The Corrosion of War Without End
PART FOUR

Chapter 3:
Homecoming


 The starship Sojourn closed on its home planet, for first time in five centuries.

 As the moment of defold drew near, the full bridge crew assembled.  The ship's other officers were finding excuses to be present on the bridge as well, till the place became so crowded with squad commanders that Lexius had to order them out. Elsewhere, Autobots were crowded around the Sojourn's few viewports, gazing anxiously out into the strange netherdimension that was foldspace. After weeks of travel, the crippled ship was finally nearing its destination. 

 Lexius shifted impatiently in the captain's seat as the moment of defold drew near, his thoughts centered on his home planet -- a world he'd seen only once in the past five centuries.  

 Ten years ago, the ship had been in orbit after a battle, when the crew, the ground troops, and the entire ship abruptly found themselves somewhere else.  One minute they were running through mop-up operations; the next, they were standing on a metallic surface amid thousands of other Transformers.  It took them several long minutes to realize that they were on Cybertron, the home world of their race.  They -- along with millions of other Transformers -- had inexplicably been teleported there, drawn from across the galaxy by a being claiming to be none other than the god and creator of the Transformers, Primus.

 The Lord of the Light had summoned his creations home to battle his ancient nemesis, the Chaos-Bringer, Unicron, a world-sized being bent on devouring Cybertron and everything on it.  And battle they had, only hours after arriving on the planet. Lexius still shuddered to think of the day, the slaughter... Many of his crew had perished in the fight, more than he'd lost since first taking command of Sojourn. Lexius had believed he would die himself that day; they all had - they had looked into the maw of Unicron as it began to consume their world, looked into the darkness that was their deaths, a darkness that would ultimately engulf the universe. But then had come the gargantuan explosion which had eliminated Unicron from this existence, that miracle from the blue... 

 After the battle, there was talk of a truce, a peace between the Autobots and Decepticons. Lexius was far from convinced, however. He'd been fighting for too long to believe in peace. He had watched as many of the Decepticons immediately headed back towards the inner regions of the galaxy, where their empire waited. Determined to resume the campaign against that empire, Lexius had hastily scrounged up replacements for his lost crew members -- Quickmix, Grotusque, Rollbar, Landfill, Repugnus, and Doublecross among the many others who agreed to come -- and only days after the battle, headed back to enemy territory, to resume the endless war. 

 They had departed expecting never to see Cybertron again. The planet had seemed to be in its death throes, heaving and quaking violently, trying to rip itself to pieces, a violent rebellion against the outrages inflicted on it by Unicron. But later information hinted at some sort of miraculous reformation of the planet, a channeling of the energy unleashed by  Unicron's destruction. Lexius wasn't sure he bought the whole tale -- he had little taste for the mystical -- but what mattered was that Cybertron had survived, and in fact had been reclaimed by the Autobots. Lexius found that to be an almost unbelievable stroke of luck, since Cybertron, with its abundance of rarified alloys, was the only place his crew could hope to effect repairs to their ship. 

 The fold engines from the stolen destroyer enabled Sojourn to travel once again, but the Autobot ship was far from battle-ready.  There were massive gashes in the hull, and countless subsystems were non-functional.  Quickmix was still laboring to figure out what had been done to the ship's supposedly indestructible armor, allowing it to be penetrated so easily. The effect did not seem permanent, and had left few clues as to what had happened. At Cybertron, they hoped to secure resources to fully revitalize the ship, and perhaps guard against a repeat of the incident.  If for some reason they couldn't get help at Cybertron, Lexius was not certain that Sojourn would ever fly combat missions again. 

 "Thirty seconds to defold, chief," Beacon reported, bringing Lexius back to the present.

 "Confirmed, standing by," Focus responded.

 Everyone on the bridge leaned forward, tensed.

 "Defolding."

 The psychedelic colors outside the viewports dissolved into a blur of stars, which snapped into focus as the ship dropped out of foldspace, and shut down its superliminal drives. A tiny sphere shot towards them, growing rapidly at first, then more slowly as Focus brought the ship down to a safe approach velocity. Across the ship, nearly five hundred pairs of optical scanners focused on the vast globe before them: Cybertron. 

 Lexius stared at the world, stunned.  He hardly recognized it. The planet seemed to glow from within with a faint, golden light; the surface was brightly lit by cities and buildings. Order reigned, symmetrical patterns scattered across the planet's face. No craters, no fields of slag, no piles of burnt debris, no charred hulks of buildings. The grizzly scars of four million years of war had been eliminated without a trace.

 Even the Great Gash was gone, Lexius noted. The Gash was an enormous hole formed during the ancient Starship wars; both sides had frantically mined more and more metal to create larger and larger ships, until an enormous void existed in Cybertron's lower hemisphere, a void that by its sheer size had seemed destined to be a permanent fixture on the planet. Perhaps it was filled with debris from Unicron, Lexius mused. 

