Everything and nothing changed in Iacon, after the riots.
The driller was on every newscast. A thousand mecha had seen it, albeit apparently only from a distance. If anyone had caught a glimpse of Soundwave himself, those files weren’t offered to the public. Instead, the mecha of Iacon’s towers were simply shown the riots, over and over again.
As Soundwave had predicted, the inhabitants of Iacon’s slums broke into the secret cache quickly, overwhelming those few mercenaries fool enough to stand in their way. An orgy of fueling had followed, long-starved mecha filling every tank and subspace and then forming a long chain to pass the heavy cubes out. There was so much -- more than any single mech could hoard -- that even the empties could steal fuel from the heaps of cubes. Their processors long since cannibalized, they reeled through the crowds like virus-ridden drones, breaking equipment or looting, attacking those few mecha too weak to flee or fight back, filtering up into districts where they were shot on sight.
The Prime himself took notice. He directed the investigations that eventually led to the indictment of more than a dozen mecha -- senators’ aides, mid-level bureaucrats, all found guilty of skimming from the allotment accounts. They were stripped of rank, and exiled.
No senators were ever accused.
Fuel became almost cheap for a time, on the black market. Untold thousands of marginal mecha -- both in Iacon and, soon, nearby city states -- turned from their allotments and moved into the slums to trade service and chassis for some of that bounty. Energon was plentiful, but almost nothing else was, save for the parts of mecha slain in the chaos. In the shadowlands of exchange and barter, a full change of coolant had once cost an orn’s rations -- now the price was twelve or more.
Flush with fuel, flyers took to the skies after a hundred vorn spent ground-bound, burning the dust of ages from their engines, careening like newsparks. Mecha lived and fought and loved as they hadn’t in millennia, and not even Prime’s Elite Guard could contain the flowering of joy and violence.
Soundwave stayed just long enough to gather a few belongings from his old quarters, then he left the city. He’d spent a megavorn in Iacon, through war and peace, good times and bad. He knew the vast city’s patterns; he knew the spreading cracks for what they were.
And so he sought out the smaller highways, leading his cohort down crumbling back roads that wound their way through dismantled townships and broken encampments. They could not vanish from the official networks entirely, but Cybertron’s vast metal plains and jagged iron mountain ranges were far too expansive to monitor all the time. Roaming empties posed little danger to a fully fueled mech, especially one Soundwave’s size, and most of Cybertron’s wildlife had long since fled the chill and energon-poor surface to take refuge in the depths.
They stopped in the smaller ancillary cities that ringed the great city-states, sometimes briefly, sometimes for many orn. Sometimes Soundwave took the time to manufacture an identity, to apply for a directive and residency permit. After everything else they’d done, lying to the authorities seemed like a negligible sin. Such activities netted him very little energon, but they were a useful means of laying down false trails and leads. Eventually, the cohort drifted into a township on the outskirts of Kaon, near the gladiatorial districts. The place was adequate for their needs -- at least for a while. The working class living pods were the same as those in Iacon, and there was sufficient activity nearby for the symbionts to experience. Here, at the borders of the slums, Kaon didn’t really seem all that different from Iacon.
And the workstations, well -- those were the same, too.
Every duty shift, the symbionts departed shortly after Soundwave arose from recharge. In the beginning, they’d tried to stay close, remaining folded in their slots and lending their small processor capacity to Soundwave’s far greater banks. But cassette-mecha were inefficient at raw datawork, burning through nearly as much fuel as they earned. And though no glyphs were spoken, though they were never ordered away, the symbionts all understood how little Soundwave wanted them present for this.
So now, they left. Ratbat rode out on Ravage’s back, Flipsides walking alongside. The two flightframes simply vanished after a little mutual grooming -- out the vent, perhaps, or in a half-seen silver flicker when the hatch briefly opened for the others.
Counterintuitively, the unit seemed even smaller without the symbionts.
The aperture spiraled open on the workstation niche. Small for even an average-sized mech, the recessed chamber was cramped for one as large as Soundwave. But then, the niches were not built for comfort. All three walls were tangled with the simplest of hardline junctures, a labyrinth of cables and leads, many still bright with solder. Four terminal arms curved up, empty, waiting, their conductive nodes hanging limp. Built for a standard mech, they were too low for a symbiont carrier’s frame.
Like others of his class, relegated to his most menial directive, Soundwave worked on his knees.
