Lair of the Stealth Bunnies
Deepest Cuts Chapter Eight
Hot Rod’s Account
It didn’t work.
Prime and his band of merry warriors went on their Sunday drive. At least, that was how Tarla phrased it. Arcee stuck in the room with Tarla, Springer and I were stationed in strategic areas nearby, and Bumblebee watched the live camera feeds, relieved to be as far from Arcee as possible within Prime’s orders.
And there we sat.
Prime certainly must have had a better time than we did, because things couldn’t have gotten more boring at our end.
Tarla fell asleep. I guess I really couldn’t blame her, after the workout Wheeljack and I had put her through. She slept until Prime and the others got back, quite some time later. He went in to speak to her, and she woke with a start. It must be just about impossible for her to sleep with us stomping around her, and I found myself feeling sorry for her again.
I was watching the cameras with Bumblebee. Prime said something to Arcee, and she left, stretching gratefully.
Bumblebee shut that camera off with an abrupt snap. “Give them some time alone.”
I agreed, but I felt I had to say, “We’re supposed to be keeping an eye on her.”
Bee’s mouth quirked. “She’s with Prime. You think she’s gonna get any safer than that?” He brooded at the blank screen, his arms folded across his chest. “It really rots, you know,” he muttered. He caught my glance and nodded at the screen. “Those two. They’re putting themselves through a lot more than they need to be doing.” He shrugged. “And they won’t listen to anyone else, including each other.”
I kicked aimlessly at the leg of his chair. “Think they’ll ever work it out?”
“Dunno. That girl’s so gun-shy, you couldn’t even say the word ‘Decepticon’ around her the first two days she was back, without her going white.” He snorted. “And sometimes, Prime isn’t much better.”
I found Arcee and Tarla later. Arcee looked tired, but her optics warmed when she saw me. I never knew how wonderful such an expression could be. I crouched down in front of her and touched her face. She rubbed her cheek against my hand. “Go get some sleep,” I said. “I’ll take over.”
“You didn’t get much sleep either last night, did you?” she asked.
I shrugged. “I’m good for a while yet.”
The argument played across her face for a moment. I caught her hand in mine, played with her fingers for a moment, then gave her my best but-I’m-cute look.
She burst out laughing. “All right, I’m going.” She gave me a gentle shove, and I allowed it to topple me over backwards. She laughed again and walked away, shaking her head.
I watched her go, then realized I had a goofy grin on my face. I tried to stop it and couldn’t seem to. Didn’t seem to want to, either.
Tarla had a panel open on the side of her bike and was studying the patterns of flashing lights. Her heart really didn’t seem to be in it, though. I sat on the floor next to her.
“Sorry about that,” she said, not looking up.
She gestured in the direction Arcee had gone. “Being so much trouble.”
“Aw, you’re no trouble.”
She snorted. “I’m not much help, either.”
“I don’t see any ‘Bots getting grenades tossed in their faces since you got here,” I pointed out.
She gave one of her abbreviated shrugs again. “I guess we couldn’t really expect Megatron to fall for bait again. We’ve done it a few too many times. I just thought maybe Rust would fall for it.”
I didn’t want to tell her that there might be dozens of reasons why the girl didn’t show. We couldn’t even be sure she was alive, knowing the unpredictability of Decepticons. Perhaps, now that we had figured out, they had decided she was no longer useful.
But Tarla already had a good case of the mopes going. I was running on a bet that she felt some responsibility toward Rust. I could have been wrong. But I had once heard Ultra Magnus say something very similar about Optimus Prime. About how he would shoulder responsibility where he had no reason to feel responsible. And then he would move planets, to carry out that responsibility.
But Optimus Prime was a warrior, Leader of the Autobots. And Tarla was... tiny.
I, however, knew a great deal about blowing off responsibility. And I thought Tarla could use a dose or two of that. I nudged her. “C’mon.”
She looked at me through her shaggy hair, her eyes snapping crossly. “What?”
I glanced around, then leaned closer to her. “Let’s blow this junk yard for a bit. You look like your head’s full of cobwebs, and nothing blows cobwebs away like some speed. Let’s give those wheels of yours a real test drive.”
Her eyes lost some of the anger and interest began to creep into them. “I don’t have a lot of practice.”
Ha! I grabbed onto that interest before the mopes could sneak in the backdoor and drag it away again. “Best way to practice is to just do.” Then I tried the I’m-cute expression on her, too. “Aw, c’mon... it’ll be fun!” She didn’t burst into laughter like Arcee had, but I could tell it was pretty close to the surface. “Look, that bike almost drives itself. Pop the bubble up around you, and you’ll be fine, even if you do take a spill. Which you won’t, ‘cause I’ll be there to catch you, and there’s no way you can out-run me.”
“Boastful, aren’t you?” But there was a smile on her face now. She snapped the panel closed and reached for her helmet.
I shrugged. “Hey, there’s a reason why I’m called Hot Rod.”
