The Corrosion of War Without End

Chapter 3:

 The command station's main cargo dock was cavernous, scaled to the  titanic project for which it received materials. Huge metal crates and  piles of raw materials were stacked all around, in long, high rows that  formed a series of artificial canyons.  Cargo workers on hoverpads pulled  off various materials to send to processing stations across the yard, or  directly to the ships themselves, stockpiling them in anticipation of  their eminent launch.  Amid the vast piles of materials, a lone figure lurked  in the shadows.  Starblast had no trouble slipping unnoticed from one  stack of metal and raw sythetics to the next, dodging the occasional   worker or pilot or guard that passed by. 

 He was closing in on his objective -- a personnel transport, designed to  carry small groups of troops between star systems.  He had seen it from  across the bay, sitting near the dock's exit.  It looked capable of  getting him back to Cybertron.  And more importantly, it looked empty and unguarded.

 He lingered for a bit, watching the movements of the guards and workers,  timing them, judging their states of readiness.  After a moment, he  walked quickly and quietly across the last remaining open space to the  waiting transport.  Without hesitation, he jacked the door open and  climbed in. 

 "Hey!  Who the shock are you?"  a voice called out from the inside of  the ship to him, before he could even shut the door behind him.  A pair  of guns aimed at him from the shadows of the ship's rear, where a massive  Decepticon -- even bigger than Dredge --  had apparently been about to  settle in for a rest cycle.  The robot strode forwards, stepping out of  the shadows. "This is my ship, buddy, and nobody flies it but me."   He gestured to the door with one of the guns. "Out."

 Starblast saw he had no choice but to fight it out.  He rushed the  imposing form, swinging a fist.  He connected solidly with the side of  the Decepticon's jaw, throwing his whole weight into the punch.

 The Decepticon didn't move.  Quite simply, he did not rock a single  inch.  Starblast rebounded away, falling to the deck.  The Decepticon  chuckled, stepping forward and holstering one of his guns.  He picked up the unfortunate Autobot by the  neck.  Lifting him like a ragdoll, the Decepticon threw Starblast out the ship's  door.  Starblast skidded noisily across the deck of the cargo bay.  Every optic sensor in the place turned to stare at him as he ground to a halt.  Not my wisest tactical decision, he thought.

 From the entrance of the cargo ship, the Decepticon pointed to him. "He  tried to steal my ship," he announced to everyone within earshot, "and  then he attacked me." 

 Several guards made their way forward.  Starblast soon found himself  surrounded by five guns at point blank range.  Meekly, he surrendered.   He might still be able to talk his way free, he figured, if no-one had  found Dredge yet; or, maybe an opportunity would come up somewhere along  the way.  At any rate, he had no chance against such numbers. 

 As it happened, the opportunity came sooner than he could have hoped.   Through the open docking bay came several flashes of light; the guards   -- along with everyone else -- turned to see a series of explosions  erupting from across the yard, over a hundred miles away.  An attack.

 "Hey, stop him!" cried out the brute whose ship Starblast had tried to  steal.  But both he and the guards were too slow.  Starblast had  transformed and launched before any of the guards had time to look back.   In a second he was gone, fleeing back into the command station's depths. 

*  *  *
 Outside the Vengeance's viewports, the stars snapped into  focus, and stood still as the ship dropped out of warp.  Before the Autobots loomed a nightmare, the ship yard they had come here to destroy.  Nightbeat, who had made the bridge his unofficial home, stared intently at the enormous constructs; everyone else simply bent to their work: the destruction of this place.

 "Gunners select targets and fire!" Lexius sent over the ship-wide com.  The basic strategy was simple: the Vengeance would cut straight through  the long axis of the yard, weapons firing in all directions, and  hopefully inflict sufficient damage in the first strike to allow a  leisurely mop-up operation. 

 But the Vengeance had not fired yet fired a single shot when she found  herself under attack -- from her target.  Dozens of bright flashes  ignited from each of the construction platforms.  Drive trails homed in  on the ship. 

 "Targets are launching missiles!" Tuner cried out. 

