A small vessel streaked away from Cybertron, disappearing into foldspace with a flash. The ship's two occupants were grim-faced and silent.
Grotusque glanced back wistfully as Cybertron disappeared from view. He was already beginning to question the wisdom of going on another mission with Punch. The spy seemed to leave a trail of bad luck behind him. But Grotusque had been caught in a moment of weakness: he'd just come out of the repair bay, and he'd just heard how long Sojourn would be in repair dock. Punch needed someone with him that Lexius would immediately recognize as an Autobot. Sure, Punch had said it'd be a short, easy, mission. But, Grotusque reflected darkly, he'd said that last time, too.
* * *
Splice fumed as he worked to set his quarters aright. It was unthinkable that a ship-of-the-line could fall under the command of that... that... Splice couldn't even think of a proper word. And not just any ship -- Vengeance had been the pride of the fleet in her day! Driftstar had molded his crew into an flawless war machine, perfectly integrated, perfectly disciplined.
Splice had serious doubts the ship under Lexius's command would ever get off the ground.
He paused in his work, trying to calm himself. The door to his quarters sounded; he opened it with a signal from his internal transmitter.
"Fanblade!" he said to the Autobot standing in the doorway. "Please, come in. Pardon my room's state of disassembly, but I've been on duty most of the time since I came back on-line." So much so, in fact, that the two had not spoken outside of their bridge duties since being reactivated.
"No problem," Fanblade smiled, stepping carefully over the piles of debris left over from the crash. Such piles were all over the ship, non-incidental items torn loose or damaged when the vessel went down. Everyone was used to them by now. Fanblade seated himself on the floor; none of the room's furniture had survived intact. Splice shoved aside enough of the junk to sit himself.
"Glad to see you, Splicer," Fanblade said. "A lot of us didn't make it."
"It is good to see you, as well. I am still trying to adjust to the sudden loss of so many comrades."
"Yeah, and it doesn't help that we haven't dealt with casualties in so long. Working on this ship made us kind of soft. No casualties or anything, the war kind of off at a distance. It was bound to catch up with us.."
"Driftstar's a loss, a big loss," Fanblade nodded agreement.
Fanblade almost laughed. "No, my friend, not insurmountable. It'll be tough, mark my words. I think we'll get by, though."
"Do you mean under the command of this Lexius? I find that doubtful."
"I do not understand how he justifies taking command of the ship. He does not seem fit for command. Is he even ranked as a captain?"
"Not technically, now that you mention it. He declined the rank for his last command."
"His last ship was a Transformer, and he didn't like the idea of being captain over another living being. Said it sounded too master-slavish or something."
"Hmm. That is... admirable, I suppose. But it does not make up for the way he is running the ship."
"Heh! Splice, old pal, you've spent too much time under Driftstar. He was a good commander -- a top-flight commander, at that. But just because another Autobot doesn't enforce the same discipline, doesn't make him any less worthy of our loyalty."
"Before a commander receives my loyalty, he has to earn my trust. At this time I don't see any reason to trust him to be a competent commander of this ship."
"He hasn't had a chance to prove himself. The ship hasn't gone anywhere yet. Just wait, time will tell."
"I do not see the need to wait. This crew is used to discipline, and focused leadership, and from what I can see, he is not capable of providing it."
"Give 'im a chance. Sometimes a bot just does stuff his own way, you know..."
- - -
Sureshot and Lash rolled down the corridors of the ship's bow sections. They hadn't seen another Autobot for over ten minutes; these areas were largely deserted, far removed from most of the ship's inhabited sections. There was little here but the main gun systemry, and the ship's vast storage compartments. Sureshot couldn't quite bring himself to admit he was nervous about their first official task as the ship's designated security officers; he was still too grateful to get away from the crew rosters.
At last the pair arrived at a set of oversized double doors. They unfolded into their robot forms, Spoilsport landing on the deck next to them. Lash punched the console to open the portal; the doors slid aside with an whoosh. Darkness beckoned within.
"So this is Main Storage," Sureshot observed. "Friendly looking place." He gestured to Spoilsport; the Nebulan quickly transformed and leapt into Sureshot's outstretched hand. Sureshot hefted the weight reassuringly, and nodded to Lash. They walked forward, hesitantly.
