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24 September 2011 @ 09:23 pm
Finally! The end of Starrunner's first story arc!  

Title: Finding the Center

Sequel to Approaching the Origin in series with Skimming the Surface, Under the Plating, and Down to the Casing.

Universe: loosely G1 cartoon. Makes reference to the episode Triple Take Over and the series of stories that begins with Anything You Like. Overlaps the events of Focus of the Sun.

Rated: PG

Pairing: None in the main storyline, but you may imagine Jazz/Prowl in the background, and Astrotrain/Cobweb if you hold your mouth right.

Author's Notes: Recognizable Characters/Names belong to Hasbro/Takara/IDW while Starrunner and Cobweb are my very own. 13100 words.

-:-radio transmission-:-


Jazz left medical feeling lighter, no longer entertaining any doubts about the young mech who might always think of him as 'Number Four'. He went straight to the executive offices and announced his arrival by tapping lightly on Prowl's door before stepping across the corridor to Ironhide who waved him in to speak to Prime. Prowl appeared behind him as Ironhide shut the outer door. Jazz took one chair before Prime's desk and Prowl took the other.

Optimus smiled behind the battle mask. "I hear the life of a gestalt takes some getting used to."

Jazz could not allow the opportunity to pass, he had to poke at Prime and Prowl. He expertly aped Starrunner's manner and speech pattern, "Yessir, Lord Prime-sir, it is very different."

They stiffened. Prowl drew in air sharply. Prime half stood up behind his desk, body language between a threat and a question. Ironhide spoke up quickly from his own desk where he was preparing to take notes for the official report. "Now Jazz, that really ain't funny."

Jazz laughed his own laugh and clapped the XO on the back. "Oh," he laughed, "yes it is 'Hide," more laughter, "you shoulda seen Prowl's face! Priceless." He cycled air amusedly and patted Prowl's shoulder. "Sorry, man, I couldn't resist. I left Starrunner in medical with Ratchet, really. I just had ta-"

"Never do that again," Prowl said flatly.

Optimus had eased back into his desk, smiling despite himself. "That is enough, Jazz. You really can't mimic Starrunner's body language, anyway. You weren't that impressionable the moment you were sparked."

Jazz resigned himself to make his report and answer their questions about the mission. By the time they were done, he was feeling the long hours of the mission and the strain powering two sets of processors and maintaining two spark chambers had put on him.

"Is there any need to record what I said so formally?" Jazz asked a little sharply when Ironhide read the summary back to them. "I mean, yeah, Starrunner'll make a great addition to the Ark but we already knew that." He hadn't thought there was any question remaining of how they would welcome Starrunner. He was conscious of a skeptical feeling in the room and resolved to alleviate it. Jazz forced himself to relax and resume his normal fluid posture, leaning casually back in his chair. He had believed there was no more need to sell the idea to Prowl and Prime. He smiled a winning smile and turned his attention to the XO beside him: "He even pointed out exactly what it was I did that got his attention in the first place."

Prowl remained impassive.

"He took you to one of his creators," Prime said thoughtfully, "whom he recognizes only as a friend. Who, he says, has been with him since he became aware. Yet you are convinced he doesn't even know Cobweb's a femme?"

Jazz heard the questioning tone and turned to answer the commander. "Yeah, Prime, that's true. I don't think he'd know to make a distinction if he met Elita One herself. Add to that, Cobweb's physically more like Bumblebee or Cliffjumper than Elita or Firestar. And I get the impression Cobweb doesn't talk much, even to Starrunner, keeping the distinction of her vocalizer from those who know enough to listen. The way Starrunner described Shockwave, he probably didn't even use pronouns himself or teach Starrunner to use any language of gender. Every bit of Starrunner's socialization was by Cobweb, and that not extensive." Prime was scowling; Prowl was positively stiff in the chair beside him. Jazz tried to lighten the mood: "Oh, c'mon, if you were the only female in the Decepticon base, or even here with us, would you draw attention to that fact if you didn't have to?" He grinned suggestively. "I mean, if it were known, she'd be popular but let's face it, all the attention would get old pretty quick especially with the mechs who don't know how to take 'no' for an answer. We've got a few like that in our ranks, so imagine what it'd be like for her!" Ironhide gave a ghost of a laugh and Prime's expression softened a bit: at least they were listening.

Prowl was calculating. "Ratchet and I spoke at some length while you were away. Starrunner is old enough that he should not still be bound to any of his creators. That was a puzzle to Ratchet: his only possible explanation was that Cobweb must be a female who resorted to heavy catalyst use, post-creation event. Even a mech Skyfire's size could not supply enough spark-energy to remain tied to a creation bigger than a turbofox this long and still function, catalyst or no. As it is, use of the catalyst indicates a lack of proper treatment after a creation. It was common at times even among us. The catalyst in the immediate term mimics recovery of spark energy, but it has damaging side-effects, mainly preventing true recovery of the donor's spark and therefore prolonging the period of connection to the offspring. The connection can be prolonged indefinitely. Your observance of Cobweb's behavior explains Starrunner's connection to her, and concerns me further for Starrunner's sake. Cobweb chose to remain in the Decepticon camp, and she has to be dependent on the catalyst after this much time. As long as Cobweb's spark is reduced Starrunner is compromised."

