Collateral Damage

By Princess Artemis

© S.D. Green 2002, 2003 excepting for what belongs to Hasbro

Several people scattered from where they stood on the sidewalk as a particularly rare green and white sports car shot up the curb and started driving on two wheels in the street. A few gaped at the incredible skill of the driver; the car somehow managed to pull off a tight corner in the empty street, sped toward the other sidewalk curb, and used it as a launch pad. The low slung car performed an incredible aerial spin before landing soft as a feather. Then the vehicle screeched around to face the admiring crowd...and they gasped. There was no driver.

Perhaps they shouldn't have been so surprised, considering that walking right down the middle of the street was a tall, red and blue Autobot. The Lancia transformed and the small crowd erupted into spontaneous applause. The winged Autobot bowed to them all, thanking them for their appreciation, the extensions on the sides of his head that could only be called ears flashing a bright blue.

"It appears that rubber tires suit you well, Wheeljack," the red and blue Autobot said in a lightly accented voice.

"Oh yeah," Wheeljack answered enthusiastically. "I could never pull stunts like that back on Cybertron. I'm still the best, Perceptor, still the best."

"And no one has attempted to oust you from your self-proclaimed position?" Perceptor asked, bemused. "Not even Jazz?"

"Not a chance. Tracks might make an attempt, but he'd be cheating, using his wings. No, I'm still the king of the road. Having tires makes it all that much more fun." The two Autobots started walking together down the street.

"How often are you able to indulge in this madness you dare call transportation?"

"It's called stunt driving, and not often. Most of the time there are too many other cars on the road."

The two continued walking in the early-morning sun. It had been just the night before that Sideswipe, Brawn, and the Dinobots had managed to break through to part of the Ark that had been inaccessible for the better part of a year. All the Autobots had been quite surprised to find that their fellows had been reformatted by Teletran-1 into Earth alt-modes, but they had been even more surprised that there were no Decepticons there. Prowl had suggested that perhaps the Decepticons had found out about the deeply buried section of the Ark and had Skywarp warp in and pull out all the Decepticons he could manage. It sounded as likely enough an explanation as any; on his own, Skywarp wouldn't have enough energy to rescue his comrades and do any damage to the remaining Autobots.

It had been quite a fortunate accident that the Autobots had broken through when they did and that very few of the still-dormant Autobots needed more than minor repairs and some energy. Whenever the Decepticons had rescued their comrades, it had happened very recently. So the two factions' forces were relatively even again.

Today was the first day Perceptor had seen Earth or humans, as he had been one of the Autobots recovered the night before, and Wheeljack was giving him something of a tour. Several other Autobots who had been active for the past year were catching up with their friends in a similar way all over Oregon.

"So," Wheeljack said as they walked, "I haven't had a chance to see what Teletran-1 did for your Earth makeover."

"I'm quite certain that very little has changed. Earth or Cybertron, a magnifying device cannot look a great deal different," Perceptor answered.

"Yeah, but on Earth the microscopes are a lot smaller. We have Earth disguises in addition to alt-modes. You wouldn't believe the grief Soundwave's given us now that he can shrink into a human-sized tape deck. Whatever he transformed into before wasn't even a tenth as useful or annoying."

"All right, but perhaps we should retire to the sidewalk. I am certain I would not like to be run down should I prove to have a very small transform."

"OK." So Wheeljack and Perceptor stepped out of the slowly filling street and onto the sidewalk, walking carefully around the humans who were making their way to work. They turned into an alley between two buildings and walked a short distance away from the sidewalk. Then Perceptor transformed, shrinking into a human-scale microscope. Wheeljack laughed and picked him up between his thumb and forefinger.

"That's pretty small," Wheeljack commented, setting Perceptor in the palm of his gray-brown hand. The engineer's palm dwarfed the scientist in this form.

"Indeed. I will have to study the subspace shunting involved in this transformation. I've lost quite a bit of mass."

Wheeljack gently tossed Perceptor to his other hand. Perceptor promptly blasted Wheeljack's finger with his light cannon.

"Ow!" Wheeljack cried, dropping the small microscope in surprise and shaking his hand. "What was that for?"

Perceptor transformed quickly on his way down, returning to his normal size and landing on his feet. "I don't particularly appreciate being bounced around like a ball," he said, but with a smile. At such a tiny size, his light cannon wasn't capable of doing more than delivering a minor sting.

"Well all right, no playing catch with the microscope," Wheeljack commented, his ears flashing brightly with mirth. "If you practice that a bit, I bet you could stay that small in robot mode."

"That could be useful. Let me see," Perceptor replied, then transformed again, this time without shrinking. "As I suspected. A human-scaled telescope would need to be a great deal larger. I am relieved to have a choice...I would not like to have lost my defensibility."

"Nah," Wheeljack agreed, "that wouldn't be very good. Don't go blasting my fingers now, I'd like to keep them!"

Perceptor laughed a little. "No, I won't hit your fingers now. Hmm. Lost mobility? No...it's just different." He moved forward a short distance on caterpillar treads. At this size, Perceptor's light cannon was nearly as powerful as it could be, and would take off more than Wheeljack's fingers should he choose to use it.

"Yeah, none of us have antigravity in our alt-modes anymore," Wheeljack said.

"It's a good deal slower," Perceptor muttered unhappily, then returned to his robot form.

"What about your other form?" Wheeljack asked. "Still have that?"

With some reluctance, Perceptor transformed a third time, into a tank. This form was a good deal larger than Warpath's alt-mode, with what would be the wrong' end of his lens barrel pointed out, the same caterpillar treads as his first alt-mode, and more blue along the front and sides. It was a formidable transform, all told, as Perceptor was not a particularly small Autobot. "Yes, it appears I do." He didn't sound happy about it, and quickly changed back.

"It might be useful," Wheeljack said. "Just for the firepower alone. Too bad it uses those treads. Anti-grav would have been nice to keep for that mode."

"I hope such an eventuality never occurs." Perceptor's optics glinted slightly at an unpleasant memory from long ago.

"Me too," Wheeljack agreed, knowing exactly what it was that his companion remembered. "Well, let's keep walking. There's a lot to see here, and we've barely started!"

* * *

Not far away, Rumble and Buzzsaw argued about how best to blow off some steam. Skywarp and Dirge had decided a little game of catch would be just the thing after establishing that Dirge's turbines had the same effect on humans as they did on Transformers, namely, the induction of intense fear.

Most of the test subjects for Dirge sat against a wall, five human men, some in business suits, others in uniforms pertaining to their various jobs. They were all quite terrified, for reasons far beyond Dirge's haunting turbine harmonics. The two Decepticon jets were using a sixth human to toss back and forth like a ball. By far worse was the fate of the seventh human, the one over which Rumble and Buzzsaw were arguing.

Buzzsaw hovered in front of the human, carving a little bite out of his face every now and again. Or his arm, or leg. Then he would float back, look over his handiwork, and go in for another bite. The man cried out with every bite, occasionally letting out a scream when Buzzsaw would bite a little deeper, carve a little more.

Rumble tapped his foot, uncomfortable with the whole thing. There was no way anyone could accuse Rumble of liking humans, but he didn't find torturing them to be nearly as fun as scaring them. It actually made him acutely uncomfortable. Maybe it was because he was the same size and it would be painfully easy for the situation to be switched and have him being carved up by that damnable bird. "Buzzsaw, cut it out," he grumped, pushing the orange condor away from the man.

Buzzsaw screeched and took a nip out of Rumble's hand, then went back to his carving.

"Well you don't have to get an attitude about it, Buzzy!" Rumble shouted. Dirge smiled coldly from a short distance away.

The Decepticon bird screeched again and this time bit Rumble's face. "OW! You slaggin' metal feathered creep!" Rumble turned his right arm into a pile driver and aimed it at Buzzsaw, who had gone back to his carving as if nothing had happened. "When I get through with you, you're gonna be part of someone's vacuum cleaner!"

The short blue Decepticon brought down his pile driver hard, exactly over Buzzsaw's back. But the bird was too quick, darting out of the way before the incredible force behind Rumble's attack could connect.

It connected with the human below instead.

Rumble stared at the mass of gore under his pile driver, his mouth agape in disbelief. He had shoved humans, kicked them, hurt them, tackled them...but so far, he'd never actually killed one, not that he remembered. And certainly not in such a horrific way as this; he knew he'd never seen so much dripping red in his long life. Blood covered his pile driver arm nearly to the shoulder.

Behind him, Buzzsaw croaked a cruel laugh, a raucous crowing sound. Rumble growled and unslung one of his guns from his back and aimed it at Buzzsaw, but the shot never connected.

It didn't have to. A wide, white light struck Buzzsaw with enough force to shatter him, sending metal wings and parts flying in every direction.

Rumble stood up straight, confused for a second. Then he looked back and cried, "Autobots!" just before he too found himself blown into pieces.

* * *

"What is that sound?" Perceptor asked, listening to something that he had never heard before.

Wheeljack hissed, "That's a human screaming! Let's go!"

With that, the two Autobots ran down the alley and turned a corner, just in time to see Rumble's pile driver come down, just in time to see one human man lose his life in a most violent way.

None of them would ever know it, but the disbelief in Rumble's face was echoed in Perceptor's, and Wheeljack's wings swung up and twitched. For an instant, there was silence: Skywarp held the human he had been tossing to Dirge, optics almost glazed. Dirge looked down at the mess Rumble had caused and made no motion. The five humans sitting in fear against the wall stared, their eyes fixed on the horror before them.

Then Buzzsaw laughed. Something deep in Perceptor's mind clicked and then snapped. For a split second he saw Cybertron, saw three Neutrals and two Decepticons...three helpless Neutrals...then everything went into a white rage-fear haze in his mind. He transformed into his tank form and shot Buzzsaw with the full force of his light cannon. He moved as fast as this form would permit him, tearing up the asphalt with the weight of him and his treads.

Perceptor targeted Rumble and fired, scattering his arms and legs to the winds. Something moved, something in front of him, but he didn't see it clearly. He targeted Dirge and fired again, blasting a hole in the Decepticon's wing.

Again something moved near him, but Perceptor didn't stop, swinging his cannon over to target Skywarp. There was a metallic crunch and a wet, squishing noise. Skywarp dropped his arm and his aim, an expression on his face that didn't register, and once he was in Perceptor's sights, he too found himself shot with white fire.

Another sound, an harmonic sound, a voice shouting. Dirge was right there. Then he wasn't. Two different Decepticons stood there instead, three Neutrals at their mercy...helpless. Perceptor rapid-fired on them, hitting them both... They fell. The sound stopped. Dirge fell.

Another shout. It took far too long to sink in, far too long to be heard.

A hysterical human voice. "You killed him!"

The threat was gone, and the white-haze started to fade. Perceptor transformed, turning around to look behind him toward the source of the voice.

"You killed him!"

"What? I did what?"

The shouting human looked up, his face full of fear and rage. Then it shifted, and his body fell in grief. He held up a hand, a blood covered hand, palm forward, fingers splayed.

Perceptor shifted his gaze from the human to what lay next to him. Something red and slick and broken. He couldn't process what it was, but there was another thing like it nearby. Next to that Wheeljack sat, speaking into his communicator, his foot crushed. Just beyond him a human lay against the wall, apparently injured. Perceptor turned and looked to the Decepticons, watched Skywarp drag himself over to his comrades, watched him try to rouse Dirge, watched him collect Buzzsaw and Rumble's scattered parts.

Next to one of Rumble's arms, the one coated in red, sat the remains of a human. Suddenly the other two broken red things gained meaning...two more crushed humans.

