monsters turning everyone's processors to mush, draining us dry, and, oh yes, we're still playing at peace with the bedamned Autobots."

"The mechlets cannot be upgraded yet."

"What."

"Ask Hook, if you don't believe me. If we act before the time is right we risk losing not just the mechlets, but our advantage over the Autobots."

"That's dross!"

"Such unprecedented happenings require a degree of flexibility in our plans. New data came to light, so the plan must adjust. You want to throw everything, all this time and preparation and research, all of it into the smelter?" Megatron folded his arms, prominently displaying the fusion cannon, and scowled down at him. "I will not allow it."

"No." Astrotrain shifted, his posture widening into something that might be considered a fighting stance, whether consciously or not. Dangerously defiant, in any case. "No, I've had enough. We've had enough. Call off the ceasefire, get rid of the parasites, or it won't be the so-called 'mechlets' you have to worry about losing, Lord Megatron."

At this, Megatron chuckled darkly. "Oh, Astrotrain, this again? You've threatened to leave before. Never really takes, does it?"

"Not this time," Astrotrain snarled. "This time we—"

/Lord Megatron./

Megatron silenced Astrotrain with a gesture. /Soundwave, what is it? I am busy dealing with an unruly oaf./

A set of shipboard coordinates pinged the encrypted line. /Mechlet: in possible danger./

/So send its parent./

/Mechlet: YOURS./

Without another word, Megatron swept from the bridge, leaving Astrotrain to sputter impotently in his wake.

 


 

Mirage dared not move, furiously willing Vortex to just pass by, to not notice the mechlet.

But the Combaticon slowed, stopping within an arm's reach. Far too close. "Hey, now. Somebody lost a scraplet."

Mirage wanted to swear in every dialect he knew. With his disruptor engaged, he could usually move about without being detected as long as he was silent. He was perfectly invisible to a broad spectrum of sensors, but Vortex... ah, Vortex was a special case. Mirage had no idea whether it had anything to do with his being a rotary-type flier, but Vortex seemed to be able to detect the slightest swirl of an air current where it ought not be. Mirage had more than once been slugged out of nowhere by the fragger while simply trying to sneak past.

(Always the face. How it was always right in the face, Mirage would never know.)

And now a mech who thought it great fun to shake Autobots until a limb came off was leaning down over a defenseless mechlet.

"Whatcha doin', out here all by your lonesome, hm?" Vortex chirped, his cheerful tone belied by the forceful poke he gave the mechlet.

The mechlet squeaked, startled, and pulled his shell in but not completely closed. Vortex cackled.

"Aw, now, don't be shy! I'm just playing. Who'd you pop out of, huh?" He flicked the mechlet's shell, a little harder, sending the little one skittering a few feet across the floor. The poor thing wobbled erratically, trying to right itself, and started plaintively crying.

Vortex straightened. "And what would they do to get you back, I wonder?"

Mirage readied himself, to spring out. He'd grab the mechlet and run, and to the pit with the consequences of getting caught.

He didn't get the chance. Two things happened in such quick succession that later Mirage would have to review the memory slowed-down to make sense of it.

First, Vortex kicked the mechlet.

And almost immediately, a grey blur slammed into Vortex.

Megatron, one hand around Vortex's neck cabling and the other crushing the rotary hub, lifted him off his feet and flung him into the wall. Without letting go, Megatron swung him into the opposite wall, one airfoil stabbing into the plating mere inches from Mirage's shoulder. And finally, one more mighty impact of Vortex, into the floor this time.

The airfoil had broken off and was still in the wall. Vortex was offline, battered and sparking.

The mechlet was howling. It was nothing like the cries of the other mechlets, who had so far never been injured in any appreciable way. This sound was jarring, horrible, the sound of true pain.

Megatron, the coldest of fury in his blazing red optics, stepped over Vortex without a second look at the wretch. He reached the wailing mechlet and, picking the little one up, tucked it into the crook of his arm behind the cannon.

With a shock, Mirage realized just to whom the mechlet belonged.

The spy couldn't get out of the Nemesis fast enough.

 


 

Soundwave met him in the medbay. Megatron did not bother asking how he had known, or if he had always known. It was Soundwave.

