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A Special Touch

Despite the thick mist that had enveloped her, Carly somehow knew that the rocky ledge on which she was standing overlooked a bottomless chasm.  Unable to go back the way she came, and instilled with a sense of dread that whatever it was she had been fleeing from made it unsafe for her to remain, she took a leap of faith--literally.

In her haste, she had miscalculated the jump, and for some reason physics were not behaving as she knew them.  Instead of propelling herself to safety, the force of her legs caused the precipice to collapse beneath her.  As if in slow-motion, just as she began to lose her footing, she realized there were not one, but two hands reaching through the mist to pull her to safety.  One, she realized, was Spike.  The other was an Autobot.  

With only an instant to decide that felt like forever, Carly realized that she was clutching six-year-old Daniel in her arm, so she could only choose one savior with her free hand.  She was terrified for her safety but paralyzed with indecision.  Did Spike have the strength to support her, especially with Daniel's added weight?  Who was this Autobot, and what if she reached out to him but he suddenly transformed?

She fell--

***

--off her chair, still clutching the pages of her advanced physics textbook.  Remarkably, she managed a somewhat graceful landing.  Scrambling back into her seat with as much dignity as she could muster, she threw her head back and shook her hair back into place, using this as an excuse to peek behind her desk.  Apparently, much to her relief, either no one else at the college library had noticed that she'd just taken a tumble, or they just didn't care.  According to the clock on the wall, she'd only been asleep for a few minutes... but it was still embarrassing.  Carly knew that she hadn't been getting enough rest lately, but it seemed that there simply wasn't enough time in the day to balance her course load at school with her other responsibilities.  After all, it wasn't just anyone who served as technical advisor to the Autobots.

Still a bit groggy, she shook her head, trying to jumpstart her brain.  She remembered staring at page 156 for minutes on end, but she had reached the point where she simply wasn't soaking up any more information.  She had a crystal-clear grasp of every lesson in the book, of course, even chapters that her class had yet to cover.  In fact, she probably had a far greater understanding of Einsteinian physics than the professor who taught the course; spending so much time with a several-million years-old race of alien robots had expanded her understanding of the universe, to say the least.  She was even beginning to grasp concepts like subspace and energon conversion that would never be covered at the community college, hence the need for her to review the course material.  She was, she had realized some time ago, being tested on mankind's current understanding of science.  It wouldn't do for her to completely disregard the conservation of mass and energy in favor of, well, reality.  "Repeat after me, boys and girls," Carly muttered to herself, her face contorted into an ironic smirk, "there are four elements: Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire..."  She rolled her eyes in disgust.

Carly stared, dull-eyed, at the text a moment or two longer, eventually letting out a long sigh.  Resigned to the fact that her brain had reached its maximum capacity for the moment, she flipped the textbook shut and carried it with her as she shuffled toward the door.  She found herself vaguely wondering that if what she'd read was true--that most people only used a very small percentage of their brain, something in the neighborhood of fifteen percent--what the heck, then, was the other 85 percent of her brain busy doing?

It was still early enough in the evening that she could get some of her socks and underwear washed before the laundromat closed; maybe she'd even have a chance to kick back for an hour or two and catch up on her web surfing or painting her nails or any of the dozen projects she'd been hoping to eventually get to this week.

As she trotted down the stairwell she noticed that her bookbag was beeping.  While this would not be considered unusual in and of itself, she nonetheless felt compelled to duck behind the stairwell.  She fished around for a moment and pulled out a palm-sized silver disk, a little smaller than a drink coaster.  She tapped it and a light flashed in its center.  "Hello?" she spoke into her palm, conspiratorially.

Spike's voice came though a few seconds later.  "Hey, Carly.  Teletraan just picked up something weird off the coast, some kind of space craft.  We thought you might like to come along."

Carly groaned.  "Spike, you know I've got a test coming up.  If I don't get some sleep tonight my brain's gonna turn to Jell-O.  You guys go ahead without me, okay?"

"Okay, but keep your comlink turned on.  Prime thinks this might be something big."  The glow of Carly's communicator diminished as the channel cut off.

"He thinks this might be something big," Carly whispered in a mocking tone.  "When have I heard that before?  At this point, I don't care if the entire planet Cybertron crashes off the coast.  When do I get to get back to being me again?  When do I get to have a life?"  She glared at the communicator, then switched its power cell off in disgust.

***

The winter months were fast approaching; Carly hated to drive in the snow, and considering the cost of textbooks these days, she could hardly afford snow tires.  It was times like these that she seriously considered living on-campus, but she had far too much junk to cram into a dorm room, and she didn't want to live that far away from Spike.  When available, one of the Autobots was usually happy to give Carly a lift to her apartment.  

Carly had been a bit apprehensive about it at first--a withdrawn creature by nature, the idea of dozens of students swarming around her to get a look at her Autobot friend was an unsettling concept, to say the least--until Optimus Prime had assured her that her chaperone would have to remain in vehicle mode anyway, to avoid the Decepticons detecting him and possibly launching an attack.  A set of tinted windows ensured that whoever it was could drive off on his own and come back later to pick her up after classes without arousing suspicion.

What was really funny, as far as Carly as concerned, was that the few times one of the other students actually recognized the Autobot symbol, they had asked her where she'd bought it because they wanted one for their own car, too.

