This fic is a birthday dedication to taralynden. Happy birthday, TL!

If you haven't read "Story of a Lifetime," which is Prowl's biography, you're missing out on quite the treat. Don't skip her other work, either; she's a very good writer.

This is the third in my "J& P meet cute" series, following "Dancer from the Dance" and "Rock and a Hard Place."

Tara lives in New Zealand, which is twenty hours ahead of where I live, the Pacific coast of the US. So I am publishing Chapter One on her birthday where she lives, and Chapter Two on her birthday where I live. Happy birthday twice, Tara! May you have many more.

Prowl was reading through his initial five-paragraph proposal of Campaign Pelliquum when he realized that a quiet, boring evening in camp was one of the things he liked best. Even on an evening like this one, when he was camped while traveling between cities, in this case Iacon and Pelliquum, stamping out the fires of Decepticon infiltration as he went.

An Autobot camp was not much like a human camp. Humans need many more supplies than Cybertronians, and while they have pockets, they are not subspace pockets. So humans troops must carry their food, their shelter, their arms, their ammunition.

For these Cybertronians under Prowl's command, there were two orns' worth of energon in every mech 's subspace (at least since Trailbreaker returned from a mission earlier today; before that, they'd been going quite short on rations), and most of them also subspaced personal medical supplies. They didn't need a fire for light, heat, cooking, or comfort. They didn‛t need privacy, or the tent that provides it; they had rainsheets in subspace, so shelter was also taken care of. When Autobot forces were on the march, what the observer saw was Autobots.

In Prowl's experience so far, warfare was mostly boring, with, between the lengthy stretches of boredom, episodes which were always exciting, often terrifying, and sometimes resulted in the deaths of those he knew and liked. Thereby he had come to strongly prefer boring, please: may I have some more, sir? A double serving, perhaps, with extra tedium on the side?

Prowl was surrounded by his forces, numbering a little fewer than one hundred; but then, few would be needed to re-take the small city of Pelliquum. Unimportant by itself, it was a gateway to Iacon, and might be an alternate route to Polyhex, once the mountain passes were free of methane snow.

The area was reported to have deposits of radiastone and energon wells. Prowl had been sent to check that out, too, and take those assets from the Decepticons if they had managed to secure them, or secure them for the Autobots if they had not.

For Campaign Pelliquum, Prowl had written his rough plan, a five-paragraph summary of what to do and how to do it. In a few million years, humans would develop a similar system, which would go by the mnemonic "Sergeant Major Eats Sugar Cookies" - Situation, Mission, Execution, Support, Command.

Preliminary Mission Report: Campaign Pelliquum

Situation: What's the problem? The Decepticons are in Pelliquum, possibly to secure the town itself and the transport routes it is located on, possibly to secure the natural resources around it, possibly both.

Mission: What's our strategy for resolving this problem? We will re-take Pelliquum, re-establish control over the transport routes, and secure the resources for ourselves.

Execution: What tactics are we going to use? We will surround and isolate Pelliquum, both physically and in terms of data transfer, cutting off supply routes to the Decepticon troops inside. Once they are isolated and cannot be resupplied, we will carry the fight to them inside Pelliquum itself. Note to self: Minimize damage to civilian holdings, optimally minimize to zero civilian casualties.

Support: What are the logistics? We will need fewer than 100 troops to take Pelliquum by siege. We may have need of explosives and a small space bridge. If we locate an energon well nearby, we will not need to be supplied at a distance (exception: medical items).

Command: What resources will we need for Execution? Wheeljack and Perceptor, as they are our best siege warriors; the scouts and Mirage; Grapple and Hoist, because sieges always mean engineering; a minimum of 50 frontliner troops. - Prowl, his chop; Date stamp 921.837

Prowl always felt calmer when he could see it laid out in five neat paragraphs. He knew that the Battle of Pelliquum would be, any battle was always, messier in real life. The planning was not airtight, could not be, for the vagaries and surprises of war would have to be accommodated.

Prowl's forces (Command) encircled the space in which he sat, not quite a hundred mecha five-deep, ten in the innermost circle. To his left, Ratchet. The gladiator twins, fairly new to his ranks but already skilled frontliners, sat across the circle from him, as always seeming more to relate to one another than to the mecha around them.

Still, he couldn't question their bravery, nor their loyalty. If Sunstreaker's or Sideswipe's tempers occasionally got the better of them in camp, it worked in the Autobots' favor on the battlefield.