The mechlet's vocalizer was starting to tinge with static from crying so stridently. Megatron set him down in an empty instrument tray on the nearest repair berth and went to the supply compartments. He was no medic, but like any good soldier he had a decent grasp of basic repair. He could assess an impact-related injury well enough. The mechlet's shoulder was dislocated, the thin, ineffectual armor deeply buckled. Nothing was leaking or sparking, which was a good sign. It seemed the mechlet's sturdy shell had taken the brunt of the kick, or it might have been much worse. As it was, two of the shell plates were dented inward just enough to keep mechlet from being able to close it.

Megatron gathered a roll of fine-chain patching mesh and a small tube of medical nanites. When he returned to the berth, Soundwave offered him the handle of an EMP probe.

Megatron took the barely-used tool— Hook was not a big believer in most pain relief methods— and turned it to its lowest setting. He touched the tip to the mechlet's injured shoulder, and the crying hitched and became quiet, miserable whimpering.

With a single finger and thumb, Megatron pushed the minuscule socket joint back into place, causing the mechlet to flinch and grab at his hand with the uninjured arm. The wafer-thin plating straightened back into shape with only minimal warping.

Next he applied a thin bead of the nanite solution into the joint, and used the mesh to wrap the arm against the little chest to keep the mechlet from moving it while it repaired.

Pushing the dented shell back into its proper shape took a great deal more force, but Megatron soon had the plates sliding as freely as before. But the mechlet did not pull them shut, as Megatron was expecting him to. Instead he closed up halfway, his good hand with a grip much tighter than before on Megatron's largest finger.

For several long moments, the only sound was the mechlet's fitful mewling.

"Soundwave."

"Yes, Lord Megatron."

"Contact Optimus Prime. Tell him to meet me at the Nest."

Chapter Text

"Megatron is coming here?" Optimus had returned to the Ark, intending to assess his quarters for the practice known as childproofing. He had learned that Dion preferred to explore by putting his hands on and into absolutely everything, and yet had no concept of potential danger. And as the mechlet's armor did little more than merely cover his internals, Optimus knew he would have to be that much more careful with the various artifacts and mementos he kept displayed. A small portable static-hologram projector dropping from the edge of a shelf might bounce harmlessly off Optimus' foot plating, but he guessed it might do considerable damage to a hapless mechlet if his shell was not closed.

But Optimus had only made it as far as the corridor outside the bridge when his communications officer had informed him of the abrupt transmission from the Nemesis.

"To the Nest, actually. Wants to meet Prime there," Blaster said. "Soundwave didn't say what today's agenda was, though."

Red Alert frowned, his stern, all-business demeanor somewhat undercut by the happy babbling and squirming of the mechlet tucked securely in his folded arms. "The timing makes it obvious why he's coming. The last of the mechlets has emerged. We're no longer compromised by involuntary overloads. Prime, he's coming to formally end the ceasefire."

"You don't think he'd attack?" Blaster asked, glancing down to where Rewind and Eject huddled protectively over closed-up little Boomer. "I mean, I don't wanna jump right to worst-case, but... he's got a lot of help over at the Nest if he..."

"We should recall all Autobots and mechlets back to the Ark." Red Alert somehow plucked a datapad out of his subspace without shifting his grip on Ward. "I've planned for this eventuality, fortunately. The forward cargo bay on theta deck is in the deepest-embedded part of the ship and can be cleared quickly. Converting it into a secure bunker for the mechlets should be our first priority."

Optimus put a hand on Red Alert's shoulder. "That's a fine idea, Red. Go ahead and put it into action, but let's not create any unnecessary panic. I want to try persuading him to allow more time. There is still much we don't know about what has happened, or how our young ones will develop. Don't worry; if it seems as if he's spoiling for a fight, I will signal Jazz and Prowl and they will get everyone to safety while I hold Megatron off."

Red Alert nodded crisply. "Of course, sir."

/Prowl, has Red Alert apprised you of the situation?/ Prime commed as he turned back. Making space for Dion would have to wait for now.

