The Corrosion of War Without End
PART FIVE

Chapter 4:
Engagement


 The winds of the desert world howled in endless monotony, an eternal  chorus of fury. That fury had leveled whatever land forms might have once  towered over this world, till all that remained was an endless vista of  low, rolling, wind-blown sand dunes. 

 In the midst of the ceaseless dunes, a single monolith resisted the leveling force of the winds. The sheer metal walls of the starship Vengeance had endured the battering storms for thousands of years, silently, uncaringly. No sound had issued forth from the ancient vessel;  its dormant crew had made no effort to challenge the forces of nature which held the ship captive... till now. The winds, for their efforts, finally received an answer of sorts from the immobile vessel. 

 A deep rumble voiced itself from somewhere within the ship, low at first, then rising till it drowned out the howling of the winds. Torrents of air and sand blew out from beneath the ship, blasted by its thrusters, till the natural winds paled by comparison. The rumble shook the ground, as twenty miles of starship attempted to free itself from the land. 

 On the bridge, everyone tensed, as the ship rattled ferociously. The  ship lurched to the side, then jolted upwards. The horizon, visible  through the bridge's viewports, began to rise imperceptibly. "We are  airborne," Tuner reported at last. 

 Lexius cast his gaze down for a moment, then looked up again. It was all him, now. His decisions. The ship wasn't crashing back to the ground, or breaking in two, or exploding, or any of the other thousand things the engineers had said could go wrong. Their survival, then, was entirely on  his shoulders. Yet he still found himself distracted, unfocused. Visions  came to him unbidden: the enemy ships, their crews, lives that it was his  duty to snuff out. He had seen those ships before, seen their size. He  could scarcely imagine how many living beings it took to crew them...

 "Your orders, commander," called Treadmark, breaking his reverie.

 "Tactical report," he answered immediately. What am I doing?! Focus!  Pay attention! he chastised himself.

 "Three targets, bearings oh-oh-point eight, oh-five-point one, oh-eight point four. All closing at seventeen thousand." Fanblade's screen showed the three enemy ships, closing from the far side of the planet. 

 A pincer formation. They're trying to hem us in from all directions.  His next thought came mechanically, reflexively. We'll have to fight our  way out.   

 "Take us forward, towards target one," he ordered at last. The ship rumbled as its secondary thrusters came up to power; the landscape outside the bridge viewports began to slide past them. "Time to line-of-sight?" 

 "Six minutes on target one, seven for targets two and three." 

 "Time to full power?" 

 "Nine minutes."

 Lexius grimaced. Perhaps it wouldn't be in his hands, after all. They had to try, though. "All batteries stand prepared to fire."

-  -  - 
 Wheeljack dashed from one panel to the next, trying to stay on top of the surge of readings and feedbacks coming from the power generators, the vertical and secondary thruster engines, the antigravity pods. "Wheeljack to bridge," he sent, as he moved. 

 "Bridge here." 

 "Anti-gravity is going critical. The pods aren't going to hold out very  long when we reach full power." Already, his sensors could see the pods'  systems overloading with energy, as they strained to keep the ship aloft. 

 "We'll leave the planet as soon as we have full power, then. Stand by to  transfer power to the primary rear thrusters."

 As if I don't have enough to do, Wheeljack thought, his mind racing.  "Understood." He turned to his assistant. "Backscatter," he  addressed the dark grey robot. "Form teams and begin manually bleeding  off excess power from the gravity pods. Have the power section bring down  some energon converters, and drain the excess energy into energon cubes."  Backscatter nodded and went to carry out the order. Wheeljack noticed  with a faint pride that he didn't even bring up the hazards involved with  the plan: it would bring the crews inches away from gravity pods that  were likely to explode at any second. 

 Wheeljack had his own problem to deal with: the primary rear thrusters had never been re-energized. Someone had to reestablish the power links from the generators to the rear thrusters before they could be powered up. The job was usually done before the generators were even activated; it was never done with the generators running at full tilt. Wheeljack was unwilling to risk any of his crewers on the job, other than himself.  Unhesitatingly he transformed to his car form and raced to the back of the engineering section, to carry out the complicated task. 

-  -  -
 Sureshot tensed himself briefly when the ship's rattling began, then  relaxed, sat back into his chair, and tried to meld with the mechanisms  around him. The ship was shaking alarmingly, but he coolly ignored it, for  the benefit of those around him. 

 He was seated within the control chamber of the number five battery, one  of six mile-long guns mounted on the ship's hull, one of four that could  traverse. Hand grips allowed him to swivel the gargantuan weapon; a grip  shifter adjusted the focus of the weapon's beam. Assorted other variables,  energy output and duration of burst and the like, were determined by  other operators and the bridge. A large screen with a set of cross hairs  filled his forward vision: his targeting scope. Right now, it showed only  desert sand, rolling off to the haze-obscured horizon. To his left,  three smaller screens showed the other gunners and displayed tactical  data and situations for the other five main guns. He glanced at his  counterpart on the opposite side of the ship, the number two battery;  Lash's face filled the screen. She caught his brief smile and returned  it.

