Disclaimer: In the real world, Hasbro owns the Combaticons (as well as the rest of the Transformers and Transformers related things mentioned in this piece); in the fictional universe before you, Megatron does. I have no desire to go up against either. Northwest Smith, Yarol the Venusian, and Shambleau are all creations of C. L. Moore and were originally introduced in her story Shambleau published in Weird Tales back in November of 1933. Minga is based on another C.L. Moore character from the Northwest Smith story Black Thirst which appeared in the April 1934 issue of Weird Tales. Jetan is also known as Martian Chess and was created by Edgar Rice Burroughs for his book The Chessmen of Mars. And lastly, the Starwolves of Varna are from Edmond Hamilton's Starwolf Trilogy. Luscious is a creation of CalyhexInmate and is used with her permission.

Note: The Transformers universe as depicted in my fics is a cherry-picked amalgamation of the G1 cartoon and comic (US and UK), Beast Wars/Machines, my own preferences as a fan, my Transformers MUSHing experience, conversations between me and my roommate (who helped beta read this fic in the early stages) and bits and pieces of things that I think work well. On the whole, things are slanted heavily in favor of the US G1 cartoon series -- except when they're not. As such, it is worth noting that this story does take place during the grey area between the end of Transformers Season 2 and the events of Transformers the Movie.

In terms of my other Combaticon stories, this one takes place after the events shown in "Fatigue" and "Bath-Time Combaticons." Time frame is approximately 1989/1990.

Scientific note: The Combaticons refer to the Light and Dark Sides of Monacus. The Dark Side is where Sheol is located in The Gambler and is referred to as the Dark Side by Bosch; the Light Side is, by extrapolation, the area where the Autobots first arrive on Monacus with Bosch. Technically? It's unlikely that an asteroid like Monacus is unlikely to have the kind of spin that would give it a permanent/near-permanent dark side (thanks to Rebecca Hb for pointing this out). So, I invite you to read this story with either the mindset that science took a picnic for this one or that Light/Dark Sides are different neighborhoods on Monacus.

Special thanks to: Wayward Martian, CalyhexInmate and Rebecca Hb, the Hyper Angel for their beta-reading services. This story wouldn't be half as good as it is now without their help. Any errors in grammar, punctuation or formatting that still exist are my fault, not theirs. Calyhex is the roommate listed above and the poor soul who got ambushed at work with "Here! Read this!" while this story was in the pen and paper stages and Wayward Martian and Rebecca Hb were kind volunteers who took this work on and helped give it the shape it has now.

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Shambleau

"Shambleau! Shambleau!" The howling of a mob in the near distance cut through Vortex's reverie, making him look toward the sound even as he ducked into an alleyway for cover. It never hurt to be too careful, particularly on Monacus. The gambling asteroid was largely lawless outside of a protected area around Casino Row's main drag. Vortex's hand went for his glue gun, wrapping around the well-worn grip as he peeked around the corner and watched the crowd up ahead.

They stood in a half circle in front of another alleyway, screaming incoherently as they waved a variety of weapons both traditional and improvised. The first thing Vortex noted was that they didn't seem to be interested in him. The second was a flash of metallic scarlet on the ground. He could catch glimpses of it between the members of the mob. Seen briefly, the figure looked Cybertronian, but from where he stood Vortex couldn't tell if it was an Autobot or a Decepticon.

Since the crowd had taken no notice of him, Vortex moved from his hidey hole and approached them. But not before he checked level of his glue gun's reservoir. Better safe than savagely beaten to death by a pack of angry squishies.

The crowd was strange, even by Monacan standards. While the asteroid attracted the dregs of society from a hundred different worlds, like tended to go with like except in the public forums. Organics hung with other organics; what few sentient mechanoids there were hung with other mechanoids. You didn't often see large mixed groups, like this one: humans and mechanoids and members of other organic species that were even more sickening to look at than humans were.

The members of the mob closest to him looked at Vortex, hesitating briefly when they saw he was a mechanoid too. He let his optics brighten and set his rotors spinning with lazy menace as he tried to make himself look bigger.

"What's up?" he drawled at those around him, lowering his glue gun fractionally.

A human male, tall and tanned with colorless eyes that looked slightly more than half-mad, pushed his way into the center of the mob. "Enough hesitation! We must destroy the Shambleau!" he snarled, pointing dramatically toward the mech who now crouched and glared at the crowd. "We must destroy the monster!"

The mob roared, their cries echoing off the walls of the surrounding buildings in a din that Brawl would have appreciated. Vortex's optics flashed brightly as he looked around, studying strange alien faces with an interrogator's optic. For all their bluff and bluster, nobody in this mob really wanted to be the first to do the killing. They were poised, ready to attack or retreat if given the right provocation.

"Why?" Vortex yelled, partly for the sake of seeing which way the crowd would jump and partly for sheer contrariness. He nearly giggled as the mob's fierce cries cut off and they all looked expectantly toward the human.

"It's an abomination!" the human roared after a moment's sputtering. "It must be destroyed for the good of everyone on this planet! If it takes root here, there's no telling how many it'll destroy!"

There were a few ragged shouts of agreement, but Vortex was pleased to note that most of the crowd was quieter, unsure about their role now that an outsider was questioning it.

"Why?" he asked again, optics flashing with amusement. This time he did giggle, the sound making those organics near him move away. "He owe you money or something?"

"Be silent, machine!" the human snarled. "This doesn't concern you! This is for living creatures, not glorified toys!"

Bloop. Vortex fired without really thinking about it, a blob of hot glue engulfing the human.

"Northwest!" a small, delicate-looking humanoid in the mob screamed, dashing forward. For a moment, Vortex thought it might be another human -- possibly a female, since it was smaller and more delicate than the engulfed male. But, as he watched the humanoid frantically scrape rapidly cooling glue away from Northwest's nose and mouth, it became clearer that this was a member of a different species.

"By Shar, are you mad?" the smaller humanoid yelled at Vortex as Northwest began to breathe again, taking in huge gulps of air. "Do you know what you're protecting?"

Vortex shrugged. "Nope," he said. "Don't know, don't care. All I know is you slagheaps are starting to bug me and if you don't want more of what your buddy got, then I suggest getting away from me."

He was gratified to see more than a few leave the mob, slinking away now that it looked as if their victim might have a protector. He stifled a giggle at the sight, not wanting to spoil the mood.

"Idiot!" the smaller humanoid said. "That creature is dangerous! Can't you understand that?"

"I'm dangerous," Vortex countered, centering his glue gun's sights on the humanoid. "Or haven't I made that clear enough?"

To his delight, the humanoid didn't back down. He hated it when the game ended too soon. "We don't have time for this," the humanoid said, taking a step forward. "That creature is responsible for countless deaths on more worlds than you could imagine! If you want to shoot something, you should be shooting that!"

The humanoid pointed dramatically behind Vortex towards the Shambleau. Vortex didn't bother turning, instead he began squeezing the trigger of his glue gun.

"Yarol! No! It's not worth it!" To his disappointment, the human called Northwest leapt forward, grabbing the smaller humanoid and dragging him back toward the crowd. "Let the damned machine learn the hard way, like I did!" Northwest yelled as they fled.

Their leaders in sudden retreat, the rest of the mob broke apart, dispersing back to the seedy bars and crooked gambling holes they'd no doubt come from. Vortex fired randomly at their retreating backs, more for effect than to hit anyone.

Once they were gone, Vortex turned to look at Shambleau, his head tilted slightly to one side as he stared at the strange mech.

