The Corrosion of War Without End
PART FOUR
Chapter 1:
Interrogations
 
 Quickmix mind was racing even faster than usual.

 The Autobot engineer clambered over, squirmed under, and dashed all around the Decepticon fold engines, taking last-minute measurements, making appraisals, trying to decide which connections would fit, which would have to be rebuilt, which could be forced into place, figuring out the fastest way to take the things apart and put them back together in their new home.  He had been considering the issue since Lexius had brought the destroyer back to them, but now that they were almost back to the Sojourn -- less than an hour away -- his work was urgent.

 "Howzit goin'?" Lexius's voice called out to him.

 "Oh, hello," Quickmix poked his head out from under one of the modules.  "Excellently.  If we chop down ten of these modules, we'll have a perfect set of engines for Sojourn.  I'm just trying to figure out how to connect them to what's left of Sojourn's power systems."

 Lexius managed a wan smile.  "That's good," he said.  "How will they work?"

 "Beautifully.  I think," Quickmix said, climbing out from under the fold engine and standing up.  "They're brand new and very up-to-date.  Umm, of course, that also means I've never worked with anything quite like them."

 "What about this crate?"  Lexius gestured to indicate the giant ship they were riding in.

 "It'll be slow, but even without the fold modules, batteries, and generators we're taking out, I think we should be able to get it back to the fleets.  It still has thirty other fold modules.  The fleets can replace what we remove when they build main guns for it."

 "Good... maybe that'll off-set the news about the shipyard a bit."

 "Oh, easily.  Six months of work at the very most, and they should have this vessel battle-ready," Quickmix said.

 "Mm.  What about us?  How long to do the transfer and get Sojourn moving?"

 "Hmm... By my best estimate, about a week's work, if we get the whole crew on it."

 "One more week.  I guess it doesn't matter much.  If Sojourn's still there now, how likely is it someone's going to find us at this point?"

*  *  *
 Punch's first impression, upon awakening, was that he was flying.  His arms were outstretched, and his head was spinning as if he were tumbling in free fall.  His body felt weightless, unreal, as though he were far removed from any gravity, floating through space.

  He opened his optics, however, and saw that there was very little freedom about his situation.

 He was in Pounce and Wingspan's station, in a dull grey room they simply referred to as the Chamber.  He was bound to the wall, eagle-spread, his arms stretched over his head.  He flexed them, just to test the bonds that held him.  He was rewarded by a chorus of firey stings all over his arms -- electrojabbers, he knew.  He held himself perfectly still; after a minute the miniscule machines stopped their poking torment of him.  He gradually realized, as his damaged body slowly came back on-line, that he was hurting in a number of other ways.  Random surges of pain affected areas of his body; each surge seemed to come just as his nerve sensors were on the verge of recovering from the last one.  A variable voltage harness, probably.

 Bound to the wall as he was, he couldn't see anything but the blank wall across the room from him.  He wondered if Grotusque was nearby.

 He knew it would hurt, but he had to take stock of how he was held.  Craning his neck, he looked up at his arms -- two energon bonds each on the wrists.  He stretched to look downwards, ignoring the furious stings on his armor.  Two bands at the waist, two on each ankle.  No way to work free.  He let his head slump back to its resting position.  There were other problems to deal with.

 "Grotusque," Punch whispered.

 No response came.  He could only try again.  He had to.  Punch's greatest fear had come true -- he had been captured along with someone else.  "Grotusque," he whispered again.

 Punch was born and bred espionage; the possibility of being captured and interrogated was ingrained in him. He had been preparing for it for millennia; after years of intense training, he had defenses and mental shields erected against it. However unbearable their torture might be, he knew he could keep himself from revealing anything critical.

  Grotusque, however, was no spy. He was a warrior, and the possibility of being interrogated like this probably never even crossed his mind. Grotusque had only his own guts and endurance to fall back on.  Such things were a weak shield against the kind of punishment that Punch knew the clones would be administering to them.  Eventually, the clones would break him, but Punch still had to take the heat off his companion for as long as possible.

