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Title: At Odds With Morning
Fandom: Transformers Prime
Character(s): Ratchet, Optimus Prime, Raf, Miko, Jack, Agent Fowler
Pairing(s): None
Rating: G
Word Count: ~4200
Warnings: Spoilers for the end of season 3 (no spoilers for the series finale).
A/N: When I watched "Deadlock," it was immediately clear to me why Ratchet, of all the Autobots, would choose to stay behind; then I realized his motivations would unpack nicely into a short story. Despite the epigraphs from Paul Simon, this is not a songfic per se. Originally it was headed by a quotation from Epictetus, but then LadyM turned me on to the possibility of using pop lyrics by her adept employment of same in Life in Glass Houses. This is for Foxbear, who expressed an interest in it (and has written a much more cheerful why-Ratchet-stayed story, "Where I Am Needed"). Crossposted to [community profile] transficsation. Concrit welcomed with bongos, brass and a bass guitar.

A man walks down the street.
He says, “Why am I soft in the middle now?
Why am I soft in the middle?
The rest of my life is so hard.
I need a photo opportunity.
I want a shot at redemption.
Don't want to end up a cartoon
In a cartoon graveyard:

Bone-digger, bone-digger.
Dogs in the moonlight —
Far away, my well-lit door."

— Paul Simon, "You Can Call Me Al"

          Optimus Prime's retreating form disappeared into the swirling green fire of the space bridge. The gate remained patent for a few moments afterward, marking his passage across the light years to Cybertron, then closed automatically. Decepticon engineering, Ratchet thought wryly. He would have to make do with less sophisticated devices for a while, but he was used to that. He also knew that it would be some time before the memory of his gilded cage on the Nemesis ceased to color his appreciation of Decepticon engineering. The Earth-based computers of hangar E, for all their faults, at least held no such unpleasant associations — and perhaps even a few fond memories.

          Not that he intended to admit it.

          He looked down at the five humans clustered at his pedes to see that they were looking up at him. The weight of melancholy in their combined gaze pressed too closely upon Ratchet's own sense of loss to be comfortable, so he turned away. "Well, back to work," he said. "Those new components won't integrate themselves into these systems on their own."

          "I'll help!" said Raf. He dashed up the stairs to retrieve his laptop from the couch, stumbling a little as he did so. Nurse Darby pivoted to follow his progress and Ratchet saw her take the opportunity to wipe something from her eyes, her face hidden from all vantage points but his.

          Then Miko drew everyone's attention with a stamp of her foot. "That's it?" she demanded. "'Back to work'? They all just left! For good!" Her voice wobbled as it rose and she whirled to confront Ratchet. "Don't you care? Aren't you gonna — "

          "Miko!" thundered the adults, repressively but unhelpfully, as Miko simply waited for the storm to pass and used the time to draw breath to continue. At which point Jack, wiser than his elders, put in, "Well, I want to hear more about this consultant gig. Is there a salary involved, Agent Fowler, or is it an unpaid internship?"

          The distaste with which he pronounced the word "unpaid" made his preference clear. "Well, now, uh — " Fowler temporized.

          "Salary? Pfft!" exclaimed Miko, diverted. She grabbed Jack's elbow and yanked him right up into the agent's grille. "What about badges? Do we get our own badges? And training! Are we going to learn to fight like superninjas? When do we get to meet the rest of Unit E? How many — "

          Ratchet tuned her out as he had long since learned to do and retreated to his workstation. Having fetched his laptop, Raf joined him on a nearby platform. They quickly fell into the rhythm they had developed over the past months, Ratchet handling the hardware interfaces while Raf debugged the software. The boy took to the spaghetti tangles of competing code like a Scraplet to living metal, but instead of destruction he left behind a trail of neatly commented fixes — occasionally tenuous, often overbuilt, but always workable. Ratchet sometimes found it difficult to believe Raf had yet to reach intellectual maturity and suspected that when he did, his would be a name for human computer scientists to conjure with, like that fellow Knuth he so admired.

          But they would never know how valiantly he had defended his planet from those, human as well as alien, who had sought to conquer it.

          That ignorance was a true pity, though neither Raf nor his friends seemed to mind. The achievement (or, in Miko's case, the adventure) was reward enough for them. Whether their species could continue in such blissful oblivion, however, Ratchet took leave to doubt. The days of robots-in-disguise must eventually come to an end; the only question was, when?

