This story in particular was actually going to be a longer chaptered fanfic, but after starting it a year ago and not having it go anywhere, I decided it would be best to leave it as a little oneshot. I'll probably continue this in separate drabbles if anyone really wants me to. Disclaimer wise, I only claim Bolt, Brass, mama Zapper, and my own deranged headcanon. Everyone and everything else belongs to their respective owners. As always, criticism is welcome. Thanks to Ultimate Evil Person for the beta.


I've learned to lose, I've learned to win

I've turned my face against the wind

I will move fast, I will move slow

Take me where I have to go

Still Alive - Lisa Misovsky

i

The mech before her was named Bolt, and the room was dark.

It was the same room as her first time, she realized dully. It was ironic too, seeing as this would be the last time she was ever going to have to be in one of these rooms at all. The lights were snuffed so such a low setting that it was difficult to see without the aid of infrared or night vision optical settings, but she recognized the shapes barely illuminated in the low light all the same. The same old dresser, the small bar on the opposite end of the floor, the large plush bed with the same crimson sheets… well, maybe not the exact same sheets. It had been been ten years since the last time she was here. The original set was probably long since thrown out or burned: whichever the case, it hardly mattered. The room's sole source of light came from the fixture hanging from the low ceiling, which cast off dull, ethereal glow. Directly beneath that, sitting on the edge of the cushioned berth, sat a single mech, watching her. She had learned only a few hours beforehand that he was going to be her latest… companion. She had never met him previously, but that was to be expected. In all her ten years working in this place, she had never alone with the same mech twice.

Although, it just so happened to be that Bolt was going to be the most important one.

With raw confidence guiding her, she strode toward him boldly. Her footfalls resonated flatly against the tightly soundproofed walls, bouncing back to meet her audios will a muted little noise that rung in the silence almost deafeningly. Her brave display of dominance usually made most mechs cringe, but no matter how much the doctors and nurses tried to coax her into behaving more submissively during these sessions, her pride refused to let her do it. She was too proud a femme to be subservient to the mechs she was paired with. She may have been retired, but she was still a soldier. Despite her raw display of bravado, Bolt remained unmoving from where he sat on the berth. The rumors she had heard about him being very calm had been true, she noted. His optic was locked with her own for the entire length of the room she crossed, and his gaze on her never faltered even when she finally seized him by the throat with her good hand.

His voice was low and deep, like a polished russet blade. Sharp and smooth, with a scarce hint of some foreign accent she didn't recognize. His optic brightened by a fraction, illuminating the deep scars in his olive armor. One in particular ran down the length of his helm and curved all the way down his chest. "I see that what they say about you is true, Trigger. Your courage is commendable. Not many are brave enough to take a gladiator by the throat, zako."

She scoffed. "You're no gladiator. Not anymore, zako."

"True," he said. Honestly, for an ex-gladiator that fought in the pits for the amusement of the General and other higher ups, his mannerism of speaking was more akin to a scholar. His voice pattern and choice of words were oddly poetic. Bolt reached a scarred hand up and tentatively touched her wrist. It belonged to the hand that was still clasped at his neck. "But you have fallen from grace yourself. Why else would you be here at such a young age? You have taken me by the left hand albeit a bit awkwardly as well, zako. It is not your dominant hand."

She immediately tightened her grip. Most soldiers she came across, Zako or otherwise, were usually none the wiser about her disability. The fact that this stranger had recognized her weakness bothered her more than it probably should have. She felt her mouthpiece twist into a disgruntled frown. "I could still crush your air pipe if I wanted to."

"I do not doubt this, zako. You were famous back in your time serving on active duty. May I ask what happened?"

The question caught her off guard. By far, this whole encounter was proving to be nothing she had expected or ever experienced. Had this been any other mech, they probably would have started fragging already. She unwittingly relinquished her hold on the ex-gladiator's throat. "I was shot in the lower back in a shootout during Commander Deadra's invasion of Tamriel. It partially paralyzed my right hand," she said offhandedly. "You?"

For an ex-gladiator who was supposedly as crippled as she was, he moved very quickly. Too quickly. Her hold had become gone loose enough so that that he was able to abruptly break free with all the grace of his namesake. He stood and spun elegantly on the ball of his heel before seizing her by her good arm. She internally cursed herself for letting her guard falter as she was forced into the nearest wall with a loud crash. She found herself face to face with him again, his mouthpiece twisted in a smug, victorious grin. "I underestimated my last opponent."

