Death and Other Gentrifying Neighborhoods
In the not so distant future, on the shores of submerged Miami, a tale of sex, server farms, and the exploited human 'reboots' who keep the new world humming.
What you're about to read—a deft, darkly provocative vision of a near-future that encompasses climate change, sexuality, and the politics of gentrification, to note just a few themes here—is one of the richest, most densely idea-packed speculations you're ever likely to get your eyeballs on. And it could only have come from the mind of Sam J. Miller, SF writer, community organizer, and author of the Nebula-nominated Blackfish City. I won't spoil this electrifying piece any further—enjoy. -the Ed.
People say you can't tell the difference when they aren't wearing their armbands, but that's bullshit. Anyone with eyes and even a shred of insight can identify a reboot. Especially when one is fucking you. Especially when they aren't wearing a condom.
"Sorry," Ejj said, pulling out. "I got carried away."
"It's cool," I said. "If I was worried I would have told you to stop."
I was super worried. Supposedly reboot syphilis was fucking nuts, having evolved to survive the nano-lymph that kept reboots from rotting. I told myself that was propaganda, more bullshit about reboots being sick, evil, dangerous, crazy. But I did not completely convince myself.
Ejj sat. Lit a cigarette. Air horns sounded, outside. Stalled boats on the Biscayne Boulevard canal. Miami mid-afternoon; just another coastal city abandoned by almost everyone, reclaimed by reboots. I hated my job, but it did allow for moments like this one.
His body was beautiful. I let my fingers trace his jawline, the stubble that would never grow longer than it was. Shame leaked into my arteries ( corpse-fucker) but the sensation was not completely unpleasant. A spatter of raised flesh lumps lay across his stomach. Posthumous grafting. "Is that where it happened?" I asked.
"It's rude to ask that," he said.
"I'm sorry—I didn't know."
I did know. But he'd just ejaculated inside me, so I figured we had reached a higher level of intimacy. Apparently Ejj agreed, because he laughed and said, "Yeah, that's it—ICE camp perimeter bomb shrapnel. He bled out on the way back to his cell."
This surprised me. Most reboots didn't want to know about the people who had occupied their bodies before. "Do you remember it?" I whispered, almost against my will.
He shook his head sadly, but only after a very slight pause. Like maybe he did, but didn't care to share something so personal and painful. That's what had caught my eye, when I’d seen him on the sex app. The thumbnail was all brute scowling studliness, but then I'd clicked in and the full-screen version showed me something else in the eyes. Something fragile.
"I know why you're here," he said, and put a hand on my thigh.
"Of course you do," I said, grinning.
"No," he said, abruptly. "I know why you're in Miami."
I held tight to the smile on my face, so he wouldn't see the sudden fear.
"You're here working on the server farms. Aren't you?"
"Yeah," I said.
There was no sense lying about it. Telecom employees were flooding the flooded cities. The ones that hadn’t prepared for the rising seas, and died, and been revived by the reboots. Where better to build the new solar-powered water-cooled server banks, than the cities that had nothing left but sunlight and seawater? The fact that doing so would cause massive disruptions to the people who lived there didn't seem to bother anyone. Because the people who lived there were dead.
Death is just another country to colonize, my supervisor Mitchell had told me, before my boat went east from New Orleans. The afterlife is one more neighborhood to gentrify. He paid me shit and he thought he was a poet. He was also a fellow reboot fetishist, and thought that made us kindred souls. Of course he swore it wasn't a fetish. So did I. Fetish sounded bad. Just a preference, our profiles said.
But, yeah, it sort of was a fetish. I could see that, now, with Ejj’s sad eyes on mine. He was a person. My fantasies of being held down and ravaged by a corpse hadn’t taken that into account. I felt bad enough about it that when he said, "Come with me? I want to show you something," I said yes, even though I knew better.
