"The Autobots have struck again," Wingspan told his brother.
Pounce looked up from his work, and gazed intently. "Where? What were they after this time?"
"They tried to steal a transport ship from the Dief system. Local troops boarded the ship and stopped them, but they escaped with no casualties after destroying several ships."
"Was it the same ship as at Fiery?"
"Yep. Positive ID."
"Well then. The ship, or a sizable number of its inhabitants, must have survived. They must be immobile somewhere."
"What?! How do you figure that?"
"What possible other motive could they have to steal a transport ship?"
"Ah, I see, yes... so they're stranded somewhere. What I would not give to find out where..."
* * *
The cargo ship's destination coordinates were already in the computer; it took a simple bit of cyber-jiggling for Starblast to call them up, along with virtually everything else they might need to know about their latest stolen vessel. The ship folded for over a week on its journey; they used the time to patch Starblast's wounds from his fight with the Seeker. At the end of that time, they dropped out of fold to check their nav coordinates.
"Sector 8," Starblast said. He gestured to the thick stars outside the viewports. "We are much closer to the galactic hub. And we are only one hour from our final destination."
"Heading right back into the lion's den. We just can't keep away from this place," Lexius said. "Let's keep moving."
Starblast urged the ship back into motion.
"Wherever we're going to, it's drawing in materials from all over the Cybertronian empire and beyond," Lexius commented, as the ship re-entered foldspace. "Why would they strike so far out, with the enormous resources of the hub so much closer?"
"Any number of reasons. Security, or simple desire to expand their influence. Or perhaps they have depleted the interior of the empire," Starblast added. "I would not put it past the Decepticons, particularly the Cybertronians, to expend even the galactic hub's resources. However, we will be in a better position to speculate when we reach our destination."
* * *
"Unbelievable," Punch muttered, as he drew closer to the battered Autobot ship. There were massive holes all over the vessel. Punch tried not to think of how many must have died when the starship was attacked. He could not afford to worry about that now. Hesitation might cost even more lives. He found himself being hailed; grateful that someone on the ship was still alive to talk to him, he activated a com channel.
"Incoming ship, identify immediately or you will be fired on."
Punch wasted no time. "My name is Punch. I'm an Autobot. Let me dock. I'm here to get you out of this mess."
There was a very long silence on the other end, no doubt a superior officer being consulted. After several more conversations and confirmations, he was ordered to land in the main docking bay. Punch had no doubt that every available weapon on the ship was tracking his approach. It was exactly what he'd do.
Besides, when they find out who I am, they may want to shoot me anyway.
* * *
Lexius and Starblast anxiously faced forward on their ship's little bridge, as Lexius shut down the fold engines and eased the ship out of superliminal, returning them to normal space-time.
The two Autobots stared, slack-jawed, at the sight before them.
It was a ship, a ship which defied proportional analysis. It was under construction, framework and parts extending in all directions from the finished portion. Its form seemed familiar...
"The destroyer," Lexius said suddenly, his voice shaking. "The big one, the one that ambushed us." The ship before them was indeed the same design -- and size -- as the gargantuan ship that had torn Sojourn apart. That ship had measured twenty miles stem to stern.
"Look," Starblast said, pointing. Beyond the imposing hulk could be seen other shapes in the distance. Resolving his vision more carefully, Lexius realized...
They were ships like this one. All of them. The place was a ship yard, churning out who knew how many of these things. Lexius counted at least twenty of the destroyers in various stages of completion, as they passed away from the first one. He stared, unbelieving, almost despairing. Only a lucky - and desperate - shot had saved them from one of these monsters. When twenty were turned loose upon the galaxy... on the Autobot fleets... on unarmed planets! Our assaults with Sojourn would look like slingshot hits compared to these things, he thought. Suddenly their mission to repair Sojourn took on an urgent immediacy.
"A larger project than I anticipated," Starblast said beside him.
Imperturbable as ever. "Never underestimate the power of megalomania," Lexius answered, coming out of his shock, shaking off the despair. He moved to answer a beeping on the console.
"Incoming cargo ship, respond," a voice came through. Lexius nodded to Starblast, who had accessed all the ship's data.
