“That was quick.” Mike said, watching Helen exit the holoroom. He had been against the call in the first place. What was the point of all their precautions, the effort they went through to be under the radar, if they were just going to make calls when they felt like it? After Helen entered the room, his concern shifted to suspicion.
“Yeah, I’m not much on the holocalls actually, but my mother insists on it.”
“And you needed to talk to her now? Why again?”
“I told you, she worries. She might call on a search if she doesn’t hear from me after a few weeks. We don’t need a search committee out here do we?”
“Yeah, yeah. I got it. Anyway, keep quiet in front of the hopkeepshay.”
“The what?” Helen blurted a little too loud. They had left the apartment and were now in the sporting goods section of the store where Earl and Marcus were admiring a kayak. They began to turn at the sound of Helen’s voice, but Mike had already pulled her aside with a scolding look.
“Didn’t you ever learn Pig Latin?”
“What? No. Why would you assume I know some kind of Latin? Do I look like a classicist? Actually, don’t answer that.”
“Not Latin. Pig Latin. Its wordplay. You take the first part of a word… you know what, nevermind. My family had old-fashioned games I guess.” They walked on, giving Earl and Marcus a nod and thank you for letting them use his holoroom as they passed. They were looking for Pat and Al; naturally, they headed for the grocery.
Marcus was not prepared for more customers. He thought Earl had traveled alone and was not sure whether he was hallucinating when what looked like four college kids strolled in. He was like a cloistered monk asked to host a dinner party. He was gracious and accommodating, but also tense and unsure. Any peculiarity Marcus showed went unnoticed; none of them had much experience with storeowners, or stores for that matter.
Something about Marcus endeared him to Helen. She felt an urge to talk to him, to learn more about him. What was he doing out here? What path does one take in life to end up alone in a store on an island that may as well not exist? She wanted to know, but she knew she should avoid interacting with others. Fortunately, Earl occupied most of Marcus’s attention, removing any opportunity to start a conversation.
“There they are!” Mike pointed to the refrigerator aisle where the other two members of their party were deliberating over different kinds of breakfast sausage. Helen made a small shutter. “What? Are you cold?” Mike made a move as if to remove his over shirt.
“No! no.” Helen flushed, afraid she spoke to quickly. While she did not want Mike’s chivalry, it would not do to have him upset with her. “Just the sight of all that processed meat is all. Anyway, do they have any money for that stuff?”
“Not really, no. I’m holding the purse I guess. We got a little traveling money from Rick, but don’t worry, it’s not going to that stuff.” They did buy plenty of meat, just not those particular sausages that Helen so reviled. They bought some vegetarian meals for her as well. Al found a bottle that Mike pretended to disapprove of, but put into the cart with plans to help consume anyway. When they were ready to check out, they called up to Marcus, who was still in sporting goods with Earl, now discussing fishing rods.
“Connie!” Marcus called, yelling more for their benefit than the computer’s.
“Make them an account, would you?”
“Actually,” Mike said, “we have cash.”
“Nonsense,” Marcus replied, “take what you need and pay me later. No interest. Hell, I don’t even need your UBNs, just one of your names is fine.”
“Put it under Helen Rose,” Helen said. Mike started to open his mouth before she pinched him. He hushed, but seemed a little too happy about the pinch.
<OK, Helen, that’s: three pounds ribs, six pounds chicken wings, four pounds ground beef, one loaf white bread, one head lettuce, one pound tomatoes, one block tofu, seven chocolate bars, one liter dark rum, sixteen ounces cheddar cheese, forty pounds fertilizer. Will that be all?>
“Yes, that is all,” Helen said looking over at the over laiden bunch beside her. The forty-pound bag lay beside her on the floor. Nice, she thought.
<That’s one hundred seventy three credits billed to your account. See you next time!> The men were already out the door as Helen grunted over the bag. She waddled out with it draped over her shoulder.
“That was generous of you Mark,” Earl said.
“Well Earl, any friend of yours is a friend of mine.”
“Friend? I don’t know those people, they just hitched along with me from New St. Louis. They seem alright though.”
Marcus rubbed his brow. “Great, nice way for me to start a business, ‘here strangers, take what you want and pay me later!’”
“Wow Mark, that sounds like a terrible start to me.”
“Sure buddy. Say, you got a video wall around here?”
“… On the docket is Resolution 1066. Chairs will yield the floor to the representative from South Africa to discuss said resolution.” Spoke the freckled redheaded chair of the UN Council. Her wavy, strawberry curls rested on her nearly bare shoulders just above the skirt and blouse that were about two sizes smaller than professional. She pushed her rimless glasses up from where they had fallen to the top of her nose as she sat. Approaching the podium was the mocha skinned representative from South Africa wearing what appeared to be a traditional African wrap dress, pulled tight to reveal a flawless figure. Her hair was pulled back loosely with erratic streaks of almost blond mixing with her dark hair.
