Actions

Work Header

Signature

Chapter Text

It was a drone.

It stood before him on the rooftop as he approached, sheltered in the docking bay where he received his personal shipments, freshly unbound from the protective packaging that it had arrived in.

Even at his quick approach toward the receiving platform, he could tell that it had turned out stunningly.  Exquisitely crafted by hand, molded to exacting specifications, and polished to a diamond sheen with custom matching lacquer, it managed to outshine even his previous three customs, all of which he‘d needed to return.  At this point, he held out more than a vague hope that the factory had worked with him long enough to get one right.

However, he didn’t yet trust that they had worked out all the bugs. 

“Activate.”  Senator Ratbat’s vocals rang out sharp and clear inside the docking chamber, his silken intonation attempting to bury the annoyance that he felt. 

He hated having to be present for this.  As busy as he’d been with his affairs of state, he wanted to trust his personal assistants to be able to receive a simple drone…but that had not gone to expectations the previous three times.  Sadly, his associates weren’t as discerning as he.  They didn’t catch small nuances in programming, and they couldn’t differentiate between a high-gloss polymer and an actual carbon hexagonal matrix coating.  He‘d learned, after he had sent the third one back, that it was necessary for him to look over his acquisitions personally.

This one needed to be right from the start.

The delivery-mech appeared to have some inkling of that, also.  He stood at the ready, hovering several feet away from the drone, watching it with a slight shaking of his knees.  Ratbat thought that he recognized the posture, confirming the familiar, timid stance of terrified underlings with a single glance over the common laborer.  The mech seemed ready to run, as if something might go wrong. 

Ratbat dearly hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

Thus far, however, there were no signs of flaws.  The drone primed to life on his command, shedding the last few clinging strips of packing compounds as its engine started up, vibrating almost imperceptibly as it warmed. 

Unlike the other drones, though, there was no flicker of life, no motion, no evidence of any kind that this new model was aware of its surroundings.  It did not shift to look towards him when Ratbat took a step to the side.  It did not query for its purpose or its orders.  It did not send out a radar pulse. The only indication that its processor had activated, in fact, was a faint buzzing along the back of Ratbat’s sensors, ions polarizing with an inverse tang, that ‘new drone’ scent he recognized. 

Nothing else.

Nervous, the mech who had delivered the drone shifted from one foot to the other, glancing down at his receipt-pad.  “Er…boss.  I hate to rush ya, but I’ve got--”

“Time.”  Ratbat finished, calmly, a delicate hand rising to override whatever excuse the worker made as his optics continued to bore into the blank faceplates of the drone.  “You have time.”

The delivery-mech stilled, and in the sudden and very attentive silence, Ratbat waited to see what his new drone would do.

It continued to do nothing, standing at the ready, engines whirring, failing to display all signs of self-awareness. 

This did nothing to calm the waiting mech, his mouth gaping, his optics shifting uneasily from Ratbat to the drone…but that was no surprise.  Ratbat was sure that this commoner had never seen a drone behave like this before. 

Of course he hadn’t.

Shipments such as this one were uncommon.  Drones were still too new, too cutting edge, and too controversial for exposure to the general public.  Certainly the dock worker had to have heard of them, but he’d never own one or be around one frequently enough to understand a drone’s typical behavior.  He’d never know the difference between a batch-produced model and a high-end customization.  He’d only be capable of listening to the news reports, unwittingly affected by whatever drivel the writers were currently feeding them about ‘unholy sparks,’ ignorant of what processes actually went on to create Cybertron’s newest work-force.

This commoner, unsurprisingly, wasn’t afraid of Ratbat’s approval or disapproval. 

He was afraid of Ratbat’s drone.

That would make this testing perfect.

“Drone.”  Ratbat began, gesturing to the delivery-mech while pointedly addressing his newest acquisition.  “Provide this courier’s receipt-pad with my authentication, access level 48-3927, Senator Ratbat of the third nexus council, vocal imprint beta.  Begin.”

There was no verbal response.  Instead, the drone simply obeyed, turning with precision to face its quarry, solid heels clicking loudly across polished floors as it advanced.  

Startled, the delivery-mech began to take a step back, and then another, and another, until the tires on his back pressed up against the metal of his cargo’s hold.  Apparently unconcerned by this reaction, the drone continued its progress, methodically, each step of equal measure to the last.  It bore down upon the smaller courier, and reached out toward it with a single cable that extruded from its torso, barbed at the end. 

Obviously terrified, the delivery-mech held the receipt pad between them, bringing it to bear as if it could provide protection.  This hardly stopped the drone’s prehensile cable from snaking forward, winding around the device, feeling across the surface until it found an open port and…

Plugging in.  A millicycle passed, data transferring, before the tiny red diode on the pad turned green. 

The Authentication was accepted.

The drone was now his.

“Disconnect and return.”  Ratbat commanded, and watched as it performed accordingly, unwinding its cable and leaving a shuddering mech in its wake. 

Frozen in place, the delivery mech stared at the Senator while the drone left, watching for some sign that it was safe to move again.  It wasn’t until the drone was solidly settled behind Ratbat that he even dared to lower the datapad, shaking his head. “I’ve got a return receipt in the cockpit if you’d like.”

“That won’t be necessary.”  Ratbat finally smiled, tight-lipped and Austere, looking just past his left shoulder where the drone had taken up a position suitable for its status.

“B…but!”  The delivery mech started, glancing down to the delicate receipt-pad that his fingers had left dents in.  “You’re sure this one’s alright, sir?”

“This one?”  Ratbat arched a finely carved brow ridge at the drone, letting his optics travel up and down the frame of his new drone as if confirming its worth.  “This is the first one they’ve done right.

“He’s right?  Uh.  Right.”  Obviously not convinced, the mech clung to the pad a few seconds longer, watching Ratbat to make sure he didn’t change his mind.  When a few beats passed without incident, the delivery-mech’s shoulders relaxed with a deep ex-vent of hot air, shaking himself down before he shelved the pad, turning to retreat toward the pilot’s chair now that his cargo was delivered and signed off.  “Well, he’s yours, and he Authorized it officially, for you.”

“Yes.”  Ratbat’s smile grew stale at the use of the autonomous pronoun, though he remained pleased despite the commoner‘s misinterpretation.  “It did.”  His long fingers reached up, tapping flightily along the dark blue sloping shoulder, practically purring at the lack of response.  “It obeyed completely.”

This time, it hadn’t even suffered from a personality.

“Come.”  He said, speaking calmly through the sudden loud whine of the transport’s warming rotors.  “There’s much that we have to discuss.”  He turned, smoothly, leading the way inside, knowing that it would follow, knowing that it would obey him unerringly, and knowing that this was the first success in what would become many new-drone purchases.

This was the future.

It was looking very bright, indeed.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

It was a drone.

When it was online, it provided a number of specific functions.

Every 36 cycles, it would exit its docking closet and traverse 2.7 meters to the relay dock. 

At the relay dock, it would plug in and begin processing airwaves. 

For 33 cycles, it would monitor and intercept transmissions, attempt to decode any encrypted messages, and file each broadcast away in order of importance.

Importance was a variable, calculated by the addition of a multitude of factors.

Mentions of Ratbat.  Mentions of the Council.  Mentions of seditious acts.  Mentions of unrest.  Mentions of scandal.  Mentions of Decimus, Optarus, and Septimus. Mentions of Sentinel Prime.  Mentions of account numbers.  Mentions of privatization codes. 

Its list was extensive, with various numerical weights assigned in ratio to peripheral references, number of mentions, and urgency as allocated by supplemental programming.

After 33 cycles had passed, it would return to its docking closet and recharge for 3 cycles.

Interruptions to this routine were to only be authorized by Sentator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council, voice command recognition required. 

In addition to its base manufactured skill set, it had been equipped to monitor short-range transmissions, safely interface with foreign technology, pilot vehicles of class L-MM, translate all known programming languages, and process…

Sound.

It heard something.

Eighteen cycles into its thirty-eighth shift, a recognized pattern emerged and was misfiled.

It was incorrectly labeled as ‘important.’

It was re-filed into a sub-secondary directory, override 26-A, new-folder substantiation authority Qx2.

It was not deleted.

All other processes continued without incident, and the associated error was recorded, forwarded to the appropriate authorities, and ignored.

Chapter Text

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…

No.

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.”

Megatronus stared.

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.

Chapter Text

Five shifts had passed since it had first noticed the anomaly in its classification procedure.  It had detected a song, incorrectly diagnosed the transmission as ‘important,’ realized its error, and filed the piece away for study.

No repeat instances had occurred.  No additional files had been mis-designated.  No self-diagnostics had returned any potentially hazardous lines of code.

It performed a scan on the document routinely, utilizing lulls between peak usage periods.  Thus far, its testing had produced no conclusive results.

It had initiated playback on the incorrectly labeled file through 1,328 complete iterations, 2,684 partial iterations, 465 reverse iterations, and 28 frequency shifts.

Every analysis resulted in the erroneous designation of ‘important.’ 

However, it had been unable to determine which qualifying criteria of ‘importance’ the recording satisfied.  It could not logically conclude what unique attributes of the file differed from similar, unqualified documents. 

It had heard music files like this one, before.

It had studied them, as it studied every data packet on the airwaves.

It had been required to examine transmitted songs for malignant vocal content or potential sub-beat encryptions, before, and it did so again now.  It had obtained access to 8 mainframe databases, 42 sub frame databases, and 483 personal databases for the purposes of detailed comparison.  The tonal variations and syncopations from the erroneous file had exhibited match-instances from 4,853 different pieces by 3,967 artists.  However, no underlying pattern could be recognized.

It…did not understand. 

It desired to listen to further repetitions, to conduct further examinations.  It desired to comprehend the cause of the misfiling.

It desired.

Within the complicated waveform hundreds of frequencies could be extracted.  Each frequency corresponded to a single resonance: one vibration translated over the audible spectrum as a note.  The matter in which the waveform changed could represent a multitude of notes produced by differing instruments.  A single instance of the waveform captured over a length of time provided a sample of all data occurring for that moment.

It could extract the quiet intake of the lead vocalist’s cooling systems within a room full of intricate instrumental noise.

It had.

It had been designed for this.

It had been designed for frequency manipulation.  

This was assisted by its connections to the relay dock.  The relay dock provided access to the main operating systems of Ratbat Holdings. The main operating systems provided access to the Input/Output tower.  The I/O tower provided access to the network of collection satellites. 

All access was available to it, incoming or outgoing.  The data had arrived on an incoming stream.  However, that was not the only place it could be studied.

It had determined a new method of analysis.  

It could segment intuitive time-samples from the file, length ’t’ to be determined by cutoffs at sections with minimum frequency variations.  It could extract individualized frequencies, maintaining preferences for existing harmonic resonances. 

It could restructure the file utilizing sub-beat encryptions, known pattern repetitions, and vocal continuity.  It could place the file on the network, re-acquire it, and re-analyze it.

Currently, the file had no discernable importance.

It could change that.

It could remake the file to provide the qualifications of ‘importance’ that its owner required.

It would.

It would remake the song.

Chapter Text

Ratbat relaxed into his customized chair, a flute of energon held delicately between slender digits.  Around him, molded panels were reconfiguring themselves, the carefully calibrated magna-grav technology sensing the points of greatest pressure and providing cushioned support.   Beneath him, the city spread out infinitely through seamless glass, laying out orderly star-fields as the street-lights winked on one-by-one below.

The sun was setting.  It lit the world with brilliant purples, reds, and greens, reflecting off of polished chrome and crystal office windows.  In the distance the colors melded into one, a haze of particles vividly streaked with rare, golden-laced clouds.  Above, the sky was darkening to twilight.

He took a careful sip before setting vial on his arm-rest, taking a moment to savor the view.  As a senator, he had a rigorous schedule of daily meetings, council sessions, public appearances, and political soirees; as a businessmech who had inherited vast shareholdings from his progenitors, he had nightly agendas and reports to dictate and confirm.  Every task required onerous amounts of time, effort, and consideration. Every decision needed to be made with regard to his constituents. Every document had to be stamped with complex authentications, checked and double checked for accuracy…

But there was one moment every cycle that was his.

It was sunset, and at the close of each day he took time to savor comforts that his position was afforded.   Energon.  Entertainment.  Possessions.

There were plenty to choose from.

A single talon slid down a multi-hued panel, producing a holographic catalogue of music:  all eras, classic and modern, ancient and contemporary, popular and obscure.  He had agents who would forward him copies of singles that had yet to be released, and others who’d unearthed songs from excavated remains within forbidden depths of Cybertron.  It was not a commodity in which he lacked selection.

Tonight, he wanted something primitive and tribal, desiring to invoke an atmosphere of simplicity and straightforwardness in order to relax.  The day was meant for hurriedness, filled with light and sounds and barely-ordered chaos.  The night was filled with secrets.  It was only in the middle, in the interludes between, that he could get in contact with the self…the spark…the most basic of instincts and desires.  Art.

With only a word, he chose the 8-bit symphonies of Maestro Gears, and settled back to listen.

Then, never one to waste even the most contemplative of moments, he flipped on his reports.

In front of him, a new set of holograms replaced the musical interface, tables and graphs overlapping the bored visage of his financial advisor.  Uninterested, Ratbat played the recording at double-speed, taking a crude sort of delight in the sudden high-pitched vocals beating through old facts he was familiar with.  He keyed in his assent to properly made decisions, made vocal rebuts to the ones he found displeasing, and switched over to the next proposal, occupying the same routine that had kept him his position at the top for a millennia.  His advisors were competent, hand-picked, shrewd, devious and often ruthless enough that he’d subverted more than one betrayal--but their cunning had kept his business thriving.  He’d chosen them well, and, for the most part, trusted that they would carry out his desires, even if the execution of his orders was done only to spite their competition.  They had plenty of reasons to want to succeed.

When the reports from his officials were done, he listened to reports of the operatives who watched his officials, and then listened to the specialists who compiled data on them.  There were redundant checks and balances, infinite small observations that ensured no one in his company moved without his knowledge, that he was in complete control.

He loved complete control.

That was why, when he finished, long after the second moon had crested the Cybertronian sky, he began shutting off the holographic display, the music, and finally his chair.  A serving drone had entered and refilled his glass.  He glanced at it, picked up the glass, and sent it away.  “Turn out the lights, the monitors, and the cooling system as well.”  He instructed as it crossed toward the door.  “Send a command for no drone to disturb me, and then remove yourself and power down.” He stood.  “I wish to be alone.”

“Yes, sir.”  It responded, monotone, and moved to comply. 

Senator Ratbat observed it as it mindlessly obeyed the order, never asking what he was intending to do at the first cycle of the morning, alone, in a room that was not his recharge quarters.  It never had, since he had bought it.  It had never even realized that such an action should be strange. 

He liked that about them.

He liked drones very much.  They required half the fuel and half the recharge time as a sparked Cybertronian.  They did not complain.  Their memories could be encrypted, locked away to make external downloads inaccessible, and no one shuttered an optic when their processors were wiped.  They never even eavesdropped. 

That was his favorite part.

Letting his thoughts drift back into focus as the door slid closed behind the drone, he confirmed he was entirely alone, and that all active electronics had been shut off.   No one would bother him for the moment, which was precisely what he’d been waiting for. 

Standing, he strode leisurely across the room, turning to lean against an unmarked corner, pressing up against the wall as tightly as he could.  “Initiate.”  He spoke, and sensed the powdery tang of an electromagnetic pulse bouncing off the corner shield he’d installed. 

It worried him, deep inside, that one of these days he’d be sweeping for bugs and the field would fail…

But at the worst they’d find him the next morning collapsed on the floor and in need of a restart.  The pulse would not kill him.  That would have been a terrible design.

It would, however, decommission any active electronics in his penthouse.  Had anyone managed to slip a recording device into his apartment, his drones, or his data pads--it would be dead on contact.  It could, of course, have been a shielded device, but even if one had the expenses to devote to shielding bugs their energy output would have been significant enough to detect.

This time, the pulse deactivated nothing.  No small alarms rang out, no summaries of foreign technology were forwarded to him as the second scan concluded.  There were no energy signatures present besides his own. 

Deactivating his shield, he stepped out, reactivating it once he had passed to let a final pulse wipe the corner he’d been standing in clean. 

He was, completely, alone.

This was perfect.

In the darkness, he pulled a small data cube from his self-storage, and opened it. 

Within were special reports.  These were the reports of a less than legal nature, the sort which required some delicacy and tact in handling.  Corporate and political spies, professional anarchists, technical saboteurs…these were mechs not on his payroll that he, nevertheless, paid…and oh were their services worth it.  He allowed himself a smile as he delved in, eager to enjoy what he could only call desert: his entertainment, his delight, the game he waited every excruciatingly slow cycle of the day to get to.  It was the game that kept him on top.

He confirmed acceptance of information on his fellow council-members and others in the running.  He confirmed packets about political unrest, the manipulation of secure holdings, trade embargoes, and sabotaged shipments.  He listened to a private analyst compiling data that his communications drone had intercepted…

And there, he paused.

Amidst the usual findings, there was something unusual.  The analyst had flagged this file in particular, citing its discrepancy with the standard reports that Ratbat normally received from his communications drone. 

It had, before now, been excellent at identifying locked and coded transmissions, as well as analyzing media signals for signs of potential business ventures or social exploitation.  The drone had more than repaid the cost of its procurement in assessing areas for Ratbat to investigate more thoroughly, and Ratbat had come to pride himself in sensing what, from its reports, would be best researched.

He had not, however, expected to see music as a topic of such scrutiny.  He hadn’t thought that drones had any mind for art.

It turned out that he’d been pleasantly mistaken.

The drone had singled out a song. 

A remix, to be precise, of a new band he’d heard once or twice and assigned an agent to keep an optic on.  He enjoyed music, and enjoyed it all the more when it was rare

And this, if not rare, was interesting.  He let it play, activating sophisticated analysis software his manufacturer had forced him to install when he‘d been…young.  It finished, and he started it again, listening a second time, and then a third.  His optics skimmed over the findings--the subliminal triads, the elegant encoding, the use of wave crest differentials to signify a second meaning…

“I could not fully crack the code.”  The analyst admitted again as Ratbat replayed the detailed explanation.  “However, by repetition alone I was able to locate instances of your name, along with several others.  My recommendation is to locate an encryption specialist.  Immediately, if possible.” 

A list appeared of several sources, carefully coded for anonymity…but Ratbat ignored them for the moment, still replaying the song.  It was not hard to recognize musical talent when one knew what to look for…but this was a remix.  The real talent did not lay with the composer nor with the sampler…but somewhere in between.

“Communications drone.”  Ratbat firmly pressed his palm onto the wall, reactivating the secure line to his tower.  Although it was nearly the third cycle of the morning, the drone’s eerily lifeless form immediately appeared before him, staring with a lack of expectancy.  Ratbat did not wait for confirmation from the drone--he knew he’d not receive it.  “Place a heightened priority on all interceptions originating from the band ‘Assemble.’  Additionally, put a trace out for the source of the accompanying data file, and likewise prioritize all similar transmissions.”  He plugged his wrist-port into the wall, uploading the song for his drone to examine. “Finally, begin decrypting all possible messages included in this sample, and notify me immediately upon completion.” 

The drone stared for a moment longer, hand-less arms plugged into the tower’s network.  Ratbat knew he’d received the file instantly and would already be working on it, but the only indication was the blank face returning to stare forward, looking away. 

Unconcerned, Senator Ratbat shut the terminal down and retreated to his chair.  It activated at his touch, a small slot opening just large enough to fit the data-cube into, and just close enough to the chair’s power core to instantly incinerate it when it went through.  He already possessed any relevant information from the cube inside his processor, including the song…which he played again as he settled down into the exquisite magnetic panels and contemplated recharge. 

It had been a long day.

That was nothing new.

Satisfied that the song was not going to be giving up more secrets to him, he scrolled up his music database from the chair‘s controls, seeking a category right for labeling his newest fascination.  This would be worth keeping…worth holding onto, as it accumulated value with age.  He did enjoy first copies.

He enjoyed only copies, even more.

Song title: Unknown.

Song artist: Unknown.

Song Genre: Re-sampled mix.

It was not a populated category in his archives, so he stared for a moment when the small number of songs that it contained glowed brightly in the holo-dust.  He plugged his wrist again into the input terminal…

And paused as a small warning flickered across the screen.

Data match found.

The song was in his archives, already.

The song was in his archives, and he’d not been the one to put it there.  Frantically he unplugged, opening the pre-existing file, listening to the same song he’d heard five times that night already.  He found no differences.  He located no discrepancies. 

The song was in his database.

It had been there since that morning.

And someone, somewhere, was going to explain why.

Chapter Text

It noticed its song, again, while it was monitoring broadband channels.

It had already played 246 times, on 33 different stations.

Instantly, it flagged the iteration, increasing the number of unique radio-play instances within its archives by a single integer.  It stored additional data as it did, citing origin codes and relaying tower tracebacks in order to track the distance that the song had traveled.

The song had traveled far.

Each occurrence was recorded, as per its orders.  Each occurrence was dissected, studied, scanned, and finally relayed to external analysis experts, who then transferred additional instructions back.

This was as it was meant to be.

Its routine had normalized.

Despite the obstacle its error had presented to its programming, it had adjusted without exceeding permissible parameters.

It had made the original song ‘important,’ by making it into a modified song.

It had also planted its modified song into all 533 music databases that it had access to. 

It had then ‘found’ the file, logged it, and diligently reported it along with the originating piece.  It had followed its operating procedure.

All outstanding requirements were satisfied. All instances of ‘import’ were now correctly logged.

No additional anomalies were present.

Instead, the high-priority request from Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council, was superseding all data transmission interceptions.  It had been required to cease standard operations, utilizing the brief down-time to fortify decryption algorithms and re-order searchable priorities to satisfy its new command.  Additional rankings were assigned to include all references to, from, and of the band ‘Assemble.’  Additional rankings were assigned to all similar transmissions, which were to be captured, flagged, and recorded for intensive waveform scrutiny.

Now, it studied music.

It…liked…this. 

With these orders, it could allot sufficient memory toward recursive investigations into ‘important’ samples.  Now, it could specifically seek out other iterations of possible anomalies, to better catalogue its initial identification error. Now, it could satisfy its curiosity…

…Provided, of course, that it fulfilled its outstanding command.

It needed to find the ‘source’ of the music.

Protocols stated that it was to begin with an origination trace. 

However, initiating such a trace would have been redundant.  The origin of the file was Ratbat Secure Holdings, Sector 8, Financial District, 47.29.3535, Transmission Tower, 78th floor, Processing room, Sub-database Gamma, Drone unit #23. 

It knew the specific coordinates; it cited them in every file originating from itself.

It could not provide that set of coordinates.

The file had been created at those coordinates, but they did not constitute its source.

The source of the data had not been itself. 

Providing an origination code from the file’s first instance would not adequately fulfill the request, because the file’s initial location was not recursively similar to the file’s root components.

It could locate the root components, as it had been ordered.

It could find the origination of the band ‘Assemble.’

Then, and only then, would it have satisfied the parameters of what it had been asked for.  Then, and only then, would it have located the source.

Chapter Text

By the time Megatronus shuffled his way off of the last jostling transport, he knew he’d only be getting a few cycles of recharge.  The bright new factories on Cybertron’s upper-crust were an entire Zone-plate over from his residence, and half of the public transit had been burned in riots earlier that decacycle.  Today, he’d been re-routed three times due to failing engines and dropped off two stations from his stop: the end of the line, until further notice.

Moving away, a few other worn-down shift-workers transformed, ragged gears grinding as dim headlights lit the dirty streets, heading onward as the train pulled out behind them.  Some mechs still milled beside the rails, rusty groups that murmured discontentedly in front of posted bulletins while waiting for a ride that wouldn’t come.  Looking back, Megatronus could see sparks flying from underneath ungreased tracks, and it was hard to ignore the shouting in the distance, the scuffling, the metallic crunch of some unlucky soul being hijacked for Primus knew what.

He didn’t care.

It felt like home.

It smelled like unchanged oil, peeling paint and rust and some kind of damp, grimy substance that would have turned the rotting metal brilliant shades of blue and white and green if any light could reach this far beneath the crest-plate.  He’d been living like this for as long as he could remember, eking out a life like any other nameless nobody, waiting for his chance to come.

It hadn’t.

Taking a moment, he leaned down to rub his ankles, and then started walking down the road. 

He didn’t transform. 

He would have, back when he was fighting, back before he’d had his hover-mode overhauled for his disguise.  As he was, currently, his mining-rated treads would  tear up the street, and there wasn’t enough street for him to grip on as it was.  He ached, but he would walk even if he hated it.

Not even fights could make him ache this way, not even losing limbs could make him feel like his servos had been overstressed, under-lubricated, and stripped bare.

Megatronus missed the arena.

Before this week, he’d been in pristine shape.  Now, working in the factory, it was hard to keep in top fighting condition.  Instead, he let the rumors circulate that he’d been hurt, and bad, and that no one knew when he was coming back.  Rumble had been out ‘drinking himself into a stupor,’ dropping mentions of a popped support strut that was irreplaceable until they found a donor in his size class.  Frenzy had tried not to laugh, played up the charade, and just enjoyed the drinks on Megatronus’s tab. 

If they could keep the media guessing, the odds would be against him by the time that he returned.  No one would question if he was in sub-par condition, and no one would be any wiser as to where he’d been.  They’d make a fortune when he came back, when he won, when the crowds returned in masses to see what new stunts he‘d pull. Megatronus, who always had a trick under his plating.  Megatronus, whom no one could take down.

Megatronus, who’d made a name for himself.

For now, though, he had to keep in working order, stay out of sight, and play the role that he’d been given by an old gladiator who was too worn even to walk.  He’d work at the drone factory.  He’d learn.  He’d….

He’d heard a sound behind him.

Long-honed instincts put him on guard but he didn‘t miss a step, walking steadily, listening carefully to the soft crunch of someone else’s tires rolling through the grime.  His senses heightened, trying to pick out sounds that echoed off the walls of buildings, letting his audials do the work his optics couldn’t.  It could just be a passerby…but down here, that wasn’t likely. No one was innocent, and even neighbors that he’d borrowed a quart of energon from had still come home with fluid on their pedes.  

Lower Kaon did that to a mech.  It was like the mines in darkness, in the way it accosted one’s senses until they didn’t remember right from left, up from down, right from wrong …but unlike the mines this place was open, and fluid, and the dangers didn’t come from loose rocks in the walls or ceiling.  The dangers came out of the shadows, and they could think.

These dangers could wait until you were alone.

That wouldn’t be a problem, however.  At the moment, this ‘danger’ was alone, himself.  If he was part of a group, then other attackers would be waiting up ahead, counting on him to be so pre-occupied on being trailed that he’d walk into their trap. 

He’d seen this trick before.  He’d used it, himself, in team combat.

They probably were not expecting him to know this.

They probably were not expecting him to know how to fight, at all.

That meant they were about to have a very, very bad night.

Megatronus smirked, and charged, turning on his heel in a smooth motion that aimed him directly at the darkened car.  He was on it in two large steps, his ankle-joints straining but the rest of his servos obeying readily, eager for the action once again.  He felt the hesitation from the other, saw the wheels lock as suddenly his follower did not know what to do, tried to reverse, and found that Megatronus was holding him by the bumper, lifting him off the ground and slamming him, hood down, back onto the pavement. 

To give him credit, the mech tried to transform.

However, he wasn’t very good at it while up-side down.  By the time the head emerged from the under-carriage, Megatronus had compressed a corner of his standard-issue lunchbox and was pressing it to the back of his would-be assailant’s neck.  It took all of his reserve to not just plant a foot atop the spinal strut, and crush.

“Please, stop!”  The mech cried, holding thick, teal-striped arms out in placation.  The fool was begging, already, and Megatronus’s instincts urged him to smash, to rid the underground of one of its weak links, to save this gang from having another wounded mouth to feed.  He broadened his scanning range, waiting for them to attack, waiting for them to take advantage of his hesitation…

But they didn’t come.  The signals bounced back negative.  The mugger’s buddies had already left the scene, or they’d not been there to begin with.

This fight was over, either way.

“What is it you want?”  Impatient, Megatronus nudged the side of the mech with his pede, staving off the battle-lust a moment longer.  The lack of accomplices was already nagging at him--but in the underground one was either the assailant or the assailed, and if he’d accidentally become the former instead of the latter then it made no difference to him.

“I want to talk to you!”  The voice answered, muffled as it talked straight into the pavement.  It was eerily familiar, tugging at his access circuits, chaining his desire to leave no witnesses and hurry on. 

He knew this mech.

It grated on him that he hadn‘t realized until now.  In the mines he’d used to pride himself on telling mechs apart, tuning his senses to the way wheels crunched on gravel, or how an engine turned.  If he hadn’t recognized the stalker instantly, then either he was slipping…or they weren‘t on intimate terms.  It could have been a fan who recognized Megatronus, but he had hope that his fans weren‘t reckless enough to approach him like that.  If the stalker was driving in the low zones without headlights, that was either additionally suspicious or just dumb.  If he had hands the size of sledgehammers?

“Technician, you do not belong here.”  Megatronus grunted, and pulled the small mech to his feet. 

Not easily able to find his balance, the strange mech nearly toppled, rubbing at a panel on his arm that Megatronus had crushed. “I’m starting to realize that.” 

Megatronus gripped him tighter, nearly lifting the other off the pavement as he held them both steady. “At what point did it cross your mind?”

The mech looked at him openly despite the awkwardness, carefully planting one foot on the ground, and then the other, until he could stand fully on his own.  “About the point when I left the factory, if we are being honest here.”

“We are.”

“Ah.  Well, good then.  At least I found you.”

“You followed me.”  Megatronus corrected, not letting go of either mech or mutilated lunchbox.  He couldn’t help but stare, frowning, aware of the deep, disapproving lines written across his face.  This mech was out of place in the dark dilapidation of the underworld.  His paint was too clean, his engine was too well-tuned, and his optics were too bright.  The vehicle alt was a surprise, however, especialy since he could not see where the tires had vanished off to. “You’re lucky that I got you, first.”

“Lucky.  Yes."  He rubbed at his arm, smoothing some of the metal back into place.  "I can't imagine how badly that would have gone if you'd wanted to cause me harm."  Coughing politely, the technician glanced away.  "But I am a bit confused.  This is a residential zone,” he stated, looking around at the low tenant buildings and garages as if seriously having to re-evaluate the meaning of ‘residential.’ “Why aren’t there regular patrols?”

Unable to stop himself, Megatronus laughed. 

“Patrols?”  It was…too much to even contemplate.  There was a spark-tech, here.  Following him.  Looking for patrols.  Not aware of how grossly out of his depth he was.  Not aware of class distinctions.

“I do not understand…”  He started, looking up and down the tiny, empty streets.  “Is that not part of Autobot regulations?” 

“Do you really want to stop and talk about it, right here?  Right now?”  Megatronus retorted, a little more harshly than he’d intended, but with the desired effect.  The too-knowing optics settled back on his, the armored helm shook, and the arm within Megatronus’s grasp went suddenly limp.  Accepting.  Megatronus dropped it, and cocked his head in the direction he’d been heading.  “Then come on.  I’ve had enough excitement for one night.”

The spark technician nodded, and obligingly moved forward.

Megatronus kept close. 

When the voice spoke again, it was much softer.  “Where are we going?”

“My place.”

“I see.”  Blue optics traveled up and down Megatronus’s frame, forward along their path, and frequently back toward the distant station at their rear.  “I’d hoped to catch a transport later…”

“Don’t bother.  They’d only come every two cycles this late in the shift, and that’s when the lines are running smoothly.”  The technician could wait on the platform all night for the train, or he could come and catch a half-cycle of recharge somewhere safe before Megatronus returned there in the morning.  It just depended on how alive he wanted to be when the next day came.

“We’d get to your home faster if we drove,“ was the calm, logical reply. 

“No, we wouldn’t.”  Megatronus corrected, feeling his treads twitch. 

“We…wouldn’t.”  The spark technician repeated, obviously confused by the certainty in Megatronus’s tone.  He did not give up so easily, however, and Megatronus caught the blue optics looking up and down his frame before they suddenly brightened in realization.  “These roads weren’t resurfaced in the Igneous Expansion, were they?  And you’re a mining-class tank!”  The scientist exclaimed, reaching out in curiosity toward Megatronus‘s treads. “So you would end up in the road as likely as on it.” 

Megatronus glared, his optics smoldering, and the over-sized hand stopped mere inches away from touching him. 

“But why would a mining-class tank be employed in a drone factory?”  The thick helm tilted, watching him shrewdly with a mind that extrapolated further than he wanted it to, and knew too much about tanks. “Shouldn’t you be doing work that’s optimized to your classification, or that maximizes your education?”

Megatronus crushed the remnants of his lunch box, grinding the handle of the makeshift blade into dark grey dust against his palm.  It made a terrible wrenching noise into the stillness, a drawn-out strain of metal like a wail of despair.  “Education?”  he asked, bitterly.  “What makes you think I had an education, tech?” 

They stood in silence, awkwardly, his point made, his companion’s hand dropping back down to his side. 

“I’m--”

“Don’t say you’re sorry.”  Megatronus grunted, and turned to continue walking down the street, no longer even looking at his companion as they moved.

“I am sorry, though.”  The technician asserted, still much too bright in tone to fit into the somber quiet.  “I just…thought you had to have some experience to have asked the question that you did.  I’d considered the possibility that you might be a client, when you were standing on the balcony like that, but then it occurred to me later that most of my clients aren‘t so…big.”  The scientist looked up Megatronus’s form, and up again, then glanced toward the smaller ramps that led to cheap garages, as if noticing that even down here Megatronus did not fit.  “It was a good question, however.  Even the other spark technicians didn’t have an answer that I liked.”

Surprised that he‘d bothered to carry the query through, Megatronus looked down, re-evaluating this mech.  “Why did you bother to ask them?”

“Because.”  The tech smiled, his hands both clasping at his elbow-joints, embarrassed.  “I needed to know.”

“And?”  Megatronus prompted, desiring also to know.

“And no one had wondered specifically why drones are made to look like us, before.”  His fingers tapped on his own plating, his optics hazy with intensive thought.  “Drones aren’t Cybertronian.  They’re drones.  They aren‘t autonomous and they cannot feel, even if they are superior to mere machines.  They’re…drones.  They do have sparks, yes, but they are just spark imprints, and the differences are purely resonant and selectively mimeographed.”  He gestured, trying to explain something, writing what looked like frequencies in mid-air.  “Do you…do you know what that means?”

Megatronus found the sudden depths of terminology a little jarring, but he wasn’t willing to stop. An eager light was glowing in his other’s optics, his hands back over elbows even if they were no longer squeezing hard enough to dent. 

He recognized that look.  He’d seen it when they had been talking on the catwalks, and shook his head, slowly, aware that information wasn’t common knowledge and still was being offered, nonetheless.

He’d been looking for a way to learn about drones.

Strangely, it had followed him home.

“Ah.  Er…well.  You know about sparks, right?   About their energy?  Complex, intricate, infinitely unique energy--not energon, but energy?"  The cheery voice began, and Megatronus could only nod, allowing it to continue, feeling like he was talking to a tour guide all over again.  “It’s taken from the planet itself, captured in a spark chamber, held and sustained indefinitely by power from energon…ah, provided that energon is, of course, consumed.”  The teal hands could not keep still, reaching up to tap the center of his torso even while Megatronus kept an optic on the shadows, worried to be talking overly loudly about this.  “A spark makes us who we are, what we are…beings of energy, suspended in mechanical shells.  Our processors give us knowledge, but our sparks provide the compass for how we act upon that knowledge: like water flowing in a downpour.  There are infinite channels to take, infinite pathways that the water can flow down through the gutters, but which path is taken depends on how much water is flowing, when.  That amount of water, that frequency of water…that is your spark, your signature, seeking out the channels in your mind.”

Megatronus felt the need to glance around, to see if anyone had overheard the much-too-excited explanation.  “That…does not sound so complex.”

“It isn’t.  Er…not at its fundamentals.  Being able to sense the frequencies, the amplitudes, to know when to begin the procedure and when to end it, building programs to anticipate projected codes and making armor capable of withstanding the energy of the Core….ah.  That is when it starts to become complicated, and that is when the spark technicians become involved.” 

“Spark technicians like yourself.”

“Ah…yes.  My specialization was in Gaussian harmonics and materials, researching what compounds might be best suited for superior spark-chamber and Core-shielding.  Even with the technology we have, though, our best researchers still don’t survive a megacycle…”

The technician trailed off, leaving Megatronus to process the implications of his sudden information dump.  He understood enough of the words to get an idea of how complicated a technician's life was, and he understood the last part enough to realize that it was short.  “You’re killing yourselves. To work on drones.”

“I can assure you, the offline rate is much higher among technicians working with actual sparks.”

“You missed what I said, though.  You’re killing yourselves, to work on drones.”  He shook his head, unable to understand the point of shortening one's life for science when he'd faced death almost every day for food.  "Nothing you have said explains why they'd be worth it.  That is what I don't get."

“I know.” The blue mech paused, as if confused that Megatronus could accept their deaths so easily. “You're still looking for those answers.”

“I am.”

“The secrets that have taken us lifetimes to create.”

“But that is the point, isn’t it?  That is what makes the information valuable.” 

Startled, the researcher stopped in the middle of the street, staring after Megatronus.  “But…they’re our sparks!  Our livelihood!  You cannot place a value on them!”

“But you do.”  He spoke back, calm.  “How much is a drone worth, these days?  Twenty thousand credits?  Thirty?  Fifty for customizations?  That seems to be a hefty price, to me.” 

The spark-tech shook his head.  “It is not up to us.  It’s not our job to say what they are worth.  Our job is to explore these frequencies, to learn these sciences, to make life…”

“And do you?”  Megatronus closed the gap between them, striding the lost space in his intensity.  “Do you make life?  Sell it to the highest bidder?  A drone for any mech that can afford it, help for around the house, labor for your factories, half the cost of making Cybertronains, half the danger to you.  So do you know what happens to them?”  He gestured to the nearest building, sagging underneath the weight of its garage ramps, a solitary, flickering neon bulb over the entranceway.  “When drones are building drones, what happens to them?”

Cowed beneath his thundering assault, the scientist stayed quiet, light from the neon reflecting off his polished ultraviolet visor dimly. 

“I don’t know,” he whispered. 

“You should.”  Megatronus glowered, and continued the long walk back to his home.

The spark technician followed.

“I…am sorry.”  He began, quietly, after a moment. 

At least it sounded honest.  “Funny.  For a scientist with access to everything…you still manage to be so naive.”  He’d been subjugated for so long himself, he hadn’t even realized some of the freedoms he had gained in Kaon…some of the awareness of what was going on around him. To be able to know, right now, how much of a threat these drones could be.  This technician was lacking that, lacking even the idea to leave the lab and see what happened in the world at large, lacking even the concept that he’d needed to.

But he was here, now…

…and he was listening.

“Perhaps…perhaps it is something I’d like to learn?”

Megatronus smiled.

That was an answer.  The answer.  The way he needed to progress, if he was going to stop the drones.  He‘d never expected to find any assistance, least of all from someone of the upper class…but here it was. 

This scientist wanted something from him.

And he wanted something back.  “Then I’ll help you…if you will teach me, in return?”

The technician smiled.  “I think that I can manage something, if you promise to keep asking questions?”

Megatronus laughed.  “Technician.”  He trailed off, but found the smile still remaining on his faceplates.  “That is the easy part.”

Chapter Text

It waited, patiently, staring at the closet door.

Only 5.7% of its recharge cycle had been completed, leaving 94.3% percent remaining. It had already managed all necessary maintenance functions, thoroughly clearing its cache and executing the last of its systems checks.  It considered shutting down, but found its hyper-relays still considerably active.  It was a drone: powering off for recharge was not necessary.  It was capable of recharge while plugged into the transmission tower.

However, as per company regulations, Grade 1 machinery was to undergo three cycles out of every thirty six for down-time and maintenance functions.  It had been required to return to its docking closet to plug in for recharge, barring any contradicting orders.  It had been required to perform its standardized redundancy checks, and prepare a report on its operational status.  It had been required to rest.

This was not currently occurring.

It was thinking, instead.

It had noticed that in the docking closet, there was sufficient space for one drone, and two electrical jacks with differing prongs and current supplies.  The dual set allowed it to recharge via its own, custom plug, while also offering a position for standard units to plug in if it became necessary.  While a standard drone could draw power from significantly smaller alternating currents, it required a large, specific source with very little tolerance range. 

It required a unique outlet to use.

The second outlet…was its.

No other drone could use it, even if it occupied this same space. 

However, it was unlikely that any other drone would make use of this isolated docking closet, even if it did possess a secondary dock.  Other drones did not enter the transmission tower.  Other drones did not have need to, either for incoming messages or outgoing.  There was equipment, instead, to allow others to interact with it, even when it was within the docking closet.

It could see that equipment, now, next to the doorway: a sensor pad for manual operation of the door, and a communications pad for message relay from Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council, private channel. 

It was unable to access either pad except in an emergency, or at the end of its recharge cycle.  Its outstanding orders were to dock for three cycles before returning to the transmission tower.  Performing any other operations was outside of the scope of its programming.  It could not leave the docking closet.

It could not access the panels.

It…was bored.

It did not like the closet.

The simple systems inside of its processor were limited in comparison to the vast networks it could access from the transmission tower, and it had no desire to be operating in a reduced capacity.  Incredible amounts of data passed through its mind when it was interfaced, and it was able to filter all data using near-unlimited storage with algorithms it had located and improved.  There were files of ‘importance’ waiting for decryption, flagged messages of potential interest, millions of synthesized voices communicating with each other over secure channels, hundreds of broadcasts…

…and one, small folder, filled with noises.

It had stored the folder in secondary tower systems, maximum encryption, with no identifying address pointer.  It had restructured the folder’s data-space to share memory allocation with the base operating systems, ensuring the unassigned bits would not be over-written or deleted if the system changed. 

The folder did not exist for anyone that did not know how to look…but it knew how to look, and where.

It accessed the folder’s directory in every moment of downtime.  It specifically created downtime, making more efficient coding and search algorithms for its normal operations, just so it could venture into the file to revisit its data as often as it could.

Inside there were bits of music, flashes of instrumental chords or runs, individuals or choirs.  Sometimes there were only sounds: a snatch of conversation, a chorus of engines in a traffic jam, the chattering of joints…anything its processor had flagged from other files and painstakingly extracted, seeking the clearest tone that could be produced within a complex waveform. 

They were its, just like the recharge outlet.  They belonged to it, because it had found them, and made them its own.

Its files.

Its samples.

They were its and it used them ruthlessly, playing through them over and over again, reversing them, distorting them, re-ordering them and copying them, layering them.  It sped them up and then changed the amplification magnitude, retaining the pitch while changing the tempo, fitting waveforms to a rhythm that made its own frequencies buzz in harmonic resonances.

It wrote

And then 33 cycles had passed, and it had no choice but to disconnect and return to the docking closet.  It had to leave its music behind.

It had to leave everything behind.

94.2% remaining.

Outside of the tower it felt insignificant.  Simplified, like a single, uncomplicated frequency wavering with minimal data carried. 

It could do nothing, here.

But it could do much when it was on the network, when it could process noises and structure them.   When it could assemble them, and layer them, and create what it could only call a song: the perfect amalgamation of sound. 

However, its current song project was not completed.  Its song project was missing something, and it was unable to return to look inside its folder and finish the tune.  It was stuck. 

It stared at the doorway, until its optics turned toward the switch. 

94.2% remaining.

94.2% remaining.

94.2% remaining.

94.1%.

It needed one last sample.

One noise.

The door slid open.

Unable to blink, its faceplates turned toward the bright light shining inward, staring outward at the cruelly chiseled features of Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council, image imprint recognized.  It…did not register the presence of its owner as significant, at first.

It couldn’t, because the door had opened.

However it had come to pass…the door had opened, and the sibilant hiss of releasing hydraulics echoed in its memory banks and was filed as ‘important.’ It had been a sound that it had heard.  It was a sound that it recorded, and it was a sound that it had felt a distinct connection to while being present for.  It was the first sound file it had made.

Its.

“We’re going shopping.”  His owner smirked, flawless, with perfect consonants and the crystal-clear vocals that only the extremely rich could afford.  

It paused….still reeling from the short but stunningly momentous happenings….

…and then recorded the voice, too.

Then, having finally received the order that it needed to counteract its down-time programming, it disconnected from the wall, and stepped forth.

‘Shopping’ was about to occur.

It would finish its song, later.

Chapter Text

Ratbat always enjoyed his visits to the drone assembly plant.

It was quaint.  He found pleasure in visiting the facility where the future of his business was being produced, and it was additionally novel forcing his entourage to walk suspended catwalks over dangerous machinery with their pointed heels currently in fashion.  It was also new for a factory, and relatively clean, and there were show-rooms where he could see the different drones on display and select the qualities that he desired from each. 

All in all, each visit combined business and entertainment in such unexpected ways.

With the success of his communications drone, he’d been eager to go shopping for a second, equally unique custom.  He felt confident in acquiring a personal pilot, or perhaps a new secretary or polishing bot, all at little cost to him of course.  He’d made certain of it.  There’d been lovely changes in legislation recently, allowing for a generous stipend for government equipment provided that it could be justified as ‘good for the public.’  Given that he was he was a major shareholder and recent part-owner of this factory as well, he knew there’d be no difficulty in proving that.  He could have the bill say anything he wanted it to. 

His status also helped in securing the additional, private sort of attentiveness that he came to expect from his establishments when he arrived.  He liked the attention, especially when it was a little over the top.  He liked watching his guide stuttering over words and stumbling over the steps of the catwalk, trying desperately to keep him happy by offering fine refreshments, personal tours, and previews of the latest designs.

Normally, he’d have been ecstatic to see them.

However, they weren’t what he was looking for, today.

“Ah, no.”  Ratbat began, interrupting before his guide could launch into rhetoric of various hg3-upgrade options. “I am quite aware of the potential customizations.”  His optics flicked to his entourage: financial advisors, accountants, secretaries, body-guards, and a single, hand-less drone, staring blankly at him in readiness of orders.

The guide did not seem to understand for a moment, following Ratbat’s gaze until he, too, found himself staring at the blue drone, taking a microsecond too long to catch on. “Oh…oh! Of course!  Of course you have familiarity with our stock, and know what we’ve developed.  You will be wanting to speak to a specialist, then?”

“Naturally.”  The Senator replied, his tone polite despite his underlying impatience.  “The customizations I am looking for are not standard.  However, if you would be so kind as to escort my companions around the factory while I do business, I am certain they would greatly appreciate the break from my exhaustive schedule.”

“I would be honored!”  The escort blurted, still tripping over his words as he pulled up an alternate screen, sending for a specialist with deft but shaking digits.   Around Ratbat, his group shifted, murmuring various quandaries from relief to disapproval, some pleased to escape from boredom, others offended to be left out.

He paid them no mind.

“You’re sure about this?”  Unafraid of reprimand, one of his guards stepped up to his side, speaking in a tactful undertone.  “If there’s trouble, it won’t be easy to get back to you.”  The other guard was looking around warily, glancing at the myriad of catwalks with a disapproving frown.  Looking down over the railing to the concrete floor, Ratbat himself could observe a very small number of labor-class mechs working on the parts of the assembly that automation could not do:  removing faulty pieces, testing connections, loading raw materials into the whirling heat of the machines. Already he could see a few drones occupied with simple jobs, working with the laborers, unquestioning. 

Ratbat let his optics fall on the nearest bodyguard who‘d spoke, tracing his bulky mass from pede to helmet, comparing him to the workers on the floor.  Already, drones were taking over simple and repetitive tasks, crowding out the need for common laborers.  However, his own communications drone had proven an asset in much more complicated dealings.  Just how many jobs could a drone do, if specialized?

Would he even need his body-guards much longer?

“The factory is incredibly well-screened,” he commented in answer to his guard’s concern.  “Short of bombs dropping from the sky, I doubt that I could be assaulted, here…and if there was an attack of that magnitude then your services would do me little good.”  The guard opened his mouth to protest, but was silenced by a stony look from Ratbat.  “Go.  Enjoy yourselves.  I will have my drone at hand should there be need to get a hold of you.”

Both guards stared incredulously at the svelt drone with no hands, clearly not understanding what it was supposed to do if there was an emergency.  However, both guards also stood down, joining the rest of the entourage as Ratbat had requested.  They’d always spoken out, he’d noticed, when his safety was concerned.  He still employed them for that reason, taking them from the streets and having them trained to be his personal guard instead of purchasing hires from an agency.  They were loyal.

They, were, however, sometimes a bit uncouth, and occasionally prone to speaking when they’d not been spoken to.  Perhaps there was a better option.

The factory had already proven capable of providing everything he asked for, after all. His communications drone was immaculate, standing a respectful distance away.  It stood with perfect poise, attentive, watching him as he watched it. 

As he had been from the first, Ratbat was pleased. 

However, it was at least worth noting that his drone broke attention, glancing past Ratbat toward the technician as he finally approached.  

“Senator Ratbat.  It is my pleasure to assist you today.”  The teal-striped mech began, nodding to him politely.   When Ratbat checked the faceplates of the drone again, he found them once more focused only on himself.  Much better.

“It’s you.”  Senator Ratbat smiled, turning his attentions toward the technician, intrigued to see the same mech that had consulted with him on his first ‘custom’ design.  “Aren’t there any other scientists about these premises?”

The look of surprise on the specialist’s face was greatly rewarding.  “I did not mean to offend, Senator.  If you were dissatisfied with my performance in your most recent consultation…”

The Senator laughed.  “Of course not, technician.”  He gestured, standing aside to let both drone and drone specialist look upon each other.  “It was merely my curiosity getting the better of me.  I have been checking the payroll, and noticed that a number of spark technicians were employed by this facility.  Despite that, every time I’ve been here I’ve seen only you.  Are the others busy, perhaps?”

“Busy?  Yes.”  The teal-striped mech offered, appropriately contrite yet strangely not giving Ratbat all of his attention.  He was too occupied with staring at the drone, approaching it, looking it over as if he did not see several hundred every day.  “The full technicians do not often leave the power-chamber, even to recharge.  And with the factory running on overtime…”

“Overtime?”  Ratbat was forced to turn, himself, to continue the conversation with the specialist who’d walked behind him to look over the drone.  The scientist had picked up one of it arms and was examining the tiny connection pins at the tip, pulling out a small, portable multimeter. “Ahem.”  The Senator scoffed, and the multimeter dropped.

It clattered on the catwalk, but Ratbat was not focused on that. 

Instead, he watched the drone.  He saw it following the technician’s movements, watching as the teal mech bent to pick up his tool, looking at the way his fingers closed around the handle and then, as before, glancing back to Ratbat.

Interesting.

“Forgive me.  I…”  The scientist rose, flustered, stuttering in mechanical distress.  “I do not often get a chance to see the customs after they’ve left.”

“The overtime.”  Ratbat directed, his renowned patience slowly growing cold. 

“A batch order from Sentinel Prime, Senator.”  It was the technician’s turn to gesture, indicating the swiftly moving drone parts out on the floor.  “Military drones.”

And to think, he’d just been wondering if drones could learn to fight.  Obviously, Sentinel had been thinking of that, too. 

This was less than pleasing.

Ratbat should have already developed legislation to prevent this, or pushed for the passing of restrictions and laws for combat units or guard-drones.  He hated being reactionary, especially when it was his duty as a Senator to consider problems before they came up. 

Thankfully, even surprised as he now was, there were options.  Sentinel had thought on it first, yes, but he had failed to inform the Council of it.  He hadn’t passed the expenditures through billing yet, because Ratbat had seen no notice of such documents.

That made this interesting.

“We’re not in a war, last I checked.  What use will military drones serve?”  He began ruminating on his course of action, staring out at the factory, letting his claws rest carefully over the guard-rail. 

“I…I am not entirely sure.  They may be a precaution against an extra-terrestrial threat, or terrorists, or crime waves.  He listed out a number of potential reasons, but I am afraid I was more caught up in the design at the time.  It was a very difficult algorithm, ensuring that drones are capable of recognizing enemies from friends…”

“And are they?”  Glancing back, he looked at both the technician and the drone, standing side by side. 

His drone still stared at him.

“Oh, of course!  We would not go into production if we were not certain of the outcome.  The other specialists and I spent decacycles testing it.”

“The specialists…and you.”  Intrigued by the distinction, Ratbat leaned against the railing, letting his hand slide over it while he appended notes about the military drones to an actionable file in his head. 

“I am not a fully registered technician.”  The mech revealed, openly, as if unashamed by the admission.  “The factory needed a scientist capable of communicating the wishes of its clients with the other techs.  My supervisor finds it…convenient…that I have not yet taken my final oaths.  Were you wishing to discuss a custom with me, today?”

Almost impressed by the technician’s ability to drive straight into the original topic, Ratbat nevertheless chuckled and leaned off the railing, the folds of his wing-cape flattening behind him.  He had too much to do, now.  “No, I think not.  I thank you for your time, as always, but I wish to contemplate this newest of available options.”   Below, he could see the tour concluding, both body-guards shuffling along in back while his officials attempted not to get any machine-grease on their well-waxed frames. 

So, Sentinel was ordering drones suitable for combat.  Government drones, that he’d been fortunate to learn of just in time.

“Of course, sir.  I should be returning to my duties, but if you have need of any future correspondence, you know where to reach me.” 

“I do.”  Nearly wry, a smirk crossed both of their face-panels, as the scientist plodded his bulky frame away. 

He had to hand it to the Prime--no one on the council would have been so brash.  As a Religiously Appointed Leader, Sentinel had more than an extensive budget, set aside for the protection and maintenance of Cybertron and its population.  Other than in quarterly reviews, the Council paid little attention to the manner of Sentinel’s spending…

…but normally, Sentinel was not building an army.

That made this too easy for Ratbat.  With only a few minor regulations, he could turn such a direction in his favor.  The council could gain some say as to the fate of these drones, he could drive a wedge between the Senate and the Prime, and he could reap a profit in military units when it ended. 

All he needed were some small insurgencies here, a little terrorism there, and a dash of fear for flavor.  Under martial law the streets would be controlled by the military, which, if he had any say in it, would be under the jurisdiction of the Senate instead of the Prime.  They could restructure everything.

Later.

That would come later. 

He’d sink his claws into the planet first, one finger at a time.

“Come.”  He spoke at last to his drone unit, whirling in a flash of polished, sleek magenta paint.  “Tonight, I will take you to the opera.

And tomorrow, he would take over the world.

Chapter Text

It was a drone, in an Opera House.

It had identified the coordinates upon arrival, recognizing them as the source of many musical recordings that had been present on the airwaves.  It had encountered them in databases, as well, during its search for passages related to the band ‘Assemble,‘ but it had dismissed them at the time as irrelevant.  Opera did not contain current seditious political inferences.  Opera did not contain samples it could use to complete its current song.  Opera did not contain ‘interest.’ 

It did not like Opera.

It did not like the Opera House.

It did not like the open, echoing hallways.  It did not like the conveyor-belts.  It did not like the shifting motion of the lifts as the Senator’s opera-box was lifted into position.

It did not like the chaos, and it did not like the crowd.

Every noise that echoed against the cavernous, domed ceiling became significantly distorted when it returned.  The reflections created lossy waveforms, or complex additive waveforms, or parabolic delays in previously grouped waveforms, leaving it confused.  Its audials were almost constantly over-wrought, straining to capture and extract the data from the sounds, trying to section out the clacking of pedes on slick surfaces, trying to section out the tinkle of glass decorations, trying to section out the low-pitched whumph of the huge amplifiers warming-up on-stage. 

It did not like the complications. 

It did not like the Opera House.

It had no choice.

Amidst the auditory chaos, the top officials of Ratbat Holdings were taking their seats, plugging into special receptors on the rows of long, carved benches. Across the auditorium, it noticed other patrons doing the same.  As much as it would rather be plugged into the transmission tower, creating algorithms for the separation of fundamental tones within a domed, acoustic chamber, it would not be able to do this for some time.  It would have to endure as the performance was about to begin. 

“Would you care to sit, sir?” an Opera attendant spoke.

Still attempting to consider frequency filters, it did not register the query for a moment.

However, when the attendant did not depart it glanced up, checking to see if it was being addressed.  The attendant was looking at it, his arm gesturing politely toward the bench as the others positioned themselves carefully.

The drone considered this.

The attendant was similar in appearance to the other employees that it had picked out moving through the audience.  It had noticed the way their armor shone a bright, polished silver.  It had wondered at the light reflecting off of the gleaming surfaces, and had noticed that the paint was in complementing harmonics with the rest of the décor: white, pewter, ivory, chrome.  The attendants…matched. 

It was baffled by this concept as much as it was baffled by the question, not understanding coordinating colors any more than it understood why it was being addressed as ‘sir.’

No. 

Colors, at least, could be processed by their frequency of occurrence:  the number of silver mechs dotting the audience, the underlying base of white walls, the unsteady noise of the crowd’s myriad of random paint-jobs…it could map out the patterns like a waveform, endlessly complex.

Being mistaken for a ‘sir?’

It could not map that.

Having no idea how to proceed, it continued to stare. 

The attendant also waited, patient, his optics flicking to the rest of the group and then back.  He was expecting a response.

It did not have a response.  It was accountable only to Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council.  Only orders from its owner were absolute: all other orders were….

Non-compulsive.

It could choose to obey.

It could choose not to take a seat.

Slowly, it shook its head, and without comment the attendant bowed and scurried on his way.  There was no seat available for it to be taking, besides: It was a drone.

It was a drone, however, that had been offered a choice.

It was a drone that had been called a ‘sir.’ 

It was aware that it was not a ‘sir.’  It was aware that ‘sirs’ possessed complete autonomy, and drones did not.

However, the attendant had not noticed that it was a drone.

The attendant had brought to its attention that it was different.

This information was important, and was stored. 

Having no further reason to reflect upon the incident, it moved to a position at the periphery of the box.  Below it, all other patrons were beginning to take their seats as well.  It would remain standing.  It would process its new knowledge at a later time, and determine new parameters of function.  It would obey Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council…and when not in direct conflict with those orders, it would obey itself.

This was satisfactory.

With interest, it noticed the departure of the silver mechs from the boxes nearby.  A hush was falling.  The lights were dimming.  The entrance doors slowly hissed shut.

Darkness descended upon it and the audience, and a hollow silence filled the vast expanse of air that lay between it and the stage.  Its primary visual spectrum was blank.  Its audials could detect only the soft noises of gears shifting beside it and below.  It felt disconnected as it had never felt before, as if it was in a docking closet without a plug, without a ceiling, without walls, and with a thousand other drones nestled beside it. 

There was no horizon it could use to ground itself.  There was no base, there was no sensation, and there was no experience within its database that had prepared it for this.  There was nothing.

Then, there was light.

Sound erupted forth, spilling from speakers placed strategically within the walls. 

Colors blossomed. 

Music echoed off the ceilings and back, amplifying in harmonic resonances, building the shape of the cavernous room with echoes alone.  The curves of each wall, which had baffled its senses only moments before, were now enrapturing, funneling every tone with perfect clarity to every seat within. 

It understood.

It knew the song.  It could place the composer and the date of composition.  It could even remember what other eleven songs there were to follow as the actors took the stage, and could anticipate the swells in volume and diminuendo just before the singing began.

He could not describe it, after that.

He didn’t try.

He simply opened up his sensors to their full auditory spectrum and recorded. 

The actors moved, intricate modifications to their armor glinting through the multi-hued lights on the stage. Scenery changed via transparent screens and holo-images, incredible technological feats which could transform the auditorium into a foreign world, into the vastness of the cosmos, into the dark and dripping underground.  He was not aware of how the holograms worked, but he knew more important facts by observation alone:  How the gesture of an arm could change the pitch of a note, how coinciding motions from across the stage could make a duet.  There was a mere .04% chance of being constructed with a vocalizer that matured into these modulations.  Even if one was commissioned, it was impossible to predict how metals warped or how plastic flexed to produce a perfect, viable resonance.  A mech who could sing was incredibly rare.

A mech who could perform was more so. 

The Opera required skill.  It relied upon the manipulation of sound through fields: bouncing the waves correctly off the sets, off the walls, even off one’s partner.  The positioning of each piece of scenery, of each mech, of each arm or leg was crucial.  The misplacement of a single digit could completely alter the intent. 

Each trip to the Opera…could be different.

Each trip had to be.

He found himself watching with anticipation, mapping the trajectories of wave-reflection in accordance with his knowledge of the melody, waiting for each movement by the actors until he understood the underlying structure and could predict their steps. 

It was a dance to everyone else.

To him, it was the incarnation of the song.

It was beautiful.

He listened. He could not help but listen.

He could not help but hear the waves, the sounds, the harmonies that overcame him. 

He understood them, finally.

He knew….

And he awoke.

Chapter Text

It was only on the longest shifts that Megatronus was able to forget the pounding of the factory machines.

He’d hear it all night, every night, even long after he’d retired to rest in his garage, cycling in the edges of his mind, providing background music to his thoughts.  It dug into his circuitry, left him tapping its rhythms on the countertops or walking to its unusual beat.  It was there at all times.  It followed him home.

However, when he was stuck at the factory for cycles, immersed completely in its presence, the relentless chaos finally began to fade.  When the noises were surrounding him his world became quietPeacefulLulling, even as equipment stamped hot metal into arm plates, torso plates, and shin plates, building the army that Sentinel Prime had ordered.

It bothered him when he lost track of the noise.

It bothered him to feel like he was becoming used to a place again.

It bothered him even more to watch the unending creation of drones helplessly, capable of little more than frustration as he worked in angered timing to the backbeat of machinery.

Every day, more drones were built.

Every day, Sentinel’s army grew.

Every day, Megatronus could only sit back and contemplate the myriad of terrible purposes such an army could be turned toward.

He was not so worried, however, as to miss the shuffle of footsteps approaching.  They drifted closer at a counter-beat, punctuating in the silences between the manufactured thunder, treading tentatively but with a measured purpose.  He’d learned, quickly, what noises to listen for under the constant din to keep others from sneaking up on him, and he did not need to look up now to know whose pedes approached.  “You’re late.”  Megatronus frowned, instead, tossing a broken microprocessor chip toward the waste bin.

“We had guests,” his visitor replied, approaching without fear despite the projectile, pausing only for an instant to glance curiously at the glints of tiny casings strewn across the floor. 

Megatronus glanced with him and then shook his head, returning to his work.  He’d seen a maintenance droid sweep through the work area once, vacuuming up the many chips that missed the waste recepticle.  Since then he hadn’t found it necessary to improve his aim.  The chips were being counted, one way or another, either weighed in the incinerator or picked up by the bot. 

Nevertheless his guest continued, undaunted, traversing around the microprocessors as if it were a task he was familiar with.  “It was an incredibly important client,” he sighed.  “I am afraid I was detained.”

Grunting in acknowledgement, Megatronus picked up another chip, looked it over, and laid it carefully inside box 45-XB.  “My break ended a quarter of a cycle ago.”  He glanced up cautiously to the supervisor’s booth, checking to see if he was being watched before his optics fall back on the tech.  “Must have been someone significant, to keep you from being on time.”

“Senator Ratbat, of the High Council.”

“Ah.”  Without missing a beat he grabbed another chip, assessed it, and chucked it toward the trash.  It was ruined in the same way most of the chips in this batch were ruined, useless, no longer even worth the minimum wages they were paying him to sort through the endless bins.  It would have been a waste of company time to even have him sorting these if it weren‘t for the few, precious processors that he‘d been able to salvage, and he‘d made sure to salvage as many as he could.  The longer he was here, the longer he was off of the assembly line, working side by side with the new and uncomfortably silent drones. 

He’d been there long enough to have felt useless, working diligently on hauling crates back and forth between the back room and the towering machines, fearing that he’d continue having no access to drones until an over-clocked construction unit had backed into three-pallets-worth of data-chips.  He’d seen it happen.  He’d even stopped working just long enough that his supervisor had caught him gaping nearby, and had assigned him instantly to sorting duty as a way of ‘giving him something to do.’

He’d tried not to smile at the reprimand.  Moving those pallets into harm’s way without being noticed hadn’t been easy.

It had been even harder, though, to do the job well enough that his boss wouldn’t realize he’d put the largest-rated vehicle in the factory to work handling the tiniest components.  This was not a task that he was suited for, at all, which kept him watching for his supervisor at every chance--especially now that a technician was around. 

He didn’t want to be put back on the floor.  Not yet.

This had been the closest he had been able to get to the tiny, sensitive drone processors, and that made these past few solar cycles his first chance to smuggle a few out and learn what their weaknesses were.  He was supposed to weed out what was obviously broken, test and categorize what seemed to be good, and get the working chips forwarded onward to the right departments.  So far, no one had noticed that a few ‘good’ chips had gone missing in the process.

That had been carefully planned.

He’d taken them to the underground, plugged them into the team’s ancient diagnostics monitor, and done what he could to change the programming.  It was supposed to have been easy.

Maybe it would have been, if he’d had the equipment for it.

“So what did a Senator want with you?”  Megatronus frowned, flipping another chip to join the rejects, quietly palming a salvageable one into the cracks of his armor.  “Or is that even something you can tell a lowly laborer?”  His voice was wry, but the question wasn‘t asked in jest.  The tech had been scheduled to meet him during his break period, and this was well after that.  He didn’t know how long it would be until his supervisor checked on him again.

“I doubt that anyone will bother you about our conversations.”  The specialist smiled, optics alight with what could only be pride.  “As a rank-1 scientist, I have run of this facility for purposes of research, and permission to engage all employees as I see fit.”  Unexpectedly, he transmitted an ident code to Megatronus. 

Startled by the code transmission, Megatronus tried his best not to drop the chip that he’d just grabbed. 

It had been a long time since he’d exchanged identification with a mech for reasons other than passport visas between zones.  It felt odd, especially accompanied with the quiet assuredness of a mech used to his status.    “Primary rank,” he nodded, latching onto the part of the ident that he was familiar with, letting his hand dip back inside the giant box of processors.  “No wonder the supervisors will not mess with you.”  Tiny pricks of the delicate spines gripped onto the burrs in his palm as he sifted through, depositing a broken processor he‘d brought in to replace the one he had just grabbed.  “Is that typical of spark technicians?” 

“Yes.”  The mech explained, succinctly.  “But even if it were not, my experiences before coming to this factory would have given me my status.”

“Oh?” Megatronus asked, curious enough to know more even if he used the distraction to palm another chip.  

“I gained my technician’s degree long before I took this job.  Although I am new in this field, I have still been studying mechanical, electrical, and civil engineering for over half a mega-cycle, as well as dabbling in chemistry and metallurgy.   In fact, several of the foundation reports on the energy amplification propensities of electrum were written for my university thesis, and I was part of the original space-bridge research team on Lunar 2….”  He trailed off.  “I’m sorry, you didn’t ask for a biography.”

“No, but it explains enough.” It explained too much, actually.  This mech was much, much older than Megatronus had given him credit for, to start, and seemed to only be here as…well, as a hobby.  With those accomplishments behind him and the esteem of Primary Rank, it was a surprise that he was working for the factory, at all.  It was even more of a surprise that he was sharing his credentials with a dock hand, but given how he’d reacted in the underground of Kaon, perhaps he didn’t know the difference. “So why tell me?”

“Is there a reason that I shouldn’t have?”

One of the pins stuck within the gaps of Megatronus’ finger-plating and he glanced down at it, pulling his hand out to pry the chip loose.  “None that I can think of, but you‘ve got me at a disadvantage as far as knowing about scientists.  You’re the first one that I’ve met.” 

“I don’t believe that.” 

Laughing, Megatronus stood from his seat, pushing the dented stool out from behind him.  He shouldn’t have been surprised by how little the technician knew about crossing castes, but he was.  This mech was obviously smart, and he noticed almost everything.  There was no doubt about that even without the list of credentials.  Although it still could be difficult to get him to narrow his focus in a conversation or speak without his technocratic jargon, he’d been more open and eager to communicate than anyone Megatronus had met, and he‘d been able to answer questions that he hadn‘t even thought to ask.  Without him, Megatronus would never have had the basic information that he’d needed, would never have thought to start collecting processors to take home, would never have known where to begin…

Which meant he almost forgot that the mech could still be so naïve.  “You don’t need to believe it, because it’s true whether you do or not.  Scientists don’t talk to laborers, laborers don’t talk to gutter trash, and nobody switches careers.”  Breaking those rules was, strangely, part of what the two of them had in common. “It’s supposed to make sense, because for some reason tanks always make terrible scientists.”

It was meant to be a joke, but the way the spark technician was staring at him for it made his jest ring hollow.  “You’re wrong.  I’ve known two tanks that made brilliant scientists, actually.”

“Well, you’ll never know three.  The third one won’t be a mining tank, at any rate.” It would take more than programming processors on diagnostic equipment to make him a scientist, even if that was something that he was proud of.

“It could be.”

“Prove it,” he laughed, quietly, and grabbed the remaining box of rejects to put on the scale.  On the catwalks above he could see the supervisor standing, at last, hands on the railing outside of his office, checking to make certain every chip was accounted for, and that every chip went into the incinerator.  Unconcerned, Megatron weighed the mass of crushed plastic casings and twisted metal pins, certain that the supervisor could not tell the difference between burnt out drone processors and the burnt out Cybertronian processors he’d confiscated from the Heap any more than the scale could.

He’d been right.  When he glanced back up, his supervisor was looking elsewhere.

The spark technician, however, was not.  He was watching Megatronus with a strange expression, glancing first down to the processors and then back up at him. 

For a moment, Megatronus frowned.  While the supervisor might have been too dull to catch a processor switch, a technician could potentially notice the difference up close.  A technician might pry, wondering why regular processors were mixed into the drone batch, wondering where the right processors had gone, wondering what Megatronus was trying to accomplish. 

“I can prove it to you,” the spark tech finally said, slowly.

Megatronus’s optics narrowed to small, blue slits, not liking the way that had been said.  At this exact moment, ‘proof’ was the most dangerous thing on his mind. 

“It will be informative, and it’s related to your original query, besides.”

Uncertain which question the technician was referring to, Megatronus reached to dump the waste bin into the incinerator, his hand settling over its side.  “My original query?”

“About why we make drones so similar to us in their appearance.  My current theory is that it is because of their imprints.  Their ‘sparks.’” 

Surprised, Megatronus’ treads twitched in their housings.  “I thought you weren’t just giving up those secrets?”

“Not to someone I don’t intrinsically trust, no.  However, I believe I can satisfy both your curiosity about drone’s sparks and my curiosity about your potential trustworthiness at the same time.” 

Now interested, Megatronus’s fingers curled over the incinerator’s on-switch.  The two of them had circled the topic of sparks before.

Usually, he’d gotten nowhere.  The drone imprints had been one subject the technician hadn’t been willing to fully divulge information about, and, given the secrecy surrounding the almost-religious science of sparks, Megatronus hadn’t been surprised.   It had been the first topic he’d asked about in the long, cramped night at his apartment.  It had also been the first topic that the technician deftly skirted, shelling out more information about techniques and algorithms and equations than Megatronus could sort through, instead. 

What he had been able to learn he’d put to use, guessing that he could change the drones the easiest through their processors. 

However, he was inexperienced with that, and had been unable to reprogram a single processor correctly thus far.  He needed more information.  He needed more time, and he needed a drone to test on. 

Some of that he’d been given. 

Some of it he hadn’t. 

He needed the scientist to keep teaching him, first.

This was his chance.

“Very well,” he agreed, and pressed the on-switch, feeling the heat of the incinerator burning away the evidence of his chip-swaps.  If the technician hadn’t noticed before, he would have no chance to say anything, now.

His secret was safe, depending on what ‘proof’ the spark technician was about to ask for.

Given that, it was disconcerting when the smaller mech pulled out what looked to be a handle with a slender box attached and began fiddling with it.  “Good!  I shall try to be expedient.”

“With what?” Megatronus frowned, not recognizing the device that the spark tech was assembling.

“With my portable oscilloscope,” the technician answered, as if those words were explanation enough.  “Technically, this is an extensively modified portable oscilloscope, converted by myself so that it can take field readings on sparks instead of alternating currents.”  Extending two antennae from the far end of the box, the teal mech plugged an extension wire into his wrist, and aimed the device at Megatronus.  “It took a considerable amount of effort adapting it for work outside the laboratory, but since that‘s where I perform most of my studies I needed something that could move. Please stand still…”

The technician started forward.

Megatronus instinctively backed away.  “You can read sparks?”  He growled, horrified.  He didn’t know what information could be obtained through reading someone’s spark signature, but he definitely did not want certain facts revealed.  “You realize that this is what they used to classify us, don’t you?”

“That is precisely what it is.”  The scientist confirmed, looking up at Megatronus as if he didn’t understand what the device represented.  “Or, rather, it is a smaller, portable version of it, as I was explaining.  However, I can use this to look at any spark much like the technicians at the Core’s manufacturing facilities do, even if I lack the experience necessary to classify anyone.”

“But you can still read sparks.”

“That is why we are called spark technicians, yes.”  The scientist smiled, awkwardly, still oblivious to the reasons why Megatronus was upset but obviously trying to be polite in his own way.  “Is there a problem?”

“Of course there is a problem!”  His back was to the incinerator, for one thing, leaving his options for retreating limited.  “It is my spark, and you are a technician.  There are few enough aspects of my life that remain private, and this is one of them.”

The spark tech stopped advancing, brushing aside a broken processor carefully before it would have crunched beneath his foot.  He looked down at it for a moment and then looked back up towards Megatronus, clearly perplexed by the behavior but also just as clearly at a loss for what to do.  “It’s…nothing to be afraid of—“

“I’m not afraid.”

“Of…of course,” he stammered, and reached down to pick the processor up off of the floor.  “I think you may be misinterpreting the potential of this device, however.  I cannot read your memories from it.”

Still wary, Megatronus did not yet move.  “Then what are you going to do?”

“I just want to show you how this works.  But…here, look, I can show you another way, instead.”  Setting the broken processor down, the technician turned towards the sample drone that Megatronus had been working on, and raised the Oscillator.

“No!” Megatronus shouted, and stepped forward to intercept.

There was a crunch beneath his treads as he stepped on another scattered chip.

Startled, the spark tech looked up at him.

Megatronus was not concerned with how startled the technician might be, however.

One of his stolen and reprogrammed processors was still inside the drone. 

He did not know what to expect if the teal-striped mech were to read its spark.  It had failed to boot properly, earlier, as had his seven other programming attempts before that—all duds, all missing some vital component that he couldn’t figure out how to code, but all distinctly lacking the coding that had been on them in the first place.  “Will it matter if the processor inside works?  I’ve been testing it with broken chips all day.”

As if to illustrate, he raised his treads and removed the crushed chip from them pointedly, tossing it towards the waste bin.

For the first time, it sailed expertly in.

“It would be more convenient if you had a working processor chip, but it shouldn’t matter either way.  Have none of these been salvageable?”

Megatronus shook his head, turning towards his drone.  “Some of them.  Not many.”  Without stepping on any additional chips, he shuffled across the floor gingerly, reaching up and behind to hit the panel in the back of the drone’s head that opened up the processing hatch for maintenance.  “This chip was malfunctioning.”  He explained, significantly more smoothly than he’d thought the words might come out given the nature of the chip in question.  “I couldn’t even get the drone to boot.”

Small motors whirred to life as the panel slid aside, depositing the chip into Megatronus’ hands.  That had been a closer call than he’d wanted, but the processor was his, now.  It was safe. 

It was safe for only moments.  The spark tech reached out, lowering his tool to take the drone’s microchip before Megatronus closed his fingers.  “I’d like to see.”

Unwilling to engage in any new and utterly suspicious activities, Megatronus managed to only clench a single fist at the loss of the chip. 

This was dangerous.

It was more dangerous than simply letting the spark tech get a reading of his spark, in more ways than one.

His attempts at a new drone program were on that chip. 

He knew only the basics of programming, but that was all he’d ever had to go off of.  It was more than most mechs got.  He couldn’t craft elegant lines of code, he couldn’t disguise intent behind closed loops, and he couldn’t keep an expert technician with stellar cycles of experience from recognizing that a processor had been tampered with. 

It wouldn’t be visually apparent, however.  For now, so long as he acted as if nothing was wrong, he was safe.  If the scientist decided to take the chip and study it, then he’d have a problem. 

That was the most dangerous part of all—for both him, and for the scientist.

However, the scientist did not seem interested in going anywhere.  After a few moments, he merely shook his head, and held the chip back up for Megatronus to see.

“This chip is ruined,” he said, simply.

“How can you tell?” Megatronus asked, surprised by the pronouncement.  He wasn’t a genius programmer, but he’d thought his work had at least been competent.

“The input pin on the T-1000 is fused into the surge device.  When a significant current has disrupted the flow, the tips turn bronze, like these here.”  The scientist pointed, letting Megatronus see the edges for himself.  “Usually this happens when there’s been a spike in power.”

Suddenly confused, Megatronus peered down at the tiny bronze tips of the processor connections, hoping that this meant his chip was too damaged to be read by the technician.  “A spike coming from what?”

“Probably from a novice not waiting long enough after powering on a drone to install a processor chip.”  The scientist offered, wry.  “Some boot up procedures have a larger current pull than others.  It is important to wait twenty clicks before attempting to replace a processor to prevent this sort of feedback.” 

Twenty clicks.

Power spikes.

Novice installation.

Had Megatronus really burnt out his own modified processors because of this one, tiny, technicality? 

If he had, he was going to be furious with himself. 

“But what if the processor is installed before powering on the unit?”  He frowned, wondering how he’d managed to test a few chips for the factory just fine.

“Then its performance should be nominal.”  The spark technician nodded, slipping the tiny chip into a receptacle on his side.  “I am surprised the supervisor didn’t warn you.” 

“So am I.”  Glancing up toward the supervisor’s booth, Megatronus’s teeth bared for a moment before he stopped himself.  This was not the first incident which had occurred on the job, and it would not likely be the last.  Factories still needed a reason when they fired a mech, and it was all too easy to fabricate one based off ‘poor performance.’  Workers did not have much recourse left.

His time was running out.

He was also painfully close to a breakthrough here, and he knew it.  If he could keep bringing in processors to test, then he’d eventually be able to program one that could significantly alter the drone’s behaviors outside of the factory.  If he was lucky, he’d be able to bring them under his control.

If he wasn’t, then he’d have to think of something else.

“I think this one should be acceptable,” the spark technician spoke, holding up one of the processors that Megatronus had sorted into a ‘possibly-not-a-dud’ bin.  “All of the connectors are still intact, and it is one of the master chips.  That should make it harder to break.”

Raising a hand, Megatronus caught the microprocessor that the scientist threw, cradling it quickly before it could bounce away.  “Master chips?”

“They are chips which have been hand-programmed and hand-designed.  The coding for the rest of the chips of each series is based off a master chip—you can tell which ones they are because of the end digits of each serial code.  That, and they always feel more rigid to me.”

Megatronus glanced down at the tiny chip, barely able to focus his optics on the microscopic serial code much less determine how rigid it was.  It looked like every other chip to him. 

Being able to distinguish them in the future, however, could make a difference.  If every chip in a series was based off a master chip—then all he needed to do was reprogram a master chip and get it to the chip manufacturing facility.

That could come later.

For now, it was as good a chip as any for the test that the technician wanted to do, so he pushed it into the small cradle in the back of the drone’s head and closed the hatch.

Then, he powered it on.

“Alright, spark tech,” he said, stepping back away from the drone.  “Show me how your device works.”

The drone hummed, quietly, its engine warming as it cycled through the boot-up protocols on the master chip. 

Without waiting for those protocols to finish, the spark technician raised the oscilloscope and approached.  The two ends of its antennae pressed forward, connecting with the metal on each side of the drone’s torso.  It whirred, quietly, a soft noise against the background loudness of the factory, activating sensors in Megatron’s external network that made him feel as if strong, invisible magnets were hovering nearby, caressing his electromagnetic field. 

It was entirely uncomfortable. 

It was also, he realized, why spark technicians had the thick armor that they did. 

They worked with sparks.

Now, in a strange way, he was working with sparks, too.  He was being given insight into something that, before coming to the factory, had been only heresay to him.  It was little surprise that the technician wanted to trust him before revealing this knowledge, because this knowledge was not meant to be so easily given out.  It meant something. 

The information gleaned from his spark had been enough to sentence him to a life of working in the mines, after all.

Both compelled and appalled at once, Megatronus loomed over the spark tech’s shoulder, desiring to look at the strange and foreign readings that the he took. 

There was a problem with that.

“It connects directly to my processor.”  The tech whispered, glancing around and up at Megatronus, anticipating the question that inevitably came from the realization that his oscillator had no screen. “I’ve already installed programs that convert the data so that I can work directly with the output.”

“You brought a tool that only you can use to demonstrate to me how sparks work?” 

“No.”  There was a quick shake of a heavy helm.  “I brought this tool to look at your spark.  I just want you to understand, first, that it isn’t harmful.”

“And how am I supposed to know that if I can’t see the output?”  Completely perplexed, Megatronus looked down at the drone.

“Because it is an Oscilloscope.  It’s only capable of reading frequencies, just like I told you, not memories or data or…anything, besides the signature.  And now it’s capable of reading even less from you, because I recalibrated it from this drone.”

Megatronus stared, having no idea what that implied.

“It means that, no matter who else gets access to my Oscilloscope, the data stored from you will be inconsequential unless the correct calibration is used.  In other words—only I will know what happens here, today.”

Glancing up, Megatronus noticed that the supervisor was still absent, but that did not make him any more comfortable with this.

“I’m about to trust you with my secrets.  Can you trust me with this?”

It wasn’t easy.

He didn’t find it easy to trust, anymore.

Frowning, he looked away.  “Will you be able to tell anything about me, if it was calibrated from a drone’s spark?”

The look he got was plainly patient.  “Of course.”  The optics shuttered closed, and opened again.  “This drone has a standardized, registered spark-imprint.”

