The Corrosion of War Without End
"There's been a disturbance on one of the Cybertronian frontier outposts,"
"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
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
"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,"
"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,"
"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,"
"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.
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
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
"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."
"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
"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,
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
- - -
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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,
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