The Corrosion of War Without End

Chapter 5:

 Lexius's optical visor was directed at his knees; the sensors there received the input of photons reflecting off his olive-green  armor.  The sensors transmitted that input to the mass of microchips that was his brain, where the information was processed into a coherent image. Normally, that image would be passed on to higher level processors, to be dealt with as part of his ordinary decision-making processes. 
 All was not normal, however, within Lexius's mind.

 The conscious part of his mind was completely unaware of the monitoring chair he sat in, or of anything else in the med bay where he had remained, motionless, for almost two days. Lexius no longer realized that he was on Cybertron; he neither knew nor cared how he had gotten there. He did not see the multiple medics and officers who entered the secluded subchamber of the med bay and left again;  he heard nothing of his friends and comrades from the Sojourn who came to try and revive him from his catatonia. 
 What he saw was fire, a raging wall of fire, pools of fire, an all-consuming fire. What he heard were screams, death-screams, screams he was responsible for. They were the screams of beings whose lives he had extinguished. 

 There were many, many, many of these screams. Too many for him to number. But for the past two days, his conscience had vengefully taken him past each one, each time he had pulled a trigger or pressed a firing button, each order he'd given to take lives, every subordinate who'd fallen while following him, every enemy he'd crushed bare handed. Swords, laser-rods, rifles, laser pistols, blasters, his bare fists... From the helpless, unconscious Decepticon warriors he'd cold-bloodedly murdered only a few weeks before -- murdered, he acknowledged that now -- to the countless assaults from space, back through a thousand campaigns stretching across the galaxy, a thousand battles that he had survived because someone else had fallen, felled by his own hand. The killing smothered him, enough killing to account for a dozen lifetimes.

 His life was over. He could not carry the weight of this endless killing, the untold slayings he had committed. His mind would take him back to the very beginning, the first killing, his first murder. And then, he knew, he would die, destroyed by his own vengeful conscience, its revenge for being smothered for too long. 

 He stared at the fires; he heard the screams; he waited for his death.

-  -  -
 "I am truly sorry, Treadmark," Optimus Prime said gravely. The two  Autobots stared at the immobile form of Treadmark's commander. "Every  medic I've been able to summon has given the same diagnosis: psychologically induced catatonic  shock.  He will have to come out of it on his own; there is nothing we can do for him. In the mean time, if you are able, we must continue the debriefing."
 Treadmark -- now the de facto commander of Sojourn's crew -- nodded in his slow, solemn way. They had tried for two days to figure out what had happened to Sojourn's commander, how it might be remedied. Their efforts had been fruitless. Prime was right; Lexius's information had been invaluable to the Cybertron Autobots, and must be relayed. "Where did he leave off?" Treadmark asked quietly. 
 "We got past little more than preliminaries, I fear," Prime answered.  "Lexius said you can tell us the extent of Decepticon territory, both  that of the Liege Maximo and of Megatron's Decepticons."

 "Yes, of course. I'll need a galaxy holomap, and..." Treadmark trailed  off for a moment. "Optimus Prime, could we proceed with this elsewhere? I am... I mean..."
 "Of course," Prime answered. "My apologies." They rose and exited the medical bay, leaving behind Lexius's still-immobile form. The door shut behind them, a shadow falling across the catatonic starship commander.

-  -  -
 Half an hour later, a small, black and grey Autobot entered the conference room where Treadmark and Prime waited.  "Thank-you for coming so quickly," Optimus Prime welcomed him, gesturing to one of the other two Autobots in the conference room. "This is Treadmark, current commander of the Sojourn.  Treadmark, meet Rewind, the Autobots' archival expert."  

 "Pleased," Treadmark nodded.  Beside him, Prowl, Prime's top strategic advisor, remained silent.

 Rewind took his seat. "You know of the security level of  this meeting, correct?" Prime asked him.

 "Top priority, most secret, as ordered by Optimus Prime, commander, Autobot Army, Cybertronian-based Forces," Rewind recited without hesitation. 

