Critical Mess
( part two )

Most of the upper-tier artists panned Spinshaper's work. Steelcast found she rather liked it even if the artist himself was a jerk. The whole 'Conceptual Flow-Sculpture' thing was a load of slag and he hadn't really done anything new since he first appeared on the scene but it was sometimes pretty to look at and as a refinery creature she appreciated the technique. Spinshaper would heat metal and stretch it out to make his sculptures. Sometimes he would drop molten blobs from a height and collect the splatter patterns. It was something it might be fun to try herself.

Or maybe I could grab a handful of raw smelt and work it until it cooled. That might make an interesting effect. Not that she'd try to come up with a snooty-sounding thesis for it. For Steelcast, 'I made this because I wanted to' was all the artist's statement she needed.

The next piece was something like a solid arch, the apex of the curve heated until just molten, then the heat taken away so the metal would cool in a sort of drippy way. Of course, if a low-class dabbler like me likes this stuff, that proves it's awful. Steelcast glanced at the title - Resistance Of Reflection - and held back a snort. There were two schools of thought on Spinshaper: Either he truly believed his art spoke of deep and important messages or one day he would admit he was just messing with everyone. Steelcast was in the first camp - no actor was that dedicated.

The mech himself was in attendance, highly visible in deep purple and blinding turquoise, chatting with a small flock. For all that other artists sneered at him, Spinshaper did enjoy an amount of popularity, mostly with his fellow Seekers. It could have just been Seeker solidarity - most artists were groundbounds. Of the fliers, Steelcast could only name a handful of Seekers. It could have been that Spinshaper's work spoke to his kin jets in a language mere groundbounds couldn't understand. Or Seekers are just suckers for a line, and Spinny spins so many of them.

She caught the word 'Scrapper' and moved closer to the conversation to eavesdrop. "... know he surrounds himself with critics? Is that supposed to be one of the signs of his so-called modesty? The mech has no self-respect."

"Yeah? And maybe that's why he's so good," Steelcast snapped before she could stop herself. Realising she was already in for it, she figured she might as well continue: "Scrapper's got critics on his team to tell him where he's gone wrong and how to make it better before he shows it off. He learns from his mistakes, unlike your stagnant aft."

It was almost funny how utterly surprised Spinshaper was by criticism. It happened to him often enough, Steelcast thought he ought to at least realise it was a possibility. He rallied himself. "Well, well, furnace trash with something to say. Have you more to say, slag-hauler?"

Steelcast weighed the odds. I got no chance if they all jump on me. If Spinny tries it alone ... He's a trained air warrior, but we're indoors. If his art's any indication, he's got heat-based weapons, so I've got some advantage there ... And if I do manage to beat him, will the rest of them jump on me anyway? In her spark, Steelcast knew she would most likely meet her end after mouthing off to an elite warrior. Death by cranky artist would be anti-climatic.

Unusually for a Seeker, Spinshaper carried a plasma rifle at his hip. He tapped it meaningfully. "Dull groundpounder that you are, I will give you the chance to apologise. Take back what you said, acknowledge me as Cybertron's greatest sculptor, and I may let you crawl away."

She had no warrior's ego but there were limits even a slag-hauler wouldn't sink to. Death by cranky artist it is. She stepped back in preparation to charge him. "I've never been a good liar."

Someone draped an arm around her waist. Steelcast recognised the energy signature and refrained from backhanding the smaller mech in the face. "Are these junkers bothering you, Steelcast?" asked Scrapper.

Spinshaper looked desperate enough to tear off his own wings just to escape, but he made the effort: "Master Scrapper. I heard rumours of your attendance. To what do we owe the -"

"Them?" Steelcast asked, cheerfully interrupting the Seeker. "Nah. We were just chatting. They were sayin' some real interesting things about you." She slipped her arm around Scrapper's back, under his shovel. "You didn't come all this way just to find me."

"Bonecrusher keeps saying we should. Some of us know that you need time," said Scrapper, as if they didn't have an audience. "Unfortunately, we're here for the show."

They walked away from the silently seething jet-flock. "Well, there goes your reputation down the sinkhole," said Steelcast conversationally. "Now everyone'll think you got a thing for ugly trucks."

