Art Depreciation

aka Daring Dead End

"I wish Megatron had left us on Earth," grumbled Drag Strip, hosing off the day's accumulation of dust from his chassis. "Cybertron is just plain boring!" The Stunticons had been transferred to Cybertron but a few weeks before, and were still settling in to their quarters and new duties.

"Cybertron? Boring?" Dead End said in a tone of mild surprise. He'd already washed the day's dirt off and was applying a new coat of polish.

"Yes, boring! No Earth cars to crash bumpers into, hardly any Autobots still on planet to race down and trash, no decent highways, too much stupid politics! Can't do this, can't do that because it would encroach on somebody-or-other's turf--you know what I mean," Drag Strip snarled.

"No humans looking at me," tossed in Breakdown, who was just finishing off his coat of polish. His cream and blue shell gleamed and reflected like a mirror.

Wildrider laughed, jump-kicked off a wall, and bounced to the floor again. "Just let Motormaster know you're bored. I'm sure he'll find something to entertain ya!"

"I'm not that bored," answered Drag Strip, digging out his own wax bottle.

"You could try checking out local society and culture--learn something about your own planet," said Dead End in his vaguely bored, aristocratic voice.

"Are you suggesting I don't know about my own world?" Drag Strip said, challenge in his voice.

Dead End put down the jar of polish and wandered over to a computer terminal. "Let's see.. how much do you know about the art scene here?"

"Enough to get by," Drag Strip blustered.

Dead End tilted his head and looked speculatively at Drag Strip. "In that case, care to join me at an art exhibition tomorrow? I'm writing up some reviews of local art and artists for Battlefleet Noctis."

"The official unofficial Decepticon entertainment zine? How do you rate writing for them?" Drag Strip asked, sneering slightly.

"I can string sentences together coherently and express an intelligent opinion. That, and they have a shortage of willing art critics," answered Dead End. "Possibly because artists are a temperamental lot who do not handle criticism well."

"I'm literate!" Drag Strip snapped. "Who's the editor? You said he had a shortage of reviewers--I bet I can write a better review than you can!"

"His name's Counterpunch, and like the rest of the staff, editing is just a collateral duty. You'd better catch him before he goes out in the field."

# # #

The exhibition occupied a recently overhauled former warehouse several levels down, at the top of the neutral quarter in Polyhex. After nearly twenty years, enough energon was flowing from Earth to not only fuel the Decepticon conquest of Cybertron, but to bring some semblance of life back to the world. No longer did Decepticons have to live as Spartan soldiers in their barracks, content with bare walls and survival rations; now, they enjoyed the fruits of victory.

This night was the gala opening of Shadowlight, the first commercial gallery to open since before the Great Shutdown. Every artist, art fancier, and art collector worthy of the name was represented, coming from cities and strongholds all around Cybertron. To celebrate the occasion, the secretive owners of Shadowlight had arranged an exhibition of works by selected artists, well-known in their fields. Almost all exhibited works were for sale, and most of the artists themselves attended.

A couple of heavy armored mechs politely greeted visitors, checking identities against invitations; 'gala opening' did not mean 'any random riffraff'. One of them, a dark blue tank mech, looked at Dead End suspiciously as he checked his invitation.

"Haven't seen you around before," the blue Decepticon said. He was solidly built, almost square in his proportions; the long barrel of a tank's cannon peeked over his shoulder. His companion, a dull red armored car mech, looked on impassively, any expression hidden by a mask. His head made little sharp nods from side-to-side as he scanned the incoming visitors with bright optics. The blue tank mech regarded the invitation with some amusement. "Dead End, and," he glanced at Dead End's canary-yellow companion, "Drag Strip. Art reviewers. Huh."

Drag Strip drummed his fingers impatiently against one of his door panels. Dead End nodded in acknowledgment. "We have only recently been re-assigned to Cybertron. And yourselves?"

"You're part of Megatron's crew from Earth?" The blue mech's tone suddenly sounded more respectful. "Lucky you. I'm Hammerbolt, and this here's Red Axle. We've been with Shockwave's ground security forces--and are part of the security for tonight's little party. Your ID checks out--rules of engagement for tonight: one, in the gallery, verbal assaults only; two, you break it, you bought it; three, outside, no killings out front or close enough to be connected with Shadowlight. Got that? Fine, go on in." He waved at the main gallery. Dead End nodded again, and continued inside with Drag Strip.

