Five of Megatron's destroyers -- half of what remained of the attacking fleet -- followed Sojourn around the planet, doggedly trying to destroy it. Coordinated by the Conquest, the Decepticon vessels fired their main guns at the fleeing starship, hemming it in with mile-wide energy beams. The Autobot's maneuvering space was eaten away from all sides, until at last their starship was centered in the targeting receptacle of Megatron's gunners.
"Now," Megatron growled. "Destroy them!"
The Autobot ship disappeared in the brilliant fire of Conquest's planetary assault weapon. All eyes on the ship's bridge stared at the monitor for a long moment. "Did we get 'em?" Rumble finally asked.
"Unknown," Soundwave replied. He bent diligently to his sensors, working his console. "Readings inconclusive," he announced finally.
"Find them!" Megatron said. "I want see a target or debris!"
Rumble filtered readings, scanning through the field of free energy running loose in the wake of their last blast. "Wait a minute," he called, as his visuals came clear. "Got 'em. Looks like they -- uh... they..."
"They what? Well, Soundwave?"
"Autobot ship... transforming," Soundwave reported.
"Correction. Autobot ship transformed."
- - -
One instant there had been dull, dreamless sleep, and the next --
The world went from deepest black to blinding light in a nanosecond. Heat, light, sound, radiation bombarded her unprepared sensors; hydraulics and gears and circuits that had lain idle for months were suddenly snapped into motion with no warning. And under it all was the feeling that something was massively, terribly wrong with her, something that might explain, perhaps, the stunning pain she felt through every inch of her four thousand foot-long body.
She was screaming, she realized. Even the realization couldn't stop it, her involuntary reaction to this bizarre combination of agony and confusion. She didn't know where she was, she didn't know when she was... For a long moment, she was not at all certain who she was.
The voice filtered into her conciousness as though from very far away, barely audible through the pain and the scream.
A quiet whisper in the galestorm of her senses? No... it was too urgent. Lacking any other center, she focused on the voice that was calling her name. The blinding whiteness started to recind somewhat; she began to see shapes through it.
"Sojourn... please listen to me..."
The pain was subsiding at last. Focusing on the voice helped. She tried to stop screaming, remembering suddenly that there were a lot of Autobots inside her that had to listen to that sound. And the voice came through that much more clearly, urgently shouting at her, she realized.
"Sojourn, it's Sidetrack. We're under attack, and we need
Sojourn tried to speak, but it came out so slurred she wondered if she would be understood. "Wha... what... happened..."
- - -
Sidetrack squeezed the com console so tightly he left finger marks in it. It had taken a full minute just to get Sojourn to stop screaming; the bridge crew's audio sensors were nearly fried. Hoping he hadn't just made the biggest mistake of his life, Sidetrack spoke yet again to the Autobot that was their ship. "Sojourn. We're under attack. Your body was damaged, and we haven't finished repairing it, but we must destroy those ships!"
"Un... der... ahh... destroy - UNG!" The bridge rocked violently with Sojourn's exclamation, a direct hit from a secondary gun as Megatron's destroyers resumed their attack. The transform had startled them, Sidetrack saw, but only for a few seconds. With Sojourn just standing there doing nothing, they wouldn't hold back any longer.
"Sojourn, I'm very sorry to do this, but if you don't counterattack we are going to die!" he shouted at the reciever.
"Counter... attack... yesss," Sojourn slurred, gradually stirring to life. Through the viewports, Sidetrack saw her flex one gigantic hand, contracting it into a fist and releasing it, then the other. Her thrusters fired abruptly; the starfield whirled outside the bridge windows as she twisted from the waist. In a few seconds, the five Decepticon ships -- now alarmingly close -- came in to view, as Sojourn turned herself around abruptly, training over a dozen forward-facing guns on her enemies. Only the fact that her mind was still groggy saved them from immediate destruction as she opened fire. Every one took damage as they scattered and fled from their suddenly-maneuverable opponent.
"Sidetrack," Sojourn said, still slow but gradually waking up, "what's going on?"
- - -
"Get us clear!" Megatron shouted at his crew. "Order Charr and Titan to run interferance."
"Yes, Megatron," Soundwave acknowledge, relaying the order. The Conquest powered up its engines, fleeing from the giant Autobot behind it; Megatron watched on the sensors and rear viewscreens as two of their companions -- the Charr and the Titan -- converged to cover the other ships' escape, rotating their massive planet-killer cannons towards Sojourn as she followed them. But the cannons were ponderously oversized, slow and easy to avoid. The Autobot/ship spiraled her approach path as the two vessels tried to line her up; she never once came into their field of fire. At last, the Titan turned to port, the ship's commander growing impatient and trying to get Sojourn in his sights.
Megatron, seeing a fatal error in the works, punched a comline through to the Titan. "No, you fools! They'll --"
It was too late. The Autobot had the ship in range, and blasted away at its weapons and hull.
The destroyer's main weapons collapsed inwards; a moment later
fire and shrapnel spewed forth from where they had been, like a space-borne
volcano. The ship's main bridge was caught up in the subsequent series
of explosions; it erupted in single fiery burst. The Titan drifted,
powerless and derelict.
Megatron scowled as he lost another of his vessels and crew. "Full thrust away from that ship," he urged his own crew.
- - -
Things were becoming clearer to her, now. She knew the planet below was important, and that she had to defend it. She understood from what Sidetrack had said that she'd been damaged and unconcious for a long time. And most importantly, she knew the ships attacking her were dangerous, and had to be destroyed. Lesser things, like where the hell she was and how she'd gotten torn up so badly, could wait till later.
She'd managed to avoid the enemy's shots, which meant she was doing pretty well, even though her counterattack had only disabled the enemy vessels. Her tactical knowledge, at least, seemed unaffected by the reactivation surge. Other parts of her memory were cloudy, uncertain, still trying to sort themselves out through the foggy disorganization filling her mind. Then, through the clearing haze, she grasped an idea.
