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What, however, is our relation to revolution? Civil war is the most severe of all forms of war. It is unthinkable not only without violence against tertiary figures but, under contemporary technique, without murdering old men, old women and children... There is no impervious demarcation between ‘peaceful’ class struggle and revolution. Every strike embodies in an unexpanded form all the elements of civil war.

—Leon Trotsky, Their Morals And Ours





It was sunset, just after the end of the shift. Inside the Hall of Records the light was dim and sterile, cut through with slashes of dull orange from windows set high up into the walls, but as Orion stepped out of the main doors into the Scholarship Plaza, the city lit up in a blaze of yellow light.

His field of vision went white, reminding him that he'd left his optical settings on maximum sensitivity again.

He stopped before he fell off the edge of the terrace on which the Hall of Records perched, and reset his optics. Working within the dimly-lit Hall, he habitually left them on a much lower-light exposure setting. Since he rarely went out into the greater world, this was an arrangement that he seldom rethought.

The reboot finished, leaving Orion blinking into the sunset.

Cybertron's sun hovered just above the edge of the Plaza, magnified by the curve of the atmosphere. The colour of the high-altitude clouds that wreathed the southwestern horizon changed from washed-out yellows and pinks to vibrant red and orange. Dusky purples and blues ate away at the edges of the blaze as the sun sank steadily toward night.

Direct sunlight. No wonder his optical systems had been overwhelmed.

There was a touch at his hand, a brush of a vibrant EM field against his own. He glanced down at his companion.

“What's up?” asked Jazz. He craned his neck to look Orion in the optics from a level closer to his waist, EM field smoothing expectantly around his frame.

Orion told him, and received a gleeful burst of static in return.

“Mech,” said his oldest friend, “you gotta get yerself a visor. Or just get outta the archives more.”

“It's my job,” said Orion, a halfhearted protest. “I can't just walk up to the shift manager and ask him for an assignment out in the sun.”

He moved away from the Hall doors, and the between-shifts crowd in the plaza made room for him with a barely-perceptible shift. Motes of dust and smog danced in the swirls of air left by his passage, glowing faint gold in the setting sun.

Jazz followed, expertly weaving his way through a crowd that was mostly half again as tall as him. “Your job don't require overtime in the homeworld history sections, or extra shifts with the dataloggers, or offshift browsing in the political history department,” he pointed out, counting Orion's various transgressions off on his fingers. “I've seen your work history for this lune; you can't fool me.”

“You have?” asked Orion, only faintly surprised. “Jazz, that's illegal.”

Jazz grinned. “What's a bit of lawbreaking between friends, Orion? Just between you and me, I think you're getting to be a bit of a workaholic. Plainly you need an adventure.”

Orion shook his helm. A bit of lawbreaking, indeed. Jazz was a Chronicler; they got into places other mecha didn't want them to as a matter of course.

They passed behind the shadow of a tall office building. Everything went dark. Orion tentatively raised his optical exposure levels and the visual feed brightened, enough to see depth in the shadows around the boundaries of the Plaza. A shaft of bright light glared at him from a pane of glass on a high skyscraper several blocks away, momentarily scrambling his vision.

“What would I do without you?” he asked, making sure that Jazz could feel the good-natured sarcasm in his EM field.

The minibot cackled. “Not much, apparently.”

Orion responded with a lazy spin of his fans. Jazz was probably right. Not that he'd ever tell him so, of course.

“Very well,” he said, prodding Jazz with a curious pulse of EM. “I have to suppose that you have an adventure in mind?”

They reached the edge of the Plaza and joined the river of pedestrians descending to the upper-level road network. Jazz grabbed hold of Orion's wrist and stuck close to his lee. Orion, who stood head and shoulders above most of the mecha around him, never found it very hard to navigate High Iacon's crowds. Jazz, well on the other side of average, tended to get swept away by the current.

The flow of homeward-bound mecha eased as the pedestrian route opened up onto the road. Jazz transformed, sending Orion a set of coordinates.

:: Here's the starting point. We'll work out what happens afterward when we get there. ::

Orion settled into altmode and pulled out into the westward-bound lane. He cross-checked the coordinates against his map of the city. They matched to a small bar on the fifth level of the Decagon, close to the district border with the Oratory Forum. A cheery pop-up window gave him the menu.

:: Starting point? This is sounding like quite the adventure already. ::

Jazz drove ahead, dodging through the traffic. :: I figure I should probably acclimate you to the lower Decagon, ah, slowly :: he said, tagging the commburst with friendly amusement. ::  Take the Level 45 Motorway at the next entry - it goes down further than we need, but there's an elevator quite close to the quadrant we want. ::

Orion pinged an acknowledgement.

The signage hovering above the road flashed green: traffic flowing well, no hazards upcoming. Further up, the last vestiges of daylight shone between the upper-level latticework of Iacon's hive city.

Jazz slipped back into the leftmost lane, several vehicles in front of Orion. The exit to Level 45 loomed. :: Tonight, brother, we are going to have Fun. Take no prisoners, leave no evidence. ::

:: Oh dear :: said Orion.

They descended into the highway. Street lights took over from natural light; flashing neon signs directed traffic into a network of cross-highways and offramps. Orion sped up as he merged into the slow lane on the side – the speed limit here was much higher.

Jazz swung in beside him. :: Not to worry too much, mech. I got you a nice, cosy little bouquet bar to start with. ::

:: It's the 'to start with' part that worries me :: observed Orion, tagging the message with just enough humour to let Jazz know that he was joking. (Mostly. Jazz had calmed down a lot in recent decades, now that his Chronicler masters trusted him to carry out mapping missions on his own, but he still had a reputation for adventurousness – and sticking his little articulate head into things he probably ought not to – that he wasn't in a hurry to get rid of.)

:: Aw, there, there. Such a homebody, Orion. :: Jazz sent him a video file of Orion himself, hard at work in the archives. :: Don't worry, I'll get you back to your books all safe and sound. ::

:: You'll have my eternal gratitude, in that case. ::

Orion checked the map again. They approached the crossing into the Oratory Forum, crossing it with little fanfare. He checked the contents of his subspace, making sure he had his ID card with him. The Forums were Iacon's seat of government, and perhaps the city's most heavily guarded district. He might not need ID to leave the district, but he certainly would to get back in again.

The highway turned north past the crossing, heading for the Decagon.

:: We need Exit 3114 :: said Jazz. :: 2998 coming up. ::

The altmodes ahead of them began to brake. A league further on, the traffic direction lights flashed orange.

:: Damn :: said Jazz. :: Road works? ::

Fortunately, they made it to their exit before the traffic slowed to a crawl. The road led them up into an airy avenue, open to the weather through a gap in the skyscrapers several levels above. The sky between the buildings was a soft shade of blue-grey, streaked with darkening remnants of sunset.

The district border was a few blocks ahead. They drove onward, transforming in the forecourt of the checkpoint building and joining the flow of night-time revellers into the Decagon.

He'd been wrong – the customs officers did ask for ID. But they scanned the cards and handed them back without so much as looking at them.

The checkpoint disgorged them into the quieter part of the Decagon, a wandering street lit by antigrav fae-lights hovering overhead. It curved around the forecourt of a terraced restaurant, from the open doors of which drifted the scents of exotic minerals and perfumes. There were delicate crystal trees set into brackets on the sides of buildings, and flags of wirecloth and imported organic materials hanging still in the breezeless air.

Three storeys above, the gigantic skyscrapers that held up the city arched inward over the streets until they met, forming a vaulted roof.

“Here,” said Jazz, and ducked into a narrow but well-lit alley between two smaller buildings. Orion followed him. They passed through a small courtyard in which mecha drank tiny glowing cocktails around sulphur braziers, and into a passage set into the side of the nearest great support tower.

There was a small crowd at the end of the passage, and an elevator just coming down from the upper levels. They squeezed onto the carriage alongside everyone else – Orion felt, as he usually did, a little guilty for taking up so much space on his own. Then the lifting mechanisms groaned into action, and they rose up, up, into the tower.

The elevator opened out into an enclosed mall. Mecha ducked into shops and bars, and music pulsed out through the doors behind them. Orion caught Jazz nodding his helm to a fast tapping beat as they went past a UV-lit dance club.

The mall opened up into a narrow pedestrian street, fronted by bar after tiny bar. Jazz led him past every one of them, stopping only in front of the smallest of them all.

“Here you go, Orion. Is this quiet enough for you?”

There were voices coming out of the bar, and – Orion looked up – off the second-level balcony above the shop front.

“Perhaps,” he deadpanned, unwilling to let Jazz get away with the prize. “Do you think you could get them to whisper?”

Jazz deliberately jammed his fans, stifling a laugh, and walked in.

Inside, the establishment was roomier than it had appeared at first. Mecha sat at small tables along the far wall, and leant at the bar, examining the menus that scrawled across the wall behind it. At the right, a staircase set into the wall led up into a second level. The light was soft and yellow, coming from cheap natural fae-lights in brackets set halfway up the walls.

“What do you feel like?” asked Jazz, approaching the bar. “First round is on me.”

They left that bar three rounds later, highgrade warming their conversion tanks. Orion judged himself slightly tipsy, energised by the rich fuel and more willing than he might have been otherwise to follow Jazz into the next bar, despite the fast thumping beat that poured out through the open doors and the sight of energetic dancers inside.

This bar was much bigger than the first, fronting onto a wide avenue with a view up into the night sky above Iacon. The city's lights reflected back off a haze of high cloud, striping the darkness with patches of shadowy colour.

There were bouncers at the door: two tall warbuilds, lightly-armoured, and hired from a private security company rather than the Enforcers if Orion was any judge. They gave Orion a long look as he showed them his ID, but waved him on through.

Jazz spoke to him just inside the door. “That was new.”

Orion glanced back over his shoulder. Through the doors, he saw the bouncers give the next arrival's ID card a similarly cursory inspection. “Them?”

“Nah, the sign behind them,” said Jazz. He pulled Orion to a corner table and hopped up onto the inset wall seat behind it. “You didn't see it? The way it used to be, this area was open to anyone, any caste, so long as they could pay. Then some upmarket conglomerate bought the building across the way, and now you can't come in here unless you're Tier Four or higher. Fourth grade or above, in fact.”

Orion frowned. “Why would they do that?”

Jazz was quiet for a moment, his EM field rippling around his frame as he thought. “Because they had the money, I figure. Maybe they want to draw in the upper castes.”

He shrugged, and leant forward, peering over the heads of the dancers at the menu on the wall across the room. “It's probably only a matter of time before they cut us off as well, so how about we enjoy it while it lasts?”

They were both part of the fourth tier of rank, Orion a member of the Iacon Record-Keepers' clade, a specialised subcaste belonging to the data-handlers' caste, and Jazz a Chronicler, part of another specialised subcaste itself belonging to the Record-Keepers. This put them both squarely at the third grade within Tier Four – not quite high enough to be respectable, but not low enough to be undesirable.

Orion sighed and spun his vents. “Do you think they have any of those molybdenum cocktails here?”

According to the menu, they did indeed. Jazz went up to order the drinks, while Orion lurked at the table and watched the dancers on the floor. He had never been one for dancing – he had come out of the Well with two left pedes and a terrible sense of timing – but the dancers were smiling and the whole club buzzed with the high frequency of exhilarated EM fields.

The current song wound down into a slower tempo. This seemed to be a cue for those on the floor to make room for new dancers. Pairs expanded into trines. Three sharp notes and a rattling staccato cued in the next set.

One of the outgoing dancers looked up, and caught Orion's optics. He flashed him a quick smile from across the ranks of the audience.

Orion blinked.

The mech held his gaze for a moment longer, then disappeared into the crowd.

Jazz returned with an armful of drinks that glowed interesting colours. He put them down on the table, pushing the molybdenum blend across to Orion, and grinned. “See something you like, Orion?”

Jazz had a talent for making the most innocent combination of words sound like an innuendo.

Orion leant his chin on his hands. “I should think I ought to enjoy myself, after you went to all this effort to bring me here.”

“True,” said Jazz, still grinning. He raised his glass to Orion's, and clinked them together, deep purple vintage swirling in the vessels. “Let's see if we can't get you dancing by the end of the night.”

“I think I'll need something a significant amount stronger for that,” said Orion. “Jet fuel, perhaps.”

The Chronicler's visor gleamed under the flashing club lights. “Is that a challenge?”

“It depends on what you can get me,” said Orion, giving him a demure smile. “I'll leave it to you to figure out how.”

The frenzied thumping of the music redoubled, drowning out conversation. Orion and Jazz exchanged conversation by text for a while, debating the merits of the drinks on the club menu.Then they were joined by a trio of mecha whom Jazz recognised, two out of the three already noticeably overcharged. Orion found himself sitting between two slim light standards as Jazz shared stories of his last work trip, resisting the urge to hunch into himself so as not to take up too much space. Jazz kept them well-supplied with high-grade.

After a while, the buzz of energy through his lines was enough to loosen Orion's glossa, by which time the others were well and truly drunk and screamed with laughter at every uninspired joke they made. He gathered the bravery to share a story from the Archival halls, which was greeted similarly. He looked across the table, and saw Jazz watching him, smiling in paternal approval.

A databurst landed in his inbox. :: Not to knock your determination to rack up record-breaking overtime credits, but that wasn't so bad, was it? :: Jazz teased.

:: It could only be better if I was getting paid for it :: said Orion. :: That is a large part of the attraction in overtime, you know. ::

Jazz cackled aloud. :: You're wasted in the Archives, Orion! The All Spark should have put you in business administration! ::

It was a joke, but Orion felt a somber mood crash down upon him. Once placed in a caste and clade, there was little hope for a spark to change their profession. He was happy in the Hall of Records, but his thoughts strayed, wondering – as they often did when it came to him that there was a world outside of the archives – what his life might have been like had he been placed elsewhere.

He smiled, disguising his thoughts from Jazz, and obsorbed himself into the current conversation.

The frenzied thump of the music slowed down as the evening went on. Jazz' acquaintances left to try their skills on the dance floor among the pounding bass. It was tempting to follow them, but two standard cubes of vintage down and Orion wasn't that overcharged quite yet.

It came as a surprise when Jazz too got up, and tugged on Orion's hand. “I don't like the atmosphere in here,” he declared. “Let's go somewhere else.”

“You want to leave?” Orion stared into the bottom of his last cube, wondering if it was worth upending to get to the last dregs of energon.

“What, you're having fun skulking around up the back here?” asked Jazz. His EM field plastered against Orion's – being smaller, he was quicker to overcharge. “Besides, I got more places for you to see. Better bands, better drinks.”

“That wasn't an objection,” said Orion. He wrapped his EM field around Jazz' much smaller frame and rose, leaving the cube where it was. “Where else to?”

“First? Dunno,” said Jazz. He went to the bar to check their tab, paid it, and they left. “Whichever one we find first.”

They stood on the terraced step outside the bar, and surveyed the avenue. Lights warred for their attention, the blue and yellow hues of fae-lights in front of tea houses and energon bars, flashing neon signage illuminating dance halls and nightclubs, red and gold on the front parlours of gambling dens and purple hovering at the first-floor windows of pleasure clubs. Street lights lit up the road. In crystal trees and on shop porches, tiny lamps gave off a soft, unobtrusive glow.

Orion looked up and down the street. “Which way do we go?”

Jazz was quiet for a moment, no doubt consulting his internal map. Then he turned to the left and pattered down into the road. “This way.”

There was a speed limit of fifteen leagues an hour in the Decagon. Orion, naturally cautious, stuck well below that. Jazz jinked and dodged around him, disregarding the road rules entirely. He spotted an Enforcer patrol further down the road in time, and was the model of politeness for a single block, but as soon as they turned the corner he slipped up onto the pedestrian paths again, exploring.

He was small enough, and weighed even less than he looked. Still, Orion kept a close watch on him.

They pulled up in front of another large bar, this one attached to an internal dance hall with a wide balcony on the first floor, and a short queue waiting on the forecourt. Again, there were a pair of security guards checking ID cards.

Jazz joined the back of the queue. “I haven't been here before, but it's supposed to be good.”

“The queue would seem to agree with you,” said Orion, transforming.

As with the last bar, there was a panel on the wall, reminding mecha below tier four that they were not welcome. Orion frowned at it.

Caste tier-based segregation was an old fact of Cybertronian society. Orion could not remember a time when he hadn't had to be aware of and ready to acknowledge its presence in society. Iaconian society – and especially High Iacon – worked on thousands of rules, spoken or not, governing interactions between mecha. As a senior archivist, Orion regularly worked with mecha of much higher status than himself. He had become familiar with these rules over the years. Wth familiarity, however, had come an increasing realisation that he was less and less able to overlook them, as he had done as a younger mech, working in the rear Halls where visitors seldom came.

He read the plaque again, more closely. This one forbade the entry of mecha below the third rank of tier four.

Jazz noticed his expression. “Just ranked enough, are we?”

“Perhaps that's why it is supposedly so good,” said Orion, less than humorously. “It's built for mecha better than us.”

Jazz caught the undertone to his voice, and pressed himself reassuringly against Orion's side. “Let's just see what it's like, hey? We don't have to stay if you don't like it.”

“It's not that,” said Orion. “I'll try it. I'm just a little nervous, that's all.”

“Same difference,” said Jazz. “Just let me know what you think.”

At the front of the line, a third mech joined the security guards. He was a lithe, slim light standard, glossy-armoured, with light blue detailing on his limbs and extremities. He observed the guards' work with a critical tang in his confidently-unfurled EM field. As Jazz and Orion came closer to the front of the line, the mech's proximity ident came up on their HUDs. Like them, he used the tier-four pronoun. Orion guessed that he would be the bar manager.

As if sensing Orion's scrutiny, the mech looked up. His optics caught Orion's, and narrowed.

“ID?” asked a voice.

They had reached the front of the line.

Orion hurriedly took his ID out of his subspace, handed it to the security guard. The mech waved it past the ID scanner. Orion was expecting for it to be handed back as soon as the scanner brought up no flagged activity, as Jazz' had been, but the security guard held onto it, manually scrolling through his activity history.

Worry tied a knot in Orion's spark.

He waited, as patiently as he could. What had he used his ID for recently? The trip into the Decagon, and the last bar. Before that, he'd signed into and out of the Hall of Records twice that day, having left between shifts to visit the Imperial Education Office down the Via Theophania about a part-time undergraduate course he was hoping to take. The previous day, he'd just gone to work.

The security guard gave him an appraising look. “Designation and caste?”

“Orion Pax, of the Record-Keepers,” replied Orion, somewhat put off balance. The security guard's ident put them at tier six. Under the social rules that Orion was used to, there should have been at least a 'please' somewhere in there.

The guard gave his card another long look. Then they seemed to come to a decision, and made a move to hand it back. Orion made to take it, relieved – but it was intercepted by a slim blue-filigreed hand.

“Another question,” said the club manager. “Who did you get this from?”

Orion stared at him. “What?”

The mech flicked his ID card between two fingers. “This is a good fake. I commend whoever made it. But we do not accept mecha below the third rank of tier four as patrons at this premises.”

“I am third rank,” said Orion. Everything had gone quiet. He felt numb, hydraulics weakening with slow shock. “Orion Pax, senior archivist, of the Record-Keepers' clade.”

There was movement by his side. “What's going on?” asked Jazz.

The manager summoned the other security guard with a flick of his servo. “Re-check his,” he ordered, with a peremptory gesture to Jazz. “If they're together, it's possible that both are forgeries.”

Jazz' visor dimmed and flickered rapidly. “The Pit did you just say?”

:: They think my ID is fake :: sent Orion, through text.

He mustered up what remained of his composure, and stepped forward. “Please give me back my ID.”

“I can't do that,” said the manager. “This is contraband; it will be going to the Enforcers.”

“Are you glitched?” said Jazz. “They're real. You think someone wants to get into your scrap-framed slagheap of a club that badly?”

Orion became aware that the second security guard had circled around behind them. The queue had grown in the time they had been stalled; ranks of blue optics stared at them with growing suspicion.

The manager gave them a tired look. “Clearly, some do.”

He waved a servo at Orion. The gesture took in his entire frame, his full height. Orion reflexively stepped back. “Do you really expect me to believe that a mech like that is working in the archives? The Iacon Hall of Records, no less.”

There was a short silence.

:: I'm sorry :: said Jazz, over private short-range comms. :: I had no idea this place was run by a Functionist drip of slag. ::

Orion tried valiantly to pull together the frayed pieces of his composure. He looked down at himself, at the big dexter frame that had haunted him all his life. “Please,” he said, trying one more time, “If you won't let me in, that's fine, but I need my ID to get back home.”

The club manager's voice sounded almost reasonable. Looking back, that was what had hurt the most. “As I said, this will be handed over to the Enforcers as contraband. You may leave, if you leave now. Try finding a better cover story next time.”

Orion stood frozen for a long moment. He forced himself to take a deep vent, through fans that were whirling with stress-response protocols, then turned, and strode away from the bar. Jazz followed him, jogging to keep up.

They made it a block in silence. Then Jazz began to snarl curses. Quietly at first, then rising in volume.

His friend's anger was both cathartic and aggravating. Jazz gave voice to the anger and hurt that Orion himself couldn't seem to vocalise past the heavy weight of shame that had settled on his shoulders the moment he turned to walk away. At the same time, his voice grated.

The avenue came to a small intersection across a pedestrian walkway. In the mouth of the walkway, between a tea house and a small game shop, there was a raised terrace garden. Orion came to a stop, and crouched at its foot. His fans sped up, whining with stress. He wanted to sink into the ground beneath his pedes.

Light footsteps approached. Jazz stood for a moment beside him, then sat as well.

Panic welled up. Orion fought it back, crying out in his processor that he would not let it control him. He shook, plating flaring out and rattling against his substructure. Without his ID card, he would not be let back into the Forums, let alone into the Hall of Records complex and the apartment block where he lived.

He pushed back the thought. He had his shift manager's comm code. He would call her, and explain the situation. She would be able to verify his identity, order him a new ID if necessary. If she alone was not enough, she would be able to call in the elders of the Record-Keepers' clade. It would be okay. He wasn't doing anything he wasn't supposed to.

A soft weight pressed against his side. Jazz leaned against him, sinking the wavelengths of his EM field under Orion's plating. Orion took the offered support with a grateful throb of his spark.

It made sense, as much as it hurt to think. Functionism was a philosophy initially offered as an alternative to a hardline caste system, in which mecha did whichever work they were best suited to rather than that of whichever caste they were assigned or sparked into. Proponents claimed that it loosened the economic drag caused by strict adherence to a caste-based society. Under a functionist view, the dexter frametype was one best suited to manual labour. Combined with the caste system, which set the manual labour classes between tiers five and seven, and the prejudices which followed, this explained all too well why Orion had been the one singled out of the crowd.

“Should've stayed and argued,” muttered Jazz, sounding as if he spoke to himself rather than Orion. “Pretty sure it's a legal offense to take someone else's ID without due evidence of wrongdoing.”

Orion vented, slowly, deeply. “I couldn't have done that.”

Jazz rested his helm against Orion's elbow. “I'm sorry,” he said again. “Wouldn't have taken you there if I'd had half a clue.”

“It's not your fault,” said Orion. He lifted his helm, and patted Jazz's shoulder. “I was enjoying myself, before then.”

“Oh, then the night isn't a complete pile of slag?” Jazz asked, his undertone somewhere between wry and furious. “That's a relief.”

Orion reset his optics. “I'm going to call Torre,” he said. “I'll need someone ranking to vouch for me, unless I want to spend the night here.”

“All right,” said Jazz. “I'll hang out here, too. No way I'm leaving without you.”

“Thank you,” murmured Orion. He dithered a moment before connecting the call, still shaken in his spark.

His shift manager listened intently to his story. “That slagging jointlicker,” she said succinctly, after he had finished. “And you said it didn't even ping the scanner?”

Listening to mecha being angry on his behalf was nice, in a washed-out sort of a way. “Nothing even like it. But they wouldn't give it back, and now I'm stuck in the Decagon.”

“At least you won't be short of energon,” said Torre. “I'm going to talk to the elders. Silverlight says she'll see me. We'll work something out, Orion.”

The call ended.

Orion exvented, and buried his face in his hands.

“How did it go?” asked Jazz.

“She's going to work something out,” said Orion, into his palms. He lifted his head. “She didn't say what.”

“Thought not.” Jazz pushed himself to his feet. “You want to find somewhere quieter to sit? I keep getting headlights in my optics.”

Given the amount of light around, this was clearly an excuse. Orion looked around, and found two separate groups of mecha staring at them. (More than likely at him, said a rogue subprocessor.) The area was a popular one. No doubt they simply thought he was overcharged, but the memory of the mecha at the bar was still sharp enough to sting him into action.

He pushed himself up after Jazz. His spark was roiling fast, but any ready charge the high-grade had given him had been chased away by the shame. “I'd like that.”

Deeper into the Decagon, they found a bazaar with a public recharge area behind the rearmost bank of shops. This early in the evening, it was nearly deserted.

Orion tucked himself into a shadowy corner, and shuttered his optics. The dark was calming. He vented, drawing it around himself, imagining that no-one could see him.

A familiar weight nestled into his lap. He wrapped his arms around Jazz, synchronising his EM field to the slow whirl of his friend's spark. Jazz did not speak, but leant back against Orion's chest, laying his hands on Orion's thighs and gently patting.

Torre called back several minutes later.

“We're going to contact the district Emporium,” she explained. “The Enforcers won't take complaints unrelated to their practice. The Emporium at least can make sure that your record isn't permanently blemished by this, and issue you a new ID if necessary.”

She sent him a small text file. “If you want to make a formal complaint, here's the guarantees form.”

Orion considered the prospect after ending the call. The part of him that balked at the prospect of calling any more attention to himself than necessary was, predictably, unwilling to give the idea any thought.

He reminded himself that making decisions based on fear was not something that would get him very far in life, and held onto Jazz a little tighter, hoping the message would sink in.

The ill-fated expedition to the Decagon was over before the dawn shift the following morning. Orion was issued a temporary passport by the local Emporium office, and ushered through the long queues at the district border by a sympathetic Customs officer. He and Jazz arrived back at the Hall of Records with time enough to catch a joor or two of recharge before the following day's work.

Jazz saw him to his room in the Residency Hall. The articulate was still feeling guilty over the fiasco their night out had turned into, Orion thought. He made sure to thank him – it was hardly Jazz' fault that it had gone so bad.

He shut the door behind himself, and the silence closed in over his helm.

His room was still as he had left it the previous morning. The windows were clear, and light from the tower block across the street fell across the shape of his recharge berth and onto the floor at his pedes.

He didn't have much in the way of furnishings. The table and berth were supplied by the Hall of Records, of frametype-appropriate sizes. He had a few ornaments and vanity items, most of which were confined to the windowsill. There was a miniature chiller on top of a shelf by the door. Elsewhere in the room, every flat surface was dominated by piles of datapads. Hardcopy sheets peeked out from between them, styluses lurking in the gaps between haphazard towers. There was one clear space at his table, his favourite chair (his only, unless you counted the backless office chair several sizes too small for him that he kept for Jazz' frequent visits, which Orion didn't) sitting askew in front of it.

Orange light blinked in the shadows beneath his berth. He bent, retrieving a half-hidden datapad.

Whatever Jazz might think, Orion was not in the habit of bringing work home with him. The datapads scattered throughout the room were for the most part retired office devices, which he had picked up from the junior archivists in charge of disposing of decommissioned electronics for a reduced price, loaded with the data and files he wanted, and brought home. The topics they covered ranged from historical, political, and economic analysis to mythology, ancient literature, travelogues and linguistics.

The datapad in his hands was a more recent acquisition. There was one file on it. He had had to download it from a public access point in a Datanet cafe across the district border in the Oratory Forum; the website it had come from was flagged in the Hall of Records system for inflammatory material.

It was short for a political tract – fifteen pages, sans author's notes. The title was simple: An Open Letter To The Establishment.

He'd started reading it last night. He had had to put it down about five pages in and spend the next half joor staring at his ceiling, deep in thought. The writing was not particularly polished, but it spoke with an understanding and erudition that Orion half-suspected came from experience. It discussed the division of resources between the strata of Cybertronian society, and questioned the systems which enforced it.

The author went by a pseudonym, or so Orion assumed. The name attached to the text was Megatronus – a modern translation of the household name attached to a figure better-known to history as the first of the Fallen Primes.

And why a mech should name themselves for a monster such as that, Orion did not know. But the author, whatever his name was, expressed ideas that Orion had never seen before outside of obscure academia. He was fond of warlike metaphor and ideals dressed in conflict – no wonder the Hall of Records had flagged the site on which the file was stored.

The most important part of the tract was that it did not shy away from attacking the prejudice and classism that was rampant among all sectors of society. Orion couldn't remember the last time he had read something so openly critical of the caste system.

He had planned to fall into recharge the moment he returned home. But tonight, he was in a contemplative mood. His spark whirled, shamed and looking for an outlet. In the datapad in his hand, there were words that might be able to express the outrage he still felt more guilty than not for feeling.

Orion put the datapad down on the small table at the head of his berth, and lay down. He tapped the window pane, and it blacked out, cutting off the city outside. His systems hummed, winding down into rest.

He picked the datapad up again, and began to read.


Chapter Text

no, we won't just go back home

without you

hearing the sound of the people say—

we are done.



Orion signed into the Hall of Records complex at the beginning of the predawn shift. His ID card, none the worse for its confiscation a lune ago, came up flagged blue on the locking screen. The lock mechanisms disengaged with a whisper of metal, and the door slid smoothly open.

Inside, the Hall was quiet. Early morning patrons drifted between the shelves, the hum of data access points and the in-house database a constant background thrumming. It was still dark outside, but the main archive was never closed. Piles of hardcopy and hard-drive chips littered the table in front of a tired-looking minibot near the front atrium. Someone had had a long night.

Orion ducked behind the front desk and entered his name into the shift roster. His archival ID flashed up into the screen. He selected it, then entered his details. His employee login informed him that he had been assigned to only two work shifts that day; the predawn and dawn shifts. This Orion already knew. He logged off, leaving the roster to a junior member of the clade who had come in shortly after him, and went back out into the Hall.

He turned the corner of a shelf of hardcopy files and stopped abruptly. A red-painted heavy standard with a stack of ancient folders in his hands narrowly avoided walking into him. The mech looked up at him, and grinned. “Good morning, Orion.”

“Good morning, Dion.” Orion returned the smile, good humour washing through his EM field. “How long have you been here?”

The mech was one of his batchmates, a cold-construct whose spark had been plucked from the Well seconds before Orion's own. Commissioned by the same entity, the Record-Keepers' clade, they had known each other since they were first onlined.

“I had an overnight shift,” said Dion. He indicated the folders in his hands, and explained, “I've been put to work assisting the restorers. There's a back room with a moisture problem: the hardcopy is flaking and there's oxidation around the bindings. It smells terrible.”

There was a tang in the air, Orion noted. “What was in the room?”

“Early economic records – GDPs vorn by vorn, average wage data, that sort of thing. Rather dry, but interesting in its own way.” Dion edged around Orion. “Speaking of dry but interesting things, I found a text you might be interested in on Iacon Bay last night. It's a history of religio-political movements in the Senate, selling for only a few credits. I'll send you the link when my break rolls around.”

Orion, whose audials had pricked up at the word 'history', smiled after him. “It sounds interesting, thank you.”

He left the first Hall through a side door, striding through the shadowy corridor beyond on his way to his office. Unlike most of his batchmates, Orion had a specialisation – ancient history.

The department was small – Iacon's own history was deeply entwined with that of the Empire. Prior to the date of Founding, the city had been a northern trade outpost. Only with the formation of the Empire and the northward migration of the Primes away from the old civilizations of Centralia had come Iacon's present power and glory. The Hall of Records was the center of the Empire's networks of Golden Age history; but by contrast, it had little to offer of the times before.

The ancient history office too was small. Orion keyed his access code into the outmoded security lock and pushed the door open. It snagged on the small stool they kept for their rare visitors, dragging it across the floor with a harsh screech of metal on metal.

“Primus' sake!” cried the younger of his two coworkers. “Push it under a bench or something when nobody's using it!”

Orion nudged it away from the door with the tip of his pede. “Good morning, Ariel.”

She spun her vents, producing a low-pitched buzz of irritation. “Not really. The curator of the Warring States Museum is being deliberately obtuse about this damn vase.”

Orion made an appropriately sympathetic hum. Ariel, who had a graduate degree in art history, had been engaged for the last several lunes in the study of the artifacts left behind by various early Boreal civilizations. Since the best specimens of those artifacts were housed at high-society institutions across the Boreal States, this had thus far involved far more negotiating with some of the most hidebound representatives of the upper caste tiers than actual analysis of the artifacts themselves. As a mech of the fourth tier, she was at a perpetual disadvantage. Fortunately, through the Hall of Records she had been able to enlist various members of the literati castes of the second and third tiers to her cause.

“I might have to call in Astraea,” she muttered, “see if she can't help me knock some sense into him.”

“Perhaps,” said Orion, retrieving his own char and sitting with a sigh in front of his datanet access point. “He's Pioni – what did you expect?”

An amused rev. “Better manners, that's for sure.”

The doubled screens above Orion's datapoint flickered to life. He logged into his account. Popup messages informed him that he had failed to shut down several programs correctly. He sighed again, brought them up onto the left screen, and opened a wireless connection to the datapoint's AI from his HUD on the right. Multitasking was a high virtue in the Hall of Records.

He checked his work message acount first. There weren't many – a request for the department's catalogue on Second Generation political figures, from an assistant professor at a Polar League university, and a message from the University of Primal Trinity's enrolment office provisionally accepting him into the part-time Development of Religion course, credits fully transferable.

Orion forwarded the message to the department head. Alpha Trion had suggested the course in the first place, even securing Hall of Records funding to pay the course fees so that Orion would not be left out of pocket. It was not unusual for archivists to pursue higher education in order to further their careers along one specialisation or another, but the University of Primal Trinity was an old, well-respected organisation. If he could gain course credits from there, then a higher-level degree program elsewhere would be more likely to take him on.

They were ambitious life goals for a tier-four mech. Orion, however, had never seen the point in aiming small.

He retrieved the first of the documents he had been working on yesterday. It was a quick translation job for a Southern States museum, out of Transitional Tyger Paxi (circa early Second Generation, spoken widely within the northern Main Divide) and into the high-status register of Austral Vulgate. The document was a letter written to a Tyger Paxi warrior-king from the head of a border polity in the then Austral rus, asking for patronage and religious support with a problem the long-ago letter-writer was being abashedly vague about.

Translation came naturally to Orion. It was a matter of trying to see the world from the original writer's point of view, of being empathic to their purpose and needs. Such had always been part of his approach to life.

He worked on the letter for several joor, occasionally checking the Dawn Basilica's language retrieval project for cultural references he hadn't come across before. All but one form of Tyger Paxi were classed as dead languages, no longer spoken in everday life. The liturgical form, or the Ancient Vulgar form used by the common peoples of Tyger Pax in the Second Generation, were not mutually intelligible with the Transitional form of the letter, but the cultural context of the latter was primarily derived from the former.

Alpha Trion arrived shortly before the beginning of the dawn shift. He gave Orion quiet congratulations, and suggested that they go out for lunch to an energon bar to celebrate.

Orion accepted, with a momentary lurch in his fuel tank at the memory of his last ill-fated night out. But Alpha Trion's taste in bars was very different to Jazz's. Slower, for one.

“Ariel, why don't you come too?” the department head suggested. “A relaxing cube of energon will do you good, and I am sure that your interlocutor will not get any ruder in the interim.”

Ariel sighed, tipping her pink head back until her optics stared at the ceiling. “You may be right. I feel like I'm driving into a cinderblock wall. Repeatedly.”

Orion smiled. “That sounds like a good reason for a cube of highgrade.”

“None better.” She turned her gaze to Orion. “I meant to ask the other day - why 'Development of Religion'?”

“It's a part of history that affects so much within past and contemporary culture,” said Orion. “Given that there are so few of us concentrating on ancient history, I think that it would help me contribute better to a lot of our domain.”

“Is that what you told the funding board?” she asked. Orion grinned in answer.

“In fact, that was me,” said Alpha Trion. He sat back in his chair and raised his orbital ridges at them. “Most students of theology in the Boreal states are attracted into the Imperial Pentarchum by the promise of funding and contemporary power, which then of course restricts them to working within the confines of whichever branch of the broadstream they join. It would be so much simpler if we had among our ranks someone learned in the same fields of knowledge, but unrestricted by religious responsibility or holy paperwork.”

“Holy paperwork?” echoed Ariel, with a grin.

“Indeed,” the department head nodded. “It never used to be that way, of course, but recent governments have rather come under the sway of certain elements of the Pentarchum which rather enjoy Mythic law.”

He swiveled his chair to face his own datanet screen, and changed the subject. “Now, should I reserve a table for one joor, or two?”

Lunar cycles passed. Orion's course began, and he settled into his new routine with a few hiccups along the way.

The part-time version of the course involved three two-joor classes spread out over the quartex. Orion went straight to Transmission of Stellates from the Fifth-Orn Rites he attended with his other unbonded batchmates; on the Third and Eleventh Orns, he had three joor in which to study after the end of his midday shift work before heading to Development of Spirituality and History of the Primacy respectively.

He quickly figured out how and when to fit the homework obligations in with his Hall of Records work. He cut down on the amount of overtime he did – Jazz cackled out loud when Orion told him, the sound crackling over a patchy satellite connection from somewhere deep in the bowels of the Polyhex hive city – and put his time-waster books away under his berth with a pang of mourning. Commuting into and out of the Forum of Virtue, where the University's main campus was located, ate up most of his spare credits, so he taught himself to budget on a reduced income.

It was a hectic life, compared to what he was used to. He didn't think much of anything that wasn't archives- or class-related, up until the point when, three quartexes into researching an essay for History of the Primacy, he came across his second Megatronus work.

Orion backed out of the page. He had run a keyword analysis on a search engine, specifying scholarly works. The twelfth link down the list had seemed likely: an essay on the late Golden Age Primes, Nova and Nominus, and their economic and military reforms.

He checked the date stamp on the net page.

56.11.7803, the very end of the Age of Zeta. The essay was almost as old as he was.

Orion spun his vents in thought, and brought his essay draft onto the datapad screen. He still needed a lot of citations, but most of them could probably be dredged from the works he had already researched.

He clicked on the link again, scrolling through out of curiosity.

The literary style was clearly Megatronus' – forceful and full of fire, attacking without mercy the systems and practices of ages gone by that were holding the modern world back. The unknown writer again barely skirted the line of controversy by avoiding mention of the contemporary Prime, Zeta; Orion guessed that his silence in this respect was hardly out of approval, as Zeta's time in office had presided over reactionary bureaucratic reforms outstripping in scope even those of Nominus, which Megatronus described in scathing terms.

Orion inspected the hosting site's metadata tab. It was a defunct library of political observers' texts, hosting writings from mainly anonymous authors. It had not been updated in just over two thousand vorn.

He shut both browser tabs, and opened a new search window.

>> Search Query: “Megatronus”

The browser window immediately clustered with religious websites and mythology texts.

He vented shortly, and refined his search.

>> Search Query: “Megatronus” + “Politics”

The first result on the new search was an abstract examining the role of the Fallen Prime mythologies in shaping Golden Age political law; the second, a lengthy Datanet-based serial novel set in the early vorn of the Dynasty of Primes. Orion scrolled through two pages of results, and saw nothing suggesting a modern political writer.

>> Search Query: “Megatronus” + “An Open Letter To The Establishment”

Seven pages of results.

