Jiminy Monster. Sadist. Sicko. Torturer. Psycho Copter. Excessively violent, unpolished degenerate. Tex. The helicopter formally known as Vortex had been called all these things, and he reveled in the descriptions. They showed how much others, enemies and allies alike, feared him. (Well, not Tex. That was a stupid nickname that Swindle had given him eons ago, and it had, unfortounately, stuck.) As the perhaps the Decepticon army’s most skilled interrogator, it was only right that others feared him. And besides, those who’d given him those names were probably right. He loved his job for a reason, and it sure wasn’t because he cared about the other Decepticons. They could all be annihilated by a supernova for all he cared. As long as he got to inflict pain on robots like the pathetic pilot of this ship, he was in ecstasy. There was nothing he loved more than a helpless victim, and few were more helpless than those who had just come out of stasis lock, as this neutral had had the misfortune to do when Vortex and the other Combaticons had uncovered his crashed ship. “P-please, I g-gave you what you wanted! Stop! For the love of Cybertron, stop!” the ship’s pilot pleaded. Vortex cackled. He loved hearing his subjects beg. “But I haven’t finished talking to you yet,” he sneered. Then he gave the pilot a more intense jolt of electricity, and the pilot screamed in agony. Vortex laughed exultantly. He lived to inflict pain, and he needed the suffering of others more than he needed energon. Times like this… they were pure bliss. Much to his annoyance, Swindle popped up after only a few seconds and looked at the whole scene in disgust. “Knock it off, will you? I can’t count my inventory with the poor sucker screaming like that,” he said. Vortex scoffed. “Make me, Stumpy.” The pilot started thrashing, and his screams got louder as Onslaught came into the room. “Vortex, drop the neutral now. He gave us what we wanted without resistance, so there is no need to torture him,” he ordered. Vortex scowled under his mask, but he reluctantly dropped his subject. His oldest brother didn’t take kindly to disobedience. “And the rest of us have no desire to bear witness to such a barbaric display,” Blast Off added, his arms full of expensive polish and fancy doodads that he had no doubt swiped from the ship’s hold. He was followed into the room by Brawl, who was stuffing his face with energon goodies. Apparently, his teammates had decided to loot the ship while he had been otherwise engaged, and since Swindle had participated, that meant all the good stuff was in his possession. With this in mind, Vortex started grabbing at the things Swindle was pulling out of his subspace compartment. “Hands off! If you want loot, get your own!” Swindle exclaimed after a few seconds. “I am getting my own, Stumpy-I’m just getting it from you,” Vortex replied. “Over my cold, offlined chassis,” Swindle replied. “That can be easily arranged.” “If you so much as lay a finger on him, I will lock you in the brig for so long you’ll forget what the sky looks like,” Onslaught snapped. Vortex frowned. Spoilsport. It wasn’t like Swindle didn’t deserve to be killed after he’d sold them all, and only the fact that Onslaught was already mad at him stopped him from inflicting violent harm on his precious baby brother. However, even the combined displeasure of Swindle and Onslaught wasn’t enough to stop Vortex from grabbing the next thing Swindle pulled out of his subspace compartment. This one was a shiny gold doohickey that looked old enough to be from the legendary Golden Age, and Vortex wanted it because he knew Stumpy wanted it, too. Unfortunately, Swindle kept his grip on it and started pulling. “Let go of it! It’s mine! I’m gonna make a fortune off of this thing!” “You let go of it! I want it, so it’s MINE!” “You aren’t even gonna use it! You just want it because you don’t want me to have it!” He yanked hard on the device, but Vortex yanked back even harder. He wasn’t going to lose a tug-of-war to the smallest and weakest member of his team. For the next minute or two, they pulled back and forth on it, but, after an intense struggle, Vortex managed to get it out of Swindle’s grasp with one final yank-only for a strange blue light to shoot out of it and hit him in the chest. For a few seconds, nothing changed, but then Vortex felt a sensation he’d never felt before, a strange, crushing mixture of horror, sadness, and anger directed at himself. After a brief moment of confusion, clarity arrived in the form of an observation: those who had called him a sadist were right, but suddenly, that was no longer a good thing. In fact, everything about him, all the things that he had taken pride in less than a minute ago, now horrified him, made him want to purge his fuel tanks. By Cybertron’s metal moons, what sort of monster (that was a terrible thing to be, now) was he? And what had the doohickey done to him to get him to realize this? Before he could ponder this, he caught sight of the pilot he had been torturing, and the feelings intensified tenfold. The pilot was whimpering and injured and scared, and Vortex was responsible. Worse, if it wasn’t for the doohickey, he knew that he would be enjoying the sight. Just like every other time...all those other times. Matrix below, what had he done? What had he done? Horrified, he absently sat down and stared at his hands. “Cybertron to Vortex. Cybertron to Vortex. Come in, Vortex. What’s going on?” Swindle asked. The sound of his baby brother’s voice made Vortex wince. “S-stumpy...Swindle ...I ...I'm so sorry.” Swindle’s mouth fell open, Blast Off dropped the doodads he’d been carrying, Brawl choked on one of his goodies, and Onslaught just stared. Vortex felt just as shocked as they looked. He’d never apologized for anything...but somehow, now it felt right, and more than that, it felt necessary. “Are you functioning properly, Vortex?” Onslaught asked. “Yes. No. I don’t know. I’ve never felt this feeling before,” Vortex replied helplessly. “What feeling?” Onslaught demanded, sounding both concerned and impatient. “I feel...I don’t know, like a monster. The things I’ve done ...all of a sudden they make me want to purge my fuel tanks. I just wish I could take them all back or something,” Vortex explained. Onslaught’s optics brightened in apparent recognition. “Guilt. You’re feeling guilty,” he said. “Yeah,” Vortex agreed. He’d never felt guilty for anything before, but now that Onslaught had said it-that was definitely it. That was what he was feeling, and it hurt. It was at this point that the ship’s pilot regained consciousness. “W-what are you going to do with me?” he asked. He sounded terrified, and Vortex cringed. The poor pilot was half dead, and for what? So that he could play his sick little games? He had to make up for it...but how? It wasn’t like the poor guy could be expected to take help from the monster who had just been torturing him. “Nothing. I… I know you won’t believe me, and I don’t blame you, but I’m s-sorry. That doohickey of yours made me see myself the way I guess you probably do, and now…. I wouldn’t blame you if you killed me,” Vortex blurted out. Did everyone have this feeling? How did the others live with it? The pilot gasped. “You activated the Conscienta Ictus? Then there’s no need for me to kill you. If today served as an example of your normal behavior before it was activated, your newborn conscience will probably kill you by itself,” he said. “Then this feeling...it won’t go away?” Vortex asked. Although he was horrified at the thought of being stuck with this crushing sense of guilt forever, part of him knew that he deserved it and then some. “No. The Conscienta Ictus is a piece of experimental technology from the Golden Age. It was intended as a way to reform the worst repeat offenders of Cybertronian society, but its use was quickly discontinued after it drove the first test subject irrevocably insane,” the pilot replied. “What has it done to him?” Onslaught asked. “In essence, it has altered his CPU so that he processes guilt the way that a normal, law-abiding citizen does. He’s being forced to see his actions the way that his victims do, and as far as I know, the process is irreversible,” the pilot replied. “Are you telling me that Vortex is going to go insane?” Onslaught demanded. “Funny. I thought he was already insane,” Swindle said, and he and Brawl snickered. “I can’t be sure. It’s only been used once before, so there’s no way of knowing if your sadist will react to it in the same way that the test subject did. But I’d say there’s a good chance that he will. I know I wouldn’t want to be sane if I had as many things to feel guilty for as he probably does,” the pilot replied. Vortex whimpered. The poor pilot didn’t know the half of it. How many deaths was he responsible for? He couldn’t even remember! “Couldn’t we just blast him with the thing again?” Brawl asked. “NO!” Vortex yelled. Much to his surprise, he found that he really didn’t want the effects of the doohickey to be undone. As terrible as the guilt felt, the idea of becoming a sadistic monster again made him feel far worse. “Vortex is right. Blasting him with this Conscienta Ictus again might well double its effects rather than undoing them,” Onslaught said. “Besides, if Vortex having a conscience means he stops pulling idiotic stunts, him getting blasted with it might actually be a good thing,” Swindle added. “Okay, okay. I was just makin’ a suggestion,” Brawl muttered. “It would seem that we have decided. In that case, we have what we came for. Combaticons, pull out!” Onslaught ordered. Blast Off, Brawl, and Swindle transformed to vehicle mode and prepared to disembark. Vortex, for his part, looked at the poor pilot again and made a decision. “Um, Onslaught, I gotta do something first. I’ll catch up with you, sir,” Vortex replied. Onslaught sighed, sounding exasperated. “Very well. But if you aren’t back at base by 1700 hours, I will put you in the brig,” he said. “Understood, sir.” That barely gave him more than an hour, but it would be better than nothing for the pilot. With that, the other four Combaticons headed out, and Vortex knelt by the pilot. “If you’re looking for forgiveness, I’m sorry. I can’t give it yet,” the pilot said nervously. “I don’t blame you, but that’s not it. I can’t just leave you like this, not when it’s my fault that you’re such a mess in the