/Yes, Prime. I have Teletraan's remote feed. Megatron will be here in approximately thirty minutes at current speed./ Prowl paused. /I do not think the Decepticons here are aware he's on his way./

/Er, correction,/ Jazz cut in. /Pretty sure Starscream just found out. Overheard him asking Thundercracker if he knew why 'he' is coming. Antsiest seekers I ever seen, and that's saying something./

/Prime, if even they don't know what's going on.../ Prowl added.

Optimus, already on his wheels and headed back towards the Nest, rumbled uneasily to himself. /Keep an optic on the Decepticons, but try not to raise any alarms unless absolutely necessary. We are still only assuming Megatron is coming to end the ceasefire. I intend to try to negotiate an extension./

/Acknowledged. I will attempt to keep the exits clear in case an evacuation of the facility is in order./

The Nest hove into view around a bend in the road just in time for Optimus to catch sight of a blue F-1 racer skidding to a stop at an entrance. Mirage transformed with uncharacteristic haste and darted inside well before Optimus could brake.

Cybertronians, before the war, had long been known as the galaxy's biggest gossips; even the insular Nebulans had a running joke that if one wanted some minor inanity to be widely known, one needed only to tell a single Cybertronian, and within a stellar cycle even the most remote Raxacoricofallapatorian colony would have heard of it. So naturally by the time Optimus walked in, every mech in the Nest knew Megatron was coming.

Bluestreak, with his mechlet Chatter snug in an improvised mesh sling between his doorwings, was at the head of the small Autobot mob to swarm Optimus at the threshold. "Prime— is this it?" Bluestreak asked. "Should we be getting the mechlets to safety? We didn't get much warning— "

"We don't have any weapons here," Cliffjumper muttered urgently, glancing over his shoulder at where Scrapper, Hook, and Long Haul were having what looked like a very serious conversation. "I just know the 'Cons have theirs with 'em, the cheaters— "

"We should be falling back to the Ark!" hissed Windcharger.

Optimus raised both hands. "Everyone calm down. Megatron hasn't stated his intentions in coming, but neither has he made any threats— and he is coming alone, which I take as a good sign at least. For now, I ask that you all remain watchful but calm. Until declared otherwise, we are still at peace. Understood?"

To their credit, every Autobot present responded with a firm "Yes, Prime."

/Do you really think Megatron is coming just to... talk?/ Ratchet asked incredulously over the officers' frequency.

/So, uh, just as a hunch, Prime,/ said Jazz, /You might wanna listen to what ol' Megs has to say today./

Across the common area, Prowl shot Jazz a sharp look. /A hunch. Is there something you'd like to share, subcommander?/

Mirage's too-casual sidle from Jazz's side was not lost on Prime, nor was Jazz's bright grin, which a human might describe as 'shit-eating.' /Er... fait accompli?/

It was a good thing Prowl possessed no ocular-based beam weaponry, or else Jazz might have been vaporized on the spot.

But whatever mischief his special ops mechs had managed, it would have to wait. Megatron had arrived.

He touched down just outside without any ceremony and strode unhurried into the building. At once every hushed, anxious conversation stopped, and more than a few mechs— Autobot and Decepticon— made discreet exits into side rooms. Those who remained, as Megatron came to stand before the Prime, got to catch a glimpse of the object cradled in the black-plated hands.

"Prime." Megatron's voice sounded strange: level, unantagonistic, but still with a note of challenge in his harmonics. "A word, if you will."

Optimus managed to tear his optics away from the mechlet— Megatron's mechlet— and gestured to the closest empty room.

/Prime—!/ Ironhide started towards them, then remembered Dion in his hands, and hesitated.

/At ease, Ironhide./ Optimus followed after Megatron. /He is not here to fight./

/But... fraggit. Keep your channel open, still./

The door had only begun to slide shut behind the two leaders when the dam burst and the Nest common room erupted into shocked exclamations and discussions, the highlight of which was Starscream thwacking the back of Hook's helm and shrieking HOW BY ALL THE RUST IN KAON DID YOU MISS THAT?!

They could still hear Hook's muffled bellowing through the closed door.

Megatron let the silver sphere rest on the worktable in the center of the room, the shell open just wide enough to admit a tiny hand which grasped one of the warlord's fingers.