 "Good.  I want you here so that none of this data is lost.  Treadmark... please, proceed."

 Treadmark began his report.  For the next two hours, he took the Cybertron-based Autobots on a dizzying ride through four million years of Transformer history: the growth of the Decepticons, the great Exodus from Cybertron, the Autobots' secretive pursuit, the exponential growth of the Cybertronian forces, the more restrained expansion of Autobot numbers through the process known as Joining.

 "Even now the Cybertronians remain uncertain of our numbers," Treadmark said.  "And that is our greatest advantage.  They know little of our true strength.  If they did, they would doubtless mobilize every resource they have against us, which would spell doom for our fleets."

 "Indeed... Jhiaxus recalled every battalion at his command in an effort to destroy a force of only a few hundred of us on Earth."

 "The Cybertronians think nothing of mobilizing such numbers against a percieved threat.  Brute force is their way,"  Treadmark said quietly.  He arose and walked to a console equipped to project memory bank images.  "Which brings me to my next and most important topic..."

*  *  *
 The ship yards, Starblast thought, incredulously. I still cannot believe they kept me here. A construction site seemed an odd place to hold and interrogate a prisoner. 

 Or perhaps not, he realized, considering the magnitude of the sight before him. A project this size would require all manner of resources. Through the viewports he could see many of the three dozen ships, in varying degrees of completion, which spread in all directions from the command hub, over a distance of more than a hundred miles. There were more workers in his range of vision than he could count, scurrying insects rushing to fulfill the designs of their masters. 

 ++Notice, approaching 17:00++ his internal chronometer reminded him. He  turned away from the imposing sight, and walked off towards the  interrogation center. It was time for another "interrogation" session. 

 So far he had encounterd little trouble convincing the Decepticons around him that their comrade Dredge had undergone no change. He had set up a file set in the system where his consciousness had been held, to convince any casual inspectors that his mind was still trapped within. The only difficult  part was continuing the illusion of "interrogation". Starblast had to  decide how to answer the questions he was given.

 He entered the computer-filled interrogation room, carefully avoiding  the ghastly sight of his shattered head module sitting by the door. The  two assistants assigned to the place never seemed to notice, fortunately.  They were a raucous pair, but he'd quickly learned how to deal with them.

 "Rumble," Starblast snapped. "Activate the prisoner, and set modules two and five on-line.  And do it right this time!  I'll tear your head off and flatten it for a wall hanging if I have to come back up and fix the settings again!  Frenzy, clear the active pathways, and call up the last session." 

 The two cassette robots grumbled, but set to their tasks. Starblast would have smiled, if Dredge's face had a mouth. The robot's latent engrams had hinted at a volatile temper; and it had only taken a few instances of physical coercion to get the cassettes to cooperate readily with his commands.  That was fortunate, since violence was supposed to be anathema to his Autobot sensibilities.  However, he had found that he did not really seem to mind using force on the two all that much. Starblast suspected it was the remnants of his host's mind affecting his own thought patterns. The idea was alarming, and gave him all the more incentive to hasten his escape. 

 "Awright, the prisoner's awake," Rumble told him. "You can go rough him up now." Starblast's program was loaded into memory, sending back readings designed to emulate those of a Transformer mind, trapped in the computer.

 "Dredge" nodded, and inserted a device from his arm into the computer's cassette reader. Starblast didn't bother with any sort of interrogation, of course. The cassette robots had no way of knowing where he was in the computer, with their level of interface; he therefore used these "sessions" to cull up information on this place and the Decepticons at large. 

 He went first to a file he'd started through last time, one pertaining to the commander of this place, one Megatron. The Cybertronians had started the construction project, but the Decepticons had procured it somehow, replacing the operation's commanders with their own, about the time the prototype ship had launched.  Megatron had needed a vessel to replace his last command ship, the Warworld, damaged beyond repair in a battle at the Sol system. So much the better, apparently, if he got thirty-five more ships with it, and an army of cannon-fodder  troops to crew them. Under his direction, the construction was proceeding  apace and -- aside from Lexius making off with one of the ships --  without incident. The first complete ship would leave dock within a  month. 

