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Poles Apart



Poles Apart


   As the small orange sphere in the display slowly grew larger, the five Transformers previously scattered around the shuttle assembled at the bridge of the Terbios and set to the task of landing. While the Terbios was large enough for its crew of five Micromasters, the small shuttle was laden with supplies and equipment, and the stockpile of energon on board made them all nervous to some extent, since it made them a more attractive target for space pirates and a little more likely to be incinerated if attacked. An exploding ship was one thing, a ship filled with energon was another matter entirely.

Standing over the navigation console was Retro, a crimson and turquoise front-half combiner with a crane alt mode. Retro is the type of Autobot who's been around long enough to have seen and heard it all, which had led to him being assigned commander of the mission. While it was a small crew, the position was one Retro took seriously, since amongst his crew only Erector could be considered wise and experienced.

"Well, there she is, 'Bots, the wonderful world of Aranct. Better get used to orange," Retro proclaimed as he turned to face the other Autobots in the small bridge of his vessel.

In the middle of the grey room stood Gusher, an orange and black rear-half combiner with a blue shovel bucket over his head - a clue to his excavator alt mode. A loud and brash Autobot, Gusher was the type of Transformer who always spoke his mind, even if it wasn't always the best course of action.

"I hope this place has a clean atmosphere. Phenxut was awful. Duststorms more often than not. How the locals managed to evolve in such a place is still a mystery to me. The place left me in need of serious jointwork. It wasn't any better for you, Pipeline?" said Gusher, somewhat out of turn.

Pipeline, a quiet, withdrawn, Autobot, was Gusher's front-half partner, who had grown increasingly frustrated with his partner since they had been paired up. Their partnership had progressively drawn Pipeline more and more out of his shell, although he still liked to avoid showing too much of himself to other Autobots.

Pipeline's orange and crimson figure was tucked away in a corner of the bridge, against the communications console. It was, by Pipeline's reckoning, the closest thing to a hiding place this small bridge offered him. Pipeline winced at the question from his partner and simply smiled, trying to avoid getting into yet another argument with Gusher in this confined space.

"Don't worry, you'll fit right in, although we might lose you two in an orange sandstorm, Gusher!" remarked Surge, the other crimson Autobot standing alongside the commander, with a grin on his face. Surge was the perfect compliment to Retro - a young and eager Autobot who was keen to learn as much as he could from his more experienced partner, who in turn always had time for his protégé's questions.

Gusher's response to this quip was to lunge towards the beaming Surge, although he was quickly restrained by Pipeline and Erector, the only non-combiner member of the Terbios's crew.

Erector, like Retro, was an experienced Autobot, one who had no tolerance for conflict but understood the necessity of stopping the Decepticons. Well liked by his colleagues, Erector was a good fighter despite his reservations.

"Ok enough playing around guys," said Retro, albeit with a smile on his face. "We've got to get ourselves landed and get this stuff into operation. I've switched to manual controls and will get us heading towards the southern pole. Erector, can you radio down to Ironworks and Hothouse, let them know we're here and tell them to get that tracking signal going so we can find them."

Erector, the yellow member of the quintet, headed towards the communications array, from which Pipeline receded, "Will do Retro. Thanks Pipeline. Terbios to A55 come in A55. Terbios to A55 come in."

Erector's broadcast was met with an awkward silence, followed by an even more awkward babble from the speaker, most of which was static. Amongst the ramble, it was apparent that they had been answered, "we'll turn the signal..." the transmission briefly drifted into static "Hot House enough, turn it off."

Hot House and Ironworks had been on Aranct for just under a terrestrial year, establishing A55, a communication relay which would allow the Autobots' communications net to extend further across the galaxy. When finished the relay would be automated, but until then the slightly eccentric Ironworks was building the facility and the excitable Hot House defending it, with the help of a few other Micromasters under their joint command. The project was nearing completion, and the Terbios was bringing a fresh supply of energon and some building supplies - including the all important solar modules that would allow self-sufficiency for the automated outpost.

Slightly larger than the Saturnian moon Titan, Aranct was not a good place for Energon production, and with no local industry, any spare parts would have to be bought in - as Retro and his crew were currently doing.

Evidently Erector was satisfied with the garbled response from A55. He turned to his shipmates, "Wow, you got to feel for Ironworks, spending all that time with Hot House, no doubt listening to Hot's constant rambling for cycles on end. OK, I'm getting the signal although it's fairly weak."

"I've got it also, although it's pretty weak. They must be inside a slaggin' mountain or something," said Surge, surprised at the level of static in the transmission.

"Well, that was the idea, Surge. If it's hard for us to locate then it's harder for the Decepticons to sniff out. Countdown was pretty adamant, it had to be well hidden. Hiding it from the locals is also a good idea, keep them from doing something stupid like biting a cable," Retro replied.

"Biting through a cable? Are they sentient or savage?!" Gusher said with unnecessary alarm.

"Well, it seems their not quite sentient, although they're very much on the way," Erector replied. "They're hunting and starting to develop fixed agriculture, but lack any real technology from what Ironworks has reported. Countdown's main concern was that dealing with them could be difficult, since the concept of diplomacy is probably new..."

Erector was cut off by a loud boom as the shuttle shook violently.

"What the slag was that!?" asked Surge, glued to the spot where he was standing.

