The shuttle bucked underneath the four Autobots, nearly throwing them out of their seats. The sound of the detonation overwhelmed their audial receptors, forcing them to shut down and reboot for protection. Deafened and unsteady, they grabbed onto consoles or the arms of their chairs to maintain their balance. Ratchet managed to remain in his seat only by virtue of Ironhide grabbing his arm and holding him into place.
The Autobot medic shook his head, wishing there was a way he could speed up the reboot and regain his hearing faster. Slaggit, this was NOT the time for him to be down a sensory system, not when they had a blown engine to contend with! At least, he hoped it was a blown engine. He'd hate to think they just ran into a gang of pirates or some credit-hungry bounty hunter, or that someone had sabotaged their ship.
His audials came online just in time to hear Brawn's startled shout. "Decepticons!"
Ratchet twisted around in his seat, alarm stabbing through him. It couldn't be... this shuttle had been launched in utmost secrecy, surely there was no way the Decepticons could have followed them...
His worst nightmares were realized when a terrifyingly familiar figure stepped through the gaping rift in the side of the shuttle -- Megatron himself, flanked by Starscream and Soundwave, the Constructicons and the other Seekers crowding in behind him. The silver warlord wore a sinister grin on his faceplate, doubtless quite pleased with his choice of prey at the moment.
"Decepticons!" he bellowed, "attack!" And with that, he transformed, landing neatly in gun mode in Starscream's hands.
The attack seemed to happen in slow motion… and yet Ratchet was powerless to move, to pull a weapon or even flee to safety. He could only watch as bolts of energy punched through Brawn's armor, sending the minibot toppling over. Brawn's limbs spasmed as residual energy coursed through the lines, then went still.
Prowl leaped from his seat, gun drawn, but before he could squeeze off a shot in return a blast tore through his upper chest. His mouth fell open as if to issue a dying scream, but an eerie whine and a fountain of smoke poured out instead. He, too, crumpled to the floor, the white of his paint already darkening to deathly gray as they watched.
Ratchet's medical programming screamed at him to dash forward and try to save his felled comrades, but somehow he couldn't get his legs to work. This couldn't be happening… not so close to their goal… not when they had survived so much to come this far…
Several guns swung to aim at the medic, and too late he tried to run for cover.
Shattering pain erupted in his chest, his torso, as bolts of plasma met their marks. His legs gave out beneath him, and he crumpled. A dull thud to his side marked where Ironhide, too, had been shot down. A few more blasts as some Decepticon or other pumped a few more shots into an Autobot chassis to ensure he was good and dead… then silence. The attack was over as quickly as it had begun.
Ratchet's entire sensor network screamed in pain, but he forced himself to ignore it, to suppress the urge to sink into oblivion and escape. He knew he was in bad shape, and if he let himself black out now, he would never come online again. With great effort he forced himself to focus on his damage readout, trying to redirect as much energy as was safely possible to his self-repair systems. There was no way they would be able to mend this much damage, but at the very least they could keep him alive until a rescue was mounted…
Who are you kidding? some fatalistic voice in the back of his CPU pointed out. There's not going to be a rescue. This isn't a kidnapping. Megatron's not going to hold you and the others for ransom. This is an ambush – and you're not going to get off this ship alive…
He squelched that voice and forced all his energy to the task at hand. No… they'd come too far to give up now. There had to be a way… there was always a way…
His attention was drifting. He felt light-headed, as if a power line to his CPU had been cut. He couldn't seem to focus on the ever-lengthening scroll of his damage readout, and his processor couldn't make sense out of the array of glyphs and symbols. Terror lanced through his spark at that, and he struggled to stay alert, but it was useless. His hold on consciousness was slowly but steadily slipping away.
The damage readout faded, to be replaced by… a light? Dim but steady, it seemed to beckon to him, to soothe him and encourage him to let go… to let the inevitable happen…
No! he raged, fighting to bring the readout back up. This can't be happening! I refuse to join the Well of All Sparks! Not now! There's too much I need to do! The Autobots need me!
