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by Matt Whyman

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by Matt Whyman

I was right, as I prayed I would be. We were a hit. Our click count hit four, five and then six figures overnight. Quite a feat, for a site featuring only partial nudity, for Vendredi insisted his briefs stayed on when I took pictures of him, and then begged me to retain my boxers.

Admittedly our web site didn't feature as much flesh as fantasy-eye-land.com across the water, but then we depended on a very different draw. Vendredi standing proud before his relay, one hand cupped to his ear. Me in the sand at low tide, etching out another appeal.

My companion even downloaded a streaming sound file, so anyone who wished could view the site to a Bontempi version of Desert Island Discs. Together, we created a cyber spectacle that solitary surfers actually talked about. Spreading the word around the globe via email, newsgroups and chat rooms. In short, we achieved what many of my former colleagues had deemed the Holy Grail. We had become a curiosity. And how the people flocked to our shores.

Virtually, at least.

One day after our relaunch, we received our first offer. A click-through banner on our site in return for a drop of supplies. Hardly the lifeline we dreamed about, but then we were competing for the catch.

"What choice do we have?" I asked myself, on reading the terms set out by this major online bookstore. "If we refuse, it'll go across the water."

Vendredi seemed not to hear me, however. His attention distracted by yet another overhead hum, for the volume of airborne traffic had increased sharply since his return, with planes criss-crossing our island on a regular basis. Feeding not only our neighbours, it seemed, but other start-ups in the archipelago. This, we knew for sure, just after our own first drop arrived, when a third party arrived upon our shore.

Even without his glasses, Gates had changed beyond all recognition. Yet the emaciated wretch who dragged himself from the surf had clearly clung to his spirit. We listened to his story, from the moment he lost his grip on me, to the day he realised his own island was nothing but a glorified sandbar. A platform that by his account threatened to be broken into bits by an unforgiving sea.

In the wake of his traumatic bid to keep his head above water, I agreed that he could join us. At the same time, I made it quite clear who was in charge. Ordering Gates to unpack the supplies while Vendredi and I continued to wade through email. Sifting through the bids for interviews and film rights, searching in vain for a basic rescue package. Anything that recognised us as real people; that saw beyond the opportunity to profit from our misfortune, and offered the chance for us to get offline.

That we were able to dine on fine food and wine was merely a distraction. Even the building materials that were parachuted in couldn't crush my desire to get home. We had the means to build quite luxurious recreational facilities, but a boat was out of the question.

I negotiated hard, but our sponsors were as stubborn as they were generous. Any attempt to leave would be in breach of contract. Without our presence, they claimed, the click-counts would dry up, and so too would their revenue. Instead, they positively encouraged us to update the content and keep things looking fresh. To introduce a 'castaway of the day', endorse the books dropped for us and keep sucking in more traffic. Not just from the sky above but cyberspace, too.

We had no choice if we were to maintain our standards of survival, though still we clung to the hope that someone would visit us in person. Such was our conviction that we took turns keeping watch from the pulpit. I even retained Gates's glasses in order to fashion a telescope, putting the man himself to good use too, on account of the fact that only he could see through it. Subsequently, when he did wave us over late one afternoon, we responded to his sighting with some pessimism.

"It's probably a school of dolphin," I said.

"I am thinking tuna, suggested Vendredi. The Frenchman having at last abandoned his native sense of linguistic defiance and embraced our way of speaking. Gates squinted into the lens again.

"Damnedest fish I've seen," he asserted. "They're topless."

They came in force. Wearing grass skirts and sun tans. Webcams fitted to their canoes. I recognised a few from the convention cruise. Not least the webmistress who spoke on their behalf. A pert city broker who I had planned to hit on just moments before the ship sunk.

"We should merge," she said. "We're fighting for the same thing, and halving our chances of achieving it."

We stood side by side. Vendredi, Gates and myself. A face-off on the beach terrace with these Internet ingenues. The westering sun cut sharply between us. Flaring through our cocktails and the pavilion windows.

"We don't need you," I said eventually. "We're doing fine."

"Oh, I think you do," she replied. "We own the local server."

"Merde!" spat Vendredi, but I could tell by the way he bowed his head that we had lost our bargaining power. For without a server, we had no web access whatsoever.

"Locating the wreck of the ship was the hardest task," she went on. "Salvaging the necessary hardware from it was simple. A good strip down and we were in business."

"So it seems," I muttered darkly. I stroked my beard, shifted my gaze along their revealing rank, only for my posturing to collapse when Gates declared her proposal to be a great idea.

"What do you say we cut in the other islands? Just imagine our position with our resources pooled."

"Enough with your vision thing," I cautioned him, and revealed that I was about to say the same thing myself.

"No need," said the webmistress. "We've sent a delegation to every island."
She was good. Better than Gates, it seemed, and I bowed to her foresight. What's more, I sensed she was making eyes at me.

"Vendredi," I said turning the other way now. "Go fetch the Krug and some glasses. There are still a few bottles left from last week's drop." I broke off to throw him a set of keys. "Take the golf cart to the chair lift, it's quicker that way."

"So do we have a deal?" she enquired, extending her hand for mine.

"It's a step closer to home, I guess."

As we shook on it, however, her grip stiffened up and she held me there. Two narrowed eyes, demanding my attention. "It's more than that," she declared. "Today we become one island. Tomorrow we'll take on more. Increasing our advertising rates, investing in the service, expanding our horizons until we can no longer be considered an island at all. That's when we'll know that we've made it. When the rest of the world is lost without us."

"Ambitious," I said, aware that Gates could barely conceal his enthusiasm. "I guess ultimately you'll be seeking a flotation."

"In a sense" she said, and swung her attention to the sea. "But this isn't about money any more."

I was about to press her for a share option anyway, but a reverent hush had settled over us. Everyone except me following her gaze across the water. Out to some imaginary point. Way beyond the horizon. This gathering oblivious to the champagne cork as it rocketed from the summit behind us. Soaring over our heads. Into the boundless blue.

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