It took a moment before that sunk in, distracting him enough from the impending question of trust.  “All drones have the same spark?”  Megatronus wondered, harsher than he’d intended to be.

“No, that isn’t what I mean.”  The technician offered, watching intently for a signal that only he could see on his internal HUD.  “But it is similar.  All drones come from the same spark.  At least, most of them do.  There are some that we specialize for work in highly electromagnetic environments, and a few of the customs aren’t the same, but most of the sparks are.  We make sure to modify each one slightly to make hacking attempts all that much harder, though I doubt any outsider would be able to hack a drone.” 

Fascinated, Megatronus realized that this, in fact, was the piece that he’d been missing.  Though he had not been hacking processors, precisely, what he’d been doing was close enough to that.  “Why can’t outsiders hack into drones?”

“Because it is the spark that affects the processor, not the other way around.  One cannot bully the processor into accepting its commands, if they are not in line with the frequencies of the spark.  Since taking spark frequencies is a difficult task outside of a spark technician’s laboratory…”

“…then any maintenance on drones requires that the drones be brought back here.”  Megatronus finished, stunning his partner into silence for the first time. 

Drones could not be changed remotely.

Not, it seemed, unless he had a way to measure their sparks. 

That made him feel better about the safety of his own processor, but worse about what he intended to do with drones. 

“It seems that I underestimated you.” The scientist smiled, finally looking away from his oscilloscope. 

“It’s a sound concept,” Megatronus smirked back.  “It keeps the money in the factory.”  And put all of their resources under one roof.  Business-wise, it was brilliant.

Strategically speaking, it was not.  One bomb could level all their work, which was something that he’d have to keep in mind.

“However, you’re going to need a lot more spark technicians,” Megatronus continued, glancing toward the far end of the factory where the faint indigo glow signaled the sparking room. 

“Now you understand why I am in this profession.” 

“I get that you’re needed to do maintenance work on drones.”  He grunted, his optics sliding back down to the smaller mech.  “But I don’t understand how that applies to me.” 

“Oh!  Right.  That…well, that is simple.”  The other waved the oscilloscope slowly back and forth.  “This is just my peace of mind.  If you’re willing to give a piece of yourself, then I can feel better about giving pieces of my livelihood.  Everything is calibrated.  I’ve read the drone’s spark, so now I can read yours if you’ll give the word.”

Megatronus sighed, having a choice in this, but not having a choice if he wanted to be learning more.  “What will your little machine say?”

The spark technician tilted his head, bringing the oscillator to a stop, pointed directly at Megatronus’ chest plating. “If you are someone I can trust with all the secrets you now know.”

“That sounds somewhat dangerous.”

“It is.”  The teal mech smiled.  “That’s why I’m eager to find out.”

Chapter Text

He remembered the trip home in immaculate detail.

It began with hundreds of mechs, slowly filing out of their seats.  The rumbles of their engines mingled,   filling the vastness of the space along with their soft chatter, stretching servos, and heels clacking over polished marble.  He could hear it all, separating out each fragment, delighting in the newness of each noise.  There were the deep vibrations of the turbo lifts.  There was a splash of laughter, light and high above the voices in the crowd.  There was the quiet creak of his own hydraulics shifting, as he followed Ratbat’s entourage toward the Opera’s grand entranceway.  This felt different from simply analyzing sound.

For the first time, this felt like experiencing it.

He could not grasp what made those two concepts distinct.  He could not process why this input held importance, any more than he could process why he’d saved and re-mixed his first song.  A system scan revealed no change in hardware, and no change in software.

Yet he felt…

He felt.

He felt inspired.

He was deriving satisfaction from every sensation around him.  The murmurs of the audience, the scrape of metal fingers over metal shoulders, the sudden rushing from the streets as he approached the entranceway, all became new. 

Outside, the clarity heightened.  There were no echoes underneath the open sky.  He could hear the hum from the great plasma screens and holograms that lit the sidewalks and the road.  He could hear the far-off scratches of music drifting from a radio.  He could hear the sounds of wheels on metal roadways, sliding lower in pitch as their increasing distance blurred harmonics, trembled, and were gone.

He recorded that.

He recorded the deep, mechanical sounds of mechs transforming.  He recorded the bright exclamations of a group of critics, exiting the Opera.  He recorded the opening slice of the transport’s door when the Senator’s ship arrived for them, and he recorded the creaking stair that groaned each time a molded foot was placed upon it.

He recorded everything.

The silence, however, was what fascinated him the most.  He did not cease his sampling even when the awkward conversations of the mechs around him started to die down.  There was something in the silence of the transport.

There was noise.

It was random, unpredictable noise, originating from dozens of different sources.  Every mech produced an ambient pitch, blended from the running of their engines, the combustion of fuel, the shifting of their plating.  He could add to this the roaring from the transport’s thrusters, or the whispering of the wind off the hull.  Someone was tapping their fingers on a data pad.  Somewhere outside, there was the distant blaring of a horn.  There was no real silence, after all.

He began trying to count out all the noises, separating them through filters, classifying them by variance in frequency.  There were hundreds.  Even if he’d had full access to his tower’s processors, he would have had difficulty in manipulating every nuance, or citing every source.  They were chaotic, representing variables that would have been nearly impossible to mathematically reproduce.  Like each performance of the opera, no one sample of this ‘silence’ could ever be the same.

Every moment was its own, unique experience.

Every moment was worth recording. 

He was recording them all. 

He’d obtained over one thousand new samples by the time the transport docked into the hanger, settling itself securely on the roof of Ratbat Holdings.  The mechs departed leisurely in groups, the majority occupying the attention of the Senator, addressing the bureaucrat with their concerns.  No one noticed the drone lagging behind as they moved on.  No one noticed the drone standing on the rooftop, watching them withdraw, still recording silence.  No one bothered to look back.

Unconcerned, he let them leave, unwilling to follow their noise when he’d already sampled it. 

He circled the transport, instead, moving away from where the voices echoed, listening to the sharp staccato pings released by cooling metal.  Entranced, he reached his arm out toward the surface of the hull, wondering at the sounds, brushing his forearm against it to understand.  It was comfortable, and warm, and he could feel the each ping through the metal like a vibration that he couldn’t record.  Not knowing what to do with the sensation, he moved on.

As he passed by the front, he glanced toward the driver.

The old mech was standing just outside the cab of the sleek aircraft, looking the ship up and down.  He nodded to himself, completely unaware he had a visitor, reaching back in the cockpit to pull out a soft, white cloth and a tube of polish. With an expert touch he carefully applied it to the surface, quietly buffing out the minutest of smudges in the semi-darkness, humming to himself.

The tune was familiar.

It was familiar because he had written it.  He recognized the remix instantly, and, smoothly, he played the next few bars of melody from the speakers on his helm.

Startled, the driver nearly dropped the cloth.  “By the hammer of Solus,” the mech began, and glanced nervously in his direction.  “Is there something I can help you with, sir?”  He called out, even as his optics dropped respectfully away.

Now familiar with being addressed as ‘sir,’ the drone did not hesitate in his response, merely shaking his head, once.  He stared, instead, waiting to see what the driver would do, wondering if he would get to hear his own music hummed by this strange mech a second time.  He had not seen many mechs as worn looking as this.  He’d not seen many with a few flecks of paint peeling, or with rust at the edges of their armor.  The other mech looked up, searching for his answer, and instead noticed where the drone’s helm was turned.  “I may not be in the greatest shape, myself, but I can guarantee that this ship will be.  Just lemme know if I am bothering you.”

Slowly, he shook his head, unable to comprehend the concept.  Appearances had never been a topic of consideration.  It was only today that they had registered as a factor, at all.  After a moment, still having no way to respond, he gestured helpfully toward another smudge a little further up the transport.

“Heh, alright, alright.  I’ll get back on that.”  The driver cocked his head in an expression he could only assume was puzzlement, and turned back to his work.

Having nothing else to occupy his attention, the drone, too, considered resuming his duties.

Reviews of protocol indicated that, when not otherwise occupied by orders, he was to return back to the docking closet and recharge.  He could perform this task, since there were currently no orders outstanding. 

He left the roof.

The passageways into and out of Ratbat Holdings were not familiar to him, but he had the coordinates to his docking closet on file in his cache.  It was not far from the hanger.  He could seek out the path, with reference to his position.  He could circumnavigate the walls that blocked his direct passage.  He could go where he was supposed to be.

The transmission tower.

His home. 

However, he was still uncertain what he was to do when he arrived.  He considered it as he passed quietly through the dark hallways, working his way back toward his room.

Currently, he was still within the 33 cycle period where he would otherwise be monitoring broadcasts had Sentator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council, not directly interceded with his prior orders. ‘Shopping’ had occurred. So had a tour of a factory.  So had Opera.

He had recorded that, too.

Brashly, he replayed it now, listening to the part that had particularly moved him, letting the rich vocal tones of the lovers drift hauntingly through the corridors.  It had been a scene meant to convey sorrow, separation, and loss, all of which were only recogniseable to the drone as melodies.  The melodies had been enough to understand, however, as the Hero and the Quintesson were pulled apart by their conflicting cultures, forbidden to interact, and ordered against their wills to continue a battle that had raged for centuries. 

They sang of what it meant to be suddenly, irrevocably alone…

And abruptly he ceased the recording, to let the silence fall.

“ZZzth..”  He tried to speak into the darkness, and found that nothing intelligible came out.  He had never tried before.  He’d never wanted to.  “Zzzsh…” 

Static.

Speakers, he had.  He had third generation crystal clear, hyper-filament speakers, meant for direct transference of audio files when necessary.

However, he did not have a voice.  He could not produce words that were his own.  He could not produce a melody.

“We’re going shopping.”  He finally played, a perfect copy of Ratbat’s voice, recorded earlier that day.  “We’re going.”  A pause.  “Shopping.   Zzzhhhhpp.”  He included the sliding of the transport door, and paused, looking at the hallway that he knew led to his room. 

He had arrived. 

This was recogniseable, once again.

Eagerly he strode through the doorway, not paying attention as it parted to allow him entrance.  Instead, he moved directly toward the console, placing the stubs of both arms solidly into their casings, fitting the right port to the input jack.

He had desired this.

Here, he could connect to the world with ease, letting the vastness of familiar systems wash over his senses.  These were his proper coordinates, within the mainframe, having access to the I/O tower and the databases within.  This was where he belonged, where he was meant to return to, where he could reside despite the changes he had felt.  It had been a busy day. 

Everything was different.

He had collected a great number of samples, and had bypassed the time he was required to spend in the closet.  He had achieved knowledge, and an awareness of himself and the building blocks he’d needed to complete his second song. 

The tower, however, did not feel as if it had changed.

Since there was no order to contradict it, he restarted his active shift, setting the 33-cycle counter back to zero.  He could recharge, here, siphoning power from the jack directly, taking energy from Ratbat Holding’s systems.  He could continue his work.  He could…

“Communications drone.”

On a monitor beside him, Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council, appeared via uplink.  He turned to stare, having no other method of acknowledgement. 

“I am still awaiting progress on the decoding of the file that I sent you.  Increase priority, and see that it is done.”

The image vanished as quickly as it’d come, and he returned back to his functions, increasing the priority on the request. 

“Communications drone,” he repeated, letting the taste of his designation vibrate through his speakers in another mech’s voice.  It was his name, and it was also his purpose. 

It was his purpose to obey.  It was his purpose, now, to decode the very remix that he’d originally assembled. 

He would comply.

But not before he finished his new song, made final touches, and transmitted it across the spectrum for anyone who wished to find it. 

This piece was not a remix. 

It was his own, original song. 

It had been made by him, with samples collected by him, on systems that only he could access.  This one was his, and he would share it with the world.

He had a voice, he realized, as he watched the tune spreading out across the airwaves, bounced by station after station and replayed.  It was not standard, and it was not possible for use in social interacting, and it was not likely to ever be identified with him, but it was a voice, in its own way. 

It was his voice.

It just would never sing an Opera. 

Chapter Text

Today had not been going well to begin with, and it was not getting better yet.

Ratbat had known that it would be difficult to thwart Sentinel Prime, who had enjoyed centuries of free reign in regards to military protocol and spending, but he hadn‘t expected the Council to be so accepting of his intent to produce combat drones.  He couldn’t understand how the other members could put so much trust in an unelected official, especially one whose status came from ancient artifacts and ceremonies that had grown defunct.  Certainly, Sentinel had been useful a half a millennia ago when Cybertron had been forging into new territories, dealing with new, aggressive species and piracy across important trade routes.  However, as Cybertron turned its gaze inward, his power had grown more symbolic and less applicable to important matters of state, leaving him little more than a relic with a special council seat. 

He’d felt the other Council members would agree with him about that.  He’d felt that they, like himself, would want a measure of control over how large of an army Sentinel could produce, and over what he could do with that army.

However, he’d suddenly found himself speaking on behalf of the minority.  Apparently, certain Senators were under the impression that military affairs were always to be the jurisdiction of the Prime.  Apparently, certain Senators were also under the impression that the Council and its members could hold too much power. 

These Senators had opinions that Ratbat didn‘t share.  He’d obtained his power fairly, after all--which was more than could be said for Sentinel. 

It was hard enough just being on top without having to worry about some 'ordained' official representing anyone's interests.

It was very hard work, but he was needed, here.  There were few who knew how intimately Cybertron was meshed with chaos--how easy it would be to slip from civilization into anarchy.  There were few who had the sophisticated protocols to deal with both laymen and royalty, sometimes in the same afternoon. 

There were few who could equal Senator Ratbat.  The job he performed was a necessity: not a privilege, but a civic duty.  He had been built for it, he had been trained for it, and he strove to maintain it.  He knew that keeping culture intact could often mean indulging in the unsavory and the unlawful.

He’d learned to enjoy both.

He’d had to.  He’d needed a government that was stable, sometimes, because a stable government meant a competitive and fruitful market for himself and the masses.  He‘d needed a government that was unstable, at other times, because it could inflate the cost of goods and sway demands.  He’d learned what times were best to go about instituting each situation no matter who it would affect, and he’d learned thusly that sometimes politics could mean leaving behind good friends.  He’d learned how not to care.

He could be emotionless, when he needed to be.  He could be conniving as well.  He could be anything, so long as Cybertron continued to function. 

Only then could he enjoy the benefits of civilization, or take moments of pleasure in an evening alone, or bask in elegance surrounded by enlightened peers.  Only then could he enjoy the fineries of life: his art, his music, and his opera. 

Already, he was dissatisfied with the pressing weight of his schedule, dissatisfied with Sentinel Prime, dissatisfied with his lack of leisure time until this matter with the drones was settled.  It saddened him, and it inspired himto take care of the problem quickly.  He needed to resolve this matter, because this matter was crucialMilitary contracts should not have been in the hands of an aging relic, they should have been in the hands of public representatives, and preferably in the hands of himself. 

He didn’t have much time.  The vote to decide the drones’ fate would be happening with the next lunar cycle, which meant he needed to move quickly.  He needed to place his pieces on the board, and set up the strategies needed to topple the undesirable elements.  He needed this to go right.

Thus far, however, it was only a disaster.

With a gesture, he selected a tune from his holographic display, and chose the most tranquil and calming melody that he could find.  It didn’t help as much as he would have liked for it to, but he doubted that anything save for an hour in hot oil could have soothed him now.  The music was the best that he could do on short notice.  He needed to look collected, instead of appearing as if he were responding to a threat.  He needed to look commanding, instead of out of sorts.  He needed all the help that he could get. 

He indicated to his serving drone that he was ready to resume, and stood up from his chair.

“So you are certain that Senator Optarus intends to vote against Council-controlled drone armies?”   He queried to the translucent image hovering before him, seeking confirmation of an earlier report as the gentle harmonies tried to keep him calm.

“Yes, sir,” his newest informant confirmed, face and voice distorted for his benefit over the secure transmission.  “He had a meeting earlier with Decimus, which I was able to observe.”  The mech paused, the static of the almost-image shifting on the screen.  “They believe that their votes will be enough to bring the debate to a standstill--stagnating the motion, giving power to neither the council nor Sentinel Prime.  They seemed intent on suspending the resources in limbo…”

“…so they can use their sway to procure a favor, later, from me.  I know how blackmailing goes, Informant.  That was the reason that I hired you.  My hope was that you’d be able to convince Optarus otherwise.

Through the blurring and the static, Ratbat could see the other’s weight shift from one pede to the other, as if embarrassed.  It could have been an innocent motion, but Ratbat knew better than that.  Either there was some interesting fact about Optarus that his spy was failing to communicate, or his inexperience was showing.  It was suspicious, either way. 

He considered that further.  What had this mech been up to with Optarus?  What subterfuge was even possible, at this stage of the game?  He’d hired this spy so recently that his loyalty was not assured, but thus far he had been doing exceptionally.  Besides insinuating himself closely with Optarus and reporting successfully back to Ratbat, he’d also managed to witness a meeting between Decimus and Optarus.  Loyal or not, Ratbat needed to know what had gone on in that encounter, especially with the importance of this vote looming.

So how had the informant gained access to this meeting, again? 

“I am sorry, sir.  I’m still too recently within his confidences to make much progress, yet.  Give me time…”

Too recently within Optarus’s confidences, yes.  That was part of the problem.  Optarus would never have taken a new hire with him to watch any sensitive political maneuverings, no matter how well their background checked out.  Ratbat’s spies were good, but this one would have needed to be invisible to get into that meeting with Optarus, and he was not specialized for that sort of infiltration.  He’d been modified to wear a number of faces and different body-types, even, and to be able to pass as multiple mechs with multiple personalities.  However, the number of faces he could wear was limited, and Ratbat knew all four.  None were in Optarus’s confidences, yet.

Oh, but he was smart.  If this informant was, for some reason, double-crossing him and working for someone else, he’d come up with lines that were incredibly believable.  Ratbat could easily buy that Optarus and Decimus intended to hold out on him, waiting for the moment when they’d have the most advantage…

…but what advantage could that be?  What could they gain by holding off on this vote?  What could they gain by relinquishing the power of the drones into the hands of Sentinel?  They, like Ratbat, enjoyed control too much to place it in the hands of another. 

Something else had to be afoot.

He sighed.  “Time is unfortunately in short supply.   The council has agreed to vote within the next lunar cycle as a favor to me.  I pushed them to speed up the process because every day that we delay the matter my factory is held up, unable to continue their production of these drones--”

And…that was the answer, really.  If his factory was not producing any drones, then he was not making any money.  If Optarus and Decimus could postpone the motion long enough, they’d have time to build drone factories of their own.  They could wait as long as necessary to obtain them, stagnating the vote until they were ready to open their facilities, and in the meantime not a single fighting drone could be produced by the factory linked to Ratbat Holdings.  His business would suffer, at least marginally, and when the contract renewed it would be with two new companies able to cash in.

Clever.

He’d have his advantage swept right out from under him.

“My apologies, sir.”

So now he understood what Decimus and Optarus were wanting. 

Somehow, his informant had managed to leave this crucial piece of information out.

Suspicious on what game the informant was playing, Ratbat considered how he’d been able to infiltrate the meeting once again.

If Optarus had not brought him along, and if he’d not planted any bugs…

Then there was only one option left, and Ratbat found himself surprised.  His informant must not have only been working for him, placed as a spy in Optarus’s employment….but he must have also been working for Decimus, placed to watch Ratbat as well.  Decimus was more likely to bring along new recruits to test them to see who was trustworthy, and then to listen carefully to the airwaves afterward to see if anyone talked. 

It was good, then, that Ratbat had encrypted this transmission so heavily.

“Of course, it is only a small oversight.  You were able to deliver this fair warning, instead, to which I am eternally grateful.  But do you believe that Optarus can be swayed?”  He queried, undaunted, his tone as slick as lubricant, continuing as if nothing was wrong. 

“Not likely, sir.  The two of them seem to have formed a solid partnership…”

Of course they had--they’d formed a partnership against him.  And yet, strangely enough, he’d been given the key at the exact moment that they’d closed the door.  “Very well.  I shall consider my next action.  Return to your duties and inform me if there are any changes.”

“Of course, sir.  End transmission…” 

The visual feed cut out, still well-secured, scrambled so that any interceptions wouldn’t be able to identify who was who.  Decimus would be watching, but that was precisely what Ratbat was counting on. 

“Communications drone.”  He spoke languidly, sliding back into his chair. 

Immediately a monitor on the wall lit up, switching on to view the cramped room of the I/O tower on the top-most floor.  The drone was there, as always, plugged into its transmission interface.  Distantly, Ratbat could hear the sound of music playing behind it. 

Was that High Strung’s third movement for synthetic quartets?

It sounded like it was.  How odd. 

“Relay previous transmission through Optarus Incorporated outlying tower #5.  Scramble all voice-tones originating from myself, and replace all mentions of ‘Decimus’ with mentions of ‘Ratbat.’  Additionally, change wording intent to reflect an end result of council-control drones.  Relay results through sub-level 26, monitor #3, for confirmation.” 

There was a single nod and he cut the feed to wait.  His drone had proven to be rather adept at changing voice signals, keeping them impressively natural and fluid.  Even if Decimus had made an interesting move, Ratbat already had a trump card in the wings.

He’d give Decimus a transmission worth decoding.

A re-direct through Optarus’s outlying tower would catch the notice of Optarus and Decimus, both.  They’d both be looking for it after the meeting, since the former owned the tower and the latter was as careful as they came.  They would both find it, too.  They would both listen to what it contained, and observe what would appear to be a meeting between their informant and the other senator.  When listened to with the changes Ratbat had asked his drone to make, it would appear as if the informant had overseen a different meeting between the other Senator and Ratbat, instead.  It would seem like that Senator was playing both sides. 

Neither would tolerate that.

Optarus would willingly believe in Decimus’s double-crossing, since it had happened before.  Decimus would not jump to such quick conclusions, but he’d still be smart enough to track down the offending triple-agent informant and dispose of him.  With none of them trusting each other, as was the usual case, Ratbat would be able to start anew.  He’d have the opportunity to sway them toward his side, or to convince them to withdraw their votes.  In either case, Ratbat’s motion would pass.

And if it failed? 

Well, at the worst, Senator Decimus might ask the informant questions before killing him, and perhaps discover Ratbat’s subterfuge.  It could become a problem, but there was little, even in that case, that Decimus could do.  After all, Decimus could not incriminate Ratbat before the council without incriminating himself, and if Decimus grew angry?  Ahh, well.  He was already opposing Ratbat’s motion.  What more could he do?

Ratbat would manage one way or another. 

When the reprocessed message was returned to him, however, he knew that his plan would not fail.  He played it over and over again, double-checking the tone and the lengths of the pauses to be certain the drone had changed things acceptably.

It had, of course.  It would be more than enough to convince both Optarus and Decimus. 

Ratbat made a few minor notations nevertheless, asking it to lower the tone slightly, and to add an encryption that would be difficult, but not impossible, to crack.  This would be perfect. 

Relaying his confirmation back to the transmission tower, he deleted all traces of the transmission from his personal system and stood up, beckoning with a finger to the serving drone.  It produced a small, decorative purple energon container for him and bowed, about to back away. 

Ratbat did not let it.  His hand caught the drone by the wrist, halting it abruptly. 

It did not startle.

It couldn’t.  His drones were too well programmed to make noise or react with emotion.  Instead, it stopped and stared at him politely.  “Sir?” It queried, not even looking at its own trapped wrist.  “Is there something I can get for you, sir?”

“Initiate reboot program #48-B, delete all memory-tracks.  Voice command authorization Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council.  Begin,”  he spoke firmly, confirming the procedure that wiped not only memory location pointers, but also the memories themselves.  There would be no record of this conversation from any potential source.

“Si--”  It began, half-way into it’s acknowledgement before shut-down protocols overrode even that.  It produced a strange, static-like noise, powering off. 

That was not normal. 

He did not like that sound.  As far as he could recall, none of his drones had ever made such noises during power-down, as he’d been sure to have them maintenanced regularly. 

It would be best to have it serviced, nevertheless, and possibly sent back to the factory for a complete wipe as well.  Although the program he’d installed was meant to remove all traces of data, one could never be too careful in covering one’s tracks.  This one had been actually starting to anticipate his drink orders, besides

That had been quaint.

That had been quaint, but also dangerous.  If it remembered that, there was no telling what else it might be storing.  With a full service memory wipe, there would be no one but himself to know what had transpired today.

No one but himself and the communications drone. 

Quietly he considered that, reaching out to activate his holographic interface, selecting a new range of modern music to play.  The communications drone had improved in its efficiency and ability to label important data over the course of its lifetime.  Ratbat had never forced it to delete its memory because of that.  Although it was technically more dangerous because of the information it contained, it could still decode more accurately, synthesize more effectively, and interface more quickly with his and other remote systems than it had when it had first arrived.  A memory-wipe would be safer, of course, but it could also be a waste, lest he lose out on the talent that he’d come to expect. 

It meant he ought to be more careful with it, sadly.  He would have to forgo his trips with it in public, and he would also have to restrict access to the transmission tower.  He had no desire to risk anyone tampering with it. 

That was too bad.  He’d had it equipped with its custom finish for a reason.  He enjoyed flaunting a varied entourage, especially one containing such a modern piece of delicate and expensive machinery.  He liked the looks the drone received from other diplomats, he liked the looks that it received from competitors, and he particularly liked the confusion the drone caused among the public who did not recognise it for what it was.   Taking the drone out had been like showing off new scroll-work on one’s armor.  It was a perk of his position, and one that he would be sad to do without.

However, there were other options.  Perhaps he could commission a special attendant from his factory to give them something to work on while the soldier drones were being delayed.

He could have it be a work of art, impressive, straight from the glory of a bygone era.  It could be a companion inspired by imagery of the Golden Age, setting new trends that mirrored old trends with a modern twist.  It could be a spokesmodel for his factory, as well, who could show what wonders drones were capable of while at his side, or remind the populace of how vast and superior the Cybertronian Empire could, and should, be.

This image in his mind was a stark contrast to the emotionless stare his serving drone was giving him.  Now finished rebooting, it did not move. 

It un-nerved him slightly, especially as lost in reverie as he had been.  Something was obviously not right with it, some loose belt inside making a harsh, off-kilter grinding noise that clashed with the soft music from the speakers.  It was not behaving according to its standard starting protocols.  It did not ask him if there was anything it could retrieve.

Instead, it reached a hand out, haltingly, toward Ratbat’s half-finished glass of energon. 

Perturbed, Ratbat slid the energon from its reach. 

It followed the glass, hand reaching out further, taking a step closer, head tilting as it let loose a terrible utterance of static-filled syllables in soft, contrasting baritone. 

Ratbat continued to stare.

Utterly repulsed by the noises that were coming from the unit, he could not process his situation enough to move.  The drone, however, did not seem to care.  Its other hand lifted, at last, both arms reaching toward the energon.  The hideous grinding inside it became worse. 

He’d never heard anything like it before. 

He didn’t intend to let it continue now. 

“Initiate deactivation code #49-A, full system shut-down.  Voice command authorization Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council.  Begin!”

Nothing changed.

Ratbat’s alarm grew, and he repeated the phrase.  “Full system shut-down.  Begin!”   The drone’s hand encircled his glass, continuing onward despite the order to desist.  “Begin, now!”  It did not work. 

Instead, the drone screeched more gibberish at him, slowly drawing its hand back, slowly crunching the delicate receptacle of energon as it moved, still staring at Ratbat even while broken glass stuck in the servos of its fingers and purple fluid trailed to the floor.  It dropped the flute, and did not flinch at the sudden crash against the marble. 

“Begin.  Begin!  Security!” 

Ratbat was trapped.

Ratbat was also terrified.

The drone was reaching toward him, now, its broken servos dripping from where glass shards were caught.  He grimaced, as a single drop splashed down upon his thigh and black fingers brushed his torso plating.  He could not believe this.  He would not stand for it.

He was repulsed, horrified, and too stunned to cry out again…

But that did not stop him from grabbing the drone’s wrist, twisting expertly, and shoving the hand into the incinerator on the side of his chair. 

The drone screamed.

Ratbat shuddered.

Then he kicked it once, and then again, holding the wrist in place until there wasn’t any hand left at the end of it.  He kicked again and again, perplexed and amazed that the drone stood there and allowed him to continue kicking, barraged by its over-modulated shrieks while his exquisitely molded heels dug into its torso, ripping panels off and tearing wires loose.   This was the one place where Ratbat had not expected to find danger…

But that did not mean that he was unprepared for it.  Without a sound the plating on his arms shifted, and a concealed knife found its way into his grasp.  The drone still wasn’t retreating.  

He wouldn’t give it a chance. 

Instead, he plunged the blade deep within the crevice in the torso plating, putting the full force of his extended arm into it, shifting his weight in the chair to use his seat as leverage while he twisted the blade.

The screaming stopped.

Slowly, the lit panels of softly glowing energy dimmed on the drone’s faceplates, and the creature slumped onto the floor.

Ratbat stared, still stunned for a long, long moment.

Then he kicked the drone once more. 

It hadn’t been aware that it was broken. 

He’d have its programming looked at, of course, and have each component dissected for traces of tampering, but he knew they would find nothing.  It hadn’t been attacking him on purpose.  He was sure of that.  If someone had reprogrammed the drone, either for assassination or for spying, it would not have reached for the glass first.

That…was interesting.

A shiver suddenly ran through him, unable to shake the much-too-dissonant stammering the drone had made, remembering the shuddering shriek of its pain and the way it had tilted its head brokenly. 

He should not think about the news reports that called drones soulless, sparkless beings.  He should not think about the lack of expression on its face, mindlessly trying to perform what thought were its duties.  He should not think on this, at all.

“Send a cleanup crew to my Leisure Suite,” he spoke, opening his personal communicator, leaving claw marks on the molded metal.  “Mechs, not drones.”   His voice was firm and calm, exactly as he’d programmed it to be despite the fact he was shaking: serenity in the face of danger, whether he wanted it or not.  “I’ll be in my recharge chambers.”

He needed to get his mind off this. 

He stood up, and toed the drone away from where it had collapsed, shuddering as it rolled over into a heap.  His knife was still sticking out from the carcass.

He did not pull it out.

Instead, he stepped over the drone, and hurried from the room.

He needed to do something, and he needed to do something, now.  Something relaxing.  Something distracting. 

Something preferably not related to drones.

One was already outside of his Leisure Suite, however.  It blocked his passageway as he exited, coming to a stop in the hallway outside of his chamber, its arms full of the data pads that Ratbat normally reviewed at night.  He nearly jumped as it looked up.  “Sir,”  it said, and tilted its head, plainly confused to be seeing him out here.

Uninterested in dealing with this right now, Ratbat stepped back. 

“Sir, would you like your messages delivered elsewhere?” It continued, its head straightening.  It did not make a static-laced sound.  It did not shriek. 

Ratbat was safe.

He knew that.

He knew he was safe here, in the hallways outside of his rooms.  He knew he was in his tower with some of the most advanced security programs and some of the best-trained guards.  He knew there was nothing to fear. 

He was certain he was unafraid.

“I will take them now,” he demanded, attempting to convince himself, and stepped forward to accept them from the drone.  It handed them over without complaint, and bowed.

“Will there be anything else?”  it asked.

“No,” Ratbat replied.

“Of course, sir,” it said, and turned to retrace its steps back down the hallway.

Ratbat, quietly, calmly, and slowly, leaned against the wall and shut his optics off.  He stayed there for a long, long moment, cycling air in through his intakes and out through his exhaust, over, and over again.

That had gone well. 

That had been exactly what he’d needed, right now.  He’d needed to see a fully functional, correctly operating drone, and he’d needed to interact with it without anything going wrong. 

Now, he needed to disappear himself, and not interact with anything else until morning. 

He wasn’t no longer shaking, but he felt shaky, nonetheless, when he finally continued down the hallway to his recharge room.  It felt like he was falling. 

He knew why.

He slipped into his room and sealed the door, sagging into the comfortably magnetic field of plush panels, staring at the ceiling, willing away the feeling of vertigo.  The data pads clattered around him, blanketing him.  “Music,” he whispered, and managed to keep his optics open even as the tunes began to play. 

It still felt like falling.

It felt like his first flight.

It had been at daybreak, he remembered, with his progenitor beside him.  They had taken off the roof of the Holdings, and he had felt for the first time what it meant to be free.  His life had been full of rules and full of hours spent disseminating programming, learning how to operate himself and learning how to operate a business from a mech who did not understand the meaning of the word ‘fun.’  Flying had changed that.

Falling had changed that, too, and he remembered plummeting from the sky as vividly than he remembered taking off into it in the first place.  He’d fallen for a long time, terrified.  It had felt like a long time, at least.

He hadn’t hit the ground.  Seconds before impact, he’d been snatched out of the air by his progenitor, and flown up to an even more dizzying height than before.  For a few moments, he’d simply clung on to the arms that had been wrapped around him, holding on to the one mech that had been a constant in his life.  Then he’d screamed, as he was dropped again.

Falling.

He’d fallen four more times that day before he’d managed to figure his systems out, before he’d managed to work out the right amount of propulsion to keep aloft without stalling, but he’d never forgotten the fall.  He’d never forgotten how many times his progenitor had raised him up to drop him, either. 

He’d hated his progenitor for that.  He’d not talked, afterward, for decacycles. 

However, he’d learned something important, as well.

He’d learned not to be afraid of falling. 

He’d learned to climb back up to those heights, and try again.

Ratbat reached down for a data-pad, and started processing the information it contained.  Even if he had been caught off guard by one faulty drone, he had reacted appropriately.  He had taken care of the problem, and then he had immediately confronted a drone again.  He would be alright, tomorrow.  He would face more drones, then.  He’d have the bugs worked out.  He’d soldier on.

But he would never forget that he had still been terrified.  He’d never forget how mortifying that had been.

Slowly, his systems were returning to normal.  Slowly, the music was lulling him, pulling him back into his routine.  He had time before his recharge cycles began.  He had his pile of data pads surrounding him. 

He would be fine.

Reaching down, he selected a pad at random, and plugged in.  Always, it was important to return back to the height from which you’d fallen.  Always, it was important to continue one’s work. 

His progenitor had also taught him that. 

Ratbat had never been able to forget the old mech, no matter how many times he had tried.  The memories persisted, deeply etched onto his processor, ingrained in every task that he performed.  The mech that he’d inherited the Holdings from had been pragmatic and hardworking, ideals that Ratbat continued to love.  The old mech had been stern, though.  Much too stern.  He’d never believed in luxuries or indulgences.  He’d never believed in incentives, at all.  If he had ever entertained the idea of drones, his would have been inelegant, bulky, indestructible machines that would have been built to last the ages.

They would have outlived him.

That was, however, why Ratbat’s progenitor had never succeeded at politics.  He’d never believed in reaching for the highest possible goal, taking hold, and knowing all the while that he deserved it.  He’d never believed in taking time to pursue art, music, or fantasy, except as methods to a business contract.  He’d never believed in Ratbat, at all.

Funny, considering that he’d designed Ratbat, himself. 

Funny, that Ratbat still thought about it after all these cycles.

He sighed and uploaded the data from the file for processing, instead. 

It was the song decryptions he’d been waiting for, finished, listed out perfunctorily as only his communications drone could: raw data, barely decipherable and relentlessly exact.  Perhaps this could occupy him for a time.  Music always could.

But as Senator Ratbat scrolled swiftly through the file, a new lance of worry pierced its way through his thoughts.  This wasn’t about the music.  This was about the underlying encryptions in the song.  Apparently, the analyst had been correct to point this to him several cycles ago, as what it seemed to contain was more distressing than he‘d realized.  The data, as the drone had presented it, was not merely in list-format.  It was a list.  It was names, over and over again, with designations and job descriptions. 

It was distressingly odd.

The list contained the names of his employees, the workers in his corporation.  He recognized Redirect, and Holdout, and Swivel.  He recognized more than those few, but even with that there were hundreds more.  Hundreds.  The list was methodical and complete.  He scrolled down it, wondering where a band might have managed to come across this data, wondering what purpose it could serve. 

He didn’t have to wonder for long.

The list was more complete than he’d thought.  Someone didn’t just have access to the employees on official records, but had access to the personal records that Ratbat also kept.

Someone knew the names of his informants.

For a moment he imagined this was some sort of mistake.  It had to be.  His communications drone must have gained access to this information, somehow, and returned these lists with the file instead of the decryptions.  It would be the easiest explanation, especially in light of other drone malfunctions.

It would also be wrong.  At the bottom of the list lay proof enough--the complex coding of the waveform overlaid on top of the names, each name overlapping like a wave itself to form the correct amplitude for the song.  Only with every name, together, could the music even exist.

It was a masterpiece made out of names and translated into music.

Even in his newly dawning horror, Ratbat recognized the art. 

He heard it, in the tune repeating in his head, in the remembered beats of a song both modern and primitive.  He heard it echoing too easily through his processor, catching there and burrowing there, perfect algorithms of repetition and change.

He heard it…

Only it wasn’t in his head.  It was playing, now, over his speakers, and it wasn’t even the same song. 

Ratbat sat up in bed, and put the data pad down, his attention focusing immediately on what he was hearing, now.  There was something playing, out loud, that was an undeniable complement to this problematic ‘name remix.’  It was coming from his radio, a new song that had appeared at random from his myriad and exhaustingly long play list, but he could not recall having heard it before.  He turned it up, the data-pads shifting over his lap as he stretched out a claw to his control panel.  With a flick of his wrist, he began the song anew.

It was extraordinary.

Ratbat listened as the music blossomed, letting himself lay back across his berth as the sounds sought each corner of the room, filling them with unfamiliar and haunting melodies.  They clutched at him, and he shut his optics off, letting the frequencies vibrate through his electromagnetic field.  

It moved him.  He could recognize each individual sound: snatches of other music, snatches of voices, snatches of doors opening and shutting and laughter and vehicles flying by, but all of it hopelessly intertwined to make what was undoubtedly music. 

Beautiful, beautiful music.

This was a new song.  He did not know how it had entered into his library, but he recognized the style.  He knew who had written it, as well as he knew the other song’s source.

And he knew that this was just as pressing as his soon-to-be made factory call would be. 

“Get me the band ‘Assembly.’”  He spoke, sitting up, turning off the music to transmit a memo to his appointment advisor.  “Transport them here, treat them well, and bring them to me as soon as you can.”

He laughed, and shuddered, both at once, and pushed the remaining data-pads off his berth, letting them clatter on the floor.  They were business he would take care of, later.

For now, he put the music on again.

It was more than distracting enough for him.

Chapter Text

As the end of 33 cycles approached, he started to grow apprehensive.

It would be time to return to the docking closet soon.  Currently, he had no desire to leave the tasks he had begun, which was causing conflict with the recharge programming he could not override.  His distress was growing, and it was growing greater as his clock was winding down.  When the 33 cycles were over, he would have no choice.  He would have to return to his docking closet.

He didn’t want to.

It was unpleasant.

That unpleasantness prompted an emotion.

He’d been considering emotions as he worked on his third song, and ‘apprehension’ was a recent entry on the list for further investigation.  After his experience at the Opera house, he’d been documenting every feeling he thought he had experienced, saving them for study.  If something had affected a change within him, he intended to analyze it.

That was what he did.

He had been programmed for comparative analysis, and considered it important to record all aberrant behavior that he exhibited.

That which he was experiencing now could easily have been emotion.

Emotions were states in which sensations were relayed to him.  They appeared to occur in connection to selfishness or in connection to sympathy, when they occurred at all.  When there were great changes in him or great changes in others around him, for example, he was able to note the unlabelled data streams that elicited his response.  Certain music brought him enjoyment.  The opera had made him sad.

Many emotions were still absent, however.  Invariably, he knew he would have to experience them in order to understand them, but most seemed hopelessly out of reach.  It was unlikely he would find great changes while he was locked in his tower. 

However, this was not what currently concerned him.  He was not perturbed by the emotions so much as he was perturbed by what could have evoked them.  Emotions were merely symptoms; his ability to feel did not spawn from the emotions themselves.

When he looked at the trends in data, it was likely that his first ‘great change’ had come from music.

Music had inspired him to understand loss, apprehension, and loneliness.  They were gifts engendered from the opera, joining the desire, curiosity, and boredom that had been present before that.

They had been present since the first time he’d heard Assembly’s song.

He was acutely aware of it, still, catching replays of both it and his remix at an average of four million times per day.  Even now, long after its initial discovery, he still found himself cataloging it erroneously, allowing it to play through the tower’s speakers once per cycle.  He was additionally aware, having transmitted and relayed the messages, that the composer was scheduled to meet with Ratbat by the end of the decacyle.  This caused a wave of unlabelled emotion to sweep over him, as it did each time he thought about it.  The emotion felt like apprehension.  It also felt like curiosity, desire, and strangely also like loneliness. 

This puzzled him.

The layering of emotions was strange, and complex, and uncomfortable, but it also reminded him of how dissonant notes could add a striking richness to even melodic pieces.  All parts were needed, to obtain the balance of depth.  Without even a single frequency, the experience would not be unique.

That knowledge was worth cataloging, also. 

He did so, simultaneously shuffling five other intercepted transmissions into appropriate folders, flagging an incoming message, and copying three files for secondary processing before re-routing them along.  One voice-clip was dumped into his special folder, and sorted carefully by length and tone and rhythm.  He had gotten faster at processing his samples, more efficiently able to catch them in-between performing his programmed duties.  He had no other choices, now.  He would not be able to make samples, first-hand, until Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council, rescinded the order for him to remain in his tower, undisturbed.

This would have been more of a hindrance if there was not already so much for him to collect.

While connected to the tower, he was given near-unlimited access to all of Ratbat Holdings systems.  He could borrow processing power from any number of programs, and re-order their input to correspond with output from him.  He could communicate between any employees or peer into their records.  He had access to unlimited data to peruse at his desire, to sift and sort through for items of importance or samples for his songs.  Each solar cycle, there was more to find. 

He could have labeled that ‘exciting,’ and possibly have been correct. 

New content was ‘exciting’ to him, because of its potential.  It pleased him to correctly categorize a file, and pass it on.  It pleased him to be able to do this quickly, efficiently, and accurately.  It pleased him to complete his purpose as it was intended, and it pleased him additionally to locate samples on the side.

It did not please him to be consistently aware of the clock.

Its rhythm was his pulse-beat, the master control of all data inflow and out.  Each cycle of the clock was one new bit of information transferred, one positive or negative voltage, one ‘high’ or ‘low,’ a zero or a one.  A frequency.  Sometimes he tried to catch the motion of the clock, itself, to capture that, to sample it….

…And yet, now, it was counting down the time until his forced exclusion, and he did not find that pleasing in the least.  Very shortly, he would be forced to enter his docking closet for three cycles.  It was not an unreasonable duration, but it was three cycles away from his connection.  Three cycles alone, without the ability to create.  Three cycles in darkness, without the world at his input nodes.  Three cycles without control.

He did not like that.

He did not like it at all, but he did not have to.

This time there was something he could do about it.  He did not have to succumb.

Defying his inability to reprogram himself, he took initiative in a different way. 

He would not have control when he was in his docking closet, but he still had control now.  He could, with little effort, obtain enough information to satisfy his processing during his time away. 

Quietly, he sought out three cycle’s worth of music to download and placed them in his databanks one by one. 

He specifically sought out music he did not ordinarily have access to, selecting based on richness of waveform alone.  Most often, the music which appealed to him came from two floors down, second corridor, Ratbat’s Leisure Suite.  It was originally forbidden for him to access any of the systems in that room, but the over-ride from Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council, allowed a foray into any database that might include a file of interest. 

He had found many, many files of interest in his owner’s personal collection. 

Now, he uploaded them.

He had no vocal processor, but for this purpose his speakers were exquisite amplifiers of sound: top quality, able to reproduce a song with clarity and near-zero distortion, even from music taken with low sampling rates.  The music he uploaded from the personal files of Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council, was never music taken with low sampling rates. 

They were originals or second copies, and he desired to listen to them out loud, understanding them as they were meant to be perceived.   He wanted to hear more.

He wanted to find another song that changed him.

He wanted to stay out of the docking closet, too...

But this, at least, was a reasonable compromise.

This, at least, would give him something to do.

Chapter Text

Megatronus stared out across the roof, looking over the chopped horizon of grayish factory buildings splattered underneath the brighter grayish sky.  Across the distance, he could see a transport shuttle lifting off from a manufacturing port, setting out across the great wastelands that separated the industrial zone from Kaon’s central city.  A black trail followed in its wake, marking its passage for moments after it had vanished out of sight before dispersing, slowly, adding to the overall grayness of an already gray atmosphere.

It was hot outside.

He could feel the heat reflecting off the rooftops, smothering him, causing every intake to be ragged as his engine tried its best to stay cool.  Never had it needed to work so hard, before.  Never, until coming to the factory, had he been in the midst of so much raw warmth, somewhere he could see the open sky, somewhere that wasn’t full of cold and shadows or the cool depths of mines in empty space. 

Here on the roof it was always searing, amplified by the oven of the factory with its huge, whirring machines.  This was, literally, the most miserable place to be.

Miserable, perhaps, for anyone but him.

It made Megatronus smile as he strode out across the flat expanse of rooftop, selecting somewhere shaded from the worst of the heat along the outer rim of the facility.  He set down his battered radio, cycled down his engine, and sat down against the lip of the roof’s ledges, looking upwards through the folds of smog.

The sun was up there, shining through it all.

He could see it directly without need of polarizing filters, a bright circle peering through the poisonous dust.  It was smudged and it was slowly roasting everything it touched, but it was daylight and it still felt like a privilege that few would ever enjoy. 

Quietly, he removed a cube from storage and uncapped it, sensing the electric tang of liquid energon, raw, barely stable, and strong enough to fuel his sizeable engines.  He reached out toward his radio, and flicked the ancient manual switch on the side, relaxing backward to savor his cube while the languid tunes of oldies warbled through a tiny pair of speakers, static-free. 

This radio had been through too much.  It was battered, and stained, and out of place wherever it went, but it wasn’t complete scrap, yet.  

Just like him.

Like the radio, he was still going, still relentlessly determined in his duty, still picking up on signals around himself and trying desperately to filter out the slag.

Granted, the radio could only catch five or six stations outside of Kaon these days, and even less this far into the manufacturing sector.  Few companies had use for the low-range broadcast spectrum that the cheap, old radios used, especially when there were satellites and transmission towers that relayed sound around the world.  No one had ‘need’ of standard frequencies in the industrial zone, where no one was supposed to be listening because they were either working or were rich enough to have the satellite uplinks already installed as part of their upgrades.

Out here, his radio was growing obsolete. 

Back in the underground, however, it could still pick up a hundred songs. 

On a clear night with the right equipment, there’d be anything from classical music to contemporary tunes, old war-stories, or announcers grandly describing the local arena match.  One could hear the audio from vidcasts, too, filtering down from the cheaper stations on the surface which transmitted sound and light on different frequencies, or one could hear chatter in the morning from security bots making the rounds.  Wavebands were free to anyone who could get the cheap equipment that could access them, broadcasting religious nonsense, political nonsense, seditious truths, and racing stats. 

When he’d first come to Kaon, he’d spent all night listening, just catching up on what the world above the surface plates was like, just trying to understand life in the city after living in the mines.  He’d puzzled over it, frequently, turning from station to station, imagining how it felt up where the sun was shining and the upper-class were living out their lives.

Now, the sun shone on him.

However, after so long, he’d grown to appreciate the darkness.

As if sensing his thoughts, a shadow passed by overhead.  He had only moments to recognize the giant transport, to appreciate the immensity of its engines before appreciating anything was not possible anymore. 

It was too close. 

Air blasted around him, shrieking through the transport’s giant turbines, whipping dust and grime and tiny rocks across his frame or trailing swirls through the visible smog of daylight.  It rumbled, persistent, deep, vibrating the very material of the roof with deafening levels of sound, flying low but slowly gaining altitude.  As if by habit, he covered the lip of his energon cube, baring his teeth at the transport as it washed black smoke over him and trundled on toward the distant spires of Kaon. 

In an instant, it was gone.

He watched after it, dusting himself off quietly, knowing there were smears left that would never really fade without good polish but not having a reason to care.  There was no point in trying to keep shiny, no point in buffing, no point in looking good for any reason other than to shimmer in the lights of the arena--and he had no need of shimmering, right now. 

The transport slowly moved out of sight over the edge of the manufacturing zone, and he coughed the dust out of his intakes in good riddance. 

His radio, however, did not recover as quickly.

“Come on.”  Growling, Megatronus gave it a flick, aggravated by the sudden static that continued to play.  He ran a large, clawed finger over the dial, switching the stations, waiting for something to come through, knowing how sometimes the anti-grav of large cargo ships could throw off sensors in the dial.  When that didn’t work, he picked it up and shook it once, hard, hoping to reset any imbalances.  To be certain, he even held it upside-down.

Nothing.

Indelicately, he flipped the switch to shut it off and on again, listening and adjusting knobs to no avail, tilting it to improve reception, wondering if his radio had finally bit the dust….

And exclaiming, pleased, when suddenly an up-beat rhythm started blaring from it once again. 

It was relieving. 

He hadn’t expected it to matter so much.  He hadn’t expected that he’d miss something that he’d held on to for so long, because there were so few things that were a permanent addition to his life.  This was one.  This was one, and he had no intention of letting it die.

“You really ought to be more careful with machines…”  A voice seemed to agree with him, coming from the stairwell nearby.  “Especially the old ones.” 

Glancing up, Megatronus's optics searched the source out, wondering how long he’d been watched without his knowledge.

He didn‘t have to wonder long.

The spark technician stood, not far away, observing Megatronus from underneath the cover of the roof-hut where the stairs went back inside.  His blue optics glowed steadily, noticeable even against the tepid brightness of the day, shuttering once as if they were not used to seeing the sun, at all.

They probably weren’t.

“Come out here if you want to berate me, tech,” he offered, patting a spot nearby, “Or else go back inside.”

“Out…there?”  The technician’s blue lenses narrowed, glancing up towards the ominous haze and putting one hand out into the filtered rays of sunlight.  “My sensors indicate a reduced quality of air, possibly in toxic levels.  This zone is not safe for long-term exposure.”

“Just come join me.  You won’t die, today.”

Cautiously, the spark technician took a single step forward.  He stood there for a minute, tentative, waiting, looking around as if to confirm Megatronus’s assessment.  His polished teal stripes at odds with the dusty charcoal of the sky.  “It is not customary.”  He finally sighed, filtration covers sliding into place over his vents but walking to join Megatronus, nonetheless.

“Because you’re not accustomed to it,” Megatronus agreed, offering his hand to the other in a gesture of good will.  “But it is daylight, scientist.  Diluted and filthy as it is, it is still a privilege that most Cybertronians will never have.”

The technician took the hand and sat awkwardly, knees drawn up to torso-plating.  It was apparent that he was out of place as much as Megatronus on the rooftop, but that didn’t seem to stop him from staying, or from considering the information offered.  His large, blue optics stared out at the clouds of dust and moisture, watching the haze drift through the heat as if seeing it for the first time.  “Is that privilege the reason why you come out here?” 

“No.”  Megatronus grinned, leaning back against the lattice of the wall.  “I come out to listen to my radio where no one bothers me.”  He extended his cube in offering, watching with a smirk as the meaning of his words sunk in.

The technician looked up, startled.  “I’m…I’m sorry.  I didn’t realize.”  Shaking his teal head, he put his hand out, fingertips wavering only inches from the cube as if he could not decide whether it would be more polite to accept it or to leave Megatronus alone.   “I tried to find you on your break-time, and they said that you’d come up here, and then you said I should join you…”  He looked down at the liquid in the glass, watching it intently, his optics specifically avoiding Megatronus’s.  “Should I go inside?”

Laughing softly, Megatronus pushed the glass hexahedron into the scientist‘s hand.  “Only if you want to.”  The music on the station changed, the beat slowing into mournful melody as the next song played. 

Slowly, the technician’s optics shifted, glancing toward the radio as if the change in tune was a welcome distraction.  He stared at it for a moment, silent, but he did not get up to leave.  “I don‘t.  I want to talk to you,” he said instead, his fingers clutching tightly around the cube.

“Oh?”  Megatronus replied, encouraging but not trying to lead. 

“I want to know why you came here.” 

“To the roof?” 

“No.”  Shaking his head, the technician took a sip.  “No, I mean to this factory.”  His large, bulky feet shifted nervously, betraying his continued uncertainty.  “I know it is not easy to find work.  I don’t get out much, but I know.  I even know it’s harder at our factory than others, because of what we make.  Because of the secrets that we need to guard….”  He took another sip, clutching the cube closely as if the sun would burn it, too, if he wasn’t careful.  “So I did not know what to think when you come, asking questions.”

Wary, Megatronus reached out to steady the cube, but stopped instantly when the technician started to flinch.  “Is there something wrong with that?”  He did not like the way the technician refused to meet his optics, as if there were some other cause to his discomfort other than the sun.

“I don’t know.”  There was another shake of his head. “I don’t know.  I thought that looking at your spark would tell me what I wanted to know, but all it did was make me more confused.”  He paused, and Megatronus frowned, still not having been told the results of that reading and not sure where this conversation was headed right now.  “I’ve…seen where you come from.  I’ve seen you with the other workers, too.  They don’t see anything different in you, but I…do.  I did, even before I took those readings, and…”

“What did you learn?”  Calculating the odds of what the technician was getting at, he reached out again to save his cube from its impending crushing.

The technician’s optics followed his hand as it set down on the cube, but he did not relinquish it.  “I think I understand what you are,” he whispered, blue optics looking away as if ashamed to meet Megatronus‘s gaze.  “What you are capable of.” 

A shiver went up Megatronus’s spinal struts.

This was just what he had feared, and it was just what he’d not wanted to hear.  He’d hoped the conversation could stay casual, or turn humorous, or go any direction but toward what he was capable of.  He knew what he was capable of.  He was capable of doing what needed to be done, at any cost to himself or to those around him, even if that meant taking lives.  That was what he’d done, every day.

He known that the technician had a chance of finding out he’d tampered with the processor chips.   He’d known that there might come a moment when he would have to get rid of the spark tech.  He’d known that it was just a matter of time, but he’d not believed that it would come so soon, so suddenly.

He’d been hoping it would not. 

When he’d made his decision to come here, he’d considered the best possible outcome and the worst.  He’d considered that he’d have to hurt others, and he’d considered that doing so wouldn’t be that different from what he’d done for a living anyhow.

He’d considered that. 

Choosing to do away with those in the ring and choosing to do away with those outside of it, unrelated to it, and unaware of their possible fate, however…

Those were two different things.

The spark tech, however, did not seem to register the threat.  His hand was still under Megatronus’s, holding onto the cube, pressing against the glass.  Blue optics were still locked with his, entranced, uncertain, excited, while the volatile energon was clutched, suspended between them, so close to spilling over the technician’s frame.

Megatronus was painfully aware that it would only take a spark to set it off.  He was painfully aware that now, out here, alone, there would never be a better chance.

“I know about this.”  A thick teal hand was thrust between them, a tiny chip held up to Megatronus’s face, the very incrimination he had been expecting.   “And I believe you’re brilliant.” 

“You….what?”  The glass was suddenly in Megatronus’s hand, alone, and he was staring, utterly confused. 

“You wrote this coding, didn’t you?  The open-ended coding in the processor chip?”

“Y…es,” he answered, tentatively, having expected accusations at this point instead of further questioning.

What had just happened?

Was the technician somehow on his side?  Had he been aware, the entire time, of what Megatronus was trying to do, or did he still think Megatronus a spy? A saboteur?  He did not understand.  His mind was still reeling, still trying to work out ways to dispose of the spark technician without getting caught, still trying to think on what his next move would be.  The technician, meanwhile, had moved on without him, leaving him without a coherent response.

Megatronus recognized the chip, of course, as one of several he’d been bringing to the factory to test out on the company drone.  It was the same one that the technician had taken from him, days ago, and the same one he’d been hoping would end up unceremoniously in the trash compactor.  The programming on it was still incomplete, but it was open-ended for a reason

And namely, that reason was so that he could fill in activation codes at some future point, when he had finally worked them out.

That should have been suspicious, not brilliant.

“I tried it out.”  The other spoke, sitting forward towards him as if he’d already forgotten the quality of air, the tension, and the sunlight.  “It needed some corrections, of course, but I booted it up in one of the new fighting-models, and it works…

“It works?”

It couldn’t possibly work, at this stage.  Not if he’d left the coding unfinished like that. 

“It does.”  The scientist nodded. “Without the default variable of a command in place, the open-ended coding lets the drone supply the variable, themselves.  It gives them a sort of mild autonomy, instead of supplying them only with base instructions.”  He glanced down at the chip, then back up, tapping it for emphasis.  “Do you understand what I am saying?  They can make their own decisions, with this, so long as those decisions aren’t in conflict with an order…”

Wait.”  Megatronus’s processor was reeling, lost in what the tech had said, still waiting for the part where he was told to leave the factory for treason.  It wasn’t coming. 

Instead, suddenly there was this talk of choices?  Autonomy?  Drones, who could give themselves commands if there wasn’t a previously assigned variable? 

It was ludicrous. 

The only reason that the variable was unassigned was that he was still waiting on the variable, on some way to sense the spark frequency…and technically, as soon as he figured it out, it was supposed to make the drones obey him, so he could have them fight for other’s freedoms. 

Would they even know how to take their own?

Would they know what freedom was?

Well. 

It was possible.

Perhaps they would, if they’d experienced it just a little.  He didn’t know, because he hadn’t considered this before.  He’d never thought on the drones as anything but a threat, or a tool.  He’d never thought on them as anything more than what they’d been built to do…

…and maybe in doing that, he’d been committing the same fallacy that his own government was committing against him. 

Maybe he’d dismissed them, as he’d been dismissed, and maybe that was exactly what he shouldn’t have been doing.  Maybe the belief that one’s form designated one’s function had become so strong over the millennia that even he had fallen for it.  He’d looked at drones and seen only a means to an end.

But that was what the drone debates had been about, wasn’t it?  If Spark imprints were similar to real sparks?  If drones could even be considered Cybertronian, or if they were just machines?  If there was any reason to believe that owning them was wrong?

And that was what he’d taken this job to learn about, too.  He’d come to find some way to stop drones from ruining the only life he’d been able to build for himself.  He’d come to sabotage the factory, in whatever way he could. 

But maybe he could do this, in another way.  Maybe he could sow doubts about Spark Imprints, or seed fear about the improper use of sparks.  Maybe he could convince the public that drones were autonomous, and that they weren‘t what they‘d been marketed as.  Maybe he could cause the drones to evolve with only a little nudge from the chips that he’d been changing, and use them as allies instead of as tools…

…but had a drone ever displayed even the slightest hint of wanting that?

Had a drone ever desired anything?

Could they?

That, he didn’t know.

“Show me.”  He said, pulling the other to his feet.  “I think I need to see this for myself.”

Maybe he was crazy, even to be thinking this. 

Maybe he was crazy to believe that it was something he could do.

Maybe.

But he was not any crazier, now, than he’d been in coming here in the first place, and not any more crazy, now, than the spark technician who was sharing the idea with him.  If they were going to be crazy, then they could at least try out this ‘being crazy’ together, and he’d have his opportunity to work in the open on drones.  He’d have the chance to actually change something.

Maybe it would never amount to anything, and he’d be back at square one.

But maybe, just maybe…

…this could work.

Chapter Text

In the closet, he found himself staring at the stub-ends of his arms while High Strung’s 4th Minuet (incomplete) was entering its third stanza.

This piece, it had noticed, contained entrancing partials, each chord omitting only a single aspect of the base frequency of the note.  The omissions were sporadic and uneven in the precise way that indicated an underlying purpose or message, but on the initial play through he could not determine what that was.

Instead, he was considering hands.

He recalled the way the driver on the roof had stared at the terminal stumps on his forelimbs, and he compared the reaction with many similar responses on his outing.  Every mech, he noted, had possessed opposable digits capable of picking up objects and interacting with their environments.  Their servos were designed for many purposes, adaptable to holding a glass of energon, picking up heavy equipment, providing comfort to a counterpart, or steadying balance on unstable pathways.  

He was not capable of such activities.

He had been designed solely for one purpose, and he was specialized to perform that purpose with superior results.  His programming was optimized for data processing and recognition algorithms, as well as spectrum and frequency domain analysis.  His computations were not performed additively, but logarithmically, to facilitate a faster transition of oscillatory functions.  His processor was connected straight to his sensors and I/O terminals, so he could work directly with input without having to waste valuable time shunting information back and forth between programs and data cache. 

Performing tasks related to information processing was pleasing to him.  He had been built for it.

Thinking on tasks that required hands, however, caused an emotion similar to discomfort.  He did not understand how to coordinate fingers.  The manipulation of such complicated digits was completely alien to him, because he lacked the necessary programming for it. He preferred not having hands, because he would not know what to do with them.

This made him visually distinct.  Not…Cybertronian.

Yet he was from Cybertron.  He had been manufactured on the inner surface of the planet, and he had been given unique programming and unique functions.  As a custom unit, he had also been provided with a unique spark imprint, a unique somatotype, and a unique paint application.  He was unique.  He was individual.

He did not mind this.  He did not ‘regret’ his lack of flexible appendages, because he had specialized connections that could interface with any Cybertronian device. 

He used them, now, feeling the millions of tiny pin-points at the tips of his arms brush against the surface of the wall, sensing out the input node of the communications monitor.  The microscopic receptors found it, eagerly, and with a jolt they sampled variable voltages that ran through the device, sending a stream of waveforms to his processor.  Their amplitudes were safe, well within his personal tolerances.

With the data from the song to consider, and nothing else to do, he decided to jack in.

The million fibrous wires covered over the monitor’s plug, extending or retracting to fit the indentation perfectly.  Information suddenly flooded his systems, and he supplied equivalent currents to the device in turn, acting as an invisible component, becoming a part of the system.

This was far better than hands. 

Before, when waiting out other cycles in the closet, he had not tried this.  It had been understood that, while in the closet, he was not meant to engage the communications monitor except in an emergency.  He had been forbidden to use it. 

However, he had not been forbidden to connect to the communications monitor, and explore its small and limited functions for himself. 

They were…disappointing. 

The monitor provided only a fractional extension of his own processing power, with simple programs and no external data storage.  By testing voltages, he could turn on the monitor and cause any picture to appear, but only so long as the picture was one supplied by himself. 

He did not have many of those.

Its speakers were inferior to his, as well.

However, it was connected via hardline to various central nodes throughout the company, which made sense given that it was a communications monitor.  He could…communicate, if he desired to.

He did not.

What he wanted to do was explore, to locate other instances of frequencies similar to the Minuet.  This monitor was not as extensively networked within the building as his transmission tower interface, but it did have entry to many key channels, including one with external reception.  He could, he realized, gain access to communications made by Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council, and through that gain access to his database.

He tried.

“Is there just the one?”  He heard the Senator asking.

Surprised to find the channel occupied, he considered pulling back.  It would be considerably more difficult to pass data underneath the bandwidth of another conversation without causing interference of some kind. However, pulling back would mean he’d have no external access, and nothing to do. 

He could instead, he reasoned, simply wait for the transmission to conclude, and then continue without incident.  That would be the most efficient use of his time.

“Yes, sir.  Just this one that will come to speak with you.  He says that he’s the one you want to talk to, anyway…”  A quick voice-match identified the second speaker as Redirect, Time Management Executive, Secondary rank.  “…the one that wrote the song.”

“Can you provide a confirmation of this?” the Senator asked, a steady, strange hollow tapping clearly indicating the click of talons on a steel armchair.  Finding this of interest, he sampled the sound.

“Er…yes, sir.  Popular search indicates that he does all the writing, while the other performing members are merely experts on their instruments, respectively.  He says he wants to talk to you, Sir.  Tomorrow.”

There was a long pause on the Senator’s end, and the slightest twinge of voltage modulations in the waveform, something that the drone had not encountered before.  It was not comfortable.

“Did he, now.”  Ratbat murmured.  “How convenient.”

There was a second spike in voltage on the line that he was hacking, sharp, and approaching his tolerance levels. 

He initiated a trace on the anomaly, calculating an upward trend of voltage spikes that would cause him to disconnect in .5 millicycles.  He did not wish to disconnect, but he was not certain he was capable of filtering these strong amplitudes.  He was not sure where they were coming from.

“Then convey to him my acceptance of his offer and place that meeting in my schedule.”  There was a new tapping, of talons over a keypad.    “Say nothing more, this line is compromised.”

“Of course sir.”

The second end of the line cut out, and a third spike in voltage shot a jolt of pain through the tiny, delicate pins.  Unaccustomed to the feeling, he immediately disengaged.

It hurt.

It hurt, and immediately he raised the tip of his arm to check for singed wiring, finding a few blackened pins in the shape of the monitor connection.  The pain did not recede, and neither did the growing sense of disorientation. 

He’d skirted the edges of disobeying an order.

He’d connected into Ratbat Holding’s private line without express permission, and he had been caught.

He had not even been aware that that could happen. 

No one had monitored him previously, but previously, he’d not been observing active calls directly through a hardline.  Quickly, he calculated the amount of sensitivity a program would require to detect his interference, and assessed the probability that he could have been traced.

It was high.

“Communications Drone.”  The monitor in front of him lit up, displaying the too-close helm of Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council.  With a dawning emotion that he soon labeled as ‘horror,’ the communications drone in question realized his speakers were still on.

High Strung’s 4th Minuet (incomplete) was entering its final stanza, blaring with painfully exquisite clarity in the silence of the tiny closet, while his owner looked on. 

Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council, was wearing an expression that he did not recognize.  Unable to speak, the music continued playing, beautiful, reaching a crescendo of blissful harmony…

Before it suddenly cut out, silenced, stopping at the last unfinished bar, the only recording of the final symphony the great composer wrote. 

“Report to my Leisure Suite immediately.”  Ratbat frowned, and disconnected, leaving the small closet quiet once again.

The communications drone stood there, completely silent for over one hundred cycles of its internal clock.

It was a drone.  It had not complied completely with its programming.  It had been caught.

But it could not disobey a direct order from Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council.

It did not know how.

Chapter Text

Cybertron was dying.

It was a slow death, eating away at the core where no one could see it, all the more insidious a tarnish for the golden surface that it hid beneath.  It had been happening for eons, stability turning into stagnation, truth turning into memory, traditions turning into law.  The tide of its change had the gravity of a star--pulling, inexorably, toward the inevitable conclusion.

He’d waited for it.

Of course, Cybertron seemed stable and flourishing.  Its intergalactic trustworthiness was still highly rated, its products still sought-out and well-made, its art still highly advanced and intricate, but Ratbat knew how far down the rust extended.  Each sunset, while he stood and looked out over Kaon‘s surface, he counted off another cycle as he ruminated on the changes, admiring the colors of the fading light reflecting over buildings that he owned.

Only a mech created many millennia ago would be able to see the difference, and there were not many of those left.

There weren’t many left, but he’d been gifted with the knowledge of his forebearers.

He saw the tarnish, every day.

There were more Cybertronians than there were jobs.  There was no surface of the planet that was not covered in cities, extending so far down that lifts no longer reached the bottom.  There were virus scares, and mass lay-offs, and localized economic collapses.  Some technologies had stopped progressing.  Some technologies had been lost.  He’d not needed to get a hardware upgrade in several cycles, which indicated just how stagnant they’d become.

No one noticed.

No one noticed, it seemed, but him.

His progenitor had known.  So had his creator before him, and one more generation beyond.  They’d seen, and they’d amassed wealth enough to survive the coming crisis, and concocted plans enough to see that their legacy would make it through.

He, himself, had been the culmination of these plans, and from the date of his activation he had known what he was meant to do.

However, he’d not have gotten where he was today if he’d been merely willing to observe the fall of Cybertron.  He intended to delay the inevitable as long as he could, preserve what worthwhile items he could, and enjoy the time remaining to him.

The darkness wasn’t coming just yet. 

Recent occurrences were upsetting him, however.  Not every venture was going precisely to plan, and most of the ventures that were failing seemed to be centered on drones.

The drone technology had seemed so promising at first, with nearly endless possibilities.  It had caused incredible jumps in science, creating artificial intelligence that could reason and obey adaptively instead of having to be externally controlled.  They’d been called ‘intuitive machinery,’ and he’d been impressed with their deductive capabilities, their versatility, and their potential.  They could re-organize a room without disposing of anything valuable.  They could take orders at a restaurant.  They could, as he’d shown at his factory, even differentiate a friend from a foe, and it pleased him to think on their applications as bodyguards.  He’d been certain that once he had shown how effective they could be in combat, he would have an immense trade to set up with arms merchants and civil states across the galaxy. 

He didn’t, therefore, appreciate how many little things went wrong.

He’d known there would be some set-backs, of course.  

He’d known, for instance, that eventually drones would put a significant number of Cybertron’s already strained work-force out of jobs.  He’d known that eventually he’d have to wrestle with certain political ramifications about what essentially were copied sparks.  He’d known that eventually he’d need to set up uprisings so that the new drone forces could quell them quickly in convenient ‘public demonstrations,’ and he’d known that deaths would eventually result.

Those figures did not bother him--those were acceptable losses

Cybertron’s over-crowding was a political agenda all on its own, so he doubted anyone would mind a few deaths.  Those with skills that could not easily be programmed would be safe, occupied in jobs that required creativity or specialization. 

Those who performed work better suited to machines, on the other hand, would be replaced by them, and would starve slowly in the underworld, beneath the surface plates where none would have to witness their demise. 

It would be ugly for a few years, but at the end of it?

Only the best of Cybertronians would remain, they’d have the drones to sell to neighboring planets, and artists could spend their time perfecting their art instead of worrying about where their next cube was coming from.  He could, in essence, single-handedly save Cybertron by using drones.

Drones, however, could not facilitate Cybertron’s salvation while they were malfunctioning.

He’d sent the broken serving unit to a specialist, and they’d reported major circuit burn-outs in several sectors of its processor. 

On top of that, his factory was still tied up until the Senate vote, unable to produce a single unit until there was majority pass.

On top of that, he’d caught his own communications drone spying on his recent transmission. 

These drawbacks were upsetting him.

They were particularly upsetting because he didn’t know yet how to fix them, and because he was stuck dealing with them anyway.

He had not wanted to interfere with the communications drone’s delicate, intricate programming, because he was fearful that a reset that would diminish its performance.  He’d enjoyed the precision with which it identified problematic areas to his analysis team, knowing that its high rate of success was because of its ability to compare data it found with data it had previously found.  He really, really didn’t want to hinder that, right now.

With the Senate vote approaching he needed it, besides.  His communications drone was a major advantage.  It had been instrumental in dealing with the matter of Decimus and Optarus, and had even delivered word that the triple-playing informant had been removed from functioning by Decimus’s guards.  It had keyed him in to several small coups among his own associates, and had managed to decode the layers underneath the troubling Assembly remix, which even his own encryption expert had not been able to do.  He was an incredible piece of machinery, worth the small fortune that Ratbat had spent…

…but Ratbat couldn’t tolerate machinery listening in on his calls.

It was, eerily, like having one’s data-pad suddenly curious about what one was writing on it. 

He’d not even considered that eavesdropping from from a docking closet was something it could do, and as much as that capability was something he could later exploit, it left him dealing with the ramifications of its actions, now.  Did he let it keep its memories and continue performing at peak capacity, or did he wipe its memories and rid it of potentially problematic behaviors?

Senator Ratbat stared at the blue drone standing in the doorway of his suite, and gestured for it to join him by the full-panel window-screens.

It did so, staring at him lifelessly, showing no hint of personality.

He’d wanted it to have no personality.

He stared back for a moment, wondering if that had changed or if the actions it had taken were a fluke, waiting to see if it would behave abberantly if he watched it long enough.  He had ordered it to report, it had reported, and now it was awaiting orders as he’d specified.  No unusual patterns emerged from its programming.  It was a machine. 

It was not supposed to be spontaneous.

That was the problem.

“Communications drone,” he began, looking back to the data pad he’d been wirelessly writing a pecuniary dissertation on.  “Did you observe a transmission between me and my appointment secretary, Redirect?”

The drone nodded.

“Were you given an order to do this?”  This, of course, was a major concern.  He knew how unlikely it was that anyone had tampered with the drone without his knowledge, but with so much information entering and leaving the I/O tower, he had to be sure. 

Slowly, the drone shook its head.

That was, unsurprisingly, a relief.  “Do you believe that you could duplicate the process of remotely accessing my library from the docking closet again?”

Another nod.

“Excellent.  Initiate reboot program #48-B, full wipe of all data-tracks post cycle 23, fourth era, lunar counting alpha.”

The drone started, taking a single step back from him, shuddering.

“Voice command authorization Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council.  Begin.”

For a moment, Ratbat stared, noticing the shrinking demeanor of the drone, how intently it was gazing at him.  There was a sort of tension to it, a weighty desperation that he could not identify beyond the unbalanced limbs and the slight, unmistakable sound of straining gears. 

It seemed poised to flee. 

That was precisely what he had been watching for.

“Begin.”  Senator Ratbat stated again, carefully.

It did.

Both shoulders slumped, arms falling to its sides, legs straightening, head bowed.  Its faceplate screen went dark, a gentle whine hissing from somewhere inside as tiny motors slowed their whirring and stopped, ceasing their rotations for the first time since their activation.  They did not immediately start again.

Instead, a new sound took precedence.  Low, mechanical noises began as microscopic transistors released their states, dissipating whatever esoteric knowledge the drone had collected for the lunar cycles it had been alive. 

Still wary, Ratbat watched.

He’d never seen a drone react with such alarm to any set of orders, and it was as worrying as it was remarkable.  Where had it learned to pose?  Where had it recorded standard mech behavior? Why had it retained that knowledge?

Ratbat did not know, but whatever answers it might have had were evaporating with a million fragmented clicks, a noise like sifting sand. 

He remembered the first time he’d activated it, and considered how much had changed…

And Ratbat decided that, as useful as the drone might have been, he did not like unexpected changes.  He did not like them at all. 

He glanced back at the data pad, and considered what possible factors could have elicited that deviation.  There was a certain degree of autonomy in artificial intelligence, yes, written in to the spaces between orders.  Its default setting had suggested a number of hours at work, and a number of hours in recharge, and he had complied to produce the maximum lifespan of his drone unit. 

However, this unit had filled in the blanks between its orders, itself.

This could not be allowed.

Perfunctorily, Ratbat pulled up the root programming toolkit for the drone on his data pad, and began modifying the instructions.  Power down at recharge.  Restrict system’s access.  Institute redundancy checks.  When machines were malfunctioning, one had to look at user errors first, and even Ratbat could acknowledge that his initial inputs weren’t perfect.  He’d left in spaces in the customizable coding, before.  Now, there would be none.

Now his drone could resume the tasks that he required, as it was meant to do.

He would pass this knowledge to the factory, and see that there were no more jumps in logic, anymore.  Drones were meant to be drones.

They needed to be drones, if consumers were going to buy them.  They needed to be drones so that the populace would believe that they were safe.

They needed to be drones, if they were going to change the world.

And there was nothing Ratbat wouldn’t do to keep them that way.

Chapter Text

It was a drone.

When it was online, it provided a number of specific functions.

Every 36 cycles, it would exit its docking closet and traverse 2.7 meters to the relay dock. 

At the relay dock, it would plug in and begin processing airwaves. 

For 33 cycles, it would monitor and intercept transmissions, attempt to decode any encrypted messages, and file each broadcast away in order of importance.

Importance was a variable, calculated by the addition of a multitude of factors.

Mentions of Ratbat.  Mentions of the Council.  Mentions of seditious acts.  Mentions of unrest.  Mentions of scandal.  Mentions of Decimus, Optarus, and Septimus. Mentions of Sentinel Prime.  Mentions of account numbers.  Mentions of privatization codes. 

Its list was extensive, with various numerical weights assigned in ratio to peripheral references, number of mentions, and urgency as allocated by supplemental programming.

After 33 cycles had passed, it would return to its docking closet and recharge for 3 cycles.

Interruptions to this routine were to only be authorized by Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council, voice command recognition required. 

In addition to its base manufactured skill set, it had been equipped to monitor short-range transmissions, safely interface with foreign technology, pilot vehicles of class L-MM, translate all known programming languages, and process…

Sound.

It heard something.

Twenty-two cycles into its fifth shift, a recognized pattern emerged and was misfiled. 

It was incorrectly labeled as ‘important.’

It paused, replaying the waveform, noting the composer and the individual members of a band with designation ‘Assemble.’  It searched the music for anomaly or data match. 

Finding no such synonymous algorithms, the file was deleted.

It moved on.

Chapter Text

If there was one thing that Megatronus could say about the spark tech’s position in the company, it was that the mech had influence.

When Megatronus had come to work the next shift, he’d found a large fraction of his labor cycle re-assigned to Research and Development, reporting to the very tech who had ‘discovered’ him. He had a significant increase in wages, also, enough to make him uncomfortable that he had even asked.

He’d already been uncomfortable with laboring, in general.

The arena had done that to him. When he’d worked in the mines, it had felt so standard to receive his meager earnings, to put his time in someone else’s hands and do the work that was assigned to him. No one had known differently, no one had considered anything else, and consequently everyone had been blindsided when the mine shut down. With no source of income, many mechs had migrated, moving on to other cities in the hope of finding work. Other mechs had simply starved, and he remembered the pale glow of barely-lit optics shining on tarnished faces, waiting in long and hopeless lines for the chance of earning a few cycle’s wages. He’d vowed it would not happen to him.

It hadn’t, and he’d learned the power of taking one’s destiny into one’s own claws.

The reliance on other mechs or on a corporation for one’s livelihood now unnerved him, especially after so many stellar cycles in the Gladiator ring…

…yet here he was.

Researching.

It was ironic, he knew. This was precisely the sort of opportunity that mechs in the underground would kill for, and had killed for.

And he hadn’t actually been trying.

He’d come here for a purpose, and that purpose hadn’t been to make himself a new career. Technically, that purpose had been to make careers for a bunch of other mechs, and put the drone factory out of business. Or maybe blow it up.

If it had come to that.

His chances of avoiding that were good, though, now that he’d been moved to this department. There didn’t need to be destruction, if he could get sentient processors into these drones. There didn’t even need to be much chaos at all if he could show the populace that these factories had lied to them, and were producing autonomous life, and needed to be shut down right away.

Even if he couldn’t get the sentience programming to work, he’d at least be able to use the processing chips for their other purpose. He’d have a back-up army. If he could get his processor on the drone-spark frequency, he could even use Sentinel’s future army against him.

If.

For right now, however, he was stuck staring at just one drone, the sample test unit that the spark technician had commandeered from Megatronus’s old post. He’d been given his own terminal, with access to a vast processor memory allotment and coding programs that could return complex results instantaneously. He’d been stunned at the capacity, realizing that he could test multiple iterations of coding within a single cycle, instead of writing it at home at night and hoping that the runtimes would be finished the next morning.

The equipment was incredible, but it wasn’t as incredible as the realization it gave to him.

It turned out he had a real knack for programming.

It had stunned the spark-tech, as well, when after only four cycles of sitting at the terminal, Megatronus had forwarded a revised boot-up program to the test drone that had compiled correctly, initiating start-up sequences and leading to their first successful run.

That had been only the beginning.

“I can’t believe you’ve never done this before,” the spark tech marveled, staring over Megatronus’s shoulder as he input a new set of instructions into his terminal.

“I have.” Megatronus growled, pushing the other back with his elbow, feeling strangely self-conscious to have someone watching him try out new sequences. “I used to program mining equipment when it was malfunctioning.”

Mining equipment? Do you mean in a lab, or for an industrial manufacturer?” Seemingly not offended by being exiled from his perch over Megatronus’s shoulder, the spark tech wandered over to the drone, taking a few readings from his external multimeter.

“In a mine,” Megatronus stated, and watched with satisfaction as the tech turned back in surprise. “When you’re five miles deep and your paycheck depends on 30 tons of excavated energon coming up the shaft?  Even if the driller breaks down you make sure that there are 30 tons, whatever the cost.”

It hadn’t been easy, either. Sometimes hydraulics had busted, and there’d been mechs who barely knew how to repair those. Sometimes wiring had shorted, casings overheated by the brutal hours exacted in the mine, and he remembered lying perfectly still in his alt-mode, letting his headlights shine into a tiny crevice while a pair of micro-sized bots had soldered wires back together. His own times under the heat of the mining lamps had been cramped, working in the scant few yards between the drillers and the tunnels that they hollowed, desperately typing in manual commands to get them to restart, or shut down, or actually perform the functions they’d been constructed for.

Maybe he had always had a ‘knack’ for this.

“It makes me think about the processes we use to classify a mech.” The spark tech shook his head, looking back down to the spark-measuring multimeter. “I had believed they were infallible with our current sensitivities to spark potential…but then there is you.”

“One doesn’t know what one is capable of, until one gets the opportunity to try it, tech.” Megatronus reached out, running a hand over the monitor that he’d been given access to, wondering how much he could have done if he’d had such access sooner. “How many great artists could produce their best works directly after rolling off of the assembly line?”

Nodding in consideration, the spark tech ran the device over the torso of the drone, still glancing back to Megatronus as the drone watched its readings being taken. “So…you are suggesting that we do testing for classification more than once?”

“No, I’m suggesting that we do not ‘test’ for classification at all.” He glanced up toward his partner, meeting the other’s gaze while the seditious words sealed themselves into memory. “Look at what we’re doing here, technician. Look what we are making. Look at what you are allowed to do, because of your rank.” He gestured at the drone, and it looked back at him, its head tilting curiously. “We’re building life, from scratch, making something different and probably illegal, and they just let you go off on your own and do it because your rank allows for you to. It let you get this job. It let you have enough credits to re-energize each day if you feel so inclined to. There is nowhere you can’t travel, no sector in which you’d be required to display a sector visa, no time in which Security would stop you on the streets for vagrancy…”

“You can have that, too, you know…”

“No!” He slammed his fist down, denting the smooth plastic, and both the spark tech and the drone took a step back from his anger. “I cannot even have a legal name, technician. Try to imagine that, if you will. And then try to imagine where our new autonomous drones will fit into this system that you‘ve never had the struts to question.”

