The Corrosion of War Without End
PART THREE

Chapter 2:
Intercept


 "There's been a disturbance on one of the Cybertronian frontier outposts,"  Squawkbox said.

 "So what?" Counterpunch replied lazily. 

 "So... it's in the same region that we sent the Autobot ship to. Where  it was last heard from," Squawkbox countered.

 As if that explained it all. "Again, what of it? What on Cybertron do you mean by a 'disturbance'?  Give me details, you imbecile," Counterpunch groused. He was annoyed that neither of the clones were available, that he had to speak with this lackey. 
 
 "Several Autobots pulled a data dump, then fought their way out of the system. The ship they were flying sounds a lot like one of the little gunships that the Autobots were using." 

 Had Sojourn survived? Punch was too cautious and cynical to be hopeful, but at least this news increased the possibility. Counterpunch leaned toward the screen. "Transmit everything you have on the incident directly to me. I will consider this matter alone." 

 "I can tell you all about it myself, there's no real reason to waste time encoding it, when I can just --" 
 
 "Shut up, and do as I order," Counterpunch snapped. He broke off the connection and sat back to await the transmission, his faceplate screwed up in distaste. He hated Squawkbox, but at least the dual robot suppressed the even more despicable qualities of his two component minds. He was thankful that Pounce had given the two cassettes standing orders to remain merged unless otherwise directed. Otherwise Counterpunch might have killed one or both of them by now. The pair offended the sensibilities of both  halves of his mind.
 
 The data came through after a moment; Counterpunch read through it quickly, anxiously, mentally comparing it to the reports Skyjack and a few others had brought them about Sojourn. The attackers' ship certainly sounded like one of Sojourn's gunships. So at least some of the ship's crew survived. But what about the rest of the ship? What can I do to aid them? Punch wondered. He had no idea what they needed, why they'd pulled the data dump. I owe them, though, he thought. His inaction had cost them... well, he didn't know what. A lot. All the more reason I must do something.

 He sighed. The logical starting place would be the ship itself, if it still existed. Everything he'd heard pointed to the conclusion that it did. To find it, he would now have to repeat taking a risk that was too dangerous to have been done even once. 
 
*  *  *
 Lexius half sat up from the deck, where Quickmix was doing his best to reconstruct his damaged leg. The damage was not too bad, mostly severed wires and nerve pathways, some fried servos, and a few destroyed components whose functions could be routed elsewhere, in addition to the armor which had been slagged. The blast had just missed the delicate knee joint, with its multiplicity of servos, gears, and impact absorbers.

 "You're lucky, for having tangled with a gestalt,"  Quickmix observed. 

 "Not lucky," Lexius groaned. His pain receptors were coming back on-line as Quickmix continued his work, and were complaining loudly. "I just have stubborn subordinates."
  
 Quickmix smiled and glanced at the stubborn subordinate in question, who was bent over a console, sorting through the data they'd pulled. Starblast didn't seem to have heard the comment. The information - vast amounts of it - was flowing directly into his mind; he rejected most of it as irrelevant or uninteresting. The remainder he downloaded to the Perigee's processors.  The procedure went on for a good hour or more; at last Starblast sat upright, disconnecting from the computer. 

 "We have a number of options available to us," he reported to Lexius.
 
 "Let's hear 'em." 

-  -  -
 "Kendrex system... mining, processing, orbital ore sorting," Sidetrack read. The seven Autobots were gathered around a screen, scrolling through the information Starblast had selected. "Lowest security level. That'd have lots of nice big ships lying around." 
 
 "You willing to bet we could get one out of there before someone blows it to pieces?" Lexius asked. He leaned carefully on his good leg; Quickmix had completed the repairs to the other one, but the circuitry needed time to self-mend. 

 "C'mon, it's a mining colony," Sureshot said. "How well armed are they gonna be?" 

 Good grief. "We almost didn't make it out of that last system!"  Lexius said. "That was supposed to be 'low security'."
 
 "Why bother with the subtle approach? Why not just take the Perigee in?  We could blow them to pieces," Sidetrack said.

 Lexius considered the idea; the others read on. "What's this about?"  Treadmark asked, pointing.

