Saturday, October 6th, 2012 03:27 pm
Title: A Wing and a Prayer - Chapter 16 (Read or Download at AO3)
Pairing: Skyfire/Silverbolt

Summary: The problem with falling in love with an Aerialbot is that his brothers are pretty much part of the package. And the problem with falling in love with someone who has unfinished business from his past is that sometimes the unfinished business is Starscream...

Notes: I'm going on holiday shortly so there will be a longer than usual gap before the next chapter. Don't worry! I have almost the entire thing written now, so there is definitely more to come. Although, uh... I apologise for the timing of this particular break..


A Wing and a Prayer
Chapter 16


"How is he?"

It was Fireflight who asked, but Silverbolt could tell they were all waiting for the answer - even Slingshot, apparently absorbed in his shooting game - as the door of the Aerialbots' new common room slid shut behind him.

"A little better, I think." Silverbolt crossed the room to the couch where Fireflight and Skydive were sitting, and dropped down tiredly into the space they created for him. "He let me sit in the lab for a while, at least. But he wouldn't let me touch him."

Fireflight leaned in wordlessly, field flowing easily and comfortingly into his. Silverbolt offlined his optics and let it wash over him. He tried to relax his own field, drawn in tightly in an effort to respect Skyfire's wishes.

It wasn't that Skyfire was hurt - at least, not physically. Ratchet had run a full decontamination procedure before Skyfire left the Moon, making sure there were no Decepticon programs or hardware in his systems. As soon as he'd returned to Autobot City, Skyfire had shut himself up in the medbay with Perceptor and run his own scans while Ratchet repaired the damage Shockwave had done to immobilise him. Technically he now had a clean bill of health - as far as anyone could determine, neither Shockwave nor Starscream had tried to sabotage his systems.

But Skyfire had withdrawn in a way Silverbolt had never seen before. He had moved from the medbay to the lab as soon as Ratchet allowed it, where he continued to run tests and procedures on his own systems, and he had asked - politely, but very firmly - that Silverbolt and his brothers stay away. He was reticent when Silverbolt talked to him on the comms and reluctant to leave the lab even to refuel. He wouldn't let any of them into field contact with him.

"Could Starscream really do something to his systems that Ratchet couldn't find?" Fireflight asked in a small voice.

"I don't know. Skyfire thinks so." Silverbolt brought his optics back online and watched Slingshot gunning down tiny green aliens on the vidscreen. "He's… really shaken up by what Shockwave tried to do. He's afraid that his systems might have other vulnerabilities he doesn't know about."

And Skyfire was blaming himself for having older systems, for presenting a liability to the Autobots. It was ridiculous, of course - Optimus's first concern had been for Skyfire's safety, and he would never have blamed Skyfire if Shockwave had succeeded. Skyfire had done his best with their limited technology. No-one would dream of accusing him of putting the Autobots at risk by letting his hardware get out of date - but that was how he saw it, despite Silverbolt's best efforts to change his mind. Add into that his conviction that Starscream had laid some sort of trap for him, and the result was a mass of guilt, self-recrimination, and fear, which Silverbolt could do nothing to soothe because Skyfire was keeping him at arm's length.

"Shockwave had better think twice about showing his face from now on," Air Raid growled. "If I see him out there I'm not gonna stop until I slag him."

"You'll do nothing of the sort," Silverbolt said sharply, all too easily imagining his brother peeling off in the middle of battle. Then he sighed, because in his spark, he'd been thinking the exact same thing. "Besides, he doesn't fight on the front lines. We'll never get the chance."

"If Prowl orders a raid on the Mercury base…" Skydive suggested.

"I don't think he will. It's too dangerous. Not enough of us have the shielding, and the Decepticons can pour out reinforcements from the space bridge."

"So, what, we're just gonna let them carry on out there?" Air Raid had been lounging sideways in one of the chairs; now he swung himself out of it and paced angrily over to the window. "They're swimming in energon! We're never gonna keep up, they'll take over Cybertron--"

"Yes." Silverbolt wasn't really supposed to talk about this with his brothers yet, but he was so worn and sore of spirit right now, he needed them to know. "We know. Optimus Prime and Ultra Magnus talked for hours last shift. They've decided to evacuate Iacon."

There was a stunned silence. Slingshot's game made a smug, discordant noise and flashed 'GAME OVER' at him, but he didn't seem to care.

"We're giving up?"

