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Megatron went back to Kaon.

Not for any good reason: he’d emptied the Pits quite thoroughly when he’d led everyone off to war, and there wasn’t anything else left in Kaon, unless he wanted to go even further down into the mines. But it wasn’t entirely a conscious decision. He was halfway there, the glittering rain of sparks still falling behind him, before he realized his own trajectory. A homing instinct, he might have called it, except the emotional connotations of the word home were entirely incompatible with any concept of Kaon. A going to ground, perhaps.

But even once he noticed where he was heading, he couldn’t generate a better destination. There was nowhere in the universe to go that would have been an improvement. So he didn’t bother changing his flight path. The journey was almost over by the time he finished considering, in any case. Unicron had certainly made substantial upgrades during his temporary possession.

The old familiar rage tried to resurrect itself out of that thought. But it struggled to keep hold of any processing time, and dropped out again before he could even try to boost its priority. Not even a deliberate attempt to think of his own helplessness, the indignity of having to be saved by Optimus, managed to call it back. All he felt was the lingering spark-deep exhaustion. Perhaps it was the lack of a target. Unicron was gone, after all, and Optimus with him. Dear Orion finally getting to go out in a truly spectacular blaze of altruistic glory, like he’d so desperately wanted for so long. Megatron had always imagined it would involve him going up at the same time, but apparently he hadn’t been worthy of that, either.

He couldn’t actually generate the bitterness that should have accompanied that thought. There was almost a suggestion of some other feeling trying to rise up alongside it, something he didn’t want to name, much less experience. He manually dumped the entire train of thought to keep it out of foreground processing, and flew on.

He circled Kaon three times, finding not the slightest trace of life, before he came to a landing in the middle of the Great Arena, and transformed to slam into the ground. Back in the bad old days, he’d carefully tailored his landing maneuver for intimidation and power, a signature fight-ending flourish. He’d performed it so often, he hadn’t needed to think about it anymore by the time he hadn’t needed to think about it anymore. It was utterly automatic here, in the Arena, the greatest of the devouring pits of Kaon, his place if anywhere in the universe qualified; he came down amidst the stands and found himself raising his arms in triumph to the deliriously cheering crowds that should have been there.

“Ah, the glory days are gone,” he said aloud, mocking himself, and let his arms fall. The words echoed back to him off the empty walls: gone, gone, gone.

He spent the next few weeks wandering Kaon aimlessly, determinedly refusing to think about what the hell he was doing. He should have been starving after a day or two and wasn’t. Running a few diagnostics turned up some interesting and improbable results from his newly modified internal reactor: from what he could tell, he could likely go a few million years at full power without drinking any energon at all. No enemies, no army, no hunger: he was more free than he’d ever conceived as possible back in his days as a disposable gladiator, fighting savagely for a half-ration a day.

And he was spending his liberty by putting himself right back into the Pits, which said something, but Megatron didn’t plan on listening anytime soon. He distracted himself by clearing roads and tearing down half-collapsed buildings. There was no effort involved; he could shred, tear apart, or smelt virtually any material at this point. After a week, mostly out of boredom, he built a high-temperature mold and started casting new support beams out of slag to shore up the buildings that could be stabilized. It entertained him to imagine the Autobots doing a survey and finding Kaon the obviously best site to start their rebuilding process, which was surely going to get underway as soon as they finished with a mawkish array of memorials. And then either they’d deliberately go somewhere else, a tribute to their fear of him, or they’d come and have to be reminded at every turn of the revolution that had torn their world apart. Either way would do nicely.

It was as good an excuse as he could come up with, anyway. The truth was he didn’t know why he was doing it, why he was here, what he was going to do. The future beyond the immediate moment had vanished. He wandered the streets in lieu of wandering through his own mind, stumbling onto familiar places like memories surfacing. One day he even came across the squat unlovely block of the senior gladiator compound, still surrounded by the wreckage of the security wall that had proven inadequate to keep them in. He tore down the remnant of the shock fencing idly, the few lingering power surges feebly coruscating over his impervious armor, and then went inside on an impulse he regretted almost at once. But his only option at that point was to consciously stop and run away, so he kept going.

His quarters had been on the ground floor, an inversion of the usual status. But the compound elevators had been constantly broken, and uncomfortably small even when they’d been working. At some point he’d lost patience, gone downstairs and displaced a dozen lowlier gladiators from their cells all in a row, and bashed in the walls to make himself a space he’d smugly considered palatial. It now looked almost laughably small. Even his quarters aboard the Nemesis had been larger. With the elaborate new helm Unicron had inflicted on him, he couldn’t actually stand all the way up straight.

His old recharge bed was still there, and the table and chair where he’d sat to drink his energon, solid pieces too big for scavengers to move, although the thin sheet paneling had been stripped off one entire wall and change, and coils of half-chewed wiring looped over the floor. He knew it was a bad idea, but he went inside anyway and sat down on the bed: the empty room before him a frame waiting to be filled, and his memory unit helpfully served up a vivid image of Orion, perched on top of the chair with his heels braced on the small ridge that Megatron had dented into the side for him halfway up, talking earnestly of self-determination and the rights of the individual, as passionate as if those were real things and not just ludicrous fantasy.

“Of course, I sat right here and listened to you, didn’t I,” Megatron said to him. “Well, they were good stories. They certainly helped me improve my own rhetoric. But all in all, I think I should have just ripped off your cranial unit when I had the chance.”

Orion in memory only looked at him with wide blue optics, unafraid and a little hurt-indignant, and even with a new body and a thousand years of war written over him, Megatron couldn’t actually imagine ripping him apart. He grimaced. “Fine,” he told Orion. “I should have spiked you when I had the chance. It would have shut you up just as effectively.”

That dispelled Orion quite thoroughly; Megatron couldn’t actually imagine his response. He couldn’t remember anymore why he’d never tried. There had always seemed a practical reason not to, but those had been excuses for a sentiment so far away Megatron couldn’t even grasp it anymore; it had vanished far more completely than his memories of Orion, of the arena. Something like uncertainty. He’d never felt it in battle, and he’d never felt it among the Decepticons, but he’d felt it in this room, across from that plastic-fragile mech, brimming over with his beautiful nonsense. It had almost been a relief when Orion had been transformed, the threat of him converted by the Matrix into the physical realm, made so vividly manifest.

Almost.

Megatron went back out to the corridor restlessly. He looked into Soundwave’s chambers, two doors down—they’d left a single room empty in between, which no one had ever dared to take. Soundwave’s chambers had been less spartan than his own, filled with a tinkerer’s clutter: a large workbench stood against one wall, with frayed cables protruding from the walls where various bits of once-valuable equipment had been carried off. But there was also a large still-sealed cabinet, bolted immovably to the wall, and a blackened corpse lying on the floor in front of it. One half-melted hand still rested plaintively on the door, the thin remnant of a lockpicker dangling like a stretched fiber from the lock. Megatron snorted. It was never wise to meddle with anything Soundwave actually cared about.

The protective system had to be powered by a microreactor: more effort than Soundwave would ordinarily have spent on any mere thing. Megatron ripped the entire cabinet away along with a healthy portion of the wall it was mounted on, and tore into it from the back. The unit didn’t hold very much, only the defense system itself and a box of more valuable parts and tools, and one large shrouded form. Megatron pulled the dust tarp off and gently touched Ravage’s body. He looked much better than the last time Megatron had seen him. Which wasn’t saying much: they’d only just managed to retrieve his body from the smelters after the Council’s intelligence forces had gotten through with him, and he’d looked a step up from scrap at the time. Megatron had privately considered it a wasted mission. But Soundwave had obviously been quietly working on repairs for some time before the war had begun: most of the damage was no longer visible. He hadn’t mentioned it, when the time had come to leave Kaon and launch the revolution. But then, Soundwave wouldn’t have.

Soundwave’s workbench had ideal space and lighting, and was easy to restore to functional condition by taking the microreactor from the defense system. The space could be enlarged trivially, simply by taking out the room between their two quarters, and bringing down the ceiling above. Megatron couldn’t justify carrying Ravage and all the parts back to the random shell of a building where he’d been camping for the last week. It made far more sense to stay. But he wished he could have justified it. He kept having vivid flashes of Orion out of memory. They’d spent too much time here together. His voice lingered between the walls, the bright echo of his chatter so different from the dull silence of gladiators mostly pushed to the limits of their function.

“You didn’t like them much, did you,” Megatron said aloud, looking up from Ravage’s scorched-black spinal column—it looked as though someone had deliberately inserted a disruptor tip and fired point-blank into the neural subsystem—to see Orion making a mad dash through the doorway to get in safely, dodging between a solo gladiator—what had his name been? Steelshatter? He’d died a few months later—and a different lumbering trio fresh from a match, still sparking and leaking lubricant all over. Orion looked a little anxious, uneasy. “Yes, your passion for individual rights didn’t extend to the actual individuals. You never did want to recognize how your principles fell down when they met reality. I imagine it was a relief when you finally had an excuse to jump down that pit to Primus.”

Megatron had the strong suspicion that Optimus could just have taken the Matrix out and dumped it back into Primus without the rest of him going along for the one-way trip. That amnesiac interlude he’d suffered the other year indicated that the interface lived at least one step up from spark level. But that wasn’t a choice Optimus would ever have made. Passing up that grandiose a level of self-sacrifice and fireworks? Of course not. It hadn’t been at all a surprise when Megatron had seen the sparks raining down gloriously in his rear sensors.

He wondered idly what the Autobots had been doing since they’d been abandoned by their heroic leader. He still hadn’t seen any signs of them. But he didn’t care enough to find out. The repair work occupied his hours well enough, since he wasn’t particularly skilled at it. Fortunately, Soundwave had already fixed most of the delicate nanocircuitry that was beyond the physical capabilities of his own hands, and Megatron was reasonably sure that he could leave the rest of it to the self-repair systems once he kludged Ravage the rest of the way back online.

His days fell into rhythm. He worked until he grew too irritated either with the painstaking work or the flow of unwanted memories, and then he went back into the streets until he had walked it off. Every once in a while he took a recharge cycle. He kept clearing streets, although he’d already opened up nearly the entire lower city by now, until one morning he heaved a conglomerate mess of concrete and steel out of a narrow side street, and a shaft of sunlight reflected off the ground and hit his face. He winced away for a moment; his optics were currently at maximum dilation in the almost pitch-dark of the alleyway and the slum buildings crammed in on both sides. Then he adjusted and looked up, following the stray beam of light to where it bounced back and forth between half a dozen of the starscrapers to accidentally reach the ground.

The street was mostly stained a dusty reddish-black with exhaust gas, but the light was striping across the bright metal of a reinforced ventilation shaft cover: a large disk, snugged tightly into its hollow and bolted securely down. Seen from underneath, even that one gleam of light would have made a brilliant halo around it in the dark. Megatron knew exactly what it would look like.

The cover came up squealing with a single talon under the edge, and he managed to fit through the hole: they’d been made to allow heavy-duty construction workers through for repairs. He wasn’t sure if it was the same ventilation shaft that he’d used to crawl up out of the mines, all those long years ago. But that didn’t really matter. They were all the same, even if they were different. His shoulders scraped loudly against the sides of the shaft as he lowered himself in, and he did have one involuntary moment of consciously wondering what the hell he was doing, but he managed to suppress it beneath a wave of practical irritation, and the need to bash at the walls to make his way down into the large open space below: an old energon processing area for one of the mines.

The wreckage of the uprising was still visible as he walked through the upper level. Whether or not it had been his access shaft, it was in fact his mine. He recognized the logos on the toppled minecars, the same logo that had once been imprinted on his own chest armor. He’d scraped it off long before he’d put the Decepticon symbol in its place.

There was nothing left of the energon and durasteel; scavengers had undoubtedly gotten everything this high up. The same was true of the two other processing levels below, and after that, there would only be a long stretch of hollowed-out tunnels with nothing whatsoever of interest. There wasn’t a mine in Kaon that hadn’t been stripped twelve levels down by the time he’d rolled off the line. Megatron knew that as well as anyone still in existence.

But he kept going back every day, for no reason he could name: back and further in. He didn’t bother trying to resurrect the long-jammed lifts; instead he just blasted open new shafts. Chunks of the surface slums caved in on him, but that didn’t seriously inconvenience him. He liquefied the rubble and used the slag to stabilize his new shafts. By the time he was done, he’d cleared five square blocks around the ventilation shaft, creating a vast sunken plaza pockmarked by the dark circles of his comfortably large shafts. It was an odd contrast to the original mine entry, which stood on the far outskirts of the city and was surrounded by heavy fortifications and security checkpoints—all the better to keep the miners in. It had worked, more or less. Barely a dozen deep miners had made it out to the rebellion, and only a few hundred of the mid-range ones. They’d all gone down early in the war, smashing the heavy-armor drones that the Council had sent up against them.