 They were waiting for us, Lexius thought grimly. "Evasive! Gunners,  track on missile launches!" The ship's four surviving heavy guns swiveled and fired,  enormous lances of energy swallowing up the incoming artillery like  mosquitoes in a blast furnace. The stars slowly wheeled past the  viewports, as the ship pulled out of its curving dive into the yard and  vectored away before more guns could track them. 

 This is going to be harder than we thought, Lexius realized. 

-  -  -
 Counterpunch watched as the shipyard's artillery launched against the  Vengeance. Though most of the first round dissolved in the inferno of the  ship's main guns, enough made it through to rattle the ship. And there  would be more, much more.  Megatron had seen to that.

 I could have stopped this, if only I'd taken a few risks! Punch cursed  silently as a second salvo of artillery went out from the Decepticon  batteries. 

 I still can stop it, he thought. Clutching his rifle, Counterpunch  strode determinedly into the station's depths. 

-  -  -
 Vengeance spun and arced, evading some salvoes, absorbing others, and  blasting some out of existence.  The bridge crew braced themselves as the  ship took another round of hits.

  "Concentrate on evasives, and keeping our damage to a minimum, " Lexius  ordered.  The already battered ship didn't need more damage on top of  what it had sustained in its last battle. "Steer for nine-oh-seven.   Tuner, how we doin'? "

  "Five targets hit," Tuner reported. "Damage to all others negligible." 

  "Lex, the gunners want better lines of sight,"  Grotusque  reported.  The ship's twisting path left little opportunity for the  gunners to line up their targets.

  "No can do; we've got to stay clear of their batteries.  Treadmark,  have you found any openings in their defenses?" 
  "Negative. Fire fields are evenly scattered everywhere we've tried."

 No weaknesses. Do I dare go with a direct assault? Aloud, he asked,  "What about our damage? "

 "Minimal, for the hits we've taken.  Damage control is on it."

 Minimal?  They had us dead to rights!  We should be hurt bad...   Lexius thought for a moment. "Tuner, calculate damage if we'd taken all  hits. "

 "Do what?"

 "You heard me.  Project it and report."

  Tuner entered a few quick commands into one of his consoles. A display  of the ship came up on the main screen.  Large area were painted light  green -- moderate to light damage, non-threatening.

  Apparently, the shipyard's defenses were just that -- defenses.  Designed to repel, drive away, and annoy.  Nothing more.  The missiles  were light and small; the cannons, not powerful enough to penetrate the ship's hull.  The defenses were a gigantic bluff.

  "Take us straight through the yard, on heading seven-seven-zero.   Ignore their defenses and proceed with the original attack plan, "   Lexius ordered.  He grinned. "Let's get 'em."

 "NO!" Nightbeat's voice rang from the back of the bridge. Lexius had  almost forgotten he was there. "It's a trap!"

  Lexius stared at him.  For an instant, he considered ignoring him... but he  had seen Nightbeat make such calls before.  So far he'd been right every  time. "Belay that order," Lexius said to the bridge.  To Nightbeat, he  added: "Make it quick."

  Nightbeat worked fast, motioning Tuner aside from his console and  calling up a tactical display of the yard, hastily drawn up by the ship's  computers since they had arrived. "The force of their attacks have come  from here, here, and here," he said, pointing, "when it would be just as  easy to fire at us from these gunpoints here and here, on the near axis.   You said their fire fields are evenly distributed," he nodded to  Treadmark, "yet they're firing selectively.  Basically, they've been trying  really hard to get us where we are, to the north pole of the yard."


 Nightbeat pointed to the schematics of the construction docks and the  vessels within them. "Look how the ships and their main guns are  oriented.  If at about this time we wise up to the 'weakness' of their defenses, we logically make our attack run this way, about seven-seven-oh like you said.  And, how convenient, we run right through the sights of six of their heavies  before we're even half way through our pass -- they don't even have to  aim.  Bet you two cans of lube those ships' main guns are prepared to fire the second we're in the crosshairs."

 "Tuner? Can you confirm that?"

 "Hang on..."

