"You MORONS!" Counterpunch screamed, causing Phalanx to start, even though they were communicating remotely. "Do you realize what you've done? Do you have any clue how much work and careful preparation you've managed to utterly annihilate?"
"I can only offer you my apologies on behalf of my superiors. I had nothing to do with the decision and would have opposed it had I known." Phalanx tried to keep his tone neutral.
"They'll disappear into space, they'll sever their ties with their intelligence network, we'll never see them again!" Counterpunch was livid. "I warned you against moving before we could provide you with some hard data. With a little more time I could have gathered information on the ship, handed you a way to destroy it. Now for your rash actions they've vanished without a trace, and we've lost an entire squadron of ships! I received word only moments ago that the tracer we planted on them has been deactivated. All our efforts to track them are useless now."
"Again, I apologize for my... superiors' blunder. Perhaps next time I will consider withholding such tactical information until I see they are ready for it." Phalanx's tone was properly supplicant, even though the two were of equal rank. Both of them knew who was in the right. It was Phalanx who had informed the military commanders of the tracer, enabling them to launch the disastrous attack -- which, Counterpunch had to admit, was actually very well-planned, and might have worked against any ship other than the Sojourn.
"I am going to insure that blame for this debacle is properly apportioned, I promise you that. We have no further business." Counterpunch broke the connection and stomped off, still furious.
As the silent rage burned in Counterpunch's mind, a most deeply buried portion felt only relief that its subtle ploy had worked. Phalanx would never realize how he'd been used. From past experience, Counterpunch had known from the start that Phalanx - under pressure to get results, any results, from Intelligence - would immediately pass on any information to his superiors. The superiors, of course, would move immediately to strike, not realizing how ill-prepared they were. Sojourn, as he'd anticipated, had easily handled the forces sent against it. The ship's commander would realize that Decepticon Intel was on to them, and abort the mission. Punch mentally sighed relief at a mission fulfilled. Counterpunch fumed all the more for it.
The espionage director retired to his quarters. A small blinking light on a panel indicated a waiting message. He called it up; it was from Pounce. He scrolled through it.
Counterpunch barely contained the scream of frustration which filtered up from the depths of Punch's mind. Would this never end, would he ever have a moment's respite?
* * *
A thin beam of energy stretched millions of miles across the void, as Sojourn drew in power from the star she was tranquilly orbiting. The system was lifeless and empty, its life-supporting worlds long since vaporized in the expansion of the orange giant star at its heart. Sojourn floated idly about the enormous gas sphere, recharging her depleted power supplies.
Her mind, unusually, was still active. Under normal circumstances, Sojourn's consciousness remained dormant while she was in starship form, and the Autobots operated her as they would any normal ship. Sojourn's size made it necessary; there were so many complex subsystems that a single mind couldn't possibly handle their operation. It was far more efficient to provide a crew for her operation in starship mode. When tactical situations required it, Sojourn's consciousness was awakened, and she transformed to her robot mode. In this form, her body - like any other robot - operated as a single continuous unit, and could only be controlled effectively by a single mind, one integrated with the unit. The crew could do little but simply hang on and wait for Sojourn to finish whatever battle they were in. It was a unique trust, between Sojourn and her crew, each one alternately in the other's keeping.
As part of that trust, Sojourn's mind was present in the ship's conference room, monitoring as her inhabitants considered the day's events. Whatever Counterpunch might have thought, "easy" was hardly the word the Autobots would have used to describe the trap they'd fought their way out of hours before. Lexius looked around the room at his battered companions, softly lit by the orange light filtering through the viewport. He had wondered how long in coming this day would be. He'd not thought it would be so soon.
"Well," he began. "That's what we've been trying to stay out of, folks: the old-fashioned way of re-taking a planet."
There were a few grave chuckles around the table.
"Let me start by saying you all did extremely well today --"
"We lost seventy-nine," Treadmark said quietly, angrily. "Twenty-two of them are still back there." A number of those had been under his command.
"By rights we should have lost five hundred," Lexius countered immediately - meaning the entire ground force. "Your work today was faultless. If you want to blame someone for our losses, blame me, for not preparing for this contingency." There was anger in his voice too, but it was directed mostly at himself. He waited a moment before continuing, to allow tempers to cool a bit.
"We are now without nearly a fifth of our ground force. We can't continue without replacements. Another two hundred or so won't be combat-worthy for a couple of weeks. And finally, our information network is evidently compromised. For those who don't know, Starblast has analyzed our sensor readings from the beginning of the attack. All of our target sites were abandoned, empty when we hit them. They knew we were coming, and where we'd be striking. Whether we were sent false data, or one of our operatives has been exposed, or the ship tagged, we don't know. We're conducting a full sweep of the ship for tracers. But the bottom line is that for now, our mission is over. At this point I feel our best bet is to return to --"
A signal interrupted him. "Commander. We've located and disabled a Decepticon tracer on the Apogee's outer hull." a voice reported.