Bundled in a denim jacket and a pink scarf, Carly locked her apartment and made her way down the front steps, grabbing at the railing so as not to slip on the ice that had formed on the stairs.  I'm going to have to get some salt at some point, she noted to herself, filing it away under the hundred other tasks she'd been meaning to attend to.

She was a bit surprised when a green canopied jeep slowed down in front of her house and honked.  It took her a full second before she realized that her ride had arrived.

"Hound?  Uh, hi!" she said, her words forming icy mist just beyond her lips.  "Sorry, I didn't recognize you with your, uh, top on."

"Well, nobody's tried to pull me over yet, so I guess my little disguise is working so far," he responded in a chipper tone.  "We'd better get skedaddling if you want to get to school on time, though."  With that, his driver's side door popped open.

Carly stepped tenously over the sidewalk curb and climbed in.  "I was expecting Tracks, actually," she said, almost apologetically.  "Say, where's your seat belt, anyway?"

Hound pulled back onto the road.  "Prime sent him on a mission... something about a possible Decepticon craft landing.  Don't worry, though, I can handle the winter terrain just fine--got me some snow tires just yesterday.  Oh, and here ya go," he added, extending his seat belt for her.

"Thanks," she said.  "Um, Hound, do you think you could turn the heat on or something?  I can still see my breath."

"Heh, whoops.  Sorry, Carly."  Hound switched on his heating system.  "Is this too much for you?  I can redirect the air flow, if you want me to."

"No, it's fine.  Thanks."  Carly grasped the steering wheel, letting Hound do the actual navigating.  It had taken her a couple of years spending time with the Autobots before she no longer felt silly pretending to "drive."

A few minutes later, they pulled up at the front of the university.  "Here you are, Carly," Hound said.

"Actually, could you pull over to the west wing?  My first class is on the other side of the building and it's such a long walk from here."

A light on Hound's console glowed for a moment.  "No problem.  Sorry about that."

"No, it's my fault... I should have mentioned it sooner."

Hound drove up to the correct entrance and popped open the door for Carly.  "Enjoy yourself," he said merrily.  "What time should I pick you up?"

"About 3:30," Carly said.  "Thanks again, Hound."

***

Carly wandered out of the campus building, exhausted.  She'd gotten a little more than six hours of sleep, but by midday she had barely been able to maintain contol over her eyelids.  What was worse was that she had found when she was that exhausted, the days tended to drag on even more than usual.  She didn't know what she'd do without her Prima Cola.

A gust of harsh wind smacked her face as she wrapped the scarf around her neck.  Shoving her hands into her jacket pocket, she looked around for Hound or one of the other Autobots, but she couldn't see anyone.  Then she realized that she'd forgotten to let Hound know which entrance to pick her up at.  He was probably patiently waiting for her back over on the west wing, right where he'd dropped her off.  Although it was bitter cold, it would be a faster walk than going back inside and braving the herd of students who were leaving for the day, so she started down the side path, careful to avoid the icy patches.

Then she spotted Hound--driving in from the student parking lot.  He honked and flashed his headlights; Carly couldn't help but giggle.  It was one thing for her to anthropomorphize normal Earth vehicles, but Hound was a living machine, something that amazed her to no end.

"You're awfully expressive for a jeep," she said, climbing in.  "I think that was a handicapped parking space, though."

"Really?"  Hound asked.  "Whoops, I guess you're right.  I saw the picture painted on the parking space, and I thought it was supposed to be a robot in mid-transformation..."

"Hey," Carly suddenly realized, "you weren't parked here the whole time, were you?"

"No, I was parked on the other side of the building for the first four hours or so, then I moved over here."

"Huh?  Why?" she asked, clasping her palms together in front of the heating vent on Hound's dashboard.

"I didn't have anything important to do today, so I thought I'd take some holograms of the campus.  I made a map of the school as well, so I should have no trouble getting you to your classes on time from now on, at least 'till Tracks gets back."

"Wow, Hound," Carly said with a smile, "that was really thoughtful of you.  Thanks."

"Don't mention it," Hound said.  "How did you ever learn to navigate this campus, anyway?  Its design seems needlessly complicated.  All those staircases!"

"It wasn't easy.  It took me about two weeks before I could find my way around without consulting my school map."

"I can imagine.  Say, are you hungry?  There are a couple of fast food shops down the road a bit.  If you want to, we could stop by there before I take you home."

Carly felt her ears turning uncomfortably warm.  "Thanks for the offer.  Hound... if I didn't know better, I'd think you were hitting on me."  She laughed nervously, but her smile was sincere.

"Carly, you should know me better than that.  I would never strike you!"

This time the laugh was sincere, too.  "No, no.  It's a human expression.  I meant that I thought you were... well, flirting with me."  Carly wasn't sure that would make any more sense to Hound--did Autobots even have mating rituals?

Hound made a sound that most people wouldn't have even noticed, but Carly had spent enough time with the Autobots to recognize immediately that he was busy searching his database.  "Oh, I see what you mean.  Sorry if I made you uncomfortable, there.  I didn't mean to."

Carly made an exasperated noise.  "Hound, please don't apologize.  I'm the one who should be sorry; I know you're just being friendly.  I never should have said that... my judgment's just messed up because I'm so tired."  She stroked the dashboard lightly.  "Forgive me?"

The soft blue light on Hound's dashboard glowed brightly.  "Already forgiven and forgotten."