"As if the opinions of jets and bad artists matter," said Scrapper. "Unless they're about to beat you into scrap."

"I don't owe you for that save - they were only mad at me because I yelled at 'em for talking trash about you. My life's been nothing but trouble since I met you lumps," Steelcast complained, but then sighed and patted his back companionably. "But I'll admit to you that I missed you shorties 'cause you won't take it as an excuse to paint me green. Where's the rest of the crew?"

Scrapper waved his free hand. "They're around. Hook and Bonecrusher are making enemies of everyone, and Scavenger, Mixmaster, and Long Haul are parked at the Thorncon exhibit."

Steelcast startled back from Scrapper. "Thorncon! I gotta get back to him!"

The design tech strode off, annoyed for letting herself be distracted. Scrapper and his shorter legs jogged after her. "What do you need him for?"

"I'm kinda-sorta keepin' an optic on him. Prince Hat wants his pet protected but Thorncon gets twitchy around warriors so there's me and another tech hanging around pretending to be his assistants," Steelcast explained. "We've been taking turns to look around the rest of the show and I'm overdue."

"Prince ... what?"

"Local Monitor. Dreadmoon. Thorncon's usually perfectly content to be locked up with his materials and left alone to work but he heard about this show and got it in his head that he wanted to do an exhibit again and Dready likes to keep him happy. Half the security in here is dreadgoons on loan from the Amnimount. He's taking no chances with his pet." She slowed to a walk as the exhibit came into view. "I've been working at the Amnimount lately. My trinemate's one of the main techs there, so they let me park when I'm in the city. 'S how I scored this gig."

They entered Thorncon's exhibit and were almost to the sample table before they were noticed. "Steelcast!"

It was Mixmaster who said it but Scavenger who launched himself at her. Being twice as heavy as he was, the impact didn't even knock her back. "Scavy! ... You're all sticky."

"We came for the Thorncon exhibit," Scavenger explained.

"To roll in it?" Scavenger still locked around her waist, Steelcast reached over him to greet Long Haul and Mixmaster, then looked over at Deadlift. "Hey, sorry I was gone so long. I ran into a friend."

Deadlift gave Scrapper an exaggeratedly deliberate look before returning his gaze to the design tech. "Best bad excuse I've ever heard."

"Careful," warned Steelcast as well as she could with her arms full of excavator, "I'm on friendly terms with Slog, too. I'm gonna own the art world."

"Not too friendly," Scavenger muttered possessively into her shoulder.

Scrapper swatted him. "Really? When did you meet him?"

"Long story." And one she wasn't sure how much she could tell.

Deadlift left to go check out the other exhibits. Steelcast extracted herself from Scavenger. "Everyone's gonna think I'm a Constructicon groupie now."

Mixmaster looked dramatically wounded. "You're not?"

"Ah-h-h, you're lucky you're cute." Steelcast looked up at the ceiling. "These loads causing you any problems, Thorncon?"

The medicroid unfolded slightly. "The mixer understands." Thorncon had a voice as thin and weedy as his body and more ego than everyone else in the building combined. Steelcast couldn't stand him but signing up to keep watch on him was the only way she could get an invite to the show. "The excavator appreciates my work with something approaching my due. The truck is a plebeian."

"He hissed at us a bit when Scavenger started rubbing candies on his shovel, but calmed down after Scavenger explained that's where he keeps his best materials sensors. And of course Mixy's been stuffin' candies in his drum," Long Haul said. "Thorncon's mad at me because I just eat the things."

"Your sensors aren't acute enough to appreciate the subtleties of my art." With that, Thorncon folded up again.

The Constructicons ducked back into the storage area. Steelcast stood outside the door to keep a watch on the rest of the gallery. "I can't believe Deadlift let you into the stash."

Long Haul shrugged. "Mixmaster talked Thorncon into it somehow. The Scrounge is as happy as an Insecticon in an oil tanker."

"If we painted him black and welded a sting to his tail, Shrapnel would accept him as one of them," Mixmaster agreed. Scavenger huffed indignantly.

Bonecrusher noticed the absence first. "Hey, Hook, we lost the boss."

Hook looked around. "Blast it, he got away from us."

