The Corrosion of War Without End

Chapter 4:
Eye of the Storm

 Sidetrack had rather enjoyed his interim command of Sojourn, he decided, as the drydocked ship peacefully orbited the silvery world below. If only it had not come under the present circumstances. 

 Lexius and Treadmark had not been heard from in weeks, and Sidetrack was  beginning to worry. The mission they were on was shrouded with secrecy,  and even Grotusque -- who, along with the spy Punch, had gone after them  for some reason -- knew little of its nature. Not a day passed when  Sidetrack didn't have some worried thoughts of his friends. And  Starblast, killed two months ago... The stable world that had been  Sojourn had evaporated, leaving his friends scattered and him in charge. 

 There had been little to do here, aside from oversee the reconstruction  and the ship's day-to-day operations. Eventually they would recruit some  new crewers and ground troops from Cybertron, to replace those lost in Sojourn's last  battle, some three months before. But Sidetrack knew Lexius would want to  do that himself, so it was on hold till he returned. In the meantime,  Sojourn had more than enough crewers to effect repairs and maintenance.  Sidetrack had not yet  allowed himself to consider the problem of Lexius not returning at all.

 The repair process was coming along nicely. Most of the destroyed  internal systems had been replaced -- generators, batteries, and fold  engines. The ship's new outer armor was only partially in place, but the  crew were working day and night on that, and before too long the ship  would be ready for launch. 

 Quickmix, who had directed the whole project, was especially proud of  his work. Never in his ten years onboard had he had such a chance to  rebuild and improve. The changes to the conduits alone would double the  ship's weapon capabilities.  New automatic energy screens assured that  no-one could phase-shift their armor, as happened in the attack that had  landed them in the repair dock.  And a pair of extra generators dedicated  to the anti-matter cannons would give them semi-continuous firing  capabilities, without draining the ship's other power sources.  True, not  all the systems had worked out as planned, but Quickmix was still having  the time of his life.  Never before had he been able to participate in  such a large project, and leave his own, definitive stamp on it.

 For the rest of the crew, it had been a much-needed time to relax and  stand down for a while, as well as to explore Cybertron's reborn  surface.  Sidetrack had spent many days down there himself, wandering the  transformed silvered plains. A few crewers had actually asked to be  relieved of duty, to go settle permanently on the silvery-gold world.   Sidetrack had granted it, pending approval from Lexius, of course.

  He was considering another trip down there right now, actually.  Things  weren't dull on Sojourn, just... slow.  A bit too slow for his tastes,  even with his patience.  He had been sitting in the bridge's  command seat for a full hour, and nothing more interesting than space  traffic reports had come in on sensors -- at least till Tuner's console, currently manned by Focus, pinged for attention.

 "Sidetrack," Focus called out, after fiddling with his controls for a  moment. The Micromaster looked over to the sensor console. "We've got a  glitch in the subspace sensor array. Probably ought to get engineering on  it." 

 "What is it?" 

 "I think the magnitude setting for pre-fold sensing is busted."

 "Mmm.  What's it doing?"

 "I keep raising order of magnitude, but it keeps shooting off the scale every time.  I mean, if there were actually that much pre-defold activity going on, it'd it have to be at least ten of --" 

 Then it appeared, a subspace flash of an intensity they'd never seen  before, one that painted everything in view white. Beyond the orbit of  their drydocked ship, immense forms could be made out emerging from the  blinding light. They had all seen them before, and knew what they meant.

  "Decepticon ships! Lots of 'em! Primus, there's too many of 'em --"

 Sidetrack didn't hear Focus's clamoring, nor any of the rest of the awed  and panicked murmurs on the bridge. He could only stare, grim-faced, as  twelve twenty-mile warships appeared out of fold and closed on Cybertron,  their weapons primed and poised. Poised to kill. 

*  *  *
 "QUIET!" Lexius shouted, in his loudest voice.  It seemed to calm the  room down a bit.  The dozen heads at the conference table turned to him.

 "We're not going to work this out by shouting all at once.  At least let  Starblast finish," Lexius continued.  He still couldn't believe it --  Starblast was alive.  Alive!  Though he was facing a potential  disaster, one private part of his mind glowed with joy.  His old friend  had escaped from death itself, and reappeared right at his doorstep.  But  he had to keep that pushed aside, saved for later.  For now, there was  urgent work to be done. "Starblast, do you have any more information?"

