The water was hot and unusually calm. Did he take a wrong turn? The current was supposed to continue this direction for a full day’s swim, but here he was tiring from flipping. Something was ahead, something big. Actually it was two things, an average size humpback and an oversized something he could not make out. It would be a few moments before he could set eyes on it, but he called out to the whale.
“What is it?” He chirped. The response came back, higher pitched than he would have expected from a humpback, but then again, he was swimming towards him.
“I can’t describe it. Just come look.” That was no help. There was a strange suction forming, like a tide heading for land. A dark cloud appeared in front of an unexpected cliff. It was the whale in front of something massive. The dolphin swam faster, pumping his whole torso to the beat of his racing heart. He saw it now, but that could not be right. A confusion sprang in him that was quickly washed over by a rage of realization.
“What in the hell is this? This shit wasn’t here last year!”
“No I guess it wasn’t,” said the whale, bobbing down from the airline. He did not seem to have the proper level of anger in his voice. These whales, they were always too calm. “Was it a volcano?”
“Oh come on whale! It’s the humans,” he used ‘human’ in the pejorative sense. “We tried to keep them out when they started with the boats; went as far as leaping into the air, calling out, ‘Hey! Hey! Get out of here! You’re not welcome!’ They never left, but at least there were less of them when they started to fly.”
“Wonder how the birds felt about that,” said the whale. This was sarcasm. Everyone knew how the birds felt about that. The avian method of expressing their feeling about human vehicles is quite clear.
“Oh don’t get me started on birds. Anyway, now they’re doing what? Making more land? Cutting right through our express streams! Screw them! Say, whale, you’re a what… a humpback right?”
“Oh, nothing. You don’t know any of those big blue fellows do you?”
“I see them now and then, exchange pleasantries, wouldn’t say I know any. Why?” The humpback was a little uncomfortable with this question. Blues were sensitive creatures; you did not just go around talking about them and calling them up.
“Just thinking we could use some muscle. How secure do you think this island or whatever is?”
“No clue, do I look like a man-made land expert?”
“Yeah, yeah, sorry,” The dolphin felt a disturbance in the water and looked behind. “Hey, look out!”
“Hey!” “Hey!” “What’s the..” “Why I…” “Ahh!” A school of fish was on a crash course for the island but stopped just in time to crash into each other instead.
“What’s the big idea!” “What do you think you’re doing!” “Why would you put that there?”
The fish were about a fifth the size of the dolphin, too big to eat but not big enough to intimidate him. The worst they were capable of was giving him a headache with a slew of simultaneous speech. “Some human thing.”
“Humans!” “Uhg!” “First they set their nets right in our paths and now they stop us moving at all!” “I just don’t get you mammals.”
“What’s that?” The dolphin and whale said at the same time.
“Mammals!” “Why can’t you all stay in the air.” “Why can’t you leave us alone!”
“Do you mean to imply that my friend the whale and I are somehow responsible for this mess?” Bubbles were forming around the Dolphin’s teeth.
“Now now. I’m sure they didn’t mean anything like that. We can all agree about the humans.” The whale was drifting between the school and the dolphin as he spoke.
“Sure, sure.” The dolphin and fish all said, looking back towards the land mass.
“So I’m thinking this island can’t go on forever. I’m going to look farther cross current.” The whale said before swimming away.
“Yeah, ok. For now.” And the dolphin followed. The school of fish, not trusting mammals at all, swam the opposite direction.
Marcus woke in a sweat. In all his time on these islands, this was the first remotely aquatic dream he could remember. In fact, he had recurring dreams of the opposite, endless land and not a bit of moisture in site. The way all those animals spoke to each other, to think about it now it was like some sort of kids’ movie. It was not really like that though, it was realistic. Marcus did not know what that meant, realistic, when used to describe an interspecies conversation in English. Maybe it was not English, or any spoken language, but a kind of telepathy. He was probably overthinking it.
Was it even possible that sea life could be angry with humans? Could they be aware of what was happening? “Connie!” One of the benefits of essentially living in the store was twenty-four hour access to the smart computer. “What time is it?” Sometimes he used this fact for frivolous reasons.
<It is 5am, Mark>
“Oh, man.” He knew he would not get back to sleep. “Hey, Connie, do you know anything about Marine Biology?”
<Just a moment… Ok, I do now.>
<What’s that, Mark?>
“Nothing, nothing. So are we in the migratory path of any sea creatures here?”
<Let’s see… A couple of species of dolphin, several types of whale, many kinds of fish.>
“I see. Is there any, I don’t know, alternate route?”
<Right now, yes. The current has changed from the rest of the Nesson development, but they can still get around.>
“So when you say right now, you mean that when the land bridge is complete?”
<No, there will be no alternative route.>
“So where does that leave the sea life?”
