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You wake up early, but the drone is left on your doorstep even earlier than that. As soon as you get the alerts from your security system, it isn’t soon enough. The thing has been out there for breems already, right in full view of any curious passerby. You consider leaving it out there even longer—it would be an unmistakable insult to whoever sent it, but just vague enough to prevent them from acting on it—but that will just keep making your private business public, as more and more people see your… present.

When you open your apartment door to see the thing yourself, your first impression is large — not unusual for a drone, but it’s one thing to see them as fixtures all over the planet, and another to see this particular one and realize that you’re going to have to be responsible for it. The drone’s head swivels down, and its single red optic focuses on you. There are only a few people down below on the street, but they’re staring. On the drone’s chest, there’s a battered plate where you can just barely make out—

“D-16?”

The drone doesn’t respond— of course it doesn’t, not without a voice. But it’s not intelligent enough to nod, or gesture… positively. Something. Of course it can’t do that, that would have been convenient. It just stares. If you’d bought the thing for yourself, this wouldn’t be an issue.

“D-16, follow,” you say, turning on your heel and walking back into the apartment.

At least it has the processing power to do that much. You can hear the slow heavy footfalls as it keeps pace behind you. It has to duck to pass through your doorway, but luckily your residence is not lacking for space. It can stand straight. It follows you to your sitting room, and then you turn to get a better look at it.

It’s a used drone, that’s one thing that’s easy enough to see. It’s battered. It’s filthy. Under the dirt, you can still see the remains of bright yellow stripes. Construction? Mining? Certainly some kind of hard physical labor, if they built it on this scale. You’re still not even sure the plate on its chest reads D-16, but you can’t make out anything better.

And what you missed at first glance is that the drone is holding a datapad, dwarfed in one massive, clumsy claw. You pluck it out of its grip and flick through the message. ‘Appropriate companion’, yes, yes, ‘suit your tastes’, et cetera— signed Senator Proteus. You have to sigh. Proteus. He’s at his worst when he thinks he’s being clever. You suppose he’d call this witty. Or subtle. But he has enough sway right now that it would be foolish to challenge him directly. Or at the very least… premature.

You don’t want to admit it, but you’re starting to think you’ll have to keep this thing. Temporarily. Definitely temporarily. With some of your peers, selling it off immediately would have been a clear enough message, but Proteus isn’t smart enough to be intimidated by you, and he’ll take the insult personally. And you can probably expect subtle digs from him about your new companion at every social event you attend for the next vorn or so. For a very, very generous definition of the word ‘subtle.’

The drone is still watching you. Unnerving. You pace around it as you think the situation through. It doesn’t move, but every time you pass in front of it, its one optic tracks you, right to left, before you step behind it again. By now, you’re sure that Proteus has told all of his friends about his wonderfully clever joke. If you act like you’re ashamed, if you act like you don’t want the thing, you’re surrendering ground to him.

So what’s the converse? To be grateful for it, of course. Appreciative. You need to make use of it. Publicly, as publicly as possible. Could you bring it to a party? Perhaps. It seems well-behaved enough. Drones don’t have much in the way of independent thought, so you’ll have to keep it on a tight leash. If it embarrasses you, the victory goes to Proteus and you’ll be the laughingstock twice over. But if you succeed

At the very least, he’ll never try this sort of stunt again, and that alone would be worth it to you.

From behind it, experimentally, you say, “D-16.”

It takes three ponderous steps to turn and face you. If that isn’t its name, it still answers to it, and that’s good enough for you. Now, where are you going to keep it? Certainly not in your public rooms. You have guests regularly. This thing is a tool to be used with precision. If you want it to be effective, it needs to be deployed with care. If you’d planned to buy a drone, perhaps you would have plans, but that must be part of what Proteus thinks is so… humorous. You suppose your study will do for now. Hopefully it won’t break your primary console, but here’s nothing else in there for it to damage except datapads and furniture, and either of those should be simple enough to replace.

“Follow,” you say, and lead it across your home.

It comes into your study willingly enough, stopping when you stop, standing motionless again in the middle of the floor.

And here, you stumble. “This— is your room now,” you try. You immediately regret it. Is there a standardized list of recognized drone commands? You’d expect a domestic model to understand, but would a menial labor drone even have the programming to follow that? You’re going to be annoyed if it goes wandering and breaks your things. You try a second time, “D-16, stay,” and leave.

You don’t go far. There’s a lot to be considered here. Plans to be adjusted. So you return to your sitting room to think— and wait and see whether the drone is going to disobey you and leave the room. A few breems later, you haven’t heard a single noise, and you’ve had the time to review your schedule and plan accordingly. And when you check your chronometer, you have a meeting you’ll be overdue for soon. You’re not bringing the drone, not at this stage, not looking like it does now. But it’s been well-behaved thus far… it’s a measured risk, but one worth taking. You head out, leaving the drone alone in your home.

As you drive, you take mental inventory. If the thing has been programmed for sabotage somehow, this should be a perfect opportunity, and you should be able to catch it. Any changes in your apartment should be blindingly obvious, and your computer systems should alert you of any attempted intrusions. If it’s been wired to explode— Damn. You should have checked that before anything else. You’re not playing this game as intelligently as you need to. It is the kind of present Proteus would give, but it would be simple enough to lay down a false trail pointing to him.

When you reach the government office and transform back to your feet, you meet Senator Sherma, also arriving. He nods to you, and you return the gesture. As you climb the stairs together, he leans close and murmurs, “Proteus is already asking everyone who might know whether you’ve said a word about his latest gift.”

You allow yourself to relax. Of course it was him. You’re jumping at shadows. “If he asks you, tell him I’m… charmed.”

Sherma gives you an extremely skeptical look.

You have to smile. “Honestly, I am. I find myself growing quite attached. Who knows, I may grow so fond of it that I, say… bring it to society events with me, perhaps.”

Prowl,” he says, but he’s smiling even wider than you are.

“Momus’s party,” you tell him. “Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? It— could go badly.”

“It won’t. Trust me. Can you think of anyone more likely to let me bring that thing into their home?”

“He won’t if he thinks it’ll hurt his chances at a Senate seat.”

You shake your head. “The only one who might be angry with him is Proteus. And at this point, do you really think that Momus cares what Proteus thinks?”

Sherma grins and concedes the point. As he follows you into the briefing room, he says, “Whatever happens, I’m sure it will be a very interesting show.”

Half the day is gone by the time you return home. When you go inside, there isn’t a single sign that anything has been touched. The place is as still and quiet as it is when you have it to yourself. You wander through every one of your rooms before you enter your study, but you can’t see a single thing that might have been disturbed. And when you enter the study itself— you’d lay money that the drone hasn’t moved even an inch since you left it there. It’s still facing the back wall, exactly like it was when you told it to stay. Remarkable.

You lean against the wall and watch it for a few nanokliks. Even though it must be aware on some level that you’re in the room, it still doesn’t move. From this angle, it could almost be a mech like you. It can be unsettling how drones are built in the Cybertronian image— but why try to improve upon perfection? And nobody who’s seen a drone in action could ever mistake one for a person.

“D-16,” you eventually say. Without a moment’s hesitation, it turns to face you. “Follow.”

You lead it through your home, out your front door, and right down the street. Tomorrow. That’s not much time. Not much time at all. But you won’t get another opportunity this perfect for quite a while. You can make this work.

The drone slows you down. They might look like Cybertronians, but of course they can’t transform. Why build a drone with a transformation cog? In its old line of work, it would have been worse than useless, but here? You’re limited to traveling by foot.

That’s something you’ll have to adjust for. If you want to bring it anywhere, you can’t count on being able to move with speed. And if you leave it behind en route, you certainly aren’t willing to depend on it being intelligent enough to find its own way home. Losing it would cause even more problems than selling the silly thing. Not a significant roadblock. You’ll simply have to plan with care.

And in the meantime, the doctor you’re taking the drone to isn’t far away. Now, doctor— Strictly speaking, that isn’t what you should be doing. Simple drone repairs would normally be carried out by an engineer, or a mechanic. Anything more than simple repairs— well, at that point, it’s more cost-effective to simply replace the drone.

Not an option for you. And you’re not going to make do with substandard repairs. You have money to spare, of course. But it helps that this particular doctor has a syk addiction he badly wants to keep secret. You’ve been holding onto that information, waiting for a useful opportunity to use it. So why not now? And you don’t bother to call ahead. Why give him the opportunity to prepare himself? Instead you simply lead the drone straight through the front doors of the clinic.

One aide tries to get your attention, and to his credit, even asks you to wait. You ignore him. It takes you hardly any time at all to find the doctor, just leaving a treatment room. You can see a patient on the slab behind him as the door slides shut.

He guardedly asks, “Have you been helped?”

You incline your head a bare degree. “Scalpel.”

He waits.

“I’ve recently acquired a drone. It requires a full systems check, as well as a patch job and repaint.”

“What? But it’s a—”

“I’d be more than happy to compensate you for any difficulties, of course. I just happened to be in the area when I noticed your clinic. I’m carrying out an evaluation of whether law enforcement needs a stronger local presence— I’ve heard some interesting things about the illegal drug trade in this part of the city. Do let me know if you have any information.”

You aren’t bothering to be subtle, and he takes your meaning immediately. He isn’t happy about it, but that isn’t really your problem. You get one last glare from him, and then he turns, snapping his fingers. “Drone. C’mon.”

It follows him without hesitation. You watch until the two of them turn a corner and pass from your sight, then make your way back to the main lobby. You get the attention of the aide who tried to stop you on your way in. You tell him, “If you can get me a leash of some kind, I’ll make it worth your while.” And then you find a place to sit and work.

You’re prepared to wait. Even if all the drone’s damage is superficial, most of its frame needs patching and repair, and it still needs to be cleaned from top to bottom. You aren’t as productive as you would have been without Proteus’s little present, but you still manage to answer some urgent messages, review for an upcoming military briefing— and most importantly, finalize a time and a place to meet about acquiring a new weapons shipment for this planned military excursion you’re going to be briefed about. You’ll need to leave Momus’s party early, but that suits you much better than staying there and pretending to enjoy yourself until the next morning rolls around.

The aide comes back with a leash faster than you would have thought, a slim chain with a heavy metal collar attached. As large as your drone is, this should be able to fit around its neck. You tip the aide generously, but he doesn’t leave yet.

“Sir,” he says, “Scalpel is wondering whether you want the drone to have a more— a more tasteful paint job than the one it has now.”

You consider for a moment, but, “No. Keep it as it is.” Yellow stripes and all. Just the way Proteus gave him to you.

When the aide eventually returns, trailing your drone, he runs down the list of repairs the doctor carried out. As he rattles off procedures, you nod along, keeping a mental tally as you run searches on your datapad for what this would typically cost.

Before he can tell you the total price, you hold up a hand to cut him off. You tap on your datapad for a moment and hold up a pending credit transfer for twice what the treatment should have cost you. You hold it up for the aide to see. “Is this acceptable?”

His mouth moves soundlessly for a moment before he manages, “I— Yes sir, thank you— Yes— We’re very glad to have your patronage, sir—”

So they weren’t planning to rob you that badly. You allow yourself a private smile as you bend over the datapad to finalize the transfer. Scalpel may be useful to keep around, especially if you have holds of fear and gratitude over him.

Once the credits have been transferred to the clinic, you say, “D-16, follow,” and leave.

You don’t bother with the leash, not when the drone has already proven itself on the streets. You swing the collar thoughtfully in your hand as you walk. It’s sturdy. Solid. That should be strong enough to hold it. The chain? Perhaps not. The links are more delicate. Your drone could probably snap it without much effort. That shouldn’t matter for now, not when it hasn’t been difficult to control, but that is something to keep in mind if it becomes necessary in the future.

And come to think of it— You glance back over your shoulder at the drone. You could have its frame pierced to hold the chain instead. Through the collar faring, perhaps. Or maybe the chestplate. It’s a solution that would be more elegant than what you have now. But still… so permanent. If you can control it unchained, that will make more of an impact than dragging it around behind you on a leash.

Thoughts for later. For now, the sun is low in the sky, and you realize you’ve lost the better part of the day to this distraction. By the time you return home—by foot—the shadows of the surrounding buildings have covered the roads and the light is starting to fade. The drone waits patiently behind you as you unlock your door, then readily follows you inside.

“D-16, return to your room and recharge,” you tell it.

It immediately steps around you and moves off, each stride eating up the distance slowly, but steadily. Half your attention is on it as you watch it go—honestly, you hadn’t been sure it would understand that command—but you have many other things to occupy your mind. Your days are always busy, even without a disruption on this scale. There’s still a great deal to be done to prepare for tomorrow.

You work late into the night, ignoring the periodic alerts from your chronometer. There are reports to review, military requirements that need to be locked down before you finalize your upcoming purchase, party guests to research. You know everyone who will or might attend, of course, but you need to be intimately familiar with their pet projects and causes. If you’re caught wrong-footed, you lose credibility and influence, and that isn’t something you can afford right now.

When you finally head to your berth, you grab a cube of energon to bring with you. You haven’t fueled since this morning, but you hadn’t even noticed how low your fuel levels were until you put down your work. You drink it mechanically, still distracted by everything that still needs doing, and set the empty cube aside. You’re halfway into recharge when you remember— the drone.

You indulge in some quiet cursing as you drag yourself out of your berth and to the energon dispenser to fill another cube for the drone. If Proteus ever realizes how much he’s inconvenienced you, you’re going to have him assassinated, just watch. He’s not nearly as clever as he thinks he is, but he’s more irritating than he has any right to be.

The drone is lying on the bare floor when you come into your study. It’s in recharge, but comes awake quickly as you come closer. Even once it’s out of recharge, it doesn’t move, just watches you from the floor.

Up,” you say.

It climbs ponderously to its feet, its optic never leaving your face. You grab one of its claws and shove the cube into its grip.

Eat.”

You lean back against the wall and cross your arms, watching it drink. It’s slow. It’s inefficient. The drone has to tilt its head all the way back, and then— it looks like there’s some kind of intake there under its optic, but whatever it has to work with, it must be small, because the thing is dribbling energon from the cube so slowly that it might as well not be eating at all.

It’s late. You’re tired. Finally, you snap, “Stop.”

The drone hesitates before tilting the cube upright, then swinging its head forward again, so it can look at you. It stares at you, the cube still held tight in its claws.

“Put that on the table,” you tell it. It doesn’t move. “D-16, put the cube on the table.”

It’s slow to respond, but it obeys. And then it keeps watching you. You can practically feel its optic burning a hole in the back of your neck as you turn and leave the room. You don’t have to go far, just to the energon dispenser. It’s polite to keep a few straws around, for those guests that don’t have mouths. Obviously, you’re going to need more.

The drone’s optic is on you again from the moment you turn the corner into your study. The cube is still on the table, untouched. The drone stares at you as you step to it and place the straw in the cube. It stares at you as you step back and lean against the wall again. You wave a hand at it. “Go on, drink.”

It doesn’t look away from you as it picks the cube up in one careful claw again and brings it to its face. It does know how to use a straw, it seems. Good. And then— Primus. You must be exhausted, or you wouldn’t be making so many mistakes. Just look at the size of the thing. How much fuel does a drone that size even need? Twice what you need, at least. Probably more. It can’t tell you how much it requires, obviously, and if there are diagnostic ports somewhere under that plating, you certainly don’t have the equipment it takes to read them. You should have been in recharge cycles ago. You don’t need this right now.

It finishes the cube quickly. That’s something. You take it out of the drone’s hands, and say, “D-16, follow,” as you go back to the energon dispenser. Twice your daily fuel. You’ll start from there. Except you don’t know when—if—Proteus fed the thing last, do you.

You refill the cube and hand it to the drone. You watch it eat, tapping your chin with a finger. How sophisticated are its processors? This would be much easier if manufacture of these things was standardized.

When it lowers the empty cube, you tell it. “D-16, nod if you are at least ninety percent fueled.” Nothing. “Nod if you are least eighty percent fueled. Seventy percent. Sixty percent. Fifty percent. Forty percent.”

And there, finally, it inclines its head. You curse to yourself. Probably the thing would have shut down in the middle of tomorrow if you hadn’t realized. You refill the cube for it again, and take two more empty cubes and fill them for good measure.

The drone finishes the cube quickly, and places it on the counter next to the others. It hovers over them for a moment, and you realize it’s attempting to move the straw from the empty cube to a full one. Its claws are too large, though, and the drone can’t quite grip it.

You sigh. “D-16, stop.”

It freezes, still bent over the energon cubes, then turns its head to look at you. It reaches, slowly, for the next full cube.

“D-16, I said stop.”

It straightens and takes one small step backward from the counter. All you do is lean forward, move the straw from one cube to the next, and gesture towards the table. “Go ahead.”

It’s much faster to step forward and pick the cube up again. When it finishes this one and places it on the counter, it turns its head to look expectantly at you. Good, at least it seems to be capable of learning.

While it eats, you have plenty of time to look over its new paint job. Just seeing it clean is a significant improvement, and the yellow stripes are even more striking like this. And they look so… menial, but the crisp, neat lines are far from what you’d expect to see on any used drone. There was more detailing too, that you didn’t even notice under the dirt and dents, curling scrollwork across the thing’s chest. You reach out to touch it. The drone pauses, and continues to drink. Engraved scrollwork, not just painted. Not something you’d expect to see on a construction drone, but you’re pleased. The clash between the elegant engravings and the thick yellow stripes is everything you could have hoped for.

The drone has finished eating while you’ve been preoccupied, and now it’s just standing there, watching you, holding the empty cube in one claw. You look up at it. “Nod if you’re more than ninety percent fueled.”

It bends its head, still watching you. By the math— the thing must have been nearly empty. When’s the last time it was fed? Would it even have woken up in the morning? You still don’t know how fast it burns fuel. You’ll need to figure out— something. Later. After you’ve recharged.

You take the empty cube out of its claws. “Go back to your room. Recharge. Just— Stay there until I come get you.”

You leave the cubes on the counter. They can be cleaned later. For now, you just drag yourself back to your berth. You’re barely horizontal before you fall asleep.

In the morning, you ignore alerts from your chronometer three times before you get up. By that point, it’s closer to midday than it is to morning, but you still catch yourself trying to find some way to justify a few more cycles of sleep.

You drink a cube of energon yourself, then grab two cubes and a straw to bring to the drone. It’s awake when you go to find it, just standing motionless in the center of your study. Unsettling. You suppose there isn’t much else for it to do in here. You place the cubes on the desk and tell it, “Go ahead.”

It goes straight for the cube with the straw. Interesting. It can infer more from context than you would have expected. Is that thanks to its processor, or simply because the urge to eat is that fundamental? Hm.

Once it finishes the first cube, it puts it down next to the second, steps back, and looks from you to the cubes, and back to you. Very interesting. It’s reasonable to believe this thing is a little more sophisticated than you originally gave it credit for.

You reach out to move the straw and hesitate. “If you drink this now,” you say, “Will you be overfueled? Nod if this cube will overfuel you.”

There’s a long pause, but then the drone slowly nods.

You move the straw. The drone begins to step forward, but you hold up your hand and it stops. “No.” You drum your fingers on the counter, thinking it through. Whatever happens, you are not planning to clean up the mess if this thing voids its tanks all over your floor. “When you’ve burned enough fuel that you can drink this without overfueling, drink it. Until then, don’t touch it. Nod if you understand.”

The drone nods and takes another step backwards.

