The Corrosion of War Without End
PART THREE

Chapter 3: 
Theft/Slaughter


 Wingspan leaned back in his seat, shutting off the screen he had been hunched over for hours in despair.  "This is hopeless," he pronounced.  "We'll never figure it out."

 "It cannot be hopeless.  We are so very close!" Pounce told him. 

 "Ahh, it's hopeless.  Whoever it was was just too smart.  We've run down every lead, utterly destroyed the courier network, cross-checked the times and dates and the info file accessings -- nothing's panned out!"

 "I refuse to believe it.  No one is that smart.  With the quarry this close, I refuse to let him escape."

 "But what can we do?!  We've followed up every logical step there is!"

 "Then we start trying the illogical," Pounce said.  "The unexpected, the irrational.  Cross check data that it makes no sense to cross check.  When the trail runs cold, search randomly till it is found again.  We do not relent until the quarry is hunted down."

 Wingspan groaned in frustration.  He was tired of hunting.  He wanted to know.  "Alright, alright.  Whatever it takes..."

*  *  *
 Lexius piloted the raider ship into orbit over a planet in the Cibskait system. Beside him, Starblast scanned for some sign of inhabitance, but only organic readings came back. "Maybe it's a transfer site," Lexius speculated. "Maybe we're supposed to wait for another ship."

 Starblast checked the computer logs again, coming up with a set of coordinates and some sort of code sequence. "There is nothing else that seems related to this place," he said. "I suggest we land at the designated coordinates." 

 Lexius moved to comply. The ship glided smoothly through the atmosphere, and settled on a large patch of open ground. The spot showed the effects of repeated starship landings. 
 
 "A transfer site indeed," Starblast noted. They sat for several minutes in silence, waiting. An idea occurred to Starblast;  he ran the code he'd pulled through the com system. The computer responded by emitting a burst transmission; almost immediately an orbiting cargo ship decloaked, appearing on the sensor screens. "Whatever the nature of this operation, it would appear to be rather covert," Starblast noted. 
 
 "Yep," Lexius answered.

 A blinking on the console indicated some sort of answer to their signal, as the cargo vessel moved to land. Starblast answered the call; a gruff voice came through. 

 "What'n name of th' Leige 'er y'all doin' down there? Ya 'xpect us to sit up here all day? I hope you're not plannin' to scrape out a' helpin' with the cargo transfer." 

 "We've had electronics problems and were unable to transmit, sorry.  Let us finish 'em up and we'll be out to help," Lexius answered, as  Starblast ran a sensor scan on the approaching ship.

 "Lazy rusters," the Decepticon signed off nastily.

 "How many?" Lexius asked.

 "Two on the bridge, five others in the cargo area," Starblast reported.

 "We're going to have to take the cargo ship, to get any further with  this," Lexius said.

 "I anticipated no less."
 
 They watched from their bridge as the ship landed. The Decepticons exited and began unloading the Autobots' cargo. They were all of average build, a couple of Seekers, and some Cybertronian transport troops. Probably bored as hell, Lexius thought. The Autobots waited till the cargo ship was nearly loaded, then moved to the cargo bay and concealed themselves in the back. 
 
 One of the Seekers stepped in. He failed to note the two forms standing in the shadows; he had only the slightest idea of the stream of slugs from Starblast's weapon which dropped him to the deck. 

 "One down," Lexius whispered.
 
 Two more were approaching now. Both Autobots, still in the concealment  of the shadows, took careful aim, drawing a bead --

  "Hey! What are you doing?!" cried out one of the transport troops,  staring straight at them. Both of them stopped in their tracks.

 "Go!" Lexius ordered. The two Autobots opened fire and charged. The two troops in front of them were dropped before they could utter another word, but now the Autobots had lost the element of surprise. 

 The last transport troop fired on them from the cargo bay of his ship, but both the Autobots leapt skyward, riddling the Decepticon before he  could re-aim his weapon. The remaining Seeker popped out of concealment  from the rear of the ship and blasted at them, hitting Starblast across  the chest, then launched herself into the sky. Starblast groaned slightly  from the pain of his wound, but took off after his foe, switching to his  jet form. Lexius landed, dashed into the cargo ship, and headed for the bridge.
 
