Disclaimer : Not mine except for Sneaker, who is in need of a good home anyway, so if you really want to use him, just ask.
A/N: Pokes fic. Hm ... I wrote another Autobot story. I must really have read too much Starhorse fic lately. Now how am I going to explain this to Starscream and Cyclonus? (Well, Starscream mostly. I don't think Cyclonus is going to throw a temper tantrum over not getting a part in this.)
"Well, what do you have to say for yourself?" Prowl snapped.
"N ... nothing." Mirage stuttered.
"Nothing?" Prowl repeated. "You set free a dangerous, fully charged enemy right inside our best hidden base and your only excuse is 'nothing'?"
"Yes, I mean, no, Sir." Oh slag, if he didn't straighten out his processor soon they'd probably shoot him as a traitor. "I didn't do it."
"You didn't do it?" Prowl echoed. "Then please do tell me how a hole just appeared in the wall of Dirge's cell and let him walk out without the security camera seeing a thing?"
"I don't know, Sir." Mirage confessed. "All I know is that I didn't do it. I wasn't there and this is the first I've heard of it. I had no idea he got away before you told me so. I swear it."
Why was it that whatever went wrong in the base was always blamed on him? Something disappeared? Blame Mirage. Something broke? Blame Mirage. It was a miracle they hadn't blamed him for the energon rationing yet. Or maybe that was because it had started before he'd arrived.
"Oh really?" Prowl asked. "Then I'll tell you something. Dirge was freed by someone invisible. We have indubitable proof of that. And guess just who is the only person with invisibility powers in this sector?"
"We don't know that for sure, Prowl." Ratchet threw in. "The Decepticons might have their own invisible agent."
"First time I'd have heard about it." Prowl snorted.
"It's not like the Decepticons know about me either." Mirage pointed out.
"Is that so?" asked RedAlert. "Or are you perhaps working for them? What was that mess you led us into five cycles ago?"
"That was a mistake." Mirage admitted. "I overheard Shrapnel and Kickback discuss their assignment to guard the weapons transport and assumed they were the only guards."
It had been a terrible mistake, he knew, and a very stupid one, but hey, he was completely new at this. It had been his very first mission for the Autobots and it had backfired spectacularly. It was a miracle they'd all gotten out alive.
But was it his fault that he'd been assigned to the front lines without even a simple basic training course? He'd been built to be a merchant. What did he know about Decepticons?
The rest of Prowl's unit unfortunately consisted of veterans who had lots of experience with their enemies. They just didn't understand why Mirage could find things they considered self-evident so hard to understand.
"Where were you during third watch?" Prowl demanded.
Well, that at least he could answer. "On watch. Outer perimeter duty." Which explained why he'd missed the fight with the escaped Decepticon, he hoped.
Prowl stared at him for a moment. He hadn't expected this.
"Sideswipe and Sunstreaker, Sir."
And he doubted that that was a coincidence. Ever since the disastrous mission he'd been on duty with one or both of the twins every cycle. Usually it was Sunstreaker whom everybody else seemed to avoid even more than Sideswipe.
Even though he was still new to the unit it was already obvious to him that the twins were the outsiders of the group. The others avoided them, especially Sunstreaker, but at least they had each other. Mirage didn't really know anyone here at all and they didn't want to get to know him either.
Before his mistake he'd thought he was getting along quite well with Hoist and Trailbreaker, but Hoist had been hurt in the attack on the weapons transport and he'd been unable to exchange more than two words with either of them since.
It had been a mistake to join the Autobots. Would they let him leave, if he asked them to?
There was an oil stain on the floor right in front of his right foot. He studied it intently while Prowl radioed the twins.
"I'm beginning to worry about his mental state, Prowl." Ratchet's comment was barely above a whisper, but thanks to the distrustful silence in the command room Mirage overheard it anyway. "This isn't going to do him any good."
"You saw the evidence Ratchet." Prowl apparently didn't care who heard him.
"Still, what if he is telling the truth? He still hasn't settled in, barely knows us. If he's going to be part of the unit, he needs to learn to trust us. Right now he's afraid of us."
Was it that obvious? But then again what did they expect? This was only the second time he'd seen Prowl at all and both times it had been to receive a scolding.
"Whatever it is, I didn't do it." Sideswipe announced happily as he and Sunstreaker entered.
Had he been everybody's scapegoat before Mirage had arrived?
"No," confirmed Prowl. "You didn't. He did." He nodded towards Mirage.
Sideswipe stopped, optics flickering in surprise. He took in the silent room, Prowl's dark expression, Mirage's crouched stance.
He sidled up to the spy. "What did you do?"
"Nothing." Mirage mumbled. "I can turn invisible."
"Seems to me like that's supposed to be a good thing." Sideswipe stated.