There is nothing, _nothing_, like a good, fast drive. Absolutely nothing. I tried to explain it to Kup once, when he was lecturing me. I was getting a dent smoothed out -- I had skidded out and ran into a corner of a building. It hadn’t been bad, but it gave Kup an excuse. Sometimes, I really think Kup has just forgotten whet it’s like to be young, to feel that rush of power in speed, the thrill of wondering if I really was going too fast, and the high in coming out of that curve still in control. But Springer had been in the same room, doing some sort of repairs on his blades, and he glanced at me once with a glint in his optics that told me he knew exactly what I was talking about.
Like I said before, Springer really is a good guy.
And a while later, when we pulled over for a rest, the same spark was in Tarla’s eyes and burning hard.
Another addict was born.
She ran her fingers through her hair, fluffing it out again, and hung the helmet from one of the handlebars.
“Fun?” I asked casually.
“It was all right.” Then her eyes flashed. “God, Hot Rod, that was great!”
“Yeah,” I said smugly. “It is, isn’t it?” Then, because I wasn’t _entirely_ irresponsible, I threw in, “Just remember, don’t go trying that on any other bike or normal car, right? You aren’t going to find anything else built like that.”
“A Wheeljack special,” she said with a fond smile, running her hand over the gas tank. “Where are we anyway?”
“Aw,” I shrugged. “This is just where I always end up, when I just need to blow off some tension. I like high points, and this is the highest around. Come here.”
She swung off the bike and followed me to the overlook. I helped her up on the railing. It was a tremendous altitude, even by my standards. I hadn’t thought what it must seem like to a human. “Um... do heights bother you?”
“Not really, “she said uncertainly, “But I don’t think I want to get much closer either.” She gazed out over the view, of streets, towers, and buildings, all reflecting light in prizming streams against the sky in different shades of night. “It’s beautiful.”
“Probably looks really different, huh?”
She nodded, settling down on the rail, her legs dangling over the edge. “Really different. We have a sun, for one thing. But it’s just hard to get used to so much metal.”
“It’s ok.” I grinned. “I’d probably think the same way looking off some mountain on Earth. Not--” I added quickly, “that your world isn’t beautiful. It’s just...”
“Different,” she said.
There was a streak of light along the horizon, and I pointed it out to her. “Look. There’s a shuttle. Sometimes, when the traffic’s real bad, the whole sky lights up like that. And once, I was up here when there was a battle going on all the way over there. The light show was incredible.”
She murmured softly, but I couldn’t make out the words. So we sat in silence for a while, watching the lights flare in the city below.
“You coming back with us?” she suddenly asked.
She nodded. “Yeah. You know, see those mountains.”
I glanced at her, but her gaze was still out over the city. “I hadn’t thought...” I trailed off, not sure what to say, or even how to begin to say it.
“You should,” she said softly. “Think about it. Arcee’s going.”
I closed my optics. “Yeah. I know.”
She was quiet for another long moment. “Mistakes haunt you. Forever, it seems like,” she finally said. Then in a sudden, brisk move, she began to climb down from the railing. “We’d better head back,” she said in a completely different tone.
“Yeah. Hey, you’ll love the ride down. It’s even faster.” I helped her the rest of the way off the guard rail, then turned to go back to the road, and walked straight into Ramjet’s fist.
“Come on,” Ramjet urged, holding his hand out to Tarla. “Let’s get you out of here.”
Tarla stared at him over Hot Rod’s body. Ramjet was firmly between her and the bike, but he hadn’t even given it a glance. “Come on,” he said again, impatiently this time. “Stupid human. Don’t you know when you’re being rescued? Shoulda let the Autobot drop you off the cliff after all. But with my luck, Megatron’d blame me for letting you get killed.”
“Megatron?” she said blankly. “Why would _he_ care --”
Then it hit her. Ramjet thought she was Rust.
“He probably wouldn’t care much,” Ramjet said. “But I’m not taking the chance that he might.” He sneered at Hot Rod. “But I’d better take care of this, first.” He kicked Hot Rod’s shoulder.
“No!” Tarla blurted without thinking, then added, “There’s no time. He radioed Prime and Ultra Magnus. They’ll be here any second.”
Ramjet snarled, but stepped away and transformed into jet mode. He popped the canopy over his cockpit. “Get in, then.”
She’d have to run in front of his guns to get to the bike. And even if she could get to it and away before Ramjet could react, it would mean leaving Hot Rod behind.
She couldn’t think of anything else to do. She climbed up into the cockpit and the canopy shut around her. She pressed her face against the surface, trying to get another look at Hot Rod, but the angle was wrong, and Ramjet took off too quickly.
“You’re lucky I even saw you,” he said. “I knew sooner or later you’d get caught. But I have to admit, you’ve done pretty good for a squishy. We might get a few more assignments out of you yet.”
Tarla sat back in the seat and closed her eyes. “Yeah,” she said. “I’m real lucky.”
An hour later, Ramjet suddenly dropped altitude and cruised in to land. Tarla climbed out when he ordered her to. She had hoped she might be able to slip away, but now as she looked around helplessly, she realized that might be worse than trying to keep up the act. She had no idea where she was, except that it was in the heart of Decepticon turf. She followed Ramjet through a maze of corridors, going through a mental list. Ravage would know her on sight, no mistake there. So would Starscream, obviously. Thundercracker might, too. And Frenzy.
