Ratchet could tell the shuttle was recharging by the even, steady pulse of his field. It was very late, or perhaps far too early in the morning, depending on how one looked at it. The medic, a veteran of too many wars, couldn't relax. Terrible scenarios filled his head.
With an aggravated growl, he got up and stalked out the state room door, through the passenger cabin, and into the flight deck.
Quasar was slumped listlessly in the pilot's seat, staring through the windshield at the otherworldly light of a transwarp field.
"I can keep watch if you want to catch some recharge," Ratchet offered the young seeker.
"Do you know how to fly?"
Ratchet arched up an optic ridge. "I'm the preferred medic for seekers all across Cybertron. I like to think I know something about flight mechanics. I've had a pilot's license since I was a youngling. And - by the way - that was some fine flying back there."
"Resonance has lousy instincts," Quasar grumbled. "And some really bad habits."
"He's used to flying with humans on board. Some of the maneuvers you pulled would have turned them to red smears on the walls." Ratchet's back struts were out of alignment following that wild ride, another reason why recharge was difficult for him. The g-forces would have been fatal to anything less sturdy than a Cybertronian. They had not been kind to aging struts, either. "Go, get some rest."
Quasar rubbed the bridge of his nose with two fingers. "I don't think I can."
"Need a sedative?" Ratchet asked. He wasn't willing to drug himself because he was the only medic and the only experienced warrior on board, but he felt it perfectly appropriate to give the kid some chemically induced recharge. Frankly, he was surprised that Resonance had managed to power down.
Quasar looked over his hand at Ratchet. "No."
Then the young seeker huffed, folded his arms across his chest, and said, "I should be on Cybertron. I'm just a grunt, doc. I'm not smart like Starscream wants me to be, and I don't have any special mods like Skywarp or Thundercracker - I don't have the spark strength to support them. But I'm a good fighter and I can fly almost as good as Starscream can. Better, someday, he says."
"We need a skilled pilot for Resonance. You said it yourself. That's your job, now. Starscream accepted the job because he knew it was important - you know that no matter what else anyone says about Starscream, they can't deny he cares about Cybertron and would not have been easily convinced to leave with a looming security threat."
Quasar frowned. Then he huffed a sigh, flicked his wings up, and rose. "You're probably right, doc. Doesn't mean I have to like it, though."
"I'm not real happy either, but we have a job to do."
Quasar grunted, then headed off, hopefully to recharge.
Only after he was gone did the door slid open again. Ratchet turned, expecting to see Anodyne, but it was the cybercat kitten. She was barely big enough to cover the palm of his hand, but now that he had a chance to actually scan her, he realized she wasn't a brand new sparkling. She was a few vorns old. She also looked somewhat the worse for wear, likely due to being thrown around earlier. "So, kid, what's your name?"
"Skitter." Her voice was not as high pitched as he expected.
"I'm Ratchet. C'mere and let me look at you."
She stared at him suspiciously.
"I'm a physician, kid. I just want to make sure you didn't get any injuries in that wild ride. Scary, wasn't it?"
She nodded, and let him pick her up. He set her down on his knee and scanned her more closely. She had some dents that he easily pulled out, but no major injuries. Once he was done, he absently glanced at Resonance's displays - nothing had changed, hyperwarp travel was generally dull and uneventful unless something went wrong - then reached into his subspace and found a rust stick. He broke off a piece for her, and offered it with a casual, "Here, kid."
"So, you going to school yet?"
"No. There aren't any classes for symbionts open right now. But Moonlight's been teaching me lots of stuff. And Brissa lets me listen in on her classes when she goes to school."
"I see." Ratchet felt it was frankly unfair that education was being rationed, though he understood that all of Cybertron's resources were being stretched to the max as they attempted to rebuild. Hard decisions had been made, and some of them were truly unfair to certain segments of the population. "What's your favorite subject?"
"Language." The sparkling giggled. "Ravage says I'm a freak of nature. Cybercats aren't supposed to be chatty. But I like learning new languages. I've already mastered over fifty of them!"
"Any Earth languages?" That could be useful.
"Oh, yeah. Twelve! Including Terra Lingua, of course. Anodyne said he was going to Earth when he graduated college because he didn't like the way symbionts were treated on Cybertron. He was going to take me. So I wanted to learn as many as I could. I speak Quintesson, too, and Nebulan and ..."
"So you're a very smart sparkling."
"Nah, I just like to talk." She bounced a bit.
"Careful, doc. She'll wear your audials out if you let her." Agility said, from a shadowed corner of the small room.