Prime picked up his second's train of thought. Clearly, the two of them had discussed it before Jazz returned. "Even if she began taking the catalyst in all innocence, just to alleviate the pain, Starrunner is more closely attached to her than he should be. He's more closely attached to a Decepticon than we can ev-"

Jazz had heard enough. He interrupted, "I was in their camp and Cobweb did nothing against me, just like he said." Gauging their body language and words, he exerted all the charisma he could, thinking they were underestimating Starrunner. He tried to find the intensity Starrunner had wrung from his vocalizer when he pled with Cobweb to join them: "Starrunner is as honest as any of us! I trusted him with my life an-"

The scowl returned to Prime's optics above his mask at having his train of thought derailed. He forced himself to relax a bit and held up a hand to still Jazz's protest. Jazz was making assumptions, and leapt to the wrong conclusion. Optimus cut back in. "Jazz. Give us some credit! We are not suggesting Starrunner be turned out, or treated as a prisoner. I do not doubt his spirit: he has demonstrated a selflessness that anyone would do well to emulate. He is more closely attached to a Decepticon than we can ever appreciate, being from Vector Sigma." He drummed his fingers on the desktop briefly, looking from Jazz to Prowl and back. "As difficult as it might have been to take in two, packed as tightly as we are, here and in New York, for his sake I do wish you could have brought Cobweb with you. Females are so few; I would feel better to know she was not within Megatron's reach."

They sat quietly a moment, each contemplating his own opinion of the implications in that statement.

Prowl changed the topic of conversation: "Did Cobweb give you any indication of the form the mutiny might take? Or the timeline?"

Jazz flashed his optics once, and shook his head in the local gesture of negation. "Nothing more. She seemed to believe it'll happen soon."

"We'd best be ready then," Prowl said, "and keep track of their movements from a safe distance."

Jazz excused himself, pleading his need to catch some energon and recharge: powering two sets of processors and maintaining two sparks for nearly a full day while exerting himself had drained his reserves. Prowl and Prime settled in to a dismal discussion of what would have happened had Starscream not called Devastator to retreat.

"Ratchet saved my life," Prowl was saying as the inner door cycled closed, "the probability of my survival was negligible and no-" the seal and the fact that Jazz didn't want to hear more separated him from that assessment.

"If anyone looks for me," he said to Ironhide as he stepped out of the suite, "tell 'em I went lookin' for Primus in a puddle."

"Will do, Jazz," Ironhide agreed, adding to himself, "looks like you need more'n a puddle o' energon to recover from that."

Prowl and Optimus conferred well into the morning, until Prowl decided he needed to spend more time analyzing their resources. He went back to his own office to work on an affordable way to counter Devastator.

Ironhide guessed his leader needed more time to think about their tactical state, too, and sent an unobtrusive text message to Optimus's console before he left for his regular maintenance appointment with Ratchet: Going to Medical - routine - back by 1200.

Optimus saw it, and heard the outer door open and close. Alone, he sat in silent contemplation for several breems, rehashing the conversations he'd had with his second in command in the days since that pitched battle; more accurately, in the few days since Prowl's repair. Megatron... Triple-changers... Devastator and improved strategic planning... Increased air power... it all adds up to more significant damage done, human collateral and Autobot intentional... On top of that, we have found a defector, a femme, and a mutiny.

A half hour later, he followed Ironhide.

As he let himself into the medics' domain, Optimus was surprised to see Ratchet but not Ironhide. Ratchet looked at him quizzically. Briefly, he forgot that he wasn't there merely to look for his friend. "Is everything all right, Ratchet? Ironhide said he was coming down here to see you."

"'Hide's in back," Ratchet answered him, then raised his voice as he returned his attention to the circuit board he was building. "Swoop! If he's still arguing about the weight, go ahead and use the oil he likes this time." He returned briefly to a conversational tone, "He'll just have to come back that much sooner if the lube's not optimal," before trailing off with a mumbled derogatory comment.

Optimus understood that Ratchet was mostly talking to himself and so didn't answer. He slowly moved to stand near the repair table he knew held the stably energized spark and processors of Ratchet's newest pet project. He could just catch the conversation between Ironhide and Swoop: the patient groused that heavier oil lasted longer and the medic-in-training explained that there was such a thing as too high a weight and viscosity. Obviously, Ratchet was tired of arguing with Ironhide and had delegated his periodic visits to his protégé.

Ratchet and Ironhide must be like the unstoppable force encountering the immovable object when they argue, Optimus thought, glad his mask hid his smile that was at his friends' expense, deciding to wait to begin his conversation with Ratchet until Ironhide came out. He returned his attention to the collection of parts before him.

