(17 April, 2004)
(Note: This was written for Scott Kampa, who tied for first place in the Flashfic Contest. I don't think this is one of my best, so my apologies to poor Scott. But we tried, precious, we tried.)
It had all started with an unusually wet and unpleasant spring. It hadn't made much difference to the Autobots at first when the weather forecasters' gloomy predictions of endless torrential rain had begun to come true. The mud of course presented logistical problems, but nothing Prowl couldn't work out with a little help from Wheeljack. The cabin fever got bad, what with personalities like Powerglide and Mirage being cooped up so long and close together that the Autobot spy eventually took up a permanent, invisible sulk in some dreary, dripping corner of the Ark. And of course Primus forbid that either Tracks of Sunstreaker should have to venture one shining hubcap out onto the quagmire of muck that had become the Autotbots' front lawn, because everyone was pretty sure that the resulting, endless, horrified bitching about the dreadful state of their bodywork was going to get one or both of them killed - and not by the Decepticons.
But otherwise, things could have been worse. Wheeljack hadn't blown anyone up in weeks, the science element - headed by Beachcomber - had undertaken a cooperative research effort to mitigate the Autobots' harmful effects on the Earth's atmosphere, and even the Dinobots remained blessedly quiet, as some saint had introduced them to the multiplayer feature of Diablo II. The situation wasn't ideal, but the ranks had held up miraculously well, with zero injuries, and not one mention of the name 'Sideswipe', much to Ratchet's blissful delight.
But then one day the inevitable happened, and all the blessed tranquility came crashing down on the command element's heads like a landslide of wet, joy-killing mud.
Trailbreaker had been working in companionable silence with Sparkplug on a few modifications to the Ark's outer defenses when the security klaxons blared to life. Startled, Sparkplug jumped and hit his head on the access port he'd been leaning into, and barked out a few choice words that Trailbreaker was sure he wouldn't want Spike to hear.
"Y'all right, Sparkplug?" Trailbreaker laid a big hand on the little human's back, but Sparkplug shrugged him off.
"Yeah, yeah, just a bump." He looked up at the pulsing red lights, one hand on the back of his head, the other over one ear. "What in blazes is going on?"
"Security breach, I think," Trailbreaker assumed, and levered himself to his feet, so he could check in on the monitors. Sure enough, he saw Red Alert on the observation cameras, tearing aft down the Ark corridors like his spoiler was on fire. "Ayup," he confirmed, noting the lit-up display, "Lock down."
"Well, what happened?" the human climbed up onto the over-sized chair beside Trailbreaker and stared at the screen.
"Danged if I know," Trailbreaker shrugged and drew his weapon, "but I s'pose we're about to find out. For now, you might wanna find someplace to hole up."
"You don't have to tell me twice," Sparkplug replied, still rubbing at the back of his head, but before he could move, Optimus Prime rushed through the door, rifle drawn.
"Trailbreaker," he demanded, authority rolling through his voice despite his alarm, "bring defenses online. I'm going-"
Tires screeched in the hallway, squealing over the commander's words, and Red Alert skidded through the door and nearly collided with the Autobot commander. Just in time, Prime leaped into the air, while Red Alert transformed so fast he almost tripped over his own spoiler.
"Optimus," he shouted, hands in the air, "security breach alpha! You have to recall everyone immediately!"
"We've been infiltrated?" Prime hoisted his rifle, and looked around and out into the hallway, where Autobots dashed about to their assigned emergency stations.
"It's the north-face security grid," Red Alert sputtered. "I just ran a security check, and it's been down for two days. Anyone could have gotten in our out. Anyone."
"Wait," Trailbreaker put in over the wailing sirens, "you mean to say we're not actually being infiltrated?"
Red Alert paused, all but bursting, and Trailbreaker witnessed the familiar dawning in the Autobot commander's optics. "Trailbreaker," he said calmly, lowering his weapon, "kill the sirens, please."
"Roger dodger," Trailbreaker complied, and the defense deck went mercifully quiet. Shouts still came from the halls, along with the deep, echoing roars of a few of the sports cars as they hurtled through the corridors, but otherwise, at least now Trailbreaker could hear his processor at work. He exchanged relieved glances with Sparkplug, and turned back to watch.
"Ok," Prime started again, now that he didn't have to shout. "Tell me what happened."
Apparently, much to everyone's chagrin, Red Alert still felt the need to shout. "You don't understand," he ranted. "We've been vulnerable for two days. Do you know what that means?"
"Red Alert -" Prime tried to interrupt.
"I told you, Optimus," Red Alert only raised his voice, "I suspected business was being done with Swindle when I found those NASA schematics in Wheeljack's lab, but you wouldn't believe me."
"Those were legal-"
"And when I found Sideswipe's cache of sixteen-inch rounds -"
"Those were fireworks," Prime put in, sounding almost bored, though Red Alert just kept right on going.
"-and he had no explanation for where he got his wares, I told you, Optimus, that there were shady deals being made in our own back yard, but you wouldn't listen."
"Red Alert," Prime tried to reason with the security chief, "when has Sideswipe ever divulged his sources? It's a game to him. Primus, he probably got them off of EBay."
