As he folded he flaps of the last box shut, Marcus surveyed his store. He felt ambivalent pride when he saw the whole contents of his business and personal life in so few boxes. He slid the one he had just closed until it softly collided with the other four. The floor looked convincing; by sight, you might really believe it was rough unfinished wood, but the texture gave it away. The planks were too smooth, the box glided across the store with next to no friction. Between the boxes and the appliances haphazardly coated in plastic wrap, he guessed it might take half a pickup truck to haul everything.
Marcus kept his already meager inventory tight; getting rid of excess stock was no problem. He simply stopped making orders and sold only what was already there. His store was the only game in town, so if the only food he had was canned olives and the only beer left non-alcoholic, someone would buy it. It was all better than the slop offered at the work site; at least, that is what Earl told him. When he considered the excitement canned ham could incite, he was inclined to believe him.
He only needed to pack his personal belongings. His wardrobe consisted of five t-shirts, two pairs of shorts, six pairs of underwear, and five individual socks. His clothes were not enough to fill a whole box and he used most of them to wrap breakables. He already kept his toothbrush and other grooming necessities in a small bag. The remaining detritus of day-to-day life filled the rest. Besides a couple antique paper-books he was fond of, it was miscellaneous junk he rarely used, yet he could not rid from his life.
A boat was waiting at the dock, ready to carry him to a new home across the sea. Two familiar looking men, maybe a couple of his regulars, silently entered the store and carted off the refrigerators and racks Marcus insisted on moving. No one came to help move his stuff though. Fortunately, he was able to fit all the boxes on one hand truck.
This move was sudden, but then so was the reason for it. How could Japan begin work on its own island extension without him knowing? Apparently, it was big news back on the mainland. This was a recurring problem with not using the holonet and not even attempting conversation with his customers. He was unaware of who won the last presidential election until well after the inauguration. Neither the knowledge nor the fact of who won affected his life much. While the whole country stood vigil after group of seven teenagers went missing, he was doing inventory on a rainy day. Earl mentioned the story in passing; they turned up living together on a commune and refused to go home. Earl thought the whole situation was hilarious. Marcus did not know why anyone cared about any of it. Perhaps something about stubborn runaways struck a chord.
This week he missed the announcement of the first foreign LinksLand project, though hearing the news from Richard Links had to be worth something. What the rest of the world did not know was how fast the islands would be built. Links Corp had developed a new construction method that would have Japan connecting to Nesson before the year’s end. The world was also ignorant of a small plot Links had already built in international waters.
“Right now it’s small, more a stepping stone than an island.” Links had told Marcus. “It’s mostly artificial grass, soil, and sandy beaches. The place has everything needed to look like a real piece of land, but not much else. Yet.”
None but Link’s upper echelon knew of this piece of land and because his store would be there, Marcus knew as well. He guessed whoever was on the construction crew must know too, but between Nesson County and Japan, they were too busy building to have the time to leak the information. The island was at the planned junction between the US and Japan. Links wanted to have everything in place before the connection; he wanted full services available, up, and running the minute the ribbon between the two nations was cut.
Links had pulled up a video feed of the island so Marcus could see where he would be living. The feed was under tight security and there was an awkward lull as Links muttered at his mobile.
“Just a moment… Damn…you’d think the owner of a leading technology firm could work a video wall.” Links said. His was trying to be light hearted, but Marcus could smell the frustration leaking from his pores. “Oh, oh. Ahhh, there we go.” The wall faded out of the mountain scene and an island landscape emerged. There was more to the island than Links had described. Houses and roads were on the screen, but something was unusual about them. They were so close together. The houses were the same coastal style as the rest of Nesson except that they appeared sturdier and more intricate. There were little things added like shutters, cornices, and railings. Yet what really distinguished them from the other Links Corp homes was material. Even from the video Marcus could tell that real wood had been used on the siding and trim, non-recycled metal on deck railings and gutters, and the windows were real and made of glass. The houses were arranged just off square from each other making something near concentric circles across the island. The development was something never seen outside of movies and holorooms. It was a town.
