"The first of the tracers will be ready in another day or so," Pounce announced. He and his clone brother Wingspan were alone in their small deep-space relay station, from which they ran many of their operations. In their robot forms, the two robots were completely identical, save for the small emblems on their chests, which identified their alternate modes: an eagle for Wingspan, a puma for Pounce. Thin armor plating could hide the emblems if they so desired, leaving the two indistinguishable. Their transformed modes were, of course, radically different from each other.
Pounce and Wingspan's exact position within the Intelligence hierarchy was rather nebulous. They were highly placed; Counterpunch used them as his right-hand men and special agents. However, the two often worked on their own, with no supervision or orders from above. They had repeatedly proved themselves a competent enough team to justify a great deal of independent action, as well as their own private operations base. Elsewhere in the station were two other Decepticons, the gestalt cassettes Beastbox and Squawktalk. The two were plugged into the station's consoles, overseeing semi-automated functions as well as the special assignments Pounce had recently given them.
"But what about the leak? That's where the real problem is. Sure, we can destroy the attackers, but if we don't stop the leak the Autobots'll just send in more ships to take over for the ones we get rid of," Wingspan grated, frustration evident in his voice. Few things sent Wingspan into a tizzy as did the lack of information. Information was his business, his hobby, his life. He collected it, sorted it, stored it, and - when appropriate - readily shared it with anyone who would listen. And he obtained it through whatever means he could.
"Yes... I know." Pounce's voice was cool, smooth, deep - the voice of a hunter, of one well-used to being in control. His every utterance spoke of calm, quiet self-assurance, in many ways the antithesis of his flustered brother. "I'm sure Counterpunch is working on that... but in the mean time I see no reason not to do a little investigating ourselves."
"You're already running something, then," Wingspan anticipated.
"Correct. More precisely, Beastbox and Squawktalk are. I tried to think how I would get information out. In the end, no matter how you do it, no matter what procedures one follows, there are a few steps are almost inevitable. These will eventually be our informant's undoing."
* * *
"Two on your left!" Rollbar radioed. "Tarnish, Prop, I'll get their attention, you take 'em out!" The jeep-mode Autobot swerved madly into the open with a resounding war-cry, drawing plasma fire from the two entrenched Decepticons he'd spotted. An instant later his comrades opened fire from the other direction, splattering their opponents with hits till they fell. The squad of Autobots continued their charge into the manufacturing compound, barely breaking stride.
"Hah! I still can't believe they fall for that stuff," Prop said, zooming back to a higher altitude.
"Yeah. 'Been out of the war too long," Tarnish answered from the ground.
"Don't get too comfy," Rollbar admonished his troops. "Comfort'll get ya killed."
"Eh! Relax, Rollbar! This bunch isn't exactly putting up much of a fight," Tarnish said.
"Wrong again, ground-pounder. Look up ahead," Prop radioed down to his fellows.
A flood of Decepticons was charging out of the complex's buildings. Rollbar suddenly found his group facing uncomfortable odds.
"Form up, squad, we got serious company!" he shouted at his followers. "Break into threes for protection, and -- waitaminute, somethin's not -- what's going on??"
The Decepticons hardly seemed to notice the advancing Autobots. Instead they were fleeing the premises as fast as possible. Soon it became clear why: a much larger horde of robots, former hostages till now, came stampeding out after their former slave-drivers. The motley group was armed with metal beams, arc-welders, pilfered rifles, pipes -- virtually anything they could lay hands on had been wrenched loose and turned against their tormenters.
"How about that," Prop commented, as he watched the rioting neutrals. "Looks like they've been out of the war too long, too."
- - -
It had been the same all over the manufacturing planet, Rollbar learned later that day: with the Autobots' arrival, the enslaved neutrals turned on their captors in a frenzy, exacting retribution for untold years of captivity. The Decepticons who survived both the bombardment from space and the rebellion in their midst hadn't had much heart left to resist Sojourn's ground forces. As Tarnish had observed, they hadn't seen combat in a long time; they didn't so much serve as warriors as they did prison guards.
*And bullies,* Rollbar thought, looking at the motley group of workers before him. Unlike the research planet that had been their last target, on this world there was a clear distinction between the oppressors and the oppressed. In addition to all the damage incurred during the rebellion, the workers were in poor repair, under-energized, and showed the effects of frequent beatings. Some were missing limbs; others had restraining devices implanted on their bodies. Their other tasks complete, Rollbar and his squads were working on freeing them of the damn things, while they waited for the mop-up ships to arrive. Right now the green Throttlebot was trying to figure out how to remove a pair of restraints from a robot's knee joints, which prevented him from transforming and caused painful feedback if the knees were bent even slightly. If the job weren't done properly, the robot's legs would have to be replaced or completely rebuilt.
"Ground commanders, round up the wagons. Back-up's here," came Lexius's voice over the com channel.
"Rollbar acknowledging, I sure hope they got some medics on board," he grunted back. "Hold on, pal, gimme a second -- " Rollbar severed a pair of wires, then reached in and shorted out several circuits in a spray of sparks. "That oughtta get it. Try it." The robot slowly bent his knee, cautiously at first, then enthusiastically when the impairment mechanism no longer responded.
