No Leaving New Orleans
by Josh Rountree
Bink occupied the
booth farthest from the bar, tucked in a dank corner forgotten
by the waitress and possibly by time itself, surrounded by
framed photos of his mother’s New Orleans, the one before the
storms and the invasion, not the one overrun with Drones and
hoodoo walkers and utterly devoid of any real life. His
mother’s New Orleans was a place of well-kept homes with iron
balconies that seemed welcoming and not confining, revelers
wearing gaudy colors, drowning in beads and enjoyment. It was a
place where children waved from bicycles as they chased street
cars down St. Charles. Leisurely barges traded brown river
water for the salty gulf. People smiled with their eyes.
Bink had never known
that New Orleans. His New Orleans was poverty level
subsistence that led to kids walking the streets with pistols
shoved down the back of their pants and a litany of drug busts
and murders playing out like business as usual on the nightly
news. In Bink’s New Orleans, the iron balconies were rusted,
the homes were diseased with neglect and the tourists were
college kids more concerned with getting drunk and laid than
pressing past the debauchery to appreciate the city’s natural
And that was
before the Dome.
According to his
mother he’d been conceived right around the time everyone had
figured out that all of the promises made for the city’s
recovery would never be kept. The response to Katrina had been
bad enough, but when Hurricane Joel blew through the Crescent
City, most gave up on the place. The government said plenty of
reassuring things about rebuilding and reclaiming the city’s
lost spirit, but they’d said that the first time and the years
had not honed Washington’s sense of sentiment. Politicians sent
some money, a bunch of men in trailers with construction
equipment, but mostly they spent their time worrying about
China’s saber rattling. Turns out, they had plenty to be
False laughter drew
Bink from his sulking. He’d been staring into an empty highball
glass, wondering if it was worth the effort to order another
drink. Now he stared at Monica, her legs clinging to a
barstool, leaning into the guy sitting beside her as if she were
trying to whisper something in his ear. Her lip brushed his
cheek, and she laughed again. He was obviously Peer Class—his
linen pants and starched shirt revealed as much about him as his
impossible looks. No big deal that he was good looking. Almost
everyone was. But nobody needed to be that good looking.
Monica had her hand
on the Peer’s arm now, fingers at the edge of his LCD. Probably
turned her on being that close to his tech. Sometimes she
touched Bink there, and he always got the impression that she
was far more interested in his upgrades than the rest of him.
Fuck it was hot.
Always hot. He rolled up his sleeve, touched his forearm and
brought the LCD to life. It was a small screen, about the size
of a pack of cigarettes, littered with icons, shortcuts, a few
upgrades of Bink’s own design. Best thing about being Tech
Class was you could engineer things on the sly, give yourself a
few perks. He accessed his comfort control settings and told
the processor to adjust for the environment. A cool tingle
passed over the surface of his skin before he’d even put the
screen back to sleep. The room had a chill now, or at least
that’s how it felt to him, and the smell of un-emptied ashtrays
and several generations of spilled liquor faded from his
Bink felt a little
guilty, but watching Monica fawn over a Peer was enough
discomfort for one night. It wasn’t often that he altered his
sensations—he liked to experience the world as people were
supposed to, like his mother and all the other faces staring out
at him from the moldering photos. But some days were easier
The Peer wasn’t
smiling. He wore a flat expression of distaste, and he lifted
Monica’s hand delicately from his arm and sat it in her lap. He
downed the last half of his drink, mouthed a couple of ice chips
and tossed some money on the bar with the kind of disdain that
left it open to interpretation whether he was leaving the money
for the bartender or for Monica. Monica flipped him off when he
rose to leave and he crossed to the door, smiling and chewing
She spotted Bink
then, gave him a shitty look like it was his fault she’d been
turned down. She spun back and forth a couple of times on the
barstool, ordered a beer and came to sit at his booth.
“Don’t even talk to
me about it,” she said. “Don’t even start.”
“If you don’t want
to talk to me, why’d you come over? I was doing okay by
“Yeah, you look like
you’re having the time of your life. Besides, it’s not that I
don’t want to talk to you. It’s that I don’t want to talk to
you about that. I’ve got your sermon memorized by now.
Be happy I’m a Tech. Be happy I’m not some troglodyte Drone.
Don’t try to date up ‘cause I’ll only get screwed.”
“Maybe if you’re
lucky.” Bink took a drink from his empty glass to hide his
“Fuck you, Bink,”
she said. “I don’t need that shit from you.”
“Sorry,” he said.
“But that guy looked like a prick. Like that’s the best skin he
“Nothing wrong with
his skin.” Monica gave Bink an appraising look. Obviously she
thought he needed to spend more time worrying about the skin
he’d created. He appeared fairly ordinary compared to the
other modifieds in New Orleans. No taller than the average man,
a little gangly maybe. Dark skin and deep eyes that people
found inscrutable. They were his best artificial asset. Nobody
wanted to know what he was thinking anyway. He could probably
have built a more impressive skin, but what was the point? His
current one was still several steps up from what he really
looked like, and he only had a Beta processor installed so
hacking that much reality was a bitch.
Monica was a few
shades whiter than snow with eyes that Bink found impossible to
avoid. They were the palest sort of blue, and he felt that
every time she looked at him she was seeing the man under the
holo-skin, not just the love handles and the receding hair line
but all the other insecurities that were mostly processed out of
existence. The way he shook from contact when she’d put her
lips on his, or the way his heart would thunder each time he
noticed she’d dropped her bullshit braggadocio and chosen to
focus on him, to really look at him and try to figure out
what kind of man he was. In those moments, he was thankful for
his skin, and he wondered if she understood how utterly
necessary she was to his existence. He hoped to hell not.