Retro took charge, "Gusher, man the weapons array. You too, Pipeline. Do what you can. I think our secret's out - there's a 'Con ship on tail. And it's a lot bigger than us. Erector, what can you tell us?"

Erector analysed the radar display, "It's big. I don't think we can take it, and with this thing weighted down we're too close to the planet for us to really shake it off our tail. There's too much gravity for us to try outmanoeuvre it with all the weight onboard."

"OK, well I'm heading away from the pole. Might as well head north, maybe we can find some canyons to shake them or... something. Surge, the cargo!"

Without any further prompting, Surge transformed into his crane mode and zoomed off to both secure the cargo and prepare for an evacuation. After coming all this way on a supply mission, abandoning their cargo wasn't really a preferred option. Sitting in the small cargo hold were the mobile basestations belonging to the combiners as well as Erector's crane trailer-gun emplacement.

Pipeline and Gusher's Tanker Transport was the primary reason they were chosen for the mission, since it would allow the crew to abandon ship without dumping the energon. Even in its battle station mode, its segmented tank could store fuel. It was this tank that Surge connected the ship's energon tanks to. He began transferring the Energon and began preparing the tanker for an evacuation.

Once the transfer was underway, Surge began tying the solar modules onto the black and yellow Missile Launcher Transport. The solar modules were quite flat and wouldn't get in the way of the operation of the Missile Launcher Transport's weaponry. Lastly, Surge fastened the various canisters of spare parts and miscellany to Erector's yellow Trailer.

Surge knew that this was far from the ideal way to carry equipment - especially the sensitive solar modules, but he wasn't going to simply give them up without a fight, so he set about attaching parachute packs to the three trailers as explosions gently rocked the underbelly of the ship in which he was working.

Back on the bridge, Retro was trying desperately to prevent the Decepticon cruiser from getting a decent shot at the Terbios. As heavy as the ship was, he was swinging it around as much as he safely could. In the back of his mind Retro knew that abandoning ship was becoming the most realistic option available to him.

The comlink at the main console chirped to life and Surge's voice interrupted Retro's thoughts, "Ok, the energon's transferring, everything else is tied down. It's crude, but it'll do".

"Great Surge, we may yet need to bail out, too. I think we're outgunned," Retro said without hesitation. He turned to face his crew. Erector was sending a distress signal to the Autobots on Aranct, Gusher and Pipeline were busy arguing. "Aim for the cabin, not the engines. We can't take those," Gusher yelled at his partner.

"That thing is twice our size, out best bet is to incinerate it. The cockpit is too hard a target," Pipeline said calmly. "If we can damage a booster we'll stop it."

"What a load of slag. Give me that," Gusher said rudely as he reached over and grabbed Pipeline's controller stick. This caused the right side cannon to fire aimlessly across the bow of the large grey Decepticon cruiser. The Decepticons were not, however, as disorganised, and were raining down steady fire.

"Oh yeah, aim for the stars, Gusher. That'll work," Pipeline said, still sounding quiet calm.

"Come on you two, get it together. We're taking damage here, and I can't outrun this thing. Concentrate your firepower on the windows or hull guns. If we can't take it out, we'll have to blind them or disarm them," Retro said to the orange Micromasters, frustrated that they were fighting each other and not the nearby threat.

Erector's optics were glued to the diagnostics on his console, which told him that the shuttle was in trouble. He spun around and spoke to his commander, "Retro, we're losing energon fast. I don't think it's just the extra drain of the shields, I think it's leaking from the tank, although the sensors don't indicate a fuel tank breach."

"The energon's being transferred to our tanker isn't it?" Pipeline asked.

"Not the stuff we're flying on - no. That's isolated from the fuel cargo," responded Retro. "I think our options just narrowed, mechs," Retro grabbed the comlink, but Surge's voice came through the comlink before Retro opened his mouth.

"There's energon everywhere! We've been breached. We've got to..." started Surge, before was interrupted by his mentor.

"Abandon ship!" Retro said before turning towards Gusher and Pipeline. You two, leave the guns, I'll man those. Go get your tanker ready, prepare for emergency disengagement from the cargo door. Erector, scramble a message for Ironworks and join them. Once you're all there, pop the hatch and go."

Erector spun around, "I've already sent them a distress. I'll send an abandon ship. What about you?"

"Surge and I will stay here, fire a couple of our missiles at that thing to cover you. Most of the vital equipment should be on your trailer, Erector. If we can shield you with the shuttle, you should make it away safely. We'll meet up again once on Aranct. Head for the south pole, try and lay low. We'll rendezvous at the coms station. GO!" Retro grabbed the comlink again, "Surge?"

Surge's voice came through the comlink, "On my way. Everything's secure. What's the plan?"

"The others are abandoning ship. We'll cover them and then make haste ourselves. Bring the Missile Launcher to the bridge," said Retro.

"Will do. You're the boss! Surge out."

Gusher and Erector transformed and headed for the cargo bay of the Terbios, while Pipeline ran after them, remaining in robot mode. Retro tilted the shuttle so that the body of the vehicle was between the cargo door and the Decepticon cruiser. He then activated the autopilot and set the cruise control. He was now free to use the weapons console. Retro aggressively fired the left and right side weapons to provide cover fire, while waiting for his partner. No more than a few seconds passed before Surge arrived, pushing the giant missile launcher in his crane mode. As he stopped the launcher split into two sections.

