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Innocent Chapter Five

“So you think you’re ready?” Spike leaned against one of the supply cases that made up Tarla’s small room.

She shrugged.  “Well, I know everything about jeonide-ten that Teletran-One and Perceptor knew, as well as how to use the neutralizer.  If I can just get to the meteorite, I can take care of it.”

“Sound pretty sure of yourself.”

Tarla paused for a brief second, then continued to fit cushioning into the knapsack.

“Tarla,” Spike said softly, “it’s all right to be afraid.”

“It’s a little more than that,” she said shakily.  “I’m bloody terrified.”

“You’re not showing it.”

She turned around and dropped the act for an instant.  There was only one other time when he had seen her more scared, and that was when she had been frozen by memories of being trapped by fire at her school.

“I believe you,” he answered.

The act dropped firmly into place again, and she grinned.  “Good.”  She turned back to her packing and carefully fitted the case containing the neutralizer in, then packed more cushioning around it.  She zipped up the knapsack and tied the overlaying flap into place.

“No weapons?” Spike asked.

“There’s a few grenades in the bottom.  I can’t use them on the way in, or the explosions might detonate the meteor.  They’ll probably be wise to me on the way out, so I may need them then.  I also have a couple of time bombs, if I have time to place them.  As long as I’m there, I might as well do as much damage as I can.”

“What’s the neutralizer made of?”

“It’s a mechanism that’ll basically cool the jeonide-ten down by exposing it to a chemical that resembles liquid nitrogen.”

“You really do sound like Perceptor,” Spike murmured.  It prompted another weak smile.

There was a soft tap on the door frame and Prime stepped in.  Spike said something about having work to do and disappeared.

Prime gestured awkwardly at the knapsack.  “You are prepared, have all you need?”

She nodded.

“If there were any other way!” he agonized.

“If there was another way, I certainly wouldn’t object to your use of it,” she declared, then saw Prime’s miserable expression.  “Optimus,” she said softly, “don’t make this harder than it is.”

He regarded her for a moment, then gently reached out and stroked her hair with his forefinger, then barely touched her chin.  They both looked down at the finger, both knowing how strong it was, that one effortless flick upwards would snap her neck.  She read the frustration in his blue optics, the horrid fear that he could hurt her so easily.  Quite deliberately, she closed her eyes and rubbed her cheek against Prime’s hand.

He took a deep breath and let it out very slowly.  “If I were a human...”

“If I were an Autobot,” she replied, smiling at what had been a joke only a few weeks ago.  The smile turned wistful.

Prime stepped back.  “You’d better get some rest.  You’ll need it.”

“Good night, Optimus,” she said quietly.  She turned away, before he left, but was fully aware that he stopped at the door and looked back once before leaving.  She stared at the knapsack with her cloaking device beside it for a long time, then quickly lit one of her candles and sat in front of it.  She stared at the flame for a long time and tried to control her trembling.

     *

“Seems like we’re restin’ a lot on th’ simple _hope_ that Megatron’ll come after this shipment,” Ironhide grumbled.

“Perhaps, but I’m betting that any Decepticon will take the chance on jumping an energon shipment that’s going to be as close to their headquarters as this one will be.”  Prime surveyed the loading of the supply truck.  Most of the shipment was the glowing boxes of shimmering energy, but there were regular supply cases also, filled with circuitry and other supplies found in any similar shipments.  One such case was set aside, open and empty.  The one Tarla would hide in.

“How many you sendin’ along for guards?”

“The usual.  Brawn, Hound, and Cliffjumper.”  The supply truck was automated, eliminating the need of a human driver or an extra Autobot casualty.

“Sure ya don’t want a coupla more?”

“Positive,” Prime said tightly, not looking at his oldest friend.  “Any more would raise suspicion.”

“Awright, Optimus,” Ironhide said in a resigned tone.

“Ironhide?”

The old warrior turned back.

“Thank you,” Prime said quickly.  “We both appreciate the concern.”

Ironhide did a slight doubletake at the “we”,  then murmured something and left.  He passed Tarla on the way in and said something that made her laugh before she headed over.  She gave a mock salute and quipped, “Reporting for duty!”

