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Ghost in the Machine

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"Are you sure you wish to proceed?" Orion asked, his light shining along the empty the underground tunnel. He turned back to look at Ariel, who held a datapad close to her chassis in one servo, and a stylus in the other.

Ariel smiled at that. "Of course. As a scribe, I'm tasked to archive important events of Cybertronian history. You're offering me the opportunity to document a great event our own lifetimes. Why would I wish to refuse?"

Her words gave Orion pause. "I think you should be careful with who sees your written work. If it falls into the wrong servos, it may end this change before it has even begun."

Ariel off-lined her optics at the fear that drifted to her from her bondmate's spark. She voiced his concerns, lowering the stylus to her side. "So, we are flirting with treason."

He nodded. "However," he shrugged, and continued in a deadpan manner, "I suppose we could turn back, and pretend that these talks have never occurred. We'd continue to fulfill our functions to the letter, breed within our caste, and be upright members of Cybertronian society."

Ariel smirked, and leaned against the side wall. "Sounds dreadfully boring."

Orion Pax nodded his helm. "Of course, though if you wished only to find excitement in this, I would regret my decision of taking you with me." At Ariel's upraised servo, he continued, "But that is not the case."

She rose from the wall, and walked over to him. "If this Megatronus can, in fact, upset the order in which we have been ensconced for vorns, then it is worth listening to him. Onward, then?" He nodded, and led the way. She continued, following him, "It's strange how, despite us being the ones who write our history, no one is taking note of how we have fallen into a rut." Orion looked back over his shoulder as she continued, "If we continue in this manner, then Cybertron will not progress. You see the struggles the divide that the caste system has caused for the lower classes. Beyond that, however, if we continue to squeeze ourselves into singular castes, then we will be no better than functional machines."

"But would it be worth gambling our fates on the words of a gladiator? Who would listen to him?" He argued, folding his arms, "Why would it be worth the while of the other castes? Megatronus does not even own his frame."

Ariel was caught off-guard for a moment. The next, however, she narrowed her optics, and smiled at his challenge. "That is how the lower classes are viewed, yes, but I would like to note that most of our thinking has been based upon the upper classes only. Little consideration is afforded to lower classes, and so it has been a monologue for several vorns." Her expression hardened. "Do not mistake me. I do not desire for this new, second voice to supersede the first, rather for there to be balance."

"Do you expect that to happen immediately? Come on, Ariel, you aren't that naïve," he prodded.

"No, of course not," she replied, "but that change isn't coming quickly enough. When was the last time a figure from the lower classes was given a legitimate chance to air grievances before the Council?" Orion paused at that, and faced her directly, the tunnel behind him yawning off into the distance. "That concerns you the most, doesn't it?" She inquired quietly.

He nodded. "Perhaps it is because I am more used to having time to think and analyze what I have found. It's," he rubbed the back of his neck, "rather a clash, really, whenever I venture down here."

Ariel moodily tapped her stylus against the side of her leg. "I suppose we wouldn't truly be accepted, then. The caste system goes both ways, in that regard."

"Remember that well while you take your notes," he replied carefully. She nodded, and continued along after him.

Whatever Orion had told her about how Megatronus looked, little prepared her for the scarred, hulking gladiator that stood before her. Considerably dwarfed, in comparison, she held her ground, his shadow cast over her, and the sharper points of his frame standing out. Bearing a contradiction to that, however, was the comradely way in which he slapped Orion on the shoulder with a jovial greeting. Orion held out his arm, and indicated her. "As I have mentioned to you previously, I have brought my friend, Ariel, to begin the inscription of the coming new age." Ariel quietly took note of her reduction in station, at least to Megatronus's knowledge, and realized still how little Orion trusted the gladiator.

Megatronus held out a servo to her, greeting warmly, "Welcome, sister."

Ariel took it, and he gave her servo a firm shake before letting go. Caught off guard at the amount of power he placed into pumping her servo, she stumbled slightly, her right knee knocking into Orion's leg. Orion's servo shot out, and caught her shoulder. With a slight cough, she replied, "Pleasure's all mine, thank you."

"I trust that you will give a non-biased account of my words, scribe?" Megatronus inquired, tapping the back of her outheld datapad.

Ariel gave a firm nod. "Yes, certainly. I am recording what will, hopefully, be a key event in modern Cybetronian history."

"You flatter me," he replied, and turned to indicate the mech seated close beside him. The mech stood, the low lighting glinting over his visor. "Should you need any clarification, or merely desire to check for accuracy in your transcripts, my lieutenant Soundwave will assist you. His ability to record audio transmissions is unmatched." Soundwave folded his servos behind his back, and bowed to Ariel before sitting back down. "Now, I suggest you find your seats. I will be beginning soon." Megatronus turned away from them to head toward a raised platform.