 "No.  The standing orders in case of an attack were to rendezvous at a  pre-selected site to pick up full crews for the ships, then proceed to Cybertron for an all-out retaliatory assault on the surface.  That is all I know, but I do suspect the orders are being  carried out."

 "Alright, so, the longer we stay here, the less there will be of  Cybertron to go back to," Lexius said. 

 "Hey, don't rush into anything," Nightbeat said to him. "If we can't  really help, there's no point in us going and giving Megatron something  else to shoot at.  Look at our ship; it's barely hanging together."

 "The ship can't take a full assault," Wheeljack agreed. "It was marginal  before, but now it's in really bad condition.  If we go up against twelve  ships, frankly, we probably won't be coming back."

 But in the final analysis -- compared to Cybertron -- we're  expendable, Lexius thought.  I can't say that to them, though...   Aloud, he asked: "Do we have any chance of beating them?"

 "Maybe, if we got in a few lucky first shots, we could take them out,"  Wheeljack conceded. "But I wouldn't want to bank on it."

 "It seems to me that we have no choice," Treadmark said. "Our attack on  the yards is what made them flee.  It falls to us to make amends."

  Backscatter, from engineering, answered him. "We were barely  combat-worthy before we came here! You really expect us to go tearing  across the galaxy to Cybertron, just on the word of your friend here,  who's spent the last who-knows-how-long hanging around with a bunch of  Decepticons --"

 "Would you have us just sit here?" Treadmark asked.  The slur towards  Starblast bothered him, but the subject at hand was too pressing to allow  distractions. "No-one else has a chance against those ships -- certainly  not Cybertron."

 "Without repairs, we don't stand a chance! There's no guarantee this  ship will even make it to Cybertron!"

 Punch had stood, silent, in one corner of the room, removed from the  arguments.  Now he stepped forward, and raised his hand for silence. All  heads turned to him. 
 "We know that Megatron was in charge of the shipyard project," he said  quietly. "I know Megatron. I believe Starblast's report, if for no other  reason than it sounds like what Megatron would do. He has long wanted to conquer Cybertron.  If Starblast is right, we are  the only defense Cybertron has. If he is wrong, then we will return to  Cybertron, and no harm will be done.  Either way, I feel our course is  clear."

 Wheeljack answered to that. "If the ship makes it that far, and your  friend here is right, we'll be in serious trouble when we get there."

 Lexius stared at the table top for a long moment. The last time he  hadn't listened to Punch had nearly been disastrous for them all, and the  same applied to Wheeljack. But this time, they were taking opposite  sides. 

 It's up to you...

*  *  *
 Cybertron was in a panic.

 As the Decepticon warships moved in on the planet and prepared to fire,  a wave of chaos and confusion swept through the metallic world's  inhabitants. Thousands of robots, caught completely off-guard by the  attack from space, fled from their cities. The streets, highways, and  skies of the planet filled with Transformers, fleeing in a blind,  scurrying panic. But there was nowhere to run. 

 High above it all, Megatron beheld the sight and laughed. 

 So what if we lost the shipyard? The yard was nothing compared to  the slaughter about to come! The deaths of my warriors will be repayed a  thousandfold! 

 Soundwave stood beside him on the flagship's bridge, waiting his  leader's notice. "Lord Megatron," he said at last. "Ships are positioned  and prepared to fire. Should I issue the order to attack?" 

 Megatron laughed again. "No, Soundwave. Not yet. I wish to see them  struggle a bit longer."

 "Advisement: the longer the attack is withheld, the more we lose the  element of surprise." 

 "If you are bored, Soundwave, you can amuse yourself by locating Optimus  Prime's headquarters on the surface. I wish to send him my... particular  greetings." 

 Soundwave's face betrayed nothing as he turned back to the ship's  consoles. "As you command, Megatron." 

-  -  -
 Amidst the chaos on the surface, an island of calm remained at New  Iacon, the Autobot's military command center. Half a dozen Autobots  working in the central control center - the Sanctum, it was informally  called - bent to their labors, heedless of the pandemonium outside.  Orders and reports were called out calmly, quietly, no louder than necessary.

