Rosy morning sunlight bathed the circular plastic table and wooden chairs arranged next to the dealership’s entrance in its warm rays. Naomi was enjoying her coffee, her hair looking like liquid gold in the incandescent glow. Thomas pulled out a chair to join her. The spot had used to look drab, the second-hand table standing alone, covered in stains and soot from an overflowing ashtray, but she had tidied it up, bringing in an umbrella for rainy days and decorating the surroundings with tall flowerpots, the veil of snaking vines issuing from them giving the enclosure an intimate air.
“Cleaning is the least of the ways she beautifies this place,” he thought, glancing at her over the edge of his coffee cup while taking a sip, taking in her eyes, lips, flowing hair. He felt a warmth spreading through his chest and was sure it wasn’t just the coffee.
Then he remembered how it had ended and the feeling disappeared.
“I heard about yesterday,” she said. “Good thing that kid got off with just a scare, but you need to be more careful. I thought you had moved past this kind of thing.”
“I know.” He had been on the edge lately, even before the attack on the protesters. At first, he had thought it was because of the upcoming commercial, but a thing like that, while annoying, really wouldn’t have influenced his mood so much. He felt like there was pressure building, a storm coming. Or maybe the world’s march forward and his slow decline had finally started to box him in, so he had to elbow himself some more room.
“If I tell her, she’ll just worry about me. I’ll just have to suck it up and bear it, it’ll pass,” he thought, taking a deep breath.
“What have you been up these days?” she gracefully changed the subject, obviously noticing the bleak look in his eye, “You hardly ever talk about your renovations anymore. What about your hunting trips?”
“Haven’t found a decent target. Besides I get more than enough cars here in my day job, so fixing them up on my free time has taken the back seat for the time being. And what comes to hunting, the game hears a blundering oaf like me coming from a mile away, so there really isn’t much point.”
That got a smile out of her. Not like it was difficult, but he felt he had managed to alleviate some of her concerns for him.
“I think you’re quite agile for a man of your size and age. Which isn’t saying much, but still,” she teased with an impish expression.
“I’m like a fridge on stilts. The other hunters drive me out of the forest every time for scaring the prey away.”
He tried to mirror her smile, but it didn’t reach the corners of his eyes. In reality the members of his hunting group, his old friends, had moved to different parts of the country and even overseas, until only him and one other member had remained. He had been found in his home with a rifle in his hand and his brains all over the wall. There was no message and the death had been ruled an accident. The group had gathered one last time for the funeral and to raise a glass in remembrance of their fallen comrade, only to separate again with firm handshakes and hollow promises of reconvening sometime in the future. Thomas had been the last to leave, watching the dead autumn leaves billowing in the wake of the receding cars.
He had made a few trips to their old hunting grounds on his own, but it hadn’t been right. Instead of having a good time like earlier he had felt more like a robot going thought the motions with no personal motivation. He had visited his friend’s grave, recollecting their times together as a group and got so caught up in his reminiscence of past glory he had stood in the foot of the grave for hours. Once he had snapped back to reality he had briskly walked to his car and never gone back. Then gun ownership had been outlawed and having to rent a rifle from a shop on the fringes of the designated hunting zone made the whole thing feel too much like a theme park ride, and his hunting trips had ended there for good.
“No use wallowing on the past,” he thought. “But it’s not like future has anything good in store when you’re a dinosaur watching as the bright comet grows larger in the sky.”
He looked across the table, where Naomi had started to complain about her neighbors. She grinned as she recited how the octogenarians living opposite each other on the same hallway as she had almost come to blows over what settings should be allowed on the communal laundry machines.
“No time like the present.”
“What do you think we’ll be like when we’re that age? We’re halfway there already,” she asked, resting her chin on her palm.
“I have hard time seeing myself so far in the future. Can I really go on for that long?”
“That’s what I like about you, you’re always such a barrel of laughs,” she said, spinning her eyes.
“I make jokes,” he said with a blank expression, going for a monotone voice, winning another smile.
