"Ratchet, we need to talk," Jazz said by way of greeting, ducking into the slightly less crowded med bay two days later. There were still mecha on the floor, but they were no longer stacked up.
Ratchet looked up from his work, too tired to react with irritation to the interruption. A semi-conscious, half-sedated and not quite fully grown youngling on the gurney had a deep gash in his side. It had severed multiple energon lines and gone protoform deep. Dying protomass wept from the wound, forming a silvery puddle under the mech, and an infection had clearly set in. The kid was groaning occasionally because Ratchet was running out of anesthetics. "What?"
"Verve and Music got bagged by the Quints."
"Slag." He didn't pause his work on the wound even as he talked. The kid squirmed in discomfort; he held him still with one hand even as he asked, "Quints are in the city now?"
"In the tunnels, yeah. Surface is still too hot. We've been fighting them for a day."
"... and nobody told me."
Jazz shook his head. "Sorry, we weren't sure until just now. We intercepted a transmission, though, and decoded it. They've got several kids. We think they're looking for younglings to ... keep. You know how they treat captured Cybertronians."
Ratchet growled. "Res needs to move. He's still in the dorm."
"We're working on that, but right now he's safest where he's at. Tell him to sit tight,"
Ratchet nodded curtly, even as Resonance let him know he'd heard.
~Res, I need to go through the space bridge.~ Ratchet said, several hours later, unhappy but accepting of this necessity. His function dictated that he follow the wounded. Also, he still had the Matrix and Prowl wanted it kept safe. Earth was significantly better protected than the underground base, since the Quintessons were highly unlikely to directly attach Earth again any time soon. Getting Resonance safely to the bridge was easier said than done; Prowl was undoubtedly working on it, but he didn't fit through the tunnels they still had control over, and he was at the mercy of Quint laser cannons on the planet's surface.
~I will follow you when I can. Gamma levels are dropping to the point where Blue and Percy are going to get the humans out. I ... will see you on Earth.~ Resonance felt scared; he would be alone in the ruined dorm tower until they rescued him ... or until the Quints found him. With his bulk, he couldn't follow the two smaller mecha through the service tunnels they were using to escape.
~I love you.~ He said, then added apologetically, ~I am sorry for being short with you. You needed me and I couldn't be there.~
~You have a function to perform, and I got in the way of it. I understand that.~
~Still wasn't right.~
~I won't disturb you again when you're focused on a medical case, at least not without very good reason, so it won't be an issue in the future.~ Resonance didn't sound offended, though he was also tightly blocking his emotions. Ratchet couldn't tell if this was just Resonance's usual very good shields or if he was hiding hurt feelings.
Resonance clearly heard Ratchet's thoughts because he deliberately lowered his shields so that Ratchet could feel that he was not, in fact, upset. He said gently, ~You are the center of my world, Ratchet. You are loved. Never doubt this.~
Ratchet wanted nothing more than to curl up in Resonance's arms in that moment, and bask in his bondmate's warmth and strength. He had a job to do, though, so he settled for briefly shuttering his optics and just feeling the bond that tied them together forever.
On the far side of the bridge, as soon as he stepped across the event horizon, there was a sudden and awful hole in his spark. He could only dimly sense Resonance's presence. The warmth and love that he had come to take for granted was abruptly gone, and he wondered how he'd ever survived without him.
His sparkling was extremely agitated, and bounced with painful force off the walls of his spark chamber.
He ignored the near physical pain caused by Resonance's absence as best he could, and ignored the sparkling's gyrations too, and walked steadily forward. He was sturdy
"Ratchet!" A human ran across the concrete floor of the space bridge facility. He didn't know the human, but she evidently recognized him, because she called the English version of his name. "You're with me!"
He moved out of the way of a steady stream of wounded, ferried by soldiers, and frowned down at her. "I'm with you?"
"C'mon, follow me. I'm Annette Isabeau, but just call me Anne."
"What is your function?"
"I'm a mechanical engineer." She trotted next to him, waving a bright yellow geiger counter in his general direction. "You, my friend, are glowing in the dark."
"Fallout. It's on everything." He wasn't literally glowing in the dark, but he understood the human euphemism well enough. He was covered in ash from the blast, and some of it was no doubt still radioactive despite the short half-life of typical fallout. It was not enough to be a danger to a Cybertronian, or even present much of a threat to a human in the short term, but it was detectable.
