The Corrosion of War Without End

Chapter 1:
Data Quest

 A week had passed since the attack that had nearly destroyed the Autobot vessel Sojourn. The starship drifted in deep space, light-years from the nearest star system, powerless, unable to move, unable to communicate, most of her surviving crew forced into stasis by the dwindling power supply. A handful remained operative, laboring to complete what repairs were possible to the ship and their damaged comrades, while a small team worked to finish what was hoped to be their eventual salvation: transferring the remains of Sojourn's fold engines to the gunship Perigee. 
 "I can't believe this actually might work," Lexius commented to Treadmark and Starblast, as they took a short break from the frenzied work that occupied the ship's crew.

 "Why not?  Flexibility is the purpose of modular engine design," Starblast said.  Though the engines were designed to move a starship that was over half a mile long, and many times the size of the Perigee, a single module would fit within the engine space of the gunship, and would be enough to propel it in and out of foldspace. That was fortunate, since one module was all they'd been able salvage from Sojourn. If it worked, they would have a means of interstellar travel, and could summon help. 

 "Yeah.  Lucky break for me," Lexius muttered, staring at the floor.

 "You still feel guilty over the attack," Treadmark observed.

 "Of course I feel guilty!  It shouldn't have even happened in the first place!"

 "'Should' is a highly subjective term, Lexius," Starblast said.

 "You're too hard on yourself," Treadmark agreed.  "You couldn't possibly have --"

 "The warning signs were there.  I just didn't see them.  Or worse, I chose to ignore them."

 "You did not ignore them, though.  You were on the verge of pulling us out of the mission," Starblast said.

 "But I didn't do it.  I didn't pull us out.  I didn't demand better assignments.  I didn't learn enough about our information source to make a good call about it.  I didn't react fast enough during the fight."

 "I seem to recall that yours were the pivitol actions during the battle.  In retrospect, your judgements were thorougly sound."

 "Then how come we're stuck out here?"

 "We're not stuck," Treadmark said.  "You said it yourself -- we're going to get out of this."

 "Maybe, but... even if we do, the point is, I failed my crew.  Think about the new troops.  How are they going to take this?  Three battles, then it's off to the stasis chambers.  And no promise that there'll ever be a wake-up call."

 "The circumstances of the battle have been explained to them.  Surely they understand the reasoning behind your decisions."

 Treadmark turned to Starblast.  "It's not just logic and decisions, Starblast, there's trust, too.   Although," he turned back to Lexius,  "I don't think they're as upset with you as they think they are."

 "Huh.  May be, but if I were in their boots, I'd feel really let down  right now.  And maybe what's worse is, I violated our trust with Sojourn."

 "Sojourn understands the risks of combat as well as anyone.  You did everything that could be done under the circumstances, and she'll see that when she examines the tactical records."

 "Yeah, yeah... But, it's the same thing, like you just said!  She put her trust in us -- in me -- and I let her down.  I mean, the damage is so bad we can't even wake her up to tell her what's happened to her!"  Lexius shook his head.  "Primus, I just hope I get the chance to apologize to her."

 "You will.  Trust me.  And trust yourself more.  We're going to need all the wits we can muster to get out of this, yours most of all."

-  -  -
 The gunship Perigee was little more than a large, flying planetary assault weapon, almost a thousand feet long; most of that length consisted of the main gun's barrel.  The crew and engine space were a large flattened disk; the Perigee was shaped like nothing so much as a gigantic lolipop, or a cross with a circle in the middle.  The vessel was nearly ready for departure.

   "It'll take us about one hundred light years," Quickmix said, gazing at his handiwork, the spliced-together fold engine now housed in Perigee. The ship's officers clustered around him in the gunship's cramped engine room. "Beyond that, it'll probably need some replacement parts, superconductors and so forth." 
 "One hundred light years is still Decepticon territory any way we go," Starblast said. 

 "Yeah," Lexius agreed, "but it gives us a lot of resources."

 "Have you decided on a crew yet?" Quickmix asked Lexius.

 "Mm hmm," Lexius said.  He faced the group around him.  "Starblast, Treadmark, and I will be in charge of the mission.  Quickmix, you're coming too, to keep the ship running.  Sidetrack, I want you, so Treadmark won't be the only one with a lot of experience piloting the Perigee.  Bring along a couple of your troops for extra firepower.  Lash would be good, and one other besides."

 "Gotcha.  Lash, and one other... hmmm, whooooo would that be," Sidetrack smiled to himself knowingly, the decision already made.

 "Seven total," Treadmark said.  "Are you sure it's wise to go with such a small crew?" Treadmark asked.

