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Deepest Cuts Chapter Two


HOT ROD’S ACCOUNT

We spent the last several days going crazy.

First of all, the sabotages increased.  Instead of maybe one a week, we were suddenly getting several a day, nearly all in one location.  Again, all small stuff.  And no one ever say anything until three days ago, when TailSpin went into one of Wheeljack’s old labs and someone threw an ion grenade at him.  By the time we found him, he was conscious enough to jibber about solid shadows all the way to the med-bay, which led the more superstitious Autobots to start talking about ghosts, and once _that_ rumor started, it was almost impossible to stop.  So half our soldiers were scared of their own shadows, and the other half were chalking up even the existence of the sabotages to rumors.

Then Arcee came up to Kup and me.  “Look,” she said.  “Suppose it’s a human?”

I broke down into laughter, leaning against the wall for support.

Arcee kicked my feet out from under me.

You’d think I’d learn, wouldn’t you?  Nah....

Kup looked at me, sprawled on the floor, and muttered something about hopeless before turning to Arcee.  “What makes you think that, lass?”

She looked thoughtful.  “Well, everything that is damaged is small.  You know, pieces of circuitry rather than whole components.  Even that ion grenade was smaller than anything we’d carry.  If it had been full-sized, it would have killed TailSpin, rather than simply knocking him silly for a while.”

“But a human working for the Decepticons?” I asked.  “And here?  Cybertron ‘Cons hate humans even more than --”

“Look, I know that,” she snapped with a look that said if I didn’t want to end up on the floor again, I’d better shut up and listen.  “But there have been instances of humans working for ‘Cons.  Remember, back a few years ago, there was even an Autobot-leagued human who jumped sides and went Decepticon.  Now, our scanners aren’t set up for humans, and that would explain why we can never pick up anything.  It’s possible, isn’t it?”

“Maybe we should contact Optimus Prime and ask him,” I said in excitement.

“I’m not radioing Prime unless we know for certain,” Kup said.  “Yes, lass, it is possible, but unlikely.  As Hot Rod said, Cybertron ‘Cons despise humans, and I find it hard to believe that they’d allow one up here.”  He started to leave, then glanced back at us.  “But that doesn’t mean you can’t keep your optics open.  Now, I gotta go and try to put a stop to these ghost rumors.”  He stomped out.

Arcee gave me a challenging stare.

Well... occasionally, I do learn.

I shrugged and said, “Where do we start?”

     *

No.  I never learn.

So much for rest periods.  Arcee was obsessed with the idea of finding this presumed-human.  She came in the next day with an armload of surveillance cameras for me to repair and install.  It took all afternoon.  I finally stood back and looked with satisfaction at my last installation job.  “Not bad, eh?”

She looked at it critically.  “Well, you’ll improve with practice.”

“With practice?”

“On the next batch.”

I studied the camera I had just finished installing.  “Arcee?” I asked.  “Just how many batches?”

“About five or six.  Come on and give me a hand.”

“What have I been doing all afternoon?” I grumbled.

“Getting a good start,” she said lightly and dragged me away.

     *

If it wasn’t for the fact that it worked before we had gotten to the third set of cameras, I couldn’t have stuck with it until the fifth set, Arcee or no Arcee.

But just as Arcee was dropping more cameras on my work bench, and I was about to shout quits, there was the sound of running feet outside, and Springer poked his head in the door.  “C’mon, you guys,” he said.  “There’s been another sabotage in G-wing.  Nosedive’s hurt.”

“I have cameras in G-wing!” Arcee yelped and ran out.  Bu the time I ducked out into the corridor, she had transformed and was skidding out of sight around the corner.

In spite of the situation with one Autobot down, her excitement was contagious.  “Hurry up!” I yelled to Springer, already out-distancing him.

He caught up with one bound of his powerful legs.  I’ve seen Springer beat a running Autobot in a race by simply _jumping_ along beside him.  “Seems to me, that was what I was telling _you_ a few seconds ago.”

“Aw, dry up, frog-legs,” I shot back.