 The order came through: "All batteries stand by to fire." Sureshot  tightened his grip on the weapon stick, and turned his attention to the  viewscreen, intently studying the distant horizon. He called for  magnification, and multi-spectral scanning. Still nothing...

-  -  -
 "Power status?" Lexius asked.

 "Eighty percent." 

 "Is that enough for a shot through the atmosphere?" 

 "Insufficient data to -- um, I don't know, Lex," Fanblade said. Splice glanced sidelong at his old friend. 

 Lexius stared for a moment, as well. None of the old crew would have answered like that three weeks ago. They were, he saw, becoming his crew. I will not fail my crew, my comrades, he vowed. "We'll try it then," he said aloud. "Power to the main guns. Helm, stand by for a full thruster climb, heading oh-oh-point eight." 

 "Standing by." 

 "Target status?"

 "One minute to line-of-sight."

 "Increase speed to full. All batteries stand by..." 

 Lexius stood by, as well, to see if he could give the order, to kill  again...

-  -  -
 "Stand by for full thruster climb..." the voice from the bridge echoed through engineering. Wheeljack tried to block it out as he transformed to his robot mode and leapt into the main conduits of the thruster systems.  He didn't wish to consider what would happen if the ship's rear thrusters weren't working when Lexius needed them. Operating a small panel, he set the thrusters to come on-line with sufficient power. Then he turned to address the real problem. 

  Before they could be fired, the thruster systems had to be 'primed', a small amount of power bled into them, allowing magnetic and force containment fields to initialize themselves before the force of full power entered them. With the generators running at full, Wheeljack would never get a sufficiently small amount of power in: the thruster systems would overload and melt before the containment systems had a chance to power themselves up. To make matters worse, if he was still standing on the conduits when full power came through to the thrusters, he would be melted as well. 

 Wheeljack retracted one hand, replacing it with a feeder tube. He  plugged it into a port on the power links leading from the generators to  the thruster systems, and hoped there was enough power in his own body to  initialize the containment fields. 

-  -  -
 Silence gripped the bridge for a long moment, as the ship powered itself forwards, towards the first of its enemies. Tuner was bent over his instruments, his face only inches away from the screen, searching, waiting. Everyone else silently attended to their tasks, and waited for his word. Lexius stared forwards intently, his mind locked in conflict with itself. Us or them, he repeated silently. Us or them. At last, the word came. 
 
 "Line of sight on target one." Somewhere ahead of them, the first of the enemy vessels slipped over the horizon. Lexius's response was instant.

 Us.
 
 "All batteries fire." 

 -  -  -
 "There!" one of Sureshot's operators cried, at a minuscule infrared  signature. Sureshot had already seen it, though, seen it and locked on to  it. His trigger finger was already moving before the end of the firing  order from the bridge reached his brain. 

 No-one had any idea if firing the main guns in the atmosphere would scatter the rays in a thousand directions, or blow the ship to kingdom come, or simply not work. There had been no time to consider it. But everything held together as Sureshot squeezed the firing buttons, and a fantastic ray of power lanced out from battery five. A tremendous BOOM echoed across the landscape, as untold amounts of atmosphere were superheated. Sureshot carefully tracked the target with his weapon, extrapolating its path from the brief instant he'd seen it. He could no longer see the image of the enemy vessel -- his vision was overloaded by the light of his weapon. But he continued to track, working from memory. Peripherally he noticed the other five batteries firing, as well. He wondered if they would all score hits. 

-  -  - 
 Lexius tried not to gape at the prodigious amounts of power unleashed by  the firing of their main guns. Wheeljack had assured him that, with the  generators running, power supplies were the least of their problems.  Indeed, a glance at the tactical showed that.
 
 "Target one is firing!" 

 "Evas--" The ship rattled violently. "Damage!" Lexius cried. 
 
 "No damage." 

 Primus, that was only a near-miss!  
   
 "Target one has taken a direct hit from battery five..."

 "Gunners, continue firing."

 "They're losing power, commander. They're goin' down." Cheers erupted across the bridge. Lexius remained silent, trying to keep focused. How many lives have I taken?! his mind raged. Somewhere, beyond their sight, a ship was falling from the sky, a crew was dying. Lexius resolutely blocked out the image. 

 "Cease fire. Power status?"

 "Down to ninety-two percent after that shot." 

 Perhaps now we can escape, and this can end... "Helm, full thruster  climb, heading oh-oh-point eight. Take us up!"

-  -  -
 Wheeljack's sensors were set to detect high-frequency radiation that would be channeled once the containment fields were up. He felt faint; he knew he could not continue bleeding off his own energon much longer.  Something would give soon. The voice came from the bridge: "Full thruster climb." 

 Wheeljack willed his systems to pump out his lifeblood faster. His  optics began to dim; he felt as though he were sliding off of his perch,  falling into an abyss of failure...

 A swath of blinding light rushed towards him from the conduits.  Simultaneously, he saw the lines of force from the containment fields  spring into existence. The fields pressed outwards, throwing Wheeljack  back and away as a flood of power rushed through the conduits. The fall  yanked his connection to the power system out. He hit the floor as the  thruster systems were suddenly flooded with power. He crouched and  covered his head instinctively, but after a moment he realized that he  was not, as he'd expected, being melted or blown to bits.