She tried not to think about Frenzy. The other Decepticons might kill her just out of principle. Frenzy’s hatred was personal. She ran to keep up with Ramjet, because being in his shadow was infinitely better than wandering around lost, with the fear of running into Frenzy at every corner.
_Oh, yeah. He’d recognize me. The only one worse than Frenzy would be running into -- _
Her unwitting tour guide walked into a room that was extremely similar to the command room in the Decepticon underwater headquarters on Earth. She had gone several yards into the room before that sank in, and on the heels of that, she recognized the voice. She spun to run out again before she was noticed, but Ramjet caught the back of her coat in his fingers. “No, you don’t,” he said with amusement. “You can explain to Megatron yourself how you got captured.”
“What are you babbling about, Ramjet?” and Tarla nearly lost the last bit of her control over her panic at Megatron’s voice. _I was wrong. Being lost is a whole lot more appealing._
“I had to rescue your squishy from the Autobots,” Ramjet said, his voice filled with pride.
“Is she damaged?” Megatron didn’t sound concerned, and Tarla began to hope that maybe she could slink away without him really noticing her.
“Doesn’t seem to be,” Ramjet said.
There was a moment of silence, then footsteps came closer, and Megatron loomed over the row of consoles in front of them. “What was she doing out, anyway? She wasn’t supposed to --” His gaze fell on Tarla, still held in Ramjet’s fingers. For a moment, his expression didn’t change, and Tarla thought maybe...
Then Megatron’s optics closed in a give-me-strength expression. “Ramjet, you idiot,” he snarled. “You’ve got the wrong one.”
Ramjet’s expression would have been priceless in another setting. He looked down at her in surprise. “What wrong one?” His own optics widened. “Oh, is this one Starscream’s?”
“Put her down.” Megatron said. Ramjet did, and Megatron effortlessly picked the jet up and pitched him against the wall. “I ought to have you recycled for spare parts!” He swung around and pointed at Tarla. “I suggest you make it easy on yourself. Don’t run.”
She looked at the fusion canon mounted on his arm. “Wouldn’t think of it,” she said faintly.
He studied her for a moment, then nodded and motioned for her to follow him deeper into the room. He sat in a chair and simply watched her.
Optimus Prime could study someone, but not make them feel any less for it.
Megatron made her feel like an insect.
“Did you come with Starscream?” he asked. “And don’t bother lying, because I’ll ask Starscream, too. And it won’t make a difference if he tries to protect you, because although he would like to think otherwise, I can tell when Starscream lies.”
“I didn’t come with Starscream,” she said in a low voice.
“Which means you came with the Autobots.” A smile hovered across his face. “Which explains why Prime was suddenly so visible earlier today, doesn’t it? They figured out about Rust and thought you might be useful in some way. Perhaps to convince her she’s on the wrong side?”
His ability to second-guess people was so similar to Prime’s that she was suddenly more terrified of Megatron than she had ever been. Her wrist suddenly twitched in a sympathetic ache.
His smile grew. “This could be interesting.”
A Decepticon moved out of the depths of the room. From the vague memories she had of Decepticon personnel, Tarla recognized Shockwave. “Megatron, she’s just a human.”
The smile turned briefly into a sneer. “Shockwave, this one little human has caused me no small amount of trouble. And the only reason I’ve let her live this long is because she has given Optimus even more grief than she has given me. Ramjet, don’t go anywhere. I’m not finished with you yet.”
Ramjet stopped in his attempt to sneak out the door. “Yes, Megatron,” he squeaked.
“I’m surrounded by idiots,” Megatron said pleasantly to Tarla. “They never cease to amaze me. However, they are excellent fighters, even if most of them lack brains. But it doesn’t take brains to follow orders. Perhaps, it is a good thing that Frenzy is on Earth. I think I want to keep you around for a while. Optimus was willing to give himself up for you once. Perhaps he would consider it again.
“That was a long time ago,” Tarla said.
Megatron shrugged. “I admit, I was curious about that. I thought about trying again, during that year you were Starscream’s house pet. But I had other plans then. Shockwave, find Starscream for me. Ramjet, you take our guest and keep watch over her until Starscream relieves you of that duty. Do not let her near our other human, since you aren’t observant enough to tell them apart. Do you think you can handle that, or would that require you to actually think?”
“No, Mega -- I mean...” Ramjet squirmed. “I can handle it.”
Megatron smiled. “I should hope so.” He looked down at Tarla. “Yes, this should definitely be interesting. Get out of here, both of you.”
Tarla and Ramjet ran out with equal haste. Two corridors later, Ramjet let out a sigh of relief. “Ya couldn’t have just told me you were Screamer’s Pet?”
“I was with an Autobot. I thought you’d kill me.”
“I probably would have. But it would have been quicker than whatever Megatron’s gonna cook up for you.”
She was sure he was right.
Another corridor later, Ramjet said, “Look, let’s not tell Megatron that I let that Autobot live, ok?”
“You could let me go and we’ll call it even,” she suggested without much hope.
“He’d _slag_ me for that.”
She shrugged. “Can’t blame me for trying, can you?”
He looked down at her. “No. Guess I can’t. But you also know why I can’t just let you go. Maybe I could have, if I had known. Worked something out with Screamer. But I can’t, now that Megatron knows.”