The light pulsed once, slowly brightening. Something filled his spark and CPU at that moment – not exactly a voice, but more of a presence, a consciousness that communicated through pure thought and emotion. An overwhelming sense of acceptance filled Ratchet, a feeling that all beings must face their end at some point, and that to fight it was futile. There would be others to continue where the medic had left off, and after all he had accomplished and sacrificed, he deserved a final rest.
Fraggit, I can rest after the war is over! Please… I have to keep going! Optimus Prime needs me, the Autobots need me… I can't let this be the end. There's still so much we need to do…
The emotions filling his spark shifted, regret coloring the presence in his CPU. What he requested was possible… but it would come at a price. Ratchet would be allowed to continue living, but he may not be happy with the results. In the end, he might wish he had gone on to join the Well instead…
I don't care! he railed, simply relieved to even have an option to continue living. I'll do whatever it takes! Just don't take my spark!
A burst of feeling… almost of amusement. Ratchet had no idea what he was asking… but his request would be granted. It would be… interesting… to see what he made of this situation.
I'm used to dealing with impossible situations, Ratchet replied. What about the others?
Surprise. What about them?
You can't spare me and let them die… you have to help them too!
Confusion. Hesitation. The others had gone peacefully. Well, maybe not peacefully, but they had accepted their fates in the end. What right did Ratchet have to dictate whether or not they passed on to the Well of All Sparks?
Please… don't let them go. Give them another chance.
Resignation, tinged with frustration. If that was truly what Ratchet wanted, he would get it. But as this had been the medic's idea, it would also be his responsibility. Should the others not be happy with their rescue, it would be on the medic's head.
I'll take the blame. Do we have a deal?
Thoughtfulness, then acquiescence. They had a deal.
A bolt of pain shot through Ratchet's chassis, as if he had just grabbed a live power cable. His vision flickered once, then blacked out.
Conrad groaned, the shout forcibly dragging him out of a weird, rather hazy dream. Without bothering to extricate his head from under the covers, he slid a hand out from under the blankets, grabbed a pillow, and smashed it down over his ears to drown it out.
"Get up, Conner." The speaker was actually in his bedroom now, waiting at the door. "You're going to be late for work."
He half-spoke, half-groaned a few words that were muffled by the layers of cloth and down.
"I can't understand a word you're saying."
"I said lemmie call in sick!" he shouted.
"You've used up all your sick days."
"Then lemmie call in dead!"
"Conrad Lewis Hawkins, come ON!" And the speaker grabbed the covers and gave a swift yank.
Conrad flinched as the blankets whipped off the bed. He curled up and clamped the pillow tighter over his head, as if by hiding his head he could cover the rest of his body as well.
"Don't wanna go to work today," he groaned.
"Neither do I. But the bills don't pay themselves. Up and at 'em, Conner. I left some breakfast for you."
He finally pushed the pillow aside and sat up, rubbing his eyes. He knew he couldn't put off the inevitable – he was out of sick days thanks to a nasty flu-bug earlier this year, and he really couldn't afford to miss another day of work. That didn't mean he had to like it, especially given that he'd been up most of the night practicing with the band.
"And from now on band practice gets over at midnight sharp," the speaker went on, as if reading his mind. "No exceptions. I'll turn the power off on you if it happens again."
"C'mon, Mom…" he protested.
"Don't 'c'mon' me. The neighbors have threatened to call the police if it keeps up."
"Did you tell them we'll cut band practice off early if they shut their yappy dog up?"
His mom snorted, as if trying not to laugh. "Very cute. I'm off to work. I'll call if it's going to be another late night, okay?"
"All right. Don't kill anyone."
"And you don't piss anyone off." She ruffled his hair before walking out. Under normal circumstances he might have protested the overly motherly gesture, but first thing in the morning he was generally too groggy to care.
