The Autobots could see it from over a hundred miles out, a hulking mass half-embedded in the shifting desert sands of the planet, a metal mountain which continued to grow even when it seemed they could come no closer to it: the Vengeance.
The bridge of the Gambit was silent; all optics were fixed on the imposing sight. The ship was long and thin, almost swan-like in its delicacy. But it had survived its crash landing largely intact; its back appeared unbroken. Four tremendous main guns were attached to large, wing-like guiding surfaces; two more made up the ship's first several miles of length, which was half-buried in the sand. The ship's bridge was mounted above them, a ledge projecting forward from the main superstructure of the vessel.
Lexius finally spoke up: "Take us down. Find a spot on the upper hull somewhere, near an airlock or cargo bay or something." Tuner selected an appropriate site, and relayed the coordinates to the helm. The downed vessel swallowed the view in front of them, till they could no longer see the desert stretching away to the horizon -- only a broad plain of metal. Their transport ship settled amidst a cloud of stirred dust, a fly landing on the back of a giant.
The crew disembarked, nearly a hundred Autobots pouring out of the transport. A hundred seemed like a lot when we left Cybertron, Lexius thought, appraising the group. But now that I'm here, looking at this thing...
He approached the cargo bay door they'd landed beside. He struggled with it for a moment, tried to raise it up or punch through it; he could do neither. He finally gave up, and called to one of his old troops from Sojourn, one whose strength he'd trusted for a long time.
Lash stepped from the crowd; together the two Autobots toppled the door with several solid blows. It fell into the darkness of the ship's interior with a clang. "Recon team," Lexius ordered. "Let's move." Lexius, Wheeljack, and a mixed group of engineers and medics walked cautiously into the ancient ship. Nightbeat trailed along behind them, out of curiosity.
Several of the Autobots snapped their headlights on, to illuminate the darkness. Their footsteps disturbed a thin layer of dust on the floor. The ship's interior was silent, dark, unlit and powerless. Like a crypt, Lexius thought. Just that, in fact: as they rounded a corner, a pair of legs protruded from a hole in the wall. Lexius, in the lead, gave thanks that he'd not been visibly startled -- some command image that'd would've given. "Hold up," he called. "We got a body here."
The chief medic, a Micromaster named Fixit, stepped forwards, and began an examination. He and several assistants carefully extricated the inert Autobot from the wall. "Go on," Fixit told Lexius. "We'll be fine." Lexius led the engineering team on, deep into the darkened ship.
* * *
"Medical team. Your report."
Lexius had enough experience dealing with Micromasters to see at a glance that Fixit was tired. He sounded depressed as he related the day's results. "The entire crew was deactivated by the crash. Our preliminary survey turned up over a thousand Autobots, and it was not exhaustive. The damage to all was extensive; reactivation will be complicated, slow, and difficult, unless the ship's auto-repair systems can be brought on-line."
"Exactly what I was going to say," Wheeljack nodded to Fixit's last statement. He stepped forward vigorously, seeming unaffected by the work of the past twelve hours. "The ship's in pretty good shape -- it was one tough nut to crack -- but with just the crew we brought, fixing it'll take forever. Revive the old crew, though, and we'll have it off the ground before you can say 'fusilateral quintrocombiner'."
"What do we do first?"
"First, the computer systems. They'll do a diagnostic on the whole ship, and if we tell them the crew is down, they'll put the autorepair systems to work on fixing them."
"What's the catch?" Lexius asked with a wry grin.
Lexius could have sworn that Wheeljack was grinning himself somewhere beneath his motionless faceplate. "The catch," the engineer said, "is that the computer systems take a lot of energy to get started again."
"I'll take care of that," Lexius said. "You do whatever you need to get us in the air fast."
"Gotcha. But we're gonna need a lot of energon, and really soon, too."
- - -
Lexius stayed long enough to make sure everything was proceeding smoothly, then he and Treadmark took the Gambit to the inner system, to draw power out of the star.
"Lexius," Treadmark said, before they'd even cleared the atmosphere. Lexius grimaced. This was it, the showdown he'd been putting off for days. He had stayed on the bridge for the entire trip here, to keep from being alone with Treadmark. No more hiding now, though. "What happened to you on Cybertron? I feel a change, something's different. It worries me."
Lexius waited a long moment, collecting his thoughts, watching
through the viewports as the blackness of space beckoned to them. "What
it boils down to, Treadmark," Lexius said at last, "is that I'm sick of
killing. I'm sick of killing Decepticons, I'm sick of killing innocents
caught in the crossfire, I'm sick of seeing my troops and the ones I care
about get killed. I'd gotten so caught up in the war that I'd lost my morals,
my principles, my self, everything. Prime saw that, and he reminded me,
he... he reawakened me." A pause. "It almost destroyed me, too."