Bonecrusher activated his radio. :Scrapper! You better not have snuck out!:

:I'm still in the gallery,: came the reply. :I'm in the Thorncon exhibit with the rest of the crew.:

The demolitionist knew Scrapper was telling the truth. There was also a touch of amusement layered into his statement, an unspoken I know something you don't know. Bonecrusher shrugged it off as Scrapper being smug that he'd managed to slip away from them.

"Well, at least he's not in trouble," said Hook who had been listening in.

"More for us." The demolitionist looked around, contemplating their next target. "Where to?"

Hook considered that. "There's an exhibit on Tyrestian dye-art through the ages."

"Ugh, boring." An image of destruction caught Bonecrusher's attention. "Oh, hey, check out the Slog-wannabe."

They made their way over to the dimly-lit side gallery where Bonecrusher had noticed the torn-up Autobot. "Slog has many followers," Hook said loudly, for the benefit of the artist who was undoubtedly lurking around. "Rather ironic, given Slog's views. He's horrified that he has imitators. Bad enough that people are killed in the name of war, but now people are killed in the name of Slog."

Bonecrusher waved him off. "Well, if you want to pick on philosophy. I'm complaining that this knock-off is straight-up copying Slog's carving style. At least that one out in Tripraxus specialises in explosions to be different."

"Of course you liked her work," said Hook archly. "I found that one who does workplace accidents instead of casualties of war particularly amusing, especially since he vehemently denies any slogist influence and claims he is performing a public service."

An irritated dredger approached them. "Do you two want anything?"

"We have it already," said Hook, then deliberately turned his back to the artist to continue talking to Bonecrusher. "I mean, really, using dead shells was something back when Slog started it, but this war's dragged on for nine million years. What else are you going to use but corpses?"

Bonecrusher peered closely at one semi-abstract, then burst out laughing. "Look at this - he's not even doing slogism right. He tried to clean it off but there's a burn mark. This one was shot then carved up. Of course it's easy to carve them up when they're already dead. Want to bet he just found the body somewhere instead of killing it himself?"

"Could you do better?" the dredger sneered. "Are you even an artist? Or do you just lash out at them because you can't create?"

"Oh, right, because trying to copy Slog and failing takes so much creativity ..."

"There might be something in the imitators in that," Hook mused, interrupting him. "Slog's work is all about the horrors of war, after all."

Bonecrusher and dredger looked over at him curiously, argument derailed by Hook's considering tone. "You think the war's been sapping artists' creativity?" Bonecrusher asked.

"That's not what I mean. The new horror of war," said Hook, "is that in death there is no glory or remembrance, only bad Slog imitators creating worse art with your corpse."

Hook chose the next exhibit, which turned out to be sculpture. This artist's work was a mix of model buildings and various vehicles. The vehicles may have been based on people or they may have been the sculptor's original designs - in any case they were nothing Bonecrusher recognised. The buildings were all real places, famous architecture recreated in miniature. Most of the buildings the sculptures were based on were long destroyed. Bonecrusher, looking for Constructicon architecture, almost walked by the model jet.

Like the other vehicle sculptures, the jet was about the length of his arm. It was a graceful design, a smooth swoop with hardly a ridge or seam to distract from the clean lines of the form. Even the jet's weapons were carefully integrated to blend with the overall flow. It was painted two shades of purple with gold and silver detailing. It was plainly striving to be the Decepticon ideal of beauty.

Looking closer, Bonecrusher could see the imperfections. The model had been worked on, bits taken off, remade, replaced, fussed over. These weren't cosmetic add-ons, these were legitimate alterations to bring the design nearer the ultimate perfection. The artist must have been tinkering with it for vorns.

And it was smashed, the imprint of a heavy fist clearly marked on the smooth hull.

The little plaque on the stand read: Impossible.

Hook snorted, barely glancing at the piece. "Lovely. So this artist was in such a hurry that he hauled something out of his junk pile to fill space."

Bonecrusher growled at him. "Back off, Hook. I like this one."

When Scrapper had tried one of Thorncon's confections and declared it to be not without its charm, the artist had hissed, curled up against the ceiling, and refused to be cajoled out of his snit. Even Mixmaster's flattery fell on deactivated audios. They gave up trying. "Neutral artists," Steelcast declared. "As soon as one gets a powerful patron, their egos get out of control."