"Not this time," Red Alert warned, giving Prime a sideways, beady look. "This time, I have proof."
"Proof?" Now Sparkplug's curiosity sounded piqued. "You got proof of Sideswipe buying sixteen-inchers from Swindle? This, I gotta see."
"Indeed," Prime turned from Sparkplug to Red Alert. "I would be interested as well."
"You want proof?" Red Alert was not deterred one inch by the warning look in Prime's optics, and Trailbreaker hoped for his own good that he had something plausible, because no matter how much trust Optimus put in Red Alert, he just wasn't a fan of having his troops unjustly accused. "Fine," the security officer said with a dramatic flash of his optics, "I'll show you proof. Come with me."
As it turned out, the 'proof' was two decks down and out near the hull, where there was a bit of a draft, and a small pool of rainwater, which had been steadily seeping in through a crack in the rockface.
"Huh," Sparkplug mused, "I hadn't noticed this one. I might see if I can't fix that, if Hoist can give me a hand."
"The maintenance team should be paying better attention," Red Alert stalked in front of them, "if you haven't even noticed a wide, gaping hole big enough for a microprobe to get in. We'll be lucky if we haven't been overrun already, with Decepticons waiting in ambush in the lower hold -"
"Red Alert," Prime cut in, "I'm sure the maintenance team is doing the best it can, and I'm sure if there were Predacons in our basement, we'd know it by now."
"Oh, don't be so sure," Red Alert groused. "It's not the loud ones you see, Optimus, but the quiet ones. It's Swindle's kind that sneaks by, buying our own Autobots' loyalty with trinkets and credits."
"Aw, I doubt these Autobots can be bought that cheap," Sparkplug spoke up in everyone's defense, and earned a smile from Trailbreaker.
"You would be surprised," Red Alert informed the human.
"Aw, Red, come off it," Trailbreaker said. "Sideswipe may be cheap, but he can't be bought."
"Oh, no?" Red Alert gave them all a dramatic look over his shoulder as he stopped at last before a half-secured panel. "Then take a look…" he curled his fingers around the edges of the panel, and pulled it away, "…at this."
For a moment, everyone stared.
"What in the name of Cybertron…?" Prime started.
Sparkplug blew out a long, low whistle.
"Well, I'll be tarred, feathered, and railroaded," Trailbreaker boggled.
Red Alert gave them all a triumphant glare. "The conduits powering the security net have been deliberately cut."
Again, they all stared, and then one by one began to stir again, as if coming out of a trance. Trailbreaker shook his head. "This ain't possible. I mean, no Autobot would do this."
"Yeah," Sparkplug chimed in. "Hell, even if someone were doing deals with Swindle, they wouldn't do this. I mean, this is madness."
"Precisely," Red Alert hissed.
"Slow down, Red," Prime spoke up. "First things first. Sparkplug, I need you to get this back up and running as soon as possible."
"Sure thing, Prime," Sparkplug hoisted his tool belt, which he'd fortunately already been wearing. "Though I could use some help." He canted a glance up at Trailbreaker.
"Sure thing, Sparkplug," Trailbreaker knelt and turned on his overhead lights. "Though I'm no Ratchet."
"Don't need him," Sparkplug's muffled voice sounded from inside the panel. Already at work, he was beginning to pare off the mangled insulation from the wires.
Trailbreaker chuckled. "Don't let him hear you say that."
"Prime to Prowl," Prime hailed his tactician.
"Prowl here," came the quick, cool reply.
"Are the hatches still sealed?"
"Affirmative," the tactician came back. "The Aerialbots are requesting access as we speak. They received the priority alert, and headed back from coastal surveillance. Also, Inferno and the Protectobots want to know if we want them to return from disaster relief operations in Mexico."
"Negative," Prime responded. "Let the Aerialbots in, and send Sideswipe to Beta deck, front quarter."
"Understood," Prowl replied. "Prowl out."
"Optimus," Red Alert's optics had widened during the conversation. "No one should be let in until we have this situation in control. And," he lowered his voice, speaking in a harsh whisper, "we must not let Sideswipe know we suspect him."
"We're not going to tell him we suspect him," Prime explained patiently. "We're going to ask him."
"No!" Red Alert hissed. "We have to observe him, track his transactions! You do realize, Optimus, that it is possible that he is a part of, if not the leader of, an entire Autobot-Decepticon underground blackmarket ring. He has always been a liability, and this recent surge in unauthorized supplies can lead me to only one conclusion, and that is -"
"-that one of my most trusted warriors is the head of a cross-faction, fireworks-smuggling contraband cartel?" Prime interrupted with a flat look. "I appreciate your dedication, Red Alert, but not only are you insulting one of my best warriors, you're grossly overestimating him."
"Yeah," Trailbreaker spoke up with a poorly-suppressed laugh, "Sideswipe's clever, but he ain't that smart."
"Needlenose," Sparkplug prompted. Trailbreaker passed him the tool.