"Good, now tear open this ship, use the gun emplacement, Surge," Retro kept up his strafing fire whilst keeping an eye on the cargo door console, which lit up momentarily, indicating that the others were evacuating.

Surge transformed into robot mode and used the front half of the launcher to cut a hole in the shuttle from the inside, firing through the roof of the bridge.

"OK, come on Retro!" said Surge as he reconnected the two halves of the Missile Launcher Transport.

Both Autobots transformed and connected to the launcher in vehicle mode, which lifted its missile array through the gaping hole of the roof, and fired two missiles in the direction of the attacking ship, the first detonated on impact, causing a bright explosion next to the craft, but no real damage to the ship itself.

"OK, that's our cue, abandon ship!" Retro said. Moments later the combined vehicle launched itself towards the cargo bay and through the gaping open cargo doors. Ten seconds later the second missile struck its target, with an equally bright explosion, sending debris past the rapidly descending Missile Launcher Transport. While the Decepticon cruiser wasn't destroyed the Autobots could see it was badly crippled, and wouldn't be pursuing them for the moment, at least.

The Terbios, meanwhile, continued on its path, and if uninterrupted would sit in orbit around Aranct until the crew returned, or the stabiliser rockets ran out of battery power. The damage done to the Decepticon cruiser meant they had more important issues to deal with than an empty Autobot shuttle.

****

The Tanker Transport came down to Aranct with a bit of a thud, despite the parachute backs hastily strapped on by Surge - he hadn't taken the fully laden weight into account, and had he been aware of the weight would have needed three parachutes, which was more than what was available to him.

Pipeline and Gusher detached from the ends of the tanker, and transformed from their shovel half modes into their robot modes. They looked at one another and then across the dusty orange surface of the planet to see Erector's heavily loaded crane mode land about 200 metres away, raising a cloud of orange smoke followed by a loud bang. The two Autobots again looked at each other, in horror, and ran towards their companion.

Gusher reached the cloud of dust first, before it had settled. "Erector? Are you OK?" His partner arrived a few seconds later, greeted by Gusher's voice booming from within the dustcloud, "I can't see anything except this damn orange dust!"

"Switch to UV, there's plenty of UV penetration," said Pipeline, who was relatively calm.

Erector was about halfway between the other two Autobots, battered but conscious. "Gusher? Pipeline? I'm... I'm here. I think next time I'll bring a pillow", he said with some effort.

"Are you functional? Where are... oh there you are. Your load looks more or less intact," said Pipeline, who immediately began inspecting the damage to Erector. A quick survey of Erector's mini debris field turned up little more than shreds of parachute and yellow metal fragments from Erector's armour. At least one spare parts canister had cracked, but Pipeline and Gusher were able to quickly retrieve most of the contents and jam them into other canisters.

"I'm functional..." said Erector, who paused to groan. "Internal diagnostics are reporting no systems damage, but there's a lot of armour damage and some superstructure damage to my cab." Erector began to transform his cab to robot mode, but was stopped by the structural damage. "Nope, I can't transform. Guess I'll have to roll," he said as he started his engines and slowly rolled a few metres.

Erector's cabin was visibly out of shape, but his trailer was largely undamaged, although there were scratches in the armour in spots. It was covered in spare parts canisters, the strapping constricting its transformation.

Gusher began removing the various canisters, in order to free up Erector's trailer, "What are you doing... we need those," Pipeline said.

"He's damaged, there's no point in weighing him down with all this junk," replied Gusher confidently.

"All that junk is the reason we're here, and you want to leave it here for the locals?" asked Pipeline crossly.

"I thought they weren't sentient," Gusher said, sweeping his hand around to highlight the barren, undulating orange landscape. "Anyway it's not like they're here to grab it now."

Erector interrupted, "Pipeline's right. We need to try and get this stuff to the southern pole, Gusher. Bots, can you replace my load, as unobtrusively as you can. I'll see if my trailer will still transform."

After about ten minutes of arguing between Gusher and Pipeline, interrupted by loading now and then, Erector was loaded and free to transform his trailer, which he managed to transformed slowly, but completely from crane to gun emplacement and back.

"Anyway, as for the locals, I'm sure they're around, probably waiting for us to move on, so they can investigate these strangers from the sky. We'll leave them the parachutes. And nothing else," said Pipeline, who then headed back to the Tanker Transport, "Let's get moving."

"Hiding where, Pipeline? You're unb..." said Gusher, still standing alongside Erector.

Erector again interrupted, "Look, the locals aren't worth arguing over. We know the Decepticons are aware of our presence in this quadrant and that's more of a concern than the curiosity of the locals. So let's get ourselves to the southern pole of this Primus-forsaken world and try find the outpost. With luck, we'll meet Retro and Surge there."

Gusher looked guiltily down at Erector's misshapen cab and sullenly transformed, headed to the back of the Tanker Transport and attached himself.

"So, Where to?" asked Pipeline.

The planet's surface was fairly featureless, in their current location at least. The landscape consisted of low rolling orange hills under a pale yellow sky, like a sepia photograph come to life. Of course, there wasn't a lot of life apparent. Some smaller brown plants dotted the landscape, a clump here and a thicket there, but mostly small compact bushes. The hardly, compact plant life suggested the duststorms here could get ferocious, and while there was no sign of the sort of moisture needed to support animal life, Countdown had given them a brief rundown on the dominant local animals - small creatures with some intelligence that seemed on the whole uninterested in Transformers. If there were any around here, they were certainly uninterested in meeting the Micromasters.