"Yep, and we need to get you cleaned up before you can work around humans. C'mon." Apparently, his estimation of the threat of the fallout to humans differed from hers.
"Aren't you a bit overqualified for ... car wash ... duties?" He demanded, even as she flung herself into an electric golf cart. He wanted to go straight back to work repairing mechanisms -- he'd just get contaminated again anyway by grunge on the wounded -- but Prowl sent him a wordless, but by the context clearly warning, ping.
Oblivious to the annoyed ping that Ratchet shot back at his commander (who was watching from a position right by the bridge), she stomped a foot down on the cart's accelerator. He jogged to keep up, feet clanging loudly against the asphalt roadway.
"Probably!" She shouted over her shoulder. "But I couldn't say no to a chance to work with Cybertronians."
He grunted, and followed her to a concrete wash bay. It was not, as he feared, a literal car wash. Several robots -- the human made, sparkless, kind -- had wands that sprayed warm, soapy, water. They weren't very bright, but they were suitable for the job of washing in places he couldn't reach.
She threw him a large brush and said, "Start scrubbing, buddy. Faster you get done, faster you can go help your patients."
He didn't want to flare his armor and reveal his vulnerable protoform in front of a stranger, but that was necessary in order to really get clean. However, to his gratitude, she turned her back and walked away, taking shelter behind a concrete wall from the minor levels of gamma radiation coming from his frame.
The robots did a pretty good job at reaching what he couldn't. For the first time in over a week, he wasn't filthy.
Limping a bit on his numb foot, he walked up to the wall and peered over it. She'd sat down on a chair and was playing with some sort of electronic device. "All clean."
She scanned him with a geiger counter. And scowled. "Mostly."
She was, he judged, being paranoid. The level of radioactivity lingering on his frame was negligible. She'd probably get a higher dose by standing close to a granite counter top or an old-fashioned tube TV than by standing near him. However, she made him wash twice more, and then helped him flush his coolant and hydraulic fluid. When he protested to Prowl, Prowl ordered him to 'allow the humans to do whatever required to alleviate their concerns.'
She was, at least, competent at the fluid flush. When he commented on her clear knowledge, she grunted, "I've helped Wheeljack a few times."
"You know Jacky?"
She glanced up at him. "Well enough to know only his friends call him Jacky."
"I've known him for most of my life," Ratchet said. "He's an aggravating fragger, but yes,he's my friend."
"Then we have something in common. You okay with giving me a lift to the hospital?"
He dropped down into root mode, and popped his door open. His insides were dripping wet, as he'd scrubbed out his passenger cabin too, but she didn't seem to mind. It was fairly warm out by human standards. She clambered in, plopped down in passenger seat, and buckled herself in. "It's just up the road. They're taking the patients there for decon."
"You can't wash them if they've got open wounds!"
"Sure we can, if we seal the wounds first." She said, with a snort. "And if you want human help, you're gonna have to cater to human phobias about radiation. We are terrified of the stuff. Mind you, I agree, the bath you just had was a bit overboard. But the techs freak if their meters beep, so we're scrubbing everything and everyone that comes through the gate."
He huffed. "Better be sealing the wounds damn well."
She nodded. "That's what I said. And they are. Trust us, Ratchet. We're not stupid, and I've got a good team here."
Something about the way she said "I've got a good team" made him search the Web quickly. He found her biography online with very little effort. Annette Isabeau had a doctorate in engineering and had spent the last several decades of her life designing space habitats for humans. He determined she knew Jacky because she'd worked with him on Titan when she was a young college student.
"You know Res, then," he realized, after he told her he'd just looked up her history.
"Uh-huh. Good kid. He keeps in touch."
She was, he realized, fairly elderly by human standards, despite her athletic build. She was certainly enough to have known Res when he was a literal child. He had difficulty gauging human ages but she had wrinkles, grey hair, and age spots on her callused hands. She was also fit, with ropy muscles stretched over a thin body.
