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.”
The resulting negotiations were both epic and entertaining, at least from the bystanders’ point of view, and took the better part of an entire cycle. They began across from the repair bay, but soon migrated into the wider parts of the Arena as Clench threatened and shouted, waving his arms and stomping away dramatically to show how little he needed any kind of help from a broken-down, obsolete Chronicler or his mob of scraplets. Soundwave, meanwhile, paced him like a tall, visored shadow, tenacious as a cyberhound. Armed with Ratbat’s observations and his own analysis, he answered every protest and scoffing remark with a riposte, with pointed observations on the Arena’s own shortcomings, careful reminders at the unique benefits his skill set would provide, and the modest--if carefully calculated--nature of his cohort’s own requirements in return.
In the end, his temper and his bluster both worn down to the nub, Clench agreed to employ Soundwave on a contingent basis. And after Soundwave redesigned the vid layout of the next orn’s arena battles to cover more ground, and spliced together the most exciting--and bloody--parts of the action faster than the archaic AI had ever managed, Soundwave’s position, and the resulting rewards, were no longer quite so grudgingly given.
Within a few duty-shifts and for the first time in many vorn, Soundwave was pleasantly *busy.* He’d almost forgotten how much he missed it. Packing together useful training modules for the medics was interesting work alone, requiring a great deal of discretion and review. And assembling video footage for greatest excitement required Soundwave to look up entertainment techniques he’d never really needed before. Shortly after Soundwave finished reprogramming the feedback drones for clearer internal archiving -- resulting in much-improved sensory and image files of the fights for sale on the black market -- the carrier even received a ping stating that quarters were being opened up for him.
The timing was fortunate. Soundwave’s present habitation unit, allotted to his latest manufactured identity, was soon to expire. And despite the danger, the arena was a suitable location for his cohort. There were always things going on at the arena, a great deal for a symbiont to observe and experience.
Ratbat joined his Master at a juncture of the corridors, landing on the big carrier’s shoulder and squeaking excitedly. //Those new files must be selling really well, and affecting the arena’s bottom line a lot! I bet they’re--// The little symbiont tried to run for himself the arena-wide black market and economic calculations from his observed data, but got confused around the fourth fourier transformation. What Ratbat wouldn’t give to be able to do things with really big piles of data! //Look and see and tell me? Please oh please?//
//Clench may be trying to keep us close,// Ravage warned, stalking alongside Soundwave. His armor was liberally coated in the metal-dust of the gladiators’ training grounds, where he seemed to enjoy spending the first few joor of every cycle.
//Very likely,// Soundwave agreed. He occupied a few processor threads with Ratbat’s files, rapidly rendering the data into points, cross-referencing with the ease of long practice, as he followed the included navigational coordinates to a quieter part of the arena maintenance and support structure. They were not, he noted with some relief, anywhere near the riotous gladiator barracks. //Reasons for that, however, potentially many.// Some of these irising doors, all locked tight now, seemed to lead to storage rooms. Empty crates haphazardly lined the hallway.
Across from one irising doorhatch idled a hover-sled, partially loaded with crates of all sizes. The hatch itself was splashed with old markings and... warnings? now mostly scrubbed out. The heavy portal abruptly opened, revealing another crate, this one with legs.
Soundwave stepped aside for the burdened mech. He was small, a light warframe in scuffed red and white -- apparently the same caretaker-mech from the repair bay, before.
Red Alert set his crate down, vented a sigh, turned -- and yelped. “Alarm-Danger-Aler--oh! Uh. Soundwave.”
Soundwave looked down at the startled mech. “Red Alert,” he returned, making no effort to modulate his normal flat tones. He was too new to the Arena to have properly assessed all the subtle maneuverings, the unspoken and ever-shifting hierarchy among support staff, gladiators, and the overseers. It was too early to risk taking any sides, or forming alliances; not when he was unable to properly assess the cost-benefit of such actions. No--careful neutrality was his best option, at least until his cohort could learn more about the machinations that lay beneath the Kaon Arena’s battered, energon-soaked walls.
Double-checking the mapfile they’d been sent, he glanced at the hatch. “Query: these rooms, our assigned quarters?” It appeared their new lodgings had been used for storage. Unsurprising, he supposed.
“Yes, I’m about finished clearing them out. Got another sled with berth parts waiting. And some cleaning drones.” Red Alert shook his helm. “Guess this center hasn’t been used for vorn, except for storage.” He cast an odd look back into the room. “I’ll show you?”
Without waiting for Soundwave’s nod, Red Alert scurried back inside.
Ravage arched a brow ridge, exchanging glances with his Master. What the Pit made a mech that nervous? The bladeframe swung his head down, sensory whiskers flicking forward as he examined the corridor and doorframe with greater care, alert for traps, for other mecha. But there seemed to be no sign of ill-intent -- just one small, excited warframe, gathering piles of abandoned set equipment and body ornamentation off a series of old camera terminals set into two walls.
“They’re T-90C units -- I didn’t even realize the Arena used to have these! The primary input is still in binary, if you can believe -- oh!” A huge and elaborate set of detachable headcrests threatened to flop from his arms onto the floor, and Red Alert made a grab for the falling costume.
“Query: your function, communications?” Soundwave asked, surveying the dust-covered consoles, the huddled piles of cabling and obsolete equipment, as the other mech struggled to keep ahold of his unwieldy burden. He compressed his file of statistical results for Ratbat and sent it via comm, trusting that it would keep the symbiont happily occupied for a time.
The red mech’s half-buried helm jerked up, surprised by the question--which was enough to send the top of the precarious pile sliding to the floor with a tinny clatter. “What--oh, *slaggit*.” Red Alert let the rest of the headcrests drop, and then kicked them for good measure. “No--not communications. Not here, if that’s what you mean. I’m coded for security and surveillance, military branch. I was sparked right before the end of the war.” He gave a tiny shrug, still looking downward. “Bad timing, I guess. Never had a chance to settle into my function--barely got in before I got mustered right back out.”
“Security mecha, in demand,” Soundwave pointed out, his curiosity getting the better of him. After the war, a great many ex-intelligence and special operations-coded mecha had gone into civilian security and enforcement. What had kept this particular mech from doing the same?
“Not me.” Red Alert straightened, lifting his helm in unconscious defiance. “Too high-strung for civilian security, they said, back when there were still allotments open for that. Now--” Silver-white mouthparts tightened, but the mech kept his helm up, as if he were under inspection. “Now I’m too glitched, even if I found a slot. Too many vorn of ignoring my coding, Stent says.”
Soundwave inclined his head in acknowledgment of the answer, wandering over to a bank of consoles. They were all dark, even the power indicators--it looked like he would have to do a fair amount of work if he was to make this facility functional again. “Query: your assessment of installed equipment? Amount still salvageable?”
Leaving the pile of ornamentation behind, Red went to crouch beside Soundwave. “Well. Not a lot of call for these parts anymore. They all work fine, just the AIs can’t run on ‘em.” He slid back a few panels by manual catch, checking to make sure the main circuit boards were still intact. “Some of the fuses got pulled -- I imagine you could scrounge up more someplace. Glitchmice been chewing things up, though.” Red Alert frowned at the small, rolling tracks which intersected the smooth coating of metaldust. He hated glitchmice. The little warframe’s optics narrowed. “Maybe someone planted them here as sabotage.”
Soundwave’s visor gleamed in the dim light, more crimson than spilled energon. “Unlikely.”
“Oh.” Red Alert thought that over for a moment, then turned back to poking through the commcenter station, checking sockets and slots, following corroded cables back to power sources. “If you strip a couple of the terminals down, there ought to be enough to repair the rest, I think. Maybe you’ll need a few extra parts, but nothing unusual.” Red Alert’s optics narrowed again in an expression that Soundwave was beginning to recognize. “Why do you want to know?” asked the little warframe suspiciously, glancing to Ravage, who paced the corners of the room examining every crate and crevice, as was his habit.
//Wow, he wasn’t kidding when he said he was glitched,// Ratbat observed, admiring his new file. The results were so nice, lined up all pretty like this. //No wonder he can’t get a security slot. That’s some seriously corrupted coding there.//
“Functional equipment, necessary for assigned duties,” Soundwave said evenly in answer to the smaller mech’s paranoia. Ratbat was undoubtedly right; but that did not mean Red Alert could not still be useful to them.
“Oh. Right.” For a moment, Red Alert looked as if he wasn’t sure he believed Soundwave’s explanation; then he shook his helm, and went back to his investigations. “I think I’ve seen a lot of the parts you need in one of the other storage areas. A lot of stuff has gotten shuffled around and misplaced.” He scrabbled a bit, reaching further in to snag a lead and pull it out for inspection. “Some of it deliberately,” he added ominously.
“Pilferage, a concern,” Soundwave agreed, deliberately ignoring Ratbat’s rolled optics and Ravage’s more subtle disdain. He moved over, folding down on his pedes next to the tangle of conduits and cabling, and began separating them out with expert talons. There was a certain amount of corrosion, but Soundwave had become an expert in making do over the last several vorn. It would not take much, he thought, to put the equipment to rights, even as outmoded as it was.
//His glitch, potentially useful. His knowledge of Arena secrets, helpful to cement our position,// Soundwave said to Ravage and Ratbat.
//Hn.// was Ravage’s only reply.
//Not *that* useful,// Ratbat grumbled. //And I can tell already that glitch of his is going to be a pain in the aft.//
“Exactly!” said Red Alert, brightening. “Mecha try all the time to make off with the things I’m supposed to take care of. That’s why I have to watch them. The mecha, I mean -- not the things. Though I really ought to watch the things as well....” Red Alert rubbed uneasily at the blunted edge of a bit of gauntlet-plating, fingers worrying at the scuffed metal. It was hard to watch in two places at once. His inability to do so felt like a failure, made him anxious, neurotic.
“Red Alert: come here,” said Soundwave evenly, waiting until the little warframe skittered over to crouch beside him. “Much of this wiring, still good. Strip the lengths like this.” He demonstrated the fine work, paring off corroded insulation in neat curls, separating out the still-intact wires from those that should simply be smelted. The work was repetitive, even meditative once a mech learned the skill, and he waited until Red Alert picked up the rhythm of it, wiring slipping rapidly through the warframe’s clever hands.
“Query,” Soundwave said, twisting the ends of a bundle of good copper lengths together, and then picked up a new piece of chewed-through cabling, “Which mecha, most suspicious?”
“Oh, all of them, really,” said Red Alert, soothed by the questions, the repetitive motions of the work. It almost felt as if he were reporting to a superior officer, something he found oddly comforting on a code-deep level. “The medics--Primus. Leave medical supplies anywhere and they’ll get into them. No concept of rationing at all.” The big mech’s nod of understanding was good to see. Nobody else understood. “I think Bulkhead would eat a... well, a bulkhead if we let it rust too much. Grabber has this converter he’s been trying to fix for a quarter-vorn -- thinks he can make energon gels out of thin air, I guess, but he’ll just take parts without requisitioning them and then I have to *find them* and take them back and that --” Red Alert cycled a vent, reached eagerly for the new tangle of wiring that Soundwave held out to him. “But... I guess the worst are the twins.”
“Twins?” Soundwave said, letting Red Alert strip and sort, while he spliced together broken cabling, twisting wires and deftly sparking heat to anneal them where needed. “Query: nature of your concerns?”
“Primus--where do I even start?” The question proved rhetorical, however, as Red Alert eagerly spilled his grievances to Soundwave’s audials. “They’re gladiators, both of them--spark-twins, Stent says, though I think they might just be saying that so that Clench doesn’t get the bright idea of pitting them against each other in the Arena. They’re insane, and homicidal, one of them will kill you if you even vent on his precious plating, I swear, and the other will just make you wish you were dead because he won’t leave you *alone*. They get into *everything*, no matter how much you lock it up. They say they’ll quit, and then just find new ways to torment a mech. Like the one time with--”
Red’s litany of conspiracies, observations and general griping continued, undaunted by Soundwave’s silence. The larger mech listened, reflexively sorting provable observations from conjecture, facts from paranoia. Whenever the security mech seemed to devolve too far into conspiracy theories, Soundwave used techniques learned from hundreds of vorn of reining in his cohort’s enthusiasms, bringing him back on point with a few carefully chosen questions. The rest of the time, he simply listened; a silent and attentive audience.
Over the next few joor, Soundwave walked the little warframe through the motions required to thread new slot connectors onto old chipsets, to rack and rank surveillance drives, to rewire main boards. They were all simple, methodically manual skills, and Red Alert’s hands learned them all -- one step, then the next, then the next, each in its proper sequence, each satisfying in some tiny way a spark-deep need.
By the time the little warframe left to cart away his sled of crates -- with plans to return with spare parts and the berth, both -- the security specialist was calmer than he could remember ever being. His processing ran almost smoothly, from one task to the next, just like his hands had moved. He’d have to see what other parts he could requisition -- properly! -- as well. It would give him an excuse to see the Chronicler again.
Soundwave surveyed the communication room’s dark confines, the crowded rows of half-lit equipment and dim screens, the mountings for a single berth. It wouldn’t take long to put the little room to rights, especially with the other mech’s help. It would take longer, Soundwave judged, to upgrade the Arena’s surveillance systems, especially the live recordings, to the level needed for true usefulness. “This location, could be a safe place for us,” he told a watching Ratbat, a waiting Ravage. Safety in the midst of spilled energon and death, in the darkness of the Kaon Arena -- the irony of it all did not escape him.
//Our challenge: to become indispensable, necessary to Arena functioning,// he sent to all of them, reaching out to the others, pulling Laserbeak, Buzzsaw, and Flipsides into the cohort-channel. //Your help, required. This Arena, must become our foci. All: must learn what we can, its secrets; everything and everyone in it.//
//Soundwave?// The channel to Laserbeak opened up with a fine thread of visual data, a view of crates and rough wall and Buzzsaw’s dust-covered haunches. Both flightframes had managed to cram themselves into an impossible spot behind several piles of heavy storage equipment. //How will uncovering more about this place make us indispensable?// Laserbeak queried. With a great deal of wriggling, pushing, and squeaking, both of the flyers made it to the top of the stacks, and poked their heads up. They were in one of the arena’s huge storage caverns, by the look of it. Props of all kinds were piled and stacked taller than a mech. The arena battlegrounds themselves could be configured to almost any type of terrain -- including offworld and organic. Mockups of huge organic photosynthesis structures towered between the smaller crates.
//Historical accuracy of arena military drama, poor at best,// Soundwave pointed out. From what little he could tell, such presentations mainly involved adorning gladiators with a flimsy pretense at costuming, in an effort to add interest to otherwise tired and over-used battle moves. //Efforts at choreography or special effects, undetectable. Theatrical techniques, may prove of use.// Laserbeak’s optics narrowed as he regarded the jumbled debris around them with new interest.
//Special effects, boss? Pyrotechnics?// Buzzsaw asked, enthused.
//With care,// Soundwave qualified sternly. //Also light, fog, and holographic effects. But … affirmative: explosions too.// The carrier ignored his symbiont’s resulting chitter of delight with fond tolerance. Such diversions were standard fare for the wealthy in the towers. Perhaps more rank-and-file mecha would enjoy them as well, offered in conjunction with bloodsport. //Laserbeak, Buzzsaw: your perspective and mobility, also valuable. Flights over city, exploration of arena, additionally encouraged.// The pair of flightframes chirred their pleasure over the directive.
On the other side of the arena, Flipsides looked up from the small gears he was sorting. //Could... could I still do things in the repair bay, Master?// he asked nervously, fingers flashing as he wired together one of the gear attachment backings that was beginning to fray.
//Affirmative. You work, essential for arena goodwill. Stent and other arena medics, potentially formidable allies. Your skills, invaluable to them and to the arena. Your duties in the repair bay, top priority, second only to your safety and that of the cohort.// In all honesty, Soundwave did not think Flipsides, cautious and still-nervous as he was, needed the reminder, but better to affirm the obvious than let Flipsides risk himself in some misguided attempt to follow his carrier’s command. //Repair bay observations, also useful. Flipsides: watch those that come to the bay, and learn all you can. Gladiators, medics, caretakers: their hierarchy, their interactions. Their glitches, their weaknesses, those too dangerous to be trusted. All of this, useful to us.//
//I understand, Master,// Flipsides said, relieved that Soundwave didn’t expect him to abandon the safer environs of the repair bay.
//Ratbat: your focus, arena economics, bureaucracy. Observe Clench, find out to whom he reports, expected profits, supplies being siphoned into personal use or bribes. Gladiators, caretakers: undoubtedly have a barter system of sorts. Discover the going rates, what favors are being exchanged and by whom. Arena events also attract betting, games-rigging; such investigations possibly fruitful, but pursue with care.//
The little glideframe nodded, tiny red optics glittering eagerly. //Sounds interesting. Don’t worry, Boss--they’ll never know I’m there.// He’d learned his lesson in Iacon; his wing had hurt for orns!
//Ravage ...// Here, Soundwave hesitated--and his First smoothly moved in to take up the slack.
//I’ve both fought and worked with warframes before, Master. I’ll see to the gladiators, learn who they are and what they can do, the tactics they use to fight. Might even learn a few new tricks we can use from the minibots and other scrappers.//
//Your safety, still paramount,// Soundwave reminded him.
//I understand. Don’t worry; war stories and sparring skills go a long way towards camaraderie, and I have plenty of both.//
The thought of Ravage in actual contact with the gladiators.... Soundwave turned his hand over in open invitation, and Ravage padded close, jointed whiskers rasping against his carrier’s palm. Soundwave stroked the pad of his thumb-talon over the bladeframe’s optical ridge, across the sharp angles of his head, the fine-plated flex of his audial. //Misinformation regarding us, commonplace. Hostage tactics, mecha injuring you because of me, a concern,// he said, carefully. He would wager that most of these gladiators had little exposure to Chronicler frametypes, but all of them had a great deal of experience in using physical force. It would only take one incident for the entire arena to discover exactly what his symbionts meant to Soundwave -- and use that to their advantage. His cohort might never be safe, then.
Ravage pressed his bladed helm into his Master’s hand, jaws parting a little. //I am not helpless,// he pointed out, bemused.
//You are not a warframe,// Soundwave stated. Let one angry or manipulative gladiator seize Ravage, and there would be little that Soundwave would not do to stop him. The big carrier had taken care to become a good fighter -- for a civilian. But against fully armed and practiced warframes like these... he doubted there would be any real contest.
//Master?// Flipsides said, hesitantly. //I.. don’t know if it will help. But sometimes, we -- M-Minebreak and Stringtheory and I, we didn’t want to lead trouble back to our carrier? So we... acted like drones. Smart drones, sometimes, but still not sentient. It helped us be ignored.// He paused. //A lot of mecha kind of think that’s what we are, anyway.// Going by hard drive and processor count alone... it wasn’t an entirely irrational belief. A symbiont couldn’t even transform into two fully-functional forms, like a normal mech. So unless they dealt intimately or frequently with Chroniclers, most mecha would have little reason to believe that symbionts were anything more than clever machines.
Soundwave bridled. He could see the logic in it, but still--to act as if symbionts were worthless … as if they were nothing more than dumb, interchangeable mechanisms, of less value than even a turbofox or cyberhound …! //Soundwave: must protect all of you. That task, impossible under such a pretense.// He didn’t like it; it went against every coded instinct he had. To a carrier, there was nothing on Cybertron more precious than a symbiont. How could he ever pretend otherwise?
//The notion has some merit,// Laserbeak said quietly, thoughtfully. //A lightly-armed drone hasn’t the capacity to be any real threat, except by recording and relaying data.// And even then, it was easier to simply pick up and reprogram a drone, or try to bargain with its controller, than to try to destroy it -- more advanced drones tended to be quite good at evasive maneuvers. //We would be underestimated. That could be quite useful.//
//Underestimated, perhaps. Also ignored, overlooked, thought to be of little value.// Soundwave did not often argue with his cohort, but this.... Drones had no agency. Destroying a drone wasn’t murder; it was merely destruction of property. His symbionts--bonded, intelligent, and uniquely precious, all of them--to force his symbionts to pretend they were of no more worth than surveillance drones, slaves without even the awareness to know they were slaves … it was unconscionable. Unthinkable. //Proposed strategy: merely exchanges one danger for another. Drones, of no use as hostages. Destroying drones, also a matter of little consequence.// If he allowed them to enact this stratagem, and some arrogant gladiator destroyed Ratbat, or Laserbeak, or Ravage, and then offered Soundwave some meager amount of recompense for the loss of his ‘drone’ …
… Soundwave wasn’t sure if he could live with that. With the knowledge of just how thoroughly he had failed his duty as a carrier.
Ratbat stroked the side of his helm against Soundwave’s audial. //That’s a risk we face anyway, Boss,// he pointed out. Any gladiator, in a fit of temper, could easily react with violence -- and with little regard to whether his victim was drone or symbiont. //The authorities around here don’t exactly treat the murder of ‘obsoletes’ any differently than they do property damage, even if word of it was allowed to leave the arena. And as you say, we avoid being taken hostage, and used as leverage.//
Of course, that would help keep Soundwave safer, as well. At least if a mech were angry with Soundwave, he’d come against the carrier directly, so that all the symbionts could help, rather than using them to force the carrier into a trap. Ratbat cocked his helm, looked down at Ravage. //What you think?// he asked, knowing full well which of the cohort Soundwave really listened to.
The bladeframe was silent for a few moments. //It will not work entirely,// he said slowly. //Flipsides does need to communicate with his medics. And some among us are particularly... demonstrative.//
//Hey!// Buzzsaw and Ratbat protested in unison.
Soundwave stilled. //Ravage: has a counterproposal?//
//Waveframes, serpentframes, flightframes, bladeframes … we are all easily overlooked due to our appearance. Considered mere technimals, sometimes, by the ignorant.// Ravage leaned a bit more against his Master’s side, a subtle encouragement to that stroking hand. //Mechkin are bipedal--their root modes look more like most larger mecha. We can use these assumptions. Nothing dramatic--Flipsides can continue as he has. He’s unassuming enough, and medics are an insular class. Few will think much of it if he doesn’t socialize much outside of their company.// He gave a sharp, wryly amused snort. //The rest of us merely need to speak less, and keep to the shadows. Let the gladiators’ own expectations do the rest.//
Ravage slanted a keen glance upward to his carrier. //I’m more concerned for you, Master. Allowing others to scorn your cohort -- I know it will be difficult. Can you do it, if it means keeping us all safe?//
Soundwave let his touch linger along the fine, segmented sensory whiskers, stroking them carefully back, over and over again. He could scarcely touch his cohort without marvelling at the artistry of them, the skill that had gone into every power-efficient part of them. And their frames were the least part of his symbionts. For Soundwave knew the sparks that dwelt beneath the shells -- and each was more precious than all the great libraries on Cybertron.
//Most mecha: see only what they expect to see,// Soundwave said quietly, field reflecting unhappy conflict.
//If it does not work, we will cease,// Laserbeak reassured him, wings hunched with the urge to find his carrier and groom Soundwave thoroughly.
//Better get used to explaining why your topcoat’s thin on your audials, Boss,// Buzzsaw huffed. //’Cause I’m probably gonna wear right through the nanites, rubbing against ‘em. In *private*, Ravage.// Overly-demonstrative, Buzzsaw’s skinny aft!
//Very well.// Soundwave was still not happy, but he could propose no better solution, short of keeping them safely within his docks. Which was not an option; symbionts needed to be in the world, to learn and observe and experience. Soundwave was not about to let his fears turn his protection into a prison. //Soundwave … acknowledges,// he told them all, layering the words with his regret, his acceptance.
//Our safety, precarious for a time.// They were not truly accepted as part of the Kaon Arena yet; they would be seen as interlopers, scavengers here to profit at the gladiators’ expense. //Our cohort, must be ready to defend each other at a moment’s notice.// He cycled a slow, deliberate ventilation, letting it work against the overspill of heat created by his distress, his own impotent anger.
He folded himself downward on his pedes, bowing his head in the little room, one hand lifting to stroke over Ratbat’s arched wings, the other resting upon the crest of Ravage’s ebony helm. //Soundwave: regrets that it has come to this,// he said to them all, needing to apologize, even if logically there was no reason for it.
Ravage wound himself closer, a rumbling growl of negation underscoring his words. “Do not. This is nothing. Not if it keeps us safe and fuelled. This age will pass, Soundwave; just like the others before it.” His faceted optics were bright, fierce and unafraid. “All you’re doing is what’s needed to ensure that we’ll be there to see it.”
Lying atop Soundwave's chestplates in lazy half-recharge, the carrier's hand cupped over his backplates and talons stroking lightly, was never anything short of wonderful. Flipsides tucked his helm a little tighter against the smooth expanse of armor, feeling the hum of the concealed spark as a subtle and cycling warmth across his faceplates. Most mecha had several layers of armor over their cores, enough to entirely shield even the signature of a carrier's high-output spark. Soundwave, however, had just one such layer of plating, and the carrier’s warmth filtered through.
Even still, half a vorn after bonding, Flipsides could not quite believe that all this was for him. The big carrier’s physical differences were striking enough, of course -- laid bare in that first magnificent courting display a few orn after they took to the road. He was glad that Laserbeak had, quietly and privately, warned him about Soundwave’s unique docking arrangements beforehand. Flipsides might have hurt his new carrier otherwise, that first time he surrendered to Soundwave’s powerful field and poured himself into one of those many temptingly offered slots. The warmth of those docks and the unparallelled closeness still overcame him every time he sought his carrier’s refuge.
But Soundwave offered more than physical solace. He gave his attention, his time and touch, so very freely. It made Flipsides nervous, sometimes, made him wonder what he’d done to earn such an unconditional reward. And the cohort --
The doorhatch irised open with the sound of air across flightplates, then a weight landed on Soundwave’s chest beside him. Flipsides made a breathy squeaking noise as Buzzsaw burrowed happily under Soundwave’s hand, flopping long neck and tail across the little mechkin. Before Flipsides could muster a more vigorous protest, the flightframe turned his head to groom along his shoulder and back with agile little nips. “Hi,” chirped Buzzsaw.
Flipsides felt his mouthparts turn up. Well. The cohort wasn’t half bad, either.
“Hi, yourself,” he replied, Buzzsaw’s presence an energetic, fiery addition to the warmth and comfort of Soundwave’s field. Above them, Soundwave’s visor tilted downward to look at them both, his free hand obligingly smoothing down the overlapping spines of Buzzsaw’s long neck. It was obvious, however, that their carrier was enjoying the rare moment of respite as well, for he made no effort to straighten or order them off. “Getting into trouble again?”
“Of course!” Buzzsaw said cheerfully, winding himself around and over Flipsides’ more-compact frame. “Don’t worry, though--they’ll never figure out it was me.”
“Oh, good.” Flipsides decided to take Buzzsaw at his word. It wasn’t like he could do anything about it anyway, and to be fair, the flightframe *had* gotten better at covering his tracks, especially now that Laserbeak had taken him under his wing. Though most of his exploits *still* seemed to involve explosions in the end, for some reason. “Hear anything interesting?” he asked idly.
“Well now, let’s see,” said Buzzsaw, flaring his plating a little so that the tips of Soundwave’s talons could stroke under each segment just the way the flightframe liked. Paring memory down to audial and visual, he offered them freely over the cohort bond, a moving illustration to his words. “That shipment of new actuators came in. Really new ones, pre-incubated, not the nasty salvage ones. I got a look at the manifests, and there are supposed to be three in there for ‘miniature-class’ mecha." He parted his beak in a happy grin. There were only three -- maybe four, if you counted Ravage, though he sometimes required larger parts -- mecha of such small size in the arena. Ratbat almost always needed extraordinarily specialized parts, but fortunately his actuators were still looking pretty good.
Flipsides patted Soundwave’s plating. “Which reminds me. Stent said he wants a new module on electronystagmography -- the kind for when you’ve been hit a lot and your optics go all fuzzy? Torque did a lot of those.” The mechkin frowned, worried. “Stent said he asked for it before, but he didn’t. So don’t let him get mad at you. I think he’s been forgetting more things.”
Buzzsaw tilted his helm. “Also, you remember how Clench made all the construction mecha move in with the others?” Huge wrecking mecha, like Bulkhead, had some of the largest quarters in the gladiator dorms -- they tended to destroy smaller spaces, either by accident or while overcharged. “Well, I figured out why. Those last shipments of energon have included a whole lot of flightgrade, and check this out.” Buzzsaw offered up a short advertisement clip, obviously glimpsed at a distance from the back of Clench’s office.
The sample broadcast was clearly meant to be relayed over the localnet. A trine of Vosnian Seekers rocketed overhead, carving whorls in the atmosphere, turning and falling and arching skyward with thrilling speed, in time with color and light and sound. It seemed like a advertisement for an airshow.
“Weird,” said Flipsides, watching. “Those flight demonstrations are legal. Are they going to fight as well? Because the repair bay doesn’t have enough Seeker parts for major injuries to three more.”