Again, she mentally cursed herself for having let her guard down. That, and also telling him which was her bad arm. With her right arm restrained, her left, partially useless arm left her practically defenseless. Had this been a chance encounter with a Gundam, she would have been dead by now. "Clever bastard."

"Thank you. Most people dismiss gladiators as mindless brutes these days. It's good to hear that some can come to see otherwise," Bolt said. His voice was still smooth, and Zapper found herself dumbfounded by the coolness of his baritone in spite of his age and experience as a mech who once fought solely for the entertainment of other Axians. Carefully, he was trailing his free hand down her right arm. "But enough about me. I take it your real name is not The Trigger, zako."

The Trigger had been her nickname during her wartime years, something she received after demonstrating her enthusiasm for automatic weapons on the battlefield on unsuspecting enemies. The name stuck, but seldom did she mention to her partners that it wasn't actually her true designation. "No. My name is Zapper."

"And I'm I your… last? You're retiring after this?"

She scoffed. "Is that what they told you?"

"They told me that you would get to keep this − our − newspark for yourself." He grinned, pressing their foreheads together. It was at this point that Zapper finally realized that Bolt had released her good arm, but she found herself uncharacteristically unwilling to shove him away. Bolt was being just a little too charismatic for her own good. "Just think about it. A famous war hero and a battle ragged gladiator coming together like this. Imagine what the sparkling will be like. You'll have quite the handful."

"A deranged warrior with a trigger finger and no sense of self-preservation, I imagine," she said blandly. Still, she was barely able to restrain her own smirk that tugged at the corner of her mouthpiece. "A complete menace to society. Maybe he'll last longer on the battlefield than we did. I miss it sometimes, zako."

"As do I," Bolt agreed, becoming a little more solemn. "A soldier's and warrior's place is on the battlefield. We don't do well when we're not in our element. I constantly have to remind myself that being a sire in this place is for my own benefit, zako. If it weren't for my depth perception and leg, I would go back."

She nodded. "I feel the same way, zako."

That was when Bolt whirled her around again, much to her exasperation. She was spun on her pedes and forced backward until the back of her legs hit the edge of the berth. With a cry, she was sent sprawling backward onto the sheets. Before she could get up to retaliate and reinitiate control of the situation, Bolt was on top of her, gently pinning her wrists down and wafting hot air against her throat. It had been such a long time since any of her partners had paid attention to her in such a way, and despite herself, she moaned hard. Bolt rumbled pleasantly above her and brushed his vents against the crook of her neck where the gears met her shoulder. The horizontal vent slits brushed against the bare circuitry and she shuddered involuntarily. A small part of her cursed her own body for betraying her. Another, much larger part found that it honestly didn't care for that first part.

He grinned, twisting his mouthpiece upward in a mirthful smile and touching it to the base of her own vents. "My previous partners were never as fiery as you. It is a shame they plan on transferring me to the clinic in the Siberian quadrant clinic after we finish here. I might have actually had a chance to get to properly fall in love with you. Tell me, zako, how many previous lovers of yours have actually made you feel good?"

"Not enough," she sighed, voice wavering.

"I hope I can make up for the ignorance of your previous partners," he said, kissing up her chassis. "A sparkling that's not made out of honest lovemaking will just be hollow. Our sparkling will be as passionate and ferocious as we were."

"You should have been a poet."

"It is a pastime of mine, actually. That hardly remains to be a valuable point." He touched a hand between her legs. "You deserve all the love in the world, my dear Zapper. Let me give it to you."

Somewhere in the darkness, a spark ignited, and it was reminiscent of the same explosions of light that would issue forth from the barrels of wildly firing twin machine guns.

ii

The Zako leaning over the counter was grinning at her. "So, girl? What's the verdict?"

"I'm with spark, zako."

Both femmebots − one in the clinic lounge's loveseat, the other leaning over her friend's shoulder and grinning cheekily – were sitting beneath a set of bright fluorescent lights that made the white room look even more blinding than it usually did. It was starting to give Zapper a headache, especially considering how long she had been in that dark room with Bolt, but her friend seemed hardly deterred by the brightness whatsoever. The other Zako femme was still beaming stupidly. She reached a hand out and lightly slapped Zapper on the back in a congratulatory manner. "At a femme, Zapper! So? How do you feel, zako? Did the doctors say anything to you once you got out?"

"They said I should take it easy for the rest of the day, same as last time." Zapper shrugged, idly tapping the armrest. "It's just like any other time I found out I was with spark, zako. It's nothing new. We're breeder dams, Brass. It's our job."