"You don't want to kill," Treadmark said slowly, digesting the story, as he set the ship's course for the system's lone star. "Not even to defend your principles? To protect other lives?"
"I don't know! I don't know," Lexius calmed himself, and sighed wearily. "I don't know if I can do this, Treadmark. "I don't want to lose what I gained on Cybertron. I don't want to take up killing again. I'm not ready to go back to war."
"And so you're reviving one of the biggest killing machines the Autobots have ever created." Treadmark's expression was pained. "You seem to be in a bit of a quandary."
"Yeah. I don't know, maybe I can continue the war without being a combatant. Maybe when we get the old crew revived..." The sentence trailed off, half-finished, half-believed.
The Gambit came within absorption range of the star; Lexius activated the recharging systems. A beam of energy leapt out from the ship to the star, and came back in a moment to the ship's systems. Inside the vessel, energon cubes formed out of the ether from a clear panel on a machine, and were rapidly filled by the awesome energies of the star. Lexius and Treadmark watched the procedure in silence for a moment, till Treadmark broke the silence.
"We don't even know if the crew can be revived, Lexius. You know that. In the mean time, we're counting on you to get this thing running." Treadmark gazed at his commander, his friend. "Will you be able to handle it?"
"I can still command, Treadmark, I haven't lost that edge. I'm not afraid for anything I've lost. I'm afraid I'll lose what I've gained..."
- - -
Wheeljack ran through the supply of energon cubes brought back by Lexius and Treadmark in less than an hour. He seemed satisfied with the results, though. In that time he managed to get the ship's semi-sentient core up and running; diagrams, charts, and statistics held him and his fellow engineers transfixed for several hours, while the transport made another shuttle run for energon. The second batch proved enough for him to carry out the first of his schemes. The white engineer fiddled for several more hours with the computers; then without warning he sat up from his work with a satisfied "hmmph."
"Got it," Wheeljack exclaimed. "Ok, guys, it's show time!" He punched in a series of buttons on his console, and a several previously dark panels lit up with readouts.
Lexius and the assembled engineering crew watched in wonder as several dozen repair drones emerged from various compartments, and immediately proceeded to assess and repair the deactivated Autobots scattered across the chamber. The drones worked in eerie silence; Wheeljack and his crew did little but watch in silent amazement until, after an hour or so, the first of the ship's crew began to stir on their own. Wheeljack couldn't help but be reminded of his own, similar resurrection on Earth, nearly twenty years before.
"Fixit," Lexius addressed the medic. "Have your team brief them as they come on-line, tell'em what's happened, how long they've been out. Start checking off names from the old ship's logs, and get them to their jobs if you can." Lexius surveyed the scene; already, over a dozen Autobots were beginning to rise, tiredly shaking off the effects of prolonged deactivation. "And be quick, or we'll have a mob on our hands."
"Roger that," Fixit acknowledged. "Actually I think we'll get some of them to handle the processing, it'd be a lot easier."
"Sure, whatever works. Wheeljack! Good work, I think, erm, Fixit can handle it from here..."
Wheeljack realized, abashedly, that he'd been doing nothing for the last hour besides study the intricate revival procedures. He shrugged slightly. "Right," he said. "Engineering crew: let's get started on the drive systems, okay?" He and his crew quickly headed out, into the bowels of the ship.
- - -
He'd found the ship. Technically, Nightbeat's work was done. Now that he had located it, though, the enormous, derelict vessel presented him with a bigger and far more interesting problem: how had it gotten there?
That question was beginning to vex him. At first he'd though it would be a simple matter, one of finding the obvious thing that had gone wrong -- an engine malfunction, an enemy attack. But the ship's exterior showed no damage other than that done in the crash. His careful inspection of the engines had revealed similar results -- nothing was malfunctioning before the ship went down.
His next idea wasn't turning out much better, Nightbeat thought, as he clambered up into the enormous servomotors which maneuvered the ship's primary thrusters. The thrusters were positioned to push the ship down relative to its upward direction, but that in itself didn't tell him much. Vengeance might have entered the atmosphere upside-down, for all he knew. Nightbeat carefully examined the servomotors, the casings, the hydraulics, the gears, the circuits. His carefully trained eye could find nothing amiss -- no torn edges or stress fractures, no support failures or fluid leaks. No nothing, he thought.