Up close, it was obvious that he wasn't Cybertronian. Or if he was, he was countless vorns old since he had no alt mode or visible transformation joints that Vortex could see. He was a mech. Vortex was pretty sure of that since femmes -- true femmes -- were so very rare. That and he reminded Vortex of a Seeker, albeit a wingless one. Though, even wingless he moved with an almost liquid grace that made even the most graceful of Seekers look like crippled groundpounders by comparison.

His chest and torso armor were a deep, rich scarlet so glossy it looked wet. The scarlet faded on his arms and legs, becoming a duller red-brown that was almost the color of rust. His face, what could be seen around his faceplate, looked black at first. When he looked closer, Vortex could see it was simply a darker shade of rust-brown that made his acid-green optics shine all the brighter in the darkness of the alleyway.

But what really got Vortex's attention were the twin sword handles peeking over Shambleau's shoulders. They were a glossier rust brown, accented throughout by thin veins of scarlet. Judging by how well-worn they appeared to be, they were clearly functional as well as beautiful.

Vortex's optics flashed and sparkled with jealousy and an intense, Swindle-like need to possess them.

X X X

For as long as he could remember, even long before he'd ever set foot in an interrogation chamber, Vortex had been fascinated by sharp things: laser scalpels, plasma cutters, saw blades, knives, swords, anything so long as it could rip and tear through armor rather than simply blasting a hole through it. The act of cutting -- and being cut -- attracted him like an Autobot to a lost cause.

It was an interest that set him apart from other Decepticons, except for a few of his fellow interrogators. Blades were seen by most Decepticons -- by most Cybertronians for that matter -- as hopelessly archaic, outdated weapons. Conventional wisdom held that they were suitable only for primitives and the sorts of poseurs who artificially aged their armor in a futile attempt to look as though they pre-dated the Golden Age.

Even his own brothers were less than sympathetic to his desires. Onslaught ignored it, except when he was berating Vortex for damaging his rotors by trying to use them for cutting instead of creating wind funnels. Brawl and Blast Off belittled him each in his own fashion: Brawl laughed at him and called him a wimp, while Blast Off preferred cold, disdainful silences that were only slightly different from the rest of his cold, disdainful silences.

And Swindle argued with him about it, bickering endlessly about the relative merits of guns versus swords until they were either swinging at each other or fighting off those around them who were sick of listening to their circular arguments.

But, despite all the mocking and the ridicule and the strange looks, Vortex didn't care. Blades in general and swords in particular had a certain style and grace that guns just didn't have. Blowing a hole in someone was all well and good, but it was over too quickly. There was a slow subtlety to blades: a shallow slice here, a deep gash there; it all brought such exquisite agony.

X X X

"Thank you, friend," Shambleau said, bringing Vortex out of his reverie. The mech's voice had an odd, stilted quality about it.

"I'm not your friend," Vortex said, automatically. His optics were still on the swords as he calculated how hard it would be to clout this mech about the head and run off with them. "Only reason I helped you out was because that squishie was getting on my nerves."

"You could have easily helped them," said Shambleau in his stiffly formal voice. "Helped them to destroy me, yet you did not. Why?"

Vortex shrugged, not entirely sure of the reason himself beyond a perverse desire to annoy the loudmouthed human. "Didn't help you," he said, speaking slowly. "They were bugging me, and I was bored anyway. Helping you was a lucky side effect for you, that's all."

Shambleau paused, looking at Vortex intently, giving him the feeling of being under one of Scrapper's medical scanners while Soundwave tried to poke into his mind. "'Something to do?'" he repeated, staring intently at Vortex. "You helped me because you are looking for … what? Amusement?"

"Yeah, sure," Vortex said, shifted uncomfortably. "Why not?"

Shambleau's laugh was a hissing, sliding sound, like air escaping from a tire or hoses moving over each other.

"What's so funny?" Vortex growled, feeling his fists clenched. If he wanted to be laughed at, he could always go find one or more of his brothers.

"You saved me because you were bored!" Shambleau said, then suddenly the laughter cut off. "Why are you bored, my friend?"

Vortex grunted, crossing his arms over his chest. "None of your business," he said, hoping he sounded gruff rather than sulky.

In truth, he wasn't just bored, he was lonely. The Combaticons had come to Monacus together because Megatron had wanted them to do something that Vortex hadn't listened to since listening to Megatron was Onslaught's job. All he'd known was that it involved Onslaught, Brawl and Swindle having to go to one of the armament markets in Sheol on the dark side of the asteroid. He and Blast Off were simply along for the ride. Or, more correctly, Blast Off was the ride; he, Vortex was there simply because Onslaught was loathe to have the team split up again.

In part, because 'accidents' tended to happen to lone gestalt team members -- particularly lone gestalt team members - unfairly! - suspected of a fly-by gluing that had left Wildrider and Dead-End stuck together for the better part of two days.

But Onslaught had also wanted him to come because a trip to Monacus meant a chance for some real R and R -- something the Combaticons hadn't had for a long, long time.

Of course, Onslaught was insisting on business before pleasure, using the chance to run wild as a way of keeping Vortex, Brawl and Swindle in line. The message had been crystal clear: behave until the mission was done or no party time.

Which was another part of the reason Vortex was alone and bored on the Lightside of Monacus. Onslaught had refused to take him to Sheol, stating that doing so "would jeopardize the integrity of the mission by compromising the effectiveness of our acquisitions specialist." All of which was Onslaught double-speak for, "you'll annoy Swindle and he's going to be hard enough to control as it is."

"Stay out of trouble," was the last thing Onslaught had said to him before leaving for the Dark Side. He'd then gone on to define "trouble" in the sort of minute, exacting detail that only someone used to leading Combaticons would even think to use.

Vortex had considered trying to find a loophole -- it was only fair to give Onslaught something new for his list after all -- but Brawl and Swindle had backed up Onslaught's orders with threats of their own. As Swindle had put it: "Cost me the Happiest Place in the Galaxy, 'Tex, and so help me, I'll turn into a foot, stomp a slag hole in your back and walk it dry!"

So, while the groundpounders were off running their errands, he and Blast Off had stayed on the Light Side, holed up in the hotel room while Blast Off drank high-priced energon and recuperated from the flight to Monacus. Vortex had finally convinced Blast Off to let him take a walk by asking every quarter-breem until Blast Off had finally given in. It was during the walk that he'd run into the mob. And Shambleau.

Shambleau tilted his head, looking Vortex over. Once again, Vortex felt as if he were being scanned and laid bare before Shambleau. It was a disgusting feeling, and yet part of him shivered almost happily under the scrutiny.

"You like my swords," Shambleau said. He reached back, stroking one sword's hilt. "You like to fight with swords, correct?"

"Yeah," Vortex said. It wasn't entirely a lie: he did like to fight with swords -- it was just that the closest he usually got was when Bruticus would use his main rotors to slash at other gestalts.

Shambleau looked at him, sliding in close enough to rest a hand on Vortex's shoulder. His acid-green optics brightened to almost painful levels in the alley's gloom. "Will you fight with me?"

"Excuse me?" Vortex took a step backwards.

"Not real fight," Shambleau said. "Pretend-fight. As though it were a game."

"You mean, you want to spar?" Vortex said. "You want to spar with me?"

Shambleau's optics brightened again. "Yes," he said, moving closer again. "I want us to fight, blade to blade; to show strength of body and will, to feel each other's strength and see who is the true master."

