Critical Mess
( part one )

Scrapper hated anything to do with the art world and usually the rest of the Constructicons did as well. Going to an art show on Cybertron was right out.

Scavenger held a datapad to which he had downloaded a brochure, which he was waving in Scrapper's face. "Thorncon is going to be there!"

The architect swatted the datapad aside. "Who?"

"Confectionary artist," said Mixmaster. The three of them were in the office Scrapper shared with Hook, though Scrapper was working at Hook's desk so Mixmaster could use his - Hook was extremely fussy about his desk and the chemist was banned from touching it. Why Mixmaster decided he needed to run chemical simulations in here today instead of his own lab could have been anything from his lab being too messy to just wanting company. Scavenger had bounced in moments ago with his datapad. Mixmaster still hadn't bothered to look up from his own work. "One of the greatest. Neutral, despite the name. Went missing at one point, presumed dead. Rumour later surfaced that one of the Monitors had captured him and has been using him to indulge his personal confectionary vices. Either Thorncon's escaped or he's just been let off his chain for a bit."

Scavenger was practically climbing on the desk in his excitement. "I only got to try his work once and that was forever ago and I might never get another chance please, Scrapper!"

Scrapper was unmoved. "If you want fancy fuel so badly, why don't you bother Mixmaster?"

The chemist drew himself up in his seat haughtily and placed a hand to his chest. "I cannot. Confectionary is an art, and it is not my art." He slumped and giggled. "I think we should go, yes-yes-yes, we should."

The door opened, admitting Long Haul. "Hey, boss, the jets brought in that equipment you ..." He paused, taking in the scene. "Scrounge, why're you on the desk?"

"Scavenger and I want to go to an art show and Scrapper is being dull," said Mixmaster.

"There's going to be a Thorncon exhibit," said Scavenger, climbing down.


"Confectionary artist. One of the greatest. Neutral, despite -" Mixmaster started, but Scrapper cut him off.

"Will anyone I can stand be there?" asked Scrapper.

Scavenger skimmed the exhibitors list. "None of your friends are on here."

"Like that's a surprise," Mixmaster scoffed. "You only like two artists who aren't us and one's that Autobot." The chemist brightened. "Is anyone Scrapper really hates going to be there?"

"Not on the list," said Scavenger. "It looks like it's mostly sculptors and painters and stuff. Thorncon's the only chemist ... oh, no, wait, there's an exhibit on the history of Tyrestian dye-art."

"Meh," Mixmaster declared, dismissing it with a fussy wave.

Scavenger continued reading. "Ooh, there's a jeweller. That might be interesting if he does mineral work."

None of that would be appealing to Long Haul, but to Scrapper's dismay the supply officer shrugged. "Why not? It'll get us away from doin' Megatron's scut-work for a while."

Hook and Bonecrusher entered while Long Haul was talking. "Where are we going?" asked Hook.

"Nowhere," said Scrapper.

"Cybertron!" cheered Mixmaster.

"Kalis," Scavenger corrected.

Bonecrusher swung up to sit on Scrapper's desk, then swatted Mixmaster's hand when the chemist tried to poke him for taking up room. "What's in Kalis?"

"Nothing," Scrapper insisted.

"Art show, apparently," said Long Haul. "Me and Scav and Mixy want to go but Scrapper doesn't."

"I want to go." Bonecrusher leaned forward, excited. "We never do. They won't be expecting us. We could have some fun."

Scrapper turned to Hook for support. Hook looked back impassively. "I think it might do us good to reconnect with the art world."

"You're going to critique everything as viciously as possible to see how long it takes before someone takes a swing at you," Scrapper told both of them. Hook looked insulted and not even slightly innocent. Bonecrusher grinned.

"Thorncon is going to be there," said Scavenger, repeating what he considered to be the most important point.

Hook tilted his head slightly. "Who?"

"Confectionary artist," said Scrapper before Mixmaster could. He knew when he had lost.

