Lair of the Stealth Bunnies
Innocent Chapter Six
Bumblebee signed off-duty, transformed into his VW mode, and zipped down the corridors and into the main communications room. He transformed back into robot mode on the run and skidded to a stop next to Prime’s chair, using the console in front of Teletran-One as a brake. “You hear from Tarla yet?”
Prime shook his head silently.
“Oh.” Bumblebee visibly deflated, his face creased with worry. “But shouldn’t we have gotten her signal by now?”
Ironhide walked in. “H’lo Bumblebee, Optimus. Tarla on her way back yet?”
“No,” Bumblebee said softly.
“She hasn’t radioed in yet.” Prime continued to stare at the screen.
“Well, let’s got in there and get ‘er back ourselves!”
“Negative. We have no way of knowing the status of the meteor. We cannot take the risk of a fire fight detonating it.”
Spike and Perceptor stepped in from opposite directions. “Has Tarla --” they both started, then looked at each other and grinned. “I guess we are both concerned about Tarla,” Perceptor said.
“Ain’t we all?” Ironhide stomped around the room. “We ain’t heard a peep from her.” He stopped, staring accusingly at Perceptor. “Hey, you ain’t got some kinda fancy gadget that c’n sniff out and tell whether ‘r not that hunk a’ rock’s gonna blow up?”
“I don’t believe so,” Perceptor said. “And even if I did, we would be unable to get close enough to the Decepticon headquarters for a proper reading.
Prime buried his head in his hands as Jazz popped his head through the door.
“Jus’ thought I’d stop by ‘n see if th’girl has --”
“_NO!_” they shouted, but Prime’s voice was so filled with agony that Jazz forgot to be miffed, and they all stared at their leader.
He couldn’t stand it.
He stood up and pushed past them with their sympathetic, concerned looks of _pity_, and strode out the door. He didn’t stop until he reached the medical bay, and hesitated only until he saw that Wheeljack, the only patient, was still temporarily deactivated to conserve energy while his internal functions stabilized. Ratchet glanced up, then stood as Prime came in.
“What have I done, Ratchet?”
Ratchet winced, then slowly reached out to grip Prime’s arm. “What had to be done, Optimus. The only thing you could do.”
“And I have to live with that. That I sent her to be killed.”
“You don’t know she’s de--”
“We all knew when I sent her that everything was against her survival.”
Ratchet sighed. “Yeah. We _all_ have to live with that. That for all our technology and oaths to protect human lives, we couldn’t do a thing in this situation to protect this one human.”
To hear all his bitterness and frustration spoken by another took the anger out of Prime and left only the hurt and grief. Ratchet avoided his gaze, and Prime turned for the door.
“There’s something else, Optimus,” Ratchet said. “We still have that meteor to deal with.”
Actually, Starscream mused as he walked down the corridors, having an assistant-slave definitely had its advantages, even a human one. He had to admit that the girl knew what she was doing, and although Starscream was a warrior, there had been a time when he had been a scientist, and he had a respect for others in his second field, even for an Autobot, although there the respect was much more grudging.
At the very least, she was someone to talk to, and someone would continue to work when he wanted an extra energon-break or two. He wasn’t worried about her trying to sabotage the neutralizer; she was more concerned about this planet than he would ever be, unless his own life and purposes were directly concerned.
But her attitude was strange. She didn’t cower in fear, or, like other Autobot-leagued humans, hide her fear behind belligerence and holier-than-thou speeches. But this girl -- Tarla -- was meshing in almost as if she had joined the Decepticons, instead of having been captured from the opposite side. She did well in avoiding those who would have been more than willing to help another Autobot human disappear, and she actually seemed to be making friends. It was unnatural, but it seemed to be against her nature to hate. It was fascinating.
