19

Disclaimer: Why anyone thinks we still own these FF stories, I'll never know.

A/N: Biggest kudos go out to my beta, JB Tarrant. Without their help this story would not half as good as it is. I'm not even going to tell you all the hoops that were jumped through to get each draft to each other (FF really hated us using DocX for some reason).

Stories That Inspired This One: The cost of living by sockets and all of Alathea2's stories.

Language hints for readers.

:text, text: is Cybertronian, when they speak to themselves.

text, text is Cybertronian, when they use their comlink channels. (humans can't hear it unless they're "plugged in" with their sockets)

"text, text" is Human language.

Italics are thoughts for anyone.

Location: Tarn, Cybertron (Shockwave's home base)

The pipes squeal as they pump energy into the buildings. Their brass casing flashing with each movement. Lord Megatron watches them for several minutes, his optics riveted to the workings, servos behind his back. Shockwave presses his intake tight. Why's their leader here? Why not out in the forefront of the battle?

Megatron loves the war, revels in it. Shockwave can understand this so well. He, himself, enjoys crushing his enemies in his servos, feeling their plating crunch and snap beneath his digits.

:Is all well, my lord?:

:Laserbeak has found a planet with optimal resources.: Megatron says at last.

Shockwave shutters his optic. :But our resources are well stocked.:

Are they? he wonders now. It's always been the Autobots who need more materials. Has something changed that fact?

:They are.: Megatron chuckles. :This will give us a strategic advantage. An outside base.:

:My lord?: The one-eyed Deception asks.

:The Autobots are a persistent thorn. We need a base they won't detect for several cycles.: Megatron glances over. :3X47B is perfect. The primarylifeforms on there are organic.:

Shockwave nods. It would increase the Decepticons chances of winning, putting a base outside the Cybertronian galaxy. :When do I send out troops, my lord?:

:Tomorrow.:

0/0/0/0

Location: Milkyway Galaxy, the moon orbiting around Earth

(four months later— February 2007)

Blackout glides through the darkness of space, disregarding the uninhabited planets he flies by. While colorful and organic at baseform, they are irrelevant to his mission. The blue planet of 3X47B looms closer and closer with each new thrust of his engines. At last, his objective is in sight.

His crimson optics narrow as he feels the tingle of an alien scan sweep over his alt form. He shifts into his stealth mode, his black plates disappearing from visual sight, blending in with his surroundings. He mutes his electrical transmissions to near nothing. And searches for this attacker.

Ah, there.

The planet's superior lifeforms have developed a crude method of detection. He reaches out a hand and inserts his own consciousness into the floating satellite. The small wires and cogs pinch at his intrusion, but ultimately bend to his will.

Even better, the… Blackout pulls up the correct term. Ah, human. These humans are stupidly proud. They've upload all their military secrets to an online database which is easily accessible.

Well, to someone as advanced as Blackout in any case. A mental smile curls Blackout's faceplate.

:Fools.: Blackout laughs as he downloads all the information to his data banks, and sends it off to his troops just entering the galaxy. He carefully deletes any detection of himself and seizes control of the monitoring systems— both on the planet and in this satellite.

0/0/0/0

Location: Yakutsk, Russia

(four months later – May 2007)

Blackout started with the small villages. The Decepticons aren't stupid, they know attacking major cities and dense populations at the very beginning would only make things... difficult. Not that the puny lifeforms on 3X47B would ever pose a problem to the Cybertronians. They are superior to these 'humans.' Their organic material is flimsy compared to the Decepticons' metal plating.

:The humans are rounded up, sir.: his lieutenant reports.

:Transport them into the carrier ship.: Blackout says. He's momentarily distracted though. The Korean leader is attempting to look up security feeds from space. Blackout sends him false data, and focuses back on his lieutenant.

:Move on to the next village.: He orders.: Remember, stealth is key. No one can raise an alarm about us. If anyone records you on their iPhone or anything like that, report it in immediately.:

He'll not have this operation botched because of some primitive cellular devices.

:Understood, sir.:

0/0/0/0

Location: Vos, Cybertron

(one month later)

Megatron leans his helm against his servo as he watches Starscream kneel before him. :Report.:

:Our strategy is proceeding at optimal capacity.: Starscream declares.

:Of course, it is.:

Starscream pauses at that. :Should I tell Blackout to proceed to the second stage? He reports the humans should be compatible with sockets.:

:As I suspected.: Megatron says, his tone oily. The plan is going well, but it is so tedious. This restraint makes his Energon boil. He wants blood, screams, pleas for mercy. He only gets this in tiny doses here.

:As I recall...: Megatron continues, rising from his seat slowly, :you were the one who wished for a frontal assault.:

Starscream leans back on his pedes. :S-sir?:

Megatron relishes in that. But he wants more. :You doubted me.:

Instead of answering, Starscream flies for the door. Megatron bellows out a laugh and locks the mechanisms with his command code— not the one his lieutenant assigned him, but his one of own design. Starscream realizes it a second too late. He whirls to face Megatron, optics scanning the room for any other escape hatch.

There is none.

Megatron built it that way.

The spy tenses as Megatron creeps forward. This must be savored, prolonged. Megatron's held back for months. This will not be rushed.

His mouth widens into a leer. :I do not enjoy being questioned.:

No, but he does so enjoy the punishment he deals out in retaliation for it.

No other warning is given. Megatron darts forward, servos wrapping around Starscream's delicate wings. The smaller Decepticon slips away just barely, his pedes scrapping against the flooring. Deep ruts are carved into the metal as the flyer struggles to stay out of reach. Megatron initiates his second command code.

Starscream crumbles to the ground, cables and fuel lines shut off. However, Megatron makes sure to leave his primary neutral sensory wires to his exo-frame on. He wants every delicious piece of pain felt to its full degree. Megatron's engine revs in excitement at the scraped armor, but more at the terror in the flyer's optics.