"South, I suppose," Gusher said uneasily in reply to Pipeline's question. "Except we don't know which way that is. Anyone know if this planet's magnetic poles line up with the axis of rotation?", he asked no-one in particular. And in kind, no-one answered.

"You know what we need - stars. If we wait till nightfall, we can look at the sky and we'll be able to work out which way we need to head," Erector said, breaking the silence. "For the moment, can you bots shift my load onto the tanker. I'll be a lot faster if my trailer only has to carry me and not this load."

****

Retro and Surge glided down to Aranct's surface slowly, landing gently. They were still in their vehicle modes, connected to the Missile Launcher Transport. They landed on what looked like a flood plain, a flat area flanked to the west by a line of orange hills, covered in brownery. Unlike the landing site of their colleagues, the local animals were visible, although they seemed undaunted by the crimson and yellow visitor from the sky.

It didn't take the Autobots long to work out where they needed to go, since Retro knew that the magnetic north pole of Aranct's magnetic field was within a few hundred metres of the true southern pole. Countdown had explained it all to him, but in the haste of evacuation he'd neglected to pass the knowledge on to his colleagues.

Retro may have forgotten to tell the others how to get themselves to the southern pole, but the magnetic field sensors onboard the Missile Launcher Transport, part of its guidance system, were able to assist him in navigation. He'd actually left the handheld sensors on the Terbios in the rush, so the inbuilt system would have to do.

"Ok, that ridge there, that runs more or less north to south, Surge, so we need to follow its orientation," Retro said to his partner.

"In other words, magnetic North?", asked Surge, who shared a much better rapport with Retro than Pipeline and Gusher shared.

"More or less, yeah. It'll get us close enough that we should be able to send out a weak signal to Ironworks so he can guide us home. You didn't happen to see where the others landed, did you?" asked Retro.

"No, they jumped a while before us, which means they'll be a fair way south from here," Surge replied.

The two motored off, passing various local lifeforms as they passed the line of hills. Most of the animals they saw were small, reptile-like creatures of various shapes, but every now and then they passed groups of the dominant creatures, who were larger than the others.

"They're really quite calm. Most of the time the wildlife on a planet is wary of extra-planetary visitors. It's as if this race hasn't learned to fear foreigners," Retro said as they passed through a group - numbering about twenty - of the dominant species.

All around him, the small black octopedal Aranctians fed on the plant life, ignoring the Autobots. The Aranctians were roughly 3 feet tall, smaller than the Micromasters, with radial symmetry and conical bodies, like brown Christmas trees on eight legs. Their conical bodies appeared to be featureless, and the creatures were built quite close to the ground. Their hardly looking bodies made sense in a dry environment frequented by duststorms with little cover.

The Aranctians were communicating verbally in a series of quiet squeals that were indecipherable to the Autobots. The language seemed quite simple, with little intonation.

"I'd love to see if we could communicate with these creatures, discover just where they're at, culturally," Surge said as they were driving away from the cluster of Aranctians. "But I guess we'll have do that later, once we get the cargo delivered - we'll have plenty of time here while we figure out how to get back off this planet."

While he was upbeat and cheerful, Surge realised that the lack of technology around him could make getting off the planet something of a challenge.

****

As night fell and the sky above them gradually changed from yellow to a dark blood red, Gusher's impatience was beginning to get the better of him, "OK, let's get moving already!"

"Patience, Gusher, Patience," said Pipeline calmly, hoping it would get darker. With Erector unable to do much other than drive, they were vulnerable and Pipeline felt travelling under the cloak darkness was their best option.

During the afternoon, they had seen some of the local inhabitants, some had even come up to and inspected Erector, chatting away to one another in a series of squeals unfamiliar to the trio of Autobots. Erector had been both unwilling and unable to swat the Aractians, instead choosing to try learn about their mannerisms and try scan their biology - although the latter proved difficult with the ambient dust in the air limiting his readings. He was able to determine that the life on the planet was carbon based, but different to the carbon life on Earth. The creatures would be oxygen breathers, since the atmosphere was roughly 20% oxygen, 30% carbon dioxide and 40% argon - not a mix that would work for Earthly creatures, although the supply of oxygen could make it adaptable.

Even at close proximity, the Aranctians had no visible features such as audio or visual receptors, nor could Erector see a mouth. Their speech seemed to emanate from underneath, leading Erector to surmise their sensory organs were underneath their bodies - which would explain their apparent disinterest in the Autobots.

Erector's thoughts were interrupted by the increasingly agitated Gusher, "I don't think it's going to get any darker, we might as well set off."

"He's right," said Erector. "This ambient light is as dark as I suspect this place is going to get. We might as well burn rubber and get as much travelling under our armour now as we can, since we don't know how long this night cover will last."

And with that the three Autobots headed out across the repetitive terrain, Erector hobbling along using his trailer for locomotion and Pipeline and Gusher attached to their heavily laden Tanker Transport. Aside from the occasional remark from Gusher - and annoyed follow up from Pipeline, they travelled more or less in silence for an hour or so, until a feature loomed on in the distance. The poor lighting precluded identification from a distance, but all three nonetheless remained transfixed on the large dome like shape looming on the horizon.