"I did...what?" He turned back, looked down again, and saw two sets of blood lines on the alley ground, leading right to where he stood. It all started to fall into place, began to make a terrible sense. Perceptor reeled, took a step away, utterly overwhelmed. Killed him. Killed them. He returned his gaze to the human who had shouted at him. "I killed him...?" His voice was nearly inaudible.

The man lowered his hand.

Perceptor made a noise like thunder mingled with the bizarre sound of a computer tape, and then he staggered back and ran.

* * *

Giovanni Maha kneeled next to the mangled, splattered remains of his brother Anthony, his hands to his sides, both the bloody and the clean. He watched in a half-daze as his brother's killer ran. He felt detached from the whole situation; enough that he didn't even feel his own pain, none of the bruises and injuries he had received from the two other machines. He watched the black and purple one crawl around, picking up bits and pieces of metal, watched them disappear with a little pink flash.

A voice distracted him from the other machines. New York voice, he thought. East Coast, New England somewhere. Giovanni looked up at the owner of the voice and asked, "What was that?"

"I asked if you were all right. I got the paramedics comin'." This machine was a white and green one.

"I don't know," Giovanni answered. He looked down at his brother, what was left of him. Some part of his mind told him to be revolted, to stop looking, to cry or scream or run or pass out, but for some reason he couldn't manage any of that. "What happened? Who are you?"

The white machine hobbled a little closer on a crushed foot, sitting down a safe distance away. "It shouldn't have happened, that's what. I'm sorry. My name's Wheeljack. Have you heard about us? Autobots and Decepticons?"

"A little, on the news sometimes. I'd heard about some battles...in other places."

Wheeljack glanced toward the alley the other machine had used to flee, and then he set his head in his hands. "Me and him," Wheeljack pointed down the alley, "are Autobots. Them," now he pointed at the other scattered machines, "they're Decepticons. Do you know what happened before we got here?"

Giovanni squinted at one of the other machines, the black one. "No...not really. It's fuzzy. I was walking to work, then I was just afraid, terrified. I think I got banged up a bit."

"I'll make sure the paramedics give you a look-over. I saw you fall out of Skywarp's hand. I'm sorry about what happened."

"This is my brother. Don't you be sorry, you didn't kill him." Wheeljack winced, giving Giovanni pause. He wasn't at all sure what to make of this one.

"I'm still sorry. What's your name?"

"Giovanni Maha. My brother is Anthony."

Ambulance sirens cut through the morning air, and Wheeljack stood. "I gotta go talk to these guys, Mr. Maha. You have my word we'll do everything we can for you." Wheeljack dipped his head, then walked over to the arriving paramedics.

He watched Wheeljack talk to the doctors. He watched the black machine, the one Wheeljack had called Skywarp, lift himself off the ground, trying to pull up a blue and gold machine. They managed to stagger up enough to be upright, and then they started flying, Skywarp holding the other one in his arms.

Shortly a few paramedics came over to Giovanni's side, moving him away from his brother. As they directed him to lie down, he saw Wheeljack run down the alley, following his brother's killer.

* * *

Wheeljack muttered something vulgar in an obscure Cybertronian dialect. He looked up at the mountain covered in tall pines and scattered redwoods, optics narrowed. Stepping lightly on his injured foot, Wheeljack did his best to scale the damp red earth, cursing Perceptor for fleeing up a mountain. Why couldn't he have done something sensible like stay on level ground? He shook his head. Because Perceptor was anything but stupid—he knew a Lancia Stratos couldn't drive up a mountainside.

Clawing and stomping up the mountain, Wheeljack tried his best to follow the trail Perceptor had left. Wheeljack growled, his ears flickering dark orange. Looked like the fleeing scientist was a better mountain climber than Wheeljack would have expected. Then again, he didn't have to deal with a crushed foot. He was also driven there by demons, while Wheeljack was pursuing. Hissing another curse, the mostly white Autobot continued climbing, every now again tossing off a clod of dirt as he went.

A distant sound caught Wheeljack's attention. It sounded as though someone had struck a tree hard enough to crack it. "What is he doing up there?" Wheeljack asked the air, then continued on. Every now and again, he would hear similar sounds, some deeper, some lighter, and some without the cracking. Shortly he came up to a thin tree canted at an odd angle. He stopped to examine it. The far side of the tree had several deep lines crushed into the bark. Wheeljack looked down at his foot. For whatever reason, Perceptor was hitting trees with the backs of his legs, denting tracks into them, apparently with enough force to break at least the smaller trees. He shook his head and started scrabbling back up the slope.

After a short while, Wheeljack spotted a bit of crimson metal lying on the scarlet earth. He went over to pick it up, slipping a little on a clump of shed needles. It was a good thing he didn't care about his finish...after this he was going to be all red instead of white. Standing carefully, Wheeljack reached down for the metal object. A tank tread. If Wheeljack could frown, he would have. He turned the tread over in his hands, then subspaced it. He hoped he wouldn't find more of them.

He continued climbing, hopes dashed quickly. He found two more tracks in the dirt and one stuck in a tree. He collected them and subspaced them, certain Ratchet would be having words with Perceptor once he got back to the Ark.

Wondering why Perceptor was losing tracks, Wheeljack picked up another two; this time they were still joined together. He didn't wonder any longer. His wings involuntarily shot up nearly vertical. This set of treads still had human blood on them, only slightly darker than the red paint. Worse, there was a bit of flannel stuck between the treads, a bit of crushed bone and flesh. Wheeljack shuddered hard and stared at the track in his hand for a long moment. He didn't know what to do with it. He didn't want to subspace it, he didn't want to carry it, and he didn't want to throw it away. He pulled his optics off the horror in his hand and looked around. A nearby redwood had tracks dented into it, a little slick of blood in one spot, and one tread left behind. He made an inarticulate noise, his ears flashing red this time. He leaned down and dug a hole in the damp earth, dropped the gory tracks in it, and covered it again. After a second to find something suitable, he grabbed a fallen branch and shoved it in the ground to mark the spot. Maybe he would come back for it later...or maybe he would leave it as the last resting-place of that human. Grant Smith they'd said. He already knew that the bit of cloth and flesh was all that was left of Mr. Smith. When he found out what the family wanted done with Grant's remains, then he would decide whether to leave the tracks there or not.

Wheeljack turned to the redwood, a strong tree that would weather this storm, and collected the tread there. Then he decided he'd had enough with climbing and fired up his rockets. He'd miss treads that way, but now that he knew why they were scattered on the forest floor, he felt it would be best to find Perceptor. This was unusual and frightening behavior to say the least. He smoothed down his wings to their normal position and took off, flying low enough that he could still follow the trail.

He made much better time in the air, the sound of cracking trees getting closer. He spotted an ever-increasing number of tracks, but didn't slow down to pick them up. He could get them later. He didn't even look at the trees after the first few. They were covered in more and more blood and Wheeljack didn't need to examine them to know that there would just be more on the trees the further up he went.

Wheeljack knew he was getting close to his mark when he had to make a quick evasion to avoid a flying tread. "Knock it off, will ya?" he yelled into the forest. "This isn't doing you any good!" He heard quick climbing in response, accompanied by an odd, low hissing.

Shortly he spotted Perceptor, climbing up the mountain with remarkable speed. Wheeljack took a quick look at his friend's legs and cursed again. Ratchet would be apoplectic. "You know I haven't cussed this much since the war started!" he shouted. Perceptor only reacted slightly, a quick motion to tear a track off his leg and flick it at Wheeljack, and then he kept climbing.

The tread hit Wheeljack dead center in the chest, but not hard enough to knock him out of the air. Perceptor was too good a marksman to miss, especially when Wheeljack hadn't expected it. Wheeljack narrowed his optics and sped up, realizing unhappily that the only way he was going to stop Perceptor was to tackle him. He hoped it would work; for a scientist, Perceptor was almost paradoxically well built. He was built to be on the front line; no matter how weak he thought himself, Perceptor was not easy to take down. A flying tackle from a less sturdy sports car would probably do more damage to Wheeljack, but it wasn't something any Transformer could shake off easily. Steeling himself, Wheeljack pulled his wings flat against his back and aimed, then fired his rockets as high as they would go.

Wheeljack winced at the impact, hearing his windshield shatter and his chest armor crumple. Perceptor made a strange noise, but went down fast. The tackle had knocked them both off balance, sending them tumbling down the mountain in a tangle until they crashed against a huge redwood. Wheeljack thought himself incredibly lucky he hadn't hit the tree first. He started to stand, stumbled once, then got his footing. He looked down and offered his hand to help Perceptor up, but it didn't look like the other Autobot even saw him. His optics were midnight, nearly black, and he was looking at something Wheeljack was certain wasn't there. Wheeljack sighed and muttered, "Forgive me for this but...." He knelt down and promptly slammed Perceptor's head into the redwood. His optics instantly brightened to a medium blue.

"You have got a thick head, you know that?" Wheeljack said, pulling his wings back into position and sitting down across from Perceptor. "And Ratchet is gonna have it mounted on his wall once he gets a look at you."

Perceptor looked at Wheeljack warily. "Let him. It would do no good."

"Don't like the sound of that."

Perceptor ignored Wheeljack and picked at his treads.

Wheeljack gave Perceptor a quick once-over. His legs were in worse condition than Wheeljack had originally thought; nearly every tread had been torn off and several of the gears that moved them were missing. Apparently he wasn't finished tearing them apart either, as he reached down and yanked off another tread and dropped it on the ground. Some hydraulic fluid slowly dripped from the back of his legs. The black paint and sensors on his hands were partially chipped and torn; base metal showed in several places, especially at the fingertips. And for some reason, the Autobot insignia on Perceptor's transparent chest plate had deep gouges cut into it. Wheeljack wondered what that meant. "You don't look so hot. What are you doing?"

Pulling another tread off his leg, Perceptor answered in a detached tone. "I am eliminating the usefulness of that third transform." The tread sailed out of his hand and imbedded itself in a tree with a soft thunk.

Wheeljack crossed his arms over his chest, careful not to dislodge too much glass from his broken windshield. "You're doing more than that." His ears flashed orange.

"I'm doing the most I can. Nothing more I can do." He looked away, optics darkening, and he scratched at his cut up insignia absently.

"Tearing the slag out of your legs isn't going to change anything." Wheeljack wished he could pin down why Perceptor's scratching was bothering him as much as it was.

"Stationary," Perceptor stated, as if that explained everything.

It explained enough. Wheeljack's wings drooped a bit. "It wasn't really your fault."

Perceptor shot a glare at Wheeljack. "Do not attempt to place any blame on them for th...their deaths."

"I'm not," Wheeljack said. "It wasn't anyone's fault. They were scared and didn't know what to do."

Perceptor tore at his left leg, fiercely pulling off another tread and breaking several minor fuel lines and cables. He tossed all of it aside with a low hiss. "It was my fault."

"Look, I nearly killed one of them too!" Wheeljack insisted. "What would have happened if we weren't there?"

His optics nearly darkened to black, Perceptor said, "They would all have lived." His voice was so detached now Wheeljack wondered if he was going to have to hit him again. "Helpless in war they didn't ask for landed on them and killing them...." He scratched harder at his insignia.

Wheeljack tilted his head and pulled his legs up so he could rest his arms on them. His concern was mounting; Perceptor could beat out Bluestreak for babbling on, but not like that, not in such a meandering way. "There's nothing we can do about that. War is hell... I wish we hadn't dragged them into it, too. But you know that's not what I meant."

"War is hell...what...is hell?"

"Oh, mmm. I read about it once. In a lot of Earth religions there's a place for all the bad' humans to go after they die, and some of them call it hell'. A lot of them say it's full of fire and ash. They say war is hell because it's a torment like that."

Perceptor was staring off at nothing again. "Wonder...are they cursing me from there? Wishing I was there? Good idea...."

