Two of the most disconcerting, existentially threatening trends we've got going are climate change and income inequality—the near-future world is likely to be marked by hotter temperatures and stark divisions between rich and poor. Here, culture writer and dystopianist Devon Maloney imagines a New York home to both extremes; one filled with rampant unemployment, luxury towers, designer work drugs, and mob violence. Enjoy. -the Eds.
Maya woke up, as she did most days, stuck to the mattress, adhesive with morning heat. It was probably around 5 AM, or maybe a little before, judging by the unrelenting sunlight streaming in through the closed curtains on the only window in her cramped, cluttered bedroom.
Nights in Astoria were never long enough. By the time the sun set around 9 or 10 every evening, finally leaving the air to cool to a tolerable degree, she only had an hour or two to get any chores done before she had to go to bed again. Technically, regulation required all windows in every building to be equipped with atmosphere- and sun-blocking blackout shades, but people here had never known the luxury of sleeping in, and only ever used them on days when reports deemed the air too toxic and/or hot even for sunsuit travel. Soyquil Z had, of course, technically, solved the sleep problem a few years ago, but so far only Brynn-Rockefeller residents could afford to use it regularly.*
Maya peeled herself from the sheets and groggily reached for her inhaler, puffing twice. The air was already heavy, but she'd grown accustomed to the labored breathing.
Those, like Maya, who weren't employed at Brynn-Rockefeller, had a few precious nighttime hours to perform odd jobs and superfluous tasks for their neighbors before the heat set in. So, Maya toiled for employees whose Brynn salaries didn't quite allow for the purchase of Rosiebots, but could sometimes afford to outsource errands. Right now, she worked for her neighbors, Parker, Cole and Daniela, who were kind people, and making more money than they needed as a rare three-income household with just one child. They threw her simple work—childcare and cleaning, mostly—so that she could support her son Tony a few days per week. Of course, it was never enough, but they paid her as much as they could.
Earlier this week, though, Daniela had returned home late—she worked a daytime shift as a personal chef to a Brynn-Rockefeller family, the Madisons. (The Madisons were big fans of "exotic" foods, as the parents told her regularly; 3D replicators, which were more common, were just no match for Daniela's grandmother's endangered Dominican recipes.)
"Parker and Cole are held up on the night shift tonight," she'd told Maya as she unfastened and unzipped her sunsuit and tried to catch her breath, her forehead glistening with sweat from the helmet. "Again." It was the fifth time that month they'd been kept over, and she sounded ragged with the exhaustion. Double and triple shifts were not uncommon at the Brynn-Rockefeller Tower, a colossal silver complex, one of just twenty luxury condominium fortresses across the country owned and operated by Earth, Inc. Self-sustaining and eco-resistant, the buildings were entirely automated save whatever services its residents chose to buy organic. Lately it had been fashionable to employ human homeschooling over the custom-tailored digital curricula taught in the building's classrooms—hence Daniela's partners' overtime.
"There's an opening in the nursery," Daniela had said. "They're publishing the announcement at midnight on Thursday night."
"At least you've still got your sense of humor."
There were never "openings" at Brynn-Rockefeller, because no one ever quit. When an employee died or was suddenly incapacitated (rare, but it happened), senior staffers were usually polled for referrals and the selection was done internally.
"En serio," Daniela insisted. "My supervisors were talking about it when I clocked out."
Maya stopped laughing.
Daniela explained: one of the newer educators, a highly recommended young woman named Ashley Brown, had asphyxiated during an overnight shift. At first, it looked like a typical asthmatic episode, a faulty central air filter in her apartment, so senior staff began collecting new referrals as usual. But then the autopsy showed signs of external suffocation, and they dumped them all. What if it had been internal? After several days of deliberation and private investigation, they decided the best solution for the time being would be to host an open call for all experienced Astorians. 8 AM, Friday.
"But I can make sure you get in the front of the line," Daniela said. "Just get here at 6 and I'll sneak you in the service entry."
Maya's heart leapt. Working at Brynn-Rockefeller wasn't the same as living there, but that kind of salary, that kind of education for Tony would mean… she stopped herself from thinking about what it would mean. No use getting her hopes up just yet.
