Author's Note –
Rating: T due to abusive discipline
Warnings: a flogging in a slavery environment
This is part of my "Designation 24601" series, my version of Wheeljack's background . Please see my profile page for reading order.
Slavery, on the whole, was not a legal practice even before the war . . . but in some rough and forgotten back regions of Cybertron, especially around the forbidding Badlands, no one talks about what really happens to some mechs. "Sparks are cheap in Blaster City" . . . and even cheaper under it. "Slipgear" was Wheeljack's designation before he escaped and took a new name to go with his new life.
Disclaimer – "Transformers" and all related characters, events, and concepts belong to Hasbro, Takara, and any other related owners/distributors/producers. I get no monetary benefit from this. My benefit is the enjoyment of dealing with beloved characters.
The miner in question jumped and spun around at the overseer's bellowing voice. He knew instantly what was wrong, had heard the commotion on the other side of the pit. His excavator contraption had failed. He'd been sure it would work this time and had finally talked the shift manager into letting one of the teams give it a try. He knew he should have been there with it himself to make sure it ran smoothly and was operated the way it was supposed to be – which, by the way, it had not been – but such was the reality of slaves. They didn't get to say what they did or where they went, and he'd already been given his assignment for the next lunar cycle. He was on punishment duty as it was, swabbing muck out of machines due to a kerfuffle from about a deca-cycle ago. That had been a general annoyance. By the hard set of the overseer's face, this dove straight into will-be-paying-for-the-rest-of-his-natural-life. Still, he could pray he was just reading things wrong, that some other mech had the overseer this upset and he was just getting the current brunt of it. After all, if the operators on that team had just done what he'd told them… At least no one had been hurt. That more than anything, he was thankful for. Even if he didn't see optic-to-optic – let alone get along – with most of his fellows. "Ah . . . yes, sir?"
"Follow me. Master wants to see you. Now."
Slipgear shuddered with quickly mounting dread. It was worse than he thought if Master was getting involved directly. "Y-yes, sir…" He set down his tools and followed without hesitation.
They headed up out of the mines to a fine edifice built just beyond the edge. Inside, they were brought down a hall and into a study. Master was already there. Slipgear trailed a step behind the overseer, tugging nervously on his control collar, his gaze cast properly down. Even through his periphery, however, he could see – and most certainly feel – the hard glare of his master, the owner of the mines.
"So this is the glitch who thinks he's an engineer." Master's voice was controlled, but Slipgear could hear the anger.
"Yes, sir. His name is Slipgear. We've caught him in the supervising office after hours a few times, accessing the outside network for various science and research literature."
"Is this true?"
Slipgear didn't dare look up to see his master's gaze boring into him, but he could tell from the tone of voice that he had just been directly addressed and was expected to answer. He bowed his head further, shoulders hunching. "Yes, sir, I-I'm afraid so." He plowed on before they could cut him off. "But it's only to help make the operation run more efficiently, sir! I've got ideas for modifications to some of our machinery, or new machinery that'll do the job even-"
"Be quiet!" The overseer struck him across the back of the head, forcing Slipgear a half-step forward before catching his balance, hunching even more.
"One of those modifications failed, slave. And that critical failure nearly lost me access to a very lucrative branch of tunnels."
Never mind the lives involved, ya fragger. Slipgear had tucked his chin even more, shielding his optics. His face was immobile and inexpressive, and this was one of those times when he was exceedingly glad for that. If there had been a near-collapse of one of the main tunnels during a work shift, there naturally would have been mechs present. He couldn't help thinking of the lives involved any time there was any kind of accident. Someone had to, and it sure as smelt wasn't going to be Master or any of the higher overseers. Grunts like him were worthless, even those – like him – who weren't criminals here off the slave markets straight from a court hearing.
"What do you have to say for yourself, slave?"
I have a name, dammit. Despite his nervousness, he had to fight to keep the affronted irritation from his tone. "I'm really sorry, Master. Truly! I don't mean ta harm anyone or delay work at all, I promise! I just . . . some'a my ideas, I know they're possible. They've gotta be! I just don't know quite enough yet ta pull 'em off how I want to. I-if I could just get a hold of some textbooks, maybe, I'm sure I could-"
"Enough!" Master growled, making Slipgear flinch and fall silent. "You are expected to do the work required of you, no less, no more. My mines are not a playground for your fancy daydreaming."
"We've tried to beat the daydreaming out of him, Master," the overseer put in, "but I'm afraid we've been as yet unsuccessful."
"Then I think it's time you try again."
"Yes, sir." The overseer pulled an electro-whip from subspace.
Slipgear went from nervous and annoyed to deeply alarmed in record time. Real fear spiking through him suddenly at the prospect of a whipping, he yelped and backpedaled, hands up. "W-wait! B-but it wasn't my fault! I wasn't even there!"
"Your machine," the overseer pointed out.
"Yeah, an' if I had been there, it'd have been operated like I told 'em to!"
"So you're saying this is Gorelock's fault?" There was no mistaking the warning in the overseer's tone.
"I . . . b-but . . . " Gorelock was the name of the overseer in charge of the team that had test run Slipgear's machine. The question was a loaded one. If Slipgear admitted guilt, he'd be punished – a severe flogging if he was reading Master and the overseer right, now that he was really looking at them. But if he tried to blame the other overseer and his team…
Unless there was irrefutable proof – and viable witnesses – it was unwise, to say the least, to try to blame an overseer for anything, and an overseer's word would be taken over even a dozen slaves every time. Slipgear was trapped.