          Not yet, he thought. And the secret would at least be easier to keep while he was Cybertron's sole representative on Earth.

          Miko's voice rose again. "You can't just lock it up! I need to practice with it!"

          "Miko, the Apex Armor is a Cybertronian cultural artifact," Agent Fowler replied severely. "It's not your personal bot-suit, you got that?"

          "Besides," added Jack, "there's nobody on Earth big enough for you to spar with."

          The conversation stalled, as did the steady rhythm of Raf's typing. "Ratchet's big enough," said Miko after an awkward pause, deliberately aiming the remark in his direction.

          "I am a doctor, not a martial arts instructor," Ratchet shot back.

          "Aww," grumbled Miko. Raf, catching Ratchet's optic, grinned crookedly. The Autobot shook his helm and sent the boy an updated file of specifications, turning a deaf audial to any further byplay.

          Nurse Darby interrupted them some time later to insist that Raf have his dinner, but after ingesting several slices of pizza with the others the boy returned to work rather than join them in a video game. Ratchet approved his industry on principle, though Raf's tight posture and exacting focus did not escape him. But the task required his input and there was no better solace for a troubled mind than an absorbing project. For the same reason Ratchet ignored the exaggerated shouts of victory and groans of defeat from Miko and Jack, Agent Fowler's shuffling of electronic files from database to database, and Nurse Darby's patrol of the platforms, peering over each of her fellow humans' shoulders in turn to see what they were doing and inquire if they needed anything: a drink, a break, a helping hand. It was, however, something of a relief when Jack ceded her his controller to show her how to play a virtual sports tournament at which she proved remarkably adept. Even Agent Fowler was drawn in after a while to make good his boast of winning Unit E's rotisserie league three years running, whatever that meant.

          But when Ratchet offered Raf a respite in which to join the insistently merry gathering, he refused. "I want to get this done," he said, pushing his glasses up his nose. "Besides, it's — " He broke off, shrugging, but when Ratchet arched a brow plate at him, he continued in a low tone, "It's not the same."

          Of course, thought Ratchet, remembering how many times Raf and Bumblebee had monopolized the console with their racing games. He nodded, passing Raf the next set of executables, and the boy set his jaw and ducked his head over his flying fingers.

          All too soon Nurse Darby began to make noises about bedtime, she and her son combining to drag Miko away from the couch ("Aw, c'mon! Just one more inning? I want to see Wilson take on Pujols!") and push her out the door. Agent Fowler came over to tap Raf on the shoulder. "Time to close up shop for the night," he said. "I'll drive you home."

          Raf yawned. "Just a sec," he said, bringing his efforts to a suitable pause and saving the results. "Okay. Here's the metadata for that third group, Ratchet. I'll finish the rest tomorrow."

          Ratchet flagged the files as they appeared in his downlink. "Thank you, Rafael. Good work."

          The boy brightened at the praise. "You're welcome. 'Night, Ratchet. See you in the morning."

          "Good night," Ratchet replied absently, already occupied with an analysis of Raf's work. Most of the third group looked as though it would integrate nicely, despite the distinctively Terran flavor of the boy's implementation of Cybertronian code. At this rate, however, he'd be programming like a native in a few cycles, at which point Ratchet fully intended to introduce him to medical applications. It had been too long since he'd had an apprentice in his own discipline; his spark yearned for the opportunity to pass on the knowledge he'd acquired, even to a human.

          Not "even," his self-censor corrected.

          No, of course not, he agreed, his primary processor accepting the edit once more. Not now.

          Not after ... everything.

          Raf stowed his laptop in his backpack and shrugged his arms into the straps. "Ratchet?" he said, and there was something in his voice, an infrasonic quaver, that made the Autobot pause and give the boy his full attention.


          Raf scuffed a foot against the platform, his sneaker tracing a circle on the floor. "Will you be all right here?" he asked, his gaze fleeting over the faction symbol on Ratchet's chestplate before meeting his optics. "Alone?"

          Ratchet smiled reassuringly. "Of course," he replied, and when Raf did not answer, added with a sweeping gesture that took in the entire hangar, "Peace and quiet: just what the doctor ordered."

          That brought a brief upward quirk to Raf's lips; he nodded. "Right. Okay."

          But still he hesitated, until Fowler laid a gentle but firm hand on his shoulder. "Come on, son. You remember how the doc likes his alone time." His words held their usual jocular bite, but his eyes were knowing — too knowing, and again Ratchet turned away.