Megatron had to go down fourteen levels of the mine before he finally reached one that had actually been active at the start of the war. There was a strangely comforting kind of light down there, energon deposits still glowing faintly pink, beckoning to harvesting instincts he’d never managed to root out. He wasn’t hungry, but he idly tore a few crystals out of the walls as he walked past them, popping them into his mouth and crunching them for the pleasure of texture. And the even greater pleasure of being able to do it without an overseer coming after him with a disruptor rod. There were even a few minuscule signs of life, faint scrabbling noises from the tunnels ahead of him, electrovoles fleeing the tremors of his passage.

Ravage was coming back together on the worktable roughly in parallel to his excavations, and the day Megatron came back from reaching the active levels, he looked Ravage over, then gave a philosophical shrug and hooked his own reactor in to Ravage’s system and generated a massive power surge to restart his reactor. A backwash could potentially have overloaded him, but he didn’t care enough to be afraid. In any case, it didn’t happen; instead Ravage’s whole body jolted, then he lifted his head from the table and looked at Megatron, and his optics glowed red a moment before he lay back down to rest.

A few days later, he was already well enough to jump down and follow when Megatron went out wandering again. Ravage had his creator’s silence; he didn’t ask any questions, only padded along at Megatron’s side, occasionally roaming up ahead or spending a little time investigating something off to the side before rejoining him. He had no difficulty navigating the shafts, leaping with easy agility from one jutting outcrop of broken girders to another, following Megatron down. He did need energon, but Megatron could easily extract fresh energon crystals for him as they walked. Ravage signaled approval of the taste.

By then Megatron had almost gotten back to his own last work site. The tunnels and shafts down here were more stable because they hadn’t been stripped clean yet. He only had to clear a handful of obstructed passages to follow the veins of unmined energon down to the fathoms-deep bottom of the mine. The miners hadn’t been kept informed, so he hadn’t known enough at the time to interpret his own actions, but now he realized that in fact the primary function of his workgroup had been opening up the next level of the mine. Undoubtedly that explained his construction: even among deep miners, he’d been unusually large and over-powered. He remembered a hanging sense of anxious time pressure from the supervisors; he was fairly certain that they’d been looking for another large vein for some time by then.

He didn’t know why he was bothering to finish the job now. Even if he’d wanted to re-open the Kaon mines for some reason, there was enough in the way of energon and titanium deposits on the four already-open levels to keep every last surviving Cybertronian in fuel and durasteel for the next thousand years. The war had solved the problem of supply and demand from the other direction. But Megatron kept going anyway, until he reached the massive tunnel collapse that had completely blocked the final slope, and stood looking at the tunnel, filled to the brim with rubble.

Down at the other end—very far down--he’d dug his way out through rubble and crushed corpses and opened himself a small breathing space. He’d set up his relay transmitter and radioed for help. All according to standard mining procedure. He’d gotten back a confirmation that help was on the way, and then he’d sat down to wait, again according to procedure. But after he’d waited for three days, his limited supply of caution had been drowned out by his vast supply of impatience, and he’d started carving his own way out.

Unfortunately, his sensors weren’t designed for long-range scanning to begin with, and back then they’d been deliberately throttled to boot. He hadn’t even been able to determine his depth from the last tunnel, much less the half-mythical surface he’d never seen. He’d dug blind, even his running lights turned off, the better to catch sight of any gleam of light. His makeshift tunnel had crossed various natural stone passages, and even a few worked ones clad in metal, where his footsteps rang out and echoed hollowly in both directions. But no response had come to his transmissions anywhere along the way. He’d been getting a little anxious about his energon levels by the time he hit a vertical access shaft and finally did get a response from above, a very faint low-level ping.

He did remember that particular experience, quite vividly. He’d eagerly clawed his way up the shaft towards the signal until he finally reached another tunnel, much higher up: one of the old mined-out sections. The dim beacon light had shone like flame to his deprived optics. A heap of rubble had blocked most of his view, but he’d seen the light flickering over the helmet and face, leaning against the wall in repose, the optics shut—his first sight of another living mech since the sloping tunnel had fallen in on him. Megatron would have gone running flat-out down the tunnel if it hadn’t been so cramped.

It hadn’t been until he’d made it around the tumbled debris that he saw the hideous wreck of the mech’s legs, gone to the knee with a pair of electrovoles gnawing with pleasure on a sparking, frayed power cable, and another one peering out of a hole in the side of the torso, a bundle of fine wire in its forepaws. He’d stood horrified, until even more horrifyingly, the optics had slid open, flickering to life, and the other lost miner had looked up at him.

Terminus had been down there since vorn 22074, more than a century. “The retrieval crew said they were on the way,” he’d whispered, thready and wavering, as Megatron heaved him up and crushed the fleeing electrovoles in disgust. “They said it would be a while… I activated my emergency protocol. After a month, it started to shut me down automatically at intervals to keep my reactor from dying. I woke up a decade later, and my feet were gone. But I couldn’t deactivate the protocol while I was still underground. The voles get some more every time I shut down…”

But his sensors were still functional, and also he actually knew how to get to the surface. In Terminus’s day, miners hadn’t yet been classified as disposable. He’d been a low-caste laborer, working for a wage, occasionally allowed to come up to certain restricted areas. He shared a torrent of information about the world above as Megatron carried him up, Terminus slung over his back as easily as a quarter-load of raw energon. The stories sounded unbelievable. Light produced by stars, open air overhead stretching all the way to the infinite vacuum of space. On the less poetic side, Terminus had frequented a low-caste pub on his one day off a month, and once he’d even won at a gambling game—it had taken some explaining for Megatron to grasp the concept of a game—and he’d spent his winnings on a ticket to one of the cheaper Pits.

The lurid, half-magical tales filled the week that it took Megatron to carve their way up to the tunnels just below the street, and there they’d found the ventilation shaft, the cover above limned with surface light. He’d shoved it open, and then he’d climbed out and laid Terminus down in the street before looking up and around, dazzled and bewildered, at the open sky, the glittering starscrapers, the reflected sunlight. After a moment he’d looked down to apologize for having thought that Terminus was insane, and found the miner dead at his feet, a trickle of lubricant running from each of the cracked optics, agony and relief mingled on his face.

So Megatron wasn’t really surprised, standing at the top of the slope collapse, to see that the overseers clearly hadn’t assigned a crew to so much as touch the rubble. They’d sent immediate responses to his daily messages, assuring him that progress was being made. Undoubtedly it had been an autoresponder, meant to keep him waiting, and only boredom and luck had saved him from simply starving to death. He wouldn’t have suffered the same fate as Terminus; his energon demands would have drained his reactor core dead after only a month or two at most, even if he’d just sat waiting. A thoughtful refinement of disposable-mech design. Perhaps intended as mercy, but the overseers had been extremely concerned about any deep miners getting out. A highly justified concern, in retrospect.

“Get further back down the tunnel,” he told Ravage. “If the slope comes down on me, just keep out of the way. I’ll dig it out.”

Ravage vanished into the dark behind them without a word. The slope did come down twice more while Megatron cleared it, until he managed to put up a few stabilizing arches and finally made it to the bottom. The escape tunnel Megatron had carved himself was still intact. Ravage came padding down after he sent an all-clear, and stood next to him looking into the dark mouth.

The tunnel had been a snug fit, and his armor hadn’t been nearly so dramatic at the time. But it wasn’t too hard to widen it enough to get through. Ravage slipped on ahead inquisitively, and was gone for long stretches. Megatron had made it roughly thirty klicks down the tunnel, trying to persuade himself there was some kind of rational reason for retracing his own escape route, before Ravage suddenly reappeared, looked up at him meaningfully, and led him on another few kilometers to an intersection where their feet rang out on worked metal. In the light he now carried, Megatron could see that the tunnel had crossed paths with one of the ancient shafts that pierced Cybertron all the way through, constructed by some long-gone civilization forgotten by anyone except dry archivists laboring in isolated towers.

Ravage turned off into the shaft and looked back at him. Megatron nodded him on; he had no idea what Ravage had found, but he was willing to trust it wasn’t something pointless or stupid. At least not more pointless and stupid than being down here in the depths at all.

They walked for almost an hour, Ravage’s audio receptors pricked up and rotating almost continuously, obviously tracking some distant noise by its echoes, a noise so faint that Megatron couldn’t even pick up a hint of it until very near the end, where he realized that a very dim illumination had also been gradually increasing, enough that he could now see the etched carvings lining the walls, and see the elegant vaulting of the roof overhead. It was unquestionably one of the Alvea Cybertronia, the sacred routes that only the priests of Primus were ever meant to walk. “And I dug right through it. How shocked Orion would have been,” Megatron said aloud, and was immediately sorry when the echo came back whispering from the walls, as if they’d longed to speak Orion’s name aloud, and he’d lent them the voice to do it with.

Ravage paused, ears pricked, until the echoes died away again, and when they were gone, Megatron finally picked up the sound he’d been following: the faint chattering of an electrovole network, punctuated by the dusty scratching of their claws. One klick more, and he made out the silhouette of the mech’s body a few steps further on, sunk in exhaustion against the wall. The voles were gathered in a line by his feet, just out of kicking range, passing sensor observations to one another, waiting for neural activity to drop low enough that they could dart in and start feasting.

It was a strange, distorting moment. In the pallid light, his visual cortex misidentified the figure both as old Terminus and as Orion, multiple memories lurching to map themselves onto the half-familiar scene. A half-queasy instinct to purge energon rose through him. He jerked into motion, crossing the distance and crushing half the electrovoles and scattering the rest with a single sweep of his foot, and he bent down to the shadowed figure and locked in place, frozen and blank, as Optimus lifted his head and stared up at him dimly with his blue optics vague and pulsating, barely still online.

“Megatron?” he said, thin but inescapably real, and then sighed once, deeply, and sank into unconsciousness.

Megatron just knelt there staring at him for long enough that Ravage ventured forward, nosed at Optimus’s arm, and looked up at him inquiringly. It occurred to Megatron, too late, that of course, Ravage had been deactivated before the schism; he’d been caught spying two years before the rising power of the Decepticon revolution had forced the Council to give them an audience. As far as he knew, Optimus—Orion—was still—a friend. A brother in arms.

“You’ve missed a few developments,” Megatron told him shortly. Ravage just glanced down at Optimus and then back at him. His point was clear: it didn’t really matter what he’d missed. There was still—a choice to be made.

Megatron ground his jaw, his fists. Leaving Optimus down here to be devoured alive by electrovoles, just like one of the disposables he’d turned his back on—how beautifully fitting a vengeance it would be. Megatron could even tell the Autobots someday about what had happened to their beloved leader, and send them down here to look at whatever wreck the scavengers had left behind. The vicious perfection of it would once have given him almost ecstatic pleasure. Instead he only felt a sick weariness, the lingering ache of Unicron’s torments resurging from the deepest well of his spark. As if that agony had burned out all other suffering, all other rage, all other hate. And the power to soothe them with vengeance and violence, as well.

Oddly, Optimus felt roughly as light as Terminus had. In the dark, Megatron couldn’t tell whether Optimus had somehow been diminished, or if it was only his own reformatted strength.

#

Optimus’s fuel system happily siphoned up a good twenty astroliters of energon, and his power levels rose back to normal before that was halfway through. He wasn’t injured, as far as Megatron could tell. Physically, he hadn’t been altered. All those magnificent weapons systems still entirely online. And while Megatron couldn’t decrypt Optimus’s memory banks without more of an effort than he was going to make, he could tell they hadn’t been wiped this time. But still Optimus didn’t wake. He just went on lying inert on the worktable in Ravage’s former place, his optics offline.

Megatron contemplated him in irritation. He’d lugged Optimus all the way to the surface, and he’d harvested and processed those twenty astroliters. He drew the line at standing here coaxing Optimus to wake up. “You can lie there for eternity, as far as I care,” he told Optimus flatly, and stalked out. Except, to make things worse, he didn’t have a strong impulse to keep wandering around anymore—as if all along he’d been looking for Optimus. The idea was so infuriating that Megatron deliberately kept wandering around, clearing away more of the roads, just to refute it to himself.