Mirage secretly agreed with that. In fact he'd never wanted to turn invisible as much as he did now. Maybe he should just stay invisible permanently. At least then the officers couldn't stare at him anymore.
"You two had perimeter guard duty with Mirage today?" Prowl demanded.
"Yes." Experience had taught Sideswipe to be cautious when answering Prowl's questions. It was always best to keep the answers as short as possible. The more he said the more he could give away by accident.
"When was that?" Prowl continued with a glare. He was used to Sideswipe being difficult when questioned about his own misdeeds, but hadn't expected it in this situation.
"Third watch." Sideswipe said wondering whether that was good or bad. What were they accusing Mirage of and what had the rookie told them anyway?
"Did you keep in contact during the patrol?"
"You ordered all patrols to keep in constant sensor contact with each other so they could help each other in case of attack." Sunstreaker reminded Prowl. "He splashed my finish when driving through some stinky black goo in sector five." he added at Prowl's surprised glance. "Wouldn't have happened if we had been patrolling separately as we should."
"You were driving in a group then?"
"Yes." Sideswipe confirmed. "As ordered. Nice and proper. We're good little soldiers and do as we're told. Aren't we boys?"
"And Mirage never left the group?" Prowl demanded. "No detours, no turning invisible, short side trips?"
"No, Sunstreaker took a detour to wash off the goo, but Mirage and I stayed together the whole time."
"Looks like your obvious culprit has an air tight alibi." Ratchet stated.
"Or maybe the twins are in on it." RedAlert countered.
"It could be one of Sideswipe's pranks gone wrong." Prowl mused. "Or maybe not even gone wrong. With that little hooligan anything's possible."
"Hey!" protested Sideswipe putting on his usual 'innocently accused' expression. He wasn't really surprised at this turn of events. "No name-calling."
"Can we at least know what you're accusing us of this time?" Sunstreaker asked resignedly.
"Very well." Prowl agreed. "Show them the evidence, RedAlert."
"This," RedAlert declared moving over to the main monitor. "Is a surveillance video from Dirge's cell."
The screen showed Dirge sitting in the cell twiddling his thumbs.
"Very exciting." Sunstreaker commented after a while of that.
"No wait." Sideswipe smirked. "Something just happened."
"What?" Sunstreaker glanced back up at the screen.
"He just stood up." Sideswipe reported. "Now he's – gasp - pacing."
"I can see that." Sunstreaker pointed out.
Mirage wondered how they could take this so lightly. Didn't they realise they were in deep trouble, if Prowl declared them to be guilty? Or was everything okay to them as long as they were together?
"As you can see on the chronometer in the upper left corner it is about halfway through third watch." RedAlert announced.
"I hate to disappoint you, but that counter's even less interesting than watching Dirge pace." Sideswipe told him.
Mirage glanced at the cheeky mech beside him for just a moment, but when he looked back at the screen the picture had changed completely.
"What the?" Sunstreaker gaped at the picture. "Where'd he go?"
Sideswipe walked up to the screen and examined the picture from all angles. "Through the hole in the bars, I suppose."
"Dirge? With those big unwieldy wings of his?" Sunstreaker sounded doubtful. "How'd he fit through that slim hole?"
"Well, I suppose he must have squeezed through sideways." Sideswipe shrugged.
"Can we see that again?" Mirage asked timidly. "I think I missed it."
"No, you didn't." said Prowl. "We checked that part of the film picture for picture and in one he's there and the cell whole, in the next there's the hole and no more Dirge."
"So somebody cut the film." Sideswipe stated. "I still don't see what makes you so sure it was us. We were out patrolling at the time. Ask Inferno. He was guarding the main entrance. He can tell you exactly when we left and returned."
"Not if you came back invisibly, then went out again." Red Alert accused.
"And the film wasn't cut." Prowl added. "It's in one piece, not even a scratch on it and no time gap in the counter. Someone invisible came in, blasted a bar out of the door and Dirge left invisibly as well. Mirage is the only one who can do that."
"But ... but I can't!" Mirage realised with relief. This he could prove. "I can turn myself invisible, but not somebody else. Dirge is much too large to fit into my invisibility field."
Prowl hesitated. "Is that true, Ratchet?"
Ratchet shrugged. "I'll have to check him over to be sure, but it is quite possible. Generating an invisibility field takes a lot of energy and a field generator that strong would be quite a drain on Mirage's system. It would have been more economical to construct him with a small generator that he can run for an extended length of time."
"I thought you gave him a routine systems check when he arrived?" Prowl asked.
"A general health check." Ratchet confirmed. "Not a detailed analysis of all his functions."
They relocated into repair bay and one detailed and very embarrassing examination later Prowl finally accepted that Mirage could not have done the deed. At least not in the way he'd assumed.
