The Corrosion of War Without End
PART THREE

Chapter 6:
Pay-off


 Thousands of programs and systems lay dormant, no power coursing through them, no decision-making processors handing out thousands of verdicts per second, no free will at work. Only the slightest trace of energy flowed into the system, from a minuscule power source designed especially for emergencies like this. Its output was minimal, but that was all that was needed for preservation of the system's defining features. If necessary, the output from the source could last for millions of years, perhaps billions.  No-one knew for sure. Certainly not the system's owner. That being was unaware of anything. 

*  *  *
 Punch entered the station at a run, Grotusque jogging in behind him. The double spy didn't bother with any of the routine tasks he normally ran through upon arriving home, running security scans and so forth. Time was in critically short supply; anyway, he wasn't even supposed to be here. He'd left a message with the clones that he'd be away, in deep space, for several weeks. He headed for the communications equipment room. The red  Monsterbot followed.

 "So this is home, huh? Your ship, why the disguise?" Grotusque asked.  Punch's ship transformed and attached itself incongruously to the station's exterior, looking like an innocent piece of equipment. Grotusque thought it looked like an outsized ornament. 

 "So the Decepticons won't know about it, of course," Punch said, opening several consoles.  He was too tight-lipped to explain that he never came here in Autobot form, normally, so the presence of an extra ship might be hard to explain to his Decepticon comrades.  Furthermore, he could never be entirely sure that his Decepticon-issue ship was not bugged somehow, though he checked it frequently.  He kept the extra ship as a secret so his occasional travels into Autobot territory could not be traced. 

  Grotusque was already at work, expertly identifying which com modules would work with Sojourn's surviving equipment and pulling them out. They worked quickly, carrying a number of modules and amplifiers out to the ship.

 The red Autobot asked too many questions, Punch thought, as he closed up the panels he'd opened. But Punch needed someone who knew Sojourn's systems to get the right gear; more to the point, he'd promised the Autobots on Sojourn he'd help, and it wouldn't really be fair to run off again without at least one of them coming along. Grotusque had kept up a constant stream of jokes and light banter on the trip here. He himself had said little during their days-long journey, and wasn't about to start talking now, not when he was skating so perilously close to blowing his cover. Even coming here in his Autobot guise was dangerous, but he didn't wish to show his other face to Grotusque. They were almost done; the sooner and quicker they were out of here --

 A barrage of laser fire erupted behind them, blasting Grotusque off his feet. Reacting instantly, Punch yanked his twin-barreled mortar launcher out of subspace. Instantly was not quick enough, unfortunately; he felt himself forcibly tackled from behind before he could turn and fire. The impact knocked him against the panel he'd been working on, stunning him. The mortar launcher went flying and skittered across the deck. Something had a four-pronged, painful grip on his back. Acting on instinct, Punch spun along the wall, smashing his antagonist against it. He ran backwards into the wall, and succeeded in breaking his opponent's grip. Punch whirled and swung blindly. His fist struck home; the Decepticon staggered backwards, and Punch got a look at his attacker. 

 It was Pounce. 

 Oh shit oh shit oh shit! best translates the first thought to cross Punch's mind, as he glanced about quickly. Wingspan, in robot mode, stood across the room, twin electro-burst rifles at the ready. Behind him, Grotusque lay face-down on the deck, unmoving. Smoke trailed from wounds on his back. Punch's weapon was nowhere in sight -- it must be behind me, he realized.

  In his puma form, Pounce took a silent, casual step towards him. Counterpunch had seen that the movement before, knew it was a prelude to a blindingly fast leap. If Pounce got his jaws to his throat, he was finished. He took a hesitant step backwards, to bely his own readiness. The leap came, unbelievably swift, but Punch's reflexes were up to it. He raised one foot as he dropped onto his back, letting Pounce's momentum carry them over; the puma-like Decepticon went flying across the room and crashed into a wall.

 Punch finished his backwards roll and was instantly on his feet again; he spotted his launcher and dove for it. With his brother no longer in the way, Wingspan opened fire, tracking him across the room, missing by only a hairs' breadth. Punch scooped up the launcher and fired. Wingspan took the fireball across the chest; he impacted against the wall and slumped there, unconscious. The explosion seemed to rouse Grotusque; Punch thought he saw the Monsterbot move slightly as Wingspan fell. Punch whirled to finish off Pounce, but the infiltrator had recovered from his own collision with the wall, and leapt at the same moment Punch fired. The firebomb missed, obliterating one corner of the room.  Punch and Pounce came to grips and clattered to the deck. 

 Grotusque rose groggily from the deck, ignoring the searing pains where he'd been hit in the back, and tried to figure out what was happening. Across the room from him, Punch was wrestling with a puma-like robot, a Decepticon. A second robot lay semi-conscious beside him. We were ambushed! he decided. He stumbled to his feet. 

 "Go, take my ship and go!" Punch screamed at him. Grotusque was still for a moment, understandably hesitant to abandon his companion. But at least one of them had to get back to Sojourn. "Take my ship, that's an order!" 

