Rows of crops on Lenny Berner’s farm lay withered and rotten—dead. The cabbage, the broccoli, the watermelon and even the yellow melon were now nothing more than brown, mushy corpses. Three years, he thought, three years.
The train’s brakes squealed, breaking Lenny free from his haze of self-pity. The Amtrak train from Chicago to Topeka, Kansas, carried only eight passengers on that overcast May morning. Lenny sat slumped in his seat, his laptop screen dominated by an overview of his VirtuaFarm, a social network farm simulator. Lenny clicked over to his Facebook wall, and his fingers danced across the keys. Then his finger dangled over the enter button. He had only typed three simple words for his status update: All is well.
Holding his breath, he stabbed the enter button.
An error message appeared on the screen reading INTERNET AT CAPACITY.
Lenny slammed his laptop shut and punched the seat in front of him. A young woman with a nose ring and dark eye shadow glanced across the aisle. Lenny immediately focused on the smartphone cradled in her hands.
“Hey—um—you got anything?”
His voice sounded foreign and silly to him, as if it was someone else’s voice.
She glanced at the screen of her smartphone, then turned and stared out the window like she wasn’t going to answer him. Finally she turned back, dropping her eyes immediately when they met Lenny’s and shook her head.
“No,” she said in a voice just above a whisper. Then unnecessary loud, she almost shouted, “Nothing!”
Lenny closed his laptop and set it on the seat next to him. He checked the time on his smartphone and then tried a status update using his phone.
INTERNET AT CAPACITY.
It was a Tuesday and Lenny had an IP address that ended in an even number, so he should have had access to the Internet; apparently it was already full, and it wasn’t even 7:30 in the morning. Lenny found that most days, if he hadn’t logged on by 4:30, he was probably out of luck.
Lenny had no way of knowing it, but he had the distinction of being the person who finally filled the Internet. The Internet reached its maximum capacity on April 22, a date that previously held no significance—but neither did September 11th or December 7th until Fate dumped a bit of history down on those particular squares on the calendar.
At 1:12 am on April 22, Lenny was busy simultaneously managing the harvest of his virtual crops while uploading pictures from the previous night’s outing for his girlfriend, Olivia, and putting the finishing touches on an educational website exploring the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Two pics uploaded perfectly, but the third failed to upload. Instead a message popped up on the screen with the enigmatic message:
INTERNET AT CAPACITY.
Lenny attempted to post the error message onto his Facebook wall to see if anyone knew what it meant, but his post was blocked once again by the strange message. In fact, he couldn’t post anything on his wall or harvest any of his crops or post anything new on the Dust Bowl website. Everything he had previously been working on was still there, but he couldn’t add any new content.
Lenny wasn’t the only person being hounded at each virtual step by the mischievous message. All around the planet, Internet users were discovering that any attempt to add new content to the Internet was impossible. Humorous cat videos went unposted, drunk party pictures went unseen, YouTube rants went unheard, and Tweets went unTweeted. Everything that had been on the Internet prior to April 22 was still there—the news stories, the blogs, the videos—everything. It just wasn’t possible to create or send anything new to the World Wide Web.
It didn’t take long before Lenny grew bored with watching the sprawling countryside roll past the window outside the train. The view after the train left La Plata, Colorado, was an empty wasteland. Lenny had never seen anything so—empty. He reached for the laptop on the seat next to him, but then remembered why it was sitting there, unused, in the first place. He glanced over at the girl with the eye makeup. She kept glancing at her smartphone every few seconds, but it seemed to be more out of habit than for any practical purpose.
Lenny shoved his laptop into his backpack, stood, sat again, then stood and stumbled across the aisle and sat in the seat next to the raccoon girl. Her darkened eyes darted over at him. She quickly pressed herself closer to the window, pressing her back against the wall.
“Wait—what? What are you doing?” she asked.
“I just thought I would—talk. I was bored, so I thought maybe we could talk.”
“What? You want to—me? Talk?”
“Umm—ok,” she finally said.