 "I can, " Splice announced. "Look at the relative positions of the  central docks.  They've all shifted slightly since we first arrived.  And  if you project the how the fire patterns of the main guns have changed as  a result..."  Graphics played across his screen; a line sprang out from  ten of the construction docks, the fire fields of the destroyers' main guns.  They were randomly oriented at the  attack's beginning, but as Splice played back the battle thus far, they  intersected neatly near the center as the docks shifted -- right across  their would-be path.  
 A fire web.  And I nearly fell for it, Lexius saw. "Swing around the  equatorial axis of the yard.  We'll try and blast in from the outside,"  he ordered aloud.  The yard was spatially arranged in two roughly  parallel planes; sailing outside and between them might offer some  protection while allowing them to strike. "And stay clear of those main guns! Focus on giving our gunners  clear shots, and don't worry about their missile strikes."

 "Yes sir,"  Splice said, betraying some uncertainty.

 "The faster we can finish them off, the fewer hits we'll take," Lexius  explained his tactics.  Normally he wouldn't have felt the obligation,  but the crew had suffered enough setbacks and difficulties on this  mission already. "Splice, very good work.  Nightbeat... I owe you two cans of lube."

-  -  -
 Counterpunch stalked through the station's interior, thinking hard and  fast.  He couldn't use the main com facility; there was too great a  chance of someone seeing what he was doing.  But there were smaller  control stations, with fewer operators -- sometimes as few as one.  The  right operator could get him on-line to the Vengeance, if properly persuaded.
 He turned down one of the lesser-used corridors, hoping luck would be  with him.

-  -  -
  Starblast was back to running again.  He was skimming through the  corridors of the station in guardian mode, trying just to keep moving,  not certain of where he was heading.  He didn't think any of the guards  from the cargo bay had managed to pursue him, but the whole security  network was probably alerted to his presence by now.  His only hope was  that the attack was occupying everyone on the command station. 

 The security network?  Why am I afraid of the security network? he  wondered.  He knew the system backwards and forwards; he could send it  crashing with ease.  And he could make things easier for whoever was  attacking, as well.  
 A few turns down corridors brought him to an unmanned auxiliary control  room.  Landing and transforming, he booted up one of the consoles and  plugged himself in. 

 Once before, he had temporarily shut down the ship yard's security. That  time, he had only had remote access to the computer systems. Now, though, he had a direct hard-wired link to the central defense systems, and several months experience with the system. He began  systematically reprogramming all the automated defenses, internal and  otherwise. 

-  -  -
 The Vengeance shook mightily, as it absorbed another artillery hit. 

 "That last hit breached decks 34 to 38 in sector M," Tuner called out. 

 "Engineering needs more damage control teams, they're having fires and  overloads all over --"

 "Enemy fire at two-four and three-five --"

 "Secondary gunners lock in on defense systems at two-seven,  three-eleven, and eight-one. Helm, evasive gamma delta," Lexius called,  as another spread of missiles honed in on his ship.  He was growing  desperate.  The intensity of the strikes had gone up greatly, and with  each new hit the already-damaged ship lost more and more of its systems. 

 Splice could already tell the evasive was futile. "Yessir," he  acknowledged, "but we will not have time to -- " Splice stopped in  mid-sentence. His metallic jaw dropped as he re-checked his screen.  Unbelieving, he ran a visual confirmation -- he looked out the windows. 

 Sure enough, the missiles were altering their course, veering off and  heading for the nearest construction dock. 

 "Sir," he reported. "Enemy defensive systems have just suffered a  massive systematic command anomaly."

 "If you mean they're screwed up, I agree," Lexius muttered, as the  missiles impacted spectacularly against one of the Decepticon ships. His  voice changed abruptly. "That's our chance, folks, let's take it! Helm,  take us straight between the two main clusters of ships, speed fourteen  thousand. Gunners, fire at will!" 

 Turning directly into the space it had only skirted till now, Vengeance  surged forward, into the very heart of the lion's den. 