Optimus decided there was little point in being subtle. "This certainly explains a few things."

"It does at that," Megatron replied in a tone so neutral it was almost comical.

"You hid him well," Optimus commented with a small gesture at the mechlet. "But why?"

"This is a question? You have met my second-in-command, have you not?" Megatron met Optimus' gaze with a sardonic raise of a brow ridge. "I have made a... miscalculation, Prime. This whole ridiculous miracle seems so bent on proving my every assumption wrong that continuing to pretend I have any control of the outcome seems foolish."

Optimus inclined his head. "So... you have come to wrest some control back?"

"Tell me," Megatron said. "If we were to resume hostilities, no matter how well-protected we have made the mechlets, what is the likelihood of their injury or deactivation from collateral damage? I know your tactician is listening in. Can he give you the numbers?"

/...eighty-one point three-seven percent in the first six months,/ Prowl reluctantly supplied over comm, /with a steady increase to ninety-eight point nine-six as non-combatant agreements are willfully broken, as reprisal, or as simple unintended consequences. On... both sides, Prime./

Optimus sent a wordless pulse of thanks/apology. That couldn't have been an easy simulation to run. "All but certain," he said aloud.

"So you see my dilemma. I could try to rely on the good intentions of an agreement to keep our offspring out of our war. It might even work for a time. But as it stands even now, there are... certain elements in the Decepticons that would never adhere to such terms."

It was the closest Megatron had ever come to admitting he could not control the more violent under his command; Optimus was for a nanosecond at a loss.

"We did not foresee the extent to which this would change things."

"No, we did not." Megatron's face was utterly unreadable. "We are being tested, Prime. And I have come too close to failure today."

Optimus noted the careful way Megatron held his hand just so as to not dislodge the mechlet's grasp, the gentleness of the Decepticon's other hand resting atop the curve of the sphere. What had happened? "Do you propose we strengthen our treaty?"

/Tenuous as it is,/ Prowl opined warily in the officers' channel. /Primus knows what he'll demand of us now. We are already giving nearly every concession we can reasonably afford./

/He seems... unusually willing to negotiate,/ Prime replied.

/Just waitin' for the bomb to drop here,/ Ironhide muttered. /He's gonna go right for our surrender to keep the lil'uns safe./

Megatron was looking Optimus directly in the optics, clearly able to sense the comm chatter even if he were unable to decrypt it. "I call for armistice, Optimus Prime."

Optimus took one shocked step back. There was a spurt of static from Prowl's comm, followed by a muffled clatter and Ratchet calling Prowl's name from outside the room.

/Gotta say,/ Jazz said quietly, /did not see that coming./

Optimus looked away from the noise at the door to find Megatron smirking at him. "Gratifying to know I can still surprise you after all this time."

"I'll grant you that," replied Optimus, holding up a hand. "And were it not for everything that has happened, I would suspect you had some treachery in mind with such a declaration. To be absolutely honest, I still do. I, too, want peace. More than anything, especially now. But at what cost? With all that has passed between us, Megatron, you must understand my caution."

"Understand this, Prime," Megatron said, smirk vanishing. "Without Vector Sigma our race is functionally extinct. Shockwave cannot even find any of its components, and even if he could, reconstructing it is far beyond any of us mere mortal mechanisms. And we would continue to fight and die one by one until the last Cybertronians extinguish in one final burst of stupidity. The mechlets are our salvation. You were right, Prime, and do not take too much pleasure in hearing that, because I shan't ever repeat it. I began this war for Cybertron's sake, and for Cybertron I will set it aside.

"Let me be clear: this is not surrender. This is not the end of the war. This peace will last only until these mechlets have all reached full maturity and can fight for themselves. Until then, for their protection, I am willing to enforce peace as vigorously as I have waged war."

Megatron extended a hand, the other still in the weak, yet unbelievably strong grip of his mechlet. "So what say you, Prime?"

 


 

Within hours of the announcement of a formal armistice, two shuttles left Earth.

