The Corrosion of War Without End
PART ONE

Chapter 3:
Cornered


 


 Lexius watched as the weapons of his vessel pummeled the planet below, obliterating factories, military bases, and cities from the silence of  space.  He might have been suspicious of a mission which was going so smoothly, except that virtually all of their ops had gone this well of late. No surface shields, few orbiting ships, targets exactly where they were supposed to be. So far the only resistance they'd encountered from this world was from a pair of light cruisers, both of which were now little more than free-floating particles. Things would be tougher on the surface, of course.

 "Dropships, stand by to deploy, four minutes mark," Starblast ordered.

 "Apogee reports a orbital communications platform on the far side of  the planet... they've destroyed it. No signals appear to have been sent,"  Pixel called out from the com station. A visual of the encounter replayed  on a side screen.

 That's odd... we saw the same sort of thing at the last planet,  Lexius noted. They're being awfully careless to leave their com  platforms in such low orbit...

 "Gunnery. All targets accounted for," Camshaft's voice came over the com.

 "Dropships, deploy," Starblast ordered.

 Twenty heavily armored shuttles streaked out of Sojourn's enormous  port hanger, and dove for the surface.

 "Dropships away. Gunners cease fire," Starblast sent. The ship's  energy weapons ceased their awesome output.

 Lexius watched the dropships fall towards the surface, and suppressed a vague wish to be with them, to see the enemy, to help more directly than just issuing orders.  In his time, he'd had more than his share of close-quarters fighting. More to the point, in a battle, he belonged on his ship's bridge.
-  -  -
 The dropship leveled out a few yards over the surface, its doors sliding open. Grotusque leapt out in tiger mode; the twenty-five members in his squad were immediately behind him. Crossfire welcomed them as they hit the ground, criss-crossing lasers searching for targets.  One of them glanced off of Grotusque's armor.

 "Okay,  I admit!  It's an ugly transform!" he hollered, as his powerful hind legs propelled him towards the source of the offense, a pair of Decepticons who'd moved to intercept the dropship. "But ya don't have to shoot at it." His oversize tusks rapidly subdued the two. Behind him his followers made quick work of the few other Decepticons in the area.

 As the last of his troops deployed, their three dropships vectored off to remove themselves from the combat arena. Grotusque switched back to his robot form to lead the charge to their first target, an ore sorting plant whose outbuildings they'd landed in the midst of.   "Okay, guys, let's make a house call.  Squad 2, follow me; squads 3 and 4 head north for the other two plants.  Let's -- let's..."  Grotusque's voice trailed off as, not more than half a mile away, an entire company of Decepticons burst from the ground ahead of them.

 "Let's form a nice big firing line!" he changed his mind.  "Squads 3 and 4, get yerselves on back here, please!"

 "Grotusque, we got problems," one of his troops, Repugnus, called out from behind him.

 "Yeah, yeah, I know," Grotusque said, charging up his weapon and checking the terrain around him for cover, even as the Decepticons advanced on them..

 "No, I mean --"  Repugnus grabbed Grotusque's shoulder and spun him around the opposite way -- "We've got _problems_."

 Three more companies were closing in from all around them.  They were trapped.

 "Scramble! Find cover! Pair off and dig yourselves in!" he ordered his troops. They scurried to comply, even as the first of the enemy opened fire. No-one bothered to comment on how well-laid a trap they had just walked into.

-  -  -
 "We appear to have a problem... ground units are reporting heavy resistance in all sectors," Starblast reported.

 A trap, Lexius's instincts told him. Starblast saw it coming, but I had to plow on ahead anyway, he chastised himself. "Can we support them from here?" he asked.

 "Negative," Tuner answered. "They're at close quarters with their  opponents." Sojourn's weapons could only focus their fire fields so far.

 "Pixel, tell them to get free as quickly as possible. Forget about taking the surface, just get back to the ship," Lexius ordered the ship's communications officer. If this is an ambush, this can't be all there is to it.  They know we have more than ground troops...

-  -  -
 Grotusque hadn't been in a fight like this in a while. He was having the time of his life.

