<Mark> no response. <Hello, Mark> Marcus rolled over in bed, the place where he had taken refuge against the disgruntled bourgeoisies at his door. How strange, he thought, an inversion of the French Revolution. The rich beating down the doors to demand resources from the, well he was not exactly poor, but not of their class by any means. He looked around. He always found himself looking for a woman’s shape when he heard Connie’s voice. It was a reflex; he knew she was not really there. He faced the speaker.
“Yes, Connie,” he grumbled.
<There is someone at the door.>
“There are a lot of people at the door.”
<You know this one, a man who calls himself Earl.>
“Earl? What’s that asshole doing here? Alright, is there some way to let him in without inviting the hoards?”
<Wait. You didn’t want everyone to come in?> Odd, that was some genuine sass from a computer. It was not that he did not consider Connie conscious, but he did not expect attitude like that. <Actually, he’s already inside.>
“What? You said he was at the door.”
<I didn’t say which side. Your friend Helen let him in, I guess she was wandering around the store and saw him out there. I suppose you realize they have met before as well?>
“Yeah, more than aware. Well, I better go join this reunion.” He threw on the same faded T-shirt, one that had been a solid color when he bought it, and jeans he had worn the previous day and walked out the door without so much as a splash of water on his face. Closing the door he could see Helen and Earl sitting near the front door at a demo patio table and chair set. The set was solid iron with a tile top. It was a bit much for Marcus’s taste but it sold quite well, despite a lack of island aesthetic about it. In the background he could see the remnants of the mob that had been at his door for days. It was no longer the whole island, but a fair number still. And worse, they seemed to be the more livid for the loss of the moderate members of their band.
Helen turned as if sensing Marcus’s look, she waved, “Look who I found!”
“And here I thought I’d finally lost him for good!” Marcus called back.
“Hardy har,” responded Earl to the perplexity of the others. “Seriously though, you’ll be glad to see me this time.”
“Yeah,” Helen said, “It sounds like he will be good for business.”
“So he’s good for something?”
Helen frowned and Earl smiled, Marcus elaborated, “I wouldn’t be here, nor would that crowd, if it were not for the two of you.”
“Be that as it may,” Earl said. He was adopting a kind of refined tone, “I am here to bring good tidings from Links.”
“Oh, the man himself?” Marcus sneered. By now. he was at the table and need not yell across the store. Despite two empty chairs he did not sit.
“The same. Now listen, he’s pulled a lot of strings, worked a lot of connections you know. He’s managed to create a new currency. One acknowledged, or at least it will be, by the rest of the world. The rest of the world besides the US, I mean. What’s more, it has a real value backed, in part, on the worth of the residents of Nesson. Based on this island in particular. The other part is the value of the trade routes now controlled by Links Corp.” At this, Helen’s frown deepened. She was happy that Marcus would be able to resume a normal life, but Links’ theft of the water rights of hundreds of nations chilled her. Marcus seeing this cut into Earl’s explanation.
“So we’re getting our economy back, but at the expense of the people of the Pacific?” This was more of a clarification to Marcus than an accusation, but he was glad to see the interest in Helen’s eye emerging.
“Well sure, if you want to be a downer about it. Look, these were international waters. Links Corp didn’t do anything illegal.”
“Because there’s no law! It’s still wrong.” Helen pushed herself back into her chair.
Earl shrugged as if to ask ‘Who can say what is right and wrong?’ “Whatever the means, I’d say you’re averting a revolution here. This has already happened. I just wanted to deliver the good news, give your computer the exchange rates, and maybe take away a frozen pizza. I’d be glad to be your first customer.
Helen left them. Her face was red, steaming. Marcus and Earl spoke cordially for a few moments before the tall man in the cowboy hat indeed left with a pizza in hand, via a side door.
Jennifer Fahr was watching the smart vacuum wind its way around the living room, cleaning dust one moment from the Himalayas, the next from Death Valley. Or so the video wall would have her believe. She had work to do, but really she had not done much of anything for days. Weeks actually. The odd thing was, no one seemed to notice, or care, that she was behind. She did not know what was worse, that she was letting work pile up in the malaise left by her absent children, or the revelation that her job mattered so little that no one even pretended to care that she was not doing it.
What did she do for a living anyway? She went to several virtual meetings and sent countless messages every day, but she did not produce anything. She was in some way supporting a leading holonet content provider, but how did completing paperwork that could be done faster and cheaper by AI help anything? Now that she ceased doing it, she wondered if anyone was using the forms she completed or the reports she wrote.