The first three were sites where the text was archived. Orion checked the metadata tabs of all three: one was based in Centralia, the other two in the polar Austral region. The first was the one which he had found those weeks ago – the Hall of Records router again refused to open the website. The two Austral websites likewise, though they were flagged respectively for gore and inflammatory material.

The third result was a video file on a mass-sharing website.

Orion ran the datapad's Datanet security scan over the website before he clicked the play button. His essay and research documents were being backed up on the University's student cloud in real time, but one couldn't be too careful with homework.

The video buffered for a sec, then began to play.

The feed was shaky, perhaps a handheld camera. It looked out from a first-level balcony over a small plaza, packed from wall to wall with screaming, jeering mecha. Shadows lurked around the walls, beneath overhanging balconies. Strong industrial lights cast over the scene. At the centre of the plaza was a gap between the masses of mecha, perhaps three or four mechanometers wide. In the clearing, two very large mecha – warframes, frontliners by the breadth of their shoulders – stalked each other. They carried short swords on their arms, and bore sheets of steel – as shields, Orion realised, his spark leaping into his throat as the two giants lunged for each other, swords outstretched.

They clashed, and the noise of metal on metal was drowned out by the ecstatic roar of the crowd. The audio feed glitched, the camera's microphone unable to handle the noise. Mecha sobbed and made peculiar groaning noises as one of the two staggered back, a blurry track of bright blue down his side indicating a major wound. The other fighter pursued him, pushing him back against the wall of the crowd. There were sharp screams as spectators were caught in the fight – the details blurred, and Orion was very glad for that. There was a point where he thought the more wounded mech might give up, but no surrender came. Orion's fans spun fast. He saw more energon, streaking both frames.

The wounded warframe went down onto his knees, and the crowd howled like mecha bewitched. Orion felt his spark stop dead. He watched in frozen horror as the loser's shield was batted aside, his sword torn from his arms.

The victor leaned down, and drove his sword into the loser's chest. Yellow light flared for a moment around the wound. The loser's optics went out.

Orion shuttered his optics and put the datapad aside. He vented deeply, once, twice, and shook his helm. His core ached, a sensation he had never felt before. It was somewhere between visceral horror and an almost physical pain.

He closed the video tab without looking to see if it had finished playing. The sight of the killing played in his recent memory protocols, and he onlined his optics again, staring at the drab ceiling of his too-small room.

Some of the southern states enjoyed ritual combat, he knew. Gladiatorial matches had evolved out of that, a secular form of state-endorsed blood sport that echoed the dynastic wars of the distant past.

The Golden Age was supposed to have put an end to that.

Orion shook his helm, and took up the datapad. The patch of sunlight on the berth beside him was beginning to migrate onto his leg. He turned up the screen light output, stared at the search query heading the page. Was the mysterious Megatronus involved in the gladiatorial rings?

He clicked on the fifth result.

It was a digital hardcopy file, an unfamiliar emblem on the letterhead. A list of names followed. Orion scrolled through them, searching for Megatronus.

He found him, halfway down the list. The name was listed in quotes, beside a letter-number designation. Orion blinked in sudden comprehension.

He looked at the page's metadata tab. The site of origin was the Enforcers' statistics archive. The page was a list of mecha arrested for 'gross breaches of the peace'. Orion wasn't sure what constituted those, but he would not have been at all surprised to learn that gladiatorial combat was one of them.

He clicked onto the next result. At last, it gave him a face to put to the name.

Megatronus, the erstwhile D-16, stared out of a tired old Justice Department mugshot. He was silver, the colour of raw steel. His armour was of an extremely heavy pattern – Orion counted four collaring layers around his neck, guessed at another two beneath the defensive curve of his thoracic plating. His face was dark under a thick, warframe-styled helm with sweeping cheek guards curving down to the point of his chin. Two light scars traced through the mesh on either side of his face, from the lower rim of his optics and down across his thin-lipped mouth.

Orion recognised with a start of discomfort the victor of the match he had watched.

He tipped his helm back, staring at the opposite wall. Reconciling the passionate, fluent writer with the brutal gladiator was surprisingly easy. He recognised the cut and thrust of Megatronus' combative metaphors – guessing at their origin was not hard.

Where had he come from? Letter-number designations were given to mecha sparked for simple mass-labour tasks, for ease of identification among batch populations that could number into the thousands. They were often indentured workers, as good as slaves. Had Megatronus been one of these? Was this why he fought so hard against the systems that justified their subjugation?

How had such a mech gained the tools to argue so eloquently? There were virtually no education requirements for the lower caste tiers – if he indeed had a caste; many indentured labourers did not.

A low-fuel warning flashed up on Orion's HUD. He spun his vents, placed the datapad on the windowsill, and stood.

He headed for the chiller. A ration of standard-grade quelled the grumbles from his tank.

When he looked out his berthroom window, he saw open sky. When he used up all the fuel in his tank, there was always more to drink. There was a ceiling over his head and a lock on his door.

Orion looked back at the datapad. Megatron's optics stared out at him, defiant.

What should I do? he thought. What can I do?

Jazz arrived back from his assignment the next day. He picked the lock on Orion's door while Orion was in class – a pointless exercise; he had the key code the begin with – and climbed Orion's leg as soon as he returned.

Orion laughed, fishing his datapads out of his subspace and piling them on his table. He looped his other arm around Jazz's waist to hold the articulate in place, then went to the chiller. “Can I offer you a fine mid-grade?”

Jazz pillowed his chin on Orion's shoulder. “Got any of that sweet mercury left?”

Orion dug into the back of the chiller. “I might. I don't think I've had any of it since the other lune.”

He found the can, and passed it to Jazz. Sweet mercury was not something he usually enjoyed, except as a dash swirled around in a cup of bitter amphibole. Jazz drank it straight. Primus alone knew how.

“Thanks, mech.”

“You're welcome,” said Orion. He found himself a carbonated variety and shut the chiller. “How was your assignment?”

Jazz wriggled into his lap as he sat down on the berth. “Can't complain, not at all. Met a few mecha, made friends while I was there. The usual.”

Orion smiled down at him. “Just filled out the mission report, have you?”

Jazz sprawled over his forearm, and his visor flickered. “You know me too well. Writing. Don't know how you handle it. It's too much like work.”

“I find it calming,” said Orion. He leaned back against the wall with a faint thonk of metal. “It helps me to order my thoughts. Particularly when you're around to scatter them.”

Jazz snickered. “Life is never boring, with me.” He tucked his legs up close to his chest and snuggled closer into Orion's chassis. “So, how was life while I was away?”

“Rather interesting, in fact.” Orion told him of the university, skimping on the details of each class in favour of the mecha he'd met. Most of his classmates were full-time students, ranked above him; though most of them were perfectly nice to be around, he didn't often have reason to interact with them.

He added, as an afterthought, the discovery of the second Megatronus essay. “I think I'd like to read more of his work, if there is any. He's very... enlightening.”

Jazz grinned. “You and your philosopher crushes.”

Orion's fans stalled. “Primus. I only had the one.”

“And now you have another.” Jazz patted his shoulder. “There, there; I won't tell anyone.”

Orion gave him a dark look. “You'd better not. I don't agree with him completely. In places, his writing skirts the borders of revolutionary. I think that that's a dangerous place to be.”

Jazz sobered. “You could be right. There were a lot more Enforcers around in Polyhex. Security's been jacked up in a lot of lower-caste government offices. Something is changing, but it's hard to tell what, when you're not on the ground for the whole thing.”

He sighed. “So, what's this Megatronus all about?”

“As I understand it, he wants greater equity in social dynamics.” Orion thought back to the earlier work. “He believes that the needs of the population have outgrown the ability of our current social systems to provide for them.”

“He's anti-caste, you mean.”

They looked at each other in silence: Jazz questioning, Orion thinking very hard.

“It's possible,” he admitted. “I don't want to put words in his mouth, but reading between the lines of his works, I do get that impression.”

“Hm,” said Jazz. “And he's not already languishing on the moons?”

The memory of the fight in the plaza crossed Orion's higher-thought protocols. His armour pulled tight to his frame. He could not be certain that the gladiator who had come out victorious was Megatronus – they could easily have been a batchmate, or simply someone with a very similar frametype and armour pattern.

If not, however... Megatronus was already guilty of murder. That alone would be enough to send him to the Lunar Industries.

He shared his suspicions with Jazz. Surprisingly, the minibot shook his helm.

“Do you know where he's from? Because if it's Polyhex, or Tyrest, Tarn; Pit, any of the Southern States, they take a bit of artistic license with their application of Imperial law, if you get my meaning. Especially in the Southern States, even more so in the undercities. The further south you go, the more it's like a whole new world. There are few who'd call what he did murder, even in an Imperial court. The gladiatorial rings are a part of their culture.”

Orion slowly digested the information. “He could have given the other mech a chance to surrender.”

“Perhaps,” said Jazz. “Odds on whether they would have taken it are not absolute, however.” When Orion gave him a puzzling look, he shrugged, and said, “It's a cultural thing. Warbuilds don't like to give up. And sometimes it's the way these fights are organised – a death match, or a performance fight? Both often end in death – the only difference is that in the first, it's compulsory.”

Orion's armour rattled in an audible shudder. “That's horrible.”

“So are their lives,” said Jazz. “I figure it fits.”

Orion stared down at him. “Why?”

“You ever looked at what it's like for the low castes? I mean really looked, past the obvious limitations caused by things like caste, everyday stuff like average dwelling size and caste-tiered minimum wages versus rents, terms of work contracts, components of low-cost energon brands. Social media stuff, too.” Jazz sat up, climbed out of Orion's lap. “I know it's a bit out of your zone of experience, mech, but maybe if you're interested in this Megatronus guy, it'd help to know where he's coming from.”

Orion folded his hands behind his head and leaned back against the wall. His backstruts uncricked with an audible click.

“I think, perhaps, that that would be a good idea,” he admitted.

“Course it is,” said Jazz, perfectly seriously. "It's mine."

Orion snorted and elbowed him in response.

He rose early the next orn, before the sun had risen above the horizon.

It was the Fourteenth Orn, the day of the Chordal Rites. The Record-Keepers' clade had their own mass house, a purpose-built hall at the rear of the complex. The maintenance clade that served the Hall of Records also attended, though they were restricted to the back and wings of the hall and were seldom invited to partake in the blessings. Orion kept a curious optic on them throughout the ceremony. He wondered how they felt about their segregation. Did they yearn for greater involvement, or simply accept it as their lot in life?

Cued by the preacher's acolytes, the congregation knelt as one. “Empty your minds,” the preacher called, his voice thin and tinny from back in the rear of the hall, where unbonded mecha traditionally stood. “Search for the word and the sight of the holy. Hold onto nothing, and you will be provided for.”

Orion had never been very good at spiritual abnegation. The more he learned, the more he was conscious of how little he really knew. As he knelt and tried to sense the presence of Primus that suffused the world and everything in it, his processor was reaching out, trying to understand.

He left the hall with a processor ache, and a vague sense of guilt.

At work, he finished translating the letter, and sent it off to the client. Alpha Trion asked for his help in cataloguing a set of topographical maps from the late Second Generation. Orion logged the originals, digital files, in the archives, then forwarded them to the digital restorers down in the basement.

Near the end of the shift, he noticed an unread message in his inbox. Jazz' name blinked in the sender ID field.

: you might be interested in these : said the message. Attached below were three hyperlinks.

The first was a news report in Austral Vulgate, hosted on a local mediaworks domain registered to upper Tesarus. It was an update on a workers' strike affecting production of parts used in high-end retail personal computers. The strike had begun over a pay dispute, the workers – mostly free, if very poor, mecha – alleging unfair penal practices for minor infractions. The company which oversaw the factory, a relatively small-time supplier, denied all claims.

The final paragraph in the article read thus:

“The recent increase in events such as these can be attributed to the rise of a number of low- caste agitators at work in the undercities of several Southern States, most notably Blaster City, Tarn, and Kaon. While these voices are isolated, and transmission of their ideas remains limited, they represent a gradual shift in the popular mindset of the lower classes towards ideals that some would call the preserve of the higher castes. Economic recession has not, and is unlikely to dampen the effects of these firebrands. Whether their polemics prove a lasting influence, however, remains to be seen.”

Orion opened a new tab on his workscreen, switching the search engine's settings to Austral Vulgate, the language of business across the southern hemisphere.

>> Search Query: “Megatronus” + “industrial action”

He browsed the second link while the search engine scanned the Datanet.

It was a social media site, someone's personal profile. At first, Orion wondered why Jazz had included it. The mech was, apparently, an indentured factory worker in outer Kaon; most of his posts were written in the native Kaoni script, which Orion couldn't read. But halfway down the page, a reblogged post quoted a line from the first of Megatronus' texts, An Open Letter To The Establishment.

Underneath it was a link to an external forum.

Orion hovered over the link. The Hall of Records virus protection program flagged the site as a potential threat. Orion grimaced – then saved his work to the Hall's cloud server, disconnected the datapoint from the intranet, and clicked the link.

“What was that?” asked Alpha Trion. He didn't so much as glance up from his own terminal.

“Potential viral threat,” Orion said. “I'm just taking precautionary measures.”

“Good mech,” murmured the department manager, and went back to his cataloguing.

The forum behind the link was plain, somewhat anticlimactic. Orion brought up the metadata tab. It was run off a free hosting server registered to the network in Triscanion, on the southern border between Centralia and the Southern States; the admin was a ghostly presence who had logged in from a thousand different IP addresses across the austral polar industrial belt. It was two quartexes old, and had seven and a half thousand posts.

Again, most of the posts were written in the abjad script common to most of the Southern languages. Austral Vulgate, which used the Standard Cybertronian phonetic alphabet, was rare, but present. Orion caught a few bursts of Tarnais and Novymeridio, both of which he had studied, but was far from fluent in.

He went back to the search. It had listed three hundred and twelve pages of results.

Orion filtered out those written in languages he was not fluent in, then scanned the page summaries, discarding those which were clearly attributed to the Mythos' Megatronus.

On the second page, there was a link to a post on the Aurora Australis news forums. Orion knew of Aurora Australis – it was one of the Austral region's foremost media companies. The article itself was tucked away in a public-access archive; it carried a timestamp of 08.14.9447, three vorn ago. The title read 'GLADIATOR CHARGED WITH SEDITION IN ABSENTIA'.

Orion scanned the five lines of the post. It said only that the Enforcer body in Stanix had a warrant for the arrest of D-16, known as Megatronus, and that Megatronus had neither turned up to defend himself to the Magisterium of his own accord, nor been arrested.

He texted Jazz. : where did you find these? :

The reply came almost immediately:

: took a wiki walk :

: look at the last one. :

Orion frowned, opened the last link.

It led to the same news forum as the quote in the second link: specifically, to a thread written in Austral Vulgate. The topic post was a link to an article in a business magazine about profit margins, and a question from a registered member in Kaon, timestamped two orns ago.

>> Ideologically, how does this make sense? I work for them. I earn three hundred shanix a chord for sixty-two shifts. My cadre's apartment costs fifteen hundred for the same period of time. There are seven of us collaborating on the lease agreement and we still go without energon sometimes to make the deadline. A profit of seven hundred million shanix I can't even comprehend. Just... why?

Orion shook his helm. His salary was calculated on a shift basis: forty credits, each worth ten shanix, per eight-joor shift. At the end of the chord this generally added up to between twelve and sixteen hundred. He paid six hundred credits back to the Hall of Records in rent on his room; transport costs and energon ate up another three-fifty to four hundred, while data usage, electrical costs and various home and personal upkeep accounted for much of the rest.

His first and lowest pay grade, while he was a junior archivist, had been twenty-eight credits a shift. Back then, he had shared a dormitory with the other younger archivists, and rent had been significantly lower. That was when he had started taking on overtime work, to supplement his income and boost the amount he was putting in his savings each week. It had taken a few dozen vorn, but then he was promoted to a position earning thirty-five credits a week, and soon after, he had been able to move into his first private room.

Most of the comments on the thread had come from mecha in a similar situation to the original poster.

>> Stay strong, said one. Have faith, and keep smiling. We will make it better.

And then, a post from a user logged in as 'Megatronus'.

>> The answer is greed and the love of money – in other words, all the things your indoctrination counsellor told you to avoid for the sake of the community back when you were newly sparked. One almost suspects that these mecha were given a rather different spiel.

Orion could almost hear the sarcasm in the last sentence.

He clicked on the username. It took him to a standard profile template, which Megatronus apparently had not bothered to fill out. The current user icon was the default grey silhouette of a mech's helm and shoulders.

His forum history was prolific and multilingual. Orion browsed the forum titles for those in Austral, and opened several. Most were political; a few in other topics, academic or social. The last on the first page was one on recent Kaoni history. Megatronus seemed to be one of three in the conversation.

Orion quickly checked his work inbox for urgent jobs. Finding none, he smiled, and settled in to read.

Chapter Text

“It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it.”
―Oscar Wilde


Orion boarded the railcar at the Twelfth District station, three blocks down the street from the university gates. The power lines above the track whistled in the rising wind; a chilly gust swept onto the platform, chasing him into the carriage.

It was early in the evening shift. Mecha of all classes and occupations were leaving work for the day; students from the local universities among them. Despite his large frametype, the university ID signal he had been given upon enrolling marked him as one of the crowd. Few mecha took any notice of him as he found an empty seat at the rear of the carriage, and sat.

He spent most of the journey looking out the window, across the rooftops of Iacon Central to the glittering bulge of the hive city's peak. The rail line was one that ran across the upper levels of the Forums and High Iacon, terminating atop the Solar Observatory, in the middle of Alpha Preserve. Outside, the sky was clear, and the sun lurked around the horizon somewhere off to the east. Sunset lit each individual building up in glowing gold.

Behind the hive, a line of enormous white clouds drifted steadily closer from the northwest. There would be a polar storm sometime that night.

Orion clamped his armour close to his frame, activating extreme-weather protocols. Silicon moulds sealed his more delicate components behind a watertight barrier; thermal insulators carried increased warmth to his primary energon and hydraulic lines.

He hoped to be home well before the storm hit, but bargaining with private collectors could be time-consuming. It was better to be prepared.

The railcar braked, coming into the last station on the Forums line. Mecha disembarked, and others – more high-caste mecha, some of them broadcasting the signals of Towers clades – replaced them. Orion found the seat next to him occupied by a tired-looking light-standard with a military aide's insignia on her pauldrons. She ignored him with the practiced ease of a frequent patron of public transport.

When Alpha Trion had contacted him that afternoon with an off-hours job, Orion had not been eager to take it on. The Hall of Records was the biggest, and one of the most well-known historical archives in Iacon. Many rare or otherwise academically valuable artifacts came through its registries before being sent on to new owners; Orion had done many similar collect-and-enter jobs as a junior archivist, not all of them within the confines of the city limits. Once you learned the script, it wasn't a hard job.

When the client was an alpha-ranked Towersmech, that changed things.

Orion stared determinedly out the window, and resisted the temptation to twiddle his fingers. He had always been somewhat prone to fretting, but, by Primus, he was not going to show it.

To keep himself on-task, he went over what he knew of the job.

The artifacts—plural; a set of devotive cups and a bowl hearth dating back to the middle Second Generation—had been bought from a private collector in Pion. The new owner, a noble Consort belonging to the Cavalier Sun clade, had had them professionally evaluated as they arrived, and now wished to have them written down, with his name clear and legible in the owner's column, into the Hall of Records' public registry.

Ariel had brought his databook and remote access key in to the University shortly after Alpha Trion's call. “Good luck,” she had said, with a wicked grin. “Dealing with Alphas can be... fun.”

This had not encouraged Orion in any way.

He dialed open his side vents and sighed.

Outside, the shadows lengthened. The carriage went dark as the railcar moved into the shadow of the Solar Observatory. Ahead, the rail went into a shallow incline as it climbed the flank of the mountain. The hum of the engine grew louder.

Cavalier Sun were one of the highest-ranked Towers clades in the entire Cybertronian Empire. Their members were everywhere in the political scene, occupying offworld governors' seats and ambassadorial postings to seats in the Cabinet, the Senate, more high-level organisations than Orion could name. The client, Consort to an unimportant branch princess though he might have been, still had more innate nobility in the tip of his little finger than Orion had in his whole body.

Their Iaconian estate was on the southwestern side of the Preserve, an ancient complex inherited from a long-ago-defunct clade. Orion was one of the last passengers left on the railcar when he disembarked at the second-last stop.

He turned in his ID card and metro transport pass at the station's customs desk, and transferred another hundred credits onto the pass when the transit costs ate up the whole thirty-eight credits he'd had left after the ride into the university that morning. The customs officer asked his rank, designation and occupation, then waved him through without further comment.

The wind hit him hard when he went out into the street. Alpha Preserve was primarily residential – there were few shopfronts or office blocks to shelter him from the wind, only the massive gates and walls that separated each palatial residence from the next.

Iaconians had never built Towers, not in the sense of the massive structures common in more sheltered climates. Those lining the empty streets along which Orion drove were low, often only one or two-storeyed, and steep-roofed. Their driveways were lined with massive crystal trees, chalcedony and rutile, with gold-hued quartz and deep blue corundum sheltering between the larger growths. Orion saw nymphs playing under a sheltering sailcloth beside a gated driveway, a handful of liveried servants hurrying between outbuildings. Otherwise, there was hardly any sign of life.

To the west, the storm was getting closer.

He sped up, not wanting to get caught in the first flurries of snow.

When he reached the Cavalier Sun estate, its gates were still open. A gatekeeper was packing up for the night. She checked Orion's ID card, then sent him down the driveway to the service door.

The driveway was massive, lined with expensive blue and violet fae-lights, a street in itself. It split into two halfway down, the first turning off in front of the main Tower and down an artificial hill into a formal arrival court, while the second narrowed and continued around the back of the complex into an outdoor service corridor.

Another dexter met him there – larger than Orion, painted gas-giant-blue and red with the golden stenciled insignias of the clade printed on his massive shoulder stacks. His expression was stern and somewhat disapproving, though as Orion got closer, he imagined that it was directed more at the inconvenient weather than at himself.

“You must be Ultra Magnus.” Orion spoke in High Iaconian, the language of the Preserve. The mech's ID signature broadcast that he was Tier Six, military in origin, but that he had been designated rank-exempt. That was a rare blessing – Orion had never met anyone else below Tier Four who had been exempted from his caste of origin. It spoke a great deal regarding his place in the clade.

The mech nodded stiffly, replying in the same tongue. “I am. You are the Hall of Records' representative?”

“My designation is Orion Pax.” Orion dug out his ID card again, and his Hall-issued employee card. “I'm here on behalf of Alpha Trion, department head of Pre-Imperial History.”

Ultra Magnus inspected the cards. “I see. You will not see Consort Aerugo today; he is occupied with clade duties. I am the security advisor to Lord Elita One; thus I have been deputized to oversee you.”

Orion's spark flipflopped nervously. “All right. I should start soon, then.”

The controlled wavelengths of Ultra Magnus' field flicked outward in subtle approval. “I will take you to the display room,” he said.

Orion followed him along the service corridor, and then into the Tower through a back door. Magnus led him through several interlinked rooms, past knots of hardworking servants, and into a discreet elevator which took them up several floors. The room they emerged into was light and airy even with the storm bearing down outside. It faced east; the last vestiges of the sunset caught on the windows in glimmers of dark gold. Thin drifts of rain floated past the horizon.

Inside, the room was clean and delicately lit. Lining the walls were glass-fronted display cabinets, their shelves full of meticulously-labelled artifacts.

“Here,” said Ultra Magnus, when Orion's professional attention threatened to wander. “These are the recent acquisitions.”

He stood by a particularly small case with only two display shelves, in pride of place at the back of the room. Orion joined him. He crouched, to get a closer look at the delicate artifacts.

The hearth bowl drew his attention first. It was thick and robustly-built, shallow in the bottom but tall, with steep, tapering sides. The dark rippling pattern of Tagan traditional forging covered its inside surface, somewhat scorched and marked in the bottom of the bowl where the ritual fires had been lit. The outside surface was inlaid with precious metals and stones. It depicted a scene from the pre-Imperial Mythos, in which a hero slew a monster and then did homage to Prima the Sword in gratitude for his victory. Inscriptions in Tyger Paxi circled the outer rim.

Fire had always been associated with Prima. Even so, use of hearth bowls like this one had fallen out of favour near the end of the Second Generation.

“This is amazing,” said Orion. He wondered who the hero was. Perhaps a figure whose myths had fallen out of favour as the fire rituals did.

He took out his databook, entering the remote access key. The Hall of Records login kernel flashed across the screen. Orion entered his login, then found the registry files that Alpha Trion had sent him. He lifted the databook to take an image capture of the bowl, then had second thoughts.

He looked up at Magnus. “Do I have permission to take a photo?”

Ultra Magnus frowned, as if he hadn't thought of it. He looked away for a moment, no doubt comming someone. “Is it necessary?”

“Not strictly speaking, but the Ministry of Legacies likes us to have photographic representation of items in case of disputes,” explained Orion. “That aside, it's good for those who might embark on further study of these items. Religious history, particularly pre-Imperial history, is a quickly-growing field.”

The unseen interlocutor replied. Ultra Magnus pressed a button, and the glass front of the case retracted into the bottom of the stand. “Permission has been given, yes.”

“Thank you,” said Orion. He went to take the photo.

After that, it was a straightforward matter of entering the data: measurements, mass, approximate date and site of recovery—here the collector's label made Orion's job a lot easier—among other details. He entered the form into the Hall of Records' dataprocessing lab, was returned an item number, and entered that in turn into the Ministry of Legacies' processing document.

Then he repeated the whole process again with the five accompanying devotive cups.

These were of a slightly earlier vintage, the carefully-printed labels asserted. Orion duly entered the approximate date. The cups bore the filigree work and layered enamel of the northern Tagan Heights, though their inclusion of prayer glyphs in use during the later stages of the Rust Sea Republics spoke of a global influence. Perhaps they had been part of a rural governor's ritual instruments.

The uneven tap of hail against the window interrupted his concentration halfway through the last cup. He glanced out the window. The sky was dark, and wind shrieked past the balcony, driving ice against the glass.

“What an unpleasant evening,” said a new voice.

Orion searched the room, and found the newcomer leaning against the doorframe, watching the hail intensify. She was a large dexter, painted shades of pink from helm to pede. Her shoulders were broad, her chassis deep with a protruding chest, and her hips were wide and stable. She gleamed under the artificial lighting, the finish on her plating even and certainly professionally applied.

Orion realised that he was probably in the presence of an Alpha. Glancing up at Magnus, the ex-military mech had come to rigid attention.

Orion scrambled to his feet, and attempted to genuflect.

The Alpha's deep, rich voice rang out again in a pleased laugh. “Don't bother yourself on my account, Archivist,” she said, and Orion's second epiphany was that she spoke in Vulgate Iaconian rather than the High dialect. “I simply came to visit my consort's new acquisitions.”

Orion realised that this must be Elita One, the branch princess. He dutifully repeated what he had told Magnus earlier. “They're lovely.”

Half a second after, he realised that he ought not to have spoken at all – the social divide between them was far too great to allow him to address her directly. But she simply laughed again, and put her hand on his shoulder.

“That they are. But I am not a professional, and so my opinion counts for a little less than yours. Aerugo will be so pleased.”

Orion nodded, swallowing an automatic reply, and applied himself to the last of the forms. The Alpha spoke to Ultra Magnus over his head, her hand an ever-present weight on his shoulder. He made a typo, and quickly redacted it, shaking his helm. Then the form was finished. He sent it in, attached the item number to the Ministry of Legacies document, and added a short description of each before submitting that as well.

“That was less of a fuss than I had expected,” commented Elita One. Orion looked up, first to her, then to Ultra Magnus. Perhaps she preferred her servants to speak.

“It's usually fairly simple,” he said, watching her reactions, but trying not to be obvious about it. “Of course, sometimes a data category is missing or can only be guessed at, or the database entry team or the Ministry mecha lose things, in which case we would schedule a follow-up visit.”

“Does that happen often?” she asked, with a wry twist to her mouth. Orion smiled back, them remembered the social abyss of which he occupied the depths.

“No, not often. Our systems are well-looked after.”

“Glad to hear it. You deal with such invaluable things.” She gazed at the bowl hearth. “I never had more than a spectator's interest in history, but my Consort has several degrees in the subject. He was very pleased, and proud, to get his hands on these.”

“I can imagine,” said Orion. “They have significant academic value.”

“And economic value,” said Elita, the corners of her mouth turning upward in a wry smile. “Aerugo spent almost eight thousand credits on them.”

Orion shut his databook and subspaced it, suddenly feeling abjectly unsuitable. “Thank you for allowing me to see them,” he said. “I should take my leave.”

He wasn't looking forward to going out in the storm, but that was why mecha had cold-weather systems. It wouldn't be fun, but he'd survive.

The Alpha, however, had other ideas. She straightened, giving the hail a dubious look.

“I don't know about that. The temperature gauge just hit fifty degrees below zero.”

Orion looked to Ultra Magnus, confused, but the security advisor's expression was perfectly blank. “Isn't it supposed to get worse?” he asked. “I should go before then.”

She gestured toward the hail pelting down on the balcony. “Dear spark, you'll freeze. Do you really want to go out in that?”

Orion stalled his fans. Nobody had ever told him what to do in a situation like this. He hadn't ever met an Alpha before now. Were they all this contrary?

In lieu of an obvious social obligation to fulfil, he fell back on plain honesty.

“No, not particularly.”

She gave him a satisfied smile. “I thought so. Magnus, would you have a guest berth prepared for our guest? Orion, come with me.”

A protest sprang up in Orion's vocaliser, but he swallowed it. Elita seemed to have decided what course the future would take for now.

She turned, heading out into a long straight hallway. “Would you like something to drink, or eat, perhaps?”

Orion trotted after her. “I'm very sorry to be a bother,” he said. “I couldn't fairly ask for anything more.”

“I'll let you in on a secret,” said Elita, looking back over her shoulder at him. Her optics glowed with honest enjoyment. “I love having guests over. But we haven't exactly been inundated with them since Ramus was impeached. I fear I might lose my touch.”

Orion searched his memory banks for the name. It belonged to the newly-former Director of Imperial Finances, the Primacy's highest-ranking accountant. Two lunes ago, he had been investigated for corruption and embezzlement of Primal funds, and subsequently impeached. The scandal had rocked the entire Primacy for several quartexes, but then it had disappeared from news sites and vidscreens.

“Oh,” he said. “He was of your clade?”

“Yes, indeed,” sighed Elita. “Our proudest son. He was a branch prince, like me, although his branch was much larger and I believe our clade king was considering giving him a cadet name to carry. That's out of the question now, of course. We in the main clade have been cleared of any wrongdoing, but regardless, the name of Cavalier Sun is currently not a popular one at the Primal court.”

“Then he was convicted?” asked Orion. The newcasts had not mentioned that.

“Executed,” said Elita, matter-of-factly. “The evidence was there. Sentinel Prime served as ecclesiastical judge, and the sentence was carried out that day.”

“Oh, Primus,” whispered Orion.

He wasn't sure which had shaken him worse; the news of Ramus' execution, or the blunt, careless way in which Elita had said it.

“The Well care for his spark,” Elita continued, a ritual placation. “I didn't know him well. He caused us all a lot of trouble, and if he did do everything he was accused of, I can't say it wasn't characteristic.”

She vented suddenly. “Oh, look at me. Complaining to a guest; where are my manners?” Opening a door near the end of the hallway, she ushered Orion in ahead of her.

He obeyed, feeling more than a little exposed.

The room beyond was a sumptuous lounge, lit by fae-lights and two ornate braziers that sat at the ends of a pair of couches. The curtains hadn't yet been drawn; outside, open louvres shielded the windows from rain and hail. The ceiling was high, the rafters bare. Potted miniature crystals – metallic types with delicate curling fronds, much rarer than the ones in the gardens outside – hung suspended from the ceiling over a low central table.

A butler arrived, carrying two bottles of dark blue energon and two tall drinking flutes. Elita took both, and sat down on the far couch, pouring the drinks herself.

Orion hovered at the end of the nearer couch, feeling completely out of his depth. The Alpha looked up, and her bright violet optics creased into an understanding smile.

“It's all right, you can sit,” she said. When he did so, she handed him one of the flutes. “I do intend to treat you as a guest, you know. Aerugo and I hadn't anticipated that this storm would come on so quickly. You can stay here until it passes, at least enough to allow you to safely return to the Hall of Records.”

“Thank you,” said Orion. He stared down at the energon in the flute. High-grade was ordinarily shades of purple to black (and pink when watered down with armadine, but Jazz still gave him slag about that vorn after). Mid-grade was blue, but a lot less opaque. “What is this?”

Elita shuttered her optics. “Mid-grade. I didn't want you to think I was trying to get you overcharged, although I'm sure I've read a romance novel with about that plot.”

“I may have read the same one,” admitted Orion, smiling so that she knew he hadn't been commenting on her trustworthiness. “I've just never seen mid-grade this dark.”

She chuckled. “Oh, I see. It has copper sulfate, for extra flavour, and a suspended carbon solution for thickness. It's sweet, but not too sweet. I find it rather relaxing after a long day.”

Orion took a short sip. The taste was muted, but not cloying enough to be unpleasant. He wondered if he could recreate it with his own rations. Copper sulfate was expensive, but not out of his reach. The carbon solution would be more difficult to find. Perhaps Jazz would have ideas.

“It's nice,” he said aloud. “Thank you.”

Elita waved away his thanks. “It was my pleasure.”

She watched him for a long moment, rolling the stem of her glass between her fingers. She was rather larger than he was, perhaps two or three size classes up. He came close to matching her height, but she was broader, much more powerfully built.

He hadn't thought of it earlier, but her crack about the romance novels brought the thought into his mind that many Towersmecha took lovers of lower castes. It was a form of socially acceptable flouting of the boundaries between castes, a thumbing of the olfactory sensors at the rules which kept them all locked into their precise categories. Inevitably, it was seen as romantic and dashing.

Orion considered it, then dismissed the idea. Elita was attractive, in the way that Towersmecha could amply afford to be, but she was also a little too intimidating for his tastes.

She cracked a grin, as if she could read his mind. “Remembering the romance novels?”

Orion made a face at her, momentarily forgetting the gap between their castes. “You've got to have something to occupy your mind on a slow shift at the front desk.”

“Ah, the luxury of having nothing to do.” She glanced to the side, as if thinking, the asked, “Have you read Twin Wings' Battles of the New Kingdom? I found the social observations surprisingly thoughtful.”

Orion shook his helm. He hadn't read much fiction lately – his tastes were slowly leaning toward historical non-fiction – but he didn't recall the title from his previous ventures into the genre. “No, but I recognise the author's name. There was one about the Quintesson wars, I think. I can't seem to recall the title.”

She tapped her chin in thought. “Could be Age of Extinction. I haven't read that one yet. I came to her works from Blue Dusk. It was a step up, let me tell you!”

Orion nodded, smiling. “I've read one of theirs. Very... self-indulgent,” he decided, “historically inaccurate, extremely so, but somehow fun despite it.”

“Oh, is it?” asked Elita. “I was having rather a lot of fun imagining Kathismon's engagements with Towerlight.”

“Unfortunately, there's no record of them ever having met before the middle of the Third Quintesson War,” said Orion. Certainly not as frequently, and as amorously, he added, to the privacy of his own thoughts. “But I suppose that's the fiction part at work.”

Elita nodded. “It certainly made it a lot more... fun,” she commented, and smirked at her significant pause. “I wonder, Archivist, if you have any recommendations for me?”

“Certainly,” he replied. “That is, if you haven't read them all before.”

She smiled, flaring her EM field, which roiled with vivid amusement. “I'm not as old as I look, and I've had very little time to read since I came of age.”

“Oh,” said Orion. He hesitantly reached out through his own EM, tasting the dissipating edges of her wavelengths. It was strong and vibrant, but tightly controlled, and felt warm, like sunlight on his plating. He found himself relaxing, resting fully back against the soft mesh couch.

She was a little younger than he, Orion supposed. Perhaps it was simply her Towers upbringing that had made her seem older.

“In that case,” he began, resting his servos in his lap and trawling his memory banks for recently-read fiction, “I believe I could give you some to start with.”

 They ended up talking until well into the midnight shift. Book discussion led into social commentary and contemporary politics – both potentially dangerous arenas, but, it seemed, one which they had a shared interest in. Then someone—Orion forgot who after the third glass of midgrade—brought up Blue Dusk again, and the conversation dove gracefully into the gutter of historical inaccuracy and accidental innuendo.

Once he'd become used to her forthright manner, Elita was surprisingly easy to interact with. She asked honest questions, with all the assurance he'd expected from an Alpha, and none of the overblown self-importance. Orion tried to stay guarded, but she was very charming. Disarming, almost.

Eventually, he found it difficult to keep his optics open. Elita called for a valet after the second time he repeated the end of the same sentence, and bade him a cheerful goodnight.

The room to which the valet took him was spacious and warm, with a berthside lamp and an ostentatious canopy above the headboard. It had its own wireless datanet router. The valet gave him a guest login—more of Elita's generosity, Orion thought blearily—shut the curtains, and let himself out while Orion was still marvelling at the size of the room.

He dug in his subspace for the datapad he usually took to university, and flopped down onto the berth. It was several times softer than his berth at home, covered with thick velvety sheets made of some imported material. Organic, he wondered, or a clever synthetic? The clade was certainly rich enough to afford organic imports.

The datapad blinked on. Orion entered the network login key.

The connection was fast, perhaps even faster than the one at the Hall of Records. (Of course – Towersmecha didn't have to justify spending the public's tax credits on installation and upkeep.) Orion opened his ventral ports, extending his uplink cables, and dove into the Datanet with rare glee.

It was a nightly ritual for him, keeping his fingers on the pulse of the world. Information processing was what he was made for, his caste and clade and purpose in life. Knowledge was power; understanding, euphoria. He flitted through the data streams, from site to site, meta tab to search engine, browsing all that went on. The strange berthroom, his tiredness, faded away.

Inevitably, he ended up on Megatronus' discussion forum.

During the previous week, activity had slowed considerably. Orion had trawled several Austral-language websites for news of regional disruptions, but found no explanation. He had concluded in the end that it was losing its popularity, as small forums did from time to time, and adjusted the frequency of his visits forthwith.

Then, yesterday evening, he had logged on to a burst of new activity.

One of the new threads had caught his attention. The original post was a list of political history questions, from someone who had evidently been doing their own research but come up against one too many paywalls. The first three questions – events specific to the reigns of the two Primes previous to Zeta – had already been answered. Of the others, Orion had spotted two that lay within his own field of expertise.

Perhaps rashly, he had made a guest comment and answered them. The topic—how the current form of government had evolved out of the absolute theocratic monarchy of the earliest Primes of the Cybertronian Empire—was something he had made his own study of vorn ago. He had found it a fascinating topic, if one that few other people shared his opinion of.

Orion scrolled down to his answer and reread it. His spark whirled with nerves.

There were three new replies in the thread.

The first was a guest comment, written in dialectic Tarnais that Orion's limited fluency couldn't make sense of. The second, a signed-in user with a vista of an unfamiliar wilderness, thanked him for the information in stilted Austral.

The third was from Megatronus.

It was long. Orion pressed his knuckles to his mouth and read it.

>> It is certainly interesting to hear of the Empire's formation in such terms. To hear the local educators in the Pits speak, one could be forgiven for coming out of the darkness with the impression that the Senate and its practical arms sprang fully formed from the chaos of the Quintesson Wars. That it was a popularly-introduced measure – well, I cannot say that I am surprised they would omit that detail, given the current political climate.

>> That said, my forum moderator informs me that your datapoint entry address originates, via two proxy servers, from Iacon; and also that the same or similar addresses have been recorded browsing many of our threads for several chords. Please indulge me in my wondering why an Iaconian would be interested in a mere Southern States local discussion forum.

