Sewer, Gas & Electric — sample chapter

The following excerpt from Sewer, Gas & Electric is copyright 1997 by Matt Ruff:

Alligators, small boys and at least one horse have accidentally swum in the sewers of New York. The boys and the horse seem not to have enjoyed the experience, but the alligators throve on it.

— Robert Daley, The World Beneath the City

A Man in a High Place Alone

No one could say he hadn’t been warned.

The observation eyrie pricked the dome of the sky some twenty-six hundred and seventy feet above the city’s streets—half a mile up, with yardage to spare. The eyrie was not open to the public. Most visitors to the Gant Phoenix were restricted to the Prometheus Deck on the 205th floor, itself a loftier vantage point than that offered to tourists anywhere else in the world, even at the twenty-three-hundred-foot Gant Minaret in Atlanta. A chosen few friends, business associates, and politicians were allowed to climb still higher—on days when the weather was deemed agreeable and not likely to carry anyone away with a sudden hurricane gust—out onto the 208th-floor terrace, there to breathe for free the hazy, rarefied air that sold at $7.50 a liter bottle in the Phoenix Souvenir Shop. But only Harry Gant himself had ever been permitted to make the final ascent, another three hundred feet up a utility ladder enclosed within the Phoenix’s mooring-mast pinnacle, through the trapdoor at the top, and so at last into the great glass globe that was Gant’s Eyrie, the highest point on the tallest structure ever erected by human beings in the history of the world.

“Questionable,” his Comptroller of Public Opinion had said years ago, when he’d first told her his idea for the eyrie. “Definitely questionable from a media standpoint, you keeping it to yourself that way.”

“Why questionable?” They’d both been a little drunk at the time, and her tone was more one of bemusement than of true caution, but wine and light-heartedness actually made Gant more attentive.

“Think Biblical allusion, Harry. You’re practically begging some columnist or TV commentator to take a cheap shot at you.”

“How so?”

“Just think about it: a powerful figure standing in a high place, with all the world laid out below him…”

“Oh,” he said, “that. But now wait a minute, I seem to recall there were two powerful fellows up in the high place in that story, so maybe—”

“No one’s going to compare you to Jesus, Harry.”

“And why not?”

“Because Jesus didn’t want any of the things he could see from up there, and you’ll want plenty of them. Five minutes after you first get up in your little perch you’ll have thought of three new product lines to invest in—all wildly impractical, all somehow threatening to the environment or the public welfare, and all ultimately profitable, at least until the lawsuits are settled. Another five minutes and you’ll be scouting around for a site for your next building, which you’ll probably want to make twice as tall as this one. And five minutes after that you’ll probably throw up, because you know as well as I do that you don’t like heights.”

It was true: he didn’t like heights. Strange admission from a man who owned two and a half superskyscrapers and a picket fence of lesser towers, but there you had it. His aversion to air travel was legendary: preferring to go by train if it were necessary to go at all, he’d built a web of Lightning Transit lines linking a hundred cities, almost single-handedly bringing about the twenty-first-century American renaissance in rail. At the same time, Gant Industries had brought Virtual Reality Teleconferencing to a level where he could now attend simultaneous board meetings in Singapore, Prague, Tokyo, and Caracas without ever leaving the terra firma of Manhattan.

Not even the human-made canyons and peaks of his home city, symbols as they were of everything he held most dear, could counter his basic acrophobia. Gazing northwest across the skyscape at the gaudy spires of Trump’s Riverside Arcadia, or closer in at the Chrysler Building (whose piddling seventy-seven stories he held title to), or south at the twin giants overlooking the Battery, whatever emotions Harry Gant might have felt did not include a desire to rush over and catch the first elevator to the top.

But the Phoenix was different. The Phoenix was his, not just his property but his creation, his building, the tallest building in the history of the world. Standing at its zenith (or atop the Minaret in Atlanta, the former tallest building in the history of the world, though he didn’t visit there very often anymore), his whole perception seemed transformed somehow, as if what held him up was not the crude geometry of concrete and steel but the force of his own will, a force that could not be shaken.

Well.

To be completely honest, his Comptroller’s jest about throwing up had almost come true, but only almost. The Gant Phoenix had officially opened in June of 2015, a month marked by some of the fiercest thunderstorms to strike the Eastern Seaboard in over a century. While doomcriers spoke ominously of degenerating world weather patterns, Gant invited the city’s leading lights to come on up to the Prometheus Deck one afternoon and “watch the free fireworks.” A battery of motion-dampers incorporated into the building’s superstructure helped neutralize its sway in the wind; the victory punch still sloshed around in its bowl a little, but after a trip past the buffet table, where all the hors d’oeuvres had been spiked with Dramamine, the party guests found this entertaining rather than nauseating.

“But I wouldn’t go up in the eyrie just yet, Harry,” Gant’s architect advised. “Not today.”

“Why? Worried about the lightning?”

“Not the lightning. The wind. It won’t be near as steady as the rest of the building.”

“No problem there,” Gant said. “So long as it doesn’t snap off…”

“It won’t snap. You hold up a fishing rod and whip it back and forth, it won’t snap either, but that doesn’t mean you want to be sitting on the tip of the damn thing.”

“Hmm,” said Harry Gant. “Thanks for the warning. Maybe I’ll have a few more hors d’oeuvres.”

An hour later Gant was up in the glass globe, being pitched around the eyrie’s interior like a hot-air balloonist who’d drifted into a cyclone. Clinging for dear life to a slender handrail that was the eyrie’s only fixture, he felt his gorge rising and came within an ace of spraying Dramamine-soaked canapés all over his high perch. Only a chance vision saved him, for suddenly the gods of the storm granted him a clear view down three hundred feet to the open-air terrace on the 208th floor, where a blond photographer, lashed in place with a lifeline made mostly of duct tape, was struggling to focus a zoom-lens on him. Gant made the best of the bare seconds he had to compose himself: he beat back his rebellious stomach, he steadied himself and stood firm, he fixed his features with a look of casual determination. The heavens exploded around him; below, a high-speed shutter clicked.