As she slipped her least-wrinkled button-down off its hanger and pulled on aerated leggings and Circumventilated boots, Maya suddenly felt like vomiting. She had to sit down on the bed to regain her composure before she could go wake Tony and assemble breakfast. She thought of her neighbors, Carl and Sylvia Munoz-White, who'd gotten so hard-up they'd started volunteering for fast-track experimental drug trials—the last time she'd seen them, after the Soyquil Z trials had packed it in, they were standing in the street a few miles from their cul-de-sac, blankly staring into the darkness beyond the community fences, like paranoid ghosts. A shiver went up her spine, despite the heat.
She thought about Ashley Brown. She took another inhaler puff, just in case.
Knocking as softly as she could given her mild panic, she murmured, singsong-like: "Tony, it's time to get up."
"Antonio, I'm not playing with you, I've gotta be somewhere in an hour."
"Antonio Nícolas Villaneuva, get your ass out of bed right now, or I swear to god—"
"Ay, okay, okay, damn, woman."
"I'm going to pretend you didn't just say that and remind you that you are an eleven-year-old child," she called out behind her as she headed toward the kitchen.
She punched "coffee, black" into the replicator; then, taking the mug that appeared and sipping it, she proceeded to punch in, barely looking: orange juice, two scrambled eggs, pan-fried chorizo.
"I'm not hungry," Tony grunted, appearing in the doorway, hair flattened on one side and sticking straight out on the other. "I'm just gonna take an XTab with me."
"Eat," said Maya, taking another sip of coffee and setting his plate on the table.
Grumbling, he slumped down in a chair and picked up a piece of sausage with his fingers. He looked up at Maya, still chewing.
"Ma, whaddurr yor woring?"
He swallowed. "Those clothes? Just to go next door…?"
"If you were listening when I told you to get up earlier, you'd've heard me say I have a meeting. At Brynn-Rockefeller. I'm going in with Daniela and you'll be doing your classwork at her place while Parker and Cole sleep."
She felt sick again, and picked up a piece of his toast.
"Less swearing, more eating, let's go."
As they stepped off the employees-only trolleycar and onto the sidewalk downtown, Maya was trying to control her breathing. She'd left Tony with Cole and Parker, who were sleeping but had set up his Teecher console for the day's lesson beforehand, and Daniela had whisked her out the door. The heat was worse than usual today, Maya thought, as they cut across some ClimaTurf. (There was, of course, no actual greenery left outside climate-controlled buildings anymore, except the occasional tough shrub or succulent.) She checked her sunsuit's thermostat: 118° F. The more oxygen she wasted hyperventilating in her sunsuit, the sooner she'd have to buy more—but she was just shy of panicking now, despite Daniela's reassurances as they walked.
"What if they won't let me in?"
"I'm going to use my last guest pass, it's going to be fine."
"But what if they know?"
They rounded the corner, and there it was. She had to snap down her helmet's sunglass shade to deflect the violent gleam of 120 stories' worth of contiguous windows, each equipped with a transparent solar panel that filtered, stored, and processed every ray of punishing sunlight.
The building was so stunning it took Maya a few moments to notice the massive, dark blockade at its base. An enormous throng, comprised of what looked like the entire town of Astoria, crowding around the main entrance to the building. Word had traveled quickly.
Daniela pulled Maya's arm and headed around the back of the building, toward the service entry.
It took a good ten minutes to circumnavigate the massive, cylindrical building. When they came into view of the entrance, Maya's heart sank into her feet. If the whole town hadn't been pushed up against the front doors, whoever was left was huddled around the back door.
"They're not going to let me get through," Maya said, her blood pressure rising again.
"It'll be fine, come on," Daniela said, sounding a little less confident. She grabbed Maya's arm again and set off toward the crowd. When they reached the back of it, Daniela pulled up her ID on her phone, held it high in the air, and shouted:
"Employee coming through! Move please!"'
Pulling Maya along behind her, they started toward the door. The crowd was packed tight; even their sunsuit air filters couldn't stave off the stench of unwashed, desperate bodies pressed against them. It was slow going. Their steps were few and far between as they shuffled sideways, in an attempt to politely minimize direct confrontation. The gesture was far from appreciated.
"Hey, she's not an employee!"
"You can't do that!"
"We've been waiting for an hour!"
"She can't go in there, too, that's not fair!"
"Sorry…sorry…" Maya mumbled, to no one in particular, avoiding any and all eye contact as they jostled their way toward the door.