“And your transportation awaits.”  Prime gestured at the lone supply case.  She trotted over and vaulted to perch on the edge of the case.  It had been fully padded, with just enough room for her to fit in.  “More comfortable than the last trip, at least.”

“Affirmative.”

She took a deep breath.  “Let’s get cracking, then.”  She swung her legs over and lowered herself in.

“You’ve got your communicator.”

“Yep.”

“The minute you neutralize the meteor, radio us and I’ll --”

“--have the Protectabots there in seconds,” she finished for him.  “Optimus, you’re fussing.”

“Be careful,” he said, handing her the knapsack.  She took it and gave him a thumbs-up.  He touched her face briefly, then quickly keyed the case shut.  It lurched as he picked it up, but she barely felt it through the packing.  She thumbed on the cloaking device.

Outside, Prime stepped back from the truck and looked questioningly at Hound.  The scout scanned the truck and looked very satisfied.  “No human readings, Prime.  It scans just like any normal energy shipment.”

“Good.”  Prime stood silently for a moment.  He wouldn’t be able to see anything different about that one case -- wouldn’t even be able to pick it out, except that he had put it on the truck himself.

“Roll out,” he said abruptly, turned, and walked back into the Ark, so he wouldn’t have to see the truck with its three bodyguards leave.

     *

Cliffjumper, Brawn, and Hound reported in about four hours later, exhausted.  Cliffjumper was marred with laser scorches.

“You were right, Prime,” Cliffjumper said.  “Starscream and the other F15s took the truck.  Last we saw of them, they were heading back to Decep headquarters.  I guess she’s on her own, now, huh?”

Prime took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  “Affirmative,” he said.

     *
Tarla herself was feeling the same helplessness.  There had been only two moments when she had had any real feeling of what was going on outside around her -- once during the short firefight when the crates were loaded into the jets, and again, when the crates were being unloaded.

But now that she was in, she wasn’t certain how she should proceed.  What if she crawled out in front of a Decepticon?  Or what if there were cases stacked on top of hers, sealing hers closed?  For a moment, she let herself wallow in a quick panic, then made herself calm.  First of all, she was on her side, which meant that the lid of the case wouldn’t have another case on top of it.  As for the Decepticons, she wouldn’t be able to tell what she might be facing until she faced it.  And she couldn’t do that from inside the case.  The cloaking device would cover her human readings while she was next to the rest of the energon; that should give her enough time to catch her bearings.

She keyed the panel and the case slid open noiselessly.  She peeked out, saw nothing, and crawled out, dragging the knapsack behind her.  She stood up, clinging close to the disorderly pile of supply cases and energon cubes, and peered around the edge into the main part of the room.

And nearly dropped the knapsack.

The room was almost a mirror image of the control room back in the Ark.

There was only one difference.

Unfortunately, it was one hell of a difference.

The room was filled with Decepticons.

She caught the knapsack just before it hit the floor and shrank back into the shadows.  But not before she saw the meteor glowing in a clear case in the center of the room.

Glowing?  That meant that the jeonide-ten was near crisis.  All she had to do was get through the Decepticons to the meteor.  That was all.  Nothing to it...

_Yeah.  Right._

“Something’s not right,” Starscream was insisting, as if this was part of an argument that had been going on for some time.  “The readings are much higher than they should be, and I have never seen jeonide glow like this.”

“Don’t be a fool, Starscream,” Megatron snapped.  “Anyone can see that this is jeonide, and all producers have been followed correctly.  Haven’t they?”

“Of -- of course, mighty Megatron,” Starscream stammered.  “I myself handled jeonide back on Cybertron regularly.  Perhaps there is another compound that was fused within the jeonide while it was in space.  More tests should be run.”

“Afraid, Starscream?” Megatron taunted, enjoying the role-reversal.  Usually it was Starscream who tended to rush into things and scorn his leader for his caution.  But Megatron knew what he was doing, and it gave him a sense of pleasure to bait the mechanism who so openly wanted to dethrone him.

Starscream recognized Megatron’s tone, but simply frowned instead of screaming insults back.  “Perhaps,” he said thoughtfully.  “The radiation levels are simply too high.”

“Then by all means, run your tests,” Megatron purred.  Starscream’s frown turned into an open scowl, and he moved aside to the larger computer screen.

