Dichotomy of Good and Evil
Author's Note: M/M quite obviously here, along with non-consensual relationships, and violence. Another story I've had sitting around for a while I figured I would publish.
The Decepticons had lost, and quite spectacularly to boot. It wasn't a glorious battle by any means, and it wasn't the Autobot's most proud moment either. However, it had been a completely crushing defeat.
It had been a plan worthy of the Decepticons themselves, and not one the Autobots were particularly proud of. However, it had been effective. Megatron was in custody, along with the rest of the Decepticons, every single survivor offlined for safety during their custody and subsequent return trip to Cybertron.
It had been a moment to be proud of. There was celebrations across the planet, parties in the streets, and much rejoicing.
That was, until the newly re-instated council informed Optimus Prime what they intended to do with their prisoners.
He couldn't say he was surprised at their decision, but he was disgusted. War Crimes. All those who were on the losing end were always tried for war crimes, those who had been the victors were seen as heroes despite the same energon spoiled their hands. Optimus Prime had spoken of this, spoken for the rights of the Decepticons who had essentially been no trouble since they had been taken into custody. They were prisoners, true, but they still were sentient beings, and they had rights. They were to be awarded a trial, given genuine defense council, and treated fairly.
It was ironic how they had fought so hard to restore Cybertron to it's former glory, only to have the very same corrupt practices be put back in place once more.
Megatron had been executed. No trial, no hearing, just a public execution. The Decepticon Leader had remained defiant to the end, but that hadn't saved him. No Decepticon was permitted to be present for the process, though the room was packed with Autobots. After his spark was systematically extinguished, his body was liquefied so there was no question he was gone.
Optimus Prime had been removed from his position of leader, the excuse being they were no longer in a war-time era, and therefore his experience was not needed. He was treated as a war hero, of course, and being the Matrix-bearer, he still was allotted privileges, but no real power in the Senate. Therefore, he had no choice but to stand silently as the Council brought every Decepticon into their chambers, shackled and looking rather ragged from months of being detained. There were too many of them to simply destroy, and even the Council wasn't so corrupt as to order mass execution of every mech. Instead, they were sentenced to labor in the energon mines of Kaon, exiled from ever leaving the city, given meager rations to survive, and would live their lives out there.
As the motley bunch began to shuffle their way towards their waiting sentence, Optimus recalled scanning their figures once more. He knew them all, knew their battle tactics, knew their quirks in battle. In that one moment, his optics paused in the broad sweep of the defeated figures to alight on the only pair of optics that dared stare up in his direction. They hadn't been directed at him, but rather the entirety of the Council, however as he met the burning red gaze, the optics shifted to stare back at him, and only him. In that moment, he saw defiance, anger, betrayal and fear in the optics of the former Decepticon 2nd in command. Starscream was the only one standing tall, wings dirty but still proudly jutting at his sides, optics bold and fearless as he met the former Autobot leader's gaze.
In that one moment, they shared an understanding, even if it was slight. Disappointment for them both. Optimus, because this was not the world he had envisioned. Starscream, because the noble Autobot sentimentality had been just as much a lie as any Decepticon could weave. It was in that moment that Optimus felt a sudden weight on his spark, a pressure that was unnatural and unfamiliar.
He never saw another Decepticon again. Not for a hundred vorns.
"Optimus?" The voice snapped him out of his thoughts, as he glanced up from his data pad, blinking at the mech in front of him. "You drifted on me."
"Sorry Ratchet." Optimus Prime sighed, rubbing his nasal bridge tiredly. "My thoughts are running with me. What were you saying?"
"I was saying, you really should get out now and then." The white mech smiled gently, his optics kind. "You spend far too much time cooped up in here by yourself. It's not good for your health."
"I find it preferable to being out there, my old friend." Optimus smiled tiredly. "No matter where I go, optics follow me, both resentful and respectful. I can't help but wonder if it might be better if I just found some remote city to retire in rather than continue to remain close to the action."
"You always say that." The Chief of Cybertron Medical chuckled, shaking his head as he leaned back in his chair. "And yet you never take action. I think you can't deny that whether it's you or the Matrix, you're drawn to be part of the action. It's who you are."
Despite what I might wish, Optimus thought privately, but merely nodded slightly in response. "I apologize for drifting off on you. What were you about to tell me? Something about contamination?"
"Yes." Ratchet said, smile fading. "I've reported my findings to the Senate, and they insist that there must be some kind of problem with the batch. Yet, this energon hasn't come from just one batch that I can trace." He leaned forward, frowning a bit. "The energon is tainted, and it's getting worse, Optimus. It started out as just some discomfort, but one of these days I expect to see a mech come into my clinic and there will be nothing I can do to stop his systems from shutting down one at a time. Whether the council wants to admit it or not, we do have a medical problem. They just don't care because the energon is the lower grade stuff, that which gets sold on the main market, and doesn't enter their own homes." He sighed. "I know you don't have weight with the Council anymore, but you DO command respect. I figured, since I cannot spare the staff to look into the contamination at it's source, perhaps you might be willing to do so, if only to get to the root of the problem."
Optimus frowned. "Just what kind of effects does this contamination have? I still find it difficult to believe the council simply turns their back on something you have proof of."