A large sculpture dominated the entrance--a curious assemblage of Autobot shells, welded together, faces still twisted in fear and pain. After a few seconds, Dead End realized that it was a large chair, suitable for a mech the size of Astrotrain or Megatron. The title plaque said simply, "Throne". The artist was not identified. Several mechs stood around the piece talking, creating a bottleneck of sorts.

The dark red Porsche tried to sidle past, but was blocked by Drag Strip, who stopped to stare at the piece. "Oh, that's cute," the yellow race-car said sardonically. "Weld a bunch of Autobots together and call it 'art'." His engines coughed contemptuously.

A deep purple Seeker with brilliant cyan trim turned from the little group to look at Drag Strip. "I thought security was supposed to keep the riff-raff out!" His voice was sharp and arrogant.

Drag Strip smirked and looked the purple Seeker up and down. "Guess not--they let you in here."

The Seeker's optics brightened. "Who are you? I've never seen you before," he sneered.

Dead End felt the faint, familiar tingle that signaled Drag Strip arming his forcefields. "Rules of engagement, Drag Strip!" he radioed the yellow Stunticon over Stunticon primary combat channel. "Those two at the door aren't the only security."

"I'm not starting it, so if he keeps that plasma rifle at his hip where it belongs, I won't feed it to him," Drag Strip replied with an evil chuckle.

"Just a reminder. Dying in a free-for-all at the art gallery would be damn embarrassing--although it has a certain style to it. FYI, that's one of Scrapper's pieces. He did one just like it for Blitzwing once," Dead End replied.

Drag Strip chuckled. "Me? I'm an art reviewer for Battlefleet Noctis. You got any art worth reviewing, plum wings? Don't tell me that piece is yours, I know better."

"And if you're going to play Taunt the Seeker, could you step to one side so I can see the rest of the slagging gallery?"

Drag Strip stepped forward, deliberately crowding the purple and bright cyan jet--and letting Dead End and other guests past. The purple Seeker stepped back, his mouth twisted into an expression of disgust.

"A critic?" Several heads in the group turned at the Seeker's shrill exclamation. "Do you have any idea who I am?"

"Do I care who you are?" Drag Strip countered. "Do you actually have anything worth looking at here? If not, you're just another loudmouthed flyboy."

The conversation faded away behind him as Dead End strolled through the main gallery, quickly surveying the crowd and the pieces therein. Once he got a good idea of what was here, he planned to take the time to study the pieces that interested him in more detail. He also looked to see what the rest of the crowd found interesting, and listened to find out why.

"Throne" by Scrapper. The piece is a distinctive vivincorporated metalwork that makes a subtle political statement. It is reminiscent of a now-destroyed sculpture built as an actual throne for the triple-changer Blitzwing, during his abortive takeover of Decepticon command from Megatron. That original piece was constructed from the Autobots defeated by Blitzwing with some key assistance by the Constructicons. This piece appears to be an homage to that original, yet with a twist; the Autobots constituting this newer piece were defeated by Megatron himself. Thus the artist informs us of his loyalty to Megatron, while simultaneously reminding the viewer of the value of the Constructicons as both combatants and artists. -- D.E.

Title: "Throne"

Artist: Scrapper

Media: mostly-dead Autobots

Welding a bunch of defeated Autobots together to make a suck-up tribute for Megatron isn't what I'd call art, but there's no accounting for tastes. Scrapper's hoping we'll all forget the prototype for this piece, when he was sucking up to Blitzwing during that Con's less-than-successful takeover. Scrapper, you'd be better off just not building any reminders of that particular less-than-stellar maneuver. -- D.S.

Large sculptures occupied the center and alcoves; smaller sculptures, imagery, light sculptures and other small pieces adorned the walls. Whoever had laid out the gallery had a good grasp of architecture and aesthetics; Dead End added a note to that effect to his internal note-file. His note-file would be getting a lot of entries tonight.

A peach-colored femmebot strolled by with a tray of oil-and-electrum-filled steel truffles; Dead End discreetly snatched up a few as she passed. Esoterica catered this gala, and free samples of his exotic and expensive confections were simply not to missed. Dead End stashed them in his subspace weapons rack for later; one for him, and one for Breakdown.

A dimly lit side gallery caught Dead End's attention, as it apparently had others'; quite a few mechs moved steadily in and out of the gallery. He moved to take a look.

Another large sculpture greeted him; it depicted an olive-drab tracked vehicle Transformer partially transformed, sprawled in blasted ruin. A Decepticon insignia was plainly visible, as was the broken communicator still clutched in the dead warrior's hand, and the expression of surprise on the dead face. A small plaque at the base identified the piece though not the artist: "Friendly Fire Isn't".