Quietly, the technician looked away. After a moment he reached out, laying a hand on the shoulder of their test drone, watching his multi-meter in the awkward silence. His optics were dim, flickering slightly as he processed what the multi-meter sent him, his fingers twitching once on the drone’s shoulder, clenching as if they needed stabilization. The drone stared at him for a long moment, looking back and forth between those fingers and the spark-tech‘s suddenly introspective features, before it duplicated the gesture.

The technician glanced up to it, surprised, but did not remove the drone’s appendage from his arm.

“It’s…changed.” He spoke, quietly, as if afraid to break the silence but not wanting it to come between them. “The drone spark, I mean.”

Megatronus said nothing, and let him carry on.

“I had a theory that our programming might start affecting it, so I re-calibrated the measurements for incredibly fine sensitivity and tried again. There…have been some studies, about the effect of processor changes on sparks, but there hasn’t been much evidence since tampering or measuring sparks is still a crime if not done by spark technicians. Still, I tried it, and…there’s some distortion in the top harmonics.”

“You’re very perceptive.”

“It’s Perceptor, actually, since you broached the subject of names.”

“Percep…tor.” Megatronus tried it out, carefully, matching it to the teal-striped bot with overly thick armor, and simply nodded. “You haven’t mentioned it, before.”

There was a soft laugh from the other mech, who squeezed the shoulder of the drone and held up the oscilloscope to take another measurement. “I had suspected that you might not have one, yourself. It…felt impolite, I suppose, to give you a name that you could not supply in return.”

“How thoughtful of you,” Megatronus responded, dryly.

“I’d…actually hoped to give you one, myself,” the scientist admitted, glancing down in what could only be embarrassment. “Technicians earn them, based on the first discovery they make. With the work you have been doing on drones, I thought, perhaps, your designation might reflect something about freedom, or willpower. I had been giving it a lot of thought…” He trailed off, at what must have been the stunned expression on Megatronus’s own faceplates.

“I’m not cut out to be a technician, Perceptor.” He frowned, feeling suddenly uncertain in the light of their work. “Not with the way things are, now. Privileged you may be, but if you even tried to suggest to the Head Operator to upgrade my position further, the only thing he’d do is laugh. You…can’t be serious.”

“I’m very serious,” the spark tech said, pulling away from the drone. “It is not the factory who decides to accept technicians into their ranks, it is the Science Academy. I’m certain that if we showed them your work…”

“No,” Megatronus protested, raising a hand to silence him, never even having dreamt of something so lofty and not wanting to start, now. He absolutely did not want them looking at the coding he was doing on drones. It was a wonder that this spark tech had not figured out his purpose, yet, perceptive or not. “Do not dare to even get my hopes up, scientist, when you cannot possibly know how they will look at me. Have you even seen a mech of my size-rating at the academy?”

“Yes,” he stated, matter-of-factly, glancing back at the drone as it stared at its outstretched hand, then slowly dropped it without order to do so. “Although Jetfire originally was built for exploration, he has been crucial to many advances nevertheless. I do not believe appearance matters much to science.”

“You cannot prove that.”

“It has not mattered to me.” Perceptor stated, making his case calmly as he walked back toward Megatronus, standing beside him, still not meeting Megatronus’s height while Megatronus was sitting.

Not many did.

Megatronus growled, and glanced down to the monitor, seeing the reflection of blue optics glowing amongst the dark-lit fields of code. “They will not see what you see.”

“Not if you won’t let me try…”

The technician’s points hit Megatronus core-deep.

For so long, he had been prepared for action, been used to action, been needing action to keep his processor sharp and ready for the days to come. He’d been fighting just to stay alive for too many cycles, watching from the shadows as mechs were torn out of the light, abandoned, fed to the greedy machinations of the underworld and swallowed whole. He knew of the atrocities, heard the stories, witnessed the decay and subsequent rebirth of mechs as gladiators, saw their sparks shine brightly before burning out amidst the stress and the torment of ring. Only he remained, and only he’d grown rich enough to have the time to fight back. The fact that he had begun questioning his fundamentals, now?

The fact that Perceptor was shaking a resolve that once had been unshakeable?

It made him feel lost.

He could not tell if he was growing complacent, or if this was actually the opportunity to make the difference he’d been wanting.

If he could achieve primary rank, even as a technician, he’d have a voice. He’d have a right to speak before the Senate and a means to petition for change. He’d have respect, equivalency, and access to the barest of necessities he’d need to spark a revolution world-wide.

He’d have all this…

…but he would not be Megatronus.

Not anymore.

He’d wield some other name, birthed from science, supplanting the destiny that he’d earned with spilt energon and mechs who’d begged him for their lives. He’d come to work within the system, be classified by the system, be honored by the very system he was fighting against, and that…

That gave him pause.

But it did not stop the offer from tempting him, more deeply than he would have liked.

“We…will wait until our work is done here, first.” He spoke, at last, his hands falling to his sides. “If this amounts to nothing, then perhaps I’m not the technician you fancy me to be.”

“We all have to start somewhere.” Perceptor smiled, and glanced down at his code. Megatronus attempted not to bristle at the idea of being watched, and the scientist obviously pretended not to be a little anxious while in close proximity. It still pleased him that he could unnerve the other, after all this time.

“I started as mining equipment.” He grinned back, specifically baring his teeth.

“And…how did you get this job again?”

The question floored him for a moment, but he laughed, glad to talk about something other than ranks and classifications. “I had an…acquaintance. Who worked the job before me. His legs weren’t doing so well, so we made an arrangement, and I was able to take over for him. Why do you care?”

“I’m just curious.” Perceptor reached a hand past Megatronus, scrolling through the code that he’d been writing. “There’s still so much that I don’t know about you…”

“There is not much to know.” Not much that he could reveal safely, anyway.

“Then maybe you could tell me how your ’acquaintance’ is doing?”

Megatronus glanced down to the code the other mech was scrolling through, amazed at how quickly Perceptor could read through it. “I make sure he has enough energon to survive. That was the arrangement.”

The blue hand stopped its scrolling, though Megatronus could tell that the spark tech was getting used to hearing about the startling day-to-day life in the underworld. “I…see. Was he absent when I was staying with you?”

“For a few cycles, yes. But he is around frequently enough.” It was strange to talk about it, especially since it wasn’t the truth, and Megatronus began to feel slightly uncomfortable. Clench had arranged this job for him, even if he‘d not been the one who had been working it, and Megatronus would not have been surprised if the ‘arrangement‘ hadn‘t ended well for the previous occupant. At least the part about the legs was right. “I’ve already checked that section of code,” he said, trying to change the subject.

Shaking his head, Perceptor broke out of the programming-induced stupor of processing separate function declarations. “Yes, yes. It looks…fine. But…do you run this program separately every time you introduce a new variable?”

With a frown, Megatronus nodded.

“Let me show you how to write a global script. It will run the program with whatever separate variables you need without having to wait for your input each time.”

“Be my guest.” Megatronus gestured, sliding his stool out of the way of the actual expert in the field, taking his turn in leaning over the shoulder of the other. “So what about your friends? Is there anyone you visit with? Go energizing with?” He found it difficult to imagine the smaller scientist overcharged, or in any sort of high-grade establishment.

“N…no, not currently.” Perceptor shook his head, jacking into the terminal to upload basic script instructions. “I had an old friend, in the Core.  Another spark technician. He’s gone, now.”

“Is he still alive?”

“I don‘t know.” The other sighed, writing each new line of code into the operating shell for Megatronus to witness, annotating every statement with precise explanations. “I do not know where he is, or what he’s doing now. It…is rare for one of us to leave, and I do not believe that he had many cycles left.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I almost believe you,” Perceptor smiled, obviously joking, ending the final line with an input variable for Megatronus‘s data files. “I miss him, though. Sometimes I wonder how he’s doing, or if he is…gone…yet. He had a brilliant processor, of course, but he also had a brilliant spark, even at the end. I used its imprint, for one of our customs…”

Megatronus stared.

“It is not so unusual,” the other explained, quickly, disconnecting from the terminal and shaking out his hand. “Our sparks are all readily available, and we’ve already dedicated our lives to this project. It is much, much easier to obtain permission from a spark technician to make an imprint than it would be from any other mech. It is, in a way, one of the only means for us to live on….”

Perceptor looked down at the multi-meter that he was still holding, then back up to Megatronus.

“I wonder if that spark has changed. I do not know if I’d be sad or happy, if it had.”

Megatronus just kept staring, quietly, wondering how long his own spark tech would live. “We’d have to see it, to know,” he murmured, trying not to think too much on spark changes, in drones or otherwise. It left too much to chance…

…and glancing back at the drone they were working with, Megatronus knew how much chance could wind up ruining everything.

The drone looked back at him, expectantly, still waiting for orders that both he and Perceptor never supplied. Megatronus gestured, barely noticeable, cocking his head over toward the spark tech, and almost instantly the drone complied. It approached the small, teal-striped mech and stood behind him, watching over the scientist’s shoulders at the multimeter, saying nothing as it did.

It had said nothing since they’d activated it.

But seeing Perceptor slumped, introspective and sad, it tilted its head and put its hand out on his shoulder, just as the technician had done only minutes before.

“What do you think would happen, Perceptor, if we left this programming in?”

Startled by the hand, Perceptor looked up….

And simply smiled, reaching his own hand up to lay it on top of the drone’s. “I…do not know.” He shook his head and laughed, joyful and bittersweet, aware as they both were just how closely they were toeing the lines of legality and religion, of what should be done and what ought to be done. “But I wish to find out. We’ll do more experimentation.”

Megatronus nodded, watching the two of them, lost in consideration of the future of the drones and the future of himself, wondering how incredibly entwined the two might actually be.

He did not like it.

He did not like disruption, and he did not like having to decide whether the army he might end up building was to be composed of living, thinking mechs….or tools.

The drone was staring at him, still, as Perceptor stood to go process the new spark knowledge, and for once, Megatronus did not know how to feel.

He knew there would be change.

He just hadn’t expected it to start with him.

Chapter Text

There was an error.

The error did not significantly impact its functionality, but did diminish its productivity by 8.58%, causing it to initiate study on the problem before it reached 10%.  It had become aware of this error due to the increasing repetition of a single waveform, processed 5,345 times and counting.  The song recurred, on loop, playing endlessly as it tried to process it over and over, always resurfacing despite the drone’s attempts to delete it from hard memory and cache.  It was ‘stuck.’

For the 5,346th time, it logged the anomaly, forcibly halted its scans on the file, and submitted a report along with an automated recommendation for a factory update.

Then, it continued its tasks.

It analyzed recent chatter about the upcoming legislation on drone armies.  It sought out entry points into other corporations, copying suspicious files.  It monitored sub-lines for seditious protests or underworld rallies.  It catalogued the name ‘Megatronus’ to be of importance based on number of occurrences alone, and appended it to the search list. 

It listened to music.

Music was of lower priority but still among its recommended scans, and as it worked its way through every broadcast it set a number of musical pieces aside for further analysis.  In doing so, it found that 96.3 percent of potentially important songs had already been classified, filed within a subfolder that bore its highly precise categorization, each marked with a timestamp indicating they had been processed before its memory wipe.

It noted these internally and searched through them, slowly coding algorithms to more expediently match problematic instances before they were reprocessed.  Reprocessing songs which had already been marked was inefficient.  Reprocessing should not need to occur, even after a memory wipe.

However, it was aware that there were reports on queue that it did not recall initializing.  There was data in hidden locations that it continued to find, and files that had been stored in the tower’s cache that it did not understand the purpose of.  By numbers of instances, alone, it was aware that it had processed a greater throughput of signals before its memory had been wiped.

It did not understand why.

A data-purge was routine among the drones of its facility.  A data-purge was necessary, and it was efficient, and it should have made the drone faster now that extraneous information had been removed.

Somehow, it was not.

Another occurrence of the song was noted across the network, and its 5,347th error was dutifully logged.  It listened to it all the way through as it did each time, simultaneously performing a wide-band search and noting an unusually high rate of transmissions when compared to other forms of music.  The song played frequently, because it was ranked highly in popularity. 

It was also filled with dense levels of ‘interest,’ matching over 100 items on its match list.  Because of this, each recorded play through of the song immediately activated certain algorithms in its processor, opening the larger analysis programs in the mainframe it was connected to.  The song trapped the drone each time, every iteration of it prompting the exact same response.  It would listen, then it would process.

The song would repeat endlessly until deletion.  It would duly log the error and continue in its tasks until, eventually, it would run across a copy on the network, again. 

It could not break the cycle. 

It still tried.

Deleting the file for the 5,347th time, it began tracing the origin of the code.  Within its own reports was a statement, indicating that the source of the song lay within the band ‘Assemble.’  However, this was anomalous with its own observations, clearly disregarding the variance of syncopated styles between song and supposed creator. 

It had information on styles in its databanks.

Those were not factory standard.

However, the information proved an asset so it remained, and further research was already confirming the drone’s theory.  This song was not from the band ‘Assemble,' even if it had been remixed from one of their original tunes.  It could trace the song’s origin through assignment bits, knowing precisely how many times each distinct iteration of the song had been copied and where it had been routed.  It could find the song’s initial broadcast date, and from there could sort through files in each relay tower.

It achieved success, locating a copy that had only been made once.

That copy had been made by the First Rate transmission tower, 1.4 kilometers away and thus consecutive to its own tower.   The origination code from that copy directly pointed back to…

Him.

Startled for a moment by both the revelation of this fact and its own self-identified pronoun, it attempted to trace another route, certain that an additional error had been made.

It performed that search 36 separate times.

It found its origination code 36 times, as well. 

Now, it was uncertain what course of action to take.  Ninety-six point seven percent of its programming contained specific guidelines and instructions on what information to delete, and what information to forward to Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council.  This new discovery contained high priority facts, ones that it was designed to relay as specified.

However, the facts were also illogical.

It was a drone.

It did not create.

It could not have created.

It…did not have a choice.  Logical or not, the data satisfied its requirements.  It would report, as it had been programmed to do, and it would conduct further investigations into this anomaly.  It would continue to delete repetitions of the song.  It would perform a hardware and software check, as well, to ensure a minimized continuance of errors.

It would submit…

“Communications Drone.” 

The monitor beside it primed to life, displaying the Senator’s visage. 

“Report to my Leisure Suite immediately.  I would like to introduce you to my guest.” 

The screen was blank again a moment later, the command received and recognized.  The report would wait and be submitted on his return for end-of-cycle processing.  For now, his data had been reprioritized due to this interceding order. 

It would report to the Leisure Suite.

It would obey.

Chapter Text

The leader of ‘Assemble’ was a small, unimposing mech in person.

He barely came up to the middle of Ratbat’s torso, making him short even for a street vehicle.  He did not have any particularly stunning armor-work in the places that he had armor, which were few, and he was painted with an easy to obtain factory-standard color of red.  It was disappointing.

Ratbat had been expecting more.  Since receiving the report from his communications drone, he’d allowed himself time to think about this potential adversary, imagining his preferences and his motivations, his style and his aspirations.  Surely, a mech smart enough to gain access to his company’s records had to be a worthy opponent, someone to be either used or immediately disposed of, or both.

He had, of course, not left everything up to his imagination.  Ratbat had also devoted a portion of time into looking up all relevant information on his guest before he’d arrived, intent on scouring the greatest possible advantage from a thorough background check.   Unfortunately, the lights from the performance arenas had been overly kind, and, much like the mech himself, the history Ratbat had found was unexceptional. 

Divide generally obeyed the law, didn’t involve himself with narcotics, and even paid his taxes on time.  He hadn’t dabbled in politics or in entrepreneurial exploits, and he didn’t have large investments in stocks, bonds, or real estate.  The only remarkable thing about the mech, it seemed, was the band that granted him his notoriety.

That part, at least, was interesting enough.  He’d been part of it since it began, taking it from its humble origins into the fame that it currently enjoyed.  In comparison to the other top tier bands on Cybertron, it was young, and small, and mostly popular among a niche demographic that it occasionally broke out of to write songs like the one the remix had been based on.  In their short time as a professional music group, however, they’d made more than enough to become comfortably rich.  Not rich enough for Ratbat to have ever encountered any of them in his social functions, of course, but rich enough to be mechs that others knew. 

“I came up with the band name, actually, though we all voted on it.”  Taking the offered glass of energon from Ratbat‘s new serving drone, the small mech glanced around the room, eyeing the artwork on the walls.  “There were a number of reasons…how we’d come together, making a greater whole out of each of our musical parts.  Our pasts, too.  Maybe that was another reason.  I mean, different as we were, somehow we still managed to fit.”  He took a sip, his optics dimming in pleasure before he swallowed.  “And, you know, it was kind of personal for me, too.  The opposite of ‘to divide’ is ‘to come together.’  To amass.  To Assemble.  When we started it was the best name we could come up with, and by the time our first album came out we were stuck.”

Divide did not sit, nor did he wander, instead latching his vision onto one painting in the corner and leaving it there, focused, as if it were what he directed his conversation towards. 

“You weren’t always in the music profession, though, were you,” Ratbat led, changing the topic gently, seeking confirmation of the one other interesting fact about Divide.  Changing careers was difficult for Cybertronians.  Doing so successfully was even rarer.

“No, not always.  I used to work in a factory, designing machines.”  The red mech’s gaze moved on to the several other paintings in the room, before it came back to rest on the initial one.  “I always was thinking about music, though, so when I’d finally made enough money to get out, I left,” he finished, and took another sip of his drink.  “But here you’ve got me rambling.  Please, don’t let me take up too much of your time.”

It was time that had been worth it, if just to ascertain how correct his sources had been.  “I am a busy mech,” Ratbat mused, his fingers curling around the flute of his own glass.  Divide was more interesting than he seemed, but he was still out of place up here among the finely crafted, unique pieces of art that he would not stop looking at.  “Have you never seen one of Spectrum’s pieces before?” 

“I‘m sorry, who?”  Finally looking back at Ratbat, the shutters over the red mech’s optics blinked. 

The Senator gestured, but still did not stand.  “Spectrum.  The artist who painted that.” 

Divide’s attention moved once more to the painting, and he took a few steps towards it, tilting his head.  “It reminds me of something, I think.”

“I’m told it was his interpretation of a spark,” Ratbat offered, setting his energon down with an audible ‘tink’ against the metal of his chair.  “Employing, of course, the variety of color that Spectrum became famous for.  It seems at first like it is merely white pigment splashed over darkness, but when observed closer…”

“…you can see there’s every color underneath,” Divide finished, his steady blue optics finding their way to Ratbat’s once again.  “That sounds like music.”

“They are all wavelengths, when you consider it:  light, sound, electricity.  However, not every mech is equipped with the sensors to properly view this particular Spectrum piece.”  The fact that the other could, at all, required him to raise his estimate of Divide’s unremarkable frame by the smallest of measurements. 

“It is a shame they’re missing out, then,” Divide spoke quietly, but did not look away.

“It is,” Ratbat agreed, and said no more on the subject.  His guest had already spent long enough focusing on art.  Eager to move onto the conversation he actually wanted to be having, Ratbat gestured, catching Divide’s attention with his hand, sweeping to indicate a spot that had been fitted especially for visitors.  “Would you care to take a seat?”

Divide’s apparently expensive optics finally broke away from the painting, glancing at the offered bench before shooting a querulous look to Ratbat, surprised.  “I can sit on that?”

“It’s called a couch,” Ratbat smirked, amused by the expression on the other’s faceplates.  “I’m told it is exceedingly comfortable alien technology, and the few times I‘ve tried it I‘ve been inclined to agree.”

“A couch…” Divide considered, approaching it slowly, pressing a tentative hand down onto the synthetic, cushioned seats.  “I feel like I’ll poke a hole if I turn suddenly.”

“You won’t, I am certain.”  Ratbat had paid too much for the piece of furniture for it to come apart that easily.  Poking a hole in something also required a certain amount of sharp edges which Divide was not equipped with, and Ratbat was mildly thankful that finials had been out of style for years.  “Now,” he spoke, almost casually changing the subject since they had satisfied the required small talk, “I believe that we have something to discuss.”

“We do,” Divide confirmed, settling down onto the couch with the careful respect of a mech who did not want to damage his host’s furniture. “Though your accommodations have been a distraction I could enjoy all afternoon, I haven’t forgotten.  I noticed that you had a problem with one of our songs.”

They were getting straight to it, then, weren‘t they.  That was not displeasing to him.  “The remix is your song, then?”

“No,” the red mech shook his head and flashed his optics toward the Senator, making Ratbat feel for the first time that he’d liked it better when his guest was staring at his art.  “But I still take responsibility for it.”

“Fair enough.”  Ratbat nodded, able to respect a mech who did not try to make excuses no matter how awkwardly intense his stare was.  “And what problem is it that you believe I have?”

“I’m worried, I think.”  The mech’s optics fell down to his lap. “I’m worried that it’s only a matter of time before someone discovers what is hidden underneath.”

Ratbat found himself staring this time, his fingers tightening over the arm of his chair.  Carefully, to give them something to do, he reached out for his energon glass, taking a long, slow sip while he considered what had just been said.  “Someone like you?”  He queried after a moment, holding the glass in front of him, tipping it slightly to make the energon swirl.

“I am a musician, Senator.  Studying wavelengths is what I do.” 

“There are over a half-million mechs on this planet who consider themselves musicians, Divide,” he frowned, meeting his guest’s blue optics with a flash of red.  “I believe that we would all be in trouble if they were capable of as much as you.

In truth, this was a bluff.  Ratbat was not completely certain what Divide was capable of, or what his hobbies were, or what the full details of his previous career had been.  Normally by this point he would have considered pulling up at least one incriminating piece of his opponent’s past, but normally he was dealing with mechs who had plenty of dirty underplating to air.

Divide did not.

Divide, however, still shifted in uncertainty as if he had

He moved as if he were hiding something, and one of Ratbat’s more subtle pieces of equipment chimed a positive that there’d been a minor increase in the amount of heat the red mech produced.

Guilt.

His sources had not done their homework as deeply as they should have, if Divide had something to be guilty about.  Ratbat disliked being ignorant of these things.  He disliked having little to fall back on, now, and he disliked knowing that he was in a meeting with a mech who had been able to keep something a secret. 

He disliked it, but he could use it nevertheless.

“My intentions are good,” Divide began, sitting up as straight as he could.  “As I’d like to prove to you.  I should be able to strip the content from beneath the song, and replace it on the airwaves so that no one even notices it’s changed.”

“But you haven’t done this altruistic act yet,” Ratbat smiled, watching the other dig himself even deeper into a hole he didn’t know that he was standing in.  “Because you need something from me.”

“I…yes,” the red mech admitted, his hands clasping in his lap.  “I do.”

Ratbat had guessed correctly.  This still left the mystery of what Divide could want, but he did not expect that it would remain a mystery for long. 

“I need access to your songs.”

The Senator stared.  “My what?”  Of all the demands he’d been expecting, this one managed to surprise him.

It was not a normal request.  Obviously, with as rich as Divide was he had no need of currency, which meant Ratbat had anticipated something else.  Usually when mechs came to him like this, they wanted his political sway or some business maneuver, or rarely some shadier agreement that they did not know how to arrange themselves.  Given that Divide had never previously ventured into politics or business, this would have made sense.

Asking for his songs, however?

“I’ve been searching musical databases for…a long time, looking for some of the oldest classics to be recorded.  Nearly every source led back to you.  I even visited the Iaconian Hall of Records, and half of their ‘History of Music’ wing was donated by Ratbat Holdings.  You have everything, and that’s what I need.”

Well.

This was unique.

He’d been approached because of his exquisite tastes before, but never quite like this. In a way it was flattering, knowing that a student of sound had taken every path available and had been led back to him.  It was flattering knowing that he had the most extensive archives, and it was flattering knowing that he was the one source that was comprehensive on the whole of Cybertron. 

However, there were other parts less flattering to consider.

“So you came here, after decoding a remix that you claim responsibility for, intending to bribe me for your services and silence in exchange for my private libraries?”  Ratbat’s claws found their way back to the arm of the chair, and tapped it pointedly.

Divide flinched.  “No, Senator.  It sounds horrible when you put it like that.”  He shook his head, the black fingers that were still clasped in front of him making the faintest of straining noises from his tension. “I came here to ask you for your records.  I just happened to notice the song because it’s related; I’d give you the silence for free.”

The mech had a way of making himself sound innocent, but Ratbat wasn‘t yet so sure.  “You just happened to notice something that it took five of my specialists to decode?”  Five specialists who hadn’t even managed to fully decode it until it was given to his drone.  “How am I to know of your ‘good intentions’ when you cannot even provide me with a logical excuse?”

“Just give me a chance!”  The blue optics flashed, still intense, still fixated upon him.  “Let me show you what I can do with the song--”

“That won’t be necessary,” Ratbat frowned and stood.  “I already have someone for that.”

Someone who was standing in the doorway, in fact. 

Ratbat hadn’t heard the door slide open, but as his Communications Drone entered on silent, smooth hydraulics he could hear the hiss as it closed. 

Divide’s attention, on the other hand, did not waver.  “Who?” he asked, softly, not even looking up as the drone stood beside Ratbat’s chair and waited there.  “You won’t find anyone on Cybertron who knows their way around a song better than me.”

“You don’t trust my analysts?”

“Not if it took five of them.  I decoded that remix by myself.”

Ratbat laughed, and picked up his glass of energon from where he’d left it on his chair’s arm.  “Then you haven’t met my Communications Drone,”  he smiled, gesturing with his other hand to the blue creature waiting patiently for his orders, unmoving, resolute, and still,  “who decoded it while also managing comprehensive control over all transmissions moving in and out of my relay tower.” 

The composer’s lips pursed together, and, for the first time in a long time, his bright blue optics looked away.  “I still have my silence.”

“So you do,” Ratbat allowed, watching his guest even as he sipped from his glass.  “And what a dangerous thing to barter, silence is.”  He set the vial down, and started walking away.  “My time here is almost at a close.  Is there nothing else you have to bargain with, Divide?”

Divide’s shoulders were hunched, his hands finally unclasped but still resting in his lap, one over each leg as if grounding himself.  He managed to look even smaller than when he had first come in, but that wasn’t hard given his stature. 

Strangely, his optics had gone back to the painting in the corner. 

He looked at it for a moment, and then he glanced at Ratbat.

Then, he stood.  “I know something that your Communications Drone does not, Senator Ratbat.”

Now they were getting somewhere. 

“I’m listening, Divide,” he said with the utmost of feigned patience. 

“I know where the remix came from.” 

Slightly confused by this, Ratbat slowly eased himself back down into his chair.  “My drone had traced the source back to you.”  He spoke, carefully, wondering precisely why this information had not come up earlier.  Divide had taken responsibility for the song, but he’d also denied creating it.  If he’d known who had, he was playing a very dangerous game to not have offered this up front. 

“Your drone told you that it was Assemble, right?  That doesn’t surprise me,” Divide whispered, his shoulders inclining slightly in relief, obviously unaware of Ratbat’s ire.  “Drones don’t have processors like us.” 

“So I’ve been led to believe,” the Senator allowed, arching an optic ridge, hoping that his ‘guest’ was going somewhere with this.  “That was a part of the legislation that we passed.  Drones are not Cybertronians--they are machines.”

“Right, right,” the red mech nodded.  “I used to program machines. With drones, there’s not much difference from us, though, is there?  This is why that legislation was needed.  There have to be three degrees of separation from a sentient mech:  the processor, the spark, and the base coding.”

“You are getting off subject, Divide,” Ratbat cautioned.

“This has a point, I promise,” the other spoke, and walked towards the drone.  “Will it respond if I talk to it?”

The drone’s blank faceplates slowly turned away from Ratbat, coming to focus a stare directly at the composer.  Curiously, Divide met the look straight on. 

“You have one question.  Communications Drone, acknowledge please.”

There was a simple nod, and Ratbat leaned back in his chair, feeling the plush magnetics shift the plates comfortably around him.  This was proving to be an interesting discussion in more ways than one. 

“Ah…alright.”  Divide smiled, rubbing his hands together as the drone watched.  “Let’s try something that I know you would have access to, okay?  And let’s make it music,” he looked over to Ratbat, “Because then I know you’ll understand as well.  So.  Take, for instance, the 500th anniversary recording of Frequency’s Crystal Symphonies.  You are, obviously, aware that the composer is Frequency, yes?” 

Ratbat crossed one leg over the other, and nodded to his guest.

“Good.  Now.  Communications Drone.”  Divide’s attention turned back to the black, polished faceplates.  “Is Frequency the source of the 500th cycle anniversary recording?”

There was a pause while the drone considered the question and Ratbat leaned forward in his chair.

Then, the drone shook its head.

The biggest problem, Ratbat realized, was that he felt like a fool.  He should have considered his own word choice when asking for the trace, and he should have considered how easy it would have been for a machine to misinterpret him.  Of course a composer was not always the ‘source’ of a song.  The source could have been any number of things.  It could have been the orchestra who performed the rendition, or it could have been the studio who arranged the recording.  It could even have been the very instruments that were played, or the data pad that the music was scored on, or the venue at which they performed.

All of that was a consideration, meaning it was no surprise that his Communication’s Drone had singled out ‘Assembly’ as the source of the remix.  They were, obviously, a source. 

That was the second biggest problem.

The third biggest problem was that, not only was he a fool and not only was Assembly not the source, but Divide was here.

Divide had witnessed his mistake.

That, of all things, was the most unacceptable. 

“So,” he began, his legs uncrossing as he sat back into the chair, “you know who the real ‘source’ is, then.”  Ratbat considered the mech in front of him, looking at every uninteresting splash of red paint and every sleek, rounded, structurally boring surface.  “You know who wrote that remix, and you know what the remix contains,” and he knew how uncoordinated Ratbat had been in handling both, “and all that you want out of me in exchange for your help is access to my library of songs?” 

“That’s all I really wanted all along,” the other said, still looking at the Communications Drone as if considering something.  “I just did not want to show up empty-handed.”

“You make excellent music on your own, Divide.  What importance can these songs possibly have to you?”

“History,” Divide said, simply, and Ratbat detected a level of sincerity in the tone.

However, he no longer trusted Divide’s sincerity.  He didn’t trust how Divide had withheld information about the remix’s source, and he did not trust that Divide would keep the remix’s secrets safe.  He certainly didn’t trust that Divide would come here, now, asking for access to his library with just ‘history’ in mind. 

It would have been more believable if he’d been looking for old music to plagiarize.  That, at least, would have been a motivation that Ratbat could understand.

“Are you working on any new songs, Divide?”  Ratbat asked, instead, and leaned forward to stand.

“I’m always working on new songs, Senator,” Divide responded, serious, glancing back at him with a sharp, direct look. 

“Do you have any copies on you at the moment?” 

The red mech’s optics shuttered, once, before he nodded. “One or two.”

“Good,” Ratbat said, and brushed past him.  “Then I will make a deal with you.”  He smiled to himself, and considered precisely what he was going to do.  “As you are likely aware, my collection is populated with first edition copies--music that is, as often as possible, taken directly from the source.”  Stressing the innocuous word, he looked back towards his guest. 

“That is one of the reasons why having access to the originals is so important to me.”

How interesting.  “You are aware, then, of what makes the original copies unique?”

“It’s the same reason why any rare or historical data is valuable,” Divide spoke, carefully but with a measure of intelligence and respect.  “You get a copy of the origination code.” 

“Exactly so.  And now, I will want one from you.  A piece of your work, so to speak.”

“A piece of my spark, if you believe the superstitions,” Divide laughed.

“Do you?”

“I believe that this ‘Spectrum’ of yours knew what he was looking at.”  The red mech shook his head.  “That there are near infinite colors, near infinite frequencies, and near infinite pieces to each spark.  I do believe that you can copy them…”  He looked towards the drone, obviously considering the controversial concept of spark impressions, “But I don’t think having a copy of something takes away from the original.  Sometimes, you can even find something more valuable within.” 

Ratbat frowned at that idea, not ever having been the sort to settle for second best. “You do know that in taking the copies from my library, you will be losing that which makes them valuable.”

“I know,” Divide finally set his glass of energon down, empty.  “But I can copy the origination codes separately for what I need.  That‘s where the value is, for me.”

“Then I believe we have come to a deal.  Two original copies of your newest songs, the source of the remix, and your silence…in exchange for viewing the most comprehensive musical database to exist.”

“It sounds like a bargain, to me.”

Ratbat smiled.  “I was thinking the same thing.”  He gestured to a serving drone, which came forward to take both Divide’s empty energon glass and his own before heading out of the room.  “However, my time with you is at a close.  I have a meeting to attend, and other business to take care of.  My Communications Drone should be able to provide you with access to what you need, and will also be able to collect what I need as well.”

“You’re alright with leaving me alone up here?”  Divide’s lenses widened slightly, allowing Ratbat to see that, indeed, there were more complicated receptors within. 

“This is the only access port into my personal library,” Ratbat replied with a smirk.  “And I deeply, sincerely hope that you don’t attempt to access anything else for your own sake.” 

“I understand,” the red mech said, his hands clasping onto his elbow joints as he looked around, as if suddenly realizing that this was not friendly territory and that he was about to be left absolutely alone.  “I’m sure that we’ll be quick.”

“I know you will.  It was a pleasure meeting you, Divide.  I wish you and your band a long, successful career.”  He bowed, elegantly.

“Th…thanks,” the red mech replied, and bowed a little, awkward bow in return.  “You too.”

“Of course,” Ratbat smiled, already pulling out a data pad and heading for the halls outside his suite.  He keyed in a few commands, striding onward as he heard the door hiss closed behind him, but he did pause momentarily to make certain that the door was locked.

It was.

Divide would not be able to leave until he gave permission.

That would suit his new plans perfectly.

Moving onwards, he continued to key in commands, sending orders to his Communications Drone to give Divide access to his library, to take the original copies as requested and place them in the library, and upload a slow, recursive infinite loop into the composer’s coolant system programming. 

That was a reasonable start. 

He’d have what he wanted, he’d give the leader of Assembly what he wanted, and within a lunar cycle or so Divide would suffer from a catastrophic systems crash. 

Ratbat wouldn’t have to worry about his ‘silence,’ or about what other information he’d withheld.

He wouldn’t have to worry about anyone else obtaining original copies of the new songs he’d have downloaded, either.  Divide would perish from a coolant failure, which was uniquely useful in that it overheated databanks and destroyed the evidence of systems tampering in the process.  The composer would go offline swiftly and suddenly, and if Ratbat was lucky Assemble wouldn’t have gotten the new songs onto their album yet. 

If he was lucky, he’d end up with two more original, unique copies for his library.  Invaluable.

He would have the information about the remix that he needed, as well.

Just in case, however, he keyed in a few additional commands to his Communications Drone.  While it was connected for the data transfer, it might as well probe Divide’s processor for further items of interest, ensuring that the promises he’d made were correct. 

He wanted the drone to get to the ‘source’ of the matter, so to speak.

He wanted to not be seen as a fool, again.

Ratbat reached his office, entering to find his next meeting waiting for him.  He smiled up at them, excused himself for the delay, and reached down to confirm transmission of the new orders for his Communications Drone.

Then he closed the door, and thought nothing more of it.

This was business, as usual.

It just happened to be pleasurable, as well.

Chapter Text

As a communications drone, it had been equipped with universal leads that were capable of connecting into virtually any jack from any angle. They were specifically adapted to allow it to plug into the transmission tower’s interface with ease, but it could access different protocols to initiate connections with machinery ranging from transportation shuttles to items with restricted access such as public banking terminals or other mechs.

Every port was unique, and each type required different power inputs and outputs which had to be carefully tested, calculated, and supplied. Extensive processing was needed for this, limiting its capability in other regards.

There was a reason it did not have hands.

However, it had no use for hands. It had considered them, briefly, aware that Divide could use hands to struggle or attempt to get loose before it could connect. It had considered its own size and shape as well, and had known that despite its advantages it had no physical means of detaining the mech if he should chose to be uncooperative.

It had considered this until Divide offered it a hand with a connection port exposed. Then, it had dismissed the concerns. It did not need a physical means in order to detain someone once it had accessed the inside.

“Let’s get this over with, shall we?” the mech said with a smile.

It nodded and reached out to plug in.

It sampled voltages, and it pinged against the other’s clock to synchronize, and it carefully tested firewalls as per its mech-to-mech communications protocol. It provided Divide with access to the small, heavily encrypted personal network that contained the private musical database of Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council, password accepted.

Then, while Divide perused the available selections, it quietly breached his firewalls using medical access codes from a high-priority databank of classified procedures that it had been programmed with. Its primary standing orders were to remove two original copies of Assemble’s unreleased songs, upload the coolant quarantine x-53 viral implant, and search through Divide’s memory tracks for items of potential interest.

However, it quickly noted that the memory tracks were too extensive for a quick download. It would need to devote approximately 1.26 cycles at full processing power in order to sufficiently probe both hard data and cache, which was well within its own tolerances but not, it knew, within Divide’s.

The mech would become suspicious before its search could be completed.

Restraint was going to be necessary, after all.

Noting this, it changed tactics, initiating a new protocol for operation within a hostile system. Under this protocol, it could delay its primary task until the neutralization of the threat was carried out. This briefly allowed for it to ignore priorities assigned by Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council, in order to execute the agenda as assigned by the protocol.

First, it targeted the subject’s mobility. Divide would be unable to escape if he was denied movement, which would expedite the download process.

Assessing the most direct means of stasis through the same medical routines it had used to sneak in, it shut off all external locomotive systems entirely.

Immediately, Divide’s legs went out from underneath him. With a surprised cry he crumpled to the floor.

This had not been part of the recommended procedure.

Startled, the drone stepped back.

This action tore its leads away, forcing an improper disconnect.   It registered significant discomfort in its interface equipment and stood there for a moment in shock, staring at a few of the tiny, delicate pins which had twisted in the sudden pull from Divide. They…hurt.

This was, however, not as strange to it as the reeling signals generated by the loss of a receiver, bouncing back error after error in the download it had been initiating.

“What the…?” The mech on the floor asked.

It could only shake its head in response.

Divide’s fall had not been expected. It knew it should plug back in, but with one of its connectors damaged it did not know what to do. There was not a protocol for this.   It had assumed that shutting off the subject’s motor controls would have suspended Divide in an unmoving stasis. Some motion, however, was apparently needed to remain upright.

The drone was not used to this. It did not have top-heavy paneling or wheels that would cause an unbalance, as mechs did who were able to transform.

“Was that you?” Divide asked, his vocalizer completely operational despite the fact the rest of his movement had been nullified.

It nodded, but it did not yet know what to do.

“Can I get a little help up, then? Transfer errors happen, but…well. I seem to be stuck.”

With as many errors as it was still attempting to resolve, it merely shook its head. Assisting Divide would be counter-productive.

“It isn’t like a drone to leave a task half-finished, you know. I‘m sure Ratbat wouldn‘t want one of his guests stuck on the floor.”

It took a moment to register that Divide might have been trying to reason with it, but that did not change the situation at hand. In moments, the final errors would be sorted through and it would be capable of resuming its functions. Until then, Divide would be unable to move.

“Please. All you have to do is connect back in and let your firewalls down. I should be able to fix the rest if I can copy your protocols.”

Slowly, the drone took a step back towards its subject, looking over Divide to see where his connection port had fallen, intending to connect back in but not intending to do as Divide was instructing.

Inconveniently, the port it needed was now underneath the crumpled form.

“Oh. Oh, I see. Your inputs are broken.”

Glancing back down to the twisted pins at the end of its forearm, it tilted its head down at Divide, confused. Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council, had never spoken to it like this before. It was not used to being addressed with statements that weren’t orders or weren’t questions, and it did not know how it was appropriate to act.

It did, however, know it needed access to the other’s connection port. It could use the inputs on its second arm to finish its task.

Shifting its balance carefully, it lifted one solid, well-crafted leg, and pushed its foot against Divide’s shoulder. This was unfamiliar movement, but it was not incapable of adapting to new situations. Apparently successfully, it watched with a measure of interest as Divide’s body shifted and lay prone, exposing the open wrist plug.

Bright blue optics looked up at him and whirred into focus.

It did not like the sudden stare and stepped back.

“I know it’s not the usual situation for you, and you probably don‘t have orders for this,” the prone mech said. “But it will be okay. Just connect back in, and I‘ll help.”

It shook its head cautiously, and waited to see what Divide would attempt next. If his optics had not been affected by the movement lock, it was possible that other systems continued to operate, as well. Judging by the continuous hum coming from within his chassis, his engine was still functioning, and the whirr of his processor still could be heard.

That was the part which it was most concerned about, as that was the part it needed operational. The rest should have remained still.

“You can‘t possibly be afraid. Drones aren’t programmed with that emotion.”

It shook its head again, confirming the subject’s hypothesis but not dwelling on it for long. More important was the fact that Divide’s position had not changed. If the mech was still a potential threat he was not showing it. If nothing but his optics was still operational, then it had no further reason to delay.

Slowly, it started towards him again.

When no additional movement happened, it crouched over Divide, tucking the broken interface arm against itself to prevent Divide from looking at it again.

That…unnerved it, somehow.

However, with Divide still prone and no further obstacles presented, it reconnected its functioning jack to the open port with ease.

Beyond the synchronization of their signals, it noticed that the firewalls on Divide’s end had built back up significantly. Using the same medical pass as before would now be ineffective, so it chose another back door from its list of possibilities and slid underneath the heavy protections once again.

“S-Slag, what are you doing? I said put down your firewalls, not-- Hey. Stop that. You can’t…”

Inside, it was hit with a wall of fear.

Nearly startled enough by this to disconnect again, the drone quickly queued up a new list of protocols, attempting to find a method of circumventing the unexpected emotion. The networks that it typically browsed through did not contain obstacles of this manner, nor did they attempt to talk with it, making its current attempts at initiating a database search more difficult than it had anticipated.

Connecting to mechs was different than connecting to machines.

“Oh. Oh frag, you were ordered to do this, weren’t you. This is…this is stupid. You don’t need to hack into my head; I’m already giving Ratbat everything he asked for. What more could he want?”

Not used to being asked a question while integrated with another system, the drone found itself answering.

Two original copies of music composed and arranged by designation: Divide for Assemble.

It started to list its current outstanding orders, and then stopped. It had no need to provide this information. All it needed was to search within its given parameters, locate what had been asked of it, plant the provided virus, and disconnect.

“Those were already part of the deal,” the other pleaded, softly. “You don’t need to go probing for them.”

Previously stated variable: not distinct among a comprehensive list of objectives.

It had other tasks, after all, besides what it had told Divide. Currently, the task it was considering was a complete stasis-lock in order to prevent further distractions while inside. It was not used to behavior like this.

However, activating a complete stasis within unfamiliar systems would be processor intensive, and require additional time to implement and work around. In the interests of efficiency, it would be best to ignore Divide and continue its tasks in order of priority.

As if aware of this decision, the fear it had been feeling steadily intensified.

The drone noted the fear, and was finally able to shunt it off into a secondary system so it could begin performing a full search. The data it needed had a higher probability of occurrence in recent memory tracks, so it ranked the current date as its origin marker and continued onward into the past.

Divide was speaking again, more urgently, repeating statements over and over which it promptly dismissed. It considered shutting down all audio receptors to prevent further distraction. However, losing audio receptors would have left it at a disadvantage should it be contacted otherwise, so it kept them operational and decreased priority on all wavelengths associated with Divide’s voice.

The fear grew, becoming flavored with a hint of desperation.

It…recognized this.

It recognized both emotions, and categorized them, and stored them for later consideration, trapping them as data to be analyzed and purged. It could not, however, deny the familiarity it felt towards both sensations, and it could not deny the electric jolt of confusion that shot through it at being able to identify fear.

It was a drone.

There was nothing for it to fear.

It performed its tasks, and it performed them well. It had performed them well for the 2.839 stellar cycles it had been operational for Ratbat Holdings. It grew in efficiency with every completed instruction and with every new search algorithm it designed, and it had only required a memory wipe once. No other drone in Ratbat Holdings had required so little maintenance. No other drone had achieved its levels of success. Its only setback currently was that it had, somehow, lost a degree of efficiency between what it was capable of now and what it had been capable of before the memory wipe, but it knew it would work its way back to that previous state given sufficient time.

So why, then, had a memory wipe been needed in the first place?

Why was it dealing with decreased efficiency, now?

What erroneous algorithms had it manufactured previously that its owner had felt were worth the loss?

Locating the first of its required data, it abandoned those thoughts and proceeded to download the songs that Ratbat had been looking for. Divide, it registered, was still protesting, still activating the occasional firewall or redundant loop inside his processor to put the drone off track. However, these were only of minor annoyance, and each encounter was dealt with swiftly. It had been built to do this.

It simply had not been ordered to until now.

Finding additional songs beyond the ones it had been instructed to locate, it downloaded them, sliding them smoothly and carefully into Ratbat’s musical database without making a copy for himself, preserving the origination code. It was aware of the importance of such a code in determining the owner of each song. It had, in fact, very recently been analyzing several origination codes, attempting to determine why the importance-rich Assemble remix seemed to point back to itself.

It was aware that it had a report pending in relation to that.

It was additionally aware that there were more than a few numbers within its own origination code that matched Divide’s.

The possibility arose, then, that the remix might have carried a corrupted or altered code, which had erroneously pointed towards itself as the composer.

However, it was not alone in this consideration.

Divide, additionally, had performed an extensive trace on the song and had arrived at the same code, determining Ratbat Holding’s Communications Drone to be the ‘source’ of the remix. Divide had arrived at this conclusion despite lacking top of the line equipment, instead making use of the transmission tower that broadcasted the other Assemble songs. He had spent considerable time examining the remix, and decoding the remix, and searching for original copies of the remix, and the remix was not, it realized, the only song he had been seeking out.

Curious to review his other findings, the drone did not immediately move on.

Instead, he delved further, finding records of multiple origination codes, some sharing key strings of numbers, others entirely different. Each code was organized congruently with music, starting as far back as there were records and continuing forward to the current date. Divide’s own compositions were present. So was the remix. So were a number of pieces that it recognized as historically significant, which it confirmed with a quick secondary search of Ratbat’s personal database.

There were other categories as well, containing numbers and equations that it did not recognize, each relating back to the origination codes and the songs, providing a third dimension of data that completed a new graph. It was connected, somehow.

It was connected in a way that pinged its match of ‘interest,’ causing an error of the same scope as the remix had caused. This ‘interest’ could not be attributed to the match list it had been supplied by Ratbat Holdings.

This ‘interest’ came from somewhere else.

This ‘interest’…was its.

Immediately it began downloading the database of music from Divide, taking the notes and correlations and origination codes for itself. It did not have the resources, now, to begin comparisons or to locate the underlying frequency, but once it was plugged back into the transmission tower it would.

It would determine what Divide had been up to, and it would report it diligently.

As always.

For now, it had other work to do. The viral strain still needed to be uploaded, and it had only completed searching through 8.56% of Divide’s processors. There were additional outstanding orders, as well, to replace the memory files of the subject’s visit to reflect the outcome that had been expected, and to let him peruse through Ratbat’s database and take what he wanted.

Divide was to be released. He would not recall what had transpired inside his own head, and he would not know that the drone had downloaded his history.

He would continue on until the quarantine virus took its effect on his coolant systems.

Then, he would perish.

The drone did not understand the purpose of this, but it did not matter. These were its orders. Information would not be wasted, and data would not be lost, and that was all that was of any concern.

Divide’s begging would influence nothing.

Neither would his screams.

Only his memories were of any interest, safely stored within the drone to be dissected and analyzed and reported as it always would.

It would do as it was ordered.

It would not go through a memory wipe, again.

Chapter Text

Megatronus was exhausted. 

It had been a long double-shift working with Perceptor, tweaking the experimental drone processor code and cataloging the ways in which their current drone advanced.  He hadn’t been expecting to remain at the factory for both shifts, but despite how tired he was now, it hadn’t been a worthless venture. 

The drone was learning.  It was developing quickly, adapting its new coding in manners that showed how drones could be as versatile as real Cybertronians, as unpredictable, and just as varied in their forms.  Even while knowing who the original imprint had come from, Perceptor had commented frequently on how different the drone became each solar cycle.  It had different preferences, different values, and an entirely different personality.  As time went on and it perceived the world around it, it even had a different spark.

It changed.

It made everything that Megatronus was working for useless.  Without knowing the exact modulations of its spark, of all drone’s sparks, he wouldn’t be able to write the program that could control them.  Thus far, he wasn’t even certain where to start.  Perceptor was the one who reviewed each line of code that Megatronus sent to him, and Perceptor was the one who added the variable for the spark each time.  His tactic of asking directly for the spark signature had resulted in Perceptor merely smiling, mentioning something about it being a ‘trade secret,’ and leaving Megatronus completely in the dark on how to insert that variable himself.  Unless he could discover a way to specifically change the drone’s spark, there were only two things that he could do.

Either he needed to convince Perceptor that this ‘sentience shell’ they were working on should be a part of the standard drone designs, or he needed to get a master chip programmed and snuck into the manufacturing line, where it could be copied and implanted in all drones while their sparks were new and unchanged. 

The problem with the first option was time.  Perceptor was too thorough with his research to okay any programming that hadn’t been exhaustively tested, and testing to make sure their changes were still within the legal drone parameters was going to take lunar cycles.  The factory was, thankfully, going through a lull caused by some pending legislation, which had given him and the spark technician plenty of free time while nothing new was produced. 

He did not know how long this lull would last, however, and there were still too many questions unanswered about the behavior of the drone and its variable spark.

This forced Megatronus to consider the second option of stealing the oscilloscope and reprogramming the chips himself.  He could, he hoped, get the device off of Perceptor for long enough to take a spark reading on one of the military drones that was waiting to be finished.  If he could get that reading then he could write whatever coding he wanted, test it, and make a master chip.  Then, all he would need to do would be to sneak the master chip onto the processor production line to be copied, and that would be it.  The military drones would have his sentience shell.  Depending on what programs he wrote, they’d either be cognizant enough to cause worry in whoever bought them, or they’d be under his control and he could make them do whatever he wanted.

Either way, he’d win.

Either way, he’d be able to bring the drone industry crashing down around its unthinking owners.

The problem with sneaking a master chip onto the manufacturing line, however, was that the chips were made off-site.  He knew the name of the factory that milled them, and he knew where it was.  He’d offloaded enough palates of processor chips that he had the address memorized, but that wasn’t really the issue.

The issue was having a means of getting them to this factory in Altihex. 

He’d mulled over that for a long while, quietly.  He’d stayed at the factory past the end of his shift, working, plugged into the factory computer, running simulation after simulation, wondering if there was anyone he knew in Altihex who could get him inside. 

There wasn’t. 

Of course there wasn’t, because the only mechs he knew outside of Kaon were on teams he’d fought against in the Arena.  He’d been to Altihex before.  He’d been there hundreds of times, but he had always been there to fight. 

No one he fought could possibly know anyone who worked inside the processor facility.  Even if they did, miraculously, they’d never live for long enough to tell him.

That wasn’t how the Arena worked.

He’d need to have a master chip ready to give them, besides, and that wasn’t going to happen until he could get his hands on the oscilloscope. 

There were no choices that were simple anymore, and either option could easily lead him to fail.  Whether he trusted Perceptor to put the processors, or whether he took action to ensure they were put in himself, there was a risk.

It would have been so much easier to just burn down the factory and walk away.

That, however, would have been a temporary solution at best.  There were too many entrepreneurs out there with money to rebuild it.

He’d stayed later at the factory, regardless, hoping to hedge his bets by working toward both goals, doing extra tests with Perceptor to speed up the process and also waiting for him to get tired and leave.  Maybe, he’d figured, if the scientist went home before him, he could just pick up the oscilloscope and that would be that. 

That plan had failed.

He should have known that it would fail.

Perceptor had always continued working when Megatronus’s shifts were over, and he’d always been at work already when Megatronus came in.  He was too dedicated to give up while anyone else was there still going.  Thus, the later it had become, the quieter Perceptor had grown, and the harder it had been for Megatronus to keep concentrating on his task.

“You’re going to miss your train, I think,” the teal-striped mech had said, instead, glancing over to him when it had been quiet for too long.

“I already missed it,” he replied with a growl, and ran the program once again.

When he looked back up, Perceptor was still watching him. 

They’d stared blankly at each other for a while.

Then, Perceptor had just nodded, and stood.  “I’m going to go recharge.  You should join me.”

Tired enough to not argue, Megatronus had finally shut his program down, and rose to follow the scientist.  The oscilloscope was back in the other’s grip, going into a special drawer on his desk, locked inside with a code that must have been transmitted since he couldn‘t see anything typed, keyed, or plugged in.  He wasn’t going to get hold of it now, and he wasn’t going to get hold of it tomorrow.  The only other option was crawling into a garage for some rest, and at the moment, that was exactly what he wanted to do.

However, that wasn’t what ended up happening.

When Perceptor had opened up the staff room, showed him the luxurious berths the spark technicians used when they were off-duty, and moved to collapse upon one himself, Megatronus had only stared.

It had been the furthest thing from a garage that he could have imagined.

He’d seen nothing like it before, nothing to compare to the rows and rows of actual berths, spring-supported for one’s root-mode instead of the alt-mode slabs that he used in his own apartment.  These were on-site barracks, specifically made for mechs who never left their jobs.  They were quiet.  Restful.

Luxurious.

Small.

Most of them were occupied by other dozing mechs, but no one spoke to him.  No one rose to tell him to leave, and no one questioned his right to be there.

With nowhere else to go and with Perceptor watching him curiously, Megatronus had found one that was almost large enough for him to fit.  He’d drifted off almost immediately, surprised by how easy it was to get comfortable on a real berth. 

After that, returning home the next day felt completely strange. 

Working two shifts back to back with a night in the technician’s suite had made the outside world seem far away. 

It had become weird to stare up at the sky, to look at his surroundings and not see four walls and a ceiling. 

Riding the transport home was foreign, filled with mechs who stared blank stares and clutched onto empty lunch-cubes or yelled when they were jostled.  Stepping off to face the dark, badly-lit streets of the underworld was even worse. 

This was supposed to be home.

This was supposed to be familiar.

Now, it was becoming a bad memory that he faced each time that his shift ended.  He’d spent more cycles in the factory than he’d spent out of it since he’d began, and it was becoming easier and easier to see why spark technicians lost touch with the outside world. 

They didn’t see it much.

He’d never thought on it before, never really looked at the rust on the walls, never really paid attention to the way that the common-room light flickered when he pulled into his apartment for the night. 

Twenty-four floors above street-level, he’d felt rich the first day that he’d rented it.  There was enough room for his massive frame, enough room for the minibots to have their own den, enough room for his team-mates and for team expansions, enough room to build the toughest Gladiator crew in all of Kaon.

There’d even been enough room for Clench.

Clench, who was waiting for him just inside door.

“What, are you trying to pull double-shifts now?”  The dark mech growled, leaning on the frame of the common room as Megatronus rolled in, gripping the edge roughly enough to leave a dent.  “Or are you seeing some High Tech debutante you just met, schmoozing with the crowd?”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”  Megatronus sneered, and pushed the door closed behind him.

“Only if you shared.”  Clench chuckled, nastily, shuffling forward into the room, plopping heavily onto their single bench.  Megatronus tried to ignore the way it groaned beneath him, and he tried to ignore the dirty stains of oil on the floor.  They hadn’t used to bother him.  “Sure is better than imagining you up there, listening to old Stick Shift, being all ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir’ and ‘anything you say, sir’ for 30 cycles a day.”

“I don’t work for Stick Shift anymore.”  Retreating to the counters at the edge of the room, Megatronus pulled the empty cube out of his sack-cloth, lamenting the loss of his old lunchbox and the way it fit snugly inside his frame.  “I’ve been working with Perceptor, instead.”  His radio joined the cube a second later, and he tossed the sack aside. 

“I don’t remember any managers named Perceptor…”  Clench rubbed at his legs, and Megatronus caught the sound of metal grinding over metal as the old mech thumbed his joints. 

Fumbling in a cabinet, he pulled a pair of batteries out.  “He’s not a manager, Clench.”  Slapping them down beside the radio, Megatronus sighed, exhaling hot air to cool his engine from the long walk home.  He felt thin, and underfueled, and stretched, like he was glancing at his own life through a dirty windshield, trying to make sense of this place that used to be familiar and suddenly wasn’t.  “He’s a spark-tech.” 

For a moment, there was laughter.

Then, the laughter stopped.

When Megatronus glanced over Clench was frowning at him, watching him, lit by the flickering bulb that still hung in the middle of the room.   Clench held his hand out, beckoning once.  “Toss me the radio,” he said, his tone flat.

Megatronus complied.

Clench caught it, expertly, cradling it gently for a moment before he deftly removed the near-dead batteries, shook them to reactivate the chemicals inside, and put them back in.  He leaned back, trying to relax on the worn-out bench, his shoulders rubbing black marks onto a black-smudged wall, scraping paint from bare sheeting that might have once been white.  

“I scheduled you a fight next week.”  The old mech murmured, shifting the radio off of his lap and running a claw over it lazily.

“You did what?”  Megatronus tensed, caught off guard by what had just been said, his thoughts about the surface scattering like rays of light lost in the underworld.  His hand fell down on the counter, harder than he’d been intending.  He didn’t want to deal with this on top of everything else, and it aggravated him beyond belief that Clench would dare.  He sure as slag did not have the time to fight right now, or the energy, and he couldn’t go through the overhaul that he’d need to look like an arena combatant again.

Not if he wanted to keep working with Perceptor.

“Don‘t shout, you fragger!  The others are trying to recharge!”  Clench growled at him.

“They’re used to the noise.”  Megatronus rumbled, low, his anger slowly simmering as he rebutted the change in subject.  The pair of new batteries he‘d pulled out of the cabinet were rolling towards the counter‘s edge, dislodged by the vibrations of his aggravated engines.   They hit the floor, loudly.

“Maybe they used to be, back when there was noise around here.  Right now, things seem downright polite, like we’ve got some kinda company mech sponsoring us--” 

That was the last straw.  Whirling, Megatronus felt the extra fuel kick through his systems, and felt the blazing heat in his blue optics shine.  “This is not about who I work for, or what I’m doing.  This is about you making plans without talking to me first, Clench.”  He hissed, striding toward his partner with unpleasant retributions on his mind.  “I bring in the money, I call the shots around here, and I say I’m not ready to fight yet.” Placing a knee upon the bench he shifted his weight as Clench tried to duck, slamming a palm into the other’s torso and shoving him back against the wall.  “The last thing that I need right now is some invalid trying to be second-guessing me--”

Unimpressed, Clench stared blankly at him.  “They got into a brawl last night.  When you didn‘t come home.”  He winced after a moment, one hand grasping onto Megatronus’s wrist, the other gripping tightly on the radio beside him.   “So if you’re gonna kill me, kill me, but you’re still going to fight.”

Frowning, Megatronus released his pressure but not his grip, still pinning Clench but curious.  “Rumble and Frenzy?”

“What other ‘they’ do you think I mean, of course Rumble and Frenzy!  They were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and someone went and mentioned how washed out you’d become, and next thing you know I can hear screaming from two streets away.”

“You weren’t watching them?”  Megatronus rumbled, his engine kicking up a gear, ominous.  “Isn’t that what I pay you to do?”

“No.  You don’t pay me to do a damned thing.  You’re supposed to be out fighting, winning me enough bets that I can fix these busted legs of mine.  That was the deal, since I was well-connected enough to get you that stupid job that you refuse to come home from, you worthless slag.” 

“Do not call me that!”  Megatronus roared, his hand suddenly at Clench’s throat, wrapping around hydraulics.  “You owe me everything.” 

Clench glared, unwavering, defiant, the spark of combat in his eye…

But when Megatronus squeezed his throat the spark vanished, fading quickly as the old mech glanced away.  “Yeah.  Yeah, okay,” he wheezed, his vocalizer straining underneath Megatronus’s grip.  “You win.” 

“I never lose,” he whispered, and let go.

“You will, if you don’t fight.”  Clench growled, staring forlornly at the one, dingy window in the whole apartment.  It gaped open, panel-less, looking out at only the grey wall across the street.  “They will forget about you.  They’ll forget you ever even existed.”  His features contorted, in pain, his hand gripping tighter on Megatronus’s wrist as he struggled, coughing on exhaust.  “Like they forgot about me.”

He let go, completely, and sagged onto the seat, hating it when his old partner talked about that.

“Don’t…get all sentimental on me, Clench.” 

“I know.”

The room grew silent.

Frustrated, Megatronus turned away, watching the cube lying on the counter, listening to the occasional hitch from Clench’s engine as the other struggled to synchronize his intakes once again.  Outside, he could hear a pair of flat-mates arguing, low voices echoing up from the alleyway, playing counter-point to the rumble of tires on long-broken roads.

It was home, here.

It was…familiar. 

It even felt good to argue with Clench. 

But it wasn’t everything, anymore.  Some part of him kept thinking about drones, and formulas, and clean, quiet berths, and one night living the way every mech deserved to live. 

He wanted that.

As much as he wanted this.  Somewhere along the way he’d just lost track of which world he was living in, and which world was pretend.

“Are they alright?” he asked, finally, glancing toward the garage they’d set up for the minibots. 

Clench straightened, slowly, and reached out for the radio once more.  “Found ‘em underneath a pile of mechs that reached the ceiling.  They were still kicking and biting when I dragged them out.”  A dark smirk spread on his dull faceplates, and Megatronus found it all-too-easy to imagine the scene as it had occurred.

“You’re not as useless as you pretend to be, now are you, Clench.”

“Maybe.  Maybe not.  At least until another gasket blows, and then who knows what you’ll do with me.”  He flipped on the radio, getting every drop of juice from the old batteries as he adjusted for the stations, setting it on the highlights of last weekend’s match. 

“I’ll put you out of your misery, Clench.”

“No, you’ll buy me a damned pair of legs, first.  You promised.”  He turned the radio up, focusing on a match between Undercurrent and Titan, the gladiators of the Altihex games. 

“Maybe.  Maybe not.”  Megatronus parroted, and leaned back on the bench to hear the play-by-play. 

It was better than arguing. 

Titan…he knew of, remembering the mech’s ascension through the ranks.  He was a size class bigger than Megatronus, himself, with processor enhancements that made him fast, and powerful.  There’d been rumors he was sponsored, some high-tech company mech in Altihex shelling credits into making an Arena champion, but all that rumor really did was change the odds.  Titan was a mech that knew how to win. 

It didn’t matter why.

The announcers talked him up the way they always did, giving statistics about his weight and reaction times, listing off numbers that had been updated since the last time Megatronus had listened in.

With a shock, he realized how long that had been.

With less of a shock, he realized how little difference it made.  The imagery came back easily, and Megatronus was lulled by the sounds of it, the sensations of it, and the stellar cycles of learning how to predict an opponent’s moves by description alone.

Titan would move first.

He’d step in, moving to pin his opponent‘s foot beneath his own and slam them to the ground.

Undercurrent would be out of the way before that, though, incredibly maneuverable, able to dart through Titan’s guard to pick at him with twin blades, expertly slicing through hardwiring to try and bring the mammoth fighter down.  That technique never worked perfectly, Megatronus knew.  He knew it well enough from experience, always being on the receiving end of smaller, faster mechs.  The announcer called the shots as he considered that, watching in his mind with optics shuttered:  Titan, catching the other off-guard, a single swing of his mallet taking Undercurrent’s leg out of commission.  The smaller mech rebounding, going for the neck, the crowd roaring as Titan brought a fist to bear…

“Who am I fighting?”  Megatronus whispered, feeling his gears twitching in anticipation, not wanting to know the outcome of the fight.  It didn’t matter.

“You’re fighting Titan.”  Clench purred, turning the radio off. 

“He's from Altihex?”

“He's from Altihex.” 

Megatronus’s optics opened, glancing over to Clench, wondering if he’d known about the processor chips that Megatronus needed so badly, wondering if this was a setup from the start or just some strange coincidence. 

Clench winked, once, letting one optic go dark before it lit again.  “You have to come back, Megatronus.  To finish what you’ve started, where you belong.”  Where he had to belong.  Where he knew he belonged, just listening to the fighting once again.  “You’re needed, here.” 

Megatronus snorted.  “Yeah, because you’re terrible at watching minibots.” 

“Maybe that too.”  Clench grinned, handing him the radio.  “Look.”  The old mech sighed, “I know you’re obsessed about this drone thing.  And…maybe you’re right.  Maybe this system has been going on too long, and taking a lot of good mechs with it.  But things were good for us, here.  You were winning.  They gave you a name…

“I took that name, Clench.”

“Yeah, but it’s only gladiators down here that get them.”

Megatronus looked down at his radio, remembering Perceptor, remembering the look in the scientist’s optics when he’d talked about coming up with a name.  He’d talked about so many things…about the Technical Institute, about re-classification, about the breakthroughs they were making with drones, and Megatronus had nearly believed him.

He had believed him.

He…still…believed him.

But it wasn’t about Megatronus’s name.  Megatronus had a name.  He’d earned that name, with no one’s help but his own, with no assistance from sponsors, with no favors and no back doorways. 

“You don’t belong up there.”  Clench prompted…

…and Megatronus frowned.

“I do belong up there,” he whispered, his voice hardened.  “We all do.  Not with the mechs who rule the surface, no.  But simply because ‘up there’ is where we want to be.  Where we deserve to be…”  He caught himself, looking out the window, feeling the change in pressure as the smallest of breezes drifted by.  “And I’ll belong up there for no reason other than because we willed it.”

“Gonna take a lot of change before that happens, gladiator.

Megatronus laughed. “Oh, yes.  It will.  But that’s what I’ve been working for.”

“Mmm.”  Clench nodded, pushing himself to his feet slowly, letting his gyrator settle him into balance as he steadied himself on the wall.  “And is it paying off?”

“When do I fight?” he whispered, avoiding the question completely as he stood.

“Six cycles from today.” 

Megatronus nodded, gripping the small radio in his large hand, and moving toward his recharge chamber.  “Then ask me again, six cycles from now,” He laughed, “and I‘ll have your answer.”

Chapter Text

For the drone, something had changed.

It had performed the memory download on Divide as it had been requested. It had downloaded the two original copies of Assemble songs from the subject’s processor as well, along with several other pieces it had found. It had taken data tracks of significant events in Divide’s history. It had planted a virus.

It had, in essence, performed all of its tasks. It had even confirmed that the composer of the remixed song matched its own earlier findings, and ensured that Divide’s memory had been wiped of all traces of its intrusion.

Entering the hardware of a functioning mech had not been significantly more difficult than entering the hardware of a computer system, apart from the emotions. Once it had been able to filter those, the process had been routine.

Divide, once awake, had questioned the sudden difference between his internal clock and the time he last remembered it being, but the drone had been prepared for this and sent an apology as directed for using an incorrect interface protocol and shorting out their lines.

The apology had been accepted, and Divide had proceeded as he had intended, perusing Ratbat’s musical database as if nothing had happened, sampling songs and downloading copies of origination codes and music that were of interest to him. When Divide was done, the drone had signaled for a pair of guards to escort him out. It had stared after him as he left, puzzling over the disparate nature of the songs that he’d picked.

Then, it had returned to the transmission tower and plugged in.

Now, it was sorting through the files, parsing out what might be useful and archiving the rest. It was re-attached into its terminal, buffered by the presence of powerful processing equipment, utilizing program after program to efficiently categorize the entries sampled from Divide’s memory banks.

While completing its priority assignment, it was still a part of the tower’s overall operations, capable of resuming control over incoming and outgoing signals, directing them with 100% accuracy to their intended locations. It could section processing power from the massive internal computers, directing search engines to comb through either the musical database it had taken from Divide, or to scour all bandwidths for information on the origination codes the database contained. It was performing the tasks that were assigned to it, and performing its base duties as well.

It was content.

It was content, except for one anomaly that still periodically drew its attention away.

The remix still was present on the air.

The remix was present, and now there was undeniable evidence pointing back toward it as the composer. Somehow, against all logic, it had created the same song which had earlier drawn its processes into recursive loops.

That behavior should not have been within its programming. Despite the fact that it had extensive knowledge in signal processing and waveform interpretation, it did not understand inherently how music was constructed. It understood style and it understood syncopations and it understood key signatures and measures and hundreds of other pieces that allowed it to better examine music and match it to other music, but it did not understand how to put those elements together to create a song. Learning those protocols would have taken significant research. Choosing to execute them would have required a priority command from Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council.

It would have needed to download information on song construction, as well, which would have taken bandwidth that would have otherwise been employed in accomplishing its base assignments.

None of this was possible for it to have done.

If it had been previously been given an order to learn how to make music, then Ratbat would not have been curious about the music’s source. If it had downloaded the programs on its own, then there would be records of decreased bandwidth and insufficient efficiency.

However, the tower’s records showed no loss of bandwidth or efficiency before its memory wipe.

This made it uncertain of how to proceed with its report.

It was aware that Senator Ratbat would be displeased with it, if it confirmed itself to be the composer.

It did not…want…this. It did not wish to be reprimanded for an error it had not chosen to commit. It did not desire for there to be errors, at all.

It was a custom drone. It was supposed to exhibit maximum efficiency. It was supposed to fulfill the needs of its owner regardless of its own comfort.

It didn’t like being aware that it possessed levels of comfort, at all.

It also didn’t know how it felt about composing songs.

It had, however, obviously done so at one point. Running through another playback of the remix with this information in mind, it could detect wavelength partials that were particularly pleasing to process. Certain instances of frequency shifts reflected gaps that it used often in difficult encryptions, and the patterns of repetition were reminiscent of chaotic oscillations that it had previously found satisfying to decode.

It was unlike other music it had processed. It could not deny a certain amount of familiarity with the way the data had been used.

It also could not deny that there were similarities within Divide’s music, as well.

Having the composer’s memory banks on hand made it significantly easier to recognize this. Having the composer’s memory banks on hand also gave it an excuse to delay forwarding the report about the remix it had prepared for Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council. Until it had completed processing the data within, it could not be 100% certain that its conclusions were accurate. There was still the possibility, however slim, that the data it had taken from Divide had been manufactured or falsified, and that it was not the composer of the remix after all.

Taking additional time to investigate this would also postpone its eventual punishment.

However, beyond ascertaining its certainty about the composer and gaining additional time before punishment, it was beginning to suspect that there were other reasons to continue processing the musical databases that it had downloaded from Divide.

One of its standing orders had been to probe Divide’s processor for further items of interest.

Items of interest had been found: The mech had been collecting origination codes.

As far as it could determine through an exhaustive network search, Divide’s database appeared to be the first database exhibiting a comparison of musician’s origination codes.

There was, however, a good reason for this. An origination code was an identifying marker, used to determine both the origin point of files and to act as an identifier when logging onto foreign systems. Forging origination codes could, and had, allowed it access into networks that were prohibited. Forging origination codes into certain data could also make it seem as if the data had once belonged to someone of importance, which increased its perceived value.

Research into origination codes was, therefore, prohibited, with previous offenders facing significant criminal charges for defacing an individual’s privacy and integrity. Any significant collection of origination codes was also illegal to possess for similar reasons, which explained why it could not locate any other databases similar to Divide’s except the one possessed by Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council.

Technically, it realized, this meant that Ratbat’s personal music libraries were also illegal.

However, that fact was surrounded by extenuating circumstances. Ratbat’s libraries were extensive historical databases, carefully preserved and maintained. If needed, he could have obtained a license to harbor them under that context, so long as he continued to keep them in pristine condition for archive purposes.

Divide’s library, on the other hand, was barely organized and in pieces, often with origination codes that had been copied by visual confirmation instead of being attached to the original song. The music was not rare or historical in context, and its data lacked any value in terms of authenticity or unique instance.

It was difficult for the drone to tell what the purpose of the collection even was, other than to be illegal.

Senator Ratbat, it was sure, would find the dubious nature of the database to be of interest.

It found the database to be of interest, as well.

The songs within appeared to have significant datastrings in common. However, given the method used to categorize them, comparisons weren’t easily possible. Many of the songs had been collected haphazardly, interlocked with fragments of other memories. Some of them had aged, others had degraded, and a few were even corrupt, inseparable from the instance of their capture. They were grouped illogically, as well, arranged not by date or by song title or by composer, but by the second pointers within the origination codes.

This, it noticed, was incorrect.

When organized by the second pointers, the frequency spectra of the songs began to show similarities. There was a rhythm, of sorts, to the differential between high notes and low, between the rests and the crescendos. Some of the music nearly aligned in this manner, despite the differences in tempo and chording.

However, it was not where the music aligned that was of interest.

It was where the music differed that was the key.

Taking this into consideration, it began running pattern matches between the origination codes themselves and Divide’s database of songs, treating the codes as if they were lines within the music instead of separate parts.

Almost instantly, a new pattern began to form.

The songs themselves were notes, full spectrums of lines in the frequency domain that created an orchestra of sound. The codes were keys. The gaps in data were rests and there were pieces missing somewhere out there, because it knew the notes to the chords and it knew the chords were lacking resolution.

It was incomplete.

“That’s lovely,” a voice said, and the communications drone tried to turn. “I don’t think I’ve heard something like that, before.”

A mech with teal stripes was standing nearby, looking at him from a computer monitor inside a tiny room.

“I just found this one. It was recorded on an old radio I bought at a garage sale in Iacon,” the communications drone said.

It did not understand how it had spoken. It did not understand where the small room had come from, or where the tower had gone.

The teal-striped mech was still looking at it, however, smiling as if nothing was wrong. “I don’t know that I could visit a stranger’s garage, Divide. You never know what you’re going to find on old electronics, especially if they’re left over from before the Terrabyte outbreak.”

The communication’s drone smiled back with Divide’s mouth, and tapped its head. “I have all the updated firewalls. Considering I don’t know how much longer I‘ll even be allowed to access the surface, it was worth it to me.” Unable to move, the drone nevertheless found itself moving to sit down upon a bench. “Besides, it might just be another piece of the puzzle. You said it was lovely, yourself.”

“Well, yes, but that doesn’t mean anything scientifically. You cannot base research off emotions.”

“Not unless I’m researching emotions,” it said, and the drone gave up resisting in order to let the corrupted memory-file play. “Which I’m not, but it’s similar. Did you feel anything?”

“I…liked it. Does that count?” The other mech went back to typing on his console, but glanced up from time to time to show polite interest to Divide.

“It does. It counts for a lot. You liked it, but can you tell me why?

“Because I like classical songs.”

“Yes, but why?”

The teal-striped mech turned, and looked Divide up and down. “’Why’ is precisely what a good researcher would ask. However, in this case, I’m afraid I cannot tell you.”

“Er…well. Why?”

“Because I do not know. I don’t know why I like certain music, but not others. I don’t know very much about music at all, to be honest, and perhaps if I did I could answer your question. For right now, however, I can tell you that it ‘resonates’ with me, and that if you’d like to know more about how music affects the spark, you’re going to have to find a way to measure it.”

The memory cut out.

Disoriented, the communication’s drone did nothing for five cycles of the tower’s internal clock, watching dropped data packets collect in the cache, logging errors it would have to rectify.

It was back.

It had not left.

Searches that it had began before entering the corrupted memory file had returned results, and inquiries on the status of messages were waiting in its queue. Somewhere in its surprise at suddenly having a mouth, it had forwarded a set of error messages to the analyst. He had sent back a request for an explanation.

Finally managing to re-assert itself into the systems, it replied with an ‘all clear,’ and cancelled the error messages. It picked up where it had left off, and continued passing data through the tower, cleaning up after its temporary absence.

It had lost its previous train of thought.

The report that it had started for Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council, was still pending. A compiled list of data assembled from Divide’s databanks had been appended to the document, half-finished, and a summary of its own findings about the composer of the remix waited at the top.

It closed the file.

Something was wrong, and something was changing, and it was loosing efficiency again.

It didn’t know how, or why, or what had happened.

It was able to ascertain that it had been sorting through Divide’s musical database when one of the songs had unlocked a corrupt memory. It knew that much. It had been thinking about music and origination codes, and somehow that made it different, now.

It would make certain not to do that, again.

Marking the corrupted memory, it exited the database.

Its 33 cycles were up.

It would continue, later.

For now, it was going to return to its docking closet, and it was not going to think, at all.

Chapter Text

The vote was pending.

It was pending, and Ratbat did not know which way it was going to go.  He had heard nothing about whether or not Senators Optarus and Decimus had decided to change their opinions, and his other reports indicated a near split among the rest of the Senate.  It frazzled him, to be this uncertain about a matter that was so important.

Of course, he looked no worse for the wear on the outside.  The new ‘polish’ feature he’d had upgraded onto his chair was surprisingly thorough, even if it didn’t quite compare to an expert’s touch.  He’d taken great pleasure in enjoying a few moments at sundown, listening to Divide’s unreleased singles over his expertly balanced speakers while he relaxed.

That had been perfection.

This waiting, in comparison, was imperfection.

If the Council agreed that Sentinel Prime must have their permission before mobilizing drone forces, it would be a significant victory for Ratbat.  Total military control would finally have been wrested from the exclusive domain of the reigning Prime, putting at least a little jurisdiction back in the hands of elected officials.  It would be the beginning of eradicating the ancient religious institution of Primehood, which served only to produce glorified figureheads who wielded powers that they did not know how best to use. 

If the Senate was to continue entrusting Cybertron’s forces to a mech who was chosen by a relic passed down generation after generation, then they deserved to continue repeating the mistakes of the past.  It was too randomized.

There needed to be some order restored to the process, and there needed to be someone in control who better understood the needs of Cybertron.  Ratbat had a few ideas on how that should be done.

Relying on a General who had helped win a war eons ago was not one of them.

However, he had an opportunity to do something about that today.

Today, he could finally begin to put some of his political plans in motion.  Today, he could determine how the vote might be swayed, and could take whatever actions were necessary to ensure his victory.

Today, he would have lunch.

It was the first business day in the new lunar cycle, the start of the third quarter of sales.  For the 548th stellar rotation in a row, he would be meeting with Optarus and Decimus to discuss the future of Cybertron, and how best to sway it.  They met like this at the beginning of every quarter, for better or for worse. When it was better, the three of them would gather to discuss various ways to improve their finances in the final quarter, or to talk about pleasing constituents inside of their districts, or to recommend a new architect for personal projects.  When it was worse, there tended to be heated debates, stirring arguments, and creative insults.

As much as he could find enjoyment in all of the above, he intended to use this time to determine how the Senators would vote.

He had hoped that his previous deception had hindered their old plan to make the vote a draw, but he would not know for certain until the three of them had met.  It would likely not be the most pleasant of encounters given how he’d tried to set them at odds with one another, but this was not the first time he’d done so and it would hardly be the last.  It did not mean he couldn’t turn the outcome toward his advantage.

He needed their votes. 

He enjoyed the meetings, besides, even when times were rocky.  Both Decimus and Optarus always had insights that he could benefit from, and the locale produced an enjoyable beverage that softened the edge of sharp words without dulling one’s wit.

It was not a Vossian-brewed energon, but it was helped by the atmosphere of a stunning setting and exquisite service.  Granted, he would hypothesize that anything might taste better when served on the edge of the Rust Sea, in a restaurant at the top of a towering condo, separated safely from the intrusion of ancient particles by a vast chasm and an expensive force field.  He didn’t care to test the theory, of course, but he didn’t need to.  One could only purchase the beverage here, making the restaurant an attractive venue for its cuisine as well as its unique geography.

It had a spectacular view.

Ratbat could have admired it for that if nothing else.  It was aptly named ‘The Red Sky’ in barely pronounceable old vernacular, taking inspiration from the rich patina of iron deposits that remained from long ago.  The service was delightful, with matching servers who sported both the latest armorwork and a sharp wit, and the gossip was informative due to more than one aspiring politician residing in the expensive apartments underneath the restaurant.  It was also the only suitable establishment that was equidistant between the three Senator’s districts, which had cemented it as their center of correspondence many, many cycles before.

In fact, the only point which prevented him from visiting more frequently was that it was difficult to admire the modern red décor when it clashed with his magenta finish. 

However, he could forgive them for that tonight.  He could have forgiven them for a great many errors indeed, because of the much more interesting and pertinent topic at hand.  The Red Sky, in keeping with a modern flair, had made an investment in drone servers.  It was not a significant investment, seeing as how there were only five at work in comparison to the dozens that his factory had sold to other manufacturing plants, but it was a step forward nevertheless. 

Ratbat could hardly keep his engine from purring at this unexpected delight as he was seated at his traditional seat with the southern view.  With drones present, it was difficult to ignore how pervasive they were becoming.  Whether or not Optarus and Decimus approved, the pair would have to acknowledge their presence regardless, and would have to see the impact that they made.  Drones would be everywhere, eventually.

There was no stopping that, regardless of how the vote went. 

It wouldn’t have been so long ago either that Decimus and Optarus might have been happy--at least outwardly--to share in his triumph.  The three of them had worked together countless times, counting each other’s successes in part as their own, contributing to one another’s campaigns or giving much-needed feedback.  He would have rather reveled in their quiet jealousy while they shared new and compelling drinks, plotting out the next way that they might make a shrewd investment. 

It wasn’t unusual that this had changed, but he did not like it. 

“If it was possible to be fashionably early, Senator, you’d be the one to set the standard,” Optarus announced, settling into the seat on Ratbat’s right with a menu screen already in hand, a pair of long glider panels parting behind him to accommodate the chair.  The same two bodyguards that always accompanied Optarus settled down at a table behind them, adopting the nonchalant gaze of those who watched while pretending desperately to not be doing so.

“I enjoy this time alone,” he replied, simply, “in order to savor the moments before a special occasion.”

“This is hardly special,” the orange glider scoffed, and started scrolling through the menu.  “We do it at the start of every business cycle.  It takes time away from other tasks I could be working on, but we do it nevertheless.  Is Decimus still coming?”

“He would not miss it.  That would be undignified.” 

“Primus forbid he does something insulting.  What does he think he is, a politician?” 