The darkened chamber into which they strode was vast, and in complete disarray. It had obviously not been touched since the ship had crashed; crates and machinery were strewn all across the floor. Towering shelves had been toppled, their contents smashed against the floor or far walls. At the forward end of the room a particularly large pile of metal debris had gathered, items thrown forward across the chamber when the ship crashed.
"With this mess, he's probably still down here looking for the com modules," Sureshot commented. He spoke in a whisper, not wanting to betray their presence to... what, he wondered? There's not supposed to be anything here, just a missing crewman...
They walked cautiously at first, their footfalls echoing in the empty stillness. Lash finally broke the silence.
"Look, if he's here, we're not going to find him by sneaking around. Maybe he's injured somewhere."
Sureshot shrugged, then shouted Gouge's name in his loudest voice. He waited for a long moment, but only the echoes of his own shout came back to him. Lash joined in his efforts, but after five minutes they still had heard nothing.
"Guess we'll have to search the place," Lash said. "You want to split up, or stick together?"
"Definitely stick together," Sureshot said. He grinned. "For safety reasons, of course."
"Yeah. Safety," Lash echoed. Together they marched into the darkened aisles of the storage compartments.
- - -
Fanblade leaned across the gap to Splice's bridge station. "Hey Splicer! Heard the latest?" he stage-whispered.
Splice tried not to be annoyed, but he had a lot of work to get done. Countless minor subroutine programs had been lost when the main computers went off-line in the crash; he had to re-write each one of them and de-bug them all before his station would function properly again. Besides, idle conversation while on duty was a breach of protocol. But Fanblade persisted. "What," Splice finally answered.
"There's a crewman missing, some engineering guy."
"Well, it's kind of creepy. He went down to main storage, and never came back."
"Is that all?"
"No. That detective they brought with them, the blue guy, he's been crawling all over the ship like he's looking for something. Nobody knows what, but he was doing it even before the crewer turned up missing."
"Are you done yet?"
"No! The commander --"
Fanblade noticed his friend's expression and decided the rest would keep.
Splice turned back to his console, trying to focus on setting his station in order. How was one to focus, though, in the midst of so much chaos?
- - -
"Nightbeat, I really don't need this right now," Lexius said.
"Look, am I getting in your way?"
"No, but --"
"Do you have something else you need me to do?"
"Then let me do my job! I'm not a crewer, and I'm definitely not a repairbot. So let me do what I do well."
"Hey! Listen to me. It's not just a matter of you doing your job. We have to present a strong command image to the crew. This ship has enough problems, without you running around stirring things up even more."
"Things are stirred up already," Nightbeat shot back, a bit irked. He was still disappointed that his tractor beam idea had turned out fruitless. "I'm just trying to keep them from getting worse."
"You aren't doing it very subtly."
"Let me ask you, have you considered how this ship got here?"
"It crashed. It's here now and we need it. That's enough for me."
"It crashed," Nightbeat mocked. "'It crashed.' Ships don't just crash without a reason!"
"We'll worry about that later."
"What would you have me do, sit and rust?"
"I've told you what you can do. Find my missing crewer. Find the bridge crew. Those are the concrete problems we're facing right now."
"And the fact that the entire ship crashed, that can wait?"
"Yes. Till we're airborne, at least. I need every crew member focused on that goal, and you running around stirring up a panic doesn't help."
"Have it your way. I'll find your crewers," Nightbeat called, stalking off. Lexius stared after him for a long moment. He didn't know what to make of this stubborn loner, whether to trust him or order him into his quarters. He finally decided that he had bigger problems to deal with, and that it would be best to let it drop. Nightbeat would be fine on his own.
Lexius made his way out of the conference room, and entered the bridge. Things here were still a mess, but order was beginning to emerge from the chaos. He stepped carefully past the multiple reconstruction projects, and assumed his seat in the center of the bridge. "Sensor report," he called.
"Not a thing, Lex," Tuner answered.
"I concur," Fanblade said.
"Good," Lexius answered. "Let's hope that doesn't change. Splice!"
"You ready to go with the reinitialization sim?"
"Yes sir, the reinitialization procedure simulation was scheduled, ah, over two hours ago."