<I’m not equipped to predict that, Mark. Shall I connect you with an AI that is?>
“No, no, that’s ok. I just had this dream is all.”
<Oooh. A dream.> Marcus rubbed his forehead. How did he let that slip. <What was it like, Mark?>
This was not going to stop, Connie was endlessly fascinated by sleep and dreams. He had to change the subject.
“Do you think non-human animals are conscious, self-aware?”
<You’re really going to ask an AI that question, Mark?>
“Oh, sorry Connie.” He had not thought about it that way. If Connie could think and was self-aware, why not a whale or even a fish? Maybe they wondered the same thing about humans. Now that was creepy. Marcus wondered about the construction plans; did they need to block the way one hundred percent? Could there not be a gap or tunnel? He did not know how to contact Links’s office, but he would keep that question in mind for the next time they did speak. Maybe just for the next human he sees. He had been here two nights already and no one had come. He was beginning to feel strange living alone in this shell of a town. Marcus was not sure, but he might have been behaving strangely as well. He looked around and found himself pacing the store wearing nothing but a few pieces of lint from his bedding. Connie would tell him though, right? If he was acting weird. She was smart enough to tell him. He walked back to his apartment and fell back into bed.
Marcus opened his eyes, thinking he had just blinked. Something was wrong with the clock projected on his wall. It skipped two hours, almost before his eyes. There was a banging, booming, and boisterous shouting coming from the store and demanding his attention. It seemed his apartment was not sound proofed. One might think that after days of no human contact, such a row might be shocking. Not so for Marcus. He had mentally shut down in an effort to pass time until the Grand Opening. Which was when exactly? Had he sleepwalked longer than he thought and the island populated itself without his notice? Surely someone from Links Corp would contact him long before his customers arrived, but the shouts outside did not sound like a Links professional.
Marcus needed to find some clothing before he could answer the door. He had been lounging in the nude since he realized the extent of his isolation. He even walked the neighborhoods and golf course free of garments. The first day it was a kind of ironic thrill; after a few days, it was just comfortable. It seemed silly now, to wear clothes in such continuously mild weather.
Marcus nearly opened the door in the buff, but fortunately for the other party, he woke to his civilities. Marcus stepped into the store wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a pair of chinos, both more fashionable than his normal wardrobe. He borrowed a floor model outfit from one of the Mannequins, who was now the one in the nude. The store was not as empty as the day he moved in. Since then there had been a couple of deliveries left at the door. Marcus never heard or saw anyone; it was as if the freight containers just materialized at the doorstep. That was nearly the case. Connie explained the drone delivery system. She did not use that word though, what did she call them? Anyway, a tense silence passed after Marcus used the word drone. Who knew he had a hidden talent for offending AI?
The boxes were filled with product and fare far nicer than anything from the old store. Nicer than anything he had seen. Of course, why would he have seen high-end goods? Before moving to Nesson, everything he needed was delivered to or printed at home. He could not afford this kind of stuff.
He helped himself to some of the finer prepared meals the previous evening, using real silver. He carefully washed and repacked everything when he was done. Boxes still littered the store, but Marcus succeeded in assembling a few displays, dressing a few mannequins, and putting away the frozen foods. The biggest struggle was deciding whether to order perishable foods. Would anyone be here soon enough to buy it? He had decided to get a few things with particularly long shelf life and enough frozen food to stock the freezer aisle. He was proud of his foresight, seeing as the customers were about to beat down the door and there was something to sell them.
The lights were out inside and the sun coming through the front door was blinding. A silhouette of a tall man with relaxed posture was all Marcus could see. “Connie, can you turn on the lights in here? Sales level is fine.”
“Oh, and do you know who’s out there?”
<I do not.>
“Couldn’t you tap into the cameras and tell me?” No one had said anything about Surveillanet being on the island, but Marcus knew how to spot the cameras.
<No, Mark, I’m not authorized>
Mark sighed and approached the doors. It was not until his hand was almost to the bolt that he realized who he was looking at. “Earl?!” He should have known; no one else owned such a hat.
“Mark! Good to see you brother!”
Panes of glass muffled their voices; still, their exclamations were audible from several hundred feet away. Rather they would have been audible if anyone was there to listen.
“What in the hell are you doing here?”
“Workin’. Well, not here, but the islands that will link this here place to California.”
“Wow, I didn’t think anyone knew about this spot yet.”
“Not many do, not many. Kind of a secret you know, but someone’s got to build this mess.”
“Yeah, I guess so, but uh,” Marcus had a flash of the last store and the crew he served. “I don’t know if this store’s going to cater well to your employees.”
“Hell, I know that, doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy something good for a change, not like I’ve been spending much of my money lately anyway.”
<Mark, shall I open the doors?>
They were still speaking through the glass. “Oh, yeah, yes, please do Connie.”