Orion's intakes constricted. Worry took hold of his emotional cortex, winding around his processor core.

He opened the reply window. What could he say? What should he say?

His mental fingers hung over the text entry field for a sparkbeat, then began to write.

>> My designation is Orion Pax. I am an archivist. I work for the Iacon Hall of Records, specialising in pre- Imperial and religious history.

What then? Would Megatronus be satisfied with such a flat reply?

After a moment of thought, he added a short summary of his recent activities.

>> I kept finding political tracts rather than ancient historical figures under search terms including 'Megatronus'. I wondered what sort of scholar would call himself by such a name. Inevitably, I found my way to this forum. I apologise if I have startled you; my intent was simply to share knowledge with those who had asked for it.

There. That seemed clear enough.

He tentatively submitted the comment.

Megatronus must have been online. He replied within a few minutes.

>> My concern was for the sake of this forum. There are those who would deny its contributors the ability to better themselves through discusson and education.

His tone was guarded, but not, or so Orion thought, openly hostile.

>> I took this name to remind myself of certain things which I have learned over the course of my life, he went on to say. It suits my purposes for the time.

Orion ventured a reply.

>> Would you mind if I continued to browse this forum? You and your contributors have occasionally raised issues that I believe should be given more thought and attention to.

There was a long period of silence, a good half a breem, before the forum alerts showed a new message.

The writer was not Megatronus, but a blank account wearing a moderator's vista.

>> If so, login account preferred.

The grammar was brusque, the register flat. Orion vented. Was that permission?

A message from Megatronus appeared.

>> You are aware that I, and most of those on this forum, are of Tier 8? Untouchables, they call us. My research tells me that the archival clades are ranked Tier 4.

Orion's brows drew low over his optics. He typed a quick reply:

>> I am aware. I am ranked just low enough that it is legal for you to talk to me. I checked.

Megatronus' reply, when it came, was tagged with glyphs of dark approval.

>> Then I would not mind. Perhaps we could benefit from having a resident archivist.

In the darkened berthroom in the Tower, Orion grinned at his datapad.

>> I would be pleased to share what knowledge I have, he wrote. Then he added, with a burst of wry inspiration, Especially if it involves getting around paywalls.

Another guest login joined the conversation.

>> Please! I don't have three credits to read this article.

Chapter Text


does it always change

to guns and chains?


It was still raining when Orion left, late in the predawn shift. Given the opportunity, he would have remained under cover a little longer, but he felt that he had pushed his luck with the nobles for long enough.

The atmospheric acidity index had dropped with all the hail overnight. When he slipped out from under the Cavalier Sun weather shield, the soft icy drizzle that drifted down out of the low clouds was barely enough to take the patina of his most recent wax off his plating.

He stepped off the Alpha Preserve railcar as the shift ended, navigating his way through the darkened streets to the university, where he picked up a graded essay from his Primal History tutor. Then he gratefully went home.

The Hall of Records complex was quiet. Mist drifted through the parade of streetlamps that lined the main avenue between the public and records enclaves. Shadows stretched deep into alleys, and the sound of Orion's pedes on the ground was a loud and lonely thump.

He took his usual shortcut back to the Residency Hall, through an alley beneath a multi-level skywalk, and the neural lines in the back of his neck fired.

He glanced back over his shoulder. Nothing moved, save for the slow drift of the mist.

He tapped his fingers against the glass of the Hall door as the security lock read his card. It seemed to take an age – by Primus, it would be just his luck if it objected! But the lock obediently released. Orion hurried up to his fifth-floor room, very glad to be out of the night.

He went to the washracks first, rinsing off the last of the rain and unsealing his bad-weather systems. Then he returned to his own room, closed and locked the door behind him, and activated the reading lamp above the berth.

After the sumptuous neatness of the guest room at the Cavalier Sun Tower, the constant erratic mess of his own room was dismaying. Orion was not a neat creature by nature, always putting things aside to work on later, but he envied tidiness. It was efficient, and a pleasure to work with.

He dialed his vents wide, and sighed. It seemed he had a job for the morning.

Orion spent the best part of a joor sorting his various piles of miscellanea into three slightly more organised piles: Things I've Read, Things I Brought Home And Forgot About, and Not Books. It would have taken significantly less time if he hadn't gotten distracted reading a datapad that hadn't been shut down properly a couple of orns previously, and flickered on at a particularly interesting page when he plucked it from the pile. But eventually he tore himself away from the author's vivid description of early Golden Age Thetacon, and got back to work.

It was then that Alpha Trion commed him.

:: Orion, I had recieved your message last night; forgive me for my late reply. Do you require reimbursement for transport costs? ::

:: It's all right, I'll fill out the form this morning and send it to you for verification before I come in to work this afternoon. :: Orion frowned at a data chip that had escaped from the pile. It had no scan code – no label, therefore, and no way of knowing what it contained. :: There were no problems. The client was surprisingly hospitable. ::

:: That is good to hear :: chuckled Trion. :: I shall see you this afternoon, in that case. ::

Orion sent an affirmative, and ended the transmission.

He took a datapad from the Things I've Read pile, popping the data storage chip out of its socket and inserting the new one. Then he turned the pad on.

The screen flickered, a bright spot in the corner fading into a pixelated blur. He'd have to get that fixed sometime. The startup screen came up.

Orion opened the file library, and smiled in comprehension.

The data chip was filled with large video files, between sixteen breem and two joor long. They were labeled with dates and times, and all were prefixed with the first glyph of Jazz' name. Memories, then, that Jazz had shared with him. The timestamps were old, dating back several centuries.

Orion pressed the standby button with a pang of nostalgia. He had always been envious of Jazz' ability to travel so far and wide within the Empire. It was the Chronicler's job to go out and gather data; a good Archivist simply stayed home and organised the information that was brought to him.

Perhaps Orion was not a good Archivist, because he had always felt that there was something more out there in the world, something that he longed to find.

Orion could never have held it against Jazz, but somehow his friend had sensed the longing within him. Together they had come to a compromise – when Jazz came back to Iacon, he shared his memories with Orion. And if Orion could never have the same freedom for himself, he treasured the taste of it that Jazz trusted him to share.

He vented again, idly spinning his fans. He placed the datapad carefully down by the head of his berth, and moved on to the others.

Orion did his normal work duties first that afternoon, then split his attention between fielding data requests from a High Iacon university professor and debugging his datapoint. The Hall of Records kept its Datanet security programs robust and up to date, but malware was a fact of life. He cleaned out his browser cache while he was at it; he'd noticed the user profile slowing down recently.

The office door opened. “Doing a bit of spring cleaning, are we?” asked Ariel, passing by his desk with a half-eaten sulfur cake in her hand.

Orion made a face. Sulfur was not an odour he liked. “I think I'm two seasons late for that.”

“Better late than never.” Ariel sat at her own desk, leaning back until her chair creaked. “Where's Alpha Trion?”

“Down in the catalogues. He's looking for the originals of that census from the Rust Sea confederation.” Orion dug a little deeper in his program files. “He shouldn't be long.”

His colleague sighed. “I heard you stayed over at the Towers last night.”

“I did,” said Orion cautiously. “The hail came down before I was finished with the job, so I was invited to remain until it stopped.”

He heard Ariel take a bite of her sulfur cake, and chew it, thoughtfully. “When I said that dealing with Towersmecha could be fun,” she observed, “I didn't quite have that in mind.”

Orion stared at his datapoint screen, trying to figure out if that had been a well-disguised innuendo or not.

“Well,” he ventured in the end, “you are the expert here.”

There was a long moment of silence, broken, eventually, by another complaint from Ariel's chair bearings.

“Smooth,” she said. “Very smooth, Pax.”

He dipped his helm. “Truly, I bow before your superior experience. You have been doing such jobs for much longer than I have.”

Ariel jammed her ventilator fans in a noisy show of amusement. There was a period of silence – Orion imagined she was booting up her datapoint – and then she spoke again.

“But seriously, how was it? Did you see any of the Alphas themselves, or just the servants? Did they treat you with respect?”

Orion nodded. “More so than I expected.”

She exhaled. “That's always a question. Sometimes you go in and out and barely anyone bats an optic at you; other times you get snide looks and 'here, Archivist!' like any other servant.”

“I only met one servant, a security advisor, and he seemed well enough, if quite reserved. The client's mate was also very hospitable.” Orion typed in a filter, and set a third virus scan going. “It was not what I had prepared myself for.”

Ariel made a low hum, deep in her powerpoint. “That's a good first experience to have. The clan, the Cavalier Sun, how did they strike you?”

Orion remembered the empty hallways, the plain-faced expression on Elita's features as she related news of her cousin's death.

“Solemn,” he said. “The Exchequer, Ramus – he was Cavalier Sun.”

Rapid typing from Ariel's side of the room. “So he was,” she said at length. “No wonder.”

“Lord Sentinel had him executed,” Orion continued. “Had that been on the news? I seem to have missed it.”

“No, not that I recall. It ought to have been all over the networks, but—” Ariel paused midsentence, for a beat or two. “Oh, my. He was convicted intra vires, ultima ratio, and summarily executed.”

Orion turned to stare at her. “A last resort within the law. What does that mean?”

Ariel's optics dimmed. “The Prime was judge, jury and executioner. There are no details given here, but that's what they call it in press releases when the Prime kills someone. It goes back to Nova Prime. They haven't had to use it in my lifetime, until now.”

Orion pressed his index and middle digits together, touching them to his forehelm. The gesture called on Primus to grant the supplicant strength and fortitude; it was commonly used to ward off bad luck on hearing of someone else's misfortune. Orion shuttered his optics, and tried not to think of the Exchequer's last moments.

“You're being empathetic again,” said Ariel, patiently. “Stop it; it's not good for you.”

“I know,” said Orion. He vented, held the breath for ten seconds, then let it out through his ventral exhaust.

Ariel skilfully bounced an empty data chip off his shoulder. “Go online, look at baby photovoltaicats for a bit. It's none of our business what the Prime does.”

“I know,” he said again. “It just... frightens me, I suppose.”

Out of the corner of his optics, he caught a mirthless smile on Ariel's face. “Of course it does. But that's the way of the world. We've just got to do what we can to keep ourselves safe.”

“It shouldn't end there,” said Orion.

He didn't know why he said it; Ariel was only trying to reassure him, in her plain and bluntly-spoken way. But it was a deeply-held conviction, so deep that he could seldom put words to it.

The office door opened, and Alpha Trion strode through.

Orion and Ariel smoothly pretended to have been absorbed in their work.

The department head was not fooled. “Impudent scamps. It is not as if I keep your rumps to the grindstone that harshly.” He sat, arranging the skirtlike panels of his thigh armor fastidiously around his legs.

Ariel gave a smug puff of air. “No, you just send us interesting jobs and let our own senses of fascination do the work for you.”

“Ah! Mutiny!” Alpha Trion brought his datapoint online. “For that, I think I shall leave you behind when Orion and I go to Pion for the Northern Preservation Board Conference. You shall man our communications and ensure that we still have clients and funding when we get back.”

Orion's audials pricked up. That was the first he had heard of that plan.

Ariel tapped her fingertips in a short staccato rhythm against her desk. “That's hardly a chore. I never did like travelling much.”

“Then it is settled.” Alpha Trion leaned into the back of his chair. He was a sort of dexter frame, even taller than Orion; the chair groaned loudly under his weight. “Orion, ordinarily I would not ask you to take on such responsibility so soon after your last promotion, but I cannot be everywhere at once. Likewise, you have a gift for communication that Ariel here does not share.”

“That's true enough.” Ariel hummed. “Better you than me, for everyone's sakes.”

Orion's datapoint beeped – the scan was finished. He deleted the corrupted files, then spun his chair around, giving Alpha Trion his full attention. “What would I be doing at this conference?”

“Networking, primarily. The attendees will be mainly representatives of academic or religious NGOs, or private investors. We will be one of the few governmental organisations – the others are Pion's own Hall of Records and the public relations arm of the Imperial Household Agency. I will handle the academic discussion, such as there is. It will be your responsibility to wrangle the punters afterward.” Alpha Trion's narrow optics glimmered with an inner humor, and he stroked his mandibular array like a plotter. “I am told I am too old, and that I should let the younger mecha take over such strenuous tasks. Let it never be said that ageing does not have its advantages.”

It sounded like an in-joke, though not one Orion understood. He looked across to Ariel, and saw the same fond bemusement in the loose wavelengths of her EM field.

“I'll do my best,” he told Alpha Trion, drawing himself up to meet the weight of expectation. It would be academics and priests, few if any Towersmecha. He could handle those.

The old Archivist nodded, approving. “Young one, I could ask nothing more.”

The conference was scheduled for three orns, four chords away. Orion checked his university timetable to make sure he had no important tutorials during that time, then messaged his tutors to let them know of his absence.

He had thirteen assignments to complete before then. Most were small; question sheets and assigned read and review papers. Two were essays: one for History of the Primacy and another in Development of Spirituality.

That evening, when he signed out from the Hall, he went to the public library to check out two of the required reading articles. They were free for him – waived rental fees being among the benefits of working in a glorified library.

Orion had never thought much about paying for access to knowledge before. Now he thought of the mecha who frequented Megatronus' forum down in the Southern States, and frowned.

When he left the building, he carried in his datapad a handful of extra articles.

Jazz met him by the fountain in the middle of the complex avenue. He took in Orion's expression, and asked, “Someone kicked your turbopup?”

Orion blinked. “I don't have a turbopup.”

“Do you want one? I got friends. Very surprised ones.”

“Oh, dear.” Orion tried to hold back the smile, but failed. “No, I don't think I have the room.”

“Thought so,” said Jazz, sounding unsurprised. “Mind if I crash at your place tonight? My roommate's got his quote, friend, unquote, up from Rodion.”

“If you don't mind me being unsocial,” said Orion, and told him about the conference. “Certain deadlines have gotten a little shorter.”

Jazz just laughed. “That's what you get for going back to school. Thanks, mech. I'll be as quiet as a glitchmouse. You won't even know I was there.”

They stopped off at the cafe two buildings down from the Residency Hall to acquire the evening's fuel. Orion limited himself to plain midgrade for mental energy. Jazz had no such compulsions, and bought an outlandish mix of carbonated midgrade and mercury syrup.

“You're going to be bouncing off the walls,” observed Orion.

Jazz only threw him a coquettish glance back over his shoulder.

True to his word, he was quiet while Orion studied. He sipped his energon and absorbed himself in a datapad plucked from Orion's newly-tidied shelves, curled up in the fading patch of sunlight on the berth.

Orion took over the table, applying himself to his homework. He opened the two assigned articles on two different datapads, taking a third for notes. The assignment was an exercise in cross-analysis; both articles discussed the simultaneous evolution of death rites across the six broadstreams of the Mythos during the Golden Age, but one was written from an Iaconian perspective, immersed in Imperial Pentarchum doctrine, whereas the other had been written in Meridia, under the offices of Occidens Orthodox. The two authors had come to very different conclusions. It was Orion's job to figure out why.

About a joor into the midnight shift, Jazz spoke up.

“Hey, Orion – how did you get on with that forum you were looking at? The one with the gladiator with the funny name.”

“Megatronus,” Orion automatically supplied. “Well enough, I think. If nothing else, I have a standing invitation to join in on any discussions that I can understand.”

Jazz's visor brightened. “You have a profile now?”

“I do.” Orion told him the username, then went back to his homework while Jazz browsed the site.

“Seems like you're making friends,” the Chronicler commented, at length.

“I'd like to,” said Orion. In all honesty, many of his frequent conversation partners intimidated him a little; the Southerners spoke straightforwardly, with little care for decorum, and were often brusque. Partly, it was a linguistic feature of the Southern States culture—languages of the Austral pole tended to lack the nuances of register and passive voice that demarcated academic and polite speech in the north.

Partly, Orion thought, it was also the company he was keeping. Megatronus was not the only gladiator on the site.

That said, they were teaching him a great deal about the facts of life at the bottom of the social ladder. He deeply empathised with the lack of education and factual knowledge made available to them. It didn't seem – it was not fair, he corrected himself, that they couldn't pursue the things that most interested them in life. They were neither stupid nor rude; they simply interacted with the world in a different way than he did.

Orion answered the final questions on his worksheet, then opened one of the extra articles he had rented from the library. He scanned the first few paragraphs of the text, and began to copy them onto his personal datapad.

Technically speaking, what he was doing was illegal. Fair use copyright law covered distribution for educational purposes, but only in partial copies.

The article was one by a well-respected Southern States historian. It covered the establishment of labor law in Kaon and environs, and gave an unusually readable breakdown of employer obligations to indentured laborers, specifically as applied to the heavy industries which made up nearly ninety percent of Kaon's economic output.

The previous night, an anonymous user had commented on Orion's profile, asking him if he knew anything about labor law. Orion hadn't, except for where it concerned his own caste, but he had promised to look for resources she could use. There had been several (rather unhelpful, in Orion's opinion) free Datanet pages covering the basics. She had absorbed them, then come back to Orion, asking after more heavy material.

If only she had been brought online in the third tier, he thought idly. She could have been a lawyer.

After Orion had made his forum login, he had received a private message from Megatronus. It was short, and had a sense of wariness to it. Megatronus warned him that few mecha would thank him for what he was doing , and that if he had the idea that a little charity would make their lives easier – Megatronus did not specify whose – he had best give up there and then.

Orion had frowned, wondering what had happened to make him so cynical. He had sent back a polite message, telling Megatronus that he was not expecting anything in return – and, with a thrill of defiance, that he thought everyone deserved the opportunity of education, no matter their caste.

He finished copying the article, and logged onto the forum. There was a new message waiting in his inbox.

>> Even we of Tier Eight? asked Megatronus. We are criminals and slaves, you know.

Yes, Orion knew.

He uploaded the copied article into a mediasharing site that operated in the Southern States (not all of them did; it was a notorious haunt of pirates) and sent the link to the mech he was already thinking of as 'lawyer-in-waiting'. Then he tried to figure out how to reply to Megatronus' message.

It was a test – that he was sure of. A test of what, that was the question.

He had never had much contact with those under his own caste tier, T4. Directly beneath him, Tier Five was occupied by those employed in the trade and transport industries. Beneath them, Tier Six was military. Orion had met mecha of those tiers from time to time. Seldom for long, because the law was that one could only speak when spoken to by a mech of two or more tiers above one's own caste. This was why Elita One had surprised him so much.

He had never met a mech of Tier Seven, general labour and peasantry. They were around even in the higher echelons of Iaconian society, but they kept their heads down and their EM fields tucked in tight.

He'd never even seen a mech of Tier Eight. And for good reason – they were spoken of exactly as Megatronus had described them, debtors, criminals, vagabonds and slaves.

Orion had his doubts about the stereotype – what happened to children born to Tier Eight parents, among other logical questions – but he knew very little else about them.

>> Slaves should have the opportunity to gain their own personhood, he wrote. I don't know about criminals. I suppose it depends on the context.

He sent the message. A flutter of nerves rippled through his spark.

No reply was forthcoming. Orion guessed that Megatronus was offline.

He shifted to the berth, and sat down beside Jazz. The articulate was watching a live-action show that Orion didn't recognise, sound cables plugged into ports on his wrists so that the track wouldn't disturb Orion. The action sequences consisted mostly of explosions.

Jazz offered him the screen. “Wanna watch it with me?”

Orion thought about it, then shook his helm. “I think I have a book that needs to be finished.”

Several, probably, but he kept that to himself.

Jazz nodded, the cant of his EM field unsurprised. “Have fun with that.”

Orion fished under the edge of his berth for the datapad in question. Unlike most of his bedtime reading material, it was a historical novel, with heavy religious themes. The author was a cloistered nun and historian; his characters were philosophic, heavily romanticised, but Orion had found them more and more compelling the deeper he got into the story.

The plot, by contrast, was a let-down. It came as a surprise when he reached the end – there had been all this buildup and no recognisable climax. The main character hadn't found his long-lost carrier; his love interest had gone off to be a priest, and left him to raise their daughter alone. It was probably meant to be symbolic, thought Orion sourly. He preferred solid practical solutions.

He closed the file and put down the datapad. From the berth beside him, the other pad blinked a notification at him.

Orion picked it up. Megatronus had replied.

>> Here is a context for you. A mech is kept a slave, toiling in a mine for a roof over his head and three drams of energon an orn. One day, he can stand it no longer, and kills his overseer. This is his only opportunity to gain his personhood. Would you grant him the right to education?

Orion reread the message several times. Then he opened a new tab, and looked up 'drams'.

It turned out to be an archaic measurement of energon, equaling about one and a quarter standard rations. It had not been used since the ascension of Nominus Prime.

Orion sent back a simple reply.

>> Yes.

Quickly, a new message arrived.

>> Why?

Philosophy was not Orion's strong point, but he knew where he stood with morals.

+ Because the death of one is a tragedy, but the practice of slavery kills mecha with impunity, and if I were to punish the fleeing slave, then I should also punish that which enslaved him. But since the force which enslaved him is bigger than one or two other mecha, then, fairly, I cannot punish him; I can only seek to ensure that he does not do it again.

There was a pause of a few minutes before Megatronus' reply arrived.

+ And if he does kill again?

Orion steepled his fingers and thought, hard.

>> Then I should convict him for that killing. But I don't believe that denying a person knowledge is an appropriate response to murder.

Another notification. Someone had replied to a thread he had watched the previous night.

He went back to his inbox tab.

>> Then what is?

Orion found himself smiling.

>> I don't know. Again, it depends on the reason for the killing, I suppose. I've never been much of a legal scholar.

Megatronus replied with a dry cast to his register.

>> I can see that. Let me add to your context – that mech is me.

The smile dropped. Orion had wondered at Megatronus' past – and, at the letter-number designation which was still Megatronus' legal name, he had guessed at slavery – but to hear it confirmed was a shock.

Rather than anger and fear, as he usually felt at the idea of one mech killing another, he felt his spark well with a deep, grieving sadness.

Megatronus was a warframe. No doubt he felt killing very differently.

>> I am sorry to hear that, he wrote.

Megatronus replied.

>> Don't bother, Archivist. Where I come from, we fight for our mere survival. To me, it simply means that I get to live another day.

There was a movement at Orion's side. He looked over at Jazz. The Chronicler was frowning at him, one hand about to touch Orion's forearm.

“You all right, mech?” Jazz asked. “You're kinda broudcasting doom and gloom all over here.”

Orion cracked a wry smile. “I'm sorry.” He showed Jazz the conversation. “I am being schooled in the ways of the world, I think.”

Jazz patted his arm. “Looks like it. You take it like a champion, though.”

“I try to remember that it is part of being alive, and then it's a little easier,” said Orion. “I should reply to him.”

Jazz craned over his shoulder as he wrote the next message.

>> I can't imagine that, to be honest. But I am glad that you have survived this long.

Jazz chuckled. “Only you, Orion.”

“What's wrong with it?” Orion asked, but sent the message anyway.

“Nothing. It's just... very you, is all.”

>> You are a very interesting mech, Orion Pax. Thank you.

Jazz laughed out loud at that. “He doesn't know the half of it!”

Orion shouldered him, but only half-heartedly. Megatronus' words had lit a warm glow in his core.

>> Thank you, for being willing to talk to me, he wrote. I appreciate it.

Orion woke the next dawn shift surrounded by datapads, with Jazz tangled around one arm. He scanned the shadowed room with sleepy complacency, then checked his internal chronometer.

Oh, Primus – he was going to be late for class.

He shot up, apologetically explaining the situation to a still-half-asleep Jazz while grabbing as many of his datapads as he could reach. After the initial panic, his friend flopped back onto the berth and waved a lazy, three-fingered hand. “Calm down, mech. I'll see you when you get back.”

Orion ran the distance from the Residency Hall atrium to the main gates, alt-modes being prohibited within the complex. The early-morning pedestrians gave him a wide berth as he turned onto the main road and folded into altmode.

He made it to the railcar station just before his train left. The platform attendant took one look at him and decided it wasn't worth trying to stop him. He squeezed in through the doors as they were closing, waving his metro pass in triumph at the automated scanner.

Few mecha paid much attention to him. They were all staring at the vidscreen at the front of the carriage.

This was the scene last night at the Number Two Loading Dock at Midship Wharf, Burthov,” said a reporter, speaking over a panning shot of what Orion barely recognised as a lakeside dock. Dirty orange oil flames lit up the left side of the screen, bursting out of shattered windows and creeping over concrete stained with leaking fuel. The camera panned further right, and an overturned crane emerged out of the night. “Ongoing worker strikes erupted into violence the previous afternoon, when tension between the protestors and company Enforcers came to a head. Early reports suggest that individuals associated with the strike were arrested on charges of public disruption. Whatever the cause, the result is clearly disastrous.”

The clip was replaced by still images of a massive group of mecha, carrying makeshift torches and weapons, advancing down a docklands road. Smoke rose into a cloudy sky behind them.

“Primus,” said someone close to Orion. “That's scary.”

Orion was about to agree with them, when someone else added, “They shouldn't be allowed to do that.”

Isn't that rather the point? he thought, and found himself a seat.

Half a breem later, he filed into the lecture hall at the university. Most of his classmates had seen the broadcast, judging by the chatter. He passed a group of shiny young monks discussing the merits of violent versus nonviolent protest on his way to his usual seat. They didn't seem very sympathetic to the rioters.

It was hard to be sympathetic to rioters, Orion mused. But he wondered what had happened to the mecha who had first resorted to violence, as Megatronus had done with his overseer, and found within himself a deeper well of compassion.

The hall doors swung open, and the professor swept in. Orion took up his datapad and stylus, and readied himself to take notes.

Chapter Text

“A riot is the language of the unheard.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.


The Burthov riots dominated newsfeeds around the capital for several orns. Orion became used to the backdrop of oil flames and black smoke so thick it made day look like night, the scenes of devastation wherever the camera looked.

“Have you noticed,” said Jazz one midday break, “the media seem less interested in what happened to trigger the riots than on the damage they've caused? It's like watching a movie.”

He and Orion were in the public cafeteria, squeezed in around a table that was a little too small for the number of mecha sitting around it. Their companions were a group of off-duty Archivists and Chroniclers, most of the same age and rank.

Dion raised a skeptical optical ridge. “No, not really.”

“There's no surround sound, for one,” put in another junior Archivist. She was holding a widescreen datapad; the calm drone of a voiceover reporter drifted out of its speakers, the noise and shouting of a riot muted beneath it. “But no, I think I get what you mean.”

“Of course they're showing the rioting,” said the big light standard across the table. His designation was Whistle; he'd once been Orion's roommate. “What else is there to put on the news? They had a strike, it didn't work; now they're going bolts-out trying to wreck the place.”

“Not exactly, mech.” Cadence spoke up, lifting her visored optics from her social networking feed. She was much older than the rest of them, a conservationist working in the hardcopy restoration unit. Orion knew little about her save for her name. “Do you know why they were striking?”

“Pay dispute, right?” said one of the younger Archivists. The details had been repeated in every new report since the riots had begun. “The dock managers filed for a four percent pay rise after the company execs had that structural reshuffle and the shareholders got twelve percent special dividends.”

Cadence nodded. “Do you know what happened after that?”

Orion looked around the group. There were suddenly a lot of thoughtful expressions and restless EM fields.

“The executives granted them the pay rise, but delayed it until after quarterly fiscal reports were out,” said Whistle. “And they cut it back to two percent.”

“You mean they got the pay rise? And they still stopped working?” said Dion.

“I've got a two percent rise after New Vorn coming,” observed a slim light standard. “What's so bad about waiting?”

Orion scrolled down his datapad screen. “Because their pay rate is 4.2 credits a shift.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” asked Dion. “I mean, it's low, but that's about the average for Tier-Seven workers.”

“4.2 credits at, shall we assume they're working a full day, 84 shifts a chord, equals 352.8 credits a chord. Two percent of that is just over another seven credits a chord,” said Cadence. She lifted her empty energon cup. “I paid seven credits for this.”

“Yeah, but everything is so expensive up here anyway,” said Whistle. “It's like they think we're rich.”

Orion ran another search. “According to the Statistics National site, the average rent in Burthov is about two-fifty credits a chord. Liquid and electrics utilities in the Wharves is another fifty.” He looked up. “The rioters are Tier Seven, aren't they?”

“Which means they've got no employer rent or energon subsidies,” Cadence said. “Anyone looked at the market price of raw energon lately?”

A short silence.

“I don't think so,” said Orion. “Should we?”

“Maybe you should have a look. It's fascinating. Explains why I had to pay seven credits for this slag.” Cadence rose, raised her empty cup in an ironic salute. “Whistle, Jade, I'll see you in the restoration lab, twenty minutes.”

As she left, the pretty blue minibot across the table stirred her own energon with an idle fingertip. “What did she have that cost seven credits? Mine was four.”

“And a bit,” said her companion, a much larger mech with stubby sensory horns above her optical ridges. “Goods and services tax omitted, remember?”

“I wonder how much tax gets taken out of that three-fifty,” mused Jazz.

“In Burthov State, six percent,” said Orion, reading from the Statistics National site. “Just under 25 credits.”

Jade, a lanky green light standard, spoke up from beside Whistle. “Most of the large Southern States employers deduct tax from their workers' wages themselves. It works like the public service sector. I interned in the financial records department. They said it just makes things easier.”

“I don't know, I'd rather do that myself,” said Whistle. “I just like knowing where my money is going, you know.”

Jazz nodded. “I know it, mech.” He leaned over Orion's forearm, peering at the datapad in his servos. “Whatcha looking at now?”

“Energon production and refining,” Orion explained. “Process and business, that is. I was just curious.”

“Yeah, right,” chuckled his friend. “Curiosity is a full-time job for you. You should get paid to research things.”

“Well, I'd like to.”

His spark flared as he realised what he had said. He looked up in a sudden panic – but none of his friends had noticed. They smiled and laughed, as if he had made an unexpected joke; Whistle reached across the table and bumped his knuckles against Orion's shoulder plating.

Do not aspire to things above your station , said the voice of his long-ago mentor. Everyone's shape serves a purpose. Love what Primus gave you, and you will live well for it.

Ordinarily, Orion found solace in thoughts of the mech who had sponsored him during his first chords of life. Today, they only gave him more questions.

He navigated back to the broadcasts from Burthov. How does it work for them? he wondered.

Orion hadn't thought that Megatronus was online when he logged onto the forum that evening after work, but not long afterwards a private message from the southerner arrived in his inbox.

He opened the message.

>> I have a question for you. All other things being evenly matched, what is the difference between a mech – a heavy standard, say – of Tier Three and one of Tier Seven?

Orion's engine stalled. He pressed his hand to his mouth, reflexively minimising the page.

Everything, said his social training.

Caste was inescapable, permanent, and immanent. It kept Cybertronian society running smoothly and efficiently: everyone in their right place, everything in the right time.

Once upon a time, there had been no castes, and mecha had killed each other in the pursuit of rank above their station. The resulting chaos so endangered the stability of the city-states that in many cases, caste systems had been conceived of and implemented in cities across Cybertron even before the Empire had imposed its own model across the planet.

Jazz had asked if Megatronus was anti-caste. Here, perhaps, was the answer.

Of more current relevance was the question: did Orion think the same?

Orion shook his helm, banishing the thought. He logged out of his account, turning off the datapad, and placed it on the table, away from its usual place by his berth. His pedes were tired from standing all day – he'd had a shift in the stacks – and he needed a shower in any case.

Before he left the room, he tucked the datapad away in a drawer. But he still could not forget the weight of Megatronus' question, bearing down on the back of his mind.

 He did not get a chance to reply for several orns.

That morning, Jazz woke him from a fitful recharge with a vigorous shake and whispered “Hey, Orion!” right next to his sensitive audials.

He sat up with a groan, stretching his arms above his helm. Jazz turned on the apartment light and set his windows to translucent. It was still dark outside: his internal chronometer flashed 24:68 from the corner of his HUD.

“We have a job,” said the Chronicler, pressing a cube of chilled standardgrade into Orion's servos. “Look in your classifieds.”

Mutely, Orion put in his classified ident key and opened the system.

He didn't have the opportunity to do this often. Although the Hall of Records was legally a branch of the Imperial government, it had semi-private status by means of its clade- and caste-based employment system. Like the nobles of the Towers, the Record-Keepers' clade controlled the Archives from basement to top shelf.

The information the Archivists dealt with was therefore classed as private data, and thus dictated use of a stricter security level than most public-access government operatives. Each subject, each client, and each Archivist had a public ident code. Ordinarily, this was enough to gain access to whatever systems Orion needed to get into.

Sometimes, however, there was more at stake than usual. When absolute security was required, the classified ident key was used.

Orion scanned the brief. “This was hardly sent a few minutes ago.”

“I was online,” said Jazz, with a shrug and a grin. “I like to watch the day start, you know.”

“Sunrise isn't due for another ten joor,” commented Orion. He folded the brief away in the top spot on his priority queues, and logged out of his classifieds. “We should get on with it. I need to let Alpha Trion know I'll be away for a while.”

“Sonata's gonna meet us at the Harbourmaster's Midships.” Jazz danced toward the corridor, his field alight with his own particular function euphoria. “I'll book us tickets on the next bullet train south.”

Orion pulled open the lower drawer in his bedside unit and emptied it of a stack of half-repaired datapads. Underneath them was an external hard drive roughly the size of Jazz' servo, and beneath it an autonomic processor a little larger. Orion took both, slid them into a tote bag covered in radio-shield film, and placed them into his subspace.

Standing, he laced his fingers together and straightened his arms out in front of them. His shoulders were still stiff from recharge. Too much sitting in front of a datapoint lately.

They left the apartment, Jazz going ahead down the corridor while Orion locked up behind him. Outside the Residency Hall, the air was crisp and tiny points of glittering ice wafted down out of a clear sky. The stars were dull and blurred with smog, but it was among the nicest Iaconian nights Orion could remember.

He checked the Archives' cloud network, hoping to find Alpha Trion's signature. The department head lived outside the Hall of Records complex. If he wasn't around, Orion would just have to leave him a message.

Fortunately, he found Trion's signature in the History Archives.

The Archival rooms were the core of the complex, three massive windowless buildings which housed the Grid's memory cores. The Grid, the planetary network between Archival Halls, was a product of the middle stages of the Golden Age, maintained and curated in the Imperial capital. Orion had served most of his apprenticeship there, alongside his batchmates and Archivists from all over the planet.

Inside, the Archives were dark, airless cathedrals, terminals from which the maintenance shift watched the data flow lining the thirteen-sectored walls. The few lights inside the History Archives were soft red LEDs, lining the walkways and elevator shafts so that those who walked upon them would not fall off the narrow accessways.

Orion sent Alpha Trion a ping. :: Where are you? ::

:: Floor Eight :: replied the Archivist. :: Terminal 633. ::

Orion took the elevator up to him. :: What are you doing? ::

In the dark, Trion gave him a piercing look. :: Looking for supporting data. I have a project going that requires a thorough view of the historical context in which certain events took place. Orion, young one, your shift is not due to begin for several joor. ::

:: I have a job :: Orion explained. :: It's classified. Jazz and I are going to Burthov for a few orn. ::

“Aah,” said Trion, out loud. He frowned at his datapoint, flicking through several text files too quickly for the optic to follow. :: When will you return? ::

:: Next chord, I'd say. The job brief says to allow three orn, so give an extra one or two for things to go wrong... I should be back in time for my next class.::

:: Good, good. :: Alpha Trion fumbled with the dark hollow under the screen in which the network sockets opened. His thoracic plating shifted up and sideways, and his networking cables released, finding the sockets and connecting with a snap of locking mechanisms. :: Thank you for letting me know. I will await your return with great expectancy. ::

Jazz had waited outside the building while Orion spoke to his boss, transforming and idling patiently on the courtyard between the three Archives. He took off as Orion emerged, driving sedately into the night. :: Come on, mech. We've got a train to catch at Springs Junction, and a quarter-joor to get there. ::

Orion jogged to catch up. Where Jazz' altmode was small and nimble enough to drive through most parts of the Hall of Records complex, Orion's own was a little out of its specs. :: Should we take the highway or the link rail? ::

::Link rail's faster at this time of morning. Costs a bit, though. I hope you topped up your card lately. ::

Orion had, but the prospect of paying for a ride all the way to Springs Junction made the economist inside him want to shrivel up.

They caught the Route 538 rail at the local station, transferring at a district hub in Iacon East to the southern express line. Out the window, the smog grew thicker and the stars faded, the two moons peeking between skyscrapers as the line descended from High Iacon to the lower-lying southern districts. Orion found himself shocked by how much of a difference the drop in altitude made. Soon he could see smog particles in the air, diffusing out of hissing vents in the ground-floor streets a few levels below the rail.

Despite the early hour, Springs Junction Station was bustling. The express slowed as it entered the Junction district on the outskirts of Iacon, pulling into the rail terminal with a rapid repeated blast of horns.

In the distance, the ungainly shape of an interstellar freight carrier lifted into the night sky. The glow of its exhaust was so bright Orion had to look away. As he disembarked, Jazz hanging onto his hand, he heard the engines' deep rumbling roar.

They paid their fares at the city terminal, then drove down the main thoroughfare to the intercity terminal. They passed a lot of other mecha on looser time schedules; shops lined the road, small businesses and boutique establishments of multi-billion credit companies alike. It would have been nice to stop and browse, as so many were doing, but they had a train to catch.

Orion's chronometer blinked over to 25.02.

“Which platform do we need?” he asked Jazz, amid a lull in the background noise of the terminal.

“3-21. It's in the west branch.” Jazz transformed and cast about for directions. “There we go, by the ticket office.”

“We don't need to go there first?”

“Already paid for.” Jazz waved his metro card. “These work for the intercity network too. When we get to Burthov we'll need to get our cards registered for the local network – you will, at any rate; I've been there before.”

He looked up at Orion, and his grin widened. “Hey. It took a while, but here you are about to leave the city. How does it feel?”

“Well, I have been to Rodion before,” demurred Orion, but the realisation stole over him, and he found himself grinning in turn. Finally, he was going to get to fulfil his oldest dream.

Jazz patted his forearm, the highest on Orion he could reach. “Let's get this party started.”

The first light of dawn stole over the mountains west of Thunder Passage as the intercity train arrived in Burthov. Orion had the window seat; Jazz was recharging in the next one over.

He had spent most of the journey staring out the window. The closest Iacon came to mountains were the flat-topped, steep-sided plateaux of the Observatories. Rodion was situated in the floor of a vast bowl; aside from the distant rise of Iacon, the horizons were flat as far as the optic could see. Then, two joor south, the land rose up in a series of sharp ridges intercut with dramatic gullies and separated by wide, flat-bottomed valleys. The train slowed as it tackled the heights, disappearing several times into long tunnels and emerging again into the moonlight on the other side of the ridge.

The carriage had an onboard Datanet connection. Orion asked the attendant for the login key, and thereafter split his attention between marvelling at the scenery and researching the geological processes that had created it.

Nearer to Burthov, the mountains were closer clumped together, and the shadows between the peaks seemed deeper. Myth had it that a tribe of mecha had taken refuge in these mountains during the Cataclysm. To Orion, this had always seemed a bit fanciful, but, looking at the forbidding tops now, he felt he could see why the myth had endured.

A pre-recorded message played over the crackling PA system. “We are now entering Burthov City. Please ensure that your belongings are packed and your boarding passes ready for inspection. Thank you for traveling with Boreal Trunk Railways.”

Orion fished his metro card out of his subspace and gently roused Jazz. “We're here.”

Jazz lit his visor. “You couldn't have waited until we were at the station?”

“You shouldn't have stayed up so late,” said Orion, raising an optical ridge at him. “Where is the station from here?”

