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Echoes of the Past

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"Come on." Anodyne grabbed Resonance by the forearm and gleefully towed him out into the street. Resonance, who had a stuffed bear nearly the size of the real animal in the crook of his other arm, followed somewhat reluctantly. Ratchet, bringing up the rear, fought back a grin. Res had won the bear; therefore, as far as Ratchet was concerned, Res could carry the bear. He could tell that Res wanted to retreat to their apartment to stow the bear safely away, because Resonance was worried somebody might tease him.

A neutral merchant ship, run by a mix of Cybertronian and Nebulan traders, had come to town and Iacon's main drag had been turned into a street fair. Throngs of humans and other organics were out, despite the crisply cold air and faint stink of sulfur in the air.

Resonance, taller than every mechanism in the city except for the gestalts, padded down the main street, following his shorter friend. His stuffed bear, which he had won at a fair booth, was definitely earning him some amused looks. Ratchet knew that Resonance, for all his dignity, had a soft spot for Terran animals, and he was secretly delighted by the bear. His expression, however, dared anyone to comment on it. Ratchet would not tease him, despite a strong desire to do so; Resonance would probably ditch the bear with the first available youngling out of an abundance of dignity if Ratchet said anything.

(He'd already saved an image capture to send to Wheeljack. Just because he wasn't teasing him now didn't mean he couldn't harass Res in other ways, later.)

Anodyne, significantly shorter but much wider than Resonance, and still larger than nearly everyone but the biggest warframed elders, gleefully led the way to the first booth selling rust sticks. There he purchased a large bag to share. Ratchet grinned at this, too, because Anodyne looked like a fierce warrior and the candy was an amusing contrast to his appearance.

His new sword was mounted on his back, and besides being recognizably Optimus's blade to every warrior who saw it, that sword was simply a very large and deadly weapon. He had blasters half concealed by the armor on his forearms, missile launchers (part of his alt) attached to his legs, and a glittering energon knife mounted to one hip. The latter was a gift from Jazz, who seemed to have the same opinion of Anodyne that Res did -- Jazz had lately been teaching the big mech knife fighting skills.

Juxtoposed against Anodyne's apparent menace was his expression -- bright, open, grinning -- and his bag of candy. One did not expect a fierce warrior to have a sweet tooth that rivaled any sparkling's. Or to look that happy.

~Now, now,~ Resonance said, following Ratchet's line of thought. ~Starscream loves candy too.~

~Starscream's not a fierce warrior, he's a banty rooster with guns and thrusters.~ Ratchet accompanied this statement with mental images of male chickens he'd seen on earth -- proudly posturing for each other, squabbling without any real reason, mating with anything that stopped moving long enough, and fussing over random and inconsequential issues.

~I'll tell him you called him a flying chicken.~

~I've said worse to his face.~

For reasons that Ratchet had never been able to understand, Res liked Starscream, and defended him without hesitation. Resonance chuckled. ~He's said worse about you, too.~

~No doubt.~

Resonance absently dropped a hand to Ratchet's shoulder and caressed it -- a casual gesture, one that said 'I love you' as much as any words did. Ratchet relaxed into the touch, and glanced up -- way up -- at Res. His grin turned into an open smile at the fondness he saw in Resonance's optics.

Resonance responded with wordless affection, and wrapped his arm around Ratchet's shoulders, resting his forearm between Ratchet's newly reinstalled medical pack and his neck.

Ratchet, next his bondmate and Anodyne, felt like a minibot. The top of his head only came up to Resonance's elbow, and was well below Anodyne's shoulder. This was driven home when Anodyne threw a casual arm around him from the other side -- Anodyne, it turned out, was touchy-feely in the extreme, even aside from his ... proclivities ... in the berth. (And for a mech who was still extremely unpopular with his peers, he seemed to have no problem in finding lovers. Most were older; Anodyne had several lovers who were old soldiers, as well as a few symbionts who seemed just as happy to frag him as to court him.) 

Ratchet, walking between them, was dwarfed by both of them. In the last several months, he'd gotten used to that feeling. Mostly. He still, in the depths of his spark, wasn't entirely happy with Resonance's friendship with Anodyne, but he made a real effort to accept it. And he did like Anodyne, who had come to mean far more to him than most apprenticies. Anodyne was genuinely a nice mech. Ratchet, however, just couldn't conquer the demons in his own spark on some days, even though intellectually he knew that it was normal and healthy for mecha to have large circles of friends. And that Anodyne was a good friend, for both of them.

However, despite his misgivings, it did feel good when the pair of them included him in their activities. It was, essentially, a normal life. It had been a long time since he'd had a ordinary and normal life, with friends and social activities and a job, and nothing more demanding on his schedule than grading the the upcoming spring semester finals.

Anodyne and Res slowed their strides so the shorter-legged Ratchet could keep up as they walked three abreast down the road. Ratchet, his own hands free, grabbed a rust stick from the bag that Anodyne was holding. He broke it in half and reached up and offered part to Anodyne; Ratchet was saving room for other treats. 

