The Corrosion of War Without End

Chapter 3:

 On the underside of Counterpunch's deep-space home, almost completely concealed by the sensing apparatus around it, was a blocky, nondescript piece of machinery, attached to the station and looking exactly like part of it. An observer would never have supposed it to be anything other than just another module of the station. That was precisely what Punch had intended when he'd designed the object. 

 The observer would have been quite surprised to see the block of machinery detach itself from the station, and delicately reconfigure. Thrusters and viewports became visible as the object unfolded. 

 Punch cut in the fold engines of his tiny ship and disappeared with a flash. 

*  *  *
 In deep space, the Sojourn defolded.

"All stop," Lexius ordered.  "Initiate scanning, tractor beams stand by." The ship thrustered to a halt. 

  At the sensor station, Tuner bent over the controls for the short-range scanners,  searching for the dead drop, a tiny information canister floating in space.  He studied his readouts intently for a moment, his faceplates showing puzzlement. 

 "Commander, there's nothing here," he called.
 "That's not what I want to hear.  Recheck our coordinates," Lexius ordered. 
 "Done, chief," called Beacon. "We're right where we're supposed to be."

 "Sensors are all on-line?"
 "I am running a diagnostic now, but it appears so," Starblast answered.  His console flashed. "Confirmed. All systems fully operative. Still no objects within the parameters of the drop." 

 *Oh bloody hell.* "This could be serious - our intel network could be compromised. Helm, let's get away from here. Find us a spot in deep space a fair distance from here where we --" 

 "Massive defold activity, two-eight-three!" It was Tuner, shouting urgently as his console went active, only an instant before the blinding flash outside the viewports made scanners unnecessary. 

 *Another trap!* "Red alert, battle quarters," Lexius rattled off smoothly. Pixel copied the orders to the ship.  Lexius glanced at the tactical, then - bewildered by what he saw  there - gazed out the viewports.

 The sky outside the ship was eclipsed, completely blocked out. In the dim illumination of deep space, Lexius could see the glimmer of light on metal. *That... that can't be a ship!  It's too big!* 

 "Dear Primus, it's twenty miles," Tuner said, disbelieving, fearful. 

 "Tactical, say again?" Lexius called. Everyone on the bridge was frozen, staring at the awesome sight through the viewports.

 Tuner recovered from his moment of shock. "Four vessels. Three standard cruisers. Fourth is an unknown destroyer-type, and it's twenty miles on its major axis." 

 Lexius could finally make sense of the bulk beyond their own vessel.  Every bit of that mass was indeed starship. In formation with the monster, almost lost against its vast form, were the three standard battlecruisers, about a mile long each. Their primary weapon ports seemed to have been partially filled in with a sort of crystalline lining. On the big ship, a gargantuan double-barreled weapon began to swivel towards them -- it was as large as their entire ship. 

 "Back us off! Prepare for fold." Lexius ordered, even as the smaller cruisers fired. Sojourn jolted from the hits but seemed to shrug them  off. The destroyer's main gun continued its slow rotatation.

 "Those shots are scrambling some of the systems," Beacon said, frantically trying to find them a clear path into foldspace. "It's gonna take a few seconds..." 

 "Helm! Get us clear!" Lexius ordered. He didn't want to see what happened when the destroyer fired its big guns; they were clearly overmatched. 

 Starblast rotated the ship's upper superstructure -- the equivalent of robot-mode Sojourn twisting at the waist -- which allowed the gunners to fire on their antagonists even while the ship scrambled to escape. Return fire obliterated one of the cruisers, then another. But only two of the guns were manned at the moment; the crewers were still scrambling to respond to the unexpected red alert. The third cruiser dodged out of Sojourn's fire fields, and continued to pour shots into the Autobot ship from its peculiar main weapon. 

 The destroyer had them lined up; they were practically looking down the barrel of its unbelievable main weapon. 

 "Focus, forget the coordinates, just get us out of here now!" Lexius ordered urgently. The helmsman reached out to initiate a fold. 