One on one they're harmless, Mitchell had said, wiping wet egg from his mouth, mostly. Sometimes you get one that's, I dunno, glitchy, crazy, but mostly they know better. When they get together, that’s when you need to worry. We've been hearing about these reboot resistance cells... who knows when they might start acting crazy. You don't wanna be in the wrong place at the wrong time, end up as That Guy who gets kidnapped and decapitated on camera.
Mitchell disgusted me, and he worked me too hard, but that didn’t make him wrong.
Miami was hot and wet, when we walked out into it. I blinked in the bright light. Ejj did not. I wondered if he'd overclocked his eyes. We stepped onto the pontoon walkway and headed west.
"So your” (don’t say 'predecessor,' they hate that) “body… it was a refugee in an ICE camp," I said, trying to sound unafraid. "What about your mind? Who was he? Or she."
"The dichotomy is a false one," he said. "Thinking like that—body versus brain—is exactly why pre-corpses like you got us into this mess."
"I'm sorry," I said, not flinching at the slur. "I’m the product of an ignorant and biased system. Enlighten me. Deconstruct that dichotomy."
Ejj held eye contact, scanning my face for sincerity. "Fine," he said. "So, sixty years ago, we develop the tech to do brain uploads. Man's triumph over death, right? Live forever, if you can afford it. The developing world has too many young corpses and the developed one has too many old minds. Two birds, one stone. Reboot the corpses, slot them full of nano-lymph so they never rot or age, wipe the brain, upload a new one. Except, surprise. The mind is only half of who you are. The body is the other half. Put an old brain into a fresh body and you don't get to start over—you get a completely new person."
Wind hit me. Colder than I'd been expecting. Soon the sun would set. We were leaving the heart of the reboot settlement, approaching the server farms that already existed.
"A woman’s new body goes into full PTSD fight response when her husband of forty years touches her. A famous concert pianist’s new hands can’t make chords. And a thousand other tiny differences. Are you really so ignorant you've never heard any of this?"
“No," I said. I'd read all the best reboot authors. Memorized all their music. But I wasn't about to say that to Ejj. Some folks got touchy about pre-corpses laying claim to their culture. "I guess I wasn't thinking."
"I'm my own person," he said. "I'm not Ellicent Troff, senior vice president of communications at Smeerp!, or Jagajeet Bahawalanzai, Bangladeshi mason who died outside of Trenton. I'm me."
The intensity of his gaze unsettled me. I remembered his picture on the app. What if it wasn't fragility I'd seen in his eyes? What if it was crazy? Like any enlightened person, I knew it was mostly lies, when the media said reboots were dangerous. The news stories about assaults and murders and drug trafficking by reboots—I figured these were statistical anomalies, repeated only to sow fear and support for pro-incarceration politicians. But here, now, in the dying sunlight, alone with a beautiful man who had already ejaculated inside me and could murder me effortlessly, I was not so confident.
"People paid millions to bring their loved ones back, but what they got were strangers. And these strangers started walking out on them. Forming reboot settlements, far away from the pre-corpses who didn’t understand them. Suddenly no one was in a hurry to triumph over death anymore."
We'd reached the servers. Great flippered pods, rotating too slowly to be seen by the naked eye. Bored people in canoes paddled slowly up and down the expanse of them, shotguns sleeping in their laps. Already, they were too closely packed on the side streets. Soon the pods would spread east, right down the center of the boulevard canal, disrupting the reboot thoroughfare.
"Until these new server farms. Suddenly you could upload into the cloud and live forever that way. Pay poor people shit to take care of you. Pre-corpses and reboots alike. And if it wasn't really you that got uploaded, who gave a shit? You were just data. You wouldn't be making your loved ones’ lives miserable until they died and joined you. You're a tertiary security analyst, right?"
"How did you know that?" I asked.
“We're blowing this server strip up next week," he said, unsmilingly.
"Our Opa-Locka fish farm has been diverting waste for explosives. We've got enough to take out almost half of it."
