Tailgate dug his servos into the porous stone ground, body shaking with the effort it took to heave himself even another inch further forward. Every strut in his chassis screamed and pleaded with him to give up, begged for him to just end his suffering already, to accept his fate, lay down, and die.
He mashed his faceplate into the dirt, digging his chin into the stone to earn himself another millimetre. Everything counted. He needed to get to the cart he'd brought with him, full of energon, he needed to blow it and get help if he wanted to survive, and he very much wanted to survive. This wasn't how he wanted to die, alone in the dark, completely forgotten, never memorable enough to remember to forget. He wasn't ready to die. Not yet. Not like this.
He was going to see the world. He was going to do something with his life. He was going to leave his footprint on the world and make sure it knew he had lived in it. Tailgate was not going to die here in this hole without having participated in the world he'd been forged into. He was going to matter. He wouldn't die.
He lost his fight with consciousness and flickered offline again, and the next time he came back into himself, he was no longer crawling across the ground in a cave beneath the Mitteous Plateau.
"Hey, hey, alright then, come on, let me see that visor light up, yeah?"
The voice sounded far away, muffled, unfamiliar, as if through water. Tailgate rebooted his audials twice before he processed the request and force-started his optical feed, vision flickering online. A stranger was leaning over him, yellow visor casting a too-bright glow into his optics that made him narrow his feed again and pull away uncomfortably.
"There we go! Seems like you're still alive, after all. Impressive."
"Who are you?" Tailgate coughed, fighting his weak vocalizer, speech laced with static and audio breaks, "Where am I?"
"Mm, let's get to that one in just a minute," he squinted at the speaker, some red and white helicopter with a gold visor, "For now let's start with the easy stuff. You're not dying anymore. It was pretty touch and go there for a hot minute, but one transfusion and some top notch repair work later and," they tapped their knuckles on the top of his head, "You're talking again."
"Okay," said Tailgate, weary already, "Um, thank you?"
"You're welcome," the apparent doctor purred, "You have Cybercrosis, by the way."
"What?!" Tailgate spat.
"Don't worry!" The doctor chirped, "It's totally treatable when you catch it this early. I mean, you're not going to stop having Cybercrosis, but we can slow it down to a crawl, at least. With any luck, something else will kill you before it ever has the chance! I'm Airshock, by the way."
Tailgate stared at them, processor whirring, before he pushed himself to his elbows and looked around.
For a moment he thought he was still under the Mitteous Plateau. The room was a cavern, but it was clearly at least a semi-permanent installation, a sketchy medibay set up in a cave. Him and Airshock were alone as far as he could tell, and that worried him most of all.
"What are you going to do with me?" he asked, hesitantly, glancing back toward them.
"I'm going to make sure you're working tip-top before I let you leave," said Airshock, their thin claws reaching into another table to grab a scanner, "After that, who's to say." The helicopter paused. "Oh! No, we aren't going to torture you or anything, if that's what you meant."
Airshock trotted back to his side and passed the scanner over him, before tutting and going back to the table to drop it down again and fiddle with their tools.
Tailgate sat up all the way, holding his helm in one hand, vision swimming. He felt remarkably out of it. How long had he been out?
"What happened to the Ark?" he asked.
Airshock stared at him, visor blinking. "The Ark?" they asked, "You mean The Ark-Ark?
"Yes, The Ark-Ark," Tailgate said, annoyed, "Nova Prime is leaving today."
Airshock tittered, then laughed, and then went totally quiet. "I am so sorry," they said, "Wow, I really should not be the one telling you this. People are not my thing."
"What? What are you talking about?" Tailgate stretched his pedes, newly built and strange in feeling for that, moving them to swing over the side of the berth.
"The Ark left Cybertron six million years ago," Airshock told him, "Are you telling me you've been konked out under the Mitteous Plateau all that time?"
"Six million what?!" Tailgate cried, and toppled over the side of the berth and onto the floor. He hit the ground helm first and groaned, rolling to his side to grab at his head as pain bloomed across his sensornet.