"No, of course not." Silverbolt found that now he'd told them, it was easier to put aside his own dismay. "We're just choosing our battles. We're going to concentrate on holding Earth. Our next goal will be to destroy the space bridge here - we want to make it harder for Megatron to reach us. We know where they're coming from within the solar system now, so we'll be able to watch out for attacks. Then we wait. Optimus has plans for keeping a foothold on Cybertron - Red Alert and Grapple have already drawn up blueprints for bases on the moons. We wait, and we build up our strength here - and we let them get on with re-energising Cybertron."

"But they'll just keep bringing more Decepticons out of stasis," Air Raid protested. "There'll be thousands of them while we're still just a few!"

"There aren't thousands of Decepticons in stasis," Silverbolt said. "Not hardened, dedicated soldiers, at least. The more Megatron brings Cybertron back online, the more he's going to need the normal, everyday people - the engineers and the factory masters and the scientists. He'll have no choice but to start reviving them even if they aren't dedicated to the Decepticon cause. If we bide our time until Cybertron starts to wake up properly again, we'll have allies - not just other Autobots, but hundreds of ordinary citizens who just want the planet to come back to life. They won't think much of Megatron's warmongering. We'll have a real chance, then - we can organise ourselves and push him off Cybertron for good."

"So we're letting them do all the hard work, then taking over when they've tired themselves out?" Skydive had begun to smile. "I like that idea."

"It still feels wrong," said Slingshot. "Letting them take Cybertron after all this…"

"I know." Silverbolt held his optics for a moment, sharing the sense of bitterness. "But it's the only way we stand a chance. Unless we give up. I'm not ready to give up, are you?"

The chorus of vehement denials brought a smile to his face for the first time in, oh, hours. Maybe days.

"It will be okay," he said, with more certainty than he would have thought he could feel. "We just have to be patient. We just have to wait."

And maybe that was true of Skyfire, as well, Silverbolt thought. He would reach out when he was ready. The more time passed without any evidence that Starscream had tampered with his systems, the more he would be able to relax. Silverbolt missed him terribly - particularly when he was trying to recharge, he hadn't realised how accustomed he'd become to hearing the soft interplay of Skyfire's systems with his own - but he would be patient. However frustrating it was to be shut out, he knew that Skyfire was worrying about him as much as he was about the Autobots or his own safety. Silverbolt would respect that, and when Skyfire was ready to let him back in, he'd be there.

He was almost reassured by the train of thought - almost, but not quite. Somewhere in his spark there was a seed of panic that begged him to try and break down those walls, that demanded he go back to Skyfire right now and refuse to leave until he knew what was going on in Skyfire's processor. The thread of fear was stronger now, much stronger, and it was all Silverbolt could do to keep it from strangling him. There was something else going on, something more than just Skyfire's worries about Silverbolt's safety and Starscream's vendetta. Something dark and painful he'd glimpsed deep in Skyfire's field, some danger he didn't understand…

His comm beeped and for a second Silverbolt hoped it would be Skyfire - that the waiting was already at an end - but he realised it was an official code and quickly composed his thoughts before opening the channel.

:Silverbolt, you'll need to prep for a long-distance flight as soon as your downtime is over,: Prowl said without preamble. :Blaster's picking up an unusual signal from the south pole. We're not sure if it's new or if we just weren't receiving it before the upgrades to the comm tower. There's a possibility… that it may be the sighting beacon for a new space bridge.:

Silverbolt bit off a curse that would have shocked his brothers with its vulgarity. Everything he'd just said to them about defeating the Decepticons in the long term hinged on cutting off easy access to Earth. Another space bridge would make that task a thousand times harder.

:We'll be ready,: he told Prowl. :Do we have any reports from orbit?:

:No. Cosmos is still in the outer solar system and Omega Supreme has returned to Cybertron. None of the human satellites are able to pick anything up. We need you to perform the initial reconnaissance and report back. I'll brief you fully at the start of your shift.:

:Understood.: He'd been thinking, automatically, that Skyfire would be with them - but Ratchet had taken Skyfire's concerns seriously enough to hold off on clearing him to leave the base. Silverbolt shook off the prickle of doubt that assaulted him. Skyfire's expertise on the space bridge and his more complex sensors would have been useful, but they were not essential. It was just a reconnaissance mission. The five of them could handle it. :We'll be in the hangar in two hours.:
*
The wind was terrible as they approached the emptiest continent on Earth. The constant storm that encircled the southern polar ocean - the infamous 'roaring forties' and 'furious fifties' - buffeted them from the west, trying to push them off-course as they flew due south. By the time they sighted land, Silverbolt was starting to feel an ache in his rudder and right wing from constantly compensating for the drift.

