The Corrosion of War Without End
PART THREE

Chapter 5:
Escape


 "Brace yourself," Starblast said, as the runabout dove towards the titanic destroyer.  "I am going to take a risk or two that I normally would not."  Though they were only a few miles from the vessel's surface, he jacked the runabout's throttle up to full.  The little ship surged forward at breakneck speed.  Starblast plugged himself into the computer for a moment, then came out again.

 "What'd you just do?"

 "You will see.  It would be prudent to evacuate now."

 They opened the ship's top hatch and leapt clear, dropping towards the destroyer below them.  The runabout curved up and away as they left it, and hurtled off into the distance.  A moment later it flew straight through the distant cloud of Decepticons pursuing them.  Lexius didn't get to see the results, though, for at that moment they landed on the surface.  An airlock responded readily to their prompts.  Starblast  led the way, taking them deep into the Decepticon vessel, along a maze of paths incomprehensible to Lexius. 

 "We have to get to the access chamber for the central computer core," Starblast said, as they thrustered along in Guardian form.  "We can seal all entrances from there, and reprogram the systems to respond to our command."
 
 Three more turns and a short elevator ride brought them to a vast, rectangular chamber, filled with machinery and conduits. "This is it.  The main computer core is directly below this chamber.  I should be able to route all functions directly to the ship's bridge, enabling us to run the ship from there.  Then we simply double back down that corridor for three miles to the bridge." 

 "Why not just route everything to here?"

 "There is no navigational apparatus here," Starblast pointed out.

 "I guess that's a problem," Lexius conceded, as Starblast stopped before a console, and prepared to plug in. "Be fast," Lexius said to him, as he went under. "We're probably out of time already." 

 Lexius waited, anxious as always. The monitor flashed suddenly, and Starblast's image appeared on it. His voice came from the console. "Lexius! There is a squad on the way here as I speak. You must hold them off." The image disappeared before Lexius could ask any questions. 

 He surveyed the room. The exits were mostly on the bottom level, where they had entered and were standing. Another exit far above, in the opposite corner, led to some catwalks.  Tons of mechanical equipment hung near the ceiling; the floorspace was filled with computer banks, some modest, some towering far over his head.  Lexius ducked behind a wraparound console, where he could cover several of the exits and still keep Starblast in sight.  His sensors suddenly twitched.

 +++multiple electro-pulse readings+++
 +++vector two-two+++
 +++closing ~20 kmh+++

 Lexius transformed to Gladiator mode and pointed his weapons at one of the doors.  Cross-shots entered the room a second later, as the Decepticons tried to keep anyone from ambushing them as they charged through. The first two burst in, covered by a third.  Lexius fired; the massive blast dispatched all three of them. The next group were quick learners, though; they scattered as they entered, and found cover. Lexius got only one of them, and the other two kept his head down while over a dozen more warriors poured into the chamber.
  
 The group charged him.  His shots knocked a couple of them down, but they kept coming.  Lexius transformed back to robot mode and glanced around, noticing a large chunk of conduit or machinery or something hanging from the ceiling. He launched himself into the air just as the Decepticons reached his baricade, and fired several of his missiles into the space where the thing hung -- it was a generator, he saw. Raw energy sizzled out of snapped conduits as the construct tumbled to the deck, landing on top of three of the attackers, crushing them utterly.  The others scattered.  Lexius tore off in another direction, as several of the Decepticons took off to pursue him, firing continuously.  He looped over the catwalks; one of the fliers tried to follow and smashed into the suspended steel span, wrecking it and himself.  Lexius came to a stop just beyond the walkway and dropped toward the deck, firing.  His shots took out two more of his pursuers, but shots pelted his armor from below as the grounded members of the squad fired on him.  He thrusted back away from them as they spread out and took shelter, assisted by their airborne comrades.  They formed a semi-circle around him, pinned him in with their fire patterns, and herded him towards the wall.