“You’ve never even _seen_ a frog.”

“Yeah, well, they’re green and jump, don’t they?  You sure your creator wasn’t from Earth?”

“Watch it, youngster,” Springer laughed good-naturedly.  “I’d hate to have to land on you by accident someday.”

We go on like this all the time.  Springer’s a good guy, although sometimes it seems as if he spends a bit _too_ much attention on Arcee.

Who long since beat us to G-wing.  By the time we got there, there was a circle of Autobots around the damaged components, three more were loading Nosedive into the back of a medic’s chassis -- he didn’t seem to be hurting too badly; he was chattering on and one in that endless way he had -- and Arcee was unhooking the memory chip from the camera.

“There’s a viewer in the communications room,” she said as she shot past us again.

Springer and I looked at each other, exchanged twin sighs, and followed her.

“She usually get this excited over things?” Springer asked.

“This?  Nah...” I said.  “You should see her when she really gets going.”

Springer grunted.

Arcee had the viewer on and was feeding the memory chip into it.  She plopped down on the chair in front of the viewed, her chin cushioned in her hands.  The picture flicked on and she impatiently fast-forwarded through it.

“Wait!  Go back.  Something moved.”  Springer leaned over her shoulder.

“I saw it.”  She rewound a bit, then played.

I nonchalantly sauntered forward and leaned over Arcee’s _other_ shoulder.

For a few seconds, the tape showed the empty, silent wing.  Then there was a movement of black at the end of the hall.

It had to be a human.  Nothing else on Cybertron could be that small and delicate.  Arcee made a small, motherly sound.

“Primus,” she said softly.  “We could step on one and hardly even notice.”

“Don’t go all soft on us, Arcee,” Springer said.  “It’s hurt two Autobots already and done an incredible amount of damage.  It may deserve to be stepped on.”

“She,” I said.

“What?” Springer glanced at me.

“It’s not an it.  It’s a she.”

“You _would_ notice,” Arcee murmured under her breath.

I grinned.

The human was dressed entirely in black.  Even her hair was black and shoulder-length.  Although Arcee wasn’t saying anything, I knew how envious she was -- she would give anything to have hair like a human’s -- and I gently touched the back of her neck.  For once, she didn’t knock my arm away.  “Just think how tangled it must get,” I whispered to her, and she laughed in that gentle way that made me want to punt Springer out the door.

“If you two don’t stop flirting, we’ll have to rewind the tape again,” Springer snorted.

“Jealous?” I asked.

“Hot Rod!” they both exclaimed at the same time.

“Rewind!” I shouted gleefully and punched the buttons.  The picture whizzed, stopped, and once again, the human fluttered from the shadows of one room to the shadows of another.  She walked, directly and without fear, past the sensors, knowing they wouldn’t pick up any of her readings.  Suddenly, she whirled around, hearing something we couldn’t.  Her expression was that of hatred, but hatred based entirely on fear.  Nosedive came around the corner, and the human threw a grenade at him.  It exploded, knocking him back against the wall, and the human was gone in the next second.

“I’ll go get Kup,” I said.

Kup saw the tape and went to get Ultra Magnus.

Ultra Magnus saw the tape and went to call Optimus Prime.

CHAPTER TWO -- Earth

Prime strode into the main communications room in the Ark.  “What is it, Jazz?”

“Communication fr’m Cybertron.  Ultra Magnus want t’ speak t’ you.”

Prime seemed to brighten a bit and turned to the screen.  “Ultra Magnus, old friend.”

Ultra Magnus was never one for wasting words.  “Prime, I think we’re found that human female who went Decepticon on you a few years back.”

Prime and Jazz froze, then glanced at each other.  “What do you mean?” Prime asked slowly.

“We’ve found that a human has been behind a series of sabotage here on Cybertron.  Two of our younger warriors went independent on us and set up cameras.”

“Not Tarla,” Jazz cried in dismay.

“Small female, about five feet tall, black hair.”

“No,” Prime whispered.