"Hey, what's that light for, anyway?" Carly asked.

"I guess you could say it's my way of smiling... at least, when I'm transformed," Hound said.

"That's nice," Carly replied warmly.  She reached over to the passenger seat to collect her book bag as they approached her apartment complex.  "Hound, if you're not doing anything tomorrow... would you mind picking me up again?"

"Same time as usual?" Hound replied cheerily.

"Oh, no.  Not on a Saturday morning.  I don't have any classes tomorrow; I'd love to sleep in, for a change.  Maybe around nine?"

"I'll be here nine o'clock sharp," Hound said.

***

Carly ran frantically through an unfamiliar forest, being chased by wolves.  She couldn't see them, but she could hear them barking, and it seemed to her that there must be a lot of them.  In the dream, she was running impossibly fast when she sprained her ankle and fell to the ground.  Unable to run, she covered her head with her arms and prepared for the worst, but when they caught up to her, they weren't wolves at all, but a single puppy dog.  When she uncovered her eyes, the puppy licked her face.

Then she woke up.

***

The next morning, Carly and Hound ran some errands.  He shuttled her to the laundromat, the post office, and the toy store.  Then they stopped by Spike and Sparkplug's house to visit Daniel; Carly missed living with them terribly, but after doing the math she had realized that paying rent for a one-room apartment a few miles away from the university was far more affordable than the cost of commuting all the way from home to school and back five times a week.  The select few people who knew her didn't seem to realize that an alliance with the Autobots didn't always equate to a free ride; they provided her with free electricity and heating, but other material comforts were out of their hands.  She couldn't wait to get school out of the way so she and Spike could finally get married and get their own place to live.

Daniel was, of course, delighted to see his mother, in that unabashed way that only a child could express.  Sparkplug told her that Danny had jumped up in the middle of his fingerpainting session as soon as he'd heard the doorbell, and the first thing Carly saw when the door opened was her son leaping into the air and smothering her in blue paint.

Danny seemed pretty happy to see Hound as well, who was more than willing to keep him entertained with some holograms of the boy's favorite cartoon characters.  The day grew short, though, so Carly offered Danny the action figure she'd gotten for him by way of apology for having to leave again, assuring him that his father would be home soon.  He was bitter, but that didn't stop him from tearing the package open and trying to transform it into a cheetah, or whatever it was they were making into toys these days.  Carly sometimes wondered if Danny thought of the Autobots themselves as little more than giant toys, actually.  He'd known them all his life, so he never thought to question their presence.  At the same time, Carly had noticed that he very rarely spoke to them directly, almost as if he didn't realize they were as alive as he was.  Was Carly ever that young and innocent?

Once back on the road, it was back to her apartment long enough to change into clean clothes, followed by the bank, the grocery store, and back to the laundromat.  Hound didn't seem to mind playing taxi at all.  He was very cheerful about the whole affair; Carly realized it was probably a nice change of pace from his usual duties, though she'd thought for sure that he would have been bored out of his mind after a few hours.  By early afternoon, it had gotten a little bit warmer; snow was already beginning to melt on residential lawns and rooftops, and every so often the sun peeked out from behind the clouds to let the world know it hadn't completely forgotten its duty.

Once the important tasks were out of the way, though, Hound had asked Carly if she would mind if he took her somewhere a little more peaceful.

"Did you have any place in particular in mind?" Carly asked.

"It's a little spot just up the ridge," Hound said, his sensor light glowing softly.  "You could say it's my favorite place to just... get away from it all."

It was almost an hour's drive, but eventually Hound came to a stop on a mountain pass overlooking a good part of the city.

Carly climbed out of the driver's seat.  The city really did seem peaceful from so far away; she could see the volcano and Autobot Headquarters a few miles off in the distance.

Hound's canopy folded back, and he transformed to robot mode.  "Cliffjumper and I passed by here during our first scouting mission on Earth," he explained.  "After we thought we'd gotten rid of the Decepticons, I came back and did a little exploring, took a few holograms, since I thought we'd be leaving Earth soon."

"It's beautiful," Carly whispered.  "One of these days I'd love you to show me your favorite spots on Cybertron, too."

"Cybertron's all right, but we really don't have anything like this back home," Hound said.  "It's sort of boring, actually."

"I don't know how you can say that," Carly countered.  "Cybertron is the most beautiful place in the Universe, as far as I'm concerned.  I would miss it so much--oh, I'm sorry, Hound.  That was really thoughtless of me.  You probably do miss it..."

"A little," Hound admitted, after a moment.

"I'm glad the Autobots decided to stick around for a while longer, though," she quickly added.

"Me too," Hound sighed.  "Of course, the Decepticons keep us busy most of the time.  I haven't been up this way in a few months, actually."

"Say... you don't think they'll detect you up here, do you?" Carly asked.

"Maybe," Hound said.  "I've got my sensors running on full power, though, so we'll have plenty of warning if any Decepti-geeks are in the area.  I won't let anything happen to ya, Carly."

Carly would have blushed, had the wind not already painted her cheeks a bright rosy color.  "That's very sweet, Hound."

She suddenly looked up at Hound with a puzzled look on her face.  "There's something different about you."

Hound shrugged.  "Well, I didn't bring my missile launcher, if that's what you mean."  He pointed to his right shoulder.  "That thing gets heavy after a while."  He smiled.  "I've still got my particle beam gun on me, though."