“Connie? You got a woman in there?”
“Kind of, she’s the store AI”
“Oh, ‘she,’ gotcha.” Earl winked. Marcus started to puzzle out the significance of the gesture, but decided to leave it alone.
<Can I help you with something sir?>
“Sir! Did you hear that? The lady has manners. No, no, I’ll make this lazy bastard help me, and do some work for a change!” Earl Laughed and faked a punch at Marcus’s ribs. Actually, considering Marcus’s less than half-assed attempt to organize, Earl would need help to find anything.
“So, Earl,” Marcus said, leading him into the store, “when does everything Link up?” Earl groaned. “What… What? Fine, when do you connect me to Nesson?”
“I don’t know exactly, they don’t tell us grunts much. I’d guess you could count it down in weeks though, less than 3 months maybe?”
“Really? I don’t think I’m going to be ready in time.”
“Oh, well what I hear, rumors you know, is that Links wants this island populated before any connections are made. All these houses already been sold from what I understand.”
“Shit! They don’t tell me a god damned thing.”
“Hey, I heard it the same way you did: other employees. Say, where do you keep the Schnapps?”
“Or whatever fancy Liquors you got. I’m goin’ high class tonight. Oh, yeah, and where’s the corn dogs?” Marcus rolled his eyes and walked towards the freezers. “Listen, I’ve been eating gruel and drinking moonshine since you shut down your last shop. It’s all high class to me.”
The line was long. Too long really, for a ferry traveling to an uninhabited, secret island. Helen looked around and could tell that the others waiting at the dock were not New St. Louisans. Their faces were less friendly, their posture more weather-beaten. There were two main groups in the queue: one group that was composed of native islanders, Poly- or Micronesians she would guess. Helen knew a little about etymology from her classically educated parents. These names were of Greek origin. poli and mikros: many and small respectively. nesos: island. Links had people from many small islands working on a project to make one big island. If that irony was not enough, that big island would surely wreck their ecosystem and way of life.
The other group was clearly American, from the mainland. They were easy enough to pigeonhole through their loud laughter, wide stances (probably to increase personal space), and the flat Midwestern accent. Helen, Mike, Al, and Pat formed a third, smaller group. A micro-group. That they stood on their own was probably suspicious somehow, odd anyway, but Helen would not have felt right joining either of the other crowds. No one seemed to notice their presence though. They lacked an awareness of their surroundings that was natural to the New St. Louis residents. Why were they not attracting attention? Such a mysterious route would not carry strangers, would it? What did she know about the workings of Links Corps though?
“So, Mike, how long do we wait here?” Pat asked, suppressing a whine.
“I don’t know. Patrick, does it look like I’m familiar with ferry routes?”
“Of the four of us? I’d say you’re the most likely,” Al seemed to think he made a joke and started laughing. “Anyway, do you think they’ll let us on?”
“Sure, why wouldn’t they let Links employees board the ferry to a Links development?” Mike asked.
“But we’re not … Ow!” Helen, once again, had to slap Pat’s mouth shut.
“Come on Pat! We talked about this.” Helen said, masking the impatience she felt with a friendly voice. It was not her place to coach these people on subtlety; she was interfering.
“Oh yeah, but I was eating. You know how I kind of space when I’m eating.”
“Yeah, just when you eat…” Al mumbled.
“What did you say?”
“Would you two cut it out?” Mike hissed, “You’re not exactly helping keep a low profile.” Helen was shocked when Mike revealed his plan. Less so by the fact that it was as easy as a ferry, or that they would ride under false pretense, than the fact that Mike found out about the boat through some sort of social grace. Who was this Links employee so blunt as to be taken in by Mike?
“Hey! You made it!” A tall man in some sort of cowboy get-up overshadowed the group, looking at a wristwatch, “With one to thirty minutes to spare. Damn tin can never gets here on time.”
“Oh, Earl, hi, here’s my coworkers,” Mike choked out.
“Ah, good to meet y’all. I can’t believe folks over at Links were going to just leave you high and dry! I mean, I know they’re secretive, but damn! You need to know how to get where you’re going.” That explained it. Helen thought her current travel companions were ridiculous enough, now it seemed she had this ‘Earl’ to spend time with. She let out a sigh of relief when he walked away, slapping backs from both camps of passengers on his way to the front of the dock. This guy seemed to know everybody, and perhaps that made him not so bad to have around. Not so bad anyway.
“So I told Earl we are supposed to report on the furthest point of the land bridge to the Links administration.” Mike said once Earl was out of earshot.
“Report? What, like journalists?” Al asked. Helen froze for half a second.
“What? No, more like assistants. Would anyone believe we were a band of journalists traveling out here?”
“Yeah, ridiculous, Al.” Helen added while feeling a flush rise to her cheeks. The ferry’s arrival cut short any further discussion. The boarding process was quick and silent.