"Years," said Airshock, who was watching him roll about on the floor with intrigue but not concern, "Six million years."
"That can't be right," Tailgate gasped, "That's not possible."
"Is it not possible for like, a specific reason, or just because you don't want it to be?" Airshock queried him as he stood, wobbling, "Be careful. You're still acclimating."
"It's not- it's just not- six million years?!"
"You've missed a lot," Airshock blinked, "I don't think you're going to like the world you've woken up into, but, again, not really my job." They perked up, looking toward the door, rotors twitching, "Oh, good, someone qualified to deal with people."
The mech that walked through the open doors of the rudimentary medibay was a minibot like him, but something totally unfamiliar. Red and grey with a white faceplate and blue optics, he squinted, trying to parse the stranger's alt-mode despite the lack of kibble.
"The name is Lug. She, backpack, brigadier," she said, quickly, crossing the room. Tailgate quickly filed all that information away as nearly as he could, absorbing it like a sponge. "Sorry I'm late. I didn't leave you alone with Airshock on purpose."
"That's fine," Tailgate answered, and took her hand when she offered it, shaking, "Airshock is… fine."
"I'll cut to the chase. One of our scouts found you in a cavern under the Mitteous Plateau while mapping the tunnels. Who are you and why were you there?"
Tailgate considered his options. He'd not yet given his name. He could make up any backstory he wanted. He still had no idea where he was or what was going on, though. This was a precarious situation. He regarded her cautiously, as one might a currently sated wild animal.
"My name is Tailgate. I fell through on my way to the launch of the Ark," he said, carefully, "My processor is a little scrambled. I'm having trouble remembering too much else."
Lug looked at Airshock, who shrugged.
"Do you know what the Functionist Council is, Tailgate?" Lug asked. Tailgate wracked his brain. He didn't know about this council, but he knew what functionism was.
"After my time, I think," he fielded, "an institution that serves to judge bots by their alt-modes?"
"Vague enough to be correct," Lug said, and he noticed a twitch in her lips toward a smile, "The Functionist Council is a group of twelve that- yeah, serve to judge people by their alt-modes. They got more and more power in the government until they took over. They run the whole planet now. They determine what job you do, who you can associate with- whether you have the right to live or not."
"That's… horrible," Tailgate said, leaning back against the medical berth, edges digging into his palms, "What if you don't want to do what they tell you to?"
Lug's optics lit up, glittering with excitement as she grabbed his hand and squeezed it tightly.
"In that case, Tailgate," she told him, "You join the rebellion."
Tailgate double checked the habblock number in his HUD before he stretched up and knocked. The door swung open immediately and he was greeted by a standard looking data slug, black and white plating with a red faceplate and blue visor.
"There you are! Come in, come in," the dataslug ushered Tailgate into the apartment and shut the door behind him. "Tailgate, right? My name is Rewind. I'm your handler."
"You live here?" Tailgate said, looking around. The place seemed well furnished for something lived in by a member of the disposable class.
"Yes, but not alone. Don't worry, my owner is on the level. Come here, and sit down, you never want to be standing for this, people always fall over."
"Is it going to hurt?" Tailgate asked, nervously, and crawled into one of the seats.
"No- I mean, not physically. Emotionally it's going to be awful."
"That fills me with confidence, thank you."
Rewind paused, unspooling a connection cable, "Do you not want to do this anymore? You can back out."
"No, I'm still doing it," Tailgate said quickly, "I want to know everything I can."
"Six million years of history, coming up," Rewind said, spinning the data cable in one hand, before he climbed up beside Tailgate and plugged him in.
The download was brutal.
Six million years of oppression and violence, condensed into a thirty second download. It was a lot. It was too much. It was awful.
Rewind unplugged him and pulled away, sitting back. "How are you doing, then, champ?"
"Bad," said Tailgate, leaning forward, head spinning, "Wow. Things have gotten bad."
"Tell me about it. I've been here."
"How can you live knowing you have an obsolescence chip in your brain?" Tailgate gasped, "That you could be killed at any moment? How do you live like that?"
