Stars are a lot thinner here, Lexius thought, idly. They were far from the center of the galaxy, and the systems were spread much further apart. He had first noted the difference when they'd picked up the dead drop a few days earlier. Maybe I should be a bit more focused, considering we're in the middle of a battle.
But it wasn't much of a battle, really. No-one on the surface had even fired back at them. Usually there were at least a few anti-spacecraft weapons on the surface of a Decepticon-held world, but if there were any here, nobody was using them.
Their target, withering beneath their guns, was primarily a mining/ore processing center. Lexius wasn't sure exactly what they could do to keep the Decepticons from simply coming back and restarting the mining operations -- they couldn't destroy the mineral resources of an entire planet -- but at least they could capture and destroy the ore refineries. There were few military bases on the planet, so resistance was expected to be fairly low. They'd know soon enough.
"Dropships, five minutes to launch, stand by," Starblast ordered, as they neared completion of their first orbit of the planet.
"Target scanning complete, Lexius," Tuner reported. "I don't see any reason to think there's a trap."
"I concur," Starblast said, studying the same readings on his own panel.
"That's good," Lexius said, not sounding convinced. Something about this just doesn't feel right...
- - -
As Sojourn's weapons vented their might upon the planet below them, a dark, almost insignificant shape approached the ship from behind, a dull black wedge-shaped craft which weathered the wake of the ship's enormous thrusters until it was almost to its hull. Skyjack figured that approach was his best chance to remain undetected.
As it turned out, he had little to worry about. His form, designed to absorb or scatter all manner of sensing rays, was difficult to spot under the best of circumstances. With the Autobot crew occupied with the task of taking the planet, and the amount of energy being released by the ship, his own minimal energy signature would all but disappear. He could not take chances, though - his survival depended on his remaining unspotted.
Skyjack turned out of the thrusters' wake as the temperatures began to rise above his tolerance levels. He stayed immediately below them, approaching the unfathomable ship -- Primus, this thing is a Transformer?! he thought. The thruster ports alone were large enough for a gestalt to stand upright in! The small black Decepticon transformed and landed lightly on the ship's hull. He pulled out a scanner from subspace and set to work.
- - -
"You okay?" Sureshot asked.
"Just great," Spoilsport said. "I love hanging upside down, I love bumping into everything you walk past --"
"Hey, I'm just trying to be nice," Sureshot cut him off. "Sorry for asking." Spoilsport was clipped to his side in weapon mode, since the only human-scale restraints on the shuttle had already been occupied by a pair of Micromasters when they arrived. The restraints were bothersome. Sureshot shifted restlessly in the cramped space, trying not to jostle his neighbors.
The squad was packed into a stiflingly cramped drop ship. Most of the ship's mass was dedicated to giving it endurance and speed, both necessary to reach planetary surfaces quickly. It left little room for its cargo, the two dozen ground troops and their squad commander. Sureshot was growing restless, waiting for the dropship to leave the hangar.
"So, how long do we sit here?" he asked the robot next to him. The Autobot was big, taller and much more massive than himself. But the robot's lines seemed delicate, sweeping, and somehow purposefully graceful, the two optics narrow and long... With a start, Sureshot realized he was looking at a female Transformer. He didn't know if he'd ever seen one before; certainly there had been none on Earth or Nebulos. Among those Autobots, the existence of females had receded into legend and myth. But no-one seemed to even notice this one; Sureshot turned his thoughts back to the last few days, and realized that several other robots that he'd seen on ship were definitely female. He wondered why there were so many here, when he'd never encountered one in all his years on Cybertron.
"Not too long," she answered his question. "The higher-ups are good about keeping us moving."
"Good, 'cause I'm going nuts sitting here."
The trooper laughed. "You won't be bored when we leave the Sojourn," she said, a hint of glee in her voice.
"It's a rough ride down, mister."
As if to prove her point, the dropship lurched. A dull roar sounded through the hull as it powered up its engines, then quickly rose to a scream as the ship exited the hanger like a shot.
Sureshot felt the dropship leave Sojourn's gravity fields; the rumbling of the ship ceased. They sailed smoothly for half a minute; then the ship began to vibrate again.
"That's the upper atmosphere," the trooper said, as the vibrations grew to a severe rattle. "It'll get worse, brace yourself."
Sureshot tightened the servos in his legs and arms, certain that the ship would tear apart long before it reached the surface. It was now quaking so that the troops directly across from him were merely a blur. The three or four other newcomers looked as unsettled as he felt. The vets simply looked bored. Sureshot was sure that at any moment he'd hear the sound of rending ship components as the ship's plunge tore it apart, but the quaking ceased, and the ship leveled out.
"We're down," the female next to him explained.
"Already?" Sureshot had never been on a descent so fast.
"These dropships are tough," she answered.