Silence followed. Lenny assumed she would say something else, but she didn’t
Lenny finally slapped his chest with an open palm. “Lenny,” he said.
“Lenny,” he repeated. “I’m Lenny.”
“Oh. Your name.” The girl thought for a moment before saying, “I’m Liza—like Lisa but with a z instead of an s.”
Silence followed. The emptiness outside the train slowly surrendered to patches of freshly plowed fields dotted with silos and barns.
“Where are you going?” Liza finally asked.
“Where? Um—Topeka. To see my girlfriend.”
“We’ve never met,” Lenny admitted. “At least not in real life. We met online two years ago in a VirtuFarm chat. Been dating ever since.”
“We Skype almost every night. We’ve been dating for two years.”
“You said that already.”
She glanced down at her smartphone’s screen again, and he almost left in that short interval between the time he lost her eyes and when they returned, but he forced himself to remain in the seat.
“My job is kind of—umm—on hiatus at the moment so I thought it would be a good time to visit.”
“What do you do?” she asked.
“Oh. I work for a company that designs educational websites. You?”
“Me? I sell customized laptop cases over the Internet.”
They sat in silence again. The endless fields of nothingness rolled by outside the train windows. Lenny surrendered to the urge to attempt another status update, but the familiar message appeared to crush any hope for cyber salvation.
INTERNET AT CAPACITY.
Lenny looked up to find Liza grinning in his direction. He sheepishly shoved his phone back into his pocket.
“Drives ya crazy, doesn’t it?” she asked.
“It just doesn’t feel right,” Lenny said. “I mean—I think of all the useless bullshit everyone—I put on the Internet. If I would have known there was a limit—”
“It’s like—it’s like finding the edge of the universe,” Liza said.
“That’s exactly what it’s like. I’ll just be stoked when they’ve got the damn thing uncluttered and everything’s back to normal.”
He expected Liza to agree, but instead she shrugged and glanced back toward the window.
“What? Don’t you want the Internet cleared?”
She kept glancing out the window. “I just don’t think we can go back to the way things were. Nothing on the Internet was real—I realize that now. It was like a dream that everyone in the world had at the same time, but that dream is over now and maybe it’s time everyone—wake up.”
The brakes squealed, and the train lurched to a halt. Lenny looked for the station, but there was none in sight. Cornfields surrounded the train on all sides. As far as he could tell they were somewhere in the dead zone between La Plata and Kansas City.
“What’s happening?” Lenny asked. “We stopped.”
Liza was on her feet, gathering her belongings.
“What are you doing?”
“This is my stop.”
Lenny checked the outside of the train again, but there was nothing but fields. Two other passengers were also gathering their belongings.
Liza pointed toward a farm on the horizon on the opposite side of an ocean of corn. “There. The farm.”
“Don’t really know. A friend told me about it—through a letter if you can believe that. As far as I can tell it’s some kind of technology rehabilitation center. Maybe if things don’t work out with your Internet girlfriend, you could come check it out.”
“She’s not my Internet girlfriend. She’s just my girlfriend.”
He thought she should look embarrassed, but she didn’t.
She let the other passengers exit the train before she flashed Lenny one last smile and followed them down the thin aisle to exit the train.
Lenny went to sit down but spotted Liza’s smartphone on the seat where she had been sitting. He called her name, but she did not turn around. He yelled it louder, loud enough that it was impossible for Liza not to hear. She paused in the aisle. It looked like she might turn back but instead quickened her pace and walked off the train.
* * *
The train pulled up to the station in Topeka, successfully completing Lenny’s nine-hour sojourn from Chicago. He left the train, Liza and the strange farm still clinging to his memory. The memory evaporated, though, when he heard Olivia’s voice. It was the first time he had heard her voice without the aid of computer speakers or through a phone. He turned, anticipating that moment when he first laid eyes on her and fireworks exploded and the angels sang and all was right with the world.
Olivia stood on the platform wearing jeans and a periwinkle blouse that clashed with her green eyes. She looked just as she usually did during their nightly Skype sessions. Lenny rushed toward her and took her into her arms and waited for the fireworks to explode and the angels to sing.
