"Five minutes to defold," Beacon announced to the bridge.
"Yellow alert," Lexius ordered. It was a precaution, mainly; it was unlikely that anything would happen, but one could never be sure. The crew would be standing by ship-wide, ready to go to battle quarters at an instant's notice.
Minutes later, the Sojourn dropped out of fold in what was, cosmicly speaking, the middle of nowhere. This was supposed be the location of one of the Autobots' scattered fleets; the armadas moved so frequently, though, that there was no telling for sure. The triplicated stars became whole again outside the bridge viewports.
"What do we got? Tuner?" Lexius asked.
"Um... looks like... ah, there they are. Oh nine twenty-two," Tuner called out a vector. He focused some scanners, and the bridge monitors revealed the motley ships of the Autobots' third largest fleet arrayed in the distance.
"Take us on in," Lexis ordered. "Pixel, contact the flagship."
It was not a particularly impressive fleet, they could see as they drew near; the endless war with the Decepticons took a heavy and ceaseless toll. The battered cruisers, destroyers, gunboats, frigates, and transports, an array stretching off to the limits of optical vision, all showed evidence of extended war: burn marks on the hulls, numerous makeshift repairs, repeated hull patches, scavenged parts. In between the war-torn ships floated much smaller vessels, individual Autobots configured for space combat, patrolling, conducting exercises and repairs, shuttling back and forth between the massive ships.
At half a mile in length, Sojourn was quite average in size, but looked decidedly anomalous as it threaded its way among the rag-tag ships of the fleet: its hull was virtually unscarred except for a few burn marks from its recent fight with the Decepticon battleships. The stately warship cruised past the battered vessels, the tiny fighters parting at its approach, as it drew near a rendezvous with the fleet's flagship.
- - -
"Welcome back, Commander. We've gotten some impressive reports on your latest mission," Fleet Commander Galaktikos greeted Lexius and his officers.
"Thank you, sir. We've returned because we feel that mission must be considered over, or at least on hold for a while," Lexius answered. As usual, he didn't bother much with pleasantries, or small talk, or compliments, or anything else not directly related to his mission. The war against the Decepticons was his top priority, always, and this urgency filtered down to eliminating the most minimal delays in the its execution. The enemy was out there, waiting. The sooner Lexius got what he needed from this officer, the sooner he and his ship would be back on the front lines. Lexius continued his brief summary: their attack on the last planet, the ambush, their losses.
"We need about eighty new ground troops, including two squadron leaders. More importantly, we need either support ships or a new data link," he finished. His top officers, Starblast, Grotusque, Treadmark, and Quickmix, were with him, but remained silent, not wishing to prolong things any more than Lexius did.
The fleet's imposing top officer, a impressively massive robot in shades of green, regarded him for a moment, digesting the tale, considering the request, weighing resources against results. "Which would you prefer?"
"That's easy," Lexius answered, impressed that the commander had even asked. Ship commanders such as himself often found themselves at the mercy of the fleet commanders' whims, which from his point of view often seemed completely arbitrary. "The data link. We lost at least one ship on every mission before we had the link. Now one ship is all we need," Lexius answered.
"Then you'll get the link. It may take some time, though. Your old link has just signaled that the courier system is compromised, and a new one has to be set up."
"Compromised? How? When?" Starblast asked, his suspicion instantly aroused, his optic visor narrowing slightly. A compromise of an intelligence link that exposed the courier network but left the operative safe? Unusual, at best. "Perhaps it was not the tracer which gave us away," he volunteered aloud. Lexius said nothing, still surprised that they were getting what they wanted so easily.
"The source didn't give us a lot of details," the commander answered. "And we can't exactly go ask him."
"Do you believe we can still trust this source?" Starblast asked.
"Was the data correct for your last thirty missions?" Galactikos asked in return.
"The source reports it is 'compromised', sir? A decidedly vague term. We have no way of knowing whether the courier network was simply in danger of being discovered, or if a trail leading to our agent has actually been uncovered," Starblast said with emphasis.
"There's no reason to doubt your source's competence. If he were in danger, there'd be no new link being set up," Galactikos answered. "You crew the strongest ship in our fleets," he continued, in a less severe tone. "We can't afford to have it sitting in deep space doing nothing, not with the Cybertronian and Decepticon empires growing and strengthening every day. It's a responsibility you accepted with the ship."
"We're all aware of our responsibilities, sir," Lexius said, as softly as he could. He tried not to become aggravated: the commander, till now, had been good about avoiding beaurocratics with them. But now he was beginning to sound as though he was reciting someone else's party line. Politics weren't supposed to be a problem in an army of ideals such as the Autobots. "Sojourn's a valuable asset. Surely you'll certainly agree that she shouldn't be deployed rashly." He had relearned that harsh lesson only days before.