Vortex found himself caught speechless. It was a corny speech; it was a line he'd have expected -- and laughed at -- from the sort of dallying poseurs who thought interrogation was all whips, chains and unresolved sexual tension. But coming from Shambleau, coming from a voice thick with emotion and not-so-thinly veiled promises as those green optics flashed and pulsed with excitement, something stirred in him. Here, here, in this seedy alleyway was someone who understood. Here was someone who knew how he felt -- better than he did -- about fighting with swords. Onslaught couldn't object to him. And even if he did, Vortex didn't care.

"Let's go," Vortex said.

X X X

Shambleau took him to a deserted casino on the distant outskirts of Casino Row, in the rundown area furthest from the Tarmac Bridge. The building was missing its roof and the walls had largely fallen in, leaving only a semi-enclosed open space roughly the size of a training room aboard the Nemesis.

Shambleau began tossing the remains of tables and broken furniture out of the way, clearing a space. Vortex set about helping him and the work was quickly done.

"We fight now," Shambleau commanded, optics brightening.

Vortex reached behind his back to detach one of his rotors. It was a self-modification that would have had Onslaught furious with him if he'd known about it.

"No," Shambleau reached out to touch his arm, stopping him. Vortex felt his sensors twitch and flicker with disgust. "Your blade, it is inadequate. You need a good blade for a good fight. You will use one of mine."

With that, Shambleau reached over his own shoulder and drew one of the swords, handing it to Vortex, hilt first. The material covering the hilt was soft and squished slightly under Vortex's grip. He shivered as it seemed almost to writhe in his grip.

The blade was the same glossy-wet red of Shambleau's torso armor. The color faded to a milky pink where the blade thinned into a cutting edge. Vortex tested the edge against his thumb, wincing as the blade cut effortlessly through the thinner armor there.

"Where'd you get these?" Vortex asked, his voice hoarse with an envy that bordered on hate.

"Always have had them," Shambleau said with a shrug. "Since the day I was -- created, as your people would say. They are very old, very much a true part of me."

"They're beautiful," Vortex said, his earlier discomfort and disgust forgotten as he moved the sword back and forth in front of himself, getting a feel for the way it moved.

"I am glad you like it," Shambleau said, circling him as he drew his own blade. "Your joy gives me a good feeling."

Vortex's response was cut off as Shambleau lunged forward, slashing at him. Clumsily, Vortex blocked the cut, feeling the blow vibrate painfully up the sword and through his arm. He hissed, backpedaling before he tried to return the attack.

"Thought this was a sparring match!" he snapped, bringing his sword up in front of him.

Shambleau laughed, a wild sound that rolled over Vortex like the winds of a hurricane. "Game, yes, but not an easy one! It must be a fight worth winning!"

"Yeah," Vortex said, feeling a giggle of his own rise as he lunged forward, slashing wildly at Shambleau. "But what do I get?"

"Winner takes loser," Shambleau said, voice rich with promise.

"Takes them where?" Vortex asked before the promise in Shambleau's voice registered with his CPU. "Oh!" he said, optics flickering excitedly. "So, when I win, I get to do whatever I want with you, huh? Nice."

Shambleau laughed his sliding hose laugh again. "If you win, yes," he said, pressing the attack before Vortex could reply, causing Vortex to focus all his energy on avoiding being hit. Not that he was very successful in that since Shambleau flowed like water around him, striking at weak points Vortex didn't even know he had until after he was struck. It was as if this swordsmech knew what he was thinking and was keeping one step ahead of his strikes.

Coolant leaked from half a dozen superficial slashes on his legs, back and torso. The stinging pain of his injuries goaded Vortex into pressing the fight harder, trying to corner Shambleau, to drive the other mech back. Frustration made his optics shine so brightly they nearly went white.

In the end, it was Vortex who found himself cornered, backed into a small enclosed area that had been one of the casino's restaurants. Shambleau stood before him, watching as Vortex's body panted, trying to vent excess heat from his systems.

"You have lost," Shambleau said, stepping in closer as he retrieved his sword from Vortex's limp hand. "You must submit."

"Slag you," Vortex hissed, jerking back ineffectually. He winced as he felt his rotors brush against the wall. "What are you? You're not from Cybertron. Nobody on Cybertron can move like that. Never seen anything like you. What are you?"

"I am Shambleau," he said, as if that answered anything. He reached out, touching Vortex's chest, deftly finding one of the cuts he'd inflicted. He manipulated it, opening it wider to better stroke the raw circuitry underneath. "And you are mine now."

Vortex's optics flashed painfully. "Quit it," he said, voice thickening as he reached over to smack Shambleau's hand away.

Shambleau caught his hand, holding it easily but firmly. "You lost," he said, his voice a soft growl. "You are mine." Shambleau leaned in to nuzzle his faceplate against Vortex's throat. There was a sickening softness to the other mech's armor - as if it were covered in the same material as his sword hilt - that made Vortex want to kick and punch until he could get away.

Seeming to sense Vortex's repulsion, Shambleau released his wrist and found a second cut on Vortex's arm and repeated the process, teasing both wounds simultaneously. Moaning, Vortex reached out, feeling his knees buckle even as he grabbed at Shambleau's arms and tried to push him back.

Vortex had as much success as he'd had during the fight. Shambleau shoved him back into the corner, forcing him against the wall and causing his rotor assembly dig painfully into his back. Vortex struggled, but the other mech used his weight to hold him in place. Shambleau was deceptively heavy in close quarters. It was like trying to push off Onslaught or Brawl.

"No, beloved," Shambleau's voice was gentle but strained, like Onslaught's when he was correcting a mistake and trying desperately to hold onto his patience. The word 'beloved' made Vortex flinch and shy, feeling suddenly uncomfortable and debased in a way all together worse than Shambleau's physical invasion of his wounds.

"You lost," Shambleau said, voice low and raspy. It was a needy, eager sound. Vortex shuddered, feeling the same invasive feeling of being scanned as before. "You are mine now." Shambleau leaned against him, body pressing against Vortex, allowing him to feel the slow throb of Shambleau's engines. "It is all part of the game, remember?"

Vortex nodded. It'd been millennia since he'd played like this, but he still remembered the rules. One of which was 'submit, but not too soon.' He struggled again, hard enough to force Shambleau to press harder against him -- but not hard enough to get free.

Shambleau laughed his hissing, sliding laugh. "Oh, you do know how to play!" he said, fingers returned to his wounds, stroking circuits, pushing roughly into Vortex and sliding delicately back out. Vortex shuddered, head going back as his optics flickered.

This was what he'd been looking for. This was what he'd truly craved. The sweet surrender into another's control. The freedom from responsibility, from dignity, from self-control. To be reduced to little more than stimulus and response. Interrogation was only a faint shadow of this dark bliss; the difference between them that of sparring and real combat.

Vortex pressed his face against Shambleau's surprisingly soft, warm armor and allowed himself to sink into the Now.

X X X

"Vortex!" Blast Off's voice rang in his head. Unlike the rest of the Combaticons, Blast Off rarely raised his voice. When he did, it was a sign that he was ready to bring the Wrath of Blast Off down upon who had dared provoke him.

"What?" Vortex snapped back, casting a careful optic above him, just in case Blast Off decided to make the wrath literal this time. Shambleau took a step back, letting Vortex stand on his own. He staggered as he raised his head, finding himself drained and groggy.

"Where are you?" Blast Off demanded. "You missed your last radio check. I've been trying to raise you for nearly four breem now. If you've gotten yourself arrested, you can sit there until Onslaught gets back!"

"I'm not in jail," Vortex said, feeling his head swim. He checked his chronometer -- had he really been out that long? "I'm -- I'm with somebody."