Monica wasn’t the type of women you wanted having that kind of
influence over you.
Sometimes Bink liked
to break his connection to the grid and see everyone as they
really looked. See the Drones as people and not service units.
Take satisfaction that the vast majority of Peers were just as
lopsided, pinch-faced, double-chinned and thoroughly
unremarkable as everyone else. Best of all, he liked to look at
Monica and wonder why she even chose to wear a skin. Peel away
the pale flesh and strawberry blonde spikes and she still wore a
cautious, unsure beauty that claimed all the human grace that
her holo-skin denied. Whatever feelings he had for Monica, they
were for that version of her, not the affected Monica that she
showed the world. She was colder, harder. She cared about
“Quit staring, Bink,”
said Monica. “You’re making me nervous. What are you so spaced
out about tonight?”
A pair of Drones
dined silently at the next table, and a mix of Techs and Peers
moved about the room, rarely interacting. Electronic swamp
music pumped from an ancient juke box. A few Techs shot darts.
A gang of night people sipped God-knows-what from tankards at
the bar. Everyone seemed to be having a good enough time, or at
least making a go of it.
“You ever want to
leave this place?”
“I was gonna ask,
but I didn’t know what your plans were,” said Monica. “We could
go to my place again.”
“No, I mean New
Orleans. You ever want to find a way through the Dome?”
kidding, right? This town isn’t perfect but it’s a hell of a
lot better than everywhere else. Where exactly do you think
“I don’t know.
Monica laughed. “New
York? Nope, scratch that. Maybe, Texas. That’s closer. Oh
right, forgot, it’s a fucking chemical wasteland. I can’t
believe this is what you’re moping about. You watch the T-Vids.
You know there’s nowhere else to go.”
Bink hadn’t watched
the T-Vids in months, but he knew. New Orleans still managed to
pick up satellite broadcasts, even within the barrier put up by
the Mother’s Guild, but once all the programs had become either
static, Chinese propaganda or video feeds of burning cities and
piled corpses, Bink had tossed a chair into his vidwall and
smashed it. He never bothered cleaning the wreckage, and
sometimes he sat and stared into that shattered mouth of glass
wishing it would swallow him.
Bink put his hand on
Monica’s and she didn’t pull away. The LCD mounted on the
inside of her forearm glowed a dull green. He let his fingers
touch the brushed metal rim.
“You’ve got to get
your head together,” said Monica, not unkindly. “This is the
way things are. And things could be a whole lot worse.”
“So quit moping and
come home with me. Get naked and have some fun. Make yourself
feel real again.”
Bink shook his
head. “Not tonight, okay? I’m pretty beat.” Monica slid her
arm away and he immediately longed for renewed contact. He knew
he loved her, at least as much as anyone could love in
New Orleans. He liked to feel her against him, liked to talk
Tech with her. Even liked to just sit in silence together,
though they rarely did that. It made Monica fell like a Drone
and it creeped her out.
said, pushing away from the table. “If you change your mind,
call me. Maybe I won’t find anyone else tonight. Listen,
though, you seriously need some kind of adjustment. I still say
you need to upload that last mental balance program I coded. So
what if it’s restricted to Peer Class; we’re fucking Techs.
What’s the use of being a Tech if you can’t skim some of the
cool stuff off the top? We could run this whole place if we
Monica kissed Bink
on the head and left.
He considered what
she’d said, but he didn’t want to control the city. He just
wanted to leave it.
* * *
Outside the bar, the
Quarter crawled with night people, their red eyes watching every
human with a mixture of lust and hunger. They dressed like Bink
had always imagined them, like Victorian fops. A man would be
hard pressed to find a battered old top hat in a second hand
store any more if he needed it for a costume party or
something. Bink heard that before they’d come out of hiding,
they wore little more than rags and their own mottled skin, and
he suspected the clothing was some form of concession to the
living. He didn’t like it. He’d rather they be honest in their
death like the hoodoo walkers were.
Drones with pistols
and blue police uniforms were spaced at intervals of one hundred
feet apart precisely through the Quarter, and they kept
blank-eyed watch on the night people to make sure they didn’t
drink from the unwilling. Generally, everyone adhered to the
rules of the cobbled together society that had been thrust upon
them, but there were a few rogue elements of concern. The
walkers were a greater threat, fighting urban gators for
trashcan scraps and gnashing down on whoever happened to be
passing by if they lost the food battle. Real walkers, it
turned out, weren’t precisely like the stories. Yes, they
hungered for brains, but they were quite content with the rest
of the body as well.
Bink didn’t worry
much about them, though. The police Drones were single-minded
in their purpose, just at the waitress Drones and street cleaner
Drones and engineering Drones were in theirs. And if things got
dicey, Bink knew a command code that would draw them to him by
the score. Not that he’d ever use such power. He was almost
certain he was a better person than that.
Bad enough he had to
program them; he wouldn’t make those people his slaves, even if
that’s more or less what they wanted. He wondered how many
Drones were still living outside of New Orleans, and if their
willing ignorance might be a blessing under the circumstances.
Probably so, but it still wouldn’t be worth it.