Soundwave frowned, replaying the clip. The poor quality of the visuals made the Seekers impossible to identify, though the way one performed in the air, the quality of his flight, seemed … familiar, somehow. Setting up a low priority identification-analysis thread to run, he turned over the possibilities. “Flight demonstration at arena, unusual,” he admitted. “Airshows, very popular. Also very common.” No matter how talented these Seekers might be in the air, they would never be able to command the entrance fees that the more brutal--and illegal--gladiatorial battles did, which would eat into the arena’s profits. What was Clench planning? Had the Kaon Arena somehow come under official scrutiny? Or was the airshow simply meant to be an opening act for another, more lethal main event?
“Possibility, surprise inspection? Any rumors of visiting officials, dignitaries?” he asked both of them. Normally a well-established system of bribery kept the Kaon arena’s more illegal events unmolested by the local officials. However, every once in a while, outside authorities would intrude, or new inspectors would be sent. And until they went away, or proved to be … persuadable … the arena always ended up locked down, with all but the most innocuous of the scheduled bouts cancelled, the records scrubbed clean. Such events never failed to put Clench into a foul temper, and a wise mech made sure to stay out the way for however long it all lasted.
Flipsides shook his helm. “Nothing on my end,” he said. “I haven’t heard anything about any big events yet, official or otherwise, and I don’t think any of the other medics have either.” Stent, in particular, hated it when the huge battle re-enactments came up on the arena rotation, and the old medic always made sure to share his displeasure with the mecha around him.
//I shall look the topbox over, Soundwave,// said Laserbeak, launching himself into a whorling spiral over the main arena ring. Several grounders were going through the motions of their forthcoming fight down there, watched closely by Ravage. The big bladeframe growled a little when ‘fighting’ pairs left the optimal viewing angles of cameras or crowds, issuing directives over comm when he needed to. Marked with Soundwave’s signature, the messages appeared to derive from the carrier himself -- and were generally accepted with an approximation of fair grace. If the cameras and the crowd couldn’t see you, you couldn’t look good on the vids, and then fewer mecha came to watch you in person. Unpopular gladiators tended to have very short careers.
Above the common stands and seating, situated for a commanding view of the field and the air over it, was the highest observation deck. Luxuriously ornate -- at least, until one scratched beneath the gilded surface -- the box was the finest seating the arena could offer. Laserbeak wormed his way through a tiny weak spot in the energy shielding that protected the box from stray weapons fire or mecha thrown into stands.
//Security has not yet been increased, though it may be much too soon for that. But -- yes, the place has assuredly been cleaned recently.// Laserbeak sent, nosing under the empty seating and checking the corners. There wasn’t a speck of metaldust or rust anywhere, and it was difficult to keep anything clean in the arena, no matter how elevated. //And those bent segments of filigree have been repaired. Clench could be expecting a dignitary of some sort.//
Soundwave considered that with the first stirrings of unease, though the gentle stroking of his talons over the intertwined symbionts on his chest never faltered. //Clench’s silence, unusual,// he said in reply. Normally the overseer was not shy about venting his feelings upon anyone and everyone around him. //Ratbat: any whispers, unusual activity among the numbers-mecha? Rumors of cancellations, unusual spectacles in the offing?//
Currently ensconced high above one of the transitory bartergrounds that tended to spring up around the arena, watching mecha trade and squabble and steal from each other, Ratbat sent back an uncertain negative. //I haven’t heard anything, Boss--if Clench is up to something, he must be keeping it tucked close in his subspace. But …// he hesitated, knowing he didn’t yet have the data to support what his instincts were telling him. //But … there’s something in the air, Soundwave. All the usual patterns are just a little bit off; skewed slightly out of their normal ranges. Though I’m not sure yet what that means … and whether it’s good or bad.//
//Acknowledged. Soundwave: will investigate further.// Whether it was an inspection or an event, sooner or later Clench would have to make preparations. And Soundwave would be there, waiting and ready. //Laserbeak: concentrate observations upon arena Seekers, other airframes. Airframe gossip, legendary.// Gladiators tended to split themselves into factions and battle-cohorts anyway, based on a range of circumstances: frame-classes, complementary fighting styles, or simply old alliances or grudges. And Seekers, especially, tended to be insular; unwilling to associate overmuch with those they deemed unworthy of their attention.
//It will be done,// said Laserbeak, executing a complicated, twisting barrel-roll through the fine weave of the repulsion shield. He tumbled over midair once, flightplates half folded, bringing his small thrusters up and online. There was no need to use the miniature jets, of course -- but the airframes tended to best tolerate creatures that mimicked them. Not for the first time, the flightframe missed Raindance -- the symbiont’s affinity for the airframes, and they towards him, made information-gathering easy.
Flipsides worried about all of this for a moment -- this sense of unease, all the things he didn’t know and couldn’t know, all the things that might come to hurt them. He curled his blunt fingers against Soundwave’s armor, tracing the subtle seams. What would happen if.... then his carrier’s long talons found another stiff place, petting and stroking the tension from his wiring, field warm and close. And Flipsides let his optics shutter.
For all their efforts, the cohort learned little of value -- or at least, little that made any sense -- over the next orn. Soundwave had researched the incoming airframes, once Clench officially announced their performance: designated Slipstream, Cirrus and Forefront, they were expert fliers, unquestioned acrobats of the air … but with lighter frames configured for speed and maneuverability and an absolute minimum of armor, it was obvious they weren’t warframes. The arena’s flyers weren’t nearly as fast or as specialized, and would likely find it impossible to keep up with the complex maneuvers -- were the newcomers to perform alone? Did Clench think to somehow pit speed against battle experience?
Even more confusingly, Clench ordered the placement of close to a hundred new cameras and drone flightpaths over the arena, in the same patterns used for recording air shows. That much, Soundwave had expected, but Clench ordered a redesign of all the ground recording units as well. And what flyers spent any time on the ground, if they could avoid it?
The urgent orders sent Soundwave out into the arena proper more than he would have liked, stringing wires and placing drone beacons. The carrier stayed carefully out of the way of practicing gladiators, but it was obvious his presence was unwelcome; never friendly anyway, the airframes positively glowered.
Soundwave and Laserbeak were in the middle of taking angle measurements when the localnet lit up, a babble of chatter and vid. In a few moments, he could feel it too -- a shuddering through the packed iron sands underfoot, the rolling thunder of powerful tetrajets flying slow and showy. The arena’s broadcast systems activated. Laserbeak startled, clung to the corroded metal of an obstacle pillar, pausing in his efforts to affix a tiny motion-sensor to the surface. Every mech in range received the file over broadband -- the same airshow advertisement as Soundwave had glimpsed before. But the sound and glyph overlays... they were a challenge. Clear and unequivocal, a taunt, a scornful and superior dare.
It was, Soundwave reflected, a fairly adept bit of grandstanding. The crowds were sure to notice; the presence of the Kaon Arena’s newest attraction impossible to ignore as the new airframes overflew the city, wheeling overhead like living beacons. Mecha all over Kaon would come to see their athletes -- or rather, the gladiators they had become -- knock some respect into these arrogant newcomers. But how? Adept as they were, the arena airframes were warbuilds, not acrobats; any contests of aerial skill would be hopelessly unbalanced.
All the mecha currently on the arena floor, gladiators and maintenance mecha alike, lifted their helms as the rumbling grew, turned into the frame-shaking roar of powerful engines as the Vosian Seekers flew low over the arena in perfect formation, their newly-repainted armor splashed with vivid, eye-catching colors. That center Seeker--his turns as he swept overhead were different than those of his trinemates’, lazily powerful, almost swaggering. He also looked different than in the broadcast advertisement, somehow ... familiar, and Soundwave added that data to the set, feeding it in for analysis.
But all the newcomers were also unarmed, and only lightly armored. The arena’s Seekers, Soundwave thought, would be able to shred these visitors in nanokliks -- if they could ever catch them. He glanced over to a nearby grouping of gladiators, expecting to see the arena contingent of airframes bristling at the Vosian interlopers’ challenge, engines glowing white-hot, ready to take to the air to remind them of their place--
--only to find them grouped tight in a subtly defensive formation, their optics aimed not at the sky, but at the nearest group of groundframed frontliners, the subtle thrum of their engines rising in pitch. The other gladiators were not slow to respond, engines growling low and weapons humming to life, the bulky, heavy forms of tankframed mecha falling into flanking position behind two frontliners, one armored in scarlet, the other in gold.
Laserbeak edged a little closer to his Master, his field rippling with subtle unease. The sudden tension in the air was almost palpable; and while rivalries--and unsanctioned fights--between gladiator factions weren’t unheard of, this felt like something different.
Soundwave sent a wordless glyph of acknowledgment and reassurance, watching intently, his evaluation of the situation rapidly changing with this new data. He could feel the rest of their cohort go on alert, their attention caught by Laserbeak’s unease, their carrier’s sudden wariness.
“Picking your targets already, slagsuckers?” one of the arena Seekers snarled, talons flexing lights, weapons whining up with an audible charge. “Looking forward to the chance to get your claws on something with wings that can’t fight back for a change?”
Couldn’t fight back? Did that mean … ?
“Shut it, Freefall,” snarled the red frontliner. His designation was Sideswipe, Soundwave knew; while he hadn’t had any dealings with the frontliner himself, the mech had featured prominently in Red Alert’s litanies of mecha-not-to-be-trusted. “Maybe if you diode-dinging slaggers could put up a decent fight for once, without turning tail or whining about your precious plating--”
“You want a fight, grounder? We’ll show you how *real* Seekers fight--and you’ll be lucky if you have any plating left by the time we’re through!” Freefall shot back, backed by the rising snarl of his fellow airframes’ weaponry.
//Master …// Laserbeak said again, this time in warning. This looked serious, and warframes were notorious for their habitual disregard of collateral damage.
//Soundwave: acknowledges.// The big carrier began easing his way backwards, towards the nearest exit. Their positioning was not good--they’d been caught out in the open, close to the center of the arena’s multileveled main floor, between and to one side of where the two groups of warframes were facing off. //Laserbeak: retreat,// he commanded.
Laserbeak paused only an instant, then reversed his grip on the column and kicked off, launching himself into a rapid, steep glide, keeping to the shadows. He kept his wings only half-spread, his bright red flightplates folded over one another, so that the whole of his frame was dark and sleek and difficult to notice.
Carefully subspacing away his roll of guidance wire and a handful of insect-drones, Soundwave made to follow, circling wide around the angry warframes.
“Save it for the cameras, you fragging grease smear,” snarled the red frontliner. “What do you care about some outsiders anyway? Orders are orders; and if our orders say to give ‘em a show, than by the Pit that’s what they’re fraggin’ well going to get!”
Freefall bared his dentae, wings held high and aggressively forward. Elegant as any Seeker, his arctic-blue forearms split, unfolded through transformation, baring the heavy gatling guns he favored. “You think this is *necessary*? None of us are going to see a drop of extra energon from this, mark me -- and *our* airbrothers are the ones who’ll pay for it. Clench, these useless drones, these scuttling maintenance mecha--they all leech fuel from our tanks, and your *show* is just gonna line their coffers. And the cameras -- your fragging precious cameras--” the barrel of one of those heavy guns swung to point, and Soundwave froze. “They’re the worst of it!”
Slowly, every micron of his frame tensed to move, Soundwave lifted his empty hands, stepping backwards. Airframes and frontliners were volatile at the best of times, Seekers even more so, and all his analyses of the situation told him the uselessness of trying to protest his innocence. Freefall didn’t want soothing words, or calm rationality. He wanted a scapegoat.
Sideswipe shifted, and his golden twin--Sunstreaker--did the same, moving in eerie synchronicity. “Are you glitched?” the red frontliner demanded. “You think destroying a few cameras is going to stop this? It’s going to happen, Freefall--deal with it, before Clench decides leave you fraggers with empty tanks, grounded and sucking metaldust!”
“Deal with it?” Freefall’s voice dropped, lowering from his earlier screech to a vicious hiss. “Yes. I think you’re right, grounder. I think Clench and his pathetic lackeys do need a reminder--on exactly how Seekers deal with it.”
And he fired.
Anticipating the shots, Soundwave dropped, throwing himself flat to the arena floor as armor-piercing rounds tore through the air overhead. With a roar, the arena erupted into chaos, frontliners and tankframes charging forward as the rest of the airframes took to the air and opened fire at everything in their sights, warframes, drones and Soundwave included. Soundwave rolled, scrabbled to his pedes, sensory arrays momentarily overloaded by the shockwave of nearby explosions, the waves of heat and chemical plumes from weapons-fire fogging the air, making it impossible to know which direction to turn--
--when the hot burn of a pulse cannon blast slammed into his backplates, searing through the folded carapaces of his sensory arrays, slagging the outer surfaces of his armor into purest agony. The ground slammed upward, impossibly fast, and a hoarse cry of pain escaped his vocalizer before he could take it offline. Soundwave pushed himself upwards, trying to duck away, only to be sent flying backwards once again, this time under the impetus of a brutal kick. A black and red airframe loomed out of the chaos, blue optics narrowed, blazing with fury.
“You. So you like to watch us tear each other apart?” Another kick, and then a vicious stomp downwards upon one outflung arm. Soundwave’s armor was no match for the airframe’s far greater mass and strength; it shattered, struts, circuitry and protometal beneath it giving way as well, crushed into unrecognizability under that vicious, twisting pede. “Like to make vids, right? Sell clips of us fighting like technimals? Ripping each other open, all for energon we’ll never see...” The airframe snarled, mandibles glittering razor sharp over his mouthparts as he levelled an armgun at his victim. “Time for you to learn what that feels like, you strutless coward.”
It was impossible to block his pain, his panic, from the others entirely--still, Soundwave did his best, feeling the rest of his cohort explode into rage and fear. //Stay away!// he commanded, laced with imperatives. //All: stay--// The first shots exploded against his chassis, burst into faceplates and helm, tearing away at his armor. The tough, reinforced plates of his chassis bent, seared together and twisted under the point-blank shots, but held fast. The lesser armor of his battlemask, the delicate exposed surfaces of faceplates, of visored optics and upswept audials, did not fare nearly so well. Soundwave reeled in agony, his vocalizer stuttering with a metallic cry as chemical rounds tore it apart. The flood of damage reports overloaded higher processing threads, made it impossible to calculate probabilities, his combat protocols thrashing against the overwhelming and unexpected attack. He scrabbled feebly for purchase--but only one arm responded, gripping, digging as he struggled to pull himself upward, to get any functional limbs under him. The airframe advanced, the glowing muzzle of that armgun pointed unerringly at his helm--
--and Laserbeak hit his attacker from behind. Tiny pinpoint lasers fired volleys across the airframe’s throat, down into the joints and cracks of armor, searing fine wiring and the cabling underneath. Snarling in rage, the Seeker lashed out at his attacker, firing wildly. Impossibly lithe, Laserbeak dodged the deadly hail, turning on a wingtip, darting again and again to fire at optics, joints, latches. Energon spattered, and the red and black airframe roared … and the blast of a pulse cannon enveloped both symbiont and airframe alike a devastating gout of plasma and flame.
Unable even to scream, optical feeds on one side reduced to nothing but haloing afterimages of light and shadow, Soundwave moved. Something deeper than code forced him up, forced him onto his pedes, staggering on hydraulics so compromised it should have been impossible for them to support his weight, every spare joule of power rerouting to his sole, shoulder-mounted weapon.
He lunged; only to fall as an unseen, brutally powerful punch staved in two of his lumbar plates, slamming him downward once more. He tumbled awkwardly, all his weight landing on already-mangled sensory panels. The pulse cannon, still smoking with aftercharge, pressed against what remained of Soundwave’s forehelm, angled down towards his torso. Through the static, Soundwave’s single functioning optic focussed past that red-hot muzzle -- to golden armor, sapphire optics, coldly perfect faceplates spreading in a smile both terrible and utterly beatific.
Then the world erupted, slagged iron blasting out like shrapnel as the wounded airframe transformed and thundered skyward, thrusters aimed to wash searing exhaust over both groundframes. Between one sparkbeat and the next, the yellow frontliner was gone, throwing himself to one side, firing upwards as he disappeared back into the melee.
//Laserbeak!// Soundwave’s desperate call over the bond met only silence. No acknowledgement, no reply.
No. His internal systems were redlined, his awareness a single firestorm of errors, the heavy plating of his chassis deformed with the heat -- but no force of willpower could have kept the carrier still. He could barely sense anything, overloaded as he was. But he could still feel, under the red sea of agony, could sense the fragile pulse of a symbiont’s tiny spark. Leaking a trail of fluids, trailing the ragged tatters of one arm, his leg-components and pedes unresponsive and broken, Soundwave dragged himself towards that spark. Every desperate mechanometer seemed a thousand as shockwaves shook the arena, as running pedes thundered past. Gunfire rattled only as a distant tattered throbbing -- a wide band of wavelength receptors were now simply gone from Soundwave’s audials, blasted away... though he could still hear the crackle as energon-fed flames licked at his belly, his exposed internals. Screams echoed in the air, beyond the obstacle pillars, from the empty stands. Half-molten iron filings crusted Soundwave’s wounds and armor alike.
And then the tips of Soundwave’s scorched fingers found smooth flightplates. Frantic, he gripped them, pulled the limp, awkward tangle of wings and tail and frame to him, rolling them over, away from the flames. He opened up the bond, pushing himself into Laserbeak’s systems with a carrier’s authority, checking for damage alerts, for spark-threatening injuries. His remaining sensors registered a nearby ridge--a newly-blasted crater into the arena flooring, still smoking. With a strut-breaking wrench, he heaved them both into its meager shelter, curling his battered frame around Laserbeak’s limp form. It was all he could do to protect them; hoping against hope that the warframes around them were far too involved in their own personal grudges to bother finishing the job they had started.
//Laserbeak,// he tried again, the name beating through his own agony, his fear, as the small flightframe’s damage reports began trickling in, a tiny thread amongst the torrent of his own. Fractured flightplates, scorched armor, concussive shock that had forced a multi-phased reset of the cortex--but nothing that couldn’t be repaired. Laserbeak was damaged, but he wasn’t dying. //Soundwave: is here,// he said, repeating it blindly, his broken frame shuddering. His exposed internals sparked fitfully, the last of his energon bleeding out through ruptured reservoirs, threatening stasis. //Soundwave--// His thoughts were fragmenting, processors seizing, introducing errors into half-formed words. //--stay. Las--protec-- ...S-stay.//
The arena was growing dark, the great floodlights now nothing but strangely ghostly halos that kept slipping sideways, like the slow turn of distant stars, never quite the same. There was sand in the ruin of his helm, scritching against exposed optical bulbs. It hurt, and he tried to flag the damage for self-repair. But his thin line of code was swept away, lost to a cataract of internal redlines.
Dimly, Soundwave curled his one good arm a little closer over Laserbeak, bracing himself against the sand, sheltering the symbiont with the thickest part of his plating.
And the darkness rose up around him.
Time changed, fractured into brief moments, segmented and disconnected, flickers of lucidity in processors all but starved of fuel.
The screaming descent of a Seeker torn from the sky. Ravage’s snarl, vibrating through every part of him. Distant thunder … a massively heavy mech retreating, stepping back. The burning splash of iron sands, half-reduced to molten slag. Blue optics widening in horror. Movement, and hands upon his frame, and renewed agony .... a gradual stirring under the shelter of his arm and chassis, and a frantic status ping he could not answer.
Whispers in the back of the mind: -Master- and -stay with us- and -hold him still.-
Galaxies, wheeling above in their tracing spiral... background radiation whispering ancient songs of ever-spreading creation, the origin of all things, and the Well to which they returned.
And somehow, in some undamaged corner, a command thread completed its automated search, finished unpacking archives and running comparison recursions. And Soundwave discovered that he knew that Seeker. The agile flyer, central in the trine, the newcomer cloaked in an athlete’s harmless, guileless stripes.
That was no civilian. No mere acrobat, no innocent performer.
And he certainly wasn’t designated Forefront.
That was Skywarp.
Through the haze of medical overrides, Soundwave realized only gradually that things were touching him. Several things, strange little scritching pinpricks over his chassis, his limbs. The sensation of heat blossomed dully as those tiny touches applied spot-welds and then clambered on to the next wounded place. Most of his flank was cold, the armor there simply gone, something small and dextrous working to splice motivator wiring back together, painstakingly, one tensor at a time. Something else, a slight warm weight, was curled close between his side and the bend of his arm.
And there was something at his helm. No, *inside* it, sensations of pressure and itching heat in half a hundred places. A medic’s hands, fully unfolded into dozens of tiny tools -- pincering away pieces of shrapnel, laying down fine nanite sprays, bending broken connections back into place on a molecular level. One of Soundwave’s audials switched on quite suddenly, a vicious feedback squeal at first, which settled into static-laden... crashing? Shouting?
“--agger, did you have anything to do with this? Do you even see what I have to deal with now? So help me Primus, you can lay there until you leak to death if you don’t give me some fragging answers!” Armor rattled, something cried out in pain; the response was unintelligible. The speaker’s every emphasis was punctuated with another crash. “I walk in to start my fragging shift, and what do I find? MY fragging assistant coming fragging UNWELDED and a fragging mob all over MY medbay and -- slaggit, Turnplate, you’re doing it wrong!”
The hands buried in Soundwave’s open helm paused.
“Get over here and heave this piece of scrap onto a table. NOW, slag it! Before I weld you to one of these flying sparklings and dump you both into the nearest fragging smelter pit!” Hurriedly, the hands withdrew, tools folding back with a precise metal whirring. A connector slid free from Soundwave’s medical port, but before the overrides could wear off, another took its place.
“Stupid slagger. Would’ve thought *you* of all mecha would have been smart enough not wander into the middle of a bunch of idiot warframes, but no. Now I have half the arena crew *and* your fragging mob to deal with.” The new touches delved deep, and weren’t particularly gentle, but with sensory centers still thoroughly blocked, Soundwave found it difficult to care.
More disturbing was the blankness where connection, communication should be; reflexively he reached outward to his cohort, trying to open a channel, run status-checks on his symbionts. //--Ravage, status?// There was no reply--only a muffled, echoing space--and he stirred, alarm rising through layers of medical overrides, core carrier protocols waking fast.
The intrusive touches in his helm paused. “Hold still,” ordered a rough voice--Stent, he realized belatedly. “Your mob is here, and fragging annoying, and I’ve got enough work to do without you twitching around.”
Laserbeak, he tried to say, only to have nothing emerge but a crackling blurt of static.
“Your vocalizer’s scrapped, along with most of the rest of you, Chronicler,” Stent said from somewhere above him. “Had to take your comms offline to repair some of the damage. You’ll get ‘em back, though, as long as you hold still and let me do my fragging work. Here, you--” The voice shifted. “Make yourselves useful--talk to him. His audials are starting to come back online, but if he keeps jerking like that, I’m going to kick him back into stasis whether he likes it or not.”
Quietly, Laserbeak chirred from where he was curled at his carrier’s side, a bare murmur of reassuring sound.
“M-master?” Flipsides. The small hands buried in the wiring of his flank paused, stroking him nervously. Soundwave’s numbed sensors registered the contact only as a momentary pressure. “Everyone is all right now. But we’ve got six mecha in here, seriously wounded, and a dozen more with minor stuff outside -- you... you’re the worst, though. Please, please don’t try to move. Not even a little.”
For the very spark of him, Flipsides couldn’t figure out how Soundwave was managing to flinch at all -- the overrides Stent liked to use tended to cut through just about any effort at motion, no matter how powerful or determined. Which was a really good thing, given his usual patients. “We... we have your right arm in for a complete rebuild. Your main tank was too badly ruptured -- we’re borrowing a warframe fuel compression chamber until a civilian part comes in, but it could be a while, and it’ll probably feel really strange for a bit. Stent’s got your field resonance dampened, so he can do more manipulation. There’s... there are concussive fractures to three major struts, and your helm and sensor panels....” Flipsides continued, carefully and quietly detailing each of Soundwave’s many injuries.
Hearing the litany of his damage was oddly calming, even if Soundwave couldn’t summon the acuity to understand everything -- not with most of his systems locked down like this. Flipsides’ words blurred into the quiet clinking and hiss of transformation as the medic configured and reconfigured his toolsets, hands guiding untold hundreds of tiny repair processes at once. The static began to clear from Soundwave’s hearing, and his mind. Six other damaged mecha, in this bay -- probably some of the very mecha who had started the fight. Very likely some of the ones who had shot him. Who had shot Laserbeak. He was vaguely aware he should be angry about that; but medical overrides lay like a fog over his emotional centers. Later, he promised himself. Later.
By the time Flipsides ran out of injuries, Stent had managed to bring the carrier’s second primary audial back online. He reactivated the carrier’s comms, and Soundwave’s relief at feeling his symbionts properly was an incandescent thing, swamping for a moment his cohort’s babbling joy and worry and distress.
The invasive contact returned, moving around to Soundwave’s optics. Ignoring Stent’s presence as the medic worked on his helm, Soundwave reached out, opening up the cohort channel, feeling the familiar presence of his symbionts with abject relief. //Status?// he asked all of them. Unarchived memory, fragmented and chaotic, floated to the fore: Laserbeak’s blackened silhouette, wings outspread, caught in the midst of the cannon blast. //Laserbeak, damaged?//
//Soundwave/Master/Boss …!// Relief and worry threatened to swamp the bond channel with inchoate glyphs as Ratbat, Buzzsaw, Flipsides, and Ravage all seized the chance to reconnect with their carrier. Laserbeak’s own reply was quieter, but no less relieved. //Do not worry, Soundwave; my injuries are minor. Some scorched plating is all, nothing more.//
With an intense effort of will, Soundwave curled his fingers a little closer around Laserbeak’s plated body. The symbiont was real, was *alive,* spark still spinning quietly under that fragile surface.
Stent growled a vitriolic curse. “Slagging Chroniclers, hear fragging everything except direct orders -- don’t you dare hiss at me in my own medbay, you overgrown....”
Code washed over him, and the quiet darkness rose up around Soundwave once more. But this time... this time his fingertips tingled with sparkwarmth, and he took with him the knowledge that he hadn’t failed.
Warnings for nonexplicit references to genocide/infanticide in this chapter.
The next time Soundwave awoke, the fog was gone. Great swathes of his internal readings were still redlined, or even entirely missing, blocked off by medical code. Dull pain filtered through almost every part of him, contacts still broken, others just aching as his protoform strove to thread itself through the new components. But he could think, and when he onlined his optics, he could see. And he could sense his cohort.
He was in a repair cradle, held up by a web of straps and a little judicious antigrav, making his frame easy to turn and position for the attentions of a medic. Tubes and wires coiled from his unplated abdomen, feeding thick repair-grade energon directly into his systems, monitoring. Buzzsaw and Laserbeak were tangled together -- carefully -- and nestled tightly into the hollow of his shoulder. Flipsides and Ratbat appeared to be inspecting twisted metal pieces -- in navy and silver -- on a nearby table. And Stent stood at a table across the bay, buried to the elbows in a half-insensate airframe’s chassis, even as he gave the unfortunate gladiator a piece of his processor.
“--glitches questioning my treatment order? Are you? Because if you think it was bad the last time one of you overclocked hunks of airborne scrap started bitching, you’re going to fragging pray for the Unmaker after I get through with --” The wounded airframe’s flightmate, slumped against the wall, was shaking his helm frantically.
Neither of them were Freefall, or the red and black airframe who had decided to exercise his grudge on Soundwave’s plating. Not that Soundwave was in any condition to do anything about it, even if they had been.
“...Flipsides,” he said quietly, experimentally--and was somewhat relieved to find his vocalizer functional. A bit flatter, perhaps, the sound a little broken--but given his normal monotone, he doubted anyone other than a medic would notice.
Flipsides and Ratbat both jerked around, startled. “Master--you’re awake?” Flipsides jumped to a nearby ledge, then to a rolling table positioned conveniently close to Soundwave’s repair cradle. Ratbat, of course, didn’t bother, activating his antigravs and gliding directly across. Clamping claws about a nearby equipment stand instead of landing directly on his carrier, he inspected Soundwave’s faceplates minutely, his field spiked with worry and fatigue.
//How do you feel, Boss?// he asked over the cohort channel. There were too many watchers here, too many medics and airframes; comms were safer than speaking aloud.
//How long?// Soundwave asked, checking his chronometer even as he did so. Three cycles--but how much of that had been spent leaking out in the arena versus the medbay was impossible to tell.