Resigned to the necessity of it, Soundwave folded down on his pedes, extending four secondary cables in order to make a connection and begin his assigned tasks. Logging in credentials and passkeys, he surveyed the registries waiting for download. Every orn, there was a little less. Such simplistic data-wrangling was pathetically easy, barely requiring a fraction of his processing power. The only reason these particular batches of data hadn’t yet been shunted over to the AIs for processing was that they were just complex enough to require a more intuitive, non-linear approach in processing, in order to spot atypical patterns and flag them for further consideration. Which was something almost any mech with a little analytical coding could do, and in this age of scarcity, competition for such directives was fierce as AI development advanced and the available work dwindled.
And if the AIs weren’t quite as adept as the mecha they had replaced, their results a bit more slipshod, a little too predictable--well, AIs also didn’t question the tasks they were given, and used only a fraction of the energon required by a fully-functioning mech. More than a fair trade, at least as far as those in power were concerned.
And so Soundwave sorted, running search-strings and pattern analyses as directed. While his allotment was not based on his time spent on-task, but merely the amount of data he processed, the throttled trickle of bandwidth allotted to him ensured he spent far more time waiting for new packets than he did in actual analysis. Even introducing redundant analyses, running triple and quadruple error-checks on every fragment of data, or tearing the files apart and piecing them back together in multiphased patterns to test for nonsensical outcomes, did little to alleviate the sheer tedium of the work.
As a result, Soundwave routed most of his processing ability to other tasks, crunching the localnet data in secondary and tertiary threads even as he pulled up old personal archives, cross-referencing, looking for any details previously overlooked. He had lived through most of the Parhelion War, and had once been considered the foremost authority upon its historical records. Yet the war had been over for hundreds of vorn, and Cybertron still had yet to heal. Why? Why had this war, more than any other, caused such deep wounds? Many mecha had put forth their theories, but thus far, any real answers had proved elusive.
Soundwave himself had a hypothesis, albeit untested and unproven. Unfortunately his thesis, begun while he’d still been an Archivist, was still incomplete. Now he worked on it out of sheer self-preservation -- in an attempt to remind himself that he was more than an unsparked drone. He might not have energon, or supplies, or safety. Time, however, he had in abundance--and in the absence of any other duty, he would pursue his function. No matter how useless such things might prove to be in the end.
Flipsides wasn’t a particularly large mechkin. At just over a mechanometer tall, he was scarcely larger than Ratbat’s wingspread, at least when measured from clawtip to clawtip. Which meant Ratbat’s weight was enough to stagger him every time the glideframe landed on his shoulders -- the glideframe massed perhaps forty kilograms, but Flipsides was scarcely two hundred. Flipsides heaved a vent, straightening up crossly under the glideframe’s weight.
//We’re going to see the gladiator surgeries?// Ratbat asked excitedly, optics whirring. Being carried was much better than flying.
//*I* am going to see the gladiator surgeries, yes. You said you didn’t want to anymore, after that fuel pump slipped loose and went skittering over the floor.//
//You could have done a better job with the soldering. Or at least held onto it better,// Ratbat said sourly, tanks queasy. A fuel pump was just one of those things that needed to stay *inside* a mech, in his opinion. Especially if it was still pumping. //I’ll stay in the girders this time. I just wanna watch the way they bring things in and out.// He had this idea about the movement of mecha during emergencies and the layout of a space, and the field surgeries had emergencies about every couple of breem, it seemed like.
//Maybe.// Flipsides shivered a little, in spite of himself. //But I wouldn’t be much help if one of them decided to take it out on the mecha repairing them. Remember that ground infantry mech last orn--the one that tossed the repair-drone across the bay?//
Ratbat tilted his head sympathetically. His own wing had been fully repaired for a dozen orn, but he could understand Flipsides’ fears. All of them could, really. Well, except for maybe Ravage. //Get Soundwave to come with, then. That’s what he’s there for, you know.// Soundwave might not be a warframe, but Ratbat had faith in his carrier. Their Master would ensure that anyone who messed with Flipsides would regret it. And actually … that wasn’t a half-bad idea. The arenas never seemed to be able to acquire enough skilled medics to go around. If they could trade their services for additional energon, or other supplies … then maybe their cohort wouldn’t have to rely solely on Soundwave’s allotments. Diversification could only better their statistical chances of survival, and it wouldn’t be the first time their cohort had traded on Flipsides’ skills. Though this time the mechkin would probably require a lot more convincing to go along with it.