Bink had never seriously considered going Drone, though a few of
his buddies had decided that disconnect was their last best hope
for survival. Bink remembered the defeated look in Shaun’s
eyes. Shaun had been his friend since elementary school, and in
those last days before he’d gone Drone, Bink had done everything
in his power to talk the guy out of it. But when you’ve lost
everything you own in the world market crashes, lost your job
and thus the government mood drugs that were keeping you sane,
when you live every day in fear of Chinese invasion, terrorist
bombs and poison in the drinking water, it’s not easy to argue
against simply erasing all that misery.
In the end, Shaun
had made his choice, and he wasn’t alone. The previous decade
had served up even helpings of horror to the rich and poor
alike, and money was no longer a cure-all for American ills.
People wanted an escape, and as the world society crumbled
around them, a life of worry-free enjoyment became more and more
attractive. Drone programming turned even the most menial tasks
into lively and fulfilling forms of pseudo entertainment, and
families could be assigned together, for whatever good that
did. Even minorities who’d spent lifetimes digging free from
cultural and economic oppression embraced the easy escape.
Sociologists studied the phenomenon for years and never came to
a satisfactory understanding of why so many people simply gave
Bink could have
saved them the trouble. Going Drone was easy, but living
through the inevitable decline of western civilization was
hard. Given a choice, most people would pick easy every time.
Bink couldn’t make
himself go Drone, no matter how popular it became, but there was
a dull allure to the thought of simply turning himself off,
serving up his humanity in exchange for a carefree existence.
The possibility whispered to him at nights when he lay on top of
his sheets, willing some breath of cool air to come through the
window, wishing he was with Monica and knowing how ultimately
futile that desire was. He was a man endlessly walking the
streets of New Orleans, working, drinking, fucking for the
simple sake of it, and waiting for his own death. He lived like
a Drone already, but with the added burdens of stress and worry.
needed to get out.
Bink realized with a
start that a woman was keeping pace beside him, fingers laced
through his, a smile faint as hope on her face. He flinched,
but didn’t pull free from her hand. It was an absolute
impossibility that she’d been so close to him for more than an
instant without him noticing, but it felt like they’d been
taking a leisurely stroll through Jackson Square or along the
unused street car tracks on St. Charles. Her hand in his was
the most pleasant thing he’d felt since the Mothers had closed
the city off from the world. It felt like love he didn’t
deserve. Bink gawked at her for a few seconds, but she kept her
sly smile and didn’t meet his gaze. Her skin was darker than
the one he wore, and far more beautiful than any he’d seen. She
walked barefoot and wore a simple green dress that hit just
above the knees. When she finally turned to acknowledge him, he
had to turn away from her eyes.
“Why are we
stopping?” she asked.
Bink hadn’t realized
they’d stopped walking. His shirt stuck to his back and he was
breathing heavily. He had no reason to be frightened of the
woman, but she still scared the shit out of him. He wanted to
pull away, but didn’t want to lose the feel of her skin against
“Where did you come
from?” he asked.
“I’ve never been
“You’re holding my
hand. I didn’t even see you coming and you’re holding my hand.”
“Yes, I am. C’mon,
let’s walk some more.”
And they walked, out
of the Quarter and down Canal, hands locked all the way until
they stood staring across the night-blackened waters of the
Mississippi and through the dimly glowing wall of the Mothers’
Dome far to the south. Bink might as well have been a Drone for
all the power he had to resist her. Something about the woman
compelled him forward, and all the protests he wanted to voice
fell silent when they reached his lips.
“That’s where you
want to go then?” she asked, pointing beyond the Dome. “Away?”
“How do you know
“I can get you past
it, if that’s what you really want.”
“You’re not in the
habit of answering many questions, are you?” asked Bink,
regaining something of himself. Why had he come with her here?
No way she could have tinkered with his tech, not unless she was
a seriously high level hacker.
“My name’s Amanda.
I know you want to leave the city and I can get you out if you
do me a tiny favor. And the reason I can do it is because that
Dome is partly my work. I’m one of the city Mothers. Answers
“Mother. Yes, I
said that just now. Keep up.” Amanda laughed and it drew the
fear and disorientation from Bink like poison sucked free from a
“Wait, so you can
get people out of the Dome?”
It was as if a fog
was clearing from his head, and Bink seized on Amanda’s eyes
like twin touchstones to pull him from the confusing haze of
their march through the city. She dropped to her knees in the
riverbank soil and pulled Bink down with her. They sat
together, stared out across the water in silence. Then Amanda
began to whisper.
“I can get you out
of the Dome, but why would you want to leave?”
“I want to live.”
He made no sense even to himself when he said this, but Amanda
nodded her understanding.
“We all do, and
that’s why we’re here. There’s no life outside the Dome.”
“Yes there is.”
“What’s on the T-Vids?”
she said. “That’s not life. That’s slow, inevitable death.”
“No, that’s what we
have here. Shit, we even have to live with the dead. Out there
at least there’s a chance to do something.” God, was he
really arguing with one of the Mothers? Until now, he hadn’t
been sure they even existed.
“And what are you
going to do? Save the world? Kill a bunch of Chinese people
because you’re pissed off? They’re dying too, without any help
from you. The whole damn world did it to itself, Bink.”
“How the hell do
“I know more than
your name. You were born here. You’re part of New Orleans and
its soul. That means I’ve got everything about you pegged. I
know you’re Tech Class and I also know you’ve got more heart
than any other Tech left in this city. You haven’t forgotten
completely that Drones are still human. I know you wouldn’t
have a clue how to live outside of New Orleans. You might live
for a while and you might do something, but you’d never
shake this place.”