"Hey!" a voice rang out to him. "What're you doing in there?"
"Hmm?" Nightbeat glanced, to see another Autobot gazing in at him, one of the repair crew. "Oh, I'm allowed, it's an inspection, sort of. I need to have a look in here."
"You engineering? That's all engineering's business in there. Wheeljack won't like it if you mess anything up."
"It's okay, I know Wheeljack. I just need to know if the thruster servomotors were working when the ship crashed, or were they stuck like this?"
"From our inspection, they were working fine. Still are, in fact. Looks like we aren't even going to have to grease them."
"Then why were they set in the down position?"
"Aw, who knows? Ask the bridge crew."
Maybe I will, Nightbeat thought as he climbed out of the servomotor systems.
- - -
"They told you what happened?" A nod. "What's your job?"
"Bridge crew, eh. The commander'll be pleased. You guys are in short supply."
"What do you mean?"
"A lot of the bridge and command crew is missing from the ship. Don't suppose you know anything about it?"
"No, I was off-duty when we crashed."
"Yeah, that's what all the ones we've found said. Off-duty."
"It was the primary shift's watch when we went down. That means most of the crewers would have been on duty. Has the bridge been searched?"
"Yes. Not a single Autobot there."
"That means... Driftstar is gone?"
"Correct. We're now under the command of one Lexius."
"Who? I have not heard of him."
"Lexius is commander of the new guys. They say don't worry, he's commanded ships before."
"That does not sound very reassuring."
"Yeah, well, that's what I thought too."
- - -
"Still glad we didn't stay on Cybertron?" Lash grinned.
Sureshot's answer was a short, nasty glance up from his console. Why he'd ended up driving a computer console was beyond him. But so far, there wasn't much need for security troops on this flight. So he and Lash were stuck processing the rosters of reawakened crew members.
"Sureshot, relax," Lash said. "This won't take all that long."
"Sure. There's only a couple thousand crewers to process..."
"Come on, we're more than half done. Listen, have you looked at the design specs for this ship?"
"What? No, why?"
"Because the primary armament is pretty impressive. Six one-mile long cannons. When we get done with this, I intend to get on the gunnery crews for one of them. And I bet you could get on one, too."
"Mile-long guns? You kidding? I've hardly gotten used to ships that big."
"Trust me, it'll beat working security. Or being a button-pusher down here." Lash gestured to indicate the ten computer consoles besides theirs.
"I don't like it... I think I'd feel like a number, just firing some big gun. No skill involved. Computer do all the thinking on rigs like that. It doesn't feel like I'm making any difference, you know?"
"You would be making a difference. Think of the power a single gunner on this ship has."
"But, I mean, anyone can do that job! I need to be out there, on the surface, one-on-one, where I can see my opponent. Where I can see him, he can see me, and where... where it's me that matters. If I was just a gun crewer, I wouldn't feel all that important."
"Oh, Sureshot..." Lash stopped hitting buttons on her console, and looked up. "It's not like that anywhere, anymore. It's a war, don't you see? An enormous war, almost as big as the galaxy. It's too big for us to make a real difference on our own, no matter how great we may be in battle. We're just... we're like dust or something, we're just not that important by ourselves."
"You think getting on this gunnery crew is going to make a 'real difference'? Lash, bigger guns aren't what makes the war turn. It always comes back to individuals."
"Individuals? Sureshot, that sounds beautiful, but I just can't see it that way. I mean, we fight as best we can, but we're not really that important in the end, you know. You and me, we're just... two robots. A couple of guns. We don't matter that much in the big picture."
"Lash, if I believed that, I would've stopped fighting a long time ago." Sureshot bent to his work again. "If I believed that, I would have quit living by now."
Lash watched him for a moment, absorbing his words, then turned back to her console without answering.
- - -
"Ship's navigator Splice, reporting..."
The grey minibot's words trailed off as he surveyed what had, at one time, been the ship's bridge.
Pieces of broken and replacement machinery were strewn all across the room; workers were scrambling everywhere. Panels were open, wires hung from the ceiling, the walls, the floor. A pair of legs protruded from a wall compartment; a flashing light from within indicated that something inside was being welded. Splice saw only one familiar face, another minibot named Fanblade. Several robots were clustered around a screen, loudly arguing over the best way to trace electronic lines through the ship. Two more were sitting in front of Splice's old station, conversing informally, seemingly oblivious to the chaos around them. Splice despaired of figuring out who was supposed to be in charge.