A quick scan of her body indicated she was carrying classified Cybertronian nanytes in her system. They would both greatly extend her age and her athletic abilities. She was somebody important, then. Those nanytes were a state secret, shared only with a very few humans -- and given that Prowl, Percy and Ultra Magnus were the ones who decided which humans got them, there was no chance of corruption in their use.
"Not so much a kid anymore." Ratchet grunted.
She laughed. "So I hear. Jacky says you two hit it right off. Good for him. And you."
Somewhat to his relief, when he arrived at the vast hanger they'd converted into repair bays for the wounded, things looked like they were going smoothly. There were a few Cybertronians wandering around -- he saw both Bee, and in the distance, Jacky -- and swarms of humans.
She led him to an area she termed "intake."
They'd set up wash racks over the top of metal grates at the entrance to the hanger. "We collect all the water," she said, absently. "It's contaminated. Not sure what we're going to do with it ..."
"Ship it to Quintessa," he suggested.
She gave him a look that said she wasn't sure if he was joking or not.
"Realistically, " he ignored her confusion, "just send it back through the space bridge to Cybertron. Pit, we can just dump it into the Rust Sea. Solution to pollution is dilution and all that, and it's not like we didn't nuke each other plenty of times during the war -- the sea's got enough isotopes in it already that a few more are not going to make a bit of difference. And there's not exactly much in the way of an ecosystem to frag up. "
She said, "Seriously?"
"Have you seen the pictures of post-war Cybertron?" He countered.
"Pit. That'd solve a lot of red tape." She seemed nonplussed by the idea. Then, after what he suspected was a bit of mental math, "And the cost of sending it through the space bridge in some tankers would be less than the cost of disposal here."
He rolled his optics. Space bridge travel was not cheap, but he was well aware that hazardous waste disposal on earth was both complex and extremely expensive. "Probably."
"Here comes a patient," she said, as a flatbed truck arrived at Intake with a Cybertronian on it. A seeker, Ratchet saw, and his fingers twitched as he itched to move to start repairs. The seeker had massive injuries, and was a youngling. However, a quick scan verified that the young mech was not critical. He was one Ratchet had partially repaired already, and then left unconscious until they could finish the job later.
As she'd alluded to, the first thing that humans (in protective suits) did with the arriving wounded was to seal any leaks. Before scrubbing the wounded, they had to make sure water wasn't going to get into fuel systems because water, in sufficient quantities, could cause immediate death if it infiltrated a primary energon line of a mech who had compromised filters.
For sealing minor energon leaks they used, to Ratchet's bemusement, some sort of carbon-based polymer that was stuck like glue to anything it touched. On contact with energon, it hardened to form a tough yet pliable temporary patch. It was effective enough that he asked for the formula. Humans, he thought, were altogether too clever in their mastery of organic chemistry. They understood carbon the way Cybertronians had an intuitive grasp of metallurgy.
"Carbon isn't exactly an abundant element on Cybertron, though we can always import it," he said, after he requested the formula. With his arms folded across his chest, he watched a crew of about twenty humans and an equal number of their dumb little drones tackle the mangled frame of the seeker. Several times, they stopped to scan the kid for radioactivity as they stripped off plating and revealed the filth underneath. The humans only did the fine or delicate work that the drones couldn't, and they worked as fast as possible. Then they immediately retreated into a protective booth.
Hydraulic leaks were dealt with by draining the hydraulic fluid completely (it was also treated as radioactive, and wheeled off in barrels). Water in a hydraulic system wasn't wonderful, but it wasn't catastrophic either. They could flush and patch hydraulic systems later, at their leisure. Getting the wounded clean was their first priority.
Coolant was water based, and the humans rightfully ignored all but the worst coolant leaks. Coolant got drained into separate barrels and taken away by a forklift, then the seeker's system was flushed and refilled. When it was pressurized, the result was a fountain of neon colored fluid from a broken line in his chassis. A human swore, manually shut off the relevant coolant pump and while an increasingly impressed Ratchet watched, efficiently replaced the ruptured line with temporary rubber tubing. The second time around, there were no more gushers, just a few drips and trickles here and there.
"They'll get the minor stuff later," she said, "we're just making sure they're clean and as stable as possible before the mechanics get hold of them."
