The Corrosion of War Without End
Epilogue

Counterpunch felt some trepidation as he approached the clones' deep space station for the first time in months. He had been gone for months, and he really had no explanation. He did have the conviction of being right, however. If things went according to plan, he would need no explanation. And some old-standing wrongs would be put right at last. If he could get inside the station.

Punch, on the other hand, had doubts about the entire plan. It seemed wrong, somehow. But he told himself that, in the grand scheme of things, it was the right thing to do. The good it would bring to the universe was worth the immorality of the act itself. He tried not to consider whether it would be worth the burden he would bear for his actions.

He had no difficulty docking his ship. Good, he thought. Perhaps I am no longer suspect. Or, perhaps this is a trap.

But, as he entered the station, no blasters fired on him; no alarms sounded; no shields or screens sprang up around him. The airlock doors simply slid apart at his approach. He confidently strode forwards.

Several hallways and turns later, he arrived at the clones' command chamber. Part of his mind noticed that the damage from the fire fight had been repaired; there was no indication of the explosion and shots he and Grotusque traded with the clones there some months ago. But most of him was focused on the task at hand.

The clones turned as he entered, unannounced. No surprise registered on their faces; they of course would have been aware of his arrival from the very start. Counterpunch walked towards them, bracing himself.

"You've returned at last," Wingspan said. "About time, too. You better have a damn good explanation for where you've been the last two months."

Counterpunch's response was swift, decisive, and violent. He grabbed the clone by the neck, and threw him to the ground.

"What are you doing?!" Pounce rasped, stepping away uncertainly.

"You failed," Counterpunch said, turning on him. "You had the spy in your grasp... and he escaped! How big of fools are you?!"

"You cannot blame us for this failure, we -- "

Pounce never finished the statement. Counterpunch cracked his head with his rifle, the same titanic weapon he'd obtained at the shipyard. The blow knocked Pounce to the floor; Counterpunch stepped on his chest and placed the rifle barrel against the clone's face. "Accountability is the responsibility you carry with you in this job. You know the penalty for failure," he said.

Pounce squirmed in sudden terror, reminding Counterpunch of some of the clone's past victims. He knew the shot would hardly even be slowed by Pounce's head; it would go straight through it, rendering it indistinguishable from the deck plates. The despicable villain would be gone from the universe forever. Counterpunch's finger squeezed the trigger -- but a small, planitive cry from the part of his mind that called itself Punch restrained him, kept him from moving it the final few millimeters.

"But I trust you not to fail again," he said, stepping away, lowering the rifle. He waved the fearsome-looking gun in Wingspan's direction. "You like information, yes? Know then that I could kill you both in an instant, without a second thought. Know that you are always under my command, and that your lives continue only on my mercy."

Pounce started to rise from the deck, but Counterpunch kicked him down again, pointing the rifle in his direction once more. "And know that you are never to act without my specific authorization again, or else you will both disappear without a trace, and no-one will be the wiser. I am your master first and foremost. Never forget that."

"Yes sir," Pounce stammered, the first time Counterpunch ever remembered seeing him truly intimidated.

"Get up," he ordered the clones. "There is much work to be done."

Indeed, Punch thought, as the two shaken Decepticons picked themselves up off the deck. He had just made his job infinitely harder than it would have been otherwise. But while his mind would continue to work feverishly to circumvent the clones' future plans against the Autobots, his soul could rest easily with the knowledge that he had followed his convictions, and done right.

* * *
He gazed down onto the streets, and out over the metal city which had sprung up around Cybertron's primary spaceport. Below him, thousands of robots were visible in the streets, walking, flying, driving, hovering. Beings like him, robots, Transformers. Autobots. Beings not like him, living peaceful lives.

From his vantage point, in the observation deck of New Iacon's towering central spaceport, he could see the entire city, all the way to its distant edge. Even though marred by the Decepticons' attack of three months before, the silvered plains stretching out beyond the city were very beautiful, Lexius mused. He'd miss them. They belied the hidden menaces beyond...

From out there, from the vast uninhabited tracts of metallic plains and mountains where the likes of Fortress Maximus once hid out in order to survive, reports had come over the last few months since the battle, reports of a new Decepticon menace on Cybertron, robots who had survived the destruction of their ships during the fight perhaps, and somehow gotten to the surface alive. There had been only skirmishes so far, but Lexius knew it would lead to more, and more. Peace was nowhere to be found, really. That was why he couldn't stay. He couldn't live with the illusion.