But there was nothing like that.
She pushed away from him and looked him up and down.
“Taller,” she said. “And where are the flowers?”
“I pictured you being taller,” she explained. “And whenever I imagined this moment, I always pictured you arriving with flowers.”
“I did,” he said.
He used his smartphone to search for a picture of a dozen roses and showed her the screen.
“Not the same thing,” she said.
“No. I guess not.”
She took him to an Internet café a few blocks from the station. The place was empty except for the two coffee jockeys behind the counter. Both wore thick-rimmed glasses and shoddy-looking goatees. Lenny walked to the far side of the café to claim a table by the window, but Olivia plopped herself down at a table in the center of the cafe. Lenny circled back to join her and went to sit, but, as soon as he did, Olivia shot back up to her feet.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I just—I know it’s stupid, but I always pictured us coming here and you ordering me my favorite drink. You don’t have to—”
“Double chocolate Frappuccino, extra whipped cream.”
She smiled at his remembering, and they were both suddenly reminded of their two-year history together. In spite of their extended online relationship, their first face-to-face meeting still had all the awkwardness of a first date.
Lenny approached the register, expecting the two workers to rush to take his order, but neither moved. They remained pressed against the back counter, their arms folded across their chests.
“Two double chocolate Frappuccinos,” Lenny ordered.
“Can’t process electronic purchases. Cash only,” one of the workers said.
Lenny dug around in his pockets even though he knew he didn’t have any cash on him. He hadn’t carried cash since high school. With the Internet in total disarray, most businesses had switched to entirely cash-only operations, but smartphone purchasing had all but made cash obsolete. Lenny had had to borrow cash from his grandfather to buy the train ticket to Topeka.
“No cash, no coffee,” the other worker said, almost gleefully.
Lenny had to return to the table sans coffee. If Olivia was disappointed she didn’t say anything. She pulled out her smartphone and stared at it for a few seconds before returning her eyes to Lenny.
“Remember what we said we were going to do when we finally met in person?” he asked.
Olivia snorted, glancing once again down at her phone.
They had agreed that upon their first face-to-face meeting, they would simultaneously change their Facebook status from “in an online relationship” to simply “in a relationship.” It seemed romantic at the time.
“Guess that’s not gonna happen,” he said.
They sat in silence, the soft hum of the cappuccino machine serenading them. It was so quiet the whispers of the workers became audible. They were discussing going through porn withdrawal. The workers claimed they had seen all the good porn posted on the Internet and were dying for something new.
Olivia checked her smartphone again.
“Soooooo?” Lenny said.
It was strange. They spoke every night via Skype and there had never been an awkward pause, but now the conversation seemed to be nothing but one long awkward pause that seemed to draw out endlessly. He had to keep reminding himself that he knew her that she knew him, and this was not a meeting between strangers.
“What do you miss most about it?” Olivia finally asked, leaning forward.
He shrugged. “I try not to think about it too much.”
“You can’t be serious! I think about it all the time. I think about my farm constantly. Like does it still exist even with the Internet out of commission? Will I be able to go back and pick up right where I left off or will I return to find my crops rotten and have to start over?”
Lenny didn’t have the heart to tell her he already knew the truth. Her fields—and his and everyone’s—rotted and festered without friends and acquaintances on the social networking sites to water and plow them. But it bothered him that she cared so much.
“You know, it’s not real,” Lenny said.
“I know that, but I spent almost two years building up that farm. And you’re one to speak! You’ve been working on yours for over three!”
Lenny’s hand moved toward the table and swiped at a coffee cup that was not there. He looked up, red in the face, but Olivia had missed it. Her eyes were once again drowning in the ocean of her smartphone screen. Eventually her eyes escaped and returned to his.
“What?” she asked.
Another long pause, this one so dense it felt like it had actual weight to it, settled down on the table between them, and the worst part about that silence was that Lenny knew, in that moment, Olivia’s thoughts were with her virtual crops.
