Chapter One: Ancestry

"In today's news, I am excited to report that the excavation that has been taking place in Antarctica for the last decade has finally borne fruits for the ceaseless efforts of the geologists and terraformists of Sparrowback." Kaitlyn Mathers, the anchorwoman for News Channel STN, was beaming from ear to ear.

"Our sources tell us that beneath the frozen wastes of the southern-most desert of our world is a layer of immaculately preserved prehistoric landscape. I have been told that an entire ecosystem had been cyberformed long before the human species walked this Earth and we are now fortunate enough to be granted a once in a lifetime view of the prehistoric world this Earth once was.

"With me today is the head archeologist of Sparrowback, Johnathan Kirby, and Neutral Cybertronian, Hatchback. These two have been working side by side to unearth this marvel for our eager eyes. Sirs, please, tell me how it is that you came to find this…"

Ryder Erikson flicked the television off with a grunt, not in the mood today to listen to the incessantly cheerful woman's banter.

He'd had one of the longest nights of his life last night. The dreams were coming more regularly and were beginning to interfere with his day-to-day life. He'd tossed and turned for most of the night and the little sleep he did get was plagued by her.

He didn't even know who she was!

The woman from his dreams used to visit when he was a growing boy. He'd never seen her face then just as he had never seen her face to this day. Light surrounded her and distorted her to the point that she almost seemed formless and comprised of variating colors. Her voice was light, but seductive. Where it had soothed him in his childhood it now aroused. She didn't speak in words he understood, but there was always a feeling of welcome and comfort when she visited him in his dreams.

She'd been his own personal Angel growing up.

He'd been born with a heart defect that had only grown worse in the first few years of his life. While his family wasn't poor and made an honest living on Tall Oaks, the ranch passed down through the generations of his family, heart transplants were damned near impossible for a three-year-old even in this day in age. They'd all but given up hope when a miracle presented itself. A Synth-Organ, a synthetic heart that was a perfect amalgamation of human and Cybertronian tech, had turned up at the closest city's hospital to his home town.

Synth-Organs were introduced to the human populace nearly twenty years after the Fall of Chicago, which had occurred late in 2014. The inventor of the Synths was the infamous Samantha Jane Witwicky, former human and reigning dignitary of the Cybertronian race. At one point in time the Synths had been celebrated, the need for donated organs becoming a thing of the past. The failure rate of the Synths was almost zero as a genetic match was unnecessary. The medinats, a Cybertronian medical nanite, adhered the Synth on a basic level to a person's body and made rejection impossible.

It was unfortunate that, in the proceeding centuries, Cemetery Wind had enough of a backing that the Synths were boycotted at most hospitals across the planet. The CW were a group of rebels, insurgents, that were against everything alien to planet Earth. They were purists through and through. Anything that even hinted at Cybertronian involvement was warred against with a passion not seen since the Dark Ages. As the years passed and the Witwicky woman lived well past the normal lifespan of her supposedly human origins, the CW had begun its campaign to rid the Earth of anything of her creation.

How San Antonio, Texas had managed to scrounge up a Synth heart and – out of all the hundreds of patients on that donor list – have his name come up for the transplant, he would never know. No one knew. His parents hadn't questioned the miracle, however.

That had been the first time she had visited him in his dreams. She wasn't his first memory, but she was close to it. She hadn't spoken the foreign words to him while he'd been in that recovery room at the hospital when he was alone and scared, but he'd felt only warmth and safety radiating off of her. She'd assured him in her own mercurial way that he would be well. She would watch over him.

Over the years he grew rapidly. He towered over other children his age and until he'd built up the muscle mass to defend himself physically against the bullies that wished to take on the 'freak', she'd come to him during his lowest moments to comfort him. He could almost feel her hand running through his hair and her melodic voice speaking gently into his ear. She'd been there through his first break-up with his high school sweetheart and then through the nightmare of his parents' ill-fated death at the hands of a drunk driver.

She was always there when he needed her the most.

He was thirty-six years old now. As an only child, he'd inherited the ranch and the rest of his parents' estate. Before the death of his parents he'd attended college to become a doctor. He'd been at the very end of his fifth year of residency when the accident happened. After that, he'd halfway given up on his dream, though occasionally his expertise was put to use with the various ranch-hands coming to him from a goring by an ornery bull or a particularly well-placed kick by a skittish colt.

