R.T. Ester

White Sedan

Between Houston and the Dallas metro, commuters on Interstate 45 expect that they will spend ten minutes trying to get out of Midville. Some who recall the scenic stretch it once was might move slowly so they don’t miss the sign that pointed travelers to the old Buc ee’s just off the road. Some too young to have seen excavators dig up the tract might pray for stronger reception while minding their rearview for police cruisers. Those who know the story that ends here say an altogether different prayer.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of data, I will fear no evil for you are always with me.

***

Paul watches his niece through the glass as an attendant rounds the checkout counter to run the card through the reader again. The girl turns to meet his glance and he nearly spills unleaded gas on his boots. The reader malfunctioned, it turns out, but the blow to the girl’s morale has already been registered. She mopes out of the food mart while he’s still filling up; not a word to him as her loot goes in the shotgun seat and she clambers in after it. 

Four hours from now, they’ll be pulling the vehicle into a driveway in Terrell and handing its key to the woman who connects them by blood. The ignition appears to still be working. The engine’s screech drowns under the car’s audio as Paul gains the service road and is soon having to yield for solar-powered contraptions on the interstate.

He eyes his niece’s glum look in her window’s reflection. “You get everything, babygirl?” When she doesn’t answer, he rubs her thick black hair till she smacks his hand, her lips fending off a smile. “My little Zee—” He begins to hum a tune as daylight lances through her window and he notes the missing sun visor on her side. “You know I still got about fifty on that card. If you want, we could stop by Desmond’s— grab some pies.”

Zee pays him a discreet nod. It takes two regional rap numbers given the oldie label long ago and a rundown of Houston’s morning traffic before static arrives to belabor to him how much has been sunk into this time capsule with the appearance of a car. 

They fall in behind a police cruiser after a stretch of wind farms and solar fields like behemoth wings fanning out from the road. It’s a boxy, mustard-colored slab of steel with no doors or windows; just the siren and the words VERBATUM POLICE emblazoned on its backside. Seeing the name of his new employer gives Paul goosebumps he hasn’t known since crossing a stage for a document that hung above the mantel in his childhood home for two months, then went with him out west to chase a dream too quick to catch.

Zee perks up, folding her legs under her spindly heft. “What are they doing here?”

“Verbatum can be anywhere, babygirl.” Paul smacks his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “Reality at your call and beck. Picture sitting on the couch at home but feeling like you’re in Paris, and everything around you looks and sounds and even smells like it.”

Zee appears to recoil at her uncle’s pitch, then stares sidelong at him. “Can I be inside Tarik’s apartment?”

“That’s the boy from school?” He grimaces and it gets her walling off again. 

Aside from demos at state fairs, he’s never used Verbatum’s flagship product. He rarely sees the chair without security glass around it and department-store lighting on its detachable headpiece. His official title is Community Ambassador. What he does entails little more than cheerleading. Reading the copy. Learning the cheers.

“Maybe not inside his apartment,” he says. “Balcony maybe— after they approve the expansion plan and we get our own stereomodeling apparatus in Terrell.”

She gets a look that tells him she’s flummoxed at some of what he just said. The cruiser switches from their lane and it almost appears to have done it so they can pass.

***

People wanted to touch the stones in Stonehenge. So began the race to simulate world-famous spaces with a push toward full sensory immersion that could fool even those alive when the originals were built. The early players had their fill of floating see-through escorts and VR casinos. Verbatum emerged in the void they left, taking things a step further.

Why just the hotspots, they asked, and not the world in comprehensive detail? From mundane marshland to the Everest sublime to the moon to Martian craters that can—for a limited time—be made available to anyone able to foot the bill for cloud space. 

The pitch to investors mirrored the pitch to land use planners sitting on coveted real estate for the Verbatum Cloud. You in your apartment or homestead can plug in and live in your own copy of the palace in Versailles, unplugging periodically to eat and hopefully bathe. More than just work, you can take the office building home with you. For the price of your vacation hours cut in half, you can go on company-subsidized Verbatum Vacations to places you wouldn’t be able to afford in real space.

***

Paul gets Zee to point and click while he pokes his head through a photo stand-in of a reality TV star from his childhood. She’s a blond in a stetson and bikini top, 12-gauge in one hand, corgi in the other. After a failed attempt to have Zee pose as the corgi, they cross a line of used solar vehicles for sale and amble through the entrance to Desmond’s Cheesecake Diner.

The window where they sit overlooks about twenty low-rises housing delivery drones for the nearby fulfillment center that—by law—gets its name appended to all branding for surrounding businesses. 