The Chronicler leaned over his lap, craning his helm to see out the window. “We're still in the External Territories, you dork.”

The train passed around the shoulder of a mountain, and suddenly the glimmering city visible far below the tracks doubled, tripled in size.

“I didn't realise it was so big,” Orion observed.

“It's all heavy industry, though,” said Jazz. He pointed toward the Thunder Passage shore, where the early morning light caught on a distant cloud of thick black smoke. “That'd be Midship Wharves. Lesser and Departure Wharves are south, toward the Sea of Rust; Greater and Far Wharves are to the northeast.”

Orion brought up the job briefing, and frowned. “It seems an odd time to hold a single-district survey. Particularly in conjunction with the Enforcers.”

“Survey? Is that what they're telling you?” Jazz cocked his head to the side, EM field flaring with interest. “Now I know someone's up to something.”

Orion's frown grew deeper. “What do you mean?”

Jazz waved a flippant servo. “I'll tell you later. Gotta ask Sonata some things, anyway.”

The day passed in a whirl of activity and suspicion. They met Sonata, Jazz' former mentor, and the head Archivist of the Burthov Hall of Records, at the artificial island in the centre of the Wharves megacomplex, and afterward were taken to a rundown apartment building on the border between the Wharves and the City Central District. Orion was given control of a loft full of local Archivists, and spent the joors of midday overseeing the setup of a data relay and cross-reference system attached to the Grid.

This he had done before, although never without a higher-ranked Archivist present to make sure the job was done correctly. He found the pressure exhilarating, and the suspicion that had risen in him at Jazz' observation that morning faded away.

The sun, higher in the sky than in Iacon, dipped beneath the horizon at 51.20 joor. The Burthovri Archivists retired for their evening energon, and Orion went downstairs to find Jazz.

The Chronicler was tucked in a high-backed chair several sizes too big for him, industriously making notes on a handheld computer. He looked up, caught sight of Orion, and grinned. “How goes it?”

“Well enough,” said Orion, gingerly leaning against the sill of the age-clouded window beside Jazz' perch. He relaxed when it took his weight without complaint, and returned the smile. “What about you?”

Jazz ticked a box with a flourish of the stylus. “Can't complain. I'll be out all of tomorrow by the looks of it. There are Chroniclers here from all over the Boreal States, but we've got the whole Midships to cover and only a few orns to do it in.”

Orion lowered his voice. “What exactly are you looking for?”

“Data to pass back to you guys. Ident signals, who's doing what jobs, businesses operating in the district, pay rates - that sort of thing.”

Burthov's local government, Orion recalled, had recently been investigated for misreporting data to the Imperial financiers. This had surprised nobody who knew anything about Burthov. The state of the city was infamous; the very name was a byword for mid-level corruption.

Earlier that day, the Archivists had set up a remote data retrieval system between several of the municipal records facilities. Among them, the criminal justice and public health databases had made Orion raise an optical ridge, but public housing and energon subsidies brought it back down again. Whatever was going on, it seemed to be drawing influence from across the board.

“You're frowning again,” said Jazz. “What are you thinking?”

“Do you think this is the Imperial goverment stepping in?” Orion asked, wondering aloud. “If we're not the only non-State figures here, then I wonder whether the gubernatorial office had a say in bringing us in.”

Jazz shrugged. “Hard to say. All I know is that the job came in to the clade leaders, Sonata got it, and volunteered us. Which means that the Governor had to have signed the order off, but whether it came from them in the first place? Who knows.”

Orion shuttered his optics and let his helm fall back against the windowframe. “I don't like not knowing what I'm doing.”

“Me either, bud.” Jazz tapped twice on the handheld screen, then put it down. “We need energon. I know a decent cafe near here. Want to come down with me?”

“Is it far?”

“Nah. A block or two, maybe?” Jazz put on a wheedling voice. “And the City Central is nice at this time of year.”

Orion chuckled. “Fine. Don't get me lost, okay?”

There was no need to worry about functionist prejudices of caste in Burthov. According to Statistics National, the city was made up of nearly ninety percent heavy frames.

Orion followed Jazz out onto the street, and for once, no-one paid him the slightest bit of attention.

Over the next few orns, Orion learned more about life in a low-caste city than he had ever dreamed of.

The ranks of the Chroniclers left before dawn each day. Orion seldom noticed – the Archivists had divided each fifty-two joor orn into two shifts of twenty-six joor, and Orion's group had the night shift. Each evening, he would set up his autonomic processor, linking it into the remote datapoint and reinstalling the security programs that gave him access to each of the municipal archives and the worldwide Grid. Around him, the Burthovri Archivists did the same. Chatter in Iaconian Vulgate and the local Hovri language, which he somewhat understood, died down as mech by mech they sank into the Grid.

Their job was to analyse and sort the data collected by the Chroniclers, cross-referencing it with the information already in the municipal archives, and then, in a departure from what was normal procedure in district surveys, file the data not into the municipal archives, but into a blank storage facility at the back of the room.

Orion quickly decided that it was not a job he liked. Some of the Chroniclers funneling information to him were conscientious about attaching the appropriate security measures to identifying data such as designations and registration numbers. Some were not.

Those that weren't, he realised around midnight, were much more likely to do so when the individual they were reporting on was of a higher caste. Shop managers, accountants, businessmecha and ship staff seldom went without secure reports. Dock workers, freighters, industrial labourers – the great majority of Midships residents – were not given the same care.

On his HUD, Orion opened a text document, and wrote down the comm signatures of each repeat offender. When dawn came, he copied them into a databurst and sent it to the Burthovri Head of Archives, explaining the problem.

The mech, a tall, dour creature, simply gave him an unreadable look.

Well – at least he had tried.

He went to his berth that morning as exhausted as if he had been driving all night. Recharge kept him until late in the afternoon. He woke with sun spilling across his face, and an urgent message piping in his inbox.

:: The Enforcers are moving in on the strikers :: wrote Jazz. :: There's going to be violence out here today. ::

Bullying his lethargic higher thought queues online, Orion sat up on the low berth provided by the Burthovri Hall of Records. Around him, the other Archivists of his group lay in various stages of recharge.

He composed a return message. :: Are you somewhere safe? ::

:: Sure am :: Jazz returned within moments, as if he'd been waiting for Orion to wake. The message was tagged with a smiling text emote, and a 'love you' glyph. :: I'm sitting on top of a residential building with a fascinating mech who says he knows an Archivist named Orion. ::

:: Not Megatronus? :: Orion stood, picking his way through the row of berths, and slunk incredulously out into the corridor.

:: Not unless he's had a reformat overnight. Mech won't give me his designation, but he has a visor and a minicon attached to his back. Didn't know you knew a carrier. ::

:: I don't. At least, I don't think I do. :: Orion ran through his personal database, and came up blank. :: Why is he here? ::

There was a moment before Jazz replied. Orion guessed that he had relayed the question to his companion.:: He says he's here for a mutual friend. Judging by his beautiful Tarnais accent, I'm going to guess that's your Megatronus. ::

:: Megatronus isn't from Tarn :: said Orion, thinking quickly. :: He was enframed for a mining company in the Southern States. ::

:: How do you know that? :: asked Jazz. :: Wait, no, you looked it up, I know. But he spent a long time in Tarn. Lower Cities Law Enforcement has a warrant for his arrest on charges of, get this,'aggravated violence'. ::

:: He got caught in the ring, you mean. :: Aggravated violence – a generic and technically redundant charge - was often code for those arrested on suspicion of involvement in the gladiatorial arena.

::Probably. Aggravated violence'covers a lot of things. That's why they use it. :: He paused.:: Here, hang on. Have you got an account on Connetics? My nameless friend here has a chat group going. ::

Orion did, but he hadn't logged in for vorn. :: Give me a moment to remember my password. ::

A row of laughing emoticons arrived in his inbox. :: Sure thing :: said Jazz.

Orion had to reset his password before he could access his account, and when he did, the homepage was swamped in notifications. He cleared them all, then searched for the chat window. The interface was just as unintuitive as he remembered – he clicked on the explore icon twice before he found the alternate tabs widget.

There was a new message from Jazz, and a chat invite sitting in his inbox. Orion opened the chat link.

Guest: -- found it, did you? :D :D

That was Jazz. Had to be.

Guest: -- I had to make a new password, actually.

Guest: -- Now why are we here?

A new user popped up on the sidebar, the icon – the generic Connetics logo – wearing a moderator's hat.

Moderator: -- At my request.

Moderator: -- Orion Pax, known to me.

A flare of recognition washed through Orion's pattern-recognition protocols at the strange syntax. He composed a question.

Guest: -- You're Megatronus' moderator, aren't you?

Moderator: --Yes.

Guest: -- This is quite a coincidence. I had thought you were all Southern States residents.

There was a moment before the next reply flashed up.

Moderator: -- Incorrect. Many mecha, Iron Ridge or Centralian of origin. Soundwave, of Tarn. Megatronus' message, something many mecha experience. Those of Burthov, perhaps, among them.

Orion frowned at the corridor wall, hardly seeing the stained glass inlay.

Guest: -- You're not involved in these strikes, are you?

Moderator: -- For now, a bystander only.

Moderator: -- Orion Pax, disagrees with their cause?

Orion shook his helm, forgetting that neither Jazz nor the moderator – Soundwave, what an evocative designation – could see him.

Guest: -- No. They should have had that rise. But I think there's something else going on here, and I'm afraid that they'll be the ones to come off worst.

Moderator: -- Why?

Guest: -- Because

Orion sat thinking for so long that the chat function sent his half-written message. He had only a handful of evidence, but the fear with real, and in his spark he felt certain that the strike had been doomed, even before the Enforcers had moved in.

Guest: Because they're not people to the mecha that are trying to deal with the situation. They're a resource, and not even a limited one. Nobody cares about the individuals – they just need a workforce to do the job. Nobody is going to care if they live or die.

Moderator: -- Megatronus will care.

A faint smile tugged at the corners of Orion's mouth.

Guest: -- What can he do from down in Kaon?

Moderator: -- Very little. But soon, more.

Guest: -- What can I do to help?

Three orns later, Orion stood at the end of the boarding hall, watching a locomotive back carefully up to the long line of intercity passenger carriages. The locomotive was a sparked mech, her EM field broad and subtle. Her ident signal told him that she was a dexter like himself, though rayet class, and her caste was fifth-tier, rail haulage. Her passengers were predominantly fourth-tier and above.

The link mechanism connected, the impact shunting the staff car backward. A yard engineer leapt from the locomotive's footing, securing the mechanism. A second boarding call sounded over the boarding hall PA system. The locomotive's engine quieted.

Orion watched the engineer walk away. He took a step forward, as if daydreaming, and another. When he reached the edge of the platform, he stopped, and looked along to the locomotive's nose.

“Good morning,” he said.

Her EM field came swirling around him, no longer subtle. She was written in hues of warm pink and icy blue, tendrils of a powerful enthusiasm winding around her frame. She found his public network signal, and a reply sounded in his commlinks.

:: Good morning. Who are you? ::

“I'm Orion Pax,” he said. “I'm an Archivist. You're taking me back to Iacon tonight, so I wanted to say thank you.”

Surprise washed through her EM field. :: It's my job. No need to thank me. ::

“I think,” said Orion, venturing a thought that had been eating at him since the day the strike had been broken, “that I ought not take anyone's doing their job for granted.”

Her reply was plain. :: I don't understand. ::

“What is your name?” he asked.

:: Backtrack. What has that got to do with anything? ::

“I don't want to be the sort of mech who forgets that those who do jobs that I might consider beneath me are individuals deserving of personhood and respect,” said Orion. “Thank you for doing what you do, Backtrack.”

She vented hot air from a forward grille. :: No-one's ever thanked me for this before. ::

Orion cast about for a reply that didn't sound condescending. But she continued, before he had the chance to speak it.

:: What's it like, being an Archivist? ::

“It's interesting,” he said, back on familiar ground. “It's a lot of doing the same thing over and over again, but I learn a lot.”

:: Sounds nice. It's nice being a rail hauler, too. I get to see a lot of places. I went down to Nova Cronum last lune, hauling eighteen thousand tons of iron. It's easier hauling passengers, though. You don't weigh so much. ::

Orion laughed. “Somehow, I'm not surprised.”

He would have continued, but the final boarding call cut him off. “I should go. My department head will worry if I'm not back this afternoon.”

:: As he should :: said Backtrack. :: Go board. And thank you, for saying hello. ::

Orion smiled. “No problem. I hope it's an easy haul.”

She blasted her horn, and the last boarders scurried to the carriage doors. :: Sure will be. ::

Chapter Text

“What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!”

—Henry II, King of England



Time passed quickly after the first of what came to be known as the Midships Riots was quelled. Orion became used to seeing reports of violence on the hourly news broadcasts. In the backgrounds of live reports, the sight of ranks of Enforcers moving in on streets seething with rioters began to seem unremarkable.

After the first couple of chords, he stopped checking the newsfeeds every morning. There wasn't much point to it, when every step toward resolution seemed to be greeted with an overnight reversal by authorities or rioters.

Orion bent his intellect and spare time to finishing his University work, churning out draft midterm papers alongside preparing for a group presentation at the end of the quartex. He had less time to prepare than the rest of his classmates; the Preservation Board Conference was quickly approaching. Alpha Trion generously released him from the last shift he'd been rostered on to work before their departure. He spent the orn drafting a final five thousand words on his History of the Primacy paper, putting together a bibliography for the group project, and in a video call with his group, rehearsing the presentation.

He'd been intending to go out with Jazz to an energon bar that night. Such multitasking was exhausting, however. He sent Jazz an apologetic text, climbed onto his berth, wrapped a heavy thermosheet around himself, and watched a xenoculture documentary until he fell asleep.

The next evening, he was in Pion.

Orion watched Alpha Trion dump his luggage on the hotel floor with carelessness wholly at odds with his previous experience of the elder. Striding out onto the balcony, Trion spread his arms wide, his facial array fluttering in the wind.

“I do love this city!” exclaimed the elder archivist. The ornamental curtains flapped, and something fell off a table close to the door.

Orion hurried out after him, pulling the doors closed. Alpha Trion turned to him, something in his optics glimmering.

“It is so very beautiful. Don't you agree, Orion?”

“I suppose so, yes.”

The hotel was a thirty-storey tower built on top of the ring-shaped upper city. Their balcony faced south, overlooking the ancient downtown region. Liquid glimmered at the center of the city, Pion's famous lake, silver canals radiating outward into the surrounding city. From this distance, they seemed like silver threads.

Alpha Trion shook his venerable head. “You suppose so, hm. Where is your sense of aesthetic?”

“Inside, where it's warm.” Orion cracked open the balcony door. “Are you going to be out here long? The local meteorological service is saying there's going to be a storm.”

“Then I had better enjoy the view while it lasts, hadn't I?” Trion waved a hand at him, optics fixed on the city below. “Go get settled in, Orion. We have tonight to ourselves.”

They had not brought much with them to unpack. Orion had a room to himself, several times larger than his residency-hall apartment at home. It had its own washracks, with a deep oil bath in the corner. The luxury of the place made Orion grin.

He returned to the main suite and poked his helm out the balcony door again. “Is it all right if I leave the hotel? I'd like to do some exploring.”

In Burthov, he hadn't had the chance to get out of sight of the survey office. It seemed a waste of a trip, somehow.

Alpha Trion gave him an even look. “Yes, that's fine. Be a little more careful than you would in Iacon, however. Pion is a little less cosmopolitan.”

Orion's good mood deflated. “Functionists?”

“No, just good old-fashioned aristocrats.” The Archivist crossed the balcony, ushering Orion back into the suite, and stepped in after him. “This part of the city is largely populated by Tier 2 and Tier 3 castes. Anyone ranked lower is a shop clerk, a server, or a cleaner. The conference should be common knowledge, so I do not think you will be bothered – but do be careful anyway.”

Orion made a face. “I will. I won't be long, I just want to have a look down the street. I think I saw a library around the corner when we arrived.”

Alpha Trion's optics narrowed, and behind his facial array his mouth widened in a soundless laugh. “There is. Have fun. I'll wait until midnight to call the Enforcers.”

Orion threw up his hands and strode to the suite door. “Primus give me strength. I'm not that easy to distract.”

Trion's voice followed him out into the corridor. “Be safe, Orion.”

The next day, Orion found himself seated among an audience of several hundred historians and cultural conservationists. His seat was at the very back of the auditorium; unsurprising when he was both one of the lowest ranked and largest-framed mecha there.

He'd been separated from Alpha Trion, who had been taken to a seat several rows in front by a harried-looking event manager. The mech on his left, a chunky light standard, was running a Tier 3 ident signal and had the look of the graduate student about him. On his right was the side aisle, and the wall of the theater.

They'd been sitting for almost two joor. The keynote speaker had been delayed by technical difficulties, and then by an argument with another eminent historian. When she had finally started speaking, she hadn't stopped for a very long time. Orion had listened dutifully to the first twenty minutes of her speech. Then he'd turned down his audial receptors and spent the rest browsing the Datanet.

Soundwave had brought a couple of new users into the Connetics group chat since Burthov. His moderator's hat hadn't been seen since, but the new mecha were chatty enough to make up for it. One was named Frenzy, the other Rumble. Jazz was having great fun trading banter with them.

Orion checked the notifications on that account for important messages, found none, then switched to the forum on which he had first made contact with Megatronus. There, his spark leapt – there was a private message waiting in his inbox.

+ Good morning. Did you finish the essay?

Blunt and somewhat innocent, though it was strange to apply the concept to a mech like Megatronus. Orion pursed his lips, swallowing a grin.

+ Yes, don't worry. I was perhaps exaggerating yesterday. I finished it and handed it in, and now I don't have to worry about deadlines for another couple of chords.

He dithered over the message for a moment or two – was it too familiar? – then sent it before he could change his mind.

Megatronus must have been online. The reply popped up almost immediately.

+ I see. What happens if you miss a deadline?

Orion hadn't, yet, but his course papers had been very definite about what would happen in the case of a missed hand-in.

+ My grade percentage for that paper would get cut twenty percent for each shift missed. Given the percentages needed to pass, it would probably drop beneath the fail grade after a shift or two. Depending on the essay in question, it could be a disaster, or it might not matter very much.

+ The one you just handed in, then?

+ That was a midterm paper, so quite important, but a draft, so also not. The important thing about completing the draft is to get the professor's feedback.

There was a long pause before Megatronus replied, perhaps ten minutes. Orion gazed at the speaker, listening faintly to her continuing drone, until the notification chime went off.

+ Why do you need the professor to give you a response? Isn't the purpose of an essay to write down your own thoughts?

Orion shuttered his optics, and opened them again. The answer seemed obvious to him.

+ Because the professor has been thinking about the subject a lot longer than I have. She won't correct any of my history – that's my responsibility – but she might ask questions I'd have missed on my own.

When the reply came, there was something almost discomfited about the glyphs.

+ I see.

Not for the first time, Orion wondered where Megatronus had come by his education.

He was plainly intelligent, and more importantly, had a thirst for knowledge that rivaled Orion's own. Orion got the distinct impression that they sought that knowledge for very different reasons – Megatronus, to better take the forces of the world into his own hands, and Orion, for the sheer joy of understanding. Megatronus' life had been unimaginably hard. That he seemed to have turned that hard life into an unstoppable drive to keep going, and to succeed, impressed Orion deeply. It made sense that such a mech would have fought hard for whatever scraps of knowledge he came across, and would not have let them go easily. But he spoke sometimes like an academic – a politician, even. Where had he learned that?

Up on the stage, the keynote speaker finally finished her address. She yielded the podium to an announcer, whose voice grated through the microphone.

Orion put the question to text.

+ Where did you learn to write like you do? If I may ask, that is.

The immediate reply was genial, and perhaps, he imagined, a little indulgent.

+ You may ask. The answer is not simple, but it starts with a story. If you have the time, that is.

The deliberate echo of Orion's question was something he was beginning to recognise as Megatronus' subtle humor.

+ I have the time .

+ Very well.

There was a long pause. Orion watched the announcer hand the podium over to a second speaker, inside his mind imagining Megatronus carefully composing the story. No doubt it was difficult – how would he translate his experiences into concepts that Orion could comprehend?

The first messages arrived.

+ I was a slave – you know this. It was not the sort of slavery you know now, where mecha have a little protection under the law and a little less choice in what they do. In this world, theoretically, you are able to earn your own freedom in time. In mine, I was bound to my owner for life. There was no chance to earn one's freedom. I was chattel, little more than a tool to be used until my strength was gone and all value – my labor – extracted from me.

+ I knew nothing. I was never taught to read nor write; I was not even allowed to speak as normal mecha do. My fellow slaves and I spoke only a broken, pidgin dialect of Kaoni – we could converse among ourselves, be given orders by our overseers, and precious little else.

+ When I escaped, it was the chance of a lifetime. My overseer – the mech with my killcode – and I were alone near the edge of the mine complex. He dropped his guard, turned away from me. I saw my chance, and took it. I killed him, and I ran. My alt-mode at the time was a drill, and not very mobile, so I went on my own two pedes. I found a hiding place, and tore the self-destruct battery out of my chest with my bare hands. All slaves were outfitted with these; a small container filled with a strong acid. When triggered, it would release the acid onto the luckless mech's spark chamber. You know what happens when spark containment is breached – the spark destabilises, and explodes. Perhaps you may have noticed my unusually well-armoured chest? Wonder no more its purpose.

Orion minimised the chat program for a moment. His chest hurt. He did not want to imagine the scene, but Megatronus' words played out through his spark, and he knew beyond doubt that they were true.

His hip cabling was starting to ache. He shifted in his seat, unobtrusively trying to stretch the stiff cables. The speaker was nowhere near finished. With a gentle sigh, Orion turned back to Megatronus' story.

+ Fortunately, I was able to remove the battery in time. It detonated while I watched. Knowing how close I had come to death, and that there would be mecha searching for my deactivated frame, I left my hiding place and walked into the wilderness.

+ The Southern States are not a friendly place to outsiders, and though I had been enframed there, I spoke none of the language and knew none of the culture. Fortunately, however, I was large and strong. I learned a little of the tongue, found myself valuable again for my labour, and learned to defend myself against every attack. I could not legally work, of course, but I knew better than to let the law dictate my life's choices.I earned myself a little money, and found contacts in various places. By chance I fell into the gladiatorial pits – and someday I will tell you about them, but again, that is another long story.

+ But it was there that I met a mech, whose name I will not share, but whom I owe a great debt to. He shared with me a great deal of knowledge – he taught me first one language; then two, three, and four. He introduced me to the Datanet, and to some of those that worked with it. He sponsored me in the ring, and then, later on, in writing.

There was a pause, in which the blinking cursor which told Orion that on the other side of the link, Megatronus was writing, stopped and started. Then the next message appeared.

+ My first essays are nothing very impressive to look at, but they attracted some amount of attention. As I became a better writer, I gained some notoriety. We refined our ideas, planned a little further ahead each time, and

The line stopped there.

Orion waited a few minutes, but Megatron's cursor did not come back.

Up on the stage, the speaker drew to a close. The audience rose to their feet. Over the heads of those in front of him, Orion saw a mech cross the stage. Their curvy light-standard frame was draped in coloured fabrics, crowned in a diadem of precious stones. Under the decoration, their plating had been waxed to perfection. He could not sense their class ident signal with so many mecha in the way, but by the outfit, they were of a very high rank indeed.

Anxiety rose in his spark. He felt sick, his fuel tank under pressure. Reining his EM field in, he did what he could to smoothe out the anxious jitters.

What had happened? Had something important come up? Megatron had had to leave the forum suddenly several times before, but he had never sent an unfinished message like that.

Switching to Connetics, he discovered that Soundwave's profile had been deleted, and with it, the chat group.

:: Jazz :: he commed the minibot, :: what happened to Soundwave? ::

Again, there was no response. He checked Jazz' social page, and found at last an answer. Jazz was in recharge.

That at least was something of a relief. But Megatronus and Soundwave were still unaccounted for, and Primus only knew what had happened to them.


The conference was slated to last for four orn. Orion spent the majority of the first orn sitting in the back of various audiences, listening to scholars of various fields of history arguing about how best to preserve the Cybertronian Empire's records of its ancient forebears. The second, he followed Alpha Trion about the hotel, being introduced to representatives of public and private institutions from across the northern hemisphere. The third, he was released to do the mingling by himself.

There was a bar in the bottom of the hotel where many of the attendees ended up in the evenings. Orion accepted the invitation of a private museum owner to continue their conversation over a few drinks, and somehow they gathered a few companions on the way to the bar.

It was not like drinking with Jazz and his friends. Orion was lost with small talk, but these were historians and records-keepers; their topic of conversation kept coming back to subjects he knew and loved.

Like him, they were mostly low-ranked. The museum owner was one exception, a Tier-3 university dean from a satellite city in Kalis. The other was a policy-maker with ties to the Preservation Board and expression that seemed limited to notes on the theme of disapproval.

Orion's affiliation with the Iacon Hall of Records lent him a certain amount of status. The professor offered to pay for his drink, and wouldn't hear of Orion's protests. As Orion nursed the expensive cocktail the mech had come back with, he answered a quick-fire hail of questions as best he could.

“I think the best example we have is a letter from the king of Praxus to Kathismon's Primacy,” he mentioned as an aside from a response about the translation work Alpha Trion's department occasionally handled. “It was recovered from a locked server in the First City hub about forty thousand vorn ago, filed for later translation, and promptly lost when the First City servers went down in an unexpected mechanical failure. Fortunately, all documents associated with Kathismon's Primacy are mirrored in the Primacy's own archives, but it takes a lot of doing to get them to release such documents again.”

“Anyway, it's one of the most amazing formal documents I've ever seen; practically an artwork. The pages are illuminated with precious metals and ink – organic origin, we think, although without the original hardcopy it's hard for the chemical analysts to do their job. And it's filled from front page to back with the biggest screed against the caste system that I've ever seen.”

There was a huff and a roll of optics from the sour-faced policymech. The lower-ranked mecha at the table gave him quizzical glances, but the professor waved Orion on. “I've seen that from other Praxian documents of a similar age. They have some good points, both in the context of their own time and onward.”

Orion nodded. “We're still fine-tuning the translation, of course, but Alpha Trion is hoping to secure a public release license from the Primacy. There have been expressions of interest from several universities.”

“I'll have to add Graveyard Sound to the list,” said the professor. “We have a Mastery program analysing the processes that led to the current form of the caste system, and Praxus' objections are one of the major areas of focus. It's something of a delicate balance, keeping both the traditionalists and the reformists in the classes happy.”

He grinned, plainly expecting a laugh from his audience. Some did, Orion included.

“Are there that many of each alignment?” he asked.

The professor nodded. “We have a well-known theological school, and also a large proportion of liberal and reformist staff. We try to keep politics out of the classroom, of course, but you know how people will cling to their beliefs.”

“I know,” said Orion. “I count myself lucky that I haven't come across that sort of mech in my own studies.”

“I was wondering where an archivist came across some of these academic concepts,” the sour-faced mech observed, interrupting smoothly. The dean visibly bit back a rebuke; he was a rank below the policy castes.

“Alpha Trion applied for a dispensation to send me to the University of Primal Trinity,” Orion explained. “At the moment we have to rely on local academics for a lot of work that we could be doing ourselves, but don't have the official certification for – public release of non-religious artifacts, and whatnot. It would make our jobs a lot easier, and save the Hall a lot of money, if one of us could do it instead.”

“That seems a little above your station,” said the mech. “Everything in its place below Primus, and all that.”

Orion's optics narrowed. His spark whirled uncomfortably. It seemed he'd met another Functionist.

“You'd have to take that up with my superiors,” he said, attempting to put on his most honest, wide-eyed expression. “Everything was organised with the consent of the university administration and the Upper Iacon Emporium.”

“Don't play coy with me,” the other replied, still in the same smooth, cordial tone of voice. “Do you know why the Imperial system has lasted for so many thousands of vorn? Because it works . Without it, Cybertron would collapse into the same anarchy from which the Empire came. We are all but cogs in the machine, and if one cog slips out of place, it cripples the machine. You aspire to things above your station, it seems to me, and that is dangerous.”

“Are you kidding me?” said the professor. “Higher rank doesn't necessarily mean higher capability. That's not what the caste system was built for.”

“Dromon, I'm well aware of your reformist sympathies,” sniffed the policymech. “I know you enjoy the romance of ancient history, but look at him—” here he jabbed a finger at Orion— “do you really want a mech like that bringing down your class scores?”

Dromon looked at Orion. “What are your class scores?”

“I haven't had my final exams yet,” said Orion, honest to the core, “but so far the program has my name listed in the ninety-sixth percentile.”

Dromon's brows rose. “That's impressive.”

“Is it?” asked Orion. There was no need to feign humility, but he found himself glancing at the irate policymech as he continued, “I'm not so familiar with academic scoring systems, being archival caste, of course.”

Dromon grinned. “There you go, Eightpiece. Perhaps there's a great untapped market of students in the middle castes. In this age of dwindling government funding, that ought to come as a comfort to bursary offices everywhere.”

“Why is the funding being cut?” asked Orion. He kept an optic on Eightpiece – the mech was fuming. “Where is it going?”

The answer came accompanied by an expansive shrug. “Frankly, Primus alone knows. My theory is it's propping up the profit margins of expensive joint public-private operations, but that is of course just a theory.”

“And it's nothing you need to know in any case,” said Eightpiece. “I believe I will be warning your professors to watch out for plagiarism, because it is clear to me that you are little but an opportunistic conmech, and I don't know how an esteemed mech such as Alpha Trion saw fit to authorise you to act on his behalf.”

Orion's spark contracted; polar ice filled his neural net. He felt the attention the policymech's outburst had generated, and each pair of optics was sharp on the edge of his senses like dozens of tiny needles.

Unlike his run-in with the bar manager in the Decagon, this time, he felt anger. Worry over Megatronus' sudden disappearance subsumed beneath his long-tested sense of justice, and gave it strength. He was being unjustly persecuted, by a mech who seemed to think his only value was in the strength of a frame he had had no say in choosing.

“Perhaps I am wasted in the Archives, then,” he said. His voice echoed in his audials – he didn't want to say what he was about to say, but he couldn't stop it. “Clearly I should pursue a career in academic policy, because it seems I'd fit right in with the professional climate.”

Then he saw stars. Eightpiece had slapped him.

He blinked away the static that had crossed his vision at the impact. Behind the distortion, Eightpiece's shape had risen from his chair, and there was another figure who might have been Dromon, attempting to restrain the policymech.

Orion decided that he'd done the right thing. The mech was a wholly ordinary bully, just looking for an excuse to browbeat and abuse those beneath him. He'd started to sling insults at Orion, calling him a secretary's buymech and an atheist, and everything in between. After the first few, the words simply rolled off Orion's plating.

Then there was a new voice.

“Dear me – what's going on here?”

It spoke in High Iaconian, the language of the Imperial government.

Orion turned his helm, searching for the speaker. Then he shot up out of his chair, kneeling inelegantly before a party of three which contained a mech running Alpha Towers ident codes.

Others in the bar rose to their feet. Most patrons were ranked enough that they were not required to prostrate themselves as Orion did, but the conversation had ended as though cut with a knife. Eightpiece and Dromon straightened instantly, the former covertly pulling free of the latter's hold.

The Towersmech blinked. His optics were lined with gold paint in intricate designs, the raised metallic lines catching the light as he moved his helm from side to side.

“Or perhaps I have just arrived at an inopportune time, and should come back later?” He said it like a suggestion, but there was no-one there who could mistake his true meaning.

“No, your eminence, there is no issue, only that of high-grade we have not yet drunk.”

The touch of humor was well-received. The Alpha laughed.

“That is good! I was afraid I had walked in on a tiff, you see.”

Here the bully saw his chance. Eightpiece laid out his complaints in a rushed stream of sentences. His attention drawn, the Alpha raised a brow.

“Interesting,” he said at length, interrupting the policymech. Then, to Orion's surprise and horror, he crouched, and gave a single order: “Look at me.”

Orion obeyed without question.

The Towersmech smiled. His mouth was finely sculpted, the craftsmanship of the lips subtle and expensive.

“Now, what say you to those accusations?”

Orion was silent for a long moment, gathering his wits. Then he scraped together every iota of courage in his spark, and made his case.

“He told me I was an upstart conmech. I told him to watch out for his job.”

“Oh Primus.” The Towersmech covered his mouth – trying and failing to fight off giggles. “Did you really?”

In for a credit, in for a point.

“Yes,” said Orion.

“That's the best thing I've heard all year.” Rising to his feet, the Towersmech shook out his long, finely woven cape. “You are Alpha Trion's assistant, are you not? There are only so many dexters on the conference roster.”

“I am,” said Orion. He wondered if the mech was looking for Trion. It would be much easier if he could come out and ask, but the law was that someone of his rank could only speak when spoken to by someone of a Towers clade.

The mech gave his two companions – bodyguards, by the look of them – a quiet order. They dispersed to the rear of the bar, disappearing into a private drinking room.

“I was hoping to find the master, but alas he is busy with someone whose expertise in the subject outweighs mine,” he said, and gave a dramatic sigh through his primary vents. “I may have to settle for the apprentice instead. I have business with the Iacon Hall of Records, you see, and I was rather hoping to get it settled before I return to Iacon.”

Orion opened his mouth to reply, and found that there was no question in those sentences to answer. He had no choice, then.

The mech caught his optics again, and gave a very faint smile. He knew exactly what he'd done.

“You may rise, Orion Pax.” He stepped in close again, and laid an elegant servo on Orion's forearm, steering him expertly through the bar. His voice dropped to near-whisper. “You made quite an impression on my lord bondmate, and I must confess to sharing the approval thus far. I am Aerugo, a Consort of the Cavalier Sun. We have a proposal for you, that I rather think you will enjoy.”


On his arrival back in Iacon, Orion found he had been booked in for his vornly medical exam. Torre dropped in at his dorm that evening, handing him a datapad with the medical permission forms pre-loaded.

“We also have another Towers job lined up for you,” she said. Orion looked up sharply from his forms, and she continued with a teasing wink, “It seems that someone in Cavalier Sun has taken a shine to you.”

It was interesting, Orion thought, that the middle castes and the lower castes should have such opposing reactions to the Towersmecha. While he had been anxious and apprehensive around the nobles, it had never occurred to him to fear them specifically . They had a great deal of power, and that was a frightening potential, but they were simply greater mecha than Orion and his compatriots in Tier 4. Of course one should respect one's superiors.

Megatronus, by contrast, had all but panicked when Orion shared the story of his meeting with Elita One.

Orion filed the observation away in his short-term memory banks. It would be something to ask Megatronus when he reappeared.

If, of course, he did.

The clinic that held the Hall of Records' medical contract was exactly three city levels down from the Scholarship Plaza. Orion boarded the passenger elevator on the north side of the Plaza, and when he exited, the clinic entrance was right across the busy district road.

It was a large clinic, close in size to the public hospitals lower down in the city. Much of upper Iacon's health system was held in private hands; money, of course, could buy anything, and there was a great deal of money indeed swirling around the upper city.

Orion knew the owner personally. Ratchet was a big name in the medical field, an ex-Senatorial Advisor and a current professional representative to the Imperial Board of Health. He was also a practical mech who threw himself into the day-to-day business of the clinic with no less effort than he did the politics.

Orion was on his General Practice roll, and had been since the day he was sparked. The doctor had become something close to a friend over the vorn.

Entering the clinic, Orion gave his name and ID card to the receptionist. The mech behind the counter was a new mech, she blinked in surprise and gave him a careful look up and down. Reminded once again of Functionist ideologies, Orion's spark turned nervously. His ID card was accepted without comment, however, and the receptionist gave him an honest smile as she directed him to the left, where seats were provided for larger frames.

His spark settled as Ratchet emerged from the records office. The medic was himself a little larger than most upper Iaconians, though this was not at all unusual in medics. He was painted red and white, with a little yellow trim around his shoulders and forearms, and a large medical-caste cross on each pauldron. His brows were drawn low in a frown – he was apparently engaged in a fierce argument with the doctor who emerged after him. He scanned the waiting room, and his sharp blue optics found Orion.

This was evidently an excuse to end the conversation. Ratchet sent the other doctor away, and made his way across the room.

“Good morning, Orion. I heard you found your way to Pion.”

“I did,” Orion replied, standing. “It was... interesting.”

Ratchet jammed his fans, producing a graunching snort. “I bet. Smart people, but they're a bunch of snobs. Come on; I have a packet of papers with your name on them.”

Orion followed him into an internal elevator, which took them up two floors onto the general practice level. Ratchet's office was at the back. There were datapads and hardcopy files on every available surface.

Ratchet sighed, and gathered the piles on his exam table into his arms. “Take a seat. Ignore the mess, please, I've had an extra ton of paperwork to do lately.”

“That sounds like fun,” said Orion, tongue in cheek. “Is it a Health Board audit again?”

Dumping the papers into an unoccupied corner, Ratchet turned back to him, and shook his head. “I'm looking into expanding my charity clinic in the Undercity. Our patient roster has more than tripled in the last five vorn with the public health funding cuts, and we need more space, more equipment, more everything . I've got architects and engineers working on designing the expansion, a real estate agent negotiating leases on a new property, and I'm handling permissions with the city planners and looking for new sources of funding myself. So far, it's looking good, but there's just so much fragging paperwork to do I hardly know what to do with myself.”

Orion hummed in commiseration. “Forms in triplicate?”

“More like quintuplicate,” grumbled Ratchet. “My copy, the city planners, the Magisterium, the Archives, Primus knows who else. If you have any free time sometime, some assistance would be great. I can pay you for your time, of course.”

Orion checked his calendar. “There'll be a few shifts after my exams. If you still need help by then, I'm happy to lend my expertise.”

“We'll see, but my guess is that the answer will be yes.” A bloom of satisfied orange rolled through Ratchet's EM field. He pulled a systems scanner out of a drawer, swapping the connector jacks for a set which fit Orion's system configuration. “Let's start with a broad-spectrum operating scan. Have you had any viruses or physical injuries since last vorn? And how is university treating you?”

“I've had a couple of cookies and an immunosystem trojan. My antivirus handled both. No physical injuries.” Orion popped his medical ports, and Ratchet plugged the scanner in. “University is great. I'm enjoying the classes, I'm at least tolerated by my classmates, and my grades are consistently high. I think I've surprised a few people.”

Ratchet nodded. “Well, not me. Your system configuration usually does well in academia. It's not usually combined with your particular frame type, but other such mecha exist. Look at your new patron in Cavalier Sun.”

Orion blinked. “You know about that?”

“Your coworkers are the worst gossips I've ever met,” said Ratchet, with a flippant wave of his hand. “Alpha Trion especially. It also happens that I know Elita One through my time with the Senate. She has taken a shine to a few lower-caste individuals in the past. Between you and me, there are many theories as to why, but if I were you I'd take the opportunity. As Towersmecha go, she's got her spark screwed in right.”

A theory took shape in Orion's processor. “Her security director, Ultra Magnus – was he one of her...” he trailed off, searching for an appropriate word.

Ratchet finished the sentence for him. “Projects? Yes. I don't know much about him, but he's got a very cushy job up there in the Towers. Play your cards right, and you might end up with something similar.”

Orion made a face. The idea was tempting – very tempting – but something about the way Ratchet had phrased it felt wrong. It was the cynicism of it, maybe; it resonated with the very real fear Megatronus had communicated even over toneless text.

“I don't know,” he said. “The Hall of Records is where I was made to work.”

Ratchet glanced up from the scanner, finding and holding Orion's gaze. “You know, there's some out there looking for an alternative to the caste system. It's done its dash, they say; it's keeping us mired in economic and social downturn.”