“I just feel so disconnected!” she practically screamed across the table. “It’s like, I don’t know what’s going on with anyone anymore. I can barely stand it. How did people ever live like this?”
She reached again for her smartphone and buried her eyes in the screen, but Lenny snatched it out of her hands.
“Hey! What are you doing?”
“I want to see what’s so goddamn interesting.”
But the screen on the smartphone was blank. It wasn’t even turned on. He showed her the dead screen.
“What have you been looking at this whole time?”
“I haven’t been looking at anything. It’s just—a habit.”
Olivia excused herself to the bathroom, wanting nothing more than to jump on Twitter or Facebook and inform all her friends how terribly awkward her first face-to-face meeting with Lenny was going. She thought it might be clever to just post a picture of a train wreck and let everyone draw their own conclusions. She thought it was so clever she tried to post the picture to her Facebook wall three times before finally accepting that it wasn’t going to happen. She started to send a mass text to her closest girlfriends before she realized she had been gone longer than she intended. She touched up her makeup, but when she returned to the table, Lenny was gone.
* * *
Lenny sat on the train watching the countryside roll past. He sat in the same seat and the same as his past trip with the remote chance Liza might also be there, but she wasn’t. He checked his smartphone, half hoping and half dreading that he’d have a text from Olivia, but, again, nothing. The ride home seemed to drag as the countryside stretched out in an endless loop of trees and fields and farms.
He fought the urge to check the Internet for the first half hour of the ride, but, finally, he could no longer restrain himself and logged on through his smartphone.
INTERNET AT CAPACITY.
With nothing else to do, he began watching the people who boarded and exited the train at Lawrence and Kansas City. Most of the individuals who boarded the train, individually or in groups, seemed to be wearing the same facial expression. They all wore suppressed smiles, and none of them checked their phones or laptops or tablets the entire time they were on the train. By the time they reached the long stretch between Kansas City and La Plata, the train was relatively full of young people wearing backpacks and carrying camping gear.
When the train reached the mysterious stop in the middle of the cornfield where Liza had departed, most of the passengers emptied out of the car. Lenny watched them gather outside the train in a large mass and start to migrate toward the farm Liza had told him about. He felt the brakes release and train lurch forward, but something called to him from the fields. He couldn’t quite explain it, but he had to see for himself what was happening at that farm.
He leapt to his feet and begged the steward to allow him to exit. His feet landed hard on the solid ground as the train slowly lurched back into motion. It was almost a mile down the track before he realized he’d left his laptop on the seat.
He trailed after the herd, intentionally lingering in the distance as he followed them through the fields to the tiny farm waiting in the distance. When he finally reached the outskirts of the farm, there were two young women there wearing bandanas and carrying clipboards who Lenny assumed were some sort of welcoming committee. When he reached them, though, there was no welcoming smile to greet him.
“Lose your tech,” one of them said to him.
“What?” he asked.
“Place any technological devices on your person in the basket, please,” the other instructed.
There was a basket on the ground filled with laptops and tablets and smartphones and mp3 players. Lenny’s hand instinctively moved toward his pocket where his smartphone nested, but he returned it to his side.
“I left my laptop on the train,” he said, which was the truth.
The taller of the bandana-wearing girls eyed him suspiciously. “No smartphone?”
He shook his head, lowered his eyes and stepped past the two girls, walking in the direction where the larger herd had disappeared even though the women yelled for him to come back.
“Hey! We need your name!” they yelled after him.
He mumbled “Lenny” over his shoulder but kept walking. He didn’t want to be officially categorized in whatever it was they were cataloging. He wasn’t even sure where the hell he was.
He followed the others’ trail around the side of the barn. On the other side, he froze as he gazed into the freshly plowed fields. As far as he could see for miles there were hundreds of people working the fields—digging, tilling and sowing. What made the sight even that much more shocking was that none of the people in the field looked like farmhands. Most appeared to be in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties, and dressed in designer clothes that one would expect to see on the streets of New York City rather than in the dust and dirt of the field. Parked on the outskirts of the fields were dozens of giant farming machines. Each one looked like it could do what it took ten or twenty human beings to do, but each one sat motionless in a mechanical graveyard.
