Dragging the back of my hand across my optic sensors, I heard myself groan in exhaustion. It was a terrible sound, unintentional as it was. Lifeflight looked up from what she was doing and stared at me, deep concern etched into her expression, from across the still, prone body of the patient on the medical berth between us.
"Look, Ratchet," she said with her signature infinite patience, "why don't you go take a break? Go take a nap or something, will ya? You're not going to do Ironhide here any good if you can't even keep your optics on."
Lifeflight was wearing her best mother-hen expression, a well-practiced one that she had at one time or another turned upon all of the other medics who lived and worked in the medical bay complex of Autobot Headquarters, all of whom were much younger than she was. She was much older than me, even, had been a medic long before I was a spark in my creator's optics. She was primarily a battlefield paramedic-and a fantastic one-but she often helped out in the medical bay, too, once she came in from the field. She offered moral support, which was almost as important as her thorough knowledge of the inner workings of any given Autobot.
She'd been helping me put Ironhide back together. We'd been steadily yanking him back from the abyss that is death for the better part of an hour. And Ironhide was just the latest in a seemingly endless stream of patients who'd kept us and every other medic busy throughout this long and awful day in an even longer week. I was exhausted. If Lifeflight was tired, I couldn't tell, but she could obviously tell that I was.
And Lifeflight was right, of course: I was endangering Ironhide's life, poking a surgical microlaser around in his innards with hands that were shaking from exhaustion. I would never forgive myself if, in my exhaustion, I did something that would permanently injure or-Primus forbid!-kill Ironhide. But at the same time, I felt compelled to keep working, keep going. My job was to keep people alive, after all, and that was a job that would not wait while I went and took a nap.
Sometimes I hated that job, even though I was good at it. And right then, I hated myself for being exhausted, denied it even as I fought to keep my optics functioning. I hated Lifeflight for noticing that I was on the brink of collapse. I hated Ironhide for nearly getting himself killed-again. I hated Megatron for putting Ironhide in this position. I hated the war. Drowning as I was in the dead and the dying and the injured, a small part of me even hated Optimus Prime for keeping the war going, for not packing up and leaving Earth and its natives to the Decepticons. I hated him for being so damned noble and self-sacrificing, for feeling such a burning need to shelter the fragile human population of Earth from the depredations of the Decepticons, even at the cost of his own life.
Or at the cost of the life of one of his best friends. I looked down at Ironhide at the thought and heaved a deep and shaky sigh. Deactivating the microlaser, I carefully handed it over to Lifeflight, finally meeting her gaze and her gentle, knowing smile with a sheepish half-grimace. I didn't have the energy to smile.
"Go on," she said, jerking her chin toward the exit, before I could say anything. "I can handle him from here, I think."
I didn't argue. I didn't even answer her. I just nodded my head in weary acknowledgment and decided to make my way toward my office. I concentrated on putting one foot carefully in front of the other, on trudging in a reasonably straight line toward the treatment room's exit. I could almost feel Lifeflight's concerned gaze drilling into my back like a laser beam as I headed for the door.
The door swooshed opened and a vision from the humans' hell seemed to yawn on forever in front of me. The main ward. Triage in all of its gory glory: the coldly practical sorting of the wounded into five categories, five priorities. Over there, huddled miserably in a corner, were the Priority 4s, those who were wounded but not in any imminently life-threatening way, those who could wait-and would wait, no doubt for hours-for treatment. Some of them looked up at me hopefully, imploringly, as I passed by. Their injuries might not be immediately life-threatening, but some of them, I noticed, would be extraordinarily painful. I couldn't meet their optics, shut my audio sensors to their pitiful pleas for help. I looked anywhere else.
Unfortunately, in averting my gaze from the Priority 4s, I happened to look over at those on the opposite end of the spectrum, at those unfortunate souls in another corner. These were the Autobots whom the triage medics had determined were beyond help, those who would require so much time and so many resources to repair that another ten Autobots would die for every one of them that we tried to save.