"Target coming up in forty seconds," their squad leader, a Micromaster named Flak, called out. The Autobots loosened their restraints, checked their weapons, as panels in the ship's side and rear opened. The planet's air came screaming in.
"Move out!" came the order.
Sureshot headed for the rear exit, which was designed for wheeled ground forms. The ground -- only a few feet beneath them -- was whizzing by at an unbelievable pace. He was next up; he transformed to a four-wheeled ground vehicle and shot out of the ship's stern at top speed. He hit the ground in a spray of dust, Spoilsport mounted on his hood and scanning the area for targets. The female he'd met was immediately behind him, transformed now to a massive six-wheeled tank with a tri-barrel cannon. They rolled along with a dozen other vehicles towards their objective, a massive processing plant which dominated the rocky landscape. Half the squad headed off in a different direction, towards a similar plant a few miles away.
Heavy gunfire erupted as they neared the building's outer walls. The squad slowed and traded shots with the entrenched Decepticons. Spoilsport blasted at one of the defenders, hitting the robot after several shots.
"Nice shootin'," Sureshot said with a liberal dose of sarcasm. The squad had nearly stopped, unable to push through the artillery being leveled at them.
"I'm just warming up -- hey!" Spoilsport cried out, as Sureshot transformed to robot form, to take control of his weapon.
"We don't have all day for you to decide you're awake," Sureshot told his gun. He stopped his forward run, stepped out into the clear, and fired eight shots in rapid sucession. Eight Decepticons dropped to the ground just as quickly.
The squad's path into the plant was clear. They didn't move in right away, though; most of them were gaping at what Sureshot had just done.
"I could have done that," Spoilsport muttered.
"But you didn't," Sureshot grinned triumphantly. The only thing he loved more than showing off his nearly incomparable marksmanship, was one-upping his partner.
The group charged forwards, but the plant's entranceways sealed themselves. The Autobots ducked behind various bits of machinery and junk as the Decepticons opend fire on them from the plant itself.
"Lash! Get us inside," Flak shouted.
Still in vehicle form, the female Sureshot had spoken with rolled forward, and aimed all three barrels at the walls. A short barrage of cannon fire tore a gaping hole in the plant's side.
"Wow," Sureshot said to himself. The females of the legends he'd heard had had nothing like that sort of firepower. On the other hand, they weren't built like Lash was, either.
"Oh, sure, she does it and it's 'wow'. If I did it that way, it'd be, 'Hurry up, Spoilsport, we don't have all day, Spoilsport, you're wasting ammo, Spoilsport,'," his partner groused.
"Will you be quiet?" Sureshot snapped, as Lash blasted several more openings in the walls. When she finished, the squad charged into the plant.
There were lots of unarmed robots cowering behind machines and cauldrons; for the most part the Autobots ignored them, stopping only long enough to direct them to safe areas away from lines of fire. They concentrated on seeking out the Decepticon overseers. The dozen Autobots split into pairs and spread through the refinery in minutes, firing on the guards, whose sporadic resistance was futile.
Sureshot found himself teamed with one of the squad's vets. The trooper looked at Sureshot uncertainly, but with warmth. "What's your name?" he asked.
"Interesting name. We'll see. You want me to take point?"
A sudden barrage of shots glanced off the floor at their feet. Sureshot's teammate barely saw him move; in an instant he had yanked up his weapon and fired past him, missing his head by only inches. The Decepticon who had fired on them took the shot in the face and plummeted off a catwalk, bouncing noisily off the floor nearby.
"Or, you can take point," the Autobot said.
"Out there," Sureshot said to the fallen Decepticon, gesturing with his free arm towards an open space in the center of the factory, where a group of prisoners was forming as the Autobots secured the building. The robot, now limping from the fall, scurried to comply. Sureshot glanced at his partner. "Sure, I'll take point," Sureshot said with a grin. "Just watch my back, please." They moved out, working their way deep into the plant's interior.
The squad took the plant in a matter of minutes, and moved on to secure several others over the next couple of hours. In surprisingly little time, Flak informed them that their assigned sector was secure.
"Already? You mean that's it?" Sureshot said to no-one in particular. The squad was standing at ease, keeping watch over the captured guards and freed workers, while other Autobots worked to establish a secure holding area.
"What are you complaining about now?" Spoilsport asked. "We're done, we've accomplished our mission, we've won the battle, and all you can do is complain? I'm satisfied with it. We had a quick, neat fight, no casualties --"
"Will you shut up?!"
"You normally talk to your weaponry, or only when you're with a new squad?" a voice asked him. He glanced up to see Lash staring at him with an amused grin.
"Get lost. Go guard something," he told Spoilsport, tossing the gun away. Spoilsport transformed in mid-air and landed on his feet, and walked off with what dignity he could muster. Sureshot, trying to regain some dignity himself, turned to Lash with an embarrassed smile.