Orion gazed back. “Are you anti-caste?” he asked.

Ratchet's optics widened. “How blunt,” he said.

“Are you?” Orion repeated. “I seem to be running into a few of those lately.”

The medic gave him a long, even look, and eventually relented. “I think I am,” he admitted. “I know you're more of a traditionalist than I am, Orion, but it's the charity clinic – the things I've seen there have been enlightening.”

Orion nodded. “Have you heard of the name Megatronus?”

“Not the Fallen, obviously,” said Ratchet, optics narrowing. At Orion's confirming nod, he sighed. “Once or twice. Some of the patients mentioned it in a context that confused me, so I looked him up. He's only one of many.”

“I've found myself in coversation with him,” said Orion. “I don't think I ever was as traditionalist as I may have appeared, but I have much more to think about now. One of my professors sent me an email yesterday. He told me that he had been worried about my capacity to learn at the level he was teaching, but that I had done very well, and that I was on track to pass the class among the top five students. It was not something he expected from a dexter, he said.”

Ratchet reached around the scanner cords and gave him a congratulatory pat on the shoulder. “Good work, Orion. You'll go far someday, and I hope it teaches the Functionists a lesson.”

“It makes me wonder how many capable mecha we're ignoring, because they're in castes not given the opportunity for education.”

Orion shut his mouth, and stared at the far wall. When was he going to say it outright? Somehow, he had become anti-caste without noticing.

“A lot, I'd say.” Ratchet tapped a command into the scanner. It beeped, and Orion felt the program go rifling through his lower cortex. “Hm. You have a dataminer. Let me get rid of that for you.”

Orion's spark leapt into his mouth. Even before he spoke his fears, Ratchet was shushing him.

“Don't worry, it's in your system usage records. We see these all the time in cold-constructed people who spend their lives hooked up to computers. They're not actually made to monitor sparked mecha, but they use the same pathways in cold-constructs as they do in the big network servers, so these things find their way in anyway.”

“Oh.” Orion relaxed. “Would I have reason to be worried if it was a different sort of program?”

He had the faint impression of a string of code being deleted. Ratchet made a satisfied grunt under his breath, and shook his head.

“Things are going downhill, but they're not there yet. The Imperial government keeps finding parts of its own operations that are doing concerning things – think the Exchequer, the Burthov Port Authority. I hear the Prime is steaming mad, but the reformists in general haven't crossed him yet. The biggest problem he has is the secularists in the Senate. They keep pointing out officials in Prime-appointed seats that, on investigation, are mired in corruption and illegal practices. If they keep being right, that's going to make Sentinel a laughingstock.”

“What did the Port Authority do?” asked Orion.

“Tax evasion on an epic scale.” The scan finished; Ratchet unplugged the jacks from Orion's systems. “Turns out that around three in ten of their employees in some positions were undocumented workers. Since the BPA had a Primal dispensation to deduct income tax on its employees' behalves, it was simply pocketing the deductions from these undocumented workers, because the Burthov gubernatorial office – and, consequently, the Imperial government here in Iacon – had no record of those workers being employed in Burthov. Over three hundred and sixty vorn, that adds up to something like two point five trillion credits of unpaid tax. The crystal on the top is that only a few hundred million of that is recoverable in fines, because the only legal charge they can level at the BPA is dishonest reporting of income, and that has a cap proportional to total quarterly income. Long story short, it turns out that the people best at gaming the system are the ones already at the top.”

“None of that has been on the news programs,” Orion said. “I know the Port Authority Board of Directors was forced to turn over its executive power to the local government, but we all thought that was because the government wanted to get Midships running again.”

“Of course not,” said Ratchet. “The BPA doesn't want to lose its investors and the Primacy doesn't want to admit it let Burthov get into such a state. I don't know the political details, of course, but the bare facts trickle down.” He put the scanner away, and came back with a handful of small instruments. “Turn on your front and put your legs up on the table, please. You've got some stripped cables in both knees and protomass crystallizing in the joints. I'm surprised you haven't noticed any pain yet.”

Orion obeyed. “I have had a lot of things on my mind.”

“That's true,” said Ratchet, with a sage nod of his helm. He threaded a scalpel blade between the mechanisms at the back of Orion's knee and bent to work. “Good luck with all that, by the way. I'll give you a call after your exams.”


Chapter Text

burn worldly love, rub the ashes and make ink of it

make the heart the pen; the intellect, the writer

write that which has no end or limit.

— Guru Nanak


The University of Primal Trinity lay on the edge of Upper Iacon's Scholarship district, about an hour's Metro ride from the Hall of Records. It was one of the city's smaller universities, containing only one college and two subordinate schools, but age and specialisation lent it standing.

Orion sat at the back of the class, as was his habit. Most of his fellow students were members of the priestly castes, shorter and massing decidedly smaller than himself. Taking up too much space was always a concern.

Every one of them belonged to the third caste tier or above. In most cases, the professors ranked somewhat higher than that. Orion’s enrolment had come with a special dispensation allowing him to interact with these personages as equals despite his lower rank, but even then, every time he went to class, an acute anxiety lurked in the bottom of his spark. These were his betters—mecha who would one day decide the course of his life, and the lives of everyone else on Cybertron. Simply existing in the same room as them was stressful.

He had gathered up his things at the end of that day's History lab as normal, looking forward to a short shift at the Archives and then his berth. Then, when he had turned to leave, he found the professor standing patiently at his elbow.

The mech was tall, but lankier than Orion himself. His name was Ziggurat, and he was the school leader of the History subordinate. Orion persistently scored among the top three in his class.

“If I might have a moment of your time, Orion?” said Ziggurat, the intonation that of a request. “I will not keep you long, but there is a discussion we are overdue to have, I believe.”

Orion checked his chronometer. “I have the time. Is there a problem?”

Ziggurat ushered him through the empty classroom, and into the office at the rear. “Not as such, no. It has come to my attention once again that you are no ordinary student – through several vectors, most of them more positive than negative.”

There were no chairs in the office; his desk was raised to standing height. Ziggurat took a sleek, recent-model datapad from the workspace, activated the device with a tap to the screen, and passed it to Orion. “I received this email last week, just before you returned from Pion.”

Orion read the message. His spark leapt into his throat and his EM field contracted hard – the message accused him of academic dishonesty. It was not signed, and the originating email was an anonymous reporting function based in Pion.

He glanced up at Ziggurat. The professor seemed unconcerned, his attention on a hardcopy sheet on this desk. Swallowing his spark, Orion reread the email. There was no specific accusation – just enough that his own anxieties filled in the gaps.

A gentle servo touched his forearm. “Don't worry too much,” said Ziggurat. “This is not the first message we have had that attempts to sabotage you. There will be an investigation, of course, but you passed the last with flying colors. I am quite confident that your talents are indeed natural.”

Orion sagged. “Thank you. I suspect I know who sent this.”

“Oh?” Ziggurat raised a brow ridge. Orion quickly shared the story of his encounter in Pion, leaving out the identity of his rescuer. He still wasn't sure how to respond to Aerugo's proposal. His nerves shied away at the thought.

The professor snorted. “I am not a betting mech, but I would say your instincts seem accurate.”

Orion vented hard. “I never expected this much opposition. I don't know what to say to them. Is it really so hard to believe that one caste or frame type doesn't have a monopoly on intelligence?”

“Harder than you might think. I will say that this is simply what we are taught from the moment of our enframing, which some of us are simply unable to overcome.” Ziggurat took the datapad from Orion's unresisting hands, switched to a new tab, and handed it back.

Again, it was an email. This one was signed, the originating address a .uni account at Graveyard Sound University.

It read thus:

I recently met one of your students, one Orion Pax, at the annual Northern Preservation Board Conference, and I would like to offer you congratulations on the polite and brilliant way in which he represented himself. He is a credit to his school. I of course do not mean to poach, but should he choose to continue with his higher education, Graveyard Sound's Development in History program would be glad to offer our services.

“Oh, Primus,” said Orion, optics wide. It had to be Dromon.

He scanned the rest of the message, and found a paragraph warning of Eightpiece's attempt at sabotage. “Is this what you meant by 'mostly positive?'”

Ziggurat nodded. “Our own graduate programs are fully theological, so it is a common practice among regional universities to browse our subordinate schools' students for prospective secular graduate program recruits. Thus far this year I have had seven messages from six universities asking me to pass along invitations to engage to my top students. This makes eight. And I will tell you that it is very rare for this honor to be directed to a part-time student. You must have hugely impressed this mech.”

Orion shuttered his optics, vented in and slowly out again. A warm glow of pride rapidly overrode the fear in his spark.

“I – I don't know what to say.”

Ziggurat smiled. “You need not say anything. Just keep turning in good work, and I can all but guarantee there will be more of these, should you choose to continue with undergraduate work. But that brings me to my next topic – I meant to ask you what your plans are regarding the future.”

“In what way?” Orion asked. “The Magisterium want me to have a Certificate or higher qualification in Religious Studies before they will give me access to their databases, but the Hall of Records won't support me in any higher qualification, because they don't need it. I was under the impression that I'd gain the certificate, and go back to work as usual.”

“In my opinion, it would be a shame to lose such a promising student,” said Ziggurat. “I understand their concerns, but there will be other, alternative avenues of funding: scholarships, perhaps patronage. I think you would do well in academia, and you clearly have a spark-deep inclination for history in all its forms. As a student, you apply yourself with vigor and dedication – which is more than I can say for others in this class.”

Orion gazed down at the teacher’s desk, absorbed in the pattern of the tempering. Thoughts whirled inside his processor. “Patronage?”

“As you no doubt realise, history is a subject with a great deal of relevance to our everyday lives.” Ziggurat’s smile turned lopsided. “See your anonymous detractor’s concerns as to the guardianship of our past as a nation. There are a lot of mecha far greater than you or I, who would very much enjoy the benefit of a professional insight into the past. They pay well for the privilege.”

“Oh,” said Orion. “I may have one of those already.”

Ziggurat’s well-oiled engine chuffed in a polite laugh. He reached across the table, patting Orion’s upper arm. “There you go. It does not surprise me; your position as an archivist may well be a disadvantage in terms of status, but it is an attractive position indeed to those who know to look beyond the superficial glory of caste.”

Orion felt his gaze dragged up to meet Ziggurat’s as if magnetized. Ziggurat smiled again – well aware of the sentiment he had shared.

“All I ask is that you think about it, Orion. You have potential. I would hate to see it squandered.”

Ratchet’s charity hospital in the Undercity was farther down in the hive than Orion had ever been before. To get there, he took the Union Plaza vertical lift as far down as it went, then hopped on the Midcity Rail (lower Iacon’s answer to the Metro) to Downtown, half a joor down the northern line.

The medic met him at a station built into one of the hive city support towers, a gargantuan spire of living metal that branched out several storeys above the line into a network of highways and cantilevered shops. Orion had wandered over to a stand selling handheld cameras and other cheap disposable items, and the first he knew of Ratchet’s arrival was a light slap to his back.

“I appreciate the help,” Ratchet said, gratitude pushing through his EM field. He lingered for a moment, then drew back, ushering Orion after him. “Follow me; I just got word that one of my patients needs picked up, and I may need your help.”

“Of course,” Orion said without thinking. “Are they nearby?”

“In a manner of speaking.” Ratchet shook his helm. “Prepare yourself; she doesn’t live in a particularly nice place.”

“Oh.” Orion pressed his lips together, but imagination did not quite quell the urge to help. “Lead the way, then. I’ll do what I can.”

Doing what he could turned out to be carrying an ancient dexter a head shorter than him out of a long-neglected tenement block in the underground district. She apologised every time some part of her knocked against the too-small hallways or doorframes, which was often. When they reached the atrium, Orion gently set her down in the bed of Ratchet’s ambulance alt-mode, and crossed his palm across his chin - a gesture vaguely remembered from his newspark days.

“There is no need to apologise; needing help is not a failure.”

Air wheezed from vents half blocked. The mech returned him a gentle smile. “You’re a sweet one. I don’t want to be trouble.”

“You’re not, Mekhane,” Ratchet assured her. “Neural degeneration is inconvenient, but so is the great majority of medicine. We learn to roll with it.”

Orion transformed, following him out into the road. This far down in the city, there were puddles on the streets and drips of dark oil running down the walls. The light was artificial and intermittent flickers in the electrical system plunged them into moments of darkness. Ratchet had his headlights on; after a moment, Orion followed suit.

They climbed ten levels, coming to a street corner with an ancient generator. Ratchet turned left, and Orion recognised the tall factory-bay doors that led into the charity hospital. Returning to root mode, he helped the orderlies transfer Mekhane from Ratchet’s alt-mode to a gurney. She gave him a goodbye wave as she was wheeled into a surgical ward.

Ratchet stood, leaning against Orion’s elbow for a moment. His EM field frayed at the edges.

“Are you sick, or just tired?” Orion asked, brows drawing together in concern. “You seem a little…”

“Tired,” Ratchet grunted. “Paperwork all week.”

“I see.” Orion gave him a sidelong look. “You should go recharge. Paperwork and bureaucracy are more my areas of expertise.”

Ratchet shuttered his optics. “You’re a lifesaver, Orion.” He dug in his subspace and came out with a portable hard drive, which he pressed into Orion’s hand. “Give me six joor, but wake me up if there’s anything important. Promise?”

“You have a deal.” Orion gently pushed him in the direction of the waiting room. “Sleep well.”

Ratchet grabbed a chair from the waiting room and disappeared into a dark room off the hallway. Orion took a datapad from his subspace, disconnected the text drive, and left it by the door, flashing ‘OCCUPIED’ at passing mecha.

Then he stepped into the administration office and tackled Ratchet’s paperwork.

The work was not particularly difficult - there was simply a mountain of it. A literal mountain of hardcopy, piled across Ratchet’s desk. Orion separated it out into seventeen piles based on completion, sender, recipient, and priority level. Then he fired up Ratchet’s datapoint terminal, entered the login information Ratchet had sent him the previous orn, and searched the terminal inbox for a few missing pages. An organised mech the medic was not.

Nevertheless, three joor dealt to the majority. Orion sent out six forms to the relevant agencies, replied to an email sent by the charities ministry, and argued with a desk jockey in the Public Works Bureau over regulations on non-profit organisations in the healthcare sector. Seventeen stacks of hardcopy dwindled to ten, then seven, then three. Orion’s processor had been built for work like this.

He set the computer on standby mode, rose to his feet, and stretched his arms above his head as far as they would go. Cables in his back protested. Archival work tended to involve a little less activity.

Out in the waiting room, a swell of sudden noise crashed through the door. It subsided quickly into a murmuring quiet.

Orion padded over to the door, and slid it open with a wary touch.

Beyond, the waiting patients had squeezed themselves up against every available patch of wall. For a moment, Orion was stymied - then he noticed the vacant space by the clinic entrance, and the two mecha that stood there.

They were both warframes. That alone was enough to make them stand out, but the dark smears of dried energon and armor score that streaked both their frames told more. One, a lanky red-painted mech, leant heavily against his companion. The gold-painted one stood straight, and far steadier than his state would have suggested.

Gangsters? wondered Orion. It was hard to tell. Judging by the reactions, there was a message here that he wasn’t getting.

He pinged the nurses.

One appeared from the recovery ward, but stopped dead when he saw the mecha in the doorway. Orion realised the nurse was a minibot.

Weighing up the options, he sent the nurse a shortwave ping: I’ll be your backup. Chevalier-class mecha were heavily armed and frightening, but dexters were warframe-kin. His size could be useful sometimes.

“Hello?” Orion hailed the new arrivals with a careful greeting. Once he had their attention, he moved out of the office, into the vacated waiting room. To his relief, the nurse followed him, expression steely. “My name is Orion Pax. What happened to you?”

The red one grinned through the mess on his face. “Fun stuff. Wouldn’t suppose you can help us out?”

Orion frowned. “I’m not a medic myself, but this is a clinic.” He offered both mecha his arm.

The nurse - First Aid by his ident signal - took over. “What are your names? We have no free examination rooms at the moment, but I can perform basic first aid out here, unless that’s a problem. It looks as though you’ve had quite the firefight.”

Orion blinked. The scores that pocked their frames coalesced into bullet wounds before his eyes.

The yellow mech spoke. “Not in here.”

First Aid gave him a measured look. “Okay,” he said, “not here.”

Over comms, he sent Orion a text message. :: Ratchet’s recharging in that back room, isn’t he? ::

Orion nodded. :: I just noticed he didn’t look well. Should we wake him? ::

Aloud, First Aid continued. “There is a back room we could use. It isn’t surgically sterilised, but it will do for the moment. Orion, would you be my assistant? I know you have no medical experience, but I could do with another pair of hands.”

“No worries,” said the red one. “Maybe I could get a hand here? My legs have gone to sleep for real this time.”

As he spoke, his knees buckled. Moving on instinct, Orion went to catch him. He wound up with a badly injured chevalier-class in his arms and the muzzle of an inbuilt plasma rifle in his face.

Amid the dead silence that followed, the red mech reached up, pushing his companion’s weapon away. “Come on, Sunny,” he murmured, fingers leaving smears of muddy blue on yellow plating. “We need help. I ain’t gonna die, but I really do wanna walk again.”

It was a long, tense moment before the golden mech relented. The rifle folded away into his arm with a soft hiss of hydraulics. Orion swallowed his spark again.

“Okay,” said First Aid, voice soft. “We’re going to go into that hallway back there, and into a door about halfway along. There’s a mech sleeping in there at the moment, but I’m going to wake him up before we take you in. Can you tell me where your brother’s injuries are, and what other symptoms he may have been displaying prior to now?”

Orion stood slowly, scooping the red twin into his arms. The yellow one, Sunny, relinquished his brother with visible reluctance. “He’s Sideswipe. We didn’t do anything.”

Split-sparks were exceedingly rare, but scientifically verified. Orion pressed his own EM field against the brothers’, and could not find the wavelength where one ended and the other began. Their sparks pulsed with an identical frequency.

“All that matters to me is that I know how you got hurt, so I can fix it,” First Aid said. “I’m a medic; not an Enforcer.”

“I got shot. Twelve times, I think,” the red twin volunteered. “Bled a lot, but Sunny patched me up. Started feeling tingling in my feet this morning, and next thing you know I was having trouble walking.”

First Aid went ahead, disappearing into the room in which Ratchet slept. Orion noted that the datapad had disappeared from the shelf beside the door. He found that the theft didn’t bother him; he had many more at home. Perhaps it had gone to someone who would find it useful.

The door drifted open further, and Ratchet emerged, EM field disheveled but much tighter-woven than it had seemed before. He looked the twins up and down, and his optics narrowed. Orion felt the sweep of a close proximity scan wash over the mech in his arms.

“Aid, you’re going to need a surgical theatre. Get these two cleaned up, and I’ll shuffle the schedule around. How’d the paperwork go, Orion?”

“Well, I think. I argued you a little more oversight on the government contracting and sent an inquiry letter to a couple of church charities. There is some left, but by and large it simply requires your signature.”

First Aid returned with a box full of basic repair tools. “Orion, can you please put Sideswipe on the berth here? Be careful; the shot may have damaged his lumbar neural column.”

Orion set him down. The brothers exchanged a long, unreadable look.

“Is that bad?” Sideswipe asked, sounding more interested than concerned. “It sounds bad.”

“It depends,” said Ratchet, from the doorway. “As long as the injury isn’t infected or very large, we should be able to reattach or replace the connections. It’s fiddly work.” He turned his attention to Orion. “I’ll second First Aid on this. If you’re finished with the expansion paperwork, you can head back to the Archives. Thanks for helping out.”

Orion nodded. He slipped out into the hallway, and as he did, a databurst arrived in his inbox.

He paused in the still-quiet waiting room for a moment. The message was short: a text file documenting hours worked at a pay rate of one hundred and fifteen credits a joor.

On the way out of the clinic, Orion passed a family with young nymphs. One older child sat near the doorway, fiddling with something on their lap. The light was dull, and he couldn’t be sure, but he thought he recognised the faint glow of the missing datapad.

It was snowing when Orion stepped off the Metro in Alpha Preserve that night. Soft white flakes drifted down out of the sky, the wind stirring them into flurries and piling them up where external walls met the ground.

Orion triggered his cold-weather systems as he drove out onto the boulevard. The chill retreated.

Unsurprisingly, he was one of a handful of mecha on the road. The Preserve may have boasted the most expensive views on the planet, but it was exposed to some of the worst weather.

A red and blue hauler waited for him at the gate to the Cavalier Sun compound━Ultra Magnus. Wordlessly he led Orion up the driveway, transforming at the hidden service entrance.

“Thank you,” said Orion, out of habit. He brushed clumps of snow out of the seams between his shoulders and chest, optics winding tight at the dampness it left behind. “I apologise; I think I’m a little early.”

“That is not a problem,” replied Magnus. His EM field was stiff and controlled, too smooth to read. Orion wondered why. “The Lord and Consort will see you as scheduled.”

Orion gave a meek nod.

He followed Magnus down a long hallway, into a different part of the compound. A sumptuously-decorated elevator took them up several floors into a lounge which overlooked the edge of the Observatory and the glimmering tops of Iacon below. Neither Towersmech was present.

Orion glanced at Ultra Magnus. “May I?” he murmured, motioning to the windows with one hand. Magnus gave him an even look, and nodded.

The snow drifting past outside gave him something external to focus on. Orion drew in a deep vent, let it out through his dorsal fans. The warm air condensed on the glass, a splash of misty white that quickly vanished.

He’d been rehearsing what he wanted to say on the Metro, but now that the moment was nearly upon him every line seemed awkward and insincere. He desperately wanted to impress the Alphas - and simultaneously, healthy caution held him back. His spark thudded against its casing.

The quiet hum of the lift gave him a momentary warning. Voices emerged, two light baritones speaking casually in High Iaconian. Orion squared his shoulders, firmed his lips, and knelt facing the door as Elita One and Aerugo entered the room.

Magnus closed the door after his Lords. There was a short, analytic silence. Then Elita crossed the floor, put her servo on Orion’s shoulder, and raised him up.

“Good evening, Orion. I trust you are well?”

“I am, thank you.” Orion used the most formal pronouns in his lexicon, tagging his speech with broadcast glyphs of respect and reverence. “I would like to request your audience, if it is not presuming too much.”

Elita quirked a smile at him, her EM field amused. It was a formal, almost ceremonial way of phrasing the question, one which Orion seldom had cause to use. In the ordinary course of things, mecha of his rank did not speak to Towersmecha.  

“I will allow it. Aerugo, my dear, come sit with me.” She motioned toward her Consort, then moved toward the low couches that bracketed an open hearth. “Orion Pax, please sit. Does the fire bother you?”

“No, Lord.” Orion took a seat opposite the two Alphas. The anthracite in the hearth burned lazily, orange tongues of flame licking against the brick. “It reminds me of household forges in late Dynastic architecture.”

Elita’s smile dimpled at the corners. “Have you read Silver Dawn’s novella Between The Stars ? I had the idea from there.”

Orion relaxed. This was familiar territory. “I have not. Do you recommend it?”

“From the bottom of my spark. It explores the rights movement for Well-Born mecha among the inhabitants of Tyger Pax, against the backdrop of the fracturing of the Houses of the Thirteen. I could not put it down.”

“She means that entirely literally,” said Aerugo, his voice dry. “She stayed up all night reading, and skipped a clade gathering the next morning, sending me to make her excuses for her. I did not know where to put my face.”

Orion covered his mouth with a hand, biting back a laugh. Was it appropriate to show amusement? Elita huffed and rolled her optics, but at her Consort. Orion’s chuckle went unnoticed.

Aerugo leant forward, elbows resting on his knees, fingers laced under his chin. “So then, Orion, we come to the focus of the evening. How have your studies gone since we spoke in Pion?”

The anxiety came back full force. “Well, I believe. The exam season hasn’t finished just yet, but I was told that I had an offer of a place in the Graveyard Sound University History program, should I continue with academic study past a subordinate degree. I’ve also found out that some unknown party besides Eightpiece has tried to sabotage my marks. It is a little worrying, to be honest.”

Both Towersmecha frowned. Orion’s spark performed a backflip.

“Why would they━ah, of course. I suppose the course administrators have found no evidence of wrongdoing on your part.”

“None at all,” said Orion, more forcefully than he had intended. He wrested a little self-control from his spark, exventing. “Is it really so threatening to the system to have an Archivist - a mech built specifically for large-scale data analysis - perform well in a field based on data analysis, if loosely so?”

“You would be surprised at how much of a threat a single mech can be.” Elita crossed her legs at the ankles, leaning back on the couch. “You see, if there is one, there is likely to be another. And if there is two, there is likely to be two more. In the eyes of the caste system, there are bogeys around every corner.”

Orion nodded, EM field glum. “It’s discouraging. I study, I read widely, I score highly, and mecha everywhere assume I cheated. If it weren’t for that, I would seriously consider going on to graduate or development school.”

“Then I believe we can help one another,” said Aerugo, sitting back with a satisfied hum in his EM. “My Lord Consort and I take an… interest in your education, which should reduce spurious accusations of this sort - after all, a lone Archivist out of place makes much more sense when one factors in a couple of busybody Towersmecha - and in return, you advise us regarding matters historical, religious, and archival. Obviously, my art collection is the main beneficiary here, but I foresee other potential benefits. No mech takes history more seriously than those who use it to remain in power, after all.”

Orion met his golden optics. After a moment, he remembered propriety laws and broke away, but the light chuckle Aerugo gave at that told him he had been anticipated.

“Do you mean patronage?” he asked.

Aerugo hummed. “Yes, I believe I do. That is what the academic classes call it, isn’t it?” He glanced sidelong at Elita, who nodded.

“What do the first rank call it?” asked Orion. Again, he realised the faux pas too late to restrain himself.

“Finding oneself a pet,” said Aerugo, with a smile. “A pet archivist, a pet Enforcer━” he waved a delicate hand at Magnus, who stood impassively by the door. “It is a little arrogant, I agree, but it sounds nicely homely. For those of us who are political players, it is all about seeming as little of a threat as possible.”

Orion frowned, but more in thought than disapproval. “I’m not particularly adept at either of those things.”

“We had noticed,” said Elita. “I think it is rather charming.”

Orion shuttered his optics. “I promise I’m trying to remember the protocols - it’s just that I never expected to be speaking with anyone higher-caste than third-tier.”

Aerugo’s EM field flickered. Orion’s proximity sensors tracked him around the hearth, then gave a strident beep as the Alpha plopped down on the couch beside him.

“Believe me, my dear Orion, we find the proper protocol in these situations to be just as frustrating as you do. I much prefer to be able to speak plainly with my subordinates - which is a lot easier to do when the mech I’m speaking to is not worried about being fined or jailed for it.”

“Or murdered,” said Elita, her voice distant. Orion rebooted his visual feed; she watched him from half-shuttered optics, her EM field still and circumspect.

Aerugo sighed. “That probably does not help, my Lord.”

“My apologies. Ramus’ ghost still weighs on my mind.” Elita found Magnus, and waved him over. “Orion, you have met Ultra Magnus, of course. He was an Enforcer we encountered in Tyrest, not quite a detective and not quite a lawyer, but frighteningly capable. We met him in part because his precinct was not prepared to deal with a mech like him. It would have been a shame to leave him there to stagnate, so we paid for his creation debt, and brought him home with us.”

Rather than smile, she gave Ultra Magnus a military-style nod, chin up and servo coming to her chest. Magnus replied in kind, then retreated to the door once again. The entire exchange was carried out in silence.

Elita turned back to Orion. “My impression of you is something similar: a bright spark with a great deal of potential, stuck in a place where that potential is not being properly utilised. Your analysis is full of imagination, and your imagination is driven by compassion. Both have been noticed, believe you me.”

“How do you know all this?” Orion’s voice went low in fright. “Have you been watching me just for that?”

“Not me, Orion.” Her ornate audial fins quirked up at the tips. “Who do you think our request for your services went through?”

There was a pregnant moment. Orion took a deep breath, and vented it all out. “Alpha Trion.”

“A much-respected member of the Northern Preservation Board, and, as it happens, one of my primary sponsorships.” Aerugo patted Orion’s forearm. “He is rather protective of you. I would hate to face that mech’s wrath if we did anything to trouble you.”

“Even though you outrank him by so much?”

“Even then.” Elita laughed, clear and bell-like. “Caste and rank are not everything. There is a growing awareness of this fact among certain circles. We happen to orbit around the periphery of one such group, and so does your esteemed manager. It was inevitable that we would at some point collide.”

Orion sagged into the padded back of the couch. This was too much. Patrons, Alpha Trion, and caste-reformers, oh my.

He grasped for a clear train of thought. “I’m only about to graduate from my Certificate. Confirmation would take another two to three vorn.”

“Which we are prepared to fully finance,” said Aerugo. “My hope after that is that you would complete a Development degree.”

Orion’s helm flopped back against the couch. He stared up at the ceiling. It was patterned, swirls of metal created, he guessed, by pressing a hot iron into the cooling sheet and holding it there until it melted.

“Yes,” he said aloud, contemplating the future. “Yes, I’d like that.”

Aerugo smiled. It was warm, but full of victory. They’d both got what they wanted.

“Wonderful. We can work out the details later - in the meantime, I rather think we should celebrate.”

On cue, a pair of servants entered the room with a tray of brightly colored highgrade in glass decanters. Aerugo waved them over, taking the tray onto his lap. He smiled, and said, “First choice to the guest, of course.”

As he took the dark blue glass, Orion thought he could get used to being treated like this.

Chapter Text

but if I work all day at the blue sky mine

(there'll be food on the table tonight)

still I walk up and down on the blue sky mine

(there'll be pay in your pocket tonight)


Orion was not invited to the graduation ceremony run by the University of Primal Trinity. This was not a surprise: a part of his special dispensation to attend the University had included the stipulation that he not draw undue attention to himself as a student. Instead, he handed in his student ID card at the administration center, was given in return three hundred credits in academic prizes, then walked out beneath the triumphal arch at the university gates with a new set of letters after his name.

He had planned to celebrate the occasion with a trip to a local bar, but Jazz had been called out on a surprise mission two days ago and Orion did not enjoy any of his other clademates’ company enough to make them satisfactory replacements.

Instead, he went home.

It was dark, the tail end of a long autumnal twilight. Winter approached at speed, daylight reduced to a dozen joor at mid-orn. Street lamps cast long shadows across the upper city roads, apartment windows glowing in mixed-use towers high above. A faint mist drifted across the metro lines, wisps of cloud curling about the city..

The Hall of Records was in full swing. Orion passed dozens of patrons along the main access road, mecha with Towers liveries and governmental insignias as well as private citizens, clumps of them gathered around the atriums of the two main library buildings and the complex cafe. The crowd thinned out off the main way. He saw two of his batchmates around the entrance to the junior archivists’ dorm, and then no-one until the foyer of his own residency hall.

He had work scheduled for late that night -- the latter half of the midnight shift, through to the dawn shift tomorrow. There was almost thirty joor between then and now.

Orion opened his fridge. A desolate wasteland greeted him -- nothing but Jazz’s disgusting mercury syrup. Amid the stress and study of the exam period, he had forgotten to do his grocery shopping.

Well then. Orion sighed into the empty fridge, suddenly feeling very tired.

He weighed up the options: was it better to get fuel first, or recharge? He did not like sleeping during the daytime; it disagreed with his circadian controls. He also did not really want to go out into the city again.

Compromising, he sat down on his berth and logged onto his Global Library account. His wishlist had grown by seventy items in the last vorn, most of them requests from mecha on Megatron’s forum.

The forum itself had been wiped at the same time as Soundwave’s Connetics account had disappeared. Fortunately, Orion had known where to find some of the commenters elsewhere on social media. Through them, he had reached out to others seeking knowledge.

He loaded his virtual cart with the entire wishlist, two hundred and thirty credits’ worth of digital books, and paid for it with his academic prizes. The transaction went smoothly; the book files automatically began to download.

                            ESTIMATED DOWNLOAD TIME: 2.4 joor.

Orion checked the wi-fi download speed, and groaned. There must have been a router down somewhere in the Hall.

He gathered his strength, and stood, setting the datapad to standby. His fuel tank sloshed, and a low-level warning notification blinked on in the corner of his HUD.

Very well -- shopping it was.

He slipped the datapad under his berth as he left, just in case.

Orion’s shift at the archives that night was a long one. He began it in his own comfy chair down in the Pre-Imperial History department, finishing off the translation of a document from the late-stage Iaconian voivodeship for a private museum curator in Praxus.

At first, he had Ariel for company. She was working late on a project of her own, and did not speak much barring the odd murmured swearword. She’d plugged herself into the console and typed via direct uplink, her screen split between two separate company chat clients. Negotiations, Orion gathered, were not going well.   

About two joor into the night, she sighed, packed up her things, and left with a distracted goodnight. The quiet enveloped Orion in her wake.

He wrestled awhile with the translation, running several linguistic analysis tools on a particular sentence that seemed to have no clear meaning. The late dialects of the Primal Vernacular could be obtuse, particularly when they addressed or concerned a person of high status. The document in question was a summary of a military campaign undertaken by the voivode during the early sorties of the Third Quintesson War. The voivode, perhaps a clade-cousin of the Prime at the time, was referred to by a variety of light-related terms, and his primary general by one word in particular which appeared to be some conjugation of the noun meaning ‘moon’.

Idly, Orion opened a new search window on his console, and searched the voivode’s house name. This was a trick he had learned from Ariel: academia and legal records used the ceremonial name by preference, whereas sources using a historical figure’s house name tended to be folkloric. There were houses in Iacon which had based themselves in the area since long before the city had been built. Local legends lived on in the Datanet.

A hit -- bookofcovenants.bsu.i, page titled ‘Eclipse: The Lord And His Master’.

Orion shuttered his optics. He ran the mystery word through his Vernacular lexicon. This produced no exact hits, but several partial matches based on glyph radicals. He copied the partials into his pasteboard alongside the original, then logged into his account on EverydayVernacular. Cybertronian government had long tried to keep the proliferation of its language under control, but the effort seldom bore fruit. Far from being the pure relic of the Dynastic period it claimed to be, the Primal Vernacular used in official documents and government today was the bastard child of a regional dialect spoken in the western areas of Centralia two hundred vorn before the founding of the Empire.

Iaconian Vernacular was one of the better-known variants. The standard lexicon, however, was not perfect.

Loading the extended lexicon, which included spelling errors, untranslated sentence fragments, and known euphemisms, Orion began a search for the word ‘eclipse’.

                            RESULTS FOUND: 8

All but one referred to clandestine sexual and romantic relationships carried out between master and servant.

Orion’s lips quirked. He went back to the bookofcovenants site, opened the metadata tab. The site was hosted off the Boreal States University network in downtown Iacon, the specific domain registered to a professor specialising in folk history. A quick skim through the site revealed a collection of essays from the professor herself and graduate students, detailing the figures and myths of early Boreal history and the folklore through which it had been passed down.

Transferring the search window to his onboard computer, Orion bookmarked the main page for later browsing.

The midnight shift slipped by. His translation came together, piece by piece. Orion enjoyed the work; it came to him somewhere between a puzzle and story, words gradually coming together to present a narrative in a whole new grammar, their structure informed by culture and history. Praxus’ language of academia was Meridiennais rather than High Iaconian, informed more by the cultural environment of Centralia than the north. It shared very little with the Iaconian dialects, from the word order down (subject-object-verb in Iaconian, verb-subject-object in Meridiennais).

A chime in his HUD startled him out of his focus.

Orion found the notification, a chat invitation in his onboard message center from a generic comm ID with the Polyhexi numerical prefix. He subjected the invitation to a security scan before opening it.

>>    ya Orion, don’t tell anyone I sent you this
>>   you just gotta see it

Jazz’ diction, in a Polyhexi cadence and style. The third message was a link to a livestream site.

Orion checked the metadata. Not a Polyhexi site - not a Polyhexi uploader. Location data unavailable.

He vented slowly through his auxiliaries, and clicked the link. Jazz’ track record with cybersecurity was not perfect, but close to it.

Sound blasted through his internal audioprocessor - not loud so much as intense . The video was low quality, the connection not quite enough to handle it even so. The unseen streamer looked out over a narrow plaza in an undercity, a cavernous open space long closed over by a city which had grown up around and over it. The plaza seethed with mecha, too many of them packed tight into a space that could barely handle it. There was a roar in the background, thousands of voices coming together as one. Stamping pedes gave it rhythm.

Orion listened closely to the chant, but the audio feedback was too much. Two syllables, repeated. He saved the audio file for later reference.

At the side of the plaza, just along from where the streamer sat, a gap opened up among the crowd. Two mecha strode into the open space, and a sudden hush descended.

Orion’s hand clenched around his stylus. Work was a long way from here.

Megatronus’ silhouette was distinctive, even in 200dpi. Light glinted off his shoulder armor, orange and smoky. He raised his cannon arm, fist clenched. Every single mech in the crowd responded in kind.

“What does that mean?” Orion whispered, forgetting he was alone in the basement of the Hall. “What are you doing?”

Megatronus let his arm drop to his side. He paused a moment, armored helm lifting; Orion imagined he was scanning his audience. When he spoke, his voice was deep and ravaged, but his words clear enough despite it.

“We are Cybertronians,” he said, his tone conversational, almost casual. “We are descendants of Primus through the spark of Solus the Smith of the Thirteen, and we are here. We are alive.

Cheers sprang up, interspersed with more strident cries. Megatronus listened, waiting for quiet again before he continued.

“We have no duty to wear ourselves down to the core earning money for some distant oligarch while he skims the top off our rations and cheats us of our legal compensation. Primus gave us no such lot in life. The sparks in our chests are proof positive of our equality to each and every mech that sits on caste tiers above our own. That equality is our birthright, whether we came from the Well or from some other mech’s spark. It is something we are owed, and it is long overdue.”

Again, the crowd roared in response. This time, Megatronus did not wait. “Make no mistake, the mecha who owe us this equality do not intend to give it! They like to feel superior to us! They especially like to spend our hard-earned money! Mecha of the Iron Ridge, we are going to have to fight.

“It will be a long and hard campaign. Some of us may fall victim to our oppressors in the meantime. But they will not kill all of us. Our bargaining chips are our own bodies. They need us to make their money. They need us to mine their iron. Let it be known that we will not be exploited.”

The gathered crowd burst into a phenomenal roar. Sensory data misrouted through Orion’s processing center, and colored sparks danced across his vision. He temporarily muted the feed, watching on in silence.

Reform. That was the word among the higher castes he worked with, from Elita One and Aerugo down to the anti-caste sympathisers he overhead among the racks of his own Hall of Records. It meant a reworking of the societal paradigm in which they lived, developing new priorities and systems from the best parts of the old, and discarding ancient (and not-so-ancient) practices which no longer served them best. Orion had found himself tangled among the reformist ideology, quite without intending.

Megatronus’ word was different. His world spoke a different language: the language of violence.


Orion kept watching, but soon the gladiator left, and the crowd closed up once more in his wake. The livestream ended.

He sent Jazz a message:   

>>   Where did you find that?

It took a few minutes for the reply to arrive. Orion tried to focus again on his translation, but his thoughts kept dragging back to Megatronus like iron to a magnet.

>> been watching it happen

>> mech really knows how to work a crowd

Orion’s jaw tensed. Jazz was nowhere near the Southern States -- or so his mission card had said. Northwestern Tagan Heights, and the rus out to the Rust Sea coast.

Just for the hell of it, he opened a browser window in his internal HUD, and ran a Datanet search on pages with the terms ‘Megatronus’ and ‘caste system’, sorted by date created. Then he took the same terms, translated them into Meridiennais and Tagani, the primary languages spoken in the Tagan rus , and searched for those as well. Orion was not fluent in Tagani, but he had the basic language packets. Translation was reasonably simple when you didn’t have to be precise about it.

