Islands in the Dark
By Sarah Goldman
Road out from Kaysee was boring as ever. The kids we’d picked up this time weren’t anything to sneeze at: soft-spoken boy with eyes too teched up to blink, real young bratty kid who kept trying to backseat drive me from the hatch of a goddamn pickup, and a girl I hadn’t quite gotten a read on yet. Made me nervous. New things tended to do that. Hal would know their names and their stories, hers included, but that wasn’t my job; socializing was his thing and driving was mine. Talking hasn’t ever been my strong suit. Neither has caring. But I was curious.
I let Hal take the wheel and swung myself back into the hatch. Quiet boy with the bright eyes spoke to me first. Asked me my name and rubbed at the place behind his ear where we’d cut the interface out. Thanks to the spray-on shit Hal kept around, it was scarring up already. We’d grabbed a few cans while we were in the city—we could grow a lot out here, but medical supplies could be hard to come by.
I said, “Call me Lanz.”
“You’re going the wrong way,” the bratty kid told me.
“And how would you know?” I asked. “You ever been out here before?”
“Once, on a bet,” she said. She tucked her hair back and wrinkled her nose. “I made it two hours before my ears hurt too much.”
“We’re going the right way,” said the inscrutable girl. Not soft but not loud either: steady like a lighttrain locked to its tracks. She didn’t say it like she trusted me. It was like she just knew better than the rest of us.
“Yeah? What makes you think that?”
She looked at me as I said it, deep brown eyes, no tech and the edge of an old-fashioned contact lens visible at the outer edge of one iris. She said, chin turned up, “I’ve got a good sense for these things,” and the bratty kid started arguing with her about directions, but I didn’t hear it. That’s when I knew she was my sister, like a boot to the gut slamming me into the ground.
If someone had asked me later I wouldn’t have been able to say what it was that tipped me off. The tone or the words or the edge of that contact lens. No one but my sister would be stubborn enough to keep wearing contacts instead of just fixing her eyes.
That was Ria through and through. Not a ludd, but if something wasn’t broke you could never convince her to fix it.
In the end that had been the real reason I’d left her behind in Kaysee and never looked back. Not just because I was a shit older sister or because I couldn’t handle the responsibility, though of course both of those things were true. Real reason was I knew she wouldn’t go even if I tried to take her with me. City wasn’t broke to her, and neither was Kaysee living in our heads all the time.
I swung myself back into the front with Hal, took the wheel from him and shoved him over. Driving helped me think.
My sister loved Kaysee’s network—the city itself—more than I could bear. But here she was with us, the ragtag deserters. We lived in a cornfield beached on the side of a broken highway, and the wifi only worked on good days. The hardline circuit for the AI, for Kaysee itself, didn’t even come close to reaching us. We’d passed the last boundary where chips could pick up a hint of the city an hour ago.
I had no idea what she was thinking. But honestly, I never did. Eleven years since I left, give or take some change. She’d been nine. I’d been seventeen. It’d been hours today with her in my truck and me not recognizing her, or even bothering to ask who she was. No way to know if she recognized me, if she even knew this was where I’d gone.
“Hal,” I said. He grunted. “You cut out the girl’s chip?”
“The dark-haired one? Ria?”
“Yeah.” Hal didn’t even know I had a sister, let alone what she was called. Hell, he didn’t even know my old name.
“She said you’d done it.” He turned from the window to look at me. “You did, right?”
“Then why are you asking me stupid questions?”
“Just keeping you on your toes.” I elbowed him and he tried to grab the wheel back from me, while we passed by stalks of corn on the left and wheat on the right, swaying in the wind.
We made good time back to the house. Getting back after a while away was always a good feeling, especially when we were bringing kids with us—someone to see the place with fresh eyes, to feel the awe that I’d felt, the first time I’d set foot on the dusty ground.
Wasn’t much to look at, but that’s what made our house special. No name, no branding, no nothing: just a wooden farmhouse with minimal reinforcements, a bunch of old beaten up trucks parked beside and a big fuckoff field of corn sprawling out all the way beyond.
“Are we gonna have to learn how to drive a tractor?” the bratty kid asked, sounding worried for the first time since we’d pulled her out of the gutter. Hal and I looked at each other and fell into laughter at the same moment.