It was a few weeks later—with Optimus still behaving like a uselessly large counterweight back in the compound—when Ravage pricked up his ears during a walk, and led Megatron back towards the access shaft to the mine. He followed reluctantly, until his sensors caught the unexpected sound of voices that weren’t his own. A dozen battered mechs had gathered in the plaza around one of the shafts and were peering anxiously down. Megatron observed from the shadows silently. The mechs drew lots among themselves to choose three to go down, and since there was nothing more dangerous down there than electrovoles, after a short span those three came back loaded up with raw energon crystals and relief. The mechs all tore into the energon without even processing it, or setting any kind of perimeter, and afterwards fell into the half-stupor of internal energon processing.

They weren’t Decepticon warriors, but they weren’t Autobots either. They looked more like low-caste workers than anything else; they’d probably spent the war holed up in isolated places, foraging for dregs. Megatron had no idea why they’d picked Kaon for a new home base, and he certainly didn’t want them around. He strode out, all of them scrabbling back from him in groggy but instant panic, babbling, “We’re sorry, we didn’t mean,” until he snapped, “Shut up,” and all of them just cringed down. “Why did you come to Kaon of all places?” he demanded, standing over them. “Aren’t the Autobots doling out energon somewhere?”

“W-we kept getting shoved to the end,” one of them stammered. “Lots of higher caste mechs showing up—” and collapsed back into silence when Megatron growled in anger.

He ended up letting them stay. He told them to keep out of the gladiatorial compound, and more generally not to annoy him, which they eagerly swore never to do in a way that instantly annoyed him, and then he went back to the compound and glared down at Optimus. “So much for all your supposed ideals,” Megatron hissed at him. “Five minutes after I lower my cannon, the caste system returns. How long do you think before your precious Autobots are rolling new disposables off the line?”

He could almost have achieved a state of rage, but Optimus continued not to even twitch, which made him an exceptionally unsatisfying target, and Megatron’s anger bled away again, back into the gaping hollow, and left him only with the bitter taste of resignation. He sank down onto the chair and looked away. “Tell me, did you actually believe that you’d leave Cybertron a better place when you made that dive, or were you just tired of the whole mess?”

Optimus didn’t answer.

#

More mechs kept trickling in over the next few weeks. Low-castes, former Decepticons, a handful of Predacons. The weak and the useless and the monstrous, washing up into the Pits of Kaon, as they ever had. Of course, the mines could now supply all of them with relatively little effort, since Megatron had stabilized enough of the tunnels to reach the live energon levels. He extended the safe zone a little further along most days, and left markings to show the foragers. After it got crowded on the surface up by the access shaft, and squabbles began breaking out, he picked out a handful of the more competent squatters and told them to organize a shift schedule and to get some buildings on the surface cleared out. They were quick to obey—most of them retained the strong impression that he might destroy them all on a whim, which he made no effort to disabuse.

It amused him very slightly to think that Kaon was almost certainly a better place to live right now than shining Iacon, whatever the Autobots had put together. Certainly they wouldn’t have any comparable mining infrastructure, not to mention supply. “I do wonder how your crew are feeding themselves and all their upper-caste friends,” he told Optimus mockingly, lounging across from his still-comatose body with an unnecessary but satisfying glass of high-grade energon. Some of the more enterprising squatters had fixed up a refinery section and gotten it going again. Megatron had ordered them to fix the venting and build a voltine gas sink for the exhaust, so it wouldn’t spew corrosive residue into the city streets—a significant improvement on the safety levels of the original mine—and otherwise had ignored their efforts, but now that they’d got it running, he had to admit it was pleasant to have decent energon again. It was considerably better than the stuff gladiators had usually gotten, and even that had been better than the half-contaminated sludge they’d all been drinking for most of the war.

He didn’t really wonder what the Autobots were doing, though, until a few weeks later while he was idly clearing away the debris from one of the few decent residential blocks—they were going to need more housing in short order—Ravage unexpectedly appeared at the top of a pile of rubble. Megatron followed him back to what was becoming the city center. His access shafts down into the mines had been widened, and more comfortable ramps had been built going down to the active mining layers, so carts and mechs with transport altmodes could go up and down more easily. The rubble had been cleared away for several more blocks in each direction, and the plaza was turning into a market where most of the daily bartering went on. The surviving buildings immediately around the area had filled up. Megatron hadn’t even realized how much they’d filled up until he got close and saw nearly five hundred mechs gathered in the plaza, around the handful of shiny Autobots standing on a makeshift podium at one end.

The Autobots weren’t actually Autobots, at least not any he’d ever seen on a battlefield, just a bunch of trumped-up middle-caste mechs armed with little more than badges and self-importance. They weren’t letting that stop them from lecturing their silent and grimy audience about the need to share resources. “You can’t just claim the mines of Kaon for yourselves,” one of them was saying. “There aren’t a lot of energon sources left, and everyone on Cybertron has to share right now. An oversight team will arrive in a few days and take charge of the mine and start managing distribution on a fair basis…”

By then, Megatron had come up behind them—he was still considerably taller than the lot of them, regardless of the podium—and everyone in the crowd was looking at him instead of them, to the point that even the strutting peacock out front couldn’t avoid noticing that no one was paying attention to his speech. He trailed off and turned around to stop and stare up at him with the rest of them.

“A fair basis,” Megatron repeated softly, caressingly. “And what would that fair basis be?” He came in closer, the crowd melting out of his way. The Autobots edged back the nearer he got to the podium, huddling up. He stopped directly up against it and spread his arms. “Our current system is laughably simple. Anyone who wants, goes down and gets some energon. Anyone who doesn’t, doesn’t eat.” That wasn’t literally true anymore, of course; half the mechs were already bartering services and goods for energon that the other half brought up, but he wasn’t going into details with these idiots. “I’m sure your oversight would be far superior. Tell me, how much energon would the denizens of Kaon be expected to contribute to the new Cybertronian society that has already discarded them? What would they receive in return for their efforts? Besides, of course, the great satisfaction of being useful to their fellow citizens of the higher castes, who can’t be expected to get their delicate hands dirty.”

Oddly enough, none of the Autobots had anything to say in defense of their proposed system of distribution. Or anything at all, really. They all looked terrified, in fact, poor mechs. Obviously on the verge of a panic, their leader blurted, “The war’s over! You lost!”

Megatron snorted. “I stopped fighting. If whoever’s purporting to be in charge of the Autobots these days can’t grasp the difference, they’re welcome to come and discuss it with me any time they like. As for you—” He leaned in, and all of them skittered back; two fell off the edge and went clanging into the plaza. “If any of you are hungry, you’re welcome to go down and get yourself some energon. Just like anyone else. If you need some materials, you’re welcome to forage for them, just like anyone else. If you need somewhere to shelter, you’re welcome to find an empty squat and clean it out, just like anyone else. And if you don’t want to be just like anyone else, you can get the hell out of Kaon.”

After they precipitously fled, Megatron took two dozen of the larger Kaonites and spent the rest of the day with them tearing down a wide swath around the settled center. The handful of mechs who’d set up squats in the demolition zone didn’t protest; they came out and helped. Others gathered the debris and heaped it into a low wall and poured slag over it to create a modest barricade. Afterwards, they went back to the center, and others had gone down into the mines and brought up enough energon for everybody to eat. When they finished, someone tentatively said, “Lord Megatron—”

“Just Megatron,” he said. He’d never deliberately insisted on that particular bit of upper-caste nonsense, but somewhere along the way he’d given in to it. Maybe to soothe himself for not getting the title that mattered. As if any title really mattered.

“We thought—maybe you’d want a place inside the perimeter,” the mech said, and they showed him the building they’d cleared out for him, wired up to the new grid they were building: the rooftop had a clear view out to the perimeter in every direction, and a reinforced landing pad.

He recognized it for exactly what it was, a trap, but he’d already fallen into it, after all. He went back to the compound and stood contemplating Optimus on his workbench. “I have to hand it to you,” Megatron growled down at him in irritation. “Even unconscious, you remain the most inconvenient mech I’ve ever encountered. Now what do I do with you?” Deliberately carting Optimus over to his new quarters required some kind of admission that was going to be second in aggravation only to leaving him here, where someone would undoubtedly find him in five minutes. Megatron sighed. “At least I can just put you in a cabinet.”

Optimus opened his optics. “What?” he said, groggily. The tin-plated garbage hauler was doing it on purpose.

#

Megatron was even more sure of that when it turned out that Optimus still couldn’t walk, for no discernible reason, which meant he was still stuck with the same problem, only now Optimus could express an opinion on the subject, which he’d undoubtedly do at great length and sternness, probably demanding to be returned to Iacon, except what Optimus said, head in hands, was, “I don’t know what to do.”

What?” Megatron said, derailed, and glared at him. “You were suiciding just to get out of it, weren’t you?You pathetic coward.”

Optimus said unsteadily, “No, I…I thought it was the only way. But…”

He trailed off, and Megatron said warily, “You thought better of it?”

Optimus shook his head a little: no, of course not. “I felt the Allspark and the Matrix join with Primus,” he said softly. “For a moment I felt his power, his love… and then he pushed me out. It wasn’t unkind, but…he made clear I didn’t belong with him.” He sounded desolate, in a way that made Megatron grind his teeth. “I woke in the dark, down in the tunnels. And…I didn’t know which way to go.”

“Well, you can’t want to stay here,” Megatron said.

“I don’t know where here is,” Optimus said.

“The hell you don’t,” Megatron said, and Optimus actually looked around himself for what was apparently the first time and recognized where he was.

“You brought me to Kaon?” he said.

“I was in Kaon,” Megatron said, icily. “I didn’t particularly take your preferences into account. I’m not inclined to do so now, either. I expect your precious Autobots will be starting the war again in a week at most—”

He paused even as Optimus jerked up and started to bleat protests that Megatron paid no attention to. “Never mind, Optimus,” he said thoughtfully.”I think this will work out just fine after all. I hope you do like Kaon. You’re going to be staying here for some time.”

“If you’re planning to use me as some kind of hostage,” Optimus said indignantly.

“How well you know me,” Megatron said, in a beatific glow. He felt almost like his old self again.

#

The Autobots showed up in force three days later, and it was a reasonably impressive force, undoubtedly fleshed out by the substantial number of higher-caste mechs who hadn’t quite wanted to risk themselves in the war but were ready to demonstrate their courage when they were only being called on to bully a bunch of starving lower-caste workers. It made Megatron angry enough to consider just slaughtering them all. He had the strong sense—infuriatingly—that it wasn’t beyond his new capabilities. It seemed unfair that he had the sheer firepower to be an army unto himself now when he couldn't actually enjoy it.

But he couldn’t. A negotiating party came out front with the lie of a flag of parley, and he flew out to meet them, already halfway over the edge of violence. But when he came in for his usual landing before them, he saw the entire front rank go quivering a step back in fear from the rippling shockwave, made aware of their own fragility, how easily they could be taken apart, and instead of filling with contempt, he only felt a deep sympathetic shudder of memory.

He suppressed it with an effort. “What a delightful surprise,” he said to Arcee, who was evidently in charge now. That old soot-encrusted medic Ratchet was glaring at him from beside her, with little Bumblebee on the other. “To what do the denizens of Kaon owe the pleasure of such impressive company?”

“We know what you’re doing, Megatron,” she returned coldly, which if true would have put her up on him. “We’re not going to let you start the war all over again. We won’t let Optimus’s death be in vain.”

“I’m so glad you feel that way,” Megatron said. “It would be anticlimactic, I have to say. Defeating Unicron, saving all of Cybertron, only to die ignominiously in a bombing campaign run by his own followers.” Megatron shook his head in mock dismay as they stared at him. “Not very poetic.”

“What?” Ratchet said.

“Did you really think Primus was going to let his favorite mech die?” Megatron said. “He kept the Allspark and spat Optimus out into the tunnels. Ravage sniffed him out a few weeks ago.”

“You’re lying,” Arcee said flatly, so obviously desperate to believe him that he almost wished he were. “You’re—”

He held out a comlink, and she took it numbly. The Autobots gathered around to stare at the holoprojector. It was a live feed: Ravage was in Megatron’s new central quarters, perched on a ledge watching Optimus sitting glumly on a recharge bed, visibly alive.

“Optimus wouldn’t just be sitting there,” Arcee said flatly.

“Not by choice, naturally,” Megatron said. “He’s having some trouble walking, I’m afraid. Ravage, do ask our guest to say something.”