"I beg to differ," Red Alert came back, not at all ready to drop his accusations. "Just wait. Watch the look on his face when he sees us examining his own handiwork. You'll see. You'll all see."
if on cue, the deep rumble of a sports car approached, and as they
all looked up, Sideswipe shot around the corner, transformed mid-air,
and landed (without tripping over his own spoiler, Trailbreaker
noticed) on his feet two paces from the group. "You rang?"
he grinned up at the Autobot commander, looking more than a little
bit ready to see some action, and looking as though he suspected that
was exactly what he was going to get.
"Yes," Prime sighed sharply. "I need to ask you a question."
Sideswipe's grin wilted ever so slightly. "No 'cons?" he asked, glancing around.
"But the alarms went off."
Prime nodded. "False alarm."
Sideswipe wilted the rest of the way.
"It most certainly was not a false alarm," Red Alert sputtered, glaring from commander to suspected criminal. "It was triggered by this!" He stabbed a quivering finger at the torn wiring, and watched expectantly as Sideswipe turned his attention to the mess of slashed circuits.
The red warrior stared blankly.
Red Alert waited, poised.
The warrior knitted his metal brow. "Ok…?"
Now it was Red Alert's turn to wilt a bit. "Don't pretend not to know what this is," he narrowed his optics, but Trailbreaker could sense the disappointment in him. He'd obviously been hoping to see Sideswipe looking just a bit more nervous. "I know you're the one who did this."
"Now, Red Alert," Prime held up a hand. "We are not going to accuse anyone of anything. Asking questions is perfectly reasonable, but I will not have you badgering my Autobots."
"Optimus," Red Alert came back, "in matters such as these, we can't afford to coddle anyone's feelings." He turned his sharp gaze back to Sideswipe, and demanded, "Did you, or did you not cut these wires and disable the north-side security net?"
Sideswipe blinked. "…no?" He seemed more than a little dumbfounded by the accusations, not to mention confused by Red Alert's hostility. Obviously to Trailbreaker, Sideswipe didn't take his pranks on Red Alert as seriously as Red Alert did, and wasn't entirely aware of how much the security chief disliked him.
Red Alert flicked his gaze between the commander and the warrior, looking more than a little bit frustrated. "Well, then it was your brother, wasn't it? You got him to do your dirty work, didn't you?"
"Hey, Sunny," Sideswipe hailed into his commlink, face a mixture of puzzlement and a familiar understanding of the absurd. Possibly the only thing Sideswipe was more accustomed to than getting into trouble was getting into trouble for something someone else did, and Trailbreaker watched with a bit of bemusement as a longsuffering kind of humor passed over the warrior's features.
"What?" Sunstreaker's voice sounded over the link.
"Got a question for you," Sideswipe stared blankly ahead.
"Got an answer for you," came the sardonic reply.
"Any chance," Sideswipe asked, "you've been up on the front quarter chewing on wiring again?"
Sparkplug lifted his head, brow furrowed in sudden thought.
A bit of silence hung on the commlink, but not too much. Sunstreaker was used to being asked inane things by his brother. "That depends," Sunstreaker finally responded. "Is it the lemon flavor, or the blueberry?"
"Then no," Sunstreaker answered. "Why do you ask?"
"Well," Sideswipe looked heavenward, "the north-side security net is missing, and it seems someone thinks you ate it."
Now a longer pause went by, while Sparkplug held up a bundle of wiring, and shined a flashlight down toward the bottom of the panel. But just as he was about to say something, Sideswipe's commlink erupted in the blown-out, static-edged sound of Sunstreaker laughing his spoiler off. "Oh, Primus," the yellow warrior's voice wheezed over the link, before he gathered himself enough to say, "Tell Red Alert…I said hi…Sunstreaker out."
Sideswipe suppressed a grin. "It seems," he announced, as if everyone there had not been able to hear his conversation, "that my brother did not, in fact, eat the northern security net."
Red Alert was fuming. "This is not funny, Sideswipe. This is a gross breach of security, and a potential disaster for all of the Autobots who you claim are your friends-"
"Woah, woah," Sparkplug broke in, bundles of wiring in one hand, and a pile of something dark in the other. "Actually, I think Sideswipe is onto something."
Sideswipe looked decidedly pleased with himself.
"Not now, Sparkplug -" Red Alert tried to shush the human, but Prime held up a hand.
"What is it?" the commander asked, and everyone turned to look at what Sparkplug was holding.
"I thought this stuff looked strange," Sparkplug explained, "but when Sideswipe said 'chewing', it clicked. Look." He raised the wire ends along with his other hand. "Dried droppings from the back ledge, and tiny teethmarks."
Trailbreaker shook his head and quirked a half-grin. "Well, I'll be daggoned. We been sabotaged by mice."
"Probably came in from all the rain," Sparkplug presumed, as he dropped the pellets and began dusting his hands against his jeans. "Springtime, too, so they've probably been breeding."
Trailbreaker's grin faltered a bit. "Uh oh."
"Uh oh is right," Sparkplug nodded. "We should probably check all of the systems for damage. There's no way of knowing how many of them have been living in the Ark since all this rain started."