The ferry sailed directly to Nesson and began skipping from island to island. A cross-section of Links development revealed itself as they traveled. The first two stops were on finished islands. They were not yet inhabited; no one would be living there, save for the workers, until they were connected to the rest of the land bridge. There were several houses of the type quite familiar to Helen. If it were not for the ocean surrounding her, she would have thought she never left home. Each house had a wide green lawn of turf stripped right off North American soil and trees grown from deciduous seeds and cuttings. Behind these lawns were one-story ranch houses of varying size, but with the same exterior façade. Helen could not imagine what was left to do here; perhaps maintain the landscaping. Why were workers disembarking here?
As they traveled further, the stops were less frequent and the islands less developed. The trip was a gradient in slow motion. One end was house frames and flat land, the other piles of trash being compacted and worked into new land. It was just after passing an anchored barge teetering with the contents of several landfills that they disembarked with the remaining passengers. There were few left, excluding Helen and the guys, it was Earl and perhaps ten others.
As they gathered their things, they watched Earl speak to the other former passengers in what looked like a less friendly, more managerial style. Mike started to look nervous, “did you see all the development? Did you know how extensive it was?”
“Yeah, shocking, but isn’t that why we’re out here?” Al said.
“But what good can we do? It’s happening so fast, how could anyone stop it?” Mike had to stop his worrying as Earl turned to approach them.
“Hey y’all. This pit stop will be a little longer than the others, like overnight maybe.”
“Oh!” Helen said, “So we’re sleeping on this island tonight? Like…”
“Of course Links didn’t send you with supplies or tents or food, or anything huh?” Earl was amused; there was not the slightest edge of suspicion in his voice.
“Well,” Pat started.
“No,” Al finished.
“The old dog can’t think about anything but his money,” Earl said. “That’s alright though, I’m sure you can manage. There’s an old shack down the way, about the only thing here besides the road and rail. Used to be a convenience store of sorts, nothing there now. Could even be some leftover cans of something in there.”
“Ok, so we all stay in the shack?” Mike asked.
“Y’all can stay in there, I’ve got a pocket tent,” he paused long enough to pull out a bundle about the size of his fist.
“You’re sleeping in that?” Pat asked.
“Yup. Amazing what they can do these days, this baby blows up into an almost respectable cottage. Anyway, follow the road about a quarter mile and you’ll find that shack. I’ve got a ride set up in the morning, so meet me here about ten.”
They turned away from Earl and all laughed together. There was no need for directions; the shack was visible from the dock. Also visible were similar islands on the horizon. They looked like empty, flat land; Helen bet she would find nothing but roads and rails if she visited them. Still, these islands were more complete than the previous few stops. They were unconnected, just random dots on the horizon. There also appeared to be no activity suggesting current construction. Why would Links build a land bridge in segments like this? Why not just build it straight across, one piece?
Before she could repeat the question to herself, something about US territorial law hit Helen. Calling out ahead to the men, already almost to the shack while Helen dawdled, “Hey guys, do you realize we’re not in Hawaii anymore?”
“Yeah… I don’t think we have been since we got to New St. Louis,” Al said.
“Yes, but do you know if we’re even in the US anymore? Or in any country really?”
“Hmm… I didn’t bring my atlas with me, but I’d guess that we are pretty much nowhere right now.” Mike said. He arrived at the door of the shack, which was more of a swinging partition, and peeked in. Great, Helen thought, I followed a group of inept hippies to an island that is literally nowhere and we are counting on a stranger they met in a casino to get us off it. And then what? Presumably go to another nowhere. Not that she advocated the violent end they were moving towards, but she preferred it to this inertia.
She looked to the waves. It was not nowhere, though, not really. Below the swell of the surface lay a whole world. It was only becoming nowhere. They were building nothing over something as fast as they could. Humans had already annihilated the land long ago, transforming complex, mysterious ecosystems into knowable emptiness. That clearly was not enough. These thoughts had simmered throughout high school, began to boil in college, but she thought graduation had cooled her. This situation, camping out in the tropics with strange men with terroristic intent is not how she envisioned her graduate life. When she traced the patterns of her beliefs, though, she realized it could not have been any other way. She could just as easily come on this trip without pretense.
When she concentrated on it, the lack of noise, save for human conversation and ocean waves, was blaring. No birds, no insects, nothing for the wind to rustle; no leaves or bushes or trees. In her youth, speakers pumped natural sounds into her home, a sort of background to let you forget that you are alone indoors. If she ever felt a special urge to experience nature, she could always tune her walls to anywhere in the world she wanted. An offshoot of Surveillanet was something called Wildernet, a ubiquitous network of cameras and microphones that would deliver exotic locals to your home. Somehow, though, she doubted her current location was on one of those channels.
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