Since leaving the relative comfort of the bus, the drone had found it difficult to argue with Perceptor’s pronouncement that the rest of the journey would be difficult.
The Underground of Iacon was filled with rough terrain, rough road-signs, and rough-looking tenants. Dim lamps lit the permanently dark streets, showing frequent patches of spilled oil, uneven cracks, and graffiti. The narrow sidewalks were heavily trod upon, and were no guarantee of safety from the occasional passerby on the badly re-surfaced roads. Although some of the buildings were in drab but serviceable condition, most of them had not been maintained, and detritus off of their crumbling exteriors spilled at irregular patterns into the pavement. He had stumbled fourteen times already.
The drone was ill equipped to handle surfaces like these. He’d been designed for travelling over minimal amounts of smooth, highly polished stone and metal. He had magnetic grips which could latch him onto the deck of a star-ship, or keep him stable on the towering, windy walkways of Vos. He’d even been able to navigate the archives with ease—as long as Jazz’s metal-grated stairways were traversed as little as possible.
Here, he could not rely on his finely-tuned balance to keep him upright. He could have walked over a thin sheet of glass much easier than he could walk over the bumpy, raw-edged concrete. His steps were careful and uncertain, and Perceptor kept one hand on his arm for their mutual stability as they walked down the ever-sloping streets.
Other mechs moved around them occasionally, but there were not many individuals out on the roads in the middle of the work-day. Sometimes he could see faded optics glowing out at him from broken windows, sometimes there were groups gathered at corners, leaning on rusting sign-poles and talking with rugged accents while their patched-up radios played. Even Perceptor had grown somber, as if the endless knowledge that usually spilled forth from him had no way to explain the dreary dilapidation that sagged warily towards the sky.
The drone did not require an explanation. He preferred the silence, which allowed him to concentrate on where he was placing his next step.
He already understood the environment well enough, besides. It was not hard to recognize the insurmountable gap between what Senator Ratbat possessed by inheritance and what these mechs scrambled to obtain by drudgery. He could see the difference between the smooth, alabaster duracrete of the upper-class skyways and the cragged pavement of the lower-class sidewalks. He could compare the polished chrome of Ratbat Holding’s decorative finials against the garish colors of old paint on metal shutters. Even the quality of the light was different—the yellowed bulbs down here burned constantly, making up for the lack of sun that filtered down through the endless layers of city above.
The drone imagined that these comparisons were what made Megatronus angry.
They were what made Megatronus angry, and he had not even seen Ratbat’s office to compare.
It made the drone angry, too. He did not approve of constantly losing his balance because of cracks in the roadway, and he hated having to spend time skirting around holes that were deep enough to drop down into the zone below them. He didn’t like feeling like every step forward took him down towards even worse conditions—a constant descent that threatened to pitch him forward into the increasingly frequent piles of refuse.
He feared falling on the LA-0BK unit as well.
It had been recharging for several cycles now, but the process was infinitely slow. The drone suspected there was a problem with its battery, which was hundreds of stellar cycles old and had not been powered since leaving the assembly line. It was incredible that it was retaining any energy at all, but there was no way to assess if its gains would be enough to re-activate it.
Crushing the small avian drone beneath him would not improve its chances.
He could not slow his pace to be more careful, however, because of Perceptor’s tense grip on his arm. The other mech was not marring the drone’s plating, but he was pushing them forward relentlessly, his gaze focused on an indeterminate point ahead of them. Occasionally, the drone would catch him looking from side to side, or staring at a business or road sign like he had seen it before but did not remember what it meant.
The drone hoped Perceptor had not forgotten his way. He did not wish to be lost in this murky twilight, wandering endlessly without visiting the Core. If they did get side-tracked, where would they stay? Did Perceptor know how to identify the temporary establishments where one could find a small room and a recharge outlet? Would a rented room even contain a recharge outlet with suitable voltage for a drone?
How far were they going?
Where were they, now?
These were all questions that the drone did not have an answer to, and he did not currently have a means of connecting with the orbital positioning satellites which might have provided a solution to him. He could only map their progress by creating basic drawings in his processor, and trust that Perceptor knew the route.
It was taking a very long time to get wherever it was they were going.
Time was an aspect of their travels he was much more cognizant of than location. He marked the cycles by making samples—recording the splash of their footsteps sweeping through oil-slick puddles, or the crumbling of large tires on the gravel-thin road. He caught the murmurs of passerby, the buzzing of malfunctioning neon, and the static of radios that could find nothing to play. Already, he was massing a small library of sounds…but it was not enough. It was not nearly enough to manipulate into anything meaningful, and he did not have the vast processors of the transmission tower to layer waves upon waves until a song emerged.
He did not even know if a song would emerge. He had found his desire to take interesting samples was increasing, but he had not been given any inspiration on how they might best fit together. Most music followed themes or was created with a particular intent, but the drone had nothing he wanted to illustrate beyond a desire to reach the Core…and even that was just a superficial desire imposed on him by his orders from Ratbat.
There were not many experiences he had which he believed would fit into a composition.
Surely, mechs did not want to hear about surviving a fire, or saving an obsolete drone. Surely, they could not relate to the fear of having their memories wiped, or the pleasure of being given access to a network after being denied to it for so long. Surely, he had nothing to impart.
He was just a drone, and no mech would want to compare himself to that.