 The Seeker had a head start, but Starblast - built for extraplanetary travel - was faster. The Decepticon juked and rolled as Starblast opened fire on her. Seeing she couldn't lose her pursuer, the grey Seeker switched back to her robot form and came to a dead stop in mid-air; Starblast, immediately behind, failed to react in time and caught several bursts to the wing as a result. He soared upwards, transforming and riding his foot thrusters, and fired his chain gun. The weapon stitched a row of holes across the Decepticon's chest, shattering the cockpit area. Angered by the damage to her form, the Seeker moved in on Starblast, firing from her arm-mounted cannons, only to receive a second round of slugs which tore completely through her frame. Her systems began failing; a third hit from the Autobot sent her plummeting from the sky. 
 
 Lexius advanced through the cargo ship as swiftly as caution allowed.  He encountered no resistance; his sensors showed nothing between him and the bridge. The bridge doors were sealed, failing to respond to his prompts. The pilots were no doubt planning an ambush. Hardly original, Lexius thought. He had little difficulty in tearing the doors off; he used them as a shield to repel the shots which greeted him. He blasted one pilot in the face with his wrist gun, then slung the bridge door edge-wise at the other. The impact slammed the robot into a wall, leaving a deep impression. Neither pilot moved again. 
 
 Through the viewports Lexius saw Starblast returning in Guardian mode.  He carried the remains of the Seeker that had tried to escape. Lexius  signaled all-clear by radio.
 
 "We can't have them wondering what happened to the raider ship," Lexius sent. "We'll have to destroy it, along with the cargo ship's crew. We'll make it look like an accident, a crash." 
 
 "If one of the crew's brain modules should survive the crash, our  presence here might eventually be found out.  That could start a trail that would lead to us -- and to Sojourn," Starblast responded.

 "You're right... unfortunately." 

-  -  -
 Lexius stared at the grisly sight, seven deactivated Transformers sprawled in a line across the floor. He wondered if he could do this. He wondered if it was really necessary. 
 
 He approached the first body. One of the transport troops, the one who'd seen them aiming for him and cried out in fear. A light green robot with cream trim, a pretty typical Cybertronian.  His chest plates were in disarray, pummeled by the mass of hits he'd taken. His red optics were dim, his mouth hung open listlessly, his features were still somewhat contorted from the pain that had been his last sensation before losing consciousness. Lexius planted the end of his particle beam cannon on the robot's forehead, where the brain module was located. He averted his gaze, waited, tried to subdue the uneasy feedbacks coursing through his systems, a Transformer's equivalent of nausea. 

 Fire, his intellect told him.
 
 How can I? This is murder! another part of his mind cried out plaintively.
 
 It's not murder, it's war. It's survival. He looked back at the helpless form stretched on the floor before him. He stared, then turned his head again.  
 
 Do it. You've killed before.

 His finger twitched on the trigger, hesitated.

 This is the enemy! What the hell's the problem!

 He fired.
 
 One by one, the horrible procedure was repeated, the head modules of each robot blown through. No-one would be left to report their presence here. Lexius forced the voice of outrage from his mind, willed it be silent.  He walked to the ship's control compartment, where Starblast was finishing the link which would let them fly the raider by remote. 
 
 "Let's get out of this place," Lexius told him.  

-  -  -
 The raider ship, with the bodies aboard, looped in a graceful arc through the air, under Starblast's guidance. He and Lexius were airborne in the cargo ship, following at a safe distance. They watched through the viewscreens as the raider sailed high, then reversed its course and plummeted directly towards the surface. It impacted in an enormous fireball which ignited the landscape for a mile in every direction. 
 
 Starblast gaped in awe for a brief moment, then turned to the cargo ship's primitive sensors, directing them at the conflagration. "Core temperature of the explosion... 17000 degrees." 

 Lexius gave him a satisfied look. "No way they could have survived that."  

 Starblast didn't look back; he simply stared at the inferno on the surface below them. "Impressive," he muttered. "Though it gives one cause to question the necessity of our actions." 

 "Starblast, what else were we gonna do? Just leave the ship here? We can't afford to leave a trail; you know that."
   
 "I was referring to killing the ship's crew. It seems dangerously close to blatant murder."

 Lexius stared at his old friend, vaguely angered that Starblast of all robots was bringing such issues up. "Starblast, they're  Decepticons," he said simply. That was enough, wasn't it?

 Starblast finally turned to meet his gaze. He held it for a very long moment, searching... but Starblast was not one with a talent for reading faces or minds. Words formed on his mouth, but died unspoken. He slowly turned back to the ship's controls. 