Swoop ushered Ironhide back into the main work area.

"Optimus," Ironhide acknowledged him, sitting on a repair table as Swoop prepared to get to work. Optimus left off contemplating mortality to look up; he noticed the container the Dinobot brought with him wasn't quite the heaviest oil they had, but it was close. Maybe Swoop had pushed a compromise, after all.

"Ironhide," Optimus nodded, "Swoop, I hope he isn't being overly difficult?" He stepped closer to speak with them.

Swoop glanced his way. "Awk! No, Prime, him Ironhide perfectly difficult," he smiled reprovingly at his patient. "Practice make perfect," he quipped lightly, "and him have lots of practice."

Optimus was glad of the battle mask: Ironhide didn't need to know how apt he found that assessment of him.

Ratchet chuckled, having no such compulsion on Ironhide's behalf.

Swoop continued, "Maybe you Prime talking help him Ironhide hold still."

Ironhide, giving Swoop a good-natured dirty look - Primus knew he dished out enough teasing, he could take his share - turned his attention to Optimus, obediently holding the rest of his frame as still as possible. "Is everythin' all right, Optimus?"

Swoop worked smoothly while Ironhide and Prime talked about Jazz's report. Optimus had a nagging suspicion that Megatron's absence from their recent battlefields was somehow connected to Devastator's suddenly more purposeful behavior. "What Jazz didn't find out was whose tactics they follow when Megatron's not on the scene. Was it Soundwave's direction that Devastator look first at Prowl, then me? Or was it Starscream's, or even worse, his own? The last thing we need is a bigger threat from that gestalt."

Ironhide processed for a moment, trying not to flinch as Swoop removed some oxides. Slowly, he answered his friend's concerns. "It seems to me that what we need is ta fight fire with fire: build a gestalt or two ta counter Devastator. Omega's big enough but he's nearly as old as me, and less upgradable. He was built for defense durin' peace time, Optimus, not for the hard fightin' we see, and not for opponents as big as him. Heh, when he was built, Guardians were the biggest machines ever designed. Devastator may be less massive than him, but he's more wily, more agile, faster, an' tougher. And we don't dare send Omega out to a battle far from the Ark: we'd never be able to haul him home if he're damaged even as much as he was last week."

While Ironhide spoke, Optimus resumed his self-guided tour of the med-bay, slowly making a circuit. He stood for a moment over the table still occupied by Red Alert, wondering briefly if the security director's new processors would really help him, despite the extensive tests proceeding somewhere in the repair bay. He noticed Ratchet watching him openly when he got to a table with what appeared to be a hand and forearm in progress. Black matte finish, he noted, I'm not supposed to see that. He ended up in front of the bank of spark stabilization units; he counted sixteen unidentified sparks. As Ironhide's commentary on Omega Supreme versus Devastator wound down, Optimus squarely met the medic's optics. "What do you think, Ratchet?"

Ratchet didn't answer immediately, seeming to find the question a deep one.

Optimus spoke again. "Devastator concerns me greatly. Our lack of counters to him concerns me greatly. Our lack of medical personnel concerns me greatly: two is not enough."

Swoop snapped his head up to look at him at that, and looked appropriately conscious of the responsibility and the faith Optimus assigned him in that reference.

"We need a department full." Optimus paused, and scanned the room, finding the resolution to each of those concerns in the bank of softly-humming stasis lockers to which his gaze returned.

Ratchet and Swoop spoke at once: a soft squawk and deeply respectful "Thank you Prime," from the novice and a sharp "With whom do you propose I staff a department?" from the expert.

He lifted his hand to indicate the section of the wall that held the answer in carefully controlled fields, "With them," he said simply. He knew he had everyone's full attention. He looked levelly at Ratchet, "Speed up Swoop's training, building the new form for Starrunner. We know him now, and can be confident he'll be nothing but grateful and cooperative when you power him up, despite the problems the new form's bound to have when he becomes aware in it." He noticed Swoop's face fall and said, "No offense Swoop, but you can't tell me you don't know that no new build ever worked right the first time. Even with their experience, Ratchet and Wheeljack didn't give any of you Dinobots perfect functions, first try."

Ironhide nodded sagely, and Swoop looked from one to the other, perking up as he realized it wasn't anything particular to him that made Prime certain of his prediction.

Optimus continued addressing Ratchet, "While Swoop and Starrunner work out the details of that new body, Perceptor and Wheeljack can work full time with you to design a gestalt team to serve as medics and builders individually, as search and rescue vehicles in their alternate modes, and I want a serious opponent for Devastator in their combiner form."

"I have one problem with that idea, Optimus," Ratchet said, fingers still and expression dark. "How do we, in good conscience, tie five or six sparks so closely together, with no way to know how they'll get along? They might end up fragging each other."

"They only have to get along when they combine." Optimus felt less certain, not having thought of that himself, but didn't waver. "Like any team we have, they'll just have to be professional when they work together, when they train, when they fight Decepticons, personal feelings notwithstanding."