Ravage leaped down and padded over to jump up onto the bed, startling Optimus into looking up at him. Ravage nudged him hard. “What?” Optimus said to him, in confusion, and then his optics narrowed and he said urgently, “Arcee, Ratchet—do not allow Megatron to use me as a hostage. I am prepared for anything he might do. Make the safety of Cybertron your first priority,” still trying to find a way to martyr himself, even if he did have to resort to his boring old enemy to do the job. Megatron’s fists curled into creaking knots.

“End transmission,” he ordered Ravage sharply, and the Autobots all turned as one to jerk their heads up at him in dismay.

“Megatron, you fiend,” Ratchet said.  “Optimus gave his life to save Cybertron. To save you yourself from Unicron. Does that mean nothing to you?”

“He’s looking surprisingly hearty for someone who sacrificed his life,” Megatron said. “And please don’t ask me to believe that Optimus was concerned about my personal fate. He was ready enough to leave me in ruins on the ocean floor.” Optimus had surely rejoiced, in fact. If he’d given much thought to it at all, beyond a brief moment of satisfaction at the removal of an annoyingly persistent obstacle. “Unicron was a threat to all of you. Setting me free was an inconvenient side effect. You’ll forgive me if I don’t genuflect in thanks.”

The Autobots were all glaring at him in resentment. It was comforting. “You said you were done with oppression,” Bumblebee threw in his face.

“It seems it wasn’t done with me,” Megatron said.

He packed them all off with a flat warning to keep away from Kaon, and did a low buzzing flyover of the entire force to provide emphasis, and also to encourage all the fair-weather volunteers to reconsider their enthusiasm for battle. They did retreat with alacrity.

#

The Decepticons started showing up in droves the day after. Some of the new arrivals had suspiciously shiny badges on top of scratched breastplates, as if they’d put on Autobot symbols for a while. Megatron didn’t care. He disabused them of the notion that the low-caste civilians were there to be ordered around or to provide energon for them, and otherwise ignored them. One overzealous lieutenant—mysteriously absent for the last century of the war—tried to get him to establish military order and talked about the threat of the Autobots. “The Autobots aren’t a threat for now,” Megatron said. “If they change that, I’ll deal with it. If you’re bored, you can patrol the perimeter. Don’t stop anyone coming in or out, but you can fly around the city in a circle if it entertains you. Let me know if you spot any armies coming.”

Knockout showed up among the flood, looking terrified, and went into a round of self-flagellating pleas for forgiveness until Megatron growled, “You’re boring me.”

Knockout was smart enough to recognize that meant he wasn’t going to be slagged unless he kept going, so he relaxed and said cheerfully, “Well, that’s a cardinal sin if ever there was one. My apologies,” and promptly started to make himself useful, which was refreshing. Unfortunately, he was in fact a highly competent medic, and after he’d seen to the scattering of injuries and old damage among the denizens of Kaon, Megatron gave up putting it off any longer and took him to the guest chamber in his own quarters. He had been making an effort to avoid it. Ravage rotated watch duty with half a dozen of the early squatters; they gave Optimus energon and occasional company, and lent him scanbooks from the small but growing salvaged library. Most days Megatron managed not to think about his presence. More than half a dozen times, at least.

It was surely worth the chance to get rid of him, but Megatron couldn’t help the tightening of his back servos when Knockout eyed him in sidelong confusion. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“He claims he can’t walk,” Megatron said shortly. “He’s spent the last month sitting there. Before that he was catatonic. Figure out what’s wrong with him.”

“Riiight,” Knockout said. “Just to clarify, if I do fix his legs, he might try to use them. For instance, to go somewhere else.”

“Good riddance,” Megatron said, and turned and walked away.

Ravage was very good at his work, of course, which was why neither Knockout nor Optimus realized he was still listening in when they started talking after the next guard shift. Megatron watched the feed that Ravage beamed him in tight irritation.

“I have to say, I expected it to be harder to get access to you,” Knockout said, poking around in Optimus’s thigh panels, while Megatron gave serious thought to squeezing his throat into a liquefied state. “I thought I’d have to break into a dungeon cell at least. So what is wrong with you? My working assumption was that you’d taken a fusion blast to a delicate region, but I’m getting the idea that’s not the case.”

“Megatron has done nothing to harm me,” Optimus said. “What has he been doing to the other Autobots?”

“Nothing to them, either,” Knockout said. “Unless you count keeping them out of the mines of Kaon, which I suppose might count, at that. All the energon left on Cybertron is in deep levels, and the mines aren’t in what you’d call good shape. We haven’t managed to get any of them operational on anything other than a desperation basis. Half the tunnels have collapsed, and the ones that haven’t are ready to give it a try if you just step too hard. There are a lot of hungry mouths in Iacon, and they’re getting hungrier.”

“But Megatron has not attacked?” Optimus said. “Or threatened violence?”

Knockout shrugged. “Except to you? No.”

“He has not offered me violence,” Optimus said. “He…I am not entirely certain, I do not remember clearly, but I believe he saved my life. I was lost in the deep passageways, very low on energon. I could walk no further. I was nearly in stasis when I saw him…the next thing I knew, I woke in his quarters, here in Kaon. He must even have refueled me.”

Knockout was staring at him. “Come to think of it, he just told the Autobots he had you. Everyone assumed the threatening part. He doesn’t seem to want to keep you, either.” He paused. “I wonder what’s wrong with him.

Megatron glared at the screen.

#

Knockout reported back to him a few hours later. “I haven’t figured out what the problem is, but I’ve tidied up some miscellaneous damage and ruled out a variety of easy fixes,” he said. “I’m guessing there’s a fault in the locomotor neural net. Give me a week or so.”

“Very well, Knockout,” Megatron said. “You can have a week. And then you’ll decide whether you’re going back to Iacon with Optimus, or destroying your Autobot uplink.” Knockout flinched and stared up at him. “I wouldn’t advise you to try and continue your little secret mission beyond that. You’re not really cut out for espionage.”

Knockout gulped visibly. “I’m really not,” he said, waveringly, with a valiant wave up and down his own body. “After all, concealing any of this would be a crime.”

Megatron snorted. “Fix whatever’s wrong with Optimus, and you can both go. I imagine he can help the Autobots reopen a mine or two. You’ll have to figure out who’s going to dig the energon up for you, but I have enormous confidence in the Autobot regime’s ability to handle that problem. It will be complicated by the fact that anyone you try to drive down into the dark can come here instead, but that’s a difficulty you’ll all have to live with.” He leaned in hard, his optics glowing, and Knockout skittered back. “Unless you want to die with a different one instead,” he hissed. “And that is a threat. I won’t start a fight. But if the Autobots do, I’ll end it.”

 Knockout was several steps back, hovering on the edge of flight, wide-eyed and twitchy, but he was staring, too. After a moment, he blurted, “Megatron, I didn’t—I thought—”

“Save your vocal circuitry,” Megatron said. His flare of anger was already draining away into weariness again. “I know what you thought. I was dead, the war was over. You got lucky and landed halfway on the winning side. You decided to stay there. Who wouldn’t? And then an Autobot patrol came flying back with tales of me building an empire in Kaon out of low-caste mechs, and everyone who was just starting to settle back into the comfortable old ways again panicked. Well, if you want an elevated place in Autobot society, I’m sure returning with their beloved Prime will secure it for you. Consider it an incentive to work fast.”

He turned and started to walk away. Knockout called after him abruptly, “He wants to see you.”

“I don’t care what he wants,” Megatron said.

#

So naturally Optimus magically regained the ability to walk the very next day. He still couldn’t transform, which apparently made it still impossible for him to leave, but didn’t  keep him from trying to ambush Megatron in the streets. “What exactly do you want from me?” Megatron said through clenched jaws, after Optimus had popped out of yet another deserted side street into his path and made yet another earnest prodding attempt at talking to him about the future of Cybertron. Optimus had clearly decided to once again take an idiotic contrary position: since everyone else was sensibly distrustful and suspicious of Megatron, Optimus was going to behave instead as if he had changed completely and Megatron was suddenly on his side again. As if they’d ever really been on the same side.

“Megatron, there are many Cybertronians on the verge of starvation in Iacon, and from what I understand, the mines here are the only ones on Cybertron still functional,” Optimus said. “If you continue to refuse access to them only because they live under Autobot rule—”

“What a truly exhausting number of assumptions,” Megatron said. “The mines here are functional, as you put it, because I’ve spent months personally stabilizing the tunnels. Are you going to argue that the Autobots are entitled to my labor now?” Optimus hesitated, teetering on the edge of the trap, and Megatron smiled. “Perhaps as reparations for all the harm I did during the war?” he offered, softly. “Or perhaps it must be a matter of simple practical necessity. If I refuse, they’ll invade in desperation. Very well organized desperation, of course. So I must bow to reality. Is that it?”

“No,” Optimus said slowly. “None of those. You have to let them in, because if you don’t, they’ll starve. That’s all. It’s not about them deserving it. It’s about you having something they need to live that you can spare.”

“Is it,” Megatron said, his shoulder servos tightening. “How sure you are that I’ve got enough to spare. How quick you are to be generous with my resources. But as it happens, you’re wrong about that, too. I’m not refusing access. Any Autobot is as welcome as anyone else to head down and get some energon. They haven’t been quite hungry enough to take me up on the offer. They aren’t welcome to try and take over and arrange the process to their own taste, of course. That’s the sticking point,” he added with a sneer.

“Or perhaps the sticking point is your history of violence,” Optimus said. “Can you blame Autobots for being wary of putting themselves in your power?”

“Blame them? Not at all. They should be wary,” Megatron said. “And if they’re more wary than they are hungry, they can dig out their own mines and feed themselves however they want, and leave Kaon alone. Why don’t you go help them?”

But Optimus was staring at him with glowing optics. “You mean it,” he said, his voice wobbling infuriatingly. “You have given up violence. Megatron—”

“Shut up,” Megatron snapped. He felt a great deal like indulging in violence right now. “Don’t you dare even pretend that you understand what I’m doing. Bleating at me triumphantly as if you think you’ve won something. I’d have thought getting kicked out by Primus would have cured you of imagining that you’re omniscient.”

Optimus flinched back, his whole face wounded. Megatron waited to feel pleasure or satisfaction and instead got only a vague queasiness that left him dull and hollow. Optimus looked more like Orion than he had in centuries. Megatron almost wanted to—

He fled.

#

Predaking showed up the next day, which provided a helpful distraction: he wanted to challenge Megatron for the rule of Kaon. Megatron considered, and then let Predaking chase him around the planet a few dozen times. He grew progressively more incensed with each orbit, to the point that he forgot to monitor his energon usage and sputtered out into a sudden crash-landing after the forty-third time around. Megatron landed beside him, and Predaking snarled weakly and tried to claw at his leg; the talons skittered over his armor, throwing off fountains of sparks and leaving not so much as a scratch behind. “Finish it, then,” Predaking threw at him.

“What would be the point?” Megatron said, and gave him a large energon crystal that he’d put into a subspace compartment before they’d gotten started.

Despite being on the verge of collapse, Predaking managed to throw it at his head, but after Megatron handed it back to him, he couldn’t resist it a second time and fell-to in an orgy of noisy crunching. Afterwards he shook himself all over and sprang up, although his optics were a little hazy with wanting a good long rest cycle to process the energon. “Do you think I am to be conquered with the leavings from your table, like a mindless beast?” he hissed.

“I’m done with conquering,” Megatron said. “If you make a mess in Kaon, like a mindless beast, I’ll throw you out. Otherwise, I don’t care what you do. Stay in Kaon, go to Iacon, stand on your head in the wastes, it’s up to you. If you insist on fussing at me anyway, say so and I’ll destroy you now to save us both time.”

Predaking was glaring at him hotly, optics glowing. Then he burst out, “The Autobots cringe away and fear me and mine; the wastes are barren, and we hunger. There is nowhere but Kaon. Kaon, where you rule, you who made me a slave, kept me chained and subservient and bestial. You think I will bend my neck to you ever again, ever willingly? Destroy me, then, if you ever hope to keep me leashed.”

Megatron paused, a sickly unwanted taste of regret washing over his circuits. “Yes,” he said, after a moment. “I did do that. I suppose if I were an Autobot, I’d tell you I was sorry, but I don’t see the point. I certainly wasn’t sorry at the time. But I’m not going to destroy you now if I can help it. Did you have anything in mind other than destroying me? Your odds of that are fairly small at the moment.”

Predaking emitted a low dissatisfied rumbling, then said belligerently, “I want a place for the Predacons. I want food, and a place where we can fight if we want, and no one will come to pester us or make us do what they want or tell us to go. I want to be free.”

