Authors' note: Dead End finally breaks down (ha) and joins the job hunt. Obviously it's a completely pointless endeavor since they're all going to die anyway, but Motormaster insisted. (Warning for mild smut.)
– anon_decepticon and QoS/mdperera
Thanks also to Kookaburra 1701 for her support and input!
Chapter 12 : Pounding the Pavement
Seek human employment, Motormaster had said.
He hadn't used those exact words, of course – Motormaster's favored mode of expression was characteristically blunt and often profane – but those were his orders nonetheless. Find a job. Earn money. Make yourself useful.
Dead End had put it off for as long as he dared. He spent the first day cleaning their temporary base from top to bottom, excising every last speck of dirt and grime. On the second day he'd gone to the library with the others, reasoning that it was better to be well-informed than risk making easily avoidable mistakes out of ignorance. On the third day he'd gone out and explored their new neighborhood, forging a mental map of the area to facilitate future navigation.
But when Drag Strip managed to find a job and even Breakdown scheduled an interview in the hope of doing the same, Dead End realized he couldn't put it off any longer. So here he was, sitting at a table in the deli not far from their apartment with a cup of coffee and a fresh newspaper, perusing the want ads and considering his options. He didn't want to work in a place that wasn't clean, or perform tasks that were repetitive or demeaning. That alone limited his options significantly.
Many of the jobs listed in the paper were frustratingly vague. Administrative Assistant. Project Manager. Supervising Technician. Few provided any meaningful details about what the job would require him to do, or what kind of environment he'd be expected to do it in. Most of the ones he did understand were those he'd prefer to avoid, jobs that involved looking after animals or human offspring (both of which amounted to the same thing, in Dead End's opinion.)
He was nearly to the point of simply choosing a job at random when he spied the ad seeking assistance in an establishment that specialized in the repair and detailing of foreign automobiles.
He allowed himself to ponder that for a moment, recalling the sweet scent of carnauba wax and leather upholstery, the sensation of a soft cloth gliding across gleaming metal, and sighed wistfully.
"Can I get you anything else?"
Dead End looked up. The human female who had brought him his coffee was standing next to his table. He shook his head. "No, thank you."
"Looking for a job?" she asked, nodding toward the paper.
"No," he said, rising and delving into his pocket for money to settle the bill. "I've just found one."
"Thanks for stopping by, Mr. – what did you say your name was?"
"Dan Deed," Dead End replied.
It was clearly fate that he'd found that ad in the paper. The establishment he'd sought out was clean and well maintained, and the human who'd agreed to speak with him when he asked about the job appeared equally well-groomed, if casually dressed. Dead End approved.
"Ted Rucinski," the human said, extending a hand. Dead End shook it – the books in the library had stressed the importance of a firm handshake – and met his gaze squarely. "So you're interested in the position we advertised in the Chronicle?"
"I am," he said.
"You a mechanic?" Ted asked. "All our mechanics are certified with one or more of the makes of cars we service – BMW, Audi, Porsche –"
"No," he said. "My expertise lies in the area of automotive detailing. There isn't a shampoo, wax or polish on this planet I haven't tried."
Ted's eyebrow rose. "Which one's your favorite?"
"Pinnacle Liquid Souveran Wax," he replied. "If I were a car, I would use it on myself."
Ted grinned. "And how would you apply it?"
"With a foam applicator, immediately following a rinse," he said. "I find applying it wet leaves a deeper shine."
Ted looked impressed. "You know your stuff. When can you start?"
A hint of a smile tugged at Dead End's lip components. "If you wish, I can start immediately."
"Excellent!" Ted said. "Step into my office and we'll get you started on the paperwork. Just need to fill out a few forms and give us a copy of your Social Security card for the IRS, and you'll be all set."
Dead End's face fell. "Ah," he said.
The human had turned away to lead him to the aforementioned office, but now he turned back to give him a puzzled look. "Something wrong?"
Dead End hesitated. "I don't have a Social Security card."
Ted blinked. "Oh," he said. "Well, that's…gonna be a problem."
"So have you ever worked in retail before?"
The human female who'd greeted his inquiry had introduced herself as Amy Hsu, favoring him with a smile that bordered on predatory. She was elaborately coiffed but aggressively cheerful, and Dead End took an instant dislike to her.
"No," he replied. "But I am interested in clothing."
Amy's brilliant smile vanished. "Oh. You're one of them, huh?" She sighed, making a moue of disappointment. "Figures."
Dead End frowned. Had she somehow sensed he wasn't human? "Is that a problem?"