 "That. Ah. I kept that file, not because I thought it had direct relevance to our situation, but because it piqued my curiosity," Starblast answered. "Apparently a number of frontier science stations have been attacked recently. The Decepticons have kept a careful file on all intercepted transmissions related to the incidents. One wonders why. The obvious reason is that they are responsible for the incidents themselves." 
 
 "Why science stations? Most of them are just boxes floating in space,"  Lash wondered.

 "Decepticons attack for two reasons: to have some fun, or to steal resources," Lexius pointed out. 

 "The systematic nature of the attacks would seem to preclude the  former reason," Starblast said.

 "So what resources do the research stations have?" Sidetrack asked.

 "Very few," Starblast replied. "Some minor sensing and laboratory apparatus, a standard computer and com system, and a solar collection panel for power. Acquisition of the computer or panel, in fact, would seem the only viable motive for the attacks." 
 
 "Solar power panels... They're similar to the system we use to  recharge Sojourn, right?" Lexius asked.

 "Yes. We could modify them to fit our systems very easily,"  Quickmix said. 

 "Shouldn't we be concentrating on the job at hand?" Treadmark asked with the slightest hint of impatience. 

 "This could be the job at hand," Lexius answered. "Those stations can communicate on secure channels, and they're non-aligned. If it turned out we could save one of 'em from getting shot up by the 'cons, they might let us barrow their subspace com in return."
  
 "Wouldn't they do that anyway?" Sureshot asked.

 "This close to Decepticon territory, no," Lash answered. "They're non-aligned. Their survival depends on not drawing attention to themselves. Around here, you don't do that by helping out Autobots." 

 "So where's the nearest of these stations?" Sidetrack asked. "How are we going to track down the attackers?" 
 
 "I have discerned a roughly linear pattern, from the reports of the attacks.  I believe I can anticipate where they will strike next," Starblast answered. 

 "Let's do it," Lexius said. "We can think more about other options along the way. I don't like the idea of innocents getting shot up like that, and if we can get on a secure com, maybe we can contact some allies, get some help." 

 "How do we know we can handle these attackers? What if we're overmatched?"  Treadmark pointed out. Sidetrack laughed. 
 
 "You missed all the fun orbiting the planet," he said. "Anything they'd send after a little science station isn't likely to bother the Perigee." 

 "If you say so... I'm not sure I like this, though." 

  "Treadmark, if it looks like more than we can handle, I promise we'll pull out. Starblast, take navigation, you know where we're going.  Treadmark, get us there with all due speed." 

*  *  *
 Several hours later, the Perigee dropped out of fold space in a planetless triple star system, weapons at the ready, sensors probing for other vessels. A single reading came back.
  
 "That's the station's position... doesn't look good," Sidetrack called from the sensor display. 

 "Visuals?" Lexius asked.

 "Coming up..."

 An image formed on the cabin's main screen... A cloud of metal fragments drifted lazily about a small, burnt hulk. Lexius could vaguely discern the former shape of the science station, before it had been riddled with explosions and weaponsfire. "Too late..." he muttered. 

 Starblast looked up from the nav systems. "If they continue the  pattern I observed, the next strike will be at this star system," he said,  pointing to the nav readouts.
 
 "Get us there, quickly," Lexius ordered. Treadmark brought the ship  around to comply. Perigee sped away from the derelict science station. 

*  *  *
 "I can't believe it," Pounce muttered.

 "No denying it," Wingspan answered, simply. "I've checked every report from the survivors of the incident, even talked to some of them myself. It all points to the same conclusion. At least some of the Autobots survived." 

 "Tricurses," Pounce said, quietly. He'd wanted to be done with this business; bigger things called for his attention.  As Iso had observed, things were building to a head with the Cybertronian empire.

 Relations between the two armies had settled somewhat after the Autobot-Decepticon alliance had drifted apart, but lately, "encounters" between them were on the increase.  Pounce, Wingspan, Counterpunch, and Phalanx, like many others, worked with both forces, but held true allegiance to Megatron's generation of Decepticons.  But the Cybertronians still vastly outnumbered them; as many of them as possible had to be recruited to Megatron's side if the early generation Transformers were to have any hope of surviving the coming conflict.  Pounce had hoped the Autobots were out of the way for good.  But they had survived again, and had struck at the Cybertronians, claiming... 