"Cargo ship 82333-DNV-3. We are carrying energy converters for solar absorbers. Code word sequence is nova, destruct, pass. Transmitting clearance codes now. Over."
"Confirmed. Stand by to recieve destination instructions."
A pulse of info told their nav computer where to go; Lexius guided the ship toward one of the mammoth construction bays as Starblast signed off.
"We have to report this place to somebody," Lexius said as the half complete form of the battleship rose up before them, its downswept, needle-like nose seemingly ready to devour them, to add them to the bloated main body where the primary weapons would be mounted when it was finished. "We should get out of here ASAP."
"That would be a wise course of action. However, has it occurred to you just how many fold engines there must be in this ship yard?"
Lexius stared for a moment. "You must be joking."
"I am quite serious. If I can access a central terminal for this place, numerous possibilities present themselves."
"Yeah, but what you're suggesting doesn't sound like much of one."
"We shall see."
Against his better judgment, Lexius gave a silent agreement.
- - -
Lexius and Starblast counted a total of thirty-five of the gargantuan destroyers under construction, before their cargo ship reached its destination. The stolen vessel docked at a gravity platform, near the center of the destroyer's bulk. A group of workers scrambled out from the half-finished destroyer to begin unloading.
"We must get off of this ship immediately, and disappear," Starblast said. "It will likely be noticed that five of seven crewers are missing."
"Right," Lexius answered, not pleased at being reminded of what had happened to those crewers. "Maybe the easiest thing to do would be to just stroll out in plain view."
Several minutes later, the two Autobots walked out of the ship's cargo bay, carrying armloads of their own cargo. As they left, Lexius wished the little cargo vessel well. It was set to leave the shipyard and fold itself to a point in deep space, if not interfered with. If transmissions were sent to it requiring more answer than an automated 'affirmative' or 'negative', it would self-destruct. They could not leave anything which might point to their presence here, or to Sojourn.
Up ahead, they saw the end of a line of transport troops leaving the loading area; they followed them deep into the bowels of the titanic construction project. Eventually they came to a power center, where they deposited their loads. Other workers were installing the energy converters, part of the ship's recharging system. They quickly exited the area, hoping no supervisors had noticed them. Dawdling behind the troops ahead of them, they ducked into an empty corridor and headed off.
"We need to find out where we are," Lexius said, as they walked aimlessly through the corridors. Lexius began running a sensor probe on the walls, till at last he detected electrons on the move. He tore off a wall panel, revealing a thick bundle of wires. Starblast began investigating them, tapping into each one. He held onto several particular ones, let their flow take him over. His vision dropped away, and was replaced by the image of a pair of thin red lines, stretching away to infinity in both directions, with blackness in all other directions: his mind's interpretation of a wire. Lightening-like squiggles shot up and down the wires, carrying data. He reached out to touch a number of them, sifting through their contents.
He came back to the sensory world, released the wires. Lexius replaced the panel he'd torn off as best he could, while Starblast reported, "A console approximately one-half mile from here will allow us access to the facility's network."
- - -
The control room was a small, rectangular space with only one door, which opened readily at their prompt. They walked into the room, lit only by indicators and monitor screens. Starblast strode forward, retracting one hand and bringing forth a small box-like shape. The computer's cassette reader accepted him. Starblast's body became motionless, and his blue optic band went dark, as he focused his mind on the computer.
The real world dissolved, and was replaced by a pair of horizontal planes, made up of glowing grid lines. This was real computerscape, not the two-dimensional realm of info conduits. Here, Starblast was at his best. He glanced around, and set to work.
- - -
Thirty seconds after Starblast went under, Lexius began to worry. How much security would the Decepticons have on their computers? How much of it would be implemented on this half-finished ship? Their last experience with pulling data dumps covertly had left a taint on his sensors. He paced back and forth, then stopped. He glared around the darkened control room, full of nothing but computer terminals and Starblast's motionless form. All he could do was wait.
- - -
Starblast soared across the endless gridwork plane below and above him. A mass of data files appeared to his mind, glowing zigzag columns of light. He ignored them. A smaller column awaited directly ahead. He entered it, gleaned the proper information, and shot out again. He transformed himself, appearing to the computer's processors as an ordinary data file, and slipped through several of the parallel gridwork plains. He emerged to find himself surrounded by dozens of data files, and several active programs, which appeared as round beams of light. Dodging all this, he made his way unerringly to the first of the files he needed.