It’s an experiment, possibly a risk, but you add, “You may go anywhere in this apartment until I tell you otherwise. Don’t damage my belongings”

You have some work to pass the time until tonight’s party, but none of it is all that pressing. Correspondence, mostly. You schedule enforcement patrols through the area where you’ll meet with your contact after you leave the party— not for when you’ll be there, of course, but this will make it much more difficult for anyone to lay out a trap.

And you keep half an optic on the drone. You stay in your sitting room, and from there it’s easy enough to see or hear where the drone is. It wanders in and out of each of your rooms exactly once, and once that’s finished, it makes its way into the sitting room and stands in a corner across from you. And that’s where it stays. It doesn’t move or fidget, which makes perfect sense for a drone, and it doesn’t talk, because it can’t. But it’s more unnerving than you would have thought to see it there from the corner of your eye, unmoving, just watching you.

After a few cycles of quiet, it shifts suddenly. It walks past you, out of the room, and you turn just in time to see it entering your study. The energon, you remember. Of course.

While it’s gone, you check your chronometer. There’s still some time before the party officially starts, but you’re limited by how fast your drone can walk, and besides. You want to be there early.

When the drone comes back, you’re examining the collar and leash you brought home with you yesterday. “D-16, come here,” you say. When you hear it step up and stop behind your shoulder, you add, “Kneel.”

Even on its knees, you’re still barely taller than the drone is. But it’s enough for you to slide the leash onto the collar and fasten the collar around the drone’s neck. It watches you while you wind a few loops of the chain around your hand and swing it back and forth experimentally, feeling the weight of it.

“D-16, while I’m holding the leash, you will follow me. Close enough to keep the chain slack. Nod if you understand.” It nods. “You will also avoid making contact with other mechs. But you will prioritize keeping this chain slack above that command. Nod if you understand.” It nods. Is that all you need? Oh, and— “You will not obey any other mech we encounter unless I explicitly instruct you to do so, and you will not allow anyone to take this leash. Do you understand?” It nods again. You allow yourself a smile. “Excellent.”

There isn’t any real need to use the leash on the street, but it’s no bad thing to get the feel of it before you and the drone are in company. It walks with you just behind your left shoulder, close enough that you barely need to turn your head to see it. The chain is looped loosely around your hand, not so much a control as the image of control. You’ve spent enough time walking with it by now to have some idea of how quickly it moves, and how quickly you can go without outpacing it. It is frustratingly slow when you could be driving so much faster, but at the same time, you are very aware that the two of you make an imposing sight together.

You send a private message to Momus when you get close, warning him that you’ll be a bit early. He immediately messages you back with question after question about the drone, whether you’ve brought the drone, this that and the other thing about the drone— You reply that yes, it’s with you, and you’ll be there soon enough, and after that you stop answering his messages. Translucentia Heights is an expensive neighborhood, and you and the drone are already drawing stares on the street. Even with the mixed company Momus likes to keep, you’re looking forward to seeing what kind of stir you cause at a high society party.

Momus opens the door before you’ve even reached it, giving you only the shortest greeting before edging past you to get a better look at your drone. Sherma comes out behind him, handing you a glass of engex and leaning back against the door frame.

“A mining drone,” Momus says. “Sherma, look at this. A mining drone, of all the silly things to give a person—”

“Mining?” you ask. “How can you be sure?”

Sherma winces and shakes his head, but Momus is already off and running. “Oh, it’s obvious! If you’ll just look right here, you can tell that—” Sherma reaches past you to snag Momus by the elbow and tug him back into the apartment. You follow, and the drone trails behind you, ducking to pass through the doorway. Sherma is grinning at you as Momus continues, “—actually a fairly high-end model, this is definitely an older drone, from when they were built to last—”

Sherma finally slings an arm around Momus’s neck and puts a hand over his mouth. “Hello, Prowl,” he says blandly.

Momus laughs and tugs Sherma’s hand away, leaving his arm draped over his shoulder. “Anyways. Proteus mentioned that all mining facilities on Luna II are being shut down and all personnel and resources relocated further offworld. So. Mining drone.”

“Giving me his garbage,” you say, glancing back at the drone. “Charming.”

“He’s been telling everyone about it,” Sherma says. “He asked, and I told him you seemed to like it, and he said I must have been mistaken.”

“With it all polished up like that?” Momus laughs again. “It looks fresh off the assembly line. Everyone will think it’s your new favorite toy.”

You’re not sure if that’s what people do think, but you do know you make quite a stir. You can practically socially stratify the guests by how shocked they are when they come into the apartment and see your drone. You get some odd looks from Momus’s working class friends. But the others? Some of them specifically come up to you and make empty conversation just so they can get a closer look. The bolder ones try to edge towards asking you why you brought the drone here, but you’re not going to give them satisfaction that easily.

And Proteus is off in the opposite corner of the apartment, laughing over you. You’re sure you’ll hear the particulars soon enough, but he seems to think that you don’t understand that you’re supposed to be the butt of the joke. Some of his allies are smart enough to correct him, but you’re honestly not sure he’s perceptive enough to let them.

For the most part, you stay where you are in the front room, nice and obvious, letting all the new arrivals get a look at you and the drone. You do circulate, every so often. Your drone obeys its orders perfectly. It keeps pace behind you easily, and while you might have had to edge your way through the packed apartment, the crowds part in front of the drone. It dwarfs even the largest of the other guests, and every time you enter a room with it, you can hear the conversation die down before it picks up again, with an added low buzz of whispering.

Fortunately, you don’t have to stay late. You make your excuses to Sherma, and he’ll discreetly let Momus know where you’ve gone. Then you slip out into the night, the drone trailing behind you. At first, the streets are lit by evenly spaced lights, with a bright glow from the surrounding apartments. As you turn down the streets, make your way through different neighborhoods, there are fewer lights, more darkened apartments. By the time you’re closing in on your destination, there are no street lights at all.

You’re on your guard. You scheduled an enforcement patrol to make a sweep through here less than a cycle ago, and this deal should be mutually beneficial for you and your contact. But it still doesn’t pay to be careless.

When you’re a few streets away, you take the drone’s chain and wind it several times around its upper arm. You tell it, “Follow me as though the leash was still attached. Stay close, unless I order you to do something else. And watch whoever I’m talking to.”

You’re early, but your contact is earlier. He waits as you move steadily down the street towards him. You stop a few steps away, the drone right behind your shoulder, and say, “Swindle.”

He takes one step closer. “Prowl. Friend. What is this? Whats happening here? What happened to me and you, one on one, mech to mech? How am I supposed to feel about this situation?”

“It’s a drone,” you tell him. “It doesn’t even have the intelligence of a turbofox. This is still just the two of us.”

“I don’t know,” he hedges. “It’s still not strictly within the terms of our original agreement. Maybe a little bonus would help me get past this—”

“Swindle.”

He shrugs. “You’re making me uncomfortable with this shady dealing here, friend. Can’t say I’m eager to do business with someone who’s going to push the boundaries like this.”

Hypocrisy. You’re more than familiar with Swindle’s reputation. You wouldn’t be dealing with him now if you could help it, but there isn’t anyone else who can smuggle offworld weapons onto the planet as quickly as he can. You tell him, “You want to get paid, don’t you? I’d think that would make you eager enough.”

When you open a compartment on your leg and pull out a stack of credit chips, his eyes light up. “We may be in business after all, then. An advance payment of—”

“Twenty thousand shanix,” you say. “As agreed. Twenty thousand more to follow with the initial delivery, and a further hundred thousand with the final shipment.”

“Yes, yes, definitely,” he says, taking the chips from your hand. He counts them himself, then pulls out a portable scanner and runs it over the stack. It beeps a negative, and he laughs. “Guess there’s no reason to expect forgeries when you’re in good with the mechs running the banks, am I right?”

You smile faintly. “Indeed. So this arrangement is satisfactory?”

He waves vaguely at you. “Sure, sure.

“And I can expect the initial delivery when?”

“Give it… oh, call it three days. Limits of quantum jump technology, you know.”

You’d bet that he has at least one of the weapons planetside already, but you can afford a delay, and you’re not going to give him an excuse to demand more money. “Agreed. Same time—”

“Same place? Yeah, yeah, definitely.” He’s been doing well at pretending to ignore your drone, but he shoots a glance over your shoulder. “And do you plan to bring your little friend along again?”

“Perhaps.” You turn on your heel and go, a measured insult. You can hear the drone turning to follow you, but— nothing from Swindle. With that exit, you can’t look back at him, but you turn up your audio input sensitivity to maximum, and you can’t hear anything from him either. Two more meetings, that’s all you need. It would be better if you could count on more… reliable sources, but Cybertronian scientists haven’t been fast enough to develop technology on the scale of what the Council is demanding.

Once you’re a few streets away, you let yourself relax. The drone is still there, keeping pace with you as you make your way back to the better neighborhoods. You consider taking the leash back in hand. But really, at this point, why bother? It’s as perfectly behaved as it’s been the rest of the evening, and you’re beginning to enjoy the feeling of it looming from behind you.

Even though you left Momus’s party early, it’s still late by the time you reach your apartment. This night, you even remember to give the drone its fuel before you go to sleep. Once you’re inside, you hand it a cube of energon, tell it, “Once you finish that, go to your room and recharge,” then take your cube to your own berth and savor it, allowing yourself some quiet satisfaction at how well your night went.

You wake up late again, but today it doesn’t matter. Half the Senate will be sleeping off Momus’s party for cycles longer, and as of last night, you’re confident that everything you need to take care of is firmly in hand.

You sip your morning cube of energon by yourself. You haven’t forgotten the drone, but you want to be sure you’ve thought these instructions through before you give them to it. It might have done well enough with following your orders so far, but you still don’t know how hard it will be to fix if it gets the wrong idea about something. For all you know, if you accidentally give it paradoxical orders, you’ll have to get it reprogrammed from scratch. Not an issue now, but you ought to keep that in mind.

“D-16,” you call. “Come here.”

You don’t fill a cube for it yet. But when it comes out of the study, you can see its optic go from you to the empty cube in your hand to the bare counter.

“D-16.” Its optic turns back to you. “Are you aware of how much energon you can consume before you are overfueled? Nod if you are.”

It nods.

Good. “Tap my shoulder the same number of times as the number of full energon cubes you can consume without overfueling.”

It hesitates for a moment, then reaches out, excruciatingly slowly, and taps your shoulder twice. Excellent.

You begin filling two cubes for it and go on talking. “When you’re fed in the morning and at night, that same order holds. Inform me of your fueling capacity in the same way.” You glance over at its claws. Can it operate the dial on the dispenser with those things? You doubt it. “If your energon levels drop below fifty percent, find me and inform me of how much fuel you need in the same way. But, only do that if there are no other mechs present. If there are mechs present, inform me once, mm… Once you drop below twenty percent fueled.”

You turn back to the drone, holding its two cubes. It’s still just staring at you. Did it even follow that? You add, “Nod if you understand.” It nods. “Perfect,” you murmur.

While the drone drinks the first cube, you lean against the counter. Once you move the straw from one cube to the next for it—and that’s your last straw, you need to order more—you go off to your study. “D-16, you may go anywhere in the apartment,” you call back over your shoulder.

You’ve barely even sat down at your console when the drone comes to join you in the study. You watch it warily for a nanoklik, but it goes to the far corner of the room, and just stands there. Watching you. You ignore it and get to work. That doesn’t occupy you for long. You take care of everything even vaguely approaching urgent in less than a cycle. The only person to answer your messages is Momus— you’re honestly not sure how or why he’s awake, considering how late his parties always run. It doesn’t take you long to arrange a meeting with him for the day after tomorrow.

You send other messages. You review briefings. And you adjust a few planned enforcement patrols, but by then, you can even admit to yourself that you aren’t doing anything that needs doing anymore. The drone still hasn’t moved. Right, of course— you order a supply of straws to be sent to your apartment immediately, then add some delicate little crystallized energon treats and triple-filtered engex to the order as well. You’re almost certain Decimus is going to pay you a surprise visit before your next planned presentation for the Senate. The less surprised you can look, the better. It should only be a half-cycle or so until your shipment is delivered. The drone is still watching you.

Abruptly, you get to your feet and leave the study. You don’t go far, just to your sitting room. But you do notice as you pass your energon dispenser that the drone’s second empty cube has been placed neatly on the counter, right next to the first. You turn that over in your head as you take a seat. Did you say anything that implied that as an order? You didn’t think so, but— you’re not sure. Or did the drone infer that from context? Can they do that?

And then your thoughts are interrupted when the drone follows you out into the sitting area and takes up a station, again, across the room from you, tucked into a corner. Just like before, it watches you.

You let it stay there. It’s not important. It’s enough to know that it isn’t wandering around your apartment, destroying your things. But you do find yourself growing increasingly curious about just how much the thing can understand.

When your security system alerts you that the delivery drone has arrived, you get to your feet, and say, “Follow.”

It immediately steps after you, even without being directly addressed. Interesting. But is it just following you in the same way that it came from the study to the lounge, or was it in direct response to the command? You’ll have to test this with more nuance later.

You accept your packages from the delivery drone and turn back into the apartment, letting the door slide shut behind you. “Take these,” you say, without making any effort to hold the packages out for it to accept. It reaches out with its claws to take them from your arms, and you allow yourself to smile. “Put those next to the energon dispenser. Open them.”

That’s an order with layers to it. One side of the dispenser is against a wall. And on its other side are the empty cubes that you and the drone left there this morning. How will it define ‘next to the energon dispenser’? What will it do about obstacles? And to open ‘them’— will it open the boxes? Will it do anything past that? Will it remove the contents from them? What will it do with the containers? Will it leave those next to the energon dispenser too? You’ll have to see.

You go back to your sitting room and settle down to draft a report to the Senate on the weapons purchase and testing for the upcoming military expedition. The purchase and the tests are both still pending, but there’s no reason you can’t plan ahead. You already know how all this will play out.

The drone takes some time to return, but you don’t look up from your datapad until it comes back into the room and takes up its station in the same corner it was in before. You take your time and finish drafting your report before you get up to see how well the drone did. And truthfully? Far better than you expected.

The empty cubes have been moved further down the counter to make way for your new deliveries. The boxes the shipments arrived in have been opened, yes. The container with the straws is furthest back, against the wall, but then bottles of engex and boxes of energon treats are neatly laid out on the remaining counter space. The empty boxes aren’t even on the crowded counter at all, they’ve been placed on the floor, out of the main pathway. Perhaps miner drone programming is more sophisticated than you thought? It… could make sense as a precaution in the mines, but you’d have guessed that manufacturers would sacrifice quality in favor of cost. You might ask Momus what he knows about it sometime, if you don’t mind being trapped in the conversation for a cycle or two.

You hear footsteps behind you and turn to face the drone as it follows you into the room. You smile to yourself. “Perfect.”

The rest of the day is spent in your study, working. What else would you be wasting your time on? You follow through on even the smallest issues that come to your attention, and compile several non-urgent reports for your colleagues that you’ve had the information to write for some time. You know how your dealings with Swindle will go, but it will be easiest for everyone if the Senate has full confidence in your abilities, and nobody has even the slightest reason to question your methods. The drone stands and watches you the whole time.

You eventually decide that you’ve done enough until tomorrow, and when you go to get your nightly cube of energon, the drone follows you out to the dispenser. Once you stop and turn to face it, you only have time to begin, “D-16—” before it’s reaching out towards you. It taps your shoulder with its claw two times, measured and distinct, before it pulls its arm back and stands quietly, looking at you.

Once you’ve poured the two cubes for the it, placing a straw in each one, you pour a cube for yourself and tell the drone, “You may go recharge after you’re finished.” It isn’t a direct order, but you still hear it walk back to your study before you’ve even made it all the way to your berth.

In the morning, your first thought is to stay where you are for a cycle or five longer and see how the drone responds to a disruption in routine. But no, not today. You’d wager that Decimus will be coming by today to see how things stand with you. He won’t get the information he’s after. Even if you didn’t already know his game, he isn’t assertive enough or creative enough to get what he wants from you. He’s too comfortable to play the game properly anymore, and he still hasn’t realized it. But he’ll be easy enough to manipulate

So you go to find the drone and find it already awake and waiting for you. It follows you to the energon dispenser as closely as if you’d been holding its leash, and you don’t even have to speak before it taps you twice on the shoulder and steps back to patiently wait. You lean against the counter and sip your own energon as you watch it drink. Sometime, you’ll have to skip a feeding or two so you can be sure the backup commands work, and it won’t accidentally starve itself into stasis without warning you.

It isn’t even half a cycle later when your security system alerts you that Decimus is at your door. As you walk over to let him in, on an impulse, you tell your drone, “D-16, stand behind or beside me while our visitor is in the apartment. Watch him. Don’t react to anything he says unless I give you an order as to the contrary.”

You don’t have any way to test that before letting Decimus in, but you can’t see any obvious flaws in the plan. And when you open your door and he doesn’t even manage to finish greeting you before he stares, openly, at the drone behind you, you’re fairly confident that your drone isn’t going to be any sort of problem at all.

You lead Decimus to the sitting room and take a seat with your back to the window, in a position to watch the rest of your apartment. Decimus sits across from you. When your drone takes up a station beside your left shoulder, you can see him trying to ignore it, without any real success. It’s almost enough to make you wish you’d left it as battered and filthy as when Proteus gave it to you. If Decimus is shocked now, just imagine how you could have offended his sensibilities then.

“Charming, isn’t it,” you tell him, and watch how he jumps. “A personal gift from Senator Proteus.”

He carefully ignores your remark—did you say carefully? You meant clumsily—and proceeds to waste several kliks on empty pleasantries and meaningless gossip. You play along. It’s a tedious part of the game, but one you can’t really avoid if you want to play at all. It can be useful, you suppose. It’s fascinating to observe what Decimus’s blind spots are. He can see the ambition in Momus just fine, and you give him credit for his poorly-concealed mistrust of Ratbat. But he only has the faintest idea of just how far Sherma has drifted from pure Functionist policy, and he’s even less aware of how impatient Crosscut is for economic reform, or how little he buys into Decimus’s assurances that change is coming, if he’ll only be patient.

But you notice the moment he tries to turn the conversation to your pending weapons acquisition. And you derail him. He’s barely opened his mouth when you cut him off with, “D-16. Fetch a box of energon treats for our guest.”

Decimus looks from the drone to you, then back to the drone as it steps off past him towards the other end of your apartment. You wait until it looks like he’s about to speak again, then add, “Engex? Brewed in Vos, highest quality, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it,” and follow your drone.

You reach the drone as it’s about to return with a box of the crystallized energon treats and lay a hand on its arm to stop it. In an undertone, you say, “If you are in danger of overfueling, tap my leg once with your claw.”

When you release it, it lingers for a moment, watching you. Waiting for clarifying orders, perhaps? But then it turns away, walking back towards Decimus, holding the box of treats.

You take your time selecting a bottle of engex, pulling two glasses from your cabinet. When you return, the box of energon treats is on the table between your seat and Decimus’s, and he’s nibbling one while watching your drone with poorly concealed unease.

He smiles and manages a forced laugh when you sit down across from him again. As you begin pouring the engex, he tries again to bring up your weapons contract. This time, you let him.

The first few questions are innocent enough. He should already know the answers, as a matter of fact. Things like delivery dates, promised number of prototypes, et cetera. You’ve supplied this information already. But it’s only a way for him to lead into questions about the information you deliberately haven’t provided.

