Prompt: "Every man is born as many men, and dies as a single one."
His identifying factory number was MS-289-06L; like every frame ever sparked he had come online with that knowledge already stamped into the first lines of his base code, indelible and unchanging - model, origin site, and batch number all in one.
His designation was 'bitlet' - uttered in varying shades of affection, comfort, frustration, command, summons, or exasperation, all wreathed in the glyphs of his factory number to differentiate him from MS-256-05C, who was also 'bitlet' but who had come online an orn after he had. Sometimes the both of them were also 'youngling' or 'sparklet', depending on who in the cohort was speaking, but it was all minor variations in the same tone and meaning.
He had two combat actions to his record but that record, unlike the senior cohort's designation and rank, was filed under his ident number. There was a space there, left for a proper designation, but he had no way of knowing what that should be and none of his cohort had assigned him one yet. He was simply, like every newspark awakened into the Guard, 'bitlet'.
He knew the truth, of course. Every newspark did, traditions and history written into their coding nearly as deeply as their sworn oaths. He knew this unnamed period was only his Awakening, knew that there were 138 sparks within the Well at the time of his onlining - two lineages of which had been reclaimed in the time since he had come online while another seven spark departed for the Well since, but that left 136 unknown Guardians.
He didn't know the designations of the Well sparks. Those records were blocked to him, though Rampart had only given him an exasperated look when the squadron 2IC had caught him trying to access the files. The mech had set him three duty shifts of assisting Palisade in scrubbing down medical - which was barely a punishment, really, as Palisade had a ready supply of rust sticks and stories, both of which he enjoyed.
All told, it never really bothered him, that lack of a designation. He was 'bitlet' and 'youngling', oldest of their two newsparks, a Guardian and member of the 12th mobile strike squadron. On duty, he was the lowest ship rank, without specialty or experience, answerable to all; off duty he was welcome in every area, free to worm himself beneath arms, press into the warmth of his cohorts' field, poke helm and questions into everything, and suffer no more than the occasional annoyed "bitlet, I'm trying to work!" It just was, the way the cohort was, the way the ship and space and the rotating duty shifts were. It was all he had ever known.
He had known four vorns of that existence and might have known many more without any hardship. It was Shockcharge, their primary pilot, who caught him without warning inbetween shifts in the corridor. "Bitlet? Captain wants to see you."
He was reasonably certain he hadn't done anything (recently) that required the personal attention of the captain (or at least nothing he had been caught at), but if Wildstrike called then the members of the squadron went. Shockcharge stuck with him, nudging him along to the briefing room that served as the only formal squadron space on the ship, and it was only the other mech's heavy frame braced behind him in the doorway that kept him from bolting when the door slid back to reveal every senior cohort member gathered there.
Whatever he had done, it hadn't been nearly enough to warrant this.
Shockcharge gave him a shove forward from behind, field flicking expectation-amusement at him. Hunched up, plating clamped tight, he had no choice but to shuffle into the room, optics flicking from one mecha to the next. They didn't, any of them, look angry and that was reassurance enough for him to open his field, parsing the electric unspoken whisper of the cohorts' mood.
Anticipation. Expectation. Excitement.
Wildstrike stepped forward, catching him neatly around the shoulders and steering him forward the necessary steps to the long table at the center of the room. "Pick one," the captain directed, and it took the younger mech a confused moment to realize that there were things on the table surface - metallic disks, a little smaller than his palm plating, evenly spaced all along the perimeter of the table. Wildstrike cupped the back of his helm in one hand, a familiar and comforting touch. "Without looking," the captain clarified. "Take your time. Choose whichever one feels right. There is no wrong answer."
His ventilation caught short and sharp in his systems. This - this was important. It might be one of the most important things he would ever do. Plates flickering in a low shiver, he stepped forward, his cohort parting to give him room as he approached the table. Flat metallic disks; identical, evenly spaced, thirteen in all. He started to reach for the nearest - stopped himself, uncertain, but Signal, their secondary medic, caught his optics and nodded. "Touch all you want. Don't pick up until you're sure."
Given permission, he ran his fingers across the nearest disk. Room temperature, smooth to the touch. A base blend of titanium, tungsten, and chromium, the same as their blast armor. Exactly 4.8 tars in circumference, 0.23 thick, perfectly circular.