She'd come to him more regularly in this last year, her presence still a soothing balm to his soul, but her overall intent was distinctly different. There was tension between them that had never been. There was heat. Not once had the dreams escalated to anything physical, but he still awoke like a randy teenager and in need of a brutally cold shower.

For three weeks she'd come to him every night, without fail, and he was so sleep-deprived that he was wholly tempted to buy a whole flock of sheep just to try counting them until he struck unconsciousness.

Or he'd give in to temptation and take one of those God-awful pharmaceutical pills that would knock his big ass out until Thanksgiving if he were lucky.

Grumbling to himself, he marched out of the main house and made his way to the stables. He left the door unlocked as he always did. His property was massive, a sprawling four-hundred acres. No one came to Tall Oaks to steal. Even if they wished to go through the hassle of traipsing across all his land, they'd have to face any of the ranch hands or, Heaven help them, himself. Ryder was a doctor, but at his core he was as stubborn and ornery as one of his prized bulls.

Harvey, his primary hand for the horses, already had Grimm saddled up. Ryder tipped his head, the brim of his black Stetson shadowing his eyes for a bare second, before climbing onto the saddle of the big beast.

Grimm was a specially bred Shire Horse, a whopping twenty-four hands tall. His family had begun breeding the supersized horses over three-hundred years ago. The men in his family were large as a rule and he was by far the biggest born in the last couple generations. The necessity of a sturdy, steady mount was just that…entirely mandatory. While they still had any range of traditional breeds, there were currently five Big-Shires on the ranch. There were dozens of others across the continental U.S. from the same brutishly large stock.

Grimm's coat was a white base speckled throughout with dusky grey. Near his hooves the coloring tapered off to black and his face, with the exception of a dappled strip of white down his muzzle, was pure obsidian. His eyes were so brilliant a shade of brown that they appeared red. His father, Russel, had called the newly-born foal the Grim Reaper borne into the body of a sure-to-be titanic sized stallion. The name stuck.

Ryder branched off to the southern side of his property to check on the condition of some of the fencing there, letting Harvey know that he had his walkie if anybody needed him. His foreman, Clyde, was a competent man and rarely needed input from his boss on what needed to be done on the day-to-day. He preferred it that way. Competent hands gave him his chance to ride off and think in peace.

As he rode, he inadvertently found himself looking up into the partly-cloudy sky. The Grid snuck in and out of the cloud cover in some places and higher up he knew it rested uninterrupted. From the old school books he knew there had been a time that the Grid wasn't there. There were no drifting alien cities, affectionately termed Flotillas by the human race, coasting over the landscape. The Fall of Chicago had been in 2014 and it had been four-hundred and sixty-three years since then. All that time and so many generations of humans, no one was alive to remember when Earth was only Earth.

No, he corrected himself, not no one.

The Cybertronians that now shared their planet and orbited it in even more 'cities' which had at one point been a part of their old planet, Cybertron, would remember. They strived to help the humans help themselves. They wished to see their fledgling race flourish and become great on their own and for that, Ryder respected them.

For all the hype the CW put out on the Frequency, Ryder didn't think the Cybertronians were a negative addition to their way of life at all. They helped the human race advance where they could, such as in the medical field, and coached them along in others. There were 'Transformers' in respectable positions all across the globe including that one, Hatchback, that was a part of the archeological dig in Antarctica. Heck, the nearest town to his ranch had a femme, the female of their species, working in the lumber yard. That alien had an eye for the best stock of wood for whatever purpose it was needed. Plus she wasn't afraid to do the heavy lifting.

A Flotilla drifted overhead lazily, momentarily blocking out his ray of sunshine until Grimm carried him out of its shadow. Squinting up at it, he could see that it wasn't inhabited. So many of the floating cities were in need of repairs. If the news was accurate at all, only about one-fifth of the restorations had been made to the cities.