 His troops were outnumbered  four, maybe five to one, he wasn't sure -- there were so many of the enemy he couldn't get a full count. Tracers, laser beams, missiles, and streams of exotic liquids flew in all directions over their heads;  the noise of explosions and their own weapons was deafening. Stray shots sent dirt and bits of molten metal flying skyward; fires burned all around the battle site.

 Grotusque, in his saber-toothed tiger mode, crouched low with his troops, his vaporator mounted on his back and adding its own noise to the din as he looked for the right moment... a brief lapse in the gunfire -- no more than a second -- and he leapt skyward, covering the distance between him and his entrenched opponents in a single bound. It took his quarry completely by surprise. He landed on top of one of the gunners, his front claws digging into the Decepticon's face and chest plates, even as he turned to blast another with the vaporator. Behind him, a third took aim at the Autobot, only to find his weapon - along with his arm - torn from him as Doublecross, who had quickly followed Grotusque's lead, lashed out from behind him.  Repugnus landed on top of the surprised Decepticon, mashing him into the ground as he leapt to join Grotusque and Doublecross.

 "Thanks, guys," Grotusque complimented his double-headed companion.

 "No problem," answered one dragon-like head, dropping the severed arm from its mouth. The other head was spewing flames in another direction and didn't hear. Doublecross's two minds didn't normally focus on the same thing, except to disagree about it.  Repugnus -- whose alternate mode Grotusque felt was best described as a "thing" -- didn't hear the exchange; the insectoid Autobot was busily dismembering the downed Decepticons.

 Grotusque shifted back to robot form to better aim his weapon, as he and the others crouched low in their new position, behind the metallic facade of a ruined building.  Spurred by their leader's sucess, several more Autobots jumped from their cover at once and charged, trying to push the line forwards a bit.

 "No, stop!" Grotusque radioed to them.  But it was too late.  The Decepticons were prepared for the advance; heavy fire inundated the field, finding several Autobots as they dashed for Grotusque's position. Several of the troops took hits and fell.  The rest ducked and scrambled frantically into cover alongside the Monsterbots, or retreated back to their origninal positions.

 "Strobe, Crosslink, and Shoreup are down," Doublecross shouted.

 "We can't pull back for them," Grotusque said.  "The rest of the squad will have to pick them up when they advance.  Lay down some cover, everyone; we've got to give them an opening.  That's cover fire, by the way, I don't mean put a blanket over them or something stupid like that..."

 "Roger," came the response.  A half-dozen weapons poured out fire, trying to create a gap, but to no avail.  If anything, the enemy fire intensified in response.

 "I don't know how we're gonna get out of this one," Grotusque muttered to himself.

-  -  -
 "Squad 6 is pinned down within sight of their craft. They say that with some backup they can escape," Pixel reported.

 "Send squad 14," Lexius ordered wearily. Squad 14 had hastily withdrawn from their assigned sector after nearly being overrun by an enemy force ten times the size of their own. They'd been lucky; they were able to get out.  Most of the ground forces were pinned down from the moment they deployed; legions of the enemy had been lying in wait, well-led and well-organized. Only the experience of the field commanders and the troops' battlefield expertise had saved the ground squads from being immediately wiped out upon landing. The squads were suffering casualties, almost unheard on their previous missions. The Decepticons were paying heavily for the ground they defended, but with their numbers... the ground troops couldn't hold out forever.

-  -  -
 When Sojourn attacked a planet, the explosions from the ship's weapons stirred up enormous clouds of smoke and dust on the world's surface. Grotusque and his squads were well-used to deploying beneath leaden-grey clouds of ash, on a dimly lit surface. Usually it was a comfort, knowing that the largest targets had been incinerated from orbit. Now, though, those low-hanging clouds caught the light from the raging fires around the battle site, and a demonic red glow hung over the combatants as the fires began to consume the battle arena.