Wheeljack shot up and grabbed Perceptor's hand by the wrist, pulling it off his chest. He set his other hand on the scientist's shoulder, growling something so foul in ancient Autobot that it startled Perceptor. Nearly nose to nose, Wheeljack yelled, "I am not talking you down!" His ears flashed dark red. He knew what the scratching was about now: it was something symbolic. What Perceptor was really scratching at was under that insignia, and under the second insignia beneath his chest plate; it was his emulator, where his laser core was kept. He'd been acting like the equivalent of a human toying with a knife over their wrist. Wheeljack felt like his entire engine had seized.

"Talking down'? I don't understand." Perceptor's voice was excessively calm for Wheeljack's liking. It just made his insides twist up a little tighter.

"Damn it! It's another English expression. It means I don't want to talk you out of killing yourself!"

"Ah. You forget. I'm not capable of suicide in that manner given my native arms. Watch." Perceptor moved a little, and Wheeljack looked down, seeing that he had the barrel of his rifle sitting directly over the inner insignia. Before Wheeljack could do anything about it, Perceptor fired. He jerked back hard and dropped the rifle.

Wheeljack stood and flashed his ears silently, his wings sticking straight up again. "What did you do?" he yelled, worrying he wouldn't be heard.

"Nothing, I did nothing. I told you I am incapable." Other than frying off the second insignia, it didn't look as though Perceptor had done anything at all. The spot where he shot himself was intact. "It's far too well shielded. If I wished to terminate myself, the most I am capable of doing is taking it out and hoping someone would destroy it for me, unless I should procure a much more powerful weapon."

"Gyeah!" Wheeljack shouted, stomping back and forth, his hands on his head. His ears flashed silently, and it was all he could do not to kick Perceptor for scaring him like that. "Of course I forgot! What, you told me that how many millions of years ago? Not something that sticks in one's mind!"

Perceptor picked up his rifle and subspaced it, folding up his transparent chest plate as he did. "I told you about that the last time you were similarly concerned."

Wheeljack sat back down, muttering. "That's right. But I don't remember you being as all-fired messed up about it then."

"I had a dream last night," Perceptor said, looking at nothing again.

"What do you mean last night'? We just reactivated you this morning! I'm beginning to wonder if we didn't do a proper job of it." Wheeljack drummed his fingers on his knee, curious about all this mental track jumping.

"It was a long night. Slightly over four million Earth years long." He absently began picking at one of the last treads left on his leg.

Wheeljack's optics flickered, a startled blink. "You weren't all the way out? I was."

"No, I was very slightly aware. Enough that I thought somehow we had gained some measure of peace. There were Decepticons and Autobots all in the same location, without fighting, for four million years. It was not until today that I realized that was a dream."

"Oh. Bit of a rude awakening then, eh? Is that why you're so bent out of shape about this?"

"Perhaps this is just a particularly vivid nightmare and what I knew for those years was real."

Wheeljack put his face in his hands. "When you go out on a mood swing, you really go all out, dontcha. What am I going to do to snap you out of this?"

Perceptor looked at Wheeljack with his nearly black optics. "Tell me the two humans I killed are still alive. Tell me the Decepticons I may have killed are intact. Tell me none of this is real."

Wheeljack's wings fell a little. "I can't do that. You know it's real...even if you pretended, it wouldn't work. You might have a tendency to blind rages, but you are sane...no amount of pretending will change that and it would just tear you up. You know that."

"Yes, I know. A pity, sometimes. It would be nice to convince myself it wasn't real. Then it wouldn't hurt so much." He put his hand over his gouged insignia, but didn't scratch at it this time.

Wheeljack got up and then sat down next to Perceptor. "Four of them are still alive because of you, one in spite of me. I know that won't make it hurt any less for the other two, but think of it that way."

"Still...those two...." Perceptor shuddered slightly, dipping his head. But his optics had lightened to a dark blue, and much to Wheeljack's relief, he made no move to pull off any more tracks.

"I know." Wheeljack set his hand on Perceptor's black shoulder, saying nothing else, except by silent words spoken mind to mind: I'm here.

They sat there like that for a long while, in silence. It wasn't an empty silence; Perceptor was making a sound too low and quiet to hear, but it caused the faintest of vibrations. A rare sub harmonic keening. Wheeljack knew that Perceptor was finally feeling the grief, that he was coming back around to his right mind, and he was relieved it hadn't taken a long time to get there.

After several minutes, Perceptor said quietly, "I didn't kill any of the Neutrals then...just the Decepticons." Wheeljack felt the keening tapering off.

"That's part of it too, huh. Humans are really fragile." Wheeljack wiggled his crushed foot. "Not like us."

"Am I going to see a great deal of that here? Are humans always so helpless?"

Wheeljack sighed. "Not always, no...but... Too often they are. I'll try to keep you out of that kind of situation. See if I can't pull some strings."

"Thank you. I don't want to do that again, and I don't think I can stop myself."

Wheeljack laughed a little, a light relieved chuckle. He didn't laugh because Perceptor had said anything particularly funny, but because he said it in a normal tone. "We all got our hang-ups. You haven't seen me blow myself up yet lately have you?" His ears were flashing their normal blue now, and he felt much better. His friend seemed to be feeling a good deal more like himself, and that was nice to see.

Perceptor looked over at Wheeljack. "I cannot imagine that a mere four million years would stop that. I do believe it is a natural law."

"Very funny. If you're feeling up to taking jabs at me, can I assume you aren't going to do anything stupid now?" He stood up, again offering Perceptor his hand.

"Yes, I believe I've regained some of my composure." Perceptor let Wheeljack help him up; he was suddenly and acutely aware of how much damage he had done to his legs.

Once both were standing, Wheeljack tapped the back of his head. "You know, you should probably go down the same way you came up. If you slip and get any more mud in your legs, Ratchet won't just have your head, he'll mount it on a stake." Then he looked down at himself. "Ratchet's gonna blow a gasket when he sees me, too. Yes, Ratchet, we did it to ourselves. No, Ratchet, the Decepticons didn't even scratch us. Yes, Ratchet, we realize we have to die now.'"

Perceptor managed a ghost of a smile. He set his chipped palm on the back of Wheeljack's hand just long enough to say a silent thank you, then proceeded to crawl back down the mountain, using his hands and feet. After a moment, Wheeljack felt the faint vibrations of Perceptor's keening again, and a little piece of his windshield dropped off. His wings fell. Then he started down the mountain as well, attempting to collect a few treads on the way. Whenever he could, he tried to put himself between Perceptor and the broken trees.

* * *

"This," declared Derrik L. Evans, Esquire, "has got to be the strangest thing I have ever done in my entire career."

The man was dressed in a business suit, and he was driving a Mercedes Benz through the high Oregon desert surrounding Mt. Saint Hillary. His destination loomed nearer, the ruins of an alien spacecraft buried in the side of the volcano. He glanced over at his briefcase, then back at the Ark. He arrived too soon for his taste.

Seeing there was actually a small parking area, Mr. Evans pulled into it and stopped his car. As soon as the dust from the road passed, he opened his door and exited, taking his briefcase as he went. "Now what?" he asked himself. "Do they have a doorbell?"

Sighing, he strode purposefully toward the large entrance below the spacecraft's orange rocket engines. He started a bit when he saw a robot walking toward him. What should I expect to see? he thought to himself, slowing his walk. The Autobot stepped up to him, and then stopped a short distance away. He was almost all red, stood several feet taller than Mr. Evans, and he had horns on his head.

Derrik coughed once and said, "Hello sir."

"Hey," the Autobot said easily. "You need something?"

"Um, yes...this is the residence of the Autobots, correct?"

"Yep."

"Ah, what's your name, if I may ask?"

"I'm Cliffjumper. What's yours?"

"Mmm, Derrik L. Evans. I'm an attorney for the Jacobses and the Smiths." Mr. Evans opened his briefcase and fished out a large envelope. He held it up. "You've been served."

Cliffjumper took the proffered envelope, holding it between his thumb and forefinger. "Served?" he asked.

Derrik stood there silently for a few beats. "It's a legal term. It means that I've delivered a lawsuit to you."

"Oh." Cliffjumper looked at the envelope with a critical optic. "You mean we're being sued?"

"Y-yes. Now if you'll excuse me...wait. Do you know where I might find the Decepticons?"

Cliffjumper couldn't help but laugh. "You planning on suing them too?"

Mr. Evans coughed slightly. "I can't talk about the actions of my clients."

"OK then. But save yourself the trouble. They live under the ocean, and besides, I don't want to have to come rescue your aft if you do manage to serve' them."

Derrik made a face and turned on his heel, stalking back to his car. How in the world did I end up with these lawsuits?

* * *

Cliffjumper took the small envelope inside the Ark and went to the main control room. Optimus Prime sat at Teletran-1, talking to another human in a business suit. Cliffjumper could tell just by looking that Prime was upset about something. He waited until Optimus Prime thumbed off the communication and then went up to him.

Prime turned to look at the red minibot. "What is it, Cliffjumper?"

"Well," he said, holding out the envelope, "we've been served. Some guy came up and gave me this. Said it was a lawsuit."

Optimus took the envelope, which was extremely small in his massive blue hand. He sat back in his seat, glaring at the object. "Lawsuit. At least that explains why I've been getting calls all morning from the Oregon government about how I would handle legal proceedings against us."

"I'll go get Sparkplug to open it for us," Cliffjumper said.

"Do that."

Cliffjumper made his way toward the repair bay, since he figured Sparkplug might still be there helping Ratchet make a few repairs to some of the recently awakened Autobots. When he arrived, he saw that they were finished, but fortunately, Sparkplug was still there. "Hey, Sparkplug, we need you for a second."

Sparkplug looked up and asked, "Yeah? What's up?" He started walking towards Cliffjumper.

"We need you to open an envelope for us."

With a laugh, Sparkplug asked, "What, the Autobots getting junk mail now?"

"No, some guy served us." As soon as Sparkplug reached him, Cliffjumper turned and led him out of the bay.

"Oh, that's serious. Who would want to sue you guys?"

"Don't know. But Prime said he's been getting calls about it all morning."

Sparkplug rubbed his chin. "I wonder what could have happened?"

The two entered the control room and Optimus Prime handed Sparkplug the envelope wordlessly. Sparkplug frowned and flicked open a pocketknife. He cut open the envelope, put the knife away, and then fished out the contents.

Prowl walked in just then. "Prime, I've been inundated with phone calls from the county police department. From what I gather, Wheeljack and Perceptor got in a fight with some Decepticons and several humans were killed in the crossfire."

Sparkplug looked up from the lawsuit without having really looked at it. Optimus Prime turned to Prowl and asked, "Did they have any details for you?"

Prowl answered, "They told me that Wheeljack called the paramedics, that the paramedics had found three humans...smashed' was their words, and that Wheeljack and a black Decepticon had left shortly after the paramedics arrived. They weren't able to get an account from Wheeljack. Two other humans had various injuries, major and minor. Allegedly, there were seven humans involved. Two of the deceased humans were described as appearing as if they had been run over by a tank, the last apparently died by enormous blunt force trauma, as if something flat and heavy had fallen on him. They couldn't find the object, however. One of the injured humans appeared to have been thrown against a wall and they weren't certain what had happened to the other. The last two escaped uninjured."

Optimus rubbed his nose. "What are the chances Blitzwing was there? I don't even want to consider the other possibility."

Cliffjumper looked confused. "It had to be Blitzwing. Warpath wasn't there, right? Besides, what Autobot's gonna run over humans?"

Optimus and Prowl glanced at each other, then Prime said, "Cliffjumper, go back outside, watch for any more humans, and watch for Wheeljack and Perceptor. They've been gone a long time."