Once he was sure he was awake enough to be able to stand without falling over, he got up and headed for the bathroom. Maybe he did need to cut band practice off early next time, if it was going to leave him this fuzzy in the mornings. Still, Dragonglass didn't get a chance to practice often due to conflicting schedules, and late nights were often the best way to make the most of the nights they did have.
As he showered, he tried to recall whatever it was he'd dreamed about last night… or this morning, if one wanted to get technical. Something about robots… a couple of white ones and a red one and a big silver one… and a lot of shooting and smoke and screaming on top of it all. Weird, he hadn't seen anything science-fiction-y lately. Maybe this was his subconscious paying him back for staring at video games so much, though he couldn't remember any video games he'd sold in the last couple of weeks that featured fighting robots.
Ah well. Maybe he'd share it with Zack at work. He could try to help him interpret it, or at least get a laugh out of it.
He showered and shaved quickly, then headed back to his room to get dressed. Mom had already left, meaning it was just him and the dog now until he left for work. Ever since the divorce five years ago it had just been the three of them – "three against the world," Mom would say with a laugh. And while they got on each other's nerves sometimes, he didn't mind the living arrangement all that much. It might have embarrassed him a few years ago, but thanks to the recession a twenty-one-year-old still living with his parents wasn't nearly as weird as it used to be. At least, that was his experience.
Not that he hadn't had a few opportunities come up to move out. Zack and Fielding had both offered him a place to crash at their places, and he'd even spent the night a couple of times at one place or the other. And Angela kept hinting that maybe they should get serious about their relationship and move in together. But in the end, he'd opted to stay home.
His decision wasn't because he was sure his band-mates would drive him nuts if they lived together, though there was that too. Nor was he commitment-shy… he didn't think, anyhow. But in a lot of ways he felt bad about abandoning his mom. They'd been through a lot over the years, and he hated the thought of leaving her alone. Zack had teased him about being a mama's boy for that, but it usually only took a few good swats up the back of the head for him to quit.
He took a moment to inspect himself in the mirror before heading out. Black work pants, green polo with silver nametag, and a green baseball cap that had been decorated to look like a duck's head. Dorky, he knew, but since when were work uniforms the epitome of high fashion?
"Okay, I'm off," he announced. "Be good, Gandalf."
The old Mastiff-Malamute mix looked up from the couch, thumped his tail once, then went back to sleep. Named for his mom's favorite character from her favorite book series, he was getting on in years and spent most of his time lounging around getting hair everywhere. Telling him to be good was like telling a rock to hold still – he just didn't have the energy to get into mischief anymore.
Mom had left a plate of toast, sausage, and eggs in the microwave for him, and he hurriedly slapped them together in a breakfast sandwich before heading out the door. He couldn't afford a car of his own, so he normally biked to work. And he'd gotten pretty adept at being able to ride a bike and eat at the same time. It enabled him to sleep in for just a few extra minutes in the morning.
The ride to Angry Duck Games took all of ten minutes, five if he was in an extreme hurry. A new-and-used video game store set in a strip mall in Provo, Utah, it was rather infamous for its mascot and namesake, a cranky one-winged duck that nested by the strip mall and frequently chased customers to and from their cars. Despite this nuisance – or perhaps because of it – it was one of the more popular video game stores in the area.
Conrad pulled up to the employee entrance behind the store and chained his bike to a pipe, then headed inside. Already he could hear Mr. Jakobson chewing out some employee or other over a screwed-up transaction, and with a slight roll of his eyes he went to clock in and take his place at the counter. Another lovely day in the neighborhood, it would seem.
"So I tell this lady that I'm sorry, I can't give her a refund, but she keeps giving me grief," Zack grumbled, not looking up from layering Cheese Whiz on his tuna sandwich. "I gave her our usual song and dance about how we can't give refunds on opened merchandise unless it's defective, but she's all threatening to call the manager on us. Like it's my fault she didn't read the damn package or do the damn research on the game. Sorry, Fielding."