The photo appeared on the cover of the next month’s Rolling Stone, with the caption HARRY DENNIS GANT: A RIDER ON THE STORM OF MODERN TIMES, and if Gant’s lightning-wreathed figure did in some ways resemble a certain fallen angel last seen cavorting on Bald Mountain, that didn’t change the fact that it was one hell of an impressive portrait. From that day forward Harry Gant ceased to worry about Biblical allusions, though he was not above making use of them himself.

A good example of this—and a further proof of his former Comptroller’s prescience—could be glimpsed in the middle distance at Manhattan’s north end, where a modern-day ziggurat made its own bid for grandeur. From a circular foundation covering several blocks of the defunct neighborhood on which it was being erected, the ziggurat curved upward in a series of exaggerated steps, a steel-boned purgatory mount sheathed in translucent black glass. As of this October day in 2023 it had drawn almost even with the Phoenix at its crown; by Thanksgiving it would be taller, and Gant’s Eyrie that much diminished. By the end of the decade, if Harry Gant had anything to say about it, it would have broken the mile marker.

Babel, he called it. Gant’s New Babel, the fabled Tower completed at last after a five-millennia hiatus in construction. Lower floors available for early occupancy at special rates; call for details.

“Aren’t you tempting fate by naming it that?” the media interviewers asked him time and again, giving him millions of dollars of free publicity in the process. “Aren’t you afraid of history repeating itself?”

“Not a bit,” Gant responded. “This is a new age, ladies and gentlemen. If you want my opinion on the matter of history, I think the real reason God cancelled the Babylonian project is He was waiting for a group of folks who could do the job right.”

A new age: English was the mother tongue now, a mother tongue that had already been fractured into a thousand dialects, only to thrive and grow stronger. Humankind had stormed heaven in homegrown chariots of fire and returned to tell the tale. And as far as God was concerned, if He weren’t already an American at heart, ready and willing to root for American achievement—well, by the time Harry Gant and the Department of Public Opinion were finished with Him, He would be.

Down in the Canyons with Eddie Wilder (and Teddy May)

OK, granted that things might seem a little less overwhelmingly cheery down in the canyons of the city, where certain sections of sidewalk had not known the direct light of the sun in decades, and where pedestrians, who could not be individually fitted with the sort of motion-damping equipment that steadied the Phoenix, had to manage as best they could against the microgales that roared in the open spaces between skyscrapers. But that was no reason not to have a wonderful day.

Consider Eddie Wilder, late of Moose Hollow, Maine, who set off for his new job that morning with the traditional spring in his step that marks a would-be world-beater. Looking spiffy in his green-and-white Department of Sewers uniform, he came up out of the subway at 34th and Broadway and stopped to rubberneck at the sights. Moose Hollow being one of the ten most technologically disadvantaged places in the continental U.S. (as noted on the front page of USA Today’s Life section), and Eddie being the first member of his family in three generations to visit a city larger than Bangor, it all seemed fresh and exciting: the Electric Negroes hawking newspapers from sidewalk stands, the anti-collision equipped taxis performing a ballet of impact avoidance on the crowded streets, the monolithic architecture obliterating the horizon in every direction.

Harry Gant would have been proud, if unsurprised, to learn that the Gant Phoenix was Eddie Wilder’s personal favorite building in the whole of Manhattan. Of course if you were to ask Eddie point-blank about this, he would tell you that his favorite was the Empire State Building. He didn’t know that there was no more Empire State Building, not since Christmas night in 2006, when a fully loaded 747-400 been struck by a meteorite just after takeoff from Newark International and come screaming out of control across the Hudson. Celebrated disaster chronicler Tad Winston Peller had described this incident in graphic detail in the runaway bestseller Chicken Little and Flight 52, but there being no bookstore or library in Moose Hollow, Eddie Wilder never read it. Likewise—the Hollow’s one newspaper, the Hollow Point, being concerned pretty exclusively with the killing and eating of large animals—he’d never caught any of the press releases in which up-and-coming business mogul Harry Gant had sworn to rebuild the famous landmark in record time, “but more contemporary, with a new name, and twice as big in every dimension.” So Eddie’s confusion was understandable. If the Phoenix seemed somewhat out of proportion with the building in the black-and-white postcard his great-grandfather had purchased on his way home from the Korean War, well, real stuff was always bigger than pictures, Eddie figured.

Eddie’s only gripe about the Phoenix had to do with the Electric Billboards, huge strobing grids of light suspended about three-quarters of the way to the top, which struck him as a defacement of historic property. There were four of them, each about twenty stories tall, one to a building side. The four featured ads jumped clockwise every fifteen minutes, so when the Coca-Cola trademark beamed westward, for example, you knew it was between a quarter and half past the hour. The ad presently facing west, however, was one Eddie couldn’t figure out, which only increased his irritation, like a joke he was too dumb to get. It resembled a page torn from a giant’s day-calendar, except there was no date, just a number, 997, picked out in red on a white background.

“Don’t look so upset,” a voice said behind him. “Nobody knows what the hell it means, not even Harry.”

Eddie turned from the tower to face a woman about his height, plain-featured but with the sort of laugh-crinkles around her eyes and mouth that betoken a person of general good humor. Her hair (also plain, an unremarkable shade of brown) was tied back in a lank pony-tail; agewise she looked to be in her late thirties or early forties. A cigarette burned between the fingers of her right hand; held loosely in her left was one of the latest Marvel-D.C. graphic novellas, Joan of Arc Returns.

Ordinarily Eddie would have asked about the comic book (he was a mail-order Spiderman fan himself), but he was in New York now and wanted to adopt a big city attitude as soon as possible. So he pointed at the woman’s cigarette instead, and said with what he hoped was a proper tone of urban rudeness: “You know you shouldn’t smoke those.”

She responded by taking a puff, not in a nasty way—she didn’t breathe it in his face—but as if to say that he hadn’t suggested anything she hadn’t already considered long and hard on her own. “You’re right, I definitely shouldn’t,” she said, and added with a wink: “Don’t gawk too long. You don’t want to be late for work.”

With that she stepped from the curb, raised a hand; a taxi swerved neatly around a double-parked delivery van and pulled up in front of her. Only after she’d gotten into the cab and taken off down the street did Eddie realize she’d been wearing a uniform like his.