Amanda pulled away
and Bink was stunned at the sudden emptiness he felt. “What do
“I want to restore
our home,” she said, catching him with her eyes and forcing him
to look. “We’re already doing it. This city the world forgot
about is now its new Eden. The planet is dead, and we start
rebuilding right here. We have the Dome to protect us because
the spirit of the city allows it. We have fresh water and
electricity and food because the city wants us to. How often do
you have to service the grid? Have you ever wanted for
memchips, processor replacements or anything else since the Dome
dropped? Haven’t you wondered how we’ve been isolated for over
a year and yet we still have fresh pineapples and medicine and
toothpaste and all the other things we take for granted? We’ve
been chosen. The soil has chosen us. You don’t want to turn
your back on that.”
“You call this a
fucking Eden?” said Bink.
“Not yet, but it
will be. That’s where you come in.”
“What do you need me
“We need you to be
the city’s liberator. You’ve got the access and, whether you
admit it or not, the desire to shut down the Drones’
programming. There aren’t many Techs left that would even
care. You can release them from their mechanical thrall. Make
them human again.”
Bink laughed. “So
that’s the little favor you want. You give me too much credit.
That can’t be done.”
“Sure it can.
You’re grid supervisor for the city. It’s the only grid still
running in the world. Disable the grid and poof! Everyone has
free will again.”
“Disable the whole
grid! The Peers would kill me. The Techs too, probably. Who’s
gonna hide me from the torch-wielding mob?”
“The city will provide. It always does.”
Bink climbed to his
feet and brushed the soil from his pants. “That’s fucking
nuts. There’s no way I’ll do that. I’m not even sure I could.”
Amanda stood and
handed Bink a memchip she’d apparently pulled from thin air.
“This will do the trick.”
“Virus. Like I
said, the city will provide.”
“If the city is so
hot to drop the grid, why doesn’t it just do it? Why does it
“This city isn’t a
god. The city worked through the Mothers to build the Dome, and
it works through all of us every day to better itself. This is
your opportunity to help rebuild New Orleans. Will you take
“You said you could
get me out.”
Amanda stood before
him, held his wrists gently in her hands. The feeling of
absolute wellbeing and love flooded him again, and somewhere
deep inside he resented her for using that sort of influence
against him. He became keenly aware that she wasn’t a mod; she
was seeing the real man he was. Middle aged, pale saggy jowls,
barely enough hair to form a sandy ring around the back of his
head. An entirely different race than the skin he wore. He’d
be that man again if he dropped the grid. Amanda smiled at him
and he felt the memchip digging into his palm as he tightened
“You drop the grid
and I can provide an exit from the Dome. If you’re foolish
enough to take it.”
“I’m not dropping
Amanda kissed him
then, kissed the real Bink and not the artificial one. He’d
never felt so acutely alive in the split second her lips touched
his, not before or after the Dome. She pulled back, laced her
fingers through his again and led him slowly back into the grid
of streets, into the teeming night people, the non-mods hawking
beignets and crawfish po-boys from street carts and restaurant
doorways with laughs and pats on the back. They were back in
the Quarter and suddenly rain was falling in sheets, sending
alligators scurrying and washing discarded paper cups and a few
stray strings of beads into the gutters. Things made by happier
hands in happier times. Bink squeezed Amanda’s hand and
realized it was no longer there.
Police Drones stood
vigil, untroubled by the rain.
Bink shook off his
daze and bolted for cover.
* * *
“No leaving New
Orleans,” said Monica.
Bink stared out the
window of her second story apartment, feeling the slow moving
wind warm his skin and taking in the blasted vista of tumbled
brick, ruined, gutted cars and forgotten trash piles.
Everything smelled of mold. He thought of Amanda walking
barefoot through the restored Quarter, and knew she’d have her
feet filled with shattered glass if she came to this part of
town. A pair of non-mod children chased a yapping dog out of an
alley, splashing through what remained of the rain. Someone
shouted nearby and was answered with a slam and a scream.
“Forget it,” said
Bink. He’d come straight to Monica’s, desperate to fill the
supernatural emptiness Amanda had left him with. Monica hadn’t
found anyone else after all and had begun methodically removing
his drenched clothes without even asking him if he wanted her
to. It was what they did. Both of them know their parts.
Monica sat cross
legged on the bed, still naked, fingers clacking away on a
portable grid interface. Working after hours, surrounded by
candlelight. The electricity the Mothers provided had at best a
casual acquaintance with Monica’s neighborhood. She’d lived in
Mandeville before the invasion, and took the causeway to work
every day. She’d been at work the day the Mothers made the
Dome, and like everyone else from the burbs, had to find a new
place to live. It wasn’t hard to scavenge falling down houses
in East New Orleans, but it was hard to find one that was worth
making a home. Bink had lived north of the lake too, and he’d
never found anyplace in the city that made him feel safe. Sure,
he’d lived there as a child, but had been quite content living
on the periphery of the disaster it had become. It was easier
to deal with problems of that magnitude when you didn’t actually
have to face them.
Monica looked up
from her screen, stretched and grinned. “I’m just saying it’s
crazy. Some chick claiming she’s a Mother and can just
magically raise the Dome so you can stroll on out into the
swamps. It’s nuts. She’s fucking with you.”
“I know,” he lied.
He was absolutely certain that Amanda could do whatever she
said. Monica hadn’t experienced what it was like just to sit
“And like you could
even drop the grid if you wanted. Not that it wouldn’t be
funny. Can you see all those Peers without their mods? Warts
and all? Shit, they probably couldn’t take a piss without a
sub-routine to guide their dicks.”