Though Ratchet liked sweet rust sticks he was looking forward to an energon crunch on a stick -- the half-crystallized, half gelled, gooey, very crunchy, excessively sweet candy was terrible for one's filters, and sold at every fair he'd ever been to. Somebody would be making them. Guaranteed. 

~And you were just thinking that Anodyne has a sweet tooth.~

Ratchet sent a mental laugh across the bond to Res. ~Oh, I make no secret that I like sweets.~

Anodyne consumed his half of the stick with enthusiasm, and was still crunching when they reached a row of hawkers selling everything from Terran textiles to Nebulan music. Ratchet, finally released from their clutches, licked rust from his fingers, took a seat on the edge of a fountain in the middle of the road, and watched as his bondmate and student split up to inspect the offerings.

Anodyne quickly began haggling over the price of a huge pillow; Ratchet assumed it was a courting gift for Skitter. Res, for his part, found a stand selling potted plants; he quickly added to his collection with the purchase of a large prickly pear cactus, a rose bush, and a small flowering tree that Ratchet earnestly hoped wouldn't grow fruit or seed pods later. Falling blossoms was going to be bad enough.

The tree was too big to fit in his subspace, so Resonance decided to drop it off at their apartment, along with the stuffed bear. Courtesy of the bond, Ratchet sensed this decision and Res didn't actually need top say anything to him. (Rodimus, passing by with a retinue of advisors -- and Starscream -- had shouted, "Nice teddy bear, Res my man!" at him. Res had grinned, and waved, but Ratchet could feel his embarrassment.)

"You and your plants," Ratchet shook his head. Resonance was slowly turning their apartment into a jungle. "Go. We'll meet you down by the acrobats."

Anodyne said, after Res left, "And I can't even keep a crystal garden alive."

Ratchet nodded. "Res was in charge of the hydroponic gardens on Titan. He misses that."

Anodyne tilted his head to one side, considering. "He ought to see if the humans need any help with the hydroponic farms here."

The big host came closer. Ratchet, despite his own affection for Anodyne, hoped that Anodyne didn't intend to walk arm-in-arm with him now that Res was gone. It would send the wrong signals to the wrong people; he was not fragging his student, thank you very much, and didn't want anyone to think he was. He'd hear about it from Skyfire and, likely, Rodimus, if they gave that impression. There were already rumors about his relationship with Anodyne as it was, because Anodyne was close friends with Res and touchy-feely with both of them.

Fortunately, Anodyne seemed to either realize the potential implications or, more likely, recognized that Ratchet was uneasy. Anodyne's natural empathy was quite powerful.

"No time." Ratchet said, answering Anodyne's comment about the hydroponic farms a bit late. He'd been thrown off his stride by the force of his reaction to Anodyne's proximity.

Res didn't have time for another project. Resonance was getting more and more involved in politics, as well as studying for his degree. Ratchet was torn about the latter; he didn't want to see Resonance sucked into Iacon's petty political squabbles, but he knew Res needed experience just in case he inherited the Matrix someday.

Anodyne sighed, and to Ratchet's relief, he kept his hands to himself. "He works too hard."

"That's Res. He always works too hard." Ratchet agreed with Anodyne's assessment.

"Was he that way before?" Anodyne asked. "I mean, when he was ... his past life?"

At some point, Resonance had told Anodyne about his past. Ratchet didn't second guess that choice aloud, though Resonance was certainly aware of his misgivings. Res had a right to tell whoever he chose about his past -- but if his identity became widely known, they would treat him differently. Ratchet was enjoying their nice, quiet life, and he didn't want to see it disrupted by old history.

Ratchet nodded, though, and answered Anodyne's question. "That hasn't changed much. He's always worked hard, regardless of his job. Even when Orion was very young, before he got into politics at all, he worked hard on the docks, then studied in his spare time."

"How come he ended up an archivist back then, and he's going into the sciences now?" Anodyne said, with a small frown. He guessed, "He was a dock worker, before ... Processor limitations?"

"Financial limitations. He had a natural processor that was significantly more complex than average for a vatborn laborer -- a fluke, that, and a lucky one. The bottom line was, though, that while he certainly had the intelligence for any field he wanted to enter, he could afford to become an archivist. That took a fraction of a vorn of study, and the Hall of Records wanted him badly enough that they gave him a partial scholarship."

Ratchet huffed a sigh. " Back then, getting into the sciences took vorns of schoolwork and then vorns of unpaid apprenticeship. The functionalists provided grants to anyone from the right caste," like himself, Ratchet thought, with a trace of shame, "but anyone who wanted to study for an occupation outside their caste? First they had to get permission, and then they had to pay for it themselves. He could have gotten the permission -- his test scores where phenomenal -- but no funds. He barely got paid enough to cover his energon, and he paid for his part of his training as an archivist by giving up his room and sleeping on my clinic floor."

"You knew Orion that long ago?"

