The Corrosion of War Without End
PART SIX
Chapter 1:
Things Hidden
 

 In the midst of interstellar space's vast blackness, even the great distance encompassed by the Decepticon ship yard seemed abysmally small. The yard stretched its ambling length for nearly three hundred miles, yet it was a speck against the backdrop of the void. Still, Megatron thought, as his gaze fell across the deep-space construct, it is very impressive.

 Dozens of colossal warships -- each nearly twenty miles in length -- floated in web-like construction docks, surrounded by girders and trusses, tunnels and tubes, labor drones and sentient Decepticon workers. Hundreds of smaller ships scurried through the yard, hurrying to deliver materials and laborers to the enormous constructs. The thirty or so starships were in various stages of completion, but most were fast approaching their launching date.

 Not long now, Megatron smiled to himself. Soon the galaxy shall tremble at our might anew.

 The Decepticon leader was standing in the ship yard's central control complex, a relatively small station in the center of the area, overlooking his domain.  From its observation deck, Megatron had a clear view of the yards, an unimpeded vista of the power he held in thrall.  The sight was almost enough to erase the growing taint of failure from his sensors.  Almost... but not quite.

 No, he could not forget that he had now lost five of these ships at the hands of the Autobots, the first five to have launched.  Five ships, and, more importantly, over two hundred of his loyal warriors with them.  The rest of the crewers -- thousands of them -- had been latter-generation Cybertronian clone-warriors: sentient but still mindless; wholly forgettable, and expendable in the extreme.  But the ship's commanders and officers were loyal Decepticons, warriors worthy of bearing that revered name, and he would not allow their deaths to go unavenged.  The Autobots would pay dearly their effrontery, for daring to strike at him and his allies.

 Soon, he would have his revenge.  Very soon, now.

-  -  -
 The voice was back, for the second time in as many days.

 Starblast had first heard it a week ago, while standing in this very spot, gazing out at the shipyards, much the same as Megatron was doing elsewhere in the complex.  It entered his mind in quiet moments, when his attention was turned inward, free from outside distractions.

 He had ignored it at first, written it off as a case of extended nerves, stress from being so long in the enemy camp, a fabrication of his overworked mental faculties.  He reasoned that, logically, even his highly disciplined mind could be susceptible to mental aberrations under the kind of stresses he was enduring.  He had taken steps to alieviate his anxieties, preparing contingencies for every possible situation that could arise.  He should have had no serious troubles, not when his escape from here was so close, certainly nothing to cause  him to imagine a voice in his head calling to him.  But the voice kept returning, more and more frequently. And more insistent.

 It was calling to him now.  It never called him by name, yet he knew it was directed to him; its words were garbled and unclear, but Starblast could almost feel its anger, rising into a pure fury, a burning hatred directed at him and him alone.  It gnawed at his subconscious with guilt, sorrow, anger, humiliation.  It spoke to him of death, the deaths of other beings, and his own.  It grew and swelled within him, an uncontained maelstrom of the emotions and feelings his very nature normally suppressed.

  Starblast tried to redirect his thoughts to other matters -- his upcoming escape from the Decepticon complex, his contingency plans -- but the harder he tried to ignore the voice, the more he heard it.

 Change tactics, he directed himself.  Relax, let it flow away in a sea of calm. He systematically cleared his mind of all thoughts, relaxed the rigidly logical organization his mind normally maintained, and sought an inward calm... but the voice redoubled as soon as he dropped his mental shields.  It swelled, rose to a crescendo, a piercing scream of death which resounded through his mind, until it blotted out all other perceptions, all awareness of the outside world.  Starblast was unaware of his motions as his hands clutched his head, and he bent over double in pain.  He could hear nothing but the horrible scream, the last cry of a being who was --

 The voice faded again without warning.  Starblast didn't move for a moment, as he regained control of his senses.  The metal deckplates slowly became visible to his clouded optics, and he realized he was sprawled on the floor.  His internal chronometer indicated he had been unconscious for several minutes.  Slowly, shaking his head, he stood upright again.