Ultra Magnus suddenly visibly remembered the rumors about Prime and this one human, and his expression softened.  “I’m sorry, Prime.  We have the tape.”

Prime looked up at him.  “Show it,” he ordered.

Ultra Magnus stepped back and entered the camera memory chip into the communications panel.  The screen fizzled into the scene that took place in G-wing.

“It’s her,” Jazz whispered miserably.

“Wait.  Computer, stop.”  

The camera stopped on a close-up of the girl.

“Enhance.”

The picture centered in on her face and moved closer on the snarling expression of rage mixed with fear in the girl’s black eyes.

“Stop,” Prime said softly, then drew a deep breath.  “It’s not her.”

“You are certain?” Magnus had to ask.

“Affirmative,” Prime said.  “Tarla’s eyes are blue.”

Jazz hit the console joyfully with his fist.  “Riiiiight!  The brightest, unhidable blue they are!  Thank Cybertron!”

“Ease off, Jazz,” Prime chuckled, hiding his own immense relief.

“Prime, what should we do?”  Magnus looked a bit desperate.  “We’ve never had any dealings with humans before.”

“I’ll send a team up,” Prime said.  “I’m sure you can use a few extra warriors for a time.”

“We certainly can, Prime, and thank you.”

“Commend the two young warriors for me.  Although,” and Prime chuckled again, “not too excessively.  We don’t want the children showing us up too often.”

Magnus laughed.  “My thoughts exactly.  I’ll keep in touch.”  He broke communications.

Prime watched the blank screen for a few more moments, then turned to Jazz.  “Has Ratchet released Bumblebee from the med-bay yet?”

“I b’lieve so, with th’ usual threats about takin’ it easy.”

“Then we’ll give him something easy to do.  I want him to go and bring Tarla in.”

“Uh... sure, Prime... but is that wise?”

“It may not be, but I want it done anyway.”

     *

She should have known.

It was only a day after she had left Prime in the field, when she heard the roar of jet engines overhead.  She slowly closed her text book, and while everyone in the class was ducking reflexively, she calmly stood up and walked out.  Bu this time, she could hear gears transforming, and, amid screams, the _thwock_-ing sound of several tons hitting the ground.

Then a high-pitched, almost screaming voice began shouting her name.  She walked outside, slipped away from one person when he could have prevented her from going farther, and stepped in front of the huge jet-Transformer with the Decepticon emblem.

He finally noticed her and stopped yelling in mid-syllable.

“Hello, Starscream,” she said softly, knowing his audio receptors would pick up her voice.

He studied her for a few seconds.  “Skywarp and the others said they had found you.  I was planning to exterminate them for lying.”

She shrugged slightly.  “I’m sure they’ll be glad of the reprieve.”

He snorted, arms folded across his chest.  “Why’d you leave?”

Her chin came up.  “For my own reasons.  I wanted my own life, not to be known as Starscream’s pet.”

“Or Optimus Prime’s?” Starscream challenged.  “They said he was here to get you.”

She spread her hands out in front of her, and she knew he saw them shaking.  “I’m still here, aren’t I?  I didn’t go with him.  And I’m not going with you, either.”

“Did I ask?”

“Weren’t you going to?”

He looked at her for a long time.  “No,” he said to her surprise, the “scream” gone from his voice.  “Too many Decepticons are against me.  You wouldn’t be safe.”

“Am I really safe now?”

“How quickly can the Autobots get here?” he asked wryly.  “You’re safer with them than with me.”  Without another word, he leapt into the air, transforming and roaring away.

She realized she was clenching her jaws so tightly that they hurt.  She closed her eyes, trying to force herself to relax and failing.  She heard sirens and contemptuously wondered what the local police thought they could do against a Transformer.  Then she slowly walked past the students and faculty, staring at the torn chunks of turf and at her, walked into her dormitory and into her room, found her battered backpack and began to pack it.  She threw in as many clothes as would fit, then gently slipped in her flute.  She tied her coat around her waist and began to shoulder her pack when she saw the yellow VW bug pull into the parking lot outside her window.