“Good evening. As we are all aware, the Links Corporation has dramatically changed the landscape of our planet…” Her just too sharp to be English accent was cut by a few seconds of repeating muzak. A disembodied, glistening, head floated before Chester’s eyes. The meeting continued in the background as if nothing were happening.
“Rob! What do you want? I’m watching the UN here.”
The head turned and surveyed the room. “I’ll say. When did ambassadors get so hot? You know the difference between the UN and Miss UNiverse right?” Rob loved to troll his friends’ holorooms. It did not matter what you were doing; he liked to ruin it.
“Ha. ha. It’s a new feature I just downloaded. It’s called HotSwitch.”
“Nice!” It was not a particularly new feature. Every teenager that discovers it thinks he has found something illicit. As these things go, the plugin quickly spreads to all his friends, their friends and their friends. In fact, this “Hot Switch” concept had been around since Chester’s parents were his age.
Cable news channels developed the first version of the module to make politics more palatable. They originally used it on streaming video, but the conversion to Holovision was not that difficult. It was controversial at first, but no one could argue with the correlating rise in civic participation. Never before had teenagers and twenty-somethings been so well informed.
A new seat materialized next to Chester and the rest of Rob plopped into it. “… have to be stopped. We cannot allow the unrestricted colonization of the ocean. The ocean is out last…”
“Dude, this sucks, even with the filter on.”
“Shh…” It was too late; the South African ambassador was walking back to her seat.
“Hey,” Rob said, “want to go on Siege? Becky and I were just at Justin’s village, the whole place is in revolt.” The ambassador from Japan was walking towards the podium, wearing a kimono closed just enough to pass the parental filters.
“You go siege if you want. I’m staying.”
“… cannot impede the freedom of developers…”
“We can turn this thing on the Game. We can storm Justin’s Castle with a bunch of bikini models. If his content filter allows it, that is.”
“… No legal president concerning international waters…”
“Later man.” Chester had been following the development of the Links Land Bridge and was starting to feel unexplainable anxiety. He did not care that much about who own an artificial island. He had no intention of traveling to Nesson, or any other place really. Something about the lack of clear ownership stayed with him, but he lived on solid American soil. Why was he worried?
“Uhg. You’ve been so boring lately. Fine, I’ll see you later.” and Rob was gone. The Japanese ambassador was already walking back to her seat. For just a moment Chester wondered if it really was a woman.
Curiosity won out and with the wave of a hand Chester found a room full of old men wearing funny headsets. The chair was occupied by a turkey-necked man with a five o’clock shadow. Chester watched for a while longer with the plugin off, but little of interest was discussed. It was too bad, Rob’s interruption. Chester was pretty sure he was really interested in the broadcast.
The concept of the islands seemed kind of nice to him. To have some space, nice weather, and fresh air. Sprawlers derided their own lifestyle in public forums; Chester knew many of the kids out in the sprawl romanticized the city, but he did not get it. The city, in his experience, was grey and just as isolated. There was more pollution and less quiet. No romance to his mind. His parents seemed to love it though. They had been born there, in Chicago, as had both their parents and theirs before them. The city was real. Proximity meant something: connection to your fellow man and on and on. They, in fact, left their holoroom less often than Chester did his. Between work and entertainment, they more or less lived there. At times, he had to call from his holoroom to theirs just to talk to them.
Chester’s friends were not even in Chicago. Most lived exactly nowhere, in huge houses. Meanwhile Chester and his parents packed in a downtown flat, being urban for the sake of it. What Chester needed now was some civic destruction; perhaps he would go on Siege after all. He was sick of Justin’s bragging about the “architectural integrity” of his village. He could tolerate Rob’s presence, maybe Becky would be there too.
The boxes lay haphazard and teetering on top of each other. Marcus took the time to drag them inside and even brought them to the proper departments, but they remained there unopened. Their presence did not bother him; he was nearly blind to them.
Since Earl’s stowaways came and left, there had been no more new customers. Marcus’s eyes never strayed far from the door, but no one walked through it. He was not sure what those four, or however many there were, were up to. Where were they staying? Were they still on the island? It was probably better not to think about it. Ever since they came, though, Marcus felt obligated to watch the store. No more hiding out in the apartment relying on Connie to alert him of new arrivals. The past few days he wandered from department to department while always watching the entrance.
Earl returned to work the same day he brought that group led by Helen. With him left any hope of business or conversation. The returning to solitude after interruption was far more disturbing than if no one had come. Now his thoughts revolved around when the next person would arrive. Marcus wanted to convince himself that Earl and the others had never come in the first place. If he could believe that, he could go back to the slow void in which he had spent the past few weeks. Maybe it was a dream. Could the isolation be blurring the lines between dreams and reality? That one about the dolphin still floated at the back of his consciousness, but he knew that was not real.