 What just happened to me? he wondered, as his gaze returned to the shipyards out the viewport.  I cannot afford to lose control like that.  Such an act might ultimately reveal my identity to the Decepticons. Additionally, he hated not being in full control of himself.  The thought entered his mind that perhaps he was going insane.

 He pondered the incident for a moment longer, until his vigil was interrupted by the harsh tone of his communicator.  He extended the slender device from his wrist.  "Dredge here, whaddaya want," he muttered into it, taking care that his tone was casual and unconcerned.  Speaking so informally was difficult for one of his programming -- Starblast had to give careful attention to every nuance, every contraction and abrieviation -- but that was how Dredge had talked, according to his memory banks.

 "Report to control chamber four immediately," an strange and unfamiliar voice ordered him.  This voice was monotone, and oddly synthesized.

 "Alright, I'm comin'," Starblast muttered again, shutting down the com.  He wondered what was happening.  There had not been many "interrogations" lately; it was unusual for him to be suddenly called to one.  Odder still, he had never before heard the voice ordering him to the control center.

 A ruse, perhaps?  Some trick to test me? But, no, in this place there were plenty of Decepticons he had never heard speak before.  He quickly started out on the trek to the control room.  In the midst of thousands of Decepticons, it was best not to make a fuss over anything.

*  *  *
 Elsewhere in deep space, another starship floated, while its inhabitants labored to mend the battle-scarred vessel, and themselves.

 "We had three hundred casualties," Sureshot lamented, as he gingerly held Lash's one remaining hand.  "You were pretty lucky."

 "You call this lucky?" Lash answered, glancing down at what was left of her body.  Most of her damage was repaired, but steel-plate patches still covered the spots where her legs and other arm used to be.  Until the limbs were replaced, she was confined to a repair bed.  Sureshot tried not to notice the raw metal of the bandages.

 "To survive, yeah," he said.  "Listen, I bet they'll finish you up in no time.  You'll be up and running before you know it."

 "I don't know if I believe that, Sureshot," Lash answered.  She let her head drop onto the bed again, to stare at the med bay ceiling.  "There's hundreds of injuries, and I'm one of the worst cases. They'll save me for last, you know, triage and all that. It could take weeks."

 "They're working really fast, though.  We need everyone they can get, 'cause we didn't even have enough crew before the battle.  They'll have you out of here quick, trust me. Anyway you'll get a lot of rest till they finish fixing you, so what's to complain about?" Sureshot answered.  Lash was spending about eighteen hours a day in shutdown cycle, mostly so her damaged micro-systems could heal, but also for lack of anything else to do.  She pointed out as much to Sureshot.

 "I'm getting bored, Sureshot.  Believe it or not, I don't like being stuck in one place any more than you do.  I'm getting very depressed from not being able to move around."  She looked at him for a moment.  Sureshot didn't seem quite right; he wasn't normally so sunny and upbeat, so unconditionally optimistic...

 Sureshot grasped her hand a little more firmly, smiling as he answered, "Well, um, that's why I'm here."

 Lash smiled at his awkwardness and returned his grip, but her anxieties were not lessened.  She wondered if something was up with Sureshot.  The Joining had revealed things about Sureshot that she'd not known before, anxieties and insecurities.  She wondered if Sureshot was aware of how well she now understood the way his mind worked.  She hoped he didn't do something he would regret later.

-  -  -
 Vengeance had been at non-alert status during the last minutes of her final flight several hundred years before.  The primary bridge crew and almost all of the senior staff had been on the bridge when the Decepticon assassin burst through the door, cutting several of them down before breaking out some of the bridge windows, sucking the remainder of the crew into space.  After pointing the ship on a collision course with the nearest planet, Deathgrip had tried to escape, but hadn't been fast enough to get away; he'd been knocked out with the rest of the ship's crew  during the impact.  "At least, that's how I picture it happening,"  Nightbeat finished his narrative.

 "And so we revived him like just another crew member, huh?  Stupid us," Lexius said.