You can see when he makes the jump, from the way he shifts in his seat, the way he leans forward, his optics intent on you. And so, that’s the moment when you say, “D-16, kneel.”

Decimus chokes on his engex. Before he can recover, you take one of the crystallized energon treats, and hold it out to your drone. It stares at you for a moment. The two of you lock optics. You don’t want to command it, not directly. That would take the power out of the display. But you nod as imperceptibly as you can, and it stares at you for a nanoklik longer, then bends forward and allows you to feed the energon treat into its intake.

“Don’t mind me,” you tell Decimus. “Please do go on.”

His voice is just the slightest bit shriller as he presses forward. It’s all very dull information he wants, and he’s asking it all without anything approaching creativity. Who is manufacturing your weapons. Who is providing the supplies. Who developed the plans. Who will be delivering the devices.

You laughingly brush off all the questions. Would complete transparency be a more effective way to do business? Quite possibly. It’s what you would demand if you were in charge. But no politician is willing to sacrifice their own advantage and disclose the details of their personal underhanded dealings. So… no. You will not be sharing this information today.

It helps that Decimus stumbles every time you give an energon treat to your drone. He can’t stop himself from staring, and there’s a wonderful twist to his mouth every time you slip a treat into your drone’s intake. In fact— Once you finish your own engex, you place your empty glass on the table and rest your free hand on the drone’s helmet, petting it absently while you watch Decimus, nodding understandingly as he explains to you just why he needs to know this information, and why it’s so pressingly important that you answer his questions.

Eventually, you feel a single discreet tap against your ankle. It takes you a moment to understand— but then you remember. The overfueling. Is there any way to reward a drone that it will process as a reward? You’ll have to find out. You smoothly change direction and eat the treat you’re holding yourself. But then you keep one hand on the drone’s helmet, petting it, as Decimus goes on.

Once you get tired of the game, you give Decimus a little something. He presses you again over just who will be manufacturing the prototypes you’ve promised to supply, and as before, you demur, but also mention that times are hard, and your supplier can’t afford for this information to leak before their end of the contract has been fulfilled. He latches onto that immediately, pushing you hard for more— not that he plans to share this information, oh no, simply that he wants to be certain there won’t be problems— In a few kliks, he thinks you’re working with a small firm, located within the city, one that’s had several setbacks in the last few orbital cycles and is charging you a reduced rate in an effort to rebuild their reputation. Vague (and inaccurate), but it’s enough for him to think he’ll be able to track them down.

And now that he has what he was after, he’s more than happy to leave. It takes less than a klik for him to make his excuses, tell you all about this terribly important meeting, completely forgot, must be leaving, right away— You don’t push him to stay.

The drone follows you as you escort Decimus to the door. He’s keeps looking back over his shoulder at it, completely failing to hide how uneasy it makes him. He finally bursts out with, “See here— You can hire a disposable for a pittance, why— Why keep a thing like that around—?”

“My drone?” You glance over at it, and take a step sideways so you can rest a measured, affectionate hand on its arm. “But isn’t it magnificent?”

He sputters. Idly, you wish you had a way to record him. “You could find some way to store it,” he says. “Put it to work somewhere. Sell it, even if you wouldn’t get much—”

“Oh no,” you tell him. “I wouldn’t dream of it. Did I mention? It’s a personal gift from my good friend Proteus.” You don’t think he’s enough of a fool to think you genuinely believe Proteus is your friend, but it’s enough, at least, to make him turn and leave.

Wouldn’t get much for selling it, you think, as the door closes behind Decimus. That’s worth considering. You’d need to confirm with Momus, but he gave you the impression that this was a high-end drone. Not to say that you trust Decimus to know what he’s talking about, but you have to wonder how the mining industry is doing these days. It doesn’t necessarily mean much that Proteus would decide to throw away a quality drone on you, but… His assets are tied up in mining. How much? Were his operations actually relocated? Or have they been shut down altogether? You’ll need to look into this.

After that, the rest of the day is quiet. You order some more energon treats just so you can take the surveillance device that Decimus left under your table and attach it to the delivery drone when it drops off your order. You keep an eye on your drone, but it seems content just to stand by while you work. It asks for one cube that night, and two in the morning. As the evening approaches, you debate leaving it behind while you go meet with Momus, but— why not? You put its collar and leash on, wrapping the chain loosely around your hand, and bring it with you.

In some ways, it’s nice to get out of your home, even if you aren’t using your wheels. Even if you’re tied to the pace of the drone. The people who walk past you still stare, but you take the time to really consider how they stare. Are they looking at you? No, at least not primarily. All optics are on the drone first, and then, some of them glance at you. But the drone is the focus of their attention. What is it about the thing? Size? It would be tall for a mech, but there are taller citizens in the city. You suppose that with its one optic, it could almost pass for an empurata victim. But between the paint, the nameplate, and certainly the leash, it would be hard to mistake the thing for anything but a drone.

It’s a lazy walk with the drone, and it’s a lazy, informal meeting with Momus. You meet in a bar— the proprietor wants to order you to leave your drone outside, but when you catch his gaze, lock optics with him, and ask if there’s a problem, he backs down. Momus arrives less than a klik after you do, and waves cheerfully as he goes straight from the door to the bar, ordering drinks and bringing the two glasses over to the table and sliding into your booth.

You don’t have much to discuss, really, but it’s the kind of information you don’t want being shared over any communications network. Momus knows not to ask too many questions about where you plan to acquire your weapons prototypes, but you’re able to tell him some details. When you’re getting your initial shipment, how many, when you can expect the rest.

He’s pleased to know that you’ll be getting the first few devices tonight. He asks, “Tomorrow? I can pick them up then?”

“Yes,” you say. “But remember, discretion—”

He waves a dismissive hand at you. “Please, I know how this part goes. Everybody who knows anything knows that I keep odd hours. And even half a day extra helps with turning these things around for the Senate.”

“And you’re sure you’ll be able to—”

“Oh, definitely. My contact has a scientist— totally brilliant, completely unorthodox, you’ve never seen anything like it— and I think he’d be able to come up something even better on his own if we had a few lunar cycles more, but you know how it is.”

You don’t know who his contact is, and he doesn’t know you yours is. It’s safer for everyone involved that way. You’d lay money that his contact is infinitely more easy to deal with than Swindle. Still, you have this firmly in hand. “I’ll update you if the situation changes. But I don’t expect any problems.”

After that, Momus buys three more rounds before he decides he’s made enough friendly conversation, and he can go on his way again. You do slip him the information Decimus may have given you, and advise him to look into the state of the mining industry.

“Hm.” He taps his chin thoughtfully. “Could be something. Maybe not, could just be politicians pretending to be experts when they don’t know anything, but— yeah, could be something.” He reaches out and grabs your drone’s claw, lifting its arm and rotating it, poking at its joints. “This one is nice. If you were going to reuse any of them, this is a decent choice. If mines are closing for good, most of the others probably either got left, or got scrapped. I’ll ask around the big scrapyards. Might be more likely they’d bother shipping them back planetside, with the big military push coming up. Materials are worth a bit more, you know?” He grins. “I’ll look into it.”

After that, you and the drone barely have the time to stop by your home before you have to leave again for your meeting with Swindle. No leash for the drone, this trip. You take a different route to the meeting spot this time. And you don’t aim to be early. He got there first the last time, and he’ll be attempting to hold onto that this time. If you’re there notably early and he’s still there before you, you’ll have the disadvantage and he’ll be able to believe that he outmaneuvered you. No, even though you have to take a few meaningless turns to waste a klik or two as you get close, you and your drone arrive precisely on time.

At first, you don’t see Swindle. You’re— largely confident he won’t have backed out just yet. The best outcome would be that he’s never allowed to set foot planetside again. A more likely outcome is that an assassin tracks him down on whatever sad little ship he decides to hole up on. But as you come to a stop in the middle of the alley, a shadow detaches itself from the wall and steps forward. And four more shadows follow it.

“Prowl, buddy,” Swindle laughs. “I was starting to worry you weren’t going to come through for me.”

“What is this?” You gesture at the mechs assembling behind him. “This is explicitly against the terms we agreed to.”

He shrugs. “Well, I wasn’t the first guy to bend the rules, was I? You brought a friend, and hey, I was decent enough not to put the brakes on the whole deal over a little something like that. But! I figured, you know what, why don’t I bring a friend or two to the next meeting? Balance things out, you know?

You adjust the sensitivity on your optics as much as you can. Four mechs, all larger than Swindle. The biggest might even outmass your drone. He has some kind of onboard weapons systems too. One of them looks to be a tank, as far as you can tell. Might be a problem. And at least one of them is a flier, maybe more. You can see the silhouettes of weapons in their hands. “What’s the game, Swindle? You aren’t usually this stupid.”

He laughs again. “I’m sensing some hostility here! Don’t worry, it’s nothing much at all. Barely a drop in the bucket for you. All I’m after is a tiny little increase on my commission. Call it… an extra fifty percent.”

Not happening. That would wipe out your entire profit margin, but you’re also not going to take the political consequences that come with letting this deal fall through. You size up Swindle’s four accomplices again. And— it’s a risk, a major risk, you don’t know if this will work, but you can’t see any better way forward— “D-16. Take down the four big mechs, largest to smallest.”

It moves with deceptive speed. Its first step is slow and heavy, the second is barely faster, but its strides eat up the distance surprisingly quickly, and Swindle barely has time to jump aside before your drone crashes into the group of mechs behind him.

They’ve been in plenty of fights, you can tell that just from watching them. The scene is briefly lit by bright flashes from their weapons. You see your drone bearing down on the largest mech, its claws grappling with the mech’s hands, slamming it down into the ground as the others shoot at it. You have to pause to pull a small gun from a hidden compartment in your leg, and then you move in towards the fight too.

Your drone turns to the next largest mech, but you can already see the one it took down struggling to get up. You pause, aim, take three shots to each of his kneecaps, move in closer to be sure he’s down, then shoot him once between the eyes. He’s durable. He’s still alive and groaning when lower your gun, but he’s not moving. You’ll take it. It only took you a few moments to finish bringing him down, but by the time you turn back to your drone, it’s already taking the smallest of Swindle’s bodyguards and slamming him bodily into the side of the building. You take one last look around— shoot out the tank treads on the one mech, just to be safe— and then you see where Swindle went.

As it happens, Swindle is running. You hear the squeal of tires as he tries to accelerate away, and you almost transform yourself to run him down— but the area. How many tight turns are there? How are the streets laid out? How far does he have to go before he hits the open roads? “D-16,” you snap. “Retrieve Swindle. Bring him to me.”

Your drone drops the mech he’s holding, and gives chase. Just like before, each step seems ponderous and slow, until you see how quickly the thing really moves. You take just enough time to shoot the rotors off one mech and take out the flight engines on another, and then you follow.

You stay on your feet, as much as you’re itching for your wheels. You can’t afford to take a blind turn wrong and go crashing into a wall, not right now. And as it happens, you barely turn the first corner before you meet your drone coming back the other way, carrying Swindle, one claw around each of his arms.

“Prowl, Prowl,” he says, “This is— just a misunderstanding. Between friends! You know how these things go, we can put this, put this all behind us—”

“Swindle.” You wait until he goes quiet. Wait until he stops thrashing. “You promised me certain goods. Are you trying to leave without giving me what we’ve agreed on? “

No, no no no, of course not.” He tries to struggle free again. “It’s here— right arm, secret compartment. Just have to let me free, and I’ll get them for you, right away.”

“Hm.” You look steadily at him. He grins at you, almost managing to hide the nerves. “D-16.” The brightness of your drone’s optic cuts through the darkness as it watches you. “Remove his right arm and give it to me.”

Swindle screams when the drone rips his arm off. In a better part of town you might be worried about that. But in this neighborhood? You’re fine. Swindle drops to his knees, his one remaining hand over what’s left of his shoulder, as your drone hands you the arm. It’s the work of a moment to find the catch to the compartment, open it, and tip the five little alien devices out into your hand. You examine them as closely as you can.

“These all work?”

“Yeah,” Swindle manages. “’Course they do.”

Both of you know what kind of consequences there will be if he’s lying. You drop his arm and open a compartment of your own, tucking the devices away and retrieving a stack of credit chips. You want to punish him for this. You should punish him for this. But you’re still depending on his secondary shipment. You drop the credit chips in front of him where he kneels. “Twenty thousand shanix. As agreed. I’ll be seeing you again in five days.” You nudge the severed arm with your foot. “Cooperate, and I might even pay for this patch job.”

He doesn’t acknowledge you with anything more than a sharp jerky nod, and you can already hear movement from the alley behind you. So you only say, “D-16, follow,” and leave.

Once you start moving back into better parts of the city, there’s enough lighting to see how much damage your drone really took. It’s scorched up and down its front, and there are generous dents on its torso and helmet. One of its claws is hanging looser than it should, wobbling with every step the drone takes. And when it notices you examining it and looks down at you, you can see a crack right across its optic.

You’re still satisfied— more than satisfied— with how effective the drone was tonight. You don’t have a thing to complain about with regards to its performance. But you absolutely cannot have it being seen in this condition by anybody who’s going to report it back to certain members of the Senate.

On your internal comms, you look up Scalpel’s personal hailing code. Is he asleep? Probably. But you send him a message with the highest priority rating, telling him to come to his clinic immediately. Provided he hasn’t chosen tonight to drug himself into insensibility, that should be enough to wake him up and getting him moving.

When you make your way to the clinic and test the doors, they’re locked. And still no reply from Scalpel. You curse to yourself. Do you have enough of a hold over his aide to trust him with this? No. What other options do you have? Having the doctor call on you in your apartment is much too noteworthy. Your next best option is to leave the drone there yourself, perhaps to wait with it until the morning.

You’re just entering your enforcer override codes into the door when you hear a vehicle behind you. You turn, just in time to see Scalpel transform to his feet and stomp forward, shouldering past you and going for the keypad himself.

“You know,” he mutters, “Maybe somebody here was having a nice romantic evening in with his conjunx. And maybe somebody here didn’t want to be driving over halfway across town to be catering to somebody else’s surprise medical emergency. Hypothetically. I’m just saying.”

You ignore the complaints and follow him inside, the drone trailing behind you. He leads you to a treatment room and snaps, “Drone, on the slab.”

When he gets a good look at the damage, you see him reset his optics, look again. He gives you a sideways look and says, “Now. Not my place to ask how this happened—”

“No,” you cut him off. “It isn’t.”

He shrugs and gets down to the repairs. In some ways, it’s interesting to watch him work. But it’s also slow. The rush is just beginning to hit you. You need to move, you need to drive. You’re just starting to buzz with the awareness of everything that happened, what you accomplished. The weapons are five tiny weights inside your frame, and the visual record is slowly disappearing from your drone’s chassis, but you replay and replay the memory of it taking down Swindle’s four accomplices, and then taking down Swindle himself.

The doctor interrupts your thoughts again, as he patches the drone’s optic. “Like I said, not my place to say—”

“No, like I said. It isn’t.”

“Oh, shut up,” he snaps. “I don’t care how rough you want to play with the stupid thing. But if you’re doing damage to its array, I need to know now.”

You pause. Still fail to understand. “Its array?”

His hand slams down on your drone’s chestplate, and he turns to face you. “Its interface array,” he says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. What. “Do you think you’re going to shock me? Definitely not. Can’t be done. Doesn’t matter to me what you want to do in the berth with it. But if you’re wrecking its array too, you’ll want me to get in there and fix it before you can damage its internals.” He turns back to his work. “Much harder to patch like that. Have me take care of it early.”

It takes a few moments for you to process. “Rough interface is— not an issue.”

“Whatever you say,” he grunts.

At the end of it, your drone looks good as new. When Scalpel tells you how much money he wants, you know he’s overcharging. But you know what? After a night like this, you can’t even bring yourself to care. You’re practically vibrating out of your frame with all the energy you need to burn, a medical bill is the least of your worries. You double his fee again, and tell him, “Go buy something nice for your conjunx,” before leading your drone back out through the clinic door.

If it was just you, you’d hit your wheels and take a few laps around your favorite parts of the city. But you have the drone. There isn’t really anything to do but take it back home. It’s more responsible too. Getting these alien weapons somewhere more secure is important too. It’s responsible. Which makes a poor substitute for feeling the road under your wheels.

As you’re unlocking your door, you catch yourself thinking that if Chromedome is home, maybe—

And— no. No. That isn’t an option. This is your home, and only your home. Your door slides shut behind you, and this is your space, your private, personal space, your home. You haven’t even let yourself think about him for weeks, and now you’re half angry with yourself for letting him slip into your mind now, half wondering that maybe, maybe if you tried sending him a message, then perhaps—

You’re not going down that road tonight. You’re pacing, you realize. Back and forth across the room. The drone is standing there, watching you. You stomp into your study, the drone trailing behind you. You boot up your console. Boot down your console. You’re leaning hard on the desk. You’re not going to do work right now, obviously. But then the next thing you do is pick up a stray datapad and start skimming it before you catch yourself and toss it down onto the desk again. Maybe if you send just a quick comm to Chromedome— No.

When you turn around, the drone is watching you. Your plating burns with embarrassed anger for a moment before common sense reasserts yourself and you remember that it’s only a drone. And— You can’t help thinking about what Scalpel said. You’ve just been reminded of how so many people use them. Any idiot knows what anyone who owns a domestic model is doing with the thing behind closed doors. You shouldn’t be surprised that other drones are similarly designed. They are all built in the Cybertronian image, after all.

And it does add a new dimension to the insult behind Proteus’s gift that, frankly, you missed altogether. You’re still— not used to thinking of yourself as someone in need of a partner. That’s all. You’ll have to rethink the context behind the present. Later. Because right now, you honestly can’t bring yourself to care.

You and the drone are still looking at each other. “D-16,” you say softly. “Open your panel.”

For a moment, you think it failed to understand. Perhaps you were wrong. Maybe these models were designed without interface equipment after all. And then there’s a quiet click, the drone’s panel slides back, and its spike begins pressurizing, extending forward towards you.

Your optics are locked on its spike, and your fans spin up so fast that your bearings ache. You let your own panel open and shove a hand between your legs, forcing two fingers up your valve. It’s barely, barely enough to keep you satisfied, but it’ll have to do for a klik or two. Because— you reach out to wrap your free hand around the drone’s spike. Large doesn’t begin to describe it. Massive doesn’t even seem to do it justice— There isn’t one chance in a million that you’ll manage to take this entire spike, but you’re certainly going to take as much as you can. And you’re going to need to prepare yourself very, very well before you can consider taking any of it at all.

You stroke the drone’s spike as you work your fingers in and out of yourself. There’s something about feeling that delicate, thin plating under your hands— when you dim your optics, you can almost imagine that it’s the drone’s spike in you right now, stretching you out wide and spreading you open. You can feel the faint seams between tiny, slim plates, the smallest bit of give the spike has under your fingers, and it’s so easy to think about how good it will feel inside you, moving against you.

Perhaps you should prepare yourself for a little longer. But you’re too impatient, you need this too badly. Your spark is about to explode out of your chest with how desperate you are to burn this energy, and you need it.

“D-16, sit,” you say.

The drone is slow to step back from your hand and lower itself to the floor. You barely let it get seated before you climb onto it, straddling its hips and bracing yourself against its chestplate. You take its spike in hand again and line it up against your valve. It’s so large that you have wonder if you’ll be able to take it at all. It sends a little shiver all echoing through you, just thinking about it. You grit your dentae and force yourself down anyways.