          "Good night, Agent Fowler," he said dismissively.

          "Don't let the bedbugs bite," rejoined the agent as he steered Raf toward the doors.

          Ratchet spared a few moments after they left to investigate that gnomic utterance, but failed to determine its relevance. Parasitic insects of the cimicid family were no threat to him, feeding as they did on blood, not energon. He dismissed it as yet another of the agent's peculiar idioms and set about calibrating the manual interface on the interstellar communications system Raf had named the ansible — a term from one of Earth's storytelling traditions, since they had no such devices themselves. A secure link was of paramount importance, not only to maintain contact with Cybertron, but also to serve as a broadcast hub for this arm of the galaxy. The sooner the Autobots could begin getting word out that the war was over, the better. Starscream and Shockwave were still at large, of course, but Ratchet strongly doubted they could hold their faction together once Megatron's fall and Cybertron's restoration became widely known. Infighting would tear the Decepticons apart within decacycles, if he was any judge. That augured ill for those who encountered them in the short term, but for the first time in eons Ratchet could see an end to conflict and that hope brightened his spark as almost nothing else could.

          A new dawn. At times he'd not thought to live to see it, but now ...

          He worked steadily, well into Earth's night, until a lag in his processor's response time reminded him of the need for recharge. Having shut off all but the security lights, he logged out of his terminal, then transformed and parked himself out of the way. Not that there was anyone to get in the way of anymore, but old habits died hard. Ratchet briefly scanned his spacious, if spartan, accommodations from wall to wall. But for the low hum of the electronics and a higher-pitched rustling among the rafters that he suspected came from one of the minuscule avians that infested the base, the hangar was silent. Peace at last. No more interruptions to his recharge cycle from someone rolling in hot and in need of a clamp or a weld or major surgery. No more idling through Smokescreen's attempts to step lightly or Bumblebee's to keep his voice down or Wheeljack's to — well, Wheeljack had never tried to moderate his tone or his tread, had he? And having him and Ultra Magnus in the same unit had been like working with antimatter in non-trivial quantities: one containment failure away from an explosion. Not to mention that neither Bulkhead's conciliatory interventions nor Arcee's trenchant advice had done much more than add to the cacophony ...

          A chirp from the avian, unexpectedly loud in the hush, mocked him.

          By the Allspark, I will miss them.

          But he was needed here, as they were on Cybertron. He'd said as much to Optimus when the Prime had drawn him aside to discuss his resolution while the others were packing up. A resource-rich solar system like this one couldn't be thrust onto the galactic stage without considering the consequences. The Decepticons had sought only Earth's energon, but there were other space-faring species who would not limit their predations to the planet's physical assets. The prospect of humans under Quintessan or Vrobian domination was unthinkable, but their disunity and lack of technological sophistication left them vulnerable to just such atrocities. Until they were able to defend themselves, they would require backup.

          "But there is no real need for one of us to continue here at this time," Optimus had pointed out. "With a long-range communications link established and the space bridge at our disposal, we will always be within call should humanity be threatened by a foe beyond its strength."

          Ratchet had snorted. "And who here has the expertise to maintain that link? Or the experience to distinguish between a true threat and a mere misunderstanding?" He had shaken his helm. "No, Optimus. Someone must stay while Earth's guardians grow into their own powers." He had looked to the children then, clustered around one of the terminals with Bumblebee and Bulkhead, downloading an eclectic array of cultural data for inclusion in the Nemesis's library. Their laughter and the sound of Bumblebee's exasperated questions — "'As you wish,' 'Inconceivable' — why can't any of these humans say what they mean?" — had brought a faint smile to his own face. "I owe them that much."

          "You, old friend?" Optimus asked. "Not we?"

          Ratchet raised his shoulder guards in what he hoped came across as a casual shrug rather than a defensive hunch. "Who better? You cannot deny I have the skills required."

          "No," Optimus answered slowly. "But those skills would also find good use on our home planet."

          "I have done enough for Cybertron," Ratchet said quickly — too quickly.

          Optimus regarded him for several nanocycles with unfathomable optics. "Ratchet," he said, just before the pause became unbearable, "I have seen how our long exile has told upon you — how greatly you have yearned for the opportunity to return home." He quelled Ratchet's interruption with a gesture. "Now Megatron is defeated and Cybertron restored by your very servos. You cannot wonder if I find your determination to remain on Earth ... uncharacteristic."