 Lexius soared backwards, landing on the surviving catwalks near the ceiling. He was being driven out of the room, towards the exit. He backed up slowly at first, firing, till the Decepticons blasted the catwalks out from under him. He caught himself with his thrusters and landed in the door frame near the ceiling. From below and above squad closed in, as Lexius realized he had nowhere left to go but out the door. 

 Starblast, meanwhile, had finished his work in the computer.  He looked around as he came back to the real world, assessing the situation. Lexius was in the exitway far overhead, by the remains of the catwalks, firing frantically on the squad as they closed in on him. He couldn't hold out against so many... and the squad was cutting him off from the bridge. Starblast came to a grim realization.  One of them had to get to the bridge -- and he doubted he would last long enough on his own to get there.

  He leveled his chain-gun and fired. He hit several Decepticons before they realized what was happening.  Half their number turned and returned fire. 

 Starblast leapt away from the console as the first blasts hit it, igniting it and detonating its power core. He dashed away from the explosion, launched himself, and transformed to his sleek jet form. Decepticon fire tracked him across the chamber as he accelerated, hugging the far wall of the vast chamber, dodging and weaving. He could see an exit ahead, but a vast gulf of open space separated him from it.

 Lexius blasted at the squadron from his perch, taking out several of them, but half the squad was firing at him, forcing him to duck, while the other half continued to track on his friend, determined not to let the infiltrator escape. Starblast couldn't dodge all their shots; as Lexius watched helplessly, one blast after another passed through his armor. Trailing smoke, he began to wobble unsteadily in his flight. 

 Starblast would never make it through all that firepower, Lexius knew.  It was a sacrificial distraction.  They had been lucky throughout the mission, dodging most opponents, only having to fight them in small groups, but not this time. "Lexius! You have control!" Starblast shouted at him.  Starblast keyed a radio command to the ship's computer, as more lasers pelted him. 

 Suddenly he took an especially powerful blast, which slammed him into the wall he'd been flying along.  There was a crash, a flash of light and fire from Starblast's underside, and Lexius thought he heard his friend cry out in pain for an instant, as he impacted against a protrusion from the wall. A mass of metal was sheered off of the Autobot's ventral side by the impact. Starblast arced along the wall, trailing smoke and debris as he fell, and impacted the corner wall opposite from where Lexius waited. A explosion tore through him, and in a few seconds there was nothing left to see but flames. Lexius stared at the burning form, unbelieving, wordless. 
 
 The Decepticons turned to finish him off, emerging from their cover and advancing. Lexius gazed at them as if seeing them for the first time, a red haze of rage filling his vision as he took in these enemies, these murderers. He screamed incoherently, and, launching himself through the air, charged them. 
 
 The Decepticons had expected him to flee, fire on them, surrender -- almost anything but the raging, uncontrolled berserker which now blazed into their midst. Lexius rammed straight into the two remaining fliers, sending them crashing to the deck, and fired all his weapons as he tore into the ranks of the ground troops.  He  landed feet-first on one of them, smashing the Decepticon to the floor.  He  grabbed a head module and crushed it with one hand, whirled the limp body off the deck and flung it at two more assailants.  He sliced off the arm and then the head of another attacker with his wrist blades.  He used that Decepticon's weapon to dispatch two more with point-blank shots to the optic visors, then slammed the butt of the gun straight through the chest of a third when it ran out of charge.  He punched another in the gut, grabbed his head by the back when the 'con doubled over, and pulled it off with a single motion.  Another jumped him from behind, but Lexius slammed him  head-first into the deck.  A sword came at him -- he grabbed it by the hilt and severed the hand holding it at the wrist with his own blades.   With the sword he sliced off another head, then with his concussion blasters he shot the legs out from under one who was running away... 

 They were all running away, the few that were left. He charged and fired after them, screaming.

 "Cowards! Stinking cowards! Rusters! Face me and die! Spineless murderers! Come back and die like Transformers!!" 

 The last Decepticon bolted out of the chamber, sealing the exit behind him. Lexius stopped, lowered his smoldering weapons, and looked around to find nearly a dozen immobile forms scattered around him. He'd nearly depleted his energon stores in the past minute or so, he realized. And why. 
 