"Uh, sure Prime," Cliffjumper answered, clearly confused and also clearly knowing there was something going on he wasn't allowed in on. He walked out, shaking his head.

As soon as Cliffjumper was gone, Prime called Jazz and Ironhide in. Sparkplug looked up at Optimus, then went back to reading the lawsuit. While they waited for Jazz and Ironhide, Prime asked Sparkplug, "What does it say?"

Sparkplug scratched the back of his head. "Now I'm no expert on lawsuits or anything, but just lookin' at it, I can see it's naming the Autobots, all of you, as the defendants and the families of Grant Smith and Nathan Jacobs as the plaintiffs. Looks like a criminal suit. They musta slapped it together but fast to get it here now."

Jazz and Ironhide both arrived at the same time, using different entrances. Jazz took a quick look at the Autobots present and asked, "What's up? Looks like somethin' serious went down."

"We've been served," Prowl informed Jazz.

"Served? What for?" Ironhide demanded.

Optimus Prime motioned to Sparkplug. "He has the suit. From what Prowl has told me and from my own contact with the state government, it looks like Wheeljack and Perceptor are in some serious legal trouble. Prowl, fill them in."

Prowl nodded and told Jazz and Ironhide what he had just reported to Optimus Prime.

At the news, Ironhide just worked his jaw, while Jazz exclaimed, "We better hope that Blitzwing was there or yer gonna have two seriously messed up Autobots comin' back."

Sparkplug looked up at the four senior Autobots. "The suit has one count of battery and two counts of manslaughter. That can't be right, can it?"

"It better not be, or like I said, we're gonna have a situation on our hands," Jazz said.

"Sparkplug, let Prowl have the suit," Prime requested. "He's familiar with the American legal system."

Nodding, Sparkplug handed the papers to Prowl. "Now if you would excuse us," Prowl said, "we have things to discuss."

"Ah, sure," Sparkplug answered, turning to leave.

"Sorry, man," Jazz said.

"'Sarright." Sparkplug walked out of the room, back to the repair bay. He couldn't help but feel his gut twisting up. The lawsuit must have been right on some count for the Autobots to be so serious about it, but he couldn't get his mind around it.

* * *

It took several hours for Wheeljack and Perceptor to get back to the Ark. Neither of them could transform without risking more damage, so they had walked the entire way. As soon as they had reached level ground, Wheeljack had repaired as many of Perceptor's damaged hydraulics and fuel lines as he could. One line had been too damaged to seal up properly, at least for first aid; fortunately, it had been a minor line. Still, walking around for hours dripping fuel was tiring, and by the time the two reached the Ark, Perceptor was leaning heavily on Wheeljack.

Optimus Prime was at the entrance, optics scowling. But as soon as he got a better look at them, his expression changed to concern. "What happened?"

Wheeljack looked up at Prime and said, "It's kinda a long story." After a beat, he added, "I wouldn't be surprised if you'd already heard the bad parts."

"I'll wait for your side of the story, but yes, I've already heard some bad news." Optimus Prime took a moment to call Ratchet. Then he asked, "Did the Decepticons do this?"

Wheeljack looked down for a moment. "No... This is all on us."

Ratchet arrived just then and promptly shouted, "What in Primus' name happened to you two?"

With one hand pointed triumphantly in the air, Wheeljack proclaimed, "I performed the finest flying tackle you'd ever hope to see!" Then his tone grew serious. "Can we get inside and start patching up Perceptor's legs before we get into the details?"

"Of course," Optimus Prime said, and helped them into the Ark.

Ratchet glared at Wheeljack as they walked. "Did I hear right that Decepticons didn't have anything to do with this mess you've made of yourselves?"

Wheeljack nodded, and glanced at Perceptor. His optics were growing dark again.

"For Primus' sake, we just fixed Perceptor!" Ratchet looked over Wheeljack's dirt covered form. "And if for even a single astrosecond you complain about your topcoat I will not hesitate to tear off my chevron and stab you to death with it."

Wheeljack shook his head, but he laughed a little, thinking it wouldn't be beyond Ratchet to do something like that.

"What got into you two? Was that fine flying tackle against a freight train?"

"I'll explain later. Let's not talk about it right now." His ears were flashing orange.

Ratchet looked from Perceptor to Wheeljack and back again, then muttered, "All right, message received. I will hear the whole story though."

* * *

As soon as they arrived in the repair bay, Wheeljack carefully removed Perceptor's lens barrel and Ratchet helped him lay face down on one of the beds. Perceptor had been uncharacteristically quiet the whole time, allowing himself to be led. It was almost as if he didn't care where he went. Ratchet made a cursory examination of Perceptor's legs and growled low, words escaping him. Sparkplug climbed up on a tall bench and started making a few repairs.

"And I suppose," Ratchet muttered to the scientist, "that I'm going to have to rebuild every single one of your treads?"

He got no answer from Perceptor, but Wheeljack walked over and unsubspaced all the tracks he had managed to pick up. "I think most of them are here."

"Most of them?"

"Most of them." Wheeljack's ears were still flashing orange.

Sparkplug glanced over at the pile of caterpillar treads and went cold, but he didn't say anything.

Ratchet harrumphed and turned to repair properly the hydraulics and fuel lines Wheeljack had patched up. "So do I get to hear the story now? Did you two get drunk on high grade energon and decide some ritual mutilation was in order?"

"No," Wheeljack said in exasperation. When he tried to help Ratchet, the white medic shoved him away.

"The last thing I need to do is pick glass and more dirt out of his legs. You," Ratchet declared, jabbing his finger toward another bed in the repair bay, "sit."

Obediently, Wheeljack hopped up on the bed and sat.

Continuing to work, Ratchet said loudly to Perceptor, "Story time. Spill it. Tell good old Uncle Ratchet how in the Primus-forsaken PIT you managed to lose half your legs in less than an Earth day!"

He still got no answer. Before Ratchet could launch into a beautiful tirade, Sparkplug set his tool down and rubbed his arms. "Weird," the human muttered.

"What?" Ratchet asked.

"I dunno. Just started getting goosebumps."

"Enhh." Ratchet paused for a moment, then poked Perceptor in the back. "Shut down," he said, his voice a great deal calmer and gentler than before. Perceptor nodded very slightly and complied.

After a moment, Ratchet asked Sparkplug, "Feel better?"

"Yeah. Felt like someone walked over my grave."

"Well, you probably won't see that very often around here," Ratchet said, returning to his repairs.

Sparkplug picked up his tool and asked, "You mean that wasn't just heebie-jeebies?"

"Nope. Probably the first and last time you'll ever see an Autobot cry."

Sparkplug just blinked.

Ratchet explained, "We don't all cry the same way, and after so long fighting, most of us don't cry at all anymore. Some of us can't...Sunstreaker can't, and I've never seen Sideswipe cry, so I don't know if he can. Bluestreak cries sometimes when he's blathering incessantly, but you'd never see it; it's a really quick twitching of his doors, too small and fast for you to see. Not sure if Prowl does, but if he did, he probably twitches his doors too. Jazz loses a little of his voice. A few of us leak optic cleaning fluid like you guys do. Wheeljack's wings fall off."

Wheeljack, who had in fact drooped his wings, humphed and flicked them up a little higher than normal. "They don't fall off. They fall all the way down."

"Whatever. Anyway, Sparkplug, Perceptor makes a noise too low and soft for most of us to hear. You probably felt it. Prime does the same, but his is even lower and softer; I don't even think Blaster could hear it."

"Oh," Sparkplug said softly, not quite sure what to think of that. He knew Autobots had emotions, it just had never occurred to him that any of them would actually cry.

Ratchet turned to look at Wheeljack. "So. Who'd he kill?"

Wheeljack sighed. "Two humans."

Sparkplug started, dropping his tool. He picked it up again but just fiddled with it.

"How'd that happen?"

Wheeljack pulled his dirty feet up onto the bed and rested his arms on his knees. "After we attacked the Decepticons, three of the humans panicked and ran out in front of him. I managed to swat one of them out of the way...nearly swept the other with my foot, but I didn't get there in time. Clipped me and hit the human. The other guy was on the other side and there was no way I could get to him. The guy I saved is lucky to be alive himself. Hit a wall pretty hard."

"Did he see them?" Ratchet asked.

"Doubt it. Too busy putting some awe-inspiring holes in the Decepticons."

Ratchet thought about it for a minute while he worked. "Did he get any of them?"

"Probably not, but they're going to have a grand time putting themselves back together."

"Hmph. So he freaked? Must have freaked pretty bad to do this." Ratchet picked up one of the treads and began fitting it back onto Perceptor's leg.

"Yeah," Wheeljack answered. "Bunch of things conspiring against him today. Dirge actually tried scaring us with his turbines."

Ratchet laughed, a cynical bark. "I guess I can't blame him for trying."

"I warned him."

"You warned him? Why?"

"It wasn't for Dirge's sake."

Sparkplug tapped his tool against his hand. "What are you guys talking about? And I can't say I like the way you're so calm about two humans getting killed by an Autobot!"

Ratchet answered, "We aren't calm about it. Just talking about the facts."

"Did these facts have names?" Sparkplug demanded, his voice raised.

"Grant Smith, Anthony Maha, and Nathan Jacobs," Wheeljack said. "Mr. Jacobs was the one I hit. The doctors said he probably had a bad concussion and some broken ribs. Mr. Smith and Mr. Maha went down fast. I doubt they felt a thing."

Sparkplug put his hands down on the repair bed then glared up at Ratchet and Wheeljack. "Does he make a habit of killing people?" With a jerk of his head, Sparkplug indicated Perceptor.

Ratchet grimaced, letting Wheeljack answer. His ears flashed dully when he spoke. "Sparkplug, he's killed fewer people than I have."

"And would someone who's been in a war for nine million years still cry over innocent deaths if he was a killer?" Ratchet added.

Sparkplug started stabbing at the bed with his tool. He looked around, blinking hard. "God damn you and your war."

"Maybe he will," Ratchet muttered.

After a tense moment, Sparkplug wiped his eyes, muttered another curse, and went back to repairing Perceptor's leg. No one spoke after that.

* * *

Late that night, Soundwave sat at the communications station in the underwater Decepticon base. He had been feeling a slight unease that day, and it kept him from shutting down for the night. He idly monitored comm. activity, but there really wasn't anything important enough to pay any mind. He had already isolated the beginning of his unease; it started when Skywarp had returned to headquarters. He had been a wreck; his leg shot off by what he claimed to have been an Autobot ambush. Dirge, Buzzsaw, and Rumble had come back shut down but still functional. Barely, in the case of Buzzsaw. It was clear that they had been caught off-guard; Skywarp had reported that the test with Dirge had been successful, but all description of the enemy ambush had been ambiguous at best.

Skywarp and Rumble had been the easiest to repair. Rumble had been hit badly, but he was a bit more fragile than most Decepticons, so his scattered state had not been as bad as it appeared. As soon as Rumble had been repaired, Soundwave stored him so he could rest.

The repair estimations on Buzzsaw and Dirge extended to days. Both were quite fortunate to be functional after the beating they had taken. Dirge had by far the most damage, although Buzzsaw was the closest to having died from the altercation.

Soundwave thought about all of this for a while, systematically attempting to locate the source of his discomfort. It didn't bother him particularly that Skywarp and Dirge had come back in such a state; according to Scrapper, their weapons hadn't even been discharged. It seemed to Soundwave that they deserved whatever they got if they weren't willing at least to fire on their attackers. The condition of Rumble and Buzzsaw, however, hit him a bit harder. Soundwave counted them his, even if in actuality not all of them had been made for him with his help.

