Chapter 10: Falls the Shadow
"Get down!" Jazz yelled.
There was only a second's respite between the sound of the explosion and the shockwave that came tearing after it, making metal crumple and glass shatter as if it was nothing more than cheap plastic. Orion Pax threw his hands over Aria, bodily covering her from what he knew would be devastating repercussions as he hunkered down low to the ground to keep from being thrown.
Even then he was nearly blown backwards by the wave of devastating wave of force that rolled out from the center of impact. Over the blast of sound and debris Orion Pax still heard Ariah's high pitched shriek of pain and fear. Desperately, he strengthened his feeble attempt of giving her protection and tried to hold his ground.
The rolling wave of destruction surged against Orion Pax's metal body one last time, trying to overthrow him, but failing in the end. Then it was gone, leaving behind an impossibly loud silence and three frightened beings in the empty back street of Iacon.
For what felt like an eternity, nobody moved. Aria hardly even breathed. She remained frozen in the dark of Orion Pax's large, sturdy hands. Her own hands were glued to her ears, fingers pressing against her skull tight enough to hurt. Not that she noticed. Her chest still hurt from the unseen wave that had buzzed in her chest like a big bass speaker at a rock concert, only easily ten times as powerful.
Movement around her made Aria jump back against her protector's hands. Her mind blanked in panic before she realized that it was only Orion Pax, checking to make sure she was still alive.
He asked her something, probably along the lines of, "Are you all right?"
Aria's legs just gave out from under her and she flopped down to the metal walkway, her whole body starting to quake, and not just because her blood sugar was on the fritz again.
"W-wa-what ha-happened?" She eventually managed to stutter.
Before Orion Pax could so much as tilt his head at her, Jazz called out at his friend and pointed back around the corner they had come around only minutes before. Still too much in shock to think, Orion Pax scooped Ariah up onto his palm before slowly climbing to his feet. It took him much longer than it should have, but somehow he managed to gain his feet. He couldn't make himself think past the overwhelming sense of dread that had deadened his sensors.
He joined Jazz at the corner with slow steps. Beyond the buildings lay destruction the likes of which Orion Pax had only seen in the records he catalogued orbits in and orbits out.
Wreckage lay everywhere. The aesthetic square that they had come through was gone and ruin had taken its place. Pieces of the surrounding buildings and even, even of the other pedestrians that had been walking by lay scattered throughout the broken space. Over everything lay a fine layer of dusted glass that sparkled and shone in the diminishing sunlight. On anything else, under any other circumstances, the fractured light thrown up from the finely blasted glass would have been pretty, but all Orion Pax felt when he saw the little sparks of color was the overwhelming sensation that someone was mocking him, laughing sadistically at the unexpected death and destruction.
An unexpected sound made Orion Pax looked down. Ariah was huddling against him, whimpering at the wreckage of metal before them. She was leaking again he saw, only this time she didn't bother trying to hide the liquid streaming down her face. She looked up at him, the same fear and confusion he felt written all over her face.
Movement out in the square made all three of them jump slightly. Aria ducked and covered her head, fearing another explosion, but it was only the broken remains of a metal wall falling over.
No, Orion Pax realized a nanoklik later, it was being pushed aside by someone trapped underneath. Someone still alive.
The two mechs hurried forward as quickly as care allowed them, Orion Pax only stopping long enough to deposit a still leaking Aria on what remained of the circular fountain that had been in the middle of the square. He didn't bother telling her to stay put. Her legs were still shaking so much that the order seemed superfluous.
They could hear a voice now, coming from underneath the piece of wall, tentatively calling out.
"Hold on!" Jazz said as he reached the shifting debris. "We're going to get you out, just give us a klik."
The cries for help stopped. Orion Pax wasn't sure if he was projecting his own fear onto whoever was trapped, but he thought he could practically feel the panic creeping out from under the wall through the cracks left where another large chunk of metal had propped it up, probably saving the buried survivor.
Between the two of them, the wall fragment moved, revealing a sturdily built mech painted a red tinted yellow pressed tight against the cracked ground. As Jazz and Orion Pax put the heavy wall down on the scattered bits of the rest of its building, the mech stood up rather shakily.
"Thank you, thank you," he mumbled, clearly still in shock, "but what, what happened? What was that?" He asked as he looked around at the rubble littering the square. "My buildings!" He suddenly cried as he spotted the various dented and crumpled structures that surrounded the square.
"Your buildings?" Jazz asked incredulously, whether at the clear possessive note in the stranger's voice or at the fact that he was worried more about the non-living edifices instead of the other, extinguished, Cybertronians, Orion Pax could only guess. Although to be fair he probably would have guessed right.
"I designed them," the mech told them, his voice becoming increasingly softer as the wanton destruction began to truly sink in. "I'm the architect, Grapple."