"But if not Mirage, then who?" Red Alert asked still eyeing the spy distrustfully.
"Well, it wasn't us." Sunstreaker stated sullenly. "We can't turn people invisible either."
"Why don't you hound Hound for a change." Sideswipe suggested. "He could have freed Dirge under the cover of a hologram."
"What reason would Hound have to free Dirge?" Prowl asked.
"What reason would I have, or Mirage for that matter?" Sideswipe countered. "Why do you always accuse the same people?"
"Because you're usually guilty." Prowl stated. "And Hound only returned from his last mission at the exact moment Dirge blasted through the roof."
"Well, maybe he slipped in and out under the cover of a hologram." Mirage snapped before he could stop himself. It caused everybody to stare at him again.
"Can we go now?" Sunstreaker demanded.
"For the moment." Prowl allowed. "But I'm not yet convinced of your innocence. You're relieved of all duties and will not set foot nor wheel out of this base until the case is solved. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Prowl." Sideswipe and Sunstreaker declared meekly and headed for the door.
Just before they reached it Sideswipe stopped, though, walked back into the room and dragged Mirage out with them.
"You shouldn't stay around Prowl any longer than you must when he's in that mood." he lectured. "Especially when RedAlert's around as well. It only reminds them of your existence and when they remember you exist they think up things they can accuse you of."
Mirage regarded Sideswipe out of the corners of his optics wondering whether he was serious.
"Anyway, we've just been given some unscheduled time off." Sideswipe continued happily. "What are we going to do with it?"
He looked expectantly from Mirage to Sunstreaker.
"Lets try something new and stay out of trouble." Sunstreaker suggested.
"Ah, but Sunny, that'd be against our nature. It would make everybody nervous. They'd think we must be up to something."
Mirage regarded the scorched laser marks on the floor and ceiling that hadn't been there this morning. Apparently Dirge had fought his way through here in his search for an exit. A little further down the corridor a group of Autobots was repairing a broken wall. From time to time one of them looked over at them warily.
"Maybe if we help with the clean up, they'd begin to trust us a little more." he said.
"Yeah right." Sideswipe snorted. "They won't believe that we're innocent until Prowl punishes somebody else for it. Maybe not even then."
"Then we have to find the real culprit." Mirage decided. "You said that Hound could have done it?"
"He could have projected a hologram of Dirge and a whole cell." Sideswipe explained. "I'm not sure he could have made the real Dirge invisible, though and ... Well, you know Hound."
"Actually," Mirage admitted. "I don't. I didn't even know there was someone by that name in the unit."
"That's right. He's been away all the time you've been here." Sideswipe realised.
"So who is he?" Mirage pushed.
"That guy." Sunstreaker pointed at a mech who was busy trying to straighten a crumpled up bit of metal that hung half torn away from a wall.
"Hound's just too good and nice." Sideswipe explained. "He'd never think of letting out a prisoner even as a joke. He just isn't a prankster. No sense of adventure."
"Do we have any other suspects?" Mirage asked.
Hound looked up from his work and noticed that the three mechs who'd come out of repair bay a while ago were still standing right outside the door as if they had nothing better to do. He wished they'd move on. They were distracting the rest of the work crew.
Just as he was about to turn back to the damaged wall panel he was straightening Sunstreaker lifted his hand and pointed right at him.
Hound decided to give up on the panel and see what they wanted instead. He didn't recognise the small white and blue mech, so he had to be a new recruit. The poor kid probably had no idea what he was getting into hanging out with the likes of Sideswipe.
He only got to take one step in their direction before Trailbreaker noticed and stopped him, though.
"Don't." his friend warned him. "These guys are nothing but trouble and we've got work to do."
"I know the twins, Trailbreaker." Hound stated calmly. "I won't fall for their tricks, but somebody ought to warn the new guy."
"Never mind." Trailbreaker shook his head. "Mirage's the worst of the lot."
Hound regarded Mirage.
Mirage regarded Hound.
"He doesn't look like a troublemaker." Hound decided.
"And what does a troublemaker look like?" Trailbreaker laughed. "He's the one who let Dirge out."
"If that's true, why didn't Prowl put him under arrest?" Hound asked.
Trailbreaker shrugged. "I don't know, but I tell you he's a bad one. Lured us into a Decepticon trap only a few cycles ago. And he's a thief too. Ever since he arrived things have been disappearing."
"Never trust a mech who can turn invisible." recommended Cosmos. "They've always got something to hide."
Hound saw Mirage start their way, but Sideswipe pulled him back. This was ridiculous. They were members of the same team. Why shouldn't they talk to each other?
"So what can he do to me with all of you here watching?" he asked his friends. "I'm just going to ask what they're doing here. Perhaps they can lend a hand with the door."