-  -  -
 Starblast sent one command after another into the defensive systems,  reprogramming them top to bottom:
 ###Remove targets X T-1, T-2, T-3
 ###Missilelock: non-targets Type C Type D 
 ###Del F://#1.1A-7.3D
 ###Cancel Status:alert  Status:normal
 ###RUN endless_loop.exe @ endrun

 Missiles were reassigned to fire on the construction docks; the laser  cannons, on each other. The defensive firing programs were erased; the  defense system was frozen up, unable to receive any new commands, as soon as he left it.

 I've done all I can do, Starblast thought, as he directed his mind  back to his body. Now I must make good my escape, and rejoin the  Autobots, before --

 He completed his re-interface with the body, his optics coming back  on-line. What he saw cut the thought of escape off completely.  For the fourth time today, he was staring down the barrel of a gun. 

 "Cooperate," said the dark blue Decepticon, "and you will not be hurt." 

-  -  -
 Guns five and two, with Sureshot and Lash at the respective helms, raked  across a pair of docks as Vengeance passed between them. The enormous  ship shrugged off the twin explosions. 

 "Two more targets down," Tuner grinned. Beside him, Splice worked  furiously to keep the ship's trajectory on the best strategic path, while  monitoring all the new data from the other controllers. 

 "Incoming transmission from the shipyard, it's on Punch's frequency!"  Fanblade exclaimed. 

 Lexius's pumps nearly froze. "Put it up," he ordered.

 A static-filled, streaked image of Punch filled the screen. "I have data  on the yard's defenses," he said without preamble. The voice was heavily  distorted. "I'm transmitting now, please acknowledge receipt."

 A second later, Tuner nodded to Lexius. "We got it," Lexius said to the  screen. "Good work. Get out of there."

 "Understood." Punch moved aside and broke the connection. As he moved  out of the screen's field, Lexius thought he saw something move behind  him, another robot - but he had no further time to deal with it; Punch  could take care of himself. Grotusque and Treadmark were already at  Tuner's station, poring over the new information. Grotusque called out  new target coordinates for Fanblade to relay to the gunners. 

 "That's their central control complex," he said. "Take that out, you'll  cut the head off the petrosnake." 

 "Take us into firing range," Lexius ordered.  

 Vengeance spun and accelerated, a stake driving relentlessly into  the heart of the enemy camp.

-  -  -
 "Well done,"  Punch said, as Starblast shut down the com connection and  withdrew from the system. "Come on, I'm nearly done with you,  Decepticon.  Keep behaving and you'll be fine."

 "You --" Starblast stared at his captor. "You are an Autobot!" He  couldn't help a smile from forming on his face.  He had been sure he had  been captured by the Decepticons; this was a stroke of luck that defied  credibility.

 Punch transformed back to his Decepticon mode, panels and components  shifting all over his body, a purple Decepticon symbol prominent on each  of his shoulders.  The form rendered him virtually unrecognizable to  anyone only familiar with his Autobot mode.  He grasped Starblast roughly  by the neck, and dragged him down the corridor.  "My, don't you learn  quickly," he hissed at his captive.  "Don't worry, you won't be around  long enough to tell anyone." 

 "But -- please, you must listen to me.  I am an Autobot.  I --"  Starblast already knew it was futile; his momentary elation evaporated.   After two months in the enemy camp, I encounter an Autobot, and he  wishes me dead.

 "Yep," Counterpunch said. "And I'm Lord Straxus."  Punch was very highly placed in the Autobots' spy network.  If this guy were an undercover agent, Punch would already know. 

 He is an Autobot; appeal to his Autobot sensibilities, Starblast  thought.  "You promised I would not be harmed if I cooperated. Now you  threaten to kill me. If you are an Autobot, killing would be anathma to  your most basic principles." 

 "Don't worry, guy, I'm not going to kill you. The Autobots'll do that  for me."

 "Take me with you.  I know this complex; if I am truly a Decepticon,  then I know things about this yard that you would not --"

 Counterpunch turned and stuck the gun in Starblast's face again. "There  is nothing you could know about this yard's design that I don't," he  said. "I only needed someone to get me past the computer protocols.   You've served that purpose, and I'm done with you now."  He opened up a  small outside-locked maintenance closet and nodded to it. "In here.  If  you can get out before the Autobots destroy the command station, you're  free to go.  If not, well, tough luck."  He grabbed Starblast roughly, to  throw him in the closet. 