However, when he thought more on each scene, it was not hard to imagine fitting samples together to recreate it. The fire had a rushing intensity, a deep rumbling resonance of painful, excruciating dissonance and fast-paced rhythms. The archives were quieter, and slower…but filled to ancient depths with forgotten chords and the steady clocks of eternally driving machinery. Even the network had a soul that was overflowing with sound—and the drone had a particular fondness for the comfort of all knowledge accessible but secretive, hidden behind passcodes like tremulous, delicate vibrato on a quiet stage.
He wanted to compose his journey.
He wanted to lay every track down, recording them one experience at a time to leave something that would outlast the inevitable command from Ratbat.
He did not know where to start.
He needed more input—more samples—and he could only get those by downloading them or creating them himself. The gift that Jazz had given him when he left the archives would be the ideal way to resume collecting the building blocks he required, but Perceptor had locked the data stick away in the empty briefcase that had previously contained the LA-0BK. Without Perceptor’s help, the drone would have no way of opening the briefcase or of plugging the data stick in, and without a voice he had no way of getting the scientist’s attention.
Resigned to an eternity of picking his way around piles of rubble, the drone found himself manufacturing a distraction that was moderately enjoyable to do.
He made…he made a game. He recorded a sample of the quiet noises all around them, and he filtered out every distinct source. It was a pleasing sort of entertainment to process sounds like this—on a small scale, learning about the new world that they travelled through. It allowed him to become better at identifying the origins of tricky vibrations: calculating the distant whirr of gears as a heavy-rated mech transformed, or listening to the high-pitched rustling of metal that stretched beneath the wheels of a transport train. He could even hear the scattering of stones over pavement as someone far behind them kicked up crumbling rubble from the dusty street.
Perceptor seemed aware of the noise at the same time that the drone became aware of it, glancing back over his shoulder to look up the roadway they’d just passed down. A frown had fixed itself onto his faceplates, but when the drone followed his gaze behind them he could not see what was making the technician displeased. There was no one rolling down the street—no one walking, no one standing, no one there at all.
“Extend your sensors to their maximum range, please,” the scientist said, his optics returning to the path in front of them, his pace increasing by a measurable percent. “We’re moving away from populated areas so we’re bound to encounter fewer individuals, but…I just want to be sure.”
The drone did as requested, re-routing power from his processing systems to his input systems, letting his finely tuned receptors take in the full amount of data.
Immediately, the number of sounds he was able to differentiate multiplied exponentially. However, it was no longer pleasing to sort them. He did not have enough computing power to monitor all of the samples taken while he was focused on navigating the unpredictably-surfaced roads. The more that Perceptor’s velocity increased, the higher his chances would grow of falling over.
The scientist did not notice the drone’s difficulties, however. This long walk was not easy for either of them, but Perceptor appeared to be concerned with something else entirely. He seemed nervous, and his air intake cycles were not as regular as they should have been. The frown did not depart.
Far behind them, at about the same distance as the scattering stones had been, the drone could detect the sound of wheels quietly crunching over pavement.
Intrigued, the drone turned to look…but like the last time he could not see anything following them. There were no headlights or running lights, and the road stretched dimly upwards in a slight curve as it wound its way back towards the upper zones. It was difficult to tell if anyone was there at all. Even the small gangs that he’d seen skulking on corners only a short while past seemed to have vanished.
The sound of tires vanished as well.
While he was paused to look, he saw nothing. The street illumination had grown dimmer the further down they’d gone, and his internal chronometer registered that sunset was quickly approaching. It had been cycles since he remembered seeing any filtered sunlight, but soon there would not even be the faint illusion of daytime.
When he was pulled forward by Perceptor, however, the sound returned.
Someone was rolling inexorably towards them, and the drone could not identify who it was beyond the noises that their wheels made.
The drone desired to be closer to their destination now, but he was not sure why. Was there a problem if a mech that could not be seen was following them?
Was there a problem if two mechs were?
Immediately upon hearing the second set of tires, the drone altered their course. Instead of letting himself be pulled by Percceptor, he pushed back towards the left, sending them down a different street which was not in the path of the newcomer. If they continued down the main throughway, they’d be trapped between the two mechs.
The drone was not sure why, but he felt that such an outcome would be undesirable.
Perceptor seemed to agree. “How many are there?” he asked, the volume of his voice so low that it nearly blended in with the rumble of his engine. The drone heard each word perfectly through his heightened receptors.
However, he could still not reply to the mech without connecting to the scientist directly.
After a moment of hurried silence, Perceptor realized his error. “Nod when I say the correct number,” he amended, and turned them along another road to put them back on a parallel course to the one they had been travelling. “One? Two? Thr—Oh. Just two.”
The drone shook his head, as he picked up on another motor.
“Three,” the scientist confirmed, and the drone nodded his assent. “Are you sure they’re following us?”
Perceptor’s pace increased yet again, and the drone found himself stumbling as he tried to keep up. All three vehicles were in relatively close proximity, but seemed to be remaining just out of view. With the way the streets spiraled, it was not easy to tell which paths led towards them and which led away, so he could only shake his head as answer to the question. Without a map or some familiarity with the neighborhood, he had no way to tell. He could only hear that they were nearby and that they were getting nearer, and they were doing so in ways that made it harder and harder to avoid one of the three.
“Can you run?” Perceptor finally asked. “Just…ah…in case it comes to that. Which I believe it will. In fact…we’re going to test your capacity. Right now.”