“Is that all you do? We really should get back to work.” She stood up, the flowers hanging from the vines wreathing her with a laurel of light red blossoms. They were in full bloom, and he knew they would start to drop their petals, wither and die in just a few short days.
“I’m going out on a business call. I think I’ll take Jason with me.”
“Good idea. I think he’s out front.” She collected their empty cups and headed inside.
Thomas rounded the corner of the building, walking on the driveway. He spotted Jason shining the windshield of the Dodge Charger standing under the neon sign. The explosive machine was one of Thomas’ finest renovations, and as it was the joint passion project of him and his boss, or their joint custody child as Naomi used to quip, it wasn’t on sale. He had found it in a sorry state going through his father’s estate after his passing, and carefully replaced and fixed many parts. The end result was a gleaming beast radiating power. As per Naomi’s instructions, he had Jason shine the exterior and clean the interior at least three times a week, and that was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to the youth’s daily drudge at the dealership. He actually felt a little sorry for the kid, and the business call was meant as a break in the thankless toil of the temp. The boy saw him coming and paused his wiping. Thomas stood up on the podium where the vehicle was exhibited.
“How’s it going?” A cursory glance showed him that the car was thoroughly spotless, not that there was much time for any dirt to accumulate. Jason, on the other hand, had some black oil stains on his jeans and red t-shirt. He had shoulder-length brown hair and serious green eyes. Working out in the open had given him clear tan lines along the extremities of his shirt.
“Just fine. I was just about to go service the Harley Davidson.”
“That can wait. I’d like you to come with me to meet a client. He lives on the edge of the state, so this’ll take all day.”
“Sounds good,” he shrugged, tossing the wet rag he was holding to the foaming bucket on the podium. “Can I drive?”
Thomas stared at him sternly in the eye. He stared back, clearly consciously stopping himself from fidgeting. Thomas suppressed a smirk. He liked the kid, but always gave him a hard time. Jason had had a rough childhood, his parents separating when he was still an infant. He had ended up in the wrong crowd quite young, and already had multiple marks on his criminal record, mostly fights, underage drinking, speeding and other vehicular charges. Naomi, his aunt, had tried to correct him from the first signs of delinquency, but had mostly just managed to slow down the descent into an outlaw. His mother was hooked on social games played in virtual worlds and had often neglected Jason from early on. Still, he had always tried to support her and keep what was left of his family together. It hadn’t been enough, and they had been kicked out their apartment, and had moved in with Naomi. She had persuaded him to take a steady job in the dealership and hoped they could instill some discipline in him.
Thomas let the contest of wills go on for a while. Then he reached in the breast pocket of his jacket and tossed him the keys.
“We’re taking one of the sales cars?” Jason asked, noticing the key chain had a placard of car details written on it.
“Yeah. The client, Mr. Leonard Stone, is a great admirer of sleek sport cars, so showing up in one might impress him.”
“Good thinking.” His pace quickened a bit, enthusiastic as he was to get his hands on the car.
They walked past the client and employee parking into the larger lot containing the wares. There were pristine vehicles standing in 8 long rows, with cars arranged by type and vintage, with sections for sports cars, muscle cars, motorcycles and specialties such as luxury mobile homes and long limousines with pools at the back. On bright days one needed sunglasses for the shine of the vehicles alone. This kind of collection would have been all but impossible when Thomas was young but after the rise of Ampere, traditional fuel-consuming, manually-driven cars had plummeted in popularity, especially cheap and unassuming cars were demolished in competition, now littering every junkyard in the States. Flashier irons still had their niche and were now affordable even to an average middle-class person since every would-be car collector had filled their garages long ago. As he let his eyes wander over the rolling curves of the exhibition, Thomas was reminded of the fate of horses; once owning one could be considered a necessity for a decent life and acquiring well-bred ones was the pastime of nobility, but they had been made redundant by newer technology and become curiosities of fares. People had decided like a single mind that they were part of the past.
“Most everybody riding horses these days is either a jumping rider in tights or a rodeo clown,” he thought, heading for the sport car section. “I wonder what that would make a person stubbornly driving cars.”