 "I'm pretty sure that it's dumb.  But we don't really have room for anybody else," Lexius answered wryly.  "Head on down to storage and pull a hoversled for yourself, Sidetrack, Lash, and whoever else we take."  He turned to Grotusque next.  "You're the boss till we get back." 

 "Top notch!  Am I authorized to throw a ship-wide party?"

 Lexius grinned.  "You're authorized to finish whatever repairs you can, and get yourselves into stasis ASAP.  Leave a couple of crewers standing by in the Apogee, just in case."

 "Got it.  Ship-wide party as soon as you guys leave, and when you come back, act like we've been in stasis the whole time."

 "Glad you understand."  Lexius didn't feel the need to elaborate; he trusted Grotusque implicitly, despite his flippant attitude.  "Oh, and set yourselves to come on-line if the ship is boarded."  Though that probably just means an attacking force will destroy the ship instead of trying to capture it, he thought grimly.

 The Perigee launched a few hours later, arcing away from the ship and around its front.  Lexius tried not to look at the damage to his vessel, the huge gash along the lower side of the ship, the smaller hole ripped through the upper decks. He didn't want to look, didn't want to be reminded. Then they were  past, and the stars came undone as the gunship went into foldspace.  Lexius turned his mind to the future, to undoing his mistakes.

 As he had surmised, they had many resources at their disposal. They had to learn what those resources were, though. And so the seven Autobots were on their way to what they hoped was a low-security star system. 

*  *  *
 Phalanx and Counterpunch were rarely easy in each other's company.  Counterpunch found Phalanx to be too open; Phalanx regarded Counterpunch as far too guarded.  But Phalanx insisted that this was a special occasion, a cause for some celebration. Counterpunch wondered what news the military liaison had for him. Punch didn't imagine it could be good. 
 The two strolled into a lounge area on the warship that Phalanx called home.  An autoserver produced two high-concentration energon cubes at Phalanx's command, and the two robots sat down before the lounge's panoramic window. They had a sweeping view of the quadruple star system the fleet was orbiting. The fleet, the same one which dispatched the three standard warships Sojourn had faced, was on a swing through the outer reaches of Decepticon territory when Counterpunch rendezvoused with it, shortly after his failed attempt to intercept and warn the Autobots.

  Counterpunch ran a small feeder tube from his wrist into the cube, relishing the flow of fuel into his systems. He sat back. "To business. I know you were planning something; the clones have stopped sending out the false data drops. Tell me what's happened." The information had more personal importance to Counterpunch than Phalanx could ever know. 

 "The news is not entirely good... but you'll be pleased to know your objective of the last several months seems to have been accomplished."  Phalanx completely misread the anxious look which crossed his companion's features; he could not possibly have guessed at its true meaning. "One week ago we sent four ships after the Autobot starship responsible for the attacks." 

 "Only four?"
 "Numbers are not everything in this sort of affair... What matters more is that these ships were prepared to deal with the Autobots." 

 "How so?"

 "Thanks to your information on the ship's hull structure, our researchers came up with a method to alter it - specifically to temporarily undo its molecular structure. Three of the ships were modified to act as molecular phase shifters; the fourth was a special high-firepower prototype from the Cybertronian empire."  

 Punch was aghast. He'd not heard a thing about any hull data; the clones must have skipped past him.  That would explain how they'd moved so much faster than he had expected. He'd not even had the chance to warn the Autobots. "And their success?" Counterpunch asked, trying hard to sound disinterested. Punch filed the "special prototype" bit away for future investigation. 

 "Hnn. Mixed, I'm afraid. None of our ships returned from their mission. But, we have word... through our 'data link' with the Autobots... that the ship has disappeared." 

 "Can't you find any wreckage? Don't you know where your own ships went?" Punch knew, of course. He'd been to the site. But he wasn't about to reveal that.

 "No," Phalanx said, some embarrassment evident in his voice. "The coordinates for the ambush were part of a hard-copied data package we passed straight on to the ship commanders, without looking at it ourselves.  Time was of the essence... and, anyway, I've learned that starship captains generally work better when they don't feel like the higher-ups are staring over their shoulders. In this case... it seems to have backfired." 

 "Contact the clones.  The package originated with them; they should have a copy of the information."

 "Thanks, but we already tried that.  They say their systems suffered a massive crash a day after they sent the package, and it was erased.  Neither of them recalled the coordinates that were given; they were simply  picked off of a pre-selected list of thousands of such sites and downloaded without even being looked at."
 "Another phantom ship debacle. Congratulations," Counterpunch sneered.  Punch was relieved to know that an innocuous microbug he'd planted long ago, and activated recently, had done its work.  The Autobot half of his mind turned to other matters, working furiously.  Four ships missing, he thought, trying to sort out what had happened. The debris I saw wasn't enough for four ships.
 "Phantom ship...? You mentioned that at the start of this whole affair, didn't you? You never did explain what it was," Phalanx said. 