A sudden rattle in his chest followed by a soft, medium pitched hum answered Soundwave's question about his unease rather neatly. It wasn't his at all; it had been Rumble's.

Pressing the eject button on his shoulder, Soundwave intoned, "Rumble: Eject."

The blue-tinted cassette flew out of Soundwave's chest and transformed. Rumble stood in front of Soundwave and shifted his feet. He appeared to be distinctly uncomfortable.

"Whaddaya want, Soundwave?" Rumble asked, his tone full of its normal street punk attitude. But he was still making that medium humming.

"Report."

"Report about what?"

"Rumble." Soundwave's monotone had pitched lower.

Rumble shifted again, then paced a little. "All right, fine. You mean about how we got busted up?"

"Discontinue stalling."

The little Decepticon snorted, but apparently decided there was no point in trying to hide his thoughts from the telepathic Soundwave. "OK, OK. All I was doin' was having a little fun. Blowin' off some steam, ya know? Then that slaggin' Buzzsaw started carvin' up one of them squishies. That's no fun! I tried to make him stop, but he bit me! Then I got mad and I was gonna flatten him, but he moved too fast and I got the fleshy instead."

"Skywarp did not report this."

"Well why would he? He don't wanna get chewed out by Megatron. I don't wanna either. But just our luck, Buzzsaw's little plaything was makin' such a racket that two Autobots showed up. Wheeljack and some blue and red tank guy. The tank guy blew up Buzzsaw, then he shot me too. Don't remember anything after that."

"The truth," Soundwave said, his voice demanding despite the monotone.

Rumble shifted again. "I'm tellin' the truth," he replied, his tone sulky. There may have been no point in hiding anything, but that didn't make it easier to say.

"All of it."

Rumble stomped his foot. "OK! I saw a little more before I went out. The tank guy ran over two of the squishies, too. Then he transformed...dorky lookin' guy with his cannon on his shoulder. Kinda looked like you." Rumble paused, realizing that was really a rather stupid thing to say. "Er...uh...never mind. He didn't look like he knew where he was. And that's all of it, I swear!"

Soundwave paused for a moment, thinking. Then he asked, "What about this disturbs you?"

Rumble looked away. "What makes you think I'm upset about it?" he asked petulantly.

The larger Decepticon said nothing, letting his silence speak for him.

"All right! All right! It scared me, OK? I never seen an Autobot run over a flesh creature before, like he didn't even care about them. That's not how it's supposed to be! You told me we had this...this...castic agreement something."

"Tacit agreement."

"Yeah whatever. But you told me Autobots don't do stuff like that."

"This is all that disturbs you, the actions of our enemy?" Soundwave said it in such a way that indicated he knew full well there was more on Rumble's mind.

Rumble stomped around some. "Why do you gotta be so nosy?"

Again, Soundwave used silence to make his point.

Rumble stopped and crossed his arms over his chest, actually hugging himself in a way. "I didn't mean to hit the human. They...they're gonna think I did it on purpose." The humming Rumble had been making became louder.

Soundwave watched Rumble for a long moment. The larger Decepticon knew more than he let on, but decided that Rumble should learn about this first hand. He also knew what Rumble wanted to do. Then he spoke. "Go to the repair bay. Download everything Buzzsaw recorded; erase his memory. This is on my authority." Soundwave typed something on his console, then handed Rumble a small wafer the computer created with his authorization code on it. "We will go to Autobot headquarters tonight. You will gather all information that you are able on the Autobots that have been recently reactivated. Operation: Information Exchange."

Rumble looked up at Soundwave, surprised. Then he said, "OK, fine." He wasn't humming quite as audibly now.

* * *

Megatron growled low when the chime to his personal quarters woke him from his short recharge. He got up and stalked to the doorway, his red optics glowing, and keyed open the door. His glowering visage met with Soundwave's ever-cool countenance.

"What is it Soundwave?" Megatron hissed.

Soundwave's expression never changed. "Request permission to go to Autobot Headquarters for information gathering."

"Why?"

"The rest of the Autobots have been revived."

Megatron crossed his arms over his chest. "And why must we do this now? So soon after this ambush'?"

"Identification purposes. Their Earth disguises."

Megatron thought about it for a moment. That information certainly would be useful. "Fine. Send Laserbeak."

"Rumble." Soundwave's tone pitched slightly higher.

"What? Laserbeak is far better at infiltrating the Autobots' defenses."

"Laserbeak does not have fingers. Operation of Teletran-1 will require manual dexterity."

"Fine! If Rumble feels like coming back in a hundred pieces twice in one day, let him. He had better come back with the information regardless of his condition."

Soundwave nodded once. "He will."

* * *

Shortly thereafter, Soundwave flew out of the Decepticons' ocean tower and made his way to the West Coast of North America. It didn't take long for him to reach the outskirts of the high desert Mt. Saint Hillary occupied. He landed outside the Autobot sensor perimeter and transformed into his tape deck form.

"Rumble: Eject. Operation: Information Exchange," he intoned, and Rumble flew out and transformed. Landing softly on the ground, Rumble looked around for a moment, picked up Soundwave, then made his way towards the Ark.

The little blue Decepticon reached the Ark's wide entranceway without trouble, and he stifled a snicker at how woefully inadequate the Autobot's outer defenses were. It was far too easy for him to enter and make his way with all stealth to Teletran-1. He had to dodge one red and blue minibot who was complaining to himself under his synthesizer about working the late shift. Rumble tried not to laugh; the short Autobot was doing a bang up job of guarding the Ark in the cassetticon's opinion.

Once the minibot was gone, Rumble lightly ran up to Teletran-1's main access. He set Soundwave on the console and immediately started typing in commands to bring up the schematics of the new Autobots' alt-modes. It took some computing finesse to avoid the flags and not alert the system, but he finally managed. Rumble hooked Soundwave up to one of Teletran's outputs, then transformed and entered Soundwave. He recorded all the information he could get on the recently reactivated Autobots, then ejected and returned to Teletran-1.

The first phase of the operation complete, Rumble switched Soundwave to input, then repeated the process, this time uploading the information on the incident earlier that day that he had gathered from Buzzsaw's memories, as well as his own.

Again Rumble ejected, and with a quick glance at Soundwave, he began typing again. Finding fuller records on one specific Autobot was a bit more difficult than accessing their new Earth disguises. He found a dossier, and he read it as fast as a he could. In actuality, his reading was a good deal slower than usual; he was created for recording, so he was very fast at absorbing information, but what he was reading shocked him. None of it matched up with what he had experienced that morning. Rumble's mouth was slightly agape as he read about an impeccably calm scientist with an impressive list of specialties and an enormous respect for life of all stripes. There was neither mention anywhere in the record about the tank form that had nearly obliterated four Decepticons and crushed two humans, nor anything about a propensity for such violence and callousness as Rumble had seen.

Confused, Rumble began typing again, trying to find something in the Autobot's records about what he had seen. Surely, the Autobots with their silly claims about honesty and such would not erase something like that. In his haste, Rumble nearly tripped Teletran-1's security, but he caught himself in time. He was on to something however; he could feel it, so with a great deal more care, he began a full-scale hack into the system.

He had to know. He knew there were Autobots who were extremely dangerous to engage in battle, Autobots that would just as likely kill a Decepticon as look at one, but he'd never heard of one that killed bystanders with such wantonness. He shook his head as he continued his hacking. There had to be something.

Reasonably deep into the system, Rumble found a short report written by Wheeljack. It was just a quick run down of what he'd done on a certain mountainside chasing down the silly looking red and blue Autobot. The report was devoid of much in the way of particulars and had an even shorter medical record attached to it. However, there was enough information there for Rumble to get the gist of why Wheeljack had to chase down the other Autobot. Rumble read both quickly, then stood blankly in front of the screen for a moment.

"He didn't know," Rumble whispered, so softly that only Soundwave heard it. He looked over the medical attachment again. Louder, Rumble said, "And...and...why? I don't get it...." There was still no mention of the tank form.

Soundwave asked very quietly, "Are you satisfied?"

Rumble lowered his voice again. "Lemme try to find more." He started typing again, digging deeper into the system. "I wanna find out why there's nothin' about that tank. I wanna know why he did that to himself. I wanna know why he didn't know."

"Rumble," Soundwave warned.

Heedless, the small Decepticon continued working, but the information he sought was too deep and he accidentally tripped a flag. Teletran-1 blared warnings, and Rumble jumped. "Uh oh! Slagit slagit slagit!" He picked up Soundwave and bolted out of the room, followed closely by Prowl and Ironhide. "How'd they wake up so quick?" Rumble shouted as he ran from the room, dodging Autobot fire as best he could.

Prowl and Ironhide chased Rumble out of the Ark, but before they could close in for the kill, Soundwave transformed and fired back. Then the Decepticons both jumped into the air and flew away as fast as they could.

* * *

Ironhide lowered his gun and growled. "We gotta get better security set up. Those punks get in too easy."

"Indeed. I believe Wheeljack suggested flypaper once to catch Laserbeak," Prowl agreed as the two walked back into the Ark.

"We should have Swoop fly around to catch that little monster," Ironhide grumped. "Let's go see what those Decepticreeps did."

Once they returned to Teletran-1, it didn't take long for Prowl to locate all the files Rumble had accessed or attempted to access. He said, "He didn't take any information the Decepticons wouldn't find out eventually anyway. Just the new Earth disguises, although I am curious why Rumble was so interested in Perceptor's files."

"Prolly because he got his aft blasted off," Ironhide answered. The red Autobot looked at the screen and then pointed. "What's that? Rumble left us a present?"

"Let's see," Prowl said, and he proceeded to run a check on the file Ironhide had spotted. "It looks like a video file. There's a text attachment, written in modern Decepticon."

"No viruses or anything?"

"Not that I can find."

"Whatsa message say?"

Prowl pulled it up and let Ironhide read it. It said, "I ain't givin' this to you guys for your sakes. I just want to make sure you know what happened and don't go targeting me specially because of it. Rumble."

Prowl said, "There's a short description of the video file. Sounds like what all the human police were asking me about earlier today."

"You mean what we got sued over?" Ironhide asked.

"Yes."

"Better go get Prime then. He'll wanna see this." Ironhide turned to go.

"Get Wheeljack also. He can corroborate."

"Arright."

* * *

Ironhide returned shortly with Optimus Prime and Wheeljack in tow.

"You mean Rumble came in and stole information the Con's coulda got easily any number ofways and gave us a video of what happened today in exchange?" Wheeljack asked.

"Looks like it," Prowl answered. "I don't understand why he would do something like that."

"Certainly doesn't sound like Rumble."

"He claimed it was to save his own hide," Ironhide said. "Didn't want us thinkin' he did something he didn't do."

"Let's see the video," Optimus Prime said. "That may answer our questions." He pressed the playback button and the Autobots watched.

The video was patched together and messy in places, often difficult to see exactly what was going on. There were two screens playing side by side: one appeared to be what Rumble saw, and the other seemed to be Buzzsaw's point of view.

It started out showing Rumble and Buzzsaw's altercation and the events that lead up to the killing of the first human by Rumble. Wheeljack nodded slightly. Rumble's note had been telling the truth; he hadn't killed the human on purpose. Wheeljack didn't doubt the veracity of the video, since it followed pretty well what he had seen when he turned the corner, with Rumble frozen and Buzzsaw laughing.

The Autobots winced at that part; it was a horrific and gory way to die, but they all knew that it had been quick and most likely painless. A relief, perhaps, after what the human had suffered at the claws of Buzzsaw.

Sorted out, the rest of the video followed Wheeljack's remembrance of the events quite closely.