 What? Why had they attacked? The ship's intentions hadn't seemed to have been any sort of reclamation of the planet; they'd simply orbited once, blown up a few ships, picked up some Autobots from the surface, and disappeared again. What was their purpose? 

 "They pulled a data dump?" Pounce asked.

 "That's right," his brother answered. 

 "Why all the effort for a data dump? They must have been desperate for information of some sort," Pounce said, thinking aloud. 

 "Perhaps the ship survived," Wingspan said, seeing where his brother's thoughts might be leading. 

 "And they need information to continue launching strikes against us?" 

 "Possible, but... no, they wouldn't be able to get that sort of information from Fiirey, even at a military base. No. They need it for something else." 

 "What?" 

 "I can't imagine," Wingspan said, shoulders slumping in defeat. He hated not knowing what was going on. That was why he had joined Intelligence in the first place, because, above all, he simply had to know what was happening. 

 "Another puzzle piece, and we have no idea how it fits in."

*  *  *
 For the third time, Perigee brazenly entered a new system, weapons at the ready. The raiders were moving quite swiftly;  they'd tracked down one station after another, only to find ruins. Lexius was beginning to question the wisdom of his decision to pursue the attackers; they were beginning to run down Perigee's limited engine capabilities. Scanners located the station; Sidetrack punched it up on the viewscreen. 

 They had arrived too late. Again.

 The box-shaped station, like the others, was holed and torn, large chunks floating free around it. No lights showed; only a stump remained of its massive solar fin, the remainder sheared off. 

 "No organic life readings... no mechanicals, either," Treadmark reported sadly, scanning the station. "You know, this is getting depressing." 

 "This was recent," Sidetrack called, excitement in his voice. "I got a post-fold energy wake on sensors. Pretty strong, too. They left here not long ago." 
 
 "Best speed to the next station," Lexius ordered, and the Perigee disappeared into foldspace.

*  *  *
 Shay-R'tok was bored out of her mind.

 The quadrapedal creature stared out the viewport on the tiny research station in the Deief system, watching matter being sucked from the blue giant star into its black hole companion. An endless stream of glowing blue plasma spiraled around and around the infinitely dark spot that was the black hole, disappearing forever as it crossed the event horizon, the point where space became so curved that even photons could not escape.  Shay-R'tok would almost rather throw herself into the singularity than spend another day on this damn station, studying the system.

 "Studying." Ha! That her job should receive the title of "research" was almost absurd.  She was little more than a bookkeeper and janitor, slaving away for the senior researchers on the station. That in itself wouldn't have been so bad, if only life here hadn't been so... endlessly monotonous. Hopelessly dull! Nothing ever happened here! She'd gone through twenty-three years of schooling, dedicated work and study, to fulfill her dream of stellar research and exploration. And as a reward, she'd ostensibly gotten what she wanted... she'd wound up here, on a frontier station that received news from the rest of the galaxy once a month, filling out forms, cleaning up messes, filing papers instead of writing them, bored, bored, bored ---

 A flash of radiation outside the viewports dramatically interrupted her thoughts. Shay-R'tok's species perceived electromagnetic radiation far above and below the wavelengths that constitute visible light for humanoid species, so the defold was particularly blinding for her. She blinked, trying to clear away the haze from her vision, trying to pierce it, to see the ship that had just arrived. Finally she made it out, a long, thin thing -- no, three of them, she realized.  They must be lost, the equine creature thought. There was nothing here that required bringing three ships; it was an event when even one arrived. This might be the most exciting thing that had happened in months. 

 A second flash heralded yet another arrival; Shay-R'tok stared, fighting down a rising panic. The newcomer was nothing but a flying gun, twice the size of the station. Flying guns usually didn't have any purpose other than destroying things, Shay-R'tok knew. And this one was coming straight for the station. Things were rapidly getting far more exciting than she'd anticipated. 

-  -  -
 "That's it!" Sidetrack shouted. "Three of 'em, there!" He pointed out the viewport, where three Decepticon raider ships were closing on the Deief system's research station. The ships were built to be fast and maneuverable, but only carried moderate amounts of weaponry and armor. Treadmark steered the Perigee towards the raiders. 
 