  It was too quiet, Jetfire noted. Nothing extraneous was said; the  usual chatty banter that passed among the regular group day to day was  absent. The surface calm was underlain with a palpable tension. Jetfire  reasoned that was not illogical, since their small group was preparing to  mount the only defense Cybertron had. 

 They were ready for this attack, because at least one Autobot had seen  it coming from the moment he'd learned such ships existed.  Even Optimus Prime didn't think it would be this soon; their defenses weren't fully prepared yet.  But, though caught  unawares, Prime calmly directed his followers now, assigning tasks and  issuing directives. The Autobot leader's placidity reassured his  followers, providing them with a center, a base to anchor themselves to.  Under his direction, the Autobots began to execute their defense, a plan he'd worked out with Prowl many weeks ago. 

 "Blaster," he called out.  "Try to hail them."

 "Roger, I'm on it," Blaster said.  "I don't think we're gonna be able talk them out of this, though."

 "That is not my intention.  We've got to do everything we can to stall them."

 Prime knew they were already lucky, in that the Decepticons weren't firing yet. We are  fortunate they did not simply drop out of fold with their weapons  blazing. For whatever reason, they're giving us a chance, a few, scant  seconds to work with, Prime knew. We must utilize and stretch it to the fullest.

 The Autobots were sending out broad-band communiques over all standard and inter-Autobot frequencies. Amid the confusion on the surface, not all of the inhabitants heard them.  But, soon, only a few minutes after the ships had arrived, the Sanctum's planet-wide sensor net showed that the chaos was beginning to change, to take some direction and focus. 

 The fleeing Transformers began to converge, congregating on a few areas  of the surface.  Prime and the others waited, and hoped against hope that  all of them would make it to those places in time. 

-  -  -
 Sidetrack stared out the Sojourn's bridge windows, at the twelve ships  encircling the planet. "Get me Quickmix," he directed Pixel. The  communications robot brought up the com system. 

 "Quickmix," Sidetrack said. "You seen what's happening out there?" 

 "How could I miss it?" came the response. "We have to launch, we can't get caught up in their cross-fire. I'm powering up the sublight engines now." 

 "We can't just run, Quickmix; we've got to help Cybertron."

 "I'm not sure we can help out at this point. The ship's only half-put  together, and --" 

 "I'm not asking if we can or not. I'm just telling you that we're going  to, so be ready. Sidetrack out." 

 Quickmix stared blankly at his communicator for a moment, then hurried  off to try to do the impossible.

-  -  -
 "New Iacon target coordinates established, Megatron," Soundwave  reported. 

 "Excellent!  Relay them to our wing ships.  I want to be very thorough  about this." 

 "All ships're ready to go," Rumble called out from his station.

 "Have them stand by for my order to fire," Megatron said

 "Megatron -- hailing signal detected from New Iacon."

 Megatron smiled, amused.  "Put it through," he said.

-  -  -
 The Sanctum waited, held its collective, proverbial, mechanical breath. 

 "Prowl, report," Optimus called. 

 "Most of the population has made it within the designated areas, about  94 percent. I calculate most of the remainder will be there in another  five minutes."

  "Let's just hope to Primus that's enough time. Blaster, status report on  the enemy ships?"

 "Still just hangin' out up there, like they're waiting for something --  uh oh.  Prime, they got their dial locked on our station.  We just got  hit by a major sensor probe, and three ships're headin' our way."

 "Jetfire, stand by for my signal.  Blaster, what about our own ships?"

 "Most of them are clearin' out.  A couple tried attacking but they got  shot down pretty quick-like," Blaster said. 

 "Have you had any luck getting through to them?"

 "Not so far -- " Blaster turned his attention to another screen.  "Scratch that, Prime, we're getting a response signal from one of the ships."

 "On my screen, Blaster," Prime said.  Megatron's face appeared on a monitor.

 "Prime!  How pleasant to see you this one last time," the Decepticon leader said.  "Have you anything to say before your timely demise?"

 "Megatron -- why?  What good will this attack do?"

 "Revenge, Prime.  For attempting to destroy my property.  You should know better."

 "What are you talking about?"

 "Don't play the fool to me.  Just know that your little attempt to destroy my new fleet has failed, and you will now pay the price for daring to tamper with it."