first place,” Vortex replied. “Forgive me if I’m less than confident in your ability to repair me,” the pilot said. “I’ve done it before! You can’t interrogate a dead robot, after all, so most interrogators know how to do some level of repair work. Besides, you’re really badly injured. I get why you don’t trust me, but I have to be better than dying of fuel loss.” With that, the pilot actually relaxed slightly, Vortex set to work, and, forty minutes later, the pilot wasn’t in danger of leaking out and could stand up on his own. That would have to do. “I’ve gotta go now,” he told the pilot. With that, he transformed into his helicopter mode and flew back to Decepticon HQ, arriving in his quarters with only a few minutes to spare. “You’re on time,” Onslaught said, clearly surprised. “Yeah. I am, sir,” Vortex replied, knowing full well that punctuality was anything but typical for a mech like him. Like he had been. Whichever. “What was it that you were doing?” Onslaught asked. “Repairing the ship’s pilot, sir,” Vortex replied. “Why?” Onslaught sounded stunned. “Because I’d hurt him, sir. It wouldn’t’ve been right to just leave him there,” Vortex replied, fully aware of how weird that sounded coming from him but not sure how else to articulate it. “So, the neutral was right. The Conscienta Ictus really did give you a conscience. If I wasn’t seeing the results for myself, I would have said such a thing was impossible.” “Me, too, sir,” Vortex agreed, trying to ignore the overwhelming guilt he was feeling and terribly aware of how foreign it was to him. “Well, perhaps it is for the best. Not having to fight you over simple orders will no doubt make my life easier, at the very least,” Onslaught said. “Onslaught, sir?” “What?” “I...I’m sorry, sir. For...for making your life difficult.” “Duly noted. You are dismissed.” Vortex saluted and retreated to his room, his mind still consumed with guilt. What was he supposed to do now? How could he even begin to make up for...well, basically everything he’d ever done? Vortex shuddered as a few particularly vivid examples emerged from his memory banks and, not long after, he began to do something that he’d never done, even as a sparkling: he started to sob. All those innocent lives! And for nothing! He hadn’t even done it out of some twisted loyalty to a cause! He’d done it solely for his own sick pleasure. Why had he been allowed to live? Why hadn’t someone put him down like the mad turbohound he was before he’d hurt and killed all those innocents? “Uh, Vortex? Are you okay?” Brawl asked. Vortex looked up in surprise. When had Brawl come into his room? “Brawl, I’m sorry for all those times I called you a moron or a halfwit or said that you didn’t have the processing power of a steel beam or tricked you into eating a rock,” he blurted out, in the hopes that it might do something to help with the guilt. It didn’t. “Wait, you were lying when you said that sandstone was good for us?” “Um, yeah, and I’m really sorry. It was a lousy thing to do, and I won’t do it again, but feel free to punch me if you wanna. I deserve it.” “YOU LIED TO ME? I’M GONNA KILL YOU!” Brawl yelled. Vortex felt a very heavy fist plant into his battle mask, and the force knocked him to the ground. He smiled under his mask. Good. Brawl would put him down before he could hurt anybody else, and he wouldn’t have to live with the guilt anymore-but wait. Brawl was violent, to be sure, but unlike Swindle, he was loyal to his team. When he came out of his fit of rage, he would be devastated to discover that he’d killed his brother, even if Vortex deserved it. Vortex couldn’t condemn Brawl to that sort of guilt, not now that he knew what it felt like. “Onslaught! Blast Off! Swindle! Help!” he yelled as Brawl continued to throttle him. He stayed conscious just long enough to see Onslaught and Blast Off pulling Brawl off of him. When he awoke, he found his four teammates staring at him in shock. “What were you thinking, Vortex? Why didn’t you fight back when Brawl attacked you?” Onslaught demanded. “Because I deserved what he did to me, sir. I wouldn’t even have screamed for help if I hadn’t remembered that Brawl would be devastated if he killed me.” “Since when do you care about Brawl’s feelings?” Swindle asked. “Since that doohickey gave me a conscience, I guess.” “Yes, that would indeed be a logical assumption, Vortex. However, your increased concern for the rest of us is not what concerns me. In fact, that is rather beneficial. What concerns me is the fact that you seem to have developed suicidal tendencies. Our unit cannot properly function if one of us would be happy if he’s deactivated by the enemy,” Onslaught said. “But you don’t understand, sir! I’m a danger to everyone around me! If this wears off, I could put lots of innocents in danger! And besides, I’ve committed so many crimes that I deserve to die even if I never kill again. Someone needs to put me down!” “Vortex, you are a member of a combiner team. If you die, it could negatively affect all of us. I am not going to allow you to kill yourself, or get yourself killed, just so you can assauge your conscience, especially not with Blast Off, Brawl, and Swindle’s lives potentially on the line as well,” Onslaught replied sternly. “But how else can I make up for what I did? I can’t bring anyone back to life, sir,” Vortex asked. “You can’t make up for what you did, so I would suggest that you put it behind you. We are a military unit, and we cannot afford distractions of any kind. Are we clear?” “Yes, sir,” Vortex replied. With that, the rest of his team left the room, and Vortex was left with his guilt. A few days later, Swindle came into his room and invited him to his latest “business meeting.” “C’mon, it’ll be good for you. You can’t mope in here for the rest of your life.” Vortex personally felt that he didn’t deserve something that would be good for him, but he didn’t want to make his brother unhappy, either, so he agreed. “If it’ll make you happy, sure. I’ll go,” he said. “Great! Let’s go meet up with Blitzwing!” Vortex followed Swindle into a fully-stocked storage room that he was pretty sure Onslaught didn’t know about, and, sure enough, Blitzwing showed up about five minutes later. “Why, if it isn’t my favorite Triple Changer! How are you, Blitzwing? What can I do for you?” Swindle asked in his oiliest voice. “I want some official football memorabilia, and I figure you’re my best best to get some,” Blitzwing replied. “You’ve come to the right place, my friend, and I’ll be happy to help you….for a small fee, of course,” Swindle said. He flashed his most sincere smile, the one that made mechs believe anything he said, and suddenly Vortex started to feel uncomfortable. Swindle retrieved something from one of the shelves-something Vortex recognized. “Here you are, Blitzwing-a football signed by Jim Brown himself,” Swindle said. Vortex’s discomfort increased exponentially. Swindle was lying. He’d seen Swindle buy, and then doctor, the football, and at the time, he had found it hilarious. It wasn’t so funny now. “How much do you want for it?” “Well, normally this would go for seven or eight hundred credits, but since I like you, I’ll knock the price down to 600. It’s a steal,” Swindle replied. “Deal!” Blitzwing sounded thrilled, and Vortex felt a strong pang of guilt. It didn’t seem right to take advantage of someone like this, and following his conscience this time wouldn’t endanger his team. He had to tell Blitzwing that he was being cheated, or his guilt would eat him alive. “Blitzwing, he’s cheating you!” he blurted out. Blitzwing scowled. “What do you mean?” Swindle laughed nervously. “Don’t listen to Vortex, my friend. He’s an ace interrogator, but he doesn’t know the first thing about an enterprise like mine,” he said quickly. “But you’re lying to him! I saw you buy, autograph, and then doctor that ball yourself! It’s not authentic, and you were acting like it was,” Vortex replied. “Why, you sneaky, two-faced retrorat! Nobody cheats Blitzwing!” Swindle squeaked and started backing away from the massive triple-changer. “Eh heh heh, it was nothing personal, Blitzwing. In fact, to make it up to you, you can take anything you’d like out of my inventory, free of charge,” he said, clearly nervous. This seemed to pacify Blitzwing, as he stopped advancing on the Jeep. “Fine. But the next time you try something like this, I’m taking it out on your hide!” With that, Blitzwing grabbed a particularly large rifle off of one of the shelves, prompting a sad little whine from Swindle, and stomped out of the room. As soon as he was gone, Swindle scowled angrily at Vortex. “What was that all about? I’m trying to be nice to you, and in return, you ruin my scam!” “I couldn’t just let you cheat him! It would’ve been wrong!” Swindle let out a bitter laugh. “Wrong? What’s the matter with you? Not wanting to be a sicko doesn’t mean you have to become an Autobot. There’s nothing wrong with a little distortion of the truth for some honest gain,” he said. “Yes, there is! You were lying to him, and the conscience that doohickey gave me says that’s wrong,” Vortex replied. “Well, you weren’t lying to him, so there was nothing for you to feel guilty about. Why couldn’t you have just kept your big mouth shut?” “Because it would still have been lying! I knew that you weren’t telling him the truth about that ball, and if I’d kept quiet, I would have been just as guilty...and I already have enough on this new conscience!” Vortex replied. What he was saying sounded as foreign to him as it probably did to Swindle, but it still felt right. “And because you wanted to keep your stupid conscience clean, I lost 1,200 credits. Thanks a million, Tex,” Swindle said bitterly. Vortex winced. He hadn’t wanted to hurt Swindle, but letting Swindle cheat Blitzwing would have hurt Blitzwing. What was he supposed to do? “I….I’m sorry, Swindle. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.” “No. You’ve done enough. And since this is the thanks I get for trying to help you, you can deal with your problems on your own. Now get out!” Vortex complied, but broke down and started crying as soon as he made it into the hallway. Why did it seem like following his conscience made his teammates angrier at him than being a sadist had? “Are you cryin’?” The voice came from well below optic level, and Vortex followed it to see Rumble (or was it Frenzy?) staring at him. “W-what are you doing here?” “You are cryin’. Ha! Dis is great! The big, bad interrogator, cryin’ like a little sparkling! Just wait ‘til the rest of the base gets a load of dis!” Rumble-or-Frenzy exclaimed. A few seconds later, his twin scampered into view as well. Vortex winced. This was bad. This was bad. This was really bad. Now that these two knew that something had happened to him, it wouldn’t be long before the whole base knew-and worse, before Soundwave knew. “Hey, wait up, you microchip mor….is that what I think it is?” Frenzy-or-Rumble asked. “Yeah, it is. Ain’t it great?” “Vortex cryin’? Of course it’s great, bro, but we gotta move before….” At this point, Ramjet stormed into the room as well. He looked absolutely furious. “I’m gonna kill you little pipsqueaks!” “That happens. It’s been real nice knowin’ ya, bro,” Frenzy-or-Rumble said. Both he and his twin looked absolutely terrified, and Vortex felt a strong urge to protect them. After all, they were much smaller than either him or Ramjet, and if Ramjet attacked them, they could get seriously injured. He had to stop the Seeker before that happened….even if he wasn’t entirely sure why. If they were injured, they couldn’t spread the fact that he had been crying around, but for some reason, the conscience that the doohickey had given him was insisting that he protect the little robots anyway. To this end, he stood up and stepped in between Ramjet and the tiny twin terrors. “Leave them alone!” Ramjet looked at him in confusion. “Why do you care what happens to those irritating little creeps?” “Because I don’t want to see them get hurt! If you want to pick on someone, at least pick on someone your own size,” Vortex replied nervously. Ramjet guffawed. “And here I thought you were this terrifying interrogator! Who knew that your reputation was so exaggerated? You’re softer than some of the Autobots! Get out of my way, you wimp!” Vortex felt another pang of guilt. Oh, how he wished that his reputation really had been exaggerated. “No! I...I can’t let you hurt them! If you wanna hurt someone, you can hurt me. Just...just don’t hurt anyone else. Please!” “I’ll hurt you all right, but only after I...Commander Soundwave!” Sure enough, the mysterious Communications Officer had entered the room, and Vortex snapped to attention. Soundwave ignored both of them and walked over to Rumble-and-Frenzy (or was it Frenzy-and-Rumble?). “Oh, hey, boss. Good ta see ya,” Rumble-or-Frenzy said. “Physical condition: requested,” Soundwave replied as he scooped them both up. “We’re fine, boss….no thanks to that Conehead pinhead, though,” Frenzy-or-Rumble said. “Yeah! He said he was gonna play kick-the-can with us!” In response, Soundwave walked back to Ramjet and Vortex. “Threatening cassettes: inadvisable. Ramjet: on punishment detail for the foreseeable future,” Soundwave said. Ramjet scowled, but even he wasn’t dumb enough to backtalk Soundwave. “Yes, sir,” he said gloomily. With that, he left the room. Then Soundwave turned to Vortex, who whimpered. Even before the incident with the Conscienta Ictus, he had had a healthy amount of respect/fear for the Communications Officer, and right now he was downright terrified of the mech. Soundwave was already angry, and since his conscience had thus far only made everyone angry at him, he was sure that what he had done would probably make Soundwave even angrier. “Aid to cassettes: appreciated.” Vortex stared at him in shock. “You...aren’t upset that I protected them? Isn’t that against Decepticon regulations or something?” “Cassettes: extremely valuable to Decepticon cause. Protecting them: perfectly acceptable,” Soundwave replied. “Well, that’s good to hear. And for what it’s worth, I’m glad the little guys are okay. I couldn’t have lived with myself if they’d gotten hurt.” “Change of personality: unexpected but appreciated. Weakness: will be concealed from other Decepticons.” Vortex wondered if he was hallucinating. Had Soundwave really just said that he was going to help him? After all that he’d done and how much of a liability he’d become? “But why?” “Consider it my thanks for protecting Rumble and Frenzy. If you had not intervened, it is possible that I would have been too late to prevent their being grievously injured or killed. I would be devastated if I ever lost them.” Soundwave replied. Vortex had never heard Soundwave speak so eloquently or emotionally, and he was becoming increasingly confused by this turn of events. Before he could ask any more questions, Soundwave left the room, leaving Vortex with his confusion and ever-present guilt. To avoid anyone else seeing his mental/emotional breakdown and using it against him or his team, he headed back to his quarters. The next few days passed relatively uneventfully, but on the tenth day of Vortex’s new conscience, Megatron called the Combaticons into the field. As they were preparing for battle, Onslaught pulled Vortex aside. “Your conscience will NOT get in the way of this fight. Do you understand?” “I’ll try, sir.” “That’s not good enough! If you let it distract you, it could mean death for us all. You have to ignore it until the battle is over.” “For once, Onslaught’s advice is sound. The battlefield is no place for guilt,” Blast Off interjected. “I’ll keep it under control, sir,” Vortex said. He had no idea how he was going to do that, but if he got his teammates killed, he’d have that on his conscience on top of everything else. He had to stay focused! The team moved out and were quickly engaged by the Aerialbots, an Autobot combiner team that was only a few months old. Their youth allowed Onslaught to dictate the flow of the battle, and he quickly directed the fight into a nearby human town, knowing that the Autobots wouldn’t be able to fight at full strength there. It was a standard Decepticon tactic-but, for some reason, it was making Vortex feel very uncomfortable. He shoved the feeling down long enough to shoot down one of the smaller Aerialbots who had been threatening Blast Off, but then it happened: a very young human escaped its creator and ran straight into the battle that was raging in the street-just as someone’s shot went wild. On an impulse he’d never had before, Vortex dove in front of the small human and took the blast. The battle froze, and the small human’s creator ran to her child, scooped him up, and carried him back off the road as the pain circuits in Vortex’s shoulder let him know exactly where he’d been hit. “Ma’am, are you two all right?” one of the Aerialbots asked. The female human nodded, then turned to Vortex. “You saved my little boy’s life. Thank….you’re a Decepticon!” The Aerialbot frowned and shot Vortex a quizzical look. “The young woman is correct, Vortex. You are a Decepticon, and, from what I’ve read, you’re nasty even by their standards. So why did you just risk your own functioning to save a human child?” “I would like to hear your explanation for that as well, Vortex. What you just did violates Decepticon military protocol in every conceivable way. To risk your own functioning, and that of your team, for the sake of avoiding minor collateral damage is treasonous,” Onslaught said. The ice in his voice could have frozen a desert. “Minor collateral damage? That blast would have killed my little boy if your soldier hadn’t gotten in the way!” the human female exclaimed angrily. Silverbolt, the Aerialbot leader, quickly stepped between her and Onslaught. “Ma’am, I fully agree with your sentiment, but provoking Onslaught is probably unwise. I don’t want to see you or your child hurt, especially not after you had such a close call earlier,” he said. Vortex pulled himself to his feet and glanced at his commander, the Aerialbots, and then the humans helplessly. He couldn’t explain why he’d saved the child, because he was just as confused by it as they were. “I….I don’t know why I did it. I just….I couldn’t let him die. I’ve already got so much oil on my hands. I don’t want to add even more.” “When’d you grow a conscience, ‘Con?” a third Aerialbot, the short one with the orange head, asked. “When I accidentally blasted myself with a Golden Age doohickey called the Conscienta Ictus,” Vortex replied. “Ha. Ha. Real funny. So what actually happened?” This question also came from the orange-headed Aerialbot. “That is what actually happened! We were raiding a Cybertronian ship that crashed on this planet a while back, Swindle found the doohickey, I tried to take it from him, I accidentally shot myself with it in the process, it gave me a conscience, and here we are,” Vortex explained. “Well, if your current behavior is any indicator, the Conscienta Ictus didn’t just give you a conscience. It also made you a liability. I told you to ignore your conscience’s prompting on the battlefield, and you horribly failed to do so,” Onslaught said angrily. “But I’ve never had one before! I don’t know how to ignore it,” Vortex replied. The female human and the Aerialbots stared at him in shock. “He’s kidding, right?” the woman asked. “Well, I’ll put it this way, lady. He became an interrogator while he was still a minor, and within what you humans call a month, he had a better record than most interrogators who’d been in the business for ages. Make up your own mind as to whether he ever had a conscience before now,” Swindle replied. Vortex whimpered. Swindle was right. He’d been a monster for his whole life. Why did Onslaught expect him to continue acting like he was still that monster now? Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if he followed his new conscience as much as possible? “Regardless of his conscience, he disobeyed military protocol and his superior officer. That cannot be overlooked,” Onslaught barked. “I know, sir. You can punish me however you see fit. It’s not like I don’t deserve any punishment you might give me,” Vortex replied. “Why would you deserve to be punished for saving my little boy?” the female human asked angrily. “That’s not why I deserve punishment. I deserve punishment for everything else I’ve ever done. I’m a Decepticon interrogator, and that means that I’m a murderer and a torturer.” “But that’s not why he’s punishing you. He’s punishing you because he doesn’t think my son deserved saving!” “Ma’am, please stop arguing with Decepticons,” Silverbolt pleaded. The female human ignored him. “If he wants to punish you for being a horrible monster, he can, but I am not going to let him punish you for saving my son!” she told Vortex. “And how exactly do you intend to stop me, flesh creature?” Onslaught asked. Before she could respond, Silverbolt quickly picked her up and moved her away from Vortex and Onslaught. “Combaticons, fall back! It seems that I need to put our unit back into order,” Onslaught commanded. In response, Vortex and the rest of his team transformed into their vehicle modes and quickly left the human settlement behind them. As soon as they were well out of range of the Aerialbots’ gunfire, Onslaught reverted to robot mode and ordered his team to do the same. “If you were not a vital component of Bruticus, I would have you court-martialed for this, Vortex! You cannot allow your conscience to overwhelm you in battle.” “But sir, we deliberately lead the battle into that town! Any deaths that happened there would have been on our heads!” “Vortex, guilt is unavoidable in war. Now that you have a conscience, you must learn to live with it,” Onslaught said firmly. “I am living with it! I can’t get away from it! But that doesn’t mean I want to add to it; to keep hurting and maiming and killing! I can’t keep fighting if it means I’m gonna be responsible for the deaths of more innocents! Please, sir, I can’t, or I’ll go crazy!” “You have no choice, you insubordinate glitch! Do you think Megatron will take your refusal to fight lightly? Your idiotic fancy could get us all put in front of a firing squad!” Vortex winced, knowing that Onslaught was right. The Combaticons had tried to overthrow Megatron not once, but three times, and if they did anything to anger Megatron again, it was more than likely that he might decide that Bruticus wasn’t worth the trouble and have them all killed. He desperately didn’t want to be the reason that his teammates were executed, but at the same time, he knew that he wouldn’t be able to bear taking another life. What was he supposed to do? “I...I….” he stammered. Onslaught sighed in apparent disgust. “I don’t want to hear your excuses! I didn’t let your sadism jeopardize our unit in the past, and I am not going to let your conscience jeopardize it now. You will do what you’re told, when you’re told, exactly how you’re told, or so help me I will lock you in a storage closet for a week! Do you understand?” Vortex whimpered. He was intensely claustrophobic, and Onslaught knew it. “Y-yes, sir,” he said quietly. “Combaticons, return to headquarters!” Onslaught barked, and Vortex returned to Decepticons Headquarters alongside his team, feeling more confused and guilty than ever. A few days later, Vortex was helping Blast Off reorganize his extensive polish collection when Onslaught commed him. “Vortex, the Seekers have captured an Autobot prisoner. Lord Megatron wants you to interrogate him for information,” he said. Vortex winced. He’d been dreading this. Decepticon interrgations were torture, plain and simple, and since his conscience disapproved of letting Swindle cheat Blitzwing, he was pretty sure it would be utterly opposed to torture-and frankly, the very idea of interrogating someone the way he usually did made him feel ill. But if he didn’t do his job, his teammates might be punished for it, and he didn’t want that to happen either. This was going to be a disaster, he just knew it. “Uh, Blast Off, I’m going to have to go. We’ve got a prisoner Megatron wants me to question. I’ll come back and help you finish once I’m done, though,” he said. Blast Off looked mildly put out, but nodded. “As much as I would appreciate further help, I understand that none of us can afford to disobey orders from Lord Megatron. Furthermore, I am pleased to see that your conscience is no longer interfering with your duties. You are free to go,” Blast Off replied. “Thanks, Blast Off,” Vortex said, knowing that Blast Off was totally wrong to assume that his conscience wasn’t going to interfere with his interrogation. With that, he left Blast Off’s room and headed for his interrogation chamber. Upon arrival, he looked over the tools of his trade and felt an overwhelming sense of disgust….one which prompted him to purge his tanks. As soon as he had finished retching, he groaned. There was no way he was going to be able to do his job in the way that Megatron wanted him to if this was how he reacted to just looking at the tools! About a minute after he finished purging, Dirge and Thrust brought in the prisoner and restrained him to the wall, and then Thrust sneered and moved to give the prisoner a kick. “Don’t!” he exclaimed. Dirge, Thrust, and the prisoner, whom Vortex recognized with a sinking spark as none other than the Autobot medic First Aid, all looked at him in shock. Vortex scrambled to come up with an explanation for his outburst that wouldn’t get him into trouble, but none came to mind. Then Thrust scowled. “One kick isn’t gonna break your plaything,” he said. Vortex decided to play along with this interpretation of events, as it would get the Coneheads out of the room more quickly. “Perhaps not. But it could disrupt my usual pattern of interrogation. Do you know what happened to the last mech who disrupted my pattern?” he asked, hoping fervently that he sounded convincingly like his old self. He had enough problems right now without having to field questions from Dirge and Thrust about his odd behavior. Much to Vortex’s relief, his strategy seemed to work, as, after exchanging an alarmed glance, both Thrust and Dirge fled the room. However, his relief was short-lived and was quickly replaced by guilt over the actions he had taken that had allowed that ploy to work in the first place-guilt that, unsurprisingly, increased when he looked back at First Aid and saw that the medic was trembling. He knew exactly what he would have done to the little Autobot before he’d been blasted by the Conscienta Ictus, and the very thought of it prompted a dry heave (as he’d emptied his fuel tanks during his earlier purge). That decided it. He couldn’t hurt the little medic. “I w-won’t tell you anything, n-n-no matter what you do to me. I’m a m-m-medic, pacifist or not, and I won’t let you h-h-hurt my patients,” First Aid said, sounding absolutely terrified. Vortex’s guilt increased exponentially. How could he have ever wanted to hurt someone as kind and gentle as this little medic? “I….I….I’m so sorry,” he stammered. “What?” First Aid asked. “I’ve tortured and maimed and killed so many innocents; so many of your allies. I’m a monster and a sadist and a murderer….and I’m so sorry for everything I’ve done and everything I am. I’d give everything to go back and undo it all!” First Aid stared at him as though he had lost his mind. “What happened to you?” he asked. “I got blasted by a Golden Age doohickey called the Conscienta Ictus while the other Combaticons and I were looting a crashed ship, and it gave me a conscience…a conscience that’s driving me insane! Not only do I have to deal with all this guilt, but I’m also afraid that it’s gonna wear off and I’ll put everyone in danger again, and I’m so, so sorry!” “A-are you still going to interrogate me?” First Aid asked. “No. Even if I wanted to, which I don’t, I couldn’t. Just thinking about hurting someone makes me feel ill,” Vortex replied. “Then w-w-what are you going to do?” “I’m going to let you go,” he said, shocking himself as much as First Aid. Releasing prisoners was a major violation of Decepticon protocol, but doing it felt right. “Won’t that get you in trouble?” First Aid asked. Vortex winced. He hadn’t thought of that. If Megatron found out that he had let a prisoner escape, his teammates would be punished severely, and he didn’t want that to happen! Then he had another idea. “Not if we play this right,” Vortex said as he released the little medic from his restraints. “What do you mean?” First Aid asked, still sounding nervous. Vortex couldn’t blame him for that. For all the medic knew, this was some sort of especially sadistic game. “We’re going to make it look like you escaped on your own. You’ll scream like I’m torturing you for a bit, and then I’ll leave. Wait an hour or so, and then take two lefts and a right. There’s a waste disposal there that you’re small enough to fit through, and it’ll get you out of the base. That way, Megatron will think I did my job, so my team will be safe, and you’ll be free,” Vortex said. First Aid nodded, pulled a cube of energon out of subspace, and then grabbed a laser scalpel off of the shelf where Vortex kept the tools of his trade, much to the helicopter’s confusion. Then the medic turned off his pain sensors, cut a jagged hole in his right arm, repeated the pattern with his left leg, and then smeared the energon all over himself. “If I’m an escaping torture victim, I’d better look the part,” he said. Apparently, in addition to being a pacifist, the little medic had quite a bit of spunk. “Good idea,” Vortex replied, hoping fervently that none of Soundwave’s spies were watching this exchange. Then he nodded to the medic, turned on his internalized recording device, and prepared to put on a show. “Don’t want to talk? All right. In that case, I’ll introduce you to one of my little friends,” he said menacingly. First Aid let out an oil-curdling screech, perfectly on cue. “I...I’ll never talk!” Vortex laughed, hoping he sounded appropriately creepy. “Ooh, I love it when mechs say that!” he exclaimed. First Aid let out another scream, this one even louder. After about twenty minutes, Vortex switched off the recording device. “Okay, that should be enough for a convincing first round of interrogations. I’ll leave, send the recording to Soundwave, and tell him that I should be able to get you to crack during the second session. Then I’ll go to my quarters, and you stay here for an hour. After that point, leave the room and get out of the base as fast as you can, because I’m gonna have to come back here and then make a fuss about you escaping,” Vortex said. “Got it,” First Aid replied. “Good luck.” “Thanks. And, just for the record, I forgive you,” First Aid said. Vortex stared at him in shock for a few seconds, and then left the room so that he could compose his message to Soundwave. He could wonder about the medic’s reaction later. A little over an hour afterwards, he returned to the interrogation chamber and was relieved to find that the little medic was gone. Since he hadn’t heard any mention of First Aid attempting to