- - -
Starblast had been under for over ten minutes, and Lexius was positively anxious. No-one had passed by yet, but that simply increased the odds that someone would. He had no ready explanation for their presence here; he had no idea whether anyone who came along should be regarded as an aggressor, or a fellow, or a peon. In short, he was anxious to get away from the place. What if Starblast set off some sort of security alert? Would either of them know? He tried to quell his worry, but could not. He turned, frustrated, to resume pacing, when his audio sensors received a most unwelcome input.
- - -
Starblast finished his alterations on one group of files, and plunged into another, copying them over to his own memory. He dodged another security file sweep, a randomized program looking for bugs or intruders. It was the third he had encountered. So far they seemed properly random, but he wondered how long his luck would hold out. He exited, and shifted planes again. Before him were the last files he needed. He slipped in, and began copying --
A security sweep, a buzzing red pulse, came straight for him. He grabbed the last data he needed, and raced away, the pulse immediately behind him.
- - -
The tread was heavy, echoing down the passageway. Lexius withdrew as deeply into the shadows as possible, training his weapons on the door. It was a single Transformer, but a pretty heavy one from the sound of it. He tensed, realizing that Starblast's immobile form was in plain view -- not that the shadows would do much to hide him, either. The door opened.
A hulking form, with a massive cannon perched on its shoulder, strode menacingly forward. Though the robot was back-lit by the light from the corridor, Lexius could make out a dark, mottled paint job. The Decepticon said nothing, simply grinned wickedly and pointed a vicious-looking hand weapon at Starblast. Lexius fired instinctively, knocking the gun from the Decepticon's hand before he could fire. The Decepticon fixed him with a terrifying glare, red optics narrowed to furious slits. He spoke with the voice of doom itself.
"Autobot... you DARE challenge MEGATRON?!"
- - -
The virtual race continued, Starblast just barely able to keep himself ahead of the program which would erase his mind from existence if it caught it. Every time he had to shift form to change his level within the computer, the thing gained a bit.
Imprudent course of action, he thought. Better to eliminate the pursuer, than simply elude it. He did not bother to acknowledge the fact that he had no chance of eluding it, anyway.
- - -
Lexius didn't really know who "Megatron" was, nor did he particularly care -- he'd fought bigger Decepticons before and won. He lunged across the room at the imposing form -- a good head taller than him, he saw -- as the Decepticon fired the monstrous cannon on his shoulder, obliterating the wall behind Lexius. In mid-air, Lexius fired his foot thrusters, and tackled the Decepticon in the mid section, slamming him against a wall. Megatron responded by grabbing Lexius by his shoulders, crumpling them beneath his fists. Lexius suppressed a cry of pain. He could feel the Decepticon's stunning strength through his joints; Megatron was pulling his arms off.
The Decepticon leered down at him madly. "Prepare for extinction, scrapling!" he intoned. Lexius levered himself against his opponent's waist with his legs, and pushed free with a shriek of torn metal. He thrust himself through a back flip and landed on his feet, realizing he could no longer fire any of the missiles in his now-ruined shoulders. He and his opponent circled one another warily. Lexius found his confidence of a moment earlier to be badly shaken.
"You are fast and strong," Megatron said, smiling as he dropped the bits of Lexius's shoulder armor that he had torn off. "Truly a worthy addition to my kill list!" He fired; the shot grazed Lexius's mid-section as he dropped and rolled, firing from his wrist blasters. His aim was true, but the shots seemed to have little effect.
Whoever this guy is, he's tough, Lexius thought as he regained his feet and glanced around the room for anything he could use as a weapon. There was only Starblast's motionless form. He was still under, motionless, a sitting target. Unless Lexius kept the Decepticon busy, Starblast was dead.
If I do keep him busy, I might be dead!