 "Yes," he said quietly. "You are correct, of course." 

 The cargo ship leapt to the stars.

*  *  *
  Quickmix braced himself at the Perigee's controls, readying himself to  take the ship into the Aryung system. He was not happy about this mission, particularly since it would leave him as the sole occupant of a ship which he felt wasn't up  to combat standards, but things would be no easier if they put it off. After all the traveling they'd done chasing after the raider ships, the Perigee's engines were beginning to need maintenance of a kind he couldn't give them in deep space. But it would only get worse if they  waited longer to attack.

 The ship was parked a quarter light-year out from Aryung, a small Decepticon mining outpost, which looked like the least secure in the region. They'd scanned as best they could without being detected, and selected a number of transport ships as potential targets. Quickmix felt a bit odd taking a combat role, but then, it was an odd sort of attack.

 Quickmix wasn't keen on combat, really; he preferred his work as a scientist, inventor, and - currently - engineer. There were only five of them, though -- well, six, if they counted Spoilsport -- and they'd need every one to pull this off. Fate had often pressed Quickmix into roles beyond the science that was his first love: saboteur, warrior, advisor to the late Emirate Xaaron... and currently, starship pilot. He shrugged and accepted it as he accepted all of life's inevitabities, with a slight mutter of annoyance. 
 
 Treadmark voice came by radio from the launch bay in the ship's belly. "We're  ready and standing by."
 
 "Understood," he answered. "Engaging... now." 

 The stars de-rezzed outside, as the ship entered foldspace. It took nearly ten minutes to cover the quarter light year; Perigee's improvised fold engine was much weaker and slower than that on its mother ship. It was also on the verge of a break-down.

 "Defold... mark."  The ship re-entered realspace; ahead, a planet was shooting towards them. The Perigee slowed to orbital speeds.  "Deploy," Quickmix ordered. 
 
 Four hoversleds shot out of the gunship's bay as it passed close to one of the transport ships. Perigee kept going, making a rapid approach to the planet. A single cruiser stirred from its orbit, orienting itself towards the new arrival, but thus far no-one seemed to understand what was happening.  You'll know soon enough, Quickmix thought. Not even bothering to look through the target scope, he opened fire on the planet with Perigee's main weapon. Almost immediately, the cruiser powered up, thrusting itself into pursuit. Quickmix grinned; his distraction was working beautifully thus far. 

 Treadmark's group sailed towards the mining ship, turning and skimming along its surface.  "Sureshot, keep a watch out," he ordered by radio.  "The rest of you, let's find an opening."  Three of the four sailed back and forth for a moment above the ship's hull.

 "Got something here," Sidetrack radioed.  "Airlock.  Lash, come on in."

 It took Lash half a minute of hammering with her tri-cannon before she managed to breach it.  She grasped the door by the hole she had blasted, and wrenched the door from its housing. It wasn't an airlock at all, she noticed; the ship maintained no atmosphere. She and Sidetrack zoomed into the corridor she'd opened; Treadmark and Sureshot were immediately behind. 

 The group landed and dismounted.  Sidetrack turned up a side room after a moment.  "Let's stash the sleds in here, out of sight," he suggested.

 "Good idea.  Hopefully we won't need them again," Treadmark said.  "Sidetrack, you're with me.  We'll take the bridge.  Lash, Sureshot, Spoilsport, you head for the engine room."  With their sleds secured, the four Autobots transformed and sped into the ship. 

-  -  -
 Quickmix led the lone cruiser on a merry chase around the planet, the  Perigee alternately dodging its shots and firing on the planet. Another  cruiser appeared on sensors, just over the horizon. Quickmix grinned and  prepared to target it.

 It came into view, and his grin dropped. The ship had launched fighters, heading straight for him.  I suppose I should have expected this, he thought. 


  He fired into the midst of the space-born Decepticons, vaporizing a number of them, but the gunship's narrow beam couldn't hit very many small targets at once. A squad of Seekers soared straight at him, unleashing missiles which exploded against the viewports. Another group followed right behind, blasting with energy weapons. Perigee rattled from the multiple hits, adding to Quickmix's concern. Its armor was very strong, but the innards wouldn't necessarily take all that much pounding.

 I need another distraction. He turned towards the second cruiser, charging it head-on. 