escape and being recaptured, that meant that the medic had managed to escape. Good. All right, time for another performance. “The prisoner’s escaped!” he yelled loudly. He scattered his tools around the chamber, to make it look like he’d upended the room searching for the Autobot, and then damaged the restraints so that it would appear that First Aid had broken free of them rather than being released. A few minutes later, Megatron, Soundwave, Onslaught, Thrust, and Dirge arrived in the chamber. Megatron did not look happy, and Vortex sighed. Hopefully, he could come up with a convincing explanation for how the medic might have escaped. “What do you mean, he escaped?” Megatron demanded. “Don’t look at me! He was gone when I got here,” Vortex replied. Soundwave walked over to the restraints and scanned them, and Vortex whimpered internally. If anyone was going to figure out what had really happened, it was going to be Soundwave. This was not good. “Restraints: damaged. Reason: the method by which the prisoner was restrained by guards,” Soundwave replied. Dirge and Thrust exchanged nervous glances. “But...but we restrained him just how we always do,” Thrust protested. “Materials: weakened due to age. Usual methods: sufficient to damage weakened materials and allow the prisoner to break restraints. Guards: not at fault, but were the indirect cause of prisoner’s escape,” Soundwave replied. “We are very fortunate that this happened when we didn’t need to get particularly vital information out of a prisoner, Soundwave. How do we prevent this from happening again?” Megatron asked. “Suggestion: have Constructicons replace restraints with more durable materials,” Soundwave replied. Megatron nodded. “Very well, then. Order them down here. The rest of you are dismissed,” Megatron said. Then he, Onslaught, Thrust, and Dirge left the interrogation chambers. Vortex started to leave as well, but before he could, he was grabbed by Soundwave. “Vortex: enabled prisoner to escape,” the Communications Officer said. “Y-you knew?” Vortex exclaimed. “Soundwave: a telepath. Lying to Soundwave: impossible,” Soundwave replied. “Then why didn’t you tell Megatron?” Vortex asked, completely stunned. Why hadn’t Soundwave reported his treachery? He was utterly loyal to Megatron….wasn’t he? “Vortex: saved Rumble and Frenzy. Soundwave: pays debts. Furthermore, Autobot medic: unlikely to provide valuable information,” Soundwave replied. “I…I...thank you,” Vortex stammered. “Debts: have now been paid. If treachery occurs again, it will be reported,” Soundwave replied. Vortex nodded and quickly left the chamber...only to be immediately punched to the ground by Onslaught. “Onslaught...I…” Vortex stammered, completely shocked by Onslaught’s reaction. Onslaught never assaulted his subordinates; he thought it was unprofessional. So why had he started now? Then, with a sinking spark, Vortex realized that his leader had probably heard the conversation between him and Soundwave, and that he wasn’t happy about it. “I know what you did, turncoat. You chose to betray the Decepticons-to betray us- in order to appease your conscience,” Onslaught said. The cold hatred in his voice was utterly unnerving, and Vortex whimpered. “Onslaught, sir, I...I...I just couldn’t bear the idea of hurting him. He was innocent, and….and I’m so sorry! I don’t want to hurt you or Swindle or Blast Off or Brawl, but I can’t do this. I can’t be an interrogator anymore; it’ll drive me crazy!” “I didn’t want to do this, Vortex, but you have forced my hand,” Onslaught said coldly. Then he ripped the Decepticon symbol off of Vortex’s chest. “You have proved to be a traitor, and, as such, you are no longer welcome in my unit. Since the only way to preserve my team is to tell Megatron that you are fraternizing with the enemy and get you expelled from the ranks, I am going to do just that. However, because you are my brother, I will at least grant you the mercy of allowing you to leave the base before you are executed. Since you seem to be so enamored with the Autobots, you may go to them...if they will have you after what you did to them.” “Y-you’re throwing me out?” Vortex asked in a small voice. It wasn’t like he didn’t deserve it after all the things that he’d done prior to being given a conscience, but still...where was he supposed to go? What was he supposed to do? He’d been a Decepticon for his entire adult life! “I am. Now go, before I am forced to execute you myself,” Onslaught replied, and Vortex, not knowing what else to do, obeyed, exiting Decepticon Headquarters via the docking tower and flying to land. Around the time that the coast of Oregon came into sight, Vortex’s shock receded and he was overwhelmed by fear, guilt, and confusion. He couldn’t bring back the dead, his attempts to help others had only made everyone angry at him, and Onslaught had thrown him out! What could he possibly do? The Decepticons had exiled him, the Autobots wouldn’t want him even as a prisoner (especially after what had happened the last time he had ended up in an Autobot cell), the humans were, rightfully, afraid of him, and he couldn’t achieve escape velocity under his own power, so he was stuck on this planet. Maybe it was time to do what part of him had wanted to do all along-to put himself down before he hurt anyone else. He probably deserved to live with this anxiety and fear and guilt for far longer than he had-what else would have been a suitable punishment?-but since that guilt seemed to be causing problems for others, too, there was only one way out that he could see. Even his team wouldn’t miss him, so it was time for him to be forced offline. Vortex opened up his spark chamber, pulled out one of his knives with shaking hands, and then stabbed himself in the chest as everything went dark. He was surprised to wake, and even more surprised to find that he was not in the Well of AllSparks, but instead in what appeared to be the Autobot base. “What? W-where am I? Why am I not offline?” he asked. “You’re in the Autobot medbay. And you’re not offline because of First Aid’s kindness. When your signal came up on our radar, and then started flickering out, he insisted that he be allowed to go save you. You owe him your life,” Ratchet, the Autobots’ Chief Medical Officer, replied. Vortex was shocked. Why had the little medic saved him? Didn’t he realize what Vortex was; how much he deserved to die? “Not that we expect a sicko like you to be grateful. First Aid’s too soft-sparked for his own good.” This voice came from the Prime’s bodyguard, a grizzled red mech named Ironhide. “I’m a medic first, an Autobot second. I don’t distinguish between the injured, Ironhide,” First Aid replied, walking into Vortex’s field of view. “As much as I hate to admit it in this case, First Aid is right. As medics, we’re duty-bound to save lives, regardless of faction,” Ratchet said. “C’mon, Ratchet! This is Vortex! He’s a monster by Decepticon standards, let alone ours! If there’s anyone who deserves to die, it’s him,” Ironhide exclaimed, and Vortex’s guilt, by now a reasonably familiar companion, came rushing back. The things he’d done….he should never have come online. “I don’t think he is anymore, Ironhide,” First Aid replied. The old Autobot gave a short, barking laugh. “And what possibly led you to draw that crazy conclusion? Mechs like Vortex never change, First Aid,” he asked. “Simple. First, his wounds were self-inflicted. The angle of the blade in his spark chamber was all wrong for an attempted assassination. What we saved him from was a suicide attempt. Second, he’s the reason I was able to escape Decepticon Headquarters. I was terrified when the guards told me that he was going to interrogate me, but when they brought me into the interrogation chamber, he just...broke down. He apologized over and over, and then he said that he couldn’t torture me because he’d been blasted by a Golden Age device called the Conscienta Ictus-” First Aid began. Then Ratchet interrupted him. “The Conscienta Ictus?” he exclaimed. “Yes. Do you know what it is?” First Aid asked. “I wish I didn’t, but I do. When I was a young mech, not even out of medical school, some crackpot scientists invented what they thought was a cure for all of society’s ills. They trumpeted it as a way to make the worst repeat offenders contributing members of society and, eventually, to eliminate crime, poverty, and injustice altogether, and the idea was so tantalizing that the scientists got the go-ahead to test it out on someone. The mech they chose was a serial killer named Megadeath….no, seriously. That was the only name he ever gave. The Conscienta Ictus worked, in that it appeared to artificially induce a conscience in Megadeath, but it also drove him insane within a few weeks, and not long after, he was found dead in his cell. No one was ever able to figure out if his death was accidental or if he’d killed himself out of guilt, but it was enough to get the use of the Conscienta Ictus banned permanently. I doubt Vortex would have known about that story, so that means he was probably telling you the truth...and in that case, though he undoubtedly deserves the guilt, it might have been kinder to let him die than to force him to continue to suffer under its weight. Those fool scientists invented a worse punishment than any torture device,” Ratchet replied. Vortex whimpered, knowing just how right Ratchet was. His conscience was just as painful as any torture device, and, unlike an interrogator who might torture him, it never had to take a break. There was no escape from it. “I’m so sorry,” he said, not sure to whom he was apologizing. “I’m sorry, too. Sorry we got saddled with you,” Ironhide replied. “Ironhide! What a thing to say!” First Aid exclaimed. “I’m afraid Ironhide has a point, First Aid. Figuring out what to do with Vortex is going to be incredibly difficult. Treating him like a normal prisoner of war wouldn’t be fair at this point, because his CPU will have been altered to the point where he’s almost a different individual than he was before he was transformed by the device, but he’s committed so many heinous crimes that no one will accept him walking around freely, either. Furthermore, there are some Autobots on this ship who will try to use his current condition, once word gets out, to take personal revenge on him for what he’s done, which we’ll have to prevent. And if he really is suicidal, then he’s likely emotionally distraught and mentally unstable. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re qualified to treat that,” Ratchet replied. “We have to try!” First Aid exclaimed. Ironhide scowled. “You gotta be kidding me! If this creep wants to off himself, why don’t we let him do it? It’d be doing everyone a favor!” “You’re not going to be able to talk him out of this, Ironhide. First Aid isn’t the sort to allow someone to suffer,” Ratchet said, prompting Ironhide to shake his head. “Fine. Vortex is now your responsibility, First Aid. Obviously, high command will have some say regarding his fate, but beyond that? He’s yours. I hope you know what you’re getting into,” he said. With that, he left the medbay, and Vortex turned his head towards the two medics. “Why didn’t you let me die? Ironhide is right; it would have been better for everyone.” “Because we’re medics. Both of us swore an oath to preserve life, and we can’t just break that oath because we don’t like the mech who’s injured. I certainly don’t like you, but letting you die is not something that I think is worth losing my medical license over,” Ratchet replied. First Aid shot a look at the older medic. “What Ratchet means to say is that you’re a fellow Cybertronian. Even if we weren’t medics, we couldn’t have just left you to suffer,” he said passionately. “Why are you being so nice to me?” Vortex asked weakly, and then everything went black again. He reawoke to see Ratchet and First Aid standing over him. “Oh. You’re awake. In that case, I might as well tell you what’s been decided about you. Once I explained how the Conscienta Ictus works and told them that the odds of its effects wearing off are virtually nil, High Command agreed that there wasn’t much point in keeping you in the brig. In your current condition, you won’t be causing trouble for anyone but yourself, so it makes more sense for us to put you to work. First Aid here has volunteered to baby-sit you, for reasons only known to him, so you’ll be staying with him for the time being,” Ratchet said. Vortex personally thought that that was a horrible idea on First Aid’s part. He knew that most of the Autobots probably hated him, and for good reason. If First Aid helped him in spite of that, the other Autobots might become angry with him, too, and Vortex didn’t want the little medic to become an outcast for his sake. But Vortex had no idea how to express this feeling without seeming ungrateful, so he said nothing about it. Instead, he slowly sat up and got off of the medical berth. When neither of the medics protested, Vortex figured that that meant that he was free to leave the medbay, so he turned to First Aid for directions. “Your motor functions seem to be working properly. Good,” the little medic said, and Vortex found himself puzzled all over again by the concern that the Autobot had for his enemy. “Yes, yes, he seems to be in perfect physical health. Now get him out of my medbay-the Dinobots have their monthly check-up today, and I don’t want anyone who’s healthy to be in here when that happens. The last thing I need is to have to fix him again,” Ratchet said. “Are you sure you don’t need my help with them?” First Aid asked. “Positive. The day I admit to Wheeljack that I need help with giving Grimlock a check-up is the day I retire. Go get this crazy helicopter settled in,” Ratchet replied. “If you’re sure. All right, Vortex, follow me,” First Aid said. Vortex, not particularly wanting to have a run-in with the Dinobots, obediently followed the little medic out into the hall, and then into what appeared to be a shared quarters not unlike the one he had shared with the other Combaticons up until recently. Upon their arrival, he and First Aid were greeted by the stunned faces of the other four Protectobots, and Vortex winced. Why had the little medic taken him to his team’s quarters? Didn’t he realize that they probably wouldn’t appreciate the idea of sharing quarters with an ex-sadist? As if to prove his point, Hot Spot, the Protectobots’ leader, looked at First Aid with alarm. “Don’t tell me High Command made Vortex your responsibility just because you saved him! You’re a medic! You had to save him!” he exclaimed angrily. “They didn’t make him my responsibility. I volunteered for the job,” First Aid replied. “You...you what?” Hot Spot asked, sounding totally nonplussed. Vortex could sympathize. He felt the same way. “I volunteered to take responsibility for Vortex’s well-being. About two weeks ago, he accidentally activated a device known as the Conscienta Ictus, which altered his CPU-irreversibly, apparently-and gave him a normally-functioning conscience. That conscience lead him to help me escape from Decepticon Headquarters, but it also swamped him with so much guilt that he attempted suicide. That’s how he obtained the injuries that put him in our medbay, and why I volunteered to help him. I can’t just leave him to suffer, no matter what he used to be,” First Aid replied. “And you’re certain that High Command didn’t guilt trip you into taking him off their hands?” Streetwise asked. “Yes, Streetwise. I may be a bleeding spark, but I’m not an idiot. I know when I’m being manipulated, and that wasn’t what happened in this case. I knew what I was getting into when I volunteered, and I’m fully prepared to deal with the difficulties that Vortex will probably bring me,” First Aid replied calmly. “You know, dudes, First Aid’s a pretty smart guy. If he says that he knows what he’s doing, I say we should step back and let him do it,” Groove said. “And let him get hurt? No way, Groove! I’m not letting that happen to one of my teammates!” Hot Spot exclaimed. “Hot Spot, m’ man, we can’t shelter First Aid forever. If he’s ready to grow up, we’d better let him. He’s one of the bravest mechs I know, sir. He can handle it,” Groove replied. “First Aid is a wonderful mech, Groove, but he’s also naive and hopelessly optimistic. He doesn’t realize that trying to help Vortex will probably only get him ostracized from our teammates; doesn’t see that many of them will resent what they see as him coddling a monster. We can’t let him face that sort of pain and rejection, especially not for someone like Vortex,” Streetwise said. “Hot Spot, Streetwise-I know you’re only trying to look out for me, and I appreciate that, but I’m afraid I can’t take your advice this time. No one else will help him, for reasons I completely understand, so I have to. I can’t bear the thought of anyone being in pain when I can help them, no matter how awful they used to be, so I’m going to help him. And if I’m ostracized for it, then I’m ostracized for it. I may be a pacifist, but I’m not a china doll. I can handle it,” First Aid replied. Groove smiled at the little medic proudly, and Hot Spot and Streetwise exchanged a glance. “Well.....if you’re sure, then I suppose I can’t really stop you. But if you ever feel like it’s becoming too much for you, tell me, okay? I know you’re a scrappy little bot, but I also want to make sure you stay safe and happy,” Hot Spot said. “I will, sir. Thank you for understanding,” First Aid replied. “I can’t say I like it, but I can’t-and won’t-make you ignore your beliefs, especially since High Command and Hot Spot are both supporting you. And if you ever need help, you know where to find me,” Streetwise said. “I’ll keep that in mind, Streetwise. Thanks,” First Aid replied. “And if I find out that you’ve so much as looked at him the wrong way, I’ll make you wish you’d never been created,” Streetwise said to Vortex, who winced. He already wished he’d never been created. If he hadn’t, all his victims would have been spared, and he wouldn’t have endangered his teammates or inconvenienced the kind little medic and his team. “I won’t hurt him, and I’m so sorry for everything I’ve done that makes you worry that I will. Believe me, I know what I was...what I am. I’ve been staring it in the face for two weeks now, and the guilt it’s brought me still isn’t punishment enough. I know I deserve all the hatred and suspicion I’m getting and then some, and I know I can’t make it up to you, but I do want you to know that I….that I apologize for...for existing, I guess,” Vortex stammered. “Noted,” Streetwise said, sounding slightly surprised. A few seconds later, Blades, the Protectobot who had the most reason to hold a personal grudge against Vortex, got out of the chair he had been sitting in, walked up to him, and smiled in a way that Vortex was very familiar with. He’d given it to his victims enough times, after all. It was the smile of a predator that had just spotted a particularly vulnerable target, and only his conviction that he totally deserved everything the Autobot helicopter might do to him kept him from trying to run away or hide behind First Aid (as futile as that would be, given the height difference between him and the little medic). “So you managed to get my soft-sparked little brother to take pity on you. Good. That gives us plenty of time to spend together,” Blades said, his cold hatred clear in every word. Vortex was inundated by a mixture of fear and guilt, and his rotors slicked down his back in a universally-recognized display of hopelessness and fear. “Blades, stop that! You’re scaring him!” First Aid exclaimed. “Good! He deserves it! Let him learn how his victims feel!” Blades yelled angrily. “He...he’s r-right, First Aid. I do deserve it,” Vortex replied. “Living with the amount of guilt you have is punishment enough, and even if it isn’t, it’s against Autobot regulations for an individual soldier to take personal vengeance on an enemy,” First Aid said. Blades scowled. “Who cares about Autobot regulations? Vortex is a monster, and he deserves to suffer!” It felt odd to be on the same side as someone who hated him, but Vortex totally agreed with Blades. He had made so many innocents suffer, so it was only fair that he should suffer, too. His guilt wasn’t enough punishment, no matter what First Aid said. “Blades, stop tormenting your little brother,” Hot Spot ordered. Blades scowled, but he reluctantly backed down anyway, and then First Aid led Vortex to what Vortex assumed was the little medic’s personal quarters. “I hope you don’t mind sharing a room with me,” First Aid. Vortex stared at him in disbelief. “You hope I don’t mind sharing a room with you? You do remember that I’m the ex-psychopath here, right?” he