"That's just the thing." Ratchet said frowning. "It's subtle. You could drink a cube and feel nothing, and be fine with just one cube. However, if you kept drinking that as your regular fuel supply, you would begin to find your energy declining, you would require more recharge to feel normal, and once it began to affect your systems you would start to feel tremors in your limbs, followed by systems failures. It attacks lesser systems first, as your repair systems protect the critical systems primarily, but it would be a very slow and very painful decline." His optics lowered. "So far, the only way I have found to stop the progression is to completely purge the affected mech's body of the toxic energon and put him in a recharge bunk until his systems finally are repaired. To date I haven't lost one yet… but the last one was close, Optimus. Not to mention he couldn't afford the treatment, but I'll be fragged if I'm going to let a mech die because they couldn't afford the costs. But this is becoming more frequent, Optimus. And whether they want to believe it or not, it's spreading."
"And your guess? Is this a virus we're dealing with?"
"Not that I can tell. It shows all the classic signs of some kind of energon contamination, though one I've never found records for yet. It's undetectable in the fuel itself, trust me I've tried purchasing various cubes from vendors to test them, and even scanned a partially consumed one that we knew came from a contaminated batch, and found nothing. We need to get to the root of this and soon. Unfortunately, the Council can't be bothered to look into it." He sighed. "I know it's out of your jurisdiction, but…"
"No, I would be interested in investigating." Optimus assured him, frowning thoughtfully as he stroked his battle mask with his fingers, tracing a deep gouge that had been left after their last battle and he had not had removed. Some wounds were meant to be kept. "I'll do what I can to find out where the batch is coming from, but without any way of tracing it, how can we find the root of the issue?"
"Well, we know that it isn't affecting the energon we get our supplies from." Ratchet pointed out. "So I've narrowed it down to shipment Delta five, ten and fifteen. They all come from the same Energon mine, unsurprisingly." He shook his head. "But there are other batches that are fine, so obviously this batch is near something toxic. The problem will be tracing it down to the exact source."
Optimus smiled a little, optics sparkling. "Well, a little mystery is something that could be quite along the lines that I need, wouldn't you agree?"
"I thought exactly the same thing." Was the amused response. "Here's what I know. The Delta shipments come in monthly, and fortunately for you one is due tomorrow night. The foreman is a mech called Blackforge, and I've spoken to him. He's a reasonable guy, and he probably would be willing to let you return with them to Kaon, but Optimus…" Ratchet frowned warningly. "Please watch your back. I know Kaon has been tightly controlled since the end of the war, but that doesn't mean that there aren't those who still harbor ill will towards us."
Optimus smiled lightly behind his mask. "I believe I am well capable of defending myself, Ratchet."
The medic smiled. "I know. But I had to say something." He rose and grasped Optimus' hand tightly as the former Autobot leader shook it firmly. "Let me know the moment you uncover anything. I've asked Skyfire to keep in touch in case he can be of any help with the analysis, after all bio-contaminants are his specialty."
"As soon as I know anything, so shall you my friend."
There wasn't much to prepare for, seeing as he wasn't sure what he would be searching for. However, Optimus made sure he stocked himself up well with any firepower he might need. While he was certain the guards at Kaon had their wards under control, one couldn't be too careful. Still, when he emerged from the alleyway near the loading docks, doubt tugged at his spark as he saw just what lay before him.
The mechs unloading the energon were strong enough, quickly passing the heavy loads onto the barges, barking commands to those dragging the crates out from the hold of the ship. However, it was those mechs that made Optimus' spark ache painfully. They were all painted a uniform grey, and at first he thought they were one specific line or model. But as one turned and he saw a smaller mech half bent under the weight of the crate, shuffling quickly as a yellow one barked orders, he realized that they weren't the same model at all. Furthermore, his optics scanned the grey mechs and spotted bright red energy collars locked around each of their necks. Bold black numbers were stamped onto each of their chests, indicating quite clearly that these were not just any mechs, but prisoners, Decepticons.
Optimus Prime felt a sick feeling well up inside his tanks. The dealings of Kaon had remained strictly confidential, and since he was not an active member of the council, he was not included in how the city was meant to function. As long as the energon kept coming in, no one cared.
As he watched, one of the mechs stumbled under the weight of the crate. Without warning, a black mech with a long glowing rod came forward and smacked him hard across the back with a stoic expression. The mech cried out in pain, crumbling to the ground, curling up as the mech unleashed another blow, and another. It only went on for a mere handful of seconds, during which Optimus crossed the distance to the barge rapidly in his long strides, the mech had fallen still and was laying clearly offline on the barge. The black mech straightened, nudge the mech with a foot, and then gestured to one of the others nearby. "Get him below." The other made no sign of hesitating, but scooped up the mech by his arms and dragged him back into the hold without question. It was only then when the black mech noticed Optimus standing there, optics narrowed in fury. "What do you…" He paused, optics widening. "Oh, sir." He straightened quickly. "What do we owe the pleasure?"
"Just what was the purpose of beating a mech offline?" Optimus Prime said coldly, his voice like ice as he pulled himself up to his full height, towering over the other mech. "Would not a simple reprimand be necessary if he were not performing adequately?"
The mech blinked, and gave him a curious look. "You must not know how things work around here, no offense meant sir. These mechs require a strong hand to keep the rest in line." He nodded to the side, where other grey mechs were busy finishing the unloading. "These rods are meant to cause pain, but they do no permanent damage. We do not wish to lose our workers."
Optimus frowned, studying the mech with a disapproving gaze. "These mechs have rights. They may be serving sentences, but while I am here you will not raise your hand to one again, am I clear?" His gaze bore down intently on the black mech, who cringed a little. Though it might have been his imagination, Optimus swore he saw a few gazes from the workers shift his way.