"I don't care. Get back to the checkpoint," Blast Off said. "Onslaught wants us both here when he calls in."

"Aw c'mon!" Vortex said, leaning against the wall for support as Shambleau crossed his arms over his chest and stood back, optics dimmed and disappointed. "Lie for me! You did it yesterday!"

"Yesterday, you'd only gone down to the casino and you didn't miss a radio check," Blast Off said. "And more importantly, yesterday you hadn't interrupted my enjoyment of a drum of the finest hydrazine and the company of a lovely, intelligent female with a god-like skill in Jetan -- you should see her, she managed to capture my Princess with her Panthan in less than ten moves!"

"I'm thrilled for you, Blast Off," Vortex said, his optics sparkling in annoyance. "Come on, you know where I am now! I'll check in again, I swear! Just lie for me!"

"No," Blast Off said. "Be back to the hotel in two breem. Don't make me come hunting you, Vortex." With that, Blast Off shut down the radio connection.

Vortex sighed, looking over at Shambleau with his optics burning in shame and embarrassment. "I have to go," he said, hating the sulky tone in his voice. "My brother wants me to come home. Part of our mission."

"You will be back?" Shambleau asked, stepping up behind Vortex. He reached out with both hands, each one grasping a rotor and running teasingly along them. Vortex shuddered, pleasure warring with a sense of unease. "Please, return to me?" Shambleau's voice was soft and pleading, like a freshly-broken prisoner begging to be allowed to talk. "When you are done, we can finish what we started?"

Vortex grunted, moaning as Shambleau continued to tease his rotors. "I'll be back as soon as I can," he promised. "Wait for me."

"Of course, my love," Shambleau said.

X X X

The 'checkpoint' was a hotel on Casino Row that catered to the mechanical trade. Onslaught had gotten them a suite of rooms big enough to allow them all the chance to spread out. It was easily double the size of their quarters back aboard the undersea base and much more luxurious than the desert base they'd built for themselves.

All of which currently meant it was a very pretty place in which Vortex could be bored out of his mind. He drummed his fingers on the edge of a hotel table as he stared at the portable radio Onslaught was insisting on using for on-planet communications as an opportunity to practice communications in adverse conditions. Which just went to show that if anybody needed to be spending some time in the nearest brothel, it was big brother Onslaught.

"Come on!" Vortex yelled at the radio. "Call already!"

Blast Off looked over from where he reclined on a couch, feeding energon in slow sips into his fuel tank. "You miss Onslaught's melodious tones that much?" he asked. "Or are you pining for Swindle?"

"Shut up," Vortex said, crossing his arms as he leaned back, trying not to look sulky. "It's all your fault anyway. I was having fun until you interrupted me."

"Oh really?" Blast Off said, sounding amused. "What was her name?"

"His name is none of your business," Vortex said.

"So, you don't know it, is that what you're saying?" Blast Off's optics flickered in what served him as a smirk as he picked up another cube. "Why brother dear, I never would have thought you for the love 'em and leave 'em type. I would think surely you'd want to at least know their name so you can write poetry to them." Blast Off chuckled at his own humor.

Vortex growled, kicking his chair back as he stood up and started pacing the room. "Shut up, Blast Off," he said. "S'not funny."

Blast Off paused, his optic band dimming as he watched Vortex move back and forth like a caged animal. "Why Vortex, I do believe you are smitten!" he said, chuckling softly.

"No!" Vortex said it too quickly. "It's nothing, Blast Off. Don't worry about it."

"Really, Vortex," Blast Off said. "You say it like that, you can't expect me to just ignore you." He paused, watching Vortex's rotors spin nervously. "Oh dear, you've got it bad, don't you? And for some spaceport doxy no less."

"Shut up!" Vortex said, fidgeting. "I'm telling you, it's no big deal! I just -- it's been so long."

Blast Off sighed, shaking his head. "You'd best end it now, Vortex," he said. "I doubt you'll be able to persuade Onslaught -- let alone Megatron -- to allow you to bring your paramour home with us."

Vortex's optics flashed as he started to protest. Blast Off held up a hand, interrupting him. "We're not built for love, Vortex," he said. "Don't fool yourself: we're not the tender kind. We're a collection of opportunists bound by common cause at best and by the fact no one else in their right mind would trust us at worst."

"It's not love!" Vortex said. "Lust, maybe. But Primus, Blast Off after all that time in The Box can you blame me? This mech makes me feel things I never thought I'd feel again but he's not anyone I want forever. He's just somebody I want right now!"

Blast Off watched as Vortex paced in ever-tightening circles. "Go," he said.

"Huh?"

"Don't grunt, it makes you sound like Brawl. I said go. I'll make your excuses to Onslaught -- as far as he's concerned, you'll be recharging when he calls. Just make sure you make your next radio check in forty breem or I'll tell Swindle and Brawl all about your precious mech."

"What's to tell?" Vortex asked, confused. "You don't know anything about him."

"Stumpy's not the only liar in the family, Vortex," Blast Off said. "Now go or I'll change my mind."

Vortex's optics brightened. With a hasty "Thanks, Blasty!" he ran for the door, armor squealing as he tried to squeeze through it before it had even slid halfway open

"'Blasty?' And after everything I've done for him," Blast Off murmured, sitting back with a long-suffering sigh. "Choppers."

X X X

Vortex stepped back into the casino. "Shambleau?" he said, feeling his hands starting to shake with excitement.

"I am here, beloved," Shambleau said, moving out of the shadows, optics bright and happy. "You are here."

"Yeah," Vortex said, walking toward Shambleau, his own optics brightening as he got closer. "You ready? 'Cause I am."

"I am ready," Shambleau said, taking Vortex's arm and leading him back into the restaurant, back to the corner where they'd begun. "I hunger for you."

"Me too," Vortex said, leaning up against the wall and reaching out for Shambleau. "Didn't even fix the gashes you gave me." He giggled. "Slag, I opened a couple of 'em up even more on the way over here."

Shambleau leaned against Vortex, pressing him hard against the wall. "Thank you, beloved," he said. "You will be delicious."

Vortex had enough time for a Brawl-like "Whuh?" before he found himself slammed even harder into the restaurant wall. At first, he thought nothing of it -- it was part of the game, right? He watched in horror as Shambleau transformed. Or at least that was what his mind called it. A series of circular hatches opened on Shambleau's shoulders, releasing what looked like hoses. Vortex was reminded of the time he saw Octane drain an Autobot prisoner, except that the ends of the hoses were blunt. As Shambleau pressed him back against the wall, the first hoses touched him. Vortex whimpered as they sought out his wounds, as they extending themselves into him, invading his systems.

"Beloved," Shambleau moaned, his body shuddering against Vortex as more ports opened all across Shambleau's body, releasing more tendrils that wrapped themselves around Vortex; covering his arms, legs, and rotors with their sticky-slick organic wetness. "Delicious, sweet beloved. So raw. So raw. Feel for me."

Vortex screamed again as he felt Shambleau begin to take control of him from the inside. The tendrils pulsed, stimulating Vortex's sensors. He moaned, hating himself for feeling pleasure at this creature's command and hating himself even worse for wanting more.

He struggled, futile though it was. He cried as his body was slowly stolen from him, his sobs turning to ecstatic shrieks as his pleasure and pain sensors were set to full sensitivity, making every slip and slide of Shambleau's tendrils into exquisite agony. He giggled and screamed, alternating between begging Shambleau to stop and begging him for more.

X X X

Blast Off paced the hotel room, unsure who he was more furious with -- Vortex or himself. Himself, he decided. After all, he was the responsible one. Blaming Vortex for being flighty and careless was like blaming water for being wet.

