The Corrosion of War Without End

Chapter 2:


 "C'mon, talk, Autobot!  Give in!  Tell me something, anything!"

 Punch rolled his optics.  "Go away, Decepticon," he swore at Beastbox.

 Beastbox simply hit him again.  "Talk, come on, talk or I'll beat you so hard you won't be able to talk!"

 "I don't think your pals would appreciate that," Punch said.  This torture was, in its way, the worst he'd endured: having to be left alone with Beastbox. 

 "Arrr... ahh, you're right, Pounce'd have my hide, but... gah!  Come on, TALK, won't you?? Tell me something!"  Beastbox pounded Punch's chestplates several times in frustration.

 "Alright," Punch said.  "You're an ugly little bastard, and one day I'm going to blow your cerebro cirtuits out."

 "Hey, shut up!" Beast Box said, striking him again.

 Violence was the ape-robot's specialty and favorite pastime, far more so than the interrogation that was ostensibly his primary function. Unfortunately for the Decepticons, Beastbox was far more destructive than he was effective. Without the clones' supervision, the interrogated was usually destroyed before anything of value could be learned.

 Before Punch could begin to really worry about that possibility, though, a bigger concern appeared, as the clones walked into the Chamber, carting a boxy machine.

 "At last, at last... what you have been waiting for, Autobots.  The XTP31 Mind Leach. Irresistable," Pounce smiled as he set the device down on the floor, between the two Autobots.  He activated it and fiddled with several controls for a while, then stood up, holding a headband that trailed wires into the machine.  "Who shall be first?" he asked himself.

 "The red one," Wingspan said.  "He knows.  And I really want to hear him tell."

 "Agreed."  Pounce strapped the headband onto Grotusque's forehead.  It clamped itself on magnetically.  Grotusque made a face.

 "Running," Wingspan reported.  "Okay, here we go.  Quick test.  Autobot, what's your name, rank and function?"
 "I'm Grotusque," came the immediate reply.  "Ground Unit Commander,  for Autobot starship Sojourn.  Primary function, military strategy.  Secondary functions, information officer, ground assault commander."

 "What happened to your ship?"

 "It was... ambushed, in space, at a drop site... damaged, and escaped.  But the engines... gave out... stranded..."

 Pounce and Wingspan gaped.  "You were right, the ship still exists!"  Wingspan exclaimed.  "Where is it?"

 "The ship is in -- in -- it's in space, at --"

 "Where in space?  Tell us the coordinates."

 "Aaarrrrgg... can't tell... 

 "You must.  Where is the ship?"

 "Can't... no fun..."

 "Oh, it will be fun," Wingspan.  "Telling us where your ship is is fun!"  Pounce looked at his brother with a furrowed brow.

 "Ship's at... arrrrrr... sector 48...  No, I mean... sector 48, subsector... 22... coordinates nine nine one," Grotusque slurred.

 Punch prayed that his horror didn't show on his face.

 "Do you believe it?" Pounce asked his brother.

 "Yeah, I do."

 "As do I.  Come, quickly."  The Decepticons headed for the station's control room, with Beast Box right behind them.

 Punch's head hung in despair.  All was lost.  In less than a minute, a whole week's worth of fighting and resisting had been undone.

 But hope followed immediately on the heels of despair.  Punch suddenly realized that they had been left alone.  This was it, the one-shot chance.  Now or never.
 He and Grotusque were still strapped to the wall, eagle-spread, like a pair of living X's. They were bound at the ankles, the waist, and... 
 The wrists were the weak point in their bonds, Punch had realized several days earlier, a place where the bonds held a narrow, relatively weak juncture.  He wished he'd had a chance days earlier, when his strength had been greater, and the pain less.  It would increase his chances for sucess.

 Or maybe not, he realized, as he began to try to effect his escape.  Maybe the pain needs to be there, all over, to blunt this pain, to make it seem tolerable, even reasonable. Maybe I needed to be in agony to come up with an idea this ludicrous. After all, under normal circumstances, it was agonizingly painful to pull one's own hand off. 