Between three and six quartexes ago, there were six hundred and forty two results. Between six and fifteen quartexes, there were eleven hundred and eight.

During the last three quartexes -- since just before Megatronus’ disappearance from the Datanet -- there were close to eight thousand.

Orion tracked the results through several small media sites and social forums to a video posted on a Southern States mediasharing site. The video was another amateur recording of a public rally. The recorder was much closer to Megatronus than the mech who had streamed the more recent speech.

Megatronus stood on the rubble of a collapsed building, looking out over a crowd as ravaged and broken as the partial wall on which he stood. Behind him, Orion could see smog and open sky, and in the distance the skyline of a hive city he did not recognise.

“Let them know that we are not tools to be used and discarded -- we are living mecha, and our thoughts, our minds and our sparks are worthy of listening, education, and respect. Let them know that we will have our dues.”

The video was one of several by the same user, a shadowy presence behind several IPs in Slaughter City. The other uploads on the account were of local political figures and activists, static images and videos and speech transcripts. Most had view counts in the low thousands. The video of Megatronus was approaching half a million.

Orion sat there for a long while, thinking hard. He could not have verbalised much of his chain of thought; it was conducted in emotions and urges to morals as much as logic and computing processes.

Eventually, he saved the link to the video, posted it into an online document, and dug into his recent memory banks. Retrieving the visual and audio data of the stream, he converted the memory file into a playable video file, and added that.

Then he wrote a quick note, explaining his acquaintance with Megatronus, and also the mech’s disappearance. Before he had second thoughts, he locked the file to the Hall of Records, and sent the link to Alpha Trion.

He’d hoped that passing on the information to someone outranking him would lessen the weight that had settled upon his shoulders, but there was no difference. The world stretched out in the space behind his optics, inside his helm, and the horizon glowed silver but no road led there. Orion would have to find his own way.

He vented softly, a puff of air in the silent office, and returned to his translation.

Alpha Trion did not respond for a while. This was not unusual; Orion often had to remind him multiple times to look at time-sensitive things before he would receive an answer.

After three orn, he could bear the suspense no longer. Lingering in the Pre-Imperial History department after his shift had ended, he poked his helm into Trion’s private office and requested an audience.

Alpha Trion raised a quizzical brow at him. “How goes it, young mech? Have you a question or query for me?”

“I was wondering if you had seen the document I put in your inbox,” said Orion, resorting to the straightforward manner he used when he had no idea how social rules should be applied to the situation.  Alpha Trion was not a friend or mentor -- he was Orion’s manager. But this was not just a plea for advice; it could potentially affect his job, his whole department.

“Ah.” Trion’s optics dimmed. “My apologies, Orion. I have, but I had forgotten to reply. In any case, a face to face discussion is warranted.”

Orion’s optical apertures twitched, a biological reaction to sudden anxiety. He slid into the office, closing the door behind himself. “I understand. I will take full responsibility for my transgressions, sir.”

‘Sir’ was a word he did not often use, a High Iaconian pronoun used for those with direct responsibility for oneself -- parents, managers, clade leaders. Given the implication of deference that went with the normal usage, it tended to be somewhat apologetic.

Alpha Trion rose from his chair. “Rest easy, young one -- as of yet, you have committed no such transgressions.”

Orion looked up at the one mech in the Hall who outmassed him, his EM field flaring with surprise and other emotions he was not quite sure how to describe. “How have I not? I have been engaging in regular communications with a mech who…” he trailed of, unsure how to vocalise his worries, then continued with a burst of inspiration, “who seems to be seriously calling for measures that would have a high likelihood of destabilising our entire social system. Is there something I am missing?”

Trion’s facial array drooped, a minute change of expression conspiring to make him seem more ancestral than ever. “Orion Pax, your reading of the situation is accurate, but, I believe, a little small-scale. Why did you begin corresponding with this Megatronus?”

“Because I thought his writing was interesting, and when he contacted me about my contributions to his forum I saw an opportunity to ask him about some thoughts of his that I didn’t fully understand.”

“I see. And these thoughts of his, you did not immediately see the danger in them?”

“No.” Orion stopped short, refocused his optics. “I saw a lot of suffering, and a lot of anger. I did not realise he meant to do something about it.”

“And what do you think about that?” Trion absently rubbed his thumb along the edge of his facial array. “You have more thoughts than this, Orion. It is them I am interested in, not Megatronus and his efforts at reform.”

“It wouldn’t be reform, though, would it?” Orion crossed his arms over his chest, a nervous defensive response he could not stifle. “Nobody would listen to a bunch of untouchables on their own. They’d have to make the government listen. That wouldn’t be reform, it would be revolt. Or revolution.”

Alpha Trion was quiet for a long moment. Then he sighed, the release of air disturbing piles of hardcopy on his desk.

“What do you think about that, Orion?”

Orion looked down. His spark drew tight, self-control pulling his EM field in close to his frame. How did he feel about reform? He did not know. A large part of him threw itself behind the idea in wholesparked support; another large part lingered back out of worry. Staying where the world was familiar, if utterly unfair, was tempting.

Still not as tempting as a world where he had the opportunity to be as he felt he was meant to be, rather than straddling the awkward party line he did now, one foot in and one foot out of the box in which he had been placed at the moment of his enframing.

“I think that we need to adapt as a society -- and that we have not been given the chance to do so for far too long.”

Trion bowed his head. He reached out to Orion, placed a gentle servo on his shoulder.

“Then, I think, you already know what to do.”

Orion Pax wrestled over the issue of what to do for the next two orn. Alpha Trion’s confidence in him was mystifying, but in some ways relieving. He’d spent his life believing in the sanctity of the system, in its legal and religious weight. It had been the solid ground on which he walked. Questioning it now was like stepping into an unanticipated puddle, and finding it had turned into an ocean.

He turned it into a list: Why Should I Fight The System, and Why Should I Not?

After a few hours of this, he added a third category: Why Am I Afraid?

There was a lot of fear, Orion mused, looking at how quickly that third list had outgrown the others. Not simply his own, but others’ fear too.

A fourth category arrived. How Do I Deal With It?

He looked at Megatronus and his followers -- they feared the resistance of those who benefited from their exploitation, and faced their fear by preparing for war.

He looked at Eightpiece and the Functionists -- they feared destabilization, and faced that fear by forcing others to comply utterly with their rigid social rules.

He looked at himself. What did he fear?

Orion Pax feared pain and suffering. He feared the suffering of others, as well as his own. He dealt with it by trying to to help those who suffered, and helping them to help themselves, and others in turn.

There would never be a world entirely without suffering -- he had studied enough history to realise this truth. But that did not mean he could not try .

And it was just as he thought he had come to a conclusion that Megatronus returned to his life.

It was a cold, dark morning, a little too early for the lightening of the sky that was the Polar Depression’s excuse for late autumn daylight. Orion had just gotten out of an overnight shift at the Datanet processing hall. Too late to go recharge, but too early do anything much else.

He dropped eight credits on a cup of warmed and thickened midgrade from the Hall cafe -- apparently there’d been another price hike from the energon processors. Then he found a low wall outside on which to sit, pulled a datapad from his subspace, and logged on to the Datanet.

The orns of inactivity during his final exams had left his various social media profiles buried under a deluge of notifications. NetDirect was worst; the site had run an update while he had been missing in action. Orion clicked a button with an unclear label, and a stack of his unread messages disappeared. “Scrap,” he said, venting softly.

NetDirect was an older site, one which had lost popularity several vorn ago. It had had a reasonably intuitive interface and a useful current events widget, which was why Orion had clung onto it. He was not expecting much in his inbox -- but to his surprise, there was a new PM sitting in his message center.

>> Orion, my friend, I must apologise for my disappearance. There was an issue regarding our hosting security on the old forum. I wonder if you have an account on Aster Chat? It would be good to speak to you once again.

The message was not signed, but its content was clear. Megatronus was back.

Orion had not heard of Aster Chat before. He ran a search on a domain registration database. It proved to be a messaging program with servers registered in Thetacon and Meridia and planet-wide coverage. Demographic reports showed mass popularity among users in the Southern States.

He went back to NetDirect. One of the site's stronger features was an inbuilt traffic counter. Orion checked the records for his own profile. Among a handful of hits, there was one from an IP address in Thetacon.

Megatronus? Perhaps. More likely, it was a proxy.

Orion’s servos tightened on the datapad. There was a time for careful deliberation, but this was not one of them.

He composed a quick reply.

>> I have not, but I can make one. Give me a moment.

The signup was quick, and would have been quicker had his first choice of username not already been taken. He did not like to use his full name, but ‘Orion’ was a common name element among the religious, deriving from a Dynastic saint. He resorted to his full name, the ‘hunter of peace’, but swapped out the radical meaning ‘peace’ for the symbolic ‘horizon’. This changed the meaning to something along the lines of ‘I seek change’.

Given the context under which they spoke, Orion thought, this ought to amuse Megatronus.

He messaged the account username to Megatronus, and waited. No doubt Soundwave, or whoever was handling cybersecurity, would want to vet his identity.

In fact, the first message he received was a nonsense sentence in Austral Vulgate, and a link. Spambot.

Orion spun his fans, and rose from his desk, collecting a bottle of sweet mid-grade from his fridge. He took it to his window, pushing the pane open just a crack -- freezing polar air swirled in, snowflakes settling on the sill -- and pried the lid off the bottle very carefully. There was a hollow pop, and carbonated energon streamed out and over his servo.

Orion swore gently, delicate sensors in his digits complaining at the rapidly freezing foam. He pulled the bottle back, licked the dripping foam away, and transferred it to his other servo. The first hand was likewise licked clean, then shoved into his ventral exhaust to warm up.

He checked Aster Chat again. At last, a message from Megatronus.

>> I have learned many lessons in the past few chords, not all of which were pleasant. Trust, Orion; it is a gift to be given only with care. That is as true for you as for I, though perhaps, for you, one with less painful consequences to be had.

Orion scanned the message three times, frowning.

>> I don’t understand. Was the issue with the forums something to do with me?

>> No, no, not at all. I was careless with another mech, and our servers were confiscated under a court order. ‘Fomenting unrest’ is apparently a crime. I find this sadly ironic.

Orion laughed aloud.

>> I suppose they’ll just have to arrest themselves, then. It isn’t hard to find oneself unrested in these times.

Megatronus’ cursor clinked for only a moment before he replied.

>> Even for a higher caste mech such as yourself?

>> Yes.

Orion considered his response, then added an observation that still made him wonder:

>> Higher caste than myself, even.

>> Ah

replied Megatronus, and then:

>> Good. It relieves me to know that we at the bottom of the system are not the only ones to realise that caste is holding us all back.

Orion was not sure that he would have described it as ‘relieving’, per se, but Megatronus had a point. Change would be far easier to achieve with the backing of those who already had power within the system.

>> I think there are far more of us than it looks. As far as I can remember, I have always had misgivings about caste and the enforcement of it. It was not until I found your writings that I realised these misgivings were well-founded. I was afraid to give voice to my thoughts, because I had always been taught that caste was what Primus intended for us, and that to complain about it on one’s own behalf was not just blasphemy but selfish, a reflection of my own sins rather than the faults of our societal power structures.

>> I want to thank you for that. It has taken me a while to see clearly, but I think I am now satisfied with what I see.

Megatronus’ cursor flashed.

>> And what do you see, hunter of change?

Orion smiled.

>> I don’t know yet. It’s very complicated, and I’m still putting things together. At the moment, the only thing I really know is that I want to help people.

>> Yes, Soundwave told me about the books you sent. I found several of them on an academic blog. For as much as you spent on them, you could have bought my flat in the Cataract, and my neighbour’s as well.

Orion rested his elbow on his desk and his chin on his palm.

>> I have fifty-eight credits left. Is there anything you or others you know might need?

Megatronus’ icon went dark for several minutes. Orion browsed a Southern States news site while he waited.

The chat window chimed twice, three times.

>> Server upkeep, sixty shanix a quartex. Soundwave tells me we could rent a server in Meridia for one hundred and eighty shanix a quartex, which is far out of the Southern States jurisdiction. Better legal protection likewise.

>> Basic linguistic programming. Beginner packets and vocabulary extensions for newsparks, or something like it. I know of a cheap publisher, but we’re always in need of more. Austral Vulgate, Tarnais, South Tagani and Underland Torii. About thirty shanix a unit.

>> Medical supplies. Three hundred shanix would help.

He did not elaborate on the last one. He did not need to.

Orion did some quick math, then ran a search on language program publishers.

>> There’s an Iaconian publisher that will do Austral Vulgate and Underland Torii in bulk for two credits a unit. Let me talk to some contacts, and I might be able to get you a bulk purchase for five hundred mecha.

>> For fifty-eight credits?

Megatronus used a modifier glyph that sounded somewhat dubious. Orion didn’t blame him.

>> Well, no, but that’s why I said let me talk to some contacts.

His digits hovered over the keyboard for a moment before he pressed send. He’d been about to tell Megatronus about his contract with the Cavalier Sun and Elita One’s cadet family, but doubt had stayed his hand. He trusted the Towersmecha, those two at least -- but he doubted that Megatronus would, and again, Megatronus had very good reasons for his doubt.

>> Very well. I shall await the verdict with great curiosity.

That sounded like permission.

They swapped account numbers, and Orion transferred the fifty-eight credits to Megatronus. He eyed his savings, three hundred in an everyday interest account and twenty-eight thousand in a bonus interest fund that he couldn’t touch for another fifty vorn. He had never once thought of himself as rich, but perhaps he was, from another point of view.

There was a bookmark in his browser folders, somewhere. Orion dug it out -- an opinion piece in an Iaconian political magazine, from one of the politicians heading the Imperial Senate’s secularist group. It called for action in the defense of legal protections for conscientious objectors.

He copied the URL, and sent it to Megatronus.

>> Here, I thought you might be interested in this.

Chapter Text

For wisdom is purified by morality, and morality is purified by wisdom; where one is, the other is, the moral man has wisdom and the wise man has morality, and the combination of morality and wisdom is called the highest thing in the world .


Winter advanced on Cybertron like a tide, deceptively slow.

One of the first datapackets given to newsparks out of the Well was a basic introduction to the greater Cybertronian solar system. Cybertron was one of only two planets locked in orbit around a young main-sequence star. The other planet was a small rocky affair called the Pilot, navigating a treacherous course through the asteroid fields of the further system. Cybertron’s orbit was heavily elliptical, and its axial tilt pronounced. Winters could be axial or orbital in nature. Sometimes, they were both.

The sun, now a diminished spark in the distance, dropped below the Iaconian horizon the night before the Mysteries of Logos. It would not rise again for two and a half lune.

Orion sat at a desk by the floor-to-ceiling windows, work datapad out and downloading information on ancient Praxian religious rituals direct from the Hall of Records’ neatly-maintained Mythic database. Aerugo had acquired a new flagship piece for his collection, a massive standing jar which had held sacrifices of innermost energon from devotees of a Second-Generation cult based in the Praxian satellite city of Petrex. 

Outside, the sky was clear and dark. Luna One lingered above the roofline of a neighbouring Tower, outshone by a standing fae lantern on the greathouse verandah. Alpha Preserve looked away from the heaving hive city of Iacon, out over the Polar Depression. It tricked the mind into the impression of solitude. Orion felt he could almost forget the city of a hundred million sparks at his back.

Aerugo was away, having left to visit his paterfamilias over the Vigil season. Elita One was downstairs, entertaining a small group of her fellow first-tiersmecha. Ultra Magnus was no doubt with her.

Orion had not seen any other mecha in the Tower, servants aside. He wondered if Elita and her Consort were the only clade members in attendance on their palace.

Orion’s immediate reaction to Aerugo’s proposal in Pion had been to research. Cavalier Sun was a member of the Alpha rank, preeminent among the Towers social strata. The disgraced former Exchequer had been only one of their members in high Imperial office; Ramus aside, there was a Supreme Court judge, a couple of Senators, an Imperial Deputy, and the Steward of the Imperial Household Authority.

Had been, rather. One of the Senators had lost his seat to mid-term jockeying for position among his political party, and the Deputy was under investigation for a bribery scandal.

Orion had followed a trail of news articles and published legal records deep into the clade’s history. He found tax records for the centuries Ramos had spent as Exchequer, made public during his disgrace, and lists of business ventures known to be funded wholly or partially by Cavalier Sun backers. The clade’s wealth was enormous. There was no part of the Empire far from Cavalier Sun trade.

Orion’s initial impression of Elita had been right -- she was a couple thousand vorn younger than him. Brought out of the Well and registered with a magnitude-XII spark, she had been destined for greatness from her first moment. Her Cavalier Sun paterfamilias had sent her to a succession of elite private colleges in Pion and High Iacon, names Orion could practically taste the money behind. Elita had graduated valedictorian and head of class for her cohort at the Primal College of Iacon, gone into a Confirmation degree triple-majoring in Political Science, Macroeconomics, and Imperial History and Law, and finally completed a Mastery in Imperial Law with the Vivid Icefall clade of hereditary lawyers. She had then worked for the Imperial Household Agency as a senior legal assistant, served ten vorn as a district prosecutor in the Stellar Galleries, and finally landed herself an advisory position with the Iacon State Governor’s office.  

Aerugo’s history was more relaxed, as the scion of a Beta Towers clade closely associated with the Primacy. He had a magnitude-IX spark, one of the readings where luck alone determined a Well-born spark’s caste placement. Perhaps alpha sparks had been rare the vorn of his birth, because Aerugo had been adopted into the Iaconian Towers. He had been raised as a future Consort, an awkward Towers construction where the mech in question was trained specifically to be a lifelong subordinate of whichever mech his paterfamilias chose for him to be bonded to. In his free time, Aerugo had studied art, art history, and religious iconography. Apparently he was a respected art dealer to the Towers castes -- this Orion found in a footnote on an outdated social calendar.

They had no children, Well-born or otherwise. In some Towers clades, the clade kings decided who was going to reproduce and when it happened. If Cavalier Sun was one of those, the kings were taking their sweet time in deciding. Elita was the youngest member of the clade, at seventeen thousand vorn. The next youngest, a Consort of the Aurora Rampant clade, was nearly forty thousand.

Orion’s datapad bleeped. He ran the post-download protocol and put the file through the Cavalier Sun’s network virus scan, then uploaded it to the Tower servers.

Job completed, he sent Elita an unobtrusive comm to let her know he was on his way back to the Hall of Records. He packed up his datapads and stood, carefully placing Aerugo’s jar back into its display case.

Elita commed back just as he left the room. :: Unfortunately I cannot see you to the road myself, but let me offer my thanks for your services. ::

:: None needed, my lord. :: Orion replied with the appropriate formal register and pronouns, then dropped the affectation as his contract with the Towersmecha allowed. :: Let your Consort know he has an artefact from the very early developmental period of the Clavis Aurea sect. I don't know how much he paid for it, but almost certainly not as much as it is worth. ::

:: He mentioned he was rather pleased with the price :: Elita observed. :: What exactly is it? ::

:: A ceremonial receptacle for sacrifices, generally of worshippers’ innermost energon. Clavis Aurea split off from the Oriens Orthodox broadstream of the Mythos over disagreements regarding the manner of creation of the Thirteen. In the sect’s infancy, believers would consign their physical bodies to Primus via these jars -- most common was the sacrifice of innermost energon and the shaving of the spark chamber, but it was not unusual for one to mutilate oneself in more drastic manners. These days believers simply refuse to replace non-essential parts which are lost in combat or illness. The early sect members simply took a more… active role. ::

:: Oh :: said Elita, and then, :: I am sorry I asked. ::

Orion laughed, very tempted to send her his amusement. He was gradually acclimating to the household she ran, which was far less attendant upon ceremony and status than he had expected.

:: My apologies :: he said instead, tongue in cheek. :: Religious history can be deceptively wild, by our modern standards. ::

:: Indeed. I did a little research myself, a little while ago. I see why you are so fascinated by it. ::

:: As my tutor said, it has ramifications regarding a great deal of modern power structures. You would have a better understanding of that than I. :: Orion slipped out of the servants’ back door, hailing the house’s guard cadre. A hulking warframe, painted all in black, escorted him to the gate. :: It is fascinating, how the different spheres of culture contribute to our social reality. ::

:: Perhaps you ought to look into that as a potential field of study :: said Elita. :: A greater understanding of how we came to be in this situation could prove invaluable to those trying to advance us further. ::

Folding down into alt-mode, Orion headed for the Metro station. Street lamps lit the road, glimmering specks of frozen dust and drizzle drifting in and out of the light. Orion checked the seals on his cold-weather systems.

:: That would be an option, yes. :: He vented softly, and ventured a statement. :: I would like to be of use to the rights reform movements, somehow. ::

Elita was quiet for a moment. When she spoke, her voice gave away nothing of her thoughts.

:: I believe perhaps a double course of history and domestic politics would serve you well. Add religion for a little extra respectability, if you think you can handle a triple degree. After Confirmation, you would do a Development degree -- three or five vorn, if you want to do practical rather than academic work. And, of course, involve yourself in activism while all this is going on. Likely this is a more comprehensive plan than you would need, but truth be told the possibilities are fascinating. ::

:: I see :: said Orion. :: And would this be of use to you? ::

Elita sent him a databurst consisting of one glyph -- an ideogram meaning laughter. :: Absolutely. There are things I want to do with Cybertron. Having a classically-trained Archivist and a religious historian on my side would help, no matter the caste of the mech. And it would work in your favour when I apply for rank-exemption for you. ::

Orion hit a patch of black ice hiding in a corner and lost traction for a moment. He straightened his wheels and pumped his brakes, coasting across the deserted street. Embarrassment flared in his spark, but did not quite negate the shocked excitement Elita’s statement had elicited.

:: I would be rank-exempt? ::

:: Yes. And for you to work closely with mecha of much higher castes, myself included, it would need to be permanent and universal. The process would likely begin with a two-vorn suspension of restrictions to allow you to complete Diploma-level studies, then be reviewed depending on your performance in those studies. I don’t think you would be given the permanent rank-exemption until you had successfully completed the first-vorn review in whichever Development degree you chose, but with my backing neither should pose particular difficulty. You are two tiers higher than Ultra Magnus was, and should not face the same discrimination. ::

:: Oh. I see. :: Knowing that Ultra Magnus had come from the Enforcers, the majority of whom were Tier Six, this was not surprising. :: I hope not. I don’t want to cause you any trouble. ::

:: If there is trouble to be had, it will not be me who suffers for it :: came the calm rejoinder. :: I intend that it not be you, as well. Cavalier Sun may well be on the wane for the moment, but times change. We all must keep moving if we want to stay ahead. ::

The lights of the Metro station came into view as Orion rounded the corner of a palatial townhouse. He transformed, dug his ID card out of his subspace and swiped it through the boarding gate.

He needed to speak to Alpha Trion again. Trion had cosigned the sponsorship contract, acting as his head of clade -- Orion was not sure how that had worked, but the paperwork had gone through without a hitch, so plainly the old mech had more legal power intra-clade than he had realised. Perhaps Trion would have advice.

:: I will let you know when I know what to do :: Orion replied eventually. :: I’ve sent Aerugo my work schedule for the holiday period. If there are any issues with the registration work I’ve done -- I doubt it, but in case -- I can defer office shifts if need be. I have no comms or Datanet access in lab shifts, so urgent messages should go to Alpha Trion. ::

:: Understood :: Elita replied. :: Enjoy your evening, Orion Pax. ::

:: Thank you, I will. ::

Elita disconnected. The comm controls tucked back into a corner of Orion’s HUD.

The arrivals board at the end of the terminal blinked, updating. Two minutes until the train to the Forums was scheduled to arrive. Orion went to the edge of the platform and stood waiting, one optic primed for the approaching glow of the train and the other offlined, resting. The afterimage of the Heritage Ministry’s registry archives danced behind his optical shutters.

A cube of high grade, perhaps, and then to berth. Recharge beckoned.

“Violence again erupted in Burthov last night following the passing of an emergency stability measure by the interim CEO of the Port Authority. The bill, which was to work in conjunction with the Imperial Treasury agents managing the company’s financial systems, will integrate wage payment, tax deductions, and systems relied upon by indentured workers into a single department. Conflict arose with non-indentured and unionised workers over the dates of payment. The Port Authority is the single largest employer in Burthov State. This morning, smoke rose over the Midship Wharves for the fifth time this vorn.”

Orion Pax looked up from his datapad, digits hovering mid-word above the digital keypad. Across the little waiting room, the desk agent stuck their head through the service window, looking up at the flatscreen on the wall.

Port officials have called this latest outburst ‘mob rule in action’. As of yet there are no reports of deaths, but three mecha have reportedly been injured in clashes with Enforcers. Our Rust Sea reporter is on the ground at Thunder Passage with hourly updates on the situation as it unfolds.”

“More of the same, then,” Orion ventured.

The desk agent gave him a sharp look. It was late on the Seventh-Orn night; the Ministry of Heritage public office was empty but for them.

“I suppose so,” they replied. “Say goodbye to good energon prices.”

Orion shook his head. “Those died a long time ago, I think.”

The desk agent laughed, vents whirring. “Do you know the Skytree Cafe, the one in the Central Tower district of the Decagon?”

“I don’t, no.” The Central Tower district was rank-locked--Tier Three or above. Orion discreetly pinged the agent’s caste signal. Tier Three, Legal, and very young.

The agent blinked, their EM field eddying around the service window. “You should visit sometime, they’re doing a thing with a whipped almandine and nitrogen cocktail at the moment and it erupts with steam while you drink it. They still have items on their menu for thirty credits. I haven’t seen anywhere else that cheap for a few lunes now.”

Orion nodded. Internally, his processor boggled--thirty credits was only cheap in high-end electronics and software DLCs.

He was saved from figuring out a reply by the opening of a door at the back of the atrium. The desk agent straightened and turned back to their datapoint, contriving to appear engrossed in their work.

The new arrival was a familiar face -- Eightpiece.

Orion fixed his gaze on the wall opposite, his face and EM field frozen in his best approximation of utter disinterest. Eightpiece did not deserve his fear.

Footsteps sounded against the tiled floor, drawing closer. Orion’s proximity sensors went off. 

“Well, now,” said Eightpiece. “Orion Pax, is it not?”

Orion stifled a sigh. “Is there a problem, sir?” he asked, looking up. He did not have to look far -- the mech was several heads shorter than him.

“There may be,” Eightpiece replied, his EM pressing against Orion’s. It was not overtly hostile, but that meant little in the upper classes. “How go your studies?”

Orion’s lips curled into a satisfied smile, entirely without his bidding. “Very well, thank you. I graduated third overall in my program, and have contacted a sponsor interested in funding me for further studies.”

Silence. Victory leapt in Orion’s spark.

“Now what silly mech would sponsor a liar and a cheater like you?” asked Eightpiece, voice silken and glacial.

“That would be the Cavalier Sun, sir.”

Out of the corner of his optic, Orion caught a shift in weight. Eightpiece’s servos balled into fists.

Without warning the mech turned and strode away, EM field billowing about him. He vanished into the outer foyer, and the sound of his forceful steps faded into silence.

The desk agent looked up from their datapoint. “That mech is a real ray of sunshine, isn’t he?”

Orion sighed. “I didn’t realise that heritage policy had such opportunity for intrigue.”

“It’s the intersection of science and law,” the agent said, rolling their optics. They had a scientist’s optical suite, with large apertures and fully transparent lenses. The combination was hugely expressive. “One group say ‘can we do this?’ and the others say ‘should we do this?’ The entire Ministry is one big argument.”

“Lovely,” said Orion. “I imagine it is an interesting place to work.”

The agent rolled their optics again, clearing their vent fans in an explosive snort. “I’m just here on an internship, mech. They don’t even pay me. I can’t wait to get out of here and start working for someone who’s actually doing things, but noooo, my degree requires work experience in a government department.”

Orion swallowed a smile. “You have my sympathies.”

The mech grimaced, then glanced furtively up at the security camera above the foyer door. “You’re Orion Pax, right? In for an appointment with the Hall of Records coordinator?”

“Yes, that’s right.” Orion had signed in with the receptionist in the foyer, almost a quarter-joor ago.

Typing rapidly, the desk agent sent a querying ping directly to his comms. Orion’s brows lowered, suspicion coloring his EM field, but allowed the contact.

:: My designation is Firestar. My paterfamilias works for the Cavalier Sun. ::

Nerves threaded through Orion’s spark. :: I am glad to meet you, Firestar :: he said, tagging the message with glyphs for respect and deference. Why had they chosen to introduce themself? Was this a coincidence he could trust?

Firestar looked up, sent him a quick smile. :: Relax, Orion. You’re way too old to be treating me like a clade elder. I just wanted to say hello, since we both work for the same clade. ::

:: It would be nice to relax, but I’m not rank-exempt :: Orion pointed out. Caste was not just a customary reality but a legal one. Disrespecting a mech of higher rank could be grounds for imprisonment in some jurisdictions. As far as Eightpiece was concerned, he had all but gotten away with murder.

:: Oh. I probably shouldn’t be talking to you, then. I don’t want to get you in trouble. ::

:: No, according to propriety laws it’s fine as long as the higher-ranked mech is the one to initiate the conversation, or the lower-ranked mech is doing so in the course of their duties. ::

:: Oh :: said Firestar, again. :: Good. I’m not used to being ranked higher than anyone. ::

They straightened, large optics fixed on the datapoint screen. “All right, Orion Pax, the Hall of Records coordinator will see you now. Do you know where her office is?”

Orion nodded, and got to his feet. “I do. Thank you.”

He glanced back at the vidscreen on his way out of the waiting room. The news anchor had gone onto a story about an offworld cargo ship crashing on Moonbase Two. Burthov again seemed a world away.

Orion dropped in at the Hall of Records Maintenance workshops on the way home. It was late in the midnight shift, and only a pair of the Hall’s Tier-Six drudges were around. Orion was well-known to the maintenance staff -- it was a pair of the managers who had taught him how to repair his datapads -- and thus despite his much higher rank the two invited him to stay and drink a cup of energon to the ancient Dynastic figure Logos.

Orion had planned to recharge early, but truth be told he was nowhere near tired. Work tended to be slow during the Mysteries. He dug a canteen of mid-grade out of his subspace, and the three of them passed it around for a half-joor, sorting electrical parts, soldering circuits and chatting quietly.

Small talk was not Orion’s forte, but the topics of others’ lives had always interested him. He opened his Aster Chat message center on his HUD and sent Megatronus a hello ping as the senior maintenance worker, a mech named Jumpstart, enthusiastically shared the tale of his cadre’s search for a larger apartment. They lived off the complex, renting from an organization providing accommodation to low-caste workers in the Upper Iacon public service sector. The Hall of Records had submitted an application for a newspark on their behalf, and the preliminary paperwork had been approved. But with five mecha living in a two-room suite, they had long since run out of space.

“We’ve got three potential apartments lined up,” Jumpstart explained. His servos darted in and out of boxes of tiny capacitors, sorting them into easy-access storage containers. “There’s one on the east district boundary that’s three rooms and a large washroom, which gives us separate living, recharging, and working areas -- the downside is it’s three-eighty credits a full chord, utilities not included, and it takes almost a joor to get here by wheels and twice that plus rail fees on the Metro. The other two are only a quarter joor away and closer to two hundred credits a chord, but they’re both two-room plus washracks.”

“Is that one charge for Major and Minor chords together?” Orion asked. He had found a broken datapad on a shelf and was gently teasing the tiny screws out of the frame with a magnet. Having something to do besides talk was relaxing.

“Yeah, the rent days are usually Twelfth Orn,” the other maintenance mech said. His designation was Crawltread; the characteristic tracks of a heavy work vehicle stuck up over his shoulders. “The Hall of Records charges you for each half-chord, doesn’t it?”

“Three hundred on Sixth and Twelfth Orns, yes. It pays for upkeep and utilities as well, though.”

Jumpstart whistled through his dente, a skill Orion had never been able to pick up. “We’d need eight fragging paychecks to pay for that. You don’t even have a washrack to yourself, do you?”

Orion chuffed through his cheek vents. “Alas, no. I have to keep my polish and buffer in my room, otherwise it gets stolen.”

“Yeah, I’m gonna stick with my cheap offsite apartments, thanks,” Jumpstart said, grinning. “We even have a balcony at the moment, although the view is pretty terrible.”

“Hey, the Level 39 trunk road is a step up from a blank wall.” Clawtread elbowed his manager, EM sparking laughter. “I’ve got a one-room studio in the middle of a fragging hive tower. And I have a roommate.”

“Yeah, and you pay fifty credits a chord, you cheapskate!” Jumpstart flicked a ball of crumpled hardcopy at him. “It must be nice being a total bachelor. What are you saving so hard for, anyway?”

Crawltread shrugged. “Dunno. Might be able to buy an apartment someday, even if it’s just a little rustbucket somewhere in downtown. Maybe even two. Bet I’d be a better landlord than some of these slaggers out here.”

Orion’s message center pinged. He checked the notification -- Megatronus.


>> We have a shiny new server for the forum. Meridia-based, and capable of hosting twelve times the data than the old one. Soundwave is about to bring it online.

Good news. Orion’s lips curved into a smile.


>> I was planning to ask you for a subforum for resources before it went down. Somewhere I can post books and articles without others needing to ask for them first.

Megatronus’ permission came quickly:


>> That is a good idea. We have done a little restructuring, so the primary purpose of the main forum is now information sharing and event organization. Your access to the Archives and proximity to the central Imperial government has been useful, and it would be a shame not to take advantage of it.

There went the horizon, barrelling toward them at speeds that made Orion’s spark constrict.


>> I have to ask a question.

His mental fingers hovered above the keys, linguistic protocols struggling to put together a sentence that encompassed the breadth of his worries. Seconds passed. The maintenance mechs’ conversation faded into the distance.


>> Ask away, Orion.

Orion’s spark thumped. This was every bit as nervewracking as spilling his near-treason to Alpha Trion.


>> Do you mean to use violence to gain your freedom? I’ve seen your recent rallies -- you speak of fighting, and reading between the glyphs I see war. Is that right?

The reply came tinged with impatience.


>> Come now, Orion -- you should know the answer to that by now.

His grip tightened on the datapad. Optics unfocused, detail blurring at the edges.


>> I know what I think the answer is. I need to hear it from you.

There was a long pause. Megatronus’ icon greyed out, dropping offline.

Crawltread laughed, a booming wave of noise. Orion looked across the workroom. Jumpstart had waved a servo too vigorously and spilled a box of his capacitors across the table.

Megatronus’ icon returned.


>> My apologies, I am far from a reliable wireless signal.

A stylus symbol appeared by his icon, blinking in and out. He continued typing for a long time, and then three long messages appeared at once.


>> It occurs to me that I never finished telling the story of how I became the literate agitator I am today. In the interest of a concise summary, the main thrust is that through the gladiatorial pits I became something of a hero to the lowest ranks of society, those who were only a step away from slavery, those who escaped it as I did, and those who were dumped in the Undercities when the High Council banned chattel slavery under Silenus Prime’s economic reforms. I saw the way they lived, and lived it myself. Violence is a fact of life, and it can be a weapon of oppression or a tool to end it. I killed my overseer to free myself from the pit mines, and it was only my luck that I survived the attempt. Every day, mecha die trying to reach the surface, and none of you that walk under the sun so much as hear their names on the wind.

>> Casteism is a system built on the suffering of the majority, no matter what good intentions the first Imperial Primes had when they drew up the plans. Functionism is worse. Both systems deny us the ability to take hold of our own lives. If Primus meant us to be nothing more than cogs in a machine, it would not have given us individuality. Sentience is wasted on a wheel. Terminus taught me how to speak and when he did, he told me to think for myself. I had spent a life thinking of my own frame as nothing more than a tool with which to dig ore out of the ground. It was hard, Orion. I clawed my own thoughts out of the stagnant ocean of my mind and now that I have them I see that words are the basis of all freedom. So I collected all the words I could -- and now that I have them, I will use every tool in my arsenal to make sure that they are never taken from me ever again.

>> If you are having second thoughts regarding our association, I must know it. Security is our primary concern and I cannot let you continue as a member of this forum if you are not wholly in support of our aims. We have eked out an existence at the bottom of this world for far too long to allow a threat to gain a foothold within our cause. Think carefully, Orion -- you should have a better idea of the forces we are dealing with than your castemates, given your frametype.  

Nervous energy crackled through Orion’s lines. He set the half-repaired datapad down on the worktable, servos trembling.


>> You think it is inevitable that you will be forced to use violence to keep your freedom.

>> I am wholly certain. I imagine that those in power will fight to keep their privileges as fiercely as I fight to retain my freedom.

Orion vented hard. The puff of air attracted Jumpstart’s attention.

“Hey, mech, you look exhausted. Should go recharge.”

Crawltread agreed. “I can walk you to your building if you need help. Looks like you’re about to crash.

Orion waved off their concerns. “No, that’s fine. I’ve just been… somewhat stressed for a while.”

He stood, leaning against the table on his palms for a moment. Nausea rolled in his fuel tanks. He’d never been this anxious before.

“All right, I’ll take your word for it.” Jumpstart rose, shadowing him to the door. “Logos guide you in his Wisdom.”

Orion returned the ritual farewell, and headed out into the freezing darkness, composing a reply to Megatronus as he went.


>> I agree with your cause, by all my spark. Your arguments make sense, and I can see the suffering that caste and Functionism cause for myself. I want to help you. I just… am terrified of what that violence could lead to.

The stylus icon blinked by Megatronus’ username.


>> War, no doubt. I am prepared for that eventuality.

>> I am not. How many people would die? Thousands. Millions. Assuming The Senate didn’t just quietly wipe you out the moment you started making trouble.

>> That is why I had those videos made. I will spread this idea through the Empire, and I will force them to take notice of us. If I am killed, it will be incontrovertible proof that they do not intend to let us exercise our rights.

Orion’s engine made an unhappy noise.


>> Why do you treat death so… flippantly?

>> Why do you not? Death happens to everyone in time. The important part is how you make use of it.

Rapid repartee was apparently Megatronus’ forte.

Snow drifted down out of a black velvet sky. Orion looked across to the north, and saw the faint outline of a storm against the horizon.


>> Megatronus, I want to work with you. Would you allow that?

>> I would.

>> Then I need you to grant me one condition.

There was a pause. Megatronus dropped offline again.


>> Let me hear this condition, then.

Orion turned the corner of the Imperial History Department building, and crossed the road to his residency hall. He came to a halt in front of the foyer, and gazed up at the facade, lit by streetlights and the faded glow of the moons.


>> You see war coming. That is fine. But I am going to do everything within my power to prevent it.

Megatronus sat for a moment, then began to type his reply. It took a while -- Orion rode the elevator up to his seventh-floor apartment and unlocked the door. His message center chimed as he stepped into the room.


>> You drive a hard bargain. Perhaps this is something to be discussed in person.

Chapter Text

we've got a long way to go, but we've got the energy

took a little while to find reality--

we've come a long way, you know

living inside a dream

waking to find that we are kings and queens.


Orion stopped dead, halfway in and out of his room. His optics gazed straight ahead, and the pattern of lights in windows on the administration block across the street faded into the distance behind his HUD.

Megatronus’ cursor blinked. He was typing again, but erratically, perhaps revising his piece as he wrote it.

Orion composed a noncommittal reply.

>> Where would you suggest?

Megatronus paused, and an answer appeared:

>> Praxus. Tyger Pax if it is within your reach. Neither will appear unusual to a casual onlooker.

>> I have business planned in the Northern Hemisphere during the Solstice Lune. It may benefit both of us if you were to attend certain appointments. I do not wish to draw you away from your job, of course.