He stopped at the doorway and smiled. The girl was sitting at a make-shift desk staring at a sheets of paper covered with scrawled equations and sketches. “Well, that’s it,” she said softly. “Optimus, your meteor is taken care of. Now what happens to me?” She rubbed her forehead wearily, and Starscream smiled again. This was more of what he expected.
Tarla slowly stretched, rolling her neck and massaging her upper arms to work the kinks out. She looked over her desk at Ravage, curled up in the corner. His red eyes were really all she could see. The eyes never left her.
Ravage was the spy, the one who didn’t trust and was rarely trusted. The girl was an enigma, as puzzling to him as she was to Starscream, as she was to most of them and, although Ravage couldn’t know it, as she had been to the Autobots.
The staring contest lasted for a few seconds longer, then Tarla sighed. “Here kitty, kitty, kitty,” she said softly. “You don’t like me, do you?”
Ravage considered that. “Like” had very little to do with it. She was with the Autobots. Although she personally hadn’t threatened him, she was an Autobot. There was no changing that.
Tarla saw the movement when Ravage cocked his head in thought. “No, it isn’t the concept of ‘like’, is it? It’s programming. You’ve been ordered to guard me, and the only way you know how to do that is by snarling and all that stuff.” She studied him for a moment longer, then slowly stood and walked towards him. Ravage lifted his head and snarled softly. She stopped and sat down on the floor a few yards from him. She leaned back and hooked her knapsack with her fingers and pulled it to her, not taking her eyes off Ravage. Rumble had gone through the knapsack and confiscated the weapons and communicator, but Starscream had allowed her to keep the notes and few other odds-n-ends she had in there. She dug through one of the pockets and came up with a tennis ball that had been in there since the last day of school. After all, she had never _planned_ to stay with the Autobots for more than a couple of days, much less live with them, get involved in a war for them, go on a mission, fall in lo--
She stopped thinking of that. Thinking of Prime brought on a mass of confusion -- fear, concern, caring, warmth, and more than she could possibly try to comprehend, especially here in Decepticon headquarters, with the threat of her life hovering above her.
Ravage was staring at the tennis ball with suspicion. He snarled again.
“It’s not a bomb or any kind of weapon,” Tarla explained, keeping her voice low. She rolled the ball from one hand to another. Ravage’s eyes followed it. “Tennis was one of the few school sports I liked. I always carried one or two balls with me, just to bounce off a wall when I was bored or something.” She stopped rolling the ball, held it off the ground a foot or so and dropped it, catching it on the bounce and repeating the action. After some of this, she held it for a moment, then rolled it to Ravage. He automatically put out a steel paw to keep the ball from rolling into him, and in doing so, deflected it back to her. She flicked it with her hand, sending it back to him. This time, he stopped it by clapping his paw down on top of it, then reached out to sniff it gingerly.
She slowly stood and walked back to her desk, knowing Ravage had raised his head and was watching her again, this time thoughtfully.
Starscream wasn’t sure what he had just witnessed, but it seemed over for the moment, and he stepped inside the lab. Tarla jumped at the sound of his footsteps, but relaxed when she saw it was him. The first few days around the Autobots, she had jumped every time one of them had walked in. The loud footsteps always startled anyone new. But it quickly became a normal sound, so normal that it was easy for a human to sneak up on a human who was used to being around Transformers, simply because they were so quiet in comparison. Tarla was used to Autobot footsteps. But whereas it was a safe and comforting sound in the Ark, the same sound was terrifying on Decepticon turf, because she never knew who it would be. And so she jumped at footsteps again.
“Hullo,” she said and sat on the corner of her desk. “I’m done with the notes. You should be able to put the finishing touches on the neutralizer and put it into action by this evening.”
“Let me see.” Starscream took the sheaf of papers and went to his own desk, adjusting his optics to read her tiny handwriting. “I see,” he said after a minute. “It definitely should work. Good. That will at least get Megatron off my back for a while.”