“That might make it
worth it. That and all the Drones that suddenly have their life
“You’re not turning
into a Drone abolitionist are you? I was hoping they’d all died
in the wars. There’s not a single person that was ever forced
to be a Drone. You know that. It’s their choice. They
couldn’t cope with the world and they gave up. It’s not like
they’re mistreated or anything.”
“You ever wonder
what goes on in their heads?” asked Bink. “You think maybe any
of them changed their minds?”
Monica closed her
screen, blew out the candles and joined Bink by the window. The
Dome lit the foggy night like an artificial moon, casting a
grayish glow on the horizon and washing the wet streets in
streaks of silver. During the day the Dome glowed with the gold
brilliance of the sun, and then it was almost possible to
believe the world had taken a turn for the better. But not at
night. At night, the Dome’s benign influence took on a sheen of
The Mothers had
dropped the Dome into place around the city on the day Chinese
stealth missiles had leveled half of Los Angeles and all of New
York. So quick was their response, many believed they’d known
what was coming. The Dome centered on downtown New Orleans and
stretched roughly to the middle of Lake Pontchartrain to the
north and the north banks of Lake Salvador to the south. It
kept out the missiles and the dirty bombs and the subsequent
radiation, rioting, and earth-scouring war. But it also
separated people from their families outside the city, and took
away any choice of ever leaving. Not to mention the fact that
the night people had felt comfortable emerging from generations
of hiding, and along with them the hoodoo men and street witches
that made bodies dance and turned back alleys into blood
The Mothers had
saved everyone, but many viewed it as a mixed blessing.
Monica cupped Bink’s
chin and turned his face her way. He hadn’t cut his connection
this time, hadn’t wanted to really see her.
“You’re not serious
about this shit, right? You’re not going to do something
Bink shook his
head. “I won’t be any stupider than I am any other day.”
kissed him, grabbed his fingers just like Amanda had and pulled
him back to bed. The rain began again, but they didn’t bother
closing the windows. It was far too hot for that.
Monica pushed him
down and got on top. Her expression was eager, but it was
probably just her facade. For the first time ever, Bink had
absolutely no desire to see what she was really thinking below
the mask she wore. To see the person she was. Right now, her
holo-skin was fine; the illusion was preferable to the
alternative. Bink doubted she ever looked at the real him, and
knew that she probably spent most of their night together
thinking about another of her friends.
And for the first
time, Bink didn’t care.
He was thinking of
someone else too.
* * *
Amanda’s touch had
ruined him. It threw into ugly relief the feral existence that
the fallout from so many tragedies had cultivated in his city.
If she’d been trying to convince him to stay, she’d have been
better off leaving him alone. He walked to work among the
non-mods as they opened their shops; he listened to chains and
rusty padlocks sliding free from garage doors, to whispers of
guilty joy as they traded stories of their children, the
improving state of their businesses, the promised help they’d be
receiving from the Peers any day now to finally remove the
rubble and give the rest of the city the same fresh face they’d
given the Quarter.
They were lying to
themselves, but Bink understood the value in pretending your
existence was something other than sad futility. Many of the
people, mods and non-mods, coughed incessantly despite the
medicine Amanda said the city had gifted them, and bore scars
from walker attacks—there
were fewer Drones available to patrol these streets than those
in the Quarter. In that respect, things weren’t much different
than they’d been before. The neighborhood was made up primarily
of lower income African American families, and by now they’d
become accustomed to being afterthoughts in the greater workings
of the city. A bunch of suburbanites crashing the place because
they had nowhere else to go didn’t change anything.
Bink found it
difficult to hold out hope for such a ruined metropolis. Amanda
had given him a glimpse, perhaps, of what life had felt like in
his mother’s New Orleans, and he understood better than ever
that those people were dead and the new ones weren’t nearly so
real. He tried to recall the way he’d felt kissing Amanda, but
all he could remember was Monica’s loveless and almost robotic
sexual ministrations, her soft lies spoken in his ear and her
cold morning dismissal.
At his office, he
stared at his view screen, reading status reports on several
projects he’d been assigned by the city’s Peer government. It
had mostly to do with custom firmware upgrades for a few wealthy
businessmen who’d contributed a great deal of money to the new
mayor’s coffers during the post-invasion election, and
reassignment duties for Drones. A new project arrived asking
him to reassign two percent of the city’s demolition Drones,
those tasked with removing the ever-present mountains of debris,
to various classes of security Drone: police, government secret
service, walker elimination forces. It was a bad sign that
things were getting worse, and it wouldn’t sit well with the
majority of the population who were living with holes in their
roofs and walls of rotting sheetrock.
Bink sipped his
coffee and considered the request. He didn’t care for the
concept of Drone reassignment. Yes, they’d given up their free
will, but they’d also been promised a certain direction in
life. Now all bets were off, and the Peers were growing more
willing than they’d been in pre-invasion society to use Drones
to their own ends.
Near the end of old
society, more and more civil rights groups had been showcasing
the abuses inherent in the Drone/Tech/Peer system that much of
the country had gradually adopted. Bink had never been an avid
supporter of the system, particularly after seeing the utter
lack of recognition in Shaun’s eyes after his procedure. But if
people wanted to be Drones, they had that right. It wasn’t up
to Bink to make their choices. His job was to upload their
programs, and though that involved some measure of guilt, being
Tech Class meant access to privileges he couldn’t have had
otherwise afforded. He though of his three bedroom in Covington
and wished to hell he’d built closer to the city. When he
wasn’t sleeping at Monica’s he spent most nights in his office
just to avoid the place he’d been living for the last twelve
months. The best thing about his scavenged apartment had been
the T-Vid screen, and now it was toast.