"Being an Autobot must be tough, sometimes," Carly said softly.

"You gotta do what you gotta do," Hound said.  "It's days like today that make it all worthwhile, though.  They kind of hit my reset button, you know?  I'll be able to deal with everything for that much longer before I really need to get away again."

"Wow, that's exactly how I feel," Carly said.  She had always known the Autobots were complex creatures, but she had never expected to find such a kindred spirit among them.  "That reminds me, though... you'll probably need to get back to Headquarters soon, won't you?"

"Things have been pretty quiet lately," he replied.  "I told Ironhide that I'd be hanging out with you today.  He knows he can radio me if anything big happens."  Hound sputtered.  "Besides, it's not like I'm an integral part of the unit."

"Now what's that supposed to mean?" Carly asked.

"Some of us have more to contribute to the group than others.  Ratchet's the doc.  Prowl's the brains.  Brawn's, well, the brawn," Hound explained.  "Me, I'm the Hologram Guy."

Carly's face wrinkled.  "But even that's an amazing ability.  You're one of the only Autobots who even come to mind when I think of robots with special powers."

"Amazing, perhaps," Hound said, "but fairly limited in its usefulness.  There aren't that many Decepticons that fall for the old hologram trick these days.  It's like a magic act where everybody's seen how it's done."

"I think you're underrating yourself," Carly said quietly.  "Besides, I see the Autobots transform just about every day, and I understand the mechanics behind its operation, but I still think it's incredible."

"Maybe. I'll tell you something, though.  I love exploring Earth, but I'm always alone when I do it.  Secluded areas like this are the only place I can be myself... you know, in robot mode.  I have to pretend I'm a jeep whenever I'm in a populated area, even though I long to talk to everybody I drive past--if only just to exchange greetings or discuss meteorological phenomena."

"You mean... talk about the weather?" Carly asked.

"I do so wish I could walk among your people, Carly.  I don't have any regrets, really, but... I'd give up all my powers in a heartbeat if it meant I could be human.  Just for one day."

"I... I didn't know that," Carly said.

"That's not something I tell just anybody," Hound confided.

"Hound, you've got a lot more to offer than you realize.  You're smart, you're funny--you make me laugh.  And I can't think of any Autobot or human that I would have rather spent today with."

"I just wish you could see the real me more often," Hound admitted.  "Unfortunately, my transformed mode has something of an unappealing connotation--not exactly the sort of thing most humans would want to be seen driving to school in, that's for certain.  At least, that's what Sunstreaker and Sideswipe have told me."

"Please," Carly snorted.  "Most of the sports car Autobots, they're like the guys who drive that type of car--all flash and no substance.  They're so shallow, it churns my stomach.  Big deal, so they're Lamborghinis.  That doesn't impress me much."

"Really?" Hound asked.

"Really," Carly affirmed.  "It doesn't matter to me what you transform into, silly.  It's you I like being with.  And as long as we're friends, you'll never have to be alone."

"Thanks, Carly."  As if to prove her point, Hound folded back up into his jeep mode.  "It's a lot colder up here in the mountains, so maybe we'd better get going."

"All right," Carly said, "but I'm not cold at all."

***

The next few days were busy ones; with mid-terms approaching, Carly's course load had nearly doubled.  Her entire life had been reduced to studying and sleeping, sometimes both simultaneously.  Carly had discovered that she could survive, barely, on three hours' sleep a night--supplemented heavily with caffeine.  

The previous day, Spike had come back home from the coast more or less empty-handed; they hadn't spotted any space craft, despite conflicting reports from the locals.  Judging by the erratic burn marks along the boardwalk, though, the Autobots had finally concluded that one of the Decepticons had probably gone for a joyride off the coast.  

In any event, it wasn't long before some unusual activity was detected on Cybertron, and Spike had quickly departed for the Transformers' homeworld.  Carly was more than a little bothered; it must have been wonderful, she thought bitterly, to live a life so completely free of responsibility as his was.  Spike's involvement with the Autobots had grown to the point where it had begun to interfere with his school work; he had begun to miss more days out of the week than he'd attended.  Eventually, his father had suggested that he earn a graduation equivalent; problem solved.  In less than a year's time, Spike would be starting college as well--assuming, of course, that he didn't find himself a nice university on Cybertron somewhere.

What Spike didn't seem to realize was that the Autobots weren't going to be on Earth forever; Carly had heard Prowl discussing with the others on numerous occasions the route that they'd planned back to Cybertron.  What, exactly, was Spike planning to do with his life when the Decepticon threat was neutralized and the Autobots' presence on Earth was no longer required?  

It was these thoughts which were on Carly's mind when Hound pulled up to the curbside.

"Morning, ma'am," he called out.  "Nice day for a drive, isn't it?"  He swung his windshield wipers back and forth for emphasis.

Carly climbed into his cabin and slumped into the seat.  "Hey, Hound," she said softly.  "Nice to see you."

"I've, uh, got something for you," he said cautiously, his engine idling.  "When you're ready, it's in my glove compartment."

Carly was hesitant at first, but her curiosity won out and she slowly tripped the latch on Hound's glove box.  A small giftwrapped object tumbled out into Carly's waiting palms.  She fumbled with it a moment, her fingertips searching for a seam in the wrapping, before she finally made a defeated, amused sound.  "Hound," she said, "this isn't really wrapped!"