What Marcus saw sharply opposed his experience of Nesson. If anything, the Links developments were more sprawling and isolated than anywhere else in America. What Richard Links was showing him now was the opposite extreme. The demand for homes in Nesson was high, but it was because they were so private, so distant from anything else. Where was the market for this? Cities and towns had been abandoned, save for a few eccentrics and communists; the kind of people who chose urban lifestyles certainly could not afford houses like this. Actually, very few people could afford a house made with non-recycled material.
“You can’t see it on the screen, but you will be somewhere over…” Link’s finger floated around until pointing just to the right of the video feed, “there. You will have to use your imagination. Anyway, it’s not built yet.” This was the reason Links summoned Marcus from halfway around the world, to help plan a store.
“You’ll run the whole show. The whole place will be automated of course, nothing like the little place you had out in… I don’t suppose we’ve named that part of Nesson yet.”
“I always called it Far Isle.” Marcus suggested. Though his location had moved two times, he always considered his location Far Isle.
“Sure, sure,” Links waved his hands, still looking at a blank wall where the store would be, “it will probably be called something with Blue or Haven in the name when their done.” Marcus was not sure if Links was joking or not.
“So, my current store, will you be shipping the whole building or just the contents?”
“How do you mean?” Links did not wait for a reply, he went on to describe a giant retail complex he had envisioned and designed. The old store could fit into the new one many times over. Marcus would manage this new store, a high-end mall with the latest smart building technology. Nothing about preexisting equipment or merchandise had entered Link’s mind.
Marcus listened patiently for a pause in the excited speech. Somewhere around the third time, he heard the phrase groundbreaking he spoke out, “Listen, Richard, I don’t know exactly why you picked me for this job, but this all sounds a little over my head.”
Links bristled; he was not used to interruptions. “Now hold on, did Jack or did Jack not recommend you?”
“Jackson Kane happens to be a man I trust very much. Are you suggesting he has bad judgment?”
“No, no. Of course not! I would never.”
“Are you saying he does not know a great manager when he meets one?”
“I didn’t say anything about…”
“Good. Now, if Jack says you’re the man for the job, who are you or I to question?”
“I guess I get your…”
“Excellent! So glad we agree, now where was I?” Links continued, but this time left more room for Marcus to comment here or there. After several minutes of arguing and another mention or two of Jack, Marcus said he was not willing to manage a store large enough to occupy half the island. A building one tenth the size was too large. What they finally agreed upon would be the size of the average suburban grocery store, not that those existed anymore but both men could remember them from childhood.
Aside from food, the store would feature high-end electronics and clothing. Marcus did not know much about luxury merchandise of any kind, but he could sell anything. Link’s vision was that the island would ultimately be the intersection of two economic superpowers and a sort of resort for their leaders. It would be a place where they could hammer out business and a few holes of golf in the privacy of the pacific frontier.
“But why would anyone go there in person?” Marcus asked.
“What do you mean?” Links asked.
“Well, couldn’t they just use video feeds and holorooms like everyone already does?”
“Marcus, how much time have you spent around people of means?”
“Including now? About an hour I’d say.”
“Then maybe you’re not aware of the authenticity boom that’s going on right now.”
“Aware of it? I’m not even sure what you mean.”
“You see Mark. Can I call you Mark?” He did not wait for a response. “You see Mark, there is a growing market for people that want to get out of the house, out of the holoroom. Already the streets of wealthier neighborhoods are clogged with joggers, bicyclists, and manual drivers. Unfortunately, their neighborhoods are not particularly conducive to outdoor activities.”
“I wouldn’t think anyone’s neighborhood is.”
“Certainly not, so we are going to make a space for them.”
Marcus looked at the video feed. The island was vacant and waiting. His current store was half stocked and falling apart. He pictured a grand, gleaming new building and roads circling houses and businesses. There were no cars to be seen on the screen, but they would surely come later. On the northern perimeter of the island was a set of train tracks leading nowhere, simply falling into the ocean. Normally building a segment of rail before there was anything to attach it to would seem odd, but here it only made the island appear that much more complete. Would a train pass through this place eventually, or was the track only for effect?