There were innovations that removed the necessity of oil to operate cars and with those innovations came the development of a flying vehicle. While most humans preferred to stay on the ground, there were public transports up to some of the reconstructed cities. Up on those Flotilla's there was little to no animosity between the races. It was like stepping into a different world. He'd been on a few of them during his residency. Eliptis and Vortexicon were immaculately clean and boasted equal entertainment options for both human and automatous machine. There were also so-far insurmountable Shields protecting them from a rogue CW missile.

Those bastards just couldn't leave well enough alone.

The only objection he had to the Flotillas was that they never stayed in one place. He just couldn't understand how in the world the aliens kept track of them! Forget geographical markers. It was like waking up on a cruise ship. One day you could be leaving New York City and the next you could be waking up in Bermuda.

His ears twitched as he neared the fences he was looking for. The wind whistled through the oak trees scattered over his property. Water lapped at the dock settled in the pond at this side of the ranch. He could hear the delicate chimes beside the well-maintained swing tinkling on the breeze. There was something else, however…

The distinct crack of gunfire had him kicking Grimm into a gallop. Grimm shook his greyish-black mane out before charging off. The horse wasn't shy around guns and neither was his rider.

If someone was poaching on his land, he was going to teach them a lesson in manners that they weren't soon to forget.

He was pulling his phaser, an older-model shotgun-styled laser cannon, from the holster on his saddle when caught sight of them.

There was a person, difficult to distinguish at this distance between male or female, flying like a bat out of hell on a Flite-Dek towards his general direction. The hoverboard was a fairly new invention and was incredibly expensive. The suit they were wearing was also newer, a high-quality multi-alloy covering that kept its wearer from becoming grated cheese against the ground if they crashed. The helmet was mostly visor to the front, but didn't allow him the luxury of classifying who it was encroaching on his home.

Several yards away were two trucks. The flying variety. The passengers of the two bulky vehicles were firing off caustic rounds in the direction of the Flyer on the Flite-Dek. One missed striking the board by mere feet. The Flyer wavered, their hands dropping down to grip the narrow, glowing board between their covered fingers. Ryder's stomach dropped for a moment, thinking he was going to watch the person fall. They were in the air over eighty-feet. Even wearing the protective suit, they were bound to break a few bones.

Without thinking, he aimed his phaser for the power core of one of the nearest trucks. He didn't know who was the guilty party in this situation, nor did he care. No one came onto his land with the intention of hurting another human being. He didn't condone in-fighting between his hands and he certainly wasn't going to cotton to it with strangers.

His shot rang true, the lightspeed 'bullet' zeroing in on the core as the vehicle tipped upward due to a strong draft of wind. With the engine sputtering out, the truck continued to flip backwards before striking the grass below with force. His eyes boggled when, almost immediately, the vehicle exploded in a flare of light and flames.

That wasn't supposed to happen.

The explosion rocked the other truck forward, sending it careening towards the Flyer quicker and haphazardly. The unfortunate Flyer struck the windshield of the truck as it rocketed past them. It was only their grip on the Flite-Dek that kept them from plummeting down to the ground. As it was, the Flyer arrowed with zero control towards the pond.

Ryder was steering Grimm towards the crashing Flyer, his phaser aiming for the power core of the second out-of-control truck as he did so. He caught a glimpse of the Cemetery Wind logo stamped on the driver's side panel of the vehicle before it, too, erupted into flame. This time, however, he was able to see a string of blue 'light' flicker out between the gaping expanse of the truck on the Flotilla above his property.

What the fuck? He wondered to himself. The floating city wasn't inhabited. It wasn't in the middle of repairs and yet, unquestionably, a rampart had broken apart so that a disturbingly powerful missile could strike against the CW trucks. It was closing up even as he blinked, as though it had never done anything in the first place. He'd never seen a Flotilla preform an offensive strike before.

Ever.

The sound of a splash drew his startled gaze back to the Flyer. They had fallen from the Flite-Dek and struck the deeper end of the pond. The Dek whizzed through the air with no pilot and struck the side of the towering Live Oak beside the water. The thin, yet formidable metal imbedded itself into the trunk of the tree, its glow diminishing as it turned itself off.

Ryder urged Grimm faster, all but throwing himself from the saddle as the Flyer unsteadily worked the suit off. The helmet was tossed first and had undoubtedly sunk to the bottom and the suit was quickly on its way to joining in the watery grave.