Most of them, thankfully, were unconscious, had been unconscious since they'd been evacuated from the heat of battle. Many of them never knew what had hit them, were basically dead from the moment that they'd been struck down. Their bodies simply hadn't yet realized that they were dead and so they continued to function on the most basic, animalistic level. They were alive, technically, but no one would call them living beings anymore.
But one of them...One of them was still conscious, was still fully aware of her surroundings. And she was looking straight at me, staring at me with an expression of hopelessness and abject terror. Looking at her, I had no doubt that she'd been fully conscious when her death sentence had been pronounced, when the triage medics had declared her Priority 5-the most grievously injured, but last priority. She must have known what that had meant, and since then she'd simply been waiting in agony for her death, with no hope of reprieve. It was, I thought, the cruelest of cruelties.
My optics locked with hers. I couldn't tear my gaze away from the awfulness of her plight. I walked over to her, drawn by some powerful but unacknowledged mutual need. I crouched down next to her, knelt in the steadily-widening puddle of energon that surrounded her body, that was spewing out of several wounds, most noticeably from the terrible gash across her midsection that was her death warrant. Whoever had attacked her had nearly torn her in two.
She was a tiny thing, a speck of a girl as the humans might say. She was just at the beginning of what should have been a very long life.
But she was dying.
And I was just letting her die.
I tried to dredge up her name from the murky depths of my memory. I felt that if I could do nothing else for her then at least I could remember her name. But in my exhaustion I couldn't remember it, if I had ever known it.
I realized that it didn't matter, though. I simply needed to be there as much as she wanted someone to be there. It was a terrible thing to die alone, and I was determined that she wouldn't have to suffer that. Primus knew, she'd suffered enough already. I could do nothing for her medically, as much as I wanted to, as much as my instincts as a physician were screaming at me to just do something. But all I could do was be there with her.
She lay against the wall, curled up in a protective fetal position. Her arms were wrapped tightly around that terrible wound across her belly, her life steadily bleeding from her. Gasping and wheezing and trembling as her end drew near, she hadn't the strength to form words. Then again, I supposed that there wasn't anything that could be said, really. There were no recriminations in her slowly fading optics, just gratitude that I was there, gratitude that made me feel...guilty. Here I was, the most highly-trained physician in the medical bay, and I was just sitting there watching as this young, frightened girl died in agony.
In the end, she gathered the last remaining shreds of her strength and reached out toward me, managed to clamp one blood-slicked hand onto my shoulder in a death-grip. I laid my hand over hers, squeezed it gently. I said the only thing that could be said under the circumstances.
My voice was wavering piteously with emotion and exhaustion.
"I'm so sorry," I said again.
The girl could manage only half of a smile, for a long, dripping gash in one cheek had destroyed the delicate circuitry that controlled her expression on that side of her face. Her optics locked with mine again. One last, wavering whimper escaped her and then, just like that, she was gone. Her optics faded to a lifeless grey. Her body, which had been rigid with unimaginable pain, went limp. Her hand, which had been desperately clutching my shoulder, suddenly relaxed and fell to the floor with a hollow clang, leaving my shoulder smeared with her energon.
It was a ghastly brand, that smear of energon, one that marked me as a useless physician who sat and watched a young girl die instead of doing everything he could to save her, the cold and callous logic of triage be damned.
I sat back on my heels, suddenly feeling sick. Primus, why wasn't I better at this by now? Why did every senseless death still bother me so much, after all of these years? Why did every death still chew me up inside, make me want to scream and shout and tear the head off of every Decepticon that I could get my hands on? Why did I choose to be a medic in the first place? Why couldn't I realize that I couldn't save everyone, no matter how hard I tried? Death is the great equalizer, the one true constant of the universe, for all living beings. Why couldn't I accept that? I'd seen enough death, certainly. The Grim Reaper and I should have been on a first-name basis by now. I should have been inured to it all.
But I wasn't. Not by a long shot. That professional detachment so prized by physicians of all species was not something that I had ever mastered. Nor had I ever really tried to do so. Death, more than anything else, made me angry. And that anger was something that I had never tried to bottle up and put carefully aside as any saner physician in my position might have done. Anger kept me going when little else could. It fortified my resolve while I slogged through mutilated bodies and terrified souls for hours or days on end, swearing to myself that one day it would all be over, that peace would come to my people, and that I would be a contributor to that peace because it was I who put Autobots back together in order to fight for peace another day.