Dead End chuckled quietly; "How true!" he said to himself. As he leaned over to inspect the piece more closely, Dead End realized that the sculpture was not purely a sculpture. He turned on his combat radar to be sure... yes, the dead Transformer in the sculpture was, indeed, a dead Transformer, not a mere metalwork image.

He looked around the small gallery--all the pieces depicted dead mechs in one form of death or another. Most had been carved into graceful, flowing abstract metalwork sculptures by some sharp, single-bladed weapon. Most of those appeared to be Autobots, excepting a couple of unmarked neutrals, and at the back of the gallery, one dark blue Decepticon jet. The face of every subject was marked by death--there was surprise, and pain, and fear, and sometimes all at once.

Dead End's violet optics burned brightly in that dim gallery as he stood there, rocked to the core. Someone else who understood the utter futility of it all! Someone else who saw so clearly the end that awaited every mech--and moreover, tried to show that vision to everyone. Who was this artist who spoke to Dead End's very spark?

"Your first time viewing a Slog exhibition, Dead End?" asked a clipped voice behind him. Dead End turned to see a very familiar artillery mech studying "Friendly Fire Isn't".

"Onslaught!" Dead End regarded him curiously. "I did not know you were an art connoisseur."

"Nor would I have thought the same of two Stunticons, save that I know you're here on a journalism pass," Onslaught answered, and Dead End realized that the Combaticon was part of the internal security team.

"But," he added, "I have always had a certain appreciation for the arts. The tactics and strategies of abstract communication are nearly as interesting as those of combat--particularly when mixed with combat, as Slog's art is."

"Slog," Dead End repeated. "So he is the genius behind these sculptures. Is he here tonight?"

"I believe so," Onslaught said, a tone of amusement in his voice. "No doubt he is circulating about. He's hard to mistake, but easy to miss--smaller than a minibot, in brown and tan."

"There you are!" the loud voice of Drag Strip called out to Dead End. "Figures I'd find you among the slogisms. They're as morbid as you are!"

"I rather like them. First pieces I've seen yet that impress me," Dead End replied.

"You would," Drag Strip said. "Hey, Ons! What brings you here, or should I ask?"

"Art appreciation," Onslaught said, a subtle dryness in his tone.

"..and internal security," Dead End warned Drag Strip over their private comm channel.

"How did you fare with 'Plumwings'?" Dead End asked Drag Strip.

"Some short guy who talks like a Dinobot, only smarter, pointed out to Spinshaper--that's 'Plumwings' real name--that 'reviewer' is not the same as 'critic' and that all publicity is good publicity. Actually, he said it more like 'A critic, reviewer is not. Publicity, reviews are. Will be your name and art mentioned'. After that, the dude coughed up his name and told me where to find his art. I'm off to take a look at it, but while I'm here, might as well take in Slog's pieces."

"I don't suppose you've seen Slog himself? Supposedly short, brown and tan," asked Dead End.

"Sounds like Dinobot-grammar guy; might have been, that bunch of jabbering corbies listened to him real respectfully."

Title: "Friendly Fire Isn't"

Artist: Slog

Media: dead mech, metalwork.

This one's a hit favorite among ground-pounders--it graphically demonstrates one of the truisms of battle: when high explosives are being tossed hither and yon with gay abandon, it's about as likely to hit you as the enemy. Being killed by your own side just plain sucks.

Slog's sculpture in general is very accessible--his message is about as subtle as smacking you between the optics with an I-beam while screaming "WAR IS HELL!" at the max of his vocalizer. It's also a message everybody who's been caught in a firefight can understand without any extra 'interpretation'. Check it out for yourself, and you'll see what I mean. -- D.S.

Drag Strip gave "Friendly Fire Isn't" a last long look, then glanced at Onslaught. "Funny how this guy reminds me of one of you. Anyone you knew?"

"No. He was after my time," said Onslaught, a distinct chill in his tone.

Drag Strip, being Drag Strip, continued on obliviously. "Yeah, well, accidentally getting blasted by your own guys--sucks to be him. I remember when Ramjet nearly trashed half the team because of that Autodork Smogscreen--"

"How do you know this--" Onslaught gestured at the dead mech, "was an accident?" His tone was cold enough for even Drag Strip to pick up on it.

"Meaning like he might have been fragged by his own side?" Drag Strip smirked.