 Prime spared an instant for an anguished thought, for Lexius and his crew, who were surely dead by now.  "Megatron... if it's revenge you want, take me --"

 "Oh, there's more to it than revenge, I assure you.  When Cybertron's surface is irridated, it will be mine for the taking, to remake as I please.  I've waited a long time for this moment, Prime. You see, when I'm finished, Cybertron will be the galactic dreadnaught I've long envisioned it as."

 "Megatron, you mustn't!  Please listen, we have new information.  The Cybertronians are far more powerful than we'd imagined.  If you --"

 "They don't know the meaning of the word 'powerful'," Megatron retorted.  "But they will soon find out.  Though not so soon as you."  His next words were directed off-screen.  "All ships stand prepared."

 "The Decepticon ships are powering up their main weapons," Jetfire  reported, alarmed.

 Prime gave him a sharp nod; Jetfire keyed in a sequence. Across Cybertron's  surface, countless robots waited and hoped.  Optimus made one last attempt. 

 "Megatron... we've come so far.  You cannot end it like this --"

  "Quiet," Megatron said to him.

-  -  -
 Sojourn rumbled as her engines came up to full power. 

 "Focus, get us out of their fire fields," Sidetrack ordered. The  minibot complied immediately, punching the ship's thrusters to full. The  ship slid roughly through the girders of the repair dock, yanking loose  from its moorings. Sojourn's path curved down and away from the planet, slipping  beneath the cruisers' net.  The giant vessel wove through dozens of smaller ships also fleeing the emminent attack.

 "They're ignoring us, thank Primus," Beacon said. "Looks like they're  going to let us go."

 "Looks like they're letting everybody go," Focus noted, as he steered  the ship on its escape route.

 "They haven't attacked any of the ships?" Sidetrack wondered.

 "Only a couple that tried firing on them," answered Rollbar, who had  taken Tuner's empty sensor station as soon as Focus moved back to his helm station.

 "What are they tracking on, then?"

 "They're targeting the surface. I think they're concentrating on Prime's  headquarters," Rollbar reported. 

 Sidetrack grimaced, tightly gripping the arms of the command chair.  They could wipe out the whole planet!  "How long till they fire?"

 "They're powered up and waiting," Rollbar answered. "For what, Primus only knows." 

 "Our gunners are in position, primary weapons standing by," Pixel  announced. "We can fire any time." 

 That could be a death warrant, Sidetrack thought. If we wait till  they make their first attack, we might have several minutes before they  notice us. But by then it could be too late for Cybertron.

 "Put the tactical up," he ordered at last. The screens switched to a  schematic, with Cybertron in the center, and the enemy ships clustered  around it.  Sidetrack pointed to a cluster of them, the group that had  positioned itself above New Iacon. 

 "Steer us in towards those three," he ordered. "Gunners stand by." 

-  -  -
 "Max power," Rumble reported. "Let's fry 'em!"

 "All ships await your command," Soundwave reported. 

 "Yessss," Megatron hissed, savoring the moment to the utmost.  He turned back to the com screen, still active. "Now, Prime, it ends... Let the slaughter begin! All ships FIRE!" 

 From twelve points in the black skies above Cybertron, mile-wide plasma  beams descended to the surface. Three converged on New Iacon. The sky lit up around Autobot  Headquarters; a hailstorm of fiery death descended on Optimus and his  followers, turning their vision to an all-encompassing sun, overloading  their viewscreens, their instruments, their optic sensors. Power enough  to melt a city poured onto the nerve center of Cybertron. 

 In space, the flagship's crew all grasped their instruments tightly as the vessel  fired. The energies channeled by the Conquest's main weapons were enough to  rattle it stem to stern. Megatron sat calmly in his throne-like chair,  ignoring the tremors, the consternation of his crew. He smiled slightly as his viewscreen flaired white, then shifted his attention to the assault below.
  Suddenly, the ship shook again, far more violently this time, too much for Megatron  to dismiss. He knew instantly that something was wrong.  Indeed, a glance out the viewports showed that their ship's wingmate was exploding, wracked stem to stern by gaseous detonations.

 "What?!" Megatron exclaimed, watching through the bridge windows as a  series of energy blasts vaporized their companion vessel. 
 "Autobot ship attacking," Soundwave told him.

 "I can see that, you fool," Megatron snapped. "Turn us to attack  position, now!"

"Yes, commander," Frenzy stammered, anxiously relaying the command to  navigation.

"What of Cybertron?"