You have to stop almost immediately. Its spike is in you—barely—but it’s already so much. You can already feel the ache starting up in your valve. You take a moment to steel yourself and push downwards again. It’s just a little more, just the smallest bit more, but it feels so perfect that you know you can’t stop there.

By the time you have to admit that you can’t take anymore, you’re leaning heavily against the drone’s chestplate, your head hanging low, optics offline and venting hard. When you reach between your legs with an unsteady hand, you can feel perhaps half of its spike still outside you. Something for you to work on, if you decide to keep it. And even better, you can feel how stretched you are around its spike. You can feel the itch in your valve lips as you shift your weight, the dull, perfect pain from how full you are. When you touch your node, it’s too much in the best way, you can’t help shuddering and gasping, and it leaves you right on the edge of overload.

But no. You don’t want to finish that way, not right now. Instead, you do your best to steady yourself over drone’s spike. It takes you a few tries, it’s so hard to think, to focus, with it filling you this way. You still have to rest your hands against its chest to keep your balance. You go up on your knees as far as you can— it turns out that you can’t go far enough that its spike slips out of you, and that’s a fresh burst of heat you can feel in your valve. And then you drive yourself back down onto the drone’s spike, hard and fast.

You set a punishing pace. You move against the drone as quickly as you can, push yourself down onto its spike as far as you can manage. Your valve already ached, but now the stretch makes it burn in the best possible way. You need more, but you can’t, and it almost makes you sob with frustration, and all you can do is try work yourself down against its spike even harder, even faster. If you had a hand free—or if the drone had hands—you’d beg it to touch your node, your spike, anything, but you can’t and the lack of what you need against the too much of everything you are getting is so overwhelming that you can barely remember where your body is, how to move, any of it.

You already knew you weren’t going to last long, but the overload still crashes into you out of nowhere. You feel free-floating, and disconnected, but you can feel so much, too much, you can’t think past all the sensation washing over you. You’re distantly aware of the way your arms buckle and the way you collapse against the drone’s chest, your face pressed against its plating. Your chronometer is moving in skips and jumps, and you’re only getting bits and pieces of what’s happening as your optics flicker online and offline again.

When you finally begin to come back to yourself, you’re still resting against the drone’s chestplate. And you can still feel its spike inside you. You can feel the way you’re still stretched painfully, wonderfully wide around it. And you’re still running almost as hot as you were before. It feels like you hardly bled off any charge in the first place, and you’ve barely taken the edge off at all.

You need more. Right away. But when you try to push yourself upright and begin moving again, your arms don’t want to support you. Your legs don’t want to support you. You try to fight through it, but— you’re not going to be able to find any sort of rhythm like this, it won’t work. Then, you look up and see the drone staring down at you with its single optic. And you remember— this thing isn’t just an interface toy. It’s time to see what your drone can do for you.

You have to lean hard on the drone’s shoulder to get yourself to your feet. And you have to bite your lip hard to muffle a helpless little noise as its spike slips out of you. You just barely manage to get yourself from the drone to the desk, and it takes you a moment to find the processing power just to figure out how to get yourself seated on the edge of your desk. Your hand slips and hits a pile of datapads and they tip over on to the floor. And you don’t care.

“D-16,” you say. “Come here.”

It climbs to its feet, its optic still on you. But you can’t look away from its spike. You tell it. “I want you to frag me hard. Your spike. My valve. No— no deeper than you were before. No faster.” You have to remind yourself that even if you can take more, it won’t be worth it if you injure yourself here. It probably won’t be worth it. “Nod if you understand.”

The drone nods. You lay back on the desk, sending more datapads sliding to the floor. And as the drone steps up to you, you manage to remember how to move your legs enough to lift them up and rest them on the its shoulders. Well— rest your ankles on its shoulders. And even then, your legs barely reach that far.

It’s worth it for how it opens you up for the drone’s spike. When it slides into you again, your head slams back hard against the desk, and your optics white out for a moment. The drone pauses, and you manage, “Don’t stop,” and that’s enough to get it moving again.

It isn’t as fast as you would have demanded with a thinking partner. And not as deep either. You can take more than this, you know you can. But it’s still enough to make it hard for you to think past how much it is, and that’s what’s most important. The drone bends you almost double as it leans forward over you, it’s hips moving relentlessly against yours. It takes you an embarrassingly long time to remember that you have your hands free now, but once you do remember, you slip a hand between you and the drone, get a finger on your node, and just trace lazy circles around it as the drone moves in and out of you.

In some ways, the slower pace is pleasant. It’s almost meditative. You can just dim your optics, lay back, and lose yourself on the sensation. You’re gradually building towards an overload again. Not a sprint this time, but a quiet, lazy climb. You can feel the time slipping and let your optics slip offline past as the drone moves in and out of you, but there’s none of the urgency of before.

Rather, there isn’t urgency at first. But eventually you feel drone lean forward over you further, hear the impact as it braces its claws against the desk on either side of your head. Its hips move faster and faster against you, its spike slamming into your valve— never deeper than you can take it, but it feels like so much more at this pace. When you bring your optics back online and look up at it, its optic is right above your face, intent on you as it thrusts into your valve. You’re just in time to see its optic flicker and reset, and more of the drone’s weight comes to bear on your legs as it leans into you. You can feel it flood your valve with transfluid as it overloads.

And oh. You thought you were full before? You were wrong. The drone is still slumped over you, and you can feel the tremor running through its frame as the overload takes it, and you’re filled beyond anything you thought you could ever feel, and it’s so much and so perfect, and if you don’t get to overload right this moment, you think you might actually die. You still have one hand on your node, and it’s not quite enough— but you manage to worm your other hand between the two of you and get a grip on your spike. You only manage about three rough strokes before you overload hard.

The drone recovers before you do. You’re still shaking with the force of your overload when it begins to straighten and step back. You can’t quite find your words to command it, but you do manage to grab onto one of its claws before it can quite pull away from you. It stops where it is. You hold it there, not for long, perhaps half a klik, before you’re ready to release it. It steps back again, slowly. The ache in your valve as its spike slides out of you is everything you could have hoped for. Your spike depressurizes and your panel closes before you feel quite ready to try sitting up.

When you do sit up, the drone is standing there, watching you. Just like always. This went— better than you would have ever expected. You’ve bled off the charge you needed to, burned all that excess energy. All you’re left with now is that satisfying ache in your interface array and a spark-deep exhaustion. You’re so tired that you don’t even care about getting back to your berth before you recharge. Especially when there’s a perfectly good floor right here. It won’t be the first time you’ve accidentally spent a night in your study.

“D-16, you may recharge,” you tell it as you slip down on the floor. You’re asleep before you even finish laying down.

You’re woken up by your security system insistently pinging you that there’s someone waiting outside your front door. That someone has been waiting outside your door. Your first mad thought is that Proteus left you another drone. But then once you’re conscious enough to actually process the contents of the security alert— Momus.

What time is it? You— shouldn’t have looked. It would have been nicer not actually knowing how little recharge you got last night. You almost stumble trying to go from your berth to the floor— but no. You’re on the floor. In your study. The memories of last night are slow to catch up with you. When you turn your head, you can see the drone lying down beside you. You drag yourself to your feet, and see the drone’s optic flicker online.

It can follow you anytime. You start towards your front door— and then look down. And see the transfluid spattered all over your chest. And legs. You indulge in some quiet cursing as you rummage in your desk— surely there has to be something in here, you can’t have thrown it all away after— you find a cleaning cloth jammed into the back corner of the lowest drawer and do your best to wipe the worst of the mess off yourself. And then start for the door again before you turn back, again, to clean off the drone as well.

Momus has been waiting for kliks by the time you get there, and you can’t bring yourself to be sorry at all. The first thing he says when you open the door for him is, “Finally.”

“Momus.”

“What?” He edges past you— and past your drone, you didn’t even notice it following you— making his way into your apartment and letting your door shut behind him. And you can see him trying not to laugh.

“What happened to discretion?”

“This is discreet! Nothing wrong with this!”

You rub between your eyes. You have a headache. “And what time is it?”

He finds himself a seat and kicks his legs up on a table. “Oh come on, Prowl. I’ve been up for cycles. Did I wake you up or something?”

Yes. “No.” You sigh and try to collect yourself. “The devices?”

“Please,” he says. “My contact is dying to get his hands on these things.”

It takes you a moment to remember where you put them— but. Oh. You never got as far as taking them out of your frame, did you. You open up the chamber on your arm and tip the five little alien weapons out onto the table.

Momus delicately picks up one between two fingers and moves it to rest in his palm. He peers down at it. “Huh. I knew they’d be small, but that’s smaller than I thought.”

You shrug. “The race that builds these comes up to your ankles or so.”

“Exterminates all organic life within… did you ever get that distance?”

“Not as precisely as I’d hoped. Significant, but not planetary. Maybe a small moon if you’re lucky. There were some indicators that radius varied widely, perhaps as much as three hundred percent.”

He nods. “Could be plenty of factors. Atmospheric, maybe? Hard to believe it’s down to random chance. Could be some kind of input somewhere on here— It’s fine. That’s what testing’s for. We’ll work it out.” He looks sharply up at you. “And— They do work?”

You’re less confident than you were yesterday. Much less certain of everything to do with Swindle. But you nod in affirmation. “The final exchange will be made in four days.”

“And that’s fifty—”

“Fifty additional units, yes.”

He tucks the weapons away into a compartment in his own arm, and that should be an end of it. Should. But you’ve underestimated Momus and his capacity for casual conversation. It begins as something relevant to your business. His speculation about how large the weapons will be once they’ve been redesigned and rebuilt for Cybertronian hands. Your predictions as to what issues the Council will focus on once Momus is ready to present his findings. You tell him that your agents have sent back reports suggesting that heavy inorganic shielding may disrupt the weapon’s effect on organic life, and he makes a note of additional tests to carry out.

It still doesn’t take much time for conversation to drift. To drift far. Didn’t Momus say that even half a day was important in passing these weapons along for development? Wasn’t that the entire reason he stopped by so early? Though when you check your chronometer— It isn’t actually all that early. It just feels like it is. Still.

But while Momus is here, you don’t have to worry about anything else. You don’t have to feel like you need to be moving, need to be working. It’s nice to sit here and do nothing and just let the conversation… happen to you.

You’ve been idly chatting with Momus for quite a while when you feel a soft touch on the back of your shoulder. You manage not to jump, but you stiffen and shoot a sharp look to the side. Only your drone, of course. When you look up at it, it’s staring back down at you. Did it slip? Malfunction? But then it taps the back of your shoulder again, and looks deliberately off towards the far side of the apartment.

You’re still slow to catch on. But you really haven’t given your drone that many orders, and when you remember the events of the last day or so— no energon last night. No energon this morning, not with Momus waking you up like he did. You’d been ignoring your own fuel levels, it’s not worth worrying about. But if it’s bothering you in company— that means it’s less than twenty percent fueled.

“A moment, my apologies,” you tell Momus, as you get to your feet and head to the energon dispenser. The drone follows, close on your heels.

When you fill the first cube and turn towards the drone, it takes a half step forward to take the cube from your hands, but pauses long enough for you to reach out for a straw and place it in the cube. You fill three more cubes for it— and a cube for yourself while you’re at it. You can just about manage to carry those, so you lift them and turn back to where Momus is sitting. Over your shoulder, you tell the drone, “Bring a box of energon treats when you finish that cube.”

You’re only just settling the cubes on the table and taking one for yourself when the drone comes back into the siting room. First, it places a box of crystallized treats between you and Momus. And then it puts the empty cube on the table, the straw still leaning against its side, and nudges it hopefully towards the other three cubes. You move the straw for it, and it picks up the next cube and begins drinking.

Momus is fascinated. You can see it in his optics. You sip your energon and wait for curiosity to override politeness. It doesn’t take long.

“Wait,” he says. “Hold on. Did your drone just ask for fuel? How did it do that? They shouldn’t be able to— I didn’t think they could do that. How did—”

You sigh. “Simple conditional orders, that’s all. If X condition is met, do Y. I don’t want it shutting down on me out of nowhere.”

“I mean— Sure, you can do that.” Momus grins. “But why aren’t you just reading its outputs? I mean, you can do it this way if you want—”

“Outputs?”

The drone is putting down the next empty cube on the table, and Momus leans forward to grab its claw. He flips up a panel you hadn’t noticed on the inside of its arm. “See?”

You lean forward to examine the ports under its paneling. None that you recognize, even if you had the displays or knowledge to understand the readouts. “You’re right, I should have been using my extensive collection of mining equipment to maintain my drone. Thank you for correcting me.”

Momus laughs and drops your drone’s arm. You move the straw to the next cube, and it picks it up and begins drinking. Momus says, “Oh stop, those are just the basics for maintaining any drone. Which you would have known if you bothered to research it— So I’m guessing you didn’t?”

“Yes,” you say drily. “All that planning I did before purchasing my very own drone, and all that free time I’ve had since— what else would I have done?”

“That’s clever, though! It’s not a bad system. I’m guessing you have other conditions on it too? To keep it fine-tuned? Especially for managing just a single drone instead of a whole pile of them, it’s not a bad system at all. It’s just funny, makes it seem like more of a pet than a drone, you know?”

Your drone sets down its last cube, and you reach for the energon treats and smile. “You should have seen Decimus when he stopped by. D-16, kneel.” The drone goes to its knees beside you and you slip the treat into its intake. “All I was doing was taking care of my wonderful new gift from my good friend Proteus. You’d think Decimus had never seen anything like it.”

Momus grins, leaning forward in his seat. “And you didn’t invite me over to watch? I’m hurt!”

You feed your drone another treat. “He was trying to find out who would be supplying the weapons I promised to the Council, so you being there and failing to keep a straight face would have been the opposite of constructive, don’t you think?”

“You know they’re saying things about you and the drone,” Momus says. “Proteus and the others. Especially after you brought it to the party.”

“Not a problem. Whatever gossip they want to pass around is immaterial.”

“Well. They’re saying that it’s a substitute for— you know. And that you’re already practically treating it like a conjunx—” You know you don’t react outwardly at all, but Momus still cuts himself off and holds his hands up defensively. “Just what they’re saying. Figured you’d prefer knowing to not knowing.”

It’s true. “It was going to happen no matter what I did.” Also true. “I’m not playing by the script they expected. That’s the best I can do for now. I can still turn this to my advantage.”

As you reach out for another treat, you feel the drone softly tap the back of your ankle, and pop the treat into your own mouth instead. It was subtle, but Momus leans forward again and exclaims, “Did it—?”

By the time he finishes cross-examining you on the orders you’ve given your drone—you’re honest with him, but gloss entirely past everything that happened with Swindle—he’s apparently, finally, decided that he’s spent long enough socializing and can get on to the business of actually delivering your smuggled weapons to his contact. Only two cycles after he showed up at your door.

What’s left of your day is devoted to work. It’s remarkable how quickly things pile up when you’re distracted for a morning or two. You missed a minor meeting this morning— Nothing important, but you can’t afford to let yourself slip like this. At one point, you go into your study to access your console. You take one look at the dozens of datapads scattered all over your desk and floor, and turn right around and leave again. You can deal with that… another time. Later.

You spend the rest of the day working in your sitting room. Eventually, you notice the half-finished box of energon treats still sitting on the table. You eat a few yourself, but it’s easier to call your drone over and have it kneel, and absently feed it treats as you compose a report to the Senate. And that night, when you decide you’ve done enough and it’s time for recharge, you even remember to feed the drone. You give it its energon, then go, deliberately, to your own berth, and send the drone to your study.

After you wake up and feed the drone in the morning, you resign yourself to tidying up your study. It’s a waste of your time. You have better things to be doing. You keep toying and toying with the logic of how you could order the drone to take care of it for you. There has to be some way— But there doesn’t, and there isn’t. Especially since a drone won’t have the processing power to understand the contents of the datapads. And the information in them is too sensitive to entrust to anyone else. This is something you’ll have to take care of yourself. The drone follows you into the study, and you keep an optic on it as it carefully steps into a clear space to stand and watch you. You suppose that you can at least be thankful that it doesn’t seem to have broken anything, despite the mess.

Originally, your datapads were sorted by subject. Roughly. You suppose that recreating that as well as you can is the best way to go. Which means that you need to reread every single one of these and do your best to remember why you were keeping them and what you planned to do with them.

You start with the piles that are the most intact. Reading the top datapad ought to be enough to give you an approximate idea of what’s in the rest of the stack. Except for the times where you’re using long, government documents to hide shorter secrets at the end of the original text. Incriminating correspondence, other things where you don’t want to store the information on your console. And then, of course, there are the stacks where innocent, useless datapads hide something more important, tucked away in the middle of the pile. So you need to read it all. Everything. There aren’t many mostly-intact piles of datapads left, and even then, it’s cycles later and your optics are beginning to glaze over by the time you move to the rest of the mess.

So, when you come across the first datapad you don’t recognize, it takes you some time to realize. You go over the text three times before you realize that the problem isn’t that you’re failing to read the words in front of you. The problem is that you’ve never seen these words before in your life.

The first thing you do is drop the datapad and go to your console to access the full records from your security system for the last few lunar cycles. It takes some time for you to reassure yourself that there haven’t been any intrusions, and that there isn’t any evidence of tampering, but— there isn’t any evidence. Every visitor to your home has been someone you were aware of and remember. You force yourself to relax and pick up the datapad again.

Not only is it something you don’t recognize, but you have no idea where it could have come from. Or why someone would have left it here. As far as you can tell, it’s poetry. It is poetry, on its surface at least. You resist the urge to upload the datapad’s contents to your console, to look for any hidden information or files. You might be curious, but you aren’t an idiot. Looking up several of the more distinctive passages returns no relevant results. You even go looking in the stored metadata on the datapad to see if there are hidden messages there. Nothing.

You read the poem again. It’s about sunrises. Or rather, a sunrise. Observing the sun rising after a long night, apparently. Why is this in your study? Who do you know who would write something like this? And leave it here? When you read the poem again, it’s still about a sunrise. You can’t find any sort of hidden message. The drone’s optic is still on you, and no matter how little it understands, you catch yourself getting irritated at the idea that it’s watching you struggle. Despite that, you still transcribe the entire text of the poem onto your console by hand, and set algorithms to search for meaning in patterns of words, of lines, everything you can think of.

So, it is a little frustrating to turn back to the piles of scattered datapads, and immediately be confronted by another poem you’ve never seen before. You do spend less time on this one. You read it twice— it’s more abstract than the other, ghosts and night winds, and other things— you don’t understand what it’s saying, and you aren’t going to take the time to learn. Like before, there isn’t any concealed information you can spot. You suppose you’ll need a pile of poem-filled datapads now.

The next datapad you pick up has more poetry. After that, there’s a series of dated law enforcement reports that you really ought to have followed up on before now. Then five more poems in quick succession. By the time you’ve finished cleaning up your study, more than half the day has gone, and you have a pile of twelve mysterious poems sitting in a pile next to your console.