:Please, Master, I –: Starscream starts, but cuts off in a shriek as Megatron claws his digits into the thin wings.

:I: Megatron starts to peel back the plating. :Do. Not.:

Starscream chokes on a scream.

:Enjoy. Being.:

Thin wires are exposed.

:Questioned!: Megatron rides out the wires, blue sparks bursting forth.

Howls of agony fill Megatron's audios as Starscream's frame jerks involuntarily.

:You will not doubt me again, will you, my flyer?:

0/0/0/0

Location: Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf

(half a year later— January 2008)

"Sir!" The crewman scrambles across the aluminum desk. "Captain, a signal just popped up on our scanners."

Almon sits straighter, blowing furrowing. They're in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, on a mission to observe the icebergs. It's a shit job, but Admiralty's got to appease the Greenies somehow. There have been unexplained meteor showers that fly way too close to Earth's atmosphere— but the brass all say the satellite shows them to be harmless, if annoying— and the Greenies are screaming that there's some kind of new disease wiping out half of Russia and Africa.

So, here he and his crew are, eyeing frozen ice caps and freezing their asses off.

But there shouldn't be any signals out here.

"Location," he demands.

"North by... Sir! It's just tripled. Now, south by north by west," the ensign replies quickly before he raises his widened eyes from his pad. "They're closing in on us, sir. Surrounding."

A damn trap!

"Evasive maneuvers! Get us out of here, helmsman!"

The ship grinds as it tries to do a 360 turn, but suddenly they jerk to a stop. Every single electronic device— from the control panels to his iPhone— goes dead.

"What the... " Almon stands. "What's got us?"

"Un-unknown, sir," the helmsman stutters. "My instruments are dead."

"Then look out the window!"

How stupid are these kids?

"Yessir!" The poor man runs to the side window, face plastering against the cold glass. He backpedals, trips over his feet, and lands on his ass. "It... I..."

Almon marches over.

And freezes.

Two massive electric blue eyes stare at them. They click shut and open. Almon licks his chapped lips. A robot. A bloody robot has got them. How's this happening?

A deep echo of grinding gears and roar of the wind. Laughter, Almon realizes a second later. The thing's laughing at them. Oh God Almighty... he crosses himself. It's alive.

0/0/0/0

Location: Decepticon ship, orbiting above Earth

(one month later— February 2008)

The subjugation of the humans is well on its way to completion. Not surprising, really. They relied so heavily on their technology that all it took was a planet-wide blackout, and the Decepticons destroyed two-thirds of the military forces around the world. Corralling the remaining soldiers and civilians took next to nothing after that.

Amazing what demoralizing a species can do.

Shrapnel pulls a surgical blade from subspace. The specimen beneath him widens its eyes. It struggles against its bonds, tearing up its wrists until blood flows. Shrapnel pockets some into a vial for later study. The adrenalin will be most interesting. Pushing that aside, the Insecticon crawls up the rib cage until he gets to the neck. Using his many extensions from his back plating, Shrapnel turns the head.

"Damn you!" the man yells with a deep-seated fear in his voice. His dark hair is plastered against his sweaty forehead, while his army issued clothing is stained with dried blood, his bare feet hanging over the edge of Shrapnel's operating table.

:Interesting.: Shrapnel says. He starts a new audio recording. :When trapped, subject wishes me to suffer eternal punishment in their 'Hell'. Sub note: Fire does not affect Cybertronians. Therefore, the threat is useless. Further note for future testing. Research further data on religions to test different outcomes.:

He stops the recording and slices through the paper-like tissue covering the spine— skin, the humans call it— and blood begins to flow out of the wound. Shrapnel keeps digging. The man screams and screams before going unconscious. Pity.

Shrapnel reaches the central nerve center to the brain. Here, the Incepticon slows.

This is delicate.

He's already lost thirteen healthy subjects to hurried carelessness. He can't fail this time, which is why he chose a soldier for this testing. It's too important of a discovery.

Plus, Megatron will slagging scrap his frame if he doesn't come up with results this time.

He pulls a chip from subspace, places it against the nerves, and actives its systems. Tiny, silver wires burrow inch by inch into the cluster of nerves. The human's body spasms at the invasion but never wakes. Slag it! Shrapnel would like to have observed its reaction.

Still, all readings indicate that the organic body is accepting its new host willingly.

Excellent.

:I do hope you survive this, Captain Lennox.:

Soon the Decepticons will have yet another resource for fuel. Small, to be sure, but reliable. The electrical currents that run through the human body are numerous and bright. Shrapnel can barely wait for a taste.

0/0/0/0

Location: Decepticon base, Chicago

(one week later)

Will wipes a hand across his forehead. Sarah pushes it down with a firm but gentle tug. He sighs and leans against the chilled wall, a shiver running through his fevered body. He's just now stopped seeing two of her, but that means nothing. It's happened twice before.

"Sorry," he whispers.

Her lips twitch into a tight smile. "I know. Now hush, I'll keep an eye out, soldier."

He wants to say 'no, I got this.' He needs to be strong for her, but his arms are starting to jerk again. Whatever that creep robot did to him, to all the others, is messing with his body. Damn it! He tried so hard to not let Sarah and Annie be pulled into this side of his life. His heart picks up. Annie!

He struggles up, despite Sarah's 'Will, please.' He scans the large, metal warehouse (fish bowl). Hundreds of dirty, crying men, women, and children… but no Annie. He can't see her! Where…where…

"A-Annie?" he asks, demands, just now noticing his little girl is not here.

Sarah's eyes well up. "They took her an hour ago. She's…she hasn't come back."

His throat closes.

No.

Not Annie. Not his baby girl.