The intake crew then sealed the youngling's secondary air intakes with spray foam, and slapped an oxygen mask over the mech's face. Though Cybertronians needed minimal oxygen, they did require some to metabolize energon and generate electricity. In what was more likely a case of deliberate design in the ancestral past rather than evolution, Cybertronians took in most of their air the same way most organics did: through their mouths and nasal passages.
More oxygen meant faster healing, as repair nanytes ran on energon and extra oxygen would given them a boost. A metal oxygen cylinder was attached to the mech's helm with magnets, and the mask duct taped in place. They started an energon drip (the humans had to whack the cannula into a fuel line using a rubber mallet, but they managed to do so without too much difficulty), then plugged in a human sized hand-held medical scanner and verified that the seeker was still stable.
Only once he was thoroughly sealed against the potentially damaging water did they begin to scrub the stasis-locked seeker clean. They stripped the rest of his armor off, and anything mods that were readily removable, and started scrubbing him right down to the protoform. There was a lot of soap with embedded abrasives involved, but no harsh chemicals; the soap came in giant drums and smelled faintly of citrus. By the time they were done, Ratchet figured the seeker hadn't been this clean since the day he was decanted.
His armor and weapons were loaded into crates labeled with his name in both Cybertronian and English and carted off. Ratchet hoped they'd bring it back before the mech was roused from stasis. Cybertronians were far more sensitive about nudity than humans were, since lack of armor left them critically vulnerable to damage.
Ratchet wasn't about to wake up an armorless mech, and he hoped the humans took his advice to never do so. Their reaction would likely be a good bit worse, and more violent, than that of a human who woke up after surgery without clothes on. Humans, somehow, always seemed to have trouble grasping that Cybertronians weren't just ashamed of being seen without their armor on, but that they were taught to fear nudity from a very early age.
Working quickly, the humans then drove the truck, with its seeker cargo, to a repair bay and used a very large forklift to move the seeker from the flatbed to a repair cradle. A human wearing an exoskeleton for added strength manipulated the seeker's limbs into place, and his stats were verified again. He was, as Ratchet could have told them from his own scans, still stable.
They were, at all times, respectful and gentle. It was clear they knew they were handling an unconscious person, not a piece of broken machinery.
Ratchet grunted, satisfied that they did seem to know what they were doing. He thought the whole rigmarole with cleaning and decontamination was on the excessive side (and Ratchet was a mech who prided himself on cleanliness), but he could live with it. He expressed this opinion, grudgingly, to the human general.
"Be easier to repair them when they're clean, right?" Isabeau said. "I'll show you the rest of the facility."
Through a growing fog of exhaustion he toured it, and as he did, the anxiety and fear in his spark lessened. The humans had something Cybertronians didn't: Sheer, raw, numbers. There were billions of humans, living on a resource rich world, and what had been impossible for Cybertronians to do wasn't even particularly taxing for their tiny but amazingly resourceful allies.
In just over a week they'd put together a task force of thousands humans: Computer techs, mechanics, engineers, electricians, pipefitters, welders, heavy equipment operators, even dedicated janitors and gofers. There were humans whose sole job was fixing the human equipment when it broke. There were several food trucks outside the hanger, presumably to keep the humans fueled, and a first aid station to treat minor injuries. It was all incredibly efficient, and he couldn't help but think that there were more humans working on this one task -- repairing the injured Cybertronians -- than there were actual living Cybertronians.
He hadn't even had enough people to keep the dead hauled away. He hadn't been able to wash his wounded, much less decontaminate them. He'd piled his injured up in stacks of unconscious mecha for lack of room, deliberately keeping them in stasis lock. The conscious patients hadn't been able to lie down at times, due to the numbers. Mechanisms had died in his med bay while all alone, of things he could have treated, because he hadn't had enough people or equipment to monitor even critical cases. Despite his best efforts, his work had been inadequate.
Anne patted his leg. He didn't realize his ... relief, grief, gratitude, and a million other emotions he couldn't name ... were visible in the expression on his face until she did.
Ratchet's shoulders slumped. "You hardly even need me."
"Nonsense. There's a lot we don't know. We'll get the easy stuff, you get to tackle the complex repairs and anything involving neurocircuits, because we don't touch Cybertronian brains. And sparks. They give off x-rays. Sound like a deal, big guy?"
He nodded slowly. "Fair enough."
