The Corrosion of War Without End
Calm Before the Storm
Counterpunch, forewarned as he was, still couldn't help flinching
as he saw the ship yard for the first time. No wonder Lexius is
anxious to attack, the Autobot side of his mind thought, as he guided
his small craft into the yard. I would be, too. He silenced such thoughts
as his com beeped for attention.
"Incoming vessel, transmit ID signature," a bored voice called.
"Authorization T, K, 42, 1, code 38-27," Counterpunch sent in his
most authoritative voice.
The voice was several moments in answering, and was definitely not
bored when it returned. "Ah, you're clear, sir," it said finally. "Lord
Megatron will be notified of your arrival. Land in bay 21 of the control
"Understood," Counterpunch said, gruffly. Ahh, Megatron really is
here. Counterpunch's ship glided nimbly along the course fed to him by
the yard's computers. The gargantuan vessels slid by his viewports
silently, ominously. Ahead, a central control center beckoned, not
nearly as large as the ships around it, but still enormous.
Counterpunch landed and disembarked without incident. A trooper
waited to escort him, and led him up several levels to the twin doors of
a control center. The doors parted to reveal Megatron. The
dark green Decepticon leader stood facing the viewports, gazing at his
domain. Counterpunch dismissed the trooper, who scurried away fearfully.
Megatron turned to face him.
"What brings you here?" Megatron asked without preamble, obviously
not pleased at being disturbed.
"I have come to learn about these ships before they launch."
"This place is not your domain."
"Anything which might affect our operations is my domain," Counterpunch
replied. "The prototype ship from this yard was involved in a military
strike which failed rather spectacularly. I was helping to coordinate
that strike for the Cybertronians, and I'd like to know why it was carried
out with such total disregard for my advice."
"You try my patience, Counterpunch. What I do, I do with good
reason. If we had refused to launch a vessel when the Cybertronian
fleet contacted us, they would likely have discovered my takeover of their
Counterpunch flared. "I could have prevented that! Your ship
was destroyed because you sent it against the Autobots without consulting
me! I could have advised a longer wait if you had told me what you
were planning. You didn't need to rush so blindly into battle for
"Your own underlings didn't seem to think any further waiting was
"The clones? They advised you without consulting me?!" Counterpunch
exclaimed. "They have greatly overstepped their bounds."
"I operated on their advise assuming it came after consultation with
you." Megatron frowned. "Given the results of the mission,
I leave them at your mercy, then."
Counterpunch absorbed that, his countenance lightening somewhat.
"Thank you. If that matter is clear, I have business to conduct
now. I have been told nothing of these vessels."
"Very well," Megatron said, seemingly weary of the conversation.
"You have one week to study their design. Leave me."
"Why only one week?"
"Because we're launching then, you fool. Now go."
"Yes, Lord Megatron," Counterpunch said, his tone showing little
of the deference that his words did.
One week! Lexius needs to know about this immediately! His
data-gathering mission had just started, but this could not wait.
He spent an hour or so searching the station for a secure transmitter,
then sent the data back to Vengeance in a short, coded burst transmission,
a pulse small enough not to be noticed.
The data safely on its way, Counterpunch wasted no time in finding
an operator to get him into the file system. He spent a good part
of the next day absorbing information -- analyzing the yard, the ships,
their defenses, their weaknesses.
There is much to be done, Punch thought, as he scrolled through
summary texts of the shipyard's status. The ships were nearing completion,
and, indeed, the first of the thirty-two remaining in the yard would launch
in a weeks' time. Cybertronians were arriving in great numbers to
crew the giant ships, heading the call of their new master, Megatron. As
he had expected, Megatron had constructed elaborate defenses as soon as
the shipyard's location was compromised. Most of the weapons were
being built onto the vessels as they were completed -- Megatron was not
one to cower behind gun batteries, Punch knew; nor was he one to give up
a useful resource. More importantly, Megatron had prepared more subtle
defenses than just the banks of missile launchers and laser cannons which
rimmed each construction dock.