“You also said you might have killed me, if you had known.”
“I might have,” he agreed pleasantly.
_Oh, I am in _such_ trouble._
They ended up in a lab that had Starscream’s feel to it, although Tarla couldn’t point to anything and say that was why. Ramjet settled in a chair and punched up some sort of video on a monitor.
Tarla couldn’t even sit still. She wandered around the lab, poking at things she could barely identify, scanning through digital notation and files, and finally settled on a metal box about two feet square.
“Am I supposed to let you do that?”
She shook the box. “Let’s put it this way. If Starscream has anything vitally important about battle plans, would he just leave them lying around?” She held out the box. “What’s this?”
Ramjet looked at it. “Um... it’s... something scientific.”
“What’s it do?”
“Oh.” She sat down on the floor, pulled out her scout knife and started to take it apart.
She had most of the pieces spread out around her when Starscream came in. “Megatron wants to see you,” he said to Ramjet.
“You could always tell him you didn’t see me,” Ramjet said hopefully.
“I could,” Starscream said smoothly. “But I won’t. And I’d be doing you a favor. If I said I couldn’t find you, it would make it look like you weren’t doing your job.” He nodded meaningfully at Tarla.
Ramjet gave him a look of pure misery and slunk out of the lab.
“Imbecile,” Starscream snorted.
“Megatron doesn’t want to see him, does he?” Tarla asked, not looking up from trying to find a piece back in.
“No. But it’ll do him good to think he does.” Starscream looked at what she was doing. “It goes over on the other side.”
“Oh. So it does.” She fastened it in and reached for another piece.
Starscream pulled the chair over that Ramjet had vacated and sat down. When Tarla couldn’t stand it any more, she glanced up at him, trying to hide the look under her shaggy hair. He was leaning against his desk, resting his head on his fist, with the expression very much like someone who was developing a headache.
She rather understood the feeling.
“When I told you that you were safer with the Autobots, I was not hinting that you should vacation on Cybertron with them.” He lifted his head to stare at her in complete amazement. “Under Megatron’s nose! What were you thinking of?”
“It wasn’t really my idea,” Tarla said.
Starscream snorted in disbelief. “Right. Prime held a gun to you and forced you.”
“Not quite like that. He doesn’t have to use a gun.” Starscream continued to stare at her. She pointed at him with the piece of... whatever it was she was holding. “Really, he doesn’t. But he can talk until your head spins, and somehow, the way he puts it makes so much sense, and feels so right, that you’d walk through fire for him, and wonder why you ever thought you wouldn’t.”
“And that’s why you wear that symbol,” she said, pointing at the Decepticon insignia. She looked at the piece of metal in her hand, then at the box in front of her.
“Right side corner,” Starscream said.
She fitted the piece in. “What is this, anyway?”
“An energon chip dispenser.”
He shrugged, with a little embarrassed smile. “Thundercracker kept stealing my supply of them. So I built that to hide them in.”
She grinned. “It’s a giant Pez dispenser!”
To her surprise, he nodded. “Rumble collects the things. I don’t know why, but he does. I got the idea from that. And Thundercracker’s never found my energon chip supply again. I ran out a while ago, though. Just never got around to refilling it.”
Now that she knew what it was, the pieces made a little more sense, and she was able to put in several more without hints.
“Megatron has that ability,” Starscream said suddenly. She had almost forgotten why they had been talking about and stared at him blankly, trying to retrace their tangents. “Speeches,” Starscream reminded, and she nodded as she caught up with his train of thought, then shot him a skeptical look. “He can,” Starscream insisted. “It’s why most of us joined him. He can give a speech with such... conviction and power that we’d do almost anything to feel some of that power ourselves.”
It wasn’t the same thing she had been trying to convey, but she knew better than to tempt his temper by correcting him. She held up another piece. “Where’s this one go?” she asked, although she was fairly sure she knew.
He accepted the change of subject and pointed. She held the piece in place and used the screwdriver in her knife to bolt it in. “So now what?” She was careful not to look at him.
“I don’t know,” he said. “This caught me off-guard. I thought I finally had you more or less out of danger a few years ago.”
“Right. I was really safe in your hide-away, wasn’t I?” she sneered.
“I meant after --” He caught himself.
“After what?” Then, when he didn’t answer, she pushed the dispenser away and really looked at him. “After what, Starscream?” she asked softly.
He looked like his headache had just doubled. “Megatron always knew I had you around,” he finally said. “And for a while, I couldn’t figure out why he allowed it. His respect took a bit of pounding because of you. I expected him to light into Cracker and me, but he never did, and he didn’t demand that I hand you over, either. But then, he started dropping comments about how clever Prime had been to send in a human to infiltrate, and how efficient that would be on Cybertron, where sensors weren’t set up for humans.”
“Rust,” Tarla said.
Starscream shook his head. “No, Rust came after you left. Megatron wanted to use you. And I knew you better. You wouldn’t have done it, and Megatron would have killed you. He tolerated you around, because he thought you might prove useful. So I had to get you out of his reach.”
“Why didn’t you just tell me all this?”
He gave her a skeptical look. “If I just told you to leave, would you have?”