It was days like this one that quasi-noble thoughts such as those went right out the window. On a day like this one, anger shoved aside my thin veneer of nobility with frightening ease. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, a line from a poem came to me, one written by a human whose name I couldn't recall at the moment.
Rage! Rage against the dying of the light, the line went.
Well, I began to rage, all right. Suddenly, I was angrier than I'd been in a long, long time. Standing up, I yelled wordlessly at full volume, as loudly as I could, over and over again. As if to punctuate each yell, I drove a clenched fist into the wall, pounding on it until the individual metal plates that made up the wall began to buckle. I yanked on the edge of one of the buckled plates until it tore loose and then, jerking my upper body around, I hurled it across the main ward like a giant discus. It crashed with an obscenely loud clang against the opposite wall. It had narrowly missed a group of medics who were working on the Priority 1 patients. They stared at me for a moment, shocked into stillness, before going back to the feverish business of saving lives.
My rage for the moment spent, I began instead to tremble. I slammed my back against the wall, clenched my fists at my sides, shut off my optics, and waited for a wave of horrified dizziness to pass. I stayed that way for a few moments, until I sensed that a shadow fell across me. Realizing someone was standing over me, blocking the light, I looked up into the concerned but unflappably calm face of Optimus Prime. Jazz was with him, and he was staring at me warily, as if I was some snarling wild creature that he'd never encountered before.
Staring up at Optimus Prime suddenly made me angry all over again. He was so damned calm. How could he be so calm? He was responsible for all of the lives that were bleeding away literally at his feet-more so, even, than I was. How could it not bother him? I looked up at him, seething inwardly.
"Ratchet, are you all right?" he asked, that deep, reverberating voice of his so calm, so detached, that he could have been inquiring about the weather or something equally innocuous. He seemed completely unaware that I was losing it and completely unaware of the fact that he should be as angry as I was.
I stared up at him for a moment longer, dumbfounded, optics wide and disbelieving. And then I did the unthinkable.
I punched Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots. Clocked him right in the face. His head snapped back and then ricocheted forward again. He stared at me in disbelief, rubbing absently at the left side of his face with the back of one hand, his blue optics wide. But he didn't say a word. I didn't give him the chance.
"That answer your question?" I snarled at him contemptuously. And then I turned away from him and marched toward the safety and privacy of my office. I imagined that all optics, especially Optimus Prime's, were fixed on me as I made my retreat. I heard Prime take a few steps after me, and then I heard Jazz intervene.
"Let him go, Prime," Jazz's distinctive voice said quietly. "I think he needs to be alone for a while."
Good old Jazz. I couldn't have agreed more. I stormed into my office, my sanctum sanctorum, and locked the door behind me. I leaned my back wearily against the door, slid down until I was sitting on the floor, and buried my face in my hands, trying to calm myself.
It seemed to take quite a while. I lost track of how long I stayed huddled in a miserable heap on the floor. Minutes? Hours? I had no idea. With a groan, I pushed myself up off the floor, wincing when I flexed the fingers of my right hand and splayed them against the floor to push myself up. I looked down at my hand to see that my knuckles were torn up, my own dried energon caked on them. They were apparently a casualty of my temper, must have been damaged while I'd beaten the crap out of the wall. A fitting consequence for a temper tantrum, I thought.
I stood up, wondering why I felt so weak and dizzy before I remembered that the original reason I'd left Lifeflight working on Ironhide was to rest. And Primus knew I hadn't rested, so I was now dangerously low on energy. I decided that I had to do something about it. I wouldn't do anyone any good if I ended up passed out on the floor of my office from a lack of energy. Not that I was doing anyone any good just brooding in my office either, of course. With a resigned sigh, I unlocked my office door and let it slide open just a crack, peering cautiously out into the main ward outside the door.