"Now Prime," Ratchet countered, "even assuming three known hot-heads turned up in the first batch Wheeljack chose," he referred to Grimlock, Slag and Snarl's sparks, which he and Ironhide were convinced they recognized from their previous lives, "there are bound to be others in the lot. They were Autobots, yes, but there are a couple I remember clearly who might make Slag look like Bumblebee, or Swoop here, and that was without possibly remembering dying. Fraggit, there might even be a 'Con spark or two in those chambers - we saved every spark we could that survived the crash, even when we couldn't identify the body. What will it do to the others involved if we build them up as a combiner team with one of those?"

Optimus was about to answer when Ironhide slowly drawled what he was thinking: "What'll it do to us if we don't? We almost lost Prowl because all we can do right now is slow Devastator down, an' Prime was next on his list."

-X-X-X-

On console that evening, Sunstreaker received the report from Cosmos: Megatron and Starscream were flying at full speed on an arc that would take them directly over the Pacific Ocean into Canada if they didn't change course for the Autobot base. He relayed that to the officer on duty, Prowl, who smiled tightly. Sunstreaker didn't know what to make of that: it was as strange to him as what he had to report next. "They're being followed by two big mechs we've never seen before, in root mode, far enough behind that the leaders may not know it." Fraggin' evil, even to each other.

"Thank you, Sunstreaker."

You ought to be at least a little bit interested, Sunstreaker thought, feeling himself scowl more deeply at what he perceived as Prowl's lack of concern. "This is the first time we've seen the Slag Maker out in over a month."

"I am aware of that. Send me their coordinates when they land or engage." Prowl cut the connection.

Later, at the midnight turnover, Blaster was full of gossip as he came on duty. He barely acknowledged Sunstreaker's off-going report that Megatron, Starscream, and two mechs, allegedly Triple-changers, had landed on the outskirts of Hamilton, Ontario and disappeared from their tracking methods; Powerglide had been dispatched from the New York City base to investigate. Blaster was more interested in the latest intel concerning the spy in the med bay.

"'Comber was cleaning the galley when Blue and Red," by whom he meant Optimus Prime and Ironhide, "drove through for a drink." He dropped his voice under the pretense that what he had to say was for Sunstreaker's audios only, although they both knew everyone else in the area for turnover could easily hear him. "Doc's bringing Double-oh Seven back for an encore. Officially sanctioned. What're we gonna do, use him for target practice? That's what he'll be whenever the 'Cons see him! What good can he be to us now? His double-agent days are through," he declared, referring to the deduction reached by those not in a position to know, who believed that their defector - now nicknamed Double-oh Seven for James Bond - was an Autobot spy left behind in deep cover on Cybertron when the Ark departed.

Sunstreaker fairly growled an answer, "He knows more about their tactics and that slag than anyone else." Gratitude and resentment mixed, and the more he learned about Star- What was the rest of his name? - the more curious and respectful he felt, but the novelty of those two things made him more resentful. What am I supposed to say to him if they do manage to rebuild him? 'Hey, I campaigned to get you new plating, thanks for saving mine'? Right. Swallowing my pride is just blowing exhaust compared to what he did. And frag if he didn't even think about it. He just flew right into the fight, no weapon... Wish I could remember his name.

Blaster prattled on about something Warpath had done earlier in the day. Sunstreaker glared at him a little and declared himself relieved of duty, thinking, You didn't even catch his name, did you? And I can't fraggin' ask, and even Jazz might not know his real one.

He registered that Blaster narrowed his optics at him, but left anyway. "Keep watching Hamilton," he ground out harshly as he left, "whatever the Pit's gonna go down, it'll start there."

-X-X-X-

There was no further Decepticon movement that night or the following day. Powerglide saw nothing on his many surveys of the region, not in the city, its suburbs, or even the surrounding states. On the second day after their sighting of Megatron, Sideswipe had the PM stint on comm duty. Sunstreaker joined him after target practice got boring and he couldn't find any more scratches to polish out of his finish. They put their heads together, and found feeds of local news programs from the Hamilton area. A brief report on train schedule problems caught their attention.

"Hey, bro'?" Sideswipe said, as the topic shifted from that particular shipping complaint to the indiscretion of a small-time politician. "Wasn't one of the Triple-changers supposed to be a train?"

"Yeah, I think so," Sunstreaker answered, pulling up an image of the city, and filtering it for railroad tracks. "Spacetrain or some slag like that."

Sideswipe called the officer of the day in his quarters; tonight it was Jazz. As the console chirped for attention, he commented on the recent change of living arrangements: "I wonder if Jazz's move had anything to do with Double-oh Seven?" Sideswipe had coined that reference, because it was his assertion that if he had to infiltrate the Decepticon ranks, he would not use his real name, so it stood to reason that 'Starrunner' was just an alias.

"According to Blaster, everything is because of Double-oh Seven," Sunstreaker rumbled.

