The cantonment was in an uproar.
Reports of deaths and devastation were not uncommon, of course. The empire had been at war for vorn. Everyone knew that entire colonies, some as small and distant as this one, had been wiped out. But all of them had been on the other side of the empire, many hundreds of lightvorn distant -- or else they’d been trade centers, located adjacent to the biggest spacebridges, easily accessible to both merchants and raiders alike. This outpost, located on the very rim of the empire and far from any action, was surely safe from Tr!klcctch incursion. So everyone had thought.
Everyone had been wrong.
Scraphaulers were the first to be struck, those ramshackle ships so worn they no longer held an atmosphere, forcing all who rode in them to communicate exclusively by comm and recharge in zero-gee. These losses, while worrying, aroused no particular concern. Scraphaulers went adrift in the void all the time, and it was no great loss. But then had come the attack on the Atropos.
A small cruiser, the ship was one of many which transported carriers. Such small, fast ships were common in this sector. Xyr was the home of three creator-mechs who specialized in chronicler frames -- both carrier and symbiont -- and the rocky little planet had become something of a training center for their kind, a place of meeting and learning. And sometimes, repairing. Any repairbot could do good patchwork on a carrier of course, but sometimes, for some things... nothing but an artist’s touch would do.
Which made the destruction of the Atropos all the more distressing. One ship meant nothing, though the loss of the several carriers aboard was saddening. But they’d all been accompanied by full cohorts. And the sacrifice of symbionts was a tragedy.
Ships were launched, rescue vessels and armed escorts. They’d scoured the site of the attack for three orn. Only seven symbionts -- drifting alone and injured between the stars -- were ever found.
Of those, the sparks of two had already guttered out.
Five survivors--who had lost not only their carriers, but in most cases, all their sibling symbionts as well. Only the imperative to *survive*, to preserve the data they carried, had kept these few still alive, and their grief seemed to permeate the entire colony, spreading like a contagion between carriers and cohorts.
The three creator-mecha who lived on Xyr also shared in that grief; some of the lost had been their own creations. But their function was not to mourn the dead, but to create life, and they threw themselves into that with a single-minded dedication, working alongside medics as their specialized knowledge was needed, welcoming the orphaned symbionts into their own residences until they healed. Eventually the survivors would need to choose new host mecha, and join new cohorts; but in the meantime they could rest, and grieve as they wished.
Recast was one of those three. Well-regarded as an innovator, if not quite artisan-ranked, his creations were often uniquely-talented and highly sought after. Currently, his residence held only three works in progress; two sparklings -- one carrier and one symbiont -- plus a single subadult, a carrier, waiting for his last frame-upgrades before leaving his creator’s care to form a cohort and chart his own way between the stars. With so much empty space, it was only logical to offer a injured bladeframe sanctuary--an offer that, after a brief period of consideration, was accepted.
Like the bladeframe, Recast’s compound was all mathematical perfection, clean lines and elegant symmetries.
The interlinked structures were nestled into a great rocky hollow where, in the dense atmosphere and three-quarter standard cybertronian gravity, solvents welled from the porous stone below. They carried with them dissolved minerals, which sought out their cousins and coalesced, atoms stacking to slowly grow a myriad of shapes. Planed quartzes clustered thick, alongside great clumps of needled natrolite, square prisms of zircon, pyrite suns, globular hematites, striated shafts of tourmaline that rose as high as a mech’s waist. Crystals coated every surface, save the approach road.
Elevated a few mechanometers above the ground and the dense semi-gaseous bath of solvents that clung there, the four buildings of Recast’s compound had been hewn from native volcanic stone, threaded through with crystals of feldspar and topaz. The structures stood around a central square, densely fogged with solvent mists, delicate metal walkways spanning a pool below. From the center of the solvent pool grew a branching shaft of titanium dioxide, redder than the purest energon, taller than a Prime and so thick a mech could not have wrapped his arms around the central trunk. Smaller deposits of minerals had crusted it, over many, many vorn -- plumose or lenticular growths in purples and blues, clear folated wafers of mica that caught and reflected the light of Xyr’s twin dim suns. The crystal had been developing since before this little planet was colonized. It still grew, however slowly -- sieving minerals from the mist, an atom at a time.