His vision blurs. "… no… Sarah …"

He grabs hold of his wife and clenches her close. Hot tears scold his shoulders as Sarah sobs quietly. Which of course, is when his damn body starts to convulse again, and Sarah's left with comforting herself as Will clocks out.

0/0/0/0

Location: Decepticon base, Chicago

(A few days later)

It happened so fast. One moment Sarah's walking over to him, proudly wiggling a slice of bread. The next, her eyes have rolled back in her head, and she's smacked into the floor. It's an ugly fall, the two boys near her wince at the crack. Will scrambles to his feet. His vision goes white, and he collapses to his knees. He fights, fights through the pain and buzzing, to where he thinks she is. Someone grabs hold of his right arm.

He rips it away, determined to get to his wife.

They don't give up, dragging him along until... they put his hand against a warm face. Sarah's. He'd recognize that heart-shaped scar on her neck anytime. He sobs.

"Sarah?" he yells, or thinks he does. He can't tell. His eyes are still seeing white, and he can't hear anything but buzzing bees. No, no, NO! Damn it! He needs to see what's going on. How can he help her if he can't see?! No… wait… he fumbles for her neck, for a pulse. His hand's trembling as he presses two fingers to her throat. Please, please be – yes! There, he's got a pulse.

But it's erratic, jumping like a jackrabbit. He's felt pulses like this before. In the deserts, right as one or more of his men die on him.

No… not like this. Not…

"Sarah?" he whispers. Her skin is damp, sizzling hot, but she's still. So very, very still. "Please, Sarah."

He can't do this alone. He can't. Not after Annie.

Someone ghosts a hand on his shoulder but pulls back. Probably scared he'd lash out again. He gathers Sarah into his arms, rocking her. Please, he begs God, please don't let this happen.

But… it does.

When his vision finally comes back, two hours later, Sarah's cold. Her blue eyes stare up at him, somehow soft with lingering compassion. It helps, and drowns him in guilt. A teenage boy beside him shuffles.

"Her socket burned out," the kid mumbled.

Will's seen it before. Whatever these things are for, some people just can't handle it. And then some, like Will, keep going on.

"What's your name?" he asks, trying to focus on something other than his wife's dead body.

"Sam. Sam Witwicky." The kid winces and fingers the back of his neck.

0/0/0/0

Location: Cybertron, Iacon

(same time)

Optimus' valves freeze as he stares at the yellow scout. :When?:

:Seven cycles ago.: Bumblebee shifts pedes, his optics shuttering. :It's an organic planet, sir.:

Organic. Of course, the last place any Autobot would think to look for a Decepticon base. Primus, he should have thought of this.

:Are their bases near completion?:

:Yessir. And…: the scout's optics flick away for a moment. :There are rumors of sentient life inhabiting there.:

No.

Not again.

Optimus' grinds his denta. :Have Prowl create a plan of attack. If Megatron values this base enough to keep it secret, we cannot allow him to have it.:

Bumblebee nods, and exits the room.

Optimus waits until the door slides shut before cradling his helm in his servos. Frag. Sentient organics. It's the stuff of myth. He prays to Primus it's not so.

0/0/0/0

Location: Decepticon base, Utah

(one year later— March 2009)

Will shakes against the metal wall in anticipated pain. His army pants are torn beyond repair. Why that matters, Will doesn't know. He's got bigger problems. Like the colossal robot stomping over, steps like earthquakes. Damn it all! Starscream's huge. The other robots were as small as a three-story house. This one... he'd give Godzilla a run for his money.

Will makes a break for the crack in the wall, but a huge hand yanks him up. His neck snaps, and he whites out. Dull roaring blocks his hearing.

Oh God, please let me die! he prayed when he comes back.

Starscream holds Will up close to his face, leering at him. "I've missed your cries, little human."

Will snarls. "Damn you!"

"So you say, but yet here I stand, not in Hell," Starscream's lips curl up. "Makes one wonder, doesn't it?"

Will struggles wildly as Starscream brings out his wire.

No, no, no!

Human-sized clasps restrain his neck, taking away his ability to so much as shake his head before trying to push himself up to regain some mobility. When that doesn't work, he tries to pry them away with his hands. More clasps grab his wrists and lock them against the metal surface.

And then it happens.

Fire burns through his arms, his legs, before exploding in his brain. It feels like its sucking his brain out through a tube. Slowly.

He dimly hears an animalistic scream.

Please, kill me, he pleads.

And miss out on my evening snack? a voice booms in his head.

It's the last conscious thing he knows.

0/0/0/0

Location: Scotland, Earth— outside a Decepticon military unit

(one month later— March 2009)

They've got fraggin' half an hour before the Decepticons regroup. Ironhide revs his engine. :Get back in line, scout.:

:You heard him!: the scout rises to his full height.

Ironhide snorts. He's still slaggin' puny. :We've got to get back and report this back at the base.:

:You heard Starscream! Humans, organic pets.: Bumblebee shivers. Ironhide feels little sympathy. Its war. Slag happens. But Bumblebee glares anyway. :We can't leave them here, 'Hide. Not like...:

Ironhide winces. The loss of Jazz hit them all hard, but none more than Bumblebee. The scout had formed a brother-bond with the interrogator. Understood the creepy Autobot like no other. Slag it.

:Five minutes. After that, I'm dragging your aft out.:

:Thank you, sir!:

Oh sure, now the fraggin' scout wants to acknowledge his rank. Ironhide rolls his optics. Younglings.

0/0/0/0

Location: Scotland, Earth— a few miles away from the Decepticon military unit

(minutes later)

The stink of burnt metal and dripping Energon burns Mirage's vents. He's not quite used to the smell yet. He's a spy for the Autobots. He hides the shadows, reports his findings, and goes out to repeat the process. Rarely, if ever, does Mirage actually engage in a full-frontal attack. The brutality of it churns his tanks, and he closes his optics for a microsecond.

