Ed note: We’re living in strange times. Many of us never imagined we’d see global shortages of medical masks, have to worry about hospital bed counts, or be limiting our connection with friends and family to video calls. We remain optimistic we’ll get past this, but you never know what the future holds. As an exercise in self-awareness, we’ve commissioned this speculative science fiction; a grim but fascinating snapshot of potential things to come.
MegaPhilly 20XX Prelude: Modern history
Look on my City, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, trash-strewn and bare
The lone and level concrete stretches far away.”
— Edmund Bacon, probably
Coronavirus outbreak shuts down all recreation and nonessential commerce in Philadelphia. People are forced to shelter in place for months on end. Sports arenas are transformed into hospital overflow centers and Wawa donates a refrigerated trailer to use as a morgue.
With public transit still not recovered from the pandemic slam, Philadelphians get frustrated with the lack of Indego e-bikes, and on the Fourth of July stage a 10,000-person march down Broad Street. From a City Hall balcony, Mayor Kenney pleads with his people and offers, as succor, to legalize electric scooters. They’re soon littering the sidewalks, streets, alleys, porches and every other corner of the city.
In Harrisburg, where things are not much better, lawmaker Daryl Metcalfe leads a coup. Taking control of the state legislature, he outlaws tandem bicycles with two male seats, “European” swimsuits and “anything else designed by the gay urban globalist Illuminati to titillate or otherwise distract me and other true Christians from the work of God.” As a result of a typist’s error, “Christian” is codified as the state language of Pennsylvania, and “English” as the state religion. Philly Mayor Helen Gym threatens secession over the unprecedented threat the renegade commonwealth government poses.
Daryl Metcalfe — now Lorde Metcalfe — decides not to challenge the secession threat. Mayor Gym, hot off an electoral victory that most credit to her linking the cost of a pound of Steak-Umms to a blockchain cryptocurrency called SteakCoin, cajoles her colleagues into supporting the secession legislation, and Philly becomes an unassociated city-state. Disillusioned hipsters the nation over flood to Queen Village from far-flung territories like Brooklyn and Charlotte and Pittsburgh, referring to themselves as “cultural refugees” who feel oppressed by the commercialization of their native lands.
Following separatist attacks in Philadelphia — now a city of 3.5 million, referred to as MegaPhilly — Decimus Christianus Metcalfe orders the building of a great wall around Philly to contain its sinfulness. John Dougherty’s union militia takes the building contract, and constructs a massive wall out of the rubble left behind after the Flyers 2025 Stanley Cup win. The neighborhoods of the city have begun to separate into their own miniature cities; vicious divisions separate them.
Chaos reigns. Comcast CEO Brian Roberts orders a tower built so high that it tumbles to earth when the miniature statue of William Penn is placed on the just-completed top. The disaster kills tens of thousands. Roving gangs of sallow-chested urbanists traverse the land, roving from Fishtown to parts south, slaying those who dare to park on the Broad Street median. Northeast Philadelphia — now known as Liberty — has become a patriotic hermit kingdom, home to all former Philadelphia police and firefighters. While calling itself a capitalist utopia, it struggles to find an identity, or an economy, without government support.
Thousands have starved. In an act of shocking treachery, the Eagles roster defects to Cleveland on a road trip — and the coverup is immediate. The Center City junta orders the construction of a 100-story high kelly green obelisk as a memorial to the “fallen players,” whom Philadelphians have been led to believe perished in a teleporter accident.
SteakCoin unexpectedly explodes in value during a national meat shortage, and the only owners of the cryptocurrency, the Center City Provisional Republic, become as rich as the nation of Monaco. After the Comcast disaster, Center City is rebuilt into a shimmering utopia, and a verification system is instituted in effort to regulate travel between Philly’s fiefdoms.
MegaPhilly 20XX Chapter 1: Running bread
All he could think of was her. Her. The promise of her, the sight of her, the smell of her, though he has not smelled her yet. He thought perhaps she smelled sweetly, like Sunday gravy, or the pretzel megalopolis by morning, or lilac. With his strong and calloused hands, he reached down into his bag, rearranging the rolls gingerly, as not to shed any more of the precious semolina. It was indeed a rare commodity, but he was a trusted courier.
“I thought you said there’d be 28 jawns? There’s only 26 here. Won’t they be -” he asked.
“Called ahead, Dante. They know,” his boss replied.
“You said that last time, John, and it wasn’t true then,” he said.
“Look, kid, times are tough. You get in there, you drop off the goods and before anyone notices that they’re short two, you’re out,” said John. “If you don’t need the credits, I’ll gladly give the job to Miguel.”
Dante didn’t wait a second before shaking his head in acquiescence at his massive boss. He needed every credit he could get and John knew it.
“Still saving to go meet her?” he asked.
“Of course,” said Dante, curtly over his shoulder as he heads for the exit.