Ratchet startled. He hadn't felt Agility's field, which was nothing new - Agility could, and did, control his EM field with surgical precision. It wasn't the first time, nor would it probably be the last, that Ratchet had been surprised by the symbiont's presence.
"Don't do that." Ratchet forcefully deactivated his combat protocols. He was on edge. Near death experiences tended to do that to him. He didn't need to see the sleek, deadly black Quintesson fighters to know just how close they'd come to being blown out of the sky.
Agility just looked at him. The symbiont was seated in the flight engineer's chair, curled up, knees to his chest and arms around them.
Skitter buzzed static at the older symbiont, the Cybertronian version of a raspberry. "You scared me, too, afthead."
Agility grinned at her.
"Agility, can you tell me what's going on in Iacon?"
Agility shook his head. "Not in front of the bitlet."
"Ah." Ratchet ran a hand down Flicker's back. "Flicker, why don't you keep Quasar company?"
"I'd rather she not." Agility stood up, alarm visible on his face. "I don't trust him."
Ratchet hesitated, then pinged Agility with an encryption key. They could talk over comms.
Agility rolled his optics. "Kid's better at decryption than Soundwave."
Skitter jumped down off Ratchet's knee. She fluffed and settled her thin, fragile armor, and stalked towards the door. Nose in the air, she said, "I know when I'm not wanted. I'm going to go patrol the hold for vermin."
"Resonance doesn't have vermin!" Ratchet protested, offended on behalf of the young shuttle.
The kitten looked over her shoulder at him. "But your med bay trailer does."
"Oh, slag." Mortified, Ratchet covered his face with both hands. When he lowered them, the sparkling was gone, and Agility was grinning at him.
"Don't worry, she's good at hunting. Poor kid lived on her own on in some ruins on the shore of the rust sea for over a vorn. She'll take care of it."
"Okay, spill. What did you not want to say in front of the kid?"
Agility held a hand up. "Skitter, I know you're listening!"
The kitten spat static at him from the far side of the thin flight deck door.
Agility shook his head. "She forgets how sensitive I am to others' fields. She's such a brat. If I don't kill her by the time we get to earth, it will be a miracle."
"I'm glad she was with you when we launched," Ratchet said, folding his arms. "Cybertron's no place for a symbiont sparkling right now."
Agility looked at Ratchet with wide optics, then abruptly glanced away. For a moment, Ratchet was afraid that the symbiont was going to retreat into silence in response to the mild rebuke, but Agility finally said, "Sorry. You're right. Brissa ... Brissant's dead."
"Anodyn's sister ... I'm sorry."
"I don't know how to tell the kid. Brissa saved her."
"I suggest honesty."
"Speaking from experience, doc?" Agility said, dryly. Then he bit his lip and looked away.
Ratchet shrugged. "Do as I say, not as I do. Anyway, the whole mess with Resonance wasn't really my doing. I wanted to tell him who and what he'd been right from the beginning. I got outvoted."
"Always took you for a tyrant, not a democrat."
"You know, runt, I liked you better when you were giving me the silent treatment."
Agility shrugged. "Res likes you. I'm not going to be rude to Res's friends."
"You really like Resonance, don't you?" Ratchet said, voice softening. Now he understood Agility's motivation for speaking to him a bit better. He was trying to look good for Resonance.
"It's unfair, too." Agility tucked his knees back to his chest.
"He's a shuttle and I'm a symbiont!"
"Kid," Ratchet rolled his eyes, "don't let that stop you. If you like Res, tell him."
Ratchet was surprised by the sharp stab of pain in his own spark at the suggestion. Agility would detect it too, damnitall.
Agility shook his head slowly. To Ratchet's gratitude, he didn't comment on Ratchet's own interest in the shuttle. "He's not interested in me. Not the way I am in him."
"You sure?" Ratchet asked. Resonance seemed fond of the symbiont.
Most Cybertronians were empathic to a certain degree, because they could easily read each other's fields. Agility's ability to read - and manipulate - the processors of others was an order of magnitude more powerful than any normal Cybertronian. Ratchet facepalmed. "Sorry."
"Back to the subject of Iacon." Agility took a deep invent, and slowly let it out. "It's bad. Anodyne said the Prime's dead - that's confirmed. Skyfire's badly injured - Wheeljack is working with First Aid on him. Prowl and Starscream are in command, but the city defenses took a bad hit. Jazz has disappeared; Anodyne says nobody knows where he is ..."
"Doesn't mean he's dead." Ratchet smiled faintly. "Mirage missing too?"
"... yeah, according to Anodyne."
