The Corrosion of War Without End
PART FOUR
 
Chapter 4:
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 "How much longer do we sit and stew?" Sureshot grated. He was sick to death of waiting, of staring at the planet out the viewport. He wanted to get down there and explore -- it was Cybertron! And not just Cybertron, but a Cybertron so completely transformed as to be an entirely new world! He was itching to get off the ship that had been their whole world for three weeks of folding, but so far no-one except Lexius had been allowed to leave. The commander had rocketed off to the surface in the company of a  great white jet who looked familiar somehow, though Sureshot wasn't sure  just where he'd met the Autobot before. Nebulos, or Earth, maybe.

 Lash just smiled and remained silent. She was far more used to life on starships than Sureshot; additionally, she was disciplined, well-integrated into the military machine. If the higher-ups felt they needed to wait, she could wait. Besides, she enjoyed her present company. It was always mildly amusing to watch Sureshot's free spirit chafe against the confinement of the ship, especially now when freedom was so tantalizingly near. Amusing... and intriguing. The more she got to know her fire team partner, the more she came to admire his spontaneity, his free-roaming nature. He'd been with half a dozen different combat groups in the past decade; she had been with Sojourn for most of the ship's five-hundred year existence. He was confident in himself, almost arrogant, but it somehow endeared him to her.  Sometimes he treated his poor human partner like dirt, but beneath it she could tell he was actually concerned for Spoilsport's well-being. 

 "How can you just sit there and smile? Don't you go nuts being stuck on this ship all the time?" he said now, to her silence.

 "Not with you around!" she laughed. "Don't you have any self-discipline?! Besides, we're not going anywhere, so why worry?" 

 "Come on, this is our home planet! The world where our race began! Don't you at least want to explore it a little? Don't you feel any..." Sureshot's voice trailed off as he became aware of the odd look Lash was giving him. "What?" he demanded, suddenly feeling rather awkward for no reason he could pin down. Those odd feelings that Lash sometimes brought  up in him came surging to the surface, stronger than ever.

 "Sureshot, you -- you're... You are absolutely the most independent-minded robot I have ever met," Lash said finally, a slow smile creeping onto her face. 

 Sureshot couldn't help hearing the complimentary tone, couldn't help the matching smile from rising to his own face. "Um... thanks, I... I guess." 

 "I guess what I mean is... I admire you a great deal. I've always been very military, very disciplined, y'know, the never-question-orders type. I don't know if I could ever live my life the way you do yours... but I... wish I could learn what it's like." 
 
 "Um," Sureshot didn't know what to make of the hesitancy in her voice. "Well, it's just kind of instinct, y'know? I --" 

 Lash couldn't help laughing; she wondered if Sureshot was deliberately being obtuse. No, the look on his face was too puzzled for that. "Sureshot," she said, with her gentlest smile. "I'm asking you to Join with me." 

 "Join you for what?" 

 Lash didn't laugh this time, growing a bit exasperated. "Not join, Join, silly!" 

 "Lash, what are you talking about?"

 It was several seconds for Lash's brain circuitry to process and comprehend that statement, and finally realize its implications. It explained the last few minutes' awkwardness, that was for sure. "You really don't know?" 

 "Lash, I don't have any idea what you're talking about."

 For the second time in an hour, Lash's mind filled with more questions than she could possibly ask at once. One rose to the surface above all the others, though. 

 "Aren't there female Transformers where you come from?" 

 "No. I thought they were legend, till I joined the fleet a few years ago."

 Lash stared. She could see she had a lot of explaining to do. Well, she thought, glancing at the silvery orb of Cybertron, we seem to have plenty of time.

-  -  -
 The robot was tall, a head taller than Lexius. Why is every commander I meet taller than me? he thought. The Autobot had blue legs, and a red upper body whose contours hinted that his alternate form was based on an alien design. He extended a hand in friendship. 

 "I am Optimus Prime, leader of the Cybertron-based Autobot forces.  Welcome to Cybertron," he said, his voice deep and solemn, weary.

 Lexius returned the grip. "I'm Commander Lexius of the starship Sojourn, attached to the Third Autobot Fleet in deep space. We've come here hoping to repair catastrophic damage to our ship." 