He withdrew another step, trembling now, hands still up and back carefully turned away from both of his superiors as his gaze darted nervously between them. "P-please . . . please don't do this! I-I'm sorry! It w-won't happen again, I promise! J-just . . . p-please . . . please don't p-punish me! Please . . . " It was pitiful, shameless begging, but Slipgear didn't care. He knew what was coming, and in spite of the number of times he'd been beaten, he had seen the state of slaves who'd been punished before Master for less . . . and he was scared.
"Enough!" the overseer snapped, cracking the electro-whip for emphasis. "Take. Your. Place! Now."
"Do not make him have to chain you down, slave." Master's tone was a clear threat, but he didn't raise his voice like the overseer did. Somehow, that made it all the more terrible. A slave who had to be bound could expect not only to be chained in place for his initial punishment but then be made to wear shackles for a lunar cycle after.
Slipgear whimpered and inched toward the center of the room. "Master . . . p-please . . . m-mercy . . . "
Master stared back, unmoved. "Mercy, like any good thing, must be earned, slave. And you are taking too long." His gaze flicked to the overseer. "Get the shackles."
"N-no!" Slipgear cried. "No, please! I-I'll be good, I promise! I'll be good! L-look!" Dropping to his knees at his master's feet, he fell forward to brace his hands on the ground, trembling hard enough to rattle the plating of his superstructure. "P-please . . . please, I'm sorry!" He was sobbing now. The best he could hope for was that he'd be able to walk out of here on his own rather than be ignominiously dragged out by some of the house servants.
"Not yet," Master replied impassively, "but you will be."
Slipgear didn't see but could imagine the nod that Master gave the overseer. He heard the overseer shift into position behind him. He went rigid, tensely waiting for the punishment to begin, punishment he hadn't even properly earned this time!
Slipgear bucked with a sharp cry as the energized flex-steel cable struck across the backs of his shoulders. The lash creased a long dent in his plating, exciting and damaging the arrays of sensors threaded under and between the layers of metal, the electrical charge biting deep into his substructure to leave a terrible burn in its wake. It felt like someone had just poured a line of acid or pressed a super-heated bar across his back.
CRACK-ZAP! CRACK-ZAP! CRACK-ZAP!
The lash fell again and again, Slipgear trying and failing to clamp back on the sobbing cries of agony that escaped with each strike. Before long, a latticework of deeper and deeper dents and gouges covered his back, and the flogging showed no signs of letting up. Soon, the dents would stress, thin, and weaken until they breached, the metal lacerating. A "harsh" flogging was one that resulted in at least one such breach. A "severe" flogging had five or more. Slipgear had seen mechs with their backs laid open from such abusive punishment. He didn't really believe in Primus, but he prayed anyway for an end to the beating. It hurt! Oh, Primus, it hurt!
A spot below his right shoulder breached, sharp metal edges bending in to tease at sensitive wiring underneath, though that pain was momentarily eclipsed by the overwhelming agony of electrical charge flashing straight into the exposed components of his substructure. Slipgear shrieked, arms collapsing so that he folded down over his knees. He wanted nothing more than to escape, but he didn't dare move out of position any more than he just had, so he curled up, begging wordlessly for mercy in his continued, agonized cries.
The relentless flogging continued until at least a half-dozen more lacerations breached his back. Slipgear was trembling uncontrollably, half from sheer pain and half from the electricity that jolted and skittered through his systems. At length, though, the next lash that should have fallen didn't. A beat to determine if it was just delayed, and Slipgear went limp in relief at the apparent end of the flogging. He didn't dare move without permission except to slump over on one shoulder, still curled up, shaking and sobbing. His entire back deep into his substructure burned as if it'd been flooded with acid.
"Take him to the medics. Minimal care to make sure nothing's leaking and nothing rusts. He is to be back to work with tomorrow's shift."
Slipgear flinched as he was hauled to his feet by two house servants. They started to turn for the door, but Master stepped in front of them. The powerful mech grabbed Slipgear's face, tilting his head back to meet his optics. "No. More. Playtime. Do your work exactly as you're told, or you will be brought back before me, and I will not be lenient a second time. Are we clear?"
Slipgear whimpered in spite of himself, drawing back from angry red optics. "Y-y-yes, M-master . . . y-your slave u-understands . . . "
"Good. Get him out of here."
Master turned away to a desk that dominated the room, and the overseer headed out the door, the two servants following and dragging Slipgear between them.
Master's words rang through Slipgear's processor. 'No more . . . no more . . . ' He wasn't to be allowed to explore, wasn't to be given a chance. 'Mercy must be earned.' That . . . that couldn't be true. It just couldn't!
I gotta get out of here.
The strength of that thought surprised him . . . and scared him. He'd toyed with the idea before of course, fantasized about it, but he'd been built and sparked down here. The extent of what he knew of the world beyond the mines consisted of what convicted felons told him and what he'd managed to glean from his forays onto the network when he'd snuck into the overseers' offices. And besides, if he got caught trying to escape…
The twitching from left-over energy surges had finally calmed down, but that thought sent a new jolt of horror through his systems.
He was a nobody, a worthless mining mech who dared to think bigger than those around him, who dared to dream. There had to be something better for him out there than this.