You don’t want to be late… He checked the address on the form letter in his pocket and got walking, west towards the Hudson. The brick building housing the Zoological Bureau of the Department of Sewers was on Eleventh Avenue, across from the Jacob Javits Convention Center. Eddie arrived on time and presented himself at the registration desk, where a supervisor named Fatima Sigorski logged him in. “You’ll be in May Team 23,” she told him. “Your coworkers on the team are Joan Fine, Art Hartower, and Lenny Prohaska.” She pushed a pair of what looked like plastic dog tags across the desktop. “Make sure you wear these at all times when you’re working.”

“What for?”

“Information aid. In case you become eligible for early retirement in a way that makes you hard to identify.” She pointed down the hall at a half-open doorway. “That’s the briefing room. You’ll find Hartower and Prohaska in there. Hartower’s thin and balding, looks like a middle-aged IRS flack. Prohaska looks the same, except he’s got his nose pierced with a zircon. He’s from California.”

“And Miss Fine?”

“She’ll be holed up in the toilet right about now.”

“Oh.”

The briefing room was laid out like one of the smaller theaters in a multiplex, red plastic chairs facing a tiny holographic screen. Eddie counted about thirty men and women, all in Department uniforms showing varying degrees of wear; he seemed to be the only newcomer. Hartower and Prohaska were standing beneath a framed blow-up of a very old photograph, sharing a copy of the day’s New York Times. The framed photo, which obviously occupied a position of honor on the wall, showed what appeared to be a wino levering himself up out of a manhole.

Eddie went over and introduced himself to his new colleagues. Then he asked, with a cautious nod at the strange photo: “Who’s that?”

“That,” Prohaska said, flaring his nostrils so that the zircon wiggled, “is Teddy May.”

“The greatest human being ever to wade through the city’s effluvia,” added Hartower. “God bless him and rest him in peace.”

“What’s wrong with his right eye?”

“Job-related injury,” said Prohaska. “He cooked it crawling into a utility duct to fix a ruptured steam line while simultaneously fighting off two alligators with his bare hands…”

“Alligators?” Eddie said.

“…and then, having taken care of that, he went back topside where the temperature was negative nine degrees Fahrenheit (forty below factoring in wind-chill), this being winter. The transition from hot to cold paralyzed every muscle and nerve in his eyelid.”

“Wait a minute,” Eddie said. “Alligators in the sewers? Wasn’t that just a story?”

“What story?”

“You know: the book by that guy who nobody was allowed to take his picture.”

“Did you ever read the book by that guy who nobody was allowed to take his picture?”

“Of course not. Nobody’s ever read that book. And anyway I don’t read books. But even up in the Hollow, everybody knows the story.”

“Well,” said Hartower, “Teddy May lived it.”

“And that’s what we do in the Zoological Bureau? Hunt ‘gators?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Prohaska said. “Teddy May and his men finished off the last of them in the 1930s.”

“True,” said Hartower, “you do still encounter the occasional Gavialis gangeticus cruising around under Little India and Little Pakistan, maybe even a once-in-a-blue-moon Crocodylus niloticus, but no alligators.”

Fatima Sigorski entered the briefing room and clapped her hands for attention. “All right, everybody, let’s settle in.”

“Stick with us,” Prohaska and Hartower said, steering Eddie towards a trio of seats at the back. A familiar woman with a ponytail slipped in as Fatima turned to shut the door; Eddie could smell the tobacco right off, even though this whole building was clearly designated as a non-smoking environment.

“Hey!” he said, pointing. “I know her. Who is she?”

“That’s the other member of our team,” Hartower told him. “Joan Fine.” In a conspirator’s tone: “Formerly Joan Gant.”

“Gant?”

“Ex-wife of the billionaire,” said Prohaska. “She was the chief advertising executive over at Gant Industries, Comptroller of Public Opinion. Once upon a time.”

“Not only that,” added Hartower, “but she’s also the illegitimate test tube daughter of Sister Ellen Fine, the renegade nun who led the Catholic Womanist Crusade back in the Oughts.”

“Womanist Crusade?”

“You know: the lesbian habit-burners who wanted the Pope’s permission to be ordained and have babies.”

“Oh,” said Eddie, who didn’t know, actually. “So if her ma was a queer nun and her husband was a billionaire, what’s she doing working in the sewers?”

“Penance.”

The sewer workers were all seated now; Fatima Sigorski clapped her hands once more for silence. “I have here the advance version of this month’s tactical report,” she began, holding up an Electric Clipboard. “As usual it’s a mix of good news and bad news. Some dedicated work on the part of our Brooklyn division has virtually stamped out the Serrasalmus nattereri infestation under Park Slope. On the minus side, last night some Cuban restaurant owner’s grandfather got zapped to death on the basement john by what sounds like an Electrophorus electricus. There were no actual witnesses and the police think it might be some kind of life insurance scam, so we’re going to wait for confirmation before taking any official action. Still, you probably want to bring a pair of rubber-soled thigh-highs if you go cruising under Spanish Harlem…”

Joan Fine sat near the front, wishing she could smoke. But while Fatima Sigorski might turn a blind eye to the occasional cigarette sneaked in the women’s room, she didn’t even allow gum-chewing during assembly, so Joan’s only recourse for tension release was the rosary in her pocket, which she fretted with continuously while Fatima spoke. Joan’s mother had given it to her on the day of her first confession; and though what Joan had confessed had been a youthful disdain for Roman Catholic theology, she’d held on to the rosary, calling it a good luck keepsake. The beads were cheap acrylic but the crucifix was true silver, wrought by a Reformed Carmelite Sister who moonlighted as a master smithy. Christ’s silver crown of thorns had been painstakingly engraved with a laser stylus, and when held up to a strong light would project the prayer of the Reverend Cabal of Catholic Womanists against the nearest wall, in pinprick letters of fire: Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. God make us foolish for our struggle.

Joan thought this would be an apt motto for the Department of Sewers’ Zoological Bureau as well. Which of course was why she’d taken the job.

“Now, as for today’s special assignment: I’m afraid we have a definite confirmation on that new species I hinted about last Friday. Can I have the lights down, please?” The overhead lighting dimmed obediently. “The footage you’re about to see,” said Fatima, “was taken by May Team 67 right before the entire crew became unavoidably eligible for early retirement. Roll tape.”

