The Corrosion of War Without End
Prologue

"Whether I am a hero or a coward is not the issue! I am weary! My  joints creak from the corrosion of war without end!"

--- Fortress Maximus

 
  The galactic hub. Elsewhere in the cosmos, space was black, an eternal midnight.  Here, at the heart of the galaxy, at the nexus of its winding spokes, the sky was packed to bursting with aging stars. Suns too numerous to count cast forth their light onto attendent planets too diverse to imagine. The center of the galaxy was an awesome place, a sight to move the soul.  The mythologies of countless cultures placed their version of heaven or paradise here, amid the most stunning beauty imaginable.  Even species that were less susceptible to such stories perceived divinity in this place, an almost supernatural order which, simply by its sheer enormity, could be nothing less than permanent perfection.

  But here, as with so much of space, both tranquillity and permanence were illusory, a misperception created by infinitesimally small viewer.  A more careful inspection revealed a violent galaxy, a universe in flux.  For out among the infinate stars were beings whose view and aspiration was not limited by their insignificance, beings convinced that they could force change on even this grandest of panoramas, beings who sought to remake it in their own image. Through subtly or through savage war, they had forced their way into the panorama of the hub, transforming it in their wake.

  There were, of course, others who sought to stop them, sought to maintain the natural order of things; thus began a war which had savaged the galaxy for millenia. The opposing forces met and clashed on a hundred thousand battlefields, scattered each other's remains across an infinity of star systems, blasted a million worlds to pieces, trampled and destroyed countless civilizations, turned untold numbers of beings to ashes.

  They had fought thus for eons.  Yet the war seemed no closer to end than when it began...

***************************************
 
 

 PART ONE
Chapter 1
Assault

 Deep in the hub, above an ordinary planet circling an ordinary star, a section of space-time ripped open. The creation of this rift unleashed a spectacular burst of electromagnetic radiation, briefly eclipsing even the brightness of the innumerable suns. From the rift, a single starship emerged.  The opening in space-time instantly resealed behind it. The ship, four thousand feet long and bristling with weapons, moved with swift purpose towards the planet below.

 The world in question had known peace for many years.  It had but one sentient species, whose members were united under a single banner, dedicated to their own common advancement. The peace, harmony and industry they currently shared was without precedent in the planet's history. The ravages of war had been eliminated decades before, and there seemed little reason to believe they would ever return.

 Unfortunately, that mindset had left the planet virtually defenseless. The new order was to be eternal, unchanging, and without conflict - but other forces had decreed that it was not to be. For their lack of vigilance, the beings of this world would soon pay an enormous toll.  All their accomplishments were about to be consumed by the fires they'd thought extinguished.

-  -  -
 A military base on the surface, a spaceport and interplanetary communications center, was the first to notice the intruders.  Within a nondescript operations tower, an equally nondescript space-traffic controller took note as the invaders' ship appeared on his screens. His initial surprise was quickly followed by concern as the size and probable nature of the vessel became apparent.

  "Commander!" he summoned his superior, urgently.

  A senior officer stirred from his seat on the other side of the darkened little room and strolled to stand behind the duty station.  "Yes," he asked in a bored tone.

 "Sir? Unscheduled arrival, sir. I don't know the type, but it's pretty big and it's definately not one of ours.  It defolded very close to --"

  Further readings flashed on his screen, and the controller's expression changed to one of alarm, an expression matched by his senior.  "Massive power build-up, sir! They're fi--"

 The controller never finished the sentence, never got the chance. It mattered little; even forewarned, no-one could have averted the doom about to befall the installation, and indeed the entire planet.

-  -  -
 The sky above the base flashed white, with no warning beyond the controller's half-uttered statement. The control tower and everything for half a mile around it were shattered, detonated, and vaporized all at once.  As the shockwaves rolled out, spreading the destruction even further, the base's remains boiled skyward, drawn upwards in a blast of superheated air, as if seeking their destroyer.  Beyond the sky, the unseen and unreachable destroyer answered with another discharge of annihilation, and another, and another, till nothing recognizable remained of the base.