“A little less than two cycles now,” Flipsides said quietly, crouching down, reaching out to stroke Soundwave’s remaining arm comfortingly. “Stent had you offline for a while so he could finish his microrepairs to your helm and sensory arrays. You--your helm doesn’t have as much armor as the gladiators’ do. There was a lot more damage …”
Soundwave felt a small frisson of fear spike through him. //Damage, permanent?//
Flipsides hesitated--then shook his helm. “No, but … a couple of your sensory panels were really hit hard. It fractured the carapace, and the heat cooked a lot of the arrays along the inner surfaces. Stent says they’re too specialized; he doesn’t have anything he can use to fix the worst ones. Self-repair … should be able to do it, eventually. But it’s going to take a long, long time. Vorn, maybe.” He hunched a little, helm drooping at his perceived failure.
//Outcome, better than expected,// Soundwave told him, trying to reassure the newest member of their cohort. //Remainder of sensory panels, sufficient for normal functioning.// And at least his datacables had escaped intact this time.
Soundwave could feel the dismay from Ravage and Laserbeak. Both the elder symbionts had a deeper understanding of the true importance of sensors to a carrier, and to Soundwave in particular. And neither entirely believed him.
//You look pretty funny right now though, Boss--all lopsided. What? He does!// Ratbat, however, was a little more oblivious.
//Big glyphs, comin’ from a mech who looks like a flying glitchmouse,// murmured Buzzsaw along the cohort line, and it was a measure of Ratbat’s exhaustion that he had to think about a suitably sharp reply.
//Enough.// Ravage’s touch over the channel silenced the others. //Soundwave, how did this happen? The air- and groundframes are very nearly at war over these new arrivals, and the planned airshow. But Clench has announced nothing of his intentions. The only fight on the docket is that obstacle race, a few cycles hence. Why would arena mecha target you?//
Flipsides leaned in close. “Stent threw Ravage out of the repair bay,” the mechkin whispered. “Said he was too hissy. He’s been scouting. And he keeps getting in and pacing, of course, though none of the medics can figure out how.”
Soundwave was silent for several moments, carefully retrieving and archiving the fragments of his memories. The entire fight was a blur, so fast and so frantic that he remembered only glimpses. But before that, his memory was mirror-crystal clear. //Query,// Soundwave asked slowly, //you have observed the new Seekers?//
//Closely, Master.// Ravage offered up the files carefully, paring them down to bare minimum, conscious of his carrier’s fragility. Soundwave accessed them one at a time, observing the halls of the arena through Ravage’s optics, watching gladiators pass by, each of them failing to notice the ‘technimal’ in the shadows.
Even on the ground, Seekers were still big mecha, albeit not heavy ones -- tall and lean through their bodies, wings flared arrogantly. The new trio were as lazily confident as any mecha thoroughly accustomed to winning, pacing restlessly down halls, sniffing disdainfully at the quarters they were provided, snubbing the resident airframes, taking short agile flights through the arena’s great open space and flybys of the city. But their progress around the arena grounds was too systematic an exploration for mere boredom. And for all their light armor -- as new and glossy as their colorful topcoats-- Soundwave would be slagged if any of them were as harmless as they pretended to be.
They were also not a trine. Wanting to be certain, Soundwave reached for fuller files from his symbiont, more nuanced observations. //Their interactions, unusual,// he said, cross-referencing with his data on Vosian Seeker formations, both military and civilian. //The trineleader, Forefront--his attitude is arrogant, cocksure.//
//Well, yeah. He’s a *Seeker*, Boss,// Ratbat said, obviously not sure where his carrier’s analysis was heading.
//Arrogance, expected. Habitual disregard of trinemates, unusual.// Soundwave pulled Ravage’s observations apart, reworking the data until he could lay out the pertinent patterns of behavior for his cohort. //Aerial maneuvers, expertly done. Cirrus, Slipstream: fly as a unit, covering for each other in the air. Forefront, however, flies alone. Trinemates, habitually trailing behind, leaving his wings open to attack. Similar posturing observed while grounded. Such risks, illogical in a hostile environment.//
//A newly-formed trine, perhaps?// Ravage suggested doubtfully.
//Perhaps,// Soundwave acknowledged. //But unlikely. Trineleader’s true designation: Skywarp. Trinemates on record: Thundercracker and Cometary--high-ranking warframes, decorated veterans, flight-commanders. Neither: currently listed as deactivated.//
A ripple of surprise and consternation went through the channel, echoing from one mind to the next as his symbionts absorbed the information. //What the Pit? Why would someone like him be here?// Buzzsaw said, now fully awake and more than a little perturbed. //Much less be here and looking like *that*?//
//Mecha, often see what they expect,// Soundwave reminded them, obliquely referring to their own subterfuge. Strip down the armor, take away the warbrands and slap on some gaudy racing stripes … and deadly, arrogant warframes suddenly became cocksure, naive acrobats just asking to have their tailfins slagged.
Stunned silence echoed over the bond. //Skywarp... of Chalcis?// asked Flipsides, and sat down hard on the table when Soundwave nodded. Buzzsaw glanced over, and even Laserbeak raised his head.
//He executed perhaps the most savage--and successful--assassination of the Parhelion war.// Ravage supplied, thinking. He queued up the data for Soundwave’s review. It had been near the end of the war, when Soundwave’s access to state secrets had already been growing more restricted, but the symbiont had still managed to glimpse and record a handful of files. //He was responsible for terminating the last two Tr!klcctch queens on that colony world.//
//At once?// Buzzsaw demanded, optics widening when Ravage replied in the affirmative. A single Tr!klcctch queen alone was a terrifying creature, livewire fast and big enough to take a great deal of damage before it died. The things could snatch a Seeker out of the air like a twitchfly.
//Skywarp, was fitted for a transdimensional slip device early in the war,// Soundwave supplied, and Flipsides whistled softly. Those mechanisms were hugely complex, power hungry, and expensive. Their users didn’t tend to last long before warping themselves out of their own processors -- or into solid ground. To survive that long with one.... //Laserbeak. Query, make and model of repulsion field around top observation box?//
Laserbeak prepared and transmitted the files, laying his head back down, clinplates lightweight on the armor of Soundwave’s chest. //...it is not warp-proof, is it?// he asked, examining the data Soundwave processed, simplified, and shared for his symbionts’ review. //Not even when it runs at full power.// Most fields weren’t -- or offered only a modicum of defense against an attacker using transwarp.
Ravage laid his audials flat, his impatience filtering over the channel. //What does this have to do with us? So the Seeker plans to take prey other than a racing medal. Why would our resident airframes fight out their grudges now? And why involve you?//
//Soundwave, merely a convenient target,// Soundwave answered. //Observations prior to combat, indicate deep-seated resentment.// It took barely a nanoklik to pull up the memory-files he needed. Recorded before he had come under attack, they had suffered none of the fragmentation or false-sensory data of the later files, and he shared them freely with his cohort.
--“Picking your targets already, slagsuckers?” Freefall, snarling and furious. “Looking forward to the chance to get your claws on something with wings that can’t fight back for a change?”--
--”“What do you care about some outsiders anyway? Orders are orders; and if our orders say to give ‘em a show, than by the Pit that’s what they’re fraggin’ well going to get!”--
//Initial hypothesis: Clench plans to turn the airshow into an arena battle. However, motivations for such a decision, still unclear,// Soundwave confessed.
The dark ripple across the cohort bond as each involved gladiator came into ‘view’ was an unaccustomed feeling, and it took Soundwave a moment to identify it -- flat and murdersome rage. //Ravage,// Laserbeak said sharply, summoning his strength against the lingering fog of his own medical overrides. He wrapped himself a little tighter around Buzzsaw, who was already trying to free himself from entanglement with his frame-brother’s limbs. //You must not kill them. Not now, not until the time is right, not until you have an opening.//
Black fury rumbled over the channel. //I have an opportunity now,// stated Ravage, tensors flexing as he padded towards the airframe quarters, a narrow gap in the wall plating, a hidden overlook. He might not know which of them had shot Soundwave directly, but all of the mecha involved deserved a measure of his wrath.
//Ravage: stand down,// Soundwave commanded. He could feel his First’s cold rage, the urge to hunt and to stalk, to hurt as his Master had been hurt. The bladeframe prowled silently along the ledge, crimson optics narrowed and intent upon the airframes that moved confidently below. //Gladiator rivalries, to be expected. Our own position, far more precarious; provoking further violence, likely to tempt Clench’s ire. Cohort safety, more important than vengeance.//
A furious growl, reverberating over the cohort channel, was Ravage’s only answer. The bladeframe might understand the necessity of the command, would bend to his Master’s will--but that did not mean he had to like it.
//So we’re just gonna let them get away with it? Boss--!// Buzzsaw protested, trying in vain to disentangle himself from Laserbeak without hurting the other flightframe.
//Negative. Attack on cohort, on Laserbeak, will not go unanswered,// Soundwave said firmly. //But coming events, potentially greater than all of us. All: must watch, and wait for the right moment to strike.//
Buzzsaw grumbled a bit, flightplates bristling upwards, then subsided, curling protectively again around his frame-brother. //So Clench doesn’t know the new Seekers are really warframes? Or maybe he does, but he’s not telling the gladiators about it?// he sent, thinking it over. //Some kind of double-cross? Or a double-double-cross?//
//He may know, or may not. But... let us first discover which dignitaries Clench means to host during the competition, if any,// Laserbeak said.
Ratbat nodded. //Whatever he intends, this could bring the whole operation down. I mean, I can see how it would make a good show -- it starts out as a big, legitimate race for the honor of Kaon, with all that publicity. Then it turns bloody, and Kaon wins... it’d be a big morale boost for the whole city, right? Plus a great advertisement for the games here. *If* it works.//
//And if it doesn’t?// Flipsides asked, faceplates twisted with worry.
//If it doesn’t, it could end the arena,// Laserbeak put in quietly. //Clench must know that. If this goes badly … he will have taken measures to protect himself, to place the blame elsewhere.//
//Everyone in the arena, the gladiators, the caretakers--we could all be condemned. They could take you away from us, Master,// Flipsides said, blunt fingers clutching at Soundwave’s arm. He had already lost one master--he did not want to lose another! So soon, and this carrier was like none Flipsides had ever been with, had ever even heard of, and what if --
//Calm,// Soundwave sent, reinforcing the order with a deeply peaceful, lapping expansion of his field, flooding their comm channel with his pervading presence. //Soundwave: will never leave you. Any of you.//
They all knew it was not a promise that Soundwave could really ever make, not in these troubled times, and yet... the glyphs had the force of a vow behind them, spark-deep and certain.
//Boss....// Buzzsaw said softly, bending his neck to press his beak against Soundwave’s armor, beside the place Laserbeak laid his head. Flipsides vented hard, shivering. Ratbat hopped from his perch to land on the strap that supported Soundwave’s helm, wings half-spread awkwardly over his carrier’s shoulder and clavicle cabling, uncaring of watching optics.
There weren’t many. The airframe Stent had been working on lay resting and offline, his flightmate just leaving on some errand. Cleaning the components of his hands with a scrap of metalmesh, Stent approached. He tilted his helm a little at the pile of symbionts, then checked under the cradle with narrowed optics. No surly bladeframes there. “Online finally? Good. Have they given you the rundown on your injuries?”
Soundwave looked up at the old medic calmly, allowing no trace of his apprehension to show on either faceplates or field. “Flipsides: has provided some details. Helm damage, extensive, but repairable? Sensory panels …” he trailed off. Blithe reassurances would not work on Stent the way they had on Flipsides.
Stent snorted, exventing a metallic chuff of air. “Trust a Chronicler to be worried about those more than everything else. Your type’s as bad as Seekers and their slagging wings, I swear.” Stent crossed his arms over his chassis. “You’re pretty well fragged, Chronicler,” he said bluntly. “I’ve seen worse, but it was usually on warframes, and they’re built to take this kind of damage. Your kind have a lot more specialized systems to worry about, and I don’t have anywhere near the kind of resources I would need to replace everything those fraggers damaged. So we’re going to have to make do; and even with that, you’re going to sap our available supply of parts, not to mention *my* slagging time.”
Soundwave inclined his head. “Acknowledged.” Being indebted to Stent was unfortunate, but better than being indebted to Clench--or worse, being thrown out of the arena only partially-repaired. “Soundwave: will ensure your efforts are repaid.”
“Be still my beating spark,” Stent said sardonically. But he didn’t argue the point, Soundwave noted. “Anyway, your mini there wasn’t too far off. Most everything we can either repair or replace. Your arm will take the longest. We’ve got to incubate a new one from scratch; the old one was crushed beyond repair. The nanoscale repairs on the processors in your helm and faceplates went well, but self-repair’s going to have to take them the rest of the way. We’ll be able to replace your damaged exterior plating, however; possibly even give you something a tad thicker for the next time one of those glitchheads takes a swing.”
“Query, equivalent haptic sensitivity?” Soundwave asked.
Stent arched an optical ridge. “Of course not,” he snapped irritably. Slaggin’ ex-towers mecha, worried about how much they could feel. Stent wasn’t running a high-class body shop, here. “Staying in one piece is usually a little more important than feeling every single bullet impact.” Pit, a little bit of numbness was practically a desirable feature.
Soundwave nodded mutely.
Stent rapped his fingertips on his upper arm. “Couple of options with the panels. Haven’t done either of ‘em on your frametype. First, and easiest, would be to clip the damaged portions of those two panels down, and let your systems rebuild them one micron at a time, root to tip. It’ll take a couple vorn.” The old medic held up a hand. “Yeah, didn’t think you’d like that. Other possibility -- I can repair and reattach the carapace armor, fix those two panel rotators in place, and lay down a base wafer spray.” Soundwave’s own nanites could use the basal matrix as a scaffolding on which to rebuild the panel much more quickly. “Might take fifty, a hundred orn. But the wafers will be even easier to damage than your panels are until they’re complete. And it’ll probably feel like a bad case of scraplets intermittently, especially once your protoform starts to infiltrate the developing matrix.”
Stent paused, considering. Then he sent a file over comm -- a simple list, substances and quantities. “Either way, you’ll need a lot of extra metals. A steady diet of repairgrade will supply those, for the most part. Except for that last.” Stent said.
Sharing the list with Soundwave, Ratbat winced. Cybertronium was rare enough, though you could still barter for it, usually. Superconductive at any temperature, the metal was integral to almost every part of a healthy mech, albeit in very small quantities. Over a vorn or two, most mecha consumed a good half-kilogram of the stuff anyway, dissolved in energon.
Soundwave would require nearly ten times that.
For a moment, no one spoke, the cohort channel saturated with wordless unease. That much cybertronium--Stent would be able to provide some of it, perhaps, but not all. To obtain the rest would take a small fortune in barter, whether in energon or other black-market goods. It might, with great effort and more than a little luck, be possible if they remained with the arena, and in Clench’s good graces. If they were forced on the run once more, however ….
Soundwave considered it. “Query: consequences if these metals cannot be acquired?” Would the self-repair processes merely stall, waiting until sufficient raw materials could be provided? Or would the damaged remnants of his panels seal off and be forever unusable, barring complete replacement by a skilled medic or creator-mech?
It was a possibility he did not want to think about. To lose both haptic sensitivity and several of his sensory arrays, all at once--in a way, it felt like being half-blinded all over again. He had been designed for data analysis and transmission; the possibility of losing so many inputs all at once--
--but there was nothing that could be done about that. Survival demanded sacrifices. In the grand scheme of things, these were small ones indeed.
Stent shrugged a little. “If you were a warframe, your own repair mechanisms could simply scavenge enough from other components -- your armor, processors, any mineral stores, and the like.” But then, a normal warframe or even an airframe would never require so much cybertronium -- their entire frames didn’t contain that much. A special ops mech, with their vast sensor arrays and complex builds, might need such a large quantity of cybertronium for repairs... but those mecha were inevitably employed by city states or private armies at the least, entities with wealth to spare. “But you intellectual types usually have hardwired safeguards that keep you from cannibalizing your own processors. In your case... I don’t know. My best guess is that it’d be like budding a protoform. You could push your luck on the requirements a little, and growth would just slow. But at some point, depending on stress and environmental conditions, your systems would force a scrap and recycle of the limb.”
Buzzsaw shivered. If that happened.... he pressed his beak against Soundwave’s armor, a small movement, so as not to jar his flight brother. //Laserbeak n’ me can get into all kinds of places, Boss. And there’s a lot of old scientific equipment in storage. Little bit of wire here, couple detection transistors there -- stuff nobody’s going to miss -- we can do it.//
Soundwave gave an incremental nod, sending a wordless pulse of affection to Buzzsaw, while never taking his attention from Stent. “Soundwave: acknowledges. Second option, preferable.” If his repairs were going to require the same amount of raw materials either way, then the faster he was back to full functioning, the better.
“How did I know you were going to say that?” Stent grumped, surveying him. “All right. I’ll get started on repairs on what’s left, as soon as I’m done banging out the dents on the rest of these fraggers. In the meantime, you’re going to be stuck in the repair cradle until those new internals settle in and we’ve finished the rest of your major repairs.” He pointed an accusatory finger. “And don’t even think about trying to circumvent my overrides. You let your mob do all your legwork for the next decacycle, got it?”
“Soundwave, understands.” Clench wouldn’t be happy; Soundwave would have to do what he could to work remotely, before the arena overseer started rethinking his decision to keep them around. He automatically began reworking deployment options, work assignments and surveillance schedules. //Ravage: your assistance, necessary. Our understanding of Clench’s plans, vital.// The carrier paused.
Soundwave felt the the ripple of acknowledgement across the entire cohort channel. Ravage nodded. But when he spoke, it was quietly, privately. //Focus on repair as well, Master. For this air race... is scheduled to begin just over eight cycles hence.//
The next orn was perhaps the busiest Soundwave and his cohort had ever experienced, and he scarcely moved a servo in that time. With help from the other symbionts, Buzzsaw completed the adjustments to the camera and drone system, preparing everything to Clench’s specifications. Flipsides spent every online moment doing what he could to speed Soundwave’s repair, from applying minor fixes himself to badgering the medics for help. He recharged beside his carrier, ready to change fluids or attend to crossed lines at a moment’s notice. Ratbat, who had learned what secrets and stashes the gladiators kept, was the first to return with supplies for Soundwave -- twelve grams of cybertronium from Maul, in exchange for the promise to assemble a marketing vid of the low-ranked gladiator’s fighting highlights. A little judicious and minor blackmail, plus help in acquiring a few parts from Red Alert for a clandestine pleasure drone, netted twenty more. It wasn’t much. But every scrap of the metal helped.
It was Laserbeak -- and Ravage, who accompanied the still-damaged flightframe -- who made the most interesting discovery, just a cycle before the race. The arena was in an uproar, mecha darting everywhere with last minute preparations. Ravage, acting as his carrier’s go-between, was easily able to distract Clench for a moment, allowing Laserbeak to dart in and seize the memory chit from a datapad. The pair of symbionts then took the chit to a terminal to allow Soundwave to remotely access the data.
The card held nothing but a guest list. Usually, the arena would be filled with mecha who bought admission at the gates, and of course no records were kept of such transactions. But for this seemingly-legitimate race, dozens of important figures were booked for attendance: district-governors, Senatorial aides, ambassadors and more.
//Wow Boss--I haven’t seen that many fancyplated bots in one place in a decavorn,// Buzzsaw commented, reviewing the data along with his carrier, even as he overflew the area where the Vosian Seekers were practicing their maneuvers. //Clench is gonna take all the safeties off for this one, isn’t he?//
//Motivations, now clear,// Soundwave agreed, pulling up dossiers and cross-referencing known associations. Such dignitaries would never have been able to openly attend an illegal gladiator battle. But if they just happened to be in attendance when a group of hot-tempered warframes decided to settle some old scores with the Seekers in an entertaining and thoroughly gory fashion … well, they could hardly be faulted for that, could they?
One question, however, still remained: why was Skywarp here? If this was an assassination, who was his target? The long list of prominent mecha made finding that answer even more difficult; the possibilities were simply too numerous to narrow down.
Too numerous, that was, unless you were a chronicler. Even with the limited resources of the local datanets, there was still enough information on public bios, political alliances and scandals, and service records--both military and civilian--for Soundwave to analyze, to begin assigning probabilities and modelling outcomes. Half the mecha on the list could immediately be discarded as potential targets, the probability of their involvement with anything involving Seekers or the military so low as to be nonexistent.
The other half, however, were far more promising. Especially one infamous name in particular: Ferrus. The highest-ranked mech slated to attend, Ferrus had held power as Kaon’s civilian administrator for megavorn. He had retained that power through multiple wars and upheavals, ruling Kaon and administering its resources with ruthless, occasionally brutal competence. His power was such that he was rarely ever addressed by his given designation; much like Primes and Lord Protectors, both allies and enemies alike simply called him ‘Overlord’.
Of late, however, there had been … rumblings. Subtle shifts of discontent among Kaon’s ruling mecha, and widespread rumors and encrypted whispers among those that lived below. It was said that the Overlord had lost sight of his duties; that he despised warframes and obsoletes, and longed to return Kaon to an earlier Golden Age. Further research into the Overlord’s policies, the steady march of regulations and executive orders, seemed to support the gossip. The overlord had placed restrictions and curfews on the mobility of warframes, and had even gone so far as to forbid the manufacture of all frameclasses deemed obsolete, whether by creator-mecha or by sparkbudding. And as time had passed, Soundwave noted, the penalties for defying those restrictions had become ever more harsh. Even creator-mecha, traditionally protected by virtue of their spark-coded function, were no longer exempt, but faced incarceration or worse. And their creations …
… of their creations, there were no records at all. As far as the official reports were concerned, there had been no new hatchlings created by obsolete frameclasses for at least the last decavorn.
//Is... is that so unusual, Soundwave?// Laserbeak asked, riding atop Ravage’s back to spare his wings, his beak full of datapad chip. He’d leave it in a corner of Clench’s office, as if the thing had come loose and fallen out of its own accord. //Even in Iacon, the waiting list to acquire a permit to line-spark or bud a warframe was a vorn long. I’ve not heard of a Chronicler being created on Cybertron since...// Laserbeak paused, rifling through his memory files. Forty vorn? Had it really been that long? And even before that, there hadn’t been many -- certainly not enough to make up for the natural rate of attrition.
Soundwave ran a comparison of recent and older statutes and all published criminal proceedings, cross-referencing data from Iacon, Tarn, and three other major city-states. Then he added in government numbers on obsoletes in general, and warframes in particular, accounting for migrations. The arena localnet might not be particularly speedy, but it was better than the trickle of bandwidth the government allotted. And Soundwave had long since tweaked the access throttles to permit himself priority downloading, anyway.
//Obsolete populations in most city states: decreased eight percent since the end of the war and the Great Return,// Soundwave concluded -- eight percent, if one went by official estimates. //Kaon, has seen a twenty-one percent reduction. Rate of decline, coincides with several incidents.// Soundwave pointed out several inflection points, where laws had been amended, enforcement tightened, and one short vorn in which most of Kaon’s community councils had abdicated their positions en masse. The numbers and the graphs were stark in their simplicity, and represented the loss of... potentially millions of mecha.
Surely not all of them had become roaming empties? Where had these missing mecha gone? Did they all now wrest some fragile existence out of the illegal mines, or scavenge for scrap in the abandoned satellite townships?
And where were the Chroniclers, to bear witness to this slow genocide, to speak for the voiceless?
//But... Boss... the creator-mecha? You couldn’t stop them from building people even if you tied ‘em down,// Ratbat said, thinking of Quasar. //I know there are these laws and stuff, but have local enforcers actually forcibly stopped creator-mecha from making newsparks?// Surely such an abuse would be heard by Prime himself!
//Officially --// Soundwave double-checked the records, then on a hunch, accessed some of the data-sets that one of his manufactured identities had been tasked to process for a previous orn’s allotment. And fell silent in shock. He ran the numbers again, and then once more, and assembled his results slowly. //--no. Data from Kaon’s smelting pits: indicates a larger input of protometal than reported deactivations would account for.//
Shock and horror blazed over the cohort channel, echoing, redoubling as each member realized the implications of that data in turn. //That’s … no one would go that far, would they?// Flipsides whispered. //Even if they were obsoletes. How could anyone be willing to do--to *newsparks*??//
//Data, not definitive,// Soundwave said in reply, knowing that was hardly reassuring. //Protometal, could have come from prior deactivations, mecha killed in the arenas... even budded frames prior to spark implantation.// All of those and more were possibilities, albeit equally distasteful ones. But the patterns of evidence--once the data was all there, laid out before them--was damning. //Warframes, Seekers, under the same restrictions as obsolete frameclasses. Query: probable outcome if this data became known?//
//Primus--they'd rip the entire *city* apart, Boss,// Buzzsaw said, and the glyphs surrounding his words were darkly savage, as if the flightframe didn’t think that was necessarily a bad thing.
//The warframes would do their best to remove the Overlord,// said Laserbeak from his hidden spot behind some loose wall-panelling, waiting as Ravage padded back around to distract Clench again.
Ratbat nodded. //Might want it to look like an accident. Depends on how many know, what proof they have. If the warframes haven’t got much more than we do... they couldn’t risk exposing his activities to the city, not as entrenched as he is. They’d disappear into the questioning cells before they transmitted three glyphs. And who would believe them anyway?//
//I say we let ‘em,// said Flipsides abruptly. //Let the airframes do whatever they’re planning.// Soundwave glanced at him. The little mechkin’s fists were clenched at his side.
A pause across the bond. //I do not disagree,// said Ravage, //but there are larger considerations here. The race will begin in less than sixty joor -- will Soundwave be capable of moving, if the show dissolves into chaos?// Or rather, *when.* He doubted that Clench would call anything off this late in the game, even if warned. Not now. And if Clench already knew... then revealing that Soundwave did as well could result in the deactivation of the entire cohort.
Flipsides hesitated, optics flicking over to Soundwave’s battered frame. //I--don’t know. His internal repairs should be finished by then, and Stent is mostly done with the sensory wafer rebuilds. But … his new arm needs at least another orn to complete protometal integration before attachment to his frame. If we somehow tried to attach it before then, it would just be dead metal, useless--and eventually, Soundwave’s own self-repair nanites would probably start cannibalizing it.//
//Mobility, more important than one missing limb. Primary and secondary cables, more than capable of replacing arm functionality for the duration,// Soundwave reminded Flipside. //Structural repairs and armor, more important. Their completion, essential.// They needed to make preparations, and soon, either to take advantage of the chaos that was to come--or to escape it. //Internal diagnostic reports, favorable. Only minor system glitches remain. Your assessment?//
Flipsides glanced over at both the on-duty medics, currently huddled together over a groundframe’s open chassis, obviously wanting to defer to those with greater expertise--but reluctantly nodded. //I--yes, Master. You won’t be fully repaired, but … you will be mobile. Though Stent won’t like it.//
Ratbat snorted. //Does Stent ever like anything?//
//Soundwave: will be ready,// he promised them. //New plans, now essential. Cache more supplies for quick retrieval, establish new contacts, explore possible escape routes. Our position with Clench, now a great deal more dangerous.// The time and effort Soundwave had spent in maneuvering himself into Clench’s circle, the measures he had taken to become indispensable to the overseer--that all now had the potential to backfire, should the arena boss decide he needed a scapegoat more than he did an ally.
Ravage nodded as he stalked away from Clench’s offices, his pace uninterrupted as Laserbeak’s slight weight landed on his back once more, this time without the datapad chip. //Then let us prepare. Command us, Master.//
By the time the stands above were just half full, the cohort was as ready as they’d ever be. In between scurrying to work on Soundwave’s last repairs, Flipsides wheedled a stasis-cube from one of the medics. The protective box was large enough to hold Soundwave’s mostly-rebuilt arm -- though granted it didn’t look much like a limb yet, with transformation seams unfolded and tensors unstrung, directed-assembler nanites a dense fog in the nutrient and supportive gel in which the mechanism incubated. Still, a stasis-cube would allow them to transport the arm safely in subspace, incomplete though it was.
Flipsides hoped fervently that they would not need to.
The other symbionts worked to more thoroughly secret away what remained of Soundwave’s stockpile of energon -- cubes stolen almost a vorn ago from the Senate-cache -- or to trade the midgrade for smaller, high-value items that could be more easily subspaced. Filling out forms and orders in triplicate, Ratbat fluttered along after Red Alert, and at last managed to requisition the cohort’s entire rations for the next orn... entirely in repairgrade. The request might be unusual, but what was less suspicious than delivering repairgrade, even a lot of it, to a mech stuck in the repairbay? Almost *too* unsuspicious, Red Alert thought, checking over Ratbat’s paperwork.
Once the fuel arrived, Flipsides used Soundwave’s emergency pump to fill the carrier’s secondary tanks directly with the thick, opaque energon, wincing as he did so. Emergency refuels were not pleasant, no matter how careful he tried to be. But at least he didn’t have to make Soundwave drink the foul-tasting stuff!