"Slag," he said, kicking a chair out of his way. "Foolish, useless sentimentality. Letting him run off when a call to the concierge would have been all it took to find a suitable escort for him. A whore is a whore." He fumed, kicking the chair again, this time not stopping until it was a twisted wreck of scrap metal. "Slag!"

It was all because of prison. Suddenly being able to feel again after over seventy thousand vorn of insensate nothingness had made them all more than a little crazy. How else to explain trying to destroy an entire planet just to try to kill Megatron? How else to explain Swindle selling them all for scrap? How else to explain trusting Starscream?

Being able to feel again was like a powerful drug. Even now, less than five Earth years after their release they still felt the ache, the need to feel things. Merging was, by far, the best of all possible worlds. Not only was every sensation magnified, but in addition they were all together.

But there were other sensations that were a close second and all the more enjoyable for being singular experiences. Blast Off knew he'd treasure his Jetan-playing female more for the moves she'd shown him away from the game board and most especially because she'd been his and his alone.

Blast Off shook himself out of his reverie. Vortex was missing. That was the important thing. He had managed to lose a brother -- his fellow flyer, no less -- and now he was going to have to do the hardest thing ever.

He was going to have to admit he made a mistake.

X X X

Vortex never thought he'd see the day when he wished for the sweet release of the Box. His sensors were wide open as Shambleau's tendrils engulfed him. His optics saw nothing but a constantly sliding mass of red as they moved over him. His vocalizer was buzzing as his speakers began to short out and fail from the effort of screaming. He was dying, he could feel his energy reserves being drained bit by bit as Shambleau fed. He could feel everything -- every circuit dying, every fuse blowing -- and for the first time since his release from prison, he hated it.

X X X

The Sheol black market was so large, Onslaught couldn't see across it from where he stood near the center. Literally everything that he could think of -- or so it seemed -- was being sold by someone.

They'd completed their mission within half a day of their arrival in Sheol. The components Megatron had requested were safely stowed away within one of Onslaught's internal hatches, well away from all but the most determined pickpockets.

The rest of their time in Sheol had been spent shopping for "personal items" -- weapons and ammunition mostly, but also other gear that the Decepticons couldn't or wouldn't provide them. Six million years had led to some interesting advances in military hardware that Onslaught couldn't wait to put through its paces. If all went well, Defensor would be in for a few nasty surprises the next time they met.

Swindle had been in his element, happily wheeling and dealing -- sometimes with multiple dealers simultaneously. With Brawl to keep a tight leash on Swindle's more kleptomaniacal impulses, Onslaught felt free to relax a bit and enjoy a sense of satisfaction at a mission successfully completed. He even went so far as to hope that this would help them curry some much needed favor with Megatron and lead to an upswing in their status within the Empire. Finally, it looked as though things were looking up again for the Combaticons.

And then came Blast Off's radio call and those fateful words: "Vortex is missing."

"What do you mean, 'he's missing'?" Onslaught asked, feeling hope die only to be replaced by a growing rage at being thwarted.

"What do you think I mean?" Blast Off snapped. "Vortex is missing. I do not know where he is. I allowed him to go off with some chippie he found and he hasn't checked in and I can't raise him."

"Did you ping him?" Onslaught was surprised to hear his voice was still calm.

"Onslaught, ask me another stupid question and I will snap my bounds of calm, fly to the Dark Side and cannon you into a greasy smear on the pavement!" Blast Off said, voice crackling over Onslaught's receivers. "Yes, I've pinged him. Repeatedly. I tried raising him on every radio frequency we use, even the one he and Swindle think I don't know about. I even pinged his gestalt components, thinking maybe I could get that part of him that is Bruticus to pay attention to me. Neither one of them is responding. Granted, Bruticus is probably still sleeping, but there's no reason for Vortex to not be checking in."

Onslaught thought for a moment. "Blast Off," he asked, carefully. "How long has he been gone?"

Blast Off sighed. "One hundred and thirty breem, Onslaught."

"I see." Onslaught looked over to where Swindle stood guarding their purchases and Brawl stood guarding Swindle. "Our last radio check was only eighty-seven breem ago, Blast Off. You said he was with you. Recharging, you said."

Blast Off was quiet for a long moment. When he spoke again, it was over the secure channel they used between themselves when they didn't want the 'children' listening in. "Onslaught, he was hurting, aching for this mech. After everything we've been through, I couldn't deny him a few moments of pleasure. There's no excuse for what I did, but you can punish me for that once we have him back."

What was most disturbing was that Blast Off was apologetic. Ordinarily, Blast Off could out-arrogant a Seeker. For him to admit fault -- to the point of accepting punishment, no less -- meant the situation was more serious than Onslaught wanted to think about.

"We'll discuss that later," Onslaught said. "Right now, I want you to keep trying to raise Vortex. We're on our way back. Keep me appraised of your progress."

X X X

Vortex rarely dreamed. As far as he knew, none of his fellow Combaticons dreamed with any real frequency. Or if they did, they didn't talk about it.

Occasionally, he or one of the others would have what they called 'box dreams' -- dreams about their imprisonment, dreams of being an isolated, insignificant awareness within an unsympathetic, unknowing void. The aftermath of these dreams usually involved frantic, whispered radio checks wherein the dreamer would verify not only his own existence but that of his brothers as well.

Tonight, Vortex dreamed. He was back on Cybertron, but the island where Starscream had recreated them was there as well. He'd been ordered to go to the center of the island, to destroy it and remove the organic taint from Cybertron. He moved slowly through the jungle, tree branches and vines slapping at him, leaving wet, warm trails of organic ooze along his armor. Disgusted, but unable to reach up to clean himself, he continued on as the leaves and vines became thicker. He slashed at them with his elbow rotors, but it was no use. As soon as some of the organic garbage was cleared, more moved in to take its place. He moaned, struggling against it, unable to fight, unsure of where to go as the organics overtook him.

Vortex dreamed and as he dreamed, the Shambleau fed.

X X X

"You lost 'Tex?" Swindle said, staring at Blast Off in disbelief. "You lost Vortex?"

"Don't take that tone with me, Swindle," Blast Off snarled. "You sold him."

"Yeah? Well at least I knew where he was!" As Swindle started forward, his scatter-blaster whined to life, ready to attack. Brawl stepped in front of Blast Off as Onslaught reached out to grab Swindle's shoulders, dragging him back against him.

"Now is not the time," Onslaught said, reaching out with one hand to pull Swindle's scatter-blaster free from its shoulder mount. "We need to focus on finding Vortex, not squabbling about blame."

"Yeah, right," Swindle said, twisting furiously against Onslaught's grip. "If it was me who'd done it, you wouldn't be saying that! It'd be stomping time again!"

"Swindle, not now!" Onslaught said, pushing down on Swindle with his full weight to better hold him in place. "Focus!"

"Ons, there's a dozen legitimate robo-slave markets on the Light Side alone!" Swindle whined. "And double that many black markets on Dark Side! Vortex could be off-planet by now an' we'll never find him!"

"Presume he is still on Monacus," Onslaught said, voice stern but level, commanding. "Mechanoids are rare enough here, someone would have noticed him. Someone might even have recognized him as a Decepticon. Who would be interested in that kind of information?"

"I don't know!" Swindle yelled.

"You do," Onslaught said, in tones that brooked no argument. "We've been here nearly two days and you've been gossiping and glad-handing since we arrived. Where do we start, Swindle?" Onslaught paused. "Or are you going to let someone steal from us? From you?"

