For the second time in his life, Megatronus’s path had led him somewhere that he didn’t belong.
He thought on it as he stared at the metal carapace of a drone, watching it for a half-click before it flew on, whisked away by huge robotic arms that carried it along a towering assembly track. It disappeared up the line, moving into another part of the building where the metal catwalks progressed, suspended far above the duracrete floors and complicated machinery.
Another torso arrived a moment later, pausing long enough for him to zero in on circuits in its shoulders, raw, coded by color and function and nestled in between slick gears. Two arms appeared, and were grafted expertly in place before the drone-form vanished and the process repeated.
This was the factory where drones were made, and it was like no place he had been before.
The building was long and open, its expanse of oil-stained flooring mostly crowded with loud engines that powered bulky pieces of equipment, each capable of one extremely specialized task. Everywhere he looked there was motion, conveyor belts moving raw materials into smelting machines, smelting machines dumping molten metal into pressers, pressers flattening shapes out of specific molds and ejecting them into bins for sorting and piecing. Standing on the catwalks he could see everything, but he didn’t like what he saw.
It was too noisy here, the chaos of a thousand working gears and servo mechanisms creating a cacophony that made him ill-at-ease, the broad, bright spaces too much of a contrast to the dark, cramped tunnels of the mines he’d once called home. The workers had less autonomy, as well, acting more like legs to ferry parts from one piece of equipment to the next, while limited AIs handled most of the construction of the drones. All laid out like this, it was easy to see it as it was: machinery making machinery; drones making more complicated drones. The factory could construct a hundred in a cycle, programming them with any number of options, setting them loose onto the workforce at a hefty cost until there was machinery operating machinery constructing more machinery. They were workers you could buy and sell, legally, who needed only a brief amount of rest and a minimum of energy.
He could see them down below, out on the factory floor sorting defective limbs from acceptable ones, oiling up the gear shafts that drove the relentless power-arms around. Already, here, they were taking over jobs that mechs like him had done. They did not deviate from their intended purpose. They did not talk. They did not look around.
It was a wonder that the factory had any need for laborers like him, at all.
He was here, however. Drones weren’t common enough yet to be fully integrated, which was why he’d only seen them in this factory where they were readily available and could be easily watched. Until they had been proven in the industry for a few stellar cycles, he suspected this was one of the few places they’d be found.
Even with their presence however, there was still a need for workers who could think and workers who could act autonomously. There was a need for workers who could smile and shake hands, and there was a need for workers who could negotiate and authorize deals with customers. There was a need for workers from the underworld, too, dockhands, lifters, and greasers who were so desperate for money that’d they’d be cheaper to hire than the factory’s cost to build a drone.
They’d hired him, after all.
However, that had been no coincidence.
It couldn’t have been a coincidence, because even with as many upgrades as he’d gone through trying to escape his past, he still looked like a miner underneath. Even cycles of arena battles had been unable to change that, or distract from his unusual size. He was not a dock-hand and he did not belong in a factory, but he was hardly the only ill-suited mech searching desperately for any employment he could get.
He’d just been the only ill-suited mech searching for employment who’d happened to have a friend who knew the manager.
That was how it worked. His status as a fighter had given him more opportunities than he’d ever thought he’d have, even opportunities that were seemingly unrelated. It had given him a name, when he’d had none. It had given him money and food, when they’d been hard to come by. It had given him a place, and it had given him a team, and it had given him more hope than he had any right to possess after he’d been kicked out of the mines.
It couldn’t last, however. Already, he’d seen the same rumblings and warnings signs that he’d been too naïve to recognize before the mines closed down, and he knew what they meant. He’d watched automation rob more than a hundred miners of their jobs once, and he was watching it again, here in this factory, echoed in the strangely blank faceplates of the drones.
These were machines who could take the place of sentient workers.
It was the same thing that had happened to him. It was hard not to notice it, this time. It was hard not to notice when the streets started to fill up with bots running on empty, and it was hard not to notice when the bets placed on him lowered week by week while the number of desperate mechs he had to fight increased.