"Not for the job," she replied in a bored tone. "You can fill out an application at the register while I photocopy your ID. Someone will call you for an interview in a couple of days."
"Yeah, you know – driver's license, passport; any kind of identification that has a photo on it."
His next stop was a high-end eating establishment. With the exception of coffee, Dead End hadn't particularly enjoyed any of the various forms of sustenance the humans considered fuel, but he thought he could tolerate serving it to others. The environment suited him, at least – crisp white tablecloths, utensils that shimmered like polished chrome – so he went inside.
They asked for references. He didn't have any.
This is becoming irritating, he thought as he left. He could have performed that job with ease. He could have performed any of the jobs he'd sought today with minimal difficulty, but each time he'd been denied on a mere technicality. If the same was true of every human occupation, this entire endeavor was nothing but a waste of time.
Drag Strip found a job, he reminded himself.
That was both comforting and annoying. Drag Strip had been insufferably smug ever since he'd returned to the base with news of his success, but at least he'd proven it could be done. Clearly there were some humans who would be willing to overlook Dead End's lack of documentation. He just had to find one.
It's not pointless, he thought, suppressing the urge to simply turn around and return home. Never mind that precious seconds of his now-agonizingly-ephemeral lifespan were ticking away too swiftly to count. Death was inevitable and always had been.
But he didn't want to die as a human. He checked the paper again. He'd already exhausted every job on his short list of semi-desirable options; all that remained now were the ones that had been too nonspecific to make a determination, and those he was certain he didn't want.
Venting a resigned sigh, he began taking note of any job within the former group that was located in close proximity to his current position and plotted out a circular search pattern. He'd just have to try them all.
By late afternoon, Dead End was ready to give up.
Everywhere he'd gone had been the same. He'd inquire about a job, and be asked to provide something he didn't have. On a few occasions, he was told the job had already been filled. Only one remained that he hadn't tried, excluding those he'd eliminated as undesirable – an ad seeking something called a "Customer Care Specialist."
The daylight hours in which the humans conducted business were nearly spent, and his fuel tank was protesting its neglect. He was tired and his feet ached. His appearance was also suffering. He'd spent a considerable amount of time bathing and grooming that morning, but over the course of the day his efforts had begun to deteriorate. When he'd left the apartment his hair had been combed back neatly from his forehead, but now the deep burgundy strands were falling in his eyes.
All right, he thought. Just one more.
He pushed his hair out of his eyes, adjusted the collar of his shirt, and entered the final building.
"May I help you?"
Dead End glanced around, taking in the features of the small yet tidy office suite before returning his attention to the human female seated behind the reception desk. "I'm here to inquire about the job," he said.
"Do you have an appointment?" she asked.
"No," he said wearily. It hadn't occurred to him that he might need to call first. Perhaps he should have gone home after all.
The woman frowned at his defeated tone. Recalling abruptly that the books in the library had insisted a positive attitude was the key to success, Dead End forced his lip components to contort themselves into what he hoped was an engaging smile. It made his face hurt.
Based on her reaction, it must have looked more like a grimace of pain. "I guess I could ask Mr. Adams if he'd mind seeing you without one," she offered hesitantly.
"Thank you," he said, allowing his features to fall back into a more normal configuration.
He waited while she made the call, trying not to dwell on the sheer futility of it all. After a moment she hung up the phone and addressed him again. "You can go on in; it's just through there."
Dead End nodded soberly and proceeded through the door she'd indicated, feeling like he was attending his own execution.
"Good afternoon," the human said, rising from his seat behind a large desk and extending a hand, smiling broadly. "I'm Mr. Adams."
"De – Dan Deed," he replied, shaking the proffered hand.
"Have a seat, Mr. Deed," Mr. Adams said, gesturing towards a chair set in front of the desk. "I understand you're interested in the customer service position."
"That is correct," he said, sitting down. It was a relief to get off his feet. He thought longingly of his room back on the Victory, his berth, his polish –
"Do you have any experience working in customer service?"
"No," he replied. The human opened his mouth to ask another question, but Dead End interrupted before he could speak. "Is all this really necessary?" he asked.
Mr. Adams blinked in surprise. "Excuse me?"
"I don't have a resume," he said. "I have no references, no formal education, and no ID. I will, however, arrive on time each day and perform whatever duties you see fit to assign me. Is that not the entire purpose of this endeavor?"
The human looked nonplussed. "Well…I suppose we could skip straight to the test script."
Dead End's relief at not being immediately dismissed was somewhat mitigated by the use of the word "test." "What must I do to pass?" he asked.