"Shit!" He cursed, shucking his boots off quicker than he had ever managed in his life and dove into the pond from the dock. His clothes were going to be waterlogged, but the suit the Flyer was struggling to remove would sink them in moments. He didn't know how they were managing to tread water in the first place. It had to be a strong person to carry the weight of a seventy-five-pound alloy suit at the top of the water.

He reached the back of the Flyer just as they were tiring. He was to their back and could see only a tight, coiled mass of white-blonde hair. Their chin was barely over the water's surface and they were panting heavily.

"I gotcha," he told the Flyer as calmly as he could manage. He sunk down beneath the surface and blindly reached for wherever the Flyer had managed to get the suit down to. Had he been able to open his eyes in the murky water he'd have widened them in surprise. The suit was already down to the person's calves.

He pulled at the heavy, booted soles on the Flyer's feet. That was another mass of weight that had been dragging them down. First the right coasted out of his hand towards the sooty bottom of the pond and then the left. No sooner had he pulled the second boot from surprisingly dainty feet did the Flyer shimmy the rest of the suit off. Bubbles of air tickled up past his face as he rose beside the smaller human being.

"I gotcha," he repeated, more for his benefit than theirs at this point. The Flyer was gasping now, shakily attempting to swim towards the pond's edge. He banded his arm from behind around the person's trim waist, gulping when he felt the heavy weight of breasts against his forearms, and whirled them both so that she was buoyed slightly above him. He took on her slight weight and began an awkward backstroke to shore. "Just breathe calm, little missy. I gotcha."

Her hands tremored as they clawed into his forearm. She was kicking with him, trying her damndest to help him get them out quicker.

Had he not been so drenched, the fine hairs on the back of his neck and arms would have stood on end at the faint whiff of ozone followed by a pop in the air. Still swimming, he looked back over his shoulder to see a single Transformer, a former Decepticon judging by the purple insignia on its chest plates, was running pall-mall into the water. It's wide back wings signaled that this was one of their Flyers.

Red eyes, optics, honed in on the woman braced over his chest.

The Decepticon didn't speak. He reached forward with both clawed hands and cupped them around the both of them. The result was having him against the surprisingly warm metal with the little bit of a woman draped backwards across his front. They were carried the rest of the way out of the water and deposited onto dry land.

Ryder was instantly moving them so that the woman was lying on the ground instead of on him. He ignored the titan hovering above them both and instead focused on the slight frame of the shivering woman.

"Shit," he hissed, eyes training in on the blood stain in her soaked peach-hued blouse. He raised the hem swiftly, but carefully, seeing that the wound was long and jagged. It wasn't terribly deep, but it would need stitches. A whole lot of stitches.

Two golden hands, the nails painted a pretty pale purple, pressed against his far larger hands. His worried gaze snapped up for the first time to her face. Recognition ignited in his mind, but somewhere in his chest near the region of his heart he felt a soul-deep connection shudder to life. He knew this woman.

Her visage was beautiful even with the horrific scarring that cut across the right side of her face. It cut a massive line down from her temple, through her right brow, over her eye and cheek bone, abruptly slicing her rosy pink upper lip. Beyond the scar, however, was shimmering golden skin and adorable dimples to the sides of her smiling lips. She had tiny ears and hair whitish-blonde, braided tightly back and several feet across the ground to the side of where he'd lain her. And her eyes…

Both were irises of lavender, shocks of blue and red streaking through the dominant purple coloration. The pupil of her left eye was normal, a solid black marble. The other, however, was as white as her corneas. It didn't dilate and only moved when she shifted her other eye, but he felt himself sucked into them both. Ryder had been sucker punched with less force than her eyes impacted him. He could look into them for an eternity and still not see enough of them.

"Hunter?" She whispered in her husky, seductress voice. His breath stuttered out. He knew that voice. It wasn't the nonsensical words he'd heard so many times before, but the voice was hers. She was his dream woman.

"Ryder," he corrected her shakily, cupping her scarred cheek. His hand encompassed almost the entire side of her face. She was so small compared to him. So finely shaped and perfect. Her skin was silky smooth and warm to the touch. His work-roughened fingers must irritate her delicate skin. He went to pull away only to have her clutch onto his wrist and drag his hand back up against her cheek.