"Human," he said, gesturing towards the departed Spoilsport. "My, erm, partner. It's a long story."
"I bet. I'd love to hear it some time."
"Time, well, we've got plenty of that. I can't believe how quick that was."
"I know!" Lash said. "We've faced some pretty passive opponents in before, but this was... almost too easy."
"This isn't normal, then."
"Not really. I mean, we don't lose, but it's usually a bit more of a fight."
"So what's 'normal'?"
"Oh, we've had a fair number of adventures," Lash began. "Shoot, just on our last mission..."
Sureshot settled comfortably, leaning on a wall next to the powerfully built female. He couldn't quite put a name to the odd sensations this Lash stirred up in him. But he was going to enjoy listening, he decided. Even if they weren't good stories.
* * *
"It's one vessel, as the tracer stations reported before they were destroyed," Skyjack said. "It has two gunships which detach from it, but it's all essentially the same ship. The hull is the most durable thing I've ever seen; I couldn't even get a sample of it. I wouldn't presume to guess what it's made of. Your best bet would be to turn the data over to the research division." The spy ejected an infobit from his form, which he handed to Pounce.
Pounce turned to his brother Wingspan. "Have r and d send a courier over for this," he indicated the infobit. "We don't really need it ourselves." Pounce opened up a channel himself, and sent off a quick message.
"Counterpunch, Pounce. We've received our first report, and a deal of tactical information. It will not be long till we are ready to dispose of these Autobots."
* * *
"Another mining planet?" Rollbar's open palm slapped the table. "That's three in a row!" The looks and grumbles around the conference room showed that the ship's other officers shared his exhasparation.
"I know, I know," Lexius said, trying to keep things orderly. "I know. That's why this isn't just a meeting to discuss tactics, I want to consider the value of this mission. If it's worth continuing at all." That pronouncement set off another round of exclamations around the table. Grotusque raised his voice over the din.
"Look, we took out those last two planets without even messing up our finish. But, really, how much good's it doing? In addition to being kinda boring, it doesn't seem like we're helping out the war effort too much. Any old ship could've finished those planets. If it's going to be like this... I say we go back to the fleet, and get a new assignment." The other ground commanders nodded agreement.
"Do consider the reason we were re-assigned," Starblast said. "The ambush on our last mission proved that we had become a high priority target. Therefore to draw heat off ourselves it seems logical to move us into less populated areas, far from our previous zone of operations."
"You have a point," Treadmark's solemn voice said. "After a time we may be sent back to hitting more valuable targets."
"I suppose that's true," Rollbar conceded. "But then, why were we sent back out in such a tearin' hurry? Galaktikos could hardly wait to get us back on the front lines."
"I don't know," Lexius said. "As you pointed out" - he nodded to Grotusque - "just about any ship could take care of this. Putting our firepower on jobs like this is a waste. There must be more important targets out this way. It might mean traveling further between attacks, but that's no problem..." Lexius's voice trailed off. He was most inclined to listen to Starblast, but he was growing impatient with these seemingly worthless targets.
"The fleet commander could get us better data, better targets. I don't see why we don't ask him," Treadmark said.
Lexius made his decision. "We'll take care of this planet, and get the next drop. If it's another throw-away, we return to the fleet. Three minor targets in a row I can accept, to throw off heat, integrate the new crewers, what not. More than that, uh-uh," he announced. "How's this sit with everybody?"
"That's a fair trade-off," Rollbar said. Head around the table nodded agreement.
"Good. If that's finished... we have a planet to capture."
* * *
I can't let them die, he thought. But what could he do? The clones had already eaten up a fair bit of his old courier network. If he moved to warn the Sojourn, he'd likely give the clones enough evidence to trace the leak all the way back to him. If that happened... It was unlikely he'd ever be safe again, no matter how far from Decepticon territory he fled.
My own safety, he though. Have I grown so concerned with it, so complacent, that I've lost the courage to die for my own convictions? He knew death was not what he feared, though; there were things worse than death, many things. His alter ego had inflicted many of them on other beings. What of my value as an infiltrator?
You can be replaced, Punch's mind answered itself.
Six hundred lives, for one. He made his decision.
* * *
Sureshot and Lash rolled side-by-side through the city streets, blasting pretty much anything that moved. There wasn't much of that; the city looked like it had been a dying place long before the Autobots arrived. Most of the buildings were empty and falling apart. What they'd seen of this world looked much like the last one, except here the sky was green, instead of orange. But the combat experience was equally dull, and was making Sureshot feel equally useless. Whatever signifigance this world once had to the Decepticon empire had clearly passed away long ago.
A pair of Seekers in formation dove at them; a raking blast from Lash's tri-barreled weapon sent both spiraling into the ground.