The next one to the left was the same. And the one after that, and after that.
He made it around the table once, examining each disk. The steady pulse of his cohort around him reassured him, but he glanced up when he reached the first disk once more. Nineteen pairs of optics looked back, waiting, expectant, but there was no urgency in the feel. No impatience pushing at him, only a background blanket hum of quiet anticipation. He hesitated and reached out once more, circling the table with slow, deliberate steps, palm sensors clicking to first one disk, then the next, looking for anything to differentiate one from the other.
There was nothing, but his fourth time around the table he found himself pausing at the first long edge, hands lingering at the fourth disk in the sequence. He made himself stop touching it, keep walking, but he hadn't made it past the far edge of the table before he found himself backtracking, hands drawn to that one identical disk. It felt warmer somehow, welcoming against his palms, and after looking around once more for something - a clue, approval, something - he drew in a deep ventilation and lifted it from the table, holding it cradeled between his hands.
The cohort collectively exvented and it was Shellburst's deep voice that exclaimed "told you!" into the quiet. Laughter, warm and welcome, burst out in his wake - "frag you," came from Lastline, amused, and Rampart's "hush, the lot of you," was backed up with several hisses for silence. Wildstrike, smiling, stepped forward to lift the disk from his hands, turning it over. There, etched shallowly into the under surface - too shallow to register to basic scanners - was the glyph emblem of the hammer, the symbol for Solus Prime.
"From the Well of Allsparks we are called, and to the Well we depart," Wildstrike said, voice heavy and glyphs forming thick, deep knots of tradition all around the spoken words. The captain placed the disk carefully back into his hands, closing the younger mech's fingers around it. "From the beginning of our freedom we have served, knowing that every Guardian is bound by oath and spark to return to our duties and that our own will come back to us."
His ventilations had ceased altogether, systems clenched tight and rigid, optics wide, spark a fast, frantic vibration within his chassis. Wildstrike's hands came up, framing his helm to either side, and it was habit printed into his mass memory to lean up as the older mech leaned down, pressing their forehelms together. The captain's voice slipped into warmer glyphs, cohort harmonics that wrapped him up and pressed him close, reassuring. "Open up, bitlet."
There were hardline medical ports buried beneath thick blast armor to either side of a mech's chassis. It was easy and familiar to fold back armor, plates flaring as the ports spiraled open. He had come online with them open, the captain linked into his systems as the elder mech had uploaded his base drives with code and compressed history. Countless times since he had opened them to elder cohort, for the transfer of data and teaching packets, code tweaks, and system alignment. Some of the system locking apprehension slipped away as Wildstrike clicked cables to ports, his code trees opening readily to the comforting data touch, letting him resume ventilations as he relaxed into the warm wash of the other's field.
That lasted for a bare klik before Wildstrike's ruffling through his code trees found the sector the elder mech was looking for. A command code he wasn't familiar with triggered; he had a nanoklik to trace it to both autonomic and voluntary branches before armor locks deep in his chassis opened, chestplates pulling back in a tesselation of plating.
He made an involuntary sound - startled, alarmed, tinged with fear - as pale gold sparklight spilled past his own plating. Wildstrike's hands cupped his helm, the elder mech crooning a low thrum of reassurance, and large hands caught him from behind to draw him back against an equally large chassis - Breaker, the eldest of the cohort, had slid up behind him, the heavy strength of his frame a solid, unwavering point and his deep, multilayered field pulsing comfort and safety.
"It's alright, bitlet," Wildstrike told him. The elder mech's hands were gentle and inside his coding he could feel the pressure-sense-charge of a datapacket queued for delivery - a large one, growing larger as the captain assembled the data for transmit. The elder mech waited until the close press of familiar frames and fields eased the alarm from his ventilations, waited several kliks more, the reassuring hum of the captain's engine a counterpoint to the deeper harmonic of Breaker's and the tangible throb of the rest of the cohort around them, until the frantic flicker of sparklight had quieted into a steadier throb. Only then did Wildstrike bump helm against his own, the elder mech's grin bright and infectious. "There. Ready now?"