"What do you suppose this dome in the distance is?" asked Gusher.

"A dark dome," came the flat reply from Pipeline, who was just as curious yet reluctant to show it. "Whatever it is, it's too ordered to be natural. I'm not picking up any significant concentration of metals in that direction though - the magnetic field is constant."

"Well then I guess it's a town or outpost of the local civilisation," Erector said. "I'm not certain we should interfere. I don't really like the idea of us bringing our war to this planet anyway - the last thing we want to do is attract Decepticons to their structures. That'll only lead to more destruction."

The trio nevertheless headed in the general direction of the Aranctian structure, although only to pass it and continue heading south. As they headed closer, the structure gave up some of its secrets. There were porthole style access points, at ground level, tall enough for a local but way too small for a Micromaster. There also appeared to be air vents of some kind at higher levels - not quite windows but clearly deliberate openings.

The Autobots passed the structure, leaving a distance of roughly one hundred metres between themselves and the mound. They could see not only the Aranctians going about their business, but also their crude agriculture, in the form of haphazard patches of brown crops.

They passed the civilisation apparently unnoticed by the even the Aractians in the fields. As the Autobots passed the settlement they found themselves on a large, flat, plateau with mountain ranges off to either side at the horizons.

"Great, more dusty plain," quipped Gusher. "And I had high hopes for this planet."

"Oh leave it alone, rustbucket," said Pipeline. "At least we can transform and shake the dust out." Pipeline rarely showed much emotion, and usually when he did it was his frustration at Gusher that came through.

Erector remained silent, despite his dusty condition and frustration at both Gusher and the situation at hand.

Just as they had drawn past the alien structure, the Autobots were interrupted by a voice from behind them. All three turned around in response - although Erector took a little longer since he had to do so in truck mode.

"Hey... hey - you're Autobots, aren't you? Micromasters, right?" The voice was another Micromaster, an Autobot insignia graced his chest but this wasn't anyone they were familiar with. "Erector? Retro? Am I on the right track?"

Predictably, Gusher was the first to reply, "I'm Gusher, this is my partner Pipeline and yeah, our friend over there is Erector," Gusher pointed to Erector, still in the process of turning around.

Gusher shot an accusatory look at the newcomer. "And who are you that you know who we are?" he said, accusingly.

The blue and grey Micromaster, limping and in obvious need of repair, introduced himself, "I'm Atlan. Along with the rest of my team I was out scouting for the crew of our supply ship. Ironworks sent us out to try and find you bots, and maybe salvage the supplies. We know you were shot down, but we were trying to find out what happened to you. Anyway, I was out scouting with Raise, one of my teammates, when we came under fire."

"From whom?" enquired Erector, in a state far worse than Atlan, but in a calmer tone than that of Gusher.

"I don't know his name, a black Decepticon spyplane, firing from above. Raise is in stasis now, I would have carried him myself but for my knee. I actually tricked the Decepticon into thinking he'd taken me out as well - there's no point in fighting an aerial attack from the ground and putting myself out of action is there?"

"Micromaster size? It might have been Vanquish and Fireshot," Pipeline offered. "They're a combiner pair like myself and Gusher. They're part of the Battle Squad - who tend to gang up together, that lot like to bully as a pack, so if it was Fireshot and Vanquish I'd be pretty confident that the others are around also."

"Atlan, do you know what happened to the Decepticon ship that fired on us? Is it possible that Fireshot and Vanquish were on board?" Erector asked politely. "And can you tell us, are we heading in the right direction?"

Atlan smiled meekly as he replied, "yes, you are, and the cruiser was pretty badly damaged by your last shot and set down on Aranct. We're not certain who its crew were. But it seems logical that my attackers were on that cruiser. We certainly didn't detect anyone else landing or lifting off. So how about that lift?"

"Sure," Pipeline offered. "After all you are rescuing us. Jump on the tanker, lead the way. Is Raise concealed or should we retrieve him as well?"

"He's not going anywhere, and he's hidden underneath an outcrop in the hills to the west. We'll need this energon to repair him anyway, so lets get this juice into the CR chamber at A55," Atlan said confidently.

****

The black plane landed, split into half and transformed into two small black Decepticons, who joined four others in a canyon not far from where Atlan and the others were.

"Well, there were three groups, two pairs. We aced them all," crowed Fireshot.

"Was that the entire crew?", asked Meltdown, the leader of the Battle Squad. Meltdown didn't entirely trust Fireshot to tell the truth. Which was a smart way to operate, since Fireshot was the type of Decepticon who was always looking to score points and gain influence.

"I guess so, Meltdown. Six is plenty for a small vessel like that," Vanquish replied quietly.

Fireshot scowled at his partner, "well they weren't here to interact with the locals, I can guarantee that. There's either something worthwhile here or there's more Autobots."

Meltdown trusted Vanquish more than he did Fireshot, but saw the logic in Fireshot's assumption. He paused for a couple of seconds and commanded, "Either way, let's go find out - we either steal something or we can have some fun!"

With that, the six Micromasters transformed into three compound vehicles and took to the air.

