My contract had ended and until I got another one I was left to drift around the apartment, cleaning, adjusting furniture, surfing the net and so on.
We had plenty of groceries after a friend gave us a ride to a bigger store so I had no reason to head to the supermarket.
One day, however, I had a craving for some rich chocolate ice cream. After shouting my conscience into silence I set off down the road.
Once again there was a small crowd in front of the ex-office supply store. I was startled. What else could be left to sell? As I got closer I saw that the store had been modified in strange ways.
There were heavy looking struts on the windows and a peculiar and heavy looking door at the entrance. In the door was some kind of pressure outlet and from it ran a hose to a powerful and noisy machine.
"Ah, madam. welcome back," the tall man said. His face was flushed a deep red, as though he'd been drinking heavily. "Are you here to see the latest part of our program? Perhaps to purchase our latest product?"
I looked in the window and couldn't see a thing in the store.
"What on Earth are you selling now. There's nothing left."
"There is something. That machine is set up to suck air out. Look."
I saw to my astonishment that there was an attachment to the hose that ran to a bottle. As each person in the line reached the front a new bottle was hooked up and the pump presumably filled it with air from the store. The person then paid and left, bottle of office store air in hand.
"You're selling air aren't you?"
"Of course. We have to maximise our profit. And people seem ready to buy our product."
I lost my temper. I hit him with everything from my left wing youth: exploitation of the people; the corrupt nature of capitalism; the failure of material things to give happiness. The word "proletariat" may have passed my lips once or twice.
Through all this he remained completely frozen, his smile and his stoop unchanging. When I was done he thawed and began to move again.
"Poor arguments from a practical perspective I'm afraid. People want stuff. Also, given the recent interest in things green, we are a most environmentally sensitive company. We sell that which is no longer needed and impact a volume equivalent to several large homes with minimal ecological damage. There's no air conditioning in there now. Not needed. And that compressor is running on biofuel. We're a highly successful, deeply green, customer satisfying company. Look at those people. Tell me they aren't happy."
As a matter of fact they didn't look happy. They looked just as beaten down and tired as everyone else.
I couldn't face pushing the argument any further so I made a brusque farewell and went home
Two weeks passed before I went to the grocery store again, our friend with a car being very generous with his time. I was still working at home and was spending my time doing some self-training in new techniques in my field.
After a hard day at the screen I decided to reward myself with some chocolate ice-cream. Once again I set off on the long hot trek to the store. Once again I was astonished when I turned the corner to the strip mall.
As seemed usual now there was a small line in front of the ex-office store. This time the ones at the front departed with very sturdy cubes containing who knew what.
I reached the store and saw something that horrified me. Through the struts across the windows could be seen the empty expanse as before but right in the middle, hanging in the air, were small cubes of nothing. How I knew it was nothing I don't know. They were a glittering grayness, or so it seemed. It hurt to look at them. The eye slid off them as though they were cubical blindspots, as though they were the nothingness that was left when the vacuum was taken away.
It turned out I was correct.
"Hello again. Calmed down a little?"
This time he looked even more artificial than before. The stark sunlight accentuated the sharp creases of his suit and the now angular facial features. He looked as though he'd been folded from paper, an origami figure made of cotton, flesh and light. I frostily said hello and asked what was going on.
In front of the store was a large truck covered with what looked like control boxes and gas tanks. From it ran two heavily insulated pipes from which small sheets of ice would fall occasionally, both pipes running to the now medieval looking door, a mess of massive sheets of some dull metal, small pipes and heating elements.
"We're reaching the end of the project. We just had one thing left to sell. Do you see, or rather you don't see, those cubes in the air in the middle?"
"I see them. They're horrible."
"Yes, they are aren't they?" He seemed rather pleased by my reaction.
"What are they?
"It turns out that it's impossible to get to an absolute vacuum. So we decided to just go straight to another, even more extreme impossibility. Removing the vacuum itself."
"That is just non-sense. By definition a vacuum is empty. There's nothing there to remove."
"It turns out that according to modern physics (you have no idea how useful that field of science has been to us) a vacuum is full of fleeting little fizzes of subatomic particles. We saw an opportunity to make a little money there. And we were right. People will pay for little pieces of the local vacuum state. We throw in the virtual particles for free."
"Well, yes it is. But as long as there's money to be made the impossible is not a problem for us.
We have to think of the shareholders. We really don't want to piss them off."
I was speechless. I decided that to stop myself crying or laughing uncontrollably I had to speak. So I asked the first thing that came to mind.
"What's next? Take away and sell absolute nothingness?"
"Sadly we've gone as far as we can. After we're done here we go on to clean up another closing store. With the economy as it is we have no shortage of victims available."
"But what's the point? Surely you could make almost as much just selling the stock and fixtures?"
"You'd be surprised how much we make when we start the physics part of the operation. But the larger point is for us to form a network of emptiness. Then we do the difficult bit: joining the nodes. And then the shareholders come for, well, call it an inspection."
With that he walked away as though he'd lost interest in me. And I walked away, filled with a terrible foreboding.