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"Is everyone in?" Fullstop asked the young minibot in charge of taking the evening roll call of the band of neutrals. They were mechs who had refused to serve under Megatron or Optimus Prime, wanting only to live in peace, making the best of their war-torn homeland.

The little tracked minibot nodded. "Only got Falter out on sentry duty now."

The old mech frowned at the mention of Falter's name. He had never been fond of the mech – he was half-convinced that the abrasive and swaggering Falter was a deserter from one of the two armies fighting for control of Cybertron. He was arrogant and loud, carrying that photon rifle like a trophy rather than the disgusting killing object it was. But many of the youngsters, the minibot in front of him included, thought that his bragging and attitude were the signs of a great warrior who would protect them from the killers outside.


Fullstop knew better. Violence only beget violence, and Falter was a violent mech by nature, even if he now hid among Fullstop's pacifistic clan. The old neutral would have put up with Falter's attitude, except that he hadn't managed to break Falter's habit of telling stories to the younger set, glorifying the fighting he claimed to have seen. Falter didn't care to listen to his remonstrations or to reason, undoubtedly considering Fullstop and the other elders to be nothing more than washed-up old mechs with no grip on reality.

He would have demanded Falter find himself a new shelter long ago if it hadn't been that the other elders over-ruling him, saying that having a large armed and war-trained mech around for security purposes wasn't such a bad idea.

And so Falter stayed, much to Fullstop's displeasure.

Fullstop left the minibot and strode toward the door, intending to dragging the arrogant mech inside by his mudflaps if need be. It was after sunset, and Falter should have been inside already. It was dangerous outside after sundown; the Decepticon sweeper teams roamed in the darkness, when they could use their infrared to the best advantage. During the day, the sun-heated metal in the city obscured heat signatures, but at night, when the metal cooled, it became nearly impossible to hide the heat produced by a living mech's systems. So the neutral band shut them selves inside a shielded building at nightfall, where the thick walls and single heavy door blocked the sensors of any roaming soldier, Autobot or Decepticon.

For the most part, the Autobots left them alone, but it was hard to predict the Decepticons. Violent creatures, ruled by whim and cruelty, he thought grimly. I'm surprised Falter didn't find them more to his taste than us.

Discipline certainly wasn't on Falter's rather short list of virtues. What does that fool think he is doing, if he's spotted, he could end up leading them right back-

The door opened as he reached it, and he took a step back, repairing to lambaste the errant Falter for breaching protocol.

The first thing he saw was Falter's brilliant red-and-yellow paint job. It took a tick before he realized that Falter's feet were off the ground, and he was hanging from the grip of a much larger mech, a macabre corpse-gray monster with a glowing red visor. Falter's prized photon rifle dropped from slack hands, landing in a rapidly growing puddle of energon and vital fluids.

In the end, neither his fighting skills or much-flaunted firepower had helped.

No one in the shelter moved, all optics focused on the scene in the doorway.

Fullstop didn't have to look for faction brand to identify what had found them. "Decepticon."

The Decepticon's visor flashed merrily, and he stepped inside, still holding Falter in one hand. Fullstop couldn't help but notice how tiny the mech - who had loomed over him - was dangling from his attacker's grip. His bright paint was rapidly fading to the same dead gray as the Decepticon.

The Decepticon tossed the body off to the side, bringing up one fluid-splattered hand in a shushing motion. "Shh," he told the corpse, seemingly unaware of the horrified optics of the room's occupants. "Don't wanna wake anyone, do we?" Then he laughed, a high-pitched, grating noise that made his captive audience jerk back, breaking them out of their stupefied horror.

A pair of young mechs near the doors lunged for him, or for the door, Fullstop couldn't tell which. The Decepticon barely looked at them, arm-mounted lasers making a snapping sound, and both mechs fell back again screaming and clutching at gaping holes melted through their plating.

"Who are you?" Fullstop demanded as others pulled the two back to the relative safety of the huddled crowd.. They had no way to fight back, leaving the only option to cooperate, give the mech want he wanted and wait for him to leave. But he'd be slagged if he'd fawn. "What do you want from us?"

The Decepticon cocked his head, his face obscured by visor and battlemask, and wickedly sharp rotors mounted on his back. He giggled, the sound grating at Fullstop and making his fuelpump stutter. "Spunky. I like that." His rotors fanned casually, utterly careless of the corpse at his feet and the vital fluids coating his hands and splattered across his battlemask. "Call me Vortex. As for what I want..." He made a considering noise. "I'm sure you'll figure it out very soon."

"Take the supplies, take whatever you want," Fullstop said, the barest hint of the desperation he felt creeping into his voice. This mech wasn't like the Decepticons he was used to dealing with. something in his demeanor, in the glint of his optics behind his visor, told Fullstop that he wasn't here to steal their fuel or get his kicks out of treating civilians like personal slaves. "Please, just take it and leave us in peace-"

The Decepticon ignored him, looking around the shelter. "Only one exit? Tsk, tsk. That's not very good planning. What're you goin' to do when some psycho shows up at your front door if you can't run away?"

One of the mechs huddled behind Fullstop made a whining sound, terrorized as he caught on to the same thing that was becoming clear to his leader.

"We're no threat to Megatron," Fullstop tried one last time. "We're not allied with the Autobots, we're neutral- "

Vortex laughed again. "Sorry, Megatron doesn't recognize your right to abstain from pickin' sides," Vortex paused, then said almost as an afterthought. "Or to exist, really."

"Please," Fullstop whispered.

"Oh, keep begging," Vortex said, his voice dropping to a harsh, grating purr. "I love it when you beg."

Vortex reached behind him and pushed the massive door shut.


It was hours later when Swindle found him, pinging his locater beacon and tracing it to the makeshift washrack the neutrals had rigged on the outside of the shelter. Vortex's visor flashed by way of greeting, but he said nothing, sponging the fluids from his armor.

"What the frag have you been up to?" Swindle demanded. "You've missed two comm checks, and Onslaught is throwing a fit."

Vortex didn't answer, merely motioning to the half-open door beside him with the sponge.

Swindle scowled at him, stepping over to the doorway and looking in.

He froze in place, fighting the urge to recoil in horror. He could feel Vortex's gaze on his back, focused in predatory anticipation, watching for any sign of weakness. He had to reboot his vocalize before he could trust his voice not to break. "Huh." Carefully schooling his expression to a mask of bored disgust, he eased back and looked at Vortex. "Waste of parts when you do that. See if you can salvage anything useful, eh? Black market's always got buyers for small car-type parts." With that, he turned on his heel and walked away from the grisly scene and his psychopathic teammate. "I'll tell Ons that you were out scoutin' for supplies."

Vortex just laughed.