He zeroed in on his station, instead. If no-one else will make these newbies work, I suppose it falls to me. Mustering his dignity, he marched resolutely to his station.
One of the conversants, a stout green robot, looked up at his approach. "Can I help you?" he asked. The minibot he'd been talking to got up and went to the sensor station. Great, Splice thought, I have to work with him. He put subtle weight into his voice.
"You may, by permitting me to get to my station."
"Oh! You're the navigator. Great. I was wondering if we were going to have to train another one."
Splice paused, not wanting to believe this. "And you are...?" he finally managed.
"Right. Sorry. I'm Lexius, acting commander."
Splice glanced peripherally around the dismembered bridge before reluctantly accepting the proffered hand. "I am Splice, ship's navigator."
"Well, Splice, welcome back to the land of moving parts. Glad to have you back."
"Thank you, sir."
"Heh! Everyone of you guys does that. Listen, I'm just 'Lexius'. No sir or anything. You can call me 'Commander' if you like, but I prefer 'Lexius.'"
"Yes si-- yes."
"You served for long on this ship?"
"Yes s-- I have been with the ship since she was commissioned. Three years total of service."
"You know much about how the bridge works?"
"I do have a general knowledge of bridge procedure."
"Well, that's maybe not exactly what I meant, but I imagine it'll do. We're gonna be winging it on a lot of stuff, since we're missing so many of the old crew, so you'll have to bear with us while we get settled into a routine."
"Alright. You got work to do?"
"I'll quit yappin', then."
Splice stared, agape, as Lexius walked off. He was expected to call this robot his captain?
- - -
"Are you sure this is necessary?" Lash shouted. She barely made herself heard over the howling desert winds, which constantly assaulted the Vengeance's titanic hull.
Nightbeat, a few steps ahead of her, turned back to shout, "Absolutely," and continued on his way around the grounded ship. Lash, struggling beneath an enormous piece of analytical equipment, grimaced and trudged along behind him. She would have to be the strongest Autobot around when he needed a hand, she thought. At least it's a break from the crew rosters.
"Ok, stop here," Nightbeat ordered. Lash set the microcrystalline magnetoanalyzer down with audible relief. Nightbeat activated the apparatus, and set to scanning a section of the ship's hull.
"If this's so important, how come no-one else is available to help?" Lash asked.
"Allocation of resources," Nightbeat responded instantly, not looking up from his scans. The detector was looking for microscopic stresses in the ship's hull, and also for any patterns of magnetic particle alignment in the crystalline structure. Nightbeat had calculated the minimum stresses and residual alignment patterns that would be caused by a tractor beam strong enough to drag the ship into the atmosphere. They would be very slight, he had concluded. It would take many readings to locate them.
After about a minute of scanning, he shut down the machine, and gestured to Lash. She heaved the device onto her back again, and trudged after him, thinking dark thoughts about Autobots who came from Cybertron.
- - -
Vengeance's engineering section was a series of vast, connected chambers which housed the ship's power plants, warp drive, and thruster modules. The space was overpoweringly huge, Lexius thought, as he walked in. It was also damaged from floor to ceiling, from broken light fixtures all the way up to the warp drive itself, which had gone off-line when the ship crashed. Lexius did not envy Wheeljack the task of setting it all aright.
Wheeljack, though, seemed not in the least daunted by the job. He came up to his commander with the same energy Lexius had observed at their first meeting, and greeted him heartily.
"An inspection, I presume?" Wheeljack asked.
"Don't think of it like that," Lexius smiled. "Too formal. I just want to have a look around, and get a feel for how things are going."
"We've got a good start. The old crew is a good bunch, and so is my squad. The main thing we have to do is get the warp drive on line, and re-energize the thrusters, and construct anti-grav pods to get us off the surface, and reinforce all the conduits, and replace a few thousand circuit boards, and update the real-time interfaces, and revitalize the weapons controls, and --"
Lexius was looking for a way to make Wheeljack stop before things got any worse, when a voice did it for him. "Wheeljack!" a dark grey robot called from one of the master consoles. "Did Gouge ever report back to you?"
"Nope. He was supposed to report to you. Didn't he come back?"
"Maybe he got held up by something..."
"Gouge? No. I know him. He doesn't wait for anything. He should definitely be back by now."
Wheeljack turned to answer Lexius's puzzled look. "Backscatter
here -- have you met Backscatter?"
"He's the highest ranked engineer staff left from the original
crew. He's taking over as my second."
"Ah. Glad to have you on," Lexius said.
"Thank you, sir."