 The careless move was a mistake.  Starblast willingly led into the  closet, running and jumping before Counterpunch could stop him.  He  rebounded off the rear wall, fired his foot thrusters, and rocketed back  out into the corridor.  His chest impacted hard against Counterpunch's  head.  They both went down. 

 Starblast tried to thrust back on his feet before he'd stopped moving,  but Counterpunch was ready and had already grabbed on to his feet.   Starblast dragged them both down the corridor a few yards before falling  to the deck again.  

 They wrestled in a heap.  Counterpunch threw a left cross which  momentarily stunned Starblast, enabling him get on top of the smaller  Autobot.  He wrenched one of Starblast's arms behind his back, but  Starblast kicked at him from behind, knocking him to the ground.  With  his free arm he stretched towards Counterpunch's fallen gun.  His  fingertips nudged the barrel; it spun around on the floor, its end  falling neatly into Starblast's grip.  He scooted it down his arm, till  the firing mechanisms were in his hand.  He yanked it up off the deck --

 And stopped, as he caught sight of five other guns pointed at him. 

 "Drop the gun, Autobot," one of the guards told him.  It was the same  group who captured him in the hangar bay.  Helplessly, he obeyed, the gun  clanking noisily to the deck.  The guard nodded to Counterpunch. "You can  let him up, we've got him this time.  Nice work, sir."

  Counterpunch was too surprised to answer for a moment.  Finally he drew  himself up, walking over to the circle of guards and picking up his gun.  "Get up, Autobot,"  he ordered Starblast.  The battered Autobot jet  obeyed him.  Counterpunch slipped him a look, a very subtle lightening of  his almost-unreadable countenance, but Starblast missed it completely.

 "This Autobot has been eluding us all day," Counterpunch said to the  guards. "I thank you for helping me capture him."  He paused, his eyes  narrowing as he looked around at the circle of guards. "I don't think we  need a prisoner on top of everything else, do you?" he asked them,  holstering his gun.

 The Decepticons smiled and chuckled at that.  Counterpunch pointed to  one of them. "You, your weapon," he said.  

 "Why my weapon?" the robot asked. 

 "Mine isn't powerful enough for this job," Counterpunch explained. "But  yours --" he hefted it, "might do... "  He fired a shot into the deck,  nearly punching through the plating. "Mm... you, your weapon, " he said,  pointing to another of the five.  The guard obeyed, handing him the gun.   It blew clear through the deck and damaged the floor on the next level  down. 

 "Excellent!" Counterpunch said, walking to stand right behind  Starblast.  He pointed the gun at Starblast's head. "Now, observe..."

 The first guard never knew what happened.  Counterpunch fired the first  gun just past Starblast's head at the nearest Decepticon.  The shot  caught the guard in the face, shattering his optics, probably killing him  outright.  In less than a second Counterpunch shoved the second gun into  Starblast's hand and pushed him aside. Starblast, caught unawares,  tumbled into another one of the guards; they fell into a heap.

 Counterpunch whirled and fired, blasting the remaining three Decepticons  off their feet.  Only two of the survivors still had weapons; he focused  on hitting them first.  By the time he was done with them, Starblast had  recovered and finished off the one he'd landed on.  Start to finish, the  entire fight lasted fewer than ten seconds.  Counterpunch stood in the  center of a circle of crumpled and smoldering forms.

 He glared at Starblast as the Autobot picked himself up off the deck.  "Come on," he said. "Autobots are attacking.  We have to get out of  here.  I know where a docking bay is."

 "It might be wise for me to avoid docking bays, if you do not mind.  But  if you can gain us access to an airlock, I can carry us both out."

 "Being unprotected in space in a battle of this scale would be foolish."

 "You would prefer, then, that we attempt to reach the Autobots in a  Decepticon ship?"

 "You may have a point,"  Counterpunch conceeded. "Come."

-  -  -
 Megatron watched the raging battle from a hundred miles away, in the  relative safety of the yard's the central control facility.  He would not  be safe for long, though; the rampaging Autobot ship was swinging around  and heading towards them.  In a few more minutes the control station  would be in targeting range.  His own safety, however, was not his  concern.  Defending what belonged to him was. 