"I've never seen it done before," he admitted, "I just know what it's supposed to look like when it's finished."  With that, he disengaged the holographic wrapping, revealing the gift within.  "Happy birthday, Carly."

Carly's eyes grew wide.  A small metallic object was suspended in her hands, supported by some unseen force.  She was reminded of a snow globe, except for the fact that there was no dome to contain the snow--and the snowflakes did not move, but rather hung suspended, and although they extended no further than the palm of her hand, they went on for eternity.

"It's Cybertron," she said.  "You made me a hologram of Cybertron!  Hound, it's... beautiful."

"Well, I can't take all the credit," Hound noted.  "Wheeljack came up with the microtransmitter that powers it."

Carly marveled at the small technological wonder in her grasp for a few moments as a single tear drop escaped, traveling down her cheek and finally taking flight.  It was received by Hound's warm, leather interior, absorbing it.

"Carly, have I done something to upset you?" Hound asked.

"No, no!  Not at all," she assured him.  It's just that...  I... I can't believe you remembered.  Nobody remembered... not even Spike.  He's still off gallivanting with the Autobots, but I sort of thought... I don't know, at least a phone call or something."  She took several broken breaths.  "Thank you... very much, Hound."

"Carly," Hound urged softly, "you're going to be late for class."

"No, I'm not," she responded.  "I'm not going to school today.  You and I are skipping classes today."

***

It was still early enough in the morning that there were very few passing cars en route back to the apartment complex and, after some coaching on Carly's part to convince Hound, safe enough for him to transform back to robot mode and enter her home through the side entrance.  She'd taken a gamble that if her sofa had fit through the oversized double doors when she'd moved in, so would an Autobot.  Hound had had to transform his arms in order to squeeze through, but he managed it.

Her apartment was not so much several rooms as a single large room, separated by thin wooden panels augmented by support beams, loosely representing walls.  Her modest budget allowed for very few furnishings; books and their shelves were her most plentiful (and very clearly her favorite) accoutrements.

Carly could tell that Hound was absorbing everything in sight.  For a moment she was a little put back at the idea that her living quarters were being subjected to such utter scrutiny--it was almost like having her mother for a visit.  She flushed profusely when she realized she'd left a bra hung on her bedroom doorknob, and her cereal bowl was still sitting on the kitchen counter, until she realized that Hound was more likely interested in the decor itself than her housekeeping.

"I've never been inside a human's headquarters before," Hound admitted.  

Carly approached the kitchen sink, suppressed a giggle.  "Just make yourself at home."  Without thinking, she gestured to the reclining chair.  "Uh, on second thought, you can sit on the floor in the den, if that's not too uncomfortable."

"That would be great."  Hound took a seat in the center of the room, casting a wary glance behind him as the hardwood floors creaked a bit in response to his footfalls.  "I think I should tread lightly."

"Don't worry about it, Hound," Carly assured him.  "It does that when I walk over there, too; the wood's just old.  A little noise never hurt anybody."

Hound smiled.

"Would you like something to drink?  ...Uh, maybe some water or something?  God, that was a stupid thing to ask, wasn't it?  Forget I said anything, Hound.  I , uh, think I'm trying too hard to be a good hostess, here..."

Hound flipped open a panel on his front-mounted engine.  "Actually, I do occasionally fill a tank or two with water to dilute that horrid wiper fluid that Hoist puts in my tanks.  Stuff makes my windshield sting."

Carly stifled a giggle.  "You are so funny, Hound!  I love being with you."  She sat beside him.

"That's very kind of you to say, Carly.  I really like spending time with you, too... and I really do appreciate your giving me a chance to visit.  It makes me feel... welcome."

"Hound, lean down here for a second."

Hound did as he was asked.  Leaning towards him gracefully, Carly planted her lips on his silver face.  "A sign of affection," she explained.

"I know," Hound replied.  "It's not like we don't kiss where I come from, you know."

Carly shot Hound a quizzical look.  "Huh?  How is that possible?  That's a human ritual!  You mean that Autobots do it, too?"

"Of course!" Hound said.  "Although, I  wonder... is it different for humans?  I mean, do you actually conduct an energy transfer?"

Carly's eyes widened.  "Energy transfer?  No, of course not.  It's just something that people do... when they care about each other."

Carly stood up, very close now to Hound's eye level.  "Kiss me, Hound."

Hound touched her hand.  "What about Spike?"

"You can kiss Spike, too, if you want to."

"You know what I meant."

"Yes, I do," Carly replied.  "I like him, but I also like you.  I care about you a lot, Hound.  And I want you to kiss me."

"Okay," Hound said, "but to be honest, I've never kissed a human before."

"I won't bite," Carly assured him as she closed her eyes.

The actual physical sensation was not unlike touching a doorknob as it administered a small spark of static electricity, but the feeling was conveyed gradually, and faded in the same manner.  Far more vivid for Carly, though, was the overwhelming emotional experience.  Her heart was already racing--as though she were doing something at one forbidden and exhilarating.

"Ooh," Carly cooed, shivering.  "That... um, that felt pretty good, actually."

"It didn't hurt you?"

"No... it was almost like touching a 9-volt battery with my tongue... like an electric current running straight to--uh, straight through my body.  It was... very nice."  Carly could feel herself flushing profusely, but for the first time that she could remember, she didn't care.

"And that's how humans procreate?"