Frag, he wants this war to end soon. He's tired of spying in the shadows, of never quite having enough food, of seeing so many brothers and sisters on each side die.

Mirage opens his optics and scans the area. Mirage to Ironhide.

Ironhide here. The Decepticons back?

Negative, sir. They're still several miles out.

Keep an eye out. We're going in.

0/0/0/0

Location: Scotland, Earth— inside the Decepticon military unit

The creatures are tiny compared to Ironhide and Bumblebee. The older of the two almost reaches Bumblebee's knee. Humans, Starscream called them as he'd flown away. Humans... Bumblebee searches his processors but finds no mention of such a species; organic or otherwise. There is a close resemblance to the Tarkalian ringers from Delta 4, but only as far as the single set of the optics and olfactory sensors on their face plates.

Not too surprising, really.

The universe is a vast place. The chances of species sharing similar traits are small enough to make it a rare, yet not uncommon occurrence. Bumblebee glances down at the shivering things. There's a youngling curled up in a tight ball, despite broken bones in its servo, peering up at him with white and brown optics. It wears ripped, black coverings on its legs and torso. The elder human, the one wearing torn brown and green spotted coverings on its legs and torso, has positioned itself in front of the youngling in a protective stance.

Both are organic based.

Ironhide sighs. :Fleshies.:

Bumblebee whirs in annoyance. :We can't leave them here.:

:We have a job to do, scout.:

:They won't hinder it.: Bumblebee goes for the kill. :Ratchet'll throw a fit if he finds out.:

:One day…: Ironhide narrows his optics. :that excuse will not work.:

:Only when it stops being true.: Bumblebee chirps.

Ironhide takes a lazy swing at him. :Ingrate.:

The two humans flinch at the movement, and the elder one presses the youngling tighter to his chassis. It's then, with the human's head turned away from him, that Bumblebee notices the socket at the back of its neck. The area around the round metal hole is red and inflamed by constant usage, as far as Bumblebee can see.

The scout sucks in a breath as the cables in his chest go tight. :Ironhide. Its neck.:

The black mech adjusts his optics to full range scan. His engine revs angrily. :Slaggin' 'Cons!:

Bumblebee rumbles a warning to Ironhide when the humans retreat even further into their corner. :Ratchet'll deal with it.:

The weapon specialist growls. He never does well with the Decepticons' pets, especially this kind. Bumblebee suspects it unnerves him. He knows it does him.

Ironhide's relay wire beeps. After a brief data input, Ironhide scowls. :Mirage reports more 'Cons coming.:

Bumblebee places a servo flat on the floor. The humans' air intake starts to go into overdrive. Their respiratory valves stutter. He tries to soften his voice volume. :Come, human.: he tells the youngling.

The youngling curls in more and whimpers when its bones grinding together. The elder human lets out a growl though it sounds more like a squeaky wheel to the considerably larger Autobots standing over them.

:Come.: Ironhide orders, and picks up the elder human by its outer coverings. The thing screams in different octaves, ignoring its own wounds in favor of struggling away. Ironhide scoffs and gently stuffs the human into a side compartment. Tiny servos pound against the metal as it closes.

:We must go.: Bumblebee says to the youngling, placing his servo closer to indicate his wishes. The youngling shudders before hesitantly complying with the request. Small pedes press on Bumblebee's servo as it climbs up. Once situated in its place on Bumblebee's hand, it stands there, waiting, watching. Bumblebee opens one of his own side slots and briefly rummages around to make sure nothing sharp is inside before places the youngling in. Wide optics stare up at him as he closes it. The young scout shivers at the sheer terror in them.

:Move out.: Ironhide says.

0/0/0/0

Location: Clarksville, Tennessee

(three days after rescue)

Ratchet clenches his scanner as he moves it over the two humans on the table. The readings are enough to sicken him. Malnutrition, dehydration, and more bruises and wounds than skin. Abuse, at its best. Ratchet swallows a bit of Energon that rises to his mouth.

:It's nothing we didn't already suspect.: he tells Optimus.

:Indeed.: blue optics sadden. :Where did they find them?:

:Unknown. Starscream wiped all the databanks before he fled.:

:Can we use a different unit to find out their species? If this is even their planet?:

:It's not looking promising. Mirage says that they control all the data banks.: The medic glances over. :And after this attack, Starscream will have Blackout store all of it, and wipe anything pertaining to them.:

Optimus' shoulders slump a little. :Is there a way to remove the sockets?:

:No.: Ratchet glares at the readings. :It would kill them, and not quickly.:

Optimus' shoulders slump even further. :To think he'd stoop so low.:

Ratchet agrees wholeheartedly. Energon is the primary fuel source for both Autobots and Decepticons. But when all else fails, organics can be used as an alternative. The electric signals in their brain help power up small, but essential systems in Cybertronian bodies. Not enough to fully sustain them, of course, more a sip. And one has to be careful not to take too much, or else the organics die— though some unlucky ones fragment instead, leaving only maddened husks.

It is a base, cruel operation. One of the many that initiated this war.

:They keep whining.: Ironhide complained from his spot by the door. :Can't you shut off their slaggin' vocal systems?:

:By ripping out their tongues, yes.: Ratchet slams his scanner down. :Care to wager how long it would take for them to die of blood loss?:

:Tongue...?:

:Their glossae, you fragging fool!:

Ironhide takes a step back, catches himself doing it, and scowls. :Their glossae are permanently fixed?:

:All their systems are immovable.: Ratchet snaps. :Have you read none of my organic material?:

Ironhide gives the gun in his servo an evil eye. :I skimmed it.:

:You broke its arm in transit!:

:It's just a fraggin' fleshy!:

Ratchet whirls on Optimus. :I can't have everyone thinking they can just do this, Prime. These humans might be sentient!:

Optimus nods. :Indeed. I shall stress this strongly in the meeting.:

Ironhide grumbles under his breath as he escorts Optimus out. Ratchet sighs. It's to be expected, this prejudice. Unfortunate, but expected nonetheless. Autobots like to think themselves superior to Decepticons, but when it comes to organics, both parties are almost on par with each other.