Rewind's visor dimmed. "I try to make each moment count. I know it could be my last. We all do."
Tailgate leaned forward on his hands, panting, then looked back up. "Hit me again. I need more than the basics. I need to know everything."
Rewind blinked at him. "You can't store that much."
"Then give me as much as you can," Tailgate insisted, "I won't ever be caught unawares again."
Rewind regarded him carefully for a moment, visor narrowed, before he nodded sharply.
"Tailgate," he said, holding the data cable up again, "We are going to make you the best spy Cybertron's ever seen."
Tailgate did not like the things he learned had happened while he was sleeping beneath the surface of Cybertron. He did not like the state the world had found itself in, the oppressive fascist regime that cataloged people by their purpose and dictated who lived and who died, when and why and how.
The only thing he did like was that he had been fortunate enough to get found by the rebels and not someone else. The Anti-Vocationist League, as they called themselves, seemed to be the only people on the planet putting any effort into fighting back. Tailgate knew from the moment he realized what the world had become with perfect diamond clarify that he would rather die than go gently in that good night, bow his head and let these people file him away as one more number in their perfect little world of ones and zeroes. People were people. Tailgate was a person, and he was not his alt-mode.
Tailgate had initially hesitated to disclose his alt-mode and his original classification as a waste disposal unit, but it turned out that waste disposal unit was basically the best thing he could possibly be as a fresh face in the rebellion. A waste disposal unit with no obsolescence chip could go almost anywhere and hear almost anything and no one would look twice at him, he was so far beneath their contempt. Quick to adapt to cover stories and with the help of Rewind's data dumps, Tailgate felt that he made an excellent undercover agent, and his piles of reports, enough to fill entire rooms, confirmed that.
He was several years into the bit when he was called to speak to General Anode alone. He'd met her on a few occasions, mostly with reports but never alone. She always seemed to be surrounded by people, always having seven different conversations at once, managing sixteen different plans and all their contingencies at once. He found her to be fierce and passionate and incredibly decisive.
She wasn't facing the door when he pushed it open and stepped inside the war room, shutting it behind him. He waited a moment for her to acknowledge him, and when she didn't, he synthesized a cough.
"Ah-" she startled, sitting up, unlike her, "Tailgate. Sorry. Right."
Tailgate crossed the room to stand in front of her, almost optic level when she was sitting like this.
"How was Praxus?" Anode asked.
"Uneventful," Tailgate told her, "The lead was a bust. The Enigma they had there was a fake. It's all in my report."
"Right," she said, absently, leaning forward, hands clasped in front of her face, optics gazing through him. Tailgate looked around the room again, dimly lit, monitors off, empty.
"What is this?" he asked, "What's the big secret?"
General Anode's optics refocused on him, sharp. "This assignment is optional," she said, straightening up.
"That's a bad start," Tailgate commented.
"No one else knows about this," she told him, "Your choice stays between you and me."
"You're spooking me."
Anode tapped her face again. "I have an opportunity right now to get someone into the Cog. To get them close enough to the Twelve that we could get information that could save-" she shuttered her optics, looking strained, "I don't know. Thousands of lives. Maybe more."
"That sounds like an opportunity you can't pass up."
"I can," she mumbled, "If I have to."
"Into the heart of the Functionist's home base," Tailgate said, mostly to himself, "There's no extraction from this, is there?"
Anode's optics flicked back to him and she shook her head, sitting back up. "You're quick on the uptake. No. There's no extraction. There's no way. I don't foresee any end to this assignment where you aren't dead, if you go."
Tailgate mulled it over. "Why me?"
"It has to be you," she sighed, "Yesterday a waste disposal bot from the Cog was arrested for blasphemy. Tomorrow he's getting replaced. His replacement, however, contacted us to get him out. He's got a deformed T-cog, and he's managed to skirt by so far by keeping under the radar, but this is a death sentence for him."
"So you have the perfect opportunity to put me in his place," Tailgate nodded, "Send me up to the Cog, and report back."