          Ratchet flinched, as if the Prime had pressed a digit on an unhealed wound. "I — " he said and stopped, all the pragmatic justifications for his choice popping off the stack like so many null pointers, leaving only the unpalatable truth behind.

          I betrayed you.


          "I betrayed you," he repeated aloud, but softly, for Optimus's audials alone. "I betrayed them. I cooperated with Megatron of my own free will, though I knew he would test the Omega Lock on Earth." He let out a harsh and mirthless sound. "He never denied it."

          "You were a prisoner," Optimus replied, a terrible compassion in his voice.

          "I could have refused!" Ratchet snarled.

          His lapse of control drew Arcee's attention from the odds and ends she was sorting in a nearby storage locker. She turned puzzled optics on the tableau of the imperturbable Prime and his agitated CMO, but then Jack called to her and she let herself be distracted, joining the cheerful group at the monitor. "I should have refused," Ratchet added, more quietly but with no less vehemence, once he was certain she was occupied with a critique of the duel unfolding on the screen.

          "Whatever duress the Decepticons brought to bear on you," Optimus began, still with that unendurable weight of sympathy, and Ratchet could not allow him to continue.

          "It wasn't like that!" he insisted. "They threatened me, of course, and the children, and all of you, but — " He remembered it clearly, the whole twisted chain of persuasions that had reeled him in, the appeals to his longings as a scientist, a healer, an exile, and it disgusted him. "Megatron showed me it was possible," he said dully, "and I agreed to try."

          He added nothing more, though the silence lengthened. It was for the Prime to pass judgment on him now, though Ratchet knew in his spark that he deserved the ostracism he had chosen. The renewed realization triggered an engram: the voice of a human orator declaring that he would live through all of his world's history if he could only see the hope born of events in his own troubled times. When he'd first heard it, the passion in the voice had piqued Ratchet's interest and he had asked Jack, studying the speech for his history class, what the man had meant by saying that he'd been to the mountaintop — had the address been delivered near such a venue? But Jack had explained that it was a reference to a religious legend, the tale of a prophet who had led his people through exile to the very threshold of homecoming, only to be deemed unworthy to complete the journey. Before he died, though, God took him up a mountain and showed him that they'd made it. An equivocal mercy, Ratchet had thought at the time, and filed the information along with the rest of the Terran trivia he could not help but accumulate. Now he recalled it with sympathy and a certain black envy toward those humans, the prophet and the orator, each struck down within sight of his goal. Ratchet was old, but he would live a long age yet far from the planet of his creation.

          Air cycled through Optimus's vents, a sound very like a human sigh, and he frowned thoughtfully. "The fortunes of war take many strange turns," he said. "Had you not done all that you did, we would not now stand on the brink of a new age for both Cybertron and Earth." His frown lifted, though his aspect remained solemn. "I will not condemn you to exile, but if you would continue to serve our cause and aid our friends here, then I will name you Cybertron's ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Earth, with all the rights and duties appertaining to that post. Do you accept?"

          Ratchet reached out to steady himself on the console, so staggered by Optimus's proposal that he ran a diagnostic on his gyros before replying. "You would — trust me that far?" he asked, for the appointment was no sinecure. Ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary was as much to say that he would be the Prime's voice on Earth, speaking with all the authority of the Matrix-bearer, his word as binding as Optimus's own. It was both a rare honor and a heavy burden — heavier than banishment, in which he might consider nothing but the promptings of his own guilt. "Even now, Optimus?"

          "Indeed, Ratchet," Optimus had replied with one of his rare smiles. "I can think of no one more worthy of such a trust."

          Thus commended, what could he do but accept? Optimus had lodged a declaration of his new status with Agent Fowler that same day, to take effect upon the Autobots' departure. The others had congratulated him with enthusiasm ("Way to go, Ratch!") or reserve ("My felicitations, Doctor.") or relief ("Better you than me, Doc." "For the last time, Wheeljack, my name is not Doc!") according to their natures. Now, he supposed, he was in fact Ambassador Ratchet, though the odds of receiving the deference due his office from his current companions were minimal. Familiarity, not formality, was the hallmark of human culture. He gave it less than a solar cycle before Miko started badgering him for a grant of Cybertronian citizenship. And it would be tempting indeed to accede to her request and send her off to Bulkhead as Cybertron's first human immigrant.