* * *

"Oh no," Wheeljack breathed, horrified, when Perceptor transformed into his tank form. "Don't do this! Come on!" he shouted to the scientist, but it was too late. Buzzsaw shattered under the force of Perceptor's highest power light blast, and he was moving forward as fast as his treads would take him.

The five humans against the wall scattered, two of them running away from the battle and hiding while three of them ran into the middle of it. They were obviously so frightened they didn't know what to do with themselves. Perceptor fired on Rumble, wrecking him, and one of the humans ran out in front of the tank Autobot.

Wheeljack's wings flew up, and he started forward, trying to herd the humans away from the fight, but two more ran out in front of Perceptor, completely unaware of their danger. Wheeljack's ears flashed silently in alarm, then he yelled, "Get out of the way!"

The three humans didn't hear him, and it was clear Perceptor didn't see them. Perceptor shot Dirge in the wing. It was all happening so fast. Skywarp started to take aim at Perceptor, and the humans were still in his way, one on the far side away from Wheeljack. Wheeljack rushed out to try to catch the two humans he could reach, hoping Perceptor would miss the third in his blind rush toward the Decepticons.

Wheeljack slid feet first toward the two humans on his side of Perceptor, batting one of them away with an arm while trying to reach the other human with his leg. He was too late. Perceptor ran over Wheeljack's foot, crushing it, and quickly after the human went down under his treads as well. Perceptor shot at Skywarp, who had dropped his aim in clear shock that an Autobot would not only run over another Autobot but also kill a human in the process. Wheeljack simultaneously heard the human he had smacked away hit a wall with a sickening crunch and the sound of the third human being crushed under tank treads. It all happened in a matter of astroseconds. The human Skywarp had been holding fell from his grasp as Skywarp went down under Perceptor's fire.

Perceptor moved to attack Dirge, quickly leaving the two dead humans in his tracks and freeing Wheeljack's foot. The one near Wheeljack was nothing more than a slick of gore; the human on the far side had remained somewhat intact. The human Skywarp dropped staggered up and ran to the broken form of the human that Wheeljack hadn't been able to reach.

Dirge grinned cruelly and started up his turbines, stunning the three humans left with a terrible fear and scaring Wheeljack as well. But Wheeljack stood, knowing that fear would only make things worse. Perceptor's fear mixed with a rage few knew he was capable of had made this battle into a slaughter. Adding more fear could only drive an already blind rage into utter madness. Wheeljack shouted to Dirge, "Turn off your turbines Dirge! You'll just get yourself killed!"

Dirge turned to answer Wheeljack, but he never got the chance. By the time Perceptor was done firing on him, Dirge was a smoking heap.

The human Skywarp dropped started shouting, "You killed him! You killed him!"

* * *

Wheeljack sat with his chin in his hand. "Yeah, that's what happened. Rumble didn't make any of it up or change anything. I guess he and Buzzsaw must have finally shut down before Perceptor left."

"So what do we do with this?" Ironhide asked.

"Believe it. Wheeljack just corroborated it," Prowl answered. "And send it to the Oregon government so they know precisely what happened."

Optimus Prime considered what he had seen for a moment. "I wonder what we should do with Perceptor. I'm more than a little concerned that this has happened twice."

"I was meanin' to ask you about that, Prime," Wheeljack said. "I think we should keep him out of situations where we know there's a good chance humans will be blatantly victimized. He doesn't deal well with it, and we all know it, so let's try to make sure he doesn't have to."

"I had thought he would have dealt with that fear already."

Wheeljack flicked his wings in a shrug. "Never really needed to on Cybertron. You know there are some things people just don't get over, and it's even harder to if they don't know why they're like that in the first place. Probably something he doesn't remember. Lots of Transformers showed up in Iacon not knowing a thing about themselves; he was one of them."

Prime didn't seem convinced. "I don't want to put any more humans in danger than there already are."

"I guarantee ya, he doesn't want to do that either. You saw what he did to himself over it. But if you lock him up or keep him shut down, it won't do anyone any good. Not only will you lose one of your smartest Autobots and any advantage he could give us, you'll also tell him he's too dangerous, which he's not and you know it. He's usually one of the calmest Bots around. Heck, Brawn would probably be dead by now if he badgered anyone else the way he badgers Perceptor. And you know me and Ratchet are good, but you know we're better with Perceptor, too. Besides, you lock him up and you might scare him insane...that's what he's terrified of, being helpless and defenseless, and I don't think he shuts down right. He wasn't out these last four million years."

Prowl twitched one of his doors. "He was awake? Totally aware?"

"No," Wheeljack answered. "But he was awake enough to know he was in a room full of Autobots and Decepticons, who, coincidentally, were not fighting. He said it was a dream; I say he's lucky he thought it was a dream, otherwise he might be completely bonkers. But imagine that, after four million years thinking we'd found peace only to get the rudest awakening possible. I'm sure that had something to do with what happened today. He couldn't have been completely up to standard after that."

"No, I don't suppose anyone would be," Prowl commented.

"It still concerns me that he has such a propensity for blind violence," Optimus said. "But you've made your point, Wheeljack, and Perceptor is hardly the only Autobot with a capacity for that sort of rage. I'll take your suggestion under advisement. I also want you, Perceptor, and Jazz to go settle that lawsuit with the families involved if you can. Not right now, but soon." He paused for a moment, tapping his mask. "I'll have Sparkplug talk to him, too. And after you come back from settling with the families, he'll stay in the Ark for as long as it takes him to get back on his feet."

"I betcha it won't take too long," Wheeljack said. "When he's settled, he'll be as hard to rattle as ever."

"I certainly hope so," Optimus Prime replied.

* * *

As soon as Soundwave and Rumble returned to the Decepticons' underwater base, they reported to Megatron what they had found about the new Autobot disguises and nothing more, nothing about what Rumble had discovered. That was, after all, the mission that Soundwave had requested and anything beyond that need not be said.

Megatron looked pleased with the information. "Well done, Rumble. I note, however, there is some discrepancy." Megatron's optics narrowed, and Rumble shifted his feet. Megatron opened a comm. line and shouted, "Starscream! Meet me in the repair bay. We have things to discuss." Megatron stalked down the halls into the repair bay, with Soundwave and Rumble following.

Starscream was there when they arrived. The Constructicons were still working on returning Dirge to his usual form. Dirge and Buzzsaw had been repaired enough to come back online, however. Skywarp was also recovering, although his damage had been relatively minor in comparison.

Nevertheless, Skywarp, Dirge, Buzzsaw, and Rumble all became somewhat nervous as Megatron glared at the four in turn. Starscream, curious, walked over to Megatron's side opposite Soundwave.

"What is the matter, Fearless Leader?" Starscream asked.

Megatron shot the silver Seeker a quick glare, then turned his attention to Skywarp. "I seem to recall, Skywarp, that you said the four of you had been ambushed by Autobots after your test of Dirge's turbines on the flesh creatures."

Skywarp nodded shortly.

Megatron continued. "Soundwave and Rumble just returned from an information gathering mission. We now know what all the recently reactivated Autobots have as their new Earth alt-modes." Megatron paused and took a few steps closer to Skywarp. "And I find it interesting, to say the least, that none of these new alt-modes appear to have the firepower to do this kind of damage, and very few of the other Autobots have it either. Tell me, Skywarp, which Autobots, exactly, ambushed' you?" Megatron was now standing inches away from the black jet, staring him down.

Daunted, Skywarp stammered, "It, uh, it was Wheeljack and Perceptor."

Grinning something more akin to a shark's smile, Megatron said, "You four were summarily defeated without firing a shot by an engineer with a sports car mode and a scientist that turns into a microscope. Granted Wheeljack might have had a rather large gun with him that actually worked...did he?"

Skywarp shook his head no' rather quickly.

"That's what I thought." Megatron strode over to Dirge's side. "We know Wheeljack doesn't have this kind of firepower, and all your damage came from the same source. We also all know that Perceptor's light cannon isn't this powerful in his microscope mode, is it."

No one said a word.

Megatron shouted in Dirge's face, "What I want to know is what the SLAG you four were doing that provoked Perceptor into his tank form! He never uses that form!"

The four Decepticons in question still said nothing, not wanting to interrupt Megatron on a tirade, much less admit what they had been doing.

"It doesn't matter. I already know what you were doing. Not specifically, but I know what you were doing." Megatron glared darkly at each Decepticon again. "No Decepticon is to put any flesh creature into a position of extreme helplessness unless by my express order!"

Starscream smirked. "I had no idea you harbored such sentimental feelings towards the flesh creatures, Megatron."

Megatron rounded on Starscream. "I don't care one iota about the flesh creatures. Ten million of them would die if it furthered the Decepticon cause! What I care about is not having my stupid Decepticon forces destroyed because they were playing and provoked an Autobot into a killing rage!" The Decepticon leader turned back to the others. "This order is to be taken seriously. If I find it has been disobeyed, if I even catch wind that Perceptor used his tank form with a Decepticon nearby, I will finish what he started." He emphasized his point by sticking his fusion cannon straight in Skywarp's face until Skywarp shrunk away.

Then Megatron stormed out of the repair bay and Starscream followed him. A little later, Soundwave and Rumble walked out and made their way to Soundwave's quarters.

After a long moment, Rumble looked up at Soundwave. "You knew," he said, grumpy.

"Yes," Soundwave answered. "Long ago, two Decepticons on Cybertron made similar play with three Neutrals. The difference being that at the time, Perceptor was Neutral himself and it was the Decepticons he terminated. The Neutrals took months to repair, as I hear."

Rumble crossed his arms as they walked. "His dossier didn't say nothin' about that."

"This is because under normal circumstance, even in battle, Perceptor is no more dangerous than the average Autobot, perhaps less so. It takes extreme provocation to make him dangerous, and until today, we did not know if he could still be so provoked. It is unlikely this is common knowledge even among the Autobots."

They walked in silence for a while. "He didn't know," Rumble said.

Soundwave answered, "Not unlikely."

"He ripped up his legs cause of it."

"Still water can hide many dangers."

Rumble looked up at Soundwave. "You aren't surprised?"

"No."

"You act like ya knew im."

"We had contact with him when he was Neutral. An attempt was made to convince him to join our ranks."

"Huh? Didn't work I guess."

"The incident with the two deceased Decepticons made it impossible. We watched. His reaction then was quite similar to today's. We could have made use of such deep emotion."

Rumble shuddered. He may have been young by Cybertronian standards, but he wasn't oblivious to what it could mean to make use of such deep emotion'. "Woulda been scary as a Decepticon."

"Possibly."

Another short silence. Rumble started rubbing at his right arm.

Soundwave stopped walking and looked down at Rumble. "You did not know either."

Rumble started and dropped his left hand. "Dunno what you mean by that," he growled.

The taller Decepticon just looked at the shorter for a moment, then continued walking. Rumble mumbled nothing to himself, underscored by one short, faint hum, then stomped angrily after Soundwave.

* * *

Sparkplug, morning mug of coffee in hand, wandered down the Ark hallways to the new quarters that had been hastily set up for the recently revived Autobots. He was a bit reluctant to be doing what he was; Optimus Prime had asked him, for reasons of which he wasn't entirely sure, to go talk to Perceptor. He hadn't said what to talk about, or why, or anything, just simply requested that he do so. His reluctance had a bit to do with never having formally met the scientist, but more it was seeing and hearing about what he had done the day before. Frankly, it made him nervous.

He stopped in front of a flat door that looked a good deal like every other door down this hall, but it was the one he was looking for. Sparkplug took a long drink from his mug, set the mug on the ground, and hopped up a short bit to hit the panel next to the door, knocking on it, as it were. He picked up his coffee and waited. An idle thought passed through his head that it would be nice for the door chimes to be a bit closer to the ground.