"They're off doing reconnaissance, almost certainly."
"Jazz is scary. His field never matches what's in his spark."
"Says the mechling without any field."
"I can't help it if my systems were designed by a mad scientist."
Ratchet snorted. "Can you relay a message to Anodyne for me?"
"Ask him not to talk to anyone but Prowl, Jazz, Wheeljack, or First Aid about Resonance's identity. There's a few other mecha who probably know, but that's all I'm sure about. As far as you go, I'll peel you out of your plating if you yack about it."
Ratchet assumed that anything Agility knew, his bondmate did. It was technically possible to keep secrets from a bondmate, but in reality, what one knew the other generally did.
"I know how to keep my mouth shut."
"Point taken." Ratchet rubbed the bridge of his nose.
"What are we going to do about Quasar?" Agility pointedly looked in the direction of the stateroom.
"Quasar will rise to the occasion. Give him a chance, kid." Ratchet said, with a surprising amount of confidence in his own words. "I've known the pissy little slagger since the day he was born."
"And I know sparks." Agility scowled fiercely. "I don't care for his. He's angry and jealous and spiteful."
"Yeah, well." Ratchet lifted a shoulder in half a shrug. "Nobody's perfect. And now let's change the subject, because we're just going to have to agree to disagree about Quasar. You said during the fight that the Quint fighters were sparked. Did you mean exactly like Cybertronian sparks, or just similar enough that you could whammy them?"
"... That's actually not a terribly huge surprise. The squids claim they created us, and it might be a bit heretical, but there's some evidence that they're telling the truth. Mind, it'll be a cold day in the Pit before I accept they own us, but they're an ancient race, and they have the technical ability."
"What do you mean?"
Ratchet sighed. He'd been a wartime medic for far, far, too long. Fighting Quintessons was low on his list of favorite activities. "Let's just say I have a better than average grasp of what they can do to screw us up. Their technology makes us look primitive in comparison, and they have any number of ways to manipulate sparks. Actually creating them would be well within their grasp."
Privately, he thought the only reason the squids hadn't wiped Cybertron clean of all life a long time ago was that the slagging bastards were still holding out hope of re-enslaving Cybertronians. They were both possessive and obsessive about their "property" and considered his people a valuable, escaped, asset even tens of thousands of vorns after Cybertron's last war with them.
Adding insult to injury, the galactic counsel agreed with the Quintessons. Many species on the counsel didn't view Cybertronians as "living" but rather as sophisticated errant robots, or, at best (and perhaps more accurately), cyborgs with nonsentient animals as their biological core.
"Protoforms." Ratchet rubbed his forehead. He didn't talk about this often, because it was considered heretical by many of his people, but he was old enough to both have seen the truth and to just not care. "Protoforms are not sentient."
"The technology we add to protoforms to make them sentient is, at its core, Quintesson in design. I think what happened - and Alpha Trion agrees with me - is that the squids took a species, or probably multiple species, of silica based life forms and added ... enhancements. We are alive because our protoforms are living creatures, but we would be nothing more than slug-like critters oozing around Cybertron's metal core without our technological enhancements. We reproduce as a species only because we modify our offspring for sentience, starting with the carrier's nanytes in the gestation chamber, which create a spark chamber and basic frame. An unmodified protoform, cloned in a lab and allowed to develop without interference in a vat, is just a big silver slug with no higher processors and no spark."
Agility blinked at him a couple of times.
"Not what you were taught in school, was it, kid?" The "official" party line was that Primus had endowed life to Cybertron, yadda yadda yadda. Ratchet believed that there was something sentient at Cybertron's core, but he was deeply suspicious that it was a truly ancient artificial intelligence and not a God.
"So what are sparks?"
"I don't know. Humans sometimes believe even animals have spirits." Ratchet lifted a shoulder in half a shrug. "Percy says he can completely explain sparks with quantum science and dimensional theory and ten-space math, but he uses words that aren't even in my vocabulary when he tries to explain it."
Agility coughed air through his vents, a noise that sounded almost like a laugh. "Perceptor says I'm 'fascinating'. Anodyne had to threaten him with physical harm to get him to stop scanning me the last time we crossed paths."
"Yeah, Perceptor would love your mods." Ratchet agreed.
"I'm not going to be a lab rat ever again, thanks."
"I'm sure he didn't mean it that way."
Agility's only answer was chilly silence.
Ratchet held his hands up defensively. "Okay, okay, I get your point. But you have to realize, Percy's social skills are worse than yours."
Agility's silence turned to an outright glare. He slid off the chair and stalked out of the room without a word.