 The containment systems were holding. Wheeljack watched in awe as Vengeance's primary thrusters roared to life, propelling the ship into forward motion. 

 -  -  -
 With the ship at red alert, and trying to get off the ground, common sense dictated that moving about the vessel was rather dangerous.  Nightbeat knew, however, that remaining still might prove to be even more hazardous. 

 Explosions rocked the ship, rattling its corridors. Nightbeat lost his footing and fell, stumbling headfirst into the deck. He was dazed, but scrambled up again without waiting for his sensors to clear themselves.  The urgency of his mission outweighed concerns of personal comfort or safety. He resumed his sprint-pace run to the bridge. 
 
 He rounded a corner, and came across a sight which stopped him cold -- the body of a crew member, sliced completely in half. Nightbeat gaped for a moment, then forced down his nausea. He bent to inspect the wounds closely. He examined them at several wavelengths of light and other spectra, comparing them to images in his memory banks. They were clean, cauterized, unidirectional -- a laser sword, just as he'd seen on the bridge.

 He must have gotten in the way somehow, he thought. That was it, then:  the saboteur was committed; any opposition would be quickly eliminated. He grimaced angrily, his professional cool competing with his anger and sadness over the death of a fellow Autobot. Two can play at that game,  though.

 Nightbeat pushed his feelings aside; transforming to his automotive form, he raced towards the bridge at his maximum speed. His personal reactions could wait. His top priority was to stop the saboteur. 

*   *   *
 "He was a plant," Punch said, as the vessel hurtled through warp space, nearing the end of a three week journey. "We got him on board Vengeance after we'd placed a tracer on it, and sent ships to destroy it. The last report from those ships said he'd made it aboard. His mission was to destroy the ship through any means possible, assuming the fleets failed to." 

 "You really think he survived?" Grotusque asked.

 "He most likely went down with the ship, since we never heard from him again. But if they revive the ship's crew, they'll revive him along with it. And he'll destroy the ship again." 

 "How's one guy going to wreck a whole ship?"

 "Kill the bridge crew, and crash the ship into a planet. It's how he did  it before."

 Grotusque grimaced at that thought. "How come no-one knew about this ship until now?" 

 "There were few survivors from our last attack, and they were eliminated before they could tell anyone else." Punch spoke of the killings as easily as if discussing his favorite brand of energon.  "I told the Autobots on Cybertron what happpened, but they never put all the pieces together till now." 

 A flashing on the console announced their approach to their destination. "Fifteen minutes to defold," Punch muttered. He wondered if they were too late already. 

*  *  *
 "The anti-grav pods are giving out left and right. They can't sustain this load," Wheeljack shouted into his com. A half-consumed energon cube sat on the panel next to him. Wheeljack leaned heavily on the console, still weak from exertion. His systems would require several more minutes to absorb the energon, replacing what they had lost re-powering the thrusters. Around him, engineering was a barely-controlled chaos, as crewers struggled to keep everything working.  The entire scene was eerily lit by the flames of exploded anti-grav pods. 

 "Shut down anti-grav, transfer all available power to the thrusters,"  Lexius's voice ordered. "Maybe with full thrusters we can skim out of the atmosphere like a rocket." 

 "That's risky, commander," Wheeljack advised, casting a nervous optic scanner towards the overloading pods. He had already lost four of them,  and several dozen of his crew with them. "But I gotta admit, right now I don't have any better ideas." Dozens of his crewers were stationed around  the pods, and he would be thankful to get them away. He turned away from  the console for a moment, to a general com system. "This is Wheeljack,"  he called, his voice resonating through the chamber. "Shut down the  anti-grav pods and --" 

 A massive explosion cut him off, marking the demise of yet another antigrav generator. The team that had been trying to drain off the pod's excess energies disappeared in the orange-white conflagration. Wheeljack grasped the console for support as the shock wave hit him, and cursed himself for his slowness. Crewmen dashed past him, racing to find survivors and contain the fires. 

 "Shut down the anti-grav, and shunt all available power to the  thrusters," Wheeljack finished his order, his voice subdued. He shut down  the com and turned back to the bridge comlink. ''It's done," he said. 

 "Good. Can you give us warp drive?" Lexius asked.

 "The warp drive's about to blow through the roof, commander. I can't give you much," Wheeljack said, quietly.

 "What do you mean? How much is 'not much'?" 

 "A few seconds, four or five max, no more." 

 Lexius was silent for several long seconds. "All right," he said quietly.  "We'll make do with that, then."

 "Sorry I can't give you more," the engineer responded. Across the chamber, the ship's enormous warp drive chambers glowed a sickly bright yellow, nothing like the dull red they should have been.  They had been fighting with the testy units since the repairs had begun three weeks ago, and had finally gotten them close to fully operative -- but not quite.  Wheeljack was trying everything he could think of to keep them properly balanced and intermixed, but it was patchwork at best.  Soon they would have to be shut down. If the warp drive overloaded, it would make the detonating antigrav pods look like firecrackers. 

-  -  -
 "There!" Punch exclaimed, spotting the blip on the sensors. Vengeance was  rising from the atmosphere of the innermost world. Punch set course and  punched in the full sublight engines of their tiny craft. "Hail them," he  ordered Grotusque. "We have to warn the bridge crew first."