Orion gestured for Ariel to follow him, and led her toward several raised recesses that had been formed into makeshift benches. Several Cybetronians had already sat down, or were finding places to sit. "Back row," he murmured, "We don't want to call attention to ourselves. Stay close to me. When I signal to leave, we go."

"I thought you were on good terms with him?" She inquired quietly.

"I am. You're not," he replied simply. Swallowing her pride, Ariel nodded, and kept pace.

That was, until a servo seized her ankle. She bit down on a cry as a voice whispered mockingly, "What's the matter, sweetspark, are you lost?" Ariel slowly turned to stare into the faceplate of a powerfully-built femme, her optics boring into hers. By the size of her arms alone, Ariel figured that she would have no problem snapping her leg in two. A self-satisfied grin was upon the femme's light purple faceplate. From just over the larger femme's shoulder glowed a red optic belonging to a hulking mech. The femme turned her helm. "What say you, Lugnut? I find her interest in Megatronus to be quite peculiar."

Whatever Lugnut's reply was, Ariel didn't pay attention to it. Grunting heavily, she attempted to twist her ankle in the femme's grip, but found it wouldn't budge. She drew back her other pede to kick her servo when Orion broke in warningly, "Strika, release her! She's with me!" Ariel felt his servo on her shoulder. If a fight was to break out in such an enclosed area, she figured Orion and herself probably wouldn't see the light of the next day.

Strika, however, leaned backward in a relaxed manner. Sarcasm dripped from her words as she replied, "Ah, Orion Pax returns from the high tower once more. Forgive me for not noticing the entrance of such an exalted one. And how nice, he has brought along a friend to gawk at us, as well!"

"We surely must be honored," Lugnut interjected.

"Surely," Strika agreed, leaning backward onto Lugnut's chassis, and crooking her wrist sideways. Ariel gave a sharp intake of breath at the pain, and dared not budge. If she moved against Strika, her ankle would snap.

"Strika," Orion hissed.

"Hmm? Oh, yes, I forgot," she released her grip upon Ariel's ankle, and the femme drew it backward, wincing at the throbbing pain. Strika gave a bored sigh. "Word to the wise, little one. You might want to bulk up a little, lest you roll and snap your ankle on those heel struts I hear are all the rage with femmes your age these days," she rolled optics, and continued in a self-indulgent manner, "Oh, and do also be careful while you are here. Not everyone is so laid back as my dear Lugnut and I." Lugnut stroked Strika's chassis at that.

"I'll keep that in mind," Ariel replied coldly, turning on her heel to walk away. Strika snorted as the quick movement put too much pressure on the scribe's still-smarting ankle, and nearly caused her to topple over. Grasping Orion's outstretched servo, she walked away in embarrassment.

"Best you not, sweetspark! I think walking is your priority!" Strika taunted after her.

"That went well," Ariel growled softly as she sat heavily down. Holding up her ankle in one hand, she twisted her pede experimentally, and winced.

"Are you all right?" Orion asked in a concerned tone, sitting down beside her.

She shrugged, and dropped her ankle. "Stings, but it could be worse. Mostly my pride's been wounded. I wasn't expecting your words to be put to truth so quickly."

He gave a sigh of relief at that. "You may find this strange, but Strika was sizing you up."

"Me?" Ariel repeated in surprise, "What threat could I pose to her?"

"You have the ability to return to a safe berth, and to walk about freely. She does not. Therefore, you have something she lacks." At Ariel's raised optic ridge, he concluded, "In a way, perhaps one that she does not consider, she does fear you."

"Even still, I want to spar with you more often," she muttered bitterly, glaring at the back of Strika's helm. "I do not wish to feel helpless again."

"I'll make time," he replied sincerely.

Folding her arms behind her helm, and leaning against the wall behind her, she appraised him with a sideways look. "I gather that your first impression here was rather similar." At his smirk, she figured that it was more so. "No wonder why you were so sore in the berth for a solar-week."

"Ariel," he grumbled in embarrassment, though more so over the fact that she could feel his slight arousal through the bond.

She grinned. "Oh, mute it. Personally, I enjoyed stroking you. You're quite sensitive in so many little places, you know."

"I'll gladly stroke your ankle if you'll kindly drop the subject," he offered.

Ariel winked. "Accepted." Turning her helm and dropping her arms, she inquired as she scanned over the gathered mechs and femmes, "Who here can you identify?"