Astrotrain and Blast Off carried with them Reflector, Shrapnel, Bombshell, Kickback, Onslaught, Motormaster, Brawl, and a still-damaged Vortex. They departed without permission or even a warning, and Megatron immediately declared all ten exiles, no longer welcome on Earth or Cybertron or any of either planets' attendant moons, unless they turned back at once and swore to abide by the new laws about to be laid down.

The two shuttles vanished into a wormhole just outside Neptune's orbit without a single transmission in reply, and that was that.

Some of the remaining Decepticons grew nervous; a not-insignificant number of their heavy hitters had just flounced, to say nothing of the fact that now two of their combiner teams were now broken, whereas the Autobots were as strong as they ever were. But something curious had happened to the parenting mechs of both factions. It would be a stretch to call any of them friends, of course, but a tentative solidarity had established itself. The Decepticons' fears were assuaged by the first fragile threads of something that was for some a completely foreign concept: trust.

It took nearly two weeks for Megatron and Optimus with their respective officers to outline the first formal peace treaty of the Cybertronian civil war. It would undergo many revisions and refinement in the days to come, but soon the people of Cybertron had the beginning of a new code of law and proposals for the system of governance to be instituted for the duration of the armistice.

And this all hinged on the length of the new reproductive cycle— which they still did not know.

Plans were made to expand the Nest into a full-fledged residential and research facility. Perceptor threw himself into drawing up curricula for basic education, despite that the mechlets still could not speak or properly hold a stylus, let alone memorize the periodic table of elements.

And plans were made to return to Cybertron.

That was the part that had the potential to take decades. Safe, livable areas were only barely so. Acid rain continued to plague large swaths of the planet. Even just focusing on Iacon as a starting point for recolonization would take years before they could consider bringing their most vulnerable to the homeworld.

And Shockwave had gone AWOL. Megatron had made the call himself, to detail what had happened and Shockwave had replied with a heavy silence, his one baleful optic boring through the screen for such a long time that it became unsettling. And then he had cut the transmission, right in Megatron's face. Subsequent calls went unanswered. An attempt to bridge over revealed that the space bridge on Cybertron was suddenly encrypted. It would not take long to hack past it, but Shockwave's actions were troubling to say the least.

Megatron believed he could bring Shockwave to heel once cornered, but that was a matter for another day.

One final designation finally took its place to complete the announcement board.

"I'm honored, but... I'm more curious. Why that name?"

"Someone who has tested me, pushed me? I think it is only right. Do you object, Prime?"

"Not at all. I'm just surprised anyone even remembered it after all this time."

"I made it my business to know my enemy. Better be on your best behavior. I'll make sure he knows to watch his namesake carefully."

Optimus nodded gravely down at the silver mechlet in the crook of Megatron's arm. The mesh wrapping was gone and the injury mostly repaired, though he still held his arm very close in. He was in no discernible pain any more, and at present was busy gnawing on a large de-threaded screw, completely oblivious to the axle-circumference contest being started by his parent.

"I welcome the scrutiny, little Pax. And I bid you welcome."

 

Chapter Text

Years later...

 

"Ident confirmed. Jazz of Polyhex. Riff of Jazz. Please clear the bridge pad in an orderly fashion. Welcome to Cybertron."

Jazz pinged acknowledgment to the spacebridge nexus control system and glanced down at the small mech at his side as they stepped down to the central concourse. "Ready to go see our new digs, lil' bot? Or do you wanna go straight to Little Terra for your present's new digs?"

Riff wasn't paying attention. He was too busy looking around. Jazz smiled to himself and let Riff take it in. After all, it wasn't every day you got your first look at your homeworld.

Most of Iacon had been rebuilt. It was still rough around the edges, and it would still be a long time before it had the old shine back, but it was finally safe, sturdy, and habitable once more. It would never be the same as Jazz remembered, but maybe that was for the best. This was a time for new things. Riff stared up through the vaulted clearsteel ceiling to a sky filled with new constellations and the closest moon in clear view, luminous even pitted with war-wounds.

"Beachcomber says Pebble wants to help ya dig the digs, ya dig?"

That broke Riff's trance and the little mech rolled his optics, adjusting his careful grip on the root ball of a bristly green sapling. He opted, as usual, to ignore Jazz's attempt at the time-honored tradition of the dad-joke. "Little Terra. I don't want it to dry out."