 In the next few minutes, one military installation after another met the same fate, methodically obliterated as the ship orbited the planet. The world's defenders had no enemy to fight, nowhere to flee, only pinpointed blasts of energy which painted the world red with fire. Within thirty minutes of the intruder's arrival, the military command infrastructure was reduced to ashes and slag.

 With the planet's nervous system destroyed, the conquerors came forth from the ship to claim their victory. Sleek, compact dropships burst from the orbiting vessel and deployed to the surface.  Their landing was practically unchallenged; those military units which had survived were disoriented and leaderless,  their commanders now part of the planet's crust.  Armored forms sprang from the dropships, fanning out across the globe, seeking out what remained of the planet's resistance.

 The battles were few, and decisively brief. Their communications were disrupted, and their chain of command was gone; the conquered quickly (if distastefully) agreed to the terms of the victors. Those terms were clear and simple: surrender or be destroyed.

-  -  -
 On the bridge of the orbiting starship, the commander of the invading force listened to the surrender reports coming in from his soldiers on the surface.  He thought briefly of the enemy below -- pinned down, cut off from their leaders, hostiles closing in on all sides -- and felt a twinge of sympathy.  But he quickly suppressed the thought, clamped down on it with an iron will and negated its existence. The enemy deserved no sympathy, no mercy, and he gave none. Anyway, they were usually smart enough to surrender. Those that didn't...  his troops were warriors, Lexius reflected. Killing was part of the job description.

 Another update came in: "Ground Unit commanders report we are now in control of the surface, resistance minimal or nonexistent in all sectors."

 Lexius allowed himself a brief moment of complete relaxation, a rare luxury. He touched his console, to address his followers.

 "Good work, Autobots."

-  -  -
 Lexius didn't even know the name of the planet whose surface he stood upon. No-one knew the world's true name, the one given to it by its native species.  It had a designation in the Autobots' star charts, another in those of the Decepticons, whom they'd just driven out. But the natives had been wiped out years before, when the Decepticons overran their world, as they had overrun countless other worlds, as they had wiped out countless other sentient species. Decepticons did not often stop to ask questions of those they destroyed; and so the planet's name was usually lost with its inhabitants, along with their culture, their accumulated knowledge, their achievements, their diversity, their hopes, their dreams... Now it was simply another nameless battlefield, another casualty of the endless Autobot-Decepticon war, and the Autobots had  just wiped out the planet's inhabitants themselves.  The irony was lost on Lexius.

 "Anything interesting turn up?" he asked Grotusque, one of his ground unit commanders.

 "Not a thing," the bulky red Autobot answered.  "Not even a fist, really.  I'm not complaining, but I'd expect better from a so-called weapons center."

 "They're scientists," one of the ground troops, a beige Autobot named Landfill, interjected as he drove up to them with a load of pilfered weaponry.  "They're nice guys.  The 'cons probably were making them work, you know."  It was three days after the attack, and the ground troops who weren't herding and securing the numerous prisoners were busy scouring the surface for supplies, ammo, and surviving Decepticons that had eluded capture.  Some, like Landfill, were plundering and destroying the weapons research labs that had been this world's primary contribution to the Cybertronian empire.

 "I'd be surprised if they weren't forced to work," Lexius said.  "If you ask them, I'll bet most of them'll say they've never been in a fight before.  Maybe even the same story for the guards."

 "You're probably right.  Most of the scientists actually looked happy to see us,"  Landfill said as he drove off, heading for a shuttle which would haul his load up to the Sojourn, their enormous starship.  The vessel was maintaining a watchful orbit far overhead, while they waited for their back-up to arrive, a pair of heavy cruisers from the Autobot fleets.