 Grotusque operated the com panel for several seconds, frustration  screwing up his features. "They're not responding," he finally reported.

 "Why?! Dammit!" Punch exclaimed.

 Grotusque looked at the spy in alarm. The iron-clad control was slipping, the tensions were becoming too much for Punch to handle. Grotusque knew his next words wouldn't help any. "If Lex is in charge, the com will be one of the last things to get fixed," he explained. "Lexius doesn't give much priority to non-military items. The com probably isn't even working." 

 "Then we must get aboard the ship."

 Grotusque glanced at the tactical, which showed two enormous destroyers  closing on the Vengeance, then back at his companion. Was it guts, he  wondered, or was Punch really going crazy?

-  -  -
 Vengeance climbed higher into the atmosphere, its fully-powered thrusters rattling the ship from stem to stern. Ahead, the deceptive freedom of space beckoned; behind, the two Decepticon ships closed in. 

 "Fifteen seconds to warp envelope," Splice reported. 

 "Target three is building power --"

 Lexius didn't wait. "Evasive zeta-three!" Vengeance lurched to one side, and shook as another near-miss blasted through the atmosphere. 

 "We are off-course to warp envelope." 

 "Reestablish," Lexius ordered.

 "Commander, we cannot exit the atmosphere without presenting them with a clear target," Treadmark said. 

 He's right, Lexius realized. They could keep us trapped in the  atmosphere all day like this. But we have to get clear if we're going to  have a chance to fight them...

 "On-course to warp envelope, ten seconds." 

 "Target two is building power..."

 Lexius remained silent.

 "Commander!!" Splice's voice was livid.

 "They're firing --" The ship rocked under a deafening blast, a direct hit. The crew clung tightly to their stations as the bridge rattled. 

 "Massive damage to sections seventeen through twenty-nine! Batteries  two, five and six are down."

 "Good work, Commander, I hope you're satisfied..." Splice's words cut  through Lexius like a knife. He let nothing show, however.

 "Warp envelope."

 "Losing secondary thrusters..."

 "Activate warp drive. Navigator, attend to your duties. Com, continue  your report."

 "Upper decks of twenty-two to twenty-eight are not responding..."

 "Warp drive, aye."

 "Heavy casualties in sections nineteen, twenty, and twenty-four..."

 "Send out damage control teams to all relevant sections." And Primus  watch over them.

 The stars became blurs, as the ship leapt away from its pursuers, a  momentary reprieve from the storm.

-  -  -
 The Vengeance was barely a hundred miles away from Punch and Grotusque's ship, just beyond the planet's outer atmosphere. Then, without warning, it blurred and disappeared out from under them, warping away from the planet. 

 "No!" Punch exclaimed, leaning forwards toward where the ship had been.  Beside him, Grotusque simply gaped in silence. 

 Punch slumped back into his seat, muttering a terrible oath. "We  failed," he concluded. "I failed." 

 "No!" Grotusque exclaimed suddenly, jabbing at the scanners with one finger.  "Look, they're behind us! Oh-oh-nine seven." 

 Punch violently wrenched the ship around and roared at full throttle towards his quarry. They risked getting caught in a cross-fire, he knew, and any one of the antagonists' weapons would burn his ship from existence in an instant. But it was a risk they had to take: Punch refused to let more Autobots die for his mistakes. 

-  -  -
 The spot was perfect for an ambush, a pair of sharp turns in the corridor, poorly lit. Nightbeat barely had time to see it; purely by instinct he slammed on his brakes. His tired form skidded across the metal deck, as something flashed through the air where he would have been, a second too early. 

 Nightbeat transformed, leaping back and calling one of his pistols from subspace. He turned, and saw his opponent: a small, black robot, wielding a laser sword, which in missing Nightbeat had imbedded itself in the deck. The Decepticon pulled the sword from the floor, and leapt towards him again. 

 The Autobot fired blindly and ducked, feeling a whoosh of air as the  sword cleaved by inches above him. He smashed the assassin in the gut,  and stepped back to fire again, only to have both his gun and his hand  sliced in two as the Decepticon struck again. Nightbeat gasped in sudden  pain.

  He quickly backed away, and tried to clear his head, tried to force down the dizzying pain. I can't beat him this way, he thought, pushing the agony to the back of his mind. He's trained for this stuff. He'll cut me to pieces. I gotta stop panicking, and think!

 An idea hit him. He knew the ship well, after weeks of clambering about  in it. He knew where he was; he knew that the corridor was in fact a  sheltered catwalk, beyond which...

 Nightbeat flattened himself against a wall, as the Decepticon leapt again, sword raised for a killing blow. Ready as he was, the Autobot couldn't keep from taking a second chop to the arm as he dodged the blow.  But Nightbeat's strategy was sound: the sword went on, and imbedded itself in the wall as it had with the deck. 

 Nightbeat whirled and swung downwards; his blow forced the assassin's sword to cut a long gash in the wall. Nightbeat followed up with a full body check, forcing his opponent through the slit. With a sound of rent metal, the Decepticon fell through. It was a good eight hundred feet to the bottom of the chamber on the other side of that wall, Nightbeat knew.  Very few Transformers could survive such a fall. Squeezing his damaged arm against his side, he leaned out into the opening, to witness the assassin's demise. 