The four buildings were large, bowed on their outer walls. Two were living quarters of varying kinds, cast in the same simple, spare lines as the exterior. Workshops and studios occupied the other two.
It was a great deal of space for five mecha. There was plenty of room for a bladeframe to rest, and recover... and to keep his mending body out from under prying optics.
Ravage paced from room to room, his smooth prowl still interrupted by the occasional hitch as newly mended limbs refused to obey with all of their former swift grace. The brief pauses, the intermittent limp as autorepair worked to complete a few last peripheral connections, was to be expected, he knew; large chunks of his frame had been replaced by medics after … well, after. Still, it was yet a further unwelcome reminder of how much he had lost, that he was no longer sleek and deadly, but a wounded thing. Broken.
It might not affect his rank, or threaten the information he guarded. But it mattered to *him*, and so he paced, slinking from shadow to shadow as he navigated the confines of the creator-mech’s estate. The other inhabitants had been warned to keep their distance, to approach him only upon invitation. Distantly, he appreciated Recast’s courtesy; he was in no mood to accommodate sparkling curiosity or explorations.
Still, he could not avoid all interaction entirely. A polite location-ping was reminder of that; a request from Recast to check the status of Ravage’s repairs. He was not far from the creator’s workshop; reluctantly he decided it was better to get this orn’s inevitable inspection out of the way now, rather than force the creator to search him out. With a near-silent vent of resignation, he turned, stalking down the narrow rooftop ledge to leap upon the top of the wall, and from there through the workshop’s upper entrances. They had been made with flightframes in mind, not him, but experience and pride both had taught him the value in always approaching from an unexpected direction.
Armored in brilliant indigo and silver, Recast was bent over his eldest project. The creator’s studio, unlike some, was meticulously organized, with tools, raw materials, half-finished frames and other mechanoid designs all arranged with an eye for convenience. The serenely efficient layout was quite different from the creative chaos of other creator-workshops Ravage had known, but one he was coming to appreciate.
//I am here.//
Recast left off his current work--apparently a redesign of his eldest carrier-creation’s sensory panels--folding away tools into his frame and wiping off his digits with a solvent-cloth. “Take some time to integrate those,” he told the young mech. “I want to see how much simultaneous processing you can handle with that new array while still maintaining a symbiont data-connection load.” A distracted nod was his only answer, the carrier already flaring his new appendages, poking curiously at them with taloned fingers.
Only then did Recast look to the symbiont. “The third berth, if you will, Memory-keeper,” he said, the ancient glyph-word warm, welcoming.
Ravage chose his own path down to ground floor, in his own good time, eschewing the descending chain of sculpted perches and platforms meant to support flightframes. It made for good practice -- calculating exactly how much of his weight this rack of implements could support; how long that neat stack of datapads could bear him before toppling; where he could find good purchase upon the upright and unsparked frame of a carrier, strapped against a wall to save space.
A few items wobbled, an entire paint rack of colored nanites threatened to topple for a single long moment... but nothing fell. Ravage leaped the last two meters from a bench to the floor. It should have been a tiny jump, an easy landing, should have been a single fluid sweep of living blades. Instead, Ravage’s left hind limb nearly buckled as he landed on the tiles.
The bladeframe recovered quickly enough from the stumble, lurched himself into his customary liquid prowl, but the failure stung. The young carrier -- armor glossy, never scarred -- was watching him. Ravage spared the new chronicler a silent snarl as he padded past, to the indicated repair berth. This time, concentrating on every move, he made a flawless jump up to the padded surface.
Ravage stood a moment, watching Recast select his tools. Then, gracefully, the bladeform lay down, reclining on the soft berth top, head erect and one forepaw flexing lightly over the edge. The tip of his tail, blades folded close over the sensors, lashed his silent aggravation.
The mechling was still watching him; Ravage could feel that openly curious gaze like an uneasy prickling down the surface of his armor. He turned his head, deliberately meeting those innocent, still-unvisored optics with a narrowed crimson glare.
The mech didn’t immediately look away, surprisingly enough. Caught out by his own curiosity, he held up under Ravage’s glare with equanimity, and there was nothing covetous or awestruck in that look. No pity, or regret. Simply … an innocent curiosity, and an open admiration, as if Ravage were something beautiful that he was not allowed to touch. Then the young carrier looked away, inclining his head to Ravage in careful courtesy before going over to a corner of the workshop to rummage amongst the neatly stacked supplies.