  While Sojourn headed onwards, the crews of those ships would hustle the prisoners off-planet, and obliterate what remained of the Decepticons' work on the surface, then flee back into deep space before anyone could realize what had happened. The planet would be abandoned, left for dead.  The native population had been obliterated when the world was teraformed by the Decepticons decades before; all the Autobots could do was make sure it would not be worth the Decepticons' bother to recolonize. Such was the Autobots' war against the Decepticon empire: though outnumbered, and always on the run, the Autobots nevertheless managed to strike with relative immunity at the very heart of the Empire. It was guerrilla warfare on the grandest of scales. It was all the beleaguered Autobot fleets could manage.

 For now, Sojourn's crew was keeping all the planet's inhabitants under guard. The mop-up crews would inform them of the various war crime  charges they faced under Cybertronian law; there would be psy-scans and profiles; the neutrals would be released, and the ones that turned out loyal to the Decepticon cause would be offered the choice of exile or interment. Some might be eligible for rehabilitative reprogramming or therapy, and eventually could be granted freedom. Occasionally one of these cases would even join the Autobot cause in one way or another. As for the rest... Lexius wondered how many times he and his troops had faced the same Decepticons, how many he'd driven off of one planet only to reencounter on another. Escaping from exile wasn't all that hard. Autobots and Decepticons looked pretty much the same, and the enemy was often  distinguished only by the symbol he wore.  Even the more generic latter-generation Cybertronians could sometimes pass themselves off as Autobots when needed.  The Autobots couldn't simply kill all the Decepticons they captured; it was not their way, not the Autobot way. Lexius often wished he could be free of that constraint...

 A signal from the ship interrupted his thoughts. "Terresus and  Transcendent have just defolded, Lexius," first officer Starblast  reported over the com.

 "Copy that," he replied. The mop-up ships had arrived. He contacted his ground unit commanders, the four Autobots who led the surface forces. "The backup is here. I'm going upstairs; you guys finish packing up. I want us out of here ASAP."

 "Roger," Rollbar answered with his usual enthusiasm.

 "Funny how fearless leader always cuts out when it's time for the dirty work," a quiet, solemn voice belonging to Treadmark called back over the com line, the faintest hint of mirth evident in his tone.

"Yeah, go on and ditch us, captain sir, we love being stuck down here doing the legwork," Sidetrack called in, his perpetual good humor audible. Lexius could readily visualize the easy, casual smile on the tiny Micromaster's faceplates.  Grotusque, still standing beside him, simply nodded acknowledgment.

 "Heh. If I wanted to load shuttles, I'd be a ground-pounder too," Lexius radioed back with a grin. "Cheer up, guys, we'll be in foldspace before the day's over." He closed the com channel and fired the thrusters in his legs, propelling his massive drab-green form into the sky.  "See ya later!" he called to Grotusque.  Transforming into a sleek delta-shaped craft, he vectored off towards the orbiting ship.

-  -  -
 The Sojourn was large and fast and as tough as Autobot science could make it. Somehow it was ugly and beautiful at the same time, Lexius appraised, as he made his approach. It was boxy, yet stylized; the massive guns which extruded from virtually every surface both broke its streamline (what little it had) and at the same time seemed to pull the vessel forward. Sojourn appeared ill-equipped for the rigors of faster-than-light travel, but was in fact prepared to deal with almost any difficulty space might have to offer. The ship harbored powers and secrets which were only hinted at by the daunting weaponry and the odd design.

 Lexius noted the gunship Apogee on approach vector. Apogee and its sister  ship Perigee were little more than enormous flying guns, which normally attached to the ship and formed part of its weapons complement. Both had  been maintaining orbits ahead of and behind the Sojourn since the  battle, ensuring that any ground unit could receive air support within  seconds of calling for it.

 Shifting to his half-jet, half-robot Guardian form, Lexius passed through an air shield into a small docking bay. The interior of the ship was kept lightly pressurized to allow vocal communications, though higher pressures could be established for the rare occasions when the ship had organic passengers. With a skid and wash of thrusters, he finished his transformation to robot mode, bouncing onto the deck, and made his way into the ship's labyrinthian interior.  A five-minute walk brought him to the bridge, where the double doors slid apart at his approach.  He strolled toward the command seat, surveying the ship's status with a quick glance. Half a dozen Autobots were bent over various consoles, seeing to the ship's everyday operations as well as the tasks of getting all the ground troops back to their vessel.