The exhibition was called A Celebration of Kaaline and Tyrestian Art and it was being held in a makeshift gallery, which wasn't a problem. Scrapper couldn't remember the last time he'd been in a proper, dedicated gallery. Just because the Decepticons approved of art didn't mean they allocated any resources for it. The problem was that the temporary gallery was a repurposed warehouse, which Scrapper found irritating to the point of insult. If the organisers had used a historical building, Scrapper might have been inclined to take them seriously.

If they really wanted art, Scrapper thought, trailing behind the other Constructicons as they crossed a rusting bridge, then they shouldn't go inside. Kalis was lovely even in ruin, the touch of a master architect still visible in the broken towers and dry rivers. The ruin may have even added to the effect - Kalis in glory had been stunningly beautiful. Kalis in tatters was melancholy, longing for the days of gold and rivers. He could have spent vorns exploring. But they don't want art, they just want to cause trouble. He looked over at Scavenger, who was nearly vibrating with excitement. And to stuff themselves with expensive candy.

They rolled to a stop and transformed. The bored-looking tank at the door didn't even look up. "Passes?"

"Hey, load-pan, ask again," growled Bonecrusher.

The tank glared, furious, then recognised them and flinched. Hook nudged Bonecrusher aside. "Now, now, Bonecrusher, she's only doing her job. Now, we weren't invited per se, but do you really want to be the mech who turned the Constructicons away?"

The tank did not. "I was really hoping she'd turn us down" said Bonecrusher once they were inside. "Crashing the party would have made a great entrance."

"We are crashing. We don't have invitations," said Scrapper. Already there were glances, then longer stares as the green and purple registered.

"You know exactly what I mean and you're just being pedantic to try to suck the fun out of this," Bonecrusher accused.

Scavenger caught the scent of the confectionary exhibit and took off through the crowd at a run, Mixmaster and Long Haul in tow. Scrapper sighed. "At least we know where to find them. I suppose I'll be able to find you two from the shouting and laserfire."

Hook and Bonecrusher exchanged glances, then linked arms with Scrapper. "While you sneak out the back door, I suppose," said Hook. "Oh, no. We're here to be seen."

"It's your job as foremech to deal with the public," added Bonecrusher, merely to be annoying.

Scrapper moved his feet only because they would drag him otherwise. "I will get both of you for this. I don't care if it was Scavenger's idea to come here, I'm blaming you."

Bonecrusher made a 'whatever, boss' grunt and Hook shifted his grip on Scrapper's arm to squeeze his hand, and both meant so I'll make it up to you sometime, stop griping. Which was all well and good for sometime but it still meant Scrapper had to suffer through an art show now.

The warehouse had been partitioned off with temporary walls, leaving a wide hallway down the middle and small galleries for individual artists branching off. Hook looked around. "Where to first? Start at the front and work our way back or roll wherever the muse takes us?"

Bonecrusher's muse apparently caught his attention. "There's jewellery over there. Jewellery's ridiculous. It'll do for a warm-up."

So Scrapper found himself pulled along to a smallish, well-lit gallery. Hook and Bonecrusher let him go once inside, but only because it would be difficult to walk around the displays while holding onto him.

Bonecrusher looked at the jeweller and snorted. "He's a jet. Of course he is."

A rather light jet with long wings, nearly a glider. Surprisingly plain for his art, slender in silver and black, his red optics and purple emblem the only colour on his body. Then he moved and the light caught him another way and Scrapper realised the jeweller was in fact covered in curling designs etched into his armour. The effect was so subtle as to be nearly invisible. There must have been some sort of clear topcoat to prevent drag on his wings.

The Constructicons poked around the gallery, occasionally dodging the other customers - two Seekers and a helicopter. Most of the jeweller's pieces were filigrees, to be wrapped around a gauntlet or pressed to a helm and delicately welded in place. There were flat panels showcasing the jeweller's skill at etchwork. There were various magnetic items, clamps, and rivets. There were also carefully cut and faceted stones and crystals, sparkling brilliantly under the lights. "Scavenger would enjoy this display," said Scrapper.