He fished the
memdisk from his pants pocket and popped it into the side of his
console before he even knew what he was doing. If felt
dangerous, like pointing a loaded gun at his own head. It felt
He accessed the
file, verified that it was exactly what Amanda had told him it
was. Fucking hell. How had she concocted something like that?
The city of New Orleans was the best fucking hacker he’d ever
If he uploaded the
virus, the grid would drop like the last curtain on the play
that had been humanity. There’d be nothing left of society but
broken pieces. The Peers would lose their influence over the
Techs, and thus their control of the Drones. Exactly 174,556
people would wake from whatever jobs they’d been assigned and
realize they’d been thrust right back into the maelstrom of
collapsing civilization they’d been so desperate to escape. And
465 Techs and 1139 Peers would suddenly be nothing more than
non-mods with a lot of useless hardware bound to their nerve
endings. What would happen then? There’d be no one left to
corral the walkers; just a bunch of former Drones running around
that might well be insane by now, or at the very least seriously
pissed off at the misappropriation of their last wishes. Techs
would be utterly worthless, fodder for the riots.
Of course if Amanda
was as good as her word, he could be shut of it all.
Bink ejected the
memdisk and shoved it hastily back in his pocket as if it might
suddenly take control and execute the files itself. He was
crazy for even considering it.
reassignment programming, building new command sets and
uploading them to the Drones specified by the project breakdown.
He lost himself in
the code, and banished the host of dead-eyed stares that haunted
* * *
Bink was seriously
considering tinkering with his own memory to wipe away any trace
of Amanda and her virus as he knocked on Monica’s door. He was
drunk; his clothes were wet and stank of beer and he’d left his
tie behind in the bar. His skin flickered at the edges as his
processor tried to compensate for the sheer amount of alcohol
he’d ingested in the six hours since he’d left the office.
When Monica opened
the door she wore a hard look and a hastily donned tee shirt.
“You shouldn’t drop in on people in the middle of the night.
You should call first.”
“You didn’t care
“Last night I wasn’t
Bink stared into the
studio beyond and saw the man on the bed, lying naked on his
back, arms at his sides as if Monica had neatly folded them
there. He didn’t move, barely breathed. He studied the ceiling
with almost fanatical intensity.
“God damn! He's a
“What do you care?”
she asked. “Like you don’t take advantage sometimes. I’ve
accessed your files, I know about your off-the-record mods.
It’s the beauty of being Tech, right?”
“This is so
different,” said Bink, backing away from the opened doorway as
if Monica might suck him into her world of depravity. “This
isn’t copping a firmware upgrade you can’t afford. This is . .
. god, this is rape.”
“He doesn’t fucking
care,” said Monica. “Settle down, okay? Come in and I’ll make
him leave. I’ll make you something to eat. You look like
Bink shook his head,
backed away again and nearly tumbled down the yawning
stairwell. He turned and fled, feet hammering on the stairs as
Monica called after him. A clan of night people were gathered
around a barrel fire outside, tossing random bits of debris into
it to see what would burn. One broke off from the pack as Bink
hurried by, grabbed his shirtsleeve and shoved a wrinkled five
dollar bill at him.
“One sip, good sir?
Only a moment of your time. Painless as you please.” The man
smelled of rot and his lace cuffs bore crimson stains.
Bink shook loose
from the man’s grip and bolted, chased by laughter and the foul
stench of night in the city.
* * *
Back at his office,
twenty stories above Gravier, Bink accessed his terminal using
Monica’s protocol and uploaded the virus. Then he sank to the
carpet and vomited in a waste basket.
* * *
Bink woke to
Monica's screeching and the stabbing sensation of her heels in
"What did you do?"
she yelled, kicking him again. He seized the waste basket and
hit her in the shin to back her away. Bink was curled under his
desk, and for his first few seconds of consciousness he had no
idea what he was doing there and less what reason Monica had to
kick him. Then he remembered. He'd dropped the grid. He'd
taken the Mothers' virus and dropped the fucking grid.
Bink struggled to
his feet, still holding the waste basket in case Monica
advanced. She paced in a semi-circle, blocking his exit but
unwilling to get near him again, as if she though his madness
might be contagious. She was the real Monica, still pretty but
a little too thin, her face still hanging on the memory of high
school acne, sandy hair shaggy and out of fashion. Bink was
himself too. The grid was really dead.
"How did you kill
the grid?" she asked. "Why would you do that? I told you that
lady was a psycho!"
"Do you know who I
am?" asked Bink.
"Don't fuck with me,
Bink. What did you do?"
"So you've taken a
peek at the real me too, huh?"
"What are you
talking about? You know what, the Peers are gonna kill you
ass. That bullshit move of using my protocol is bush league.
Everyone is gonna know it was you and they'll string you up on
Bourbon Street for the walkers to chow on."
"The Peers won't do
shit," said Bink, the realization of what he'd done finally
settling in alongside a nice and comfy sense of righteousness.
"What'd your buddy think last night when the grid dropped? Were
you on top of him, staring into those blank fucking eyes? Was
he surprised to see you?"
Monica yanked an LED
monitor from the next cube and hurled it at him. He moved
easily out of the way and it struck the window blinds, bounced
off the safety glass and thudded to the ground. Bink stalked
past her, expecting another attack, but she's expended all the
anger and embarrassment she had left. She leaned against the
door that led into the office kitchen, holding the knob with one
hand as if she was on the verge of collapse.