"'Sokay," Fielding replied, chuckling.
Conrad made a sympathetic noise as he restocked a display of Mists of Panderia boxes nearby. Technically employees were supposed to eat their lunches in the storage room in the back, but during dead times the rule pretty much went ignored. Since no one had stopped by for half an hour, Zack had judged it safe to eat at the cashier counter, and the other employees were hanging around to talk and kill time between customers.
"Isn't Portal 2 for Xbox and Playstation only?" asked Angela.
"Yeah, and PC," Fielding added. "Five minutes on Google'll tell you that."
"Some people don't like to Google," Conrad pointed out. "Or read the box, apparently. Or check the shelf – unless someone screwed up putting away stock or stuck the game back in the wrong area, Portal shouldn't even be with the Wii games."
"I know, right?" Zack muttered. Satisfied with the amount of cheese on his sandwich, he set the can aside and closed the sandwich. "But yeah, she threatened to call Mr. Jakobson over it. I told her go for it."
Angela winced. "Aren't you afraid you'll get your pay docked for that?"
"Are you kidding?" Conrad laughed. "Mr. Jakobson doesn't put up with stupidity from anybody, and that includes customers as well as employees. He's a tough boss, but he's fair. And he doesn't blindly stick to 'customer is always right' either. He probably told the lady to do the damn research next time. Sorry, Fielding."
"You guys don't have to apologize every time you swear, you know," Fielding reminded.
"Well, we know you don't like to hear it, but it slips out sometimes," Conrad pointed out.
"Yeah, but still, I'm not going to bite your head off for it."
"Like your mouth would fit over his big head," Zack teased. "But yeah, she stormed off in a big huff. Howard got her back for me, though – chased her across the parking lot. You could hear her scream from the back of the store."
"Good duckie!" Angela laughed.
Conrad just grinned. The four employees who made up the main staff of Angry Duck Games, not to mention the members of the band Dragonglass, were an interesting crew – Conrad Hawkins and Zachary Bowen as day shift, and Fielding Pratt and Angela Zahradnicek as night shift, though the latter two occasionally popped in during the day to make small talk. But Conrad couldn't have asked for a better set of friends. Sure, their differences occasionally led to minor clashes, and he couldn't deny that they got on his nerves from time to time. But hey, no friendship was perfect.
Conrad had been fresh out of high school when he'd entered the game store three years ago, desperate for a job. Fielding, who had been manning the register at the time, had made sympathetic small talk with him but told him he couldn't promise anything, and Conrad had just picked up a job application and turned to go when Mr. Jakobsen had walked in. As far as he could recall, the rest of the conversation had gone something along the following lines:
"I'm here to apply for the day clerk position, sir-"
"Do you have a criminal record?"
"Good, that saves me fifty bucks on a background check. Go clock in while I get your paperwork."
And from that point onward, Zack, Fielding, and Angela had simply treated him as if he were family. They had laughed and joked together, played video games together during slow times, and even formed the band when they had all discovered their mutual love for music as well as gaming, though Dragonglass got together to practice so infrequently that they only knew about two songs so far. Still, they were probably the only band based out of a video game store in all of Utah, so at least they could say they held one record.
Of his three co-workers, Zack probably fit the stereotypical "gamer" mold the best. While all four of them still lived with one or both of their parents, Zack seemed to take particular pride in being a basement-dwelling geek, much to the consternation of his lawyer dad. He was an endless source of quotes from weird and obscure movies, information on various new and classic video games, and other random tidbits. It had been his idea to name the duck that lived outside the store, and he had even forced the others to sit down and watch the movie that was Howard the Duck's namesake with him, a fact that Conrad still hadn't forgiven him for.
In contrast to Zack's strange ways, Fielding was almost normal. The oldest child of a rather large Mormon family, he had returned from a religious mission in Africa three years ago and was still unsure where he wanted to go with his life. By day he attended classes at nearby BYU, getting a business degree mostly to appease his parents, and by night he worked the game store and helped the others out with the band. He was a level-headed sort, rarely getting upset with the others even when they forgot themselves and slipped into swearing around him.