The drone did not have much time to shake his head vehemently that no he had not been engineered to run, and that Perceptor should not even have asked since Perceptor had engineered him. Ratbat hadn’t needed a drone that could run, because Ratbat did not run. He had chauffeurs and pilots who could drive him at great speeds, and if ever he had need of personal haste he needed only to spread his mechanical wings.
Running was for mechs who did not have wheels or jet propulsion.
Drones did not have wheels or jet propulsion.
However, drones were not built to run.
He careened off balance badly as Perceptor yanked him forward, and it was only the fact that he crashed against the scientist that saved him from falling over completely. The pace was much too fast for him, and was probably too fast for the teal-striped mech as well. Perceptor did not look like a mech who had needed to run in his lifetime. His stride was too timid, relying on making a lot of small steps quickly instead of entering into long, ground covering strokes. Even the drone was aware that they were not going to get far like this, and he’d only run…
He’d never run.
He’d forced another drone to run while it had carried him through a burning factory. That had been very different. The other drone had been constructed with treads that approximated the feet of an average Cybertronian, and it had been capable of making the right movements.
Now, whether or not he was capable, he was the one who was running on heels over broken duracrete, and he was the one who carried the remains of the drone who had once carried him. The danger was harder to define this time—there were no flames reaching out to meld him permanently with the factory floor, and no ceiling threatening to collapse. However, there was something very familiar about the cold, bottomless sensation that was spreading through his consciousness.
Perceptor was afraid, and it was making him afraid.
He did not know why three mechs were stalking them in the darkness, and he did not know what would happen when those mechs arrived. He did not know if there was a way to avoid them even if they ran, because they were on wheels and he was not. He could hear their engines flaring to life, roaring distantly as if aware that their prey was on the move, and he could calculate their impending closeness by the sounds rushing rapidly to meet his sensors.
They did not have much time.
He did not know where they were heading.
Perceptor was directing them, and Perceptor had said that he’d never been this way before. He was following some internal map that the drone could not access, and so the best that he could do as they ran was nudge the teal mech away from their nearest pursuers. He was running better, now. He was gaining speed, using what he remembered from the factory to pull the scientist faster. It was getting darker and harder to see, but Perceptor still made dutiful turns as if there were a beacon shining only for him.
He turned them left, and the drone nudged them right. He pulled them back on course, and the drone nudged them again. He could hear the three hunters converging behind them as the road suddenly widened into an old, broken down square. Buildings ringed the edges of the broad intersection, and an old, nameless statue presided over what might have once been a well-constructed shopping venue. Headlights from their pursuers flashed on, and Perceptor made a very hard right, knocking the drone almost entirely off his feet.
The sudden brightness illuminated the paved street ahead of them.
It also illuminated where that street ended, buildings crumbling down over the edge of an indeterminately long drop. They had no chance to react to the sudden lack of pavement.
They had no chance to do anything but fall.
It was not a pleasant trip.
For many, many moments after landing, the drone could not find any space in his mind which was organized enough to think. There were error messages that scrolled, but they appeared to be in languages that he could not recognize. He understood that red text was bad, and that blue text was good, and that no text was strange.
Sensations came to him like they were melodies, and sounds scraped raw against his plating as if they were tangible pain.
He could remember nothing.
He could remember one thing.
He could remember the impact vividly.
He remembered the way it had felt to have the roadway drop out from under him, and feel only air beneath. He remembered how dark it was, and he remembered seeing his own reflection glint off of completely silent buildings as he fell.
He’d wondered if anyone lived in the buildings, and he’d decided that they probably didn’t. Perceptor and he had walked too far down—down past where the furthest transports would go, down past where no mech could feasibly commute to a job. He hadn’t heard any other sounds of life moving through the streets since he’d become aware of his pursuers, and the buildings had looked considerably less maintained.
No one could live here, without anybody else. They would have no access to energon. They would have no access to the network. They would have no access to a recharge point.
They would have no access to light, or power of any kind.
He’d decided that they were utterly alone, just as he’d seen new pavement rushing up at him. It hadn’t been as long a drop as he’d feared it would be, but it was long enough to send a wave of heavy solidity upwards through his body as his heels hit the ground. He collapsed immediately, falling backward like a brick and clattering with more noise than his sensitive inputs wanted to process at that moment. Perceptor’s lengthy scream beside him did not help.
That scream was cut short as they crashed, and everything was blissful silence for a moment as the drone stared endlessly upwards at the height they’d fallen from. He saw only darkness, and static, and long, long segments of mangled inputs scrolling across his diagnostics screen as his systems recovered from the shock.
That had just happened.
He had just survived.
He remembered surviving, and he remembered the odd disconnect as his memories of only a few minutes ago met with the memories that he was making now.
He was alive, and he was lying on his back staring upwards. The panels that were meant to simulate wings felt as if they’d been bent out of their original shape, and the sensors closest to his heels were still compensating for a spike of sensation that should have knocked them out. However, the LA0-BK unit on his front had suffered no significant damages.
Above him, further away than he wanted to admit, headlights were shining out over the end of the broken road. He could hear the far off grinding of a rusty transformation, and he could see a second set of headlights shift position as one of the vehicles stood up.
“Think they made it?” A gravelly voice said, small with the energy loss of distance.
“Who cares,” the other voice replied. “We don’t have the equipment to get down there, and my fuel guage is getting way too close to empty.” Staring upwards, the drone detected two red pinpricks of light—optics, staring down at him. “They’ll have to pass us again if they want to get back to the surface. If they’re still alive, they’ll be easy pickings then.”