 There was no warning: the light-blade slashed at him from the darkness, driving towards his head.  He ducked; it clipped past him, and cut through the wall section he clung to. Nightbeat flailed for purchase as the walls around him collapsed. He caught hold of another wall section with his damaged arm, but white-hot pain shot through his sensors. He lost his grip. He fell. 

 Something caught him after only a few feet, something shaky and  insubstantial. Pipes, he saw, pipes and conduits, a whole network of  them, suspended close to the ceiling of the enormous chamber. A few feet  away, the assassin stalked towards him. 

 Nightbeat grimaced. This definitely hadn't been part of the plan.

-  -  -
 Sureshot didn't have a clue what was happening; the entire room simply  flashed white, then suddenly he was surrounded by fire and screams. He  crouched in the firing control seat and covered his head instinctively.  When he looked up again, the control room around him was in chaos. Flames  licked across the chamber, and smoke filled the air. A half-dozen voices  shouted at once. Autobots lay scattered across the floor. Those still  functional were desperately trying to carry out their jobs. Half the  control panels were slag; the lighting had gone out, and fire provided  the only visible light. 

 We must've taken a direct hit, Sureshot realized. He glanced around  for the gunnery commander, and saw him lying unmoving on the deck. A  further look over the room showed him that he was now in charge. Wonder  if we're still operable. He glanced over his status panels.

 Power: 0 %.
 Standby: 0 %.
 Time to firing status: indefinite. 

 Great. He called up the damage control screen for the gun's firing  mechanisms. Vast areas of the weapon's schematic were painted red,  indicating severe damage. Sureshot knew instinctively that the weapon  would not fire again in this battle.  

 "Get a damage control team out here," he yelled at one of the  controllers. "Everybody else, let's get out of here." Set apart from the  ship's superstructure, the main guns were obvious targets; there was no  reason to be in them unless they were operable. The crew  dragged themselves and their fallen comrades out of the charred operating  chamber. Sureshot was preparing to go himself, when he realized that the  status display from gun number two had gone off-line. It took him only a  second to call up the data: the malfunction was at the sender's end. Gun  two had been hit.

 Lash, he thought, pushing his way past the crewers, and racing for the  far side of the ship.

-  -  -
 "We are secured from warp," Fanblade called. 

 "Bring us to bearing two-seven-two oh." Lexius was in full command now.  These enemies had taken lives under his command. They would be stopped.

 "Coming to bearing two-seven-two oh." The vessel slowly swung itself around, to face the planet it had just fled.

 "Engineering reports warp drive is down; estimate twenty-five minutes  repair time..."

 "Target status?"

 "Targets are scanning for us, and powering up their fold engines."

 "Commander our bearing is two-seven-two oh." 

 "Target two has folded... target three is holding station."

 "Bring us to bearing ten-oh-oh."

 "What are you doing?!" Splice exclaimed. The new bearing would point the  ship -- and its weapons -- away from the planet, and the incoming vessel.

 "Bring us to bearing ten-oh-oh," Lexius repeated, simply.

 "Commander, that is --" 

 "Navigator, you are out of line," Lexius interrupted Splice. "Helm, you  have your order." 

 "Yessir..." Vengeance came about once more. 

 "All batteries stand by to fire..."

 "Target two on bearing nine-nine-eight!"

 The gargantuan Decepticon vessel filled the viewports as it dropped out of fold. Lexius smiled grimly. In trying to defold behind his vessel, target two had walked right into his sights. "Fire." 

 The three surviving batteries unleashed an enormous fusillade of energy, which lanced through the Decepticon vessel before it could fire a shot.  Untold amounts of metal were instantly vaporized; the vessel disappeared in a gargantuan cloud of fire. Debris showered Vengeance, bouncing harmlessly off the hull. Lexius noticed that Splice's fury seemed to have abated considerably. 

 "Target two destroyed," Tuner reported. "Target three has just folded..."

 Lexius did not savor his triumph; he felt a gut-wrenching pain as he saw  the Decepticon ship atomized. So many lives... 

 He blocked it out. The third ship was still out there, hunting for them. In a moment, they could all be dead. And if his concentration kept lapsing, they would be. 

 -  -  -
 Punch juked his vessel downwards and swung behind the superstructure of the Vengeance, as the Decepticon vessel erupted, only miles away. The shock wave alone would have smashed his unprotected vessel to dust, to say nothing of the hailstorm of debris that followed it. Punch cursed as he searched for a docking bay; Grotusque simply hung on tight. 

 Punch spotted a bay not far from the bridge. "Perfect," he said. He brought the ship in, only to discover an enormous blast door blocking his way. When their hails and radio calls went unanswered, Punch didn't hesitate to open up with the ship's weapons. A storm of laser fire poured into the blast doors, to no effect. Punch smashed one fist into the control panel in frustration. 

