"We're almost there," Arcee said through her human-size doppelgänger.
Jack nodded and reached up to put his hand over the back of hers, hoping she couldn't detect his elevated heart rate through her palm as it rested on his chest. As soon as they had come out of the ground-bridge, he'd started rethinking his insistence on coming along. He was heading straight toward a potentially lethal enemy, and he hadn't taken the time to put his armor on. All he had were his jeans, T-shirt, and shoes.
Oh, well. I've faced Airachnid before with nothing but the clothes on my back and a shitty survival kit. Besides, I don't know if this even is Airachnid. Sure as hell didn't act like her.
Arcee slowed to a gradual stop. Jack and her Mini-Me got off and backed away to give her enough room to transform from her motorcycle mode to her bipedal mode. She crouched, crept up the side of the hill, and peeked over the top. Jack and her remote-controlled, human-size body followed her.
"Huh," Arcee muttered. "I'll be damned."
Jack poked his head up just far enough to get a good look at the scene a few dozen yards away, and found Airachnid sitting off to the side of the highway. The van she'd rescued from a plunge off the overpass was parked where she's placed it gently on the pavement, and a family stood on the shoulder, staring up at her. Police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances surrounded them. The cops had their guns drawn, for all the good it would do.
A familiar engine rumbled up behind Jack and Arcee. He glanced over his shoulder and found Optimus Prime parking long enough for Jack's mom to get out and jog toward him. Optimus detached from his trailer and shifted into his robot mode.
"Arcee," he said softly, "our weapons are in the trailer."
She nodded and turned back to lock her optics onto Airachnid.
"I wonder if we'll even need 'em." Jack stared at Airachnid and shook his head. "I'm not sure how to handle this."
"I don't know what kind of game that bitch is playing," Arcee snarled, "but as soon as I can get her far enough away from all those innocent bystanders, I'm taking her ass out."
"Remain calm." Optimus rested his hand on her shoulder. "Judging by her behavior, she has either lost her memory, or is merely someone who resembles Airachnid. The former would mean the Airachnid we know is likely dead, and the latter would be someone we should not threaten until we find out who she is and whether she is a danger."
"Well, then." Jack glanced at them. "If you walk over to them, everyone else might panic."
"Agent Fowler will be here in a few minutes. His team will cordon off the area and move everyone here to a safe distance."
"If this is some kind of trick," Arcee said, "a few minutes is all it would take for Airachnid to kill everyone around her."
"She has not given any indication of hostile intent. If it is a ruse, the purpose could be to make you go to her, in which case she might attack you on sight." Optimus fixed a stern look on her. "Ratchet doesn't believe you are ready for another battle so soon after your repairs were finished."
"I'll be the judge of that." Arcee rose to her full height.
Jack took a deep breath. "Well, if you're charging headlong out there, maybe Optimus should hang back for now. He's so much bigger than you and Airachnid, all the humans over there would probably shit in their pants if they saw him coming toward them."
Arcee managed to chuckle. "Good point." She glanced at Optimus. "I'm going in."
"Me, too." Jack stood and took a step forward. Both his mom and Arcee's Pretender body reached out to grab him. He jumped forward and they missed. "If they all see a human walking alongside you, it might help keep them calm."
"Jack." June reached out to him again.
"Do we really have to argue about this again, Mom?" He glanced at Arcee and strode off toward the highway. "Come on. Time's a-waistin'."
Arcee sighed. "You know I'll protect him with my life, June." She caught up to Jack in two steps.
"So will I." June dashed after them until she caught up, then kept pace with them.
"I will be ready," Optimus said.
Arcee nodded again and continued forward, keeping her pace slow enough for Jack and his mom to keep up. "I'm sending my Mini-Me back to the trailer to pick out some guns. If this does turn out to be some sort of trap, I'm hoping I can drop the bitch before she hurts you."
Jack smiled and reached up quickly to pat the back of her leg. She smiled back, leaned down to stroke his cheek, and continued walking. Then she cocked her head.
"There's a new sniper rifle in the trailer. Bigger, bulkier, and has a longer barrel than the one I used on the Nemesis." She grinned suddenly. "It's a railgun recently developed by Groom Lake. Optimus just said a slug fired from it will impact with enough force to traverse a Decepticon's body and drill into whatever is behind him. I'll have to aim carefully."
Jack raised an eyebrow. "Nice."