The Charr was arcing around to help its wounded companion. By the time it was in a position to fire, it was too late for the Titan, of course. Sojourn drifted free near the wrecked ship, taunting the second one to fire on her. She waited till the incoming ship had her almost in its line-of-sight, then thrust herself downwards.
The crackling power beam missed her by only yards, and swiftly tracked her as she fled. But after a moment, she was safe -- the laser struck the carcass of the Titan as she dropped behind it, blasting the entire vessel to atoms. Sojourn changed directions and flew straight through the explosion, trusting that the Decepticon gunners would stop firing when they realized what they'd just done. Sure enough, the Charr was sitting there idly, cannons primed, waiting for the explosion to clear before proceeding. Like Death's angel, Sojourn streaked in from the fireball, all weapons blazing, holing the ship through its long axis. The destroyer never had a chance.
But Sojourn got no chance to celebrate. As she propelled herself clear of the Charr's explosion, she found herself pinned by still two more cruisers, caught in a cross-fire. One already had her lined up. In an instant, she was engulfed by a gargantuan power beam.
Sojourn, her reflexes still not up to par, hardly had time to realize what was happening. Her optics had just started to compensate for the beam when it ended, the barrage having lasted barely a second. When her sight adjusted again to the blackness of space, her eyes confirmed what her other sensors were telling her -- the Decepticon vessel was exploding, vaporized by another ship, a new arrival.
She'd never seen anything like the incoming vessel; despite her faltering memory, she was sure of that. It was very big, but looked to be severely damaged. It had destroyed her opponents, thought, so she reasoned it had to be a friendly. She thrustered herself away from the other Decepticon ship, as the two colossal vessels fired, trading untold amounts of energy in a furious bid to destroy each other.
- - -
"Great Cybertron, that's Sojourn!" Grotusque shouted, pointing at the barely-visible speck fleeing from the titanic contest.
"Give her some cover fire," Lexius ordered. Vengeance's secondary guns opened up, blocking the Decepticons from following the retreating Autobot. A moment later the main guns struck home, blasting the engines of the enemy ship. A series of eruptions flayed off the ship's skin and destroyed the interior, till only a charred and bent framework remained.
"Good work," Lexius said. "Tactical report?"
"There's six of them left. Looks like Sojourn took out a few of them before we got here. The others are scattered but concentrated over this hemisphere," Tuner said.
Lexius studied the tactical, desperately trying to come up with a strategy of some kind. Six of them, two of us. "Nightbeat, ideas?"
The dark blue Autobot, leaning on a rear railing and focusing intently on the monitors, shrugged and grimaced. "Get them before they get us."
Punch shifted his weight and vocalized a noncomital grumble that told Lexius exactly what he thought of their odds in this fight.
"Actually, try cutting across the south pole," Grotusque offered suddenly, after gazing at the tactical for a few seconds. "Looks like they're staying above the equator mostly. They must like the tropics."
"Do it," Lexius ordered Splice. A second later, the enormous, struggling vessel turned south, trying to head its enemies off at the pass.
- - -
Sojourn fled from a pursuing ship, high above Cybertron's silver curve. From the north, another vessel homed in on her, forcing her to shift course southward. Both ships gained ground on her with the shift in direction.
Then Vengeance was there, whipping over Cybertron's southern pole and blasting away at the second vessel. The Decepticon ship broke off its pursuit and turned -- too late -- to deal with the interloper. The destroyer nearly had Vengeance in its line of fire when it was caught full by three of the Autobot ship's main guns. As the second ship imploded under Vengeance's assault, Sojourn thrust herself to full speed, then spun about in flight, till she was gliding backwards.
She raked the first ship before its batteries could recharge, splitting it open from stem to stern. But even as she opened fire, her sensors detected another one coming up fast from behind her. It had been coasting in a higher orbit, waiting for the right moment to strike; it dove at her now as she finished off the first ship. Thrusters aflame, she twisted about as rapidly as her half-mile bulk would allow -- and stopped. Her mind and body locked up for a brief second, some lingering side effect from the abrupt start-up coming to the fore. It was only a second, but that was all the Conquest needed.
The Decepticon ship opened fire with its one remaining main gun, catching Sojourn across the back side. Some of the energy entered through her unshielded thruster ports, in areas where her armor was not yet completed, wreaking untold havoc upon them as it lanced up into the sublight drives. The force of the blast knocked her into a lower orbit. With her thrusters damaged and failing, Sojourn could do nothing as tha orbit decayed into a long downward spiral. Above, the Decepticon ship ceased tracking her with its weapons, and powered itself up to pursue its one remaining foe.
Sojourn fell, spinning, toward the planet's surface.
- - -
Megatron laughed again, as he watched the Autobot ship fall from the sky. Such is the fate of all who oppose us, he thought. "Soundwave! Follow the other ship until we've destroyed them."
There could be no stopping now. The attack force was devastated; the Autobots had to pay for their crimes. They would destroy the crippled derelict that had somehow survived to this point. Then, perhaps, he would offer one last chance for Prime to surrender. Prime would refuse, of course, but it would be amusing to watch the foolish bravado of his last moments.
Then Cybertron's surface would be irridated, swept clean of all those who might oppose him. The planet would be his for the taking, the prize he had dreamed of for so long.
- - -
"Sojourn is going to crash," Prowl announced to the Sanctum. "Projected impact point is phi-34 alpha-58. Near the edge of J-screen."
"If they hit that screen they'll be vaporized," Jetfire said.
"J screen protects some of our largest military reserves and several shield generators. Lowering it could be disastrous," Prowl answered him.
"It would only be for a split second," Jetfire said. "Surely we can do it, to save them."
"We can't monitor their landing precisely enough to open the shield safely. Unless someone were to go out there and tag their ship, we'd have to keep the shield down for almost a minute," Prowl pronounced. He paused. Jetfire and Prowl exchanged a look, then turned together to gaze at Prime.
