Frag, the mech was big. He wasn't the largest mech to ever reside in the Autobot brig, but seekers and shuttles one generally expected to be massive. This was a grounder, a wheeled truck, even. Slag, Bumblebee'd expected the mech to be more the size of Optimus Prime, who was big enough, but Onslaught would have towered over Optimus if he'd been standing instead of slumped unconscious on the brig floor.
Frankly, Bumblebee wasn't sure how they'd managed to get the mech into Skyfire's hold. Inferno, maybe, but geeze, he was pretty sure the Decepticon outweighed him, too. First Aid and Ratchet looked more like minibots when they'd made sure Onslaught wouldn't bleed out on the decking, and disabled his comms and integrated weaponry. There was a great deal of the last, too; the pile of ammunition was bigger than Ratchet.
Right now, First Aid was leaning over the unconscious mech, running a scan to check for processor and databank damage. Energy bars were down; Ratchet said there was no danger of the mech waking early. Bumblebee could believe it. Downing Onslaught hadn't been easy, and the Decepticon's armor was covered in scorches, dents, and jagged rents, liberally splattered with drying energon. The lines had been clamped or spliced, and Ratchet said Onslaught was in no danger, but frag it looked bad. He didn't normally feel sympathy for Decepticons, but... ow.
First Aid straightened suddenly, looking over his shoulder at Ratchet. “Hey, Boss...”
“Find something?” Ratchet asked, coming over.
“I don't know, I mean yes, I did, but I'm not sure what...”
“Sector damage? File corruption?” Ratchet asked, taking the scanner.
First Aid shook his head. “No, it's not damage, not really. It's code. I've just never seen anything like it...”
“Older models often have custom programming,” Ratchet said, scrolling down the code. “The Combaticons are Golden-Age era mechs-” he stopped, frowning. “What the frag?”
“What is it?” First Aid asked.
“I'm not sure. We'll copy an image and go through it back at the medbay.” He disconnected the scanner, motioning First Aid out of the cell. “Go ahead and activate the bars,” he told Bumblebee, as he followed the Protectobot out. “He should be online before sunrise, but he'll be groggy. We've got a partial pain block on him that'll slow down his processors.”
Bumblebee nodded, but couldn't resist asking curiously, “Only partial? All that looks really painful.”
Ratchet gave him an amused look. “A little pain will hopefully keep him from damaging himself any further. And, in my experience, Decepticons don't appreciate full pain blocks.”
Bumblebee looked back at Onslaught's battered form and winced. “Decepticons are weird,” he said.
Ratchet chuckled, patting the minibot's shoulder. “Yes, they are. Comm me if anything changes.”
“You got it,” Bumblebee answered cheerfully.
“What am I looking at?” Optimus Prime frowned behind his battlemask at the scrolling code.
“It's a collar program,” Ratchet said tiredly. “First Aid found it while we were checking Onslaught's processors for damage.”
“A collar program?” Prowl leaned forward. “Put there by whom?”
“I'm sorry, but what's a collar program?” Silverbolt looked confused.
“It's a control mechanism,” Smokescreen answered, tapping the datapad in front of him thoughtfully. “They've been illegal on Cybertron since the Quintessons. They're used by slavers.”
“Logs indicate it was added just after that mess on Cybertron, when his team decided they'd like to kill us and Megatron both.” Ratchet shook his head. “Apparently Megatron thought they needed to be good little Decepticons.”
“That does explain a great deal,” Prowl commented. “We knew something had happened between the Combaticons and Megatron.”
“One minutes he's executin' them, the next they're back and steppin' and fetchin' like nothing happened,” Ironhide growled.
“Can we remove it?” Perceptor asked.
“Do we want to?” Ironhide shook his head. “We all remember what happened last time they had free rein.”
“It's an insidious program,” Ratchet said grimly. “Almost a deep reprogram. It's bound up in so many function that we'd have to wipe his processors to remove it.” He hesitated. “I don't like leaving it in,” he said, heavily. “It doesn't prevent disloyalty, it punishes it.”
“It tortures them,” First Aid corrected. Ratchet put a hand on the Protectobot's shoulder, but didn't disagree.
Silence fell as the others considered that.
“Can we alter the code?” Smokescreen asked suddenly. “Change who he's loyal to?”
“Altering the program's focus won't be difficult,” Ratchet allowed. “It seems designed to accept changes in leadership, even faction.”
“That's different,” Perceptor said, considering. “The robosmasher had no such protocols.”
“Robosmasher actually did a reprogram,” Ratchet said. “This leaves personality intact, but exerts outside constraints on behavior.”
“Explain these outside constraints,” Prowl requested.
“Instead of altering cognitive processes, it creates negative feedback for disobedient or disloyal thought and actions,” Ratchet said grimly. “It's kind of like a shockstick mounted on his central processor.”
“Damn,” Smokescreen said with a wince.
“Can we bypass the programming by designating no one as the leader?” Prime asked.