Brass's face faltered and she just stared. If there was anything Brass was famous for in the clinic, it was for being the most emotionally elastic dam, quite possibly, in all the entirety of the Dark Axis. That was what Zapper was sure of, anyways. Honestly, it would have been no wonder if she suffered frequent whiplash from changing demeanors so fast. Brass looked at her blankly, blinked twice, and then razzed at her petulantly, tossing her short arms up into the air for good measure. "Are you crazy? This is entirely new, honey! You get to keep this one!"

Which was true, Zapper remembered. All of her previous sparklings were taken from her the moment they were sparked. The point of being a breeding dam in the clinic was not to raise her offspring: it was to simply produce them. Granted the femmes could not continually produce sparklings forever without risking the lives of both the sparkling and the mother, so it was after a period of ten years working for their stationed clinic that the mother would be allowed to raise the last sparkling she was scheduled to carry.

Brass's mouthpiece was moving a mile a cycle. She made several wild, inarticulate movements with her hands as she spoke half to Zapper, half to herself. "…I mean, you even get to decide the gender of your own kid for the first time too! Oh, and even just to have a little bitlit to call you own, my coolant is bubbling just thinking about it!"

The door to the infirmary office opened and a Zako mech stuck his head out. The doctor smiled at Brass appreciatively, then turned his optic to Zapper. "Alright Zapper, everything seems to be in order with your paperwork. We have your thermal spark scan in too, zako. Do you want to see the images we captured of the sparkling?"

"Nah," she said, standing up and glibly waving him off, ignoring the half horrified, half flustered look Brass cast her. "I'm going to get to the barracks and relax for the rest of the night, zako."

"If you say so, zako," the doctor said again, dodging back into the office without another word.

Brass pouted, letting an exasperated burst of air escape her vents, practically walking on Zapper's heels as they exited the clinic. The twin doors hissed shut behind them. "I would have wanted to see the thermal scans, and it's not even my own sparkling, zako!"

Zapper laughed brightly, turning down the corridor that would take them back to the dams' living quarters. "I take it you're excited about keeping your own sparkling this time around, then?"

Brass blew a raspberry at her. "You know I am, girl," she said as they rounded another corner. They passed a sire Zako being escorted by two aides on either side, probably heading toward the clinic to be matched with a femme. The stud looked over his shoulder as they passed and suggestively whistled at them, upon which Zapper flashed him a crude gesture. Brass started cackling at the astonished and shocked expression on the poor mech's face. It wasn't until they reached the femme dormitories that Brass spoke again. "So… how was Bolt? Is he as good as I heard he is, zako?"

Zapper nearly choked on her own air intakes. She coughed, sputtered, and glared accusingly at her friend in embarrassment. "Brass! That's not something you ask!"

Brass waved her in complete dismissal of her friend's reaction. She took the opportunity to skip ahead of the other femme and block her way. "Honey, you know me better than that," she said in an offhand fashion. "It's just that, you know, he's just the best stud that they have at this entire plant. I mean, an ex-gladiator? My last partner was a medic, zako. A slaggin' medic. You'd think someone like that would know something about the slag he was doing, but he was practically done before I even got started."

"Brass!" Zapper could feel her face heating up. "Enough!"

"Not until you tell me, zako zako!" Brass sang in a sing-song voice, effectively dodging out of the way of Zapper as the other femme tried to tackle her.

Zapper groaned. "You're insufferable, zako."

"I'm your best friend, zako"

"You're more than my best friend."

"And being insufferable is all in the job description," Brass sang again.

Zapper sighed, realizing that she wasn't going to trump the other femme. She looked away, downcast, as she felt her face began to heat up. "He was… good. Better than good."

Brass gave a whoop and slapped her on the back. "Alright! Now that's my favorite femme! Here, I say we go to that congratulations party that I organized with the rest of the girls now. It was supposed to be a secret, but I know how much you hate surprises."

"And how you can't keep secrets." In spite of herself, Zapper found herself smiling at the other Zako. Leave it to Brass to organize a party for her. "Have you thought about your own sparkling? You get to keep this one too."

Brass was grinning. "I'm not all that sure yet, honey. I mean, I've only been carrying for a few weeks now. I dunno whether or not I want a mech or a femme yet. I like the name Charon for a boy, but… I think Boxy sounds catchy for a little girl, zako," she said thoughtfully. Her grin faded and a look of intense concentration crossed her faceplates, dimming her optic and giving the usually energetic femme a haunting appearance of "Watcha you gonna name your little scrapling?"

Upon this, Zapper stopped in her tracks and came to a halt. Brass nearly stumbled over herself, coming to a less than graceful halt to keep pace with her. Zapper pursed her mouthpiece. "I haven't put much thought into it. I never got to name any of my previous sparklings."