She took a deep breath, let it out, then left the dorm through the back door.

She was letting herself feel rather proud, about an hour later down the road heading north, when one car, instead of passing her, slowed down.  She turned to wave it by -- she hadn’t found humans to be much more trustworthy than Decepticons -- and the yellow VW beeped happily at her.

Tarla sighed and began to walk again.

“Aw, c’mon, Tarla,” Bumblebee said mournfully, rolling beside her.  “I’m s’pposed to bring you back.”

“Tell Prime you couldn’t find me.”

“But it’s important.”

“Isn’t it always?”

Bumblebee transformed and ran in front of her, blocking her way.  “Tarla,” he said seriously, all normal traces of laughter gone, “I wasn’t told to give you a choice.”

She stared at him in disbelief.  “You’ll force me to come with you?”

“If I have too.”  He looked apologetic.  “Prime said it was important.”

“It damn well better be,” she snapped.  “Transform.  You don’t have to force me.  I’m going back to have it out with Prime.  How _dare_ he?”

Bumblebee transformed with relief.  Even this anger was welcome over the quiet defeat that seemed to have overwhelmed the human.  She didn’t wait for him to open the door, but wrenched it open herself, throwing her backpack in the back seat with a strength that made Bumblebee grunt.  “Hey, take it easy,” he protested.  “Don’t take it out on me.  I’m only following orders.”

“Then follow this one,” she snarled.  “Drive.”

“Yessir!” he quipped, then yelped when she smacked his dashboard.

     *

Prime _heard_ Tarla long before he saw her.  Of course, Teletran-One had informed him of Bumblebee’s return, but throughout the corridors, he could hear the Autobots’ surprised reactions as they saw her, and her snapped demands to know where he was.  Jazz glanced over at him.  “I never thought this was a good idea.”

She walked in at that moment and dropped the backpack loudly on the floor.  “Now, just what the hell is going on?”

Jazz slipped past her.  “’Scuze me,” he said and fled.

She stared at Prime.  “Well?”

He suddenly felt mischievous and leaned back in his chair, folding his hands in front of him.  “I suppose you’re wondering why I called you here...”

“You’ve been hanging around the television room too long.”

“Probably,” he agreed.  “One of the strike forces on Cybertron reported a Decepticon human saboteur.  A female, about twenty Terran years, small built, black hair.  Gave us all a start.”

She had gone pale, taking a step backwards.  She tried to say something, but her voice failed, and she had to try another time before she could get any volume out.  “Prime, you don’t think that I would --”

“Granted, she looked remarkably like you, but she isn’t.  Eye color could be faked, I suppose, with contact lenses, but we did a comparison of the girl on the tapes with the files we had on you, and along with the different eye color, she’s about half an inch shorter than you.”

“You sound as if you really thought it was me.”  She was still staring in hurt disbelief.

“It wouldn’t have surprised most of the Autobots.  And,” he added more gently, “I am commander, and must consider all the possibilities.”

She sighed and nudged the backpack over on its back and sat down on it wearily.  “If you knew it wasn’t me, why’d you have Bumblebee drag me in?”  She smiled softly.  “Poor little Bee.  I’m not sure what he would have done if I had really refused.”

“Neither am I,” Prime confessed.  “I shouldn’t confuse his loyalties like that.  I’m sending a team up to Cybertron, as we have experience with humans, and the Cybertronian Autobots have only seen videos.  You’re going with them.”

“No, I’m not,” Tarla said sharply.  “I want nothing more to do with this war.”

“Then you never should have snuck onto the Ark four years ago.  You’re caught up in this as much as the rest of us.  You said it yourself, back in the jeonide-ten incident.  Once you’re involved, you’re no longer an innocent.”

“You wouldn’t listen to me, _then_.”

“Nor will I listen to your protests now.  It’s an order, Tarla.  Be ready to leave in two hours.”

She opened her mouth, and he anticipated her saying that he had no authority over her.  And he didn’t, short of tossing her on the shuttle with or without her permission.  Then she cocked her head, studying him.  “Why me?”