Tarla thought again to herself that there were really two personalities in Starscream, and she wondered if anyone else had ever noticed it. When Starscream had been talking to her about the neutralizer or whatever else he happened to be thinking about scientifically, or even when they were simply passing a break together -- Starscream had realized that his human assistant would produce better work if she had rest, especially after she had nearly dropped enough of an explosive chemical to take out the entire lab -- when he talked about such things, the “scream” went out of his voice, he relaxed, and she was able to see the scientist Starscream had been before he had been a warrior, before his lust to lead had taken over. But when he mentioned Megatron’s name, his voice immediately rose in pitch, he started to pace restlessly, fists clenched, and his optics burned an even harsher shade of red. He was pure Decepticon then.
“But this is good,” Starscream said, his voice lowering again. It unsettling, the way he switched from one personality to another between sentences, sometimes even between words. He looked at her. “Not bad at all, for a human.”
Tarla grinned. “Ah, we humans get along.” It had become a joke over the last two days of near-constant working together. It had taken them longer to build the neutralizer than it had Perceptor. Tarla was trying to remember all she had been told and read, and Starscream trying to make sense of what she could remember and filling in the blanks.
“If only you were a Decepticon,” Starscream mused. He moved to his work bench, and therefore didn’t see Tarla’s face suddenly go pale, as if what he had said had struck a familiar chord with her. Instead, he bent over his work, leaning over from time to time to check her notes. She watched him until he looked up again. “You’re quiet. Usually you’re chattering away until you drive me nearly insane.”
“So what happens to me now, Starscream?” she asked quietly.
He started to wave off an answer, then really looked at her. For some reason, the fear in her voice and expression wasn’t as satisfying as he had expected it to be. Instead, he was finding it hard to meet her steady gaze. He pushed the chair back from the work bench. “Normally... I think you know. Megatron would hand you to Frenzy as soon as you’ve carried out your usefulness. Or he might try to see what he can get from Prime as a ransom, and maybe you’d be given back.” He studied her for a long moment, then sighed. “You’re a human, and an Autobot ally. That’s two of the worse counts against you, in Decepticon views. If it was just the first count, you being human, I’d try to get you kept on as my assistant. Even if you were anti-Decep, you could hide that and keep yourself alive. You’re intelligent and hard-working, and you’d come in handy. Not many other Decepticons are as intelligent in science as you are, much less myself --” and for once, he didn’t say that with arrogant conceit, but with quiet honesty. “-- and you’re rather good company, as much as I never thought I’d say that about a human. But you’re openly with the Autobots, and the vast majority of Decepticon troops with _never_ trust you. And Megatron doesn’t trust me, whereas Frenzy is one of his most loyal. It would be normal procedure for Megatron to reward him with you.”
Tarla’s expression hadn’t changed. Starscream sighed again. “Your only hope is an Autobot ransom. How much would Prime give to get you back?”
Again, she reacted as if she’d been hit, and this time, Starscream noticed. “There will be no ransom,” she said, either emotionlessly or with quiet determination. Starscream didn’t know enough about human emotions to tell the difference.
“What, has the great Optimus Prime changed his Autobot principle? Does he not care enough to save you?” he joked, trying to get more information.
She shook her head. “The problem, Starscream, is that he cares too much. I’m afraid of what he _will_ do for a ransom.”
“That’s the problem with you Autobots. You worry about each other more than you worry about yourselves.”
“Yes, but because of that, we can count on each other to come through when we need it.”
“Like now?” he challenged.
Her face flushed, but her chin came up defiantly. “That’s not it,” she insisted. “Optimus _lives_ by that principle of protecting innocent lives. I’m involved in this war now, and somehow, I just can’t consider myself in the ‘innocent lives’ category anymore. Not after all this,” She gestured broadly at the neutralizer, lab, and, Starscream understood, the Decepticon headquarters and the War in general.
“But Optimus _will_,” she continued. “He’ll blame himself when there was no other choice but to send me. He’d give himself to Megatron to free me, and I’ll hand myself over to Frenzy before I’ll allow anything to happen to Optimus because of me.”