Arcee's optics widened and she beamed. "He also said they've just finished building a full-size version for me. It has an impact velocity of Mach 5. Me likey!"
"Jesus," June muttered. "I'm trying to imagine what that would do to someone. The picture it brings to mind looks like the end of a typical Mythbusters episode."
"Pretty much." Arcee's grin grew even wider. "I feel like I'm gonna have an orgasm just from thinking about it."
Jack laughed. "Oh, suddenly I have some competition?"
"Honey, you'll never have any competition." She chuckled and pointed a thumb over her shoulder. "I'm at the top of the hill back there, lining up a shot on Airachnid. If that fucking bitch makes the slightest move toward you, her head will end up filing a divorce against her body."
He grinned up at her. "That's my girl."
"Damn right, baby." After walking in silence for a few seconds, Arcee grimaced. "Oh, for...I just zoomed in on the family standing at the side of the road, and one of them is Sierra." Arcee pressed her lips together. "And I assume the two adults with her are her parents."
"Sierra? Seriously?" Jack shrugged. "I'd all but forgotten she existed."
Arcee smiled ever so slightly. "Well, here we go."
She strode up to Airachnid and kept her glare laser-focused on her. Airachnid and the three humans--and everyone else nearby--looked up at Arcee and their mouths flopped open.
"Another one," the woman--presumably Sierra's mother--blurted as she grabbed Sierra's arm and pulled her back.
"Take it easy, I'm not going to hurt you." Arcee held her hands up before turning back to the still-sitting rogue Decepticon. "Airachnid."
The other female responded with a blank stare. After several seconds she raised one hand in a half-shrug and said, "What's an Airachnid?"
Same voice, even. Jack shuddered.
Arcee raised a brow plate. "Alright, then, who are you?"
"I..." She wrung her hands and her lips quivered. "I don't know."
Jack and Arcee glanced at each other. Jack shrugged and turned back to Airachnid--or whoever.
"Do you recognize either of us?"
"Jack?" Sierra pulled away from her mother and stepped around Arcee's left leg to find where he was standing. "What are you doing here?"
"You know this kid?" the man said.
"Yeah. Mom, Dad, this is Jack Darby. We went to school together until he disappeared a few months ago."
"Yeah, uh, a lot of stuff came out of nowhere and Mom and I had to move out in a hurry. I wasn't expecting to run into you so far from Jasper."
"Parents managed to get the same two weeks off work and decided to take a drive around the country." Sierra rolled her eyes. "Midlife crisis, probably."
"Hey!" her dad snapped.
Sierra shrugged. "It was pretty boring until about half an hour ago."
"Well, life in Jasper was pretty boring until a few months ago." Jack waved his hand to the left, then the right. "Anyway, this is my mom, June. And this is Arcee." He grinned. "My girlfriend."
"What?" Sierra's face turned slack, as if her brain had shorted out.
The Airachnid-lookalike smiled. "Ah. Now I know your names, but I've never seen you before." Her smile faded. "I've only been active for a little over three hours. I have no memories beyond that."
"Okay, then." Arcee crossed her arms over her chest. "What have you been doing for those three hours?"
The lookalike's eyes grew wider and her mouth quivered and twisted into a mixture of confusion and fear.
"Alright," Ratchet muttered as he pushed one last button. "Let's see what we've got."
Arcee stood a few yards from "Airachnid," holding a shotgun in each hand, waiting for the slightest sign of hostility. Once Agent Fowler, his team, and the National Guard had shown up at the scene, she and Optimus had taken the new arrival back to their base to find out what the hell was going on. Or try to, at least.
The 'Con sat cross-legged on the floor, watching Ratchet with a slight smile. Not the kind of smile she'd always seen on Airachnid, either--there was no malevolence here, only curiosity. Ratchet had set up an exclusive wireless link between the female and a completely isolated section of the base's server.
"Well, there are three hours and two minutes worth of memories on her drive," Ratchet said. "And nothing else aside from the software she needs for basic functions. I've already checked it out and it's the same software the rest of us have for regulating our functions and connecting to nearby wireless networks."
"Play back her memories," Optimus said, and the female nodded.
"That should tell you everything." She looked away from the main monitor. "I can't watch. Living through it once was enough."
The monitor remained blank for several seconds, then an image appeared, spreading from the center toward the top and bottom--a POV shot of her optics opening for the first time.
