Lair of the Stealth Bunnies
Innocent Chapter One
“You _are_ joking, aren’t you?” Optimus Prime asked
The small group of Autobots glanced at each other and shuffled nervously. The metallic sound seemed to reverberate inside the main control room of the Headquarters twice as loudly as usual. At least twice. Maybe three times.
"I mean, you _have_ to be kidding, right?" Wheeljack demanded almost desperately. "After all that work—" he sputtered wordlessly for a few seconds. "You _have_ to be kiddingI"
"You mean t'say—" Wheeljack began to snarl, but Prime reached out to grip his shoulder. "Take it easy, Wheeljack. Let's hear the entire story."
Cliffjumper coughed. "I found her about half an hour ago, down by the supply rooms." He began to edge a bit farther away from Wheeljack. "Apparently she snuck in on that last supply shipment."
"Which came in a good hour _after_ I installed the new security system." Wheeljack threw the spanner he was holding across the room. Spike ducked behind Bumblebee as it clattered off the wall. "Blast it, Prime, I've worked for days nonstop on that new system, and a _human girl_ bypasses it the first day its in operation?"
"Is that a slur on humans or girls?" Spike asked Bumblebee in a voice that was meant to be overheard. Bumblebee quickly hid his grin.
"If a human can bypass it, _Megatron_ oughta be able t'walk right on in!" Wheeljack glared around the room, but no one would meet his gaze. "So how'd she do it?"
"We don't know yet," Brawn said.
"I'm more curious to know _why_ she did it," Perceptor said mildly. After the years he had been on Earth, human motivation still seemed to fascinate him.
This time Bumblebee couldn't hold back his laughter and joined in with Spike, who was laughing too hard to breathe, much less talk. "She was—" the Autobot tried to gasp out, "She was—"
Spike laughed even harder at his friend's efforts. Prime glared, and Bumblebee took a deep breath, held it for a brief second and managed to get out "She did it on a dare", before he went off in more gales of laughter at Wheeljack's expression.
"On a— on a dare?" Wheeljack spat out the word as if it tasted foul. "Someone find out how she did it, then get your diodes back to me and tell me so I can try and fix this thing so the Decepticons don't waltz in and murder us all in our recharging units!" He stopped to glare one more time at Bumblebee and Spike, who had smothered their laughs back to mere chuckles, but the glare sent them back into gales again.
Prime sighed wearily as Wheeljack stomped angrily out. "Does anyone know who she is?"
"Aw, she's just a kid. Prime," Ironhide drawled. "Not much younger than Spike, here."
"At least a year," Spike put in.
'That's not the point," Gears grumbled. "Yeah, she seems young, but like Wheeljack says, she bypassed a high-technology security system that she shouldn't have been able to do, _especially_ that young."
"Chip," Spike reminded. "He could."
"Chip's been working with us almost as long as you and your dad has. He's used to Transformer systemry. New you're going to tell me that a girl with no previous contact with Autobots can walk in through one of Wheeljack's inventions? And I stress, without _Autobot_ contact?"
"You think she's a Decepticon spy?" Prime asked in the sudden silence. The room immediately erupted into protests, which only seemed to increase Prime's worry. "She certainly has gained some champions, at any rate."
"She's a nice kid," Bumblebee said. "She's high intelligence, yes, but so is Carli, and we never accused her. We've never accused _any_ human who's come to us, and there have been several."
"We've never had one successfully sneak in, either," Wheeljack said as he came back in. He looked around angrily until he found the spanner he had thrown earlier, snatched it up, and stalked back out again.
Bumblebee snorted. "He's just angry 'cause she snuck past _his_ invention."
Prime sounded as if he was trying to hide a smile. "Granted, there is an element of hurt pride, but the question is legitimate."
"Prime, go down and talk to her and see if you still think that," Cliffjumper said.
"Very well. Where is she?"
"We put her in Spike's room."
"You did what?" Spike looked irritated. "Why my roan?"