Punch began filing away key data to transmit back to the Vengeance.
Transmitting a large file securely would be difficult; everywhere he could
transmit was in the midst of other operators, who would see what he was
doing, and a large pulse was far more likely to call attention to itself.
He had to hurry, though. Lexius wouldn't wait long now.
- - -
Starblast strained against the bonds which held his hands behind
his back, but it was futile. Even Dredge's immense strength couldn't
break the thin energon strands. The voice laughed mockingly at him.
Rumble and Frenzy pushed Starblast forwards, and roughly dragged
him out of the control chamber. Soundwave followed immediately behind,
with Ravage padding along side him. They brought him through several
chambers, to a completely barren room. Here the twins forcefully
slammed him against the wall.
Soundwave gestured with his hand; a heavy concussion cannon materialized
with a subspace flash of light. "Secure the prisoner," Soundwave
ordered the cassettes, as he primed his weapon. The twins stretched
his bound arms as tightly as possible, holding him flat against the wall.
Starblast found himself staring into the barrel of Soundwave's gun.
Just then, the voice stopped. Simply and totally, without warning,
it disappeared from his mind, fell completely silent. Starblast didn't
even realize it at first. But the screaming, tortured noise had ceased
to subliminally torment his mind. Ironic , Starblast thought, when
he realized it. I can pass my final seconds of life in peace.
"Farewell, Autobot," Soundwave said simply.
But Starblast didn't hear -- a sudden instinct galvanized him.
Using the twins for leverage, he heaved himself up off the deck, then pushed
off the wall with his feet, head-first, directly at Soundwave's chest.
The unexpected blow was enough to stun the Decepticon; Soundwave and Starblast
went down together, tumbling into a mass.
Starblast forced himself up, and, still acting on pure instinct,
activated a button on Soundwave's lower chest with one of his bound hands.
With a burst of light, an energon cube formed from the rim of his chest
compartment. In less than a second it drained off the power from
his bonds. Without the energon containment field to strengthen them,
the bonds snapped off his wrists like so much paper, freeing his arms.
Starblast sprang to his feet, even as the cassettes were unclipping their
weapons from their backs.
Grab the blue one! Starblast heard in his mind. He obeyed
without hesitation, scooping up the smallish cassette robot in his arms
and wielding him before himself, shield-like. Soundwave and the other
cassette trained their guns on him, but held fire. Ravage growled
and crouched low, but also stayed where he was.
They will not risk harming their comrade, Starblast realized.
Soundwave cares too much about his cassettes to chance killing them.
Starblast was too occupied at the moment to realize that the thought hadn't
been his own.
"We have two options available to us," Starblast said to his captors.
"You can let me go now, and no-one will be harmed. Or I can fight
my way free, damage all of you, and escape anyway. The choice is
"You can't get outta here alive!" the red robot screamed. "Lemme
at him, Soundwave, I can take him --"
"Stay your hand," Soundwave ordered, waving Frenzy off with a curt
gesture. "Autobot... proceed."
"I am thankful you see reason," Starblast said. Still holding
onto his madly thrashing prisoner, he slowly edged towards the exit.
Half-way out the door, he threw Rumble to the floor, turned, and ran like
* * *
Lexius paced the length of the conference room, hands folded behind
his back. Outside the room's tiny viewport, the stars gleamed, still and
uncaring. Inside, behind him, Grotusque, Nightbeat, Treadmark, Backscatter,
and a few others waited in silence.
Punch's short, cryptic transmission had been recieved an hour ago:
'Ships launch in 1 week. Advise latest attack on day four.
More to come.' Wheeljack had already insisted that they needed three
weeks to get the ship fully operational and combat-ready, but he had to
ask him again, in light of this. The door opened, and the gleaming
engineer walked in.
"Sorry I'm late," Wheeljack said.
"That's okay," Lexius said. "Thanks for coming up so quick."
He changed his focus, to address the whole group. "I've got
some bad news."
"You mean you managed to find more of it?" Wheeljack asked.
