The scream of missiles through the night air reverberated inside the ambulance bay like a drum and a second later Ratchet flung himself, cursing, across his closest patient as the ambulance swerved violently, an explosion shaking the road under their tires.
“Sorry, sorry!” Chaser called, normally mellow voice high with panic among the moans of his cargo.
“Save your processor power for steering,” Ratchet snarled, hauling himself off his patient. He groped along the gaping hole in the mech's side; the power cables of the emergency PSU slipped between his fingers and he cursed, fumbling after it.
The mech whimpered, optics flickering dimly. “Makeshift?” he called weakly. “Makeshift?” Miraculously his optics managed to fasten on Ratchet. “Doc...”
“He's fine,” Ratchet told him grimly as he located the cables and plugged them in to the bot's spark containment unit. “He's in the convoy behind us.”
“Good,” the mech sighed, slipping into stasis. Ratchet waited a second, and then began clamping energon lines in the mech's remaining leg.
A few joors later Chaser told him – voice shaking with uncertain relief – that they had outpaced the Decepticon's advance. Ratchet grunted an acknowledgement, up to his elbows in vital wires – he could have told that himself from the relative silence outside the ambulance.
//Whose in charge now?// he snapped across the short range coms that had escaped the general jamming field. //Or are we to charge across Cybertrons like blind morons?//
//Sir,// Solder's voice was very small, //Sir, you're the ranking officer now.// Ratchet paused, doing a quick tally of the dead and all-but dead that had passed under his hands since this clusterfrag began. Slaggit, the mech was right.
He sat back on his heels with a sigh, pressing his hand against his chevron, trying to pull his head out of mech's innards into the wider world. He became aware of a tense, anxious expectancy on the medical com lines.
//Alright,// he said at last, //Which of you fraggers has a map of the area?// Three were pinged to him at once and Ratchet opened them, snorting in black amusement to see one them had must-see beauty sports marked. Several were now far behind Decepticon lines.
//There's a resort town a few miles on,// he said at last. //We'll make for that.//
It was late evening when they roared into the town, staring with a kind of dumb bemusement at intact buildings and working lights. That was nothing, however, compared to the biggest hotel in town from which light, cheerful music poured.
Ratchet clambered out of Chaser, stared silently at the elegant, fluted facade for a long moment, then hammered on the door.
The maitre'd was rather inclined to protest the commandeering of his hotel. Luckily, one of the Towerlings attending the party was part owner of the hotel and had more sense than the rest of the breed, and ordered the doors flung open to the medics and coaxed Ratchet into letting the choking maitre'd down.
After some stunned milling most of the other guests rose to the occasion as well, defying their ornamental armour to help the medics in bidpedal form to unload the ambulances and their colleagues who had chosen to carry the non-ambulatory wounded. Parties were dispatched to fetch all the medical supplies available in the town to replenish the medics' stocks, and the ballroom was swiftly turned into a hospital ward and operating theatre as medics performed miracles under the light of the chandeliers. Limbs piled in the corners of the room as medics chose to amputate rather than leave unsalvageable limbs as a drain on the system. The polished floor grew slick with energon and coolant. The wonderful acoustics caught and echoed the cries of pain and confused mumbling of processors fragmented by shock. Some were too scrambled to process a medic's command to shut off pain receptors and then the medics called in the burliest mechs to hold their patients down as they operated, closing their own audial sensors to the screams.
At one point Ratchet pulled himself away from his patients to talk to a young soldier they'd managed to raise on the town's land lines. The small mech – coloured a ludicrously cheerful yellow and suffering from a violently twitching optic – gave him coordinates for the evacuation staging centre that had been set up, Autobot High Command having concluded the defence they had planned was now futile and must be pulled back.
Ratchet bit back several choice words – they'd save better for this hapless mech's commanders in chief – and ordered him to get the glitch in his eye seen to just before an explosion at a routing station – they learned later – disrupted the lines and cut them off again.
Ratchet cursed the dead com centre for a satisfying half minute and went to reorganise the convoy.
Many of the civilians had already left although more were refusing to move, insisting that the Decepticons would respect their non-combatant status. Ratchet wasted a good joor arguing with them then threw up his hands and stalked back to the patients that had to be his primary responsibility, ignoring the clawing in his spark.
They had managed to get several mechs ambulatory since arriving and several more had died. (One of those had been the mech Ratchet had operated on in Chaser. He had wasted a long moment sitting, head bowed, with the mech he had lied to.) But there had been a steady trickle of new arrivals as well as other routed units made for the town, including a medic with seniority on Ratchet. The idiots were still listening to him though, and Ratchet wasn't in the mood to let anyone else bungle the undertaking, so hooked them all wholesale into his plans.
They worked quickly, racing the Decepticons' advance.
Usable parts were stripped from dead mechs but there wasn't the time to salvage more that the most essential, the most easily removed, and the most transportable. The rest was dragged into a huge pyre and doused in acid, a few words to Primus muttered over them by the holiest looking mech that could be found and dragged out.
Ratchet watched as the strained, haunted expressions on the gathered mechs eased, felt his own shoulderstruts – foolish! - relax as the empty armour and components twisted and melted. It was assurance that a friend's parts couldn't be taken and used to patch a Decepticon's frame, a promise that the same protection would be offered to them if they fell.