"Yes sir, as you wish." The black mech didn't look happy. "Now, is there something I can assist you with? We are behind schedule and have another delivery to make."
Optimus frowned. "Are you Blackforge?"
"Then I have business with you."
The mech blinked. "I ah, don't recall having business with the Prime, sir. To what do you refer?"
"I require passage to Kaon, and your full co-operation in investigating a serious threat to the well-being of the citizens of Cybertron."
At first, Blackforge stood a little taller, feeling important. "Of course, sir, anything I can do to help the Prime."
"Do you know anything about the contaminated energon supply that has been distributed among the docks?"
Blackforge stiffened. "Sir, my supply is clean. We test it once before leaving Kaon, and again shortly before arrival. In that time, no one is permitted into the cargo hold where the sealed containers are. There is NO chance of contamination, I assure you."
"I am not questioning your diligence." Optimus said calmly, not wishing to antagonize the mech without provocation. He had no doubt that he was doing his duty, and had no responsibility in this matter. "The contamination is apparently impossible to detect under normal methods, which is why I must investigate the mines where the infected batches have come from to discover if there is anything in common that might be causing the energon to be toxic beyond our scanning methods."
Blackforge blinked but nodded, shoulders relaxing slightly as it became aware he was not at fault. "I see. Well, I'm not sure the foreman will be very favorable to an inspection, but it's not my place to deny you passage to speak with him." He frowned. "I'm afraid we don't have any dignitary cabins…"
"No need." Optimus said quickly. "I do not require any special accommodations. I will take what is available."
"Then I'm afraid there is none available." Blackforge said grimly. "My cabin is the only one. The prisoners are kept in the hold down below, so the deck is mostly free except for the patrols. You can have free reign as you wish, if that meets your approval."
"It will be fine. It is a short journey."
Blackforge inclined his head, and turned to go back to supervising the unloading. Optimus stepped aboard the barge, and stood watching. The black mech was true to his word and didn't raise the rod again, but ensured the workers did their duty and finished unloading. Once they had, they marched themselves back in a line down into the hold. Only three remained outside, and closed the doors, locking them, then assisted Blackforge in preparing the barge to depart. Optimus found a wall to sit down against near the front of the barge, and watched as the docks shrunk away as the ship departed. They traveled across the city, gliding slowly, then landed at the secondary docks. Here, Prime watched as the workers unfiled again, and continued unloading. They did their jobs in silence, never speaking or looking at anyone, efficient and quick about their duties. Finally, the final unloading was finished, and the workers filed back into the hold, secured once more. The ship departed, rising higher into the sky as it turned course towards Kaon. The barge was not the fastest transport, and thus the trip would take at least a day to reach it's destination. This gave Optimus plenty of time to study the data Ratchet had given him. Blackforge offered him energon to pass the time, but despite Ratchet's assurance that a few cubes of the tainted material would not affect him, he had still taken care to pack his own, and politely refused.
The data was not very helpful. It detailed the steps Ratchet had taken to find the source of the problem. From what he read, the medic knew what he was doing and was fairly sure of himself in having traced what he thought was the source. The process involved using energon samples on tested nanites and seeing their reactions. It was a complicated and painstaking process of elimination that had obviously taken time. He was impressed with the level of complicity to it, and had to admit Ratchet knew what he was doing. Sighing, he put the data pad back into his subspace, and glanced up, blinking as for the briefest moment he saw a flash of red staring at him. But just as quickly as he'd noticed, it was gone as the grey mech turned and returned swiping a cleaner across the deck, slowly making his way across the surface. Frowning, Optimus rose and slowly walked over to the worker. As he approached, he could see deep gouges, score marks and dents that littered the mech's frame. He also noted that there were patched up welds on his back and forearms that had been poorly welded. It was ugly and mismatched. Once again, the mech risked a glance over at him, but froze when it noticed that he had approached. For a moment, he saw fear flash over the mech's face, and he instinctively knew why. "It's all right." He said in a low voice. "I have no intention of informing Blackforge of anything." The mech still refused to look up, returning to his work polishing the deck. Optimus frowned, but knew there would be no pushing if the mech insisted on not breaking whatever rules he was operating under. Instead, he un-subspaced a cube of energon, and left it on the deck, returning to his seat and offlining his optics as he slipped into light recharge. He only slipped out of his nap when he heard a light clink of metal nearby. On-lining his optics, he focused upwards, only to find the mech standing a few feet away, empty energon in hand, turning it over slightly as he stared down at him, crimson gaze wary, but thoughtful. Optimus smiled slightly, taking the unspoken words. "You're welcome." He said quietly.
The mech frowned slightly, and for a long moment, he thought he would be left alone once more. But then, the mech slowly came into a crouch, staring at him the whole while. "Why?" The words were soft, whispered barely audible, vocalizer hoarse and raw from lack of use, making it impossible to determine with whom he was speaking. As his optics roamed over the bold numbers burned into his chassis, 0443, he picked up on a few more patches. Solid metal with unsightly welds on his chest, but what was more startling was the slightly bell-shaped feet that clearly had not been able to be altered, the only faint reminder of what the mech's alt for might have been at one point.
Optimus' gaze shifted upwards, staring at the mech, trying to determine who he was. "Because." He said quietly, and the unspoken words between them said more than that which was spoken aloud.