Brass was bright with enthusiastic air, tossing an arm over her friend's shoulder. "Well, that little spark growing inside that chassis of yours isn't just any of your other sparklings. It's your sparkling now, girl!"

iii

The sound of the machine gun fire was loud enough to temporarily deafen her, but she wouldn't have stopped for the world. She was in her element, after all.

Back when she was an official soldier in the Dark Axis army, she served on the Almega Musai and eventually earned fame among her fellow Zakos and squadron leaders for being an ace. Had she spent a few more years serving in the military, she might have even been permitted to become a squadron leader herself. It had nothing to do with her skills necessarily as a fighter, but for her sheer brutality. Her weapons of choice were her twin, automated machine guns. Once she started shooting, it was almost impossible to get her to stop unless the enemy was dead or she happened to run out of ammo, which only happened once or twice in the entirety of her career as a soldier. It was what earned her nickname, The Trigger. She was one of the few Zakos who were able to wield such powerful weapons due to their immense recoil power. They weren't weapons to be taken lightly. That was why Zapper loved them so much.

The holographic targets on the other side of the shooting gallery exploded in the shower of bullets. She was taking them out so quickly that the computer was having difficulty rendering new models in time to keep up with her. As another target flashed up into existence, Zapper squeezed the triggers on both weapons and sent it into oblivion before it could even fully materialize. The holographic image shattered and collapsed in on itself. Two more popped up in its place and their fate was met similarly as the first one, both vanishing under the storm of lead. It wasn't until she tried to reload that sharp pain shot through her right arm and she immediately had to stop, nearly dropping both machine guns in the process.

"Slag," she muttered. She hit the pause button on the console of the target generator and the machine whirled to a stop.

She had not always been a breeder. Just as Bolt had somehow been able to figure out, the use of her right hand had been severely limited during her last mission as a soldier. It was a hard blow to her career, mostly because she had been excited about potentially becoming a squadron leader. A Gundam had shot her in the back while she was raining gunfire down on two other Gundams, hoping to distract them long enough for her comrades to regroup and hopefully launch a counterattack. They were inside a destroyed office building of some sort, filled with overturned desks and plenty of cover, but Zapper hadn't been expecting the sneak attack from behind when it happened. A burst of plasma fire cut through her back and rendered her completely offline. When she woke up again, she was in the infirmary of the Almega Musai being treated by a group of medics. The mission had been a complete failure and her injury was going to take her off the soldier rooster for good. If Lord Knockout Kruisär, her commanding squadron leader, hadn't recommended her to sign up for the breeder program, she would have had absolutely no purpose. She might have ended up as a miner at best. Dead from depression at worst.

At least she had a purpose now.

Inside her chest, her newspark flared to life, prompted to respond by the deep emotions she was feeling. It had been an entire month since her coupling with Bolt. The sparkling had been silently developing on its own until then, but this was the first time she had ever felt it try to interact with her. It was stronger than she thought it would have been. Her previous sparklings never showed such initiative to react to her emotions like this sparkling suddenly did. It gave another particularly strong pulse, and at first she thought it was responding to the pain she felt. It was only when it flared uncomfortably in her chest again that she realized it was upset for some other reason.

Once the pain in her arm went away, she lifted her machine guns again and prepared to go for another round. She smashed her wrist on the restart button and the holographic targets rematerialized back into existence. She aimed, her fingers squeezed over the triggers, and the dummies in the gallery were ravaged with bullets once again.

Inside her chest, the sparkling flared once more, hot and growing hotter. This time there was no pain to accompany it. Zapper felt the heat of the sparkling's essence caress her own and it put her into a frenzy. With elated artificial adrenaline gushing through her coolant tubes, she crushed her fingers over the triggers and sent bullets spraying over the entire gallery.

She was not sure when she ran out of bullets. When the sparkling finally calmed down enough for her to regain her flustered senses, she was standing alone in the gallery with the machine guns clicking irritably in her grip, the cartridges completely drained of bullets. The damage was exquisite: she had completely shorted out the holographic target renderer and the entirety of the gallery was in shambles. Dark, smoking bullet holes scarred the walls, floor, and ceiling in varying sizes.

The newspark writhed inside her chassis. It was not an unhappy sensation. The sparkling was completely overjoyed, and Zapper could feel it.

She looked down at her chest and put her beloved machine guns down, faintly reaching up again and touching her fingers to the plating. "You like that, babe?"