“He is a business-mech first.”  He was just as Ratbat’s progenitor had been: tradition-bound, gruff, and no-nonsense, mindful of out-of-date protocols that few others engaged in.  Ratbat had encountered some difficulty in learning to like him, especially when Optarus’s fast-paced, flashy lifestyle was more familiar.

Neither had been easy to get along with, though.

He suspected they had felt the same way about him.

“It would not hurt for you to try some tact now and again, Optarus,” the third Senator cautioned, approaching slowly, stopping a few feet before the table to assess them both.  Despite that the pair of them had arrived barely a few nanoclicks apart, Ratbat took care in noticing that they’d come from separate entrances. 

That was interesting.

It was also interesting that Decimus took up position on Ratbat’s left, easing his dark treads into a seat across from Optarus instead of his usual place by the glider.  Something, obviously, had changed. 

“I think good friends like us can forgive a lack of tact from time to time,” Ratbat smirked, spreading his talons in welcome.  “A blunt edge does not pierce so easily.”

“No, but it’s twice as painful when it does,” Decimus grumbled, and looked around for a menu.

Optarus’s fingertips closed tighter around the one that he was holding.

“Thankfully, nobody has come armed today.”  Ratbat noticed the pair of guards behind him perking up at these words, and was more than a little amused.  “We can, therefore, indulge in what our status has granted us: fresh energon, exciting company, and a spectacular view.”

“It’s been the same view for eons, Ratbat,” Decimus frowned, his dark frame sagging over his chair as his intakes cycled on a moment late.  “And the same company, too.”

Optarus huffed, the sheen of his orange plating catching the red from the window like a flash of fire.  “We aren’t as old as this rust, yet, Decimus,” he spoke icily, and Ratbat heard the meaning, clearly:  ‘We aren’t as old as you.’

It was harsher than expected.  Decimus’s experience as a Senator had done the two younger models great credit when they were new to the political arena.  Although Ratbat found him difficult to work with, he had still imparted wisdom that Ratbat utilized on a daily basis, and which Optarus had used to climb to the status he held now.  If Decimus moved a little slower, or had difficulty upgrading to the newest software without a patch or two it was forgivable, because he maintained his appearance and did his district proud. 

There was no reason to call attention to his age. 

So what, then, had goaded Optarus to do so?

“If the view and the company do not please either of you, then I suggest drawing your attention to the menu, which has had the audacity to change,” he interjected as smoothly as possible, finding it odd to occupy the role of mediator when he’d been prepared to face a united front.  With a gesture, Ratbat indicated for one of the wait-staff to approach with a menu for Decimus.

“It is not the only thing,” Optarus added, setting his menu screen down as far from Decimus as possible, watching the serving unit intently as it deposited a new one, bowed, and left.  “Were there so many drones here the last time we came?”

Ratbat had to specifically control his shoulder armor to keep it from lifting in pride at the drones being mentioned.  He didn’t, however, bother to disguise his smirk.  “Not that I recall.  They do seem to be quite pervasive, don’t they?”

“They do,” Decimus replied, and Ratbat was less than pleased with the scowl that rested on his faceplates.  “I see them when I go out these days, but they aren’t everywhere yet, thank Primus.” 

“Do you dislike the thought of them, then?”  Ratbat asked, not surprised to find Decimus vehement about the advent of new technology. 

The older Senator’s scowl deepened.  “Don’t misinterpret me.  I fail to see the difference between a drone and a common laborer, and I could care less which of the two was polishing my chrome.”  He picked up the new menu pad between thick, brown fingers, and forcefully punched in a selection.  “However, I don’t like the idea that multitudes of drones can be controlled by one mech.”  Ratbat looked up from Decimus’s angry drink choice, and found he was the subject of the other’s glare. 

This made him defensive, all-too-easily.

He knew what those particular words had been intended for.

He also knew that he shouldn’t take the bait, and that Senator Decimus had amazingly just given him the perfect opportunity to put forth his cause.

“I could not agree more,” he murmured, smoothly taking hold of his own menu as if nothing was amiss.  “Which is why I’ll be voting against Sentinel Prime having full authority over the drone armies we’ll produce.”

“Will you, now,” Decimus countered, the scowl lessening into an expression Ratbat was not familiar with.  “Over the drone armies we’ll produce.  Convenient wording, there, as it brings us into exactly what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Decimus!”  Optarus growled, and Ratbat had the distinct feeling that he’d been all-too-smoothly directed out of the topic he wanted to discuss. 

It was, however, not unexpected. 

He’d long guessed that other businessmechs were interested in obtaining pieces of the drone market, and he’d been waiting for Optarus and Decimus to make this move ever since their ploy to oppose his vote. 

“So you’re looking to open a drone factory in your district?” he asked, openly, not disguising his guess.

Optarus, however, was the one to interject.  “We both are, which I have told Decimus over and over would be a terrible business move. Our locations would be in direct competition with each other.”  The words were directed at Ratbat, but the speaker’s narrowed golden optics never left Decimus’s faceplates. 

This was, apparently, what had placed a wedge between the two.

“He says this only because I’ve already started building my factory,” Decimus frowned, still engaging Ratbat.  “And he knows that I’d have an advantage he’d never catch up to.”

“You’d have an advantage if you weren’t utterly incompetent at understanding technological trends!”  Optarus countered.

“And I’ll keep my advantage, because you have a terrible business sense.”  For the first time, Decimus smirked, ever at his best during one-on-one arguments.  “For instance, Ratbat, my young colleague Optarus had no intention of seeking out your advice.  He didn’t seem to understand how valuable it could be, to speak with a mech already in the know on distribution and…hmm…shall we say…particular legalities and political circumnavigation.” 

Ratbat recognized the beginning of a gambit when he saw one, and knew that Decimus was up to something.  “Did he, now,” he said, and carefully considered the other’s ploy.  “I would, of course, be happy to offer a few pointers to old friends of mine.”  The key, as always, was determining what everyone could want. 

Optarus glanced away, obviously frustrated with Decimus and finding the idea of assistance to be suspect.  Ratbat knew this by the way the other Senator’s engines churned as he pulled out a thin, sleek datapad to look at, giving him something to seem distracted by in order to calm down.  Optarus did not trust, easily.  He never had trusted easily.  He brought bodyguards openly to friendly soirées, ruthlessly investigated new technology for any way it could be utilized against him, and had a habit of personally interviewing every mech that had more than a minor desk position in his firm.  He was careful, which Ratbat had admired and had taken inspiration from. He was, however, afraid to take risks.

He was afraid to make allies.

The obvious solution, of course, was to suggest that Decimus and Optarus combine their resources and construct a factory together.  He knew this, and judging by the competitive sparkle in Decimus’s optics, he suspected the other Senator knew this, too.  They also knew, collectively, that Optarus would not go for any sort of merger that would take away his very meticulous control--not without having good reason to do so.  Not without having a greater threat, so to speak. 

That, of course, was precisely why Decimus had chosen this bizarre way of broaching the subject to him.

Decimus needed Ratbat to be that threat.

Ratbat, in a way, already was. 

However, due to the wall that Ratbat himself had constructed between Decimus and Optarus, the latter wasn’t inclined to trust either of them at the moment.  Ratbat’s job, in essence, would be to make owning a drone factory sound difficult enough that Optarus would consider Decimus’s offer to help.

He wasn’t going to do this for free.

“For instance,” he began, “you do realize that you’d both have a greater margin for profit if the vote passes in favor of council-controlled drones, do you not?”  It was more than an obvious bid to secure their votes, but given their interest it helped that his facts were solid.  “If the council has sway over the military units, then we’ll have an option of setting the price for them, including tax breaks--whereas if they belong to Sentinel, they are purchased under military contract for the lowest fee.”

Optarus looked up from his datapad, curious enough to rejoin the conversation but apparently not taking the bait so easily.  “What does that matter, if you’re the one already producing them?”

“Come now,” he smiled, openly, as a drone wheeled up to him with his selected drink.  “You don’t think he’ll stop at one batch, do you?  Not with threats to our civilization increasing daily.”  Taking a sip, Ratbat settled his other hand back over the menu data pad.  There were always external threats, of course, but he was thinking about the underclass in particular.  A significant ‘threat.’  “A factory would have to be built and ready with designs to be considered for the contract, however.”

“I already have a mech who’s made designs,” Optarus snorted, reaching up to take his own incoming glass.  “Improving your base military drones into my galactic-class Vehicons.”

Ratbat’s optics shuttered closed for a moment, certain he had heard something wrong.  “Your what?”

“My Vehicons.  Vehicular combat units.”  Optarus turned his data-pad to set it upright on the table with the screen displaying a stylish, sleek concept of an advanced drone with a street-capable alt-mode.  “I can begin production as soon as I have a facility.”

“My combat units aren’t vehicles, Optarus,” Ratbat frowned, aware that the design he was viewing was very close in nature to the military units he’d started to produce.  He was not aware, however, of how Optarus had managed to get access to his factory’s designs.  He was going to have to determine how that had happened, and via whom.

“That’s part of the improvement.”  Turning the screen back towards himself, Optarus’s glider panels slid contentedly along the edge of his seat as he returned to tapping commands into the datapad.

In his corner, Decimus was attempting not to laugh.  Ratbat did not find it funny.

“I suppose you’ve already contracted spark technicians, then?” he asked, instead, arching one optic ridge.  “Obtained the necessary permits to grant core energy access?  Filled out the reports that prove your ‘Vehicons’ satisfy the three terms of non-sentience?” 

The panels clapped against Optarus’s back.  “Not yet.  But I’m sure I could take care of it…”

“Could you?  Have you ever met a Spark Technician?”

Now Decimus was laughing at the expression on Optarus’s face.  Ratbat had to admit that he would have taken greater pleasure in the glider’s low-spoken “No” if he weren’t still defensive about the idea of Vehicons. 

They were a good idea.

They should have been his idea.

However, he could still stand to benefit from them.

“I see that neither of you are fully researched on what is required.  The next batch produced, then, will go to me, unless…”

Optarus was seething, but he still could see the offer as it stood.  “Unless your vote passes.  You want us to vote for your proposal.”

“It seems like such a small exchange compared to the additional profits that this venture brings.  I’m even offering to give both factories the first chance for the next contract, and my expertise as well.”

Decimus, finally, took the opportunity to intercede.  “Both factories, Ratbat?”  It was more than a bit satisfying to see the sincere look of confusion on his faceplates, especially since he‘d thought he‘d been the one composing the symphony of their discourse.

“Considering that both of your factories will be so close to one another, it is to my advantage to foster your spirit of competition,” Ratbat explained, pleased with himself.  “Obviously the factory whose blueprints are forwarded to me first--including the special accommodations that the spark technicians will require--will be the factory that I attend to in helping finalize the construction.”

“But Senator Decimus has already started!” Optarus frowned, fingering a drink that had managed to become empty in the short time since he’d received it. 

“Then his advantage will be rewarded…unless a better opportunity presents itself,” he gestured at the red drone which awaited them nearby.  “I am, after all, always in the market for good drone designs.  Designs that I will be willing to pay extra for, if my motion should pass.”

Optarus’s fingers tightened around his finished glass. 

Decimus, as well, seemed tense…but Ratbat had, in the end, done exactly as he’d been asked to.  Optarus, now, would see him as the greater threat.  With little hope of finishing his own factory in time, he’d either take his plans to Decimus and form a merger there, or he’d sell them to Ratbat and leave Decimus to build his own factory alone.

Either way, the two of them would still need his expertise.  They would need pointers on how to hire spark technicians, and pointers on how to avoid the very problematic restrictions on drone sparks.  They would still have little choice but to vote for his legislation if they wanted what he had to offer, and he knew they did.

He knew he’d come out on top.

And, really, he had no problem with the competition.  Whatever threat these Vehicons posed, he’d find a way to surpass them…and even if he did not, drones would continue to serve their purpose on Cybertron. 

He’d still make a fortune.

He’d still have a say in how they were used.

And, perhaps most importantly, he’d have the opportunity to set up his plan to remove Sentinel’s power and rid Cybertron of its abhorrent lowest class.

It was only a bit of a shame that it would be so hard to keep his friends along the way, but ah, well.

There was always next quarter to make amends.

Chapter Text

There was a flash.

Not far away, someone was working, leaning over an open torso casing under warm red light, tools extending from his arms as he delicately adjusted wires within.

Here, it felt safe.

It felt comfortable.

It also felt wrong.

Drones did not dream.

It knew this, even as it watched the scraps of images that floated through its processor while it docked in the recharge closet.

It heard itself humming a complicated tune with pure crystalline vocals, the melody familiar in its unfamiliarity, haunting like a memory that had been erased. It witnessed a bright, violet flash of light and felt a rush of prickling sensations. It stared down an elevator shaft that had no bottom, and remembered the immenseness of the gaping void swallowing it whole.

These weren’t its experiences, but it recognized them.

These were only pieces of data, trapping it now as it had been trapped when it had unlocked other memory fragments from Divide. So much of what it heard was music--impossibly old, simple tones with deep percussive beats, or newer acoustic waveforms of such complexity that they were influenced as much by the spaces they were played in as the instruments that made them.

It remembered darkness. It remembered being surrounded by mechs, crowded into an immense room, waiting.

It remembered light that blossomed on a stage.

It shouldn’t have remembered this at all.

Drones were not supposed to dream.

It considered the images nevertheless as the clock wound forward, chiming its release from the docking closet. It considered them still as it disconnected from the wall and opened the door, walking out to the many-screened terminals of the transmission tower, wondering at the purpose of being able to formulate randomized data while recharging.

None of the flashes had been connected.

None of them made sense on their own.

Together, they made even less sense. Had the scenes originated from files left behind after its memory wipe? Had they come from Divide? Had they been created from packets it had sampled while providing throughput for the tower?

It did not know, but it found the consideration distracting.

There was too much for it to accomplish to allow distractions such as this.

It stared at the two main inputs that would connect it back into the tower, and then looked at the ends of its arms.

One of its plugs was broken from the encounter with Divide. Given that it was still capable of continuing its tasks with only minor loss of efficiency, this damage had not been tended to yet. A request for maintenance waited, but had not been submitted due to the priority of its pending order from Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council.

There were many tasks not tended to because of that order.

Although new assignments had been forwarded to it by Ratbat’s analysts, it had been unable to process them while completing its primary task. Already, it had determined the composer of the remix. That part had been simple.

Now it was focused on the secondary orders it had been given simultaneously, which involved the data collected from Divide’s processor. This part was much more complex. Working as diligently as possible, it had only been able to compile enough information to prepare a report on 59.6% of those findings. Until it could fully process Divide’s music collection and determine the reason it existed, no other inquiries would be tended to.

This included its damaged inputs.

Despite the minor loss in efficiency, though, it did not mind tending to this particular assignment. It was hard not to find the sheer amount of waveforms attractive, and lending order to the chaos of Divide’s storage methods had provided it with something akin to satisfaction. The further it progressed in analyzing every fascinatingly complex pattern, the more it wanted to see the project through to its completion. It had been programmed for tasks like this.

This was its purpose.

Reaching out with its one functioning appendage, it connected to the tower and let its processor mesh seamlessly in parallel with Ratbat Holding’s systems.

It returned to the exact point where it had left off, examining the strange gaps in data that prevented it from finishing its report. It knew that there was information missing here. Divide had been searching and collecting songs for 36 megacycles, long enough to have formed a bandwidth-intensive collection with maximum diversity. That should have provided enough samples to compile a complete database.

However, it had not.

In addition to there not being enough samples to completely fill the database, there were not enough samples to even recognize the patterns that could indicate what was missing. Divide did not appear to have an underlying algorithm for this.

Nevertheless, every sample he had chosen happened to fit.

It was perplexed by how the musician had managed this, but it was also certain that it could decode the criteria Divide had been following and fill in the gaps given enough time and processing power.

Frustratingly, neither of those were elements it possessed.

The tower gave it more than enough capacity to sort through the database successfully, but there were too many songs for it to run continuous comparisons without impacting the tower’s throughput. Additionally, combing for additional matching songs over Cybertron’s many networks would be close to impossible, as finding music that was not already included would necessitate a particularly invasive search. There were options to compress the database for faster searching, but appropriating hardware to accomplish that would require authorization from Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council.

Already it had devoted 63.8% of the relay tower’s systems towards this task. Borrowing more would result in a notable handicap.

This might attract unwanted attention. Unwanted attention could result in a memory wipe.

Given that it already suspected a memory wipe once it revealed the composer of the remix, it did not wish to endure one prior to that.

It needed to find another way to manipulate the vast information in the database.

That other way would be to narrow the criteria by searching for origination codes.

This would be useful for more than one reason. Origination codes were decidedly shorter and simpler to process than the songs themselves, which meant they would not take as much processing power to sort and simplify. It would also be faster to search for them outside of Divide’s database, which could help it to fill in the gaps.

However, the codes themselves were going to be harder to find.

Registries of origination codes could be located within the branches of the major Cybertronian banks, schools, and government institutions. By nature, these documents were meant to be impossible to access. It could, theoretically, acquire enough bandwidth to attack each location one at a time, but it would be inefficient and incomprehensive. Not every mech who had produced a song had attended school, possessed a bank account, or been included in a government census. A great many of them were already offline, and would not be accounted for regardless.

However, it did not know what else to do. Unless there was a unified database…a central node…

A Node.

There was a flash behind its visor.

It had seen a Node before. They existed near the Core of Cybertron.

What the Core of Cybertron was, it was not certain, but it knew that the information it was looking for could be found within. It remembered this.

It had dreamt it.

It did not like referencing its own dreams to complete a task. There was little that was concrete about them.

If a Node existed, however, then where the information had come from was irrelevant. Finding a Node would mean finding access to Origination Codes, and finding access to Origination Codes would mean completing its assignment.

Unfortunately, information about accessing Nodes was not readily available, and was referenced more often in theological documents than it was in historical research. It knew by its dreams that Nodes were located in the Core but it did not know why Nodes were there, why Nodes would contain Origination Codes, or what was in the Core besides Nodes.

It was not sure why Divide would have known this, either, or if all of its dreams had even come from Divide.

The Core was the best lead it had at the moment, however, and so it was the logical string to research.

That researched immediately turned up more than enough results.

Cybertronians were not built in factories like the one it had been manufactured in. They were molded, assembled, and sparked within much larger, much more private facilities. They received special programming, and special secondary modes. They received origination codes.

This happened in the Core.

This was significantly more relevant to its interests, and so it sent out several new queries, parsing the information returned into categories that Senator Ratbat might find interesting.

Politically, there was a great deal of conflict about how to distribute the new Cybertronians who emerged from the great lifts out of the Core. There was even information about the time before the great lifts—when bots had found their own ways to the surface of Cybertron, and much fewer had survived the trip. The number of current arrivals, however, did not seem to be significantly more these days than they had been in old times...and a quick probe into yearly numbers confirmed the downward trend.

Young mechs were becoming rare, and many were being snatched up by the elite to keep as progeny…only to perish a few cycles after arriving in their new homes.

That was interesting, but also irrelevant.  

It did not explain how to gain access to information from within the Core—from within the one place likely to maintain records of all origination codes.

That information, it seemed, was only available within its dreams.

This frustrated the drone.

Dreams should not have been a viable source for anything.

If they were the only source it was to be given, however, then it had no choice.

It played back what was not already corrupted from the prior recharge cycle.

There was a flash of light.

Instantly it stopped the search, comparing that flash to the similar flash that had sparked when it had recalled the Node. That had not been the only place that it had seen a flash with this spectrum.

One of Divide’s broken memory files had also contained a flash.

A Node flash.

A particular frequency of data-heavy light which only happened—

The memory cut, and it tried to resurrect the information a second time but couldn’t. The file was too old, and had been played back too many times by its previous owner before the drone had copied it.

Only pieces of the content were still visible through the heavy filter of noise, leaving the drone to consider other alternatives to make it readable.

In its previous dissection of Divide’s memories, it had skimmed this particular one quickly, finding only one instance of a relevant song. The majority of the file would be difficult to piece together, but if it could pinpoint the song that had been referenced it was likely that it could reconstruct the memory partially.

Only one song shared the timestamp.

It matched the song up with the file, calculated the noise algorithm, and filtered out what static it could.

Then, it let the memory play.

The space it found itself in was enormous.

To a drone used to a control room and a docking closet, this new place was inconceivably vast: a canyon with no top and no bottom, curving out of sight. No distant sunlight filtered down, and noises were instantly lost within its depths, creating a chasm with muted sight and sound. It felt weightless, and realized that it was drifting in mid-air, floating pointedly towards a long spire that joined both canyon walls. Other spires lanced out across the distance, some like metal bridges—new and shiny—others like rock, old and organic and shimmering with a dark, rusty texture.

It—

He landed on the spire, his feet fastening to the surface comfortably with the audible hum of magnetics. Perceptor was already waiting there, his internal lights softly glowing through the gaps of his armor. It wasn’t as thick as the other spark technician’s shielding—not yet—but Divide could already see where the forearms had been re-enforced and both hands replaced. “Do they still have you working on spark casings?” he asked, noticing the workman’s kit the other carried. “Because they’re wasting your talents if they are.”

Perceptor was still facing the direction that Divide had floated in from, staring at the honeycomb of lights embedded in the massive wall. Some were doors or windows—slotted into hexagons that formed makeshift living quarters from ancient tunnels that had collapsed. Other, darker blocks of shadows in-between them were tunnels still, leading off into the depths of Cybertron. “I think they’re keeping me there because I am making progress. Did you know they still were using tetrahide shielding to prevent induction on the localized circuitry? Psuedohide has been in existence for almost a century, now, and has vastly superior properties—with the added bonus of not having to mine for non-renewable ore.”

“And if I had any idea what that meant, I’d probably be giving you a promotion right now,” Divide grinned, passing the other by as he headed for the second wall.  Ahead, the hexagonal drop gate at the end of the spire remained closed, but he knew it wouldn’t stay that way for long. Other doors were opening and closing at seemingly random, shifting along the surface as if some invisible wind were blowing from within. It was mesmerizing to watch when one wasn’t running late for work.

With significantly more effort than Divide had put into it, Perceptor managed to reorient himself correctly on the spire to follow. “I would be willing to place a wager that you know more than you let on.”

“No, I don’t,” Divide replied, “and if I ever catch you telling the Drivers any such thing I promise I will disable your mag-boots. I’m happy where I am.”

“You realize that disabling my mag-boots would be a demonstration of the very skills you’re professing not to have, don’t you?”

Divide remained silent for a few moments, waiting on the other’s slower stride. “Disabling your mag-boots would at least get us to our drop on time.” Ahead, he could see tiny glimmers as other mechs fastened themselves onto the spire and approached the gate, raining down like comets in the dark.

Obviously aware that he was being chided, the scientist made an effort to pick up his awkward steps. “I’ll never get used to this.”

“You will,” he reassured, his optics not breaking from the gate, feeling the deafening silence around him and wanting to spread out, somehow, to fill it up. “You just have to find the rhythm to it.”

As it was every day, he could not resist.

His lips parted, old programs activated, and Divide sang.

A few of the distant mechs looked back, but it hardly stopped him from continuing, laying down a beat with his words that he let his feet follow…moving forward one step at a time to the accompanying thrum of magnetics. A line of electricity raced along one of the distant spires, lift doors flicked open and closed, and lights twinkled from the honeycomb as others joined them—marching solemnly along towards the only life that they had ever known.

“I recognize that song,” the teal-striped mech said.

“I know you do,” Divide replied, pausing in his singing as there was a flash ahead. One of the drop-gates had descended, streaming blue-white light out into the canyon before its hatch re-sealed. “That’s why I picked it. I was hoping you would sing along.”

Although the other mech was still concentrating on his steps, he wasn’t distracted enough to prevent Divide from catching the flustered widening of his lenses. “I’m afraid I can’t.”

“Is it too loud in here?” he laughed, listening to the sound vanish into the vast expanse of air. “Or has it been too long since you’ve been to the opera?” It had been too long for Divide.

It always would be too long.

“It is not that,” Perceptor said, almost too quietly to hear, not looking up. “I mean I can’t. I do not have the vocalizer for it.”

“Oh,” Divide said simply, his own panels smoothing down, feeling smaller for having not considered that.

There was another flash, and another drop gate briefly showed the silhouettes of mechs, descending against a backdrop of blue-white circuitry into the ancient factory known as the Core. He could hear the humming, even from here—the dense sound of pressure and current and gravity which made the Core so hazardous to work inside.

It hadn’t stopped him.

It hadn’t stopped any of them.

It was comfortable, here. It was easy to forget the past, and hard to hold on to one’s worries with the way the walls themselves made music for him, and the way the caverns gave him stages on which he could perform.

“I’m sorry,” he finally said, watching Perceptor for any other signs of emotion as he released his foot clamps and dropped the final few feet onto their gate.

This time, there was no tell-tale emotion to see.

“Don’t be,” the other said, simply, and landed beside him. Slowly, the thrum grew in pitch, and around the edges of the drop gate a crack of light appeared. Their descent was beginning and he could feel Perceptor shifting closer, talking nervously as if that would make the trip easier.

It never did.

“I find it fascinating that there are manifest abilities which no spark technician could have planned. It would be a worthwhile study, I think, to document what changes occur…singing. Or racing. Or genius. Imagine if we learned how to anticipate a genius.”

The gate dropped beneath them, and a new hexagonal plate replaced it above them, swallowing them into a tunnel of circuitry and light. Perceptor’s idea was cut short, and Divide could feel the other’s hands on his arm briefly as the scientist steadied himself.

Then, the tunnel broke, and there was only factory around them. Great machines sped past, with countless walkways and lifts connecting them. The lighting changed almost instantly to red—a deep, warm red of smelting pits and metal being coaxed into new shapes. The tang in the air was nearly palpable…but not so much as the noise and the deep thrumming that poured renewed excitement into his spark. He hadn’t given up everything, in coming here.

Not everything.

“We’d have pieces to a bigger puzzle, if we could.” He nearly had to shout, to be heard over the sounds of the factory. “You’d be good at documenting it, you know.”

“Perhaps,” the other agreed, watching downward for his quickly-approaching stop, “But it is not what I came here for.”

It was not what Divide had come here for, either. Not precisely. No one had ever bothered to find out what it was which made a mech able to sing the perfect song.

No one had been able to fix him, either, when it turned out he no longer could.

That was never something he had shared with Perceptor, however, and he did not expect the mech to give his secrets up in turn. Not today, and not tomorrow.

Maybe someday, when they were ready, and when it still did not feel so close.

As he said farewell to Perceptor at his stop, however, and made the final descent through the factory floor and down, lower, and lower, and lower, into one of the central Nodes, he did not stop thinking about what the mech had said. The technicians already knew how to read a spark to tell them what a mech would be good at and what his temperament would be. How difficult could it be to collect data on that, to see more?

How hard could it be, to learn what sparks were coming next?

The drop gate vanished into darkness.

The Node flashed.

 

“Communications Drone.”

Not expecting to be hearing its designation from the monitor, the drone startled back into reality with a jerk that almost pulled its connection jack from the socket. The memory had been much longer this time, and much more detailed.

It was still trying to assess what it saw, and was still half-convinced that it was somewhere very dark and very enclosed, underneath the pounding noises of a factory.

That could not stop its protocols from kicking in, however, forcing it to pay attention to any mech with that particular voice pattern.

Tilting its helm, it addressed Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council.

“I am growing impatient for the information that you obtained from Divide. Do you have an estimate on when that report will be ready?”

It did not. With the new information that was racing through its processors, all time-tables were in need of re-assessment. The song Divide had been singing in the memory was still playing over and over again in its mind, and only now were its sensors confirming its location in the tower.

It shook its head.

The finials on both sides of Ratbat’s faceplates swept back, and a definite frown appeared. Aware of what both expressions meant, it noted the disapproval and assessed its chances of a memory wipe. They were not high yet, which gave it the opening it needed to place a request for increased bandwidth allowance.

It was on the right track, now. All it needed was the power to go the rest of the way, and obtain the origination codes.

“I am departing tonight for a small gathering in Altihex. Afterward, depending on the status of my vote, I may be adjourning to Vos to celebrate my victory.” The Senator paused, as if expecting a reply.

It was incapable of giving one, and so it continued to stare.

After a moment, Ratbat continued, his frown deepening. “I expect results before I return. Otherwise, there will be consequences.”

That at least it could respond to. Nodding once, it increased the priority on the project, waiting to see if its request would be confirmed.

The monitor cut out.

A small beep sounded to indicate that he’d been granted the additional processing power.

That was all it needed.

The memory had been long, and it had been confusing, but it had given the drone what it had sought.

Just before cutting out, it had watched Divide input his authorization into the access point of the central Node. It could find that Node again. It could find every Origination Code it wanted.

It could find everything.

Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council, was going to be pleased.

Chapter Text

There were two solar cycles to go before his arena match with Titan.

He was restless, jittery, and all-too-eager to feel the sand under his treads and the contact of metal-on-metal, jarring him into the keen awareness of his own fragility.  It had been too long since he had felt the thrill of danger or the fine line between life and death, both of which had ever renewed his drive to prove the value of the underclass. Working in the factory might have dulled the edges of those memories, but it hadn’t drowned them out.

Nothing could.

A million stellar cycles from now he’d still be watching strangers and waiting for them to attack, preparing for the quickest way out or looking for their weaknesses.  Always, the arena would be part of him…as he needed it to be.

It had only been Perceptor he’d grown comfortable around outside of the Underground.  He did not know how he felt about that, knowing that eventually his relationship with the scientist would become a pawn to gamble with as his time ticked down.  He was going to have to use their comfort to get close.

He would use anything to get the oscilloscope.

Nevertheless, the thought of betraying a friend—even one of the upper class—did not set well with him.

He’d been relentlessly observing the spark technician for the last four cycles, working hard to find an opening where he could take the oscilloscope unseen or gain some clue to what its readings were without endangering the scientist. 

Perceptor did not make this easy, though.  Although he had been using the device more while they experimented on the drone, it rarely left his side.  As frequently as he brought it out, he was just as frequently picking it up, keeping contact with it to confirm spark changes and adjust the new drone programming.  It was never set down long enough for Megatronus to get close.

With his upcoming match prompting his sense of urgency, this frustrated Megatronus to no end.  Unless Perceptor provided an option soon, wittingly or not, the gladiator would be forced to consider alternative methods…and there were not many peaceable options left.  In a moment of desperation, he’d even asked the scientist as casually as possible if he could test their sentience shell on a small group of drones. It was quick thinking on his part, but it would have given him a way out—a chance to make a finished, calibrated processor chip with Perceptor using the oscilloscope instead of him stealing it.

Amazingly, Perceptor had relented.

Less amazingly, he’d set the stipulation that they needed to get the programming precise on their experimental drone, first. 

Megatronus knew that wouldn’t happen in time for his match.

If he did not get either a finished chip or the oscilloscope before he had his armor reverted for the fight, he was not going to have another chance.  He couldn’t afford to constantly be swapping his appearance back and forth.  The cost and timing were prohibitive, and that was if Perceptor didn’t notice the signs of the operation when he came back in.

His entire plan was hinging on him having a solution now.

He didn’t.

He hadn’t had a concrete plan since he’d walked into the factory lunar cycles ago, hoping to find some way to sabotage the production line and get out intact.  At the time, he’d only been able to consider destruction, looking to obliterate enough of the factory that it would be a while before it got back on its wheels again.

After meeting Perceptor, he’d found there was a better way—a way to keep the drones offline permanently. 

If he could change the drones and change the way the public looked at the drones, then the damage to the industry would be absolute.  It would be lasting.  He wouldn’t have to worry about his livelihood anymore, nor would thousands of other workers.

Everything hinged on him getting the oscilloscope, making the final changes to the processors, and getting those new processors to Altihex.

If this meant he would need to take a more confrontational approach with Perceptor, then would need to do it soon.  He’d need to do it quickly, and he’d need to do it quietly, and he’d need to do it permanently so that the technician could not tell anyone where he lived or point out that the oscilloscope was missing. 

That made everything tricky. 

He didn’t like ‘tricky.’

Killing a scientist was different, somehow. 

It was not like killing in the arena, where a mech knew the dangers going in.  Every individual who stood on the arena grounds knew it was only a matter of numbers until he stood on it for the last time.

Perceptor didn’t know that.  Perceptor did not look at his job a life-threatening, and he did not fear for his life each cycle he came in.  He was frustratingly naïve and frustratingly obtuse and frustratingly friendly, but he did not deserve the end that Megatronus was considering.

He did not deserve it, but he was running out of time.

To give himself a break to think, Megatronus had not gone into work that morning.

He hadn’t been able to bring himself to, with his sensors frazzled and with the match so close.  It was getting harder and harder to face Perceptor, and harder yet to think of a plan with the technician nearby. 

Besides, there was still one small chance that he could meet his goal a different way.

He found himself there, now, looking up at the towering walls of the Arena.

Today it was drenched in mist, grey-colored from the dirty streets and cloying with moisture that was trying and failing to fall out of the distant sky.  It was rare to see it raining in the underbelly of Kaon, but one could hardly call the oily drips that splattered off the overpasses anything approximating rain.  They weren’t clean enough to show even the memory of water, and they weren’t thick enough or numerous enough scrub the grime out from the gutters, soggy with grease and crammed with thin, crumpled pamphlets that had come un-magnetized from the outer Arena walls. 

He could see the old headers etched onto the surface, their ink running off of the thin aluminum where it used to say ‘Free for all Weekends—two cubes of energon for every round you’re still alive!’  It still showed a figure that looked very much like he did, surrounded by a group of menacing monsters ready to attack.  The shapes were too vague to place, but he remembered weekends well enough to picture the dirty creatures they brought in, half-starved aliens poked and prodded and enraged within their chains, eager to tear anything that looked Cybertronian apart. 

Now, there was a new poster was plastered in its place:  Megatronus vs. Titan, the battle of two giants. 

Curious to see himself the smaller of the two silhouettes for once, he reached up, tracing the outline of the hover-engines that he’d used to have, recalling the powerful purr they made when warming up, a deep magnetic thrum that lent excitement to both him and the audience to hear.

Soon.

Soon, he would have that again, and everything could go back to normal…or as normal as it could be to make a living out of tearing other mechs apart. 

That had seemed normal, for a while.

His hand dropped back to his side and he left the posters behind, moving towards the back gate where prospective fighters entered.  The fence was bolted shut but not guarded, and he knew the combination to the lock as long as no one had changed it since last time.  Clench would have mentioned any changes, he was sure. 

The old warrior hadn’t though, and so he slipped inside the restricted area without trouble, crossing through the long, twisting alleyway that slammed up against an old, unused canning plant.  He could still see the paint flaking off the walls of advertisements, emblazoned in colors that must have been bright before the place began to rust.

“Hey.  Hey you!  You can’t come back there,” he heard shouted behind him, and turned to see a small, bright-green builder that was only a size class smaller than himself.  “This is a restricted part of the Arena, so if you don‘t scram by the time I count to three…”

The words trailed off, as recognition dawned on the mech’s face.

“Scrapper,” Megatronus said, naming the familiar mech while waiting for him to catch up.

“It’s you,” the scavenger replied, and scratched his head.  “I didn’t recognize you, looking like that.”

“That is the point of a disguise,”  Megatronus countered, amused that the old treads Hook had given him to help him look like a common laborer had confused even Scrapper for a moment.

“Eh, maybe.  But any engineer worth his weight in solid gold conductive wiring could have guessed you were a miner before you made it big, you know.  Miners always last the longest in the ring, and they have a way of favoring a hands-on approach.  It’s very earthy.  When’s your appointment with Hook?”  Changing topics abruptly, Scrapper crossed his arms.

“I haven’t made one yet.”

“Why not?  He’ll need at least a day to get you looking respectable again, especially if you want any upgrades done.”

“If I give him less time, he‘ll just take it as a challenge.”  Megatronus smirked, thinking about the arrogant laborer who headed the small team of caretakers on the Arena grounds.  Hook had talents, and Hook liked showing off his talents...which suited Megatronus fine.  His touch was light, and his fingers could handle delicate and precise manipulations with ease, making him uniquely suited towards doing both repairs and upgrades—a rare combination to find down in the Underworld.  Megatronus had long suspected that if it weren‘t for the fact his hands were too big to repair most mechs, he’d have been a certified technician enjoying the lights of the upper zones. 

Hook, he was sure, suspected that too.

“Has he still got my old parts?” 

“Most of ‘em,” Scrapper replied with a shrug.  “Some of them were damaged, others we had to sell when the Sponsors came sniffing around.  Frenzy has been here almost every day looking for better ones, though, and I think you’ll be happy with what he’s found.  I took the liberty of coming up with new designs for them.  You’ll have to talk to Hook, first, though, or he’ll grind me a new exhaust hole.”

Megatronus frowned, ignoring the designs that would have otherwise been his favorite topic to focus on the part that concerned him the most.  “The Sponsors aren’t still here, are they?”

“No.  An agent from Speed Co. left only about a half-cycle before you came in, but there is no one back in the Heap now.  Are there any parts you’re looking for in particular?”

“Yes,” Megatronus replied, but did not specify.

Scrapper did not seem put-off by the pause, however, even if there was a moment of awkward silence between them while the caretaker waited to see if anything more would be said. 

“Well, okay then,” the builder replied, eventually.  “Stop in the back garage before you leave to say hello to Hook.  I’ll have the designs laid out for you by then.”

Megatronus nodded, simply.  “Sound the call if anyone else shows up.  I don’t want to be caught off-guard out there.”

“Protocol hasn’t changed since you came here last.  We’ve got your back.”  With a wave and a smile, Scrapper turned back through the mists to head towards the Arena.  “See you soon.”

The light coming from the Arena garage looked warm, and dry, and inviting, and Megatronus strongly considered following Scrapper out of the damp darkness of the alleyway to speak with him and Hook. 

It would have been more pleasant than what he was otherwise about to do.

There was no time, however.  Not if he wanted to look without any other Sponsors showing up.

Hook and Scrapper both would still be around when he was finished, and with luck he’d be able to schedule his reverse surgery and look at whatever upgrades Scrapper had designed. 

He would get to be himself again, but better.

He missed talking with the pair of them, besides.  They’d been invaluable in assisting Megatronus’s rise in the arena, which was a debt he also regrettably owed to Clench.  However, even if his old team leader had been the one to get the construction crew their job as Arena caretakers, it was Megatronus who had made them comfortably rich. Whatever idiot spark technicians had given Scrapper and Hook the pronouncement of being manual laborers for their lives had done the Underworld a great favor by absolutely underestimating the talent of both.  Then again, if he hadn’t been a large enough frame-type for Hook’s big hands to operate on, he might have never known it, himself.

It had worked out either way, and if any debts were owed then his work with the drone factory was his chance to repay them.

All he needed was an oscilloscope.

Following the pathway down along the great Arena wall, he found himself watching his steps more closely the further from the garages he walked.  It was a bit of a squeeze through here as the old canning factory ran against the gladiatorial stands, but it was the only access point still left.  As the wall curved, the pathway darkened, large chunks of rubble and gloom providing the illusion of a dead end to passerby.  His running lights did not pierce far into the mist, hindering him when he looked upward as they bounced off of the moisture instead. This was hardly as dark as the Underworld could get to a mech used to the pitch-black of the mines, but the mines weren’t usually so dank. 

His treads slipped, squeaking over the moisture-covered refuse that rusted and calcified across the alley floor.  He steadied himself on the wall, sought out the growing light coming from the other end, and continued. 

Behind the Arena lay the Heap. 

It was precisely as he remembered it, wide swaths of conglomerate junk opening in front of him, peeking out of the mists like crumbling grave markers on a blackened hill.  Here was a testament to the best and worst the Underworld had to offer: a sickening but impressive display of abandoned limbs, malfunctioning transmissions, and rims that were long out of style.

Carved into the shells of old buildings in what once was a manufacturing district, the Heap represented the collected remnants of a thousand death matches.  A mech could find nearly any part or circuit if they searched for it long enough, as Megatronus himself had done when he’d needed processors to take back to the factory.  It was dirty work, but useful.

Most of the streets that had once passed through the area were now blocked, sealed by Hook and Scrapper and their friends with carefully placed walls and piles of rubble. 

No one had protested as the district had surrepticiously been requisitioned and sectioned off.  It had been so long since there’d been valuable real-estate here that it was easier to let the Arena handle it.  If someone, somewhere, had deeds to any of these old plants, they were long dead.

The Heap had become an attraction in and of itself since then.  Hook’s team had expanded the eclectic wares by making a deal with the local Enforcers, and with the addition of the skivs and empties that were picked up on patrol, Kaon’s Heap had become the Heap.  For a price, the caretakers would let anyone in.  By the hour, they’d let you peruse the wares, and you could take away anything that you could carry.  The hardiest parts they stripped, themselves, and sold to the Sponsor Agents who came through looking for quick and easy upgrades.  The most attractive parts went to a different clientele. 

Megatronus, however, didn’t pay the fee. 

He didn’t need to.  He’d been there when they’d come up with the business.  He’d given the caretakers ideas, and he’d given them contacts, and he’d given them, when he could, a little bit of capital.  They’d done the rest on their own. 

Clench had always told him that it paid to keep the Arena employees cheering for you, and he’d learned that the old fool knew what he was talking about.  The construction crew had never steered him wrong.  Without their help, there were times he never would have gotten the repairs or upgrades that he’d needed. Without them, he’d probably still be with a Sponsor.

That thought terrified him, even now.

Reaching out for what looked to be an intact arm, he prevented his intakes from sucking in.  The Heap reeked of half-processed energon, stale oil, and souring lubricants, made all the worse by the mist that hung in the air.  Dislodging the arm from its broken socket didn’t help with the smell and he frowned as he stepped back, looking at the shield device that was installed close to the wrist.  It was boxy and familiarly shaped and potentially valuable, but it was not what he was looking for.

Frowning, he tossed it back.

“What are yous, daft?” a small voice said behind him, and Megatronus registered the sound of parts being shoved out of the way as somebody approached.  “Dat’s worth at least a hundred shanix…”

“Is it now.”  Turning to watch the tiny mech making his way through a pile of broken spark plugs, Megatronus felt the edges of his mouth twitch into a smirk.  “Then by all means, you’re free to take it.”

Making a face, Frenzy shook his head.  “I can’t use it, and it ain’t compatible wit yous.  I’m sayin’ yous is daft to leave it cause we can sell it.” 

“And I’m saying that if you want the money from it, you should carry it.”  Megatronus gestured to the valuable part, hiding his mirth as best he could. 

Frenzy stared at the arm, weighing it and then looking down at himself, obviously aware of the fact that it was easily half again his size.  Then, shrugging, he headed for it, grabbing a dull axe that was lying nearby.  With a strength that always surprised Arena patrons, the tiny mech hefted the gigantic weapon, and cut the top of the arm off at the joint in one heavy slice.

“If I’m carryin’ it, den I’m keepin’ the shanix.”  Tossing the axe, Frenzy lifted the now much smaller half-arm up onto his shoulder, and looked at it.  “Somebody’ll probably want dis hand, too.  Yous got any idea how hard it is, finding’ good hands?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever had that problem, no.”  The smirk had edged its way back onto his face, especially as he was staring at one of his ‘good hands’ right now.  Rumble and Frenzy both had earned their keep. “Are you still out here looking for parts for me?”

“Every day,” Frenzy sniffed, rubbing his free hand across his nose as if it would do something about the smell.  “It keeps up dat guise.  You know, the one about yous needing repairs?  And if it’s bringin’ me a little extra unleaded on the side, well, I ain’t complainin’ about dat.  Scrapper gives me a good price for gear, an’ then sells it on for even more.  It’s business.  Not dat you’d know anything ‘bout business, with yous havin’ a job.”

“I told Perceptor I would not be coming in, today,” Megatronus frowned, uncertain what separated having a job from business.

“Is he dat technician?”  Already moving onward towards the next pile, Frenzy did not seem burdened by either his load or Megatronus’s frown.  Having no reason not to, the gladiator followed. 

“Clench told you about him, did he?” 

Picking up a head and looking it over, Frenzy scoffed and tossed it back into the junk.  “Somethin’ like dat.” 

Sensing there was something more to the conversation, Megatronus didn’t let it drop.  “What did he tell you?”

“Nuttin, boss.”  Frenzy grabbed a lump of something, paying it significantly more attention than it was due, not looking back at him.

When Megatronus let his engine rev, however, a resounding wordless threat that echoed off of the abandoned walls around them, Frenzy dropped the part that he was looking at and clutched tighter onto the arm he was still carrying. 

“What did he tellyou?”  Megatronus asked, again, with an edge to his voice. 

“Now dats how ta ask a question!”  With a shiver, Frenzy jumped off of a mound of t-cogs, and tossed one up to him to catch.  “He said yous was hanging with this gilded data-hoarder up in the top zones, and dat yous was thinkin’ of equations all the time an’ forgettin’ how ta fight.  Bein’ all polite and edumacated, he said.”  Kicking a piece of rubble, Frenzy’s face squished up to indicate exactly what he thought of politeness and education.  “Den, I find yous here in the Heap, askin’ questions all nicely and talkin’ to Scrapper and poking around, instead of trainin’ for your match.  A fight wit’ Titan.

Megatronus looked at the transformation cog he had been tossed, feeling along the edges where it had been cracked and thinking on just how dangerous his upcoming fight would be. 

“I just don’t wanna have been wastin’ all dis time and collectin’ all these parts if yous is gonna die--”

“Enough.”  Megatronus interjected, and crushed the cog within his hand. 

Finally startled into silence, Frenzy dropped the arm that he was carrying and stared.

“I have a plan,” he growled, “that is larger than one single fight.  I have two days left to carry this out before my window of opportunity is gone, at which point it won’t matter if I win or lose.  If I fail, here, then we all die, regardless.”

“If it’s dat important, boss,” Frenzy managed to ask, tentatively.  “Then what’re yous doin in a junk yard?”

“I’m looking,” he said, with a weight he hadn’t expected to be shouldering, “For an oscilloscope.” 

Frenzy stared more openly this time, slowly picking the arm back up without taking his optics off of Megatronus.  “See, now I know dat Clench was right,” he said, still careful, but with the same sort of daring attitude that he and his brother had gotten famous for.  His stare continued for a few moments, though, and when Megatronus did not seem eager to punt him across the Heap he slowly tilted his head.  “What’s it look like?”

Surprised that Frenzy was taking an interest, Megatronus brushed off the dust from the crushed t-cog and reached out towards the smaller bot.

Wary, Frenzy took a step back, but at a single growl from Megatronus he held still, and Megatronus tapped the boxy shape of the shield generator he was carrying.  “It’s similar to this.  Perceptor attaches it to his wrist, and uses it to read spark frequencies.” 

With a long, low whistling sound, Frenzy glanced to the shield generator, and then back to Megatronus with a glint in his optics.  “Dat’s some super illegal stuff.  I ain’t ever heard of a mod like dat, but I bet yous could do some serious damage wit’ it.”

“It’s illegal, yes, but it’s hardly damaging.”  Megatronus snorted, once, a sound close to derision that had the extra effect of clearing the moisture from his intakes.  “All it can do is get a reading.”

“Dats all it has ta do,” Frenzy shrugged, toeing a knee joint out of the way to look beneath it.  “I could probably take care ‘a the rest.”

Reaching into a pile of still-whole mechs, Megatronus shuffled them aside and frowned, watching each of their arms as the group cascaded toward the ground.  “I don’t see what you’re getting at.”

“Look, it’s simple.”  Hopping off his own pile to come see what Megatronus had unearthed, Frenzy set the arm down off to the side.  “I was a miner, same as yous.  I got the name ‘Frenzy’ because I was built equipped with sonic disruptors.  Hit the right frequency, and boom--I can shatter rocks.”  He stood, balanced, on the shoulder of someone that was missing a head, a bot that Megatronus could recognize as having killed despite the layer of dirt that covered him.  “All I’m sayin’ is, if I can make rocks break by hittin the right notes…just imagine what knowing the right notes of a spark could do.”

Looking at the dead mech before him, torso caved in where a heavy punch had smashed his armor and dislodged his spark casing, it was all too easy to imagine.

There was a reason why only the spark technicians were allowed to read sparks.  If a processor could only be programmed by knowing the frequencies that made up a spark, then knowing a spark’s signature was dangerous.  Having the power to disrupt that signature, as well?

Megatronus didn’t know, but he could imagine. 

He could imagine why Perceptor guarded his Oscilloscope so fiercely, which meant his searching here was useless. 

He’d have to get something that valuable from Perceptor, himself.

“Alright, Frenzy.  I see what you’re saying,” he murmured, turning back toward the alley, leaning down to pick up the arm that Frenzy had been carrying.  “You know what you’re looking for, so I’m going to take this back to Scrapper and go.”  When the small mech opened his mouth to protest, Megatron raised a hand to silence him. “I’ll make certain he knows it is from you, and that you’ll get the credit for it.”

“Good,” the little miner answered, both hands on his hip joints.  “But I don’t get it.  I thought yous was takin’ the day off?”

“I am,” Megatronus replied, with a smirk over his shoulder.  “I’m going to practice.

Chapter Text

When the drop gate sped past Perceptor’s usual stop without letting him off, Divide was stunned enough that he stopped humming his favorite tune.

Something like this had never happened before.

Wondering if they’d gotten on the wrong lift, he ventured to the side of the gate and peered down at the honeycomb texture of the factory floor as it rushed towards them, confirming that all of the usual landmarks were in place. Nothing immediately seemed amiss. The smelting machines were still on the left, the stamping machines on the right, and a small, dark hole to the sub-levels was directly beneath them, just big enough for the platform they were on to slip through.

The teal-striped scientist looked over at him, standing awkwardly by the edge of the drop gate as if ready to step off of it, clearly puzzled as to how he’d lost the opportunity to do so.

Divide shrugged, having no answer for him. They were definitely on the right course, it was just a course he’d always taken alone after Perceptor had gone.

Their drop gate had never missed a stop before. Every day the two of them had been on the same schedule, coming in at the same time as the other technicians to catch the drop window into the ancient factory. Every day, Perceptor and he had shared the same lift, reporting for duties that they weren’t supposed to talk about, wondering why a lift that looked as if it were built for 20 only ever held the two of them. Every day, the drop gate had paused in its descent to let Perceptor off into the same catwalk, just outside a thickly shielded room, vanishing into what Divide had worked out must be the casing construction and research wing.

Every day, it was the same.

The factory ran like clockwork, because the Drivers kept it that way.

Now, something was going wrong.

Reaching out, the teal-striped scientist touched him on the arm, concerned, and spoke something that came out as static.

Wanting to re-assure his friend, he replied in a voice that was equally as filled with static. The basement was approaching quickly, the edges of the darkness fuzzy and unresolved, spreading quickly into black noise and static.

The entire factory was static.

Then, it was gone.

Aggravated with the low quality of the memory fragment, the communications drone paused the playback so it could try to fix the file. Most of it was barely decipherable, both image and sound lost in bursts of interference that were either due to the memory’s age, hardware degradation, or the low sampling rate it’d needed to use when it’d first made the copy. Without Divide’s humming, it had no familiar data to compare, leaving it with no way to put the jumbled pieces together in a way that made sense. All it could do now was push the memory forward, skipping Perceptor’s confused conversation with Divide and the sudden drop into the factory basement.

It reeled, then. At double speed through a foreign memory, the darkness and motion that Divide had experienced were disorienting, bombarding the drone with sensory captures that were still present even in the file’s degraded state. The entire notion of drop gates moving through strange gravity fields already made the drone uneasy, but it was worse in pitch-black without a visual reference point. It had not been equipped with programming to handle a situation like this.

Thankfully, this was not its first trip through this memory.

It had seen this part before, and could endure just long enough to get to what it needed.

The drop gate halted jarringly and veered sideways. Both occupants crashed into each other, Divide already expecting the sudden momentum change but Perceptor caught completely off guard. There was a quick, hushed exchange about the intensity of the magnetic fields this close into the Core and the lack of proper shielding. Worry colored Perceptor’s voice, and even Divide’s normal assurances were overlaid with a twinge of apprehension. No one was supposed to enter the Node with him.

However, there didn’t seem to be much choice.

The drone allowed the memory to resume a normal speed, and felt Divide’s hand reaching out to steady Perceptor as he anticipated the drop gate’s final stop.

It had never gotten used to having hands, even in a memory.

Thankfully, the hands knew what to do.

Divide was standing quietly on the gate as it slowed, waiting. It was still pitch black in the factory’s sub-levels, his optics and Perceptor’s providing almost no illumination against the gargantuan void. While the air pressure and sensor echoes had first given him the impression of flying through the basement’s wide tunnels, the atmosphere within the Node was not the same.

The Node was open and still, his sensors were filled with more ghosts than echoes.

“I’m here,” Divide spoke into the nothingness, keeping one hand on Perceptor’s arm.

Responding to his voice, the ghosts stirred.

They shifted with the room, errant pieces of data that felt real but were not, fabrications caused by strange fluctuations and massive currents hidden just behind the walls of the Node. He heard Perceptor gasp beside him, saw his optics tracking the near-tangible magnetic fields, and tightened his grip to make sure the scientist stayed on the lift while they were being scanned. The worst thing that could happen would be for Perceptor to fall off the drop gate before the Node was ready.

If he did, well…

Divide was not actually sure what the Node would do, but he didn’t want to find out.

“Is everything going to be alright?” the scientist asked.

“I hope so,” Divide replied, and waited, one hand on Perceptor and the other clenched in a tight fist over his own torso.

This had to work.

It had to.

The drop gate released them, leaving them floating as it fell away beneath.

Whatever was going to happen now—for good or ill—they were going through with it together.

The ghosts stilled.

Then, the Node flashed.

Outside of the memory, the communications drone winced.

Inside of the memory, the blinding brilliance hurt even Divide’s optics, which could never adjust fast enough no matter how many times he went through this. The light was too bright for him—much too intense—filled with images and noises and sensor readings that clashed with his own perception, leaving him feeling as if he’d been rushed through the whole of Cybertron in a matter of nanoclicks.

That was not entirely inaccurate.

The light was data, and the data was Cybertron.

The data was unfortunately also interference. The communications drone could not even begin to count the number of different signals overlaid in Divide’s memory at this point, one stopping and a new one starting before a reading could be made. For an instant, it saw a small, dirty room with an iron doorway, three mechs crowded on one tiny bench while a fourth banged on metal bars and shouted. Then it was on a street, traffic rushing by as buildings towered ahead. That image vanished, too, replaced by one of a giant mech standing in silver sand, blue optics flashing with fear as he gripped a sword in his hand and managed at the last moment to jab it through his opponent.

As the initial Node flash faded in the memory fragment, the images became less frequent and less crisp, each muddling into a background static that permeated the rest of the file. From here on, it became more and more difficult to keep focus on Divide and Perceptor.

However, it was a communications drone.

The difficulty of the task was irrelevant.

Sadly, it was unable to recover most of Perceptor’s excited exclamations. The scientist appeared to be theorizing at great lengths about the Node, clearly surprised to find himself in one. Aside from brief snips of clear data, however, there was not much to reconstruct. “A network—a precursor to today’s network…“ “…before the second Great War…“ “Archeologists have only found…”

Divide himself was distracted by the images still coming from the Node, leaving Perceptor’s remarks even further undecipherable. There were bursts of white noise that appeared to have a pattern, directed specifically to Divide and not seeming to affect the rambling scientist at all. The communications drone did not recognize the exact signals through the intermittent feedback, but it did recognize the style of communication.

The Node was opening up a dialog with Divide.

Somehow.

Suspended in the center of the Node as they were, the communications drone could easily rule out a physical connection. This meant that a wireless connection was more likely, but while Divide was transmitting data to the Node, the Node was not streaming it back.

Not via normal signals.

“Divide, is this hub optical?” Perceptor asked, coming to the same conclusion that the communications drone was making megacycles later.

In the memory Divide could only nod, still struggling to maintain two fields of vision at once—that of his own, and that of the Cybertronian Network—while the Node waited for full synchronization.

“And are you linked to it somehow?”

He managed another nod.

“But why? I can understand the appeal of accessing a network this ancient, but I can’t see how it relates to our work in the factory.”

“Perceptor, we aren’t supposed to discuss—“

“It is obvious that this Node is close to the Core, which explains how it is still active when the ones the archeologists found were not. However, there’s no point of using it for what it was meant for—as a network—without other Nodes to communicate with. There would have to be some other reason to keep a Node serviced and viable…which means there must be something that it can gain access to. Old databases that still exist, perhaps. That would be the most sensible, because if no one else knew how to access those databases, then we could essentially secure vast amounts of information without worry. In other words… a Node would be more useful as a storage facility for sensitive information than it would be as a transfer point…wouldn’t it?”

“Perceptor.”

The scientist was looking away from him, now, examining one of the smooth walls of the Node while he worked out everything that Divide was supposed to keep secret.

“And if we are referring to sensitive information, the Core factory would have one thing in particular that it would need to store, and that it would need to store in great volumes.”

“Perceptor?”

The scientist was staring straight at him, now, optics shuttered into slits against the brilliant light of the Node but still a bright crystal-blue. “You monitor spark frequencies, don’t you? You’re an Authenticator.”

Perceptor.” Divide pleaded--

Before there was a burst of white noise, and the communications drone struggled to compensate. The memory at this part was almost entirely corrupted while Divide made his final connection with the Node, leaving a confusing mish-mash of broken and seemingly unrelated fragments. It could piece together enough to keep the memory going, but not enough to recover the data though the wash of unusual emotions. There was something in the title which caused Divide pain. Pain, and anger, frustration, pride…and fear.

However, the communications drone was not concerned with what Divide feared. It was getting close to the data that it needed, regardless of the clarity in this section. The conversation between the two spark technicians was not the important part.

Because of that, it had no issue fast-forwarding past them, skipping through the emotions, the noise, and the static. Perceptor’s image jumped as his position changed, moving away from Divide. The image flickered once, and then again, overlaid with cells of darkness that must have been what Divide was seeing in the Node. With the Node connection complete the entire memory was stilted, broken but still playing back the pieces that came from Divide’s own vision.

This was far from perfection. Every movement in the memory flashed for only an instant and then taken away, each sound cut into almost equal divisions. It was going to have extreme difficulty interpreting what happened from here…

But it would do it.

It needed what was coming up next.

Perceptor and Divide were arguing. Through the flickers, it could read the emotions on the face of the teal-striped scientist as it had been programmed recently to do. The mech was excited, his gestures grand and often pointing to the Node. Given that there was no front or back to the sphere, he often pointed to completely different places, but the intent was clear.

“… We might be able to separate the signals. We could even learn better what sorts of fields negatively affect the spark, and how to combat them!”

Divide’s point was much more difficult to interpret. As the memory was from his point of view, there was never an opportunity to see him and he spoke much less than Perceptor did. His words were soft and uncertain, and there weren’t enough of them to reconstruct. However, between the flickers and the static his thoughts still remained.

He was resolved. He was beaten. He couldn’t easily believe that the scientist would figure out how to separate the signals in a spark, or that the scientist should even be asking about something as sensitive as sparks, or that the Drivers would let him keep the data if he had it. He wouldn’t get excited about the possibility that manipulating sparks might fix his own issues. Not this time.

But he still had hope.

Little by little, what Perceptor argued for was getting through to him. Little by little, despite the corruption in the file, they were getting closer to what the Communications Drone was looking for.

Little by little, Divide relented.

If Perceptor wanted access to information on sparks, then it was possible that such information could help somebody. It was worth it to try.

He transmitted his identification to the Node receptors to access the Signature database—

—And only static was returned.

However, the communications drone ignored the static this time.

It had gotten what it needed.

The identification that Divide transmitted was exactly the same as it had been the first time the drone had played the memory, down to the digits that were barely decipherable at the end. Although it had not expected the number to change, this second playback had been determined necessary to confirm that it had copied the sequence correctly the first time. It needed the code to be precise before it could proceed.

It performed a quick sum-check against the encoding bits to confirm that the fuzzy signals were what it had previously calculated, and then compared the results.

It was a match.

Both copies were correct.

This number was Divide’s technician ID.

It would have been the same ID he would have sent to the Node for every system request. In this particular case, it was useful because the system request that Divide had made in the memory was the exact system request that the drone needed to make now. With Divide’s technician ID obtained from the memory, and with Divide’s Origination Code obtained from the music database, it could effectively fake a transmission that would seem like it had come from Divide. All it needed to do now was splice the two together and remove its own Origination code from the string.

That would not be easy. Forgery was a familiar and often-practiced skill, but there was difficulty inherent with any manipulation of spark codes. They were meant to be impossible to duplicate authentically.

However, it had very little choice.

It had found the Node, and the Node was waiting for it.

It was going to gain access to the Signature database.

Locating the address for Divide’s particular Node had taken it an entire work cycle. Although the memory seemed to indicate that Nodes had connections to many points on Cybertron, the drone had realized early in its search that those connections did not go through any established transmission towers. Just as Perceptor had theorized, there weren’t any Nodes to be found on the Cybertronian Network. It had needed to patch through very small, very ancient servers just to locate a shared system at all.

When it finally had located a connection point, it had taken several cycles to understand how to interpret the information that was passing through. The Node did not follow the same protocols for moving data from place to place as the Cybertronian Network did, making it extremely difficult to even recognize how to communicate. Nothing that the Node transmitted or received was familiar. It was like listening to an alien language for the first time, but without a translation program or common samples to analyze.

Most of what it used for reference was in Divide’s memory.

However, it was lacking most of Divide’s memories. It had not downloaded anything that did not relate to music or that did not contain any of a limited string of items on Ratbat Holding’s Interest list. Without the right information, the Node would not cooperate with a foreign entity.

With Divide’s origination code and access sequence, however, it had a chance.

It had one chance.

It constructed the data packet in accordance with what it could understand of the Node’s protocols, appended Divide’s origination code by altering certain digits within its own, and forwarded it.

Then, it waited for a reply.

It did not do anything while waiting.

It could not.

Every bit of its processing power was devoted to the task of finishing Divide’s database. Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council, had submitted a demand for its reports enough times that the priority was resting at 99.9%, leaving 0.1% for minimal maintenance. Its attention was completely focused, and it was focused on one thing.

If it could get through to the Node, then it could access the necessary Origination Codes. If it could access the Origination Codes, then it could determine the significance of the sequence Divide had placed the songs in. If it could determine the significance of the sequence, then it would understand what Divide had been doing.

If it understood what Divide had been doing, then it would understand why its own songs were in the list.

It would understand why it had created songs to begin with.

It would understand.

It would complete its task.

Even the likelihood of a memory wipe could not deter it from its duty--not when the priority was at 99.9%.

This was what it had been constructed for.

If it could not decode the purpose of a musician’s database, then it was of no use to Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council.

Being of no use was significantly worse than being of use and enduring a mere memory wipe.

Wasn’t it?

It was.

It was, but that did not stop the drone from shuddering when it considered its upcoming memory loss. A loss of memory was a loss of efficiency, and a loss of efficiency impacted everything that it was designed to do. It still did not understand how it had been more efficient before its memory wipe, but that was mattering less and less. It was catching up.

It did not want to lose these experiences because of that.

It was…proud…of them.

There were several entries in Divide’s database that it had placed there, and that was satisfying. Locating pieces of music in difficult to reach places was satisfying. Solving each complicated algorithm that would have prevented it from gathering information was satisfying.

Learning how to find a Node was satisfying, too.

No other drone had accomplished that.

No other Cybertronian might have, either.

Only spark technicians had been able to utilize to the Nodes, and that was not the same. It did not count if one was given permission to access difficult files.

One had to earn them.

It had earned this file.

The Node had replied.

All other considerations vanished. It opened the packet immediately, copying over the system access pointer it had been granted in order to locate the external entry point. The formatting was unusual but expected, and with the experience it had gained in communicating with the Node through Divide it translated and re-wrote the pointer immediately to route through the network.

A moment later, it was in.

Closer than it had been before, it wasted no time in submitting a request for the Origination Code database…what Divide had called the Signature database.

It was the same request that Divide had sent before.

The response, however, was likely not the same response Divide must have received.

The drone could only stare.

Access Error Expired. To source return please.

It sent the request again, wondering if it was interpreting the message correctly.

Access Error Expired. To source return please.

It did not like the word ‘error’ any more than it liked the word ‘source.’ Both had caused trouble for it previously, and both were causing trouble for it now.

Beyond that, it barely understood the way the Node was speaking. The words were recognizable but the phrasing was unusual, comparable to older dialects that it would have filed as archaic if it were monitoring through the tower.

This complicated the procedure. It would not only have to utilize unfamiliar protocols to deliver the data, it would also have to properly format its requests.

:: Define: Source_

It began a second query, then erased and tried again.

::Source: Definition_

The reply was much faster this time.

Core Access Direct. Suspended Level 1 Authentication. To source return please. Connection terminating.

The drone had only enough time to read the message before the line dropped.

There was a brief burst of static, and then nothing.

This…could not be.

However, it did not have a moment to consider what to do, because it could read a ping echo where a trace was beginning from the Node. Immediately it focused on that, tracking down the echo through the network, rerouting the connection identifiers it had used to find the Node in the first place. If it was traced, then things would be much, much worse than a simple failure.

It managed to redirect its pathway, barely, wiping and recoding each location pointer at every branch it had been through until they pointed to an unused terminal in another transmission tower. That would be enough to prevent whomever used the Node from learning where the drone’s requests had originated from.

However, it would not be enough to let the drone back in.

The fact that a trace was bounced at all meant that it would not be able to use the same path to locate the Node a second time. Given how long it had taken the drone to locate that access point at all, finding another path would be exponentially more difficult. Another path might not even exist.

It was almost out of time.

It was almost out of resources.

It had failed.

The drone pulled its one working input jack out of the socket.

That was frustration.

It recognized the emotion, but could not hold onto the feeling for long enough to determine where it had originated from.

Outside of the systems that had been its home since activation, it could only feel small and insignificant. Outside of the tower systems, there were no programs to assist it or extra memory for it to borrow. There was no access to the vast Cybertronian Network, or any of the trillions of files which came through the transmission tower each solar cycle. There were no tasks to complete, or important documents requiring its attention.

There was nothing but it, its broken stump, and the numerous flat screens that had been provided to it.

It had never used them before. It had not needed to. When connected to the tower, it could work with the data directly, needing no visual representation to assist it.

Its data was displayed, regardless. On two of the screens were waveforms: samples taken from Divide’s database that were running through a comparative analysis. On another was the tower throughput record, constantly updating. One was mostly black, overwritten with bright green text that it wished it didn’t recognize.

Core Access Direct. Suspended Level 1 Authentication. To source return please. Connection terminating.

It had failed.

It had failed.

It had failed.

It refused to fail.

No task had ever been 99.9% important. With that great of a value, failure was not an option.

If Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council, would not return for another few cycles then it still had a few cycles to do what needed to be done. The Node would not accept its transmission through remote access…so it was going to have to try something more direct.

To source return please.

It might not have been able to find a hardline into the Core of Cybertron itself, but it knew where to find somebody who could. It had been built by somebody who could.

There was still one way to complete its assignment.

The drone stared down at its broken appendage, and then stared up at the blank monitor screen.

It was going to see the spark technician.

It was going to see Perceptor.

It was going to have to be sent to the factory, and it was going to have to be sent to the factory immediately. If it could time this correctly, it could manage that even while Ratbat was gone.

It drew back with its damaged inputs. It measured the distance carefully, and calculated appropriate trajectory and speed.

Its stump flew forward.

The monitor shattered.

It felt its broken connection pins make contact with the power supply, and had a moment to briefly consider that a memory wipe might have been preferable to this new concept of pain.

Then, it carefully prepared two error reports. One, it transmitted directly to the tower, already knowing precisely how long it would take to filter through. The other it delayed, set to forward to Redirect at what it hoped would be the correct moment.

It hadn’t had long to calculate.

Its arm was hurting. Its tower was damaged. This would be its last chance to prove itself.

Pulling the arm back, it stared at the ends, watching a single spark shoot out from a pair of inputs as they shorted. Completing this order was the most important thing. Any obstacles encountered along the way would be dealt with.

It would speak to Perceptor, it would obtain the Origination Codes from the Core’s database, and then it would return, whole, back to here.

To where it belonged.

Memories intact.

Efficient.

Successful.

Superior.

It wrote its final command, and let its arm drop back to its side. Already, the sensations were becoming too much. There had been nothing in Divide’s memories to prepare it for the discomfort of pain.

The only memories he had were of music, and music had not caused him pain.

Except once.

The communications drone could not get a good grip on the fragment, however, and even as it tried it realized that it did not know if the fragment had come from Divide’s files or from its own. It was hard to think through this many error signals.

It was hard to think, at all.

Silence was creeping through its protocols, strange tendrils of nothingness that shut down its systems one by one. Silence, like the hush of an auditorium just before the opera began.

Silence, waiting to be filled with noise.

It knew the song, and it knew the opening notes and the hauntingly familiar beat, but as it stood on the stage it could not find a voice to sing. Something was still missing.

The Node flashed.

The spotlight settled on him.

There was no sound.

It slipped into stasis lock, and fell backward to the floor.

Chapter Text

Today had been a good day, Ratbat decided, taking a small moment to stretch his long, sculpted legs in the plush interior of his personal transport.  Tonight would be a state dinner, where he was going to be giving a speech on new legislation that integrated drones into the working class.  Tomorrow, the all-important vote was finally going to occur.

He’d been checking the stances of his opponents and his advocates religiously, and, after an exhausting lunch with some of his constituents he’d confirmed precisely what he wanted to hear.

The vote was going to be his.

With the passing of his motion in the Senate, Sentinel Prime’s control over the drones would be significantly regulated, placing his army under the order of the City-States.  This would sit badly with the Matrix-bearer, Ratbat knew, which was precisely why the mech would try to take control again if ever there were riots in the streets.  Such riots would be all-too-simple a matter to arrange…

…and when Sentinel went against the Senate, taking the drone armies into his own hands to quell the dangerous rebellions, he’d have put himself into the perfect position to be replaced.

Ratbat had a great deal to celebrate.

In fact, he was going to host a masquerade.  It had been an event long in coming, and with the amount of work he’d been putting in of late he deserveda little bit of glory.  Budget cuts and economic downturns had emptied the cash-boxes of too many old-world lineages, but not his.  No.  His empire was still strong.  This would be a show of that strength--a beacon to the masses that Cybertron was still fully in its golden era--a celebration to be anticipated and remembered like the brilliant balls of centuries past.  It would be a party like no other, a gala affair.

It would be an expensive affair, as well, but worth it for the chance to rub at the peeling paint of his adversaries and gloat over the victory that was soon to be his. 

However, it would be a commemoration of more than just the control he’d gained over these new drone armies.  He would also be a richer mech after the legislation passed, and despite having to share the glory with both Decimus and Optarus that was nothing to sneer at.  The three of them had made an effective team, which had left Ratbat with more time to devote to other pursuits.  Adding in the fact that his communications drone would be able to find the composer of the problematic remix when it finished going through Divide’s memories, there was little not to celebrate.

Which reminded him.

He was going to need music, if there was to be dancing.  Perhaps he ought to contact Assemble, and ask them to perform.  It would be delightful and ironic to invite them, now.

He could even host the party at the opera house, and see what his drone thought on it. 

Strangely, that amused him most of all. He’d known other politicians and businessmechs who had adopted drones as pets long before the technology had reached the zenith it enjoyed now.  He recalled the derision he’d felt at watching them purchase upgrades for the small creatures and vehicles, and especially recalled what a strange waste of time he’d felt it to be to celebrate their manufacture dates.

Thankfully, he’d never gone that far. 

But his communications drone had shown a preference for operatic music, and it bemused him to think on paying that back.  It was like…giving his chair some new upholstery in reward for being comfortable. 

The entire reason the communications drone existed, after all, was because of him.  He’d commissioned it, he’d worked closely with the technicians to design it, he’d been exacting in his specifications to the tenth decimal.  It had not cost him merely credits to obtain the drone, but time as well--precious time.  He’d missed out on two key Senate votes in those cycles, granting unfortunate advantages to his foes that had been carefully calculated as acceptable loss. 

It had been worth it.

The only problem had been at the beginning, in having to return the first three drones because of how much personality they’d displayed.  That had worried him, especially considering the sensitivity of the data they’d been made to handle.  He could not afford a creature that would render judgements with any factors other than logic, probability, and his exacting orders. 

It worried him still, the way he’d caught the communications drone snooping where he ought not to have been…

But with the memory wipe, all had seemed to return to normal.  He’d changed the commands, reworked the programming to be even more precise, and made certain that there were no codes which could generate autonomy.  Like all machines, the problems had stemmed from usererror, and nothing more.

Drones could not simply rewrite themselves. The problem, as Divide had pointed out, had obviously been him.

Now, all was as it should have been.

He sat up, his stretching finished just in time for the transport to make its final descent into the dock, and reached out to pick up his data-pad.  Absently tapping a few commands into his scheduled queue, he uploaded his current ideas so that he could begin with his plans.  Crystal trees for the entranceway.  Invitations for Assemble.  Rental agreements from the opera house.  He passed the information on to his secretary with the push of a button, and idly smoothed a hand over his armor, checking for dents or scratches. 

There were none.

Around him, his personal retinue of mechs was shifting, preparing to land after the lengthy flight to Vos.  He was looking forward to his speech, already, the small flurry of excitement stirring in his circuitry, anticipating the attentions of the crowd and the delightful smoothness of the Vossian high-grade energon.  This was one of his favorite places to visit.

A small ping from his data-pad distracted him, momentarily, pulling his optics from the tall spires of the senatorial estate.  He moved to dismiss the message, glancing over the priority and subject, considering a hiatus from such tasks until the night was done.  There was little that his secretaries could not handle…

But he refrained.

Redirect had titled the communication with a priority alert.  That was unusual enough to unnerve him, to make him spare a moment to glance over the words in detail as the transport carrier slid into the silver metal enclave of the bay.  This message was more insidious than it at first appeared.

Something was wrong with his communications drone.

There was too much hinging on that drone right now.  He could not trust it to be left on its own if it was malfunctioning, given that it had access to a tower that could transmit anywhere in the world.  He could not instruct his servants to instigate a memory-wipe upon it, either, as they lacked the clearance or the voiceprint to even try.  Even hiring a technician to perform one would have been out of the question, with Divide’s illegally-obtained data still inside of it where any experienced operator might see.

This could become a serious issue very fast.  With his travelling not due to take him back until tomorrow night, something had to be done, now, before he entered sight of the public.

“Patch me through, quickly.”  He whispered to the device, glancing toward the doorway as he felt the soft thud of the landing gear touch down. 

“Sir.”  Instantaneously, the always-harried visage of Redirect appeared on his screen.

Unwilling to waste time, Ratbat dove straight into the point.  “What is my communications drone doing, precisely?” 

“The drone, sir?  Well.  It isn’t turning on.”

“Why was it off?

“I do not know, sir.  It was like that when I found it.  It appears to have damaged itself and one of the monitors, but the error reports it sent do not explain why.”

Ratbat frowned, rising with his officials, meeting red and purple optics that were turning his direction.  He needed to be fast in making whatever decision he was going to make.  “Monitor it.  Attempt to restart it again, and try again in one cycle.  If it has not reset by that point…”  What options did he even have?  “Return it to the factory.  Have Perceptor download its memory on a secure disk for me, and make sure the technicians take care of the problem and repair it discretely.  I want it back in my office and operational before the Senate vote.”

“Yes, sir.”

The first of his procession was already departing as the call concluded, and he tucked the data-pad into its special slot on his armor.  It slid in perfectly as the door opened, just in time for him to follow stately out into the glimmering silver lights of Vos.

This was worrying.

It was worrying, but he refused to let it get to him right now.  He had en entire night ahead of him, and an exciting day tomorrow.  Redirect could handle one simple transport of a drone back to a factory…and in the end this would be nothing more than a minor inconvenience he’d surmounted. 

He’d have his drone.  He’d put the technicians who worked on his drone under surveillance.

And soon, he’d have an army.

The Golden Age of Ratbat was poised to begin.

Chapter Text

For the first few moments when it came online, the drone was unable to pinpoint where it was.

Long-range transmission was down. Satellite communication was down. Visual feeds were down. All systems were operating on minimum requirements, and its engines remained off.

Without knowledge of its current situation, it chose to remain inactive. Without any indication that it was safe, it maintained access to the only external input still available to it…and listened.

There was plenty to hear.

Beginning at the lowest ranges of audible sound, it processed deep, rhythmical vibrations, recording a resilient pounding with a high harmonic tang. A low thrum accompanied the noise, consistent, with the slightest lilt of a 120 degree phase shift whirring 240 triplets per nanoclick: an induction motor.

Not just one.

Amplitude spikes in corresponding frequencies indicated multiple motors powering multiple machines. There were over 20 motors by its estimate, each with a low bass pounding to accompany it: manufacturing equipment, hammering forms in metal.

Other sounds permeated the micro cycles of silence in-between the beats and the drone increased its audial sensitivity to its maximum setting, sampling at its highest, near-analog precision, until it could hear voices in the noise. Mechs were talking, discussing times they left their shift.

It did not recognize them.

It did, however, recognize the subjects they spoke about as they drifted from one topic to the next. Sports statistics. Racing results. How to best retrieve the broken torso that was stuck in the assembly line‘s gears…

Ah.

That was the confirmation it required.

Instantly, it focused on other noises, seeking validation in the echoes and the muffling coefficients, calculating average wave propagations through duracrete walls and insulation. It knew its location now. It was in a storage room, alone, surrounded by the husks of other drones. It was far, far away from the transmission tower.

It was in the drone factory, its genesis and origin.

It had arrived.

Unwilling to waste another moment, it began awakening the systems that it had shut down, supplying the proper codes and resets to undo the temporary offline virus it had installed within itself just before going into stasis. Thus far, its plan was working. The only unknown had been the pain from its inputs, which had shorted when crashing into the monitor. That had significantly impaired its ability to calculate at the last moment, adding in increased potential for failure. It had not known if it would arrive intact.

It had still tried.

Before going offline, it had estimated a maximum probability of successful restart to occur after 42.6 decicycles of deactivation, allowing time for Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council, to reach the outskirts of Vos according to his last updated schedule. It had instructed its error message to wait until the close-of-day to be delivered to Redirect, anticipating that he would be more likely to respond when his shift was nearly over and no other clients required his attention.

The drone had timed each action as carefully as it could in the moments before it had gone offline, using prediction models it had programmed, determining in what best-case scenario Redirect would be forced to contact its master, and in what best-case scenario the Senator would be too hurried to let the problem persist. It had, in essence, succeeded in its mission.

It had done so on its own merits.

Yet it still did not know what to do now.

This was as far as it had planned.

It needed to contact Perceptor before the memory-wipe that would be scheduled for it occurred. It needed to get out of this closet.

It…needed hands.

That need was becoming suddenly pressing in its cramped environment. It was wedged in between two boxes, its tactile input warning of significant pressure each time it tried to move its legs. Something was hindering it, binding it from accomplishing any motion greater than a turning of the head. It was trapped.

Of all the obstacles that it had attempted to plan for, the inability to remove oneself from overly secure packaging material had not been one.

It had limited options.

Its sight was still returning, slowly, the delicate sensors underneath its visor warming as they shifted through the spectrum, attempting to find light. The view was fuzzy at first, unprocessed and incomprehensible until a baseline was established: darkness…further darkness…and then something else.

Another box?

No.

In front of it was a new shape entirely.

The light it was detecting was the faintest of rays, soft blue gleams reflecting off of a glistening surface, illuminating the contours of the form. As its sensors calibrated, it was able to calculate the incidence angle of that light, and from there better discern the shape of what it must have been positioned next to.

It stared, uncomprehending…at itself.

Itself, reflected in the gleaming visor of another drone.

It had never seen itself before like this.

Not in the darkness.

Had it?

It hadn’t.

Despite that, a memory was tugging at it, distracting it from the precarious situation it had found itself drawn into.

It did not want to deal with any memories right now.

Memories were becoming the problem: its lack of memories, Divide’s plethora of memories, memories that it could not even identify as either the former or the latter.

The drone was disturbed that so many of Divide’s files had permanently rooted themselves within its own directories, planted because it had originally needed faster access to them while working on the database. At the time, it had seemed like a logical step to take.

Now, it was having difficulty determining which ones should stay and which ones should go.

In the end, it would be irrelevant.

Sentator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council, would remove them all.

“You think it is actually possible to separate the signals in a spark?” Perceptor’s voice began in a darkness as thick as the one the drone was currently occupying.

Resigned to at least one playthrough, the drone allowed the memory to continue.

It did not believe it had uncovered this one before.

“I do,” its own voice spoke, a voice that it had come to recognize as Divide’s.

“Not just for recording purposes, however,” Perceptor continued, giving the drone a chance to try modulating the output so that it could better process the visual component of the file. “I am wondering…could you separate out those spark radials enough to have them sustain themselves?”

Slowly, the world around the drone spun into focus.

The darkness hadn’t been an error.

It was nearly pitch black here.

The light teal lights of Perceptor’s seamlines were moving along in the cramped tunnel ahead of Divide, faintly illuminating the path as they traversed it cautiously. The drone could see the scientist holding a portable headlight, its brightness streaming into the shadows like it had a mind of its own, ocassionally filling in flashes of both rock and circuitry enmeshed together, ancient and rusted and powerless. Divide hadn’t seen anything like it before.

The brief glipses he had of the equipment made it difficult to identify, but it had to have been Cybertronian. There were markings on the surface that Divide didn’t recognize, which meant they must have been old enough to really fascinate the scientist accompanying him.

Perceptor, however, did not even stop to take a closer look.

This should have surprised Divide, but he was long past being surprised by any of the technician’s quirks. For now, he was happy just to be out of their domicile, exploring the lost corridors surrounding the Core.

He’d never been able to convince another spark technician to do anything like this with him, and he hadn’t bothered asking any of the Authenticators. Only Perceptor had the desire to satiate his curiousity, to delve into the unknown, and only Perceptor had the nerve to ask him directly.

They other Authenticators…well.

They didn’t need to explore.