The interesting thing is that you have blank datapads in here. They’re in their own neat little pile on the desk. But... you’d almost be willing to swear that you have fewer blank datapads than you did before. Datapads are reusable, obviously. It would make sense— it would make the most sense if you’d ordered datapads, and there was a mistake, and the information that had been on them previously failed to wipe. It’s still a bit of a stretch. You strictly order new datapads, to reduce risk of tampering. But you can’t discount the possibility that the merchant could have been dishonest with you. Or your order could have been confused with someone else’s. But how would that happen? And you’ve never had this issue before—

You need to stop. Take a step back. Reevaluate. If there aren’t any other indications security has been compromised in your home, then… security probably has not been compromised in your home. You do your best to get to work. You’ve just been freshly reminded of everything that’s your responsibility that you haven’t dealt with yet. You can’t afford to waste your time picking apart exactly where these datapads came from and what they mean.

Still, the temptation is distracting. In the end, you take your work with you to the sitting room, so you can’t see the poetry sitting there, right in your field of vision. You almost bring the first poem with you, so you can flip through it during breaks from your actual work. You get it halfway from your study to your sitting room before you think better of it and put the thing back on the desk. Instead, you get an unopened box of energon treats, have the drone kneel beside you, and feed it as you work, to distract yourself.

The rest of the day passes without incident, as does the next morning. There’s no progress in uncovering any sort of concealed information in the poetry, and you’re increasingly inclined to say that it was a coincidence or mistake of some kind. It might be worth uploading the full contents of the datapads to some console where there’s no risk of it doing any real damage, but you’re not honestly expecting to find anything at this point. You sit and work quietly with the drone keeping its station next to you, or following you across your apartment when you go from room to room. You don’t have any real reason to expect visitors, and you don’t have any real reason to leave. It’s quiet, peaceful, and productive.

And then, in the early afternoon, you get a message from Momus, updating you on the progress of the engineering analysis of the alien weapons. The news is all good, very promising, and you expect you’ll be prepared to present his findings to the Council long before your report is overdue. But this is information you’d rather not have where there’s any chance of it being accessed remotely, so you get up and go to your study to find an empty datapad to download it to.

Now, you’ve only just rearranged your study. You know where you put your empty datapads. You checked them to be sure they were empty, every single one. But when you take a datapad off the top of the stack and turn it on, what you see is more poetry. Poetry you don’t recognize. Different poetry from yesterday.

Again, your security system shows nothing that would suggest any sort of physical or remote intrusion. Your files are untouched. When you take a quick walk around your apartment, the drone trailing behind you, your home is untouched. The only thing that seems to be changed is this poetry.

As it happens, that isn’t strictly true. There are other poems on what should be blank datapads. And when you spread out all the poems in front of you, hunting for some kind of connection— half the poems you remember from yesterday are gone, replaced with new, unfamiliar text.

You try not to let yourself be derailed too badly. What if it this is meant as a distraction? Even if it’s a distraction, what does it mean? And regardless of all that, how did it get in your home?

And you… absolutely get derailed. Whatever is happening here is an important security breach, and it’s happening through methods you have been completely unable to detect. If there wasn’t anything important to the poetry, why would someone leave it to be found? Why would they make it obvious that they can leave it unless they were doing something that mattered? Simply leaving it as a distraction is a weak explanation.

You transcribe every poem into your console and attempt to analyze them mathematically, without luck. You don’t do any better searching for meaningful themes in the text itself. Eventually, you start going through the other datapads on your desk again, searching for changes. But you can’t see any alterations whatsoever. You eventually send your drone to get another box of energon treats. They’re expensive, you should be saving them for guests. But feeding them to your drone gives you something to do with your hands while you try to think this situation through.

Cycles later, you’ve learned nothing new. But one of your enforcement patrols has messaged you that a citizen of interest has been taken into custody over a minor unpaid debt— nothing important, but the perfect excuse if, say, someone was already interested in searching his home— and incriminating correspondence was found in his possession. Naturally, before the arrest is reported officially, you and your people are going to go through and wipe any evidence that’s more… convenient to leave out of the public record. In the normal course of events, you’d let your enforcers handle this. But tonight? You’re glad to have a chance to get away from this mess and give yourself space to think.

You get your drone’s collar and leash. But instead of taking the chain in hand yourself, you simply wrap it several times around the drone’s upper arm. It still follows you as closely as if you did have it chained, and perhaps you get a few more stares on the street, but why bother yourself with what any of them think? Your chief enforcer on the scene keeps you updated over your comms as you walk. You’ll need to work quickly. The arrested citizen— Rattrap— has the funds to pay his debt and is more than willing to do so. Your officers are slowing down the process, but it will look suspicious if there are too many delays.

Frankly, if Rattrap is as intelligent as he seems to be, he probably knows why this is really happening. And you’re willing to wager that he has secrets more incriminating than the ones your enforcers already found. There are enforcers waiting inside and outside the apartment when you get there. It isn’t a bad part of the city— certainly not as bad as the neighborhood where you meet with Swindle. But it is shabby. The apartment is dim and dusty, and there’s clutter piled high against the walls. You’d wager the place hasn’t seen a cleaning drone since it was built. And the smell— after a klik of hesitation, you deactivate your olfactory suite. It’s worth it.

You strip the data on Rattrap’s console without any trouble. The security precautions are sophisticated enough, but nothing remarkable. When you turn around, you do get a surprise. Instead of hovering behind your shoulder, watching you work, your drone has taken up a stance behind you, yes. But facing away from you, towards the rest of the apartment. Some kind of guard protocol? You’ll have to test that later.

But you aren’t quite happy with how easy it was to get that data. You pace the apartment— You don’t have terribly long to think, the longer you hold Rattrap, the more likely there are to be problems. The drone maintains its guard stance. You don’t have much space to walk, with all the clutter. But you’re watching where you put your pedes— and that’s when you see the scuff marks.

You say, “D-16.” Its head swivels to look at you. You point at a pile on the floor. “Move these for me.”

It takes two steps to get there, and then it bends, and picks up two large clawfuls of— junk. It turns sideways, dropping it back onto the floor. As it repeats the process, you edge past the mess, examining the wall behind the rapidly-disappearing pile of clutter. You test the seams between plates with your fingers. You can just barely feel the give, but it’s enough. You smile to yourself.

“D-16, remove this paneling for me.”

The drone doesn’t have the manual dexterity you have. But it doesn’t need it when it can just set its claws against the metal of the wall, dig in, and just— pull.

The small stack of datapads in the revealed vault is everything you could have hoped for. You pick up one, leafing through— Well. He’s in Ratbat’s pocket, for one. And Crosscut’s. Possibly more, you haven’t been through nearly everything yet. It doesn’t matter, because now, he’s going to work for you.

You keep these datapads yourself. You’re going to do a thorough reading before you pass this information on. The information from Rattrap’s console, that can be general knowledge among your people. But the information you have is too valuable to just share like that.

You give your chief enforcer just enough that he’ll be able to tell Rattrap the terms of his new employment. It will be a good deal. After you’ve been through these records, you’ll probably know how much of a better deal than anyone else has been offering him. On top of his other salaries, which you assume he’s still planning to collect, you’ll be paying him a substantial sum of money to do your work. And once he sees that his vault has been emptied, he’ll know exactly how much leverage you have over him.

It isn’t a long job. But the sun was already low when you left your apartment, and by the time you leave Rattrap’s building, night is setting in. The streets are beginning to empty out, though there are still plenty of people walking, driving, or flying in the air overhead. There’s enough light for you to see how… dirty your drone has gotten. You’re not much better, when you look down at yourself. And when you reactivate your olfactory suite, you grimace. It’s what you should have expected going into a home like that, but that doesn’t mean you have to like it.

You enjoy looking pristine, and you’ve gotten used to your drone looking pristine. This isn’t something to call Scalpel over. Besides, you’re not going to pay him as much as a surgery ought to cost, just for scrubbing your drone clean.

So when you get back into your apartment, you say, “D-16, go to the washrack.”

It moves without hesitation, and you follow it into the rack, shutting the door behind you. Both of you fit, even if things are a little… tight. It could be roomier, but the rack was originally designed for two mechs.

You reach past the drone’s waist to press the buttons to turn on the solvent flow, and take the brush from where it’s hanging on the wall. When you look up, the spray is hitting the drone in the middle of its chest, and its head is still dry, staring down at you from above the flow. So you have it kneel in front of you while you clean its head and shoulders. You scrub down its chest, then go behind it, stepping carefully over its legs, to clean its back.

After you have it stand again, you clean its hips and thighs, its arms, its aft. Whenever you step in front of it, its optic is intent on you. Just watching.

And then, finally, you take a knee in front of the drone. It still doesn’t move, standing motionless and looking down at you through the spray. You lift one of its legs, placing its pede on your leg so you can clean it. You can really feel the weight of the thing as it shifts to keep its balance. After you’ve scrubbed down the first leg, you guide its pede back to the floor of the washrack, and move your hands to the drone’s other leg.

The drone keeps watching you even after you’re finished cleaning it, while you stand and give yourself a quick scrub— shocking, you know, the drone never watches you. You’d think you’d be used to it by now. You suppose that it isn’t quite as unnerving as it was at first. But the drone never quite blends into the background. You never quite forget that it’s watching you. You’re always aware on some level of its attention.

You blast the hot air in the washrack for just long enough that you and the drone won’t drip all over your floors, then lead the way out to find a spare drying cloth. Yours will suit you just fine, but the drone is large enough that you won’t be able to make do with just the one cloth. You have to rummage in a cabinet to find where the cloth was buried under few tins of polish and some basic self-maintenance tools, but you do find it. You don’t linger as you wipe down the drone, but it’s so large that it does take you some time. You turn around to find a place to put the cloth— if this is ever to be repeated, you want this thing somewhere accessible— and you just about jump out of your frame as you feel something touch your back.

When you turn to face the drone, it’s standing motionless again, with your own drying cloth held in its outstretched claw. You don’t— quite know how to react. The two of you are frozen, looking at each other for a long moment. And then the drone shifts, reaching out towards you again with the drying cloth. It gets halfway through a stroke of your arm before you regain your senses and take the cloth from its claw to finish drying yourself off. And even then, you can’t help nodding to the thing, as if you were thanking a person. You may have been premature in saying the drone was no longer unnerving.

It’s late, very late, and it’s… easier to send the drone to the study to recharge without thinking about this anymore. Later. Tomorrow.

And when tomorrow arrives, as soon as you’ve fueled and given the drone its energon, the very next thing you do is go to your study to examine your blank datapads. Just like before, you open several of them to find new, unfamiliar poetry. Just like before, several datapads with other poetry have been overwritten. The drone stands in a corner, watching you. No reaction of any kind, even when you stare at it. It just watches you.

And that has to be the answer, doesn’t it? The drone is the hole in your security. There has to be something about it— remote access to its processor, perhaps? What if Proteus has been controlling the thing every night when you go to sleep? What could he have found by now? Or— it’s outlandish. Ridiculous. But what if your drone isn’t a drone at all? What if it’s a spy, placed here purposefully? No, no, Momus recognized it as a drone, didn’t he— But could Proteus have found a way around it? He’s an idiot, but perhaps one of his friends

None of this makes sense. You can invent any number of reasons as to how this was accomplished. The more important question is why. And then you need to know exactly which of your files have been compromised, and what has been done with that information. Your fuel tank sinks. All of your files could have been compromised, at this point. The drone has been here long enough. No, wait— It’s been here long enough that you would have begun seeing the effects of the breach by now. Nobody’s brought you any tales of any suspicious activity on the part of Proteus and his set. You’ve seen Proteus and Decimus, and neither of them was ever any good as an actor. Unless, of course, they’ve been dupes as much as you have—

It won’t do, none of it will do. There’s too much uncertainty. You don’t have the information to determine what has been affected. And still— no matter who this is, no matter why they’re doing it. Why would they leave you poetry?

You drum your fingers on the desk, your optics still on the drone. It hasn’t made move to look away. Your security system still has found nothing to indicate any physical or remote breach of your home. Your console seems unaffected. There haven’t been any overt plays made by members of the Senate to use information stolen from you. And yet— whoever is doing this left you poetry. Why would they do that? Why would they compromise their mission? Is it… simply to unsettle you? To make you nervous, so you make mistakes? Even if that was a goal worth aiming for, this isn’t any way to accomplish it. You suppose that these disruptions have marginally delayed you in the execution of your everyday duties— but that’s a stretch.

You give yourself a mental shake. You’re going in circles. You need to take concrete action. As of this moment, you don’t have the information to draw any real conclusions. So what’s the next step? Acquiring the information to draw those real conclusions, obviously.

So you collect your drone’s collar and leash and take it on a visit to Scalpel. You can’t help being freshly aware of how flimsy the chain is. Before, you’d been amused at the fiction that you could—would—control the drone with the leash, when all you needed was your words. But now you can’t help worrying that you’ll need to control it, when whoever is behind this finds out that you’ve caught onto their game, and you’ll be left helpless.

You leave Scalpel’s aide holding the drone’s leash— you should be thinking strategically, what to say to him, what to give him that would secure him as yours the way you’re working on securing Scalpel, but you’re too distracted to bother— and go to speak to the doctor personally.

You run down your list of demands briskly, expecting the doctor to keep up. You rattle off a list of diagnostic tests to run, everything you could research to detect viruses or any other malicious programming in the drone, whether self-contained or simply enabling remote control of the thing. Scalpel starts off standing, and nodding along, but by the time you finish, he’s leaning against a door frame with his arms crossed, watching flatly as you talk. You wrap up your monologue with a request for a datapad with a copy of all the information he’s collected from his previous examinations of your drone.

He leaves an excessively long dramatic pause before he talks. “Done? Finally?”

You nod.

He’s still watching you, his expression flat and displeased. “You know I’m a doctor, right? Not a neurosurgeon. Or a mnemosurgeon. Not sure one of those could even get you all the things you’re after.”

You shift your weight and look levelly at him. “You do realize that I—”

“Don’t care what kind of blackmail slag you want to pull,” he says. “I can’t treat what you’re after. Plain and simple.”

Finding another mech to work on your drone is… not an option right now. You say, “Treatment can wait. Treatment is secondary. I just need you to run these tests. I need you to find problems, not solve them. Will you do that much?”

It’s obvious that he still isn’t happy.

“Payments will be made in line with our previous dealings, of course. And if problems are found, I am prepared to pay commissions for referrals to the proper specialists.”

His optics do brighten at that, and he finally pushes off the wall to stand upright again.

The two of you head back through the hallways of his clinic towards the waiting area, and you decide to give him one last nudge. “I do hope your conjunx accepted my apology for my interruption the other night.

Scalpel laughs. “Bought the two of us a nice new berth. Extra wide. His wingspan is… really something. So he was ready to forgive a lot after a present like that.”

You exchange other casual pleasantries for a klik or so. You keep the polite mask on while Scalpel collects the drone and you wait for the aide— Tourniquet, you finally learn— to retrieve the datapad you asked for. You slip him a generous tip and leave him with your personal comm frequency to call when the drone is ready to be collected. And then you go.

You finally let the smile drop as you leave the clinic. Your feet never even hit the road, just your wheels, and your tires squeal as you accelerate away down the street.

The shop you’re going to accepts remote orders, but right now you’re not much inclined to trust any of your electronics. It’s halfway across the city, so even as fast as you’re going, you have plenty of time to think things over before you get there. It helps you think through… everything. All of it. You don’t have enough information now to draw any definite conclusions. You don’t. There isn’t any evidence yet that anybody is moving against you. So all you can do for the moment is figure out how this is happening.

You transform to your feet as you reach the shop, and let your momentum carry you through the front doors. The mech sitting at the desk jumps, almost falling out of his seat, and fumbles to hide the datapad he was reading where you can’t see it. You don’t quite wait for him to finish welcoming you before you start rattling off the specs of the camera models you want to buy, as well as the other equipment you’ll need to install and monitor them. The shop attendant nods along so hard you wonder if he’s going to shake his neck servos loose, and goes rushing off into the stockroom. The store owner edges past him as he leaves, greeting you and asking if there’s anything, anything at all he can help you with while you’re here?

It isn’t too difficult to mechanically exchange pleasantries for the few kliks it takes the attendant to collect the equipment you’re after. You still decide to buy some blank, freshly-manufactured datapads, just as an excuse to send him into the stockroom and cut the conversation short.

When they bring you the merchandise you requested, you take the time to check the box— eight tiny, short-range cameras, and the datapad they’re programmed to stream to— and leave your payment, plus a generous tip, before you leave and begin the drive back home.

You’re already beginning to feel like you’re making better use of your time. On your comms, you reach out to several of your peers, no two messages quite alike, but putting out delicate feelers to see if you can find information that anyone is preparing to make a move against you. Momus cheerfully reports that Decimus thinks he’s found the struggling manufacturer you contracted to produce the weapons you’ve promised the council, and begins to update you on his own progress before you cut off the conversation, but that’s the only thing you can uncover. Nothing that clearly relates back to this security breach.

When you reach your apartment, you already know where you’re going to place each of the cameras. One goes outside, underneath an unassuming eave, where it will get a clear image of anyone approaching your door. Another goes in the seam between wall and walkway, monitoring the same view. Then from the interior, you set up cameras to monitor the path from your door to your study. The last three cameras go in the study itself. One in a dim upper corner, watching the entrance to the room. One on the underside of a shelf, with a clear view of your entire desk and its stacks of datapads. And the last goes on the inside edge of the door frame, where it can monitor the corners of the room the other cameras don’t cover.

After that’s done, you take every blank datapad you own— checking them for more mysterious poems, but nothing new seems to have appeared since you last looked— and call a waste disposal drone to collect them. You replace them with your new purchase. And verify, for a second time, that they are indeed empty. The new datapad that’s fed by your cameras goes to rest on the shelf beside your berth. You check that you can monitor your camera feeds from there, and everything does appear to be in working order. Then you waste a cycle or so manually password-locking every other datapad you own.

You still haven’t received a message that your drone is ready to be picked up yet, so you boot up your console and bring up the medical records Scalpel gave you for your drone. The serial number in there—TXR-100.2-44060-27D-16— does bring up legitimate manufacturing records. Nothing with much detail, not for a manual labor drone like this. Just the bare minimum—date of activation, manufacturer, et cetera—and a single image. The frame matches your drone, and you allow yourself to relax just the smallest fraction. Before you shut down your console, you create a new password for your console, then disable its net connectivity entirely, just to be safe. There are still many ways your home could have been compromised, and you need to take every precaution you can, but the drone is what it appears to be.

And when Scalpel comms you with the diagnostic results, you relax even further. Every test he ran indicates that the drone is clean, and there was nothing found in its frame or outside of it to suggest any external tampering. You take a few detours as you drive out to retrieve your drone, just to feel the road under your wheels and burn some of this energy, but you already feel much better about bringing the drone back into your home. There’s still a problem to be solved, but you’re narrowing down the possibilities to something manageable. When you check your chronometer, you’re almost shocked to find that it’s barely midday.

Of course, the downside to this whole mess is that you’ve been neglecting the rest of your work. You were already behind before today, and you’ve been ignoring a stream of urgent messages about this thing or the other that requires your immediate attention. You do your best to respond to what you can, but by the time you’ve picked up your drone and paid and tipped Scalpel, you’re almost certain that you’ll be having to deal with visitors in person.

You aren’t wrong. In fact, you and the drone arrive back at your apartment to find a mech waiting there outside your door. It isn’t anything particularly difficult, just a senator’s aide looking for confirmation that you’ll support him when he pushes for these new clauses to be added to the new trade agreement at the meeting in two days— yes, yes, you’re able to give the aide the answer he’s after without even having to let him into your home, but it does rather set the tone for the rest of the day.