She stopped to catch her breath and realized Starscream was staring at her in surprise.
“You’ve enough spirit for a Decepticon,” he admitted slowly. “We could try to convince Megatron that you’ve seen our ways are better --”
“But I haven’t.”
“If it wasn’t for your bloody _caring_, you’d be able to get yourself out of here instead of facing death the way you are now!” he exclaimed in exasperation.
“And if it wasn’t for that caring, there wouldn’t even be the hope of ransom, which would be the _only_ way of getting me out of here!” she snapped, then quieted. “Look, Starscream, who can you really trust on your side? Who are your close friends? Or do you spend every day under the threat of death yourself? I’ve heard the others: ‘Starscream the traitor, the usurper’. There are problems with each side’s values and views, and we can argue until we’re blue in the face, and we’ll never convince each other that our own way is the best.”
“Humans’ faces turn blue?”
She stared at him, then started to giggle. The giggles gave way to full-scale laughter, and Starscream was chuckling also when Rumble walked in.
The whole situation was puzzling to the smaller Decepticon. Prisoners shouldn’t be laughing. They should be afraid, instead of joking so much that they never even notice his entrance. He coughed, and Starscream and the human glanced at each other and gradually stopped laughing. “What is it?” Starscream asked.
“Megatron wants t’know when that neutra-whatchamacallit’s gonna be ready.”
Starscream looked thoughtfully at the pile of parts on his workbench and scanned the page of notes. “Two hours,” he decided.
Tarla choked back her last chuckle. “Four.”
“You dare to tell me my job?” It was still part of the joke.
“I wrote all the bloody notes,” she retorted. “I also built one.”
They glared at each other for a moment, then both turned to Rumble and said “Three hours” at the same time. They started laughing again.
Rumble shook his head, half in disgust, half in amazement. This was definitely not natural.
Natural or not, two hours and forty-five minutes later, the neutralizer was finished and was engaged during the next fifteen minutes. The meteor’s glow diminished as it iced over, reducing the radioactive jeonide-ten to a hunk of frozen stone. Megatron ordered Astrotrain -- the triple-changer spaceshuttle-locomotive -- to get rid of it, and everyone took a collective deep breath of relief once the meteor was out of the complex and on its way back into deep space.
“Now that that is taken care of,” Megatron said after Astrotrain had flown out of optic sensor range, “we can get back to normal around here.” He turned on his heel and nearly tripped over Tarla. She squeaked and scurried back into Starscream’s protective aura.
Megatron hadn’t quite forgotten she was around. It was just that she hadn’t been brought to his attention since the day the meteor had nearly detonated. Things like that, he was fully aware of, but tended to overlook in lieu of more pressing matters. Having a huge ball of something that could explode and take half the Earth with it sitting in one’s control room, for example.
But things were calmer now. He sat down in his command chair and lounged back, fixing his famous studious how-can-this-situation-benefit-and-or-amuse-me look on the girl.
“Starscream, was she of use to you? I heard of no problems,” he finally asked.
“She was very helpful, mighty Megatron,” Starscream said in as close to a respectful tone as he could manage towards Megatron. “It was convenient to have another scientist to assist me. The Decepticon troops are mostly warriors, and the shortage of capable scientific help is felt under any project.”
“Even Autobot help? She could not be trusted. Unless...” Megatron turned thoughtful. “An Autobot keeps an oath. Would you swear Decepticon loyalty, girl?”
“Wait a minute, Megatron!” Frenzy stepped out of his corner, and Tarla decided that _behind_ Starscream was probably quite a bit safer. “You promised her to me. Whaddaya mean, trust? She’s an Autobot, and no Autobot ever switched ranks. Lemme kill her!”
“She’s already proved she’s no warrior, Frenzy. And that damnable honor that runs deep in Autobot circuitry would keep her with us, if oath was sworn.” He turned to Tarla again. “Would you swear this?”