"I'm sorry," she smiled sadly at him, not an ounce of physical pain showing on her face for the wound in her side. The wound… "You look so much like him."

"I'm a doctor," he cleared his throat and shook his head. It didn't help him clear his scatterbrained worshipful thoughts of her. He brutally fought off the tremor of his free hand when he lowered her shirt back down. Her stomach was firm, but didn't show her abs. He liked that. He loved when a woman looked soft, not hard like men did. He loved a woman that took care of her body, but didn't remove her femininity.

Get your head out of the gutter, man, he chided himself sternly.

"I'm pretty sure yer gonna need stitches, honey," the endearment slipped out without his consciously doing so. He didn't take it back, however. He couldn't. "I've got some supplies at my ranch. Yer gonna come with me so I can getcha patched right up. Okay?"

"Primanar," the mech that he'd up until that point tuned out spoke in a rasping, yet loud voice. He'd learned early on that none of them ever spoke quietly. They could soften their tones, but their voices were otherworldly. "Ratchet is still busied with the rebels, but I will inform Flatline. If you can wait but a breem I will have…"

"Hush, Skywarp," she quieted the dark-plated 'Con with a kindly smile. There were those dimples again. His heart tugged, wanting to leave him and burrow into her own chest beside her radiant soul. He had only just met her, had only seen her images on the television screens, but she was his dream woman. She was his. "Ryder here will fix me up just fine. It's only a flesh wound. Between him and Coldstone, I was able to slip off with minimal damage."

"You should not…"

"Do not question me," Samantha Witwicky snapped at the towering behemoth, her pale eyes glowing for a breath of time. Gooseflesh trailed his arms at hearing her voice go as suddenly deep and powerful as theirs. No, it was even more intense. He felt cowed by it and he had never been a man to shy away from anyone or anything.

"As you wish." Without another word spoken, the mech known now as Skywarp rose to his feet and stepped back away from them. He leveled Ryder with a withering glare before jettisoning into the air, shifting shape into an older-model Raptor, and darting off towards the Flotilla which had come to a standstill over his property.

Odd.

"He'll stay near. Coldstone is that city up there," Samantha's voice was back to normal. She beamed at him, raising her arms in a gesture meant to urge him into helping her rise. He didn't want to. Her wound would pinch if he helped her to sit and it would undoubtedly be painful for her. She'd shown little to no wavering. He idly noted that she must be an infinitely strong woman not only to bat away the pain she had to feel, but also to have kept herself afloat in the pond minutes before. "The rest of his Trine is settling a dispute otherwise they'd be hovering, too."

"I'm going to pick ya up as careful as I can so I don't hurt ya more, okay?" Her pleasantly curved brows furrowed when he didn't concede to her desire to sit up. He whistled for Grimm, who'd stood by stoically even when Skywarp had flown off, and the big horse trotted up beside him. His velvety muzzle snuffed against the woman's temple and the glimmering circlet that settled there. She giggled angelically, rubbing her palm with held-together fingers against tip of his muzzle.

Grimm chuffed, dancing on his hooves in excitement. Apparently, his stallion had just made a new friend.

"Stand still, you lummox," he growled at Grimm tersely. The beast pulled himself together, but kept swinging his head with enthusiasm. Ryder rolled his eyes even as the blonde chortled. He stooped, sliding his arms under her shoulders and knees, and lifted. She gasped, throwing her arms around his neck as best she could. It was his turn to chuckle. "Don't worry. I promise I gotcha. An itty-bitty thing like you ain't nothin' I can't handle."

"I bet." She kneaded her fingers into his shoulders, her eyes fixed onto his. He smiled down at her, so perfect in his arms. She had a hold on him. He couldn't even bring himself to want to shake her off. He'd never felt so out of control of himself in his life, but he knew with every fiber of his being that he wanted her.

"Down, Grimm," he commanded the Big-Shire. Grimm instantly brought himself down to his knees with his belly touching the grass. Ryder urged Samantha to grip his neck a little higher as he climbed over the back of his horse, the right hand she'd allowed free by holding him bracing against the horn. Once he was seated, Grimm stood back up with seamless grace. It wasn't the first time they had practiced such a maneuver.