Despite his grim countenance, Lexius almost smiled at that.
"Yeah. Today we got a burst transmission from Punch at the yards.
Megatron is planning to launch his ships in just one week." Lexius paused,
allowing them to absorb the information, then continued. "Our attack
can't wait any longer than that. I need to know what our status will
"Our status? We can't attack in just a week. We need
more like a month!"
"We made it through the last attack, and got away okay."
"Yeah, but that was before we took a couple of direct hits.
We're not done with most of the back-up systems, main guns three and four,
the warp stabilizers, the energy bleed-off systems, the inertial dampeners,
"The warp and sublight engines will function, and all of the traversable
main guns, right?"
"Yes, but --"
"Then we're ready." Lexius didn't say it harshly, but simply
as a matter of fact. His expression was pained at he looked at Wheeljack.
"I'm really sorry to do this to you, Wheeljack, but we don't have any choice.
The attack has to take priority over everything else. If the ships
launch, we've lost them, and that's it for the mission. I've got
to know what we have to work with."
Wheeljack almost seemed to sigh. "Well... what we've got is
a ship that's running sub-par, and minus some of its weapons. The
forward main guns just aren't going to get fixed in that length of time...
I'll pull everyone off of them and put them on other jobs. Then maybe
we can double up the conduit sheathing, find some extra routings for the
magnetic containment field systems, overhaul the flux capacit--"
"Thanks, Wheeljack," Lexius cut him off, and turned back to the whole
group. "The rest of you are here because we do have some time to
work with," he said. "If we enter warp now, we'll arrive at the yards five
days before they launch. I have to decide whether to wait longer,
or proceed with our attack."
Wheeljack spoke to that first. "Commander, I have to say it again.
We're not ready now. Taking it into battle is a pretty big risk.
But if we wait, we can finish more repairs."
Treadmark answered him. "The entire purpose of repairing the
Vengeance was to attack the ship yards before they could finish their work,
and destroy them. The longer we wait, the more chance that the ships
there will get away. What if they launch early? The whole effort
could be for nothing."
"Every day we wait puts us closer to being truly combat-ready, and
increases our survivablility," Backscatter said. "Will it really
hurt us that much to wait a few more days?"
"That's enough time for them to launch who knows how many of those
destroyers," Lexius said. "When they're launched, they're as good
as gone. We'll never find them again, and this mission will be a failure."
"I say we should wait as much as we can," Nightbeat said. "Our
friendly neighborhood assassin happens to have relayed quite a lot of data
about us before his untimely meeting with Deck 42. The 'cons know
who we are and they know we're coming. The best thing we can do is
to be as ready as we can be."
Grotusque nodded agreement. "Lex, I've seen Punch in action.
Lemme tell you, you can depend on him to come through. I'd wait for
him to finish doing his thing. Really, it can't hurt to fix the ship
up a little bit more."
"How long do we want to wait, though? What if something has
happened to Punch? We could wait the whole week and hear nothing,
and we'd fail in our mission." Lexius looked around the group, meeting
each pair of optics around the table. His gaze came to rest on Wheeljack.
"We can wait another five days," he said. "But will it really help
"Not enough to really matter," Wheeljack said, defeated.
"Alright then. We'll give Punch one more day, then we launch.
I'll be making the announcement to the ship in a few hours."
There were slow looks of acknowledgment around the table; most of
them could see Lexius had made his mind up. The group dispersed,
each member hoping fate would see them through where luck would not.
* * *
Starblast fled as fast as Dredge's feet would allow him. For minutes
he tore through empty hallways, not daring to look behind him.
At last, coming to an intersection of passageways, he stopped long
enough to listen for pursuit, and regain his bearings. It took Starblast
a moment to figure out where he was, so quickly had he fled. The escape
had been pure instinct, not a second's rational thought involved -- certainly
not his usual style. Almost like someone else's actions...