 The energon bond was too tight for him to pull his hand through, of  course; it would have been useless otherwise. That same fact, however,  gave him a possible means of escape. If the bond held his hand in place,  it would secure it while he wrenched his arm from it. If his hand separated  from his arm, the arm would be free. 

 Punch pulled in one arm with all his strength. He channeled out the agonies which came rushing in from all his joints, the fiery stings of the electro-jabbers reacting to his movements, the sharply increased surges of random energy from the variable voltage harness, the pains from the disabling metal shards that Pounce had jammed into his joints, the sense overloaders, the gyro triplicators, all the other things acting in concert on him. He suppressed the insatiable urge to scream, to share his unspeakable pain with the world. He forced every erg of will, of strength, of energy, into this one act of self-mutilation. He did not hear the groaning of strained metal, the staccato popping of shorted circuits and snapped wiring; he was only vaguely aware when the hand ceased to provide feedback to his brain. 

 Only when the arm flew across his chest and smacked him did he realize that he had freed it. 
 He paused for a moment, stared at the ceiling, trying to recover from this most titanic of efforts. The room spun; dizzily, he forced himself to regain control. His life -- and others -- depended on his control in the next few moments.  Motion monitors would already have alerted the clones to some change in the room; it would be only minutes or seconds before one of them came to check on them.

 He glance up at the bond, where his severed hand  still dangled, trailing wires; he raised the wrist to which it had been attached. It, too, trailed wires. Most were useless, without the hand. Some, however, were not. 
 He raised his free arm towards the wrist that was still held captive. 

-  -  -
  "Contact the Leige Centurio, priority one signal.  Have him dispatch a battle group, these coordinates," Pounce ordered Squawktalk, as he burst into the control room.  He repeated the location Grotusque had stated.  "Warn them that their target may be lethally armed, that they must strike quickly and decisively.  There must be no survivors."

  Squawktalk turned immediately to his orders, transforming to his cassette mode and slipping into a computer console.  The bank of instruments lit up obediantly.  In seconds, Pounce's orders were being relayed across the light years to a waiting Cybertronian fleet.  

  Squawktalk ejected and transformed back to his hawk form.  "It's done, I told 'em, just like you said.  They should be getting the signal about, oh, three or four minutes from now.  And I guess it'll take them, maybe, five minutes to process it, another five to relay it to the Leige Centurio, then they gotta scramble the ships, that could take as much as half an hour, then you got to allow some travel time, maybe a few hours --"
 "QUIET!" Wingspan snapped.  "Return to monitoring status."  Squawktalk obeyed, transforming and inserting himself back into the computer system.  "Unbelievable," Wingspan shook his head.  "Who knows what else they've managed to conceal?"

 "I am not surprised," Pounce said.  "Darklight is an espionage agent.  He would be well-prepared for this.  I would not be surprised if 'Darklight' was not even his real name.  As for the other one, I do not believe his mind is entirely well --"

 "Hey, what..." Wingspan's attention turned to another of the consoles, a light that had suddenly gone off.

 "The Chamber's motion monitor," Pounce said.  "We should check on our prisoners."

 "I'll go.  Make sure the fleet gets that transmission."  Wingspan turned and left the room again.

-  -  -
 Grotusque started. Something was happening, something was disturbing his rest, his blissful haze of semi-awareness -- no, not blissful, he realized.  The  sensation which permeated every fiber of his being was... it was pain,  yes, that was it. Pain.  Excruciating pain.  Something was happening to his pain. It was.. it was... the pain was... getting better? 

 The weary Autobot forced himself to look up. Through the blinding haze  of the room's lights, he saw a shape in front of him. It was a familiar  shape, though he'd not seen it for a while.  That's... that's... Primus, what is that? 

 It's Punch, stupid, Grotusque suddenly realized. The room, the past few days' events, everything abruptly snapped into sharp focus. As did the pains of his badly abused body. Punch was removing all sorts of things from Grotusque's body, instruments that Grotusque couldn't put a name to.  Every device that was removed lessened his discomfort. The orange spy looked up at him. 

 "You're coherent again," he said. "Good." 


 "We're getting out of here." Punch didn't mention that the means of  escape might be through their deaths.