"C'mon. I wanna get that cut cleaned before it gets infected."

"I trust you." She murmured into his chest just beneath the crook of his neck. He heard her sniff, inhaling his scent as much as he desperately breathed in her honey-clove fragrance. A soft sigh trickled from her lips.

Well now, if that don't just make a man feel ten feet tall.

XxXxX

Samantha lay placidly on the leather couch she'd been deposited onto. Her eyes roved over the man stitching up her side with competence.

He looked so much like Hunter Mason.

This man, Ryder, was taller than Hunter had been. The late Hunter Mason had been a statuesque male of six-foot-eight. This brutish male was the single tallest human she'd ever met in her long years of life. He was over seven feet tall. There was no doubt about that. Maybe three inches taller. He was heavily muscled, and not the lean sort of musculature that certain men preferred or acquired through some sports. He was built like a tank. His face was the same. Wide chin and Icelandic blue eyes. His hair was darker, closer to ebony than brown, but was just as long as Hunter's had been. His skin tone was also copperier. Her brows knitted to see that it had a very faint shimmer to it not too dissimilar to how her skin now looked. Metallic.

She ached to reach out and touch him again. She wanted to feel his warm skin under her fingertips once more.

"All done," he reported in his drool-worthy drawl. His bright white smile was boyish and endearing, though when he'd looked down at her earlier, for just a moment, it had been predatory and wolfish. Her lower parts shivered with delight.

"You're very good at that," she complimented in turn, taking a quick peak at the tidy stitches he'd applied to her abdomen. Between them and the nanites, she'd be healed in a matter of a few days. He covered the sutures with a crisp white patch, taping it down firmly on all sides. "You said you were a doctor?"

"Yes, well, I was." He smirked at her, a lopsided smile that melted her into a puddle. No man should look as good as he did. "My folks died some years ago. I came back here to run this ranch after they'd passed it on tah me. Was in my fifth year of residency in Pembroke 'fore all that happened."

"I'm sorry," she murmured with genuine regret and sorrow for his loss.

"It's been a few years now." He shook his head, his nearly black hair catching glints of starlight from the soft white glow of the bulbs overheard. He went to stand, but she snatched his hand up in hers before he could pull away. He'd have been able to force himself out of her grip easily, his body a veritable powerhouse, but he didn't. His face showed as much reluctance as she thought hers did at the mere thought of moving away from each other.

"I lost my parents over four-hundred years ago. The pain diminishes, but you never forget." She clutched his hand up to her chest, looking steadfastly into his familiar eyes. They were so warm despite their coloration. "So I say again, from my heart, that I'm sorry for your loss."

"You really are her, aren't ya?" Clarification wasn't necessary. She knew what he meant and so just nodded her head. "What are ya doin' here? Why was the CW after ya? Aren't ya s'posed tah be doin' some queenly duties or somethin'?"

"Primanar, not Queen," Sam corrected him with a faint smile. Ryder helped her to sit up against some throw pillows which had been on the couch before he tucked a quilted blanket over her lap. She choked on tears, recognizing the quilt from so many years ago. "The past five years have been the worst for all of us. Cemetery Wind is as strong as they're going to get and suppressing the insurgencies has become something of a nightmare in and of itself.

"The CW is working with a high-profile company, which is how they're managing to get the funding that they've needed all these years. They killed two of my mechs before we caught on to what they're trying to do. They're harvesting their metal in order to make new and better human machines. Bullshit is what it is. They want to make robots modelled after the Cybertronians to destroy 'the alien blight' of our planet."

"You gotta be shitting me," Ryder's expression was thunderous. "They ain't been nothin' but a help to the human race since Chicago! The medical advancements alone…"

"We both know that and so does about ninety-five percent of the human race, but for being such a small faction, the CW has a strong foothold. People are afraid to stand up against them." Her brows furrowed and she found herself reaching out to poke a finger against Ryder's chest above where his heart lay underneath. "You have a Synth. I can hear the difference. I designed them, you know. Theoretically, a human could live two, maybe three-hundred years with the Synth-Organs if they otherwise take care of their bodies. This one saved your life…and the CW doesn't want it because they perceive it as foreign and not of this world. In truth, they rebel because, in all likelihood, they lost out on a massive cash-cow. If there's one thing I know about human nature, it's that we're greedy, self-righteous bastards."