 "Well, you couldn't have known, really," Nightbeat said.  "An  infiltrator wouldn't have any insignia."

 "How did he manage to get through the crew rosters?" Punch asked, looking to Lexius.  "I thought you processed each crew member as they were reactivated."

 "Yeah, but it was a mob scene.  It would have been no trouble for him  to slip away unnoticed," Lexius confessed.

 "Exactly," Nightbeat said.  "Finding himself on the ship again, and alone, he figures the best way to accomplish his mission is to call in some help.  So he goes to steal com gear from storage -- only Gouge, sent after the same com gear, catches him in the middle of it.  They fight."  Nightbeat's mouth tightened.  "Gouge disappears."

 "If he called in the ships, why was he heading for the bridge?" Lexius  asked.

 "Simple -- he didn't think we'd lift off so quickly.  He probably was counting on the 'cons to get here and nail us while we were still on the ground.  When we managed to take off, he figures he'd better do the job himself," Nightbeat answered.

 "Makes sense to me," Lexius said.  "I guess the case is closed, then,  huh?

 "Yeah," Nightbeat said.  "I don't know what I'm going to do now -"

 The toning of Lexius's com interrupted him.  "Yes," he acknowledged, snapping it open.

 "We've finished sealing off the breached decks, Commander," Wheeljack's voice crackled over the communicator.  "I thought you'd want to know." Lexius smiled slightly at the words.

 "That's good news," the stout, olive-drab robot answered his chief engineer. "How well will your repairs hold up in combat?"

 "I've got three teams working on reinforcing them now. When they're done, you won't even know the difference."

 "Fantastic. How about the weapon systems?"

 There was a short pause on the other end of the com; Lexius guessed that Wheeljack had rather not address that particular issue. "We've started our assessment," he finally sent. "It doesn't look good, though. We might get guns two and five working within a week. Three and four, I just don't know right now. It doesn't look too good, though."

 "Well, just do your best, then," Lexius answered. "But remember we've gotta have those guns. Lexius out."

 Lexius shut down the com link, hoping he wasn't pressuring Wheeljack too much.  Restoring the main guns was urgent; without its weapons the Vengeance was both useless and defenseless. But the engineering crew had already performed a series of miracles in the last month: first repairing the derelict ship in record time, then pulling it through its first battle a week before it was ready. They were tired, mentally and physically; they'd been pushed to their limits for weeks now.

 We don't really have a choice. If they hadn't worked as quickly as they did... Lexius pushed aside the grim image of the ship being destroyed on the ground, and returned his attention to his two companions.  "Punch, you said you had some questions..."

 "Yes."

 "Shoot, then."

 "You fought a Decepticon at the shipyards. You are certain he referred to himself as Megatron?"

 "Sure as anything," Lexius answered. "Why, you know him?"

 "Possible. Describe his appearance."

 "Hmm now, lemesee... big guy, yeah, real big. Huge freakin' cannon on his right shoulder. Damn strong, too. Nearly ripped me apart. Kinda blocky lookin', with a head shaped like a bullet, or a bucket maybe. He had green camo armor, about the same color as mine. Looked like his alt mode had treads."

 "It is Megatron," Punch said quietly, with a look of worry, which Nightbeat mirrored.  "He must be commanding the operation. That is unfortunate."  He paused briefly, his countenance changing slightly.  "But we can use it to our advantage."
 
 "How so?" Lexius asked.

 "I've dealt with Megatron, worked for him in fact.  Though most of my dealings are with the Cybertronian empire, the Decepticons are where my 'true loyalties' are supposed to lie.  Megatron doesn't like me much because I walk the line like that, but he will trust me enough to allow me access to --"

 "Now wait a second!" Lexius interrupted.  "You're not going to that ship yard!  Soon as we get this ship patched up, we're going to take it there and blast the place to atoms."

 "With no reconnaisance data?  Commander, you of all Autobots should know the value of good target information," Punch said.  "A survey mission is the logical step to take while you repair your ship.  I'm the obvious candidate for such a mission."