It was darkened. There was no one out there. No patients. No medics. No Optimus Prime waiting to demand an explanation for my wayward behavior. I must have been sitting on the floor in my office, I suddenly realized, much longer than I'd thought. And then I felt guilty all over again. I was the Autobots' chief medic, after all. We were short-staffed as it was. It had been a rather major skirmish, with many casualties. They'd needed me out there-the patients and the other medics alike-and I'd abandoned them all to go have a petty temper tantrum. I had let everyone down. I felt hideous.
Tentatively, I stepped out into the main ward. I found myself wandering around the various wards for a few minutes, checking up on things but trying to be inconspicuous about it. The last thing I wanted to do was to confront any of the other medics at that point. Eventually, I found myself at the medical bay's master computer, looking at some of the day's statistics. They weren't nearly as depressing as I thought they'd be. Over one hundred casualties had been brought in from the battle. Seventeen of them had died, fifty-seven had been treated and released. The rest were going to be keeping us medics company in the medical bay for varying amounts of time, but they were all expected to recover eventually. I was glad to see that Ironhide had been taken off of the critical list. At least I had done something right today...
All in all, my staff had gotten along just fine without me. It didn't exactly make me feel better to know that I wasn't indispensable, but at least my outburst had not cost anyone their life.
I eventually dragged myself into the medical bay's tiny lounge, which was a refuge of sorts for the medics. Someone had unofficially christened the place "The Eye of the Hurricane." A sign over the door said so. But most of the medical staff had taken to calling it just "The Eye." The name had stuck and it was particularly apt; The Eye often seemed to be the only consistently sane, calm place in the chaotic vortex that the medical complex became in the aftermath of a major skirmish. It was a place to relax. It was a place to commune with the other medics, who all faced the same everyday problems, in a relatively stress-free environment. It was a place to escape from the often unrelenting horrors of a war-time medical complex. Most importantly, it had energon. That was all I cared about at the moment. It was also, for the moment, blissfully empty, for which I was glad. I wasn't sure that I could face anyone at the moment, and I certainly didn't want to talk to anyone. Not after the way that I'd behaved today.
I walked over to the energon dispenser, grabbed myself a large helping, and made my way to a table in the corner. I plopped myself tiredly into a chair that faced away from the door, and downed half of the container in one gulp. The tension that had plagued me all day started, ever so slowly, to drain away. It felt wonderful.
The weight of the world had just about removed itself completely from my shoulders when the door slid open and then hissed closed again behind me. I didn't think much about it at first, figured it was another tired medic coming in to fuel up or relax a bit. But then, out of long familiarity, I recognized the footsteps. They were heavy ones, spaced far enough apart that I knew a very tall Autobot had ambushed me. And I knew who it had to be. I just figured that if I didn't look at him, it would delay the inevitable reckoning by a few moments.
Optimus Prime didn't say a word to me. He just pulled out the chair across from mine, turned it around, and straddled it, folding his arms on the back of it. He stared at me appraisingly. I felt like I was about four inches tall under that penetrating gaze of his. I had no idea what to say to him. I was glad when he decided to speak first.
"Well?" he asked, as calmly as he'd spoken to me earlier, before I'd completely cracked.
"How did you know I was in here?" I asked sullenly.
Prime shrugged calmly.
"I asked Lifeflight. She saw you come in here, thought that no one else was in here, so I figured that we could talk," he said. "So I ask you again: Are you all right, Ratchet?"
"I notice that this time you're asking me while safely out of arm's reach," I said wryly, stalling for time. I really didn't want to talk about this. Not now. Maybe not ever. And certainly not with Optimus Prime. I wanted it all to go away. I wanted Prime to go away. But he was having none of it.
"Dammit, Ratchet, no jokes!" he exclaimed with an undertone of rare and genuine irritation in his voice. "I'm worried about you."
Well, that was a surprise... I thought he'd be royally pissed off at me. Well, if he could be candid, then so could I.
"Yeah, well, I'm worried about you," I said before I thought the better of it. "Earlier, I was horrified by you."
"Oh?" came the utterly calm answer. "And why was that?"
I almost laughed out loud. I couldn't believe he didn't understand. I tossed back the rest of my energon, felt its warmth suffuse my body with new energy. It gave me enough energy to be angry again instead of just unutterably tired.