The two pinpricks departed, and the shine of headlights followed. “Frag, I’m getting too old for this,” the first voice said.
“You could always get a job,” the second replied, and then there was only quiet laughter, falling away to silence as they left.
It was nice to not be running anymore, the drone decided. It was also nice to not be falling, and it was nice to have a moment to relax. He let a self-diagnostic run while he waited for Perceptor to stir beside him, and he exited out of the errors that were still present over most of his input jacks. He was shaken, and his systems had suffered a blip when he’d impacted with the ground…but nothing had been torn loose, and the only new damage was a report of a small crack along the seal on his face screen. Whenever he wanted to, he could try to stand.
He hated having to stand.
“I…believe…” Perceptor’s voice said weakly, coming from the ground beside him, “…that the Core’s maps are in need of an update. This is supposed to be a solid road.”
In the drone’s opinion, the road felt very solid indeed. However, they were a few hundred feet below where he suspected Perceptor had been aiming when he’d turned that corner in the square.
“We may actually be on the right level now, at least. Did you survive?” The scientist’s bright optics turned towards the drone, and the drone nodded in the near-darkness. His movement sent blue-tinted reflections glinting off of the teal-striped armor that lay next to him.
He was glad that they were both still operational. Without Perceptor, the drone did not stand much chance of making it to the Core…no matter how close they might now be. Only the scientist seemed to be able to see clearly without light, and the low levels that they’d been dropped into were presenting a challenge to the drone.
Granted, he believed that they would not have avoided their pursuers without his own sensitivity to sound.
From the echoes that their engines made while bouncing off the buildings nearby, the drone could tell they were in a new district now. If he looked past Perceptor’s blue optics, he could see the still-intact façade of the structure across the street, out-dated but standing solidly. It was constructed out of materials that were meant to endure—likely from the latter third of the Golden Age, an era which Senator Ratbat was particularly fond of.
Given its condition, the drone was surprised that it was not being studied.
Given the condition of the building next to it…and the one next to it, moving down the line, the drone was surprised that this area was not being actively courted by hundreds of archeologists. Nearly every piece of architecture was intact—some rusting, but most protected from the distant elements by the endless layers of Cybertron above them. He could see all of the beautiful frescos clearly as he sat up, peering in curiosity at ancient banks, store-fronts, and vid-cast theatres. Besides the rubble which had fallen from the collapsed avenue above, the street was still in serviceable condition. The drone did not recognize the composition of the pavement, but it seemed smooth. When he tried to stand up on it, it allowed him purchase easily.
“My systems appear to be operating as well,” Perceptor continued, dusting himself off as he joined the drone in standing. “That would not have been my preferred method of avoiding pursuit, but it certainly outweighs the alternative…” He was peering upward, trying to guage how far down they’d fallen. The drone could hear his optics as they changed settings, adjusting for the minimal light.
It was distinctly dark, and even Perceptor must have been having difficulty picking out details on the crumbled roadway above them. However, it was not as dark as the drone had imagined it was a few moments ago.
The buildings should have been rough blurs of shapes, but they remained solid and clear before him. He could see each doorway and each carved set of stairs, wrapping around to reach apartments set on higher levels or to meet elevated walkways that crossed the street in elegant arches. He could distinguish the individual blocks of iron-cast panels and grateworks that formed a rainwash system, heavy and enduring. He could even make out the layer of dust that had settled over the roadway like snow, undisturbed by eons of solitude.
Everything was illuminated by a subtle glow, permeating along the road from somewhere just beyond the endless downward slope. They were getting light from something, and the drone turned himself towards it, not knowing what would have enough power to shine this far from its source.
It was the sound, at last, that made him take a step towards it.
He could hear music, and the high-pitched squeal of break-pads squeezing around a metal track. The drone must have been wrong in his previous assessment that the trains did not come this far down. Somewhere ahead of them was a transport station.
Reaching out, he brushed his arm against Perceptor, who was still looking back the way they’d come from. “I just don’t understand why the roads are not maintained. When could this section of Iacon have been abandoned? How far above Cybertron’s natural crust have we built?” The questions were asked upwards into an echoing silence, and the drone did not have an answer for the teal mech.
He nudged him again, instead.
“I’m sorry,” the scientist sighed, finally turning to address the drone once more. “I should have taken us back to Kaon and the access point there. I’m more familiar with it, I just…” He shrugged, as if he felt the situation was out of his control. “…I just thought that Iacon’s route would be safer. You only hear about roving gangs and riots in other cities, and the troubles seem so far away. What might lead mechs to prey on other mechs like that, I wonder?”
As Perceptor had likely not heard the pursuer complaining about his hunger, the drone repeated the recording for him. “We don’t have the equipment to get down there,” the drone said with a stranger’s voice, “and my fuel guage is getting way too close to empty.”
The teal mech shivered in the half-light, and stared at the drone for a moment. “That’s not a voice which suits you,” he said.
The drone could not argue with the logic, so he ignored Perceptor’s statement and raised his arm to point towards the incessant glow.
“We don’t have much choice, do we?” Perceptor sighed, staring off down the road as if he couldn’t tell what the drone was indicating. “There’s still a little further down to go, and we certainly cannot go back…” His voice trailed off, and the drone heard his optics re-adjusting once again.
He was staring now, at the light.
The drone looked at him for a few more moments, and then lowered his arm and started walking towards it. There was not much of a choice, as Perceptor had indicated. They had to make their way lower, and lower, if they were ever going to reach the Core.