It was a silly thing to presume that the sparkling developing in her chassis would answer – sparks by themselves could not speak − although it did respond. The warm, pulsing feeling returned and the heat radiating from the infant spark touched her own. It felt even more powerful without the harsh vibrations of the machine guns ravaging her sensory array.

She could not help but smile faintly at that. She holstered the weapons back on the wall and walked out of the shooting gallery, turning off the lights as she left.

iv

It was the scariest few cycles of her life.

It was very early in the morning when her internal radio pinged irritably at her. Groaning, Zapper sat up and blearily attempted to activate the link, still half-asleep. The sparkling barely stirred as she moved. "Do you have any damn idea what time−?"

"Zapper." It was Brass. She sounded panicked, frantic and terrified. "Zapper, I'm premature."

It was the worst way to wake up, to hear that absolutely dreaded word. That horrible, terrible word. It was everyone's worst nightmare at the clinic, to expecting mother and doctor alike, second only to the threat of miscarriage. Dams whose bodies rejected their sparklings prematurely did so on the count that there was something seriously wrong with the newspark. There was always the potential of something being wrong with the mother as well, but Brass's last carrying period had gone so well that Zapper almost couldn't believe her sparkling was being rejected premature now. Premature newsparks were usually born weak and runty, and if they didn't initially die during the separation procedure, they died shortly afterward.

Her own sparkling whirled unhappily, sensing her emotions and pulsing in confused sadness. Zapper sent the newspark an affectionate pulse and tried not to think about the worst case scenario. Brass was the jokester among the resident dams in the clinic, but she was tough as nails and stronger than a lot of others gave her credit for. She had been a soldier herself, who lived up to her own namesake by simply how tough she was. In fact, the first time Zapper and Brass ever met, it had been during a half-playful wrestling match the new dams organized when they first arrived at the clinic over ten years earlier. Brass was able to take Zapper down and keep her pinned in a matter of seconds. If anyone could help their own sparkling endure a premature rejection, it would be Brass. She and her sparkling would be fine, Zapper told herself. They would be absolutely fine.

The hallways of the clinic were barren in the early hours of the morning, but by the time she finally managed to stumble into the emergency wing and into the lounge just outside the main infirmary, several doctors were already beginning to file out. The room was practically as silent as the empty hallways had been. No one was looking at each other. Feeling an overwhelming sense of urgency grip her, Zapper immediately sought out the nearest doctor and snagged him by the arm. "Brass. She radioed me and said something about her being premature. Where is she?"

A doctor looked up at her and just stared for a moment, like a stupid animal caught in the headlights of an oncoming Komusai. Zapper wanted to scream at him to hurry up and tell her something, anything at all, but he spoke up before she could unleash her thinning patience on him. He spoke very softly. "In the delivery room. She could really use someone right now."

Zapper's spark fell.

There were only three other doctors in the room when she came bursting through the door. No one bothered to look up at her: not even Brass. The femmebot was sitting on the gurney with a thermal blanket tossed loosely over her sunken shoulders. Light precipitation coated her little frame, and for the first time since Zapper had known her, the usually boisterous Zako looked very quiet and sullen.

As soon as Brass saw her, the femmebot reached up and hastily wiped away at the moisture threatening to spill from her optic. "I'm fine, girl. Just gotta pull myself together, y'know?"

"The sparkling died," Zapper said, still standing in the doorway. She felt completely numb.

"Yep," Brass answered. Her voice shook a little, and she turned her full attention back to her feet as they hung over the side of the gurney. "Poor little bitlit. She just… she just wasn't ready. Maybe a few more weeks would've done the trick, but she… she still wasn't…"

Zapper knew it was coming before Brass could even finally start bawling. She quickly crossed the room, sat down on the gurney with her friend, and wrapped her arms around the other Zakos's shoulder as she finally started to cry. Brass turned her head and buried her face in Zapper's shoulder as the heave of her first sob managed to wrack her little body. Zapper reached a hand up and stroked the back of her friend's head. "Easy there, Brassy. You did all you could."

Brass was either ignoring her or didn't hear. "Oh Pitt! Sh-she was just a b-baby! I wuh-watched her little spark just… just fizzle and d-die! My poor little Boxy… Zakoooooo!" Without warning, Brass began to howl. It was a long, haunting sound that made Zapper shudder and caused her own newspark to shiver. Because of a glitch in Zako programming, it sometimes caused them to say their own model designation – zako − without even knowing they had done it, often mingled into their regular speech patterns. Higher ranking officers like the squadron leaders and Doga Bombers condemned it as a sign of stupidity, but no one in the infirmary said anything as Brass continued to wretchedly yowl. Her back strut seized and she began shivering uncontrollably, and Zapper attempted in vain to soothe her friend as she grieved. She looked up and saw the doctors getting ready to leave, one of them pushing a small roller table away.