"Read into that what you will. I've noticed over the years that 'friendly fire' accidents seem to happen to those most deserving them," Onslaught said, then turned on his heel and walked away.

Drag Strip watched the Combaticon leave. In a puzzled tone he asked, "What was that all about?"

"There's more than one meaning to 'Friendly fire isn't'," answered Dead End.

"Yeah, whatever. I'm going to check out Spinshaper's stuff, and the Arbiter sculpture in the Sigma gallery. You coming?"

"I'll be along in a bit. I want to look at these some more," Dead End replied.

"Eh, you would! Just don't forget why we're here--or do. Just means I'll get all the reviews published instead of you getting some," Drag Strip said, snickering.

"I won't," answered Dead End as Drag Strip walked off.

The dark red and black Stunticon strolled to the back of the gallery--there was something about the jet that caught his eye. It was a Decepticon jet, but not just any jet--there was something different and hauntingly familiar about the outlines of the dark blue and dusky purple Seeker. It looked too much like Skywarp.

Yes, that was it. This was no Cybertronian pyramid jet; it had an Earth jet mode. Dead End wondered; how many of those could there be? This one had been to Earth with Megatron, and had fallen before the Stunticons were created. Dead End had not known him, yet this Decepticon's death was eerily close in time and space to him.

"Had you a name, my friend?" Dead End whispered, his optics dimming he studied "Stupidity in Blue". The dark red Stunticon reached out hesitantly to touch the twisted filigree that had once been the jet's nosecone. "Or is it forgotten, as all names are in the end? Did you fly with Starscream and Thundercracker? Did they know you? Did you fly Earth's blue skies and feel those winds over your wings?"

Dead End's hand dropped back to his side. "And in the end, it mattered not all. Here you are, beautiful, elegant, and dead. You can give me no answers save the final one, and I already know that. As you are, so shall I someday be--so shall we all."

"Stupidity in Blue", by Slog. Unlike most of Slog's pieces, this particular slogism was created from a Decepticon Seeker jet. As such, it reminds us that the same fate awaits us all, Decepticon, Neutral, and Autobot alike. Whether it be in combat ("Stupidity in Blue", "Friendly Fire Isn't"), or execution in the Smelting Pools ("Futility of Dreams"), or inevitable decay ("Futility 16"), death stands revealed in all its horror and inevitability when Slog rips away the veil of distance and faulty memory and rationalization. Many find his work disturbing, or interpret it as mere triumphalism. "Stupidity in Blue" should remind one that slogism is not triumphalism. It is an unpleasant truth shown to unwilling optics--and like most unpleasant truths, reviled for being the truth, or rationalized away with a falsehood. -- D.E.

When Dead End finally pulled himself away from Slog's combat sculptures, Drag Strip was nowhere in sight. Now where would his partner-in-art-crime have gotten to? Dead End pulled up the layout and program for tonight's gala from his aux data store... Drag Strip had mentioned Spinshaper's art, and something in the Sigma Gallery. Over that way, somewhere.

Dead End wandered vaguely in that direction, taking in all the sights and sounds and other sensations. There was a dark gallery devoted to light sculptures--some holographic images, others abstracts of color and light and interference patterns. There were magnetic sculptures--subtly shaped metal shards arranged by intertwined magnetic fields. Dead End found these technically interesting, but no more--none of the imagery had anything to say to him, and he added notes to that effect.

Spinshaper's sculptures were not in the Sigma gallery, but in one of the side galleries along with another artist's sculptures. Drag Strip was still nowhere to be seen; apparently he'd been and gone. The dark red Stunticon regarded the abstract, baroquely flowing metalworks with interest and increasing puzzlement. What was the artist trying to say?

"If you look for meaning in Spinshaper's work, you will be looking for a long time," said an elegantly-shaped white mech. He carried no faction markings that Dead End could see. "It is sculpted babbling."

"Ah, that would explain my puzzlement. It is difficult to find meaning where there is none," replied Dead End in his low, aristocratic voice.

"Spinshaper would tell you that you are simply interrogating his work from the wrong perspective, and are too stupid to comprehend True Art," the other mech said contemptuously, ice blue optics glimmering. "In truth, he is a talentless hack who covers up his lack of talent with incomprehensibility."

"Can I quote you on that?" Dead End asked.

Deadly blue optics brightened. "Quote me? You are a critic?" There was no missing the contempt in the other mech's voice.

"Dead End, art reviewer for Battlefleet Noctis. You are?" Dead End replied mildly.