Angela, despite being the sole female of the group, fit in remarkably well with the guys. It helped that she shared many of their same interests – video games, fantasy and science fiction movies, random 80s trivia, and the like. Of the four of them, she was the most dedicated to getting the band off the ground and constantly pushed them to rearrange their schedules to squeeze in more practice hours. She even wrote songs in her spare time, and Conrad had to admit that she had a remarkable gift for music. Her dream was to build Dragonglass up to the point where they could release a full album, and maybe earn a spot as an opener band for a larger concert.
"So when's the next band practice?" asked Conrad. "I'm free Sunday."
"Uh-uh," Zack grunted through a mouthful of sandwich. He swallowed and clarified. "Fielding's unavailable Sundays, remember?"
"Can't you practice at night?" Conrad asked. "I mean, come on, it's not like you have church meetings at night."
"My parents would kill me if they found out," Fielding protested. "They already don't like me being in the band, and I don't want to push my luck too much. What about a day session sometime?"
"I have my second job every other day this week," Angela pointed out. "And my boss'll get suspicious if I call in sick again."
"Your boss?" Zack teased. "Don't you mean your dad?"
"Same thing," she retorted. Angela's parents owned a bookstore ten blocks away, and she was pretty much required to work a shift there if she wanted to continue living at home. They fully expected her to take over the store when they retired, too, but she was adamantly against the idea and wanted to focus on her music.
"Maybe we should skip practice this week," Fielding suggested. "It sounds like it's not going to work into our schedules."
"Come on, guys, we have to get serious about practicing," Angela insisted. "We're never going to get better if we don't practice. And I want us to be able to play more than the two songs."
"Let's just cover some Journey songs and call it a day," suggested Zack teasingly.
"No, Zack," Angela insisted.
"Hey, what's wrong with Journey?" Zack demanded. "Who doesn't love Journey? Oh, just a small-town girl, living in a lonely world…"
"Anyone doing anything Friday night?" asked Conrad, cutting Zack off before he could annoy Angela into hitting him. "We can maybe get together for an hour or two after the store closes."
"Sounds good to me," Zack replied.
"Don't you have DnD that night, though?" asked Fielding.
"Eh, the group can live without their Dragonkin Paladin for a day," Zack pointed out. "'Rad, we can still use your guys' garage, right?"
"Yeah, but we have to be done by midnight," Conrad replied. "Neighbors threatened to call the cops on us again."
"Sucks," Zack grumbled. "You've got touchy neighbors, I swear. The only time my neighbors called the cops on me is when I painted a 'Con symbol on the hood of my truck. Guess they didn't have a sense of humor."
"You didn't!" Angela gasped, eyes wide.
"Dude, that's like painting a swastika on your door," said Fielding. "It's a wonder they didn't call the military on you too!"
"Oh come on, it's just a symbol," Zack grumbled. "It's edgy, right? Our band's not gonna get attention if we don't push the boundaries a little."
"Don't go pinning your stupidity on the band," Angela snapped.
"Hey, we talk about using my truck to get to the gigs," Zack pointed out. "That makes it the band vehicle. And I don't get what all the fuss is about. Like real Decepticons would attack Provo – be a hell of a waste of time for them. Sorry, Fielding."
"I don't mind edgy, but I thought bands usually got piercings in weird places or wrote songs about the ghetto if they wanted to be edgy," Conrad pointed out. "They don't claim they're with al-Queda or put symbols for genocidal alien species on their tour buses."
"Provo doesn't have a ghetto, and nobody here has the guts to get a piercing," Zack replied. "So I'm workin' with what we got. And nobody's gonna mistake my POS truck for a 'Con, right?"
"Has anyone even seen a Decepticon in Provo?" Angela wondered. "Or an Autobot, for that matter."
