It had been 27 minutes since the Kellys placed their order for one large cheese pizza. This was an inconceivable length of time to wait for a pizza. Just as she was about to complain on Facebook, Gail Kelly, 74, was jolted by what sounded like two enormous crashes outside. Gail phoned WePolice, her private law enforcement provider, to inquire about the ruckus, and if it had anything to do with her missing pizzas. She was transferred to a pizza call center and put in contact with Burt, who talked her through the evening’s procrastination.
“Under seven minutes or it’s free—that’s UberDominoHub’s guarantee,” Burt said, the melody of his soothing British accent putting her at ease. “We’ll be issuing a full refund, even if it takes all night to get that pizza delivered,” he joked.
It was the Kellys’ third call with Burt that week. Even though Burt was an artificially intelligent chatbot, it reacted with the patronizing sincerity of a real human. Gail and Richard preferred phone calls to text, but AI support to humans, who took entire seconds to process answers. Even the AI’s wisecracks were more elegant, no matter how deranged Gail’s hunger could make her sound on the phone.
“This is unacceptable,” she said. “I could have cooked an entire pizza myself in this time.”
Burt’s artificial neural network was equipped to provide categorical answers designed around the Kellys’ profile, which was constructed from more than 10 thousand different data points spanning from birth to the present — they were late-middle-aged; anti-drone but not violently so; enjoyed game shows, decaffeinated tea, and old-fashioned podcasts; and ordered five to eight pizzas per week. This gave Burt the insight that Gail was bluffing — according to her cooking app usage and purchase history, she had not prepared a meal since Thanksgiving 2026, a Gobblerceutical turkey she’d undercooked and which temporarily turned her husband into a vegetarian.
“Your block represents a disputable coordinate,” Burt explained. Like other cities, drone regulations required the three pizza conglomerates, known as the Gang of Cheese, to divide New York City’s neighborhoods into commerce grids. “All three syndicates show your building residing in their zone. Which means they can legally oppose competing drones attempting delivery. There are currently eight drones from various firms hovering overhead with one large cheese pizza order.”
“The crashes I heard earlier,” Gail said. “Did those have anything to do with my order?
“I wouldn’t think so, ma’am. But I can offer you a year’s worth of free, unlimited crust fillings if you don’t speculate about the matter on social media.”
“My husband ordered the pizza but he fell asleep on the couch waiting. Maybe I’ll just cancel the order,” Gail said.
“You should refer to the 28-page emailed receipt. Once your husband clicked the ‘Place Your Order’ button, your household agreed to the terms of service, which are inviolable. Are there any additional delivery anxieties I can alleviate this evening?”
That was when the drone barreled through the living room window.
The first pizza drone was a marketing stunt, an aeronautic wonder gliding door-to-door with hot precision that made for innovative publicity. But it worked too well. Soon pizza lobbyists were politicking over jurisdiction, fighting for aerial medallions and who had the right to fly where. It seemed strange when Lockheed Martin acquired Little Caesars in a leveraged buyout — why was a defense contractor getting into the Pizza! Pizza! business?
Along with the restaurant chain, Lockheed now owned an aerial fleet equipped with medallions that permitted access to airspace, customer data such as shopping preferences and dining habits, and even surveillance intelligence it could sell to the highest bidder. Other companies quickly jumped into the sector, merging with pizza chains for access to the drones. Within months, the multinationals and their pizza arms patrolled, and essentially owned, the skies over major cities.
Anti-regulation that took hold during the Trump administration’s second term made corporations so untouchable that government intervention was hopeless. Instead of waging a turf war against the pizza chains, the government instead agreed to give up monitoring the drones for the promise of a set number of permanent human jobs and a fixed pizza price. Subsidized pizza ensured the citizenry thought less about a job market rendered largely incompatible with the idea of mass employment by AI and drones, and more about fast, inexpensive comfort food delivered on time.