Summer was almost over in the southern hemisphere, but Antarctica was still enjoying endless days where the sun never set. The snow that never melted even now was sparkling and pure, a clean white blanket over gently rolling hills. Silverbolt remembered Skyfire telling him once that there were mountains and valleys deep below the ice, a whole landscape smothered and smoothed by millions of years of snow. It reminded him with a shudder of the time Skyfire had spent frozen at the other pole of this planet, locked in ice and helpless as the snow hid him from sight.

But Antarctica seemed quiet, its snowy mantle undisturbed by signs of Decepticon activity. Fireflight was exclaiming delightedly over the penguins that massed and wandered on the plains below. Silverbolt checked with Prowl again, but was reassured that there were still no indications of an ambush like the one they had encountered in Europe. His own sensors were picking up nothing. The beacon itself was still out of their range; they were navigating to co-ordinates Blaster had pinned down with the more powerful equipment in Autobot City.

:Should one of us go up high?: Air Raid asked, and Silverbolt knew he was thinking of Astrotrain and the others dropping out of the stratosphere.

:Blaster's hooked into the human satellite network. He'll know if anyone breaks atmosphere.: Silverbolt checked the horizon again, and ran a quick infra-red scan of the surface below. It would be hard for any Decepticons to hide on the ground. But it was better to be safe than sorry, after all. :Go on, though, if you like. Just pay attention to your de-icers and don't try to go as high as Skyfire can. This is not a good place to get into trouble.:

:I will,: promised Air Raid, curving away from them and spiralling upwards like an enormous bird of prey.

:Skydive,: Silverbolt went on, :can you mirror him below us? I want you running scans in case there's some sort of trap on the ground.:

:Yes, of course.: Skydive dropped away and echoed Air Raid's spiral in the opposite direction.

Slingshot and Fireflight spread out to either side of Silverbolt without being told. The four smaller Aerialbots now formed a vertical diamond shape, with Silverbolt at the centre. It was an unusual formation, one of several Skydive had come up with for specific purposes such as reconnaissance. They hadn't used it for a while, though, because these days Skyfire would almost always be with them, staying high to watch their backs, his more powerful sensors alert for danger. Silverbolt was very aware of his absence.

:Is it me,: Slingshot said after a few minutes of silent flight, :or has the air gone all, I dunno…:

:Sparkly!: Fireflight finished for him.

Silverbolt could see what he meant. There was a faint glitter in the sky around them.

:Ice crystals,: Skydive said. :It's much more noticeable down here. The humans call it diamond dust.:

:Where did you learn that?: Silverbolt asked.

:From Skyfire.:

:It's pretty,: said Fireflight.

Silverbolt's navcom told him they were closing in on the beacon. In another minute or so they would be within range of its broadcast, which would enable them to home in on its position.

:Okay guys,: he said, still checking the horizon for signs of other aircraft. :Remember we're just here to look unless Prowl tells us--:

At that moment, he picked up the beacon's signal for the first time. Or rather, it crashed in on him; the Aerialbots' comm channel was drowned out in a sudden storm of screaming static and Silverbolt was deafened and stunned. He tried to shut down his comms, but he couldn't shut off the signal. Not only that but his other sensors were starting to waver; his vision was suddenly torn apart with lines of jumping grey and the static wasn't just coming from the comms, but from the air around him, battering on his audio receptors. Despite the cold polar air they were flying through, he was suddenly hot all over, not just on his plating but deep in his systems. Something's wrong, something's very wrong. Suddenly his controls weren't obeying him; his elevons wouldn't extend and his rudder was limp. Silverbolt felt himself tilting forward, losing his grip on the wind, and then desperately, helplessly, falling--

He tried to call out to the others but his comms were full of the terrible static and his vocaliser wouldn't work. He thought he caught glimpses of them flitting around him, but what could they do? They were all smaller than he was, they couldn't slow his fall.

Skyfire will catch me, Skyfire will catch me-- He was burning up even as he fell towards icy oblivion, his thoughts fragmenting. All at once he remembered that Skyfire wasn't there, was half a world away.

The awful heat expanded like a fireball and claimed his consciousness as the white world below rushed up to meet him.
*
As far as Slingshot could tell, Silverbolt just fell out of the sky.

His comms cut out halfway through a sentence. After a moment he tilted into a nosedive that he showed no sign of controlling.