“What would I be swearing to?” she asked hesitantly.
“To swear allegiance to the Decepticon ways, to obey myself as your supreme leader in all orders, to the glory of Cybertron under Decepticon rule, and to the spread of that rule throughout the universe.”
Her chin came up defiantly. “I will do nothing that will harm the Autobots.”
“What about an impartial oath?” Starscream suggested. “Like medics take. After all, it is her knowledge we need, not her fighting abilities.”
“An oath taken in part is an oath that can be broken with more ease.” Megatron shot him a look. “You want this too much, Starscream. Why?”
“To make my job easier. Maybe then I wouldn’t make errors, such as mistaking jeonide-ten for five.”
“Don’t do it, Megatron,” Frenzy warned. “I’m more loyal to you than Screamer is.”
“That you are, Frenzy, but we do suffer from a deficiency of scientists.” Megatron frowned. “I will have to think on this. You are all dismissed.”
Frenzy started to protest further, but his brother caught his shoulder and pulled him out of the room. Starscream herded Tarla out in much the same way. “You really do have a death wish, don’t you?” he snapped.
“I won’t fight my friends!”
“But you could have held off for more time,” he hissed. “Ravage, take her back to the lab. I’m going out.”
Ravage nodded, and Tarla followed him as Starscream stalked away.
She was exhausted, she realized when she stepped into the lab. She had had only snatches of sleep, just enough to keep her going, but now it snuck up behind her and smacked her between the ears -- oh, yeah... I’m tired... She stumbled over to the rumpled cloths that served as her bed and fell on them. Ravage snorted disdain at her human weakness and left. The door slid shut behind him, and she knew that he had curled himself up outside, guarding.
It suddenly occurred to her that she was alone for the first time since being captured. She managed to pull back the blanket-cloth and looked around. There weren’t even any monitors installed.
She lay for a long moment, deliberating. Finally, before she could change her mind, she kicked back the cloths and scrambled to her desk. She found the small pocket stereo-recorder Starscream had allowed her to keep, as long as she played it with the headphones on. She flew around the room, rummaging through the lab until she found enough parts to construct a crude transmitter. She had debated simply turning on the communication system, but she had seen how sharply Soundwave monitored the system.
Her fear that someone would walk in made her finish the job even faster than she ever would have believed possible. She hurriedly switched it on, not bothering to search for a specific channel, since Teletran-One had been programmed to pick up her voice. She took a deep breath and plunged. “Tarla to Autobot headquarters,” she said into the small mike hurriedly. She had to repeat it only once again before Bumblebee answered, trying to talk to her and holler for Prime at the same time.
Her throat suddenly swelled with tears at the sound of his voice, and she pushed the emotion ruthlessly aside. “Listen to me, Bee! I don’t know how much time I have,” she started to say, but she heard someone run in behind Bumblebee, and suddenly Prime was there demanding if she was all right.
At the sound of his voice, Tarla finally broke down. “Optimus,” she said, her voice wavering. “The meteor’s gone. I did it, Optim--”
The door to the lab burst open and Frenzy dove in, hitting her hard enough to send her flying against and rebound from the wall. She heard Prime shouting her name, thin and tinny sounding in the tiny speakers, before Frenzy crumpled the makeshift radio in his hand. “And you were thinkin’ ‘bout makin’ her one a’ us?” he challenged Megatron.
“Get Starscream back here,” Megatron ordered tightly, and Skywarp and Thundercracker ran out. “You dare try to cross us?” he roared at Tarla.
She didn’t try to stand up, or even look at him. “I was only trying to tell him of the meteor, so he wouldn’t send anyone else in here. So no one else would get hurt or killed because of me.” The fatigue rushed back in dizzying waves.