 Counterpunch grimaced, deciding that now was as good a time as any to indulge Phalanx's curiosity. It would give him a few moments to think. There was a battle at that site; several ships were destroyed, but not all of them, Punch continued to put pieces together. 

 "This all happened about 200 vorns ago," Counterpunch began. "Our deep space fleets, and many of our planetary bases, simply started disappearing. When we got to the last position of one of the missing fleets, there was nothing left but debris. We lost hundreds of ships, and control of twenty-four star systems, before we even knew anything was happening." 

 The battle must have continued somewhere else, because none of those ships returned, Punch thought.

 "The Autobots had constructed an enormous starship, with armament to match. It would drop out of warp -- we were still using warp drives back then.  It would drop out of warp on top of our fleets, and take out multiple targets with single shots -- pretty much what we just dealt with. Before anyone could react, there was no-one left to react. We didn't know this, of course. All we knew is that we were finding craters where our bases had been, debris clouds instead of fleets."

 So there's a fight, some of the ships are destroyed, and the Autobots flee.

 "Dealing with it was a catastrophe. It was decided to double the size of the fleets, on the reasoning that at least a few ships would escape one of the attacks and report back. That was only one of several recommendations I made, and one I strongly advised against. My immediate superiors at the time, however, were not prone to taking advice. They always favored brute force over subtlety."

 But the fight must have resumed, because none of our ships came back. So our ships must have tracked the Autobots somehow. The Autobots must not have gone far before defolding again, or else they couldn't have been tracked.

 Counterpunch almost seemed to smile through his mouthless faceplate. "Eventually they were executed for incompetence. But...  After losing two more fleets, we managed to get a tracer on the Autobot ship. Over two dozen warships were sent to pursue it. None of them returned. But neither," Counterpunch finished with a look of satisfaction, "did the Autobots."

 If they didn't go far from the battle sight, I could have found them! If I'd just gone to active scanning!

 Phalanx stared, aghast that such incompetence could exist in the chain of command, worried that it still existed today. "I don't understand -- do our commanders know nothing of the past? Is no-one from that time left in charge?" he wondered. The exasperation he felt was quite evident in his voice. Counterpunch felt a slight twinge of sympathy for the robot. Vastly more intelligent than those he served under, he was nevertheless in a subordinate position due to his relative youth. 

 There were leaders left from the days of the phantom ship incident, but they were mostly imbeciles.  Punch had killed off the smart ones, the few who implemented the plan that had destroyed the phantom ship.  That done, he had tried - too late - to warn the Autobots.  But at least no-one left alive except him had any idea what had really happened to the ship. It was all he'd been able to do for the Autobots on board the vessel. 

 I've failed again, Punch thought. This time, he would probably never even learn how many Autobots had died because of his failure, or if any had survived. His only comfort was that in his failure, he hadn't pointed the finger for the information leak at himself. His position was still secure... assuming the clones didn't track him down as the source of the leak. 

 That was still a possibility, he realized. The clones had taken up the job of tracking the leak as a personal mission, but he didn't think his trail was traceable. He was no longer transmitting data drops; the destruction of the Autobot ship seemed sufficient excuse to stop -- surely any Autobot agent would have learned of it, one way or another.  He knew he had not left enough of a trail for the clones to follow.  The bug in the clones' computer system was foolproof and could not be traced; indeed, as things stood, only the most random of chances could really lead them back to him as the leak -- a variable no spy could ever fully eliminate.

  With all that in mind, he still had a choice to make: should he risk another trip to the drop site, to scan and try to find the missing Autobot ship? 

*  *  *
 Perigee defolded on the outermost limits of the Fiiry system. Treadmark, at the helm, cut all power to a minimum as they scanned over the situation. From passive sensors they could see a number of ships orbiting the system's three inhabited planets. 
 "The fourth world looks like the big one," Treadmark read off the  console.  "The other two look more like outposts, lightly populated." 
 "The outposts would probably be easier to hit. Will they have what we need?" Lexius wondered. 

 "We cannot assume the outposts will be less secure," Starblast said.  "It is possible they possess higher security standards, for any of a number reasons. Research, detention, intelligence..." 
 "But what are the odds?" Treadmark asked. "More than likely they're mining colonies. Sounds much easier." 
 "And if they're mines, they probably won't have complete data files,"  Lexius countered. 

