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 charms.

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 worried about.

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 consciousness.

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 than others.

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 his ice.

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 myself.”

“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 satisfied expression.

“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 could afford?”

“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 nothing.

“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?”

“Seriously?  You’re kidding, right?  This town isn’t perfect but it’s a hell of a lot better than everywhere else.  Where exactly do you think you’d go?”

“I don’t know.  Somewhere.”

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.”

“I know.”

“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.

“Whatever,” she 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 wanted.”

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 up.

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.

He really 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 his.

“Where did you come from?” he asked.

“I’ve never been anywhere else.”

“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 that?”

“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 enough, Bink?”

“You’re a—”

“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 wound.

“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 you–”

“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 you want?”

“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 for?”

“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?”

Amanda shrugged.  “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.”

“What’s this?”

“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 need me?”

“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 it?”

“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 his grip.

“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 the grid.”

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 with her.

“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 back.”

“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 stark desperation.

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 brothels.

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 stupid.”

Bink shook his head.  “I won’t be any stupider than I am any other day.”

Satisfied, Monica 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 attacksthere 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 good.

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 seen.

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.

Bink began 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 his mind.

*     *     *

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.”

“Last night I wasn’t busy.”

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 Drone!”

“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 shit.”

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 his ribs.

"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 dead.”

“But they’re not dead,” said Bink.  “Not anymore.”

"We had a real good thing here.”

"No, I don't think we did."

"You haven't been outside yet," she said.  "You don’t know how badly you've screwed up."

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 right.

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 eventually.

"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 memories.”

“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 waves.

“Better?” asked Amanda.

 “You lied,” said Bink.

“No, I never lied to you.  I gave you the opportunity to free the Drones and you took it.”

“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 everyone dead?”

“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 know that.

“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 swallowed him.

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.

Amanda’s voice floated like sensual music through the murk.  “The city will provide.”

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 for the full scoop.



Story © 2008 Josh Rountree.