 Starblast was dead. 

 Lexius turned to stare again at the burning form that had been his friend, now lying in a pile on the deck across the room. He stared in mute horror, unable to divert his gaze from the grizzly sight. This was the price of his failures. This was the retribution of the shipmates he'd let down, that he'd let die. His oldest and closest friend. His first officer and constant advisor. The logical counterpoint to his fluid emotionality. Dead. Ultimately, because of his failures, because of his decisions, because he had failed those who had trusted him. For his failures, fate had decreed that his friend should die, so that he might go on to suffer.

 He fell to his knees, a moan of agony escaping his vocal housings, dark storms swirling through his brain. He remained thus for a long moment, till a single thought welled up through his tormented mind. 
 
 This is not the end, he swore to himself. 

-  -  -
 A single blast opened the conduit, and energon gushed out, spilling into the chamber, across the floor, splattering onto his chest, which was already slick with the fuel of his enemies. He opened a receptor path, and glowed in the warmth of new fuel, drawing power from the ship itself. Lexius clenched one fist in fury. He had only begun to exact retribution. 

-  -  -
  He heard them long before he saw them.  Three of them, by the number of differing voices and footsteps.  

  "...then knock him down, and pluck out his optic sensors, then tie his arms up so he can't move, rip out his fuel pump and stomp on it while he's still alive like I did to that one Autobot at Deta Simga Seven --"

  "I was the one who did that!  You just sat there quakin' in your boots --"

 Typical Decepticon rank and file, Lexius thought.  They probably lusted after combat, savored the voice of a gun in hand as some kind of perverse music, relished the sight of the destruction they left behind them.  The damn fools were actually hoping  to find him, so they could test their mettle, bust something up.

 "So when we catch him I'm gonna do that, then pull his arms behind him, hang him from the ceiling from his fingertips, and rip off his armor plates --"

 "Hey, shut up a minute," one of the trio said to his fellows.

 "...and tear out his reactor linkage, and ram it down his --"

 "I said, shut up for a second!  I thought --"

 "Hey, you shut up!  I'm not finished telling what --"

 "No, YOU shut up. I thought I heard something, up ahead."

 Lexius shouldered the sword and the two extra rifles he'd acquired in the last hour.  He wouldn't need them, he decided.

 "You didn't hear anything, my hearing's a lot better'n yours. I'd've heard it first." 

 "You? You couldn't hear a missile blow up if it were shoved right up your --" 

 "Who could hear anything with the two of you screaming at each other..." 

 The Decepticon's voice trailed off.  Lexius's darkly backlit form filled the corridor ahead. 

 "Awright!" one of the robots exclaimed.  Within his body, a set of drums commenced turning; a series of groundwaves carried through his feet and into the ship's deck -- the effect was not unlike an earthquake. The other two robots opened fire on the Autobot.

 But the Autobot was no longer in the place where they were aiming; he was in mid-air, leaping, extending one foot to catch the ground-shaker square in the chest. Lexius brought his full weight down on the foot as he landed, crushing the Decepticon's mechanisms with a satisfying crunch. He kicked another one of the 'cons in the head, sending him flying against a wall, and grabbed the other one by the neck and slammed him repeatedly into the deck, till he stopped moving. 

 Flinging the unconscious form over his shoulder, Lexius continued his unrelenting advance to the ship's bridge. 

-  -  -
 The five Cybertronians charged with defending the ship's control center  weren't warriors at all; they were construction drones who had been handed guns and told to guard the bridge.  They had sealed the door as soon as word had spread of the slaughter in the computer core room, but they didn't feel any more secure. The survivors of that battle had regrouped and returned to the battle site, but all that remained was the burnt husk of the smaller Autobot, and the dismembered remains of his avenger's victims. A couple of troops -- the lucky ones, everyone was thinking -- had gone back to report their findings, since all transmissions out of the ship were being jammed. The remainder began tracking down the surviving Autobot.

 That remainder had grown steadily smaller in the last hour.