 "Jetfire has told me of your situation. I've arranged for you to receive what you need to repair your vessel and your comrades," Prime said, as they seated themselves in the empty conference room. "But if you can spare time from your command, I have many questions for you." 

 "Shoot," Lexius said. "Sojourn's not going anywhere."

 The smaller Autobot's casual response gave Prime momentary pause, but he continued. "First... Where to begin?  There is so much."  Prime thought for a moment.  "Start by telling me of this 'Third Fleet' your ship is attached to. We have had no contact with unallied forces in living memory." 

 "Unallied? The Fleets are hardly unallied. The five main Deep Space Fleets comprise about ninety percent of the Autobot army.  The Third Fleet is just that, the third largest of the fleets.  Are your forces here not allied with the fleets?" 

 "I..." Optimus seemed confused. "This is the Autobot army. How many are in these fleets?" 

 "Hard to say, exactly. There's about a hundred thousand ships total in the five big Fleets, with all the usual crew and support." 

 "A hundred thousand?" Optimus was flabbergasted. 

 "Yeah, I know, but it's all we can muster up. The 'trons keep us on the run all the time. The fleets have to hide out in deep space to keep from being attacked and--" 

 "You... misunderstand me. We have long thought that our forces here represented the bulk of the Autobot army. If what you say is true... you have contact with allies of enormous strength." 

 "Enormous? That's maybe exaggerating a bit. Compared to the Cybertronian forces allied under the Liege, we're not all that impressive." 

 Prime's optics widened at mention of that name. "What do you know of the Liege Maximo?" 

 "Not much, I'm afraid. Fleet command's not even sure if it's a being or a group of beings. Its headquarters is called the Hub, but we have no idea where it's located. The logical place would be the galactic hub, where most of the Cybertronian empire is centered, but we've been fighting them there since time immemorial and haven't turned up a trace of it.  Wherever and whatever it is, it hands down the biggest decisions of the empire, and controls a lot of firepower." 

 "We encountered a force of Transformers under a commander named Jhiaxus several years ago, who seemed to be accountable to this Liege," Prime told Lexius.  "That was our first encounter with the Cybertronian empire. Since then we've gradually mapped out the extent of the Decepticon's holdings -- I mean the early-generation Decepticons, the ones who for the most part now answer to Megatron --  but we're still uncertain of the extent of the Cybertronian empire." 

 "We can show you where 'tron territory ends. It's pretty common knowledge.  Most of it's within the galactic core, where the stars are most dense, but it has fringes in all directions, even further out than here.  Some places it overlaps Decepticon territory."

 Lexius slouched lower in his seat, propping his head on one arm and gazing thoughtfully at Prime.  "Had a run-in with Jhiaxus, huh?  I've bumped heads with him a few times.  Nasty fellow.  Ruthless.  Tougher than titanium steel, too.  One of those you don't want to tangle with again if you can help it.  Haven't heard from him for a while, now, come to think of it." 

 "He did not survive our last enounter."

 "You took Jhiaxus out?!  That's unbelievable!"

 "I was not responsible for his death; however, I can tell you that he is no longer functional."

 "Wait till the Fleet commanders hear this!  Will they ever be happy!"  Prime gave Lexius a look, so Lexius explained further.  "Jhiaxus has been a thorn in our side for I don't know how long.  His divisions were colonizing fringe planets faster than just about any other in the Empire."

 "The Fleets commanders... Lexius, how did your forces grow so large?" Prime asked. "When the Matrix was lost"  -- here Lexius's brow furrowed -- "there were nowhere near enough Autobots to crew a hundred thousand ships." 

 "What does this matrix thing have to do with that?"

 Prime stared, almost afraid to speak. If these Autobots knew nothing of the Matrix as the means of creating new Transformer life, there was only one other way he knew of for them to have been created. He had seen and dealt with the implications of that before. "When we left Cybertron," he said at last, "the Matrix was the only known way of creating new Autobots." 

 Lexius tried hard to keep from laughing, but it must have been quite obvious. "Do you mean to tell me that you don't know about Joinings?"

 "Joinings?" Prime asked, now truly confused.

