Nightbeat stared dully at the screen. He almost swore that the
endless colomns of ship names were dancing before his optics...
"Veneration I," he read off.
"Veneration I... Sixteen miles, three main guns. After her fifty-fifth battle, the battle of Boo D'nskee, the crew mutanied and tossed the captain into space. They said he changed crews too often, sometimes using a group of crewers for only a single mission before bringing in a new group. Under her new commander, she had a high sucess rate, but after her eightieth mission, the first Firrmun battle, she ran out of power and was abandoned. Those crewers who were rescued were quite fanatical in their loyalty to the ship, but she was destroyed by the Decepticons before a salvage effort could be made."
"Shame," Nightbeat mumbled, marking his list. "Veneration II."
"Veneration II... commisioned as a highly-controversial improved version of her namesake, two years after that ship was lost, using many of the same crew. Served twelve missions with an abnormally high casualty rate, before being destroyed at the second Firrmun battle. The hulk was left adrift in space."
"Huh. Glad I wasn't on that one. Salvage list. Veneration III."
"Planned by a few dreamers, but never commissioned."
"Too bad. Vengeance."
"Vengeance... length twenty miles, six main guns. Twenty-one hundred in crew. Commissioned 669.232.013, entered active service --"
"What happened to -- Wait, when was it commissioned?"
Rewind repeated the figure.
"You sure that's not an error?"
"Not at all. Vengeance was built in secret approximately two hundred vorns ago, as a last-ditch effort to regain ground on the Decepticon fleets."
"So what happened to it?"
"Disapeared? Whoa, wait a minute. Disapeared how? Where?"
"I don't know. The rest of the files were classified."
"Classified??" Nightbeat's jaw dropped. "Come on, I'll show you how to deal with 'classified'. Let's go pull some strings."
It took only a trip to Optimus Prime to get them unlimited access to ship's records. Twenty minutes later they were back in the conference room with a string of data files.
"Alright, here we go," Nightbeat said, starting through them. "Vengeance, commissioned 669.232.013, length 20 miles, on and on... executed series of highly sucessful hit and fade attacks on Decepticon fleets and major military outposts using operative data. Ambushed twice in deep space; fought off both attacks with heavy losses to the enemy; disapeared shortly after. Last heard from in deep space in subsector 8 of sector 92. Presumed victim of a third ambush. Communication transcriptions follow." Nighbeat looked up. "So where's the operative data?"
"The operative data?"
"Yeah, the operative data. I want to know what these guys were being told to do."
"I don't have it. It's in a completely different storage facility, one for sensitive or espionage-related data."
"Well, let's get it. I have a good feeling about this one."
- - -
"You are certain you are capable of handling this," Prime asked.
"Positive. Just turn me loose," Lexius said. "Anyway, it's just a salvage mission, right?"
"It is far more than a salvage mission," Optimus said. "It is the only hope the Autobots have of surviving against those ships."
"Yeah, but I'll only be handling the salvage end of it," Lexius said. "I hope."
"I would advise you not to count on that. No-one else on Cybertron has your experience with large ships, so you are the logical choice to command such a vessel if there are no other takers."
"Yeah, well, I'll deal with that when the time comes."
"It might be better to deal with it before then," Optimus said. "I can find another commander to run the mission if you don't feel you are prepared to handle every contingency."
"I can handle it. Trust me. It's... this is kind of important to me, to do this. For a couple of reasons."
Optimus Prime gazed at him for a long moment, searching. Lexius had given no explanation for his catatonic state, but Prime could tell something had changed. So long as Lexius was capable of doing the job he was volunteering for, though, he reasoned it was not his business. "Very well," Optimus said at last. "But please understand that if you change your mind at any point, for any reason, you are free to withdraw with no loss of face."
"Thanks, Prime, but I don't think that'll be a problem." He paused. "How about we start on the logistics end of things?"
"Agreed. What resources do you anticipate requiring?"
"I'd guess about a crew of a hundred or so, mostly engineers but maybe a couple of dozen medics as well. I don't know; it's kind of hard to say when we don't know what we're preparing for."
"Indeed... let us hope that Nightbeat and Rewind can come up with something..."
- - -
Nightbeat and Rewind settled down at their consoles again, to read through the declassified data they'd obtained. Nightbeat skimmed through them, mumbling to himself.
"Ah... he last fed them info for attacks at Vega Centauri, Mutara II, the Wraith nebulas... last attack at Lian. Data sent for attack at the Elyot star that never happened. Then a post-mission report -- 'Ship presumed downed on unknown planet.' What the heck?"
"The operative knew what happened to them -- but not where it happened?" Rewind asked.
"Makes sense, actually. You don't want an undercover guy to know everything, in case he's caught, I guess. I don't know, I'm not a spy." Nightbeat sat back. "But this one sounds like it could be a winner. Crashed on a planet, and it's relatively new, so it'd be pretty tough -- I bet it survived intact."
"One problem -- we don't know where it is."