“Don’t we all,” Megatron said. “Fine. Take the Pits.” Predaking frowned. “The Great Arena’s mostly clear already. They used to house various sorts of monstrosities and mechanisms in chambers below and on the base level. Clear them out for living spaces, and you can use the arenas to skirmish. As for food, the shafts down to the mining levels are big enough for you. Don’t get into shoving matches down there. Is that good enough, or do you want to try chasing me around the planet until you fall over again?” 

Predaking obviously didn’t like it, but he also recognized that his alternative was moronic. “You will stay out of the Pits!” he said, a final challenge.

Megatron shrugged. “If you prefer. Or invite me over and we’ll have some exercise. The Arena isn’t going to crumble around our feet.”

It was a shortsighted offer; Predaking immediately ran with it for several light-years in the wrong direction and started showing up twice a day demanding rematches. Three days later, he even came down into the mines where Megatron was actively holding up a tunnel roof while a rescue crew worked feverishly to dig out the two dozen mechs who’d gotten buried in a collapse, if they’d even survived. Predaking appeared and said, “Megatron! I come to challenge you!” after Megatron had been standing locked in the same position under roughly six thousand tons of rock for more than eleven hours.

“If you’re not here to help, shut up and get out, you useless heap of scrap aluminum,” Megatron snarled.

Predaking swelled up furiously, and then paused and actually noticed what was going on. He stood there for a few moments and then made an irritated noise, transformed, and shoved the digging crew out of the way with his nose and went at the pile with jaws and talons. He cleared the entire tunnel in less than an hour: he actually ate the spoil. He might also have eaten one or two of the crushed mechs, but only the ones who’d already been dead, or at least Megatron hoped. The others got carried out more or less insensible, and then Predaking turned round, came back to where Megatron was still holding the roof, paused, and regurgitated an enormous steaming torrent of slag up and down the walls on either side of him. The weight of the ceiling gradually eased off Megatron’s shoulders as the tunnel stabilized, until he could let go, and Predaking transformed and glared at him and then said, “Now you will come and fight.”

Tomorrow I’ll come,” Megatron said, grimacing and rotating his shoulder joints. “Or possibly three days from now.”

Predaking’s optics glowed. “You are weakened,” he breathed out, with almost wondering delight.

Megatron sighed deeply in irritation. “All right, then. Now it is.”

He was tired. Predaking got in six solid hits past his guard: any one of them would have been a match-ending blow in Megatron’s arena days, if not a career-ending one. They didn’t make the slightest difference to the outcome this time. What did was that halfway through the fight, Optimus burst into the Arena shouting protests. He distracted Megatron enough that Predaking finally managed to catch him on the side of the head, and Megatron reflexively hit him full-strength in return. Predaking sailed through the wall of the Arena, taking out twelve rows of stands, and slid two blocks onward through the city before coming to a badly dented halt.

Megatron looked out through the crumbling hole, and back at Optimus, who had paused. “I’m not sure who you were here to defend, but I don’t think it worked very well either way,” he said dryly, then strode out through the rubble to go stand over Predaking. “I’d say I’m sorry, but this time I’m not.”

“Hnnh,” Predaking grunted. Then he said, grudgingly, “Good hit,” and let Megatron pull him up.

Optimus fell in with him as he walked away from the Arena, back towards the city center. “Unicron didn’t have that much power behind his blows when we fought on the plain of Primus,” he said slowly. “You were helping me.”

“Unicron wasn’t used to a frame as small and fragile as a single Cybertronian,” Megatron said. “I managed to trick him into interpreting relatively moderate impacts as a risk of frame damage by tweaking my involuntary sensory network. For what little use it was.”

“I needed all the help I could get,” Optimus said.

He didn’t immediately press the conversation, for which Megatron was briefly grateful. They walked on in silence through the streets, the familiar old streets around the Arena—how many times had they come this very same way together, walking back and forth to the gladiator compound, or occasionally to one of the cheap flavored-energon pubs in the low quarter? A terrible and bittersweet echo of the past, and worse because this time Optimus was actually inhabiting it along with him. Megatron wondered involuntarily whether Optimus was remembering it the same way: did he too walk here in memory, with a dingy, oil-spattered gladiator tramping beside him?

If so, Optimus didn’t say. He kept his head bent and said in a low voice, “I never thought I was omniscient,” picking up their last conversation as if there hadn’t been a pause. Megatron snorted. Optimus shook his head in frustration and looked up at him. “I know that I have been wrong each and every single day since I was named Prime. You are the one who was so certain of your course that you chose to pursue it regardless of the cost. To our world, to our people—”

Our people, is it now?” Megatron said.

“Yes,” Optimus said. “It’s always been our people, Megatron. But you wanted to write off half of Cybertron’s society before you even began. And most of the other half died in the war you made as a result. Tell me, if by naming me Prime instead of you, the Council did nothing but comfort themselves and ease the fears of the upper castes a little, so that change might have been achieved without violence, wouldn’t that have been worth it? I know what you would have said, what you did say, before. What do you say now?”

Optimus had stopped in the street and was looking at him in challenge, chin raised defiantly. A scant year ago, his expression alone would have incited Megatron to a full-on attempt at slaughter. Instead, thick with sudden weariness, he said, “Now I’ll ask you a question in return. Do you really imagine that they’d ever have allowed you to achieve change?” He turned and swept his arm to take in the plaza: they had almost reached the city center. “Look around, Optimus. Where do you think all these mechs came from? Do you imagine that I placed advertisements somewhere? Invited mechs to come to Kaon and build a peaceful new society under my tolerant rule? And that anyone came for the chance?”

Optimus turned and followed his gesture down to the market, the slice of it visible at the end of the street, and the scattered handful of mechs along the way to it, many of them spindly and unarmored, low-caste civilians who’d stripped themselves down to reduce their energon needs. “No,” he said after a moment, low.

“No. They’re all here because they were more hungry than they were wary. You see, Optimus, however little energon there is in Iacon, there’s more for higher caste mechs than for the likes of them. Because the second the violence stopped for even a moment, those upper caste mechs you wanted to make comfortable started going back the other way as fast as they could. And your beloved Autobot followers haven’t done a thing to stop it.”

He walked away from Optimus, who was bowing his head in stricken sorrow.

#

But that wasn’t enough to stop him. Nothing ever was, it seemed. It wasn’t three hours before Optimus was tapping on the door of Megatron’s private chamber to resume the conversation, and coming in without even waiting for an invitation.

“You aren’t wrong to be angry, or to offer shelter to those who are being mistreated,” Optimus said—kind of him to offer permission, “but you must see that this can’t be the long-term solution. We must change things in Iacon, as well as in Kaon. Otherwise, another war is inevitable. If we came up with an agreement—”

“You seem to be under the impression that I’m going to speak for everyone else in Kaon,” Megatron said. Optimus paused, taken aback. “I’m opening the tunnels and the streets because I haven’t got anything more pressing to do. I’m not making agreements with you on behalf of Kaon. Go talk to other mechs and see what they think of entering into an agreement with Iacon that involves giving them energon dug up and refined by Kaonites in exchange for—what, exactly, I wonder? The promise of them not attacking us in future? How like extortion that sounds.”

“That is not what I meant,” Optimus said. “And you know it, just as you know that you are in charge here. I don’t want you to deliver tribute. I would like you to send Iacon some energon, now, so the mechs there don’t starve before they can reopen their own mine, and as a gesture of goodwill and peace from a position of strength. I want you to tell them that you won’t hurt them so long as they don’t hurt others. And not while you’re simultaneously powering up the most terrifying weapons system on the planet in their faces,” he added, with an edge. “Or pretending to hold me hostage. I can see that you have changed, Megatron. I am glad for it, more glad than I can say. I don’t know why you are trying to pretend you haven’t.

He finished with almost a plaintive note, his optics still so wide and guileless, so sincerely confused, and Megatron was almost blind for a moment, Unicron’s irresistible clawed grip sinking into every deepest part of him, violating his spark and his core, twisting and remaking the very fabric of his body and mind to serve another’s needs, desires, hungers. The agonies Unicron had inflicted on him deliberately had been absurd trivialities by comparison. When he had his breath back, Optimus was looking at him, an unbearable awareness rising in his face, and Megatron surged up and towards him, looming, and snarled, “Don’t be so certain you know anything about me,” but it was no use. Optimus was—reaching for him, with horror and pity, saying in a wretched voice, “Megatron—Megatron, I’m sorry, I’m so—”

Megatron seized him by the arms, pinning them to his sides to keep him from touching him, only then Optimus was still looking at him, and there was nothing to do with him. Megatron glared down at him savagely, and then pulled him in and kissed him, in something between desperation and triumph: let Optimus deal with that, if he was trying to pry inside his head.

Optimus jolted in his grip, startling like a confused wildling, and then he—leaned back, away, and said almost inaudibly, “Wait—no—Megatron, don’t—”

Only that; he didn’t struggle or push or fight. The worst part of it was…how completely it extinguished Megatron’s own desire. A desire that had been simmering in him for a thousand years and more, something that he’d never been able to put out, gone in an instant, a glowing-bright thing smothered all at once in ash. Over the years, he’d indulged in the occasional satisfying fantasy of domination, of holding Optimus—Orion—against a wall, dragging him along into desire half-unwillingly, turning him from his cold devotion to his distant, divine master. It seemed suddenly pathetic: a filthy starving wretched creature scratching to be let into a warm place where he wasn’t wanted.

Megatron straightened away at once. He still had Optimus’s arms pinned; he pushed him bodily to the door, and opened it and pushed him out. “Stay out of my quarters,” Megatron said. Not angrily; he couldn’t even summon anger. “If you’re staying in Kaon, go and clear out a squat for yourself.”

He shut the door and went to the recharge bed and let himself down heavily. Optimus didn’t knock. After an hour or so of blankness, Megatron got up again, and the corridor was empty. He went out and back to the mine: it was late in the day, and the foragers who hadn’t found anything good enough to trade were heading in to get themselves some energon. They would have made way for him, but he wasn’t in any hurry. He let the tide of them carry him along down into the active tunnels, and then he went on alone past them, down and down to the rough-hewn walls of his escape tunnel.

Instead of following it, though, he turned the other way, and put his hands on the wall and closed his optics. The detection pulse waves coming back to his receptors sang in a faint but clear high note. This was what his sensors were designed for: he'd caught the hint of it even his first time down here. It was why he'd dug the other way. He'd known for certain that no one had dug a shaft down in the other direction.

He oriented himself in the right direction and started pounding his way into the rock. It built up behind him, his weight and the steady slagging heat of his exhaust compressing the crushed rubble as he went. But the earth was already dense, this far down. When he picked up on natural hollows nearby, he dug side tunnels to them and dumped as much of the spoil as they could hold. He still had to stop a few times to shove loads of it back down the tunnel, and into his old escape route.

He wasn't sure how long it took. Days, at least; maybe a week. But the song grew louder the entire time, calling him on, until finally he eased back on his pounding strokes. A few more gentle taps cracked the last layer of stone, until he brushed the fractured earth away from the vivid, glowing blue vein, streaked through with threads so pure and compressed they were nearly white.

When he came back up, virtually everyone in the plaza drew close to peer with the wonder of sparklings into the dented old minecart he'd filled up. There hadn't been any blue energon found in the last ten thousand years; even before the war there had only been a few chunks left as display pieces. Megatron left the first cart and went back down for the second. No one had meddled with it by the time he returned, but the crowd had grown. Optimus was there too, and after Megatron put down the second load, he came up. “Megatron—I need to talk to you,” he tried.

Megatron turned and gestured to the two minecarts. “There's enough there to refuel every Autobot in Iacon for five years at least. You can reopen one of your own mines, rebuild everything I tore down.” Optimus was gazing at him wide-eyed. Megatron indulged in a hard, cynical smile. “All you need to do is transform and haul it away.”

Optimus hesitated, darting a quick, stricken look at the carts. Megatron nodded. “Go, Optimus. Leave the pits of Kaon to me and mine, and go and put your shining towers back up. But remember this one thing: if I ever find out that your Autobots are keeping disposables down in the dark again, I’ll come and take all of this back. With interest.”

Optimus said slowly, “I don’t… Megatron, I’m grateful for this, but please, listen—”

Megatron shrugged. “I’m not keeping anyone else off the energon if you leave it sitting there. If you want it, take it and go. You can decide for yourself what matters more: saving all your loyal followers or having one last word with me. I’m sure you’ll make the right choice.” Optimus flinched hard. Megatron turned away and took flight, leaving him behind.