After a minute's thought, Starblast figured he knew about where he
was. He headed onwards, in a specific direction this time. If his
plan worked, he still stood a decent chance of escaping alive. Soundwave
had no doubt alerted the station to his presence, but he just had to keep
out of sight for a few more minutes. Then he could --
Without warning, his body froze. Starblast abruptly found himself
unable to move a foot further. Fighting down panic, he ran a self-diagnostic
on his systems. They revealed nothing wrong. Indeed, he felt normal...
yet something was refusing to allow him to take a single step forward.
Stay calm, he instructed himself. I cannot move forwards,
but perhaps... He tried to turn around, and had no problem doing it. He
took several more steps back the way he had come, gingerly testing his
legs. They worked without incident. Starblast shrugged, and turned around
to continue on his way.
Again, he froze. Like a pre-programmed instinct, something
was holding him back, keeping him from moving towards his escape route.
It felt as though he were being willed to remain still. Some part of
his mind didn't want him to escape. Some part of his mind, or...
No. That was outside the realm of possibility. He had
seen to that, eliminated the chance. Dredge was dead; Starblast had killed
him in the last few seconds in the computer. There was nothing left of
him, save a few dormant engrams, now submerged beneath Starblast's own
personality. Starblast commanded his feet to move forwards, focused
his entire mind on making them obey his orders. With great effort, they
did so. Slowly, laboriously, Starblast moved towards his goal.
NO! I... won't... let you!
The voice screamed in his head again, outraged, furious, very clear
and distinct now. His legs -- his mind -- fought against him; he felt
as though he were moving through a sea of molasses, physically and otherwise.
He forced one slow step after the next, barely moving.
This is MY body... I won't let you have it... you can't get away!
It was impossible. Impossible, but still, Starblast knew -- the voice
was Dredge. The Decepticon's mind had survived in some form, and was regaining
power over its body, grappling with the other psyche that had invaded it.
Starblast could feel his control slipping away by the second. He focused
again, and took another slow step forward. He concentrated on the willpower
that was Dredge, tried to force it away, keep it down for just a few minutes
"If you continue to inhibit my escape, we will both be destroyed,"
he gasped aloud.
I'll DIE before I let you escape. You... have... to... PAY, for
what you have done to me.
"It is illogical to try to defeat me," Starblast said, feeling an
uncharacteristic worry come over him. It was not often one of his plans
went this badly awry. "I have suppressed you thus far, and I will continue
to do so. This body now is mine, and you. .. are dead." He stepped forwards
again, almost regaining a normal pace, struggling mightily against the
other mind in his head. He had no other recourse. He could
not let Dredge win, and he couldn't fight him as he had in the computer
-- anything he did against the Decepticon would affect him as well.
I'll fight you, Dredge shouted at him. And I'll destroy you!
"No," Starblast bit out. "Not while I still function. You... cannot...
win..." He drug himself forwards, slowly, focusing every though on his
goal, his plan.
And suddenly the inhibition was gone again. Dredge inexplicably gave
up the mental contest. Starblast stopped for a moment in surprise, his
head spinning from the effort of the mental tug-of-war. Regaining
himself, he quickly headed further into the complex. In his tired relief,
he did not stop to wonder what had caused Dredge to surrender so easily.
* * *
Lash stood tentatively, taking her first step in more than a week.
Gingerly she shifted her weight onto one foot, then the other. Sureshot
grinned next to her.
"How are they?" he asked.
"Great," Lash said, lifting leg off the floor, testing it.
"I can't even tell the difference."
"Toldja you'd be fine," Sureshot said. The medics scanned Lash
as she walked around the room, checking her new limbs for defects.
After several minutes, Fixit pronounced her fit for discharge.
They left the medibay together, and strolled out into one of the
ship's broad, high-ceilinged central corridors. The halls were crowded
with Autobots passing to and fro, many of whom were discussing the ship-wide
announcement they had all heard: the vessel would attack the yards in one
more day. Lash and Sureshot moved through the crowds together in
silence, till at last Sureshot spoke up. "Let's talk," he said to his companion.
Glancing around the many Autobots moving through the large thoroughfare,
he added conspiratorially, "Somewhere private."