Revolution remained an ever-present possibility, though, with a small rebellion continuing to gain strength as the job market wheezed its way toward total death. The few jobs that did exist were mostly available through nepotism or bribery, and even those involved working for an AI foreman outfitted with algorithms to best “motivate” the human components. Breaks were both mandatory and frowned upon by the AI overseers; routine CBD injections and carefully tuned microdoses of tranquilizers and stimulants were administered to mitigate the human effects on productivity.
By 2028, pizza was no longer bartered for cash, only Bitcoin or Primebezos. The familiar family-style fronts with names like Joe’s and Ray’s and Patsy’s had vanished, leaving behind empty shells. Instead, competition became aerial, pizza conglomerates defending the skies with increasing violence.
None of the pizzas were cooked in the zeppelin warehouses that floated overhead. They were baked in mobile ovens inside the drones en route to the customer. The airborne warehouse was where they stored ingredients, which human employees loaded into waiting fleets. The government’s pact with the pizza conglomerates required that for every four drones, they had to hire one human worker — typically as a warehouse loader, or manning a call therapy center, or working as an attorney. Every human worker that was employed slowed the average delivery by 0.57 seconds, a lifetime in pizza economics.
No one was certain which pizza cartel armed its drones first, or who fired the inaugural shot. Pizza disputes typically occurred at the borders, where rival drones would intuit certain addresses in questionable coordinates. The public was kept largely ignorant of the war between the companies by competing PR narratives that responded algorithmically to the other side with ever more absurd, but always vaguely plausible, storylines, which were then propagated with breathtaking speed by networks of AI influencers on social media.
Over time, the unregulated airspace over cities intensified — corporations jamming rival aircraft, hacking the opposition’s drones for data, and eventually aerial dogfights. Drone engagements happened at such high altitudes over disputed borders that most people remained unaware of the state of perpetual privateering above their heads. They felt the escalating delays, and occasionally heard rumors about drones crashing to city streets. But the pizzas always arrived, if a little later than expected, which mitigated civilian concern.
As the night shift director of aviation operations for Lockheed’s Caesars Hut division (LockChut), Wayne Lopez had earned a reputation as a delivery tactician. From a blimp warehouse high over Manhattan he oversaw the distribution of nearly 2 million pies per dinner hour.
That was a slightly higher tally over the other two conglomerates, UberDominoHub (UberDub) and Amazon’s PapaSBoeing (AmPop), which meant every pizza mattered — especially on a night when delays of several minutes were being reported across the city. It was the sixth consecutive week of delays, with several border skirmishes that were engineered to exponentially exacerbate the retaliation. That evening’s trouble centered on the corner of 93rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue, where a turf war had erupted. The residence seemed to be in LockChut’s jurisdiction, but both competitors had attempted to pirate the order, and Lopez had directed his teams to shoot down adversarial drones with short-range projectiles, nicknamed Pizza Makers.
Lopez’s team shot down two pizza drones that evening, but UberDub and AmPop were privately claiming five had been destroyed. It sounded like sabotage from the anti-drone rebellion; it would take hours for the lawyers to work out the logistics, but in the meantime, Lopez was determined to hit his delivery numbers.
Later that night, when Tommy Preston was slow in reloading a drone, it issued a shrill alarm and Tasered him with a low-voltage electroshock.
“It tried to kill me,” Tommy complained.
“It gave you a shock because you were loafing,” Lopez said. He felt bad reprimanding Tommy; they were in similar employment situations. A machine could do the job better than either of them. It pained Lopez to admit it, but he preferred working with the bots to humans. It was only a matter of time, or a series of pizza-skirmish losses on his watch, until LockChut would replace him with an AI foreman. “Tell you what. Tonight’s dinner hour has everyone on edge. Take 15 minutes in one of the break pods.”
The pods were teardrop-shaped nap rooms with hammocks attached to see-through walls that workers could lounge in and look down at the city. They were infused with aromatherapy oils and psychoactive anesthesia that released hormones in the brain, triggering the emotion of gratitude to have a job at all. Without Tommy Preston slowing the operation, Lopez might finally get those pizzas delivered.
When the drone crashed through the Kellys’ window, there was a smattering of celebration just out of sight. It should have marked a victory for the anti-drone rebellion. After all, there were delays to an estimated 2 million pizza orders.