"You haven't forgiven him yet, have ya, Sunny?" Sideswipe asked, meaning to try to get his twin to talk about Starrunner, since he knew that little-known individual was prying on Sunstreaker's mind of late, forcing him to come to grips with being saved by a stranger.

Sunstreaker looked up to find Sideswipe looking at him too seriously for comfort. He mistook his brother's intention, defaulting to an affront paid him by Blaster, months past. Fragger, he thought, and meant both his brother and the similarly finished communication lead. Jazz answered the summons at that moment, sparing him from having to answer the question.

"What's up, Sides?" Jazz asked quietly. It was the day-shift recharge period, so he was being considerate of his new roommate and toning down his usual boisterousness.

"Amtrak and Northern Pacific report delays on their routes leading through Hamilton, Jazz," Sideswipe explained.

"And there are two separate reports of explosions from inside the Tiger-Cats stadium," Sunstreaker added, skimming reports on a conspiracy forum. "It’s reported to be defended by a tank of unknown make. Some say the expended shells found were from an alien warship, and debunkers say they look just like mortars from a Japanese maker."

Jazz processed a few cycles. "Those theories aren't mutually exclusive. Could be Astrotrain and Blitzwing. I'll be there in a tick."

Sideswipe turned to his brother. "Alien warship? Really, bro'? That sounds like something out of Star Trek."

"Who do you think writes these reports? Humans who inhale that exhaust."

Sideswipe shrugged one shoulder, "Guess so." They were quiet a moment. "We live in an alien warship, huh?"

"Nah," Sunstreaker said as Jazz strode in, "we live in an alien transport ship. Not the same."

"Isn't this some of your off-duty time, Sunshine?" Jazz asked, leaning over Sunstreaker to make it clear he was interested in the map he had pulled up.

"Don't fraggin' call me that."

Jazz ignored the admonition. "Hail Cosmos, Sides," he directed softly, processing. "He's got some new coordinates to monitor."

Reports of strange events in that area grew more frequent over the next several hours. Further shipping delays seemed to confirm problems in the rail lines and air space around Hamilton. The Tiger-Cats head coach was reported missing, last seen by one of his players after the others left practice, but that player's account was deemed hysterical and he was subjected to psychiatric evaluation. The press was not allowed to question him; the Autobots who stood comm duty skimmed blogs and monitored chat rooms, concluding that the Decepticons were still there but mostly staying out of sight somehow.

Prowl's federal contacts had the city evacuated. Jazz worked with the White House and Prime Minister's press offices to explain the need to evacuate without reference to a war between alien robots and a mutiny within the hostile faction: a serious terrorist bombing threat was fabricated.

They got the populace out just in time. The following morning Cosmos reported Cybertronian energy signals in the vicinity of a highway interchange south of the city. Prowl declared that the threshold for direct intervention had been reached. Optimus agreed that he should lead a small group to investigate, "Quietly. Preferably without engaging the enemy."

Bluestreak and Prowl left the Ark and sped over interstates at speeds local law enforcement could neither credit nor match; each state en route hailed Prowl over radio, assuming he was chasing the other Datsun. Lights and sirens going to get civilians to give way, he thanked each trooper and dispatcher politely but told them he was escorting the other vehicle on federal authority. When they arrived in upstate New York, they slowed down in an attempt to avoid Constructicon notice. Skids and Tracks met them over a hundred miles outside the city. Prowl reported their rendezvous and their plan to quickly investigate the suspicious new construction.

Prowl failed to check in at the appointed interval. Optimus, Jazz, Mirage and Trailbreaker developed a plan to follow them into the fray. None of Prowl's team responded to hails from orbit. Fearing the worst with Devastator involved, Prime sent Hoist and Smokescreen out from the New York base to go look for them. Powerglide overflew the strange edifice in the meantime, finding there a freeway maze that had not even been scarred for when he was sent to look for Decepticon movement only four days earlier. Stationary but erratic spark-energy readings appeared atop the thing.

Powerglide located the missing bots, not believing his own scans until he clearly made out an Oregon state symbol on a bit of black enamel built into what looked like a Constructicon-sized chair. With Hoist and Smokescreen's help he rescued the severely damaged and contorted mechs from what was clearly intended to become a Constructicon stronghold. Thankful none of them were conscious, they hauled the first casualties to the eastern base for triage.

Somehow the Decepticons flooded the city, literally flushing the remaining locals from their homes and offices. The Autobots went back in to rescue all they could. Trailbreaker used his force fields to push the water out of town, down storm drains and over the streets into the river; the others scoured the area for movement.

"What's really goin' on is anyone's guess," Ironhide remarked at one point, treading water with Optimus and trying to save a few more humans who had ignored the evacuation order.

Cosmos reported Megatron's signature over the industrial rail lines of Hamilton along with increased Seeker activity: apparently the reinforcements from Cybertron had arrived. Where he had been catching glimpses of Seekers in twos and threes, and told to assume they were only the well-known trio, with Megatron's reappearance, they were all in the air at the same time: three F-15s and three aircraft of blatant Cybertronian design.