 "How are you gonna get in?  How will you report back to us?  How are you going to get clear before we attack?  Forget it, Punch, there's too many things that could go wrong," Lexius said with a certainty that, to him, brooked all debate.

 "Hold on there, cowboy," Nightbeat cut in.  "Think for a minute.  What do we actually know about this place, except that it's really big?  That's not the kind of hard data I'd want to plan an attack with.  Besides," he grinned, "some of us thrive on fixing things that go wrong."

 "He is right.  Suppose they have moved it since your time there?" Punch  said.  "What if they've upgraded their security or defenses?"

 Nightbeat nodded.  "They could've dispersed the construction sites, or cloaked them somehow. There goes your element of surprise, what little you have left, that is, after the assassin's warning.  And believe me, he did send a warning.  The 'cons know all about us now."

 "All I need to communicate is a secure subspace transmitter, and for you to be listening on the right frequencies," Punch added.  "The rest, I can handle myself; you don't need to worry about it."
 
 "I can't just let you go waltzing in there --"

 "Commander, though I am on your ship, I am not under your command," Punch said firmly.  "For reasons of my own, I am going to this shipyard.  It is not your position to say otherwise.  Whether you allow me to feed information out to you is entirely up to you.  As Nightbeat has suggested, however, I would advise you to consider the advantages of entering a battle thoroughly prepared."

 Lexius glared at Punch for a long moment, but he knew that the spy was right on all counts.  "Alright," he said at last, his countenence lightening.  "I give.  Talk to the bridge crew about the subspace freq.  We'll get you a ship."

 "Thank-you, commander," Punch said, sincerely.

-  -  -
 A mere two hours later, a small shuttle vessel streaked away from the Vengeance.  Lexius watched on the bridge sensors and through the viewports as Punch's ship disappeared into foldspace, and silently wished the spy good luck.  He found himself hoping they would meet again.

*  *  *
 Starblast was still thinking of the recent incident as he walked into the control room.  Perhaps the voice was some flaw inherent to the body his mind was occupying at the moment.  That was still how he considered the Decepticon body he had stolen during escape from the computer system.  It was not his body, more of a loaner, and as such the actions he caused it to take weren't really his.  He saw it as little different from  remote-controlling a machine... he simply happened to be inside the machine, as well.

 It was not a bad body to be trapped in, actually.  Dredge transformed to a demolition vehicle, complete with its own weapons trailer stored in subspace, and his robot form was stocky and powerful.  He was not fast, but was strong enough that it probably didn't matter in battle.  Starblast was still not quite used to having such immense strength at his disposal.  It was an odd form for a data systems operator, in Starblast's opinion, but he was not complaining.

 A door slid open; Starblast guided his stolen body into the now-familiar space of the shipyard's central computer complex.  Inside a subchamber -- the interrogation room --were the twin cassette robots, Rumble and Frenzy... and another face that Starblast had encountered in his journeys through the yard's computer files, one he'd not expected to see in person.  The one Decepticon whom the petulant cassettes seemed to fear and respect. Soundwave.

 "Be seated, Dredge," the dark blue robot spoke in the eerie monochrome Starblast had heard on the comm.  Starblast did as he was told, taking a spot by a monitor.

 "You have interrogated the prisoner.  You are certain he will yield no new information to us," Soundwave reiterated Starblast's reports to him.

 "Positive.  I hit him with every trick I know.  I think he's told us everything," Starblast answered.

 "Then he is of no further use to us," Soundwave said.  "Rumble, Frenzy... prepare the prisoner for termination."

 "Alright," Starblast said, forcing what he hoped was a suitably nasty expression onto his faceplates.  "Let's do it."  He started to slide in his left hand, to replace it with the cassette reading mechanism.

 "Hold," Soundwave halted him.  "You do not have that authorization."  Starblast couldn't penetrate the dark blue robot's blank face and expressionless voice, but Rumble and Frenzy both gave him a look of puzzlement.  He had evidently overstepped a bound he should have known about.