 Starblast read further about Megatron's rise to power these last few years, after his seeming return from the dead a decade or so back.  Megatron -- along with several dozen other Transformers presumed lost eons ago -- had first reappeared on Earth, then disappeared again, only to pop up briefly on Cybertron before fading away yet again.  Finally, back on Earth, he'd rematerialized a third time and at last resumed command of the Decepticons, who had been united after the Unicron war by the warrior-chief Bludgeon.
 Starblast could have downloaded the file to himself, but felt that it was too risky, too likely to be detected by the cassettes. He knew he had  some power over the two, but it would be foolish to squander it  explaining away suspicious actions.  Starblast had also learnt that the two feared any of their misconduct being reported to a robot named Soundwave. Starblast had resolved to look the Decepticon up in the computer files, when he got the chance, and see just what it was that worried them so. 

 After some twenty-five minutes of sifting through info files, Starblast decided the "interrogation" facade had gone on long enough, and returned his mind to Dredge's body. He unplugged from the computer, and prepared to deliver another report of false data, from a "prisoner" who, in a sense, no longer existed.

*  *  *
 "Thirty-five?" Prime repeated.
 "Yes. Astounding, isn't it, and frightening as well," Treadmark nodded, as the vid-scan concluded.  "We dispatched a courier ship to the fleets to notify them, but they're not much better equipped than we are to deal with it. Lexius agreed with me that this was the biggest strategic threat the Autobots face right now, and that destroying their shipyards should be a top priority."

 "You're certain the fleets will not deal with them?"
 "Prime, you just saw my memories of the things.  And I saw vid-scans from Lexius of the place they're being built.  They're on a completely different scale than the ships of our fleet. Our very biggest ships are maybe five miles in length -- and we don't have many of those. These cruisers are four times that length, and a lot bigger in girth and volume -- and who knows how much stronger in firepower. Our ships would be slaughtered.  Sojourn survived -- barely -- because she's built to be virtually indestructable.  But most of our ships are nowhere near that degree of durability.  And with the current beurocratic mentality of the fleet commanders, it could be months before action is taken.  If we're to have a chance against them, we must come up with more resources than we already have.  And we've got to act on our own." 

 "You're suggesting we fight brute force with an equal brute force?"

 "Yes, if there was a way," Treadmark supported his head on one arm, wearily, "but I don't see how it could be done. The first of the ones from the shipyards could likely be finished in a few months or weeks.  I don't know how long it would take to build a counter-force, but I'm certain it could not be ready in that span of time." 

 "Constructing a force on the scale of those ships would indeed take years," Rewind said helpfully. He seemed completely nonplussed by the vids Treadmark had shown them. "During the Starship Wars, the typical construction time for a four-mile cruiser was three-point-seven-two years. Of course that was before the debut of the Bravo-Two construction drone, which cut construction times by a margin of thirty-seven percent for the purely mechanical systems, and twenty-two point four percent for computer, power, and electrical systems, yielding a combined decrease --" 

 "Let's not dwell on what we can't do.  So, they will lauch within a few months," Prime said.  "Like it or not, we may have to resort to constructing a counter-force.  Rewind, do you think you could help us locate an appropriate system?"

 "I believe so, yes," Rewind answered.  "Our best bet would be to put it in deep space somewhere, and there's plenty of that out there. There are several attractive areas currently around Cybertron.  Then there is the Frankall tract, a region of empty space historically void because of --" 

 "It needs to be near a star," Prowl managed to cut in. "It's going to take a lot of energy." 

 "Also," Treadmark threw in, "It will need a ready supply of raw material." 