"It's not that kind of test," Mr. Adams said with a smile. "It's more like a role-playing activity. Much of the job involves taking calls and logging complaints, and the test script is designed to give us an idea of how you'd handle a typical call. I play the role of the customer, and you do your best to address my complaint."
"I see," he said. "I am ready. Please begin."
Mr. Adams picked up the handset of the phone and held it to his ear, but didn't dial a number. "Hello," he said. "I'm having a problem with my microwave. It's not working right, and I only bought it a week ago!"
"Perhaps it's broken," he said.
"I know it's broken, that's why I'm calling you! I want a replacement."
"Why?" Dead End asked. "It'll just break again. Every machine breaks down eventually."
"It's still under warranty!"
"Perhaps it is, but you are not," he said. "The human body is nothing more than an organic machine, one with a very limited shelf life. You are dying even as we speak. You might have only days left to live. Shouldn't you be doing something more important than talking to me?"
Mr. Adams stared at him for a long moment, then carefully hung up the phone. "Well," he said with an awkward laugh, "I don't know about customer service, but you'd be a big hit in our accounting department."
Dead End arched an eyebrow. "Are they hiring?"
Dead End left the office building and started down the sidewalk, his helm bowed, his hands sunk deep in his pockets. The streets were crowded with the early evening rush, but the press of human bodies surrounding him barely registered on his awareness. He felt drained and disheveled, weary to the core. He could feel himself withdrawing, beginning to shut down, but he couldn't muster the energy to care.
Drag Strip's success had obviously been nothing but a lucky glitch, the exception that proved the rule. Even if the others imitated him exactly, they were doomed to fail. Dead End's own lack of success was proof of that. Lightning didn't strike twice.
Perhaps there was a small, faint hope that the money Drag Strip brought home would be enough to sustain them all, but the odds of having enough left over to obtain a computer were slim. Any amount they managed to save would be so incremental it would take months or even years before they accumulated enough. They'd rust first.
These human bodies were nothing more than a prison, and they'd all been given a life sentence.
He was so preoccupied with his thoughts he inadvertently collided with another human heading in the opposite direction. Glancing up, he dimly registered that the human was female, her pale cheeks flushed with embarrassment.
"Sorry," she said as their optics met. "I wasn't watching where I was going."
"Nor I," he replied.
She smiled at that, ducking her head shyly, but Dead End was no longer looking at her. Something far more interesting had captured his attention.
"Please excuse me," he said, overriding her attempt to say something more. She stared at him as he brushed past her, stepping off the sidewalk and into the decorated parking lot to his right.
It was parked in the second row, black and shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight.
A Porsche 928.
He approached it as if hypnotized, reaching out to trail his fingertips over the sun-warmed metal. His chest felt tight, gripped by a pang of loss and longing, a sweet, agonizing ache.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" a voice said from behind him. "Nothing like a Porsche."
Dead End didn't look up. He couldn't have torn his optics away if he'd tried. "Indeed."
"Handles like a dream," the man said, moving up to stand beside him. "Smooth, fast, perfectly balanced –"
"Yes," he agreed. "It does."
"Oh, so you've driven one before?"
"Less than a week ago," he replied. He traced the line of the hood slowly, reverently. "It feels like longer."
There was a brief, puzzled silence. "Well, this here is the latest model, fully loaded," the man said, producing a set of keys and unlocking the driver's side door. "Hop on in; I'll walk you through the features."
Dead End considered for a moment, then complied. He didn't need to look at the sticker taped to the Porsche's window to know the handful of change in his pocket would be woefully insufficient to purchase any car, let alone this one, but he couldn't bring himself to refuse.
He slid into the driver's seat while the salesman scurried around to the passenger side and climbed in. The leather sighed as he took his place behind the wheel, the familiar scent wafting up to tease his sensors. Dead End offlined his optics and breathed it in, savoring it.
"…all leather interior, power steering, power locks, sunroof," the salesman rambled. "ABS brakes, limited slip differential, forged alloy wheels…"
Dead End ignored him, onlining his optics and reaching up to run his hands over the steering wheel, feeling the perforated leather slide beneath his fingertips. No combat radar, he thought. No force field. The speedometer was analog instead of digital, and there was a Porsche emblem on the steering wheel where his Decepticon insignia had been, but none of that mattered. It felt like coming home.
"Feels great, doesn't it?" the salesman asked with a smile.
"Incomparable," he replied.
His grip on the wheel tightened, a curious obstruction rising up to lodge in his throat. He leaned forward, bowing his helm to rest his forehead on the graceful curve of the steering wheel. He thought of racing down the open highways, the steady thrum of a high-performance engine, the sensation smooth asphalt unfolding beneath his tires as he chased the sunrise. Will I ever feel that way again?