//Maybe.// Flipsides sounded more than a little doubtful. Ratbat wasn’t sure why--he’d seen Soundwave fight, after all. And more-- it wasn’t every symbiont who could say their Master had tamed a driller! If that wasn’t all the proof anyone needed about the lengths Soundwave would go to protect them, what was? The whole point of having a carrier, in Ratbat’s estimation, was the ability to summon backup when you needed it.
Well, and also to have someone to check your actuators when they felt funny. And look for pinprick leaks, and stroke your audials that way that felt so good, and keep your tanks filled to efficient levels, and be a warm and safe place to recharge, and process your data so everything lined up all nice, and... well. Alright, so maybe a carrier did do a lot, aside from ‘disincentivising’ mecha who meant a symbiont harm.
//Most of them go on neuralnet block the klik they arrive, anyway,// Ratbat pointed out, fluffing his plating a little, keeping a watchful eye on their surroundings while Flipsides picked his way between a haphazard pile of empty iron crates. The gladiator rings were the biggest consumers of second-hand parts, no matter the city. There was simply no time for medics to craft or incubate new pieces, nor the raw materials for them to do so even if they wanted to. And Iacon’s riots -- to judge by the number of crates stamped with that city’s mark -- had resulted in a rather large volume of available parts.
//The ones it’s safe to put on a block, yes. If a medic is free to see to them,// Flipsides qualified, ducking under a fallen pile of metalmesh -- once a banner advertising some great gladiatorial rivalry, perhaps.
//So you could look at the ones who are already numbed,// Ratbat pressed, calling up the spreadsheet of symbiont capabilities that Soundwave had compiled for him. It was a really big file, hugely detailed, requiring twelve percent of his operating processor capacity just to open. He adored it. Ratbat started updating his estimates of what particular services might sell for on the black market, taking the changing economic and city variables into account. Was an assembly of a knee-joint now worth five kilograms of fuel, or six? Ten grams of cybertronium wiring, maybe? Figuring it all out took a lot of computing, and Ratbat happily rerouted a little more power from his sensors to his processors. Thoroughly absorbed, Ratbat failed to notice an approaching overhang of scrap -- an elegantly carved and sculpted cornice, now a fallen and pitiful remnant of the arena’s once-glorious past -- and clunked his helm as Flipsides passed under. “Awck!” he squawked, doing a passable imitation of Buzzsaw and flapping unhappily.
//Keep that up, and we’ll never get there,// Flipsides groused, staggering under the glideframe’s shifting weight. He waited until Ratbat had settled, then started up a broken bit of wall, clambering over fallen scree.
//Well, watch where we’re going, then.// Ratbat ‘humphed’ and turned back to his spreadsheet, while Flipsides cycled an amused vent.
A few more interminable windings into the broken warren of buildings and support structures, and they emerged onto a service ledge. Once meant to keep drones of all sorts up off the ground, where they might be easily crushed underpede in the chaos, the ledge came up to mid-leg on a normal mech, and made a comfortable walkway for a symbiont. The powered rails there were long dead, and only the accumulation of many vorns of dust and small debris hindered progress.
They didn’t have to go far, anyway. The medical and repair complex was, naturally, one of the most extensive parts of an arena. Caretaker-mecha were hauling crippled cyberhounds into the facility, heaping them into one pile that twitched and one pile that did not. There must have been an enactment of the Hunt of Aegis being performed, Flipsides guessed-- this represented the arena’s entire contingent of the creatures.
The two medics currently on-duty, however, had more to care for than just cyberhounds. Several warframes of varying classes--frontliners, infiltrators, even a few airframes--also waited, slumped against the walls or folded down upon the battered floor. The damage done to the injured mecha ranged from the merely disabling to the catastrophic, but most made no sound other than labored ventilations, the occasional creak and crunch of damaged armor, enduring stoically as they watched the medics curse the ripped-apart frame of a less fortunate gladiator. Once, the arenas’ medical facilities were some of the best on Cybertron, boasting the finest equipment, the newest advances in repair and reconstruction for their competitors. In those days, the arenas had hosted great contests of skill and prowess, with mecha competing in front of hundreds of thousands of Cybertronians, eager to prove their ability in everything from racing to close-quarters combat.
Now, the medical facilities were as battered and worn as the arenas themselves, pitted and eroded remnants of a more glorious past. What had once been great contests of skill were now merely exercises in spilt energon and death, while the few medics still working did what they could to patch up what remained after.