 Sidetrack sighed, slouched in a chair much too big for his eight-foot height. "Jeez, why not just try another system, where there's only one planet and we don't have to choose?"'
 "And then we'd be hitting the main planet anyway," Lexius said with a slight grin. "Alright, we'll go with the main planet." 

*  *  *
 The latest interrogation session was going quite satisfactorily, Pounce thought. The prisoner - one of the couriers who'd carried data from the source on its way to the Autobots - was missing a couple of limbs from Beastbox's thrashings, but he could still talk, and was doing so quite readily. Pounce and Wingspan now had a time and date for every one of the data transmissions the leak had beamed out. Those transmissions had eventually become the data drops which the Autobot ship had picked up in deep space, and used to launch its attacks. Soon they would begin cross-checking the timing and the information of the drops with various other data from the last few months. With time and luck, they stood a fair chance of locating the leak. 

 Pounce smiled with pleasure at the agonies he would inflict on that  unfortunate being. 

*  *  *
 "How long are we going to sit here and watch the ground-pounders pack up?" Syntho asked, clearly aggravated with boredom.  Her twin, Syncro, nodded silent agreement with the sentiment. 

 There were seven of them; their leader, to whom the question was directed, was known as Proto, and their group name was the Quanticons.

 Who comes up with these ridiculous team names? Iso wondered. Virtually every combiner team she'd heard of had some sort of -con name, and there seemed no limit to the creativity of the programmers who designated the groups. Her own group consisted of seven robots who all transformed to spacecraft forms; combined, the team became capable of faster-than-light speeds. When they'd been created, "Astrocons", "Cosmicons", "Stellicons", and even "Ethercons" had already been taken. For some reason "Aerialcons" had been ruled out. Whatever the case, their current assignment had them nowhere near the cosmos, or even the air, and it was beginning to grate on their sensors. 

 "Our guard duty here continues until the base is completely closed up," Proto answered flatly, seemingly missing his compatriots' ire. Proto was just like that, never reacting to others' emotions, and never really showing any of his own, even in the heat of battle. It made for a good tactician and strategist, though not much of an inspiring leader. Iso wondered if he even cared that they'd been pulled off of their normal orbital duties to supervise the closing of a military base on the surface.
  The base's forces, like many these days, were being recalled to the heart of the Empire, to fight off the increasingly strong Autobot threat there.  With the return of the older-generation Decepticons to prominence under Megatron's leadership, the Cybertronian empire was splitting down the middle, as the loyalties of its armies wavered one way or the other.  Iso could see things building to a massive conflict, far greater than the skirmishes that arose when Megatron's forces first resurfaced a few years back.  For the moment, however, the split left openings in the empire's defenses that the Autobots were deftly exploiting.
  Iso supported the old-style Decepticons; she found them to posess a fire that was distinctly lacking in the typical Cybertronian rank and file.  She would gladly have lead the team on a defection to Megatron's army if she were in charge.  But Proto was a loyalist, doggedly devoted to the heirarchy of the Leiges.  So they were stuck here, in the middle of nowhere.

 The Fiiry system was enough of a backwater that Iso couldn't imagine the Autobots bothering with it any time soon. It was a trading center, but a trading center for a very thinly populated region of the cosmos.  Even the two mining worlds didn't produce all that great of a yield. Overall, in Iso's opinion, it was the butt end of the Empire, and she was bothered that a specialized team like the Quanticons was stuck guarding it. Well, maybe we'll get to pack out ourselves before long, she thought. Because it sure doesn't look like there'll be any action around here anytime soon.

-  -  -
 Starblast and Lexius flew across the surface of the Fiiry system's primary world, skimming low. They'd gone to great lengths to get here undetected, coasting for hours from the outer limits of the system, then hiding on the hull of an incoming ship. Now they'd flown overland for several hours, finally approaching a major city. 

  The two Autobots fell into the traffic lane patterns, as the sky around them became thick with other craft: Seekers, hoversleds, small transports, the occasional flying creature, and the ubiquitous green, white, and grey clone-warriors whose presence marked this as a Cybertronian-held world. Lexius found it odd to be in the midst of so many Decepticons and not be firing on any of them. We are supposed to be one race, he thought. Aren't we? We don't look particularly different from one another. The differences are internal, mental and emotional. He dropped the train of thought. Transformer theologians had been debating such issues for millennia: Were the Autobots and Decepticon separate races, or subdivisions of the same race? Had Primus really created them all? Was there a "Primus" at all? Lexius found only passing interest in such questions; he was more concerned with his race's future than its past. 
 They eventually dropped out of the sky, landing and transforming, and strode out into a street as busy as the skyways above them. 