"Ah, that's true.  Hmm.  Empty star systems with raw materials lying about... Say, if time is of such importance, why build new ships, when we have old ones lying around out there?" 

 The others stared at him for a moment. "Explain," Prime asked. 

 "Many of the vessels from the old starship wars still exist," Rewind  said. "Some crashed on planets; others were abandoned for various  reasons. If we could find some of those ships..."

 "It would be much faster than building new ones," Prowl murmurred. 

 "Where do we look?" Treadmark asked. "If these ships were so easy to  find, someone would have dug them up a long time ago."

 Prime's answer was a name. "Nightbeat," he said. "Rewind, if you can  provide enough information on some of these ships, I'd bank that  Nightbeat can find one of them for us."

 Rewind considered for a moment, consulting the vast data storage matrix  in his chest, assimilating what he'd pulled up. "Sounds reasonable. Based  on Nightbeat's past accomplishments, I'd say he could probably work  something up from the data I have. He's pulled off more arcane miracles  before, like the time he single-handedly kept the technology of the  space-bridge out of Decepticon hands, delaying their possession of it  until quite recently. Then of course under your command he was  instrumental in locating both Ratch--"

 "I will call him in at once," Prime cut off Rewind's discourse for  reasons of urgency, and reasons of his own.

-  -  -
 The fires were thinner. Lexius's tormented mind had nearly traveled beyond them, had nearly reached their beginning, the beginning of his legacy of death. His mind drove him onwards through his past, heading for an oblivion which his conscience demanded, which his troubled soul craved, the only concievable route to peace.  It would not be long, now. He approached the place where the fires, the murders and deaths, had begun. He saw the site of the first battle he had ever witnessed. He skimmed past his own roll in it, a neophyte to the art of war, hesitantly stumbling across the battlefield, firing.  He went back, back, ever further back... 

 Time seemed to slow and suspend itself. The greatest agony of all, now.  The first killing. The first life he had ever taken, the deed he could never undo. The drama, so long forgotten, so long suppressed and buried, unfolded before his mind.

-  -  -
  Nightbeat was an average-sized blue Autobot with yellow trim, who specialized in detective work.  At the moment, he was bored out of his senses.  "Demarkator," he read off a list.

 "Demarkator," Rewind echoed.  He paused for a moment, accessing the crystalline data storage matrix in his chest, a system which, Nightbeat had observed, had an inexhaustable capacity to record useless information.  "Commissioned 444.238.009.  Length fourteen miles, five main guns.  Crew size thirteen hundred.  First combat service was at --"

 "What happened to it?" Nightbeat said.

 "Right.  Lost at the battle of B'n-ye.  She took several direct hits, and crashed on a planet whose energon levels were so high she had to be abandoned.  Most of the crew ejected in orbital pods and were rescued."

 "Add it to the salvage list," Nighbeat said.  "Desacrator."

 "Desacrator.  AOL class, length nineteen miles, seven main guns.  Lost in S-Stinbr'kahr cluster, where there's virtually no light since most of the stars have been destroyed by black holes.   Despite numerous and repeated warnings, and despite the fact that the area is well-documented, the ship passed too close to one of the black holes and erupted in flames before being sucked in and destroyed.   No-one had any clue what the captain was thinking."

 Nightbeat marked a list of his own, and read off the next ship.  "Destructor."

 "Destructor.  Length twelve miles, four main guns.  Destroyed in battle in the Dugdellin system, while defending the archives of alien technology located there.  The archives are amazing, by the way, the largest collection of obscure --"

 "Detente," Nightbeat cut him off.
 "Detente.  Length two miles --"

 "Forget it.  Deterent."

 "Deterent.  Length seventeen miles, three main guns.  Natives of the R'kcha nebulas helped the Decepticons board and capture the ship during the Syr Pynt incident."

 "Huh.  They actually helped the Decepticons capture the ship?"

 "Yes.  The R'kchae are very adamant in their support of the Decepticons."

 "Hmph.  So did we get it back?"