Flipsides climbed down from the dead-ended service walkway and edged carefully into the medbay, moving silently from shadow to shadow, staying well out of reach of hand or pede with a skill born of long practice. Symbionts learned early to move swiftly and quietly, to watch and learn and remain unnoticed, especially in sensitive areas. Medics, as a rule, had little patience for mecha who insisted in getting under their pedes in the operating theater, and symbionts were no exception.
Climbing back up again to his preferred vantage point -- another service ledge across the bay-- Flipsides could see the spark-chamber breach even around the bulk of the medics working frantically to seal it. The light from the gladiator’s spark pulsed fitfully, guttering, and Flipsides felt something inside him clench in sympathy. He had seen this too often to mistake it; barring a miracle, the gladiator was unlikely to survive. He had observed medics for hundreds of vorn; yet somehow, watching patients die never seemed to get easier.
Even Ratbat shivered a little, small talons gripping down harder on his shoulder.
The sparklight cast a warm yellow-green over the medics’ faces, their flashing hands. The intensity of that glow hid the rusted edges of armor, concealed scratched and battered nanite topcoats -- the medics seemed like nothing more than shadows, splinters of moving darkness while the light dimmed. The glow caught -- flared back brighter, the dying containment field burning off every joule of power its host frame could supply.
“Don’t you dare, you drone-fragging slagger,” the bigger medic hissed. He reached for his instrument stand, split and unfolded multitool digits a blur as he sorted through the supplies piled haphazardly there, to seize the tiny clamp he wanted. Stent was an old medic -- Flipsides wasn’t sure how old -- and had probably once been one of the best. He was still good, but a few hundred vorn of stim virus addiction had left him with few options for work, other than in the arenas. No wealthier clients wanted a mech whose hands sometimes shook, whose thinning armor was rust-spotted, whose berthside manner had been worn away to nothing long ago.
The gladiators didn’t have many other choices.
Though in truth, the end would have been inevitable almost anywhere. Small containment breaches could be treated, if caught quite early -- but downed gladiators were rarely removed from the ring until the end of each show. Half a joor after the injury, there was usually nothing left to save... though the medics tried every time.
The surgery itself was a desperately complex variation on an Ilizarov third-harmonic procedure. Spliced fuel and power lines kept the rest of the wounded mech’s systems isolated, kept him from going into sparkshock. The medics were employing their own fields to maintain line flows, and using their dampeners to even out the sharp spikes of power that tore again and again through the fragile protometal web they were trying to construct over that breached spark chamber. Stent reached again for the disorganized stand of implements, digits still split into pincers and retractors, shoving aside what he didn’t need, seizing what he did.
Stent would want a very specialized type of spark chamber trocar next, Flipsides realized. He had a good view of the instrument rack from here, and couldn’t spot one. There was a trocar jumbled among other recently-cleaned equipment on a big tray -- buried in the corner, several steps away. It would take seconds or longer for the medic to find it. The little mechkin’s hands clenched and unclenched, his optics tracing the distance between the medical stand and the edge of the pathway where he stood. It wasn’t his place to interfere. He was only a symbiont, there to watch, to bear witness and record the true medics’ skills. Before, when symbionts had still been granted access to the great medical facilities, he would have been horrified at the thought of venturing out onto the floor of a bay, of attempting to offer assistance during such a frantic, desperate operation. Few medics would have stood for such interference, and Flipsides would have been chastised harshly for his presumption.
But that had been a different age, a different place, where help and supplies were plentiful and an extra pair of hands -- especially a very small pair -- were not so badly needed. Flipsides jittered, uncertain; he did not want Stent angry at him! Or Soundwave! The sparklight guttered again, abruptly dimming almost to nothing--
--and he moved, ignoring Ratbat’s indignant squeak as his perch suddenly disappeared from beneath his talons. Flipsides dropped to the battered, stained floor and ran for the corner that held the tools they needed. The tray, sized for normal mecha, was far too high for a mechkin’s reach, and Flipsides jumped from storage crate to platform to ledge, until he landed upon the tray’s edge. Scooping up the trocar, he leaped to another ledge, running along it until he could reach the table-surface within Stent’s reach. The medic reached out half-blindly, frantically rummaging through his assemblage of tools--and Flipsides slid to a stop, vents blown wide, to slap the trocar into that seeking hand. The action earned him the briefest of startled double-takes, but Stent was too good a medic to allow surprise to interfere with his concentration. He put the trocar to its intended use, slipping the barrel with great care through the gap in the wounded mech’s spark chamber.