 "Grotusque, wake up," he repeated, and was rewarded by a slurred response from beside him.

 "Uhhh... whah?  Huh?  Lemme sleep."

 "Shhh!  Quiet!  They're monitoring everything," Punch said.

 "Heh... sorry 'bout that.  What's goin' on?"

 "Shhhhhhh!"

 "Oh yeah.  Right."

 "Grotusque... act stupid."

 "Whah?"

 "When they come, act stupid!  No matter what!"

 "Uhh... okay.  No prob."

 "It won't work," a third voice told them suddenly.

 Grotusque jumped; Punch swore.  Pounce walked into view from behind them.

 "Grotusque, is it?" he addressed one of his prisoners.  "I am certain of one thing, neither of you is stupid.  Foolish, certainly, but that is hardly the same thing as stupid.  Do not even try to decieve me in that regard."

 "Heh... how would you like me to decieve you?" Grotusque asked him.

 Pounce did not smile.  "You may try any way you like," he said cooly.  "But eventually we will wring truth from you.  It will be easiest for you if you do not bother."  A wall panel slid open, and two more Decepticons walked in.  "Wingspan, Beastbox, meet Grotusque," Pounce  gestured to the Autobot.  "Let's start, shall we?"
 
 "What's the rush?  I'm not goin' anywhere," Grotusque said.

 "What is your friend's name?"

 "He doesn't have a name.  He's like the unknown soldier, see, 'cept he's an Autobot, so it's more like the unknown Autobot --"

 Pounce did not reply, did not twitch a facial plate.  He simply touched a button on a small remote unit in his hand.  A blistering surge of energy ripped through Grotusque.  The Autobot screamed in agony, thrashing furiously, which only compounded his misery by setting off his complement of electrojabbers.

  The electric barrage lasted fifteen seconds before Pounce keyed it off.  He looked at Grotusque as though nothing had happened.

 "What is your friend's name?"

 "Ooooooh... he's... uhg, that hurt.  Um... damn, Bolt, what is your name?" Grotusque replied.

 "I don't seem to recall," Punch said.

 "Let me jog your memory," Pounce said.  He touched the button again; another fifteen second barrage shot through Grotusque.

 "Hey!  Don't do that; it's rude," he said, when it was over.

 "What is your companion's name?"

 "Screw."

 "Screw?"

 "Yeah.  As in 'screw off'."

 Grotusque got a third jolt of electricity for his troubles.

 "Dammit!" he protested.  "I'm not kidding; it really is --"

 But Pounce shocked his prisoner yet again.  When it was over, he repeated the question.

 "I'm Darklight, Autobot army, First fleet," Punch spat out, before Grotusque could answer.  "Intelligence division."

 "I didn't ask you anything," Pounce said.  He turned up the variable voltage harness several notches.  Punch squirmed.  Pounce turned back to Grotusque, and delivered another shock, far longer than the previous ones.

 "What is your companion's name?"

 Grotusque groaned, sounding broken.  "He's Darklight," he said finally.  "He's a spy."

 "What were you doing on that station?"

 "Distilled energon," Punch answered.  "It gives you an awesome buzz."

 Punch got the shock this time.  It was horrible, but he held himself perfectly still, knowing that squriming would only make it worse by activating the electrojabbers again. The power surge lasted nearly a minute before Pounce ended it.

 "What were you doing on that station?"

 Punch's head hung loosely.  "Ah... I... I live there.  All the time.  It's... it's my home."

 "Your home?" Wingspan repeated incredulously.

 "Yeah.  My home."

 Beastbox was on him instantly, thrashing him.  "Come on, Autobot, how stupid do you think we are?  That's Counterpunch's station; an Autobot couldn't stay there without -- HUUUHCK!!"