They're like barnacles, Lexius smiled to himself. You scrape them off of a planet, but in the end, they just grow back... His mind paused, recognizing the path he was heading down. No, he decided after a moment. They're not, they're living beings, with thoughts and desires and feelings like us. They just want different things, and have different ways of getting them. It's just that we can't let them do it that way. The only real difference is our attitudes, our beliefs...

We really are one race. We have so much more in common than in difference! What a shame that we cannot come to a meeting of minds; what a tragedy. Perhaps one day...

"Lexius," a voice called to him. The commander turned away from the window and his thoughts, to see Optimus Prime approaching him. He noted the regal severity of his gait, a stern dignity imparted by knowledge and wisdom won at a hard cost.

"Prime," he said, simply.

"You are leaving?" the Autobot leader asked.

"Yes." Lexius wondered how he'd found out; he had kept the news rather quiet. "Tomorrow, actually. I'm waiting for a shuttle up to the ship."

"Your ship is barely ready, though --"

"Sojourn is combat-ready and fully crewed. We finished up the final checks yesterday, and lifting off of Cybertron a month ago was enough of a test for the engines."

Prime nodded. "Is your crew prepared to leave so soon?"

"The ones that haven't decided to stay here for good are ready to go. They know we need to get back out there. There are still four or five of those battleships that didn't show up at Cybertron, and the one other that got away. Right now Sojourn's the only ship that stands a chance against them."

"But will you be able to find them?"

"Before he left, Punch said he'd see what he could do. He gave us a report to drop off to the fleets, and he thinks he can get a new data link running before long."

"What will you do till then?"

"Something. I don't know." He paused a moment. "We can't go back to the old way of attacking, at least I can't. But there are still the Decepticon fleets. And the missing battleships."

"Lexius, why not stay a while on Cybertron? This is a chance to live in peace for a time," Prime asked. "A unique chance, a chance you've never known. Others will carry the fight on meanwhile. You've done more than your share of fighting."

Lexius met the taller Autobot's gaze with many layers of emotion: warmth, respect, understanding. "No," he finally answered. "I, I can't, there are..." he fumbled for the right words, "There are lives out there that... need protecting." He hoped he'd said it right, that Prime would see.

Prime did see; he saw the change. "I understand," he said. Lexius percieved many shadings of depth in the two words, many meanings. The two robots grasped hands in friendship, then parted in respectful silence.

- - -
It had been more than half a year since the last time Sojourn's bridge crew was fully assembled, Lexius realized as entered the ship's nerve center. He paused in the doorway, gazing over his domain, his home. Starblast, in his second replacement body in as many months, stood behind his sub-command station, calmly taking readings. Treadmark, also rebuilt, and still sober as ever, kept a quiet watch over the back monitors. Grotusque, Sidetrack, and Rollbar were all lounging casually to one side, talking among themselves of the past few months' adventures, and waiting for the ship's departure. Tuner, Beacon, Focus, and Pixel were busily working at their usual consoles. Seated at other consoles were two faces new to Sojourn's bridge: Splice and Fanblade, who had signed on the moment they heard that Lexius had survived the final battle. Far below, in engineering, Quickmix would be fussing over the ship's new engines, waiting to carry out Lexius's flight orders.

Lexius looked over his crew, taking in the bridge, the monitors, the glowing planet outside the viewports. He smiled, knowing that Lash and Sureshot were down there somewhere, trying to make a new life together, one of peace -- the kind of peace he feared he'd never know. He wished them luck.

He savored the brief moment. Part of him was not ready to return to the war, would never be ready. This would be his last chance to truly indulge that part of himself. Here, he and his ship and his crew were safe. Here there was peace.

"Full power to all flight systems," he ordered, walking forwards to the commander's seat. "Take us out."

The ship's power systems came up all around them, the new engines vibrating the decks lightly. Lexius took a last look at the silvery world before them. Cybertron slid by sideways as the ship cleared its dry dock, then disappeared from view as the ship turned away, preparing to leave orbit. Lexius didn't look back, but he framed the sight in his mind, a sparkling jewel, something he wanted to remember, something he would carry with him through all his future battles.

Sojourn thrust herself to the stars.

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                 **************** THE END ****************
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