-  -  - 
 Lash rolled through the ship's narrow, twisting corridors in tank mode, Sureshot jogging along behind her. They'd taken out five crewers so far, and they were almost to the engine room, where most of the ship's crew would be, when the transport ship rocked violently. "That's not good," Lash commented. "It's either an attack or a boarding party. Hurry." They picked up their pace, driven by urgency.   

 A robot abruptly appeared out of thin air in front of them, teleporting in. He'd made the mistake of being in Lash's way, however; the tank-mode Autobot slammed into him as he fired, his shots going wide and bouncing off the ceiling.  Sureshot finished him off with a couple of quick shots. But it was enough distraction for several others up the corridor to launch their ambush. Sureshot ducked as they opened fire. Lash barreled through them; Sureshot transformed and followed, with Spoilsport riding on his hood and firing. "There's too many of 'em to fight here!" he sent to Lash. Behind them, the Decepticons were scrambling to pursue. 
 
 "I know. Keep rolling, we'll look for a good place to hold 'em off. I  think they're on to our plan."

-  -  -
 "They are definately on to our plan," Treadmark gritted, firing his rifle repeatedly. They had almost made it to the bridge, mowing down the few that stood in the way, when a dozen 'cons had opened up on them from the corridor ahead. The Autobots were unleashing a furious barrage in response, but neither side could advance. A couple of 'cons lay motionless in the corridor between the two sides, victims of Sidetrack's shells and their own recklessness.

 "You're right, this is too many troops for just a transport ship's crew," Sidetrack said.  "The ship's been boarded.  We should find out how the others are doing."
 
 "Yeah," Treadmark agreed, opening a radio channel. "Lash,  acknowledge. Report."

 "Acknowledging," came her voice. "We are almost to the engine room, a  squadron of 'cons in pursuit. Too many for us to take on."

 "We're pinned down near the bridge.  The ship was boarded a while ago. No  telling how many 'cons are aboard now. Hold them off as best you can for  now, and stand by."

-  -  - 
 Quickmix drove the Perigee straight at the second cruiser, and swept around behind it. Clouds of fighters followed, moving in to protect their mother ship. They flew straight into Quickmix's snare. He swung the Perigee around to approach the cruiser again, and fired point-blank on it as the fighters drew near. Most were vaporized in the ensuing explosion. Perigee, already racing away, shrugged off the flak and shock wave. Quickmix turned and targeted the first cruiser, which had followed him half-way around the planet. A single well-placed shot turned it to a derelict. 

 A transmission came through, as Quickmix briefly savored his victory.  "Quickmix, Treadmark. The ship has been boarded, we're split up and taking heavy fire. We need back-up." 

 Quickmix's brief elation dissolved as he answered the call, checking his tactical at the same time. "There is a cruiser at your position," he returned. "They probably have virtually unlimited reinforcements. Abort the mission and get out of there. 

 "Negative, we need to do this."
 
 "They have a whole shipful of troops! We get out now, or we don't get  out at all."
 
 "They haven't landed a full force yet! Destroy the cruiser!"

 "I'm not in range. Listen, the 'cons will destroy your ship in a second if they think there's even a slight chance of you getting away with it.  We were counting on slipping away unnoticed; that's impossible now." 
 
 "Quickmix, we can still do this! We --"

 Quickmix's voice did not raise - it never did - but it took on a severity Treadmark had never heard before. "I am the senior officer in this crew. I am giving you a direct order. Your situation is untenable.  Disengage and return to the Perigee at once." 
 
 Treadmark stared at his communicator for a moment.  He was running the mission, but Quickmix was right: technically, he was ranked higher.  "Treadmark... acknowledging." The device folded back into his wrist. "Let's go," he told Sidetrack. He launched a full spread of missiles at the Decepticons; when the explosions cleared, the two Autobots had transformed and disappeared down the corridor, abandoning their attempt to capture the bridge. 

-  -  -
 Quickmix clung to the controls as Perigee took yet another hit from the Seekers which had escaped their mother ship's destruction. The gunship's thin atmosphere had already been sucked out through a breach, and the engines were complaining at the tight maneuvers he was forcing them to perform. Ahead of him, the transport they'd tried to steal came into view. A battle cruiser floated beside it, attaching a boarding tube onto the transport. When it was attached, unlimited numbers of troops would pour  onto the transport.

 I hope Treadmark has sense enough to get out of there fast. 

 Quickmix gritted and prepared to move in, as the ship rocked under more enemy fire. He took a moment to pre-set a course into fold, for their escape. The nav screen flashed an insolent red, rejecting the command. Quickmix stared, his worst fears realized. 
 