 Lexius realized he was standing slack-jawed, had been doing so for several minutes, in fact, according to his internal chronometer; but, he realized, everyone else on the bridge was the same way. He smiled, just the slightest bit smug to have been the first to recover.  He touched the console on the command chair, the button to the ship-wide com. 

 "Autobots, welcome home."

-  -  -
 Home, Sureshot repeated the word in his mind, as he and Lash stared out the viewport. He'd not seen it for a number of years; when he'd signed on with Sojourn, Cybertron was the last place he'd wanted to end up. But he was beginning to change his mind about that. 

 The old Cybertron, the scarred and war-torn sphere, seemed gone. Perhaps the memories had gone with it, the endless battles, the deaths, the stink of burning fuel, the destruction of his city by Scorponok's warriors, his own capture, the grim march that was to have ended in the smelting pits... the hopelessness. That was why he'd left, really, with Fortress Maximus's band, and why he'd dreaded a return. The hopelessness. Cybertron was a lost cause, burnt to a cinder, and yet still the two sides kept fighting for it, blasting each other and the world to pieces. Hopeless. The world before him, though, seemed different, recreated, truly transformed. It looked like a place that could foster hope. A place where life could begin anew. 

-  -  -
 Home, thought Lash. Aside from the battle with Unicron, she'd never seen this rouge, wandering world before, the almost mythical home world of the Transformers. It resembled the terraformed planets they used to attack, the worlds the Decepticons had refashioned in their own image. This is the image they fashioned them after, she realized. She'd never had much interest in those planets, but this one seemed important, more real, somehow. Certainly it was bigger, and more beautiful as well.

 Lash had been created in deep space, her mind the product of a Joining, her body fashioned in a factory of sorts which the Autobots had concealed out among the stars. She, like so many of her brethren, had little conception of a life without war, and a somewhat murky conception of exactly what they were fighting for. Such was life under Lexius's command: the war against the Decepticons was all-consuming, and without end. This world seemed to know peace, and yet it was inhabited by Autobots. The idea was staggering to Lash in its novelty. A world where one could live at peace?  A world that was the Autobots' own?  A hundred questions began to form in Lash's mind. 

-  -  -
 Home, Lexius repeated his own word. But was it really? He'd been out fighting among the stars for so long that he wondered if he could ever have a home, ever feel at ease without the decks of a starship beneath him, ever feel at rest unless he was pursuing the Decepticon army.  The planet of his creation had changed since he'd left it. Aside from the battle with Unicron, he'd only returned once in all the thousands of  years since the Exodus, to oversee the construction of Sojourn about five hundred years ago. He'd felt anxious the whole time on the contested sphere, constantly having to watch for ambushes, enemies lurking behind every debris pile, in every burnt-out building, Seekers ruthlessly patrolling the skies. What kind of a home was that? Still, the changes were obvious: this world had indeed been reformed.

 He might grant this place a significance greater than the countless other worlds he'd been to, he decided after a moment's reflection. He doubted he'd stay here, though. The war was his calling, his passion, and he could not leave it long, or he was certain he would wither. That was what the aching he felt in his systems was, wasn't it? The knowledge that he would be out of the war for so long, while the ship was repaired? Or was it something else... 

 "Cybertron control to incoming starship, identify!" a voice said over the bridge speakers, startling them all.  Lexius wasn't sure, but he thought it sounded rather alarmed. 

 "Clue 'em in, Pixel," he ordered.

 Pixel punched her console. "We are Autobot starship Sojourn, attached to the Third Fleet. We request dry-dock for extensive repairs," she sent. 

 "Sojourn, we find no record of you. Please break off from your  approach vector and maintain current distance till we can confirm."

 Pixel looked to Lexius, uncertain. Lexius gestured to himself; Pixel routed the com to the commander's panel. "Cybertron, how long will this confirmation take?" he sent. 

 "Sojourn, we are sending an envoy, please establish orbit at your current distance and stand by.  Control out." 

 "Now wait a minute, we've -- " Lexius stopped, as static came through the speakers. He angrily closed the com. "Pixel, can you raise them again?" 

 "Trying now..." A silence ensued for several minutes. "Nothing. All we're getting is an auto response, to the effect of 'please stand by'." 

 They won't even talk to us! Lexius fumed, trying to contain his temper. Their journey had been too long, had cost too much, for them to be treated this way. "Tuner, any sign of this 'envoy'?" 

 "Nothing is heading this way, in fact traffic out here seems to have cleared up a bit since we showed up," Tuner reported. 