"I have a contact in the Cog," she told him, "he can funnel you information that… could change everything. We could find out what they're talking about, in private. We could know which classes are on the chopping block ahead of time."
Tailgate stared at her, grateful as usual for his visor and mouthplate, how they always stayed cool no matter how distinctly un-cool he felt. "But I'll definitely die on this assignment eventually."
"No one else knows," she said, gesturing to the empty room, "It's your choice. Between you and me. I won't ask you to do this."
"You don't have to ask me," said Tailgate firmly, raising his chin, "I'll do it."
"My contact in The Cog is named Whirl," Anode told him. Tailgate leaned forward as Airshock dug into his back, twisting whatever tool they had in their claws.
"I feel like I know that name. It's ringing a bell but I can't put a face to the name," Tailgate said, squinting.
"Unfortunate phrasing. He's an original empuratee. Pre-Senate fall," Anode showed him a datapad with a picture of the mech in question pulled up, "He used to be a Senate enforcer, but he sided with the Functionists when they took Vector Sigma. He's Four-of-Twelve's personal bodyguard."
Tailgate's optical display widened in surprise. "Personal bodyguard? For a council member? That's your contact?"
"That's my contact."
Airshock grabbed his hood and yanked it up. Tailgate ducked into the motion, startled. Airshock shoved it into place and then cranked something in lower, and he winced with a groan.
"How did you manage that?" he asked, trying to ignore the work being done on his frame. The changes weren't much, but the mech he was replacing was at least subtley different from him, a much newer forged unit. Higher placed hood, wider waist, bigger treads on his tires- subtle, but he wasn't going to be caught for something like that if he could help it.
"He was chosen for the position a few centuries ago. He made contact with me just before he went into The Cog full time. I promised him if I ever had a chance to plant someone inside I would. I haven't had that chance until now."
"Hundreds? He can't possibly still be expecting someone to come."
"I promised him," Anode shook her head, "I told him I would, no matter how long it took. I have faith."
Tailgate exvented heavily. He didn't know where she derived that faith from.
"How will I make contact with him? He's never away from Four-of-Twelve."
”You won't- he'll make contact with you. He gave me a song, something old, pre-Senate, even, obscure enough it's not been banned by the Council yet, but historically significant for its artistic value, anyway. Just go to work, do you job, and hum it when he's in the room. He'll know I've sent you by that."
"What's the song?"
"It's called The Empyrean Suite."
Tailgate nodded. "I'll get it from Rewind."
Anode regarded him for another moment, concerned. "If he doesn't make contact, run. Run, and we'll find you."
"There's no way they won't come after me if I vanish," Tailgate shook his head. "I just have to risk it."
Anode turned away, "If this is the last time we meet, then all I have to say, I guess," she paused, optics tracking in thought, "Is good luck."
Tailgate shifted his too-high hood again, shaking the haze from his visor. "Oh, Primus, hit me again."
Rewind passed the bottle back to his friend, wiping at his intake with a hiccup. "Go easy on it," he laughed, "This is a finite resource."
"You know, I didn't believe you when you said your owner was cool," Tailgate coughed, and leaned back, taking an oversized swig from the bottle of engex, "I'm starting to believe you."
Rewind waved a hand, dismissively, "He's not- he's different. I can't tell you. Its secret. But he's different."
"Oh, you know me," Tailgate purred, leaning forward and punching Rewind in the shoulder, "I can't keep a secret for the life of me."
Rewind rolled this optical display at him and grabbed the bottle back, "No. I can't get into it. Not even the engex is getting you my secrets, jerk."
"Think of it, Rewind," Tailgate grabbed him by the shoulders and splayed his hand out in front of him as if he were showing him something, "We're probably the only disposables to get drunk in years."
"You underestimate how much people like drinking," Rewind scoffed, "and how many people actually believe we're disposable."
Tailgate groaned, "I doubt it."
"You're so cynical sometimes," Rewind commented, and took another drink. He paused, lost in thought.