He nodded, not trusting his vocalizer. Breaker had slipped the disk from his grasp and it was the artillery mech's fingers, pressed against his own, that gave him something to hold onto. Wildstrike sank down to one knee, sparklight glinting white and gold off of his black armor, tracing bright points across his faceplates as he leaned in. MS-289-06L had one moment of anticipation, fear of the unknown and apprehension, clenched tight and trembling through spark and systems, and then...
The first sound of his true designation burst through him with all the strength of a pulse blast, punching through armor and systems to explode in hot fire and an effervescent charge that was like dying and onlining all at once. He couldn't hear or parse it, too caught in the feel as Wildstrike's vented vocalization streaked charged heat through his spark, glyphs whispered into his very core. Transfer initiated, data spilling into his drives, unfurling in solar flares and nebula bursts through everything he was, filling in the gaps of everything he had ever been.
...He was a number, an interchangeable part, a slave, valued only for the hard coded skill their masters had granted him...
...He stood beside their greatest, Primus blessed, and tools had become weapons, obedience become determination, the wild charge of freedom within his spark and a number had become a name...
Memory after memory wrote themselves into him - a dozen deaths, a dozen lives, battlefields and combat, cohort, creation, a dozen different squadrons. He was an engineer, a mechanic, a medic. He worked with weapons, with living frames, with ships and parts. His frame, viewed through other optics, shifted - now red, now black, once a bright slash of fearless green, the heavy bulk of a grounder, the heavier but sleeker silhouette of a flight frame. He was lieutenant, corporal, 3IC, eldest, youngest, and everything inbetween.
Cables clicked free, others took their place, and another shock pulse of heat swamped his spark, the shape of the glyphs twisting tangibly through his core. A sound was roaring through him, vibrating struts and plating alike. Memories overlaid themselves, painting swathes of color and reality on some, leaving others as bare points of reference sketched in record entries. Every combat action, every command, every rescue or retrieval. Cohorts, mates, mentors, youngling apprentices, colleagues, millions of vorn stretching in a nearly unbroken line of recollection, record, first and second and third hand memories that wrote themselves into his drives, settling into him to sketch and shape a whole that was as familiar as his own spark.
Again and again, heat burned through core and spark, memories and data, until he was lost in it and couldn't have said how much later the physical world slowly coalesced around him. His fans were roaring, desperately venting heat and the skirling wisps of charge that were still sparking crackles of bright hot pleasure through his plating. He had lost his pedes at some point - it was the floor beneath his backplates, the floor and Breaker's knees, where the elder mech was gently disconnecting the last cable from his port, his helm cradled against the other's ventral plates.
A manual prod - Palisade, the medic's larger mass half curled against his side - prompted him to fumble for the command that would close his plates, armor sliding back into place over his spark. Solarflare was on his other side, the sniper's mass dwarfed by Shellburst behind him and everywhere he could reach by touch or field was his cohort, solid and real, the combined hum of their squadron the harmonic that made up everything of his life. This life.
Blitz shifted between his sprawled and sensor-shot knees, letting Wildstrike step into his place. The captain smiled down at him, optics bright. "How do you feel?"
There wasn't a single portion of any system that didn't feel charge swamped, weak and overloaded, sensors stripped raw by too much sensation and processors grinding from the influx of data. He wasn't sure he could feel his pedes, never mind stand on them, strutless and disconnected from his frame. He groaned, the sound static shot, and reached up to accept the elder mech's hand in a solid grip. Even his voice was heavier, different in his own audials, field and glyph layered with a deeper sense of self than the bitlet he had been only a breem before could ever have imagined. "Like I never left."
Wildstrike laughed, gripping his wrist, and between a combined pull and push from the others they hauled him upright. The captain caught him against his own chassis, steadying him, his field pulsing joy and love and greeting all at once. The others echoed it, clustered around him, and he shuttered his optics and soaked it in, knowing it for everything that it was and everything that he had been or would be, in this lifetime or any other. Wildstrike chuckled, reaching up to frame his helm between hands, the gesture something he could remember receiving and bestowing a million times, the shape of the glyphs the other spoke next solid and real within his spark, belonging to him and him alone.
"Welcome back, Ironhide."