That looks like the interior of the Nemesis. Arcee raised a brow plate. Only a lot darker than it usually is. Which probably means it's on backup power. Not surprising, given the kind of damage Miko did when she blew up those five Insecticons.
A small window appeared in the lower corner--a log indicating the discovery of a wi-fi network, link-up, and downloading of language files.
A metallic tapping sound came from the left and the image panned in that direction. Lined up on platforms attached to the wall were four dormant Cybertronians who looked exactly like Airachnid--and a single active one.
This one had missing sections of her spider legs and a hole in her chest plate where Arcee had rammed an armor-piercing knife in to the hilt at the end of their last battle. Energon still trickled from the wound.
"That's Airachnid," she growled.
"Oh." The new arrival glanced at her. "I look like her, for some reason."
Arcee nodded and returned her attention to the monitor as the Airachnid duplicate on the far end opened her optics. Airachnid had been trying to loosen the duplicate's chest plate when she noticed the movement.
"Well, what a surprise."
"Where...where is this place?" The duplicate stared at her. "Who am I?"
"Spare parts. Nothing more."
"The thing is, with all the precautions I took, you shouldn't have even booted up." Airachnid held her hand in front of the duplicate's face. "But I can fix that."
"What are you d--"
Airachnid fired her palm-mounted blaster point-blank into the duplicate's head. The duplicate thrashed her arms and legs and released a scream that made Arcee flinch.
"Shit!" Jack blurted. Arcee looked over her shoulder at the platform on which he and his mother stood.
The scream cut off suddenly as the voice's owner died.
"Jesus Christ," Arcee muttered. She hung one of the shotguns on her back and reached over to hold Jack's hand. She looked over at the new arrival and found her clamping her hands to the sides of her head, rocking forward and back, and making soft moaning, sobbing sounds.
From the monitor came a startled yelp. Arcee turned back to the screen and found Airachnid staring straight out of it.
"Oh, another one. Seems like I simply can't catch a break this week." She aimed her blaster.
A pair of purple and black arms rose into view. "Wait! Don't hurt me!"
"I simply can't have more of me running around."
"Why are you doing this?"
"Shh." Airachnid limped closer. "It won't matter in a few seconds."
The newly-awakened duplicate swatted her arm away, turned, and ran. She stumbled and fell, picked herself up, and sprinted down a dark corridor. Airachnid's clanking footsteps followed her, and a blaster bolt seared into the wall a few feet to the left. The duplicate shrieked, jerked away from the shower of sparks, and almost fell again. She reached a branch in the corridor and stopped, turned one way and then another and back again.
Airachnid's footsteps grew ever closer. With a soft cry, the duplicate burst into another sprint, taking the corridor to the right. She continued running in a blind panic, pausing only to try to open any doors she passed by, and found them all locked. After trying a half dozen, she screamed and pounded her fist on the latest one.
"Someone, help me!"
There was no reply. She sobbed and began running again.
Damn. Arcee glanced over at her, still on the floor and whimpering softly, and turned back to the screen.
Corridor after corridor whipped past, with Airachnid's uneven, limping footsteps remaining close behind. Finally, after one more left turn, the next corridor appeared slightly brighter. Sunlight, Arcee realized, coming through an open door or window.
The image panned around again, revealing a jagged opening torn through a metal wall. Another sob came from the speakers and the rupture grew larger as she ran toward it. Her arms and hands appeared briefly as she squeezed through the breach. She tripped and almost fell again, but managed to recover and continue her headlong sprint over a rocky terrain.
Her foot caught on a boulder and she tumbled face-first to the ground. She scrambled back to her feet, glanced over her shoulder, and kept running.
The glance back gave Arcee a good look at the structure the Airachnid-double had escaped. It wasn't the Nemesis after all, but appeared to be the aft section of a similar warship which had crashed in a canyon.
After the running continued uninterrupted for nearly a full minute, Ratchet increased the playback speed. The terrain zipped past, changing from rocky to forest to a flat, desert environment before coming to the highway where the news helicopter had spotted her.
The playback ended. Everyone remained silent for a moment.
"By the All-Spark," Ratchet muttered. "What a horrific way to start one's life."
"Yeah." Jack looked up at Arcee. "What did we just see? It looked like Airachnid...what? Cloned herself?"
"That ship must have had protoforms aboard," Optimus said. "The room appeared to be a laboratory."
June raised an eyebrow. "Uh, protoforms?"