  "Commander," his first officer, Starblast, acknowledged his arrival on the bridge. Starblast was a light gray jet, with blue wings and trim. He was a Veritech mold, though considerably modified. Renown on the ship for his vast intelligence, his love of computers, and his sometimes irritatingly precise diction, he formed a sharp contrast to the rough-and-tumble manner of most of the crew, including Lexius himself.

 "Howdy.  How we doin'?" Lexius queried.

 "Seven units aboard. All others anticipated on board within two hours.  Apogee is currently docking; Perigee expects to dock within the hour,"  came Starblast's curt reply.

 "Great. Tell the crew two hours till we're out of here."

 Starblast simply nodded acknowledgment, and turned back to his work. Lexius demanded little in the way of military formality from his troops, considering it an unnecessary burden and distraction. The ship's crew had worked and lived together for too long and in too small a space for him to have it any other way; Lexius numbered many of his dearest friends among the ship's crew. The ship was not merely a vessel of war; it was their home, their haven and harbor. The Autobots were only a quasi-military body, anyway, united more by shared ideals than membership in an army. In the end, Lexius asked only one thing of his troops: unwavering commitment to the war against the Decepticons.

*  *  *
   "This is the most recent attack.  The pattern is the same as all the others," Phalanx said, calling up a set of visuals. On a screen behind him, an overhead view appeared, of the planet the Autobots had attacked a few days before. The purple-and-gray Decepticon turned to his two-member audience. "Our headquarters, all command centers, and major military targets wiped out from space, with large damage craters. No communiqués, no distress calls, nothing to indicate that anything was amiss. Most of the population... missing. The remainder killed. By the time we notice anything and send scouts, there's nothing to see but craters and dead bodies. These attackers have been doing this for months, and we can't seem to catch them. We need you to find out who is doing it, and how." Phalanx paused, and regarded the dark, brooding form of Counterpunch, chief of Decepticon Intelligence operations.

 "That's all you know?" Counterpunch scoffed. "That a lot of planets have been destroyed?" Beside him, Wingspan, a lithley-built robot with a sky blue body and light gray limbs, remained silent, absorbing the exchange.

 "Hey, I'm only military," Phalanx said. "You intelligence types are the ones with the answers."

 "I don't just have 'answers', you moron. I can give you speculation and conjecture at this point. No more, until we can find out something besides that a lot of your troops have managed to get themselves slagged."

 Phalanx wisely ignored the bait. "Conjecture is fine.  Let's hear it."

 Counterpunch glared at him a moment before proceeding. Phalanx, the Cybertronian military's chief liaison to Intelligence, was young, his mind a fourth-generation copy from the mind vaults on Cybertron. The mind vaults were just that, a repository of copies of Transformer minds, each of which was encoded as light engrams within a crystalline matrix. Long ago, Phalanx's predecessor had agreed to have a copy of his mind made and stored in the vaults; much later, the Decepticons, desperate for new troops, had raided the vaults and made off with much of its contents -- including the mind that, today, was Phalanx. He was only recently activated and therefore was inexperienced; but Counterpunch had dealt with an earlier incarnation of the same mind and knew him to be both competent and dangerous on his own... though easily manipulated when placed within a power structure. If Counterpunch had been more civil or less self-assured he might have reproached himself for the harshness of his reply. Civility, however, was not high among his priorities.

 "The attacks are obviously extremely well planned," he finally offered. "To completely severe communications requires either jamming the communications themselves, or destroying their sources. Jamming is virtually impossible with our variable network. That leaves destruction of sources. To destroy all the interplanetary communications centers on the planet before any of them realize what's happening means an extremely fast  strike, and therefore extremely good intelligence."