They had been there. Earl was gone, but maybe the others remained somewhere on the island. It was a strange comfort, thinking they were out there somewhere. It was a pleasant paranoia. Thinking about whatever unpleasant things they might be planning at least relieved boredom.
“Connie, would you drop a screen over the first floor?” He had considered having real conversations with Connie, but never could bring himself to it. All he managed to convey to her were commands.
<Certainly Mark.> A theater sized high definition screen appeared before him, projected from who knew where. <What should I tune it to?> Tune, that was a strange word. When was the last time anyone truly tuned a television set or radio?
“News, I guess.” Marcus was not really a news guy. News media was a thriving industry, though. Why did people want to know about the world when nothing outside of their front door truly affected them? It had to be a morbid curiosity. For Marcus it was morose and infuriating. Especially since the advent of Holorooms, news aimed to fully immerse the viewer in the mayhem. If they wanted that kind of experience, virtual reality was sufficiently advanced, but it was something about the news being real that drew people. It never seemed real to Marcus. He experienced real disgust and horror, but he never thought of news broadcasts as real. Even if they were real events recorded by real people, something about the act of recording and transmission changed the meaning.
Marcus hated the news, and hated himself for choosing it, but he craved connection with the outside world. The screen showed Percival Wolff sitting behind a glowing desk, his face illegible:
Today at the UN, South Africa and Japan debate the actions of Links Corp. Links, the company behind the California Landbridge, has furthered their Pacific expansion by starting to build from Japan. Links Corp hopes to accelerate the connection of the US and Japan, and ultimately Asia, by land. The South African ambassador accused Links and Japan of quote “recklessly intruding on international waters” and that the oceans should remain quote “unspoiled by development.”
Japan cited the immense benefits of uniting the globe by land. There was no vote on the resolution to condemn the actions of Links Corp. The date of the vote is yet to be determined.
In related news, a conglomeration of environmental protection agencies calling itself Pacific Peace has condemned Links and threatened action if the governments of the world do not step in.”
The image behind the reporter resolved into an unrelated story as Wolff swiveled to look at another camera. Even in the days of the holoroom, twentieth century journalistic norms endured. In between being thrust into war zones, natural disasters and political rallies, everything pulled away and the viewer was no longer a participant. A reporter sat behind a desk, reading off a prompter the viewer could not see, smirking before a soft gradient background. A square box to the left of the reporter illuminated the story. For the immersive elements, the viewer would see this box enlarging as the reporter’s voice slowly trailed away into a deep whisper. The viewer would be sucked into the box and become part of the story. For viewers using a screen instead of a holoroom, these scenes were simple video.
On the screen now was Surveillanet footage of a bear terrorizing an upscale shopping center. Terror was of course relative, most of the video showed the bear roaring at passing humans but when left alone simply sitting inside a candy store pawing in the establishment’s stock of honey flavored chews. Marcus could feel the story’s chord rumbling through Middle America. The bear was the protagonist, a karmic agent humbling the wealthy shoppers. Viewers wanted to see the lifestyles of the rich. They wanted to see them outside of their homes shopping, going to restaurants, having parties. They wanted to see them having real human interactions mediated by money and status, but they wanted equally to see them fall.
The video faded and a new anchorwoman appeared. She had big blonde hair and heavy eye makeup. She was young, not past thirty for sure, but styled herself like a much older woman. Marcus always thought reporters were aesthetically locked in his great-grandfather’s era. Not the typical style of the late twentieth century, just that of the news reporters.
“The bear was captured unharmed and is being transported to a wildlife reserve in Alaska. Injuries were limited to two cases of panic attack, and a few scrapes and bruises suffered while fleeing the area. Residents are relieved that they can once again shop in peace. Returning to our continuing coverage of the controversial election results in the Georgia…”
“Ok Connie, that’s enough.”
<Certainly Mark.> The screen irised-out. Marcus always liked that effect, not just the image, but the entire projected screen disappeared in the wake of a shrinking circle.
The world shook. Marcus, already burdened and unbalanced, toppled and spilled the load he carried. His shoulder hit first and a splash in the eye followed as the pail of ice cream smacked to the ground. The top dislodged and scattered flecks of melted cream while the more viscous, still frozen portion flowed like lava. A tremor rolled in the cryogenic flow. The remaining contents of the bag had rolled across the floor but at least remained in their own packaging.
The items Marcus had been carrying were gifts for the stowaways. Isolation grated at him until he no longer cared what their purpose on his island was; he needed the presence of others. Probably they really were Links employees. Something about them did not seem corporate, actually, nothing about them seemed corporate, but otherwise he did not have a reason to doubt them. He had hoped they were still on the island. Now he was sure they were.