“Welcome to Desmond’s Cheesecake Diner by Verbatum Center 275149,” greets a voice from the table’s touchscreen surface. “Reality at your call and beck. Good cheesecake. Great dining.”

The place is lit dimly and deserted aside from a dozen girls from the local high school accompanied by their softball coach. Their affectless banter makes Paul wish for the uptalk and vocal fry of his twenties when he was out west and the sheen of endless possibility hadn’t blinded him yet.

“You ever talk like them?” he asks Zee. She’s fixed intently on the girls through the corner of her eye. “They’ll make you talk like that when you start high school next year. You want Tarik to notice you then, you better start learning.”

“Stop it,” she says in that soft and playful whine that tells him she’s a long way from monotony as an affectation. 

He chortles. She’s on the edge of thirteen. He makes her a funny face now and then but thirteen for him was three decades and twice as many relapses ago.

Their orders go on the section of the table marked for food while the rest of its surface alternates between world news and ads for the vehicles parked outside. Verbatum has struck a landmark deal with the government in New Delhi for stereomodeling rights to the North Sentinel Islands, agreeing to temporarily relocate its twelve hundred indigenes while the modeling infrastructure is being built. Lot twenty-one has the 2032 Nissan Solstice for the unbeatable down payment of sixty-six hundred if you act now.

It takes Paul a moment with his apple tart and his eye on the softball coach to notice the door behind her and the neon letters above it that read ‘One Minute of Tokyo in RealSens.’

He drops his fork, wipes his hands on his puffer with the letters L-E-P-P across the back. “Be right back, babygirl.”

A minute later, he calls her to the door, having slid his plastic through the reader beside it for time in the chair on the other side. She looks tiredly apprehensive closing in but she trusts her uncle more than most, which has never meant more than it did this weekend. A trip together by Greyhound to pick up the car they helped her mother bid on at an auction online. Stilted banter on the way back and songs he swears she could grow to like if she heard them through better speakers.

“It ain’t the boy’s living room,” he tells her, hand on the knob as he packs enough lilt into his voice to make his instructor from the ambassador training sessions blush. “Zainab Odetta Watkins, I present to you… two minutes of Tokyo in RealSens.”

***

The process for securing real estate to house the exponent of growth in Verbatum’s computing infrastructure is increasingly opaque. It positions its simulated environments as climate solutions and attitudes shift accordingly. Midville and other townships along the I-45 corridor see displaced locals year round with a soft spot for RPGs and vehicles in and out of Verbatum’s facilities as targets. 

The new reality is here.

The first township to evict its residents so more server clusters could move in made world news. The next six hundred marked the emergence of hyperscale towns and squatters learning to hide from Verbatum’s autonomous police.

When there had only been critics with outsized platforms, a TV person from the crisis team could line up a slew of appearances and have the public reassured within the week. 

She would fix her smiling eyes on camera three. As audiences began to recognize the face of Verbatum’s most requested guide through the Amalfi Coast, she would tell them no one was getting displaced by the hyperscale towns who hadn’t consented and accepted the handsome relocation settlement. Together we are building the new reality, she would say. 

Few still recall when unpopulated parcels of land were all the builders would scout. The ones not vulnerable to climate change have long been denuded by sprawling data centers, but not before the lush sceneries they contained were copied and pasted into Verbatum’s hyper-immersive rendition of the biosphere.

New reality. Only new reality all the time.

***

Zee punches the air and she’s bursting with adrenal surplus again. “Uncle Paul, Uncle Paul, Uncle Paul—” Paul’s infectious mirth fills the car as he banks a bumpy right turn. “Can we get one? When can we get one?”

“Babygirl, that was Verbatum’s OmniSeat 500— no GroupTravel support. What you want is the 800 model, the StadiumSeat Alpha or the RealSeat X.”

Another bump lifts the girl’s body and returns her to that fleeting second when she felt air under her avatar-feet and watched it land quietly on the glass. “It felt so real.” With her thumb and index finger, she tugs her bottom lip where the numbness has lingered, then inspects the hand. “Tokyo—” She wheels a slack-jawed glance at her uncle.

“Take any pictures?”

She socks him on the arm. With her breath caught in her chest, she had taken two steps on the glass and stood there almost a minute as the Sumida River wound snake-like to her left and the city sprawled in miniature underfoot. Nighttime. Neon blur on her skin and the earthy smell of chrysanths in the air.

“They put you in the Skytree.” Paul’s slow-cooked drawl warbles like clairvoyance on her eardrums. “The haptics on the older models can handle the smooth surfaces just fine.”

“There was a terrier.”

“Shiba,” corrects Paul, his voice still intruding from the old reality.