"Well, you're not going alone." Trailbreaker decided. "I'm coming with you."
"Me too." Cosmos added.
Hound wondered what Mirage might be thinking about this as he walked down the corridor with his two self-appointed bodyguards. He hoped they didn't look too hostile.
He stopped about two steps away from the group. Now what? Just demanding to know what they were doing suddenly seemed very impolite.
"Hi." he offered instead.
"What?" Sideswipe demanded.
"Hi." Mirage returned. "I'm Mirage."
"Hound." Hound introduced himself.
Sideswipe stepped between them. "What do you want Hound? We're rather busy here."
"Oh really?" sneered Cosmos. "Because I don't see you doing anything."
"I just wanted to introduce myself to Mirage." Hound started.
"And so you have." Sunsteaker snapped. "Now get lost."
"No wait!" Mirage slipped through under Sideswipe's arm. "They tell me that you project holograms. Is that right?"
"Yes, that's my special gimmick. My function's scout, though."
"So can you make someone disappear?" Mirage asked.
"Of course." Hound nodded. "I can project a hologram of a box or pillar over them, or even of a different person, whatever you like."
"Oh." Mirage sounded disappointed. "But can you make it appear like there's nothing there at all? Make them invisible?"
Hound thought that over. "Well, as long as they don't move and nobody tries to walk through them I suppose I could. It would have to be a very exact hologram, though. It probably depends on how complicated the background pattern is."
"And what if that person moves?" Mirage wanted to know.
"Well, then I'd have to move the hologram along with them and unless you have a completely flat surface the rims would start to flicker and give me away."
Mirage looked pensive for a moment, then abruptly turned to face Sideswipe. "Do you think Prowl would let us see that video again?"
"What for?" Sideswipe demanded.
"What video?" Hound asked.
"Well, my invisibility field doesn't flicker, so if we could prove that it was a hologram Prowl would have to believe us. ... Wouldn't he?" Mirage suddenly felt his doubts come back.
"We have been accused of running around turning people invisible." Sideswipe informed Hound.
"You can do that?" Even Cosmos sounded sceptical.
"No, but they don't care." Mirage sighed. "They just have to blame me for everything."
"Don't you have a job to do?" Sunstreaker snapped.
"Yeah, he's right Hound. Lets get back to work. They're not worth our time." Trailbreaker apparently thought they needed a peace keeper.
He had a point, though. They needed to get the repairs done as soon as possible, at least to the point that the base's intercom was reliable again.
For the rest of the day he couldn't get the conversation out of his processor, though. The new guy seemed seriously upset and the notion of the twins turning someone invisible was simply ridiculous. Neither of them could afford the necessary equipment. Of course Sideswipe was creative with his pranks, but not that creative.
And then there was his nagging suspicion that it was all connected to Dirge's escape. Sideswipe knew better than to risk something like that for a prank. He was more responsible than he let on most of the time.
The thought was still nagging at him when he finally found time to visit the repair bay and let Ratchet have a look at the dents and burns he'd suffered fighting Dirge. Getting your hull hammered back into shape was rather boring when your pain receptors were shut off, so it left him time to think.
"That's from Dirge's weapon?" Ratchet asked tearing him out of his thoughts.
"Huh? What was that?"
"I said that blast mark doesn't look right for Dirge." Ratchet repeated.
"Oh, then it's probably from my scuffle with Scavenger." Hound shrugged. "I ran into him on my way back to the base this morning."
"No, pure coincidence. He was more surprised to see me than I was to see him. We exchanged a few shots and some blows. He made a break for it and I let him go."
"So what is it that has you so distracted if not that?"
Hound laughed. "Just a weird rumour I heard about the twins turning someone invisible."
This time it was Ratchet who sighed and it was a very troubled sigh. "So that's already making the rounds, is it?"
"Yes, know anything about it?"
"Other than that Prowl spends too much time around RedAlert?" Ratchet tried to laugh it off. "He's beginning to rub off on him."
In fact, Ratchet turned out to know the whole impossible story and by the time Hound walked out of repair bay Mirage's question actually made sense. The invisibility field generator needed to create the effect Ratchet had described would consume more fuel than fit into an average mech's fuel tank. A very large Transformer, like Devastator for example, might be able to use it, but someone the size of Mirage or the twins would be drained the moment he activated it.
Of course they could have used a portable generator with an independent fuel supply, but so could anybody. There was nothing to implicate Mirage in that scenario and where on Cybertron could he or the twins get their hands on such rare and expensive equipment and that much fuel? Ratchet had been quite sure that there weren't any such generators in the base.
"Perhaps Wheeljack has one in his laboratory in Iacon." he'd said. "But can you see those three breaking in there, actually finding it and transporting it back here, all without anybody noticing?"