Fleshies are beneath them.

Ratchet snorts. Fleshies, a demeaning word unto itself. Ratchet hates it, so he instead uses the term 'organic.' It's not much better though. Had it been before the war, Ratchet would've supplied all the data to the Recorders and asked them for a proper name, but the last Recorder offlined years ago.

Hence, 'organic' and 'fleshies.'

Ratchet is happy, if slightly irritated, that the Decepticons gave these organics a title. 'Human' sounds much nobler than 'organic' or 'fleshy.'

Ratchet starts to put away his tools. He needs a distraction from these morbid thoughts. Because the only real difference between Autobots and Decepticons is in the treatment of organics.

Autobots are content to let the organics alone. Out of sight, out of mind. They let them live out their short lives in relative peace, only interfering when nothing else can be done.

Decepticons are not content with such a neutral position. They experiment on their organics, use them for fuel, and then dispose of their corpses once they've offlined. It's disgusting. Wasteful. And there seems to be nothing anyone can do to stop it. Ratchet will never forget the burnt shell of his first rescue. It will be something that will haunt him forever.

A small whine of different octaves catches Ratchet's attention.

The youngling human.

It's tugging on its elder and whimpering. Ratchet cocks his helm when the elder responds in like terms. Interesting. Perhaps they have a rudimentary language? He toys with hooking up his own socket wire to the elder. That would answer many questions, but Ratchet cannot stomach the thought of such an invasive action especially so soon after their rescue. He documents his theory for their senior tactician, Prowl, to look over and moves on to find some nutrition for the humans.

0/0/0/0

Location: The Great Wall of China— underground tunnels

(one month later)

The Prime is in the briefing room, scanning their next defensive plan against Megatron when his audios catch a faint scratching. He doesn't move from his position over the table. They've had assassination attempts before. Optimus sends out a low-frequency ping to Ironhide and gets a panicked signal back. Not that Ironhide would ever admit to such, but Optimus knows his friend. After the last attempt, Ironhide has made it his personal mission to never allow a Decepticon that close to his Prime and friend again.

Focusing all his attention back into the room, Optimus trains his audios on the small noises by the door. His optics lower when he realizes there is a pattern. Almost as if...

Knocking.

Something is knocking on his door.

Optimus sends this data to Ironhide. A second later his weapon's specialist requests a private line. Optimus complies. Yes, my friend?

It's the human. The older one. I think it's going to leak fluid in a minute.

Putting away your weapons might help. Optimus chides, tension flowing out of his fuel lines.

An annoyed huff is his reply. A moment later Ironhide keys in his access code and Optimus' door slides open. Prime watches as the tiny human stands trembling at the entryway. Its little servos— hands— shake by its sides. Yet there is a look of grim determination in its optics— eyes. Ironhide prompts it forward with a gentle nudge of his digit. The human flinches at the direct contact.

:I'll stay.: Ironhide insists. The mech goes to the side of the door.

Optimus stays where he is as the human takes slow, halting steps forward until it is at the table's edge. It looks up at him and indicates he wants help up onto the table. Optimus lowers his servo. Tiny pedes press against his plates, and he is careful to raise his arm slowly. Last time Bumblebee didn't, and the human Sparkling slammed into his servo hard enough to break its olfactory sensor— nose. It takes more time to straighten, but Optimus counts it as a victory that the human only wavered a little as he rose.

He sets it down on the table and waits.

The human stares, and stares, at him. It's an intense, soul-searching gaze. One that unnerves Optimus. Such depth should not be found in organics.

At last the human sighs. It pulls back the long fur on its head and exposes its socket. Optimus freezes. His tanks feel like lead. It can't be offering— but it is. The human is looking at him with expectant eyes, using its digit— finger— to point to its socket. Warbling sounds escape its intake— mouth. Optimus kneels down on one knee.

:There's no need for that, little one.: Optimus shakes his head. He wishes they knew if these huans had a base language. For now, he has to hope his tone conveys his message. :We don't do such things here. You're safe.:

The organic trembles. Its finger stabs at its socket hole. Emphatic. It wants Optimus to do this. Perhaps it feels as if it needs to. Trained to service Cybertonians, even when not sought out. Optimus cycles air through his intakes.

:Little one, it is not necessary.: He gently uses a digit to push the human's arm down. It reacts fast and captures his digit. Optimus lets it. The tingle of minuscule fingers ghost over Optimus' digit. The human frowns and knocks against the metal on Optimus' digit. Once, twice, pause, twice fast. It does it again. And again. Optimus tilts his helm, a horror filling him.

This is a code for having intel.

It should not be possible...

He glances over at Ironhide. The weapon's specialist is gripping his servos tight. He, too, understands the unspoken code being told to them. Optimus turns back to the human. It should not be possible... but it seems it is. If what he suspects is true, he will want Ratchet to monitor to make sure he does not go too far in this interface.

Optimus to Ratchet.

Ratchet here, sir.

You're needed in the briefing room. The human has... communicated its desire to download intel.

A surge of surprise followed quickly by thrill. On my way.

You suspected?

Faint apprehension. Not enough to report on it just yet. I was having Prowl search through the data.

Optimus accepts this. He knows his friend would never keep such things from him if there were enough evidence. He sends another message to his second-in-command. Optimus to Prowl.