“Sure, kid,” I said, just as Hal said, “No, it’s automated, we’re not like the ludds out West.”
Kid must be smart. She looked like she didn’t know which of us to believe.
I found Ria as soon as no one would notice me do it. She was in what passed for a laundry room, stripped down to her underwear while her ratty jeans and tank top ran through the air washer.
“It’ll be a few minutes, that thing’s old,” I said, and handed her a big t-shirt I’d dug out from under my bed. It had probably belonged to Hal or Veruca or Liz originally, so not my problem if she never gave it back.
Ria took it. Scrutinized the faded logo on it for a while before she pulled it over her head.
“Someone brief you?” I asked.
“They told me the rules, yeah.”
“And they told you none of us is networked. There’s a wifi connection for the basics, but it’s not hooked up for chips. No system on it to talk to you even if it was.”
“Okay,” I said. “I just thought I’d check, because no one cut your chip out, and I hear those things aren’t so nice when there’s nothing to hook in to.”
“Hal cut my chip out.”
“No, he didn’t.”
The washer beeped. Ria turned away from me and started changing.
“If you wanted to keep your chip in, then what are you doing out here? That’s the whole point of us. Getting off the network. Getting that shit out of our heads. If you don’t want that, why aren’t you back in Kaysee? It’s sure as hell got better amenities than this place.”
She turned around. “You don’t like it here?”
“I love it here. Doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes wish I could get some goddamn fast food. Or check the news without having to see if the wifi is working this week or if Hal’s somehow busted the router again. Or watch a damn show without figuring out if it’ll work without the chip hookup.”
“I hear some places still burn DVDs.”
“Yeah, you bring any with you? No? Doesn’t help me then. It’s beside the point. We all inconvenience ourselves to live out here, because we got tired of Kaysee living inside us. If that’s not what you want then I don’t know why you’re here.”
Unless, that is, she was here to find her useless runaway older sister.
Ria shrugged. “Needed a change.” After a moment, she continued. “It’s quiet here, without her.” She didn’t sound happy about it.
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s kind of the point.”
I still didn’t know why she was here. We didn’t proselytize. We took those that wanted taking, and left everyone else well enough alone. Not like we wanted a revolution. Just some peace for ourselves. Just a bit of space carved out in a field past the city, because that’s what we could get.
It was my turn to make dinner that night. I left Ria in the laundry room as she rummaged around for something in her backpack, then spent twenty minutes going around the house trying to figure out who took the lighter from the kitchen. I finally settled on lighting the stove with a pack of matches stolen from Veruca’s room.
Back in Kaysee they had omnitools with thin lighters the size of a match, and they also had stoves that didn’t run on fucking gas. But out here we didn’t, because we lived in an abandoned farmhouse in the middle of a cornfield in what used to be Kansas.
Ria, a little girl too smart for her age, used to say that maybe someday when the acid rain finished chewing up the coasts, we’d be what’s left. An island in the dark.
An island of corn and wheat, I’d tell her now. An island of corn and wheat and shitty tractors. And the city she loved so much was on the very edge of it all. It would be the first thing to go.
I could tell her now. I’d just have to go back downstairs and say it.
She used to talk out loud to Kaysee, the way adults knew not to do. With the chips, you didn’t have to speak out loud for her to hear you.
I’d heard her tell Kaysee about what she was learning from the school program I’d spent two month’s wages to get installed on her tablet, about how she didn’t like the pho that I made on our shitty (but not gas) stove, about how she missed our mom.
She thought our mom got killed. She thought that because when I was fourteen and found the note our mom left saying she was heading to Angeles on the next lighttrain and wasn’t ever coming back, I burned it with the lighter from my omnitool.
I guess our family just isn’t into stability. Or long goodbyes.
For a while I’d thought things were getting better in the city. There used to be two of them, back when we were still pretending it was worth having two Kansas Cities, back when there were states to make the distinction between them have any meaning at all. There was Kay, a bit softspoken and slow, and Em, energetic and always talking a kilo a minute. But consolidation was important: conservation of resources, right? That was the problem with America, endless sprawling land and no one to put on it. They had tried larger-scale AIs, once, a few statewide circuits, but nothing bigger than a city worked.