Optimus sighed, most likely with some bit of relief that there was at least an explanation for this, while Red Alert simply fumed over the dual crisis of suddenly having a larger problem than he'd thought, and losing the one person he'd most like to blame it on. Sideswipe, for his part, at least managed to look the smallest bit concerned over the Autobots' newest security issue, but mostly he looked pretty well pleased with himself. Thumbs hooked on his midsection, he surveyed the mess with his usual, insouciant charm. "Well," he said, and Red Alert shot him a glare just for existing, "want me to go find maintenance?"
"You shouldn't have to," Sparkplug spoke up before Prime could answer. "There's an easy way to solve this."
"What, poison?" Trailbreaker guessed, having heard the human expound before on the endless devilry of vermin.
But Sparkplug shook his head. "Nah - no way of knowing where to place it all. I was thinking," he said with a tip of his head, "more along the lines of cats."
"Cats!" Red Alert exploded once they'd reached the command and control center again. Sparkplug had gone to make some calls to some local farmers he knew who might have an overpopulation of the creatures, but Red Alert was having none of it. "I cannot permit this, Optimus," he glared at the commander. "I will not."
Prime had the grace, as always, to look patiently amused. "And why not?"
"Because," Red Alert fumed, glowering as though this should be perfectly obvious, "they aren't cleared."
"Neither are the mice," Trailbreaker pointed out, most unhelpfully, and as soon as he'd said it, Red Alert's optics flew wide.
"Suppose he's right, Optimus, Suppose we're being monitored this very minute. The Decept-"
"Red," Prime extended a hand down onto the security chief's shoulder, "I'm sure the Decepticons had nothing to do with this. The rain drove them in here, and unless I'm mistaken, the Decepticons haven't figured out how to control the weather yet."
"All the same," Red Alert crossed his arms, "I won't allow it. Cats could be tagged, or even convinced to be spies for the Decepticons. No one knows for sure how intelligent these creatures are, and I will not permit them into the Ark - not without being properly and convincingly read into the security program."
"I'm serious, Prime." Red Alert raised his slightly fritzy gaze into the Autobot commander's direction. "I will not have those creatures here."
He didn't, either. Prowl was particularly irritated by Prime's choice to listen to Red Alert, and Trailbreaker was witness to an especially adamant oration on the part of the tactician regarding the extremely low percentage of likelihood that a cat knew left from right, much less how to gather and submit intelligence data to a Decepticon employer. But who knew? Maybe Optimus had even the smallest inclination to mistrust a cat, as so many humans seemed to do, and he let Red Alert have his way. Trailbreaker didn't understand the cat-hating syndrome, even after Spike spent some time explaining that they were purely evil - but then, Trailbreaker would admit that he didn't understand a lot of things about the humans, so he just let the whole thing slide. At least, he figured, though it was small consolation, the mice were happy. Which of course didn't last long. The rain continued to pound the Ark, and a maintenance team had just finished bringing a chewed energy conduit back online, when a fuel-tingling screech sounded from B-deck.
Now, an Autobot scream is a system-jolting thing. A far cry from an organic scream, which is pushed by relatively frail, limited bellows, an Autobot scream is pushed from the depths of a being with truly impressive vocal power. Most times, it was an awful sound, telling of shock or pain or worse, and Trailbreaker usually shuddered at the sound, and hoped each time to never hear it again. But every once in a while, a scream was different. Every once in a while, such a scream held all the notes of horror and indignation and outright, shrill disgust that instead of looking at one another in dismay, Trailbreaker and his fellows would find themselves exchanging one moment of gleaming mirth before galloping off to go see.
were not, in fact, disappointed. For there on the central examination
table, fingers raised in claws of revulsion, as if clutching the
folds of his proverbial skirts from the ground, was the Chief Medical
Officer Ratchet. Repulsed, and not pausing to feel one measly byte of
shame about it either, he stared, horrified at the rattlesnake far
below him on the ground, and grated in an oddly high-pitched, wheezy
shriek, "Get. Rid. OF. IT. NOW!!"
Several seconds of silence passed, in which the hilarity of the moment grew by deadly degrees. Like a gang of helium balloons, Trailbreaker, Hound, Grapple, and Beachcomber all began to puff up slightly, not just with the increasing pain of trying to hold their laughter back, but with a healthy bit of fear at what would happen if they could not. Ratchet's optics glittered with menace, and Trailbreaker clamped his mouth as tightly shut as he could, knowing that there was a frighteningly good reason that even the stoutest of Autobots was at least slightly fearful of the medic.
"But…Ratchet," Beachcomber finally managed to say, mouth barely moving, voice high and tight with suppression, "It's like…smaller than your finger, man."
"I don't give a rat's ass what it is," the medic fumed. "Get rid of it RIGHT NOW, or so help me Primus, I'll rebuild you so you understand the meaning of the phrase, 'talking out your ass'!"
Trailbreaker supposed, later, that all things remaining calm, the snake would have been extracted with no harm done to all parties, including the snake. But he had not counted on the arrival of one of the few Autobots who was somehow too obtuse to understand that when Primus created Ratchet, he had not intended for the big, white medic to be unduly trifled with.