And the problem of temper mostly followed the yellow one. The red one, Sideswipe - their mismatch of color was odd, Prowl realized, in spark-split twins - had a sense of humor which even the rings of Kaon had not managed to beat out of him. And Sunstreaker could draw the best maps of terrain Prowl had ever had the pleasure of working from.

All this and kicking Starscream's aft as well. The Decepticon 2IC's screech of outrage alone would have been worth the price of admission to that last battle. Seeing one twin, and then the other, leap from the ground to ride the Decepticon shrieking through the skies, that was a rust dusting on the energon, all right. Better yet, the 'cons' 2IC hadn't been seen since.

Wheeljack and Perceptor sat next-but-two to the twins, Hoist and Grapple beyond them. Good mecha, all; Prowl knew himself for a fortunate commander.

Prowl said, "Excuse me," generally, and rose to his feet, and went to meet Trailbreaker, just returning with Mirage and Bumblebee.

Trailbreaker nodded to him, and they moved off together.

Trailbreaker said, "You know that saboteur of theirs, designation 'Jazz'? He commands the base inside Pelliquum."

"The one who cross-connected the washrack solvent supply to a tank of paint stripper?"

"That's the one."

Optimus had used that to his own advantage, though. He'd ordered everybot whose paint was stripped to get a new paint job in the least-popular colors, a range of pinks, effectively disguising every member of his forces, and using up a resource that would otherwise be wasted.

He himself chose a lovely shade of tulip, with flames in magenta.

The ones who hadn't hit the washrack? Turned over to Ratchet for maintenance, because clearly they didn't keep themselves clean enough, and painted a uniform candy-floss pink.

Two decaorn later, Optimus repainted his entire crew in their usual colors. But for those two decaorn, pink chaos reigned on the battlefield, as the 'cons couldn't tell Ironhide (newly solid magenta) from Bumblebee (newly coral, trimmed in rose).

If all the vehicle modes had transformed into alt-mode at the same time, the Autobots could have become their own country, with a built-in national flower: the pink car-nation.

Outside of Sunstreaker's temper tantrums, it had been, Prowl remembered, blissfully boring. If pink.

Back in his own colors, Trailbreaker said, "The city's in a valley, steep hills on either side, sixteen sentry boxes about a joor's march out from the city walls. Single sentry in each one."

And as always, there were personnel issues to keep up with. "Is Bumblebee all right?"

Trailbreaker gave him a benevolent glance. "Unhurt, un-traumatized. Hound said that they often don't bother to stop him doing whatever it is he's doing, because he's so young. If he's questioned, he says he's looking for turbofoxes. He always carries a slingshot and a fox frame."

Prowl smiled in spite of himself. "That's brilliant, actually. There's always ammunition around for a slingshot."

"Little mech's a dead aim with it too," Trailbreaker said. "Now, the city's here, the well's there. The Notch, where we'll come through? It's only four mecha wide."

"I was worried we might be ambushed on our way through it, to tell you the truth."

"No," Trailbreaker said, and grinned at his chief. "I'll go on ahead with the scouts, and we'll cause a disturbance on the other side of the city. By the time you and the main force are approaching the bottleneck, one of the wellhead's rivets will come loose, and there will be a spill of energon. And, uh, we'll have another two days' worth of energon for everyone."

Prowl wasn't entirely pleased, however. "You're all going?"

Trailbreaker shrugged. "It requires four of us to subspace sufficient energon. Hound is only other one among us who speaks the dialect. He's agreed to be the clumsy servant who broke the rivet, should the need arise."

Prowl bent his helm. "I don't like having you risk yourselves, but there are so few of us, and none of us are trained spies ..."

"I know. I take every possible precaution, Prowl. I'm not eager to end up in the hands of the Decepticons."

"Yes. Well, thank you for the energon you found yesterday; I don't think any of us had refueled properly in days."

"My pleasure. Okay," Trailbreaker said, getting back to business, "the city is here, the walls like so. Well's outside, there. The valley around the city is regularly patrolled between the walls and the sentry boxes, but not beyond them except by what appear to be scouting science teams ..."

Sending the scouting party on its way before the balance of his troops broke camp, Prowl found the Notch of Pelliquum undefended. The Decepticons were posting no sentries, the scouts found, further than a joor's march from the city, where the sentry boxes stood.