“I'll take the identity discs with me,” the blue Towerling who had thrown open the hotel's doors to them offered quietly, his optics fixed on the twist of chemical smoke rising the mass pyre. “My home city is in the path of the advance – I need to help with the evacuation.” To convince them they must evacuate, Ratchet translated mentally. “Even with that, I'll travel faster than you will with the wounded – I'll see them back to the Autobots before you reach them.”
Ratchet eyed him. “If you don't I'll take them out of your plating when I see you,” he warned darkly. A restrained, elegant smile was his answer.
The next day the medical convoy set out again. Ambulatory patients were sent on ahead, a few able bodied soldiers reaming to provide protection to the medics and their wounded.
It was an endless, spark destroying race through and ahead of devastation. They set up camp in abandoned buildings to perform the procedures they couldn't in the jolting ambulance-formers, or with the medics themselves transformed to provide transport to just one more mech. Ratchet performed seventeen operations in a row and recharged leaning against a wall, waking up only when he fell over.
The cons had some new weapon, a dirty bullet that infected the wound with some kind of virus that ate and weakened the metal, and Ratchet found himself thinking up new medical procedures on the spot, cutting away the infected metal until all that was left was clean and the mech's own repair nanytes could take over. Even a scratch could become deadly.
The medical encampments had another purpose. They allowed retreating soldiers and fleeing civilians to find them, and wounded and medics spent every spare moment thinking up ways to hang up the medics' sigil and signpost the current encampment. The signs should have kept them safe as well. It had been a tenant of Cybertron's conventions of war for thousands of vorns that medics and those under their care were sacrosanct.
An ambulance ventured out to a main thoroughfare with a small crew, parked, and lit up the symbol on his roof and sides. Seekers bombed him from the air.
Ratchet received the news with the feeling of the universe being turned inside out. Impossible to know how to feel. Anger was easiest.
He kicked a metal post to slag, frying the air with curses, and then ordered the encampment pack up and moved. He walked with a slight limp after that, but he needed his hands more.
The Autobots fighting the retreat provided them with some cover. The best defence was to keep moving but they couldn't do that and do their job so they still stopped and set up camp and Ratchet sometimes felt as if his spark chamber would split for the rag tag mix of ambulances, orderlies, first-aiders under his command, armour-welders performing circuit surgery, and he cursed and cuffed their helms and they stood a little straighter, held their heads a little higher, did the Medics' duty.
Often the encampment came under fire. Once Ratchet stumbled back to his commandeered berth to find it newly riddled with laser and fell into it anyway, uncaring. The soldiers who covered their retreat came under their hands as well, and their officer held his head high when Ratchet cursed him a blue-streak and said that they were buying the lives of thousands with their hundreds. Two days later Ratchet was stripping him for parts, thinking the word duty like a curse.
A new contingent met up with them to relieve their reduced protectors, and brought the news that two transport ships were expected shortly to ferry those they could to the evacuation point - by the Decepticons were close and they couldn't wait.
The transports set down nearly a mile away on the only empty stretch of land big enough, and the ambulances began ferrying patients. They quickly brought back the news that there wasn't enough space for everyone in the transport and mechs looked at each other with strained faces.
After one trip to the transport ships Chaser didn't come back and Ratchet cursed him roundly as he worked to stabilise patients for transport and the world shook as the first of the ships took off.
The commander took Ratchet aside and asked, awkwardly, if the medics were prepared to do their duty. Ratchet managed not to haul off and punch her – they didn't have the spare parts.
When they returned they found the majority of the other medics gathered together, their faces resolute. “What the pit do you slag for processors think you're doing?” Ratchet demanded.
Solder lifted his chin. “At least two medics are going to have to stay to look after the patients left behind,” he said steadily. “We agreed. We're going to draw lots for it. All of us.”
Ratchet heard the commander's intakes catch, softly. He ignored her, too busy yelling at the idiots in front of him.
Cursing them didn't work. Reminding them they had no guarantee Decepticons would respect a medic anymore than they respected a medical encampment didn't work. Downright fragging begging them didn't work damn them all to the pit.
Fighting death every hour of every day had made them stubborn.
Joors later they stood outside the hunting lodge turned med bay and watched a orange glow in the sky as the last transport fired its thrusters and departed. Solder was shaking.
Ratchet controlled the urge to curse him again. It wouldn't help anyone but himself. Instead, he let his hand fall heavily on the other bot's shoulder. Solder leaned into his touch, still shaking.
“You should be on that transport,” the bot said plaintively. “I thought -” he shut up.
“You thought you'd rigged that draw?” Ratchet asked dryly. Solder gaped at him. Ratchet snorted. “Kid, I am a far, far better cheat then you'll ever be.”
“But it doesn't make sense!” Solder half-wailed. “I'm just an armour-welder! You could get a dozen of me for half a credit! But you – you could make a real difference to the war! You shouldn't spend it locked up in a POW camp or – or -”
“Do you know what I did before the call for medics went out?” Ratchet interrupted. “I was a paediatrician.” Ratchet grinned at the stunned look on the smaller medic's face. “I built and upgraded protoforms. Kid -” he barked out a laugh. “I am making this up as I go along!” He clapped Solder on the shoulder. “Let's see who we can keep running for a few more hours.”