It was a strange sensation.
One moment, Ratchet was working cap-to-cap with Torque and Gauge, moderating an energy spike in Groundbridge Number One’s vortex, and the next he found himself slammed painfully against the Bay doors.
His first thought should have been “What in the scrap had happened?” but if that had been his first thought, it was subsumed behind the more difficult question of “Why are the Bay doors closed?”
The Bay doors were never closed.
“Ratchet?” A panicky voice called out. “Oh, hell. Triage! Anyone! I need a medic over here, now!”
“Dial it down a notch, Torque,” Ratchet mumbled. For whatever reason, his audio-receptors were incredibly sensitive, but only to proximal sounds. Mystery voice aside, he might as well have been sitting in a sound-proof isolation cell.
A gentle hand against his medial plate compelled the old medic to open his optics.
Torque stared back at him. The ‘Bot’s narrow face-plate beamed concern, or perhaps empathy….but behind that—behind the obvious—was a sense of despair so profound that Ratchet could almost feel it in his spark.
Torque was arguably one of the most ebullient personalities at the clinic, second only to Interlink. To see him this way, on the verge of tears, was…disconcerting.
Ratchet puzzled over this revelation to little effect. His normally lightning-fast processor was laboring today, slow and sluggish like a space slug wallowing in tar. In fact, it took him a whole two cycles to realize that Torque was injured. The small, lightly-armored mech looked as if he had been thrown into a blast furnace. His mesh was scorched, quite horribly, and in some areas, entire sections of armor had been ripped away, exposing the underlying protoform.
“What in Primus’ name happened to you?” Ratchet wondered with a gruff chuckle, the kind of don’t-let-the-patient-know-they-may-actually-be-in-real-trouble kind of humorless laugh that he had been forced to perfect eons ago.
“You…don’t remember?” Torque asked with a similar snigger that spawned a wave of apprehension in Ratchet’s spark.
He shrugged off the feeling; it was irrelevant. “Would I be asking you if I did?”
Torque smiled at this. Unfortunately, given the depth of emotion flickering in his optics, the expression came out as a strange half-smile almost nearing mania.
“Well, your personality sub-routines seemed to have survived the explosion unscathed.”
Ratchet’s brow-ridges rose in startlement. “Explosion?”
The engineer nodded, but before he could explain, he was nudged out of the way by a concerned Triage.
The tall, red and white surgeon wasted no time scanning Ratchet from helm to trod, brow-ridges and lips leveled in concentration.
“Is he going to be alright?” Torque asked after a cycle.
“He will, if you stop pestering me with useless questions,” Triage replied, tersely.
A second gruff chuckle erupted from Ratchet’s voice-box as the uncomfortable feeling reasserted itself. “What are you both on about? I’m fine.” He made to push himself into a kneeling position, but quickly discovered that his right arm wasn’t responding well to his commands. And neither was anything else on that side of his body.
At first the old medic was confused, and then, as he reexamined his conversation with Torque, the faintest inklings of fear began to tug at his spark. Tilting his head forward to the limits of his neck-plating, he looked down at the rest of his body…and had to resist the urge to faint.
Sure, he’d been on the receiving end of hundreds of injuries over the course of his existence, but even the full-body shrapnel wounds that he received during the Praxian Stalemate couldn’t compare to having an arm that seemed to dangle from his shoulder assembly. The plating on his right leg was in a terrible state as well, though at least the protoform beneath had remained intact.
“W-what happened?” He said, if anything just to focus on something else while Triage’s long fingers probed the mutilated protoform mesh of his brachial cavity, removing jagged shards of metal and fishing around for neural cables in hopes of salvaging them.
Even in the absence of pain—the trauma had kicked his natural healing mechanisms into overdrive--It was horribly unnerving seeing one’s insides exposed in such a way.
Torque sighed, heavily, and crossed two of his arms across his chest; the other two hung limply at his sides. “T-there was some sort of energy spike in G1,” He explained. “You’re an engineer, Ratchet. You know that natural variations in energon ionization can cause short-lived spikes in harmonic, resonance output. That’s what we thought we were dealing with…originally.” Suddenly, he paused and his optics took on a haunted glow. He opened his mouth, hesitated, sighed a second time, and lowered his head.
Ratchet’s brow-ridges fell. He’d never seen the young engineer so distraught. “Torque…”
“I-I…we…you, Gauge, and I…we were trying to divert some of the excess energy to engineering…but we weren’t fast enough and G1 exploded.”
Ratchet’s optics widened, surprise---and a fair amount of terror--dragging his processor out of the mire so that it could process information at normal transfer speeds. Looking past Torque, the old medic was horrified to discover that it wasn’t just G1 in shambles. G2 was totaled and G3 was severely damaged. It might be salvageable, assuming they could harvest parts from the others.
