Presenting “The Dead,” a story by Michael Swanwick, reprinted from science fiction anthology Starlight for Tor.com’s Monster Mash. “The Dead” presents a future world where zombies take center stage not as a threat, but as a commodity….
Three boy zombies in matching red jackets bussed our table, bringing water, lighting candles, brushing away the crumbs between courses. Their eyes were dark, attentive, lifeless; their hands and faces so white as to be faintly luminous in the hushed light. I thought it in bad taste, but “This is Manhattan,” Courtney said. “A certain studied offensiveness is fashionable here.”
The blond brought menus and waited for our order.
We both ordered pheasant. “An excellent choice,” the boy said in a clear, emotionless voice. He went away and came back a minute later with the freshly strangled birds, holding them up for our approval. He couldn’t have been more than eleven when he died and his skin was of that sort connoisseurs call “milk glass,” smooth, without blemish, and all but translucent. He must have cost a fortune.
As the boy was turning away, I impulsively touched his shoulder. He turned back. “What’s your name, son?” I asked.
“Timothy.” He might have been telling me the specialité de maison. The boy waited a breath to see if more was expected of him, then left.
Courtney gazed after him. “How lovely he would look,” she murmured, “nude. Standing in the moonlight by a cliff. Definitely a cliff. Perhaps the very one where he met his death.”
“He wouldn’t look very lovely if he’d fallen off a cliff.”
“Oh, don’t be unpleasant.”
The wine steward brought our bottle. “Château Latour ’17.” I raised an eyebrow. The steward had the sort of old and complex face that Rembrandt would have enjoyed painting. He poured with pulseless ease and then dissolved into the gloom. “Good lord, Courtney, you seduced me on cheaper.”
She flushed, not happily. Courtney had a better career going than I. She outpowered me. We both knew who was smarter, better-connected, more likely to end up in a corner office with the historically significant antique desk. The only edge I had was that I was a male in a seller’s market. It was enough.
“This is a business dinner, Donald,” she said, “nothing more.”
I favored her with an expression of polite disbelief I knew from experience she’d find infuriating. And, digging into my pheasant, murmured, “Of course.” We didn’t say much of consequence until dessert, when I finally asked, “So what’s Loeb-Soffner up to these days?”
“Structuring a corporate expansion. Jim’s putting together the financial side of the package, and I’m doing personnel. You’re being headhunted, Donald.” She favored me with that feral little flash of teeth she made when she saw something she wanted. Courtney wasn’t a beautiful woman, far from it. But there was that fierceness to her, that sense of something primal being held under tight and precarious control that made her hot as hot to me. “You’re talented, you’re thuggish, and you’re not too tightly nailed to your present position. Those are all qualities we’re looking for.”
She dumped her purse on the table, took out a single folded sheet of paper. “These are the terms I’m offering.” She placed it by my plate, attacked her torte with gusto.
I unfolded the paper. “This is a lateral transfer.”
“Unlimited opportunity for advancement,” she said with her mouth full, “if you’ve got the stuff.”
“Mmm.” I did a line-by-line of the benefits, all comparable to what I was getting now. My current salary to the dollar—Ms. Soffner was showing off. And the stock options. “This can’t be right. Not for a lateral.”
There was that grin again, like a glimpse of shark in murky waters. “I knew you’d like it. We’re going over the top with the options because we need your answer right away—tonight preferably. Tomorrow at the latest. No negotiations. We have to put the package together fast. There’s going to be a shitstorm of publicity when this comes out. We want to have everything nailed down, present the fundies and bleeding hearts with a fait accompli.”
“My God, Courtney, what kind of monster do you have hold of now?”
“The biggest one in the world. Bigger than Apple. Bigger than Home Virtual. Bigger than HIVac-IV,” she said with relish. “Have you ever heard of Koestler Biological?”
I put my fork down.
“Koestler? You’re peddling corpses now?”
“Please. Postanthropic biological resources.” She said it lightly, with just the right touch of irony. Still, I thought I detected a certain discomfort with the nature of her client’s product.
“There’s no money in it.” I waved a hand toward our attentive waitstaff. “These guys must be—what?—maybe two percent of the annual turnover? Zombies are luxury goods: servants, reactor cleanups, Hollywood stunt deaths, exotic services”—we both knew what I meant—”a few hundred a year, maybe, tops. There’s not the demand. The revulsion factor is too great.”