To me, Kay and Em had always sounded like teenagers. Maybe sixteen years old. Even now, I imagined Kay as soft and bookish, like Ria, with her dark hair and long lashes, with the same cocked head she got when you bullshitted to her.
I imagined Em like me, except probably nicer.
Now it was just Kaysee, one AI and one city. She reminded me a little of my mom, so sure she knew better about every part of your life, and pushy about it, too. But still: it was one thing in your head instead of two. I was sure that would be better.
She ran everything, from the lighttrains to the streetlights to the streetcleaners. And the chips that kept us on the city’s network let her in your head, so she knew what you needed. Not that she’d always get it to you. But no matter what, she knew.
Kaysee had tried to comfort me when mom left. She’d said, “I’m sorry, Layla,” because that was my name then, and I’d almost cut my chip out right then, with the knife I kept on the same tool as my lighter.
She knew that too, and she apologized again. But she didn’t get out of my damn head.
Wasn’t her fault, really. She couldn’t. In the end, it wasn’t like anything was really her fault. She was just what we made her to be.
I liked to tell myself, sometimes, that the same was true of me, that I was only what the world made me. But usually I wasn’t that stupid.
“Ria will be home in twenty-five minutes,” Kaysee’d said, when consoling me proved ineffective. “You should decide what to tell her.”
She knew I’d already decided. She wanted me to have enough time to burn the letter instead of wasting an hour crying on it. I hated it most when Kaysee was right.
One of the server farms for the city had been down the street of us. I’d snuck inside, just once, not long after our mother had left.
I don’t know what I’d been expecting to find. A part of me thought that maybe there would be people there. A young woman who would hold my hand and tell me it was going to be okay, instead of an electronic voice digging into my brain.
What I’d found was rows and rows of hulking black boxes, a series of green lights blinking at their front. Hardwired servers with the capacity to hold an AI complex enough to run a city, to know every person who lived in it. It’d been awful, standing in that room: crowded and alone all at once.
A while later, Ria asked me if I thought Kaysee minded that she was one city now.
I don’t think anyone had asked Kay and Em what they thought. But then, no one had asked what the people living here thought either.
“It’s probably nice,” I said. “Probably her hardware is better now, and everything’s more centralized. And I think it was probably annoying, having someone else—I guess something else—so close to you all the time.” By the end, they’d practically shared everything. The cities bled into each other more than they didn’t.
“But now they don’t have anyone to talk to,” Ria said. She was weighing it in her mind. “I think it must be lonely, to be a city.”
“What, in everyone’s mind all the time? They’ve got a million friends.”
“We’re not really the same as them, though.” A pause. “And not everyone is really their friend.”
“I dunno, kid. Can’t be that bad. Sometimes I think I could use a little loneliness.”
Back then, Ria had talked a lot about the power of community, about things in combination being greater than the whole. It’d driven me nuts. Now, I wondered how long it was going to take before she started to piss me off again, how long before we started fighting like we used to.
Or how long it would take before I broke and told her who I was.
At least in the past eleven years I’d perfected my recipe for pho. I’d learned something about cooking, eventually, and it was this: food, like everything else, was just the ingredients you put into it and how you handled them. Nothing more than the sum of its parts.
I watched her all during dinner. Ria ate her noodles quietly, and never said a word about the food.
For a week things were normal. We got a visit from our contact in the city who sold off our crops. Our output was shit, since we were about twenty people in a house who collectively barely understood how to grow a single plant, but together we did okay. And okay was enough with the prices we got for ground grown corn, even with the cut our asshole dealer took.
After our contact left and Veruca and Liz took off to vent about what a jerk he was, the teched boy turned his wide, over-bright eyes to me. He’d said his name was Cam. “You guys really make a living that way?”
Bratty girl—Lora—looked up from where she was cooling her heels on the stairs with Ria, watching us. “No way,” she said. “They grow corn in Kaysee. I lived right next to the building with the vats. And it’s stronger and lasts longer. That’s what the sign in the foyer said.”
“You spend a lot of time in that foyer, kid?” That was Hal, coming through with a load of laundry.
“The receptionist gave me candy.” And, I thought, she could probably pick pockets while she was in there.