 Hmmph. Could they be scared of us? Lexius wondered. That had to be it: a huge ship shows up, covered with guns, and says they're friendly.  Well, maybe I'd be a bit worried, too. Never mind that the ship also has big holes in it. Sojourn's Autobot symbol did get blown away in the attack... "Focus, hold us here," he ordered. "Tuner, Pixel, one of you let me know as soon as this 'envoy' shows up." 

 With that, Lexius exited the bridge. He entered the empty conference room down the hallway, one of the few places on the armor-clad ship which afforded a good view of the stars, a good place for relaxation and contemplation. Taking a seat, he gazed out the window at Cybertron, floating silently before him.

 Lexius missed Starblast sorely, missed his calm demeanor, his unflagging advice, his easy companionship. He had already known just how much he'd relied on his first officer, but that knowledge didn't make the adjustment to his absence any easier.  He still had Treadmark to lean on emotionally, but the ground commander just didn't have the kind of generalized military expertise Lexius really needed in a first officer. 

 Grotusque's absence was making things worse.  Lexius would have trusted Grotusque to fill in Starblast's job quite competently, and his always light-hearted mood would have provided some much-needed levity on the bridge.  But the Decepticon ambush left Lexius to conclude that the worst had happened.  He stared out the viewport of the empty conference room, at the metallic sphere in the distance, wrestling with his problems. He wondered where Starblast was, what kind of trouble this "Punch" had gotten Grotusque into, and why the hell they were being held up for so long here. He hoped they hadn't come all this distance only to be turned away.

-  -  -
 The envoy, a magnificent white jet with red trim, finally came out to the Sojourn three hours after the ship's arrival. Lexius and Treadmark - now the ship's acting first officer - greeted the robot in one of the ship's secondary docks. The tall Autobot introduced himself as Jetfire; Lexius realized that he was a larger and much-updated version of Starblast's form. Jetfire apologized for the wait. 

 "We've had beaurocratic problems of every sort in recent years, and as such no-one is able to decide anything," he explained. "They finally went to Optimus, who in turn suggested I be sent, and then they had to find me." 

 " 'Optimus'?" Lexius asked.

 "Optimus Prime." 

 "Who?" 
 
 The look that Jetfire gave Lexius would not have seemed any less shocked if Lexius had simply exploded on the spot. "You aren't familiar with Optimus Prime? Our military commander. The last Matrix-bearer. The leader of the Autobots!" 

 Lexius was automatically suspicious of anything having to do with the mythical Matrix; he felt the issue tended to cloud the sensors.  He'd have to see this matrix for himself.  "The last I heard, the Autobots -- militarily, anyway -- were led by a consensus of the fleet commanders," Lexius said.  "Do you mean the Autobots here?"

 "Well, yes," Jetfire said.  "Of course.  What else?"
 
 "Most of this ship's crew haven't been to this planet in five centuries or longer, except for the battle of Unicron, and you know how much communication there was then," he explained. 
 
 "I see.  I think Prime will want to speak with you, assuming everything checks out." 

 "Well, exactly what is it that... um... needs to check out?" Treadmark asked him.

 "To be honest, I'm not quite sure," Jetfire answered, with a look of embarrassment.  "My orders are to 'investigate and verify the nature and intentions' of your vessel, whatever that may mean."  He tilted his head slightly and shrugged.  "You look like Autobots to me, but I doubt that just saying that would comprise a sufficient report to Cybertron's officials."

 "How about a top-to-bottom tour of the ship, then?  We've got all kinds of fun stuff we can show you," Lexius grinned.

 "That, I believe, would be more than adequate," Jetfire declared.

 For the next two hours the gleaming Autobot jet eagerly took in the sights of Sojourn's interior, from the brain vault where Sojourn's mind was housed, to the bridge, the primary docking bay where their twenty dropships were stored, the crew quarters, the twin gunships, the antimatter cannons, the med center and stasis bays (where more than a hundred of the ship's crew currently rested), the remains of the old generators, and the sublight engines.  Jetfire was particularly intrigued by the pirated fold engines, looking incongruously new among the blackened, charred confines of the engine room, alongside the stolen generators that were powering them. 

 "Remarkable," he said. "You travel by space-folding?  We've barely made headway into the field on Cybertron."

 Quickmix grinned. "That was my reaction, too. It's quite common, actually. The Decepticons do it, too." 

 "The Decepticons have this technology?!" 

 "Yep. It's not dangerous, really. It's not any faster than warping, just safer and more energy efficient.  Fortunately, no-one's been able to pervert it into a weapon.  So far." 

 "You do have a lot to report.  I think I can safely declare that 'everything checks out'," Jetfire said to Lexius.  "And Prime is certainly going to want to talk to you." 

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On to Chapter 4