"Oh, yes." Ratchet smiled faintly. "He was a regular in my clinic. Typical overworked laborer; he was always getting stress injuries to his hydraulics. The clinic was in a lousy neighborhood. We struck a deal -- he kept the junkies from breaking in, and he could sleep on a gurney in the back room. It was probably the only way he could have afforded those classes he was taking. They certainly didn't give loans, much less grants, to working class mecha -- and the Hall of Records was forbidden from giving him a full scholarship. Alpha Trion might have, if he could have. However, they could only cover half the costs."

"I don't understand that. If they needed him, why make him pay for the training?"

"Because, you see, certain influential segments of the population -- rich ones -- believed that if you gave a working class mech a grant, it was a free handout,and they'd 'take advantage' of it and somehow become lazy and unappreciative. They saw it as immoral, or at least, that's what the functionalists said. Nevermind that the same mecha who made those rules were disgustingly wealthy from birth and didn't have to work a day in their lives if they didn't want to."

"That's unfair ... and that can't be good for society."

"Tell me about it. But Orion was bred for heavy labor. That was his class, and it was almost impossible for a mech to change classes. It was actually seen as a waste of energon for a large mech with large engines to study the sciences, no matter how good his processor was. There were actually those who advocated pruning the processors of laborers, as they claimed that too much processor activity was a waste of energon among the working classes ... conveniently, pruning them would have made the working classes more compliant. Anyway, the only reason that he was even allowed the partial scholarship he received was that Alpha Trion himself had requested a few large framed mecha. Sometimes, they have to move very large and delicate antiquities or help at archeological sites and the laborers he normally hired were not careful enough."

"Couldn't Orion have downsized his frame, if that was the problem?"

Ratchet shrugged. "Well, there is a limit to how much smaller you can go without risky surgery to reduce the bulk of your protoform. And protoforms grow back, so the surgery has to be repeated. Look at how big Res is -- Orion, who was only a little taller than I am, was as small as he could safely go to begin with. Plus, it was also seen as a waste of resources to downsize a mech who could provide manual labor when there were many other mecha available who could fulfill the role of scientists. It was about the good of society, not the good of the individual, and society, at that time, was struggling to continue. We had far too many mecha and not enough resources."

Anodyne scowled. "But he's an alpha spark."

Ratchet shrugged again. "There were around a hundred thousand alpha sparks back then. If he'd wanted to go into the military, the functionalists would have easily approved of that. They needed soldiers. But Orion was, as his name Pax implied, a mech of peace. He didn't like fighting, and much like you, he never wanted to learn until he experienced the need first hand."

"Starscream."

"Mmmhmm. Early in the war. Starscream shot Ariel, who later became Elita One. It amazes me sometimes that Optimus was able to work with Starscream after the war, but he considered that incident part of the war, and Ariel was a legitimate target. He also said that Starscream grew up and and gained wisdom during the war and was not the same mech he was when it began."

Anodyne snorted. "This would be the same Starscream who got in a screaming fight with Ironhide last week?"

Ratchet barked a laugh. He was a bit relieved by the change in subject. "Oh, that's not immaturity, that's just foreplay."

Anodyne stared at him. "Really?"

"You didn't hear it from me." Ratchet grinned. The kid was old enough that Ratchet didn't feel guilty about including him in adult gossip, but young enough that he seemed startled to hear it from an elder. And Ratchet had gotten that juicy bit of gossip from Rodimus himself, during their once-a-week intelligence briefing; who was fragging who was, actually, considered important intelligence, both because it could affect their plans during a hypothetical war and because Ratchet might need to know who to notify if someone was injured or killed in combat. 

Of all the mecha in all the multiverses who might hook up with Starscream, Ironhide was just about the very last one on Ratchet's list. Rodimus seemed to think that was the entire appeal for both of them; nothing permanent could possibly come of it, and neither was looking for permanency. It was all about the fragging.

Ironhide-and-Starscream wasn't a secret, anyway. He'd heard the same juicy tidbit from First Aid, a few days after the intelligence briefing.

Anodyne rolled his optics. "Starscream is about as mature as Trapper."

"Trapper?"

"Skitter's little sister. She's about an earth year old. And that's the empath speaking, regarding Starscream." Unlike his telepathy, Anodyne's empathy was passive. He always knew the moods of everyone around him. Most mecha could read a lot from EM fields, but Anodyne's gift went beyond that. His spark was able to sense other sparks, and he could tell the character and emotional state of any other mech he was close to. "I've had Screamer for a few classes. I don't know how my carrier stood being near him; he's chaotic, petty, excessively emotional, and always in a bad mood."

Ratchet shrugged. "Sounds about right. You should have known him as a youngling. He was worse."

"No thank you. I have enough trouble being in the same room with him as it is."

"I'd think you would have the same reaction to me," Ratchet said, lightly. He was still astonished that Anodyne liked him. And pleased. Very, very, pleased. He liked Anodyne.

Anodyne shook his head, and gave him a surprisingly honest answer. "Res is right. You've got darkness in you, but it's balanced by lightness and goodness. You're also rock solid on your ethics and your sense of responsibility. And I like your sense of humor. Sometimes you get, umm, irrational, or jealous, but there are others who are a lot worse. Thing about being an empath is, you learn everybody has issues."

"Thanks. I think."

