Do You Know What it Feels like
"Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short, wear shirts and boots, because it's okay to be a boy, but for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, because you think that being a girl is degrading. But secretly you'd love to know what it's like, wouldn't you? What it feels like for a girl?"
-Charlotte Gainsbourg, The Cement Garden
When Arcee's optics came on it was to the increasingly familiar view of the ceiling of Jhiaxus's lab. Somewhere beyond sight were two voices in low conversation. Arcee, feeling sluggish and uncoordinated, strained to listen.
"-progress is too slow. The data isn't keeping correctly."
"Do you think it is becoming corrupted?"
"No. There's no error diagnosis. I think it's her CPU that's rearranging the information."
"The programmers are getting more clever as time goes on, Thunderwing. Look here," something shuffled about, muffling the voices with shoulder components that were hunched over a computer terminal, "the data we entered in a meta-cycle ago, the one that modified her instinctual behavioral pattern."
"I recall those. It took three sessions before it finally took."
"The programmers are making the neo-cortex more self-aware and resistant to change."
"I see, how very clever! That is why you have been combing through every strand of data in Acree's cortex. You were learning the way her cerebral net has been reprogramming the data we had input in order to counter it."
"It took some time, but I believe I have the information needed to develop a program that will be able to utilize these reconstructive programs to change the parameters as the user sees fit."
"I'm amazed! Being able to bypass such things is impressive enough, but to manipulate them into doing your own work is astounding!"
"It's just some delicate invasive programming, really." Jhiaxus replied almost offhandedly. "It will take much more research to perfect the subliminal coding."
The ceiling tilted as Arcee's head shrugged to one side. Jhiaxus and Thunderwing's voices were growing more animated and louder. They seemed to have completely forgotten their subject was still there.
"What are you doing?" The crackling vocalizer made Arcee wince.
"Ah- she's online." Thunderwing noted with sudden monotony.
"Why are you calling me that?"
The two scientists paused, trying to understand the question. Jhiaxus's expression lit up as close to joy as he was capable of becoming. "It's taken! It really has taken! Well done, Thunderwing! It worked and we hadn't even realized it! It turned out even better than I had hoped!"
Arcee's optics darted between the two incomprehensibly. "What are you talking about? Why are you referring to me like that?"
Cybertronians, as a genderless society, didn't have pronouns indicative of females. Instead they used layers of formality, referring to each other based on their place in the social hierarchy. Arcee they talked about on an almost insulting low level.
"You are a female now." Jhiaxus said with no lack of pride. "A femme. If you are a gender to be beneath us, you should be regarded as such on all levels."
Arcee struggled against the bonds. "No! I am not!" He growled. He, dammit, he. "Stop calling me that! I am not a female! I am not below anyone!"
"Jhiaxus, sir. The programming is attempting to regress."
"Hm, pity. I suppose that new program will take longer to perfect than I thought. This will be a long session. Offline her."
In the background the scientist muttered to himself, "Perhaps if I wrapped the main program in a datashell and input that directly into the cerebral cortex instead of having it work through the network. That would make her CNA more susceptible to change and, with the correct subliminal coding, the cortex wouldn't even recognize it as an invasive object and therefore be unable to counter it…"
Thunderwing paused, intrigued by the thought. Arcee's consciousness hung at his fingertips. "Sir?"
"To use those analogies you enjoy so much, Thunderwing, it would be like a bombshell, waiting for the correct trigger to set it off."
"Perhaps, sir," Thunderwing chided lightly, "you should leave the analogies to me." Arcee's awareness was cut off.
The room was dark and utterly silent except for the subsonic hum of distant generators. Arcee was huddled in the corner trying not to think of what she'd become (he, he). How could Jhiaxus do this to a sentient being? How could anyone live like this- being constantly belittled for something they couldn't control (control- ha! For such drastic alterations, non-consensual, to beings that chose their upgrades was being raped to the very core, destroying everything they were)? How could they function believing they were less because of some arbitrary reason? Arcee refused to stand for that. He would not let Jhiaxus continue to do what he willed. He would not let anyone belittle her (him, dammit) for something that wasn't his choice.