"Way to go." Ratchet muttered at himself, "That was brilliant, Hatchet. Piss off the one mech who knows what's happening on Cybertron ..."
Resonance woke a few hours later, and upon waking, he reflexively scanned his interior.
Ratchet was hunched over the flight controls, expression dour and field vile with a truly sour mood.
Quasar was bouncing a rubber ball against the stateroom wall. It had left scuff marks, and the sensation and noise was probably what had woken him. Resonance considered rebuking the mech, then scanned Quasar's field and realized just how miserable the young seeker was. Quasar felt desperately unhappy, with a jagged, nervous edge. He let it go.
The kitten was chasing something down in his cargo deck with vigorous enthusiasm.
Agility had found himself an out-of-the-way corner in a mechanical room below the flight deck, and was wedged in a dark corner. He had his knees drawn to his chest and was silently sobbing.
Priorities. He decided he'd investigate what had Skitter's attention later; right now, Agility looked like he needed Resonance's undivided time. The other two mecha could fend for themselves. Resonance activated the drone, which had a charging station in the same closet that Agility had chosen to hide in.
Agility jumped when the drone stepped off its charging stand. The little symbiont was a head shorter than the drone, but for a moment, Resonance feared for the drone's safety: Agility bristled like a frightened cat, armor lifting, optics flaring.
"Easy." Resonance held the drone's hands up. "Don't shoot."
"Resonance, Pit take it, you scared me." Agility let out a long, slow, exvent. "I couldn't whammy that thing anyway, it has no spark. Didn't know you had a drone."
"It comes in handy sometimes." He stepped closer, pushing more of his awareness into the drone's senses as he did. It was strange looking at Agility from only a foot taller. "You were crying."
"Yeah." Agility looked sharply away. "Didn't want anyone to know."
"Well, I know." Resonance held his arms open, inviting a hug.
Agility hesitated for a long moment, then threw himself into the drone's arms. Resonance tightened his grip and held the symbiont close. "Is it what's going on in Iacon?"
The symbiont shook his head no, but then he said, "Anodyne's sister's dead. Lots of people hurt. Anodyne's so scared. The city's being bombed really bad. Scout's hiding in the mines under the city - she can't get to Anodyne because of the bombing. 'Dyne's with the resistance, and they're talking about having him bond not just with Slamdance but with two symbionts I don't even know because they're fliers and it would give the resistance an advantage to have another carrier with eyes ... eyes in the s-sky. But I've never even met them."
"I'm sorry." It's all he could say.
"And I'm scared for you." Agility whispered, almost inaudibly.
"What?" Resonance was surprised by that.
"If they make you take the Matrix, it will change you."
"We don't need to worry about that right now." Resonance stroked Agility's back soothingly. "And even if I do ... I do become Prime ... again, I guess ... we'll still be friends. I promise."
"Don't make promises you can't keep." Agility tried to push away from the drone. His tone was bitter. "You'd never have time for me."
"I'd make time for you."
"Slag." Agility scowled at the drone's hominid features. "You become Prime, everyone will want to be your friend. You gonna make time for all of them? What's so special about me that I'd deserve more than anyone else?"
Resonance could only shrug the drone's shoulders. "I like you."
"You barely know me." Agility tried again to get free. "Been tryin' pretty hard to be likeable, too. Guess it worked."
Resonance let Agility go. The little symbiont scrambled across the room, jumped up, slapped the switch to open the door, and exited in a huff.
Resonance sighed through the drone's mouth, and wrapped its arms around its knees. Perhaps he should have been offended, but Agility's field had radiated nothing but fear, anxiety, and anger. After a moment, he stood the drone up and left the machine room. His internal sensors told him that Agility had found a new hiding place in a ventilation duct. He could have followed, but he decided to let Agility calm down a bit first.
Next up on his priority list was Quasar, who was throwing the ball with increasing force against the stateroom walls.
Quasar jumped when the stateroom door slid open. The ball went wild, and Resonance's drone neatly caught it. Quasar bristled, armor flaring. "What the slag ... where did you come from?"
"A closet." Resonance replied, with one optic ridge quirked up. "Please don't bounce balls off the walls. It is irritating."
Quasar visibly deflated. "You're Resonance's drone."
"This is my drone, yes." Resonance tossed the ball back to Quasar. "Next time, I will keep the ball."
Quasar grunted, and subspaced the ball.
Resonance sighed. "I know you're worried about your creators, Quasar. I empathize."