Several folks from engineering as well as a few medics and soldiers were digging through the smoldering wreckage. What, exactly, they were searching for, Ratchet couldn’t tell, but if the covered corpses in the center of the room were any indication, they were probably looking for survivors…or their remains.
The old medic’s spark sunk and immediately he began to berate himself. True, it wasn’t his fault - something on the other end of the vortex likely caused it to overload – but still, it rankled…after all, Optimus had chosen him to make sure the operation…ran…smoothly…
Suddenly, Ratchet’s processor froze.
There was only one explanation for the sudden spike in vortex energy that he and the other engineers had observed and been unable to handle. And as the implications of this sank in, Ratchet slumped backwards against the bay doors like a suddenly de-powered doll.
“Vortex feedback,” He gasped, placing his hand to his mouth.
Next to him, Torque’s optics widened. “No,” he shook his head. “No. No,” He insisted. “If it were…that would mean that the Decepticons…” He shook his head a second time, as if to dissuade his next statement from lodging permanently in his processor. “It would mean that they somehow knew about the mission…or at least were tipped off about it at some point.”
Triage paused and considered the two, smaller ‘Bots, brow-ridges drawn with worry. “How could that be? Io gave the all-clear.” He shook his head. “She’s not the sort to blindly send our people into danger.”
Despite all that had happened, Ratchet couldn’t help but smile at his friend’s comment. It showed a level of respect for his partner that he hadn’t anticipated outside of himself and Interlink. But the expression was short-lived, and was quickly eclipsed by a worried frown. Io, for all her faults, was no slacker…especially when the welfare of her comrades was on the line. She was methodical to a fault, and he was certain that she would never have gone ahead with the mission if there was even the slightest suggestion that the Decepticons were aware of their presence.
Where had they gone wrong? When had they been found out? These and a myriad of other thoughts flitted about the old medic’s processor, but after a time, he had to admit—and that was the damnable thing—that such considerations were irrelevant given the current state of the Bay and its denizens.
If they couldn’t get G3 operational and retrieve their field team, then it really didn’t who was at fault.
Ratchet lowered his head, wearily. “Where do we stand?” He asked, after a moment. “How many of our people made it through the vortex before the explosion?”
Torque shrugged. “I don’t know. Before the energy spike, Gauge had me working line calibrations.”
“I assisted Optimus and his guards when they returned through the portal.” Triage offered, and immediately frowned. “Granted, I was outside of the bay, helping them unload energon cubes, but....” He paused, and his expression darkened. “I didn’t see anyone else leave.”
Ratchet’s optics widened. Interlink had been one of the clinic volunteers for the mission, and if he wasn’t in the Bay…there was only one, horrifying, alternative.
Triage looked up, and for a moment their gazes met. There was a strange glow to the surgeon’s optics, almost sickly.
“Are you…?” Ratchet started to ask, but Triage cut him off with a shake of his helm, busying himself with his repairs.
Ratchet knew better than to press his friend for information when he was trying to focus, and so he set his processor on the next item of consideration. “Torque, what’s the status on communications?”
“Down. The local hub’s fried. It’s going to take some time to get it operational.”
Ratchet absorbed this information with a frown. In order to avoid detection, ‘Bots involved with the operation had been using the Clinic’s private communication channel to stay in contact with their companions, both in the field and in the clinic. It was assumed that these transmissions would go unnoticed, given that such frequencies were usually exclusive to medical personnel.
At least that had been the hope…
No! As before, he forced the worry back; fought his processor even as his higher functions were inundated by imagery that was much more horrifying than anything he had ever envisioned with Interlink. It was difficult, probably the hardest thing he’d ever been forced to do, but worrying about Io, and the others trapped in the Amertas Basin, would only prevent him from using all his faculties here, where he could actually do something. And just maybe be able to get them back. He sighed, feeling suddenly encumbered. “Torque?”
“Our first priority is to get the communication hub back online. Find Gauge, and anyone else with…”
“Gauge is d-dead,” The engineer interrupted, voice glitching uncharacteristically.
“What?” Ratchet gasped.
Torque lowered his head and averted his optics. “She was closest to G1 when it exploded...” He said sadly. “I saw…” He paused a shiver traversed the length of his back-strut. “She just…” Eventually, he just folded his four arms protectively across his medial-plate and lapsed into a frozen silence.
Torque was Gauge’s apprentice and the two of them had been working together since long before the Autobot/Decepticon split. Recalling his own feelings at the loss of his former mentors, Ratchet knew exactly how lost the young engineer must suddenly feel. Factor in, now, the fact that Torque had inherited the late femme’s role as Chief Engineer…and he was surprised that the mech hadn’t collapsed into a pile of quivering dejection.
Setting his jaw and lowering his optics, Ratchet rested his good hand on the ‘Bots narrow shoulder. He could almost feel Torque’s pain, and he wasn’t sure if there was anything that he could really say to help him counter his grief other than a sympathetic “I’m sorry.”