They thought themselves undetected, most likely, and not needing more than that single ring of guards.

Though that raised the question of why they were there in the first place.

Once through the Notch, Prowl located a campsite in the corrugated, erose landscape around the Vale of Pelliquum. A cave, with an energon well in its depths: sweet, artesian energon. For soldiers on the march, this was a pre-need visit to the Well of All Sparks, which was not called a "well" without reason. Such wells were the rarest of features in Cybertron's landscape.

The cave had a short drop down into a flat area more than spacious enough to contain them for the night. It was well-ventilated, having an exit at the far end, and the entrance was concealed by brush and had a natural outcropping of radiastone in front of it on the city side.

The radiastone was a blessing. It would scramble their energy signatures, should Jazz think to order a sweep, giving false readings. That meant their occupation of the cave was likely to be boring. Lovely, Prowl thought.

He ordered that the steeper and more difficult western exit, the opening out of sight of the city, was to be used as their everyday entrance and exit. Only the wounded, or someone carrying the wounded, would be permitted the eastern access whose approach was in view of Pelliquum.

Refueling was over, and recharge approaching, when Prowl pinged the twin frontliners to initiate the next part of Campaign Pelliquum.

"Sir?" they said, arriving in front of him.

"Come on. We're going up to the peak of the mountain."

The landscape was too rough to make the speed available in alt-mode possible. They climbed for a full joor.

Just below the top, where he would not be outlined against the sky, Prowl stopped, and said, "Your jobs are to do constant sweeps around us."

The two frontliners exchanged glances, then took position, one facing north, one south, where Prowl faced the city toward the east, the mountain at his back. The twins were well within his EM field, and he theirs; if anything untoward was perceived by one of them, all three would know it immediately.

Prowl began his survey.

Pelliquum was a small city, located in a narrow, steep valley. Prowl spent almost a joor inspecting the terrain, the city, the Notch, calculating trajectories and effective ranges. At one point he switched to his ultra-long-range vision, which left him blind to nearby threats and was the reason the twins were with him, to scan the city itself.

He started in the physical center, but most of the markets and stalls were shut now, which he had expected. It was late enough in the orn that most of the dwellings in the city were also dark; only the places of officialdom, the police stations and the military base, were lit.

Prowl watched as sixteen troops marched out of the base, divided up into four squads, and separated. He followed one squad until it relieved, one by one, the four sentries whose boxes were nearest his camp. The relieved squad retraced the relief squad's steps, joined up with the other squads, and returned to base.

So, only sixteen at one time? He could take them down quite easily, but it would require a little more scouting - probably Bumblebee would be asked to do it.

And some more thinking. Prowl disliked taking down more sentries than necessary; the silence that resulted could be a very loud warning indeed to commanders who were themselves alert.

He saw a black-and-white mech, small and graceful, walk out of the military base and receive salutes from his sentries, a high-ranking adjutant, the grizzled sergeant who had commanded the relieving sentries. This mech listened intently to the sentries' reports.

Then, clearly beseeched to do so by his troops, he performed ten consecutive backflips from a standing start.

Prowl was impressed in spite of himself, and only partly because of the backflips. This must be Jazz ... for all the mech's grace and lack of size, he projected an air of virility, and was well-liked by his troops. That was a difficult accomplishment among the Decepticons.

Might be a case for Mirage, or for Bluestreak, the troop's sharpshooters, Prowl thought. Take out the leader, take out the seconds and thirds in command. Down through the sergeants, if needful. Cut off the head, and the Decepticon worm dies.

He removed his attention from the city when Jazz, if that was he, returned to the base's buildings. Last, he did a 360 survey of the horizon.

His observations and notes complete, he snapped off his distance vision, and said, "Let's go," to the twins.

He wasn't ... quite ... bored.

"Have Mirage report to me," Prowl told Sunstreaker.

"I will if I can find the guy," Sunstreaker said.

Prowl sighed at Sunstreaker's retreating backplates. That one was a servoful and a half.

"Sir?" Mirage said, forty breem later.

"Where were you?"

"Loading shells, sir."

Well, that made sense. To handle the loads, a Cybertronian had to be grounded and insulated, a process which took around a half-joor, and half that time to undo. Loading also took place well outside of camp.

"Thank you for coming so quickly. I have a sharpshooting assignment for you, and one which will make use of your other talents, as well."

The thing about Mirage, Prowl realized later, was that he listened intently, and then repeated his orders accurately. Unlike some yellow 'bots Prowl could mention.