Optimus Prime responded, and boarded Skyfire himself as part of the third expedition.

Skyfire dropped that load off, then picked up the injured from Smokescreen's watch and sprinted for Oregon.

In Hamilton, at the National Steel Car train yard monitoring station, Optimus encountered Megatron. "Incinerating you is of no interest to me," he goaded his nemesis, "I'm looking for the leaders of the Decepticons!"

Megatron not only allowed Optimus to roll away from that altercation without a real fight but promptly disappeared, presumably carried by various minions to mask his whereabouts. How he maintained the service of all six Seekers was a mystery to the Autobots, who had fully expected them to be the source of the mutiny and led by Starscream. Starscream looked for all the universe as if he were thoroughly cowed by Megatron, bowing and scraping in his wake more than ever. The Triple-changers, if they had been in league against the Slag Maker, were clearly not coordinating their efforts, or taking up for each other. Stranger still, Blitzwing appeared to be colluding with Devastator.

Optimus deemed it enough to monitor the situation and stay out of it, judging it as sufficient that they had retrieved their missing scouts and minimized human casualties.

It took Trailbreaker most of a day to sweep the water away. Steering the water out into the lake in the pre-dawn light, he discovered a drowned Cybertronian grill-down at the edge of deeper water. Having an automotive alt-mode and no distinguishable badging, he assumed the tiny car was a Minibot he merely didn't recognize. He radioed that data to the Ark, adding -:-I don't know who he is but I'm bringing him in.-:-

A skirmish at the rendezvous point led Skyfire to depart the area with only the off-line stranger. Trailbreaker insisted he go immediately, even briefly holding a force field between Skyfire and their attacker to buy him the time to get to a good distance. Not knowing how long he'd been off-line, Skyfire agreed to deliver the damaged mech to Ratchet back at the Ark as soon as possible.

The plating of the tiny car was essentially in place, but all its glass was broken and the entire interior soaked with water. A cursory scan confirmed Trailbreaker's assertion that it was a Cybertronian. He had clearly been caught in the flooding and completely submerged, tossed about by the water amid other large debris, judging from the gouges and dents.

"All his wiring's been drenched," Ratchet muttered, only half to the mechs around him, as he assessed the stranger in Skyfire's cargo area cursorily, "I'll have to check every bit of it for shorting."

Mirage joined him in Skyfire's cargo bay, always a bit squeamish about boarding a sentient being. He was displeased to be left second-in-command of the Ark, but Prowl had designated him to cover the Executive Officer duties whenever he was unavailable, which meant running the base now fell to him whenever both Prowl and Optimus Prime were absent. Jazz was willing to take the reins as acting commander for Optimus Prime, but laid anything remotely administrative on Mirage. Personnel issues short of mutiny were all Mirage's to handle, as far as Jazz was concerned. So, Mirage dutifully met Skyfire with Ratchet, and stayed as far out of Ratchet's business as possible while still feeling properly supervisory.

"You need some attention, yourself, Skyfire," the chief medical officer said to the transport as he lifted the unconscious transformer from Skyfire's deck. "How in the Pit did you get him in here by yourself?"

"I did not. Trailbreaker loaded him. A new Seeker was bearing down on us, and Trailbreaker tossed this little one in and laid down a covering fire so I could get airborne and return." Skyfire watched Swoop accept the sodden and sorely damaged mechanoid from Ratchet with more care than he would have credited many an Autobot, let alone a Dinobot, and run into the Ark. "Who is he?"

"Not one of ours," Mirage scowled, processing as he considered preventing Swoop taking the strange mech to the repair bay. "Ratchet, when he is stable, please keep him off-line until Jazz and I get there," he said slowly as he followed the same path Swoop had taken. Mirage turned to go find Jazz and force an opinion from him on this particular matter.

The CMO puzzled over that direction: Autobots had joined them from other details before but Prime always expected them, told at least his officers about them beforehand so arrangements could be made to properly welcome brothers-in-arms. Mirage hasn't heard of this one either, he mused, Why keep him secret? And why send him into that Decepticon mess right away?

In the med bay, Ratchet continued his assessment. There were no blaster marks on him, no injuries that could not be explained by water and impacts with large objects. His tires were shredded, which appeared to have happened when he skidded across Skyfire's deck plates with his wheels - and assumedly everything else - locked up.

A few hours later, Ratchet was confident he could bring the little black transformer online. He sent Mirage a text message to that effect.

One of his diagnostic scans revealed a bit of data he thought explained the identity of this patient, but he wanted Jazz to confirm.