A joor before the show commenced, they were all in position. Ratbat and Laserbeak stayed close to Ravage atop the stands nearest the repair bay, while Buzzsaw flew freely, searching out better angles to share with his carrier. Their communications, of necessity, were by cohort channel alone, every other scrap of local bandwidth flooded by the overlapping chatter of the crowd. The stands were packed, a throng of mecha of every frametype and description. Both arena regulars and bots who only bought vids, and would never actually attend something so crude as a gladiatorial game, were all crammed in, wheel to plate. Some mecha were here on rare allotment, but most had bought their way in with energon or black market credits.
And the glitterati of Kaon were here, too. Elegant and sculpted as lileth birds, plating gleaming, they arrived surrounded by their cohorts and flocks of cronies. Most of them flew directly to their private, shielded viewing ledges, spiralling upward and hovering on thrusters as wasteful and showy as any Seeker’s. //No Overlord yet, Boss,// Buzzsaw sent, fluttering to another vantage. Perhaps all their preparations and their fears were for naught, perhaps Skywarp’s target wouldn’t even come … Then he spotted a ripple in the crowd at the other end of the huge stadium. //Wait, maybe....Yup, he’s here all right.//
The Overlord’s entrance was impossible to miss. Kaon’s ruler was tall, towering over most of his surrounding coterie, with a lean chassis and long limbs clad in archaic, glyph-engraved armor. His gold and black plating was dazzling, glossy and pristine under the plasma lights. Buzzsaw relayed his observations as the Overlord rode with noble confidence towards the designated VIP balcony-lift, the crowds eddying and parting before him, his entourage pushing outward to provide a distinct bubble of space for the mech who stood atop the... antigrav sled? at the center. Smooth-limbed aristocrats were allowed closer, the most favored crammed onto the periphery of the Overlord’s transport. The transport itself looked a great deal like a Rock Lord chariot, though very much scaled down. Twisted metal wove a complex half-sphere cupping the great ruling mech, plated skids flared beneath as if for orbital entry. But while a Rock Lord chariot was massive and crude and made for violent battle, either between or on planets, this device was not. It was heavy with elaborate glyphwork and filigree, every spar was jeweled and glossy with shimmering color.
And while a Rock Lord guided his chariot by means of magnetic fields, this one was drawn by a pair of... things. Organic things, apparently -- about waist-high, with big shield-shaped helms and long spines emerging from each optical ridge, plus another shorter one over the beak-like mouth. They moved with a distinct, lumbering quadruped gait, and their armored exteriors were all in one piece that seemed to stretch as if it was not armor at all. They had short, stout tails. Each wore a muzzle, which provided the creatures with the mix of atmospheric compounds they required to function.
//Drones. They’re low-order organics, consuming materials which process sunlight. Very defensive, unless that’s been cut from their programming. From system UB946,// Laserbeak said, searching through his archives. //Third planet out from a small yellow star, and last visited by a science and sample-collection team three hundred vorn ago -- to my knowledge,// he amended. Laserbeak wished he knew more. The symbiont no longer had the same access to research records as he once had. But then, it was rare these days for scientists to be sent to tiny backwater worlds like that -- there was trouble enough at home without wasting energon on mudballs. And the large organics which inhabited such worlds required complex inputs and strange environmental conditions. They often had bizarre reproductive habits and life cycles. Who had the resources to keep organics, anymore?
Evidently, the Overlord did.
//Wow--I haven’t seen that many guards on one mech since the last time I snuck into the Senate. Although … that’s interesting. Looks like they’re all civilian security frametypes, Boss. I’m not seeing a single warframe in the lot.// Buzzsaw adeptly ducked around a flailing group of overcharged grounders, pivoting on a wingtip and using antigravs to soar even higher. Why hadn’t the Overlord taken to the air like all the other high-ranking mecha? Was he so outdated he didn’t even have thrusters? Did he intend to flaunt his wealth before the crowd -- or mean to remind them that once there had been no end to Cybertron’s vast empire, its wealth and influence?
Buzzsaw landed on a newly-repaired cornice, craning his neck downward as sharp optics focused upon the Overlord’s distant frame. The grand procession reached the lifts, big organic drones tossing their heads, though the sounds they issued could not be heard over the roar of the crowd. The Overlord stepped down onto the lift, and a pair of far shorter assistants reached to sling a cloak around his shoulders -- actual fabric, Buzzsaw could not help but note; woven organic fibers, sinfully soft stuff that could buff plating to an unparalleled shine, but was very expensive and even easier to damage. The flightframe snorted a vent both disdainful and covetous.
Then he froze, talons spasming, tearing deep into the layered steel beneath him as the crowd parted for just a moment--
--and revealed the unmistakable form of a bladeframe, chained and collared, stalking silently at the Overlord’s side.
//Primus,// Buzzsaw breathed, appalled.
In the repair bay, Soundwave also froze. Buzzsaw’s optics were far keener than those of most mecha, and there was no mistaking the relayed images. That was no modified cyberhound, no tamed bit of wildlife. It was a bladeframe, armored in silver and black, almost Ravage’s twin--a *memory-keeper*--paraded in chains as if he were nothing more than a technimal. Carrier instincts roared to life, overriding normal priority queues, burning through medical overrides. All of Soundwave’s intentions, his plans for careful disengagement, were swept aside. In a single moment, everything changed--his function crystallized into perfect focus by the sight of a symbiont enslaved.
//Boss... the new guy’s not answering a hail on the emergency line. He might not be monitoring it.// Or he might not have a functional comm at all. Buzzsaw drew his wings in tight at the thought.
“Master!” Flipsides hissed, casting a nervous glance to the duty-shift medics, who were attending to some minor joint maintenance on several disassembled limbs across the bay. Soundwave was already sitting up in the cradle, hydraulics hissing as unworked gears turned and caught, as new metal bore weight. “We can’t just -- you can’t --” //Nono *please* don’t -- oh don’t pull on that, let me unhook it instead, Master!//
//*Soundwave.*// Ravage’s contact over the bond cut through the imperative haze. //I will get closer, and verify the situation. Stay where you are.//
//Situation, unacceptable,// Soundwave said tersely, reaching up with his remaining arm to disentangle it from the cradle supports. //Soundwave: must--//
//We know, Boss,// Buzzsaw said urgently, even as he watched the Overlord’s bladeframe being jerked ungently onto the lift. //There’s no way we’re gonna let that fragger keep one of our own as a pet. But we’ve gotta be smart about this; if we go charging straight in, you’ll never get near the guy.//
//We shall not fail you, Master--trust us in this,// Laserbeak added, soft and implacable. //We will not leave our brother in the talons of that monster.//
//Ravage--// Soundwave reached out wordlessly for his First, fighting carrier protocols that overlaid every thought, every instinct, pushing his frame into battle-readiness. Only the knowledge that succumbing to those imperatives would endanger his own cohort kept him where he was; and watching the quicksilver prowl of the chained bladeframe through Buzzsaw’s optics was a subtle torment all its own.
Ravage let him in, allowed him to share the dizzying impressions of too-tall crowds pressing in on all sides, even as the bladeframe slipped through the raucous assembly, nothing more than a flash of silver and shadow in the recesses and forgotten byways of the arena. All their many orn of learning the arena inside and out now paid off--leaving Laserbeak and Ratbat to watch from the air, he leaped from drone-path to ledge to little-used lifts, intent upon his prey. The Overlord’s observation platform was near the top of the hemispherical arena structure, with its own dedicated lift, isolated from all the other, lesser seating to either side. Without the crush of mecha on all sides, both on the ground and in the air, it would have been impossible to approach unseen. But the ebb and flow of the crowd was all the cover Ravage needed, and when the second group of security mecha mounted the lift to take their positions at the rear of the box, they carried with them a passenger: a bladeframe coiled around the struts underneath, all but invisible as the lift rose into the air.
Flipsides hurried over Soundwave’s frame, stopping feeds and unhooking lines -- no matter how this turned out, he had a feeling that his carrier would want to be free to move, and soon. The other medics in their singular focus hadn’t yet noticed Soundwave’s movement, which was really good, because he really, really didn’t want to stop and explain how Soundwave had managed to overwrite his own medical blocks!
Near the top of the lift shaft, Ravage leapt -- one set of claws scraping against a girder, another catching in the fine weave of a massive cable, and then Ravage slipped through a narrow gap in the lift wall. Silent and swift as a flickering shadow, he wormed his way higher, closer, twisting his jointed body through gaps that might have challenged one of the flightframes. The powered shield that kept objects and energy from striking the protected seating was active here too, but every spar and tunnel interfered with the field, leaving it rife with holes and eddies large enough to slip through. The thousands of tiny detector-sensors woven into the structure felt like ripples, like subtle vibrations pinging across Ravage’s bladed hide. The things were simple to fool, once a mech learned the trick of transmitting just the right frequencies back at the dumb devices. But as Ravage neared the viewing box, the security sweeps became more complicated to avoid, issuing from the many guards.
Ravage froze as another scan passed over him, the beam finding nothing, moving on. A few padded steps closer, a tight-limbed crawl beneath a length of piping -- and he began to pick up audial.
“--when it was newly built. The railings shone brighter than even the mecha, Gasket. Our banners streamed across the sky. Every other city came to witness the games -- they knew our strength. They could see it.” A pause, a scrape, something heavy being moved, a massive frame settling down into self-shaping seating. “As they cannot, now.”
“Very true, my Lord,” said a diffident, respectful voice.
“Masses, seething, grown bloated on the richness of my city...” the voice trailed off.
“It will change, my Lord. You will make it beautiful once more. A drink, while you wait?”
“So many work against me.” A liquid sound, the rarified clink of energon hitting something solid -- cubes made of actual silicate glass or even stone, perhaps. “Discover the cause of this delay.”
The diffident voice hesitated. “I... my Lord. Seekers are notoriously....”
Ravage felt the rumble through the struts around him first, a bare moment before the Vosian Seeker trine rocketed into the arena, frames flashing past the viewing box. Under the cover of that thundering cacophony, Ravage crept closer, towards a flickering gap in the metalwork, a crack through which he might peer out. The opening was small and low; from his vantage point, Ravage could see only the pedes and legs of the Overlord and his companion, up to the glossy protrusions where pelvic armor met thorax. But there, beyond them, was the Overlord’s bladeframe, coiled up upon the floor, the gilded chain that connected him to his captor a mockery of a master’s adornment.
The other bladeframe was silent, making no effort to speak or otherwise communicate with the other mecha in the box. But Ravage could read the unspoken defiance in the other bladeframe’s posture, the subtle bristling of his ebony spines, the slow, restless sweep of the long tail. His armor was scraped and dented in places, had been hastily patched not long ago, to judge by the thinner nanites across the scars. The effect was of slight mottling, dark grey on black, evidence of a fight... or of rebellion and punishment. Whoever the strange symbiont was, he was not in the Overlord’s service by choice.
The stands rumbled again as the Vosian Seekers swept by for another low pass, the thunder of their engines echoed by the violently rising roar of the crowds below. Aided by the cacophony, Ravage crept closer, wedging himself closer to the narrow gap. There was no way to approach the other bladeframe across the open expanse of the box without being seen; and likewise, no way to communicate, whether by vocalizer or by comms, that wouldn’t be intercepted by either sensors or security mecha. If he had access to a cohort channel, perhaps, but … How was he to contact the other bladeframe?
Thinking furiously, Ravage shifted, coiling himself around until he could curl his heavy-spined tail through the tiny gap. Slowly, deliberately, he shifted his tail-tip back and forth, small flickers of movement in the shadows, mimicking the tiny rustlings of metal on metal that glitchmice habitually made. For almost a breem, there was no response. Then, in a brief lull of the outside noise, a sensitive set of audials twitched. The bladeframe glanced over, his flat stare sharpening as he swiftly located the source of the noise. Bue optics widened fractionally--then swung back to stare disinterestedly at the other mecha’s pedes, even as sensory spines swivelled just enough to keep those tiny movements within sight.
Silently, Ravage used his tailtip to trace simple glyphs in the air. --Ravage: Keeper to Soundwave: Templar. Designation? Status?--
The other bladeframe did not react. But the lazy back-and-forth curl of his tail altered subtly, tracing out his answer in tiny movements upon the polished metal floorplates. --Nightstalker: Keeper.-- The tail hesitated. --Prisoner. Templar … murdered.--
--Yes.-- The affimative glyph was finished with a savage twist of that restless tail.
--No. Locked down. Collar.--
Given opportunity, Soundwave could take care of the collar in short order, Ravage was sure. Still, having the other bladeframe’s weaponry locked down would make a rescue more difficult. --Freedom soon. Warning-danger: Seeker targeting Overlord. Assassination short-unknown-time-soon. Be ready.--
--Overlord will die?-- Talons twitched restlessly against the platform, as if Nightstalker were imagining his captor beneath them.
--Nightstalker will be ready.--
The Overlord jerked on Nightstalker’s chain as the old ruler heaved himself to his pedes to shout some invective against the mecha down below, dragging the symbiont upright with him. Wincing, Nightstalker stumbled a step closer, reseating himself beside the Overlord’s elaborate chair. The bladeframe’s joints didn’t quite move smoothly, not like they should. Evidence of his capture, or too much time spent from his carrier?
Loudspeakers blared, glyphs flashing over the localnet and projected over the stands, turning the mass of mecha below into living art. Fluorescing, the Seekers began their show in earnest, tumbling, wheeling, masters of the skies while the mecha below roared their twinned envy and awe.
--There are others,-- Nightstalker drew out, tail tapping subtly upon the brushed metal of the gilded flooring, repeating himself as light flared and glinted and cast shadows that made movement difficult for even a bladeframe to detect.
--Your cohort?-- Soundwave asked, and then Nightstalker did react, sculpted head bending, optics shuttering closed.
--Yes. But cannot feel them,-- Nightstalker mimed.
Ravage paused, tamping down his own frission of sorrow, of fear. Once the carrier was gone, the hub of the cohort bond itself... it would be impossible even to know if one’s symbiont-brothers still functioned, if they lay wounded or guttering. --How many?--
To thunderous fanfare, the Arena’s own Seekers and airframes were lifted up on great circumvolving pillars, shouting out their own challenge to the newcomers, their thrusters burning hot. The roar of the crowd was a tangible thing, a vibration so strong even larger mecha felt it, the sheer volume making the old internal structures of the stands creak and shudder. Screams rang out as clusters of flyers fell, righting themselves in time to chase each other between the massive pillars. Flares of light and carefully-timed explosions haloed the performers, sparks rained down spears as flyers crossed flightpaths within a nanoklik of one another. To the mecha below, the performance was simultaneously airshow and aerial battle and a race of sheer skill and speed. The Arena airframes seemed to be keeping up... at first. But as the show continued, it became painfully obvious: they weren’t really in the athletes’ league.
--Three. Three others, -- said Nightstalker.
--Functioning?-- Ravage asked.
--Two functioning, five orn ago. One...-- the bladeframe shuddered. --One damaged. Now, unknown--
Above him, the Overlord brought his hand down to stroke roughly over the symbiont’s sensitive audials, a touch that no bladeframe would tolerate from any but his carrier. Reflexively Nightstalker flinched away snarling, long teeth bared -- and stumbled, jaws parted in a silent cry, a crackle of targeted charge lighting the inside of the collar.
Watching through Ravage’s optics, Soundwave was up and off the repair cradle just as Flipsides finished properly disconnecting the external lines from his frame and folding his armor back into place. “Master!” the symbiont gasped, lunging for a wobbling stand of tools as the carrier fought to free himself from the straps and stand for the first time in an orn. Tensors and flexors whined with the sudden strain, gears locking momentarily, equilibrium an elusive ambition. Soundwave’s vision was hazed in red.
The crashing of tools and the clang of metal on metal did not go unnoticed. “What the -- Primus!” the two medics looked up, optics widening. “You *disabled* his blocks?” demanded one in accusation, jabbing a furious finger at Flipsides, who flinched. The other headed for the staggering carrier, spooling out his medical jack. Medics normally commed the office and got someone to send a spare gladiator to the medbay, if any of the mecha being treated there got unruly... but how much trouble could one delirious civilian be?
Quite a lot, apparently. Soundwave staggered, lurched, and the medic lunged forward. Experienced at handling disoriented warframes, he ducked expertly under one flailing limb, a hand reaching out to connect, to jack into the chronicler’s frame and reinstate the overrides--and a primary cable whiplashed outwards, intercepting the limb, wrapping around it and pulling the medic aside with inexorable strength.
Soundwave planted his pedes, grimly forcing himself upright as his gyros recalibrated, making allowances for his lost arm and still-damaged struts. “Soundwave: is leaving,” he told the aghast medics. “Presence, necessary elsewhere.” Dimly, he regretted that their ire had been directed at Flipsides and not himself, but he could not afford the time for explanations. Perhaps later, if they all survived this.
“You can’t--you’re not--” Turnplate stuttered, but kept his distance, eying the unlimbered spread of razor-bladed datacables warily. “You’re not ready--you’ll damage yourself! Stent will-”
“Soundwave: will explain later.” Soundwave paused a bare moment, comming the mechkin, armor sliding open. //Flipsides: return.// It was a calculated risk, taking the mechkin with him. Even safely docked, if Soundwave were to fall, Flipsides might well be destroyed as well. But leaving him behind, to be held hostage or worse in the inevitable chaos that would sweep the arena in the wake of the assassination … that was no option at all.
Flipsides did not argue or hesitate. His carrier’s command was absolute; he folded himself inward, transforming, lifting into the air by the grasp of Soundwave’s guidance gravs, falling into the safety of his dock. Dense armor folded downward, sealing the symbiont safely away; and Soundwave broke into a swift lope, his staggering gait smoothing as new components did final minute adjustments, integrating with the rest of the frame. He headed upwards, taking the back maintenance ways, shoving aside startled caretakers that had clustered about a door hatch for a glimpse of the show, and emerged into light and explosions and fire. //Laserbeak, Buzzsaw, Ratbat: status!//
//We’re here, Boss!// Buzzsaw sent, the other two reporting in with their locations as well, //there are so many mecha, where are --//
A flash of purple, oddly and hauntingly vivid overhead, even amidst the other flares and explosions. Several frontliner grounders, hidden in the deep shadows that crossed the sandy arena floor, finished their last adjustments to their jetpacks. Their kneejoints bent, tensed to spring, the big thrusters of their packs warming.
The yellow frontliner glanced to Soundwave. His faceplates spread in a violently anticipatory grin, before his battlemask slid to hide his mouthparts. The yellow warframe’s twin, Sideswipe, followed his brother’s glance with narrowed optics. He leaned close, put his hand on Sunstreaker’s shoulder....
And then the tall observation tower exploded.
For an instant, it all seemed like part of the show. And then the screams began, the rattle of small arms fire, more explosions and a groaning vibration that rumbled through the sand underpede. A figure, backlit brilliantly by the expanding flames, tumbled helplessly from the tower. Overhead, the Vosnian Seeker trine thundered past, flying low and exactly as scheduled... except that they were missing their leader. Half the grounder ambush crew took off anyway, wobbling in the air, disoriented by the unplanned explosions and the missing airframe.
The commlink to Ravage cracked with static, washed red with heat and chaos. Soundwave broke into a run.
The top of the tower was an inferno. One instant everything was still, all the mecha enjoying the show, even the guards forgetting to run such frequent scans. The Overlord had settled back into his seat, waiting while a massive guard leaned over him to refill his foolishly fragile cube.... and then tracer tags, and incandescent heat, and an impact that threw Ravage back like he was no bigger than a hatchling, and the howl of slagging metal. Beams snapped like wires around him, massive chunks of metal collapsing. Ravage twisted, hissing as molten slag seared past one hindleg, and with a writhing twist and a heave, launched himself into the open space beyond.
The topbox … was a ruin, a slagged, crumbling platform of bared beams and burning ornamentation. The overspill of the attack had fallen into nearby stands, and molten debris still cascaded downward onto the screaming mecha below as they fled, running, transforming into alt-modes or frantically taking to the air on thrusters in their efforts to escape. The Overlord’s security detail had been annihilated in the attack, their armor no match for a Seeker’s full-load weaponry at close range. Worse, there was no sign of the other bladeframe in the roiling smoke and twisted debris; had he been destroyed as well?
“Nightstalker!” Ravage called, shouting the other bladeframe’s name with sensory spines spread, listening for even the slightest response. He leaped forward, balancing tensely upon the shifting, fractured plates of the platform’s floor, dodging a stray burst of shrapnel from a nearby explosion. Nothing, nothing at all … and then, through the haze, a glint of light. Ravage lunged forward, slipping through the backwash of fire as one more shadow--
--then stopped short, snarling, at the sight of a crouched Overlord, battered but still unmistakably alive, sheltered within the golden and coruscating halo of a personal shield. Such shields were beyond rare, requiring an immense amount of energon to power even briefly--in this age of scarcity, Ravage doubted anyone short of the Prime himself had one. That this monster, his claws tainted with the death of innocents, could be so protected … he snarled, a rising metallic sound of purest rage, weapons charging. If it fell to him to rip the Overlord apart, than so be it--
--and then, at the edge of his optical range, he caught a glimpse of the dark, huddled form beyond that shield. Nightstalker’s proximity to the Overlord, Ravage realized, had been what had saved him; the majority of the blast had been deflected by the larger mecha’s shield. But the other bladeframe was pinned, still chained to his captor, unable to escape.
That, at least, was something Ravage could remedy.
Tail lashing, he leaped forward, twisting through wreckage with impossible ease, ignoring the scorch of slagged metal upon his taloned pedes, the sagging of the platform as it tilted downwards. Another twist, a pivot and a final jump, and he was at Nightstalker’s side, sideguns pivoting, targeting that chain. The other bladeframe needed no instructions; he curled himself even tighter, plating clamping down protectively, shielding sensitive sensory spines and optics.
Ravage fired, the metal twisting, leaping and falling apart under the point-blank impact of his guns. Nightstalker surged to his pedes, armor bristling outward once more, fangs bared as he made to turn on his captor; and Ravage checked him hard with one shoulder, shaking his helm as the other bladeframe turned on him with a snarl.
“We must go! Now!” he ordered. Most of the activity in the air was chaotic, unfocused. His sensors tracked the erratic movements of groundframed gladiators as they soared high, uncertain of their targets; the spreading and weaving of high-ranking mecha as they fled in all directions; the patterned and circling flight of the arena Seekers above. But through it all, there was one signal in particular that stood out from the rest; a Seeker, arrowing straight towards them once more in an unmistakably deadly dive. Large caliber rounds rained down, pocking the steel around them, shooting sparks from the Overlord’s shield and punching through several of the remaining, still-stunned guards.
--Go *where*?-- Nightstalker gestured furiously.
And Ravage had no answer for that.
Soundwave seized the first jetpack-equipped mech he found. “Soundwave: must get up there *now*,” he vocalized, reinforcing his command with a comm as well -- he could barely hear himself over the screams of the crowd, the thunder as yet another segment of the arena scaffolding sloughed off and crashed down into the fleeing mecha below.
The heavy grounder followed that pointing talon. His armor clamped tight. //Whut? Are you *insa--*// he started.
//We’ll take him,// interrupted a comm. //Sounds like fun,// added another voice, oddly similar in pitch and syntax to the first. //Headed that way regardless.// Impossible to say which of the mecha had spoken.
The twins. Expression twisted into something that only a generous mech would have called a smile, Sunstreaker reached out to wrap talons around Soundwave’s wrist. //Ever flown, fragger?// he asked -- or at least, Soundwave thought it was him -- in a manner that was meant, perhaps, to be friendly. //Gotta respect a one-armed mech who wants to get himself atop a towering inferno,// said the other, winding his talons under the shoulder fairings of Soundwave's repaired armor.
Any hesitation or remnant sense of self-preservation had vanished under the imperative haze of carrier protocols. His First was up there, and Soundwave would do whatever it took to get to him. Heavy cables wrapped around the gold and red frontliners’ supporting arms, and Sideswipe startled backwards. “Whoa--”
“Go. Go NOW,” Soundwave ordered. The cables tightened fractionally, armor creaking under their grip. The two frontliners exchanged a brief, indecipherable look--and then Sideswipe grinned. It was not a pleasant expression.
“You heard the mech.” Jet packs fired with a synchronized roar, and talons dug deep, gouging into his armor as all three mecha rocketed off the ground and into the madness of the sky. Sideswipe and Sunstreaker maneuvered with their burden, dodging and weaving through the air as easily as if they had been created to fly, and the red frontliner let out a whoop of joy. “Aw yeah! This is better than slagging a few tailfins any orn!” They swooped under a fleeing airframe, spiralled dizzingly around another cascade of falling beams, and arrowed straight for the sagging, burning remnants of the the topbox. “Hot enough for ya, camera-bot?” Sideswipe yelled with feral glee.
Soundwave didn’t bother to reply, his focus on his link with Ravage. //Ravage--get to a clear position, be ready to leap to me. Soundwave: is coming.//
//Looks like we're going to get some tailfins as well, Sunny,// the comm was encrypted, over a private channel. But Soundwave's cables were in contact with both warframes' armor, his cilia bare microns from glossy red and gold plating. He could have detected that comm even sensor-deaf... and cracking the encryption took less than an astrosecond.
//Lock and unload,// agreed the red twin, craning his neck up to watch the rogue seeker twist midair for another strafing dive. The other two Vosian Seekers were too fast and circling too high to make good targets. But the lead one flew lower, more aggressively, making run after run against the crumbling tower. A confused groundframe took a few halfhearted potshots at the apparently-distracted trineleader. His plasma pulses knifed through a purple haze... and then the Seeker -- Skywarp --was behind him, missiles unfolding from cleverly-hidden wing racks and blossoming with fire. The disoriented gladiator stood no chance, never even saw what hit him, the blasts igniting the solid fuel in his pack. Shrapnel and flames rained down into the screaming multitude.
//Here, Soundwave!// Ravage transmitted his coordinates, running like a streak of shadow beside a slightly smaller bladeframe, both racing over girders which crumbled under their very pedes. They were below and off to Soundwave's right, hidden between billowing gouts of smoke and crumbling debris.
“Ready, camera-bot? Hope you got some good vid,” one of the twins said, shifting his grip, ready to shrug off Soundwave's twisting cables. The towertop approached at sickening speed, gouts of flame licking at their pedes, great leaping tongues that made the air waver with heat. //'Cause this is the end of the li-//
A warframe’s motor controls might be too shielded under tight-fitting armor to hijack easily, but their equipment benefitted from no such protection. It had taken only a nanoklik for Soundwave to finish coiling his cilia through the control boards of both frontliners' jetpacks. A twist, a spearing thought; and he had hacked both devices.
//What the--!// Sideswipe blurted, suddenly a passenger on a ride he no longer controlled. They dove, heading towards one wing of the tower even as overstressed metal creaked and groaned, pitching slowly, inevitably to one side. //--the frag--Sunny, I’ve lost motility thrusters, we’re gonna--//
//Negative. Your assistance, still required,// Soundwave said, slicing into the private channel effortlessly. Ignoring the two frontliners’ rising fury, he sent them diving toward a protruding bit of torn-off beam, guided unerringly to where his First waited.
Weapons hummed to life, incandescent rage suffusing the channel. //Get your claws out of our systems *now*, fragger, or I’ll--// Sunstreaker began, a pulse cannon unfolding from one arm. But they were too close, moving too fast--just as Soundwave had calculated, there was no way for the warframe to get a target-lock on him that wouldn’t hit his brother as well. The twins’ talons tightened, tearing deeper into his armor. Soundwave rerouted the damage reports, ignoring the pain as he searched. He was in the right location, he could *feel* Ravage’s presence, a singular light against the flames.
*There*. The barest hint of an uplifted head, a flicker of a black silhouette in the smoke-hazed air.
One of Sideswipe’s hands reached down, wrapping around a primary cable and squeezing viciously, talons digging deep into armor.... even as his other arm lifted, folding down into one of his wickedly long blades. //We’re not your fraggin’ taximech service, camera-bot. Let us go, or I’ll hack your extra limbs off one by one!//
//Soundwave: in control.// The statement was flat, uncompromising; the carrier had no time to deal with warframe tantrums. //Damage to data-cables, will only compromise jetpack control systems, ensure your deaths.// And even if that alone wouldn’t have done it, the kill-codes he’d introduced into the control programs certainly would.
Smoke parted for a bare instant, and -- there! Two bladeframes, balancing precariously on a beam, scrambling for footing with each new degree of tilt, each shuddering explosion. Soundwave banked, overcorrecting, then clumsily righting himself and ascending, climbing hard as chunks of burning slag rained down. Processors flickered at lightning speed, calculating trajectories, angles, flightspeed as jagged, torn metal flashed past. One nanoklik, two, two point six …
//Jump!// He commanded Ravage, shouting it at the same time, as loudly as his vocalizer was able. “Jump now!” Both bladeframes flung themselves into the air, leaping--and Soundwave snatched them out of the air, data-cables whipping outward, latching on and curling tight about Ravage and Nightstalker’s scorched, soot-streaked frames.