"Yeah, I got hung up in engineering. Let's do it, eh?"
"Fanblade, we'll need you to monitor it, okay?"
"Yes s-- okay."
"All right, Splice, whenever you're ready..."
Splice gave his commander an annoyed glance. What kind of an order was that? "Sir. Beginning reinitialization procedure simulation."
"All your programs are at the ready, Splicer," Fanblade called.
"You have authorization to unlock," Lexius said, tapping a keypad.
"Sir, I have not yet requested unlock authorization."
"That's all right, you needed it, right?"
"Sir, reinitialization protocol states that the codes are not to be sent until the navigator has specifically requested them."
"Splicer, easy!" Fanblade said. "I'd have stopped him if he'd sent 'em too soon..."
"Exactly," said Lexius. "Okay, send in your primary and secondary power fluxes."
"Sir, we never send a secondary power flux --"
"Well, I like it that way. Just to be on the safe side."
"But, sir, it's unnecessary, the computer sims indicate that --"
"Splice, don't worry! It won't hurt anything, right?" Lexius said.
"You gonna start this thing?"
"Yes sir," Splice said, with some indignity. "Beginning reinitialization procedure simulation." Data scrolled across the bridge screens.
"Sim run is done, Commander. Not too bad, Splicer, only nineteen bugs," Fanblade reported.
Splice looked to Lexius, expecting a demand for a more proper, precise report, but Lexius simply nodded back at him. "Good work, Splice."
"Um, thank you, sir. I will proceed with the debugging routine immediately."
"Great. Let me know when you're ready for another sim run. We'll have your station up by tomorrow." Lexius stood and walked to the door. "Treadmark," he called. "You have the bridge." Lexius disappeared through the sliding doors.
Treadmark rose and followed his commander. "Tuner, the bridge is yours," he said over his shoulder as he left.
Splice stared after Treadmark for a moment. No one under Driftstar's command would have so flagrantly disregarded what amounted to a direct order. On the other hand, if Driftstar had wanted someone to stay on the bridge, he would have told them so in no uncertain terms.
- - -
"You handled that rather well," Treadmark said, catching up with Lexius in the corridors outside the bridge. Treadmark fell into stride with his commander. Lexius shot him a look, but said nothing. "Really, I mean it."
"I'm getting tired of having to handle stuff like that," Lexius said.
"Want to talk about it?"
"Fine," Lexius muttered. "In my quarters."
They arrived and sealed the door behind them. Lexius sat down immediately. "You want to talk? Fine," he said. "I'll talk. I'll tell you that this ship is too damn big, and there's too many crewers, and too many Autobots asking me what to do every five seconds because they aren't used to thinking for themselves, and too many engineers coming up and telling me more things that might go wrong, and even under the best circumstances I would be sick to death of dealing with it, and these are NOT the best of circumstances."
Treadmark waited, letting Lexius's flood roll over him. He absorbed it calmly, sorted through it for a moment. He finally decided that some calming atmosphere was in order.
He dimmed the room's lights, then pulled from a chest compartment a small ceremonial flame burner, a meditative device he kept with him. He lit the burner and set it on a table. Treadmark sat down across from his friend, the burner cracking quietly between them. "You never wanted to command this ship, even without the specter of combat," he said.
"No sane robot would want to command this ship! It's too big!"
"It has been done before; I'm sure it can be done again."
"I don't want to be the one stuck with it. I don't want... I don't want to risk this many lives. I can't handle it."
"You don't want to command the ship. What do you want, Lexius?"
"I want the fighting to end. I want the killing to end. I want to be out of it all. I want the damn war to be over."
"And you're in a better position to end it than any Autobot in the galaxy! But you're going to have to face up to the responsibility to do any good. The ship's crew is depending on you. If you aren't strong, sooner or later you'll let them down, and you'll let yourself down. You know that."
"I know," Lexius nodded. "It's just that... Primus, why did the captain have to be one of the missing crewers? Why did this have to fall to me? Why now?!"
"Call it fate, call it destiny," Treadmark said. "Whatever it is, you can't escape it now. The war won't end by you running from it, Lexius. You must see your responsibities through before you can achieve your goals."
"Great," Lexius said. "I want peace. I want peace more than anything. And I have to kill to get it, which is the one thing I want to do least of all."