"Go, quickly," Optimus told Jetfire. The tall white Autobot dashed out the main door. Transforming into a glistening, streamlined airship, Jetfire raced off into Cybertron's besieged sky.
- - -
A long trail of thin smoke appeared behind Sojourn as she entered Cybertron's upper atmosphere. She tried one engine after another, only to find them all burned out from the rush of energy from the enemy's weapons. Sojourn could see the faint glow of the energy screens near the surface, protecting the countless inhabitants of the planet, just as she'd tried to do. Tried and failed. She knew that the second she touched that screen, her form would disintegrate, along with everyone aboard her. It would only be a more few seconds, unless --
Her rear maneuvering thrusters, in the back of her legs, were still working. She managed get her legs underneath her, and blast the thrusters full tilt as the surface rushed up to meet her. But it wasn't enough; at best it was only slowing her down. The surface and the screen drew ever closer.
- - -
Jetfire soared low over the eerily abandoned landscape of Cybertron. High above in the sky, he could see a tiny speck moving against the black backdrop of space. Knowing he could wait no further, he turned himself skyward, and activated all his thrusters.
He reached the energy screen almost instantly, and passed beyond it before he even realized it. He felt a slight, sudden squeezing pressure at he passed through; then it was gone. A few seconds further, and the speck that was Sojourn grew into a dot, then a disk. When he could make out the ship's full shape, he arced around, reversing his course to intercept the falling Autobot. Drawing closely alongside, he activated a beacon that would allow the Sanctum to track his position to within a few feet, and radioed in.
- - -
"I'm in position," Jetfire's voice crackled over a static-drenched receiver.
"We gotcha, man," Blaster answered reassuringly from the Sanctum's
main com console. "Hang tight. Prowl! Info comin' your way." He relayed
Jetfire's precise coordinates and vector to Prowl's station.
"Working," Prowl said. "Jazz, I have a projection for the impact -- four seconds, mark."
"Roger that," Jazz answered, from Jetfire's control station. "One shield drop... comin' up... now!"
- - -
Jetfire could see the energy screen, now very apparent as they drew close to it. If they collided with it, he knew, their molecules would be instantly separated from each other, dispersed by the shield's repelling forces before being reduced to free energy by the plasma field. Flying out of the shield, one felt no more than the light pressure that Jetfire had encountered -- a residual opposite of the dispersal effect, Prowl had told him. But flying into it from the outside was universally deadly.
Jetfire struggled to maintain his station alongside the enormous bulk of Sojourn, as the ship plowed into deeper and thicker atmosphere. The giant Autobot was not streamlined, and the air currents her re-entry created were of tornado force. Jetfire rocked violently back and forth, barely in control. His wings were flexing alarmingly; his fuselage creaked in protest of what his engines were forcing him to do. Ahead, the screen grew closer, till nothing else could be seen. It seemed as though they would hit --
But Prowl's calculations and Jazz's timing were true, and the shield disappeared an instant before they struck it, and reapeared behind them after they were through. Jetfire peeled away from Sojourn, punching in all thrusters to put as much distance as possible between him and the falling ship. But he had only seconds.
Sojourn's initial impact created a crater two hundred feet deep, and destroyed every structure for miles around. Jetfire was flung out of control by the shock wave; after a moment of wild end-over-end spinning, he managed to regain some control and glide to a crash several miles away. Sojourn survived the impact to rebound and roll several times, a path of smashed terrain in her wake. At last, the battered giant came to a halt. Woozily, still barely concious, she tried to stand.
Sojourn took one halting step forward, crushing the ground under her foot. The world wavered before her... then went black. The damage was too much for her to bear. Transformers of every description fled as fast as they could, as four thousand feet of Autobot teetered, and slowly began to topple. The impact threw every living being in sight off its feet.
Jetfire slowly transformed and unsteadily rose, shaking off the dazing effects of his rather ungraceful landing. He was in pain, but still functional. He looked around at his ethereal surroundings.
A pall of smoke obscured the landscape, from fires burning in the path of devastation Sojourn had left behind her, adding weird shadows to the dull orange glow cast by the energy screen high above. Through it all, Sojourn could be seen lying in the distance, face-down, unconscious, and immobile.
- - -
"Sojourn has impacted with the surface," Splice said grimly. "Unknown if they survived or not, there is too much interference from the battle."
Lexius didn't look at the sensors trained on Cybertron's surface. Even if they stopped the Decepticons, the unshielded areas of the planet were going to take a fearsome toll in collateral damage. "Where's the ship that got her?" he called.
"Behind us, on the far side, but coming up fast. They're dropping to a low orbit," Tuner reported.
"Turn us to face them," Lexius ordered. "NOBODY messes with my ship."
- - -
"Everyone okay?" Sidetrack called out into the darkness of Sojourn's unlit bridge. The lights were down, and nothing could be seen out the viewports except the ground a hundred or so feet below. The bridge was turned ninety degrees, since Sojourn had landed face down. Artificial gravity had cut out automatically when a sizable gravity well had been detected; the safety restraints had not been enough to prevent the entire bridge crew from pitching into the front of the bridge when the ship crashed.
"I'll live," Beacon called out from the darkness.
"Same here," answered Pixel.
"I'm a-okay," Rollbar said. The remainder of the bridge crew did not answer; Sidetrack assumed they'd been knocked out. He hoped it was nothing worse.
"Find a station, everyone," he ordered. "Sound transformation warning. We're not out of this yet..."
- - -
Lexius had the Conquest in his sights, and was not about to let it go.