Hook sighed. "You are determined to be no fun." With that, he sauntered closer to the jeweller but addressed Bonecrusher. "Such etchings as these take a keen optic and a steady, fine touch. There is talent here. Alas, wasted on mere decoration."

The jeweller didn't bother looking up from where he was polishing an already-clean display case. The weary tone implied he had heard this before. "The point of art is to connect with the viewer. Which mine does."

"Only in the most literal way," said Bonecrusher.

"Jewellery occupies its own niche in the art world. A sculpture is complete in itself. Even a body-shell is its own piece, to be worn as-is. Jewellery is interactive - it combines the art and the viewer. No piece is complete until it's worn." The jeweller finally looked up and realised what vehicles he was speaking to. He made a vague shooing motion before returning to his polishing. "You are not my audience and you know it."

Usually any variation of the 'of course you don't like it - it's not for you' speech annoyed Scrapper but in this case it was accurate. Jewellery was a fashion nearly unknown among land-alts. Some of the more vain cars might wear it but no construction or heavy military vehicle would, at least not until someone started making industrial-grade jewellery instead of delicate filigrees and dangles. Such light decorations were something boats used to wear and jets were starting to get into. The jeweller realised Hook and Bonecrusher were just trying to annoy him and he had enough sense to ignore them.

One of the customers didn't. A heavily-decorated gold and red Seeker drifted over to them. "Dreaming of something you can't be, groundpounders?"

"Might ask you the same thing," said Bonecrusher, happy to have a target since the artist wasn't playing.

Hook nodded, giving the Seeker a critical look. "Hm, yes. The etchings are pretty enough and I admit I like the effect with the painted glass, but it's still just flashy overlay on a mass-produced product."

"It's always real cute when a Seeker tries so hard to be different," Bonecrusher finished, not to make sure the insult was understood but to compound it with the implication that it wasn't.

The Seeker balled his fists but managed to hold himself back, at least physically. "Ugly little know-nothing ground-crawlers."

Hook drew himself up and managed to look down his nose at the Seeker, though the Seeker was taller than him. "'Know-nothing'? Do you know who we are?"

The Seeker matched his expression. "Do I care?"

Bonecrusher grinned. "Trinket, we're critics."

The Thorncon exhibit was in a long, narrow room with two humourless-looking Seekers standing outside it. Long Haul hadn't noticed extra security outside any of the other exhibits but he hadn't really had the chance to look, being more occupied with chasing Scavenger.

The mini-gallery was dim, the only lights at regular intervals on the ceiling near the walls, but so focused that they illuminated little more than what was directly beneath them. What was beneath each was a pedestal with a small glass case on top and assortments of metallic items inside the cases. Long Haul inspected the nearest one. It looked, at least to him, like someone had entirely ignored the purpose of ball bearings and fancied them up with gilt and scrollwork. Scavenger and Mixmaster were enthralled by them. Long Haul shrugged inwardly. These were supposed to be chemical things so maybe there was something his sharper-sensed gestaltmates were seeing that he couldn't.

There were a dozen other people in the exhibit, all fascinated by the shiny metal blobs under glass. The one that stood out to Long Haul was a black forklift standing near the back of the room, nearly hidden in the dark but given away by the glow of his optics. He looked like the most official person there, watching the crowd instead of gawking at candy. Long Haul pulled Scavenger away from a display to point him out. "Is he this Thorncon person?"

"I don't think so. That one's a Decepticon. Thorncon was neutral ... Oh, there!" Scavenger pointed to an odd tangle of brown metal on the ceiling.

After a longer look, Long Haul determined the tangle was indeed a Transformer. "Huh. Turns into a medicroid." Scavenger pulled on his arm. "All right, all right, we'll look at more snacks."

"'Snacks'," Mixmaster repeated in a long-suffering voice. "Plebeian."

They made their way down the hallway. Some blobs were silver-coloured and some were gold and some were copper and some had patinas and Scavenger and Mixmaster oohed and squealed over every single one. Long Haul was beginning to think fondly of temporary bases and oversized super-weapons. On the other hand, nobody was making him haul anything.