Treadmark nodded once. "War," he said simply.
The two sat in silence for a long time, communing with their own
thoughts. The flame of the burner crackled somberly between them,
the only light in the chamber. The flames reminded Lexius eerily
of all the battles he had relived while on Cybertron. He gazed into
the shifting colors of the fire, trying to find his path, his future.
"If it were just me, I could run from it all," he confessed. "But it's not. There's others, the other Autobots. They want the same thing. They want peace. And now they're counting on me to run our end of the war, so they can get it. I can't just let them down. They've put their trust in me."
"Will you be able to uphold that trust?" Treadmark asked, looking his friend directly in the optics.
"I won't let the crew down," Lexius finally replied. "No matter what I have to do."
Treadmark looked pained again. His voice was as quiet and subdued as the room itself. "I wish it didn't have to be this way for you, Lexius."
- - -
Nightbeat boldly entered the darkened storage chambers. He activated the headlights mounted on his forearms, and commenced his examination. The two so-called security officers had searched the place, but hadn't really told him anything useful except that they hadn't found Gouge.
Most of the debris in the room was useless to him, worthless broken junk. He ignored it, and strode directly to the place Gouge had been sent, the storage cabinets where the extra subspace com modules had been stored. The compartments had suffered some damage in the crash; one door was missing. Nightbeat found it lying nearby. It had been torn off since the crash, obviously; otherwise it would have gone flying across the room. He looked inside the cabinets; the com modules were gone.
He bent to inspect the compartments closely. One thing was immediately obvious to him: items had been removed from the spot recently, long after the crash. Several patches lacking dust or debris made that clear. The communication modules that Gouge had been sent to retrieve had been taken from their place. The next question was, did Gouge or someone else do this?
Nightbeat knelt to inspect faint footprints in the thin layer of dust on the floor. Some were Lash and Sureshot's; but there were at least two other distinctive outlines, both too small to have come from the two security Autobots. One of them fit the description of Gouge's. Then there were several areas where the dust had been disturbed in large, irregular patches, as if something had been dragged or skidded over it. It was almost like... Like someone was fighting, he realized.
He looked around for other signs of an altercation: small parts knocked loose from one of the combatants, dents or scorch marks in the deck plates. He saw nothing he could peg as the result of a fight. Still, with all the debris lying around from the ship's crash, it was hard to tell...
Am I reading too much into all this? Nightbeat wondered. He adjusted his optics, filtered the sight of the dust through several wavelengths. Yes, he decided, the patterns were faint, but they held up under analysis. Someone besides Gouge had been here. Who? he wondered. He was beginning to form an idea, an idea which brought him back to the original question: why had the ship crashed?
- - -
Sureshot felt some of his doubts evaporate as he gazed at the gun battery's sleek control sphere. Effective immediately, he and Lash were reassigned as gunners on the main batteries. They were separated -- their respective guns were on opposite sides of the ship. But they were able to keep in constant contact, via a small screen that connected him with the other gunners, a tactical necessity which allowed target coordination. More to the point, this job looked like one of the best on the ship. Sureshot was still awed by the size of the weapon's control mechanisms. Maybe it really will make a difference, he reflected, as he entered the control sphere for the first time. The design was unlike anything he'd used before, but he had little doubt his marksmanship would get him by. That was how he'd gotten the job to begin with, after all.
- - -
"Ok, from the top," Nightbeat sighed, forcing himself to remain calm. "I just need to do a quick cerebral scan on a few of your workers. All I need is to see what the bridge looked like before it was fixed. Your crew fixed it, it's in their memory banks. Simple, huh?"
"My crew's got work ta do," answered the Autobot, a massive construction specialist who towered over Nightbeat. "We gotta finish dis section today, and we're pushing it as is."
"Look, pal, this is important. It won't hurt you to lose one worker at a time from your crew." Nightbeat jabbed a finger in the robot's face for emphasis. They'd been going on like this for fifteen minutes. I could've been done by now! Nightbeat realized in frustration.
"I don't care how important ya say it is," answered the Autobot. "I ain't got no orders from da commander, so dey stay here."