 "Surface damage to Cybertron, zero percent."

 "That's impossible!" 

 "They got some kinna energy shields!" Rumble said. 

 "They put 'em up right before we fired.  They're coverin' most of the  cities and roads," Frenzy added. 

 A second Decepticon vessel, their other wingmate, ignited under a series  of shots. 

 "Forget Cybertron! Destroy that ship!" Megatron ordered. The flagship  turned, ponderously, to face its new foe.

 "I told you you were making a mistake," Optimus told him, still on screen.

 Megatron glared back at him, livid.  "Shut up!!" he sputtered, and closed the connection.

-  -  -
 Sojourn's bridge crew let out a collective war-whoop as the first  Decepticon ship disappeared beneath their weapons. Sojourn managed to  take out a second one of the ships, before the third turned to the  attack. 

 "Evasive," Sidetrack ordered, as the flagship slowly tracked its  gigantic weapons on them. Beacon brought the ship down and to the right,  juking out of the line of fire. The larger Decepticon vessel followed  determinedly.

 "Sidetrack," Rollbar called. "We've got two more forming up ahead of us.  They're trying to hem us in."

"Drop orbit to four hundred kilometers, and head south," Sidetrack  ordered. Sojourn's massive thrusters flared in response to Focus's  touch, spewing energy and propelling the ship around the planet. Behind,  three of the massive destroyers turned in pursuit, falling in behind from  three directions. The Autobot ship dodged and weaved as best as its  ponderous bulk allowed. Fortunately, the pursuing ships were even more  massive, and correspondingly less maneuverable.

 "Another one is heading over the north pole to cut us off.  This's getting too close for comfort,"  Rollbar announced.

 "Turn to nine-seven-nine," Sidetrack gritted. Their margins of escape  were becoming very narrow; at maximum thrust they would barely slip by  the new ship before it got them in range.

 "We won't get past before they hem us in, chief," Beacon told him, projecting the course.

 "Drop us to three-fifty, and boost thrust to maximum."

 A mile-wide energy blast streaked by the viewports. "This is hopeless!  There's too many of 'em," Focus said, his hands flying over the  controls. The ship had barely had a chance to fire a shot since  unleashing its initial attack. "We've got to get out of here or we're  history."

 "No," Sidetrack said resolutely. "We're Cybertron's only chance."

 "Look at the tactical!" Focus said, desparation in his voice. "What  kind of a chance is that?!"

 "Sojourn could handle 'em," Rollbar said. 

 "What?" Sidetrack's head snapped around.

 "I said, Sojourn could wallop 'em real good. I say we go to transform  sequence." 

 "But the damage..."  Pixel said.

 "You got a better idea?" Rollbar asked, as the ship lurched under  another blast. 

 Sidetrack was good at seeing through the details of a problem to get the  big picture; now was no different.  He pondered Rollbar's suggestion for  only a second. "All hands," he sent over the com. "Stand by for  transformation.  Say again, stand by for transformation in thirty seconds."

 Not five had passed when Quickmix's voice sounded on Sidetrack's com.

 "We can't transform!" he said urgently. "Sojourn isn't ready."

 "Sojourn isn't ready, or the ship isn't ready?" 

 "Sidetrack, you can't just dichotomize it like that! Sojourn is one. Her  mind's not ready, therefore her body isn't ready. We can't reactivate her  without giving her sufficient forewarning of the damage and repairs she's  received," Quickmix sent. "As far as she's concerned, the last six months  didn't even happen.  If she wakes up and finds herself half taken apart and rebuilt with no warning and no explanation..."

 "How long will it take?"

 "A couple of hours, to get the right engrams written up --"

 "We don't have hours, Quickmix; we don't even have minutes."

 "But we can't just --"

 "Quickmix, we've got to try. We can't go down without a fight." 

 "We haven't even given the autosystems enough time to warn her mind that  there have been changes," Quickmix sent. "The shock of reactivation could  overload her neural circuitry." He felt a twinge of guilt -- Sojourn  could have been ready by now, if he hadn't tinkered so much. 

 "I think Sojourn would rather have that than to have us all die without  even trying," Sidetrack replied.  Another blast of plasma streaked by the  bridge windows.  Without further debate, he keyed in the restarting  sequence, and prayed that Sojourn's psyche was stronger than Quickmix's  readings said it was. 

On to the next part