"Nice technique," Sureshot muttered.
"Rather wasteful of resources, don't you think?" Spoilsport remarked
from his hood.
"Stow it," Sureshot answered, switching to his robot form. There were times when Sureshot desperately wished to be rid of his Nebulan partner, and they usually occurred when Sureshot's life was depending on him. He certainly could do it; the circumstances that required them to be together no longer existed. Maybe he could convince someone in another squad that they needed a walking, talking gun... or better yet, someone on a completely different ship... But no, Spoilsport was custom-designed for his form, his preferred manner of shooting, and to integrate with his vehicle form. Until he got hold of a regular gun that fulfilled those requirements, he was stuck with his aggravatingly disciplined partner. Funny how in over ten years he'd never been able to find a proper replacement weapon.
He trotted to catch up with Lash, and jogged along side of her. "Stay awake, there's a lot of places to hide," she told him, as they passed into areas of taller buildings. The two of them were now a sort of unofficial two-robot fire team, the squad's best marksman and heaviest artillery, a break from the usual three-member teams. At intersections they could see other squad members moving parallel to them, as the squad systematically swept across the city.
Laser fire sprayed the pavement around them. Sureshot aimed for the source, a Decepticon who was hidden behind some heavy armor. His aim was true -- it nearly always was -- but both the robot and his defenses were simply too tough for Spoilsport's firepower, and the shots glanced off harmlessly. "Ahh!" Sureshot grunted, diving for cover as the Decepticon returned fire.
"No problem," Lash said. Her turret spun around, and fired on the corner of the building where their opponent was holed up. The 'con disappeared in a massive explosion, which brought most of the building down on top of whatever was left of him.
"Thanks," Sureshot said, climbing to his feet again. "I like your style."
- - -
"Yeah, this one was even easier than the last one," Sidetrack told Lexius. He was rolling alongside his commander in tank form; Lexius had to look far below him to see the diminutive ground commander.
"Maybe we shouldn't complain," he responded. Sidetrack's squads were conducting a final search for those who'd eluded capture, in the city that Lash and Sureshot had helped take. Lexius was surprised at how undamaged it was. The mop-up ships would take care of that, wiping every trace of Decepticon civilization (a contradiction in terms, Lexius thought) from the planet's surface before they left.
"We'll be getting complaints soon enough if we don't call off the searches soon. This is their third pass through the city."
"Go ahead and call 'em off, if you think it's okay, then," Lexius said. "You could even send some of them back to the ship if you want."
"Thanks, Lex," Sidetrack said. He opened a channel to the five squad leaders under his command. "Guys, call it off if you want. The place is empty far as I can tell."
Lexius opened a channel to the other squads as well: "Ground commanders, call off searches at your discretion. No need to beat it into the ground." He received acknowledgment of his order from Grotusque, Treadmark, and Rollbar, and closed the channel, feeling vexed as he did so. They'd secured the surface in only five hours, the easiest victory they'd ever had. Too easy. Who was giving them this skewed data, anyway? Why were they being given these throw-away worlds?
Lexius started, as the implication of that hit him. Throw-away worlds. Sojourn usually attacked planets that had an active part in the war. The fleet commanders wouldn't waste her firepower on throw-aways, would they?
Would they? The other possibility was chilling... Lexius was glad that he'd made his decision: another planet like this one, and the mission was over.
Lexius realized that he'd stopped walking. Sidetrack, transformed to robot mode, was giving him that look, the look he often got when he was thinking, one of impatient waiting. "Oh, sorry 'bout that," he said. "Yeah, so, send your troops back up at your own discretion. Mop-ups will be here sometime today, so you can probably go ahead and pack everything up." Lexius felt better at knowing they'd be away from here soon. The longer the ship stayed put, the more vulnerable he felt.
* * *
Counterpunch steeled himself as he strode into the operating room of the clones' station. He had no idea what the next few minutes might bring. Wingspan, working at a console, looked up in some surprise as he entered. "Ah, Counterpunch, you've arrived in time to witness another data launch."
"One of the dead drops?"
"Yeah, well, sorta, it's just the pulse, with coordinates for the final drop site."
Wingspan downloaded the data set, configuring it for a burst transmission. Counterpunch watched as the information was sent, quickly memorizing the coordinates for the drop sight. He felt a sinking in his systems as he saw how little data was being transmitted.
"Wait, you say it's just the drop site coordinates? No data on the next planet they're to attack?" he asked as casually as possible.
"Right. The military say there's no need to keep feeding them planets." As Wingspan continued, Punch began to accept that this would indeed be his final undercover mission.
And perhaps my final mission, ever. But he shuffled the thought aside; he could not afford delays or hesitation or doubts. Sojourn's time was about to run out.
On to Chapter 3