 "A rather cosmopolitan outpost for being so far from the galactic hub," Starblast commented. Fiiry was a hub for the Cybertronian empire's outer fringes -- small, but large for its location. 
 Lexius looked at the chaos around them, and wondered aloud where they were going to find what they were here for: information. The place wasn't exactly tourist-friendly, even though there were a surprising number of organics doing business on the world.  Though the official Cybertronian policy was that non-Transformer life was unfit to exist, official policy was often bent when organics had something to offer the empire, especially out on the frontier.

 We would've atomized this place from space, Lexius thought.  We'd never leave a population center this big intact. Surely we were never sent after a place with this many organics... 
 "I think a covert attempt at pulling a data dump may be our best  chance. We are less likely to incur unwanted suspicion,"  Starblast said, bringing Lexius back to the problem at hand.
 "Right. So let's get off the main streets," he replied.

-  -  -
 They crouched in a tunnel entranceway, which had numerous conduits following its path. They'd located it near the city's industrial sector.  Starblast had carefully removed some wiring covers, and was reading the data transmissions flowing through the wires. He was motionless for several minutes, his mind focused on searching for useful information.  Lexius waited impatiently. Finally his companion stirred. 
 "We may obtain remote access to a central data bank at a military base  near here," he reported. 

 "A military base?! Starblast, that's the last place I want to go on  this planet," Lexius said. 

 "Your concern is misplaced. The location in question is sparsely inhabited, a reserve of some sort. There is a server connection, at a storage depot on the outer fringes of the base.  Infiltration should not be problematic." 

 "That's the best you could get?" 

 "Correct. All other servers that I could locate were considerably more secure." 
 "Guess that's it, then. Let's not waste time."

-  -  -
 They flew out far from the city, peeling off from the traffic lanes after a while. Lexius felt relieved to be away from all those 'cons. They circumnavigated the military instillation, which was far from the nearest population center, and flew in as Guardians, hovering only a few feet above the ground, moving among the vegetation to maintain some cover. The base's perimeter was marked by an energy fence, which they easily flew over after scanning for detection devices.

 Only a moment later they arrived at a small building, which was surrounded by bunkers and storage sheds. A single robot came out, bearing a nasty-looking rifle, aiming for them. Lexius didn't waste time with questions, but simply launched four missiles into the Decepticon. He went down without a word, without firing a shot. And hopefully without sending any transmissions, Lexius thought, as they put down by the robot's immobile form. 

-  -  -
 Exo stopped in mid-step, pausing. "Proto," he called. "I just received what sounded like part of an alert signal. The signal seems to have been cut off." The communications robot replayed the signal for his teammates.  

 "An alert, indeed. You have the coordinates from which it originated?" Proto asked. 

 "Yes. On the far end of the base, out by the bulk storage facility."

 "Let us investigate, then. Quanticons, transform." 

-  -  -
 Inside the small guard shack, Starblast stood immobile, plugged into the computer console, downloading data. Lexius anxiously waited beside him, unable to aid or speed up the process. A tone sounded; at the signal, Lexius pulled a full data card out of the computer, and inserted another. Waiting. He hated waiting. It made him edgy and nervous, left him feeling vulnerable, chained down. Another tone. He inserted another data card, and wondered how much longer this would take. He waited, scanning the horizon, reaching out with all his sensors ---
 There, just over the horizon. Several air vehicles, flying low, and closing very fast. They were coming straight for them. He switched data cards again, silently pleading that this would be the last one. 

-  -  -
 Exo got no response from the guard that was supposed to be on duty, as the seven Decepticons closed in on the source of the transmission. His sensors revealed something else, though. "Commander, we have just been scanned, from the guard housing," he announced. 
  Proto, as always, was in a no-nonsense mood. "Iso, destroy the source of the probe." 

  The sleekest ship of the group, and best designed for atmospheric flight, Iso was in the lead. She grinned to herself, and charged up her twin firebomb launchers. She dearly loved a good explosion, particularly if an enemy was in the middle of it. 

-  -  -
 Lexius looked around, assessing their tactical situation. Earthen mounds were scattered here and there, in addition to various small buildings, storage bunkers and the like. Plenty of cover for both sides. Perfect for stalling them long enough for even more 'cons to arrive. 

 Starblast abruptly came to, disengaging from the computer and taking the data cards up. "We should depart immedi--" 

 His words were cut short as a fireball engulfed the building. 