 Punch was vaguely aware of Grotusque leaving the room. He was rapidly loosing control of this struggle; he had lost his weapon again, and keeping Pounce's jaws away from his neck left him only one free hand. Pounce's claws slashed at him, selectively disabling. If he could get away from this wrestling match, he might still have a chance, though... 

 Grotusque darted out of the room, scooping up the last of the com  modules they needed. He noted that the second Decepticon, the unconscious  one, was no longer sprawled where he'd been a moment before.

 He fled down the corridor, clutching the last three com modules, warily watching for an ambush from the robot who had escaped. He felt rather like a coward, leaving Punch, but the orange Autobot had made him agree to follow his instructions to the letter, as a conditional for his help. So Grotusque swiftly made his way to Punch's ship. 

 Fire from behind tracked him down the corridor; Grotusque threw himself against the wall, shielding his precious cargo while he retrieved his own weapon from subspace. The duel-barreled vaporator materialized in his hand with a faint flash. Grotusque fired back up the way he'd come. His opponent and target, he saw, was the robot he'd seen before, the one who'd been unconscious when he awoke.  Good: the Decepticons, both this one and the other, the puma that Punch had been struggling with, were behind him; the way to the ship was clear. No need to prolong this, he realized. Shooting wildly up the hallway to cover himself, he darted towards Punch's ship. 

 He was only a few steps away from the docking port when he turned a corner and ran straight into the robot he thought he'd left behind. The Decepticon fired both his weapons point-blank; Grotusque was thrown backwards by the impact. The com modules dropped and shattered, spectacularly. Grotusque brought his weapon around, and was about to fire, when a second shot hit him -- from behind. The twin blows, on top of his earlier damage, were too much; he collapsed to the deck. 

 Barely conscious, he perceived a second robot running in the same way he'd come. It was -- the same one who'd attacked him in the corridor! "Good work," the new arrival called to --

 His identical companion, Grotusque saw, his faltering mind struggling to comprehend. "What about the other one?" the companion asked. 

 "Immobilized," was the answer.

 Clones, Grotusque realized, before his vision fell away completely.

*  *  *
 Treadmark leaned back in his seat, as far as it allowed, propping his feet up on the control panel. The Perigee's interior was not designed for comfort; certainly no-one was supposed to use the thing as a home for weeks at a time.

 Treadmark's form also did not allow for much leaning back in chairs.  A pair of wing-like projections extended from his back, making it difficult to settle into most seating. The 'wings' became his side armor in his vehicular form. It was a common, standard Autobot design, though it had been much improved over the years. Some of its early bearers had been the legendary tactician Prowl, and the much-feared warrior Bluestreak, both lost long ago in a mission to save Cybertron from destruction. Treadmark's version still retained its original Cybertronian hovercraft form, and was augmented with three missile launchers; two were long and thin, resting on his outer shoulders, while the third - a huge, monstrous looking thing - was directly left of his head. It blocked his vision to the left when in firing position, but it was a problem he'd learned to deal with in everyday life, just like not being able to lean back in a chair. 

 Treadmark relaxed now, pondering this and many other things, and regarding the vista of stars outside the viewport. Sidetrack was seated at the console next to him in a chair that was vastly too large, engrossed in reading some text novel on his screen.  Perigee was drifting idly, powered down, waiting for Lexius and Starblast's return. It was pleasant to relax for once, not have to anticipate and plan for some mission, not to think of their failure at the Aryung system, not even to have to worry about the stupid Decepticons. To just stare at the stars and think of history, or philosophy, or mathematics, or life, or nothing.

 Treadmark often regretted that his form was land-bound on its own, depending on nonsentient starships to travel between worlds. He was fascinated by the vast distances between stars, the emptiness, the unlimited space. He had often contemplated the idea of leaving, just taking a ship from somewhere and traveling the galaxy, wandering from one system to another, refueling from stars, imbibing in the wonders of the cosmos, no worries, no cares... but he knew his conscience would never allow him to do so, not as long as other members of his species were out there killing, murdering, conquering, destroying, threatening innocents. 

 Damn Decepticons.  Ahhhh, don't think about that now...

 With no warning, a tremendous flash of light and radiation came through the viewports, nearly blinding him. He threw up a hand to shield his optics as they fought to compensate, and shot upright in his seat. Beside him, Sidetrack did the same, hands flying over the consoles to power up the ship. From behind him, Treadmark heard Sureshot speak, fear in his voice. 
 
 "Ahhh... uh... that... that... it's..."

 Treadmark looked, and started in horror. He'd seen this ship time and again, in the nightmares of his shut-down cycles, for the past month. It was the destroyer, all twenty miles of it. 

 "Gah! It's another one! Getusouttahere, gettus outta here now!  Hurry!" 