The sprightly pup had bounded forward from behind her and parked himself by the edge of the otherwise empty observation deck. After finding enough nerve to venture a few more steps on the glass, Zee knelt and her hand met his fur.

“He felt so real.”

“He was, babygirl. You’re supposed to have followed him around.”

“Is he always there by himself?”

“Well…” An overcast fades in and rain begins to pitter on the windshield. “Not exactly that. He’s not plugged in like you were but once in a while, his caretakers bring him in the actual deck and let him run around while special cameras are on.”

Thunder booms and rain lulls the girl toward stillness. The road ahead begins to look like an imposition on her view of Tokyo.

“I want one,” she intones, almost like a prayer under her breath. The numbness has left her lips and become weights over her eyes.

“Let me get a little more saved up,” says Paul. “We could start with the headpiece— one for the house.”

“Will it work like the chair?”

“The headpiece gives you vision and sound that packs a punch. You want the full experience, though, you gotta sit in the chair.”

She hugs her knees to her chest and drifts from the world outside. A half hour goes by with Paul’s humming in her ear and music below a soft layer of static. Through her window, a sign creeps up and passes in a flash.

‘You are now entering Midville,’ says the sign. ‘Human population: 78. Server population: 401,952,840.’

***

The Houston office gets the lead at six in the morning. A white ’97 Corolla. Gas-powered. Neither the old plates nor the standard tags. Satellite photos confirm a starting point at a safehouse outside the Houston-Beaumont Seawall. Intercepted comms relay plans to fill up at an auction site still taking bids on cars that use gas. Ground and air units are mobilized.

Verbatum brands its response to the bombings the Land Extremism Prevention Program. It’s been ongoing for six years with little on its effectiveness disclosed publicly. Intelligence gathering. Anti-extremism hotlines. Randomized checkpoints. Private police with jurisdiction that bleeds across townships not owned by the tech giant. A person-of-interest registry. Community events. Community ambassadorships like the one Paul applied and was accepted to.

The list is neither exhaustive nor reliable. Its aim most of all is to impress on the locals that involvement with land extremism is lose-lose when Verbatum owns the land.

Only those displaced and disgruntled in their displacement continue to see the utility in fifty or so employee vehicles leveled each month by rocket-propelled warheads. 

Building the new reality is not without risk.

***

Paul shakes the lull of sleep from his eyes, his hands ten and two on the wheel. The torrent recedes. The first cooling towers heave like canyons a quarter mile to his left. He’s able to count a dozen at first glance but Midville’s twenty-two square miles boast a spread of cooling towers like pores on human skin.

The pores leak steam. The steam rises thick and almost becomes a glamor over the landscape. White sky and a white sedan underneath, dragging at fifty miles an hour.

The last census taken before Verbatum moved its servers in put the population at 16,287. At a town hall in Terrell, someone had stood and noted the closeness of that number to the city’s current headcount. 

“First they’ll say they want just modeling rights,” the old grump had said. “But if you think we have the numbers so that, once they get Terrell in their little holodeck, they won’t run us off like they did at Midville—”

Zee stirs noisily in her seat. Seconds later, she’s awake, rubbing her eyes, blinking at the line of bollards that go up to infinity a fair distance beside her.

Paul glances past them at colossal black generators farther out, scores of them amid a relay of transformers that conspire with the bermudagrass under it all so the place resembles a motherboard from bird’s eye. There are two and three-story buildings with graffiti on them and he doesn’t know where Verbatum found artists still able to do that.

Zee stretches and brings her bony legs down. “I want to drive,” she says.

Under the sign for the old Buc ee’s, they make the switch. Paul has to try the door on the passenger side three times before it shuts. Zee fishes aimlessly for controls to adjust the driver seat.

“Babygirl, this is an old car,” Paul says. “It can’t drive itself so don’t ever take your hands off the wheel.”

“Momma used to let me drive her old one,” Zee cuts back, clicking herself in.

“I know.” He tries giving her a stern look but it isn’t long before a smile creeps in to sabotage the effort.

She squeezes her face tight as she steers onto the on-ramp and Paul knows she would hate him if he took a photo of her. They rejoin sparse traffic through the interstate. After a moment to observe that she fully has the hang of it, Paul reaches down between his feet and brings the bag from the auction site’s mart to his lap.

“You get my glorias?” he says while retrieving a bag containing the cellophane-wrapped sweets. One goes in his mouth and the dulce de leche softness elicits a deep hum. His eyes water as he grinds it down and he wonders if reactions so intense can be a sign of another relapse underway.

He grabs another from the bag and extends it to Zee. The girl shakes her head. 

There’s a floating shadow on the shoulder to her left. Paul makes a note to investigate it as he cocks his head back and tosses the refused glorias in his mouth. 