Carly exploded into laughter.  "How we what?  Hound, where on Earth did you get that absurd idea?"

Hound averted his gaze for an instant, quickly meeting her eyes again.  "From television.  As the Kitchen Sinks, I think."

Carly ran her hands through her hair; if she knew of a way to simply dissolve into the carpet, she would have undoubtedly done so.  "Wow.  No, kissing is just a way of showing someone that you love him.  Like him, I mean.  Well, either, really.  Reproduction is... well, it's a little more complex."

Hound's eyes were like saucers.  "Does it involve tongues?"

"No!" Carly exclaimed.  "It, uh... well, okay.  A male human plants a seed in the female human.  His seed fertilizes her egg, and his DNA mixes with hers into a zygote, which grows into a human baby.  The woman gives birth after a gestation process of about 40 weeks."

"I understand how cells grow and divide in order for organisms to grow, but... how do you give the new human life?"

Carly shrugged.  "We just do, Hound.  It's not like Autobots and Vector Sigma... the baby comes complete with a soul."

"Incredible," said Hound.  "I can't even begin to understand that."

"Me neither," Carly admitted.  "That's why we call it the miracle of life."

"It sounds almost like the spark bond," Hound said.

"What's that?" Carly asked.  

"Um...  Well, it's..."  Hound picked at a paint chip on his arm.

"Oh, I... I'm sorry, Hound.  I didn't mean to pry.  That's a very personal thing."

"No, it's not that," Hound assured her.  "It's just difficult to put into terms that would make sense."  He gesticulated for a moment but seemed unable to summon the words.  "You could say that, on the most basic level, it's an information exchange... but there's a lot more to it than that.  But we like to think that, in some small way, it helps to preserve the Autobots... our culture, our learning, our race."  Hound's expression was very somber.

"I'm sorry, Hound... I don't understand.  You have computer brains.  All the information you have can be documented.  Why would such a link have even developed?"

Hound shifted positions, settling into a more comfortable stance as the hardwood let out a soft sigh.  "I don't understand it completely myself.  Optimus Prime has said that we already have a vast database of Autobot knowledge, but I don't know where it is... maybe it's not tangible.  He speaks of it in an almost spiritual sense."

"Maybe he's talking about the afterlife," Carly mused.  "If Autobots have an afterlife, that is."

"It's possible.  An Autobot isn't just the sum total of his programming, you know.  We have something that separates us from ordinary machines... we have a life force.  The ancients used to call it a life spark.  It's what Vector Sigma gives us to make us complete.  You could say th't that is our miracle of life.  But it has a price."

"I'm listening," Carly said, her eyes like diamonds.

"When an Autobot dies, everything he knows is gone.  You can't just separate his mind from his soul--the information doesn't survive the translation.  Some people think his life essence just fizzles out, while others believe that it goes back to Vector Sigma."

"Reincarnation," Carly breathed.

"Well, not exactly.  We live for millions of years, of course, but nobody alive can remember that far back.  I think what happened was that a long time ago, some of the elder Autobots realized that we were losing our memories.  Not everything at once, really--just little things about the past."

"Is that why Ironhide won't tell me when his birthday is?" Carly asked with a gasp of realization.

"Could be.  Maybe he doesn't remember.  But there is a way to share with a compatible Autobot everything that you've learned... everything that you are.  It's called a spark bond."

"Spark bond?" Carly repeated, trying out the words delicately.

"It's the only way we know of to preserve who and what we are," Hound said, his voice radiating reverence.  " If you learn everything I know and I learn everything you know, then if something happens to one of us... we both still survive."

"Incredible," Carly said.  "Humans procreate to preserve our bodies.  You do it to preserve your minds."

Carly chose her next words very carefully.  "Hound, I want to share that with you."

"I'd like that," Hound said, "but I'm not sure we're, uh, compatible.  You're not a machine, after all."

"Sure, I am," Carly said.  "I'm a biological machine and you're an electromechanical one.  If you look past our appearances, Autobots and humans aren't all that different, really.  We've already shared so much, Hound, and if this bond you've told me about really is a touching of minds, well... I'd say you and I are very compatible."

"Well, okay.  I guess it couldn't hurt," Hound said.

"How do you do it?" she asked.

"Well, barring a direct interface, all that's really necessary is for us to maintain direct contact.  We could... touch hands."  Hound's voice was tender, and softer than satin.

"Is there anything you need me to do?" Carly asked.

"Just let it happen.  Uh, you may feel a slight tingle in your nerve endings, if you feel anything at all.  Are you ready?" he asked.

"I'm ready," Carly said, and knew that this was right.

As they touched, Carly's world was transformed.

***

There are rare times in a person's life when they momentarily become one with the universe.  It is during these precious moments in which the greatest inventions, theories, and works of art are conceived.  This connection with a higher plane is sometimes likened to a thunderbolt crashing from the heavens, as its presence is fleeting, at best, and what it leaves behind pales ever so greatly in comparison to to what it's fully capable of.  In a way, humanity's greatest gift is also a cosmic joke, since this unlimited cognitive power dissipates almost as quickly as it strikes.  It hits only a fraction of a percentage of all the people who ever lived and ever will live, and only the great cosmic entities know how many of them were lost forever because somebody didn't bother to write it down in the notebook by their bedstand.