"Can't really say as I disagree wit' ya there," Ryder grunted, shaking his head sadly. "God would be ashamed of us, I think. Always lookin' for the next step up even if that step is on the back of another."

"They caught me off guard," she told him with no small amount of self-loathing in her tone. "You see, after the first two of my mechs were offlined and their frames harvested for their metal, I started powering up some protoforms. I don't know how much you know about Cybertronian anatomy, but their protoforms are essentially just like our skeletal and muscular structures. No skin yet. No vital parts to keep everything where it needs to be, but important nonetheless since it's the very core of their bodies.

"It's possible to zap enough energy into a protoform and slap on identical armor plating to an otherwise living Cybertronian to have that protoform believably mimic its original. Uh, kinda like a walking, talking manikin. We've been able to fool the CW into thinking they've annihilated at least thirty of the highest ranking mechs and femmes on the planet while also giving them some of what they want."

"Lemme guess," Ryder was beginning to hover over her a bit, his gaze intense. Those eyes sent shivers down her spine. "You didn't bring an escort an' ended up gettin' yer pretty ass caught firing up one of those protoforms."

"Pretty much. Didn't have enough juice to just warp myself out of there and ended up hightailing it the old fashioned way." She winced. "Audrey's going to be pissed that I lost the suit and probably ruined the Flite-Dek."

"You almost got yerself killed and yer first thought is for some damned stuff?" The aghast way he spoke quickly morphed into righteous anger. "Someone shoulda spanked some sense into that ass of yers when ya was little, you stubborn filly."

"I have plenty of sense." She couldn't help but sneer at him for talking down to her. The outdated threat of a spanking didn't faze her in the slightest. "My downfall is that my caring for everyone else tends to put me in the thick of it."

"No, darlin', yer' knocked of some sense. Least you coulda done was take some protection an' don't tell me it was tah protect none of them big bastards I seen you on the news with. They ain't the ones needing protection." He tapped her nose in reprimand and she had to grit her teeth to keep from snapping at his finger in retaliation.

Samantha marveled that no one had told her off in years. Too many years to care to fathom, truth be told. She was four-hundred and eighty-seven years old – who in their right mind talked down to someone of such advanced years? Who dared to scold the Primanar of the Cybertronian race? Ryder did, apparently.

A sardonic smile tilted the corner of her lips on the good side upwards.

"It doesn't matter now. We were stalling, giving them some of what they wanted without losing any of our mechs while we tried to figure out what they were doing. There's something a little more beyond Cemetery Wind making their own army of automatons. Something a lot more sinister."

"Like what?"

She winced internally, knowing she'd spoken to him too much as it was. This wasn't Hunter Mason, close friend and dedicated soldier of N.E.S.T. This was Ryder Erikson, trained doctor and owner of Tall Oaks. He was no military vet. He didn't need to be drawn into the fray any more than he already was by simply having her in his home.

Speaking of which…

"Time for me to go," she spoke softly, pushing off the quilt he'd tucked around her. She was slow in standing, the nanites rapidly repairing her wound not quite diminishing the pain of it. Ryder lurched up onto his feet to brace her from behind with one of his hugely muscled forearms. His opposite hand gripped onto her wrist, steadying her when she threatened to buckled for half a second. Sparks danced across her skin where it contacted his deliciously warm body.

"I'm okay," the blonde assured him, stepping out from the cradle of his towering, protective body. He was potent.

"Don't," he murmured, reaching back out for her. He didn't quite touch her, but neither did he drop his arms. He seemed caught in mid-motion. Indecision was written plainly across his face. He wanted to touch her, to hold her – and dear Heaven she wanted that too – but he didn't quite act out on the impulse.

"I have to go."

"I want tah help." Ryder rumbled, his Icelandic eyes turning hard and cold. His shoulders squared, his imposing frame seeming to expand upon itself. "What can I do tah help?"