There had always been a population of Cybertronians near the bridge; there was, as a consequence, Cybertronian scale housing already on site. The humans were rapidly building more, but his rank got him a small, private, room rather than a bunk in the barrack. Ann sent him off to his assigned quarters with a friendly wave, telling him they'd take good care of his patients and she'd see him in the morning.
The room was basic, but not uncomfortable. It had concrete floor, a berth with a thick rubber mat on it, a desk, a few shelves, and electric lights hanging from the ceiling. The door locked, the com unit worked (though he wasn't sure who he'd call on Earth who wasn't already at the base), and there was a basket of supplies on a small berthside table.
The basket contained more of the citrus scented gritty soap, an assortment of waxes, a large chamois, sponges, brushes, and an enormous sheet of terry cloth that the humans probably meant to be used as a towel. There was also a gift card to a local detailer who specialized in Cybertronians, another to a Cybertronian diner, and a packet of applications for Terran residence papers, bank accounts, a driver's license, and the like. Apparently, they assumed he'd be staying for awhile.
He wanted to go home.
He wanted Resonance. He wanted Resonance fiercely. He wanted Resonance so badly it hurt.
He got Anodyne, instead, who knocked on his door and then pinged him before he could respond to the knock.
He palmed the lock. Anodyne blinked at him. "You okay, doc?"
"Not particularly, no." He was fighting down a desire to curl up in a ball and cry. He couldn't cry in front of his apprentice, and wasn't sure if that meant he was glad for Anodyne's appearance or not. He didn't particularly care to break down, period, and Anodyne's presence would give him the strength he needed to avoid that momentary weakness.
The next time he was alone with Resonance, he knew he'd probably collapse into a puddle of grief. He wasn't sure if he was dreading or looking forward to Resonance's embrace.
"Umm. Can I come in? Umm ..."
"Somebody giving you slag?" Ratchet demanded. He'd welcome the chance to bust a few helms, if it came down to that.
"The usual." Anodyne clearly didn't want to elaborate. "Nothing unexpected."
Ratchet stepped aside, with a roll of his optics to indicate his disgust at bullies in general. "Fine, I can't fix it if you won't tell me about it."
Anodyne shrugged. "Not asking you to fix it."
Ratchet sighed, deeply. "Fine, fine, fine. You can crash here, but this berth's not big enough for two and I'm not sleeping on the floor. Where's Skitter?"
"Right here." Anodyne patted his chest, indicating his docking ports. Skitter pinged him a greeting, which he returned.
"Photon giving you slag?" He hazard a guess at the identity of the most likely slagger. Anodyne and Photon had been moving the wounded all day together, along with Verve. Verve didn't seem likely to pick on Anodyne, though.
"I can handle it."
"Clearly not, if you're here instead of there. Ever consider just beating the slag out of him?" Photon, in Ratchet's estimate, was not much of a fighter. He was big, and like many large mecha he relied on his height to intimidate, but Anodyne was used to sparring with Resonance. Anodyne, though not as big as a shuttle, was plenty large enough and plenty skilled enough and could take him.
Anodyne sat down crosslegged on the floor. "Many times, but that wouldn't actually solve anything."
"No, but it would make me feel better." Ratchet scratched his helm. "I'd love to see you kick their sorry afts into orbit."
Anodyne smirked, but the expression didn't quite reach his optics.
Ratchet huffed, as exhaustion replaced his own flare of humor. He pinged the light, and then scowled when it didn't turn off in response to the very standardized Cybertronian radio command. The light switch was manual, and it was also no bigger than the tip of his smallest finger.
Anodyne reached a hand out, and with a very delicate touch for a mech his size, he flipped the tiny switch.
Ratchet thought he'd fall asleep immediately. He was exhausted, and he needed recharge. However, he lay for hours in the berth staring at the wall. The blue light from his optics cast gentle shadows; when he finally rolled over, he was unsurprised to see that Anodyne's own optics were casting their own golden glow against the ceiling.
Anodyne rolled over too. There truthfully wasn't any room in the berth for him, but he pressed as close as he could to the edge of the small metal platform. Ratchet could have reached out and touched him. Their fields were intermingled. Abruptly, he felt less alone. Only then could he power down.