 The eerie atmosphere added to the sense of desperation among the Autobots, as they fought a holding action to keep from being overrun. They had worked their way out of the ore processing compound where they'd landed, though the plant itself had been destroyed by the battle.  But the Decepticons had outflanked them every time they tried to make a run for the dropship; they remained surrounded on all sides.  Seeker airships pummeled them from all directions, no matter how many they shot down - the 'cons seemed to have an infinite supply of the damn things. Their own minimal air support had already been eliminated, shot down or forced to land.

 "Think I'll call home again, see if I can get us a lift outta here,"  Grotusque mumbled to no-one. "I've about had my fill of the local hospitality." He ducked down as low as he could, trying not to get blasted in mid-transmission, and opened his communicator.

 "Grotusque to Sojourn, things are really dicey down here, think you guys could send a little help?  Or at least a care package?"

 After a moment, a reply came through, Starblast's voice: "All the ground units are pinned down under heavy fire; there is no-one available for us to send at this time. We believe our attack here was anticipated. Orders remain: disengage from the enemy as soon as possible and retu--"

 The transmission abruptly dissolved in static for several seconds.

 "Hey, come back!  C'mon, Starblast, I'm not _that_ bad to talk to," Grotusque shouted at his communicator.  Then it hit him.

  "Oh man.  Here comes that old sinking feeling," he said to himself.  The static was a jamming pattern.

 Starblast's voice came through again, heavily muffled this time: "Cease transmissions. We are under attack."  Then there was only silence.

-  -  -
 Nine Decepticon battleships, each over a mile long, burst out of foldspace and closed in on the Sojourn from all directions. Lexius took an instant to marvel over the timing and coordination which must have been involved in getting the ships into their pre-fold positions, so as to have Sojourn at the center of their circle. The instant passed and he barked an order for an evasive course.

 The ship reeled violently as the first of the battleships opened fire.  Lexius hit a com channel: "Gunners take your pick and fire at will."  But as he turned to Starblast's tactical readout, it was obvious that the ships weren't in the fire fields of most of Sojourn's weapons. Two enemy ships took glancing blows as the gunners opened up, but the ship's erratic course left relatively little within the gunners' range. As Starblast had observed not long ago, the vessel simply wasn't designed for ship-to-ship combat; most of its weapons pointed straight ahead. The battleships closed in and loosed their full might upon the Autobot starship.

-  -  -
 Vice couldn't help but smile as he watched the Autobot ship flounder beneath the assault of his battle group. The plan had been flawless in execution thus far; every extrapolation he could imagine ended in victory, despite his efforts to forsee any possible problems. The Autobots' run for the far side of the planet was futile: the ships he commanded were among the fastest and most agile in the Decepticon fleet. The Autobot vessel was slowing down now, perhaps trying to turn around to face them.  It was the most logical move, Vice thought, exactly what he would do in  their situation.  But they would probably be destroyed before they could even try to make a stand.  Still, one had to prepare for every contingency.

 "Units two and three cut off their forward escape route.  All ships full firepower, and be sure to stay clear of their fire fields!  Sensors: have you located their surface units?"

 "Yessir. There are twenty surface groups, with about twenty-five robots per group. Our ground troops have all of them pinned down."

 "Excellent," Vice said.  He was beginning to think he might even get a battlefield commision from this, if the mission continued to go so flawlessly.  "Signal our ground troops' withdrawal, and dispatch our wing ships to target and destroy the Autobots on the surface."

 "Yessir!"

-  -  -
 Having found a weak spot in the Decepticon lines, Grotusque and his surviving troops were slowly advancing towards the waiting dropship.  Grotusque knew they'd never get aboard unless they could make a clean break from their attackers, though. Considering the Decepticons' numbers, it seemed an unlikely thing to happen. The remaining Seekers were pounding them, keeping their heads down as the ground troops slowly closed on them.

 And then, abruptly, the enemy's firing ceased.

 "What the..." both of Doublecross's heads asked at once.

 The Decepticons were in full retreat, reverting to vehicular forms and seemingly clearing out as fast as they could.

 "Was it something we said?" the left head asked.

 "Maybe it was your lubricant," answered its twin.

 "Well, it's only because you don't brush my teeth..."