He hadn’t been flying lately. He’d flown over so many battlefields, the wreck of so many lives, and felt only triumph. Now he flew over Kaon, the widening rough circles of rebuilding, ragged and misshapen, and it was a map into the future: the long slogging work ahead, down in the dirt and the dark, as if he’d never gotten out of the pits after all. The trap, jaws wide open, ready to devour. His engines rumbled a warm invitation to just keep going, to turn his flight upward and away, away, into the vast clean reaches of space, infinity stretching before him, full of stars.

But only for him. As the whole war had been. He’d smashed his way out without even seeing the people he’d left crushed beneath the rubble along the way, except for the ones he’d deliberately slaughtered. And now that he couldn’t help but see them all, every cracked optic and twisted limb and frayed circuit, the starvation alerts running pale red in their diagnostics, he could either keep on going, or turn around and go back into the dark for them. Not for triumph or victory, not to defeat Optimus or to win him. No easy reasons. Only because he knew now in his bones what it was to be trapped in the dark beyond his own strength, unable to get out, held down by something limitless and terrible. And he would have to remember that sensation every day he saw it in their faces, live it over again and again.

#

Megatron went back to Kaon.

A few hours later, not more than that. The minecarts full of blue energon were gone. There was an unusual level of bustle going on in the largest building off the plaza, too; Megatron looked in and found the ground level being rearranged dramatically under Knockout’s high-handed supervision into something resembling a hospital. All the squatters on that level had given up their spots, small and cramped from the early days; half of the mechs were helping to convert those into treatment rooms, and others were pitching in to move the squatters there into a new building going up on the salvaged tower foundation three blocks away.

“I volunteered for the mission in the first place because Ratchet had a four-month waiting list, and I had an empty clinic,” Knockout said with a shrugged shoulder. “I thought I could make them trust me. But the truth is…they didn’t really want me as a medic. They just wanted me to prove that they were right all along. So if it’s all the same to you, I thought I’d stick around.”

Megatron nodded and glanced around. “I gather that Optimus managed to pull himself together.”

“Oh, I fixed him up this morning,” Knockout said with an airy wave.

“There was something wrong with him?”

“I couldn’t figure it out until I realized a nerve chord I’d already fixed once had been stripped again,” Knockout said. “Would you believe, there was an electrovole inside him?” Megatron stared at him as Knockout shuddered theatrically but with great sincerity. “Barely bigger than larval, but—ugh. Anyway, as soon as I fished it out, his self repair systems took care of the rest. They were just confused. Half his system was still haywire—I’m guessing from having the Allspark dumped into it and then yanked back out again. He’ll be just fine now, though,” Knockout added with a sidelong glance, as if wondering whether Megatron cared.

It seemed that he did. The information left behind a hollow sensation in Megatron’s chest: so Optimus hadn’t been making an excuse to stay, after all. Of course, even when Megatron had thought it was all an excuse, he’d known perfectly well the excuse was only to avoid going back. There was nothing Optimus wanted in Kaon.

And yet he was—not sorry that Optimus was well, although he wished he could be. Surely a little resentment wasn’t beyond him. He didn’t need to be pathetic, taking some kind of pleasure in knowing that Optimus was going to be just fine, as he went back to his smug, satisfied Autobots to be hailed and hallowed. At least until he did start trying to change things—his own long, slogging work ahead of him. Much joy Optimus would get of it, and his upper-caste followers of their Prime. The upper caste mechs would whine and protest and scheme, and Optimus would lecture and frown and spend his days perpetually disappointed, wondering why his beautiful visions didn’t seem to be any nearer reality now that the killing had stopped. They deserved one another, surely, but Megatron couldn’t enjoy the thought. He saw Orion in his old cramped rooms again, optics bright and eager, and it was only painful to look across the distance from there to Optimus sagging alone and weary in some enormous chamber in the Palace of the Primes, all gilded steel and electrum-etched tracework, with some agile-tongued councillor murmuring calming platitudes: perhaps at the next session, with some minor modifications, over time, incremental. Megatron would have taken Unicron, personally.

He had to make an effort not to let his shoulders hunch up in a shudder at the thought. He looked at Knockout instead and said, “Knockout—this armor.”

“Yes, magnificent,” Knockout said, nodding with a lascivious connossieur’s gleam of appreciation, tilting his head to look it over.

“Can you get it off me?” Megatron said.

Knockout stared at him. Then he said slowly, “It’s integrated with your self-repair system, so if I took it off, it would just regenerate over time, and give you absolutely massive cravings for raw titanium. But I could tweak it in a more…cosmetic vein?” he offered, eyeing Megatron a little warily to see how that suggestion landed. When Megatron jerked a nod, Knockout relaxed a bit and said more jauntily, “Not to mention there’s nothing like a new paint job to change up your look. The gold and purple is a bit over the top. Back to silver, maybe? Or—what about a nice cool metallic white? Touch of pearl in the topcoat?”

Knockout managed to persuade Megatron’s system to shed the most egregious of the spikes and jutting additions, and the white paint proved—an effective excuse. It showed every streak of grime, of which he accumulated many while slogging through tunnels and city rubble, so he had to stop in at the newly-opened wash center on a daily basis and get detailing twice a tenday. He’d have been irritated by the amount of effort involved, once. Now—standing and scrubbing under the pounding streams of detergents and degreasers, applying lubricants, carefully going over his lines with bars of decontaminant clay, lying under the soporific hum of the buffers, inspecting himself afterwards—it made his body his own again. He recognized his own reflection when he caught it in polished metal and dark glass, and it was his, his own choice, and not someone else’s.

And afterwards…offers started coming. The experience was slightly startling when it first began happening, partly because he realized how long it had been since he’d had it. Once it had been commonplace. Most gladiators had made a good second stream of income from catering to the slumming fantasies of their rich, upper-caste fans. He hadn’t himself, really. Those fans were looking for an illusion of submission and helplessness, and with him, it hadn’t been an illusion, no matter how rich and powerful they were outside his quarters. They’d mostly recognized that even before he had.

But he’d still gotten offers once in a while, from the ones who hadn’t. And later on, Decepticon hero-worshippers had thrown themselves at his head by the dozen: some of them sincere, some of them status climbers looking for promotions. He’d turned all the offers down after…after he’d met Orion. But that hadn’t stopped the offers from coming.

But they had all stopped at some point. He didn’t quite know when. Some time into the war. After he’d razed Giol? Or the burning of Vox? After he’d become…a destroyer of worlds. On what now seemed like a rather quaint and smallish scale, and yet, large enough if you were in the world at question. He’d become too distant from ordinary mortals, perhaps, trying to contend with a god: oh, how he’d longed to fight Primus. To punish him. For rejecting him, for choosing Orion, for taking Orion away. Or for the Pits and the mines, for disposables and the Council, for letting it all happen in the first place. For any and all of it.

Well, he’d gotten his longed-for battle, albeit with a different god, and he’d been humbled and hurled back down to the Pits, and apparently he was now close enough again for someone to look at him and imagine—touching him, in some physical and ordinary way. He was fairly certain he had some kind of feeling about it, but he didn’t know what it was. He turned down the first few timid offers without thinking, brusquely, but since he didn’t hit anyone for asking, that actually made the pace pick up, until enough of them started to come that he couldn’t help but think about it. He wasn’t sure which was worse: accepting an offer he didn’t want, or not wanting any of the offers, which might have still been because of Orion. The second was truly intolerable, though, so he started trying to work himself up to accepting one. He even contemplated the possibility of asking Knockout for some kind of assistance, except he’d already exposed himself to Knockout more than he cared to. Finally he simply informed himself he’d accept the next offer that came, no matter what.

That same afternoon, he cleared the old, half-smashed barricades from the doors of the Librarium Kaon, whose lower levels had survived its being used as a rebellion outpost. A double handful of mechs hovered watching: they had been working on getting it reopened for several weeks themselves, but they were all small and spindly civilians, middle-caste mechs probably from information services domains, so they hadn’t made much progress. “Thank you, oh, thank you!” the chief and most enthusiastic of them said, his optics shining wide and blue, and tentatively added, “Maybe…you’d like to see some of the texts? I could look up something on the original Megatronus and…bring it over?”

Megatron wasn’t even certain it was an offer—most Kaonites were inclined to be more straightforward and explicit about this sort of thing—but he said flatly, “No,” and fled at once, ignominiously. Not because he didn’t want to accept, but because he did, with sudden and visceral hunger; he wanted to take that hapless little blue-eyed mech back to his quarters and take him apart, wanted it desperately, only it wasn’t really that archivist he wanted.

His own reaction made him so angry he went to the Great Arena and picked a fight with Predaking, and told him to bring the rest of his people in on it while he was at it. Tossing around a dozen Predacons relieved his feelings a little, and afterwards they all sat in a slightly dented heap and Predaking grudgingly offered him an energon cube and said, “Is it the Prime?”

“What?” Megatron said, in real horror: he couldn’t possibly be that obviously pathetic. It would have been grotesque enough if Knockout had asked him—Knockout would likely have better sense than to even breathe the suggestion aloud—but if Predaking could somehow see—whatever there was to see—

“The Prime,” Predaking said, and jerked his head vaguely towards the city center.

“He’s gone back to Iacon, and good riddance,” Megatron said flatly.

“He came back,” one of the other Predacons said. The others nodded.

“What?” Megatron said.

“He came back through the perimeter today,” Predaking said. “I thought perhaps he had angered you.”

Megatron had literally no idea what to think about it. He sat in complete blankness for several minutes. He finally managed to realize—Optimus had come back for more energon. His swollen parasitic followers had taken everything he’d brought and whined to him that it wasn’t enough, and he’d given in to them, he’d come back here to get another load out of Kaon to feed their gaping-wide maw—“He has,” Megatron snarled, and went.

He tore through the entire mine looking—he started down in the blue energon tunnels, which he’d marked off-limits to anyone who wasn’t taking it to the hospital or the central generators, and then worked his way up through every one of the active tunnels. He came back out to the surface empty-handed, his emotional coprocessors steaming and his white armor freshly grimed, and sent Ravage an urgent call: he needed help for this.

Ravage pinged him less than twenty minutes later—from the gladiator compound. Megatron flew over instantly, barely transforming before he stormed in and then pulled up short, just inside the doors. No one had squatted in it since he’d left: the compound was neither lovely nor convenient, and it was now uncomfortably close to the Predacons. He could even hear the distant clashing of scales and talons: some light afternoon exercise going on in the Pits. But the ground-floor corridor was clean. Someone hadn’t just come here, they’d gone to the trouble of hauling a tankful of acid from the vats outside the city to properly scrub the metal down. The place looked cleaner than it had when the compound had been in use.

Ravage poked his head out of Soundwave’s door. He was inside their old quarters, which had also been scrubbed down. A few additional tools were lying on the workbench, a single large chest collecting miscellaneous useful scraps of construction materials, as if someone had just begun doing salvage. The recharge bed was clear, and the cabinet had been repaired and put back into the wall. Ravage nosed it open to show him a small cask of energon crystals inside: a few weeks’ supply for a single mech, no more. None of it made sense. It had to be someone else squatting—

He turned: Optimus was standing in the doorway. He was grimed and dusty himself, looking weary, with a large bundle of mostly-straight girders under one arm, and a crate full of salvage in the other.

“What are you doing?” Megatron said.

“You said Kaon is open to anyone who wants to clear a squat for themselves,” Optimus said.

Megatron ground his jaw. “And you thought that meant you were welcome to build your Autobots a base in striking range?” he said silkily.

“No,” Optimus said. “It’s just me.”

“Do you think I’m a moron? Tell me, did the Council have to whine at you for even five minutes before you let them convince you that you had to come back here and get them a pipeline of blue energon? Did you think I wouldn’t know what you were up to?” Megatron took a step towards him, clenching his fists. He didn’t know what he was going to do; maybe he’d rip the place apart, maybe he’d rip Optimus apart, or maybe take him back down into the tunnels where he’d found him and leave him there—

Optimus didn’t drop into a defensive crouch or activate his combat systems, not even on the autonomic level. He only stood for a moment, and then he came in and crossed the room in front of Megatron, put down his crate and his girders neatly along the wall. Then he straightened up and said, without turning around, “What I don’t understand,” his voice almost unnaturally level, as if he was having to make an effort to keep it that way, “is how you can be right about so many things—about the caste system, about the Council and their corruption, about—you might even have been right about the need of the threat of violence to create change—”

Megatron had taken a step after him, but that halted him. He stared as Optimus shook his head a little, without turning, and went on. “Every time I tried to ignore something you told me, because I couldn’t bear for you to be right—you were right. You see so much, so clearly, and you’re so fearless about what you see. You never turn away from the hardest truths, from things that make me shudder with agony to confront. And yet—” There was a faintly thrumming edge to Optimus’s voice rising higher as he spoke, unfamiliar and almost grating, and it built to audible distortion as he went on, “And yet you’ve never, not once, been right about me.”