Orion gently drew his door shut. He sent the apartment environmental controls a ping; the aging fluorescent lights flickered on and the panel heater beside his berth began to hum.

>> I must apply for travel, then. The Hall of Records likes to keep track of its Archivists. It would take a long time to train a replacement for me.

>> I doubt that is the full story.

Orion shook his helm. He could all but hear Megatronus’ voice, dripping distrust. A nagging protocol somewhere in his operation files suggested that perhaps the revolutionary was right.

Orion went to delete the thought. Then he stopped.

Megatronus’ existence was proof positive that not all was as it seemed. Orion had been told little about the world outside the Hall during his training. His work had shown him a great deal more, and it had roused questions, which he had answered with research on his own time. And the more he learned in every sector of information, the more he came to realise that his own knowledge barely scraped the surface. The world was an immensely complex place, the mecha that inhabited it just as complex in their own terms.

Orion took that stray protocol, and saved it as an executable file. Perhaps it would be useful later.

>> Let me know when the details are finalised. I will see what holiday time I can get out of the administrators.

Bending, he straightened the thermosheet on his berth and brushed the dent out of the middle of the liner. The loose thermal wool inside the liner prevented the hard surface of the berth from scratching his paintwork, but tended to clump together under his weight.

Megatronus returned a short acknowledgement.

>> Good night, Orion Pax.

Orion waited a while, but no further messages were forthcoming.

He closed his message centre, minimised his HUD. Another ping, and his suite controls blacked out his windows. The little mechanisms in his optics ached. It was past time he recharged.

He should wash his hands and mouth before he slept. That, however, would require going down the hall to the communal washrooms.

Frag it. Orion sat down, swung his legs onto the berth and pulled the thermosheet around his frame. He triggered his recharge sequence, laying back, and the programs running in the background of his CPU began to spin down into standby. He'd need to do a full shutdown soon or Ratchet would be on his case, but he had an early shift tomorrow and there were better things to waste time on than waiting for his processor matrix to boot up.

Recharge came quickly, and he did not so much as dream.



When he arrived at work the next morning, the first thing Orion did was request a copy of his employee summary from the Hall administrators.

This involved logging into his profile on an admin block terminal, inputting his comm number, waiting five minutes for the automated queue to send him a further login code, and then using that code to access his profile on the Public Works Ministry portal. The Hall of Records was a semi-public organisation, run by the Record-Keepers’ clade on behalf of the Imperial government. While Orion was a member of the Record-Keepers’ clade, employed by the clade, he and all other Archivists were simultaneously considered contracted employees of the Public Works Ministry -- hence the complex process to access what was, on the whole, very ordinary data.

Request made, he logged off, and walked halfway across the Hall complex to the Archive buildings. Smaller mecha zipped around his pedes in alt-mode. Jealousy was not an emotion that came easily to Orion, but at times like these he couldn’t help but calculate how much time could be saved if he were allowed to drive his alt-mode around the Hall.

The Ministry sent him a read-only file just before he entered the auxiliary Archive Core. Good timing -- there were no comms or wireless Datanet access inside the building. Orion opened the file, scrolling down until he found his employment compensation data.

148-33.7 -- Orion Pax
TITLE: Archivist (senior)
EMPLOYMENT TYPE: semi-public / permanent contract

INDENTURED: y / [ n ]
WAGES: 40 credits -- 8 joor
LEAVE TAKEN: 13.04 joor
LEAVE OWED: 679.45 joor

Orion smiled.

He saved the file to his HUD, then went inside the Core. Darkness swamped him; his internal communications lost connections. Red LEDs laid out the route into the server core. Orion checked his schedule one last time, and made his way to his assigned station.

Seventeen floors up, the balconies that lined the walls had safety rails. The fall itself would not kill most mecha -- the Archives’ concern was for the data trunk, which rose through the center of the tower like the interlocking stalks of a bismuth tree. Orion tried not to venture near that central void; it gave him vertigo.

At the Grid interface station, he logged into his user kernel and sat down, leaning back into the chair. His central abdominal plating shifted up and aside, six slim data cables emerging. This was the tour de force of Orion’s construction, the reason the Archives had eaten the cost of enframing a newspark twice the size of his compatriots.

An Archivist only needed one uplink cable to interface with the Grid -- if his processors could handle it. Light standard and minibot frames could easily carry the hardware necessary, and these were therefore all but ubiquitous among Archivists. Increasing traffic on the Grid, however, had begun to outpace the number of new Archivists being trained. The clade kings had turned to the Public Works Ministry, who in turn had enlisted the help of the Function Development department at the Well of All Sparks. The result was Orion and his batchmates -- twelve prototypes for a new generation of Archivists, each of whom were capable of doing the processing work of four to eight mecha while requiring the energon and space of two or fewer.

Orion’s mentor had once told him that sixteen thousand sparks had been drawn from the Well on the day he was enframed. What luck, then, that his spark had been chosen. Some Well-born sparks took hours or days to settle properly into their new frames. Orion, she continued, had been awake and alert in ten minutes.

He woke the terminal from standby, and a user interface popped up: do you wish to uplink?

Orion pressed PROCEED , and plugged his cables into the terminal. Connection programs activated, spinning his processor into the threads of the Grid. His spark blazed inside his chest, fierce joy and a sense of homecoming, and the world dropped away around him.

His next twenty joor were lost amid a whirl of data.

Coming up out of the Grid was a lot like waking up. External sensory data returned to the top of processor queues, low fuel warnings blinked, proprioception and vestibular awareness returned in a rush. He was no longer a subsystem in a greater entity but an individual in his own right.

He checked his work -- eighty-six petabytes worth of data -- for errors before closing the connection programs and withdrawing his cables. The Hall of Records AI had noted two issues, both multimedia files Orion had converted and tagged appropriately, but stored in a place the AI wasn’t used to. Orion manually entered the exception. This was happening more often lately.

Orion stood gingerly. His chassis radiated heat like an overworked smelting pit, but the joints in his limbs ached with the winter chill. The building environmental controls drew in cold air from outside to prevent the servers from overheating. There was a vent beneath his datapoint. It had been blowing over his pedes for twenty joor.

He moved away from the datapoint, hissing through his cheek vents at the way the protomass in his ankles crackled. He’d stop in at the library cafe on the way back to his apartment. There were heaters there.

His comms lit up as he left the building -- messages from Alpha Trion, Jazz, Torre, and the new comm code that belonged to Elita One. Orion lurched to a halt in the snow.

He checked Elita’s message first, apprehension thrumming in his core. Relief cut short the anxiety at the message, a brief memo letting him know that she and Aerugo would be going offworld in three chords. Orion replied with a formal affirmative.

Torre’s message was a mass text regarding a shift-wide personnel meeting that evening, nothing unusual or worrying. Alpha Trion’s was a response to that message. Orion guessed he’d accidentally hit the ‘reply all’ button on the Hall’s datapoint email application.

Jazz’s message was a link. :: have a read of this. ::

Orion scanned the link address, and changed his mind. He strode out to the Hall Avenue, folded down into alt mode and merged into the late afternoon traffic. He was being paranoid, said a logic algorithm in the back of his processor. There was no shadowy Institute waiting in the wings to take him away for thought crimes. But the greater part of him intuited that there was a difference between being rational and being trusting , and the algorithms that placed the Imperial government in the latter category had begun to erode as of late.

He had the next day off. Drop in at an energon market, and there’d be fuel in his tanks.

Skirting the boundaries of Scholarship Plaza, Orion turned into the Oratory Forum highway heading south. The heat of his engine warmed his frozen legs. After two city blocks, the Hall of Records wireless Datanet connection dropped. A block later, he pulled into the clusterfrag of an intersection that was the joining of three arterial routes through the greater Forums. Idling at the first set of traffic lights, he scanned the public networks in a three-league radius, and chose a likely target -- a multilevel shopping center near the Public Works Ministry.

Rather than follow the link from his comm center, Orion copied the link target out of Jazz’s message and opened a new tab in his HUD browser. Searching the document code brought up mirrors on several Central States sites flagged with the search engine’s tags for content under investigation.

It was not hard to see why. The title of the document read, “A First Blast Against The Monstrous Regiment”. The first three host sites on the list were Freedom From Caste , The Rubellite Manifesto of Equality , and Casteless .

Orion checked the author of the document, half expecting to see Megatronus. The name given, however, was ‘Enceladion’ -- another Dynastic reference.

He scrolled down the list until he found a site lacking the content tags, and clicked through.

Those who are really convinced that they have made progress in culture would not demand freedom for the new views to continue side by side with the old, but the substitution of the new views for the old. Without freedom from the rigors of this calcified and encumbering caste system, there can be no escape from the Age of Rust. We must allow ourselves once again to TRANSFORM as Primus intended -- to find a shape which allows us to move forward on the path toward enlightenment.

Any lingering thought that this was another of Megatronus’ names vanished. The tone of the work was too long-winded.

Orion opened Aster Chat and sent the link to Megatronus.

The lights on the other side of the intersection turned green. Someone behind Orion immediately laid on the horn. Tempting as it was to take his sweet time, he accelerated smoothly and pulled into the shoulder once he’d made it safely across. There was a little cafe on the side of the road. Orion pinged the property ID signal to make sure it wasn’t caste-restricted, and went in.

His onboard browser pinged. Aster Chat, and Megatronus.

>> Ah, Enceladion. This much I will give her: the mech is no coward.

Orion found himself a chair suitably sized at the back of the cafe and sat. He opened a new browser tab, entered the search query “Enceladion” + “monstrous regiment”. Fifty-two pages resulted.

>> Is this an acquaintance of yours?

Megatron’s icon blinked in and out.

>> Barely. Have you heard of the Rubellites?

Orion had, in passing. He looked them up.

>> Oh, I see. The cult in Nova Cronum?

>> Ah, is that what the party line in Iacon is? They are not a cult so much as a group of ideological insurgents, but I suppose from the outside it can seem similar. Enceladion is one of their leaders. A very intelligent mech, and full of batteries, but not the most prudent.

One of the first results on Orion’s search tab was a Nova Cronum-based news publication. The title read, “Acid Wastes Anarchist Charged With Blasphemy In Wake Of Anti-Caste Essay”.

Megatronus continued.

>> She has been called everything from an anarchist to a hyperconservative. The Rubellites are largely disillusioned military-caste mecha; Enceladion, by contrast, originates from the academic castes. She renounced her caste and rank to become Untouchable several hundred vorn ago. Her original designation, if I recall correctly, was Nightbird.

Orion modified his search query: “Enceladion” + “Nightbird”.

Three results -- an academic biography on a Praxus university archive, a district Magisterium report from Nova Cronum, and a post on a political blog dating back eight hundred and twelve vorn. Orion opened the three in new tabs.

>> Have you worked together before?

There was a gravid pause.

>> I think I may have inspired her.

In the cafe in Iacon, a laugh escaped Orion’s vents. Megatronus’ Austral was seldom so subtle.

>> I see she was a sociologist. With a focus on social stratification, it looks like.

Megatronus replied, his tone unreadable .

>> It was too bad she was so young when she turned. She could have made much more noise if she’d waited a couple of thousand vorn.

Orion checked the academic biography. Nightbird had been barely two hundred when she renounced her rank, with only two published papers behind her. It seemed the academic community had simply closed ranks and written her off as a net loss.

>> Out of idle curiosity, how old are you?

Megatron sent him a number and a glyph -- the root of words meaning ‘to laugh’ across a dozen languages.

>> A little under four hundred thousand, I suspect. I predate the abolition of chattel slavery by at least two hundred thousand.

Orion nodded to himself.

>> I was two vorn when you wrote ‘An Open Letter To The Establishment’.

The stylus icon appeared by Megatronus' username. He paused a long moment, and then a reply appeared on the screen.

>> That explains why I have not met you before now. It is interesting; the impression we in the Undercities tend to have of Iaconians is of a million great elders. I suspect this is an impression deliberately fostered.

Orion leaned forward over his table, rested his chin on the heel of his palm.

>> I suppose it could be. The average age of the Senators is about ninety thousand vorn. For the High Council, it becomes two hundred and forty thousand. The rest of us, well…

The oldest mech he knew personally was Alpha Trion, who dated from the early years of the Golden Age as far as the Hall of Records system was concerned. Some mecha aged ridiculously well.

Orion spent a minute transcribing his leave allotment into a new file, then sent it to Megatronus.

>> This is my leave schedule for the next three lune. I have six hundred joor owed in work compensation and I can take up to one hundred per lune. Does this work for you?

The mech took his time perusing the sheet -- conferencing with Soundwave, Orion imagined, or perhaps others of his group. He knew a handful of names, and had researched enough to put them to faces. Megatronus remained his primary focus, however.

>> That will do well.

His next message was a list of dates and coordinates. Orion converted it to plain text and saved it directly to his HUD.

>> If you truly wish to help the revolution, be at these locations on the date given. Research them, or do whatever you will; I do not expect you to blindly trust me. Come join us if you dare, Orion Pax. We could use your talents much more widely than the Hall.


The first of Megatronus’ dates was only two chords away. Orion plugged the coordinates into the Hall of Records surveying database, and it gave him a location: a Sanctuary in the central core of one of Praxus’ satellite cities.

Orion checked the schedules to make sure that chord’s rosters had not been finalised yet, then wrote himself out for three orn on either side of the date Megatronus had given. This was automatically accepted, a perk of being a senior Archivist. Then he applied for travel, noting Praxus, Petrex, and Polyhex, a likely layover, as the destinations. An anxious three-joor wait culminated in a form email from the Public Works Ministry -- his application had been accepted.

Twelve days later Orion boarded a passenger shuttle direct to Praxus.

He spent most of the flight--his first ever--a nervous lump in his assigned seat. It had been tempting to book passage on a train instead, but the distance to Praxus, close to three thousand leagues, made at least one shuttle trip necessary. And for all his anxieties, the trip that would have taken close to three orn on the ground was over in a single joor. Orion relaxed enough to look out the window as the massive commercial jet made its approach to Praxus’ main air terminal.

He had brought no luggage with him, only a crate of second-hand datapads in his subspace. Praxian Customs officers barely questioned the amount -- apparently a glorified librarian on holiday was not a high-value suspect. They took his ID card, authenticated his travel visa, and sent him on his way.

Like Iacon, Praxus’ metropolitan centerpiece was a hive city, built up several hundred mechanometers into the atmosphere. The interstate air terminal was built into a hilltop near the western edge of the hive; its arrivals lounge backed onto a massive covered plaza with at least five separate entryways by Orion’s count.

He sent Alpha Trion a message to let him know he’d safely arrived, and checked his road map.

Second tunnel from the left. His destination was Petrex -- about three joors’ commute from the Praxian central hive, according to the local government-run tourism website.

Orion crossed the plaza, taking a few discreet image captures of the pillars that held up its roof. Praxus was known worldwide for two things: art, and engineering. Overlapping solar tiles lined the roof, mimicking sunlight. Little craft stalls clustered around the bases of the support towers and the edges of the paths that branched out from the terminal. Idle stares followed him through the crowd. He dodged a cadre of light standards with a nymph, contriving to make himself as small as possible.

Near the access tunnels it was easier to navigate. Orion joined a stream of mecha heading into the tunnel his onboard navigation system insisted led to Petrex. The Praxians formed an orderly queue and transformed one by one as they entered the tunnel. The two-lane road curved gently down through the bowels of the hive city, emerging into the light above a massive freeway.

Orion’s navigation system blinked, directing him to the left lane. A sign hovering above the road came into view: FREEWAY ENTRY NEXT LEFT.

The low-slung speedster ahead of him activated their blinkers and drifted left. Orion followed suit, into the entry lane.

The freeway cut a gorge into the Praxian hive, open to the sky twenty city levels above. This far south there was a glow in the sky, but looming clouds blocked out the distant sun. Patches of drizzle drifted down between the towers, catching light from every direction. Orion sealed his wet-weather systems, just in case.

He was glad of it later on, when he stepped into the room he’d rented in Petrex, dripping weak acid all over the floor.

There was a set of mesh towels hanging on a rail beside the door. Orion grabbed three, draping one over his shoulders and another around his waist. The third wiped his pedes down, then went to the puddle on the tiled floor. The northwest Tagan seacoast was famously rainy; of course the residents would be prepared for a mess.

The room he’d rented came with a balcony and its own washroom. Rain lashed the windows, obscuring the view of the apartment building across the road. Inside, it was warmer than Orion was used to, although not by much.

He stepped into the washroom and turned the rack on. Fiddling with the environmental controls yielded a spray that was strong and comfortably warm. Orion stood motionless under the spout, luxuriating.

The water that swirled away through the drain was faintly orange. Remnants of the Sea of Rust, thought Orion. He watched it streak away in rivulets, the color diluting, until every trace was gone.

The general apartment controls were wireless, like his own room back home. He turned the temperature down a few notches, set the windows to full transparency. The guest directions warned him that Petrex tended to be humid during winter. Orion thought for a while, mental processes dulled by the rushing water, then made the changes anyway. He could always reset them if it became uncomfortable.

Afterward, he sat under the drying fan and logged onto Megatronus’ forum. There were five messages waiting in his inbox.

Three were requests for reading material, ranging from basic mechanical engineering principles to labor law. Orion had grabbed several files from the Archive library before he left. One would need translating into Austral. He dropped the files into an online storage site, then sent the requesters the link, noting the file names that suited each one’s tastes.

Then there was a message from Soundwave.

+ Orion Pax, arrived safely in Praxus?

Orion sent a quick affirmation. He’d had a few exchanges with Soundwave at this point, though none particularly in-depth. The mech was Megatronus’ second-in-command, he guessed, with technological skill Megatronus lacked. Orion had looked him up. The Datanet had very little information outside of his association with two different Undercity reform leaders, Megatronus, and a Helexi anarchist named Megazarak.

Of the two, Megazarak was the more concerning name by far. Orion had worried that Megatronus’ activism would lead to violence, but Megazarak’s was violence -- kidnappings, bombings, robberies and gang warfare waged against rivals and Enforcers alike. His followers were anti-caste, but in the same way that they were anti-government and anti-law. Orion had browsed through a list of charges laid against Megazarak -- half a list, rather. It had included things like organ theft and mechatrafficking. He had had to go browse pet blogs for half a joor after.

Orion Pax did not quite trust Soundwave.

He pressed the forward button. The final message was from Megatronus.

+ I have an added request for supplemental language packets in Meridiennais and Neocybex, total sixty-three of each, and in Underland Torii, one hundred eighty including advanced lexicon. Neither is urgent.

That meant that whoever was making the request already spoke at least one major regional dialect. Orion had bought a personal copy of the Underland Torii software and tried to make his own replication, but as with most publishers of linguistic software, the developers had encoded parts. Frustrated, he’d ripped the programming he could read, and looked up a few gigabytes of data on language processing software. He’d never programmed any of his own software, but perhaps he ought to start.

He opened a new message to Megatronus, and attached a copy of the cannibalised software.

+ I’ll place an order. In the meantime, if you have any talented programmers, here’s something for them to chew on. If we can create our own open-source language software, it will be widely useful.

+ By the way, I’ve arrived in Petrex. The weather is terrible.

There was no response within five minutes, so Orion assumed Megatronus was either not online or occupied with something else.

He rose to his feet, checking his frame for dampness, then left the washroom.

Out in the main room, the sky had dulled to evening. Orange city light reflected off the underside of the clouds, rain flashing red-gold as the wind drove it through the gaps between towers.

Orion logged into the apartment complex’s private Datanet connection, paid for a few hundred gigabytes, and tuned into Praxus’ regional news channel. The Midships Riots were still all over the airwaves. More locally, the gubernatorial office in Uraya was being engulfed in a sex scandal -- someone directly under the Governor had been caught hiring cheap buymecha, because two of his underlings had tested positive for early stages of the same rare venereal infection, put two and two together, and promptly joined forces to extort their philandering boss of every shanix he had.

In the background, something pinged.

Orion muted the news channel. A thought tapped at the back of his mind. He checked the forum, reloading his inbox.

Megatronus had replied -- not in words, but with an image capture. He looked out along a dark underground canal, lamplight dancing in the ripples and swirls on the surface of the water. Pipes lined the canal walls, regular intersections visible in the distance. Orion zoomed in on a sign written in Underland Torii, and realisation hit him: this was not a canal but an Undercity street.

Another ping.

+ You don't say , said Megatronus.

Orion stood, ambling to the glass door that led to the balcony, and took a photo. Then he replied in kind.

+ Primus. How long has it been raining?

Megatronus’ next reply was prompt.

+ About an orn. Petrex is built too close to the Sea of Rust to have good natural drainage, and despite a great deal of effort on the part of civil engineers a million vorn ago the lowest levels of the city flood every time there is a heavy rain. Do not worry your dear spark; it is only knee-deep.

Orion snorted at the ‘dear spark’ comment, air forced quickly through his cheek vents. He returned to his berth, composing a retort.

+ Knee-deep to you, perhaps. Are those buildings apartments?

+ Yes, and most of them empty. My companions and I have commandeered a few for our stay. We were prepared for the rain, but alas not this much of it. You on the other hand seem snug and warm.

Orion frowned into the distance. He checked his credit balance -- he’d withdrawn a couple chords worth of holiday pay in order to pay for this trip.

+ I'd offer to pay for a rental room in a drier part of town if I could afford it, but you make it sound as if you have quite a few friends with you.

There was a pause in the conversation, as of a mech picking his words carefully.

+ That was not intended to be a hint, Orion. My apologies if it seemed so.

Orion’s spark twisted itself into a knot.

+ I wasn't sure, he said, truthfully. Either way, I meant what I said. I hate the thought of you out there swimming in runoff. Primus knows the amount of bacteria that come down out of a city’s rainwater diversion system.

+ You are a kind mech , said Megatronus. We will be fine. It is not a hardship uncommon to us.

+ That doesn't surprise me, but it's not something you should have to endure. I really do want to do something about that.

A gust of wind set the rain drumming against his windows. Orion turned on his side, gazing out into the weather. Megatronus was typing again, but suddenly he had more to say.

+ If we're in the same city at last, would you like to meet a little early? Petrex is apparently known for its high grade brews, and I did find a couple of breweries with prices within my budget.

Megatronus stopped typing for a long moment. Orion shuttered his optics, but that only sharpened the sneaking sense of embarrassment.

+ High grade, you say? I believe I could go for that.

Orion’s fans spun all at once, a great sigh of relief.

+ All right. Tomorrow, if the rain eases?

He sent Megatronus links to the breweries he had found -- no doubt Soundwave or someone would like to vet the places.

Tomorrow would be grand. Dawn shift, perhaps, 23:40 joor? The first of these is close to the Underground town square, if you would like to meet me there.

+ Have you been to Petrex before? Orion wondered whether he was imagining the note of familiarity in Megatronus’ words.

+ Once, a long time ago. Much has changed since then, but so have I. It will be fascinating to see if others still have remained the same.

+ I see. Oh, Megatronus, don't let me forget I have some datapads for your people. They're used, but the Hall of Records buys quality electronics. Maybe there are some who can put them to use.

+ How many?

Orion dug the crate out of his subspace and checked.

+ Eighty-three. I've been collecting them for several dozen vorn.

+ Why?

Megatronus tagged his glyphs with several radicals, ‘amusement’ and ‘ideas’ with another Orion had never seen before. He judiciously translated this as “What the frag?”

+ Something to do, I suppose. They'll work with most memory flash cards.

+ Orion, I promise you they will be put to good use.

Orion’s lips quirked at the corners, an unconscious smile. That was a ‘thank you’ in Southern terms.

+ Give me another few vorn and I'll have more.

+ You are an interesting mech, said Megatronus. I will look forward to meeting you in person.

Chapter Text

In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom, in water there is bacteria.

— unknown; misattributed to Benjamin Franklin


Orion got stuck behind a slow convoy of heavy construction vehicles on the way to the Underground plaza where he was due to meet Megatronus. They drove twenty leagues under the speed limit, which was already lower than he was used to on the Underground roads. Orion checked his chronometer every few minutes, worrying that he hadn’t given himself enough time. He’d thought rush-hour traffic in Upper Iacon was bad.

At last, the convoy turned off into tunnels heading for the coastal seawalls. Curiosity knocked at the door of Orion’s consciousness, but today he turned it away.

He arrived at the plaza with five minutes to spare. Unfolding from alt-mode, he stepped out of the road, gazing around himself with unblinking optics. His Archivist’s mind noted every detail, the scrolled ironwork decorating pillars that disappeared into the upper-level roof, fumes drifting around faelights and fluorescent bulbs that flickered with the pulse of energy through them, the colors on the mecha that strode across the open space. The roof was a honeycomb of hexagonal panels mostly hidden in shadow. Narrow, rickety buildings clustered around the lower parts of three slim tower blocks that disappeared into the roof..

The crowd was taller than any other Orion had been part of before. Few of the mecha around matched his height -- but some did, and the rest came close. He came to a halt by a decorative lamppost. Mecha went past, gazes flicking once over his frame and moving onward.

Protocols he’d barely known he had quieted. His neural net prickled once, then settled.

Like Burthov, the Petrexi Undercity was largely populated by mecha of Tier Five and lower. Here was a place where his dexter frametype, built for hard labor, was utterly unremarkable.

A smile tugged at the corners of Orion’s mouth. He moved onward, relaxing more the further he went.

His message center chimed. Orion opened the program, going straight into his Aster Chat inbox.

>> I have arrived. Soundwave would like to meet you, if that is not a problem.

Orion let out a short exvent, looking around for a landmark. >> Not at all. I am on the south side of the square, beneath a pillar engraved with… a warbuild with a raised sword and shield, I think. One of the regional heroes?

Megatronus replied with alacrity. >> Atalanta. I know the one.

In a minute, Orion spotted his heavily-armored shoulders weaving through the crowd. Even among mecha built for hard work, Megatronus was a true giant.

Anxiety settled in the bottom of his spark chamber. He girded himself, fingers clenching into fists, then raised an arm and hailed Megatronus.

The videos had not done Megatronus justice. He loomed. His frame was broad-shoudered and deep-chested, his armor pattern viciously spiked and every bit as over-the-top as Orion had ever expected of a gladiator, his limbs long with large hands tipped with wicked talons. Orion looked up and up, helm tilting back to match Megatronus’ questing gaze without stepping back. The revolutionary’s EM field pushed outward from his frame, buffeting against his own like a spirited gust of wind. Its wavelength was short and hard, a vivid orange taste all around him.

Megatronus cocked his helm. His optics widened, curiosity coloring his marauding EM field supernova bright. “Why are you doing that?”

Taken off-kilter, Orion raised his hand in an aborted handshake. “Doing what?”

Megatron drew his EM field back, tucking it within his own frame. “This. Is it an upper-caste thing? Manners, perhaps?” His voice was deep and rasping, his intonation lilting. Kaoni speech, Orion recalled, relied more on tones than did the Boreal language families. “I gather that the upper castes enjoy the illusion of personal space.”

“Oh.” Orion’s hand fell to his side. “Yes, I suppose it is. I didn’t even think of that.”

Megatronus’ lips curled back from dente sharpened to individual points -- a smile, Kaoni style. “Not to worry, Orion Pax. I welcome the opportunity to learn, and especially the opportunities it may bring in turn.”

Orion returned the smile, hesitant but frank. “You said Soundwave was coming with you.”

Megatronus inclined his helm. Something tapped Orion’s shoulder. He spun, his spark jumping into his intakes.

“This is Soundwave. He tells me you have spoken several times over text.”

Soundwave was another dexter, dusty navy blue and deep purple from helm to pede. He had an integrated visor for a face, a boxy chest and a hunched back, and his arms were long out of all proportion. Orion recognised a data analyst’s cable housings on the midline between his thorax and abdomen.

He closed his mouth, firmed his lips, and nodded a greeting. “Hello, Soundwave.”

Soundwave returned the nod. Rather than speak, he sent a shortwave radio burst direct to Orion’s comms. :: Soundwave, pleased to make Orion’s acquaintance. ::

He spoke as he typed, clipped and with his own peculiar syntax. His trills were slurred, his vowels drawn-out in the deepest of Tarnais accents.

“Soundwave here has taken a vow of silence until we are liberated,” explained Megatron. “He is, as you might have guessed, my finest lieutenant.”

Orion held a short argument with himself over whether it would be appropriate to respond in kind, and settled eventually for a radio reply. :: And myself likewise. ::

He turned back to Megatronus. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”

Megatronus reached for him, took his hand. His servo engulfed Orion’s, wrist and all. “The pleasure is all mine, my friend.”

Orion met his optics, and Megatronus held the moment, dragging it out as if he could inspect Orion’s spark through them. “Soundwave will not be accompanying us. He has inspected our destinations and deemed them fit for my presence. I thought it might be a little odd for two soldiers and a librarian to go walking into a bar together.”

Orion blinked, laughed. Megatronus was running a counterfeit ID chip.

Curious, he pinged the signal. Identification apps introduced the mech before him as ‘Megatron’, riffing off the glyphs used to write ‘megaton’. The chip assured him that Megatron was an employee of a private security contractor based in Tarn. It wasn't the best fake ID Orion had ever seen, but then, the Petrexi Undercity was no maximum-security government facility.

A surge of energy washed across Orion’s neural net, apprehension and elation in one. This was his last chance to withdraw and hope for normality. A part of him grasped desperately for that chance.

Megatronus looked down at him and smiled, as if he knew what Orion was thinking.

Releasing Orion’s servo, he took a half-step backwards and turned right, his optics still on Orion. They were vivid blue, covered with neutral filter lenses that shielded his optics mechanisms from airborne particulate. “Shall we begin?”

Orion glanced behind himself. Soundwave had vanished as unseen as he had arrived.

He checked his chronometer, feeling the last threads of that chance at normalcy snap. “Yes, we had better. I reserved a table for us last night.”

“Fancy,” said Megatronus, grinning again. “I feel quite spoilt.”

Orion laughed, quick strides catching him up with Megatronus. “I like that idea. Perhaps we should visit a confectioner afterward.”

Megatronus’ field flared out again, tinged with eager enthusiasm. “I would enjoy that. Sweet things are sadly lacking in the lower levels.”

They crossed the plaza, heading east into a narrow downtown street lined with little shops. Orion checked their property IDs. Artisans’ shops, and most were not caste-restricted at all.

He sent Megatronus a private comm. :: I assumed that I will be bankrolling this little expedition; is that correct? I don’t wish to come across as controlling. ::

The revolutionary laughed, a harsh burst of sound from deep in his heavily-armored chest. :: Yes, that would be the case. I win a little money here and there in the gladiatorial pits, and every shanix goes on Decepticon business within the day. Do not worry, Orion; I am long used to relying upon the charity of others. ::

:: Decepticon? :: Orion tagged the word with a questioning glyph. :: Is that what you call your activism? ::

:: Let us call it a placeholder :: Megatronus replied. :: It was a name given to me by a well-known State propagandist in Kaon during my trial. I am… reclaiming it. ::

Orion nodded. :: Was that the Stanix trial? ::

Megatronus’ optics glanced down at Orion, the light in them considering. :: It was. I had been recruiting among the Untouchables of the city, which of course went unremarked because we Untouchables are barely Cybertronian anyway. The moment I made overtures to those of a slightly higher caste, I became Stanix’s Most Wanted. The moment they figured out my angle, rather. ::

:: Stanix is primarily a military city, isn’t it? :: Orion observed. The crack about Untouchables had deeply perturbed him. 

Megatronus laughed again, and rested a massive hand on Orion’s shoulder. “Indeed it is,” he said aloud. “You can imagine how well that went down.”

His amusement was infectious. Orion found himself grinning, leaning into Megatronus’ companionable touch.

:: How do you recruit? I’ve seen video of some of your rallies; is there a lot of that? ::

:: There is. In fact, it is one of the reasons I have come north. :: Megatronus met and held his optics. Orion realised he was being tested.

:: Might I come to the next one? :: he asked.

There was a moment of silence.

“I was hoping you might say that,” said Megatron. His lips -- scarred and pitted with rust -- quirked into a wicked smile. :: Tomorrow, come with me. We will speak to my contact, and then we shall excite the masses. ::

Orion nodded, feeling like an eager newspark. “I will. Thank you.”



The brewery was a small artisanal establishment, one of thousands in the greater Praxus region. The owners were a cadre of tier-seven energon refiners, registered with the Small Business Council in the Petrexi Magisterium thirty-six hundred vorn ago. Petrex’s craft consumables industry was booming; many of the breweries Orion had looked at the previous night were undersigned or owned by large corporations, and comparatively recently established. This one, as far as he could tell, was totally independent. Interesting, given the tier ranking of the owners.

It was located in an old industrial warehouse on a narrow covered lane, a couple of hundred yards off the main street. A thick slag-brick archway marked the entry, through which lay a small reception area with just enough headroom for Megatronus’ shoulder spikes. Orion confirmed the booking with a receptionist who looked barely out of their third vorn.

“It’s not very impressive thus far,” remarked Megatronus. Orion instinctively turned to shush him, but the urge dried up under a laugh. Megatronus hadn’t quite straightened from the doorway; he stood half-stooped, helm tilted aside and glaring at the ceiling from wide, peeved optics.

The receptionist diplomatically ignored him. “The dining room is this way, sir.”

The singular form of the honorific was not a slight to Megatronus; her ident signal pinged at the lower ranks of tier five, higher than Megatronus’ counterfeit signal but significantly lower than Orion’s.

Orion squared his shoulders. It was the first time someone had called him ’sir’.

The ceiling in the dining room was high and vaulted. Megatron straightened, air hissing from his hydraulics. “This is much more like it.”

The receptionist led them to a table in a shadowy corner, clearly not one of the better ones. Orion thanked her, then went to sit in the chair closer to him. Suddenly Megatronus’ hand appeared on his wrist -- a loose hold, but enough to stop him in his tracks.

Orion turned back to Megatronus, optics wide and startled. “Is there something wrong?”

Megatronus’ EM flared a quick negative. His blue optics cut away for a moment. “Might I have that seat?”

There were three chairs at the table, all three the same size. Orion cycled his optics, and nodded. “Yes, that’s fine. I just thought it was the closest to me, that’s all.”

Megatronus let go of his wrist. He gently touched Orion’s shoulder on his way to the chair, EM field licking a swathe across Orion’s back. “Perfectly logical. An old mech has his foibles.”

Orion slid into the chair opposite Megatronus, and comprehension dawned. That chair faced out into the dining room, putting Megatronus’ back to the corner. His line of sight took in the entire room, and -- Orion looked over his shoulder to check -- part of the waiting room as well.

When he turned back, Megatronus was grinning.

“You’ve figured it out, haven’t you.”

Orion responded with a weak smile. “I think so. Do you anticipate trouble everywhere you go?”

“Those who chase me only have to be lucky once. I must be lucky every time.” There was a portable holodeck on the table. Megatronus extended a talon and gently poked it. “Orion, I have a problem. I can barely tell what these words mean.”

The change of topic was smooth but obvious. Obligingly, Orion let it be.

A waiter arrived with a large tray of tasting cubes, each filled with a different brew. The energon ranged from light blues and pinks to deep purple and a blue so dark it was nearly black. Some were carbonated, others flat. Warm spiced mid-grade in a glass decanter occupied the middle of the tray, and a bowl of salted rust sticks sat off to one side.

Megatronus leaned forward, optics narrowing. “My confusion grows ever deeper. Why have they served us old industrial lubricant?”

Orion blinked. “Where?”

A clawed digit unfolded, jabbing at a group of cubes carrying solar refined high-grade. “These. That color is the exact opposite of appetising.”

Orion checked the holodeck. “It’s thickened and non-carbonated. The color is the result of the refining process. They add a manganese solution to most energon intended for public consumption -- it’s a health requirement, actually, dates back to the middle of the Golden Age -- and during refining the energon turns purple.” He glanced up, meeting Megatronus’ doubtful optics, and grinned. “Don’t ask me why; I know nothing about chemistry.”

Megatronus’ browplates twitched upward. “And the flecks of metal?”

“Silica. The menu suggests that we wait for five minutes or so for the flavor of the energon to become absorbed by the flakes.”

“Very well,” said Megatronus. His optics roved across the platter, and he twiddled his talons for a moment before reaching out to pluck a delicate pink drink from the tray. “And this one, what is this?”

Orion scrolled through the menu. “A cocktail of midgrade and armadine with a suspended solution of cobalt. The brewers say it should taste ‘light and sweet, with a lingering tang on the edges of the glossa’.”

Megatronus’ scarred lips quirked upward at the corners. “Let us test their word, then.” He put the cube to his mouth and took a long, genteel sip. His optics half-shuttered.

“What do you think?” asked Orion.

Megatronus frowned down at the cube, then downed the rest. “That tastes nothing like I have ever tasted before.”

Orion vented a quiet laugh. “Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?”

Megatronus shot him a wicked grin, one browplate raised and pointed dente bared in the slightest of grins. “Anything is an improvement after the energon of the undercity. One tastes smoke and smelting agents, and little else. They cut it with sodium solutions to make it stretch farther, and boil it for hours to burn off the gases. I may poke fun at the appearance of these tidbits, but I promise you that it is rooted in equal parts envy and delight.”

Orion nodded, somber once more. “Most of these are similar to drinks available within a few blocks of the Hall of Records. I don’t think you’d get anyone lower than Tier Five in that area, though. I had my ID card confiscated once just for looking the way I do. I probably would not risk it if I was ranked lower than I am.”

Megatronus’ helm tilted, his optics and EM field brightening. ”What happened there?”

“When my ID was taken?” Orion asked, clarifying. “Well, a friend and I had gone to the Decagon for a night out. We’ve been to the lower levels plenty of times before, and Jazz had heard of a couple of bars that supposedly had good reputations. They’re almost all caste-restricted, but up until recently the restriction was set at Tier Six, so we’ve never worried about that.”

“Tier Six in the Decagon?” Megatronus asked. He took another bright pink drink from the tray and swirled it, his expression thoughtful. “Given how it appears in so many holovids, I had always imagined the bar would be set much higher.”

Orion vented a laugh. “The holovids are all filmed on the higher levels, even when the story calls for a low level setting. The actors are Tier Two and Three, and the bars they film in use the vid as advertising. They’ll pay quite highly for the privilege.”

Megatronus knocked back his drink in one hit. “Of course. For a moment there I had a delusion of equality.”

Orion nodded silently. Remembered bitterness seeped into his spark. “Two things have changed the Decagon -- gentrification, even in the lower levels, and Functionism.”

“Functionism,” Megatronus growled. “Of course they picked you out of the crowd. How many dexters are there in the upper castes?”

“In mine, just about none.” Orion stared down into the drinks. Parts of him reflected back, dim against the brightly coloured brews. “I’ve actually seen more among Tier One than Two to Five, which is a little interesting. Same for the light warframes. I’ve been meaning to look up the census numbers, but somehow it always slips my mind.”

“That is interesting,” Megatronus agreed. “I had assumed you were one of the smallest dexters, that you might have passed for a large standard frame, but having now met you I see that is not the case. Were you a recycled frame, or did the Archives have you built to those specifications deliberately?”

“Deliberately,” Orion said, lacing his digits together and resting his joined servos on the table. “I was built to handle massive amounts of data concurrently. I have six separate processors that were state of the art at the time I was built, and a seventh standard CPU for my operating system, communication and sensory centers. A couple of my batchmates have nine processors total. We had to be big, but we also had to be relatively efficient. All but two of us are dexters.”

Megatronus’ EM field flared comprehension. “But those outside of the Hall of Records would not know this, nor likely care. Functionism in its current incarnation is as much about appearances as it is functionality.”

“I hadn’t thought of it like that, but yes, that’s accurate to my experience. Jazz and I tried to get into a bar, and the doormech refused to let me in on the basis that I was a dexter, and no administration job would employ a dexter when a standard frame would do.”