"Why was that?" I repeated disbelievingly. "Why was that?!" Suddenly, I was on my feet. My chair crashed over behind me, and I began to stalk blindly around The Eye, venting my anger at the Autobot leader. Again. "Primus, Optimus, you were standing right there in my medical bay, surrounded by terribly injured, dying Autobots-Autobots for whose lives you were responsible-and you were so damned calm, so unperturbed that you could have been standing on a beach surrounded by vacationing humans. They went through hell for you, Prime, and you didn't seem to care!"
Having paced around The Eye in my tirade, I found myself standing next to the table I had occupied, at which Prime still sat. He just stared up at me, his optics wide but still calm. Enraged, I slammed my fists down on the tabletop and leaned across the table, my face inches from his.
"How can you be so cold? How can you not care? Where is your outrage?!"
I yelled that last demanding question at the top of my voice and, much to my satisfaction, Optimus Prime flinched. Whether he flinched because of what I'd said or just because of the volume at which I'd said it, I didn't care. I'd finally gotten some reaction out of him. Spent, I righted my chair, threw myself into it, folded my arms defiantly across my chest, and glared across the table at Optimus Prime with utter contempt.
Satisfyingly, he couldn't seem to meet my glare. He looked everywhere but at me for a moment or two. When he finally did look at me, he looked...hurt? It was hard to tell because of the "mask" that covered half of his face, but the corners of his optics were pinched just the slightest bit...
"Is that really what you think, Ratchet?" he finally replied. "That I don't care?"
I was taken aback by the question, as quiet as it was. I was angry. I was yelling at him. I suppose that I expected him to yell back, but he didn't. Not that I should have been surprised by that-In all of the long years that I'd known Optimus Prime, I couldn't recall a single incident when he'd yelled at anyone in anger. Even a Decepticon. Now, I didn't know quite what to say, so as usual I fell back on sarcasm.
"Isn't that what I just said?" I shot back acidly.
Optimus Prime nodded decisively then, for no apparent reason. And then he stood up, began to wander around The Eye as I had stalked around it. He came to rest across the room from me, leaned his back against the wall, and folded his arms across his chest.
"Well, you're wrong, Ratchet," he said quietly but emphatically, with more emotion than I'd heard from him all day, with more emotion, perhaps, than I'd ever heard from him. I just stared at him, open-mouthed. "You think I don't care? Well, almighty Ratchet, you are flat-out wrong. Do you have any idea how many Autobots have died under my command so far this year? Can you tell me right this second, without thinking about it? No, you can't, can you?"
Stunned, I could only shake my head at him.
"Well, I can. That 'wonderful' count is now up to 86, after today," Optimus Prime asserted. His voice was still curiously quiet, but it almost seethed with emotion, something that I had never heard from him before. "And I can remember each and every one, Ratchet. Their faces. Their voices. Who killed them. All of it. And that's just this year. How many years have I been in command? And you think I don't care?"
He snorted scathingly, contemptuously at me, and then he started to stalk around The Eye in earnest, just as I had done, while continuing his rant.
"I care more than you can possibly imagine, Ratchet! But I'm also in command here, whether I like it or not. I have to set an example for every other Autobot. I have to keep up morale. I don't have the luxury of showing how I really feel. I don't have the luxury of venting some anger by throwing temper tantrums or punching people. If I did that, what do you think everyone else would do? If I crack, the whole Autobot organization cracks! Do you think that's easy for me? Do you think I enjoy being so...cold...as you put it?
Where is my outrage, you ask? My outrage is right here, Ratchet! It's in your face right now. It's always right under the surface, alive and well, but I don't let it rule me. I put it to more constructive uses. That's a lesson you'd do well to learn!"
And then he stopped pacing and stopped ranting. He just stared at me, optics narrowed to thin, angry blue slits. Now it was my turn to flinch. Optimus Prime saw it, and his expression softened by the tiniest bit. Shaking his head, he came back to the table and settled himself into the chair across from me again. He heaved a long, heavy sigh. I smiled fractionally, despite myself.
"Feel better?" I asked of Prime.