 "They put a electro-dampener field around you, to distort your brain  impulses.  I've shut the field  down.  You haven't said anything sensible in half a week.  They put the field on you when they couldn't get you to give any serious answers." Punch reached up with one arm, towards Grotusque's wrist. 

 "Uhh, your hand is missing," Grotusque pointed out.  A pair of wires trailing from the arm touched the energy bond, and it quickly dissolved, absorbed into Punch's systems.

 "I know.  Thank you.  I've gotten most of their devices off  of you.  You should be able to move without much pain," he continued  to explain, as he freed Grotusque's other limbs. 

 "Aaaah... You lying bastard," Grotusque moaned, as he hit the floor.  Every part of him ached. He felt weak, tired. But it was infinitely preferable to the prolonged misery of their interrogation. 

 "Oh Primus," Grotusque said.  "What'd I say?  Did I give anything away?  Where'd the 'cons go?"  His mind reeled, trying to make sense of a   flood of images from the last week.  The room spun...

 Punch steadied his larger companion.  "Relax, relax, try to relax," he coaxed him.  "You gave away nothing important."

 Grotusque did as he was told.  He stood upright, and saw --

 "Look out," he croaked weakly.

 Punch whirled, as Wingspan's avian form flew across the room at them,  claws open and primed to kill. Not this time, my friend, Punch thought, as the thought of the indignities they'd suffered at the clone's hands welled up. With the strength of madness, he ducked and seized the Decepticon's claws when they were mere inches from his face.  Punch spun and brought Wingspan down head-first to the deck, using his momentum against him. The bird-like robot impacted hard and was still.

 "Come on," Punch ordered curtly. In awe, Grotusque ignored the pain and exhaustion, and obeyed. 

*  *  *
 Starblast came to the surface, feeling the disorientation that always  accompanied return to the real world after a trip through a computer.  The feeling was compounded by the fact that the body he returned to was not his own. 

 The body matched the image he'd seen in the computer, of course, the  image accompanying the mind he'd destroyed seconds before. But he had no time to prepare himself, to anticipate what the body might be like to handle. So he nearly lost balance and fell over in his first instant of controlling it. 

 "Dredge, you okay, man?" a voice called out to him. It took Starblast  a second to realize he was being spoken to. 

 "Yes... yes, I am fine," he managed. The voice belonged to a small, red robot sitting at a console next to him. Another Decepticon, of similar design, but blue, was sitting across the room. They were in a control room, filled with computer systems and panels. 

 Starblast realized he was in way over his head, as long as he remained in the company of those who had known this body's previous owner. He needed to find out everything he could about "Dredge": how he talked, who he reported to, what his job was, what he knew, what he didn't know. The sooner he got some time alone, the sooner he could accomplish the task. 

 "I took in a great deal of static feedback from the prisoner," he said. "I think I had best head down to maintenance; my gyro-centers do not seem to be recovering well." 

 "No kiddin', you're talkin' like a zombie," the red one said.  "And maintenence is up, not down."

 "Fine, we'll take care of everything here, all the hard work. See you at the next session, wimp," the blue robot called. Starblast guided the unfamiliar body out the door, ignoring the robot's insolent tone.  On the way out, he started in horror: there, on a table, sat the crumpled remains of his own head module, sheared off of the underside of his jet mode an instant before the crash that had destroyed his body. 

 It was barely recognizable; the optic visor was smashed, the side-lasers torn off, the features crumpled by the impact.  Wires trailed from the neck; others ran in through the sides, and back out into the computers. Starblast quickly averted his gaze and left the room. 

 He did not go to maintenance, of course. He did not even know where maintenance was. He did not know where HE was, for that matter. He located a nice, concealed alcove in a side corridor, and shut himself down for a while. For the next hour, Starblast rifled through the latent contents of Dredge's mind, the remnants and fragmental memories of the mind whose body he'd stolen. Armed with that, he hoped, he could perhaps formulate some method of escape, from where ever he was. 

*  *  *
 Punch bent low as he stalked down the corridor; Grotusque treaded wearily behind him. They each carried one of Wingspan's electo-burst rifles. There were only four Decepticons on the station, but just what internal security measures the clones took, Punch really didn't know.  Counterpunch had never found a suitable excuse to justify learning.  Wingspan was taken care of; that left three others. With luck, they'd all be in the control room. 