“What does it
matter?” she said. “He’s a Drone. He might as well have been
“But they’re not
dead,” said Bink. “Not anymore.”
"We had a real good
"No, I don't think
"You haven't been
outside yet," she said. "You don’t know how badly you've
Bink barely heard
her; he was stepping into the elevator, punching the button
repeatedly, waiting for the doors to close off his view of
Monica. This was the Monica she'd hid from the world, but last
night Bink had seen her guts, the parts she hid beneath her
humanity. She horrified him and yet he couldn't help but feel a
need to be near her, even as he desperately hoped to escape
before she could bring him back into her web. He loved her,
whatever she was, and that was the best reason of all for
leaving New Orleans.
The elevator doors
closed, and Bink allowed the shakes to take him. When he
reached the ground floor, he stepped into the lobby and stared
through the glass walls at the New Orleans he'd created.
Monica had been
He'd had no idea how
badly he screwed up.
* * *
The security Drones
had been the sole finger in the dike of destruction and Bink had
pulled them out. Now walkers flowed like bloody water through
the streets, no longer shambling masses but lighting-quick
predators in robes of tattered flesh, tossing men and women into
bonfires made from cars and ever present debris: sheetrock and
splintered wood, books and fast food wrappers, flitting
newspapers and empty cigarette cartons. The air was sweet with
the smell of it. The non-mods had enough sense to make
themselves scarce, but former Drones wandered the streets,
stunned into a state of bland confusion by the sudden return of
consciousness. Light seemed to bloom in some of their eyes, and
a few regained enough presence of mind to run when the walkers
came for them, but others simply went limp and let themselves be
carried to the fires.
Heedless for his
safety, Bink stepped out of the lobby and watched three people
ripped from a car surrounded by the New Orleans dead. Bink
could tell by the style of suddenly useless tech they sported
that they’d been Peers, but they were filthy people now, void of
their glamour, and they went to their deaths with high pitched
screams and useless flailing. One of them clung to the steering
wheel, refusing to be dislodged until several of the walkers
pulled away pieces of her arm with their teeth, chewed, then
wrenched her free. She wailed and kicked at them with shapeless
legs all the way to the flames. The walkers then heaved her
unceremoniously onto a burning mattress, and guarded against her
escape from the fire by beating her back with lengths of rotted
wood. Finally her screams gave out and her body with them.
Only then did the walkers turn their eyes to new prey.
At Bink’s feet, a
former Drone leaned against the wall, trying to pry his blank
LCD screen free from his forearm with a screwdriver, as if
afraid the technology was what made him a target. He mumbled
incoherently; blood blazed fresh trails down his arm and spilled
onto the sidewalk in a hellish constellation of droplets.
Bink tasted ash and
knew this was his fault.
Then Amanda’s face
blocked his view of the carnage and her hands were on his chest,
once again relieving the pressure of the world, lifting the
gravity of reality. The music of the city played somewhere in
the distance, removed from the violence. Festive jazz, smoky
midnight blues, a brass band leading a funeral march. Amanda’s
chest was draped with beads, her face splashed with blood.
"You have done your
work,” she said, “now let them do theirs."
“Stop them.” Bink’s
protest was halfhearted. He was losing some part of himself
that he couldn’t place. The part that whispered in his ear that
no matter how bad things got, everything would be all right
"This is a city of
flesh, not of machines,” said Amanda, raising her crimson hands
to cup his cheeks. Her touch was impossibly hot, and insanity
bent her face into a fanatical grin. “Machines couldn’t salvage
her, but by our hands she’ll live again in all her splendor.
Lust and hunger come naturally to this place, and they’ve got to
be sated if you want the real people, the music, the spice on
your tongue that makes New Orleans. This is how we get back all
those people you long for, the forgotten and the dead. The
“This is murder.”
Bink could hardly speak as she wrapped him in her presence,
walked him away from the horror he’d wrought and replaced the
reek of downtown with the pleasantly fishy scent of Lake
Pontchartrain. They stood at the south entry to the causeway,
in the shadows of burned-out hotels, beneath the awnings of
forgotten toll booths entwined in spider webs and weeds. Miles
away, he fancied he could still hear the screaming, but it might
have been water birds calling from somewhere over the gray
“You lied,” said
“No, I never lied to
you. I gave you the opportunity to free the Drones and you took
“You knew what would
happen. You used me.”
“I never commanded
you like you did your Drones. I never used you against
your will. I enabled your will and you did what you’d
always wanted to do.”
“You think I wanted
“The walkers and
their creators were here long before you were, Bink. And the
night people have claimed this as their home for ages beyond
memory. This is their time of celebration, but once they’ve had
their fill, I promise their enthusiasm for murder will wane.
Just know that what they’re doing is important. They’re
clearing out the debris of society, like bulldozers removing the
city’s rubble. New life can’t spring forth until the old has
been plucked away. You’ve lived in New Orleans long enough to
“This was a
beautiful place before everyone forgot about it. Now New
Orleans can grow again into the place it always was and yearns
to be. You’re part of that, Bink. Can’t you hear the city
offering its thanks to you with every dying scream?”
“You made me–”
“Now hush. You’ve
done the right thing and I won’t allow you to hate yourself for
this. Are you still determined to leave?”
“More than ever.”
Amanda couldn’t hide
the disappointment in her expression. She pulled her hand away
and Bink staggered at the sheer presence of the air
around him. He wanted to wander to the rocky bank, drop to his
knees and bawl. He wanted to die in the quickest manner
possible. But he stood in the middle of the unused street, and
refused to let her sway him.