Recast’s touch was as careful and sure as always, finely-designed fingertips skimming over Ravage’s plating as he let the inbuilt sensors scan down past the bladeframe’s armor, into the tiny interlocking systems of the symbiont’s internals. “Mm--self-repair’s still lagging there in your hindquarters, isn’t it? Looks like something got rerouted; the nanites aren’t working on the damage in proper sequence.” Keeping one hand on the affected area, he glanced over at that slowly-tapping tail. “With your permission, Memory-keeper, I need to open this up and make a few adjustments.”
Ravage cycled a slow vent. The thick atmosphere of Xyr was cleansing, cooling, provided one did not spend too much time down in the densest part of the solvent haze. //Do as you must, creator Recast.// His glyphs were terse, but were colored with a trace of gratitude. A medic might have more tools at his disposal than a creator -- barely, in the case of Recast -- but a creator-mech had an intuitive feel for a particular class of systems, functioning as a whole, which most medics could not match. Certainly no repair bot could. This had to be done. It might as well be now.
The symbiont laid his chinplates down on one forepaw, smoothing his sensory spines flat against his neck. Recast’s multitool hands were careful, delicate, as he ran a charge through the biggest plating section of the bladeframe’s hip, encouraging sensory and power lines to retract, then began unlatching the armor plate. The hidden hinges hitched a little, and Recast paused, made adjustments, opened the dermal armor gently along its transformation seam to expose all the delicate workings underneath.
Ravage watched the newsparked carrier go about his business, new panels held awkwardly, gingerly. He was a big frame to begin with, even for a carrier, and the faintly-trembling spread of those sensory mounts made him seem bigger still. The class was sensitive to information in general, of course -- had to be. But Ravage had only rarely seen a build so made for it. There had been a few, many megavorn ago; experimental, they’d not functioned particularly long. Panels that size were too vulnerable, and even when folded, they simply netted too much information. It made a mech distracted, distractable -- slow. And, in Ravage’s experience, dead.
The bladeframe’s optics narrowed a little as the mechling found the device he’d searched for. Not quite a mechanometer in length, and half that wide, it was about the thickness of two talons. The edges were irregularly square, though the thing’s dimensions could be changed to provide a more challenging... experience. One of its longer edges bore a series of clawed, mobile connectors, the other was pocked with several rough-cut sockets.
Settling back down on a nearby platform, the carrier scrutinized the practice-drone with a faintly resigned air. Then he began opening the armor protecting his docking slots, the interleaved plating sliding back and outward in layers, until finally the new-made docks stood bare and empty. Turning the drone over in his talons, the mechling activated it. It *bleeped* twice, then shifted, reconfiguring slightly, imitating the slight variations in shape and form that each symbiont had in their docking configurations, primitive socketing receivers extending.
The mechling guided the drone in, trying clumsily to coax it into a docking slot. One cable socketed into place immediately, while the others scraped and failed to join as the drone did its best, in its own mindless way, to search for the remaining connections. It gave an obnoxious warning *bleep* when docking failed, the connectors immediately retracting, and the mechling vented a sigh as he reset the device to reconfigure itself again.
Pretending indifference, Ravage watched out of the corner of his optics. It was both disturbing and amusing to watch such a young carrier. The mechling obviously knew what to do, and just as obviously wasn’t nearly as confident about putting theory into practice. The bladeframe didn’t envy his first symbiont at all--whoever accepted this mechling’s courtship would have quite a bit of training to do. Still … for all the young carrier’s fumblings, his concentration never wavered, and the drone never suffered as a result of the mechling’s frustration. There were no brief bouts of temper, no new scars added to the drone’s rather battered surface.
Above him, Recast hummed a little in satisfaction. “There’s the problem, all right,” he murmured, more to himself than his erstwhile patient. “Fixed that particular rotor, then decided everything behind it was repaired as well, did you?” Ravage tilted his head a little, wondering briefly if that was aimed at him; but it soon become obvious that Recast was talking to the (utterly unaware) self-repair nanites instead.