Mirage began his duties before sunrise the following morning, trekking across the valley and up the mountain dressed as a shepherd, with Bumblebee's slingshot hung from his belt, and the carcase of one of Bumblebee's late quarry in his subspace.

In his other subspace, he had a long-range, extremely accurate rifle.

Most Cybertronians had only one subspace. But Mirage had realized quickly, at the beginning of the war, that two would be useful in many ways. If he were unlucky enough to be apprehended and interrogated, all but the most thorough investigators would stop when they'd emptied the contents of the first subspace. And since the second subspace opened from the first, there was no way for them to access it directly.

He moved quietly, without haste or stealth, among the rock outcroppings, approaching the farthest western sentry-box.

That sentry probably never knew what hit him as Mirage's bullet went straight through his spark casing. One moment alive, wishing and hoping and planning and dreaming and thinking, and the next moment gone from the now-cooling frame.

Mirage subspaced the rifle and the turbofox again, completed this task three more times, and walked through Pelliquum, turning in the turbofox carcase for reward at the military station.

He watched, without seeming to do so, the comings and goings of the guards and other personnel. Pelliquum, as an outpost, was minimally staffed: there were no non-combat personnel. Some few 'cons walked purposefully between rooms with datapads in their hands, but Mirage saw no mech with a medical insignia anywhere.

There was a gallows erected outside the base. Two civilian frames hung from it; there was room for a third.

Hanging was a very cruel death sentence. A human would die with the drop, usually from a traumatized spinal cord. A Cybertronian would take several days to die of suffocation; the drop itself disrupted neural communication, but didn't sever it immediately. It took the continued weight of the body to do that.

Mirage wondered what crime those two had committed, to suffer such a death.

He went to the café nearest the base, sat at the bar facing the military outpost, and ordered an energon with rust dusting.

"Sorry, mech," the bartender, who had a bad limp, said. "Out of it right now."

"What else ya got, then?" Mirage said.

Even though his customer had disguised his upper-class accent, the mech shifted uncomfortably. "Right now, mech, not much. Pelliquum ain't on anybody's delivery route any more, you see? When I can, I go two towns over and lay in supplies. But the money ain't been good lately, an' right now, I can't afford to do that."

Mirage considered. "A plain," he said. He jerked a thumb toward the laden gallows. "What'd those two do?"

"Stole from the Decepticons," the bartender told him, sliding his energon across to him. From both his tone and his expression, he wanted no further discussion of the subject. Since it wasn't news to Mirage that that was indeed a death sentence, he saw no need to prolong the other's distress.

The bar's proximity to the gallows also explained the falloff in business. Just like a human body, a Cybertronian frame does not stop some of its processes on death. Filters need to be changed every day. The odor of two sets of them, left unchanged for far too long, was still a faint taint in the air. It must have made the place exceedingly unpleasant, Mirage thought, for a few decaorn.

Mirage's lingua told him immediately that his energon had been in storage for a very long time. It hadn't aged well, not being of good quality to begin with, and the overtones it had picked up were of kineticon, an element not usually employed for food storage, because it transferred its own flavor, an unpleasant metallic zing, to its contents.

Pelliquum, once its cachet as a stop on the trade routes was lost, wasn't much of a prize. Why were the 'cons here? Why was so high-ranking a mech as Jazz stationed in this - wayside? It might be the artesian energon his group was camped quite literally on top of. But radiastone was a superb shield whose only disadvantage was that one had to shield from it, as well.

While he was contemplating finishing the last of that dreadful energon, a squad of Decepticons formed up inside the base. A shackled Decepticon was escorted by guards from an outbuilding into the middle of the group, and Jazz himself came out to - to do what? Supervise?

His mouth set in a grim line, Jazz read out the charges. Rape of a civilian, deserting a sentry post. They marched to the gallows.

Both, in the Autobots, were hanging offenses. As these were 'cons, Mirage was a little surprised that the rape was so much as mentioned. The 'cons had a habit of treating the civilian population more or less as fair game.

Mirage paid the bartender, included a liberal tip, and left for the southern sentry-box. He didn't want to see any more of the execution, and he didn't miss that the locals had called in all their children.

Mirage squatted in the shadow of a rock outcropping, about fifty yards from the fourth southern sentry box.