"Res, now -- he's something special. But you know that. He's so steady, and calm, and he's kind all the way to his core. I never want to feel him angry at me again."

"When was he angry at you?" Ratchet said, startled.

"When I yelled at you that one time for being mean to him." Anodyne grinned. "I forgot one of the basic rules of bondmates -- you poke one, the other punches you."

Ratchet snorted. "I don't need Resonance to defend me."

"No, but he will, to the last flicker of his spark." Anodyne said, expression more serious. "He told me once that he always knew that anyone Optimus chose was worthy of his own respect and care, but he didn't actually expect to love you. He said he fell in love with you the moment he saw you as an adult, on Earth, from a distance."

Ruefully, Ratchet said, "And I still don't know what I did to earn that love."

"Maybe it wasn't something you needed to earn. He loves you because of who you are, not what you've done, not done, or the particular mood you're in at the moment." Anodyne, still in serious-mode, added, "You don't think much of yourself, do you?"

"Whatever gave you that idea?" He knew better than to try to lie to Anodyne, so he defaulted to sarcasm.

Anodyne blinked at him a couple of times, then said, simply, "Don't you trust Resonance's judgement? He thinks the world of you."

"One would think you've been apprenticing with Rung, not me," Ratchet grouched back at him. "Save the platitudes for your patients."

"Yes sir."

He was about to say something else snarky to the kid when white light washed his vision out. He could see nothing; for a moment, he stood, frozen and startled, but even before the burning heat registered, he was moving. Eons of war had taught him a few basic reflexes.

Nothing good ever came from light that bright.

The light was brighter than a thousand magnesium fires.

Duck and cover was, actually, a valid survival tactic.

He flung an arm out, grabbed Anodyne by his elbow, and threw the kid into the shadow of a booth. At the same time, he could feel Resonance's startled panic.

He had time to push Anodyne out of the bright light and throw himself on top of the kid (with his medical pack facing in the direction of the light to absorb as much of the brutal radiant heat and oncoming blast as possible). He clamped his optics shut, slammed his hands over his audio sensors, and opened every orifice that he could including fuel intake, waste oil valve, hydraulic fluid reservoir caps, and joint lubes. He sent silent instructions to Resonance to do the same.

Res already had responded appropriately.

Res had been raised by Wheeljack, on a planet with a slagging explosive atmosphere. He knew blast protocols.

"Blast wave!" He screamed, both for Anodyne's benefit, and anyone else in earshot. "BLAST WAVE!"

The light faded. The after-images were green and purple; he ruthlesslessly reset his optic sensors in an effort to clear them. He could tell by the stinging pain that he'd had most of his paint nanytes charred off every exposed bit of his armor. Fortunately, he had not been facing in the direction of the light, or he would have been blinded.

His spark froze when he remembered the organics. The humans. They were far more sensitive to radiation -- photons, thermal rays, gamma -- than any Cybertronian. Any human exposed to that light within a few miles of the blast was either dead or dying. The survivor's thermal burns would be horrific, nevermind the damage radiation did. Even before he saw the casualties his medical protocols roared to life; he started analyzing possible treatment protocols against available resources. The blast had come in the direction of the medical center, which meant the best option might be to get the injured (both human and Cybertronian) through the space bridge as quickly as possible to Earth. The space bridge was deep underground and heavily fortified, and the medical center wasn't, partly because 'evacuation' was preferred to 'sheltering in place' for mass casualties.

He had activated a count of the time on his chronometer, almost by reflex. At thirty seconds, the blast struck. That told him that bomb had been roughly six miles away, and the length that the white light had lasted gave him a clue about the size of the device: small, as such devices went. Smaller than the one that had killed Optimus.

The blast, when it hit, blew the booth he'd sheltered beside over on top of them. Anodyne screamed in terror. Humans wailed, swore, and howled in terror or pain. Somewhere, someone's sirens whooped -- he thought that might be Prowl's. That guess was born out when Prowl barked nearby, "STAY DOWN!"

Anodyne was trying to get up. Ratchet jerked his hand out from under him with an impatient sweep of his hand. "Stay down!" He growled.

Anodyne whimpered, but didn't try to push himself up again. Ratchet, sprawled over his back, shifted so that the medical pack mounted to his back would take the force of the return wave.

Ratchet remembered his young protege was an empath. "Shield!" He said, and then when Anodyne continued to sob, he thumped him hard between the shoulders with a fist. "SHIELD!"

"Pain!" Anodyne gasped. "Scared!"

"Shield, damnit!"

The kid's spark shields had never been tested. He was struggling to cope with an overload of emotional input.

"Ground!" Ratchet knew nothing of Cybertronian psi abilities save a rough working theoretical knowledge. That meant he had a general idea of what Anodyne needed to do, though no specific. Had Soundwave been here, he could have uplinked with him and shown him what needed to be done. Feeling somewhat helpless, Ratchet said insistently, "Focus on your spark! Focus on it! Block out anything that isn't yours!"

Anodyne let out a sharp gasp, "Skitter! She's hurt!"