A flash of heat boils his skin the next second and he begins to see spots in front of him. As the thought that he should turn for a look at Zee crosses his mind, everything goes white.

***

Vrby – News while reality loads

Ambush Bombing Attempt Expected Sunday On I-45 — Verbatum Police

Everett Keith | Sunday 6:36 a.m.

Police with Verbatum’s Ambush Bombing Task Force confirmed early Sunday that they are monitoring Interstate 45 through The Woodlands and Midville for a 1997 Toyota Corolla intended for use in a terror bombing. No details on its driver or possible accomplices were given but commuters in the area this morning are urged to be on alert and to contact Verbatum’s AX line (for dial screen users, the string to dial is 1AXHOU-91) if they notice aggressive or suspicious driving from motorists in non-autonomous vehicles.

Satellite photos provided by the Land Extremism Prevention Program’s Houston office show the white sedan entering the Rosco Auctions and Gas by the Houston North ChargePoint at 6:02 a.m. An attendant at the auction site wanting to remain anonymous says he observed two men loading containers filled with gasoline into the vehicle’s trunk.

In its latest Transparency Report, the Land Extremism Prevention Program identifies this as one of several methods anti-Verbatum extremists use to stage ambush bombings. Previous successful attempts involved the use of explosives hidden in the trunks of gas-powered vehicles and programmed to go off when targets mistakenly rear-end them. In 38 of the 43 successful attempts we’ve reported on, the victims were Verbatum employees while in the others, they were commuters inside vehicles with Verbatum license tags.

When asked what is being done to prevent this latest attempt, the press node for the Ambush Bombing Task Force referred Vrby News to the recent congressional ruling that now grants Verbatum Police clearance to employ the use of military-grade explosives when certain conditions are met.

This news item was written, edited, and photo art-directed by Vrby’s local-reporter composite. Sticky it to be alerted each time it is updated. Names and likenesses assigned to Vrby’s local-reporter composite are AI-generated and have not been copied from names or likenesses of actual people. 

***

Interstate 45 skews left as it meets the horizon southbound, solar and wind farms alternating on either side, overpasses with stick-figure pedestrians through them, rest stops, roadside diners with cattle herds in the back. Everything on hold. Everything held together in a photograph, a postcard from the builders.

Between the sign for the old Buc ee’s and another for a VR-involved injury lawyer, commuters often pull to the side of the road for pictures with a marker that commemorates Verbatum Police’s 247th successful operation to neutralize an ambush bombing attempt. If this were a ghost story, they would be joined by two figures, hand-in-hand as they stand beside the marker and watch a child just learning to read test her ability with the news item inscribed on the stone. 

“Two extremists in a white sedan were stopped here,” reads the summary text in incandescent block letters.

Forensics have identified the remains of two land extremists believed to have been inside the vehicle struck Sunday by one of Verbatum Police’s hellfire missiles. Both men had been members of local militias at the time of their deaths, with one of them under investigation for suspected involvement in RPG attacks on Verbatum delivery drones last year—

As the child grows, knowing only this version of the story, she might encounter it again on film and in VR retellings and inside the pages of archived transparency reports. She might take a job with Verbatum’s crisis team. She might meet Tarik who also now works for Verbatum and still remembers the quiet girl who would often sit two rows behind him in the eighth grade.

He’ll draw a blank on her name at first when he mentions her to the child—now a woman making small talk with him during the lull between two sessions at a work conference. The girl vanished on a Saturday twenty years ago; traveled with her uncle to Houston by Greyhound and neither was seen or heard from again.

If this were the old reality, the ghosts would sit beside Tarik and the woman while they break for lunch, observing as the spark of common interest ignites between them because they’ve spent the last two decades quietly questioning two stories that are actually versions of another.

In the third story, there’s a sedan—another of the interchangeable white clunkers still allowed on roads so long as they’re rigorously maintained and their occupants are accustomed to excessive traffic stops. Behind the sedan, there’s an autonomous hatchback with Verbatum tags. Inside the Land Extremism Prevention Program’s Houston office, there’s someone observing both cars from bird’s eye, jumping the gun, thinking the sedan is close to executing an ambush bombing on the hatchback.

But no ghosts appear at the end of this story, only blinking functions caught in a loop as the new reality plays like slides in a carousel and returns always to the sedan and the moment—frozen in time—when the girl gets to drive her mother’s new old car and the uncle entertains the thought that he might be close to relapsing again.


R.T. Ester does some writing on the side while working professionally as a visual designer. However, most of his time is spent raising two young kids with his wife and drawing any inspiration he can from the Texas heat. 

His writing has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld and Interzone.

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