Long Haul wandered over. "We're off to look at sparklies before Mixy and the Scrounge eat this entire exhibit. You comin' with, Scrapper?"

Scrapper settled himself more comfortably against the wall he was leaning on - inside the storage room, right by the door, he couldn't be seen from the exhibit unless someone was standing by the other side of the door. Since Steelcast already held that position, Scrapper was entirely hidden from the public. "I've already seen the jewellery exhibit so I'd rather stay here. Besides, I might as well stick with the only artist in this place I can stand."

"You flatter my junk sculptures," drawled Steelcast as the other Constructicons left. "What've you lot been up to?"

Scrapper shrugged. "The usual. Build something temporary, watch it get destroyed, get shouted at by Megatron, repeat," he sighed. "Where have you been since we last saw you?"

Steelcast waved a hand vaguely. "Around. Dizeon, Tyrest, Yarron ... You know me, I got itchy wheels. And since everywhere's broken, I can find work wherever I go."

"Any new projects starting?"

"Nah, not enough energy. There's some people saying that this is a New Age and we oughta be doing Great Works to celebrate. Those people got slag where their processors should be. We're not in a New Age, we're in the same old age, there was just a long nap in the middle of it." Steelcast looked back at the gallery. "Hey, weird, nobody in here but us and Thorny. First lull this entire show ... Oh, no, wait, someone else just came in to come stare at candy and mooch for samples."

Scrapper peeked around the door, then relaxed as he recognised Maquette. She'd already talked to him so she was unlikely to do so again.

Instead of looking at the displays, Maquette walked right up to the front table and delicately picked up a sample with her talons. "Master Thorncon? A moment, if you please." The jet waited until the artist had given her his full attention, then ate the confection.

'Ate' was accurate but woefully inadequate to describe exactly what Maquette did to the truffle. Confection was a luxury and the jet luxuriated in it to a degree that was nearly obscene. If Scrapper had any doubt to Maquette's claim that she had been a model it would have been blasted away by her performance. She was a mech who could enhance a piece of artwork through her experience of it. Scrapper didn't have the sensors or inclination to properly appreciate a clotted oil truffle, but now he knew exactly how delicious they were.

She never broke optic-contact with Thorncon. Even when her optics had dimmed with pleasure she didn't look away. Maquette finally finished cleaning her claws and smiled up at the confectioner.

Thorncon wasn't unmoved. "It's nice to know my work is appreciated."

She trailed the tip of a talon down her lower lip and chin. "Mmm. It is. It will be."

There was an explosion out in the main gallery. Scrapper immediately activated his radio. :Bonecrusher!:

:Nothing to do with us, boss! The dye exhibit exploded!:

Thorncon was startled enough that he finally dropped from the ceiling and landed on spindly robotic feet. Standing, he was as tall as a Minibot but only half the mass. "Ridiculous Decepticons and your ridiculous fighting ..."

"More ridiculous than you could ever imagine," said Maquette, grabbing Thorncon.

"You know there's guards right outside," Steelcast pointed out.

"Oh, them. I killed them on the way in." Casually, Maquette shot the laser pistol out of Scrapper's hand. Draping the wiggling confectioner over her arm, she walked out of the gallery. "I think you'll like being kidnapped by us, Thorncon. Right now you're stuck with horrible, chilly Dreadmoon. My master is a true hedonist. She's the patron your vast skills deserve ..."

Steelcast shook Scrapper off her arm. "What's with you not lettin' me punch jets today?"

"What's with you trying to get killed by jets?" Scrapper switched to his radio. :The explosion was a distraction so Thorncon could be kidnapped. Regroup on my position.:

"Yeah, well now I'm gonna be killed by a shuttle," Steelcast huffed.

Scrapper retrieved his gun and he and Steelcast left the Thorncon exhibit. There were a lot of jets milling around and shouting at each other but Maquette wasn't among them. Scavenger, Mixmaster, and Long Haul arrived at a run. "You're kiddin', right?" asked Long Haul.

"I don't know," said Mixmaster. "Scavenger was thinking of kidnapping Thorncon, too."

Hook and Bonecrusher arrived next. "'Cast's here?" asked the demolitionist, startled. "Why didn't anyone tell me?"

"You were busy teasing artists," said Scrapper.

"What the slag is this I'm hearing about someone kidnapping Thorncon?" Deadlift shouted, limping over. The forklift looked like someone had thrown purple paint at him hard enough to damage the entire left side of his body - apparently he'd been close enough to the dye exhibit to have been caught by the explosion. "Dreadmoon's going to use us for parts, Steelcast!"

"I know who took him," said Scrapper. "If she didn't lie to me. A jet. Non-standard. She said her name was Maquette. Ex-model -"

"Thrillseeker!" Deadlift wailed. "Maquette was one of her previous identities. She's one of the elite guard from the Percumount - Monitor Brasswing's pet warriors. She doesn't stick to one body and she's a legit artist. Using her old name, she would have scored a pass easy." The tech unfocused, probably in contact with the Amnimount.

"This is ridiculous," said Steelcast. "That jet must know she'll never get back to Khelekrax, not with half the Amnimount forces and Dreadmoon after her. The odds are impossible."

Scrapper looked up. "Is that what the charge in the air is? Dreadmoon angry?" His senses weren't as sharp as Scavenger's or Mixmaster's but there were some things he was particularly sensitive to. The gallery itself almost felt alive.

"Ghost fight," said Deadlift, returning his attention to them. "Brasswing's keeping Dreadmoon occupied so that he can't use the Sector to attack Thrillseeker."

"Well, that takes care of the Monitor," said Hook. "She's still got to outrun a jet swarm."

"Underground," said Mixmaster. "If you're being chased by jets, you go underground. That's what I'd do."

"She's a jet herself," Scavenger pointed out.

"Then she knows better than anyone that jets are useless down there, yes-yes-yes?"

Scrapper shook his head. "She's not a jet, that's just the body she's wearing today."

"She'll be on foot down there," said Bonecrusher, transforming. "Or at least flying in robot-mode. We can catch up easy."

Deadlift was too damaged to keep up so they left him behind. Outside the gallery, Steelcast led the Constructicons to the closest entrance to the underground. Mixmaster rolled into the tunnel, testing the air with his chemosensors. "Here-here-here! I don't know your jet, but I know Thorncon's scent and he's down here!" With that, he sped off down the tunnel, the others in tow.

Except for Scrapper, and Hook who realised his foremech wasn't following. "Hesitation, Scrapper?"

"This is Sector politics," said Scrapper. "If we radio the Amnimount jets ..."

"They'll ignore us," Hook finished. "Come on."

They caught up to the others, Scrapper pulling into the lead with Mixmaster and Steelcast. Why are we even down here? Scrapper asked himself. This isn't our business and the politics are a tangled mess. I don't know who Brasswing supports, but doing a favour for Dreadmoon is as good as saying we side with Starscream. Megatron's not going to be happy.

Beside him, Steelcast was muttering to herself angrily: "... on my watch ... tear her slaggin' wings off and feed them to her ..."

... And that's why. This isn't about Sector politics. This is about looking after one of our own. Out loud he said, "How well do you know the tunnels, Steelcast?"

"Pretty well, boss. Done enough work down here to know my way around."

"Good. I have a plan."

The Kalis underground was a maze, and the maze could be re-routed if one knew where the doors were and had the access codes. Thrillseeker was probably taking the most direct route out of the Sector, but just in case, Steelcast and the Constructicons had shut off side routes and alternates. Not all of them, not so it was obvious she was being guided, but all roads now converged on a large underground chamber.

Thrillseeker had been flying, but she'd been in robot-mode and had a wiggling neutral slowing her down. Steelcast was on wheels and knew the maze.

Steelcast stood at the far side of the chamber, door locked behind her, blocking Thrillseeker's path. "Bad call, grabbin' Thorncon on my watch."

Thrillseeker pulled up short to avoid crashing into her. "Dready's sending techies after me?" she sneered. "I am really insulted. Drive away, tech."

"Aw, don't be like that, jet. I brought a warrior for you to play with."

The jet mock-shivered. "Ooh, just one?"

"Sort of," shrugged Steelcast as the room behind Thrillseeker quietly filled with green and purple.

"Constructicons, unite!" ordered Scrapper.

Devastator stood up. Steelcast didn't think she'd ever get used to the giant. His personality might have been the lowest common denominator of the Constructicons but his power was all of theirs and more. Good thing he's on my side.

The smart thing for Thrillseeker to do would be to shove past Steelcast, blast her way out, and keep running. She might have been a deadly elite warrior, but with a name like 'Thrillseeker', sensible wouldn't enter into it. The jet laughed in pure delight and set Thorncon down. The artist scrambled away to hide behind Steelcast. "A combiner!" cheered Thrillseeker, preparing to attack. "I've never killed a combiner before!"

Construction mechs, however, were typically a no-nonsense breed. Steelcast drew the gun she had borrowed off Scrapper from her packet and shot Thrillseeker in the back. Then Devasator punched the startled warrior into the floor. "You were saying about techs?"

"Leave her alive, Dev," said Steelcast. "Dready'll probably wanna chat with her."

Devastator smashed Thrillseeker again for good measure, then dropped into his component parts. "I don't think Monitors have enough to do if they're fighting over confectioners," said Hook.

Thrillseeker slumped, unable to do much else in her ruined state. "It's not about candy, it's about politics. Brasswing wants Thorncon because he belongs to Dreadmoon. Getting fancy candy out of it is just a bonus." Despite her damages, the jet giggled. "So much for my autograph collection."

Something picked at the back of Steelcast's leg. "I think," hissed Thorncon quietly, "that I would like to go back to the Amnimount now."

"Right, let's get back topside," said Scrapper. "Transform, Long Haul."

Long Haul sighed long-sufferingly but obeyed so they could load the broken jet into his bed.

The excitement was over. Thrillseeker had been turned over to the Amnimount, Thorncon was safely back in Dreadmoon's basement, and if Megatron complained that the Constructicons had helped one of Starscream's allies they could point out that they'd rescued Dreadmoon's confectioner and the whole thing would be a big enough farce that they'd escape any accusations of treachery.

Now they were in a bar with a pack of local techs. Scrapper felt far more comfortable here than he had at the gallery. No posturing, no games, just a bunch of workers on break. There was a bit of 'ooh, you're famous, we love your work' going on, but Hook was either trying to make things up to Scrapper or he wanted an ego-stroking so he kept the fawning away from the architect to absorb it himself. Scavenger was with him, revelling in the attention and the free drinks. Deadlift was there as well, field-patched and still half-purple. No point in going back to the Amnimount yet if all the techs are here, Scrapper acknowledged. Sitting with the forklift was an oversized purple backhoe that Scrapper didn't recognise but felt he should, then realised that he must be the trinemate Steelcast had mentioned.

Steelcast seemed to have resigned herself to the 'Constructicon groupie' thing and had Bonecrusher on one arm and Mixmaster on the other. They were with the rowdier group, all trying to top one another's 'most ridiculous thing I've ever had to build' stories. Scrapper heard the words 'purple griffon' and resolutely tuned out.

Scrapper and Long Haul were sharing a table in the darkest corner, socially exhausted. Sometimes one or the other would signal and the bartender would bring more drinks and that was about all the interaction with strangers they could handle.

Long Haul settled back, plugging his siphon into a fresh cube. "Y'know ... today's been a good day."

"It was good seeing Steelcast again," Scrapper agreed. "The rest of it was bad."

"What're you complaining about? All of us got what we wanted."

"What are you talking about?" demanded Scrapper, surprised. Long Haul rarely took the optimistic view of anything. "We had to put up with a bunch of artists and we got dragged into Sector politics for the most ridiculous reason possible."

Long Haul shrugged. "Scavy and Mixmaster got to eat a lot of candy, 'Crusher and Hook got all the trouble they wanted and more, 'Cast got to one-up a snooty artist, and I only had to haul one thing and she wasn't heavy. Even Dev got to come out and punch someone."


"And," said Long Haul, grinning in his way, "you got to leave an art show early."

The End.

Thorncon is more KoiLungFish's character than mine, or at least Koi named him. It's been a while. - Wayward


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