Meanwhile, the throng of unemployed started pushing. Then they were pushing hard. The two women stumbled one way and then the other as the crowd started rippling back and forth, more and more violently until they were in the epicenter of a furious, irrationally desperate moshpit, its participants mortally intent on stopping whatever injustice they could hear going on a few people away.
Suddenly someone managed to grab ahold of a pocket on the back of her sunsuit.
"Hey, let go of me! Stop!"
She whirled around and without thinking, stared her attacker directly in the eye. It was Carl Muñoz-White.
"Get off of her, asshole!" Daniela shrieked from behind her, wielding her phone like a miniature billy club to keep the throng away.
"No, I know him! Carl—Carl it's me! It's Maya!"
Carl squinted through his helmet's unshaded visor. Though she could only see his face, he looked about fifteen times worse than he had the last time she'd seen him, so much that she was surprised she'd recognized him at all. Carl's family had originally been from Guatemala, and before the SoyQuil Z trials his thirty-something skin had glowed bright and brown (and as Maya had enviously noted back then, practically model-grade poreless), but now even in the sunlight his face looked sickly pale, almost ashen, and dripping with sweat; an unkempt, tangled dark gray-and-black beard obscured what was once a toothpaste-commercial grin, and pushed up against the glass of his helmet, as though he'd forgotten to factor it into the equation.
His eyes were bloodshot and framed underneath with more bags than she thought a person could have; deep, almost black circles beneath those stood out so prominently they looked like the lower lashes Tony used to draw on his stick-figure portraits of her.
If Carl recognized her, too, it didn't register on his slack, haggard face. His eyes tried to focus on her but lack of sleep had rendered them wild, blinking, and terrified.
She tried once more.
"Carl, no te acuerdas de mí? Es Maya Villanueva, tu prójimo. Es Maya!"
His face remained vaguely angry, his eyes worriedly darting every which way.
"Vámonos, Maya, come on!" Daniela urged, tugging on her arm, still using the other to ward off the crowd. Her voice had a note of panic in it now.
Maya turned away from Carl and followed Daniela toward the door, but they'd only taken three steps when suddenly she felt a searing pain in her lower back. She gasped, clutching at the spot, and spun back around to face Carl, who was suddenly holding a box cutter, a look of hysterical fury on his face fading quickly into confusion again. The box cutter was fully protracted and covered in blood.
She looked at her hand. The blood sparkled on her glove in the sunlight like glistening, melted candy. She stared at it for a second. There was only time for an instant of panic before she lost consciousness.
When she woke, Maya was staring at the blank ceiling in the whitest room she had ever seen. Maybe this was what death is?
Then Parker and Daniela appeared by her bedside. They had been sitting and talking quietly by the window (which seemed to display what Tahiti used to look like) and wearing identical all-white uniforms. She was in the Brynn-Rockefeller hospital wing, they said; the guards' gunshots had scattered the crowd and they'd been able to rush her inside before she'd lost too much blood.
"Wait, gunshots?" Maya said. "They shot Carl?"
"They were just warning shots, to get to you," Daniela said. "But…"
"But what? What happened?"
"He—I think…he recognized you…and…"
"What, Daniela? What happened?"
"He…took off his helmet."
"Oh my god. But the guar—"
"…He took off his helmet and ran away…toward the desert."
"We were more concerned with getting you in here than catching him, and no one wanted to lose their place in line. He took off his sunsuit as he ran…"
The sickening silence that followed stretched on for a good three minutes before Maya remembered.
"But the job! What about the job?" she demanded, grabbing Daniela's hand.
"I…..I'm so sorry, Maya," said Parker, putting his hand gently on top of hers and Daniela's. "You've been out for three days. They filled it yesterday."
* Just a handful of people had suffered side effects from the trial samples they trucked out to the larger Astoria community before taking it to market. As advertised, the Soyquil had eliminated sleep patterns, its ingredients had replaced REM and other processes like energy restoration; blood vessel repair; blood pressure, metabolism, and hormone regulation; and general neurological upkeep. When the sample-batch supplements ran out and sleep resumed, however, the benefits didn't. Unable to re-enter recharge mode, about 15% of the Astorians who had tried it became paranoid ghosts, wandering the streets most nights, wide-awake, blankly staring into the darkness beyond the community fences.