“No, absolutely not, and we can't designate himself, either. It'd cause cascading failures that would wipe out his central functions and brick his processors.” Ratchet vented a sigh. “Comparing the code to the triplechanger's software, I'm pretty sure that it's Shockwave's handiwork. He seems to have designed it to follow the inheritance of the command structure – or be altered by a third party.”
“Himself,” Smokescreen guessed.
“That's my thought,” Ratchet agreed. He hesitated, not sure if he wanted to suggest the next part. “He has to follow someone, but the collar program doesn't care who...” he trailed off, obviously uncomfortable.
“We're talking about slavery,” Trailbreaker broke in, speaking up for the first time.
“We didn't install the program,” Smokescreen said. “And we can't get rid of it. Frankly, forcing him to switch sides might be the kindest thing we can do.”
“Shootin' him might be kinder,” Ironhide growled.
“We don't execute prisoners,” Silverbolt objected.
“We also don't condone slavery.” Trailbreaker shoved the datapad away.
“Condone or not, it's done,” Red Alert said from the end of the table, optics still focused on his own datapad, scanning through the program line by line. “That isn't the issue. My question is – were we to go through with this, could we ever really trust him? Yes, the program punishes disloyalty, but that doesn't follow that it prevents it.”
“And he'll hate us for it,” Trailbreaker said quietly.
“They will,” Ironhide said. “He ain't the only mech on the team, and you can bet all of 'em have the same program.” His engine growled. “Y'all prepared to be on the same side as Vortex?”
“Worry about Vortex when we actually have him,” Smokescreen said. “Can we in good conscience send him back to Megatron? We can be certain he is abusing his power over them.”
“Why change the program at all?” Silverbolt said, reasonably. “We have him in the brig. Place him in stasis and remove him from the war entirely.”
“Ideally, yes, that would be a good solution,” Prowl said, venting a sigh. “But as high-ranking as Onslaught is, we can be certain that Megatron will take steps to secure his return. And if Megatron doesn't, Onslaught's team will.”
“Hostages,” Smokescreen translated. “On Earth, the humans make easy targets, and the Decepticons won't hesitate to use them.” The diversionary tactician drummed his fingers on the table. “Does Megatron even know we have him?”
“How could he not?” Silverbolt asked, confused. “His gestalt-”
“Hate Megatron,” Trailbreaker broke in. “And the feeling's mutual, from what we've seen. Smokescreen may be right; they hold a separate base and collar program or not, it's possible that the Combaticons haven't notified Decepticon Command that Onslaught's missing yet.”
“How does that help us?” Red Alert asked, doors flicking in irritation. “When he finds out, we're at the same place.”
“It gives us time to decide the right route to take,” Ratchet said.
“How do we do that?” First Aid looked uncomfortable.
“We ask him,” Prime said, pushing himself to his feet. “Ratchet, once you've made the change, can you change it back?”
“Then do it. We'll let Onslaught choose who he wishes to serve.”
Onslaught woke to pain, but not nearly as much as he'd expected. His visual field was orange plating and scrolling damage reports. His injuries had been patched, but not fully repaired. Not Hook, then. The plating ruled out both Combaticon HQ and the Nemesis. He huffed air through dented intakes. Being captured by Autobots was so... undignified.
He rolled over and pushed himself up, careful to not strain his repaired lines, and turned to face the bars and his captors. The Autobot leader was waiting for him, with two of his medics, his primary tactician, and several others Onslaught didn't recognize by sight.
“Onslaught,” Prime greeted him gravely.
“Prime,” he ground out, taking in the situation.
The Autobot medical officer stepped up to the bars, giving Onslaught a close visual check. “Any leaks? Need me to up the pain block?”
Onslaught's engine rumbled at that, but he didn't dignify the offer with a verbal answer. After a moment, Ratchet nodded and stepped back, looking to the Autobot leader.
“Our medics performed a deep scan of your processors. I assume that you don't need to be told what they found.” Prime sounded grim.
Loyalty program, Onslaught guessed. Would the Autobots remove it-? He snorted, shaking his head against the stab of pain in his processors, the collar program's safeguard against its own removal.
“We can't eliminate it,” Prime continued, stomping out the hope before it could really form. “We do, however, have a number of options to offer you.”
To offer him? Onslaught tilted his head, considering. “I'm listening,” he rumbled, bracing himself against the anticipated pain.
“I would prefer to not do this with bars between us,” Prime said, nodding to the mech at the controls.
The bars faded out, and Onslaught made a quick calculation. He took a step forward, then allowed himself to stumble. The young Protectobot medic reacted predictably, moving to help – and bringing himself into reach. Onslaught caught his balance easily and lashed out, quicker than the Autobots could have expected, grabbing First Aid by the head with fingers digging into throat and battlemask.
“Let him go!” Prime thundered as the Autobots went for weapons. Onslaught could have laughed.