They arrived at the vehicle he had chosen, a red and black Bugatti Veyron. Jason whistled. “Stuff like this almost makes this job worth it.”
“A chance to show off should be the least benefit you’re getting from your summer here,” Thomas reminded him. “Hopefully the cars are not the only thing you’re taking out of here on weekends.”
Jason glanced at him, quickly averting his gaze again, transiently tensing up. They entered the car in silence. The interior had been thoroughly cleaned by Jason earlier in the summer.
“So, is that Chevrolet of yours a company car or…?” Jason said, changing the subject.
“Runs in the family.”
Jason turned the key in the ignition and the car started like it was straight out of a factory, the short-lived, high-pitched whir turning to lower, steady growl. The only thing missing was the new car smell.
“Careful now, back in my day if you even scratched a car like this you would’ve spent the next decade or so covering the costs.”
“Don’t worry, it’s not my first rodeo.”
“Just keep that in mind.” Thomas wasn’t particularly worried about his chauffeur’s talents as he had had his own car, before being forced to sell it to pay the bills. Jack had decided that even a part-time grease-monkey/dust-sweeper had to know how to handle a car, so they had arranged a driving test for him, which he had easily passed. Most people his age didn’t bother with getting a license, and those that did were usually pressured by their parents or had something to prove.
Jason put the car in gear, and it slowly glided forward, heralded by a low rumble, like the growl of a lion before a roar that curdles the blood of the unwitting prey. He carefully maneuvered the vehicle onto a pathway between the rows of cars, heading for the parking lot of the dealership and the road beyond. As the dealership was on the edge of town, it was only a short drive away from intercity highways.
“I’ve messaged you the address,” Thomas said, putting away his smartphone.
“Got it.” He put on his smartglasses and the control glove from his breast pocket, copying the address to a navigation tool. He didn’t wear the items when working, as the gloves especially didn’t react well to the wear-and-tear of manual labor. His brow furrowed as he looked at the location data Thomas had just sent.
“Coordinates? I know you guys are pretty die-hard about this whole old-school thing, but don’t you think you’re going just the bit overboard?”
“The road he lives on doesn’t have a name. Ever been to an outhouse?” Jason took his eyes off the road to give him a nonplussed look.
“So, what business could we possib—,” he was cut short by the sound and shake of the car veering onto the line marking the edge of the road. He quickly corrected his steering.
“You’ll see when—or if—we get there.”
For a while they travelled in silence, passing and weaving around Amperes heading the same way. You couldn’t really talk of a flow of traffic anymore, since any naturalness of movement had been eliminated by the uniform maneuvering of the autonomous transports, the rhythm of the road now calling to mind an escalator, or perhaps a factory belt taking cans of spam to their preprogrammed destinations. Looking out the passenger side window, Thomas could see large industrial complexes scattered around the barren flatlands, as they rose onto the causeway. Large chimneys expulsed thick pillars or smoke in the distance, and closer by he could distinguish forklifts hauling large containers around a vast concrete field. The forklifts were rather low, as their manufacturers had removed the cockpits as redundant from their designs. Scanning the horizon with his gaze, he knew he was not likely to spot a single human as the surrounding plants and warehouses had been automated. The salesmen were like explorers of old who had stumbled upon a still standing city of an ancient race which had suddenly disappeared into thin air and left their marvels to slowly dilapidate. Such explorers were awed by the wonders they witnessed and unnerved by the mystery of their creators’ fate. Maybe future generations would share those sentiments, as the abysmal birthrates left them with less and less people living in the machine-driven cities, like rats nesting in metro tunnels.
“What did you mean by that earlier? Me taking cars I mean?” Jason said, cutting the silence between them.
“I wondered how long it would take you to ask. You know full well what I mean.” The younger man shifted uncomfortably on the driver’s seat.
“I’m just not sure I understand, are you talking about the drive-arounds I’ve made to promote the cars? Those weren’t on weekends.”