"My quarters," Lash suggested. Several minutes later, a turn
into a small side hallway led them to a sealed door. Inside was a
smaller corridor, with rows of numbered doors. Lash keyed the entry
code to the one that was hers. The chamber within was a spartan affair
which she'd had little time to customize to her tastes -- though those
were admittedly spare as well.
"What is it?" Lash asked as they sat down on opposite sides of the
small room. Sureshot leaned forwards, looked intently at her.
"I'm thinking of leaving the ship before our attack on the ship yards.
I want you to come with me if I do."
Lash stared open-mouthed at Sureshot, but was too stunned to speak
for several moments.
"You're not serious," Lash said at last.
"Of course I'm serious! You think I'd joke about this?"
"Lash, this is a suicide mission. There's no way we're going
to make it out of the ship yards with the ship or ourselves in one piece."
"What -- but... you knew that was the point of the mission when you
"That was before that last battle, where we barely got by three of
them. You think we stand any chance against thirty?"
"The commander obviously thinks we do."
"The commander? The commander's a few diodes short of a circuit
board. He's damn near got us all killed twice already. Three
strikes, we're out!"
"That was after winning an incredible number of battles! You
don't know his style the way I do. He would not lead his troops
on a mission that we couldn't win..."
"You willing to bet all our lives on that?"
"Sureshot, you're talking about mutiny!"
"What, are we conscripts or something? C'mon! That's
part of the Autobots' principles, if you want to leave you're free to go."
"Yes, but not in the middle of a mission! Sureshot, we have
a responsibility to this ship and crew, and to our commander --"
"I'm not so sure I want my loyalties to be with him anymore.
This idea he's got of 'win at all costs' is no way to run a war.
This ship's about to be destroyed, and I don't want to be on it when it
Lash was silent for a moment; she stared at the floor between them.
What Sureshot said sounded frighteningly close to the truth. Lexius
had never been this way before, though; he'd always managed to temper his
drive -- or others had done it for him. Others like his first officer
Starblast... "Sureshot," she said at last, "please think it over
for a while longer, at least. Promise me you'll do that."
Sureshot hesitated, glanced up at his partner, then back down again.
* * *
Starblast withdrew his cassette reader from the electronic lock,
as a panel in the wall slid smoothly open. Inside the small chamber, an
inert form waited. His form.
He took a moment to study his work of the last few months. The body
was a precise duplicate of his old one, destroyed when he and Lexius had
tried to escape from the ship yards months ago. It had taken constant effort
to divert the parts, the raw materials, and find time to work on it. Reproducing
his own systems had taxed his skills and ingenuity and physical dexterity
to the limit. But it was done now, and waiting. Soon he would be free.
Starblast ran a series of wires out of the body's head, and into
Dredge's. Keying a sequence on a small pad in the head module, he instigated
a power flow into the body. The rest of the task he accomplished mentally,
a simple download of his mind into the new body. It required overriding
several safety guards, but that was easily accomplished for one of his
computer proficiency. After a few seconds, the transfer began.
The world vanished for a moment; all Starblast could perceive was
a random static punctuated by bursts of streamlined light, as the billions
of bits of information comprising his mind transferred themselves to their
new home. Then there was sensation, and awareness of the real world. His
sight came on-line, and he found himself staring at his former body, at
the now-inert form of Dredge. Quickly, he disconnected the wires linking
the two robots' heads. He had to get Dredge out of sight... permanently.
He looked around, for some place to store or destroy the body.
No sooner had he turned his head, when something slammed into it
-- hard. Starblast reeled from the blow, stunned. He staggered, then lost
his footing and fell, landing on his back. When he looked up again, it
was to see a dark form towering over him: Dredge.
"Now, Autobot," Dredge said, quiet rage dripping from his voice.
"We're gonna settle some things."
Everything made sense now. He must have destroyed a copy of Dredge's
mind, sent into the computer to interrogate him, rather than the real thing.