"No." Swindle's optics dimmed as he concentrated. "Defcon would be my first choice, but he ain't here. Word is he's off-planet going after the Starwolves of Varna." Swindle fidgeted in Onslaught's grasp, grumbling to himself. "Lord Gycone isn't stupid enough to try and double-cross Megatron, not after what happened last time and especially not with us still here." Swindle stopped dead, then grunted. "Transorgasmic."

"Excuse me?" Onslaught said.

"Transorgasmic. It's a club off Casino Row. They specialize in mechanical entertainment for organic audiences. Me an' Brawl looked in there the first night we were here, before we headed to the Dark Side," Swindle said. "It's a total dive. An old mech named Luscious who dolls himself up like a femme runs the place. "

"Why?" Onslaught asked.

Swindle shrugged. "Makes money," he said as if that explained all. Which for Swindle, it probably did. "Doesn't matter; if anybody knows something about a Decepticon being snatched, it'll be Luscious." Swindle paused. "An' if not, then I'm gonna start torching places until I find him."

Onslaught nodded his approval, glancing to Brawl and Blast Off and seeing similar expressions of agreement in the way their optics flashed and flickered. He reached over, remounted Swindle's scatter-blaster and released Swindle's shoulders. "Go," he said. "We'll secure Megatron's package. Radio us when you have word."

Swindle didn't answer, just transformed and took off with tires squealing.

X X X

Transorgasmic was easily the most ridiculous thing Swindle had ever seen in all his seventy-two thousand vorn of existence. All right, so technically, for 71,875 of those vorn he'd been in prison but that didn't make Transorgasmic look any less stupid.

The club was located off Casino Row, close enough that it still got plenty of foot traffic from interested tourists, but far enough back that it began to butt against the edges of the rougher areas of the city -- which helped give it the feeling of being dangerous as well as naughty.

The idea behind Transorgasmic, as he'd told Onslaught, was mechanical entertainment for organic audiences. Unlike some of the casinos which had non-sentient robot performers, usually musicians, Transorgasmic bragged about having sentient robots performing.

It was all a load of cold slag, as far as Swindle was concerned. He and Brawl had known from the second they'd walked in that the dancers were drones -- better designed and with more complicated AI programs than the ones the casinos tended to have, but drones none the less.

The other draw for the club was that the performers were supposed to be examples of 'feminine robotic sexuality.' That particular sales-pitch had nearly had Swindle and Brawl on the ground in hysterics since the performing drones were in actuality idealized versions of various organic female body types. Long flowing hair and pendulous breasts, both synthetic, seemed to be extremely popular with the crowd tonight -- most of whom probably hadn't seen a real sentient femme in their lives. Or at least wouldn't have recognized one if they had.

Swindle stepped into the club, turning his audials down to avoid being overloaded by the din of the club's idea of robotic music. The décor tended toward shiny metallic and bright flashing lights and entirely failed to make Swindle feel anything other than a grudging admiration for the mind behind such a blatant money-making enterprise.

On stage, a pair of Cybertronian-sized 'femmes' were gyrating on stage. One was the pastel pink of freshly spilled energon that mammalian organics seemed to find so appealing, while the other was the pale green of corroded copper. Swindle repressed a shudder as he moved toward the back of the bar.

Luscious sat in the back of the club, half reclining on an over-sized couch that allowed him to see and be seen by the entire club. Two silver drones done up as a cross between some organic species' over-stuffed feminine ideal and one of the more reptilian primitive designs crouched before the couch. Both had collars around their necks and leashes that ran back to dangle loosely in Luscious's hand. The drones' blank, vapid stares followed Swindle's every move.

Luscious himself looked like a slightly larger version of one of his dancers, with more organic kibble tacked on for effect. What effect, Swindle wasn't sure but the over-all theme seemed to be "less is more, but more is better." Luscious's fiber-optic hair was long enough to surround him like a cape if it had been let free from the braided topknot that contained it. His synthetic breasts would have provided enough silicone gel to make the undersea base water-tight. Luscious was a bright, almost neon-blue with a wide optic band that swirled and cycled through colors as he talked. Right now, his optics were the same spilt-energon pink as the dancer on stage.

"Oooh! Aren't you just the cutest thing?" Luscious squealed, his voice an audial-raking falsetto. "Military hardware, am I right? Of course I am! You've got that whole 'don't mess with me!' thing going for you. How sweet! What brings you here, honey? You looking for a pretty girl?"

Before Swindle could answer, Luscious snapped his fingers and yelled, "Minga!" A green and ivory colored serving drone turned toward them, gazing at them with blank green optics.

"Qu'a lo'val? How may I serve?" Minga said, inclining her bronze helm. Her voice was soft and lilting. Despite himself, Swindle stared at her. She was eerily close to what he remembered of Autobot femmes -- except that she wasn't shooting at him. And no femme -- Autobot or Decepticon -- ever had an expression that vapid.

"Thanks, but I'm not interested," Swindle said.

Luscious waved Minga away as he inclined his head to one side, bright red lips pouting as his optics cycled from pink to red with a faint click. "I've got some mechs in the back -- big strapping ones or little femmy ones cuter than Minga if that's what you're looking for. Usually only bring them out on Sixthday, but whatever primes your charge, honey." Luscious grinned. "So long as you have the energon chips, of course."

Swindle revved his engine in annoyance, scowling. "I like my partners a little more alive, if y'know what I mean," he said, keeping his voice low. Blowing Luscious's secret now wouldn't ingratiate him to the club owner.

Luscious laughed. "Oh you are too much! So why are you here then?"

Swindle shifted so that he could keep an optic aimed behind him. "Looking for my brother," he said, sending a burst transmission to Blast Off, detailing his route to Transorgasmic as well as the interior layout of the club. "He's my height, but has a rotary-wing alt mode. Atmospheric craft, obviously; grey an' black with red optics. He's missing an' me and my team figured you might be the one to have some kind of information about him, what with your connections to the robo-slave markets an' all."

Luscious giggled, making Swindle's audials ache. "Oh, honey! I don't deal in armaments. Your kind makes lousy slaves; you always did."

"So who would've taken him?" Swindle asked, fidgeting in place. "C'mon, Luscious, help me out here."

"Oh, baby." Luscious smiled, his optics shifting from red to purple. "You know how the game goes! You have to give queen bee some sugar before she makes honey."

Swindle scowled. He should have been expecting this. Damn Vortex for throwing him off his game and leaving him stuck in a buyer's market. "We aren't the only Decepticons who haven't had some R and R in a while," he ventured, desperately. "We could put in the word for you back home, help increase your business?"

Luscious considered the offer for longer than Swindle would have, then shook his head as he reached over to stroke the head of the reptilifemme nearest him. He lowered his voice to a more comfortable level. "Nice try, sweetie, but really? You and I both know that real hardware won't come near this place except to laugh. It's for the organics who like to dream about their very own robotic sex slave, not your kind."

"How about I let this place stay standing then?" Swindle countered, taking a step forward, his scatter-blaster whining to life. The reptilifemmes rose up, mouths opening wide to display row after row of shark-like, metal-rending teeth.

"Easy, girls, easy," Luscious said, looking more amused than threatened. "Honey, I let these leashes go and you are scrap metal. Lucky for you, you amuse me. And luckier for your brother, I'm willing to trade you what I know for one, puny, insignificant little favor."

"What?" Swindle asked, knowing to his core that 'puny, insignificant little favors' were always the ones that came back to bite you hardest in the aft.