 "Joinings! Hyper-mental direct hardwire-interfaced symbiotic Joinings."

 "I don't..."

 Lexius couldn't believe this. This robot was leading a whole planet?

-  -  -
 Unbelievable! was Sureshot's first coherent thought.

  Isn't it? Lash answered. Patterns and colors swirled around them, but that was simply the viewpoints that their minds chose at the moment; he found he could change it effortlessly to geometric forms or a terraformed landscape or gigantic cirtuits or whatever else he wanted.  Sureshot could still see his body, or rather an image of it, though it seemed to waver insubstantially. Come on, follow me! Lash called. 

 Sureshot obeyed.  Moving his "body" - such as it was - required no more than a slight force of will. He glided towards the shimmering image that was Lash. Where are we going?

 To a memory, she responded. 

 Together they soared through Lash's mindscape, down neural pathways that appeared to them as dimly lit tunnels, emerging into a place where shimmering columns of light stretched off as far as their perceptions allowed: Lash's memory banks. Before Sureshot could react further, one of those columns extended itself, stretching out to engulf them both as Lash summoned up the memory she'd chosen to share with him. 

 This is a planet we visited once, while the ship was down for maintenance, she told him. It was beautiful, but we didn't get to stay long. The memory surrounded Sureshot; he found himself standing on the surface of an alien world, Lash beside him. Would you like to explore? she asked. 

 Um, sure, he replied, still not certain what to make of all this. It was, he decided, rather enjoyable.  A certain rapture seemed to flow  through him, a strange, primal... essence, he decided.  Something that made him think of... his creation.  Something primeval, something that touched on the core of his race's collective soul.

 Then let's go! Lash's image transformed, not to the massive six-wheeled tank that was her alternate mode in real life, but to a slender, lithe aircraft. She propelled herself into the air, did an impossible loop-the-loop, and tore off into the alien sky. 

 Sureshot stared for a long moment after her, then shrugged, shaking off his strangely esoteric thoughts. If she could fly here, why couldn't he? Without bothering with any sort of transformation, or indeed any sort of propulsion, Sureshot took off into the air, following the image of the one he had Joined with. 

- - - 
  "A Joining," Lexius explained, trying not to sound exasperated, "is when two Transformer minds have a complete interface. Not just a data transfer or short-term mind link, mind you, but a total interface. Each mind can share the other's memories, participate in them, or at more intense levels, see from the other's point of view, share their thoughts and feelings even. Females - you have heard of females, right? - can store a copy of the joined minds influencing each other - that's a new mind. Build a body for the new mind, download it, and there you are. New Autobot. It's how I was created, and most of those I lead, too. You don't have Joinings on Cybertron anymore?" 

 "No, it... I haven't... Lexius, you must listen to me. When we encountered Jhiaxus's troops, I learned that they had arisen through process of budding, one Transformer giving life to the next. No such symbiosis was involved." 

 "Asexual reproduction?" Lexius asked. "That's disgusting.  I never knew that, no wonder there's so many 'trons running around." 

 Prime sighed inwardly at this robot's flippancy. He was commanding an entire starship? "Whatever your gut reaction may be, there were  serious consequences from this procedure. Jhiaxus's troops suffered from an utter lack of feeling or morality. As it was explained to me, other life forms simply had no significance to them. I believe they turned out this way because they pushed their generations beyond the numbers that Primus had intended, distilled his life-force beyond its limit -- watered it down until, essentially, it no longer existed.  Without that life-force, morality and emotion were utterly lost to them." 

 "And there was more," Prime continued.  "At the same time I also discovered that as a race, we somehow lost the memory of this reproductive method.  A pre-primed fuse of some sort went off in all of us, something genetically encoded by Primus, and the Transformers simply... forgot.  We were never meant to grow beyond a certain point, and yet it happened.  Primus feared the very thing that has happened among the Cybertronians, this total lack of emotion.  This racial memory loss... it must have been intended to remove the knowledge of these Joinings, as well."

 But it, too, has been rediscovered among those further removed from the direct lineage of Primus, Prime thought.  How many other means of creating Transformer life are still out there, undiscovered?

 "I see what you're saying," Lexius said.  "And... You're think we're the same way, don't you?"  It was more an accusation than a question.