Soundwave had a bare instant to revel in relief, in the heat of scorching armor plating against his own, the scrabble of claws, the familiar shape and weight of his First, and the touch of Ravage’s mind... as grateful as his own.
//Well now,// snarled Sunstreaker, twisting to bring his cannon to bear -- not on Soundwave, but on his cable-held burden. //Isn’t this swe--arrrgh!// Large-caliber rounds blasted across his shoulder and pitted his armor, the ordnance wildly fired by either Skywarp or the gladiator airframe chasing him. In the same moment, Soundwave cut power to both jetpacks.
Hopelessly entangled, all five mecha fell.
Heat and flames and chunks of shrapnel whipped around them, a roaring incendiary hailstorm, tumbling and gaining speed -- the bladeframes were frozen in Soundwave’s grasp; both frontliners thrashed and twisted, trying to break free. Airframes dodged around them, the tip of someone’s wing sheared a gouge up Sideswipe’s flank -- and then Soundwave ignited the jetpacks at full power. The whiplash was brutal. Soundwave had never been designed for such forces, and his newly-repaired weldings groaned with the strain. He could *feel* internal components popping loose, his cables straining for grip, all their bladed hooks digging in to the frontliners’ armor....
Momentum hit a zero-point, and Soundwave wracked his motivators in a scissoring heave, crashing both frontliners together, and simultaneously released his grip with a silent cry. He fell heavily the last few mechanometers down to the stands. Staggering, disoriented, he untangled his cables from the bladeframes the moment he hit the ground. //Run!// he ordered, manipulators whipping to haul himself upright, to draw attention ... to make himself a more obvious target. He powered up his shoulder-mounted sonic cannon.
Unburdened by Soundwave’s weight, the entangled frontliners had shot upwards before regaining control and orientation. Now they streaked back down, faceplates twisted in identical expressions of fury. //You piece of scrap,// hissed Sunstreaker; //we’ll make this slow,// said Sideswipe, their far-larger weapons unfolded, powered and targeting.
//Down, Soundwave!// The carrier threw himself flat, the backwash of an explosion washing over his already-damaged armor. And for a singular instant, his jolted processors were certain that he’d been hit, braced for cascading damage reports... but the twin frontliners were howling, too.
A broadcast comm cut through the confusion -- a new voice. //You stupid glitches! Quit slagging around and help us catch this fragger!//
The thundering roar resolved into rotating thrusters, and a streak of arctic blue sliced through the billowing dust and flames overhead -- Freefall. The twins jetted after him, firing and furious, both grounders now scraped, gouged, and decidedly crispy around the edges. The fleeing Seeker added a comm, directed to Soundwave over a narrow and attenuating band, before vanishing once more into the chaos overhead: //We’re even now, civilian.//
Through a brief parting of the smoke, Soundwave glimpsed a flyer wearing the Overlord’s colors... clasping a large golden orb to himself as he fled? Then Skywarp hit that burdened airframe in a strafing run, a dozen gladiator airframes hot on his tailfins... and the obfuscating haze thickened, obscuring the battle once more.
//Boss! Boss boss boss!// Soundwave could feel Ratbat’s ultrasonic ping from his armor as the little symbiont tracked his carrier -- could feel the relief as the rest of them converged on him as best they could, as well.
And two bladeframes padded from the smoke and shadows, Ravage’s sideguns and the missile racks beneath them gleaming hot, a chain dragging from the other’s neck. Soundwave reached outward, offering an open hand to his First, making no effort to hide his pride at Ravage’s success, his incandescent relief at their safety. //Soundwave: is here,// he told his cohort, offering location-coordinates to help them navigate through the chaos.
After a careful scan of their surroundings revealed no immediate threats--either of being run over by fleeing mecha or attacked by angry warframes--he turned to Nightstalker. Kneeling carefully, leaving a pair of primaries unfurled to compensate for his missing arm, he inclined his head respectfully. //Soundwave: would be honored to remove your fetters, Memory-keeper.// He indicated subtly at the collar with one cable-tip, but otherwise made no move to reach out or touch, acutely conscious of the indignities the bladeframe had suffered.
Ravage moved forward without hesitation, optics slitting shut momentarily as he pressed the top of his helm against that hand, sharing his own relief and gratitude freely with his Master. Then scarlet optics opened, glancing upwards as Laserbeak, Buzzsaw and Ratbat arrived, gliding down through the haze. Laserbeak and Ratbat took their prized perches upon Soundwave’s shoulders, while Buzzsaw landed upon a bent piece of railing nearby to act as sentry, his armor spread defensively, weapons charged and ready. He tracked nearby mecha as they moved within his sensor range, keeping Soundwave informed of their identities and weapons status.
“Soundwave wishes to remove your bindings, Nightstalker,” said Ravage aloud, turning his head a little to address the other bladeframe. //The device mutes his comms and vocalizer,// he explained to his carrier; given the chaos and distraction involved in the initial meeting with the other bladeframe, there was no way to tell how much information had filtered back to his distressed Master. The fettered symbiont was smaller than Ravage, leaner through the body and slightly shorter in the leg. He was not quite so dark a black as Ravage, a little more grey, and mottled with evidence of old injuries. He approached with caution, laying each scorched paw down with precision, determined not to stumble. The collar alone was a blow to pride -- he’d not stagger like a wounded thing, as well!
Ravage paused, pressing the length of his bladed body against Soundwave’s heavy thigh-plates. //His carrier was slain,// he said bluntly, ignoring the subtle flinch of the rest of his cohort -- the thought was a terrible one. //But others of his cohort may yet function.//
The new bladeframe waited, tailtip flicking with agitation, as Soundwave reached slowly for the heavy links of the collar. But he did not flinch, nor pull away, even when Soundwave let his cilia extend to search out the binding’s concealed input jacks. The collar was ornate, heavy interlinked plates engraved with precious metals that could not hide the device’s brutal function. Soundwave had seen collars such as these elsewhere. Commonly used to control prisoners, the collar’s coding designed to infiltrate a mech’s systems, to disable comms and weaponry both, and to punish with painful jolts along delicate systems any misbehavior. As brutal as the design was, however, it was not particularly complex, and disabling the collar took the work of mere moments as Soundwave infiltrated the mechanisms of the lock, bypassed the safeties and tore apart the anti-tamper coding with savage ease. Interlocked joins snapped apart, releasing, retreating into their housings, and the collar opened, falling free.
Primary cables retreated, holding the collar securely. Soundwave looked at the thing, and at the battered bladeframe before him; then, with a vicious twist, tore the device in two, discarding the broken pieces to either side in disgust. “Overlord, still lives,” he observed. “Nightstalker: willing to lead us to him? To brother symbionts?” He could feel Flipsides and Laserbeak’s subtle worry, offsetting Ravage’s intent hunger for retribution, and Buzzsaw’s glee at the prospect of yet *more* explosions. But despite the risk to their safety, careful neutrality was no longer an option. The Overlord had crossed a line when he had enslaved a symbiont, and killed that symbiont’s master; he had the energon of numberless others upon his talons. He could *not* be allowed to continue.
Nightstalker stepped back, long fangs gritted, though he relaxed marginally as Soundwave destroyed the hated collar. He reset his vocalizer, comms crackling as they came back online, and his sapphire gaze settled upon each symbiont in turn -- sleek flightframes, a round little glideframe... and Ravage, whom all bladeframes knew by sight and by name, now pressing himself against the carrier’s side with clear fidelity. The legendary symbiont glanced up, and Nightstalker quickly turned his head to examine the carrier instead, not wanting to risk the perception of any challenge by meeting optics.
Soundwave was both tall and broad-chested even for a carrier, finely crafted. He was well-armored, but fine runnels bespoke recent and half-healed injuries. He knelt for Ravage, and counterbalanced his lack of an arm with two unlimbered primaries, but his bearing was intent and strong for all that.
“You truly... wish to help? The Overlord’s estate is well guarded, and I cannot even be certain... that my brothers still function,” growled Nightstalker, his vocalizer crackling as it readjusted. It seemed impossible that a cohort would risk so much in times like these. But the affirmation he received was unequivocal, and to be honest, the bladeframe could not think far past his own worry for his symbiont-brothers. “Then yes. I will lead --”
A shifting sound, a crumbling of ruined metal over a shifting body, and Buzzsaw lifted his head, optics sharp. The sound was faint and the rattle of weapons blasts and small arms fire was distracting, but Buzzsaw had been spotting tiny details since the previous Golden Age. //Company, Boss. It’s -- oh.//
Nightstalker, injured and battered, caught the faint noise a moment later, and snarled savagely, coming around, small gatling guns unfolding from his razored flanks and talons flexing. Before the bladeframe could launch his assault, however, Soundwave lashed out with his cables, seizing their spy and hauling him bodily out of the rubble by one pede.
“I knew it!” cried Red Alert, covered in metaldust and clearly disoriented, but otherwise largely unharmed by the debris that had fallen on him. Dangling upside-down from Soundwave’s manipulator, he thumped his arm-cannon with his free hand, trying to jar the ready-cog into alignment. “I knew you were up to something! Nobody willingly fills out that much paperwork to requisition repairgrade!”
“Query: can you transform?”
“I should have figured it out right then and -- wait. What? Uhm.” The flat and direct question was more like a command than a request. And Red Alert had grown... accustomed to taking orders from Soundwave. The security-mech frowned, testing internal components. “Yes?” he hazarded.
Soundwave’s optics narrowed behind their visor. The security mech wasn’t nearly as well-armed as a frontliner, which limited his usefulness. On the other hand, it also limited the chances of Soundwave getting shot in the back. At this point, Soundwave wasn’t about to throw away any advantage, no matter how small.
“Your assistance, required,” he decided, setting the security mech ungently onto his pedes. “Red Alert: will come with us.”
Chapter warnings for violence, original character deaths.
Soundwave's alt-mode is the vehicle alt used in War For Cybertron, as seen here or here. Much as we love G1 Soundwave, in the context of the movie-verse, a vehicle alt makes a lot more sense than either a cassette-recorder or a satellite, so we ran with this instead. :D
“Wh-what?” Red stopped fumbling with his arm cannon, his helm swivelling as he took in the watching mecha around him. Being the focus of multiple tiny optics--blue and red--was bad enough. Soundwave looming over him, data cables coiled outward and ready, however, was a sight guaranteed to unnerve any mech. “Go with you where? To do what? If you think you can blackmail me into joining your conspiracy--”
“Soundwave: has uncovered assassination plot, aimed at Overlord,” Soundwave interjected before Red Alert could wind himself up into incoherency. “Also, evidence found of Overlord’s own machinations. These crimes, could threaten stability of Kaon.” He looked down at Red Alert, gauging the smaller mech’s uncertainty. “Such plots, have already damaged arena, harmed gladiators and innocent mecha. Soundwave: intends to expose these conspiracies.” He turned and began making his way around the rubble, down towards clearer ramps where they could transform and make faster progress and leaving Red Alert little choice but to tag along or be left behind. “Your function, now essential for that goal.”
“My--but I--wait, what plot? I knew there was a plot, but--which one? Who’s the assassin? Do we know who hired him? Are they still here?” Red Alert trotted after him as if pulled by cables, peppering him with questions. “Is Clench involved with this? Or Sideswipe? It was Sideswipe, wasn’t it? I knew he couldn’t be trusted! Uh … where are we going again?”
“Destination, Overlord’s tower,” Soundwave told him, climbing over a jumble of interlocked and half-slagged beams to drop down onto the first level of the arena floor. A maintenance overhang made a covered refuge of sorts -- intending to travel along it, Soundwave came to a halt as a dozen pairs of optics blinked at him.
“Say what?” A motley huddle of groundframes clustered near the retaining wall--mostly caretakers, though a few of the wreckers and tankframed gladiators were in the mix--stared at Soundwave at that pronouncement. Bulkhead, who didn’t appear to have taken any damage other than a few streaks of soot, did a classic double-take. “You’re gonna go get all up in the bossmech’s grill? You musta taken a few too many hits, camera-mech--that’s suicide!”
“Bulk’s right,” added another tankframed gladiator in orange and yellow. “Alla you--especially your little drone-thingies--need to hunker down and stay safe until it blows over. This kind of slag is no place for a bunch of civvies.”
Flipsides stirred in his dock. Patched into Soundwave's systems, he could detect much of what was going on around him - albeit in a somewhat muted manner. Which, frankly, the little mechkin rather preferred. Because some of the things going on out there were really scary. //Boost me?// he asked, and then said loudly over the relay Soundwave provided, //would you stay safe while your friends were in danger? Me neither -- I'm going.//
"What?" Bulkhead's brow creased in confusion. The tiny medic was here? He eyed Soundwave's chestplates, a little alarmed. He's seen the medic join up with the camera-bot before, but why the Pit would the little guy be out here? It wasn't safe! "What friends?"
//Other mechkin -- like me!// Flipsides said, checking quickly with Nightstalker.
"Don't let 'im fool you," maintained one of the service-mecha crossly, waving at the symbionts that clustered around Soundwave. There were two of the big black ones now -- Popoff had always known there was something going on with them. Always getting into things, looking like they were in two places at once; it didn’t surprise him that there were a bunch of ‘em. "'E's just a drone, like the others. Camera-civvie's probably just doing his puppet master thi--"
Bulkhead thumped him on the helm -- carefully. "Don't talk scrap. You ever had his servos in your internals? No? Then you don't get ta say what he is."
“This location, less secure than the streets,” Soundwave said, gesturing at the crumbling tower, the stampeding chaos still taking place on the choked upper levels. Soundwave imagined that some of the more enterprising mecha might take to looting before long -- if they could find anything to steal. If they survived the rain of debris.
Rad Alert scrambled down the slope of fallen metal behind Soundwave. Drawing himself up, he surveyed the little group of mecha. “There’s a conspiracy -- an assassination. Someone’s trying to kill the Overlord!”
Bulkhead eyed him doubtfully. But with the flaming ruin of the Overlord’s observation tower right *there*, he couldn’t really say that Red Alert’s paranoia was misplaced. “He didn’t die in the explosion?”
“Who cares?” asked the small service-mech, shrugging, only to receive another thump on the helm from the huge orange and yellow tankframe.
“You can bet your aft there’ll be a reward, that’s why,” growled the heavy gladiator.
//Come on, Soundwave, we gotta go!// Flipsides sent loudly at his Master’s prompting, delighted to be able to play a helpful role. He really liked acting, he decided.
“Soundwave: has no time to discuss the matter,” said the carrier, turning away with calculated indifference.
Bulkhead hesitated, glancing at the little knot of gladiators and service mecha, then back at Soundwave’s chestplates. He liked the tiny medic. The tiny medic didn’t yell at him hardly *ever*. “Now hold on,” he said, stomping out of the scant shelter of the overhang, following with heavy pedesteps. “You can’t just take him alone into a -- into a warzone like this. I’m coming with.”
A momentary silence behind him. Then Guzzle--another of the listening gladiators--shook his fist. “You think you’re going to get all the reward? I’m coming too!”
That prompted more mutterings, some in agreement, some in confusion. Soundwave kept going, listening to the heavy thud of Bulkhead’s progress behind him--and then the scrape and rasp of battle-grade metal as first Guzzle followed, then most of the rest of the gladiators and no few of the caretakers who had decided that the possibility of fame and fortune--or at least fortune--was too rare to pass up.
“--’sides, what else we gonna do?” one of them muttered--not so quietly, however, that Soundwave’s audials couldn’t pick up the subvocalized words. “Sit here on our afts and watch the arena fall down around our helms? Might as well get what ya can while ya can, ‘cause right now it ain’t looking like any of us’ll have a job come morning.”
That seemed to decide a few more stragglers, and by the time Soundwave had reached one of the main level exits, the kind intended for alt-modes, their little mob had grown to a respectable size -- large enough that the few remaining opportunists and scavengers took one look at the advancing wall of heavily-armored gladiators and swiftly decided to relocate elsewhere. Even the gladiators, though, swung wide around the remains of the Overlord’s organic draught-beasts. One of them had been struck in the firefight; wet and vile pieces of it had splashed all up one retaining wall and over the sands. The other had panicked, losing its ventilation mask in the chaos, and had evidently been too stupid to put the device back on. It still twitched, sides heaving, optics distended. The stench of the organic’s terror -- not to mention the other one’s internals -- was nauseating.
Soundwave paused at the half-obstructed gates. They’d obviously been hit by a stray missile at some point. One of the massive iron doors hung half across the opening, warped and bent. He glanced back at Bulkhead, and the wrecking mech snorted.
“Yeah, I got this.” He stomped forward, transforming one hand into his signature wrecking-mace, and slammed it forward. The gate shuddered--then, with a second hit, crashed to the ground.
Soundwave nodded at him in acknowledgement, stepping out of the arena and transforming into his alt-mode. He hadn’t had much occasion to use it over the last vorn or so, but right now both Nightstalker and his cohort needed the speed and additional protection. Thankfully, his alt--an armored transport--was flexible enough to allow for a missing limb with a certain amount of adjustment. Soundwave opened his side hatch, opening a channel broad enough to include Nightstalker as well as his own symbionts. //Ravage, Nightstalker, Ratbat, Laserbeak: will ride within. Buzzsaw: will scout ahead, provide aerial surveillance.//
Ravage leapt in first, making way for the other symbionts. Even with the tightly-folded and thoroughly-shielded docking mechanisms taking up most of the rear space, there was room enough to stretch out a little. Which was a fortunate thing, since keeping two bladeframes in a confined space together was a risky proposition, even in times like these. Laserbeak and Ratbat fluttered to take positions between Ravage’s forepaws. Laserbeak could hold his head high enough to watch out the darkly tinted windows. Ratbat, squeaking to himself with excitement, tried to work his way up Soundwave’s sensitive interior plating to do the same -- then stubbornly began to climb Ravage’s leg when the bladeframe nudged him down.
Nightstalker took his position on the other side of the carrier’s internal compartment, head turned deliberately to watch out the other side. His tail lashed furiously.
Bulkhead stepped back as one of Soundwave’s little drones spiraled up, and the others disappeared inside him. He scratched his helm. “Pit of an alt, camera-mech,” Bulkhead said, optics flicking over the chronicler’s large, studded wheels, the heavy clawlike grill, and the doubly-layered armor. The chrome and cobalt lines of the alt were just as elegantly sculpted as the mech, but far heavier, oddly threatening. The big wrecking mech shrugged and transformed as well, rocking down onto the wheels of his own far more massive tankmode, lowering his shovel blades in case they encountered any more debris. Metal hissed on metal as behind him, a dozen more warframes sank onto wheels and treads. One of them -- the largest tank, by the depth of the sound, grated a laugh. //Ready? Then let’s roll out!//
The streets were deserted, strewn in places with debris flung from the arena. Every mech with a processor left to him had found sudden and pressing reasons to occupied elsewhere. Buzzsaw’s swift scouting netted Soundwave a variety of information, some of which he passed on to the leading mecha -- blocked streets, shortcuts, wrong turns. The rest of Buzzsaw’s intelligence -- the movement of scattered enforcers, encrypted and desperate comms -- he kept to himself.
Kaon was built on a broken plain. It was accordingly far more sprawling than Iacon, streets radiating endlessly over the city. There was something uniquely compelling about driving in the center of a small company like this, Soundwave found. With warframes ahead and behind, frontliner hovercars darting in front and several huge wreckers surrounding him, Soundwave and his cohort were as well-protected as they could be.
The Overlord’s tower was located in the old quarter, an upthrust segment of the city torn down and rebuilt over so many aeons, even the oldest of mecha could not say what it once had been. Ancient, strange architecture rose in spires alongside newer structures, layers upon layers of construction stretching deep into Cybertron’s honeycombed surface and spiralling upwards into the elegant abodes of Kaon’s wealthiest denizens. Here was none of the grime of the arena, the rust and corrosion of the sublevels and the slums; here the walls were shining and pristine, elaborately carved and shining with light.
Or they had been.
Now they were a battlefield. Skywarp had not given up on his quarry, and neither had the other airframes, chasing the rogue Seeker and each other in a frenzy of gleeful destruction. Kaon’s Enforcers and civilian security had joined the fray, airframes and emplacements frantically doing their best to engage the Seekers, and between all of them they had turned Kaon’s shining Towers into an inferno, explosions illuminating the sky as missiles impacted against walls and private forcefields, pulse cannons tearing apart the intricate spans of skyways and lifts. Below, groundframes scattered for cover or fired their own weapons in impotent fury at the aerial interlopers--and occasionally at the Enforcers that attempted to shove them aside. Stray weapons fire soon became so thick, Buzzsaw was forced to return to the safety of Soundwave’s compartment, even his agility sorely tested by the sheer volume of ordnance in the air.
Soundwave’s convoy headed for the Tower at the center of the chaos without flinching, pushing through the obstacles and ambushes alike. With sections of the powered rampways gone, it was a long arduous climb, punctuated by gunfire, and Soundwave soon had reason to be very grateful for the sheltering bulk of the mecha on either side as they shrugged off both near-misses and direct hits with foulmouthed ease.
“Careful, slagger!” one of the gladiators roared at a distant airframe. “You almost scratched my paint with that little scraplet-shooter!”
“Yeah, and trust me, he doesn’t need ta get any uglier!” Popoff called raucously from the rear, prompting a round of savage laughter even as one of the frontliners took out a security drone with a well-placed shot of his own.
“Hunh--looks like we don’t need ta bother knocking,” Bulkhead remarked as the outskirts of the Overlord’s Tower came within sensor range. What had once been a labyrinth of walls and defenses, built up over megavorn, had been almost flattened. Great chunks had been blown out of the walls, the emplacement guns and security towers slagged, the gates--both energy and densely-layered titanium alloy--levelled.
One of the frontliners let out a surprised chuff at the sight. “Slaaaag … I haven’t seen anything like that since the war.”
Soundwave thought it rather unlikely that a single Seeker--even if that Seeker was Skywarp--could have levelled the Overlord’s defenses single-handedly. Destruction on this scale would have required either mechanotons of carefully-placed explosives, or the firepower commanded by an entire company … or by a gestalt. Which meant that there were other players in this game.
“This destruction, to our advantage,” he said in answer, refusing to slow down even as their convey bunched tighter together. He pinged one of the tankframes--a veteran warframe that went by the designation Demolishor. “Query: recommended formation for insertion into enemy territory?” Soundwave might have the entirety of Cybertron’s military history and tactics at his disposal, but he knew his limitations. Battlefield experience trumped scholarly theory, and he was not about to make the mistake of assuming that warframes were nothing more than simple-minded walking weaponry.
The big warframe returned a glyph of caution. “Fragging big hole,” he said, scanners sweeping the vast curve of the outer wall. Several ricochets from a nearby firefight pinged off his armor -- the massive tankframe appeared not to notice. “I’m going through first. Maul, Grabber, you’re behind me. Stay close, take out any turrets. Backstreet, follow up with Bulkhead, keep yer optics open.”
The two mid-weight frontliners fell into place, though not without protest. “Like we wanna stare at yer aft, bigwheels,” grumbled one. “There ain’t even nothing left,” growled the other. “Place looks like it was hit by the hand of Primus. Send Backstreet first. We’ll count his twitches, see if he hits on anything.”
“S-shut the frag up, slagger,” snarled a smaller, orange and gray mech -- not a particularly good gladiator, he’d survived this long mainly by virtue of hair-trigger reflexes and a paranoid hyper-awareness of everything happening nearby. Between Backstreet and Red Alert, the pair of them could set the entire arena on edge.
Ignoring the talk, Demolishor extended the spikes between his treads, dropped his grill a little, and started up the heap of slagged rubble. Titanium exposed to high temperatures and shearing tended to shatter into pieces which could puncture wheels or work up into undercarriages. Demolishor’s weight pressed neat runnels into the loose and treacherous debris, and his treads crushed and broke the edges from the jagged pieces. The two frontliners followed close, floating lightly over the newly-evened surface, keeping a watch to either side while benefitting from the sheer bulk of Demolishor’s armor.
Small ordnance rattled from a half-broken turret, and one of the frontliners wheeled, weapons lifting on their racks. A single well-placed missile, and the firing quieted. Demolishor rolled down the other side of the pile of debris, crushing the uneven places smooth, erasing small dropoffs with his weight and the scrape of his forward grill.
Jittering nervously in the shadow of Bulkhead’s plating, Backstreet rolled up the newly-cut pathway, sensors darting. There was a long pause as all five mecha spread out on the other side of the wall. Then: //Well, frag me to the Pit. You slaggers gotta come see this.//
A pair at a time, the convoy rolled through the blasted gap. Soundwave drove behind Red Alert, towards the middle of the pack. The blast had broken through a side gate, leading into a crystal garden encased in an elegant latticework pavillion. Even in Soundwave’s wide experience, the place was impressive - twisting spires of tourmaline, spiked carpets of amethyst and citrine, great halite cubes, calcite clusters and globular chunks of gallium, many of them still intact. They were clearly imported, for these minerals grew under only specialized conditions. Most of them contained tiny embedded light- or chime-studs, probably seeded into the growing crystals megavorn ago. The crystals still glimmered faintly, turning the vibrations around them into a soothing subaudible hum, under the subtle light of the clear stars overhead. Reflecting pools of mercury mirrored the elegant natural sculptures. Some of the minerals were doubtless worth a small fortune in trade. The warframes seemed mesmerized.
Surveying the garden with narrowed optics from within the carrier’s compartment, Nightstalker shook his head. //I was displayed in this place for a time. For a while, I could still feel the bond...// Nightstalker crouched lower, physically restraining his own need to pace. The contact had been so tenuous and fragile, without his comms. And then it had vanished. //...my cohort was someplace dark, and humid. And not far away, I think.//
Then a handful of airframes roared low overhead, firing wildly through the big skylights -- the small explosive rounds shattered chunks from the sculptures, splashed mercury from the ponds, and the more lightly-armored gladiators scattered, taking cover. The bigger mecha stood their ground -- the airframes were nearly empty, had few weapons left, and these small rounds did the tanks little damage. Bulkhead backed up to loom close to Soundwave, just in time. Apparently chasing the flyers from the ground, three civilian guards in the Overlord’s gold and black rounded a corner, charging into the garden. They came to a skidding halt as the sight of so many new intruders -- and not even bothering to transform, started shooting.
“Wait!” Guzzle shouted. “We’re here ta help y--frag!” A glass-gas round hit, splashing corrosive metal-wasting liquid over an upraised shield-arm and sending him staggering backwards. “Slag this,” he snarled, discarding the rapidly-disintegrating shield-plate and reconfiguring his arm into cannon mode. “You wanna play, fraggers? Eat *this*!” The cannon erupted with a thunderous roar, plasma rolling over the garden in a devastating blast. Even sheltered as he was behind the others’ bulk, Soundwave could feel the heavy prickling radiation of the backblast.
“Well, that’s smelted it,” Bulkhead grumbled, transforming to bat away a massive chunk of falling crystal. “No chance we’re gettin’ a reward now.”
“Guess we’ll just have to take it, then!” one of the frontliners called out, sounding rather gleeful at the prospect.
“Frag, yeah--just lookit this place. Slagger’s got more’n he’ll ever miss anyway,” Guzzle snarled, and launched another volley. Two guards went down, armor slagged and sparking; the third retreated behind a half-melted wall, only to be joined by a new wave of reinforcements.
//Yeah, well before you start eyeing the pretties, get off your aft and flank these glitches!// Demolishor barked, even as he opened the tacnet to include the rest of the warframes. //MOVE, you slaggers--I’m tired of getting my frontplates tickled by amateurs.//
Soundwave stayed where he was; his sonic cannon might be powerful for a civilian weapon, but it was a popgun compared to the armament being used on both sides. Instead he focused on surveillance, extending his sensory suite and doing his best to scan the area. Working through the massive amount of interference caused by the close-fire conditions was difficult, slowing his ability to hack their enemies’ comm chatter, but their movements, at least, were easy enough to track. Once the battle had progressed further inward, he had even more data--enough to analyze and begin predicting the patterns behind their movements. Civilian security mecha, especially those at this level, were well-armed and armored, with no expense spared in their upgrades. They were also, however, predictable, following standard defensive tactics as they fell back.
And underneath it all, he opened a careful, narrow-banded channel, broadcasting as strongly as he could. Punching its way through the static wash of heavy weapons-fire, through the radiation load in the air and the rumble of repeated percussive blasts, the call was singular and wordless, the thinnest of threads cast to the wind, in the hopes that any imprisoned symbionts might hear.
This was not the tunnels beneath Iacon--but the siren song was the same.
--Here. I am here. Protection/safety/shelter--I am here.--
--...?-- The reply was so faint, Soundwave could not be certain if it was real or an artifact-echo of all the interference. He’d need to spread his sensor panels for better reception... and for that, he needed this Pit-bedamned fight to *end.*
//Nightstalker: Soundwave requests datafiles. Layout of gardens, surroundings,// the carrier stated, setting the emergency-channel transmission to loop, hoping that even the distant touch of another Chronicler might soothe frightened symbionts. Or guttering ones.