The destroyer that had downed Sojourn and seemed to be the leader of the fleet fled from his ship's weapons. Its main guns, damaged in Sojourn's initial counterattack, had gone down following its final battle with the giant Autobot; it could do nothing to effectively counter-attack at long range. So Vengeance followed it around Cybertron, blasting away, but never able to keep a firm weapons lock on the ship. Till, inexplicably, the Decepticon ship turned north, seemingly inviting Vengeance to have a broadside shot at it. Lexius nearly gave the order to pursue --
But his instincts were truer than that. He ordered the ship into a forty degree climb, which it entered just an instant before the blast from another destroyer's main guns ripped at them from the horizon of Cybertron's curve. If they'd followed the flagship, they would have taken the hit full-on.
Vengeance rolled over and thrusted away from the new attacker, as the Decepticon ship moved closer, its guns tracking them. But the pursuit ended on an unexpectedly abrupt note: half a dozen laser blasts lanced up from a point on Cybertron's surface, shot straight through the Decepticon ship's underbelly, and blew their way out the opposite side. The ship's forward motion carried it straight through the beams, until it was completely dissected. Hundreds of ruptured power systems erupted into flames. In a few more seconds, the giant battle wagon was particles and a memory.
Splice smiled as he checked the coordinates of the blast. "That shot came from Sojourn's last known location," he reported.
Lexius smiled as well -- someone, at least, had survived the crash. But he wondered how long Sojourn would be able to defend herself on the ground.
"Where'd that first ship go?"
"It is regrouping with the other two survivors, about one-third of the planet ahead of us."
"Drop us lower," he ordered. "Catch them."
"We're pushing it as is," Treadmark said. "Any lower and we'll start hitting a lot of atmospheric drag."
"We'll have to risk it," Lexius said. "Find us the best compromise, just get us to those ships."
"They're matching speeds. They can run as fast as we can chase them."
"Lexius, with their numerical advantage, it is only a matter of time till they outmaneuver us," Starblast pointed out.
He's right... as usual... He couldn't help but smile, even in the middle of their grim situation -- it was good to have his old friend and his reliable advice back. "Alright, then, change of plans, we're going to outmaneuver them first. Full thrust on a hyperbolic course away from the planet. Helm, be ready to turn us back around the instant they're in our line-of-sight."
"Aye. Projecting course... Course projected."
"Initiating. Full thrust. Leaving circular orbit."
Long moments passes in tense silence, broken only by periodic updates on the ailing ship's status, as the vessel pushed itself far from the silvery planet below. Cybertron receded, till it no longer filled the rear viewscreens; the entire globe became visible, gradually shrinking.
"Targets coming up in ten seconds, mark," Treadmark finally announced, as the Decepticon ships approached the planet's horizon.
"Helm, go!" Lexius ordered. Vengeance quaked from the stresses of the maneuver, her side thrusters slinging her around to face the way she'd come. The atmosphere on the bridge was tense; everyone was half-expecting the ship to break apart during the reversing maneuver.
"One and three on sensors."
"One and three? Where is two?" Lexius asked.
"I don't know, they're still off sensors. We should have line-of-sight by now."
"Line-of-sight, targets one and three."
Lexius face was grim; this was it. "Gunners fire on targets
ahead and -"
"Defold activity behind us --"
"Commander, we have two, she's comin' up right behind us!"
"Gunners! New target! New target! On our six-six --"
It was too late. After executing a short-range fold from Cybertron's opposite side, the Conquest had Vengeance dead in her sights. Though her one surviving planet-killer gun had been disabled by Sojourn, she was still lethaly armed. Conquest launched a frenzy of heavy missiles. Caught at short range, Vengeance could do nothing to avoid them.
Explosions blossomed all across the ship. Hulls were breached; weapons destroyed. The ship rocked and heaved, its already-weakened structure pressed to its limits. In the far distance, low above Cybertron's silver curve, the Conquest's two companions easily avoided the few long-distance shots the Vengeance's gunners had fired off before their ship was wracked by enemy munitions.
Lexius and his crew held tight as countless drive trails homed in on their ship, punishing it to the limits. Dozens of them shot past, their explosions reverberating through the ship, throwing them all to the deck, to the ceiling, against the walls. The bridge crew thought their hell could get no worse, until the final impact. The last missile hit two decks directly below them.
- - -
The Autobot ship was a burning mass, not exploding climacticly the way the more powerful Decepticon ships had, but clearly doomed and dead in space. Megatron looked on in approval, his plan sucessful.
"What are we waitin' for?" Frenzy called "Why not call in the others and wipe 'em out for good?"
"I want them to suffer, slowly," Megatron answered. "Vaporization would be over too quickly. How long before our main guns are operative again?"
"Estimate seven minutes to full function," Soundwave reported.
"What ships remain of our fleet?"
"The Vilnacron and the Megalith," Rumble answered.
"Order them to rendevous with us over New Iacon," the hulking Decepticon leader ordered. "I suspect that when we destroy Prime's headquarters, the shields will fall, and the planet will be ours for the taking."
Twenty miles of metal destruction turned itself back toward Cybertron, with deadly intent.
- - -
The reports filtered in one after another, and each painted a picture of a dying ship. Lexius absorbed them all in a silent daze.
"Damage control teams needed on decks seven to one-twenty-eight..."
"Power failing across the ship. Main guns inoperative."
"We have uncontrolled fires in sectors B, C, E, F, G...
"Warp is down. Forward thrusters are functional. All other propulsion destroyed..."
"Nav computers down. Sensors failing. Hull integrity severely compromised..."
The shredded remains of Vengeance's bridge were bathed in flickering light, both of fires and the failing light system. Lexius could see fires bursting out all across the ship's bow through the shattered viewports. The bridge's floor and ceiling were warped from stress and heat. Sparks shot from overloaded consoles; several of the crew sprawled on the floor. Some were unconscious, knocked out during the explosions. Others were dead, killed when a huge electrical power surge had run in through several of the consoles following the missile attack. In the midst of his shattered command, Lexius could see nothing but those lifeless forms. They were just the least of the lives he'd taken today. The intensity, the reality of what he'd just done, came back to him in a single, overwhelming rush.