As Red Alert swooped in to inspect the source of the screeching, his optics grew wide at the sight of the coiled snake, and he smacked the console on the wall, activating the alarms. "Intruder alert!" he jittered into his comm, and then caught sight of the feral-looking, table-top-riding Ratchet, and tacked on, "And be advised: the Chief Medical Officer Ratchet appears to have been possessed!"
Now, maybe (or so Trailbreaker figured later on), what old Red meant was that it appeared to be possible that Ratchet was acting under alien influence - i.e., a cerebro shell or something of that nature. Of course, this not having been what he actually said, and judging by the absolutely livid color of the medic's optics, this was not what came across. Unfortunately, however, there was no chance for explanation, as several things happened at once.
Red Alert lunged for the snake, intent on capturing it for interrogation, while Beachcomber did the same, most likely trying to save it from certaineath. Ratchet gave a barbaric yell of indignation, flailing as the snake flew into the air between the frantic scrambling of the security officer and the nature-lover, neither of whom succeeded in accomplishing their mission, as just at that moment, Sunstreaker launched himself through the door, gun high and optics ablaze.
"Where are they?" he demanded, shoving Trailbreaker aside and skidding to a halt, where he suddenly froze solid.
Everyone froze. Beachcomber let out a little whimper. Ratchet looked like he was going to be sick.
"Oh, Primus," Hound giggled in a most un-mech-like fashion, and sagged against the wall. Trailbreaker just shut up and backed away.
Sunstreaker didn't even look down. Abruptly, as though someone wiser and higher-up had deduced enough to realize the Ark wasn't being invaded, the klaxons were shut down, and in the sudden silence, all anyone could hear was Sunstreaker inhaling the tangy scent of organic splatter though his olfactory sensors. His optics had gone flat as slate, while the angelic contours of his face began to curl into a mask of loathing. "What…" he asked, voice rife with all the deadly calm of an adder, "…did I just…step on?"
Grapple was beside himself, and squeaked unfashionably as he tried valiantly not to laugh.
"A snake," Beachcomber lamented. "Sunny, man, you just shut down his vibe, man. You shut him down."
Not really bothering to register the real sadness in Beachcomber's tone, the big, yellow warrior turned a measured gaze onto the comparatively frail-looking geologist, and asked almost pleasantly, "And was this your snake?"
Now Beachcomber put two and two together, and decided at once that the snake really didn't need company in the afterlife. "N-no?" Beachcomber backed up a step.
Slowly, optics still riveted to the minibot, Sunstreaker picked up the offended foot, and gave it a healthy flick, much to Ratchet's disgust. "NOT in here," the medic fumed. "Get out! OUT! And Beachcomber, take that thing with you!"
There wasn't much left to take, and since most of the remains were neatly smeared all over the bottom and front of Sunstreaker's foot, Beachcomber didn't look like he'd have much chance at success. He steeled himself, and edged a half-step closer to the warrior, who still stood with one foot slightly in the air.
"Sunny, man," he started, hands up in a placating gesture.
"Don't call me 'Sunny.'"
"Right-o, my Auto-bro -"
"I ain't your 'bro' either."
Ratchet snapped. "Give the snake to Beachcomber, and get the
SLAGGING HELL out of my med bay! NOW!"
Clearly displeased with snake guts everywhere, the medic was more than ready to be finished with the business at hand, especially since it looked to Trailbreaker like it might end in Beachcomber being used as a piñata. As it was, Beachcomber was able to placate the warrior long enough to scrape most of the remains off of his foot and into a bin, which he then carried safely (for the moment) out the door. Sunstreaker eyed him the whole time, then turned to follow suit, and disappeared in the other direction - most likely headed for the wash rack. Red Alert, deprived of his prisoner, humphed off in a sulk to go see Prime.
Sensing it was time to leave, or at least figuring it would be wise to do so before either Trailbreaker, Hound, or Grapple decided to have a laugh at old doc Ratchet, the group of three trooped out into the hall, and made their way quietly back to work, where they finally exploded. Bellowing and guffawing, they leaned against the wall and each other, gasping out half-sentences and gestures before finally wilting to the floor, where they rolled helplessly about. But just as they thought they were getting ahold of themselves, they heard the medic's distant shout of irritation as he bellowed, "I can STILL hear you!"
Wisely, they shut up.
As it turned out, for once, Red Alert was right. It wasn't like the snakes were spies or anything, but it did turn out that they were poisonous, and plentiful as the mice had been, and therefore not too good for the human population. The good news was, the mice were mostly gone. But the bad news was that every panel, corner, and crevice now had a snake curled up in it, and since most of these turned out to be rattlers, this was most definitely not good.
Ratchet was beside himself. No one knew for sure why he didn't like snakes, and nobody with a fully-functioning processor was going to ask him. Truth be told, the medic more than disliked snakes; he seemed irrationally afraid of them, and it made Trailbreaker wonder. But old Trailbreaker, he hadn't lived this long by doing stupid things like accusing the chief medical officer of being afeard of a wee little organic tube, so he and everyone else left it well enough alone.