"What would you know about creators? You were made in a vat." The seeker spat this with his wings raised as high as the low ceiling would allow. "You can barely fly. You're incompetent as a flier, and the only reason you got into the university, and the only reason my carrier cares what happens to you, is that you were Optimus-slagging-Prime in a past life."
"I'm reasonably sure, based on the historical accounts that I've read, that Optimus Prime was no friend to Starscream." Resonance said this mildly, but his drone crossed its arms across his chest. The robot's large optics narrowed, and its mouth pressed into a thin, annoyed, line.
"Yeah? Well, they care more about you than they care about me." Quasar spun about, turning his back on the drone.
"What makes you say that?" Resonance's sigh rattled through the entire craft. "I'd say that they care about you a great deal - and I would also note that Starscream has a tremendous amount of faith in your skills as a pilot."
"Bah. I was the only choice."
"No. You weren't. Ratchet does know how to fly. He has to have good technical knowledge of flight systems to be certified as a flight frame physician, and he most certainly is. That takes years of study of flight, including thousands of hours of flying time as a pilot. He is megavorns old, and has enough knowledge that he has helped design flight frames. Yet I would note that it was you that Starscream ordered to take my controls. Not Ratchet."
"I'm a seeker. I can fly anything." Quasar lifted a shoulder and a wing in half a shrug.
"Yes." The drone stepped forward, reached way up, and rested a hand on Quasar's arm. "You can. And Starscream knows that. Starscream is many things, some of them unpleasant and distasteful, but no one has ever accused him of being disloyal to Cybertron. He cares about the fate of our world, and its people. It is why Primus called him to be Air Commander. It is why he fought so hard, against both Prime and Megatron, to see a better future for our world. And he asked you to see that I got to Earth, because this mission is vital for Cybertron's future."
Quasar looked down at the drone, expression unreadable.
"Quasar, this mission is critical, and I need your help."
The seeker turned back to face the drone. He crouched, so he could meet the drone's optics. "Nobody has ever needed my help before. I'm just Starscream's unwanted brat."
"I want you here." Resonance's drone smiled. He reached up and rested a hand on the seeker's shoulder. "And I needed you, and will need you again."
"Okay." Quasar sighed. "For Cybertron, I'll help you."
"Thank you." The drone squeezed his shoulder with a surprisingly powerful grip. "Now, if you'll go relieve Ratchet, I want to go see what the sparkling is up to. She's chasing something in my hold and whatever it is tickles."
Alarm crossed Quasar's face. "You better not have vermin."
"Not so far as I know." Resonance grinned. "I'll keep you up to date."
Resonance's drone scrambled nimbly down the ladder into his own hold. Ratchet had found the space tight, but the drone was small enough to find it rather spacious even with a medical trailer parked in the middle of the space, and the walls lined with shelves of energon cubes, parts, and supplies.
The kitten scampered out from under the trailer.
"Hi!" She stopped short.
"No spark." She stared at the drone suspiciously.
"Yeah, this is my - Resonance's - maintenance drone."
"What are you chasing?"
"What?" Resonance's reaction was loud enough that everyone on the shuttle had to have heard it.
"Well, glitchmouse." She pointed with a paw to a dark corner of the hold. "Killed the other two already."
"It was fun."
"Can't get the last one. It's hiding."
"Where is it?" Resonance demanded. How had he picked up glitchmice? He showered with solvent regularly, he hadn't recharged anywhere with dubious sanitation, and he didn't think any of his friends had vermin.
"Trailer had pests." She pointed at Ratchet's portable med bay. "I took care of it. Except for one. You move the grate, I'll get it."
"Ah ... yes, show me where." He needed to have a discussion with Ratchet. The doctor really should have checked the trailer before bringing it on board. Glitchmice were drawn to electricity, so if the trailer had been plugged in to keep its batteries topped off, they certainly could have infested it while it was in storage.
The kitten trotted ahead of the drone, and led him around the trailer to the very back of his cargo hold. There was a grate in the floor, with a hole chewed through the metal that was big enough for a glitchmouse but not the kitten. Resonance swore under his breath, then lifted the grate up with the drone.
The grate was the access hatch to his spinal struts and associated neural circuits. A glitchmouse in there was bad news. It wouldn't do permanent damage, but it could cause temporary paralysis of random body parts (or weapons, if he had any frame mounted weaponry) when it latched onto a neural wire to recharge.
"I'll get it." She bounded down into the narrow space.
He leaned the drone over the edge, and peered down the access tube. Bemused, he watched as the kitten stalked, pounced on, and efficiently killed the glitchmouse. She shook it with her jaws a couple of times to verify it was dead, then scrambled back out and dropped the ugly, toothy, scaled creature at his feet. Its long, skinny, whiplike tail was still twitching.