"Fantastic," Rollbar said with satisfaction. He turned to his troops; behind him, the robot transformed for the first time in decades. "Awright, ya pack of slag-heapers," he drawled, "Finish what you're doin' and load 'em up. We're movin' on."
* * *
On board a Decepticon command ship, Phalanx paced restlessly in his quarters.
*I have to do something,* he thought. The helplessness of his position was driving him to the point of insanity. Contact had been lost with yet another planet, though they wouldn't know for certain if it had been attacked until scout ships arrived. His superiors, the fleet's commanders, were pressing him to get something from intelligence -- anything -- that would let them stop the Autobots who'd been decimating planet after planet.
Phalanx couldn't apply that same pressure to Counterpunch, though: it would do no good, to begin with; furthermore, the spy's temper was famous, and he'd turned it on Phalanx more than once. He didn't want to go around him, either; those eerie clone brothers gave him the creeps. He had no desire to deal with them directly. But what else could he do? He ceased pacing, clenching one metal fist in frustration.
*There is nothing I can do to speed up intel's efforts. They work at their own pace -- which is as it should be. Why don't the flag officers understand that?*
The com screen buzzed for his attention. He leapt to it, glad for any distraction. The distraction, it turned out, was better than he could have hoped: Counterpunch's face appeared on the screen.
"What news?" Phalanx demanded anxiously.
"Pounce's efforts have yielded results," Counterpunch said.
"The tagging systems? Already? Excellent. I want a complete report," the military robot ordered. At last! Hard data. Counterpunch was more than pleased to oblige him.
* * *
Pounce bent over a console, running through routine reports which came in from all over the empire and beyond. Many were devoted to tracking the movements of the later-generation Cybertronians (it was forbidden to refer to them as Decepticons), who controlled a great number of planets and starships, the extent of which was still being discovered. For the moment there was an uneasy, unspoken truce between the two empires, though Megatron - lately restored as commander of the Decepticon army - was currently working on a subtle infiltration of the Cybertronians' forces, slowly replacing their commanders with his own, gradually realigning the rank and file of the Cybertronians to answer to him. Pounce sighed. Intelligence's role in the mission was vital, and involved exhaustive work. The distraction of tracking down these troublesome Autobots was annoying, at best. It consumed precious time which could be used against the Cybertronians...
A tone sounded at his chamber. Without looking up, Pounce transmitted a silent signal which opened the door to his chamber, admitting his visitor.
"Squawkbox," he acknowledged the dual robot, the combined forms of his two cassette assistants. Excellent, perhaps the problems with the Autobots were about to be laid to rest. "You've found something?"
"A lot of somethings, in fact. You'll really like this..."
* * *
The Decepticon's name was Matchbox. His movements were quick and purposeful as he strode into the corridor of the deep space transmission station. He displayed the seriousness and dispatch with which anonymous orders were supposed to be carried out, but he was hardly stealthy about his task. It never occurred to him that he might have reason to fear, that he might not be alone...
Matchbox knelt by a wall panel, pressed it till it popped open. He loaded a tiny canister into a small transport vessel hidden beneath the panel, and prepared it for launch.
Something hit him in the back, something with enough momentum to send him skidding for twenty meters across the deck, sparks spraying on the metal floor. Metallic claws dug into his back armor with a sickening groan of rent metal; a pair of metal jaws closed around the back of his neck. In less than a second Matchbox was completely immobilized.
"Where is that infobit going?" Pounce asked his victim through clenched teeth.
"I -- it --- I don't --- " the stunned, helpless soldier stammered.
"Tell me now, or have it ripped from you later!" Pounce growled.
"I was --- following ---- orders!" Matchbox bit out.
"Who gave those orders?" Pounce asked, his voice dripping with menace. Pounce's manner was enough to undo even the most collected of beings. Matchbox became hysterical, struggling frantically beneath him, but did not answer. Pounce lost patience. His jaws clamped down more firmly on the robot's neck, then dug in. A mass of critical wiring came out with a shriek of tortured electronics. The soldier's struggles ceased.
Pounce rose up into his robot form. He retrieved the infobit from its launcher, and hoisted the unconscious form of the trooper onto his back. He was a hunter, not an interrogator. There were others around to do the messy work, to get his answers for him.
* * *
"Sure do hate to leave behind so many 'bots in such bad shape," Rollbar said, as his squad's drop ship roared back into space.
"They'll be fine; the mop-up guys will take good care of them," Prop assured his squad leader.