Around him, the sun of Cybertron beat mercilessly down on the valley which held Pelliquum in its center. Heat mirages reflected off the bare stone, and Mirage had time enough to wonder at his namesakes. There was one that did not appear to be too far from him which had the doppler patterns of energon on its surface; his sensors, though, told him there was nothing there. Had sentries newly posted here gone to investigate those mirages at some point?

Well, the present one wasn't. Drat the luck.

It was much hotter than optimal operating temperature for Mirage. He had fans, and was in the shade; he could feel soft currents of air moving slowly by him. But the sentry in the box had no such luck: the sun was beginning to shine into his box, which also blocked any air flow.

Mirage waited until the sentry began to nod, then jerked awake, and half-turned to reset his own fans. It was an easy single shot, again straight through the spark casing, the kind he liked best.

Mirage skirted Pelliquum the second time his route took him through the valley, and took out the sentries in the first two eastern boxes. He also got a turbofox with the slingshot; he'd have to remember to tell 'Bee, who could get them first shot, every time, that it took him three.

He had an unpleasant near-surprise at the third sentry box. A group of five Decepticons, three of them loaded down with samples of something in padded bags (likely to be rocks, from the angular shapes) came up out of a draw he was in the act of climbing ahead of them.

"Hi! You!" one of the non-laden pair said, and there was the sound of a rifle charging.

Mirage arranged his features in a look of general idiocy, and turned.

This was unfair of him. Farmers aren't idiots. They have to gather and act on information no Towers mech would suspect existed.

"Sor?" he said.

"What are you doing - oh." This as the slingshot strapped to his belt appeared.

"Empty your subspace," the other said.

Mirage pulled it inside-out, revealing the turbofox frame he'd acquired, the entrance into the sub-subspace looking for all the world like a patch.

"All right. Put yourself together, and you can go." The rifle charged down, with a descending whine.

Mirage let them get out of sight, then tailed them. When it was possible, he took out all five in quick succession, dragged them under the undercut of a dry stream bed, and used almost all the stone samples they had gathered to cover their frames. That complete, he toppled the undercut edge over the whole thing.

It would take a long time for the 'cons to find those bodies, even with intensive scanning. The radiastone would override any trace for quite a while. Probably, the five would be marked down as deserters.

And the leftover rocks, one from each bag, he subspaced himself, into his personal portable basement, and went in search of that last sentry-box once more.

It was nearly sunset when he took out the last of the northern sentries. As agreed upon, he pinged Prowl with no message, and came back to camp.

Prowl's reaction to the judicial proceedings was much the same as Mirage's. "Odd that the rape should have been mentioned," he said.

"I thought so too. By the way, the civilians are finding it difficult to get supplies into the city."

Prowl's browplate creased. "I'd get them out of there, if I could."

"Let me think about it," Mirage said. "There's a way, where there's a will to find it."

Prowl said, "Thank you, Mirage. Thanks also for bringing back the samples; Groove said they made it clear that the 'cons are here for radiastone."

"I'd hate to give up this cave," Mirage said, glancing around at home sweet rockbound home.

"Unlikely we'll need to," Prowl said. "Things are about to get complicated for the 'cons."

The sixteen replacement sentries queued up and jogged off, and dispersed in their general directions. Prowl, again on the heights with the frontliner twins, once more watched the easternmost sentries.

On the first discovery, not much happened. The first new sentry was left there with his predeceased predecessor, while the supervisor and three more went on to the second, third, and fourth boxes. Prowl felt vaguely sorry for the squad leader, who would now have to carry the frames the entire way back in his subspace.

He nodded to Hoist, who activated five overlapping communications blackout fields into a dome over Peliquum.

The city's commander once again exited the base to receive the sentries' reports. This time, though, it stirred the beehive. Jazz, instead of pulling in his sentries, doubled them.

Prowl snapped off his distance vision, and smiled. That was easily dealt with.

At the next nightly change of sentry, thirty-two 'cons went out, then came back, burdened with their fellows' bodies.

Jazz had pulled his troops into the city, and Campaign Pelliquum could now shift into siege.

Prowl sent small bands, four to six mecha, out to sortie against the walls of the city. "Your jobs," he told them, "are to get shot at, but not hit. Just harry them a little. Put smoke bombs into the city, into the guardhouses on the walls. If you can take down a 'con without getting injured or captured, do that. Bring me back all the information you can about the city walls."