"I won't do it." Arcee muttered into the crook of her (his) arms. Jhiaxus hadn't even let him keep his own vocal tone, heightened the pitch until it was almost unbearable to hear. "I won't allow this to happen anymore. I am not female. I'm as capable a mech as anyone. I won't let you take that away from me."
I am not less, he told himself. I will not be less.
Primus, now he understood how Flywheels felt, constantly fighting his own head.
That worthless piece of scrap junk. I'll kill him for doing this to me. To us all.
"Threats aside, you are hardly in a position to refer to anyone as worthless."
Arcee jumped at the voice, cursing internally, unaware that his words had been out loud. She glared at the walls, growling deep in his engine block. "And who made me like that?" It was getting harder to address himself normally but she wasn't going to stop (he).
"Asides from the subconscious impulses that make you inferior in any other mech's view, you are very much worthless to society as a whole." Jhiaxus's voice boomed in that measured, cold way of his. "There is no point to your existence, no function for you to perform because no one else will give you that chance. You no longer have a place in our society. A mech without a function is better off never existing."
There was no inflection in Jhiaxus's vocalizer. He spoke to Arcee on the same level as he'd spoken these same words to the Micromasters, the Duocons, to all the monstrosities hidden somewhere below, to every other mech whose lives he destroyed merely to sate his curiosity.
"You are not needed. You are functionless and therefore a burden to our society. You will not subvert our race with your presence. You will not leave this compound for the rest of your existence."
"How can you claim the ability to decide if I'm capable of functioning in society?" Arcee snapped. "What gives you the right to say that of me or anyone else you have trapped here?"
"Because I know what you're capable of. Though all of you have given me valuable scientific knowledge, in the end you are all failures for you have no other uses."
"You won't even let us try!" Arcee bolted to his feet, fists bunched and wanting to punch Jhiaxus's voice from the room. "I'm in full capacity of all my processes and I still retain all my preliminary data! I'm as mentally capable now as I was when I first came here! How am I supposed to prove this if you won't give me the chance?"
"That is the same conundrum all who are discriminated against face."
"If I'm set to fail from the start, then what's the point?"
"What you do from now on is of little concern to me."
Arcee's yellow optics paled and glowed sightlessly at the wall. "So you'll kill me, then?"
"I am not a murderer." Air cycled out of Arcee's vents like a snort. "I will allow you the same choice as I've given the others. You may continue your useless existence here so long as you do not interfere with any of my other works. Or you may ask to be shut down at any time."
The sharp pulses of air continued util Arcee's engine was stuttering laughter from inside his chest. Live a life as fulfilling as death or die outright? Some choice.
"Arcee." Jhiaxus said sternly, lost under Arcee's rising hysteria. "Arcee, what is your answer?" The stuttering rose to a roar. "Femme. Answer me."
The roar cut to a growl as suddenly as a switch. "I will kill you." She snarled, optics filled with murder. "I will kill you and all your abominations. I'll destroy all of your research- wipe your very existence from Cybertron. I will not rest until you're broken and dead under my heel."
Jhiaxus seemed far from impressed. "We shall see."
"Jhiaxus, sir," Thunderwing spoke even as his optics didn't stray from the monitors, "are you sure it is wise to allow Arcee to function?"
The femme- another of Thunderwing's designations and Jhiaxus, as always, felt no compunction in arguing the label –spent her times in unstable, emotional bouts. Some cycles she'd be curled in a room, flinching at every noise real and imaginary. At other times she'd pace, mumbling incoherently to herself. Rarely still she'd explode with curses and attack the objects in the room in violent, raging outbursts.
At another consul, reading through some text sent by Nova Prime, Jhiaxus merely scoffed distractedly. "Are you concerned for my safety, Thunderwing? I would have assumed after Monstructor that such threats from the likes of these other experiments would be laughably insignificant."