She stepped aside and the projection screen flickered to light in three dimensions. The viewpoint was a fixed camera facing off the stern of one of the Department’s armored patrol barges. The barge was moving through one of the larger, canal-sized sewer tunnels, and it was immediately obvious that something was wrong: judging from the whitewater spume the barge was kicking up behind it, the pilot was either fighting one hell of a current or, more likely, running away from something at full throttle. As the barge swung hard around a bend, a series of shotgun blasts could be heard, and the booming percussion of big-caliber pistols: members of the doomed May Team emptying their weapons into the sludgy water. To no avail—for suddenly a massive form surged up out of the barge’s wake, toothy maw yawning wide like a razor-studded chasm. The viewers in the briefing room shrank back screaming in their seats as the monster leapt through the screen in flawless 3-D, but it never landed. Right at that point, probably a split second before the camera was smashed from its mount, the editor of the recording had thrown the sequence into a loop, so that the creature froze in place halfway out of the water, twisting back and forth as if to present itself for inspection.

Carcharodon carcharias,” Fatima Sigorski said, as the terrified sewer workers regained their composure. “Positive I.D. from our friends at the Bronx Zoo. We’re not sure yet how it got down there, but SHQ is theorizing that it’s a flushed pet. That, or another practical joke by those peckerwoods in the NYU Ichthyology Department.”

The shocked voice of Eddie Wilder: “That’s a fucking great white shark!”

Joan Fine looked around at the sound of his voice. Eddie had gotten halfway out of his chair and was paused there trembling, while Prohaska and Hartower, each having grabbed an elbow, tried to sit him back down. “Shut up!” Prohaska hissed frantically. “Shut up and behave, you want to get a demerit your first day out?” Joan smiled. Eddie would probably end by annoying her, but she couldn’t help liking someone still innocent enough to speak without tact or knowledge of euphemism.

Fatima, however, did not appreciate the breach of usage.

“It’s a Carcharodon carcharias,” she scolded, punching every hard consonant in the Latin. “An alternative environment-adapted Carcharodon carcharias. I trust we’ll all remember that if we get within earshot of a media rep. There’s only one thing in the sewers with less than ten letters in its name, and it’s not ‘shark.’”

“Sorry,” Eddie said. “Sorry, but it looks just like…”

Furthermore, SHQ is continuing its practice of assigning code referents to notable members of a given species. Though there’s no indication yet that we’ll be seeing more than one of them—I certainly hope we won‘t—it’s been resolved that individual Carcharodon will be named after beer brands. This,” she indicated the still-twitching hologram, “is Meisterbrau. That’s the name I expect to hear you use if you talk about it over lunch—not Smiley, not Jaws, not Mack the Knife, but Meisterbrau. Is that clear?” Eddie nodded meekly.

“Now our available information indicates that Meisterbrau has been feeding in the tunnel complex around the Times Square Interchange. All May Teams are to converge on that area carrying maximum armament. Team leaders remember to sign out for the weapons and get yourselves a Negro from the pool; also, methane and other toxics levels are high today, so be sure to top off your oxygen tanks. That’s all, people. Get to your barges, good luck, and be careful out there. And watch your language.”

The Morning Schedule

A polite disembodied voice spoke from Harry Gant’s wrist: “Quarter past eight, sir.”

Gant pulled up his sleeve to reveal the face of Dick Tracy, sized to the dimensions of a quartz timepiece. Gant’s thumb brushed the slash of Tracy’s chin and he said: “That you, Toby?”

“Yes sir, Mr. Gant. Ms. Domingo sent me. Time to come down, sir.”

“What am I scheduled for this morning, Toby?”

“You’re giving an address at the Gant Media & Technical School for Advanced Immigrant Teens at nine o’clock, sir. After which you’re holding a crisis-reduction meeting with the Department of Public Opinion concerning the pirate Philo Dufresne. And, of course, the Negro problem.”

“Oh,” Gant said, “that. Toby?”

“Yes sir?”

“Is there something special about today that I should remember? Not business; check my personal file.”

“Yes sir.” On the 208th-floor terrace, the Automatic Servant scratched the side of its head with a dusky finger. Then it said: “You might be thinking of your wedding anniversary, Mr. Gant. That is to say, it would be your anniversary today, if you were still…”

“Right,”” Gant said, snapping his fingers. “Day before Halloween, funny I could even forget it.”

“Former Ms. Gant,” Toby added, “also has a birthday coming up next month. Her forty-first. And you’ll be forty-three next week.”

“Right, right. OK, Toby, you go tell Ms. Domingo I’ll be down shortly. Also tell her I’m going to want six Portable Televisions for media support at that school thing at nine. That’s all.”

“Yes sir,” the Servant said, and was gone. Gant lingered in his eyrie another minute yet. Good old Joan, he thought, his memory of her tinged with mild regret but no ill will. The last he knew of his ex-wife she’d been working some blue-collar job and running a welfare shelter in the Bowery. A meager use of her talents…but he smiled just the same, for thinking of Joan made him think of the past in general, and thinking of the past in general made him think of himself, of the American-Dream-come-true storybook tale that was his life.

Harry Dennis Gant, born in 1980 in the back seat of a broken-down Toyota parked at a rest stop off the Jersey Turnpike. His mother a construction worker by trade, his father a schoolteacher, both of them jobless and homeless at the time of Harry’s nativity, the dying Toyota representing the last of their possessions. And yet from these humble beginnings—the twentieth-century equivalent, Harry Gant liked to think, of being born in a log cabin—look what he had made of himself in only forty-three years. Look at all he had wrought in the world, and his life not half finished yet, not half.

Love of self and love of country lit a fire in the hearth of Harry Gant’s soul, warming him to the new day. He was glad to be alive; glad too to have such a wonderful gift—the gift of inspiration—to bestow on the Advanced Teens he would address an hour from now. With a reverent nod to the great city below, he lifted the trapdoor in the floor of the eyrie and started down the ladder.