The very sight made Flipsides flinch -- invasion of a physical object into the chamber itself was almost certain death. The hollow tube of the trocar, though, was cybertronium plating over a thin core of donated and powered protometal -- similar enough to sparkchamber casing to fool a sparkfield into accepting foreign objects concealed inside. In this case, the medic’s own multitools. Paring down a digit into field manipulators and sensors, Stent clamped the trocar in place and then fed his elongated toolset down into the chamber itself, while the other medic siphoned away leaking and contaminated energon before it could ignite.
The physical movements of the medics were swift and confusing enough, but a symbiont’s enhanced sensors picked up fieldwork as well, and that was still more impressive. The medics wielded their powerful personal fields like scalpels and bandages both, cutting off energy spikes with complex magnetic draws, plugging sucking gaps with rapidly-woven arrays. Stent reached towards the instrument rack once more, and Flipsides was there with a grounding cable, pushing it into the proper set of unfolded pincers, right end down, not an instant wasted.
Flipsides watched in awe as the jagged rent in that fragile core began to close, the pulsing light ease into a slightly steadier spin.
Delicately, with all the enormous care of which a medic was capable, Stent began to withdraw the trocar. It and the medic’s tools kept internal fields stable, but the damage could not be further repaired while it remained in place.
For several long seconds, it seemed to work. The medics worked furiously, keeping the fields carefully contained from the outside, applying the wounded mech’s own aspirated protometal into the gaps.
And then, blindingly, the patch failed.
Greenish light flared star-bright, tearing through the fragile repairs, burning away all those carefully layered fields. And then went dark. “Frag you -- no!” Stent snarled, and the other medic jerked back even as charge built up visibly around the bigger medic’s hands. He released it into the gladiator’s body with a hard *whumpfh* of displaced atmosphere, supplying the power to restart the tiniest flicker of a dying spark.
The chamber remained dark and dull. There was no response.
There was utter silence around the repair bay. Both medics paused, Stent’s helm held low.
Then the other medic shook himself a little, collected the tools they’d used from the open chassis, and returned them to the rack. Turning, he started applying neural blocks to the remaining gladiators, selecting several in need of prompt stabilization. Stent didn’t move until two of the caretaker mecha stepped forward to remove the already-graying frame from under his hands. It would be stripped down for parts that might well be used to save those fighters still living -- a process best done before the components had lost power for too long.
The big medic took a step back -- then reached out and seized Flipsides around his middle before the symbiont could even think to dodge.
Flipsides froze in the larger mech’s grip, too terrified to struggle. He knew it’d been a bad idea to interfere, knew he’d get in trouble, but he just couldn’t stand by and do nothing--and now he was going to get shaken, or thrown across the bay, or worse! Narrowed yellow optics stared down at him, and he couldn’t prevent his frame from trembling. He could feel Soundwave reacting to his fear, carrier protocols reaching out, urgently querying location/status? over their bond, sensed Ratbat scurrying from one shadow to the next--
--only to have Stent turn and plunk him roughly down on another tray, this one full of scattered tools. “If you’re going to hang around, then make yourself useful,” he told the mechkin. “Sort these. I want them ready for me *before* I ask for them, got it?”
“Erm--ah--” his vocalizer broke on an embarrassing feedback squeal. Flipsides cringed, frantically resetting it, then nodded. “I--I understand. I uh--yes, sir?”
“Good. And tell your carrier I want to see him in twelve joor.” Stent turned away. “Bulkhead! You’re up next!” The mech in question didn’t appear to be online, not that it slowed Stent down any. “Well, what are you waiting for?” he snapped at the caretakers. “Get his sorry lead-plated aft on my table!”
When Flipsides took more than a moment to reply, Soundwave’s full attention turned towards him, a near-tangible presence over the bond, as immediate and powerful as it was patient. To be sure, Flipsides had only two Masters before Soundwave, and every carrier had his own quirks, but even still ... this one was just *different*. //Flipsides? Status?//
//Uhm.// Flipsides cycled a deep vent as no less than four attendants worked to heave the massive wrecking-mech up onto the tabletop. As big as the surgery platform was, the gladiator overhung it in several places, heavy mace-transformed hand flopping over the edge to scrape the decking. //I... never mind, Master. Everything’s alright, really! But... can you come by? Later?// Flipsides didn’t like to ask favors like this -- especially when he was so new to the cohort! But he couldn’t see a way around the request. Worried, he went to dig a heavy-bore chassis spreader out from under a pile of similar implements. Stent would need one, the way those plating segments had gotten crushed together like that.