She thought for a moment. “Maybe,” she hedged.
“And if I really believed that, I would have.”
“So instead,” she said slowly, “you just... ignored me until I left on my own.”
He spread empty hands in front of him. “It was the only thing I could think of doing.”
“And it worked.”
“And it worked.” He let out a short laugh. “Until that idiot Ramjet brought you in here, all shined-up proud because he thought he had saved you from the Autobots and was going to get a pat on the head from Megatron. Does the universe do this to me deliberately as some kind of cosmic joke?” He was up and pacing now. “And now, I have to figure out a way to get you out of here, that won’t have Megatron flying down my throat with both fists.” He stopped pacing, fists balled on his hips. “Why didn’t you just run from Ramjet? He’s not very fast on the uptake. You probably could have hidden someplace before he gathered enough wits to react.”
“It would have meant leaving Hot Rod behind,” she said apologetically.
“An Autobot.” It wasn’t a question.
“So you decide to put my life at risk instead. No, damn it, you’ve got that piece in backwards. Didn’t you listen to anything I tried to teach you?”
She reversed the piece and found that it did indeed fit better that way.
“So I send you on your way, out of the face of immediate danger, and you come back again. What, don’t you have any human friends to play with?”
She lost her temper and flung the next piece at him. It pinged off his armor, harmlessly and very unsatisfactorily. “No, I _don’t_. I can’t trust anyone. I can’t even talk to anyone, without being afraid I let something slip that’d lead either a Transformer to my door, or some anti-Transformer human looking to take their anger out on me. I had to give everything up, my music, my studies, my identity, and dammit, I’m _still_ right back here again. And you have no idea what that’s like.”
“I gave up science to become a warrior,” he said tightly.
She waved her arm at the lab. “Yes, it really looks like it, doesn’t it?”
Thundercracker chose that moment to walk in. “Aw, just step on her, Screamer. That’ll show her who’s boss,” he said playfully.
“Get out!” they both bellowed in unison.
Thundercracker looked from Starscream’s blazing red optics down to Tarla’s flashing blue eyes, and suddenly decided that there had to be someplace safer to be at the moment, and that it might be a good idea to go find it.
Tarla’s anger evaporated the instant Thundercracker vanished into the corridor. “Great,” she muttered. “I manage to alienate one of the few who might actually be on my side.”
“There is no ‘your side’,” Starscream said, but it was in a gentle tone. “There is only the Decepticon side. Get used to it.”
“I thought I was.”
“Apparently not.” He sat down again. “Are you hungry? We have some supplies here for Rust.”
By all rights, she should have been starving, since it had easily been hours since the last time she ate, and that had only been another granola bar. She had no clue what time it was either. But her stomach churned at the thought of food. She shook her head.
“Eat anyway.” It was barely on the gentle side of an order. “It’s quiet now, but I don’t know how long that will last. You may not get another chance to eat for a while, and if we have to move you quickly, I’d like you to be alert, and not off-line from hunger.”
Rust herself brought the food, which could have been freeze-dried cardboard for all the taste Tarla got from it. “Megatron told Ramjet to keep us apart,” she felt she should say, nodding at Rust.
The other girl shrugged. “Ramjet isn’t here. And I had no such orders.”
“Besides, I can tell you apart,” Starscream said.
Tarla studied Rust while chewing on the freeze-dried cardboard. She as different from the scared girl she had startled a few days ago. She was no longer moving with secrecy, and instead stalked with the purpose of belonging, and her voice rang with arrogance when she spoke of orders from Megatron.
This was not a scared human. This was a Decepticon.
_Big difference, on your own turf, huh?_
Rust looked up at Starscream, her arms folded across her chest and her eyes narrowed. “You want to get her out, right?”
Starscream’s expression went guarded, as it always did when a conversation was about to go onto dangerous grounds. “That would be going against Megatron’s wishes,” he said in his best I’m-a-good-little-Decepticon voice.
“And you’d never do that,” she said in the same earnest way, her eyes wide and innocent. “Drop the act, Screamer.”
“Call me that again, and I’ll step on you.”
“That would really please Megatron, wouldn’t it?”
“No,” she said, calm in Starscream’s anger. “I’m offering to help.”
“Why? So you can go with her?”
“Hardly,” she sneered. “I’m staying put.
Tarla found her voice. “Wait a minute. I’m taking you with me.”
“No, you aren’t.”
“Damn straight, you aren’t,” Starscream snorted. “Smuggling one of you out is going to be hard enough.”
“So you _are_ getting her out,” Rust pounced.
“You walked right into that one,” Tarla couldn’t help saying.
“You keep quiet,” Starscream snapped. “If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“I thought we were blaming it on Ramjet.”
His optics lit at the suggestion. “Good idea. Never liked him anyway.”
“You don’t like anyone,” Rust said.
“You’re pushing it,” he warned. “Now are you going to tell us how you think you can help, or do I tell Megatron of your betrayal?”
“He wouldn’t believe you,” she said, but the arrogance had vanished from her posture.
“Perhaps,” he agreed. “But you don’t know that for certain, do you?”
They stared at each other for a moment, Starscream with a pleased smirk. “Just so we know where we stand,” he said.
