This story is by Mark Shields and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The sun spilled over the horizon from the east and scattered light over the water’s surface until it hit the white cliff wall in an eruption of sea spray. One hundred meters up, situated near the cliff’s edge, the windows covering the sprawling house glowed pink and gold. The other side of the house overlooked rolling hills covered in towering pines becoming increasingly visible in the rising sun.
Josh walked through the expansive parlor and kitchen, passed by the fireplace and lit a fire with a snap of his fingers, then walked out onto the deck overlooking the water. It would be fantastic, Josh thought. If it wasn’t so typical.
“Good morning, Josh,” called the familiar voice.
Josh sighed. “Hi, Ima.”
“The same as usual,” Josh answered. “I’m just bored. It’s time to get rid of all of this and start over again.”
“Are you sure?” Ima asked. “You’ve kept this house the longest, and to be honest, I think it’s my best work.”
“I’m sure.” Josh walked to the counter and made a subtle wave with his hand. A coffee pot materialized from nothing and steam curled from the top. Josh poured himself a cup of coffee and sat at the kitchen table.
“What do you have in mind?” Ima’s voice revealed a hint of worry. “You’re keeping me, right?”
He laughed. “Yes, Ima. Don’t worry about that. You can’t get rid of me that easily.”
Josh turned to look out over the water as he sipped his coffee. In the ten years since the first Infinity Machine switched on it had changed the world. Josh didn’t understand exactly how it worked, but enough to know that it broke down all matter within a certain range into subatomic particles and rearranged them into whatever you wanted. At first the rich used it to build houses and luxury goods, then pets both familiar and extinct.
After that first foray into living things the company branched out into transportation by dematerializing people and reconstructing them somewhere else. The dream of teleportation was realized. People could travel anywhere they wanted instantly – ancient Egypt, Mount Everest, the South Pole – and it didn’t take long to extend past Earth. People soon vacationed on the planets and moons of the solar system.
That felt incredible to Josh and everyone else, but the experiences were still primarily enjoyed by the wealthy. That changed when the Infinity Machine’s creator retired and shared his new vision. He was donating the usage of his Infinity Machines to everyone, in perpetuity, for free.
Social constructs around the world changed almost overnight. At first people used the machines to create money, but the infusion of endless riches made the concept obsolete within months. The more philanthropic-minded people turned landfills and abandoned neighborhoods into food and new homes with the goal of ending environmental disaster and homelessness. New Infinity Machines sprang up in every corner of the globe and the latest models could fit into a house.
Ima pulled him out of his thoughts. “Josh, what style are you thinking? Modern again? Classic? You’ve never had a Spanish locale. You could go with the Palau Nacional.” As Ima mentioned each option Josh’s surroundings changed from steel and concrete, to marble columns, and finally to vaulting stone walls.
“I don’t know,” Josh said picking at the table top with his thumbnail. “I would love to come up with something original instead of copying famous homes. Something no one has ever thought of before.”
“I’m up to the challenge of doing my own design,” Ima said, and the structure of the house returned to its original form. “I will bring you options by lunchtime.”
“Sounds good,” Josh nodded. “No later than that, though, please. I would rather not spend another night here.”
“You got it,” Ima assured him. Silence filled the room as she left to tackle her new assignment.
Once there was an Infinity Machine in everyone’s home anything could be made instantly. No one had to work. Josh walked away from his job as an electrician and joined a handful of friends visiting all of the places they had dreamed about. Rome. Angkor Wat. Fiji. Even the towering peak of Olympus Mons on Mars. Everywhere they went they met all types of people from all over the world. Josh discussed the meaning of life with Russian carpenters around a camp fire at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Raced Ferraris along the Italian seaside with Hollywood actors. Told stories about the characters in the constellations in the arms of a beautiful girl he might have otherwise pursued if he didn’t know they would be thousands of miles apart in just a few hours reshuffling the deck of locations and acquaintances.
At the end of that first year Josh had begun to feel a cloud forming over the parties and constant adventures. The adrenaline rush that came from trying something new every day grew weaker and faded faster as the months went on. He tried more exotic locations and luxurious surroundings, but each one felt emptier than before. That’s when he told his friends good bye for the last time and settled down near the Cliffs of Dover. Once a prime piece of English real estate, the area had been abandoned by people chasing the same empty dreams as everyone else. Josh thought some time alone would give him the chance to sort things out and figure out what to do next with his life. So far it hadn’t.
“Ready to be amazed, Josh?” Ima asked, interrupting his gaze across the ocean.
“Yes! Yes, sorry, Ima. I’m distracted this morning.”
“You are going to love this,” Ima promised him. “The architectural style is unlike anything I could find on Earth, and the structure blends into the scenery in a natural way.”
“Let’s see,” Josh said. His heart leapt a little at the thought of true novelty.
The kitchen table lit up with blueprints directly in front of him showing a floor plan of rooms connected by winding stairs and meandering hallways, and just above that was an image showing the rendering of the front of the house. It looked like a Medieval castle with entwined timber and glass growing out of the rocky cliff itself.
“I know you prefer modern aesthetics,” said Ima. “But I also remembered how much you loved exploring the castle ruins in England and Ireland, and thought there could be a way to bring those two ideas together.”
As Josh moved his hand through the air the picture of the house moved in unison. The door opened and the view took him inside through the entrance hall back to a large banquet room filled with statues, tapestries on the walls, and an impressive table that looked to be hand carved from a single block of oak. At the same time natural light poured in through massive windows and gave the room a sense of airiness and warmth. “It’s great, Ima,” Josh assured her. “It really is better than any house I’ve called my own.”
“Should I initiate the construction?” Ima asked. “Or is there anything you would change first?”
Josh knew what he had to do.
* * *
Josh swung the axe down hard and removed the last of the branches from the trunk. He shaved off the bark and declared it a victory for the day. He sat down on the tree, picked up his canteen, and took a long, satisfied drink. He had about an hour of sunlight left. Just enough time to get dinner started and clean up before it was too dark to maneuver around the campsite.
“Did you accomplish what you wanted to today, Josh?” Ima asked. Her voice came from a small, metallic box labelled “Infinity Machine Assistant.”
“I didn’t get quite as far as I wanted to, but it was a great day,” Josh said smiling, sweat dripping from the tip of his nose. He looked at the half-finished cabin and the pine logs rolled into a pile next to it. His own simple design was taking shape and the final product was easy to visualize now. It wasn’t beautiful, but it was enough. It was his. “Probably the best day I’ve had in years.”