Employment opportunities were dwindling. New drones were appearing. The two were correlated and he was afraid of what that meant. No one else had thought about it. No one else had realized how thin the wall between employment and death could become.
This time, however, he was not so powerless.
He’d had two choices.
He moved, now, and learned about drones and what they meant for the future….or he starved, later, when there was no one left to bet.
It was as simple as that.
He’d started his first shift that morning.
He’d been told what to expect, been shown the transports that would take him into work each day, and been handed the experience-chits that Clench had forged especially for him. Then the old mech had frowned, called him a fool one last time, and pushed him out the door.
That had been it.
Now he was here on his own, working for an hourly wage for the first time in too long. The work had been grueling but familiar, and no one had commented if he was equipped with heavy, offroad treads instead of city wheels. They all did the same tasks no matter what their alt-mode was, loading and unloading drones and raw materials, ferrying components to machines, or complaining about the price of energon while pallets were stacked. They didn’t recognize him.
They probably weren’t expecting a gladiator to show up here, stretching servos that would never need to be used when fighting.
No one thought about Gladiators outside of the ring.
No one expected them to survive.
Reaching the end of the suspended walkway, Megatronus stopped beside the wall, leaning against it while he rubbed an overheated joint. His day was over and he could leave whenever he wanted, returning back down to the dark coolness of the Underground where he could get a few hours to let his engine rest before his shift tomorrow. If he drove hard he still could make it to the station before the transport pulled out, but with his treads still new and raw after Hook’s ‘civilian disguise’ had been grafted on he wasn’t looking forward to that. He could catch the next transport back in a few cycles.
He was hardly the only mech to remain, besides.
The rest of the dock-hands were clustered around the huge, open receiving doors, some still lifting crates while others stretched, taking advantage of the shift change to talk to the new workers coming in. No one had noticed the fact that he’d wandered off. He was too new to be missed, yet.
He liked that.
It gave him an opportunity to look around.
From the catwalks he could see nearly everything, and he let his optics trail over the floor. It was not difficult to track where supplies moved through various parts of the building, starting at the receiving docks. Most of the materials that arrived were raw, with the exception of the processor chips which came in large, locked and carefully padded boxes from Altihex. Those went into finished drones at the end of the assembly line, and from there the drones vanished…
Underneath the catwalks, into the wall.
He didn’t know what was back there. Even from his vantage point, the wall seemed just like any other wall leading outside.
It couldn’t have been that, however, because just above where the drones passed through on there was a window. It was a strange panel of indigo-tinted plastiglass, the color at odds with the few other dirty windows scattered around the building, large enough to peer inside from the walk-way but small enough to only take a fraction of the wallspace. Instead of grey sunlight, a strange purple glow spilled out from it onto the hammered metal catwalks, occupying spectra just outside of his viewing range, leaving him with more than a slight processor headache as his vision flicked through multiple modes and still couldn’t find a filter that would process it.
This, he wasn’t familiar with. Heavy equipment was easy to recognize whether it was converting energon or building drones, but ultraviolet windows were a mystery to him.
Even more mysterious was that the finished drone shells passed below, curving away from the towering machines and into the wall beneath the plastiglass. Their tiny entrance was just large enough to fit them, the bright purple light splashing out around each silhouette as it passed slowly, then stopped, over and over and over again as the conveyor belt carried them through.
With all other components assembled on the drones, there was only one last step that Megatronus could think of. The idea that they would do that here, however, in an open factory…
They would not.
Still, he stepped forward to confirm, steeling himself against the painful ultra-violet to look inside the window.
It took a few moments for his vision to adjust.
When it did, it was easy to confirm that the window did not look outside. Instead, it looked down into a room below, an extension on the factory that was not connected to the rest of the manufacturing floor. On the other side of the glass, the conveyor belt of dormant drones continued, passing its occupants slowly onto a station surrounded by technicians. They were working swiftly, faster sometimes than even he could process in the thick, bright purple glow. One would reach out, inputting a series of commands into a data pad until the drone’s torso plates slid open. Another would begin connecting wires inside, hooking up leads to internal equipment. After several simultaneous operations had occurred successfully, all of them would gather, and hunch over the drone.