 The fold engines had gone off-line. Perigee could no longer leave the system. 

-  -  -
 Sidetrack clung to Treadmark's hovercar-mode roof as he shot down the passageways of the ship, heading for the engine rooms; neither wished to risk waiting for Sidetrack's slower tank form. They were nowhere near where they had left the hoversleds, and had little other way to get back to Perigee. Treadmark contacted Quickmix again. 

 "We're moving to assist Lash and Sureshot; they're pinned down near  the engine area. As soon as we get them out we'll head for the sleds."

   "Stand by. I'm having engineering difficulties." 

 "What do you mean?"

 "Perigee can no longer fold."

 "What?!"

 "The compensators running from the thrusters gave out. Too much  pounding."

 Treadmark thought for a minute. "How hard is that to fix?" 

 "Not very; but I don't have the components I need. The compensators have to be replaced. Nothing else back here seems broken, yet." 

 "'Back here'?" Sidetrack cut in.  "Waitaminute, if you're looking at the engines, who's flying the ship?!" 

 "The ship is unguided at the moment --"

 "Ahh! Get back up there and fly! Get that cruiser off our backs  before they really send in a lot of troops!"

 "That could destroy your ship as well."

 "Yeah, well, we're counting on you not to kill us," Sidetrack said.

 Treadmark rounded a corner to find himself facing the backs of a squad of Decepticons, pouring fire down the corridor the opposite direction at Lash and Sureshot, who stood back to back blasting away.  Treadmark transformed and fired with all his weapons; Sidetrack hit the ground and folded into tank form, blasting with his dual mortars. They took down nearly half a dozen of the robots before they realized what was happening. By then, it was too late. 

 "Treadmark? Sidetrack?" Quickmix's voice: the com line was still open. "Are you there?" 

 "We just took some heat off of Lash and Sureshot," Treadmark said, as they finished off the group closer to them.  "But there's another group behind them, and they're blocking our way out." 

 "Can you hold them off?"

 "Yeah, but we're backed up against the engine room. I don't think we can get  back to the hoversleds."

 "Don't worry. You won't have to." Quickmix explained a moment further.

 "Well, pal, looks like you get to do the shootin' for a while," Sureshot said to Spoilsport, when Quickmix was done.  "Try not to hit anyone on our side, huh?"  He turned the Nebulan loose; Spoilsport hovered slightly above the deck on the mini-repulsorlifts built into his form.

 "When they see what I can do without you, they won't want you back," he answered, opening fire on the Decepticons.  "Go, you're wasting time."

 Sureshot started off without bothering to retort, but Treadmark caught his arm, and handed him his gun. Sureshot looked down at it uncertainly, but Treadmark's look reassured him: take it, his faceplates read. Sureshot turned and dashed down the corridor towards the engine rooms, opening a channel to the Perigee as he did. 
 
 "Quickmix... I'm on my way. Better start telling me what to expect."
 
 "Understood. The things you'll be getting are called flow  compensators.  First thing you're going to have to do is strip off the outer shell of the engine housing..."

 A Decepticon appeared in front of him; Sureshot fired without  pausing. The blast stunned the Decepticon; a smashing fist to the  faceplates put him down more permanently.
 
 Blech, Sureshot thought. I hate fist fights. A gun and ammo was all he wanted in a battle. Actually, what he wanted was his own gun, the one he was used to. Treadmark's weapon was just too light and small for his tastes, and it fired bursts of electricity instead of good old pumped laser beams. He reached the end of the corridor and burst into the engine rooms, heading towards the ship's fold engines. 

-  -  -
 Quickmix pointed the ailing Perigee towards the linked ships, and prepared to chalk up another cruiser to the gunship's kill list. 
   
 He continued his instructions to Sureshot.  "Cut both of the  connectors at the base, and be careful not to damage the linings!"

 "Ok, it's out," came the response.

 "Then do it again," he sent. "We need three of the things." He then turned to his own task, blasting first the boarding chute, then the engines of the cruiser that was boarding the transport. The cruiser rocked beneath several explosions, and began to drift away from the transport. Next came the tricky part. 

 "Ok, I got all three. I'm clearing out," Sureshot's voice came after several interminable moments.

 "Acknowledge as soon as you regroup with the others," Quickmix answered. He set the Perigee's weapon to its lowest power output, and its most focused beam. He took careful aim. 