The mech frowned slightly, optics narrowing in thought, shifting briefly to scan the deck and ensure they were still alone. "We're not infected, you know." He said in a low voice, hoarse and faint, deep and thoughtful. "Not us. We're here on good behavior. This is the best gig."
Optimus frowned. "The best?"
"Yes. It's not in the mines." A flash of sudden fear and panic crossed over those crimson depths, before it was swallowed up by apathy again. "We're the lucky ones."
The mech stared down at him sharply, optics searching, but surprisingly not hostile. After a long moment, they lowered. "I suppose you are." Was the sullen response. "But tell me, Optimus Prime. Would things have been any different if WE had won?"
He frowned. He had often thought about that very thing. Indeed, what would have happened if the Decepticons would have won? Surely the Autobots would have either been executed, or treated in similar manner. He smiled tightly, though it didn't show. "I suppose not." He said quietly. "But this hardly meets what I had envisioned for a time of peace."
The mech snorted slightly, and a very faint smile crossed his facial plates. "Most of us deserved it." His optics lifted, frowning in thought. "Justice. It's a word used wonderful in theory, but in practicality is thrown aside, prejudiced by emotions."
So true, Optimus thought. "If there is anything I can do…"
The mech's gaze shifted, and hardened. "Put a stop to the mines." He said in a low firm voice. "You have no idea. None. Most of them are mad. Stark raving mad. No one cares, as long as the work is done." His lips pushed tightly together. "I know them all, Optimus. To see them reduced to that… despite what we've done…" His head lifted quickly, and in a flash he was gone, pushing the cleaning device back against the deck, as if he'd never stopped.
Blackforge appeared, stretching slightly as he approached. "He's not giving you any trouble is he?" He asked, nodding to the mech.
"Good." The mech nodded in satisfaction. "He's one of the more reliable ones. Does what he's asked, doesn't cause trouble. It's rare finding those in the group we have to work with."
Optimus Prime's lips pushed together behind his mask as he watched the mech work. How sad.. to think that such a one as he had once been the elite of the elite, soaring high above the skies as it's master… now reduced to wiping the very ground mechs walked on, his only solace in the fact he could SEE the sky when others of his brethren could not.
"We'll be arriving shortly. The foreman is expecting you."
"Thank you." He nodded, watching as Blackforge departed, shifting his gaze over to the working mech. It pained his spark, yet he knew that he was right… they had it good, compared to the others.
The moment he lay eyes upon Kaon, Optimus Prime felt ill. Kaon had never been the best example of modern mechs, it was a place where the hard-working did what was required to keep the upper class happy. Pollution hung thick in the atmosphere, the entire place seemed somber and dark with the ruins of buildings towering nearby. The immediate area close to the mines had been converted into barracks for the prisoners, tall and formidable walls and gates encircling the area. As the barge parked in the shipyard, he watched as lines of mechs flowed out of the hold and down into dark holes that were only dimly lit. A strong putrid smell wafted to his nasal sensors, and rather than fight the urge to empty his tanks, he offlined that function to avoid the stench.
The foreman was waiting for him, grinning broadly. "Welcome, Prime!" It was quite clear that he thought Optimus' being here was a good sign, as he had spent time to polish his round red frame, not a speck of dirt on it. The foreman was a squat mech, but large, and clearly designed for heavy work duty. Yet, he walked with the pompous air that reminded Optimus strongly of the politicians he knew. "To what do we honor your visit?"
"I am here on business." Optimus said firmly, approaching the red mech and scanning the mine entrances. Armed guards and barriers were in place, preventing any chance escapee from making his getaway. His gaze shifted back to the foreman, who was frowning. "I am investigating a source of contamination that has not been detected through the normal means of filtration."
The moment he said those words, having expected the foreman to react as Blackforge had, Optimus Prime knew that the foreman was wiser than he let on. His optics narrowed slightly, his lips tightened, and his posture tensed. "I see. And what do you expect to find here? I run clean mines. Any contamination is out of my hands."
Optimus watched him closely. Oh yes, he knew exactly what the issue was… which meant, as Ratchet had suspected, the mechs mining the energon had to be infected. The foreman showed no outwards symptoms himself, and that meant he was not drinking the same energon as his wards. And it also meant he wasn't about to let any clues fly. "I would like to inspect each mine, if that is possible. I'm unsure what precisely I am searching for, but perhaps an inspection might give me a direction to focus my search efforts."
"The mines are dangerous places." The foreman said, frowning with displeasure.
"I can fend for myself, I assure you."
"I am certain you can, sir." The foreman smirked slightly. "Your feats are legendary."
Optimus smiled tightly, inclining his head. "If you are concerned, you may of course send a small escort. I am sure I would become lost easily in the mines."
"No doubt." The foreman said, crossing his arms. "Can I ask how long this will take? We have tight schedules to keep."
"I cannot be sure. I assure you, full co-operation would help speed the process."
The foreman sighed, optic ridge twitching very slightly as it became evident he wasn't going to get anywhere trying to talk him out of his inspection. "Very well." He finally, glancing over and gesturing to a guard, who jogged over quickly. "Would you be so kind as to provide Optimus Prime with an escort through the mines. Ensure that he is given access to any level he wishes to go, and full co-operation from all prisoners. You might try interrogating some at the lower levels to find out if they know anything."
"Yes sir." The mech agreed, nodding to Optimus. "This way sir."