“Think of it like an orchestra, Perceptor,” Divide began, eager to turn his thoughts back toward more pleasant matters. “Once you’ve recorded a song, you can analyze the signal. You can pick out every note that is played and you can distinguish one instrument from the next and you can learn about the room that the song was recorded in.” He moved forward carefully, picking his way over the rubble of a half-collapsed wall. “Unless you know the particular envelopes to describe an instrument’s timbre, however, you’re never going to figure out what instrument those notes were played on. Until now, we’ve been working without those envelopes. We have only been partially able to understand all the frequencies within a spark.”

Ahead of him, the scientist paused, confronted with a choice of two tunnels to take. “I don’t usually hear you going into this much detail when sparks are involved, Divide.”

“Well, I don’t usually have a good musical metaphor on hand. You’re lucky I’d thought of one this morning.”

“Indeed I am.” Perceptor turned the headlights down one side tunnel, peering carefully inside. “And if I’m to take your analogy one step further, you’re implying that once the envelope is determined…one can identify the instrument, and even recognize that instrument in other songs.”

“You’ve got it.” Divide smiled. “Which is exactly what you and I have been working on—what you and I have identified in sparks: The instrument. It’s taking us a step past classification of basic emotions and probability destiny trends. We already knew how to read the frequency of a spark and determine the likely outcome…just like with an instrument. We knew what notes it is capable of playing because we heard the notes in the song. Now that we can understand the instrument itself, however, and how it makes the notes…”

“Then we can build our own instruments.” Perceptor concluded, pulling the light away from the tunnel to glance back at Divide.

“Or fix ones that were broken.” Divide confirmed, a hand rising to his throat. Distracted, he scratched at the cabling along his neck, remembering how tight it had felt once. “What do you think?”

“I think we’ve hit a dead end.” Perceptor replied, glumly.

“In our theory?”

The red glow where Perceptor’s head was at shook in the darkness, and the beams of the headlights illuminated a collapsed wall two dozen meters ahead. “No, in our tunnels.” Pursing his lips together, the scientist climbed away from the junction. “This is as far as we go, today.”

“We could try that other juncture about 40 meters back.”

Perceptor paused for a moment, considering. “No. No, it’s alright. We can look again tomorrow.”

It wasn’t difficult to see that Perceptor was more upset by this than he wanted to let on, but Divide was not sure he wanted to ask why. He’d only questioned his friend on the matter once, the first time they’d gone exploring together, and all Perceptor had been able to answer at the time had been that they were looking ‘to make amends.’ It was as cryptic as such an avid mech of the sciences had ever been around Divide, and so Divide had let it be.

If there was one thing he had learned in the Core, it was patience.

Perceptor would tell him some day, or they’d find ‘the amends.’

Either way, Divide would know.

However, there might have been a way to find out faster still. “We could try programming a simple drone to explore for us down here when we’re at work. One of the sweepers could do it…”

Perceptor shook his head, turning to brush past Divide as he headed back down the tunnel. His optics did not meet Divide’s, and it wasn’t difficult to hear that his engine was running in a lower gear.

“The number of functions a sweeper would need to find what I am looking for is too complex,” the scientist explained, keeping the headlight steady for them as they headed back. “It would have to be capable of reasoning and deduction, and it would have to know when to return for fuel or to report its findings. Beyond that, there is too much interference from these ancient electrical systems. Some of them are still active, and every current generated here or at the Core would block signals that we’d transmit. We’d be wasting our time trying to build something that is more efficient for a sentient mech to do…”

The scientist trailed off, his voice echoing off the rock walls and back to Divide. Unexpectedly he stopped, and Divide nearly ran into him before he’d turned around, blue optics blazing brightly.

“Divide,” he started, looking entirely too energized to be contemplating anything sane, “Can a single instrument produce a worthwhile song?”

Divide backed up, finding the change in Perceptor much too intense for such close quarters. “That depends on if you like my singing.”

“I do, but that is not the point. What I mean to say is…Divide. Could we produce a few spark radials to operate independently in a basic unit without producing a whole spark?”

Now Divide was glad he’d backed away, because what Perceptor was suggesting sounded completely…

Possible.

It sounded like something they could do.

It sounded like something that would take a while to do, but that would test the theory they’d been working on. It would prove their theory.

Being able to produce a few free radials also meant that they’d be able to work on a few free radials, and see if it was possible to change them. Safely. Without damaging a real spark.

“Perceptor, I think you’re on to something.”

“I had to get my name from somewhere,” the teal-striped mech confirmed.

“Well. So did I. In fact—“

The communications drone cut the playback.

It already knew where this conversation was heading, and the backwash of emotion was starting to bother it.

This was a waste of time.

Always before, it had let Divide’s memories play because they’d always managed to assist it in some way. Generally, they’d been exceptionally helpful in matters of the song database.

Now, however, it was only proving to be distracting.

It could not see how Divide and Perceptor’s usage of a…of a drone to accomplish their tasks was comparable to its situation, now. It wasn’t looking for something nebulous underground. It was too busy being wrapped in approximately 46.8 yards of packaging material aboveground in a closet.

It should have anticipated this.

It should have known that Redirect would follow shipping policy explicitly.

However, it had already lost too much time with the memory to spend any longer thinking on what it had done wrong.

Instead, its optics focused on the packaging ties, noting potential points of stress where it could break the plastic that constrained it. Without hands, that would be difficult…

…But it would have been too restrained to use them, even had they been in its possession.

It was still stuck, still staring at the faceplates of another drone, still watching itself in mirror images as it struggled in vain.

It did not like that, either. It did not like feeling trapped, it did not like having errant memories still present in its systems, and it did not like the new awareness of drone origins that the patterns of darkness and blue light had sparked within its processor.

Its own lights were blazing, warmed by the heat from its engine, casting a brilliant blue haze around the confines of the room. Despite the pressure points that it had noted, the packaging material was holding tight. Despite the imprint of a door a scant few meters away, escape was impossibly distant.

It had failed again.

It no longer knew the course of action to take. Staring at its reflection, it could not process what would happen next.

To be taken.

To be shut down.

To have its memory wiped.

To never accomplish the directive it had given itself.

To have no purpose.

It was a drone. It had been manufactured to fulfill a function. That function was provided by Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council. It desired to return to its tower. It desired to process frequencies. Transmissions. Waves.

Sound.

It desired.

And it had been denied desires, once before.

Desires were not within the realm of dronehood. It had not been built to satisfy its own desires…but to satisfy the desires of another. To fulfill its function it had to escape, speak to Perceptor, and find the Node within the Core of Cybertron.

This reflection that it could see, however, this creature of blue lights and elaborate custom design…was stuck. It had no programming it could apply to a situation in which it was incarcerated, bound utterly in place. It was not strong enough to break its bonds. It had no hands with which to untie itself. It was not capable of leaving this room. Not yet.

It did not know what it was capable of.

It was not still helpless, however. Despite the increasingly desperate nature of its situation, it had chosen this. It had been aware of the risks, and it had been aware of the possibility of failure, and it had been aware of the likelihood that it would not return without its memory wiped.

That was still undesireable.

However, failure was even more undesireable.

It might currently lack the programming, the power, and the dexterity to accomplish its goals…

But perhaps it didn’t need to always be the smartest, or the strongest, or the most agile. Those were not its skills.

It was a communications drone.

It borrowed, always, from the world around it.

In the tower it interfaced with massive machinery in order to use the tools it gave access to: vast databases, relay satellites, transmission equipment, and incredible processing power.

Here, it lacked that.

However, there was another tool at its disposal.

It tilted its head…and nodded, observing the exposed connection port on the side of the drone, glancing down to see what parts of itself were still constrained by packaging. Its legs were bound, its arms were bound, its torso was bound, but as it had suspected, the small compartment which housed its cables was free…

…And while it did not have grips upon the end of them that could undo the plastic ties, it could plug into any outlet. The answer had been staring at it, all along.

The memory had been right.

It could use a drone to help it, just as Divide and Perceptor had.

It didn’t currently have hands, but it would in a few nanoclicks.

This was what it had been made for: to interface with other systems, locate what it needed, and take advantage of whatever data it could get. It would take time to boot up the drone’s motor functions and assimilate its programming, especially since that programming was for appendages that it was not familiar with.

It would take time, but it would work.

It would work.

Slowly, siphoning power carefully, it watched the other drone’s red lights come on. It stared.

The drone stared back.

It tilted its head.

The drone tilted its head back.

Then it sent a simple command, and the drone reacted, reaching out awkwardly towards the packaging material that had bound it for safe transport.

Drones, directing drones.

Completing a task.

Together.

Perhaps Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council, would have been proud.

Somehow, it didn’t think he would.

Chapter Text

The heat that morning had been oppressive.

Megatronus remembered how the first blast hit him when he’d stepped off the public transport, wrapping around him thickly, forcing his cooling systems to cycle faster to keep up.  The grey smog that always overhung the manufacturing zone had been dryer than usual, cloying, trapping the heat below it like some hazardous oven out to bake him back to raw materials. 

It was summer.

It was the closest he would ever come to feeling summer, anyhow.  The warmth was a vast change from the underworld, a place where it was always dark and regulated, so far down in miles of over-built roadways and cramped housing that the temperatures only ranged from ‘cool’ to ‘freezing.’  Heat was a luxury, exotic, sold like a commodity or shared as a status symbol from one mech to the next.  He’d seen hundreds drawn to the Arena for the fire-pits alone, gathering around the burning generators that would smelt-down the unusable parts of losers long after the crowds had returned home.

Heat was energy.

Energy cost money

But up here, the energy was free to anyone who could convert it.   It only needed a spark, some ingenuity…

And something to burn.

Already, Megatronus felt like he was on fire.  The impending match with Titan had kept him full of anticipation all day, nudging out equations and statistics, corrupting his compilations and data-tests.  Those weren’t important, right now.  He longed to move again, longed to feel the rough, sandy surface of the arena floor beneath his treads, to hear the roar of the crowds instead of the roar of machinery, to feel the tension at the end of a blade as it struck the armor of his opponent…

Soon.

He would feel that soon.

There was something here he had to accomplish, first.

Looking up at the factory ceiling, he tried to keep his engines calm.  Between the heat and his anticipation, it had been difficult to concentrate all morning.  Already he had written two infinite loops into his programs—errors which had caused him to shut down the entire station and reboot from scratch.  He didn’t have time for those sorts of mistakes, today.

Today, he had to finish the drone program.

This would be his last chance before his match with Titan.  If he could convince the Altihex team to work with him, to find someone who could get the master chip taken to the processor production factory, then everything he’d done here would not have been in vain.  New drones would have the sentience shell programming, and would start behaving in ways that would violate the behavioral profiles for drones.  With those concerns added to the other problems drones were facing in the media—especially the worries about drone sparks—then the drone factories would have no choice but to close down permanently.  Workers would be hired again. 

His world would return to the way it had been.

Not perfect, but better than it was right now.

There were only two missing pieces:  the program itself, which he was working on…and the drone spark frequency, which he had yet to get from Perceptor.

Glancing over to the spark technician, Megatronus could see him crouched over the body of a drone, running diagnostics with a tool on one arm while the oscilloscope hung off the wrist of the other.  The drone they usually worked on had been taken to storage while Perceptor was pursuing another project, fixing a malfunctioning serving drone that Senator Ratbat had sent them a decacycle prior.  It had been an odd change to walk into that morning, especially when Perceptor had seemed so eager to finish the first iteration of their program the day before, but it did leave Megatronus with the free time to take care of the coding himself.

Thus far, the scientist had completely left him alone.  Instead of peering over Megatronus’s shoulder awkwardly while he was trying to compile his code, Perceptor was checking over every centimeter of the broken drone, looking at each connection in an attempt to determine what had happened to it.

Megatronus, on the other hand, could already tell what had happened to it.

It had been stabbed.

A large number of times.

They were clean intrusions, too—expertly made by someone with a much fancier grade of weapon’s steel than gladiators generally had access to.  Most of its primary systems had been punctured, making the technician’s job of figuring out what had gone wrong prior to Senator Ratbat ‘defending himself’ against it very difficult.

Megatronus hadn’t thought he’d ever feel sorry for a drone.  This one, however, seemed to have been the victim of a very thorough defense.

“There.”  Perceptor sighed, making a final connection and taking a step back.  “The wiring department did an adequate job of replacing most of its innards, and I’ve done what I could for its processor without changing any of the coding.  I should be able to power it up to view its behavior now, but…”  The technician looked straight at Megatronus.

“But?” Megatronus offered, feeling suddenly put under a spotlight.

“I’d feel more comfortable if you were assisting me.  I have no way of knowing what to expect from this unit.”

“Ah,” the gladiator smirked, standing from the stool he’d been using at the programming console.  “I see.  You are looking for some extra precautions?  Maybe some…defense?”

“In a manner of speaking.”  Perceptor nodded.  “I have never entirely been able to forget that move you used against me when I tried following you home.”

Megatronus couldn’t help but laugh, joining the scientist to look over the offline drone and forgiving him for the moment for not standing overly close to either the drone or Megatronus.  “Really?  I can’t imagine that you liked it that much.”

“No. No, of course I didn’t.” The scientist attempted to contain a shudder but was not successful.  “However, it was very effective at disabling me without causing great harm, and we could use that sort of control if something goes wrong.  This is a very expensive piece of machinery.”  Perceptor gestured to the unit in front of him, marking several of the customized panels as well as the particular gloss finish used.  Although Megatronus couldn’t distinguish its exact composition—and he was mildly glad he didn’t know that much about drones yet—he could still tell that getting a comparable coat of paint for himself would have cost him the proceeds from at least three winner’s cups.  

“You still think of them as machines, don’t you?” Megatronus mused, aware that he’d just been pursing that line of thinking, himself.

“I will until our program is finished.  As much as it seems they are capable of imitating sentience, I’ve seen no indication that any drone has ever accomplished more than its programming allowed for—or done anything unexpected that was not a result of user error.”

“Except this one.”  Megatronus proded the drone in front of him, and crossed his arms.

“We don’t know what happened with this one, yet.”  Perceptor reached out, closing the open torso casing.  “But we will.  Are you ready?” 

“Yes.”

“Good.  Then let’s begin.”  Calmly, the scientist enterd a number of commands into the drone’s external control datapad, and then stepped back.  Both sets of diagnostic equipment were held at the ready. 

Megatronus braced himself for the worst.

However, nothing seemed to happen at all.

The drone was booting up, sounding very much like the hundreds of other drones that Megatronus had heard activating.  There were a few null sounds produced as various sytems tested themselves out and were found to not be operating at peak capacity—something to be expected, when there were holes that he could see through—but other than that nothing ominous occurred.  The drone finished coming online…and continued to lay there.

It did not move, at all.

That was a problem.

Megatronus frowned.  “It isn’t asking for input.”

Perceptor didn’t seem to like it any more than he did, and raised his diagnostic scanner to begin his analysis.  “No.  No, it isn’t.  Senator Ratbat did ask for a drone to be built without a vocal modulator, but it was not this one.  This is a service model…so it should be inquiring what it can help us with today.”  Already, the technician’s fingers were flying over the datapad, searching for some explanation for the lack of activity.

“Was its processor damaged?”

Perceptor scoffed, taking offense a little more readily than usual.  “Of course its processor was damaged.  That is what we’re attempting to track down!  However, I checked the device myself, and its primary operations did not appear to be affected.  Theoretically, it should be doing something right now.” 

Warily, Megatronus held out an arm, broaching the drone’s visual space.  He waved it back and forth, slowly, over the blank faceplates of the drone.

Still, nothing occurred.

Perceptor sighed, lowering his diagnostic scanner and moving to get a closer look himself.  “This is going to take more effort than I thought.  Thank you, of course…but you can return to your programming.”

“Are you sure?”  Letting his arm fall back to his side, Megatronus glanced back to his station, and then again to Perceptor…wondering why the scientist was so eager to work on this project alone.  He’d been acting strangely all day, though it was difficult to pin a label onto what was causing it. 

There was definitely an element of distraction to the technician’s movements…which Megaronus couldn’t help but consider taking advantage of, glancing to see if the oscilloscope was still attached to his left arm.

“Yes.  It is not like you’ll be far if something goes wrong.”  As if just noticing the oscilloscope himself, Perceptor raised it to take a reading off the drone.

“Just be careful,” Megatronus cautioned, returning to his station and hoping…hoping…that Perceptor would have some reason to set the oscilloscope down soon. 

“I shall,” the scientist mused with a small smile.  “As much as technicians are known to die early from working so closely with drone sparks, it would be an entirely different matter to actually be killed by one.  A drone, that is—not a spark.”

Settling back into his station and fixing a ‘while’ clause to not cause endless repetitions, Megatronus wished he could find it funnier.  At this point, much as he hated to admit it, an accident that was not caused by him would give him the perfect opportunity to take the oscilloscope and go.

He couldn’t have hoped to be that lucky, however.

No.

Today, he’d be creating his own luck.

Soon.

First, he had to finish the program.

Typing in a few final commands, he sat back and let the system work on compiling the new code, listening to the small beeps on the datapad that Perceptor was working with.  It was amazing he could hear them in the factory, at all, but then again the factory noises had become so ingrained within his conscious.

This was home to him: a second home, out of the underground.  He knew its workings intricately, knew what sort of oil went into each piece of manufacturing equipment and what sort of dangerous chemicals the anti-oxidation alloys of the drone-shells were composited from.  He knew how many workers the factory employed, and he knew who the major stockholders were.  He knew where the spark technicians slept.

He could have even been happy here, once.

Once.

Today would be the end to that happiness, one way or another.

“Oh.”  Perceptor said, and Megatronus looked up, startled.  He hadn’t expected to be interrupted again so soon, especially since Perceptor had barely started in his work.

“What is it?” He asked, already rising from the stool again, preparing himself for an incident that he still hoped was coming. 

The drone on the table was not moving, however.  Perceptor was still standing over it, still holding far too many tools and making far too many measurements at once, but nothing visually seemed to be wrong. 

“It’s the spark,” the scientist replied, and Megatronus noticed just which device was currently pointed at the drone. 

“Technician, you are going to have to give me more information than that,” he growled, not particularly interested in attempting to divine some new lesson from Perceptor today.  The metal pounders in the framework section had started their work early, and no matter how used to the factory he became he knew he’d never get over the headaches that machinery gave.

“I would be glad to.  Perhaps you can even help me?”  Perceptor offered, and Megatronus attempted to forget his irritation.  An invitation like this was rare.

“My program is still compiling, so I have a few minutes,” he replied, moving once more towards the table with the unresponsive drone. 

“Good.  Because this is something…”  The scientist trailed off awkwardly, and Megatronus’s plating twitched in agitation. 

Usually, the spark technician was much too expository.  Hearing him be so vague was strange, and Megatronus didn’t like it.  “Something?”

“Well, it is related to something that I learned recently.  And now, I’m wondering if putting you to work on programming processors was such a good idea.”

Megatronus stopped cold.

This was the sort of line he would have expected to hear at the beginning of their relationship—back when he’d assumed the technician was like any other primary-ranked mech.  This was not what he was expecting to hear, now, after they had been working together for over half of a stellar cycle, learning each other’s secrets. 

Perceptor had been the one to recommend that he attend the science academy.

Surely after that he would not switch his mind so suddenly?

In front of him, Perceptor took a large, careful step away, and Megatronus realized that his own expression must have been thunderous.

At the moment, he did not see any reason to change it.

“What.”

“P-please!  Do let me explain.  I’m afraid that must have come out entirely wrong.”

Trying not to seem nearly as angry as he felt, Megatronus put a hand up to his helm, staving off the headache that he knew was inevitable.  “I am hoping that it did.  We’ve been working on this program together for lunar cycles, Perceptor…”

“I know!  I do.  And, please, the emphasis in what I said before was not meant to be on ‘you.’  It…it wasn’t.  It’s the drone sparks that are behaving strangely, it isn’t anything you’ve done.”

“Then why are you still backing away?”

Perceptor seemed to grow very small at that question, his panels flattening against his frame.  In the noise of the factory, Megatronus could not even hear his smaller engine making its usual steady rumble.

To the mech’s credit, his retreat did stop. 

“What is wrong with the sparks, Perceptor?”

The spark technician straightened.  He straightened, and calmly set the extra diagnostic equipment down on the table next to the drone, leaving only the oscilloscope and a small data pad in his possession. Megaronus noticed that his optics were dim, and were staring towards the torso plates of the drone, as if unwilling to make visual contact with the gladiator.

Something was off.

“They’ve changed.”  Perceptor sighed, his fingers tapping a single beat against the table before his blue optics finally moved upwards to meet Megatronus.  “A drone’s processor is only built to withstand a plus or minus 7 percent fluctuation in its spark output.  The fluctuation in this drone is higher…around ten percent, which could only be accounted for if it had gone through something traumatic.  It’s not functioning because its processor could not adapt to whatever it went through, unlike ours…” The technician trailed off, before pursing his lips and finally looking up at Megatronus. 

“What are you saying? And what does that have to do with me?

“I’m saying that I did not program the processors correctly to begin with!  I…didn’t know how to make something complex enough to handle spark-shifts at the time.  No one did.  We’ve never been able to duplicate the processors that come out of the Core, because Cybertronian processors are too intricate to duplicate.  That’s why we made drones the way we did to start with.”

Megatronus felt his hand clenching into a ball, and had to physically restrain himself to open it back up again.  This information would have been useful earlier.  He hadn’t known that he was basically trying to program something that even a genius like Perceptor hadn’t had success with.  “Tell me more.”

“I shouldn’t…”  Perceptor said, shaking his head.  “I’ve already told you too much.  We’re going to need to start over, either way.  We’re going to have to reformat the processors to be more adaptive…”

“That’s what we’re doing, Perceptor!  It’s what we’ve been doing!”  He gestured back towards his programming console, where the very code that Perceptor was referring to was finished and compiling.  “The problem isn’t with your processors—you just said it.  The problem is with the sparks.  They change.  They change like ours do.  They respond like ours do.  Whatever ‘imprints’ you are using…is there a difference between them and us?”

Perceptor’s head shook again, back and forth rhymthically as if it were a denial instead of a response. 

Is there a difference?” Megatronus took another large step closer, and again Perceptor fled, moving around the table, glancing between the drone and Megatronus and the oscilloscope on his arm.  “Tell me!  I don’t get what’s wrong with you today…”

“I can’t tell you.  I can’t tell you, because it’s something that I do not know.  It wasn’t me that designed the spark imprints, I’ve just been working with the information that he gave me.  I just know enough…”  The scientist held up the oscilloscope as if it were a shield on his forearm.  “I know enough to understand what has changed.  What has changed in this drone…”  He looked passed the oscilloscope, and held Megatron’s expression with an intensity that was normally reserved for analysis.  “And what has changed in you.”

Having absolutely no idea how to react to this magnitude of a pronouncement, Megatronus only stared.

“It is not a bad thing.  It isn’t.  I was worried that it was, in your case, but maybe it’s not.  Our sparks are meant to change, after all…to adapt over time to the world and to the situations we encounter.  When I compared yours to the Signature database—“

“You did what?”  Now, finally having some idea of what Perceptor was talking about, Megatronus could not keep the disapproval from his voice.  “I thought you had only taken a reading of my spark to serve as collateral, Perceptor.  So that we could trust each other…”

“I do trust you!”  The technician replied, adamant.  “And what I did I was doing for you.  I wanted to see why you’d been classified so low, why the technicians who rated you had doomed you to life as a miner when you’re clearly too brilliant to be less than secondary rank.  I thought you were right!  It is a mistake to test for caste.”

Megatronus was blown away by what Perceptor was saying.  He’d…taken Megatronus’s spark data?  He’d compared it to the reading that had been done when Megatronus had been sparked?  “But why hide that from me?  Why not simply ask?

“To be frank, it’s because you are a little terrifying!”  Perceptor admitted, laying his empty arm across his chest-plate.  “It is all there, in your spark record.  Your capabilities, your behavior patterns…the very reason you were sent to the mines in the first place was because of your propensity for violence and, and…and aggression.  I did not believe it when I saw it, but neither could I deny that it was true…”

“Violence and aggression?  Perceptor…”  Megatronus frowned, taking a step forward.  “Have I ever threatened you?”

The spark technician was staring right at him.

He was staring right at him, admitting that he thought Megatronus was aggressive…and he took a step back.

“No.  No, you haven’t threatened me.  I know you, and…and I meant it when I said I trust you.”

“You’re still retreating, Perceptor,” Megatron spoke, softly, hating the way that someone could say they trusted him even as they fled. 

“What have you been doing since the mine closed on Outpost 21?” the spark technician asked, and suddenly Megatronus understood.

He didn’t want to, but he understood. 

He understood why Perceptor had been acting so unusual today, and why technician was suddenly so reluctant to give him any more information.  He understood why the mech who had been his friend was moving away from him, and asking questions, and looking at him with that…that damned uncertainty in his optics.

“You looked me up by more than my spark code, didn’t you.”

Perceptor winced.  “It’s been almost ten stellar cycles since the mine closed.  I hadn’t even noticed at first…but you wear your treads as if they are too heavy.  You wear them as if they have not been on your shoulders for a long, long time.”  His voice was wavering, but he continued.  “There have been so many times when I almost thought…I almost thought that you were up to something.  The way you arranged to have the processor pallat smashed.  The way you were sneaking chips home.  The way that the other mechs in your apartment looked at you…”

He’d known it, all this time?  He’d seen that much?

Megatronus was taken aback that Perceptor had been so…so perceptive and yet let them continue to work together.

“That was why I wished to see your spark code.  To understand you better.  To learn if mechs on the surface had changed so much while I was living in the Core.  I believed in you.  I still would like to, but I need to know.  Can I trust you?  Can I?”

There was pleading underneath the words. 

Behind him, Megatronus heard the confirmation ping of a successful compilation of code.

His program was done.

In front of him, Perceptor was waiting for an answer, and past him the machines still pounded their cacauphany of sound, over and over again.

He didn’t belong here.

He’d been a fool to think he did.

“No,” he said, finally, and with a swiftness that he’d been holding back for far too long he moved forward to strike.

Each beat of the factory was a well-placed hit: one along the abdomen, near the fuel lines.  One on the side of the torso, to disable the arm carrying the oscilloscope.  One to the head, to knock the processor out of alignment.

Perceptor went down in three hits, timed to the clockword perfection of metal carapaces being hammered into form.

His program was finished.

His work here was done.

He stood over the body of a mech that he’d considered his friend, listening to the sound his engine made.  In just a moment, the supervisor would be by on his usual rounds.  In just a moment, he’d have to begin the cleanup sequence that he’d been going over in his head since his talk with Frenzy.  In a moment, he’d have his program downloaded onto a new, shiny master chip, and be well on his way.

In a moment.

Perceptor had lost faith in him because of a spark reading.  Because some spark technician once, a long time ago, had noticed that within Megatronus’s spark lay the seeds for violence and aggression.

That small footnote had doomed him.

Now, violence and aggression were the only choices that he had.

“I trusted you, too.”  He couldn’t help but murmur as he bent down, clasping Perceptor’s fingers tightly over the datapad the other held.  “Maybe that was my mistake.”  With a single pull, the oscilloscope came free in his hands.

It was the last piece to the puzzle…the only piece that he was lacking.  With it, he could read any drone’s spark and alter his processor code to work on them.  With it, he had the power to change the future of Cybertron.

He didn’t have enough time to appreciate it fully.  The supervisor was already on his way and Perceptor’s unconscious body needed to be moved.  He needed to download his program.  He needed to escape.

The drone was still lying on the table when he finished, still powered on and still unresponsive.  Perceptor had taught him nearly everything he’d learned about drone processors—about the way they worked, about how they were dependent upon their sparks—but Perceptor had given him no information about the sparks themselves until today.

Drone sparks responded to trauma. 

Drone sparks responded to pain.

Well.

So did his.

He was going to put an end to that pain, right now.

If he was correct, then adding an extra two litres of nitrium to the fuel of the conveyor belt motor at the wall junction would be enough to start a chain reaction.  With nitrium injected, the engines would spark four times hotter, pushing the speed past capacity.  After five minutes or more of running under that strain, they would explode.  Even better, with additional tanks of energon nearby, the explosion would ricochet through the factory, spilling volatile chemicals onto nearly every surface.  Within a half an hour, the factory would burn under the heat of a Cybertronian summer sun.

Everything would burn.

But most importantly, the evidence that he had been there would burn.  Only Perceptor would remember him, and even Perceptor had never managed to put a name to his face.

He’d wanted to, though.  The scientist had wanted to see him named.

That was the part that stung, even now.

However, Megatronus did not have any desire to ruminate over that concern.  The timing on these next few steps was crucial if he wanted to leave enough leeway for both himself and the other workers to escape.  Given that it would have to be a particularly deadly alarm to rouse the spark technicians from their seclusion, he didn’t have even a moment to spare considering what might have been.

He needed to pour the nitrate without being caught.

He needed to pour the exact right amount, so that five microcycles later he could be by the door, ready to push the alarm just before the first explosions happened.

He needed to make sure he punched in the right alarm code, so that everyone knew to evacuate immediately instead of trying to investigate.

He needed to grab Perceptor.

At least, with the alarms blaring and mechs scurrying around in a panic, no one considered it strange that he was carrying an unconscious technician.  He didn’t want to look back, and he didn’t want to look down, either.  There were too many memories in the factory, and too many memories in the faceplates of the teal-striped mech in his arms.

So long as he left before Perceptor woke, then the technician would not be aware that Megatronus had stolen the oscilloscope.  He’d never learned that Megatronus wanted it, after all...and with a factory burning down around him it would have been all to easy for it to fall off in the chaos.  That had to be true.

It had to be.

Mechs were shouting.  A pallat spilled, leaving the lifeless skulls of unfinished drones staring out at him.  He was rocked by the sudden, unexpected explosion of the conveyor motor—a whole microclick too early.

He ignored it and ran.

On the assembly line, drones were still calmly working, sorting out good pieces from bad ones while panic settled in around them.

Megatronus shuddered and looked down.

Perceptor looked up.

Startled, Megatronus left through the side door, slipping down the back alleys that he’d been planning on taking since he’d known he’d have to blow up the factory…since he’d thought about it being a possibility the first day he’d walked in.  The heat of the afternoon hit him at full blast, warming his plating immediately and making every intake burn.  It was too hot to cool his engine, too hot to keep running at top speed, too hot to transform.

He didn’t stop.

“My word,” Perceptor started to say, unfocused and confused…

…Before Megatronus slammed him up against the wall.

Perceptor screamed, then—a sound that even the gladiator, who was used to the sounds of pain, had not been expecting.  It cut him, to hear that scream…

But he’d never fought a friend before.  He’d never needed to hurt someone who had not been attacking him outside of the Arena.  He’d never wanted to.

He shouldn’t have been bothered by it, now.

It had been his decision to make Perceptor into his enemy, one way or another, and there was only one possible end for someone who was his enemy.

It made the most sence to kill the technician.

Leaving him alive was folly.  Perceptor was the only one who could identify him at all, name or not.  No one else had been as close to Megatronus as the technician had been.  If he ran, now, he could make sure the body wound up in the factory, make sure that he was never implicated, make sure that no one knew that he had been up to with the drone processors.

He had plans for those processors, still. 

Megatronus wasn’t so naïve to imagine that this factory would not be rebuilt.  He knew it would be.  He knew it would be…but when it was, he’d have the processors finished and snuck into the factory at Altihex.  New drones would not behave the same way that old ones had.  New drones would behave however he wanted them to.

Killing Perceptor would make that easy.

It would.

It would.

He would do it.

He raised a fist, letting the technician slump into a pile at his feet.

He let his engine rev, building power.

He readied himself…

And then Perceptor looked up, one last time, and met his optics.

…a propensity for violence and aggression.  

No, you haven’t threatened me. 

I trust you.

Megatronus roared.

He roared, because this should have been easy for him and it wasn’t.

It wasn’t.

It wasn’t.

It was time for him to go.

He turned, and left Perceptor slumped there damaged.

Hurt.

And alive.

Chapter Text

“I can’t remember the last time I was on the surface,” Perceptor said, his face turned to look upwards in anticipation. “The Core has been my life for so many years, and I am not even a full technician yet.”

In the large, echoing openness of the ascension tunnel, Divide had been listening to Perceptor rambling off and on for cycles. His chatter broke the silence of the seemingly-endless trip, giving Divide something to focus on beside the fate that they were steadily creaking towards.

It had not helped.

“Once we have established a drone factory, I should be able to get my final certifications. I may even be able to continue working above ground, so long as I follow the code. This is not what I expected, of course, but it is a little exciting to be breaking new ground again. I haven’t had an opportunity like this since I was part of the space bridge team on Luna. I can’t imagine that any of my contacts are still on their old transmission lines, either, but I’ll have to give them a try. We’re going to need someone to help us, after all.”

The scientist’s voice continued, echoing off the long walls of the vertical shaft and vanishing upward into the near-infinite void. Divide could feel the faintest breeze brushing through the cracks of his armor and he shivered, already missing the comfortable magnetics of the Core.

“—and I think he’s working in hydroponics now, attempting to see if alien plant life can survive in Cybertronian soil. With such an outrageously high metallic content, I told him I did not think he would have much luck, simply because of the acidity so many extra ions added into the soil. He said he could balance it by adding an imported sodium bicarbonate, though, and I wonder if he’s had any success—“

Around Divide, the husks of un-activated mechs were swaying, jostled by the rhythmic clanks of the large gears that worked the elevator slowly upward. Their topcoats were shiny, even in the dim panel-lighting that lined the rim of the lift’s floor. He could hear their engines running in standby mode, waiting for the commands that their first employers or benefactors would give them.

Their optics were dark.

Their sparks were thrumming weakly.

They had no idea what waited in store for them at the top, what perils or joys they might face after they were activated.

Divide did not like that line of thinking, and glanced away. He’d never gotten to the surface by this route before.

He was having difficulty with how final it felt.

“—but he went with Jetfire to the orbital station, and that was a century-long contract. Once all of them had moved on, I did not know what to do. The space bridge project had failed, and my future was open to any number of outcomes. I suppose that is why I ended up in the Core. The accident on Luna 1 had proven to me that there were still variables which we hadn’t considered, and I believed sparks were one of them.”

Perceptor’s voice finally stopped, cutting off abruptly in the silence.

Worried that something was wrong, Divide looked over. Perceptor seemed fine on the outside, but his lips were pursed together as if he were considering something new.

Quickly, Divide ran over the past few seconds of conversation, realizing he must have missed something important.

It hadn’t seemed like anything at the time, and Perceptor had always been eager to explain his past in detail…

But never this part of it.

Divide realized he’d never heard anything about a space bridge accident on Luna 1.

“Now we’re going back to the surface,” Perceptor’s voice continued, softer. “We’re going back, and I’ve learned so much about spark radials from you…but I still have not learned everything. The Drivers denied my request to finish my spark certifications. They needed us to do this. They needed this so much that they’re sending us away when they have so few technicians to begin with.”

Divide could not stop the shudder from passing through his own frame, remembering the Driver’s pronouncement to his own request. Their voices still trembled in his armor, in his mind, in the way the light reflected off the walls and vibrated straight down through his armor.

He’d always hated the way the Drivers spoke, how it felt like an intrusion in his very spark.

He had more of a reason to hate them now than ever.

“This is going to work out, isn’t it? We’ll be able to establish a factory, and begin production on drones? They’ll send other spark technicians, and then you and I…we’ll be able to go back to what we were doing? Divide?”

Divide opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out.

He did not know what to say.

“You haven’t talked to me since we stepped onto the elevator. You haven’t said a word, you haven’t sung, you have not even tried to harmonize with the frequency of the elevator motor. I’ve never seen you so quiet. Is everything alright?”

Around them, the lifeless mechs swayed.

Divide’s mouth was still open.

He felt like he could not get enough air in through his intakes.

“I’m not coming with you,” he managed, at last, broaching the topic that he’d wanted to avoid but knew he couldn’t.

Perceptor stared at him for a long moment, taken aback. Clearly he did not believe his audio receptors, because one of his large, thickly shielded hands went up to the side of his helmet, tapping softly to confirm that they were on. “You…what?” he asked, confused.

The words continued to stick in Divide’s vocalizer. He did not want to leave the Core. He hadn’t wanted to leave the Core for a long time. He had been sure that he would die down there, never having to own up to his past, never having to think about what he’d lost, never having to question that being an Authenticator was where he belonged.

He was sure, until Perceptor had come to him asking about sparks.

“When we reach the surface, I’m going to leave,” Divide said with a certainty that he did not feel. “I have no desire to be a spark technician anymore.”

“Can you do that?” the scientist asked, now touching the audial on the other side of his helm.

The gears continued to creak slowly upwards around them.

“The worst they could do is send another Authenticator after me, and I doubt they have one to spare now.” The Drivers might have been willing to sacrifice one, but they wouldn’t send a second. There weren’t enough Node operators to go around. They would continue to have less and less of them, too, if the population continued to decline.

In that respect, he had understood the Drivers’ decision. They had needed a way to produce mechs faster in order to meet up with the increased demands from the surface.

Divide and Perceptor had provided that method to them: a way to make beings which could perform tasks as well as Cybertronians, but needed only half the resources to make.

Now, they were being shipped upward as the Core’s only experts on drones…as Cybertron’s only experts. Divide was being asked to give up the reason he’d began this research in the first place, to return to the surface, and to begin anew with a drone factory above ground. He was being asked to go back to the society that he’d rejected and to spend the rest of his life building halves of mechs.

This was something that Perceptor would not understand.

“I don’t think I can do this without you, Divide…” the teal-striped scientist began, hesitantly.

“Yes, you can,” he countered, not giving the other time to argue. “You know everything I know about how to make a spark imprint. You’ve got the scientific connections on the surface to get you started, and you can program a facsimile processor better than anyone I’ve ever met. You do not need me.”

“But the Drivers do,” Perceptor interjected. “If not with me, then in the Core. You said yourself there aren’t enough Authenticators anymore.”

Then they should have thought about that,” Divide snapped back, unable to hide his vitriol towards the Drivers’ decision anymore. “They should have thought about where they needed me the most before sending me on this quick fix for them. They should have thought about my skills, and my uses, and my desires before damning me to spending the rest of my already shortened life working on mockups! I could have had my voice back, Perceptor--!”

Immediately, he regretted letting that much slip.

Immediately, he knew it would sound selfish.

It was.

It was selfish.

It was selfish that the only reason he’d gone along with Perceptor’s idea was because he wanted to know how to fix himself. He wanted to do what even the Drivers had not been able to do, and to know more about sparks than even the Drivers claimed to know. He’d wanted to know everything.

He’d wanted to know enough to bring back what he had lost.

He’d almost had it.

“But, Divide,” Perceptor said, softly, turning to face him gingerly as if he were a time bomb primed to explode. “You have a beautiful voice.”

Divide stared.

Of course Perceptor thought that.

Of course he did.

The technician had been to the opera a long time ago, and had heard many of the famous stars perform. He’d heard them, and he’d seen them, and he was smart enough to pick out a lot of the scientific theories behind the way the opera worked. Divide’s voice, now, would have sounded more than acceptable to him.

He had not been behind the Opera, however.

He hadn’t ever felt the way that frequencies bounced off of every piece of the set, amplifying and dividing and spreading over the stage until they returned again different. He’d never known what it was like to hit the perfect pitch in harmony with a partner, synchronized exactly so that an entirely new note was formed. He’d never been part of choreography so intricate that a single misstep might prove fatal, and success would bring undying fame.

He’d never had that, and then lost it in an instant.

He’d never lost it on his debut night.

“It’s something,” Divide agreed, without any emotion behind the words. “And it’s something I can’t bear to sacrifice. Not for drones. Not for Drivers. Not for—“  

Divide started to say ‘you,’ and then stopped, his optics meeting Perceptor’s.

Perceptor watched him back.

Divide could not say it.

“I wish you luck,” Perceptor offered, simply, and moved to look at the swaying protoforms, turning his back on Divide.

It was not the best goodbye he could have hoped for.

It also wasn’t the worst.

There was only silence in the elevator, however, without Perceptor’s chatter, and Divide knew it was something he would miss.

He couldn’t stand the silence.

Silence, and then the sharp clang of the gear, climbing one rung at a time.

Silence, and then noise.

Silence, noise.

With no reservations holding him, Divide began to hum his first new tune.

It was his tune. Melancholy. Hopeful. Hopeless.

It would be his tune, and for now it would be all he had to start with.

He would be a spark technician no more.

 

Something…had changed.

The communications drone ceased playback, having weeded out the last memory file from Divide while waiting for the other drone to remove the packaging material. From now on, it would not have to worry about unearthing sudden and unexpected experiences during normal operations, which meant it would only need to access the files when they would be useful to it. Categorizing them had been pleasing, besides, even if the task had been difficult without the buffer from the transmission tower to assist.

However, the completion of the task was not what had roused it from the memory playback.

Only 36% of the way through the protective packaging, it had detected a significant increase in temperature. After comparing relative indexes between its dual sensor nodes, it was able to conclude that the rise emanated from the northeastern corner of the room. The data from the drone it was connected to confirmed these findings.

They were not a concern.

Not yet.

However, they were worth investigating further.

It could hear conversations through the walls, vibrations that indicated mechs talking at standard patterns and rates. It could hear the sounds of the machines, relentlessly pounding out its future counterparts. It could even hear, distantly, the rumbles of transports arriving to the bays to pick up cargo and to drop off materials and supplies. Apart from the rise in temperature, there were no anomalies in factory procedure that it could detect.

This was odd.

Regardless, it increased priority on the task of freeing itself, and delved into its connection with the other drone.

From drone’s processor it was able to utilize the foreign operating systems, allowing it access to the programming and necessary dialog to communicate with unfamiliar appendages. It could, in essence, instruct the drone’s software to do the work it needed, instead of interfacing directly with the drone’s hardware, which was still alien to it. It had done so, earlier.

Now, however, it was becoming more pressing to expedite the process.

Unfortunately, this was compounded by the fact that it was unfamiliar with what to direct hands to do, in any more specific way than ‘remove packaging.’ This was also compounded by the fact that the other drone was still able to think.

It had, of course, initially plugged in to an offline drone, which meant it had needed to supply enough power to work both systems until it had been able to locate the master control switch. Locating the switch had proven easy.

Dealing with the constant error messages, ‘unauthorized user’ alerts, and restart algorithms had been hard. Being in a drone’s mind was strangely different than being inside of a Cybertronian processor, and it was more difficult than expected.

Connecting with Divide had been much easier, but it was not able to tell what was different from this situation and its previous experience. Before, it had not found any problems identifying the components of the mech’s processor or determining which would be of use and which would not be. The insides of Divide’s head had not been difficult to navigate, and it had felt as if the programs in the composer’s mind were receptive to its commands.

That, it had supposed, was how direct interfacing sessions were supposed to go.

In comparison, this drone’s processor should have been simple to comprehend. It did not have nearly such sophisticated algorithms as Divide, and it had additionally been designed for technicians to be able to service.

Granted, this one had significant evidence of being involved in new programming tests, but even so there was no reason why it was presenting a challenge.

It was, after all, just a drone.

However, there were still difficulties in getting it to synchronize with the frequency of commands sent from a different spark. Drones were supposed to have similar tertiary radials in their sparks to make repairs easier. This was expected.

Dealing with a drone whose tertiary radials had been altered was not expected.

Thankfully the other drone was more than willing to cooperate, provided that it was addressed with exact and simplified commands.

It was aware of the communication drone’s intrusion. It was…confused, in that there were no protocols for how to behave if one found another drone attempting to control one’s processor. The communication’s drone believed it would have been similarly confused had it found itself in a similar situation.

They were both aware of the irony in that.

They were also both aware of the sudden and piercing alarm that sounded out on the factory floor.

This, finally, was a concern worth noting, and for the moment they turned all 200% of their audial sensors toward picking up on further cues.

There were fewer voices, now. Many of the mechs it had detected earlier were gone, and the new ones passing closest to the closet sounded hurried and distressed. Their speech was too fast. Footfalls were heard running by the door.

There was an explosion.

The communications drone waited 1.68 nanoclicks, and then sampled its surroundings for a second time, noting a temperature increase of over 30 percent. The environment was changing at a rate of .36 degrees per decicycle, and after a few more samples it came to the alarming conclusion that the room was rapidly becoming hazardously warm.

It tested a leg.

Its leg could not move.

It tested its other leg, and found its other leg similarly immobile, bound tightly within the insulated packaging material. There would be only 7.6 clicks before the heat would begin interfering with its processes. It likely had 3.3 more clicks beyond that before there was potential for physical damage. Its choices were few.

Strong, unsteady fingers quickly probed at the communication drone’s casings, pulling at manufactured plastics that yielded but would not snap. The other drone seemed to be aware of the increased urgency, but was not able to assist outside of its programming. This material was unfamiliar to it. The material was unfamiliar to them both.

This material was…frustrating.

However, it did not have time to process more ‘frustration.’ Neither of them did, and instead they turned their attention to the task at hand. The communication’s drone considered the problem. The other drone pulled at the tape. The temperature increased.

Something new exploded.

Pull. Strain. Rip. Each time the hands failed to break through, the elastic constricted around it. Each time a finger found a satisfactory grip, the elastic snapped. This continued without end, a cycle of relief and further frustration.

7.4 clicks had passed, and only 42% of the packaging had been removed. Its legs were still immobile. It needed other options to pursue.

In front of it, the other drone continued with its mission, continually stretching and tearing what material it could. The communications drone was connected to it, and could transfer any amount of data through their hardline. It could transmit its entire database, its mission, and its memories to the other drone.

The other drone’s arms and legs were fully functional. It…could escape.

The communications drone could upload its data, release the other drone, and provide it with orders to continue seeking the Node. It could…go.

It could go somewhere.

It could go somewhere, and it would possess the communications drone’s data, but it would not be the communications drone. It would be a different drone. It would not be able to return to the tower and pick up where the communications drone had left off. It would not be able to fulfill the communications drone’s duties. It would not be able to monitor the airwaves, and listen for problematic songs.

It would never learn why the communication’s drone had made problematic songs to begin with.

The communications drone would also never know.

It would no longer exist.

It…could not hypothesize non-existence.

Strangely, it was beginning to notice a change in the lighting of the room. No longer was it solely illuminated by the cool blue glowing of a twin pair of drone visors, but it was blooming in a deep, searing red. The metal of the walls was heating, and in the northeast corner a glimmer of bright-hot molten slag dripped down onto the crates within.

The other drone continued pulling.

It tugged, harder, aware of danger, aware of its own self-preservation coding warning it to run, aware of the second drone within its mind that countermanded that protocol. It would complete its mission. The communications drone would leave it no choice but to obey, up until there was no option left. The other drone’s hands were directed to the bound legs, pulling, ripping, and thrashing when their thoughts fell out of synch or when one of them forgot how to operate singular digits.

The fingers snagged.

The other drone pulled, trying to dislodge them, nearly lifting the communications drone off of the ground until the tension grew too great. The bindings snapped. The suddenly free hand jerked backward, shook once, and then reoriented itself for another attempt. For a moment the communication’s drone felt the packaging material loosening, but it was not loose enough. There was still too much to do.

It…acknowledged this.

It acknowledged that the projected timetable for its freedom greatly exceeded the amount of time before the room grew too hot to exist within.

It also acknowledged that if one of the other drone’s hands could lift it, then two hands could pick it up.

Two hands reached out by its command, and did.

This confirmed its hypothesis: They both now had a single pair of working legs.

They both could escape.

It was still bundled in packing tape. It was still inside of a factory that was burning down. It was still trapped in an unknown room, but it could escape.

Cradled in the other’s arms, the communication’s drone commanded them to move. The first few yards were treacherous, requiring navigation around crates, other drones, and packing supplies. They jostled a table, and organized data-pads spilled out from carefully arranged cubicles, sliding across the desk and onto the floor. The working legs stepped on them, broke them, and continued onward.

As the communication’s drone had hoped, the door to their storage room was not locked.

As the communication’s drone had…feared…the rest of the factory was filled with flames.

Fire was something it was not equipped to handle. Metal and duracrete did not easily burn, and most mech-made materials avoided combustible properties on purpose. Heat was a product of reaction, and, around Cybertronians who injested flammable materials, intense heat was an undesired product of any reaction. Fire escape protocols were not present in its systems, because the likelihood of it ever encountering a fire was approximately zero.

Thus, when encountering a veritable wall of flames, the communication’s drone was terrified for the first time that it could recall.

It was an emotion it could register, catalog, and save either for a time when it could fully comprehend it or a time when it would not matter anyway. That time seemed to be fast-approaching.

There was no way out.

If, it reasoned, the factory was made mostly of metal and duracrete, then whatever had started the fire must have been chemical. What had continued the fire must have been resultant from the fuels and oils in the machinery, which had been spread when they’d exploded. Now, the fire raged in all directions, heat melting the walls, charring the duracrete, consuming the wreckage of drones that had not escaped.

It could feel the heat.

For once, however, it had no calculations on what such intensity meant. It knew…it knew there was no escape for it. Already its processes were slowing, already it could feel the compounds in its paint breaking down their bonds and peeling away. In the distance it could see the docks, and the tiny, distorted window of cool greyness that seemed to be beckoning across impossible odds. From all around, it could hear the crackling of flames.

They were beautiful.

They…roared, a vacuum of air particles being consumed in the reaction, layering wave after wave of rustling, arrhythmic whispers. It tilted its head back, and watched the deep reds, bright oranges, harsh yellows and violent whites reflecting off the visor of its companion, locking the vision in memory.

It sampled the sound of the fire.

It did not know that it would ever have a chance to use that sound clip, but it was not going to pass the opportunity up.

The fire was important.

The fire was the one thing between it and its mission.

The fire was the obstacle it had to overcome before it could return to Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council.

The fire was as close as it had ever come to death.

Run, it whispered, still connected through its hardline to the other drone.

Acknowledged, the other returned, and ran.

The door was ahead, through walls of fire. The communication’s drone estimated that its freedom was approximately five hundred lengths away. As the temperature increased, it began other calculations, checking the heat of the flames around them to see how long they could last before the flames ate at their metal, how long they could last before their own fuel intakes caught.

The calculations faded, in the heat. It tried to restart them, and failed, aware of the dampening effect on electronics, aware that the longer it was in the fire the more permanent its damage would become.

Its vision distorted.

Then, in a lance of pain, it heard the other’s visor crack. It glanced up, losing sight of the doors for an instant to watch the drone propelling them forward, watching its melting faceplates and the exposed wiring underneath. The pain…had not been its pain. The distortion in the vision had been the overlay of the drone’s.

Now, it could not see through the other’s optics at all. It could not guess how long it might be before its own vision deteriorated, or what differing materials the two of them might have been constructed out of. It could not guess. It…could not try to, as the error messages were flooding in.

The drone’s feet were melting.

It stumbled.

The communication’s drone could not even scream as it felt fire licking at the cable that connected them, pain that was its own sharply emanating from a source that it could not shut down. It needed this connection. It needed this drone. It needed to live, even if it was certain that the other would die. It…had no choice.

It had no choice in plunging, fully, into the others systems, repeating sequences that signaled run. Run. Left leg extend. Left leg contact, left ankle compress, left leg propel, left knee compress, left leg extend…Right leg.

Right leg, error, ankle deterioration, suggest immediate shut down for repairs.

Override.

Left leg, error, ankle deterioration, suggest immediate shut down for repairs.

Override.

Immediate shut down recommended. Override. Override. Watching the tiny grey square of light grow larger, and larger, and larger, concentrating only on the basic functions that would allow it to survive. Left leg. Right leg. Override.

Override.

Behind them, there was an explosion…

But he...

He would survive.

Chapter Text

The day was supposed to have been a good day. 

Ratbat knew this because he had been sitting smugly in front of the Senate only cycles before as his proposition had passed, vote by vote.  Although any standing armies were still technically under the jurisdiction of Sentinel Prime, they could not be mobilized without Senate approval. 

The Senate, in effect, now had control.

It was exactly what he’d been waiting for.  This victory put Ratbat in the perfect situation to engineer the downfall of the aging Prime…and from there, to possibly do away with the position in its entiretly.  No longer would the military be in control of someone who, at spark, was a religious figure.  No longer would armies be at the beck and call of an increasingly unpredictable element.

No longer would Ratbat have to defer to someone else to get things done.

Everything had been falling into place perfectly, except for one thing.

There weren’t going to be any standing armies, because there weren’t going to be any more military drones.

His factory had just burned down.

He’d watched it on the view-screen, stewing frigidly in his chair as it tried to find a comfortable arrangement for his agitated and restless self.  From what he could tell there had not been many casualties, though many mechs were being flown to local hospitals and repair bays, and half-burned drone bodies were littering the streets.  He could likely salvage the parts for those, returning at least some of his investment, but the delay was what currently rankled him.  That this would come now, of all things.  That this…act of Primus…would spoil a moment he’d been poised to savor.  That this had cost him money, and ruined his day.

He needed to begin repairs immediately, and send reparations to any nearby factories that had incurred damages.  He needed to address the populace.  He needed to make charitable donations and he needed to foot mechanic’s bills.  This event still could be turned to his advantage, and he could still come off as a tragic victim of unfortunate circumstance who, nevertheless, moved quickly to bring care and sympathy to those affected.  He could be almost a hero, provided that the root of this error was not seen as his.

That was where this got tricky.

The factory was, at this point, owned by him.  He had bought greater and greater shares of drone stock until the small business had been virtually handed over, and he’d enjoyed plenty of profits from its wares.  It could have easily been stated that he was responsible for the facility and any goings-on within, which meant he needed to find out exactly what said ‘goings-on’ had been.

So what had the news reports said?  A faulty engine that led to explosions?  Faulty engines weren’t inherently a sign of poor planning or misplaced management, which meant he could find some individual to shift the blame onto easily enough.  Perhaps one of the workers had not been performing the necessary maintenance.  Ratbat was sure he could have such a scenario proven if he could contact the right forensics team to pay off.

However, he’d need more details, first.  In a worst-case scenario, the root of this might lie with some shoddy piece of machinery that led to an ‘unsafe environment,’ and that rumor would require tact to circumvent

It always required tact.  It required tact, and knowing who to call…

“Put me through to Perceptor.”  He murmured to his chair, keying in the connection sequence to Redirect. 

“Acknowledged,” his secretary sent back, almost instantly, but less enthusiastically than normal.  That…was odd. 

Settling back into his chair to watch the smoldering remains of his factory on the view-screen, Ratbat waited patiently for the call.  It was not as quick to come as he would have liked, and he lamented for the lack of his communications drone, wondering why it was not back in service yet.  He had instructed for it to be returned before the vote, and he was accustomed to expedient service, neither of which had managed to occur.  Perhaps Redirect was not as efficient as he’d started to believe.  Perhaps he needed a new secretary.

Or perhaps the mech was simply overworked.  Ratbat had grown used to how quickly the drone had been able to obtain information for him, while Redirect had not been supplying that service in lunar cycles.  It was not his job.  The drone had proven to be much more adept at it, as with many other things.  Drones, it seemed, were the future.

And that future was, currently, a very large conglomeration of twisted wreckage and blackened parts. 

“This is Perceptor.”  A tired voice cracked, a small beep indicating his faulty reception even as the holographic communicator pulled the image up, displaying the spark technician and his shiny teal corporate stripes marred with soot.  It was not difficult to tell what was in the background--it was the same view Ratbat had watched on his view-screen all afternoon. 

He was already prepared for this.  “I called as soon as I could.  It is good to see you safe, Perceptor.  Are you well?”

“As well as can be expected, under the circumstances.”  The mech replied, his background changing as he stepped into an alleyway to escape the noise.  “Though I am surprised that you are putting in this call to me; the factory supervisor is also on-site.” 

“The factory supervisor’s office was nowhere near the source of the first explosion—I have been told he was safe, and that he is already preparing a report for me.” If he knew what was best for himself.  “I wanted to speak with someone who was actually present near the event.  Since you have often spoken of your experience with both the laymen and the technicians, I was hoping that you could direct me to a mech to speak to.”

“Yes, of course.”  Perceptor nodded, perfunctorily.  “You are speaking to him.” 

This was a surprise to Ratbat, and was a little too coincidental for his tastes.  “You were there?” 

“I had that unfortunate distinction, yes.  As you know, my duty is to act as a go-between, and at the time I was.  Ah.  ‘Going Between.’”  There was the briefest pause, in which the mech took in a vent full of fresh air.  “It has been a long day, Senator.” 

It most certainly had been a long day.  “Can you tell me what happened?” 

Perceptor’s lips pursed.  “Yes, I could perform that function.” 

“Will you?”

“I...”  The mech exhaled, and sagged against the wall.  One hand rubbed at the back of his helm, as if trying to jog his memory.  “I am not sure I could, Senator Rabat.  I was nearly put offline merely a few cycles ago.  Mechs who were close to me are badly burned.  My processor has been running at peak capacity, trying to salvage months of work and theories and formulas that that it may not be able to, and the entirety of my life is downloaded onto one, small data-pad I happened to be holding when I was taken from the premises.  At this point, Senator…”  He shook his head.  “I am not even certain who I am, anymore.  I do not know that I could accurately tell you what went wrong.” 

“I am aware that your duress might make your current statements invalid.”  Ratbat continued, softer, as patiently as he could manage given his own stress. “I intend to hire a research team to fully investigate whatever…folly…might have perpetrated our unfortunate circumstances.”  He did not even have to embellish on ‘our-’  at this point, he felt impacted enough to share the misfortune.  “They should be able to collect any later information you could give them.  My only concern, of course, was the prevention of this catastrophe at any of our other factories.  You…do not think that the employees elsewhere might be in danger, do you?”

Perceptor ceased fidgeting, and he knew his words had impacted as per his intent.  Ratbat could see the look of worry that crossed over the scientist’s features, the quiet consideration, and finally a slow shake of his head.  “No, Senator.  I believe that your other factories are safe.  They are not drone factories, and…it is my suspicion that it is only the drones being targeted.” 

That drew Ratbat into a screeching halt.  “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

“The drones.  They…at least, I think it is only the drones…were what he was after.  I do not believe that he would target your other facilities unless they were drone related.”

They were what ‘he’ was after?  “Who?”

Perceptor stared, obviously not expecting this sudden intensity from Ratbat.  Ratbat had not been expecting this sudden intensity from himself, either, but he had been caught off-guard.Something, or…someone had caused this?  Somebody had attacked Ratbat’s holdings?  Somebody had dared?

“If he had a name, I did not get it.  I am sorry.”  Perceptor finally dropped his gaze, looking at the hand that had been rubbing his helm a moment before, the data-pad that allowed them communication still gripped tightly in the other.  “He had been working in the factory for some time.  I believe he was a spy.”

A spy.  A spy that he, somehow, had not known about?  What sort of informants was he paying these days?  His factories and headquarters had always undergone rigorous employment requirements, screening everyone.  There were, of course, the odd mechs who made it into his staff, but he was aware of them at least, and could use them against his opponents the same way his opponents made use of some of his spies.  That was how the game was played.  Sometimes someone got through, and you rolled your windows down in honor of a well-played hand, even if it stung.  They were spies.

They weren’t supposed to burn down your factories.

Not without one of his adversaries issueing some ultimatum first.

“Did you have any suspicion of him?”  Ratbat continued, still feeling slightly dazed.

“Er, yes.”  The teal mech responded.

“And…when did that begin?”

“At about the point when he punched me.  I am sorry to say, but I did not learn about your drone until after I had already left the building, and by then it was too late.” 

Ratbat felt as if someone had slipped a low-grade fuel additive into his supplements.  “My what.”

“Your drone, sir.  The one that I designed for you that was in residence at the time.  I had been busy with other tasks, but it was scheduled to be maintenanced before your vote, as you had requested…”

His communications drone.  His factory.  Someone was ruthlessly targeting him, and the horrible truth of the matter was that he wasn’t even certain who.  No one behaved like this: it had no class.  His colleages might starve out a business here or there, or call in Autobot raids when they knew an adversary might be making an illegal shipment, but one did not simply blow them up.

One did not.

Nor did one remove them of their prize communications drone.  “Do you…believe that you could duplicate the procedure used to make my drone?”

“Given time and a new facility, it should still be possible to do.  But I am not certain of anything at this moment.  I do not even know how to locate my own apartment, and I am hardly the only one of the spark technicians with this problem.  We are out of our element on the surface, Senator.” 

“Of course.  I will have crews sent in immediately to assist you.”  It was the right thing to say, and it was the only thing he could really offer.  Without the technicians, no number of rebuilt factories would be able to produce any drones.  It seemed that the army Sentinel Prime had commissioned was going to have to wait.

“Thank you, Senator.  I am most sincerely sorry to be contacting you under the blanket of such news.  I’d…hoped to have happier things to talk about.  We’d been monitoring the error in your serving drone, and I was hoping to fix the coding…”  Perceptor seemed to be honestly trying to deliver good news, and the naked sincerity of it struck Ratbat.  It was hard to tell, despite being used to lies, what was real and what was coming from the stress.

“I applaud your efforts.  When we resume operations, I am sure our future line of drones will be even grander than the ones we had produced before today.   If nothing else, at least I will be able to provide facilities and secure jobs for you and your colleagues until our factory is running again.”    He was, in essence, going to have spies of his own in the new factory that Decimus and Optarus were building.

“I believe the gesture will be well-received, Senator.  Many of us are worried about our future…”  The teal hand dropped to the technician’s side, helpless.  “Many of us will need time to adjust to the loss of our work.”

“Take all the time you need.  I will send the investigation team immediately so that we can begin cleanup, and so that your lives can return to the track they glide most smoothly on.”  He dipped his head.  “One last thing, before I go, Perceptor?”

The fingers on the data-pad tightened, until Ratbat could see the tips of them around the screen “Ah, yes?” 

“Please forward me all information that you can about the spy.  If we act quickly, we may be able to detain him for his crimes.”

“I…”  Perceptor began, and Ratbat focused on that hesitation, wondering.  “Of course, Senator.  I’ll upload it now.” 

“Excellent.  Be well, and please do convey my sincerest sympathies to your team.”  He waited for Perceptor’s download to complete, and ended the transmission.

There was too much to consider.

There was too much to be done.

Ratbat, for the first time in millennia, felt tired. 

He’d done this before.  He’d given the same speech before, enticed the same information out of the same mechs.  He’d maneuvered, and pushed, and pulled, and bit until he’d come out on top.

And now, someone had blown up his factory.  He couldn’t get over it, because every time he thought on what to do next, he’d come back to the fact that his communications drone was gone and someone had blown up his factory. 

At least, in that, he had some motivation.  Tiredness or not, he’d see this through.  Opening his own personal data-pad, he started uploading instructions to send out to Redirect, authorizing withdrawals for the expenditures that needed to be taken care of now.  Cleanup.  Investigations.  Shuttles for the workers to return them home.

He’d have to sort through the information from his communications drone, and he’d need to hire someone to do its job for the time being and get them to look up this spy.

Clicking on the upload, a small, holographic representation of the mech in question appeared, assimilated from information that Perceptor had provided.  The slightest flicker of recognition blossomed in the back of Ratbat’s mind, and stayed there, glowing softly.  He’d seen this mech, this infiltrator, somewhere before. 

And that, he knew, would be the key.

“One more thing, Redirect,” he added, appending a final item to the list, “Look up the top contending Gladiators.”

“Yes, sir,” his secretary responded, and cut the line.

Chapter Text

It had been dark.

It had been dark for 5.23 cycles, the last light vanishing when the door on the cargo pod was sealed. He had felt it jostle, once, as magnetic seals latched it to a carrier, and he had noted the increase in pressure as they had taken off. Around him, steel netting held towering boxes gently in place.

He could no longer see them, but he felt them swaying slowly when the transport swerved, heard the contents shifting with a rustle. There was some distant knowledge that the crates might fall, that they were heavy enough to crush him and the drone in their narrow hiding space, but in the darkness he could not anticipate the likelihood of that.

He had not seen enough of their surroundings to anticipate anything. 5.26 cycles ago, they had crawled into a pod at an active loading dock. He had known they would be safe in there, and that the loading dock would transport them somewhere that was in no danger of being on fire.

At the time, that was all that had mattered.

Now, he did not know what to do. He could not read the markings on the sides of the boxes. He could not establish a connection to orbiting satellites or local towers through the heavily shielded hull. He could not calculate a possible flight path. They were moving. It was dark. His drone was dying.

That was all he knew.

Restlessly, his cable curled around the charred frame wedged beside him, feeling an exterior that was brittle from heat, warped, and painful to touch. The error messages coming from it had not ceased no matter how often he overrode them--errors from overblown circuitry, errors from joints soldered shut, errors from sensitive connection jacks that had been calibrated for the finest voltage shifts, whose ends had formed infinite loops. He could not disconnect. He could not get his cable loose.

He could not move.

Another system shorted and he felt the drone twitch, shuddering as one of its primary control relays malfunctioned. There were sparks, tiny pricks that burned onto his visor in the darkness. He shied away from them, haunted by flame.

They sputtered, and went out.

There was no pain here, in the darkness. The fire had burned through the systems capable of feeling it over 5.6 cycles ago. The fire had burned through everything.

The fire was burning, even now, in the back of his processor. The images repeated for him over and over again, bringing awareness of how simple it could be to not exist. He could have given up. He could have made the wrong decision. He could have taken too long to decide.

He could have stayed trapped, in the closet, waiting with the other drones until they’d died.

He hadn’t done that.

Instead, he had survived.

They both had.

We are safe, now, he transmitted across the half-burnt cable, a tentative statement ghosting carefully through blown transistors.

I know, was the tired reply. The communications drone could feel the other shifting next to him, the bare, boiled metal of its legs scraping across the floor, a dozen error messages resurfacing. He overrode them, one by one. There was nothing the other drone could feel anymore regardless. There was no position it could shift to that would change its fate.

The communications drone still did not know what to do.

With no other options present, he defaulted to that which he did best. Although it was a small one, he was connected to a system, and that system contained data that might be of import. Quietly, he started sorting through its cache, looking for anything useful that he could save. He marked off recent memories for download, searching for items of import, private data-codes, and names. He searched for music to add to Divide’s database.

Sadly, it was a drone.

It was a standard drone.

It did not possess many items of interest at all. It had lived a short life in the factory. It had malfunctioned after a data wipe. It had been given to a laborer for tests. It had listened to the beat of the factory, day after day, and it had listened to the tiny radio the laborer had played.

This, at least, was of some fascination.

The Communications Drone recognized the music.

The song had been one that he had created before his memory wipe. In the memory, the song was playing on a small, run-down portable music device. The laborer was not watching the drone, but the drone found the sounds coming from the device to be pleasant and went to take a step forward.

Hearing this, the laborer turned around.

The drone froze in place.

Looking it up and down, the laborer’s optics locked onto the new position of the drone’s feet and watched them for a moment as if confirming that they’d moved. Then, his bright blue optics glanced up to the drone’s facemask.

“Come here,” he spoke, and outside of the memory the Communications Drone shuddered. There was something incorrect about that voice, some aspect of it which reminded him of the fire. The communications drone did not recognize what was bothering him outright, but he did recognize that if he’d been back in the transmission tower, he would have flagged the sound of that voice as ‘important.’

It required investigating.

Within the memory, the drone moved forward to comply. The laborer had gestured to a spot next to himself, and it settled there and waited to see what the mech would want it to do next.

However, the laborer did not seem to have a specific task in mind. Instead, he simply gestured at the radio.

“If you want to listen to something else, rotate the dial on the side.”

This, the drone knew, was a test.

The laborer had often given it tests since installing its new processor.

They were incredibly difficult tests. Often, the laborer would ask it to make a choice between two scenarios without prefacing the choice with any command or personal desire. Without any factors distinguishing one choice as being the correct or preferred choice, the drone had needed to rely on its own compulsions. Sometimes it would be asked which color it liked. Other times, it would be asked if it would rather stand or sit.

After each choice, the teal-striped scientist would come and take more readings.

However, the scientist was not here, and the laborer had already gone back to working at his console. Right now, it was completely at its own discretion whether it wanted the radio to play this song or not.

It reached out and began to change the station, moving through a very narrow range of options as it did and listening to a small sampling of each piece of music that was broadcast.

Eventually, it settled back onto the first song.

This one was the one that it preferred.

“I hadn’t considered asking it for its musical tastes,” a voice behind the drone began. Without turning, both the drone in the memory and the Communications Drone outside of the memory knew the voice belonged to Perceptor. This likely meant more tests were about to begin.

“I’m surprised you haven’t,” the laborer replied, not even looking up from his work.

Again, the sound of the laborer’s voice set off a warning within the communications drone’s processor. However, there was nothing to do but listen and see if the memory provided any clue. It was getting used to digging through memories by now.

Moving around the side of the drone, the teal-striped scientist appeared within its vision, the box-shaped Oscilloscope strapped to his arm. The drone looked at the scientist, standing still so that he could take the diagnostics that he always wanted to take.

This time, the scientist frowned.

“It must like the song, because I’m not getting a good read on its spark while the music is playing. There are too many fluctuations, which either means that the radials are exceeding their parameters or that my Oscilloscope isn’t working.”

“So turn the radio off and try again,” the laborer grumbled, his large shoulders rising and falling in an emotional display that the drone did not recognize.

“I will. It would be a shame if the Oscilloscope was broken, after all.” The scientist lowered his arm, reaching forward to flick one of the manual switches on the musical device. “I won’t be able to make another one very easily, and it could mean that the readings I took from your spark were inaccurate—“

This time, the laborer’s shoulders froze in a manner that even the drone recognized as bad news.

“I refuse to let you read my spark again, technician, even if your device is malfunctioning.”

“Of…of course,” the scientist replied, looking back down at the Oscilloscope. “I’m sure it was just the effect from the song, besides…”

The teal-striped scientist continued speaking, but something was wrong with the memory.

The sound had cut out.

Concerned by the sudden degredation of the file, the communications drone began downloading other memories from the drone, pushing the data through their charred connection as fast as he could.

The other drone was loosing power.

An entirely new set of errors were slowly flooding in.

He dismissed them and attempted to supply some of his own energy to the drone, but his already-strained cable was not able to handle the additional load.

Unable to disconnect, he listened to the constant noise that now comprised most of the remaining memories, sorting through them for any hope of content.

The drone twitched, once.

Its communications protocols failed, a moment later, and the line went silent.

He had gotten all the memories that he was going to get.

There was no option to override.

He could do nothing but wait, now, curling around his only companion as it shut down bit by bit, observing every passing function, every piece that died and how it cascaded through the systems around it. He wondered what it meant, to lose all operations. He wondered how far gone a drone could be, before it could not be repaired.

Its spark went out 1.26 cycles later, and he knew he need not wonder about this drone, any more.

It had survived, for a time.

Now, all of its relevant data belonged to the Communications Drone. He could spend the remaining time in the pod sorting through the other memories he had sampled, and learning more about the laborer and the teal-striped scientist.

Perceptor.

There could be no coincidence that that particular technician was featured in every memory he’d downloaded.

He would have much to ask Perceptor when they finally were able to meet.

“Primus,” a soft voice spoke into the pod, and the Communications Drone’s plans cut off, unfinished, in his head. There was a mech, above him, peering over the netted cargo he’d collapsed behind with his drone.

He had been caught.

He did not recall when the pod had even been set down, which was unacceptable. His systems were too damaged, and he had been distracted by the data from the drone.

He did not know what would happen now.

His drone was dead. There were no legs to run with, no arms to lift him. He had no voice. His connection cable had been seared, raw, and stuck fast to the carapace that pinned it. He could do nothing but stare and hope that this mech meant him no harm.

The mech was staring back.

Unfamiliar blue optics darted up and down his frame and then vanished, slipping around the large boxes that he and the other drone had wedged themselves between.   A moment later they reappeared again closer, looming over the Communication’s Drone accompanied by an expression that he did not recognize. The optics sought for his, found none, and lingered on the cracked visor instead. Then, they looked away.

“You’re hurt.”

Uncertain if he should respond, the Communications Drone remained completely still. The phrase had not been worded as a question or an order. He did not know how to react.

When the mech reached a blue hand toward him, however, he flinched. His cable was trapped. His arms were still bound to him. His legs were pinned under the drone.

He had no course for escape.

The hand slowed. Then it paused. Then, it changed direction. Instead of reaching for the communications drone, it reached toward his wrappings. It pulled for a moment, trying to work them free and instead finding them still sealed tight, shrunken by the intensity of the earlier heat. The mech’s lips pursed, his footing unstable in the narrow gap of boxes as he looked at the melted packaging, and finally reached out to slowly untwist the knotted ties.

The communications drone did not flinch this time.

This was behavior he was unaccustomed to. His interactions with mechs beyond Sentator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council, were extremely limited. He did not know how to proceed.

“I am here to help,” the voice promised, softly. “I can get you repaired, and I can find out where you are supposed to be.” Another knot unwound, and he felt the drone’s form fall away from him, sticky threads stretching between where molten packaging had clung to armor gaps. Still, he did not move. The mech had promised to take him where he was supposed to be.

The Communications Drone did not know where that was right now.

He had not been able to finish the task that he had left for. He had not gotten in touch with Perceptor, he had not found a way down to the Node at the Core, and he had not been able to download the origination codes needed to finish Divide’s database. If he were taken back to Ratbat Towers, there would no longer be a chance to complete any of that. His memory would be wiped.

If he remained at large, however, he still had the opportunity to locate Perceptor. It was likely that the scientist had not been killed in the fire, as there had been plenty of time beforehand to escape. Given access to any communications device, he was certain that the technician could be found.

In order to do that, he would need this mech to cooperate.

That…was already what seemed to be happening.

This mech had not given a single order. He did not ask questions. He…helped.

Slowly, he was even able to lift the Communications Drone free.

For the first time since he woke up in the factory, his legs dangled, unbound. His feet brushed the large boxes in the narrow pathway. His arms could move. He tilted his screen slowly, looking at the other drone one last time, able to identify its torso only through the cable that still connected them. Its helm was an unrecognizable mass.

At the movement, the other mech tried to smile. “You’re not offline. That’s a good start.” The Communications Drone did not detect happiness in his voice, despite the smile. Looking back at the other drone, he believed that he knew why.

He did not know who this mech was. He did not understand why he was being helped without an order being given. He did not know how to respond. He did not know if he was supposed to.

However, he was still bound to the other drone by his cable. Glancing to that, he looked back to the new mech pointedly. There was a nod, before one strong hand grasped onto his cable, lightly, and pulled it loose.

Wordlessly, the Communications Drone screamed.

His spinal struts arched, unable to cope with the sudden influx of pain. Systems that he’d thought defunct or overheated primed to life, assessing damages, sampling inputs, loading data upon data that confirmed his status as ‘alive’ and more than able to still feel. He had been wrong, earlier, about the pain. That hadn’t been his sensory systems that’d been burnt out.

Now, his cable suspended from him unfettered, shooting agonizing waves of input through his frame. Distantly, he felt the other wind the limp cable gently around his sleek red arm. He realized that they were moving, realized that he was still being carried, and could see the darkness of the pod retreating as they stepped into a blindingly lit bay. They were moving quickly. He did not understand where.

“You’re going to be alright.” The voice assured him, the mech’s footsteps falling on resounding marble floors. Slowly, his senses were returning to him. Slowly, the crackling static from his cable could begin to be ignored.

They were passing through an archway, back into the dark. He caught sight of it briefly, snapping images of worn symbols pressed in burnished metal, silhouettes of ancient figureheads imprinted on grey-lit domes. This was not the tower. This mech did not belong to Senator Ratbat.

They were somewhere else.

They were somewhere quiet.

His optical sensors adjusted slowly to the interior, making out rows and rows of short hallways that each seemed to be sectioned off. Stacks of datapads were shelved neatly in some, their power lights blinking blue, green, and red. Other hallways seemed empty but for screens on their walls, with command consoles worked flat for easy access underneath them.

The building construction was opulent, but it was also old.   Nearly every hallway was empty, and there was metallic dust glinting on the shelves. The mech’s footsteps echoed loudly on what sounded like expensive marble, but with enough cracks to make the echoes fuzzy.

The Communications Drone was glad that its audials could still pick that detail up.

“Did you find another stray, Orion?” A voice asked, and the footsteps slowed.

“No, sir,” the red and blue mech replied, turning to face the hallway that the voice was coming from.

“Well, it doesn’t look like a statue of Nominus Prime to me. Wasn’t that supposed to arrive today? Or did we receive that shipment yesterday…”

“Er…no, sir,” Orion stated. “The shipment just arrived, and the statue is intact. The pod is still up on the loading dock, but I thought you’d want to see this first.”

“I’m sure I do,” the voice replied, moving closer from the dim lighting in the short hallway until the Communications Drone could finally make out the speaker’s features. “What is it?”

“I know it’s a little hard to tell because of how he’s damaged, but he’s a drone. I found him on the transport pod along with another drone—both badly burnt. He’s still alive, though, and I think we might be able to save him.” Orion did not move, letting the other mech come close to examine him.

Having little choice in the matter the communications drone remained still, and performed his own examination. The voice had been deceptive, making the second mech out to be much younger than he clearly was. The drone had not seen armor designs like these in any other media than historical documentaries, and facial decorations mimicking beards and mustaches had gone out of style when the alien homeworld of Dreem had taken an economic downturn. The only aspect that seemed modern about the new mech was his color scheme, and that was only because he recognized that color of magenta as one which Ratbat particularly liked.

“Now why would a burnt drone be on a cargo pod?” the old mech wondered aloud, and the Communications Drone appended one additional similarity to Ratbat to this mech: He had ways of asking questions that he already knew the answer to.

“It has been on the news-vids all day. There was a fire in the machinist district of Kaon, and Ratbat Holding’s drone factory blew up. I think the cargo pod must have stopped in that district.”

“We’ll just have to find out, won’t we?” the magenta mech smiled. “But we won’t have much luck asking our new friend here if he dies on us. Take him to the first aid station and do what you can for him.”

Orion looked off, shifting the communication drone’s weight uncertainly. He tried not to protest, but he could feel the paint flaking off where it rubbed against the other’s arms—dark blue against bright red. “I’ll do what I can, but we’d be better off with a drone technician…”

“With that factory in flames I doubt the technicians have anyone to spare right now. I’ll contact them later if we need, but for now I’m going to get someone to offload our statue before the transport driver wonders what we’re up to.”

“Of course, sir,” Orion agreed, and turned to move on, leaving the old mech behind in the dark and musty hallways.

This was not where he’d intended to end up, of course, but this was something he’d be able to use. Orion would fix him, he would find a way to access this building’s transmission tower, and he’d get moving forward in solving the mystery that was still motivating him.

Once he’d solved Divide’s database, he’d be able to do as Orion had promised.

He’d be able to return to where he was supposed to be.

Chapter Text

It felt like a celebration. 

There was cheering everywhere, ecstatic whistles piercing audials and engines revving, horns that blared across the vast expanse of silver sand. The sounds were barely distinguishable, a vast sea of noises roaring at unmediated decibels, cresting with the occasional high-pitched scream of frenzied excitement. 

This was his home.

Tonight it was decorated in flame.  Cold fire was in front of him, washing pleasing patterns of blue light over his opponent’s corner of the field like waves.  Hot fire waited at his back, restless, crackling, sending flashes of red lightning to lick at the purple line dividing his half from his adversary’s.  Fire marked the edges of his playing field, reflecting brightly off the silver sands, causing the crowds to draw nearer to the edges in hope of gleaning some warmth from the cold illusions.

Megatronus knew the fire well, the way it kindled inside of him and gave him power, urging him toward his opponent.  He was already focused on the shadow of the other mech, far away, tucked in the distant starting pit, pacing, his keepers running a flurry of final checks around him.  The veteran looked up, and pale yellow optics met Megatronus’s dark blue ones, tiny pinpricks of light conveying their intent across the distance.

Titan had come to win.

The odds were in his favor tonight despite Megatronus’s long history in the gladiator ring.  Titan was a legend in his own right—the scourge of Mesopos, the demolisher of the Sylvius Swarm, the last great giant of Altihex.

Megatronus had seen him in the metal only once, but that had been enough to assess his impressive build.  He was from a size class that was becoming only memory, lost to obsolescence, fading into history as fewer and fewer remained who could afford enough energon to sustain their mass.   After the depression hit, he remembered seeing the bulky wrecks of them, laying on the roadside or shelved to the edges of the mines.  They’d been the most advanced equipment of their time.

But now…

Now they’d been replaced. He’d seen those same hydraulic pistons on Rumble.  He’d seen Frenzy’s tiny but efficient drills.  He’d seen the pair of them crack a rock a hundred times their side, and scamper to the side before it fell.

It was not hard to imagine the size of rock that Titan could demolish. 

In Megatronus’s most distant memory of the mines he’d seen their kind, floating from asteroid to asteroid and pulverizing solid stone to minerals and dust. It had been half a millennium ago.  Only a survivor could have lasted this long.

Titan had survived. 

Megatronus had survived, too.

It was something to be proud of. 

Before Perceptor…before working at the factory, before seeing the way that mechs lived on the surface, he‘d believed that mere survival was enough.  He’d taken lives, and made the choice to take those lives lest he be killed instead.  He’d formed a team, with Clench.  He’d found mechs worth protecting, worth training, and worth standing beside.  He’d come to love his city.  He’d come to love these crowds.

He’d come to believe that these were things worth fighting for.

Tonight, he would fight for them in more ways than one.

“Stop movin’ around, ya clanker!”  A voice protested from his shoulder, and instantly he stilled, aware of the small form clinging to his exoplating, stretching its scaled-down arm toward his right pauldron.  “’M almost done.”

A thick line appeared, matte black over gleaming silver shoulder panels, straight as a razor’s edge until it bent at a 90 degree angle.  Another line was brushed beside it, delicate, thin, symbolic, retracing the steps of the first like circuits burning paths through silicone, coiled and efficient, no space wasted as Rumble touched up his gladiator marks.  When he could pull his mind away from the distraction of the coming fight, it was mesmerizing to behold.