:Silverbolt? Silverbolt!: They were all calling him, diving after him, trying to make sense of what was happening. :Pull up! Silverbolt! What's wrong?:

:He's not gonna pull up!: Slingshot shouted, seeing all too clearly the lack of movement in Silverbolt's control surfaces. :He's out cold or something!:

:I'm under him,: Skydive said. Slingshot could just make him out, a dark shape so low he looked like he was skimming the snowy crests. :But if he crashes into me we'll both go down hard, I can't keep him in the air in alt-mode.:

:Silverbolt, can you transform?: Air Raid was trying to catch up, but he'd been so much higher that he couldn't get down to their level quick enough. :We could catch him the way we caught Fireflight that time--:

:He can't hear us,: Slingshot said with certainty. He was flying in tight, crazy spirals, coming close to falling himself as he tried to match Silverbolt's uncontrolled descent. :Fireflight, come on, we've gotta slow him down before Skydive catches him.:

:How?!:

Desperately, Slingshot dug into his memory for any situation like this. They'd all fallen before - they'd been shot down, they'd had accidents in the air, they'd stalled or dived too steeply or banked too hard - but usually they'd be able to transform so they could grab onto their brothers. And usually they fell from lower down, in the middle of manoeuvres - Slingshot couldn't remember any of them falling from cruising altitude. Even with his Cybertronian frame and reinforced plating, Silverbolt was moving so fast he might well break up when he hit the ground. Slingshot didn't know if he could survive that. If he could only transform…

Two memories collided - Silverbolt telling them how he'd triggered Skyfire's transformation under Vos, and Starscream transforming mid-air and landing on Silverbolt's back. Slingshot didn't stop to try and work out the details of his half-formed plan - that wasn't his style. He twisted in the air, angling down almost vertically to catch up with Silverbolt. Just when his nosecone would have speared Silverbolt's fuselage, he transformed and flung his arms and legs around his brother as they collided.

:What the frag are you doing?!: screeched Air Raid.

Slingshot didn't answer, too busy clinging on for dear life. This wasn't like riding on Silverbolt's back when he was flying level - the extra weight had sent him into a spin, and Slingshot was in danger of being thrown off. He grabbed frantically at Silverbolt's wings, using them as handholds as he tried to find that one panel that always came open when they combined into Superion.

:Slingshot, you're gonna crash!: cried Fireflight.

Slingshot tore the panel open and plunged his hand inside. He didn't know what he was looking for, but he recognised it when he found it, the whisper of gestalt-memory left over from the times they had merged into one mech. It was that same instinct that made him seize hold of the transformation cog and twist it so hard he was afraid, for a split second, he would break it.

Then, with a whirr of machinery, Silverbolt's alt mode broke up and flipped him into his root form. They were still falling, but now Silverbolt's mass was greatly reduced and his body more easily grappled. Skydive and Fireflight understood at the same moment, one swooping in from the right, the other coming up from the left and below. They had no time to match speeds properly, but they did their best. Slingshot threw one arm over Skydive, clutched Silverbolt with the other, and swung his legs over Fireflight's wing, feeling them both try to pull up and slow them down, but the ground was too close…

They crashed in a huge explosion of snow. Slingshot managed to hang onto Silverbolt as they were thrown clear of the other two. It was painful, but it was easily one of the better crashes he'd experienced. They'd done it. They'd brought Silverbolt down safely.

Except that crashing might be the least of his problems. Slingshot turned him over and found his optics blank and his limbs shaking. He kept twitching and grabbing at the air, and his plating was so hot the snow was steaming off it.

:Get over here--: Slingshot started, but the comm was suddenly cut off by a harsh, staticky transmission from Silverbolt. And then the signal cut out completely. Slingshot tried to reach his brothers again and came up against the familiar, muffling sensation of a jamming field.

"Get over here!" he shouted instead.

Fireflight and Skydive staggered to his side. Air Raid screeched overhead and came down fast and hard in the snow some distance away. Seconds later he was running towards them.

"I can't get through to Autobot City!" he was yelling. "I can't get through to anyone!"

"He's jamming us," Slingshot said. "How can he be jamming us when he's unconscious?"

"He isn't." Skydive had the handheld scanner out and was running it over Silverbolt, brow furrowed with worry. "It's coming from the beacon we were heading for. That transmission just now was some sort of activation signal."

"But why would Silverbolt activate--" began Fireflight.