Red Alert, however, was not to be mollified. He ranted endlessly about the probability of Decepticon involvement, and fretted every time he saw one of the creatures. "You see, Optimus," he pounded his point home over and again, "they're everywhere. And they're growing."
It did seem like they were growing, though it might have been Trailbreaker's imagination. A few nests had been found, and the snakes were killed whenever the Autobots could catch them, but somehow enough eggs hatched that soon the Ark was literally overrun. Within weeks, the small snakes were noticeably larger, too, which made Spike and Sparkplug nervous enough to vacate to Portland, where they decided to wait out the problem.
"Well," Prowl looked mildly perturbed as he, Red Alert, Optimus, and Trailbreaker discussed the issue, "the animal control department has said that a warm spring, too much rain, and abundant mice are the cause. This is normal, though they recommend we resolve the issue before the creatures take up permanent residence, or begin to die out."
"Dying out is good," Red Alert said.
"Not come June when they begin to stink," Prowl pointed out, and everyone nodded.
"What about cats?" Red Alert asked, obviously willing to consider this route at last.
He was, however, disappointed. "Insufficient," Prowl explained. "Cats do not fare well in battle against snakes."
"Well, can't we just zap 'em or something?" Trailbreaker piped up. He was missing Sparkplug, and this was starting to get a bit ridiculous.
"And have them die inside the walls?" Prime asked. "I think not. What we need is to flush them out."
"I suppose Wheeljack could come up with somethin'," Trailbreaker pointed out helpfully. "Like a little drone army, maybe."
"The thought has merits," Prime said, "but we don't have that kind of time. I want this place safe for the humans again, and free of infestation once and for all."
"Well, what then?" Red Alert asked. "This is insufferable, being overrun by organic simpletons."
"Tell me about it," Tracks moaned as he trudged into the room, looking displeased as ever. "I just dislodged three of them from the front-side gun wells. We'll need an army of mongoose before this is over."
Red Alert sighed and turned back to Prime, but whatever he was going to say was cut off by Prowl. "I'm sorry," the tactician spoke up. "What did you say?"
Tracks paused on the other side of the command center, clearly on his way to the west-side gun-wells. "I said I caught three of the odious little things in the gun-well, and I'm not at all looking forward to what I'll find on the west side."
"No," Prowl waved all that away. "About the mongoose?"
Tracks blinked, then turned more fully around. "Yeah, mongoose. Little tube rats. So what?"
"Do they battle snakes?" Prowl asked.
"That's what they're best at," Tracks expounded. "Though they usually take on cobras, or at least that's what the movie said."
"What movie?" Prime asked.
But at once Tracks seemed less enthusiastic about this conversation, and dropped his volume quiet a bit as he replied.
Prowl shook his head. "I'm sorry - I didn't hear you."
"I said," Tracks rolled his optics dramatically, and heaved a persecuted sigh, "I learned it from Ricky Ticki Tavi."
Everyone blinked, having no clue what the blue warrior was saying.
"So I watch cartoons, ok?" he blurted, fingers outspread. "So there. Now you know. That I, Tracks, Autobot warrior of some quantifiable finesse, watch cartoons. Ok? You happy?"
"Delighted," Prime said evenly, though Trailbreaker was pretty sure he heard a snicker waiting to come out. "So, what is a Ricky Ticki-whatisit?"
"Ricky Ticki Tavi," Tracks corrected the commander, then looked a little alarmed with himself that he'd bothered to care how the movie's name was pronounced. Wincing to himself, he explained, "It's a movie about a mongoose, who saves a boy by fighting snakes. And Sideswipe watched it too," he tacked on, a bit defensively.
Not that Trailbreaker figured Sideswipe would be so squirmy about admitting it. The red warrior wasn't so easily embarrassed.
"Well," Prime asked, "in your opinion, would a Ricky Ticki Tavi do well against rattlesnakes?"
Now Tracks seemed to see where they were going. "Oh. Oh, yeah, I think so," he said. "Though it's actually called a mongoose. Ricky Ticki Tavi was his name."
"Quite," Prowl commented, and left it at that. A short, enthusiastic discussion was held, during which everyone came to the swift conclusion that an army of mongoose was harder to come by than cats would have been. As a result, it was appointed to Trailbreaker, who out of the group was the most approachable by the Autobot masses, to head up the Mongoose Appropriation Committee. Enthusiasm abounded.
As it turned out, an entire committee wasn't needed - just people who knew people. Who knew…people.
So it was with a bit of chagrin that Trailbreaker found himself standing out in the early April downpour, somewhere at half-past midnight, with a confident-looking Sideswipe.
"You sure he'll show?" Trailbreaker asked.
The warrior nodded with a smirk. "Trust me."
Trailbreaker eyed the other Autobot askance. "You know this is where this whole thing started, right?"
"Red Alert's suspicions," the big black Autobot supplied, "about you, cutting the north-face security net so you could stand out in the rain after midnight doing dirty deals with Swindle."