- - -
I have only microseconds to make this work, Starblast thought. The files he had sought were directly ahead. The security program was immediately behind. Starblast plunged into the files, initiating format changes, imparting his own defining parameters to the files, and shot back out. The security program followed him in, found his likeness, and promptly erased every one of the ship's altered security files. Its duty fulfilled, the program dissolved into nothingness.
Starblast allowed himself a vicious grin as he shot back towards his own realm of existence.
- - -
"You have dared to trespass the property of the Decepticons," Megatron rumbled. "You shall pay with a most excruciatingly painful death!" He fired again from his shoulder cannon. Lexius threw himself to the ground, and the blast missed him by inches. "Did you think we wouldn't know?" Megatron shouted and shot at him simutaneously. Lexius took the hit in the upper shoulder as he leapt back to his feet; it cleanly shaved off the portion Megatron had damaged earlier. "Moron! We aware of everything that happens in our computer systems, even the unfinished ones. Now DIE!"
The hulking Decepticon lunged forward suddenly, swinging one massive fist. Lexius ducked; Megatron's punch sliced through air where he'd been an instant before, connecting only with the stubby com antenna mounted on the back of Lexius's head. The antenna snapped off with a crack. The other fist swung, but Lexius was back up and ready for it: he grabbed Megatron's arm by the wrist with both hands, and jerked the bulky Decepticon off his feet. He swung Megatron through the air in three complete circles, building speed, then released him. The Decepticon impacted against the wall damaged by his earlier blast, enlarging the hole there. He disappeared into the darkness, cursing, as piles of systemry collapsed on top of him.
Lexius switched to his Gladiator mode and opened up with all his weapons, desperate to keep the hulking form buried in the wall. He poured blast after blast against Megatron, preventing him from getting back on his feet. Starblast abruptly appeared beside him.
"I have it. Let us go," he urged. They both reconfigured to Guardian, and shot out of the room. As they exited, Lexius saw the Decepticon -- still undamaged -- clamber out of the hole and fire on them again. The shot went wide, exploding on the far wall of the corridor. Then they were past, tearing into the ship's corriors at breakneck speed. A squad of Decepticons was standing a short way down the hall, probably as backup for their leader if he needed it, Lexius guessed. They had time to shout and point, but the two Autobots were gone in the opposite direction before they could bring weapons to bear.
"Who was that?" Starblast asked, impressed.
"I don't know," Lexius answered, in all honesty. "But I really hope I don't run into him again."
"Their security force is aware of our presence, as you probably discerned," Starblast said, "but I took their sensor network off-line. There does not seem to be a general alert, only an awareness of a single intrusion into their computer."
"Too bad for them," Lexius smiled.
"I am certain we can expect that to change shortly, however. Our one blessing at this point is that you and the Decepticon seem to have destroyed most of the communication equipment in that room. And with their network crashed, it will take a while to spread the alarm. But we do not have time to delay." He slowed down suddenly, and led the way through several turns. They bypassed a bank of elevators, coming to a vast open space nearby, in the ship's core. They flew into it, streaking towards the vessel's dorsal surface. Half a minute later, they emerged on the top side of the ship, exiting through the half-finished main gun systemry.
"Nice," Lexius said. "Look, they even left us a ride." A dock with a dozen or so runabouts awaited them. They boarded one, and headed for another one of the giant ships. Lexius kept an uneasy optic on the dozens of ships and Decepticons passing to and fro through the yard, but Starblast was as good as his word: no-one took notice of their little transport.
"Where are we going?" Lexius asked.
"There," Starblast pointed to another ship in the distance. "That vessel's construction has been halted at present, for lack of critical main gun components. It should be deserted." Nearly ten nervous minutes later, they drew close to the vessel. No activity pervaded the ship's perimeter; only a few lights glowed on the framework surrounding the half-finished form.
"I'm trusting," Lexius said, as the two Autobots soared towards the mammoth vessel, "that this thing has fold engines."
"You are correct," Starblast said.
"So we're really going to -- uh-oh." Lexius pointed to the rear sensors. Several fighters and transports had suddenly altered course and were heading in their direction -- too many too be a coincidence, far too many for them to fight off.
The race was on.