“Dante Nguyen, the man with the plan,” said John, mirthfully.
Even though he did it often, Dante hated riding through this part of town. In an effort to attract the Olympics a decade earlier, the Provisional Government had taken down all light poles in the neighborhood, for fear that the esteemed members of the Olympiad committee might see a greased young Italian clambering up one. Dante sighed at the thought as he pedaled.
Sure, Italians love to climb poles, and baking grease is a vital part of our culture, but most of us only climb a pole two or three times a month, he thought. Dante found himself frustrated as he rode, but his mind arrived on her once more, and her skin the shade of an Oh Ryan’s Irish Potato and her hair densely curled and the shade of midnight.
His trance was broken by a familiar voice.
“Yooo Dante!” it called happily. A young man draped in great finery, from satin sweatpants to a Harold Carmichael sarong, crossed Oregon Avenue. A coterie of similarly dressed young men followed behind him.
“Hey Santino,” said Dante, standing with one foot on the pedal.
“Are you still moving bread?” asked Santino, eyeing his old friend’s bag.
“Only work I can find right now,” said Dante.
“I’ve said it before, boul, you can always come rock with us,” said Santino. Dante was, indeed, tempted. Santino’s wasn’t honorable work, but it was work, and it kept him in the finest sarongs and sandals that a man could get his hands on in South Philly. But people smuggling?
“I don’t know, man,” said Dante. “I hear they’re cracking down. Heard Amber got her head smashed in by one of those new police robots.”
“Well, if you’re not in, I can’t stop you. But if you ever need to get over to South Neo-Jersey, let me know. Give you a discount,” said Santino.
Guys like Santino had long pitched South Neo-Jersey as a paradise, but Dante was well aware of the truth. Almost everything south of Vineland had long since been swallowed by the sea, after the twin disasters of Hurricane Pippi and the great quake of ’29, which had been triggered when a mobbed-up construction firm used deep-earth digging to lay foundation for the New New Meadowlands and accidentally cracked through the Christie plate, triggering a 9.7 magnitude temblor. It was now rumored that the people of the coast had become repulsive man-fish hybrids due to the pursuant chemical leaks.
“I’d be more into Central Neo-Jersey,” said Dante.
“Motherfucker, there is no Central Neo-Jersey,” said Santino, indignantly. As they dapped up, Santino made Dante promise to call him if he needed anything. Dante brushed him off, and began to pedal once more toward Queen Village.
The putrid summer air felt thick against his skin as he cut through the night of South Philly, an area that stretched from the Navy Yard across to Grays Ferry — but did not include Queen Village, at least not since the Neighborhood War had ended.
The memories were still vivid for Dante, and they ran through his mind as he made for the better parts of town. How couldn’t they? The mementos were everywhere.
It was there, in Mifflin Park, where the Natives and Transplants signed the Ultimate Concordance to agree to expand their territory westward as the city was thrust into chaos.
There, on 13th and Shunk, was the apartment complex wherefrom Steele Sampson II, leader of the Transplants, launched the subtweet that would ultimately tear apart the Concordance. There was the Messina Social Club, from which the first abortive attempt to overthrow the Center City Council fell apart when the plotters fell asleep after a particularly luscious gravy was served and a suspicious waiter sent for the police. And it was there, in the Italian Market, once a thriving bazaar said to rival the open air markets of Marrakesh, that everything ended, all parties to the Neighborhood War having turned on one another in pitched battle.
The Native coalition won out, but things were not well among their ranks. Internecine conflict had since destabilized the fragile alliance of classes and ethnicities that had been stitched together during the height of the conflict.
On the Transplant side, clemency was declared for some, but the vast majority of Transplant men were forced to walk into the Schuylkill with rocks sewn into the pockets of their bespoke cardigans. The bravado was short-lived, as the Center City government cracked down on South Philadelphia, exiling some leaders of the coup to Neo-Jersey and remanding others still to the government of the United States of America.
Dante knew he was lucky to be a Native. Half Italian and half Cambodian, he had known little but South Philly, and up until recently, that had been good enough for him. There was excitement and identity and fine cuisine in South Philly. Never once had Dante felt out of place, or alone, or even desirous of something or someplace else.
Until he saw her.
Dante was lost in the thought of her when he arrived at the titanic chain-link fence that separated Queen Village from the South Philadelphia frontier. A border guard he’d met before smiled when she saw him. Dante was slight and sweet-looking — not normal for a bread runner, a rough and tumble trade that usually attracted burly men who could handle their cargo, often formerly incarcerated folks, or bawdy fellows without a master’s degree.
“Hey Dante,” said the border guard as Dante dismounted his bike and opened his bag.
“Hey Shawna,” said Dante.
“Hauling semolina tonight?” asked Shawna as she carefully poked around in Dante’s freight, searching for the tell-tale signs of an improvised explosive device.
“Yeah,” said Dante. “Kind of sad that they’re not allowed to make it here.”