The rebellion, which had taken to calling itself Deep Dish, consisted of former pizza industry personnel turned militants: delivery drivers, regional managers, fifth-generation pizza tossers forced to sell their families’ restaurants to one of the conglomerates. Many had no choice but to join. After cattle were wiped out by a mutated form of mad cow disease, most of the jobs left to humans required working long hours on curd farms, where new strains of hydroponic mozzarella were harvested, or cleaning the delivery drone ovens for the $60-per-hour minimum wage.
With no careers to occupy their angst, a growing group of insurgents had organized to thwart the drone state. They disseminated information about a purported drone war going on overhead, a notion that was preposterous to most citizens. After all, crime was down, the entire city under surveillance — wouldn’t the public know about aeronautical hijinks occurring just over their heads? Largely ignored by logical, pizza-loving New Yorkers, Deep Dish had begun shooting down the drones that hovered within striking distance with makeshift projectiles. It was not clear whether they had struck the drone that crashed into the Kellys’, or if a rival cartel had dealt the blow. Nevertheless, the result was cause for celebration, even in the midst of an existential crisis for Deep Dish.
The group had recently realized that whenever it attempted to disrupt deliveries, it resulted in unrest across the city. Any time there was unrest, people grew anxious. And when people grew anxious, they just ordered more pizza.
Mayor Aaron Judge had called a meeting with his chief of staff to get to the bottom of the Pizza Wars. In the middle of a reelection campaign, his numbers were plummeting, like a pizza drone with missing rotors nose-diving into a dog park — which had actually happened several days earlier.
A former All-Star right fielder for the New York Yankees, he had earned the city four World Series titles before retiring at the peak of his popularity to jumpstart his political career. He’d won his first mayoral race in a landslide. Despite a vibrant economy and a 29 percent unemployment rate, which beat the national average, not to mention overseeing the transformation of Hudson Yards into Whittier Dome, the pollution-free mini-city inside a building that residents never had to leave, his approval ratings had dipped to an all-time low. This reelection came down to one issue.
“Pizza,” said Judge’s chief of staff, a sentient program whose neural patterns were modeled on Sean Hannity’s. “This city is suffering through the slowest delivery cycle in years. And voters blame you.”
The mayor had won his first election as an anti-pizza drone candidate and a major proponent of regulating the aircraft. Three years earlier, poll numbers showed voters were tepid about drones causing widespread unemployment. Drone regulations would salvage jobs and oversee health inspections of internal pizza ovens.
“Voters still see you as anti-drone,” the AI Hannity explained. “They associate you with causing delays to dinnertime.”
The plan had been concrete. Serve two terms as New York City’s mayor, and use that as a springboard for a White House run in 2036. By then the country would have had enough of two terms of President Thomas Edward Brady. They would welcome, with open arms, the guy who hit 84 home runs during the 2025 season.
But in his tenure as mayor, pizza had become a food group of its own. After the extinction of cows imploded the dairy and beef industries, most caloric provisions were distributed in powder or pill form, and actual fruit and vegetables cost too much for the average consumer. But pizza was there. Pizza satiated the masses. Pizza brought in the votes. Pizza kept folks glued to their TVs. Pizza averted all-out rebellion. Regardless of what happened to the job market, if the weather wreaked havoc, if the rivers were polluted or the city that now extended from Staten Island to Tarrytown became too overcrowded — New Yorkers could count on coming home to cheap, drone-baked pizza.
Pizza would win Aaron Judge this reelection. But first he had to figure out how to get it delivered on time.
Vivian Blatch’s career as a marriage counselor suffered with the release of Spousy. Disputes that threatened to cripple marriages disappeared overnight once spouses could engage in virtual sex with strangers — or mythical creatures — from around the planet. Within months, her client base disintegrated. When a recruiter phoned with a position in the newly formed pizza therapy industry, it seemed like it married the two things she enjoyed most: pizza and human psychoses.