 The two Autobots stealthily approached the entrance door to the station's main control room. Punch motioned Grotusque to a halt, while he wearily searched for motion-sensors or infrared readers or electro-activity tracers. He saw none. Cautiously, he reached out with his sensors past the door, to the room beyond, feeling for other Transformer life forms. 

 Luck was with them. 

 "Pounce is at a console. The tapes -- there's two of them -- they're  plugged in to the computer system," he whispered to Grotusque. "I'll take Pounce; you fire on the computer before --" Punch was cut off as the door  exploded against them, fiery debris showering them, the shock wave  blasting them across the corridor. 

 Pounce, in puma form, leapt through the flames towards them. The two  cassette robots, Beast Box and Squawktalk, were right behind him.  

 Audio sensors, idiot! Punch cursed himself, opening fire with his confiscated weapon. Grotusque had lost his gun, and shifted to tiger form. Pounce leapt to tackle Punch, but was intercepted in mid-air by Grotusque. The tiger-like Autobot sank a pair of enormous tusks into the Decepticon's mid-section, and was rewarded by a groan of pain from the clone. The two cassettes, meanwhile, attacked Punch in a frenzy. 

 "That's just the beginning, you bastard!" Grotusque cried, as fuel  spilled from Pounce's damaged form. The beginning of revenge, for more  than a week of living hell. 

 "Grotusque, no, finish him quick!" Punch cried out, as he floundered  beneath the combined assault of the cassette robots. Grotusque obeyed: a  swift claw strike sent Pounce crashing to the deck, motionless. Grotusque  transformed, standing upright. Punch was on the deck now, desperately  shielding his head from Squawktalk's claws and beak, while Beastbox fired  round after round into him. Grotusque took the ape-robot out first,  lifting him over his head and throwing him to the deck. With the assault  of Beastbox's blasts off of him, Punch had finished off Squawktalk before Grotusque had a chance to think about it. 

 Punch rose unsteadily to his feet. Grotusque offered him a hand.  Punch aimed his weapon into the control room, and systematically destroyed every piece of equipment in it.  No-one would be following them any time soon.

 "Let's go," he said to Grotusque.  Leaning on each other for support, the battered Autobots limped down the smoke-filled corridor, towards the station's docking bay. There was still work to do.

*  *  *
 "He said they'd be back in two weeks," Rollbar said.  "It's now three weeks.  I'm startin' to get a mite suspicious."

 "I'm starting to get a mite worried," Lexius answered.  "Something must've happened to him."

 "Yes, and with the ship fixed, that's all the more reason for us to get out of here," Sidetrack said.

 "Why do you say that?" Lexius said.  "Seems to me the longer we're here and nothing happens, the less likely it's going to happen."

 "Just the opposite," Sidetrack said.  "The longer they're gone, the more likely they've been captured and made to tell the 'cons where we are."

 Sidetrack's words were like a knife through Lexius.  He realized he'd been so worried over Grotusque on a personal level that he had not even considered the strategic implications of his failure to return.

 "Primus," he muttered.  "You're right.  The longer we stay here the more likely we'll be found.  So... how long do we wait?  How much risk do we take?"

 "We can't stay here forever, Lexius," Treadmark said.  He and other three Autobots were sitting in the ship's conference chamber, the stars drifting idly outside the viewport.  "We must get underway sooner or later.  My vote is for sooner.  It pains me to say it, but I have doubts that they're coming back.  They've had a week past their deadline."

 "Yeah.  I just have a hard time accepting that, though.  What if Grotusque makes it back here and we're gone?"

 "If he gets back here, he can get to Cybertron, too," Sidetrack pointed out.  "We've got to consider the welfare of the ship.  And our... other assets, as well."  Sidetrack nodded out the viewport towards the destroyer, floating in formation, ready for the journey back to the Autobot fleets.  He'd nicknamed it the "Slagmaker", both in honor of its previous owner and in anticipation of its future role, and the name had stuck.

