In the quiet moonlight, Amy and I make our way towards the meet-up spot. As we go further, the city lights and tall buildings disappear, replaced by darkness and ruins. We’re in that special pocket of the city known only as Druid Hills.
An elderly woman pushing a shopping cart filled with recyclables passes us in the opposite direction. She mutters something I can’t make out. From across the street, two people stand at a corner, hands in their pockets, clearly waiting for someone with a pocketbook to pass them by.
For as much unease as I have right now, I’m more struck by the fact that Amy doesn’t seem affected whatsoever. It’s like she’s completely familiar with all of this.
Druid Hills is a big part of town for the homeless people in Atlanta, and the fact that it’s so sparsely patrolled by cops is only part of that. As sad as it is that there are even any homeless people still in this city, it’s good that most of the city has changed for the better and this is the last major pocket left in the city where crime and vagrancy are rampant. Unfortunately, it probably won’t ever be fixed.
Reason one is that the former Georgia Dome 2 is parked smack dab in the middle of the neighborhood, and that place, despite having been abandoned for the Georgia Dome 3 over ten years ago, has never been demolished. It’s become more and more entrenched as a central hub of homeless camps and entire villages. They could have torn it down earlier, but by the time the government got around to it, the logistics were too much to bother.
Reason two is the fact that within Druid Hills is the boundary of the CDC Quarantine Zone.
If you somehow don’t know, it was about twenty years ago, not long before the war, there was a massive anti-government raid by some religious nuts and their charismatic leader named Eric Rudolph. They stormed the Center for Disease Control headquarters in some fantastic, explosive raid, then set off some bombs that destroyed the facility and unleashed much of the contents inside. These contents, of course, being deadly diseases, biological weapons, and other untold, invisible terrors. It killed all of the raiders (at least, that’s what the U.S. government said), but it also killed hundreds of other people in the neighborhood and at the nearby Emory University.
Now, even as Atlanta has grown to become the largest city in the world, we still have this huge circular barrier in the middle of the city where not a single soul is allowed entry, not for the next several decades as the diseases inside die off. Just the same, the area surrounding the quarantine died too, its population fleeing for safer parts of the city and its streets crumbling away.
And now here we are, Amy and me walking on by the extremely expensive football stadium that went to ruin just because of some bad luck and close proximity to an international superfund site.
“I lived in the Georgia Dome for a while,” says Amy, looking at the stadium. “Not that one though. The third one, before it got torn down. The people there were nice.”
“How long have you been homeless?” I ask.
“That’s a rude-ass question.”
“I don’t think so, is it?”
“I’m not some sob story for you to pity,” Amy growls. “Who cares how long I’ve been on the streets? What matters is where I am now, and who I am now.”
“That’s surprisingly really eloquent, coming from you,” I say.
“I just want to let you know, I had a pretty tough time at your age too,” I tell her. “If you ever want to talk about anything–”
“Don’t worry, I won’t.”
“Ah. Alright then.”
“I wish it was easier being trans,” she says after a moment.
I nod. That’s all I can do.
Amy looks away from the stadium and back to the road in front of her. So do I.
Former mom & pop shops, an overturned barbershop sign… the decay of the region around Druid Hills is even worse than the dying neighborhoods in the south of the city, where R8PR stays. Here, it’s like a ghost town nestled right up against the downtown. “Anyway, I’m glad where I’m at. Street Rat is wonderful, and all my friends are great. Did you know what they did for me fo my fourteenth birthday party? They all took me to a bowling alley and had a ton of nachos.”
We walk by one of the only buildings on the street that seems inhabited, a cash advance and title pawn store. It’s closed and there’s thick metal bars across all the windows, but the lights are on, marking some of the only illumination in the entire area.
“I went bowling when I turned fourteen, too,” I say. That was also the birthday where I kissed Bethany Carroll on the cheek after she got a strike and started a year’s worth of rumor mongering. Yeah, we kissed a couple more times. Made out once, too. What do you think about THAT, huh, Greg Filoni? Still jealous about it, huh? …Okay I’m an idiot.
“Well, the Holos did it differently,” Amy says. “We broke in after the bowling alley closed and had a private party all on our own. It took the whole night before the cops showed up. It was the most fun night I’ve ever had.”
“That’s nice. You probably caused lots of property damage, but that’s still nice.”
“Oh yeah, we trashed the place,” she snickers. Then she sighs. “Looks like we’re here.”
“I wouldn’t say we are here if we aren’t here, dummy.”
“You’re really– ugh, whatever.”
I look forward–there’s only one functioning street light here, and I can only barely make out a couple figures in the shadows. Unless that’s just my imagination…
Well, here we go.
Amy and I enter the spotlight, kind of literally, and wait for at least someone to step forward. Nobody does.
“Is the Earth Group here?” I call out to whoever may be nearby. “We’re here for your deal with the Holos. We want this handled peacefully.”
A distant voice cries out in anger, “Peacefully? We ain’t doing peacefully, you punks!” A few moments later, into the dimness steps four, um, punks. Crust punks, the typical Earth Group gang members. While they are still an eco-terror group, these days the bulk of their membership consists of these gross, smelly guys more interested in going to concerts and collecting brass rings than thwarting the technological society.
I’m a bit worried, even so. These guys are very angry, and very not in the mood for an easy dealmaking session.
“Peacefully’s the last thing you’re gonna get,” growls one of the Earth Group punks as he steps into the dim light. He’s holding a broken glass bottle. Now there’s five of them. All male. Amy starts to back up.
“Hey, we’re just here to negotiate, remember?” I raise my hands to try and diffuse this situation. I turn to Amy and ask, “Hey, there are supposed to be more Holos here, right?”
Amy looks petrified, too much so to even say some snarky insult to me.
“We aren’t negotiating jack shit. You trashed our club, we trash you, unless you pay up like you promised!”
“Um, no, this was about a data drive you guys stole. That is definitely what I was told. Nothing about a club. I’m not misremembering anything, so it must be on your side.”
They don’t appear to be listening to me at all. In fact, the five of them now have Amy and me surrounded, using the darkness around the street light as good cover. There isn’t any way out of this now.
“Are you SURE there aren’t other Holos here?” I ask.
Amy still doesn’t respond. She instead balls up her fists and lunges at the punk in front of us, and– He grabs her by the wrist and pulls her back.
She shrieks and tries to fight away, but he doesn’t wrest her free, not at all.
“Time to get what you deserve.”
He raises his broken glass bottle.