"Anyway," Wheeljack continued, "He sent Gouge out to retrieve some extra secondary subspace com modules from the forward storage compartments. We need them to get subspace communications working again. He should have returned a while ago."
"I'll have the bridge page him," Lexius said. He sent the order up; but after five minutes there was still no response from Gouge.
"It could just be a com screw-up," Wheeljack offered.
"Yeah, but that and him disappearing at the same time?" Backscatter said.
"The odds are against it, but it could happen," Wheeljack muttered.
"Wheeljack, we'll do everything we can to find your crewer, right away. Oh, and don't bother with the subspace com... that can wait till we're out in space. Weapons and drives, those are our priorities. Don't worry about your crewman. We'll find him."
"Understood, Commander," Wheeljack said. Lexius took leave of
engineering, and went to see two Autobots who he knew would be glad to
leave their jobs to go searching through the ship
* * *
"There! Oh, Primus, is that ever beautiful!" Grotusque pointed out the viewports of their ship, as it approached Cybertron. Above the planet, a dry-dock hung in orbit. A large starship sat within, stripped to the girders in many places, evidently in for a long and thorough reconstruction. "Home sweet Sojourn."
"Congratulations," Punch smiled at him, for the first time in... come to think of it, Grotusque couldn't recall seeing the spy smile before, certainly not during the two weeks it had taken them to get here. "I'll drop you off before heading to the surface."
"You aren't coming aboard?" Grotusque asked.
"No. I have my own commander to report to."
Grotusque shrugged and punched up a hail to Sojourn. He'd long since given up trying to second-guess his terse companion.
The face of a Micromaster appeared on his screen. "This is Sidetrack, commander, starship Sojourn -- Grotusque!" he exclaimed in delight, as the connection became two-way. "We thought you were dead!"
"Heh, we were thinking the same thing about you! Listen, I need to talk to the boss."
"Well, I am the boss right now."
Grotusque puzzled over that. It meant all the ship's higher-ranking officers -- Lexius, Starblast, and Treadmark -- were missing. "Where is everyone?" he asked.
"Lexius and Treadmark are away on a mission. And Starblast..." Grotusque caught the edge to Sidetrack's voice, "didn't make it back from the away mission."
"Starblast is dead?!" Grotusque gaped. That wasn't the sort of thing that usually happened to Starblast, he thought.
"It's a long story... come aboard and I'll tell it all."
- - -
Some hours later, on Cybertron's surface, Punch was reunited with the Autobot who, long ago, had recruited him into his role as doublespy.
"Prime," he said, with what, for him, amounted to great warmth.
"It has been too long." They gripped hands.
"Indeed," Optimus answered, truthfully. The two had only met one other time, since Prime's reactivation on Earth over fifteen years before. "Welcome home." The Autobot leader tried to avert his gaze from the damage to Punch's form. He knew the robot well enough to avoid recommending him to a medic till Punch had spoken his mind. Across the room, Rewind remained respectfully silent.
Punch got straight to business. "Prime, how did Sojourn get here? When Grotusque and I left it, they were immobile."
"The ship's commander captured a Decepticon battleship, and used its engines to bring Sojourn here."
Punch stared for a moment, and shook his head in self-reproach. "All that for nothing. I'd have been more help if I'd stayed home."
"What do you mean?"
Punch briefly summed up the story of his and Grotusque's agonizing captivity.
"There was no way you could have known," Prime said when Punch
finished. "You did what you thought was necessary to protect lives,
and that is to be commended. With your resistance, you bought Lexius
and his crew the time they needed to escape. And you managed to keep
your cover intact. If after all that, you still feel you've performed
inadequately, you will still have opportunities to redeem yourself
in the future."
Punch looked at him. "Yes... I suppose you're right."
"And in the mean time, we have need of your help here. You might be able to offer unique insight on a problem we're facing."
"What do you mean?"
Prime quickly explained Lexius's discovery, and the Autobot's desparate quest for ships.
"We've sent out salvage teams, but we have only one group searching for an actual intact ship, and it's possible they will not even find it. But you might be able to help them locate it, or others even."
"Large scale ships... hmm. There really aren't many left out there. What was the intact ship they're looking for?"
"The ship was code named Alpha-Vega," Rewind reported. "Also known to Decepticons as the phantom ship, but officially named the Vengeance."
Punch's optics widened. "What? They found the Vengeance?!"
"It's not certain, but the information suggested that the ship crashed, and Nightbeat was convinced that he knew --"
"Tell me where they went. I have to warn them."
"Warn them? Of what?"
"Prime, there's a reason that ship crashed..."
On to the next part