The real mind was still in the body, in the neural link circuits, waiting
to return to control. The arrival of Starblast's mind in Dredge's brain
had prevented that from happening. But Dredge had been there nonetheless,
a prisoner in his own body. Struggling, screaming at his oppressor...
and waiting. Waiting for now.
Dredge lifted one heavy foot, and swiftly brought it down towards
the Autobot's head. Starblast rolled to one side, barely in time to keep
from having his head mashed into the deck. Starblast lifted one leg, intending
to fire the thruster in his foot, to knock the Decepticon away. But Dredge
grabbed the foot as soon as Starblast lifted it. Starblast found himself
being lifted off the ground, whirled through the air, and slung head-first
into a bulkhead.
He hit the wall hard, and collaped to the floor. As he woozily
regained his feet, Starblast wondered how Dredge had reacted so fast. He
knew he was no match for the Decepticon's physical strength. He pulled
his chain gun, also newly reconstructed, from subspace --
But Dredge's hands clamped on the weapon before the subspace flash
had even vanished. With a mighty shrug, he crushed the gun's armor and
shattered the delicate firing mechanisms within. Starblast leapt back in
astonishment, as the crumpled cannon exploded.
How can he have such fast reflexes? Starblast wondered. According
to the latent files, Dredge was -- is, rather -- a slow, methodical thinker,
and relies on pure strength rather than speed or finesse in hand-to-hand
combat. Were the files in error?
"GrrraaaAAAAHH!" Dredge loosed a guttural scream and leapt for him.
The impact pinned Starblast against a wall; Dredge clamped him there with
one hand, and proceeded to pummel him with the other. "I'll crush you,
Autobot," Dredge cried out, as he landed one blow after another on his
opponent. "Crush you, kill you, trample you underfoot, squash you like
Unable to work free, Starblast lowered the quad lasers mounted on
his head module. But his opponent outmoved him again, and reached to tear
the lasers off before he could fire. Doing so, however, required
Dredge to use both his hands; Starblast managed to escape from the Decepticon's
grasp with two of his head-mounted weapons intact.
It is as if he knew I was going to do that, Starblast thought,
as he slowly paced a circle with his opponent. He knew --
Because he was in my mind, too!
Dredge charged again. Starblast leapt backwards, firing his thrusters
and bounding away a hundred feet at a time, trying to stay clear of that
deathly strong grip. Several hundred feet further down the corridor
now, the antagonists circled again.
He knew every though I had in those months. He could read
my mind! He... he knows my battle tactics as well as I do!
"C'mere, Autobot. It's demolishin' time!"
Dredge rushed him, slamming him forcefully into the wall. Before
Starblast could recover from the stun of the impact, the Decepticon pinned
him against the wall with one arm, blocking any chance of escape.
Dredge pushed him upwards, till his feet cleared the ground, his legs dangling
uselessly. Dredge leaned close and leared right in his face, his
faceplate almost emulating a grin. "Gotcha now," he sneered. He gestured
with his free arm.
I must think of something I know about him, Starblast thought,
seeing he could never get free on strength alone. He kicked at his foe's
legs, but Dredge didn't even seem to notice. He must have some
weakness. Think, think! I read his mind too...
Dredge yanked a large cannon out of subspace with a flash, priming
it as Starblast struggled futiley to break the Decepticon's grip.
He planted the cannon on Starblast's face, right at the vulnerable optic
sensor band. Starblast's mind raced.
I occupied his body. I even accessed --- That is it.
"Adios, buddy," Dredge grinned. His finger tightened on the trigger.
Starblast keyed a mental command through his systems, causing a specialized
transmitter to send a signal into subspace. Though the signal would normally
go to Starblast's personalized pocket of that un-dimension, he had altered
the wave to reproduce a different signal - Dredge's.
In the air directly above him, an enormous flash materialized. A
huge piece of machinery appeared amid the light, and hung suspended for
an instant as the light faded. Dredge's battle trailer then fell directly
downwards as it left its subspace pocket, and landed on top of him.
Starblast leapt clear as the Decepticon disappeared beneath the trailer
with a muffled shout of surprise, his weapon clattering to the floor.