I stammered, "You know that's crazy, right? This is barely a tenth of the total servers in Miami alone. To say nothing of the state, the eastern seaboard, the fucking planet..."
"We know all that."
"And... the system has massive redundancies built in. At any given moment the files on this server are stored on 499 others, scattered around the globe. Blowing this one up will have no impact on the people stored here."
"Won't it, though? There's a psychological value, to an attack like that. Lets them know we're not so weak they can keep fucking us raw."
I winced, at the implied insult. "But they won't—"
"They'll be forced to increase security. Not just here—at all their server farms. That'll exponentially increase the cost of operations."
The protests died in my mouth. It would not shut.
"Why do you think I picked you?" he asked.
"You... picked me? I'm the one who hit you up."
"You hit up ten of us this morning, didn't you? I know you did. Half of us were sitting together at the time."
Fear had frozen my whole body. I couldn't make myself nod, but I did not need to.
"Why are you telling me all this?" I finally found the strength to ask.
Ejj laughed. "What, you think we're going to kill you?"
"Or kidnap me," I said. "Maybe cut my head off on the air, later."
Ejj's laugh cut out abruptly. "You people are seriously sick."
He kept walking. I followed, too frightened not to. Who might be watching, from the big broken-glass towers that surrounded us?
"You could run tell your superiors," he said. "Maybe they could avert this attack. But we'd strike elsewhere. And they'd be forced to beef up security all the same. That, too, would increase the cost of operations. A very acceptable outcome, as far as we’re concerned. But there's another option here. One where you pretend this whole conversation never happened."
"Why would I..."—but my voice trailed off, thinking of Mitchell, cheerfully fucking the dead boys he’d made homeless.
"We've been watching you for a while," Ejj said. "I've seen your posts. I know your heart’s in the right place. But I also know you haven't fully understood the consequences of your actions. You think because you scold someone for calling us zombies online your conscience is clear, but then you help the people destroying our homes. Between getting called names and having my community dismantled, I'd much rather you call me names."
A bell clanged, on a buoy somewhere. Dogs barked. Chickens squabbled. This wasn't just where people lived. This was someone's home. Was Mitchell what I wanted to be?
“Let me guess,” Ejj said. “They told you that loyal service to the company would be rewarded. That they’d upload you, once you got to a certain level of corporate investiture. Didn't they?”
I didn’t answer. He knew it was true.
“Did you ever stop to think about how stupid that is?”
I shook my head. I really hadn’t.
“There’s fifty thousand tertiary security analysts at your company alone. To say nothing of primary, secondary… at all the other telecoms… Server capacity is, what, an additional five thousand uploads a year?”
“If we keep growing…”
“I know that’s what you tell yourself. Why you do what you do, for them. When you know, on some level, that it’s wrong. And you have to see that the math doesn’t track.” The pity in Ejj’s eyes opened up a tiny crack inside me. “Whether they’ll find a way to fire you before your investiture, or just fucking lie and say they uploaded you, or something else entirely, I don’t know.”
A septic smell wafted south.
"You could help us out a hell of a lot, Connor." His hand was warm on my arm.
Ejj sat. Called hello to a woman in a passing skiff. Her smile was magnificent. Between Mitchell and Ejj, there was really no question.
I sat. My bare feet slid into the cold salty water. Several stories above us, a child's scream collapsed into laughter.
“Hypothetically,” I whispered. "What would you want me to do?"
Sam J. Miller is a writer and a community organizer. His debut novel The Art of Starving (HarperTeen) was one of NPR's Best Books of 2017, and won the Andre Norton Award for Best Young Adult Science Fiction Novel. His current novel, Blackfish City (Ecco Press; Orbit) was a "Best Book of the Year" according to Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, and was called " an action-packed science fiction thriller" and "surprisingly heartwarming” by the Washington Post. His stories have appeared in over a dozen "year's best" anthologies. He's a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Workshop, and a winner of the Shirley Jackson Award. He lives in New York City, and at samjmiller.com.