Less than a breem passed before Mirage and Jazz stood over the repair table on which the battered car was parked. "Is this who I think it is?" Jazz asked, thinking he did not have the reserves to deal with any more unusual Decepticon behavior right then. He looked around the repair bay. They were certainly not recovered yet from the altercation with the Constructicons less than two days past. Tracks was aware but sedated, missing only a few key stretches of plating but also clearly missing the structure beneath it, bent and cracked as it had been in the steam-rolling he suffered. He was just conscious enough to watch suspiciously as Swoop worked to recondition a piece of cobalt plating. Prowl was still off-line and much of his plating was removed; a fan blew filtered, conditioned air over him to keep dust away and maintain his temperature uniformly. Bluestreak and Skids were mostly intact, and appeared to be recharging normally, dents and gouges still awaiting attention after the more serious cases were better addressed.

"Jazz?" Mirage prodded, turning his gaze back to the only other mech in the room who was neither a patient nor medic. Jazz slowly moved his head to look at Mirage. "Who do you think this is?"

Jazz looked thoughtfully at the subject of Mirage's concern. "I think it is Starrunner's friend, Cobweb. Definitely small enough, and what Trailbreaker described could be that Mini Cooper: they have a boxy frame like that. It's hard to tell for certain with the patch-work look goin' on and parts missing. I only ever saw Cobweb in root mode, and Starrunner's image he offered for scaling Astrotrain was taken from a few thousand feet up."

Ratchet walked up to them with four tires and a handful of netted sensor wire. "She is small enough, Jazz, and I think the Cooper is what we're seeing."

Every optic in the room that had a functioning audio receiver and processor associated with it turned to the medic.

"Excuse me, Ratchet," Tracks spoke up, "I did not hear you clearly. Repeat that, please."

Jazz wished he had the energy to laugh at Mirage, Tracks and Swoop. Mirage blanked his expression, out of the loop on that front since the night he and Bluestreak found Starrunner on the road. Tracks scowled as if fighting his own processor over Ratchet's word-choice; Swoop smiled brightly and set the piece of Corvette down gently to join them in looking curiously at the stranger.

Ratchet laughed. "Your audios are fine, Tracks. Your processor maybe a little fragged, but that doesn't change the fact that this little transformer has as much spark-energy as a platoon of mechs her size. Her meiotronic ratio is well above the threshold, definitely a femme." He deftly installed the basis of Cybertronian neural connections in one of the tires and prepped it for installation. "Her form is constructed in a style similar to Starrunner's: same design transformation cogs, patterns of seams and connections, no significant subspace. They are products of the same designer."

Tracks's scowl deepened, not knowing who Starrunner was to be similar to this Cobweb.

A passive monitor nearby chirped. Jazz and Mirage startled slightly, both jumpy from lack of recharge and worry over the injured and the second and third waves out in the field. Swoop pressed the button to acknowledge the alarm and silence it. He looked brightly at his mentor and chirped. "She come on-line soon."

Ratchet turned his personal scans on his newest patient. "Yes - that reminds me Swoop - the higher a bot's spark-energy-to-mass ratio, the faster internal repairs are made. Since none of her primary neural net was broken, there won't be a lot for us to do now except recondition her plating." He absently made optic contact with his student, then turned an almost accusing look on Jazz. "Should I let her power back up?"

Swoop went back to work on Tracks's armor. "The drowned Minibot's a femme?" Tracks ground out, one word at a time.

"Yes," Swoop answered him simply.

"Yes," Jazz said to Ratchet in stereo with Swoop, then continued, "but only after you get her in her root mode if possible. And do what you have to, to keep her in it." He contemplated the small form. Thoughtfully, he said, "We have no way to know what weapons she has, or how likely she is to use them."

"Give me a groon. Better yet, go on about what needs done today and I'll call for you when she's able to talk to you." Ratchet was back to work on her other three tires.

Mirage immediately started moving for the door; Jazz followed a few steps behind. As Mirage cleared the door, he noticed Jazz had stopped. He almost turned to look back when he heard Ratchet admonish the saboteur and acting commander for lingering past his welcome, still commanding officer of the med bay. Mirage kept walking. He is worried about Prowl, he thought. They are good friends, definitely the logical choice for Prowl to suffer to share his quarters, if we must take in more here, he thought, crediting the rumor-mill with one correct deduction of late, closest in rank and longest associate. Although whoever came up with the idea that Starrunner is a long-lost agent of ours must have had some very high-quality catalyst. I will petition Prowl to approve Bluestreak to move in with me, then my room is full and Perceptor's has an opening. I do not want an unknown sharing my quarters.

-X-X-X-

It was almost evening when Swoop walked unhesitatingly into the command office. "Him Ratchet say come," he said before turning and leaving. Mirage was about to speak to Jazz when he heard movement in the inner office and deduced that Swoop's voice had carried well enough. He stood as the inner door opened and fell in beside his colleague. They walked in silence to the repair bay.

Jazz paused on the way in, standing near the table on which Prowl lay.

"Has he been on-line?" he asked. Mirage couldn't tell any difference in Prowl, but that didn't mean Ratchet and Swoop hadn't been working on him, too.

"No, Jazz, not yet," Swoop answered, "him Ratchet say probably tonight; that big part of why him Ratchet resting now."