"He wouldn't! Obviously! Something's wrong--" Skydive touched Silverbolt's plating and winced away. "Primus, he's burning up! His circuits are red-lining all over!"

Silverbolt suddenly cried out wordlessly and arched up from the ground. Slingshot had seen that sort of stiff, jerky movement before - in humans suffering what First Aid called seizures. He'd never seen it happen to a Cybertronian. He didn't know what to do. Skydive didn't know what was wrong, and Skydive was the only one who had a chance of figuring this out. They couldn't get through to Autobot City. They couldn't call for help, they couldn't carry Silverbolt back while he was thrashing like this, they couldn't do anything except watch helplessly because Silverbolt was the one who always knew what to do

"Air Raid, go." It wasn't a plan, exactly, because that would have required Slingshot to have thought about it for more than the nanoklik before he spoke. "Get in the air and fly due north, who cares where you end up, just get out of range of the jamming field and get help." Air Raid stared at him, too panicked to comprehend, and Slingshot reached out and shoved him backwards. "Go on!"

As Air Raid stumbled into his transformation and took off, Slingshot started grabbing handfuls of snow. "Get as much of this on him as you can," he snapped at Fireflight. "We've gotta keep his circuits cool."

He'd made fun of First Aid plenty, used him as an easy way to get at Blades, but the Protectobot often talked to him when he was stuck in the medbay, kept him company, and one of the things he'd talked about recently was the outbreak of disease in Uganda that he and his brothers had tried to help mitigate. Slingshot hadn't really cared or wanted to listen, but he'd been so bored he hadn't been able to help himself. And even though that had been a human sickness, he saw the parallels in Silverbolt and he remembered what First Aid had said about fever - you had to keep them cool or they burned themselves up before any medications could help. Silverbolt's systems could stand much higher temperatures than frail human flesh, but the heat coming off him now was already dangerously close to his limit. The snow was melting as fast as they could shovel it over his plating.

Cybertronians didn't get sick - at least, not the way humans did - but there was something Jazz had warned them about before they'd gone to Cybertron, something Slingshot had barely paid attention to because it sounded like geek stuff, something about firewalls and unverified code and being careful about downloading anything from the long-dormant computers that might have been trapped by the Decepticons…

"Check his processor!" Slingshot tried to remember what Jazz had said. "See if he's running something - a program - slag it, one of those things, humans use the word for something different but it's kinda like this--"

"A virus?" Skydive jabbed at the controls of his scanner and prised open a panel on one end to reveal a coiled up fibreoptic cable. He yanked it free and jammed the end into a port on Silverbolt's neck. Silverbolt screamed and jerked away, dislodging the cable. "Hold him down!"

Slingshot grabbed Silverbolt's shoulders and helm and pressed him into the snow as Skydive reconnected the scanner. Its display immediately started flashing red warnings as a stream of code flew across the screen.

"Slag," Skydive muttered, pulling up more diagnostics with deft swipes of his fingertips. "You're right, it's a computer virus - but it's everywhere, and I don't see how -- oh, Primus, all his firewalls are down. All of them! His antivirus, his core permissions, everything's been disabled. The only reason he's not offline is the built-in failsafes in the hardware, but they're going down too."

"Can you stop it?"

"I don't know how! It's happening so fast, I don't know how to get his antivirus back up without rebooting his processor and I can't do that, that's high level medical intervention, we need Ratchet or First Aid…"

"We haven't got Ratchet or First Aid." Slingshot braced himself as Silverbolt shuddered and tried to twist away from his grip. "What about stasis?"

"No, the virus is already in his static processing blocks. Even if we shut him right down to bare minimum it'll keep going." Skydive was still working on the scanner, but Slingshot had the sense that it was more out of a need to be doing something at this point. "We need a self-loading antivirus chip or a remote firewall connection…"

"What about us?" Fireflight had been preoccupied with shovelling snow onto Silverbolt's overheating body even though it was obviously doing very little to help, but he must have been thinking hard the whole time, listening to what they were saying and searching his vast store of answered questions for something they could use. "If we plug into him as if we were combining…"

"We'll get it as well," snapped Skydive. "It'll infect all of us as soon as we connect to Silverbolt's systems…"

"But we've all got our antivirus still!" Fireflight was talking fast but with certainty. "The virus can't have taken Silverbolt's down, because it would have to get inside first to deactivate all the firewalls, so it must be something else that's done it and now the virus can do what it likes but if we plug in we might be able to fight it off--"

"You can't use someone else's antivirus, it doesn't work like that--"

"Maybe not for normal mechs but we're gestalt, we must be using the same programs when we're Superion, Silverbolt's systems will recognise us--"

"We've gotta try it," Slingshot said. The thought of letting that malevolent code anywhere near his systems made his plating crawl, but he reached down to his side and clicked open the covers on the primary connectors he used when combining with his brothers. "Me and you, 'Flight, so Skydive can keep scanning and see what's happening."