Normally Thunderwing would have agreed. But unlike many of the experiments still with them, Arcee still had full control of her mental capacities and had, after all, been built to function as one of the Autobot's field intelligence specialists. Though his sensors told him Arcee was clearly nothing to be concerned over, the more objective part of him knew she was designed to be clever and ruthless from the start. Once she had control of her emotional outbursts, the ordeal she'd undergone would very likely do nothing but increase that aspect of her programming.
"I just think we should install a limiter on her."
"It doesn't matter."
"But her emotional instability-"
"Is not nearly as severe as either of the Duocons. She's harmless." Jhiaxus registered Thunderwing's dubious expression from the corner of his optics. "It is merely a side affect of her programming. Such extreme emotional swings are not part of the ideal behavior, therefore she must be prone to it. That is all."
Thunderwing pressed his lips in to a thin line but nodded. "As you say, sir. Though I feel I must ask- is this experiment considered complete?"
"Far from it, Thunderwing. This was merely the first step into the actual experiment itself. First we needed to ensure that we could create a variable which would cause all others to naturally regulate a… 'femme' to an inferior position regardless of their actual capabilities. From there the experiment will merely be an observational one to see if any mechs or the subject herself will attempt to overcome what is deemed 'natural' in order to gain equality."
"Are you planning on releasing Arcee back into society, then?"
Jhiaxus scoffed, scrolling through the text. "Absolutely not! Asides from being emotionally unstable, she was already too self-aware before the modifications were made. It was an oversight on my part, I'll admit. Arcee is already aware that, logically, she shouldn't be treated any less than any other mech. I want to know- to parallel organic societies –what it would take for a femme to realize she was being belittled and the effort it would take to end the discrimination. Do you understand the full scope of this experiment?"
"Yes, sir, I believe I do. Do you want me to begin compiling the supplies needed to create the framework of this new femme?"
The question was waved off carelessly. "Not right now. I will pick this experiment up again on my return."
"Return, sir?" The assistant asked with a tilt of his head. "Are you being called away?"
"Nova is requesting my assistance in developing a large ship capable of surpassing the distance of our greatest ranged transport ships by five-fold. He wishes me to join the crew when it launches."
Thunderwing turned in surprise, ignoring Arcee as she curled in the ruins of the recharge berth in her misery. "You?" He paused, drawing up on prior knowledge that would have indicated this sudden announcement. "Does this pertain to the memo that began this last experiment? Prime wants to create a warship to conquer any biological race he comes across, correct?"
"It will be under the guise of an exploratory mission, but that is correct."
"What about the Matrix? I doubt Autobot high command will let him leave for such an endeavor with it, never mind the Senate."
"It will most likely be passed on to Nova's second for safekeeping."
"And your experiments?"
Jhiaxus hummed through his engine, rough and cold. "This ship will hold most of my time and energy. They will be put in stasis until I return."
"Do you plan to keep them all?"
Jhiaxus looked up at Thunderwing with dark optics that hid great cunning. "You don't seem to recall what I always tell you, Thunderwing. There are surprising revelations even in the most ardent failures. So long as they live, there may be some use for them."
They were finally being locked away together- that is all who were on the same level were most likely being locked away with each other. After over a mega-cycle of knowing their fate, set to be suspended for an unknown period, all the preparations had been completed. Thunderwing led them all to the stasis chamber. The Micromasters huddled close together, Battletrap snarled but followed like a barely obedient beast. Flywheels muttered insults to himself and kept his wrists close together as if he were manacled. Arcee stared at Thunderwing's back and wondered why she didn't feel the urge to strike at him. He had as much responsibility turning her into this unnatural creature as his mentor did.
"How long will we be in stasis?" She asked. Honestly the idea soothed her. She was tired of fighting with herself. She was tired of remembering to get upset whenever she forgot to call herself 'he'. She was tired of being cognitive of the freak she became. Perhaps that's why the others were so docile. They were probably more tired than Arcee was."
"Until Jhiaxus returns."
"When will he return?"
"I do not know." With that, Thunderwing began securing each of them to their stasis berths. Four of them had been modified to accommodate a Micromaster.
"And?" Asked Battletrap. "If he never comes back?"