Mirage spoke briefly with Tracks, who seemed to be concerned that Ratchet had left Swoop to watch over their patients. Mirage did his best to reassure him: "Ratchet will work himself to stasis before he will leave you in hands that might harm you. You know that, Tracks. He has been working without a respite since you were brought in, do not begrudge him a bit of recharge." Tracks seemed satisfied, but still watched Swoop closely. Mirage and Jazz approached the newcomer, sitting up on one of the recovery tables along the wall.

Swoop was tinkering with something that looked like a signal inhibitor. "This keep you in root-mode."

The little black robot scowled up at the Dinobot, light-colored optics framed by a grim expression.

Mirage was concerned. This stranger was not constructed like anyone he'd ever met, having gaps between her dermal plates as if she were unfinished, delicate internals and alt-mode parts exposed without regard for normal Cybertronian aesthetics. Mirage scanned for faction markings and saw none. Looking closer, he noted that the surfaces which would have been the most likely locations for badges were among those that looked recently-repaired. Is that a coincidence that her badging is gone? he wondered.

Jazz tried to break the ice. He stepped closer to the stranger's repair berth, smiling warmly. "Hey there," he offered gently, switching to an informal Cybertronian from the local language as he continued, "is Swoop treatin' you all right, now, Cobweb?"

"How do you-" know her? Mirage started to ask, but stopped to watch, grateful that no one else seemed to notice that he had spoken.

The nearly-white optics focused slowly on Jazz. The scowl shifted, and Mirage got the impression that it was not for any of them, but for some internal problem, possibly an incompletely dried-out processor. The optics dimmed once in affirmation as the head dipped slightly in Jazz's direction.

"He'll do right by ya, as well as he can, and so will Ratchet. As long as you cooperate. I'm Jazz," he held out a hand in greeting, which was met with a slightly questioning look and a ginger grasp of his forearm by their guest, "We met once, if you remember?"

Cobweb gave no indication of agreement or denial.

Jazz continued, "And this is Mirage. Tracks. Swoop," he gestured to each in turn, not releasing her arm as he directed her attention. "Bluestreak. Prowl. Skids. That pile of scrap there," he said fondly, indicating the work table where a set of processors and a spark chamber supported by a power supply and regulator lay amid shiny new parts of an airframe, "is Starrunner." Jazz watched carefully for any sign of recognition from his target.

He was not disappointed. The minimalist faceplates slowly shed the look of patient indifference for one of relief. Cobweb returned Jazz's grip firmly, and met his optics again. She was questioning him, silently.

"Starscream meant to finish him off, but Sunny rolled off him, trying not to crush him, and I got a few good shots in." Jazz waited a beat to see if he would get a response; Cobweb returned her gaze to Starrunner's table.

How am I going to get the whole story from Jazz? Mirage wondered, watching them, There must be a lot he has neglected to tell me. Then, another idea hit him, I am asking the wrong mech! Prowl as XO controls the information disseminated here, and if Prowl told Jazz to keep a thing under his helmet, Soundwave could not pry it from him.

-X-X-X-

Well, she hasn't offered to resist anything yet, Jazz thought. He found the look on her faceplates to be a sad one, and wondered if seeing Starrunner like that might not be the same to their guest as seeing Optimus or Prowl down was to him. Thinking it probably was similar, worse because they were programmed as Decepticons and she was seeing her friend, maybe even her creation, incapacitated in an enemy camp, Jazz shifted to holding her hand and perched on a stool Ratchet must have been working from earlier. "I bet Starscream exaggerated his success," he said, drawing out the Cybertronian words.

Cobweb turned sharply to look at him, grasping his hand shakily. She responded with a burst of rapid, accented Cybertronian.

That's nothing Shockwave ever programmed, Jazz thought, shaking his head, but smiling warmly. "That was just too fast for my audios today." He laughed a little, trying to get her to relax in his presence. He used the informal Cybertronian again, "I'm out of practice in our language, anyway," and switched to the local language: "We left Cybertron thousands of vorns ago," as if that were a factor, "Say again, please?"

Slowly, in more formal Cybertronian, she repeated her question, "You-" collective plural, "-are rebuilding Starrunner?"

Jazz adjusted the distance of his stool, still close enough to speak conversationally with Cobweb but far enough to keep much of his field from impinging on hers in case she was inclined to be definite about her personal space. "Yeah, we are. He's a good spark to have around."

The compliment was well-received, so he knew Cobweb did have the English translation subroutine. Cobweb lay back onto her berth, relaxing her grip on Jazz's hand but maintaining that contact. She seemed to smile slightly.

Jazz was about to ask her what happened to her, how the mutiny went bad, when he realized she was off-line, recharging trustingly.

At least she isn't trying to fight us, he thought, finding the little fingers awkward to disengage and choosing to sit with her in medical as long as Swoop would allow.

-X-X-X-

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Current Mood: accomplishedaccomplished
Current Music: We Weren't Born to Follow, Bon Jovi, for Starrunner and Cobweb