“There’s been a technological breakthrough.” Courtney leaned forward. “They can install the infrasystem and controllers and offer the product for the factory-floor cost of a new subcompact. That’s way below the economic threshold for blue-collar labor.
“Look at it from the viewpoint of a typical factory owner. He’s already downsized to the bone and labor costs are bleeding him dry. How can he compete in dwindling consumer market? Now let’s imagine he buys into the program.” She took out her Mont Blanc and began scribbling figures on the tablecloth. “No benefits. No liability suits. No sick pay. No pilferage. We’re talking about cutting labor costs by at least two-thirds. Minimum! That’s irresistible, I don’t care how big your revulsion factor is. We project we can move five hundred thousand units in the first year.”
“Five hundred thousand,” I said. “That’s crazy. Where the hell are you going to get the raw material for—?”
“Oh, God, Courtney.” I was struck wordless by the cynicism it took to even consider turning the sub-Saharan tragedy to a profit, by the sheer, raw evil of channeling hard currency to the pocket Hitlers who ran the camps. Courtney only smiled and gave that quick little flip of her head that meant she was accessing the time on an optic chip.
“I think you’re ready,” she said, “to talk with Koestler.”
At her gesture, the zombie boys erected projector lamps about us, fussed with the settings, turned them on. Interference patters moired, clashed, meshed. Walls of darkness erected themselves about us. Courtney took out her flat and set it up on the table. Three taps of her nailed fingers and the round and hairless face of Marvin Koestler appeared on the screen. “Ah, Courtney!” he said in a pleased voice. “You’re in—NewYork, yes? The San Moritz. With Donald.” The slightest pause with each accessed bit of information. “Did you have the antelope medallions?” When we shook our heads, he kissed his fingertips. “Magnificent! They’re ever so lightly braised and then smothered in buffalo mozzarella. Nobody makes them better. I had the same dish in Florence the other day, and there was simply no comparison.”
I cleared my throat. “Is that where you are? Italy?”
“Let’s leave out where I am.” He made a dismissive gesture, as if it were a trifle. But Courtney’s face darkened. Corporate kidnapping being the growth industry it is, I’d gaffed badly. “The question is—what do you think of my offer?”
“It’s interesting. For a lateral.”
“It’s the start-up costs. We’re leveraged up to our asses as it is. You’ll make out better this way in the long run.” He favored me with a sudden grin that went mean around the edges. Very much the financial buccaneer. Then he leaned forward, lowered his voice, maintained firm eye contact. Classic people-handling techniques. “You’re not sold. You know you can trust Courtney to have checked out the finances. Still, you think: It won’t work. To work, the product has to be irresistible, and it’s not. It can’t be.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “Succinctly put.”
He nodded to Courtney. “Let’s sell this young man.” And to me, “My stretch is downstairs.”
He winked out.
Koestler was waiting for us in the limo, a ghostly pink presence. His holo, rather, a genial if somewhat coarse-grained ghost afloat in golden light. He waved an expansive and insubstantial arm to take in the interior of the car and said, “Make yourselves at home.”
The chauffeur wore combat-grade photomultipliers. They gave him a buggish, inhuman look. I wasn’t sure if he was dead or not.
“Take us to Heaven,” Koestler said.
The doorman stepped out into the street, looked both ways, nodded to the chauffeur. Robot guns tracked our progress down the block.
“Courtney tells me you’re getting the raw materials from Africa.”
“Distasteful, but necessary. To begin with. We have to sell the idea first—no reason to make things rough on ourselves. Down the line, though, I don’t see why we can’t go domestic. Something along the lines of a reverse mortgage, perhaps, life insurance that pays off while you’re still alive. It’d be a step towards getting the poor off our backs at last. Fuck ’em. They’ve been getting a goddamn free ride for too long; the least they can do is to die and provide us with servants.”
I was pretty sure Koestler was joking. But I smiled and ducked my head, so I’d be covered in either case. “What’s Heaven?” I asked, to move the conversation onto safer territory.
“A proving ground,” Koestler said with great satisfaction, “for the future. Have you ever witnessed bare-knuckles fisticuffs?”
