32. Field-testing new equipment

(A/N: There's really no point to this. It was something that occurred to me while I was running around outside, and I wrote it all down inside of half an hour. It's sloppy and not very well written, but I don't think anybody cares. Posted for my Aerialbot fans to assure them that I'm not dead, and neither are the jets.)

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"You know they're just kids, Prime. Right?"

"Yes, Jazz. We've been over this."

"Just checkin'. I mean, they're barely outta flight school, an' Silverbolt flat-out told us they haven't seen real combat before."

Optimus just nodded. They'd all been over this, many times before. Jazz knew that as well as he; what he was voicing weren't so much real objections as reminders. Command staff had been debating this since the Aerialbots arrived in the latest detachment from Cybertron. The Autobots were badly in need of flight-capable mechs, and Optimus had sent out a call for any who might be willing to join the fight on Earth, where Megatron had been enjoying a huge advantage with just six Seekers.

Sadly, most of the Seekers were on the Decepticon side, and few other flight-capable classes had the stats needed for combat. Optimus knew there was a chance that he wouldn't be able to find jets at all. It came as quite a surprise to hear that a team of five -- a gestalt at that -- had recently finished training and were volunteering to take a combat role on Earth.

Far from solving his problems, this news had created some grave new misgivings, both because of the youth and inexperience of the mechs concerned and because of their motley composition. Their technical stats were so diverse that they'd all been reformatted into different Earth aircraft. The largest was almost as big as Skyfire, and the smallest hadn't even originally been a jet. Then there were their records, which contained everything from various juvenile offenses to phobias and psychological concerns, including some very disturbing observations on the group's recon specialist (who had apparently flown into more than a few buildings and was politely labeled as "severely attention-deficit"). As Ironhide had been quick to point out, under ordinary conventions of war, these mechs wouldn't even have been considered for a role as important as the one they would have to fulfill here.

But then of course, this was not an ordinary war. And Optimus was faced with very slim choices.

"Are you sure your team is ready for this?" he'd asked Silverbolt, the leader of the squad, who was the oldest of the five by perhaps a decade. The jet had looked down from nearly twice Optimus's height, his expression clearly apprehensive -- a reassuring sign of some sanity, at least -- but when he nodded, there was confidence in the motion.

"We won't let you down, Prime -- sir. We've weathered a lot together. We know what we're doing, and three-fifths of us are immune to fear."

Optimus's mouth components actually twitched at the factually stated fraction. "And the other two?"

"Quite terrified, to be honest." Silverbolt's tone made it clear that he was one of these. Cheerfully he added, "But then, I'm used to terror. They're a nerve-wracking bunch. Keep me on my toes. I won't crack when the situation falls apart... Sir."

And Optimus had known, right from that beginning, that the two of them would understand each other.

Sadly that confidence seemed to have deserted him two weeks later, when faced with the decision to actually send the Aerialbots into battle for the first time. Not just the first time on Earth, or against Megatron's lot, but the first time ever. He knew they had run countless battle simulations, that the last few years of their training had consisted of almost nothing but drills and strategies and maneuvers, but... well, in some ways Ironhide was right. None of those things added up exactly to real combat. You could excel in thousands of simulations and be shot to pieces in your first live battle. It was the way the universe worked.

And it wasn't just about losing their only current hope for strategic air support, either. Prime liked these kids. He'd liked them from the moment he first met them. Silverbolt, brave and inspiring despite his inexperience, leading his team while still being very much a part of it. Slingshot, rude and distrusting of friendship, but fiercer than any other in defense of his friends. Skydive, quietly backing up his leader, playing the beta-wolf role while playfully making the best of his unmatched skill in the air. Air Raid, fearless and indomitable, as if Sideswipe and Grimlock had been blended and miniaturized and then infected with Jazz's zest for life. And Fireflight, innocent as any mech Prime had ever encountered, finding something beautiful wherever he went and taking the most serious of his mishaps with a shrug and a smile. They were good kids, and they were perfect for this army. The last thing Optimus wanted was to send them into harm.

Still, the decision came, and he made the call, crouching behind a rock that smoked with holes made by laser fire as the Seekers wheeled overhead like vast predatory birds, picking off Autobots wherever they could catch them in the open. Prime looked to Prowl, the only one of his command staff within eyeshot, and Prowl simply nodded. Yes, now would be a good time.

"Silverbolt, this is it. Bring them in!"

He heard a whoop from the jets, who had been on standby eagerly awaiting the call to action, and then an acknowledgment from Silverbolt. Even their easygoing and gentle leader sounded hungry for a fight.