 "A leak, perhaps?"

 "Infiltrators, more likely," Counterpunch said, careful not to deny the other possibility too quickly. "An Autobot goes to the planet posing as a neutral or some such. He stays there for a good while; he knows all the prime targets simply because they're not all that big of a secret among the inhabitants. Then he feeds the data out through a courier of some sort."

 "And then what happens?"

 "Then nothing.  Weeks or hours later their assault ships show up and your troops get melted."

 Phalanx waited patiently for more.

 Counterpunch continued. "The firepower they're using is... rather impressive. I don't even know of any active Autobot ships that pack this much punch. Our first basic problem is tracking down the ship or ships that are leading the assaults.  Dealing with those ships, once we've found them... may be a much bigger problem."

 "What makes you think its something new? Could it be a large group of their standard ships?"

 Wingspan finally spoke up: "The rattletraps we've been fighting over the last few decades?  No chance. Even with a coordinated weapons strike - all of 'em aiming at the same target - it'd take dozens of 'em to do this kind of damage."  He pointed to the massive, slag-rimmed craters on his visuals, where rows of buildings had once stood, a landscape reduced to molten glass. "This is too precise for more than one or two weapons. Besides, if it's not single weapons, why waste firepower like this? You can destroy your target without turning it to slag; why point all your guns at only a few targets?  No, these are single-weapon blasts. A few ships, maybe, working in close coordination. And with very powerful weapons.  I haven't seen planetary damage this bad since...  since the last starship war," Wingspan reflected.

 "That was over 40,000 vorns ago," Phalanx said in surprise. "The taking of our Empire has been this...  messy, in more recent times, surely."

 "Not the old wars. There was a recent one, sometimes they call it the phantom ship debacle, but the historians also lump it in with the old starship wars because the ship involved was so big. But it was only about 200 vorns ago," Wingspan told him.

 "Phantom ship...?" Phalanx echoed.

 "Heh. I guess they don't mention it at the academy. Small wonder; it was a military fiasco and an embarrassment to the intelligence department. It is a long story," Counterpunch said.

 "I would love to know what happened some time," Phalanx said, intrigued, but not wishing to annoy Counterpunch by delaying things.

 "The short version is that a big Autobot ship was destroying our fleets, and we tried to beat it with numbers. It didn't work too well; everything we sent after it disappeared, but eventually the ship disappeared as well," Wingspan said, eager as always to share what he knew, but aware of Counterpunch's desire to keep things on track.

 "Do you think it's the same ship?" Phalanx asked.

 "Unlikely. If it survived the ships we sent after it, we'd have encountered it again before now. It doesn't matter; our job is still the same."

 "Agreed. So, what will you do now?" Phalanx asked.

 "There's two ways to intercept their ships. First is to get a tracer on one or more of them. Second is to tap into their communications, find out who's giving them orders, and where they're going next,"  Wingspan answered.

 "Tracing would be easiest and fastest," Counterpunch pointed out. "Our planetary outposts probably have everything they would need to get a tag on one of their ships. Wingspan, inform Pounce of what we've covered here today. Have him start contacting our outposts to arrange the tagging systems. You two have my permission to draw on whatever Intelligence resources you need." The dark blue robot paused. "If there's nothing else..."

 Receiving no answer, he stalked out of the conference room with no further pleasantries, and headed for his personal ship. He boarded and departed from the deep-space relay station that Wingspan and his clone brother Pounce called home, his mind in furious conflict with itself. A deeply buried portion, so deep that the conscious part was unaware of it, was already grappling with the problem of undoing what he had just set into motion. How, indeed, was one to save a ship from destruction, while giving the honest appearance of trying to do just the opposite?

 That part of his mind, which called itself Punch, had kept Wingspan away from the topic of the phantom ship for a very specific reason: Punch fervently hoped that none of today's Decepticons would think to repeat the strategy that had ultimately led to its destruction.