-  -  -   
 Iso flew so close to the conflagration her weapons had started that she singed her wingtips.  Pleased with the results of her attack, she swung around for another pass, as several of the Quanticons transformed and landed. They were firing on two robots who'd survived the explosions, she saw. A drab-green one, and a grey one with blue trim. The two were crouched behind some dirt mounds, and were unleashing a furious assault on her teammates. The green one shifted into some kind of tank form and, in a single blast, destroyed the barricade behind which Proto, Exo, and Synchro were sheltered, flinging them through the air. She targeted the green one and was about to flame him, when his grey companion whirled and fired, his chain gun ripping through her wings and destroying one of her launchers. Iso spiraled out of control, and barely managed to land without a severe crash. 

 Proto observed his teammate's landing, and understood that his opponents were formidable though few in number. He decided to end it, quickly and definitively. 

 "Quanticons, combine." 

-  -  -
 Lexius counted seven of them, total. They had good cover, but Lexius's Gladiator mode, a bent-over-backwards configuration which allowed him simultaneous access to all his weapons, was making quick work of that. He was beginning to think they might escape after all, when the seven drew together, shifting, folding, merging into a seventy-foot colossus. 

 Lexius grimaced. He'd not considered the possibility of this being a gestalt team. They were rare in the central regions of the Decepticon empire, where cannon-fodder troops were easy to find. Here on  the fringes, where brute force by numbers was hard to come by, gestalts  were fairly common.

 The gestalt strode forward without a word, ignoring the full force of Lexius's firepower, and reached out to crush them with a single enormous fist. Lexius frantically reverted to his robot form and leapt between the giant's feet, as its fist pounded the spot where he'd stood. Starblast launched off in another direction, firing, searching for a weak spot. His slugs bounced away in a harmless show of sparks. 
 This is hopeless, Lexius realized, as more of his shots bounced off the superwarrior's back. We're just going to have to run for it. The monster turned towards him, ignoring the airborne Starblast. Lexius decided airborne was the way to go, and shot off into the sky, narrowly avoiding being swatted to the ground as he launched. "Starblast! Let's go!" he ordered. But with a flash, the gestalt materialized a large cannon from subspace, and fired. 

 The pain sensors in a Transformer serve much the same purpose as the nerves in an organic do; they are the body's way of alerting the mind that something is wrong. If the pain is too great, systems shut down as auto-repair systems take over; in extreme cases, unconsciousness results. In Lexius's case, the pain that resulted as the gestalt's shots ripped into his lower leg was not enough to make him black out, but the random feedbacks from severed sensor wires and the loose electricity from damaged power conduits made the world go white for him. The abrupt disruption of his systems caused an involuntarily reaction from his vocal apparatus: he screamed. The thruster in his lower leg, its link with both his mind and its power supply abruptly severed, simply shut down. With this loss of support, and the momentary disorientation of his pain, Lexius quickly lost his balance and plummeted towards the ground. 

-  -  -
 Quanticus was so lacking in emotion that it was beyond him to be pleased or displeased with how the battle was going. He was simply aware that there were two robots to be destroyed, and that this task had not yet been accomplished. As a septacombiner, he would normally suffer from the severe mental impediments that often resulted when seven disparate minds were forcibly melded into one. His design canceled out that problem, however, by simply ignoring the input from four of his component robots, the ones that formed the limbs. Only the torso members of the team -- Iso, Proto, and Nucleo -- had input into what the combined team would do.  The other four hated it, but accepted it as a necessity of war.

 At the moment, Iso noted, it didn't seem to be doing much good: even the improved reflexes of the gestalt hadn't enabled them to destroy the two annoying Autobots. That's about to change, Nucleo thought back, as their minds received the input of the falling green robot. The Autobot managed to right himself, and even slow his fall with his undamaged leg, but he still hit the ground hard, his movements slow and confused as he struggled to his feet. Quanticus noted this, and dispassionately strode forward to dispatch the injured foe. 

-  -  -
 Lexius could feel the ground shake with each step the gestalt took, as he struggled groggily to his feet, determined to go down fighting. But Starblast was there suddenly, hovering directly before the Decepticon's featureless face, firing point-blank into his optic visor as Lexius regained his feet and hobbled off. The distraction worked; the gestalt swatted at Starblast, but he was far too quick for the giant, zipping around to the robot's backside and firing again. 
 "Starblast, get out of here, you have the data. Go!" Lexius shouted, as he frantically sent mental directives out to shut down the area around his wound. The severed connections and short circuits were causing flashes of light and static to appear before his optics; he felt dizzy as the feedback malfunctions interfered with his inertia systems. 
 "I decline the order" -- Starblast fired again, and thrust himself in another direction -- "since I have already sent for back-up." 