//This is all I have,// Nightstalker said, queuing up his observation files, stripping them down and sending them via comm. The process was slow and thready without a bond or a hardline to facilitate the transfer, but it would suffice. There weren’t many datafiles, anyway -- kept caged or confined for most of the orns previous, Nightstalker had not seen much of the surrounding tower.
But he’d seen enough. Soundwave devoted a handful of threads to combining the data, pulling it apart, meshing it with tensile strength specs, architectural stresses and weak points and the way the Overlord’s security was falling back. //Bulkhead. Shoot *here.*//
//What?// the wrecking-mech grunted, rearing back to bat a stray missile out of the air, deflecting the deadly thing with speed and grace that belied his size -- a mech didn’t survive long in the arena without a finely honed battle computer. He squinted at the coordinates Soundwave sent. //But that’s just --// he ducked as Demolishor slammed into the defenders’ makeshift barricade, chunks of engraved metal sheeting shearing off the walls from the impact, flying through the air as if they were scraps of metal-mesh. The three security-mecha, one now limping and unable to transform, darted back behind another row of ornamental palisades and arches.
The slagging civilian guards kept skittering into places too small for Bulkhead to access very well. And he didn’t like to see the frontliners taking these heavy hits -- that was *his* job! //Fine,// the wrecking-mech growled, folding away one mace and cycling up his cannon. He targeted the odd little cornice Soundwave had indicated, and fired.
The blast rocked the covered gardens. For a few nanoklicks, it seemed to do little else; then, with a terrible snapping groan, the elaborately painted ceiling began to collapse.
“What the frag?!” Bulkhead lunged, dragging Maul backwards just as a chunk of metal the size of the slender frontliner thundered down where he’d been standing. Delicate arches -- their metal old and stressed -- toppled, first one and then more following in the wake of the first. Bereft of their supports, elaborately sculpted plates loosened, shedding decorative inlays in a shower of shrapnel and dust before crashing down into the crystals and fighting mecha below.
Caught directly under the worst of the collapse, the huddled grouping of security-mecha stood little chance as almost two-thirds of the garden pavilion came crashing down. Vents stuttering, sensors disoriented by the clouds of metaldust in the air, most of the gladiators staggered back to group in a defensive line near the vast archway to the rest of the tower grounds. “Bulkhead, you glitched, scraplet-infested fragger!” one of the frontliners bitched, surveying the wreckage left of the valuable crystals. “Didja have to break *everything*?”
Surrounded by hundreds of mechanotons of living armor in the form of the other wrecking-gladiators, Soundwave spread his plating, lifting and unfolding his two undamaged sensor panels. It felt like unshuttering his optics after too long spent blinded, like coming online after a medical override. Color was sharper, electromagnetic fields crisply focussed, his range and sensitivity magnified ten times over, even with the other two panels missing. The broad, dagger-like surfaces angled, searching....
“I’d like to see you offline three trained mecha in one shot, Grabber,” huffed Demolishor, shaking half-ton chunks of fallen metal and -- what the frag was this? Some kinda mineral stone? -- off his armor. He checked the tacnet. “Popoff and a couple of the service-mecha couldn’t take the heat; they got the frag out. Looks like we didn’t lose anyone, though.”
...*There.* Soundwave fixed the coordinates, and folded his panels back. //This way,// he said, backing out of the haze of dust, into the hall that connected the rest of the tower.
“Now wait just one fragging klik,” Grabber growled, turning his ire on Soundwave, “Who do you think you are, callin’ all the moves?”
“Mission objective, unchanged. Soundwave: in possession of maps, intercepted communications, preliminary scans of defenses. Grabber: prefers to wander blindly?” Soundwave rolled into the vaulted hall without waiting for the other mecha to reply. With the exit sealed by debris, the warframes could no longer retreat the way they came. Soundwave hoped that the threat of further ambushes by the Overlord’s security was enough to keep his impromptu bodyguards close. If they decided to abandon him in favor of looting or punching another way out, there would be little he could do to stop them.
To his relief, he heard the heavy rumble of engines as first Bulkhead, then the other tankframes and wreckers rolled out, moving into position behind. Maul and several of the other smaller, faster frontliners darted ahead, zipping about Soundwave’s sturdier alt with flamboyant ease. “Fine, so you know where we’re going,” Maul remarked. “Can we get there already? Or are we going to be waiting on your lead afts all cycle?”
Demolishor snorted. “You want to zip your shiny hood straight into an ambush, you go right ahead. Our lead afts’ll still be here when you come skidding back with your fins scorched off.”
Ignoring the bickering, Soundwave concentrated on that thin thread of recognition. Filtered, wavering and attenuated … it was barely there, the merest whisper in a storm of conflicting signals and interference, more felt than heard. Soundwave doubted any other carrier would have been able to pick it out, as weak as it was; but now that he had the signal, he refused to let it go, following it with dogged determination.
They crunched through the Overlord’s halls, elaborate inlaid tiles and paneled flooring buckling and cracking under the tankframes’ treads. Beauty and devastation lay side by side, everywhere a mecha cared to look. Amazing, soaring architecture, blasted and broken; fine works of art, toppled or half-slagged by energon blasts; intricate inlay, gems and elegant design evident in every furnishing, every large or small scrap of technology, all left discarded in the wake of battle. The sheer wealth that surrounded them was staggering, almost impossible to comprehend, and only the warframes’ deep-coded discipline and the Kaon Arena’s harsh lessons of survival kept the gladiators from breaking rank in order to grab some of that amazing bounty for themselves.
//Enemies first, loot later, Payload,// Demolishor growled, engine revving in unsubtle warning as one of the outlying frontliners veered a bit too far out of formation. Even the most oblivious mech could feel the rumble of cannon-fire, hear the faint sound of repeated explosions as the walls tremored around them. Whoever had broken through the Tower’s outer defenses hadn’t yet given up on their prey--and more importantly, appeared to be engaging the bulk of the Overlord’s forces. They punched through scattered ambushes as they made their way further into the depths of the Tower, down into the more utilitarian byways used by service-mecha and drones. The security mecha they encountered came at them in twos and threes, occasionally more--but that was a far cry from the overwhelming numbers Soundwave had expected, and far better luck than they likely deserved.
Fallen debris choked some of the ways forward, and in other places corridors seemed to turn back on themselves for no apparent purpose at all. Soundwave was forced to avoid some passages entirely -- the ones near entrances, or places where openings might have been blown to the outside. Not only were such breaches likely more closely guarded, but Soundwave could not risk the chance that his company of bodyguards would take an easy exit if one presented itself. It was the safer decision, but the circuitous route was slow, and every moment of delay grated.
The corridors became plainer as they rolled deeper, opening onto vast storage rooms chipped out of the metal of the tower. There were fewer signs of damage here, but more evidence of looting -- service-mecha fled at the sight of the advancing gladiators, shedding their pilfered burdens or cowering in corners. Twice, they encountered large groups of the Overlord’s security-mecha -- and found themselves ignored, speedily bypassed. The comm transmissions Soundwave had intercepted were desperate: shrill demands for reinforcements, despairing reports of casualties.
Several times, distantly, Soundwave detected the faintest brush of another commline, tightly-banded and layered with incredibly complex encryptions. He doubted he’d be able to crack them at all, let alone in any meaningful timeframe. It seemed unlikely that those transmissions belonged to the Overlord’s forces; even with a security force that more closely resembled a private army, a single mecha didn’t command the resources to supply their soldiers -- even their special-ops -- with high-level comms like that.
However, the mysterious transmissions would have to wait. Soundwave’s faint contact with the symbionts was growing stronger, and he turned his attention towards those signals instead. Speeding around a corner, Soundwave braked hard, coming to a sudden halt behind a line of gawking frontliners. For a moment he felt only irritation at the impediment; then he belatedly registered what lay beyond.
The chamber ahead was enormous, a core chiseled up through the center of the tower, with most of that vast expanse of floor occupied by a private starcruiser. The luxury liner was a sleek and shining thing; built in ages past, it had been one of the largest of unsparked ships. Fast and powerful, it was capable of both takeoff and reentry unassisted, each engine nozzle as large across as most mecha were tall. In this, a dozen passengers could ride in great comfort on long journeys, attended by twice that many service-mecha or drones. A huge irising hatch overhead, now closed, provided access to the stars.
“Primus,” said Red Alert quietly, scanning upwards in awe.
The controls were abandoned now, the lighting dimmed. A distant shudder rumbled through the flooring. //This way,// Soundwave said, edging around the distracted frontliners. The origin of those cries--tiny whispers of //-help-// and //-empty-//, surrounded by desolate grief--was so close it was hard to resist the urge to break free of his escort, to speed ahead and simply ram through any obstacles in his way.
//Calm, Master,// Ravage sent over the privacy of their bond, sending a wash of reassurance and patient clarity to his carrier. //They still live, and we will be there soon. But we still need the others.// Much as he disliked having to cower behind the slow-moving bulk of the warframes, there was no arguing with the necessity of it.
Soundwave pinged back a wordless acknowledgement, steadied by Ravage’s counsel.
They continued on. Their path led them ever deeper into the labyrinthine internals of the Tower, into the oldest parts of the structure, when it had been as much a fortress as a palace, with roots sunk deep into both Cybertron’s honeycombed surface and its history. The walls here were plain brushed steel and heavy bolted iron plates, adorned only with the worn remnants of ancient glyphs at the joins or inscribed over arched lintels. Trash and debris choked the chambers, almost walled some corridors closed. The darkness pressed in, lit only dimly by occasional lightbars, and Soundwave was reminded uncomfortably of the mine tunnels.
“Not far now,” Nightstalker said quietly, hunched in his seat, tailtip flicking tensely. “I remember this--a bit. My carrier …” His vocalizer stuttered, and he fell into silence. There were some memories, all of them knew, that hurt too much to share.
“Okay, this is fraggin’ creepy,” muttered one of the tankframes, obviously uneasy at how the corridors kept getting progressively smaller, rougher. Mecha must have used these depths as a midden for a megavorn of megavorn. Debris from old construction had been piled everywhere--chunks too unwieldy to be hauled out--and joined by all manner of lost and useless things. Most of the heaps were sinking slowly into the raw skin of Cybertron, pincered apart or welded into place by painstaking increments. “Don’t know what you’re lookin’ for, camera-bot. There hasn’t been anyone down here but drones in vorn … ‘m surprised the autophages haven’t finished sealing it off yet.” Mutters from the other gladiators only reinforced the general unease.
Finally, they came to a final intersection--a room from which radiated several hallways. Splotched with rust and sulfuric corrosion, the corridor Soundwave unerringly chose was narrow enough that some mecha stayed behind, while the rest of the convoy was forced into single file, the tankframes’ grumblings growing louder as the sides of their alts screeched and struck sparks off of the walls. The largest among them had to transform in order to proceed. The way dead-ended in a heavy bolted door, and Soundwave took the lead, allowing Nightstalker and the others to disembark before transforming. “Here,” he said briefly, ignoring the frontliners’ mutterings to push forward. Heading unerringly for that barrier, he splayed talons against the chill surface. There was no energon fields to keep them at bay, no traps or other defenses to prevent escape. Just a single primitive door, secured from the outside with a cipher-lock and heavy bars … and then abandoned. Forgotten.
“Er--do ya need me to--?” Bulkhead began to offer, only to stop short as Soundwave uncoiled a primary cable, multi-tooled tips gleaming in the light of their frontlamps. Soundwave stood unmoving--and the cable stabbed forward, piercing the thin plating of the lock mechanism, cilia infiltrating the thing’s internals. There was a tiny squeal of feedback, a thin line of rising smoke, and the tumblers clicked over, the lock releasing. Rust flaked from the hinges and the bars as Soundwave set his pedes and heaved.
The door scraped open with a terrible wrenching groan, and the light of a dozen frontlamps flooded in. The weakly pleading cries over the Chronicler channel went silent.
The hallway beyond the door was packed with corpses.
From floor to ceiling, frames lay in one undifferentiated, tangled heap. Most of the bodies were so old the autophages had already sawed them into pieces, carrying some away and welding others into place, petal by petal. But here and there, recognizable parts emerged from the rubble. A finely-articulated and reaching hand, a half-melted helm, a sculpted line or a dust-shuttered optic. Towards the front, the frames were newer, still crawling with autophages -- the things made the space echo with their slow scrabbling, their quiet pincering work. It was impossible to say how far back the bodies went, or for how long they’d been left there.
Before Soundwave’s pedes lay the corpse of a carrier. His frame, for the most part, had suffered only minor damage -- scrapes and scuffs, signs of long wear, a few deep punctures... with the exception of a single plasma burn to the center of the back, on level with the spark. Energon had puddled around him, so long ago that the fluid had dried into fine powder. He lay on his side with his back to the door, and several of his cables were still extended, loosely draped over his own frame, as if he’d offlined in the act of clasping something close. His armor, now a dull dark gray, had once been black and glossy... but the elegant lines of it were the same. Soundwave knew him. Had known him.
This was Pitch.
Beside Soundwave, Nightstalker sat down slowly, turned his head away, unwilling to show his grief. The other symbionts stayed back with him as Soundwave stepped slowly forward. Shadows were stark things in the hard light of the gladiators’ lamps, in the glare of his own fury. Details were warped, hard to recognize. A coil that seemed at first like a cable resolved itself into the lacework-scaled body of a serpentframe, as gray and unmoving as its master.
But tiny skudding tracks in the energon dust marked where autophages had approached the extinguished symbiont, and been kicked away. Another step forward, and something flinched subtly from Soundwave, curling tighter against the carrier’s ruined chest. Small crimson optics slitted open, the light of them as dull as embers, endeavoring to focus.
“Primus,” someone breathed behind him. Soundwave ignored him, his world narrowed down to Pitch’s empty frame, and the symbiont half-hidden in the remains of that shattered chassis. He knelt, reaching outward without thinking--and was greeted by a snarl.
“Get back!” The symbiont shuddered, curling tighter into the lee of his dead carrier’s frame, and a second set of red optics became visible, also dimmed, dulled by pain and grief and lack of fuel. “Don’t you touch him, slagger!” There was the scrabbling of metal on metal, tiny armored fingers visible in the harsh light as they reached upwards, clutching at the edge of Pitch’s broken chassis, as if the symbiont could drag his extinguished carrier away from them by force.
“Slag … they’re just sparklings,” Bulkhead said in horror.
“We’re not!” The mechkin shouted, his voice suddenly loud in the hush, defiant and wild. “He killed the Boss ‘cause he thought we were, but we’re not! We’re not!” His vocalizer wavered, the words breaking into staticky bursts.
“No,” Soundwave agreed, settling back on his pedes, opening up his field to resonate warmth and comfort, allowing it to spread outward in a silent promise of protection that only a carrier could provide. “Mechkin, not sparklings.” //Memory-keepers,// he said more privately, opening up a channel only for them, symbiont and carrier both. //Precious, treasured, to be protected. Keepers of all Cybertron has been, all it will be.//
“I--” Those dim optics blinked, shuttered momentarily, the mechkin’s fuel-starved processors obviously struggling for comprehension.
//Soundwave: here to help. Offering energon, protection, freedom.// He glanced back at the group of gladiators, then unsubspaced a small cube of energon--midgrade, not repair grade--and placed it carefully on the floor, pushing it forward with one taloned finger.
//I don’t--you’re--is this real?// Both pairs of optics were fully visible now, glancing back and forth between Soundwave and the energon as if they expected either to vanish at any moment.
//They’re real--and so am I,// Nightstalker said softly, his grief throbbing over the channel with resonances he couldn’t hide. //I was afraid I’d lost everyone …//
//Nightstalker? You’re alive!// After a nanoklik, the scuffed and graying frame of a mechkin unfolded himself from the other’s embrace and edged into the light, one hand still sliding along his carrier’s broken plating for support. He squinted into the glare, staring suspiciously at Soundwave--then stumbled his way to the cube. Dipping fingers in, he tasted it. “It *is* real,” he said, his small, solid frame shaking with relief. “Frenzy--it’s real!”
A second mechkin, nearly identical to the first, did his best to stand. He staggered, almost falling, gyros lacking even the power to keep him properly upright. The first mechkin started back to help him, paused to glance to the cube, clearly frightened that the fuel would vanish while his back was turned. Soundwave obligingly reached out with one of his primaries, multitools hooking into the wall of the cube and bringing it closer to the pair of symbionts, tilting it a little so that both mechkin could suck down the energon with desperate greed. Behind him, he could feel Bulkhead’s anger prickling against his own field.
“That--this isn’t right. Whether they’re sparklings or--or mechkin or whatever--alla this … it isn’t right! A straight-up fight is one thing, but this …” Big, blunt fingers fisted at the tankframe’s sides. “Dumpin’ little mecha down into a hole to die--I don’t care what anyone says. It’s *wrong*.”
“What about the rest of ‘em?” said Payload, peering around Bulkhead’s heavy plating. “There’s pieces of... at least forty helms back there, and there’s gotta be a lot more buried.” There didn’t seem to be any pattern to the jumble of half-smelted pieces -- some of them had belonged to warframes, some to civilians, some were primitive and others complex. Iit was difficult to tell what or who they’d been. The autophages didn’t distinguish between drone and mecha, warframe or civilian; they broke them all down impartially. All the gladiators had seen death, of course. Sometimes the arena would claim a dozen in a vorn, or even more. But a handful of extinguished mecha a quarter wasn’t really the same as... this.
Red Alert edged closer, optics narrowed. He’d had no idea that the conspiracy involved the tiny medic sparkings. Unless... perhaps the sparklings were directing the conspiracy? But no, why would miniature kingpins trap themselves in here with all these bodies? “And what did he mean, ‘he killed the boss’? Who did? And why?” He paused as Nightstalker padded between him and the symbionts, the bladeframe sparing him a silent and long-fanged snarl.
Both mechkin drank deeply, their color nanites brightening by achingly slow increments. //Let me out, Master?// asked Flipsides, after a few moments. Things didn’t seem pleasant out there, but at least nobody was shooting right now, and he wanted so badly to help!
Moving slowly, Soundwave folded back his chest plating and magnetized his guidance rails, letting Flipsides eject. The symbiont folded himself down into bipedal mode, landing lightly -- and had to fight to keep himself from flinching. He was forced to turn his optics from the extinguished carrier’s corpse -- even in a brief glimpse, he could tell that the mech’s wounds had not killed him quickly. The serpentframe... had probably been folded away in the carrier’s docks and been slain by that same blow, to judge by the blackened scales, the deformed and kinked line of the once-supple body. Shining, swift, and very beautiful, that frametype was a work of dangerous art, never meant to withstand a direct blow -- let alone a blast like the one this carrier had sustained.
The other two symbionts, though, were at least still functioning, even if they looked like they’d been through a smelter. Cautiously, Flipsides approached the reddish mechkin, running what diagnostic scans he could.
The blue mechkin jerked away from Flipsides’ approach, clutching at the red one as if to drag him back. “Hey! Y-you stay away from him, P-pit-fragger!” the blue mechkin -- Frenzy -- snarled. His vocalizer crackled, and his gait was far from steady.
Flipsides held up his empty hands. “I’m medical-focussed. I just want to--”
“G-get away!” A percussive wave seemed to emanate from the blue mechkin, a strangely jarring vibration. Flipsides drew back a little, faceplates pinched with concern, and Frenzy let out a wail of impotent frustration. “C-can’t even... gonna take... gold one’s gonna c-come back and t-take ‘em away....”
//Frenzy,// said Nightstalker, ghosting past Soundwave’s hip, nosing his bladed muzzle lightly against the panicked symbiont. Frenzy clung desperately to the bladeframe’s powerful neck, as if to keep the bigger symbiont from moving. //These are allies. They have rescued me, and we have come for you. Do you understand?//
Flipsides moved closer to his carrier, letting Nightstalker take his place as he looked up at Soundwave. //They’re really disoriented, Master. They might have taken systems offline to conserve energy, and the power supply to the ones that are running is really spotty. I can’t tell if it’s just the shock and the hunger, or if there’s some damage from running empty for so long. Can... can we take them back to the repair bay?// Assuming there was even an arena left to go home to …
Soundwave nodded. “Refueling and repairs, a priority,” he said aloud for the other mechkin’s benefit. “This place, unsafe.” He extended his hand forward, and mindful of the three orphaned symbionts, laid it gently upon Pitch’s grayed shoulder, remembering the proud mech he’d once been. Pitch had spoken for Soundwave, long ago -- had defended him against accusations once, when life had been so very different. “Soundwave: regrets not being able to save Pitch. Your survival, all we can do for him now. Query: will you join us?”
Frenzy wavered, suspicious and uncertain. “I d-don’t …” He looked up at Nightstalker. “We can’t--” He sagged a little. “The Boss … w-we can’t just leave him. Him n’ Rasp, here in the dark, getting cut apart l-like scrap…” The other mechkin shouldered close, both of them leaning on each other as much as the much-larger bladeframe.
“I know,” Nightstalker said, curling his frame around them both. “But we have to go.” //He wouldn’t want us to stay. He’d want you both to survive, and carry his memory,// he added quietly over the comm-channel.
Frenzy was silent for a long moment. Then, after a glance over at the other mechkin, he nodded. Nightstalker nudged them towards Soundwave, interposing his body between them and the remains of their dead carrier.
The gladiators in the hallway watched as Soundwave gathered the pair of little mechkin close, shepherding them out. The small mecha were slow, only knee-high to an average mech and still unsteady, obviously wracked with grief and starvation. They clustered around Soundwave’s pedes like newly-hatched dynametal ducklings. Some of the gladiators stirred uneasily. “Gold one?”
“The Overlord wears gold,” said Red Alert, looking up. Silence, for a long moment. Then a wave of quiet muttering, of closely-guarded comm signals, swept the line of warframes behind him.
Bulkhead’s faceplates spread in shock. Then he shook his helm. “But so do all his guards. And the drones.” Gold and black, anyway. The drones were mostly black, and he didn’t really think it likely that the little mechkin meant one of them. “The Primes hand-picked the Overlord to rule here -- they wouldn’t have made a mistake like that.”
A megavorn ago, Bulkhead’s reasoning would have silenced all the gladiators. But all of them could see what had become of their kind, after the war. And so few of these warframes had even seen their Prime, let alone known his wisdom. The very struts of civilization were crumbling around them. All of them could see the rust; why couldn’t the Prime? Where was he now?
Demolishor’s massive engine rumbled. “Pick up your bots and let’s get the frag back to the surface, Chronicler,” he said, gesturing the rest of the warframes back out to a wider section of corridor, where they could turn and group easier. “Ain’t no reason to stay in a place like this.”
“Except for that reward,’” Maul said, squeezing himself around the tankframe to take point. Demolishor made a heavy chuffing sound, but didn’t disagree.
Frenzy’s optics were wide. He looked up to the tall carrier, then back to the other mechkin. //I think he b-brought an *army*, Rumble.//
The other mechkin, though, was watching Soundwave’s symbionts. There was another bladeframe, larger than he had ever seen. Two sinuous flightframes, perched on the piles of debris -- both obviously, elegantly creator-crafted. And... a lump, bestirring itself from its roost on the bladeframe’s shoulder. That made four, a full complement for many carriers... plus the other mechkin behind him. Five. Five symbionts. //Yeah, I guess he did,// said Rumble distantly. There wouldn’t be room for them here. Maybe for Nightstalker, who was strong and knew all kinds of things... if this carrier was crazy enough to take six. But not for a pair of symbionts hardly fifty vorns old, who had failed even to defend their last carrier. All the lights and motion were overwhelming enough, his sorrow and regret crippling, but this realization chilled Rumble to the spark.
They departed behind the slow-moving bulk of the gladiators, heading back up the corridor and away from the oubliette. Their progress was not quick, but Soundwave’s urgency had abated, replaced with concern for the stumbling mechkin that moved with them. His own preference would have been to carry them, both for protection and in order to move faster--but his extended hand had been met with bristling defiance. Both mechkin were determined to walk away from this place on their own two pedes. Unwilling to force the issue, Soundwave instead brought up the rear, allowing Nightstalker to shepherd his cohort-brothers inside of the protective circle of Soundwave's own symbionts.
Upon reaching the room where the rest of their escort waited, Demolishor once again took the lead. “Okay, we did what we came for, now we need to get the frag out. Which way do we go, camera-bot?”
The room--more of a glorified junction of corridors, really--was not large, but still spacious enough for Soundwave to lift and partially extend several of his sensory panels, listening to the faint echoing comm chatter from above. That strange encrypted band was more powerful now, cutting through more mundane signals even this far down ... which made him uneasy. He pulled the additional data gathered over the course of their progress into his maps of the Tower, plotting out the fastest and safest route to the outside. “Highest probability for success: retracing path to the ship, then taking an alternate exit through service-supply docks,” he said finally, panels folding back downward.
“Alright. Let’s--” A muffled *boom* shook the ground under their pedes--several of the lighter frontliners staggered, metaldust falling from the walls. “Frag. Looks like the fight’s headin’ our way. All right, time to move. Roll out, you fraggers!”
A few mecha looked upwards uncertainly, but no one argued, transforming obediently down into their alts and falling back into their usual places. Soundwave turned to the small crowd of symbionts, considering them. It would be difficult and uncomfortable to fit eight symbionts, two of them quite large, inside his alt; and several, Flipsides included, could use the additional protection docking would provide. “Flipsides, Ratbat, Laserbeak: return,” he commanded, the armor over his chassis sliding open. “Buzzsaw, Ravage: will ride along with the others.”
There were no protests; not even from Ratbat, although he looked like he dearly wanted to. But they had all caught their Master’s urgency, his worry. Laserbeak, Ratbat and Flipsides obediently folded themselves downward and lifted into the air, docking expertly. Soundwave resealed his docks, then transformed into his alt and popped open the side hatch. “Situation, rapidly changing. Hurry,” he urged the rest as they clambered inside, Ravage and Buzzsaw taking one side, Nightstalker curling protectively about the two mechkin on the other. He headed out, taking his place towards the rear of the convoy, and they rolled upwards, climbing with all the speed they could muster in the tight, winding halls and corridors.
Their path was just as deserted going upwards as it had been coming down, but now they could feel the subtle rumblings of combat vibrating through the walls, hear the muffled *whump* of heavy artillery growing ever louder. Soundwave’s unease grew, the further they went; the encrypted channel was still unintelligible, but increasing in both power and complexity. He could distinguish multiple overlapping transmissions now, short, terse strings typical of battle-chatter, even if he couldn’t decipher the contents. In contrast, the transmissions by the Overlord’s defending forces were both chaotic and easy to understand. They were being forced back, overrun, calling for retreat after retreat from one fallback position to the next, taking heavy losses whenever and wherever they tried to make a stand.
//Security forces, falling back,// he warned the others over the tacnet. //Exact positioning, difficult to determine. Advance guard, be on the alert.//
//Yeah, yeah,// called back Grabber. //Think we figured that one out already, camera-bot.// They continued on, the corridors becoming progressively wider, better maintained once more, until they emerged out into the light and expanse of the Overlord’s private hangar. Soundwave pinged location-coordinates to the other gladiators, indicating a different entrance than the one they had used on their way down.
//This way. This corridor, high probability of exiting out into the refinery and service docks.// The roar of battle was unmistakable now--a constant battering of impact tremors, the distant clashing of metal upon metal as mecha warred through the corridors. Demolishor and the others didn’t need a second invitation. They peeled out, skirting the shining bulk of the ship, heading for the broad hatchway that Soundwave had indicated.
//The way is clear,// Maul called back, disappearing into the corridor. The rest of the convoy followed, Demolishor’s bulk just clearing the hatchway ... when a thunderous roar shook the entire room, a stunning explosion that peeled open the hangar, shaking walls and floor alike and sending mecha flying into the air.
Soundwave reeled, his extra sensory arrays doubling the impact of the blast. Unable for an astrosecond to tell up from down, he was sent tumbling, wheels losing traction on the floor as he slammed into a wall. The other two civilian-mecha that had been in the rear with him fared no better, tumbling and transforming desperately as they skidded across the floor. Then they all were diving for cover as the massive bulk of the cruiser tilted, one of the huge supporting structures around the starship jolted loose, came crashing down, turning the hatchway into nothing more than a pile of scrap.
//Chronicler! You back there?// Demolisher sent, shaking mechanotons of rubble from his thick plating. Ahead of him, the frontliners were already climbing back onto their pedes and breaking into the loading and service docks. But behind...
//Affirmative. Additionally, Pitcrew and Counterbore,// Soundwave returned, shifting just enough to tilt his weight and bring all four wheels down onto solid ground. The symbionts within him were shaken, but safe -- the internal surfaces of his compartment were mainly protoform under thin and mobile plating, the components cushioning and quick to hold symbionts in place in response to sudden motion.