"No," he said grumpily. And then he suddenly clenched a fist and brought it slamming down onto the tabletop, denting the table and making a horrendous clang that could probably be heard in Decepticon Headquarters, which was thousands of miles away and buried under tons of ocean. "Now I feel better," Optimus Prime announced, and there was a smile in his voice that couldn't been seen on his face. "Hitting something does help, doesn't it?"
I chuckled softly for a moment, at my own expense.
"I'm glad that I wasn't within arm's reach," I said lightly. And then, after a moment of companionable silence, I cleared my throat hesitantly, remembering that I owed Optimus Prime an apology. Apologies weren't something that came easily to me, but I realized that I was obligated. "Look, uh...Optimus," I said, "for what it's worth, I'm um... I'm sorry that I flipped out on you today. It's just that-"
"No, Ratchet," Prime interrupted, waving one dismissive hand at me, "you don't need to explain. I may not have the luxury of 'flipping out' as you call it, but you do. You've always been that way-caring, empathetic, passionate about your work. It's what makes you such a good medic. I might quibble that you can be a little too passionate sometimes...but I don't expect you to change."
I looked down at the floor, a little embarrassed. I wasn't one who handled praise well, for some strange reason that I've never quite figured out. And yes, I knew I could be hot-headed and cranky and ill-mannered at times, but I didn't think I was quite so transparent. I looked up at Prime, opened my mouth to say something, but he silenced me with a gesture.
"At the same time," he continued, "you have to understand that I won't change, either. Leadership is my job. It's who I am, and I know how to do it. And I'm not going to start having fits of histrionics just because you think that you know how I should react to things better than I do. All right?"
Chastened, I nodded mutely. Optimus Prime nodded back decisively and then stood up. He made a move to walk past me, but then he stopped and laid a hand on my shoulder, the one that I just then noticed was still stained with a dying girl's energon.
"I'm glad we understand one another, Ratchet. Now, I don't know about you, but I'm exhausted. I'll see you later."
I nodded wordlessly again, suddenly transfixed by the dried energon on my shoulder. Prime gave my shoulder an encouraging pat and then he walked toward the door. When I didn't hear it open, I twisted around and stared at him. There was an odd, far-away look on his face, and I realized that he was staring at my stained shoulder.
"I watched Windrunner die, too, you know," Prime said softly, more to himself than to me. "I wasn't too far away from the two of you then, and I saw what happened. She was just a kid. A good kid. Enthusiastic. Eager to please. It was her first battle...Primus, it's all so senseless..." He paused then, heaving a regretful sigh as his voice trailed off. "But you should know something, Ratchet. You couldn't have saved Windrunner. No one could have. But if it's any consolation, you did save many others today. And you saved Ironhide's life today, too. Lifeflight told me that if it hadn't been for you, he would be dead now."
t looked at him, nodding mutely again. So Windrunner was the girl's name. Of course Prime would remember it. Now I resolved to remember it.
"Thank you," Optimus Prime was saying solemnly and emphatically. "Thank you for saving my best friend's life, just like you always do."
We stared at each other for a long moment then. I had known Optimus Prime for quite some time, but this was the first time I had ever seen beyond the icy mask of leadership that he presented to the world and into what a human would call his soul. Any lingering anger that I harbored toward him abruptly drained away at that fleeting glimpse into Optimus Prime the being, as opposed to Optimus Prime the Autobot leader. I smiled widely, genuinely, for the first time in what felt like weeks.
"You're very welcome," I said.
Prime nodded just once in acknowledgment, and then he turned toward the door, and then he was gone. For the longest time, I sat at that little table in The Eye of the Hurricane, thinking about the events of the past day, and what I'd learned about Optimus Prime. And about myself.
Other medics came and went, ignoring me. Duty shifts changed. Still I sat there, reflecting.
I realized that I had learned a valuable lesson, one that perhaps I should have learned a long time ago, but never really had. I learned that death is inevitable, but also that life-as precious and as fleeting as it can be-goes on. By the time I left The Eye for the sanctity of my own quarters, I had resolved to remember this hard lesson that I had learned from Windrunner's death and its aftermath, just as I will forever remember her name.