-  -  -
 Treadmark gazed impatiently out the viewport into space, waiting. Beside him, at the sensor console, Sidetrack switched from one form of passive scanning to another, to keep busy, though nothing of interest showed up in any form. Quickmix was fiddling with something in Perigee's engines, oblivious to the tension in the control cabin. Spoilsport was asleep somewhere. Sureshot and Lash sat, both drumming their fingers, both bored senseless.

 They were drifting idly on the outer fringes of the Fiiry system, with little to do except wait for Lexius and Starblast to return or signal for pick-up. It was bad enough when the ship got blown up, Sureshot thought. He'd been relaxing in his quarters, a modest affair shared with three other warriors, when the assault had happened. There'd been no warning, just a red alert from out of the ether, and then all hell had broken loose. He and his roommates had found themselves thrown violently across the room several times, and then the power had given out. They'd been left floating in their darkened room. Eventually someone came down and told them to report to the ship's stasis chambers. At the last minute, though, Sidetrack had ordered him onto this mission. This mission, he thought, wins the prize: the queen-mother of all wash-outs of missions.
 Treadmark finally spoke up. "They've taken too long. They couldn't be having this much trouble pulling the dump; I'd wager that they're IN trouble." 
 "They would have signaled if they were in trouble," Sidetrack said, patiently, not looking up from his sensor display. Sureshot looked up, anxious for an argument between the two officers, anything to break the monotony of nothingness. 

 "It's conceivable they were unable to signal. What if they're captured?" 
 "They'd still manage to signal, I'd wager. Lexius or Starblast would find a way." 

 "Not necessarily. What if the transmitter were destroyed?" Treadmark  said.

 "And then what are we going to do? Without the transmitter we haven't  got any way of finding them."

 Treadmark didn't answer, seeming accept the logic of Sidetrack's argument.  After all, the transmitter - Starblast's - was locked into sub-space, which was about as safe as anything could get. Sureshot was disappointed that Treadmark was settling in to stare out at the stars  again. But just then a signal came from the com panel. 

 "That's the pick-up signal... they are in trouble," Treadmark said, his voice tense. He was too worried to bother with 'I told you so.' Sureshot had to restrain himself from expressing pleasure at the thought of some action, though from Lash's countenance he could tell she felt the same excitement. 

 Perigee powered up its engines and thrust itself forward.

-  -  -
 "Dammit, Starblast! You're going to get us both killed!" Lexius shouted angrily. Though his left leg was non-functional below the knee, he'd nearly made it to some cover, a row of buildings that had been demolished by stray shots from the fight. Behind him, Starblast was keeping the septacombiner distracted by a constant barrage of hit-and-run attacks from all sides. More Decepticons were sure to arrive before long;  they might hold their own against this single combiner team for a while, but with reinforcements joining the fight there'd be no escape.  Lexius dove behind a ruined building front, though he didn't expect it to do much good against the combiner's weapon.

 "I expect we may hold out long enough for our companions to arrive and enable us both to escape," Starblast sent to him, as he continued his aerial dance around the gestalt. "Additionally, you are my comrade-in-arms, and as a point of honor I would find it distasteful to abandon you in the field." 
 Only him, Lexius thought, with a mix of warmth and exhasparation. He was trying to think how he could assist his friend without drawing fatal attention to himself, when a trio of jets soared into the field, firing. Starblast evaded, but let his guard down in doing so; the gestalt nearly caught him in one giant hand. 
 Lexius steeled himself. Here's my big chance to help out! He fired on one of the jets, punching holes in its wing. Almost immediately the three flyers turned to strafe his position.  Lexius's barricades stopped their shots, but were virtually destroyed in doing so. They wouldn't do any good against a second run, he realized, as the jets swung around to hit him again. 

 A sudden stream of lasers from above scattered the three Decepticon flyers. Lexius looked up in surprise, to see Sureshot, riding a hoversled, blast one of the 'cons in the engines. The damaged Decepticon glided to a crash landing; Lexius followed up Sureshot's attack, ensuring that the Seeker didn't rise again. Over his head, Treadmark and Lash also soared into the battle zone on hoversleds. 

 Treadmark aimed his three missile launchers at the gestalt and fired, the blasts hitting it broadside across the back. The giant reeled under the unexpected force of the explosion, the force-fields between its components briefly flashing in the visible. Guess all of Starblast's hits did some good after all, Lexius thought. He decided to take a chance and, in Gladiator form, fired several times on the thing, full force, synchronizing the blasts with Lash and Treamark -- sure enough, the fields dissolved, and the combiner split apart. The seven Decepticons tumbled to the ground in confusion. Lash put down and transformed, her tri-cannon taking out one of the gestalt robots in a single shot, before he could regain his feet. The others scattered; some transformed to aircraft and took to the sky, only to be greeted by slugs from Starblast's cannon or pinpoint blasts from Sureshot. 