"Thank you." He reached down and started to pick her up with the drone, and then hesitated. Symbionts were not animals, and sparklings of any frame type didn't always appreciate being picked up by strangers. However, she saw the motion and promptly leaped into his arms. She made a large, surprisingly heavy, armful. Humans would compare her to a large dog in size.
The kitten buried her face in the crook of the drone's neck. Softly, she said, "Brissa's dead."
"I'm sorry. I heard."
The kitten whimpered.
He slid down to sit against the wall and wrapped the drone's arms tightly around her. "I'm so sorry, my friend."
"I'm all alone here 'cept for Agility, an' he's got issues."
"No. You're not alone." He reached down to tilt her chin up, and looked her in the eyes. "You're with me. And I will take care of you until I can return you to Soundwave's family. I promise."
"You'll take care of Agility too?"
"Agility's a brat. Soundwave says he's part of my clan, though, so I guess I love him." She leaned her head against his chest. "And I'll kill any glitchmice that get in your systems."
"Thank you," he said, gravely. "I appreciate the courtesy."
"Killing glitchmice is fun."
Resonance's drone stayed with Skitter until she dropped off into a restless recharge. Then, when she was finally asleep, he emptied random spare parts out a storage bin, lined the storage bin with a blanket he produced from his subspace, and set her down to sleep in the box.
Briefly, he stroked the blanket with the drone's fingers, remembering the human child who he had once loved as if she was his own, who had once slept with it on her bed. It was the only soft fabric he owned that wasn't his drone's limited wardrobe of human-style clothing, however, and he was certain Emily would have approved and even scolded him had he not given it to Skitter.
He tucked the box into a far corner of his hold, behind a pile of energon cubes, where there was room for both his drone and the kitten. Of all the crew, Skitter was by far the most vulnerable and the youngest. He wanted to give her a place where she would feel safe and secure from the tempestuous temperaments of both Ratchet and Quasar.
Once he was certain Skitter would remain in recharge at least for a little while, he rose from beside the box and went to find Ratchet.
The medic was in the state room, having traded off with Quasar. Ratchet was staring gloomily at a wall, arms folded across his chest, mouth set into a hard line. Resonance watched him over his internal sensors for a moment before entering the room with the drone.
Ratchet lifted an optic ridge. "You're pretty comfortable with that drone."
Resonance let out a sigh through the drone's vents. "I've spent more of my life looking through the drone's optics than my own, to be perfectly honest. It's more practical around humans."
Ratchet scanned the drone, then grunted. "And it's fully functional with humans, I see. You integrated well with them, I take it?"
"I was married three times to humans." He had not mentioned this to anyone on Cybertron because of the scandal it would create. Interspecies romance wasn't taboo, but long term bonds with any species were strongly discouraged before a mech reached their legal majority and full growth.
"You're a minor." Ratchet said, sounding surprised.
"By Cybertronian standards." He leaned against a wall, and watched Ratchet for a long, quiet moment. He didn't know how Ratchet was going to react, but odds were, Ratchet would meet some of his human family members when they reached Earth's system. He might as well tell them now.
Ratchet snorted a bitter laugh and ran a hand over his face. "We're so screwed up as a race. That symbiont kitten is more mentally and emotionally mature than a lot of humans who are considered fully adults. She's older than the normal full lifespan of a human, too. By the time most mecha are a vorn or two old, they could easily be emancipated, particularly if they were vat grown to physical maturity."
The drone shrugged. "It's expensive to create a mech in a vat, and even more expensive to raise a primally created mech to physical adulthood given the upgrades needed. I believe, after considerable study, the Cybertronian concept of 'adulthood' has its roots in a form of indentured servitude. Many - perhaps even most - mecha do not create sparklings out of a desire to procreate. They need soldiers, laborers, miners, and what humans would call blue-collar workers. If a mine owner, for example, spent the equivalent of several vorns' average wages to create a sparkling to work in a mine and the sparkling ran off half a vorn later to go pursue a different career ... what incentive would the mine owner have to create more sparklings? It would be a money losing proposition, and that lack of incentive would severely limit our rate of population growth"
Ratchet eyed him. The drone stared blandly back.
"Primus." Ratchet rubbed the bridge of his nose with two fingers. "And it's easy enough to justify twenty-one vorns of slavery disguised as 'childhood' when we live many megavorns."
"You see the injustice in this system as well as I do, then. As well as the lack of socialization that negatively affects many of our younglings."