 "No.  The ship was finally destroyed by Autobot ships after a prolonged and tactically brilliant battle."

 Yet another mark on Nightbeat's list. "Detonator."

 "Detonator... length fourteen miles, eight main guns.  Crew size three thousand, four hundred --"

 "What happened to it?"

 "Right.  Destroyed at the battle of  D V'nd'm, where it had been assigned to test out new equipment designs.  One of the stranger batttles I've heard of, actually."

  "Ugg.  Five in a row.  This is not very encouraging."
 "Don't worry, we still have several thousand ships to sort through."

 Nightbeat didn't say anything for a long, long moment; it was fortunate that Optimus Prime entered just then.  Treadmark followed behind him.

 "How goes the search?" Prime asked.

 "Excellently," Rewind said.  "We have analyzed data for over a thousand ships so far, and marked several dozen for possible salvage, and eliminated the remainder as destroyed."

 "He means terribly," Nightbeat said, recovering.  "We've got a list of a few ships that we might get some spare parts from, if we can find them.  Otherwise, nothing."

 "Don't give up yet.  Even salvage is a help."

 "But it's not what I was hoping for," Nightbeat sighed.  

 "I know you're giving it your all.  Keep it up.  Is there anything we can get for you?"

 "Not a thing, thanks," Rewind said.  Nightbeat simply shook his head 'no', obviously restraining himself from saying more.

 "Very well.  Carry on... and good luck."  Prime exited with Treadmark.

 "He is distinctly unhappy," Treadmark commented as the doors shut behind them.

 "Nightbeat prefers working on his own," Prime explained.  "Working so long with a partner on such a tedious job is bound to be weighing heavily on him.  But he's the best investigator on Cybertron, and our best bet for turning up something."

 "You do not sound optimistic," Treadmark said, leadingly.

 "No, it's just that... I am worried.  It is possible they will come up empty-handed, and I am uncertain where that leaves us," Prime said, surprised to find how much he was opening up to this Autobot.  "We have no defenses against firepower of that magnitude. If they choose to attack Cybertron..." he shuddered at the thought. 

 "Cybertron?  Optimus, they are going to attack somewhere.  It doesn't matter where; it doesn't matter if it's Cybertron or some organic planet we've never heard of.  Lives will be lost!  We cannot sit back and wait for them to come to us.  If this tact fails, we'll have think of another.  Somehow we have to find a way to stop them before they can strike," Treadmark insisted. 

 Prime stared for a moment, startled by Treadmark's passion. He thought  back to his argument with Lexius, the argument that had ended with  Lexius's mental collapse. He had accused Lexius's generation of being  unconcerned with life, of having lost sight of the Autobots' principles. Yet here was a close friend of Lexius, of the same generation, more concerned with the safety and protection of lives he'd never seen, than with that of his own home world. 

 "You feel strongly about this," Prime observed at last.

 Treadmark nodded.  "Of course.  Wouldn't any Autobot?"

 "I thought Lexius was typical of your breed: lost, amoral, as unfeeling as the Cybertronians, and seeking   only one battle after another," Prime said.  "I thought that this 'Joining' process had done to your generation of Autobots the same thing that 'budding' has done to the Cybertronians, deprived them of all emotional response."

 "Optimus, Joining is done out of mutual affection and feeling between the participants," Treadmark said.  "If anything it engenders stronger emotional feeling in its creations, not weaker."

 "I see... Yes, I am beginning to believe that I was wrong.  Though in that case, I don't know why Primus made us forget it as well.  To constrain our numbers, perhaps?"

 "Perhaps because the process can go violently astray," Treadmark said.  "Decepticons have been created by Autobots before, when particular, random negative thoughts surfaced at the moment the Joined minds were replicated."

 Prime nodded.  "Then what I have long suspected and hoped is true... we are truly one race."

 "Or... maybe it is because it was simply forgotten.  There are no females on Cybertron today, correct?"

 "Indeed.  It has been that way for as long as I know."