 Pounce clamped a hand on the ape-robot's shoulder and lifted him off the deck, till they were at eye level with each other.  "Idiot," Pounce hissed at him, and tossed him across the room.  Beastbox landed in a heap, and scrambled to his feet again.  Pounce turned back to his prisoner.  "Somehow I don't believe you," he said, slowly moving his finger towards the remote unit.

 "No!  Please, it's the truth!  I really do live there, I -- no, please no --" Punch's words broke down into a prolonged and very real scream as raw energy surged through him again.  The barrage lasted two minutes this time.
 
 "We've kept the surge discharger running for as long as thirty minutes before, without the prisoner incurring permanent damage," Pounce said to him when it was over.  "Know, however, that we don't care if we damage you or not.  What were you doing on that station?"

 "Aaaah... I live there.  In secret.  It's my home."

 "On a Decepticon station."

 "Yeah.  It's secret."

 "And the Decepticons know nothing of this?"

 "Well, yeah, what do you think secret means?"

 "Why should we believe this?"  Pounce reached for the surge controls again.

 "No, no please, I'll tell you!  Counterpunch doesn't -- "

 The surge only lasted half a minute.  Pounce was satisfied with the results.

 "Oh... uh... I... I... I live there -- I stay shut down the whole time.  Till he leaves.  Till Counterpunch leaves, I mean.  The 'con who lives on the station.  Then I come out.  It's not hard, he travels all the time.  Then I come out of my hiding spot."

 "Very interesting.  And just what do you do when you come out?"

 "Darklight"'s face grew scornful.  "I already toldja.  Distilled energon.  Man, it gets you so high --"

 Pounce sent a three minute blast into him before continuing the questioning.  He had not the slightest idea that he was playing into his prisoner's hands.

*  *  *
 Starblast looked about for the umteenth time in... well, he had no way to measure time, actually.  All he could see was computerscape. He tried once again to move, but he was still not fully incarnated: he had no body, no powers within this world. Only his senses were being allowed access to the computer, then -- not the full capabilities of his mind. Someone didn't want him wandering about.

 Why was he here, how had he gotten here? Starblast tried to access his most recent memories, but without success. Short-term memory storage is as much a primary function as sensory input; if I can see, I should be able to remember.  Someone is intentionally preventing me from accessing those memories. The most likely perpetrators of such an action...

 He stopped the thought, as he realized he had no way of knowing if his thoughts were being monitored. Perhaps his memories had already been drained off, piped into a data bank somewhere for analysis.  It was not the easiest thing to do, but it was possible.  Certainly he was in hostile territory.

 I need my complete mind in here, he realized. As it was, he was more or less helpless. He had to be in here for a purpose. He needed to find out what that purpose was, and how he might thwart it.

*  *  *
 The untrained eye would not perceive any damage to Grotusque and Punch's bodies, aside from the untended wounds they'd received in their fight with the clones aboard Counterpunch's station. Pounce's torture techniques were far too refined for the damage to be visible this early in the process. That, however, did nothing to relieve the agonizing pain coursing through the two Autobots' nervous systems.

 Punch groggily lifted his head from where it had slumped, and tried to clear his vision. It was no good; the careful damage wrought by Pounce had shorted out circuits all across his body. Fields of static danced before his optical senses; the room seemed to contort, twisting and bending. He wanted to rest his arms, bring them down to his side, to relieve the aching hydraulics which had been stretched to their maximum limit for days. He really wanted to shut down, allow his body to mend itself, but that function had been long since disabled by the clone brothers. Whatever further horrors were visited upon their bodies, both he and Grotusque would remain painfully conscious for it all.

 The clones had not uttered a word in over an hour, simply stood as if waiting for some signal, not even so much as glancing in the prisoners' direction. Punch knew they were hoping to unnerve one or both of them, with this silent, maddening waiting, accompanied by the excruciating pain. He wondered how long the waiting game would continue, before the questions began again.