"I want scans of you and your teammates' designs," Luscious said, his smile even more predatory than those of his drone guards as Swindle stared at him. "All five of you. Word is, you boys can perform some pretty slick tricks. I have some friends who would like to replicate that for the galactic market. Deal?"

Swindle hesitated. Selling the secrets of gestalt technology had occurred to him more than once since they'd arrived on Monacus. He'd even gone so far as to suggest the idea to Onslaught -- carefully since his brothers were still a bit touchy about the whole 'you sold us!' thing. It wasn't like it was a military secret, not since the Autobots had Superion and that glitch-ridden, runt-pulse Defensor.

"I gotta check with my C.O.," Swindle said, trying to buy time and fighting the urge to say 'no' and keep the potential profits for himself.

Luscious smirked, optics shifting from purple to bright blue with a soft click. "Go right ahead, little one," he said. "I'm sure your brother has all the time in the world to wait."

Swindle grunted, turning to one side as he radioed Onslaught. The authorization took seconds. "Deal," he said, turning back toward Luscious. "You can scan me first, as a deposit an' you'll get the rest when we get Vortex back."

"I knew you'd see it my way," Luscious purred. "Come in the back an' smile for the camera, sweetie. Then I have some people for you to meet."

X X X

Shambleau felt his prey begin to slump as the vessel's essence began to play out. With a mewl of hunger, he stroked and lashed the vessel's form, trying to force more essence from it.

Tendrils pushed over the cool metal form, discovering the strange hatches on the vessel's head and shoulders. Pushing them open, it found large, crude connectors, heavier circuitry and, more importantly, the slow, throbbing of a new, untouched consciousness. Joyously, Shambleau began to feed anew.

X X X

"Swindle, meet the infamous Northwest Smith and his partner, Yarol the Venusian," Luscious said, gesturing at the two organics seated at table in one of Transorgasmic's private lounges. Swindle dropped to one knee to get a better look at them.

Northwest was a human male, a rarity for this part of the galaxy. He was well into the prime of adulthood, at least as far as Swindle understood such things. He dressed in the sort of battered leathers favored by those species who didn't have built-in armor. He leaned back in his chair, looking appraisingly back at Swindle with optics -- no, eyes -- that were a pale grey that was almost colorless. He kept one hand resting lazily on a heat-pistol strapped to his waist. Swindle was sure it wasn't the human's only weapon.

His companion, Yarol, was smaller - about the size of an adolescent human. He had the sort of rarefied beauty Swindle had seen in some human religious paintings of the fat little infant humans called cherubs. Unlike his dour friend, Yarol was all wide, innocent eyes and friendly, open smiles.

Guess I know who's really dangerous here, huh? Swindle thought. "Luscious says you guys know where my brother is," he said, looking at both of them but focusing his attention on Yarol. "Tell me."

"No, no," Yarol said, shaking his head sadly before smiling apologetically at Swindle. "We don't know where he is, but we know what might have him."

"If we knew where he was, it'd be dead by now," Northwest said, curtly. "The Shambleau has your 'brother,' robot."

Swindle looked over at Northwest, fingers itching to grab the human and squeeze him into goo. There would be time for that later, if necessary. Right now, getting Vortex back took precedence. He turned back to Yarol. "What's a Shambleau?" he asked. "And what's it want with Vortex?"

"No one knows for sure what Shambleau is," Yarol said. "Or, rather, what they are since there's more than one of them. They're a race that's older than time, some say. They feed on men -- well, beings of any gender, really -- stealing their life energy."

"What it wanted with a damned robot, I'll never know," Northwest said. "But the damn fool deserves what he gets for not letting us kill it. Damn near killed me trying to protect it!" He shook his head. "What use was it to him? Or him to it? Yarol, if it can feed from unliving machines now, what's next? We should be out checking the spaceport, not bothering with this creature."

Swindle's optics dimmed, almost to the point of shutdown, before he spoke. "Keep your monkey on a leash," he said to Yarol. "I'm as alive as he is -- moreso if he doesn't shut up."

"Excuse my friend," Yarol said, smoothly. "He's encountered the Shambleau before. It was very traumatic for him."

"Yeah, whatever," Swindle said, flatly. "How do I find my brother? Where's this thing like to drag its victims?"

"Shambleau seduces," Yarol said, glancing at Northwest, his expression worried. "It preys on the desires of its victims, using them to work the prey up into a high emotional state. It must make the meal sweeter and makes the prey receptive and easier to control once they begin to feed."

Beside Yarol, Northwest had begun to nod his agreement, sweat forming on his forehead. The human reached into a pocket and pulled out a flask, taking a quick drink. Swindle's nasal receptors detected the sharp stinging smell of distilled alcohol. Northwest's colorless eyes stared vacantly into space. "And it holds you as it feeds," he said, his voice hollow and haunted. "It shows you things; terrible, disgusting, obscene things. And it shows you pleasure no man should ever feel. It kills you and if it doesn't, it makes you crave the death you missed -- even after you escape."

Yarol reached over, putting a protective hand on Northwest's shoulder. "Your teammate went with the Shambleau. It was clear he didn't know what he was getting himself into," he said, roughly. "If you find him and he's still alive, make sure you kill the Shambleau. If he's dead, kill it anyway and burn the body. It's the only way to be sure with those things."

Swindle grunted, looking up at the ceiling. "No slag," he said. "But I have to find him first!"

X X X

Bruticus dreamed. Broken apart, there was little else he could do. His body wandered around of its own accord with fragments of his larger mind keeping sleepy watch over them until he was called again to serve. The tiny minds of the ones who dwelled in five-space were little more than a hum to him; white noise that helped to lull him in his dreaming.

But now Left Arm was prodding him. Not as he sometimes did, for maintenance or for pleasure -- that could be ignored. This prodding was rude, insistent and was rousing Bruticus for no good cause.

Angered, Bruticus lashed out at Left Arm, sending a pulse to remind him of his place. Yet Left Arm ignored the warning, continuing to prod and dig at him. Bruticus sent a stronger pulse, sometimes Left Arm's ideas about pain could be strange. Again, the rudeness continued.

Right Arm called to Bruticus, worried about Left Arm. Irritated, Bruticus snapped at him as well, galled by his body's sudden insolence.

X X X

Blast Off rocked backwards, grabbing his head in pain. "Onslaught, I've found him!" he yelled, too excited to bother with his usual affectation of detachment. "His gestalt component just sent a distress call! He's hurt, badly, but he's alive!"

"Coordinates?" Onslaught barked as Brawl whooped and punched at the air in delight.

"Triangulating now," Blast Off said. "I have him -- he's on the far side of Casino Row. Swindle's closest to him, but we're less than ten klicks away by ground. If we go by air, I can get us there in less than a breem."

"No," Onslaught said. "We can't risk you burning that much fuel. As it is, we're going to have a hard enough time explaining to Megatron why we've been delayed. Send Swindle the coordinates, tell him we're on our way and he's to do whatever it takes to secure the area until we can arrive. We leave as soon as you have your medi-kit ready, Blast Off."

X X X

Swindle's optics brightened as Blast Off's radio call came in. "We found him," he said, grinning wildly. "Hot damn, we found him!"

"How?" Luscious asked.

Swindle giggled. "A close, personal friend of ours gave us the word," he said. "I'm outta here."

"Hey, hey, we have a deal, sugar," Luscious said. "Don't think you can get out of it!"

"Yeah, sure whatever!" Swindle yelled, running from the club. "I gotta go!"

X X X

The abandoned casino was too quiet when Swindle arrived. Transforming from jeep mode, he moved as quietly as he could toward the entrance and glanced in, scanning for life signs. Spotting nothing in the main room, he stepped in, turning his thermal imaging sensors up to full sensitivity as he began to sweep the area.