“Don’t feel sad for them,” said Shawna, disgust subsuming her wearied face. “They don’t feel sad for you.”
Instinctively, Dante held out his palm flat as Shawna scanned his NABE chip. Dante had been one of the few people in South Philadelphia to get the free implant, which allowed for easier travel between neighborhoods and allowed the Provisional Government to track one’s whereabouts in an emergency. After Shawna waved her scanner over his hand, she held her hand up to the metal door built into the fence, which opened automatically. Normally, the transmission of a controlled substance such as semolina rolls, permitted only to be prepared in South Philadelphia per post-war negotiations, would require an hour-long registration and search process. But Shawna had dealt with Dante enough times to know that the scrawny boy was an honest dealer, and decided to let him through without the paperwork.
“Good luck,” she said as Dante stepped through and into another world.
The first sensation that overtook Dante, as it did every time he visited Queen Village, was the smell. It was of lavender and cream and blossoming flowers. Of course, it was piped in by PolyGlobal Chemex Conglomerate, whose CEO maintained a three story row home on Queen Street, but no one was complaining, cancer spike notwithstanding.
Dante walked his bike down the wide-open avenues, which had long since been bereft of cars. He even went out of his way to walk down East Passyunk Avenue, which had been incorporated by Queen Village after the Division of 2037.
Dante knew he should feel uneasy, because this was not his place, but a sense of effortless ease overcame him whenever he came through the area.
The lives of the idle rich, it seemed to him, were so blithe as to be no lives at all. No one in Queen Village scrapped to survive, lurched like a cockroach from dark spot to dark spot to avoid the light of day. No. There was simple movement here, a daily hum of rest and calm that undergirded life. On one block, Dante could count a coffee shop, a gimlet forgery and an adrenochrome distillery. It was an oasis in a city of brick and bone, built by and for a different breed of people, weak and unaccustomed to the grind that ensconced them.
Dante had no desire to destroy Queen Village, as much of South Philly had. In an expansionary phase, the South Philadelphia Expeditionary Jawn had been moving southward in a bid to add Tinicum to its miniature empire, but many also craved the extraordinary wealth of the Queens. Bombings were uncoordinated and the bombs themselves almost never detonated, but a terror campaign intended to tenderize the residents for an eventual invasion ebbed and surged on random occasion.
As he approached the delivery address, Dante couldn’t help but snigger at the appearance of the Queen Village citizenry. Powdered wigs had recently become en vogue, and the stoop of the house, where roughly a dozen Villagers held flutes of champagne and gabbed loosely about something called an “abatement,” smelled heavily of talc.
Before he could knock on the ornate door, Dante was met by a lithe, tall man wearing a Sonic Youth t-shirt and the most magnificent powdered wig Dante had ever seen. His face was lined with crevasses that even his stark-white makeup could not hide, and though he carried himself with the happy air of a man in his early 30’s, Dante could tell he was much, much older.
“Come in, come in my boy! Bring the rolls in, put them with the charcuterie,” said the man as he gestured to a king’s bounty of cured meats and cheeses. Dante saw at least 1,000 credits worth of foreign delicacies; prosciutto, salami, gabagool… even mozzarella. There had long been cured meat shortages in South Philadelphia, and families were limited to a meager daily quarter-pound ration of soylent loaf courtesy of Dietz, Watson & Saito Animal Protein Edibles Concern.
Dante could feel himself becoming consumed with hatred. Still, he placed his rolls upon a silver platter as the Queen Villagers behind him formed an orderly line to create sinful, decadent sandwiches. As Dante moved quickly to leave, not even stopping to collect his tip, he felt the velveteen touch of a dandy fop upon his shoulder.
“What is your name, son?” asked the man who’d welcomed him in.
“Dante,” he replied, curtly, edging subtly toward the door.
“Dante, my name is Angleton Saxborn. I’ve seen you before. You run many deliveries through Queen Village, yes?”
“I’d rather not talk about it,” said Dante.
“I understand, my boy, I understand. But you don’t become a man such as I without an eye for talent. I have supplied the Steven Starr restaurant chains with hundreds of the best indentured servants in all of MegaPhiladelphia. I’m a hiring manager, you see, and-”
“I’m sorry, I don’t want to work in a restaurant. I’m just trying to collect enough money to-” Dante stopped himself. He didn’t want to divulge too much information. “Enough money to go on a trip.”
“Oh no, you misunderstand me,” said Angleton, with unguarded glee. “I’m not looking for more restaurant workers. I’m looking for a courier, such as yourself. You see, I have a package of utmost delicacy that needs to be delivered to the Main Line with… discretion. And you strike me as a discreet fellow.”
“I am,” said Dante, not entirely sure what discreet was. But the Main Line was where she lived, and he felt as though a grand opportunity were presenting itself.
“Good,” said Angleton. “Good.”