* * *
Ten security robots crowded the conference chamber, each sporting enormous, nasty-looking weapons. They looked like they'd be happy to use them, Punch thought. He hadn't revealed who he was yet; he was waiting for the ship's commander for that. They'd been waiting for several minutes for him to arrive. Punch sat motionless, not speaking, staring off into nothing.
The door to the chamber opened, and Grotusque ambled in, still a bit groggy from stasis. "Hiya," he mumbled, as he dropped into a seat across the table, directly in Punch's line of vision. "Welcome to Sojourn, or what's left of her. Heh -- the abridged version. I'm Grotusque, commander-at-the-moment."
Punch kept his visage emotionless. "I am Punch, Autobot intelligence. I must apologize for what has happened to your ship. I am... responsible, in a way."
"Howzat again? Don't think you were around when all this mess happened."
"I am -- I was, rather -- your information source. I'm an operative; I fed you most of your data for the last three months. I knew of the impending attack, but I didn't act fast enough to stop it. I bear a grievous burden for this failure."
To Punch's surprise, Grotusque's reaction was not anger, but laughter. "Oh, com'on, what were you gonna do? You know how big a ship they threw at us? 'Don't think ya could've stopped 'em yourself."
Punch's spying instincts came to the fore. "What sort of ship?"
Grotusque recounted the attack for their visitor.
"Twenty miles long," Punch repeated, when Grotusque described the attacking vessels. So that was Phalanx's "special prototype" -- an enormous vessel, apparently sporting some impressive firepower. And if that was just a prototype...
"I tried to warn you, but failed," Punch lamented. "I am responsible for this attack; I could have kept you out of it. I've come to make amends, to get your crew to safety."
"Well, we're all doin' OK at the moment, really. We've got a rescue team out in one of our gunships, trying to get us some help. In the mean time we're all catching up on our sleep."
The attack at Fiiry! Punch thought. "It's possible they will fail. I can help you in other ways. How much energon do you need to get the ship moving again? I might be able to --"
"Actually what we need is more like a tow truck than a can of gas. See, we don't have any engines left."
"Engines for a ship this size? Hnn. I don't have access to that sort of resources. Even if I did I probably wouldn't be able to get away with diverting them. The best I can do is scrounge up some small transport ships, to get you and your crew to Cybertron, or wherever you need to go."
"But we can't leave Sojourn; she's --"
"Necessities of war, Grotusque. It's only one ship. And at Cybertron you might be able to get a transport to recover the ship again."
"No, you don't understand... Sojourn is alive. A Transformer. Like you and me. We can't abandon her. Besides, my commander'd be ticked."
Punch was at a loss this time. After a moment of thought, he came up with nothing, and finally admitted as much.
"What about your ship?" Grotusque pressed him.
"My ship?" Punch almost laughed. "Well, it's overpowered for its size, but it wouldn't even move one of your dropships, let alone -"
"It doesn't have to move anything. Don't you have com gear?"
"Nothing of long enough range to be useful," Punch said. "It's not a bad idea, but I just don't -- Wait. I know a place that has everything you need."
"My operations base."
* * *
"It must be a mistake."
"There is no mistake," Pounce grimly told his brother. "I have quadruple-checked every bit of the data."
"It must be a coincidence. It simply couldn't be," Wingspan said, though he was beginning to accept it himself.
"Five, six times, maybe it could be a coincidence. But I am speaking of over thirty times," Pounce replied. Saying it out loud brought back his anger, the rage he felt. Thirty systems! Thirty systems, lost to the Autobots, because of data sent out right under their olfactory sensors. "Every time one of those transmissions occurred, he was traveling in his personal ship." Automated flight logs had seemed the most random of files to cross-check -- but they had panned out.
"So, then. Our course of action?"
"We keep a watch on his station, and ambush him when he returns."
"He is not there now?"
"No, he signaled that he would be absent for a while. Out on more of his traitorous duties, no doubt -- perhaps engineering a rescue for the Autobot ship. In the meantime, tell no-one of this; we cannot chance word getting back to him. We will take the tapes and ambush him ourselves."
Wingspan nodded. His mind still reeled from the idea, but he was glad he was one of the first to know. He liked knowing things first. And this... this was something really worth knowing.
Counterpunch was a traitor.
On to Chapter 5