"We can figure it out, though. We know something the operative didn't -- the ship's last five positions in deep space, from the ambushes and its reports after them. And we know something the data handlers didn't -- that it crashed instead of being blown up."
"But how do we --"
"Easy. They just got attacked, twice, in deep space. What's the logical thing to do?"
"Lay low for a while, I guess. Hide out somewhere."
"But before you do that, you're going to want to be ready for another attack in case you're ambushed again. So you recharge your power supplies. And for that, you need a solar system."
"But which system --?"
"Remember, you want to get to the Elyot system, eventually, too."
"Ah," Rewind said. His finger traced a line on a map, from where they'd plotted the ship's last five positions, to the El'yot system. "So they'd head for P'lase, or Trik Star, most likely," he said.
"Nope. Too predictable. They're being tracked somehow, so they'd want to go somewhere completely random."
"They'd double back?"
"No, that's predictable, too. They'd overshoot the mark a bit, I bet, a bit to the side either way. Either go here, to the M-Siaf R system --"
"That's a Cybertronian-held system."
"Okay, maybe over to M-M'vai --"
"A massive black hole and a pulsar. No ship can get close enough to recharge."
"Then it's gotta be Shorray. Everything else is just too far."
"Shorray's uninhabited, one white star, four planets."
The two Autobots stared at each other, unbelieving. They had at last stumbled onto something that might work.
* * *
The Autobots of Cybertron dispatched several dozen ships to the far quarters of the galaxy in the days after Rewind and Nightbeat made their report. Most of the vessels carried salvage crews, whose mission was to recover whatever usable parts and fragments could be gleaned from the various wrecked ships. But on a single team the Autobots had pinned their greatest hope. The transport ship Gambit, under Lexius's command, was their best chance at finding a relatively intact ship and getting it launched in time to lead a counterattack against the Decepticons.
It was near the end of a two-week journey when Lexius glanced around the ship's bridge, and reflected that the crew he now commanded was not really his own.
Well, not entirely, he had to admit. Tuner was there, the faithful minibot who had manned Sojourn's primary sensor console for so many years. Lexius had insisted that he come; he was loath to attempt a mission like this without him. Elsewhere, Lash and Sureshot were tagging along as mission security; Lexius had heard Sureshot mutter something about being bored with Cybertron, and these days, where Sureshot went, Lash went.
Treadmark had also insisted on being included. Lexius knew why. It wouldn't be long before he had to explain his recent catatonia, the revelations he'd had. He'd seen the questioning looks from his old friend. He was used to being like that with his crew: old friends. But the faces at the consoles of this vessel were mostly strangers, Autobots recruited from Cybertron.
At the engineering controls sat a sleek, white and grey Autobot with orange and green trim. He was an engineer, in command of the repair crew which was the ship's main cargo. Though Lexius would have preferred Quickmix, he had to admit, he already liked Wheeljack. Prime had assured Lexius that Wheeljack would be more than capable of handling whatever difficulties came up. Lexius wasn't entirely happy about it, but went along. In the short time that he'd known him, Prime had proven to be right about a lot of things.
Lexius turned from Wheeljack, to glance at Nightbeat. This one, he'd hardly gotten to know at all. The shadowy blue Autobot was intent on the console before him, studying astrogation charts of the ship's destination area, seemingly unaware of anything going on around him. Lexius had tried to draw him out, without success; he'd soon decided the detective was best left to his own devices.
Still, strangers or not, at least it's not a combat mission. After his catatonia, Lexius was not at all eager to return to an active role in the war. And here he had a chance to rectify his mistakes, to undo the damage he'd done when he had lost the Slagmaker.
Half an hour later, the transport vessel materialized in a system dominated by a single white star, Shorray. Four planets orbited it, their sensors reported, a small inner one and three gaseous ones further out.
Nightbeat sat up from his astrogation console. "This is it, the best bet for where the ship disappeared," he announced. "Now we just have to figure out for sure if it's here."
"How?" Lexius wondered aloud, looking up from their scans of the system. "Space is a pretty big place when you're looking for something only 20 miles long. There's a lot of asteroids and comets out there, not just in the main belt but in random orbits too. The ship could be on any one of 'em, or even floating in the asteroid belt... assuming it even survived. Assuming it's here at all."
"I have an idea," Nightbeat answered. "Give me a course for the inner planet."
"Why the inner planet?" Lexius asked.
"Simple. Think about what probably happened. If you'd been commanding the ship when it was ambushed, what would you have done?"
"I'd fold right the hell out of there," Lexius said.
"Ah, but this is an ambush. They'll have tractor beams, dimensional gravity snares -- whatever it takes to keep you in realspace."
"Alright, assuming I couldn't get to fold, I'd head for the asteroid belt, if I was far out enough," Lexius answered.
"Exactly. But that's a big if. There's not much here, right? Just a star and four uninhabited planets. We're betting they came here to recharge the ship's power supply."