Frenzy started towards her in triumph, but Megatron stopped him. “Bring her to the control room,” he said. “She still has one more use for us. Rumble, you do it. Frenzy has too much of a personal interest in this.”
“Whatever you say, Megatron.” Rumble pulled Tarla to her feet roughly, but whereas Frenzy would have enjoyed pulling her arm out of her socket, she didn’t try to pull away. She doubted she even had the strength to try.
“Raise Prime on the Autobot frequency,” Megatron ordered. “I’m sure he’s waiting and will be overjoyed to hear from us.” He swept into the control room as Soundwave bowed slightly.
“As you command, Megatron,” he said and went over to his communications board. Megatron sat in his chair and accepted the small cube of energon Frenzy brought him. He sipped at it luxuriously until Soundwave stepped back. The screen snapped on, and Optimus Prime filled in with all his towering rage.
“Megatron...” he began in a low rumble.
The Decepticon leader cut him off. “Prime, one of your faults is that you talk too much. This time, it’s my turn. I believe I have something of yours.”
“If you’ve harmed her --”
“Relax, Optimus. She’s not injured beyond repair.” Megatron beckoned, and Rumble pushed Tarla into the center of the room.
She heard Prime’s in-drawn breath and saw her reflection in the screen before she could really focus on Prime -- saw herself as Prime was seeing her; tousled hair hiding eyes black with exhaustion, lip still swollen and bruised where her tooth had gone through it a few days ago. But worse was the general slump in her body that went past fatigue towards defeat.
She barely recognized herself.
And she saw the pain and self-condemnation Prime was feeling and it hurt her more than the physical pain did.
“Guess I blew it, Optimus,” she said.
“We both did,” he answered softly.
“Touching,” Megatron sneered. “I always thought your emotions were more human than natural.
That seemed to hit a raw circuit with Prime, and Megatron made a mental note of it for future use.
“What do you want, Megatron?” Prime asked, his voice low with anger.
That was just what Megatron had been waiting to hear. He sat back and sipped the energon. “I want enough energon to get the Decepticons back to Cybertron,” he said finally. “And I want you, Prime.”
“No!” Tarla shrieked.
“Shut up!” Frenzy snarled, raising his fist.
“You touch her, Frenzy, and I’ll search this planet until I find you, and then I’ll dismember you personally!” Prime roared.
Everyone -- Decepticon, Autobot, and human alike -- stared. Megatron looked incredulously at Tarla, wondering what in a mere human could draw such rage from Optimus Prime. Frenzy slowly lowered his fist and stepped away.
“Optimus, if he has the energon, he’ll have Cybertron,” Tarla said in a rush, ducking the expected blow. It didn’t come -- Frenzy wasn’t about to challenge Prime. Prime kept his promises. “Optimus,” she said, “one person against a race, a cause, and a world.”
Prime looked away. Only Tarla and Megatron saw his fists twitch. Megatron’s mouth curved into a smile. “I can see the decision is a difficult one. I will contact you in twenty-four hours. Enjoy your day, Optimus. I know I shall.” He reached over and switched off the communications himself.
Starscream walked in at that moment, and Megatron flung the empty energon container at him.
Starscream ducked with the ease of one who has had extensive practice at dodging flung objects. “What’d I do?” he shrieked.
“You disgust me,” Megaton snapped. “I told you I’d hold you responsible if your pet human did anything. Get her out of my sight, and yourself as well.”
Rumble helped Tarla along with a push, and Starscream swept her up in his hand and sullenly went out. He didn’t say anything until they were back in the lab and he had set her down again. “Just what _did_ you do?”
The tears finally hit her hard. “I just -- just called home,” she quavered. “I didn’t want Optimus to worry about the meteor any longer.” She sobbed. “I just want to go home, back before the fire and the War. I just want to go home.”
“Ahhh...” Starscream stalked over to his workbench. Tears were what he had wanted to see form her in the first place, but for some reason, he couldn’t seem to take the pleasure in them that he thought he would.