On that thought, Long Haul rounded on his companions. "If you buy anything, I'm not carrying it!"

Mixmaster grinned. "We could fill up your bed with confectionary ..."

Scavenger's optic band unfocused dreamily. "Could we?"

"Don't give the Scrounge ideas!"

Mixmaster's grin became an all-out cackle. "You started it, you did, you did!"

Eventually they reached the end of the gallery. Thorncon's spot on the ceiling was a few metres behind a long table that didn't quite cut off the rest of the room, and on the table were more fancy not-ball-bearings, though these ones were out on a tray instead of in a case. The forklift stood a little to one side. Behind them was a door, nearly invisible in the darkness. Not an exit - it wasn't on an outer wall. Probably storage or a break room or something.

The forklift looked the Constructicons over so Long Haul looked back. He didn't seem like the right type for security - he was obviously a tech. An assistant then, or possibly the artist's handler. The tech nodded, seemingly satisfied with what he saw, and addressed Scavenger, who was looking at the uncovered tray with undisguised desire: "You may take a sample."

Long Haul had never seen Scavenger move so fast in his life. Mixmaster took one as well. Long Haul hung back.

Long Haul wasn't usually given to caution but he knew enough about artists that he didn't want to eat anything one offered, so better to let the other two with their more sensitive sensors go first. Not that they made him wait. Scavenger stuffed the candy into his siphon immediately. Mixmaster more sensibly scanned the thing first before eating it. If Mixmaster thought it was safe, then it ... Phooey. That doesn't mean it's safe, just that Mixy's immune. Still, Scavenger hadn't fallen over dead and was already eyeing the tray again. "Is the limit just one?"

"I, certainly, would be most gratified to be granted the opportunity to sample other varieties," said Mixmaster, who was able to say an overblown line like that with complete sincerity. "Chemical sculpture is an uncommon art, and one that rarely has such pleasant effects."

The medicroid unfolded, at least enough for a face. Yellow optics glared suspiciously at Mixmaster. "You smell of chemist," he hissed. "You would analyse my art? Perhaps steal my formulas?"

Mixmaster drew himself up. "You know as well as I that I could only analyse the chemical composition. Even if I could duplicate your formulas, I could never-never-never duplicate the art."

Which was nonsense, as far as Long Haul was concerned. He knew Mixmaster's skill - the chemist could spin out a perfect copy of any formula that existed. He could even put it in a gilded ball bearing if the mood struck him. But Thorncon seemed mollified and Mixmaster believed what he was saying, so whatever.

The artist nodded to the tech. "Deadlift, allow them." Then he folded back up into his medicroid form.

Deadlift shrugged. "Come with me."

Scavenger and Mixmaster immediately followed the tech into the little storage room. Am I the only one who remembers we're dealin' with artists here? Long Haul wondered. Follow him and we're likely to end up as candy ourselves. But someone had to look after the other two so he trailed along behind.

All the tech did was go to a locker, draw out a tray covered in a variety of different metal shapes, and set it on a small table at the back of the room. "Thorncon says you rate. All he asks is that you Properly Appreciate his Craft," Deadlift intoned like he was reciting from memory. Then, more casually, "So don't just go ramming fistfuls of them down your siphon. I don't want to go down as the mech who had to bounce the Constructicons out of a confectionary exhibit."

Scavenger looked torn between hugging Deadlift and grabbing the entire tray and rolling in it. For once the geologist showed restraint. He picked a confection - shiny copper this time - and ate it much more carefully than he had the first, either obeying Thorncon's rule or just in less of a hurry knowing this candy wouldn't be his last. "You've got to try at least one, Long Haul," the geologist enthused.

Long Haul drew the fuel siphon out of his side and carefully ingested one of the confections. The siphon easily crushed the goldplate shell - it was much thinner than he had expected - releasing a cloyingly thick oil. The supply officer mulled over the texture and flavour and shrugged. "'S not without its charm."