"Yeah, I do. There's a lot of things I don't like about our culture. Humans aren't perfect but I've always admired how they handle procreation and child rearing." Ratchet leaned back on the berth, shoulders to the wall. Through the dermal sensors in the wall, Resonance could feel the low thrum of Ratchet's large power plant. "You know, Optimus and I used to have discussions like this."
"I'm sorry if it unnerves you."
"No ... no, it doesn't, actually." Ratchet shut his optics off. "You're not him. It's getting easier and easier to see you without remembering him."
Resonance walked across the small room and scrambled up onto the berth. He sat down, crosslegged, next to Ratchet. "I imagine this form helps with that."
Ratchet barked a laugh at Resonance's dry humor. "Not really. Optimus had Roller. He'd be busy with official business in one part of Iacon, and hanging out in my med bay at the same time. I miss that, quite honestly. Most people just thought I had an AI robot as a buddy. They never realized that it was actually a drone, and the mech looking through its optics was Prime himself."
"I've never named the drone. It is me, in many ways." Resonance joined Ratchet in leaning against the wall. "Pit, I'm tired."
"You could recharge more."
"Not that kind of tired." Resonance smiled a bit wryly, and then proceeded to give Ratchet a blow-by-blow account of his interaction with both Agility and Quasar. He concluded, "I think the high point today was hunting glitchmice in my hold with Skitter - and, by the way, that's your fault. You ever bring anything with glitchmice aboard me again, and I'm kicking you out to walk home."
Ratchet laughed at that. "Sorry, kid. That trailer's been in storage forever. I should have checked it out, but we didn't exactly have time."
"Ratchet, do you think Agility and Quasar will be okay?"
"Quasar ... needs someone in his life who has faith in him." Ratchet picked at a bit of scratched paint on his forearm. "Starscream and Skywarp haven't exactly been exemplary parents."
"How did that happen, anyway?" Resonance wrinkled his nose up. "Skywarp doesn't seem like Starscream's type."
"From what I understand, neither of them remember what happened. Substantial high grade was involved. Quasar was an accident, and neither seeker wanted to be a parent. Nor do they love one another. They've tried, to their credit, but Quasar knows he wasn't wanted and, worse, his personality clashes with them."
"That kid's older than you."
"Well, not technically."
Ratchet snorted. "You're never going to let me forget that, are you?"
Resonance flashed him a tired grin. "Either you laugh or you cry. Wheeljack taught me that one."
"Hey, kid, don't worry too much about Jackie. He's a smart old mech, and tough as they come." Ratchet reached out and cautiously put a hand on the drone's shoulder.
Resonance's drone leaned into his hand, and then slowly melted into Ratchet's side. Ratchet squeezed him tight, even as his spark did a crazy fluttering dance in his chest. Optimus had never sought this sort of comfort from him, and Ratchet wasn't really the sort to initiate hugs - a squeeze on the arm was always as far as he'd dared go with Optimus, even though they'd been the closest of friends. It felt strangely satisfying, in a purely platonic way, to hold the young mech to his chest. That he was technically snuggling a drone didn't matter; Resonance would feel the embrace just like it have been given to his root mode.
"I know, but I always worry about him." Resonance said, voice very low. "But there's nothing I can do for him. I can help the others, now, though. Quasar needs to feel wanted, and I can give him that, easily. I do need him. Agility ... I don't know what to do with Agility."
"Neither do I. Rung and Soundwave both say he needs to feel in control of something, or have someone absolutely in control of him, or he goes off the rails ... I would suggest that we find him a job of some sort to keep his mind busy."
"I don't know."
Resonance nodded slowly. "He's a good mech."
"Yes, he is. And you're good with him. Resonance - you do realize he has a crush on you?"
"What?" Resonance stiffened. "No, I didn't."
"Figured that was the case. Optimus was always clueless about such things too."
"I just wanted to be his friend, not mislead him on my interests ..."
"If you are interested in him, I can give you some tips on how to work around the size difference ..." Ratchet sounded miserably awkward when he said this. He wasn't keen on directing Resonance towards Agility, for reasons he didn't want to examine too closely, but he was a physician.
Resonance, bemused, observed, "I've been married to three separate humans. This drone is fully functional. I think I can figure the mechanics out, if it came to that."
Ratchet grunted, hiding his own angst with a bland, "I suppose so."
"Agility's not really my type, though." Resonance said, to Ratchet's surprise and no little anxiety. In some ways, it would be easier for Ratchet to deal with his own emotions if Resonance had a partner. "I've done the 'rescuing someone from themselves' relationship once. It didn't work then, and the reason it didn't work was that I was just too close to the problem. For both our sakes, I wouldn't consider anything with Agility until he's got his problems sorted out ... and even then, he's still not really my type."