A Word about the Negro Problem

The Negro problem bedeviling Gant Industries should not be confused with the African-American problem, which was simply that there weren’t any African-Americans anymore, or any black Africans either for that matter, at least not that you could invite over to your house for dinner. Back at the turn of the century a literal Black Plague, its origin and cause still completely unknown, had turned inner cities across the United States into overnight ghost towns, emptied Nigeria and three dozen other sub-Saharan nations, and sent the scant handfuls of survivors fleeing to an ever more remote series of hidden sanctuaries. Celebrated disaster chronicler Tad Winston Peller had written a book about it, the runaway bestseller They Say It Started in Idaho: Tales of the Black Pandemic of Twenty-Ought-Four. This popular work had served as the basic text for no less than seven miniseries, not to mention a weekly science-fiction drama, Dark Heart, Red Planet, about a family of jazz-loving astronauts who escape extinction by being on Mars at the time of the plague outbreak.

But all of that is another story. The Negro problem had nothing to do with disease or cable television; it was solely a consumer-marketing phenomenon.

The Self-Motivating Android—test-marketed by a Disney subsidiary in 2003 and mass-produced by the fledging Gant Industries as the Gant Automatic Servant starting in 2007—achieved initial prominence as a cost-effective industrial labor substitute. The first Androids were only vaguely humanoid in appearance, intended to be functional rather than eye-pleasing, but Harry Gant, looking ahead to a time when his Servants would be affordable in the home as well as in mines and factories, insisted on a more aesthetic design. And so from 2010 on it became possible to purchase Automatic Servants in a wide selection of realistic skin tones and somatotypes. Gant, a great believer in offering variety to his customers, certainly didn’t ask his sales force to push any one particular model over another; he was as surprised as anyone when Configuration AS204—your Automatic Servant in basic black—began outselling all other versions combined by a margin of ten to one.

For a long while it didn’t appear that there would be any public relations problem. People didn’t seem to mind—in fact seemed strangely comforted by—the sudden profusion of dark-skinned Servants, all of them polite and hard-working to a fault. The ace of corporate advertising is the basic human desire to minimize or look away from gross unpleasantness, to which end the AS204s acted like an army of Sidney Poitiers and Hattie McDaniels dispatched to exorcise the memory of the African Pandemic; but the flipside of that ace is the peril of lurking guilt, and when Harry Gant was told about a D.A.R. heiress who had purchased three hundred Servants for use in a sort of antebellum theme park on her plantation estate, he used his advertorial influence to keep the media away from the story.

He couldn’t stop American idiom, though. The Oxford University philologist kept on retainer by Gant’s Department of Public Opinion estimated that the expression “Electric Negro” had entered the English vernacular sometime between 2014 and 2016.

“Electric Negro”: an unkind nickname which, in addition to being terribly disrespectful of the dead, summoned up a host of images that Gant Industries did not want associated with a quality product like the Automatic Servant. It had begun cropping up in print and on video several years ago: a trickle of usages in various nationally-circulated publications, as well as a sly reference on one of the late-night talk shows, to which Vanna Domingo and the Public Opinion Department had responded with a barrage of outraged faxes and threats of advertising boycott. For a while the problem seemed to evaporate, only to reappear after a Delaware country-metal band released a hit album entitled Electric Negroes on the Neon Prairie. As of this August even the Wall Street Journal had used the expression, in a headline no less, and the battle to keep “Electric Negro” out of the media stylebooks appeared to have been lost.

And that was the Negro problem. Not a big problem, Harry Gant would have been the first to point out: so far, sales had not suffered in the slightest, and the general public remained quite happy with their Servants, no matter what they might call them.

But in fact, of Electric Negroes and the potential for trouble, Harry Gant still had a lot to learn.

Timex Presents

Joan put her rosary around her neck along with her dog tags. Despite her long separation from the Church, she girded herself for the day’s work with a determined reverence that would have done a Jesuit proud, handling her weapons and equipment as if they were sacred objects. This early-morning intensity always elicited some comment from Prohaska, for whom the sewers were just a job, albeit one with great danger pay.

“Ready for another week battling the forces of evil?” he asked, indicating her crucifix. “That’s a dead religion, you know.”

“I do know,” said Joan, zipping up the front of the synthetic body suit that would hopefully protect her from chemicals and contagions if she ended up swimming. “And what creed are you following these days, Lenny?”

“Pan worship.” He showed her a petrified sliver of wood. “Ecologically sound pagan tree power.”

Joan laughed. “Tree power. That’s really going to help you down in the shit, right? Besides, didn’t you tell me Teddy May was a Catholic?”

“Sure. Back in the days when they hunted alligators with .22 rifles and rat poison.”

“So call me a traditionalist.” She took an oxygen tank from a charging rack and strapped it to her back. Behind her she could hear Hartower coaching a reluctant Eddie.

“Grenades go here on the belt, like this,” he was saying. “You don’t touch them unless it’s a matter of life and death, got that? Next…”

“Wait,” Eddie said, “just wait. The sawed-off shotgun I know how to use, but the rest of this stuff…shouldn’t I go through some kinda training course? Like boot camp?”

“”Zoological Bureau can’t afford training. A quarter of the money we get from SHQ gets spent on equipment and ammunition, and the other three-quarters goes to cover insurance. Look at it this way: if you get unavoidably retired because you didn’t know how to use something, your family gets one hell of a death benefit…”

Joan went to the inventory cage to sign out for the four sets of gear. “Need a key for a Servant, too,” she said, passing her union card under an optical scanner. The thin-lipped young man inside the cage gave her the key without a word; he was an art history major at Columbia University working part-time to pay the rent, and thought anyone who’d choose the sewers as a full-time career must be crazy. Best not to engage them in conversation.

The Bureau’s Automatic Servants were kept near the back of the storage area, behind the spare engine parts for the barges. Joan found the one that her key belonged to and unfastened the Kryptonite lock that secured it to the wall. It was an older version of the AS204, built when Gant’s engineers were still experimenting with the joint articulation; while trying to mimic a natural range of motion it sometimes did things, like bend its elbows in reverse, that were painful to watch. Its skin, worn by years of service in an unkind netherworld, bore more resemblance to scuffed leather than human flesh. Joan had never decided whether she preferred this type of Servant or one of the newer ones that were practically indistinguishable from real people; maybe neither. Somewhere the Lefty God grumbled against the concept of automata in general.

“Harpo one-one-five,” Joan said, reading the name and number on the Servant’s I.D. badge. “Wake up.”

The Servant opened its eyes, twin video cameras concealed behind fake chocolate-colored irises. It focused on her and smiled broadly, as if reunited with its greatest friend in the whole world. “Zippity-doo-day!” it greeted her. Like all Servants it kept its ceramic teeth close together as it spoke, concealing the fact that it had no tongue, only an Electric Voice Box. “Isn’t this a lovely morning!”