The weeks since Justin’s disappearance she spent guzzling coffee and staring about the house at nothing in particular. Sometimes she would turn on the news or some other program so as not to feel insane doing nothing all day. She did not really process the voices, just let them roll over her as she sat in the same rigid, non-reclining chair. She heard something under the fake laughter, the transition music, and the yelling. It was a common thread, a humming. A monotonous, deadening vibration. She could listen to that hum for hours, laying statue still.
Once her husband came in to show her a new report about her daughter, who was apparently calling herself Helen now, and her likely location in Japan. “Do you think that’s where Justin is going?” James asked.
“How should I know where my children who don’t write or call are?” She said it and felt ridiculous. It was like something a little old woman said in sitcoms. These were not words for a woman just in her forties that did not look a bit older than her own daughter. So she told herself, and James wasn’t going to argue. Extended family called often asking if there were updates and how were they doing? She let James handle the calls. For Jennifer’s part, she had not set foot in a Holoroom since Allison called, just before Justin left to find her. That was the sum of the note Justin left, “Gone to find Allison,” as if he were running out for a milkshake and would be right back. Not that anyone ran out for milkshakes anymore.
The idea that she missed her children did not linger at the forefront of her consciousness. She did not lay around all day thinking, “I miss my children, this is why I’m depressed.” Yet she knew this was the case. Knew well enough that she need not even think it to herself. She, Jennifer, quickly forgot about the Holoroom, once a staple of her day. Now she found an odd joy in the separation two dimensions lent. She began to think of the old days of Television sets, a screen isolated from the rest of the house showing only what was chosen by someone outside the house. Not that this was her experience. Jennifer’s parents had upgraded their home with video walls when she was just four feet tall. Her children never knew a world without Holorooms. She felt a kind of romance for the world without V-walls or holograms that you only feel for things never known or experienced.
“Jennifer come quick,” James called from the Holoroom.
“No thanks Jim. Just send it to the wall in here if it’s important.”
“You’re damn right it’s important. Allison is making a holocall!” and within a few seconds Jennifer’s dreams of a less technological life vanished. Her daughter was in the other room in three dimensions; who knew where she really was, but if this was the most Allison could be there, Jennifer would take it.
Allison alternated between guilt and wonder that she did not know until now. Her little brother had been gone from home for more than a month and on her account. Had it really been so long since she had been in contact. Sure, the life of an undercover reporter turned fugitive implied some limits on communication, but what that meant only hit her now.
It was touching in a way to know her sibling cared for her enough to seek her out even when her parents had already given up attempts to call her. Still, it was reckless, horrifying in its way. More than a woman only a few years older traveling international waters with a band of terrorists? That did not matter. What did was that she never meant to involve anyone else in her risk taking. She had intentionally kept personal relationships to a minimum. She alienated friends by avoiding calls, declining invitations, and never extending her own. She discovered how quickly even close friendships fade. Perhaps she was still friends with all those she left behind when she became Helen, if she called someone up maybe they could chat and it would be like old times. She could not test this theory now, but it was one counter to the icy thought that her friends might forget her so easily.
Apparently though, her family would not put her out of mind in that way. Until she called her mother, Allison had barely thought about them. When she saw her mother in the holoroom, who had not bothered with avatars or enhancements, she looked happy to see her but tired, exhausted actually. It was not from drowsiness, but constant thought on a futile topic. Her father had more of the reaction she expected. Shock, pleasant surprise. He did not look so disturbed by her absence, more glad by her sudden communication.
Her brother’s reaction to her disappearance confused Allison. Sure, they had been close as young children, but when she left her teenage years and he entered his, they drifted apart. Now he was traveling cross-country with no more leads on her than the news or police had. If he did find her, it would not bode well for her future as a fugitive. What now? Should she try to find him, contact him? She did not have a clue where he was, no more than he did of her location. One of them needed to stay put for there to be any hope of their reunion. She was sure he was on the move; there would be no point to his journey if he just stopped somewhere and waited. Still, the question remained: stay or go?
Did she want her brother to be able to find her? She would like to see him. Maybe he had something important to tell her. What he might know that their parents did not she could not imagine. The fact remained that she had intentionally separated herself from her family to protect herself and, to some extent, them. She was glad to know that no connection had been established between ‘Helen’ and Allison’s family. She preferred it stay that way. Also, if some inexperienced teenager could find her, what chance did she have against the authorities?
Perhaps she should not think about it at all. there was no guarantee that he would find her, far from it. If he did by some miracle, perhaps it was fate or some testament to his capabilities. This is what she got for letting herself be Allison, even if only for a few minutes.