So you are very busy, and much, much less productive than you would be if everyone else had been a little more patient and let you deal with these issues in your own time. But you still find some entertainment in the whole thing. Your drone takes orders as well as it always has, and proves to be quite capable of answering the door and escorting guests to your sitting room. You get the impression that even those guests who are used to being waited on hand and foot by domestic drones are still unsettled by the size of the thing.

You’re more than happy to keep them off-balance, and you don’t want to encourage anyone to linger, so when you aren’t sending your drone off to answer the door or fetch more engex or crystallized treats, you have it kneel next to you and feed it little tidbits while you catch up on business. Most of your guests stare outright, and none of them linger. And you’d much rather be working than talking, but this also gives you something to keep your hands busy. Even after the drone quietly taps your ankle—none of the three mechs in your room so much as notice—you lean on its shoulder and pet its helm. You even make a point of meeting its optic and thanking it when it runs little errands for you, and it never fails to make your guests stumble.

In your rare breaks, you compose your next message to Swindle. Of all the projects you’re juggling right now, this is the one you can least afford to lose track of. His last message to you was a bit frosty—understandably so, all things considered. But it was only an arm, easy enough to reattach, and the final payment on this last shipment of weapons will be quite substantial. You’re even willing to pay him enough extra to cover the doctor’s fees, if tomorrow’s exchange goes smoothly. You told him you might the last time you saw him, and if he holds up his end of this deal, you’re more than happy to reward him for it.

By the time your last guest finally leaves, it’s late enough that all you want to do is refuel and recharge. The drone doesn’t even want a single cube of energon at that point, and you barely drink half a cube before giving it up for the night. You want to stay up even later and monitor the cameras yourself, but you fight the urge. Any spy worth their metal will wait some time before they make their move, and you need to be well-rested in case you have to take immediate action in the morning. You force yourself into recharge.

In the morning, even before you sit up, the first thing you do is reach for the camera-monitoring datapad, on its shelf beside your bed. You set the eight feeds to start playing from the klik you turned in for the night. You begin to fast forward— and stop, tense, as something immediately catches your eye. You relax, though. Only your drone in your study.

As the footage moves forward, though, you have to wonder— this seems… wrong. Your drone isn’t sleeping, for one thing. It isn’t even laying down. It’s just… standing in front of your desk. You bring up yesterday’s message from Scalpel and flick through the results. By any reasonable measure, the drone isn’t compromised. It can’t be. Any physical tampering would have left physical signs, and those would have been found by now.

And then the drone turns its head upwards, and fixes its one optic on the camera hidden in the corner of the room.

You’re frozen, waiting to see what it will do. You’ve found your breach. You might not know how this can be happening, but you know it is happening. For the moment, you force yourself to stay where you are. Whoever is doing this has already done it. You need to observe. Will the drone go for the information on your datapads? Or will it access your console? That would be bad, either way. But it wasn’t here when you locked your datapads, or when you disconnected your console from the net. Even if gets through somehow, you’ll be able to track what it does and what it sees. You hope.

But it doesn’t do any of that. After a klik of looking at your camera, the drone looks back down at the desk. It reaches out and delicately takes a single datapad off the stack of new, blank datapads. The drone’s claw dwarfs the datapad, but it holds it steady, and with its other claw it slowly, painstakingly, begins to type, one glyph at a time.

You watch for a few kliks peering as closely as you can for any sign of other trickery, zooming in on what turn out to be innocuous, empty corners of the room. Eventually the drone puts down the datapad, and you tense— But all it does is pick up another datapad and begin again. You fast forward through the recording. The drone types for a few cycles—about half the night—before it rearranges its datapads into the same neat stack they were in when you left them there. And then it lies down on the floor and goes into recharge. You aren’t sure if you’ve imagined that it’s watching your camera as its optic slowly goes dim.

After that, you go back to the beginning and watch again. None of your cameras outside the study recorded any activity. One stray piece of trash blowing along the walkway outside your door, nothing more. You rewatch the study recording from all three of your cameras in the room. You can’t see anything except the drone typing on the datapads.

You’ve found the hole in your security, but you’re even more confused than you were before. Short of taking your drone to a fully trained mnemosurgeon, you can’t think of any other way to keep hunting for ways it could be remotely controlled. And you don’t have a mnemosurgeon you can fully trust, not— not anymore. You slam the datapad down on the shelf. You’re going in circles now. By any reasonable measure, you would have found it if your drone was being controlled remotely. And you found its manufacturing records. You found them

Your very thoughtful plan of action is to go storming out of your room and into your study without any thoughts for what you’re going to do beyond the next few nanokliks. You burst into the room and stand over your drone as it wakes up, its optic flickering online. When it sits up, you know you aren’t imagining the way it looks from you, up to the camera, then back to you again.

And— you don’t know what you’re supposed to say to this. You snatch the top datapad, flip through it— ecquinoctial skies, divergent roads must carry— what is any of this for? You throw the datapad on the desk and pick up the next one. It’s no more comprehensible than the first. The design of someone’s epitaphic line, what is this trying to say?

You slam the datapad on the desk, and force yourself to pause and calm down. You run a slow, deliberate vent cycle. And then you turn to the drone. It rises to its feet, and you keep an eye on it, bracing for whatever is coming. But all it does is stand there and watch you. You manage to keep your voice soft when you say, “What does all of this mean?” You pause. Amend yourself with, “What does any of this mean?”

And the drone doesn’t answer you. Of course it doesn’t. It can’t. Physically, it can’t. You know that much, at least. And a few cycles ago, you would have been certain that it was mentally incapable as well. But now? Now, you don’t know what to think.

When the drone makes no reply—obviously—you pick up the next datapad and begin reading. And put it down. None of this makes any sense.

You dim your optics, lean on the desk. Try to think. Without much hope of a response, you ask, “What do you want?”

You’re startled into moving when the drone steps around you, its arm brushing against yours as it reaches for the stack of datapads. It moves four, setting them neatly aside, then takes the top datapad and hands it to you. You watch it, but it only steps back around you, taking up its former station and settling into place.

Out loud, you read, “If anything happens to one who desires it, and wishes, and never expects it, it’s a special delight to the mind.” You’re still watching the drone closely—your cameras are recording too, you can reexamine this footage later—but it doesn’t react. You skim the rest of the poem. Come back, desired and un-hoped for? You might have gotten a reaction from the drone, it’s trying to communicate with you somehow, but you still don’t know what it’s trying to say. You look sharply up at the drone, but it’s only staring at you with its one unmoving optic.

“Tell me what you want.”

The drone shifts in place at that, but doesn’t move. Its optic never leaves your face.

Tell me what you want.”

It takes a sudden, heavy step forward, and you catch yourself moving back before you can stop yourself, putting distance between the two of you. The drone reaches for the datapads again. Puts a stack of them aside. It picks up one, bends its head over it, its other claw raised. You can barely see the datapad with the size of the drone’s claw.

It hesitates over the datapad. Taps out a few slow glyphs, one at a time. Its head whips up to look at you, and you barely manage not to jump. It tosses the datapad aside, onto the desk, and reaches out for the others. It picks up one—you can see its optic moving side to side as it reads—and then sets it aside. Then another. The next one it shoves into your hands. You barely have time to open it and read, ‘I beg you, if it’s not too much trouble, point out where your shade might be—’ before the drone is pushing another datapad at you. You barely have time to take that one before its holding out another

In quick succession, you catch, ‘—that with fierce pain I’m robbed of all my senses: because at that moment I—’, ‘—but being silent does nothing for you. Why? When—’, and ‘—and then all of my well-chosen words are forgotten—’ And… some of the words are familiar to you. Some of these, you’ve read before. Some of them are new. But you’re missing something. The drone is watching. Its optic is intent on you. You hardly know what your face is doing. There’s… a message to be found here. Certainly. Seeing these selections presented together. But you have to be reading it wrong.

The two of you are frozen for some moments before the drone turns back to the desk. It picks through the scattered datapads, selects two. It hands you the first one, and then reaches out to point out a single line.

You ask how many kisses of yours would be enough and more to satisfy me?

Before you can say a word, it hands you the next datapad, directs you to another line.

Give me a thousand kisses, a hundred more, another thousand, and another hundred.

You slowly set the datapads aside. Well. That really doesn’t leave much ambiguity, does it? But you can’t be reading that right. You can’t. You have to be missing something. It’s just a drone.

When you look up, it’s watching you again. You don’t know how to react. A large part of you is still trying to find some, some kind of logical explanation for this whole thing. There has to be something. Something simple and sensible that cleanly pulls together all these confusing pieces into one coherent whole. But you can’t figure out how start thinking through the possibilities. You can’t even tell where to begin.

The drone is still watching you. You don’t know how to look away. The drone is the first one to drop its gaze. It goes down to one knee, then both. Its head is bent low, and it’s strange realizing how odd it feels to not have the thing staring at you. It doesn’t move. And you don’t move.

You force yourself take a half-step forward. You need to take control of this situation. It’s already gotten far enough out of hand, and you can’t let it slip any further. But you still can’t think of what to do. In the end the best you manage is another, “What do you want?”

Its head lifts slightly. It raises an arm, and just barely begins to reach towards you before it stops and pulls back. You don’t move. Not because you’re waiting for anything in particular, or pausing for effect. You just don’t what you’re supposed to do about this.

Eventually, the drone raises its head further and looks you square in the face. Without dropping its gaze, it shifts back on its heels, and slowly, deliberately spreads its legs. Every time you think you’re as lost as it’s possible to be, the drone always finds a way to unbalance you even further. There’s an awkward, frozen moment, because— you aren’t reading this right. You cannot be reading this right. The drone doesn’t drop its gaze, and inches its legs even further apart.

You vent a sharp burst of air. You’re still reeling— you still haven’t adjusted to your drone writing poetry, never mind everything else that’s followed— but, “Get up.”

The drone doesn’t move.

“D-16, get up.”

This time, it shakes its head, and nudges its legs even wider open.

“Stop that,” you sigh. The drone stubbornly stays where it is, still watching you. “I’m not saying no. I’m just saying I’m not going to do this on the floor.”

The drone is on its feet in nanokliks, but then it hesitates, looming over you. You can see its claws flexing open and closed. Well, even if you’re lost, at least it looks like the drone isn’t doing much better.

You pat your desk. “Right here.”

But the drone doesn’t sit right away, it reaches for a pile of datapads and tries to shift them back from the spot you indicated— two slip out of its claws when it lifts the stack, and you snag them and put them back where they belong. This is… for the best. You don’t want to resort a mess like you had the last time. You shuffle the drone’s scattered poetry datapads into a stack of their own and place them next to your console. It doesn’t take long to make a space large enough to accommodate the drone, but it still pauses and looks at you for confirmation before it finally seats itself on the edge of your desk.

You step up towards it and begin to reach out, but one last check, just so you can be certain— “D-16, show me where you want me.”

Its touch is delicate, but its claw still engulfs your hand when it reaches out to grasp your arm. There’s no hesitation when it moves to set your hand right between its legs. When you glance up, the drone’s optic is locked on your hand.

You ask, “Here?” When you brush your thumb over its panel, you can see the drone’s optic flicker, and it looks up at you for barely a nanoklik before looking down again. “You want me here?”

It nods once, sharp and jerky. You step in even closer, right between its legs, rubbing your thumb along its panel again, slow and deliberate, steady strokes without any urgency, You’ve always thought your drone’s face was blank and empty, just a place to house an optic and intake. But when you look closely, focus your full attention on it, you can see the faintest flickers of expression in that optic, in the way the light reflects off it, and in the way it contracts, dilates, and refocuses.

You can hear the drone’s fans beginning to spin up as you brush your thumb over and over its panel. When you rest your free hand on the drone’s thigh, you can feel the shivering tension in its legs. You almost think you can feel the seam of its panel under your hand, but the drone holds itself almost completely motionless, even while its fans spin faster and faster.

It holds out for longer than you would have guessed. But eventually its head whips up and it stares straight into your optics. You don’t know what it wants to ask, but you can make some reasonable guesses, and from context— “Go ahead,” you tell it.

Its panel opens under your fingertips, and its spike pressurizes right into your hand. Your fingers still don’t quite meet around it, and the plating is as thin and delicate as you remember. When you run your hand along it, you can only see the drone’s tension in how perfectly still it holds itself. But then you brush your fingers over the tip of its spike, and its hips jerk forward and you hear its fans notch up even faster.

You leave a hand on its spike, but really, you’ve gotten to know its spike by now. This isn’t new territory. And at the moment, your mind is on the fact that there’s an entire half of your drone’s interface array you’ve never even explored.

The drone’s hips twitch again when you outline its node with one finger. It manages to hold itself still as you run your hand around the edges of its valve, but that lasts only until you press your whole hand against its array, cupping your fingers over its valve and node together. Then the drone curls forward over you, still not touching you, but close enough you can feel the hot air pouring out of its vents.

You leave that hand over its valve, lightly pressing in a slow, steady rhythm, while you stroke its spike with your other hand. You didn’t set out intending to tease, but it’s fascinating, taking your time and watching how the drone reacts to these touches. Your own fans are starting to spin faster, and your interface is idly pinging you. For now, you ignore it. For a few kliks, you stand there with the drone, lazily alternating between its spike and valve, while the drone sits curled over you and watches your hands.

Eventually, you vary the routine and slide a single finger between the drone’s valve lips. Its head snaps back and its legs slam tight around your hips for a moment before they loosen again. Your interface array is pinging you with considerably more urgency now. When the drone moves again, instead of looking at your hands, it looks you straight in the optics. One of its arms comes up— it hesitates for a nanoklik, but then its claw comes to awkwardly rest against the outside of your arm. As you slide two fingers into its valve, that claw stays pressed against your arm and its optic stays locked on your face.

Two fingers isn’t much of a stretch for the drone, but you stay like that for a while. You stick to the same unhurried pace, a slow in and out, your other hand still around the drone’s spike. It watches your face for a few kliks, and you do your best to find and interpret every little barely-visible flicker of expression that shows in its optic. When it drops its head again and looks down at your hand moving against it, you add another finger to its valve.

You add a fourth finger too without much difficulty. If the drone had a voice, how much more would it ask for? You think you could get your entire hand up there without a struggle. Perhaps another time. For now, when you let your thumb press against the drone’s node, its other claw comes up to rest against your waist, just above your hip armor. If it had hands— between the claw on your arm and the claw on your waist, you almost think it’s trying to hold you against it.

Something to consider later. Because right now, it’s getting very, very difficult to ignore your interface array. The drone’s spike is tempting— but it’s already sitting on the desk right at waist height, your fingers are still moving in and out of the its valve, and your spike aches with how badly it needs to pressurize. You almost sigh with relief when you finally let your panel slide open.

The drone isn’t looking at your face right now. Or your hands. Its optic is definitely locked onto your spike, and its legs are still spread wide open. You still ask, “Yes?”

It glances up at your face only just long enough to nod, and then goes back to staring at your spike. You allow yourself a small, self-satisfied smile as you step up closer to the drone. You take your spike in one hand and spread its valve wide open with the other, and take your time, savoring the view, as your spike slides into the drone’s valve.

The drone’s claws press harder against you as you bury yourself in its valve. When you look up, you can see its optic flaring bright as it watches you. Once your panel is pressed against the drone’s, you take a moment to savor the sensation, to feel the heat coming from both of your vents. And then you begin to move.

You don’t go quickly, but it still doesn’t take long. It’s less than a klik before you feel the drone’s legs begin to shake where they’re locked around your hips. Its arms inch even further around your back, until it’s almost as if the drone is embracing you. You hook the fingers of one hand into the drone’s hip plating to pull yourself against it harder, deeper. And you slip your other hand down between the two of you and get your thumb on the drone’s node.

The way its legs and arms tighten around your frame is almost painful. You don’t relent, and keep your thumb pressed hard against its node, rubbing little circles into it as you thrust in and out of its valve. The drone overloads in moments. You can feel the tremors running through its whole frame as you move against it, and you’re so close too— You let yourself speed up, slamming into the drone’s valve fast and hard, its arms still pressing you close to its chest. You can feel its valve rippling around your spike as the overload sweeps through it, and you find your tension, find your tipping point, and you grip the drone’s hips as tightly as you, burying yourself in the drone’s valve, as you let your own overload shake you apart.

The rest of the day is a useless mess. By the time you clean up your study and feed yourself and the drone, it’s already past midday. And now that the moment has passed, you still don’t understand what’s going on. You don’t understand how. You don’t understand why poetry. And now the drone is back to just quietly following you from room to room, finding corners to stand in, and watching you.

You try to catch up with the most urgent work items that need your attention. There are plenty of those. You’ve fallen behind enough. But you can’t be as productive as you could be, you can’t focus, because you can’t take your mind off the drone. You don’t think Proteus did this on purpose. You don’t think so. There’s too many layers, too much subtlety. It’s characteristic of him as an insult, not characteristic as a plot. You’d be able to see his reasoning if he had deeper motivations here.

And you still don’t know what to do about the drone. You’d made your peace with keeping it when you thought it was nothing more than a drone. But now? Poetry? Nominally harmless. Possibly. You can’t see anything dangerous about the poetry. But you still don’t understand why or how the drone wrote the poetry, and— No matter how this happened, it’s still a breach in your security, and you can’t afford to forget that. What if the interface was simply to distract you? You still haven’t seen anything that would be a sign that someone is making a move against you, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

So your mind runs in unproductive circles all the way through evening. And even then, it isn’t as though you’ve reached any sort of useful conclusion, you just need to take the drone to go final weapons shipment from Swindle.

You’re not entirely happy about this. On the one hand, you want to get this over and done with, before Swindle has any more time to try to turn the tables on you. Of course, this is happening right at the moment when you’re least sure of what to do with the drone. Wonderful. But leaving the drone behind isn’t an option either, not when you know it’s a hole in your security, and especially not after what Swindle tried to do at your last meeting.

No matter how tonight goes, you need reinforcements. You’d almost be tempted to get a group of enforcers together— but no, the problems that will stem from that are even worse. That will guarantee that the news about how you’re supplying the weapons will leak. Even if you keep the enforcers you know your rivals have bought off away from the deal, there are almost certainly enforcers that you’ve missed. And even the ones who are still yours— this information will be valuable. You can’t trust any of them.

If, if you assume that Scalpel’s diagnostics were a full and complete scan, then you can at least reasonably be reasonably sure that your drone isn’t being controlled by a third party. And even if it— even if doesn’t appear to be a drone exactly, it also doesn’t seem to have made any contact with the world outside your apartment. It just… writes poetry. Why poetry?

Regardless. You need it. At least for tonight. You put its collar and leash on before you leave to go to the meeting spot, and wrap the leash around its upper arm again. And you stash as many weapons as you can in hidden compartments on your frame. You wish you could get away with carrying something larger, but it will draw attention on the streets, and will definitely cause more problems with Swindle. As you’re walking out of your door, you have a sudden thought and message Scalpel asking whether the drone had comms installed. You get an almost immediate message back that obviously not, don’t you think he would have mentioned that if the drone did have any comms, and he has better things to do than this, thank you very much. That’s something, at least. The drone can’t talk (you assume— another check can’t hurt), it doesn’t have comms, and your console registered no activity from anyone but you.