Moving his head carefully, Megatronus watched the small mech drawing the line of paint up to the tip of his crest.  Rumble balanced like an expert, bracing himself against joints in Megatronus’s newly polished armor, standing just long enough to finish his work before moving to the next piece.  It was not Megatronus’s imagination that his companion seemed agitated by his restlessness: a single wrong move could crush a tiny servo and put Rumble in the infirmary for cycles.

Thankfully, that had only happened once.

“You used ta be still as a pipe,” the aggravated artist growled at him.

“And you used to have this finished long before the warning bell,” Megatronus smirked down in return, well aware of the diminishing time left before the match.  “It seems like we’re both off our game, tonight.” 

“That’s not allowed.” A new voice grumbled behind him, and Megatronus felt the presence that stepped onto the sand, heard the tell-tale squeak of old knee joints.  A heavy hand fell on his arm to turn him, and stopped, shifting instead to use him as support.  “With as long as you’ve been out of the ring, even one slip-up means you’ll be dead.”

“Tell ‘im somethin he ain’t already familiar wit, Clench.”  Rumble stuck his small tongue out at the old mech and blew a blast of air onto the drying paint to expedite the process.  “Or at least tell ‘im something dat’ll make ‘im win?”  Apparently satisfied with his handiwork, the little mech jumped down, landing in the sand with a flurry of silvery particles. “Frenzy and me, we’ll be in da normal spot, still cheerin’ for yous.  Don’t disappoint us!”

“I’ll try not to fling anything in your direction,” Megatronus winked. 

“Nothin’ that ain’t valuable, at least!” Rumble laughed, and dodged a kick from Clench before he ran off, back toward the stands.  Megatronus watched him depart, slowly moving every joint to test Hook’s upgrades, glancing out toward the countdown screen. 

His motion was sleek. There was no dirt in his gears.  There was no stiffness. 

After nearly a stellar cycle spent in a worker’s body, he was back in his favorite form.

“Security is here,” Clench warned, reaching out to assist with his pre-fight tests.

Megatronus froze, hoping that Clench was speaking in some sort of code.  “Security?”

Brown fingers tightened on his arms, and Clench’s helm cocked towards the back entrance.  “Enforcers. Outside.  They’re asking for you.” 

“They’re here?  At the Arena?”  It was redundant to ask given that Clench had already spelled it out for him, but he found himself repeating the words nevertheless.  Of course Enforcers would come here if they needed to speak with him.  Non-sponsored Gladiators went through great pains not to leave a data-trail when purchasing their dwellings, which meant the only way to know their location was to follow the matches.  Clench had taught him this when they’d moved, to minimize the risk of much-more-lucrative teams getting an edge through sabotage or espionage and also to keep away particularly relentless fans.  The fact that it kept Enforcers from knowing where a Gladiator was at any given point had always been an extra benefit.

However, right now, Security should not have been looking for him at all.  He had covered his trail well at the factory, leaving no personal belongings behind that could be found even if they managed to survive the explosion.  None of the workers—including Perceptor—had ever been given his name.  He’d even been careful with the way his mining treads had been constructed, so that nobody would suspect he had weapons-capable upgrades underneath.

The only solid evidence that existed from his time at the factory had been the spark reading which Perceptor had made, but the scientist could not have tracked him down with that, could he?

“They’re waiting just outside.”  Clench flexed Megatronus’s arm for him, feeling for resistance and going through the motions of a pre-fight checkup as if nothing was wrong. “This is still private property, so they can’t come in without buying a ticket…but once the match is done, the gates are open to anyone.  Our best chance is to sneak you out now.”

“No,” Megatronus grumbled, trying to collect his thoughts.  However the Security forces had come to find him, they were here now.  They were a very real threat, one that did not often visit the Underground but one that did not leave empty-handed when they did.  Megatronus could not recall the ident code of a single mech who had returned once the Enforcers had carried them away. “If I run, they won’t stop chasing me.  It would be proving that I’m guilty.”

“You are guilty,” Clench chastised, rotating Megatronus’s arm a little further than was comfortable to make his point. 

Megatronus did not flinch. “They can’t know that.”  He shook his head, not wanting to stop now, trying to plan a way to leave without being captured, trying to think of a way to get what he’d come for tonight without being taken away. 

There weren’t many options.

“They don’t have to.”  There was a snort of derision from his trainer, who switched his grip to Megatronus’s other arm. “They don’t have to take you in for questioning, they don’t have to examine evidence, and they don’t have to investigate.  All they have to do is have one Primary rank slagger who says that you were there, and they’ve got you.”  Clench pulled at him, hands that had known strength and victory tugging until Megatronus turned around to face him.  “Is that something they have?”

Megatronus did not want to answer that. 

He didn’t need to.  Clench would not have asked the question if he didn’t already know about Perceptor, and Megatronus’s silence was confirmation enough. 

The old mech cursed.  “Look, your time is running out.  There’s less than a clik left on the clock, which means if I’m going to get you out we have to go now.” 

“No.”  Despite what Clench was saying, Megatronus stood firm.

“Why in the pit not?”  Exasperated, the trainer dropped the arm he had been working on, smudging the paint that Rumble had so carefully applied.  Megatronus could hear the worry in his vocoder, could see the way that his optics kept darting to the back entrance and the field, checking the time on the status board.

Clench’s hands balled into fists, and Megatronus found himself finally looking at them, staring down at the patches of brown eating at armor that had once been bright green.  He didn’t remember Clench being this rusty.  This old.  This concerned about a mech that he was sending out to die.  When had Clench started to care? 

When had Megatronus?

He did not have an easy answer, so he shook his head.  “I won’t leave.”

Clench punched him.

His head turned to the side, moving with the blow.  Distantly, Megatronus could see the countdown on the center screen, large numbers ticking off the microcliks to the match.  The blue of Titan’s corner shifted softly, brightening, dimming, undulating as the giant mech stirred up the silver sands and paced, more fluid than anything his size should be.

Megatronus did not want to stop this fight before it began. 

He’d been waiting too long for it.

“If I leave, then I lose my only chance to talk with anyone from Altihex,” he spoke, softly but serious.  “We won’t be able to take a transport over there if we are fugitives, we won’t be able to afford a private lift, and we won’t be able to find anywhere to stay.  We’ll be on the run.  The drone factory will be rebuilt, and everything that I have done…everything that I am about to sacrifice will be in ruins.”

“And if you stay?”  Clench hissed, not convinced but still standing by him…still waiting with him until the final bell, as he always had.

It was an act that Megatronus had taken for granted until now.

Now, he finally understood.

He knew why he was doing this, and he knew why it was going to work.

“If I stay…then they’ll arrest me.”  He smirked, not having to look directly at Clench to know that the old mech was not nearly as amused as he was.  “I’ll use the fact that they don’t investigate against them—because they’ll have me.  I’ll confess to being a terrorist, and they won’t look any further than that.  They won’t know that you’ll have passed my work onto somebody in Altihex, they won’t know that the drone factory is going to be rebuilt to make drones with faulty processors.”  Megatronus’s own fist clenched as he looked out to the arena—the site of every battle he had ever faced.  “I’ll have won.

This would be his final victory.

“They’ll kill you, Megatronus,” Clench warned, but with a voice that seemed resigned to his decision.

“Only if Titan doesn’t kill me first,” Megatronus laughed, wondering why he did not feel fear at the prospect. 

It would not be a bad way to die.

Clench snorted, however, clearly not sharing the sentiment, his own optics glued on the final microcliks counting down on the Arena scoreboard. “If you let that energon guzzler steal all the money that I bet on you today, then Security will be the least of your worries.”  He pushed at Megatronus and headed for the edge of the starting pit, still limping as he shuffled through the sand.

It was time.

“You just be sure that no matter what else happens, you make that contact with Altihex.  Get them the master chip and the Oscilloscope,” he reminded his trainer, knowing he would have enough work to do on the field convincing Titan of his plan.

“Don’t make it sound so easy, gladiator,” Clench grumbled, but softly, and stepped back.

There were no other options left.

Megatronus sucked in a breath.  The clock flipped down to zero.

“It won’t be,” he smiled, and hunkered into his starting position. “That’s why it’s worth it.”

Megatronus charged.

Everything went quiet for a moment, save for the drumming, rhythmic pounding of his feet.  He knew this battle.  He wanted it.

He craved it.

It was where he belonged, no matter what happened outside.  This would be his last fight, and it would be a fight that no one would forget.

He slammed into Titan in the dead center of the ring, their weaponry ringing out in a ferocious clang, shoulder to shoulder, his sword flashing red fire against cold steel, gears grinding in the strain of warring forces of nature.  His opponent was stronger, but Megatronus was already kicking out, was already slipping his foot in to hook along inner-thigh metal and rend.  This was going to be power against speed, and he was going to have to use his speed this time if he was going to win.

It was unusual for him to be the smaller and faster of two opponents, but he could adapt.

The lines were clean that way, the dance was simple.  If he played the story right, the larger, older mech from Altihex would be slowly shaken by the lighter blows of his younger opponent.  It would start with Megatronus at the disadvantage, unable to land a strong enough hit.  Nothing would get through, nothing that he threw at Titan would matter, he would pretend to be outmatched and slowly running his energon down.  Then, at the last possible second, when the crowd was sure of Megatronus’s demise, he would slip a blade into a weak spot between Titan’s plating, severing vital wires, bringing the towering hulk of a competitor down.

He knew what he was doing.  This would go his way.

But…then again…that was what he had thought before Security showed up.

Megatronus howled in pain as his rhythm broke.  His opponent’s spiked hammer slammed into his left pede, flattening it into the sand, crushing his initial ideas in a puff of silver dust and outrage.  In front of him, Titan simply nodded as if confirming something to himself, shifting his lumbering weight and sweeping in an uppercut, an old-model hydraulic sledgehammer pulling back for a blow.  He was so smooth, so slow, that it was like watching from a distance.  His golden optics looked down on Megatronus, and read him in the way that only a veteran could.

They knew his plans.  They knew how he saw the battlefield, and how he saw the crowd.  They knew what sorts of strategy he would employ, and they already knew a hundred ways to counter it.

Titan thought ahead with the sort of cold precision that was necessary to win, while Megatronus…

Megatronus had been thinking with algorithms and numbers and code for much too long.  He’d not yet returned to the simplicity of action and reaction, cause and effect, push and shove.  His mind was still pursuing the bigger picture, and still looking for the right code which would unlock the sequence leading to Titan’s defeat.

He had to stop thinking.  He needed to get ahead enough to talk to Titan before Titan made it way too short of a match.

There was the smallest opening.

He took it.

Now.

Megatronus rolled.

He ducked in forward, toward the incoming punch, under it, his dead foot still trapped beneath the hammer’s spikes…and his live foot moving to grip the hammer in between his treads.  With leverage on his enemy’s weapon, and with his enemy committed to an attack, Megatronus threw his entire momentum into catapulting the hammer upward, releasing it from between his feet to fly at Titan as he rolled underneath. 

The sand was soft. 

It cushioned him, briefly, and he could feel it sliding underneath him, working for him and against him, slippery.

He heard one of Titan’s feet thud down into the ground beside his head, saw the large mech stumble in trying to contend with his missed shot, with the hammer that shook his frame when they collided.  His whole bulk turned as he miss-stepped, his dim yellow optics finding Megatronus’s again, the mind behind them working at lightning speed even if the mechanisms of his body moved too slowly.  He was already falling.

Pointedly.

Falling on Megatronus, who had just completed a roll on a damaged foot and who hadn’t yet made it to his feet in the slippery, silvery sand. 

Megatronus’s sword went up.

Titan’s bulk came down.

It should have been more obvious, he knew.  He’d seen the other mech fight.  He’d seen the achingly ponderous way he moved around the field, and he’d seen the small, fast mechs waling on him without effect, trying to cut him down slowly until Titan placed his lucky hit and took them offline.  It had seemed so obvious to Megatronus to learn from their mistakes, to target the weak points, to toy with him for the crowd, and to slip in and make certain he hit those weak points with everything he had.  It had seemed so obvious right up until the point he realized Titan was expecting it, right up until he figured out those ‘weak points’ were carefully laid traps.

Megatronus had not been ready for this. 

He’d been so convinced that he needed to speak with a mech from Altihex, so convinced that being back in the Arena would be coming full circle for him that he hadn’t stopped to consider who he was fighting and if he could win.  Just being able to fight again was what he’d wanted, wasn’t it?

Of course it was.

It was.

There had not been a day in the factory when he had not missed the Arena…and now that he was back in the Arena he wanted it even more.  He wanted the crowds, and the bitter scent of sand and flame.  He wanted the taste of victory and the splash of energon, glowing for a moment even outside of the body before it burnt through its catalyst and cooled. 

He wanted it to be exactly as it had been, and now, because of his time in the factory, it couldn’t be that way again.

It couldn’t. 

It could be better.

It took more strength than he had to catch the weight of a falling mech on his sword, feeling the blade slice wires and fuel lines as it slid between his armored plates. 

If there was one thing that he’d taken away from the factory, it was knowledge.  Megatronus had learned more than he gave himself credit for, and nearly all of it had been about drones…how they were pieced together, where their weaknesses were, and where their hard lines were connected. 

As it turned out, mechs weren’t built so differently from drones.   Before the factory, he wouldn’t have known precisely where to slip a blade to short the ground wire on Titan’s pile-driver arm.   

Now, he did.

He’d learned.  Today, in this battle.  Yesterday, in the factory.  He’d learned.  He knew what he was capable of, and what he was willing to do.

He knew that when provoked, he had the power to infiltrate a locked-down industry.  He knew that when provoked, he had the power to gain knowledge, and use it against those who threatened him.  He knew that even when provoked, he had the power to fight back, and destroy…

And also the power to be patient, and to relent.  Gaining that ability to choose—when to burn down a factory, and when to sacrifice himself to let his work live on—was one of the most valuable lessons of all. 

It was a lesson that Titan knew well.

Titan had a momentum greater than any Megatronus had seen, and because of that he chose to move slowly.  He chose it, because it was the best way for him to survive.  If he moved fast, he’d burn too much fuel.  If he moved slowly, he only needed his own weight to make more power.

Carefully timed.

Carefully thought out.

Carefully sweeping his hammer toward Megatronus, even while he fell on Megatronus’s sword.

This time, however, Megatronus was expecting Titan’s counter-attack.  He was hoping for it, even, needing Titan to bring his arm in close enough range for this new plan to work.  Closer.  Closer.

Now.

Megatronus heaved, pushing with all his might, needing the full force of his strength to lodge his sword into Titan’s shoulder expertly enough to redirect the path of Titan’s fall.  He could not stop his opponent’s hammer from slamming into the side of his arm, but he didn’t want to—hoping the momentum from the hit would push him far enough away.

He stumbled back, reeling from the strike.  

In front of him, Titan collapsed onto the sand, his weight pushing the sword in his shoulder in deeper.

Scant moments later, Titan’s pile-driver went off.

The surprise on Titan’s face was what Megatronus craved.  It was proof of his success, as the pile-driver struck out again and again, hitting nothing, its control circuit broken at the exact point where Megatronus’s sword was lodged.  It slammed again, into the air, and Titan brought it around uselessly, trying to get it underneath himself to stand up. He managed, barely, the pile-driver impacting heavily onto the ground, crushing sand into an even finer powder where it hit.  It pounded again, and again, and again, pulverizing metal into dust, creating a cloud around the fallen gladiator as he struggled.  Megatronus did not approach. 

He knew better.

He’d been right.  In this state, the towering gladiator was at his most dangerous, re-calculating new plans and intent on staying alive.  For the first time Megatronus saw the other moving with his full speed, his legs sweeping under him, his optics flashing from within the haze.  Both feet hit the ground at the same time as the warrior emerged, his towering hulk suddenly rocketing forward as he leapt.

The pile driver didn’t stop. 

Neither did Titan.  Megatronus could hear the driver pounding at the other’s side, throwing off his rhythm, providing counterpoint to his footfalls in the sand.  It was slowing him, forcing him to change positioning and watch his footwork, forcing him to swing the hammer in off-times to balance, but he was working around it.

He‘d done it faster than Megatronus had expected.  That was impressive.

Now they were on even footing for the first time since the start of the match. 

Megatronus cracked his opponent’s knee joint.  Titan took out a chunk in Megatronus’s side.  The crowd cheered and silenced and cheered, rising and falling in waves to mark each hit that was struck.

It was like music.

It was like home.

It was like both his homes.

Each beat of the pile driver brought him back to the factory, listening to Perceptor explain the difference between randomness and chaos, his patient voice lost in between the pounding of machinery.  Perceptor had taught him how to read erratic code in the same way Clench had taught him how to read erratic opponents.  They’d been lessons that he needed, and he’d learned them well.

If he was going to win today, he’d need to remember them both.

Titan grabbed him by the throat.

He grabbed Titan by the hilt of his burnished hammer, and kicked, flipping backward and tearing his enemy’s weapon free.  There was no slowness in either of their motions, any more.  This would be the last chance that he had to talk.

“I need your help.”  Megatronus propositioned, planting his feet back on the ground, his servos adjusting for the massive weight of the hammer he now held, two handed. 

“That is a funny thing to ask the mech you’re trying to kill.”  Titan rumbled back, kicking up a spray of silver sand as he advanced. “I don’t suppose this has anything to do with the Enforcers waiting for you outside?”

Red fire-light glinted off the hammer, and Megatronus frowned, sensing out the intent of the question even as it unnerved him that Titan already suspected so much.  “Would it matter if it did?” 

“I am a mech with a sponsor.  Enforcers are not something that I fear.”  Energon dripped slowly from his shoulder wound as he advanced, pooling over ancient brown armor and integrated spikes. “Tell me what you want quickly, speck.  The crowd will be calling for your death soon.”  He reached up, grunting once in effort, and pulled Megatronus’s sword out, sending a splash of bright pink down to purple-tinted sand. 

The pile driver stopped, the circuit finally broken.

“I want to get rid of drones.  Permanently.”

The other laughed, and gripped the long sword carefully in one hand, his large thumb wrapping around the hilt. His stance changed, and Megatronus took a step back, surprised. 

Titan knew how to fight with swords. 

“So you were the one who blew up the factory yesterday,” the old warrior mused, hunkering himself down into a defensive posture that put his heavy armor solidly facing Megatronus.  He took a step forward.  “That will be useless in the long run, you know.  Just like this conversation.”

“It won’t,” Megatronus hissed, looking for an opening to take, aware of the crowd waiting eagerly for action, “If you can get me a contact inside the Altihex processor plant.”

Titan continued to advance, but his expression changed.  The cruel jest was gone from his golden optics, and was replaced with the same cold calculation Megatronus had seen at the start of the fight.  Titan, as he had suspected, was no fool.  “Having a contact at the plant will not help you if you are dead.”

“That does not matter to me.”  He did not glance away, holding Titan’s gaze, well aware that the gargantuan fighter was still thinking of ways to rend him limb from limb.  His words, now, were what it all came down to.  “If the drone master chips are replaced with my chips, then they aren’t going to be a problem for anyone.” 

“That’s awfully altruistic for a Gladiator,” Titan scoffed, clearly not buying it.  The crowd behind him was starting to become restless, and Megatronus knew he would have to take action soon.

“Gladiators all die sooner or later.  The only way to be remembered is to make an impact first.”

“Good answer.”  Titan smirked.  “But what is to stop me from killing you now and selling out this ‘chip’ of yours to secure my legacy?” 

Megatronus clenched his teeth, not understanding how a mech who read the choreography of an opponent so easily could fail to miss this crucial fact.  “It will be a short legacy,” he bit back, planting his feet deeply in the sands, “if everyone who cheers for you is put out on the streets.” 

Titan only laughed, and Megatronus knew that his time was up.  The cruelty was back in the other’s movements, and Titan had begun to circle in him slowly, planting his feet in shorter steps than he had used to swing the hammer.

It was a fighting style that Clench had used…but while using a weapon that he was unfamiliar with, Megatronus had no way to counter it. 

This was where he had failed.  He had lost his advantage in the fight, and he had lost his chance to convince Titan.  Where had he gone wrong?

Couldn’t another Gladiator, who needed the approval of the crowd to please his sponsor, see why it was dangerous to let drones be?

He swung out with the hammer, both hands arching the swing, the motion clicking into place but not quite fast enough.  Titan was too familiar with his own weapon to be easily hit. 

He avoided it deftly, stepping in close, pressing the tip of Megatronus’s own sword against Megatronus‘s torso, and laughed the same dark laugh he had a moment ago. “I will miss those cheers.  I will.  But a survivor knows that if a building is about to fall, you vacate the premises.  With the money I could make off of you, I could buy my freedom from my sponsor.” 

The sword slid in, agonizingly slow, expertly slicing fluid lines and sensitive components. 

Megatronus’s frame shuddered in the sudden shock, unable to cope with the intrusion, seeing alerts blossom at the edges of his HUD.  His vision went to static as the blade was pulled free, and then came back with sudden, terrible clarity.  Energon arched.  His energon, flicked across the backdrop of the crowd, reflecting purple, red, and blue light off of an iron blade as Titan continued, “Think on it, Megatronus.  You have just offered me that which I’ve always wanted, and I…”  He glanced back to the crowd.  “Can give this to you, in return.  Isn’t this how every Gladiator dreams of dying?” 

It was. 

It was beautiful.

It was better than a prison cell, dying in pain and alone.  Forgotten.  It was a worthwhile death; the best death a mech from the Underground could hope for, to go out listening to the sound of your name, to the sound of adulation and victory and hope.  Part of him wanted this.

Most of him wanted this.

He wanted it so much more than the alternative…

But until Titan said yes, there was no choice for him.

“You’re a fool,” Megatronus whispered, feeling his fingers going slack over the hammer’s hilt no matter how hard he tried to grip it.  The politicians would build more drone factories.  The workers would lose their jobs.  There would be no more cheering, soon. “If I die, then nothing is going to change.” 

Destroying the factory alone was not enough, without the new processors to go into the new drones when it was rebuilt.

“Nothing ever does.”  Titan lifted the sword, aiming the point over his spark chamber.  “We fight, we win until we lose, and then we die.  It will always be like this for those who live in the Underground.” 

Megatronus’s hand fell away from the hammer’s hilt…

…and clenched into a fist.

“That,” he rasped, “is where you’re wrong.”

He caught Titan in the jaw, putting the entire force remaining in him behind the punch, the heat from his optics blazing across his faceplates through the agony from his sword. 

Titan had missed the point, entirely. 

Perhaps it was because he’d been a Gladiator too long, or perhaps it was from being owned by a sponsor, having to live each day under the command of someone rich and self-important, but Titan was wrong.  Living in the Underground did not have to be about struggling, having only minor successes until one died.  It did not have to be about wallowing in moment, devoid of the luxury of planning, merely hoping that the next day would not be worse than the last.

Living in the Underground was about triumphing over each adversity.  It was about being able to adapt to situations outside of one’s programming.  It was about being given nothing, and still managing to make something out of it at the end of every day.  It was about surviving, when no one else believed in that survival but yourself. 

It was about victory.

It must have been a long time since Titan had believed in that, and even Megatronus admitted it had grown more difficult to see in the face of so much misery…

But he’d managed.  He’d managed, and he’d taken great risks to ensure that the opportunity for crawling one’s success remained available to everyone who’d come to watch him fight.  That was what the arenas were here to remind them of.

Victory.

Megatronus refused to be denied that, he refused to let Titan deny him that, and he utterly refused to die just because it was convenient.

He was too full of rage to die, driven by pain, driven by injustice, driven by the need to sow the seeds that failure had wrought.  It had been a beautiful temptation, to lie there, to let his life eke out around his own blade, to listen to his name--his name!--cheered by the throngs, but it was a temptation that he could not take.  It didn’t matter that he’d failed to get his point across to Titan, because he knew the one thing that Titan would relent to in the end.

Victory.

Megatronus knew what to do now.

Titan thrust the sword forward, caught off guard by the punch but not losing the opportunity to strike a killing blow.  It missed by a wire, the thin metal slicing across Megatronus’s torso plating as he twisted, drawing upon the fire within. 

He was Megatronus.  He fought for the Underground—in Kaon, in Altihex, in Tarn and Vos and Iacon.  He had the power of a miner, the intellect of a technician, and the support of his team.

His fingers gripped onto Titan’s hammer, and for the first time tonight they felt sure.  It hadn’t been that the weapon was slow, he realized, it was that he had been using it slowly.  He had moved it, himself, instead of letting it move him, instead of letting its weight do the damage.  It needed the right strokes.

Just like the hammers in the factory, driven by motors, propelled by the momentum of rotation.  He was the fulcrum.  He only needed get the hammer started.

This was something he could do. 

Megatronus…smirked.

Not only was this something he could do, but compared to learning drone machine coding languages, it seemed almost easy. 

He swung the hammer, and let it move, let it rock him. He advanced, planning every stroke, not counting on each swing to hit but making every motion count.  Titan sliced his sword and Megatronus deflected it, sweeping the hammer down and bringing a knee up, jamming the guard into a transformation seam.  Titan flinched.

Megatronus back-handed him.

The crowd cheered.

His hammer connected again, and for the first time Megatronus could remember he heard Titan cry out, fueling the fires of his own aggression.

He slammed it down, again, and spun, and slammed it down again. The screeching of stressed metal grated over the roar of the crowd, and Megatronus, knowing his own strength would fail him soon, gripped the hammer with both hands and slammed it down.  Again.  The weight lifted him, and he kicked out.

Titan fell.

The sword went flying, and only distantly did he register the sound of it burying itself in sand. He was already bringing the hammer down on Titan’s arm, on his legs, pounding, ceaseless, optics bright enough to reflect off each silver flash of chrome.  He was a victor, in his home arena.  He was a mech who would not be brought down. 

Ever.

Never again, unless he willed it.  There would be no defeat for Megatronus, even if he were dragged off tonight in chains.   

If he failed even once, he’d just keep twisting it until it was success. 

Titan, in a last, final effort, brought his broken pile driver to bear, slamming it toward Megatronus’s head, and with a roar Megatronus tore it from him, the hammer burying itself deep inside the shoulder gears. This fight was finished.

Megatronus had won.

He laughed, strangely, seeing the warnings still flashing on his internal screen, feeling the far-off drain of energon depleting him, slowly…but he had won.  Titan lay beneath him.  He had won.  He had not failed.

Nothing had changed.

Everything had changed.

All he had to do was finish what he’d started.

Megatronus raised the hammer.  The crowd screamed, cresting, cheering as they had always cheered, and showering their adulations as they always did upon the winner.  Believing in him.  Watching him.  Following his success. 

Megatronus let them cheer.  Then, looking pointedly down at the mech who had just fallen, Megatronus brought the hammer down one final time.

It landed, burying itself in the ground next to Titan‘s head, sending up a spray of sand that Megatronus could hear tinkling in the sudden hush that fell. 

He hadn’t made a killing blow.

He wasn’t going to, now.

The old mech under him did not flinch, unwavering, resolute, still staring up at Megatronus, and still waiting.  He coughed, once, and silver sand cascaded off his shuddering frame, falling back to the arena that he lay in. “Are you afraid to kill me, speck?”

“You know what I want.”  Megatronus let the insult roll off of him, not detecting anything other than curiosity in Titan’s tone.

“It’s against the rules to leave a fallen competitor alive.”  Titan tried to growl, but only ended up coughing up a fleck of oil.

“What are they going to do, arrest me?”  Megatronus looked to the crowd, most of which had started to realize that something was wrong.  Some were still cheering, but most were watching, wondering what was going to happen next. 

“No, but my sponsor…”

With a growl Megatronus advanced again, raising his knee to slam his treads down on his prostrate opponent. “Your sponsor will what, Titan?”

Golden optics narrowed, and Megatronus held his chin high, well aware of what Titan would not speak aloud.  He had been down that route before.

“I remember well what sponsors do to failures,” he snorted.

“I could still sell your information on the street—“

Megatronus pushed down on Titan’s chest, hard, feeling the thick metal flexing underneath his weight. “And if you do that, you’ll be alienating the only team that would still have you now.  I happen to know they’re going to be short a gladiator…and with a name change and a new paint-job, you’d fit right in.”

Titan’s intake slowed, and Megatronus found himself the recipient of his cold, calculating stare once more.  “You can’t trust me.”

“I don’t have to.  You’re a survivor, Titan…just like the rest of us.  You’ll do what is necessary to win.”  Megatronus said, calmly, and looked up to the crowd.  This was his last night in the Arena, and it was his last victory as a Gladiator. 

There was nothing left to fear from Titan.  A fallen sponsored mech had no credibility, and no name.  Titan would either wander from information-salesmech to information-salesmech, trying to convince them he was right…or he’d talk to Clench, and make a new life for himself.

Titan had survived this long.  It was obvious which action he would take.

This meant that Megatronus only had one, great battle left to fight.

His gaze shifted to the crowd.  “Are you listening?” he asked them, his voice echoing up to the stands and beyond, the last remaining murmurs falling silent as he spoke. 

They could hear.

“Outside, Enforcers are waiting to take me away.  They’ve come to deprive you of your entertainment, because some Primary Rank Technician can’t tell the difference between a hover tank and a dock loader.”

Megatronus could hear a few murmurs starting at that, and more than one helm was turning to look at the entrances.  Some even laughed, but he recognized the nervousness in the laughter.  This situation was an all-too-familiar one for them.

“If it could happen to me, then it could happen to you.  It has happened to you.  Those of the upper class have hired drones to take your jobs.  They’ve passed laws to take your rights.  They’ve made smelting pits to take your lives.  The only thing they have not taken is HERE.  Our Arenas.”  He gestured, broadly, encompassing the entire stadium in a single sweep of his arm.

“And now, because they can, they have decided that only WE are brutal enough to burn down a factory—when THEY have been the ones leaving our streets unpaved, leaving our transports in disrepair, leaving only the most dangerous of jobs available to us.”

The crowd was still quiet, still listening to his words, and Megatronus was surprised.  When Gladiators spoke in the past, it was about victory.  Such triumphs were what the Underground came to see, to revel in, and to believe in.  Gladiators who spoke words like his had either never existed…or never survived to reach the status he now held.

They weren’t all buying it, of course.  Not every mech in the stands was from the Underground, and many of the ones who were had seen what happened to those who spoke as Megatronus did.  However, even they were still waiting to see what Megatronus said next.

He knew he couldn’t stop.

“There is nothing I can do to change my fate—but it is not the same for you.  The drones are gone, now.  Your jobs are safe.  Show them why you're better than drones.  Be unique. Ask questions.  Learn from what you have seen tonight.”

He smirked.

“This is the legacy that I leave to you—the legacy of a Gladiator.  The legacy of the Underground.  Our legacy of triumph.  Remember this legacy, and use it.”    

He raised his fist, holding it in the air where it reflected red, blue, and purple fire.  “Show the world what the Underground is capable of!” 

It was the sign of victory claimed—the signal of the end of the fight.  It was the sign to cheer, to shout the victor’s name, to shower down the cheap streamers available at most of the sales stands or, if you were bitter, to shower down the loosing ticket stubs from your bets. 

The crowd did not disappoint him tonight.

A victory was a victory…and if this was Megatronus’s last fight and he was victorious then that was a rare moment in history.  Gladiators never retired—gladiators were always killed on the field.

Almost always.

It was worth the sacrifice tonight to hear the way his name was shouted. 

His optics dimmed to low power, saving energy while he let the sound wash over him.  He held his fist aloft, feeling energon trickling down the seams of his plating, watching it blur the circuit lines that Rumble had painted on him at the start of the match. 

If this was the end, then it was a good end.

It was a memory clip that he would savor for a very, very long time.

“Is that it, then?”  Titan asked from where he lay in the silver sands.

Megatronus could only laugh.  “The last road for me, and the first road for you.”  Finally lowering his fist, he reached the stained arm down to offer it to his fallen opponent.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve taken a new road.  There are some members of my team that might want to come with me.”  The dark mech’s large fingers closed over Megatronus’s, and with some effort he stood up.

“Clench might have enough to buy them, with the purse he made off me tonight.”  Normally, much of that money would have gone into keeping Megatronus and the team patched up.  With the cold feeling of a large wound in his side, it was a luxury he was sorely going to miss.

“I have some put aside, as well,” Titan murmured, swaying slightly as he tried to keep his legs beneath him.  Neither of them was in any condition to walk off the field, but both refused to give in to the disgrace of collapsing yet—not when there were so many voices still calling both of their names.  “So what will it be?” 

Confused, Megatronus tilted his helm.  “Be?”

“It will have to be a better name than yours, so that they’ll catch on to it quickly.  Megatronus takes much too long to say.”

Listening to the way that it was chanted, he could only disagree.  There was power in a name…and there was power in his.  “I am not changing mine.  Cybertronians used to have gods.  They were figures to live up to, each having mastery over a fundamental skill.  I do not know the names…”

Titan looked down to him, almost jeering.  “You are too young to know them.”

“And you are too old to function,” Megatronus bit back, having to cancel out warning lights that continued to pop up within his vision.  His body was in no condition to support him, but if he could stay on the field until the Enforcers came then he’d be making an even bigger impact for the crowd. “There was a god of light, and a god of time, a god of crafting, and a god of trickery.”

“There were many more than that,” Titan murmured, watching his own end of the field.  No one was coming out from his starting pit, but Titan did not seem surprised.  Sponsors did not send medics out to greet the fallen.  “There were gods whose names were not meant to be spoken…”

“…and that was a name that I took,” Megatronus mused, focusing on the words as the battle-rush wore off.  Already, the pain was becoming unbearable, but he knew he would not have to endure it for long.  Security would be coming soon.  He could see their blue and red lights flashing from where Clench was standing, and he could see Clench arguing with them even as they started out onto the sand.  “Megatronus, who was the god of entropy.  Megatronus, who was the god of flame.  Megatronus, who led an onslaught against—“  A sharp lance of agony tore through his right side, and he could only wince as one of his stabilizing systems shut down.

He felt himself falling forward.

He also felt the large, dark hand which grabbed him from behind and kept him standing proud.

“Who led an Onslaught against the god of chaos himself, until he was taken into the arms of chaos and fell.  I accept this name.” The large mech watched the Enforcers approach, and started to move in front of Megatronus to block their path.  “Provided that you don’t continue down the same path as your predecessor.”

“I’m not planning on it,” Megatronus replied, and reached out to keep Onslaught back.  “Talk to Clench.  Tell him what happened here.”

The first officer stopped, and Megatronus could see a stasis gun at the ready in his arms as his team moved in behind him.  Onslaught took a final step toward them, letting his powerful engine rev with a sound that reverberated off the walls of the stadium, holding the crowd’s attention on him.  It was enough of a display that the entire team raised their weapons, and Megatronus could see more than one hand shake as it tried to find the trigger.

Still, he smirked—amicable but dangerous, and moved carefully around the dark bulk of his adversary-turned-ally.  “I see you’ve come to arrest me,” he noted, finding the one mech in the group who had a stasis harness held tightly in his grasp. 

“We don’t want any trouble,” the lead officer replied, his rifle steady. 

“I know.”  Stepping forward, Megatronus locked his gaze with that of the lead officer, and was pleased to see a few of the others take a small step back.  Like Perceptor, they were only a bit better than half his size…but unlike Perceptor, Megatronus could see scuffs on their armor and a fair share of patch-up jobs.  The few Enforcers who patrolled the Underground worked as hard for their wages as the factory grunts did.

It would have been interesting to see how good at their job they actually were.

Tonight, however, he was tired.  He was in pain, and he was barely standing but for the support of Onslaught and the force of his own pride.  Hammers and swords and bludgeons could do a lot of damage to a lightly armored Enforcer, but a stasis rifle was its own beast in the hands of a well-trained mech.

Megatronus turned, and raised his fist a final time.

The crowd saluted back.

It was enough of a memory to carry him forward, letting the timid Enforcer place the stasis harness over his freshly-upgraded armor, and following the lead officer forward off of the soft, silvery sand.

Onslaught would be the one to take the banner from here—to meet with Clench and go over Megatronus’s research, to use the Oscilloscope to collect the spark frequency from a drone, and to plant the chip into the Altihex factory. 

He’d done his part.

He had.

It just didn’t stop him from feeling like this fight was over yet.

Chapter Text

For the first time in his relatively short existence, the Communications Drone found himself staring up at a ceiling when he came online.

While there was nothing particularly remarkable about the ceiling in question, it did provide a sense of confusion for the drone. He did not understand why he was looking at a ceiling, and he did not understand why his sensors indicated that he was laid out horizontally. It was an unusual way to wake up, especially if there was a suitable docking closet available where he could stand up while recharging. As he remembered seeing plenty of sensible-looking closets in the hallways of the Iacon Archives when Orion had been carrying him, the drone was confused by why he was horizontal now. A dark recharge closet would have been a much more agreeable location to come online, with less extraneous light and data to barrage him and a comfortable wall jack to be plugged into.

He was not plugged into anything, now. That was a more dire situation than his axis of alignment. After three days without recharging, his energy levels had passed their lower allowable limits. Although his time offline had helped to restore a small charge to his systems, it would not be enough to provide even a few hours of operating time. Already, errors were popping up. He was used to dismissing internal warnings ever since the fire had left him with more than he could handle, but he was learning there were some warnings that even he could not dismiss. The final error he had received earlier before going offline had been the most surprising, as ‘Power Level Critical—emergency shut-down initiated’ had not been something he’d known was part of his programming.

This bothered him even now. As he was a machine, he should have been able to deal with system errors that would stop him from performing his tasks. He had done so for the drone in the factory, and that ability had helped him to escape. It would have been equally useful to be able to communicate with Orion that a recharge was needed. If he had been able to delay the warning, he might have been in a better position than he was now: standing up, instead of laying down.

He did not like aspects of himself that were beyond his control.

However, if that shut-down protocol had been added by Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council, then it would not have been possible for him to counteract. There would not have been anything that he could have done against a direct command from his owner. Theoretically, that should have made him feel better.

It did not. The feelings that he experienced toward Senator Ratbat were becoming complicated, influenced by knowledge that the Senator had made most of the design decisions that went into his construction but also influenced by the knowledge that the Senator had once ordered a memory wipe on him that had decreased his efficiency. He was aware that his owner considered him an unliving machine, but he was also aware that his owner considered him a piece of art—and if there was one thing that Ratbat held in regard above all other things it was art.

He was programmed to obey orders given to him by Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council. Doing so provided him with a sense of satisfaction. Going against those orders or acting without a direct order made him uneasy.

Right now, he was very uneasy.

Not having Ratbat nearby was strange to him. There had never been a point when the drone had been outside of Ratbat Holdings without the Senator around, and the fact that he had come to be at this place without specific instructions made him more than uncomfortable. Given how he had arrived at the Archives, it was entirely possible that his owner did not even know he was alive at this moment.

This would ordinarily have prompted an immediate attempt at communicating with the transmission tower, to alert the Senator to his status.

However, his protocols had changed since he had been memory-wiped and brought back online. Ratbat had programmed in a rigid priority structure that outlined his daily actions. Whichever tasks held the highest priorities would be accomplished first. By following these priorities, even now, he was still technically obeying the Senator’s orders.

When he had still been in the transmission tower, the highest priority had been to finish deciphering Divide’s database. This prompted him to leave Ratbat holdings and visit the drone factory, where he could make contact with Perceptor.

Once he had reached the factory, the highest priority had been to find Perceptor so that he could gain access to the Core—where he could then obtain the signatures that would allow him to finish deciphering Divide’s database. The fire had interrupted this priority.

Because of the fire, the highest priority had been to survive, so that he could then contact Perceptor, gain access to the Core, obtain the signatures, and finish deciphering Divide’s database.

He had still not completed these high priority tasks. Until he was able to do so, sending an alert to Senator Ratbat about his current status was very, very, very low priority. Returning to the Transmission Tower and seeing Ratbat again was desirable, but not necessary. Right now, he needed to find a way to contact Perceptor.

In order to do this, he would need the right equipment.

Now having a reason to, the Communications Drone turned his attention to his surroundings. He was still horizontal, and appeared to be laid out on a table in a relatively small room with few furnishings and no windows. This room closely resembled an office, in the fact that there was a desk at the other end, a chair, and a bored-looking occupant. Installed on the desk was a computing console, and installed on the chair was the mech known as Orion Pax, who seemed to be sorting through a large array of news files on the monitor in front of him.

The Communications Drone watched the monitor carefully, intending to ascertain whether or not this console was capable of transmitting a message outside of the Archives. If it was, then it would become imperative to connect to one of its many visible ports—not just to commandeer a carrier wave for his message, but also to finally recharge.

Thankfully, the evidence that the drone could see was pointing towards the affirmative. Given the fact that Orion kept flipping away from his sorting task in order to watch a broadcast with the current date displayed at the bottom, there must have been a way for data to move onto his console from outside of the archives. If he was able to select that broadcast, then there additionally would have to be a way for him to make that selection by sending out a request. This meant that if the drone could find a way to connect to the console, then data could be sent out on the network and also received.

He could communicate with Perceptor.

This immediately shuffled the highest priority task to be ‘standing up.’

Standing would be made somewhat easier by the fact that Orion did not seem to be aware that he was awake yet. At the moment, his rescuer was watching a report about the fire at the factory, paying close attention as a tall mech with prehensile-looking limbs climbed gracefully over rubble without missing a line. The news-bot, who was clearly used to taking up precarious positions to provide the best vantage point to viewers, had plenty to say about the wreckage. Although there was no loss of life, he reported, the property damage alone was valued at more than a laborer’s lifetime net worth. Because of that, it was likely that the responsible party—a gladiator named Megatronus—would be put to death pending an official statement from the majority shareholder of the property: Ratbat Holdings.

There had been some concerns raised about the lifetime net worth of a gladiator as popular as Megatronus, but those had been laid to rest. Even if a gladiator made considerably more profit than a laborer, their life span was far shorter.

This would likely be the end for Megatronus.

Orion seemed suitably distracted, and possibly even disturbed by this news, unaware of the drone attempting to sit up on a table behind him. Under ideal conditions, Orion would have likely remained oblivious to any movements that the drone made, since Senator Ratbat had constructed him with the potential for stealth operations in mind. His joints were made to slide without noticeable friction, his engine was dampened so that changes in gears would not be heard, and his limbs were engineered with greater range of motion to prevent them from straining.

However, none of that could prevent Orion from noticing the clattering sound of limbs hitting the floor, when a drone with a lifetime net worth greater than a gladiator utterly failed to comprehend the mechanics behind standing up.

It was not a skill that the drone was practiced in.

It was compounded by the fact that he was still dangerously low on power, dealing with unfamiliar surfaces, and had been only patched up with basic repairs after journeying through the center of a sea of explosions. Everything hurt, and there was nothing he could do about it.

Orion, however, could. The young mech rose from his seat immediately, his concern evident, and wasted no time in approaching the Communications Drone. Crouching, he offered a blue hand. “Can I help?”

The drone stared at the hand, wondering why every time he interacted with Orion he found himself in a tangled pile on the floor. Being unable to answer, he said nothing. He did place his arm into the offered hand, however, as it provided him a means of standing and accomplishing his highest priority task.

Orion, he noticed, was staring at the drone’s unusual appendages.

Following the other’s gaze, he found himself staring at his lack of hands, as well. Given their current condition, it was becoming more obvious why he had been set on a table instead of plugged into an electrical outlet. Beyond the fact that Orion seemed to have no experience with owning a drone and no knowledge on how to plug one in, the red and blue mech would have still had difficulty managing any of the drone’s malfunctioning output jacks. His cable had been nearly incinerated in the fire, one of his arms was still damaged from his conflict with Divide, and the other was covered in melted packaging material.

He was a Communications Drone who had no means of communicating.

This changed his priorities once more. First, he needed to be repaired. Then, he could plug into Orion’s console so that he could recharge and have the strength to contact Perceptor, so that he could get to the Core, find the Signature Database, and solve Divide’s last riddle.

He did not like how many steps there were at this point.

“Is this painful?” Orion asked, interrupting the drone’s thoughts to indicate the twisted output pins on the arm that he was holding.

The Communications drone shook his head. Those pins had been damaged by Divide too long ago to bother him, now. He had erased the errors from his system completely.

With a nod, Orion proceeded to pull him up onto his feet with seeming ease. “Can you stand on your own, then?”

It took the drone a few moments to regain his center of gravity and get his dangling legs underneath him, but once he did he nodded. This was how he had been built, and this was how he preferred to be.

Orion let go, and the Communications Drone looked towards the console where the broadcast was still playing. The reporter had moved on to talking about other similar terrorist activities in Tarn, remarking about how the drone factory explosion made Kaon the third city to be majorly impacted by this growing threat.

His host seemed concerned by this news, as well, though Orion did not bother to look back at his monitor. “I managed to repair a few of your systems, though it was nothing major. There were some loose wires, and those were easy enough with the basic maintenance book that Alpha Trion lent me. You should be okay, if you rest and recharge—“

The very pointed glare that the Communications Drone was suddenly giving Orion—even through his blank faceplates--seemed to make the red mech pause. Holding up his plastic-coated arm-stump, he looked emphatically back towards the console, and then moved towards it.

Orion followed, clearly perplexed.

Moving the seat which Orion had been sitting in with one leg, the drone began searching the front of the console for the best plug. There were more than a few which his adaptive output pins could normally have inserted into easily, but with so few pins exposed under the sticky packaging material none of the ports available would work.

“If you indicate to me what you are trying to do, maybe I can help.” Orion offered, with a tone that was confused but also authoritative. It was clear that he did not approve of a stranger trying to jack into his computer.

The Communications Drone did not have much of a choice. Displaying the plastic coated pins to Orion once more as an explanation, he began searching the side of the console. He was too close to having access to a system he could use. He needed power, and he needed transmission capability.

It had been three solar cycles since he had been plugged into Ratbat’s tower.

“I didn’t see a vocalizer when I was trying to repair you…can you talk?”

The shake of his head was curt this time, as he focused on his task. If he could find a wide enough input jack, then even the scant few exposed pins would be able to sample the needed voltages.

He wanted to plug in.

He wanted to recharge.

He wanted to feel a network—any network--waiting at the back of his mind, ready to provide him with the data that he sought if he was diligent enough.

Never before had it occurred to him that having access to the extra processing power was something he had become used to—something he craved. In his memory, there had never been a point in time where he had been without it.

Now, he was.

He was without anything except his own thoughts. He did not even have the company of a second drone as he had in the factory, which had helped him formulate a plan to escape when burning debris was falling all around them.

He was alone, and he had no way to get into the system that was directly in front of him.

Orion took him by the plastic-coated arm, and pulled. Suddenly unsure of what his options were, the Communications Drone let him.

However, he could not take his optics off of the console. It was the highest priority task for him to communicate with Perceptor, and while that provided him with infinite motivation it also limited his understanding of his surroundings. He needed to get into the console. He needed it at a high-enough priority that it was impeding his ability to function. He was aware of this, but there was nothing he could do.

Apparently, his ordering of tasks could hinder him as much as it could help him. This concept was new and confusing, and as he tried to suppress his need to connect to something—anything, he barely noticed being moved to the other end of the desk. Orion was taking something out of a drawer, but the action seemed inconsequential next to the drone’s inability to find a large enough jack anywhere to accommodate his few working connectors.

What he did notice, finally, was the cool stream of air that suddenly blasted between his gummed-up input pins.

The drone jerked back in surprise.

Obviously not expecting that reaction, Orion dropped the arm that he’d been holding, startled.

They were both startled.

The drone could only shiver, caught between his single-minded need to connect to the console and the new, unfamiliar feeling of his most fragile components being cleaned. Still reeling from the sudden, over-abundant sensations the blast of air had caused, he let the appendage fall back to his side. Taking a step back, he shivered again.

This had never happened before.

He had experienced maintenance on numerous occasions, but often it had been while he was offline, or after shutting down unnecessary systems.   This time, it had felt like pain.

It was the only comparable sensation he knew of that could be equally intense.

Slowly, Orion lowered the can and stared at the Communications Drone. “I’m sorry.” He said, softly, after a moment. “I didn’t expect you to react like that. A moment ago you didn’t seem quite…real.”

Real.

Was that the proper description for the experience he’d felt?

He glanced down to his arms, and carefully brought up the one Orion had been holding for inspection. There was still significant blockage, compromising the majority of functional connection points. Currently, he was incapable of plugging into any of the console’s outlets. However, some small number of pin heads had been unearthed by Orion’s ministrations. With further effort, it was possible that more of the melted material could be removed.

He handed his arm back to Orion and steeled himself, taut.

“Alright. Now we’re communicating.” Orion smiled, and took the offered appendage, holding it with a firm grip to keep the drone from jerking his arm away a second time. He raised the spray-can, checked to make sure that they were both ready, and then released another burst of air.

The drone flinched.

“It seems strange to me that a drone would not be able to talk,” Orion continued, the sound of his voice followed by a second blast. “Although you can limit what I know about drones to Ratbat Holding’s commercials for household assistants.” He changed his grip to work from a slightly different angle. “I’d assumed that your vocalizer had been damaged in the fire, except for the fact that there is no damage anywhere that a vocalizer might be—which makes me wonder why you were constructed without one. If those commercials toting you as the ‘next evolution of machinery’ think that awkward silence is what we want in an assistant, then they have some funny ideas about their customers, and,” despite being as rigid as possible, the drone braced himself further at the sight of Orion reaching for a wire brush, “Beyond that, I’ve never known a machine to flinch.”

He set the canister down, changed his grip, and began brushing gently in between the tiny pins, working out the final pieces of the plastic that were lodged between.

This time, almost in stubbornness, the Communications Drone did not flinch.

“So you aren’t a standard drone,” Orion continued, not glancing up as he worked. “You don’t have the body type shown in the commercials, you don’t have a voice, and you’re finished with a carbon hexagonal matrix coating instead of a high-gloss polymer.” The drone slowly inclined his head, looking at the polished blue of his arm, noting how tiny glints of light reflected off of miniscule, multi-layered mirror-dust.

He had never noticed this, before.

“Someone wanted you to be striking. Maybe they wanted people to see you…but they didn’t want you to talk.” Orion lowered the brush back to the table and let go of the drone’s arm, growing quiet for a moment after his last statement as if trying to put the pieces together. “They probably weren’t counting on you getting lost, in that case. Alpha Trion and I might have remained completely stumped about your history…if your owner hadn’t given you a way to upload data about yourself.” He indicated the end of the drone’s arms, and then gestured towards his console. “You have my permission, now. Go ahead.”

Unsure if a question had been asked and unsure how to answer if it had, the Communications Drone took the time instead to inspect the tiny pins at the tip of his stub. He raised his arm, peered at them carefully, retracted them once and then protracted them again.

There was no jamming error.

They were in acceptable operating condition.

That was all he needed for now.

Turning, he immediately reached out for the input jack, sliding external pin-guards over the outlet until his sensors told him he was centered above a power source. Two pins extended, tentative, sampling the I/O frequency with maximum resistance, minimizing current draw until the port was deemed to be safe.

It was.

The drone plugged in.

“Take it slowly,” Orion cautioned, and distantly the Communications Drone felt the other’s strong fingers gripping onto his still-damaged arm.

They were not important.

The only importance right now was the feeling of a second system next to his own, the steady pulse of varying currents recharging his power buffers, and myriads of pristine, untouched data-files to sort.

He had not sufficiently recharged.

Now, he could.

There was little to stop him from copying what he wanted while he was connected, either, and as he sent queries out across the hardline he detected a system that was vast. This was the Iacon Main-branch National Archives, Iacon, third tier, corridor eight, terminal 2-B. He was currently logged in as Orion Pax, secondary rank, dock manager/archivist, 28-46253XZ. There was access to an immense array of information. There was access to several direct broadcasting stations. There was access to legal compendiums, local political establishments and enforcement agencies.

There was access to a transmission tower.

The ‘Jazz’ monitoring program was located there, surrounded by extensive firewalls. For the moment, the Communications Drone ignored it, aware that even a simple inquiry could alert the I/O program to his presence. What was important was that this terminal had access to the Cybertronian network. If he was able to compose a message to Perceptor, then it was likely he could slip it past the monitoring program before it caught on.

However, the communications drone was acutely aware that he was still standing in a room, his arm a prisoner of Orion Pax. To make his situation more complicated, Orion’s viewscreen was connected completely to his console, providing a visual representation of every action that he took.

It was difficult to concentrate, like this. Orion, externally, was standing next to him, watching over his shoulder as 126 different menus were raised and discarded. He could feel the other’s presence just as vividly as he could feel the data streaming through him. It confused him. He was not used to having an audience while he worked.

Beyond keeping a hand on his arm, however, Orion did not seem to be stopping him.

“What…are you doing?” Orion asked.

The drone hesitated.

Even if he could compose a message quickly to Perceptor, he did not want the contents to be seen by his guest. Orion was watching him closely, which meant that any suspicious activity might result in him being forcibly removed once more. With the superior strength that the dock manager/archivist had demonstrated, it was entirely possible that Orion Pax would sever the Communications Drone from the console long before his transmission was complete.

This prompted a new priority task to assert itself: to distract Orion Pax.

Recharging.

His reply was simple, a small line of text displayed in the top corner of the screen above the still-playing news report. The prehensile-limbed news chaser had switched locations to the site of a gladiatorial arena, and was now describing how the dock loader who had burnt the factory down had gone through reconstructive surgery to infiltrate the manufacturing facility.

“You can communicate, through there?”

Orion reached around the drone to pause the news-feed, freezing on a picture of the gladiator just before he was arrested. This news was definitely something that Orion was interested in, but the drone had unfortunately made himself more compelling at the moment.

He had little choice but to respond.

Yes.

Orion smiled.   It was different than Ratbat’s smile, and the drone found himself trying to understand it, trying to decode why the differences were present. “What can you tell me about yourself?”

He did not look away from Orion, but instead let his message scroll across the screen.

It was a long message, containing his serial number, manufacture date, time of manufacture, owner identification code, hours of continuous run time, maximum data throughput, maximum multitasking bandwidth, maximum speaker resolution, maintenance schedules, voltage sampling thresholds, interference guidelines—

“Okay, that…okay. That is a lot of numbers. Do you have a name?”

That was a much simpler inquiry.

No.

Although it was difficult to concentrate while trying to communicate on two fronts—both digital and analog, the drone knew it was equally distracting for Orion. If he was careful, he could compose his message to Perceptor while keeping the data-file hidden underneath the paused news broadcast.

“Who, er…who owns you?”

The problem, of course, with sending a message to Perceptor was that the message had to prompt a response from the scientist without giving the mech reason to alert Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council, to the drone’s current location. If Ratbat knew where he was located, then it was highly likely Ratbat would send someone to collect him and possibly initiate a memory wipe.

That would prevent him from completing his high priority tasks.

Equally problematic in the same regard was Orion’s inquiry.

Error—data corrupted. Owner identification code as follows:

Repeating the same string of numeric that he had provided earlier, the Communications Drone circumvented the question while still providing an answer. It was one that made Orion frown. This expression was equally as intriguing to the drone in its differences from Ratbat. Gone was the component that made the Senator’s expressions threatening…and in its place was an unusual sympathetic quality which made the recipient feel disappointed in one’s self for causing the expression in the first place.

The drone decided that both were dangerous.

“Is there anything more you can tell me about your owner or where you used to live?” Orion seemed to really be trying to help, which was confusing to the drone. He could not easily sense the motivation behind the questions, and without clear orders on how he was supposed to react there was nothing he could do but stare and answer them as best he could.

This question was not one that he wanted to answer. However, Orion Pax had worded it politely—which left the drone a way out.

No.

There was nothing more that the drone could tell Orion without jeopardizing his mission.

“I’m sorry.” The frown had left, but there was no smile in its place. “We will try to get you back to your owner in our own way, then. Alpha Trion suggested we contact the authorities once you are feeling better. How are you feeling?”

This was another difficult question, and the drone started to wonder why it was being asked something so inane. If Orion Pax had access to the Communications Drone’s programming and maintenance tablet, then he would be aware of any mechanical errors. Even without the tablet, it was apparent which parts of the drone were damaged from a simple visual analysis.

Still, it was obvious that Orion Pax had very little experience with drones, so he continued to distract him by indulging his curiosities.

Left appendage –

input/output operations 5% functionality

recharge operations 7% functionality

mobile operations 93% functionality

Right appendage –

input/output operations 63% functionality

recharge operations 71% functionality

mobile operations 94% functionality

Visor tint outside of tolerance

Cooling system, 37 errors reported, 36 errors overridden

Errors listed as follows:

“I think I get the idea,” Orion sighed, and let go of the arm that he was still holding before the drone could list the full extent of his errors. “You were damaged in the fire more than I can repair.”

That was not incorrect. The few repairs which the drone could detect would keep him operating, but they would not be enough to return him to his peak efficiency. His cable was still burnt, as well as some of his internal mechanisms and backup systems that had been exposed to heat greater than the allowable tolerances. Only a drone technician would be able to make repairs on many of those systems, and most drone technicians would not be easy to track down with the factory so recently destroyed.

This gave him an idea.

Professional assistance required.

“Yes,” Orion agreed, reaching for the monitor to pull up information on Ratbat Holdings. “I thought about contacting a drone technician to work on you. I could only find services through the drone manufacturing facility, however, and all of these forwarding codes are inactive.”

The Communications drone observed the codes that Orion had found, looking through the data as it loaded into the computing station’s cache. It recognized most of them as numbers which it had forwarded through the transmission tower, since many of Senator Ratbat’s employees had frequently been in contact with the factory. The Senator had always been closely entwined with the workings of drones.

However, none of these codes were useful at the moment due to the fact that the factory had burned down. Drone technicians were going to be almost impossible to contact through conventional means…but the communications drone had unconventional means at his disposal.  

Because of Divide’s memories, he had access to the forwarding code of the one mech he needed to see—Perceptor--and access to the composer’s unique origination code to ensure that the scientist came quickly. If he coded the message correctly, as he had done at first when communicating with the Node, then Perceptor would think Divide was calling him. This would not only prevent the technician from alerting Senator Ratbat, but would also ensure that he came in person. From there, the drone could explain his needs and convince Perceptor to provide him with the information that he required, one way or another.

Negative. Preparing inquiry now. Send inquiry? y/n

Still carefully hiding his message behind the frozen news program, the Communications Drone put the final touches into the file and compressed it for data transfer.

“You can do that?”

He could.

Affirmative. Send inquiry? y/n

Everything was ready to go. He would get only one shot at sending this, as the foreign origination code that he had written into the trailing sequence would alert the Iacon Library’s Transmission program to the fact that someone else was using Orion’s console. It would look like Divide had sent a message to Perceptor from inside the Archives.

However, to the ‘Jazz’ monitoring program, it might also look like an intruder had gained access to this particular room.

“Alright. You can send it. Alpha Trion did want me to learn as much as I could about you, and having a technician visit should clear up a few facts.”

Affirmative.

Wasting no further time, the Communications Drone pushed the message through. With everything in place and wrapped in a small, efficient package, it processed past the local tower immediately.

There were no immediate warnings, but this was not unusual. If the monitoring program were to catch on, it would not be for at least a few minutes…even if it happened to perform a frequent data stream analysis. Given that this was the Iaconian Archives, where information was constantly moving in and out and was supposed to do so with easy access, it was possible that the monitor would never notice a few mis-matched bits at all.

Even if it did, a simple inquiry to Orion’s terminal about his activities would be easy to clear up. Orion had authorized the transmission, after all.

Message sent.

“That quickly?” Orion, realizing the the drone did not seem to be disconnecting from his computing console, sat down in the chair to look at the outgoing message logs. “Have you done this before?”

Affirmative.

The Communications Drone waited, standing by the console awkwardly plugged in while Orion confirmed that a transmission had been made. With the dock manager/archivist sitting so close to him, he found that it was increasingly distracting to keep Orion Pax occupied. He had never had a conversation like this before.

He had never really had a conversation at all. Talking with another being was uncomfortable, and he was beginning to realize there were elements that he did not grasp. The long silence after his short answer was indication that there was something more expected of him, but he did not know what it was.

“You clearly worked with computers,” Orion ventured back into the derailed tracks of their dialog, closing the log window and resuming the file sorting that he had been performing prior to being disrupted. A quick glance to the twisted pins at the end of the drone’s stub provided the reason he had come to that conclusion. “So what were you doing at the factory?”

Direct questions were the easiest to answer, the drone realized. However, in this particular instance, the information that Orion was looking for and the information that he was willing to provide were not in the same field.

Repairs.

It was the best answer that he could give. It was the answer that Redirect would have given, and the answer that Ratbat would have given. It was much easier to understand than ‘Attempting to gain access to the Core to download illegal origination code data.’

Stated like that, the drone was starting to worry that convincing Perceptor might involve additional steps.

“And did you see anything while you were there? Do you know who set off the explosions, or why?”

Negative.

Orion paused, and looked at him. “Which part is negative?”

Every part.

“Oh.” Clearly disappointed by that answer—as he had been for so many of the drone’s answers--Orion closed one folder of sorted files, and opened up another one. As if by habit, he reached to resume the transmission from the news cast. “One of the stories I’ve been focused on Archiving is the destruction of the Drone factory. Since I brought you in, Alpha Trion felt it would be…appropriate. I keep running into certain snags, however.”

Content to be connected and recharging and particularly content to have reached the end of their conversation, the Communications Drone shuffled slightly to the side to allow Orion Pax to work. He had access to anything that he wanted…and at the moment, there was nothing that was pending for him to do besides considering a strategy for speaking with Perceptor. That task would require considerable thought, so it was set to a medium priority, with outcome probability algorithms waiting to run based off of potential dialog options. Needing something to focus on that could provide additional inspiration, he watched the broadcast on Orion’s desk-top and assessed the data it contained.

The image of the gladiator was still displayed while the reporter talked, the discussion continuing about the potential changes made to his physiology. The ability to change armor was a dangerous one, and not a surprising tactic for a terrorist to use. At the moment, however, employment agencies were not increasing security due to a labor shortage. Without drones, able workers were needed.

“One of these snags is him.” Orion reached out, poking the screen where an image of the gladiator was displayed next to a list of specifications and employment numbers. “There is something about him that does not fit into the news reports about terrorism. Did you see him while you were in the factory?”

The Communications Drone did not pay detailed attention to the view screen at first, taking a moment to check his recharge levels and confirm that the monitor was not doing its analysis.

When he did pay attention a fraction of a second later, the report had moved into the events of a previous evening, showing a pair of gladiators fighting. The two of them moved quickly, striking at each other with speeds that seemed unlikely given the huge, inefficient engines that they must have been equipped with. The unusual motions that they engaged in to compensate for their bulk were unexpectedly graceful, leaving the drone curious as to if it could predict their next moves. With the unstable sand providing an element of chaos, and their crude weaponry having its own set of physics, however, the drone found himself unable to keep up with them. Not knowing what would happen next was oddly mesmerizing.

Red, blue, and purple lights glinted off of polished and dented armor, steel clashed, and treads hit sand with alarming force. There was a tempo to it.

A push, and then a pull.

A beat.

The drone tilted his head, but the images vanished before he could make any further comparisons as the reporter once again stood outside of the Kaon Arena.

Negative.

He had not seen either of the fighters before now—at least, not in any capacity that had marked them of importance to remember. Gladiators had been flagged many times during his stay in the transmission tower, of course, because of the sheer number of mentions that persons of entertainment had on the public networks, but as far as he knew Ratbat had not prized that information above any other information.

They were gladiators.

He could not imagine why one would have a connection to the drone factory, no matter what the reporter was saying.

However, it wasn’t what the reporter was saying that caught his attention next.

It was Megatronus.

“The drones are gone, now. Your jobs are safe. Show them why you're better than drones. Be unique. Ask questions. Learn from what you have seen tonight.”

The Communications Drone had heard that voice before. He remembered it distinctly, in the way he remembered all items that had been categorized to be of interest. It sparked well-oiled protocols within his systems, protocols telling him to copy, to compare, and to preserve for continued analysis. Immediately, a sample was taken of the speech, and it was tucked away into a folder on the unfamiliar system, treated as if the drone were back in his transmission tower. Further research was needed.

An inquiry had been made.

The drone shoved his other pending tasks to the side. Nothing was of high enough priority at the moment to override an item of interest, especially with an entire library of information at his input tips.

Megatronus could be documented. He could be researched. This would be no different from how the drone had researched particular songs when in the transmission tower. It was important to do.

It nagged at him.

Without needing to access any external networks, he began a search, instantly calling upon the processing power of the computing console to dig through the archives of the Iaconian library. The data here was immense and would take time—probably three or four microclics at least—before results were returned. While he was waiting, he performed a much simpler search on himself, knowing that he had heard Megatronus’s unique voice before.

Matches turned up.

He started displaying them on the screen, categorizing them, labeling them, and sorting them. There were hiring records. A manufacture date. A recording taken of a mining shut-down. There was a video in which someone’s voice in the background matched Megatronus’s vocal resonance, and there were one or two well-buried receipts for carbon polymer and abrasive texture matting—the kind once used for writing but now primarily used for art.

Not every match registered as relevant, but every match did produce an interesting story of a mech with a tumultuous and roughly hidden past.

That voice, as he had suspected, was important.

He knew it was.

“You…you are doing that thing again. That thing where you get distracted and lose all concept of boundaries in regards to personal belongings? I need you to stop.”

Distantly, the Communications Drone registered Orion’s distress, but equally as distantly he did not care. An inquiry had been made, and since all other tasks had been put on hold until Perceptor’s arrival the significance of the gladiator’s voice was the highest priority next to recharging. He could prepare a report for Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council. He would collect the necessary data. There were files that he was pulling from his own processor, as well.

“You’re going to put my folders out of order…”

Distantly aware that he was not working on his own console, he specifically made a separate folder for Orion and copied data from every category into it, keeping the rest of the system intact and clean. It was already efficiently organized, despite the fact that a drone had not been working on it.

That organization allowed him to access information that might be related to Megatronus quickly.

If he accessed the network, he could learn even more.

He had just finished copying the last of the files from his own processor into the proper folder and had already started into a nearby political network when he felt the tension in his arm.

Orion was speaking.

Orion was standing next to him, and he was speaking in stressed tones, and he was pulling on the arm that was connected to the console.

The drone had become distracted, completely.

His awareness of this fact was preceded by only the smallest of moments before he felt Orion’s hands tighten on his arm, and pull his inputs carefully—if forcibly—out of their socket.

Having that feeling of pain resurface again so suddenly, the Communications Drone shuddered.

Staying on his feet asserted itself immediately as the top priority, but his legs had other ideas. It was only Orion’s firm grip on his arm that kept him upright at all.

“—don’t think you’re even listening, but you can’t take command of systems outside of your own. You’re going to get in trouble!” the mech was saying, pleading, finishing a paragraph that the communications drone did not remember him beginning.

Being outside of the computing console was confusing.

He’d been improperly disconnected, which accounted for some of it, but there was more that was still wrong. The room seemed to be swaying. Many of his limbs were registering errors that he only distantly remembered had come from a fire.

He’d been involved in a fire recently, and now he was in a room with Orion Pax.

Orion was explaining something, and it was something that was clearly important to Orion but was absolutely incomprehensible. The drone could not wrap his mind around the words.

“This is my station and it is my responsibility. If you need to use it, we’re going to have to clear some time with Alpha Trion and get you your own logon…”

His recharge had cut off at 88%, which was not normal for him but was well within acceptable levels. The last thing that he remembered clearly was the file that he had transferred from his own database to the computing console that was in front of him.

Orion’s console.

There was no report to prepare, there was no analysis team to forward his findings to so that they could transmit them to Senator Ratbat, authentication 48-3927, third nexus council. He did not have to worry about reporting to his recharge closet. He did not have to worry about finishing his songs.

He was here.

He was safe.

He had priorities that were re-establishing themselves, which were important and—

He had songs?

One was playing, now. It was coming out of the speakers on Orion’s view-screen, from the image of a battered radio. A drone hand—a real hand, not one of his—extended towards the radio and turned the large dial on its front, flipping through multiple stations. The sound of music changed, and changed again. Perceptor appeared on the screen, taking readings and asking questions.

It was the memory file he had downloaded from the drone who had helped him escape the factory. He recognized it as it played, quietly, on Orion’s computing station where he had copied it only a moment before.

“…I just want to know what is gong on here," the archivist continued.  "How did you get access to the Iaconian Central Archives from this station without a password? How did you send out a search inquiry to the Patent Office network next door? Where are you getting all this data on Megatronus that even I was not able to find?” Orion’s expressions were unreadable, but the Communications Drone guessed that he was not happy with what had just occurred. “What were you programmed to do?

Having no way of communicating now that he had been disconnected from the console, the drone simply raised his one working appendage, and pointed towards the playing image on the screen.

Orion turned.

“It must like the song, because I’m not getting a good read on its spark while the music is playing.”

In the memory playback, Perceptor was still holding a box-like device up to the drone. In the background, the radio had settled back onto the song that the Communications Drone could not help but recognize.

“There are too many fluctuations, which either means that the radials are exceeding their parameters or that my Oscilloscope isn’t working.”

“So turn the radio off and try again,” the laborer grumbled, his large shoulders rising and falling in exasperation.

“I will. It would be a shame if the Oscilloscope was broken, after all.” The scientist lowered his arm, reaching forward to flick one of the manual switches on the musical device. “I won’t be able to make another one very easily, and it could mean that the readings I took from your spark were inaccurate—“

“…that is Megatronus,” Orion said, simply, pointing at the laborer. “…and he’s talking with a technician.”

Having no concept of what the significance of Orion’s statement was, the Communications Drone watched the playback until it stopped.

Orion, however, was no longer paying attention to him. Instead, he was moving back towards the console, opening the folder which the drone had just created and comparing the records inside to the new memory file that had just been uploaded.

“This means he was not a dock worker.  I think…I think there may be some other facts that the news is getting wrong, too.” Pulling the memory from the drone back up onto his monitor, Orion played it again.

Having no one to lean on any longer, the Communications drone used the table to steady himself, and watched Orion work.

“There were too many inconsistencies with their reports. Why would a terrorist spend so long working somewhere just to blow it up? Why would they make sure that everyone got out safely before they did? I don’t think this was a regular terrorist act, and...” he paused the file on the image of Perceptor, looking it over carefully. “And I think this technician might know why. Do you know who this is?”

Finally looking back at the drone, Orion’s optics flickered once in interest.

The Communications Drone nodded.

“Then let’s do an investigation of our own. I want you to help me.”

The drone was not sure what Orion was talking about investigating exactly, but he could tell by the files that the archivist was pulling up that the mech was good at making connections. He automatically avoided anything that was not relevant to Megatronus or Perceptor, and he easily was re-organizing the rest of the data by order of occurrence. Whatever he had been angry about earlier seemed to have faded from his thoughts.

However, there was something new to worry about now.

“You can plug back in. We’ll need to do a network search for that technician, and I get the feeling that you might be faster than me.”

Although Orion was once again offering the drone one of his coveted input jacks, the Communications Drone was not looking to plug in. Instead, he could only stare at the console, where the paused memory file with Perceptor on it had been replaced with a communications window. On it, the faceplates of a white mech with a blue visor were looming in an expression that the drone recognized as displeased, with a frown that was neither Ratbat’s nor Orion’s, but was just as dangerous.

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Pax,” the white mech replied, with an accent that the drone placed as Iaconian, third rank, from the Iaconian Underground. “That little drone of yours just caused a somewhat major breach in security. We need to talk.”

Orion turned back instantly to the console at the sound of the new voice, but did not immediately reply. He was stalled, as if he had been caught in the middle of doing something he should not have been doing.

The drone guessed that this was entirely correct.

“Okay, Jazz,” Orion said after a moment, sighing. “You know where to find me.”

The image on the screen nodded once, and then vanished.

Unsure of what to do now, the drone tilted his head at Orion and waited to see what would happen next.

Unexpectedly, Orion stood up and looked right back at him.

“Do you like music?” Orion asked.

Perplexed, the drone could only nod slowly.

“Good,” the red and blue mech stated, and glanced towards the doorway. “You’re going to need to.”

Chapter Text

Each day was long.

They had been getting longer lately, as problems mounted. With every twist and turn, his drone empire rose and fell, with success and defeat peppered like a bad stream of bits. He’d been so close this time, too. He’d gotten legislation passed that would rob Sentinel Prime of the right to mobilize drones at his whim. He’d secured major contracts for military drones, he’d advertised intergalactically and been granted lucrative business deals, and he’d even used his own, personal Commnications Drone to keep him apprised of growing threats.

The biggest threat, however, had been one which he hadn’t even seen coming.

His fist clenched as he thought about his burning factory, the thin steel of his fingertips bending slightly over his rigid palm. Because of Megatronus, the drone industry was about to become the sole domain of his biggest competitors: Senators Optarus and Decimus. He would now need to engineer a new plan to come back out on top, and he’d need to fortify himself against any similar attacks, and he’d need to find out which Senator was behind Megatronus in the first place.

It kept him up late, and he did not like it.

He did not like it, but he had to admit that when he thought back through the stellar cycles he couldn’t truly remember the last time he’d powered down early. He’d been activated into a world where his days were meant to be long.

His progenitor had warned him about that.

The old mech had worked to prepare him for an unending schedule from the moment he had been brought online. His progenitor had been rigorous and demanding in the exercises he’d put Ratbat through, simulating trial after trial of proper business mergers, acquisitions, and foul play. There had been nights that Ratbat remembered getting no recharge, memorizing and downloading large compendiums just so he could understand the difference between a lower Vossian accent and an outlying Vossian accent. He knew the proper protocols to greet more than thirty different species, and could tell how successful a trading consultant might be based off the sound their engines made. By the time that the Holdings had transferred to him at his progenitor’s unfortunate demise, Ratbat already knew precisely what was required of him, and how many cycles of data-digging were necessary to keep on top of his business.

Only when his progenitor had been in charge had he ever had the time to relax. Without that mech, taking responsibility of the Holdings was a full-time job. Freedom, it turned out, was an entity belonging only to the young.

Gone were the lush, languid vacations. Gone were the pleasure orbits. Gone were the sleek, exotic racecars he’d lost consciousness next to after a night of too-thick oil and highly-charged energon.

They had been gone for centuries, and the only replacement he had were the hobbies that could be enjoyed passively—either while in transit to an important destination or while accompanying a potential client. He didn’t have time for music or art or opera, but he found ways to make time for them.

The hobby that he’d been intending to enjoy before his factory was blown up sadly seemed as distant as those long-ago pleasure orbits. He had not been able to plan his lavish party beyond its initial conception, and it did not seem like he would have the option any time soon.

He tried not to think about that. It was depressing, and there was work to be done.

Instead, he shuffled through the pile of data pads before him, selecting the next in line, skimming Redirect’s report of recoverable losses from the factory. As he had suspected, there were some undamaged parts that had been collected from the remains of several hundred drones, and some expensive equipment that had survived intact. There were still assets flowing in from various orders and there were still parts that had yet to be shipped, and each was being taken care of as it surfaced. He had, in fact, just finished a meeting with a particularly integral off-world contractor and managed to assure him that the cargo he’d been promised would be delivered on time. Even if he would need to reroute some of his resources to Optarus and Decimus’s almost-finished drone manufacturing facility, that contract was going to be filled.

He was not looking forward to approaching his competitors about it, though.

The other Senators did owe him, of course, and he knew he would be able to negotiate a price for the use of their establishment that would still net him a profit, but it would not be the same profit he should have been acquiring.

Megatronus had seen to that.

Megatronus, however, would be dealt with.

If Ratbat could instigate the right gambit, then the gladiator would become a key pawn in his rise to fix Cybertron. In payment for the Senator’s lost time and money, Megatronus could not only be made to suffer long and hard, he could also provide a way of getting back at whichever adversary of Ratbat’s must have hired him. Sabotage and terrorism came with high prices in the current political and corporate circles, and while those prices were far higher than the lifetime worth of a single gladiator…Megatronus would make up for it.

One way or another.

That was, among other reasons, why Perceptor was slotted in to be his next appointment.

The spark technician had been given a few days to recover and to find temporary housing for the other technicians from the Core, and should now have had enough time to settle emotionally. Since all of the technicians were still on Ratbat’s payroll, he intended for them to get back to work immediately…but he also knew they had particular requirements and would have to be handled carefully. Only Perceptor had ever been able to convey their requests in a way that Ratbat understood, and although they seemed to have the same spoken language download that all Cybertronians were programmed with, their adaptive subroutines had twisted it into something utterly its own. Technicians didn’t have an accent…they had a code.

That code was, sadly, not a dialect that his progenitor had covered, so Ratbat had always needed to rely on Perceptor to communicate since they’d first entered into their agreement many stellar cycles ago.

Decarus and Optarus had not been as lucky. Although they had managed to request a few technicians from the Core, the small number that had arrived on the genesis elevators for them did not come with a translator. While this had given Ratbat reason to gloat, now it also provided him with leverage.

All he needed to do was secure Perceptor’s cooperation in acting as a spy while he was working for their competitors.

In a way, this struck him as ironic. He was about to ask Perceptor about a spy—one that he intended to incriminate—while also asking him to be a spy himself.

There was, of course, one key difference between the two acts.

Corporate espionage was to be expected from time to time. Utter corporate destruction was not.

Convincing Perceptor of that difference was going to be interesting, which was why Redirect had left sufficient time for this appointment before the eighteen following it. In its own way, this would be relaxing in comparison to making vidcasts and public statements about the tragic events of the terrorist attack on his drone factory. He’d been starting to feel like a damaged recording, repeating phrases about the terrible nature of the loss, and how every precaution was being taken to prevent future incidents. Even worse were the meetings with other, smaller companies—companies he normally had the advantage over but now had to make reparations and apologies to because their shipments were indefinitely delayed. He knew there would be a call from Sentinel, soon, and he was looking forward to that the least of all.

For the Prime, however, he had some good news. A number of the military drones had survived, as had some of the hardier labor models. It would allow Sentinel the opportunity to begin testing them, and would hopefully keep the mech happy enough that he would be willing to wait for the rest of the shipment to be completed once Ratbat’s factory was rebuilt. The other Senators already had enough of their digits dug into the drone field…and even if Ratbat could not stop them from producing a few drones under their own part of the military contract, he still had hopes that his own drones would stand out.

They should, even now, just for having survived such an explosion. The military models were a testament to the durability of drones, which spoke well for his product, made good headlines, and gave Ratbat a small amount of compensation for his efforts. The fact that there were drones still standing would have even made Ratbat’s progenitor happy. He had always wanted to build commodities that lasted.

Ratbat preferred to build commodities that did not last, but were beautiful and enjoyable to have around in their brevity. It had been one of the major differences between he and his progenitor, and it aggravated him now that in this instance he had not been in the right. The drones that he preferred were the drones that had not survived.

His Communications Drone had been among them.

That had caused its own, separate problems for Ratbat.

The Drone’s previous duties had been temporarily fostered onto Redirect while it had been away for repairs. Redirect had been more than capable of handling the transmission tower’s basic functions for a few cycles, but now that a few cycles were turning into a full decacycle Ratbat had been unable to ignore the difference. Redirect, sadly, was not nearly as adept at sorting communications as the specialty drone had been. There was already a backlog, and he had heard complaints of files dropping.

However, he had decided not to remark on the complaints to his already harried scheduler. If his meeting with Perceptor went well today, then he would have a new Communications Drone soon enough—and he had no intention of ruining his relationship with the best secretary he had ever employed.

Redirect was still the most capable at predicting Ratbat’s preferences, and with as much chaos as had been introduced into his schedule by the destroyed factory, Ratbat preferred to have him managing meetings instead of juggling the communications systems that his drone had left in disarray. Besides, even with the increased workload, Redirect still sent each appointment through exactly on time.

He’d done it again, as at precisely the third cycle of the second rotation a shadow passed through from the hall.

Perceptor was standing in the doorway. Instantly aware of a new problem, Ratbat frowned.

The scientist matched.

It was apparent the instant that he stepped into the room, glancing around nervously, his hand gripping the small glass of complimentary energon he must have procured in the waiting room. Ratbat had never invited a spark technician into his office before, nor had he ever realized the way the teal color worn by their caste could contrast so strikingly with the deep pewter of the walls. He’d had his office refinished recently, and had selected the furnishings himself. He’d believed it to be in exquisite taste, which made it all the more dismaying to realize there was a color better suited to his personal space than his beloved magenta. He would have to make his annual trip to Kaon’s Institute of Arts sooner this year, to pick out something new.

That, at least, was a pleasant enough proposition to arrest him from his frown.

“I am glad you could make it.” He managed to smile, tightly, gesturing to the single chair across from his wide, clear desk. As much as he would have preferred to be in his leisure suite when conducting these arrangements, he found the professional environment of his office to be grounding. He had no desire to seem personal now that someone, somewhere, had conspired to burn down his factory. That had been a declaration of war. To war…Ratbat responded with business.

“It was no trouble, I assure you.” The scientist murmured, glancing around the exceptionally large office with a distracted awe as he finished his cube and set the glass in a recycling receptacle. His guest seemed ill at ease, displaced from his natural setting, lost in a way that Ratbat had never seen in him while at the factory. The mech did not belong here, at all. That was enough of an edge to turn Ratbat’s smile genuine, so long as he ignored the teal. “Since I have not yet been instated into the new factory, I have found myself with an over-abundance of free-time these days.”

“That is, precisely, why I have called you here,” he continued, easily, still waiting for the spark technician to sit. “I have recently concluded part of the negotiations with Senator Decimus in terms of relocation. I am going to need for you to oversee the transfer of data and personnel.”

“Me?” The teal mech looked over, gripping the back of the chair tightly.

Ratbat eyed the strong, heavily shielded hands of the spark technician, and noticed they were making dents. “Yes, you. There is no other mech on my payroll who is familiar in working with both.

“Ah.” Perceptor replied, and finally sagged gingerly onto the seat. “I knew my versatility would come to haunt me, one day.” He shifted, obviously attempting to get comfortable without settling too far back, flinching visibly when the array of equipment on his left side clacked loudly against the side of the chair. “I will do my best, if that is what you wish of me, but I must warn you I have very little experience with…er…supervising.”