It was only moments later that he heard the roaring of their engines, and saw the Seekers change pattern to intercept. He'd managed to keep the arrival of the Aerialbots secret from Megatron's side until now, and it had paid off. The hasty, disorganized response of the Seekers gave away their surprise. Unfortunately, Starscream was a sharp-thinking bastard, and he dodged the first wave of shots fired as he flew in to take out the leader of the group.

Two of his companions weren't so lucky. There were good marksmen among the Aerialbots, and both Dirge and Skywarp took some nasty hits. Dirge was out of the fight in the first few seconds. Thundercracker and Ramjet followed close on Starscream's thrusters, ready to knock the new threat out of the sky.

The next few minutes were a blur for those on the ground. Optimus could only see random flashes of sunlight on metal as the jets tore into each other. He half-dreaded he would see the Aerialbots cut to pieces, shards of glittering red and white metal raining down on the sand, the battle over before it could begin. After watching for perhaps ten seconds, however, the image vanished and a smile spread beneath the Autobot leader's mask.

The little devils could fly. He had only fleeting glimpses -- Silverbolt rolling so that Skydive could intercept Starscream; Air Raid and Slingshot playing tag with a seemingly furious Ramjet; Thundercracker futilely dogging Fireflight, who was weaving so erratically that it defied sanity, let alone a firing solution. The kids didn't have the brutality of the Seekers, but they were fast, they were unpredictable, and they were fearless. They ambushed and tag-teamed and ganged up, breaking and remerging like a flock of birds, bedeviling the hell out of Megatron's jets, who until now had been unmatched by anything in Earth's skies. One Decepticon missile actually managed to hit Thundercracker as the two Aerialbots who had been hounding him scattered. Starscream swore vengeance over an open channel... and in response, there was laughter.

The little jets were making fools out of Megatron's elite as the Seekers tried frantically to compensate for this unexpected development. And the whole time, they were laughing. Laughing. Like... well, like children.

They were treating it like a game.

Children of war, Prime thought in a random moment. Innocence on the battlefield with missiles for toys. And he didn't know whether to laugh with joy, or weep.

But the plan had worked, and the Autobots on the ground were free of the hail of death from above. Prime stood up and rallied those who could still fight (most of them could) for a frontal charge. Megatron's ground forces no longer had the protection of air cover, and were still reeling when the Autobots hit them.

It was a short battle. Megatron was no fool, and when the odds turned against him so suddenly, he was inclined to call off an attack and wait for a better time. Nor was the battle entirely without casualties on their side. Optimus would later discover that two Aerialbots had been shot, and Skydive, thanks to a risky midair dance with Starscream, wound up in the repair bay for two days following his first battle. But it was a definitive victory, and marked a turning point in the Cybertronian struggles on Earth.

On subsequent days, the battle would be much harder, for they would no longer have the element of surprise. The Seekers would learn fast, and soon they would be more than a match for their new adversaries, unless the Aerialbots were equally quick studies. Even as Autobots cheered, Optimus wondered how lucky they had been in this first encounter, and how long that luck would hold.

But he knew that he had made a good choice.

- - - - - -

A/N: Yep, there's a SimFur reference in there. Couldn't resist. Probably the only one I'll ever make.

In case you haven't realized, this story is not dead. I doubt it will ever die. I've been giving the Aerialbots a rest in favor of working on a monster Beast Wars fic (and possibly finishing Forged In Hell somewhere in this lifetime), but once in a while something comes up, and wants to be written. This is me not complaining.

Anhai: My stories make you passionate! That's good. Even if you are wanting to kill a lot of my horrible evil characters. (Fireflight is just a magnet for these. I don't know how much of it is my writer bias and how much is true to character, but eh. Everyone likes to see him get snuggled anyway.)

Ookami Aya: I'm glad you're so entertained! "Mining for gold" pretty much describes sifting through this site, and I'm pleased to be considered part of the shiny stuff you don't throw away. I'll update more when I get a chance, since I haven't lost any love for the Aerialbots, even with Dinobot and Rattrap eating up so much of my attention.

GreyGranian: Sunstreaker and Fireflight are like a big grouchy bear and a clueless little kitten. Somehow the bear chooses to ignore the kitten, even tolerate it playing with his toes, because it's not a threat... and maybe because bears need love too. I'll get them interacting when I can.

redfox12: Sorry, but there's very little chance I'll write Wreckers myself. I kind of dropped the Fireflight/Sandstorm ship when it got out of control (yes, I realize I've probably lost about half my fandom doing that). Besides, I'll never be able to depict them as well as ajremix does. She's the Wrecker queen; I stick to the jets.

ThreeBlackRoses: I might have another chapter or two dealing with the Whisper thing if people keep asking me. It'll probably be a while, though.