-  -  -
 Sureshot came speeding up the corridor to find the Decepticons closing in on them, reinforcements having arrived. "I'm back with the others," Sureshot said to his communicator, transforming. 
 
 "Get down!" Treadmark ordered his group, as he fired off his last salvo of missiles for cover. The Autobots threw themselves flat on the deck.  Down the corridor, the Decepticons started to charge, but were met by Treadmark's artillery. A second later, the ship rocked as if it had struck a planet, as Quickmix fired on it. The Decepticons were thrown to the deck and against the walls; a blast of fire swept up the corridor and disapaited. 
 
 Good thing this ship has no atmosphere, Lash thought. That fireball would've cooked us alive if there had been oxygen to burn.
 
 "Autobots, transform and roll," Treadmark ordered.  "To the engine room."  He fired more shells at the Decpticons as the others switched modes and cleared out; as the last of them disapeared he launched all that remained of his artillery, then raced after his companions. 

 "Sir, I am afraid I must disobey your order," Sidetrack grinned at Treadmark, favoring him with a mock salute as he caught up with them.  "I am sorry to report that there no longer is an engine room on this ship."  The passageway ended in open space, the ship's rear portions sliced off as if by an outsize scalpel, blasted away by Quickmix.

 "You know what I mean," Treadmark said as he transformed, almost smiling in spite of himself.  The passageways were blackened from explosions; parts had collapsed or been destroyed. The Autobots picked their way through the debris to the exit. The ship's artificial gravity was weak here, and probably didn't exist anymore at the breach. They reached the end of the passageway's remains, and Perigee hove into views, surrounded by a small cloud of Seekers.  Lash fired, picking off a couple of them as the gunship pulled close and the others clamored aboard. 
 
 Sidetrack and Treadmark immediately took the controls over from Quickmix, who in turn leapt to where Sureshot was. "You have them?" he demanded. Sureshot nodded and followed him into the engine room. 
 
 "Jeez, Quickmix, what'd ya do to the ship?" Sidetrack muttered. The  systems were acting up, responding more slowly than he was used to.  

 "How long for the repairs?" Treadmark shouted to the rear of the ship, as he drove them away from the now-demolished transport. 

 "At least five minutes," came Quickmix's muffled answer. "They aren't interfacing properly." Sureshot grimaced.  It had taken him a good fifteen to cut the things loose -- would Quickmix really be able to install them that fast? 

 "Hmm," Treadmark said, driving the ship into a series of turns and rolls to shake off their pursuers. "Think that's enough time to get the sleds back out?" 

 Sidetrack stared. "Are you nuts?"

 "I'm quite serious. We have no chance of trying this again without the sleds. None of us can even fly." 

 Sidetrack tried to think of what to say. Treadmark had been the one who'd advocated the direct-assault approach, rather than a covert one. Now it looked like it would cost them the means to try again. Treadmark didn't seem ready to take this failure. Sidetrack knew Treadmark was still upset about what he perceived as another failure of his, the battle a few weeks ago in which he'd been forced to abandon several fallen comrades. Another defeat on top of that one would not help any. But they had no time to nurse his friend's hurts. "Look, the mission has failed. Accept it. We're getting out of here." 

 "We can't leave our only means of extra-ship travel --"

 Sidetrack decided it was a good time for another direct assault approach. "Treadmark, this would probably have happened even if we hadn't gone with your tactics. Don't blame yourself. And don't push for doing something foolish that'll get us killed." 
 
 A silent moment ensued between the two. There were no sounds in the  airless cabin, aside from their radio conversation. Their hands flew over the controls in silence, directing the ship on a course away from the planet, and dodging fire from the Seekers which had managed to survive and stay with them. Treadmark's head came back up listlessly. 

 "All right," he sighed over the com. Another silence. "Lock in a fold course." 
 
 Moments later, Quickmix called out success -- the engines came back on-line. Perigee left the system behind, and with it, their one chance to accomplish their mission.

 *  *  * 
 The debris was still there, Punch saw immediately, as his ship coasted through the battle zone. He was not here to find debris, however. He punched in his active scanners, first at the lowest power setting, then shrugging and jacking them up to full power. A beacon was a beacon, weak or strong.

 After only a moment, his gamble was rewarded: a paint came back from a point seven-tenths of a light-year away, a readout that could only be a starship.

 
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On to Chapter 4