“I wonder…” the scientist said, but he did not speak about what he was wondering about as his footsteps started after the drone.
They were moving again, and that was as it should be.
It did not occur to him until they’d gone several hundred paces that, for the first time, he’d managed to reply to a non-binary question out loud. He’d answered Perceptor’s inquiry about the dangers of the Undgerground with a sound-clip, using another mech’s voice to give words to concepts that weren’t easily conveyed with a nod. The scientist had been correct that the voice did not suit him…it was not the voice he remembered speaking with, when he’d talked with Megatronus…but he was not concerned with the way his voice sounded.
What mattered was that he’d discovered a new method of communication.
It was one that he would not be able to use often. He’d managed to make the clip which he’d recorded fit the situation once, but it was unlikely that he’d always have the exact right phrase on hand. If he’d had access to the transmission tower, he might have been able to construct a library of proper sounds to make a vocal soundtrack that resembled speaking…but it was much too complicated for his simple processor to handle on his own. He might have even dared to try it when he returned, except that by the time he’d be plugging into the tower’s database, he’d no longer possess the memories which would prompt him to want his own voice.
For now, he would have to be satisfied with the much simpler method of storing vocal-clips as he heard them, and playing back ones that were relevant.
It was better than silence.
It was better than silence, some of the time.
Pleased with this decision, the drone picked up his speed and began sorting through the small number of soundbytes he already had. The roads now were smooth enough that he no longer needed the assistance from the scientist to walk over them, and the light was growing steadily brighter as they journeyed along.
It was growing very bright.
Now, he could see with ease. Up ahead, the quiet, neglected string of buildings was ending, and Perceptor’s original destination was beginning to loom. It was, as far as the drone could tell, the only destination to reach so far below Iacon: a small sector of forgotten city, its lights blazing into the eternal night of the Underground.
Was this still the Underground?
The drone was not so sure. He had previously imagined the name to indicate that the lower classes lived physically under the surface of Cybertron, far away from the open skies and the sun. He had not realized until his journey today that there might not even be an actual ‘underground’ on the planet…at least, not until one got closer to the Core. Instead, the Underground was just the name of the place where the mechs of tertiary rank lived. It was merely a designation, serving only to differentiate the upper classes from the lower classes—the areas desirable to live in versus the areas that were not.
If the drone had to classify this area it would have fallen into ‘desirable,’ not part of the Underground at all.
The Senator would have agreed.
The district that he and Perceptor were walking into was built with the grand, sleek architecture of the Golden Era, preserved to perfection. Neon signs glittered, casting bright colors off of expensive looking restaurants. Holographic screens above the well-lit windows showed images of far-off nebulae and unfamiliar worlds, advertising destinations which the drone had never heard of. Music drifted out of speakers that he could not see, its clarity as pure as the speakers he had been constructed with—as if the instruments that played were hidden just behind the wall, or just around the corner. He did not recognize the tunes, and he set about recording them immediately.
Like the other sectors they had passed through, this one was abandoned. No mechs walked the immaculate streets, no engines gave off a pleasant background hum. Inside the restaurants were chairs and tables, inside the body shops were spare metal and pictures of beautifully crafted armor, but nowhere were there patrons to peruse the ancient wares. The air was stale and thick, and though his intakes processed it easily they did not detect the normal particles that drifted through populated areas: scents given off by heated metal, exhaust, and the aroma of fresh paint.
This was a ghost town.
This was a ghost town…except that the drone remembered hearing the faint squeal of breaks coming from a transport train. Could there still be someone here, riding to an unknown destination?
Was that what he and Perceptor were about to do?
The drone turned his attention to what must have been a Transit station as they approached. It was wider than the other buildings, long and gleaming in sleek silver lines with groves engraved, as if the station itself were built for speed. Deep purple accents and indigo lights reflected off the surface, enhancing the brightness of the silver with their dark contrast. There were advertisements which flowed into recesses of the slick wall like they’d been specifically designed for placement on it, and there were inlays of wing-shapes and a mech who pointed forward, as if inspiring travelers to set out towards adventure.
“I had no idea any of this was down here,” Perceptor finally spoke, his voice quiet and dwarfed by the magnitude of the scenery. He had been drifting along in silence by the drone, walking unsteadily as he turned to gawk at each new vision that accosted him. “This must have been old when I was manufactured, but…look at its condition. How has it been maintained for so long? How is everything still operational?”
The drone shook his head, having no voice clip ready which contained an appropriate response. He had the exact same questions, but they were less relevant to him. If this sector had been maintained, then it had been maintained for a purpose.
The Transport station, clearly, was central to that purpose.
It was situated in the exact center of the light and noise, surrounded by establishments that crowded around it like plugs around a lone wall socket. The music played loudest here, ambient but eerie.
Lonely, the drone thought.
Ahead, the road diverged—one way continuing down the street and the other turning directly into the Transport station, allowing mechs to drive through in their vehicle modes.
Perceptor stopped just outside of the entrance, and looked over at the drone. “We’re close now. Do you think we ought to look around, or…do you want to go in?”
It was not a question which was as easy to answer as the drone had thought it would be. He did want to look around, to make sure he catalogued everything. He wanted to understand more about this tiny, incongruous Zone, and he wanted to record hours of the unfamiliar music. He wanted to take everything back to Ratbat, because he knew Ratbat would wash his schedule clean and immediately fly to study here.