Starblast took full advantage of the momentary distraction, scooping
up Dredge's fallen cannon from the deck. He opened fire, first disabling
the trailer before Dredge could bring its weapons to bear on him. He then
turned to Dredge himself, who was pinned to the floor beneath the trailer.
Selective blasts disabled his arms at the shoulders and elbow, ensuring
that he could not pull himself free that way; the rest of him was hidden
under the bulk of the trailer. The wounded Decepticon groaned.
Starblast stared at him for a moment. What now? he wondered. He
could finish his opponent easily enough; a simple blast through the optics,
the same thing Dredge had been about to do to him. It was survival, after
all. Dredge knew exactly what he was planning, and he couldn't afford to
have anyone around to reveal where he was going. Starblast adjusted the
rifle, uncomfortable with its weight, and stepped closer to his fallen
adversary. Dredge looked up at his approach.
"Fine, kill me," he rasped, seeing his weapon in Starblast's hand.
"My body wasn't enough, huh? Go ahead, finish it, get it over with.
I was supposed to die the first time anyway, right? I just wish I could've
taken you with me. Tricurse you, Autobot." Dredge spat vengefully
at Starblast's feet.
Starblast stared at the helpless form beneath him, immobilized by
feelings he couldn't put a name to. Perhaps it was because, in a
way, he owed Dredge his life. Twice over, in fact. He would never have
made it out of the computer without him; and the escape from Soundwave
had been entirely Dredge's doing. They had cooperated for those few seconds,
fought together to survive. Whatever his intentions, Dredge had in fact
saved him. Could he truly turn on someone he'd shared such a bond with?
That was merely survival, his intellect told him. His actions
were motivated purely by self-interest. He is still the enemy...
and this is still war.... He primed the cannon, shifted it again and prepared
to take aim. Through the gunsights, Dredge's gaze met his own. Why,
then, does this not feel right?
He knew the answer to that. It did not feel right because...
it was not right. It went against his personal code, the Autobots'
code, just as Lexius had done months before when they had killed the cargo
ship troopers. He had not protested that decision then; he had regretted
it later. He would not make the same mistake now: enemy or not, Dredge
was still a living being. Starblast lowered the weapon.
"I have tried to kill you once, but that was in the name of my own
survival," he said, looking Dredge directly in the eye. "Given my choice,
I would sooner destroy myself than a living being like yourself." He paused,
glimpsing up and down the empty corridor. "However, since I cannot have
you following me..."
Starblast swung the barrel of the cannon with all his strength; the
weapon struck Dredge on the back of the head. A small grunt escaped the
Decepticon's vocal housing, and he slumped unconscious to the deck, the
trailer shifting on top of him.
"I do not precisely hold you in highest regards," Starblast said
to the unconscious form, though he knew full-well the illogic of it. "However,
you... have my respect." He turned and walked away. There was much to be
* * *
Grotusque and Treadmark stalked along the Vengeance's outer corridors,
running a last-minute structural check on the outer hull before the ship
went into warp. They were seeing more disintegrity in this section
than they would have liked, but there not enough repair crews to get anyone
besides themselves onto it before the attack. Waving one arm up and
down the walls, Grotusque listened intently to the small, chirping stress
meter in his hand, while simultaneously keeping up a running conversation
with Treadmark, who followed behind spot-welding weak points in the hull.
"I know the whole thing's really urgent," Grotusque was saying
now. "But really, one day? Come on! That's almost suicidal.
Don't know about him, but I kinna like livin'."
"He's not suicidal," Treadmark said quietly, offended. "He's
always been driven, but he is still an Autobot, a commander of warriors
and a defender of life. He's not out to get us killed."
"Heh, well, sometimes I just wonder..."
He paused. He'd have sworn he'd seen something ahead, two forms
that seemed to flee at his approach. After the assassin incident,
he figured it was best not to risk it. "Wait here," he told Treadmark.
"I'll be right back." He shifted to his tiger form and bounded down
the corridor. Ahead, he heard someone transform, and a motor rev.