Then there was a flash of light.
Megatronus remembered this.
He remembered it in the way that one remembered they possessed a file, but couldn’t find the location pointers to where it was stored. He remembered it in the way that there were gaps when a memory had been erased, with scenes and conversations afterward that no longer made sense. He knew that there was something familiar in the color of the light, and in the strangeness of the technician’s bulky, shielded, awkwardly armored forms, but he had no actual memory to reference. Wherever it had been, it hadn’t been here, and it hadn’t been like this.
It hadn’t been so different, though.
For a moment, he found himself mesmerized. He hadn’t expected to witness this. He’d not believed that it was even possible to witness, or that it occurred anywhere outside of the Core.
It was unthinkable.
It was fascinating.
It was, maybe, something that he could exploit.
This room, somehow, was the room where drones were given sparks.
“They’re not real sparks, you know.”
Startled, Megatronus whirled instantly away from the window, his wonder lost as combat protocols primed to life within his processor. Cycles of Arena training had honed his senses razor sharp, but he’d never expected the factory noise to make it easy this easy to sneak up on him. He’d never expected anyone to try.
Someone had, however, and they’d caught him off-guard. His instinctual reactions slid his feet solidly into place, ready to deflect incoming attacks, grounding him in preparation for defense despite the fact he knew he shouldn’t have to defend himself, here. At the worst, he was in a place he shouldn’t be.
That didn’t mean it was easy to not behave the way he’d been conditioned to.
The enemy in question, though, was hardly worth risking his job to attack.
He was a factory worker. Megatronus didn’t think he was a supervisor or a shift manager, and he definitely was too small to be another dock-hand, but he had to be an employee of some kind given the fact that he was painted in the corporation’s teal stripes.
The rest of him was much more difficult to label. He had large dexterous hands, like Hook, but with significantly more data sub-ports. The strong armor on the forelimbs could have taken a number of blows, but was constructed of an alloy that seemed too new and shiny for the ring. His visor, currently down, was micro-wave safe violet, not so different from the plastiglass that he was standing by, and there was visible scoring over his top-plate and crest…the sort that might have been a prerequisite to surgery. It was not much to go on, but since Megatronus did not recognize the alt-mode or the armor style there wasn’t much else to consider. Normally, his opponents had more obvious parts.
If he had been an opponent, however, Megatronus would have been wary. The mech had too sharp a gaze to be any mere laborer, and was sizing Megatronus up with a look that dropped briefly to his treads and back up, as if unable to recognize his stance but cataloging it for later nevertheless.
“They’re spark imprints,” the mech resumed, and turned to face the plastiglass as if nothing was wrong. “They are part of the reason why, in all our history, drones have only been a new commodity.”
Wondering at the sudden tour-guide, Megatronus did not let his guard down yet. It wasn’t precisely normal for a dock-hand to be talked with so freely by an employee who was not another dock-hand.
Instead, he listened closely, more than a little confused at the information offered. Drones, he’d guessed, had been machines with complicated AI. Like automated mining equipment and the factory assemblies below, they had a specific function they fulfilled. They didn’t need to transform, they didn’t need to look fancy, and they sure as hell did not need a spark. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Seeing the imprinting facilities is usually jarring for visitors. I hardly notice them anymore, myself, but I find that a bit of explanation about the technology involved usually helps demystify the process. I could tell you more, if you would like?”
The teal-striped mech did not seem to be put-off by the fact that Megatronus was still tense, but if visitors were usually reacting negatively than he could see why.
How on Cybertron this mech managed to confuse him for a visitor was much more of a mystery.
“I would…like that, yes,” he replied, trying to cover the awkwardness by straightening up. Even standing tall, however, there was no way to disguise the dust that still coated his shoulders or the sound of overheated metal that was still sending off cooling pings from time to time. He looked like a dock hand.
He probably smelled like one, too.
“Are there any questions you have, before I begin?”