“Now since on our little island you will be in charge of all commercial operations,” Links started.
“Our island?” Marcus asked.
“Sure, your island, my island, Links Corp’s island. Ours.” To whom did this island, this town, belong Marcus wondered. Links built it, so surely he had some ownership, but what kind of legal standing did it have. Nesson was a county of California because it physically connected to California. This island had connections to no state or country.
“So what about when the land bridge from LA to Tokyo is complete?” Marcus asked.
“What about it?”
“Will this be a Japanese island or an American island? Well, I guess it won’t be an island anymore, but you know what I mean.”
Links paused and looked as if he did not know what Marcus meant. “Well, normally these things are decided by prior connections. I suppose the town will be US territory, but really what difference does it make? Will a label like nationality affect the lifestyle of anyone living there?”
Nationality was about as relevant to most citizens as a coat of arms. Unless one lived in a country suffering from the wrong side of the holographic divide that is. In developed nations, diversity and ethnicity were expressed through avatars and virtual worlds. Home countries did not factor into the concept of self.
Marcus was not concerned about how the island residents felt about being on American or Japanese soil. “The people may not care, but governments still care about borders and territory. Particularly Japan.” Marcus still could not believe Japan agreed to the land bridge.
“Of course, you’re right. But no need to worry, the island and its residents will be well protected from any misunderstandings of that kind.” Protected? By whom and from what? Something ulterior crept into Marcus’s mind. Was Links expecting that both nations would have a claim? His cleared his mind of worry. He did not have time to be concerned about abstract political notions; He needed to start planning for his customers, regardless of their citizenship.
Marcus took a last look at his old store, the little shack where he had spent the past year. He had to move every few months to keep up with the construction crews, and up until now, the store had followed him. It was not with an affectionate eye that he took his last look at the place, simply one of checking for forgotten items. He wondered what the workers would do for their small luxuries now. If Links was right about the new building methods, they would be moving on to a new site soon anyway.
The boat was waiting at a collection of twenty logs lashed together, the ad-dock. Marcus wedged himself between the refrigerators and boxes as if he himself were a piece of cargo. The ship was snug, but it was a free ride. Marcus looked around for the captain and crew, but this was a smart boat. The movers had loaded the contents of the store then hopped on another boat to go to their next job. A rumbling beneath the deck signaled that the ship’s computer sensed his presence and was raising anchor.
The island was a ghost town. Maybe not exactly a ghost town, since no one had ever lived there. It was the opposite of an abandoned place. Everything was built, complete, but there was no life. At some point, construction crews stood where Marcus was now standing, but in between it was vacant. The pre-animate state of place was spooky in its own way.
The silent, crewless ship dropped anchor at a sparkling new dock. Even as he approached Marcus could tell the boardwalk surface was real wood. There was a depth to the planks that was absent in logs made of pressurized recycled paper and cardboard. Real trees fell to be a part of this dock. There were several stone features sparking with high quartz content and now and then wooden lampposts. The effect was both natural and luxurious.
Marcus jumped down onto the dock and was met with a shrill buzz. A light was flashing near his boxes and appliances. Great, how was he going to unload all this stuff himself? He stepped back onto the boat and began throwing boxes onto the dock. Buried under the second to last he found an appliance dolly. He was not sure if he should be relieved to have the tool, or disappointed that now he would have to try, at least, to move the refrigerators.
Marcus was itching to explore and locate his store. He had seen the basic structure of the development from the ship. There were no buildings over two stories tall, save for the market at the center. They only hills he found were on the golf course, otherwise the place was a flat platform set level on the ocean. Links had loaded a map of the island into Marcus’s net account, but there was no need for it. Marcus could see where he needed to go.