 Beacon started to protest: "We don't have a clear path to foldspace --" 

 It didn't matter. The sky went white as the destroyer fired. 
 It wasn't just an impact -- the blast seemed to blow the entire ship out from under them.  Half the crew was knocked away from their stations and went flying across the bridge; the ship's lights went out, leaving only the illumination of the enemy weapons.  Gravity failed, letting them all float off the deck, then returned long enough to jerk them down again, then failed again. The ship pitched to port even more violently; everyone wound up in a heap on the starboard side of the room. Lexius saw an enormous fireball engulf the ship's lower portions. There was no time, they had to get away now ---

 He forced his way out of the tangle of bodies, bodily throwing Pixel and Treadmark aside. The ship rocked again, heaving forwards. He could barely see in the harsh glare of the enemy's weapon; his infrared and visual wavelength sensors were overloading. He found Focus's empty helm station by feel alone.  Lexius overrode all safety procedures, and initiated a fold. The blinding glare of the destroyer's gun was replaced by an even brighter light -- the ship's engines kicked them into foldspace... 

 And spit them out an instant later. The black sky of deep space returned outside the viewport. They'd hardly gone anywhere, if they'd folded at all. But they'd momentarily left the Decepticon ships behind.  Outside the viewports, the upper decks of the ship's forward sections were a ruin, vast flames leaping into the vacuum. 

 Starblast thrust himself back over to his station. "We are losing power all over the ship. Transformation impossible. Most weapons will withstand only one firing," he reported. 

 What the hell...? "Antimatter?"
 "One shot only. And it will leave us powerless."
 We need power. Lexius hit the com. "Bridge to engineering."

 Only silence answered.

 "Quickmix! Come in!"

 Gravity returned without warning; his shipmates dropped to the deck with a clang. Most were unconscious from the impact with the bulkheads. Treadmark arose, shook his head, and stumbled over to Beacon's empty station. He studied the readings there for a moment, and swore to himself.  "We're only point seven light years from the drop site," he reported urgently.  "If they traced our vector it won't take them long to find us." 

 Quickmix's voice finally came through on Lexius's personal  communicator. "Bridge, engineering, it's hell down here! They took out  most of the fold engines, and what was left gave out with that last jump! Tell me we aren't going to be fighting anything soon." 
 "Quickmix, the 'cons could be back any second, we need power immediately. What can you give us?" Lexius shot back.

 "Nothing! The generators and the batteries are wiped out. We're on standby power only." 
 The generators. The batteries. The fold engines. And Quickmix was communicating by his internal radio, which meant intra-ship com was out as well.  Somehow their ship had just taken an unbelievable amount of damage.
 "What about routing power from Apogee and --"
 Tuner's console pinged; Treadmark glanced at it.  "Defold activity! They're coming in!" he shouted.
 The sky flashed, and a massive form blacked it out. The Decepticons had  found them again.
 Treadmark leapt to the weapons console, as Lexius took the helm. He turned struggling ship around to face its enemies. "I can't access gunwale weapons,"  Treadmark reported. 

 The gunships Apogee and Perigee - the only weapons on the ship with independent power supplies - couldn't be fired remotely, then. None of their other weapons could fire long enough to make any difference against that much mass.  Lexius made an instant decision, the only decision. "Charge the port antimatter cannon and fire." 
 "Lexius, we will have NO power!" Starblast was aghast that his commander would leave the ship so helpless. The antimatter cannons drained the ship's power supply even under the best circumstances. 

 "We have no choice! Do it!" Lexius snapped at Treadmark. "Now!" he added, when the ground commander looked uncertain. Outside the viewport, the surviving cruiser opened up with its modified primary weapon. 

 "Lexius, you are leaving us completely disabled," Starblast reminded  him, as Treadmark scrambled to carry out his task.

 "The other choice is to leave us completely dead!" Lexius barked. "Treadmark, hurry."  Sojourn couldn't survive another hit like the previous one.

 "Hang on, I'm almost ready..."

 But not soon enough. The destroyer fired. Their world was painted white; the ship lurched violently. This is it, Lexius thought, with a grim  resolve, his powerful hands wrapped tightly around the edges of his  console.  This was how they would die, then: a blinding white beam of  energy, searing them from existence. Lexius had always wondered how it would happen, and if he'd see it coming.