The main room turned up nothing, so he began to check side rooms. He kept his audials turned up, listening for any noise that might give away Vortex's position as he searched.

He was near the casino's restaurant when he heard the moan. It was a soft sound, cracked and broken, but unmistakably the sound of Vortex in pain. He moved toward it, turning his headlights on to full brightness in hopes of blinding Vortex's attacker.

At first, he thought the room was empty since all he could see was debris: broken tables, rotting chunks of wood and hunks of rusting metal and what looked like a discarded pile of rubber hosing.

Then the hosing moved and he heard the moan again.

"Slag me," he said, moving closer. He stared at the Shambleau, his optics flickering in disgust as he watched the ropy quasi-organic tendrils writhe and roll over Vortex's form.

"Let him go," he said, aiming his gyro-gun as a mech's face appeared, rising to the surface of the boiling mass.

"Come join us," the mech said, his voice oozing seduction. Swindle blinked, startled to find one foot moving forward before he caught himself.

"Not interested," he said, shaking his head. "Gimme Vortex. He's mine." He yelled to Vortex. "'Tex! This thing's killing you! Fight it!"

There was no reply from Vortex. The face in the tentacles wavered uncertainly and altered its appearance. When it spoke again, it was with the voice of a femme. "Please?" she begged. "Come join us. I have pleasure enough for both of you."

Swindle sighed, impatiently. "Not interested," he said. "'TEX! Fight it already! C'mon!"

The tentacles wrapped possessively around Vortex, twisting around him in confusion as if torn between the two different minds. "You feel like this one but you do not feel desire? All beings feel desire. What is it you? Ahh, yes!"

Tentatively, hints of gold and jewels began to appear within the mass. The part of Swindle attracted to shiny things began calculating the items' worth, only to be slapped down seconds later by the more pragmatic bits that knew no bank would pay interest on illusions.

"Okay, that's just insulting," Swindle said, taking aim at the Shambleau. "I don't love money, I just tell it that so it comes home with me. Let. Him. Go."

With an enraged shriek, Shambleau launched himself toward Swindle, reaching out with tentacles to take what he would not give. At first, Swindle felt nothing except a deep revulsion at being stroked and fondled as the tentacles searched for any available entrance to his inner workings. When a tendril wormed its way into one of his wheel wells, brushing against a transformation joint he grunted, startled by the sudden feeling of possessiveness, a deep burning need not so much to have Shambleau as to be had by it. He shook it off with an effort, forcibly reminding himself he was here for Vortex, not some writhing alien glitch.

The movement caused the main mass of tendrils to shift away from Vortex, partially freeing him. Swindle fired his gyro-gun, hearing Shambleau scream as he lost control of himself. He fired again, kicking out at Vortex to try and push him free before switching to his scatter-blaster and firing two quick bursts at what remained of Shambleau's mechanical body. Technorganic ooze flew as Shambleau's tendrils and torso shredded. Swindle fired the scatter-blaster again, shuddering as a rogue tendril again slithered under his armor, trying to seduce to the very end. Snarling, he kept firing, blasting away with his scatter-blaster, reducing Shambleau into smaller and smaller pieces until his firing mechanism clicked uselessly.

He moved over to where Vortex lay slumped brokenly on his side, pulling out an emergency energon flask and popping Vortex's fuel tank open. "No way, 'Tex," he said, voice fracturing as he dropped to his knees next to his brother. "C'mon, wake up. You gotta wake up." He whimpered, hand shaking and slopping energon over Vortex's torso as he tried to pour it into his fuel tank. "C'mon, you die here an' there's no way Ons isn't going to believe it's not my fault."

X X X

Vortex stirred, feeling energy pour back into him. "Go 'way!" he said, swatting limply at Swindle.

"Shut up an' refuel, afthead," Swindle said, opening a second emergency refuel flask and pouring it into Vortex's fuel tank. Vortex had no choice but to let him, feeling warmth spread through his body. He lay still, groaning as feeling slowly returned to him, followed closely on its heels by memory.

"Primus!" he said, sitting up, or at least trying to. Weakness held him down, making him angry at feeling helpless. Swindle reached over, pulling him up and taking a long swig from the energon flask himself. He snickered at Vortex, optics shining with relief.

"Oh, Texy, Texy, Texy!" he said, giggling. "You owe me! I am never gonna let you forget this one! The next time you want to give me slag for selling you, I am gonna remind you of this an' --"

"What the slag are you talking about?" Vortex croaked. "Where's Shambleau?"

"Around," Swindle said, still giggling. "All around. Shambleau go splat!"

"You killed him?" Vortex demanded. "Are you crazy?! What the slag did you do that for?"

Swindle stopped laughing. "'Cause he was killing you, stupid!" he yelled back. "If I hadn't gotten here when I did, you'd be dead!"

"I would not!" Vortex snorted exhaust fumes, wincing at the effort it took to move even that small amount.

"Would so!" Swindle said. "You ran off with a tricursed energy vampire! What d'you think it was doing? Cuddling!?"

"I can't believe you killed him!" Vortex said, sighing exasperatedly. "We were really hitting it off! Just because you can't feel desire for anything you can't spend doesn't mean the rest of us don't, Swindle!"

"I can to!" Swindle yelped. "Maybe I'm just not led around by my pleasure centers like you are!"

Vortex groaned, leaning forward to put his head in his hands. "You're a real null-signal, you know that, Swindle?"

"That thing was sucking you down like Brawl with a barrel of high-grade!" Swindle stood up, pacing back and forth in front of Vortex. "It even tried to get me, too! Do you have any idea how disgusting that felt?" He paused, looking guiltily around. "I mean…it kinda felt good too, but…"

"I know," Vortex said, voice hollow. The effects of the energon he'd been fed were beginning to wear off, leaving him feeling weak and tired again. " I know it better than you do, Swindle. It was awful -- so horrible there aren't words to describe it. I was part of it, for a while. I could feel it all; the hunger, the memories, the emotions. 'Course, I can't remember it all now, not clearly, but sweet Primus it was all so disgusting!"

Vortex shuddered and sighed, longingly. "And it felt so damned good! It was like it was tapping into this … this nexus of evil down deep inside me. One that I didn't even know I had! And it was trying to take control of it, to let it loose. Part of me got to see that -- got to see such horrible, terrible, wild things and such unbelievable places. Primus, I wish I could remember it!"

He turned, glaring at Swindle. "But, because somebody had to go and play Protectobot, I can't! Thanks, Stumpy! Thanks a slag load!"

Swindle stared at Vortex for a long moment, the only sound that of Onslaught and the others approaching in the distance. With surprising quickness, Swindle cracked Vortex a resounding thump up against the side of the head.

"Ow! What was that for?" Vortex yelled.

"Look, do me a favor 'Tex," Swindle said, pulling Vortex in so that they were face to face. "Next time you see one of those Shambleau things? Promise me you'll spread your arms wide an' yell, 'Feeding Time!' Okay?"

Vortex stared at Swindle for a moment, weighing the memories that were already starting to melt away like a prisoner's armor under a blowtorch. He felt himself begin to shake as his systems rebelled against staying online in his weakened state. His optics met Swindle's and he nodded.

"I'll -- I'll try, Swindle," he said, hoarsely as Onslaught and Blast Off barreled into the room, shouting orders and nearly drowning out his words. He nodded, gripping Swindle's shoulder tightly, a mix of sincerity and one-upmanship. "I'll try."