I killed, he thought, staring at his unmoving crew mates, thinking
of all the ships he'd seen vaporized this day. I killed in full
knowledge that it was wrong, that by the standards I hold most dear,
killing is always wrong.
The com crackled for his attention, then Wheeljack's voice came through, nearly obscured by static. "This is Wheeljack! All our conduits were slagged by the overload! Our power has nowhere to go. We're shutting down the primary generators before they overload. I'm sorry, Commander, I can't do anything more. All you've got is what's left of stand-by power. This thing's finished."
"Understood," Lexius said distantly. "You did well. Get your crewers to safety."
Lexius barely heard Wheeljack's answer, his mind and consciousness grappling. I killed for my principles. I did it to defend what I believe in. I did it to save lives.
The powerless ship was spinning slowly; Cybertron was coming into view, far above them. Near it, hovering over a particular spot, were three bright specks: the Decepticon ships. Lexius focused on them, binocular vision enlarging the sight as if he were right there above it.
Do I believe it? Is that what I truly believe? Is it right? Is saving lives enough to be worth killing for?
He stared at the three remaining destroyers, floating above the planet in formation. They fired repeatedly on a single spot below them. The shield at that spot glowed a grizzly, crackling red, wavering unstably.
If I'm willing to kill to save lives -- to deem those lives as expendable -- then how can my life be any more important? I have no right to take lives for my beliefs, if I'm not willing to give my own for the same reason. I should be willing to die if necessary, to preserve life.
The three ships fired again, unleashing a concerted, sustained burst on the planet. The blasts lasted a full minute before stopping this time. By the end of the attack, furious crackling discharges could be seen within the shield, places where the shield was failing, where combined energies of the destroyers and the shield were interacting to form enormous, weird lightening-like bolts. The bolts ripped across the surface of Cybertron, leaving long trails of slagged metal. The shield was very clearly on the verge of failure.
I am, Lexius realized, as it became clear to him exactly what must be done.
"Sound general evacuation," Lexius ordered taughtly, looking up again. "All bridge hands stand by to abandon ship."
- - -
"Our shields' energy dispersers are vastly overloaded," Jetfire said. "Their effectiveness is dropping rapidly."
Blaster finished reading a report from the shield generator section. "Huffer says we're gonna start losin' 'em in about ten minutes," he said. "He's already re-routed all the power he can."
"Our best option is retreat to the planet's interior," Prowl said. Around them, the Sanctum was quiet, grim, eerily lit from outside by the gigantic energy blasts impacting only a few thousand feet above them, and the strange red glow of the shields keeping those blasts from traveling the last yards to the surface.
"We'd never make it deep enough to escape those ships' weapons," Jetfire answered.
"What happened to the other ship?" Prime asked.
"They're floating in orbit a few thousand miles out. It looks like they were severely damaged in the last attack. Any attempt by them to intervene would most likely be suicide," Prowl told him.
"Nobody's answerin' the phone; looks like they're off the air for good," Blaster reported.
Prime made no answer. Jetfire wondered if, this time, the Autobot leader really had no cards left to play.
- - -
Vengeance was uncontrolled chaos, as hundreds of crewers fled from the burning ship by any means possible.
Lash dragged Sureshot along forcefully, heading for a bank of escape pods, determined that they would both escape cleanly. The fires were pursuing them up the hallways, a series of explosions and burning gases and electrical fires which they'd just managed to outpace.
Sureshot had taken shrapnel right in the knee hydraulics, keeping him from walking on his own and inhibiting his transform function. But Lash had appeared in his sector, plunging deeper into the ship when the rest of her team had already evacuated. She'd found him lying half-buried beneath debris, and dragged him out minutes before the place was consumed by fire. Somehow Spoilsport had managed to catch up with the two of them, and was now clipped in weapon mode to Sureshot's hip.
They turned a corner, to find the hallway blocked by a wall of burning debris, a pile of machinery which had fallen through from a higher level. Behind them, a sharp bang reminded them of how close the slow chain-reaction was.
Lash stared at the wall of fire ahead of them, then turned and gently set Sureshot down. She transformed into her tank mode, and opened fire with her tri-barreled main cannon. Spoilsport fired as well, searching for weak points in the barrier. The Autobots unleashed their firepower for half a minute, but the barrier remained, impassable.
Another explosion came from behind them, much closer this time. The walls around them sizzled suddenly, and sections of them began to melt as the wires inside were overloaded and ignited. Lash reached a decision. A small passenger compartment opened on her top. "Spoilsport, inside," she ordered. The Nebulan quickly obeyed, transforming to his humanoid form and clambering inside Lash. Sureshot struggled onto her top, and gripped her back side tightly as she backed as far down the straightway as she could. Tires squealing, she charged the barrier full speed.
For half a second, they saw nothing but orange flames, and felt searing heat engulf them. Then they were through. Dazed by the impact, it took Lash several seconds to realize they were floating free, surrounded by blackness and bits of burnt debris knocked loose by the collision. She transformed, and turned to look behind them.
They were drifting away from the ship. The corridor had been cut off, ending in open space now where it had once continued. As they watched, more and more of the hull where they had been slagged and melted away, till finally a single, sudden burst of flame vaporized the entire section. The three Autobots slumped in tired relief.
As they drifted further from the ship, the extent of the damage began to be apparent. The explosions that had followed them up the corridor had been only a small part of a vast chain of fires that was consuming that entire section of the ship. From all over the vessel, dozens of evacuation pods shot out into space, wavering unstably in a way that told Lash they were overloaded. She had heard that there were not enough of the vessels to carry the entire crew. Now she believed it.
Other Autobots who could fly in space were launching themselves out on their own, into a space that was filled with spinning, flying debris and untold amounts of crackling raw energy. Autobots were carrying other Autobots out, passengers clinging to wings, guns, and fuselages. Still other evacuees, without means of flight and unable to reach escape pods, simply had to cast themselves out into the void, to a fate that was, at best, uncertain.