"Armature." The white mech smiled coldly. "Yes, you may quote me." He regarded the blocky Stunticon intently. "Art reviewer. Yet you do not know who I am..." His tone questioned Dead End's basic intelligence.

"New sideline. In the unlikely event I survive this war, it might be useful to have some non-combat skill to fall back on," Dead End said, mildly amused. "Since I can form opinions, compose coherent paragraphs and arrange them in a meaningful fashion to express said opinions...." Dead End shrugged, the conclusion obvious.

"But what do you know of art?" Armature's tone was sharp, sneering.

"Art is communication by other means," Dead End replied. "The indirect message embedded in form and style. Thus," he nodded at one of Spinshaper's abstracts, "my... puzzlement at this work. It seems to me that art that does not communicate something fails at its task--or rather, the artist has failed at his task."

Armature nodded grudgingly. "At least you have some notion of what art is. Tell me, what do you think of this piece?" Armature pointed to a different sculpture, very different from Spinshaper's pieces.

Dead End peered at the piece, a twisting brown wire adorned with delicate clusters of violet bell-shapes--then something clicked in his mind, and he realized he was looking at the metal sculpture of a plant--an Earth flower. His gaze flicked to the tidy small label: "Wisteria" by Armature.

"Interesting," he murmured. "Why Earth flora?"

The shiny white mech looked startled. "You recognize it."

"I have seen them in the wild," Dead End said, looking back at Armature. "They are beautiful flowers that grow in great writhing vines that crawl over everything that doesn't chop them back. They're almost as bad as kudzu."

"Kud-zu," Armature rolled the alien word around, as if savoring the sound and flavor of it. "What is... kudzu?"

"An aggressive vine--hideously green, grows several feet per day, and covers everything. I've never seen it eat a mobile creature, but I'm sure it could if you were too weak to run."

Armature's optics were very bright. "Interesting..." he said, no longer paying attention to Dead End, the expression on his face curiously reminiscent of Megatron's when he plotted something. Dead End quietly took his leave, examining the rest of the pieces in the small gallery. They were all Armature's.

Title: Mirror Psyche Inverted

Artist: Spinshaper

Media: Metal forging

This is typical of Spinshaper's work--a random blob of metal with more random bits of metal stuck to it, topped off with a grandiose title. I've picked blobs of mud out of my wheel wells that had more going for them than this. Like most abstracts, meaning is in the eye of the beholder; the meaning I get is "Yay! I can throw random slugs of molten metal at a wall and call it Art!" -- D.S.

"Wisteria", by Armature. This colored wire and metalwork sculpture depicts the mating display of one of Earth's fragile, transient organic flora. Armature has taken the weak, perishable alien and made it into familiar, sturdy metalwork and wire, yet preserved its uncanny form. There is a disturbing blend of exotic, alien aesthetics with familiar texture and materials--the alien not quite assimilated, the Other not made harmonious with the familiar, the stranger tolerated but not befriended. The Art reflects the Artist. -- D.E.

"Art and Intellect Reflecting Absence", by Spinshaper. The title of this flowing metal abstract seems all too self-descriptive. Like most of Spinshaper's art, it despairs of meaning, becoming as pointless and boring as life in general. In the words of a another, talented artist, it is "sculpted babbling", pretending to rarefied heights of intellectual abstraction in order to conceal its utter lack of merit. Again, the Art reflects the Artist. -- D.E.

Beyond this gallery was a small theater dedicated to audio performances. A small crowd had gathered, listening to a dark and light green Decepticon Seeker speak. Right down in front Dead End spotted a familiar green and purple mech--Scavenger. The Constructicon seemed engrossed in the performance; Dead End could see his shovel twitching. Curious, Dead End stepped inside the sound field.

The Seeker's voice was deep and mellifluous, ringing out to declaim nobly, or sinking to a low, intimate rumble as his recital demanded--for recital it was. As Dead End listened, he realized he was hearing a story told in rhyme and rhythm. He turned to a blue and gray mech with a wedge-shaped crown and torso and whispered, "If you don't mind, who and what are we listening to?"

The mech turned his head and looked at Dead End, violet optics like his own gazing back. "That's Cadence, the poet. He's reciting one of his own works--The Fall of Iacon. He's quite good; I should be able to get a fair price for recordings of this recital."

"Indeed? I have heard the name, though I've not been fortunate enough to hear him before," Dead End murmured.