If anyone were to come witness this miracle and appreciate it to the fullest extent, it would be Senator Ratbat. He would allocate funds to send a team of historians down to document…to preserve…and to restore, in the case of the buildings which were lacking power. He would have found a way to make a profit off of its existence…but he likely would have done so in the spirit of its original construction. Mechs could return here, to live for a moment in another era. They could understand something which the technology wars had nearly erased.
Knowing about this area would make the Senator happy…but he might never have the chance.
If he wiped the drone’s memories, then even this—which Ratbat would have wanted more than anything—would fade to nothing more than scattered bits and scraps of broken songs.
The drone moved past Perceptor, following the roadway that entered the Transit station, ducking underneath the matte purple archways into the next step that their journey would take.
Inside, it was as beautiful as the outside had promised it would be.
The ceiling was glass, and lights above shone down through like daylight, illuminating sleekly polished white marble floors. Silver streaks ran through the expensive stone, crisscrossing and then shooting forward along parallel lines towards turnstiles, ticket booths, and low security tracks where the internal roadway ended.
The drone noticed that there were two sections of ticket booths—one on each side of the long foyer with the turnstiles in the middle where paid passengers could pass. Above one set of booths was embossed a picture of a transport, speeding along its rails. Above the other set of booths was a shuttle, launching upwards towards a circle of a planet…or a moon.
Perceptor seemed to reach the same conclusion at the same time. “Lunar launching? At a transit station?” He almost smiled. “Only the primary classes journey to the moon on a regular basis. I wonder how much a ticket would cost here?”
“The cost is 30 semi-conductive-plates one way,” the wall ahead of them said with a deep, echoing voice. “However, the Lunar Launch pad is currently under construction. Please consider purchasing a train ticket to our sister station in Altihex where service is still available.”
The scientist jumped when the voice began talking, and it was only due to the fact that he was not constructed for any form of physical activity that the drone did not jump too. He had grown comfortable with the fact that there was no one living in this anachronism, and he had not taken any time to consider that some aspects of the station might have been automated, ready to assist should anyone decide to come.
It was the ticket booth beneath the Transport picture which had spoken. There was a large window at the booth, where an actual agent might have sat to assist customers with purchasing fares or answering questions. Perceptor had asked a question…and the huge mech sitting within the cramped ticket booth had replied.
The drone’s first thought, once he realized that there was someone physically inside of the booth, was to wonder how the enormous mech had managed to maneuver into it. He completely dwarfed the window, to the point where it had been impossible to tell that it was a window with a mech behind it and not just a pane of glass in front of a bizarrely shaped wall. If it weren’t for the occupant’s optics, which could just been seen peering out where the mech was crouching, then there would have been no indication at all.
There was a long silence following the mech’s pronouncement.
The drone was not entirely certain what one should say when being told that the Lunar Launch pad was under construction.
“Does—” Perceptor managed to choke out, looking helplessly at the drone. If he’d been expecting to run into this mech, here, then he was doing an excellent job of hiding it. “Does a train run from here all the way to Altihex?” He finally concluded. The briefcase which he’d been holding had somehow made it into both his hands, and was being held awkwardly in front of him like it might double for a shield. It was not particularly effective.
“One train does,” the reply came in the same, strangely booming voice, vibrating against the window’s housing.
“And when does it leave?” Perceptor continued, letting his curiosity run through to its logical, impossible conclusion.
“It leaves after you have bought your ticket.”
The drone decided that this made sense. He’d heard the sounds of a train earlier, and this mech was offering to secure them both a train ride now. Although he wondered at how well an ancient railway system might have been maintained, especially one that ran underneath what was already considered the Underground, he had no reason to doubt that it was serviceable. The station itself certainly was.
“I suppose that is…fair,” the scientist stumbled, “But I must confess I did not come here with the intention of going to either Luna or Altihex. As a matter of fact, I need to be going in utterly the opposite direction of either.”
The mech behind the glass crouched lower, his face almost pressed against the clear pane as it was but still attempting to see the both of them better. “Kaon, then,” he said, and the drone quietly made note of one possible way back home, “I may be able to manage Kaon.”
The teal-striped scientist shook his head, the briefcase just now lowering back down to his side. “Not Kaon, either,” he said, leaning slightly to peer past the turn-styles. “In fact, I don’t think a train runs in the direction that I’m supposed to go.”
One of the mech’s large hands rose suddenly up, settling heavily on the short counter that extended both behind the booth and out in front of it. “This counter services only Astro and Train. Tickets cannot be purchased for any other means of travel.”
Frowning, the scientist shook his head. “But…that cannot be correct. This is where my beacon pointed to. We’re supposed to take the tubes, down to the Core—“
“Then you will need to speak with the Station Master,” the mech replied, lifting his large hand as if to prevent any arguing. “Only the Station Master can authorize use of the tubes.”
“V…Very well,” Perceptor accepted, still polite but seemingly less adept at navigating the trials of an ancient transport station than he was at speaking with a bus. “How do I do that?”
The drone could not entirely blame Perceptor for his uncertainty. It was difficult to imagine one mech working in this utterly remote environment, much less two.
However, the ticket attendant continued to address them as if nothing were out of the ordinary for him. He stood—if one could call the awkward slouch that he was forced into by the ceiling ‘standing,’ and pointed to an area of the foyer not far off from the turn-styles. “Stay there. I’ll be right out.”