He let out a small breath of relief.  “You are human, and are familiar with both sides.  Perhaps you will be able to communicate with this Decepticon human where we cannot.”

She considered that as well, then shrugged.  “I give up. ‘Sides, I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

His optics flickered with mild anger.  “That is hardly a reason.  Lives may be at stake here.”

Her eyes narrowed with her own flare of anger.  “I can’t go back to school.  The Autobots know I was there.  The Decepticons know I was there.  Starscream showed up knocking at my door.  For that matter, the whole damned world knows about it.  I spent three years trying not to be noticed.  Now, I’ve lost the chance at my degree.  I can’t just transfer to another school, because I’m now traceable through my records.  I’d have to start all over again, different school, different name, different degree.  Lives may be at stake, Optimus, but my life just ground to a halt.  Again.  So, yes, I might as well help, because I don’t know what else to do or where else to go, because wherever I do go, a damn Transformer seems to find me.”  She ran out of energy to be angry with, and closed her eyes, rubbing her forehead against the headache that had been building ever since Starscream had landed outside the lecture hall.

“We really have ruined your life, haven’t we?” Prime asked, regret deep in his voice.

She let out a sharp breath of laughter.  “I seemed to remember having a part in that, myself.”  

“This wasn’t the first time they found you, was it?”

She was silent for a moment, then pushed her hair out of her eyes.  “I was lucky it was Ravage.  He likes me, you know.  But if he knew, the others would follow.  And sooner or later Frenzy would find me, and he really hates me.  Or someone who has a grudge against Starscream, and that list is pretty immense.”

The chuckle escaped him before he could stop it.  “I imagine it is.”

Tarla shrugged, with the air of someone who had grown used to that danger.  “There are a lot of ‘Cons who would love to find me and kill me, just for the effect it would have on Starscream.  ‘Course, there are also a lot who would kill me just for the effect it would have on  you.  And there are some... well, ok, there’s Frenzy who just wants to kill me.  It’s kind of hard to just disappear when you’re up against that.  But for the last two years, I thought I was safe, and then I trip over Bumblebee.”

“You could have just kept walking when you saw who it was over that bank.”

She gave him a look of pure horror.  “I couldn’t do that, and you know it.”

“Yes, I do.  But I wanted to hear you say it aloud.”

She shook her head again, in wry amusement this time.  “Enough, Optimus.  I can’t spar words with you anymore.  I’m ready to go, any time the rest of the team is.”

He nodded.  “We’ll be leaving in two hours.”

“’We’?” she echoed.

He nodded again.  “I miss Cybertron.”  And he was having a hard time allowing himself to let her out of his sight again, for fear she’d never come back.  Part of him was basking in the glow that she called him by his name again, instead of his title.

They had been too close for her not to sense some of those thoughts, and a variety of emotions played across her face.  Finally she smiled, and stood, picking up her pack.  “I’ll see you in two hours, Optimus.”  She smiled and left.

Walking through the corridors wasn’t easy.  There were a few of her old friends, who’d run up to greet her, and that was all right.  But for the most part, the looks the Autobots would give Tarla were full of mistrust.  She refused to look at them and strode through the hallways to the small storage room.  She keyed the door open, the closed it behind her against the stares and glares.

There were a few new piles of boxes and crates, and one huge drum, the kind that usually held liquids, in the corners of the room.  Autobots rarely threw anything away.

In the fourth corner were several empty storage cases.  There couldn’t possibly still be the scent of jasmine left after four years, but for some reason, the scent came back to her, strong and clear, although she hadn’t been able to touch jasmine tea since then.  Clean blankets were piled in a nest in one of the boxes, waiting for her as if she had only left the day before.  Tarla lowered her pack and crawled into the huge case, rearranging the blankets.  Then the temptation overwhelmed her, and she curled up on the blankets, burying her face in the folds of the cloth, trying desperately to capture any hint of a feeling that she had come home.

She still hadn’t by the time Prime radioed her to tell her that the rest of the team was ready to leave.


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