"Oh," Sideswipe slid him a sly grin, "well golly gee, I'd never do such a thing. Red Alert should know that."
wait wasn't long, and Swindle was gentle-mech enough to apologize for
keeping them standing around in the downpour. Trailbreaker had to
stifle the urge to choke him, for the schmoozy look on his face as
much as for being a Combaticon, but Sideswipe handled the whole thing
with practiced aplomb. They bickered, they insulted one another, they
haggled, and in the end, Trailbreaker got the idea that each side
came out about even.
"Well, cut my fuel lines, why don't you?" Swindle moaned as they worked out a time and place for delivery.
"What?" Sideswipe shot back. "Like I wouldn't be too busy trying to pull the energy knife out of my back. You better guarantee live, healthy delivery."
Swindle had the nerve to look offended. "I would never do my customers dirty," he huffed, looking positively wounded as he gleefully pocketed Sideswipe's down payment.
"And I'll have that down payment back with interest if you stand me up," Sideswipe tacked on, finger jabbed in Swindle's direction, the allusion to his piledrivers not so hidden.
"I am appalled at your lack of faith," Swindle protested, hands clasped before him in his most oily gesture.
Sideswipe wasn't buying it, not that Swindle expected him to. The two lobbed insults back and forth for another minute or so, clearly enjoying themselves despite the downpour, and it was only when Trailbreaker made a polite noise at the back of his vocalizer that Sideswipe decided to wrap things up.
"Back here in forty-eight hours," he said, "and not fourty-eight-oh-one, either, or you forfeit your tip."
Swindle spread has hands, grinning odiously. "Hey. Have I ever let you down?"
Sideswipe gave the Combaticon a scurrilous look, which was quite a bit like the pot calling the kettle black. He jerked his head in the direction of the highway. "Get outta here, Swindle. And take your stink with you."
"Sheesh," Swindle turned and transformed, muttering just ever-so-loud. "No appreciation whatsoever, I tell you."
"Yeah?" Sideswipe leaned over the idling jeep. "Well, you're about to appreciate my hoof up your exhaust if you don't get yourself gone."
Swindle cackled, though he did in fact scoot out from where Sideswipe could reach him, and slalomed over the sand toward the road. "See ya, Autoclowns!"
"Break an axle, Deceptifreak!" Sideswipe called after him, and Trailbreaker heard Swindle cackling again as he picked up speed and disappeared into the rain.
"You know," Trailbreaker remarked, as he and Sideswipe transformed and headed back to the Ark, "those insults got lame about a couple million years ago."
"Yeah," Sideswipe agreed as he gleefully hydroplaned through a flooded dip in the road, "but I just never get tired of dishing 'em out."
Trailbreaker figured what Red Alert didn't need to know wouldn't hurt him, and he was right. The mongoose shipment arrived without incident, and though the security chief was a bit dubious about the methods through which they were appropriated, he was just too frazzled by then to ask. He had already interrogated twenty-odd snakes, but none of them were talking, and just the morning the mongoose shipment arrived, he'd found one infiltrating his engine block. How in Primus name it had gotten in there, nobody knew, but all Trailbreaker could figure, while Red Alert was hopping around and screeching, was that while he'd been shut down, the rattlesnake had been searching for a nice, warm place to curl up. Unfortunately for the snake, however, this turned out to be a bad idea, as by the time Red Alert got its many pieces yanked out from the Autobot's innards, the snake was in very bad shape indeed. In fact, it was sort of in dead shape, and despite that, Ratchet absolutely refused to clean Red Alert's engine out for him, which made Red Alert all the much more cranky and ready to be done with snakes in general.
can't be this bad," he fumed, after having gone to the wash
rack, where Jazz had taken one look, quickly assessed what had
happened, and laughed himself sick. "I got most of it off, but
who's to say, Trailbreaker, that this is not some kind of mecha-bio
weapon that the Decepticons are unleashing on us? What will this
residue do to the inside of me, and if I die, who will be the wiser
that it was all a plot? No one."
Trailbreaker glanced aside at the ranting security chief, and mused briefly to himself that the word 'wise' wasn't something he'd ordinarily fling about the Ark, even in the best of times.
"How do we know," Red Alert had not paused in the last twenty minutes, "what snake venom does to the Autobot anatomy? And why will Ratchet not even consider studying the effects? He pretends to be afraid of snakes, but we all know it's a ruse, and that leaves me to wonder just who he's working for, if he's not working for us. I'm telling you, Trailbreaker, it's a plot, and somewhere, some way, the Decepticons are watching us, and laughing. Laughing, I tell you!"
Kind of like Jazz was, Trailbreaker thought to himself, but didn't comment, since even if he had, Red Alert wouldn't have heard him.
"And the fact that you won't tell me how this shipment was acquired," he ranted on, "makes me highly question your role in this, let me tell you. Don't think that just because you're in charge of defensive operations that I don't think you're susceptible. Everyone is susceptible, Trailbreaker - everyone. You, Prowl, Prime…even me. There are no guarantees in this world, not even among friends."
And on and on the ranting went, as it always did. Straight on down to the receiving bay, the security chief raved and seethed, his glaring optics even making a knot of minibots make a wide berth around him as he stalked down the hall. But when the doors to the bay swished open, he came to a startled halt.
"Behold," Trailbreaker said, grinning widely to himself, "the nation of mongoose."