How the hell did the kid know Skitter was hurt? He wasn't bonded ...

"Skitter!!!!" Anodyne wailed.

Then Ratchet was distracted by Resonance's wail of mental terror as the blast wave hit the dormitory, ten seconds after it had hit the market. Ratchet was aware of crushing force, and flying debris peppering his bondmate's frame, and then a terrible, frightening absence.

He'd lost Optimus to a similar device.

He screamed Resonance's name and didn't even realize he had until his vocalizer fritzed with a painful burst of static. Horror, terror, memory struck. He was all alone ... he was going to be all alone again ...

"Ratchet!" Anodyne shouted at him, just as the return wave hit them from the opposite direction. Ratchet reflexively flattened out as best he could as shrapnel pounded into his frame.

The noise.

Now that he was reasonably sure he was going to survive at least a few minutes longer, that death was imminent within seconds, he became aware of sensory input.

The noise was unbelievable. Destruction, on a city-wide scale.

The smells.

Soot.

Burnt flesh.

Spilled energon.

Burning energon.

Ozone.

Sulfur.

Hot metal.

Moisture.

It was going to rain ... the fireball had triggered storm clouds. Over the continuing noise of falling debris and crumbling buildings and the terrified screams of humans and the wails of Cybertronians he could hear the rumble of thunder. The rain would be both acidic and radioactive; likely, the radiation levels would be high enough to be dangerous even to Cybertronian neurocircuits and sensors. They had to find shelter in a hurry.

And Resonance ....!

As quickly as it had disappeared, the awareness of Resonance returned.

~Resonance!~

~I'm okay.~ Resonance felt frightened, but his response was far more coherent than Ratchet's current state of mind. ~I hit my head and glitched out.~

~Run a diagnostic.~

~I am already. That was a nuke?~

~No shit.~ He peered around. Everything was blackened, anything flammable was burning, and a soot-covered human was staring at him from a pile of rubble near a burning cube of dropped energon. No, not soot-covered ... burnt like a piece of barbequed meat. And 'staring' was dead, motionless, blank eyes.

He gulped.

Anodyne whimpered. Anodyne was seeing the same things. Anodyne was feeling the terror of every Cybertronian mechanism within his range, because he was certain the kid wasn't adequately blocking anything.

Ratchet sat up, taking stock of his own injuries as he did. His medical protocols were damping down his emotional response. He needed to be efficient, analytical, and professional for the forseeable future. Anodyne had not yet developed those protocols, and as soon as Anodyne pushed himself up to his hands and knees he gagged, then purged the contents of his fuel tank.

Prowl's siren cut off with one final warble.

Ratchet determined he was not injured badly himself other than singed paint nanytes and a few dents (wartime medics were modified to be exceedingly sturdy) and stood up. From this perspective, he could see that market was flattened and blackened by the heat. Mechanisms that could move were getting to their feet now. Most of the younglings had no idea what had just happened, and were talking loudly, agitated and confused. The elders had a very, very, good idea, and had already activated their combat protocols. They were grimly efficient in their reaction. Many had injuries from flying debris; some had been blinded by the intense light and the air was full of subsonic sonar pings as they fell back on secondary systems to orient themselves.

Over the continuing noise of collapsing buildings and falling glass and the crackle of thunder, he could hear the whine of weapons capacitors and amped-up hydraulics. His own hydraulic pumps were howling at full capacity, and when something went POP loudly in a fire, he jumped right along with all the other old soldiers.

His sparkling was terrified in his chest. He couldn't do anything to comfort her; couldn't spare the time, or emotional energy, to calm her down.

The medical center was likely gone; the blast had come from that direction, and the distance he'd calculated meant that it was near the epicenter. So was the government complex, but by dumb luck, most of the government had not been there --- he could see Rodimus's distinctive frame nearby; the Prime was helping Prowl to his feet. Prowl's femoral strut was visibly torqued, and it appeared he'd been hit by falling debris.

They saw him. He reached down, yanked Anodyne to his feet, then headed in their direction at a trot. Anodyne stumbled after him, wiping purged energon from his mouth with the back of one hand. Ratchet shouted at Rodimus, "Roddy! We need to get all the organic survivors underground! Now!"

The ones that had survived the thermal burns and blast wave overpressure and shrapnel might survive the radiation too if they could get them below ground.

Anodyne said, "My comms are out!"

"No shit sherlock!" He told his student, falling back on human profanity. The ionizing radiation would block any radio waves from equipment that had survived the EMP. Ratchet hadn't even bothered to try his comm unit.

"Where's Res?" Prowl demanded, ignoring his comment about the humans.

~Res? Where are you?~ He demanded.

Resonance didn't answer Ratchet's terse demand for his location with words, but he shot Ratchet a mental image of the fourth floor of the dormitory. The dorm had survived the blast, minus some window glass, and Resonance was shepherding humans (some bleeding or burnt) into the shelter of an interior stairwell. The dorm was directly downwind of the plume, and Resonance apparently already knew that getting above ground level was as good of a protection from gamma rays as going down -- and time was critical, as the plume was rapidly approaching his location. The Cybertronian sized stairwell, with its thick walls of metal, would be good protection for the humans.