“Well, we can’t have that. Let’s see if we can’t redirect your attentions, shall we?” Recast continued, oblivious to the more sentient portions of his audience. Ravage laid his head back down on his forepaw, and caught the mechling’s quick, secretive smile as he glanced over in their direction. Apparently his creator’s quirks were both well-known and fondly tolerated.
The tips of delicate suction and redistribution tools ghosted over Ravage’s delicate internals, light as a stirring in the air, as a draft from an opened door. Even without his armor or a numbing sensor block, it did not hurt.
The drone *bleeped* unhappily again.
Ravage laid his audials back, equally unhappy. Recast moved on to another spot, delicately threading sensors and packet delivery branches down into the bladeframe’s internals. “There now. What do you lot think you’re coding for? Here we are, that’s better...” the creator’s vocalizations were smooth, a persuasive croon, as if he could coax Ravage’s systems back into harmony with voice alone. Perhaps he could. Creators were simply unfathomable, sometimes.
Ravage lay still while the creator-mech puttered, while the young carrier tried and tried again to complete the act that would be in part his very purpose -- and sometimes even succeeded at it. Another chime sounded -- this time, the muted interruption of Recast’s external comm. The indigo and silver mech paused a moment, withdrawing his tools. Recast laid a palm, multitools closed, on Ravage’s flank, a silent signal that the symbiont was being addressed this time. “Will you close your armor for me? You’ll need to move a little; we’ll see how these changes settle themselves in a half-joor. I believe that’s the delivery of a vocal relay assembly I’ve been waiting for. Will you be alright here for a short time?”
Ravage cast his faceted regard upon the creator-mech. //Yes,// he said, simply, trying to decide if he should be affronted by the allusion that he could not defend himself from a single newly sparked carrier, not ten vorns old. He closed his armor over his delicate internal mechanisms.
With a single gentling pat, Recast nodded, and departed the studio through the irising doorway.
Ravage twisted with slow power, bringing his hindquarters under him, testing the flex of the treated limb. It still twinged, but that faint sense of... wrongness seemed gone, now. He tensed the joint, feeling the parts work against one another, analysing.
The drone *bleeped* again.
Ravage raised his head, jaws parted in a silent snarl. “You are not doing it correctly.” Primus. Perhaps the Well would weigh this as a favor towards this mechling’s first symbiont. Or towards Recast. The bladeframe flowed to his feet and off the berth in a single motion.
The young carrier neither moved nor made a sound as Ravage padded up to the seating platform. Ravage placed both forepaws on the padded surface, lifting his head to examine the mechling’s little drone. It was well-worn -- was marked with scuffs and scrapes, as if it had seen a great deal of use over many vorn. And misuse, to judge by the dents... and the one partially-crushed corner, and the thin smear of leaked energon along one edge. Wonderful.
Still, there was nothing strictly wrong with it, Ravage decided, twisting to regard the young carrier. This close, the youngling’s EM field was intense, clear. Similar, in a way, to... well. The symbiont killed that processor thread, and settled for jumping up next to the young carrier instead. If this were a more experienced carrier, Ravage would never have approached so close. It would not have been... strictly proper to do so. But there was no other bonded cohort here, none to look on Ravage with worried or jealous or avaricious optics. None to show this mechling what he must do.
It was probably a simple error, anyway. “In what sequence do you engage the guidance magnets?” Ravage asked. He steadied himself with one taloned paw on the mechling’s thigh armor, to more closely examine the exposed docking slots. And froze, in the middle of a tail-lash. He’d seen six docking slots from the berth, before -- a fairly high capacity to begin with. But despite the way the mechling’s interleaving sheets of armor twitched, as if to reflexively pull back together, Ravage could see now that there were two more docks to either side, partially covered at present.
In all the eons of his existence, of all the hundreds of thousands of hosts he’d met and known and lost, Ravage could count the number of carriers framed for ten on the talons of one forepaw. He remembered a time when carriers had been most commonly built for two symbionts. Eight could strain even a strong carrier’s resources to the breaking point. Ten.... what had Recast been *thinking*?
The mechling clearly favored his middle-right slot. The drone had left scrapes there -- both silvery new gouges, and faded ones as much as an orn old. The narrow cavity was wetted, too, with traces of energon and coolant. Sometime over the past joor, the drone had more than simply make a poor connection and leak. The thing had nicked lines, had spilled a little of the mechling’s fluids. Probably not for the first time, either. The young carrier’s armor might never have known injury, but his internals surely had.