Fireflight nodded, already opening his own covers, the mirror image of Slingshot's. They couldn't link up with Silverbolt fully the way they would as Superion - Silverbolt would need to transform for that, and Slingshot didn't think he could force the secondary transformation the way he'd put Silverbolt back into root form - but there were cables and wires that could be pulled out and jury-rigged to connect to Silverbolt's ports. Skydive told them which ones to use, optics briefly leaving his scanner only to return as soon as he was sure they had it.

"Hurry up," he said. "His servo controls just went down."

Silverbolt had indeed gone very still. That was worse than the thrashing had been. Slingshot fumbled for the last connector and jammed it into place. He felt an immediate surge of data from Silverbolt, the familiar blend of their systems mixed with a prickling, invasive rush of code that battered his firewalls like a storm.

"Urgh," said Fireflight eloquently.

"Get your diagnostics going and make sure all your firewalls are on full strength," Skydive instructed. "Tell me what you're reading."

"It's not getting in," said Slingshot after a moment. He tweaked his antivirus even higher, and felt the sickening pulse of the virus ease. "Fireflight was right, something else must have taken Silverbolt's down. It can't get through to us."

"Okay. Good. Now you need to…" Skydive paused, struggling for words. "You know when we combine and it feels like sort of opening up and sliding past each other? You need to do that without transforming."

"How are we supposed to…" But even as he protested, Slingshot found the trick of it. It was awkward and uncomfortable, and he felt like he was trying to think in two directions at once, and the urge to transform was almost irresistible, but he could feel the gestalt connection and he clung onto it with steely determination.

"It's working." Skydive's voice shook with relief. "It's working! I'm reading your antivirus in his diagnostics, and it's cutting off the virus processes. I don't think it can cure him, but it's keeping him stable."

"So we need to keep doing this until help comes?" Fireflight sounded dazed from the same effort that Slingshot was exerting to keep himself in the state between individuality and gestalt. "I don't know if I can."

"We'll take it in turns if we need to," Skydive said. Silverbolt twitched and raised a hand; Skydive caught it and held it tightly. "His servos are back up. His primary systems are stabilising and some of the heat is dissipating."

"Silverbolt?" said Fireflight. "Can you hear me?"

"He can't," Skydive replied. "But I think he knows we're here."

That was enough to keep Slingshot going for the next two hours, even though he started to go numb from exhaustion and feel his processor wandering as they waited. Fireflight swapped out with Skydive, but Slingshot told himself he could hang on. And he did, until Skyfire came roaring in from high atmosphere, burning from re-entry like a falling star, and Slingshot knew that Silverbolt would be okay.
*
After days of isolation, the chaotic field contact from the Aerialbots clustered around Skyfire was overwhelming. Their raw emotions and worry made it hard for him to think, or deal with his own feelings - but in a way, he was glad of that. The inside of his processor was not a good place to be right now. He turned his attention outwards and did everything he could to comfort the others. Their fields overlapped with each other and his. There was no point now in keeping them away from him.

Ratchet had made no effort to remove them from medbay. Silverbolt was hooked up to more machinery than Skyfire had known the Autobots possessed, all of it working steadily to clean out his codebase and repair the damage to his memory blocks. He was in deep stasis, so deep that he would never come out if it weren't for the secondary processor wired directly into his neural network, keeping his consciousness at a safe level. Physically, his injuries from the fall and the damage of overheating circuitry were easily repaired - but Ratchet didn't dare work on them until he was absolutely sure that all Silverbolt's processes were running correctly. So he lay there, battered and frail, and terribly, terrifyingly still.

Skyfire was trying not to look at him. He concentrated instead on the terminal Ratchet had told him to use, and on talking to the Aerialbots clustered around him. He would be working faster if he weren't explaining everything he was doing, but he would gladly sacrifice efficiency for the distraction it was providing all of them. It wasn't as though this work would do anything to help Silverbolt - it just might give them some answers.

"It was definitely the signal," Skyfire said, studying readouts of the beacon that had now been thoroughly destroyed, its parts brought back for Perceptor to pore over. "See, here's the virus, encoded into the upper wavelengths."