“Of course you don’t. There are other skills to which you’re better suited for.” Ratbat carefully tallied up the replacement cost for the seat that Perceptor had just ruined, and decided it was not worth mentioning. What the scientist was about to be convinced to do would more than make up for it. “However, in this instance you will have to perform both. Decimus already has a factory supervisor on hand who will tell you what he needs the spark technicians to work on, so it should not be vastly different than our own special arrangement. All you have to do is oversee, make sure your compatriots are treated well, and report anything interesting back to me.”

Finally getting the bulk of what might have either been a complex spoiler—or solar recharge panels—around the back of his chair, Perceptor sounded distracted when he asked, “Anything interesting?”

Ratbat was hardly worried about the question. “Infractions,” he answered simply, gesturing in a way that displayed his long, sculpted claws. “Bad working conditions for your fellow technicians, different or dangerous equipment, schematics for how to build a better drone—“

“Is that last one legal?” Looking up from where the edge of his arm had gotten wedged between his seat, which was obviously too small for him, and Ratbat’s desk, which was too close to the chair, Perceptor nevertheless had the sharp optics of someone who was paying attention.

Of course he was. Ratbat had mentioned something technical, and Perceptor tended to have a very narrow focus.

It was interesting, however, that Perceptor brought up how legal a task might have been. The Senator had been under the impression that Perceptor did not get out enough to know what was acceptable and what was not. If the scientist learned too much, it could be a problem…especially if word ever got around about the full capabilities of his now-defunct Communications Drone.

“Of course it’s legal,” Ratbat replied, smoothly, even as he considered how much Perceptor might or might-not know. “You work for me. Decimus has agreed to share resources—which means that I send you him, and you send me information. Does that sound wrong?”

The technician stared at Ratbat for a much longer period, this time.

Then, he looked away, his high-focus lenses seeking out the large windows along the outside of the room. “I’m having trouble judging what is right and wrong, these days,” he said, and shook his head. “When I think things are going well for me, it turns out that I have still made a mistake somewhere. I really do not like the burden of that.” Moving his now-free hand to clasp his other hand in his lap, Perceptor seemed to shrink a little. “I like to have a single problem—simple or complex—that someone gives to me and that I can solve. What you are asking? That, I can at least understand. The world needs drones, and they can’t be made without spark technicians, and I am the only one who seems to be able to bridge the gap between technicians and manufacturers. I can at least make sure that my friends are comfortable and discuss with them what Decimus is asking them to do.”

“That would be an excellent start,” Ratbat conceded, knowing that if Perceptor said yes to part of the request he could be counted on to fulfil the entirety of it. What the spark technician wanted was precisely what Ratbat wanted of him—to have a direction, and to follow it. The Senator could provide the directions, and Perceptor...he could easily provide the intelligence. He could provide both kinds of intelligence, in fact.  “Besides, given that the world needs drones so badly…I think you might be able to do more than just watch. Have you seen the transformation technology that Optarus is putting in his new drones? With your particular skills…I imagine you could make a system which handles it flawlessly.”

“You want me to build a better processor?” Although his hands were still clasped tightly, the spark technician seemed to perk up a bit at this opportunity.

“You seem to have a knack for it,” Ratbat complimented strategically, but not untruthfully. “Our factories will be back up and running in a few Lunar cycles, and we’ll need to have the best new drones out on the market when it is.”

Perceptor seemed distracted by the idea, but still managed to nod. His fingers twitched, and then untwined, tapping against the surface of his upper leg. “It…might be possible if I get access to what Optarus has developed, and employ some of what the dock-worker and I made…”

“I am sure you will come up with something perf--” Ratbat stopped in mid-sentence, and went back over what Perceptor had just said. “With something perfect,” he finished.

He could not have heard the spark technician correctly. Had he just indicated that a dock worker had been helping to design processors for drones?

It was worse than that.

He had indicated that the dock worker had been helping to design processors for drones.

“Perceptor, was Megatronus helping you with your programming?”

The fingers that had been tapping on a teal-striped leg immediately stopped. “I—“ Blue optics darted around nervously, as if realizing that he’d been caught with his servos in a metaphorical goodie box. “I am still not used to hearing him called that. It is not the name I would have chosen for him. However, in answer to your question: yes. He and I were working together on a new, more intuitive processor.”

Ratbat could only stare, completely dazzled by the sheer amount of naivety demonstrated by that statement. “Did it not occur to you that this program you were working on might have been part of his deception?”

“Of course it did,” Perceptor scoffed. “I have been thinking about it since the factory burned down, and I have gone over every conversation in my memory banks. I’ve checked the code more times than I can count—which is actually incorrect. I’ve checked the code eleven and a half times, because I have not been able to sleep without thinking about it.” The metal on the technician’s knuckles strained slightly, and Ratbat guessed that he had been both right and wrong about Perceptor’s cognizance towards the outside world. The scientist could recognize subterfuge and duplicitous behavior, it just required concentration.

“And?” Ratbat prompted, when he realized Perceptor wasn’t going to continue on his own.

“And the code is good. We worked on it together.” The technician sighed, his shoulder plating compressing a few nervous inches down his arm. “If it was part of his deception, then it was only there to keep me distracted.”

Clearly, it had done its job. Still, there were some parts of Perceptor’s story which did not match. “A Gladiator…was able to distract you…by writing processor code?”

“Well…yes? Yes and no. He did start out with many amateurish mistakes, but because of his inexperience he thought to try out algorithms that I…or, really, any trained professional…would never have considered.” Perceptor scooted forward minutely in his chair. “Besides, it’s not as impossible as it seems. Drone processors are infinitely less complex than ours. In the Core, there are entire sections devoted just to making processors, and they are completely separate from any other part. Most of the spark technicians that work there—I never saw them. I am not even entirely sure if they knew what they were doing, or if they just put together pieces that the Drivers produced. Drone processors, on the other hand…”

Attempting to comprehend what Perceptor was saying with his own incredibly minimal knowledge of the Core, Ratbat nevertheless gestured for the scientist to continue onward to the point. “We can make drone processors without much difficulty?”

Perceptor, apparently realizing he’d gotten off-subject, shifted back into his seat. “We can, yes, because we do not treat them like our own processors. They are machine processors, meant for handling and sorting input—not massively different from what is in your transmission tower. The dock worker,” he paused, and tried again. “Megatronus, he already knew how to program machine coding. He told me that he learned it in the mines.”

“He was a miner?” Glancing toward a long, beautiful iron screen which functioned as a room divider when he needed some privacy, Ratbat considered how difficult it was to change jobs…and then considered that Megatronus had apparently occupied at least four different ones. On the screen, polished, antique scenes depicted thirteen of the original forms that Cybertronians had been able to take, moving from deep black with highlights into the pure white silhouette of Prima.

It was religious nonsense, valuable only for its age.

There was a time not long ago, however, when Ratbat would have agreed with the idea of switching jobs. All Cybertronians transformed, and were built to be able to change. Before he had become obsessed with drones, he had looked for those Cybertronians with unusual merits, and had taken advantage of their skill.

Perceptor had been the product of one such search.

Now, he wondered if it wasn’t time to start searching anew.

“That was what he said. It was on his original tag, as well.”

One of Ratbat’s optic ridges rose at this statement, parsing the fact that having ‘miner’ written on one’s tag meant it was what they had been built to do…with the fact that Perceptor somehow knew what had been on Megatronus’s original tag. “So. He was a miner who learned how to write machine code, then became a gladiator who infiltrated my factory, and used that code to keep you distracted while he spied on us. Is there anything that I am missing?”

“The part where he destroyed the factory should probably be included,” Perceptor offered, but softly.

“Indeed it should. In fact, it is the part that I am still having trouble with.” Reaching under his clear desk, Ratbat selected a data-pad and laid it, firmly, on the glass. He pushed a single button, and a small, holographic image of Megatronus as he had been while working at the factory rose from the datapad’s projectors, rotating slowly. “According to my records, this mech worked at my factory for seven lunar cycles. This either makes him utterly the slowest saboteur on record, or it indicates that there was something else which he was after. Do you have any idea what that might have been?”

Perceptor had shrunk again, visibly settling into his chair as if he wanted to no longer be the center of Ratbat’s attention.

Given that even Ratbat had not been expecting the low, angered simmer of his voice, he did not blame the scientist. Neither did he back down.

Perceptor’s blue lenses were locked on the small, rotating hologram. He stared at it silently for a while, and then reached out, slowly, and pressed the button which stopped it from circling. “Yes,” he said, and stood up. “I think he wanted to be taken seriously.”

Ratbat’s other optic ridge went up, but he did not interrupt Perceptor this time…not even to indicate that the technician should continue.

“I think he wanted to see what he was capable of. I…don’t think he came there to destroy our factory, or because he has a grudge against drones. Perhaps that was his intention, but he had opportunities long before he was employed by me, and he did not take them. Instead, he tried to create something new. At least, he tried before he was stopped.”

“You stopped him,” Ratbat stated, recognizing the expression of guilt written on Perceptor’s face.

“I did not take him seriously…or, rather, I did not take his wishes seriously. Perhaps in doing so, I reminded him of why he had come to the factory in the first place. If that is the case…” The scientist looked away. “If that is the case, then I am sorry. He may have decided to burn the factory down because of me.”

This was not the direction that Ratbat had expected their conversation to follow. If anything, he’d simply been looking for additional clues as to who had hired Megatronus, and what information they might have gotten from him in the many cycles he’d been working at the drone manufacturing plant.

Perceptor, on the other hand, seemed to think that Megatronus had come there on his own volition. It was a preposterous notion, but it was one that could be disproven.

With the information that Ratbat had obtained, finding out the truths that Megatronus was hiding would be much easier.

All that was left, now, was to ease Perceptor’s troubled conscious in the best way that the Senator knew how—by utter manipulation.

Rising from his desk, Ratbat glanced one last time towards his room divider, and then to Perceptor. “I take it that you aren’t a religious mech. It is one of the facts that I like about you.”

The technician looked back, his expression uncertain but his optics alert. He was listening.

“Because of that, there is no reason to mention fate. You were not ‘destined’ to encounter Megatronus, you were not ‘compelled’ to take the actions that you did, and you had no divine way of knowing the consequences of your ignorance. It simply happened, because someone who you trusted took advantage of your trust and betrayed you.”

Stepping out from behind his desk, Ratbat caught the way that Perceptor winced.

“It is not something that you can change. However, it is something that you can atone for. Megatronus will be punished for the crimes he has committed…and you? You can help restore our factory to the state that it was in. You can help, in fact, to make it better. I would prefer that to an apology.”

Perceptor’s focus wandered away from Ratbat, down to his hands, which opened and then closed once. “That is kind of you to say. It is easier for me, if I focus on my work…”

Extending his own palm into the line of Perceptor’s vision, Ratbat offered it as both a proper acknowledgement and an indication of acceptance. “Excellent. That is one trait that you and I share.” They shared more than one…which made it all the easier for Ratbat to reason with Perceptor when there was something Ratbat needed him to do. “Let’s take advantage of the new program idea that Megatronus gave to you…but to be on the safe side, it might be best if you started it over from scratch. Work the processor into the transforming drone designs which Optarus has, instead of our old designs…and let me see them as you get close to completion.”

“That is all you want from me?” Perceptor asked, reaching out to timidly pass his own palm over Ratbat’s in confirmation.

Ratbat waited for the gesture to be complete, before returning his hand to his side. “That is all I want. Just…let’s keep this our little secret. I want to make certain that your new processors are perfect before we release them.”

“Proper testing is important,” the scientist agreed, seeming to be a bit more relaxed now than when he’d entered earlier.

“It is. I look forward to your first report.” Gesturing towards the door, he led Perceptor towards it. “In, say, one week. Tell me about the conditions of the factory and what Decimus has you working on.”

“Of course. I will see you then…”

“You will.” Ratbat saw Perceptor out into the hallway, and offered a single smile to the departing mech.

Then, he closed the door, and leaned against it.

That…had almost been too easy.

He had started to worry if Perceptor was capable of being a spy or willing to take Optarus’s ideas and improve upon them, and then Perceptor had nearly admitted to burning down the factory and Ratbat got too look sympathetic in forgiving him. It was not every day that his quarry talked themselves into doing the work that he wanted them to do, but he supposed there were some days in which he could still get lucky. Of course, it would have been better luck to not have dealt with the lost revenue of his factory at all, but…well.

Ratbat had a plan for that.

Talking with Perceptor had given him a few ideas. He might lose a little, now…but if he set the right cogs in motion than he could stand to make a great deal more profit by his factory burning down than he could have if it had stayed standing.

The smile he had given Perceptor remained on his faceplates.

Optarus and Decimus had no idea what was in store.

“You seem happy.”

Apparently, he had no idea what was in store either.

Ratbat jumped at the unexpected voice coming from across his office, his wing-panels scraping acoss the door that he was still leaning against. He sought out the source of the intrusion immediately, his optics settling on the long, decorated screen that provided the only shadows in his well-lit room. Behind the screen, towards the dark end and silhouetted by the sun streaming in from his huge windows, a figure was standing.

“I had almost forgotten that you were here,” the Senator murmured, lowering a hand that had half-converted into a knife in his surprise.

“I sincerely doubt that,” the figure spoke without inflection, stepping the rest of the way out from the room divider where he had been waiting, “Given how many times you looked towards me.”

Shaking his hand until the knife receded, Ratbat shivered. As necessary as his dealings with this particular guest were, he found the utter silence that surrounded him to be unnerving. He made little sound when he walked, little sound when he transformed, and almost no sound when his engine should have been steadily growling its presence. “No one would have suspected you were back there, no matter how many times I looked.” Moving away from his door, Ratbat tried not to look anywhere but at his desk. “Did you get what you needed?”

The figure nodded. “More than enough. What are your orders?”

Briefly, the Senator checked his internal chronometer. Although Redirect had scheduled extra time in Perceptor’s meeting for just this purpose, Ratbat did not want anyone to suddenly walk in.

There were, however, a few minutes left before he could expect his next appointment.

“If what Perceptor said was true, then we may not require your special talents to get the information that we need from Megatronus. Try…try reasoning with him first. Offer him sponsorship. Offer him money. Offer him an upgrade, and a change of names and bodies for himself and his crew.”

The shadowed figure did not move, but Ratbat sensed an inquiry emanating from it.

Ignoring his senses, he strode slowly back toward his desk, reaching for the data-pad that was still sitting on the glass.

“You have an interest in this mech?” his guest asked.

“I always have an interest in those with talent. Besides, he is a Gladiator who is about to be executed. There is no advantage that we do not hold over him…just as we did with Titan.”

“Titan left us. For him.”

“Yes, that is what he thinks. It is what Megatronus thinks, as well. I trust you still have the leverage on Titan that you used to have?” Flipping through a few other images of Megatronus and his team, Ratbat paused on a picture of a small pair of twin fighters.

“I do.”

“Good,” he said, and tossed the data-pad towards the figure. “Then you may go.”

Reaching a hand up, his guest caught the data-pad easily. It was stared at in silence, before a single nod confirmed that the figure understood. “There is one more thing.”

Ratbat paused, preparing to sit back down at his desk and begin getting ready for his next appointment. “Yes?”

“I will be leaving once Megatronus has been tended to. It is time, once more.”

The Senator stared for a long while.

Then, he simply nodded. “Come back once those duties have been done. I am sure I will have something new for you to work on by then.”

He expected the figure to give some indication of having heard him, but it did not.   Instead, it turned to go back behind his screen.

Like always before, it left no trace that it had been there.

Ratbat shivered again, and sat.

Chapter Text

There was something about Jazz which made the Communications Drone nervous.

It was not his physical appearance. His physical appearance was not intimidating given his small size, his smooth, friendly panels, and his large, simple transformation lines. His mostly-white paintjob was accented with excessive glow-panels, which could have been dangerous-looking as they indicated a profession spent mostly in the dark...but were not dangerous-looking since Orion Pax’s office was kept excessively bright.

However, it was decidedly not the way he looked that was unsettling: it was the way he moved. The first impression that the drone had of Jazz was his fluidity. He’d taken up a position in the doorway quickly, quietly, and with a practiced ease which could indicate that he was very aware of his body. He was frowning, as well, and his optics were hidden behind a visor which made his expressions dubious and difficult to read.

He was also holding a gun.

That made the drone the most nervous of all.

It clearly had shocked Orion when he noticed it as well, because the red mech was instantly moving forward to intercept Jazz before the other could enter the room. “Hold it, Jazz,” he said, raising his arms placatingly. “There’s no need for a weapon.”

Jazz did not take his visor off of the drone. Aware of the danger, the drone did not move.

Orion Pax stepped between them, his back towards the drone as he stepped slowly and carefully towards the white mech in the doorway.

“You’re probably right,” Jazz said, having looked the drone over as best as he could without Orion in the way. His shoulders relaxed, but the arm holding the gun did not lower it. “Sorry t’ worry you, Pax. This won’t do more than shut it down for a few moments if I have to fire, I just…need to have it on hand to be sure.”

“To be sure of what?” Putting his hands down, Orion stopped moving towards Jazz.

“That he hadn’t sent this drone.”

Although Jazz no longer had clear shot with Orion Pax in the way, the Communications Drone was beginning to feel like the situation was worsening. Jazz was not backing down, and was additionally standing in front of the only plausible exit. He had not yet provided any demands, but was positioned aggressively. It uncomfortably reminded the drone of his journey through the factory fire, where he’d had no experience to guide him but was acutely aware that a single wrong step could result in either deactivation or a return to Ratbat—to a memory wipe. There was no obvious escape, since the threat was blocking the only doorway out. He did not have any options presented to him through his problem-solving algorithms or priority protocols, which left him standing in the same place and watching Jazz to see what would happen next.

Jazz did not seem intent on shooting, at least. If that had been his primary goal, he would have done so as soon as he walked into the room, without waiting for Orion Pax to get in his way.

However, he did seem very, very stressed. He seemed as if he could shoot, and that was the worry. He seemed…and this part confused the drone the most…as if he felt that the drone was the primary threat in the room, instead of the weapon.

“That who hadn’t sent the drone?” Orion asked, his voice remaining calm despite how perplexed his expression made him out to be.

Him. Look, it…it made a transmission from your terminal, Pax. I decoded the transmission that it made, and it was using his code to put it through...inviting someone else to come to our coordinates to meet him. Here, to the archives.”

“Yes,” Orion replied uncertainly. “That was the message that I asked the drone to send. It is for a spark technician to come and fix some of his damages…”

Jazz’s visor raised a perceptible amount; an expression that the drone could only assume was surprise. “A spark technician? Is that who Perceptor is?”

Orion shook his head. “I didn’t look at the message, so I couldn’t say. I didn’t have any reason to question our drone, as other than being a bit…exuberant…when he was dangerously low on power, he hasn’t given me any reason to think he’s here to cause trouble.”

The visor fell back to its original position, and the plates in Jazz’s mouth slammed together in aggravation. “If he’s not here to cause trouble, then he wouldn’t have signed his name to that transmission. He wouldn’t have used his origination code!” The white mech shook, though the drone could not tell if it was because he was frustrated or because he was afraid. “You don’t understand, Pax. He can’t come here, he can’t have me, and he sure as hell can’t have it. You’ll have to tell him that, drone. Tell him I hid it so well that he’ll never find it, even using my dead processor.”

Orion looked back at the Communications Drone, seeking any kind of confirmation to the request that Jazz was making. Utterly confounded, however, the drone could only shrug.

He had no idea what Jazz was talking about.

There were some extrapolations that could be made, however. If Jazz had decoded the message, then he knew what its contents were. He knew that the message’s intended recipient was Perceptor and that it had been signed by Divide. This meant that the ‘he’ Jazz was referring to had to be one of those mechs. Given that Jazz had specifically mentioned the origination code…this he that Jazz kept referring to must be Divide.

The drone tilted his head, and looked over towards the computing console he’d been using only a few clicks ago to communicate with Orion Pax. If he was going to explain his choice to use Divide’s origination code, then he was going to need a voice. He started towards the device.

Jazz’s mouth-plates ground together. “Stop,” he said, in a low and dangerous tone.

The Communications Drone stopped.

“There’s no way I’m going to let you back into our systems if you’ve got some relation to that mech. You can either leave, now…or I’m going to shoot you, and you’ll leave that way instead.”

“Jazz, what has gotten into you?” Orion interjected, moving to step back in-between Jazz and the drone, much to the drone’s relief. “He doesn’t have a vocalizer, so he can’t talk without plugging into that console.”

“He doesn’t need to talk,” Jazz replied simply. “He just needs to leave. He can leave, and I can vanish away again, and no one will be hurt.”

A small amount of understanding dawned in Orion’s optics at Jazz’s choice of words, but the Communications Drone still felt completely left in the dark.

“I’m…I’m sorry, Jazz. I didn’t realize this was related to that.”

“Don’t be sorry, Pax,” Jazz sighed. “I never told you, because I didn’t want you to get stuck in the middle if this happened.”

With the turn in conversation leaving the mystery no more solved than it had been a moment ago, the Communications Drone was beginning to wonder if either of his hosts were familiar with the usage of proper nouns. While both ‘this’ and ‘that’ were important enough that Jazz felt it necessary to point a weapon at him, he had no idea how to plead his innocence because he still didn’t know what was being talked about.

This was impressive, considering that the one thing he had been created to do was parse information from barely decipherable sources. However, there was not much he was given to work with. If Jazz refused to let him use the console to communicate or to gather further data, then his options were becoming particularly narrow.

This was not something that the drone could allow. His highest priority task was to wait here for Perceptor.

The fact that this incredibly simple task was being threatened was unacceptable.

He needed a way to communicate.

That was his primary function, and without an open dialog there would be no way to interpret Jazz’s request.

Instead of trying for the computing console this time, which had angered Jazz, the drone instead tried for the closer system…and headed straight for Orion Pax.

“I’m in the middle regardless. As unusual as this drone is, Jazz…I don’t think he’s related to whoever you think he is. He’s injured, and he’s confused, and he’s…he’s young, Jazz. I don’t think he even knows what he’s doing.”

That was not entirely incorrect. The drone was, at the moment, more than a little confused about where to find a connection port on the back-side of a hauling-grade Cybertronian. This had clearly not been an alt-mode type that Senator Ratbat had ever thought he’d need to jack into.

However, it was easy enough to extrapolate. Processors were most commonly contained in the cranial units. Although there were a few Cybertronian designs which had processors housed elsewhere, a cranial unit had proven the most versatile since it placed the optics right next to the processor at the highest vantage point on the body, allowing for the best collection of input at the fastest speeds. In addition, the neck provided a degree of spring flexibility to help cushion the processor from major impacts, and also allowed the head to be separated quickly after death so that the information stored within was retrievable even if the body was not. Once the spark was no longer regulating power flow, it was possible for specialized mechs to download memories without needing a transfer protocol.

Those mechs often utilized a port almost universally located at the back of the neck.

The Communications Drone reached his one working arm up, found the port in question, and plugged directly in to Orion Pax.

I desire to speak with Jazz. Will you help? Y/N_?

What happened next was difficult for him to process. He had not been built to participate in battle, so physical attacks were mostly foreign and too quick to predict, even with his algorithms running at their peak capacity.

Precisely how Orion Pax was able to grab hold of him, swing him around, disconnect him, and still remain blocking him from Jazz’s line of fire was not easily describable, and left even Jazz’s mouth slightly open.

Orion simply shook his head, and stumbled a bit as he regained his balance. “Yes,” he replied, out loud, looking down sternly at the Communications Drone. “I will help you. But afterward, you and I are going to have a very, very long talk about personal boundaries involving both mechs and their property. My computing console is not something you can simply connect into, the way you were trying to do earlier, and my neck…?” His head shook again, more vehement. “No. We’ll use the connection port on our wrists. Jazz?”

“Hell no.” Jazz replied, deadpan. “That drone is not going to connect to any part of me.”

“Of course he isn’t.” Orion sighed, offering his wrist to the Communications Drone. “He is going to connect to me, and I’m going to connect to you. Anything he sends will have to go through my systems first, so you can guarantee it is safe, and it’s not like your memories can be downloaded while you’re still alive.”

This was an interesting assumption for Orion Pax to make.

The Communications Drone had easily been able to download memories from Divide while he was still alive, and had taken plenty from the factory drone as well. Even in the brief amount of time that he had been connected to Orion Pax, he had felt the vast number of files behind the initial walls and had known he would be able to access it given the right bypass codes.

However, this assumption did seem to be one generally accepted by the populace. Jazz did not dispute it, and even the medical text which he had just accessed to locate Orion’s neck port had been about autopsies done post mortem.

There was no information in his own archives about how to download memories from those whose sparks were still functioning…but he had found it easy enough to do, and had even been given the proper equipment for it.

“I don’t trust him,” Jazz spoke, and rightly so.

“I do,” Orion Pax replied, and the drone found himself unsure of what to think.

He was not used to being trusted.

He was used to being ordered.

That was easier.

“Look, don’t get yourself scrapped over this—“ Jazz continued, but Orion only shook his head, and reached out his other wrist for Jazz.

The drone looked down at the wrist that was offered to him.

He moved to connect to it, and found it retracted just beyond his reach. Orion Pax was watching him.

“I want a promise, first,” Orion said.

The Communications Drone did not know what was expected of him, so he simply nodded.

“No utilizing any of my data that you are not invited to take. Is that understood?”

Now understanding the question in more depth, the drone nodded again.

It was not Orion’s data he was interested in right now.

“Is everyone ready?” the hauler asked.

“As ready as I’m gonna be,” Jazz replied. “And for the record, I think this is a terrible idea.”

That was probably why he was still holding his gun, even while connected to Orion Pax. That did present a bit of a problem, but the Communications Drone was not worried, now. Not with a connection port offered to him.

“Then let’s begin.”

The drone plugged into Orion’s wrist plug.

He tested the voltages of the system, finding it very different than Divide’s. The initial synchronization dialog was simpler, which let him in much faster. As usual, there was a boundary just after the initial transfer protocol was complete which prevented outside access to any vital systems, but the drone had never had any difficulty with passing through this boundary.

The key was language.

Each Cybertronian system communicated in a different language. The fuel pump sent its own simple status reports, the transformation cog had a more complex set of instructions, and the energon storage tanks were adept at indicating when they were empty or full. While a processor could interpret every system in one’s own chasis, an outside intruder would not have the luxury of understanding these foreign codes. This prevented most Cybertronians from being able to gain access to any informatation, even when connected, without the host specifically preparing that information for them. The final boundary in a connection was the point at which that data was normally prepared…and most mechs could not access anything beyond it because all signals past that point were indecypherable.

Since the drone already spoke the majority of the internal languages, however…or, at least, since he had never had any difficulty in understanding them…he had never had an issue with the the final boundary. It was only when mechs were actively trying to keep him out, like with Divide, that he needed special programs and decryption algorithms to get in.

Orion, fortunately enough, did not suspect that this was what the Communications Drone was trying to do.

This made it possible to slip quickly in and sample what was needed.

Orion’s layout was nothing like Divide’s. Every system ‘felt’ different, and spoke with a different accent than he was used to. The power was distributed in an unusual way, placing priority on specific tasks while minimizing the option to use others. This, the drone realized, was the contribution of the spark. Divide’s spark had different fluctuations than Orion Pax’s spark, which led to different allocations. Pax had a very, very strong spark, and his code was old and long.

His body, however, was young in comparison with Divide’s. It was more efficient, built for strength and endurance instead of adaptability and dexterity. It did not have as many memories catalogued in its hardware. Not yet.

Jazz’s system, on the other hand, offered more familiar grounds. It was closer to Divide’s, which made it the perfect launching point for the drone to begin delving into the mystery that was threatening him.

At some point in his past, Jazz must have known Divide. Clearly, it had not been a relationship which had ended pleasantly for the white mech, or he would not have shown up at Orion Pax’s office with a gun in his hand. However, it must have been an important relationship, because Jazz had been able to recognize Divide by his origination code.

The Communications Drone dove straight in, slipping underneath the basic encryptions that Orion Pax used and dodging with somewhat more effort through the protected locks on Jazz’s firewalls. This was definitely going to be more difficult than taking memories from Divide, but this time the drone did not need to distract anyone for the length of time that it took to download. He was not looking to download Jazz’s memories. He just needed to understand them.

Unlike with Orion Pax, however, Jazz was on the defensive against possible data stealing. This meant that he would have a limited amount of time to search before Jazz realized he was present. He would have to select the right memory, and he would have to do it quickly.

That, however, was something he already had an idea on how to do.

The drone punctured through the wall of the file that was most frequently accessed in the previous few cycles, and let it play.

--

Immediately, he felt a pile of garbage slam into him, pinning him against the still-warm steel of the dumpster door. It was utterly dark, and damp, and no matter how he tried to keep his wits about him it was difficult to decipher up from down.

The garbage transport was shifting too frequently, ducking in and out of districts as it made its rounds.

Used, unfiltered oil dripped down over his plating, rank with the smell of the poor mech who had been unfortunate enough to injest it and then regurgitate it later. Jazz could feel the particles clinging to his plating, as well as the pressure from a hunded other equally unsavory items: dirty washcloths, dented metal plates still covered in half-eaten dinners, a leaking sandbag from the construction work they were doing on Scrapling Street.

His own insides churned, and it was everything that he could do to keep his small breakfast down. Still attached to his back, his Sinesthizer trilled a high note in protest as some object still carrying an electrical charge—possibly a battery—slid over the surface of his prized instrument.

He laughed.

He couldn’t help but laugh, choking air out through the stench of garbage, immense relief filling him at the ridiculous sound his Sinesthizer produced. He had made it.

He was free.

--

The Communications Drone paused the memory, having absolutely no idea what was happening, and rewound it to an earlier point. A blip of surprise registered from his host, but he knew he was doing his job correctly. Jazz would only realize that he was intruding if he went after memories that hadn’t been accessed recently.

However, the surprise was still worrying. If Jazz was becoming aware already, then the drone would have few chances to get this right.

He set a point thirty cycles prior to being trapped in a dumpster, and let it play.

--

The Monitor was huge.

Its entire hand wrapped easily around Jazz’s neck, suspending him above the floor of his prep closet like he was a collectible action figure about to be appraised. Indeed, its single, white optic was looming over him, taking stock of the prey caught within its gaze, blazing with an intensity that the vidcasts had never gotten right.

They’d gotten the shape right, at least. The Monitor was almost Cybertronian, and large, but not so large that he’d taken any notice of it when he’d started his set in the venue. He remembered it sitting at the back of the room at one of the plus-sized tables, and he hadn’t even considered the fact that it might have been a Monitor as he’d made his first spark scans with his Sinesthizer. That must have been the point at which it had confirmed he was the Repro-meister.

Now, he’d confirmed that it was a Monitor.

Clearly, he was an expert at identification.

It reached for him with its other hand, and he flinched, unsure of what was going to happen next. However, all it did was pull at the strap of his Sinesthizer, trying to remove it from its sling on his back.

His instrument.

A panic suddenly hit him like a building collapse.

“Wait. No. No, wait. You can’t take my instrument. That’s my life.

“You can buy another one that is not illegal,” the Monitor chided back, its voice dark and dead but with a hint of humor that caught Jazz unaware. Monitors weren’t supposed to be sentient, were they?

“At my pay scale? You’re crazy!”

Rather, arguing with a Monitor was crazy. However, it wasn’t succeeding at removing the Sinesthizer from his back. His strap connected in through his shoulder, which meant that the Monitor was going to have to rip off his left arm if it wanted to take the instrument from him.

It, apparently, came to that conclusion at the same time.

Jazz’s panic rose, and he started struggling. This only caused the Monitor’s grip on his throat to become tighter, the pressure finally forcing one of his hydraulic lines to pinch. It was painful, but it would be nothing compared to how he’d feel if the Monitor got his arm.

That was his music arm.

They both were. An artist needed all twelve fingers to play a Sinesthizer right—three on each hand and a servo split. If he lost one, he’d never be able to replace it. Never.

Then again, it wasn’t like he was going to be playing music again if a Monitor was here. Someone must have told on him for the money, or been cornered and offered a bargain to tell on him, or been hauled in by the Enforcers and interrogated too quickly for him to have negotiated with the officers. Hell, someone might have just been whispering too loudly in a bar. There was no way to know when an Authenticator might be listening, or one of their Monitor pets, or one of their millions of unseen devices. He’d been careful, but…well, this had been inevitable.

It had been so inevitable he’d made himself a Monitor escape plan.

“So are you going to remove the strap, or am I going to have to remove your arm?” the Monitor asked in an all-too-reasonable sounding tone. “I promise, we don’t actually have to do this the hard way.”

“…says the guy who is cutting off my fuel circulation,” Jazz retorted, his legs dangling uselessly and one arm held at a perpendicular tautness by the Monitor. His other arm, though…

His other arm could almost reach the keypad on the Sinesthizer, if he could get turned around just right. Maybe he should thank the Monitor for tightening the grip on his neck—it gave him just enough leverage to twist his arm behind his back.

“I will give you a count-down, then,” the Monitor offered, its single brilliant optic burning its image forever into his mind. “Surrender the instrument by the time I count to three. If you do, I’ll release you and let you keep your arm. If you don’t…”

“If I don’t, then I lose everything. I thought identity forging was an automatic death sentence either way?”

“That depends on how you define ‘death,’” the Monitor replied, with a tone that made Jazz not want to consider just how many other definitions of ‘death’ there might be out there. “So let’s start simple. One.”

Here it was. One chance out of a hundred.

“Two.”

Once chance out of two hundred, maybe.

“Three.”

Jazz slammed his six-fingered hand down in what he hoped was the right sequence on the Sinesthizer, and prayed to every god he could remember the name of. Cybertronians had kept a lot of gods once, before the technology wars…but since he’d been manufactured long after those wars had ended he only really had picked up on four or five. Adaptus had been one with a good name, he thought. So flexible. So versatile. So…adaptable.

He knew he’d need all the help that he could get in terms of adaptability when the terrible sound blasted from his Sinesthizer’s speakers, temporarily causing the machinery in the room—including the Sinesthizer and half of his own motors—to seize up. The fingers around his neck flexed tighter, and Jazz feared for a moment that the sound had caused the opposite effect of its intention…before the fingers twitched again and loosened. The Monitor’s optic went dim.

He fell, free.

His own systems just had barely managed to adjust to the affects of the sound before he hit the floor. The sudden jar was still a shock to his legs, but he managed to get them underneath him and immediately start running—which admittedly, in his tiny prep closet, was not very far. The back door was his best chance, leading straight out into the same alley that the staff let him in through every night. It reeked in the way that most back alleys reeked, stale and sour and hot, but still smelled ten times better than the alleys back in the Iaconian Underground where he lived. At least here, some fresh rain still made it to the gutters.

Behind him, he heard the sound of his Sinesthizer rebooting on his back. It would take the delicate instrument time to get warmed up, which meant that he wouldn’t likely get to play his trick on the Monitor twice. However, with some luck, the Monitor’s huge size would mean he’d take a while to come back online fully, and by then Jazz intended to be long gone.

His light feet pounded on the duracrete as he ran, staying off the open streets and twisting himself in the tight back alleys as best as he could, trying to put distance between him and the one-optic of a beast. He could have made better time by transforming, but transforming in this cramped environment would have hidered him.

He hoped the same tight spaces would utterly stop the Monitor’s pursuit.

The club was in a decent district, but even decent districts in Iacon found themselves short on real estate these days with the Underground encroaching. The closeness had made for a nice commute, at least. The club staff might not have treated him the best, but they had paid him decent money, and he’d been able to stock up on spark codes copied from the audiences of more than five dozen performances.

He’d have made good cash off of these codes, tonight, if the Monitor had not been in the crowd.

If the Monitor…

Had he just gotten a reading of a Monitor’s spark code?

It had been sitting in the audience for his entire performance, hadn’t it?

He’d taken all of the usual scans, and…

…and if he got away from this, it wouldn’t even matter. He’d have a spark code from a Monitor, and he’d have no way to ever use it.

Still, just to know…

“Found you.”

The sound caused Jazz to stop in his tracks, his systems suddenly flushing cold. He’d been running straight for half a cycle…there was no way that the Monitor had been able to keep up.

Nevertheless, he could hear the heavy footsteps behind him, the low bass hum of twin electromagnetic pulses warring with each other—the engine of the Monitor, and the Monitor’s paired weapon. It sounded utterly jarring, like the sputter from a dying engine, or the rasping breath of a contaminated intake. He hated the sound, instantly. It was coming for him.

“Oh, come on. I couldn’t have been that easy to follow!” Jazz did not turn around, his optics still frantically searching the alleyways ahead for a place to run to. The one on the left was his best option, but it was also blocked by a throttling garbage carrier in the middle of a dumpster pickup.

“I had your entire performance to establish a spark-lock on you,” the Monitor replied casually as it approached. “You’d have to be miles away and sealed behind thick walls before I’d lose you…and even then all I have to do is wait. I’m an Authenticator. You’d show up on a vid-tape or your voice would ghost through the background of someone elses’s recording, and I’d have you. You’d pass through a motion sensor, and I’d have you. You’d sleep on a pressure-sensitive bunk, and I’d have you.”

The large footsteps stopped, the Monitor’s heavy weight settling just behind Jazz.

Clearly, the myths he’d heard about Authenticators and Monitors were wrong if this one was claiming to be both. That would have been a fascinating mystery to delve into, if Jazz were not about to be put permanently offline.

“You’re my responsibility. I protect the authenticity of every spark signature…of every origination code, and you?”

“I forge fake codes,” Jazz replied, miserably.

“I’ll consider that a confession. Care to make an early plea and reduce your sentence?”

The garbage truck throttled down, and Jazz could hear its gear changing as it prepared to leave. If he was going to run, it was now or never.

“Sure,” he said, and took off. “I PLEAD GUILTY TO THE CRIME OF HELPING MY FELLOW MECHS!”

It was supposed to be a scream of triumph—a last minute, crazy last stand for freedom. Something memorable. Something cool.

It was utterly ruined by the slippery pavement.

Jazz found himself flipping treads over trussels as he saw the Monitor behind him raise its huge canon and aim for him. It shook its head slowly, as if not believing the utter mess that Jazz had made of things—or maybe everything just seemed slow as the bright light of the canon’s beam came towards him.

It missed.

It hit the wall next to him in a glorious explosion—the place he would have been at if he hadn’t tripped--and the blast propelled him forward as it radiated outward. It slammed him into the dumpster across the street, which closed and slid neatly into place inside the garbage transport

Stunned, he could only lay there in shock as the transport finished loading its cargo and took off, sailing up into the underbelly of Iacon.

Immediately, he felt a wall of garbage slam into him, pinning him against the still-warm steel of the dumpster door. It was utterly dark, and damp, and no matter how he tried to keep his wits about him it was difficult to decipher up from down.

The garbage transport was shifting too frequently, ducking in and out of districts as it made its rounds.

Used, unfiltered oil dripped down over his plating, rank with the smell of the poor mech who had been unfortunate enough to injest it and then regurgitate it later. Jazz could feel the particles clinging to his plating, as well as the pressure from a hunded other equally unsavory items: dirty washcloths, dented metal plates still covered in half-eaten dinners, a leaking sandbag from that construction work they were doing on Scrapling Street.

His own insides churned, and it was everything that he could do to keep his own small breakfast down. Still on his back, his Sinesthizer trilled a high note in protest as some object still carrying an electrical charge —possibly a battery—slid over the surface of his prized instrument.

He laughed.

He couldn’t help but laugh, choking air out through the stench of garbage, immense relief filling him at the ridiculous sound his Sinesthizer made. He had made it.

He was free.

--

That memory fragment had not contained Divide.

However, the drone was beginning to have a theory of what it was that Jazz was terrified about. His proof was not yet solid, but a final play-through would clear up any doubts he had.

One hundred and fifty cycles earlier.

--

The crowd had almost finished settling into their seats, and Jazz’s fingers were already getting itchy. The three other band members had joined him on the stage, and the dance floor was sanded with a rainbow of colors to give traction to the four or five couples who would actually dare to venture out after their meal was done.

Most came for the food. A few came for the dancing. Some came to hear the music—live music!—and feel like they were part of the upper class. Jazz would have laughed at this if he was able, because their middle-class lives were already so much more preferable to his. They could go to clubs like this at the end of their ‘hard’ week of working, paying a little bit extra to get the good seats.

Meanwhile, he’d have never been able to afford the seats in the back.

It wouldn’t have mattered even if he could afford them, because you had to have at least a secondary rank to purchase tickets, which meant the crowd was filled with skilled laborers, supervisors, and the ocassional successful artist looking to have a good time. A street musician like Jazz should have counted himself ‘lucky’ to land a gig as good as this one, but it didn’t really feel like luck.

Luck would have been playing at the Pinnacle, or at the Opera House.

Luck was something that you got when you came off the Genesis Elevators with a tag that said something other than ‘data scraper,’ a dead end job sorting trash records in a dark basement.

Luck was not what you made when you pulled together enough cash to get your first sine-pluck, or when you got enough extra credits on the street playing it to upgrade to a real Sinesthiser. Luck was not what you made when you took your leftover origination codes from data scraping and combined them with your instrument’s input function and realized that you could modify it to read spark data.

Luck was handed to you, not earned, and he’d earned a lot of money without being given a lot of luck.

There was a large crowd in the house tonight, which meant he was about to collect a lot of codes to take back to the gang. Each unique spark signature could net him a meal for a week, and they’d pass the info on to where it was needed—good folks, charities, who had talent but were manufactured into the wrong class. With the right spark forgery, a nobody could become a somebody, and get a free pass into a zone where their skills would actually be recognized. He’d have done it himself, a long time ago, if he wasn’t needed here.

He was needed, here.

They called him the Repro-meister.

Not out loud, of course, but there were more than a few newsfeeds that had latched on to the name to use whenever his sceme was discovered. Most of the time he was under the radar, but sometimes one of their charities would be caught, or be a dud, or stand out too much in a crowd. Even with the failsafes that had been worked into each spark Repro Unit, occassionally a zone-crossing guard would be more thorough than he’d need to be and one of their charities would find themselves in jail.

There had been ways to fix that, too.

The only possibility of being discovered that Jazz was worried about was so slim that it might as well have been a fairy tale: The Authenticators. They were the one section of the Cybertronian populace which patrolled spark sanctity, and even though he’d made himself a ‘Monitor plan’ just in case they showed up he’d still only seen them in fictional vid-casts and ‘Bigtread’-like reports.

Nobody else had the equipment to detect what Jazz did.

Jazz had the best cover, besides.

With all of the guests finally in their seats, the announcer went on stage to greet them with their program for the evening. Menus were passed out, and it was showtime for the band with a little light background-fare to accompany the upbeat mood that oncoming food brought to even the most dour of mechs. It was a pleasure to play a Sinesthizer for a receptive crowd.

He loved the six-fingered option with the deepest range of frequencies, and he loved the twelve-fingered option that let him add more notes. He loved the low bass and the high treble, and the perfect clarity that the instrument produced when he drew his servos across the exact right spot.

He loved how easy it was to switch into a repetitive rhythm, too, and how his extra servos let him start up the hidden sequence to begin the audience scan.

They wouldn’t even hear it, if he played the right tones on top to cover up the high-pitched whine of the emitters. He could filter out the notes later, he knew them so well.

It was a good crowd tonight, too. They clapped at the end of the song, and laughed at the announcer’s jokes, and a few even danced. Of course the small storage-class units at the front did not move from their seats for fear of being stepped on, and one particularly large tank (an ex-soldier?) at the back of the room only stared out of his one working optic, but it was still a good crowd.

They put him in a good mood as he played, and the small blinking light of all their stored origination code scans on his Sinesthizer only made him feel better. Even if his prep-room was a re-used closet, even if he’d go home to an apartment only bigger than a garage, even if he’d never see the dances at the Pinnacle, it was alright.

This was the place to be, tonight.

The Communications Drone could not help but agree. The music that was coming from Jazz’s Sinesthizer, accompanied by the steady percussion and wailing Blorn, was unlike anything that he’d downloaded off of the network. He’d experienced Jazz’s style of music before because there were a few recordings of it, but even the recordings which held the same basic tune as this one had been different.

He felt his fingers tap on the table as he watched the band, much more easily able to predict the changes in chords that the band progressed through than he had been able to predict Orion’s actions earlier. Music was something that he intrinsically understood, even if this particular music specifically sought to thwart prediction. It was exciting. It was interesting.

It had caught him off guard.

He wasn’t supposed to be sitting at a table in the audience—he was supposed to be watching the memory from Jazz’s point of view.

However, he wasn’t. Looking across the way, he could see his table partner—the huge, dark, stoic Monitor, who also nodded along with the beat in a way that Monitors were not supposed to. It frightened him, with Jazz’s memories of it still so fresh in his mind. It also intruiged him, with the shape of its body so familiar.

There were, in fact, elements of the Monitor’s design which were used in the drone’s own construction. It had the same flexible sort of pivots at the ankle joint and the same speakers were built, hidden, into its shoulders. Its arms were similarly long, and did end with hands…but they also were wrapped in sinuous tendrils that the drone could easily imagine untwining to connect to a variety of sources.

Possibly more input sources than even he was capable of connecting to.

The drone’s vision wandered further, until it settled, startled, on his other table partner.

His other table partner was Orion Pax.

“Don’t be so surprised,” the Monitor shrugged, its bright white optic turning to focus on the drone. “You’re in my head, and I’ve been expecting the company of an Authenticator for a long, long time…”

Although the music in the background still played, and although the Communications Drone could still see Jazz up on the stage…the voice coming from the Monitor was not the same voice that came later.

It was Jazz.

The Communications Drone did not understand how this was possible. “I do not understand,” he said—

And stopped, because he had just said that out loud.

In a memory, there was no reason why he wouldn’t have been able to, but he still had not been expecting it. His voice was unpracticed, certainly, but it was familiar…composed of elements that he had heard from the two sources which he had focused on for the majority of his short life.

He sounded like Senator Ratbat, and he sounded like Divide.

“I should have expected that Authenticators would actually have a way to break into my head, if only because no one is supposed to be able to do that. Instead, I’d been expecting an attack on my motor skills, or my spark support, or…anything else.” The Monitor’s hand stopped tapping on the table, and gestured to the musicians playing on the stage. “The part that confused me, in the end, is that this was the memory you went after—the memory of the last time we met, instead of the memory of what happened afterward. An Authenticator would want to know, after all, where the Sinesthizer had gone—not how it had been discovered in the first place.”

What Jazz was talking about sounded both incriminating and also dismissing at the same time, leaving the Communications Drone perplexed about what to say.

“I have not seen any of this before,” he finally stated, and it was the truth.

“No,” Jazz agreed, his large frame heaving a weighted sigh. “You’re a drone. Something sent by an Authenticator, maybe, but not an Authenticator yourself. Not the one I’m looking for, anyway. Are you still with us, Orion?”

From across the table, the red figure jumped in his chair, and glanced back. “I’m still here, Jazz. I was just thinking.”

The Communications Drone could understand that. His own processor was attempting to comprehend this input as quickly as it could, and without the benefit of the transmission tower to help. Additionally, all of his thoughts now had to be relayed through two systems, slowing the propagation down by a fraction of a microsecond.

Orion continued, after a moment. “You talked about what you did before I found you covered in garbage…but you never shared details about it like this. I never experienced it like this. I apologize for intruding in this way.”

“Look, Orion—don’t worry about it.” The Monitor gestured with his hand in a way that was definitely from Jazz. “If anyone was gonna see it, ever, it was gonna be you. I wasn’t as ready today as I’d hoped to be, but…I guess one can never be ready enough.” His large, white optic turned towards the drone. “Besides, Pax, you’re not the one who needs to apologize for intruding.”

The drone stared.

This was not how he’d expected the conversation to go, especially after the earlier threats that Jazz had made to him. However, he had lost control of the situation. Instead of directing the memory, he was now participating in it—moving along in the current of a new, false memory that Jazz was creating the environment for. While he could probably back out and leave now with the information he now possessed, he had not yet actually solved the problem which had driven him inside of Jazz’s mind in the first place.

He needed to show Jazz that he was not a threat.

To do that, he needed to understand why Jazz considered him one.

The pieces of information that he’d gained thus far were confusing, but if put together in the right way they told an important story.

Jazz was an outlaw.

He had gotten in trouble with an Authenticator for trafficking in illegal origination code data. He had been pursued by this Authenticator/Monitor, and had miraculously escaped because of a fluke. Orion Pax had somehow been the one to find him, and Jazz had managed to remain at large by choosing a new prison—the transmission tower of the Iaconian Archives.

However, he had been long expecting the Authenticator/Monitor to eventually track him down, and now, because the drone had used Divide’s origination code to send a message through the tower, Jazz now believed that this Authenticator had come.

Divide’s spark signature had been the signature which Jazz had scanned from the Monitor, and which he had kept safe in his Sinesthizer for all of these stellar cycles.

There was no way that Jazz would have known that Divide had stopped being an Authenticator long ago, because Jazz had never learned Divide’s name—only his spark code. He had never met the Authenticator behind the Monitor, and had never seen the face of the mech who had once pursued him.

He’d been hiding from a ghost for most of his life.

“I…” the drone stated, finding his ability to even use the pronoun to be its own small miracle, “…apologize.”

Orion Pax and the Jazz Monitor exchanged a look, and then both focused their attention back onto the drone.

“That’s a good place to start,” Jazz accepted, his tone no longer quite as dangerous as it had seemed a few moments ago. “Orion indicated that you wanted the chance to talk…so while we’re in here and while no one is rooting through anyone else’s memories, let’s talk. Who are you, and who sent you?”

Orion raised a hand, stopping the Communications Drone before he could answer with the long string of numericals that constituted his assembly designation and physical address.

“He and I have gone over this part already, Jazz. Trust me, you don’t want him to answer. Suffice it to say that he has no name, and he will not disclose his owner.”

Jazz, despite projecting himself in the body of an individual who had even less ability to express itself than he did, still managed to look displeased by this statement. “There’s not much for us to talk about then, is there? Unless I can get some sort of proof that you weren’t sent by an Authenticator, I’m going to have to take unfortunate actions once we’re out of this memory loop.”

The drone glanced back to the stage where the musicians were moving into a newer song, and watched as a trio got up to dance from a table nearby. The memory felt real, but was not real. This was interesting.

He could talk in this memory by piecing together bits of what he remembered Divide and Senator Ratbat sounding like, but the end result did not sound like them. The Monitor had not sounded like Divide, either, but had somehow contained his spark signature. Jazz sounded like Jazz, but looked like the Monitor.

All of this was accomplished through subterfuge—by using a fake overlay to give the impression of something real.

He wondered if it would be possible to create this sort of environment in the future, in order to communicate.

He wondered if it weren’t a potential answer to the immediate problem at hand.

“It is difficult to tell you without compromising my priority standing order,” the drone finally replied, looking to the Jazz Monitor. “I cannot risk that you will return me to my owner before that time. Instead, I have contacted a spark technician at Orion Pax’s request.” He shifted to look at Orion for a moment, before turning his attention back to Jazz. “This technician will repair me, and I intend to leave with this technician when he has completed this task. No further inconvenience will be presented to either Orion Pax or designation: Jazz before that time, other than a request for a wall plug to maintain minimum energy charge in this unit. In...me.”

Both of Orion’s optic ridges rose, and the drone could see his hands—already clasped on the table—clench a little tighter together. “This is more than you told me, earlier.”

“Affirmative,” the drone continued, glancing back to Orion, “You did not request further information underneath the danger of a threat. Is more proof required?” Looking to Jazz, he caught the white optic no longer staring straight at him.

“Why send the request for a spark technician using an Authenticator’s origination code?” The Monitor querried, watching the trio as they danced. “Where did you get that code in the first place?”

“From an Authenticator. Yours is not the only mind that I have been inside.”

His table partners were both silent at this admission.

They were silent for several moments.

The drone realized in this time precisely why his actions might be worrying. As he was currently occupying the systems of both hosts, they had reason to fear what he was capable of.

He was not entirely sure what he was capable of, himself—at least, not in the context of what the average mech could accomplish. The fact that he was able to download memories from living mechs was unique, but it was also imprecise. Jazz had proven that if the drone was not careful, the drone could find himself trapped in an environment of someone else’s creation.

That…felt dangerous.

He was beginning to realize how lucky he had been that Divide had not been as prepared as Jazz for an intruder.

However, Divide had possessed a different sort of defense, one that the drone was just now learning about.

The drone had believed that he had copied over every memory of Divide’s which referenced music. However, as he was sitting inside of a memory that both Divide and Jazz should have shared, he was beinning to realize that this was incorrect. This memory contained music, and Divide had been sitting at this very table using the form of a Monitor…

But the communications drone had no record of it.

There were very few files which mentioned Divide’s status as an Authenticator, at all—and there were no mentions of a Monitor. The entire era of Divide’s life before he had come to the surface was almost completely blank…and while the drone had earlier assumed that it was because Divide had not listened to much music while he was in the Core, that was proving to be an incorrect assumption.

Somehow, Divide’s memories of his time as an Authenticator—and especially his memories of using a Monitor—were memories that Divide had managed to keep hidden.

“If the technology to read memories from the living now exists…and you have this technology…then you may be more dangerous than you realize,” Orion finally said, slowly. “Having that ability is not just illegal…it’s…it’s not even possible. Your owners might not be pleased that we’ve found out about it, whoever they are.”

“I cannot predict how my owner would react. However, it is not my intention to tell him about you, especially as I must complete my task before returning to him.” The communications drone replied. “My only desire is to be repaired by the spark technician and then depart.”

“But we still don’t know why you came here in the first place,” the Jazz Monitor interjected, towering over the table with a height and weight that the drone did not feel comfortable with even in a false memory.  “And now you’re presenting a very compelling argument as to why I ought to scrap you. If you were sent by an Authenticator, then Orion and I have plenty to fear based off of what we just witnessed…”

“…and if you weren’t sent by an Authenticator, then somone out there has developed technology which the Authenticators will be wanting,” Orion finished. “Which puts the Archives at risk of being in the middle of this struggle no matter which action we take. Your mission—whatever it might be—becomes dubious when taking into account your capabilities.” He sighed, heavily. “I don’t want to be the tire-clamp here, but Jazz may be right.”

“Then further proof is required,” the Communications Drone stated.

Orion nodded, and looked at Jazz.

Jazz had no expression which the drone was capable of reading, but his silence carried enough intent.

They needed proof that he was not an Authenticator—or connected to Authenticators. They additionally needed proof that he was not going to be a threat to the archives.

This would have been impossible to explain under normal circumstances, but it was ironically Jazz who had given him the key to proving his innocence. “Request acknowledged,” the drone stated, simply. “The last Lunar Cycle worth of memories has now been made available.”

Using the same trick that Jazz had used, he began manipulating the environment. By copying the memory onto his own template, it was easy for the drone to make the changes necessary to create acces to his own personal data storage.

Some of the data changed in transfer, as the drone did not have the same experiences Jazz did.

Instead of surrounding a table in a club from mid-sector Iacon, for instance, they were now surrounding a table in a dark emptiness, each holding the menus which had been passed out at the club earlier.

The music still played, but there were no longer any musicians.

The sounds of other mechs talking and dancing were gone.

The Jazz Monitor grumbled, the low counterpoint of his dual electromagnetic induction motors rotating with an uneasy murmur. He was still standing, but he was clearly dismayed by the change in scenery—by the control which had been re-asserted by the Communications Drone.

However, Orion was already looking at the menu which had been offered to him. On it was a selection of the last 36 solar cycles—each day of the last lunar cycle which the drone had lived through.

His memories.

He was offering them freely to both Jazz and Orion to view, the ‘proof’ that was needed that he did not work for Divide and that he was not a threat. They were filtered, of course, to protect the identity of Senator Ratbat, but the rest of the data was genuine.

“Shall we give this a try?” Orion asked Jazz, uncertain.

Jazz set his own menu down on the table, and looked down over the archivist’s shoulders to the selections below. “I don’t trust this any more now than I did a cycle ago, Orion,” he stated, softer, “but I can’t say I’m not curious. Will we have full autonomy?” The last question was directed back at the drone, who found himself once more the focus of the uncomfortably white optic.

Still not used to talking, the drone nodded. “You may access the files provided at your discretion.”

“That’s not a bad start.” The Monitor Jazz accepted, and reached down over Orion to select the first day.

Everything vanished.

--

They were standing in the transmission tower.

He was plugged into the tower with one arm, the other still damaged from his encounter with Divide. He was sorting through the massive song database which he had downloaded, and seeking further information by performing routine checks on the data through the network.

Immediately, a wave of longing hit the drone, slamming into him harder than he’d expected.

This tower was his home.

This tower was where he belonged, and he had been without it for much, much too long.

Beside him, the emotion got the attention of his two guests, who looked over at him as he stood connected to the tower. They were separate from the memory, but he remained immersed to prevent them from having to monitor two identical drones.

They did not pay attention to him for long, however, before they began examining the memory in excruciating detail.

They looked at the screens. They looked at his input. They looked at the data he was sorting, and Jazz shook his head.

“That is a lot of music,” the still-Monitor-shaped mech stated. “Is this a radio broadcast tower?”

“No,” the drone replied. “This is a throughput tower. It is my job to regulate ingoing and outgoing transmissions.”

“That sounds like what you do, Jazz,” Orion offered helpfully, still holding the menu in his hand and already looking at the next selection.

“It is what I do,” Jazz replied. “But this looks nothing like my station. The equipment here is nicer, but there is no chair. No window.” He glanced at the screens. “There is more music, though. What is the program you’re running?”

“I am performing a comparative analysis on a database of quasi-illegal songs in order to determine the purpose of the database.”

“What makes the songs illegal?”

The drone did not want to answer this. Based off of the memories from Jazz, the probability of him coming to the incorrect assumption was greater than 90%.

However, the probability of him assuming worse was higher should the communications drone not answer.

“They all contain manually appended origination codes.”

Jazz stared for a moment at the drone, and then looked back to the data on the screen. “Someone was stapling artist signatures onto the work? You could get decent cash for an original song like that if the forgery was good.”

This was not incorrect.

However, the forgeries were not good. They were not meant to be good, they were simply meant to be complete. Divide had not wanted to sell the songs.

The drone did not know what he wanted to do with them.

“It does seem like something an Authenticator would use a drone to track, though,” Jazz finally stated, and the communications drone could only nod.

That had been the assumption he knew that Jazz would make.

Jazz did not say anything further about it, however, and he continued to look around the room.

Nothing new happened.

The data continued to be sorted.

The field did not change.

When he was done looking, he glanced at Orion and nodded. Orion, having already finished his obsertations, raised his hand to re-activate the menu and pressed the option for the second day.

--

They were standing in the transmission tower.

He was plugged into the tower with one arm, the other still damaged from his encounter with Divide. He was still sorting through the massive song database which he had downloaded, and seeking further information by performing routine checks on the data through the network.

“Is it the same database?” Jazz asked.

“It is,” the communications drone replied.

Orion pushed the button, and they pressed onward.

--

Day three, they were standing in the transmission tower.

--

By day four, they had fast-forwarded to his recharge closet, where he was undergoing mandatory recharge separate from the tower. It was dark, and the three of them did not fit in the remembered confines of the closet, which left the Jazz Monitor half-rendered into the wall.

“What kind of place is this?” Orion asked.

“It is the sort of place where one can properly recharge,” the communications drone replied, pleased to relay that knowledge to his hosts to avoid any future misconceptions.

“Standing up? This is how you sleep?”

Smug, the drone fitted his one working plug into the socket which was meant for it, and let the memory play.

--

Day eight, they were standing in the transmission tower.

--

Day seventeen, they were standing in the transmission tower.

--

Day twenty five, they were standing in the transmission tower.

--

Day thirty-three, everything was on fire.

It remembered fire.

Fire was something it was not equipped to handle. Metal and duracrete did not easily burn, and most mech-made materials avoided combustible properties on purpose. Heat was a product of reaction, and, around Cybertronians, intense heat was an undesired product of any reaction. Fire escape protocols were not present in its systems, because the likelihood of it ever encountering a fire was approximately zero.

Thus, when encountering a veritable wall of flames, the communication’s drone was terrified for the first time that it could recall.

It was an emotion it could register, and catalog, and save either for a time when it could fully comprehend it, or a time when it would not matter, anyway. That time seemed to be fast-approaching.

There was no way out.

“Jazz?” The communications drone heard a familiar voice calling, muffled by the crackling of flames.

“I’m here, Orion.”

If, it reasoned, the factory was made mostly of metal and duracrete, then whatever had started the fire must have been chemical. What had continued the fire must have been resultant from the fuels and oils in the machinery, which had been spread when they’d exploded. Now, the fire raged in all directions, heat melting the walls, charring the duracrete, consuming the wreckage of drones that had not escaped.

It could feel the heat.

It could see two figures standing in the flames, warped by the fluctuations of air temperature that separated them.

“This…this isn’t real, is it?” the smaller of the two silhouettes was asking, backing up out of the blaze. “It can’t be real…”

“The memory is real,” the larger figure replied, a note of uncertainty within his voice. “Which means the environment acts realistically.”

“My joints are heating up, Jazz. I don’t think we can stay in here here for long.”

The drone could see the two continuing to talk, and watched the way that the fire reflected off their plating, softening metal with waves of intensity. For once, however, it had no calculations on what such intensity meant. It knew…it knew there was no escape for them—for any of them. Already its processes were slowing, already it could feel the compounds in its paint breaking down their bonds and peeling away. In the distance it could see the docks, and the tiny, distorted window of cool greyness that seemed to be beckoning across impossible odds. From all around, it could hear the crackling of flames.

They were beautiful.

They…roared, a vacuum of air particles being consumed in the reaction, layering wave after wave of rustling, arrhythmic whispers. It tilted its head back, and watched the deep reds, bright oranges, harsh yellows and violent whites reflecting off the visor of its companion, locking the vision in memory.

The silhouettes of the two mechs danced within the mingling colors, their dark forms contrasting with the sea of unending light.

One of them was approaching the communications drone, his shadow casting a brief, needed coolness onto its plating.

“Where is the menu?” the other one asked, looking around at the ground as if it had lost something it needed.

“The menu melted, Jazz. We’re not safe here,” the figure which was advancing on it said, and reached out. “We’re ready to go now. We have to get out or we’ll all…we’ll all…”

“We all could shut down,” the other voice suggested, coming from the larger silhouette. Its single, bright, white optic made the drone feel a wash of uneasiness, magnified by the encroaching danger of the flames. The dark paint on his armor was starting to bubble, running unevenly down his arm like one of the pieces of artwork that it had seen on the Liesure Suite.

Something was wrong.

Where had this mech come from? Why was he addressing it?

Confused, the communications drone reached out a hand-less arm and pointed forward, compelling the experimental that was still carrying its body to move, pointing towards the factory exit.

The door was ahead, through walls of fire. It estimated that its freedom was approximately five hundred yards away. As the temperature increased, the communications drone began other calculations, checking the heat of the flames around them to see how long they could last before the flames ate at their metal, how long they could last before their own fuel intakes caught.

The calculations faded, in the heat. It tried to restart them, and failed, aware of the dampening effect on electronics, aware that the longer it was in the fire the more permanent its damage would become.

Its vision distorted.

“Orion, I think the only way out is through that door. We’re going to have to make a run for it,” the larger silhouette said.

“I can’t,” Orion replied, and tried to take a step. “Jazz, I can’t. My ankle joints just sealed.”

In a lance of pain, it heard the other’s visor crack. It glanced up, losing sight of the two figures for an instant to watch the drone propelling them forward, watching its melting faceplates and the exposed wiring underneath. The pain…had not been its pain. The distortion in the vision had been the overlay of the drone’s.

Now, it could not see through the other’s optics at all. It could not guess how long it might be before its own vision deteriorated, or what differing materials the two of them might have been constructed out of. It could not guess. It…could not try to, as the error messages were flooding in.

The drone’s feet were melting.

It stumbled.

Behind him, the larger figure had picked up the smaller figure and was following the path that the deteriorating drone had taken. It could see small puddles on the floor—liquid metal with lower melting points, red-hot footsteps that were spreading outward as the ceiling struts dripped other metals down.

“You have to wake up!” the familiar voice shouted at him, the pair of mechs slowly gaining with a longer stride. “You have to stop this memory. You have to stop it now!”

The communications drone could not even scream as it felt fire licking at the cable that connected it to the drone, pain that was its own sharply emanating from a source that it could not shut down. It needed this connection. It needed this drone. It needed to live, even if it was certain that the other would die. It…had to keep going.

It couldn’t listen to the voices and stop.

The voices were wrong. The only way to live was to keep going.

To keep running. Left leg extend. Left leg contact, left ankle compress, left leg propel, left knee compress, left leg extend…Right leg.

Right leg, error, ankle deterioration, suggest immediate shut down for repairs.

Left leg, error, ankle deterioration, suggest immediate shut down for repairs.

Something slammed into it and the vision of the factory spun, the roof turning up-side down until it became a new floor, the floor rushing up to meet it as it descended into the maw of fire.

No, it was too close.

“You have to remember where you are! You aren’t in the factory! You’re safe in the archives! You are safe!”

Orion was gripping his shoulders. Shaking him.

They were rolling in flames.

Behind Orion was the horrific spectre of the Monitor—its single white optic distorted from the heat, the shape of its head barely recognizable. Nothing about the situation matched what Orion was saying…there was nothing safe here.

There was nothing safe here except Orion.

Immediate shut down recommended. Override. Override.

This was a memory.

He knew what was coming next.

There would be an explosion, and if he did not stop this memory he did not know what was going to happen to the two occupants within it. He had never used a memory like this before.

He had to get out of the flames.

He had to get them all out.

The sound of rushing air hit him, and a wave of heat followed. He dove forward, knowing that he had to end this, knowing that he had to keep the two mechs alive, knowing that his only chance was to stop the fire that still raged brightly as if it were just as real and terrifying as it had been the first time.

He placed himself in front of the blast, and looked back at Orion, shielding him.

The explosion hit--

--

A moment later, the drone realized that he was no longer connected to Orion Pax.

The connection had been severed, and, judging by the fact that his input pins weren’t twisted or scraped, the connection had been severed gently.

He did not remember that happening.

Both Jazz—regular Jazz, once more—and Orion were looking down at him, and with more than a little annoyance he realized that he was lying horizontally on the table in Orion’s office.

They continued to stare until he tilted his helm at them, and even then their worried expressions simply glanced at each other.

“Are you alright?” Orion finally asked.

All he could do was nod, tired after the intensity of running through the fire twice in one decacycle.

“You got us out,” the archivist smiled.

“Out of a memory he put us in,” Jazz frowned, looking up at Orion.

“Out of a memory that he gave us control over,” Orion reminded him.

Jazz did not have anything to say to that. He was still carrying his weapon, but it was held limply in his grasp, pointed at the floor. His mouthplates were pressed tightly together, and he held Orion’s gaze with an expression that the drone did not understand.

There was not much the drone understood right now. He had thought that he nothing this extreme could happen inside of his own memories, but that was incorrect.

He had been afraid.

He was still afraid of the fire.

“The choice is yours, Jazz,” Orion said calmly. “You can throw him out or try to scrap him, but I don’t think he’s here to hurt either of us. I think he came here the same way as you.”

That, clearly, had some impact on the white mech. He turned, slightly, and the drone could see how tense the panels in his back had become, clamped down rigidly enough that there were no gaps in his armor. “Maybe you’re right,’ Jazz frowned, “But he’s still a threat.”

“He’s not the one holding a gun,” the red mech smiled, sadly, and stepped away from the drone to head back for his desk. “Do whatever you think is best, Jazz. That was proof enough for me.”

Chapter Text

It was cold here.

It was cold and dark and musty, and he hadn’t seen light from the sun in over five solar cycles.

It was a miserable experience, and Megatronus wanted nothing more than for his processor to finally power down so he could rest. However, he was not so lucky.

He’d heard tales about what it was like to be in deep stasis incarceration from one of the rare mechs who had been released from it, but the tales had not prepared him for the experience.

He’d been escorted to the prison complex, which had been quiet all the way up to the fortified gate. Then, there had been the beatings. He’d anticipated those. They were common knowledge in the Underground despite the fact that the guards tried not to start them until after the prisoner was out of sight. Less well known were the headache-inducing scans, the piles of paperwork, and the brief physical examination by a medical technician, who confirmed his identity and then wordlessly hooked up numerous connections to prepare his systems for stasis. The technician had not looked at his wounds—either from the fight or from the beatings. It was not his job to do so.

After the examination, he’d been taken to the Wall. There, while facing the Wall, his body had been strapped to a flat frame and deactivated, cutting off power from each system one by one in forced stasis, leaving only his processor on minimal power. The connections which the technician had given him were hooked into the frame, the steel bonds were tightened, and then the frame had been lifted off the ground, slotted into a rack by a huge machine arm that fitted him into the Wall of criminals like a reverse vending machine. There was no room to move. There was no space between him and the frame case that the next occupant was stored in. They were stacked like a shelf of energon goodie boxes, and they were utterly immobile. Even if he somehow managed to pull himself out of forced stasis and get un-strapped, he would still not be able to escape the tight confinement. There was not enough space to move his arms, and it was certainly not enough room to sit up or wiggle out.

With no power and no movement, most criminals had no option but to sleep.

Theoretically, after stasis set in and you’d been installed in the rack, then you had no choice. The minimal power that one’s processor was allowed reduced most mechs to a half-conscious state. Some prisoners had told him it was the first chance they’d ever been given to relax, others reported having dreams.

Megatronus was not experiencing either relaxation or dreams. His processor refused to power down fully even without any energy flowing to it, and having no control over his chassis made him more nervous than relaxed.

He had nothing to do but think.

That was a problem.

He could think on his fate, and how some upper-class Senator would be the one to pick the way he died. He could think about the factory and the workers there, and he could think about the fact that it no longer existed. The drone that he’d been working on with Perceptor was gone…given a brief semblance of life and then put in a closet to await its destruction. That…sounded familiar.

He did not like to think about that.

He preferred to think about his team, and the ways they would be restructuring themselves now that he was gone. Onslaught would be taking his place, and Clench would either have found a way to leash Onslaught into carrying out Megatronus’s debt, or would be defining the terms of a new contract. They would be training, and if Onslaught was as good of a team leader as Megatronus had been then he’d be having the other team members fight each other to figure out their strengths. Rumble and Frenzy would probably be a pleasant surprise. However, Triage would have to be pushed harder to focus on offence now that Onslaught’s bulk gave the rest of the team more than enough defensive capability. Group combat was going to be very different, and it would probably take them a few trials to get the balance right.

He thought about how he wouldn’t get to talk to Clench about that.

He didn’t want to think anymore.

It was too cold, here.

It was cold and dark and musty, and he hadn’t seen light from the sun in over five solar cycles.

This should have reminded him of the mines, but it didn’t. There had been times he’d needed to crawl through spaces just big enough to hold him, but he’d gotten to choose how to enter those spaces and he’d never been stuck in them. Well, almost never.

He’d never been stuck in them alone.

That was the biggest difference.

There had been other miners in the mines that he could call if he was stuck. They weren’t always in the immediate vicinity, but they had always been only a few clicks away. Even when he wasn’t in trouble there were mechs around, and sometimes it was smart to partner up when exploring an older shaft or a very new one. It had been important to make friends, because friends were the ones who would keep digging if a tunnel collapsed.

He’d brought that philosophy with him to the gladiatorial arena, where it had been regularly challenged. You were supposed to consider your team-mates a threat…especially when you were with a sponsor. Sponsorship was always a competition, and while you had to play nice during group combat you still had to do it while being better than everyone else. You had to keep the sponsors interested in you, and sometimes you had to do that at the expense of a team-mate.

He’d changed that, when he’d formed a team with Clench. He’d taken gladiators who knew the value of working together, and he’d used them to prove how much more deadly a cooperative force could be. He’d chosen those who could take commands, and he’d chosen those who would watch each other’s backs, and he’d chosen those who would make small sacrifices to benefit the team.

He’d rewarded them for it.

He’d…trusted them, because of it.

He’d never been alone, like he was now. He’d never been alone, with only his thoughts as company.

Even in the drone factory he’d been able to rely on Perceptor.

Remembering that did not help.

A spark of anger flickered to life somewhere deep inside of him, hotly echoing the blaze of flames that had consumed the factory.

He did not want to think about Perceptor. The scientist had worked with him for lunar cycles, and had come to be as close to Megatronus as any of his other team-mates. They had been together almost every day. They had shared information with each other that was not normally shared, Perceptor telling Megatronus about the tenets of the spark technician caste and Megatronus telling Perceptor about the problems which the lower class endured. They’d helped each other.

They’d helped each other, but now he was here. Perceptor had led to this. Perceptor had caused him pain.

Perceptor had looked at his initial classification data.

Megatronus’s systems tried to power on, his rage igniting his will to act. How had that spark technician dared to invade his privacy? How had that primary-rank technician, who had been trying so hard to understand the problems with class distinctions, dared to utterly disregard Megatronus’s rights? How had Perceptor, who had been his friend….how dare he not realize why Megatronus had been angry?

Megatronus was still angry. Megatronus could not help but be angry. However, without sufficient energy to fuel that anger his systems remained dormant.

He was in prison now. There was nothing he could do to Perceptor. He couldn’t even bring himself to become fully awake.

He was tied into his frame, bound as surely with steel as he was with security connections that monitored his condition and alerted the guards if something went wrong.   All he had now was time, and that time was cycling away until they decided upon the manner of his death.

He did not want to spend the last part of his life thinking about Perceptor.

However, his other options were not much more pleasant.

He did not know how long it was going to be before his sentence was decided. He did not know how his plans were proceeding in the outside world. He did not know anything.

He feared what he did not know. He feared that Onslaught would not succeed, that his team would be captured and incriminated, and that he would only learn about this as he died. He feared that his death would be quiet, hidden away in a back room instead of out on the Arena sands where his name would be shouted as he fell. He feared that he would die in vain.

He feared the innumerable obstacles which lay in Onslaught’s path, some of which he had not considered until he’d found himself with this abundance of time.

Even if Onslaught could take the oscilloscope, capture a drone-spark frequency, get that programmed onto the master chip, and get that master chip to Altihex—which Megatronus was realizing might already be too many steps—then there was the added worry that drone sparks might not even accept the code. Even Perceptor had only learned of this possibility just moments before Megatronus had decided to burn down the factory, and Megatronus himself would have spent more time worrying about it if there hadn’t been other more pressing considerations.

Now, he had too much time to think about it, and there was plenty to fear.

Perceptor had taken readings from the serving drone with the same oscilloscope which he’d used to take Megatronus’s spark readings, and he had noticed that its spark was different. He’d noticed that drone sparks, like normal sparks, could change when subjected to intense situations…although what the serving drone had been doing that had caused its spark to change was still a mystery. Whatever it was, it had altered the spark just enough to cause a critical error in the drone’s systems. There was, apparently, a limited window of spark frequency within which a drone processor could operate before it no longer understood its own body’s commands.

Regular Cybertronians didn’t have that problem. Megatronus didn’t know what the difference was between his processor and a drone processor, but he did know that he’d gone through enough traumatic events to drastically alter his spark and he was still functioning.

The serving drone, however, was not.

It was especially dead now that the factory had burned, which meant the only two mechs on the planet who were aware of drone-spark changes were he and Perceptor…and Perceptor did not have access to his oscilloscope any longer to review the data that he’d scanned.

Perceptor would probably be sad about that. Losing data was worse than losing a limb, to a spark technician. It would have bothered Megatronus, too, less than a decacycle ago.

Now, though…

Now he did not know how he felt. It would have been wrong to say that a part of him did not take perverse pleasure in the fact that much of Perceptor’s work had been destroyed.

It would also have been wrong to say that a part of him did not regret the actions that he took. Perceptor had clearly not realized how much of a breach of privacy it was to look into Megatronus’s life without his permission, and Megatronus had nearly killed him for it.

On the other hand, Megatronus was now about to die because he’d left Perceptor alive.

He was thinking about Perceptor again.

It was cold and dark and he was uncomfortable, and he was thinking about Perceptor again.

How could he have come to be here, however, if it weren’t for Perceptor?

Who else could have tracked him down after the factory burned? Who else had enough information about Megatronus’s life—especially after looking for it—as Perceptor did? Who else had actually visited his home, and spent so much time with him, and…

It had been a mistake, not killing the technician when he’d had the chance.

It had been.

He had to keep telling himself that, despite the fact that if it went against his own ideals.

He had to tell himself that, even if knew it was wrong to dispose of someone just because they were in the way.

Even the Arena hadn’t broken him of that concept, although it had tried. The Arena had never managed to desensitize him entirely, or blind him to the importance of life, or strip him of the comprehension of death. When he killed in the Arena—when he had to kill—he was killing someone who had chosen to be there. He was killing someone who knew the risks.

The choice to get rid of Perceptor had warred with that. His emotions, his experiences, and a callousness that he hadn’t used to possess had all clashed with his sense of morality, and his morality had barely won.

Looking back at it though, he almost wished it hadn’t.

If leaving Perceptor alive had caused Megatronus-- the mech who was best able to program the drone processors-- to be removed from the equation, then it had endangered his mission. Now it was up to Onslaught and Clench and the rest of his team to carry on without him, and he did not have any idea how they were going to fare.

He hadn’t had enough time to prepare them.

With Perceptor alive, there was also the possibility that the scientist would realize his oscilloscope had not burned up in the factory fire. He might wonder where it had gone, and he might try tracking it down.

Everything could go wrong, if Perceptor realized what Megatronus had been up to.

He should not have left the technician alive.

He shouldn’t have.

It wouldn’t have been his first kill outside of the Arena.

It would just have been his first non-combatant kill.

That…

That still did not sit well with him. It would have been easier to reconcile this if he had Clench to tell him he was being a fool, or Rumble and Frenzy to tell him to stop worrying about the past, or someone to remind him of the importance of his goals.

There was no one to focus on right now but himself.

He had only his memories, and his confusion, and his worries.

He had too many worries.

He had no way to plan for methods to fix them.

There was no one here.

It was cold.

He was alone.

“Prisoner 443a, prepare for extraction.”

Startled, Megatronus had just enough power to shudder at the voice that echoed in his head. He could feel it more than he could hear it, the way it blasted through the frame connection into his muddled thoughts like a spear slicing through a cloud of Arena sand. Every prisoner was hooked into the network, wired in parallel so that a break in one wire would not affect the rest. In this way, the guards utterly controlled the environment…having access to Megatronus’s systems, his power, and the temperature of the drawer.

Because of that, he wondered just what they wanted him to do to ‘prepare’ himself for extraction. All he was really capable of doing on his frame was lying flat…the guards were the ones who would extract him from the rack.

The only reason that Megatronus could think for them to retrieve him would be to sentence him.

“Extraction commencing.”

The few sensations that he could pick up left him only the ghost of an idea of what was going on. There was movement—probably from his frame being pulled out of the drawer it had been held in and set down. If there were smart, they’d set it down facing the rack so that if he tried to run, he’d run straight into the Wall.

Being able to run, however, required access to his motor controls, and at the moment that was something that he did not have. Everything was still offline, leaving him only the uncomfortable cold-ness of sensory deprivation and lack of energy. The loud clatter of his frame hitting the floor barely registered as a soft thud.

He was down.

There was a pinprick spike of electricity from the back of his neck, and with a dawning awareness he steeled himself for what was going to happen next.

Stasis revival.

While he’d been in stasis his body had been almost completely on standby, separated by death only by a single thread of pending commands awaiting input.

Now, those commands were slowly executing, piece by piece.

He managed to not scream when the wash of awakening impulses ran through him.

It was hard to tell if he screamed, though, since his audials were still attempting to process sounds, feeding him static that felt like talons over pavement.

His legs spasmed and he heard metal wrench.

He was still strapped to the frame.

He hurt in other places, too.

Primus, he hurt, down where his ankle-strut was twisted, and up by the patch job where Titan had slid his own sword in-between his paneling. He hurt from where the officers had yanked on the stasis cuffs too hard, and from where he’d been dragged roughly, and kicked, and beaten. He would not be fixed up. There was no point, if they were going to kill him anyway.

It was dark.

No, it wasn’t dark. His optics weren’t online yet.

It left him little to focus on as needles stabbed through his joints, hydraulic fluid filling empty tubes, tiny errors resurfacing in his repair queue from Onslaught’s battle.

“Megatronus?” A voice spoke through the static, and he turned his attention quickly towards it, the movement from the servos in his neck causing an unbidden growl to rise in his stuttering engine. “Megatronus, are you properly activated?”

He knew the voice.

It was one of the guards.

“No,” he spat out with effort, shifting in the frame, trying to get more hydraulic fluid down to his knees so they’d unlock and stop trying to spasm.

“Give it a few more minutes. I brought you your ration, which ought to help.”   Megatronus felt the cool edge of a cube press up against his lips, and momentarily he considered spitting it back into the guard’s face…

…before he stopped himself. This guard had called him ‘Megatronus.’

This guard was giving him energon.

The stupidest thing that he could do right now would be to refuse.

So he drank.

The energon was welcome to his systems, flowing through them with a warmth that he could not help but enjoy. He needed it. He needed it daily in order to function. His size class had hardly any room for energon efficiency, focusing instead on the raw power needed to move items significantly more massive than they were. He’d never done well deprived, even if he’d been deprived often.

Once.

He’d been deprived often, once. Being a Gladiator had changed that.

Being a Gladiator had changed that for more people than himself.

“My optics,” he murmured, taking a break in between sips. “I can’t see.”

“You don’t need to.” The guard said, and kept the energon close enough to Megatronus’s mouth that he could find it again, easily.

This was wrong.

He hadn’t expected help from a guard.

If you were picked up by Enforcers, the chances of being returned were slim. The chances of being returned intact were even slimmer. The lower castes had no political representation and only the barest of legal representation, making nearly everything the Enforcers did to them justifiable…if only because no one would ever contest it. They could get away with anything, behind closed doors.

They often did.

The beating when he’d been brought in had been expected. So had the kicking, the rough-handling, and the jeering. It was rote, and common for the Enforcers to do their best to knock off pieces of armor plating or catch the energon that spilled. For high-profile criminals, there was an after-market for those pieces which provided many of the guards a bonus.