It was already designed to be airtight; the humans used it as a shelter against acid storms. He could smell the sulfuric acid and knew that a storm was coming. That could kill the humans as quickly as radiation.

~Res, as soon as the gamma rays outside drop below critical levels, you need to get those humans to the space bridge. The Quints will try to take it and we may have to blow it to keep them from invading Earth through it.~

~Understood.~ Res responded. He was quite calm now, and Ratchet knew that was a spark trait. He'd seen Optimus, surrounded by the savage destruction of a ferocious battlefield, with actively sparking or leaking injuries of his own, calmly peruse datapads of field reports. That natural ability to remain levelheaded under even the worst of circumstances was one reason Ratchet had been attracted to him; Optimus had always been a center of firm competence in a sea of chaos.

~Your damage reports?~ He asked, knowing Res would answer without drama. He loved that ability to focus on what was important.

~Comm's offline. My optics are cracked; I got whacked in the face by something. I'll survive.~

~You got spare optical glass in your subspace?~

~Yeah. I'll get Blue to replace it.~

~Good. Bluestreak should be able to do that; it's not a lot difference than maintenance on his guns. Get one of the humans to help you if there's any fine work Bluestreak can't manage. Human fingers are great for detail work. Blue got a gun with him, by the way?~

~No. I gave him my rifle. He's a better shot than I am, figured he could make better use of it than me. It fit his shoulder mount well enough.~ Res was already thinking strategically. He also had a pair of pulse cannons mounted to his forearms, several missiles, and his twin swords, so he wasn't unarmed.

~Good thinking. Res, I love you.~

~Love you too, Ratch. Go focus on what you need to do. We'll be fine. And tell command Bluestreak wants directions on what to do -- stay here or find a place to snipe at Quints?~

"He's at the dorm," Ratchet, aloud, to Prowl and Rodimus. "He's not badly hurt and he's got Bluestreak with him. Bluestreak wants orders soon as they do some field repairs. If you want my opinion, he needs to sit tight until the gamma ..."

Rodimus's head and shoulders exploded.

Ratchet reacted a fraction of a second faster than Prowl; he grabbed Prowl by the nearest appendage, a door wing, and used it to throw the Praxian into the shelter of a half-collapsed and burnt wall. Prowl landed on something that went squish wetly, and Ratchet tried not to think about it. He was too busy shoving Anodyne after the Praxian.

"Skitter's hurt," Anodyne whimpered, next to Ratchet, as Ratchet crowded in next to them.

"How the hell do you ... you bonded with her." Ratchet said, even as he forcibly shoved Anodyne farther into the relative cover of a pile of debris. "Slaggit, you're not old enough ... pit, nevermind. Is she alive?"

"She's hurt." His optics were huge.

He'd get no help from the kid for now. "Stay put."

"I need to find her!" Anodyne bolted from the shelter of the rubble, right into the open.

Ratchet grabbed for him, too late. He wasn't about to chase after the idiot, so he stayed down. He was furious, and terrified, and the sparkling in his chest reacted by painfully bouncing off the walls of his spark chamber. His spark was no refuge for her, not now.

Every other soldier had reacted the same as he had -- they'd dove for cover. Nobody had really had time to emotionally process the fact that Rodimus was lying in a puddle of energon in the midst of the charred and rubble-strewn street, minus his head and a chunk of his upper body, but every soldier had ducked. Most had taken a few younglings with them; the remaining kids were seeking shelter out of sheer mob mentality.

There was a sniper with a high power laser cannon somewhere nearby. Their reflexive reaction was to get out of the way. And "nearby" could mean anywhere from a quarter mile away on a rooftop (Ratchet considered the ragged town's blasted skyline and decided that was doubtful) to an orbital platform.

Prowl, one door wing now canted at an angle to match his twisted leg, but alive, said, "They're up in the mountains."

Ratchet took his word for it. Prowl had probably already analyzed the vectors. Ratchet had been too busy ducking to calculate where, precisely, the gun was. He crawled closer to the tactician, however, as long experience had taught him that Prowl was very good at ensuring his own survival -- which was not particularly self-serving, given his value to the army. If he stuck close to Prowl, his own odds of survival went up dramatically. Ratchet planned to survive, thanks.

"Tell Res to get to the space bridge," Prowl said, lowly, "I want him offworld for now. He'll be a primary target."

"His status as Roddy's heir is classified," Ratchet replied, at an equally soft volume. "Though if their intels's any good, I'm sure they've figured out he's Optimus's reincarnation, and that alone would make him a target. And they could guess that he'd be on the short list to inherit the Matrix."

"All that doesn't matter. They'll shoot him because he's a shuttle."

An explosive, thunderous, crack shook the market. Ratchet peeked over the top of the pile of rubble.

Rodimus's body had disappeared from the waist down to his knees.

"Slag. The Matrix." Ratchet knew they had to save it. The Quintessons were trying to hit his spark chamber. The Matrix was not indestructible, and a Quintesson laser cannon might just have the amount of energy needed to destroy it.

