The Corrosion of War Without End
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
* * *
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,"
"Done, chief," called Beacon. "We're right where we're supposed to
"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 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
"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
"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
"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
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,"
"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
"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