 "No it hasn't.  Female Autobots were ruthlessly hunted before the Exodus, almost to the point of extinction.  Only those that got off-planet survived.  Maybe, in time, with no femmes around, the Autobots on Cybertron simply and quite literally forgot."

 "Perhaps.  But in truth, the why matters little at this point.  What matters is, I owe you -- and Lexius -- an apology.  I think I may know why he has collapsed as he has. It isn't his generation that is lost -- it is him..."

#  #  #  #  # # # # #####***---...
 In jet mode, Terminus swooped low, twisting and spinning madly, racing only a few feet above the ground.  Lexius was right behind him, matching every move.

 "You're gonna have to do better than that, bro'!" he shouted mirthfully.

 "Wrong.  You're gonna have to do better," Terminus shouted back.  He suddenly dropped his feet out from below his jet form, thrusters blasting, and skidded to an abrupt halt on the ground.

 But Lexius was just as fast, transforming to robot mode as he shot past, whirling around till he was sailing backwards.  The two Autobots drew an imaginary bead on each other at virtually the same time.  "Bang," Lexius said, grinning.  "You're dead."

 "Take off.  You're just as dead as I am."

 "Nope.  You didn't think to shoot till I said something," Lexius grinned triumphantly, setting down.

 "I think you both should be dead," a third Autobot, Windmill, teased as he cruised up and landed at a far safer speed.  "The way you two fly..."

 "Oh, get out!  We gotta figure out what we can do," Terminus explained with a smile.  

 "Yeah," Lexius jerked a thumb towards his brother.  "And I've gotta figure out how to do it better than him."  He and Terminus had only been functioning for a week, and they were still learning the capabilities of their jet forms, still taking insane risks to learn just how far they could push their bodies.  Terminus mainly did it for the thrills; he had proven willing to take any dare that was put up to him.  For Lexius, the motivation was different.  In his one week of existence, he had discovered one thing above all else: he loved to fly.  And he was very good at it.

 "You should come for a chase run with us some time," he said to Windmill.  "They're fun.  Great way to learn, too.  Did you know that if you switch to robot form at top speed, you have almost a whole second to get turned around and get the drop on the other guy, before you really start to fall?"

 Terminus wore a look of triumph.  "Ha!  Lex here found that out the hard way this morning.  I hosed him."

 "That's crazy.  Why not just pull a tight loop and come in behind him?" Windmill asked.  

 "Come on, that's so passe," Terminus said with exaggerated boredom.  "We were doing that two days ago."  That not withstanding, it wasn't meant to be a fair challenge.  Windmill was built to turn in almost no space at all -- it was his specialty.

 "Anyway, we've got all this weaponry in robot mode," Lexius said.  "We're supposed to know how to use it."  He made a face that let them know what he thought of that.  Lexius had no use for weapons; he wanted nothing that didn't let him fly faster and better.
 "Well, at the risk of sounding indoctrinated, just what do you think we're here for?" Windmill asked, still smiling.

 "Oh, to party, definately," Terminus said immediately.

 "To have as much fun as much of the time as possible," Lexius added.

 "To scale the greatest heights!  To conquer the unconquerable!" Terminus pronouced with exaggerated mellowdrama.

 "To live the dream!  To fulfill the vision!  To uphold the code!  Blah blah blah!" Lexius continued in the same vein, as Windmill barely contained his laughter.
 Terminus's face suddenly fell.  He looked with mock seriousness at Lexius.  "Nah... forget it, let's just stick with partying."

 "Yeah, partying.  And the fun bit, that sounds good.  But scratch the vision and stuff," Lexius said.

 "Fun and partying, that's why we're here," Terminus pronouced with certainty.

 "And blah blah blah."

 Windmill shook his head and chuckled.  "You two goofs, if they actually let you graduate from the war college, you'll never --"

 And then, with no warning at all, Windmill was dead.  A barrage of plasma beams seared through him from behind, tearing him to pieces.  His body collapsed into smoking, flaming rubble.  It was over in less than five seconds.