Silently, Tarla slipped the neutralizer out of the knapsack.  She didn’t notice Soundwave suddenly cock his head and look around in puzzlement.  Instead, she carefully shouldered the pack again.  She waited until Starscream had moved a little further away and made a run for it.

“HUMAN INTRUDER!” Soundwave burst out.

“Stop her!” Megatron shouted, raising his shoulder cannon.

“Don’t shoot near the meteor!” Starscream shrieked.

Soundwave hit one of the buttons on his shoulder and the casette holder on his chest opened.  “Rumble, Frenzy -- eject.  Operation -- capture.”

Tarla ducked around a leg.  All she had to do was clip the neutralizer to the side of the case.  It would do the rest.  She hadn’t even thought about how she was going to get out.

A massive weight hit her, and she landed hard on the metal floor.  A tooth went through her lip, and the neutralizer skittered across the floor.  Rumble stepped on it.  There was a small flare of light and a brief explosion.,  Rumble cursed and fell against the table holding the meteor.  The case fell and bounced once, landing on its side.

Frenzy pulled Tarla to her feet, his red optics narrowing.  “Hey, I know you --”

She frantically tried to pull away.  “The meteor!”

Starscream automatically glanced at it and began backing away.  “What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s jeonide-_ten_,” she screamed as Frenzy’s grip tightened.

“_Ten_?” Starscream screeched, and Megatron cursed, each backing away from the case.  Frenzy lifted a fist, but Starscream caught the smaller Decepticon’s arm.  “No, wait.  You, human!  Can you stop it from detonating?”

Tarla jerked her arm free, not from her own strength, but because Frenzy had released her.  She automatically chaffed her wrist.  “I’m not sure.  That would have,” and she pointed at the remains of the neutralizer.

“Stupid fool!”  Starscream hit Rumble with enough force to send him flying.

“Never mind that,” Megatron snapped.  “How long until detonation?”

“Four minutes, ten seconds,” Soundwave said as tonelessly as he would have announced the weather.

“Then it’s every mechanism for himself!” Starscream announced and would have launched himself for the door, had Megatron not caught him and jerked him back.  “You’d never get out in time.”

“Have you any liquid nitrogen?” Tarla asked suddenly.  “It’s not a neutralizer, but it might --”

“-- stabilize,” Starscream finished.  He gave he an appreciative look, then remembered he was talking to a human and scowled again.  “Liquid nitrogen,” he ordered.  “All you can find.”

Decepticons ran everywhere.

‘How are we going to get it in there?” Tarla asked, running over to the case.  “We can’t let too many elements from this air get in to it.”

“Pressurized canisters.”  Starscream knelt beside her.  “We’ll cut a hole equal to a section of tubing, then fit the tubing to the canisters.  The amount of air that will get in shouldn’t matter.”

“Two minutes, forty-five seconds.”

“It’ll have to be precision cutting,” Tarla said.

“Lazerbeak!”  Megatron held up his arm and the robot vulture glided to it.  “Do what they say.”

Lazerbeak looked carefully at the tubing, then focused on the case.  His optics gleamed, then shot forth twin laser beams.  The beams pierced the case and curved around in a circle.  Starscream fitted a length of tubing to the canister of liquid nitro that Thundercracker handed him, then held it up to the engraved circle.  With a quick thrust, he pushed the tubing against the circle, then through, as the small pane of glass fell in and shattered against the meteor.  It was a perfect fit.

“One minute, thirty seconds.”

“Ready?” Tarla asked.  Starscream nodded, and she switched on the liquid nitro.  The white spray gushed through the tubing and began to coat the huge meteor.

“One minute.”

“Is it going to be enough?” Tarla looked up at Starscream.

“I don’t know.”

“Thirty seconds.”  Soundwave paused a moment.  “Radioactivity declining.  Reaching stability status.”

“We must continue to bathe the meteor with the nitrogen,” Starscream said.  “Until we can build another neutralizer, this will be the only thing that will prevent another build-up.”

The main crisis over, Tarla simply leaned against the case, absently watching the foam shifting and the dying glow of the jeonide-ten.  It took a few long minutes for the silence around her to sink in.  In fact, it didn’t really sink in until she looked up and saw the roomful of Decepticons staring down at her.

“Who are you?” Megatron asked in a voice that was almost pleasant.