//Hn.// Soundwave’s contact lingered a little longer; Flipsides could feel the carrier scanning over his internal readings, accessing Flipsides’ visual feeds. The symbiont hunched his shoulders even as he sorted out a tangle of wiring into heavy and industrial grades, waiting for Soundwave to order him back. The carrier knew Flipsides’ function and his capabilities just as well as Flipsides did, after all. And by no stretch of the imagination was a symbiont meant to... to actually participate like this.
Instead, Flipsides received his Master’s warm pulse of approbation, an elegantly interwoven glyphset of caution, trust, and approval. //Soundwave, acknowledges,// the carrier sent. Shocked, Flipsides felt Soundwave withdraw before the symbiont could return even a few brief glyphs of gratitude.
Definitely, *definitely* different.
To the side, Ratbat circled up to the overhead girders on glowing antigrav nodes. //So... do we get to charge for this?// he queried Flipsides, finding an inverted perch.
//What? Ratbat!// Flipsides returned, scurrying to get the spreader into the medic’s hand. //We can’t just -- I won’t... we’d better let Soundwave figure that out. Primus.// Pit. At least he always understood where Ratbat was coming from, anyway.
The rest of the shift was a blur. The bay contained tens of thousands of specialized tools and parts of varying ages and states of cleanliness and repair. Some of them differed only in the materials of which they were made, or the subtle glow of their instilled fields, the counts of their threading or the precise diameter of their bores. Simply distinguishing the right ones to use was difficult -- getting them into the medic’s hands in time was a formidable challenge.
But Flipsides had been watching surgeries for a very long time. He’d observed this particular medic for several orn. He learned fast, and he forgot nothing. Those were small strengths, weighing little against the constant flow of the wounded. But they were something, and they made him useful -- a thing the mechkin hadn’t really been for a long time.
Flipsides didn’t have to move much from the surgery tables -- the medics or caretaker-mecha brought racks of parts and equipment to him. Which was good, because some of the parts were larger than he was. And the repair bay was frankly huge, and also lined with gladiators who weren’t always lucid enough to watch where they were stepping. Even still, the mechkin was exhausted by the time the shift changed, and the other medic left -- and then the workload simply doubled until the fourth-shift medic arrived.
Stent worked with both steady intensity and a steadier bad temper. At one point, the medic paused between repairs, his hands coated in energon to the elbow -- and slid back his own medical panel. Apparently uncaring of the optics on him, he removed and discarded a used stim virus plug, then inserted a fresh one. His fingers left streaks of energon on his armor and internal components as he closed the panel. Then he picked up his tools and continued, snarling invectives at the delirious mech on the surgical table.
By the end of Stent’s shift, Flipsides was tempted to reevaluate his distaste for illegal stim viruses, himself. He could feel his energon levels ebbing--not to critical levels, thankfully, but a cassette-mech simply didn’t have the space in their frame for the reserve tanks that other mecha did, and it was with a sense of profound relief that he felt his Master’s approach. Soundwave would take care of everything. Would take care of him as well, make sure he had time to rest and recharge, no matter what Stent or anyone else said. Flipsides didn’t think he’d ever been quite so grateful for the reassuring press of his carrier’s field.
Soundwave’s entrance to the repair facility did not go unnoticed. Megavorn ago, there would have been security -- guards and monitors to prevent unauthorized access to the medical bays. Now, there was no need. The repair facilities were in use and occupied by gladiators every joor in a cycle; no mech in their right processor would try to cause trouble here.
By this point in the duty-shifts, there were only a handful of gladiators remaining, most waiting for small, non-critical repairs. But all their attention was turned towards the new arrival, optics narrowed as they tried to decide if the tall carrier was a threat, a rival, or something else entirely. Most mecha could be easily judged: warframe or civilian, fighter or worker. But this interloper defied easy assessment -- heavily armored over his core but fairly lightly in the limbs and helm, strongly built for physical endurance but sculpted like a towers mech. And the panels folded at his back -- what the frag were those? Wings? Weapons?
Soundwave moved through the bay, avoiding the still-working fourth and fifth-shift medics with easy assurance. His symbionts’ familiarity with the arena and its repair facilities gave Soundwave an intimate knowledge of the bay’s layout, and he used that to his advantage, heading directly to where Stent was wearily wiping coolant and other assorted fluids off his plating.
“Designation: Soundwave,” he said, looking down at Stent’s shorter, broader frame. “Flipsides’ carrier. Medic Stent, requested my presence.” Introductions done, Soundwave waited for the other mech to make his opening salvo.