“You’re not really customer service. We don’t expect you to solve delivery issues,” the recruiter explained. “We just want you to impersonate one of our Chatbots during busy periods and encourage callers to embrace drone technology through delivery delays.”
Customers not knowing they were potentially talking to a human was a detail that lent a veneer of omniscience to the technical aspects of robotic delivery. Vivian could work from anywhere, even a treadmill. Calls came in all hours of the night from disgruntled customers, and her task was to talk them through pizza woes and drone skepticism. On every call, her interface sprang to life with photos, analytics, and other details about the caller: location, occupation, age, hair color, every pizza order from the past decade, weight, religion, body part in which they chose to have their universal credit chip implanted. Based on that data, her terminal would suggest options for the most effective Chatbot personas to emulate — Molly, the Hip Twenty-Something; Shayne, the Shy Mechanic; Burt, the British Intellectual — and Vivian had mastered them all.
Just like Vivian knew everything about her callers, the pizza companies knew when she arrived home each day, when she ordered dinner, how much garlic she liked on her pie, and, from the activity tracker she had tattooed on her left pinky, that she was not sleeping well. In over 20 years as a therapist, she had never seen anyone understand another person as well as Big Pizza understood her. At night, she would lay in bed, imagining she could hear the delivery drones buzzing outside of her window, the scent of pizza baking only yards away.
Vivian was starving and enamored and starving. More than sleep, perhaps she just needed a midnight snack, a mushroom pie with extra garlic, to settle her nerves.
Selma Kay arrived at the disaster site as paramedics loaded an old man into the ambulance. Until private police units and fire agencies were able to reconstruct the crime scene, no one was certain which pizza company owned the downed drone. Selma’s role at LockChut was to strike a deal with the ordering household before the competition did. This not only prevented public knowledge of a mythical “drone war” going on over most cities. A deal also produced signed contracts, which marked disputable addresses as LockChut domains.
As a Pizza Adjuster, Selma’s task was to encourage the client not to press charges, or post about the incident on virtual media. In return LockChut would pay all damages, including compensation for accidental death, and in rare cases, provide pizza for life. Since they began two years earlier, the Pizza Wars, as they were dubbed in the insurance claims community, had resulted in hundreds of crashed drones and an estimated 13 deaths. Pizza Adjusters had smoothed over all 13, which meant the Gang of Cheese was exonerated from negligent homicide and the gooey public relations such charges might bring. Most importantly, the public remained oblivious to the overhead jurisdiction battles.
During an estimated 97 percent of deliveries, drones could be counted on to arrive in under seven minutes. The public trusted drone delivery. But for that trust to continue, people needed to remain ignorant that, occasionally, ordering pizza could get them exploded.
“The only entity that’s been halfway decent through this ordeal is Burt,” the woman explained.
“Who’s Burt?” Selma asked.
“Burt the Chatbot. The rest of you don’t seem to understand how hungry people become waiting for pizza.”
Selma checked her wrist. The address fell into a strange location, on the border of all three pizza conglomerates. Rival attorneys and adjusters would arrive any moment, and then it would become a legal battle for the property. There were many factors to consider: location, delivery precedent, even the precise window through which the woman was willing to receive future pizza deliveries. But a signed contract with Selma would legitimize LockChut’s claim to the residence.
“We’re working on a fresh pizza now, Missus Kelly. In the meantime, LockChut would like to compensate you for your troubles.” A number appeared on Selma’s tablet and she held it up to Gail Kelly.
“My husband might have broken his hip,” the woman said, disappointed at the offer. Richard Kelly had fallen off the couch when flames engulfed the living room. “What if he dies?”
Just then, a knock at the door. “I’m not authorized to do this,” Selma said, pulling a new document. “But I’m prepared to offer pizza for life if you sign this non-disclosure agreement.”
The woman happily signed with a finger. “I’ll need all the free pizza I can get with Richard injured.”
Selma pointed where to initial. “Godspeed to your husband. And your pizza.”
Because the unconscious Richard had officially ordered the undelivered meal, the contract stated it would be pizza for the duration of his life. It was all in the fine print, which Missus Kelly was too excited, and hungry, to read.