Like us, Lash thought. She wondered how many of the Decepticon destroyers remained. All the Autobot ships that had been orbiting Cybertron when the attack began had either fled or been destroyed. With Sojourn down and Vengeance dying, it didn't seem likely that anyone would live long enough to rescue them.
- - -
In engineering, Wheeljack finished rigging one last set of controls, then he and Backscatter boarded the two-man ship they'd stashed away for their escape. Wheeljack paused as he settled at the vessel's controls, looking over the awesome, ruinous space that had been Main Engineering. That space -- now a death-laden inferno -- had been a home, a goal and a fixation for him. He'd come to know every inch, every nook, every circuit and conduit in this place over the last six weeks. In that time he'd pulled this ship from its grave, resurrected it from a premature death. Now he was sending it to another death, an even earlier one. A ship so magnificent deserved better, he thought.
Backscatter nudged him. "I hate to see it go, too," he said. "But it was made for combat. That's how it should die, too. You've given this ship a better fate than it would have had otherwise."
Wheeljack stared for a moment, gladdened that at least one of his crew understood, surprised that it was the pragmatic Backscatter of all robots. He turned back to the ship's controls, and opened up his communicator. "Overloaders are at your command," he sent to the bridge, as he powered the ship up.
On the bridge, six Autobots remained to hear the message: Lexius, Treadmark, and Starblast; Tuner, Splice, and Fanblade.
"Acknowledged," Lexius sent. "Good luck, Wheeljack."
The bridge scanners were faltering, but they managed to detect Wheeljack's launch from the blazing mass of energy that was Engineering. Lexius watched on-screen as the tiny vessel vectored away from the great warship, to far beyond the battle zone, to a place of relative safety.
If there is safety in such a universe, he thought, looking back at the three enemy vessels in the distance. "Evacuation status," he called. Around him, various components of the bridge continued to burn.
"Evacuation ninety-three percent complete," Starblast reported.
"Let me know when we're at ninety-eight percent. Helm, set to rig for full speed. I'll want auto-rigs on the nav and helm, run 'em both to my station."
"Lexius, what are you doing?" Treadmark asked suspiciously.
"Attend to your duties," Lexius told him.
"Ninety-five percent evacuation," Starblast said.
- - -
"Shield levels at thirteen percent," Soundwave announced.
"Double the bombardment! And focus all secondary weapons on the shield," Megatron ordered.
"The Autobots 're bailin' out," Rumble said. "We should slag 'em while we got the chance."
"The Autobots are of no concern," Megatron said, staring intently at the screen. "Only Cybertron matters now..." Down there, beneath that faltering shield, Optimus Prime waited for him.
Optimus, responsible for the deaths of his warriors, Optimus, who countered his every move, dogged his every step... Optimus, his oldest enemy. Odd that it would end this way, he thought: no exchange of challenges, no final words, no feel of crushed steel in his hands; he would simply issue an order, his followers would push a button, and Optimus Prime would be swept from existence.
It was almost too easy.
- - -
"Evacuation complete," Starblast announced.
"Commence overload sequence," Lexius commanded.
"Overload sequence commencing." Starblast calmly tapped in a series of commands on one of the few control panels that was still working. Far below and behind them, in Engineering, the generators came back on-line and began building power. That power was almost useless to them; with most of the ship's conduits and systemry destroyed, it could not be channeled into weapons or shields or warp drives. It could, however, be made to serve another purpose.
"Helm, full power."
"Full power, aye."
- - -
"Them next! Get them," Nightbeat radioed, pointing to a small knot of Autobots he'd spotted floating a few miles away.
"Hang on, hang on, I've only got one ship," Punch radioed back, as he glanced out the tiny viewport of the escape pod to see where Nightbeat was directing him. The little round vessel had already ferried three groups of Autobots over to where Nightbeat was floating; he was doing his best to get them organized into something resembling a defensive position.
Defense against what? Nighbeat's mind poked at him. Against a ship with a mile-long main gun? The idea was that if they could get some more pods together, they would have enough power to shuttle survivors away from Cybertron, on the hope that they wouldn't be noticed if they put enough distance between themselves and the planet. It was a long shot for survival, at best, but it beat doing nothing. At very least, Nightbeat thought, it'll keep us distracted from what's probably coming.
Most of the Vengeance survivors had Nightbeat's doubts, but none of his surface optimism, as they floated free in space. The dying ship slowly receded as they drifted away from it, the fires burning unabated, consuming it. The general concensus was that bailing out was merely a stay of execution; it was only a matter of time till the Decepticon destroyers got around to dealing with them. When that time came, they all knew, there would be no second chances, no matter how many Autobots they got arranged into free-floating fire nets. For those on the Decepticon destroyer, they would just be so many minute targets. Most of the Autobots simply stared disconsolately into nothing, silently contemplating their fate.
Until a sudden, resounding cry pierced the com net: "Everybody, look!"
All heads turned towards the drifting giant they had just left. It was turning, painfully, but definitely.
The Vengeance was moving. Gasping sputters of fire escaped from its thrusters, as it channeled its remaining energies into forward motion. A hundred cheers sounded across the InterAutobot Radio. The battle wasn't over. Not yet.
"Lexius," one of Sojourn's old crewers said over the 'net. "It's gotta be."
"I don't much care who it is," a Vengeance crewer replied grimly, as he watched his ship move resolutely to do battle one last time. "But may Primus watch over them."
- - -
"Three minutes to shield failure," Prowl reported. "And their assault is intensifying."
"Prepare a broadband dispatch. Order all units to scatter and retreat to the subsurface, or evacuate the planet if possible," Prime said, resigned. "We'll have to try to fight them after they land."
"Prime, you're not giving up, are you?!" Blaster said.
"No," Prime said. "But this battle is lost. The time has come to prepare for the next one."