Cliffjumper shrugged. "It's one of the few human-sized rooms in Autobot Headquarters. The size of everything seemed to overwhelm her a bit. We left her there just before we met up with you and Bumblebee."
"Well, you could have asked me first," Spike grumbled softly.
"You weren't around."
"Yeah, but—" Bumblebee gently nudged his friend, and Spike quieted. Prime studied him for a moment. Wheeljack's anger was understandable and expected, but Spike's sudden irritability was unusual. He dismissed it -— after all, it _was_ an invasion of Spike's privacy, he supposed. He went over and turned on the monitor in Spike's room. It was empty. "She's not there now."
"Didn't you lock the door?" Gears asked.
"C'mon, Gears," Brawn said. "They're simple 'privacy' locks, rather than security. We crossed a few wires to reverse it, but it would be just as easy to cross them back."
"Find her," Prune ordered tiredly. "We don't need this."
They found her playing in the lake with the Dinobots. As Bumblebee radioed the others in, Grimlock carefully lifted his head with the girl perched on top of it about twenty feet over the water. She ran along his head, down the slope of his nose and dove off, tucking into a somersault and straightening before sliding into the water with hardly a splash. Bumblebee whistled in admiration.
Sludge dipped his long neck into the water and came out with the girl clinging to his nose. She flipped her black hair out of her eyes, laughing and using the flat of her hands to wipe the excess water from her arms and legs.
Bumblebee coughed slightly, and Spike suddenly felt uncomfortable, as if he had been deliberately been spying on the girl and was caught. He stepped forward.
The girl saw him and waved broadly. Then, to everyone's surprise, she swung her legs over the back of Sludge's head and slid down the brontosaurus' neck, over his back, up the curve of his tail and into the air. Bumblebee and Cliffjumper both jumped forward to catch her, but she caught one of Slag's horns, swinging up and over it before dropping lightly to the ground in front of a more-than-slightly-surprised Spike.
"I knew all those years in gymnastics would come to something, but swinging on the horns of a triceratops?" She shook her head, laughing. "Oh, I know. I was supposed to stay put, but it's so beautiful out, and when I saw Grimlock and the other -- Dinobots, they said they were? -- playing in the water, I had to come out and join them. That was your room I was in, wasn't it?"
Spike was still trying to recover from her gymnastic feat. "Yeah, how'd you know?"
"The picture of you and your girlfriend on the bureau." She picked up a towel and wrapped it around her waist in a makeshift skirt. "You'd be Spike and Bumblebee, right?"
"None other," Bumblebee said with a grin.
Spike simply hadn't expected her to be so small. She barely came up to his chest, and he was no great height by any means. Her hair was extremely dark, yet her skin was fair and her eyes were a startling vivid blue.
"Me, Gridlock, want girl to play," Grimlock complained, coming up to lay his huge head on the ground by the girl.
"Not now, Grimlock," Prime walked up from the Autobot-sized path. "Me, Grimlock, want to play," Grimlock said again. "Tarla friend of me, Grimlock. King," he added.
The girl turned around and leaped up on Grimlock's forehand and said something softly to the Dinobot. Grimlock tilted his head in thought, then nodded. "All right, Tarla." He lumbered to his feet and back down to the lake.
What did you tell him?" Bumblebee asked in amazement.
She smiled slightly, but only turned curiously toward the others. "I know Cliffjumper, Ironhide, and Brawn, but not the rest of you."
"I am Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots," Prime said, stepping forward.
She looked impressed, but held out her hand anyway. Prime's blue optics widened, either in amusement or surprise, and went down on one knee, carefully extending one finger. Even so, her hand was barely distinguishable against his.
"My name is Tarla," she said simply.
Prime waited for more, but she didn't offer it. "This is Perceptor, Gears, Inferno, and Sparkplug," he introduced the four others who had arrived after he had.
"Yeah, well, introductions are fine and all that, but she still hasn't told us what she's doing here and how she got in," Gears growled.