When no one came to the door after a few moments, Sparkplug set his mug down and hit the panel a second time. Still no one came. Grumbling, Sparkplug stood on his tiptoes and tapped a button to open the door, hoping it wasn't locked. The door slid away, so Sparkplug picked up his coffee and peeked in.

The room was the normal Autobot Orange', as Spike had dubbed it, and completely empty of any personal effects. That wasn't surprising; before that night, it hadn't been occupied for a long time. Sparkplug wondered what sort of things would eventually come to fill this room. Jazz had a roomful of cassettes, videotapes, art on the walls and tables, vinyl albums of every stripe, and an impressive entertainment system. Cliffjumper had a sizable collection of human firearms, none of which he had a hope in hell of ever using, except perhaps the larger bazookas. And not that he would ever let anyone know, but he had caught a glimpse of coloring books, a massive TV, and large puzzles in the Dinobots' closet'. He greatly feared what Grimlock might do if he found out that the puny humans knew what sort of hobbies his Dinobots engaged in when they had spare time.

Stepping a bit further into the room, Sparkplug looked around for the occupant. He was a bit surprised to find Perceptor sleeping, or recharging, or resting, or whatever it was Autobots did when they laid down for the night. He was a good bit more surprised when he saw how he was sleeping; most Autobots he had seen slept on their backs, arms to their sides zombie style' (again, Spike's words), but Perceptor slept in a very human-like fashion. Probably because of his lens barrel—it had to have been a nuisance at times. In any event, he was on his side; head resting on his arms and his legs slightly bent.

Sparkplug wandered over to Perceptor, wondering how he was going to wake him up since the door chime hadn't done the job. As he walked closer, the scientist shifted and looked Sparkplug's way. The human guessed he'd entered his field of vision; Autobots usually slept with their optics covered, but Sparkplug didn't suppose Perceptor's lens barrel had any such device.

"Hello Sparkplug," Perceptor said, shifting again and preparing to get up.

Sparkplug waved him down. For some reason, he felt more comfortable with Perceptor at something close to eye level; he wasn't sure if it was nerves or if it was simply that he liked the idea of talking to someone face to face. Or close anyway. It was hard on the neck to be constantly craning to look at someone. In case Perceptor didn't understand the gesture, Sparkplug said, "You don't have to get up."

"It would be no trouble."

"No, it's OK. I don't get to talk to many Autobots on my level."

"Ah. Perhaps you would be more comfortable if I were to lie on the floor? It would be as close to your level as I could make myself."

Sparkplug paused, then said, "If it doesn't bother you, sure."

With a curt nod, Perceptor stood, found a place to lie down, and proceeded to do so. He rested his head on one arm and had the other in front of him. Sparkplug noticed some odd white metal on the Autobot's palms. He figured it was some sort of bandage, since Ratchet had explained once that a Transformer's sensory array would self-repair and it was generally much easier to allow it to do so than to take the time to fix it by hand.

"Is this acceptable?" Perceptor asked once he was on the floor.

"Ah, yeah. Thanks."

"I must confess, I am curious as to why you are here." His tone was calm and friendly enough, but Sparkplug heard the tiniest hint of reticence. The idea was almost laughable; why would a giant alien robot be nervous around a small, fragile being such as himself?

Sparkplug answered, "Just to talk. Get to know you a bit, I guess."

Perceptor was slow to reply. "I don't believe I made a particularly admirable first impression."

Scratching the back of his head, Sparkplug said, "Well, no...but I heard that was really unusual...." He trailed off, not sure what to say.

For a moment, Perceptor regarded Sparkplug carefully. "It was. I am sorry for it, very sorry, and I apologize for the threat I am to you."

Sparkplug blinked. Then he said defensively, "I'm not threatened." But he was, in a small way. He wondered how Perceptor had caught that so quickly, or if the scientist normally considered himself a threat.

Perceptor's expression shifted slightly, and it seemed to Sparkplug that he was pulling in on himself, closing down. Sparkplug muttered, "Oh, this isn't going well." After a beat, he decided that maybe more direct speech would work. Perceptor was a scientist, he would probably respond well to that. "Just out of curiosity, why do you think I'm threatened by you? No offence meant or anything."

"While we have not had a chance to actually converse before this moment, I had noticed the way you regarded the other Autobots, Ratchet in particular. I observed how you held yourself and how you reacted to him and to others. You seem quite at ease amongst us, and it did not appear to concern you that you were walking with beings who could badly injure you with the slightest misstep. Yet here, you asked that I not stand to speak to you; I understand that it must be trying to converse with someone so much greater in height, but I had not noticed that it bothered you overly much with Ratchet or Wheeljack. I assumed therefore that because of the horrific acts I committed yesterday, which I know upset you, that your request to speak to me in this position was an attempt to reduce in your mind the threat I represented. I understand why you would feel so. Of course, I am open to the possibility that I am wrong about this."

"Oh." So he is that quick. Sparkplug said as much.

"It appears that human expression and Transformer are not so far removed that there are no similarities or bases for extrapolation."

"Guess not. Sorry about that. I don't mean to feel nervous around you. But since you caught me out, I gotta ask something else." Sparkplug wagged a finger in Perceptor's general direction. "I'm not all that shabby at readin' you guys, and I have to know why I make you nervous."

Perceptor glanced away for a second. "Partly I do not wish to do anything that would reinforce your first impression. And...I realize this is not so of all humans, but...in all honesty, your species' fragility, diminutive size, and essential helplessness in relation to us frighten me." His black fingers twitched. "It certainly did not take long to discover this, and I fervently wish I hadn't."

"So...it's not really me that makes you nervous, but humans in general? Well, I'll have you know we aren't helpless or anything like that. We take care of ourselves pretty well over all."

Perceptor's optics darkened slightly. "Any one of us could kill you without expending any effort. I could vaporize you where you stand. Our war could destroy you. Wheeljack informed me that not all humans are helpless in the face of our war, but that many are. I hate it. I hate that we brought the possibility of such ruination to you, and it scares me."

Sparkplug frowned and looked down for a second. "Not much you can do about that now. If it ever came to it...well, you just don't know how stubborn humans can be about surviving. And we go kill ourselves well enough, it's not like you guys brought any new idea here."

"We have certainly brought a danger to you with which your race should not have to deal. As you say, you kill yourselves well enough without our help, yet now you have it, more help' than you can possibly require."

Sparkplug muttered under his breath and took a long drink from his mug of coffee. "Can't say I like that, no."

After a pause, Perceptor asked, "How many humans would still have life in them if we were not here?"

Quickly, Sparkplug shot off, "Probably less than if we didn't stick our noses in places they didn't belong."

Perceptor looked at Sparkplug sharply, sharp enough that Sparkplug felt far more exposed than he would have liked. He instinctively took a gulp of his coffee, putting the mug between himself and Perceptor's gaze.

The Autobot said, "Since Wheeljack and Ratchet use a good deal of American slang, I took a few moments to familiarize myself with it. May I ask you something?"

"Guess so," Sparkplug answered from behind his mug.

"Have you been personally involved in a human war?"

Sparkplug frowned and set his mug on the floor. "Yeah, Vietnam."

Perceptor's gaze softened a great deal. "What did you do?" he asked quietly.

"Sat around a lot," Sparkplug dodged.

Perceptor hummed to himself a bit. "Then perhaps you know something of how I feel."

"Maybe," he replied noncommittally. Sparkplug thought about that for a few minutes; it wasn't a subject he liked to talk about, and he was annoyed that his feint had only served to tell Perceptor more than he wanted to admit. But he was right; they probably had felt something similar. Then he shrugged and said in a lighter tone, "Gotta keep reminding myself about your names. You're too quick for my own good!"

Instead of replying to that, Perceptor said, "I haven't thanked you for helping me yesterday. Thank you."

"You're welcome." Sparkplug rubbed his head. He looked over at Perceptor, no longer feeling quite so nervous about him. Then he laughed. "Man!"

"What is it?"

Still laughing, Sparkplug uncrossed his arms and said, "You can get up now. I'm sorry about that. Feel like a heel."

"You need not apologize," Perceptor said, but he sat up, and Sparkplug could see he was more relaxed now. "Might I ask about what you're laughing?"

"Sure. I've been had. Royally had!"

Perceptor looked confused. "How so?"

Sparkplug said, "Actually, I came here because Optimus Prime asked me to. He didn't tell me why, he just asked me to talk to you. Finally figured it out. He's a smart cookie, that one."

"He is indeed." Perceptor laced his fingers together and leaned his chin on his hands. "So what is it that you figured out?"

"Prime wanted me to see for myself what you were like...he knew telling me wasn't gonna change my first impression, so he didn't even bother."

"Ah. I'm certain yours was not the only first impression he wished corrected."

"Got us both then, did he?"

"He did."

Sparkplug laughed again. "I really need to watch myself around you guys. Yer all too smart for me!"

"I doubt that," Perceptor said seriously. "You must possess a formidable intellect to repair technology that is far beyond your race's collective understanding."

"Eh heh," Sparkplug muttered in slight embarrassment. "Wouldn't think so to hear Ratchet."

Perceptor smiled. "One would think the very fabric of reality were tearing apart simply to make Ratchet miserable if one were to listen to him when he is in a particularly foul mood. He is an excellent medic and friend."

"Yeah on both counts. You and Wheeljack are pretty close too, huh."

"Yes."

With a sly smile, Sparkplug said, "I'll bet when the three of you get together and have half a mind to, you could wreak absolute havoc around here."

"You have no idea. Generally, however, we don't."

"Hey, can I ask you something else?"

"Certainly."

"Why didn't you wake up when I hit the door bell?"

"Sight holds more sway over me than auditory stimuli do. I should alter the door alert to flash the lights rather than chime. That's how I had it set on Cybertron." Then Perceptor looked away for a moment. "Also, I was dreaming...or rather, falling back into a habit of thinking I apparently developed over the last four million years. I dreamt there was peace between the Autobots and Decepticons. It's...quite a pleasant dream. I suppose I simply did not want to wake from it."

Sparkplug nodded. "I can see that. Sometimes I have dreams I don't want to wake up from either. Days like that make me want to shoot my alarm clock." He tapped his foot, then Sparkplug sat down on the floor. "You gotta tell me at least one thing you, Ratchet, and Wheeljack pulled. I hear Sideswipe and Sunstreaker are the jokers around here, but I know you guys could come up with something good."

Perceptor's expression became conspiratorial. "I suppose there would be no harm in telling you about what Ratchet occasionally referred to as the civil war', although I don't believe there was anything civil about it. Interesting that you should mention Sideswipe and Sunstreaker; I believe it was they who started it, although a bored Wheeljack is a highly dangerous Wheeljack, as is an annoyed Ratchet a dangerous Ratchet, so I can't be certain. It was, essentially, what you might call a prank war that got out of control. It hasn't quite ended either, although officially we were all ordered to stop by Optimus a very long time ago."

After Perceptor told Sparkplug the highlights of the civil war' and about some booby traps he should watch for that were possibly still active, the two spent quite a while swapping stories about a great many things. In all, Optimus Prime would have been glad to see it.

* * *

After three days, the United States Federal Government called the Ark. Optimus Prime took the communication in private.

When he was finished, he ordered a short meeting. Prowl, Ironhide, Jazz, Wheeljack, Ratchet, Perceptor, and Sparkplug were all called to attend.

"So what's up now?" Jazz asked as soon as everyone was assembled.

Optimus Prime answered, "The US government just told me that the criminal case against Wheeljack and Perceptor has been dropped. Someone decided that since the Autobots and the US are nominally allied against the Decepticons, they would drop the charges and count the losses as collateral damage."

"As what?" Jazz demanded. He sounded angry. "You're kiddin', right?"