<Allison, Mark could use your assistance in the office.>
“OK Connie, tell him I’ll be there in a minute,” She began to collect herself and move towards the door from the apartment to the store but something froze her. What did that computer call her? Had it been reading her mind? No, no, AI is magical in a way, but not that kind of way. She must have been listening in on the holocall. Allison knew Connie had been after her from the start. What to do now? How to play this off? First stop, she figured, would be to go see Mark and pretend she had not heard her true name.
“You called for me?” Allison asked, now standing in the office looking at Marcus bent over a desk. Up until that week, the office had seen little use, Connie kept records just fine by Marcus’s standards and he preferred wandering the store to sitting in an office waiting to be needed. When the currency changed, though, he had a true need for the office. It was not that he was computing exchange rates. Connie could do that. Rather, he was dealing with vendors and customers who were skeptical of the new Pacifica, as Links had named it. His customers on the island were no longer camping outside his doors. They were now writing letters claiming his prices did not match exchange rates, others were complaining about the value of the Pacifica as if Marcus could change the international market at a whim. His vendors emphasized their preferences for dollar-based credits and often Marcus had to find a way to buy dollars with Pacificas without involving US banks. Even some countries particularly sympathetic to, or intimidated by, Links either would not deal with the Nesson economy or would freeze transactions before product made it out of the country. This left Marcus stuck with a bill and no stock to show for it.
These matters lit his desktop and kept him hunched over it. This type of permanent physical desk was now nearing obsolescence and was rarely used anymore. Marcus preferred them though; he liked the feel of a solid top resisting his touch as he tapped away. Sure, he could get a new portable desk that could project on any surface, but he also liked the idea that he had to work in a specific spot. This room, this piece of furniture, was reserved for a certain kind of work. When he left the room. he could not be made to do more work. Actually that was not true, all of his correspondence and records could be accessed from anywhere. Yet he told Connie that he should only do serious business in the office. He would go as far as placing a call on hold while he walked across the store to take it in the office. This gave the impression that he was busy anyway.
“Hi Helen,” Marcus said, looking up from the desktop screen, which had a mess of files open and illuminated his face, “Yeah, there is something I wanted to ask you.”
Allison stopped breathing for a heartbeat. Did that bitch of a computer tell him? Perhaps the choice stay or go was made for her, go her world screamed. “Yes…” she said, accusing with her eyes.
Marcus’s eyes were too unfocused to notice the harsh look from Allison’s face. They were not, however, too blurry to notice the slight bit of exposed hip between her shirt and jeans. “You know how busy I’ve been with this currency business?”
Allison exhaled but her fists remained clinched. “Yeah, sure.”
“Well, I haven’t had much time to keep up with the store. Connie tells me all is fine, but I get a little uncomfortable not being able to look myself you know?”
“Oh, yeah,” Allison let herself relax now.
“So, I was wondering. I know you’re kind of in hiding, but these people around here are self-centered and oblivious. You told me yourself that you used to walk around in crowds and no one noticed you. Anyway, would you be sort of my back up eyes and ears out there? I just want someone to make the rounds like I do, talk to people now and then, find out what they want, et cetera. What’s going on outside of the store, even if it’s just who won the last tennis doubles tournament. What do you say?”
“So you want me to act like store manager and like a legitimate citizen of the island?”
“Well, assistant manager maybe,” he smiled.
Allison thought about it in terms of the stay or go questions. If she said yes, she would have to stay. Sure, nothing would physically stop her from leaving after accepting Marcus’ request, but she owed him for his discretion. Besides, she was beginning to like him in a way. She just could not agree and then abandon him. Likewise, she did not think she could say no and stay. He would let her, but it was such a reasonable request, how could she say no and continue to live there? Her instincts were pushing her to refuse and find somewhere else to hide. “Yeah, ok, no problem. It’s the least I can do right?”
Marcus smiled, looked relieved and without a word returned to the same pressing order he was working on. Helen backed out of the office and turned to face the store. She felt light, like she might float away. The weight of her decision, now that it was made, acted as a fulcrum and let her effortlessly step into a new role. She could look over a ledge and watch the customers, her customers. She felt a responsibility towards them taking root. They really were helpless. Sure, they were great at manipulating markets and spending money. Many of them were quite intelligent, she was sure. But, left alone on this island without her or Marcus around, how long could they last? Someone had to feed and clothe them.
Maybe this could be a way to make a real difference. Here they were, a small population, isolated from the rest of the world with nearly limitless means. What could they accomplish? She could make some small changes to start, change a few of the products, slowly phase out some of the useless junk. If they were truly going to be on their own out here, they would need to establish some sort of governing body. No one was talking about it, but there was a power vacuum left by the secession. If someone did not take charge soon, Links would.
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