“Harpo one-one-five,” Joan asked it, “has it ever not been a lovely morning for you?”

The Servant, a low-end physical labor model programmed for the bare minimum in conversation, merely widened its smile at this question and repeated its greeting: “Zippity-doo-day! Hey, let’s go to work!”

Servant in tow, Joan went back to get Hartower and Prohaska, and Eddie, who had finally gotten all his gear on but still looked uncomfortable with it. A cargo elevator lowered them to the barge staging area, a concrete dock on an artificial lagoon situated some forty feet under the Javits Center. There were seven barges, armor-plated flatboats with searchlights and holographic cameras mounted fore and aft. They boarded the one with “M. Team 23” scrawled in white paint across its keel; Prohaska fired up the engine while Hartower cast off the lines and Joan checked the stocks of the barge’s first aid kit. They had enough gauze and disinfectant to handle a bad nosebleed; anything worse and they’d better hope they were right under a hospital when it happened.

“Enjoy it while you can,” Hartower said, seeing the way Eddie was looking at the lagoon. “That water’s half fresh; they pump in extra to make sure the barges stay afloat. Out in the main tunnels, though, the problem’s not too little but too much. You ever see a river of human effluvia before?”

Eddie declined to answer this question. Instead, observing the size of the tunnel mouth Prohaska steered them towards as they left the dock, he said: “I didn’t realize it would be so big down here.”

“Didn’t used to be,” Prohaska told him. “Back in Teddy May’s day you could walk or crawl through most of the system, no need for boats or flotation devices. Some of the secondary tunnels are still small enough to just hike through. But the buildings kept getting taller, more and more waste coming down, so they had to bore the primaries wider every year…”

“…and then,” said Hartower, “there was the big genetic engineering boom in the late Nineties, after which the effluvia got strange, all sorts of wildlife wandering in and doing cute little overnight evolution tricks, adapting themselves to the conditions down here. Hence the Zoological Bureau.”

“You just want to hope you’ve got a good immune system,” said Prohaska. “There’s bacteria loose in the tunnels they don’t even have long names for yet.”

They fell silent for a bit after that, Eddie looking less and less enthusiastic about his new job. The Automatic Servant stood in the prow of the barge sniffing the air, its nose performing a full chemical analysis of the atmosphere every three seconds. As they moved farther out into the system of tunnels, Hartower directed Eddie’s attention to the whirl of glistening shapes in the flatboat’s wake: “Now we’re really in the shit, eh kid?”

Other May Teams had followed them out, but by this point the barges had diverged, each taking a separate route into the target area. They were alone in the effluvia. Prohaska set the searchlights and underwater floods to maximum illumination.

“Where are we?” Joan asked. She’d opened her comic book and was flipping through the pages.

“The Electric Mercator says we’re under 41st and Ninth, headed east into the Interchange.”

“You want to be careful, then. There’s a waterfall right around here somewhere.”

Eddie tapped Joan on the shoulder. “Listen,” he said, “in case I catch a disease or something and don’t have a chance to ask you later—is it true you were married to a billionaire?”

“Who told you that?” Joan asked Eddie. Prohaska began whistling innocently at the wheel; Hartower became engrossed in the latest word from Mobil on the Times editorial page. “You wouldn’t happen to have been gossiping with two other members of this May Team, would you? Two members who swore they were going to stop blabbing about my private life?”

“We didn’t say a word to him,” Hartower bluffed, and the Automatic Servant bellowed, jolly as ever: “Methane! Zippity-doo-day, we got a lethal methane concentration building up in this tunnel!”

Prohaska checked the auxiliary atmospheric scanner clipped to his body suit; it had a Liquid Crystal Display that showed a Liquid Crystal Canary falling dead from its Liquid Crystal Perch. “He’s right,” Prohaska said. “Masks on, everybody.”

When they were all breathing tanked oxygen, Eddie Wilder asked again, in a somewhat muffled voice: “Is it true?”

Joan sighed, then nodded. Eddie’s candor no longer struck her as refreshing.

“Wow,” Eddie pushed ahead, “did you marry him for his money?”

Prohaska barked laughter. “Joan isn’t interested in money, at least not for its own sake,” he said. “Conspicuous wealth is contrary to her political beliefs.”

“Which isn’t to say,” added Hartower, “that marrying Harry Gant didn’t put her in a whole new tax bracket. But his historical significance was probably the big motivating factor…”

“…and true love, of course. Sooo trendy…”

“Hey guys?” Joan said. “You know I could beat the crap out of both of you with one hand tied behind my back, so why don’t we change the subject?”

“His historical what?” said Eddie.

“Historical significance,” Prohaska told him. “Harry Gant deciding where to have breakfast has more of an impact on history than most people do deciding how to live their whole lives. And Joan’s always wanted to leave her mark on history…”

“Just like her mother,” said Hartower. “Though hopefully with better luck.”

“True. The Catholic Womanist Crusade was pretty much a bust.”

“Hence the fact that the Pope still has a wanger.”

“That’s enough,” Joan warned, brandishing a can of reptile repellent. “I swear to God, I am never going drinking with you assholes again.”

“Hey, it’s not our fault if you get talky after only three beers. Besides, I thought that whole bit about wanting to make the world a better place to live was really sweet. Pathetically naive, but sweet…”

Joan took aim with the can of repellent; Hartower ducked. Eddie Wilder raised his hand to forestall a fight and an invisible orchestra launched fortissimo into Ravel’s Bolero, scaring the hell out of everyone.

“Sorry, sorry,” Eddie apologized. He groped at something bulky on his wrist, beneath the sleeve of his body suit.

“What is that?” shouted Prohaska, who’d nearly spun the barge into the tunnel wall. “Somebody bring a marching band along this morning?”

“It’s a going-away present from my folks,” said Eddie. “A Timex Philharmonic. They mail-ordered it special from L.L. Bean.”

In the prow of the barge, the Automatic Servant pointed at the water and said something, but no one heard it over the thunder of bassoons.

“It can play ten different classics,” Eddie continued to explain. “It’s got sixty-four voices.”