"Not that I can remember," Fielding replied. "I haven't seen one, and I've lived here all my life."
"Saw an Autobot when I lived in New York, but that doesn't count," Zack put in.
"I MIGHT have seen one," Conrad volunteered.
"Might?" Angela repeated.
"Well, I don't know if it was or not," he confessed. "It was a car that looked a lot like that Jazz one. It didn't seem to have a driver, but I didn't get a good enough look to be sure. It was in a hurry, wherever it was going."
"Just be glad he didn't get a look at your truck while he was here," Angela told Zack, punching him lightly in the shoulder. "He might have taken a potshot at it and you'd be without a ride."
"Ow," Zack griped, though that punch couldn't have hurt that much. "And don't worry, no one's taking shots at my truck anymore. Dad flipped his lid and made me take the symbol off."
"Someone ELSE is going to flip more than his lid if you don't get back to work, Bowen!"
All four employees jumped and whirled as Mr. Jakobsen stormed into the store. Short and stocky, with a bushy gray mustache quite at odds with his shiny bald scalp and forearms covered in tattoos, the owner of Angry Duck Games looked and acted more like a diminutive drill sergeant than a video game store clerk. He didn't take kindly to his employees sitting around idle, even during slow times, and he wasn't above berating a clerk for mishandling a transaction or dropping and breaking an expensive game or console. At the same time, though, he didn't tolerate nonsense from customers and was quick to call them on their BS if they tried to wheedle their way past store policy or treat his employees like dirt. That alone made his temper worth tolerating.
"Hawkins, Bowen, back to work," Mr. Jakobsen snapped. "Pratt, Zee, I thought I told you to stop hanging around the store if you're not on the clock. I'm not paying you overtime."
"Sir, yes sir," Angela muttered, more annoyed by the nickname of "Zee" than by the order – Mr. Jakobsen had long ago given up trying to pronounce her last name and, instead of calling her "Angela," referred to her as Zee. She tolerated it from their boss, but was not above whapping any of the guys who tried calling her that.
"Let's get this place straightened up," Mr. Jakobsen went on, grabbing a roll of paper towels and tossing them Zack's way. "That includes wiping off the counter where you had lunch, Bowen – and don't give me that look, I'm not stupid. I know you have your lunches up front while I'm not watching – someone get the phone!"
"I got it," Conrad announced, grabbing for the receiver before it could hit the third ring, a heinous crime as far as Mr. Jakobsen was concerned. "Angry Duck Games, how can I help you?"
"Oh, hi Mom. Can you call back? Mr. Jakobsen's on a roll today..."
"Conner, please, tell your boss to turn on a TV there," she cut in. The tone of her voice chilled him – she sounded as if she were holding back tears. "There's something on the news."
"Mom, are you okay?"
"I'm fine… just turn on the news."
"Okay… which channel?"
His stomach jolted. Whatever this was, if it was on every news station…
"What?" the owner griped, turning to glare at him.
"I just got a call… they say to turn on the news. Something big's happening."
"What's big and happening?"
"I dunno, but it's on all the channels I guess."
"All the channels?" repeated Mr. Jakobsen. "Nothin's gonna hit every channel unless it's a terrorist attack or somethin'… aw, hell, no." He rushed to the big-screen TV where they normally let customers try out demos of new games.
"This isn't another 9/11, is it?" asked Fielding, going pale.
"We'll find out in a minute," Mr. Jakobsen replied, and stepped back as the screen brightened, revealing a scene that might have been just another video-game cut scene had it not also been emblazoned with the logo of a local news station. Mr. Jakobsen let out a low string of curse words, Angela gave a gasp that was nearly a shriek, and Fielding's face went even paler.
"Holy shit," breathed Zack. "Speaking of Autobots…"
Conrad opened his mouth to say something, but no sound came out. Not quite 9/11… but surely bad enough. Autobot City, the stronghold of the beings who had been protecting their planet for so many years, was under attack.