"A few, but the number keeps growing. It's not necessarily helping that their backs are to us," he replied, but nevertheless picked out several. "You have already 'met' Strika and Lugnut. Similarly to us, they are bonded. Strika is the most powerful female gladiator in the pits of Kaon, while Lugnut, given the choice, would form a religion of his own in Megatronus's honor. The purple mech with the red optic," he gestured to the base of the platform, where said mech was speaking to Megatronus from, waving an arm animatedly (much to Ariel's disturbance, she realized that the arm ended in a gun), "is Shockwave, another of Megatronus's lieutenants. Unlike many gathered here, he's a scientist." He gestured to the corner, where a large purple mech shoved a red and black mech backward in annoyance. "Motormaster and Wildrider. Motormaster and I share the same alternate form, while Wildrider, as you can probably tell, is smaller. They frequently are paired together in tag team matches, but can little stand each other." A mech in the corner surveyed the scene with boredom, his chin braced upon the palm of one servo. "Hook is one of the more interesting mechs I've spoken with. He's often relegated to manual labor due to his build, but he has expressed the desire to become an architect."

"Specifically, he's someone you would desire to help," she waved her servo about, indicating the entirety of the room, "as you would anyone else here."

Orion nodded at that. "Which is why, during the next meeting, I will take my turn to speak, as well. Megatronus and I have come to an agreement that it is also time for me to voice my support." He placed his servo over hers.

"Wouldn't miss it for the world," Ariel reassured, stroking his fingers. Letting go, she picked up her stylus as Megatronus cleared his throat to bring the room to order.

XXXXXX

"I see Megatronus isn't the only mech you're giving attention to."

Ariel glanced up from her datapad, and felt her spark sink as Strika's optics bored into hers. She lowered her stylus to her side, point down. She'd taken the liberty to interview some of the attendees of Megatronus's speeches, those that would give a word, anyway, as to why they would support him. The number was quite low, so far being two. She'd been in the middle of proofreading one such statement. "I'm just conducting research for this event," Ariel explained, "I can even show you, if you want."

Strika, however, didn't bother to glance down at the datapad. Ariel tried not to swallow at that, as Orion was a distance off, talking with Megatronus and Shockwave before it would come time for him to ascend the platform. "What are you doing here?" Strika asked sharply.

"Excuse me?" Ariel asked, caught off guard.

"I said," her optics narrowed, "What are you doing here?" Ariel felt her energon run cold as Strika sat down upon the bench before hers. She flicked her gaze away for just a moment, and she knew immediately that Strika had caught the motion.

"This is my profession as a scribe," she held up the datapad for emphasis, and quickly retracted her servo as Strika attempted to swipe it from her. "Hey!"

"This is your pet project." Ariel noted the distaste in her voice. "What disgusts me is the sheer ignorance you have."

Ariel rose. "If you'll excuse me—"

Strika held out an arm, barring her path. "This is exactly the ignorance I am speaking of, Ariel. You will sit down." Ariel, a knot forming in her throat, slowly sat back down, unsure of what Strika was going to do. "You two think that you can speak for us, but that's more of an insult than you can ever imagine," Strika hissed, hitting her servo into the surface of her bench for emphasis, and causing a few mechs to turn at the sound. "How dare you think that you can do such a thing! You do not know the sheer amount of agony that we have endured for centuries." Ariel felt cold, as if she had drawn in upon her own frame, but she remained sitting straight up as Strika continued, "You know nothing of the pits, of having your own dignity violated, just so you could be upgraded. You know nothing of ripping a friend to pieces, because it was either her life, or yours. And you know nothing of nearly having your spark bond broken, multiple times, might I add, so your bondmate, despite the reason he may have given you for living, could be sold for spare parts." Strika had grown more aggressive in her tone, leaning her faceplate ever closer to Ariel's.

Ariel could only think to respond, "Lugnut's still with you, though."

Strika raised an optic ridge, and replied, her voice dripping with sarcasm, "Perceptive. Does it matter to you, the amount of pain our sparks were placed in, the sheer torture we were put through, to drive us apart? Of course not, when you're buried in your datapads." Leaning backward, she concluded, "And yet Megatronus allowed you two in, anyway. I suppose my bondmate is not quite correct in his zealotry for him, but at least Megatronus would truly care for our plight. You and Orion, I heavily doubt it." Rising, she ordered Ariel, "Delete those two entries, and don't you dare let me catch your pampered aft talking to one of us again." Spitting on the ground just before Ariel, she walked away.