“We can hear that,” said Hartower. “The question is, can you make them shut up?”

“Well I’m working on it,” Eddie said. He tried to remember where the mute button was, but before he could, a shark came out of the water and ate him.

The Power of Positive Thinking (I)

Vanna Domingo was waiting in the Phoenix Parking Annex with the Portable Televisions Gant had requested. The Televisions—Automatic Servants with cable-ready high-definition monitor screens in place of heads—might seem a macabre notion at first, the sort of thing René Magritte would have come up with if he’d worked for Zenith, but in fact Harry Gant had employed a top Czech design firm to insure that his Portable TVs were comical rather than threatening. This was done primarily by dressing them in funny outfits. If advance sales were any indication, middle America was ready, eager, for a home appliance in a cowboy suit that could wash, dry, and put away the dishes while receiving any of five hundred exciting channels.

The Televisions Vanna Domingo had brought for Gant’s school address were dressed up like Apollo astronauts. Harry Gant’s father had often spoken with pride of witnessing the NBC broadcast of the first moon landing, and Harry himself had always had a soft spot for NASA’s finest, even though he personally would never have invested in the space program. Heights.

“Morning, Vanna,” Gant said, stepping from his private elevator.

“Harry.” She nodded humbly, after the fashion of a feudal vassal. Gant tried to ignore this. While he believed the protocol of corporate hierarchy demanded a certain deference to superiors, there was a difference between being ranking capitalist and being lord of the manor, a distinction that Vanna, with her almost worshipful loyalty, tended to lose sight of. But she was excellent at her job, no questioning that.

Gant pointed at the object tucked under Vanna’s arm, a slim tome with matte black covers. An Electric Book. “What’re you reading these days?” he asked. Vanna read a great deal, but because she was ashamed of her own tastes and more than a little paranoid, she preferred the anonymity of a programmable reading device with no telltale dust jacket.

“The new Tad Winston Peller book,” she said, with a little shrug. “All about earthquakes.”

“Earthquakes!”

“Yeah, there’s supposed to be a big one due on the East Coast. Peller says Boston and New York are going to get leveled all in one shot.”

“Well I can’t speak for Boston,” Gant said, “but you mark my words, it’ll take more than an earthquake to level this city, especially those parts I’ve had a hand in building. The best engineering anchored in some of the toughest bedrock in the world, that’s what we’ve got here.”

“You’re the man,” said Vanna, and touched a decorative-looking brooch at the throat of her blouse. An armored transport bus left its parking space across the Annex and pulled up in front of them. Its doors opened, and at a command from Vanna the Portable Televisions filed in and took seats.

“Tad Winston Peller,” Gant said, shaking his head. “You know I was never much of a writer myself, and I have to respect a man who can make such a fortune out of words, but still…”

“You don’t like his stuff.”

“Well. Disasters, I mean. Earthquakes, floods, radioactive Tupperware…it’s such a pessimistic way of looking at life. I’d rather make my money selling people a happy version of the world, you see what I’m saying?”

Vanna Domingo’s composure faltered for only an instant, a barest tick that Gant did not notice. Then she pasted on a big smile and nodded. And said again: “You’re the man.”

Joan and Meisterbrau (I)

Prohaska was the last one to stop screaming. In the dying flicker of the aft searchlights Joan caught a twinkle of his zircon as Meisterbrau dragged him under. Prohaska’s shotgun discharged once, scarring the blue ceramic of the tunnel ceiling; when the echo of that had died, the only sounds were the surging of the effluvia around the stricken patrol craft and a dull roar that Joan was too dazed to pay attention to at first.

The great white had come flying over the bow like a cruise missile with teeth, sweeping all hands overboard. Only Joan had managed to pull herself back into the barge in one piece. Hartower had almost made it, only to be seized and slammed against the underside of the craft hard enough to rupture the fuel tank and short the electrical system; Joan didn’t want to know what the impact had done to Hartower himself. He did not resurface.

The barge was developing a starboard list as it took on water through the cracked keel. Joan crouched in the stern in a shivering ball; she had her shotgun out but had forgotten to take off the safety, which didn’t matter as much once the searchlights failed. There was still some ambient light from the phosphorescent lichen that thrived in the sewers, but not enough to aim by. Could sharks see in the dark?

“Lenny?” she called out (not too loudly), though she knew it was useless. “Lenny Prohaska? Hartower?”

No answer, but the barge rocked in the effluvia as something passed beneath it. A log, perhaps. Joan ordered her heart to stop beating so fast, she was forty, goddamnit, hence stoic, she’d taken on Union Carbide and Afrikaans Chemical in her day and she could by Jesus handle a mutant fish. This conceit, repeated several times, actually steadied her free hand enough to let her yank a grenade from her belt.

Unclipping the grenade from its holster activated an internal mechanism much like the nose of an Automatic Servant. This mechanism sampled the air, found it wanting, and cued a microminiaturized hologram projector in the grenade’s cap.

Joan blinked as the translucent head of John Fitzgerald Kennedy materialized before her in the darkness. “I’m sorry, fellow American,” Kennedy said, in tones gentle but firm, “but the atmosphere around you contains a mixture of gasses with the potential for a chain-reaction explosion. Federal and local safety regulations prohibit the use of hand grenades at this time. Your government apologizes for any inconvenience this may cause you.”

Joan started to reply, but it was at that same moment that she realized what the dull roar she’d been hearing was. “Waterfall,” she said, dumbly, as the tunnel floor dropped away beneath her. Pitched from the deck of the barge, Joan plunged fifteen feet into swirling black effluvia; her shotgun and the grenade vanished in the tumult but somehow she kept her oxygen mask on, surfacing in the middle of a rectangular basin the size of a football field: the Times Square Interchange.

She paddled in place, trying to orient herself. One gloved hand struck something, and she curled her fingers in what she thought was human hair, lifting it up.

“Hartower…?”

“Zippity-doo-day!” the severed head of the Automatic Servant greeted her. “Isn’t this a lovely morning!”

Joan hurled it as far as she could, hearing it splash down at the other end of the basin. What she heard next filled her with dread: Bolero. Ravel’s Bolero, coming from under the water, where she knew for a fact Eddie Wilder was no longer alive and kicking. The marching bassoons crescendoed and a fin broke the surface right in front of her.