They made their way towards the first mine, and were given access past the gates. For the first hundred meters or so, the light illuminated the ground, but past that there was no light at all. Optimus switched to infrared, and saw nothing other than the occasional beacon placed to direct them. Eventually, they arrived at a lift and entered, and then began their descent. "How many levels are here?" He asked quietly, frowning at the rock walls as they descended.
"About twenty." The mech explained calmly. "The upper levels are mostly dry and not mined anymore, and the lowest levels have the most deposits and are mined heavily. Although the veins are growing scarcer lately." He shrugged slightly in the dim light of the lift. "We've been working at some of the deep veins hard to keep up with demand."
"And you haven't noticed any symptoms of anything?"
The mech blinked, and glanced at him. "Symptoms, sir?"
"Shaking limbs, weakness, illness, lack of energy…"
The mech seemed slightly startled. "Well, we get that here, sir. The prisoners don't want to work if they don't have to and make any excuse they can to get out of working to quota."
Optimus frowned more, glad his mask hid everything from view. It was obvious that those who worked here were either blinded to what was going on, or truly oblivious. In either case, he was going to have to uncover the truth himself. Once the lift opened at their destination, Optimus shifted his gaze to study the mine.
It was as dreary and depressing as he had imagined a slave mine would be. The walls were close in, pressing low to his head and making him duck as he moved through the mine. The place stunk of unwashed grime and oil, energon stale in the tunnels. The sound of picks and hammers filled the mine, and Optimus could see the dull glowing light of impure energon twisting through the rocks. As he walked, he noted that all the workers here seemed to be focused completely on their jobs, never once looking up, their backs to the two of them as they passed by. The guard kept his gun at the ready, but loosely held, obviously not expecting trouble. "As you can see, they work hard and do their tasks. If they cause no trouble, they are fed and given time to recharge. Those that do cause trouble usually are sent to this level to work longer hours. We keep the lift up on the top level unless we're down here, so there's no chance of escaping. We've also attached programming to their control collars that disables their vocalizers while they're at work, so they cannot spread collaborative efforts of trouble."
"Have there been no uprisings?" Optimus asked frowning.
"There were when the mines first were re-opened." The mech explained calmly. "But the troublemakers were weeded out and separated, taught their place, and the rebellions died down. We haven't had one in over fifty vorns now." Optimus frowned, but said nothing. Instead, he studied the mechs carefully. Despite their uniform grey armor painted with the bold black numbers, their shapes were varying. He saw bulky large mechs, and slender frail mechs, all working equally. He also noticed that every single one of them were stooped, moving slowly, shuffling, and seemed to be having trouble lifting their loads as they deposited them into the receptacles. It was painful to watch, even more so when he noted their hands were shaking. These mechs were contaminated, every single one of them. Their path led them to a small narrow niche where mechs were crammed in working hard at a brightly glowing vein of energon, glittering bright pink in the dim light. The crystallized rocks fell easily as the hammers hit, showering the mechs with fine pink dust, making their armor glow slightly as they worked. Here, Optimus noted that each strike of the pick seemed to hold less strength than a light punch to the face. "Well, this is it, sir. This is our most active vein, most of our stock comes from here. I'm not sure what you might find, but this would be it."
Optimus studied the vein, shifting his optics to a spectral scan. He could see nothing out of the ordinary here, yet it was more and more obvious that the mechs here were more potently affected by whatever mysterious illness was spreading. Those here were clearly very sick. He approached a vein, and lightly ran a finger along the surface of the vein. He took a small sample so Ratchet would have something to analyze before the distillation process. It was entirely possible that wherever it was being distilled, that could be the source rather than the energon itself. But then, he couldn't discount anything.
A low clatter drew his attention, and he glanced over his shoulder to see one of the mechs had stumbled under the weight of his burden, legs buckling and his load spilling across the floor. Briefly hammers paused as mechs glanced his way, then quickly went about their work as the guard approached. "Get up." The guard demanded, prodding at the mech's lower back with the butt of his gun. The mech struggled to obey, arms shaking as he tried to stand, but his legs crumpled again, limbs quivering with effort. "I said, get up!" The mech stated, stronger, tone turning angry when the prisoner clearly didn't react as swiftly as he'd expected. The mech struggled again, but this time couldn't even find the strength to lift his legs, and simply crouched there, body quivering. Without warning, the mech slammed the butt of his gun into the mech's neck, and he dropped firmly to the ground.
Optimus was there in a sparkbeat, grabbing the gun as the mech made to strike the mech again, wrenching it from his grasp. "That is QUITE enough." He growled, the mech looking up at him startled as he glowered down furiously at him. "He is unable to do as you require!"
"But sir, they often fake…"
"No." He said firmly, frowning as he knelt down at the mech's side. He was offline, but alive. A faint spark pulse could be felt along the thin cables protruding from his neck. They were worn and wiry, not pulsing thick with energon like they should be. "This mech is unfit to be put to duty." His optics lifted, scanning the rest. Some had half-paused in their work, listening with interest, but all of them were paying attention, whether they showed it or not. "You will see that he is taken to his recharge berth and permitted to recuperate. No mech should be forced to work when he is this ill."
The mech just blinked with clear confusion. "Ill? But he's not ill, sir. No mech here is ill. They are fed regularly and given rest regularly."