 Sidetrack was scrambling to comply, but both of them knew the Perigee would likely be dealt its death blow before they could escape into fold space. Their systems were coming up to power, but the process was agonizingly slow; Quickmix's jury-rigged system couldn't handle fast starts. They began to move, but slowly, ever so slowly... 

 Treadmark realized they'd not been fired on. Perhaps they were being toyed with? No -- a console said something else. They were being hailed!  Sidetrack and Treadmark exchanged looks, and shrugs. They had nothing to lose. The Micromaster punched up the hail, as Treadmark looked out the viewport and realized that not all of the destroyer was there.

 "Howdy, guys," the face on the screen said curtly. The occupants of the  Perigee could only stare for a moment, then they doubled over in the  laughter of relief, release, joy, and the satisfaction of success.

 It was Lexius. 

-  -  -
 Treadmark stared, shocked, at the blackened thing that had been Starblast, the joy of reunion he'd felt earlier now a memory. He couldn't think what to say. Death was not a thing most Transformers contemplated regularly. Even when he did consider it, Starblast was the last one he thought of it happening to. The first officer had seemed almost immortal, existing dispassionately outside the normal flow of life and death. It was hard to believe that the twisted wreckage before them had once been alive at all, let alone Starblast.  Treadmark forced down a nauseous feeling.  He had to turn away; he couldn't look any longer.  That had been a friend...

 Quickmix was combing through the body, pulling away bits and pieces as  necessary, an autopsy of sorts. He muttered to himself as he did so. The  others stood in a cluster, a short distance away, trying not to see.  Finally Quickmix stood up.
 
 "It looks like he took several hits right to the fuel lines; then when  he crashed the extra energy or sparks or something just set it all  off at once," he said, his voice a mixture of competent expertise, and  sadness.
 
 "Any chance of a revival?" Lexius asked dully. 

 Quickmix looked uncertain. "Well... that's kind of hard to answer right now. Did he run into something before he crashed?" Quickmix asked. 

 Lexius didn't know what that had to do with it. He didn't see how the engineer could look at and touch the body so dispassionately, either. It was all he could do to keep his systems from overloading with nauseous   feedbacks, and his mind from succumbing to overwhelming grief. 

 "Lexius?"

 "Huh, um, yeah, actually, he did," Lexius answered. "What, why?" 

 Quickmix stood up, gazed at his commander.

 "His head is missing."

-  -  -
 They folded for several days to reach the point in space where Sojourn drifted. During that time the Perigee's crew scoured the Decepticon destroyer for Starblast's head module, but found little besides one or two Cybertronians Lexius had missed in his purge. The Perigee was now docked within the massive destroyer, to conserve its straining engines, though it would fly ahead to the Sojourn to give them notice of what was happening. At last they dropped out of fold a few light years from where they'd left their ship.  Sidetrack took the Perigee on ahead; the rest of the group would follow in the pilfered destroyer a few hours later. The harrowing mission was nearly at an end.    Treadmark joined his commander, alone on the destroyer's bridge.

 "Lexius, we've searched just about every spot on the ship," he said. "It's possible we missed somewhere, but I just don't think he's here."

 "You're probably right. But the only way he could have left the ship is if the  Decepticons have him," Lexius said.

 Treadmark anticipated Lexius's thoughts. "You're not going back there," he said, anxious not to loose another friend. 

 "No," Lexius agreed, dully. "There's no way of knowing where he might be. But we can't just abandon him, if there's some chance he might be alive!" 

 "War necessitates that sometimes. Remember the first ambush, when you made me leave behind some of our casualties? Some of them might have been revived." 

 "That was different, we were talking about risking several whole squadrons..." Lexius trailed off. 

 "No difference," Treadmark said.  "Who knows what it would take to get Starblast back.  The fact is, none of us can do it, no matter how many of us we risked.  None of those squadrons would have gotten our casualties back, either; you were right to see that, and I was wrong.  That's why war is so horrible.  It forces you to give up on the living sometimes.  It forces you to kill, and to make decisions that kill.  Even those you care about the most."

 Lexius had the passing thought that he had not considered that issue in many ages.  He was going to have to, he saw.  "And all I ever had to say about it was 'that's war'," Lexius said, wearily.

 "It's not your fault," Treadmark continued, gently. "You thought he was really dead.  You had no idea you were leaving him." 

 Lexius stared at the deck without seeing.  "If only I'd known..."

 Starblast, I'm sorry... I failed you again.

*  *  *

 There was no time in the stasis, no way of knowing if it had lasted a minute or a millennia. There was no blackness or light, there was no there. Only nothingness. One did not even know one had entered stasis; one simply ceased to be aware. 

 Until one became aware once more: activation. Power, anew, coursing through circuits. Engrams restarted, systems came on-line. The consciousness came into being once more, renewed from its involuntary stasis, returned to life. 
 
 "AHHHRRRRGGG!"

 "What..."

 A gridwork above him. And below. A computer, then.

 How, Starblast wondered, did I come to be in a computer?

*****************END PART THREE***********************************
On to Part Four