Ariel stared quietly after her, and placed the pad to the side. Leaning forward on her knees, she tried to catch her breath. It stuck in her throat, however, when Strika's predatory gaze swung back to her, and she, much to her shame, deleted both entries.

XXXXXX

"I can't help but wonder," Optimus Prime began solemnly, "that my being chosen was nothing more than a political bid for power by the senators to further their own agendas. Even with their power virtually dissolved by my position, some would benefit from my being leader, while others would see me be deposed." He clenched his fist, and growled, "I am either a puppet to them, or a weakling. Pathetic."

Ariel sat behind her desk, her elbows propped upon it, and her servos folded, as she listened to her bondmate speak his mind. Upon the scribe's desk sat a stack of data pads, two dozen in all, detailing Megatronus's lectures, those she had been privy to, others she had managed to rip from Optimus's captured audio files during his days as a clerk, and others still that she had uncovered due to comparing her notes with Soundwave. Despite what she had managed to amass, Ariel couldn't help but feel like she blew it. Orion Pax's speeches, a stack only half as high, sat next to Megatronus's.

Her desk was simple, bearing a lamp and a few styluses. Two holophotos stood upon the desk, one of her and Orion—or should she call him Optimus now—in a botanical park near the Hall of Records, his arms around her as he held her from behind. The picture had been taken during their courtship. The other featured a shot of herself and Moonracer, a fellow scribe and friend, their arms linked as they balanced precariously on the top of the tower on which they worked, and leaving their other servos free to pose and wave at the camera. Moonracer had teased her that night, she had recalled, about being skittish of heights. A shelf held several datapads that she still had to edit, while on the wall stood a vintage poster calling for resistance against the Quintessons, featuring Cybertronians defiantly throwing off chains while a five-sided face leered down upon them.

Orion had been a big mech in his lifetime. She'd been taken aback upon first meeting him when dropping off one of her publications for the Hall of Records, her excitement curbed for a moment. However, when he spoke, and took the datapad from her, it was with gentleness, if not a little shyness, as well, despite that build. Now, he looked utterly powerful, and war-like. Ariel doubted little that he would prove a threat to Megatron. She remembered the tension she had felt, in the past, slowly mounting whenever she had attended the former gladiator's lectures with Orion. Had the two mechs in question felt it, as well, or had they simply ignored it until now? Whatever the case, she bit back a cry of anguish at picturing Megatron's claws slashing across Optimus's faceplate.

"But their opinions didn't matter to us in the past," she replied carefully, tilting her chin up, "We could have been executed for treason for so much as listening to Megatronus. You are no longer beholden to them."

He shook his helm. "If I don't respect the Council's opinion, I'll become nothing better than a dictator!" He sighed, immediately realizing how ridiculous his own point sounded. "Then again, Halogen is dead anyway. The only remaining power within my faction lies with Sentinel Zeta Prime, and myself. He is still missing. Megatron holds immense power over Cybertron, but never again will he look upon me as a brother."

Ariel sighed. "Two voices are speaking, but neither is listening."

Optimus stared out the window into the distance. Iacon was blazing with light, and confusion over the systematic shake-up, with newsfeeds going wild. Small fires sparked riots, while chants and slogans screamed above the sirens. "What will become of our world?" He asked out loud, "The possibilities are myriad, but," he tilted his helm, "I do not feel optimistic."

Ariel rose from her desk, and replied, "Then we must face the consequences together."

He turned at that, pain burning in his optics. "Ariel, are you sure? My mind, it has changed, you can see that already. And, you would share me with the Matrix of Leadership," he hesitated before continuing, stumbling over the first word, "I would understand if you desired to break our bond."

She placed one servo to her spark chamber, and held the other out to him. "By my choice, I remain with you, Optimus. I wouldn't leave you now, when you need someone at your side."

He shook his helm. "Please, don't feel obligated to me."

"Never," she dismissed flatly, "Put that from your mind immediately, Prime." He started at that, and Ariel continued in a gentler tone, "The Matrix of Leadership accepted you as its bearer for your own virtues," extending a servo, she placed it to the side of his faceplate, "Virtues which I was drawn to."

He leaned into it with a contented sigh, though she couldn't hold a smile at that, as she still felt his unease filtering through their bond. Upon feeling her helplessness, he grasped her servo, and lowered it in embarrassment. "But I am more, or rather, I was, more than my virtues. To laugh, to be moved by the immortal words of a tome, to enjoy the pleasure of another's frame…" He stroked her fingers at the latter, "Is what I fear losing most."

"You haven't, not yet," Ariel replied reassuringly.

With a still-unconvinced expression, he replied, "I just hope that day will be long in coming."