Stent turned, looking the taller mech up and down. Narrowed yellow optics did not miss the remnant scars of old wounds on that broad cobalt chassis, the still-truncated right pede, the battered edges to Soundwave’s armor. The medic had seen worse, of course; especially in this place. Still, it was obvious that this particular Chronicler was no stranger to violence. “I did,” he said shortly, turning away to toss the silicate sponge into a bin. “Your mini-mech there--he’s slagging useful, and we could use the help. But I know you Chronicler-types; everything’s gotta go through their Master first. So let’s talk.”
Soundwave tilted his head fractionally, considering. “Flipsides’ safety, a concern. Cassette-mecha, easily damaged.” That visored gaze flicked over to the watching gladiators, coldly assessing.
Stent shrugged a little. “So he stays on the tables. Climbing up and down’s a waste of time, anyway.” He followed Soundwave’s subtle look. “These slagheads won’t touch him. *Will you*?”
The gladiator on the other table for repair work flinched and clamped his armor a little closer in reflex. He’d been cheaply painted in white and blue -- the colors in which the Lord High Protector Aegis was typically depicted -- and the paint was already flaking and peeling, the mottling making him look as if he suffered from some odd kind of corrosion. “What? Er--I mean, no! Of course not. Nobody here’d even think of it, nope!” Looking desperately for a way to redirect that gimlet stare, he scrabbled on the berthtop, found a small stripped screw, and tossed it at the bulk of a massive wrecking mech laid out of the floor. “Right? You neither!” he said. The fourth-shift medic, working on assembling his knee joint, hissed in irritation at the movement and applied another neural block.
The screw pinged off the bulk’s helm. “H-huh?” Optics reset blearily, lenses focusing down, sorting out the fuzzy shapes of pedes and floor. The wrecking-mech was too big to move very far, and all the other long-term care slings had been full -- they weren’t really big enough for a mech his size, anyway. Which was alright; Bulkhead was used to the floor by now. The tiny helm peering at him from over the edge of the table, though -- that was something new. “Oh. Hello?”
The tiny -- sparkling? -- waved back, wincing a bit as its overstrained servos creaked a little.
“Be polite, fragger. He’s a new medic or somethin’ -- saw ‘im put yer aft back together,” maintained the gladiator on the table, kicking his free leg idly. The movement earned him an irate glare from the attending medic and a gesture towards the very, very solid limb restraints set into the table. The gladiator stilled--then, after an uncertain glance at both Soundwave and Stent, added, “Uh--but we ain’t supposed to talk to him.”
“Oh. You can talk to me,” said the tiny sparkling medic, vocalizer crackling at the edges with exhaustion. Bulkhead wondered briefly where that last batch of neural blocks had come from, and whether he could get any more of them. This was clearly some good scrap. A couple more, and he’d probably start hallucinating rust sticks and energon goodies, too.
Soundwave considered for a moment. “Additional assurances, required. These facilities, do not only treat mecha.” A cyberhound was easily Ravage’s size or larger. And while even a pack of them could not match the bladeframe’s skill, speed, or weaponry, they were still dangerous creatures.
Stent transferred his scowl back to the carrier. “I’m not a fraggin’ sparking-sitter, Chronicler. Your mini is useful, but not if my medics have to spend all their time watching out for him. This is the slagging *Kaon Arena*, not some Towers library--if you’re that worried about him, then *you* can play bodyguard.”
Soundwave considered this. “Suggestion, acceptable,” he said evenly. “Soundwave: will be present for all post-event repairs involving volatile mecha, sapient or otherwise.” Flipsides could feel a flare of humor through the bond; judging from Stent’s expression, the medic wasn’t expecting Soundwave to agree so readily. “Query: amount and nature of compensation for our assistance?”
“Do I look like a rich mech?” Stent retorted, already back on the attack. “We might be able to spare him some repair-grade energon out of the medical stores--a little mech like that doesn’t take much--but not a lot more than that. It’s not like he’s a fully-framed medic, Chronicler--he might be useful, but he’s not irreplaceable.”
Few mecha, in Flipsides’ harsh experience, were irreplaceable. Chroniclers had just learned that a bit more thoroughly than most. Still, a little energon was better than nothing, right?
“Your assessment, inaccurate,” Soundwave pointed out. “Flipsides: a trove of medical experience in repair procedures, advanced techniques, and other specialized data. Our presence, grants entire Arena staff an unsurpassed medical library. In addition to physical assistance, that data, instantly available at a moment’s notice--in exchange for appropriate compensation.”