"You know, the whole point of a handler is that I don't know who you're meeting and you don't know who I'm meeting, but," Rewind swished the bottle, staring at it, "You're going into The Cog and you're meeting someone who can't leave or meet you somewhere else. There's only a few people that could be, all of them terrifying."
"This is one of those no extraction assignments, huh?"
Tailgate looked back at him and shrugged.
"It is, then," Rewind murmured, "Guess there's worse ways to go."
"Are you kidding!" Tailgate grabbed the bottle back, "Every day we go outside is a risk. Anybody could kill either of us for any reason they wanted without any repercussions. What kind of life is that? I don't want to die for no reason. That's not how I want to leave this world."
Rewind nodded and Tailgate took another drink.
"I won't go out quietly. I won't let them silence me like a trash can without thoughts or feelings," Tailgate spat, fists tightening around the neck of the bottle, "I'm willing to die. I'm happy to die. But it's going to be for a goddamn reason. It's going to matter. It's going to be loud and it's going to be desperate and it's going to matter. "
Rewind exvented harshly, took the bottle back and raised it. "Cheers," he said, firmly, and drank.
"The guy I'm meeting, though," Tailgate murmured, "He is kind of terrifying."
Rewind tilted his head in thought. "Let's see. Alright. Don't tell me. I mean, I wouldn't dare assume it's one of the Twelve, that would be insane, but I guess if it was, that would be plenty terrifying. Who else is up there? There's Quark. He's terrifying. Forged, pre-war, proton microscope. Works with the useless one. I hear he's got a particular affinity for torture."
"Delta Magnus is there a lot of the time as leader of the Primal Vanguard," Rewind tapped his faceplate, "Terrifying. He's the size of ten of me and could probably throw me across the continent. Then there's Star Saber, Duly-Appointed Enforcer of the Primus Accord. He's… intense. Religious. Devout. If I had to guess anyone, it would be him. He's not exactly on our side, but he doesn't always agree with the Council's decisions. At least, so I've heard."
Tailgate took back the bottle and finished it. "Terrifying prospects, all," he murmured.
"There's also Four-of-Twelve's bodyguard, Whirl," Rewind leaned on his hand, "Now there's a guy you don't want to tango with."
"Oh yeah?" Tailgate asked, innocently.
"He's an early empuratee. People say it scrambled his brains, that they removed all his emotions along with his face," Rewind told him, tapping his camera and projecting a silent video of the mech in question against the wall, of him standing in front of the old Senate Hall and beating some poor sod's skull against the pavement, "He was a Senate enforcer when the Functionists took control of Vector Sigma. The Senate barricaded themselves in the Hall, but he just went mental. Killed like three senators himself and broke down the doors from the inside, let the Functionists in. He had Star Saber's job for awhile, but even the Council thought maybe he was a little too violent. He's been less notorious since he became Four's guard dog, but. They say he doesn't feel pain. You could rip his arm off and he'd just keep fighting like it was nothing."
Tailgate watched the mech projected on the wall heave up the mech in the ground and tear out his spine. Energon splattered his frame, pink on blue. Tailgate shivered. "Terrifying."
Rewind turned the video off and grabbed Tailgate's hands. "Whoever it is, everyone else there is your enemy . Tailgate, be careful. If you get caught, you're dead. Your contact is dead. I'm dead."
Tailgate glanced back at Rewind, his one and only friend in the world, tightening his grip on his hands. "I won't let them get you."
"You can't protect me anymore than I can protect you," Rewind reminded him.
Tailgate swallowed, turned away, shivered. "I report in eight hours. You didn't sign up for this. Do you want me to run?"
"Would you, if I asked you to?"
Tailgate turned back to face him. "I don't know. Are you asking me to?"
Rewind's optics tracked him for a moment, and finally shook his head. "We all die eventually. Just try to give me a little longer, will you? I'm not done here yet."
"I'll give you as long as I can," Tailgate whispered, voice hoarse with static.
In the dim light of Rewind's habsuite, two disposable class minibots pressed their foreheads together, optics off, clutching an empty bottle of engex, and sat in silence.