Ratchet wondered what Resonance's type was. Given the fact that he'd been involved with three humans in this life, and had a close platonic relationship with Elita in his past life, he suspected short was among the qualifications. Shorter than a certain medic, certainly. "- I can't believe you've had partners. Optimus ... Optimus never did."
"Ever? What about Elita-one?"
"They were close." Ratchet scrubbed at his face with his free hand. The other was wrapped around the drone. "But the Matrix claimed him before they could do more than court. They grew up together and were close friends, but nothing more. Once he became Prime, Optimus ... refused to take a partner. He said he couldn't show favoritism to one mech over any others."
He remembered how bitterly disappointed Elita had been by that decision.
Resonance was silent for a long, quiet, moment. "I can understand that logic, but I believe that choice was made by a mech no older than I am now, with far less life experience. To be perfectly honest, I'm a better mech for the relationships I've had. I'm stronger when I have a partner who compliments my weaknesses. I can't see myself making the same choice."
"I ... tried to tell Optimus that." Ratchet looked down at the drone in his arms in surprise. "He never understood. I'm glad you've had the opportunity to have that sort of relationship before the Matrix claims you."
"You sound sure I'll be Prime. What if it refuses me?" Resonance looked up at him with the drone's large blue optics.
Ratchet snorted. "Then Primus help Cybertron, because we'll be without a Prime in a time of war."
"So I suppose the plan is for us to ask the humans for help, then for me to get my tailfins back to Cybertron." Resonance rubbed the bridge of the drone's nose with two fingers in a gesture that was achingly familiar; Optimus had similarly rubbed his face when he was emotionally exhausted.
Ratchet shook his head. "As soon as Skyfire's flight worthy, he'll bring the Matrix to you. A return trip to Cybertron would be too dangerous for you, with your flight skills."
"... Or lack thereof." Resonance mused. "This was planned ahead of time?"
"Prowl and Jazz had a contingency plan where if anything happened to Roddy ..." for a moment, his vocalizer stalled. He'd liked the young Prime, who was no Optimus, but who had tried so very hard, "... and there wasn't another candidate on Cybertron, someone would be sent to find you."
"So when we get to Earth's system, we sit tight and wait."
"Unless we hear different from Anodyne, yeah."
Resonance nodded slowly. "It won't be easy to wait. I want to go help."
"Would you like my advice?"
"Once we get to Earth, practice your flight skills with Quasar. He knows what he's doing in the air. He's very nearly as good as Starscream. He's never been tested in battle, but he's got all the technical knowledge he needs and he's been practicing combat scenarios in the air since he was less than a vorn old. You'll need to know everything he can teach you."
"I'll do that."
Ratchet realized that, somehow, he had started stroking the drone's back without even realizing it. His hand stilled. Resonance asked softly, "What's wrong?"
Ratchet had no idea how to answer that, or what to do. He was never a physically affectionate mech. He didn't do cuddling. Even holding young sparklings made him uneasy. Optimus had, by contrast, been touchy-feely, but he'd always respected Ratchet's boundaries.
"Nothing." Ratchet said, after a moment. He lowered his hand to Resonance's drone's shoulders. "Everything."
Resonance's drone lay against his chest, a light but warm weight. "The others - I don't know about them. They may rise to the occasion, or not. However, I can trust you. That is very important to me, and to our mission."
He didn't know what to say, so he simply grunted something that he hoped Resonance would take as agreement.
"You should get some recharge, my friend." Resonance's drone reached up and patted him on one pauldron. "I'll let you rest."
"... Stay." He said, impulsively, and then immediately regretted the words. He was overstepping his bounds. Resonance was so young, and he would also, almost certainly, be Prime again.
"If it will help you recharge."
He couldn't imagine recharging with an armful of Resonance, regardless if it was the drone of the young mech or his actual root mode. He scrambled mentally for an idea and then said, "Could ... my back struts are out of alignment. Do you think you could work on them?"
"Oh. Certainly." The drone stood on on the berth next to Ratchet then gestured casually. "Lay down."
The drone's fingers were nimble, and Resonance's touch was skilled and strictly platonic. It was soothing, somehow, in a way that he hadn't expected. First he found himself relaxing ... and then, slowly, drifting into recharge. His last conscious awareness was of the drone's small, nimble, fingers tightening a stretched tension wire in his neck, and of the warm feel of Resonance's steady and calm sparkfield all around him.