 But Sojourn answered, suddenly, with its own version of hell. The energy of the destroyer's weapon surrounded them, but through it they saw an even brighter beam as one of Sojourn's two enormous bow guns, the ship's largest weapons, fired.  The weapon drew in virtually every bit of the ship's power and focused it into creating a stream of antimatter, with a mass of plasma shielding it from the minute particles of space. Lexius could see the stream touch the destroyer for an instant, the plasma disrupting as it struck a target of significant mass. Then the light went beyond his capacity to register, as matter and antimatter conjoined in mutual annihilation. 
 A shock wave flung him from his console again; he hit the far wall and nearly lost consciousness. The bridge heaved around them; gravity failed again, for good this time. Explosion after explosion rocked the Autobots' ship. Lexius couldn't tell if it was his ship exploding, or the Decepticons', or both. Everything around him shook, his audio modules were overloaded, radiation of every sort assaulted his sensors. The universe itself seemed to reverberate with the fury of the battle. He waited to die, taking heart that his enemies were coming with him. 
 Instead of consuming him, though, the light of the furious explosions faded out. The roaring dropped to a faint rumble. Two minutes after the antimatter cannon had fired, Lexius found himself shaken, battered, floating above the deck... but, to his surprise, very much alive. He cautiously thrust himself upright, and stared in silent awe out the viewport. 
 Here and there, small chunks of the titanic destroyer spun aimlessly into the void, propelled by the ship's destruction. Beyond that, there was nothing left -- nothing. The destroyer was atomized and beyond, some of its very component particles obliterated from existence, reduced to a field of free energy which was already dissipating, and the rest turned to vapor by the tremendous energy released by the process. Twenty miles of starship and crew, gone.  Presumably the one surviving cruiser had died with it. Sojourn drifted alone in space. 

 He glanced around the bridge. Starblast and Treadmark had somehow managed to cling to their stations through the whole ordeal; they stood there motionless, seemingly in shock, mouths agape. The rest of the bridge was floating aimlessly above the deck, unmoving, but none appeared to have serious injuries. Lexius wondered how many of those under his command had just lost their lives. It occurred to him that many times that number had probably died aboard the destroyer, but that didn't concern him. Those were Decepticons, the enemy. Their lives were irrelevant.
 Starblast slowly came out of his stupor, and studied his panel for a moment.  "We have point two percent power," he reported slowly. "No engines, no weapons, no internal functions, no long-range sensors or communications. Short-range sensors are barely functioning." 
 Treadmark released his grip on the weapons console, leaving a row of indentations in its housing, and pushed himself over to the sensor readouts. "Nothing within half a  light-year. Thank Primus." He body went limp in exhausted relief. "What the hell just happened to us?"

 Lexius ignored the rhetorical question, though he was wondering the same thing. "Starblast, you have the bridge. See if you can come up with power for the engines. If you can, head for the nearest system, preferably inhabited. I'm going to do a fast survey of the ship." Lexius turned and nearly ran into the door, which failed to open at his approach. No internal functions. He forced it open and headed down the darkened corridors of his helpless ship. 

-  -  -
 "Damage team, make way, we've got to get to --"

 "Medics coming through!  Clear the deck!"

 "Medic, we need a medic --"

 "Move!  Move!  Move!  Sector 4's on fire, we've got to --"

 The corridors leading to the engine rooms were in a frenzy as Lexius carefully picked out a path through them. Bits and pieces of things torn loose during the fire fight were floating in the gravityless corridors.  Crews were scurrying in all directions, trying to reach their stations or the wounded or damaged sections of the ship.  Damaged Autobots were drifting everywhere, with the ship's medics and mechanics laboring to keep them functioning. Many looked as though they'd been heated to the melting point. Lexius made his way through the chaos, and approached a glowing barrier across the end of the corridor.
 An energy screen? What... 

 It was a makeshift airlock. The starboard engine rooms had been breached.  The strongest armor the Autobots could make, and it had been penetrated.  Lexius passed through into vacuum, and stopped, agape.  He had expected a hole, punctures perhaps, but nothing like this.

 The far wall of the enormous chamber was gone. In its place was a gigantic gash outlined by charred systemry, framing a view of the stars. The ship's fold engines were rubble, smashed by the blasts which had penetrated the ship's hull. Everything in the room was blackened and charred, or melted, including a number of the engineering crew. Amid the chaos, head engineer Quickmix spotted him and rushed over. He was blackened along his left side; his eyeband had shattered. 
 "They did something to the hull and then punched through. I saw it happen. Several crewers got sucked out when they spaced us, as well as what you see around you," he transmitted, indicating the damaged and lifeless forms around them. 
 " 'Did something?' " Lexius echoed.
 "Yes, the bulkheads glowed, and gave off some kind of energy filaments. Then they broke through, and I couldn't see anything. I think they altered  the bulkheads' molecular structure, made it softer for their weapons.  Whoever did this planned it very well."
 Everything fell into place.  "Those modified cruisers we saw," Lexius told him.  "They fired first, that must have been to weaken the hull, then that big destroyer a second later for the kill.  Someone knew exactly how to hit us," he reflected.  "Can you do anything about this?" Lexius indicated the remains of the ship's fold engines. 