“What?” Megatron said.

Optimus heaved his arms in something like a wild, exasperated shrugging, half-violent, and wheeled on him. His optics were almost incandescent, spun wide. “Do you even listen to yourself while you’re hurling accusations? I took in the Allspark to give myself an excuse to suicide. I was pretending to be falling apart so I wouldn’t have to go back to Iacon. I wanted to go back to ruling upper caste mechs, I wanted to live in luxury and power, I wanted to keep wagging my finger at them uselessly, I came back here to steal more energon for them—you’re not even consistent!

Megatron could only gawk: Optimus was all but frothing. He’d never seen him—

“Every time you’ve ever told me what you thought I was thinking, every time you’ve interpreted my actions—you’ve always been completely wrong. From when we first met, when you thought I was some sort of thrill-seeking tourist who wanted to be slumming with gladiators. It took me years just to get you to let me try to help. And when I started to post my essays online, essays you had helped me write, you accused me of trying to build a power base for myself. I was trying to distract the Council from you! A middle-caste rebellion was their nightmare, you told me so yourself, so I began to raise one, and suddenly you wouldn’t talk to me again for months—you wouldn’t so much as take a ping from my account until the Council summoned us.

“And then—the Primacy—” Optimus’s voice cracked. “I gave up everything I had to carry the rebellion forward. I gave up—my life. My body, mymy mind—” and a strange sickening lurch went through Megatron, a wave of grotesque recognition. “And then you called me your enemy, you walked away from me. And you just—keep doing it!”

His vocal unit was overheating, the sound fraying at the edges. Megatron tried to find an answer in his own throat; tried to clutch at his rage, at the old safe anger—that’s a lie, he betrayed me, he turned from mebut it was washing away out of his grasp, as if Optimus’s fury was drowning his own.

Except it wasn’t Optimus, was it. Primus had kept the Matrix, and sent back—

“Orion,” Megatron said, and his voice rasped. Orion, set free in a handsomely reformatted body of his own: the nonviolent archivist who had been made into a peerless slaughtering weapon—I gave up everything I had to carry the rebellion forward— Yes. That was what Orion had done. Little, fragile Orion, with his terrible, unending courage, who had over and over walked into the Pits of Kaon, among gladiators five times his size, despite his unease and fear. Who had offered himself up to endure for a thousand years an agony that had broken Megatron in less than a month. And who was now standing before him, trembling with rage, as if the same freedom that had quenched Megatron’s wrath had ignited his own.

“Don’t you dare—” Orion said, crackling, “don’t you dare tell me that you know what I’m doing. You don’t know. You’ve never known. Why can you see right through everyone but me?

He stopped there, his own fists clenched, looking up at Megatron challengingly, as if he deserved an answer to that question, as if he had any right to come back here, as if Megatron owed him something. As if he had—sacrificed his own life to save Megatron from a monstrous and self-inflicted enslavement of body and mind. As if he had wanted to do that, because he’d known what it was—I gave up my body, my mind—to be the property of a god.

The last lingering ancient threads of anger were exiting completely, dying as they flowed through Megatron’s emotional subsystem. Regret, cool and ashen and unfamiliar, took up their processing time. He’d so rarely ever bothered with it. Regret, and the dull weariness returning, the deferred burden of a thousand years of war. Even pride was slipping away before them now, his final defense. His hands had already uncurled from their clenched fists; his combat modules had never made it online. And he did, after all, owe Orion an answer.

“I love you,” he said. The words felt strange in his own audio receptors: like new information coming in, even though he was the one saying them. He hadn’t allowed himself to even think them before. They seemed oddly small and foolish, now that he heard them aloud, to have carried so much weight. Orion had gone still and baffled, staring up at him as if he hadn’t actually expected an answer, and didn’t know what to do with this one now that he had it. “I love you,” Megatron repeated, and this time the words sounded only dry and clinical and ordinary, already beginning to lose their power.

Orion’s face contorted. “Love meyou don’t know what love is if you think that’s love.”

Even that couldn’t manage to make him angry. “I suppose not,” Megatron said, and only shrugged it away. “Where would I have learned what love is? In the mines, from the overseers who wanted to work me to death? Here in the Pits?” Orion flinched a little. “Call it lust or hunger instead, if you prefer. Whatever it was, I found it terrifying.”

Orion said after a moment, shakily, “And that—that’s why you—the war, the—”

“No,” Megatron said flatly. “The war was inevitable. The Council were never going to give in, and neither was I. The only person who hadn’t already chosen a side was you, and in that room, you chose theirs. If you meant all those kind words about my clear vision, you can stop lying to yourself about that, too.”

“You made your side the side that was murdering people!” Orion said.

My side was doing that, eh?” Megatron said, glancing around pointedly.

Orion paused, and after a moment his shoulders slumped a little. “Then you made your side just as bad as theirs. And I wanted you to be better.”

“Well, I suppose we both wanted things we didn’t get,” Megatron said.

Orion said, raw, “I did love

“I’ve lost my taste for violence these days, but tell me that you loved me like a brother, and I’ll punch you in the head for old times’ sake,” Megatron interrupted. “I was stuck in some lurid holodrama, the oil-stained disposable gladiator lusting after the innocent young Primus-devoted upper-caste mech. And you—well, I’m not meant to be guessing what you think anymore. Go on and tell me you ever once thought of it.”

Orion looked away, his jaw ratcheting a few millimeters tighter. “No,” he said.

Megatron huffed a small snort. “To be fair, at the time I vacillated between thinking that you were just shy and waiting for me to make the first move, or that you were running a brilliant seduction to entrap me, so it doesn’t prove your original premise wrong.”

They fell into silence together. It already did begin to seem like something out of a bad holovid, absurd instead of monumental. He’d loved a mech who hadn’t loved him back: the least of tragedies among the ruin of their world. It hadn’t changed the course of the stars, or even the outcome of their own war. Megatron wasn’t sure if he was glad or sorry to have said it out loud. It had been…a familiar misery. It had been better to think Orion had betrayed him, had deliberately chosen the Primacy over him. Better than to recognize that he’d been—not unimportant, but exactly as unloved as the caste order dictated he should be. That Orion hadn’t even dreamed of wanting him, of wanting to touch him.

But that didn’t sting anymore. If Orion had been the kind of mech who secretly disdained lower-castes, who didn’t want a disposable gladiator putting filthy hands on his armor, he wouldn’t have been desirable in the first place. All those fears seemed small and petty now. Megatron couldn’t hold on to them now, to the old angry resentment. Orion had cared about him. He simply hadn’t wanted him. It wasn’t, really, much to build misery out of.

And yet the absence of anger left him cold, and tired, and oddly bereft: as if he’d lost Orion, instead of merely recognizing that he’d never had him in the first place. Megatron suddenly and powerfully wanted to go, to get away from him, somewhere with other mechs; he wanted company, in a way he couldn’t remember ever wanting it before. He’d spent his entire life surrounded by others, living in barracks full of dull silent mechs: solitude had been the luxury he craved. But now he wanted to go to the city center, and take a cup of energon at one of the stands, and listen to one of the impromptu buskers who now usually set up in the evenings, and perhaps to talk to someone about something of very little importance; he wanted voices outside his head, the buzz of noise and electromagnetic fields against his sensors.

He drew a slow breath and let it out and said, “Why are you here?”

Orion stirred as if surfacing out of his own thoughts, and looked up. “I went to Iacon,” he said after a moment. “I gave them the energon and told the Council the condition. And they…” His voice trailed off.

“They wanted you to raise an army and march on Kaon at once,” Megatron finished.

Orion hesitated, and then he shrugged in acquiescence. “More or less. I told them that the war was over. That I had only fought it to save lives, and what I wanted now was to be a part of a new world that embraced the principles of equality and justice. And as far as I could see…that world was being built in Kaon, not in Iacon. So I was going back there. And then I left.”

“To come back here and get yourself a squat of your own,” Megatron said. 

“Yes,” Orion said defiantly, as if daring him to disbelieve it.

Megatron stared at him, then sighed faintly. “Half of them are going to decide you are trying to establish a foothold, and they’ll follow you here.”

A bright glint sparkled in Orion’s optics. “Then I guess they’ll become your problem.”

“As long as you don’t plan to get in my way while I’m throwing them out,” Megatron said.

“I don’t,” Orion said, with a finality that Megatron oddly had no difficulty believing.

Megatron looked around at the room: it was large enough, and in livable condition, if you didn’t mind being outside the defensive perimeter, and a long walk from the mines. Which Orion would have minded, if he’d been here for some strategic purpose—a conclusion Megatron’s logic unit suddenly had no difficulty delivering to his brain. In fact, Orion had clearly chosen to put himself this far outside the center deliberately, in case anyone from Iacon had the clever thought of trying to use him as a shelter. The inconvenience and proximity of the Predacons would inhibit a community of former Iaconians from forming up around him. It would also be inconvenient and isolated, and make it difficult for him to trade. In fact, it made very little sense except to discourage company. “Why here?

Orion hesitated, then gave a small shrug. “I didn’t want to make trouble for anyone else,” he said quietly. In case, of course, Megatron had been angry about his coming.

“As long as you don’t make trouble, you won’t find it,” Megatron half-recited: it was roughly speaking the one and only law of Kaon at the moment. Orion nodded. Megatron stood a moment longer, then turned and left.

He didn’t quite break into a run, but he moved fast, eager to be away, to be gone. He only just made it outside the doors. Two large piles of debris had been cleared from around the gates, an attempt to clear enough room to transform. It would be another week of work, and there wasn’t anywhere for Orion to drive to when he finished it. Even where Megatron had bothered to clear a street or two in the immediate area, he’d only cleared walking paths, not the kind of room Orion’s extremely large altmode needed. It would take Orion weeks to open up any substantial roads around here, and he’d have to fit the work around having to satisfy his energon demands. And he’d be doing it completely on his own, too. Because no one from Kaon was going to take the chance of annoying Megatron by helping him.

Megatron didn’t see the slightest reason he should care about any of that. Orion wasn’t his friend, his ally, his lover, not even his enemy anymore. There was nothing left for them to be to one another. And yet the thought of him out here, drudging to cobble himself a solitary life out of the ruins—just as I had to, Megatron reminded himself. Uselessly. He still felt the sharp sting of irrational sorrow.

“Wait here,” he growled at Ravage, irritated, and went back inside. He stopped in the doorway: Orion had sat down on the recharge bed, head bent over his clasped hands, sagging. He looked up.

“Bring that box of salvage and come on,” Megatron said shortly.

He’d been right, of course; as they came into the central market, everyone who saw them looked straight from Orion over to him, double-checking how they were supposed to react. He ground the gears of his jaws slightly and led Orion to one of the main salvage brokers, gesturing him to spread his finds out on the table. “The trinium, the rare-earth metals, what else?” he demanded.

The broker darted her eyes back and forth a couple of times too, and then said cautiously, “Thorium is going fast these days?”

Orion had collected a dozen rods of trinium, likely from an old recharging station; he had a mess of cerium- and yttrium-based diodes that he’d probably meant to repair for some additional lighting, and a sizeable coil of thorium-coated wire. The broker said slowly, “Well, the going rate would be… three hundred credchits,” and darted another look at Megatron. He glared at her—possibly in more irritation than he meant to—and she very hurriedly said, “but for a friend of Megatron’s, I can do five hundred.”

Orion himself hesitated at that description, but took the chits with his own half-puzzled glance: what are you doing? Megatron ignored it and told the broker, loud enough to be overheard by the neighboring ones, “Taking advantage of newcomers—friends of mine or not—isn’t a policy I’d recommend to any broker who wants to keep doing business in Kaon.”

“No, no, of course not,” she said, even more hurriedly. “Never!”

He deliberately went to one of the energon stands close to the row of brokers and parked himself where his peripheral audio sensors could already pick up the faint buzz of hastily shifting prices. It was a nice night: the methane clouds that had hazed the sky for the last few nights had blown off, and the wide star-sprayed band of the galactic arm was out in force; the purple-blue glow of the Antares Nebula was rising in the north. He had the voices he’d wanted, the crowd flowing in as the day ended: their energon harvested, their salvage collected; business was picking up.