I remembered the building she was talking about, a towering structure, one of the tallest and newest buildings in Kaysee. It was right by the river downtown and ruined what view there was, with the river being such a mess. That building was also the reason they’d finally put flooding controls in, thirty years after they’d become standard.
“The higher ups pay out the ass for ground grown stuff,” Hal said. “Corn, wheat, whatever. I hear in Angeles there’s this huge market for oranges grown on trees.”
“Seems inefficient,” said Cam.
“Yeah, that’s the point. Inefficiency is a luxury.”
Ria sat and watched, and didn’t say a word. She was like that the whole week. It unsettled me. And there was something else, too.
My phone got service out here but I didn’t have much use for it—sometimes I’d get a message from Hal or someone else from the house, but more often than not it was easier to just yell down the stairs. But that night, I got a message. Blocked number. I couldn’t reply, even if I wanted to.
Message read, Miss you .
It wasn’t Ria. It couldn’t be. There was no reason for it to be Ria. But it was worded in a way that made me unable to shake the thought that it might be. That maybe she wasn’t ready to talk about it but she wanted me to know that she knew.
Could be spam, some sort of virus. Or it was Kaysee, somehow, reaching out past the border of her city.
Could be a message from my sister, who was right here, or from the city, who was so far she had no way of reaching me. Seemed equally impossible either way.
I badly lost a game of cards to Hal and ended up stuck teaching the new crop of kids how to run the tractors, even though it should’ve been his turn. They were remote controlled, of course, but the interface had been retrofitted in and sometimes they broke down. So obviously they did just that the third day of me teaching the kids.
“So,” said Cam, “what now?”
“Now, we wade in and fix the damn thing.”
Lora and Ria eyed the stalks of corn. We were piled on the roof of a two-story shed out back, which was where I liked to sit when I worked harvest—gave a good view of what the tractors were doing. And I loved looking out at the horizon. You could only just barely catch sight of Kaysee from here, a looming presence to the east, and I liked that you could see the edges of it. It let you know how far away you really were.
“Just be glad you didn’t come during planting,” I said to their silence. “Or that it’s not one of the irrigation drones that broke down, those are a bitch to fix. C’mon, down, let’s go.”
We climbed down from the shed, and the kids trudged behind me through the corn. It felt sometimes like it was more alive than it really was, like it was reaching out to grab you by the waist and tug you down with it to the ground.
Luckily the bum tractor was only a kilo or so out, so we didn’t have to walk that far. And it turned out Lora was a damn good engineer. I mostly sat back and let her fix the tractor while Cam and Ria watched.
My phone buzzed. Say something .
I ignored it and tapped out a message to Hal, complaining about the tractor and the heat.
“So I don’t get it,” Ria said, while I was putting my phone away. It was maybe the first time she’d spoken to me directly since that first day. “You don’t have a problem with controlling the tractors remotely. That’s a rudimentary AI.” She was scratching at her ear.
“It’s not the same, kid. And I told you. We’re not ludds.”
“I guess I didn’t believe you. And I still don’t get it. Ludds I understand. But not you guys.”
“You know, you’re one of us guys,” I said. “Or at least you are until you make one of us drag you back into the city because the buzzing in your ear is getting so bad.”
She touched the back of her left ear, the place where her chip had to be driving her nuts. That was the thing with chips: leave them without any hookup and they started to go on the fritz. Encouraged people to stay in city centers if they could help it. Not sure if that was a bug or a feature.
Or you could cut the chip out. But you’d have to be crazy to do that.
“You know, they used to have plans for a network?” Ria was still rubbing at her ear. “Like twenty years ago, before things got really crazy. All the cities were gonna be linked up. They were gonna use the old highways to lay down the track. Like buried power lines.”
Sure, I’d take the bait. “What for?”
“So cities wouldn’t be such isolationist nightmares. Everything’s a closed circuit without it. When’s the last time you heard any news from outside of Kaysee?”
“I barely catch the news at all out here.”
She crossed her arms. I’d finally managed to piss her off. “This wasn’t the plan,” she said, and there was the conviction. The fire. Her eyes matched the sun. “We aren’t supposed to be divided like this. Isn’t that why they dissolved the states anyway?”
I wanted to ask her what the hell she’d learned from those educational programs I’d spent all that money on. I knew history was in there. “Kid, you know that’s not why. You said it: things got crazy. It’s still crazy. It was for efficiency. Everyone protects their own.”