In fact, all of the Autobots were upset about the Federal decision to varying degrees and for various reasons. Jazz was angry because of the effect it would have on the families of the deceased. Most of them found the idea of collateral damage hard to swallow.

Optimus Prime continued. "Furthermore, the Federal Government reviewed the video we sent to Oregon's state government and declared everything as no fault. In other words, it was a horrible accident. They felt it was likely all seven humans would have died if Wheeljack and Perceptor hadn't been there."

"It's simply rule of law," Prowl said. "Friendly fire. We may not like the idea, but it's not unmerited."

"It is unmerited," Perceptor declared. "No amount of double speak or redefinition will alter the fact that I killed two humans. No law nor word can change this immutable fact."

"No," Prowl answered, "but the US law can say that considering the circumstances, two humans lost their lives and one was injured in the course of a battle against a common foe and therefore it wasn't manslaughter but collateral damage."

"But it cannot say that I am not guilty of taking those lives."

"You are not held guilty according to US law. Prime just told us they said it wasn't your fault."

"I don't hold myself under human law! It will change nothing! I am at fault Prowl."

Wheeljack knew better than to say anything to Perceptor about it, since he seemed bent on blaming himself. Not really without reason; if he'd been in his right mind, he wouldn't have hit them. He was so rarely angry, much less furious to the point where he literally couldn't see straight, that Wheeljack knew it both irritated and frightened him. But he said something anyway. "The three humans ran out into the fight. They didn't know what they were doing and neither did you. I was there too. I saw it. I know I didn't mean to hurt Nathan, and you didn't mean to kill Grant and Anthony."

Perceptor glared at Wheeljack, but before he could speak, Ironhide growled, "Cut it out, you guys. Whatever anyone says, it does mean we don't hafta worry about those lawsuits or any human cops comin' to try and lock any Autobots up. We were already gonna settle with em anyway."

"It also means the families're gonna be pissed," Jazz added.

Sparkplug sighed. "I never liked friendly fire as an excuse, but it's just as well I guess if that's what it was... Well, much as I hate to admit it, we are in this war together. It's not just yours anymore."

Ratchet looked over at Sparkplug. "You really think so?"

"Been thinkin' about it. If we're talking about unchangeable facts, I'd say one of them was you're here, and so are the Decepticons."

"Can't really argue with that," Wheeljack said. "So we're off the legal hook but not the moral one. We'll address that one as well as we can."

"You'll address it tomorrow," Prime declared. "Go settle with the families, including the Mahas. Dismissed." Shortly the Autobots and Sparkplug started leaving the room.

After most were gone, Prime called after them, "Jazz, Wheeljack, hold on a moment." The two came back into the room. When it was just the three, Optimus said, "Jazz, do whatever you can to satisfy the families. We can sell some of our energon if we must to make enough money for the lawyer's costs and damages, assuming they exceed what US currency we already have."

"Yeah, sure," Jazz said, fiddling with his fingers. He didn't look forward to dealing with what he guessed would be very hostile humans, but he was the best suited to the job.

"Wheeljack, you know Perceptor better than I do. If you think it would help, and the time is right, let him see the video Rumble gave us. I don't want him to keep blaming himself for this, since it's entirely possible the humans would have been hurt or killed no matter what he did."

Wheeljack's wings fell slightly. "He won't. He never stopped blaming himself about the Decepticons and the Neutrals. But he'll get past it eventually. I mean, he's had that with him for a long time and he doesn't let it bother him. Maybe that video would help, if only so he knew what the humans did. A few facts go a long way with him."

Optimus Prime rubbed the bottom of his mask. "Do what you can. Jazz, if you think you can help, do it. I'd like you to see the video, too. I want all my top staff to know what happened."

"OK," Jazz said, not particularly relishing the thought of watching Rumble's video. He hadn't heard about it from anyone, since Prime had classified it, but he guessed from everything else that it wouldn't be a fun show.

"That's all, you can go now."

Jazz and Wheeljack walked out of the meeting room. "Tomorrow's gonna be a riot," Jazz said with a distinct frown.

"Yer tellin' me."

* * *

The next day, Jazz and Wheeljack pulled into a driveway, stopping in front of a rather large house, designed to demonstrate the wealth of the owners. As soon as they arrived, they transformed, and Wheeljack set Perceptor down, allowing him to transform as well.

"So where are we right now?" Wheeljack asked. "Is this the Jacobses' or the Smiths'?"

Jazz answered, "Smiths'."

"One I killed," Perceptor said quietly. "Which one?"

"The one I missed, Grant Smith," Wheeljack replied. "The one buried in the forest."

Perceptor shot Wheeljack a hard look. "Don't," he warned.

"I'm not. Doesn't mean I didn't miss him."

Jazz shook his head, not quite sure what the other two Autobots were talking about, although he thought he might have an idea about it. "C'mon. Let's go talk to them. I'm gonna guess they're fumin' mad, probably won't want anything we can give em. Gotta try though."

As it turned out, Jazz had underestimated the Smiths' fury quite a bit. They were incensed that the Federal Government had thrown out their case; they had paid Mr. Evans an exorbitant fee to lodge a suit against the Autobots as fast as he had. All the words Grant's widow had for the three were poison, but she saved by far the worst venom for Perceptor, calling him a cold blooded murderer and many other things beside. Perceptor denied none of it, keeping silent the entire time except to apologize. Wheeljack wanted to defend him; he knew that Grant Smith hadn't been murdered, and certainly not with any purpose. But he also remained silent, shaking his fists and twitching his wings.

Jazz gave Mrs. Smith enough money to cover the lawyer's costs, a large amount after that, and arranged to have the remains of her husband returned to her. She wouldn't accept leaving him buried in the mountains. After that was settled, which took a great deal more money than Jazz had anticipated and a lot more arguing, he tried to make good the three Autobots' escape without being insensitive or impolite. It seemed like the family wanted them to stay just so they could heap more insults on their heads.

Once they finally got away, Jazz said, "Ya know...if you'da said somethin' about their accusations, they would have been happier. Sorta...that's what they wanted anyway. Better that ya didn't though."

"What was there to say?" Perceptor asked. While he was there, he had been still, but now he was stiff and shaking.

"I could think of a few things," Wheeljack growled. "The nicest bein' that was the worst pack of lies I ever heard."

"They were angry, Jack. Hurt and angry. Course they were gonna be a bit irrational."

"I know! But Jazz, there's gotta be a place where you draw the line! I've had friends close enough to call family that really were murdered in cold blood." Wheeljack kicked at a rock. "Doesn't matter I guess. They hit their mark." He walked over to Perceptor and quickly tapped his hand, trying to quell some of his shaking with silent words. "C'mon, let's go get my head ripped off this time."

Perceptor visibly calmed and nodded, following Wheeljack farther from the house.

Jazz sighed. He had a better understanding of humans than either Wheeljack or Perceptor, but he also knew Wheeljack was just watching out for his unsteady and scarred friend. "So what do ya do when everyone's hurt?"

* * *

"Last stop," Wheeljack said. "This is the Mahas' residence."

Jazz pressed his lips together. "Let's hope it goes better than the last two. Not that I'm holdin' my breath." He was beginning to see Wheeljack's view a bit clearer, although he still understood the humans' reactions.

Perceptor nodded slightly, subdued.

"At least these guys didn't sue or nothin'," Jazz added. "Thought those Jacobs were gonna try ta shoot ya, Jack."

"Probably would have if they'd had guns." Wheeljack tapped one of his ears, touching the dent left by the rock Nathan Jacob's sister had thrown at him. "She had a mean pitching arm. At least that's all they did."

"Probably helps that Nathan'll be outta the hospital in a few."

"Yeah."

"Well, unto the breach. Let's go see what these guys got up their sleeves." Jazz led Wheeljack and Perceptor up to the small tract house that belonged to the Mahas and leaned down to ring the doorbell.

Shortly, a young man using a cane came to the door. He looked up at the three Autobots, frowning. He stopped to look at Wheeljack. "I didn't expect to see you again."

"Whoa, you've met?" Jazz asked, a bit surprised.

"Hi Mr. Maha," Wheeljack said. Then in aside to Jazz he added, "I talked to him a bit before the paramedics arrived." He turned back to the human. "We're here to do what we can for ya. I dunno what, but there's gotta be somethin'. Least we could pay off some of the medical and funeral bills."

Giovanni looked over the three again, seeming to study Perceptor for a while, long enough that Perceptor looked away. He looked back at Wheeljack. "That would help a lot, actually. Me and Anthony lived here alone; I can't work right now, and unemployment's not enough to cover rent."

Jazz said, "We'll pay all that for ya. Heck, if you want, we could scrounge you up a house. We don't got all the money in the world, but we want to do everything we can fer ya. I'm Jazz, by the way, and he's Perceptor. Dunno if you met him or not."

"No, not met, but I know who he is. He killed my brother."

Perceptor turned back to face Giovanni, although he found it very difficult. He kneeled down and said softly, "I am very sorry for what I did and for your loss."

Giovanni's gaze fell to the ground. "I know."

Wheeljack and Jazz nearly choked. After the reactions of the other two families, they weren't ready for that. Perceptor looked more than a bit surprised himself.

Giovanni continued. "I want to be angry, I really do. I want to hate you. But I can't. Wheeljack, remember how you asked if I remembered anything? I remember more now. I remember the faces of the other machines. I remember their eyes. I was surprised...I didn't expect machines to have such expressions. One was so cold, the other...Skywarp I think you called him, he looked like he thought I was beneath his contempt. Just something to use, play with. I don't think I'll forget that look. And I don't think I'll forget yours either, Perceptor. I guess I was expecting cold, or thoughtless, or contempt. I wasn't expecting confusion and hurt." Giovanni sighed. "So I can't be angry like I want to be." He shivered a little. "Seeing you now... I know. I can see it. It's like I could break you with a word."

"No, a word would not break me," Perceptor said. "However, you are correct in a sense. You could hurt me badly if you wished."

"Great...honest, too." Giovanni wiped at his eyes. "Now I really can't be mad like I want. I wasn't ready for this. Someone kills your brother, you expect to be able to hate them, not forgive them." He sat down on a bench that was on his porch. "If you don't mind, could you all come back tomorrow? I wasn't ready for this."

"Of course," Jazz said softly. "Don't want to intrude or nothin'."

Giovanni laughed a little. "Jazz. Anthony liked jazz."

"We'll come back tomorrow."

The three Autobots left Giovanni to his thoughts, walking down to the street. Before he transformed, Perceptor glanced back at him, and after a moment, he bowed slightly with his hand over his insignia, a motion the human never saw.

The End

________________________________________

Author's notes: Thanky-sais – Scizordramon for the vacuum cleaner, Padded Cell members for Rumble bits and writey tips! Dart and Starhorse for the idea about different TF body language, and Themis for the little bit about Jazz' voice. Velvet Glove, Names, and Dart for impetus. Downundergrrl for the Red Pen of Death! Al for infectious ficcing enthusiasm. Hrm...I probably should just say "Cellmates" and have done with it...all y'all contributed in some form or fashion to what you see above. Iron sharpens iron; it's hard hanging around such a disgustingly talented and yet incredibly helpful community without it having some effect.

As for the law as it regards friendly fire: I'm not sure it's accurate. I tried finding information about it, but mostly ended up with essays. In any event, given that current law was hard, I can't even imagine how hard it would be to find the laws as they stood in the mid 80's. Sorry about that.

Also, this fic does take place in the same continuity as "Teeth of the Lab Rat". There is a connection, but I don't think it's immediately obvious. "Teeth of the Lab Rat" takes place approximately twenty to twenty-two years in the future. This fic is placed sometime before any of the Season 2 Transformers actually made their television debuts.