What he hadn’t wanted was Orion, who took his five hundred chits and did some more trading—getting deals right and left—and then paused and abruptly crossed the plaza to the very same energon stand. He’d bought himself enough energon that he wouldn’t have to go harvesting for a week, a sackful of solar-powered trimlights, and a very wide and imposing grader attachment made of solid durasteel that he’d surely rented at least half on credit. He leaned it against the wall of the building behind the stand, and took a seat next to Megatron, and ordered his own drink. As if he thought they were friends, now, or rather the kind of superficial acquaintances who might sit together and have a glass of refined, companionably.

Megatron didn’t say find somewhere else to sit. He wanted to find those words in his mouth, and didn’t. He just stewed inwardly instead. A busker even did start up, playing an unfamiliar analog instrument, likely brought back from exile. It had a faintly melancholy, wistful sound. Ravage, who was curled by the base of his chair, pricked his audio receptors, and Megatron thought of Soundwave, who would have liked to hear it: he’d always liked collecting new instruments.

“How did you do for him, anyway?” he said abruptly, and Orion blinked over at him. “Soundwave.” He hadn’t investigated; he knew Soundwave was dead, because if he hadn’t been dead, he’d have come to Kaon by now. “Quite the red letter day for your team, wasn’t it.”

Orion hesitated, and then abruptly he reached for his arm, frowned in concentration a few moments, and then withdrew a small datachip and held it out. “He’s in the Shadowzone. Here’s the frequency and string equations of the second groundbridge that Raf opened—”

Megatron stared at him and took it as Ravage’s head swung up with urgent interest. Building a groundbridge generator—two of them—had just gone to high priority.

#

Building a pair of groundbridge generators was going to take roughly six months, and calibrating them to match the results of opening them on Earth was going to take longer than that. Not much time in the scheme of things, but Megatron was painfully impatient to have Soundwave back. He hadn’t dwelled on the loss, because dwelling on losses would have killed him long ago, but the prospect of having him back was very much like waiting for his arm to be rebuilt.

The one irritation was that he couldn’t exactly send Orion away anymore, and apparently Orion felt he couldn’t stay away, either. Virtually every evening they did end up at the same energon stand, having a drink together, listening to music or poetry. They talked about them, argued occasionally, the long-forgotten pleasure of ordinary idle conversation with a mind that ran alongside his own, occasionally taking the lead. At times, a thousand years of war vanished, and they were together at a low-caste street café in the Arena district, having a drink after one of his matches; once Megatron even got up automatically and started walking back towards the gladiatorial compound along with Orion before he stopped himself on the edge of the plaza, looking into the ruined streets. Orion looked up at him and said tentatively, “I’ve cleared most of the way, if you wanted to…”

“No,” Megatron said, a little harsh and ungracious, and turned for his own quarters.

A few days after that, the loudest performance was a political speech notable for its inanity and the applause it got, which Megatron interrupted in violent anger: he ended up spending the next two hours roaring at everyone in the square who had apparently missed that he was trying to build a non-hierarchical society, and why that was necessary to avoid a collapse straight back into the Pits. He finally sat down again and grumpily turned to get his stale drink and found Orion looking at him with his optics bright, wide open. It made his emotional coprocessor skip half a dozen cycles. Megatron made himself finish his energon and left early, weary all over again, and went back to his quarters and sat silently through the rest of the long dragging night on the edge of his recharge bed with his hands clenched into fists, resting on his thighs.

He felt scraped raw, without the shelter of anger to cover him: every private thread exposed and decrypted. He had let go of everything he could let go: anger, hunger, hope. He didn’t know why he couldn’t let longing go with them, why he couldn’t sit there beside Orion and only be his drinking acquaintance, two old veterans from the war casually keeping company. But he couldn’t. Love clung inside his processors like an electrovole, scampering around to do damage in one place or another.

He didn’t go back the next day. He stayed down in the mines, working at a flat-out pace until he was exhausted enough to actually need a rest cycle, and after he took one, he went back and did it again. But the monstrous thing was, that only made him unhappy. He wanted to see Orion, wanted to be near him. Wanted to help him, to be kind to him, to see him well and contented. It was at once miserable to deny himself that pleasure, and grotesquely degrading to feel it: servile, even if the only one chaining him was his own mind.

He finally went back, because he hadn’t stopped wanting to. Orion seemed glad to see him. It had been an absence of slightly notable length, almost a full tenday. “I hope you are well,” Orion ventured.

“I’m fine,” Megatron said shortly, a lie. He stayed in the plaza late into the night, until even the busker—the one with the melancholy harp, one of his favorites—packed up for the night. Orion sat beside him in silence the entire time. Megatron heaved himself up and set his empty glass on the counter with a nod to the dispenser.

“Good night,” Orion said, standing as well.

Megatron didn’t trust himself to answer. He only nodded and stood there watching while Orion turned and walked away. The busker came over to get his own drink, on the house, a thanks for his set. He looked up at him. “You stuck it out the whole night this time. Am I getting better?”

Megatron glanced at him, startled. The busker grinned at him, cheeky, and Megatron snorted, grateful for the distraction. “You’re good enough. Where’d that come from?” He flicked a finger towards the instrument.

“Tothrian harp,” the busker said, holding it out. “It’s a complete backwater on the fringes of Tydarian space. Nobody wanted to pay a Cybertronian to play music, so I had to find load-lifter work. But I tried to keep my hand in.”

His name was Lyrican, and he was in fact very straightforward and explicit about what he wanted, given ten minutes of easy flirtation. “If you’re not too tired from staying up so late,” he added, with a sideways tilt of his mouth that was—not exactly appealing, but something Megatron thought might have been appealing, given half a chance. He almost said yes; it felt like unexpectedly being flung a lifeline while caught in a phase vortex. But he looked down at the instrument in his hands, the alien instrument that Lyrican had learned to use to save himself from being only a drudge, his own trap that he’d been put into by Megatron’s war, and his smile might be appealing in its own right, if he managed to give it a chance, but today it would be only—the frantic greedy scrabbling of escape.

“Ask me again in a week, if you’re still inclined,” Megatron said abruptly.

“I’ll do that,” Lyrican said, smiling at him, pleased, and took back the harp when Megatron held it out. He went away humming an air, and Megatron left and went back to his own quarters. A tenday slogging in the mines had left him with a defrag debt, and he thought he would be able to get into rest mode again. He lay down and was on the verge of sliding under when the knock landed on the door, loud, and he groaned—oh, how he hoped it wasn’t a waste pipeline breaking again—and heaved himself up and went to open it.

Orion was standing on the other side, his hands curled at his sides with tension. Megatron stiffened and kicked his systems alert. “They’re coming?” he said sharply. “How many? Siege artillery?”

“No,” Orion said, shaking his head. “The Autobots aren’t attacking.”

Megatron paused, halfway into combat mode, and re-evaluated, but he couldn’t identify anything else that Orion couldn’t have simply dealt with himself. “Then what are you doing here?”

Orion only stood there woodenly for a long moment. Finally he said, “Ratchet sent word from Iacon. The Council…After I left, Arcee organized a citywide protest. The citizens of Iacon voted to dismiss the Council. They elected Arcee, and Ratchet, and… they’ve formally dissolved the caste system. Ratchet asked me to come back and lead the Council…”

He was rambling through it, trailing off in places. Megatron heard it the same way, the words filtered through an unfurling projection of the future. Orion would go back to Iacon and his worshipful Autobots, and build his own just world, now that there was a hope of it again. They wouldn’t see one another again for some time, not even across a battlefield. Perhaps never. And here in Kaon, he himself would free Soundwave, and shout in the market as necessary, and perhaps in a week or two or ten, if Lyrican or someone else kept asking, eventually he’d find another way to ease the hunger he’d finally admitted was there.

“When do you leave?” he said, breaking into the ramble. He wanted it over with, the final severing: it was here, better to get it done quickly. Like a blade sliding directly through your spark chamber from behind. He was glad he hadn’t seen this one coming, either.

Orion stopped talking. After a moment he said, his voice cracking, “I don’t want to go.” Megatron stared at him. “I don’t want—I’m not going. I’m not going,” Orion repeated, but it came out more a plea than a statement, as if he was asking permission. “Megatron. I don’t want to go. I want—to stay.”

“What for?” Megatron said, starting to be irritated; he had no idea what Orion thought he was doing. To stay and keep digging pointlessly in the ruins of Kaon, to keep them both trapped in the past—

“I want—” Orion made a helpless frustrated gesture, as if the words were hard to get out at all, I want the most difficult thing to say. “I want to—hear your voice. I want to spend time in your company. I want to help rebuild Kaon, I want to help build—the world we imagined. I want—I want to stay.

“And you’ve just discovered all of these desires?” Megatron snarled, somewhere between anger and misery. “What about your precious Autobots? They need their Prime—”

“They’ll manage,” Orion said, and he took a lurching step into the room, across the threshold, and Megatron awoke suddenly out of confused stupidity and jerked a step back from him, his fuel pump accelerating. Orion halted, and his face suddenly crumpled, his optics and his mouth closing down narrow. “Unless—if you don’t—” He stopped and gasped a moment. “You liked him. If you don’t want me to—if you want me to—”

It was so incoherent that Megatron had to process a hundred possible meanings before his memory pulled up Lyrican, talking to him in the market, with Orion still in audio pickup range. “You’re blithering at me out of jealousy?” Megatron said, incredulously: it seemed at once obvious and incomprehensible. “Because I talked to another mech for less than twelve astrominutes?”

“Because—you went away for a week,” Orion said, his voice cracking. “Because I think you might not—want to love me anymore.”

“Of course I don’t want to love you!” Megatron roared at him. “You’re an idiot!” Orion gave a small deep shuddering breath of relief and took two more steps, closing the space between them, and kissed him. So incompetently he’d clearly never done it before and nearly managed to rip his entire lip open on the fangs, which Megatron would evidently have to get Knockout to remodel, a detail that got dumped into his planning queue for later, along with the six dozen urgent tasks all tumbling straight out of memory as he heaved Orion up—grateful now for the new strength that made it easy—and carried him over to the recharge bed.

Orion didn’t help at all, groping at him wildly and without any direction, just running his hands all over every curve of armor, fingers brushing deliciously over access panels; he shivered all over when they returned permission, but he didn’t stop, as if he wanted to try and have everything at once. “It didn’t,” he said incoherently, between kisses, his own primary access panel sliding instantly open when Megatron signaled. “It didn’t, it didn’t occur to me,” and Megatron growled, “You are an idiot,” even as he slid a thin, precision dataspike carefully into the very center of the waiting valve, activating the confused, half-dormant circuitry; he had to manually instruct it to to lubricate and widen the aperture.

Orion clutched at him as he slid the narrow spike back out again. “No, Megatron, wait,” a protest that rose nearly to the level of a whine.  

“No,” Megatron said, “you wait,” pushing Orion’s legs apart and stepping in between them to get his own primary panel carefully aligned; he might possibly have been whining himself.

He limited his spike down to the smallest diameter before beginning the penetration sequence, which he recognized was a terrible mistake the instant that Orion’s optics spiraled open to maximum aperture and he said in a strangled voice, “Ah,” as if he was mildly surprised, even with barely half the length inserted, and tried to clamp on it. That worked as well as anyone would have expected clamping a thoroughly lubricated half-meter valve on a nine-centimeter smooth inner spike to work, only that didn’t stop Orion trying three times, each skidding attempt gloriously maddening.

“Patience,” Megatron said through his teeth, speaking more than half to himself, and slid the next layer in, nudging it past Orion’s attempts, both of them shuddering at the contact. Six layers further on, Orion gasped and abruptly lay back down flat as if he couldn’t keep himself upright anymore. He was staring dazzled up at the ceiling, his mouth open, not even trying to do anything anymore but greedily process his own sensation. There was unquestionably something glorious about his complete surrender, but where Megatron expected to feel triumphant, instead his emotional subsystem was suffused with something fierce and tender at once, a protective quality—that unbearable groveling desire to see Orion happy transmuted into an almost incomprehensible sensation by success, by his own happiness; he didn’t even have words to name it. Victory, that sweetest of all drugs, seemed laughably pale by comparison.

“Orion,” he said, wondering if he might weep, and Orion blindly fumbled out his hands and clasped his one after another, snaking out thinner data cables to plug into him, satellite connections around the pulsing sun at the center of their bodies. Orion sighed his name back, deep and resonant, their minds touching: he did have words, joy, wonder, love and love and love, spilling over, and Megatron did gasp once, something like a sob, and bent to kiss him: he hadn’t known what it was, in fact; he hadn’t known what it was remotely.

# End