“Don’t bullshit me. You know most of our surveillance cameras are only for show, but we aren’t so blind as to let anybody just come and go with our merchandise as they please. I have a pretty good guess where you take them but I’m going to give you one last chance to do the honorable thing and tell me yourself,” he said with voice like the calm that warns one to take cover before a storm hits. The youth could read the way the wind was blowing.
“I just take them for a spin for my friends to see. I always bring them back, no worse for wear.”
“Around, we go from place to place. Sometimes we race. Or that’s what we mostly do. Everyone drives their own car, no Amperes allowed.”
“Sounds like a gang. These races of yours wouldn’t sometimes happen against the police, now would they?” One major thing bringing the public image of non-AI cars down was that they were heavily favored by troublemakers and gangs, as cars commanded by the cloud AI could be told to stop or even drive directly to nearest police station.
“I never take our cars anywhere where they could be seen by authorities. I know they could be easily tracked down.”
“So, you are still a part of a criminal gang. With your priors, you know what would happen to you if you were caught. Have you thought what would happen to the dealership—your aunt’s workplace—if an employee of ours was caught with our car in some underground felon gathering?”
“That won’t happen. We’ve never run into any trouble,” he said, the muscles of his jaw tightening.
“You can’t know that. And ease on the gas a bit.” The interrogation had caused the young driver to lose track of their speed, the thrum of the engine growing louder and higher with the increasing tension within the car.
“Even if the cops got wind of us, I would have better chance with one of these than on foot. I had to sell my car, remember? I can’t always rely on hitching a ride.” They continued to rush ahead, passing other traffic like a bullet passes a flock of geese.
“You would have no chance at all one way or the other. And neither would Naomi if you were caught.”
The vehicle begun slowing down to within the speed limit, the sound of the working motor moving to decrescendo.
“Does she know?”
“No. I don’t want you to add to her worries, so long as you quit these endeavors, we’ll keep this between us.”
“Thanks for that then. But those guys are some of my oldest friends, I can’t just leave them. Where else would I even go?”
“At least don’t get caught with them while you’re working for us. I’m not your father and you’re almost a grown man anyways, it’s not up to me to uphold your curfews and worry about the company you keep. We just handle the cars together. Speaking of which, you didn’t stain any of the back seats with these ‘friends’ of yours?”
“It wasn’t like that,” he said, his face becoming even more grave if possible.
“Your loss,” he said, and pointing ahead added “I think you’re supposed to take the next exit.”
“What would you do in my position?”
Thomas considered a moment, weighing whether he should answer truthfully or give an answer that was more likely to correct his path. He settled for the latter.
“I would try to get my life into order, keep my head down and avoid trouble until I’m not on such thin ice anymore. The risks just aren’t worth it.”
“What aunt Naomi says about you really is all true.”
“What? That I’m a veritable fountain of good advice?”
“No. She says your sales speeches suck.”
Gradually the number of industrial buildings dwindled, and for a while there was nothing breaking the monotony of the featureless landscape. They passed the remains of a small self-service gas station and then turned right onto an unpaved road lined by a few trees. The woods grew progressively denser, and soon the verdant foliage covered them from the afternoon sun. Jason spun his head, looking around.
“I’ve never seen a forest in real life before.”
The thicket ended suddenly, revealing a large cabin standing in a clearing. It had a red tile roof standing atop dark brown timber walls, and wind chimes pealed in the gentle breeze on the porch. Advancing towards the yard in front of the building they passed a few apple trees whose flowers had just shed their petals growing next to the house. To the other side of the cottage stood a carport flanked by barrels and piles of metal wares: girders, panels, wire and the like. The surrounding yard was also spotted by metal objects of various shapes and sizes.
“What’s this? A hardware store? A junkyard?” Jason said, parking the car in front of the porch.
“Look closer.” They alighted and the boy shaded his face, eyes moving from one contraption to the next.
Thomas nodded. “And whatever your taste might be, remember to compliment them. He’s a client after all.”