Roddy's chest had opened on its own. The Matrix floated above what was left of his mutilated body. Ratchet, acting on pure instinct, beckoned it with his hand. The device should not have responded to a hand gesture -- it was not sentient on its own, supposedly -- but it floated in his direction, first slowly, then faster.

The ancient device nestled into his grasp neatly. It was warm. He was surprised by how alive it felt.

He had to get it somewhere safe. Safer. Someplace where it would be protected, sheltered, kept secure until they could get it to Resonance.

~Rodimus ...~ Resonance whispered in Ratchet's thoughts, his very consciousness choked with horror. Ratchet couldn't let himself mourn, or react with too much emotion, but Resonance had seen what had happened through Ratchet's own optics.

~Res, you can't break down.~

~Not going to.~ Resonance said, then added, ~Primus, Roddy was supposed to lead us ... oh, Primus, what do I do now? I don't know half what I need to ... I'm not ready ... what do we do now? He wasn't supposed to die!"

Resonance wanted to turn back time ten seconds, undo what had happened. If only he could step back in time, he thought, and tell Rodimus that he'd be a target. Or step back in time five minutes, and stop the squids from detonating the bomb. If only. If only. He was so rattled that Ratchet could hear his thoughts clearly.

~Res. Focus on what you need to do now. Your priority number one is keeping your own aft alive right now.~ Ratchet snapped at him.

Resonance threw up a block on the bond, likely because he recognized he was distracting his bondmate. Possibly also because he was mortal, and he'd been offended by Ratchet's impatient words. Well, Ratchet couldn't let himself be distracted right now. He had ... things ... to do.

Still acting without much thought Ratchet opened his own chest plates. The brief burst of brilliant spark light made several nearby survivors flinch. Ratchet, for a smallish mech, had an extremely powerful spark, and he was carrying a sparkling who would be an alpha, and between the two of them, they gave off a lot of light. The others had thought it was another blast.

He shoved the Matrix inside the most protected part of his frame, slammed his armor shut, and stared defiantly at Prowl. "I'll get it to Res."

"It's not connecting to you ...?" Prowl asked, uncertaintly.

"I'm not an alpha spark," he ground out. "I'm not trying to steal it. But I've got more armor than most of you and it's safest there."

Prowl nodded curtly -- Ratchet was above suspicion in matters such as these. And it was a good plan.

However, despite his words, Ratchet felt a suspicious ... warmth ... in his chamber. He might not be trying to connect to the Matrix, but the Matrix was certainly checking him out. And the sparkling was no longer bouncing off the insides of his spark chamber like a rubber ball. The feel of her was more distant, which alarmed him, but reassuringly, she was also much calmer.

CRACK.

Sourly, Ratchet thought that they'd need to shovel what remained of Rodimus up off the pavement to inter him. Ratchet, running on medical protocols, could not really react emotionally when the corpse was hit again. Others screamed, wept, shouted angrily. Rodimus, bright and young and charismatic, had been beloved. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Resonance was crying silently. Res had known Rodimus all his life; had looked up to him as an older brother and good friend.

Ratchet didn't know half of what Res and Roddy had done together when Res was young, but he got, despite the block, a quick flurry of memories from Res -- fishing trips on Earth, air surfing on Titan, and lots of laughter and affection between them. 

CRACK.

Anodyne, half a block away, tumbled to the ground with part of his lower leg missing. He screamed.

"Slag, I knew that was going to happen." Ratchet, emotions shunted firmly to the background, was furiously, if distantly, horrified in some part of his spark. His voice was calm. He might as well have said, "Pass the spanner," to one of his medical assistants. His immediate concern was practical: How were they going to get Anodyne out of harm's way? He didn't want to lose the talented young mech; in the war that would inevitably follow this terrible day, Anodyne would be a valuable resource.

Resonance's relative calm (he was steady and stable and thinking clearly despite his deeply emotional reaction) was natural; Ratchet's was all coding. Had he not been operating under wartime medical protocols, he would have been shrieking with horror right along with all the civilians.

"Don't you dare go after him." Prowl snapped.

"Don't worry." He had every intention of sticking closer to Prowl than Prowl's own paint. "I'm already running war code. From the first moment, actually."

"Good. Keep it up."

Anodyne started rolling, and rolled himself sideways off the street and under the protection of a half-collapsed fair booth. Ratchet, cautiously peering out, saw Anodyne sit up and start clamping off his own spurting energon lines. That was a bit of a trial by fire, to have to implement his recent training in field trauma on his own amputated leg. That he seemed to be doing so successfully increased Ratchet's cold, code-influenced estimation of Anodyne as a resource to be used in the inevitable war to follow.

"How's Res doing?" Jazz said, even as he flung himself over the pile of rubble and landed beside Prowl. "Hasp" had apparently managed a jail break, and Jazz was back from his "mission." Music, looking scared and small, scrambled after his carrier.