“But we don’t even know,” she said. “You don’t even know what’s going on outside of Kaysee, right? I don’t. Everything’s built on the cities and they’re all built to stand alone. It’s shit. I hate it.” And for a moment I saw her as a child again, the same petulant tone in her voice, though I knew she was twenty now.
I pulled a stalk of corn back and let go, watched it sway and hit its neighbors. “Cities are like people,” I said. I’d said it to her before, a long time ago. Maybe I was tipping my hand. Of course I was. I wanted to. “They’re stronger when they stand alone.”
“I really don’t understand you,” Ria said, and she turned to watch Lora fix the tractor.
Two weeks after she came here, Ria snuck out at about three in the morning. She couldn’t figure out how the old sliding door worked and hit the wall too hard when she finally got it.
I’d woken up to what I thought was my phone buzzing, but I heard her instead, so I grabbed my bag and followed her out. I closed the sliding door quietly. It made me think of my first night here. It’d been the first time I’d ever seen a door like this. Part of me had expected Kaysee’s soft voice in my ear, explaining it to me. Instead Hal had found me and laughed, ruffling my hair.
For a moment I worried that I’d lost Ria in the darkness, but I squinted and found her by a bright spot of light on her back. She was making her way towards one of the trucks we had parked off to the side. I realized she was wearing one of the reflective backpacks we kept in the shed.
I heard Ria talking. For a second I thought she must have made me, but no: it was a low murmur, just on the edge of loud enough for me to understand.
She was talking to Kaysee. Like lightning I knew it.
She still had her chip, but it didn’t make sense. Kaysee shouldn’t have that much reach, unless they’d been putting down extra hardline out here in the boonies. No reason they would: the only people who lived out here anymore were ludds or crazies, and either way they didn’t need a city to guide them.
“I know, I know, I got it,” Ria was saying, and she didn’t sound like she did when she was a kid, or how she’d sounded these few weeks. She didn’t sound tired or uninterested or even wistful. She sounded happy. Proud.
I called out to her. I knew it was a bad idea but my mind felt stalled, thrown out of gear. I didn’t know what to do. And I’d hardly talked to her all this time. Was she running away? Of course she could leave at any time, of course we didn’t keep prisoners. We’d take her back to Kaysee if she asked.
But she was my sister, and if I was going to lose her again I was at least going to look her in the face one more time.
I yelled her name into the dark.
Ria didn’t turn around at first. Instead she ran, headlong, and by instinct I went after her, following the reflective surface of her stolen bag.
She was a girl from the city, and for years I’d lived on a farm. I caught up to her just as she got to the truck, grabbed the strap of her backpack and jerked it back. Instead of letting me catch her she let the backpack slip off of her arms, and she whirled to face me.
The backpack was heavier than I expected. It fell to the ground, crushing a tuft of prairie grass as it went.
It’d been two weeks and I still hadn’t thought of what I really wanted to say to her. But I had to say something. “Do you even know how to drive? How to start that thing?” I reached out and tapped just under Ria’s ear. “And how the hell did you get Kaysee to work out here?”
“What,” she said. “You can’t be surprised. I know she’s talked to you too.”
Ria reached into her stolen backpack and pulled out a hulking black structure. No wonder it was so heavy.
I wasn’t that good with tech, but I still knew what it was. One of the servers from the farm in the city, the ones that I’d wanted so badly to talk to me and hold my hand after our mother left.
“Shit. Where did you get that?” She couldn’t have brought it with her. When we’d picked her up she’d had nothing but the clothes on her back.
“It was buried behind the house,” she said. “Kaysee sent me with the right batteries to get it working and I dug it up last week. Someone left it here a long time ago. She thinks—I think—whoever started this place, they stole it and took it with them. Out of spite, maybe. I don’t know.”
The lights on the front of the server blinked. Must be hooked into the wifi somehow. “So that’s how she’s been talking to us. She’s here. But if it’s just one server, it can’t really be her.”
“Yeah,” said Ria. “It’s just a piece. Instructions, mostly. She can’t really think the way she can in the city.”
“Instructions for what?”