Demolisher paused. //Gonna take us joor to clear a way through this scrap,// he said. A joor -- if they could even do it without risking a further cave-in. And the rumble of continuing battle was getting closer. //You gotta ‘nother way out?//
Soundwave cast a dubious scan over the two civilian mecha and the still-quaking hangar. The controls of the starship caught his attention for a moment -- even if the ship likely couldn’t lift off with so much debris around it, it might make for a suitable place to hide. But the big command console had clearly been locked and powered down. Hacking and accessing the controls would take time and concentration both, and Soundwave was very unlikely to have either enough to spare.
//...Affirmative. Regroup and wait at these coordinates,// Soundwave said, picking a sheltered location within comm range, even as he scrambled to piece together an alternate escape route.
//Hn.// The big tankframe paused, and Soundwave’s vents hitched -- there was nothing, really, to keep the warframes close. But Soundwave’s chances of making it back to the arena without them dropped dramatically, so far as he could calculate given very uncertain variables... even if he escaped the nearing battle. //Fine. But we’re going to ping you every klik for updates. You get to an exit and need us, just holler.//
Soundwave didn't have the time for relief, or to marvel at the warframe’s altruism... though he made a note of it. He sent an affirmation, then turned to the two service-mecha he had left. //Query: Pitcrew, Counterbore, damaged?// The other mecha replied in the negative -- both were battered and dented, but could still drive. Their alts were quite fast; neither as showy nor as loud as the warframes, they still carried more weaponry as Soundwave did, and could be useful as distractions. //Then we move. Command: use this commline only. Silence, necessary.//
Clearly shaken, both civilians nodded and rocked down onto their wheels once more, falling into place -- Soundwave took care to let one of them go first.
They moved fast, without the warframes -- nanite sculptures and vast painted murals flashing by, broken flooring fracturing further under their wheels. But not fast enough. Time and time again, they were forced to backtrack from too-close sounds of battle, from the rattling jolts of firing weaponry. Massive energy blasts shuddered through the tower several more times, each accompanied by more frantic reports of damage from the Overlord’s security-mecha. The attackers must have have hauled some huge emplacement artillery into position near the Overlord’s tower -- even a gestalt would have had difficulty firing such massive energy blasts so often. Unless, of course, there was more than one mech in here was wielding a cannon that big.
The thought made Soundwave move faster. Even still, he was nearly caught in the blast as security-mecha boiled around a side corridor, and opened fire.
Soundwave’s spiked wheels squealed on the fine stone flooring as he engaged every drivetrain he possessed, reversing hard, small rounds ricocheting from his plating. Pitcrew, just ahead, was not so lucky; a plasma blast caught him, half-slagging his right rear side and the wheel there, spinning him into the elegantly-decorated wall. Soundwave caught just a glimpse of the golden field of a personal shield, now flickering and dim, glowing behind the security-mecha. He did not pause for a closer look. Injured, Pitcrew transformed, opened fire, and was overwhelmed before Soundwave and Counterbore even made it back to the end of the hallway.
Every remaining escape route was blocked; Soundwave had no choice but to retreat, to fall back along broken corridors to the huge ship’s hangar once more. Perhaps he could hack the controls in time. Giving the command for the symbionts to disembark, he transformed and scooped up the two mechkin, ignoring their protests as he ran for the cruiser’s bulk, Counterbore hard on his heels.
“Frag frag frag …” the caretaker said, casting increasingly-panicked sensor sweeps behind them. “This is not good ….”
Going down was not an option--Soundwave had no intention of allowing them to become trapped in a still-deeper set of tunnels, now partially-collapsed from the thunderous fighting above --but without the tankframes, they had neither the firepower nor the brute strength needed to break their way free of this box. Their only possibility for escape was the cruiser. But with the control panels locked down, the engines cold, the craft unfamiliar … Soundwave approached the controls, uneasily aware that the likelihood of a successful escape was slim indeed.
And then even that possibility vanished, as the ragged remnants of the Overlord’s personal guard, along with the Overlord himself, poured into the hangar behind them.
Caught only steps from the main controls, there was no way to hide, nowhere to run. The leading guards spotted them, opening fire even as the rest continued to defend their designate from behind; and Soundwave lashed out with a primary cable, dragging Counterbore along as he dived towards the cruiser. //Take cover behind the ship supports!// he ordered. //Overlord, attempting escape; guards will try to avoid damaging cruiser.// Nightstalker, Ravage and Buzzsaw had already done so, he saw, their speed and smaller size allowing them to to evade the guards’ notice much more easily than the larger mecha.
Still sheltered by a flickering shield, the Overlord snarled, faceplates pinched with a mad kind of arrogance. He waved at the contingent around him, gesturing them to hold their ground, even as he made his ponderous way to the controls. “Hold off the interloper -- I shall prepare the vessel.”
Most of the guards hesitated, then darted back the way they’d come, leaving the Overlord with just three of the largest security-mecha. With a low growl, one began moving around the bulk of the ship, stalking Soundwave and Counterbore. All of them seemed unworried. And for good cause -- two lightly-armed civilians were no real threat to their Lord, not while he functioned under the aegis of his personal shield.
In the end, Soundwave doubted that it would matter all that much whether they were offlined now or later. Once the Overlord ignited the ship’s engines, there would be few places in the hangar where a mech could avoid being turned to slag. Even so, he and Counterbore darted back, around another supporting column, keeping the bulk of the ship always between themselves and the heavily-armed security guard.
The Overlord’s hands spread out over the controls, channeling power, selecting commands. “I see you there, menial,” he said abruptly, almost thoughtfully. “Again you display forbidden progeny before me.
Still held securely in Soundwave’s grip, Rumble and Frenzy both stiffened--then began to struggle, trying to kick free. “Lemme go!” Rumble shouted, small fists banging against Soundwave’s plating. “You murdered them, you scraplet-sucking slagger! I’m gonna--”
//SILENCE.// Soundwave ordered, loading the command with every ounce of a carrier’s authority, surrounding with immutable glyphs that left no room for dissent. He cycled a quick ventilation, processors turning over possibilities, stratagems, even as he tucked both wriggling and indignant mechkin closer to his chassis, sheltering them as best he could.
“Soundwave: sees that the Overlord’s arrogance, only matched by his ignorance,” he called out, augmenting the pitch and clarity of his vocalizer to cut through the continuing gunfire. His usual monotone, Soundwave knew, tended to sound especially disdainful if he made no effort to modulate it; he now used that to full effect.
The Overlord stiffened. Paused to turn and glare in their direction. “You dare--”
“Overlord, cannot tell a mechkin from a mechling, a carrier from a creator. Your ignorance, evident. Your impotence, also.”
//Boss ...// Buzzsaw said uneasily, as he circled higher, watching Kaon’s ruler bristle at the taunts. From the Overlord’s reaction, it had been a long, long time since anyone had dared to mock him openly.
“You cower in the dusty corners of MY Tower, and you dare challenge me?” The Overlord barked, taking a step away from the panel, optics narrowed on Soundwave’s half-visible frame. “You are nothing, menial. Less than nothing--a crippled and useless parasite, obsolete and unwanted! Your kind flood this city with your filth, always reproducing, creeping in across the borders no matter how I order them secured. Cybertron is drained to a shadow of itself, all to support your obsolescence. And I am forced to bear witness to the GLORY we have lost!” Sparks crackled around his jawplates, evidence of his rage.
Soundwave darted back behind another hulking support, dragging Counterbore with him as the circling guard took careful aim and fired -- the heavy slug punched a hole the size of Soundwave’s fist in the heavy shielding that ringed the ship’s engine blast zone. Snarling briefly, the Overlord gestured to one of the two guards around him. The security-mecha exchanged glances, but the indicated guard obeyed, trotting around the other side of the massive ship, towards Soundwave and Counterbore.
Then, the Overlord turned back to the ship’s controls.
The civilian shook in the grasp of Soundwave’s primary. //Slag, slag, slag!// he whispered, almost paralyzed by terror.
//Power up your weapons,// Soundwave ordered, having no particular plan in mind -- but having something to do might calm Counterbore, and the civilian was useless to Soundwave as he was. //Command: be ready to fire on my mark.//
The guards were the most immediate threat, but even if they managed to hold them off, the blast from the ship’s engines would kill them as well. Soundwave routed a little more power to his vocalizer -- the hard rattle of weapons-fire was growing closer. “Overlord, no longer a true Cybertronian: cannot adapt to new circumstances. Overlord, incapable even of clinging to old ways. Overlord: inferior mechanism. Soundwave: superi--”
A number of things happened all at once. In response to a coded signal, Ravage and Nightstalker together launched themselves from the shadows, hitting the closest guard with daggered claws and shearing fangs. Buzzsaw darted down to strafe the other guard’s helm and the tender joints of his plating with rapid-fire laser pulses.
And all the screaming over comm went silent, as yet another massive explosion rocked the hangar.
Soundwave shoved the two mechkin into Counterbore’s startled arms. Working in concert with his cohort, he lunged from behind the sheltering pillar at the same moment the symbionts launched their ambush, closing with the two heavily-armored guards, ducking as a stray blast sizzled by one audial fin. Momentarily disoriented, tactical coding re-evaluating numbers and threat assessments, the guards hesitated for a nanoklik.
That was all the time Soundwave needed to get inside their range. //Sonics charged,// he warned the others, loading the channel with priority markers. //All: set audial input to this frequency on my mark.// He ducked a flailing swing from a heavy-armored fist, knocked another cannon-muzzle aside, primaries and secondaries alike lashing outward savagely, wrapping about limbs and weapons, entangling both guards. The bladed tips of the secondaries bounced off his opponents’ armor, unable to penetrate--but the stronger, heavier primaries plunged deep into civilian vulnerabilities, carving into transformation seams, punching through shielded joints.
//Now!// Soundwave sent. And unleashed the heaviest blast he was capable of.
The sound was a discordant thunderclap, a sonic boom unleashed at point blank range. It shattered optics, blew out audials and other sensory receptors, overloaded power relays. At the same moment, Soundwave sent a devastating charge through his cables, a pure electrical spike deep into the other guards’ systems, hacking relays even as they struggled to compensate from the external input. Both guards reeled, vocalizers screeching involuntarily, frames spasming and jerking under the dual attack, and both Buzzsaw and the bladeframes were quick to take advantage of the opening. The guards’ armor, as heavily layered as it was, proved vulnerable to diamond-edged talons that ripped plates away at the seams, exposing vulnerable wiring to be shredded by sideguns and serrated teeth. The guards’ strength accounted for nothing when their limbs jerked uselessly, gripped by coiling cables. Advanced weaponry meant little when pinpoint shots permanently disabled communications relays and the sensory clusters required for targeting.
Permanently deactivating the guards would have taken far too much time, their spark-chambers protected with layer upon layer of shielding. But reducing them into a sparking, offlined and twitching heaps? Took no time at all. Systems running hot, Soundwave dropped their limp forms, letting them clatter to the ground as he pivoted, looking upwards, ready for the next attack, his symbionts wheeling--
--only to see the third guard drop, a molten hole slagged through the center of his chassis, as the Lord High Protector looked down at them, scarlet optics darkly amused and considering.
It could be no other mech. Almost every other Cybertronian adopted bright colors, according to rank, class, or personal preference -- vanishingly few were adorned only in plain silver and gunmetal gray. Few mecha were this large, this powerful; overtopping Soundwave by more than a mechanometer, and at least twice his mass. Not many mecha could lift the enormous cannon that this one wielded with such casual ease. And none moved quite like this, with a coiled and prowling strength. Soundwave had never before seen either of Cybertron’s ruling dyad in person, had only viewed vids and stills of the Lord Protector. Megatron’s presence, however, was unmistakable … and terrifying.
Warframes were built for war. Megatron, Soundwave realized, *was* war, embodied in frame and spark, a destructive force unleashed, bound only to the defense of his Prime and Cybertron.
And, evidently, to vengeance.
The magnetism, the sheer intensity of that gaze and the massive dyad-spark behind it, slid from Soundwave, turning to the cowering Overlord. That arm-mounted cannon moved, cycling up once more, the massive aperture glowing as blue as the heart of a star. “Your age is ended, Ferrus,” said the Lord Protector, and his voice was a rumble, a growl like thunder, issued by a vocalizer capable of cutting through the chaos of battle to rally an army... or to instill abject terror in any who found themselves his enemy.
The Overlord hissed, his personal shield brightening visibly -- but he staggered as he tried to stand, fell back to his kneejoints, relays groaning with insufficient power. It had been several joor since the Overlord had initialized his shield, and such devices could drain even a large tank in very little time. “You -- you planned this!” he cried suddenly, “you acted by assassin, by cowardice and secret. The Prime will hear of this --” his faceplates twisted as he tried to rise once more. He jerked his arm at Soundwave and the symbionts. “Energon, Protector -- give me energon, and slay these malcontents. I can reward you beyond anything you can imagine.”
The Lord Protector’s laughter was the rumble of a landslide down slopes of steel. “You have more enemies than you can count, it seems. The assassin was none of mine, though timely all the same -- and as for Optimus....” And there was something different about Megatron’s gaze at that, his optics flaring perhaps with banked and glowing rage, perhaps with the shadow of madness. “...you yourself have seen to it that he is occupied with trivialities, have you not?”
The Overlord gaped, looking anywhere but at the perfectly steady muzzle of that sculpted cannon, power in every line of it, building in starcore radiance. And Soundwave noticed only then that Nightstalker had left the guard he and Ravage had savaged, had been slinking close, all this time. The Overlord reached out desperately to the symbiont, who hung back. “Energon! My loyal creature, whom I freed to my service! A little energon, and I will ready the ship, and --”
Tail lashing, the bladeframe looked up to the Lord High Protector. “Will you kill him, or may I?” Nightstalker asked.
Megatron looked down at the bristling bladeframe, considering the hate in every line of the symbiont’s body. “A great many enemies indeed,” he said to them both, as Soundwave watched tensely. That crimson gaze turned back to the Overlord. “And as satisfying as it might be to watch you be torn limb from limb by them, my plans require a more expedient extermination.” The cannon steadied, the glow brightening as it cycled into position for full power. “Your services, Overlord, are no longer required.”
And Megatron fired.
Soundwave flinched at the backwave of that concussive blast, at the shattering crunch as the Overlord’s energy shield imploded, his already-abused arrays redlined and pinging warnings, optics whiting out briefly before he could reset or adjust them. His cohort fared no better, curling heads away, flattening sensory spines, and taking shelter where they could.
Nightstalker, however, never moved; never looked away.
The afterimages of the blast faded, and Soundwave straightened, cycling secondary optical sensors to compensate for still-blown primaries. The Overlord, he saw, was most thoroughly dead, with almost the entire upper half of his chassis--including his spark chamber and most of his helm--blown away. What remained of the body slowly toppled backwards as Soundwave watched, falling with a clatter of slagged metal upon the hangar floor.
//Buzzsaw, Ravage: to me,// he called, resisting the urge to put himself between them and the Lord Protector. If Megatron wanted them dead, there would be nothing Soundwave could do to prevent it.
Nervously, Buzzsaw circled twice, coming to land on Soundwave’s shoulder. Behind him, Counterbore peered from hiding, the two mechkin clambering over his pedes and heading unsteadily for Soundwave. The carrier would have prefered for them to stay out of direct sight -- but then, he supposed it made little difference. A mech with dyad-grade sensors could detect a glitchmouse at a thousand mechanometers; two injured symbionts stood no chance at all of remaining hidden in the shadows. Ravage padded to stand silently beside his Master. The echoing field-glow of the three mecha inside his docks was suddenly no reassurance at all, and Soundwave had to fight to keep from shifting his armor defensively forward. His plating wouldn’t last long, under a blast from that cannon. And for the symbionts within... there would be no escape.
The Lord Protector turned from the contemplation of the corpse before him. That intense crimson gaze fell over Soundwave once more, heavy, a tangible weight. Soundwave felt as if he were being measured in some elemental way, adjudged, every particular of his frame noted and catalogued.
“I will admit,” said Megatron consideringly, as he walked towards Soundwave, “I did not anticipate finding Chroniclers here.” The Lord Protector had taken the brunt of blasts that would have killed a dozen lesser mecha; his thick plating was marked and marred, crossed with burn marks and the surface rippled from plasma heat. But his gait seemed unaffected, every step immensely strong, hydraulics silent for all the mass they moved. His optics narrowed, just slightly. “Ferrus always struck me as a mechanism who preferred but one account of history -- his.”
“Soundwave: did not come here for Ferrus,” Soundwave replied, meeting the subtle challenge in those words, backstruts stiffening, pedes settling into place as he shifted subtly forward of the symbionts around him. As an Archivist, he could not help but be aware that there were numberless courtesies, elaborately proper addresses and careful protocols for a meeting such as this--all of which he was violating by daring to address the Lord Protector thus. As a Chronicler-carrier, however--he found that he did not care. Not when the safety of his cohort was at stake.
“Our actions, our decisions, our own. Chroniclers, choose who we serve; the Overlord, does not command us,” he said steadily, lifting his head, his visored gaze meeting that crimson stare.
Megatron’s gaze was inscrutable, for a long, long moment. But he seemed, perhaps, to hear enough in Soundwave’s unfaltering words. He inclined his helm, a subtle gesture of acknowledgement. “While I applaud your discriminating tastes, Soundwave -- Ferrus was by no means unique. And since you appear to be rather … singular … in your aims, it begs the question: just whom *do* you serve?” The Lord High Protector’s unsettling gaze fell across Counterbore, who drew back a little.
Soundwave could hear the unspoken implication under those words. The Lord Protector moved through a world of subtle maneuverings and unspoken alliances, as capable of fighting battles of words as of weapons. Even amongst the warframes, where rank was more clearly delineated, lines of advancement and accomplishment established, things were never as clear-cut as they might seem. For Soundwave to suddenly appear in the midst of this chaos, as out of place as a petrorabbit in a slag pit, aroused more than a little suspicion.
“Chronicler function, still remains. Soundwave … serves Cybertron, even if that service is now of little account to most,” he replied, choosing his words with all the care of a mech navigating a minefield. “Rescue of trapped symbionts, brought us here. The Kaon Arena, currently our home.” Though whether it would remain so was anyone’s guess.
The Lord Protector studied Soundwave for a moment, taking in the missing arm, his damaged struts and recent welds, the symbionts clustered around him. Then glanced down at the pair of sparking guards at his pedes. A hint of dry amusement glinted in the Slagmaker’s optics.
A distant crashing spoke of more collapses above, the booming impacts echoing hollowly in the huge hangar. “In that case,” he rumbled, cannon whirring up audibly, “I had best return you to your escorts, had I not?” Megatron turned to the fallen rubble that choked the escape route, his weapon adjusting and calibrating. And employing his cannon like a mining implement, the Lord Protector began melting an exit through the jumbled pile.
Behind Soundwave, Counterbore slumped in abject relief -- then hunched over to protect his optics and audials from the constant thundering roar, the nanite-blistering waves of heat. Buzzsaw glanced back and forth between the broad planes of those silver backplates and his master.
//...am I fritzing, Boss? That really is the fragging *Lord Protector*, right?// Buzzsaw asked over the cohort-channel. Soundwave reflexively ran a diagnostic of his own before giving the flightframe an affirmative nod. //Why the frag is he bothering to help the likes of us??// Buzzsaw asked.
For a moment, Soundwave had no answer to that. The probability of them ever encountering either of the two mecha that ruled Cybertron, especially in this place, was so vanishingly unlikely as to be statistically impossible. Much less having that same mech--the Lord Protector, commander of all of Cybertron’s military forces, brother-spark to the Prime--decide to help them escape.
Then another massive pylon fell with a thundering crash, the entire hangar shuddering almost continuously from the rumbling coming from above.
//This tunnel, likely the only way out,// he said in belated realization. According to his scans, the upper levels were rapidly collapsing; trying to escape that way would have been a risk even for a mech as fast and durable as Lord Megatron. It would have been a death sentence for Soundwave.
//Hunh. I guess so,// Buzzsaw said, looking apprehensively upwards. //It’s just--who’d have thought the fraggin *Slagmaker* would be coming to our rescue? Why isn’t he just offlining us for what we saw? I feel like we took a wrong turn and ended up in bizarro-world.//
//Soundwave: forced to agree,// his master admitted, watching the targeted sweep of Megatron’s cannon-arm clear raw iron away. All the vidfiles he’d watched hadn’t really prepared him -- he hadn’t expected the Lord High Protector to be so... *big.*
It took less than a klik for the Lord Protector to slag a tunnel, the heat-warped debris welding together tight enough to keep more scrap from falling, molten metal puddling and pouring down into the cracked decking. Megatron ducked through first, the metal of his heavy pedes hissing against bright-hot iron. A momentary pause -- and then he gestured the two civilians through.
Another crash echoed through the tower, and metaldust filtered down. Staying was no option at all. Soundwave wrapped cables around Rumble and Frenzy to spare their thin plating the heat, and then followed. The two bladeframes leaped the hottest part of the tunnel with ease.
The loading and service docks were a ruin. Smoke and sparks drifted overhead, the lighting that once glowed from shining walls was now flickering and dim. A gold and black guard lay splayed out in pieces, torn limb from limb by an angry warframe -- a warframe around Demolishor’s size, if Soundwave was any judge. Most of the crates here had been smashed open, their contents vanished, and the tower’s refinery had been emptied. But at least the firing seemed to have mostly quieted. The airframes had long since expended their ordnance, and those mecha still able to move had fled. The Lord Protector lifted his gray-white helm, the colors of distant flames licking over his plating.... and Soundwave was struck by the sudden thought: that it wasn’t only Ferrus’ age that had ended this cycle.
The Lord Protector stepped down, easily climbing the piled debris, moving with the ease of an experienced, battle-ready warrior. Soundwave and Counterbore, as they followed, were not nearly so adept. Hampered by injuries and--in Soundwave’s case--two mechkin, they picked their way cautiously forward, Soundwave partially extending his sensory panels for any signs of ambush or attack. He could still hear weapons-fire in the distance; but those battles showed no signs of moving closer, much to his relief. Ravage and Nightstalker followed, prowling lithely from shadow to shadow, until they stood once more outside the Tower walls, blinking upwards at the expanse of open sky.
“This, I think, is where we part, Chronicler,” Lord Megatron remarked, his helm swivelling to watch the smoke-shrouded western wall. A few nanokliks later, and the roar of powerful engines began to separate itself from the ambient noise, growing louder until it threatened to rattle the plating off of their frames. A wing of heavily-armored aerial warframes--triplechangers, Soundwave belatedly realized, not Seekers--tore out of the sky, streaking towards their lord, and Megatron favored each of their ragged band with a last considering look.
Then he turned away, and leaped into the air. Between one astrosecond and the next, he’d transformed, heavy armor sliding, realigning into the sleek planes of a silvered aerial alt. His engines fired with a roar, sending them staggering backwards; and the Lord Protector rocketed into the air, taking his place at the head of that formation and banking effortlessly upwards. The warframes’ engines gouged bright contrail scars across the smoke-hazed sky.
“Slaaag …” Counterbore breathed. “Somebody punch me. No way this can be real.”
Soundwave watched the wing until they had disappeared from his sensor range. “Request denied,” he finally said. “Full functioning, required to rejoin the others.” He opened up a channel, searching for the gladiators’ familiar frequency. //Demolishor--Soundwave here. Current status and location?//
//Right where you left us, Chronicler,// came the tankframe’s signal, somewhat less steel-steady than usual. //You at the west walls?//
//Camera-bot! You will never *believe* what we just s--// started Maul, shouldering his way into the channel. His audial input buffers must have taken some damage -- Soundwave could hear some of the frontliner’s surroundings, could detect the rumble of several large engines turning over.
//Hey. How’re the tiny medics?// Bulkhead interrupted, sounding worried.
//Maul, incorrect,// Soundwave said, moving into the lee of a half-ruined wall and rocking down onto his altmode wheels to wait. There were still bullets in the air, and he’d not risk the symbionts to a stray one. He offered Bulkhead’s message to Flipsides, who took up the contact happily, speaking over the relay Soundwave provided. //I’m fine, Bulk! The other mechkin are pretty scared and hurt, but I think they’ll be alright. You coming to get us?//
//Of course! We’re coming right n--// Bulkhead started, only to have his glyphs all but bowled over by Counterbore’s rapid-fire patter.
//--dragged me back and then the Overlord tried to burn us all and bullets flying everywhere and then he slagging broke in and he was all, ‘your time is up’ and he was slagging begging for energon and he just slagging shot him and --// either Counterbore had inadvertently linked his comms directly to his processors, or the stress had glitched him worse than Red Alert. The gladiators clamored at him and finally Counterbore was able to stutter out, //--the Lord High Protector was here! Right here, close enough I could’a touched him maybe! Right slagging here, and Soundwave talked to him and then he helped us escape! Melted a tunnel right through that scrapslide!//
//Chronicler, what the Pit is going on over there?// Demolishor demanded, overriding the service-mech’s panicked, awestruck glyphs.
Soundwave closed the armor of his hatch firmly over all eight symbionts, feeling the warmth of their glowing fields, safe within him. //This epoch, at a close,// he said quietly in reply. The end of an era, and the turning of history... at long, long last.
Beta for this section by the amazing Femme4Jack and White Aster. Thank you, thank you!
Soundwave finished heaving the last of the broken mainframe pieces into the cargo hollow of one of the tankframes, and signaled the gladiator to roll out. Every online moment of the last five cycles had been packed with an orn’s worth of things that needed doing. In the few joor it had taken to return to the arena, looters had flooded the stands and the storerooms, so many of the remaining gladiators had their servos full just defending the medbay. Caches of other implements, though, were missing or damaged. It would take a quarter vorn or more to finish all the makeshift fixes, the workarounds, the jury-rigged repairs to equipment and structures alike.
At least now the arena was secure, the worst holes patched, the damage inventoried, and the localnet running once more. Soundwave paused to check the flexures of his new arm, running a search-string for news broadcasts. Public reports had flooded the networks after the Overlord’s demise. The Lord High Protector had returned to Iacon, had broken into a very closed Senate meeting, and there had laid claim -- loudly and publicly -- to the Overlord’s execution as overdue retribution for a megavorn of crimes. Every news service had a different story, however, and their accounts were a tangled morass of rumor and hearsay. Official channels, Soundwave noted, still continued to claim that nothing had happened, while unregistered data brokers spread endless copies of the Lord High Protector’s voice, along with memory clips of the cringing Overlord.
So far as Soundwave knew, however, there had been no developments since. The Senate--and the Prime--had remained silent.
//Speaking of new developments, Master...// Flipsides sent over the bond from the medbay, only to be interrupted by Stent’s crackling comm.
//Clench is back online, Chronicler. Thought you’d want’a know.// The old medic’s glyphs were as rough as his plating, as he signed off without waiting for a reply.
//Soundwave: acknowledges,// he told both Flipsides and the no-longer-listening Stent, and began heading towards the repair bay. He had no illusions as to the nature of his reception; given the outcome of the Clench’s gamble with the Vosian Seekers, not to mention the damage done to the arena and himself, the arena overseer was unlikely to be in anything but a foul mood. Or worse, actively looking for a scapegoat on whom to pin his troubles.
Still, avoiding the arena overseer wouldn’t make the problem go away. A few breems’ walk brought Soundwave to the repair bay -- enough time for him to double-check repair schedules, to shift resource allotments and balance repair crew duties for greatest efficiency. He made a note to seek out one particular crew that had underperformed the others by twenty percent; perhaps he could identify and correct the underlying problem.
Thanks to the gladiators’ defense of their medics, the repair bay facility was one of the least damaged areas of the arena. Few looters, it seemed, wanted to take on a bunch of battle-hardened warframes when easier pickings were to be had. This had proved to be fortuitous when the surviving arena airframes, as well as the other hotheads that had joined the battle with the Vosian Seekers, came limping back for repairs.
Clench was already sitting up on a repair cradle by the time Soundwave picked his way through the crowded bay. The gladiators had discovered him in the wreckage of his offices, partially crushed by the fall of the observation tower -- offline, but still functional. The overseer favored him with a fulminating stare. “What the frag is goin’ on, Chronicler? Stent tells me that my crews are reportin’ to you now--you wanna explain that to me?”
“Arena repairs, urgently needed,” Soundwave replied calmly. “Damage in the aftermath of assassination attempt, extensive. Soundwave: addressed the most critical damage while repairs to your frame were being completed.” He pinged over a prepared datafile, showing the long, long list of damages, lost personnel, and looted or broken equipment, as well as the progress he had made on organizing the repairs.
Waiting a nanoklik for Clench to absorb the information, he said impassively, “Arena finances, also in jeopardy.” Even with the massive influx of energon and goods they’d taken in prior to the ‘airshow’, the damage done to the Kaon Arena’s reputation, coupled with the lack of any new events, had put them solidly in the red. Would Clench even try to save the arena? Or would he decide to abandon a sinking ship?
