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Dev's the first you meet, when you move into the old, crumbling apartment building in the DownTown sector of New-Squared-York.
He appears at the bus stop near the stairs outside, tells you he's just gotten home from his evening shift - "not that it matters, ever since the sky's gone dark, yeah?" - then asks if you're the one moving in. "Heard we were gonna get a new guy. You need any help? What's your room number? These your bags?
"Hold on, get 'em up for you in a sec" - and then he's whisking in and out in puffs of displaced air and small flurries of concrete dust across the floor as you fumble with the keys, push the door open, and head inside the building.
When you finish climbing the stairs, all forty-two of them past the faded Marlboro3k ads and the yellowing holoprints that litter the floor like a new kind of carpeting, Dev's leaning against the peeling wallpaper beside your new apartment's door and lighting up a cigarette, surrounded by all your luggage.
"Hello, neighbor," he says, shaking your hand. You can feel the calluses on his fingers. "Name's Devante. I live in ten-four."
And then he laughs, pointing to a badge on his jacket.
And he says, "I'm a taxi."
There are others in the building, you learn over the next few days. A freezer. An air conditioner duo. Several lights. A whole family of generators. And more. You learn some names, too, and faces - and you're starting to be able to match them up.
There's Lenny, who spends eight hours of every day wrapped in a wireform cage at the power plant, mindlessly fueling whatever section of the city he's assigned to until the next guy comes along to take his shift. He always comes home exhausted but still crackling with enough electricity to make the hair on his arms and head stand up. And he grumbles under his breath, but he's got to keep working for his son and daughter who want to grow up to be generators just like him.
There's Rose, whose real name is Myra. She sits at a phone booth, transmitting other people's conversations one stop over to the next phone girl's mind, a stream of strangers' thoughts and words through her head, all day long. Nights, she works at a psychic center with the rest of the phones for the extra cash. She tells you that none of them can really see the future, only read present, unguarded thoughts - they just tell people what they know they want to hear. "Never trust a telepath what says she can see past t'morrow," she tells you. "They're all liars."
There's Dev, of course, who you met on your first day here, one of the only taxis still actually living in DownTown. "See," he'd explained one day, and showed you the little microchip built into his badge - "taxis get access to topside, so we can port things through the Wall. And when you've got access - man, it's topside, who wouldn't wanna stay?" But Dev stays, he tells you, "because ten hours of yes-sir and no-ma'am a day is long freaking enough. You've never been UpTown," he says, and it's one of the only times he's not smiling since you met him. "You don't know how they treat you up there, if you're one of us."
And then there's Asheni, the apartment building's boiler. She spends fourteen hours a day in the building's basement, heating your water and air - you've got heat from seven in the morning to eleven at night, a comparative luxury in DownTown where buildings that even have empty boiler rooms are rare. And the rest of the hours? "Who knows," Dev says - he's seen her scurrying from the boiler room to her apartment in a towel, but that's about all he's got. Lenny tells you that boilers make a lot of money, but all the jobs that make a lot of money never give you any time to enjoy it.
Lenny, Rose, Dev, Asheni...
And then there's you.
"So what'sit you do?"
It's Rose that's asking, one afternoon that you, she, and Dev converge in the lobby of the apartment, all just arriving home for lunch out of the neonlit dark.
"What'sit you do?"
You tell her you'd rather not say.
And you see her and Dev glance at each other - and you know what they're thinking, when they nod in understanding and accept your answer. They're thinking what you're thinking: about the third World War. How it blacked the sky and sucked the earth dry and demolished Old New York in an almost noiseless implosion of air. They're thinking about how many people died and how many people it left changed and how many of those changed people and their changed descendants took the places of machines the world could no longer afford to run.
Generators, phones, taxis, boilers.
Copy machines, radios, databanks, freezers.
Waste burners, calculators, water purifiers, all the jobs no one wants to think about doing or anyone else doing, anymore.
Everything everyone used to take for granted.
You see Dev throw away the cup of coffee he's got in his hand, and you can guess what he's thinking then, too: coffee comes from coffee machines. One of those coffee machines might be you.
Nature works in funny ways, making up for humanity's mistakes.
Every few days your schedules collide, Lenny, Rose, Dev, and you.
Six am, time to get up and start heading off to work, and you find them all lingering in the lobby, stealing a few minutes of leisure before the long hours of mindless automation. You join in the talk about things like the weather, what kind of cloud they think it'll be today, about Lenny's kids, about the idiots that call Rose's hotline or any interesting conversations she's channeled. Dev talks about the people he's ported, the places he's ported to, the sights he's seen, and the rest of you drink up the unfamiliar details of beauty like the plants in the Jersey Desert drink up rain.
And sometimes the talk turns to news. About the new plant that's opening up. Or new job openings for air conditioners in the basement of that topside skyscraper they're building. Worries that there's about to be a saturation of generators and some will be left with no way to work. And sometimes, just sometimes, maybe when the clouds are light enough and everyone's had a good night's sleep, wistful talk of what it'd be like to have marriage rights and voting rights and maybe even last names.
It's one of these days that Lenny brings up Davis.