The chaos in Wheeljack's lab was legendary, as were his security alerts and from Ratchet's description the generator would be rather heavy.
Had it been a mistake to dismiss his run in with Scavenger so easily after all? He'd assumed that the Constructicon had been on an off duty excursion looking for 'treasures', but what if Devastator had snuck into the base with an invisibility field generator, freed Dirge and made off in his separate components?
Right. A mech as huge and noisy as Devastator snuck into a base whose location, let alone security measures, was supposed to be unknown to the Decepticons? And then the Constructicons just drove off leaving the newly freed Dirge behind without even giving him directions to the next exit? And what happened to the generator? Dirge hadn't been dragging any heavy equipment about and it hadn't been left behind, or else they'd have found it by now.
Longhaul would probably be able to carry it in his vehicle form, he decided after a moment, but still the scenario made no sense.
A hologram on the other hand took a lot less energy than an invisibility field and a small hologram projector was easy enough to organise. With a little practise anyone could use it and nobody would think anything of it, if he saw someone carry one around. They were frequently used for training simulations and in strategy meetings after all. Would it even be noticed if one went missing from the equipment room? Probably not before the next scheduled inventory and even then it would most likely be assumed that it had just been forgotten in some meeting or training room and would turn up in time. In fact, if it had been taken from the equipment storage, it could have been returned just as easily and without raising any suspicion.
Hound tuned around and headed for the brig. A closer look at the cell should tell him whether the trick could be pulled off with a hologram or not.
"No, you're in full view of the camera like that."
Mirage and the twins were already there, Sunstreaker standing in the middle of the cell looking annoyed, Sideswipe blocking the brig's door aiming a gun at his brother and Mirage in the corridor between them shaking his head.
"Whatever are you doing?" Hound asked Sideswipe. It was simply unimaginable that he might be about to shoot his brother and Mirage's comment made no sense at all.
"Trying to re-enact Dirge's glorious escape." Sideswipe declared dramatically. "Sunstreaker is playing Dirge, the tragic hero in distress. I am his brave and mysterious rescuer and Mirage is our director. We still need a camera crew, though."
"We're testing Mirage's hypothesis that whoever freed Dirge wasn't invisible at all, but simply stayed out of the camera's reach." Sunstreaker translated.
It took Hound only a moment to locate the security camera. It was mounted fix on the wall near the door.
"Good idea." he decided. "If he remained just outside the door, there's no way he could have been filmed."
"Yes, but I couldn't possibly hit the right bar from there." Sideswipe explained. "Not without scorching the door frame."
Hound eyed Sideswipe and the gun critically. "Have you tried shooting left handed?" he asked. "Or from vehicle mode? Maybe the culprit's body structure allows for angled shots. And what sort of gun was used? Could RedAlert have overlooked the muzzle peeking in?"
The three 'detectives' exchanged clueless looks.
"We didn't think of that." Mirage admitted.
"Well, let me try the hologram from out here." Hound decided.
The first thing he did was make Sunstreaker disappear, which was easy enough, but then they tried to let him walk to the opening and step through.
At the first attempt Sunstreaker walked right out of the hologram.
At the second Hound managed to follow him, but the hologram made the remaining bars appear to wave about madly.
Third attempt they tested a new idea where Hound threw the hologram over the broken bar to make it appear solid and Sunstreaker was supposed to walk into it and climb through the opening while the hologram remained steady. The downside of this was that Sunstreaker couldn't see the opening and kept running into the wrong bars. Once he finally managed to get out he stepped into the corridor and once again out of the hologram where he was still in clear view of the camera.
"We need a larger hologram." Sideswipe diagnosed. "Can you do that?"
"But the opening appeared the very same moment that Dirge disappeared." Mirage argued. "A larger hologram would work, but doesn't fit what's on the tape."
Hound frowned. "I need to see that tape." he decided. "And maybe we can get RedAlert to activate the camera for us. Maybe the distortions aren't as obvious to the camera as they seem to the naked optic."
So the whole group marched back upstairs to the security center.
"Let me talk." Hound suggested. "I usually get along with both Prowl and RedAlert just fine."
"Not for much longer." Mirage returned gloomily. "They're probably going to start suspecting you just for being seen with us."
"Ah, don't take it so hard." Sideswipe beamed at him. "At least we get to have our fun with them."
"I don't see what's so funny about being tried for treason." Mirage snapped back.
"They can't try you." Sideswipe returned. "The only hard evidence they have is that you are physically unable to turn Dirge invisible. They just don't like not having a suspect. It makes them grumpy."
Hound was beginning to feel really sorry for the little white and blue mech. Mirage seemed to be a perfectly nice guy, but aside from the twins nobody wanted to haveanything to do with him.