replied. First Aid laughed gently. “I suppose that was a bit of a ridiculous question on my part. Force of habit, I suppose.” Vortex quickly scanned the room and was surprised to see that there were two recharging centers. “Why do you have two recharging centers?” “Oh, I moved a recharging chamber in here for you earlier today,” First Aid replied. Vortex shook his head in confusion. If he didn’t know better, he would’ve said that First Aid thought that he was a guest, rather than a….whatever he was. Prisoner of war, maybe? At any rate, First Aid was treating him far better than he deserved. On the other hand, he was thoroughly relieved that First Aid hadn’t been planning for them to share a recharging center. Not only would that have been awkward beyond belief, but it would have been incredibly uncomfortable on a physical level as well. Prior to joining the Decepticons, he had had to share a recharging center with Swindle for stellar cycles, and that had never been pleasant, not least because Swindle kicked in recharge. Hard. He had no desire to relieve any aspect of that experience. “I...thank you,” Vortex said. “You’re welcome. Is there anything else you need me to do for you?” the little medic asked. Vortex shook his head. “You’ve already done more than enough for me,” he replied. He didn’t want to cause even more trouble for the little medic. “Are you sure? I really wouldn’t mind,” First Aid asked. “I’m sure,” Vortex replied firmly. “In that case, I’ll leave you to get comfortable,” First Aid said. With that, he left the room, and Vortex gingerly sat down on one of the recharging chambers, trying to ignore how utterly unworthy he was of First Aid’s kindness. Frankly, he hadn’t even deserved the kindness Onslaught had shown him by not executing him, let alone the astonishing generosity that the Autobot medic had been displaying. What was wrong with the little medic? He had to know what sort of things Vortex had done….but he acted as though it didn’t matter. It just didn’t make sense! After a few minutes of confusion, Vortex heard a loud knock on the door, and, a few seconds later, Blades threw open the door and stormed into the room. Vortex almost felt relieved at the other helicopter’s arrival. At least what Blades was probably about to do to him would be something that he deserved; and therefore, something that made sense. However, his certainty that he was finally going to be treated in the way that he deserved couldn’t lessen his dread. This was going to hurt. “Go….go ahead. Whatever you have planned, I….I deserve it and then some,” he said. “You got that right, psychopath. Do you remember what you did to me when I was your prisoner? DO YOU?” Blades demanded. He sounded furious, but he also sounded like he might start sobbing at any second. A tidal wave of guilt washed over Vortex. He remembered all too well what he had done to the Protectobot when he had been brought in for interrogation, and that, more than anything, was why he couldn’t and wouldn’t do anything to prevent this...not even plead for mercy. To do that would be an insult to Blades (and all of his other victims), and he had already done too much, far too much, to every one of them. “Yes,” he replied quietly. “You tortured me for three days straight, until I was in so much pain that I….that I gave in; told you I would tell you anything you wanted to know if you just made the pain stop. I had been so sure that I would be able to take anything you ‘Cons threw at me, so sure that I was tough enough to die rather than betray my allies...but I wasn’t! I survived four months as their prisoner without speaking a word, and then they called you in and you...you broke me in three days! I….I told you everything I knew….and then you just kept going, ramping up the pain and cackling like I was some sort of toy that you could use however you liked! The only reason you didn’t kill me was because the unit you were with was called into combat unexpectedly, and right before you left, you did the worst thing of all. You left the recordings of what I told you with me and then said, ‘Now, on the off chance that anyone rescues you, they’ll know what I do: that you’re a cowardly traitor who sold out his teammates to save his own hide. I wonder what they’ll think of you after that.’ Do you know what that was like? You actually made me dread getting rescued, because I knew that when I did, everyone would know how easily I cracked and betrayed my team! Do you know what it was like to have to explain to Hot Spot that I was such a weakling that I sold out the Autobots to you? I’m lucky he didn’t have me expelled from the ranks for cowardice! You’re a monster, a psychopath, and I don’t care what anyone else says…..you deserve to die!” Vortex let out a frightened whimper, but he didn’t move. After all, the Autobot was right about him. Then Blades pulled out a device that was terribly familiar to Vortex-an electric prod-and jammed it into Vortex’s arm. Vortex muted his vocalizer just in time to avoid letting out a scream. He didn’t want to get his victim in trouble for giving him exactly what he deserved. The surge of electricity through his circuits was painful, and his fingers twitched uncoordinatedly, but Vortex knew from extensive experience, experience that he now fervently wished that he had never had, that the pain could get much worse. Over the next few minutes, Blades jammed the prod into Vortex’s body again and again, but, although it was painful, it wasn’t as bad as it should have been. Blades wasn’t applying the calculating coolness of a professional interrogator; he was a frightened, angry victim lashing out at the sadistic excuse for a mech that had tormented him, and that meant that he was striking whatever he saw, rather than choosing the most vulnerable areas in order to produce the most pain in his target. Blades would never make it as a Decepticon interrogator; unlike Vortex, he was, at spark, basically decent. He was seeking very justified revenge, not just pain. Then, by total accident, Blades stuck the prod hard into Vortex’s neck, shooting volts of electricity into his CPU and making his whole body convulse as smoke started pouring out of his chest. Blades pulled the prod out of Vortex’s neck, snapped it in half, and then collapsed to his knees and started sobbing. When Vortex stopped convulsing, he turned to the other copter in confusion, realized that something was very wrong, and unmuted his vocalizer. “Come here! Blades needs help!” he exclaimed. His cries brought Streetwise and Groove into the room, and they looked between Vortex and their teammate in total confusion. “What happened here?” Groove asked. “It didn’t make it better,” Blades said weakly. Streetwise knelt down next to the Autobot helicopter, pulled the broken halves of the electric prod from his hands, and looked at his teammate in confusion and alarm. “What didn’t make what better? Blades, what did you do?” he asked. “It wasn’t his fault; it was mine,” Vortex said quickly. “What wasn’t his fault? What happened, and why are you spewing smoke?” Streetwise asked. Vortex didn’t respond, wanting to let Blades explain the situation. “I hate him! Ever since he hurt me and broke me-proved that I was a coward-I’ve hated him! Now Vortex is weak; he can’t fight back, so I decided to take my chance to get my revenge, to hurt him the way that he hurt me….but it didn’t work! It didn’t make me feel any better...I still hate him, but I didn’t stop hating myself. I thought if I punished him, gave him what he deserves for torturing me, I’d finally feel whole again, but I don’t! I’m still a cowardly traitor no matter what I do to him,” Blades replied after a few tense seconds. Vortex felt another surge of guilt. How much misery had he caused this poor mech? “You still blame yourself for giving up that information?” Groove asked, sounding shocked. “Did you use this electric prod on Vortex?” Streetwise asked at the same time. “Yes, to both questions,” Blades replied despondently. “Blades, we never blamed you for what you did. You were young and inexperienced when you were captured, and you were their prisoner for months. Really, it’s amazing that you held out as long as you did,” Groove said gently. “That doesn’t matter! I still betrayed you, betrayed all the Autobots, to save myself! I’m nothing but a cowardly weakling!” At this point, Vortex surprised himself by interjecting himself into the conversation. “You aren’t cowardly or weak. I am...I was...one of the five most skilled interrogators in the entire Decepticon army. Out of the thousands of mechs and females I’ve interrogated, I can count on two hands the number who lasted more than two days with me, and you were one of them. When I told you you were a coward, I was just twisting the knife, because, like you said, I’m a monster. I was also lying to you, and….and, well, I know it doesn’t matter or change anything, but I’m so very sorry for what I did to you, and for making you hate yourself. You didn’t deserve it, and you don’t deserve it, and frankly I deserve a lot worse than what you did to me,” he said. “You...you guys don’t think I’m a coward?” Blades asked. “No,” Vortex replied quietly. “Of course not!” Groove exclaimed. “Blades, we never thought of you as a coward. As Vortex himself just pointed out, he was one of the worst interrogators in the entire Decepticon army. We wouldn’t have expected anyone to be able to avoid cracking under him, let alone a young recruit like you were at the time. What happened to you didn’t make us think any less of you. In fact, I’d say you’re one of the bravest mechs I know. However, my esteem for you does not change the fact that you violated Autobot protocol. To torture an unarmed prisoner of war, especially for personal revenge, is expressely forbidden by Article 7, Section 4 of the Autobot Code. The fact that the prisoner indeed did you a grave personal wrong mitigates the severity of the crime, but it does not erase it,” Streetwise said sternly. Vortex was puzzled. Surely Streetwise wasn’t suggesting that his teammate be punished for giving a psychopath what he deserved….was he? “But I deserved what he did to me! I don’t want to see him punished for it,” Vortex said. “This isn’t about whether or not you deserved what happened, Decepticon. This is about principle. If Blades is allowed to get off scot-free for torturing you, it would set a dangerous