 Five hunter-seeker airships streaked overhead, howling a mix of laughter and war-cries.  Lexius and Terminus stared in horror. The skies above were suddenly filled with Decepticons.  

 No-one had considered the possibility of a Decepticon attack. The Autobot War College had always been well-hidden, and moved frequently.   But somehow, a lost, retreating contingent of  Decepticons, looking for something to take their anger out on, had stumbled upon the secretive encampment.

  They swept in from the skies, firing, preceded by a hail of missiles and photon fire, cutting down student and teacher alike. A dozen Autobots died in the first seconds alone.  The survivors scrambled for shelter in confusion, or took to the skies for a disorderly counterattack.

 Lexius found himself in a kind of shocked, stunned pause as the firing began, a state which slowly succumbed to horror.  He wasn't afraid, but rather paralyzed; he could do nothing but stare uncomprehendingly at the ashes that had been Windmill.  Terminus shook off his own shock, charged up his weapons, and was about to leap into the sky when he noticed that Lexius wasn't following.
 "Lex, come on, eh, let's move!" Terminus called.

 "Ah -- ah -- Wi -- Windmill --"

 "Lexius, come on, we've got to go!" Terminus shouted at him.  He bounded over beside his brother, and shook his arm for emphasis, but Lexius remained stock-still.  "Come on!  We can't help him!"  Another group of seekers was heading for them, already firing their deadly plasma cannons.

 "I -- I -- I --" 

 "Lexius --" Terminus stopped, and turned to the approaching enemy.  "Hey you slagheads!  Thisaway, eh!"  Terminus fired his concussion blasters at the seekers and launched.  The group soared after him, ignoring the immobile Lexius.

 What are you doing?! Lexius screamed at himself.  Autobots were dying -- Terminus was up there, risking his life for him -- Windmill was dead, there wasn't a thing he could do for him.  He had to do something, but... what?  He knew the answer.

 I can't do it!  I can't just shoot at a total stranger and try to kill them!  I can't do what they just did!  Lexius hesitated, unable to join in the slaughter.  The thought of doing to someone else what had just been done to Windmill was simply too much for him.

 Terminus swung past just then, half of the squad still on his tail; in less than a minute he'd lost or shot down the others.  He was agile and quick, but it was clear that the numbers were against him -- he'd also  taken a lot of hits, and no-one was around to help him.  As Lexius watched, he switched to robot form, spun and trap-shot one of the Decepticons, and transformed back to jet mode.  But he'd pulled the same trick one too many times.  The others fired and nailed him in the thrusters as he swung back onto his flight path.  Terminus yelped in pain as he spiraled out of control, and crashed to the ground in flames.

 Terminus transformed and tried to rise to his feet, but the blasts had disabled his legs.  He collapsed in a heap.  "Lex... help," Terminus radioed to him, weakly.

 "Terminus!" Lexius shouted, finally spurred to action.  "Hang on, I'm --"

 Whatever action his mind planned, however, was too slow to keep the four remaining seekers from blasting Terminus with their powerful  cannons.  The barrage left nothing but flames -- no doubts, no life.  The seekers soared past without even a pause, moving on to another target.

 Lexius gaped at what had been his brother, certain his systems would explode from rage if he moved an inch.

 Another student soared overhead, with the same group of hunter-seekers on  his tail.  Lexius recognized the Autobot.  It was an older student, one who'd been there nearly the full two months, nearly  ready for his first assignment with the vast Autobot armies.  Aside from Terminus, he was easily the finest flier Lexius had trained with.  His name was Starblast.

  Starblast dodged and swerved amazingly, then turned and climbed, streaking straight upwards.  At the top of his climb he let a trio of missiles go; he came to a stop in mid-air and fell backwards with them, towards the following Decepticons.  Starblast pealed off an instant before there was a collision; the missiles stayed the course and plowed into one of the seekers, knocking him from the sky.  But the other three split in different directions, and converged on Starblast from all sides.  One of the Decepticons caught him with a plasma burst.  The Autobot came crashing down, trailing smoke and flame.