They were in luck. RedAlert was off duty and Bumblebee had been drafted into minding the monitors. He made a token protest that Mirage and the twins couldn't be trusted, but caved in when Hound pointed out that there wasn't anything they could do to the security system by watching an old tape under Bumblebee's guard.
"No muzzle." was Mirage's first comment afterwards.
"We still don't know what the weapon was, though." Sideswipe reminded him. "Maybe it was some special sniper's gun. Any ideas about the hologram?"
Hound shrugged. "Could you turn that camera back on for a while Bumblebee? There's something I want to try and it'd help if I could see the recording afterwards."
"Turn it back on?" Bumblebee laughed. "But Hound it's already on. We never turn it off except for maintenance purposes. There it is." He pointed at one of the smaller side monitors which did indeed show the damaged cell.
"So that's what's happening in the brig right now?" Sunstreaker asked.
"Not very exciting, is it?" Bumblebee sighed. "And I'll be siting here watching that until first watch."
"No it's not." Sideswipe stated pointing at the counter in the corner of the screen. "There's a delay. Quite large in fact. Oh, that gives me ideas!"
Indeed the counter was several astrominutes behind Hound's internal chronometer.
"Isn't that a security risk?" Mirage asked. "I mean, by the time you see an intruder on the monitor he could be anywhere."
"What are you talking about?" Bumblebee snapped. "There is no delay. The monitor shows events the moment they happen. Maybe the counter has drifted. It might need calibrating."
"When were the counters last calibrated?" Hound asked glancing over the various monitors. Most were exactly on time, but quite a lot of them were behind, some even further than the brig camera. "Corridor eleven is almost half a cycle behind. Do you realise how long it takes for a modern chronometer to drift that far off time?"
"That can't be." Bumblebee agreed. "The base isn't even that old and the counters are calibrated during every system overhaul. Maybe those two cameras had to be stopped for repairs and their counters simply continued where they'd stopped afterwards."
"When was the last system overhaul then and who performed it?" Sideswipe asked. "Because you sure seem to have had an abnormal lot of repairs since then."
"Either that." Hound agreed. "Or somebody's been stopping and restarting security cameras as he pleases."
Shocked silence followed that realisation.
"What's in corridor eleven?" Mirage asked finally.
Sideswipe shrugged. "Nothing much it's a shortcut into the hangar and has a back entrance to repair bay. Ratchet has some storage cupboards with old and rarely used equipment down there, but that's it. Why?"
"Because that's where the drift is biggest." Mirage stated. "So either our culprit has switched that camera off longer or more often than any other."
Bumblebee's optics lit up with worry. "Get RedAlert. He has to see this."
"Not only is corridor eleven the most affected." Prowl stated after checking the counters and maintenance log of every single security camera. "All the most affected cameras are in its immediate vicinity and there are no affected cameras that are entirely surrounded by unaffected ones. That doesn't look like an occasional prank, it's a trail. I believe we have an intruder that's been here for several cycles without ever being caught on camera."
"So what do we do now?" Bumblebee asked nervously.
"Search corridor eleven until we find his hideout." Prowl decided. "We'll take the walls apart if we have to."
And they did. After a first search of every cupboard they sealed off the doors to the hangar and repair bay and started dismantling wall panels.
Mirage was trying to pry loose a floor board without tripping Hoist who was working on the wall beside him when Bumblebee's voice boomed out of the completely uncovered intercom unit above his head.
"Repair bay camera three's just gone blank!" Bumblebee yelled. "No wait, it's back. Two's out. Corridor eight. The science lab ..."
"What the?" Hoist started and stepped right on Mirage's board nearly crushing his fingers in the process. "I found it."
"Hey, no need to step on me." Mirage complained. "Found what?"
"That." Hoist pointed.
That appeared to be an old maintenance shaft, or possibly just a hollow left to save building materials. Now it was almost blocked by all sorts of small items and lots of old cables along with a strange soft mass that Mirage couldn't identify.
He stared at it, poked it, but it didn't resemble anything he'd ever seen before.
"Hair." somebody said behind him and he turned to find that Ratchet had arrived. "It's a nest of cable and hair." The medic nodded to himself. "I don't think our intruder is Cybertronian."
They stared at Ratchet for a moment, but no further explanation was forthcoming.
"What is ... hair ...?" Mirage finally asked shyly fearing to embarrass himself in front of the more experienced soldiers.
"What?" apparently he'd interrupted Ratchet's thoughts. Would the medic forgive him? "Oh, it's an organic substance that grows out of the bodies of organic beings. It usually doesn't contain any pain sensors, so it can be cut off without hurting the creature. It also tends to fall out and be replaced by fresh growth after a while. I suppose our intruder is an organic creature and this must be where it recharges. Most organic creatures like to lie on soft surfaces, so it must have torn or cut off its hair to make itself more comfortable."