 "Get 'em on com," Lexius ordered. Starblast moved to comply.

 "Decepticons," Lexius addressed the ships a moment later. "Surrender or face the consequences." 
 
 "We are recieving a response," Starblast said. "Visual on your screen, commander." A red and black robot appeared on Lexius's panel. From his expression and composure, Lexius immediately pegged him for a bully. The Decepticon spoke. 
 
 "Get outta here, Autobots, or we'll toast your precious fleshlings in the station out there." 

 Starblast spoke up: "Aggression against the science station would hardly be in your own best interest at this point. You are at a distinct tactical disadvantage."
  
 "Listen to 'im," Lexius said. "You'd be a fool to attack that station."

 "And what'll ya do if we do? Your fleshlings will still be dead!"

 "You want to see what we'll do?" Lexius asked with a nasty grin. "Let me show you." He hit a switch; Perigee's main weapon fired, hitting one of the smaller ships square in the engines. A section of the ship was instantly vaporized by the shot; the remainder exploded, its systems ignited by the raw energy of the weaponsfire. The arrogant Decepticon on the screen lost all composure as his ship was violently jostled by the destruction of its companion. 

 "All right, all right, maybe we can arrange a deal," he said in a tone that was not quite pleading. 

 "Here's my deal," Lexius shot back. "We want your ships. Get off them  now, and we won't bother you a bit."
 
 "We can't do that! None of us is equipped for space travel; we'll be  stranded here!" the Decepticon whined.

 "Shoulda considered that before you murdered a few stations full of scientists. We've been following your trail, we've seen your handiwork. I have no problem with blasting the lot of you to atoms." 

 "You can't just toss us into space; you've got to give us --"

 "I don't have to give you anything," Lexius shot back. "You'll just have to hope somebody happens along to pick you up. Now get off that ship." 

 The Decepticon became insolent: "Your terms are unacceptable. We will  surrender if --"

 Lexius scowled. "I am NOT in a mood to argue!" he snarled at the screen, slapping one hand down on the firing control. Another of the Decepticon vessels disappeared in flames. 

 "Alrightalright you got it, you got it just please cease fire!!" the robot on the screen pleaded. Lexius watched in satisfaction as the Decepticon ordered the crew to abandon ship, not noticing the sidelong looks his own crew were giving him. 

-  -  -
 They ended up tossing the Decepticon crew out into space, away from the system, away from the defenseless station. Lexius considered chucking them into the black hole, but Treadmark convinced him that might be a bit more than was called for. With any luck, the 'cons would be picked up within a few thousand years or so.

 Sidetrack had presence of mind to contact the station and inform them of what was happening; the inhabitants were probably worried by now, he figured. Indeed, the quadruped he spoke to seemed nearly hysterical. Sidetrack didn't know the species. Her Standard was heavily accented, probably due to her discomposure. Sidetrack had to spend several minutes calming her down, before finally convincing her to summon whoever was in charge of the station. Finally the creature trotted off the screen.  Lexius stepped up to wait beside Sidetrack, staring at the empty monitor. Finally a yellow-furred biped stepped into view.  It had no visible mouth, but spoke nonetheless. 

 "I am Harth, chief researcher aboard this station. What do you want  from us?"
 
 "I am Commander Lexius of the gunship Perigee. We apologize for not having called you sooner, but as you probably noted we were...  indisposed. Do you have a secure subspace communications system?" 
 
 "Perhaps. What do you need with it? And why did you destroy those other ships?" 
 
 "Those other ships were crewed by Decepticons. They've been destroying stations like yours in this region, so we stopped them. As for the com system... suffice to say we need to communicate with our fleet, having lost the means to do so ourselves." 

 "'Lost the means'? What do you mean?"

 "I can't really broadcast that. Look, many lives could depend on this," Lexius said. "We just need to barrow your com. After that, we'll leave. You won't have to deal with us further." 

 "And if we refuse?"
 
 Lexius paused for a moment. "Then we will leave anyway, and seek help elsewhere." 

 "Then I suggest you do so immediately," Harth said, folding its arms. 
 