"Right," Blaster sighed. He turned slowly back to his console. And did a double take. "Prime, look at this! The other ship, the one that's 'dead in space'... they're movin' again."
"Looks like a suicide run."
Prime shook his head. "Without weapons, they'll never make it close enough." He paused, looked up again. "Unless someone gives them the distraction they need..."
- - -
"Helm to my command," Lexius ordered, as the great vessel lumbered toward its objective.
"Helm is at your command."
"Clear the bridge."
"I mean it. Go."
Fanblade stood up and approached his commander. "I'm not leaving till we've finished our mission."
"Fanblade, your mission is done. I'm giving you an order. You are all to get out of here immediately." That not withstanding, there were hardly enough surviving stations for them all to man. Outside the viewports, scattered streaks of plasma shot by, as the Decepticons trained their secondary weapons on the approaching Autobot ship. Vengeance rumbled with sporadic hits and drifted slightly, but maintained course as Lexius and Treadmark, under Starblast's direction, adjusted thrust to compensate.
"No sir," Splice said, moving to stand beside Fanblade. "We stay with our ship and our commander." The Decepticon blasts began to grow in intensity, as more and more of the ships' gunners realized what Vengeance was doing.
"You can't do any more good here. The longer you wait the more danger you're in. Go!"
Tuner started to protest, till he looked at Lexius. They locked optics for a moment, through the flames of the bridge. An understanding was reached -- this was no time to question orders. "He's right," Tuner said. He rose slowly, and headed for the bridge door. He paused when he got there, turning to Splice and Fanblade. "Guys, come on, you've --"
An explosion gutted the external sensor control panels, cutting off Tuner's words. "Go!" Lexius shouted to the three Autobots. "That is my final order, dammit! Get off of this ship, now!"
Fanblade and Splice joined Tuner, but Splice stopped at the entranceway, turning once more to face Lexius. Lexius started to repeat his orders, but then he saw the look on Splice's faceplates.
The two Autobots met eyes for a long moment. Lexius saw that Splice's expression was one of respect; he did his best to return the look. In that brief moment, each understood that what ever transgressions the other had committed, they were forgiven.
Splice stood, till Tuner and Fanblade tugged gently at his arms. He angrily shrugged them off, but slowly turned and joined them. Together the three Autobots disappeared down the smoke-filled corridor. One minute later Lexius tracked their escape pod as it left the ship, shooting away to regroup with the ship's other survivors. He gave thanks that Tuner had presence of mind to keep Vengeance between the pod and the Decepticon ships.
Starblast looked up from his console. "I have finished programming the collision course," he said, turning and walking towards the command seat. "We should leave immediately."
"Go on," Lexius said. "Take Treadmark. I'll be with you shortly."
"Lexius, our work here is done," Treadmark said, also turning to face him. "There's nothing more you can do."
"Treadmark, they're going to keep firing on us. They'll knock us aside, and this will all be for nothing. Someone has to make sure the ship stays on collision course."
"Close will be enough; the overload --"
"Won't be enough unless there's a collision. You know that."
None of the three Autobots looked at each other; instead they watched through the viewports with set faces as they drew closer to the enemy formation.
"Lexius, no..." Treadmark said. "Look, one Autobot can't fly this ship. You'll never make it all the way by yourself, and you'll be killed if you do!"
"I know," Lexius said evenly, turning to look at his friend. "I'm willing to make that sacrifice to protect my crew, and the Autobots on Cybertron. Treadmark, it's the only way."
"But you can't do it by yourself! You've got..." Treadmark's voice faded suddenly; his features fell and he glanced reflexively at the floor. Several tense seconds passed in silence.
"You require assistance," Starblast completed the thought, at last. "I believe you have found it."
Treadmark slowly lifted his head. His words nearly faltered, but he spoke. "You have."
Lexius had no answer. The three Autobots' optics locked for a second that was eternity. Lexius's features were set, grim and solemn, as he prepared to make this final sacrifice for his principles and his people. Starblast's face was calm, unruffled, but regretful -- he had been restored to a life that was destined to be cut short again. Treadmark's, sad, almost mournful, but determined. He did not want to die; in fact he fervently wished to continue living, but he had a duty, a responsibility that he could not ignore.
"Stations," Lexius whispered. Starblast and Treadmark moved without hesitation.
- - -
"Hailing signal from New Iacon," Soundwave called out.
"Heh heh! Put it through," Megatron sneered.
Optimus's face appeared on his screen again. "Megatron," he said.
"Prime! Well, well. You look as though you have some sort of problem! Who's made the mistake now, Optimus?"
"Megatron, listen to me! The Cybertronians --"
"Will fall before me even more easily than you will," Megatron retorted. "Soon no being in the universe will challenge my power."
"We were allies once, Megatron. You mustn't turn your back on that! The consequences for our race, to the galaxy, are of pivitol importance."
"The Decepticons need no allies! It is our destiny to grow, to expand and conquer! And neither you nor anyone else shall deny us! Soon our power will spread across the galaxy. This is only the beginning!"
"Megatron, please! This slaughter you're planning -- what good can it do? The lives you're taking are --"
"They are of no concern to me. Really, Prime, I thought --"
"Hey, Megatron --"
"Not now, Rumble! Really, Prime, I thought you knew me better than that. You'll have to give me a more pursuasive reason to stop firing."
"What is it you want?" Prime asked. "I... acknowledge your victory. But spare Cybertron and the innocents on its surface."
"Ah, how very generous of you!"
"Frenzy, SILENCE! Unfortunately for you, Prime, I have everything I want already. Total power over you and your followers, and all of Cybertron at my mercy. It is most gratifying to hear you say say I've won, though."
"Lord Megatron --"
"What IS it, Soundwave?!"
"My lord. Enemy ship building power," Soundwave reported. "Closing on our position. Course projection predicts impact in forty-five seconds."
Vengeance was indeed limping towards them, its forward thrusters defiantly spewing red fire.