 "Central defense computer compromised," Soundwave told him, looking up  from a central screen. "Automated defenses malfunctioning.  The Autobots  have detected the crossfire trap."  He did not mention the Autobot who  had escaped out from under him earlier that day, feeling it would do  nothing to help the yard's situation, or his own.

  Megatron turned away from the conflict in the distance, absorbing all  the bad news calmly. "The crossfire trap doesn't matter," he said, voice  betraying coldly smothered anger. "With the defense computer down we  can't remotely fire the ships anyway.  Give the order for general  scramble, Soundwave.  And ready the Conquest for battle."

 -  -  -
 Starblast and his companion, now transformed back to his Autobot mode,  had little difficulty finding an airlock.  They were about to make their  escape from the platform, when an odd alert signal hooted through the air.

 "That isn't the 'cons' usual alert signal," Punch commented.

 Starblast looked grim. "That is the general scramble order," he explained.

 "What does it mean?" Punch asked. 

 "It means our problems have just magnified tenfold."

 -  -  -
 "Status,"  Lexius called with a grin. 

 "Sixteen ships destroyed, five more damaged.  Seventeen to go."   Fanblade paused. "We could pull this off yet."

 "Intensify forward firepower.  Maintain course."

 Vengeance slowly wheeled as it continued its run into the yard's  interior, its guns firing in all directions.  Ahead, the central control  complex loomed, coming into range of their small guns.  They could see  specks leaving it, the crew abandoning their posts and running for it.   For a few moments longer, it seemed as though they might indeed complete  their mission here.  But then, something changed.  Treadmark saw it first.

 "Lexius -- the ships --"

 "They're launching! All of them!" 

 "What --" 

 Across the yard, ships were breaking free of their moorings, powering up  their enormous thrusters and tearing loose from the construction docks.  Lexius stared in awed dismay as one of the ships disappeared into  foldspace, then another. 

 He tried not to panic; he had to think fast, act decisively - but there  wasn't really much he could do.  "Gunners fire!" he shouted into the com.  "Launch all missiles! We can't let them get away." 

 An enormous fusillade of missiles sped away from the Vengeance in all  directions, the ship firing off its remaining ordinance at a terrific  rate.  One round of fire reached a destroyer just as its engines were  powering up to fold it away; the impact disrupted the engines long enough  for another salvo to hit it, destroying the engines for good. Trapped in  realspace, the vessel was quickly ripped apart by the follow-up hits,  erupting into fire and dust. Not far away, a second ship made its escape  into fold only seconds before the missiles reached it. Hundreds of  explosions blossomed in empty space, as the weapons destroyed one another  instead of their vanished target. 

 "Bring us to heading two-forty," Lexius ordered. "Gunners stand by to  follow up on missile attacks, and --" 

 A bright swath of energy outside the viewports interrupted him. A power  beam incinerated three salvoes of their missiles in flight. 

 "Enemy ship, comin' in on our nine," Tuner yelped.

 "It is the same one which destroyed our missiles," Splice added. 

 A cover ship for the others, Lexius thought. "Turn us to engage! Main  guns, track on enemy ship bearing eight-four-eigh--" 

 Vengeance jolted hard, cutting him off, and throwing the entire crew to  the deck. Three of the bridge crewers clambered back to their stations  and began reading off status reports from all across the ship. Lexius  didn't need to hear the reports to know they'd sustained a direct hit.  "Get our weapons tracking on that ship ASAP," he ordered. "Forget the  others right now."

 He watched the scanner panels, which showed the enemy's head-on assault.  Whoever was flying that ship had some serious nerves. 

-  -  -
 "Continue firing until our ships are clear," Megatron ordered, as his  flagship, the Conquest, dove at the intruders. 

 "What of the enemy ship?" Soundwave asked from across the ship's command  room.

 "Disable them. Immobilize them. But do not destroy them... yet,"  Megatron ordered. 

 "I thought we were gonna get to smash 'em up!" Rumble said. 