 Grotusque was stumped for a brief moment, and then it dawned on him what was happening.

 "After 'em, everybody! Now! Let 'em get away and we're gonna end up fried extra crispy!" He lead the charge without another word, bounding forward into the enemy's tail ranks, demolishing a pair of hovercars with swipes of his claws.  Mystified, but glad to be on the offensive again, his troops shifted to vehicular and other forms and charged after him.

-  -  -
 Lexius saw the two ships breaking off from the enemy's formation, heading for the planet. That was it, he decided. Things had to be ended now, quickly, before those ships could get in firing range of the surface. When that happened, his  ground troops were dead.

-  -  -
 Two of the leading ships pulled ahead of the failing enemy ship, cutting off its would-be escape route, while two others broke off from the formation and move towards the planet. The remaining ships closed in, focusing their firepower. As they closed in, Vice got a better look at the damage his weapons had wrought: the Autobot ship seemed to be nose-diving beneath the intensified assault.  Or... no, it was breaking up.

 The Decepticon wing commander frowned. Why didn't his techs report this? A glance around the control area showed that they seemed as confused as he. Vice's metal face screwed up in puzzlement as he watched the enemy ship; he was beginning to wonder if they'd damaged it at all. He called for magnification. A silence fell over the bridge.

 The enemy ship almost seemed to be... but that couldn't be. It was too big. And yet, he could see the components shifting, forms retracting, others extending, still others folding up.

 The Autobot ship spun slowly to face his own, thrustering about, and there was no doubt left. It had transformed to a fully articulated robot form.

-  -  -
 "Secure from transformation status," Starblast addressed the ship.

 "Sojourn, we have a job for you," Lexius spoke to a particular receiver.

 "Is the problem as obvious as it seems?" asked a female voice which seemed to come from all around them.

 "It is indeed," answered Lexius. "Those ships are... bothering us."

 "I'm on it," Sojourn acknowledged.

 "Starblast, the com is yours. I'm going to the surface to lend some air support," Lexius said over his shoulder, heading for the door. He was useless here; they all were, really. The battle was now entirely Sojourn's.

-  -  -
 The tactical information was already in her mind, automatically downloaded by the computers of the bridge.  Sojourn found it rather annoying that there were seven ships in such close proximity to her, nosing into her personal space, but she had to have priorities.  She scanned around her and located the ships which threatened her planet-side comrades.  She targeted them even as they were powering up their weapons to fire on the surface; a pair of well-placed shots from her chest and shoulder cannons  fatally crippled their power plants.

  That done, she turned her attention to her immediate surroundings. Firing the thrusters built into her legs and back, she moved in on the attacking ships which surrounded her.  She approached what she guessed to be the command ship, and stretched one hand towards the ship's bridge.

-  -  -
 As Vice watched, dumbstruck, a massive head turned towards his ship, and he saw the enemy vessel _looking_ at him. That vessel -- no, that _Autobot_ -- had disabled two of his ships almost casually, leaving them dead in space. It didn't even show a dent for all the firepower they'd loosed upon it. And now it was _coming for him_.  A hand two hundred feet in span reached toward the viewscreen -- a contingency he had definately not planned for. Perhaps Vice had experienced such terror before, but right now he couldn't recall when. Blind with fear, he fled towards the door, but only made it half way out before the bridge was crumpled into scrap, and its occupants with it.

-  -  -
 Across a wasteland of devastated terrain, laser pistols spat energy, metal creatures breathed fire at one another, gun arms fired energy pulled directly from their owners' power cores.  Shots that found their mark sent rivulets of molten metal streaming down armor plating, or incinerated wires and circuits and chips and diodes, or triggered explosions inside or outside of their targets' bodies, or caused the victim's body to deform in horrible ways, twisting, softening, melting, freezing. Missile trails and burning fuel contributed haze and smoke to the air, yielding a terrible stench which hung over the battlefield. Pieces of damaged and destroyed robots lay everywhere, parts blown many yards from their former owners. Screams and death groans pierced the air, mixing with the sounds of artillery and weaponsfire and the roar of aircraft in a cacophony of chaotic, prolonged death. Grotusque decided, in spite of himself, that he was no longer having fun.