 "I fear for your generation, Lexius. I have read the reports of your attacks on the Decepticons," Prime said. "In many ways they confirm my suspicions, my fears." 

 Lexius' eyeband narrowed. "What are you saying?" 

 "Your attacks are merciless.  Have you stopped to consider how many lives you take every time you fire on one of these planets?" 

 "We're at war, Prime. Those we kill are the enemy. The Decepticons. We aren't out to kill innocents any more than you are. The whole reason we do what we do is to protect innocents. That means killing Decepticons." 

 "Lexius, we are not just members of an army who can swoop in and kill whatever happens to be in our gun sights.  The very thing that defines us as Autobots is the sanctity of life!  All life! Lose sight of that and we are lost." 

 "Are you truly that naive?! Do you really think it's that cut and dried?" Lexius shouted, his temper flaring. Prime had struck a nerve, something that had been aroused when Starblast had died, and eating at him ever since. "You think there's really some way to effectively continue the war without some casualties on the sidelines? The universe doesn't just line up neatly into combatants and neutrals." 

 "Lexius, we are bound by morality to try to preserve life whenever possible," Optimus pleaded. "That extends from the lowliest microorganism, up to the most evolved of organics and mechanicals. Even the Decepticons." 

 "The Decepticons?! The Decepticons are not life! They're anti-life! The life of a Decepticon is the lives of a hundred innocents saved!" Something inside him was caving in, a wall crumbling and unleashing the ocean it had held back for so long. 

 "How many innocents have you killed? How many were in those cities you bombarded from orbit, that you obliterated without a thought?" 

 "This is war, Prime. What choice did we have? How many were ultimately saved by our actions?" Lexius scrambled to shore up the wall, to hold back what he feared to face, but Prime was battering it down. 

 "Does that give us the right to lower our moral standards, our code of ethics?  Who are we to decide who lives and who dies? Do so and we're no better than the Decepticons." 

 "You think life is all beautiful, we should just preserve every bit of it? The Decepticons are a stain on life, a cancer that will only destroy until it is destroyed itself! Step back for a minute, Prime. Get the big picture. I've been out there for millennia fighting this war. Where have you been?"  Lexius used every strut he had to shore up the wall: anything rather than face the tides it held back. 

 Prime met the commander's gaze, as he recalled something his lieutenant commander had told him once. "Lexius! Listen to yourself! Look at what you're doing! Look down and see what you've trampled on. It is LIFE. And as Autobots, it is our duty to protect that life. You... have been destroying life.  Wantonly.  Indescriminately.  And, as far as I can see, with no remorse." 

 It was not enough.  With a final blow Prime demolished his dam, and Lexius was swept under a tidal wave of regrets, of exhaustion. He looked, and he saw. It was more than just Starblast; his friend's death had merely been the catalyst. He was worn out. He'd hidden the weariness, masked it, channeled it into a bloody crusade against the Decepticons, his personal jihad, for so long that it seemed he was capable of nothing else. But he was tired of killing. He suddenly felt sick from the weight of a hundred thousand deaths, the blood of millions on his hands. He was weary to the core of this war, this war without end. It had corroded away his very soul... 

 Lexius stared blankly at the floor between them. When he finally spoke again, it was in a weak, barely audible voice, the voice of one sickened by the knowledge of his own deeds, sickened and frightened by a reawakened conscious. 

 "My first duty... has always been to stop the Decepticons. Always. I've been so caught up in it, everything else was secondary... friends... values... life.  But I..." Lexius's voice became even softer, barely a whisper.

 "I'm sorry... I forgot why. Oh gods... I'm so sorry..." Lexius's words  trailed away, and he was silent and still.

 "Lexius, you can move beyond this," Prime said.  "Reaffirm your values, change your ways.  Protect life."

 There was no answer, no movement.

 "Lexius?" Silence, stillness. "Lexius, can you hear me?"  Prime prodded him gently, then stood up and examined him closely, alarmed.

 "Lexius!"  After several moments, the starship commander still showed no sign of rousing. 

 Prime opened a communicator. "Medical team to central conference chamber, immediately..."

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On to Chapter 5