“Ah, now there’s a sport for gentlemen! The sweet science at its sweetest. No rounds, no rules, no holds barred. It gives you the real measure of a man—not just of his strength but his character. How he handles himself, whether he keeps cool under pressure—how he stands up to pain. Security won’t let me go to the clubs in person, but I’ve made arrangements.”
Heaven was a converted movie theater in a rundown neighborhood in Queens. The chauffer got out, disappeared briefly around the back, and returned with two zombie bodyguards. It was like a conjurer’s trick. “You had these guys stashed in the trunk?” I asked as he opened the door for us.
“It’s a new world,” Courtney said. “Get used to it.”
The place was mobbed. Two, maybe three hundred seats, standing room only. A mixed crowd, blacks and Irish and Koreans mostly, but with a smattering of uptown customers as well. You didn’t have to be poor to need the occasional taste of vicarious potency. Nobody paid us any particular notice. We’d come in just as the fighters were being presented.
“Weighing two-five-oh, in black trunks with a red stripe,” the ref was bawling, “tha gang-bang gangsta, tha bare-knuckle brawla, tha man with tha—”
Courtney and I went up a scummy set of back stairs. Bodyguard-us-bodyguard, as if we were a combat patrol out of some twentieth-century jungle war. A scrawny, potbellied old geezer with a damp cigar in his mouth unlocked the door to our box. Sticky floor, bad seats, a good view down on the ring. Grey plastic matting, billowing smoke.
Koestler was there, in a shiny new hologram shell. It reminded me of those plaster Madonnas in painted bathtubs that Catholics set out in their yards. “Your permanent box?” I asked.
“All of this is for your sake, Donald—you and a few others. We’re pitting our product one-on-one against some of the local talent. By arrangement with the management. What you’re going to see will settle your doubts once and for all.”
“You’ll like this,” Courtney said. “I’ve been here five nights straight. Counting tonight.” The bell rang, starting the fight. She leaned forward avidly, hooking her elbows on the railing.
The zombie was grey-skinned and modestly muscled, for a fighter. But it held up its hands alertly, was light on its feet, and had strangely calm and knowing eyes.
Its opponent was a real bruiser, a big black guy with classic African features twisted slightly out of true so that his mouth curled up in a kind of sneer on one side. He had gang scars on his chest and even uglier marks on his back that didn’t look deliberate but like something he’d earned on the streets. His eyes burned with an intensity just this side of madness.
He came forward cautiously but not fearfully, and made a couple of quick jabs to get the measure of his opponent. They were blocked and countered.
They circled each other, looking for an opening.
For a minute or so, nothing much happened. Then the gangster feinted at the zombie’s head, drawing up its guard. He drove through that opening with a slam to the zombie’s nuts that made me wince.
The dead fighter responded with a flurry of punches, and got in a glancing blow to its opponent’s cheek. They separated, engaged, circled around.
Then the big guy exploded in a combination of killer blows, connecting so solidly it seemed they would splinter every rib in the dead fighter’s body. It brought the crowd to their feet, roaring their approval.
The zombie didn’t even stagger.
A strange look came into the gangster’s eyes, then, as the zombie counterattacked, driving him back into the ropes. I could only imagine what it must be like for a man who had always lived by his strength and his ability to absorb punishment to realize that he was facing an opponent to whom pain meant nothing. Fights were lost and won by flinches and hesitations. You won by keeping your head. You lost by getting rattled.
Despite his best blows, the zombie stayed methodical, serene, calm, relentless. That was its nature.
It must have been devastating.
The fight went on and on. It was a strange and alienating experience for me. After awhile I couldn’t stay focused on it. My thoughts kept slipping into a zone where I found myself studying the line of Courtney’s jaw, thinking about later tonight. She liked her sex just a little bit sick. There was always a feeling, fucking her, that there was something truly repulsive that she really wanted to do but lacked the courage to bring up on her own.
So there was always this urge to get her to do something she didn’t like. She was resistant; I never dared try more than one new thing per date. But I could always talk her into that one thing. Because when she was aroused, she got pliant. She could be talked into anything. She could be made to beg for it.
Courtney would’ve been amazed to learn that I was not proud of what I did with her—quite the opposite, in fact. But I was as obsessed with her as she was with whatever it was that obsessed her.