Orion Pax nodded absently. He had heard that name before, as had most of the residents of Iacon. Grapple was one of the more famous architects of the time, a true master of the artistic trade. He was also a well known eccentric, which would explain some of why he was so worried over the state of the surrounding structures.
But he was noticing other things now. "Are," he voiced hesitantly, "aren't there any others still functioning? This place was packed a cycle ago."
Aria had watched in stunned disbelief as Orion Pax and Jazz had freed the other survivor. She felt like she was trapped in a nightmare. The echoing boom of the explosion and the angry roar of the after shock kept circling in her head. She just couldn't stop shaking.
"Who would do such a horrible thing?" She asked herself, her mental voice sounding just as shaky as she knew her physical one was. With another whimper, she clutched her arms tight around her body, as if that could protect her from the horror all around her.
A small sound behind her made Aria jump and spin around. But there was nothing dangerous, no more big bangs coming her way to take out the rest of the surrounding area.
"S-stop it." Aria told herself as firmly as she could. "Just stop it. You're just afraid. You're hearing things. Nothing wrong with a little madness after something like that. They even have a whole bunch of scientific names for it back home."
But the sound came again, a little stronger than before, and Aria knew she wasn't imagining things. It was coming from her left and down below her, near the ground amidst the debris.
Aria looked over her shoulder, wondering if she should say anything. But Orion Pax and Jazz were still busy freeing the other survivor. She didn't want to distract them from that just because she heard a little noise.
So she decided to handle this herself. She climbed carefully down the thick chunk of metal Orion Pax had set her on, using the rough and ragged surface where it had been broken to keep from falling to the shrapnel littered ground.
The sound was louder down here. Aria listened a moment before making her way forward and left towards the frightened sound. She could almost identify it when she came to the source; a heap of heavy scrap larger than boulders.
"Hello?" Aria called through one of the gaps. "Is anybody in there?"
The sound disappeared, then came again, louder. Someone was crying, Aria realized with a gasp.
With only one uncertain glance at the pile of heavy metal, Aria got down on her hands and knees and crawled through a space left between the scrap. Fortunately, the path was relatively straight, with little obstacles to keep Aria from making her way inside.
"It's alright," Aria called out as she squeezed through a particularly tight spot, "I'm coming for you. You're going to be alright."
Aria had hardly gotten the words out of her mouth before she stumbled into an unexpected cavern. Gratefully she stood up and stretched her back as she looked around for the source of the frightened crying.
Glowing, baby blue eyes blinked at her from the heavy darkness. Aria gasped and jumped, startled by their appearance. She blinked, trying to make her eyes adjust faster to the darkness.
It was a child, Aria realized. Or at least, whatever they called their children here. It was the smallest robot being Aria had seen, although that said little since it was still easily twice as big as her.
Quickly, Aria scampered down the side of the depression the child lay in.
The little bot started wailing when it saw her, desperate clicks and whirs scattered throughout its cries.
"No, no, it's alright," Aria tried her best to sound soothing, although she was sure she only sounded half panicked at best. Not knowing what else to do she reached out a gentle hand and touched the little bot's cheek, forcing herself to smile at what she thought was a little boy.
"You're alright, you're safe." She told the whimpering boy. "Just hush a little, hush. I'm going to get you out of here, somehow. I bet you're mommy is worried sick over you-"
She stopped speaking. She had just looked up to see if there was any space big enough to maybe try and pull the child out, when she saw the large metal hand draped protectively over him. Her eyes widened as she followed the hand, up the arm, to the shoulder, and finally up to the head of the other Cybertronian.
It was another female robot, like Ariel, although in the dark that was about the only thing Aria could discern about the female. That, and the fact that her eyes were dark and empty.
Aria held back a chocking sob and quickly looked back at the squirming child. She managed a twisted smile, but her vision was swimming with unshed tears. The explosion had killed her, just like that. A creature more than ten times Aria's size, made of metal stronger than a military tank, and the bomb had killed her as easily as Aria stepping on a bug. Aria couldn't bring herself to think on what would have happened to her if Orion Pax hadn't shielded her from the brunt of the blast. She knew without a doubt that she would probably be nothing more than a big red smear on the ground.
The thought alone made her sick to her stomach, but she quickly pushed it away, forcing herself to concentrate on the scared little eyes staring at her.
"Its okay baby, its okay, don't worry," she murmured as soothingly as she could manage as she ran a comforting hand down the boy's warm cheek, "We're going to get you out of here. I will be right back."
Aria scrambled back through the small hole quicker than safe judgment allowed. When she remerged into the sunlight she was covered in cuts and bruises, but nothing that stopped her from climbing like mad back on top of the large boulder Orion Pax had first set her on.
Orion Pax turned at the shout. Aria was waving at him wildly, gesturing for him to come over quickly.