Optimus frowned, and glanced over at the mech laying at his feet., then back to the other workers. It was very obvious that unless the guards and foreman were presented with proof, that would continue to be their excuse. "I require this mech's assistance in my investigation. I would like him brought to the quarters that I will be residing in during my stay here, along with a full repair kit so I may see to getting him fit for duty again."
"You were asked to provide me with full co-operation, were you not?"
"Then I require this mech in my investigation." He said firmly. "If you are concerned about workload, I will reimburse you with any lost revenue."
The guard frowned, staring down at the mech thoughtfully, before at last he nodded. "Very well, sir. I will inform the foreman."
"Good." Optimus Prime gently scooped the mech up in his arms, dismayed at how light the form was. He weighed almost as little as a sparkling, limbs limp and dangling as he carefully scooped him up and held him close upon their ascension to the surface. The entire ride up, he was silent.
The foreman met them at the top of the lift, and did NOT look happy. His optics shifted to the mech in Optimus' arms, lips curling with distaste. "Oh. It's THAT one." Optimus frowned, optics shifting slightly to study the mech, but saw nothing that might clue him in as to who it might be. The foreman must have understood his puzzlement, as he sighed. "He has been the center of more trouble than I care to remember. You want him as your guinea pig?" Optimus made no response, though his optics narrowed. "Fine. Take him. He's nearly useless now anyway, never was very good at mining. We stuck him down there to keep him out of trouble. He won't be a loss to our procedures."
"I assume you have arranged a room for me, then."
"Yes, sir. This way."
It was a simple room that he was led to, far too small for his height, cramped and narrow, and covered in a thin sheen of dust, but it was a room with a door and a berth. After politely thanking the foreman, Optimus locked the door and turned to examine the mech that he had lain on the berth.
He was clearly in derelict shape. His grey armor was faded and scratched, patch-job welds clearly visible running up and down his entire frame. It appeared that the mech had suffered multiple injuries that had been carelessly patched to keep him functioning, but little else. Multiple seams ran up and down his sides in places that were not the usual place to patch. His right foot appeared to be a replacement part, completely mismatched and unlike the other which was far wider and bell-shaped. There were multiple weld marks on the mech's chest in various places, scars that crisscrossed the chassis, including the panel covering his spark chamber. A fearful looking scar also crossed over the mech's face, nearly piercing the right optic, but clearly had only scratched the surface instead. His face was thin and worn, scratches and dirt marring what once had likely been a proud one. And it was unexpectedly familiar, Optimus realized as he lightly turned the mech's head to the side slightly, studying him. It was sad, seeing what had once likely been a proud and formidable warrior reduced to such a weakened state. Sighing, Optimus turned and opened the repair kit he had been given, along with the mech's control collar commands. It was a basic set of tools, nothing fancy but then he was not trained in medical repairs. He knew the basic field repairs, it was the mark of a good leader to know how to handle himself in all aspects of his command. But he had nowhere near Ratchet's expertise. Still, any repairs seemed like it would be better than none. First step, he knew, was to purge the mechs' systems of the affected energon. While it wouldn't repair the damaged systems, it would stop them from decaying further. He pulled out the rubber tubing and began to hook up a draining tube, as well as a hookup to a few of the spare cubes that he had brought with him. After a few minutes of work, he set the apparatus aside and carefully began to pry at the mech's plating to remove it from his chest. The best place to attach a direct feed when he had no powered apparatus was to hook it directly to the energon pump at the mech's very center. It took some work, as the panel had nearly been fused in place with grime and debris, not having been opened for some time. When finally he pulled the panel off, he was treated to a faint light pulsing from the mechs' inner chamber, where his spark pulsed weakly. It was a bit awkward, perhaps, looking into such a private place, but it had to be done. Optimus peered into the opening carefully, spotting the energon pump and began to work at hooking it up to the piping. It was tedious work, as he had to re-route one of the main cables temporarily, slice into it and hook up the piping. While he worked, his gaze drifted to study the mech's spark chamber.
At first, he was curious. The light spilling from the cracks in the chamber was unlike any he was used to. He had seen his share of Autobot sparks, varying shades of blue. He also had seen Decepticon sparks, varying shades of red. But this spark was so pale it was nearly colorless, yet at the fringes of the chamber it tinted to the most amazing golden color he had ever seen. But what was even more poignant, was the deep scarring clearly evident on every surface of the spark chamber and the surrounding walls. Optimus felt a tightening in his spark chamber as he stared down at the damage, pity and grief welling up inside him as he knew well what it indicated. While he, and others like him, had hoped that the prisoners would be treated fairly, he knew the reality of the situation was far from that. Not all guards were honorable, and not all prisoners were as subdued. This mech had clearly been the victim of violent forced spark-mergings. Optimus had no doubt that he would find similar damage if he were to inspect the mech's other intimate areas. However, that was not his purpose here, though it pained his spark. He quickly finished hooking up the tubes, and started the transfer.
A putrid yellow brown liquid began to seep slowly out of the mech's lines with each feeble pulse of his pump. And with each pump, purified fucha liquid steadily flowed into his lines. It was a slow process, simply gravity working to move the liquids, rather than any equipment, which gave him plenty of time to work on doing what he could for the hapless prisoner. He steadily got to work, scrubbing the dirt and grime away, doing what he could to clean him. The entire time, the mech remained silent and offline, only the occasional pulse of light from his exposed chest making it through a crack of his casing.