Prowl didn't jump at their sudden appearance. By contrast, Ratchet's saws flared out of his arms, and his hydraulics pressurized to their maximum setting; he was primed to react to a perceived threat with blinding speed. Jazz didn't even respond to Ratchet's startled reaction. Instead, he scanned the ruined street, and then the too-close-for-comfort mushroom cloud, a few miles away.

The cloud was growing vertically at a tremendous rate, and was lit from within by brilliant oranges and reds. It was, Ratchet thought as he followed Jazz's gaze, pretty. In a sickening sort of way.

"Ratchet?"

"Oh. Res. He's ...." He pinged Res wordlessly.

Res responded with an image of chaos. The humans were hurt. Both he and Bluestreak were trying to render aid. His vision was now clear; Bluestreak had apparently managed to replace Res's optical glass with remarkable speed.

~Get below ground!~

~The humans need me!~

~Cybertron needs you!~ Ratchet objected. Despite the restrictive coding limiting his emotional responses, he added, ~I need you.~

Resonance, wordlessly, refused to retreat to the shelter of the tunnels beneath the city. He was concerned that if he left, the humans would not stay put. They were panicked, and many seemed to think they needed to flee the building despite the radiation that the Cybertronians could detect coming from outside. The height from the ground (where fallout was collecting) and the distance from the roof (another area coated with fallout) rendered their current location relatively safe-ish. They'd be fried by gamma rays if they tried to travel at ground level any time in the next several hours. Radiation levels would drop very rapidly as the half-life on fallout was short; however, for now, the safest location was exactly where they were.

Ratchet ground his dental plates together for a long moment before relaying this to Jazz and Prowl. Like Optimus, Resonance's choices under stress were sometimes questionable; he tended to view the lives of the people he could see with his own optics more than the lives of an abstract greater population. It was a weakness that had often frustrated the command staff.

"Tell 'im to stay put." Jazz countermanded Prowl's earlier order. "It'll be a few days before they get to student housing because they won't expect to find anyone important there. They'll capture the tunnels as a priority. No good choices here, let's let 'im help t'humans. Better for his spark if he does, y'know, and they do need help. Tell him, by the way, if he does get captured, he needs to play stupid and pretend he's just another student. T'Quints'll hack him, sure, but that'll buy us time to rescue him. They won't kill 'im unless he fights them an' we need him alive at all costs. Even if that means we gotta retrieve him from a Quint prison camp later. Tell him that. Tell him his priority number one is staying alive, at all costs."

Ratchet huffed, and passed this on.

"Ah," Jazz murmured, "Leave it t' a truely devout religious fanatic t' play t' hero. Every single time."

At first, Ratchet thought that Jazz was referring to Resonance, and he was about to snap something irritated. Optimus had never been a fanatic of any sort; he had died because he was a self-sacrificing idiot, not a religious nut. Resonance, for his part, was downright skeptical about religion. He believed in Primus, but was impatient with the associated superstitions and unsubstantiated myths.

A golden streak crossed the sky. That wasn't Res -- the color was far too light, and bright, and the flier too small and shaped wrong. A seeker, a golden seeker, one who was seen as a nuisance at the best of times ... but one who truly believed his own religious doggerel ... roared across the sky with two Quintessan jets in hot pursuit. Sunstorm might be an idiot, but he was an idiot who would die for Cybertron if necessary, because he did believe he was Primus's own disciple. He'd do it for his people.

Despite knowing the likely source of the bomb was squids, Ratchet's spark clenched anyway at the sight of those sleek, deadly, pitch black craft. Sunstorm was leading the Quintesson jets on a merry chase, and shortly, Starscream and his trine joined him. But there were more Quint jets too.

If the Quints had more bombs ...

"We need to get below ground," Prowl said, clearly afraid of the same thing that Ratchet was. The fallout plume was not headed in their directionn (it was drifting towards the dormitory), but they were vulnerable to additional nukes, traditional artillery, or snipers with a different angle on their current location.

Sunstorm separated from the tangle of fighting seekers and Quint jets and roared low across the city. He fired at a location in the mountains with several of his missiles, then rolled sharply away. As he did, an energy weapon struck him. There was a spectacular blast from the seeker's secondary fuel tank, then an explosion in the mountains caused by his missiles. Sunstorm spiralled towards the ground, trailing dark smoke. Whatever he'd targeted burned happily. Ratchet saw Sunstorm transform just before he reached the ground; his medical coding calculated that, likely, that was a survivable hit and the seeker would probably land on his feet with a blast of his thrusters to slow his fall.

"Go!" Jazz vaulted the rubble pile, and Music, small and scared looking, leaped after him.

At Jazz's shout, the Cybertronians followed him. Ratchet, spotting an injured, but still living, human in the street, snagged her up and clutched her to his chest with careful fingers. Others followed his example, even the younglings. With frantic haste they scrambled for the protection of the nearest entrance to one of the myriad of tunnels that riddled Cybertron's crust.

Some corner of Ratchet's mind noted, as he ran, that there had, indeed, been an energon crunch vendor. The booth was just around the corner, and the flammable candy was now burning with intense fury. He twisted sideways as he passed it so that his back took the brunt of the flames, thereby protecting the anonymous human girl in his arms.