"Alrighty, m'mech, off we go."

Little Terra was a sealed dome inside Iacon's borders, pressurized and filled with a specific mix of elemental gases to recreate the atmosphere of Earth. Small by Cybertronian standards, it covered an area roughly the size of Manhattan. Among other things, it held the Earth ambassadorial complex, residential and commercial areas where humans could live and do business on Cybertron; but two thirds of the space inside the dome was dedicated to a sprawling garden-park.

There had never been so much chlorophyll on Cybertron. The climate was maintained at warm-temperate-late-spring levels, and the clear crystal panes of the dome itself filtered the light of the star whose orbit Cybertron had wandered into to mimic the spectrum of Sol. Clean water, harvested from the ice of a comet no one would miss, gently flowed via a system of cleverly-hidden pumps around a circular river and a small pond. Winding paths of gravel made from the Sol system's asteroid belt led around hills covered in grass and wildflowers from all over Earth. Dotted here and there were a few larger plants, mostly young trees, some with barriers around them to protect them from careless robotic stompage as they grew. And nearly every bit of greenery had been chosen and brought to Cybertron by a mechlet.

Having spent all their lives so far on Earth, many of the young ones had been understandably anxious about moving to Cybertron, no matter how much their parents talked it up. To make the transition a little smoother, the idea for the park had been put forth. So after carting in many tons of rich organic dirt, each mechlet got to pick some part of Earth to bring to their new home with them. There were immature fruit trees, and a copse of rainbow eucalyptus saplings that would someday be quite striking. A school of jewel-bright koi lived in the pond, and an apiary housed gentle-natured honeybees to pollinate the countless flowers. Beachcomber's mechlet Pebble was particularly fond of 'his' earthworms (apparently they all had names, but Pebble could only shrug when asked what they were).

As Jazz and Riff walked, a few mechs stopped to stare. Riff had been warned this might happen and did not react, but he walked a little closer to Jazz all the same. Most of the scattered Autobots and Decepticons had been briefed on the new reproductive phenomenon upon their homecoming, but mechlets on Cybertron were still somewhat rare sights. Many of the returning neutrals hadn't heard the news at all. Reactions ranged from suspicion to wonder to confusion, but Jazz thought it wouldn't be long until someone approached an 'upgraded' mech and kicked off another baby boom.

A tall gangling mech met them at the airlock to Little Terra. "Jazz! Prime said you were due to arrive sometime this orn. I was hoping I'd catch you before I had to leave for the Altihex resettlement survey."

"Metalhawk!" Jazz beamed and threw his arms wide. "Heard you were back!"

"I heard more interesting things about you, actually," Metalhawk said, with a nod down at Riff. "Would this be your, er... mech-let?"

Riff, at roughly a third of Jazz' height and mostly plain silver in patches of shiny and matte, looked a bit like a small unpainted copy of Jazz with all the corners rounded off. A dark midnight blue color had begun to creep in at the edges of his still-thin armor, and though there were what might be wheels tucked underneath his pauldrons, his transformation cog had yet to develop teeth. At ten years old, he would have been considered independent and able to leave his mentor two years ago had he been constructed and ensparked by Vector Sigma. But as a mechlet there could be no mistaking that he was ill-suited to be on his own.

"Yup, this's my kiddo," Jazz said, grinning. "He's going by Riff until he knows his designation. Riff, this is Metalhawk. He and I were friends before the war."

"Hello," Riff said politely, sticking close to Jazz's leg. "Are you one of the ones who didn't fight?"

Metalhawk blinked for a moment. "Yes, I am." He turned back to Jazz. /I'm sorry, I'm not sure if I should say anything or not./

/Nah, you're good,/ Jazz assured him. /The lil' bits know there was a war and not everyone fought in it. We're leaving most of the worst stuff for later, when they're able to process just how bad it got./

/I understand. I've only met one other mechlet since I returned to Cybertron. Chatter, I think his name was. He was so quiet I thought he was a helper drone at first. I wasn't quite sure what to do./

Jazz chuckled. /Yeah, mine's a little more talkative, and you'll run into others that can't stand to leave a thought unvocalized. Don't worry, just treat 'em like any other mechs but a little gentler and you'll be fine./ "How long until you take off for Altihex? Maybe we can catch up after Riff and I get settled in."