 "Whoa there!" Grotusque said, restraining his comrade's hand. "Just hang on a second, we'll get you in." He stood up, and blew the ship's canopy.  Grotusque let the ship's escaping atmosphere carry him out into the vacuum; he transformed as he landed on the cargo door.  His tusks sank into the metal hull, pealing back a layer of armor; in short order he had created an Autobot-sized opening. Turning back towards Punch, he gestured expansively to the hole. 

 Air from the ship howled out into the vacuum, but Punch pushed himself to the opening and clambered inside. Peeking through the opening, Grotusque saw him transform and race off into the ship. 

-  -  -
 "Target three has defolded."

 Lexius heaved a sigh of relief. The enemy commander had granted him a moment's reprieve, a few seconds to think. Such seconds made the difference between life and death in a battle like this. "Status," Lexius demanded. 

 "They defolded sixteen thousand below us. Looks like they're  trying to line us up before they come in," came Tuner's analysis.

 They won't repeat the other ship's mistake, Lexius thought. They'll have us in their sights when they come out of fold again. His mind raced, searching for a way to get the enemy ship into their own line of fire. But the Vengeance was practically immobile: warp was down, the main and auxiliary thrusters were down. Target three was undamaged. And any moment now... 

 "They're powering up fold engines again."

 "Commander," called Splice. "We still have retro thrusters..."
 
 "Target three has folded. Last bearing was straight towards us, commander."  

 "Bring us perpendicular to their inbound vector, and full reverse  thrust!"  Lexius gave silent thanks to Splice, and hoped his idea would  be enough. It was their only chance.

-  -  -
 Punch raced towards the bridge at top speed, full-well knowing he might be too late already. He did not stop to look at the remains of the Autobot crewman in corridor -- he knew Deathgrip's work quite well. He drove onwards, taking a corner on two wheels. He almost didn't see the slash in the deck, the hole in the wall. But it registered peripherally, and he came to a tire-squealing halt. Transforming, Punch leapt to the opening and gazed down. 

 Deathgrip was pursuing a wounded blue Autobot across a series of suspended pipe works. Punch didn't care to consider the depth of the drop beneath them. As he watched, the assassin grasped a support from the roof, and sliced towards the Autobot. Nightbeat dodged the swing, but the sword cut the conduits beneath him. Unsupported from one end, the conduits bent rapidly under the Autobot's weight. Nightbeat scrambled, grabbing on with his one good arm, until he hung as if from a rope, swaying over the dizzying abyss. 

 Above the combatants, Punch steeled himself for action, and reached into subspace for his dual firebomb launcher. 

 It wasn't there. He groaned as he realized he'd never gotten it back  from the clones. He was weaponless. Below, Deathgrip crawled closer to  Nightbeat, to cut him free, send him falling. Punch had no choice but to  act on instinct.

 He leapt down onto the conduits, landing as lightly as he could. But it wasn't lightly enough; the instant he hit the pipes the Decepticon whirled to face him. "Back off or he falls!" Deathgrip announced, brandishing the sword. 

 "Don't do it!" Nightbeat cried out from below. "You can't let this guy  get out of here!" 

 Punch made no answer, but he had no intention of backing off. He leapt and dove toward the Decepticon, tackling him, trying to push or carry him over the edge. But Deathgrip responded in time, shifting his weight to keep them both on the conduits. The sword de-ignited and disappeared into subspace. They grappled briefly, prostrate on the teetering pipes. Punch landed a solid blow on the Decepticon's head, and was about to follow up when Deathgrip planted his feet in Punch's midsection. The Autobot found himself knocked back and away. Deathgrip scrambled back, reactivated his weapon, and sliced through the conduits in front of him before Punch could regain his feet. Punch's support gave way, much as Nightbeat's had a moment earlier; the spy clung desperately to the flimsy piping as it bent downwards. He dangled over the open space. 

 Above the two hanging Autobots, Deathgrip leered down, safely out of their reach. Punch could almost feel the assassin smile, beneath that mouthless visage, as he adjusted his sword and prepared himself for two easy kills. 

-  -  -
 Smoke filled the corridors leading to gun unit two. Sureshot picked a path through the fallen debris and the retreating, damaged Autobots.  Someone had set up an energy-screen airlock in the hallway; the hull had been breached. Sureshot passed through the airlock into vacuum. 

 The entranceway to the gun's firing systems were crowded with wounded  and damage-control teams trying to evacuate them. Sureshot forced his  way in. The damage here was worse than in his own area.  Much of the fire-control system room had been smashed to rubble;  through a large opening he could see the blackness of space. Damaged  Autobots were everywhere. He stepped past a medic working over... He  realized after a second that the Autobot's body had been completely  melted into the deck. Somehow the robot had survived, though, and the  medic was extricating his brain module for later rebuilding. Sureshot  turned away, vowing not to look any more at the horrors around him. He  made his way through flames and slag, to the remains of the control  sphere. The sphere had collapsed on itself, burying whatever was inside. 

 "Gimme a hand!" Sureshot called to some of the damage control robots.  Two Autobots joined him; together they wrenched the top half of the  sphere off, and flung it to one side. Waves of smoke boiled out of the  chamber. Through the haze, Sureshot thought he could see...

 "Stand back, we'll get her out of there," one of the damage team said to  him. Three Autobots dove into the smoke, and began extricating Lash's  crushed form from the control seat. Sureshot just stared, oblivious to  everything around him.