Not caring if the newly freed architect saw what they were doing or not, Orion Pax walked over to Aria and knelt down so she was directly before him.
"What is it?" He asked quietly, wishing that Ariel was back with them to translate. If she was still functioning that is.
But he quickly shoved all thoughts and worries for the linguist aside, knowing they would only distract him from the present crisis. They weren't gone fast enough for him not to wonder if she had been anywhere near the explosion when it had gone off.
Aria pointed over at a pile of rubble much like the rest of them scattered throughout the square. Then before Orion Pax could try and have her explain what she meant, the little organic took off down the side of the torn apart metal fountain, jumping the last few feet to the ground.
"Ariah?" he asked, worried now. What could have her in such a frenzy?
The organic femme stopped at the base of the heap and pointed at it again.
"Wha-?" Orion Pax started to say, but Aria quickly cut him off, putting a finger to her mouth for silence. Confused, Orion Pax fell silent and listened.
A small wail reached his auditory receptors.
"Jazz!" Orion Pax yelled as he stepped over Aria towards the rubble. "There's a youngling over here!"
Jazz and Grapple both rushed over, trying not to step on too much scrap. With Aria pointing where it was safe to remove different pieces of scrap, the three mechs worked quickly. Not even a cycle passed before the body of the extinguished femme appeared, and not long after her, the bawling youngling.
Other survivors must have heard the youngling's loud wails because as soon as Jazz lifted the little bot out, other bots started appearing, some able to lift themselves free of the rubble, but most shouting for help.
By the end of it, there were a handful of mechs and one or two femmes left alive. Seeing them standing out of the ruin, speaking in hushed tones, buoyed Orion Pax's spark, but it was still painful to realize that they probably weren't even a tenth of the number that had been in the square at the time of the explosion.
"What happened?" and "Who did this?" were the most asked questions, but that didn't surprise Orion Pax so much. What did was when they turned to him and Jazz for answers.
Before he could even open his mouth to tell them he didn't know, a different voice appeared, loud and filled with an indignant fury.
"People of Cybertron!" It yelled, appearing out of nowhere to shock the cluster of still functioning bots. "I am Megatron! Please, hear my words. I reach out to you today in the hopes of correcting a grievous injustice that has been allowed to carry on for far too long."
Orion Pax looked around, but he didn't see this Megatron anywhere. "He must be using the DataNet to speak, possibly through a vid feed. If he is there must be a monitor around here somewhere." He told Jazz.
"There is," Grapple piped in from behind Orion Pax, "just over there." He pointed off to the right where the street Orion Pax and Jazz had first come through led back toward the busier streets, closer to the middle of the sector.
Orion Pax looked where the architect pointed and nodded. "Alright, I'll go and check it out. You may come if you wish, or you may stay here. I will return when I know more of what is going on." He said, raising his voice to address the small group of bots.
It turned out he didn't need to return. The other survivors ended up following him anyway, not wanting to be left behind alone in the ruin.
The monitor was large, mounted on the side of a dangerously leaning building, miraculously unbroken by the attack. On its screen a very distinctive mech, with angular facial features, burning red eyes, and more scars than Orion Pax could count, was speaking. Oddly enough, Orion Pax saw that Aria glared at the mech as soon as she laid optics on him.
But Megatron went on speaking, unaware of the organic's glare. "This caste system has trapped us according to the selfish whims of the High Council," Megatron boomed over the large monitor's equally large speakers, "they tell us that some are better than others, more deserving of power and freedom than those they believe are beneath them. They tell us what we may and may not do. What we are and what we are not.
"But who are they to say we are nothing?" Megatron very nearly shouted with his growing fervor. "Have they been made so much better than I? By what power were they made higher when we are made with the same parts, the same lubricants that the Thirteen themselves were made of?" He demanded.
"We are the same!" Megatron shouted. "The only difference between us and them is the divisions they have set to protect the power they have been given, mistakenly in my opinion."
Curiously, Orion Pax listened along with the rest of the banged up group. He felt a strange connection to this Megatron. Orion Pax couldn't help but agree with the gladiator's words; the caste was wrong and that needed to be addressed.
But looking around at the lifeless bodies of unfortunate Cybertronians and the dented, fearful frames of the ones lucky enough to still be functioning, Orion Pax could not bring himself to support the gladiator's methods.
"I ask that you join me," Megatron continued, "all of Cybertron join me in this revolt against the High Council and their caste system. Together we are stronger than they are. We will overthrow their oppressive regime and take freedom into our own hands. We will not let them rule our lives as they have done. Those that are not with us are against us and as such will be crushed as they deserve."
A frightened whine made Orion Pax turn away from the revolutionary on the monitor. The youngling Aria had found was clinging to one of the still functioning femmes. From the way the young mech clung to her, Orion Pax felt safe in assuming that the youngling already knew the older bot, a relative of his guardian possibly.