The young art critic—for every youth is a critic—examined the pieces with an evaluating eye. There were pipes welded together in a jumble, like a melted playground net climber made of steel. Some metal sheets had been cut to strips and arranged like a budding flower. There stood a thirty feet replica of the Eiffel tower with a white flag waving weakly in the mild air currents. Next to it lay an old, rusty car without tires or windows, a human skeleton made of pipes and wires grasping the steering wheel. To the back he could see a shabby, empty couch turned towards a CRT TV with a broken screen, inside which shone single LED grave candle. These and various other arrangements shone in the sunlight.
“I like ‘em,” he declared, turning the corners of his mouth down and nodding as if greatly impressed.
“Glad to hear it,” an unfamiliar male voice said behind their backs. They spun around and saw an old man in jeans and a flannel shirt walking out of the garage, wiping his hands with a rug blackened with oil stains. He examined his right palm, and deeming it clean enough stuck it out.
“Thomas Walker. And this is Jason Green, here from Jack’s. You must be Mr. Stone.” They shook hands one after the other.
“Just call me Leonard,” the old man said, smile barely visible through his white beard. His bald head was covered by a straw hat, the tufts of hair above his ears sticking out. “By all means come in. Let’s have something to drink.”
“Thank you, but we’re here to do business with you,” the older sales representative said.
“Isn’t the first rule that the customer is always right? Besides, if you thought you could come and visit an old man living alone in the woods and not listen to his long-winded stories about everything between heaven and earth, you thought wrong. I’ll be just a moment,” the recluse said before going inside the house.
Jason leaned towards Thomas: “What are we here for anyway? You haven’t told me.”
“You’ll see, it’s something we want to add to our collection.” Their host came back out, carrying a tray with three empty glasses, a pitcher of iced tea in the other hand. He set the dishes down on a porch table, filled the glasses and carried those to the men waiting below.
“Have you ever held an exhibit?” the youngest of the three asked, indicating the art pieces around.
“No, No. It’s just something I do to pass the time.”
“I think they’re quite good. How long have you been at it?”
“A few years. I’ve recycled some of my earlier pieces to make room for new ones. Have you picked a favorite?”
He immediately pointed at the car wreck piloted by stannic skeleton. “That one. What’s it called?”
“The driving skeleton. I know all about them and rarely need to talk about them, so names aren’t really necessary.”
“Deep,” the youth muttered under his breath.
“Interesting, but where’s the piece we’re here to see?” Thomas intervened. He wasn’t in a hurry to get back to the city but thought the time of pleasantries was after the deal was made.
“Of course, right this way.” They headed for the garage. Its interior was quite dim after the long period of standing in direct sunlight, but he could discern workbenches and large lockers lining the room, every bit of available wallspace covered by the shapes of a plethora of tools hanging from hooks. In the middle of the room stood a curious car: painted in green and purple, it had a long, gently curving hood and large wing-like spoilers at the back. The cockpit was enclosed within a clear plastic dome, a door on both sides opening upwards. The back wheels were larger than the ones in front, and next to the trunk hatch stuck a small but sturdy satellite dish. The hood ornament was the globe with a few spaceships flying around it, leaving contrails, the whole thing made of golden yellow metal.
“Let me turn it on,” the old artist said, lifting the car door and pressing a button in the console. The oddity whirred alive, playing a beeping tune reminiscent of classic sci-fi series and radio dramas. The front and back light beamed, as well as lines of small LED turning on and off in sequence, like the landing lights on a runway, running front to back on the sides of the car. It also had bottom neon light, shining purple.
“It looks like somebody crashed a sci-fi movie prop into a Christmas tree,” Thomas thought.
“What is it?” the young apprentice asked, circling the garish sight.
“Let’s call it ‘The Future Past’ for simplicity’s sake,” the father of the creation said, running his hand along the plastic globe, “It’s something I’ve been working on for quite some while. It’s supposed to represent the future our predecessors imagined, to remind us that history is not a straight line that we’re bound to travel along, that things could have gone other way, that ‘progress’ is not something that just drags us along whether we like it or not. Dreams have always been the thing driving the world forward, and human will should be the one thing guiding the lives of individuals and society, nothing else. Things can be changed.