But the information thus gathered was not encouraging. The walls had been well-designed to provide no blind spots into which attacking troops could huddle, no overhangs in whose shelter attackers would be difficult to assail.

While all this was going on, in plain sight of the walls but behind radar and infrared camouflage, Prowl had his troops erect circumvallation: a solid wall not of the city's making now surrounded Pelliquum. He pulled back his troops, patrolled the wall quite heavily, sent the occasional sortie party to keep the rank and file from getting bored, and sat down to wait (which was just about as boring as he liked) for the Decepticons to run out of supplies.

Two decaorn after Prowl's wall went up around the city of Pelliquum, Mirage reported that the Decepticons were still surprisingly well-supplied. The poorer members of the general populace, however, were reduced to begging for food from the Decepticons.

The 'cons still had a way in and out.

Bumblebee, Hound, Trailbreaker, and Mirage saw a lot of duty in the orn that followed. They patiently scouted the entire valley in which Pelliquum lay, both inside and outside the circumvallation, peering into every hole turbofox-sized or larger, behaving just as would any local farmers on the hunt for that which had lately reduced the level of a home energon well.

A wordless ping on the fifth orn from Hound, followed by a set of coordinates on a heavily-encrypted comm, told Prowl all he needed to know: entrance located, north side of the city.

Prowl sent a large force against the eastern walls, with instructions to make themselves a nuisance. Meanwhile, Hoist and Wheeljack, with a smaller force, were sent to the western side of the city with instructions to bring down a section of wall, and Trailbreaker, with Mirage and Hound, returned to the newly-found entrance.

This part, waiting for his troops to return, was the worst period for Prowl. Compounded of equal parts hope and dread, it was not boring. Not at all.

"It won't be hard to stop up the secret entrance," Trailbreaker told Prowl on that party's safe return. "The tunnel actually leads away from the city, then back toward it. The loop passes under a nice big thick shelf of rock."

"Kind of rock?" Grapple said laconically.

Prowl was beginning to learn that of his two engineers, it would be Grapple who asked the pertinent questions, and Hoist who expressed enthusiasm, or its opposite, at the answers.

"Brought you a sample," Trailbreaker said.

To Prowl's amusement, Grapple's surface-samplers were located in his lingua. He licked the rock, savored the flavor, extruded a hammer from one finger, and thwacked it precisely.

It split into two thinner layers.

Hoist raised his optic ridges. "That ain't helpful."

Grapple shrugged, and passed him the sample, which Hoist also licked. Grapple said, "It means we have to create a thousand little needles of rock, instead of one big slab."

Wheeljack said, "Why, I think you've said the magic words."

Grapple smiled at him, and said, "Ka-boom?"

"That's one of them. But only one."

Grins ran around the council. Grapple continued, "It'll still take time to clear out, maybe even more time than a slab. Particularly if we manage to free the big chunk of radiastone in the middle, because that'll make it too hot to work with for about six decaorn."

Hoist said, "There ain't any radiastone in that ... oh."

Prowl grinned, smothered it swiftly, and said, "Don't take all of our cover away."

"No, won't need to, sir. We found more radiastone around the other side of the city." He paused. "It's a very, very rich deposit, quite close to the surface. Might be the reason the 'cons are here. As you know, they got satellite surveillance going recently."

Prowl nodded. It would be much simpler if that, rather than their own radiastone, or worse yet the artesian well, had brought the 'cons to Pelliquum. "Be sure to let me know what you need in the way of mecha and supplies. I've need of Mirage, Hound, Trailbreaker, and Bumblebee, but otherwise, they'll all report to you. Send them back my way if you don't need them."


"Yes sir!"

"Count heads!" Grapple's voice, disembodied, floated up out of the Decepticons' hidey-hole.

A pause. "Sixteen, sir! Includes myself!"

"Good! Fire in the hole!"

The hole responded with a mighty "Whooooomph!," followed by Wheeljack, Grapple, and Hoist all scrambling aboveground ahead of an expanding cloud of dust. A large shelf of rock shattered, falling in tiny needles into the Decepticons' supply tunnel. Once out of the tunnel, Wheeljack detonated a second set of explosives, and a large chunk of radiastone splintered, making a radioactive wasteland of the tunnel, which collapsed into itself for a good sixty yards of its length.

Prowl began the Siege of Pelliquum in earnest. The Decepticons couldn't get supplies in and couldn't get word of their predicament out: the last being a way of asking 'con HQ just how important the city was to their plans.