Something was lying on top of it covered by a thin white sheet, and it occurred to Zapper it was the infant shell that would have belonged to Brass's sparkling.

"D-don't let go," Brass blubbered. "Don't ever let g-g-go."

Zapper kissed her forehead. "I won't, Brassy. I promise."

Even long after the last doctors left the room and turned off the lights, leaving them in the dark, Zapper and Brass stayed in that embrace for a very long time.

v

Zapper sat with a hand on her chest, sitting on the edge of her berth, looking at the mirror that sat suspended against the far wall in her room.

While it was unusual for Zakos enlisted in militia branch of the Dark Axis to have private quarters of their own − the standard was that they were assigned small bunks in barrack halls instead − the breeder femmes and studding mechs of the breeder clinics were not actually part of the militia. The reason given for allowing them their own rooms was to reduce stress and thereby allow the "participants" of the program to produce strong and healthy sparklings. This was an expensive arrangement, true, but Zapper was thankful for it. Many times during this one pregnancy alone, she found the unquenchable urge to stand up and pace. She felt obligated to nothing less than madness if she did not, and it was not a feat that she could have pulled off if she were permitted to only having a small bunker.

Not that she minded temporality sharing with Brass, of course.

The doctors had prescribed her anti-depressant program codes after the incident with her lost sparkling. After that, Brass stayed with Zapper for a few days afterward. She was still hopeful to try for another sparkling again if the doctors would permit her, but a follow-up examination dashed all her hopes in one fell swoop. Several key energy routers had to be cut out of her chassis when they originally tried to remove her newspark, effectively rendering her infertile. Trying to become a carrier again would more likely kill her than actually yield a healthy sparkling. It absolutely broke her spark, and since then, she shared quarters with Zapper. She couldn't blame her for wanting to be with someone. Being in possession of her own sparkling gave Zapper a new perspective on what exactly she still had.

The newspark whirled questionably and nudged her own from its place inside her chassis. Zapper startled slightly and looked over her shoulder to make sure she hadn't woken up Brass. The other femme was still fast asleep on their shared cot. Sighing, she returned her own pulse. "Hush, little one."

The relationship between a mother and their sparkling was almost… intimate, Zapper realized. She had never noticed that before, probably because she had been so focused on getting over her other pregnancies and moving on to the next. Being a carrier was her job, and she simply couldn't afford to get attached to every single newspark she carried. Emotional attachment would only lead to grief once the sparkling was lost to the hands of the clinic. After it was born, it became property of General Zeong and the rest of the Dark Axis. She had seen too many dams wallow in despair over the loss of their newsparks and dedicated herself to never ending up like those other poor mothers, but that had not been the case with this newspark. She was going to get to keep this one. In the short months she spent bonding with it, she began to finally realize how utterly powerful their growing connection was. In its own way, the sparkling spoke volumes to her and she found herself returning its pulses and energy bursts. She had never done that with her previous sparklings.

She wondered briefly if this was how Brass felt before losing her own newspark, and Zapper had to shove that thought back down before she could send herself into a nervous fit. No. No, what happened to Brass was not going to happen to her. She and her sparkling were going to be okay. They were going to be okay, and they were going to be happy. Finding happiness in the Dark Axis was a rare gift nowadays.

The femme puffed hot air out of her mouthpiece again. She stroked the front of her chest in the place where the infant spark was undoubtedly developing beneath the surface. "I still need to name you, don't I?" she asked. "Well? What's your name, little one? What's your name?"

The sparkling was never given the opportunity to answer, and Zapper never got the chance to ask again.

vi

She had gone into labor a whole twenty-three weeks early: ten weeks earlier than Brass had been. If that wasn't an immediate indication that something was gravely wrong, than the immeasurable pain that had overtaken Zapper's body was.

Help might have come faster if Brass had been there with her, but the other femme had left earlier that morning to start her training as a nurse aide. If she couldn't be a mother, she said, she was going to at least help the best she could. Zapper woke up with a start, alone, dripping with condensation and doubling over in agony as soon as she was conscious. Emergency signals flashed in her vision, blasting her sights with shades of red and critical error messages that spammed her CPU like an intense virus. It was like nothing she had ever experienced before. Inside her chassis, the sparkling writhed in pain.