 "Time for that later, Rumble," Megatron said with a smile. "For now...I  want them alive."

 "No disintegrations?" Frenzy asked, disappointed. 

 "Do as I wish," Megatron ordered. "I have my reasons." 

-  -  -
 "Main guns are down," Grotusque announced. "They've damaged the power  routings.  I'm tryin' to find a new route but it's like trying to push  smoke into--"

 "Just do it," Lexius ordered. "Give me full damage display." Around him,  the bridge's controllers were frantically directing repair crews,  rerouting power connections, and trying to keep the ship running.

 A schematic of the ship came up on one of Lexius's screens; a large area  of the ship's mid-section was painted red, a scarlet arc across the upper  decks. Conquest's initial attack had caught Vengeance broadside open,  presenting the Decepticon ship with a very large target area. They had  not wasted the opportunity. 

 We have to get rid of this guy, Lexius thought. Turning to retreat  would give the enemy an even bigger target. Lexius felt there was only  one other chance. The Decepticons, still on a head-on approach, were  probably waiting for them to turn and run.  With luck they wouldn't be  ready for an exchange of close broadsides. 
 "Turn us directly toward them," he ordered. "Full speed. And make sure  we stay directly in front of their ship. Minimize our cross section.  Do  it quickly, we won't have much time to make this work."

 Splice grimaced, but acknowledged the order and carried it out.  "Secondary weapons stand by for close-range assault," Lexius ordered. 

-  -  -
 "They're comin' right at us!" Frenzy said. 

 Megatron chuckled. "The fools.  Destroy them!"

 Soundwave shook his head urgently.  "Autobots have entered no-fire  cone." Conquest's two main guns could swivel and traverse to hit almost  any target, but directly in front of the ship was a narrow zone neither  could reach. Vengeance just barely fit within the safe space. 

 "Then maneuver them out of it!" Megatron's voice was filled with sudden  alarm. "If we stay in their main guns'... fire... cone..."  Megatron's  words trailed away with a realization. "Report on their power systems.   Do their main guns have power?"

 Rumble entered commands, studied the readouts. "Hey, they don't.   How'dya know that?"

 Megatron's alarm had turned to anger. "Because if they could fire on us,  they already would have.  Therefore they can't.  Turn us broadside and  target them with the main guns!"

-  -  -
 The two gargantuan ships lumbered towards each other on a collision  course, their secondary guns blasting away at each other.  With only a  few hundred miles left, the Conquest began to change course.

"They're turnin' away," Tuner noted with concern.

 "Are we in range?" Lexius asked urgently.  The Conquest's maneuver would  bring them back into its firing zone.

 "Yes, gunners have commenced firing."

 "I think I've got a power route for the main guns," Grotusque reported.

 "Their top main gun is traversing towards us --"

 "All gunners target the upper main gun!"

 The order came a second too late. One of Conquest's two primary weapons  fired point-blank into Vengeance's mid-section. An instant later, the  gigantic laser disappeared in a rain of concentrated fire from its  enemy's secondary guns, but the Vengeance had already been dealt a  crippling blow. 

 The two ships slid past one another, trading lasers.  Both were rocked  by the exchange, but as they drifted apart and away from each other, the  winner of the contest was clear.  Vengeance's third quarter was split  open, leaking fire and debris along its length.

 On the Conquest, Soundwave gave the order for the gunnery command to  cease fire as the Vengeance drifted out of range. Behind him, Megatron  looked on the sensor screens in approval. The Autobot ship drifted, its  back nearly broken, its power systems wavering erratically. 

 "Enemy immobilized," Soundwave told him. 

 "Bring us back, and prepare for the kill," Megatron ordered.

 The mighty vessel swung around, a predator homing in on its wounded  prey. 

-  -  -
 On the Autobot ship's bridge, the approaching vessel filled the main  screen.  Tuner tore his optics away from the awesome sight, to his own  range finder.  "We're in their line-of-sight," he reported.  "They are  powering up weapons..."

 Grotusque was still working frantically.  His alternate power route  hadn't been affected by the damage, fortunately. "Main guns can fire," he  announced at last. 