On the way he found broad, smooth streets running between houses and intersecting identical streets at an angle just far enough from ninety degrees to be comforting. The houses he saw on the way to the store were some mixture of nautical and frontier style, yet featuring the kind of understated angles he saw in Link’s mansion. The houses on previous segments of the land bridge had been, in Marcus’s experience, more traditional and perhaps a little shabbier. Just because the middle class residents were throwing their lives into the Pacific, did not mean they wanted to leave behind familiar architecture or familiar anything for that matter. They only wanted to be that much further from their neighbors.
The golf course wound its way through the island. Marcus passed the 10th hole as he walked and thought about the oddity of a real golf course. He had never heard of people playing outside on real grass. The best golfers in the world played in the Holonet. Would they be able to play on a real course like this? Marcus never was much of a golfer, but he understood that, historically speaking at least, there was something about tropical air and ocean views that compelled men to hit the links. Speaking of Links, his instructions since Marcus left his outer LA home had been conspicuously absent. Marcus’s mandate was something like “go forth and sell,” which was no problem really, except that everything here seemed too planned, prearranged. Was he to disturb this universe by bringing his messy management style to it? Perhaps Jack had neglected to mention Marcus’s take-it-as-it-comes approach to business. Perhaps, though, someone like Marcus could lend an air of authenticity to the place, like the natural materials used on the dock. Being an old, salty frontier man could be compelling to the new residents shopping for groceries and handmade clothing.
That was one thing about the wealthy, and in this case, Marcus was glad for it. They never got on the replicator bandwagon. While the rest of the country mimicked high fashion and gourmet food with cheap, recycled ingredients, the rich insisted that there was something about real clothes and food that was more natural, more in tune with human nature. People had been eating food grown in the ground and sitting on furniture made from real trees, cotton, and animal skin for millennia, replicators were less than a generation old. The popular counter argument made by the intellectual, but not financial, elite was that recycling had been a natural part of the planet since its formation. To be fair, it had been for most of the history of the universe before the Earth came along as well. The Earth was made of recycled star-parts. The rock cycle forms, breaks down, and reforms minerals. All beings exchange the stuff of life over and over: plants eating from soil, animals eating plants, animals eating animals, microbes breaking animals and plants down into soil, etc. Replication, the argument goes, is only an artificial means of enacting the same process.
For some, though, there is something mysterious, perhaps even mystical, about natural processes that we should not presume to understand. And so, through a different kind of materialism, the rich branded themselves as the spiritual class. Marcus would probably need to have a “world religions” book section in his store. Also, he shuttered to think, some sort of world music section as well. They would need their real life meeting spaces, hence the golf course snaking its way through every backyard and the likelihood of a café in his store. There would be a demand for live music, better still if it was in a nice restaurant. The problem was, no one wanted to work outside of the home, especially not to cook for an elite class that truly lived in a different world. An automatic cafe was easy, replicated gourmet no problem, but fine dining prepared and served by hand had disappeared in the US decades ago and barely survived in Europe.
Links designed the whole development with outdoor living and face-to-face interaction in mind. The importance of place as a part of life meant something to those that could afford nice places. The aesthetics of place-hood went beyond what could be mimicked in a holoroom. It was more than just the sights, sounds, and smells. It was about being there. Of course, part of the experience of being there was controlling who else could be there. The presence of undesirable people threatened the harmony of a place.
Marcus drug the overloaded hand truck behind him. He had left the refrigerators on the dock and piled on all the boxes so that the one on top teetered over the handle. The weight of the keys jangling in his pocket was almost as heavy as the load on the dolly. He was on a deserted island that no one knows how to find and there would be no one around to see Marcus turning the key for the first time; still, he felt a strange power radiating from the keys like heat.
Marcus was so focused on what he was going to do when he got to the store that he did not notice he was already there. From a distance, the place looked so big, a full two stories taller than any other building on the island. From up close, though, it did not seem like such a big deal. Sure it was pretty big and the mostly glass and metal surface was blinding in the sun, but it did not stand up to Marcus’s imagination.