"Good work. Have someone bring it to the ready room and continue the scan." He broke the connection. "Well, that's probably it. Looks like they tracked us."
"That doesn't mean they haven't screwed with the intelligence link, too," Grotusque pointed out. His chest was crudely patched over the spot where he'd taken a point-blank hit earlier in the day, a makeshift repair till he could find time to get to a medic. "You think they all decided to go walking in the country? Me neither. They knew enough evacuate the target areas. Sounds like they're onto their leak."
"That's true, but we don't really know enough about the link to figure out that sort of thing," Lexius answered. He hadn't yet bothered with any patches on his numerous wounds, though he had wiped off all the fuel that had spilled from them.
"Then the most logical course of action would be to make contact with those who do know ," Starblast offered.
"Return to one of the fleets," Quickmix completed the statement, and Lexius's earlier sentiments.
"Hnnnn," a grumble filled the room, as Sojourn let them know just what she thought of that option. It was well known that Sojourn preferred being an independent unit, and avoiding the fleets as much as possible.
"Hey, big lady, it makes sense," said Rollbar. "We could scrounge up some new troops, spare parts, maybe supplies an' ammo, too. Heck, they could get us a whole new intel link, to boot."
"It's probably only temporary, till we get new troops," Quickmix said to her.
"You gotta admit, it beats floating in space for weeks while we weld our wounds," Sidetrack added.
"Mm. I suppose," Sojourn conceded.
"Anybody wanna dissent on this?" Lexius asked. He was met with nods and shrugs. "Sojourn?"
"Your points are sound," she said, grudgingly.
"Well, then... that's that. We return to the fleets."
The session continued for a while longer, the ship's officers haggling over more mundane issues and details, such as apportionment of spare parts among the wounded. Lexius noted that Treadmark was unusually silent, hardly making more than a grunt or two through the proceedings.
The group dispersed after an hour or so. Two indicator lights on the conference room wall winked out, indicating that Sojourn had shut herself down to return to her slumber. The Autobots filtered out of the room. Treadmark was first out the door, disapearing before Lexius even had a chance to stop him.
"Starblast," Lexius said quietly, as others followed. "Hang on a minute." He waited till they were alone, then shut the door, his eyes dropping to the floor for a moment. "It seems I owe you an apology."
"Apologies are unnecessary. I had no concrete indications that we were in immediate danger. You based your decisions on the facts you had available."
"Yeah. And I completely ignored your advice. If I hadn't, we'd have found the tracer before the attack."
"A mistake, perhaps. One gains wisdom from them, yes?"
"My mistake just cost eighty Autobots their lives!"
"A commander is not expected to be omniscient. Your frustration is understandable. However, in a war, casualties are inevitable. That is the unfortunate, unavoidable truth."
"Try telling that to Treadmark."
"I did. I concluded that he does not agree."
"He knows it's true, Starblast... he just doesn't accept it."
"I am not certain that I understand his viewpoint."
"That's okay. You did the right thing. But I didn't. It's part of my job to listen to what my officers say. I didn't, and you see what happened. Starblast, I'm sorry. I should have known better."
"Your apology is accepted, graciously." Starblast offered a slight smile. Lexius couldn't return it. He was thinking of seventy-nine Autobots who had died for a world not their own, of friends that would never see one another again. This would be a day of mourning aboard the Sojourn because of his actions.
"C'mon, let's get back to the bridge," he said, finally. "We gotta find ourselves a fleet."
* * *
"The data came to the station where our friend Matchbox worked, here," Pounce pointed to a screen. "He downloaded them onto infobits, and launched them into space, which is what I caught him in the middle of. About a day later, a subspace pulse was sent out to alert couriers further down the line. That was what Squawktalk first picked up on."
"What about the couriers? How long till you track them down?" Counterpunch asked, seeming anxious for that day. Counterpunch was on another of his visits to the clones' station, a place he visited as much as his own home these days. He had come straight here after receiving Pounce's message.
"That'll be harder. The launching point is the real weak link in their chain. The couriers operated in deep space, dropping in and out of realspace from fold. That sort of thing's impossible to monitor," Wingspan told him.
"However, if the data is coming from our own databases, the cassettes will pick up on it eventually," Pounce added. "We also can analyze the next data pulse that the station receives, try to see where it comes from."
"Do I understand correctly... Someone, we don't know who, gets data on our planets, and from deep space transmits it as a pulse to this station. The station puts it onto a infobit, sends it on, along with a pulse to alert couriers who will ultimately deliver it to the Autobots." Counterpunch played his part perfectly, appearing somewhat confounded by the complexity of the network the other half of his mind had arranged.
"Correct. And so, we obviously still have some tracking down to do before we'll know whether we've sealed the leak," said Pounce.
"We thought of something else," Wingspan said. "Cutting the leak
off might be appealing, sure. But just think of the possibilities... if
we could control it."
****************** END PART ONE************************
On to Part Two