****

The mini convoy continued its journey across the endless orange land below an ever reddening sky. The days on Aranct were 40 hours - long by Earth standards - but the Autobots were grateful for the extended light, especially now that the threat of aerial attack hung over them.

"Listen!" said Atlan, who heard the sound long before his new comrades picked it up since he wasn't directly attached to an engine.

"What? You're hearing things," retorted Gusher. "No... you're not. I hear it too. My audio sensors can't make it clearly..."

Atlan was now standing up top of the Tanker Transport, leaning on one hand and pointing at the sky behind them. "More Decepticons?!" he asked nervously.

Gusher transformed and looked up, instantly recognising the blue cannon truck as Direct-Hit and Powerpunch - two more components of the Battle Squad. "Yeah. Let's lay out a welcome mat!" he yelled.

"Gusher, we're sitting on a tank full of liquid energon, I'm not sure a firefight is our best option," said Pipeline uneasily.

"You want to suggest to them that we settle this over a game of cards?" Gusher yelled at his teammate, as he began preparing the guns on his Tanker Transport as best he could - it was far too loaded with extra supplies to transform.

"He's right, Pipeline, we have to stand and fight," conceded Erector. "Atlan, I'm going to transform my trailer into battle station mode. Do you think you can operate it?"

"Sure I'll try, I'm not really used to them but I'll do what I can," Atlan replied.

"I still think we have to find cover, Gusher you're going to get us all killed," Pipeline yelled. Despite his reservations, he too was clambering onto the Tanker Transport. He grabbed one of the guns and opened fire on the rapidly approaching flying blue cannon.

"Missed Autobot! You're worse than Misfire!" Direct-Hit, the front half of the flying cannon truck, taunted.

"Just cleaning out the barrel!" Gusher shouted as he scored a hit on Powerpunch, close to the base of the magenta cannon. The shot was enough to shake the Decepticons, but not powerful enough to cause any significant damage.

"That hardly made a dent. We need to get out of here!" repeated Pipeline.

Erector sighed, "Snap out of stasis, Pipeline. I hate battle as much as the next Autobot, but this is the time to stand and fight, not bicker with your partner. You really don't get it, do you? Gusher's perfectly aware of the danger - why else do you think he's fighting when we're so outgunned? We can't outrun the Decepticons, but if we stand and fight we'll wear them down."

Erector continued, "You're always suggesting that Gusher's holding you back. Why do you think Retro and Surge are such an effective unit? They understand each other's strengths and compliment each other. You see only the negative. Gusher's..." Erector interrupted himself. "Behind you, Atlan! ... Pipeline... yes, Gusher's loud, sure, but he's also a go-getter, whereas you just float behind him complaining. You should be happy you've got a partner with bearings of chrome steel."

Gusher was glowing - well as much as a bot under heavy cannon fire could glow. "See! You're always baggin' me. We could be like Retro and Surge. But no, you don't appreciate all the effort I put it," He said before narrowing dodging a shot from the Decepticons. "Unscrew you Powerpunch!"

Erector again sighed, "Don't think you're perfect Gusher. You need to learn to listen to Pipeline better. You treat him like cosmic rust sometimes. He's always there for backup, you should trust him more, and appreciate his insight and opinion. Why do you think Surge isn't held back by his inexperience? He listens to what Retro has to say."

"Yaaaaah!!!!" Gusher fired madly at the Decepticons, which were flying strafing runs over the Autobot position. They'd already hit and further damaged Atlan, and felt confident that this bunch of Autobots weren't going to hold out much longer.

A loud boom erupted as Erector's primary energon line took a cannon blast, too rapidly for him to even yelp in pain. The blast threw the badly injured Atlan from the gun emplacement, sending him about 100 metres across the rocky patch where they were making their stand.

"Erector!" Gusher and Pipeline yelled in unison. Gusher looked at Pipeline, anger and determination written on his face.

"Aim for the underside, see if we can knock them out of their flight," Pipeline barked. For once, Gusher didn't argue, both concentrated their fire on the underside of the vehicle, showering what would be Direct-Hit's chest with an arsenal of laser fire.

"Damn you to The Pit, Autobots", Direct-Hit exclaimed. While he wasn't badly damaged, his flight pattern became somewhat erratic, making it difficult for the Autobots to target the flying vehicle and equally difficult for Powerpunch to aim. After a couple more shots, the duo flew off, leaving the Autobots to assess the damage.

Pipeline jumped down to the ground and looked at Gusher, "Well, that was intense." He then looked over at the still smoking Erector, and Atlan, who was laying face down on the rocky ground. Neither were moving.

"Atlan? Erector? You guys with us?" Pipeline asked with some concern.

Erector's cabin was in an even more sorry state than before. The fading plume of smoke was the only reply it gave. A little further away, Gusher picked up Atlan from the ground. While Atlan's damage appeared to be mainly confined to scratches gained from landing on one of the few rocky patches the planet seemed to offer, he too failed to respond.

Gusher piled Atlan on top of Erector's trailer - which was now stuck in its battle mode. The light was beginning to escape them and they'd lost their guide - for the moment at least. Pipeline began inspecting the gun emplacement, hoping to figure out how to get it mobile.

"I've got it. Gusher, here's what we're going to have to do," he said, turning to his partner.

Gusher nodded as he listened to Pipeline's idea. Once finished he replied, "OK, do it, we gotta get rolling."