“Need a shovel?” someone asked behind Lenny.
It was Liza, but it was not the same person Lenny had met on the train. Her raccoon eyes were gone along with the rest of her make-up. Her hair was a wreck, and the comatose look she had worn on the train had been replaced with a sly kind of half-smile, as if she knew a secret that she was dying to tell. She handed him a shovel.
“What is this for?”
“Digging,” she said simply.
She led him to a section of the field where there were dozens of people in a straight line with shovels digging holes that were about a foot wide and a foot deep.
“We’ll wait for the next rotation,” Liza told him.
A few minutes later the people stopped digging and walked about three yards and started digging new holes. Another line of people with shovels approached the empty holes. Lenny assumed they would dump seeds or plants into the hole, but, instead, they just started filling the holes back in.
“What are they doing?” Lenny asked.
“It’s the digging station. Don’t worry, it’s just a holding station until the organizers can find a permanent spot for you somewhere else. You left your name with the girls out front, right?”
“But—what’s the point of digging the holes if they’re just going to be filled in?”
“Just try it, and you’ll understand.”
She took his hand and led him to the end of the line of diggers. She relieved the digger on the end of the line, a young man with sweat pouring down his face who looked like he’d been at it for quite some time, and immediately began digging, thrusting her shovel into the dirt over and over again. He watched her and the other diggers for a while hoping for some sort of further explanation, but everyone seemed too engrossed in what they were doing to even notice him.
So he did the only thing he could. He started digging.
The dirt was soft and pliant, most likely from prior digging, and the metal bit into the soil easily. The muscles in his back tensed, and he raised the first shovelful of dirt out of the ground and dumped it into a small pile next to the hole. Whatever it was he was supposed to discover from the digging was absent. He felt nothing but dust blowing into his eyes. He glanced over at Liza who was now digging furiously, her arms moving mechanically like a piston as the shovel blade bit into the ground over and over and over again.
So he struck the ground again with his shovel and then again and then again—and then he did start to feel something. His back began to ache, and his clothes clung to his body as the sweat began to form on his brow and drip down his face. The digging grew more difficult the further down he dug, the earth providing resistance that he met with increased effort. The shovel burrowed down into the earth and returned with dirt the color of dark chocolate. His hands blistered, and dirt crawled under his fingernails, and the wind clawed at his face armed with tiny pebbles and dirt for his eyes—but he liked it. He began digging harder, faster, his arms learning the motion and moving on their own. The larger the pile of dirt grew, the better he felt. He managed to catch Liza’s eyes as they both continued to dig, and she shot him a quick smile that he finally understood.
After a few minutes, the entire row seemed to instinctively stop at once, their holes about the same depth and size—except for the one Lenny had dug, which seemed to be slightly deeper and wider than the others. He glanced over at Liza, sweat dripping down her face onto her lips and her face caked in dust and dirt and he couldn’t even comprehend that this was the same young woman he had met just the day earlier on the train. For the first time he realized she was beautiful.
“Beats the hell out of VirtuaFarm, eh?” she asked.
He opened his mouth to speak, but there were no words. All he did was nod.
“Now what?” he asked.
“Now we move and do it all again while the fillers fill in the hole.”
It sounded absolutely pointless, but, strangely enough, the idea sent a thrill shivering down his spine. He turned to follow Liza and the others to the next digging line, but he paused, dug his smartphone out of his pocket and tossed it into the hole he had just dug. The filler, a young man sporting a fohawk, caught his eye and nodded, seemingly understanding. The young man dug his shovel into the pile of dirt and dumped it into the hole, burying the smartphone.
Lenny didn’t bother to watch the burial. He joined the line and began digging his next hole, his body becoming one with the tool in his hand as the shovel tore at the earth and the dust of the earth wrapped around his body.