 Despairing of evading their relentless Autobot pursuers, the Decepticons had turned to face their foes again. With the Decepticons' numerical advantage, it had been only a matter of moments till Grotusque's forces were again fighting desperately for survival. The three squads dug in and blasted away at their opponents, but above them, the Seekers were unleashing a merciless assault. The Autobots had to spend much of their time just staying low; consequentially there was not much they could do against the ground forces.

 Grotusque was wondering how long they'd be able to hold out like that, when the Decepticons, howling a chorus of bloodthirsty war cries, burst from their positions, and charged them en masse.

 At least we'll go down fightin'. Better that than to be slagged from space, Grotusque thought. With the combatants at close quarters, enemy starships hadn't been able to bring their weapons to bear on them, the same reason that Sojourn hadn't been able to support them earlier. The first of the 'cons, a group of clawed two-legged metal creatures, reached his troops, dodging or ignoring sporadic gunfire. They were met with fists, feet, point-blank weaponsfire.

  "Transform," he told Repugnus and Doublecross.  "I'm not gonna sit here waiting for them to reach us."  The three switched to their creature modes and prepared to leap from their cover, as the tide of enemies swelled towards their position. Beside them, Landfill aimed a pair of weapons to cover them.

 "Get ready, on three.  One... two...  DUCK!!"

  A roar of engines sounded behind and above them, followed milliseconds later by the whine of a missile spread. The four Autobots threw themselves to the ground, waiting for the explosions from Seeker missiles.

  But the missiles streaked overhead, impacting three Seekers, sending them plunging into the ground.

 "There's your care package, Grotusque," a voice radioed to them.

 Grotusque let loose his best "Yeeee haw!" as Lexius -- more reinforcement than he had expected -- streaked into the battle zone.

-  -  -
 In enormous, graceful slow motion, Sojourn grasped the wounded command ship by the remains of its bridge. She considered breaking it across her knee, but decided not to waste a good resource on theatrics, and instead slung it in an arc towards a cluster of three cruisers, her thrusters blasting to keep her in place as she released the giant projectile. It struck two of the other ships, disabling them and sending them crashing into the third. The last three undamaged ships were attempting an escape from the battlefield, so she turned and deliberately targeted their engines with her enormous plastron cannon. Each in turn blossomed into fire and debris. Sojourn then returned to the six surviving ships, all floating dead in space. One after the next, they too erupted beneath her weapons.

 Sojourn looked around in satisfaction. Once again she drifted alone in space. That was how she liked it.

-  -  -
 Lexius shifted to robot form and came to a halt in mid-air, long enough to blow apart the engines of two pyramid-shaped Decepticon airships trying to pull away from him.  He  immediately shot off in a different direction before any ground troops could draw a bead on him,  first blasting another jet to pieces with his hand weapon, then targeting some sort of armored bird creature, shooting holes in its wings till it started to fall. Two more jets came in at him from behind; one he dispatched with a pair of shots from his head cannon. The other transformed to robot form and moved to engage him hand-to-hand; Lexius spun about and answered with a single swipe of his arm. The other robot fell away, his head module neatly severed by the blade mounted on Lexius's wrist.

 Grotusque didn't bother to watch as his commander cut a swath through the air-borne troops; he had his own concerns. He, Doublecross, Repugnus, Landfill and several others were driving a wedge into the 'cons' lines; Lexius had given them enough of a distraction for them to turn the enemy's charge back on itself. The remainder of the squad viciously fought off the troops that had reached their positions, caught up now in the Decepticons' own killing rage, using the enemy's fury against itself.  Grotusque spotted their enemies' leader, a hulking brown robot with numerous cannons attached to his form.

 "That one's my lunch!" he shouted to his three companions.  "Gimme some cover."

 "Gotcha.  You're not really gonna eat him, are you?" Repugnus asked.

 "Not really, why?"