"Agreed, OK, down you go."

Gusher attached himself to the rear of the Tanker Transport. Pipeline then strapped the back of Erector's trailer onto the edge of the tanker, over the top of Gusher. Erector's wheels were supporting most of the weight of the tanker, but both Autobots agreed the strain in his axle was a better alternative than leaving him out here - where he'd simply become sport for the Battle Squad. Pipeline transformed and attached himself to the front of the transport, which slowly rumbled off.

They didn't get manage much more than a kilometre before the Decepticons returned - with backup. This time all six Battle Squad members flew in - Meltdown and Half-Track in their armoured tank mode, Fireshot and Vanquish in their spyplane mode and Direct-Hit and Powerpunch in their still unsteady cannon truck mode. All three vehicles flew in, guns blazing as they broke formation and veered apart so they could attack the Autobots from three directions - the purple vehicle on the left, blue on the right and black overhead.

"OK time for some action," yelled Gusher, who squeezed out from under Erector's gun emplacement before transforming and grabbing the controls. Pipeline duly transformed and leaped onto the tanker to operate its guns.

"You back for more, Direct-Hit?" Gusher exclaimed with a confidence that belied his situation.

"Just came back with my posse to finish off the job, Scrap!" said Direct-Hit as he careened past the Autobots.

"Well then let's welcome 'Hit back," said Pipeline under his breath, loud enough that only Gusher would hear.

"Works for me. Windscreen?"

"You got it," said Pipeline, was already taking aim. Direct-Hit was taken by surprise - he didn't expect the Autobots to concentrate fire on only one of three targets. It wasn't long before they landed enough damage to send him - and Powerpunch - into a spin. The pair crashed into the side of a hill with a loud thud.

"One down, two to go!" Gusher said as he high-fived the air in the direction of his partner. "Who now? Fireshot?" he asked.

Pipeline shook his head, "Vanquish, the wings!"

And with that both Autobots peppered the back half of the black spyplane. They'd already taken out the main offensive weapon of the Squad - with Direct-Hit and Powerpunch having crashed to Aranct off to the north. Fireshot was doing his best to avoid the stream of laser fire, and didn't have much time to concentrate on returning fire. This left if it up to Half-Track to fire upon the Autobots.

Half-Track was pelting the more powerful weaponry on Erector's trailer, which was taking most of the fire and sustaining significant damage. Erector, of course, wasn't in a position to complain about this.

"You'll only slow us down," Fireshot screamed as he swooped low over Pipeline. This close proximity manoeuvre was a mistake, however. It gave Gusher a chance to fire at Vanquish from pointblank range. The orange and black Autobot didn't waste the opportunity, taking a chunk out of Vanquish's left wing, which send the spyplane left side-down into the ground, and a cloud of orange dust into the air.

"Still two left", quipped Meltdown as he detached and transformed into robot mode. Half-Track stayed in tank mode and glided to the ground, all the while taking aim at Gusher, who was forced to jump from the gun emplacement, leaving the shots to whiz over the tanker and into a fairly shallow ravine to the east of their position, which gave out a shower of pebbles in protest.

"I'll take Meltdown!" Gusher yelled as he picked himself up from the dirt, brushing the pebbles off his back. Gusher ran directly into the Decepticon's fire and wrestled the pistol out of Meltdown's hand, losing a digit to a blast at pointblank range in the process. Gusher threw the handgun unceremoniously into the mini ravine, which this time let out a squeal rather than pebbles. Meltdown's face protested, but he didn't linger on the gun, concentrating instead on grappling with Gusher.

At the same time as this was going on, Pipeline and Half-Track were exchanging fire. Half-Track had the advantage of mobility, but Pipeline had a wider range, making for a more or less even firefight.

"You'reNotToPierceArmourMyWithThat!" said Half-Track in his distinctive rushed style of speech. Half-Track was well known amongst the Decepticons for his incoherent speech, although few could understand him. Often a victim of Decepticon taunts, Half-Track was known to snap when others ridiculed his speech.

Unsure what the Decepticon was trying to say, Pipeline laughed, "You what? Sure, I'll take three copies."

"StopLaughingTearOutUnitVocals!" growled Half-Track. This only caused Pipeline to laugher harder, all the while showering Half-Track with laser blasts. Half-Track was right - they weren't getting through his armour. Similarly, Half-Track's fire wasn't really doing any damage to the tanker and had yet to hit Pipeline himself.

Pipeline was more worried about the other four Decepticons strewn on the battlefield than Half-Track as such, and was hoping they wouldn't get involved in a prolonged fight in the fading light.

"Sorry, he hasn't worked in this sector for vorns," said a grinning Pipeline, which only served to infuriate Half-Track. The Decepticon was now distracted, by his own frustration and his aim was suffering as a result. So despite the gravity of the situation, Pipeline kept the mockery coming, and decided to take aim at Half-Track's barrels - it was a long shot but Pipeline reckoned it was better than wasting ammunition on the thick shell.

"Tell me, Half-Wit, are you the only Decepticon who speaks Junkion?"

Even Meltdown laughed this time, giving Gusher a chance to wrestle Meltdown to the ground, and momentarily pin down the stronger Decepticon who otherwise had an advantage. Gusher had no idea how we was going to defeat Meltdown, but had decided he was less of a threat unarmed and was sticking by that decision despite Meltdown's strength.

