The Library Cart spewed dark power while gorging ancient public works under its fraying caterpillar tracks. The mythic beast of 20th century engineering roared, further burying the mythology of the crumbling metropolis by leveling boulevards as broken as the angels that gave the place its name.
Once a company town built for dream production, its sprawl lay barren now, its streets stripped of identification by the fires, Cataclysm, and the scavenging that succeeded them. All around a sheen of sand covered the streets like amber snowfall. It looked as if the desert had reverted the city to its dusty components after growing critical of its fantasies.
There, beneath a shadowy sky, the Library Cart cut a circular groove around the remains of a fast food lot. From above it looked like a hieroglyph depicting a lost tribesman, a fact the tiny satellite dish atop the vehicle’s hull tried dutifully to rectify. The great machine continued its annular course, its cabin swiveling on its perch between the caterpillar tracks. A flurry of muted expletives tested its porous air tightness.
Inside the cabin those words rang freely while Apex Guffin waited for the old web to deposit something useful into his GPS. The damn thing kept asking for a zip code and zip codes belonged to Antiquity. He tapped the CURRENT LOCATION icon furiously, figuring that some bit of junk floating above would see the big circle carved on the badlands of Los Angeles. Finally, something served him.
Guffin squinted his eyes beady and grumbled Too far north while searching the map for all a son of that old city would need: a freeway marker to point the way. A little scrolling revealed the 110 sitting due east. For a moment he wondered if it might be fun to click the STREETVIEW icon and see if any pictures of a bright, sunny world lingered on the servers. But this was not a day for fun, so Apex Guffin corrected his direction.
To the east, the sun still found a sliver of sky to brighten. Beautiful, unexpected, it forced Guffin to consider the impulses that perpetuated his existence; survival instincts that resurrected like the sunlight, when he was certain they had vanished forever. The gray gloom that gauged the day with its varying shades and blocked the evening stars represented his nearly non-medicated mood correctly. And non-medicated he was. Nearly. Near Completely.
Light emanating from the array of thumbnails adorning the screen embedded in his left cheek scorched the interior of the vehicle like old hate. It was a penal ornament, displaying the exact memories of his crimes, pulled from his brain, forever bright and blistering, and just a touch away from full screen. It corrupted the windshield, bringing a sneering smallness to his eyes. Apex Guffin reflected.
The ordinary exceeded its standard when applied to his appearance. The skin around his jaw had just begun to loosen and his light blue eyes held no twinkle. His skin remained milky and somehow devoid of radiation scars, but his hair, once blonde and wavy locks, neared extinction atop his head. The pain of survival drew wrinkles on his face that time carved deeply. Just a face like the thousands of others who couldn’t evolve due to mental, physical, or legal restraint, a population doomed by insignificance.
“Whoopsie,” he said when the Library Cart devastated an ancient wall marked by graffiti of bygone, gangland days, then bounced on its enormous shocks, and started feeding its caterpillar tracks portions of the tasty, southbound freeway.
“Come to me,” he whispered, upshifting, taxing the groaning engine closer to a final whimper.
Immediately, the thumbnails melted together, forming one large image on his cheek. It emitted no sensation, no heat, though Guffin would insist it did when the screen refocused to display her face. Her skin was as ashen as the sky at noon, the shade of optimism for an old social movement that formed in that moment, post-Cataclysm, when it seemed the human race might truly embrace equality. Despite the bloody end of that time, her dark eyes still shimmered like pools of starlight.
“Happy Birthday, Apex Guffin!” she said, cheerily, unaffected by the hour.
“Thank you,” he replied, brightly.
“Is today the day you want to die?” she asked.
“I haven’t decided. It’s either that or hunt for presents.”
“Well, if your core indicators keep rising you won’t have to decide. Your aggression index is nearing a parole violation. You have 150 seconds to medicate,” she informed, somehow dire and pleasant concurrently.
“You won’t pull the KillSwitch,” he dismissed.
“The system pulls the switch, Guffin.”
“Your voice is like music.”
“And you are dangerously non-medicated.”
“Here’s the thing,” he observed. “I’d rather have my brain fried looking at you one last time than hunt the line for a present.”
“Well, why don’t you give me a present for your birthday?”
“What would you like?”
“I would like to start my day without an execution,” she requested.
Apex Guffin thought for a moment.
“Give and not receive?”
“Exactly,” she said. “92 seconds…Is your prescription available?”
He ignored her.
“That’s bad birthday form. Why don’t we exchange gifts?”
“84 seconds, Apex Guffin. What would you like for your birthday?”
“Your name. That’s all. Not much,” he thought. “Unless it’s long.”
“That’s a violation of quality control,” she said with great seriousness.
“Please,” he begged. “It would be like traveling in time to when we could both be something else.”
“You are a prisoner of the New Morality, Apex Guffin, shackled to Antiquity. In the Norm, people become something else all the time.”
“But you’re outside the Norm, too, right!?! The word is the Norm hates Antiquity, despises all reminders of pre- and post-Cataclysm. Your skin makes you that. It says you believe in forgiveness and equality. Do you?”
She paused, each second a valuable tariff.
Apex Guffin nodded, his face cast in heartbreak.
“Got it,” he said. “All the old idealists are civil servants now.”
The realization sapped his strength. The carnage of the caterpillar tracks dwindled to a nibble.
His right hand fell from the wheel and into the hip pocket of his faded all weathers, withdrawing a generic pack of prescription psychotropic smokes. He popped one of the cigarettes between his lips. It self-ignited, and he inhaled deeply. The interior of the Library Cart filled with smoke that smelt of burning cherries. The engine hummed quietly.
“Apex Guffin, your core indicators and indexes are decreasing toward approval. In accordance with your sentence and the city’s contract with the New Morality this has been a pre-parole violation courtesy call. Any decision to live or die is the sole property of the parolee and does not reflect the opinions of the city or any of its employees or agents. A courtesy survey has been sent to your tablet. Please take a moment to rate your experience. Thank you.”
He took another drag, feeling the fill of familiar numbness, unaware that she hadn’t exited.
“Guffin…” she hesitated. “Happy Birthday.”
Her grayness dissolved to white light, which divided and reordered into the thumbnails. Apex Guffin chainsmoked a new mood, something dull and insensate, while the world outside the Library Cart lightened to a dull, purplish hue. He would live another day but was unsure exactly why.