"And what about all the knickknacks?" Sunstreaker was poking his head over Mirage's shoulder. "I can understand the pen, and perhaps the tools, but what does it want broken bolts for?"
Ratchet sifted through the items and finally picked out a surgical laser. "Ah, and here's the corpus delicti." He declared. "That's how it shot out the bar of Dirge's cell. It must have been a complete accident."
"Accident?" Hoist protested. "You don't really think any halfway intelligent creature would let out Dirge by accident!"
"I don't think it's intelligent, Hoist." Ratchet said. "Just a very clever and curious animal with a tendency to carry home everything that strikes its fancy."
"Those wouldn't happen to be the things Mirage's supposed to have stolen, would they?" Hound asked pointedly.
Several other Autobots' guilty looks were answer enough.
"Well, even if it is just an animal and didn't mean any harm, we can't allow it to continue to live in our base, stealing our equipment and playing with lasers. Sooner or later there'll be another accident and somebody will get hurt." Prowl decided. "We have to catch the thing."
That was easier said than done, though. Sneaker, as they nicknamed the creature, was extremely shy and had a talent for spotting Autobots before they spotted it. All ideas of building a trap to catch it without hurting it had to be abandoned early on due to their lack of knowledge of Sneaker's shape. How tall and long was it? Did it have a tail that might get stuck when the trap slammed shut around it? Could it take the fright of being captured like that or would its systems crash? Ratchet thought he'd read somewhere that organic creatures tended to have rather weak fuel pumps that could easily stop at a sudden scare. By the time they managed to restart its fuel pump Sneaker's spark was likely to have been extinguished.
Nobody wanted to accidentally kill an innocent animal no matter how much trouble it had caused.
"The best way to capture an organic without harming it is to drug it." Ratchet lectured. "But we know absolutely nothing about Sneaker's systems. A drug that makes one species pleasantly drowsy can be deadly poison to another and have no effect whatsoever on a third. And we don't even know what world Sneaker comes from. It might be carbon or silicone based, its body fluids' could be red or green ... and I have no idea what any of that is supposed to tell us about it. Perhaps we should just leave it be until an expert from the Iacon zoo can get here."
"That is a possibility." Prowl allowed. "But there's one last thing I want to try first."
Mirage was getting tired of waiting and that was saying something. He was usually quite proud of his patience, but it felt like he'd been crouching in the shaft unmoving for an eternity. He wished he could at least turn his head to look at Sneaker's nest from a different angle, but Ratchet had been adamant that he should move as little as possible.
As metal beings Transformers were hard to detect by smell and until his field generator ran out of fuel he was invisible, but they had no idea how good Sneaker's hearing was. According to Ratchet some animals made Ravage appear deaf by comparison.
Even the smallest movement made a faint noise of turning gears that might warn Sneaker of his presence.
So Mirage continued to sit invisibly and stare at the spot where Sneaker was supposed to appear, if he did indeed return to the nest to recharge. The wall panel had been remounted loosely to give the appearance that the nest was once again safe. Unfortunately that gave Mirage next to no room. He wondered whether he'd even be able to move when the time came. Or would he be stuck between the tight walls of the shaft? The panel was supposed to give if he pushed it, but they hadn't tested it.
A bushel of hair was stuck on the wall of the shaft just where it bent out of view. Odd that he hadn't noticed it before. He'd thought he had the view memorised by now.
The bushel quivered and grew further into the shaft. Grew?
No, it hadn't grown and it wasn't just a bushel of hair. It was a muzzle similar to Ravage's, but surrounded by an enormous lot of hair. What he'd mistaken for a quivering bushel of hair was actually Sneaker's nose testing the air and now its face followed to take a cautious look around.
The organic's optics glittered with reflected light, but didn't give off any light of their own. Was Sneaker blind? The poor thing!
But it appeared to see something anyway. At least it spent a while just looking around the corner.
It had a cute face, all round opticed and covered in hair with small fangs peeking out of its muzzle. Mirage wondered what they'd do with it once they caught it. Perhaps they could keep it as a mascot?
Now the entire head came into view. Two small round appendages on top twitched and turned in every direction. Most likely those were audio-sensors, Mirage decided.
Sneaker waited again then finally moved towards the nest and closer to Mirage. It had a very long and agile neck. Periscope neck to be better able to peek around corners perhaps? It's body looked like a ball of hair, all fuzzy and probably just as soft as the hair in the nest. No wonder it didn't like recharging on the hard metal floor.
The legs, too were very fuzzy and ended in even bigger fuzz-balls that had to be Sneaker's feet. And hands? It was moving on all fours, again like Ravage.