Torque accepted this with a nod, though he didn’t look up.
Around them, tattered clinic personnel had gathered in a half-circle. It was clear from the look in their optics that they were feeling the same sort of helplessness, as if their emotions were teetering on the proverbial edge of a precipice leading into the dark environs of despair and anguish.
Seeing this, Ratchet pushed himself forward with his good arm, something that elicited a string of flustered curses from Triage. Then, to further show his resolve, to prove to them that he understood the anguish that was undoubtedly plaguing their sparks, he shifted his weight to his right side and, with a great deal of effort, brought himself slowly upright. His frame shuddered from the stress, but he was determined not to give into his injuries…or his despair.
That was the first rule of leadership: set an example.
It was a role he hated, but a rule he responded to and if there was any way to save Io, to save anyone and salvage this mission, he had to do it. Optimus had chosen him. If Ratchet wanted them to rise above their pain or grief, then he, too, had to rise above his. “Alright,” He said, looking around, making sure to meet every expectant set of optics still functioning in the room. “Our first priority is getting the communication hub online. Torque,” He nodded toward the new Chief Engineer. “Assemble a team and reestablish communications with Optimus and our ‘Bots in the field.”
For a moment Torque did nothing. But then their optics met, and whatever that intangible something associated with leadership that could transmit through the ether to cause an observable result seemed to lodge itself in Torque’s processor, and he shook himself out of his despair with fervency. “Yes, sir!” He replied. Motioning to a few of the engineers in the crowd, Torque and his entourage hurried toward the remains of the hub and began to dismantle it.
The old medic nodded and turned his full attention toward Triage. “I’ve been dreading this question, but how are we looking as far as personnel?”
“Including Gauge, we lost six. Triage protocols have been enacted, though given the nature of the blast, it really wasn’t necessary.” He lowered his head. “You were the last on my list.”
Ratchet frowned as yet another stab of guilt lanced his spark, but before he could reply, Triage continued. “As far as your injuries are concerned, I can reinforce your brachial armor with a splint, and repair your secondary neural cables to give you some basic motor functionality…but if you want to regain full use of that hand, you’ll need to find a way to bypass the Bay’s isolation protocols.” The surgeon looked up and frowned at the imposing e’tchtarian doors.
Ratchet followed his optics. “There must be an override code.”
“I don’t pretend to know much about these things,” Triage said softly, “But I’ve heard rumors that there is only one code to open the doors, and that the code is only known by the clinic’s HMO.”
“What?!?” Ratchet practically shouted. “You mean…Crossarm is the only one that can open the door?”
“That’s what I’ve heard… and since you don’t seem to know it, or even of its existence, it’s probably accurate.”
Ratchet’s good arm flopped to his side. “Slagging wonderful.” It was no secret that the Bay was designed to be a fortress as well as a groundbridge hub, and therefore it made sense that only a few ‘Bots had been made privy to the codes necessary to operate the doors. However, he couldn’t help but be flustered by the fact that no one thought it pertinent to relay said codes to him as Crossarm’s surrogate. Did his CO hate him that much that he would actually neglect to pass on such vital information lest it appear that he actually valued Ratchet’s expertise…? Or was he really that stupid?
“We’re trapped in here, aren’t we?” Triage asked, softly.
Ratchet lowered his head. A heavy, mechanical sigh fluttered across his lips. “It would seem so. Without confirmation from us, Prowl and Optimus won’t risk Iacon’s safety to open a bridge into the Bay…or the Amertas Basin.” He met Triage’s gaze. “Therefore, we’re on our own.”
“And so are our loved ones?” Triage remarked rhetorically.
Ratchet nodded sadly, but when he fixed his friend with a look of commiseration, he couldn’t help but note the same sickly green tinge to Triage’s optics. As they were alone—the remaining bots had moved on to assist Torque and the other engineers--Ratchet considered the mech more fully and noticed that his shoulder-caps and stabilizers were quivering ever so slightly.
Concerned, Ratchet asked. “Is everything alright?”
The surgeon shook his head. “I… I’m just tired.” Gesticulating lamely about the damaged bay, he added. “The events of the day, you know.” The mech allowed his fingertips to graze the surface of his medial plate. His voice-box hissed something unintelligible.
Triage blinked rapidly and shook his head as if snapping out of a trance. “Hmm…?” He asked, fixing Ratchet with a stare that was equal parts sad and confused. “Sorry. It’s... just… I know….” He turned away almost abashedly, but given that he was also trying to exhibit at least two other discrete emotions, it gave him a look that could only be described as disheveled.
“I’m just worried about Interlink,” he said at last over his shoulder-cap.
Ratchet nodded solemnly and had to force himself not to give into his own worries about Io. “I’m sure he’s alright.”
End Part One