"We won't do anything rash with your ship," Galactikos said. "But we need its strength. It must be redeployed as soon as our circumstances permit."
Lexius couldn't really argue with that. He was anxious as anyone for his ship to return to the war. More so, in truth.
* * *
"We simply ignore the incoming data, then?" Counterpunch asked, leaning on a console in the clones' deep-space station. The new, false courier network was set up and ready to go; soon the clones would begin feeding information to the Autobot ship.
"Correct," Pounce answered, seated across the room from the spy. "The leak continues leaking, but the data he sends out won't be going anywhere, and he'll be none the wiser. Our friend Matchbox will just record the files for us, send out the same subspace pulse to alert the old courier system, but the infobit will be blank. The couriers will have no idea of the difference; we may track them down at our leisure, and determine which if any knew the true nature of what they were doing. With luck and time, we'll find the leak."
"Make every effort," Counterpunch responded simply. Punch would make every effort to hamper theirs.
"We've already sent word to the Autobots that a new system is being set up. We need one more thing from you, before we begin operating the new system. Or rather, from your friend Phalanx. A list of five or six expendable holdings, all in the same area -- planets we can afford to lose. Cybertronian planets would be preferable," Wingspan said.
Counterpunch seemed to smile beneath the mouthless faceplate. "Scraps thrown out to lure in the prey. I will get your list forthwith. We wouldn't want delay, now, would we?" He levered himself to his feet, and strolled to the door. "Not when there are Autobots waiting to die."
Counterpunch departed the station in his personal ship, to return to his own home, a larger station a few dozen light-years away. Punch had a great deal to consider. The clones were already moving against the Autobots! He had to find a way to alert the Autobot ship without tipping his own hand, and his time was running out. Right now he could not see a way to do it: the only ones who knew of the falsified data link that the clones were setting up were himself, the clones, Squawkbox, and the trooper they'd interrogated a few days ago. If Sojourn didn't show up where the clones were sending it, the suspects were very few in number. Perhaps he could pin the blame on the clones themselves... but they'd verify each other's innocence, and he'd be hard-pressed to beat them both in a fight. The tapes? No, those two were almost mindlessly loyal to the cause.
Punch sighed inwardly. How important was he, anyway? Could he sacrifice a ship with over six hundred Autobots on board simply to maintain his place in the Decepticon intelligence hierarchy? It had taken centuries of work for him to rise this high, to have free access to so much classified data. But if he didn't use his position to help the Autobots in a situation like this, what good was it all? Exactly how bad a situation was he waiting for?
Strategic implications, Punch thought. My own strategic value, in the long run, verses that of the ship. He didn't know much about Sojourn, simply that it was heavily armed and very tough. He did know there were living beings aboard, though. My life for theirs...
* * *
Lexius entered the bridge at a quick pace. "All hands prepare for departure," he ordered, not bothering to take his seat.
While Pixel relayed the order to the rest of the ship, Beacon turned to him. "Where we heading, chief?"
"The outer rims," Lexius said. "For whatever that's worth. Head for sector forty-seven C, for now. Deep space. They're supposed to have drop site coordinates for us by the time we get there."
"Roger that, chief," Beacon turned to his work. Under his direction, Focus brought the ship away from its berth alongside the hulking flagship.
"That's a long way from where we've been," Focus commented, as he nudged the Sojourn into forward motion.
"I know. It's a long way from anywhere," Lexius said, as the ships of the fleet receded in the distance.
With their new zone of operations far from the previous one, it hopefully would be some time before they had to worry about picking up any tracers. Still, Lexius was far from pleased about being sent to what he considered a rather unimportant part of the Decepticons' Empire, nipping at its heels when he was used to striking at the heart.
- - -
Eighty Autobots lounged in one of the Sojourn's cargo bays. They were all ground troops, all volunteers, and all recommended by their former commanders as top-flight fighters. The group, replacements for the casualties of the last battle, was at ease, sitting, standing, some lying on the floor, while Lexius brought them up to speed with the ship's methods of operation. A yellow and orange robot named Sureshot sat among them, relaxing on the deckplates. Beside him sat his partner, an organic humanoid named Spoilsport who, in a strange turn of fate, had been bio-engineered to transform to Sureshot's weapon.
The pair's assignment to this vessel was simply another stage of the seemingly endless journey they had undertaken in recent years. The journey had ultimately begun the day the Decepticon commander Scorponok and his commando unit had attacked Sureshot's city on Cybertron, over ten years before.