  Starblast survived his landing and transformed to robot form before collapsing on the ground, his gun in his hand.  He opened fire as the Decepticons tried to strafe him as they'd done Terminus.  The Decepticons scattered, then assumed their own ground forms and landed nearby, their weapons at the ready.

 "UH-uh.  Not this time," Lexius snarled quietly.

 He looked down at his inconspicuous wrist-mounted concussion blasters, the potentially lethal wrist blades... no, they would not do. He reached into the tiny  portion of subspace that was his alone, and withdrew an object, a long, heavy particle beam cannon, his most powerful weapon. He'd not used it before. He hefted it, feeling its weight, then charged it up and moved in. 

 Starblast had actually taken down one of the Decepticons with his chain-gun, but the others had him pinned, and were toying with him, laughing at him, slowly blasting him to pieces. Lexius was aghast. Did they always laugh? Did they laugh at those they killed, too? Had they laughed at Terminus, and Windmill, and all the others he'd seen die these past minutes?  Let them laugh at this, Lexius thought grimly. He stopped, took careful aim at the back of one of the Decepticon's heads. 

 And hesitated.

 Was it right? To kill someone from behind? To murder a fellow living being at all? The doubts flooded up again. Perhaps he should warn them first.  That was only fair... 

 The Decepticon raised his rifle butt, and swung it towards Starblast's face. It would smash through the optic visor, and the Decepticon would fire, and Starblast's brain would be destroyed, and he would die. Unless...

 NO!  Lexius fired without a doubt, without hesitation, without remorse.

 The shot passed completely through the Decepticon's head, vaporizing the brain module that had held the robot's personality and will. The Decepticon's life was irretrievably over, destroyed in a second by Lexius's single action. It was that easy: pull a trigger, end a life. The lifeless, mindless body -- an empty shell, now -- collapsed in a heap on the ground.  The Decepticon was dead.  But Starblast was alive. 

 Lexius barely remembered the rest of the battle, what had happened... he or Starblast, one, had disposed of the third Decepticon. They had fought on; the attackers had, at cost, been driven off. Lexius had killed several more times.  But the first, the first had been the One, the threshold irretrievably crossed.

 Later, he'd grieved at length for Terminus, and Windmill, and the others he'd known that had died that day.  It had been his first taste of death.   Lexius devoted the rest of his time in the War College to doggedly absorbing everything he could about the business of war, resolving that the Decepticons would be stopped, and that no one would ever again go through what he had just experienced because of them.

 He had not long thought about how or why he killed, from then onward.  He remembered one lesson from that battle, above all: hesitation equaled death, the death of friends and comrades or potentially himself.  If the Decepticons were there, they had to be killed -- or else.  That was the way of things. 

 But he saw now, that was not the way of things. He saw something completely different.  He had come full circle. 

 Don't you remember?! You fight, and you kill, to save other lives! THAT is why you do it, that's the ONLY possible justification for it! Any other reason, and you are lost, the thing that makes you what you are, dies!

 Lexius had expected to die at the end of this journey through the past,  to be killed by the same conscience that had tormented him with the  entire experience. But instead, he was being born anew. He was  remembering now.

 Life, LIFE is what matters...

-  -  -
 Alone in his tiny med cubicle, Lexius stirred for the first time in two days (the motion eliciting an excited beeping from the monitoring chair), and moaned from his mental torment. He was alone in the darkness, but he had his life. He had much more, in fact, than he had ever expected. 

 He rose slowly, and silently renewed a vow he'd taken long ago. A vow he'd long forgotten. A vow whose neglect would burden him the rest of his existence. 

 Lexius solemnly vowed to protect life, always.

********************* END PART FOUR****************************
On to Part 5