The femme turned toward her young charge. "Hush little one," she murmured soothingly to the youngling, "all will be well in the end."
But the youngling refused to be reassured. "But Starkeeper-" he whimpered sadly, his voice belying his young age. He was barely more than a sparkling, Orion Pax realized, and now his guardian was gone. The youngling probably didn't even really comprehend what had happened.
Orion Pax suddenly realized why Aria was glaring at Megatron's image.
Turning from the still speaking Megatron, Orion Pax found the device that linked the monitor to the DataNet he was so familiar with. It was almost nothing for him to tap into the Net from here, onto the same frequency that Megatron was currently using to give his speech.
Like everyone else who was familiar with the DataNet, Orion Pax had heard of Megatron before. He was of the industrial caste that worked the non-sentient machines down in Kaon. Never given a name, he had made one for himself through the underground gladiatorial matches held in the city. To this day Megatron had never lost a fight.
Maybe that was what gave him the wherewithal to attack the caste system, or maybe it was just his life in general. Either way, Orion Pax knew that this was not the first time he had spoken out against the system and the High Council that perpetuated it. However, looking over the readings coming from the DataNet port he had tapped into, this was certainly the largest. It looked as if Megatron was broadcasting to every monitor on Cybertron.
Which meant he was now on every monitor on Cybertron.
Before he could think twice about what he had just one, the librarian's image flickered to life on the screen next to Megatron, much to everyone's surprise.
"I am Orion Pax, a worker at the Hall of Records in Iacon city." Orion Pax introduced himself, anger keeping his voice steady despite his misgivings. "I wish to speak with Megatron."
Megatron's image hardly registered any surprise. Perhaps he had been expecting something like this to happen, although certainly not from such a source. "And what do you wish to speak with me for Orion Pax? Have you come to tell me I am wrong? That I fail in my duty by going against the caste system set down by previous generations?" He asked almost sardonically.
"No," Orion Pax spoke firmly, his voice thundering from the monitor speakers behind him. Flinching slightly, he lowered his tone, but not the determined force with which he spoke. "I do believe in freedom," Orion Pax corrected him, "but what I do not believe in is the callous force you have used to try and achieve it. You have harmed more than your so called enemy today. Innocents as well as followers of the caste have died by your hand," Orion Pax's voice rose to a shout. He paused, realizing what he was doing and quickly reigned in his more violent emotions.
"But you don't care about them do you?" He asked in a much softer voice.
"I do," Megatron answered surprisingly, "however their deaths could not be avoided. They have died for a greater cause. Something I'm sure they would have believed in and died for of their own will."
"But you do not know that," Orion Pax insisted. "For one who speaks so highly of personal freedom you do not even know what these bots wanted. They might have wanted to continue living rather then dying at your decision, whether they believed in your revolution or not. And if they did agree with your view of the caste, they might have wished to pursue their freedom in a more peaceful manner, one that did not kill others just because they did not agree with them or were in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Megatron did not answer Orion Pax right away. Instead he met the other mech's determined gaze. Orion Pax did not flinch away from the gladiator's cold, level stare. Megatron's speech had started out addressed to the whole of Cybertron, but somewhere along the way, things had become strangely personal. This was now between him and Orion Pax. Good luck to anyone who got in their way.
"I see," the gladiator finally said, his voice subdued, "you believe there is a better way to gain what we deserve as living, sentient, beings."
Orion Pax nodded.
"Well that is where you are wrong my friend," Megatron said with an almost smile on his face, "there is no better way. The High Council has not, and will never, relinquish its control over us. The only way to gain our freedom is to take it."
"No," Orion Pax argued, "the only way to gain freedom is to give it. For others to respect our decisions we must first respect theirs. Perhaps then, both will learn that their choices are their own and cannot be changed forcibly by others around them." Orion Pax told the gladiator firmly.
"An interesting idea," Megatron practically sneered. "However there is still one flaw with your suggestion."
Orion Pax met the revolutionary's steely gaze. "What is that?" He asked when Megatron did not go on.
"The High Council and their ilk do not respect us. They see the lower classes as tools to do their bidding. They view us as slaves just as much as the Quintessons did."
"Perhaps," Orion Pax conceded the point. "However, I fail to see how killing innocents and harming others will bring you respect."
Megatron was grinning again, an unpleasant action. "I am not surprised that a librarian such as you would fail to realize that force is one of the few things that the High Council will readily respect."
"Fear does not bring respect!" Orion Pax objected.
The gladiator leaned closer to his recording device, pinning the librarian with his red optics. "We shall see." Megatron told Orion Pax, deadly force hiding behind his words.
And with that the monitor went dead.
Nobody spoke, especially Orion Pax. He was too busy thinking. Megatron hadn't said it, and neither had he, but everybody knew that, unofficial though it was, there was no avoiding the unspoken parting words.
"Then this is war."