Mixmaster laughed, Deadlift didn't but looked like he wanted to, Scavenger looked scandalised, and the voice near the ceiling hissed, "Plebeian."

Deadlift returned to his post out in the gallery and Mixmaster wandered over to the doorway so he could chat with Thorncon. He wasn't trying to make up for Long Haul, he was just happy to be able to discuss chemical art with someone who understood his language. Long Haul tuned them out - said language was a mix of complex formulas and art-jargon.

He turned back to Scavenger, who was trying to decide which candy to eat next. He was spoiled for choice and revelling in his indecision, secure in the knowledge that whatever choice he made would be delicious. "You got a look."

"What look?" asked Scavenger.

"An 'I wanna sit with my tail in a candy vat' look."

Scavenger's optic band unfocused as he considered that idea. "I think I need to do that."

Scrapper managed to escape from his gestaltmates as they argued with an ATV about how pointless realism painting was since it was just showing what was there when you may as well take a picture or look out a window. Of course, this was just after they'd teased a missile truck about how easy it was to be an abstractist since she didn't need to know how to paint. Hook and Bonecrusher were the best critics Scrapper knew, when they felt like it. Here, knowing their skills were unwanted, they were just heckling.

No one had taken a swing at them yet but there were grumblings and the curious looks they'd been getting earlier were beginning to be replaced by scowls. I wonder if there's a back door I could sneak out of. Then he'd find a bar and wait for the others to get bored.

Or killed, he amended. No, better to stay in the gallery. If Hook and Bonecrusher had their way, the Constructicons might have to devastate their way out yet.

There had to be a quiet spot where Scrapper could avoid people in the meantime. Maybe the dye-art exhibit. That sounded boring enough. He headed in that direction.

People were looking, there were whispers, but no one had tried to approach him yet. Away from Hook and Bonecrusher, the looks were no longer threatening. Why do they care if I come to these gatherings or not? Because he was a highly skilled and famous architect obviously, but Scrapper couldn't understand why that mattered. It was the art that was important, not the artist. If they wanted to know him so badly they could go look at his buildings.

The demographics of the show seemed off. Common as Seekers were, Scrapper felt there were more of them around than usual. Maybe just locals come to gawk - Kalis was a Seeker-heavy state. Though that didn't feel right - they didn't seem to be artists or even particularly interested and the event required buying or receiving a pass. Extra security? Scrapper wondered. He couldn't blame the organiser. Artists could get out of hand quickly and spectacularly.

A voice behind him: "Are you a surprise guest or just browsing?"

It begins. Scrapper turned, resigned. Today it began with a jet. Non-standard build, mostly black with bright pink and searing blue stripes. Her plating caught the light oddly in places - her armour was etched. "What do you want?"

She laughed. The sensor-fins on her helm wiggled when she did. "To meet you, of course! I'm Maquette. Ex-model, used to work for Calliper. I'm more about body-mods as performance art these days, when I've got time. Today I'm collecting autographs." She produced a small laser etcher and held it out to him. "Sign me?"

Calliper was a body-shell designer. When Maquette said 'model', she meant she let an artist rebuild her over and over again. Scrapper decided that surviving such a job was worth something and took the offered tool. "Where?" Looking more closely at her, he realised that various scribbles he'd taken for etchings were names.

Her voice dropped to a husky innuendo: "I'm just the materials, artist."

Scrapper walked around the jet, carefully looking her over. There were a dozen names on her already, generally written on her wings and a few across her canopy. Maquette watched him, expectant.

Scrapper decided. He held out Maquette's arm and wrote his name down one of her wrist cannons. She waited until he was finished before shivering. "Mmm. Good call."

One artist to another, Scrapper was understood: I am the most important person here, so I claim the most important part of your body. Not her wings, not this jet who was not necessarily a jet at spark. Scrapper had addressed her as a warrior, which she would be regardless of alt-mode. He returned her etcher. Maquette gave him a final glittering smile before disappearing into the crowd.

To be continued ...


On to Critical Mess - part two
Back to Worlds Apart, Worlds Away
Back to In Space, No One Can Hear Starscream