It wasn't until several hours later, when Optimus had at last sat back, tired and exhausted, that the mech's head moved slightly as he started to come to. Optimus lifted his head, pausing as he saw faint light flickering behind dim red optics as they came online. He made no move, simply sitting there and watching to see what the mech would do. For a long moment he did nothing other than lay there, then the optics shifted, squinting slightly as the mech glanced dimly around, obviously trying to determine where he was. When the mech's gaze lit upon Optimus sitting across from him on the floor watching, his gaze narrowed, and Optimus saw the rotors behind his optics working hard to focus on him. He was nearly blind, he realized with some revulsion. His optical relays were failing, if the flickers in the optics were anything to go by. Moving over to sit beside the mech, he peered at him cautiously. "Do you know who I am?" he asked quietly, deep voice rumbling loudly in the small room. However, though the mech's vision might have been failing, his hearing was not. His entire body stiffened as Optimus spoke, his head turning so that his optics were staring directly at him, rotors wide as they struggled to focus on the mech at his side. A slight frown tugged at the mech's facial plates, and Optimus knew he was trying to place the voice with no visual guide to go on. But whether it was years of isolation and hard labor that had dulled his senses, or perhaps just the simple result of being deprived of freedom, Optimus knew the signs of madness when he saw it. He had seen one too many mech affected by the war unable to cope afterwards. He knew the signs. This mech's sanity was teetering at the edge, if it had not yet gone completely over the brink. Not that he could blame him. After seeing the working conditions, Optimus found himself wondering if he would have fared any better. Seeing he was not about to get any response from the vacant stare of the prisoner, he sighed and leaned back against the bulkhead, fixing him with a watchful look. The only thing he had to do now was make sure the mech didn't rip the cables out prematurely before the toxic energon had been removed. But seeing how weak he was, he didn't feel there was any real danger of that happening. However, he couldn't afford to let himself go into recharge, and as the silence was awkward, he found himself speaking aloud to simply occupy the silence.
"I cannot tell you how horrified I am to see this place." Optimus said quietly, weaving his fingers together as he rested them on his knees, trying to find a comfortable position to sit while still facing the mech on the berth. There was not enough room for him to stretch out, but the berth was just far enough away from the wall that his knees couldn't rest comfortably. He studied the mech, who was still staring vaguely in his direction. "This is not the dream I had of peace." He sighed, rubbing his optics with his fingers. "This world is nearly as intolerable as the one which prompted the war in the first place. Filled with intolerance and hatred towards those who we think caused this mess, when in fact it is our own intolerance and hard-headedness that caused the situation. The measure of a mech is in how they treat those lower than them, and their prisoners. If that is so, then we have failed poorly at being Cybertron's beacon of hope. I can see the same things happening all over again, if we are not careful. The lower class being taken advantage of, the higher class reaping the benefits, and those stuck in the middle unable to escape their fate, simply based on the choices they made at one point in their lives." He sighed, optics dimming. "We both killed, on both sides. Yet here I sit speaking to you, never having been punished for my deeds, simply because I was on the winning side." He sighed, letting his hands drape back across his knees. "I begin to wonder what Primus might think if he were to watch what we have become. A civil war between our two factions over what? The way the classes were treated. A dispute that could have been fixed with negotiation, talks, peaceful ends rather than a war which lasted centuries. And after that war, we just find ourselves in the same trap which we entered, treating those we see as beneath us poorly. Only this time, it is not freedom, but lack thereof that screams of injustice." He sighed, optics dimming. "A poor leader I have turned out to be. The Matrix of Leadership claimed me fit, yet I feel I am a poor carrier for it's responsibilities. Perhaps it made a mistake initially, or perhaps I have changed more than I care to admit… either way, I feel I have failed in my duty." He frowned slightly. "Still… I have the chance to make amends, be it small. While I am here, I will not tolerate mistreatment of any of your people. On that you have my word."
The mech made no response, though his optics seemed to have dimmed during Optimus' monologue. Somewhere in the middle, he had drifted back into recharge, which was perhaps for the best. Optimus sighed, but checked the feeds. Seeing that the feed would take time still, he allowed himself to drift into a light recharge. He wasn't roused until he heard a light scraping sound. On lining his optics, he peered up at the berth to find the mech trying to sit up, the feed having tapered off and was empty at last, the cube on the floor filled to the brim with dirty yellow-brown energon. Quickly, Optimus rose to his feet and grabbed the mechs' shoulder gently, but to his dismay the mech reacted badly. The moment the hand touched him, the mech jumped visibly, cringing and shrinking in on himself, pulling away with a slight tremble of his frame. Quickly, Optimus withdrew his hand, frowning at the reaction. It was a classic response of one expecting brutal retribution built from years of harsh abuse and punishment. And it tugged painfully at his spark. He sighed softly. "I will not harm you." He said evenly, reaching forward and pulling a fresh cube of energon from his subspace, and lightly scooping the trembling mech's hand up, placing it on the cube as he pushed it into his grasp. "Drink. It will restore your energy." The mech's trembling eased slightly, but he didn't lift the cube. "It's quite all right." He smiled slightly. "It is pure. It will not make you ill like the foul garbage you are used to consuming." The mech frowned very slightly, but after that assertion lifted the cube and gave it a tentative sniff. Though Optimus was uncertain just how keen the mech's senses were after nearly a hundred vorns below ground in the putrid tunnels, he seemed satisfied and took a tentative sip. After the initial splash of surprise on his features, the