And while you’re paying attention to your comms, you notice a series of increasingly urgent messages from Momus. He doesn’t say what it’s about, exactly. Thank Primus, one hole that didn’t get blown in your security. But he’s very, very interested in knowing when the two of you can meet up. Very soon. As soon as possible. Handing over the weapons— if you’re forgetting something that important, you’re even more off-balance than you’d thought. You message him back that he can meet you tonight at your apartment. Probably— a cycle after you estimate you’ll be home. That should do. You don’t want to hold onto this shipment any longer than you need to. If any of your colleagues catches on to what you’re doing, or if Swindle decides to try following up to demand additional money, your apartment barely qualifies as defensible.

You’re more than halfway to the meeting spot before you get the chance to calm down and settle yourself. Worrying about everything that could go wrong is a waste of time. Staying calm and keeping the situation under your control is the first step towards precluding any issues tonight, and if there are any troubles, you’ll solve them as they become problems. Even if you and Swindle have had some difficulties in the last two meetings, it’s still in both your best interests to bring this deal to an amiable conclusion. You just have to make that happen.

Like before, you’re careful to arrive precisely on time. And like before, Swindle is waiting for you. This time at least he’s waiting in the best-lit part of the alley—which isn’t saying much—with a small box sitting on the ground beside his pedes. You can’t see anyone else in the deep shadows, and a quick scan of open comm frequencies doesn’t turn up any conversations— but that doesn’t mean anything. You wish you could have brought some proper scanning equipment, but it would have been too obvious.

Swindle is loud and cheerful when he calls out, “Prowl, old buddy!”

You put on a friendly face, but keep yourself braced and aware of your surroundings. You nod to him. “Swindle. Alone today?”

He laughs. “Hey, hey. That was a minor error in judgment. A mistake! No grudges here, right? Because I’ve got a little something I think you might want to purchase.” He nudges the box towards you with his foot. “Interested?”

The drone stays close behind you as you step in close enough to pick up the box. You don’t think you’re expecting any trouble from Swindle himself. But you’ve got your optical and audio inputs tuned to maximum sensitivity, looking for any sign that anyone else is lurking nearby.

When you lift and open the box, it’s filled with alien weapons. You allow yourself to fractionally relax. If Swindle has planned an ambush, having valuable goods in the middle of the fight would be a risk he’s unlikely to take. It’s money above all else with him, and you are prepared to pay.

You take one of the weapons out to examine it. For all intents and purposes, it’s identical to the ones you delivered to Momus a few days ago. Short of testing it yourself, you don’t have any better way to verify that it’s real, and there aren’t any organic lifeforms around for you to test it on. If they’re fakes, Swindle knows the consequences he’ll face. Momus should be able to verify them in less than a day. That will have to do for now.

Do you take the time to count them? There should be fifty, but right now you only have Swindle’s word for that. From the corner of your optic, you watch him. This is the worst part of the city, you didn’t trust him from the start, and you have even less reason to trust him now. You can see the fresh weld marks on his arm. The drone is a reassuring presence behind you, but— no, better not to linger. You approximate the weight of the weapon in your hand, approximate the weight of a box this size and shape, do some quick mental calculations— close enough.

You place the weapon back in the box and shut it. “This appears to be in order,” you say. You reach into a compartment on your arm, pulling out a bundle of credit chips. His payment, yes. And a bonus. You tossed off the suggestion last time, and you’re happy to pay the money now if it means the deal will go smoothly.

Swindle takes the chips from your hand and says, “I will be counting the goods, no offense meant—” It takes him only a few nanokliks to leaf through the stack, and then he snaps them back together, tapping them against his chest to line them up. “One hundred thousand shanix,” he says, smugly rolling the words around in his mouth. You allow yourself to relax a little more. It’s always about the money with Swindle. “And a little extra, I noticed.”

You bend your head the barest degree. “Of course— Part of maintaining a healthy business relationship, don’t you think?”

He laughs as he tucks the chips away in a compartment in his leg. “True, true! I won’t argue with that.” He looks up at you. “So. If I’m happy and you’re happy…?”

You nod. “It’s been a pleasure,” you lie.

And that’s that. You turn and begin making your way back home, the drone following close on your heels. If he has cronies here, this is the time they’d make their move, right now, when Swindle has the credits and your back is turned— but there’s nothing. You try not to let your guard down, but you want to get back into better neighborhoods as quickly as you can. You’re not running not even walking quickly—you don’t want to draw any attention—but as long as you can get away from here, you should be fine.

It’s only two streets away where a mech comes charging you out of a dark alley. You hear the footsteps, and turn, going for one of your hidden guns as quickly as you can, but it isn’t quickly enough. He crashes you, slamming you into the wall so hard your vision glitches out for a moment. The box of weapons has gone flying, but you’ve managed to keep your grip on the gun— but before you can bring it up to fire, the mech already has your hand in a crushing grip, and he squeezes tighter and tighter until your fingers give way and the gun drops to the ground.

The drone— The drone is closing in, reaching for the mech that has you pinned, but behind it— The mech shoves his hand in your mouth before you can shout a warning, and you watch as more mechs go for your drone. One of them grabs for the leash, yanking its head around. The drone reaches for him, but they’re playing it smart, staying out of its reach.

And while you watch them swarm your drone, you go for your next gun, as subtly as you can manage, but the mech pinning you notices. He wrenches you around and throws you down to the street. Your head cracks against the ground and your vision swims, but you try to struggle up to your feet. Is this random? Or planned? And then you take three shots to the knee, in quick succession, and your leg buckles beneath you. Grudge. This is Swindle, he did this—

As the mech approaches, you’re dazed, but you can recognize his silhouette now, he’s one of the ones from before— But there’s more than there were the first time, this is bad.

You watch him cautiously, and start to say, “D-16—” but then someone else kicks your head, and your vision goes out and your chronometer skips a few nanokliks.

When you can focus again, they’re there, they’re on you, one of them is kneeling on your legs and you try not to pass out at the pain that shoots through your knee. He’s going for your face with a knife crackling with energy—you don’t quite manage to dodge. It goes right through one of your optics, and you scream. But even through the pain, you can’t help noticing that his grip is bad— When you jerk your head it yanks the knife out of his hand. And you manage to finally, finally reach one of your other hidden compartments and find the gun inside.

You come up shooting, manage to get the mech on top of you right in the neck. He falls to the side, choking, and you aim for the next closest mech. Your vision—what you have left of it— is swimming, and you only manage glancing hits, it isn’t enough, he’s not going down, and there’s just too many of them. Someone kicks the gun out of your hand, steps on your arm when you try to reach for another hidden compartment. Someone else steps hard on your damaged knee and you feel consciousness starting to slip away from you.

You. You still have an arm left. If you can remember how to move it. Your fingers are damaged, you can feel it, but they’re still good enough to shoot with. You have more guns, and, and you just need to get one, and then you can find a way to turn this around. The mechs above you aren’t even paying attention anymore, they’re saying something but you can’t make out the words—not important, it doesn’t matter, you just need to remember how to move, and then you can take all—five (six?) of them out.

You’re disoriented enough that when a large, pale shape slams into the drone pinning your knee, your first reaction is that oh, that must mean there are seven mechs you have to take down. It takes a few nanokliks to recognize your own drone, and you end up watching in a daze as it wraps one of its large, clumsy claws around the mech’s head, and pulls it clean from his body.

It’s like a spell has broken. The other mechs around you all train their weapons in the drone, but it’s shrugging off the fire, moving towards the next-closest mech with one claw shielding its optic, the other claw slamming into the mech’s torso, right above his spark chamber. The dent your drone leaves is the size of your head, and the mech goes down, spasming.

You finally, finally manage to draw another gun, and struggle upright, doing your best to help your drone from where you are. In the end, honestly, you don’t think you contribute much. Some of the mechs run— you can hear them going, and you, you ought to give pursuit, but. That simply is not going to happen right now. When you look at the carnage in the street, some of the mechs here are wounded and stunned. Some of them are definitely corpses. You should identify the remaining mechs and flag them for arrest. You should.

More importantly, though, you spot the box of alien weapons lying against a wall, thankfully still closed. But when you try to walk over to pick it up, your leg goes right out from under you. You go down on your good knee, run a slow vent cycle, and brace yourself to try again.

But then the drone is right there. It goes down to one knee in front of you, reaching out, with its claws bumping up against your hands. You watch it, dazed, unable to muster up any reaction beyond confusion.

And then it’s up to its feet, and it’s gone—but before you can even begin to find the processing power to wonder where it’s gone, it’s already back. It places the box of weapons carefully beside you, and then it goes to one knee again, reaching for your hands with its claws.

You grab its claws, trying to brace yourself well enough to stand again, and it urges you upward. Your processor finally catches up enough to realize that the drone is trying to help. You never ordered it to do that, says the part of your processor that’s two days behind the times. The drone does more to get you upright than you do, and once you’re standing you have to shut down your optics for a few nanokliks to fight a rush of dizziness. The drone is moving again, and you don’t know what it’s even doing, but it’s mercifully left you an arm to lean on and that’s all you can care about for the moment.

When you online your optics, you can see that a few of the wounded mechs that you— that the drone left behind are beginning to stir. The drone has taken up a guard stance, as well as it can with you still using its arm for support. You need to leave. Very soon. You try to bend to pick up the weapons, and have to stop almost right away. Bad plan. Definitely a bad plan.

The drone notices what you’re doing, and stoops to pick up the box itself. It’s taken even more damage than it did in the last confrontation. It’s covered in scorch marks and energon, there are loose wires hanging from one of its shoulders, and a deep crack bisects its chestplate, right through the engraved scrollwork. But it’s still moving better than you are, and that’s all that matters right now.

It holds the box out to you, and you manage to free one hand to take it. Then you try to let go with your other arm. Right, no, never mind. You get a good, solid hold on the drone’s arm. You can hardly put any weight on your damaged leg. Can you transform? Lead the drone home back that way? But the first twitch of your t-cog sends a sharp, shooting pain down your spinal strut. Better not to force it and risk worse damage. You just need to get home, however you do it, and you can worry about the rest later.

You nudge the drone in the right direction. If you can hold onto it like this and limp your way back across the city, that should work. But the drone doesn’t respond. It’s looking at you, and like always, you don’t know what it wants, and this is not the time. After a moment, it reaches up to touch your left cheek. What is it— oh. You hand it back the box for a moment while you pull the knife from your optic and drop it to the ground. You gingerly touch what’s left of your optic—completely destroyed. It’s fine, you knew you’d have to see a doctor anyways. When you nudge the drone again, it hesitates for a nanoklik more, reaches up to touch your cheek again, and then it turns and walks beside you, letting you lean heavily on its arm as it leads you down the street.

It takes longer than you want to reach decent neighborhoods again. You’re jumping at every noise, and you’re painfully aware of how exposed and vulnerable you are right now. But nothing happens. By the time you’ve made it onto streets with decent lighting, you’ve had time to figure out a gait that disguises the worst of your limp. And then you’ve had time enough for even that to become too much for your damaged knee. You and the drone have slowed to a crawl, with you resting as much weight as you can on its arm and with the drone turned to you to put its claw under your elbow to help hold you upright. It isn’t efficient. And you’re flagging anyways. So it isn’t working.

So you come to a stop. And you shut your eyes for a moment and indulge in a quiet sigh before you finally say, “D-16, I need you to carry me home.”

It’s remarkable how easily the drone is able to lift you, despite all the damage it’s taken. It lifts you with barely any effort, settling you carefully across its arms, tucked against its chestplate. It looks down at you until you meet its optics, then looks down across you—at your leg—and back to your face.

It takes you a nanoklik to understand what it’s trying to ask, and tell it, “I’m fine.” And then it sets off.

The drone walks quickly. Much more quickly than you were managing on your feet. Every step jars your leg, and it’s a sharp little jolt of pain, but it’s still considerably better than before. And like this, you aren’t having to waste all your concentration on making it through the next step without falling over, and you have time to think. You’re still absurdly distracted by the remains of your drone’s chain, watching the last few links swing back and forth as the drone walks. You bite back a laugh—control, this isn’t the timeBut you did tell yourself that the chain wasn’t strong enough to control the drone, didn’t you.

Whatever just happened back there—that was far beyond behavioral parameters for any drone, no matter how imaginative you’re being. That’s redundant, though. You already knew that. You already knew about the poetry. And the way it’s fussing over you now—There has to be an explanation for this, if you could only spot it. But you found its manufacturing records, and you’ve had Scalpel treating it and running those tests on it, and besides, if anyone was planning to sabotage you, this would have been the perfect time to leave you to die. There’s some hole in your information, but you can’t tell what it is.

And then the drone takes a turn you’re not expecting, and for a moment, you’re absolutely certain that it is going to betray you, that you were wrong to trust it—But then you recognize the route to Scalpel’s clinic. That’s… not what you would have expected. That’s interesting. And it’s something to consider later, because you’re not going to take these weapons to an unsecured clinic, especially not if it means leaving them unprotected while a doctor treats your injuries.

So you tell the drone it doesn’t need to do that, and it can just take you home. Then you try ordering it to take you home. Ultimately, you are very, very glad that it’s so late at night, because you don’t like to think about what kind of stories would be passed around if people were here to see you carrying out a one-sided argument with your own drone as it carries you around town in its arms. In the end, you have to explain your reasoning to the drone—very quietly—before it finally turns and carries you back to your apartment.

As you get closer to your home, there are a few people around to watch the spectacle. Nobody quite has the nerve to say anything out loud, but everyone stares. You sigh and ignore them. Primus knows what sort of rumors will be spreading about you in the morning. You’ll deal with it when it happens. In the meantime, you’re preoccupied by your drone’s behavior. The amount of free will it’s shown—calling a drone is wrong, it has to be wrong, but you can’t think of what else it could be. You verified its manufacturing records and everything. Even if a mech— You can almost see how a mech disguising himself as a drone could be useful, for espionage. If it could be done— You suppose it could be done, but the records—

When the drone finally gets you back home, you have it deposit you in front of your console. It wanders off for once—unusual. Has it ever done that before? You can worry about that later. For now all you can think about is those manufacturing records. They haven’t been edited in centuries, and they date back much further than that. And they haven’t just been faked to look like this either, you have the permissions in place to see where changes would have been made, but there’s nothing to see. The page is legitimate. You’ve been looking at the page for less than half a klik, but there’s no need to look longer. There’s nothing else worth seeing. The visual and the serial number match. Unless a mech would live as a drone for… thousands of years? Centuries, at a bare minimum? No, it isn’t worth considering.

Out of sheer frustration, you go to glance over the other drones in that same production run. The frames match, with slight variations of form, of course, but nothing worth remarking over. There’s something that doesn’t match, somewhere, there has to be. There’s some little piece of information somewhere that will explain all these contradictions, and it’s out there, you know it is.

And when you open up the page for one of the other drone models, you find it. It’s an accident, more than a deliberate act of investigation. But you’re leafing through the page, comparing model specs to your own drone—all very similar, nothing unusual—and you notice its serial number. ATNL-43.04-B-et cetera, you don’t even finish reading it, because it’s so strikingly different from your drone’s. You bring up Scalpel’s report again, just to check. TXR-100.2-44060-27D-16. Just like it says on your drone’s page. But every other model in this production run has an ATNL serial number. It isn’t even a character mismatch, the entire structure of your drone’s serial number is different from all these models.

So this is it. This is your key. You just have to pick apart what it actually means. You’re so close you can feel it. And so, of course, that’s the moment your security system alerts you that you have a visitor.

Momus, you remember. You do not want to deal with this right now. It’s been barely a klik since you got home, and you ache all over and you don’t even want to consider how he’ll react to seeing all the damage you took. But also, it has to be done, and you want those weapons passed along to the next link in the chain and out of your hands as soon as physically possible, so. This is a job that needs doing.

You don’t call your drone, because you are absolutely not answering the door being carried in its arms. You pick up the box of weapons, and drag yourself along your walls towards your front door. Once you’re there, you tuck the weapons casually into your arm, put your weight on your good leg, and lean hard against the wall before you open the door for Momus. If you don’t move, he probably won’t guess how bad it is.

He still jumps and stares when you open the door, and you wearily wave him inside before he starts asking questions where anyone outside might hear. The door is barely shut behind him when the questions explode out of him, mainly, what happened? You brush him off as well as you can—and besides, the better part of ‘what happened’ is clearly written all over your chassis.

You shove the box into his arms, in hopes of derailing the conversation. It works, thank Primus.

He asks, “Fifty of them?”

“Probably.”

“And they work?”

You shrug. “Hopefully.”

He gives you a flat look. Still a little amused, because it’s Momus, but also not entirely happy.

You gesture down at yourself and give a wry smile. “There were a few problems.”

That makes him grin, which will have to be good enough. He’s got the box open and is rifling through it when your drone comes around the corner, out of your—washrack? You’re lost, utterly and entirely lost, until it steps up to you and holds out an emergency medical kit. You—what? How did it even find that?

Luckily, Momus misses your reaction entirely and just bursts into delighted laughter, congratulating you on how efficient you are with the orders for your drone. He’s—wrong, you had nothing to do with this. But his amusement is infectious, and it’s starting to really click that it’s over, you’ve done it, no matter how badly everything went, no matter what kind of beating you took, you made it out alive, with the weapons, all that’s left is for Momus’s scientist to finish adapting them for Cybertronian hands, and you’ve won. You still try to discreetly wave off your drone. This isn’t the time for Momus to start asking questions. It resists for a nanoklik, insistently holding out the medkit and staring you down, but after a moment it backs off. When you look over Momus’s shoulder, you can see it standing, just past your entryway, still holding the medkit and watching you. After a klik or two it goes away. If you’re lucky, maybe it won’t come back with another medkit.

After that, you’re happy to talk with Momus and smile at his jokes as he counts out the weapons—fifty exactly—and fiddles with a few of them, before he declares himself satisfied and bundles them all into the box again to take off to his contact. You can’t bring yourself to think back through where he’s going or how he’s getting there, and at first you blame it on exhaustion, but that’s not quite right, is it? You might be tired, physically, but you’re overflowing with enough giddy excitement that you don’t even think you’d even be able to sleep right now.

Momus is halfway out the door when he turns back suddenly and tells you that by the way, the scrapyards are full of drones right now, so if you wanted to purchase any friends for your little pet, it’s an affordable time to do it. You’re buzzing with too much energy to give that any proper consideration right now, but you tuck that information away for later. Interesting.

The moment he’s gone, the drone sweeps back in. You’re ready to lean on its arm again, but you don’t even get a chance before it simply picks you up and goes striding across your apartment to your study. It puts you down carefully in front of your console, and when you look at the screen—Somehow, somehow, it’s managed to bring up the contact information for Scalpel. And when you glance over at it, it meaningfully nudges the medkit across the desk towards you.

You can’t help it, you burst out laughing. You do open the medkit and get patches for the worst of the gashes on your frame. The eye will have to wait for a real doctor. The knee too. But you can do makeshift repairs for some of the other damage until you can get them actually treated.

And— If this was a drone, it would be silly to talk to it. You aren’t sure exactly what’s going on here yet, but regardless, this isn’t a drone. So you explain—awkwardly—that the injuries aren’t severe enough to require immediate attention, and the attention you’ll attract by calling in a doctor at this time of night outweighs the benefits of being treated. Tomorrow, you’ll have a doctor make a house call. You do have a doctor of your own— But not one that’s ever treated your drone. And you can’t guarantee he’ll be willing to do that tomorrow, especially not for damage that so obviously came from a fight. At the very least, you can’t be sure he’ll keep his silence. So tomorrow you’ll have Scalpel make a house call, and things should be back to normal before tomorrow night.