 "Yeah, yeah, it's just... I can't stand the thought of leaving him behind.  Especially after Starblast."
 "I understand --" Treadmark started to say, when the intercom buzzed suddenly.  Tuner's voice came through without preamble.

 "Lexius, defold activity!  Two ships, big ones!"

 The four Autobots scrambled to their feet and raced out the door.  "Tuner, sound red alert!"  Lexius radioed.   "Y'know, I'm getting real tired of this," he muttered to his companions as they ran.  They burst onto the bridge seconds later.  "Tactical report!" Lexius called.

 "Two X-S class warships, in formation, off our nine-seven," Tuner obeyed.  The Cybertronians' most powerful assault ships, the Autobots all knew, each carrying two tremendous main guns.  "Designate targets one and two.  They're coming about and preparing to fire."

 "Evasive, hard port.  System report!  Are our weapons charged?" Lexius asked.

 "Weapons are manned, standing by at sixty percent power.  Best we're gonna do."

 That's too close against X-S ships, Lexius thought.  But he gave the order anyway:  "Gunners fire at will!  Engineering stand by for fold.  Beacon, find us a path to fold space!"

 "Already on it, chief."

 Sojourn's weapons unleashed their fury.  Several scored hits, but they did little damage.  The X-S was heavily armored.  It required cumbersomely huge engines to move such enormous mass, and correspondingly huge crews, but it made for a very formidable war ship.

 "We're not hurting them," Tuner reported.  "They're lining us up quick, too--"

 "Evasive, evasive!  Swing us to the other side of the Slagmaker, and stay behind them!  Who have we got over there?"

 "Just Quickmix and a few of his crew," Pixel said.

 "Get them on com."

 Pixel worked her console furiously, as Sojourn dove behind her larger companion.

 "Quickmix here," Lexius's com chirped.  "Lexius, you're drawing their fire right into us!"

 "No, I bet we've got a few seconds before they realize that you're on our side.  Can you get to fold?"

 "We're trying, but we've got such a high mass-to-impetus ratio that it's going to take a while to achieve --"

 "Quickmix, yes or no?!"

 "Yes, in about five minutes."

 "That's not enough time!  We'll never hold them--"

 "They're coming around!" Tuner called.  "One from each end!"

 The X-S ships had split up, and were approaching from around either end of the destroyer.

 "Quickmix, turn to port hard!  Now!  Focus, take us under the  Slagmaker and pull up to the bridge."

 "Lexius, if we turn to port we'll --"

 "I know that, Quickmix, that's the point!  Do it and then all of you get to your shuttle.  We're coming around for you."

 Slagmaker, immobile till now, suddenly stirred to life, swinging fast to its right.  The motion rammed its hull against one of the Cybertronian ships as it closed in on Sojourn; the crash resounded throughout both vessels.  The impact knocked the X-S off course, enabling Sojourn to slip back under the destroyer without having a single shot fired at it.  With the destroyer's allegiance thereby clarified, the other warship immediately opened fire on it.  The X-S inflicted massive damage, though with its companion drifting close by, it could not risk a sure-kill shot.  

 Sojourn pulled up along the front of the Slagmaker and hovered there for one agonizingly long minute.

 "Target one coming over the top side --"

 "Emergency Dock reports Quickmix's shuttle has landed," Pixel called.   

 "Focus, go!" Lexius ordered.  The ship pulled away from the sheer wall of the destroyer.

 "Target two has cleared the Slagmaker," Tuner called, as the damaged enemy ship got itself away from the destroyer.  "Target one is firing."

 "Get us out of here."

 Its injured companion out of the way, the other X-S opened fire without restraint.  The Slagmaker was holed through and through in less than thirty seconds, reduced to a charred and burnt-out hulk.  With the larger foe vanquished, the ship turned to deal with its primary target.  But the Sojourn vanished into fold space before a shot could be fired. 

 Sojourn's bridge was silent as the stars flew by.  Lexius slumped in the captain's seat, shaking his head.

 I really blew it this time.

 Sojourn had escaped at last.  But Lexius had abandoned another of his friends.  And in waiting for him, he'd cost the Autobots their best and maybe only hope of surviving the coming storm.
On to the Chapter 3.