Yes, sir?

Your presence is needed in the briefing room. The human seems to be trying to report intel.

I'll bring a hub.

Optimus turns his attention back to the human and Ironhide.

:Ratchet and Prowl are en route.: he tells the older mech. To the human, who is still tapping out its code, he touches a soft digit to its hand. A ghost of a touch. :Enough. I understand.:

He reaches for his own socket. He could, of course, open it with a thought, but he wants the human to see this visual answer. Indeed, the human watches him with eager eyes as the plating around the hole is opened. Optimus pushes down the surge of pain at the thought of this human screaming as he is used by the Decepticons. This is different, Optimus reminds himself, this will not end in death or torture.

The door slides apart as Ratchet and Prowl come in. Both mechs wear expressions of unease. Optimus feels the same. If what Ratchet thinks is true...

:Monitor the human's vitals and inform me when they become too high.: He tells the medic. To Prowl, :Record and analyze this.:

:Yes, sir.:

Optimus slowly pulls out the small wire in his arm. One end is attached to the side of his socket, the other inserted into the back of the human's neck. A ripple of fire crawls through Optimus' processors. He thinks it might be from the human. Perhaps a primitive firewall or just a small fraction of the pain the interfacing gives the creature. Optimus casts a glance to Ratchet. The medic shakes his head.

:Readings are at acceptable levels. A brief electric spark between the metals, but gone now: The mech straightens. :It's safe to proceed further.:

Optimus submerges himself in the link.

What greets him will haunt the Prime for years to come.

He is greeted by a synaptic current of memory pathways, each a bright light that all leads to the central core. A processor— brain. Something nudges him mentally. He opens his mind further and discovers it is the human itself. No... himself, the organic is male. A— Optimus receives a stream of data— a man. The mechs are called men. The femmes, women.

This one's designation is: Captain William Lennox.

A soldier for the US army.

'Who are you?' the human asks, and the image of him squaring off against Optimus with folded arms flashes across the connection. There is a faint tremble of fear floating across the link though. The man is posturing. A reasonable stance, one Optimus can sympathize with.

However, he withholds his pity. It will not be welcome here. This man is a soldier, a recently freed prisoner of the Decepticons. He will want simple, honest answers over anything else.

Optimus obliges. I am Optimus Prime. Leader of the Autobots.

'He mentioned you.'

Optimus gets a sense of mental fidgeting.

'Megatron,' Lennox says, 'He hates your side.'

Optimus' Spark sinks at this reminder. He forges on. Now is not the time for regrets. What do you want?

The man mentally grabs Optimus and leads him deeper into his processor to a file of databanks. 'Download this.'

He does. It should not be possible, an organic being compatible with a Cybertronian, but here it is. This new data file proves the truth.

It's enormous, an entire planet inhabited by sentient organics. Religions— ranging from one to multiple gods to none at all; cultures— desert tribes and colorful flags on islands; houses— huts, stone, metal; all of it in an ordered structure and ever evolving.

And all enslaved by the Decepticons.

Infants, taken from birth, used as experiments, while others are allowed to grow and serve as a delicacy for those Megatron favors each week. Men and women scream as their life-forces are drained from them in one of the most invasive, painful ways possible. Lennox's own torment, as every barrier is stripped away. His whole existence narrowed down to protecting anyone he can— by offering himself as a food source— and listening to the Decepticons mock him for being so weak.

And then there's a small light of hope.

Autobots.

A sneered complaint snarled from Decepticon to Decepticon. A whispered prayer for Lennox's people. Someone out there that is different than their masters. Someone who might care enough to save them. That hope growing into a conviction when Ironhide and Bumblebee saved them when not one Autobot demands (or even asks) for their services.

And that has led the man to this meeting, this decision to reveal their sentient nature. Something the Autobots have long suspected since Bumblebee first reported this planetary base. But the Decepticons have had control of almost all the Intel on the humans. Jazz could've gotten through, but… Optimus shuts off the hurt that death brings.

'Help us,' Lennox pleads. 'We have valuable intel. Secret bases, attack plans, deep cover spies. They think we're stupid, and let us see everything. Free us, and we'll gladly download everything we know to you.'

It pains Optimus that the man thinks he must buy their freedom like this.

The man panics when the Prime doesn't answer. 'The soldiers will stay to allow you use of their sockets.'

No! Optimus vents a breath. Such actions were banned centuries ago.

Lennox scrambles through other mental files, flings them at Optimus. A whirlwind of data about strategic operations, of rebellion groups within the Decepticon lines, downloaded into Optimus' processors. A tickle of pain seeps in, and Optimus realizes it's from the human. His systems are overheating from the aggressive overflow of data.

Optimus, its systems are going critical! Ratchet roars over his comlink. Whatever is happening, stop it. You need to end this connection now!

Stop. Optimus commands the man.

The human doesn't, and the pain becomes like small jagged daggers against Optimus' processors.

Optimus shuts off his port for download.

The man falls to his mental knees. 'We... we can... you have... You have to help us! They said you regarded all lives as equal.'

Peace, William Lennox. Optimus sends a soothing touch through their connection. We'll not leave your people like this. I can't promise there will be immediate action, but I will broach the subject to my officers.

'Thank you,' the half-broken man whispers.

Optimus withdraws his conscience from the link. His optics blink as he comes back into himself. Ratchet rushes forward, small wires shooting from his left servo to catch the human as he crumples, unconscious. A blue light washes over Lennox as the CMO scans the man. Optimus disengages his own wire from the small socket.

:There's no permanent damage to his core or processor, but I'll need to do a deep scan to be sure.: The mech glares at Optimus. :Had you been gone one minute longer, he would've died.:

The mech never takes a loss of life well. Optimus accepts the sharp rebuke. He knows his friend will apologize for his rudeness later when he's had time to process and see that the human is unharmed.