 Damn these big ships, and their freaking big guns! He'd known it all along; individuals were what counted, not huge guns and gigantic ships. They belonged elsewhere in the war, not here in the midst of all this unliving machinery, where they were anonymous, faceless operators, nameless rank and file at the mercy of distant commander's whims, with no control over their own fate... 

 Lash was missing an arm and both legs when the damage controllers  finally freed her from her seat. Sureshot could see how much pain she was  in; yet her face lit up when she saw him. Lash extended her one  barely-functional arm towards him, as the damage controlbots set her down  and hurried off to other jobs. "You came," she said, weakly.

 Sureshot gently forced her arm back down. "Hang in there," he said.  "We're going to get you through this." He turned, and grabbed a medic by  the arm. "This Autobot needs help," he said.

 The medic turned, and appraised Lash's broken body quickly. She had already lost consciousness. "She's dying. She'll need extensive and immediate treatment to survive," he said. He turned wordlessly and started to walk off. 

 "Hey!" Sureshot cried. "What're you doing?!" 

 "Triage, friend. We don't have time to treat all the injuries. I'm sorry."  The medic disappeared through the smoke. 
 
 Sureshot stared after him. "No," he whispered. "No, I'm not giving up that easily." He looked down at Lash. If she was dying, it was because her damaged body was no longer regulating her brain functions properly, or her brain itself had been damaged. Sureshot guessed it was at least partially the former. Thanks to Lash, he knew a way he could solve that problem himself, regulate her brain functions for her. He grabbed another passing medic, and pointed to Lash. 

 "Medic," he said. "This'll only take a minute, and it might save her  life. I need you to hardwire us for a full Joining..."

-  -  -
 Punch clambered up the dangling pipes, trying to reach the support above him, a strut hanging from the ceiling which held the pipes and tubing up close to the ceiling. He had nearly made it when Deathgrip swung his arm, sending the laser sword flying in an arc towards Punch. The Autobot jerked himself forwards with every erg of his strength, caught the support, and jerked his legs up.  The sword passed inches below them and cleaved off  the pipes he'd been holding on to. The conduits disappeared into the abyssal darkness below. A long moment later, they clanged against the deck. 

 Deathgrip's sword arced back through the air, returning to his outstretched arm. He caught it and immediately set up for another throw.  Punch looked around desperately for anything he could use as a weapon or  an escape route. There was nothing. 

 Nightbeat watched the battle from his own stretch of dangling pipe works. The assassin had turned away from him for the moment, but he could not move or help due to his mangled arm. He still had one of his laser pistols in subspace, but to fire that he would have to release his grip on the pipes. He watched helplessly as the assassin prepared throw his sword against the other Autobot. 

 What is he doing? Nightbeat wondered. If I were him I'd just shoot the guy. Unless... he has no weapons! "Hey, you! Autobot! Here!" he shouted. Nightbeat teleported his remaining weapon out of subspace. Instead of appearing in Nightbeat's hand, however, it materialized in Punch's grip. 

 The sword flew again, the shimmering blade vectoring towards Punch's waist. Punch dodged, swinging from his hand-hold, but still took part of it through the midsection. Trailing wires and spilt fuel poured from the wound. He ignored the pain, however, shut it out as he'd shut out so many other pains of late. He raised Nightbeat's pistol, tracking the sword as it arced around to return to its owner. Punch did not notice as Deathgrip stretched one arm out to receive the light-blade; he saw only the weapon itself. It was nearly in Deathgrip's hand when Punch fired. 

 The shot hit the sword in the hilt; it immediately went into an uncontrolled spin. Deathgrip was directly in its path.

 The sword cleaved without pausing through the Decepticon's chest, cutting his head and free arm from the rest of him. The severed upper torso slid down, and tumbled into the darkness. The rest of the body lost its grip, and followed, spiraling off to the deck far below. After a moment, a pair of clangs marked the passing of Deathgrip. 

 Punch and Nightbeat hung, silent, stunned, exhausted.  "Nice shot," Nightbeat finally thought to say, after a moment. 

 A voice called out to them from above. "You guys okay down there?" 

 Punch looked up to see Grotusque's form filling the hole above them.  "Yeah," he answered, feeling better than he had for weeks. "Everything's  fine, now."

-  -  -
 Vengeance slowly backed through space. The seconds stretched into hours  for her commander. Silence gripped the bridge...

 Where are they?! Lexius wondered. Target three had disappeared... was  it only five seconds ago? Primus, have I failed?!

 "Defold --" A blinding flash of light poured into the bridge windows.

 "Fire!"

 "--activity, target three on bearing four-four--" the words were lost as the ship's surviving batteries opened up, pouring a hellstorm of fire into the enemy ship, which had materialized right in front of them, in that sector of space that had been behind them just seconds earlier. The guns traversed, tearing through the enemy ship, igniting its systems. 

 "Sensors show a massive power build-up in target three..."

 Treadmark took a single look at the sensors and responded. "That's a  self-destruct, get us out of here!"

 "Continue on full reverse thrust. Sound collision and brace for impact!"

 Splice looked up from his console in panic. "The guide computers aren't  responding!"