Depending on the frequency of Jazz' reports in, the 'cons would soon realize that Pelliquum was being contested. Prowl now had very little time to conquer the city.

Every day, first thing upon rising and last before recharge, Prowl took the twins with him, and scanned the city from the heights around it, then the horizon. It wasn't so dangerous now that the Autobots owned the heights, but he was still the SIC of all their forces, and Prowl found it unsound strategy to do far-distance scanning without having some protection: particularly when the 'cons might send a relieving force at any moment.

It was doubly dangerous because Optimus would have his spark if Prowl got himself taken prisoner. Probably, if he were so unlucky or so careless as to fall into their hands, the Decepticons would do that job for the Prime.

So the frontliners stood back-to-back, more or less. The "more or less" was Prowl himself, the meat in a 2IC sandwich.

Prowl wasn't happy with what he was seeing within Pelliquum. Cybertronians without means (whose numbers were swelling as the besieged city's economy collapsed) were now actively begging their Decepticon captors for sustenance, adults and children alike. A few of the adults were obviously carrying.

With the stalls of the marketplace empty, there was no energon not under Decepticon lock and key within Pelliquum. And that was running out; Mirage had brought back information that the soldiers were complaining of short rations.

"It's too risky," Prowl said (by which he meant, "Not boring enough"). "And we've no way to open a valve, so to speak, get the energon in and distributed only to civilians, and then shut the valve again."

He was not the only member of his senior staff unhappy with the situation in Pelliquum. None of them, Prowl included, felt they should wage war against the civilian population.

The rank and file, those not on guard duty or patrol, were two valleys away, because they were playing a game called Xinca which, having an irregularly-shaped pursuit object that bounced in unpredictable directions, required a lot of running and shouting.

"But," said Mirage, with an air of musing aloud, "we might."

"Tell us what you're thinking," Prowl said.

"Well," said Mirage, with a rare smile, "who's going to notice one more local so far down on his luck that his self-healing routines have shut down?"

Ratchet groaned.

Using a punch was delicate work. Ratchet didn't actually want to punch through the armor, just ... dent it. He sighed, set the punch yet again, and hit it delicately.

"Nice," said Mirage, admiring his newly-dented self in the med bay's reflective cupboard doors.

"So you'll think until I beat your plating out for you," the medic said, and added a long, lovely crease down one of Mirage's ulnar plates, before he replaced it and removed a shin guard, to give it similar treatment.

The tiny bag of lubricant Ratchet had rigged to leak inside his armor made it seem as if Mirage were spilling joint lubricant from one knee at the rate of three or four drops a breem, which caused him to carry an oil can wherever he went. He - or rather the character he was currently playing - was unashamed of publicly using it, which was the same grade of impoliteness to a Cybertronian as farting loudly in public was to a human: so egregious that it was never mentioned, and the perpetrator shunned.

Or at least it would be viewed as such in a couple of million years, once the upright featherless biological bipeds got around to developing the concept of cities.

"Polite" behavior is called that because it's what's done in the polis, the city, where humans are too close together to fart unnoticed: stink travels. On Cybertron, in a city, the residents were too close together to oil themselves in public. Droplets of oil travel as well.

Mirage also had the down-on-his-luck appearance of pockmarks, dents, and creases everywhere, unhealed, which meant he was not getting sufficient fuel to power his self-repair subroutines.

He looked as if he had contracted quite the bad case of mechanical smallpox. The damage included a large dent just below his shoulder struts, which had an irregular outline. Ratchet had accessed his subspace, removed the spare Xinca object, and used one of its facets to create that one, the deepest on Mirage's back.

Prowl entered and stopped dead in his tracks. "Great Primus," he said.

Mirage smiled at him, revealing one blacked-out dentum. "Hello," he said, in his most cultured accent.

Prowl walked around him. "I congratulate you both," he said. "This is - remarkable."

The two co-conspirators grinned at each other. They knew the word he had avoided was "disgusting."

Mirage jumped down from the outcropping of rock he'd been perched on. "Off to see Wheeljack and Percy about a turbofox," he said cheerfully.

Prowl shook his head, watching him tilt to one side as he walked away (which could be undone at need with a simple hand gesture on Mirage's part). "This is either the daffiest thing we've ever done, or the most brilliant."

"Oh, the latter," Ratchet said positively, cleaning his tools and putting them back into his subspace. "But only if it works."