"Tactful mechanism, isn't he?" Bumblebee commented with a glare.
"But correct," Prime said. "Tarla, you managed to pass through a high security system without detection. We'd like to know how you did that."
Tarla grinned. "It was easy."
Cliffjumper chuckled. "Better not let Wheeljack hear you say that. He just finished inventing that system you slipped by."
"Oh." She managed to look contrite for a moment, but her sparkling eyes betrayed her the next. "I'd better keep out of his way, then, huh?"
"It might be wise to take that into consideration," Perceptor commented. "My colleagues tell me that you undertook this escapade as a dare?"
"Oh. Yeah." She found another towel and began to dry her hair. "I guess it was, sort of." She looked at them sheepishly from under the folds of the towel and tendrils of black hair. "It's kind of a long story."
"Aren't they all?"
"Quiet, Gears." Prime settled down on the grass.
"Tarla going to tell story!" Grimlock shouted and led the rest of the Dinobots out of the lake. "Me, Grimlock, love stories!" He plopped down next to her, shaking the ground so that she fell back against Spike. Bumblebee supported them both, and she grinned in thanks, "Watch your big nose, Grimlock," she said affectionately. Her eyes suddenly sparkled mischievously, and she vaulted up to perch on Grimlock's nose.
Prime chuckled, but told her to go on.
She shrugged. "Two weeks ago, there was a major fire at my school, down in the city."
"Yeah, the high school," Inferno cut in. "It took me, Bluestreak, and the Protectobots to stop that one. It smoldered all night in one section of the basement, then hit the room where the gas furnace was, and apparently some painting supplies and other flammable stuff were nearby." He shook his head. "It was a real mess. Even with human and Autobot help."
Tarla left off drying her hair and draped the towel around her neck. "I don't understand. I thought you were Transformers, yet Commander Prime-—"
Prime looked embarrassed.
"—called you Autobots, yet Grimlock here," and she patted Grimlock's nose underneath her. Grimlock started to say something, but Brawn quickly clamped his muzzle to the ground.
"Keep your mouth shut, Grimlock, or you'll send her flying into the pond," he said gruffly, but with a measure of amused tolerance at the big dinosaur.
"Thanks, Brawn," Tarla laughed. "As I was saying, Grimlock says he's the leader of the Dinobots, and the Protectobots were the ones who fought the fire. Who are you really?"
Ironhide gave Prime a surprised look. This was something almost everyone knew.
"Autobot is the overall term for one of two factions of Transformers," Prime explained. "The Dinobots, Protectobots, and Aerialbots are different categories of Autobots, but we're all the same side."
"And the other faction?" she asked, and was surprised by the immediate tension.
"The Decepticons," Prime said slowly, and Spike recognized the tone as one the Autobot leader used when trying to hold back a strong emotion, "are the Transformers who want nothing but power and domination, and will stop at nothing to get then."
Tarla whistled. "That explains a lot. I have a nasty habit of not paying much attention to what doesn't directly concern me. I rarely listen to the news, and I kept hearing bits and pieces about Transformer attacks, yet the Protectobots help people, so I was confused. I was lucky, I suppose. I could have hitched aboard a Decepticon supply shipment, not knowing there to be a difference. I'd doubt they'd be as hospitable as you. Or enjoy a good swim."
Grimlock laughed between his locked jaws.
"Speaking of supply shipments?" Gears impatiently reminded.
Tarla nodded. "I watched the Protectobots work—the first time I had ever seen a Transformer. I had to meet and talk to you, and everyone said I'd never get close to you—that you only allow a few select humans near you. I had to try." She smiled, the same mischievous smile. "I'm not very good at believing people when they say I can't do something."
"But how did you get in?" Perceptor asked.
"The shipment was of energy, right? Well, I worked a while last week and came up with a gadget, that outputs a high energy level. Then, I snuck on one of the plants your energy shipments cone out from and fastened myself in one of the cases. Just in case it didn't cover all the human readings, I went into deep meditation to decrease my breathing and heart rate."