If any phrase could have thrown him for a loop at that moment, it was this one. Megatronus had plenty of questions, of course, but asking questions such as ‘how do I prevent drones from supplanting the work force’ was probably not going to get him what he wanted.
He needed to approach this with a much more subtle touch.
That was going to be difficult.
“What kind of questions do you usually get?” He asked, looking down into where the conveyor belt had stopped again, depositing a drone into a workbench while technicians with thick helmets and masks swarmed around it.
“Many mechs seem confused by the idea that spark technicians actually exist, to begin with. I can, thankfully, put that question easily to rest. While spark technicians are rare to find outside of the Core, we are necessary to the life cycle of Cybertronians and, as you can see, to drones as well.”
Shuttering his optics once, Megatronus took this information in. “Then the Core exists.”
“Yes,” the teal mech replied.
“And you’re a spark technician.”
“Y…es,” the teal mech replied again, slower, but Megatronus had not failed to catch his earlier ‘we’ or the similarities between him and the bulky mechs below. “It is one of the reasons why employees selected by this factory undergo rigorous screening.”
“Do they, now,” Megatronus mused, and resisted the urge to brush some of the dust off of his shoulder.
“Yes, of course. With such sensitive equipment on the premises, all workers are needed to be of solid backgrounds and sound minds.”
The teal mech seemed completely serious, but the last that Megatronus had checked, being a gladiator was not an indication of a solid background. If he was able to work in a factory where there were spark technicians, Clench must have pulled more strings than he’d thought. “I don’t understand why you’d give them sparks in the first place,” he commented, steering the subject away from how sound his mind might be. “I’ve seen mining equipment that was efficient with only an AI.”
The technician seemed to follow the switch in topic with ease, optics flicking down to watch the drones working with dock-hands out on the floor. “AI is efficient, yes, but not easily adaptable. For drones, which are mobile, we required a sophisticated A.I.--the ability to make decisions, to recognize more than simple voice commands, and to use intuition when the parameters of an order have changed. Instead of attempting to build a processor capable of mimicking ours from the ground up, we started using Spark Imprinting. It simplifies the complexity of the programming needed, and instead takes the most basic of our instinctual functions and copies them over a standard power-core.”
“What makes them different from us, then?” he asked, at last.
Bright blue optics shot back to his.
The answer, however, was not as quick to come as it had been before. “Drones are constructed to be Drones. Cybertronians are not built in factories like this one.”
“I’d guessed that much,” Megatronus ventured, expecting that the technician had seen those factories, himself. It was an eerie and almost morbid thought to be standing in the presence of someone who’d been working on sparks his whole life, and meeting the openly honest gaze of the technician only made him feel all the more out of place.
This issue had already become more complicated than he’d thought it was, and it was only his first day.
However, he hadn’t expected sparks to be involved. That information was important, but he didn’t know nearly enough about the technician class to ask the questions that he needed to, and he knew even less how to enact change without that knowledge.
He was at a loss.
Below them, a technician carefully connected leads, measuring and re-measuring until until he seemed to finally be satisfied. Already connected into the drone, Megatronus could see him minutely flinch as he turned on the relay, controlling the throughput of current drawn from Cybertron’s gigantic power-core. A light grew in the chest of the drone, and moments later it glowed steadily, the tech already pulling out leads and prepping to go meet the next one.
Despite the sudden gift of life, the newly activated drone did not move.
“The thing is, these are just machines.” The teal mech resumed, heedless of the operation going on before them. “I’ve seen sparks, spark-batching, and spark transferring, but drones don’t go through anything like that. They’re advanced machines. Efficient machines. Incredibly useful, life-changing machines, maybe…but just machines. Isn’t that what people want?”
“Maybe.” Megatronus murmured, still caught up in the intricate process going on below. “But there’s something I still don’t understand.”
“I’m happy to answer any question that I can.”
“Alright, then, technician, see if you can answer this. If these are just machines, meant to perform tasks for us without being anything like us.…then why do you make them look like us?”
The silence was the longest, this time.
“I don’t know,” the teal mech finally replied.
“I thought so,” Megatronus sighed, and could not think of any other questions to ask.