Except as his grip tightened, the familiar pain exploded, his fuel pumps lurching sickeningly. His vocalizer crackled, slurring a startled exclamation into an agonized buzz.
He let go of the Autobot, stumbling back and shaking his head against the pain. First Aid scrambled out of reach, helm and battlemask scored from Onslaught's grip.
Onslaught held himself still, waiting for his racing fuel pump to slow and the pain to subside. What the frag? “What did you do?” he said hoarsely when his vocalizer would cooperate. That had been the loyalty program – nothing felt quite like the hated code Shockwave had buried in his processors. The Autobots had obviously found a way to use the program.
The Autobots looked as shaken as he felt. He almost snorted at them. What had they expected?
“We cannot get rid of the program,” Prime repeated, clearing his vents. “But we can alter it. Shockwave designed it so leadership could be transferred-”
“You transferred it to you,” Onslaught concluded, keeping his voice even despite the warning crackle of pain from the loyalty programming. The program didn't like insubordination.
Prime sighed heavily, shoulders slumping. Onslaught noted the change with interest. “Yes, temporarily. I thought it would make this conversation easier, if you were not compelled to swear allegiance to Megatron.”
“Instead, I am forced to swear it to you?”
Prime looked tired. “No. I wish you to answer honestly – We cannot release you. But we can alter the program to adhere to anyone you choose.”
Onslaught's optics narrowed behind his battlemask. “Why would you?”
“Freedom is the right of all sentient beings,” Prime told him. “It's more than a slogan, Onslaught.”
Onslaught shook his head, pacing the length of the cell. “You aren't offering freedom,” he growled.
Prime sighed. “No, we aren't. But we you offer what freedom we can.”
“What about my team?” Onslaught demanded.
The Autobot leader hesitated. “If we reach them, I will offer them the same choice.”
“If?” Onslaught growled.
“We'll just invite them over for high grade and make the offer.” Ratchet snorted, looking up from the damage to First Aid's helm. “I'm sure they'd go for that.”
You'd be surprised, Onslaught thought with dark humor. He could just see Vortex and Swindle taking them up on that.
“Capturing them, especially with them on the alert with the loss of their commander, is not feasible,” Prowl said.
“Then they die,” Onslaught said flatly. The loyalty programming didn't like the ripple of discomfort that caused in the Autobots, but the feedback stayed a steady uncomfortable burn in his processors. Prime demanded honesty, he thought savagely, and the feedback slacked off to a low buzz.
“Even Megatron wouldn't-” one of the Autobots started, one Onslaught didn't know.
“You have no idea what Megatron is capable of,” Onslaught snarled. “He will execute them the moment he realizes he no longer has Bruticus, and they won't even have a chance to fight back.” If it he had been faced with Decepticons, he never would have admitted that, but Autobot morality would keep them from taking advantage. To a Decepticon, it would be a clever way of taking out enemy combatants, but to an Autobot, it would be murder. “If he doesn't order them to kill each other.”
“They wouldn't...” First Aid protested. He ducked behind Ratchet's shoulder when Onslaught turned to look at him.
“They won't have a choice,” Onslaught ground out.
“Then it's all or none,” Prime said. “We will find a way.”
“I haven't agreed yet, Prime.” Onslaught shook his head, venting air in a hiss.
“I'm willing to offer a certain concessions to you, and to your team,” Prime said. “I am aware that members of your team have committed a number of crimes,” his voice became dry, “Undoubtedly more than we're aware of.”
Onslaught glanced his way, but gave no sign either way, continuing to pace the length of the open cell.
“Neither you nor your team will be punished for what you've done before now,” Prime said, ignoring the unhappy shifting and muttering from the Autobots around him. “That said, the members of your team will be held accountable for their actions from here out, as any Autobot is.”
His team, Autobots. It took a conscious effort to not laugh at the idea. Undoubtedly Vortex would be ecstatic at the opportunity.
“If you object to fighting your former comrades, we will of course make allowances-”
This time, Onslaught did laugh.
Prime paused, then nodded. “I didn't think that would be a problem. You will remain in command, and your team will be allowed the same autonomy as the Protectobots and the Aerialbots.”
Even the thought of bowing to the Autobots rankled Onslaught – if he'd wanted to be one, he would have joined them in the first place. But recent orns had proved conclusively that the Decepticon Empire was dead, the dream Megatron had sold all those vorns ago in Kaon had been stamped out and tossed aside in pursuit of power for its own sake. The only thing keeping the Combaticons in the Decepticon ranks was the loyalty programming – how would serving the Autobots really be any different?
Easier, maybe, and much harder. Prime didn't have Megatron's taste for power, but the rules the Autobots demanded they live by were enough to choke a mech. Pain and humiliation with no chance of ever breaking free, or tied down by Autobot peace.
What a fragging choice.
In the end, it wasn't about choice. It never was. It was about survival.
“Give me my weapons, my comms, and a transport. I'll bring you the Combaticons.”