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-
“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-
“Think Biblical allusion, Harry. You’re practically begging some columnist or TV commentator to take a cheap shot at you.”
“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-
Not even the human-
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.
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-
“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-
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-
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-
Babel, he called it. Gant’s New Babel, the fabled Tower completed at last after a five-
“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-
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-
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-
Eddie’s only gripe about the Phoenix had to do with the Electric Billboards, huge strobing grids of light suspended about three-
“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-
Ordinarily Eddie would have asked about the comic book (he was a mail-
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-
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.”
“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-
“And Miss Fine?”
“She’ll be holed up in the toilet right about now.”
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-
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?”
“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-
“Wait a minute,” Eddie said. “Alligators in the sewers? Wasn’t that just a 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-
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-
“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.”
“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.”
“You know: the lesbian habit-
“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?”
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-
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-
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-
“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-
“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-
“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-
“Oh,” Gant said, “that. Toby?”
“Is there something special about today that I should remember? Not business; check my personal file.”
“Yes sir.” On the 208th-
“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-
“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-
Harry Dennis Gant, born in 1980 in the back seat of a broken-
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-
But all of that is another story. The Negro problem had nothing to do with disease or cable television; it was solely a consumer-
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-
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-
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.
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-
“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-
“”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-
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-
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.
The Servant opened its eyes, twin video cameras concealed behind fake chocolate-
The Servant, a low-
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-
“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-
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-
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-
“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-
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.”
“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-
“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-
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.
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-
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.
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-
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-
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-
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-
And there they were now, lined up at attention in front of the school, Gant’s Immigrant Scholars of Merit: fresh-
“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?”
“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.