"So, uh…did you want to take it for a test drive?"
Dead End raised his helm reluctantly. "No," he said. The ache in his chest had become too much to bear. "That won't be necessary."
Opening the door, he exited the Porsche, leaving the baffled salesman fumbling blindly for the door handle on the passenger side. "Thank you for your time," he said.
He left without looking back.
Dead End let himself into the apartment with his key and closed the door quietly behind him.
Three pairs of optics noted his arrival. Breakdown and Wildrider were seated on the floor playing cards, and Motormaster had laid claim to the couch. Drag Strip was nowhere to be seen. Dead End ignored them all and made a beeline for the washrack, shedding his human garments along the way, heedless of where they fell.
Breakdown and Wildrider exchanged a look, glancing from him to the trail of clothing he'd left abandoned in his wake, but Dead End shut the door on any questions they might have asked. He headed straight for the shower, turning on the water full blast and stepping under it.
For several minutes he stood beneath the pounding spray, offlining his optics and letting the roar of the water fill his audials. It beat against his skin in a rhythmic tattoo, sluicing over him, enveloping him in a cocoon of warmth and white noise.
He might have remained that way for hours, silent and motionless, drifting without thought beneath the steady thrum of rushing water, but a tentative brush of fingertips across his lower back pulled him from his apathetic daze.
He stiffened at the touch, belatedly registering that he was no longer alone in the 'rack.
"It's all right," Breakdown whispered, his soft voice barely audible. "It's just me."
Dead End relaxed, the tension slowly easing from his servos as Breakdown reached for the soap and began gently scrubbing his back. He wasn't fully accustomed to the subtle differences in the way their human bodies registered external stimuli – he wasn't sure he ever would be – but the act itself was familiar and reassuring.
Breakdown didn't speak, knowing better than to try and engage him in pointless conversation. He simply soaped and scrubbed, his touch soft yet deliberate, and Dead End submitted to his ministrations, relishing the sensation of Breakdown's hands sliding over his skin.
He was mildly surprised when Breakdown finished with his back and began soaping his chest, slipping his arms around him in a quasi-embrace. Dead End could have easily done that himself, but he saw no reason to protest the unexpected attention. Breakdown was a warm, soothing presence at his back, his hands massaging Dead End's chestplate in broad, lazy circles, and Dead End had never been one to refuse a little tactile indulgence.
All in all, it was quite pleasant and relaxing – until Breakdown's hand dipped lower, venturing into distinctly uncharted territory.
Dead End tensed reflexively, his intakes hitching. "What are you doing?"
"Helping you relapse," Breakdown said, cupping him gently in a warm, soapy hand.
"I think you mean relax," he replied. "And I'm not sure that's the best way to do it."
"It is," Breakdown said, pressing his lip components to the back of Dead End's neck. "Trust me."
Dubiously, he submitted, allowing Breakdown to continue. He soon discovered that the flesh in that region was highly sensitive, responding to Breakdown's touch in a very curious manner.
"Don't worry, that's normal," Breakdown said before he could ask. "It's supposed to do that."
"If you say so," he replied. Truth be told, he wasn't all that inclined to complain. The way Breakdown was touching him felt…nice.
Breakdown's other hand wasn't idle, either; it continued to roam over his chestplate, periodically tugging and pinching the peculiar knobs there. His mouth was on Dead End's neck, exploring the skin with lips, tongue, and occasionally, teeth.
He was being deluged by a wealth of sensations; Breakdown's hands, his mouth, the warm water splashing over them, running over his skin or clinging in tiny droplets. His breath quickened, coming in short, hitching gasps, a strange tension gathering in his muscles, growing and building to an unsustainable peak –
And then all at once came the moment of release, accompanied by waves of pleasure that coursed through his frame, leaving him panting and trembling in the aftermath. His head fell back against Breakdown's shoulder as he sagged in his embrace, breathing a long drawn-out sigh.
"Are you back now?" Breakdown asked after a moment.
Dead End opened his eyes, tilting his head slightly to meet Breakdown's worried gaze. "Yes, I think so," he said. "What was that?"
"That's how humans interface," Breakdown replied. "Wildrider and I figured it out. Did you like it?"
"It seemed pleasant enough," he said. "Did you?"
Breakdown hesitated. "You mean when Wildrider did it?"
"Ah," he said, realizing his mistake. He twisted in his arms, turning around to face him, and laid a hand on Breakdown's chestplate. "Show me."
"Here," Breakdown said, taking hold of his hand and guiding it to the right spot. "Like this…"