The key slid into the lock and swung the bolt on the sliding glass double doors without ceremony. They shot open; it was as if one door was repelled by the other. As he entered, they slid back together, with some hesitation. Marcus stepped over the threshold and by reflex started looking for a light switch. Not that he needed one; there was enough sunlight to illuminate the lobby and several feet inside the store. The jewelry cases and wine cases were spot lit by skylights. Still, it was not enough light to get around his first time in the building. He could not see anything close to a light switch near the entrance. “This is great.” Marcus mumbled aloud.
<Welcome Mr. Cook!>
He almost jumped out of his skin when the soothing but unexpected female voice called from his left. Squinting to discern any kind of human form, he instead found a speaker built into the wall, just inside the door. Of course! Marcus had spent so much time away that he forgot about smart stores. All stores on the mainland, to the extent that they existed at all, were smart. This was the first one he had seen or been in in years. Now he was managing one. “Uh, hi, call me Mark.”
<OK. Mark, how can I assist you today?>
“Let’s start with some light, please.” The lights faded on from dim to a soft glow.
<Is that sufficient, Mark?>
“I think it’s good for operating hours, but while I’m setting up I’d like some real light.”
<Of course, adjusting… How is that?> It was as if the ceiling had been removed and the sun shone straight in. To some extent that was the case, much of the ceiling was of a material that could change opacity. It was nearly transparent now. There were some electric lights as well, but mainly for adding color or for a particularly cloudy day.
“Perfect, thanks,” Marcus paused for a moment, “Hey, what should I call you?”
<I do not yet have a name, the technician simply called me ‘computer’>
Marcus guffawed and asked “How creative, would you like a new name?”
<If it pleases you, Mark.>
“Hm. Computer, computer. What do I call you, computer? How about… Connie?”
<Very inventive, Sir>
“Was that a joke Connie?”
<Thank you, Mark. Let me know when I can be of further assistance.>
“Sure, sure.” Mark remembered the debate, years ago about whether the AI helpers were conscious and if they deserved a certain level of treatment and consideration. Marcus never thought much about it and never interacted with AI outside of kiosks or customer service lines. They, the AI, always seemed smart and understanding when he had to work with them, especially compared to the humans in customer service. This computer, Connie, was nice enough as well, even had a sense of humor. Could humor be programmed? It was natural for Marcus to think of her, he guessed ‘her’ was right, as a person and treat her as such.
Now that he could see the inside, Marcus thought the store was a respectable size. He would still prefer something smaller, maybe half the size, but figured he could handle it. The shopping area was two floors, or rather one and a half. A loft looked over the main floor. Food, furniture, and large home goods would be downstairs, Marcus imagined, and clothing, décor, and general housewares upstairs. Currently the store was bare, save for shelving units and racks, some counters here and there, a bank of self-checkout stations, and a manual register he had requested. The interior was designed to suggest more space than was there, though it was already larger than a football field. From his walk Marcus guessed that the island would only hold a few thousand people, a store this size was a little unnecessary. Why try to trick the eye into seeing something larger? Perhaps the future occupants of this place were accustomed to opulence, grand architecture. Yet they wanted someone like Marcus to run the place. Go figure.
There was a sense that someone had just vacated the building, perhaps seconds before Marcus entered. He was sure he was alone, but there was a way the dust hung in the air as if it had recently been kicked up and had not a chance to settle yet. This was about as new as a building could get. “Connie, when did construction end here?”
<Just last night, approximately twelve hours before you arrived.>
“Wow, cutting it close eh?”
<I suppose, sir> Marcus was almost ready to call it a day; he was travel worn and did not have an ounce of work in him. One item needed immediate attention though.
“Connie, any idea how to stock a store on a secret island?”
<I have already prepared a list of discreet but reasonable priced distributors. A Links Corp ship will take care of pickup and delivery.>
“Great! You’re practically running this place for me Connie. I’ll start on some calls tomorrow. For now though, I need a nap. Any idea where my home is?”
<I believe you have the apartment attached to the store, Mark. On the third floor.>
“Wonderful.” Mark grimaced.
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