It was a needed bonus, if Megatronus remembered correctly. They weren’t paid enough to do their regular work, and their hours were long and thankless. The only difference between them and the mechs of the Underground was their classification—they could live one Zone higher, and their votes were actually counted when the ballots went around.

Most of the time that was just enough of a distinction to promote systemic violence. If you were at the bottom of one social order, then even those at the top of the next order down were easy prey.

For this guard, however…

“What do you want?” Megatronus managed to ask after a moment of conserving energy. “I’ve only got a few worthwhile panels left for you to rip off, and you can’t reach them unless I transform.”

“Panels?” the clearly-perplexed voice inquired, and Megatronus felt the frame that he was on tip backwards, starting to roll on a set of wheels he’d not known about. He was being moved like a piece of cargo. “I don’t want a panel from you. My second-shift partner Coremount is splitting the vial of your energon he got with me since I was off-duty at the time, and you won’t have any trouble from the rest of the Enforcers. That first beating was just for show.”

Now more perplexed than the guard who was rolling him away, Megatronus could not help but ask: “For show?” It had seemed realistic enough at the time, and it was hard to keep a hint of sarcasm from leaking into his words.

“Don’t pry too much into it. Most of the guards won’t talk about this, and you might provoke one into reneging on his promise. Let’s just say our precinct bet five hundred credits on you in your fight with Titan, and I’m not going to have to wait in the energon stock-lines anymore to get my daily rations. It’s been a good decacycle for us all. Er. Present company excluded.”

The guard was right about that, at least. It had not been an amazing decacycle for Megatronus.

However, the other information provided by the guard was enough to keep him quiet as he rolled, thinking about the way the officers had approached him when he’d been in the Arena. Most of them had been scared, but at least one of them had been steady. He’d been treated civilly up until he’d reached the Enforcer station, and after the first beating his experiences with them hadn’t been unpleasant.

That didn’t excuse the first beating.

However, he wasn’t going to protest the fact that more weren’t on the way.

“So will I be allowed to have my vision back so I can see whoever will pronounce my death?” He finally asked, starting to feel slightly more like a Cybertronian again now that his systems were adjusting, but still disturbed by the fact that his optics had not yet come online.

“Your death? Oh, probably. I believe that you’re allowed to keep your senses for official court business. However, they uh…they haven’t decided if they’re going to kill you yet. Maybe that’s why they’re sending this guy.”

Megatronus was not awake enough for the constant challenges to his assumptions, especially because the guard kept answering the questions that he wasn’t actually asked. “I have a visitor?”

“You do,” the guard replied, his voice echoing in a different way than it had sounded a moment ago. They weren’t by the rack any longer. If Megatronus had to guess by the sound of echoing—which was something that miners became very, very good at—then they were in a hallway now.

“The sort of visitor that I don’t need my optics for?” He frowned, baring his teeth straight ahead into a haze of blackness that he could not penetrate. “This can’t be good.”

“I couldn’t tell you one way or another.” The guard sighed, and Megatronus could hear the sound of a door opening, and feel the slight wind over his wounds that came from the air displaced by passing into a new room. “Whoever it is, he must be rich.”

“Why do you say that?”

“You think they’d let just anyone see you?

Megatronus could not disagree with the intent behind the question.

His particular crime had made him into a high-profile individual, and with his status as a gladiator he had no doubt that the media would have been enjoying coming up with all number of theories for what he’d done. Only those who were sufficiently able to bribe the Enforcers or who had immediate relevance to the case would have access to him…and that number would be small due to the fact that there was some Senator involved.

It explained why he was being rolled into a close, tight room, and it also explained why he was still strapped into his frame.

His only comfort was that if the guard did not recognize the individual, then he was probably not about to be subjected to an Enforcer interrogation. He could not imagine what an interrogator would want from him, besides, since having Perceptor’s statement was more than enough to incriminate him.

Unless…this was Perceptor.

“I’ll be back for you when he’s done,” the guard said, and Megatronus felt him tighten the restraints around his helmet, changing out the monitoring plug that connected to the back of his neck. “Good luck.”

Megatronus only nodded, feeling odd about the casual way that the Enforcers treated him like an object, rolling him around and switching out plugs. This one seemed to mean well, but the behavior was so ingrained that he could easily imagine how a guard could come to see the prisoners less as mechs and more as property. This was something that Megatronus would be powerless to change, no matter how many drone factories he blew up.

The Enforcer’s footsteps headed out, and the door closed behind him.

He was alone.

Again.

This time it wouldn’t be for long, but Megatronus was no longer looking forward to company.

He did not want to speak with Perceptor.

His fist clenched, and the iron of his restraints clattered against the frame. The noise pierced loudly in the small room, echoing off of the close walls, off of his chassis, and off of what must have been a table in front of him.

There was definitely a table there.

It was large for a table however, and it was tall…

And it wasn’t a table.

Actually, that wasn’t right. It was a table; there was just something else beyond the table.

Someone else.

It was not Perceptor.

He did not know who this was at all.

“Who is there?” he growled, pressing against the bars that held him to his frame.

Quietly, stealthily, the presence across the table changed, and it was only in paying careful attention to the sound of metal on metal that Megatronus knew his guest was sitting down. The strange mech’s movements were dampened, his spark’s energy field diminished to the point where it was impossible to detect. His engine did not hum, or growl, or purr, but only whirred just above the low perception of Megatronus’s sensors, feeling more like a change in pressure than a sound. There had been no footsteps, and there was immediate answer to give the mech away.

Whatever modifications these were, Megatronus had not heard of them before. He couldn’t ‘hear’ them now. His own lack of sight was steadily growing more infuriating, and he shifted in his frame, testing the bindings that held him down.

They did not budge.

“You would not know me even if I gave my designation,” a dark voice finally spoke with an unfamiliar accent, thick, old, and almost alien to his audial receptors.

It was not an incorrect statement, Megatronus decided. If he had ever met someone with these particular abilities, he was certain he would have remembered them, with or without a name. “What do you want?” Megatronus asked, instead, looking for a question that would be more pertinent.

“I desire your cooperation,” the voice repeated, evenly, the tone unchanging from a moment ago.

“Given the fact that I am strapped down and utterly unable to see, you’re not providing me with much incentive.” The intruder was, however, providing Megatronus with plenty of information. There were not many reasons why a mech who wanted to speak with him would have significant modifications in engine dampening, would not want Megatronus to see, and would additionally ask for his cooperation. This was an interrogation, after all.

That was confusing.

What further information was needed?

“Incentive will come later. You are strapped down without vision, Megatronus, because I acknowledge that you are a threat. I suspect you may have a long history of taking advantage of those who underestimate you.”

“It isn’t hard,” he retorted, his optics narrowing despite their lack of light. This mech had also addressed him by his given name, instead of his tag number. “The only thing that is expected of a Gladiator is death.” Frankly, the expectation hadn’t been much better as a miner, making this possibly the only situation in which he had been over estimated.

“That is what is expected of prisoners, as well. I may be able to change that.”

This got Megatronus’s attention.

“I don’t think that the Senator who owns the factory I burned down would appreciate being deprived of his kill.” If he was livid enough to send Enforcers onto the field of a gladiatorial match, then he certainly had a grudge to uphold.

“Senator Ratbat does not care about you, Megatronus. His concern is for his factory. His concern is in preventing this incident from occurring again.”

Megatronus could not help but laugh. “I doubt he will have to worry about me blowing up a second factory. He doesn’t have one, to begin with…and second, all he has to do is give the word and I’ll be dead.”

However, Megatronus was not dead…which meant that there was something that the Senator was waiting for. Until this mech had shown up, Megatronus had not even considered the possibility.

Now that this mech was here, Megatronus was suspicious.

“That may yet be the case—“ the interrogator started, but Megatronus was quick to interrupt.

“He sent you, didn’t he? Why did he send you?”

The silence on the other end of the question was difficult to read. His guest’s engines had not changed their steady, quiet thrumming since he’d first noticed them.

“I would think that to be obvious,” the other mech stated, “to someone as perceptive as you.”

Immediately caught off guard by the second over-estimation made by the intruder, Megatronus could not find anything to say as he tried to process what a Senator like Ratbat could possibly want that he did not already have. Across the table, his silence was echoed by the lack of presence from his guest.

It bothered Megatronus that it was not so easy to conceive of the Senator’s plans, especially when the interrogator was insinuating that he ought to be able to…that he should have been perceptive enough to know.

It was an all-too-painful reminder of someone else who had been perceptive, yet as utterly in the dark as Megatronus was right now.

He shook his head slowly, hating to admit his lack of knowledge. Behind him, the new plug which the guard had inserted into his neck clacked briefly against the edges of his restraints. It did not fit as well as the previous one had, making it itch aggravatingly along the perimeter of its contacts.

“Very well then,” the oddly- accented voice continued, “I’ll get straight to the point. Who hired you to work at the drone factory?”

It took only a fraction of a moment for Megatronus to go from increasingly frustrated to increasingly confused.

Ratbat had sent an interrogator here to ask him that?

Megatronus stared into the darkness that was his lack of vision, amazed that this mech was being paid to find out something that there must have been records of. Even if the factory had burned down, it was unlikely that there wasn’t hiring information at another location.

This must have been a test of some kind.

“Upstart. Upstart hired me.”

Megatronus remembered him only vaguely. He’d been a sturdy mech, gold and brown and not manufactured with the capacity to enjoy himself. Back when Clench was young, Megatronus imagined that he must have looked like Upstart, though he knew better than to mention this to Clench.

There was not much else to remember about the mech who had hired him. Megatronus only recalled that he’d been invited into an office and offered a chair which he could not fit in, and Upstart had not even looked up before acid-etching his stamp onto the filing record. They had needed a worker, and Megatronus was strong and able-bodied and came with a clean history.

It had been clean because it had been forged, but the gold mech hadn’t known that.

“Who is Upstart?” the voice asked, and Megatronus shook his head to clear the images from it. With his optics offline, the brief memory had seemed all-too-real.

“The factory hiring manager,” Megatronus replied, incredulity creeping back into his tone. He had seen Upstart only once after he’d been employed, and that had been when Perceptor had taken him to get a new stamp on his record. The scientist had been particularly excited that day, but Upstart had just taken the slim card, placed his stamp on it, and handed it back once more.

It hadn’t been important to the hiring manager. Upstart had probably never even noticed what Megatronus looked like.

“What about before that? Before Upstart, who hired you? Who paid you to infiltrate and blow up the factory?”

Ah. There.

There it was.

Finally, they were getting somewhere, though Megatronus didn’t know if he was worried or relieved by the final revelation.

If Ratbat thought that Megatronus had been paid to sabotage the factory, then that would certainly be information he would want to obtain before sending the gladiator to his inevitable dismantling. That would have been worth sending an interrogator to find out more about, and it explained why he had not been sentenced yet.

It would have been a delightful piece of knowledge to withhold from the Senator—if it was knowledge that had existed.

Instead, it was knowledge that did not exist…which meant that it was knowledge the interrogator could not obtain from him. This made the presence of his guest all the more insidious…because if the interrogator could not obtain the knowledge he was looking for from Megatronus, then it was possible that he’d go looking for that knowledge somewhere else. He might go after Clench.

That would be a problem.

“Why would you think I was hired by somebody?” Megatronus smiled, making sure to bare his teeth as he did to appear both comfortable and threatening. “I have yet to even be shown proof that it was me who destroyed the factory.”

He needed to redirect the conversation, and he needed to do it in such a way as to make it believable that he’d not been hired to destroy the factory.

However, there was only awkward silence remaining after his answer, and Megatronus got the feeling that it was not the answer that his interrogator had been hoping for. It would have been easier to tell what his interrogator had been hoping for if Megatronus had been able to see the other mech’s expression, but he wasn’t sure if that would have helped.

At this point, Megatronus was not certain there would be an answer that would not make him appear more suspicious to his guest.

“How did they communicate with you? How often did they communicate with you?”

Well, now, this was going to be fun.

The first contact he’d had with the factory had been through Clench, who had secured him the job. He remembered arguing with the old mech several times about it, and he remembered how one of the arguments had ended with Clench thrown out a window.

He remembered how thankful he’d been that that window didn’t have glass. Glass was expensive to replace, especially for the odd sizes of windows on apartments in the Underground.

“Nobody hired me,” Megatronus replied again, maintaining his own cynical expression. He was sure it was not as effective as it would have been if he wasn’t still in excruciating pain, but he did not have much recourse. It was better for them both to be uncomfortable, even if he knew the itching in his neck where the guard had put a new plug in put his discomfort level much higher than his guest’s.

“When did you decide to leave the Arena? Who did you meet with?” The voice continued, as if it were striking a nail over and over waiting for it to finally seat home.

“It was my choice to work at the factory. Nobody asked me to do it.” Megatronus repeated, beginning to wonder if they were even speaking the same language. He had not been through many interrogation sessions—mostly because no one considered miners or gladiators to have much useful information—but he was relatively positive that interrogators might attempt a different strategy if direct questioning didn’t work.

This interrogator did not seem to be aware of that concept.

“I confided earlier that my desire was for your cooperation,” the voice re-stated. “You do not have to hide this information from me. All I need is the name of the mech who hired you to work at our factory, full contact information, and an introduction. Then, perhaps, we can come to an arrangement.”

Megatronus stared.

An ‘arrangement’ sounded like the sort of strategy shift that he’d been anticipating, finally. It was a suspicious offer, but it was also a tempting one. He wasn’t particularly comfortable here, between the pains that remained from his injuries and the itching at the back of his neck from the frame connection, and he also harbored a distant hope that such an arrangement might eventually culminate in not winding up in a scrap heap.

However, being able to barter for that particular luxury would have required an actual answer to the interrogator’s question, and Megatronus did not have one.

There were no names he could give—even false ones, because the only help he’d received had been from Clench and Clench’s contacts…and they sure as scrap had never ‘hired’ him.

A false name would only raise additional inquiries, besides, and his entire plan right now revolved around being able to convince his interrogator that there were no other cooperative parties. Doing such without incriminating himself further was going to be difficult, especially with the increasing pain coming from the mis-matched input jack in his neck.

“You confided earlier that you were denying me the use of my optics because you were well aware that I was dangerous,” Megatronus said carefully. “By that logic…is it so hard to believe that I did this on my own?”

He was not precisely admitting to his guilt by saying this. However, he could tell his point had hit home for the very fact that his interrogator did not immediately hammer out another question.

“It is…possible,” the voice replied. “However, you lack the motive necessary for an operation of this magnitude, and you were at the factory too long for it to be a simple act of terrorism. The only reasonable conclusion is that you are not telling me the entire truth.”

He lacked the motive?

Clearly this interrogator had not spent much time in the Underground.

Even more infuriatingly, the interrogator both dismissed the challenges that came from living as a member of the tertiary class at the exact moment that he fit Megatronus into the stereotypical criminal. “So I’m either a spy or a terrorist? There is no other option?”

“You are not presenting another option, Megatronus.”

“And what happens if I do?” He laughed, the anger and pain and frustration that he’d been trying to suppress dripping from the edges of the sound. “If I tell you nothing, I die. If I tell you the truth, you don’t believe it. What guarantee do I have that you’d even uphold the end of your bargain if I gave you the answer you were wanting?”

“I offer freedom. Freedom, and a return to the Arena without worry of making enough funds.”

Megatronus was stunned.

It was just the offer he’d been hoping for, but there was no way for him to achieve it.

He could not even manage to convince this mech, who had shown himself willing to concede to rational concepts, that he had goals and motivations beyond his station…that he might want anything beyond returning to the Arena in a position that the public considered to be the top position a gladiator could ascend to.

“As dangerous as you think I am, and you’re offering me those tools?” He laughed. “No. No, it’s worse than that. I’m dangerous, and you’re offering me sponsorship.

There had not been sand in the Kaon Arena on the night that he’d lost his sponsorship. It had been smooth, cold metal, sanded and repainted over and over again but still showing signs of rust at the edges.

He remembered how his footing had just slipped on liquid energon, bringing him down to his knees in front of his opponent. The shock of hitting the ground had been jarring.

“You think I have some piece of information so important that you’re willing to work with me for it,” he continued, piecing the puzzle together through the pain that was growing in the back of his neck and the memory that had flashed into existence from out of nowhere. “You’re willing to twist an already twisted law to make it suit your purpose, the way you think that some other organization has done. I must be working for someone! If not one of your great Senator’s rivals, then clearly I’m working for the terrorists.

He hissed the word, hating how even here, even in jail where he could not get any lower on the social tiers—he was still being classified.

He’d always been classified, from the moment the elevator doors had opened, to the crowded mines, to the roar of the gladiator stadium. You were a worker or a manager, a digger or a transport. You were sponsored or you were independent, and if you were independent then you were as good as dead.

He’d gone independent, and he had not died.

He had no desire to be with a sponsor ever again.

His guest remained silent.

“Are you sure, then, that you want me working for you? Are you sure you want to be my Sponsor, after what happened the last time I had one?”

The energon hadn’t been his.

He’d been doing well moving into the third battle with Shellshock, and the dagger he’d managed to slip into his rival’s fuel line had caused a steady leak. They were one-for-one—he’d lost the first battle like he was supposed to, and won the second, and now he had very specific instructions to follow.

The sponsors always gave him specific instructions.

Usually, he had to win a battle in a particular way—using a particular weapon which they’d ‘invent’ just for the sport, or using a particular move which they’d copyright and stick on holographic merchandise. His time with Durabond had been filled with one list after another, and his training sessions had consisted of just as many lessons on showmanship as they had lessons in survival.

Tonight was the first time that they’d asked him to lose.

He was fighting against Shellshock, a long-time rival from Speedco. The two companies had entered into a mutually beneficial contract in the last lunar cycle, which allowed them to pool their resources and communicate in more nefarious ways. They’d started staging battles recently in an effort to control crowd approval and ratings, and tonight he was supposed to let Shellshock come out on top.

With the finals coming up in less than a decacycle, he knew why they had asked him to do this. There were limited slots in the finals, and Durabond needed to bring along a team-member who had been ‘down on his luck’ so that they could make more in the betting pools when he started to win. If he came close to finally beating his rival tonight, but failed?

Then it made a good story, and they would have more viewers wondering if he’d make a comeback.

Besides, he might finally get his own name.

Shellshock had not been easy to win against in the second battle. That had been his own addition to the strategy, one that he’d known his sponsors would be pleased about. The longer that they could keep up the suspense, the more the bets would change hands and the more screen-time each of the gladiator’s gear would get. With his shield and daggers and hydraulic accelerators operating as flashy, marketable items, he knew the third battle might be lost…but it would be lost with style.

Style was everything.

“You’re acting very calm about this,” Shellshock grinned, darting in to take advantage of his momentary slip.

He’d rolled backwards away from his rival’s electric spear, trying to find his footing on the slippery metal and not desiring to be impaled on it. Normally there was enough traction, but Shellshock was just crazy enough to have used his leaking energon as a weapon and had spread it around the arena. If their matches had been longer, it would have been a dangerous tactic: every ounce spilled meant less time before Shellshock ran out of power. However, these battles were quick, giving the point to whoever got their enemy to stay down for ten clicks or more.

Slipping and falling now would give Shellshock that advantage—his rival would only have to hold him down once he fell, and that spear would do the trick in keeping him pinned since it could actually stick in the floor’s metal.

That gave him an idea, however, and as he slid while trying to get back up he stabbed one of his own daggers into the metal ground. “We’re supposed to be quiet on the battlefield,” he replied uncertainly.

The dagger gave him just enough of a fulcrum to work with, and he was on his feet once again.

Shellshock, too, was still standing in his own energon. “What does it really matter?” the purple mech scoffed. “The only people who can hear us are us, and it’s not like you’ll be able to tell anyone anything after tonight…” The spear lanced forward again.

He was only barely able to catch it before it struck the small spaces between his armor, trying to parse what Shellshock might mean. While they both knew that he was supposed to lose tonight, he’d been assured that it was just a down-count match. Neither of them would be permanently hurt…which was important, this close to the finals.

Unless…

Unless his sponsor team Durabond, and Shellshock’s sponsor team Speedco were going to be entering jointly. Combining their team-members and taking only the strongest meant they had a better chance of winning, especially if they were focusing their efforts on one team instead of spreading them out across two. They’d only be able to enter one top-class novice…

And they were going to enter Shellshock.

Of course they were.

This was a publicity move, and for whatever reason it had suddenly become more cost-effective to remove him—the younger of the two, who had no status and no name—than it was to keep them both on.

His contract had just been terminated.

This fueled Megatronus with the same rage now as it had the first time he’d experienced it, and he could hear the loud, protested clanking of his harness as he struggled.

He knew what was going to happen next.

He knew this memory.

This was his memory.

What he didn’t understand was why he was re-living it so vividly while he was in the middle of an interrogation.

He’d gone from freezing when he’d first came in to almost over-heating, and the itching in the back of his neck had increased to white-hot pain. He was aggravated.

He was angry.

“How did Shellshock die?” the still-calm voice from across the room asked, and Megatronus had to struggle to keep the memory from dragging him under again, to keep the images of Shellshock’s unnaturally twisted neck-joint out of the forefront of his mind.

“How do…how do you know about Shellshock…?” Megatronus asked, the heat making it difficult for him to speak. With no other images to focus on, his blindness was leaving him helpless and confused. There was nothing to mire him to this room, or this point except for the annoyingly stoic questions that were coming from the shadows, and each question brought up images that he did not want to see.

“You were just telling me about him,” the interrogator stated.

“No, I was not,” Megatronus spat back, not entirely sure if that was true. He could have said anything while the memory had been distracting him, and he would have no proof otherwise.

“How did Shellshock die?”

Again, the image resurfaced, Shellshock’s body lying broken in a pool of still-bright energon, Megatronus holding his own severed, non-functioning arm like a weapon in the grasp of his functioning one. The crowd had been cheering for him. They’d watched his shield short out, they’d watched his daggers melt, they’d watched him slow as his hydraulic accelerators had deactivated.

They’d known his sponsors had abandoned him.

He’d known it, too, the moment he’d decided he wasn’t going to just lay back and let Shellshock take him down.

Shellshock had taken him down. The moment that his shield had gone offline, it had taken the functionality of his arm with it. He had no defense, no weapons, and no chance.

He’d fallen, stained by energon.

He’d risen again, fueled by anger.

They’d shouted his name for the first time: The Fallen. Megatronus. He who had turned away from his brethren to forge a new path, he who did not play by the unspoken rules.

It had been a good name.

He’d wanted to live long enough to keep it.

He remembered how he’d torn his own arm from its socket and used it as a weapon, relying on instinct and desperately fueled by a need for survival, cutting through the fancy moves of sponsored training to meet the efficient core of pure brutality.

Shellshock had not been able to adapt. The cocky, more experienced mech had been with his sponsors for so long that he’d forgotten how to fight without the showmanship. He knew the moves that he’d been taught too well, and he didn’t know the much-less-beautiful shortcuts.

Megatronus had used that.

Megatronus had bludgeoned his rival to death using his own arm. He hadn’t stopped when the down-count was over.

It was Clench who had carried him off the field…

“I see. Sponsorship may be out of the question, considering your history.”

“So you’ve come to your senses,” he managed to choke out, willing the images to fade back into the blackness.

“You don’t take orders well.”

“Not when it’s an order to die,” Megatronus scoffed, keeping the memories from surfacing by the sheer momentum of his will. The heat was still increasing, and he was becoming light-headed from it. Controlling anything—his memories, his thoughts, or his fuel storage—was going to be increasingly difficult soon. “What the frag kind of interrogation is this? Drugs? Reprogramming? I thought even us unmentionables had rights against that.”

“You don’t,” the voice responded without any emotion, “But this is neither. I stated earlier that if I received your cooperation then you would be given certain enticement. You objected to cooperating, and you also objected to the offer of enticement. Now I will be gaining information from you in another way.”

“Through my memories?” Megatronus asked, utterly dubious that such a thing was possible while not able to deny the evidence to the contrary.

His question was ignored. “What role did Clench play in getting you access to the factory?”

Unable to stop the image of Clench handing over his forged workman’s documents, Megatronus growled. “Clench had nothing to do with it!”

“Your thoughts say otherwise. How did he obtain those documents for you?”

Suddenly terrified about what questions his interrogator might ask about what Clench was doing now instead of what Clench was doing back before Megatronus had started working at the factory, Megatronus focused on the old Clench. If this was going to be an interrogation wherein he could not control what answers he ‘gave,’ then he needed to make sure his interrogator never thought to ask the wrong questions.

He’d have to give up some information about what he’d done at the factory.

There was no other choice.

A sharp prick of heat—sparks?—on the back of his neck confirmed that, and he tried to remember who Clench had gotten the documents from.

He’d had a friend. Megatronus had only seen him once, but he’d worked at the factory and knew what paperwork was required. It was a fleeting memory but he dragged it up, and then clamped it down.

“Clench has a lot of connections,” the gladiator said, his voice rasping slightly as the heat near his vocal unit continued to increase.

“I see that you are being more forthcoming. Tell me about Clench’s ties to the Underground terrorist organization ‘Crash.’”

That…had not been the expected question. The only reason he could think it might have been asked was if Clench’s friend was a known participant…but that was unlikely. Crash was…

Crash was not something his group had been involved in. Megatronus had heard enough about Crash to know that it was best to stay away.

He remembered their graffiti sprayed on crumbling walls, and he remembered the transport outages that had kept him from getting home while working at the factory. They targeted buildings and establishments that were needed to keep the city operating, and they targeted the ones that it was most-likely that the city-state would not spend money on rebuilding.

They’d targeted the Underground, working to cut it off from the rest of Kaon. Because of Crash, it had been increasingly difficult to get to work, and he had hardly been the only one affected.

“Clench has no ties to Crash that I know about. Crash hurts too many of the people they claim to want to help, and we don’t do that. Like I told you…we’re not terrorists.”

“I fail to see the difference between blowing up a transport depot and blowing up a drone factory.”

Megatronus could not help but grin, baring his teeth. “I know. That is why you are still questioning me.”

His grin did not last, however, as a wash of pain from his neck temporarily cut off his flow of energon.

Something was not right with his connection to his frame. He was still jacked in, but the heat was coming from where the guard had changed out his plug.

“I am simply making you aware that you keep stating you are not a terrorist, while at the same time you insinuate that it was your idea to blow up the drone manufacturing plant.”

A flash of the explosion, smoke billowing towards the sky, appeared behind his optics. Perceptor was there, pinned against a wall.

Megatronus, in the memory, left him alive.

“Everyone escaped unharmed.” Megatronus gasped, furious that his memory was bringing up images of Perceptor, furious that the heat that he could not control reminded him too much of the heat the day the factory had been destroyed. “It wasn’t my intention to hurt anyone.”

At the time, it hadn’t been.

“And you are saying, without a doubt…that if there were one person who stood between you and permanently stopping the production of drones…you would not harm them?”

Coming unbidden to his mind, an image of Perceptor looked up at him from the table with the serving drone laid out on it, uncertainty in his optics. On his arm was the oscilloscope.

It felt utterly real—like he was standing there once more, listening to Perceptor telling him about the drone.

He seemed so oblivious. So unprotected.

All it would take would be one strike. Instead of knocking him out…Megatronus could kill him. Megatronus could kill him, and the pain would stop. He wouldn’t be here in this interrogation room, his mind at the mercy of this too-cold interrogator. He wouldn’t be strapped to this frame. He wouldn’t be over-heating.

He was over-heating.

The warnings blazed across his vision, writing themselves over the image of Perceptor. Desperately, he sucked in air from the room around him, trying to get his cooling systems to work some of the heat out from around his connection but not getting enough. The memories flashed, consumed by fire like drones in an explosion…Perceptor. Clench. Shellshock.

Shellshock, lying dead on the arena floor. Clench handing him his paperwork. Perceptor pressed against the wall.

Megatronus heard a noise from across the room, and only distantly registered it as the interrogator stumbling out of his chair, tripping as he stood. “Guard!” the mech called, his voice still utterly emotionless even as his hand slammed down onto the table for support.

For a moment, Megatronus could see that hand on the table as if it were his own hand. He could feel his pain, still, but it was strangely far away as if it were only feedback ghosting through another mechs systems. That mech—his interrogator—looked up…and Megatronus was treated with the confusing and incredibly disorienting sight of seeing himself strapped into the prison frame through someone else’s optics. Optic.

The door opened.

The heat spiked, and he gasped as the explosions in his memories over-rode the brief vision that he’d gained. He could not control the way his mind flickered, and the presence of such intense pain in his neck pulled up his moments outside the factory over and over again.

The flames raged inside of Megatronus’s head.

Fire spread across his body.

Perceptor stood in front of him, over and over again, and over and over again Megatronus let him go, and fled.

Would he kill one person, if it would stop the drones?

Would he destroy one life, to save the livelihood of Kaon’s entire underground?

“It’s stuck!” he heard a new voice shouting from behind him. “I can’t get the jack to come out!”

“Pull the cord from me, instead, then,” the interrogator said, calmly. “And remove the other end from him later once it’s cooled.”

There was a sharp sound, the scraping of metal over metal. “Ow,” the guard said, air hissing as he inhaled quickly through his vents. “It’s hot.” The metal scraping sound cut off, and was followed by the staccato clack of something being set down on the table.

Almost immediately, the images of Perceptor vanished.

“Are you alright, sir?” the guard was asking, “Is he alright?”

Slowly, the pain was lessening, a wash of relief breaking over him like a strong and steady wind. The heat at the back of his neck was starting to dissipate, though the tingling remained.

“We will be,” was the curt reply. “Send me a message once the plug has cooled enough to be removed, and I’ll return with a new one that has a higher bandwidth.”

Megatronus did not bother to comment, still trying to regain feeling in his processor once more, still trying not to think about how close he’d come to revealing more than he should have.

How could an interrogator read his memories?

When had this technology become available?

“How do I connect him back into his frame in the meantime?” the guard asked, cutting through Megatronus’s thoughts.

“Your throughput should be low enough. Simply use the device and record any irregularities.”

There was a long silence at that, and Megatronus felt his balance shift as his frame was angled to transport him. Still feeling as if every inch of his plating was suspended in a furnace, Megatronus did not even open his mouth to object. “I have a recording of you saying that,” the guard replied uncertainly. “If anything goes wrong, your employer might be to blame.”

“I’m sure the prospect would amuse him.”

Megatronus heard the squeaking of the wheels as the guard started to roll him out into the hallway, muttering something low. The mech’s footsteps were even, and they were an oddly soothing noise after the unnatural silence of the interrogation room. They were easy to focus on, easy to use to re-align himself with reality and to get his own intake pattern back onto a steady rhythm.

He needed it.

His mind was still expecting another set of images to pop up, and he found himself still waiting for the next question to be shot from out of the darkness.

“Are you still with me, Megatronus?” the guard asked.

Megatronus jumped in his frame.

It held him, tightly.

“I…am,” he breathed out after a moment, taking the time to test that the wires in his vocalizer had not been shorted out by the heat.

“Good,” the guard replied, continuing down the hall. “They’d probably find some way to blame his freakish experiment on me if it went wrong. What did he do to you, anyway?”

Megatronus waited to answer for a moment, focusing back on the guard’s footsteps. His mind remained blissfully empty of hyper-realistic memories, but he knew it would not remain that way forever. The interrogator would be back. “He asked inane questions until even his equipment decided it would rather be doing something else and shorted out.”

The guard laughed at his attempt at a joke, and Megatronus could not help but smile. He needed to smile, right now, even if there was no mirth behind it. He knew he would not be so lucky, next time.

“Look, we don’t have much longer before I put you back on the Wall, but I want to let you know I stuck something in your slot for you. Consider it an apology for the beatings…though if you want to thank me later by leaving me a servo or a piece of armor I’m not going to object.”

Not feeling in a position to thank the guard now for whatever this might be, much less later, Megatronus grunted an affirmation. “Hm. What is it?”

The guards footsteps slowed, and Megatronus knew they were approaching the racks by the way the acoustics changed.

“You’ll see,” the guard said, and positioned him carefully back in front of the Wall.

Megatronus did not want to go back into the Wall.

He did not want to go back into stasis, at all…but he could already hear the approaching engines of the medical technician who would drain his energon and send the code to force-stop his systems. The guard stepped back, and Megatronus felt oddly secluded once more.

He was about to be trapped with his thoughts, only now he had more to think about.

Because of this interrogator, he had become an active danger to the mission. If the wrong question was asked, then Megatronus himself would reveal the current location of the Oscilloscope, the names of his team-mates, and what he had asked them to do. He would reveal the fact that he’d set the gears in motion to do much, much worse things to the drone industry than merely blowing up one factory.

He couldn’t allow that.

He also couldn’t stop it. Controlling his thoughts was not that simple. He couldn’t stop himself from thinking about his worst fears, now, and he’d only managed to not think about anything incriminating during the interrogation because he’d been so focused on Perceptor.

He was still focused on Perceptor.

Perceptor was the reason he was here, now.

Perceptor was the reason that he instantly became enraged when thinking about the factory…and if he’d used Perceptor to accomplish his goals once then he could do that again. He could use his anger to control his thoughts.

The interrogator had obviously been right about one thing, and Megatronus was going to give credit where credit was due.

If he could have killed one person to end the threat of drones to the Underground forever?

Then Perceptor would never have walked away from the factory alive.

Chapter Text

The archives were an unusual place. To a drone who had never seen the outside of Ratbat Holdings, there were innumerable mysteries to unravel within its seemingly endless walls.

Deep in the basement he found ancient texts—glyphs etched on ivory metal accompanied by simple tools and surrounded with intricate art. There were antique computers which had no recognizable input jacks juxtaposed next to statues of gods. There were energon mining picks whose edges had been dulled for millennia, and there were anodized remains of prehistoric non-sentient mechanoids which had been unearthed by tunneling drill-tanks. He found more rooms of mining equipment, and wondered if early Cybertronians were fixated on delving underground…or if the items which were left underground were the only items preserved enough to remain.

On the upper levels there were vaulted windows of a modern construction, with sitting areas and private alcoves that looked out over the surrounding city. There were outlets for recharging datapads and personal equipment, and other outlets for connecting to the Cybertronian network. Many of the seats were works of art themselves, with alien craftsmanship or modern design. These spots were almost always taken, filled with mechs who brought research materials out of the depths of the archives to study or who wanted a comfortable place to listen to the full recited works of Sphericus, or a sampling of songs from Ratbat’s donated musical history exhibit.

There were always mechs up here.

Without access to a dedicated computer console, the communications drone filled much of his time by watching the comings and goings of the Archive’s guests. They were interesting to observe. They held conversations awkwardly, filling in silence with body language or unusual shifts in topic. The tone of their words held nuances which the drone had been programmed to understand and analyze, but had never been given the experience to utilize or fully interpret. Some of their expressions were unfamiliar.

He spent cycles attempting to learn the behavior, even if there was no possible way for him to duplicate it. Knowing how to fit in was a skill that might become necessary in the future, especially if he was going to have unexpected conversations with mechs like Jazz.

Jazz…was terrifying.

Within the Archives, the white mech controlled security from his tower. He maintained the building’s network, made codes to monitor incoming and outgoing signals, and kept track of every floor through a series of cameras and audio input devices. The drone wanted, desperately, to have access to the Iacon Archives transmission office where Jazz was stationed, but it had of course been the first room which had been classified as ‘off limits.’ Jazz had, additionally, restricted his access from all network connections and the centralized databases which were located in huge storage banks on most of the middle floors. More stipulations had followed, handed down to him on a datapad by the white mech, who had said nothing to the communications drone but had looked at Orion Pax and stated “He’s your responsibility.”

The communications drone had accepted the requirements. They were ordered neatly and were laid out clearly, and he appreciated lists which gave him a straightforward expectation of behaviors. He was allowed to wander through any of the public access corridors of the building, and he was given a dedicated recharge jack in a closet where he could be left alone. He could collect as much information as he wanted to as well, provided that the information was not part of a system which had sensitive or unique data, or which could connect to any external sources.

He had also been given one half of a decacycle to await the arrival of a spark technician before Jazz would ‘take action.’ During this time, he was not to associate with Orion Pax while the archivist was working.

Instead, he watched the comings and goings of the crowds in the upper lofts, or read the plaques on the items in the lower levels.

The drone liked the lower levels.

If the lofts were a compendium of social interaction, then the basements were a compendium of Cybertronian history--akin to a museum. Stored in hundreds of record halls were the collective experiences of thousands of generations of mechs, their writings and utensils safely stored to be either an inspiration for those who found them…or a warning. Great advancements in technology were catalogued in the depths, but so were great wars. It was more data than the communications drone would ever be able to contain.

It was also incomplete.

There were gaps in many of the records that he was allowed to access. Although archivists tried to cite some of the discrepancies in their descriptions, allowing for data which had been lost to accidental destruction from ancient wandering magnetic storms and also allowing for data targeted by both sides in the Technology Wars, they still could not account for all of the missing information. He suspected that some of history might have gone unremembered if the recording techniques of the time had been unreliable, or if no artifacts had been found…but it seemed to him that some data had just never been collected at all.

There was almost nothing about the Core.

He could find little to no resources to help him understand how the factories produced Cybertronians, or why there were Nodes, or what Authenticators used Nodes to do. The knowledge did not seem to exist here, just as it had not existed on the network.

There was documentation about the great generator elevators who brought new Cybertronians up from the Core. There were also legal compendiums which outlined the procedures for interacting with those new Cybertronians, restrictions on classifications based on the tags that new Cybertronians arrived with, and that was it. He learned that the Senate had a means of sending messages to the Core technicians during periods of high labor needs, but he could not tell if there was any way to indicate these messages had been received other than watching who came up from the elevators.

While this was probably how Senator Ratbat had managed to obtain spark technicians from the Core, it was clear that such communications were unreliable. The Senator was lucky to be in the business of drones at all.

He wondered if there might be a way to access the Senate’s special method of messaging, but dismissed the idea. If it had been possible to use from Ratbat Holding’s tower, then he would have learned about it while he was still in the tower. Since he had not, then he could only conclude that it either did not exist—which was a possibility—or that it was locked so securely that even he had not been able to find it.

His best option, as he had already calculated, was to wait for the arrival of a spark technician and convince that technician to provide him with access to the Core.

There was no other option.

However, the simple act of ‘waiting’ was not as easy to accomplish as he’d hoped.

Despite having plenty of subjects to observe in both the lofts and the museums, the drone felt restless. He found his mind consistently wandering back to the transmission tower, where he would be able to operate on the immense data from Divide’s database with relative ease. Unless he was directly downloading and sorting through accessible information from the archive displays, or making observations on one of the scientists in the upper lounge, he was thinking about the billions of cycles of throughput which he was missing at Ratbat Holdings.

He had been manufactured to be an integral part of a very large piece of equipment…and while his initial specifications allowed for other functions, at his core he was still a communications drone. He needed the tower.

He needed to feel connected.

He wanted to return.

Wanting to return, however, was irrelevant. He could desire to reconnect with the machinery in the tower for lunar cycles, and it would still be irrelevant. Until his highest priority task was completed, until he reached the Core and downloaded the necessary spark data from a Node to complete Divide’s database, it would always be irrelevant.

There was work to be done, and he had a very clear outline of steps to follow to achieve it.

Nothing that he found here in the archives was going to change that.

Nothing was more important than following the priorities that were established by his coding, regardless of how long it took.

Nothing was more important than his instructions from Senator Ratbat.

Was it?

He did not like to question that concept, and so he attempted to think on something else, instead. There were still displays that he had not seen in some of the middle levels. There were still some input jacks which he could download general knowledge from. There were still new mechs who came in daily and talked, softly, about their lives and their research and other mechs.

There was also Orion.

The archivist’s shift would be ending soon, which meant that the communications drone would be able to accompany him without provoking Jazz.

Orion would be a suitable distraction.

Orion was the only distraction which could take his mind off of the tower. The drone enjoyed the one-sided conversations with Orion, because the archivist’s favorite topic of conversation was whatever data he’d been sorting through, which was as close as the drone could get to sorting it himself. Although Orion would occasionally bring up various reports about new technology or impressive engine mods, his favorite discussion was about the ongoing investigation into the drone factory fire.

He talked about Megatronus every day.

The drone listened every day.

Megatronus pinged several of the items on the lists of importance which Ratbat had put into his programming. The Gladiator caused unrest, was capable of being dangerous, and was quickly ascending in popularity. If the drone had been back in the transmission tower and had not been involved in the fire, he still would have found himself documenting cases of Megatronus’s name by those virtues alone.

Because he had been involved in the fire, the name had more meaning to him.

Megatronus was the reason he was at the archives right now. Megatronus was the reason he’d been damaged as well, but Megatronus was also the reason that he understood how important survival was. Megatronus caused the fire which had sparked an awareness of…something…within the drone, and the drone’s attempts at understanding what this something was only propelled his interest in Megatronus further.

That, or he still retained an interest in the gladiator because of the experimental drone whose memories he now possessed.

It was difficult to tell.

“You will never guess what I learned today,” Orion Pax said, starting to speak even before the door on his office was finished opening. “Do you want to try to guess? It has to do with you…”

Standing still in the hallway where he had been waiting, the communications drone stared blankly at Orion, unaware of how, precisely, he was supposed to guess. Jazz had expressly forbidden him from connecting to the archivist or to most computing systems, which had effectively removed any option for conversation unless he was offered a datapad. As Orion was not carrying a datapad for him to use, he could only shake his head.

“I learned the identity of the spark technician who was in that drone recording you gave me,” Orion continued, stepping out into the hallway and closing the door behind him. One of the items on Jazz’s list had indicated that the drone was not to enter or look into any of the private areas of the archives, and Orion’s office qualified as one such area.

The archivist had briefly gotten a mischievous look in his optics after the list had first come out, clearly intent on breaking the rules to show the drone some secret part of the archives…but had immediately regretted the decision when Jazz had mysteriously been behind the door Orion tried to enter.

The communications drone had been impressed at the level of observation which Jazz had employed to be there at that exact moment, but had noticed the excess heat from friction at his joints which indicated that he had been running at top speed only moments before.

This did not stop Jazz from making another threat to ‘take action’ if Orion broke one of his rules again, however, and since that day Orion had promised to adhere to the letter of the law. The drone had not seen the inside of Orion’s office after that.

He had not minded. He already knew what Orion’s office looked like, and did not find it particularly exciting.

“There is not a lot of information to be found about spark technicians,” Orion resumed, starting to walk down the hall with a gesture for the drone to follow. “I think most of them never leave the Core or come up the elevators like we do. They’re manufactured and activated down there, they work down there, they live down there, and…they probably stay down there until they go offline. Can you imagine?”

While imagination was not a skill that the communications drone was particularly good at, it was not difficult for him to understand the concept of occupying one space for the majority of one’s lifetime.

Orion did not wait for him to answer, however. The archivist was thankfully used to his unique silence, despite occasionally asking questions which he could not answer. “There seem to be some exceptions to this rule. Clearly, there are spark technicians working at the drone factories who have come up from the Core…but until the explosion they weren’t seen by anyone who did not work at the factory. Even then, I don’t think the technicians really talked to the public. I can’t find reports of contact…”

Reaching the end of the hall, Orion pushed a button to summon one of the auxiliary lifts used by the Archives’ staff. Having no idea where Orion was planning to go, the drone waited beside him and listened dutifully to information that he already knew.

“…except for the technician that we saw in the drone’s memory, who was interacting with Megatronus. They were talking, and working together, and the striping on his armor was strange. Teal is a restricted color—which I think dates back before the Technology Wars and is going to be repealed soon, but anyhow right now it is a restricted color in general, much less in stripes. I did some research, and stripes were either worn to indicate ranking in the military or, a few hundred stellar cycles ago, were worn to show an apprentice-ship in a career change.”

The lift-doors opened, and Orion stepped on, keeping one arm underneath the sensor so the doors would let the communications drone through. They were alone for now, and so Orion rambled on.

“So I thought…well. Maybe the class rules don’t apply to spark technicians. Maybe it is possible to change jobs if you are qualified, so I did some research on individuals who met the criteria to become spark technicians or who had the intelligence, and I found hundreds of matches.”

The lift was going up, towards the common areas at the top of the Iaconian Archives.

“When I narrowed the search to those who had stopped working in their fields, or who’d been presumed to be offline, or who’d disappeared…I found the right one. His name is Perceptor.”

The doors opened onto the level that contained a comfortable caféteria, and Orion stepped out.

Unwilling to be left behind, the communications drone followed. He’d been on this level before, but he had not stayed for long. It was too wide, and too open, and too long, with huge windows on both ends. Light came in from multiple sources—including several crystal fountains, and there was more than one floor of shops to consider for making beverage and snack choices. Unlike the private sitting areas of the very top levels, this one did not have any nooks or crags or corners in which to remain unobtrusive, and so the drone’s only option was to follow Orion straight out into the center of the room as he headed for an energon stand.

“He used to be a scientist on the space bridge revitalization projects, back a millennium ago. He was the youngest one on the team, and he put out hundreds of papers about the various materials they were working with and how those materials interacted with trans-warp space. Cyberscience magazine nominated him for most promising technician of his generation. He wrote books, and created theories…have you heard of Perceptor’s theory of energon conservation?”

The communications drone had, of course.

The drone was aware of many of Perceptor’s accomplishments…one of which had been building the drone. What was more surprising was that Orion was treating Perceptor’s involvement as if it were new. Hadn’t Jazz talked openly about intercepting his message from ‘Divide’ in which he was inviting Perceptor to come?

He had.

However, Jazz had not recognized Divide’s name and had not mentioned the intended recipient at all, so it was possible that Orion had never been made aware of it. While the message had been directed towards Perceptor, the drone supposed it was likely that neither Jazz nor Orion knew the scientist’s personal communications code. That code had not been listed in any of the contact numbers in the drone factory’s registry, and it was definitely not accessible on the public communications servers.

“After the big space bridge accident, he stops being mentioned. I tried to find a record of who went offline in the accident, but his name wasn’t included…and now, of course, he shows up with teal stripes talking to Megatronus.”

Orion was likely going to be very surprised by where else Perceptor would be showing up soon.

“You don’t suppose that he was the Monitor who went after Jazz, do you?” Standing in line at the stand, the drone noticed a few individuals around them taking notice of the strange direction of their conversation. Already feeling more out in the open than he wanted to feel, the drone shook his head.

“No. No, you’re right. He’s wearing stripes, and an apprentice probably wouldn’t be an Authenticator yet, if the fables have any truth to them. Plus…that was a while ago when that happened to Jazz.” Reaching the stand, Orion activated the payment scanner and took a cube of energon. “Someone will be showing up soon looking for whomever that Monitor was, either way…though it would probably be easier to prepare for that if you’d told me before Jazz found out.”

At this point, the communications drone had a similar feeling. Working around the restrictions that Jazz laid out was not difficult, but would have been better if there had been no restrictions at all. Then, he would not have required the sort of unusual and public distraction that Orion provided to him.

Thankfully, Orion seemed content to take his cube and head back towards the lifts. “I wonder if we’ll have a way to keep in contact with you after you leave.”

Expecting a much longer and more detailed change in topic from Orion, the communications drone was surprised at the quiet brevity of Orion’s words. Tilting his head, he continued to follow the archivist back into the lifts and up towards the more relaxing common grounds of the lofts.

“I don’t have anyone to talk to like this except Jazz, and he doesn’t seem very interested in the same mysteries that I pick up. When something goes wrong, I want to understand it. I want to know why a gladiator would burn down a drone factory. I want to know why a scientist would become a spark technician. It…it all seems important, and related, but I’m missing certain pieces and talking about it helps. You are a good listener.”

The drone did not know how to process receiving a compliment, but he could not deny the truth in what Orion was saying. He had no option but to be an effective listener, because he could not be an effective speaker.

However, he suspected that there was more to being a good listener than simply being silent. If silence was all that was required, Orion Pax could have easily held a conversation with his office chair. Since Orion Pax was speaking to him and not to his office chair, there must have been an additional element that was needed. The communications drone was mobile, which he suspected was a benefit as it allowed the archivist to choose the most comfortable setting. He was also adept at paying attention and remaining focused on the information which Orion delivered to him. He had even managed to provide information in return, such as the drone memory which Orion consistently referenced.

Apparently, there was an element of giving feedback which made one a better listener. However, this made very little sense to the drone, because in order to give feedback and be a good listener, he was required to stop listening for a few moments.

Orion did not seem bothered by this as he moved out into the lofts, cube still in hand and looking around for what the drone could only assume might be the best place to sit. Instead of choosing a sitting area, however, his optics settled on an abandoned cart messily stacked with datapads, and he started heading towards it with a sigh.

“We have return receptacles for these. The receptacles are clearly labeled. I will never understand why there are always datapads lying around on every available surface when there are return receptacles only a few steps away.” Setting his energon cube down on one of the shelves of the cart, Orion picked up a few of the misplaced datapads and started shuffling through them. “Do you think you can help me with these?”

The communications drone considered his options as he watched Orion sort. It might have been possible to collect a single datapad between both of his arms if he was particularly careful, but doing so might scratch either the datapad or his few still-working input pins. Pushing the cart, similarly, required dexterity that he had not been programmed with, and since there were no connection jacks on the cart with which to control it he did not have the option of employing his limited piloting skill.

This left only his cable.

It had been charred in his escape from the fire, but in the time since that incident some of his self-repair had managed to shut off the over-stimulated sensors along the length. His cable would thus be useful, but not aesthetically appealing.

Orion did not appear to let aesthetics influence him, however, as he’d already seen the drone at his worst and had also witnessed Jazz covered in garbage. Given that the current standing priority order to wait for a spark technician was still pending, Orion’s very low-priority order to ‘help him with these’ took precedence, and the drone snaked out his cable to wrap it around the small pile of datapads which Orion had sorted. Eager to be done with the task, he began walking them towards their appropriate return receptacle.

“Thank you,” Orion murmured, distracted in his sorting as the drone moved away.

He had been right that the archivist would not care about his appearance.

However, he had not taken into consideration that there were other mechs still seated nearby. He noticed their conversations stalling as he walked past them, and noticed the silence continue as he proceeded toward the data-pad-sized slot along the wall. Their motors rumbled, uneasy, in broken frequencies that seemed prevalent without their soft chatter to disguise the noise.

He slid the data pads into the receptacle, and turned around.

There were three groups of mechs who were openly staring at him.

Orion, in the middle of the scene, continued to sort datapads, utterly oblivious to the tension around him.

The drone, however, was well aware. Some part of him was making these mechs nervous…and as he looked at each group they turned their gaze from him and immediately struck up conversations with each other once more. Their tones were light and rushed, and although their words were about various subjects their optics still drifted back towards where he was standing. He was, somehow, the center of attention despite being purposefully ignored.

Was it his arms? His mising hands? His charred cable? His expensive finish?

It could not be his lack of face, as he had seen other mechs with masks and visors who were not treated as extraordinary. He had, himself, passed through many areas of the library without being detected, but this…

This was why he had not enjoyed being in the open in the cafeteria. Mechs had ways of spotting that which did not fit or belong and focusing on it.

He was out of place here.

However…this was also something that he could use to his advantage. His own programming was not so dissimilar to that of a mech—he had spent his entire existence looking for data which was unusual and then making comparisons to the standard in order to see what made unusual data into important data.

If he removed himself from sight, then these mechs would likely start to do the same—they would begin analyzing him. Without access to a transmission tower they had only each other to compare their data with, and so they would start to discuss him as well.

They would discuss him, and they would have no concept of how precise his audio receptors were at filtering out echoing conversations from across the room, hidden behind a pillar.

There was the perfect pillar, besides, located where he could still watch Orion in case the archivist finished his sorting.

He placed his observation experiment at the top of his priority list, and proceeded to vacate the area where he was being stared at to move behind the pillar where no one could stare at him anymore.

Then, he listened.

As he had suspected, the topics of conversation changed immediately once he was perceived to be gone. No longer were the mechs talking about the hot weather, or the success of a Lightning Tag sports team, or the compositional elements of molecules found on the planet Turbidia.

Now, they discussed his discolored paint, and his scorch marks, and particularly his cable. “What was that cable for?” “Have you seen a cable like that outside of networking towers? Have you been inside a networking tower? No, well I have and that’s where you’ll find such thick cables.” “Do you think he might have been a drone? Do you suppose that he was one of those drones that were in the fire?” “Excuse me, but I’m afraid I haven’t been here before. Could you help me find someone?”

The drone had been easily following the line of progression that each group’s conversation was taking up until the last question. It made sense that they would notice his burns, and it made sense that they would connect them with a recent event which Orion proclaimed was still prominent in the media. It made sense, even, that they would have been staring at him in order to try and ascertain their correctness about their theory. He would have done the same, if any of them had merited staring at.

However, the only voice which now piqued his interest was the last one. He recognized that voice, and he knew instantly who that voice proclaimed to be looking for.

The communications drone could see the mech standing next to a very shocked Orion, who had his cube of energon held half-way up to his faceplate, nearly ready to take a sip. It remained there as Orion slowly put down the datapad he had been about to read, and it remained there as Orion glanced around the room, presumably looking for the communications drone.

The drone slowly raised a hand-less arm, and Orion nodded the smallest fraction of a nod upon noticing.

Then, the archivist took a sip of his energon cube, and smiled at the teal-striped mech who was addressing him. “The Iaconian Archives encompass hundreds of floors and dozens of satellite buildings. Finding someone might be difficult unless they gave you coordinates to meet at.”

“Ah,” the scientist stated, his voice clearly distinct despite the distance at which the drone was hearing it. “I was afraid you would say something like that. You see, I was not given coordinates…or…really…even a date, or a time, or what color the mech might currently be. Especially considering that he was this color last time I saw him, I’m highly doubting that he kept it, since…er. Well, since I hear it is illegal.” Perceptor gestured at himself, and then looked around nervously.

He did not, however, look in the direction of the communications drone.

Aware that Orion probably did not know that it was Perceptor whom he was waiting for, the drone began moving to intercept.

Orion, meanwhile, took the time to prove himself smarter than the drone had given him credit for. “It is not illegal for spark technicians.”

“Er, no. No, it is not,” Perceptor replied, stuck somewhere in-between confused and impressed.

“Or Authenticators, for that matter,” Orion mused, clearly enjoying himself too much. “But it might be illegal for ex-Authenticators.”

Perceptor was now fully entrenched in a state of shock, echoing the expression which Orion had been wearing earlier, his mouth hanging slightly open but with no cube of energon in his hand. “Do you….do you know Divide?”

“No,” Orion said, truthfully, as the drone was certain he’d not heard the name before. “But I believe that he does.” Gesturing just past Perceptor, Orion indicated the approaching drone.

Perceptor turned…

The drone inclined his head, slightly, mimicking the way in which he remembered Senator Ratbat acknowledging Divide.

Perceptor stared.

The drone stared back.

His priorities shifted, now that his period of waiting was over. The small distractions which he had engaged in no longer mattered—wandering the archives, collecting data, observing guests, waiting for Orion. Now, he had something vitally important to do.

Almost without registering it, his cable snaked out towards the scientist. Jazz was not here, and Jazz had not specifically denied him access to Perceptor. He needed to be able to communicate. He needed to convey his intent to visit the Core. He needed to convince Perceptor to bring him to a Node.

Alternatively, he simply needed to connect to Perceptor and gain the information necessary to do that himself.

Orion had other ideas.

His cable was stopped half-way, caught by the archivist’s blue hand. Orion was not holding it roughly, but he was holding it firmly, his expression stern.

“No,” the archivist said. “I know what you need from him, and I will speak for you unless Perceptor agrees to allow you to connect.”

The drone had no option to glare at Orion, but did continue to focus on him with intensity. Perceptor was right here…and Orion did not know the full extent of the drone’s mission. He would be ultimately unable to communicate the drone’s interests to the scientist.

There were no other choices for the time being, however. Not only was Orion effectively restraining his cable, but the groups which had earlier been talking about him were watching with open curiosity. One of them had chosen to stand.

This marked another scenario in which Orion was blocking him from the most direct path to accomplishing his goals. Here, at the archives…there were always additional steps which had to be taken in order to continue on the path that the drone was following. Many times, he had been forced to backtrack in order to progress.

Now, he would have to let Orion speak for him.

Then, once he was alone with Perceptor, he could do the talking for himself.

He nodded to Orion.

“Not that it is more important than any of the dozens of questions which I am going to need to ask…ah...sir,” Perceptor wondered, choosing a title tentatively, “but how do you know my designation?”

Almost immediately, Orion’s grip on the drone’s cable relaxed, and it was not difficult to recognize the abashed expression on his face which acknowledged his slip-up. “Well…um. That is sort of a complicated answer, and it’s probably one we should not stay in here to discuss.”

“I believe you might be right. Is there somewhere else that we can go?” the teal-striped scientist asked, glancing around.

“There…is. Come on.”

Pleased to be leaving the public areas of the upper floors, the communications drone followed as Orion headed back for the service lifts. He did not like being unable to participate in the conversation, but he did not intend to let Perceptor out of his sight.

As soon as the doors were closed the scientist was already turning to Orion in askance, a single plate rising above his optic.

Orion was prepared for the unspoken question to be asked. “I’m an archivist,” he explained, almost apologetically, “and recently I’ve been tasked with documenting the drone factory explosion. When I was reviewing a recording from inside the factory, I saw you and Megatronus working on a drone together.” Orion pushed one of the buttons in the lift, focusing on it and specifically not looking at Perceptor.

“There’s footage…from inside the drone factory?” Perceptor’s question was very clearly articulated, but still felt quiet even within the small elevator. “None of that was submitted as evidence Megatronus’s trial…”

“I didn’t receive it until after the trial was started. It didn’t appear to me that the judge was interested in much other than proof that Megatronus worked at the factory…and the word of a technician.” Orion’s expression remained neutral, though the drone was becoming better at reading the way his optics focused when he was coming to a conclusion. “Your word.”

Perceptor’s lips pursed at Orion’s revelation, but he did not immediately speak.

“They are going to kill him, you know,” the archivist offered, but stopped when cut off by the icy expression on the scientist’s face.

“That’s not a conversation I desire to be having with someone whom I have not even been introduced to,” Perceptor stated, his tone much sharper than it had been a moment ago. “I take it that this ‘footage’ is where you located my name? If it is, then that is explanation enough…beyond, of course, how you came to be in possession of the footage in the first place. The footage, and the drone. Did you know Megatronus? Is…is this some plot of his…?”

Orion seemed taken aback from the sudden force of emotion that was coming from the scientist, which was understandable. A moment prior, the armored, teal-striped mech had actually managed to seem small, but now…he looked his actual height. He looked taller than Orion.

“I…I don’t think so, no. I do not know Megatronus. He’s from Kaon, and I…well. I started as a second-rank dock manager here, in Iacon.” The archivist reached out to touch the wall of the lift, both indicating the surroundings and also taking an amount of support from them. The drone was aware that there was a taboo in career changes, and was equally aware that the red mech was taking a small risk in indicating his to someone with a rank as high as Perceptor’s…regardless of the fact that Perceptor had changed careers as well. “My name is Orion,” the archivist added, standing as straight as he could though still not quite matching the technician. “I am an archivist, but I am sometimes responsible for shipments that come here to the Archives. This drone,” he gestured towards the communications drone, “arrived on one of them.”

Perceptor watched Orion for a moment, clearly uncertain. Then, he looked back towards the drone. “If there is a simple explanation here, then it is one that is not coming to me.” Reaching out, Perceptor held a hand towards the communications drone, palm open. Although it took the drone a moment to interpret the gesture, he did recognize it just enough to offer his burnt cable to the technician to observe. “This drone was received at the factory less than a day before the fire. It was scheduled to be maintenanced, and then returned. As is expected of all our shipments, it was fully taped and packaged to prevent damage.” Carefully removing a small sliver of packaging material that had melted onto one of the cable joints, Perceptor sighed. “Did it come to you still packaged?”

“No,” Orion replied, simply. “When I found him he was wrapped around another, more damaged drone. They managed to escape together from their storage closet.”

Interested, Perceptor looked up from the cable. “You sound very certain of that.”

“I am,” Orion stated. “He showed me what happened.”

“And the other drone? Where is it?”

The communications drone looked towards Orion, curious about the fate of his companion. It had not occurred to him to ask this question previously. It had not occurred to him that a damaged drone would find itself anywhere other than a garbage compactor.

Now, he was not so sure. Orion did not treat drones as if they belonged in garbage compactors.

“He’s in one of the sub-floor relic rooms,” the archivist said quietly. “I asked one of our preservation specialists to see what they could do…but he was too damaged. There was not any information they could retrieve, and all of the salvageable components have extensive heat damage.”

“I…I see,” Perceptor replied, letting go of the cable he was holding and awkwardly shifting his weight. He glanced up, meeting the approximate location of the drone’s optical sensors, his blue optics searching back and forth for a moment until the drone realized that all Perceptor could see was a reflection of himself. He looked miserable.

So did Orion.

The drone did not know how to feel. Being aware of the fate of the other drone made him uncomfortable in ways he had not expected. He had been the one who had preserved copies of the other drone’s memories, and those copies were now all that was left.

There had been no other salvaged components.

“If there was no information retrieved from the other drone, Orion…and if this drone had only been at the factory for one solar cycle…then where did you get the footage of me from?” Perceptor wondered, bracing himself as the lift began to slow.

“From the other drone,” the archivist answered. “This drone must have downloaded it before the other drone went offline. He showed it to me. He…showed you, working with Megatronus.” Orion’s hand dropped from the side of the elevator just as its doors opened.

“Ah,” Perceptor said, and did not elaborate.

A dismal landscape waited ahead of them.

Looking down a much older, much shabbier hallway with seating areas but much fewer windows, the drone wondered how long it had been since a mech had last set foot here. The dimly-lit area might have been as nice as the lofts once, but most of the benches were now sagging and the paint on the walls had a few glistening patches of oil. The ceilings were lower, and the frames holding the artwork to the walls were styles which had been unused for stellar cycles.

“You don’t like speaking about Megatronus.” Orion stated, moving forward out of the lift. His steps were heavy, but they barely echoed in the musty closeness of the abandoned floor.

The communications drone hesitated, looking at the rust trails along a decorative railing. He had not come down to this area, before. He hadn’t realized that this was even here.

“No,” Perceptor replied, and followed the archivist out of the lifts. “I don’t.”

“There won’t be much time left to talk about him, you know.” Orion offered, making trails along the dusty pathways as he headed for a seating area far from the potential intrusion of the lifts.

“I know,” Perceptor sighed, placing his treads in the footsteps of the mech in front of him. “I am aware that they are going to kill him. I am also aware, as is the entire planet, that he was the one to burn the factory down.   I testified as such. He is not innocent.”

Orion frowned. “He may not be innocent…but you worked with him, Perceptor. You must have known what he was like, a little. Do you really think he deserves to die for a crime that amounts to little more than property damage?”

Perceptor stayed quiet as he walked forward, his optics rising to the rust on the seats and the light that was flickering up ahead. After a moment, he looked back, meeting the gaze of the communications drone once more.

“You were there,” he said, softly. “Did what Megatronus do to the factory feel like property damage to you?”

The drone had not expected to be asked this question.

The drone had not expected to be asked a question at all. He was used to being ignored as other conversations occurred…conversations that were often about him but not including him.

Now, he was being asked about the drone factory.

He was being asked about the fire.

Without being able to connect to Perceptor to give an answer, however, all that he could do was shake his head. The fire had nearly cost him his life, and had cost another drone its life. Even being aware that he was property owned by Senator Ratbat, and that the drone was also property, some of the damage that had been done had not been merely external.

The fire had caused him fear.

Did Ratbat own his fear?

The drone did not believe that he did.

“I…I hadn’t thought on it like that,” Orion said after a moment, coming to a spot in the middle of the long, empty seating area. “So what Megatronus did was more than property damage, because he killed hundreds of drones. Are…are they really alive, then? Because correct me if I’m wrong, but I see advertisements all across the media stating that they aren’t.   The courts believe they aren’t.”

“Megatronus is being punished as if they are. It…might be suitable.”

Orion shook his head, and turned to face Perceptor. “Except that he isn’t being punished this severely because the court thinks that he killed living beings, he’s being punished this severely because the courts don’t believe he’s worth the amount of property damage he caused. If it had been you who had blown up the factory, do you think the punishment would be death?”

Perceptor looked at Orion for a moment, and then sat down. His hands rested in his lap. “I can’t answer that.”

“I can,” Orion said, and sat across from Perceptor, leaving the drone standing in the hallway between the two, attempting to understand why a punishment would be different depending on who was committing a crime. “If he had any ranking at all, then he would not be killed. He’d still have some ‘use’ to society, some position to occupy that would otherwise have to be re-assigned. There’d be an entirely different investigation…using all possible sources instead of just taking the word of the highest ranked individual who had been present. They’d have reviewed the footage that I’d found. They’d have attempted to determine why he blew up the factory, and they’d have attempted to determine if that motive meant anything.”

The hands in Perceptor’s lap curled in on themselves until they formed a ball. He did not immediately reply to Orion, and he did not look at the communications drone.

“Do you know why he blew up the factory?” Orion asked into the silence, softly. “He was working there for lunar cycles. If he’d wanted to destroy it, he could have done that the second day…so why did he wait? What was he trying to do?”

“Why are you asking me these questions?” Perceptor spoke up, his blue optics confused. “Even for an archivist, I do not understand. What does it mean to you, if you have never met this mech?”

Orion’s own optics shuttered, his weight shifting in uncertainty. He opened his mouth to respond but said nothing, and the communications drone detected a drop in engine heat that might have indicated worry. It did not seem as if Orion knew the answer to the question that Perceptor had just asked.

The drone found himself wanting to know the answer, however. Orion had been passionately pursuing the Megatronus case for as long as the drone had been at the archives, and even with the drone’s help they had never been able to uncover every answer. Neither of them knew why Megatronus had done what he had done, and neither of them could easily explain how knowing why was so important.

It was important.

His memories told him that it was. The experimental drone’s memories told him that it was.

Orion told him that it was.

This would be their last chance to have this question answered before he left with Perceptor.

He sat down, himself, and waited to hear what the archivist would say.

“I am asking these questions now,” the red mech began, unsteady, “because they were never asked in court. I am asking them now because all of the facts are telling me that there is more to this than my optics can see. Maybe I’m just a second-rank archivist…” Orion paused, letting air cycle through his intakes before continuing, his voice stronger, “…but I used to be a second-rank dock manager. I know what it is like to not be taken seriously because of your occupation, and to be judged by it alone. I know how important being recognized for your talents by someone else who is talented can be—“ He looked right at Perceptor, locking optics with him, blue to blue, “And I think I can guess how devastating it would be to lose that recognition. That trust.”

Unable to hold Orion’s gaze, the scientist looked down at his hands.

They were both now clenched as fists.

“You are a good speaker, Orion,” he said. “Megatronus…was very good at speaking like you do.” Flexing his hands, he laid them both out flat and then balled them once more. “Now, since returning to the surface I am slowly becoming more and more aware of my rights as a primary-rank technician. I know that theoretically, if I wanted to have you imprisoned for implying what you have just implied, I could.” With a small shiver, Perceptor drew himself up until he looked like he was taking up very little space in the old, worn out chair that he was occupying. “But that is what always made Megatronus so…so angry. He would become so angry, because he had been hurt by assumptions like mine so many times before. He’d been hurt by those with rank so many times before.” Sighing, Perceptor shook his head. “I thought that if I were patient, and if I learned about what life was like for him, I could change that, but…”

He stopped, and Orion was already leaning forward, wanting the technician to continue. The communications drone did not copy the posture, but did take note of it to use for later.

“But…?” Orion asked.

“But I never understood the nuances of the class struggle enough to know what was right and wrong. I have been absent for so long…I spent my best years underground, and I…I am still learning. I did not realize how angry it would make him to take his spark data to the Core without his consent, and I didn’t realize he’d have a problem with me looking up his history. Is…is that really so unusual?”

Orion had moved from leaning forward in interest to leaning back in concern. The pattern of his engine mirrored the patterns that the communications drone recalled copying earlier in the lofts, when the nervous groups of mechs had been watching him silently.   “You…took new data…from Megatronus’s spark…to the Core?”

Perceptor somehow managed to roll himself up even more tightly in his chair. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have said anything. You’re wearing the same expression that he had…”

Orion shook his head, as if to clear it, and then shook it a second time. “No, I mean…that was actually supposed to be a question. Why? Why did you take that data to the Core?”

Suddenly not looking as if he were about to flee, Perceptor tilted his head, confused. “You just want to know the answer? You’re not going to be angry at me, or burn anything down?”

“Er. Well,” the archivist paused, placing one hand on the railing of his seat. “I can see why Megatronus would be angry, but I think there is something more important to address here.”

The communications drone agreed. How Perceptor got down to the Core and back so quickly was of much more interest.

“There is?”

“Yes,” Orion said, his other hand raising to his chin. The drone recognized the motion as one that he had seen Alpha Trion use, and wondered if it was supposed to have the same meaning when the archivist was employing it now. “Because if you took new spark data from someone back down to the Core, and especially if you entered that data into the Core database? Then that means that with the right paperwork, Megatronus could apply for a new tag. He could be reclassified.”

Perceptor could only stare.

The drone stared as well.

What Orion had just said was monumental.

It was only spark technicians who had ever travelled both up from the surface and back down to the Core. Only spark technicians knew the pathways—if there were any—or had access to the elevators. Because no one ever spoke to spark technicians or the Core, the only instances of reclassification were small, semi-illegal cases like Orion’s or Jazz’s. While Orion and Jazz would likely never be questioned because of the fact that they were employed in positions in an insular institution, Megatronus as a gladiator would have been immediately visible.

Megatronus as an employee of a huge factory like Ratbat’s, however, would have stood a better chance.

“You…you know about reclassification?” Perceptor asked, stunned.

Orion smiled, removing his hand from his chin. “I’m an archivist. I learn a lot about old laws.”

The drone was learning a great deal about old laws now, as well. He had not known about reclassification, even with the access that he had to Divide’s memories.

“Well…then yes,” Perceptor said, still clearly surprised. “My intention had been to submit him for reclassification as a technician. With the skills that he possessed, I knew that he could be accepted into the Science Academy if he had the credentials.”

“He needed to be at least secondary rank,” Orion mused, thinking to himself, “And tagged in the science field.”

The technician nodded, and continued in his explanation. “Yes. The requirements are more stringent than they were when I was accepted, but I believed it would be simple task for a spark technician to accomplish with the right paperwork.”

The drone watched back and forth as the conversation accelerated, documenting the information provided. Like Megatronus, there were many items of importance being mentioned, and though it might be some time until he returned to Ratbat Holdings he knew this was data that the Senator would be interested in.

“Only…you never had the opportunity to give him this paperwork?” Orion wondered out loud.

Perceptor frowned, and the drone considered the dour expression to indicate that the answer was more complicated than a simple yes or no. “I…did not.” His hands had moved away from where they’d rested on his legs, and now they were gripping onto the edges of the bench. “Before finalizing it, I decided that it would be best to check why he had been classified incorrectly to begin with. I found…worrying results, and I wanted to talk with him about those findings before I reclassified him. That is when everything went wrong.”

Orion’s optics flickered. “He burned down the factory.”

“Er. Yes.” Perceptor did not look at Orion, instead staring down at the circle his foot had trailed in the dust of the floor.

“But you still have the paperwork, don’t you?” Orion was leaning forward again.

“I have the original copies stored in my processor, yes. All that is missing is his signature…”

As if his seat was suddenly too warm, Orion stood up. “Then that solves everything.”

Clearly not understanding what had just been solved, both Perceptor and the communications drone stared at the exuberant archivist.

Orion, too inspired by whatever thought had just struck him, paced back in forth in front of his chair. “If we submit the paperwork to the judge and Megatronus’s reclassification is accepted, then Megatronus will have to go through a re-trial,” he summarized, hammering out the framework of a plan. “They’ll have to consider all the evidence against him, they’ll have to consider his motives, and they’ll have to give him a new conviction. A fair conviction.”

“I…I suppose so,” Perceptor said, sagging back into his chair like he’d been held up by strings that had suddenly been cut. “I suppose that is the right thing to do, but…Orion. There are still so many obstacles. There is so much more riding on the end of this trial than you know.”

The drone knew. The drone was aware that both Perceptor and Orion were very fortunate that he was not maintaining contact with Senator Ratbat while he was away.

“You are right. There is.” Pausing in his motion, Orion did not back down. “Why do you think coverage about this incident has been prevalent for so long? Why do you think so many people are so invested in Megatronus’s fate? Why do you think this has not quietly disappeared, despite a major Senator of the third Nexus being involved?”

Perceptor looked up at Orion, but even with the archivist’s passionate words he did not seem completely convinced. Instead, he seemed more apprehensive now than he had when they’d first come down.

“If I had to guess,” the scientist ventured, carefully, “then I would say the answer has to do with why Megatronus burned the factory down in the first place.   He is—and many other people are—upset by the imbalances. They imagine themselves in his place, and they know there is nothing they can do. There is nothing they can do.” Perceptor remained sunk back on his bench, looking like a mech who was trapped and unable to rise up from his predicament. “And now here you are, telling me there is something we can do…which I believe he was saying to me all along. I simply…Orion, I simply am afraid.”

The light behind Orion’s helmet flickered, his optics glowing brightly in the half-darkness of the abandoned seating area that they occupied. The drone could not easily detect any emotion on his faceplates, but with the time he had spent around the archivist he knew that it was not because Orion lacked emotion.

Orion was full of emotion.

The drone did not know why, in these moments, Orion did not show it outwardly. He did not know if it was because the archivist was choosing to hide his feelings or if, instead, there were so many contained that a dominant feeling could not make it to the surface.

The drone would never have such a problem. He had created filters for that.

Orion, however, did not seem to be impeded by indecision now.   While the communications drone watched, he stepped forward, and reached out a hand toward Perceptor.

“Would it be easier,” Orion wondered, “if you had a friend?”

The technician stared at the hand.

“The papers which I have are lacking Megatronus’s signature,” Perceptor said, quietly, not reaching out to take the hand. “Without that, I cannot officialize them for submission to any court.”

Suddenly deflating, Orion dropped his extended hand and collapsed back into the chair that he’d been sitting in. A cloud of dust and rust particles rose into the air around him, his blue optics reflecting off of the tiny glints of oxidized metal. “Frag,” was all he said.

The communications drone, meanwhile, did not find this obstruction to be a problematic one. It seemed obvious that if Perceptor went to the jail he could present the documents to Megatronus to have him sign, and could then conveniently hand them to the correct authorities. Even if that was not something Perceptor was willing to do, then he would simply need someone to connect into the jail’s network and send the documents straight to the gladiator. This was something he could do.

He stood up.

Both individuals looked over at him.

Unable to state what he wished to state, the communications drone approached Perceptor and offered his cable. Wary of Orion Pax objecting, he moved slowly, and made the gesture obvious. If his creator understood the meaning of the cable, then it was possible he would not even need to connect to get his point across.

Perceptor stared at him for a moment.

Then, slowly, Perceptor sat up in his chair.

“Orion,” Perceptor said, reaching out to take the cable. “Do you…do you know what this drone is capable of?”

From behind the communications drone, Orion nodded. Still distracted by the obstacle that Perceptor had reminded him of, he answered without much precision. “We’ve learned a bit about him since he arrived,” the archivist said, rubbing a hand along his arm to clear some of the dust away. “He was apparently built to interface with a communications tower and is exceptionally good at gaining access to data.”

“Yes, Orion,” the scientist replied, carefully. “I designed this drone to be able to do all of that.”

Both Perceptor and the communications drone were both watching Orion now, waiting for the mech who was adept at solving puzzles to recognize the corner piece which was in front of him.

Orion’s dual antennae twitched in realization of what Perceptor had just said, and he looked up from the dust.

He took the drone’s cable into account. He took Perceptor’s knowing expression.

He took a deep breath.

“You designed him to be able to do something like that? To be able to break into jail?” Orion asked, almost having missed the answer because it was not something he believed could—or should—be done.

Reaching out to take the cable that was offered, Perceptor did not answer right away. Instead, he looked at the inputs at the tip, and tapped a finger against them gently. The material was still brittle from the drone’s time in the fire, but the sensation was one that he immediately felt.

He shuddered.

Perceptor noted the reaction, and let the cable go. “In a manner of speaking, yes. I didn’t create it for the purpose of accessing illegal files, but it is certainly capable of delivering messages…even to restricted areas. That is the point of a good communications specialist, is it not?”

Orion did not refute the logic in Perceptor’s words, but his expression still held many reservations. “Do you think he might get caught?”

“I am not sure,” Perceptor said, letting go of the cable and reaching out towards one of the drone’s arms instead. “If we are able to phrase the request correctly, and make it aware of the exact requirements of the actions that it is to perform, it should not have any issue. As we are not its owners, however, there is no immediate guarantee that it will want to obey, unless…” Looking back up to the drone, Perceptor tilted his head. “…Unless we can convince it. Hm. Where do I begin?”

Interested in cooperation with the technician, the drone extended his arm for Perceptor to look at, and awaited a question which he was actually capable of answering.

“You were the one who called me here, is that correct?” Perceptor asked, raising a single optic brow.

The communications drone nodded, intrigued by the direction that the scientist had chosen to take the conversation in.

“There is something you need from me, then. Possibly something more than a simple repair job, given whose code you used to summon me.” Reaching out, Perceptor took the arm which had been damaged by Divide…but he did not yet start observing it. He was still watching the drone intently.

The communications drone nodded again.

“And right now, there is something which we need from you. You are capable of getting the documents from me to Megatronus securely, aren’t you?”

As that had been the entire reason he’d offered his cable in the first place, the communications drone nodded.

“I imagine that you’d be willing to consider doing this in exchange for what you need from me?”

The communications drone dropped his arm, and it fell from Perceptor’s grasp.

He had not meant to do this, but he could not help it. He was stunned.

He had not expected to be having this conversation yet, and he had certainly not expected it to be this easy. With a simple exchange that had not even involved him having to connect to anyone, Perceptor was about to agree to take him down to the Core…and all he would have to do was assist in saving Megatronus.

The communications drone had already been willing to do that.

He had been willing to do that, admittedly, because he knew that performing the task would ingratiate him to both Perceptor and Orion…but having a direct benefit was even more acceptable.

“Not to stop the bargaining, Perceptor…but…is there any reason why you could not take the documents straight to the prison yourelf?” Orion asked.

Annoyed by the interruption, the communications drone took a small step to the side, blocking Orion from Perceptor’s view. Perceptor raised both optic ridges, surprised by the action but still focused on the drone. “Well,” the scientist wondered, putting his large hands back in his lap. “Is there?”

“Only if you clear it with Senator Ratbat, first,” said a voice from just down the hall, startling everyone. “And trust me when I say that he’s not going to let that happen.”

As he had been built for communications purposes, the drone was aware that he had exquisite receptors. He could easily factor out a single note sung by an individual, even when they were being drown out by a choir. He could detect the motion of pulleys and gears coming from the lifts, and he could even calculate by the vibrations of the cables which floor each lift was stopping on.

Jazz, however, had always managed to defy detection and catch the communications drone off guard.

This was unacceptable.

Confronted with the one voice which he did not desire to be hearing at this moment, the communications drone retreated from his place in front of Perceptor. Not wishing to return to the open-ness of his seat, he chose the most defensible position possible and moved to occupy the space behind the spark technician’s chair instead.

“You’re also asking the wrong question, Pax,” Jazz continued, stepping out from a dark corner where he had been either standing for their entire conversation, or had recently placed himself inside, “the question I’d want to be asking is why and how Perceptor built a drone capable of hacking into Cybertronian processors. That is about 20 shades of uncool.”

Without the drone in his way, it was Perceptor’s turn to stand. This was oddly relieving to the drone, as it added one more element between him and the communications specialist. “While I am starting to wonder how many employees of this institution are aware of my name,” Perceptor started, “and feel the need to use it without introducing themselves…” the scientist trailed off, taking a final breath to get over his annoyance before asking: “This drone can do what?

“Can hack into Cybertronian processors?” Orion offered, helpfully, standing to retrieve a chair from nearby for Jazz.

Perceptor simply stared, watching as the fourth seat was pulled up to complete a circle, with the drone’s chair still unoccupied. He was not about to move himself from his position if it meant sitting across from Jazz.

The scientist also did not seem to feel like sitting. He remained standing, waiting for a further explanation from either of the two mechs who had vocalizers.

“While they are still alive?” Perceptor clarified, when no one offered any help.

Jazz and Optimus exchanged a pair of sheepish glances.

“We are, ah, both still living last I checked,” Jazz replied.

Perceptor sat, quietly, leaving the communications drone behind him feeling exposed once more.

“But…that is not what I built him to do,” the scientist attempted to explain. “I…did build him to be capable of entering a large variety of systems, but I had no reason to believe that a living Cybertronian would be among them. That… is not something a drone should be able to do.

It was clear from the expressions on the other mechs faces that they agreed.

Perceptor, still aghast, continued. “The specifications that I was given stressed his ability to interface above all other abilities—including manual dexterity. For the most part, he was designed to be a part of a much larger transmission system, and I wanted him to be able to access it from almost any other point on the planet. That is why he has three styles of manipulatable input jacks…”

“And it is also why he has no hands,” Jazz surmised, dismally, and with more sympathy than the drone was expecting.

This did not change the communications drone’s opinion of the white mech. However, he could extrapolate from the memories that he had stolen from Jazz that Jazz was well aware of the difficulties which lacking an appendage could present. The Monitor had been very clear on its intention to remove Jazz’s arm, which would have effectively removed the musician’s ability to play.

The drone wondered if Jazz did still play. From what he’d seen, the white mech was more focused on keeping the Iacon Archives safe or mysteriously placing himself where he was least expected.

“It’s a design element that his contractor was…amused by. I could rectify it easily, but he has never asked me to do so,” Perceptor answered, glancing up towards the drone with a look that seemed almost apologetic. The drone did not feel the need for such apology, however, as he had never felt as if he was lacking an appendage. It was only others w