  Over the last few days, Punch had allowed the clones to drag a mix of truth and lies out of him.  He freely admitted that he had been the one pulling data on the planets and sending it to the Autobots.  Just as freely he admitted that the Autobot ship was completely destroyed, with only Grotusque and a few others had surviving, left adrift in deep space. Darklight had brought Grotusque to the station to get the com gear needed to contact the Autobot fleet, to pick up the survivors. What about the gunship that had been seen in several systems? He knew nothing of it.  Not ours, Grotusque had said.  Where were the ship's remains? "Darklight" and Grotusque had refused to answer that one; they would not betray their comrades. That response had earned them both a great deal of pain.

 Pounce apparently was satisfied that the two had waited long enough; he stirred and walked casually towards them. "Now then," he said smoothly, "We will try again to... clarify a few muddy points." He reached out, and removed a few carefully placed slivers of metal from several of Punch's joints. Instantly the aching in the places was relieved, leaving only a dull numbness behind. Punch gave silent thanks for the reprieve, though he was sure he would pay for it later. Pounce did something to Grotusque - probably removing the same splinters -- and then paced twice in front of him, then stopped and turned to face him.

 "Where are the Autobot ship's remains?"

 "Space," Punch said.

  Pounce forcibly reinserted one of his metal slivers into Punch's shoulder joint. Red-hot pain relayed out along his sensor pathways from the affected joint; Punch grunted in pain.  "Where in space?"

 "Deep space."

 Another sliver.  "Coordinates."

 "Ahh.  Couldn't tell you."

 "You will tell me," Pounce said, jamming a third piece of metal in.  "You think you've suffered up to this point?  You have not even begun to suffer."

 "Urrg... I'll have to suffer, then."

 "Talk.  Spare yourself the pain.  I have infinately more time than you have endurance.  Where is the ship?"

 Punch said nothing, and got a fourth shard.

 "Where is the ship?"

 Another silence. Pounce disabled still another joint. "Another one of these goes in for every ten seconds you remain silent, until I can find no more places to put them," he told his prisoner.

 "I hope you have a lot of them."

 "Foolish Autobot.  We will break you, you know. By refusing to talk, you are simply prolonging your agony."

 Punch restrained himself, but he almost smiled.  The length of suffering he was to go through was already pre-determined; it would last until they decided to kill him, which he figured should take about two weeks.  What he was really prolonging was Sojourn's safety.  Die he might -- he fully expected to, in fact -- but he would never reveal anything he did not wish to.

*  *  *
 "So what happens when we get the ship moving again?" Sureshot asked, as he carried a pile of generator components through a cross-dock into the Sojourn.  He and the rest of Perigee's crew were heroes of a sort, having brought salvation to the ship, but that didn't get them out of helping with the frantic scramble to transfer the destroyer's engines.

 "We head for Cybertron," Sidetrack told him, as he towed a sled behind his tank form.

 "Cybertron?!  That's not where I wanted to end up."

 "What's wrong with Cybertron?" Lash asked.  She carried a huge stack of metal panels she'd ripped off the destroyer's armor, to be used in a temporary patch on the Sojourn's gaping holes.

 "Have you ever been there?"

 "Well... no..."

 "Believe me, it's not a good place to be going."

 "Why?  What's wrong with it?"

 "It's a bit of a war zone," Sidetrack explained.

 "It's a bit of a hell hole," Sureshot said insistently.  "I can't believe we're going to be stuck there for however long it takes to repair the ship.  It's a real good place to go if you want to get killed, but not for much else."

 "Is it really that bad?" Lash asked.  The trio turned a corner and entered the port engine rooms.  Crewers swarmed over the Decepticon fold engines, making adjustments, checking fittings, sealing valves and conduits.  Quickmix was everywhere at once, overseeing the entire frenzied effort.

 "Cybertron's not the most pleasant place in the universe anymore," Sidetrack conceeded, as they deposited their loads.  Lash headed in a different direction.  "But it's the only place we can repair the ship," he told Sureshot.  "It's the only place that has enough of the right alloys and the right technology."

 "Wonderful."