Orion’s spark lurched and curled in on itself. The shame from that night still ate at him, but these days it was overshadowed by impotent fury. He had done nothing wrong, and yet he had still been punished. The injustice burned.

Megatronus gazed evenly at him. There was no sympathy in his EM field, but a quiet kind of empathy tinged at the edges with anger. I know what it is like to be judged and found wanting based on the prejudices against one’s body , it said. I have felt that too.

“That was a few days before I found your forum,” Orion admitted. “I remember coming home after being stuck in the Decagon overnight -- without my ID, I couldn’t get through the district borders -- and reading An Open Letter To The Establishment. A couple of days later I looked for you on the Datanet. I told myself I just wanted to know why a political agitator would write under the name of a Fallen Prime, but your words about injustice and oppression resonated with the experience I’d just had. Then I found your forum, and I saw so many people just looking for knowledge, answers, a way to make their lives a little better. Suddenly, I felt a lot less alone.”

Megatronus scanned the platter, picked out one of the deep purple manganese brews and offered it to Orion. “Here -- be my poison-taster.”

Orion gave him a lopsided smile. He took the cube, sipped slowly at first, then swallowed the rest in one gulp. “That’s actually quite good. The silica pops on the glossa.”

“Hmph.” The revolutionary took the remaining cube and gingerly tasted it. “It is a little bitter for me.”

Orion picked out the three darkest brews: one manganate solution and two copper. “Try these if you like sweeter things.”

Megatronus eyed them for a moment, then tried the lighter copper brew. “I like this one. What is it?”

“Copper ammine with mercury. I tend to find mercury too sweet, so you’re welcome to the other if you want it.”

Megatronus promptly took the remaining cube. “What are the rust sticks for?”

“Palate cleansing, I assume.” Orion took one, nibbled on the end. “You’d have had them before, right?”

Megatronus chuckled, the sound reverberating deep in his massive chest. “Every time I win the championship rounds in Kaon, Clench sends me rust sticks. Lesser scoundrels assume it is a bribe, and send me more. I am happy to let them continue to labor under this misapprehension.”

His amusement was infectious. Orion chuckled in turn. “Who is Clench?”

“The biggest scoundrel of all.” Megatronus sorted through the remaining cubes, picking a bright, translucent blue energon that bubbled with carbonation. “He was a state prosecutor, downcast for corruption and bribe-taking. In the Southern States, these practices are the norm, so you can imagine for yourself how much of a mess he must have caused for the Governor’s office. These days he runs the betting on the higher-level gladiatorial rings. Very intelligent, very rich, and very nasty.”

Orion quietly crunched on his rust stick. “Do you deal much with him?”

“Unfortunately, yes.” Megatronus eyed him. “Does that concern you, Orion Pax?”

“A little,” Orion admitted. “I didn’t realise the Southern States had such… issues.”

Megatronus exvented, his browplates raising high. “Corruption is everywhere in this world. Just ask the Exchequer.”

“I can’t, he’s dead.” Orion paused, sighed through his cheek vents. “That was your point, wasn’t it.”

Megatronus steepled his digits. “It was, but I hadn’t realised he was executed already.”

“Kind of,” said Orion. “It wasn’t on any of the state-owned news sites.”

“Why not?” Megatronus fixed him with a steady, piercing gaze. Orion felt the neural net on the back of his neck crawl.

“Because the Prime killed him. Intra vires, ultima ratio .“

Unexpectedly, Megatronus began to laugh. “There goes Nova’s legacy. That is very interesting, Orion.”

Orion thought of Elita and the Cavalier Sun. “I don’t know that ‘interesting’ is the word I’d use.”

“I have killed plenty of mecha in cold blood, but at least every last one of them had the ability to fight back,” Megatronus mused. “How many of our leaders are murderers, do you suppose?”

Orion shook his head. “I’m not sure I really want to know.”

“You have a soft spark, Orion.” Megatronus regarded him out of half-shuttered optics. Orion ducked his helm, but he could still feel the revolutionary’s attention on him.

“I do,” Orion agreed. He raised his head, met Megatronus’ gaze, and turned his resolve to steel. “I want people to be happy, healthy and free. I want that for as many people as possible. I am one person and I may not be able to do much on my own, but I don’t believe that’s any excuse for not trying. If I can only help one other person, the world is still that much of a better place.”

They sat in silence for a long moment, neither willing to break eye contact. Megatronus’ EM field rippled around his frame, quiescent for the time. Again, Orion had the impression that he was being tested.

At last, Megatronus smiled.

“I have encountered only a few mecha like you in my life. Invariably, you get yourselves killed defending some small person or pursuing the wrong injustice, and the world is worse for your loss. I believe I like you, Orion Pax. I can tell, because I’m sitting here wondering how I can prevent you from following in their tragic footsteps.”

Orion raised his brows. “I can’t tell if that’s a compliment or not.”

Megatronus bared his dente in a wicked grin. “Only a statement of fact. I never make compliments. It saves me from retracting them when I am inevitably disappointed.”

“Do you trust anyone at all?” Orion asked, resting his elbow on the table and his chin on his palm. “You are surrounded by so many people and you still seem lonely.”

Megatronus’ grin faded. He rocked back in his chair, frowning across at Orion. “Trust is a luxury I have never had. Soundwave comes the closest, but he associates too closely with Megazarak. After Soundwave, the next is you. I think you know all the reasons I do not trust you.”

Orion nodded, unsurprised. “I’m higher caste, a softspark, an unknown quantity.”

“There is one more,” said Megatronus, plucking the last taster cube from the table. “You didn’t look away from me.”

“I didn’t think that would have helped,” said Orion.

Megatronus drained the cube, then set the empty vessel down on the tray. “Not many mecha will stand up to me. Of those that do, most are simply defiant. They recognise my power, and they think to force me to recognise theirs. A simple greeting turns into an exchange of egos. This bores me.”

Orion frowned. “I have no power.”

“Of course you do,” retorted Megatronus. “You simply do not recognise it as power. You sit here, ranked four caste tiers above me, and you tell me you have no power. That is a good joke, Orion.”

Shame flooded Orion’s spark. Social power -- he hadn’t thought of that.

“I am sorry,” he said, glancing away. “You’re right. I was thinking of physical power, but I shouldn’t have assumed that was what you meant.”

Megatronus laughed. Orion looked back; the revolutionary was smiling.

“Likewise, you have more of that than you realise. Why do you think dexter frames are so much more common in the military and labour castes?”

Orion shook his head. “I forgot about that,” he admitted, venting air and tension. “I think I am constantly trying to be so much smaller and weaker than I am that I forget I am not alone.”

“The only one you will ever convince of that is yourself,” said Megatronus. “Every other mech in the world sees a dexter; someone built for strength, best suited -- only suited -- to hauling and fighting.”

A processor thread in the back of Orion’s head wondered whether Elita One dealt with the same prejudices. Did the Towersmecha live by some other rule, where size and strength was not considered inversely proportional to intelligence and civilization?

Orion drew in a deep vent and let it out slowly, spinning his ventral fans. “I don’t really want to defy you. I will if I have to, but you’re the one with the best idea of how to make a better world, and I want to help you with that.”

“So you have said before,” Megatronus observed. “A question, if you will -- what do you think of when you look at me?”

Orion gave him a slow once-over. Some frames could appear borderline; you’d have to look at the code blueprint to tell which basic type they belonged to. Megatronus could never have been mistaken for anything but a heavy warframe. Even without the massive, pointy shoulders and hugely armored chest, his frame was full of visual cues. Flex joints covered his waist and back, allowing him a much greater range of movement. His helm covered much of his neck, sweeping forward in those two thick cheek guards and down to a point between his optics. He was too tall to be an aegis dexter, Orion’s own subtype, and too narrow at the waist to be an eurus dexter, the next size class up. There was a mounting on his left forearm that could have held a non-integrated weapons system.

“Why would they put a warframe to work in a mine?”

Megatronus blinked, and Orion realised he’d spoken aloud.

“That is a good question,” the revolutionary said at length. “Unfortunately, it is one I do not have the answer to. My best guess is that my cohort were recycled frames, perhaps ordered by a military contractor and never paid for, acquired at a discount price by the company which ordered our sparks and put us to work underground. I searched the company on the Datanet a few years after I made my freedom. They are known for being cheap, it seems.”

“Which company?” Orion asked. “If that’s not too much to ask.”

“Kaon Aluminium,” grunted Megatronus. “You likely have not heard of it.”

Orion had not. He opened a Datanet window and looked it up. The search client took its sweet time returning results -- more than sixty thousand of them.

He saved the search for later, and turned back to Megatronus. “There’s a shop; did you particularly like any of those brews?”

Megatronus cocked his helm; a thoughtful quirk, Orion was beginning to recognise. “The dark ones. Copper ammine, I believe.”

Orion stood, placing his chair back under the table. “I think I can afford one of those.”

Megatronus gazed up at him, expression as close to neutral as Orion had ever seen it. “You realise you do not have to do this.”

“I know,” Orion replied. “You can pay me back later. With some rust sticks from Kaon, maybe.”

A deep, rumbling laugh burst from Megatronus’ vox. “You drive a hard bargain, my friend. Very well, I will allow you to purchase me some of this ridiculously fancy energon. Do not spend all your credits; I may want something from the other brewery.”

Orion laughed in turn as Megatronus rose to his pedes. “That is the plan, you know.”  

Chapter Text

To usurp dominion over a people, in their own despite, or to grasp at a more extensive power than they are willing to entrust, is to violate that law of nature, which gives every man a right to his personal liberty; and can, therefore, confer no obligation to obedience.

— Alexander Hamilton, ‘The Farmer Refuted’



Orion did not make it back to his hotel room until late in the midnight shift. He stumbled into his berth and lay motionless for a long moment, his fans venting in satisfaction.

Megatronus had kept him busy for the entire day. They’d gone through three breweries, one imported beverages specialty warehouse, and two sweet shops, emptying Orion’s checking account. Afterward, somehow, they’d ended up part of a thousands-strong parade of drunken revellers celebrating the martyrdom of a local saint with a march through the lower city to the saint’s tomb, a modest mausoleum currently located in the middle of a traffic roundabout. The city had grown up around it in the millennia since the mech’s death, perhaps a fitting metaphor for the role of early religions in the modern world.

Orion entered the saint’s name -- Tombolo, according to inscriptions in the mausoleum engraved in Classical Praxian -- into the Datanet. Sixty eight thousand results in point three seconds. He picked an academic dissertation off a .uni domain and scanned the introduction. Tombolo, the essay read, had defended early Petrex from the Quintessons. His tomb was a warrior’s, guarded by statues with long guns and spears, decorated with frescoes depicting his battles. He’d died to give his fellow defenders a shot at taking the Quintesson stronghold.

Megatronus had approved of Tombolo’s heroism. He’d grinned at Orion, his vivid EM flaring, and said, “Now this is the sort of saint I could put my faith in.”

Orion had asked him where did he then put his faith, usually?

Megatronus had simply turned to him and said, “Me.”

Cybertronian culture as a whole emphasised the importance of community, of unity, of doing one’s duty and working toward the good of the species, a collective numbering billions. We are all cogs in a great machine, said the whispering voice of his mentor in the dark parts of his mind; we all must do our part to keep the world turning.

Megatronus did not think in terms like these. Or, if he did, he took great pains to reject them entirely. He was the most self-sufficient mech Orion had ever met.

Wind whistled through an open window somewhere in the dark hotel room. The humming of traffic several city levels below lulled Orion’s senses to complacency. He shuttered his optics, stretching out along the berth. The high-grade charge had worn off; fatigue weighed down his frame.

Soon his conscious thoughts faded, drifting off into a recharge haunted by the sharp angles of Megatronus’ massive frame.

They met again by the statue of Atalanta in the underground plaza the next morning. Megatronus waited beneath her outstretched sword, back to the statue, watching the crowd move past. He was alone, as far as Orion could tell.

Orion commed him once he drew within range. :: Good morning. I hope the sun sees you well. ::

Megatronus’ blue optics turned unerringly to him. He grinned, sharp dente glinting in the light. :: I have not travelled above ground in a long time, my friend. Perhaps it is past time I remind the sun of my existence. ::

“Perhaps,” Orion agreed aloud. He tried to imagine what it would be like to live his life without seeing the sky, and something in his spark rebelled.

“Where are we going today?” he asked, an attempt to change the subject. “You said you had someone to meet, yesterday.”

“I do indeed,” said Megatronus, stepping away from Atalanta’s statue. He looked south, across the square, and his EM field roiled around his frame like boiling water. “Let us attend to that task first.”

He led the way across the square, the stream of mecha parting around him. Orion followed in his wake. On the other side, Megatronus turned into a narrow alley between two multi-storey warehouses. At the end of the alley was the ageworn bulwark of one of the gigantic support pillars that held up the upper levels of the city. Barely visible among layers of industrial soot and grime was an arched doorway that led into the tower.

Orion reset his optics, adjusting to the deepening gloom. Megatronus ushered him through the door. He went, with only a short frisson of anxiety, and found an enormous service elevator beyond the threshold.

The revolutionary followed him in. “We’re going down,” he said, grinning. “How far below ground have you been, Orion Pax?”

Orion shook his helm. “Not far. The doctor I see through the Hall of Records runs a charity clinic in the lower city, eight levels down. I’ve helped him with his paperwork once or twice.”

“Interesting,” said Megatronus. He entered a number into the keypad on the doorframe, presumably their destination, and the floor dropped out from below their pedes. Orion staggered, his equilibrium controls pitching. Megatronus reached out and caught his arm. “I take it you’re not used to riding elevators like this.”

“It’s much faster than the ones in Iacon,” Orion managed. Using Megatronus as a crutch, he found his feet again. His altimeter pinged insistently every ten mechanometers. By his estimation, they’d dropped five city levels in about ten seconds.

Megatronus laughed, his EM field rippling around their frames. “There’s an adventure for you, little archivist.”

Orion tucked his field carefully within his frame. Megatronus’ field was so vivid and strong that he couldn’t help but react to it, instinct that social training clamped ruthlessly down upon.

The elevator slowed, shuddered to an abrupt halt. A dim red light flickered to life above a blackened portal. Megatronus made for the exit, and Orion trotted along after him.

“Welcome to the true undercity,” Megatronus rumbled, glancing back at him as the door slid open. “Stay close to me. Mecha will understand you are with me, and leave you unbothered.”

Orion flared his EM in acknowledgment, as quickly as he dared. Megatronus grinned, scarred lips skinning back from sharpened dente, and pushed back with his own. Orion’s spark turned and his fans stuttered. Had they both been Iaconians, Megatronus may as well have invited him to berth.

Since they were not both Iaconian, Orion figured he was going in blind. He vented in deep, shut down his fans, and followed Megatronus out into the Petrexi Undercity.

They emerged into a courtyard, perhaps as large across as the main Data Core building at the Archives, but much taller. Yellow and orange lights glowed in windows that looked out into the vaulted space, lanes on the upper levels emerging from within tower blocks and skirting the edges of the void before disappearing back into the towers. An archway several storeys high cut into the base of the tower to Orion’s right, leading through the building and out into a brighter space beyond. The air was still and smoky, latent heat laying heavy on the ground.

Megatronus headed for the archway, not bothering to transform. Orion ran to catch up.

“Your contact, are they nearby?”

“Who knows,” Megatronus replied, careless. “Her name is Windshear, she’s a rotary who purports to be ancillary personnel with the Blackball Security and Munitions Group, and in my personal opinion she’s full of slag, but we’ll see what she wants.”

Orion didn’t need to look up that company name; it was one he’d seen several times in the news. The Southern States’ second-biggest private security contractors, the Blackball Group had been involved in a number of small-scale clashes with striking workers and demonstrators in states across the region. They had been cited once or twice for use of excessive force, but this amounted to a slap on the hand for a company which regularly posted vornly profits of over five hundred million credits.

Megatronus slowed as he emerged from the archway, looking both ways along the broad avenue beyond. Traffic filled all four lanes going east, alt-modes locked up tail to bumper. Every so often, someone lost patience with the gridlock, got up, and walked off down the verges, followed by a cacophony of horns and shouted profanity. Evidently this was considered the cheater’s option.

Megatronus considered the traffic for a moment, then waded into the slowly moving lanes. Someone honked at him. He gave the culprit a mean grin and a mock salute, then forged on. Nobody repeated the mistake.

Orion followed him, tamping down the social protocols that screamed at him to stop getting in the way of the traffic. He reached the median strip without incident, regrouping with Megatronus. The four lanes going the other way were just about deserted.

“Why is there so much traffic?” he asked. “Is something happening today?”

Megatronus shrugged. The interlocking plates on his back slid hypnotically over each other with the movement. “If I had to guess, that would be the rush hour traffic for the midday shift. Petrex is a manufacturing town, and the main industrial district is roughly east of here.”

“Oh,” said Orion. His spark flushed hot -- such information was easily looked up. He looked up at the tower blocks rising on either side of the avenue. “This does look like a residential district.”

“It is,” said Megatronus. “Keep your optics open, Orion; I’m looking for a green-painted tower on a lane off the northern side of the road, and I am now realising that I can’t see green very well in this environment.”

Orion stepped out into the gutter, setting his optics to long-distance focus. “East or west?”

“West.” Megatronus gave him a sharp-toothed grin. “I wondered what your optical suite was like. Do you have situational filters?”

“Only for bright light,” Orion replied. He zoomed in on the street ahead, counting several lanes, open and roofed, before the next large intersection. “Are yours hard-installed?”

“No, but I only have the two options.” Megatronus swapped out the blue lenses over his optics for a pair that glowed malevolent red. “These are better for combat, particularly in lower light. Most mecha, however, are not happy to do business with a red-eyed brute, however, so I save them for those who could do with the… intimidation factor, shall we say.”

Orion frowned. “Is that often necessary?”

Megatronus vented hard through his lateral exhausts. The previous day’s experience told Orion that this was a laugh.

“Not as often as you worry. One must be hard to survive in the Untouchable castes, but one must also know when to pick one’s battles. These days, my name alone is intimidation factor enough for most.”

“I saw a video of one of your fights,” Orion said, focusing intently on the road ahead. This served two purposes; distracting him from the awful memory of the video in question, and reorienting his vestibular perception. Zooming in always played havoc with his balance. “It was one of the first things I found when I looked you up.”

“Judging by your expression, it was a death match.” Megatronus’ attention fell upon him like a weight. “I am surprised you sought me out at all, after that.”

“I’m not sure why I did it, either,” Orion admitted. “It was a death match, or at least, it ended in a kill. My friend explained to me that it’s mandated, in some matches. Does it happen at all outside of those matches?”

“Sometimes,” Megatronus said, and gave that subtle laugh again. “Some fighters refuse to accept a loss. Some join the arena to pay back a debt, and are unwilling to face the penalties for a loss. Some fight just to see how long they will last. And, of course, some like to kill.”

“What about you?” Orion asked, his mouth dry. “Do you like to kill?”

Megatronus answered almost casually. “I would say I simply do not care. There is no advantage to killing an opponent in the ring, so unless the rules of the match dictate otherwise, I will refrain. I have made an exception three times -- the first, to a mech who asked me to bring him to an honorable end; the second, to a mech who had made a brute of himself to several acquaintances, and threatened it to me if he won; and third, to a slave whose master had entered her in the ring, and again, asked me to set her free.”

Orion reset his optics to normal and paused in the middle of the gutter, swallowing down half-processed energon. Stormwater swirled around his pedes. “Primus guide them to the light,” he murmured, suddenly breathless. “How long ago was this?”

“The slave?” Megatronus asked, turning red optics on him. “Twenty vorn or so.”

“I shouldn’t be surprised,” Orion managed, “but somehow I’d hoped abolition might have been the end of it.”

Then he spun on his heel and threw up in the gutter.

Megatronus approached, his footsteps heavy on the pavement. “Are you ill?” he asked, his deep voice rumbling through Orion’s body. “Or simply overempathetic?”

Orion braced his servos on his thighs and spat the last of it into the gutter. “The latter.” He was shaking, hard enough for his plating to rattle. Nausea swirled in his tank, but there was nothing left to throw up. He’d brought extra fuel with him in his subspace, just in case. He hadn’t anticipated having to use it this soon.

“Ah,” said Megatronus, and his EM field flared, sharp with a private merriment. “I’ve been told I have a knack for oversharing. Perhaps I should keep some of these details to myself.”

“I asked for it,” Orion argued, “therefore I brought it on myself.” He wiped his lips and straightened, willing the cables in his arms to stop twitching. “Empathy is a double-edged sword. It drives me to do what I can to help you, and everyone else who is trapped by the caste system, but sometimes it hurts.”

Megatronus gazed down at him, something like respect in his red optics. “I do not understand you at all, Orion Pax, but I will give you this: you defy my expectations in new and interesting ways every time we meet.”

Orion gave him a weak smile. “I feel as though I should try to measure up to you.”

At that, Megatronus laughed outright. “Clearly you are feeling better.” He rested a taloned servo on Orion’s shoulder, and squeezed tight, then released. “Come, let us go find this supposed contact.”

They found Windshear in the service bay of a tower built up against one of the enormous branched pillars that held up a part of the upper city. Orion spotted her skulking in the shadows, as green as the building she’d chosen for their meeting. True to his earlier observation, Megatronus had missed both among the smog.

Windshear was a rotary, tall and heavyset with the characteristic blades of the frametype draping down from a hub mounted high on her back. She had a long, droopy face with browplates drawn low in apprehension, and as they approached, her EM field set alight with nervous shortwave jitters.

“You didn’t say you’d be bringing an associate,” she complained to Megatronus, glaring over his shoulder at Orion. “I told you I didn’t want Soundwave around.”

“This is not Soundwave,” said Megatronus, grinning. Orion would have said he was trying to set her at ease, except that was not a grin that inspired confidence in the onlooker at all. “Nor is he one of Soundwave’s symbionts, though I think you can see that for yourself. His name is Orion. He is one of my… suppliers.”

Orion wondered what the significant pause was meant to imply. “Hello,” he said, and offered his hand to the rotary. “It’s good to meet you, Windshear.”

She pinged his ID, then backed away. “I haven’t done nothing, Investigator.”

Orion frowned, looked up at Megatronus. The gladiator raised his brows for a moment, then roared with laughter.

“Do not mistake upper-caste manners for malevolence,” he told Windshear, his grin widening. “I know; this was a lesson I too had to learn. Orion has assisted my cause in a number of ways since I met him.”

Windshare glared out of the dark at them. “Prove you’re for real. I’m not saying anything until I know you’re not Enforcers.”

Megatronus wordlessly extended the wrist blade Orion had seen in the videos. Windshear took a step back, and Orion tamped down on the urge to do the same. Instead, he opened his subspace, and hauled out the crate of datapads he’d brought from Iacon.

Windshear stalked forward, leaning forward on digitigrade legs. She lifted the lid of the crate, and her frown drew deeper in confusion at the datapads stacked neatly inside.

“I’m an Archivist,” Orion explained. “All I supply is education.”

“All right,” Windshear grumbled, turning to Megatronus. “I believe you, gladiator. All I want is your cooperation.”

“In what way?” asked Megatronus. He retracted the sword, stepping into the shadows under the building. Orion followed, his spark whirling fast.

Windshear eyed the lane outside. “Not here. Too exposed. Come with me.”

Megatronus crossed his arms, planted himself firmly on the concrete. “This was the rendezvous point agreed upon. If you cannot say your piece here, we will have to reconvene elsewhere at a later date.”

Windshear ground her dente. “There are too many people here. Anyone could be listening.”

“Use shortwave radio, then,” Orion suggested. “Or databurst?”

That too was rejected. “Not secure enough.”  

Megatronus rolled his optics. “Then we are wasting our time. Come on, Orion.”

He turned to go, and Windshear lunged after him, closing a massive taloned hand around a shoulder spike. Megatronus whirled, stepping into her path; he took her by the wrist and kept turning, using her own momentum to lift her and slam her down on the concrete bay floor. Orion lurched backwards out of their way, but the rotary made no effort to fight her way up.

“Fine,” she said, her voice wobbling. “I’ll talk here, but if we’re taken up by the Enforcers after this I’ll know who to blame.”

“You’re free to do so, if that happens.” Megatronus’ voice dipped to a nearly subsonic frequency. “I repeat: on what do you require my cooperation?”

“There are three clades in the Blackball Group’s employ,” Windshear said, speaking fast. “The administrators in Tier Four, the legal liaisons in Tier Five, and the foot soldiers in Tier Six. I’m Tier Six. We’re just about all indentured.”

Here she gave Orion a long look. “Don’t know if you know, but the company got in trouble with the central government a few times recently. I don’t know, something about excessive force in response to nonviolent troublemakers. Got fined too -- don’t know how much, but it wasn’t a lot. Anyway, the admin and legal clades are the ones calling the shots, but they’re taking it out on us foot soldiers. My cadre’s pay got cut fifty shanix each. Our contract says we’re not supposed to talk to each other about pay, but after the second time, we did, and it turns out everyone got the same cut. Doesn’t matter where we’re based, if we were even involved. Someone asked the admins why. He was gone the next day -- not fired, as far as anyone knows, just gone. So everyone got real tense, as you can imagine.”

Megatronus released her, sitting back on his heels. “Orion,” he said, his voice deceptively calm, ”is that legal?”

Orion swallowed down his nerves. “The pay cut in response to protocol infringement? Yes, as far as I know, if it’s applied across the board -- by which I mean the administrative and legal cadres should be getting it too, along with any outside personnel employed by the company. Which state are you based in?” he asked Windshear.

“Stanix,” she replied. “We’re at the main base.”

Orion shook his head, pressing his knuckles to his mouth. “I’m not really a legal specialist, let alone in states’ law, so I’m not sure. It’s not just the pay cut, though, is it?”

Windshear pulsed a sharp negative through her EM. The taste of it set Orion’s neural net on edge. “No. See, it turns out the mech who disappeared wasn’t the first. Someone from the Triscanion hub went a few vorn ago, and when the riot in Blaster City happened a couple lunes ago, they docked us all another hundred and forced anyone who was short on rent or energon that chord to take out another loan on top of their creation debt. One cadre refused, decided to take their chances with the city rental market. About a lune after that they got sent out on a long job with bad info and when they called for help, the admins didn’t clear any backup for hours. Three of them died, and one of the three that were left is badly injured. They’ve laid a claim for treatment on the company, but the admin keeps delaying it.”

“I see,” said Megatronus. “Are you planning something?”

“Yes.” Windshear glared, frightened and defiant. “A strike. All of us, across all three hubs. They’ll almost certainly try to starve us out, and it’ll probably work, but at least we can try and lay our complaints with someone before then. We don’t think the media will listen to us, after what happened with the riots in Burthov, but we know there are people trying to change things, and you’re the first one who’s answered us.”

“The Blackball Group isn’t a popular name in the Southern States, is it?” Megatronus stood smoothly, and offered a hand to Windshear. She gave him a wary glare from the ground, but took it without complaint. “I have one question,” Megatronus continued as he hauled her up off the concrete. “Why did you ask me to leave Soundwave behind?”

Windshear brushed herself down. “Everyone knows he works with Megazarak. That slagheap would sell us all to the company for one stale silica chip.”

Megatronus chuckled. “No doubt he would. I have my reasons for trusting Soundwave, but I will not force you to trust him, lacking such reason. I have another broker under my command -- her name is Thunderblast. Go home, make plans with your clade, and I will send her to you in time.”

The rotary settled her field around her frame, smoothing out the sharp, nervous edges, and gave him a jerky nod. “We will. Thank you, for hearing us out.”

“Don’t thank me until it works.”

With that, Megatronus turned, striding out of the service bay. Orion followed. Behind them, he heard the sound of Windshear transforming, and not long after, the roaring thump of her engines.

Orion hurried to catch up with Megatronus’ long strides. “You said you thought she was full of slag, but you heard her out anyway.”

“I did,” Megatron agreed. He half-turned to look at Orion out of the corners of his optics, and grinned. “I like to think I have never been one to dismiss an opportunity based entirely on first impressions, but since I met you, I have been far more conscious of it. And, I admit, I was curious as to why someone from such a large company would have reason to seek me out.”

“The disappearances worry me,” Orion said. He folded his arms, holding them tight against his torso. “Does that happen often, too?”

“If you have the luck to be of Tier Eight, it is a daily concern,” Megatronus replied. “Less so to those of Tier Seven, and according to the mecha of Tier Six I have known, it is rare enough to be noteworthy. I don’t imagine that cases like those related by our friend Windshear are simply coincidence.”

Orion frowned down at the road. The shuddering nausea had faded, leaving only consuming anger in its wake. “It’s hard to legally downcaste someone. They’re probably dead, aren’t they?”

“It is likely.” Megatronus’ EM field rippled, clear and free of the doubts that plagued Orion. “That, or sold into the underground slave trade. Shadowplayed, perhaps.”

Orion’s spark and tank lurched in twain. “Tell me that’s not what I’ve heard it is.”

“Unfortunately, I cannot do that.” Megatronus turned, gave him an awful smile devoid of all feeling. “It is a common weapon, though more of a blunt force than many realise. Not all mnemosurgeons are equal. Try not to throw up again, Orion.”

Orion shuttered his optics, vented hard, then shut down the level sensors in his fuel tank. Several warnings flashed red across his HUD. He closed all but one, leaving it in the corner as a reminder to turn the network on again once he felt better. Again, fury filled the gap nausea left behind. He turned to Megatronus, numb and leaden inside.

“I want to stop this. Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.”

A little warmth bled back into Megatronus’ EM field. “For now? Simply be careful. You are a valuable resource, my friend -- too valuable to lose.”

They made their way across Petrex, descending another dozen levels into the bowels of the city. The lower they went, the hotter the atmosphere became, and the wetter the walls. Finally, an elevator let them out onto a raised platform connected to the street level by a flight of stairs. Water lapped at the lowest steps, shining faintly orange beneath a single flickering street light.

Megatronus strode down into the water, which reached halfway up his shins. “Don’t mind the lake, Orion. It is refreshingly non-acidic.”

Orion sealed his wet-weather systems, and stepped into the liquid. It turned out to be a little under knee-deep on him.

He looked to his right, along the shadowy street. This far down, it was more like a cavern, low-roofed and with street lights only at intersections. Some shadowy figure crossed the road a couple of blocks ahead; ripples propagated out through the water in their wake. “Is the whole level like this?” Orion asked. His internal compass swung between north and east, disrupted somehow. He imagined he could feel the weight of the city, pressing down on his shoulders, and his neural net prickled at the back of his neck.

“Most of it,” said Megatronus, heading left down the tunnel. Ahead of him, the road narrowed, turning into a dark, twisted warren. “This way.”

Orion followed him into the narrow tunnel. Self-preservation routines shrieked at him—he was meant for flat plains and long roads beneath the sky, not dark little caves far below ground. Twice he slowed, wrestling with protocols that wrenched him about and set him to flee. Nothing he tried quieted them for long.

Eventually the tunnel widened, and the lights became more frequent. The water level lowered, then dried up. They passed through a throng of mecha, some larger than Megatronus, others smaller than Jazz, and joined up with a party of twelve heading the same way.

A big dexter -- eurus, broad-shouldered and heavily built --recognised Megatronus; he came forward, touching his thumbs and index fingers together and pressing them to his chest in a gesture Orion did not recognise. Megatronus gave him a cocksure grin, replying with a hand held outward, palm facing toward the ground.

:: What does that mean? :: Orion asked over comms. :: Do you know him? ::

:: I have never seen him before in my life :: replied Megatronus. :: The gestures are Pit Kaoni in origin. The one he used is a shorthand for one’s spark; it can mean anything from devotion to respect and submission. The one I used likewise has many purposes; in the mines it means a good shaft, well-dug and safely ventilated. Judging by the fact that he appears to be going the same way as we are, I believe he means to say that he sympathises with and believes in the Decepticon Cause, so I replied with approval. ::

Orion went to look up what he meant by ‘Pit Kaoni’, and found the datanet signal had dwindled to nothing this far underground. :: Is that the dialect you mentioned as being used among slaves? ::

:: I may have :: said Megatronus, giving him a sharp look. He’d gone back to blue optical filters, which scarcely reduced the intensity of his gaze. :: You remember well, Orion Pax. Pit Kaoni is what was used among slaves in the smelting pits and mines of the southern polar region. It was a language built in trial and error, by mecha who in many cases spoke no other tongue and in scarcely fewer cases were not created with the capacity for spoken language or audial input at all. The spoken version can be adapted to Vulgate Kaoni with little effort, but the primary elements of the language are non-verbal out of necessity. ::

There was a note of reproach in his voice -- at what, Orion couldn’t tell. He forged on, hoping Megatronus would understand his interest. :: As far as I know, Vulgate Kaoni is one of the oldest languages still in common use. There are linguists who say the language is dying in favor of Austral Vulgate, but judging by the amount of posts on your forum that used Kaoni compared to Austral, that doesn’t seem quite true. I’d like to learn Kaoni, if I can. Would you help me teach myself? ::

The sharpness in Megatron’s expression melted away. :: How many languages do you speak? ::

Orion sent him a databurst with the full list. There were nearly forty entries on it.

The gladiator laughed through his vox. “I will teach you Kaoni, then,” he said aloud, and rested a heavy servo on Orion’s shoulder. “In return, my friend, you will teach me Iaconian. If I plan to reach the masses in every city, I must first know how to speak with them.”

Orion acquiesced without a second thought. “You have a deal.”

The road began to narrow again, forcing the stream of mecha to bunch up tightly. Another mech caught sight of Megatronus turned to give him the same gesture as the dexter had earlier. Others around them followed suit. Some cast Orion curious looks, but otherwise, the attention was all on Megatronus. He strode through the crowd, which parted around him in silent respect. Orion hurried after him, feeling like not much more than a giant ball of nerves.

Soon the road opened up into a massive underground chamber. The walls, pitted with cave dwellings and rickety tracks, curved up into darkness so thick Orion could barely see the roof. A massive steel beam bisected the cavern diagonally, disappearing into the rock two or three levels above his head. Humidity hung in the air, so thick and hot Orion’s temperature gauges sent him a half-sparked warning. He made a mental note to get his vent filters changed, once he’d made it back to Iacon.

And there were mecha in the cavern—hundreds, thousands of them. Tens of thousands, maybe. Frame types from the smallest minibots to frontliners and heavy laborers larger than Megatronus. Optics with blue filters, yellow filters, green and red and rarer colors. They spoke among themselves in many different languages, Vulgate, Polyhexi and Torii and others Orion knew nothing of. The roar of many voices rose and fell as Megatronus walked among them, silence spreading out across the crowd like ripples in a lake. Orion spotted the odd flier in the crowd by the shapes of wings at their backs. What forces had driven them here, so far underground?

A familiar frame materialised out of the crowd, long-armed and dusky blue. “Soundwave,” Megatronus said, and greeted the mech. “Good -- tell her to have it waiting for pickup in Helex.”

Soundwave nodded his visored helm. He lifted a long-fingered servo, pointing toward a raised dais made of rubble at the wall of the cavern, and fell into step beside Megatronus as the gladiator moved toward it.

Orion commed Megatronus. :: What should I do? ::

:: Stay behind me :: said the revolutionary, climbing up onto the makeshift stage with Soundwave at his side. :: Try not to draw attention to yourself. I don’t intend to deny your presence but as of yet I would rather not claim your acquaintance. If the powers that be hated my recruiting among the military so much, imagine what they would do knowing I have deliberately courted one of the intelligentsia. ::

Orion’s EM field flushed hot. There were two root glyphs used in the word meaning ‘to approach’; one which carried connotations of a first meeting, and the other which implied a continual action. The latter had once been commonplace as a description of business meetings and mutual organization, but in recent vorn the meaning had shifted toward romantic arrangements. He wondered how long ago Megatronus had acquired his fluency in the northern Vulgate, and whether he ought to let him know the accidental implication.

Up on the stage, Megatronus turned toward the crowd, raising his sword arm. Not now, Orion decided.

The last little murmurs among the crowd quieted in an instant. Megatronus surveyed the waiting mecha in silence, letting the anticipation build for a long moment before he slowly lowered his arm.

“Good morning, mecha of Petrex,” he began, speaking in Underland Torii, the most widespread tongue of the northeastern Tagan rus. “This morning, a friend of mine greeted me. He said to me, ‘I hope the sun sees you well.’ I appreciated this, but it strikes me that the sun has not seen me for a very long time. The same is true of many of you, no doubt. I have been thinking since, and the conclusion I have come to is that it is past time we all saw the sun. There is a reason the oppressive systems of our government keep us all in the dark down here, and while you and I both know that the dark serves its purpose, without the freedom of choice it becomes only one more symbol of captivity.”

In the shadows by the dais, Orion bit his lip.

“I have learnt much over the past chords, my friends,” Megatronus continued, his EM field flooding out from his frame. Those in the front rank of the crowd surged close to the stage, their fields reacting vividly to the reaching edges of his wavelength. “Much has changed. The ongoing riots in Burthov illustrate vividly the lengths to which our enemies are willing to go in order to keep us ground underfoot. In Stanix, in Slaughter City, and elsewhere, the governing classes fear their own unrest. I tell you now that they will sooner sabotage their own industries, as did the Burthov Port Authority, than give us the slightest victory. These are mecha who will happily run their own businesses into the ground in order to drain them of every last credit. Their ultimate goal is not success; it is power and riches.”

“I have heard some mecha say recently that we no longer live in the Golden Age of Cybertron. This is a new age, they say, characterised not by enterprise and achievement but by stagnation and mediocrity. Our friends in the Rubellite cause have given it a name -- the Age of Rust. Our nation is corroded, top-heavy and weakening from the inside. My brothers of Petrex, I am of a mind to agree. Do you feel as though the Golden Age persists? Or are we captives of a bloated and decaying empire, riven throughout with the rust of corruption and oppression?”

The crowd roared, so close and so loud that Orion’s audio processors glitched, overloading his sensory cortex for a moment. He deactivated his audials, resetting his optics and chemoreceptors. The sound of the crowd had tasted of iron and mercury, white-hot behind his optics like the detonation of a bomb. EM fields battered around him. He drew his own wavelength tight within his frame, and the sensation deadened a little. Wary, he waited until the crowd seemed to calm, then reset his audials in time to catch Megatronus’ answer.

“I have said many times that we are a valuable resource to those who oppress us. The might of the Cybertronian Empire rests upon our backs. We are its manufacturers, its artisans, its miners and labourers and haulers, its chemical workers and its soldiers. Without us, Cybertron would be nothing. We have made this world with our own hands, and yet they dare to tell us that we cannot have our part of it! According to those who benefit from our efforts, our dirty faces and mutilated frames, made so by our work on their behalf, are an affront to civilized society. Perhaps it makes them uncomfortable to see a mech who lost his legs to the smelting pits crawling around in public as though he still has a life to live.”

Megatronus’ expression twisted into an ugly smile, thin-lipped and lacking any amusement. “Life is uncomfortable, my friends,” he said, his voice dropping low and deepening. “Slavery is uncomfortable. Servitude is uncomfortable. I know now that freedom too is sometimes uncomfortable, but every pain I have faced is more than worth the knowledge that my fate is now my own to decide. When it comes to you to make the choice between oppression and revolution, I hope you will remember this. I make no promises that you will be comfortable among the Decepticons -- the question is only whether the freedom you will earn is worth it.”

He turned to Soundwave, standing motionless at the edge of the dais, and asked, “What do you think, my friend?”

Orion barely had time to wonder how the mech who had taken a vow of silence might respond to an entire audience. The answer came not in a databurst nor mass comm, but in a voice which reverberated inside Orion’s processor like thunder in an amphitheatre: