It was habit rather than real interest that had drawn Scowl to the city's Artists' Quarter. A few inquiries had made him glad he'd wandered in - the local go-between had been an audile who knew and liked his work, and had given him the contact frequency for a Decepticon singer named Thundercrush, who was to be holding a gather that night. Scowl had thought his luck was only improving when Thundercrush recognised his name and extended an invitation to him, and had promised there would be a slating. He had been less thrilled when she had told him that Slog was the one who would be bringing the slate.
Slog was both a blessing and a curse on Scowl's existence. An artist himself, at first Scowl had been delighted to be put in a combiner group with a creature already recognised as a genius of a sculptor. Just being in his unit practically gave Scowl a free pass anywhere there were artists. However, Slog was to Scowl what Scowl was to a drone - Slog's star had risen swiftly and strongly, and Scowl was forever outshone.
Still, Slog was his gestaltmate, and if it was only the two of them at the party, it would be all right. There was a reason the Pretender Monsters all avoided one another as much as possible, but Scowl didn't like thinking about it. Besides, waving at Slog and pointing out that they were in the same group was always good for a few free drinks.
He drew plenty of strange looks as he trotted along, and with good reason - he was little more than half the size of most of the population, and he currently looked like a rocky cyan and hematite xenobeing. Only when the viewer noticed his energy fields were Decepticon did they catch on. Wearing his Pretender Shell was the easiest way to transport it and he liked the fact that it amplified his already loud voice. Sneaking up on people and shouting was even more fun when one's voice could literally peel the paint off his victim.
He found the door he was looking for and tapped the intercom. "Slog? You in?"
Instead of being answered, he heard the clomping of one trundling quickly, and a moment's wait opened the door. "Scowl!" Slog exclaimed, standing back to let him in. "Brings you what, here?"
"The unit I'm tagging along with came through the city and your studio happens to be between there and Thundercrush's place." He could hear that there was another in the apartment. A few trace energy fields made the monster lift one stony brow-ridge. "Who's the neutral?"
"Student of art, he, of the name Armature. Teacher, I."
"Never saw you as the type to take on an apprentice."
Slog looked pained. "Please. Student, he; not apprentice."
"Whichever." So, Slog was soft on this one - an apprentice earned his keep with scutwork; a student merely learned. "You taking him to the gather or what? Can he handle a slating?"
"Attended them before has he, though observer only," said Slog. "This time ... this time, participate he will. He must."
Scowl nodded cheerfully. "Oh, I get it ..."
He trailed off as a light pattering sound introduced the neutral. Having no expectations, Scowl was unsurprised. The neutral was a skinny, plain, hovercar thing, about the same height as Scowl when he was out of his Shell. Scowl wondered if he had any idea what was going to happen to him and stifled a chuckle.
Slog caught his student by the arm and waved his free hand at Scowl. "Armature - Scowl this is, artist of sound. Pretender, as I, and hexadmate."
'Hexadmate' rather than 'gestaltmate', Scowl noted. So, Slog didn't want Armature to know. A student was too likely to ask questions.
Armature stepped forward and very lightly ran his fingers over the arm of Scowl's Shell. Scowl knew sculptors well enough to just let him, and being part of a gestalt had made him lose most of his touch taboos millennia ago. He was mildly annoyed that Armature radiated curiousity rather than fear, and blamed Slog for that - what was the point of being a Decepticon Pretender when a skinny little neutral found him interesting rather than terrifying?
Finally Armature spoke: "I cannot identify the alloy your Shell is made of."
The voice was light, clipped, and cold, the tone blaming Scowl for the student's own lack of knowledge. Scowl had been expecting softness and ran into something with edges. "There's a couple kinds of minerals mixed in," said Scowl.
"I see," said Armature. The tone said, Why isn't metal good enough for you? The tone said, It makes you ugly.
Slog released Armature to touch Scowl's arm. Your anger, hold back. Still trying, I, to teach him manners.
Scowl radiated the equivalent of a chuckle back. Introduce him to Bristleback and see who can be more insulting.
Slog stepped back and waved a hand at the door. "Then go, shall we?"
This place wasn't Thundercrush's studio. She didn't actually have one. The singer was a warrior first and she lived out in the barracks near the edge of the city. The place where the gather was being held was a rented studio.
To Armature's mind, it wasn't much of one. Of course the place would be empty, being rented, but that didn't excuse the terrible lighting. It was far too dim for his tastes, though he could admit the arrangement wasn't horrible.
Quiet contemplation was interrupted: "Slog! C'mon up here and give us a cuddle."
To Armature's perception, one moment Slog was there, the next he had been replaced by an ultramarine and gold leg. Following the leg up to its owner found Slog caught in an enthusiastic hug. His back to his captor, Slog looked down at Armature dryly. "Our host, this is."
Shifting the diminutive sculptor to her left arm, she leaned down to touch Armature's shoulder. "I'm Thundercrush." Thundercrush turned out to be an enormous bomber with a voice that fit her name. Armature could detect a few odd modulations in her voice and knew they were supposed to be musical, but he couldn't appreciate it - hearing was the least of Armature's senses.
"You do realise whom you are holding," said Armature.
"'Course I do - I invited him and he helped with some of the preparations," agreed the jet. "Besides, a good, strong field-contact is better than any number of how-are-you-doing's."
The sculptor kicked his feet a bit. "Bribe you, I, will you let me go?"
"Maybe. Let's see what you got."
Slog conjured a few bundles of wiring and circuits from his packet - vocalisers from his latest acquisitions. Armature had seen them earlier and knew this was merely the host gift. Thundercrush took them with her free hand, then pocketed them. "Oh, you do treat your friends right," she chuckled. Then, in a conspiratorial tone: "Everything's set up. We'll begin when you give the word."
Thundercrush set Slog back on the floor, then strode off to accost another guest. Armature frowned. "I fail to understand why you put up with that."
"As this size, gets used one to being picked up. Choice, then, whether to stab. Merely overenthusiastic is Thundercrush, not disrespectful."
"I would have expected an audile to keep her hands to herself."
Slog shrugged. "Also does one expect a neutral, when with a Decepticon faced, to cringe. Quirk, call it. She, at least, has clout and firepower both to back up this."
"Great singer, too." The newcomer - Euphony, the local contact - crouched down a little to match Slog and Armature's height. "She's sure to sing tonight, don't worry."
"That was not my worry," said Armature.
"Ah-h-h, you tactiles have no appreciation for the soft arts ... eh?"
Armature and Euphony realised that Slog wasn't listening, instead looking at something else and hissing quietly. Armature followed his mentor's gaze to a black car-former with white and scarlet highlights. Two of the red patches were Autobot symbols, which meant as little to the student as Slog's Decepticon symbol. Armature saw no difference between the factions - both ran around, yelling and shooting at things and generally acting foolish.
Slog's visor brightened in irritation. "Autobot there is here."
"He won't be any trouble," Euphony assured him. "He's one of us - just another artist."
"Understand, you do not ..."
"I know what you've got planned, Slog. It's all right. He won't stop you." When Slog continued to look unconvinced, Euphony said, "He's one of my contacts. He doesn't get many chances to hear Decepticon music live and practically begged to come even after I warned him."
Armature kept one disinterested audio on the conversation and lifted his head to take in the other partygoers. He counted fifteen, and at least half of those had the look of audiles. It was statistically unusual, at least in the gathers that Slog took him to. Still, given that their host was a singer, it wasn't strange. He was frankly disappointed; Armature found music both dull and incomprehensible.
All but the two Pretenders were taller than he was, which was the way things usually were - Armature was better at identifying people and design lines by legs rather than by faces and wing arrangements. He scanned the group, recognised a few people, but none of them were particularly interesting. There were only two other sculptors, but both were pure abstractists. Still, they were more likely to be interesting than any of the musicians were. Armature walked over to eavesdrop.
"... experimentals in visual kinaesthesia were well-received, though I'm running out of things to do with metal," said Skyblade.
"Novelty," Spinshaper snorted.
Both were Seekers, one green, one purple, both over-decorated for their functions. The green one was Skyblade, who went in for gold etchings, and whose work was only memorable because he used non-metallic elements in his art whenever he could. The deep purple one with blindingly bright cyan detailing was Spinshaper, whose work was plain awful. Slog had taken Armature to one of his showings less than a year ago, and Armature had been less than impressed. Slog had giggled most of the way through the gallery.
"Everything must start somewhere," Skyblade snarled. "You're just upset that nobody liked your series on conceptual flow-sculpture."
"I'm misunderstood," said Spinshaper. "People these days are just too stupid to understand real art."
"Perhaps it is not your audience who are ignorant, but your art that is incomprehensible," Armature suggested. "I have seen your work. It is sculpted babbling."
"What? You little 'prentice!"
"Student," Armature corrected. "If you were a genius, would you not be able to make your work accessible?"
"I have no interest in peddling visceral pap to the masses," growled Spinshaper.
"Did I say that? I said that you are deliberately complicating your work and claiming that because your art is unintelligible, it is therefore too great to be understood," Armature hissed. "I said that you are a pretentious hack who uses gilt and ornamentation to cover the fact that even if he had something to say, he would lack the skill to say it."
The plasma burst caught him high on the chest and sent him skidding across the floor. Surprise drowned out all sensation for several seconds, then the pain crashed in. A quick diagnostic informed him that the damages were non-serious. The blast had been low-level, a mere slap.
The next feeling was Slog's hands on him, helping him back to his feet. "Damp you your tactile sensor web," instructed his teacher. "Less hurt."
"I will not." Perhaps Slog could live with dulled senses, but Armature couldn't. Better to feel every burn and scratch at full intensity than to dim his sensitivity even a bit.
"Teach your pet some humility," Spinshaper snapped, turning on his heel. "He won't last long if he doesn't learn to respect his betters."
Armature didn't even have a chance to open his mouth to speak when he felt the tip of a chisel-claw dig into his back. He turned to glare at Slog and found his own anger echoed in his master's visor. "If I am to respect my betters, I fail to see why I should respect him," Armature protested.
"Kill you, it would not, to use tact," grumbled Slog, retracting his chisel.
"My skill is greater than his!"
"Twice your size, him, and strapped to his hip a plasma rifle," Slog pointed out. "Also, still are you no one. Earned you not the right to speak down to Decepticon warriors, let alone other artists."
"One day, perhaps, so great you will be, may you talk down to whomever wish you." Slog deliberately scraped his fingers on the scratch on Armature's back, sending another spike of pain through his body. "Until then, must you live that long."
Armature harrumphed and looked away, and didn't turn back until he felt Slog give up and trundle away. It upset him more than he wanted to let on that his teacher had chastised him. Other people's opinions didn't matter because they were lesser beings, but Slog was the only artist Armature considered greater than himself. His opinions mattered and his reprimands hurt.
As did his body. Armature sighed to himself - he could tend to the burn on his chest, but there was no way he could reach the wounds on his back. He would have to swallow his pride and ask Slog for help later. He managed to keep outward manifestations of his pain to himself; it wasn't anyone else's business what he felt. Armature went to find Euphony or Scowl, just for faces he recognised.
He found both with Thundercrush, all talking in technical music jargon that went completely over his head. At a lull in the conversation, Scowl pulled a datadisc from his packet and offered it up to Euphony.
Euphony took the disc. "What's this?"
"Sampler of sounds from the smelting pool at Darkmount."
The disc vanished into a port on Euphony's midsection. "You want me to play it?"
"No. I'm going to play it." Scowl glanced around, noticed Armature, and poked him. "Go get me a stool or something."
Still stinging from Slog's reprimand, Armature didn't have the spirit to argue. He went and found a small crate in a storage closet. By the time he returned, Euphony had already assumed his alternate mode - a set of synthesiser keyboards. The side keyboards were shifted in a little so that the rather smaller Scowl could reach them. "You'll have to leave your Shell," said Euphony as Armature set the crate behind Scowl. "I won't be having your monster-hands damaging my keys."
The air shimmered. As with Slog's, Armature couldn't follow exactly how, but Scowl stepped out of his Pretender Shell. The warrior hopped up on the crate. "I need to be out anyway. I'm not using your puny little speakers and I can't plug in while wearing it."
"You can't wha-"
Euphony yelped in surprise when Scowl opened a port in his side, pulled out a wire, and plugged it into the synthesiser. "You might have asked first!" Euphony protested.
"Have your speakers upgraded for next time, then," taunted Scowl. He tapped a few keys experimentally, testing Euphony's layout, then brought his hands down in what should have been a crash of sound.
Instead of the expected explosion, a faint hissing, bubbling noise issued from the speakers on both musicians. A few more keys produced similar results. The disc was exactly as Scowl had said - merely noises of a smelting pit.
But noises with a pattern, one just on the edge of comprehension. Armature frowned, trying to work it out. There was rhythm, there was a feeling that there was purpose, but beyond that, he couldn't understand it.
The noises built in complexity and volume, holding onto the idea of a smelting pit while sounding nothing like how one would sound in real life. After several minutes, Thundercrush added her voice to the cacophony, a rolling, rumbling bass line that wove in and out of Scowl's playing. Her wings picked up the resonance, adding a subsonic thrumming under the whole piece.
Armature scowled, hating his lack of comprehension. There was something here, he was certain of it, but all he could hear was noise. He decided to give up and just be annoyed by it. Slog could work with music on, but Armature always found it a terrible distraction.
He also wished people would stop sneaking around and acting as if there was some kind of important plot going on. There was going to be a slating. He had been to half a dozen of the things and never understood what the fuss was about. Someone would drag in some empty who would be remade into something pretty. It was a rebuilding rather than a creation, and it struck Armature as rather pointless. The same end could be achieved by building a body-shell from scratch. They were just going to take it apart at the end and hand bits out as party favours anyway.
It was time. Slog felt the signal from Thundercrush and sent his acknowledgement. Soon his student would have to pass the test ...
Scowl appeared, still missing his outer Shell, snapping him out of his thoughts. "You coming?"
"Yes. Stolen, you, the voice of the slate?"
"Got it here," said Scowl, briefly flashing a vocaliser into sight and back into his packet. Slog knew both his gestaltmate and their host would prefer to leave the slate with his voice, but Slog didn't want this particular victim to speak. This was a slating to be appreciated by other senses. "You've surprised me, Slog. Your student, your little hints all night ..."
"Hush. Student is mine; his trials are thus mine to invent."
"Yes, but ..." Scowl trailed off when Armature walked in. He touched his gestaltmate's arm to gain field-contact. I was expecting you to slate him.
Later. Now prove, must he, that he is worthy of that ordeal, Slog returned, and stepped out of range.
The sculptor caught his student's hand to pull him along. The initiation from apprentice to journeyman had become a trial by ordeal since the War started, and slating one's own student was a common practice. Not to kill him, no, but to test his conviction. In this world, an artist had to be strong, resolute, and able to bear the pain and judgement of the senior artists with grace. It was the last part that worried Slog - brilliant though he was, Armature completely lacked social graces. People weren't important enough to be courteous to and he was too likely to complain if the work wasn't up to his standards. If he complained, he would be killed on the spot.
But this time the slate wasn't to be Armature. It was a test, certainly, but of a different sort: Armature had never been an active participant in a slating before. This time he had to figure out what his task was to be in the slating, and he would need to carry it out successfully.
They stepped into the workroom together, Scowl following a few steps behind, the slate already locked into the hoop. This time the slate was an Autobot - a truck cab, more technician than warrior. In fact, this one was an engineer with misguided dreams, and for those dreams he was going to die.
Slog had taken Armature's hand to feel his energy fields, and while he felt his student's surprise, there was no horror or squeamishness and his face and posture remained impassive. The sculptor released him then, casually, as if it was just another slating, and walked over to stand beside the Autobot artist he had seen upstairs. Slog poked him in the hip. "Plan trouble, do you?"
The Autobot artist shrugged. "It's for the craft. Besides, we carve up Decepticons as often as Autobots at these parties, so it evens out."
It was the tone more than the words that reassured Slog - this one was an artist first and an Autobot second. There were four other neutrals aside from Armature and Euphony, but Slog wasn't worried about them.
Euphony approached him and handed him a delicate set of carving tools. Unusually, the tasks required for the slating had been decided upon days before the gather. Of course, this was to the purpose of giving Armature as few clues as possible as to his task. "Since Scowl was a late addition to the guest list, he's taking my part in the slating," Euphony said quietly. "I'll be recording the sounds of the work instead - it's rare to do this sort of thing without talking. Is that all right?"
Euphony was the better technician of the two, but Scowl's skills would be up to the task. Slog nodded, and the collector retreated gratefully.
While the others were busying themselves with finding their tools and taking their places, Slog watched his student carefully. Armature quietly stepped out of the crowd, touched the slate's arm gently, then stepped in front of him. The gesture seemed less an interest in seeing the slate than being seen by him. Armature released him and stepped back to let the others work.
Panel by panel, the slate's armour was stripped away. The systems underneath would be rearranged rather than replaced - none of the artists at this gathering were known for their interior body-work. Slog preferred it that way. He wanted this one to still be the same on the inside. Still, things had to be moved around so the old chassis would fit the new frame.
The slate had no vocaliser and couldn't scream, but his fields radiated pain. While suffering for art was important, it was also distracting. The Autobot artist disconnected the slate's pain receptors, and Slog didn't reprimand him.
Slowly, carefully, the slate's body was reconstructed. If some of the artists were disappointed with the final product, they had the sense not to say it. The slate now wore the form of a plane, though one created to Autobot aesthetic standards rather than Decepticon. But then, it was more important to Slog that the slate thought he was beautiful. The other artists were just a means to an end this time.
The slate wore the form of a plane, though the artists hadn't installed any flight systems - a physical manifestation of lofty aspirations that could never be met because what was on the inside was wrong.
Throughout the entire procedure, Armature kept his accustomed place, silently watching. When the slate was filled and the other artists stepped back, Armature came forward again. "May I?"
Slog nodded. Armature caught the filled slate's face in both hands, looking into his optics with an intensity that spoke of field-contact communication. It was highly irregular to speak to a slate, but Armature was unusual himself.
Slog brought his fingers into field-contact, eavesdropping. He waited for a moment, then stabbed the slate in the back.
Scowl had decided to stay longer at the party, leaving Slog to escort Armature back to their temporary apartments. Slog never let his student out alone - a neutral had low enough chances for survival in a Decepticon city without being unarmed and mouthy as well.
Ambling along beside him, Slog said, "Seemed you interested in the slate."
Armature snorted quietly. "Of course I was. That was Mainspring, and I am quite certain you brought him on purpose to test me."
"True. Had to see, I, how seriously take art, you." Slog stopped suddenly, catching his student's hand in a grip like a vice. "Failed you to speak out, to save your own creator. Why?"
"Because his foolish programming nearly doomed me to a life of gilt and emptiness. Because art is important enough to kill for." Armature's optics lost a bit of their usual frost. "Because he loved, but did not understand. In making him a work of art, I gave him that understanding."
Slog's grip didn't loosen. "You? No work you did to fill the slate. What worth, you?"
"I performed the most important task of all - I put the meaning into the piece." Armature smiled, slightly. "Do not think I failed to notice that you waited to kill him until the realisation dawned in him that beauty needed substance to be beautiful - that the slating was a metaphor, that a lovely shell is just a shell, but it needs life to be art. He knew he was dying for something greater than himself."
"Passed you the test penultimate," said Slog amicably, releasing Armature and continuing his trundling way. "Next time in the slating hoop will be you."
Armature nodded vaguely and followed, no worry or apprehension in his fields. "One request, if I may."
"Let me sculpt my own face."
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