Stent huffed. “We already have access to the Kaon medical datanet. This might not be as glamorous as the Towers, Chronicler, but we know what we’re doing here, and we do it every slagging day.”
Soundwave looked down at the bristling medic. “Medical datanets: require authorizations, AI permissions, levels of access. Arena access, unrestricted?”
Stent scowled, his engine revving in a angry growl. “It should be--but no, it isn’t. Not anymore, the slaggers.”
“Flipsides: carries first-hand observational data on Cybertron’s finest medics at work. Torsion, Freefall, Ratchet, Sere--many others.” Soundwave crossed his arms, surveying the bay with assumed nonchalance, as if he had never seen it before. “This information, of no value to the Arena?”
Stent’s optics narrowed. Slaggin’ mob-Master knew very well that it would be useful. Bunch of the medics he had to work with were half-trained at best, had been processor-damaged or lost fingers; better techniques and work-arounds would undoubtedly save lives. The medics Soundwave had named were nothing less than legendary. “Fine. *If* you can present this data in a way the crews can understand, *if* it proves useful -- I can get spare Chronicler parts put onto the requisition manifests. Doesn’t guarantee anything, but whatever components come on market, you’ll get. *And* I’ll install ‘em when you need ‘em.”
Soundwave tilted his head slightly, consulting the black market data Ratbat liked to collect. It wasn’t a large sample, only a few thousand observations, but enough for Soundwave to conclude that parts suitable for himself or his cohort might not become available in any quantity for a very long time. “Our frametypes: quite rare,” he pointed out levelly.
Stent ground his dentae. “I don’t know what else you think I can offer,” he growled. Slaggin’ information-dealers.
Soundwave glanced up, requesting a series of pared-down files over comm from Ratbat. “Your treatment efficiency, increased by sixteen percent with Flipsides’ assistance,” he said, double-checking the numbers, “Long term result, fewer casualties, more entertaining shows. Arena profits, projected to increase by one-point-three percent.”
“I said he was slagging usef-- now wait.” Stent arched an optical ridge. “You thinking Clench is going to listen to any of this? Cut you in? Not likely. That fragger only knows what he can see -- and he doesn’t see the inside of *this* bay much anymore. So unless you wanna hit the ring or cart around what needs to be moved, you aren’t going on the official payroll.”
“Or unless the vid-AI goes out again,” said the sitting gladiator, picking long strips of cheap paint off his glossy crimson topcoat. Watching a mech peel himself was, Soundwave discovered, vaguely sickening. The gladiator blinked, looked up. “What? That’s what they do, isn’t it?” he made an odd, indecipherable wiggly motion in Soundwave’s direction, then clamped his armor tight again at Stent’s fulminating glare.
Soundwave didn’t hesitate to take the opening. “Additional duties, also of potential benefit to arena profits. Our experience with data transfers--including broadcast and wide-banded datastreams--extensive,” he pointed out. “Such expertise, visible enough for your purposes?”
Stent snorted. “Give the fragger what he wants, and I get what I want, is that your game?” Glancing around at the battered bay, the watching mecha, he shook his helm. “Fine. If you can squeeze anything out of Clench, then more power to you. I don’t care what the rest of your mob does, but *he*--” Stent jabbed a finger at a startled Flipsides, “--stays here in the bay when I need him.” Glancing over at a far corner, he headed to it, shoving several boxes of medical implements out of his way in the process. His backstruts groaned and creaked as he moved. “You there. Red--whatever,” he said, pointing at a smallish caretaker mech, who came nervously to a halt, arms loaded with energon-soaked scraps of metalmesh. “Go tell Clench the damned camera AI is broken again.”
“Red Alert,” said the smaller mech, hitching his burden unsteadily, “and, uh. It’s not--” he paused as Stent unscrewed the wall panel... and ripped out a rather large chunk of cabling. A distant, arrhythmic whirring ground slowly to a halt.
“Sounds broken to me,” said Stent, replacing the panel and then pushing himself upright.
The little mech’s optics flicked to Soundwave. “Well,” he said after a moment, “I … guess it’s broken, then. Want me to tell him there’s a video-Chronicler guy here, too?” You didn’t work in the arena for very long before learning one of the place’s cardinal rules: never, never, *never* slag off the medics.
“Might save you a smack across the helm if you do,” Stent grunted, tossing the cabling aside with a clang. “It’s your game now, Chronicler. Let’s see how well you play.”