"So many," Red Alert muttered, for the first time in days at a loss for words.
"Well," Trailbreaker shrugged, "you did want an army, didn't you?"
Slowly, Red Alert began to nod, and he drew himself up, as if getting ready to wade into battle. "Well," he said, "I guess we better get to it."
Again, Trailbreaker offered a little shrug. "Just gotta open the crates. They'll know what to do."
"Of course," Red Alert nodded, taking hold of the first crate. "But first, they'll have to be cleared through security, and that means coming through me." He squared himself valiantly, as though mentally rolling up his sleeves. "Now," he said, "bring me the first batch."
It was amazing to Trailbreaker how long it could take to read two hundred head of mongoose into the Autobots' security program. He supposed he should have complained somewhere around the fifth hour or so, but he realized before he opened his mouth that at least Red Alert wasn't ranting any more. In fact, he was doing what he liked to do best - which was preach the Gospel of Security to the captive masses, and since for the first time in weeks the security chief seemed to be truly happy, Trailbreaker just left him well alone.
As for the mongoose population, they were a smashing success. Dead snakes started showing up everywhere, and Trailbreaker could have sworn that a few of the creatures even began adopting certain Autobots, to whom they would bring prizes of fat, lolling snakes, which they would then lay at the Autobots' feet. Sunstreaker took personal offense at this, but since the mongoose were doing so well, Optimus Prime promised two weeks' detention to anyone caught doing anything but praising the mongoose for their efforts. Not wanting to sit on his skid for two weeks in the brig, Sunstreaker grudgingly did as he was told, and was rewarded a gang of mongoose adorers who seemed, beyond all reason, to take to Sunstreaker more than any other Autobot, and who took every opportunity to shower him with unendingly joyous offerings of dead reptiles.
Spike and Sparkplug moved back in after several weeks, much to Trailbreaker's delight. Even Ratchet seemed happy to have Sparkplug back, or so Trailbreaker was able to infer between the lines of insult being thrown at the newly-arrived human. For his part, and most likely to keep himself from being stepped on, Sparkplug refrained from asking Ratchet about his herpetophobia or his table-dancing antics. As for Ratchet, he let the human live, which by Trailbreaker's standards, was quite the gesture of philanthropy.
By the time June rolled around, the weather had dried up enough that the local animal control units decreed the Ark was probably safe from further infestation of mice or snakes, and a mongoose roundup began. There was a brief question as to what to do with the things, now that they were of no more use, but Sideswipe quickly and discreetly stepped in to work something out with Swindle, and the mongoose disappeared as neatly as they had arrived. And Sideswipe had a nice new set of gaming consoles.
Which would have been a happy ending for all, had there not been just one oversight.
It was evening in late June, and all the mongoose had gone. Red Alert sat primly at his station, monitoring the security networks, while Trailbreaker ran his weekly diagnostics on the defenses. The air was quiet, as most of the Autobots were outside enjoying the early summer, and it startled Trailbreaker a little to suddenly realize that he and Red Alert were not alone.
He wasn't sure how he knew. He only knew he felt that something in the air that told him he was being watched. Slowly, cautiously, Trailbreaker raised his optics from his work to find that there, in the middle of the floor, and standing as if he thought he was somebody, was a little baby mongoose.
Neither Trailbreaker nor Red Alert moved.
The mongoose drew himself up, nose twitching as he sniffed the air. He was clearly unafraid.
Slowly, Red Alert rose to his feet, optics beginning to harden as he bent into a slight crouch, squaring himself.
Head tilted to one side, the mongoose chirped what sounded like a question, and Red Alert answered him in a low, threatening voice.
"You, sir," he said, "have not been cleared."
The young mongoose, for all Trailbreaker could tell from his jaunty chirp of a reply, told Red Alert to slag off.
And that was all it took. Like a shot, the security chief was after the little mammal, knees skidding and sparking as he slid across the floor, but the mongoose was too fast, and shot around the corner and out into the hall before Red Alert could so much as touch his shadow. In a fit of rage, the security chief transformed and squealed his tires as he shot after the mongoose, in hot pursuit. The hollering and banging stormed all the way down the hall before muffling itself somewhere near the training bay.
"What was that?" Hound asked mildly as he sauntered in to investigate the racket.
Trailbreaker shrugged and went back to work. "Intruder," he explained with some bit of nonchalance. "A really violent one."
Hound had a seat, and kicked his feet up on the console with a congenial grin. "I take it we didn't get rid of quite all the mongoose."
"Or," Trailbreaker tipped his head, "we should have had some red flags go up when we indoctrinated two hundred, and shipped off two hundred and forty-three."
Hound chuckled. "Maybe. But I guess you didn't let Red Alert in on those numbers."
"I suppose I should sound the alarms," Hound said with a sigh.
But Trailbreaker caught him with a steely look. "You do that," he said, "and next time we go offroading, I'll dump you in the mud and leave you there."
"Ah," Hound withdrew his hand from the alarm panel, "then aiding and abetting a spy it is. Beats death by mud puddle."
"Buddy," Trailbreaker smirked, "you better believe it."