Hugging herself tightly and struggling to sit up, Zapper sent the sparkling what she hoped to be a comforting pulse. "Hush, babe. It's gonna be okay. It's—"

Agony, hot and fast, struck her insides so violently that she pitched forward off the recharge berth, landing on the floor in a painful heap. She managed to roll and land on her side as to avoid jostling the sparkling more than she needed to, and that was when it finally dawned on her what this pain was: she was in labor. Her body was rejecting the sparkling an entire eight weeks early, too early for the sparkling to adequately survive without further development, and her body was trying to dispel the newspark in the worst way possible. She'd had painful rejection cycles before with her previous sparklings, but this was by far the worst.

And that was when it dawned on her.

She was premature.

I wonder if this is what Brass went through, she thought, and she desperately hoped that that was not the case. She wanted her sparkling to live.

Clawing her way along the floor and dragging herself up into a sitting position, she opened her emergency comm. and screamed.

The reaction was immediate. No more than ten seconds later, the door to her room was forced open and several nurse aids were already helping to lift her up onto a gurney. She caught a faint glimpse of another Zako standing directly over her. At first she thought it was Brass – prayed it was Brass – but then her vision temporarily cleared and she realized that it was one of the doctors. The same doctor, in fact, who had been the one to ask her whether or not she wanted to see a thermal scan of her sparkling when she first found out she was carrying. Suddenly, she found herself regretting never having taken the opportunity to see that scan. "You're too early."

"No slag," she hissed, choking on her own words. Agonized tears welled in her lens. "Save him."

From then on, everything happened in a blur. They hauled her onto an emergency gurney and wheeled her out of her quarters to the emergency room, administrating medication into her exposed tubing as they went. The pain hardly went away. In her chassis, she could feel her sparkling withering in pain right alongside her, growing weaker as it fought against her body. It wasn't that it was attacking her per say, but rather she was attacking it. Now that her body was going through its rejection phase, it was reading the newspark as being a parasitic intruder rather than offspring. In short, her antivirus software was bombarding the newspark with magnetic pulses and datakillers, essentially trying to snuff it into oblivion. Under normal circumstances, her body would first try to expel it through her chest plates by forcing her spark chamber to open, but instead, her body had skipped that phase entirely.

My body can't handle it, she thought dismally. My body can't handle it, just like Brass couldn't handle it, and now it's going to try and kill my baby.

"Zapper!" That was Brass. She appeared in her peripheral vision and tried to come up alongside the gurney. Her pink optic was flaring and wild with terror. "Zapper, honey−"

Another nurse shoved her out of the way, and Zapper wanted nothing more than to strangle her. "We need to get her to the ICU, stat! Move!"

Brass attempted to rush after them, but two more aides stopped the Zako femme in her tracks. If Zapper had the strength to call for her, she would have. Instead, all she could do was watch as she was carted further and further away from her best friend. Brass continued to call out desperately, obviously fighting with the aides the entire time Zapper was being taken away. "Zapper! Zapper! ZAKO!"

Zapper watched as Brass disappeared behind the closing twin doors of the main emergency wing of the infirmary. And in the pit of her being, she knew she would never see Brass again.

They wheeled her deeper into the medical lab where they rushed her into the nearest sparking room. She was immediately hooked up to several monitors. Needles sank deep into her arms and she was restrained to the table. It was the same experience as before with her other sparking proceduces, expect the pain was even more intense than ever. Slowly, steadily, she could see the corners of her vision growing dark and closing closer and closer inward to the center of her vision. Emergency shutdown warnings were popping up in her vision now, completely blinding her.

"Both sparks are failing!"

"Which one is stronger?"

Zapper could feel the sparkling slipping into nonexistence inside her. Feebly, she ushered the last ounce of her strength to support the sparkling. Think about only him, she reminded herself. He has to live. I want him to live.

She remembered what Bolt told her. Their sparkling had a chance to do great things. She knew it. She could feel it. If he could somehow survive this mess, he could potentially have the power to do great things. It was in his breeding. It was in his spark.

Despite the stress the newspark was undergoing, she felt it perk up and draw off her energy uncertainly. It pulsed at her tentatively.

Take care of yourself, little one, she thought sadly. No matter what happens, always remember your mama loves you.

Zapper, also referred to as The Trigger during her wartime days, famous for her brutality and itching trigger finger, passed away at approximately two hundred hours military time. Her son was born three seconds later.

vii

When she saw the medic aides wheeling out the gurney with the white blanket covering the motionless, full sized body on top of it, part of Brass died.