Suddenly Courtney was on her feet, yelling. The hologram showed Koestler on his feet as well. The big guy was on the ropes, being pummeled. Blood and spittle flew from his face with each blow. Then he was down; he’d never even had a chance. He must’ve known early on that it was hopeless, that he wasn’t going to win, but he’d refused to take a fall. He had to be pounded into the ground. He went down raging, proud and uncomplaining. I had to admire that.
But he lost anyway.
That, I realized, was the message I was meant to take away from this. Not just that the product was robust. But that only those who backed it were going to win. I could see, even if the audience couldn’t, that it was the end of an era. A man’s body wasn’t worth a damn anymore. There wasn’t anything it could do that technology couldn’t handle better. The number of losers in the world had just doubled, tripled, reached maximum. What the fools below were cheering for was the death of their futures.
I got up and cheered too.
In the stretch afterwards, Koestler said, “You’ve seen the light. You’re a believer now.”
“I haven’t necessarily decided yet.”
“Don’t bullshit me,” Koestler said. “I’ve done my homework, Mr. Nichols. Your current position is not exactly secure. Morton-Western is going down the tubes. The entire service sector is going down the tubes. Face it, the old economic order is as good as fucking gone. Of course you’re going to take my offer. You don’t have any other choice.”
The fax outed sets of contracts. “A Certain Product,” it said here and there. Corpses were never mentioned.
But when I opened my jacket to get a pen, Koestler said, “Wait. I’ve got a factory. Three thousand positions under me. I’ve got a motivated workforce. They’d walk through fire to keep their jobs. Pilferage is at zero. Sick time practically the same. Give me one advantage your product has over my current workforce. Sell me on it. I’ll give you thirty seconds.”
I wasn’t in sales and the job had been explicitly promised me already. But by reaching for the pen, I had admitted I wanted the position. And we all knew whose hand carried the whip.
“They can be catheterized,” I said—”no toilet breaks.”
For a long instant Koestler just stared at me blankly. Then he exploded with laughter. “By God, that’s a new one! You have a great future ahead of you, Donald. Welcome aboard.”
He winked out.
We drove on in silence for a while, aimless, directionless. At last Courtney leaned forward and touched the chauffer’s shoulder.
“Take me home,” she said.
Riding through Manhattan I suffered from a waking hallucination that we were driving through a city of corpses. Grey faces, listless motions. Everyone looked dead in the headlights and sodium vapor streetlamps. Passing by the Children’s Museum I saw a mother with a stroller through the glass doors. Two small children by her side. They all three stood motionless, gazing forward at nothing. We passed by a stop-and-go where zombies stood out on the sidewalk drinking forties in paper bags. Through upper-story windows I could see the sad rainbow trace of virtuals playing to empty eyes. There were zombies in the park, zombies smoking blunts, zombies driving taxis, zombies sitting on stoops and hanging out on street corners, all of them waiting for the years to pass and the flesh to fall from their bones.
I felt like the last man alive.
Courtney was still wired and sweaty from the fight. The pheromones came off her in great waves as I followed her down the hall to her apartment. She stank of lust. I found myself thinking of how she got just before orgasm, so desperate, so desirable. It was different after she came, she would fall into a state of calm assurance; the same sort of calm assurance she showed in her business life, the aplomb she sought so wildly during the act itself.
And when that desperation left her, so would I. Because even I could recognize that it was her desperation that drew me to her, that made me do the things she needed me to do. In all the years I’d known her, we’d never once had breakfast together.
I wished there was some way I could deal her out of the equation. I wished that her desperation were a liquid that I could drink down to the dregs. I wished I could drop her in a wine press and squeeze her dry.
At her apartment, Courtney unlocked her door and in one complicated movement twisted through and stood facing me from the inside. “Well,” she said. “All in all, a productive evening. Good night, Donald.”
“Good night? Aren’t you going to invite me inside?”
“What do you mean, no?” She was beginning to piss me off. A blind man could’ve told she was in heat from across the street. A chimpanzee could’ve talked his way into her pants. “What kind of idiot game are you playing now?”
“You know what no means, Donald. You’re not stupid.”
“No I’m not, and neither are you. We both know the score. Now let me in, goddammit.”
“Enjoy your present,” she said, and closed the door.
I found Courtney’s present back in my suite. I was still seething from her treatment of me and stalked into the room, letting the door slam behind me. I was standing in near-total darkness. The only light was what little seeped through the draped windows at the far end of the room. I was just reaching for the light switch when there was a motion in the darkness.