“Deep,” he said, sounding sincere this time. “But it doesn’t exactly look like the most effective design.”
“That’s the point, lad. People should always have the last say in everything, even if their viewpoint doesn’t make sense. Most seem to have forgotten that, drifting apathetically, letting their lives be dictated by someone else, in the worst case something else. Take ambitions for example. In our society everyone receives enough to get by and then some. We have all the free time in the world. So why should anyone strive for anything more? And most don’t. If the answers aren’t handed to them, they don’t even bother looking.”
A silence followed the sudden, heartfelt outburst, the raised voice and angry grimace seeming so out of character for the aged gentleman. He took a couple deep breaths, and the calm they were already accustomed to returned to his face, soft smile once again running along familiar furrows.
“As you can see, it means quite a lot to me. And I should add it’s not only for show, it does also run.”
“It would mean quite a lot to the dealership as well,” Thomas stepped in. “Would you be willing to discuss the price now?”
The septuagenarian pressed the ignition key again, turning of the lights. “Sure, let’s get to it.”
Jason toured the exhibition. as the seniors haggled in the Bugatti they had arrived in. They arrived at a deal quickly.
“Pleasure doing business with you. We’ll take good care of it,” Thomas said, as the designer signed his part of the sales document.
“I’d like you to remember the meaning behind it and tell it to those who ask or put it on a plaque or whatever you’d like. I didn’t work all this time with sweat on my brow and ache in my hip for some cabinet of curiosity centerpiece. I did so for a message people should hear.”
“We’ll see what we can do,” he said, on for a moment the conversation paused. He let his eyes wander in the tree line.
“What made you want to move in the woods? Was it easy?”
“I had thought about it a long time and one day I just up and left. It felt like the right choice,” he turned toward the old racer sitting in the driver’s seat, “I’d recommend taking someone with you. My wife was long gone before I moved here, and this feels like the right place to spend my retirement. Young man like you would be driven crazy from cabin fever if you tried to do the same.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“And I’m not completely cut off from society. The drones drop in my deliveries twice a week. I’ve got to eat, after all. That iced tea was straight out of the box. I’m off the grid thought, solar panels—“
He was interrupted by a loud gong coming from the exhibition grounds. There was a large Newton’s cradle, metal weights the size of bowling balls hung from chains, and Jason had set the system going and was now frantically trying to stop the swinging.
“I think it’s time we left,” Thomas yelled to his assistant, and turned back to his client. “Thank you once again.”
“No problem. Always nice meeting like-minded individuals.”
“You’re piloting our newest acquisition,” he informed the summer worker from the rolled down window of the sports car. “Drive safely.”
They waved goodbye as they drove away, the sun setting behind them. Thomas was in the lead, the retro-futuristic innovation following behind, just like the hermit had promised it would. In his rearview mirror Jason looked like he was stuck inside an aquarium, as the plastic dome was also lit from within. He seemed uncomfortable, although the vehicle seemed to handle well enough. They turned from the forest road back towards the way they came.
“It’s not that bad once you get used to it,” the young voice exclaimed through speaker phone.
“Enjoy it while it lasts. It probably won’t see much use after we arrive.”
There wasn’t much to keep his mind occupied on the empty road, and Thomas imagined moving away from the city. The larger the lights of the metropolis grew in the horizon, the more attractive the fantasy seemed.
He didn’t ignore his surroundings thought, and immediately snapped back to attention as something hurled directly towards him in his headlights. It was an Ampere van, all the lights off and rocketing ahead on the lane of oncoming traffic, on the same lane as him. He pushed the car horn repeatedly, to no effect. There seemed to be no one in the driver’s seat. “
“An unmanned delivery van? Could it be driving on British settings?” He had no time to think, old instincts kicking into gear.
“Jason, watch out!“ he barked thought the audio line as he switched lanes at the last moment to avoid the out-of-control vehicle. But he didn’t even have time to make a sound as another, smaller car that had been hidden behind the van appeared in his path and they collided head-on, the bone-shaking crash sending him into oblivion.