"Then I suppose you'll be in stasis lock until your sparks atrophy."
Hubs's little optics went wide. "Is that possible?"
The assistant merely paused and looked at him. "Perhaps you can think of this as a new experiment, then."
Arcee saw it then, why- despite being unrestrained –none of them attacked Thunderwing. He was as bound to Jhiaxus's will as they were, perhaps even more because Jhiaxus had captured his curiosity, his yearning to learn. He was trapped in this labyrinth of laboratories and abominations because if he ever left, he'd never know. And yet he cared. He looked at each experiment and saw some poor creature bound by something vile growing inside of them that they couldn't escape. They looked at him and saw the same thing. If Thunderwing ever left, he would be forced to see all the minds he destroyed for the sake of an intellectual endeavor- most of which would never leave that underground complex –was nothing but a waste of lives.
Arcee felt pity for him. While they had relief from their broken lives, what waited for Thunderwing after Jhiaxus left? Would he stay in the labs like some lost ghost left to watch over the defunct relics his mentor would leave behind? Would he continue Jhiaxus's works or leave to study elsewhere, or would he put himself in stasis as well?
None of them struggled as Thunderwing put them into stasis. Arcee offlined her optics, text scrolling through her HUD, informing her of the shut down procedures, of systems being put on suspension or on conservation status. She felt herself going numb to everything, all her pain and anger and frustration peeled back as her body was disassembled and set into storage. Everything melted away until her central processor blanked out and all she felt was the subliminal thrum of her spark. But it wasn't just her spark she felt.
Scientists would say it's an impossibility, but Arcee could claim it where none were present to ridicule her. For even in stasis she could sense her fellow monstrosities around her. They all shared the same peace she felt but she could still distinguish them all the same. Big Daddy's firm beliefs and Greaser's sly attitude. Trip-Up beyond them, distant and unwelcoming even here and Hubs trying to measure up to all three. On her other side was a surprisingly docile Battletrap. On the berth across from her was Flywheels, so welcoming of the stasis he barely registered on the monitors as still functioning.
Beyond them she could still feel other pulses resonating with her spark. Creatures filled with an insatiable hunger- not a need to refuel but to eat, a purely organic concept Arcee couldn't fathom. There were others who were complete and incomplete, a fully functioning personality with a fragment of another meshed within, a secondary personality that responded to a fragment within another. Their processors were even more fractious than Flywheels, unable to properly function without their other half but unwilling to submit to their dormant persona.
She felt them. All of them. The scores of experiments Arcee had never realized existed. She felt the failures and violent, the lonely and the neurotic. She felt the sparks of other Duocons and Micromasters, no where near as lucid as those she'd come to know. Beyond them all she felt It. The presence all others shied away from. Six shattered processors that raged even in stasis and screamed for release and a seventh presence that weaved into them all that wanted to do nothing but kill. It was the abomination that frightened the Micromasters, she knew. Arcee didn't know if she pitied them, feared them or just wished them dead.
It was impossible to feel the passage of time in their suspension. Arcee could only measure it by the gradual fading and extinction of sparks around her. It made her wonder if sparks really could atrophy or if it were some sort of equipment failure that was extinguishing one presence, then another. Or perhaps Jhiaxus had returned and was merely bringing back a select few.
She couldn't explain why, but Arcee knew he hadn't come back. She continued to count the fading sparks until there were only a handful left- barely a quarter of their original numbers. Arcee wondered if she'd feel herself fade the way she could feel everyone else fade before she was finally extinguished.
Awareness suddenly came upon her. She could feel her processes starting up, the weight of her body so familiar and foreign. Words were scrolling across her HUD and Arcee recognized it as the rebooting process. She was online again and felt the pain of system errors.
She screamed out from the warnings flashing white-hot in her processor and from being torn from the first amount of peace she'd had in too long. She jerked against her binds and roared in that lighter lilt of hers until it almost seemed like a sonic cry. Somewhere she recognized that someone was speaking to her.
"Calm down," the voice was a low rumble, more felt than heard. "You're safe. You won't be harmed."