Inside the ticket-booth, which seemed as if it would be roomy for any standard-sized mech, the much-larger-than-standard sized mech began backing out through an un-seen door with movements that must have been practiced with dance-like precision. One leg vanished first, then an arm, a shoulder, the torso, and finally the other leg. The drone noticed that each action was deliberately engineered to avoid touching any part of the silver or white marble surfaces, leaving each bit of chrome unscathed.
When he came around the side of the turn-styles a moment later, the drone appreciated how difficult that must have been for him. He had never seen anyone quite so immense.
“I am Station Master: Astro-Train,” the mech stated, reaching up to pull a small name-placard off of his torso and setting it on a magnetized bulletin board along the wall. He selected another badge, grabbed a rag off of a hook and polished the metal until it was shiny before placing it in the same position on his chest-plate. The drone could read both tags from where he stood: the first said ‘Ticket-Master’ on a decorated rectangle, the second said ‘Station-Master’ underneath a curved logo of a planet, a space shuttle, and a transport car.
Clearly there were not two mechs here…there were just two jobs. There were more than two jobs, judging by the wall of placards that had been carefully arranged. If the drone had previously considered it a mystery why the station was kept in such immaculate condition, it was a mystery no more. One of the badges—the one with the most wear—had the word ‘Janitor’ imprinted on it.
“I am Perceptor,” the scientist replied, holding up his palm in greeting. This, at least, it seemed he had done many times before. “I am a technician in the Core, authorization code 9261985. I require access…can you comply?”
The massive Station Master stared down at them from the other side of an alt-mode accessible gateway, his own hand rising to copy Perceptor’s motion…but with his thumb-joint crossed over his palm. The drone was uncertain of there was some hidden meaning in the gesture, but neither individual appeared to mark the difference. It could have been a regional discrepancy, a status symbol, or merely the changing dialogs of passing eras.
Perceptor’s formal greeting seemed to illicit the proper response, regardless. Reaching down, the huge violet and silver mech unlatched the alt-mode gate, and gestured them through. “Will you both be taking the journey?” he asked, his solemn gaze passing between them.
“We will,” Perceptor stated with a nod, moving forward through the open gateway. The drone stepped after him carefully, his molded heels clacking over the polished floors.
It had been difficult to see much past the turn-styles from the front entrance, as the ticket booths and security equipment blocked most of the view. Even with the gate open for them to step through, the drone noticed that the path ahead was a short one—dead ending in a mirrored wall where holographic neon showers reflected in the surface like shooting stars. A sign hung from the tall, vaulted ceiling, pointing directions out to travelers. Most of those directions pointed down.
With no small amount of dread, the drone faced the long, wide staircase that lay before them.
The gate clicked closed, and the Station Master gestured them forward.
He seemed even larger up close, and the drone hesitated at the top of the stairs, not wishing to begin the awful descent but also not wishing to annoy their host.
This was not a mech who had been manufactured for the energy-conscious elite of the primary zones. This was, instead, a mech who could easily have weighed as much as three-dozen drones. Every plate of armor on the Station Master appeared to be enough to craft a full-sized door, and even Perceptor seemed out of scale beside him, like some part of the perspective had changed and someone who looked like they should be far away was instead standing impossibly close.
Perceptor began walking down the stairs, but the drone did not follow.
He continued to stare at Astro-Train.
The silver and indigo mech matched the colors of the building, blending with the hues as if it had been the same paint which covered them both. He looked less like a mech who worked at the station, and more like a component of the station—no more able to leave it than the walls or the ticket booths. His panels were streamlined, and his wheels and wings matched the theme, appearing suited for travelling through the upper atmosphere or along the wide, sturdy tracks.
Was it possible to have both wheels and wings, and for both to function?
The communications drone did not have any experience with alternate-modes. He did not know what the limitations might be.
“We have a lift, if your root mode is not stairway compatible,” the Station Master said, anticipating the drone’s primary concern. “Or I could carry you.”
Staring at the massive arms, the drone had no doubt that Astro-Train could easily carry him. He nodded a simple assent, and found himself being effortlessly picked up and carted downward with an efficiency that he appreciated. This mech seemed built to transport others.
Likely, that was why he had become the Station Master.
“This place…it seems to have a lot of history surrounding it,” Perceptor said tactfully from in front of them as he descended.
“Yes,” the big mech replied, ducking automatically underneath a beam as if by habit. “It was the first Iaconian Hub Station, servicing local and inter-city-state routes, as well as the Moon and Space Station through the Astro wing which was added later. There are 30 independent tracks which house over 15 separate lines, and one orbital launch ramp. When operating at full capacity, we can service 100,000 mechs an hour.”
“That must take a lot of energy,” the scientist mused, almost to himself. “Do you know where it comes from?”
Astro-Train reached out, pointing forward to the sudden opening at the bottom of the stairs. “It used to come from the solar panels and generators that powered Iacon. Now…it comes from my trains.”
The Station Master did not have to gesture far to encompass the huge, stadium-like presence of the train-bays that unfolded in front of them. Only a few hundred strides ahead, tracks with waiting transports fanned out in a half-circle under an impressive dome, long walk-ways extending between them. The drone could see red and green lights winking on and off above the different engines, indicating the status of incoming trains or the condition of the tracks.
Nearly all of them were red.
Here, the drone could hear the music that had been playing outside as it echoed over the forgotten transports, and a mechanical voice announced a schedule with monotone precision. The construction materials here were clearly intended to be more durable and less decorative, but there were still small strips of marble dug into the paved walkways and glittering hints of neon stars flickering in the canopy above. Here and there the drone could see a scuff mark on the edge of a platform which made it easier to imagine when hundreds of thousands of mechs had passed down these stairs.