“Second laterals, then primary anteriors,” came the answer. The mechling tilted his head, regarding the bladeframe. “Query: sequence incorrect?”
Pleasantly surprised at the lack of argument or defensiveness from the mechling--carriers could be very prickly if their competence was questioned, especially newly-framed ones, who often felt the need to prove themselves--Ravage tilted his head. “Activate primary anteriors first,” he suggested. “But *don’t* pull--let them support the weight during docking, and use the laterals and your tertiaries for finer maneuvering.” The first way, while technically correct, also required a great deal more skill on the part of the carrier mech to manipulate several sets of guidance gravs at once in addition to ensuring the docking sequences were correct. The second was a bit of a cheat, and it took longer to do, but it was easier for an inexperienced--or impaired--mech to handle.
The young carrier nodded. “Assistance, appreciated,” he said, and promptly tried the docking sequence again, faceplates folding into a frown of concentration as he followed Ravage’s advice. This time, the drone docked correctly; though Ravage noted that there was the barest flicker of a wince as the connectors socketed home.
The mechling seemed sincere. His final vocal relay assemblies had clearly not integrated fully, leaving his speech patterns strangely modulated, though not unpleasantly so. Perhaps the young carrier’s relay equipment was unsuited to him, and would be replaced with the new device which Recast expected. The symbiont looked to where the drone was humming faintly as it cycled its false systems with the young carrier’s own, the sideplates of the dock hugging comfortable and close around it. Perhaps that was good enough, then.
That faint trace of spilled enegon, dampening the rim of the drone-occupied slot, gave Ravage pause. And... until Recast returned, there’d be little else to do, anyway. The bladeframe looked back up to the young carrier’s wide optics. “It should not hurt, nor cause discomfort,” he stated, then paused a moment, extending senses that had been inactive since... well. For a long time, after his sensors had failed him in the deep drift of space, Ravage’d had no interest in finding other mecha. Now, he located the nearby energy signature of the creator-mech. Recast was, apparently, still occupied elsewhere. “Go ahead and eject. Can you fold those?” Ravage growled, indicating the new panels across the mechling’s back. “Enough to lie flat?”
The carrier nodded. “Technique, still incorrect,” he said glumly, allowing the drone to disengage from the slot and setting it to one side. His sensor panels folded back and downward, retracting inward in the same movement, until only about a third of their former surface was still exposed, extending downwards from the carrier’s backplates.
It was a fascinating adaptation, Ravage had to admit. Not only had that broad expanse of terribly vulnerable surface area been reduced, but the sensitive surfaces, laden with sensory arrays, had pivoted inward at the same time so that they were sheltered between the young carrier’s backplates and the hard supporting carapace on the back of the panels. Recast must have been working on this particular upgrade for quite some time. “Perhaps,” Ravage said in answer to the mechling’s assertion. The carrier made a motion as if to close the armor over his docking slots, and Ravage hissed sharply. “Not yet. Let me see.”
The mechling looked a bit dubious, but lay back on the platform after another interrogative prod of a taloned forepaw.
With easy grace, Ravage leaped up onto the glossy plating of the young carrier’s abdominal armor, his talons extended just enough to afford him purchase, without unduly scratching the tough nanite topcoat. He padded up to the open cavity of the mechling’s chest.
From this angle, the subtle tilt to all the slots was a little more obvious. They were level, in most carriers, and usually arranged so that two or three were banked on one side, two or three on the other. The center was often armored, or used to rack extra quantum drives, which were quite dense. That was so because of the bulk of the spark casing, just behind. In most carriers, there simply wasn’t room for docks and a spark in the same central placement.
The extra size of this frame helped alleviate that limitation, to some extent, allowing for central placement of slots over the spark chamber. The angle of the slots helped more. But... the extra docks meant that the carrier’s spark chamber could benefit from no extra armor, save the thin wafers of the docking mechanisms, and of course the extremely dense plating that shielded those.
Ravage sat down on those open chestplates, tail curling around his feet, stunned. A strike powerful enough to breach that primary armor and crush the rank of docked cassettes would, almost inevitably, kill this host as well. It... did not seem to make sense. No other carrier was built this way.