You recognize the name; he's an engine you've seen around the neighborhood before, shouting about revolution and resistance and handing out flyers to anyone who'll take one. The flyers talk about organization and power and meetings and taking down the Wall, of everyone in DownTown rising up and taking control of New-Squared-York. Rose calls him am idiot and an idealist like both are the same thing; Dev thinks he's funny but naïve; Lenny just sighs and says sometimes he wishes he could think like Davis, too.
You ask what Davis thinks like, and they tell you.
Davis thinks like this: it's the DownTown that has the power. Power, like Dev can teleport. Rose can read minds. Lenny can shoot lightning from his fingertips if he wants to. And Dev bets Asheni can burn this place to the ground within minutes, if she ever snapped. Join the DownTown together, and it's a formidable army. An army like that could destroy the Wall by force. An army like that could obliterate UpTown like a second nuke. Buildings would fall. Governments would fail. The United States of New York could be nothing but ash and a memory. With a threat like that, they'd have to give us rights - that's how Davis thinks.
You ask how they think, and they tell you that, too.
They think like this: an army isn't going to help. Destroy the Wall, take down UpTown, and it'd be even worse than before. Lenny is afraid for his kids. He doesn't want to raise them in anarchy. Dev's too jaded to think that an army would even ever form. Rose points out that even if it did, and it succeeded in taking over, Eurafrica would probably nuke us as soon as they heard. And people have tried to organize riots in the past, all over the end of the second millennium - even women, who made up half the population. But nothing got done, no one ever got change, except through politics.
"And even so, there's a difference between them and us," Lenny adds, and he sounds so tired, so very tired.
When you ask what, they all laugh, but there's no humor in it.
And Dev asks you, "Who ever heard of liberating a toaster?"
Asheni's dancing, when you accidentally open the door to the boiler room.
There's a blast of heat in your face, a couple flying sparks past your ears - and there she is, eyes closed, body haloed by fire, dancing to music only she can hear.
Flames trail her fingertips, red and orange flicker across her skin; you finally see what Dev meant before about her scurrying around in a towel - the way she heats, all her clothes would burn off if she wore any, cast off as ash with the first sweep of her arms. She makes you think of vidstars you used to see on TV, all curves and beauty and sylphlike grace, but without the glitz and glamour. No lights except her own fire, no shine except the sweat on her skin.
She's good enough to be one, no question.
But she's not, and instead of a multi-million dollar studio, she's dancing in a three-by-three boiler room in the basement of an apartment building in the DownTown sector of New-Squared-York. But not in her head - even you can tell that. It's in the furious way she moves, the way her eyes stay closed as she throws her head back, her straight spine, her set shoulders, in the confidence she doesn't have outside this room.
Here, she's a volcano with an upsweep of her arms. A phoenix soaring through fantasy skies that remain blue. A blooming explosion, destructive and beautiful. A spirit of the old earth, wild and free.
You suppose that's what boilers dream of.
And that confidence is still there when Asheni finally opens her eyes and notices the open door and you still standing in it, watching her. She lowers her arms and looks at you, fire stilling as she does. "How am I?" she asks coolly.
You tell her she's good.
You say you've never seen anything like it before, and that's the truth.
She smiles at you before turning around and returning to her dance.
You think she might be crying, if the flames weren't burning away her tears.
They only figure it out right before you leave.
Dev says, "Aw, you shoulda told us you were leaving, we would've thrown you a party or something," and then he's whisking in and out in puffs of displaced air and small flurries of concrete dust across the floor, helping you move out just like he helped you move in, the day you got here.
When you get down the stairs, all forty-two of them past the faded Marlboro3k ads and the yellowing holoprints that litter the floor like a new kind of carpeting, Dev's leaning against the grey concrete façade outside and lighting up a cigarette, surrounded by all your luggage - and Rose and Lenny and Asheni too, all smiling but sad. Seems like he's made a few extra trips.
Their smiles first falter when your taxi arrives - not a taxi like Dev but a real taxi, real high-class - smooth and professional and efficient, mirrored shades and tailored uniform and carefully neutral expression, things you just don't ever see, DownTown. She calls you sir, asks where might she be taking you today, sir? And when you give her your topside address, that's when their smiles disappear completely - Dev into disbelief, Rose into disgust, Lenny into confusion, Asheni into vague surprise, then tired acceptance.
And then the questions start: "You're human? Why are you here? Why did you lie to us? Why-- why didn't you say anything?" And so you explain: you tell them how your boss UpTown wanted your wife, so you cleared out for a while - no big loss, you'd only married her under N2Y Ordinance 34 anyway and barely knew her name - and now you're going back to your job, since he's recently been fired and they're re-hiring you. That's all.
The four of them stare at you in even more confusion than before as you start picking up your bags - and then the three of them, as Rose swears and storms off inside, probably back to her room.
And after a moment of silence, Dev asks for all of them.
"You're just... going back?"
Yeah, you tell him. I'm just going back.
"But I thought we--"
I'd like you, you say, but who would be a toaster's friend?
Shall we go, sir? the taxi asks - infinitely patient, wonderfully machine. You've missed that.
You take her hand, and blink topside.