Had Sneaker's species been the model for Ravage's shape then? But no, Sneaker's hind legs were nothing like Ravage's. They looked quite a bit longer than his front legs and it was keeping them slightly bent in order to be able to walk on all fours. There was no tail as far as Mirage could see in all the fuzz. It might well have had a little stub tail hidden under its hair.
Sneaker examined its nest carefully, pawed a few of its toys back into place and made a little sad trilling sound at the discovery of the disappearance of several others that had been determined unsafe or too valuable to leave to it.
Then it started rearranging its nest and finally curled up to recharge.
Mirage watched in fascination. He'd expected Sneaker to just plop down on the soft nest and turn off its optics, but it seemed that there was a distinct shape it required its nest to be in and that had been unwittingly destroyed by the Autobots. And it had curled up! Even the optics weren't just shut off, but hidden behind protective shutters.
What a fascinating and complex mechanism! Oh why had he joined the army? He could have gone into exploration and studied organic life forms like Sneaker instead. It had to be at least as exciting as what he was doing now and had the added advantage that he wouldn't be expected to kill anything.
But then exploration meant leaving Cybertron. That was why he'd chosen the army, after all. He couldn't bare the thought of leaving his homeworld and soldiers were required right here. Cybertron was where the enemy was.
And he had an alien to catch.
With a quick, but gentle move he scooped up Sneaker trying to apply just enough pressure to hold him still without hurting him and ...
Clonk! His arms fell against his chest when the soft body between them suddenly disappeared.
What? How could Sneaker just have disappeared? Where was it now? Had he harmed it? And why on Cybertron was he lying on his back? Where were the walls that had been boxing him in just a moment ago?
Mirage sat up.
Ah, repair bay.
"Are you okay? How many fingers do you see? What's the last thing you remember?" Ratchet was on him before he'd even finished his question.
"Fine, three and I was just picking up Sneaker." Mirage answered then repeated: "What happened?"
"It stopped you." Ratchet replied still looking excited.
"Stopped me?" Mirage repeated. "How? It's just a small ball of hair. I didn't see any weapons on it."
Ratchet's optics sparkled with amusement. "Just like it stopped the cameras apparently. It seems to be an automatic pre-programmed reaction to being cornered that's supposed to buy it time to flee."
"So it got away." Mirage realised with a sigh.
"No, it didn't." Ratchet corrected. "You must have been leaning over it at the time and when your systems stopped your chest dropped onto it knocking it out. It's over there. We're keeping it in artificial recharge for now to prevent it from stopping everybody who comes near the cage. It spares it the fear of being captured, too."
Despite Ratchet's protest Mirage hopped off the bed and walked over to the cage. Sneaker lay on its back with its four feet just hanging off it. It looked somehow dead that way.
Mirage stuck a finger through the bars to touch the hairy head.
"That's wrong." he stated. "I don't think it'd want to lie on its back. It recharges curled up on its side and surrounded by soft things."
Ratchet shrugged. "It isn't locked. Arrange it however you like."
Mirage opened the door and pulled Sneaker into his arms. Now, where exactly had it tucked its legs when it had curled up?
It took him a while to arrange the limp creature to his satisfaction, but finally Sneaker looked just the way it had when he'd tried to pick it up.
He ran his hand over all the hair a few more times before returning the organic to its cage. It felt ... pleasant ... to touch something that soft and warm and know it was alive.
"What's going to happen to it now?" he asked Ratchet. "We can't just keep it in recharge forever, can we? It seems somehow wrong."
"We won't." Ratchet confirmed. "Prowl decided to donate Sneaker to the Iacon zoo. They're sending someone to pick it up. Looks like we've discovered an entirely new species. At least they didn't recognise it from the description. They're all excited about it. What's the matter?"
"Nothing. I just wish we could have kept it. It would have made a cute mascot."
"You want to keep it after it just stopped your systems like that?" Ratchet apparently couldn't believe it. "Mirage, it switches off people whenever it gets scared. Want to have those blackouts all the time? It's much too dangerous."
"I suppose." Mirage sighed.
"Now let me give you just one last systems check to make sure there wasn't any damage and then you'd better get back to your friends."
"Friends?" What friends? He didn't have any friends.
"Yes, they've been really worried." Ratchet said as if it were nothing special. "Hound's asked after you three times already and Sideswipe actually tried to sneak in through Sneaker's maintenance shaft. Sometimes I almost wish I hadn't told him I wouldn't let him in here ever again unless he was damaged. Please reassure him before he gets stuck in an air shaft. They are a bit too tight for him, you know."
Sideswipe. Sideswipe who enjoyed getting into trouble. Not the best choice of friend, Mirage assumed, but then he couldn't afford to be picky. And Hound didn't seem like a bad sort at all. Maybe things were finally starting to look up.