 Paranoia was beginning to prevail, as reports filtered back of one group after another being wiped out -- and the trail was heading steadily towards the front end of the ship.  The  five Cybertronians were on the edge of terror.  

 Without warning, the bridge doors bulged inwards with a loud crash.  Five shaking weapons sprang up to point at them. Another crash; a large dent appeared in the center of the twin doors.  A third hit, and a set of metallic fingers pierced the armor and reached through the space between the doors.  The left door was pulled into the corridor with a wrenching of sheared metal. The 'trons opened fire. 

 The doors deflected most of the shots, however. And then it disappeared down the hallway.  

 The Cybertronians stopped firing one by one, confused by what they were seeing.  Lexius simply backed down the corridor, taking the bridge door with him.  His five opponents gathered around the entrance, bewildered, and took aim again with their weapons.

 Suddenly Lexius charged, thrusting down the corridor towards them at tremendous speed, bearing the door like a shield and howling a furious war cry.  The five had no time to move; the door slammed into them, mowing three of them to the deck and carrying the other two across the bridge, till they were smashed into the bridge's forward consoles.  Lexius released his grip and swung around, dispatched two of the Decepticons with concussion shots, and simply slammed the door down edge-wise onto the third.  
 
 He dragged the bodies into a corner, propped up the bridge door in place to keep anyone from shooting him in the back while he worked, and set about doing what he'd come here for. What Starblast had died for. 

-  -  -
 Megatron raged. "I've got MORONS on my team!" he screamed, barely restraining himself from putting his fist through the screen. The robot on the other end of the connection cringed, but continued his report.

 "We're unable to raise any of the groups that got on board the ship before the Autobots sealed it. If they're heading for the bridge --" 

 "It doesn't matter WHERE they're heading!" Megatron interrupted. "You will find them, and you will destroy them, or you will be subject to a most grueling and painful punishment!" 

 "Yes, mighty Mega -- " The robot paused as another report came in at his end of the connection, a look of horror crossing his features. "Oh no. I -- I think it's too late," he said, hoping he hadn't just condemned himself to death. 

-  -  -
 He plugged himself in as best he could, not easy for one of his design. His multi-tasking abilities would be stretched to the limit by this job. Lexius initiated vocal radio commands for most of the functions; as Starblast's last words had promised, the ship's systems responded readily to his prompts. He stretched out all his senses within the ship's systems, searching. He sent out a command. 

 Somewhere far behind him, the massive vessel's engines came up to power. 

- - -
 Megatron stared out the viewport of the command center, which overlooked most of the deep space facility. He hardly noticed the smoldering remains of the com panel beside him. His optics focused on a vessel not far away, a vessel which was beginning to move forward, tearing free of its moorings, untimely ripping itself from the womb that had birthed it.

 His body trembled in fury. These ships, these magnificent instruments of destruction whose subtle theft from the latter-generation Cybertronians he'd carefully engineered, were to be his vessels of glorious conquest.  Now one was being stolen -- by a wretched Autobot, no less. The humiliation was more than he could stand. The ship mattered not a whit -- all he cared about was stopping the Autobot. Megatron sent out a general dispatch to every receiver in the yard. His fury had taken him beyond screaming; his words were barely a whisper. 

 "Destroy that ship." 

-  -  -
 "Destroy that ship," the command came over one of his speakers, along with a flashing screen that announced it was a priority-one signal.  No thanks, Lexius silently answered Megatron's dispatch.

 Vessels throughout the yard were moving to comply with the order, though; it looked like they were launching everything they had that was capable of flight. Lexius almost laughed; he wasn't about to be stopped at this point.

 A mental finger ran out from his mind, flying through the computer systems, until it came to the weapons systems. He rifled through the files, searching for something -- anything -- that was on-line and could be fired. Lexius regretted that the main guns -- the weapons that had nearly destroyed his own ship -- weren't installed yet; it would be a glorious irony to unleash them upon the yard. But the ship had not reached that phase of completion yet. Can't complain, he thought. At least the engines work.