precedent. Would you want someone to be able to torture one of your brothers with impunity?” Streetwise asked. Vortex was horrified. Of course he didn’t want that! “No!” “Then you see what I mean. If we allow Blades to get away with harming you for personal reasons, there’s a risk that it could be seen as permission to hurt other prisoners, ones who might not deserve it as much as you do. I have no intention of giving Blades a harsh punishment, especially given the emotional turmoil he’s clearly in, but a message has to be sent. No one gets away with torture….not to anyone, not for any reason. I think you deserve everything he did to you, believe me, but I am not going to sacrifice my principles simply because I don’t like you,” Streetwise replied. “C’mon, Blades. Let’s go,” Groove said gently. With that, he and Streetwise lead the Autobot helicopter out of the room, and Vortex was left with his guilt. First Aid returned to the room a few seconds later, looking absolutely horrified. “I shouldn’t have left you alone! I’m so sorry!” he exclaimed. “Don’t worry. I deserved what I got...and even if I hadn’t, you weren’t responsible for what your teammate did,” Vortex replied. “Can I at least fix you up?” First Aid asked. “If it makes you feel better, sure,” Vortex replied. Then he watched bemusedly as the little medic started to repair the damages. The next two weeks passed by relatively peacefully. While most of the Autobots wanted nothing to do with Vortex, no one sought him out to do him harm, which was much more than he deserved, and because of First Aid’s utterly mystifying kindness, he always had someone to talk to...or rather, someone who had insisted on talking to him. This, combined with the fact that he was actually doing some good by helping the Autobots with repair work and the like, actually made for a remarkably pleasant existence. In fact, it was so pleasant that his thoughts of suicide had mostly departed. He didn’t deserve it in the slightest, but he wasn’t about to complain about it. However, on his fifteenth day in Autobot HQ, he felt a sudden surge of utter panic over his gestalt bond. Something was very wrong. When he opened the bond further, in an attempt to ascertain what the source of the panic was, he discovered, to his horror, that his teammates were scheduled for execution. Apparently, Megatron had decided that, without Bruticus, they had proven themselves to not be worth keeping online. In an utter panic, Vortex ran to the medbay, and was relieved to find that First Aid was there. “First Aid! You’ve gotta help me! My team’s gonna be executed; you have to help me save them!” he cried, in a blind panic. “What?” First Aid asked. “I can’t be a Decepticon anymore, not with this new conscience. That’s why Onslaught threw me out! But without me around, the others can’t form Bruticus, and so Megatron is gonna kill them if I don’t stop it!” Vortex exclaimed. “When is the execution happening?” First Aid asked. “I don’t know exactly, but I think sometime today, so we gotta hurry!” First Aid thought for a few seconds, and then transformed into his ambulance mode. “In that case, there’s only one way to save them. Follow me,” First Aid said. He started driving off, and then Vortex transformed into his helicopter mode and followed after him. Soon after, they arrived, not at the coastline as Vortex had expected, but instead at the spaceship where he had found the Conscienta Ictus in the first place. “What are we doing here?” he asked. “Getting the device we’ll need to save your team. We gave the pilot of the vessel a smaller ship in order to remove him from an active war zone, but the vessel itself is beyond salvaging, and we haven’t been able to collect and preserve most of the artifacts yet,” First Aid replied. With that, he disappeared inside the vessel, and Vortex pondered just what device the ship had that could save his team. Then he saw a flash of blue light…..and suddenly, the conscience which had weighed so heavily upon him vanished. For a few seconds, he felt a strong, very familiar urge to start taking the foolish little Autobot apart...but he found that he couldn’t act on it. The memory of what having a conscience had felt like was still too strong. Well, that was annoying. He bet that the tiny medic would have a beautiful scream. “Are...are you going to kill me?” First Aid asked. “No. I can’t. I don’t know why, but I….I can’t. In fact, I’d eviscerate anyone who tried.” Eww! What was wrong with him? The device wasn’t affecting him anymore, so why did he still feel….attached….to the little idiot? “You...what?” “I said I’d eviscerate anyone who tried to hurt you. You….you were nice to me, in spite of everything, and for some reason, I just can’t hurt you. I want to, but something’s stopping me; saying it’s...I dunno, wrong. Not like the conscience the Conscienta Ictus gave me did; this is something else, something I didn’t have before,” Vortex replied. First Aid’s optic visor lit up in apparent understanding. “I wouldn’t have believed it if I wasn’t seeing it, but I think your time with an artificially-induced conscience might have given you your first glimmer of a real one,” he said. “You mean...it’s real?” “If it wasn’t, it would’ve gone away when I reversed the effects of the device. Now go. Your team needs you,” First Aid replied. “I guess I’d miss tormenting Stumpy if I didn’t save them, so yeah, I’ll be going. But first, there’s something you need to know: the artificial conscience didn’t give me the weird desire not to hurt you.You did….and that makes you a more effective warrior than anyone I’ve ever met. Good-bye, kid, and if you ever need someone to be eviscerated, you know who to call,” Vortex said. He laughed at First Aid’s shocked expression. “I was kidding! Mostly.” The little medic looked relieved. “If you really want to do something for me, take care of that little glimmer. Good-bye, Vortex,” he said. “I don’t think I could get rid of it even if I tried. See you ‘round,” Vortex replied. With that, he transformed into helicopter mode and flew back to Decepticon Headquarters, then immediately reported to “Lord” Megatron. “What are you doing back here, traitor? Are you going to face execution with the rest of your team?” Megatron asked. Vortex laughed. “I don’t like them that much, sir. I’m here to tell you that I’m back and ready to return to my role as an interrogator and as part of Bruticus, so you don’t need to execute us. I got rid of the conscience the doohickey gave me, and frankly I need to get to work ASAP to rebuild my reputation,” he replied. Much to his surprise, he found that he was having to lie about his eagerness to become an interrogator again. While he didn’t dread it the way he had while he had been under the influence of the Conscienta Ictus, he also felt a sense of mild disease at the eagerness he felt to hurt and cause pain. Maybe he could adopt a less violent approach; one that got the same results but didn’t involve as much….screaming. However, Megatron didn’t need to know his feelings on the matter, so he didn’t tell him about them. “You and your team are lucky that Bruticus is so valuable to me,” Megatron growled. Then he spoke into his com link and said, “Vortex has returned and is back to normal. Executing the Combaticons is now unwise, so they are released.” Vortex smiled under the mask. Good. If anyone was going to kill Stumpy, it was going to be him, not Megatron. “Is there anything else you need to know?” Vortex asked. “As long as you record everything you learned about the Autobots’ activities and submit the information in a report to Soundwave, no. You are dismissed.” Vortex saluted and eagerly returned to his quarters. It had been way too long since he had been able to bother his team. Upon his arrival, he was greeted by the confused faces of the other four Combaticons. “Wha-” Onslaught began. “When I found out that you were going to be executed, I told the little Autobot medic, and then he blasted me with that doohickey again in the hopes that it would let me prevent the executions. Turns out, shooting someone twice with the doohickey reverses its effects, so I returned to base, told Megatron that I’m back to normal, and got us all reinstated in the ranks. Oh, and if any of you try to hurt that little medic, I will murder you,” Vortex explained. “Wait...so if we’d just shot you with the thing again like I suggested, none of this mess would’ve happened?” Brawl asked. “Yup,” Vortex replied. “See, Onslaught, sir? This is why you should listen to me more often! Just ‘cause I ain’t as bright as Swindle and Blast Off don’t mean I ain’t got some good ideas,” Brawl said proudly. “You are correct, Brawl. I erred in judgement, and should we ever be in such a situation again, I will not simply dismiss your suggestions out of hand,” Onslaught replied. “So, where’s my “thank you, Vortex” for saving all your butts?” Blast Off sniffed. “If you are truly back to normal, I am certain you did it only so that you could further torment us yourself,” he said. “Well, yeah, but a little appreciation would still be nice,” Vortex replied. “Regardless of your motives, Vortex, you did manage to save this team, and return yourself to normal, when I could not. That, I suppose, deserves some manner of appreciation, and so I, at least, thank you. Are you sure you are truly back to normal?” Onslaught asked. “More or less. I’ve got a little glimmer of the conscience left, thanks to that little medic, but I don’t think it’ll get in the way too much,” Vortex replied. “That is satisfactory. You are all dismissed.” The group dispersed, only for Swindle to come up to Vortex a few seconds later. “Just so you know, you still owe me 1,200 credits,” he said. “And just so you know, Stumpy, I don’t care,” Vortex replied. With that, he walked away, ignoring Swindle’s angry protests, and returned to his room to think things over. It was funny… he’d been miserable when he had a conscience, but now that it was gone, he kind of missed it. True, he couldn’t be hurt anymore, but he also couldn’t feel the warm feelings he had felt around the little medic or the strong loyalties he had felt for his brothers. In fact, he had felt more...alive whilst under its effects than he ever had. Maybe the little medic’s idea about taking care of the little glimmer of conscience wasn’t a bad idea. In fact, he just might make that little glimmer grow. THE END!