mech quickly began to drink the energon deeply, like one starving and presented with water. When he had finished the first, Optimus provided a second, and a third. When at last the mech had finished the third cube, presented with another, a hand pushed it away. Smiling, Optimus placed it safely back in subspace. Now re-fueled, the mech seemed much more at ease. His head turned slightly as Optimus moved, listening more than watching him as he rose and stretched, joints creaking. Aware he was being observed, Optimus smiled down at the mech. "I am well aware of the irony. You needn't remind me." To his surprise, a flash of a smile tugged at the mech's lips. It was very faint, but he was certain he had seen it. "However, you my friend are perhaps a key to unraveling this mystery. If only I had something to go on." He bent down and picked the cube up, studying the substance with a frown. "This…. There has to be an answer in this." He sighed, and put it down, took a syringe and carefully extracted a sample and secured it in one of the tubes Ratchet had supplied him with. "I only wish I had some knowledge of these things." He sighed. "Irony at work once more. To think I once was a dock worker, not unlike the mechs here…"
The mech was silent, not that Optimus expected him to say much. He had taken time while conducting the energon transfer to do a diagnostic, and uncovered that the mech's vocalizer had been completely crushed beyond repair. Given the hints dropped earlier, he could only assume that this was one of the controlling measures of keeping them in line, after a rebellion or uprising. It meant that for now, Optimus had to speak for them both. "If only I knew a little more about what kind of pathogen this was… natural or otherwise…"
Without warning, the mech shifted, and in a surprising move, his hand tentatively reached out towards him. Puzzled, Optimus blinked for a moment, before he slowly placed the tube in the mech's grasp, optic ridge lifting in curiosity as he watched the mech carefully pull the tube closer, nearly so close to his face that it was touching his nose. Optics focused tightly, doing their best to affix on the tiny tube in front of him. In that moment, Optimus felt a tickle in the back of his processor, a familiar tickle. The way the mech stared intently into the tube, the way he hunched forward, attention riveted, it struck a chord in him. However, he could not place it precisely. Instead, he watched as the mech stared into the vial intently. After a long moment, the mech leaned back, for the first time an expression crossing his face: Interest. Holding the vial carefully, he turned it over in silent consideration as Optimus watched. Finally, the mech's head lifted and the vial was held back out. Optimus took it, curiously studying the mech as he placed the vial back into the box with the other equipment, but the mech made no attempt to communicate what had held his interest so much.
A loud sound jolted him out of his reverie, and startled the mech, as Optimus long-range communicator started jangling. Quickly reaching into his case, he pulled it out and answered the call. "Yes?"
"Optimus. Good. How are things going over there?" It was Ratchet, of course. "
"Fairly well." He agreed, studying the small screen of the device, seeing the medic hunched over his own. The communicators were small things, but handy in situations such as this, when they traveled beyond the range of normal com signals. "I have studied the mine, though found little of interest other than the fact the mechs working it are far more affected than those not. I took one of the workers and extracted the energon in his lines, and I am bringing back a sample for you."
"Excellent. And the mech?"
"He is here with me. It was not appropriate for him to continue working in his state, therefore I relieved him of duty and have given him fresh energon. He seems to be fairing better." He frowned slightly. "He is not entirely coherent, I believe. But he did show slight interest in the sample I collected from him."
"Really?" Ratchet perked up considerably. "What kind of interest?"
"He studied it for a while, that's all." Optimus shook his head slightly. "I'm not entirely sure just how aware he is of his situation. I get the impression of lucidity now and then, yet for the most part he seems unaware."
"That's not uncommon for someone in his situation." Ratchet said grimly. "Any mech forced to do manual labor for a hundred vorns is no doubt likely to follow such a path. As long as he doesn't give you trouble, you might see if there is any way you can bring him back with you to Iacon."
Optimus blinked. "Back with me? Why?"
"Having a live subject this deeply affected by the contamination might better give me an idea of what we're working with." He paused. "Optimus, is there any way you can determine who he is?"
"Unfortunately, none that I know." Optimus sighed softly. "His vocalizer was crushed, and all prisoners' communications systems were disabled. Visually, there is not much to set any of them apart. Why do you ask?"
"Well…" Ratchet frowned. "If he was interested in the sample you took, it means that he could be just the insight we need. If it's someone like Hook or Mixmaster, we might have a distinct advantage. Someone with a mind like that could be a great addition to our investigation. If there is any way you can bring him with you, I would urge you to try."
"I will see what I can do." Optimus promised. "Considering the reaction of the foreman when I took him out of the mine, I don't believe it will be a problem if I take him into my protective custody. I do still have some weight."
"Good. Well good luck. And Optimus? Travel safely. I realize this mech is still a prisoner, but you can never be careful."
Optimus frowned slightly, glancing over at the mech, who was staring blankly at the wall. He seemed about as helpless as anyone could be, though Optimus also knew from experience not to trust his optics on first sight. But still… the way the mech had cringed at being touched, the damage to his body… no, he had learned his place in the most harshest of ways, unfortunately. He wouldn't be trouble, Optimus knew instinctively. He smiled slightly at the mech. "No… sometimes a little faith goes a long way." He murmured to himself. The mech turned his head slightly, obviously listening. "You have my word. No matter what happens here, I will see that you are treated fairly. You are my responsibility now." Unsurprisingly the mech didn't reply, so Optimus merely settled into a more comfortable position and let himself drift into recharge.
He would have been quite content to wake and find it was time to go.
Unfortunately, that wasn't how things happened.