 "If you really don't want to stay there, you could probably transfer to another ship," Sidetrack told him.  The two headed back for another load of parts.

 "Not a bad idea, but... I think I'll stick it out," Sureshot answered him as they walked.
 
 They paused a moment to wait for Lash to catch up, before heading back to the destroyer.  "Somehow I figured you would," Sidetrack told him, knowingly.  Sureshot looked at him, but had only a vague idea of what to make of the comment.  The three Autobots marched on to their work.

*  *  *
 Grotusque dimmed his optical modules as much as he could.  Useless.  The room's lighting was still painfully bright. He was infinitely tired of the game they were playing; he craved nothing more than the sweet release of shutdown. This game sucked.  Even permanent deactivation was preferable.  So far it had just led to pain,   flooding his systems, inescapable, omnipresent. He tried to locate a  single component of his systems which did not ache horribly. He couldn't do it.  There was nothing fun about this, he decided.  But at least he was winning.

 Grotusque tried to think, to clear his mind, to remember... What was his  name again? Where was he, why was he here? Why was he being forced to go through this?  It was hard to think, so  hard... he didn't know why he kept bothering to try.  There was something, something he had, something that someone  else wanted.  But he mustn't give it to them, no matter what. Why is  that? he wondered.  The someone said the game could stop if Grotusque  gave him what he wanted, let him win... That couldn't be bad, could it? What could be bad about ending the agony?  But that would mean he'd lost the game, and he couldn't do that.  What a drag.

 "Where is your ship," a voice came to him through the thick fog of his senses.  Grotusque roused himself.  It was time for another round.

 "The ship... the ship is... it's... umm, it's a ship," Grotusque said.  The words rang to him as supremely funny.  He smiled.  This was the game: a distant voice asked him where his ship was, and he came up with a different answer every time.  If he came up with a new answer, he was still winning.  The problem was, winning made things hurt a lot more than they did otherwise.  It wasn't a very fun game, but he couldn't remember what one was supposed to do to win it once and for all.

 Grotusque, as it happened, was not the only one who was weary of the game.  Pounce sent another surge of electricity into Grotusque, until the delerious Autobot was no longer smiling.  Beside him, Wingspan shook his head in disgust.

 "It's useless," he told his brother.  "He doesn't even know what we want anymore.  I still say we should get a sifter or a mind leach and run him through it."

 "Hnnn," Pounce said, turning to Grotusque again.  "Where - is - your - ship??"

 "It's... uhh, it's... It's on the roof," the Autobot slurred with a chuckle.  Pounce shocked Grotusque one more time, but finally nodded slowly.

  "You are right," he said to Wingspan.  "At this point I would not trust any answer the Autobot gave anyway.  Skyjack is due to make a run here in a day or two; contact him and order him to obtain whatever mind probes he can get on short notice."

 The clones left the room, leaving Squawktalk to guard them.  Punch swore to himself silently.  Even he had been surprised by the degree of pain the clones had meted out.  More surprising still, however, was that Grotusque had held out through it all.  The clones had drawn out all sorts of non-essential information from him, but on the matter of Sojourn's whereabouts Grotusque had been adamantly stubborn.  His indominatable sense of humor had gotten him through all sorts of sadistic tortures.  But Punch doubted he could resist a mind probe.  They had to escape somehow.

 Punch had a plan, though he wasn't sure he had the resolve to carry it  out. But he would try, if the opportunity arose.  He just needed the clones to leave them unguarded for a few brief moments.

*  *  *
 The voice had no form, no visual accompaniment; it simply appeared in  Starblast's mind as he hung suspended and helpless in computerscape.

 Hello?  Autobot, can you hear me?

 Starblast was not sure how to respond.  In the end, he decided that commication of any form was better than his current state of utter helplessness.

 Who are you?  Where am I?  What has happened to me?

