Bumper History

by R.R. Bastek


For as many generations as the rings of their family tree, the men in the Hatcher family had owned and operated a niche but profitable business designing and distributing bumper stickers. The turn of the century had been difficult for many industries, with mechanical automation and artificial intelligence rending countless positions obsolete, but the Hatchers adapted and, above all odds, their pop-art endured.

Though Mr. Willem Hatcher grew old and feeble, he maintained an immense pride in his business and his family. His greatest pride was reserved for his oldest son, Monty, a prodigious salesman who, even when helping to supervise and look after his ailing father, singlehandedly doubled the company’s earnings in the last quarter. Monty was ambitious, charming, and quick-witted; for years, he was the first in mind as the obvious replacement once Willem retired.

This made Monty’s announcement all the more troubling.

“What do you mean, quitting?” asked Willem. He stared at his son, waiting, eager to refute any argument. The pair of them sat at a booth at the Burrow, one of the few local bars that wasn’t entirely operated by machines. It was a Hatcher tradition to come here once a week, supporting the local businesses that in turn supported them. But Willem had to admit that times were changing—even Michel, the stubborn owner and barkeep of the Burrow, had begun implementing more modern amenities.

Willem would not replace his son’s ingenuity and passion with the calculations of an android.

“Look, pa,” Monty said. He paused, tapping a button on his menu, and lowered his head into one hand. Willem and Monty sat in silence. Moments later, an automated electric cart wheeled over to their table, whirring as it handed a beer to Monty. After downing a few large gulps, he looked back at Willem and continued. “I love you, dearly, and I love what you do—”

“Then why,” Willem interrupted. “Why, if you love it so goddamn much, are you trying to hurt us like this?”

“Sheesh, pa. It ain’t like that.”

“Then tell me—what’s it like?”

Monty sat back. His drink was finished; he signaled for another. He knew his father expected some damn good reasons for his leaving. He wished he had them, too. Sighing, his mouth twisting as if the words behind it were rotten, he reached across the table and held his dad’s hand.

“I’m joining HalTech,” Monty explained. “They needed a writer, and Dex gave me a great recommendation. Plus, they pay well, and I wouldn’t mind sending some back to help the family.”

Monty had spat daggers and he knew it. Willem pulled his hand away, his mouth pursed shut in a thin line. They sat in silence as the moment stretched towards infinity, the words echoing in the chambers of their minds. Monty’s words may have cut his father, but Willem’s eyes were cold, boring holes into Monty.

Even through the dim light of the bar, Monty was close enough to see his reflection in his father’s eyes, and he knew that he would never be seen the same way again.

***

While the entrance and foyer of HalTech appeared sleek and modern, with large expanses of natural light illuminating the retro-chic décor, the interior offices were minimal. At first, Monty found the sterility of the barebones workstations to be off-putting, yearning for the welcoming warmth of his home. As with most of the employees preceding him, this passed after a few days of being plugged-in. HalTech, a company that operated almost entirely within the confines of a simulated virtual reality network, had no need for extravagant offices, just comfortable chairs.

Though the advent of virtual technology had been initially slow, the perseverance of a few individuals lead to rapid innovations and advancements in both hardware and software. As the hardware became more affordable and accessible to the public, interest skyrocketed. Around the same time, the programming of artificial intelligence reached unforeseen benchmarks, resulting in a responsive and believable digital sentience.

It wasn’t long until the majority of the population was plugged-in, one way or another. More advanced hardware allowed full-body immersion, with receptors simulating senses such as taste and physical interaction, while even the budget models granted users a presence and voice within the rapidly growing cyber landscape. As the job market waned in the physical world, many individuals began establishing themselves with virtual careers, with entire industries shifting to embrace the new paradigm. New currencies were implemented, their exchange rate to material goods regulated by both virtual and real-world banks, and nourishing supplements enabled people to stay plugged-in almost indefinitely. In this, humanity was allowed to begin its own brave new world, one where everything could be crafted from the ground up once again, and the annals of history erased and rewritten.

“A fine day for a swim,” one of Monty’s coworkers remarked, sitting in the unit opposite Monty. They spent a few minutes adjusting dials and wires, ensuring their seats were comfortable, and strapped in. In the months that Monty had spent at HalTech, this routine had long since grown familiar. He knew each module like the buttons on his shirt, relying on no more than muscle memory to adjust accordingly. “Beep me if you need something. I’m diving in.”

Monty gave a thumbs-up, booted his own console, and waited for the waves to sweep him away.

***

Millions of years of human evolution and still, the most that some people dreamed of was being someone else. Monty strolled down Presley Boulevard, sipping a coffee while eyeing the posters and signs of celebrity impersonators. Elvis, one of the most widely mimicked personalities back in reality, had since been reborn as a tech mogul, with this stretch of New Houston honoring his achievements in sustainability and biotechnology. Of course, there couldn’t be any gaps in the celebrity canon, so others rushed to fill the void.

Monty stopped to tip a mariachi band performing on the corner. He smiled at the young Mr. Escobar, whose cheeks flushed red with bashful glee, and gave a brief applause before continuing on his path.

After meandering about for the better part of the morning, he parked himself at the Wormhole, his favorite virtual cantina, and waited for the bartender.

“Good to see yuh,” Michel smiled. It hadn’t taken long for him to follow Monty’s lead, and a bar operated by humans instead of androids was much more marketable here. Business was booming. “Same as always?”

Monty nodded, setting down his notebook and pen. Nothing spurned his passion for writing more than enjoying a drink in a comfortable and familiar place.

“Nice to see yuh workin’. Helps business when people see a celeb around.”

It was true. When the virtual landscapes first populated, people were interested in the wild and fantastical. They crowded to play tennis in space, tour in rock n’ roll bands, and act as superheroes. The general consensus was a desire to escape their daily lives. Once people realized the idea of escape was temporary, they shifted towards the idea of replacement, their virtual lives slowly mimicking their ordinary ones. In time, people were even interested in reading again, the digital tropics swarmed with vacationers eager to cozy up under floral patterned umbrellas with the latest bestseller.

And Monty Hatcher graced the covers of so many of them.

“M-M-Mr. Hatcher?” A nervous voice behind Monty startled him. “Monty Hatcher?” He turned to face the speaker, a quivering teenager with a pad of paper outstretched.

Monty smiled, nodding, and reached to give his autograph.

“I, um, I loved your last novel, The Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon’s defeat was tragic, and you, well—” The boy paused, searching for the right words. “You made it so believable, y’know?”

They talked for a moment longer before the boy parted to join his friends.

In a world where everyone was so quick to leave the past behind, most people didn’t realize all Monty wrote was the truth. To them, Napoleon was a drummer in a Korean pop band. Monty had been selling things all his life—now, he sold the past to the people of the future.

He resumed work on his upcoming novel, hoping the world would enjoy his story of a family that made bumper stickers and a son that could sell anything. Most of all, he hoped they would remember how proud his father was to stay behind.

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