:You'll show respect for your Prime, medic!: Ironhide hisses.

:Ironhide.: Optimus starts.

:No, Prime. You're his leader.: Ironhide takes a step toward Ratchet. :You owe him respect.:

:He nearly killed it!:

:Optimus does only what is necessary for our survival! If the human has intel to help us win this war, then Optimus must obtain it.:

:Not at the cost of its life.:

:It's a slaggin' fleshy!: Ironhide roars.

Strangely, Prowl has refrained from saying anything yet. A quick glance at his second in command shows Optimus that the Praxian's optics are half shuttered. He's observing, processing all the data available, before giving his opinion. Optimus appreciates that, and wishes the others would learn from him.

Ratchet whirls on Ironhide, and shows the weapon's specialist the cradled human in his servo. :Then you kill it.:

:Enough.: Optimus commands. :He is sentient. They all are.:

He sends the data over a secure line to each mech. Optics shutter as they all internalize this newfound intel. Prowl's optics, in particular, go distant.

Ironhide recovers first. :How's this possible? How is this fraggin' possible?:

:I do not know.: Optimus circulates air through his intakes. :But, as you can see, there's no difference between our race and theirs, other than physical strength and height.:

Ratchet stares at the man in his servo. :Fully sentient, and capable of understanding what has been done to them.:

:Indeed. They ask for our aid.: Optimus says.

:We can't risk our own mechs on a suicide mission!: Ironhide snaps, slamming a servo against the wall. :We have enough to worry about with this war. I'll not send any of my mechs to their deaths for these humans!:

Ratchet starts to snarl a reply, but Optimus raises a hand. The CMO obeys the silent order, though he still glares at the other mech.

:You would condemn an entire race to slavery and eventual extinction?: Optimus asks his friend.

Ironhide growls. :We have no idea where they are, how many or what condition they're in. And even if we do mount a rescue, what's to say the 'Cons won't just slaggin' kill them all to spite us?:

:There is a 73% chance Megatron will order this.: Prowl says. The Praxian casts a glance at the human. :There is a 96% possibility that their inside information will turn the tide of the war in our favor. A 56% option that they will have strategies congruent for their own soldiers.:

:Use the humans in our teams?: Ironhide recoils. :Has your processor rusted? They'll be squished before we get past the first line.:

:Their smaller bodies will fit into places we cannot. They can also change directions quicker, due to their muscular structure.: Prowl turns to Optimus. :I will have the relevant scenarios for you in two hours.:

:You can't be considering this, Optimus.: Ironhide pleads— growls, but it is as close to a plea as the mech can get.

:96%, Ironhide.: Optimus straightens. :I would be a fool to ignore that.:

:The Council will never back this.:

:I shall present it regardless.:

0/0/0/0

Location: Iacon, Cybertron

(three months later— July 2009)

The Elders, as Ironhide predicted, did not like the idea. However, Prowl offers his analysis on just how the humans improve their chances of winning the war. Smokescreen backs him on the data. The Council can't ignore that.

:96%, you say?: Ultra Magnus says. His optics flick to the Praxian. :But we have no way of knowing where the humans are kept.:

:Which is why I suggest Mirage scout any relevant areas where there are increased electrical streams.: Prowl clasps his servos together. :I will also contact a few of our agents inside.:

:How long?: Optimus asks. :We can ill afford to lose Mirage for an indefinite amount of time.:

Prowl admires his Prime for asking. He knows their leader wants to rescue the humans, regardless of their relevant usefulness. But, true to form, Optimus pushes aside his feelings and does what is best for his people.

:No more than a few days, at most.: Prowl answers.

:We can afford to let Mirage try.: Optimus tells the council. :It will not harm our troops.:

Ultra Magnus looks to the other members, and a short silent communication ensues between the mechs. And then, :Very well, Prime. Mirage may scout while Prowl contacts his agents. Three days is all we will allow.:

Optimus nods once in agreement.

0/0/0/0

Location: The Great Wall of China— underground tunnels

(four months later— December 2009)

Sam flinches as an Autobot walks by their room. Will leans over across the bed and squeezes his shoulder. The poor kid is still scared to death of the Autobots. He's warming up to Bumblebee a little. Yesterday he even let the scout sit by the door for half an hour. However, Will knows it'll be months— if not years— before the young man is actually healed. The PTSD will be a damn nightmare to deal with. Not that Will blames the kid. Shit, he has issues, and he's a trained soldier.

Nothing in the book prepares a man for being captured by sentient machines and used as a weekly snack.

It's like a vampire, only worse.

"You eat today?" he asks Sam.

The boy shakes his head. "No. Tried to but... it was the same one Megatron liked to give me. I threw up."

Will squeezes the young man's shoulder again. "I'll let them know."

"No!" Sam wrenches away. His eyes go to pinpricks. "No, it's okay. I got it under control."

"Kid, they're not like the Decepticons." Will sits back against the wall. "I won't have to interface. They got that tablet for us, remember? I'll just type it out."

Sam hugs himself.

"Sam..." Will runs his hands over the rough material of their blanket. "You have to eat sometime. You'll get sick otherwise."

Sam shudders. Humans who got sick never lasted long with the Decepticons. Will knows it's a low blow, he hates reminding him.

"They won't do anything, Sam. But they'll worry. And Ratchet will scan you like every two seconds."

"They're Cybertronians."

"They're Autobots. You know there's a difference."

"For now."

"Sam..." Will sits up. "We have no choice. They haven't betrayed us. In fact, they seem horrified by what the Decepticons do to us. Optimus says it's forbidden, that what the Decepticons are doing is illegal."

"Bee said that, too," Sam whispers.

"See? And you like Bumblebee." Will catches Sam's eye. "Can I tell them?"