 I am an Autobot, name's Dredge.  You're safe now, you're in a repair bay with the fleet.  You're shut down for now, till we can repair your body, but they sent me in here to ask for your help.  Where is your ship?  Where did you leave it? The Autobots there are in danger.  We've got to help them, but we don't know where they are.

 Starblast knew already that the voice was lying.  He was not shut down; he was in a computer.  Most Transformers would not recognize the difference, but to Starblast it was clear as night and day.  Best to play along for now, however.

 How... how did I get here?

 Your friend called for help, and we rescued you from those Decepticon ship building yards.  But he was killed in the rescue.  All he had time to tell us was that your ship was stranded and needed help.  Can you tell us where it is?

 Starblast knew the voice must mean the Sojourn. But even he couldn't  answer without access to his recent memories. He experienced a slight  thrill of anticipation: here was a chance to regain some of his lost  powers.

 I do not remember very much... my memory seems to be failing.  My... friend was killed?  What ship? I cannot remember... he broadcast.

 Try to remember. Many lives depend on your help!

 I am trying!  But I have no memories, of anything!

 Hold on.  I will report this.  Perhaps the medics can effect repairs.

 There was nothing for a moment. Then, suddenly, Starblast found...  Sojourn.  Perigee.  The stolen cargo ship. His last mission, with Lexius.  The computers. He had tried to escape, and... The memories washed over him in a wave, up to the very last one, a protruding bulkhead rushing straight towards his head. The tide of memories overwhelmed him for a brief moment. Starblast quickly regained control of his mind, though. And quickly developed a plan.

 The voice returned: They fixed a couple of damaged pathways.  Do you remember now?  Can you tell us where your ship is?

 I do not remember, Starblast cried. I have no memories. I must have my memories back.

 I will have them try again, the voice said sympatheticly.  Another, longer silence. And his long-term memories came flooding back, his mind complete and united again.

 Ahh... that is helpful.  I remember... I remember some things, but nothing about a ship.  Are you certain that all the linkages have been repaired?  Starblast began to tentatively reach out, explore the space around him. It was definitely a Decepticon-built computer system; he could tell that immediately. Primus knew he had been inside enough of them. The voice did not speak for a while. Abruptly his body rematerialized; he could now move about in the system. He elected not to, for the moment.

 All right, he spoke. I see the ship, yes. The ship was attacked, somewhere, somewhere... somewhere in space. But... I can not remember where; things are not clear... There must be more damage.

 There is no more damage.  Your brain unit is completely functional, the Voice argued. Your full memory should be restored.

 But it has not!  I do not have my complete mental capabilities, do you not see?

 I will... have them triple check.  The silence that followed was the longest yet; somebody somewhere was  doubtless debating the wisdom of allowing him access to any more of his  functions. Had he pushed for too much, too fast? Perhaps in a moment his  memories would all disappear, his 'body' vanishing, leaving him once again  as a helpless eyeball suspended in computerscape.

 But without warning, his full functions were restored to him. Someone  would not live long enough to realize their mistake.

 The voice came again, but Starblast did not so much as listen. He tracked it to its source in an instant, and raced along the path, a discorporate lightening bolt streaking through the computer's pathways. Near an outlet relay, he found the source of the voice: the image of another in the computer, a robot. A Decepticon, still speaking, still unaware.

 The Decepticon finally saw him coming, and tried to retreat, to escape out of the computer. But it was far too late for him. With the speed of thought, Starblast smashed through the image that was his interrogator.

 Inside the robot's mind, Starblast unleashed a thousand tricks at once, a thousand methods of destruction he had acquired after years of roaming through computers. The robot's mind disintegrated, exploding outwards into shards of static, without so much as a death-cry. The image dissolved as its owner was obliterated by Starblast's myriad of micro-viruses and destruction programs. Starblast quickly traced the link between the Decepticon and the real world, following it before it had a chance to  evaporate in the same manner its owner just had.

 Out there in that world, the mind he had just destroyed had a body. Since he had no idea where his own body was, Starblast intended to take this one.

*****************************************
On to the next part.