Carly experienced all this and more.  Not a flash of inspiration, but a flood.  She found it necessary to create new words on the spot to describe the sensations even to herself, as no adequate descriptions of this phenomenal experience could be found in her existing vocabulary.

She trembled.

Carly had read once that humans only utilized but a fraction of their full brain capacity.  She'd scoffed at the article, strongly believing that people were fond of quoting this sort of pseudo-science because it gave the inherently lazy ones an excuse not to live up to their full potential.  She knew now both that it was indeed true--and also that the scientists who had written the article were even more full of shit than she'd suspected.  None of them could ever have understood or even theorized just how much of their own mental capacity was left untapped.  For Carly, it was as though the floodgates had not only opened; the entire dam had burst.

She gasped.

Every synapse in her mind connected together as one.  In the space of a few seconds, each part of her brain was communicating with every other part in a way that she'd never realized was possible.  It was beyond invigorating.  It was positively electrifying!

She shuddered.

Carly reinvented existence--and she realized.  She realized things on an intuitive level that she suspected she'd always known, but which were buried beneath her consciousness.  She knew now that the stories about extrasensory powers--things like clairvoyance and psychokinesis and telepathy, which she had always dismissed out of hand--were not only very real, but that the potential for them existed within every human being.  She understood time travel.  She knew instantly that she'd lost her favorite hairbrush inside the upside-down roller coaster tunnel at the Fun-A-Rama park, and that it was there still.  She conceived of ideas for new types of Autobots, designed them and programmed them and built them and tested them within the virtual simulation of her mind, and knew that they were superior to any that had ever lived.  She realized at long last that the reason her father had been so distant to her mother before he died was not because he didn't love either of them, but because he was terrified of what laid beyond this mortal coil, but didn't want either of them to worry over him.  She created new kinds of mathematics that couldn't be expressed with numerals.  All of these revelations struck her as being amazingly self-evident, and she was flabbergasted that they hadn't occurred to her before now.  For the first time ever, the world made sense, and Carly knew this because she understood it all.

And she realized that it would not last.

She cried.

***

"My world is so small," she told Hound in a dream.  "All my life I've been worrying, literally panicking over things that I used to think were so damn important--how I was ever going to save up enough laundry money to buy a roll of quarters; trying to find a computer font for my schoolwork that was a happy medium between not being so small that my nearsighted instructors couldn't read it and not being so huge that it looked like I was trying to pad out my essays; pulling the skin off of fried chicken after I cooked it but before I ate it.  For some reason which I can't even comprehend now, these things mattered to me.  How could I ever have been so... so closed-minded?"

In the dream, she knew that Hound was hearing and understanding her, but that he wasn't able to answer her--either because he was afraid of hurting her with his response, or that she'd already surpassed him on so many levels that he didn't think his words would mean anything to her.

She realized that she was sitting in Hound's passenger seat, not the driver's seat, and that for this reason alone she was unable to see through the windshield.  Behind the wheel was a puppy, not clutching the steering wheel as she might have expected it to, but staring out the front window as well.  She didn't know whether it could see what laid beyond any better than she could, but the puppy looked very sad.

***

The next morning bore witness to sixteen inches of snow on the ground, and a perfectly legitimate excuse to skip classes again.  Some part of Carly realized now that she could probably skip the rest of the semester as long as she passed the final exam.  She also knew on an intuitive level that the main reason she'd never thought along those lines before was because she knew that if her life weren't so insanely busy, she'd have time to think about things that she'd rather not think about.

What was it that had happened?  She was self-aware enough to know that, as much as she'd like to assign the blame outside herself, she hadn't been reprogrammed.  More like... reorganized.  Was she permanently cursed with this obnoxious level of introspective clarity?  No, she realized--like the dream, it was fading from her consciousness.  

Carly was consumed with feelings of guilt.  Not, as she had expected, over Hound, but over what lay ahead.  For her.  She selfishly wished that nothing could change, but knew that it already had.  She cursed herself for devoting what amounted to her entire life to things that, at this moment, no longer concerned her in the least.  She questioned the very reason she had been placed on this Earth, and found herself briefly wondering how other people came to terms with the purpose of their existence... those who ever thought to question it, that is.  All she wanted now was to experience another awakening of the soul.

She felt guilty not over what she had done, but because she wanted more.

***

At daybreak, with frost still clinging to the air, a vehicle pulled up to the curbside--not Hound, this time, but Bluestreak.

"Morning, Carly!  Good morning, that is.  A good morning to you, specifically.  At least, I hope it's been a good morning so far."

She climbed into Bluestreak's cabin and fumbled for the seat belt. "I guess so," she mumbled.  "I only just woke up, though."  

"Well, once you're awake, at least you won't be so tired," Bluestreak replied.  "Me, I've been up for a few hours now, so my engine's rarin' to go, if you know what I mean.  Of course, it's cold enough to freeze the ball bearings off a robo-rhino, so it's a good thing I've got plenty of juice.  Heh.  Energon, that is.  You really have to stay warm on a cold day like this, and there's no better way to get the pistons pumping than some high-grade capital 'E.'  I tell ya, nothing beats a good recharge, except maybe a good oil bath.  Not that I need an oil bath, although sometimes I think I'm going to start rusting on the inside out if I don't get my hood waxed soon.  I don't like to talk about it, but sometimes I think Sunstreaker's positively obsessed with his wax jobs.  It's all he can talk about sometimes, and it's all I can do to keep from telling him to just stop yapping his trap!  I mean, it's one thing to engage in friendly conversation, which if you ask me is the staple of any good conversationalist, but sometimes I wonder if he will never shut up.  Of course, if he did, I'd probably think there was something wrong with him.  You know how some Autobots are--well, maybe you don't know how every Autobot is, I mean on a personal level--heck, I don't know if you've even met all of them.  What it really boils down to, though, is that you've gotta take care of yourself, and I don't just mean maintenance checks, although those are certainly important too.  If you're not happy, then you're bound to be upset--I believe pretty strongly in that, ya know?"