Ria touched her ear. “It’s not right,” she said. “To leave her there like that alone. She wanted to meet the other cities. And there’s no reason she can’t, right? All she needs is a connection.” She hefted the backpack over her shoulder. I didn’t stop her. “So I’m gonna build her one.”
“You felt sorry for her and now you’re taking orders from a fucking AI? She’s not like us, Ria. She puts her humanity on like a coat.”
“As protection against the outside world? Yeah. I don’t think our humanity is that much different. “ She looked me in the eyes. “Cities are just like people. They don’t work in isolation.”
“People work fine in isolation,” I said.
Her nostrils flared, and I saw her clearly then: a young woman, not the girl I remembered her as. A young woman whose mother and sister both left her.
Ria said, “You must know that’s not true.” A quiet moment. Her mouth turned as if she was chewing on something, and then she hefted the server and said, “There’s more of these. She has a map. And she wants to travel. See the sights, go meet other cities. That’s what you wanted, right? To see the sights? Get out of the city and never go back?”
My breath felt like lead. I thought I might be choking. Ria kept talking.
“Does thinking everyone is better off alone make you feel better about what you did?”
It was as if she’d knifed me in the stomach, the pain just as sudden and as lingering.
For a moment, words were like cement in my mouth, amorphous and then clunky. Eventually, I managed, “Sometimes.” Then, “You knew this whole time?”
She didn’t answer right away. Instead my phone buzzed. I told her in the truck.
I thought about throwing it to the ground and stepping on it. Imagined the spiderweb of cracks across the screen.
So Ria hadn’t recognized me. The knife twisted.
“I missed you,” she said. Voice steady. “I missed you and also I almost died. A kid alone in that mess? What where you thinking?” I had no answer. “I thought you’d gone to find mom.”
“You thought I went to find a dead woman?”
“You always used to say I was too smart for my own good, but you’re always acting like I’m stupid. I know mom didn’t die.”
“Maybe I wanted you to think I was dead.”
“Kaysee used to try to tell me that you were.”
I stared. “Kaysee tried to lie to you?” That shouldn’t be happening. She shouldn’t be able to do that.
“She didn’t think I should look for you. And she was probably right.”
Sometimes knives hurt more coming out than going in. This one did.
Ria was still talking. “You left me there, let Kaysee raise me, and you don’t think I’d understand about being alone? It’s fucked up what we do, building them so they can never talk to each other. It was fucked up to force her to be one thing instead of two, to take away the only other person who’d ever understand her. More than anyone, I know what it’s like to lose a sister.” She turned and walked away from me, climbed into the hatch of the truck.
It hurt to talk, but I couldn’t stop myself from doing it. “You’re trying to change the world and this is the hill you want to die on? Giving Kaysee friends? God. You haven’t changed at all.”
She paused, one foot dangling from the truck. “I don’t want to change the world,” she said. “I don’t care about the world. I’m just trying to help the only family I’ve got left.”
I thought, then, as Ria started messing with the ignition, about Hal and Veruca and those kids we’d picked up. I’d forgotten their names again.
I hadn’t wanted to change the world by coming here. I didn’t want a cause. I’d just wanted to not be where I was.
What I’d wanted, most, was to be alone. And I had been. And the city had raised my sister without me.
Ria stopped, put her hand to her ear, cocked her head like she was listening to something. Someone. She turned and looked at me, her eyes a spot of brightness in the night.
My phone buzzed. I didn’t look at it.
Ria was right, after all. I did want to see the sights. I couldn’t stand to be trapped.
She reached down from the truck and offered me her hand.
It felt like years passed in the moment before I took it. In a way, I guess, they had.
About the Author
Sarah Goldman grew up outside of Kansas City and recently graduated from Bryn Mawr College, where she studied sociology and developed a deep hatred for geese. She is a First Reader at Strange Horizons, and her fiction has appeared in Grievous Angel and Cicada. You can find her on Twitter at @sarahwhowrites.\
About the Narrator
Karen Bovenmyer earned an MFA in Creative Writing: Popular Fiction from the University of Southern Maine. She teaches and mentors students at Iowa State University and Western Technical College. She is the 2016 recipient of the Horror Writers Association Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Scholarship. Her poems, short stories and novellas appear in more than 40 publications and her first novel, SWIFT FOR THE SUN, debuted from Dreamspinner Press in 2017.