"He's different--there are mechs who can compose poetry, and there are mechs who can recite, but very few who can do both well." The blue and gray mech sighed. "Unfortunately, Cadence has a passion for epic war poetry, and that subject matter simply does not appeal to me. His voice, however, is a treasure to listen to, and he knows how to use it well. I could just stand here and listen to him read duty rosters all day."

"*Beep!* Dead End, are you receiving? This is Counterpunch."

"Ah, excuse me, I have a call. Thank you for the commentary," Dead End nodded and stepped back out of the sound field.

"Dead End here. I'm still at the Shadowlight gala. Is there a problem?"

"There's a problem at this end you can help me with. I had to drop an article unexpectedly, so upload me whatever you've got and I'll run it as live commentary in tonight's issue. I've already got some pieces from your buddy Drag Strip, so if you've got something readable, we'll be good to go."

"Give me a few minutes to arrange my preliminary reviews into something grammatical and I'll have something for you, indeed."

"Great! Upload it ASAP. Counterpunch out."

Dead End wandered down the hallway to the next gallery, only half his mind on his surroundings, the other half on putting his review notes into some semblance of order.

"You got out of Slog's exhibit before he turned up and mistook you for one of his pieces, I see," said Drag Strip loudly right in Dead End's right audial.

"Yes, and I even composed some reviews for our friend Counterpunch," answered Dead End, not missing a step. "He mentioned that you did the same."

"Ehh, so you got Counterpunch's call." The bright canary yellow Stunticon sounded slightly disappointed. "Wonder what this bunch of fruit baskets is going to think of our little commentaries? They'll be going live shortly, while these guys are still posturing at each other." Drag Strip laughed rudely.

"*Beep* Counterpunch here. I just got your upload, Dead End, and I've just finished reading Drag Strip's reviews. Damn, but he had me laughing myself sick! If yours are even half as good as his, you'll be online tonight, Dead End. Consider yourself a published journalist!"

"A paid, published journalist?"

"Of course! Payment on acceptance, and based on this first one I'm reading now, they're accepted. I'm authorizing the credits to your account even as we speak. Congratulations, Stunticons! Must be something in the air on Earth--you two are the first decent new writers I've seen in a long time."

"Oh, dear. You have no idea how disturbing that is to hear," replied Dead End over his comm.

"Oh? Why?" Counterpunch sounded genuinely puzzled.

"Because we work for the mighty leader who has to read all those after-action reports from the Decepticon forces..."

There was a long silence. "And I thought the slush pile was bad..."

# # #

Within an hour, someone noticed the first set of reviews in Battlefleet Noctis, and word circulated slightly faster than lightspeed. In a semi-private lounge reserved for exhibitors, angry words were exchanged.

"How dare he! That plebian little ground-slug critic! That ignorant buffoon! He knows nothing about Art, nothing about Creation, nothing about History, yet he dares to publish his crude japes as reviews?? This is intolerable!"

"He has no respect for his betters, nor for Art, nor for the language. He has been allowed to make a mockery of us--a situation that will be rectified. However, they both pegged your art quite accurately, Spinshaper," replied a distinctive green and purple mech--Scrapper, the Constructicon.

"Must I be insulted by my fellows as well as those ignorant fools? You are simply interrogating it from the wrong perspective! If you had the intellect to truly appreciate my art, you would--"

"Still find nothing worth appreciating," commented the third artist, Armature.

A plasma rifle slid from its holster, only to be dropped as its owner's hand was very nearly crushed in an olive-drab grip.

"That will be enough of that," said Onslaught coldly. "No violence indoors, in case you gentlemechs have forgotten the Rules of Engagement."

"And what of the violence done to Art by these plebian ground-crawlers? Shall we stand aside and let the common herd disrespect our culture, our--"

"Yes," said Onslaught, his voice even more icy than when he'd talked to Drag Strip. "One more loose weapon incident, Spinshaper, and I'll have Hammerbolt and Red Axle publicly evict you. Go find a dark alley to work out your grievances in." Onslaught stalked out.

"Oh, we will," the purple and cyan-winged Seeker hissed at his back. "Are we agreed that this insult cannot be permitted? Shall an example be made of these... reviewers?"

"In principle, I approve, but I cannot know details--I work with their superior. Be careful how you handle this," Scrapper warned as he, too, left the lounge.

"Oh, I will." Spinshaper looked haughtily at his cronies and hangers-on. "Find out when they leave, and which route they take," he snarled at them, and stomped out. His cronies drifted out after him, leaving only Armature, Slog, and another small brown mech with wheels.

"Spinshaper, truth likes not."

