The Corrosion of War Without End
PART SIX

Chapter 2:
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 center." 

 "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 project."

 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 the Cybertronians."

 "Your own underlings didn't seem to think any further waiting was  possible."

 "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 yours." 

 "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 mad.

*  *  *
 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 be." 

 "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 --" 

 "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 us any?"

 "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 more. 

 "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. 

 "Lash?" 

 "You're not serious," Lash said at last. 

 "Of course I'm serious!  You think I'd joke about this?" 

 "Sureshot, why?" 

 "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 came --"

 "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 happens."

 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.  "I promise."

*  *  *
 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 done yet. 

*  *  *
 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 back from."

 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