          But no, Optimus would not approve.

          And in all seriousness, Ratchet would have to tread most carefully in future, a titan on this world not only in size and technological advancement, but also in authority. Still, first things first. Hangar E needed to be set in order before he could begin to consult with Earth's leaders about a coordinated defense of their planet, much less their solar system. The children, too, would require his input in their training cycles — Raf, especially. But like a challenge to his mind, the opportunity for service was a solace to his spark.

          That, and his old friend's trust. I will not fail you again, Optimus. I will guard them with my life.

          At some point his musings idled into recharge, though he was startled back online not even a millicycle later by the agitated fluttering of the avian — Troglodytes aedon, he guessed, from what little he could see of it — back and forth across the hangar. It hovered by the milky, dawn-lit windows, occasionally clinging to their frames, emitting twitters of distress. Ratchet grumbled and synched up with the controls for the doors. When next the avian came to rest on a beam near the entrance, he released the locks and slid the left-hand panel back half a meter or so. The avian promptly decamped for the other end of the hangar, giving Ratchet a demonstration of the origin of the human insult bird-witted. He groaned, pulled around beneath the beast, and flashed his headlights upward. "Go on, you silly creature," he said, opening the door a bit wider. "There's the exit."

          With a flurry of wingbeats the bird launched itself at the windows again, but at the last moment a breeze slipping through the entrance seemed to attract its attention. It dove, circling, and finally darted outside.

          Thoroughly online now, Ratchet considered attempting further recharge, then decided against it. The base was beginning to stir, as those with early shifts woke and powered up their various indispensable electronic devices. The steadily increasing traffic through the local datanet was still far less than its daytime usual, however, so Ratchet decided to take the opportunity for a drive. Putting his engine in gear, he rolled out through the doors, making sure to shut and lock them behind him. He called up a map of the base and plotted a course past the residential sector toward the broad fields the soldiers used to practice the arts of war.

          The sky overhead was half-covered by a blanket of grey cloud pushing in from the west, its edges outlined in pale rose by the first rays of the solar system's not-yet-visible primary. The landscape through which Ratchet drove was as different from Nevada's basin and range topography as day from night: a grassy plain rather than a rocky desert, the ground rising and falling in the gentlest of slopes rather than carved in broad gullies between upthrust piers of red stone. Organic life hid everywhere in the vegetation, most of it canny enough to shy away at his approach. He turned off the main road onto a narrower lane that led to a small elevation crowned with a stand of cottonwoods. Beneath their gnarled branches were set several weathered wooden picnic tables interspersed with brazier grills on cement posts. Ratchet's olfactory sensors caught faint traces of carbonized biomass on the morning breeze as he parked on the blacktop, noting in addition the fresh tread marks in the close-cropped grass of the hillside. This must have been where Agent Fowler and Nurse Darby had taken the children and their guardians for a farewell barbecue last night — the night before last, now — while he and Optimus and Ultra Magnus had installed the last and largest components to be added to hangar E from the Nemesis — no task to be executed with squishable organics underpede.

          He hoped they had all enjoyed themselves.

          Ratchet watched the eastern horizon brighten, idly calculating its distance from his current position given the effects of atmospheric refraction. An avian perched in a nearby tree began to vocalize — another T. aedon, perhaps even the same one, chirruping away in repetitive bursts. A steady uptick in human comms chatter answered it, distorted slightly by diurnal phase shifting. The sun rose slowly, a disk of liquid fire setting the cloud cover alight until the morning was well advanced and the ordinary greens and blues and browns of Earth reasserted themselves against the gaudy oranges and pinks and golds of daybreak.

          A new dawn ... over Ratchet's new home.

          Not that he intended to admit it.

A man walks down the street.
It’s a street in a strange world.
Maybe it’s the third world,
Maybe it’s his first time around.
He doesn’t speak the language.
He holds no currency.
He is a foreign man.
He is surrounded by the sound, the sound:
Cattle in the marketplace,
Scatterlings and orphanages.

He looks around, around —
He sees angels in the architecture,
Spinning in infinity.
He says “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!”

— Paul Simon, "You Can Call Me Al"

[Acknowledgments: Transformers Prime was created by Hasbro Studios. Copyright for this property is held by Hasbro.]
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nebroadwe: From "The Magdalen Reading" by Rogier van der Weyden.  (Default)
The Magdalen Reading

August 2014



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