"He never did. Interesting review Dead End did of my piece." Armature looked very thoughtful.

"Perceptive, he is--yet by prejudices, blinded. Other, my art understood. Blunt-spoken, he, but sees clearly."

The small brown wheeled mech spoke for the first time. "It is not blind to find a different, yet valid, meaning than the one you intended. Perhaps he is more perceptive than you about your subjects."

Armature looked down at the other mech. "Are you suggesting that a bystander could know better than the artist what his art means?" His tone was sarcastic, suggesting that the other artist was short a few neural processors.

"Do you truly know everything you've put into your own art?" asked the wheeled mech, whose name was Arbiter.

Armature only looked at him thoughtfully in response.

# # #

"Did you find Esoterica's exhibit?" Dead End asked Drag Strip some hours later, when they crossed paths again.

There was little mistaking the hostile glances they were both getting from certain individuals, particularly those in the company of the purple-winged Spinshaper. Spinshaper himself gave Drag Strip a nasty smirk from time to time, promising trouble to come. Somewhat more puzzling were the amused smirks and the occasional, surreptitious "thumbs-up" signs Drag Strip got from other individuals, such as the green-winged Cadence.

"Esoterica? The confectioner? But--" Drag Strip looked at Dead End like he'd misplaced his processor.

"Food as Art. It's a delightful display. I think Scavenger has moved in there permanently; he seems enchanted with it."

"I saw Scavenger watching that green jet guy who does poetry. I swear, his shovel was wagging the whole recital," commented Drag Strip.

"Cadence? Did you listen to him? He has quite the voice."

"Eh, audio performances don't do it for me. Food on the other hand--" Drag Strip rushed off, looking for Esoterica's exhibit.

As Dead End pondered wearily just what to do next--he'd covered nearly every inch of the gala and had taken in about all the art he could stand, Onslaught strolled by.

"Still here?" the Combaticon leader said, sounding mildly surprised.

Dead End knew quite well that Onslaught knew exactly who had entered and exited the premises, so...

"Not for much longer," Dead End said. "I have recharge and much collation and consolidation to do." He pondered, tapping his battle mask with one finger. "I have only been able to properly complete and upload a few reviews--the easiest ones, the pieces that were either very good or quite bad. It's the in-between pieces that are hardest to evaluate."

"Yes... the reviews you and Drag Strip did publish have had an interesting reception. Do consider that when you plan your route back." Onslaught stalked off.

Dead End made a few comm transmissions as he drifted toward the entrance--one on the private command channel to Motormaster, and another to Drag Strip. "Drag Strip! Are you about finished? Or shall I die of energon exhaustion right in the middle of the gallery? Perhaps I should volunteer myself to Slog as a new sculpture, or see what happens if I take samples from the Esoterica exhibit--it would be less tedious."

"Cripes, hold your horses, will you? I'm coming!"

"You do know they mean to kill us? As soon as we're far enough from Shadowlight not to annoy the owners, they'll ambush us. If we're lucky, it will all be over quickly, and they won't keep us alive for artistic purposes."

"Thank you for that advisory, Dead End. I had figured that out. Look, we just leave quickly when they're busy with one of their endless stupid arguments and take a different route. Transform and roll once we hit the street, they'll never catch us!"

They did exactly that--in his enthusiasm, Drag Strip forgot one thing. Seekers are jets, and they can fly. The ambush didn't come in the narrow underground tunnels--jets hate fighting in close quarters.

The attack came when the two Stunticons broke out onto the surface, and sped down the street-canyons of the Polyhex cityscape toward their barracks. A barrage of laserfire and cluster bombs was Dead End's first warning of the ambush. His forcefield shrugged off the initial strike, and Dead End opened his throttle wide.

"Crap! We're in the open--there's an alley!" Drag Strip yelled, cornering on two wheels. Dead End skidded into a bootlegger reverse and roared into the alley after Drag Strip--


The alley exploded in a ball of fire--

The two Stunticons zoomed out of the alley enshrouded in flame that quickly burned itself out.

"SLAGGIT! That was fuel-air explosive! Someone really wants us dead!" Drag Strip screamed shrilly.

A plasma bolt snarled out of the sky and struck Drag Strip square on the hood--and splashed. There was another, louder snarl of angry turbines just above them.

"You aren't dead?" Spinshaper yelled as he hovered above them in jet form. More slender, graceful forms zipped by above him. "Why aren't you dead yet?"

Another barrage of cluster bombs followed, cratering the road and sending Dead End into a spin that terminated in the adjacent building. Drag Strip, hurtling down the road too fast for the suddenly worsened conditions, caught his wheel in one of the new holes and flipped, rolling several times before slamming into a building on the other side of the road.

Spinshaper changed to robot mode and dropped to the ground, along with several other friends. He smirked evilly. "Get 'em alive, if you can," he told his cronies. "I think I'll try my hand at slogism."

"This is pointless," Dead End said, shifting to robot mode and getting to his feet. "Nothing will change what is already written." A pistol appeared almost magically in his hand.

Ahead of him, beyond Spinshaper, Drag Strip also shifted and stood up, shaking his head as if to clear it. "Slagging losers! Can't handle a little criticism, can you?" he jeered. His gravito-gun snapped twice and two jets found themselves flying through the air unexpectedly--and then slammed to the ground.

Spinshaper lost his smirk--the two critics weren't cowering and pleading for their lives like they were supposed to!--and tried to bring his arm cannon to bear--

Something slammed across his arm like a piledriver and his right cannon was torn away, along with several feet of metal skin. Dead End sighted along his hyper-compressed air pistol for a second shot--

Spinshaper leaped into the air and launched a pair of cluster bombs in Dead End's direction. The street exploded into battle as Spinshaper's cronies opened fire on the two art reviewers--

"SLAG YOU, DRAG STRIP! I TOLD YOU NOT TO START THE FIGHT UNTIL I GOT HERE!" A voice like dark thunder roared over the screams of battle and the howl of turbines and the jagged, gut-twisting, rivet-popping, gear-grinding roar of three more engines.

Motormaster, Wildrider and Breakdown had arrived.

# # #

The next day, five very nervous Stunticons lined up at attention in front of Megatron.

"Motormaster," Megatron said with deceptive softness, "why am I receiving complaints from Shockwave about troop casualties? Casualties caused, not by Autobots, but by Stunticons?" The last word came out as a snarl.

"A... friendly fire accident, sir," Motormaster answered, not meeting Megatron's optics.

"'Friendly fire'? Please, do explain," said Megatron, sitting on his throne, his fusion cannon casually pointed at Motormaster's chest. "I want to hear this."

Motormaster's engine rumbled. "I received a call--two of my boys were pinned down by attacking jets. Rallied the rest and went out there to relieve them. It was dark, didn't get a good look at colors, just a bunch of jets flashing around, shooting and bombing--figured it had to be those lousy Aerialbots again. Who else would attack us?" Motormaster shrugged. "So we waded into the bastards; figured it was about time we evened up the score. Didn't realize it was a bunch of Shockwave's Seekers until we had 'em down for the count." Motormaster shrugged again. "What the slag were a bunch of Seekers doing attacking us, anyway?"

"Bad IFF, eh? You're sure that's it?" Megatron leaned forward, ruby optics glowing.

"That's the way it happened, sir," Motormaster said.

"I see." Megatron leaned back again. "I will be inquiring of Shockwave just why his Seekers were attacking one of my units--no doubt it was another case of mistaken identity. Make sure it doesn't happen again!"

"It won't, sir." Motormaster's optics flared brightly as he glanced at the rest of his unit, his expression promising dire and woeful futures to all of them.

"Just to make sure it doesn't, Soundwave will schedule you all for remedial enemy and friendly force identification training--during your off-duty hours. Dismissed!"

As they filed out, the Stunticons' private channel erupted with chatter.

"You idiots just cost us all our free time for a month! Drag Strip, Dead End, you are freaking dead!"

"I know. So the inevitable end draws a bit nearer. Does it really matter?"

"Why were those guys attacking you anyway?"

"Dead End, just shut it or your 'inevitable end' is going to be right fragging now in the middle of the fragging hall!" Motormaster's arm swept out and slammed Dead End in the side of the head, flinging him hard against the wall.

"Nice call with the 'friendly fire' bit, boss."

"Heheheh." Even over the radio, Motormaster's laugh was anything but warm and friendly--hot and sadistic, perhaps. "As you wrote it, punk."

"Wrote it? Wrote what?"

"Friendly fire--isn't."

-- FIN --

This story takes place somewhat before "Dead and Drunk" (Drinking Energon Dead End). Arbiter and Esoterica belong to Rebecca Hb. Armature, Spinshaper and the blue and gray audiophile (Euphony) belong to Wayward. Slog is canonical, if obscure. Cadence, Hammerbolt, and Red Axle are original to me.