Now, it was eerily quiet while the music whispered and the old trains waited.
“I send them out, and they bring back energon,” Astro-train continued. “It powers the station, and allows me to continue construction on the launch ramp.” Now that they had reached the bottom of the stair-case, he set the communications drone down.
“And the restaurants and the banks outside…they are on your same generator, aren’t they?” Perceptor asked, unable to take his optics off of the scene before them.
“Yes. I’m glad that they are still open—the restaurant is my favorite place to have lunch.” Turning, Astro-train headed away from the empty platforms, leaving both Perceptor and the drone to share a glance with one another.
Something was not right with the Station Master.
The drone felt strange coming to that sort of conclusion, because the drone had not encountered many mechs personally to compare him to. The majority of the drone’s social absorption had occurred over the network, listening to music or watching news-casts that passed through the transmission tower. Recently, he had been able to add his observances at the Archives to his limited knowledge, but even in those experiences no one had acted the way that Astro Train did.
It seemed as if the Station Master was not receiving input from the same reality. He waited in a cramped ticket booth for non-existent passengers. He attempted construction on a space-launch ramp that would have to reach through thousands of feet of roads and buildings before it witnessed sky. He sent trains to collect energon, and he dined at empty restaurants.
These were not expected behaviors. Perceptor seemed concerned by them, as well.
However, the scientist did not address the issues, and the drone had no means to ask the questions that sprang unbidden to his mind. The pair of them could only follow Astro-Train as he ducked through a small archway that passed behind the long staircase, and wait to see where they were led to next.
“I have not visited the core myself,” the huge mech continued, making his way through a beautifully carved hall that just allowed his bulk to pass through without scraping. “My status as Station Master allows me to apply for universal access to all charted destinations, but I have always been too busy here to consider leaving.” The pathway curved, making a semi-circle that mirrored the train dome and brought them back to face the same direction as they had been when they’d started. If the drone had to guess, he imagined they were directly underneath the stairs.
Directly underneath the stairs, there was an elevator.
The drone could only imagine that this was not the lift which Astro-Train had earlier offered to him, given that an attempt to ascend in it would put them through the staircase. An elevator which could not go up only had one other direction to go…but was it really so simple as this? Could an easily accessible elevator really journey all the way down to the Core?
The Station Master pushed his hand into a depression on the wall, and the lift doors opened. Then, the huge mech moved to take a spot inside the lift, and the drone decided that if the Station Master was getting on, then they were probably not immediately descending to the Core. However, there was not much room for him and Perceptor to squeeze beside the other mech in the cramped space. Astro-Train did not appear to be bothered by their sudden closeness, but Perceptor was not as comfortable leaning on the white and silver mech as the doors closed them in.
The drone did not mind. He had already been carried by their unusual guide, so standing next to him was uneventful.
“I have some vacation time coming up, though,” Astro-Train continued, speaking directly into the reflective elevator doors. “The broadcasts at the Restaurant always mention New Vos is a beautiful world to see…especially for fliers. The gravity there is very light, so even large mechs like myself can seem graceful while leaping from tower to tower. They have a lot of rainfall, too, so everything is clean--”
The lift dropped at a rapid pace, but it was not the descent which seemed to have startled Perceptor. The drone notated the sudden intensity in the technician’s optics when New Vos was mentioned. Having never heard of New Vos himself, the drone did not particularly understand what the commotion might be.
“New Vos…” Perceptor said, interrupting the silver and indigo mech. “That world is only reachable by Space Bridge, isn’t it?”
Astro-Train nodded. “That’s right. It would take about 750 stellar cycles to reach it otherwise, even using the jump gates. Only the Space Bridge goes there, and it’s very expensive to purchase tickets on a liner. I’ve been thinking I could get a discount if I flew myself, however, and if I took on a few passengers then I could even make a profit on the trip. It’s just…hard to leave the Station, you understand. I have so many responsibilities here.”
Perceptor seemed strangely shaken by the mention of either New Vos or the Space Bridge, so he only nodded distractedly. “It might be best if you wait to go to New Vos, yes,” he murmured, and looked at the drone with an expression that the drone had not yet catalogued.
The drone knew what the teal-mech meant, even if he did not understand his expression.
If one could only reach New Vos through a space bridge, then New Vos could not be reached. Perceptor seemed to be aware of that fact…and saddened by it.
Astro-Train could not see the sadness, however, and so he resumed talking. He told them about the hotels on New Vos. He told them about the weather patterns. He told them about countless facts, repeating them like a travel program—like one of the travel programs which had been playing on the screens outside of the Station. No new information had ever filtered down to be absorbed by the Station Master. He did not know what was still accessible, and what was not.
He understood transportation as it had been millions of stellar cycles ago, and the drone knew that every route had changed since then.
Every route…except for one.
They were finally close to reaching the Core. Soon, it would not matter what the drone had gone through to achieve it. It would not matter that he’d stumbled across an oasis lost in time, or that he’d fallen off of a broken street into darkness, or that he’d gained a half-charged drone companion and ridden on a bus. It would not matter if his guide talked about the past as if it were the present, or if Perceptor regretfully perpetrated the charade.
It would not matter if he were carried down a flight of stairs, or nearly smashed against an elevator door.
He could feel that they were getting nearer, and something in him was too focused on the goal to care about the rest.
The drone stared straight ahead as Astro-Train talked, and he waited in for the door to open.