Prime sighed in relief. "At least a mechanism couldn't do the same thing. Such circuitry would definitely be picked up."
Tarla's eyes went serious. "Mechanism? Like a Decepticon? You thought I was one of them?"
"All suspicions have to be investigated," Prime said. "You bypassed a complicated system with little trouble and we wanted to check you out and make sure."
"Wheeljack will be relieved," Perceptor said. "If I might examine your —- what do you call it?"
"I never named it. I didn't mention it to anyone else, so it didn't need naming. But you're more than welcome to take a look at it." She hopped off Grimlock's nose and dug a small handheld device out of her knapsack.
Perceptor knelt and carefully took it, then hopped backwards, transforming.
Tarla watched in amazed admiration. "Are you a Sciencebot, then, seeing as you transform into a microscope?"
Perceptor laughed, a bit self-consciously. "Ah, no. I'm not part of a contingent of Transformers designed for one purpose." He fell silent for a brief moment. "I see how this works. When exposed to an energy reading, it absorbs and magnifies and returns one of its own, correct?"
“Right. Such an output is just enough to cover any bio-transmissions such as a human would emit."
"By Cybertron, we've got another one," Brawn groaned. "Would you mind explaining all that so we normal ones can understand?"
"We did," Perceptor and Tarla said at the same time. Perceptor transformed back. "I'd like to study this more thoroughly with Teletran-One, our master computer. Prime, there may eventually be a way to adapt this for Autobot circuitry as a type of cloaking device. Tarla, if I could discuss your device's construction with you?"
"Of course." She shouldered her knapsack. "If you'd just let me stop and change first, I'd be glad to help you out."
"Tarla," Prime called, and she turned back. "What's your last name?"
"Still checking up on me, eh?" she said a bit sadly.
"Partially. I was thinking more of letting your family know of your location. It sounds as if Perceptor will have need of your presence here for a while."
Tarla looked out over the lake for a few seconds. "I don't think you'll have to worry," she said. "My mother split about five years ago and no one knows where she is. As for my father, he was a teacher at my school. He was holding class in the room directly above the furnace when it went off. No one got out of that room alive."
"I'm sorry," Prime said gently.
She shrugged. "So's everyone else." She turned and began to climb the path back to the ship embedded in the volcano.
"Now what?" asked an unusually subdued Gears.
Prime studied the tiny form of the black-haired girl, clad in a black swimsuit and towel as she made her way up the path with Perceptor. "She seems to be who she says she is. If she was with the Deceptions, she wouldn't have freely given us that device to study. She also didn't know anything about us or the Decepticons or even the War. Unless she's a trained actress, and I don't believe she is, I think she's being honest with us."
"I like her," Bumblebee announced. "How long will you let her stay. Prime?"
Prime looked down at Bumblebee in amusement. "It's not so much my permission as it is her safety. Although Decepticon activity has been quiet lately, it never stays that way for long. If they find out that she has developed a prototype cloaking device, they may try to find her."
"Chip's done a lot along the same lines, and he takes care of himself," Spike said.
"He lives near here, and has an open line to Teletran-One. Tarla has no one looking after her, and I'm not sending her back alone. Besides, Perceptor has need of her. Spike, would you and Bumblebee show her around?"
Unexpectantly, Spike scowled. "I'm not a baby-sitter. Prime. Get someone else to play tour guide, and don't settle her in my room." He turned on his heel and stalked off.
"I'm not sure, Grimlock." Prime glanced at Sparkplug. "Any ideas?"
Sparkplug was staring after his son. "None, Prime. He was fine this morning."
"He wasn't grumpy at all until about an hour ago," Bumblebee said.
'Yeah, about the same time we told him that Tarla was in his room," Cliffjumper mentioned.
"Jealousy?" Prime asked.
"Not like Spike," Sparkplug insisted.