The attack leveled Fornyth, crushing the life and spark from the place Sureshot had called home, leaving only burning ruins in its wake. Fornyth itself had not been any sort of paradise, but it was a functioning city, a rare island of peace and stability on the planet's war-torn surface, a place that determined Autobots and neutrals and even a few disillusioned Decepticons had built up and defended for years, a place where they could have semi-normal lives in spite of the war around them, a place open to all who simply wanted to live in peace. They'd fended off attacks before, but Scorponok's crack squad had proven to be too much. The city had fallen; the invaders plundered its fuel and weapon stores, and murdered the inhabitants where they stood.
Sureshot was among a small band of defenders who lived long enough to be captured, though it seemed only a momentary reprieve from death. They were marched away from the ashes of Fornyth, towards a fiery end in the smelting pools. To this day Sureshot remembered the despair of that march with a shudder, the knowledge that they were utterly beaten, defeated. He and his companions had fought as long and hard and as well as they could, and it had not been enough. His life, he'd known, was over, finished. Death loomed, near and certain.
But it had not come.
What had come instead was rescue, in the avenging form of Fortress Maximus's Autobots. The band of freedom fighters had swept in seemingly from nowhere, decimating the unprepared Decepticon squads in moments, driving them off, even the mighty Scorponok beaten and humiliated. The Decepticons had fled, abandoning their handful of prisoners. With no other home to go to, Sureshot readily joined the band that had saved his life. And when their leader proposed leaving Cybertron in the name of peace, he'd just as readily gone along. He figured it was the only way to escape the terrifying hopelessness of that march, of that world which was no longer fit to be called a home.
So had the journey begun, its tortuous path winding from Cybertron, to Nebulos (where he'd teamed up with Spoilsport), Earth, Klo, and half a dozen other worlds. On Nebulous, first, he'd hope to leave the hopelessness behind. But the despair followed them there, too, in the form of the ravaging Decepticons. By the time the Autobots arrived at Earth, half their number had perished. At Earth, too, more fell, one by one, until Sureshot began to realize that there was no running from the despair, no eluding it, no hiding from it. The killing force known as Decepticon followed wherever he went, for he was Autobot. There was left only the option of confronting it, then. Sureshot refortified his resolve, to take up arms against the sea of troubles, though he might never vanquish it.
The journey had somehow deposited him and his Nebulan partner aboard the ships of the Third Fleet, where he'd chafed for months in the confinement and boredom of deep space while the battered fleet licked its wounds. He had jumped at the chance to get out of the waking stasis, to get back in the war, and this time with a fighting chance to win. So now he was here, sitting in a cargo bay, listening to a stout green robot named Lexius brief the newcomers.
"We bombard the surface from space, take out everything that's important. Then you guys move in and secure the surface. Real simple," Lexius was saying. Sureshot was pleased by the prospect, confronting the enemy on a regular basis, overwhelming them by skill and speed and strength, rather than by clumsy numbers. Life with the fleet had been extraordinarily dull and inactive, particularly compared to that on Cybertron and his later hiatuses on Nebulos and Earth. There was little chance to participate in the war on a starcruiser that spent half its time in deep space, being repaired.
"Each of you has been assigned to a squadron. The squad leaders in turn report to Treadmark, Rollbar, Sidetrack, and Grotusque."
"Rollbar and Grotusque," Sureshot repeated quietly, to Spoilsport. "They were with us at Earth, and Nebulos, too, I think."
"So how'd they end up here?" Spoilsport wondered.
"Who knows," Sureshot said. The last he had heard of the two, Starscream had put them both out of commision, and they had been lying inoperative in stasis pods with so many others aboard the Ark. Sureshot had gotten separated from the Earth-based forces during the battle of Unicron, and had not seen most of those comrades again. Several were dead, as he understood it. He was glad to meet two that had survived.
Spoilsport shifted beside him. "There's been a lot of vague talk. How long till we see some concrete plans?" he wondered.
"Pipe down. I think I like this guy," Sureshot told his partner. Spoilsport shared his love of sharpshooting, but there was little else they agreed upon. Sureshot had barely been able to convince his partner to come along on this journey; only the promise of more action had persuaded him.
"I don't know. This ship's kind of a rouge. Wandering off from its fleet for months at a stretch. I'm still not too sure about this."
"You spent way too long in the regular army," Sureshot told him. "I think it sounds great -- freedom and all that. Just wait, you'll see. Trust me." His only hope was that life with this crew would be as fulfilling as the commander's words seemed to promise.
On to Chapter 2