"Listen up, rustbucket. I've got a job to do, and I'll do it whether I have to go around you, or through you --"
The foreman apparently decided he'd had enough. He planted one huge hand around Nightbeat's neck; the hapless detective found himself bodily lifted into the air. Nightbeat figured the foreman was about to deliver some threat or warning. But he didn't know he was throttling a Headmaster.
Muzzle, the Nebulan who formed Nightbeat's head module, separated from Nightbeat, reverting to his humanoid form. The foreman abruptly found himself with nothing to hold on to; he stumbled backwards. Nightbeat transformed to his automotive mode, and rammed the robot's legs out from under him. Nebulan and Autobot re-joined as the foreman hit the deck, stunned.
Okay, Nightbeat thought, Let's get to work. He stepped out of the foreman's office, and fused the door shut with one of his laser pistols.
It took him only fifteen minutes to recall the images he needed from the workers who'd seen the bridge before its restoration. They were happy to cooperate, especially when he told them he was carrying out their foreman's orders. He loaded the images onto a disk, then made himself scarce before the foreman managed to free himself.
- - -
"The gravity pods are almost ready," Wheeljack said, gesturing to some of the twenty towering cylinders located throughout the engineering chambers. "We just have to finish over-wiring them to shunt off excess energy, and we'll be ready for a test run."
Lexius couldn't keep himself from grasping Wheeljack's hand. "Wheeljack, you've done an incredible job," he told the engineer. "You have my highest compliments." He didn't add the rest of his thoughts: aside from their endless lists of potential problems, engineering was the only department on the ship which had given him no trouble at all.
"We should be ready to lift off in another two days, maybe three at worst. Mostly we have to run some simulations, and test the pods, and --" Wheeljack's voice was cut off by a beeping of Lexius's communicator. Lexius snapped open the wrist-mounted device and acknowledged the call.
"Commander!" It was Tuner's voice. He sounded more worried than Lexius had heard for a long time. "We've got trouble!"
"Specify," Lexius ordered. But he knew, somehow he knew the words before he heard them. The same words that had heralded the destruction of his last command.
"Massive defold activity..."
He had to stay calm, he could not show any sign of panic or weakness. In his surest tone, he replied, "Give me a tactical report."
"Three ships. It's more of those destroyers, Commander. The big ones that got Sojourn. They're closing fast, ETA to firing range seventeen minutes."
"Tuner, sound red alert. I'm on my way." Lexius closed his communicator and turned to Wheeljack again. "That's it. We have seventeen minutes to get this ship off the ground." To his relief, Wheeljack seemed unfazed.
"We'll give it our best shot, Commander," the engineer replied.
Lexius grasped his hand again. "Good luck," he said.
"You too," Wheeljack said wryly. Lexius turned and left Engineering at a full run, even as the first red alert sirens sounded through the grounded ship.
- - -
Nightbeat was sitting before his computer console, when the warning klaxons pierced the air. He grimaced at the irony of it: they practically proved his theory. How else could the Decepticons have found them? But he could not be sure yet; he still had more evidence to examine. Nightbeat tried to put the attack out of his head, and continue his work. He had to trust others to do their jobs properly.
The disk of images he'd gotten from the repair crew was ready for scanning. He called up the first set of memories. The image started with the floor of the bridge as the worker had first entered it, littered with debris torn loose in the crash. The view panned upwards, to the surviving consoles, which also showed damaged. The visual scanned around the room, focused on the crew chief for a while... C'mon, c'mon! Nightbeat urged, silently. He wasn't exactly sure what he was looking for, but he'd know when he saw ---
There! The view turned, and panned past the bridge windows. They were blown out, of course, destroyed in the crash. Or so everyone had thought.
Nightbeat rewound the image, froze it, enlarged a portion. Not all the bridge windows had suffered the same fate. One had been shot out. Another... the smooth, almost surgical slicing looked like the work of a laser sword. That was it, then. As he'd guessed. Everything fell into place: the disappearance of the original bridge crew and the ship's subsequent crash, the missing crewmen, the subspace com modules, and now the incoming ships.
Vengeance's crash wasn't an accident, a malfunction, or even the result of a battle; it was a deliberate act. There was a saboteur among the crew. And the presence of incoming Decepticon ships meant that they'd reactivated him.
On to Chapter 4