She had to clamp a hand over her mouthpiece to keep from crying out in horror as they rolled the empty corpse out of the clinic, but her optic still welled up with moisture at the realization of what had happened: that Zapper was gone. Her best friend of ten stellar cycles had been taken away from her in a matter of minutes. It totally blew the Zako's mind, and that sense of shock was the sole thing that kept her from dropping her knees and screaming from the agony of the loss right there and then. As they took Zapper's body away toward where Brass could only imagine was the incinerator room, a doctor approached her. The Zako looked sullen. "I'm sorry. We did everything we could."

Brass, at first, found that she was unable to bring herself to speak. It wasn't until what felt like an eternity later that she was finally able to uncover her vents and wipe away the tears in her lens. The moisture that she brushed away welled up again moments later. "I hope she didn't have to see her sparkling die first."

"Actually," the doctor started slowly, producing a datapad, "that's what I wanted to speak to you about, zako. Would you follow me?"

Brass snapped her head up to look at him. "The sparkling is alive?"

"It's marginally stabilized for the most part, but yes. The sparkling survived." The doctor looked down at the pad again. "It's a level one runt and very weak, but we're watching it very closely. Pitt knows that the rest of the staff would be sparkbroken to lose it too. We all loved Zapper. She was… special, zako."

Brass felt her spark clench in agony. Yes, Zapper had been something special.

They completely bypassed the emergency birthing room, which Brass was thankful for. There were still nurses and doctors filing in and out of the room, probably cleaning up the mess from the most recent disaster that resulted in the loss of one of their dams, and Brass felt her spark clench painfully just thinking about it. They kept walking until they made it to another set of double doors with industrial locks and level five security keypads. Although Brass had been in and out of the clinic many times before already, this room in particular was not one that the breeders were usually allowed in.

The doctor began entering a code into the keypad. "It's the nursery," he said.

"I know," Brass answered.

When the doors finally opened, the doctor entered first and beckoned Brass to follow. She did. They traveled down another corridor, this one decidedly barren, before coming upon a massive domed chamber full of sparking chambers. Doctors – maybe they were scientists, Brass couldn't be sure at this point – were moving about the room overseeing several chambers with full, healthy looking sparks. The whirl of heavy equipment and the staff speaking quietly amongst one another was prominent, but there was another sound as well: crying. Specifically, the crying of a sparkling. Brass turned her head to look for the source of the sound and found it sitting on a table surrounded by Zakos with datapads and examination equipment. The Zako sparkling must have just recently been placed in the infant grade shell and was howling and sobbing, obviously unhappy, but no one took the time to try to comfort it. Brass could feel her spark breaking just watching.

"That's not Zapper's," the doctor told her. "It's another dam's. She won't be keeping it. We're getting ready to put it with the others to send to the boot camps."

That didn't help Brass feel any better. Is that what happened to all her previous sparklings? To Zapper's? Brass had to avoid making optical contact with the sparkling as she walked away, following after the doctor. He spoke about the sparkling as if it were cargo rather than a living, functioning Axian. "You're not going to ship out Zapper's sparkling like all the others, are you?"

"I don't think the boot camp directors would want it," he said. "Not in the state it's in now, anyways."

At the opposite end of the room was a small alcove that housed a small sparking chamber. There were two nurse aides already there, checking over the machinery and recording data on separate consoles adjacent to the main housing equipment that contained the sparklings. As they drew closer, Brass could hardly believe how tiny it was, barely larger than the small of her hand. It pulsated weakly in the liquid of the tank, and there was absolutely no mistaking the distress in those pathetic pulses.

"It must know," she said sadly, drawing closer to the tank. To think that something so small had caused Zapper to be killed so unceremoniously… she touched her hand to the glass, and the little spark gravitated toward her. "Poor little thing."

The doctor nodded. "Zapper recorded you as being a secondary guardian to decide on formalities if anything… happened to her."

"I know. I had her listed as a secondary guardian for my own sparkling, too."

"Yes. Once we're finished with our observations to make sure the sparkling is healthy, we'll transfer it into a sparkling grade body. Do you know what you would like for the gender programming to be?"

"Male persona," Brass said, voice miserable. She could feel herself breaking all over again, just thinking about it. To think that she had been so excited for her own sparkling, just to lose it… and even though she was being given a second chance, it was in the worst way possible. She told herself that she and Zapper were going to raise their sparklings together. That was never going to happen now. Zapper was dead, just like Boxy. "Sometimes she used to refer to it as a little boy. I don't even think she knew she was doing it either."

The doctor jotted notes on his datapad before looking away from the touch screen. The Zako eyed Brass. "Do you have a name for him?"

"Yeah." Brass watched the tank and the pulsating spark for a moment longer. "Yeah, I do."

viii

"His name is Zapper."

Fin