*  *  *
 Some time later, and a considerable distance away, Counterpunch's ship dropped out of foldspace. The blue robot quickly worked a series of commands through his console, bringing up a secure data file. He encoded the file, and transmitted it as single subspace pulse. That done, he urged his ship back into fold, and erased all evidence of the file from his ship's systems. Start to finish, the entire operation took less than thirty seconds.

*  *  *
 Elsewhere in deep space, another starship was dropping out of the safety of foldspace, back into realtime.

 Sojourn had left the conquered Decepticon world in the capable hands of the mop-up ships, and spent several days making randomly oriented flights through foldspace, as a precaution against pursuit or tracking. It was largely a formality; no-one really expected them to be followed. But a guerrilla force like the Autobots could not afford to take chances, particularly in the midst of Decepticon-held space; that rule went double for a solo ship like Sojourn.

 Somewhere along Sojourn's path, the crew had communicated briefly with one of the Autobots' fleets; the distant fleet's answer was a single pulse of coded information. The decoded transmission yielded nothing more than a set of coordinates in deep space, a location they'd just arrived at.

 "All stop," Lexius ordered, as the stars solidified outside the viewports.  "Begin scan sequence.  Tractor beams stand prepared."

 "All stop," helmsman Focus said, his deft touch bringing the giant ship to a halt.

 "Initiating scan," Tuner reported from the sensor station.  It took only seconds.  "Infobit on screen, off the upper port stern.  Vector seven-three."  Nearby, com officer Pixel relayed the coordinates to the appropriate tractor beam crew.

 "Ready course to fold space," Lexius ordered.

 "Course plotted and laid in.  We're ready when you are, chief," Beacon called from the navigation console.

 The crew watched on sensors as the tiny information canister was dragged into the ship.  "One 'bit, one planet," Treadmark mumbled to himself the joking slogan that had been their mantra for the last few months.  He made it sound far more serious than most of those on the ship did.

 "What's that?" Lexius asked.

 "Hmm, nothing," Treadmark said quietly, turning back to the auxillery station he was manning.

 "We have it," Pixel reported.

 "Focus, do your thing," Lexius ordered.  The ship lurched and blasted its way back into fold space, less than two minutes after it had arrived.  "C'mon, let's have a look," Lexius gestured to Treadmark.  The two Autobots left the bridge together, heading for the tractor beam station that had hauled in the infobit.

 "Now then, what'd you say?" Lexius asked with a grin, as they strolled down the corridors.

 "One 'bit, one planet," Treadmark repeated.  "I was just thinking about that.  It seems awfully callous.  So many lives at stake, and only this tiny information canister to judge it all by."

 "That's war," Lexius said.

 "Don't you see any kind of irony in it?  It's sad, really.  Think of how many beings will die because of this miniscule canister we've just picked up."

 "I'd be more worried about it if they weren't Decepticons.  But the fact is they knew the score when they signed up.  So sorry if we make 'em take the same stuff they dish out all the time."

 Treadmark knew that was where his commander stood, but it still harsh to hear it aloud.  "Lexius... We never know for sure that all the casualties we inflict are military.  The very least we can do is have some compassion for those who are merely caught in the crossfire."

 They reached their destination, one of the ship's tractor beam stations.  The system's chief extended a hand towards Lexius.

 "Here ya go, boss," he said, dropping a silver capsule into Lexius's palm.

 "Thanks, guys, nice work," Lexius accepted the infobit, then walked off with Treadmark.

 "Where were we?"

 "I said, we should at least feel some compassion for --"

 "Right, compassion," Lexius said.  "Compassion's well and good, but it isn't gonna win a battle, I'm afraid."

 "That is not the point."

 "It is to me.  Anyway, the quicker we win the war, the more neutrals'll be safe, so I figure it's worth a bit of sacrifice."

 Treadmark didn't answer that.

 They previewed the data on the infobit in Lexius's quarters; then Lexius summoned all the ship's commanders to the conference room by the bridge.  There actually wasn't much to say; they had done this dozens of times now.  The attacks were becoming a routine.