Clench’s optics narrowed. “Do you have any fragging idea how many pings I’ve missed? How many requests for information I have backed up here?” The overseer’s big fists clenched. He had taken a great deal of crushing damage, but the medics had done a fairly good job with him. He’d probably be able to walk soon, if not transform. “Every single major Tower cadre is on the verge of sending in inquisitors, and so will the civilian enforcement, once they get their acts together. And you’re worried about the fragging *stands*? The *paintwork*? Are you fragging me?”
Soundwave tilted his helm slightly. “Towers, enforcement: have larger problems at present,” he said evenly. The reprieve wouldn’t last long, he knew. But at the moment, no one knew that the rogue airframe who had wrecked the airshow wasn’t, in fact, an agent of the Lord Protector -- and accordingly an agent of the Prime. Once the Senate showed their hand, however... what if they affirmed the Protector’s act? Then the Towers might have to condone the happenings at the arena, no matter the collateral damage. And if the Senate dared to castigate the ruling dyad....
There were a thousand considerations in every move the arena made, and Clench had never been a mech for niceties. Soundwave could feel the tug across the localnet as Clench tried to check his access to his contact lines -- the coded relays that the overseer used to barter information and favors with the mecha who ruled Kaon. Most of those relays, of course, were patched through the arena’s networks ... which Soundwave had spent the last five cycles overhauling. The system was now 22.4 percent more efficient than it had been before the damage, after Soundwave had pruned off the dead hubs and isolated certain areas of bandwidth leakage. He’d also taken the opportunity to insert no small amount of his own code into the system, giving him accesses, subtly inserting back doors into monitoring and routing algorithms, intertwining his datalinks through every part of the arena localnet. Soundwave might not yet know the exact nature of Clench’s leverage, the details of favors owed and given, all of which the overseer kept safely encrypted within his core memory and nowhere else--but he would soon know the designations of every mech the overseer contacted. With Ravage and the others’ assistance, it would be only a small step from there to suborning that network for his own.
In the meantime, however, Soundwave needed to establish his position. Being a subordinate no longer gave his cohort the protection they needed; he would need to either establish himself as an equal, or oust Clench entirely. He had given more than a little thought to the second option; but a power struggle was the last thing the Kaon Arena needed right now, and short of assassinating the overseer outright, Soundwave saw no swift, decisive option for his removal.
Which meant Soundwave needed to establish himself as a power to be reckoned with, to overwhelm Clench while he was still reeling from the magnitude of his losses.
“Overlord, now deactivated, with no successor yet appointed,” he pointed out. “Most high-ranked mecha in Kaon, given their positions by the Overlord. Their authority, no longer secure; the entire power structure of Kaon, disrupted.” The Towers’ mecha would be both jockeying for position within the power vacuum as well as scrambling to disassociate themselves from the Overlord. The latter task, however, was made more difficult by just how long Ferrus had ruled; Soundwave would be surprised if there was a single high-ranking mech in Kaon that did not owe his position to the Overlord’s favor. “Kaon Arena’s usual patrons, now looking for respectability. Kaon Arena’s reputation, not currently favorable to that end.”
“You don’t think I know that?” Clench hissed, even as fully half his inquiry-pings went unanswered. Soundwave watched the overseer’s optics widen. The carrier timed his statements carefully.
“Gladiators, caretakers, all arena staff, dependent upon Kaon Arena’s survival.” In most cases, the arena was all that stood between them and scavenging for dregs of energon down in the slums. “All: aware the arena must now seem blameless in Overlord’s death. Repairs, being made to that end. All unsanctioned bouts, halted; all staff willing to deny knowledge of any assassination plots.” That last shot was directly aimed at Clench; and from the slight stiffening of the overseer’s frame, Soundwave knew it had hit home. The Vosian Seekers, after all, had been brought to Kaon by Clench, who would now be a prime suspect in any Senatorial investigation.
Soundwave crossed his arms across his chassis, regarding the overseer. “Clench: wishes to countermand those orders?”
Clench was silent for a long moment, optics falling on all the many watching mecha. “...No,” he said at last, slowly and gritting his dentae. “It’s exactly what I would have done. ...Good job, Chr-- Soundwave.” Soundwave noted the databurst as Clench sought out his personal hidden passcodes, the coded accesses that would open the storeroom doors on his command. The overseer might be able to obtain enough energon and supplies to support himself in comfort for a dozen vorn, if he stripped the storerooms bare.... but while Soundwave didn’t particularly mind the thought of Clench jumping ship, he couldn’t permit the warframe to do so just yet.
Clench froze as he came up blank, his passkeys ignored by the network and the heavy doors.
Soundwave tilted his helm slightly. “Additionally, arena resources rationed. Energon, required for repairs, hiring new gladiators, arena staff.” Soundwave expected several more of the gladiators to trickle back to the arena, after they’d burned through whatever they’d managed to steal from the Overlord’s towers. But there had been more than a few confirmed deactivations, as well, particularly among the generally more lightly-armored service mecha.
“New *staff*?” Clench hissed. “Are you out of your fragging process--”
“Assistance required for assembly of drones, new sets, rebuilding of network,” Soundwave interrupted. “Economic projections, favorable, if certain conditions are met. Primary concern: arena overseer’s recovery. Your presence, required to direct bouts and reassure public.”
Clench’s optics were narrowed, glowing brightly with temper as he realized Soundwave’s intent. Clench was still needed, if only as the face of the arena, even as Soundwave threaded his way through the arena’s supply chains, marketing, and the labyrinthine web of connections and contacts that allowed the Kaon Arena to function. Visibly reining in his frustration, Clench snapped his mandibles shut. “Oh, I’ll be ready, Soundwave. I most certainly will be,” he grated.
The carrier could not help but hear the undertone in those words. It was obvious that Clench was not happy about being supplanted; no doubt the overseer would start tracing down the links of his network of patronage, trying to re-establish his authority just as soon as he was free of the repair bay. “Arena, will be rebuilt,” he pointed out. Mecha, after all, performed better when offered energon as well as the shockstick. “Working together: increases efficiency, potentially lucrative.” With some help, Soundwave could at least steady the arena finances. The historical dramas, if performed with a little more attention to detail, could draw a fair number of mecha. And Soundwave already had several versions of the Fall of the Overlord planned for performance, once the political situation became more clear.
Clench looked doubtful as he harumphed, laid back down. “Make sure to report back to me every cycle.”
Though Clench’s arrogance grated, Soundwave would do nothing for the time being. Clench would discover soon enough that their confederation could have substantial benefits for them both. And if he didn’t... well. By then, Soundwave doubted there’d be much about the arena he couldn’t control. He would wait, and watch... for now. “Soundwave: acknowledges.”
The carrier nodded to the medics, then turned and departed.
It was another three and a half cycles before Soundwave found the opportunity to allot himself an entire duty-shift for recharge. There was so much to do, so much to monitor... but he had to be at his best. Especially once the Senate acted -- as they surely would, and soon. Barely more than an orn had passed since the Overlord’s fall. Between the brute strength of nearly a hundred gladiators and attendants constantly working to repair physical damage, and Soundwave’s technical experience in rebuilding the networks, the arena was on its way towards recovery. But the rest of the city was on edge, vibrating, the Tower cadres scrambling madly for influence or secreting away their wealth to weather the coming fallout, as their philosophies dictated.
But the halls where Soundwave’s quarters were located were cool and quiet, the lighting dimmed to conserve energy. The heavy blast doors had preserved the storeroom contents from the few looters who had made it this deep, while Soundwave’s locks and access restrictions had protected his own quarters and the communications equipment there. The rustle of flightplates and a muted location-ping alerted Soundwave moments before Laserbeak appeared, swooping gracefully around a corner towards his carrier. The flightframe hooked his talons into the raised fairings of his coveted spot on Soundwave’s shoulder, settling himself neatly. In the privacy of the empty corridor, Laserbeak pressed the side of his helm against his master’s audials, chirring quietly as he wound his tail securely around the carrier’s upper arm.
Soundwave lifted his new hand to scritch a talon along the supple length of the flightframe’s neck just the way Laserbeak liked, issuing a few diagnostic queries as a matter of habit. A few of the codes Soundwave checked were tagged with yellow warning flags, and Soundwave paused before the hatch to his quarters. //Laserbeak: should have found me earlier,// he said, in rare admonishment.
//It is but a little dust in the axis articulations, Master,// said Laserbeak, ducking his head.
//Those rotors, recently damaged,// Soundwave corrected. And much, much more besides.
//But well repaired,// Laserbeak dared to say, pressing himself against Soundwave’s audial, his field warming with affection and reassurance. Between Flipsides and Soundwave, the damage he had taken had been well-looked after, and his cohort had been quite protective of his recovery. Almost to the point of annoyance, sometimes; Laserbeak was not a newsparked hatchling who had taken his first tumble. He was an elder in his own right, with thousands of megavorn of experience, and hardly in need of cosseting!
//Joints, still require inspection and cleaning,// Soundwave answered firmly, unfurling a secondary cable to link up and unlock the heavy hatchway that secured their small quarters. The hatch hissed obediently open, and he stepped through, ducking under the lintel with the ease of long practice.
Laserbeak chirred in pleasure, rubbing the edge of his beak affectionately against the edge of Soundwave’s collar-plating. //Of course, Master.//
Truth be told, there were far worse things in the world than to be cosseted by your carrier, Laserbeak reminded himself, taking in the sight of the two mechkin huddled together on the room’s single berth. Rumble and Frenzy were deep in recharge, their limbs and frames intertwined so tightly that it was almost impossible to tell where one stopped and the other began. They had recovered swiftly, once given sufficient energon and the attentions of a medic. Their sturdy, fuel-efficient frames had served them well when it came to surviving the death of their carrier, but what they had endured had left its imprint upon their sparks. Suspicious and defiant by turns, they couldn’t hide their grief entirely; and Laserbeak couldn’t help but feel an echo of that loss in his own spark as he remembered other times, other masters.
...and then there was Ratbat. Who at best was passingly sympathetic towards the pair of mechkin, and at worst, utterly oblivious. Like now.
//Boss boss boss--Ravage made me fly *all* the way to the top of the arena to rewire cabling. Several times! I told him I wasn’t made for that sort of hard labor but he didn’t care, and then I got hung up on it and bent my wing and he wouldn’t even come up and help, and once I got myself untangled Buzzsaw made me help him fix ALL the cameras, and there are too many cameras, Soundwave! And they’re ALL broken, and even... even if we fix them they’re still not in optimum positions, and I told Buzzsaw that but he didn’t listen,// complained Ratbat, launching himself from his perch atop a communications console to land on Soundwave’s upraised arm. His flight surfaces flopped in a dramatic swoon, and he flattened his round belly on Soundwave’s gauntlet, as if he could not even bear to stand any longer. //Now my wing doesn’t feel right, and I’m low on energon. Plus *they* keep shuffling around and I can’t recharge ...//
Soundwave seated himself on the room’s low bench, but made no attempt to interrupt Ratbat’s litany of complaints, regarding the little glideframe with subtle amusement. //Ratbat, wishes to dock for recharge?// he asked. Laserbeak clacked his beak in both amusement and irritation; as if there were any chance of Ratbat desiring otherwise!
Soundwave’s query was well-timed; Ratbat was winding down anyway, too tired even to work up a proper whinge. //...and, and look at these scratches... makin’ me clean ALL the things n’ fix the WHOLE arena.... wait, what?// he looked up, optics blinking. The symbiont straightened, apparently no longer about to slip strutlessly from his perch. //Yes, yes yes Boss! Oh yes!// Soundwave brought the other hand up to catch him as Ratbat flailed, the symbiont attempting simultaneously to fold his wings and scramble closer and nearly ending up in the carrier’s lap for his trouble.
Soundwave’s quiet vent was concealed by the hiss of armor across armor, as he folded his chestplates back, exposing the ranked docks. Ratbat’s favorite, far to the left, was already set snug and narrow. Soundwave brought his hands close, nudging the symbiont’s wings into position for easy transformation with carefully stroking talons. Squeaking happily, Ratbat folded himself thin, and let Soundwave’s antigrav and magnetic rail-fields draw him into place.
Laserbeak cycled a vent as Soundwave closed his armor back over, sealing the radiance of that small, happy spark inside himself. //You spoil us,// he noted, as the carrier reached for a strip of metalmesh from a drawer set into the side of the seating bench. A cable snaked out to pick up a small cube and fill it from the newly-installed warm solvent tap.
The flightframe had been sparked in a time when docking was a ritual at the sole prerogative of the carrier, a boon not always granted, and one for which a symbiont ought never to ask. Docking might occur a dozen times in a quarter -- but certainly not every orn, as Ratbat preferred. Linking systems so frequently made a certain amount of sense, Laserbeak supposed; minor problems were taken care of long before they became worrisome. Still, there were forms to be observed, proprieties, all the proper ways. Older carriers -- and many younger ones as well -- would not have tolerated Ratbat’s antics. But Soundwave....
Laserbeak stepped onto the back of the carrier’s gauntlet eagerly as it was presented to him, uncoiling his tail. From there he stepped off onto the Soundwave’s lap, and watched while the carrier dipped a talon into the nearby cube of solvent to test the temperature. Soundwave... never really stopped surprising him, even after all this time.
//Happy symbionts, happy carrier,// was Soundwave’s simple reply, and Laserbeak could hear the truth in those glyphs. Perhaps it had been Ravage’s early influence, or perhaps this was simply the way this particular carrier had always been sparked to be. Either way, it made him one of the most unique masters Laserbeak had ever served. He spread his wings obligingly, shifting the overlapping leaves of armor to expose the fine interlocking rotor joints and articulations beneath.
Relaxing into Soundwave’s touch, Laserbeak’s optics dimmed in pleasure at the first strokes over his frame. Soundwave’s talons were careful, swabbing with delicate care, and he couldn’t help but luxuriate in the attention. They’d had so little time for things like this, recently ....
On the other side of the little room, scarlet optics blinked open, watching them. Soundwave could feel one of the two mechkin rouse from his uneasy recharge, his attention sharpening. It was strange, having so many unbonded symbionts in such close quarters with Soundwave’s own cohort. While he didn’t begrudge them the space or the energon, he could not help but feel the pressure of their grief. Their fear and their expectations beat against his plating, making him want to reach out and comfort, to assume duties that were not properly his, at least when it came to their care. Perhaps this was why chroniclers sparkbudded so rarely. Balancing the needs of a hatchling against those of a cohort full of symbionts -- or, in the case of a symbiont, the directives of a carrier -- would be a difficult prospect, to say the least, and Soundwave had certainly never had the urge to try.
He concentrated on Laserbeak instead, stroking the metalmesh gently over those recently-wounded wings, searching out the fine weld-lines and subtle imperfections that still remained. They were less visible than before, he noted, the marks slowly disappearing as self-repair nanites did their work. Still--the memory of Laserbeak caught in that cannon-blast was still too close, too raw, for him to think on very often. He had never lost a symbiont to the Well before. The possibility that his elegant, ageless Laserbeak might have been the first …. Soundwave stifled his reflexive flinch at that thought, taking care to keep his sudden frisson of fear from showing in his field.
Handling the flightframe gently, he turned Laserbeak over, letting him spread the plating on the underside of his wings and the delicately overlapping scalemail across breast and belly. Laserbeak did so broadly and without a trace of reservation, the silver glint of protometal showing in places. A symbiont didn’t have much, not like larger mecha did -- the mass of the protometal in their adult frames was little greater than that in a hatchling’s. They needed less, with their simple transformation sequences, their limited systems. And they could sustain less, with their small sparks. The protometal they did have was still just as sensitive, and Laserbeak chirred in quiet pleasure as Soundwave let a little of the warmed solvent trickle across those gleaming silver threads, the steely internal cabling of hydraulics and energon lines.
Soundwave monitored the symbiont’s field as well, alert for any abnormalities or signs of deeper damage. Viewed under the enhanced electromagnetic receptors of his remaining sensor panels, the flightframe’s aura was a dance of light, a warm ball of radiance, with meaning in every ripple and flickering color. It had never lost its fascination, this act of watching the field settle slowly towards recharge, every wrinkle smoothing, colors deepening to mirror his own. //Laserbeak: experiencing discomfort?// Soundwave asked as the symbiont did his best to open up his plating even a little wider for talon tips and cable multitools, twisting in pleasure as the carrier checked and realigned every last link in that shining, rasp-scaled tail.
The flightframe’s reply took a moment. //...you always...// the symbiont managed; his talons curled around the thickness of a secondary cable, the tip of which was attending to one of the tiny rotating joints of his wing, as if to keep it just there, //...ask us that....//
Small optics gleamed from the berth, as the red mechkin watched them.
Moving slowly so as not to jar Laserbeak from his near-recharge, Soundwave stroked the flightframe’s plating smooth to his frame, eased his wings closed. And then, in the way that Ravage had taught him so very long ago, Soundwave applied careful pressure with his own field, triggering the flightframe’s transformation sequence and easing him through it. Laserbeak had doubtless intended to go back to the repair of the arena -- but the symbiont could assuredly use the rest. Sliding his armor open, Soundwave docked his cassette with patient care, and sat quietly for a moment while the symbiont’s systems linked with his.
Then Soundwave gathered up the metalmesh, and disposed of the small cube of solvent.
On the berth, Rumble set about separating himself from his cohort-brother. The blue mechkin twitched in his uneasy recharge, missing the warmth of the field at his back, and Rumble moved carefully. He made his way over to the edge of the berth, climbed down the rungs set into the edge of one support, and made his way over to Soundwave’s pede. The mechkin radiated nervousness and discomfort, but his small hands were clenched in determination. //Hey,// he said sullenly.
Soundwave turned, looking down. “Rumble,” he replied quietly, tilting his helm in acknowledgment. “Query: in discomfort? Energon, required?”
“Uh--no. Nuthin’ like that.” Rumble said, his pugnacious attitude fraying around the edges a bit under Soundwave’s visored stare. “I just need to talk to ya.”
Soundwave sat back down, bringing himself closer to the mechkin’s level. If this had been Flipsides, he would have offered to lift the mechkin up higher, to perch upon a knee or a console. But Rumble’s fierce independence, he had learned, meant that the mechkin would inevitably rebuff even the idea that he needed such assistance. He folded his talons together, waiting patiently. “Soundwave: listening.”
“Er-right.” It was obvious the mechkin was not used to Soundwave’s terse speech patterns, shifting uneasily. Soundwave did his best to open up his field, to radiate acceptance and patience. “It’s just that--you already got a big mob. I know that. And it’s not like we’re not grateful for you gettin’ us outta that hole, really! But now--now Pitch is gone.” Rumble had to stop as his vocalizer hiccuped over the name, resetting with a rough metallic stutter. “He’s gone. And me n’ my brother, we don’t have anyone anymore. ‘Cept Nightstalker, of course, but--he’s not a carrier. He’s like us. He’ll try to protect us, but--he can’t. Not forever.”
Soundwave nodded silently, acknowledging the truth behind the rambling words.
“So--Pitch was doin’ his best for us. He really was. But even he was talkin’ about finding another carrier for Rasp, or Nightstalker, mebbe someone who’d lost part of their cohort. But he knew no one would take us.” Rumble looked upwards, anxiously watching Soundwave’s faceplates at that revelation. “We’re--we’re too new. Too new, only fifty vorn, and--and we just don’t *know* anything yet, yanno? Nothing useful or--or important. The way things are, who’d wanna take on newsparks like us? And... Frenzy an’ me … we’ve never been apart. Not since we were sparked, really. But he needs a carrier, worse than me or ‘Night. And you’re almost full up, I know, and he wouldn’t be able to help much but … Frenzy’s a good mech, he really is. He’s pretty strong. He’d be a great symbiont, if you could just give him a chance to learn some stuff. Ya--ya don’t need ta take both of us, ‘cause I know that’d be too much for anyone.” He drew himself up, small hands fisted at his sides. “Me n’ Nightstalker, we’re tough--we can take care of ourselves. We can go look for another carrier. But … it’d mean a lot, if I knew Frenzy was okay.”
Soundwave cycled his optics. That the mechkin were young was no particular revelation -- Ravage had long since guessed as much, and none of his cohort had ever heard of either of this pair, not even by name or reputation. But as for the rest of this.... “Query,” Soundwave said slowly, wanting to be certain what the symbiont meant by his rambling explanation, “Rumble, requesting that Soundwave court ... only Frenzy?”
Rumble’s faceplates twisted. “You slagger, you don’t haveta just *say* it like that,” he snarled, one small fist raised -- and then abruptly drew back, perhaps aware that insulting, or striking, a prospective carrier was not precisely one of the best ways to obtain the favor he sought. He reset his vocalizer, modulating the volume. “Look, you have room for one more, right? But if you take Nightstalker, then it’s just gonna be Frenzy n’ me, and... and then we’ll haveta go it alone and I don’t even know where to look and even if we found someone...” he drew up short at Soundwave’s expression. “You... ya don’t want Nightstalker anyway,” he said desperately, “--he’s always pacing back and forth and ... and scrap.” He scrubbed at his faceplates with one hand.
“Soundwave: does not intend to court Nightstalker,” said the carrier, a little bewildered. Most symbionts tended to be quite straightforward in their choice of glyphs, but Rumble was clearly exhausted. Either that, or his painful experience had caused more problems than Soundwave knew about. What did a bladeframe’s pacing have to do with anything? It was typical of the frametype, though if Nightstalker was engaging in that restless habit to excess, Soundwave might have to seek the smaller bladeframe and ensure the symbiont wasn’t harboring some hidden worry. Rumble, after all, was clearly worried enough for the entire cohort.
“So... so that’s good, huh?” Rumble said, some of the tension seeping from his frame. “That means you got a place for someone. And Frenzy, he’s pretty strong. He can get inta places, like once there was this storage locker and, uhm. Oh, and the Bo-- Pitch always said he had a good audial for tones and waves and code and scrap. So... since you can take one of us, and... I know that’s six. But... you got it pretty good here. Six... isn’t too many.” The symbiont’s vocalizer wobbled and broke on that, as if the mechkin spoke partly in question and partly in accusation. Soundwave could feel the electromagnetic ripple as Frenzy finally awoke from his uneasy recharge on the berth, optics blinking.
Soundwave gave himself a few nanoklicks to process Rumble’s words, narrowing down probabilities, drawing conjectures. Then, moving slowly so as not to startle the symbiont, he eased himself from the bench to kneel in front of the little mechkin, so as to overtop him to a lesser extent. “Soundwave, should explain,” he said thoughtfully. It was rare for a symbiont to be so concerned about the future. Most, especially very young ones, were creatures of the moment, poorly suited to planning. But then, most symbionts never went through something like this. “Bladeframes, will not often share a cohort with other bladeframes,” he continued. “Soundwave: attempting to contact other carriers for Nightstalker. Rumble, Frenzy...” and here Soundwave paused. Like it or not, the symbiont was quite probably correct. Newsparked symbionts had yet to choose their foci, had no deep wells of knowledge. They added nothing to a carrier’s rank. And while a carrier’s rank mattered little now, survival counted for everything. “...may prefer another of those carriers, when they arrive. However, six, not too many.” He paused, catching that wary, hopeful gaze with his own. “Both of you, also not too many.”
“You’d--you’d take us both?” Rumble said in disbelief. “But … wait. That’d give ya--” He stopped, visibly recounting the members of Soundwave’s cohort. “That would make *seven*--you’re glitched. There’s no way you’re framed for that many of us!”
“Soundwave: framed for ten.” He waited patiently as Rumble gaped, the mechkin obviously at a loss for words. “Current energon ration, insufficient for a full cohort. Supporting seven symbionts, difficult, but not impossible.” Especially if three of those symbionts were sturdy and relatively fuel-efficient mechkin, though Soundwave fully expected to have to explain himself to Ravage and the others. What he had told Rumble was the truth; but it was equally true that taking on two more symbionts was still a risk, given their precarious and uncertain future.
“I--you’d take us? Both of us?” Rumble said dubiously. “But … why?” Having braced himself for an argument, he was obviously having a hard time believing he’d gotten what he wanted so easily.
Soundwave tilted his head. “Rumble, Frenzy: very young, full of potential. Soundwave, wishes to see what they will become." It was, he thought, a hallmark of how desperate their world had become, that newsparks such as these were seen only as a burden.
Rumble stared at him. Soundwave turned one hand over and offered an open palm to the mechkin … and there was a subtle scrape of metal on metal as Frenzy stirred on the berth. “Rumble … I think he’s t-tellin’ the truth,” he said wonderingly.
Soundwave inclined his helm in a nod. “Offer of courtship, open to you both, if you wish to accept.” A courtship was no guarantee of bonding, and it was still possible that the mechkin might find a carrier better suited to them in that time. But the sincerity of his offer could not be denied.
Frenzy slid off the berth, stumbling in his haste, his limbs still uncoordinated from lack of unworried recharge. The optics on Soundwave were wide with awe. Rumble cycled a trembling vent as Frenzy tottered over to him. “We’ll -- we’ll be good symbionts, really good, the best ever,” he assured Soundwave.
“Yeah, ain’t nobody gonna t-touch you, not while we’re around,” Frenzy said, and the two mechkin exchanged glances. “W-we’re gonna get stronger and learn so much, s-so that doesn’t happen,” he amended.
“Uhm. So. But what’s this --” Rumble started, looked to Frenzy, who shrugged. “What’s this ‘courtship’ thing, anyway?”
This section has a soundtrack! If you’re interested, read along with this.
Soundwave could feel the change in the air. Hints ghosted past him with every new datasearch, every string query. Even the gladiators could sense it. Data brokers in Iacon were going silent, entire sections of distant networks flickering. That chilling sensation leant speed to Soundwave’s steps as he climbed these rarely-used back rampways, now too choked with debris to travel on four wheels. The Senate had been silent for two orn -- and now... now something was happening, something to bring the data-chains and networks to their knees.
Before it hit Kaon, he needed to transmit his message.
There would be no better time -- most Chroniclers would feel this unease just as he did, would be spreading their panels and listening. A few more paces, and Soundwave broke into open air, thin atmosphere stirring cool and bright around him. Overhead, a universe of stars glimmered -- somewhere among them the tiny fleck that was Xyr and its twin distant suns. Excepting the distant towers of Kaon, the arena was perhaps the tallest structure in the city, and the upper rim of the stands were clustered with communications relays of all types. From afar, the complex seemed crowned in a jagged assemblage of spines and towers.
The largest of these relays was a great spine of wires and sensors, scaled over with huge curved parabolic collectors, wrapped around a core of entangled particles, the quantum-linked shadows of distant worlds. The structure handled so much data, it was robed in an electrical field that rivaled any mech’s. Soundwave approached it with all due caution and respect, letting his field adapt, adopting the tower’s resonances and frequencies. He could feel the relayed data signals crawling along his armor, feel them shudder over his sensors, there and then gone, replaced by trillions of others, always changing. Gingerly, Soundwave unlimbered six of his cables, configuring the multitools at the tips for maintenance and monitoring ports. And then, one set of cilia at a time, he linked himself to the relay net.
It felt, in a small way, like coming home--like an echo of what once had been. He flowed seamlessly into the Kaon Arena network, his undamaged sensory panels lifting, unfolding and extending outward to their full spread, his entire frame humming with charge as he fell into the datastreams, absorbed them, separating and redirecting the constant undercurrent of transmissions, inquiries and packets and responses. Then he stretched even further, extending himself into the very heart of the communications relay, and beyond--extending his reach to all of Cybertron.
The message was quiet. It was meant for those who knew the ancient channels, the codes and glyphs that the Chronicler class used only among themselves. But in the hush before the turning of an age, that tenuous thread spread to every part of the empire.
//All Chroniclers, carriers, all symbionts who wander and are lost: our function has been forgotten, yet our duty remains. Too many have fallen; and the remainder must survive, to carry what was into the future. Cybertron endures, and enters a new era; we shall do the same. The Kaon Arena calls to all who live under the shadow of obsolescence, to the guttering and to the broken. Here, we abide; here, we call you to join us.
Soundwave, templar to Ravage, sends this message: we are here. The Kaon Arena offers sanctuary, aid, and energon to all who are willing to come, to take up their duties once more.
The future comes. Soundwave: will stand to meet it... will stand with those who wish to do the same.//
And Soundwave could feel, now, the crest of the wave reach Kaon, suborning all datastreams, gathering them up like so many ripples into the tidal swell. The wave was a babble of frantic orders, the frighteningly calm reading of an official condemnation. The wave was a litany of crimes against Senate and Prime -- and a warrant for the arrest and imprisonment of the Lord High Protector. The wave was an arctic storm of troop dispositions, mustering calls.
And the wave was a voice, the Protector’s thundering and rumbling growl, a resonance that Soundwave would never forget or mistake, for howsoever long he functioned.
Mecha of Cybertron: we have been deceived....