She nodded, the arrogance replaced with a sullen glower.
“The easiest way would be to do a switch,” he continued. “It worked with Ramjet. Let’s use that against the others.”
“Which would be fine, except she’s coming with me,” Tarla said.
Rust whirled on her. “I am not. You’re getting out if I have to knock you out and drop you somewhere for the Autobots to find, but you are not staying here, and I’m not going with you.”
“Not everyone thinks the Deception way is something to escape from,” Starscream said quietly.
“And you aren’t one to talk,” Rust said to Tarla. “You can’t even pick a side to be loyal to.”
“What happened to you?” Tarla asked. “You weren’t like this when I met you.”
“Megatron said it would work.” The arrogance was firmly in place again. “If I couldn’t get away, play confused and abused. The Autobots would feel sorry for me and take me in. Sooner or later, I’d get a chance to get away.” She leaned closer to Tarla. “Listen to me. Megatron’s going to take over Earth. It’s only a matter of time. The only way the Autobots can stop it is to kill every single Decepticon, and the ‘Bots aren’t ruthless enough. It’s not in their programming. And since I’m the only human in the Decepticon forces, I’ll have a lot to gain in the ruling of Earth. Your Autobots can’t give me that. And I don’t want any other humans around. I can’t kill you myself without it falling under Megatron’s attention. So I’ll help Starscream get you back where you belong.”
“I wouldn’t want to see Earth under Megatron’s rule,” Tarla said slowly.
Rust’s mouth quirked. “Then you really are an Autobot,” she said.
Tarla looked at Starscream, wanting some kind of reassurance. But he had an echo of Rust’s smile, and she realized he agreed with Rust and was enjoying it.
“You’re just too much of a coward to admit it,” Rust added.
Tarla was still watching Starscream and saw his easy smile falter. “Is that what you think, too?” she asked.
“Does my opinion matter?”
“It used to.”
His smile faded entirely. “You aren’t a coward,” he finally said. “But you don’t belong with us, and I don’t understand why you won’t side with the Autobots.”
“I’d rather not side with anyone.” She rubbed her forehead. She had caught Starscream’s headache, or whatever the Transformer equivalent of it was. “Besides,” she added softly, “ they trust me little more than the Decepticons do.”
“You aren’t a Decepticon, and you aren’t staying here,” Rust snapped. Starscream’s optics flashed angrily, and he started to say something when he got the slightly blank expression that meant someone had blipped him on his inter-personal comm. He shook his head. “Megatron wants to see me for a few minutes.”
“You’re not just going to leave her alone here, are you?” Rust demanded as he strode to the door.
Starscream paused. “Are you not capable of watching her? After all,” and he smiled silkily, “she’s only a human. Tarla, please don’t take anything else apart while I’m gone.”
Rust snarled something under her breath, then glared at Tarla. “Just don’t say anything. I’ve heard enough from you today.”
“I don’t have anything more to say,” Tarla said with a sad smile. She gathered the pieces of the energon-Pez dispenser and left them in a neat pile. Then, because Rust seemed to be too agitated to sit still, Tarla decided to be as obvious as possible at being the opposite. It turned out to be pretty easy to do. Without Starscream there for whatever moral support he was willing to provide, she was suddenly exhausted. There was a breeze coming through a large ventilation duct in the ceiling above her and she tilted her head back against the wall, her eyes closed, at the first hint of fresh air she had felt in hours.
She almost fell asleep.
When she first felt something tickling her face, she thought she was in that stage where there wasn’t much of a difference between being awake and being asleep. Then she surged awake with the sudden panic of spiders on her face, or whatever the Cybertronian equivalent of spiders were, and a set of optics gleamed out of the vent duct at her.
She caught herself before her scream of creepy-crawly panic broke out. The optics were blue, not Decepticon red, and at that exact second, she couldn’t remember a more beautiful color. Then there was a flash of a smile with the optics, and the duct began to lift away. Another shower of dust rained down with a soft patter.
Rust, still pacing and fidgeting, was so conditioned to the louder nose of Transformers, that she never heard the soft sounds of Arcee removing the covering to the duct and setting it aside. She dropped to the ground as silently as a few tons of metal possibility could, which was actually pretty damn silent. Tarla was pretty certain that Rust spun around because she caught sight of the movement, not because she heard the sound.
Arcee hadn’t noticed her. “Come on.”
“Wait!” Tarla turned to Rust, holding out her hand. “Come with us.”
“I’m not coming,” she snarled. “You go. I’ll even give you a head start before I hit the alarms. But I’m not coming.”
Arcee’s caring instinct kicked in, and she quickly tucked her gun away. “None of us would hurt you,” she coaxed. “We just want to help.”
“You’re wasting your head start,” Rust warned.
Tarla’s ears were not as conditioned as the others’; she heard the steps in the corridor. “You were someone else, before you were an annoyance called Rust,” she said quickly. “And I’m betting that person wasn’t a Decepticon.”
“But I am now.” She looked at Arcee. “Go on. Take her.”
Arcee hesitated, her optics darting from one human to the other.
“Arcee...” Bumblebee hissed from the air vent.
Starscream stalked into the lab, followed by Megatron. He stopped short, and Megatron stumbled into him. “Starscream, you idiot...”