Skydive and Slingshot were watching intently, and nodded when he indicated the thread of bright purple on the screen. Air Raid and Fireflight were paying less attention, keeping their optics on Silverbolt, but they were also the ones pressed closest to Skyfire, and he knew that just the sound of his voice was helping them stay calm.

"Why didn't the rest of us get it?" asked Skydive.

"Fireflight was right," Skyfire replied - and oh, Primus, for a moment he wavered, all too aware that if the pooled knowledge of the four of them hadn't prompted them to do exactly the right thing, Silverbolt would have… he forced himself back on track. "Your antivirus was more than enough to protect you. But there's something else in the signal - a trigger. It… must have been set to activate another piece of programming, already in Silverbolt's processor. Something that would take down his antivirus and leave him open to the attack."

"How did it get there?" demanded Slingshot.

"Starscream must have done it when he had Silverbolt prisoner--" Air Raid started.

"No." Skyfire shook his head. "I'm absolutely sure it wasn't there when we got Silverbolt back. Somehow it got to him afterwards." A horrible thought struck him; he had to suppress a shudder. "When was the last time you combined into Superion?"

"Wasn't it that battle with--"

"No, it was on Cybertron," said Skydive. "We combined to talk to Metroplex. We haven't done it since."

"Then Silverbolt must have picked it up after that," said Skyfire. "Otherwise all of you…"

He couldn't finish the sentence, but he didn't need to. They understood. Just as Silverbolt's systems had recognised and accepted their antivirus through the gestalt link, so the insidious program would have passed to them without challenge if they had joined before it was activated. And if that virus burst had taken them all down…

There was no way around the stark truth: they all would have died. Prowl had ordered an emergency response as soon as he lost contact with the team, but Skyfire would never have reached them in time. He had barely reached Silverbolt in time, and only then because Slingshot's quick thinking in sending Air Raid for help had meant he could guide them in. And because Slingshot, Fireflight, and Skydive had kept Silverbolt hanging on just long enough.

Just for a moment, Skyfire couldn't do it anymore - couldn't keep up the facade of calm, couldn't control the howling chaos of his emotions. Without speaking, each of the other four enclosed him more firmly in their overlapping fields, taking their turn at comfort. Skyfire offlined his optics and clung gratefully to their support.

It must have happened after Cybertron - and Mercury. Skyfire had been so afraid that Starscream had found a way to hurt Silverbolt through him - but he hadn't even touched Silverbolt since his return. He'd kept himself so isolated - double and triple checked everything - and there was nothing in Skyfire's systems that would have given Starscream access to Silverbolt's, not at that distance. So how? Had he downloaded something in the last few days? Had access to some sort of datachip that could have slipped the sabotage program into his code? Skyfire realised that he had no idea. He'd been so frantic to keep Silverbolt away from him, he didn't know what he'd done or where he'd been since his return from Cybertron. Guilt threatened to swallow him whole. He should have been on the mission with them. If he hadn't been so paranoid - but no, it wasn't paranoia, Silverbolt's still and silent form on the berth proved that - but if he hadn't guessed wrong, had stuck by Silverbolt as he should have - as he'd promised he would…

"It's not your fault," said Fireflight very quietly.

They were reading too much in him. He wasn't shielding as well as he should. Skyfire forced his optics back online and focused on the screen, pulling himself together with difficulty.

"Was there anything he did since Cybertron - anything unusual or different that might have left him open to the first half of the virus?"

It was enough to distract the Aerialbots as they started messily reconstructing Silverbolt's movements for the last few days. Skyfire winced every time one of them began a sentence along the lines of "And then he tried to comm you, but you weren't answering, so…" He'd been so stupid. What good had shutting Silverbolt out done? None, and it had almost got him killed. If he'd been there with him…

Comms. The second half of the virus had come through the comms. The first half… that was one way to get past someone's firewalls, but it would have to be on a completely trusted channel, one that they wouldn't even think of checking…

Skyfire went cold. His logs had been blank for the time between Starscream disabling Shockwave's machines and when he'd awakened in space. All his logs - comms included. He hadn't thought anything of that at the time, accepting it as part of the general blankness, but why would Starscream have bothered to wipe his comm logs for that period, when he could neither send nor receive?

"On your way back from Cybertron," Skyfire said, cutting through the Aerialbots' discussion, "before you picked up my distress signal… did Silverbolt receive any comms?"