"Go back to your life, Ryder. It's best you forgot I was even here." Wistfully she smiled, her heart threatening mutiny. It hadn't troubled her so much since saying goodbye to Hunter so many years ago. The loss of her loved ones always hurt, yes, but nothing quite matched the soul-deep tearing that had taken place in saying goodbye to the ex-N.E.S.T. operative Hunter Mason. She was reflecting now that this moment felt dangerously close to overshadowing even that moment in her life.

"Don't you dare fuckin' say that, darlin'." He stomped up to her, his gaze broiling with heat and determination. "Can't explain it to ya no other way than sayin' that I feel as if I gotta help ya. You didn't come up on my land on accident. You was meant to come here and for me see ya. I feel that right down to my very bones."

His hands trembled minutely as they rose to cup her cheeks, his long, meaty fingers lacing at the back of her skull. She leaned her head back into his steady grip, feeling it anchoring her. Her stomach churned in a not-unpleasant way.

What in the name of God and Primus was going on?!

"Lemme come wit'cha. Please." His eyes darted back and forth between hers and though she could see only through her left eye now, she couldn't miss the way they seemed to brighten even in the relatively well-lit room.

Her head told her to say no. Everything that she knew to be intelligent and right screamed at her to lock down her resolve and leave now without him. Her very soul was crying out, however, demanding that she not dismiss Ryder. There was something else, something other-worldly going on here and deep down she felt that he was fated to be involved.

A gusty sigh poured from her lips and she closed her eyes. She didn't want to look at his face when she gave him her answer.

"As you wish. Welcome to the team, Ryder Erikson."

Relief should have been the last thing she felt at voicing those words, but she did feel it. It radiated off of her and she could feel it emanating in equal measure from the statuesque male before her.

She feared they would both live – otherwise die – to regret this.

XxXxX

"So the bitch was using decoys." The seasoned CIA unit lead and operative snarled, keeping himself in check enough to refrain from hurtling papers from his desk.

"Yessir." A younger man stood to attention, his posture faultless. While the unit lead was more rotund and balding across most of his scalp, the younger agent boasted a full head of closely-cropped salt-and-pepper hair. He was also more lithe, a fair amount of muscle decorating his frame. Both wore suits tailored impeccably, the first's denoting more power, but lacking in the maneuverability afforded by the younger's 'sensible' attire.

"How much more does that weasel need for the project?" The elder, Harold Attinger, clenched his fists with irritation. Under normal circumstances he was a staid, unaffected man, That Witwicky girl drove him beyond his expansive limits of control. The she-devil wasn't even human. He was sure of it. It mattered not what the President or world leaders believed…that creature was a menace to their world that needed to be eliminated.

Cut off the head of the serpent, Attinger. Remove the head and the body will writhe and turn to dust.

"Perhaps five more. That drone, the one Witwicky was activating, is already en-route to the lab." Savoy grimaced minutely. "It shames me that our men were so easily fooled."

"You are as dimwitted as they, James," Attinger barked, finally giving in to temptation and kicking over his chair.

"Temper, temper, Earth insect."

Both men froze as still as carved granite at the rumbled rebuke. The voice was disembodied, echoing from the speakers of Attinger's personal computer, but clear as though the wielder of the aforementioned voice were standing in the same room as them. If there was one being in the entirety of the cosmos that Attinger didn't want to get on the wrong side of, it was this one.

"I informed you that you were no closer to acquiring Optimus Prime than you had been to begin with. The key, you hairless insects, is the Primanar. Heed my words in truth. Cease your idiotic prancing about and retrieve her. Optimus Prime will come along with his brother. They will all come."

There was no indicator of the voice cutting out, but the atmosphere in the room lightened by tons. Both humans began to breathe more freely, neither wishing to admit to their understandable trepidation – nay, fear – in the face of their rocky ally.

"I don't believe they have enough material amassed to do what we have planned," Savoy swallowed thickly, glancing over at his commanding officer. The elder man's jaw was taut, his unflappable demeanor shaken from the combination of their latest failed attempt and their ally's unannounced drop-in.

"It won't matter. Start making the calls." Attinger adjusted his suit, busying his hands to hide their shaking.

"We have a date with a certain woman long-overdue for the long sleep."