The presents lay scattered before him, some still rolling away. The second blast rang out and this one he heard. During the first, he had been too busy falling to process the sound. Now the reverberation shook Marcus and he had an idea of what was happening. Marcus pushed himself up and ran back whence he came, back to the store, leaving the gifts behind.
Helen was just sitting down, yawning and picking crust out of her tear ducts when the first blast sent water rushing up her back. She fell forward and caught herself by pressing her palms and knees against the bathroom door. Despite the explosion she could not help thinking thank God I hadn’t peed yet. Only then could she focus on the sound and the earthquake and wonder what was that? She heard her companions scrambling around in the hall, making an unintelligible racket: “Whaa.” “oooohaaahh” “huuh?”
She needed to check on them and the house. Probably she should leave the house, but she really did need to pee. The second explosion shook her as she settled back on the commode, this time not forcefully enough to disturb her.
Helen pressed handle unconsciously and without slowing her movement to the door. Her hand was on the knob when Al burst in, knocking her back on to the seat. At least this time the lid was down. Al ran to Helen and shook her by the shoulders as he cried “Shit! Shit shit shit!” Tears speckled his face. Helen had nothing to say and walked past him into the hall. Pat appeared at the other end and almost bowled Helen over on his way to comfort Al. She found Mike in the living room pacing back and forth, moving his lips and pounding his right hand, knife shaped, into his left.
“Mike?” Helen ventured.
“We didn’t do it!” he threw his hands in the air.
“I know that. What should we do?”
“We were going to but we didn’t. Now someone else has!”
Helen’s first thought was so what? Who cared about who did what or the irony of the situation? The island was, at least potentially, exploding all around them. “We’ve got to get out of here!” she said. Mike did not need to say a word; the look he gave was enough to ask simultaneously how? and are you nuts?. “Ok so we can’t get out of here. Let’s at least find out what’s going on.” So she said, but was it really a good idea? Was staying put a good idea? It did not matter, she was a jitter and needed to move. She wound her way to the front door and stepped out to a sunny, otherwise calm day.
Marcus was back at the store staring in surprised relief. He was sure the explosion came from his store. What else was there to target? Some empty houses, pristine unused streets? This store was the only thing of consequence on the island. Could it be an accident? A natural disaster of some kind? A construction flaw? He knew that landfills could build up caustic gases, perhaps there was a methane pocket somewhere on the island. A careless spark anywhere could ignite such a thing. Yet he knew thoughts of accident were fantasy. Not one of these garbage islands had exploded before.
On his way to the store, he saw two plumes of smoke coming from opposite direction. How would both be accidents? So close in time and so far in distance. Sure, stranger things had happened but his instincts told him this was planned. To what end, who knew? Marcus guessed who might know. There was only one group of people on this island.
“Are you able to detect the presence of people on the island?”
<Not exactly, but I can review camera footage.> That was odd, she would not do that before. Marcus decided not to press the issue.
“Ok, did you see anyone on the island besides Earl’s stowaways?”
<One moment… … … No. Mark, there are still fires burning at the points of explosion, shall I call emergency services?>
“Sure… wait. Who would service this area?”
<Links Corp keeps rescue boats within three hours of all developments.>
“Of course, yes, please, call them. And…”
“Keep track of those four if you can.” Three hours to wait while terrorists run loose on the island. Great, why did he leave that little bamboo shack anyway? Mark drifted into fond memories of his last store as he wandered into the sporting goods section of the new one. The gun case shone, casting a glare over his eyes. He felt a thrill of nausea as he opened it. The rifle looked harmless laying on the velvet lining. It was never meant to be bought or used; it was an aesthetic choice. What kind of sporting goods section did not have a rifle somewhere in view? Marcus closed the case, leaving the firearm behind.
Helen watched twin smoke clouds billowing from opposite ends of the island and wondered to which she should go. Reason told her to go back inside, to hide with the others. She was thinking lucidly and knew exactly what the prudent choices were right now, but instinct was pulling her. There was something creeping below the surface. She thought she had been heading towards the center of something; she was not sure what that something was, but knew there was a story there. Now she knew Mike, Al, and Pat had not been taking her to the center but to a point of tangency.
Gratitude washed over her. For all the annoyance they caused, her companions from Open Acres brought her closer than she could have gotten on her own. Now, though, she needed to break away before their path carried her away from the story she sought. The smoke rose in her peripheral vision, stilling Helen’s thoughts. The black clouds were not calling her to their source, they pointed to the center.
To get updates on Nesson and my other works, follow me on twitter: @
You can also Subscribe
Nesson is an ad free serial fiction project. If you like what you have read, please leave a comment and share! If you’re feeling extra generous, donate to help me keep the story going and build this site!