"Next orn, I'm afraid, but perhaps when I— " Metalhawk glanced down again. "Where did he go?"

Jazz looked sharply down at the empty patch of floor where Riff had been standing. "Primus almighty, you take your optics off 'em for five seconds— Sorry, Hawk, have to catch up later. Send me a ping when you're back in town, yeah?"

Jazz made a visual sweep of the immediate area. Riff couldn't have gotten far. Jazz hadn't outright told him to stick close, to be fair, but he hadn't thought he had to. Riff wasn't in the habit of wandering off; the kid didn't even have a location tracker on him, like some other mechlets he wouldn't name (Imp). But maybe Jazz would put one on him just to be on the safe side— Iacon was big, half-empty, and no telling what tiny hole an inquisitive mechlet could innocently squeeze into and find themselves in a part of the city that hadn't been declared safe.

He found Riff only a moment later, around a corner talking to a large mech. The stranger, his plating scratched, dented, and worn, was kneeling down at a considerate distance from Riff, intently listening.

"… it's a Sequoia sempervirens," Riff was saying, displaying his little tree to the big white-optic'd stranger. "It's from Earth. The seed came from a special tree called Iluvatar and I grew it myself. It's just a sapling now but someday it'll be tall as maybe three Superions!"

The stranger chuckled. "That will certainly be a sight to see. Ah, I think your parent has found us, little one."

"Riff, buddy," Jazz chided. "You gotta make some noise if you wanna look around."

"I'm sorry, Jazz." Riff pointed to the stranger. "He asked what my present was."

The stranger stood. "I apologize if I've alarmed you. I've watched the new additions with great interest, you see, and I couldn't pass up a chance to indulge my curiosity."

"Hey, I remember you." Jazz tapped at his chin as he regarded the big masked mech. "Fella down in the outer Core layers, helped me find my way back out. Right before... huh, right before I had Riff."

The stranger's optics seemed to smile back at Jazz. "I'm glad you made it back safe and sound. And even better, I hear the war has been called off."

Mindful of little audios underfoot, Jazz skipped over the fact that the war had merely hit the pause button. "Been off for a while now, friend."

"I'm afraid I haven't been able to come to the surface in a very long time," the stranger said. "And I must return to the Core soon. I only wanted to see the progress for myself." A warm look down at Riff. "And what I've seen... gives me great hope."

"Yeah." Jazz found himself smiling back. "Funny how things worked out, innit."

"Indeed. Cybertron has a long road to go yet, but... it is healing at long last." The stranger bent down again, held out a hand to the mechlet by Jazz's side. "Thank you, little Riff. I'm very glad to have met you."

"You're welcome," Riff replied, polite as ever, even if he sounded like he weren't quite sure what he was being thanked for.

"And Jazz... welcome home."

"... good to be back." Jazz watched the stranger turn to go, and at a tap to his leg plating he looked down at Riff.

"Who is he, Jazz?"

Jazz looked back up. The stranger had somehow vanished from the corridor without so much as a clank of foot on floor in the time it had taken a mechlet to ask a question. "I dunno. Got a couple theories, though."

"Huh?"

"Ahh, nothin' to worry about, lil' bot. Now let's go get that tree planted, yeah?"

"Yeah! How big do you think it'll get? The gravity's a little different here than on Earth."

"Tall and proud as a titan, maybe! Who knows? I'm startin' to think anything's possible, Riff o' mine..."

 

Chapter Text

A few assorted notes on the culture for this AU, first off:

Under the old system, new bots at Vector Sigma would be brought online fully-built and pre-programmed with language and some basic data on whatever job or career path they were meant to fill. Since raw data is not a substitute for experience, a training period of one decivorn (one tenth a vorn, or 8.3 years) with a mentor in the same field was necessary. Not everyone would remain in the same jobs for life, but most would; likewise the relationship between mentor and newspark wasn't guaranteed to be a friendly one.