Ravage wondered if it would feel different, docking with a carrier like this. One without those extra layers of armor between the rank of cassettes and the heavy thrum-pulse of the carrier’s spark.
The mechling lifted his head, regarding the bladeframe on his chest with puzzled concern. “Query: problem found? Internals, malfunctioning?” He lifted a hand, touched the still-open gap gingerly, as if suddenly afraid it would spit sparks or start leaking energon.
“No,” Ravage said hastily, feeling the prickle of building apprehension in the mechling’s field. He had forgotten for a moment that he wasn’t dealing with an experienced carrier, but a subadult mecha, innocent and uncertain. “No,” he said again. “No problem. You just have a very … unique configuration.” He eyed the banks of docking slots. If he were to try and dock in such a carrier, he would have to angle himself … thus, several degrees higher than was normally customary. He pinged the mechling, offering the suggested adjustments to the drone’s orientation. “Try this. It should make docking easier for you,” Ravage said, hoping to distract the young carrier.
Recast, on the other hand, would have to answer a few questions as soon as he returned. What had the creator-mech been thinking? The sensor panels were bad enough; why would he risk leaving his creation’s spark-chamber bare of armor, just to accommodate a few extra symbionts?
The mechling processed the new information. “Assistance: appreciated,” he said, then, “query: advise practice now?” He reached beside him for the false cassette.
“No.” Ravage paused, lowered his head. The rim of the docking slot was warm, the magnets and grav units there still heated with a residual charge that felt like welcome... felt like coming home. Ravage’s most slender sensory whiskers brushed against the bottom of one docking slot. Small calipers in the aperture moved despite their owner’s effort to keep still, plates and guidance rails twitching, grasping upon nothing. The bladeframe knew full well how they’d feel around him. He lifted his head.
The docking slots for a carrier were complex, able to physically handle a small symbiont -- capable of folding down to a width no greater than a symbiont’s own sculpted, narrow spark chamber -- or one as large as Ravage himself. Of course, whether the young carrier actually understood how to accomplish the reconfiguration... was an entirely different affair. All the mechling’s slots were presently set to accommodate a symbiont of medium build.
The creator-mech, Recast, was still occupied elsewhere. Ravage flexed his claws a little, prickling at the edges of the mechling’s armor. This was not his carrier. And this thing he was contemplating... was so far departed from protocol, he shouldn’t even have permitted it to cross his processors. And yet.... “Have you practiced with larger drones? Or just this size?” growled Ravage.
The carrier looked at him, as if not sure if he understood Ravage correctly. “Negative; this is the largest available.” He paused thoughtfully. “Your recommendation, seek out larger drone for practice?” Young the carrier might be, but even he knew not to presume to extend an invitation to a symbiont not his own.
Ravage regarded the young mech’s prone form, gleaming silver and cobalt under the lights of the workshop, his chassis still open and exposed. Waiting patiently for whatever Ravage might tell him, either utterly oblivious to the damage a bladeframe could cause in such a position, or … trusting Ravage to not take advantage of his vulnerability. It was … a little unnerving.
Abruptly, Ravage turned away, leaping to the floor in one swift motion and an aggravated lash of his tail. “Your decision,” he snapped, suddenly irritated with himself. What was he doing? He was no nannybot. “Either way, you need to learn to adjust your internals prior to docking. Go ask Recast if you don’t know how.”
The carrier sat up, folding the armor back over his chest and watching Ravage thoughtfully. “Soundwave: acknowledges.” He glanced down at the drone, picking up the inert mechanism and turning it over in his hands thoughtfully. “Your assistance, appreciated,” he offered to Ravage’s retreating form. “Thank you.”
The bladeframe snarled, an oddly short gesture of irritation, as he padded to the doorway. The hatch irised open for him, letting in a breath of cool air, scented with solvent mists and the metallic tang of the crystal gardens. Ravage paused. He could still feel the residual trace of the mechling’s strong field across his sensory whiskers. There was nothing in all the universe that felt as warmly, perfectly safe as a carrier’s dock. But that security, as Ravage knew all too well, was a fragile illusion. “Ask Recast to ping me when he is ready,” Ravage said, and left.