"... okay."

"Thank you, Sam." Will gets up. "I'll be in Ratchet's room. Back in five minutes."

Will waits for the young man's scared nod before he slips out the room. It takes him longer than he'd like to get up the gumption to cross the vast area in the docking bay. It's the open space that unnerves him. There's no way for him to hide, should anything go south. And, after four years with the Decepticons, Will hates that.

Still, he walks over and knocks on Ratchet's door.

It slides open a second later. The massive mech waves him in. "William, is something wrong?"

Thank God the Autobots can download languages. It was a happy day that Will could finally speak English with them.

"Not... wrong. Just... Sam... " Will takes a deep breath in. "He can't take eating birds anymore. Megatron used that as a primary food source. It... it messes with Sam seeing it."

"I'll change it to a mammal then. Would..." Ratchet's optics go dim for a moment, "fish be acceptable?"

"I think so." Will smiles, however forced it is. He doesn't like asking more from their hosts. "Thanks."

Ratchet nods. "Please reassure Samuel for us."

"I will."

Will moves to leave the medical room only to nearly smack face first into an Autobot's pede. He trains his neck up and freezes. Ironhide. He knows the Autobot doesn't agree with Optimus' mission to save the humans. He's made his feelings on this very clear. Not so much in words, more actions. Snubbing them, sending them glares, sneering at them.

Will feels his eyebrows pull into a frown. "Sorry."

Even if he doesn't owe the Autobot anything close to an apology.

Ironhide stares at him.

Will glares back. "You need something? Other than us gone, of course."

"Mirage has returned."

Will blinks. That's the Autobot who was supposed to scout for the other humans. Will pushes down a surge of excitement. For all he knows, it came out to a dead end. He can't let his hopes get up yet.

"Optimus wishes to see you," the mech continues. "I am to escort you to briefing room 3."

"I'll have to let Sam know. The kid will freak if I don't return."

Ironhide watches him cross the bay. A shiver goes down Will's spine at the intense gaze.

"Sam?" he says, opening the door. "Optimus wants to see me. Mirage just got back."

The boy swallows. "Okay."

"Ratchet says he'll get you fish." Will smiles. "I'll be back soon."

He goes to Ironhide. The mech tilts his helm to the side and then strides off. Will has to run to keep up. Bumblebee would offer his hand for a ride. Not Ironhide. Will's not sure if it's just beneath the mech, or something else. Although what else it can be, Will hasn't a clue.

He's wheezing slightly when they reach the briefing room. Decepticon diet does not go with a lot of running. Will's lost most of his muscle mass. It still kills him to have to show Ironhide any weakness.

Optimus raises an optic ridge but doesn't comment on his state. He does, however, lower a hand for him. The ride up is smooth.

"Ironhide says Mirage is back, sir."

"Indeed." Optimus brings up some still pictures. "He has found three facilities with your people."

"Is it a possibility to rescue them?"

"It seems so. I will be going to ask the council for their opinion."

"I understand." And he does. Optimus might be the top dog, but he's not a king.

Optimus glances over at Mirage, whose standing in the corner. "Mirage, report."

"A young child was found in a feeding pool," the spy says. "I suspect they left her to die."

"A... a girl?" Will's legs go weak, prompting Optimus to rush and catch him before he could totally collapse. A little girl? They found a little girl. A pang of hurt goes through Will. Why'd this one get to live, and not his Annabelle? Will shakes off the idea. How can he condemn this girl? He should be grateful she's got away from the Cons. "Is she... will she live?"

"Yes. Ratchet reports no illness. They simply had no use for her."

Of course.

Or maybe Shockwave wanted another experiment.

Doesn't matter. They were able to get her out.

"Will it be acceptable to house her with you and the boy?"

"Of course!" Will gives his head a shake and climbs to his feet. "Of course. She'll need humans around. No offense."

"None taken, Captain."

A door opening temporarily disrupts the lull in conversation as Ratchet enters the room, his large hands cupped over something. Will steels himself, willing his hands to stop shaking. Their first rescue. It makes this all seem real now. Like they can really do this, get the humans away from the Decepticons.

The medic slowly releases his tiny charge, and everything freezes. Matted and curly golden hair. Blue, blue eyes and a nose just like his. Will forgets to breathe.

"Daddy?" Annabelle whimpers.

"Annie!" Will runs over and scoops up his baby girl. His daughter who he thought died long ago. She's grown so much since he last saw her. Shit, she's six now. He's missed two birthdays. He kisses her cheeks, hugs her, and kisses her again.

"Daddy," Annabelle sobs into his shoulder, her thin arms tightening around him.

"Shhh, baby girl. Daddy's got you," Will whispers. "You're safe now."

He suddenly remembers all the Autobots in the room. He sneaks a look. They all look like they're glitching. He strokes Annabelle's hair, hugging her tight.

"This..." he blinks back tears. "This is my daughter, Annabelle. I... they said she died."

Nothing is said.

What can anyone say to that?

"She is at a small risk of illness from lack of nutrition," Ratchet tells him. "But it can easily be remedied."

"Thank you," Will says. "Thank you all. I... Sam will be wondering where I am. I'm sorry. I promise I'll explain more later."

"There is no need for rush," Optimus says in return. "Spend the time to reassure your daughter. Ironhide, escort him to Samuel."

For the first time ever, Ironhide hesitates and then offers him a hand. Will gets on with only a second's delay. He won't bring up the mech's prejudiced conduct right now. Maybe later, when Annabelle is calmed and not in the room. Ironhide rises and walks with a gentleness Will's never seen before. He appreciates it.

Sam's eyes widen when he steps into their room. Will can't help the grin on his face.

"Sam, this is Annabelle, my daughter." He rubs Annabelle's back. "Annie, this is Sam."