Rust hadn’t noticed. “Get her out of here,” she shouted in fury at the hesitating Autobots. Then her mind registered Megatron’s voice and her face went pale with fear, as she realized he had heard her last words.
“Traitor!” Megatron roared, bringing his cannon up. He had to shove Starscream out of the doorway to have enough room to aim, and Tarla knew it wasn’t her imagination that Starscream was suddenly more clumsy than she had ever seen him.
She knew she couldn’t reach Rust in time.
She darted forward anyway.
But Arcee’s hands closed around her waist, swinging her up onto the femme’s shoulder. Instinct took over, and Tarla clung to Arcee as she leapt for the air duct. Bumblebee caught Arcee’s wrists in the seconds it took for Megatron to push Starscream aside and shoot. The ray evaporated Rust. Tarla pressed her face against Arcee’s neck, closing her eyes against the bolt of light, still seeing in the after-image of the girl’s body disintegrating in the eye-scorching flare. Bumblebee pulled Arcee into the duct. The blast just missed her feet as she swung them up out of the way and took out the wall beyond them.
“Move it!” Arcee ordered. Tarla dropped off her shoulder and ran. They all heard Megatron bellowing and the squeal of metal as he tried to tear his way into the duct.
“He’ll never fit,” Bumblebee said.
“That may not stop him.” Tarla flinched at the sounds behind them.
“Don’t shoot!” They heard Starscream shout and they dove around a bend in the duct in case Megatron didn’t listen. “Shockwave has schematics. We can figure out where they’ll come out and cut them off.”
Megatron snarled, and then there was silence behind them.
“Keep moving,” Arcee said, pushing Bumblebee ahead of her. The duct was more than big enough for Tarla to stand in, but Bumblebee and Arcee had to crawl. Bumblebee grimaced. “Never thought I’d wish to be any smaller,” he said. “I could almost transform in here.”
“How’d you know where I was?” Tarla asked.
Bumblebee grinned. “Prime had us put a homing beacon in your sneaker, just in case.”
“You guys come in here on your own?”
“No,” Arcee said. “Hot Rod’s out on the other end. He didn’t fit.” She snorted. “Told him he wouldn’t.”
“He’s all right, then?” Tarla let out a breath of relief. “I couldn’t tell how badly he was hurt.”
“Aw, it’d take more than a knock on his steel head to hurt him,” Bumblebee said.
“Not that there’s much in there to hurt,” Arcee murmured, but her optics had a fond glow to them.
The duct ended jutting out over what had once been some type of park, but was now a ruined crater. The duct itself had been ripped open by whatever caused the crater, the steel ends jagged and rusted by time. Across the crater, the duct started again for several feet before disappearing into the ground again. Tarla realized that the whole piping system had once been underground, but had been exposed in the blast and never repaired.
Hot Rod was waiting impatiently. “Nice job, people,” he said, letting Tarla climb into his hand and setting her to the ground carefully. Then he swung Arcee down with ease, hands set familiarly around her waist.
“Gonna help me, too?” Bumblebee asked, sitting on the edge of the duct, legs dangling.
“You’re on your own,” Hot Rod shot back.
Bumblebee shrugged and jumped down. “They were running for schematics when we left. They won’t be far behind us.
“Weren’t you supposed to do this without being noticed, Bee?” Hot Rod winked an optic at Tarla. “You ok, kid?” He asked in a gentler voice.
She nodded, trying to catch her breath. She had had to run pretty hard to keep up with the others, even with them going on hands and knees.
He handed her helmet to her. “We brought your exosuit. Didn’t know how rough a ride out it’s going to be. “ A sudden burst of fire and lasers streaked the sky a few miles away, and he grinned. “Right on time.”
“Optimus and the others?” Tarla guessed.
“Yeah. We figured we might need a distraction, if these two didn’t do their job right.”
Arcee smacked the back of his head.
“Um, guys...?” Bumblebee called. “I hate to interrupt your romantic little reunion, but those jets up there just might have a different idea.”
Tarla didn’t even get a chance to look. Hot Rod caught her around her waist, and she had enough time to think that she was really tired of being lugged around before he leapt to one side, and the ground between them and Bumblebee and Arcee erupted with laser fire, sending metal dust and slivers flying. Hot Rod’s hand curved around her, shielding her from the metallic spray. He grabbed her exosuit in his other hand and ran with her, dodging lasers as the jet formation peeled into two groups. Hot Rod pelted through the crater and dodged into the dubious shelter of the ruins of a small building. He put the exosuit down. “Get into that, would you?”
She shoved the helmet on. “Where are the others?”
He shook his head. “We got separated by the laser fire.”
“Let’s go back.”
His optics blazed with wild fire for a moment, then went into a forced calm. “No. I have to get you back safely.”
“No, we have to find them,” she insisted. She transformed the suit into the body armor and got all of two steps out before he caught her again and pulled her back.
“Prime’s orders were to get you back. This isn’t the time to lead a charge, kiddo.” She stared at him, blankly, and he shook his head, rather than explain. “The others are warriors, and you’re not. We get you back.” His optics went blank for an instant then, and he let out a short breath of relief. “Arcee’s all right. She and Bee are in the underground streets circling back.”