Under the new system, without Vector Sigma: Cybertronians still largely follow a "single-parent" system, with the parent (the mech who carries a mechlet) being the primary source of care and nurturing. The progenitor (the mech whose spark energies ignite a sparklet in the carrier mech) is generally less involved. Given Cybertronians' very casual and liberal interfacing views, it is often difficult to identify exactly which of one's partners is a mechlet's progenitor. Some guesses can be made based off the mechlet's temperament and personality, but this is not a reliable indicator. Knowing exactly who one's progenitor is is not considered to confer any special status versus those who don't know. The new method takes anywhere from three to four times as long for a mechlet to reach maturity than a Sigma-sparked mech to be ready to strike out on his own. In addition to the mechlets' vulnerable state for much of this time, this will have long-reaching effects on Cybertronian culture and society as it rebounds from the depopulation of the Great War.

But without further ado, here is an edited-down version of the spreadsheet I made for this story.

| PARENT        | MECHLET                          | PROGENITOR   |

| Optimus Prime | Dion                             | Ironhide     |

| Bluestreak    | Chatter                          | Hot Spot     |

| Jazz          | Riff                             | Prowl        |

| Mirage        | Figment                          | Bluestreak   |

| Prowl         | Imp                              | Jazz         |

| Ratchet       | Fix                              | Optimus      |

| Sideswipe     | Ping & Pong (split-spark twins)  | Trailbreaker |

| Sunstreaker   | Flash                            | Jazz         |

| Wheeljack     | Gizmo                            | Ratchet      |

| Grapple       | Weld                             | Gears        |

| Bumblebee     | Burr                             | First Aid    |

| Cliffjumper   | Scamper                          | Mirage       |

| Windcharger   | Grip                             | Beachcomber  |

| Smokescreen   | Odds                             | Streetwise   |

| Red Alert     | Ward                             | Perceptor    |

| Tracks        | Lobo                             | Groove       |

| Blaster       | Boomer                           | Bumblebee    |

| Beachcomber   | Pebble                           | Inferno      |

| Silverbolt    | Radar                            | Hoist        |

| Hot Spot      | Cinder                           | Skyfire      |

| Groove        | Gyro                             | Powerglide   |

| First Aid     | Patch                            | Skyfire      |

| Grimlock      | Grr                              | Brawn        |

| Swoop         | Flit                             | First Aid    |

| Megatron      | Pax                              | Soundwave    |

| Starscream    | Fledge                           | Skywarp      |

| Skywarp       | Skip                             | Astrotrain   |

| Astrotrain    | Bolide (adopted: Thundercracker) | Scrapper     |

| Scrapper      | Gremlin                          | Swindle      |

| Scavenger     | Rivet                            | Mixmaster    |

| Mixmaster     | Ratio                            | Skywarp      |

| Long Haul     | Winch                            | Hook         |

| Onslaught     | Dodger (adopted: Swindle)        | Wildrider    |

| Blast Off     | Rogue (adopted: Swindle)         | Swindle      |

| Soundwave     | Echo                             | Megatron     |

| Runabout      | Nut                              | Wildrider    |

| Runamuck      | Bolt                             | Wildrider    |

| Dead End      | Turn                             | Swindle      |

| Wildrider     | Spin                             | Runabout     |

| Breakdown     | Boost                            | Drag Strip   |

Not everyone made it into the story, of course, but you can assume they're there in the background. I just couldn't find a good narrative excuse to point out everyone by name, because that probably would have pulled the drag chute on the story's forward momentum.

As for "pairings" keep in mind that this story's 'canon' is that Cybertronians are very hippie free-love with regards to interfacing. Interfacing is done for love, of course, but also for strengthening social ties, for fun, and for comfort. It's joked that everyone's interfacing with everyone (without there being any cultural association of shaming or disgrace associated with such habits) but in general you'd only realistically interface with friends and colleagues with whom you were on good terms. Two mechs interfacing exclusively with each other for a very long period of time is considered very unusual, but not in a bad way (unless the relationship is unhealthy or abusive).

But with all that being said, we can infer from this chart that the Wildrider/Runabout/Runamuck threesome down in the Nemesis was so delightfully rambunctious that nearby whale pods in migration filed noise complaints.