"What are they doing?!" Megatron stared at the oncoming ship in disbelief. Though burning and damaged, the shattered vessel was charging at them, and building speed. It gave no indication of altering course. He glanced back at the com screen in fury. "Prime, you -- ! Bring our primary weapons to bear," he ordered smugly. "Atomize them."
Frenzy shook his head. "Only thirty seconds till we hit, there's no time!" Indeed, the ship's titanic main guns required nearly a minute for a full traverse. And the Megalith and the Vilnacron stood between them and the incoming vessel.
"Evacuation necessary," Soundwave gave his analysis.
"Megatron, let's get outta here!" Rumble added.
"Emergency fold!" Megatron ordered. His crew scrambled to obey.
- - -
Starblast, Treadmark, and Lexius watched in silent awe as the trio of enormous vessels came closer and closer. None of them spoke; they could think of nothing to say. They simply worked their consoles in silence, compensating thrust for each hit, keeping the vessel on its final path. They could see the gigantic main guns swinging towards them, but the weapons would never make it around fast enough, they knew. For the Decepticons, as well as for them, it was over, finished.
The bulk of the vessels filled the viewports completely. They drew closer... and closer... closer still --
The ship wrenched violently. They had time enough to see the front end of their ship collapse, buckle, and snap as it hit the first enemy vessel; then, before they knew it, the collision reached them. They barely had time to scream.
Lexius had never felt such helplessness. The bridge caved in around him, crushing and smashing his body, as Vengeance collided with the first enemy vessel; then there was only darkness and disorientation as the doomed ship careened onwards. The last thought Lexius had time for before his consciousness passed away was that death wasn't like he'd expected; it was more like -- spacefolding.
- - -
Vengeance impacted the Vilnacron, plowing through its midsection and continuing on. The enemy ship spun around from the force of the blow, catching the Megalith broadside. Its front end mangled and crushed from the collision, the Vengeance sailed on for another second or two, till it impacted the flagship.
As per Megatron's order, Conquest folded.
Two hundred miles above Cybertron, the bulk of the Vengeance vaporized in a massive implosion, as its overloaded main power plant fed back on itself. Nothing larger than a microchip survived the inferno. Seconds later, the Megalith and the Vilnacron, damaged by the collisions, their power plants already redlining from the long bombardment, were ignited by the self-destruct; they blossomed into similarly spectacular deaths. In space, and on the surface below, all optics turned to gaze at the triple blaze, a fiery marker of the battle's end.
"Lexius," Sidetrack murmured, peering out of the viewports of Sojourn's bridge, illuminated only by the orange light from above. "I hope you weren't in the middle of that."
Prime stared at the image on the Sanctum's main monitor in silence. Thank you, he sent a thought out to the crew of the now-destroyed ship. You've given life with your own. Millions are in your debt.
A few thousand miles from the cataclysmic fireball, the Decepticon flagship dropped out of fold once more. In its defold wake, it dragged a large mass behind it, which immediately began spinning off on its own vector.
"What happened?" Megatron shouted, frantic. The starfield spun madly outside the viewports, and the ship's damage monitor showed a massive red area amidships. Klaxxons were blaring across the ship in response to the collision.
"Fold operation disrupted due to impact," Soundwave answered calmly. "Attempting re-fold."
A second later the Conquest disappeared again into foldspace, and was seen no more. In its wake it left a ruinous battlefield, the silence of stars and space... and two miles of twisted wreckage, dragged with the flagship in its initial fold. The mangled debris spun silently, the largest remnant of the past hour's furious battle.
On Cybertron, Jetfire punched in the codes which deactivated the planetary screens. Everyone in the Sanctum slumped in exhausted relief as the overworked dynamos whined and ground to a halt. Even Prime allowed himself a moment of relaxation. Megatron would not be back any time soon. He thought of the particles that had been ships and warriors hours ago, as the triple fireball burnt itself out. A cloud of metal fragments shimmered in the faint starlight above them. What a cost... what a horrible waste of life...
"Prime," Prowl broke his reverie. "We should send out teams to start looking for survivors."
"Of course," Optimus said. Even in the midst of death, there was always life to be found.
- - -
"This is a Standard Autobot Distress Call," the voice spoke into his brain. "Repeat, this is Autobot Starblast, broadcasting a Standard Autobot Distress Call. Anyone in range of this signal, please respond."
Whah, is shut-down cycle over already? he wondered.
No, not shut-down... he wasn't shut down. He was dead. How can I be picking up an SADC if I'm dead? Lexius wondered. Maybe the Decepticon Mindwipe was right, maybe it really was possible to talk to the dead. He pondered that thought for a long moment before it occurred to him that, maybe, he wasn't really dead.
"The bridge is this way," a second radio broadcast suddenly entered his head, much stronger than the first. "Come on -- no, it's not over there; it's this way!"
"Are you sure?" a third voice signaled.
"Of course I'm sure... Look here, I told you it was the bridge. Look at this bulkhead, see? These extra structural members are diagnostic. Strongest place on the ship," the second voice insisted. He'd heard the voice before, and that self-assured certainty. Nightbeat. "Come on in, I think I know where they'll be... Yeah, got it. SADC over this way, guys, really weak."
"We found 'em! Bring in the wreck teams!" another, more familiar voice ordered -- Sidetrack. Other voices passed back and forth through the airwaves, Grotusque, Rollbar, others, some known to him, some not...
Then he saw light through his shattered optics, as layer upon layer of wreckage was pealed away, and unfocused faces as he was uncovered, and the mangled remains of the bridge as his wrecked body was pulled free, and the twisted forms that had been, and still were, Starblast and Treadmark, and his friends and comrades welcoming him back to life. He was destroyed, but alive. With no strength left in the remains of his body, there was nothing he could do but collapse into the arms of his friends, and silently revel in the agony and the glorious ecstasy of being alive.
****************END PART SIX***********************
On to the Epilogue