"I don't think so," said Skydive after a moment. "He didn't mention…"

"But he knew something was wrong with Skyfire before the distress signal," Fireflight put in. "Remember? He was talking to Prime and then he suddenly stopped and Prime was asking him what was wrong and then the next thing…"

"Yeah, that was when Omega told us you were in trouble."

The coldness expanded to fill Skyfire's whole body. It would have been a short contact, he thought distantly. Half a second, probably. It wouldn't have occurred to Silverbolt to question it. He would have thought it was Skyfire trying to reach him. And even if he'd wondered later about that, knowing that Skyfire had been unconscious at the time, would he have thought it was important enough to mention? He might not even have wondered - he might have forgotten completely. Or he might have been planning to mention it to Skyfire, except Skyfire had made it almost impossible for him to bring it up…

The rhythmic beeping of the monitoring machines was suddenly intolerable and Skyfire felt as though he were pinned to the ground. He managed to keep his voice, and his hands, gentle as he extricated himself from the Aerialbots.

"I need to… I'm going to go outside for a while," he said. "I just need… you'll comm me if anything changes, won't you?"

"Of course." Skydive was looking at him with something far too close to comprehension. "Do you want us to come with you?"

"No." That was too harsh. He didn't want to hurt them - Primus, more than anything he didn't want to hurt any of them. "I need to be alone for a while."

They let him go. He thought, as he forced himself to walk rather than run from the medbay, that if they had done nothing else to earn his love, that would have been enough.
*
Optimus Prime looked up as Skyfire entered, and waved him to a seat. Skyfire was glad that the briefing room was empty except for the two of them. He hadn't told Optimus why he had requested this meeting, but maybe the Prime had guessed.

"How is he?" Optimus asked. There was no need to clarify.

"Better. He was awake for a couple of hours earlier. He's groggy, but he's himself. Ratchet's been able to repair the damage he took in the fall."

"And the others?"

"Still in the medbay. I don't think Ratchet has the heart to kick them out, even after a week."

"And were you able--"

"Yes." Skyfire took out his datapad and passed it over without looking at it. "We were able to confirm my hypothesis once Silverbolt was coherent enough to answer questions and give us a download of his comm logs. The first half of the virus was sent using my comm system while I was unconscious. It was a databurst that immediately replicated itself in the back of his processor and waited for the trigger from the second half, which was carried in the beacon signal."

Optimus was silent for a moment. When he spoke, the anger in his voice sent a shiver through Skyfire.

"This was despicable. Cowardly, cruel, and of no real purpose to the Decepticon cause. Petty revenge using the basest treachery to exploit the bonds of trust."

"If the Aerialbots had combined into Superion, it could have taken them all out," Skyfire said. "In that sense, I suppose it could be argued that it served some… purpose to the Decepticon cause."

"But you and I both know that was not its intent." Optimus sighed and turned the datapad over in his hands. "I've seen the rest of your report, Skyfire. Go on."

"You're launching the moonbase initiative within the next month, correct?" Skyfire kept his voice level. "I should be a part of that. They'll need space transport and I can pull double duty on construction and engineering."

"That's true." Optimus was studying him now with a sadness in his optics that made Skyfire more uncomfortable than he would admit. "But I had planned to send Omega Supreme. The 'bots who go to the moons will have to remain there without a chance to return for some time - at least a year, on Earth. I am planning to select those who will not find it too burdensome."

"I'm used to long expeditions," Skyfire said. "I'm a better choice than Omega - I can do more for the base construction, and if I cover the science section you won't have to decide whether to separate Perceptor from Chip or Wheeljack from Carly. The humans will feel that length of time more acutely than we will. It wouldn't be fair."

"The younger 'bots also feel the passage of time more acutely." Optimus regarded him steadily. "Is it any fairer to Silverbolt?"

"You're sending Prowl," Skyfire countered, knowing it was a low blow. "Some sacrifices have to be made. I'm the best choice. And it might… maybe it will keep him safer."

"It had to be Prowl," Optimus said quietly. "There was no room for negotiation. That is not the case here. I cannot assign the Aerialbots to the moonbase mission, but there are other options than sending you. Have you spoken to Silverbolt about this?"

"No."

Skyfire stared down the Autobot leader, daring him to comment further. But Optimus was adept at knowing when his advice - or comfort - would not be welcomed.

"The roster is not due to be finalised for another week," he said. "If you change your mind…"

"I won't," said Skyfire.

- end chapter 16 -