 "They were damaged in the last explosion --"

 "It doesn't matter," Lexius said quickly. "Just punch in full reverse  thrust, now!"

 "With no course?! That's --"

 "Splice! Do it!" Fanblade shouted.

 Splice looked from Fanblade, to Lexius, and then to his panel. He set  the reverse thrusters to full, and hoped he'd been fast enough. 

 Thirty seconds later, the half-destroyed Decepticon ship erupted into atoms.

-  -  -
 Sureshot?! There was anger in that voice. What are you doing here? I  didn't give permission...

 I'm sorry, Lash, I'm sorry! I had no choice; it was the only --

 Yes, I see. I apologize.

 You see?! But I didn't... 

 Sureshot realized that he could see, as well. Every thought Lash had,  every emotion, every impulse, every memory, coursed through him as though  it were his own. He was overloaded, his own identity in danger of being  smothered, buried beneath Lash's. And yet he could tell he was doing the  same to her, or at least it felt that way. He fought to control it, to  stem the tide...

 Sureshot!! No! Stop! It hurts, you're killing me --

 He calmed himself, let himself listen to her. She showed him how to cope. He tried to relax, to stop, not to think, not to react. To be calm, to let the alien thoughts wash over him without interfering; to simply accept them. 

 Better, Lash sent. Sureshot tried not to resist.

 We weren't ready for this, you know, Lash sent to him. I wasn't  ready. Maybe I never would have been. The combinations of two robots who  are suitable for a full Joining are rare. We're lucky we haven't both  gone over the edge already.

 I did it to save you.

 I know. We're still here, though. Maybe this means we're suited for  each other. Who knows. 
 We'll see, if the meds ever get around to repairing your body...

 Sureshot...

 Yes?

 Even if we weren't ready for this...

 There were no further words, but the wave of thanks and love that washed over him from Lash's mind was purer and more direct than anything words could have expressed. 

-  -  - 
 Grotusque had already gotten Punch out of the conduit chamber, and was  working on extracting Nightbeat, when the collision alarm sounded.

 "Hurry!" rasped Punch, from where he lay on the deck, weak from fuel  loss. Grotusque swiftly pulled in the line to which Nightbeat clung; the  detective nearly had a grip on the deck. But there was no time: with no  further warning, a tremendous shock wave slammed through the Autobot ship. 

 Grotusque went flying across the corridor. The line escaped from his grasp and snaked away, dropping through the hole and disappearing. Nightbeat scrabbled for purchase, ignoring the agony in his damaged right arm, but slid inexorably towards the opening again. 
  
 Grotusque regained his feet, and dove across the deck. His hand closed  on Nightbeat's wrist just before Nightbeat completely lost hold of the  deck.  Nightbeat swung precariously over the abyss; Grotusque felt himself slowly  sliding across the deck... until a barely-conscious Punch slowly, wearily,  hauled them both back to safety. Nightbeat stumbled onto solid deck, and  collapsed, exhausted. Punch fell beside him, clutching his wounded  midsection. Grotusque grinned at Punch. "I'm losin' count of how many  times you've save my hide," he said. Punch answered him only with an odd  look. 

 Nightbeat turned his head to the spy beside him.  He had a lot of questions to ask this guy... but only one really mattered right now. "Is it over?" Nightbeat asked. 

 "Yeah," Punch said. "It's over.

-  -  -
 There was no need to say it, but Tuner had to anyway. "Target three  destroyed," he announced to the bridge. There was muted adulation, relief.  But no cheers.  

 "Damage from the self-destruct was minimal. No casualties." 

 "Wheeljack," Lexius called to engineering. "How soon can you have warp  drive for us?"

 "Another fifteen minutes, commander." 

 "Good. Helm, as soon as we have warp, get us out of here. Navigator..." 

 Splice looked up in terror, then slowly turned in his seat to face his commander. He had erred, not once but three times: he had failed in his duty, he had panicked under pressure, and he had questioned his commander in mid-battle. His inaction had nearly killed them all. He knew he was well due for severe punishment. 

  "...You may indulge yourself. Good work remembering the reverse  thrusters, Splice, you saved us." 

 Splice gaped for a long moment.

 "Splice," Fanblade called cheerfully. "Aren't you going to thank your  commander?" 

 Splice looked at Fanblade, and nodded dumbly. "Thank you, um, Lexius,"  he stammered.

 Lexius smiled and nodded; Splice turned back to his station. Almost out of habit, Lexius  turned to another com button, one for general address of the ship. 

 He hesitated a moment. Did he really mean what he was about to say? He thought of the three ships they'd just destroyed, the lives they'd taken. He knew he could never forgive himself for those lives. He never could, again. Not if he wished to keep his soul intact. That would forever be the burden of his warrior soul. 

 But did even bearing that burden justify killing, make it permissible? It was us or them, he told himself. No. More than that. There are lives on this ship, and the attackers were committed to destroying those lives.  That's what we just stopped: the destruction of life. Lexius reached and hit the com, and spoke with confidence, assurance. 

 "Good work, Autobots." 

 Inside, though, he retained his doubts. Their work was destroying  life. And there was a great deal more work on the horizon.

***************END PART FIVE************************
On to Part 6