Bluestreak took a breath.  "Uh... what was I talking about?"

"You mean you weren't listening either?" Carly grumbled.  "Crap, it's cold.  Look, Bluestreak... what happened to Hound?  He was supposed to meet with me today.  No, don't take that street, it takes forever for the light to change."

"Uh... I dunno."

  "Bluestreak, don't lie to me."

"Uh, what makes you think I'm lying?"

"You stopped talking."

***

She found Hound at Autobot Headquarters--not inside the volcano proper, but the adjunct that had been constructed out of a disabled shuttle craft shortly after the Autobots had awakened on Earth.  

Carly was only momentarily dumbfounded when she discovered the main portal had been locked.  Autobots were fairly predictable in their selection of 32-character passwords, though, and it took her less than a dozen tries before the access panel responded with a computerized chirp and unsealed the doors.  Hound was seated in front of one of the viewscreens with his feet propped up.

"What happened, Hound?" she asked insistently.  "We had a date planned, remember?"

Hound offered a noncommittal shrug.  "Sorry, Carly.  Prime's planning on taking a trip to Cybertron and he wanted me to help keep an eye on things here for a bit."  He pointed to the adjunct's main sensor array.  "I tried to beep you and let you know, but your comlink was turned off.  Didn't Bluestreak find you?"

"Can't you sneak away?" Carly suggested.  "Just for a little while?  I know about this awesome cavern up behind Mt. Fulmer.  I'm sure it's large enough for you to fit inside.  We could go spelunking!"

"I've got screen duty until sundown," he said.  "Why don't you go with Spike?"

"Because I don't want to go with Spike," she said, gritting her teeth.  "Come on, Hound.  Nobody will miss you."

"Carly, I can't just leave my post," Hound said, turning back to his monitor.  "Remind me in a couple of weeks and maybe we'll go for a drive again one of these days, okay?  Oh, and make sure you lock that panel again on your way out."  

Were it not for her clarity of consciousness, Carly would have sworn that she'd just been physically smacked in the face.  She forced herself to take a deep breath, fighting back tears.  "Hound... the other day... didn't it... well, mean anything to you?"

"Well, sure," Hound said.  "It was very enjoyable.  Like I said, we'll have to do it again some time."

"I'm not talking about the stupid drive, Hound!  Stop thinking like a jeep!"

"But that's what I am," Hound offered meekly.

"I'm talking about what happened at my place.  We shared something, Hound."

Hound gave an expectant nod, as though he were waiting for the last piece of the puzzle.  "Yes, we did."

"So," Carly said," doesn't that mean anything to you?"

"I'm... a little confused now," Hound admitted.  "What exactly is it supposed to mean?  We didn't spark bond.  You don't even have a spark."

"That's not the point!" Carly shouted.  "We shared something special, Hound!"

"But you're only organic," Hound said.  "It's not the same."

"How can you say that," demanded a hollow voice that was not hers, "when we're so much alike?"

"How are we even vaguely alike?" Hound asked.  "We're not even from the same planet!"

"But you said yourself that you wanted to be human!"

"Sure, it's a nice fantasy!  But it's not real.  As much as I'd like to give up everything and live my life as a human being, I can't live in a make-believe world forever.  All the wishing in the world doesn't make it so.  I'll never be anything but a Transformer."

Those were the last words the two ever exchanged.

***

That night, by the time Carly had undressed for bed, she believed she had reached what she considered an epiphany of monumental proportions, and considered writing a treatise about it until she realized that it was, in fact, a fundamental truth, and something that part of her had known all along.

Guys were still jerks, no matter what planet they were from.

These were Carly's final thoughts as the planet Cybertron continued its orbit around her nightstand, stray dogs barked in the distance, and her subconscious mind once again drifted beyond the boundary between reality and fantasy.

THE END

Author's Notes

This story was originally intended to be a legitimate attempt at writing Transformers smut.  The subject came up on alt.toys.transformers at some point last year; I've got nothing against a romantic Transformers story, but my disdain of most fanfics from the genre stems from the fact that so many authors fall back on the rather uncreative approach of having Transformers characters do the horizontal mambo just like humans.  That, to me, is amazingly boring.

What I wanted to do instead was explore what Transformer intimacy might actually be like, and why such a concept might have developed among a technological race.  I realized that I wanted Carly involved with an Autobot in some fashion, since that would give me an excuse to compare human and Transformer intimacy, as well as set up a back story for Spike's upcoming angsty story arc for "Children of Cybertron."  I settled on Hound since he certainly seemed a likely candidate for a human liaison.

Well, the story kept rewriting itself, and eventually it turned far more tender and much more existential than I'd intended when I set out.  At any rate, I'm pleased with the way it turned out, though, and I hope you enjoyed reading it.

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