Once you’ve finished patching yourself up, you call the drone over and have it kneel in front of your chair while you do rough repairs on the worst of its injuries. The drone sits there, completely motionless, simply watching you. You’re not a good medic at the best of times, and you’re even clumsier with one of your hands half-crushed, but when you’re finished, the drone looks down at its chest and touches the patch with one careful claw.

And then it looks up at you and reaches towards you instead. That claw comes to rest against your face, just under your damaged optic, and strokes along your cheek in a slow, steady motion. Its optic is still intent on you. Your hands are still full of medical supplies, but you’re reluctant to set them aside, because after that, you won’t know what to do with yourself.

The moment you move—only turning to put the medical supplies on the desk—the drone freezes, then pulls back in on itself. It kneels there, just watching you, with its claws in its lap. The two of you are motionless, optics on each other.

You’re the first to move, turning back to face the drone and saying, “We won.” It comes out unbearably smug, and you can’t even bring yourself to care.

It breaks the spell, and the drone reaches out to you again, taking one of your arms in its claws and turning it over, delicately, examining the whole thing. It repeats the routine with your other arm, then moves on to fussing over your legs instead. It doesn’t actually touch your injured leg, but it lifts the other, running one claw along your plating, looking you over. You see its spinal strut stiffen and its head snaps up, and it’s pointing to something—oh. When you crane around, you can just see a crack in your plating that you missed before. It’s nothing serious, but the drone gestures emphatically at the injury again, its optic still locked on yours.

“It’s fine,” you tell it. “It can wait. That can be patched in the morning. By someone who knows what they’re doing.”

While you’re at it—you shoot a quick ping off to Scalpel, asking him to come to your home at his earliest convenience. And then half a nanoklik later, you realize he doesn’t know your home address, and follow up with a second ping. Another half nanoklik, and you follow up with a third ping telling him that his earliest convenience should still be fairly early. Inefficient and silly, and you can’t bring yourself to even care.

The drone has gone on examining your other injuries while you were distracted. You aren’t made of spun glass, but you wouldn’t know it to watch the drone. It’s almost touching, how gently it handles you.

But that’s enough of that for now. It’s nice enough, but you can’t sit still for a klik longer. You’re about to explode out of your frame with all the energy burning in your circuits. You need to pace—no, you can’t right now. Or drive—no, that’s right out too. Well, you’ll work out something.

So you brace on the drone’s shoulders and start to push yourself upright. You don’t make it. Because the moment you start to leave the chair, the drone takes you by the waist and simply lifts you. It shocks an undignified noise out of you before you can help yourself. And the drone doesn’t set you on your feet either. Oh no.

“I can stand,” you tell it.

It just looks down at your damaged knee, then back to your face. And does not put you down on your feet.

You ought to be annoyed, but you can’t bring yourself to even be bothered about that right now. Its claws are around your waist and your hands are still braced against its shoulders, and you lean forward into it, grin, and tell it again, “We won.”

It doesn’t let you stand, but it does lower you down to sit across its lap, carefully arranging you so no weight is on your bad knee. It’s optic is still locked on your face, and you’re looking right back at it. You’re still grinning, but that’s fine, because honestly, it’s all you can do to not burst into giddy laughter. You consider getting up again, because you’re sure you can find some way to limp around the apartment until you feel tired enough to sleep. But really, being here, like this, you can’t help thinking of all sorts of interesting things you could do to burn off some of this excess energy.

You let your hands slide from the drone’s shoulders, down across its chest. You suppose you could make some kind of excuse about how you’re only checking the patched crack in its armor, but why bother? You want to touch the drone, and you want it to touch you back. Neither of you looks away from the other, but you can feel its arms closing around you as your hands roam idly over its chest. One of its arms wraps around your lower back, pulling you even closer up against the drone. And its other arm— You can feel its claw gently come to rest behind your neck, cradling the back of your head. In some ways, it’s interesting trying to decode what your drone is trying to do and say without hands or a voice, but at times like this— How much would it cost to have your drone’s claws replaced with hands? It doesn’t really matter, because you’re almost certain you’ll be willing to pay it.

Still. Even without hands, the way the drone feels against your frame is enough to make all your systems sit up and pay attention. And— You edge even closer, nudging your chest closer to the drone’s, completely shameless, because like this, you and the drone are pressed tight together. You feel the drone’s fans click on. Yours are already going.

For a klik, you’re happy to sit like that. You can shift against the drone without putting any real weight on your knee, and it’s so, so easy to just let yourself stay right there, letting the drone hold you against its chest, just rubbing your panel against the drone’s. When you crane your neck to look up, it’s still watching you, its optic bright and intent. Its claw strokes clumsily along your neck, and you can feel the arm against your back tighten around you.

But as good as it feels, it’s—not enough. You need more, you need to move. Of course, the moment you try to brace yourself and stretch up along the drone’s chest, you end up putting weight on your bad knee. You don’t even begin to do a decent job of hiding the wince. And the drone notices, of course. It shifts underneath you, and you resign yourself to being bundled off in its arms again.

You aren’t expecting its claws to close around your thighs, taking your weight, and you almost overbalance and have to grab at the drone’s collar plating to keep your balance. But now— You shift your weight experimentally. The drone moves with you easily—Primus, its claws are large enough to close around your legs—and you can adjust yourself without putting any pressure at all on your damaged knee. And with the drone curled forward over you the way it is? When you stretch the smallest bit upward, you can just barely manage to get your mouth on its neck cables.

The drone jerks under you— but it doesn’t pull away. Its claws tighten reflexively on your legs and you can hear its fans spin up even faster. You allow yourself a satisfied smile, your lips still pressed to its neck. You stay there for a little while, nibbling every cable and wire you can reach. You can feel every reaction from the drone, where your chests are pressed together. You wish it had a vocalizer so you could hear it too, but even just its physical reactions are endlessly fascinating. When you lick one of its sensor wires, its claws tighten so hard on your legs that you wonder if it might have left dents.

But despite that, even now, you can’t stand being this still. You’re going to vibrate out of your frame, you need to move. You lean up right against the drone’s chest and your lips move against its neck when you tell it, “I want you inside me.”

The blast of hot air you feel from its vents is intensely gratifying. You hear the click from its panel retracting, and you reluctantly push back from the drone so you can see. The drone easily takes your weight as you lean back, and you’re just in time to watch its spike pressurize. It comes up right between your legs, and you— you can feel it moving against your panel, a slow, warm slide, and you hadn’t even realized how ready you were— You don’t consciously open your panel, but it happens anyways, and a quiet, wanting noise slips out of you when you feel your valve pressed against the drone’s spike.

You’re transfixed for a moment, just looking the drone’s spike, the size of it, and remembering how it felt in you before— And then you come back to yourself, because it’s not in you right now, and that is a situation that needs fixing. You do your best to push yourself up far enough to actually take its spike, but you don’t get very far on your own. There’s only so much you can move on your own like this. Fortunately the drone is fast enough to follow your lead, and it lifts you up so quickly you have to grab at its collar again to keep your balance.

And then it lowers you onto its spike. Your head snaps back hard at how—at how much it is. You didn’t prepare yourself at all. Maybe you should have, but it’s worth it for how good, how intense this feels. It would be even better if the drone would just, just take you. But it only moves slowly, tortuously slowly, pausing every time you shift, or a noise escapes your vocalizer. You want to beg it to go hard, hard and fast, but you can’t quite remember how to form words. Your hands are locked tight on its collar and your optics keep offlining as you gradually, gradually sink down the drone’s spike.

Eventually, the drone pauses long enough for you to finish adjusting. When your optics finally come back online without immediately crashing again, it’s watching you closely. You’re fine, more than fine. You move experimentally, bracing yourself against its claws and feeling the way its spike has you stretched out.

More,” you tell it.

The drone watches you for a nanoklik, glances down between the two of you, and then shakes its head. You try to protest at first, try to argue your case—It would be much easier if you can manage to successfully string an entire sentence together. And it isn’t getting you anywhere. Well, if words aren’t going to do the trick, maybe you can persuade it in other ways. Or at least distract it enough that you can take more of its spike without it fretting about hurting you.

So for now you brace your weight against its claws, pushing up as far as you can, then sinking back down its spike as far as it will let you. Your valve burns with how far its spike has you stretched, and even if you want more, this is still so intense that you can barely get your processor to function around how much it is.

But as hard as it is to think, you still want to be doing more. Once you manage a rhythm—an unsteady, shaky rhythm, but still—your mind turns to what else you could be doing to the drone. As it happens, your hands are small enough to get inside its shoulder joints easy enough, feeling out the edges of the drone’s plating, finding all the small, delicate sensors hidden by its armor. On the edges of your vision, you can see the drone’s optic flare bright. It’s not too difficult to keep working yourself down against the drone’s spike while you tease out all the most sensitive spots in the gaps in your drone’s plating.

The build to overload is painfully slow. Even when you manage to line up enough words to beg your done for more or faster, it refuses to give you what you want. Its claws stay locked tight around your thighs, and it only lets you move against its spike as quickly as you can manage on your own. No matter what reactions you tease out of it, no matter how much further you manage to spin its fans up, and no matter how its claws flex against your legs, it doesn’t give in.

By the time you manage to bring yourself to the edge of overload, you can hardly tell whether what you’re feeling is pain or pleasure anymore. Your interface array aches with how badly you need to overload, and you’re desperate because you’re so close, just a little further. The sheer sensation is so much that you don’t remember how to think, don’t remember how to move your hands, and you’re suddenly terrified that you’ll forget how to move your legs and you’ll, you’ll never finish, and then you think you might die, so you press down against the drone’s spike, struggling against its claws as much as you can manage, clinging to its collar, your head hanging low. You can see the way your valve is stretched around the drone’s spike, and you can feel it, but somehow your processor can’t find the connection between what you’re watching and what you’re experiencing.

And that’s nothing compared to how it feels when the overload finally hits. You collapse forward against the drone’s chest. You can’t think, can’t speak, can’t ventilate, can’t move, all you can do there is lie and shake as your valve struggles to clench around the drone’s spike. You can feel the transfluid from your spike hit the underside of your chest. The drone’s claws are steady and firm around your legs, and it’s such a contrast to the rest of you that it feels for a klik like the drone is more real than you are.

What really shocks you back into your own body is the feeling of the drone beginning to lift you off its spike. You grab at its shoulders, trying to stop it, and argue that no, don’t, you aren’t done yet, you want more, you still want— The drone pauses, and you run a slow vent cycle, taking a moment to let your processor catch up and rebooting your vocalizer.

With hopefully more coherence, you add, “You haven’t overloaded yet.”

It looks flatly at you. And doesn’t make any move to put you back down in its lap.

So you try, “What if I want you to overload in my valve?”

That sends a shiver running through its frame, and you know you’ve won. It lowers you back onto its spike, slowly and carefully, so gentle that it’s almost too much for you to take. When you settle back down against its claws, you take a nanoklik or two to find your bearings, then try to brace yourself against its grip to begin working yourself against its spike again. It feels good, perfect, everything you could have hoped for. Except that your legs are shaking so badly that you can barely shift yourself, and your hips already ache with the strain.

But you’re not done. You’re not done. You fight to push yourself up along the drone’s spike again, you can do this. You need this. But then, mercifully, the drone takes pity on you. It lifts you bodily, lifting you until its spike almost slips out of your valve, then letting you slowly sink down to the point it’s decided is your limit. Part of you wants to argue that you can take more than that, especially now. A larger part of you just wants to collapse against the drone’s chest and feel everything it’s doing to you. So that’s what you do.

It’s still almost too much to handle, but you don’t want it to stop. You aren’t even supporting your own weight anymore, your face is just pressed against the drone’s chestplate, and your optics are drifting offline, but it’s all you can do to just process the sensory input as the drone moves you up and down its spike. Distantly, you feel like you ought to be doing more. It takes you a klik or two to pull yourself together enough to move, but you manage to kiss its chestplate. And when you trace a line of scrollwork with your glossa, you feel the drone's fans stutter and its claws clench tight on your legs.

And that, finally is what it takes to make the drone move as quickly as you’ve wanted. It lifts you up and slams you down on its spike, almost as hard as you’d demand if you could find your words. It’s no deeper than before, and your valve aches with how much more you still want, but you still breathlessly laugh and clutch at the drone’s shoulders to keep your balance as it uses you, moving you along its spike, faster and faster.

It doesn’t last nearly as long as you would have wanted before the drone pulls you down hard against it, curling forward over you, and you can feel it shaking under your legs and against your chest as it overloads, flooding your valve with transfluid. You’re— not quite there, not yet— You try to get a hand between you, try to touch your spike, your valve, anything. You can’t quite manage it, you’re still too shaky, and you can’t quite remember how to move your hands. You try to work yourself against the drone’s spike, but your legs aren’t any better than they were before, and you can’t find a rhythm, can’t get the contact you need—

And then the drone’s spike slips out of you, depressurizing and retreating back into its casing. You’re saying—something, you don’t even know what. Begging the drone not to stop yet, that you aren’t done, just a little more—

There isn’t any helping it, you know that. You manage to cut off the useless flow of words and struggle upright, braced against the drone’s chest again. It lowers you down to sit across its thighs again, releasing your legs. It feels almost like you’re floating, without that grip there to ground you. When you look up and the two of you lock optics, it ducks its head apologetically. You manage a weak laugh, and say something—something hopefully reassuring about it being fine, that these things happen.

The drone reaches up with one claw to touch your cheek. And the other claw— Oh. And the drone’s other claw slides down between your legs. You aren’t in much condition to move, but you don’t need to. The drone just slides it claw along your valve, against your node, and it’s a whole new reminder of how tender your array still is, how sensitive your valve is, how much you still ache all over from its spike— Like this, it doesn’t take you long at all to finish.

You don’t even remember most of the overload. You remember it starting to hit you— But then the next thing you’re aware of is being laid out on the floor with the drone bent over you. One claw is gently stroking your face again. When your optics come back online, and groan and shift, it sits back on its heels. You still struggle to read its expressions, but right now, its relief is palpable. You feel hollowed out, like your circuits have been all scorched clean, and you’re finally feeling the exhaustion this evening would justify.

And you’re starving.

“D-16,” you begin. The drone is back over you in a moment, its optic intent on your face. It can’t work the energon dispenser, can it. Not with those claws. “Treats. Energon treats. Can you—?”

It’s on its feet and gone almost before you’ve finished speaking. It’s back in nanokliks with a box of treats. You beckon it down beside you, and it lies down. But it places itself just far enough away to not be making any contact with you at all. You— no. You can just manage to brace your good leg to nudge yourself closer, so you’re leaned up against the drone’s side. It watches you for a moment, then slowly, tentatively, shifts to place its arm carefully around your shoulders.

You alternate reaching up to feed the treats to the drone and eating the treats yourself. You’re so exhausted that the only thing keeping you online is how hungry you are. But when the box of treats is almost gone, you say, “You aren’t a drone.”

It’s not a question. The drone—or whatever it is—still shakes its head.

“What are you?”

It’s the last thing you say before you finally slip into recharge.

In the morning, when you wake up, every single one of your blank datapads simply reads, “Megatron.”

Even if all your injuries are just as bad as they were last night, you’ve gotten some rest, and now your processor feels like it’s actually online. So as soon as you’ve gotten energon for yourself and your drone, you go right to your console to research what on earth ‘Megatron’ means.

It takes some time. You have as many permissions as anyone who isn’t on the Council directly, and you’re smarter about finding secret, hidden information than any of these career politicians. But this information is buried deep.

And when you find it? You can understand why.

The biographical information is sparse. Date of construction, date of death. A grainy image. But it’s familiar. If you ignore the addition of a face, it's nearly identical to the identification image you saw on the drone manufacturer’s site. Cause of death is listed as a mining accident. You glance up at the drone standing in the corner of the study, calmly watching you. Death. Mm. Work history—just a string of mining outposts, nothing of note. But the records are still extensive. Why? Because of the dozens of published treatises attributed to this one unremarkable miner.

You open the first document, and just the first few lines send a shiver down your spinal strut. If this was found in your possession— Even with as much power as you have, and as much trust as you’ve earned from the Council, you wouldn’t lay decent odds on your survival if they found out you’ve accessed these papers.

You read them all, of course. Just a quick look, you’re sure you’re missing plenty of detail. But you don’t want this history to be on your console for any longer than it needs to be. You wipe a datapad blank, download every one of Megatron’s publications to it, and then open its case to physically remove its wireless connector module. Then you spend a cycle and a half removing every possible indicator on your console that you ever, ever accessed these records.

Eventually, you can’t think of anything else to alter. You’ve removed every single trace you could think of that you ever researched anything to do with Megatron. Idly, you pick up the datapad and leaf through the first few treatises again. You can’t remember the last time you read anything so blatantly anti-Functionist. The cause of death was a mining accident, these records claim? No. This is exactly the sort of thing that would make the Council’s desire for punishment outweigh the practicality of a clean execution. You’d wager they wiped his mind too, on top of the physical punishments. And you do math on the dates—From the date of supposed death to when Proteus gave you his little present, it’s been thousands of years. And now the drone—Megatron—is right here, right in this very room, watching you work.

“Megatron,” you say to it—him. His head swivels up and it locks optics with you. You hold out the datapad. “I believe this is yours.”

It takes a moment for it—him—to understand. He holds the datapad, looks back up at you. You reach over and point out the byline.

His optic dilates wider than you’ve ever seen it. He looks down at the datapad, and his head whips around to stare at you. Another glance at the datapad and back to you. You wave a hand at him. “Yes, it’s yours.”

You just… sit and watch for a few kliks while he reads. He didn’t even give you a chance to explain where it’s from, and he’s already engrossed. You’d think he’s forgotten you’re even in the room, but he looks up at you again, his optic flaring bright, and lifts the datapad in an unspoken question.

“Yes, really,” you tell him. “Really yours.”

You waste a few more kliks watching the drone click its way through the datapad. Drones filling the scrapyards, Momus said. Proteus’s mines are closing. Part of you wonders how miniscule the chances are that this one particular drone would have made it out of there intact? And a larger part of you is calculating what percentage of Proteus’s assets have been tied up in the mining industry and the losses he’s suffering. He’s claiming that his facilities are relocating, but they’re being closed outright. He’s weak right now. He has less influence to bring to bear. How can you use this? When you watch Megatron rediscovering his old writing—It does bring certain ideas to mind. Dangerous ideas. But if there was anyone around with the skill to execute them, it would have to be you.

Eventually, you’re interrupted by a message from Scalpel telling you that he’s almost reached your apartment, and if you keep him waiting he’ll turn around and go back to his clinic.

When you get up and begin limping to your front door, the drone starts to get up to help you, but you wave it off. You're almost insulted at how willing it is to go back to its reading instead of assisting you, but mostly you just smile.

You meet Scalpel at the door, and he takes a half-step back when he sees you. You suppose you do make quite a sight. The missing optic is striking enough, your knee is a mess of its own, and that’s apart from the remarkable amount of cosmetic damage you’ve taken.

Primus,” is all he says. He takes a few steps into your apartment before he collects himself and pulls himself up straight, crossing his arms over his chest. “And I suppose you’re expecting me to fix you and that drone up from whatever disaster you’ve gotten yourself into this time.”

You smile. Over Scalpel’s shoulder, you can see Megatron in the study, just now looking up from the datapad. “Actually, I also had another question. You said that my drone has no comms?”

Yes,” he snaps. “How many times do I have to—”

“Then tell me. How much would it cost to install them?”