 "Rumble," Soundwave continued, opening the large clear panel on his chest.  "Prepare for termination code loading."

 "Heh hey! Better luck next time, Frenzy," the smallish robot laughed to his brother, who in turn shot him a scowl.  Rumble shifted to his cassette form, leaping and landing neatly inside Soundwave's chest cavity.  Soundwave pressed a button, and internal mechanisms whirred for a moment.  Rumble abruptly ejected from Soundwave, transforming back to robot mode.

 "Loading of termination codes complete.  Proceed with termination," Soundwave ordered.

 "One fried Autobot brain comin' up," Rumble answered.  Transforming again, he leapt into the cassette reader of the computer where the "prisoner" was.

 Starblast had simply stood by silently during the exchange, unable to do anything but watch as his situation fell apart.  Until now, no-one but him had directly accessed the prisoner during his time here.  If they had, they might have discovered that the "prisoner" -- supposedly his own downloaded mind -- was in fact a mere facsimile program he'd set up after making his escape into this body.  Starblast suppressed a grimace. He would soon find out exactly how convincing the facade was.

 A long silence ensued, while Rumble played back Soundwave's termination codes in the computer, destroying the "prisoner".  Starblast was disciplined, but he still had a hard time keeping still and disinterested.  The voice began to claw at his mind again, very distantly.  It raged against him from far away, screaming his name without words, threatening to destroy him, obliterate him.

 Rumble popped out of the computer at last, unfolding once more into his robot mode.  He wore a worried look as he spoke. "Soundwave!  Somethin's wrong.  The codes came back to me without runnin'.  It's like he ain't in there no more!"

 Soundwave looked at Starblast.  "Explain this," he ordered.

 "I dunno, Soundwave.  Maybe he got out somehow," Starblast said, trying to concentrate, to ignore the distant voice.  "Or maybe Rumble screwed up."

 Rumble balled a fist at that.  "Me screwin' up? You're the one that's been goin' in there for the last two months --"

 "Silence," ordered Soundwave, and Rumble complied immediately.  "I will examine the prisoner myself." Soundwave slid a series of connector mechanisms from one fingertip, and became still for several seconds.

 Starblast waited nervously, trying his hardest not to fidget or grab at his head.  Several times he debated the merits of simply running for it, but ultimately he decided that he had nothing to gain by implicating himself.  Soundwave came to again, and looked directly at him.

 "You will submit for brain scanning," Soundwave ordered him.

 That does not sound like something I want to happen to me, Starblast thought.  He wondered again if it would be best not to argue for the moment, or if he should be trying to escape right now.  Before he could decide, though, a small apparatus popped out of Soundwave's head, directed at him.  Then came the eerie feeling of something in his mind.  A cold, emotionless probing, dispassionately sifting through his consciousness, until it was finally satisfied --

 "Rumble, Frenzy, Ravage, attack."

 The two cassettes were on him in an instant, before he could even react to Soundwave's order; a third one flew out of Soundwave's chest compartment, unfolding into a dark robotic jaguar.  The three tackled him to the deck together.  Starblast tossed Rumble off with a swat of one powerful arm.  He turned to do the same to Frenzy, but Ravage's jaws clamped on his forearm, restraining him.  He reached to pluck the cat-like Decepticon off, but Frenzy blasted him point-blank with a prolonged burst of sonic energy before he got the chance.  Systems shorted out throughout his body; he collapsed to the deck, stunned.

 The twins bound his wrists behind his back, and hauled him upright.  Through a fog of static, he looked up at Soundwave. "Why..." he managed.

 "You are an Autobot," Soundwave said simply.

 Starblast stared in mute horror.  He could think of no excuses, no recourse.  This time, he had simply not been smart enough.  He had been caught, and he had no-one but himself to blame.  He could hear the voice again.  This time it laughed, laughed harshly and cruelly.  Laughed to punish.

 Soundwave spoke again, and the eerie chiming voice seemed laced with both menace and glee.  "Prepare the prisoner...for termination."

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On to Chapter 2