“How do I get out?”
She pointed out over
the causeway that used to reach all the way to the north shore,
at the cars everyone had left for dead when the Dome had
dropped. “You know where the city stops now. Go there and pass
through the Dome. It won’t stop you anymore. But you leave and
you won’t be coming back in. It’s a ridiculous notion, leaving,
and you’ll know that as soon as you get a taste of radiated
air. As soon as you hold out your hand for help and someone
shoots you in the face for your troubles.
“What you’re seeing
now is necessary, but this place will be like it was before.
Isn’t that what you spend all your drunken hours wishing for?
Well now you’ll have it. The city provides. It always does.”
He shook his head,
though he wasn’t sure if it was to deny what she was saying or
to clear away his own confusion. He backed away from her, not
yet willing to turn around, and each step he took ratcheted up
the overwhelming sense of despair and longing. He’d never feel
anything again like her touch, and it sickened him. She watched
him retreat, blood dripping from the splayed fingers of her
beckoning hand, sticking her dress to her body and painting one
side of her face in a murderer’s mask. She was madness
incarnate, but she was still beautiful. She was sex and death
and wild abandon.
She was New Orleans,
and she was terrible.
Bink blurted out “I
love you” in a breathless whisper. He wasn’t even sure who he
was speaking to.
“You don’t love me;
you love what you’re leaving behind.”
And then she was
gone, and Bink was alone. He turned and ran, terrified that she
might return and that he’d be unable to resist her. When the
Dome had dropped, it hadn’t bothered to make sure there was no
traffic on the causeway, and as it had fallen right across the
middle, many cars had instantly slammed into an impenetrable
barrier, and all those behind them had joined the party. It was
at least ten miles to the point where the Dome had sealed them
from the world, and Bink ran through the abandoned cars until he
was out of breath.
He slowed to a walk,
and let the lethargic motion of the waves on either side of the
road calm his nerves. He imagined the cars were full of ghosts,
and they watched him. Some of them wanted to leave with him,
others just wanted out of their cars. They wanted to be
strolling through the Quarter with their friends and lovers;
they wanted to chase parade floats through the Carrollton
District; they wanted the live in the same world Bink longed
for, and they whispered that he was wasting the flesh. He was
the lucky one. If he had any guts he’d tough out the hard times
and reap the utopia that Amanda promised. Bink had the choice
they didn’t, and he was flushing it down the drain for some
dream of what things used to be on the outside.
Bink pressed his
hands against his ears to shut off the ghosts’ ceaseless
chattering, and he didn’t lower them until he reached the place
where the bridge ended. The Dome spanned the horizon, a
shimmering pale thing that looked like nothing so much as a
massive mirage. It pierced the water about fifty yards ahead,
and the bridge had collapsed where Bink stood. Bits of concrete
jutted up from the lake like teeth from a long-dead sea monster,
and a pickup truck was lodged in the beast’s mouth. Beyond that
only open waves and the Dome.
He’d have to swim.
He jumped into the
water before he could stop himself. Bink had never been much of
a swimmer, but he could dog paddle and that should be good
enough to get him where he needed to be. He worked his way from
concrete block to concrete block until at last he was floating
free in the water, which began roiling as if a sudden storm had
risen. It had looked calmer from the bridge, and as he bobbed
away from safety, he began to question his sanity.
Beyond the Dome he
could see the other half of the causeway stretching out to the
north shore and the houses and docks clinging to the edge.
There were no Chinese phase tanks waiting to blast him, no men
in rad-suits waving rifles, no burning buildings and gun battles
and roving bands of cannibals. There weren’t even birds. The
horizon beyond the Dome was as still and uneventful as the
grave. And for the first time, Bink wondered if he really
wanted to go there.
The waves urged him
closer, and he fought with his arms to stay afloat, spitting out
water and gasping for breath each time he topped a swell. The
lake seemed endless. His heart thundered and he began to
panic. Suddenly he wasn’t afraid of drowning as much as he was
of leaving New Orleans. He began to paddle back to the south,
but he only managed to keep his place. Once he stopped
struggling, he’d be carried on to the real world.
Amanda had done
something to him. She’d stolen his desires and replaced them
with her own, and he hated her, like he hated the city.
Nonetheless, he desperately wanted them both.
He continued to
paddle, but he was losing steam. Bink wasn’t in the best of
shape, and he began heaving, gulping in mouthfuls of water and
gasping for air. He had to let himself go, to float, or he’d
drown. But another glimpse at that utterly still world he’d
been longing for fostered a certainty that remaining here as one
of New Orleans’ dead would be infinitely preferable to what
waited outside the Dome. He fought with everything he had left
in him, pushed against the swell of waves.
And then they
The sky grew gray,
and the voice of the city roared in his ears as he sank. He
paddled upward, screaming wet prayers to New Orleans, to the
Mothers, to his own mother to reach into the water and seize him
by the collar and set him back on the firm ground of the only
home he’d ever known. The only place he really understood.
floated like sensual music through the murk. “The city will
Bink closed his
eyes, held out his arms, and waited for someone to save him.
About the Author:
Josh Rountree's short fiction has
appeared in a variety of of magazines and anthologies, including
Realms of Fantasy, Polyphony 6, and Lone Star
Stories. His first short fiction collection Can't Buy Me
Faded Love is now available from Wheatland Press. Visit
www.joshrountree.com for the full scoop.
Story © 2008 Josh Rountree.