The building shook under another pound of laser fire, and Hot Rod ducked reflexively, hunching over Tarla to protect her from the shower of metal fragments from the ceiling.
“Unfortunately, that leaves the jets for us,” she guessed.
“Yeah, something like that.” He leaned out the remains of a window and shot his own lasers, tracking a moving jet she couldn’t see around his bulk. “C’mere. We can lose the jets if we can get underground. The closest entrance is over the side of this crater and down into the floor of the one next to it. There’s an access drain there. Get in it and just keep following it north. The tracking system in your helmet will keep you going in the right direction. The other ‘Bots will pick up your beacon.”
“And where’re you going to be?” she demanded.
“Hopefully, right behind you, but if we get separated, just keep going, and someone’ll pick you up. We’re all tuned into the beacon, because we didn’t dare download something into your suit that would lead you back home.” He cupped her chin in his hand. “Once you start going, don’t you stop, whether I’m there or not. You got me?”
“I’m never leaving Earth again,” she moaned.
A smile touched his face. “We’ll get you home, Tarla.” With a gentle flick of his fingertip, he flipped the visor of her helmet down over her face. “I’d keep on wheels, if I were you. Stay out of the jets’ air space.”
The building shook again, the ceiling creaking and raining much larger fragments this time.
“Go,” he said, “now, while they’re readying for another pass.”
She transformed, gunned the motor and peeled out. She could hear the pound of Hot Rod’s feet behind her and the screeches of his lasers. She looked back once, saw two jets barreling in on him. The bike wobbled off-balance with her movement.
Hot Rod saw her hesitate. “Go!” he shouted.
She bent over the bike, popped the shield up over her, and went.
She stopped at the rim of the crater, transforming the bike into battle armor on the run, staggering a few steps until she got control again. She was in an area about the length of a football field between the two craters. She didn’t want to think about whatever caused the blast that had hollowed out both areas, and went on to create several more. She pushed the visor of her helmet up, winced as the flashes of lasers hurt her eyes, and shoved the visor down again, welcoming the shade the tinted material provided.
Thundercracker barreled out of the sky, lights flaring off steel as he transformed in mid-air and tackled Hot Rod, throwing him to the ground. Without thinking, entirely on instinct, Tarla raised her arm, the laser guns hissing up and out of the compartments in her wrist armor. The cross-hairs dropped down in the heads-up display.
And then she froze, because it sank in that it was Thundercracker she was aiming at.
“Get out of here!” Hot Rod’s voice roared through the comm-link’s speakers in her helmet. On the tail end of that, was Jazz’s voice, “Hang on, girl. We’re almost there.”
“I can hold out ‘til they get here,” came Hot Rod’s voice again.
She spun then, to scramble down the crater, and Starscream landed between her and the edge.
She was moving too fast to stop and would have gone off the edge in an uncontrolled plunge, had Starscream not caught her. She just barely had the presence of mind to rip off her helmet, so her voice wouldn’t carry over the comm-link. “The Autobots are coming,” she gasped out.
“I know.” He glanced down to where Hot Rod had thrown Thundercracker aside and was charging up towards them, afraid to shoot for fear of hitting Tarla. At the base of the other crater, Kup climbed out of an underground opening, followed by Jazz, Arcee, Bumblebee, and a couple more Autobots Tarla didn’t recognize.
“Now listen to me,” Starscream hissed. “And for once, just once, don’t argue with me. You got weapons in that thing?”
“Good. Shoot me.”
“What!” she shrieked.
“Damn it, just do it!”
“There’s only Cracker here,” she said. Hot Rod wasn’t far away by this time. “You don’t have to prove anything in front of him.
“Not for me.” He nodded at the Autobots. “They’ll never accept you, otherwise.” He grimaced. “Just don’t hit anything too vital, nothing permanent, and hurry up before --”
She shot him in the face, careful to miss his optics. In spite of expecting it, he stepped back in surprise, his hand to his face as it spurted fluid. Hot Rod barreled into him in car mode, hitting him squarely in the chest. Starscream stumbled and stepped backwards into nothingness. He made a clumsy leap into the air, transforming as soon as he had cleared the ground. Hot Rod couldn’t stop himself and plunged over the edge. He transformed, skidding and rolling, and _bouncing_, and landed flat on his back at Arcee’s feet. “Hi!” he said brightly.
Arcee shook her head in amazement and gave him a hand up.
“Tarla?” Jazz called. “You ok, girl?”
She watched the two jets soar away. The red-tinted one did a quick barrel roll, lights and stars streaking off his skin. “Yeah, I’m fine.” She transformed the suit and flew down, transforming again to land lightly on her feet.
“Show-off,” Hot Rod grumbled, brushing himself off. He shot her a quick grin, but his optics were more thoughtful than usual. “Can you make in it, or do you want a ride?”
“I’m fine,” she lied again, jamming her helmet on and sliding the visor down so no one could see her face.
She made it back, held it in control, until she saw Prime. She let the bike fall to the floor and pulled her helmet off. He took one look at her eyes and ordered everyone else out of the room. She cried herself past exhaustion and finally to sleep, curled in the palm of his hand.