"But he was jealous of Carli at first, wasn't he? I'm not—" Prime coughed "—fully informed in „ the subject of Human relation-ships—"
“He oughta watch more soap operas with us," Brawn murmured. Afternoon soap operas had had a large following among the Autobots during their off-duty hours (and some on-duty, during special episodes and if Prime didn't catch them) for years. It was educational, the first watchers had said defensively. The shows gave insight on human emotions with situations, daily life occurrences, and so forth. Within a few weeks, the following had grown to over twenty Autobots at a time turning out to see whether or not Sam had left Denise, and there was a running hot line set up for those who missed an episode because of duty.
"—but are Carli and Spike having any trouble?" Prime continued as if he hadn't been interrupted, and turned to look inquiringly at Bumblebee.
"Don't look at me!" Bumblebee backed a step, hands held in front of him defensively. "I don't spy on my friends. Besides, haven't you noticed that they take Carli's car now? They won't let me take them on their dates anymore."
"Why? What'd you do?" Ironhide asked with amusement.
"Oh... nothing," Bumblebee said innocently, studying his fingers. He caught Prime's look and shrugged. "Look, Prime. Spike's feeling put out right now. He's afraid of being replaced or ignored. Give him some time and he'll snap out of it."
"You're not worried, then?"
"Then you'd all better get back to whatever you were doing." Prune waved them away, and they left, laughing and talking good-naturedly. As an afterthought, Prime called Inferno back. "Just what started that fire?"
Inferno's usual carefree expression turned sour. "A cigarette, dropped on an exercise mat."
"And all those people killed because of it," Prime murmured. "How can we help these humans, if they won't even help themselves? Thank you, Inferno."
"Anytime, Prime." Inferno hurried to catch up to the others.
Ironhide lingered until they had passed out of earshot, then turned back to Prime. "Yer still worried," he stated flatly. "What's buggin' ya, Optimus?"
"I certainly have enough to choose from," Prime answered ruefully. "The Decepticons have been too quite lately. Megatron's up to something, and that has me worried. Wheeljack is on a rampage because his security system doesn't work. A girl manages to sneak past our systems, and that has me worried, and on top of that. Spike's off being angry at the world in general and Tarla in particular. Yes, I'm worried, Ironhide."
Ironhide sat down next to Prime, looking thoughtful. "Well, Bumblebee's gonna keep an eye on Tarla. Wheeljack'll calm down as soon as he figures a way to apply his system to Humans as well as to Transformers. Spike'll calm down once he gets used to Tarla. Megatron will never calm down, so that's what you'll concentrate on, as you always do. And even you can't do much until Megatron makes a move. Too bad we don't have an infiltrator like that Lazer-Buzzard."
Prime had to chuckle. Ironhide had a list of Decepticon insults as long as Sludge's tail. "You always know what to say, don't you, old friend?"
"Aw, shucks. Prime. Someone's gotta put things into perspective for you, or you'd stand in front of Teletran worryin' twenty-four hours a day. Ya can't be everywhere at once, so ya might as well stop pretendin' ya can. Although soap operas ain't yer style. Brawn's right — ya don't relax enough. It takes Ratchet, Bumblebee, me, an' ten other Autobots to get you to take time off. Ya oughta go back to Cybertron and see Aleeta-One for a while."
"A war zone is hardly the area for a vacation," Prime reminded Ironhide, but he suddenly did have a longing to go home. It had been so long since he had seen Aleeta. He shook his head. "I'm going back in, Ironhide. You'd better hurry if you don't want to miss your shows."
"Of course. Prime," Ironhide said sadly, watching his oldest friend as he walked back to the volcano.
Grimlock snuck up behind Ironhide and nudged him with his muzzle, nearly knocking the Autobot over. "You play with me, Grimlock? All other friends gone.”
“Grimlock!” Ironhide caught his balance and cuffed the huge Dinobot. “What that oversized nose of yours. Oughta be declared a weapon of its own sort. Big, over-grown Dino-clutz...”
Grimlock rumbled happily.