"...Which means they'd be fairly close to the star," Lexius concluded.
"Right. That puts them in the inner system. Now look." Nightbeat pointed to the scanner displays. "We have a bunch of asteroids and this one planet in the inner system. It could be on one of the asteroids, but look -- that planet is in the star's biosphere; it should have evolved life. This system's old enough for that."
"Yeah, so, what's that got to do with--"
"Look, it's completely barren." Nightbeat pointed to the readings he'd gotten as soon as they'd defolded. "A planet-wide desert."
"We have twenty miles of missing ship, and a dead planet where there should be a live one. You know what happens when something 20 miles long hits a planet full of organic life?"
Lexius stared in wonder for a moment. "Helm," he called. "Steer for the inner planet."
* * *
Punch and Grotusque gazed out the viewports of their vessel, a transport they'd stolen from Pounce and Wingspan. The slow-moving vessel had taken an eternity to get them here, but it had been the only one at the station whose security protocols they could get past . Finally, after almost two weeks, they had arrived at their destination. A long moment of silence passed between the two Autobots.
"Wow," Grotusque said at last.
"Indeed," Punch replied, his brow furrowing. It was, Grotusque realized, one of the first signs of emotion he'd seen from the spy in their time together.
Before them, a vast panorama of stars unfolded, an endless tapestry of light. Closer to them were various bits of debris, tumbling remnants of a battle which had occurred here weeks ago. But most impressive was a titanic wreckage, the burnt-out hulk of a tremendous warship. The charred ruin drifted aimlessly, surrounded by a debris cloud of its own making.
The two Autobots had not come here to find wreckage, however. They had come to find the Sojourn. But Sojourn was gone.
"Ha ha! They got away! This is fantastic!" Grotusque whooped. "The rescue team must've captured another ship or something."
Punch shook his head. "Cybertronian ships tend to work in pairs," he said. "There would have been another one with this one. I see no sign that they destroyed a second ship, which means it survived the battle." He punched up the active scanners, but found nothing around them for two light years.
"They only sent one of these things after us before," Grotusque pointed out.
"And you defeated it. All the more reason to send in more than one now."
"Maybe they trashed this one ship and got away," Grotusque said.
"Or perhaps they were captured."
"Hoo-boy, I've had it if they were captured. Lex'll skin me alive. Howsabout we assume they got away?"
"That is logical," Punch said. "If they are captured, I am the only one who can find and help them. And we must get you back to your fleet or your ship, in any case. If they escaped, where would they go? One of the fleets?"
"Naw. The fleets can barely keep the life support working, let alone fix something like Sojourn. They'll head for Cybertron. It's the only place to get enough alloys to fix all that armor."
"Then that is where we go."
* * *
Even from orbit, it was plain that the world was harsh, nearly lifeless. The bright yellow it shone with was the color of bare sand. Initial scans of the surface confirmed this orbital view, but that didn't concern the Autobots now.
Tuner rapidly scanned the surface, but came up with frustrating results. "There's a lot of ferric and silicious material on the surface; it's interfering with the scans."
"Switch to magnetic scans. Look for a massive surface anomaly," Nightbeat ordered immediately. Tuner made the adjustments.
"Now we wait," Nightbeat concluded, sitting back to do so. The bridge fell quiet.
The ship orbited slowly, as Tuner continued his scans. After half an hour the vessel passed over the terminator on the surface below; shortly thereafter the ship itself passed into the darkness of the planet's shadow. "Still nothing," Tuner reported, briefly breaking the silence on the bridge.
"Patience," Nightbeat answered.
Lexius didn't share his optimism. He was beginning to think about other means of searching, like a systematic scan of the asteroid belt. It would take a couple of days... but Lexius figured it would yield results, one way or another. Well, we should at least finish this, he thought. But once that was done...
The ship plowed on through the darkness of the planet's night side. No-one spoke for a while longer. They were approaching the terminator to daylight, which would mark a complete circle of the planet. "Plot a course to the asteroid belt," Lexius ordered, finally. "I'll want wide-scan magnetic imaging, and reflectivity scans."
"You got it," Tuner acknowledged.
"And prepare to take us out of orbit."
"Belay that order," Nightbeat cried out abruptly, sitting upright in his chair.
Lexius looked over to him in annoyance, but Nightbeat's expression was one of excitement, not anger or challenge.
"Look," he said, leaning forward, pointing to Tuner's console. Lexius followed his gesture. Scrolling onto the screen was a magnetic anomaly, a mass of metal on the surface below. As they watched, it grew longer, a linear form.
"How big's that anomoly?" Lexius demanded.
Tuner made adjustments, studied the panel for a moment. The bridge was tensely silent. "Hard to get an exact width, but the length looks like... seventeen, eighteen... twenty miles," Tuner announced.
Lexius met Nightbeat's gaze, and gave him a slow nod and a smile.
Ahead, the system's white star broke the horizon, bathing their vessel in soft light. For the Autobots, night became day.
On to the next part