 "Wha -- I..." Lexius was too startled to think for a second. "Listen  to me, please --"

 "This station is not my private property to lend out as I see fit," Harth said, its temper evidently rising. "I'm accountable for how it's used, and I won't have a pack of anarchist mechanicals using it for mysterious transmissions. Especially when it might bring more hostilities down on us. If you must destroy us, then do so now." 

 "We're not going to destroy you! We do not murder innocents or  neutrals. We are Autobots, we --"

 "Autobots?! Get out of here, now! Leave before you get us all killed!"  Harth's image dissolved on the screen. Lexius simply stared, agape.
 
 "Well! That's gratitude for ya," Sidetrack said, equally surprised.

 "I'm not surprised," Lash said. "Like I said, this part of the galaxy's  pretty paranoid about being associated with the Autobots."

 "I guess that's the end of that idea," Treadmark said.
 
 "Oh, come on!" Sureshot said. "We could force our way in, easy. We don't have to hurt 'em a bit. Just shove the fleshlings out of the way, make whatever transmissions need doing, and leave. Nobody gets hurt. We saved their lousy organic hides; it's the least they can do for us!" 

 Lexius's head snapped around. "Absolutely not. We can't just force  them out of the way like that and jeopardize their safety just because it's convenient for us.  Decepticons are pretty fond of revenge when they've been slighted; the lives of those scientists are potentially at stake.  The station is their holding, and we will respect their right to deny us its use."

 Sureshot met his commander's gaze evenly. "Even if it costs the lives  of our friends on Sojourn? Or our own?"
 
 Lexius returned the gaze unflinchingly. "It won't. That I promise you."

 Sureshot glared at him, unbelieving, but said nothing. He was thinking of another commander of his, another one who'd seemingly let his followers down, told them surrender was the only option... 

 Lexius looked around. "We still have the 'con's ship.  I intend to make full use of it. This little adventure's not over yet." 

-  -  -
 The Autobots boarded the surviving raider, to find its cargo hold filled with the solar absorbers which had been stripped off the previous stations they'd been to. 

 "I wonder where these are going?" Lexius said.

 "It would take a minimal effort to find out," Starblast said, plugging himself into the ship's central computer. He was under for only a few seconds. "Cibskait, an uninhabited system, two light-years distant," he reported. "There are several lists of stations the raider is slated to attack, but Cibskait comes up at the end of each list." 

 "Nothing about what kind of place it is?"

 "No, but it is definitely a drop point of some sort."

 "But what's there, that's what's important. Sure, we're set to sneak in to wherever these are going, but'd be nice to know if it'll be worth our while," Sidetrack said. 

 "The data give no indication of the cargo's purpose."

 "Then I guess we'll have to go there," Lexius said. "This is too  good a chance to pass up."  He reflected for a moment.  "We're going to have to split up.  We can't pass up the chance to find out what this little project of the Decepticons' is about, but taking the Perigee there would probably be suicide, and I won't leave it uncrewed." 
 
 "Lexius... I'd like to try stealing a cargo ship from one of the systems we considered earlier," Treadmark said. "We don't know what you'll find at this system of yours; it may or may not have drives available for us; it may or may not have com systems. Stealing a cargo ship may be more risky, but if it works we're guaranteed to have exactly what we need." Sidetrack, Lash, and Sureshot all nodded agreement. Quickmix simply watched, as always. 

 Lexius was silent for a long moment. How many would be needed to take out a cargo vessel's crew? Probably not many, with Lash and Sureshot along. He made his decision. "All right, you have permission to try.  Starblast and I will take the raider; the rest of you go with Perigee. But you must make every effort to prevent being tracked. And keep in mind how limited your resources are. One of you gets killed, that's a fifth of your force." 

 "Primus, we won't forget that," Treadmark said.

 "We will rendezvous in three weeks, at our first set of stand-by coordinates. Head there as soon as possible after completing your mission, or in exactly three weeks, which ever happens to be first," Lexius ordered. "We will do the same." 

 Starblast and Lexius headed toward Perigee's bay. Lexius paused at the exit, looking over the five Autobots and one human one last time. "Be careful, all of you," he said emphatically. He turned and was gone. 
**********************************************
On to Chapter 3