 The ship rumbled as ordinance exploded against its half-finished hull;  Lexius intensified his search. At last he came across a set of missile banks that were operational; he immediately armed them, and gleefully fired them. 

 Through the exploded viewports he saw an incredible number of drive trails streaming away from his ship. Explosions bloomed throughout the area as the missiles homed in on whatever targets were handy. Lexius grinned mercilessly. The ship was now free of its construction dock, bits of debris spinning in its wake. His mind raced through the nav computer systems, set them into motion, guiding the titanic vessel out of the yard. He could spare no further attention to his pursuers; he hoped the one blow he'd dealt them would be enough for him to make his escape. 

 Without warning, a viewscreen above him activated.  A all-too-familiar face filled the screen.

 "Autobot!" Megatron shouted at him.  "Surrender and we might let you live.  Try and escape and you will die the most excruciating death imaginable!  I will cut out your fuel pump with a can opener!  I will--"  Lexius ended the transmission with a single shot from one of his concussion blasters, and repeated his hope that he'd never encounter Megatron again.

 The enormous ship accelerated. Lexius's earlier bravado began to fade, as he approached the point of space fold. If the ship failed to enter fold, he had no idea what he'd do. There was no telling whether the other destroyers in the yard were armed. It didn't matter much, he realized: there were far too many smaller vessels in the yard for him to have any chance of escaping on his own. The ships of the yard had recovered from his missile launch and were closing again, firing without restraint.  Would they destroy this ship just to keep him from having it, he wondered? No, it wouldn't take that much: They just have to destroy the bridge...

 What's taking the nav computer so long?! He gritted, trying to fight down the nervousness in his core systems, and repeated his prompts to the computer, as the ship began to rattle with explosions. He could see ships beginning to vector towards the bridge, already launching missiles. Lexius was mentally preparing to seek shelter from the missiles -- if that were possible -- when the nav' computer finally answered his requests for a course. He immediately sent what he hoped were the prompts for foldspace. 

 Nothing happened. A phalanx of missiles closed on him. 

 What did I do wrong?! he wondered. Whatever mistake he'd made, it was about to cost him his life, he realized -- the missiles would impact in  a few more seconds.

 But a feedback belatedly returned, and a white flash materialized. The vessel rumbled beneath him; the shipyard and his pursuers blurred and disappeared as the ship finally escaped into fold. 

 He was safe, at last. And he had in his possession everything they needed to get Sojourn back to friendly space. All it had cost him was the life of his best friend. 

 Lexius began to plot the long journey back home.

*  *  *
 Pounce was entirely focused on the work before him. He was nearly done welding the scanner housing to the station's interior, working carefully to avoid singeing the delicate electronic systems inside. Beside him, Wingspan was working to activate the miniature cloaking shield which would protect the scanner and its transmissions from being detected by security sweeps. 

 They'd had no trouble getting inside the station; they were authorized for most of the security devices, and Pounce had had little difficulty getting them past the rest. Of course, we have no idea what hidden security measures the traitor takes, Pounce realized. The betrayal effectively threw everything they thought they knew about Counterpunch out the window. How much of what we saw was a facade? he wondered. Pounce's mind spun with the possibilities; he paused briefly in his work. Wingspan abruptly grabbed his arm. 

 "I'm fine," Pounce assured his brother.

 "No, look! On sensors, a ship just defolded!"

 Indeed, Pounce saw, one of the exterior viewscreen showed a tiny, two-passenger transport approaching the station. He forced himself to remain calm, to take careful, systematic stock of the situation. He looked again at the approaching vessel and realized something with  shock.

 "That isn't Counterpunch's ship," he said to Wingspan.

 "You're right!" Wingspan answered him. "Who, then?" 

 "We will know shortly," Pounce said grimly. "Is the cloak active?"

 "Nearly."  

 "Finish it, quickly. We have only minutes," Pounce directed his brother. He rose and darted off. This unexpected arrival could be a disaster; but, properly handled, it might aid to their investigation. It might even be the key to the whole dilemma. 
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On to Chapter 6