"So you agree, your buddy is a halfwit?", said Gusher as Meltdown threw Gusher off, sending him to within a metre of the ravine.

"That's beside the point, Autoslag," Meltdown grunted, much to the annoyance of his hyperactive partner, who took a potshot at Meltdown. The shot missed, hitting the ground nearby. The impact sent Meltdown flying towards Gusher and the ravine. Gusher grabbed Meltdown while the Decepticon was unbalanced and tried to tip him into the ravine, even managing to shift Meltdown's centre of gravity to a dangerous point.

"If I go, you know that I'm taking you with me," said Meltdown. Despite his threat, he had lost the advantage being so close to the edge, which restricted his options somewhat, "In fact I'll just..."

Meltdown was cut off by an explosion behind him, above the ravine. The force of the explosion startled the Decepticon, who overbalanced and plummeted into the ravine. Gusher was thrown back a few metres, away from the ravine and to safety.

"What the?! Ahh good riddance, rusted slag. I'm coming Pipeline!" Gusher yelled, surprised but happy with the sudden turn of events,

Pipeline was continuing his verbal assault on the increasingly furious Half-Track, his barrels now visibly shaking with rage by this point.

"YouPayForMakeNoMistakeBothYou!"

"Ahh, chill out, 'Con. We didn't order any retrosockets," Gusher said, grinning.

Half-Track transformed and glared at Gusher, "YouThinkThisFunn-"

Gusher turned to his partner, "NOW, PIPELINE!"

Pipeline trained both sets of guns on the tanker at Half-Track's more vulnerable robot mode and fired a steady barrage of shots, slowly but surely dropping the incoherent Decepticon, who kept chattering throughout the barrage, until he keeled over, covered in scorchmarks with one optic blown out.

"Well, that's that!" said Gusher triumphantly as he jumped up on top of the tanker and high-fived Pipeline.

"We make a pretty good team, don't we?" Pipeline said. He looked down at Erector's badly damaged truck mode soberly, "You'll be proud."

The two Autobots dragged the hole-ridden Half-Track from the path of their transport, and hitched everything up, tightening the straps that had loosened in battle.

"Let's get out of here. I'll radio Ironworks for a signal and we'll head... 'home'. It's almost dark," said Pipeline.

"One moment," Gusher said, walking away from the Tanker Transport. "I didn't push Meltdown into the ravine, something else did."

He walked over to the ravine and peered down and was greeted by the sight of around ten Aranctians, playing with and exploring Meltdown's handgun, which was lying on the uneven ground with its barrel pointing skyward.

"Oh, right... now they pay attention. Thanks guys."

****

Under the cover of darkness, Pipeline and Gusher limped into the cave near Aranct's southern pole in which Ironworks and Hot House had set up the communications relay station designated A55. Covered in orange dust and dragging two trailers with scorch marks all over them, the pair had finally made it.

They slowly rolled through the entrance to the cave, which wasn't much bigger than the Tanker Transport. Erector's gun emplacement cleared the sides of the entrance by less than a foot on either side. The entrance to the cave belied the cavern within, its roof was higher than either Autobot could see in the limited light.

The cavern was dimly lit by lights dotted around the walls, with large antennae here and there, accompanied by various seemingly random constructions - Ironworks's handiwork which was interspersed throughout the forest of antennae. The only other feature of note was a single rectangular exit off to the left, the entrance to an artificial cave. Ironworks and Retro emerged from this door on foot and approached the new arrivals.

"Well, nice to see you finally made it," Retro said, with a hint of sarcasm in his voice and a relieved expression on his face.

"We even managed to bring a full tank of energon and lost only a canister of hexdiodes on our way here," Gusher said, rather sheepishly.

"Only a single canister?" asked Retro grinning. "How'd you manage to lose that?"

Gusher transformed and began to separate the Tanker Transport and Erector's gun emplacement, "Hey, we had the Battle Squad after us. It was hard slag overcoming them with all this cargo."

Pipeline and Retro joined Gusher, who was now unloading the canisters and crates from the Tanker Transport.

Ironworks stood back as the others piled up canisters next to the Tanker Transport, surveying the haphazard structure forming in front of him. A grey and yellow Micromaster, Ironworks was known for his obsessed with construction and building. He had volunteered for his A55 assignment, since as much as he disliked his communications role, he loved the idea of being able to build his own outpost.

"We knew you had Decepticons on your tail, which is why we despatched the Train Team to help you out. Raise, Atlan and Convertor are still out there, somewhere," Ironworks said with some concern in his voice.

"Atlan's accounted for, Ironworks. We really need to get him and Erector into CR," said Pipeline, exhausted. "Atlan's hidden Raise somewhere also. He's out of commission, but apparently hidden from 'con optics."

"Sure thing, I'll get them into CR right away," Ironworks clambered onto the gun emplacement to retrieve the injured Autobots, transformed into truck mode and slowly carried the two away into the internal exit.

"I have to admit, I underestimated you two. I didn't give you much chance of making it back here with Decepticons on your trail," Retro said as the three combiners lifted the last of the canisters to the ground. "You two always seem to be going in opposite directions."

Pipeline put a hand on Gusher's shoulder, and replied triumphantly, "Well, I guess this makes us a team now".

++++

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