 "It's a manufacturing planet, with several very big factories," Lexius said, as he pulled up schematics and maps from the infobit. "There's only a light military presence, and lots of neutrals, so focus your fire fields as much as possible," he added for the benefit of Camshaft, the ship's gunnery commander.

 "What do they manufacture?" head engineer Quickmix wondered.

 "Starship components, most of them related to the drives. Nothing that looks like it could be used against us," came the answer. "How are we for supplies and ammo?"

 "We used little in the last assault," answered Treadmark. "We won't soon run out of anything."

 "How's the ship doing?" Lexius's question was directed at Quickmix.

 "Not bad," Quickmix said. "I've had nothing to do but tinker for the past week. It can handle another battle." That, Lexius decided, was as close to "perfect" as he would ever hear from the ship's perpetually dissatisfied engineering chief.

 "What about the ground troops? They've been working hard lately."

 "Oh, they're rarin' to go," Rollbar enthused. "With all the butt-kickin' we've been doin' lately, they figure we can't lose." The other ground commanders nodded agreement with the sentiment, if not its exact phrasing.

 "Well then... We'll attack as soon as you all have your logistics worked out. Target info and ground unit assignments are already downloaded to your consoles. When we end our current fold we'll be less than a day away from the target planet, so you won't have to wait long. If there's no questions, I won't keep you from your jobs," Lexius concluded.

 The commanders reviewed the data briefly, asking a few questions; then a meeting on which hinged the fate of an entire planet ended after less than fifteen minutes. Eight of the ten Autobots present filed out of the room. First officer Starblast lingered, and indicated to Lexius to do likewise.

 "Lexius," Starblast began when the room emptied. He didn't bother with formality. He and Lexius were firmest of friends, ancient companions. They had been on dozens of campaigns together, survived hundreds of battles side-by-side. "How many planets are we going to strike before we end this mission? The Decepticons are not fools, at least not all of them. Sooner or later they are bound to discern our methods, and develop counteroffensive measures."

 "Believe me, I've been worried about that since the start of the mission. But our source is supposed to let us know if anything's going down against us,"  Lexius answered. "Though I don't know how he'd do it." He paused, gazing idly at the weird unreality of foldspace outside the veiwport. "Doesn't help that we don't know anything about the Decepticon military intelligence hierarchy. If they're efficient, they might've tracked down the leak already."

 "Precisely my point. If we continue to operate as we have, it is only a  matter of time before the Decepticons prepare some manner of trap for us."

 "I know, Starblast..." Lexius vocalized the equivalent of a sigh. "I know. Things can't keep on being as easy as they have been. On the other hand, what can they really do to this ship? Not much, even with the Decepticons' resources."

 "Our ground forces are quite vulnerable when deployed, Lexius. As for Sojourn, she is very strong, but hardly indestructible. Ship-to-ship combat is not what she was designed and commissioned for, nor what this crew was assembled for. We are custom-tailored for planetary assault, not deep-space warfare. It would not take a particularly brilliant military mind to conceive of an effective means of ambushing this ship."

 Lexius shifted his metallic bulk, grinned slightly. "Yeah, well... that's why we keep folks like you on board. To work around that kind of stuff."

 Beneath the humor, Starblast caught the hint: Lexius didn't care to discuss the matter further. Starblast took it as a dismissal for the moment, and exited silently. Lexius watched his old friend leave, then turned back to the viewports. He wondered if he was shrugging aside Starblast's concerns too quickly. True, he'd worried over the same thing - that repeatedly using the same attack strategy would get them into trouble - but their attacks were so swift, it hardly seemed a matter worthy of consideration.

 Hardly indestructable, he repeated the phrase. But, no, he had a war to fight. He trusted their source. He had to, if the war was to be carried on. What alternative was there? War involved risk by its very nature, if it was to be won. And Lexius had no intention of losing to the Decepticons.

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On to Chapter 2