Meisterbrau, having already dined well that morning, only nuzzled her at first. The shark’s sandpaper skin raked open the right leg of her body suit as it brushed past, though Joan, feeling the painful contact, was convinced the entire limb had been bitten off. She backpedaled furiously, wiggling toes she could hardly believe were still connected. Her oxygen tank clanked against the wall of the chamber.

Trapped, Joan thought, middle-age stoicism drowned in the shit. No doubt if she had been the comic book d’Arc, saint and warrior maiden of Old France, she would at that moment have ignited with righteous fury to smite her foe; but she was only Fine, and it was in sheer animal panic that she jerked her head around in the dark and saw a slim chance of salvation outlined in a circle of glowing purple lichen.

A tunnel. Not a barge tunnel but one of the old secondaries, no more than a yard wide, situated above the Interchange’s waterline and pouring out a mere trickle of effluvia. If she could climb up there…

The synthesized orchestra dropped to mezzo forte as Meisterbrau dove and began a wide circling turn. Joan unhooked her second hand grenade; before JFK could put in another appearance she whacked it against the wall of the chamber hard enough to fracture the air sampler. She pulled the pin and tossed the grenade as she had the Automatic Servant’s head, trying more for distance than aim. Hydrostatic shock might injure or kill the shark, but at this point Joan would settle for distracting it.

Standard Department-issue grenades came with a fifteen-second fuse, the long delay being intended to keep untrained sewer workers from damaging expensive pipes and incurring self-inflicted death benefits all at one go. Joan counted backwards in her head as she fought to pull herself up into the secondary tunnel. The lichen on the tunnel lip was slick and offered almost no purchase, and she was weak, from fright or loss of blood she didn’t know; her oxygen tank seemed so heavy it might have been anchored to the floor of the basin. She heaved herself up twice, only to slip and fall back.

Bolero had begun a new crescendo, Meisterbrau’s fin arrowing straight at her this time, when a superhero reached out of the tunnel and hauled Joan up by her wrists. She knew it was a superhero because (a) it wore a suit of rubberized armor that put her own body suit to shame, (b) anyone else would have been running away, and (c) it had a glow-in-the-dark symbol emblazoned on its chest.

The superhero spoke with a young woman’s voice: “Hang on to me,” and cupped gloved hands over Joan’s ears. Joan grabbed the superhero’s shoulders and held tight; behind her, the detonating grenade set off a chemical firestorm, and in the sudden flare of light she glimpsed the eyes of her savior, sea-green eyes set in a black, smiling face. Then the force of the explosion rammed them both down the tunnel like wadding down the barrel of a gun.

The superhero’s symbol seemed to recede before her as Joan blacked out. It was an unusual symbol, neither an atom nor a thunderbolt nor a capital letter, but rather the outline of a continent. On the brink of unconsciousness, Joan couldn’t quite remember the continent’s name; but under the circumstances, that was hardly surprising.

A Miracle in Times Square

The Automaton Delimiting Act of ‘09 made it legal to employ Automatic Servants in the maintenance of nuclear power plants, but barred them from operating motor vehicles or carrying firearms, so Harry Gant’s driver and chief bodyguard on the transport bus was human, a Lebanese-American whose full name Gant couldn’t pronounce. Gant just called him Louis.

Louis got them to Times Square at quarter to nine. The Gant Media & Technical School for Advanced Immigrant Teens occupied the better part of a block once dominated by porn houses and peep shows, the streamlined gloss of its architecture calling to mind an early-twentieth-century version of The Future. American critics hated the building—“academe as hood ornament,” the Architectural Digest reviewer wrote, while an essayist in Harper’s cracked jokes about the return of Flash Gordon—but second- and third-world parents recognized a landmark of opportunity when they saw it, and sent Gant their children.

And there they were now, lined up at attention in front of the school, Gant’s Immigrant Scholars of Merit: fresh-faced adolescents from underindustrialized and overcommunized nations around the globe. The school headmaster, Ms. Allagance, waved gaily as the transport bus pulled in; at her signal the front row of students burst into song.

“Hey,” Harry Gant said, absurdly touched by this display. “Whose idea was this?”

“I phoned ahead,” Vanna Domingo told him, pleased that he was pleased. “Glad you like it.”

“Thanks for the thought. Thanks much.” One might have argued that this was the same brand of fealty that he found so discomfiting in Vanna, but the Norman Rockwell associations of the scene elevated it to another, more properly American plane. “But wait a minute, what was that sound?”

“What sound?”

“That whoosh sound.”

Abrupt chaos outside the bus: a metallic clang, a grunt from Ms. Allagance, a squelching thud like a wet sack of potatoes dropped from a height, screams from the children. Gant leapt bravely from his seat and was rushing to offer aid before Louis and the rest of the security team could stop him.

A crimped manhole cover had imbedded itself edgewise into the sidewalk and was still quivering. Fortunately this was not the object that had sent Ms. Allagance sprawling. Rather, she had been struck a glancing blow by the tail of a great white shark. The big fish had landed on a mailbox and lay thrashing on a shoal of parcel post; Gant paused halfway between it and the felled headmaster, wondering which required the most immediate attention. Meisterbrau decided the issue by coughing up a human hand.

Gant moved closer: the hand was encased in some sort of wetsuit material but was no less viscerally disgusting for that. The students had stopped screaming and some were starting to walk over this way, and Harry Gant, ever mindful of public sensibilities, had to act quickly to distract them. Meisterbrau burped a second time, spitting out a flashy wristwatch which had barely come to rest before Gant snatched it up.

“Hey, look at this!” Gant shouted, waving the Timex Philharmonic over his head while he discreetly nudged Eddie Wilder’s hand out of sight with his toe. “Look at this, swallowed by a fish and it still plays great music, kids! What you’re witnessing is nothing short of a miracle in modern American technology! A miracle…”

A sliver of sunlight found its way down into the canyons and made the wristwatch gleam like a diamond. The children looked where Harry Gant wanted them to. Eddie Wilder’s soul departed this mortal plane unnoticed. The Philharmonic picked up the tempo. And Meisterbrau, down but not out, sank its teeth into a package marked MUTAGENIC BIOHAZARD—HANDLE WITH CARE.

For a New York Monday morning in 2023, none of this was all that unusual.

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