"Yeah, well, Primus forbid we should stay somewhere long enough to finish a job," Rollbar muttered back. Sojourn had spent a scant two days orbiting the planet whose atmosphere they'd just cleared, and would no doubt be on its way to pick up another infobit as soon as possible. Lexius never allowed them much time at any world, as if he feared inertia would somehow infect the ship's crew if they remained too long in one place. The Sojourn's commander was nothing if not driven, seeking out the next battle as soon as the last one was over. *He would have liked Cybertron,* Rollbar thought, as they rode up to the ship. *More battles than you could shake a conductor rod at.*
Rollbar had spent countless years on the Transformers' native planet, hiding out with his squad of Throttlebots, raiding fuel depots to survive, helping out the Autobot cause when he could, but mostly just struggling to stay alive. He'd seen his squad whiddled down by time and war from nearly thirty Autobots, to the scant five that were still alive and together when they'd finally been captured by the Decepticons. When there were nine of them left, command of the group had fallen to him, and it was in the harsh wastelands of Cybertron that he'd learned ground warfare tactics -- not through schooling or training, but by Darwinian trial and error. If the deaths of comrades had been painful, the deaths of those under his command seared and tortured him, each a wound that would never fully heal. But in time, he'd learned to survive, and keep those in his trust alive as well, and even in good spirits most of the time.
The one thing they couldn't seem to do was locate another group of Autobots to hook up with. All their contacts had been killed or moved; every Autobase they tracked down was abandoned or destroyed. Isolated, few in number, lacking any permanent home, they nevertheless managed to get by. It had been years since the last time one of them had fallen in battle that fateful day when they were ambushed by a full squadron of Decepticons, captured, and sent to Earth.
After that things had quickly gone from bad to worse. On Earth Rollbar and his squad had been pursued and captured by humans, had their bodies destroyed, then rebuilt, then destroyed again scant months later. The Throttlebots had lain in stasis pods for a couple of years. Not till the battle of Unicron did Rollbar and his group finally get back into the war.
These days, Rollbar was more involved in the war than he ever could have imagined. As he had anticipated, the ship picked up another dead drop two days later. The officers conferred over the data, debating strategy and logistics for half an hour before breaking up. Starblast lingered once again, and detained the ship's commander.
"Lexius," he began, wavering uncertainly between firmness and caution. "Would it not be prudent to begin taking some form of security measures? Perhaps collecting several infobits, then attacking the planets in a randomized fashion. Also, nearly three weeks have elapsed since the ship was last searched for tr --"
"Look," Lexius seemed distracted, not pleased at being kept from the business of running the ship. "The whole ship knows we're gearing up for another attack. Now's not the time to stop everything and start scrambling all over the ship looking for spies or bombs or something. We've got a momentum going; I can feel it. We need to keep it up while we have it. I'll pull some forces off for security sweeps as soon as we finish this next planet. Will that be satisfactory?" Lexius's tone made it clear that it would have to be.
Starblast nodded slowly. "Since I have no concrete evidence that we are in immediate danger, I will accede to your wishes. I advise you, however, to carefully examine the wisdom of continuing to attack in our current fashion."
"I'll take that under advisement," Lexius said, stalking out of
the conference room. Starblast waited a while before following, replaying
the brief exchange his mind. Convincing the commander to do anything which
did not advance the war was often difficult. He hoped it would not lead
to disaster. *At least I made the attempt,* he consoled himself. *That will have to suffice.*
* * *
Eyes watched as a newly-activated homing device sent out its location. An entire orbital platform had been sacrificed to get the tracer into place, but for the anticipated payoff, it would be more than worthwhile. Computers received the signal, translated it into legible script, plotted vectors, anticipated a destination. Orders were issued, and subordinates scrambled eagerly to comply.
* * *
"You don't know who gave you your orders," Beastbox repeated, incredulously. The bound trooper before him shook his head.
"I didn't know *where* the orders came from," the battered soldier bit out. "They were anonymized, but all the codes checked out." Energon leaked from damaged joints in Matchbox's form; his chest plates were battered, crumpled, and, in some cases, missing.
The ape-robot moved to swat the soldier again, but Pounce restrained him. Despite orders, Beastbox had begun the interrogation session without the clone brothers. Pounce was thankful he and Wingspan had arrived while the soldier was still mostly in one piece.
"You received orders to call up data sets, transfer them to hard copies, and launch them into space. All in secret, by anonymously issued orders," Wingspan reiterated.
"Where did the data sets come from?"
"I don't know --"
"Wrong answer!" Beastbox hammered Matchbox's head module, shattering an optical visor. "Try again."
"I ---" the soldier stopped to collect himself. "My orders said look for a certain file type, an encoded pulse-downloaded file. I was given authorization to transfer it onto hard copy. That's all I know."
"Do you know where the files came from?"
"No... we're a transfer station, we receive files by pulse all the time."
"Do you know if the files you downloaded still exist?"
"Do you know where you sent them?"
"No! I told you -- "
Thwack! as Beastbox struck again. "Just answer the question! If we want to hear your life story we'll order --"
"That will do," Pounce rumbled.
"I'm sorry, I didn't think to question the orders, y'know, security and all, this's Intelligence, we're not supposed to know everything that's going on..." Matchbox burst out, just controlling his hysteria.
Pounce stepped forward with a menace. "What's going on is a leak, an intelligence leak to the Autobots," he nearly whispered. "A leak which has cost us control of over thirty star systems in the past nine months, cost us untold resources in troops and materials. You have been a party to that leak."
The stunned look on the soldier's face was all the clones needed to see; a prisoner at this stage in the interrogation was hardly capable of such a deception. This was no traitor. Pounce leaned closer.
"You have a chance, though, to redeem yourself..."
On to Chapter 3