"I guess you could call it the Cybertronian equivalent of a fetus." Arcee shrugged. "It's a standard body that's given life when a spark is placed inside it. Afterward, we add components to complete our bodies and then scan a vehicle for our alternate modes. It's how we all began our lives. And sometimes we use them to switch into a new body or replace one that's been damaged beyond hope of repair."
Ratchet turned back to the monitor and leaned on the console under it. "Airachnid must've stumbled onto the crashed ship, found these five protoforms, and figured out how to turn them into copies of herself, with the intention of cannibalizing them for parts to repair the damage from her battle with Arcee. Ghastly."
"Either the fabricator facilities were damaged in the crash, or Airachnid chose to use the protoforms for this just to be sadistic." Arcee shuddered and crossed her arms tightly over her chest.
"Why?" the clone whimpered. "Why...why would anyone do this? Why?"
"Because she's insane." Arcee glared at the blank screen. "She likes to hurt people. Torture them. Kill them...eventually. It's how she gets her kicks. She got her hands on me and my best friend many centuries ago. Tortured me for information. When I couldn't give her what she wanted because I didn't know it, she brought my friend in. He'd already been damned near torn apart. Barely clinging to life."
She squeezed her optics shut and took a moment to pull herself together.
"Hey," Jack said softly, and held his hands out. She managed to smile and leaned over to rest her forehead against his for a brief moment. She put her hand on his back and hugged him awkwardly before turning back to the clone.
"Airachnid murdered him right in front of me. It left me completely fucked-up for a really long time afterward, to the point where I was almost paralyzed with fear the next time I faced her, just a few months ago."
The clone stared back with her mouth hanging open. "That's...horrible. I can't even think of a word for it." She glared up at the screen. "I hate her."
Welcome to the club. Arcee kept it to herself. This was just too weird.
"We saw three other clones," Optimus said. "They were still offline--still 'unborn,' to use a human term."
Arcee narrowed her eyes. "You're not suggesting we rescue them, are you?"
"They are innocent."
"I hate to say this," Ratchet cut in, "but they're probably already dead. Even if Airachnid hasn't had time to take them apart, she probably killed them to prevent them from booting before she could finish." He turned back to the console, pondered something, and faced Optimus again. "However, there could be something else useful on that ship. An energon stockpile, perhaps, or something we can use as weapons or defensive measures. Maybe even more protoforms held in stasis-lock."
Arcee's jaw dropped. If there are more protoforms, we could use one of them to fix Bulkhead. Transfer his memory core and his spark into one of them, then he could add on parts from his old body and he'd be as good as new.
She took a moment to regain control of herself and looked up at Optimus. "It's worth a look, at least. If nothing else, it'd be a good idea to do everything we can to keep whatever's on that ship out of Airachnid's hands."
"Excellent point. Ratchet, can you determine the crashed ship's location from the video records?"
"Should be able to. We have the clone's entire path from the ship to that highway."
"Good. I will notify General Sanchez. He will no doubt want to send Colonel McKenna's team with us."
Arcee turned to Jack and found him smiling up at her.
"Shall we, babe?"
"Jack, I...aw, hell. I'd ask you to stay here, but I assume you wouldn't listen?"
"You assume correctly. Just give me a few minutes to put my armor on."
Arcee shook her head and rubbed a hand over her face, but didn't waste time arguing any further. "Okay. See you in a few."
Optimus nodded. "Let's gear up. We'll move out when the Colonel's team arrives."
Jack stepped out of the vortex and found himself at the bottom of a canyon. Optimus, Bumblebee, Arcee, the two Vehicon defectors, Starscream, and Airachnid's clone had gone through first and were waiting for them. Ashanti, Washington, Chang, and Jenson had entered the ground bridge with Jack, his mom, and two medics, Harris and Alvarez.
A few hundred yards ahead of them sat the wreckage of an enormous ship.
The clone stared at it, shuddered, and wrung her hands.
"You okay?" the female Vehicon asked softly.
"I almost died in there." The clone pointed at the ship. "Going back...isn't easy."
"You're not alone this time."
She smiled ever so slightly. "That's true. Thank you."
"Ratchet," Optimus rumbled, "we have visual on the crashed ship. We are beginning our approach."
"Understood. Good luck."
The ground bridge's vortex dissipated and he led the team forward. Arcee dropped back to the rear--to keep an eye on the clone, Jack assumed, and probably Starscream as well. She held her brand-new sniper railgun firmly in both hands.