“Tarla,” she said, automatically holding out her hand.  Megatron looked down at it even more speculatively, and she withdrew it, coloring slightly.

“Wait a minute, Megatron,” Frenzy shouted.  “She was wi’the Autobots th’other day.  She’s one a’ them!”

Guns seemed to appear from everywhere, and she stumbled backwards into Starscream’s leg.  She looked up and, surprisingly, his expression was more amused and curious than hostile.

Frenzy pushed her hard against the overturned table.  “Lemme kill her, Megatron.  I owe her one, fer brusin’ my optics th’other day.”

“A moment, please, almighty leader,” Starscream purred.  “Although my knowledge is vast, it is limited in the area of jeonide-ten.  This human could come in useful in constructing a new neutralizer, especially as she has already had experience in building the previous one.”

Megatron studied Starscream, obviously wondering what other motives the jet-scientist might have in mind.  A human, especially one affiliated with Autobots, and under Starscream’s observation, was really the last thing he wanted running around loose in his headquarters.

He turned the same gaze on Tarla.  “What do you know about this neutralizer?”

Tarla shot a wary glance at Frenzy.  The smaller Decepticon had backed away at Megatron’s intervention, but it was more than clear he was eager to jump back in if any of his superiors encouraged it.  She rubbed the back of her head, gingerly fingering the swelling where she had hit the table, slowly backing up once again to the dubious safety of Starscream’s leg.  “I... uh... I helped build that one.  I know everything about J-ten that Perceptor knows.”

Then you admit you are leagued with the Autobots?” Megatron pressed.

“We had no way of knowing what kind of detonation a meteor that size could give off.  It could have taken half the Earth, Perceptor said.  Doesn’t our survival take precedence over who we’re leagued with?”

Starscream smirked.  “She speaks prettily, does she not, Megatron?  Her tongue is as golden as a Decepticon elite’s.”

“Or an Autobot diplomat,” Megatron said tightly.  More often than not, Starscream’s jibes were amusing.  This was not one of those times.  “Very well.  She is right about one thing.  This meteor is more deadly than our differences with the Autobots.  She’s yours, Starscream, until the neutralizer is completed.  But you watch her carefully.  I’m holding you responsible.  Anything goes wrong, and I’ll have your head.”

“But Megatron --”  Frenzy began to protest.

His leader held up his hand, still enjoying Starscream’s sullen expression.  “I said, until after the neutralizer is completed.”  Megatron smiled.  “After that, she’s ours to play with.  It will be interesting to see what Prime will do to get one of his pet humans back.”

If the girl had not been frightened before, the look she gave Megatron surely proved she was now.  The bloody and bruising lip was vividly dark against her suddenly pale face.

As soon as she saw the pleasure register on his own face, Tarla looked away.  “You are wrong, Megatron,” she said softly.  “I would rather die myself then let any harm come to any of the Autobots because of me.  And Optimus knows that.”

“Pretty words, indeed,” Megatron said.  “But we shall see if you hold up to those words while Frenzy has his fun.  Take her, Starscream.  And heed my warning.”

“Of course, mighty Megatron.” Starscream gave a slight bow, then turned imperiously.  “Rumble!  You bring the girl to my laboratory.”  He looked down at Frenzy with scorn.  “And see to it that she gets there without any further damage.”

“You got it, Starscream.”  The small Decepticon edged around Frenzy in an effort to avoid his brother’s anger.

Megatron watched them leave, wondering uneasily if he had made a wise decision.  He beckoned Soundwave over to him.  “Keep an eye on them,” he said softly.

“As you command.”  Soundwave ejected Ravage, and the robotic puma snarled once, then gracefully leaped out the door and disappeared down the corridor.

“This was not what I had planned, Soundwave.”  But he looked at the meteor and Thundercracker and Skywarp who were fluttering around it with canisters of liquid nitrogen.  “Then again, it could have been worse.”  He recalled the look of terror on the human’s face at the thought of her death.  “Yes,” he said, savoring the words.  “Much worse.”

But Megatron never took one thing into consideration, simply because it was completely against his programming.  It was something that had never even occurred to him.  Tarla might have been afraid for herself, and that was understandable.

But she was terrified for Optimus Prime.

And that was something Megatron could not even begin to understand.


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