 "Uh-uh.  All of it's melted or just blown away.  That last jump did in most of the port engines that survived, too. Without engines on this side to balance, everything over there overloaded and fused. There's maybe enough left to slap together one working fold module, but that'll never move this much mass. The sublight propulsion survived since it's buried deeper in the ship, but without power it's useless. I hate to say it, but we're stranded here." Quickmix regarded the panorama of stars where a wall had been only moments before. "Wherever 'here' might be." 

-  -  -
 "We're nowhere," Beacon said. The navigator had a very large dent in his head from colliding with the wall of the bridge. "We're at least seven light years from the nearest star system, probably twenty from the nearest that's inhabited, nowhere near any trade routes," he concluded, looking around the bridge at his equally battered companions. The senior officers and bridge crew were conferring on the bridge itself, since no-one dared leave it unmanned. Though virtually helpless, the ship was still at red alert, and everyone was half expecting another attack at any moment. 
 "Drop points are chosen for their isolation. No-one anticipates being attacked at one. A most ingenious strategy on our enemies' part,"  Starblast commented. 

 "Can't we call for a rescue ship?" asked Camshaft.

 "I'm afraid not," answered Pixel, her voice a clear indication that she'd thorougly investigated that possibility. "The com systems were destroyed with engineering." 

 "So, we need a new com setup, or new fold engines," Quickmix announced.

 "How? Like he said, we're nowhere," Sidetrack said.

 "Who knows? I could put together a subspace com easily, if I just had the right hardware, but a lot of that hardware just got blown to bits," the red engineer answered. 

 "More important is security. With the loss of our com gear we can no  longer transmit on secure systems," Starblast pointed out.

 "So even if we put together a com system..."

 "Transmitting on it would be like saying 'here we are, come finish us off!' to the 'cons," Rollbar said. The group fell silent, exchanging looks of helplessness. 

 "Primus." Treadmark's head hung. "We really are stranded here..."

 "No," Lexius said, firmly. "We're going to get out of this."

 "How?" Sidetrack asked. His voice made it plain that even he was beginning to despair. 

 "I don't know, yet --" Lexius paused, suddenly thinking, suddenly...  inspired? Well, maybe not quite. No, the idea was crazy. Or was it? Maybe not. Anything was worth a shot. "I have an idea," he finally said. 

 The others listened in silence as he continued.

*   *  *
 Several hours later, point seven light years away, a single, tiny vessel with Autobot markings dropped out of foldspace. Its occupant was a light orange robot, whose complexion was permanently frozen in a position of worry.  This was Punch in his true guise, his Autobot form.

 Punch brought the ship to a halt, and examined the area. He felt his systems freeze up for a moment. 

 He was too late.

 Clouds of debris and metal fragments littered the area, and a fair amount of free energy was still running loose in the area. The battle had occurred not long ago, perhaps only minutes before. The debris was more than enough to account for Sojourn, Punch realized; he was looking at the remains of more than one ship. The ship had given as good as it had got, at least. That realization did not in the least cut Punch's own sense of grief, of failure. 

 Punch pulled himself together quickly. He still had his own mission. If the ship was destroyed, he might at least be able to maintain his cover. But for that, he had to get back quickly.  He paused, uncertain.  

 The ship might not have been destroyed, he realized. Perhaps it dealt with whatever had been sent against it and escaped. Perhaps it had limped away from the battle site after killing its opponents. Punch's hand hovered near the activation switch for his active sensors.

 Passive scanning only gave him a clear picture of what was around him for about a quarter of a light year. His active sensors would extend that up to three light years...  but they would also make him visible to any ships in the area, including Decepticons. That, he couldn't afford. Besides, if the ship couldn't make a clean getaway, they probably couldn't escape at all. 

 He withdrew his hand. 

********************END PART TWO****************************
On to Part Three