He joined her and tapped her leg to get her attention. "How're you handling...well, you know?" He nodded at the clone.
"I don't know." Arcee stared at her, brow plates quivering as if she were forcing herself not to glare. "I know she's not Airachnid, but she looks exactly like her. I look at her, and all I see is the bitch who killed Tailgate and tried so many times to kill you. It's...hard."
"I'm sorry." The clone glanced over her shoulder. "Maybe I should change my color scheme. I'd still look like her, but maybe not exactly."
Arcee shook her head. "It's not fair to make you change your appearance because of something that's not your fault."
"I'm a copy of a monster that doesn't even deserve to exist. I don't want to look like her." Her right foot came down on a loose boulder, which rolled away and caused her to lose her balance. She stumbled and let out a startled squeak before recovering. "Aw...I'm such a klutz."
"Airachnid has an alt-mode that looks kinda like a spider," Jensen said. "You probably have the same thing. Might make it easier to walk on this kind of terrain."
"Huh." The clone cocked her head. "It never occurred to me to check my software for those sorts of things. Searching now...oh! I think I found it. I'll give it a try." She paused for several seconds, and then her spider legs unfolded from her back, touched the ground, and suspended her body several yards in the air. The rest of her body transformed slightly, her legs attaching and forming a single shape, but her torso remaining as it was before. She moved her spider legs carefully, and after a few seconds she grinned. "You're right, this is easier!"
"Glad it worked out for you." Jensen chuckled and continued on his way.
The clone smiled and spread her arms as she scurried forward. "It's almost like floating!"
Arcee grinned, shook her head and suppressed it. She grimaced, sighed, and allowed the smile to return.
"Any suggestions for a new color scheme?" The clone smiled down at Jensen.
"Hmm. Maybe swap out the purple parts for a little hot-rod red?"
"I'll try it." As she slowed her pace so she wouldn't outrun the humans, the purple sections of her body rippled and changed to bright red. "Hmm. I'm not sure about this."
"Yeah," Chang said with a soft chuckle, "it's a bit much."
"Maybe a darker shade, then?" The red bits dimmed to burgundy. "Hmm. Better, but I'm still not sure." She shrugged. "Oh, well. I'll try a few different color schemes. One of them will feel right, sooner or later."
"Sounds like a plan." Chang smiled, faced forward, and continued on her way. Moments later, the team reached the crashed ship.
Jack scanned for Cybertronian life signs, but no blips appeared in his HUD other than Arcee and the others. He kept it to himself. The poor clone had gone through enough already.
But then, will it hit her even harder if I don't warn her and we find the other clones dead? He held in a sigh.
The male Vehicon pointed at a line of Cybertronian text on the ship's hull. "This is the Harbinger. Last I heard, it went into battle and was never seen again. Guess now we know what happened to it."
"This is only the aft section," the female said. "Which brings up the obvious question--where did the front half go?"
"Perhaps the flight recorder is still intact." Optimus swept his optics over the hull. "If we can find a way inside that won't alert Airachnid, if she is still here..."
"The hole I escaped through is over there." The clone pointed.
"Thank you." Optimus headed in the indicated direction, and the team followed. "Ratchet, we are proceeding inside."
"Understood. Be safe, my friend."
"We will do our best." Optimus plucked his rotary cannon from his back and squeezed through the hull breach. The others readied their weapons and followed him.
The clone remained where she'd stopped, staring into the darkness beyond the breach and trembling. Arcee hesitated.
"Would you rather wait out here? One of us can stay with you if you don't want to be alone." Arcee's optics opened wider and her lips parted, as if she'd surprised the hell out of herself.
"I...I think I need to do this." The clone wrung her hands again, seemed to notice it for the first time, and stopped abruptly. "If I don't, I'll always be afraid. I don't want to be afraid anymore."
"Your fear is understandable," Starscream said, aiming his own wide-eyed stare at the breach. "Even back when Airachnid and I were on the same side, she gave me the creeps like no one else has before or since."
Arcee flicked a narrow-eyed glance at him before turning back to the clone. "Well, remember, there's over a dozen of us, and only one of her." She smiled and patted the barrel of her railgun. "And we're better armed than she is."
Jack plucked his EMP rifle from the clip on his back and made sure it was charged. He nodded at Arcee and climbed through the breach into darkness.
"Okay. Let's do this."