He came to with intakes full of the sharp mineral and heated metal taste scents of a medical bay, sterile and factory impersonal, and to an emptiness in frame and spark that was sickeningly nauseating. Systems rebooted slowly, sensors onlining in trickling cascades of null values and creeping wrongness that resolved into a baseline display across his HUD that told him nothing: //core parameters accepted, all systems normal.//
There was an amber lit notation to the side that was blinking slowly, calmly: //core access unlocked//, it said, and beneath that was //peripheral systems offline//. It was alarming, or should have been - he was relatively sure that it should have been alarming, but he couldn't focus on it beyond the creeping nausea of the empty sense of wrongness.
Something moved in his outlying sensors, accompanied by the subdued chirp and beep of medical scanners. There was a flash of yellow and orange at the outset of his optical range - the meant-to-be reassuring colors of a medtech monitoring drone, but it wasn't at all reassuring. He couldn't recall where or when or, most importantly, what had hit him that had required transfer to a larger facility than what could be had on ship. All he knew was that it definitely wasn't their shipboard drone because that had long ago been altered to a dusty sort of purple on some overcharged whim of Palisade's and etched in glyphs that had less to do with prayers for the injured and more to do with prayers that the slagged thing would keep working.
It wasn't shipboard at all, he realized - he knew the feel and vibration harmonics of every engine of every class of transport the Guard used and the feel of the berth beneath him and the air around him had none of them. Station. It had to be one of the larger stations, possibly one of the ones built around a solid mass body - their gravity was set too high and the atmosphere felt thicker than it should have been in his intakes. Which meant an alpha first class med facility, but also meant he must have been well and truly slagged to need that kind of repair.
Absorbed in watching the drone go about its tasks - fluid, electrical, and spark monitors, all within stable ranges, but he was keen to know what liquid drips the drone was adjusting as several of them fed into lines spliced to his own systems - he was caught by surprise at a light touch on his opposite shoulder. It startled him, spinning a dozen automatic first response protocols up...
Errors, //peripherals offline, systems unresponsive//, flooded in lurid energon blue across his HUD. Secondary threat protocols, meant for backup in case of a catastrophic failure of the first, lurched him into motion - and then stopped, abruptly, entire sequence trees cut out at the root level as though they had never been.
Panic was an ugly feeling of rust and corrosion in his tanks, sour and too sharp with surging output as his engine spun up, and then that cut off too, something reaching into his base code and smoothing it over cleanly as though it had never been. It left him reeling and near purging, the gnawing emptiness that he had woken to swallowing entire sectors of his processor. //core access unlocked// was still displaying on his HUD and oh frag, he had thought it meant his physical core, the internal endomass bits and chassis interiors that medics were forever getting their hands into any time a mech was on a medberth, but...
Hands caught him, urging him to lay back, codes - someone else's codes - locking down his movement tiers so that he had no choice but to comply. "There," a voice was saying with that calm air specialist medic classes always seemed to have, "that's better, isn't it?"
No. No, it categorically wasn't, in so many ways he didn't even know where to start. There were foreign codes in his root core, overrides that had no business there, a mech he didn't know - who was neither Palisade or Signal's familiar touches - had his deepest access keys and was actively rewriting his core. He couldn't move, couldn't act, at the mercy of a stranger's control all the way down to his autonomic functions and the feeling should have been the Pit itself but all he could feel - all the medic was letting him feel - was that gaping feeling of emptiness, as though he had been hollowed out inside and left behind nothing but an exoplate husk.
The medic - slim framed, unarmored, traditional orange and white but without any rank markings that he could recognize - gave his shoulder another reassuring pat before reaching for his chin. That, at least, was familiar, the itching buzz of scans sweeping through his endomass and a brief burst of strobe across his spectrum vision as the medic checked responsiveness. Whatever was found seemed to please him; he gave a thin smile, brief and perfunctory, as he tapped open chart readouts along the side of the berth and flicked additional glyphs into the cascade of results. "Good," he said in that same calm croon, "that's very good. Much better than last time - not that I expect you remember that, we were keeping you under until we were sure you had stabilized. Don't worry, you're doing very well."
Get out, he wanted to yell. Get out Get Out GET OUT! Get out of his core, get out of his code, get out of his processor, but the panicked flare of his spark couldn't reach past the deliberately smoothed lines of his coding. The medic's overrides kept everything artificially calm over the frantic seething mass of his emotional routines.
The medic flicked through another few screen of glowing glyphs, clustered into hierarchy knots of compound medical terms that he hadn't a hope of reading even if they weren't backwards from his vantage point. "Let's just start with the simple things," the medic told him gently. "Can you tell me your designation?"
He could. Of course he could, though the question opened several new probability trees, some of which were more reassuring than others. That sort of simple query was one posed to suspected processor damage, which might also explain the depth of the core access needed by medics working to repair critical memory and core injuries. He didn't remember being injured, but he might very well not.
On the other hand there were two answers to that question; one when you were sure of who was asking it, and one when you weren't. He might have been injured. He might, legitimately, be under the care of a processor specialist who was rebuilding his core code after a catastrophic failure.
He might be on a station base that he didn't recognize, under the control of a medtech he didn't know, with no hint of his cohort-squadron medic's access codes left behind to reassure him. He might be flayed open, hacked clean through to his core, system protocols and base code vulnerable.
The medic was watching him, the mech's field where it lapped against his own professionally calm and impersonally pleasant. Slim physical fingers hovered over glyph charts in much the same way he could feel foreign systems layered through and over his own, blanketed and waiting. "Your designation," he was prompted gently.
There were two answers and the second, if there were any doubt, consisted of only factory model and framing date, the original base designation of an unsparked frame fresh from the assembly line. It could be traced easily with grid record access, but it was an answer that gave little away and told the asker only the bare minimum in a hostile situation.
The medic was waiting, the very picture of professional concern, but his HUD was still calmly flashing //core access unlocked// and every system was laid bare in ways that were worse than it would have been if just his chassis had been cracked open. He couldn't recall how he had gotten there, he couldn't recall anything leading up to it, only the sickening emptiness of things that were missing and that he couldn't remember.
'...the last time,' the medic had said, and he watched those thin multi-jointed fingers pause over indecipherable glyph charts, felt the same fingers manifest as override codes stroking lightly across his core protocol trees where nothing foreign should ever be, and wondered how many previous times there had been. He wondered what had happened those other times that he didn't remember.
He wondered, with a sick, sinking taste of rancid impurities, the gritty ice of fear, how many times he had woken and given the wrong answer and what had been cut away or changed after each one.
His voice, at least, was his own, thick with the familiar sound structures of his function cant that was rife with xenophenomes that didn't exist in the medic's smooth homeworld pronunciation. "...Guardian." The first designation, the most important one, and he didn't think it was any imagination that the medic's field rippled just slightly, something peaking past that professional calm. He swallowed an acid tang that sat like ice crystals in his fluid lines. "Twelth strike squadron, lieutenant, first class."
The medic was waiting, expectant, optics bright. He cycled his own optics, as though that fraction of a nanoklik of not physically registering the mech on a visual spectrum might make the other's presence less heavily felt. "...Ironhide."
The medic smiled with his mouthplates only, not a trace of it rippling through the placid calm of his field. "Good. That's excellent, Ironhide. You're doing really well. I think that's enough for now, though, don't you?"
It was an order, not a query. Foreign code slid effortlessly through his core protocols, cutting, snipping, things falling away to emptiness and a gaping void of nothing that lurked beneath the first stage of a recharge cycle that he had no control over and his last thought was to desperately wonder if he would remember that waking, or his own designation, the next time they let him reboot.