‘Jackers! I thought, and all in a panic lurched for the light switch, hoping to achieve I don’t know what. Credit-jackers always work in trios, one to torture the security codes out of you, one to phone the numbers out of your accounts and into a fiscal trapdoor, a third to stand guard. Was turning the lights on supposed to make them scurry for darkness, like roaches? Nevertheless, I almost tripped over my own feet in my haste to reach the switch. But of course it was nothing like what I’d feared.
It was a woman.
She stood by the window in a white silk dress that could neither compete with nor distract from her ethereal beauty, her porcelain skin. When the lights came on, she turned toward me, eyes widening, lips parting slightly. Her breasts swayed ever so slightly as she gracefully raised a bare arm to offer me a lily. “Hello, Donald,” she said huskily. “I’m yours for the night.” She was absolutely beautiful.
And dead, of course.
Not twenty minutes later I was hammering on Courtney’s door. She came to the door in a Pierre Cardin dressing gown and from the way she was still cinching the sash and the disarray of her hair I gathered she hadn’t been expecting me.
“I’m not alone,” she said.
“I didn’t come here for the dubious pleasures of your fair white body.” I pushed my way into the room. (But couldn’t help remembering that beautiful body of hers, not so exquisite as the dead whore’s, and now the thoughts were inextricably mingled in my head, death and Courtney, sex and corpses, a Gordian knot I might never be able to untangle.)
“You didn’t like my surprise?” She was smiling openly now, amused.
“No, I fucking did not!”
I took a step toward her. I was shaking. I couldn’t stop fisting and unfisting my hands.
She fell back a step. But that confident, oddly expectant look didn’t leave her face. “Bruno,” she said lightly. “Would you come in here?”
A motion at the periphery of vision. Bruno stepped out of the shadows of her bedroom. He was a muscular brute, pumped, ripped, and as black as the fighter I’d seen go down earlier that night. He stood behind Courtney, totally naked, with slim hips and wide shoulders and the finest skin I’d ever seen.
I saw it all in a flash.
“Oh, for God’s sake, Courtney!” I said, disgusted. “I can’t believe you. That you’d actually That thing’s just an obedient body. There’s nothing there—no passion, no connection, just physical presence.”
Courtney made a kind of chewing motion through her smile, weighing the implications of what she was about to say. Nastiness won.
“We have equity now,” she said.
I lost it then. I stepped forward, raising a hand, and I swear to God I intended to bounce the bitch’s head off the back wall. But she didn’t flinch—she didn’t even look afraid. She merely moved aside, saying, “In the body, Bruno. He has to look good in a business suit.”
A dead fist smashed into my ribs so hard I thought for an instant my heart had stopped. Then Bruno punched me in my stomach. I doubled over, gasping. Two, three, four more blows. I was on the ground now, rolling over, helpless and weeping with rage.
“That’s enough, baby. Now put out the trash.”
Bruno dumped me in the hallway.
I glared up at Courtney through my tears. She was not at all beautiful now. Not in the least. You’re getting older, I wanted to tell her. But instead I heard my voice, angry and astonished, saying, “You you goddamn, fucking necrophile!”
“Cultivate a taste for it,” Courtney said. Oh, she was purring! I doubted she’d ever find life quite this good again. “Half a million Brunos are about to come on the market. You’re going to find it a lot more difficult to pick up living women in not so very long.”
I sent away the dead whore. Then I took a long shower that didn’t really make me feel any better. Naked, I walked into my unlit suite and opened the curtains. For a long time I stared out over the glory and darkness that was Manhattan.
I was afraid, more afraid than I’d ever been in my life.
The slums below me stretched to infinity. They were a vast necropolis, a neverending city of the dead. I thought of the millions out there who were never going to hold down a job again. I thought of how they must hate me—me and my kind—and how helpless they were before us. And yet. There were so many of them and so few of us. If they were to all rise up at once, they’d be like a tsunami, irresistible. And if there was so much as a spark of life left in them, then that was exactly what they would do.
That was one possibility. There was one other, and that was that nothing would happen. Nothing at all.
God help me, but I didn’t know which one scared me more.
“The Dead” copyright © 1996 Michael Swanwick