 "Well, I was kinda hoping that maybe I could---"

 "--Liiiike I said," Grotusque cut him off, "Gimme some cover fire!"  Weapons ablaze, the four Autobots waded into the Decepticons which stood between them and their objective.

 Above them, Lexius was beginning to question the wisdom of his coming here solo. The Seekers had regrouped, and were beginning to gain the upper hand. Several shots hit him across the back; Lexius spun and trap-shot another Seeker's engines, only to encounter yet another attack from behind. He was not fast enough this time, and a score of shots ripped through his left arm and chest, as a trio of jets flew past him. Lexius grunted in pain, and launched himself in pursuit of the trio, trailing smoke from his wounds.

 The trio split up, but Lexius' aim was sure: all three took hits before they could pass out of his range.  Others were regrouping now, strafing him in pairs and trios. But Lexius was an elusive target, darting away, targeting single opponents, avoiding those in groups, only standing still long enough to lure in his quarry. He fought a losing battle, he knew, but what mattered was that the Autobots on the ground were free from air assault.

 +++Warning: fuel loss in lines TA183, TA227, TA005, LA449, LA207+++ an internal diagnostic told him.  As he sent another Seeker tumbling groundwards in flames, Lexius glanced down long enough to see streams of fuel flowing from his chest and arm.  He also took brief note of Grotusque in tiger mode, tackling a large brown Decepticon below him.

  The two tumbled to the dirt, and grappled briefly; then the Decepticon fired a small, hidden weapon on his chest. Grotusque took the blast in the stomach, point-blank, and was knocked backwards several yards.  Lexius was sure he'd been knocked out, but he struggled groggily back onto his feet, shaking his head. The 'con rose to finish the job, but the red Autobot leapt forward, aiming low. Grotusque's enormous tusks sank into the Decepticon's knees, crushing them; the brown robot collapsed, howling in pain.  It was over a moment later. Grotusque's techniques were messy, but effective.

 "Can you get them out of here?" Lexius radioed to him, indicating the embattled squads.

 Grotusque looked around. The 'cons were falling back; with the loss of their  air support, the Autobots had made quick work of them.

 "I might be able to persuade them to leave," the red tiger answered. "What about you?" Lexius was still badly outnumbered by the airborn Decepticons.

 "That's not your problem. Get out of here. I'll run interference. You guys are needed elsewhere," Lexius ordered, his chest plates now slick with fuel. He launched the last of his missiles into the now-leaderless Decepticons' ranks, smiling grimly at the resulting chaos.

 "If you insist," Grotusque called to him. "We're on our way."

-  -  -
 Rollbar punched a 'con in the optics, then placed his pistol against the shattered visor and fired several times. He did not have time to watch the body drop to the ground, as another one jumped him from behind, landing on his back. The Autobot shifted into his vehicle mode, a wheeled form he'd acquired during his brief stay on  Earth. The transform startled his attacker, but not enough to dislodge him as Rollbar swerved frantically. He felt claws digging into his roof, trying to get at his vunerable dashboard; desperate, he launched himself into a barely-controlled series of rolls, slamming the Decepticon creature against the ground repeatedly. He felt the thing come loose and transformed again in mid-roll, landing on his feet and blasting at the wolf-thing that had attacked him. Shells began going off as yet another Decepticon fired at him; he dashed frantically for cover.

 All around him, his troops were in similar contests, fighting quite literally tooth and claw for survival. Their ranks had been broken, and a horde of Decepticon robots, tanks, and creatures had overrun them. Now it was down to one-on-one combat, or more commonly, three or four on one. His troops were good, but against these odds...  he didn't want to think about it, he thought, as he jumped and landed on top of a tank that was aiming for Tarnish. Just keep fighting. He yanked the barrel aside as it fired, a maneuver he'd wanted to try ever since he'd seen it in a movie somewhere.  To his surprise, it worked -- the shot went wide and blasted a Seeker out of the sky -- but he'd not counted on the tank transforming beneath him. He found himself bodily lifted by the hulking Decepticon --

 And released, as a pair of shots dropped his opponent to the dirt.  Rollbar looked up in surprise.  The blast had come from a robot he recognized as Landfill, one of -- Grotusque's squads? Yes, Rollbar could see a surge of Autobots pouring into the battle zone, to relieve their embattled brethren.