"Jhiiiaxxusss," she hissed out the curse as if she were relearning to speak.
"He is gone."
"Disappeared with the Ark and all aboard it."
"No." Arcee snarled. Her head lulled around, trying to locate the source of the words. "He's alive. I can feel him. Can feel the coward crawling through my cables."
"I assure you," the voice seemed to come from up and through the glaring lights Arcee could spot two blue pinprick optics peering down from a massive shadow. Her sensors were still recalibrating and she couldn't read anything from the presence. "He is lost. They have all been lost for nearly seven hundred thousand metacycles."
No. He wasn't. Arcee would know if he were dead. Just like she knew if any of the other experiments were dead. Because Flywheels was right. Jhiaxus had put a piece of his energy signature in them. She could feel the part that was him pulsing in time to the other fragments of him and she could feel it- so very faintly –curling and writhing with the knowledge he was somewhere unreachable but alive.
He would pay for this. She was free now and she'd make sure Jhiaxus was as dead as everyone thought.
Arcee forced herself to be complacent, hoping to be released. "The others? Are you going to wake them?"
Those optics narrowed in study of her. "We found this complex not long ago. Most of the others died from system failures. Many of those that survived are in a delicate situation. Only you and few others were stable enough to reboot."
She couldn't help it, throwing her head back to bark in laughter. "HA! You released them, didn't you? Those broken fragments? Those… gestalts?"
"You know of them?"
"All I know is they make up a greater whole." She sneered ironically. "The use of great, of course, is purely an idiom. All they want is violence. Nothing more."
"I wouldn't mind violence, either. But only toward Jhiaxus. Otherwise I don't much care."
The optics grew until faceplates assembled around them and a giant mech knelt over Arcee. She recognized him- Omega Supreme, one of Nova Prime's more conservative advisors. "Are you trustworthy enough to be left on your own?"
Arcee merely grinned. Internally she held every derogatory 'you', every belittling word and tone inside to compress her hate into a blackhole that filled with her desire to track down and rip apart Jhiaxus one circuit at a time. "Of all his experiments, I'm far from one you need to concern yourself with."
Omega Supreme drew back enough so the lights obscured his chest and shoulders. "You will be given a trial period until I determine if you are fit be among our society- a duration of time known only to me. After that time period you may stay with me for as long as you like, or you may go where you will. Is that clear?"
You have no right to decide who's fit for society or not! She wanted to yell at him. You're no better than Jhiaxus, you have no authority to judge who I am when you can't even see how it is you treat me! But Arcee gave that whip thin smile and began calculating the best way to begin her crusade against Jhiaxus and the little fragments of himself that he left behind.
"Very well. I'm at your disposal."
Hope this helped to sort things out for other people as it did for me. And yes, I made things deliberately ambiguous at the end in regards to Thunderwing, the span of time before Arcee's Spotlight, who is still functional at the end and, of course, who the other experiments might have been (except, obviously, the Pretender Monsters) you are free to speculate. And if you're thinking I might have dropped hints alluding to other characters, I most likely thought about who you're thinking of.
Again, special thanks to Wills for betaing and Cafei for prodding me to finish.
JML: I'd probably argue that they'd relate more towards the 'superior' gender if not for the mere fact that it would allow them to be taken more seriously than otherwise. For example, supposing the cartoon took place in the early 1900's, late 1800's, do you think the government would take giant alien female robots as seriously as giant alien male robots? Though, true enough, they'd still have to fit into the parameters of that gender's behavior.
Oddly enough, in most all fandoms I've been in the general discussion forums/comms tend to be more male dominated (from what i could tell) while writing/art comms were more female dominated (also from what i could tell). Kinda makes me wonder why that is.
Tomorrow: Yeah, I think most of the problem stems from subconscious actions/thoughts, myself. Hell, I've found myself being aggressive or cold towards others without meaning to all for the fact that I... well, it's not so much an 'I'm better than them' thought as it is 'how the hell did they survive, they're so stupid' thought. I always hate it when I catch myself doing that, even if those people aggravate the hell out of me...