 Lexius hobbled over to where Lash was unleashing a merciless assault on the grounded gestalt robots; she transformed to her bulky robot mode as he approached, and helped him onto her hoversled. Covered by Treadmark, they lifted off. Starblast kept the remaining Decepticon flyers busy as the three sleds cleared out, then turned himself and shot towards space at top speed. 

-  -  -
 Iso watched angrily as the Autobots disapeared into the blue -- All of them! she realized -- and waited for an order to pursue. With Exo down, they couldn't recombine, but the others could still give chase. But Proto simply stood there, unruffled, not even bothered by the fact that their gestalt form had just been beaten, nor by the severe damage Exo had taken. He simply looked around briefly, and made a short transmission to the ships overhead, notifying them of incoming hostiles. Iso fumed as she and Endo did their best to patch up Exo; there was nothing else she could do.  Under the Cybertronian rankings, combiner group leadership was fixed and immutable, and she was not the leader.

 But who says we're staying under the Cybertronians forever? she thought, fixing Proto with a venemous stare. 

-  -  -
 Sidetrack and Quickmix guided the Perigee through an obstacle course of ships, most of which -- fortunately -- were unarmed. Behind them, three mid-sized battleships were doing their best to pound them into oblivion. The Autobots' main advantage was that Perigee's hull was nearly as tough as that of Sojourn, that is, virtually impenetrable. However, their main weapon only pointed forwards, so they could not eliminate threats from behind.  A horde of ships had attacked them as soon as they'd approached the planet; the three hoversleds had barely been able to launch. Since dropping off Treadmark's team, they had made a near-complete orbit of the planet, fighting the whole way.

 Sidetrack brought the gunship under an unarmed transport, as Quickmix fired their main weapon at a gunboat on the other side. The blast cut the enemy warship in half, the rear part exploding and peppering the front half with shrapnel. Perigee soared straight through the fireball and gained some distance on its pursuers, as they altered course to avoid the conflagration. 

 "Nice timing, we're almost to the pick-up point," Sidetrack said. He was impressed with Quickmix's combat prowess; he'd always thought of the engineer as strictly an academic type. Apparently he'd seen a fair bit of action somewhere. Quickmix turned to the sensors, looking for their companions. 

 "I have them," he reported calmly. "Head for two nine seven dash six." 

 "Roger." Sidetrack gritted. "This isn't going to be easy..." 
 The gunship dove into the planet's upper atmosphere, toward an intercept. Above them, the cruiser began firing into the atmosphere, trying to pick off Lexius's group. Starblast and the three sleds juked and swerved, trying not to present a stationary target. Sidetrack did his best to get the Perigee between the cruisers and his friends, offering the gunship as a shield. Perigee rocked under several direct hits, which were only slightly diminished by the thin atmosphere. 

 "There!" Quickmix pointed at four airborne specs, and opened the ship's ventral bay. The ship rocked again under another hit. Sidetrack struggled to stabilize the ship, as the hoversleds drew close. He finally got the ship back under control seconds before the sleds shot into the bay, braking thrusters blaring. Starblast followed a moment later, having delayed to stall several Seekers that had been pursuing them.

 "I am in," he called by radio, before he had even touched the deck. The bay door slid shut as Sidetrack punched in all of the ship's thrusters, heading for the freedom of space. The three cruisers converged in front of them, blocking their path. Perigee jolted suddenly. 
 "Gahh! What..." Sidetrack growled. The ship strained against his  commands. 

 "Tractor beam," Quickmix said, not even checking the scanners. "From  that one." He pointed to one of the cruisers. The ship was becoming very  large as they were drawn into it. 

 Sidetrack cut forward thrust and brought the ship left and right, to no avail. "I can't get us out of it!" 

 "Give me helm control," Quickmix ordered calmly. Sidetrack obeyed, switching the ships' controls to the engineer's side of the panel. Quickmix wasted no time in orienting the vessel directly towards their opponents. He punched the ship's thrusters back to full.

 "Have you lost your -- ahh!"

 Perigee accelerated towards the ship that was drawing it in. The ship's crew had only an instant to realize their error; then Perigee's main gun fired, destroying the tractor beam and a large portion of the vessel. Perigee raced through the explosion, rattling from the shock wave, then shot away into fold. 

On to Chapter 2