He put his full strength into his next leap, bringing him within
sight of his quarry. Faster than thought, a second leap propelled
him on top of a retreating vehicle. The car turned on its side, and
cried out in surprise. Grotusque jumped back, landing on all fours,
his back-mounted guns primed and ready, to see --
"Sureshot!" a voice called from up the corridor. Grotusque
shifted his focus slightly to see Lash rolling back towards the two of
them, in her tank mode.
Grotusque folded up his form into robot mode. "Alright, you two,
what's goin' on? You both outta be at your stations. We're
scheduled for a fight soon; we're going to need our gunners."
Sureshot also transformed and picked himself up off the deck, rubbing
at the dents in his metal skin where Grotusque had tackled him. He
regarded his former ground commander for a long moment before answering.
"I'm afraid... you're going to have to find some new gunners."
"What? Sureshot, what are you --"
"Grotusque, I tried to stop him. He keeps saying it's a suicide
mission, that the commander is crazy or suicidal," Lash said, transforming.
"Tell him he's not," she pleaded. Treadmark came running up from
the other direction just then, having heard the commotion.
Grotusque doubted that Sureshot would listen to him if he hadn't
listened to Lash. Nevertheless, he steeled himself and spoke, though
he wondered if he really meant it. "Sureshot, listen, Lex is a lot
of things, but he's not crazy. He's pulled us through some tight
spots before; I think he can get us through this one, too. And besides,
he wouldn't send us on a mission that we didn't have a chance of coming
Sureshot simply glared at him.
"Listen, if you really wanna go, you can," Grotusque said, more quietly.
"But we need you now. We're undermanned as is, and you're the best
gunner on the ship."
Sureshot, his sullen expression unchanged, started to say something.
But Treadmark interrupted before he could start.
"Sureshot, every crew member we can get now raises our chances of
making it back alive. To be purely honest, I'm not very enthusiastic
about this mission myself," he confessed. "But it has to be done.
It's a lot more than just our lives at stake. If Lexius seems suicidal
to you, it's because he knows that fact very well, intimately well.
The yards must be destroyed, or countless innocents will be lost."
"You may go if you like," he concluded. "But this mission is a chance
to make a real, true difference in the war. It's a chance to save
lives. Please remember that."
Sureshot was quiet for a moment, staring at the deck plates.
Finally, he glanced up at Lash. "C'mon," he said. The two Autobots
walked down the corridor, back the way they had come, heading for their
stations. Silently, Grotusque and Treadmark watched them go.
It was a long time before the two commanders resumed their work.
Treadmark said nothing for a while, shaken by the encounter.
He had not realized Grotusque's joking concerns were so widespread on the
ship. For the first time, he found himself harboring doubts about
his old friend.
Lexius, his conscience reawakened in recent months, was indeed concerned
with saving innocent lives. But would that concern become so great
that he would forget the lives of those under his command?
Treadmark sighed, his shoulders slumping. It mattered little
now. The time of the attack was eminent.
* * *
Punch worked quickly, with an urgency born of desperation, and an
overwhelming sense of deja vu. He should have done this many hours
ago, but he had not been able to find a station where he could work alone.
Finally he was alone and had access to a configurable transmitter.
Two days had passed since his last transmission; he hoped to Primus that
Lexius had heeded his advice precisely. He could not fail again.
He had saved these Autobots once; if he failed now, it would undo everything
he had worked so hard for before.
He encoded the yard's defense files, loaded them, and transmitted
them in a pulse to the Vengeance. He set his com for receiving, to await
the scrambled signal that would announce receipt of the pulse.
After ten minutes, there was no answer. He repeated the pulse, but
by now he was almost sure there was no mistake.
Finally, he sent a last-ditch procedure, an "acknowledge" bounce
off the ship's computers. If they were in real space anywhere near their
last coordinates, there was no way they could miss the signal. But after
another five minutes, there was still only silence.
Vengeance was gone. The attack was begun.
On to Chapter 3