 "It's 'bout time you guys showed up!" Rollbar called out, seeing Grotusque among his troops.

  "Sorry! We were at one hell of a party; we didn't mean to stay so long,"  Grotusque answered.

 "Apology accepted," Rollbar grinned. "Let's show these 'cons how the big boys have fun."

 It was not exactly a route, but the combined forces drove back their opponents long enough for the Autobots to break free. Lexius, Prop, and a few other flyers did their best to keep the Decepticons from pursuing, as the ground troops charged for their dropships.

-  -  -
 Enough of the squads were free that some began returning to the ship. Lexius was among them, feeling he'd been away from the bridge too long. He was relieved to find that Sojourn had handily disposed of the enemy vessels, and was floating free in space.  As he walked back onto the bridge (now part of Sojourn's forehead), he overheard Starblast speaking into the com line.

 "Treadmark, your position is highly untenable.  Our sensors indicate that more reinforcements are heading your way.  You must withdraw at once or you will lose the opportunity."

 Treadmark's voice came back, calm and quiet even in the middle of a raging battle.  "Starblast, don't you understand?  We _cannot_ withdraw.  We still have troops out there.  But if you'll send us just one more squad we'll be able to get them back." Lexius could hear the firefight behind Treadmark's voice, explosions and missiles and lasers mixed with intermittent static.

 "Lexius's orders were very clear -- all troops are to return to--"

 "To the Inferno with his orders," Treadmark said.  "This isn't about orders.  Those are our friends out there and I will _not_ abandon them."

 "Risking a sum total of almost one hundred and fifty troops to retrieve the bodies of only thirteen is a patently illogical course of action," Starblast told him.  "It is in the best interest of you and your troops to withdraw to your dropships at once."

 "Illogical?!  Just what is _illogical_ about not abandoning friends?  What's illogical about standing by your comrades?!  Starblast, you _must_ send us some back-up!"

 Starblast looked confounded for a moment, till Lexius stepped into view.  "Starblast, I'll handle it," he told his befuddled first officer.  "Treadmark, Lexius.  Get yourselves out of there."

 "Lexius, you don't understand," Treadmark's voice.  "We had to leave behind thirteen of our casulties.  Send in another squad to reinforce us and we can get them back."

  Lexius knew Treadmark well enough to skip any formal military explanation of the decision. "There's too many 'cons heading your way.  That'll risk getting even more of us killed. I won't allow that."

 "But some of those troops might still be _alive_. We might be able to revive them!  We _cannot_ abandon them!  Lexius, you've _never_ left anyone behind in the field before; how can you --"

 "Treadmark, listen to me.  I know this hurts.  I hate it myself.  But we're seriously outnumbered.  We have the chance to get clear before more reinforcements arrive from off-planet, but if you don't clear out, we're going lose it.  We've had too many casulties already; I'm not going to allow any more.  Get yourself and your troops back to the ship," Lexius finished emphaticly, in a tone that let his old friend know he wouldn't spend further time arguing.

 "Yessir," Treadmark called back after a moment, and broke the connection.  Even in the one word Lexius could hear his anger. Treadmark never even called him "commander", let alone "sir". Their friendship went back too far for that.

 "Treadmark's squads are withdrawing," Tuner reported a moment later. Lexius simply nodded, his face a blank.

 "Order all hands to secure for transform," he ordered. Across the ship, the hundred or so in the ship's crew would be evacuating areas involved in Sojourn's transformation, retreating to safe zones. Lexius waited for a dropship that had been on approach to complete its docking maneuver, landing in the enormous hanger bay which formed most of Sojourn's right shoulder. He then ordered her to transform back to starship configuration.

 Twenty minutes later, the last of the twenty dropships docked, and the magnificent Autobot thrustered herself and her crew away from the now-devastated planet. A flash into foldspace, and the planet's would-be liberators were gone.

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On to Chapter 4