 "Charge 'em!  Fire at will!"

 Lexius's com buzzed.  "Wheeljack here, the generators are gonna blow if  you start firing the main guns!" 

 Lexius didn't answer; he just looked at the ceiling for a long moment  and muttered a Cybertronian curse. 

 "They overloaded during the power routing problem," Wheeljack explained.  "Discharging that much power at once will cause a core breach.  We've got  to shut them down, and soon."

 "Okay, stand by to shut 'em down," Lexius ordered. "But don't do it  yet." 

 "Why --"

 "If we shut them down now they'll know we're helpless.  But we can  still try a bluff."

-  -  -
 "Power build-up in enemy vessel's weaponry," Soundwave reported.

 "Impossible! Their power systems are destroyed --" 

 "Power restored to enemy main guns.  Vessel preparing to fire," the  monochrome voice continued.

 "Break off the attack! Get us clear," Megatron ordered. He'd been so  certain of his victory that he'd flown directly into Vengeance's line of  fire.

-  -  -
 "They're pulling up!" Tuner exclaimed.

 "Gunners, track on them, stand by to fire if they so much as--"

 "Bridge, Wheeljack! How much longer?" 

 "Hang on Wheeljack... Tuner?" 

 "Powering their engines..."

 "The generators are well in the red, the containment fields are flaring --"

 "Pre-fold emanations --"

 "We can't hold them any longer! I'm shutting down ---"

 "Fold --"

 "Shut 'em down, Wheeljack!"

 The Conquest leapt into fold and disappeared from the space outside the  bridge windows; the sound of dynamos going off-line resounded through the  Vengeance. The lights on the bridge died, then flickered feebly back on  as the ship's emergency batteries cut in. The Vengeance floated alone in  space, surrounded only by wreckage that had been a shipyard, and the  abandoned command station in the distance. 

 They were triumphant, but Lexius could only reproach himself. The  shipyards were destroyed, true, and they had survived the attack.  But  sixteen of the enemy cruisers had escaped.  And their own ship was nearly  blown in half, barely mobile, its power systems a shambles. 

 "We've got crewers working on shoring up the central structure of the  ship," Wheeljack called in to the bridge, half an hour after the last  Decepticon vessel had gone into fold. "It's going to take a few hours  before we can move again." 

 "Put every 'bot you have on the job. Do whatever it takes to get us  moving.  We have to get out of here, quick.  What about the generators?" 

 "They're cooling down nicely.  I think they'll be good to go by the time  the ship can move again."

 "Good.  Nice work, Wheeljack."

 "Thanks. Wheeljack out." 

 Lexius had no sooner shut his communicator, than one of the bridge crew  turned to him. 
 "Commander, one of our search units wishes to speak with you."  The  Vengeance had several dozen scout ships out, searching for raw materials  and components to use in the repair effort.

 "What about?"

 "They found Punch."

 "Was he hurt? Is he all right?"

 "Well, he was drifting around without a ship when they picked up his  transmission, but he's fine.  He wasn't alone, though.  He was with an  Autobot that's not from our crew." 

 "Bring 'em on in, then.  The more the merrier.  What's the problem?"

 "The Autobot wants to speak with you; he says he knows you and it really  can't wait.  Sir Blase or something like that."

 "Okay, put 'em through," Lexius said, not really listening.  He had too  much concern with getting the ship moving again to pay much attention to --

 Lexius's screen activated, and warbled in static for a second. An  outlined materialized, then filled in with a familiar image.  Starblast's  long-gone face stared out at him.

 Lexius could only stare for a very long, unbelieving moment.  When he  found his voice, it was still only a whisper. "Starblast... You're -- I  thought -- how --"  He lost his voice, his words, very nearly his mind in  those first few seconds.  Starblast was alive.
 Starblast spoke, quick and to the point.  He was pleased by the reunion  -- more than he would admit, really -- but he had expected it and was  more prepared for it. "Lexius, I am sorry, but we have no time for  sentiment now.  Twelve of the ships had orders to attack when they left." 

 "What? What are -- Starblast... Attack? Attack where?" 
On to the next part