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The Interstate's Shadow

"And that," said G, pointing at a bizarre Frankensteinian confection of glass and steel and brick, "is what started it all."

"What?" Megan said, squinting up at it. "It looks like two buildings that have been mashed together."

"Precisely!" G said. "You have a good eye. That's exactly what it was. Now, though, it's considered a purposeful masterpiece of architectural design. Everybody wants one."

"You're kidding," Megan said.

G put hands on hips and stared up at the modernistic metal structure fused with a neo-Victorian brick-fronted piece, her sunglasses hiding most of her expression, though her teeth were bared in something that only vaguely resembled a smile. "Porter Construction goofed delivery. They build the structures on their site, and deliver onto the foundations by teleportation. The teleporter malfunctioned and sent two buildings to the same site. They couldn't figure out how to extract the brick one without demolishing it, so they retrofitted the foundation and built connections between the structures and voila, a new school of architecture."

Megan stared at G, trying to figure out how she felt about this from her expression and failing. Finally, she looked back at the building and said, "It's, um, kinda ugly."

G laughed in a harsh, flat sort of way. "Welcome to my life."

They walked to the bus stop then. Megan cleared her throat and said, "You've shown me a lot of things that are kinda ugly today. I mean, that thing tops the list, of course. But the financial district was all mirrored walls with distorted hood ornaments on top, and the docks had all sorts of slick high-tech cranes and shit that looked more like erector sets, and the old World's Fair buildings are all falling to ruin. North of town is overrun with beige townhouses, and west of town is all ticky-tacky 50s suburbia. Is there anything really pretty in Wonder City?" She gestured across the street at a block of beige, brick-fronted boxes with windows and doors slapped into them. "Anywhere?"

G examined her for a moment, then hailed a cab.

Megan reflected that this was perhaps the first time she had ever been in a taxicab that was large enough for her. Ah, Wonder City.

A confusing half-hour's ride later, they got out and G paid the tab. Megan looked around. The sun was heading for the horizon, throwing the long shadow of the central hill over this street, one of the easternmost of the city. The street was crowded with dilapidated two- or three-family houses, some with broken driveways between them, some with only a narrow strip of dead grass and a rotted wooden fencepost marking the boundary where one ended and the next began. A second-floor porch on the yellow house across the street sagged precipitously.

The taxi accelerated away and G turned to her. "Let's go this way," she said, pointing along the street.

G led the way, and Megan followed tamely. She could smell the river nearby and could see an 8-lane highway noisily overpassing several houses ahead. As they passed a cross street, she noticed that a hill fell away from them, the street proceeding at least 10 blocks straight down to the river. They were north of the modern docks, but she could see blackened stumps of old docks jutting from the water. The street was lined with the same sort of two- and three-family clapboard houses. To the south, near the river's edge, she could see factory stacks and the top story of a long, low-slung factory built of years-darkened brick.

They passed this street, and the next, which was nearly identical. Under the deeper shadow of the highway, G turned down the third street.

The houses gave way abruptly to a Victorian main street. The storefronts were brick with large glass windows, adorned at the edges with wooden art nouveau flourishes. A tall brick building with a clock tower dominated the next street corner and still bore a gilded wooden sign that read "GENERAL STORE" along the front. The sidewalks were broad and so was the street, so that cars could park in diagonal spaces in front of the stores. All the storefront windows shone brightly in the premature shadow of the highway and the hill. People hurried or strolled or stopped to talk, a mixed population of black, white, Asian, and Hispanic people. Little old ladies walked along the sidewalks together, pulling wheeled shopping trolleys behind them that bore paper grocery bags marked with the green and black logo of Takahashi's Market. The market itself was on the corner opposite the clock tower and inhabited the entirety of one of the Victorian buildings that had previously been four or five shop fronts. Children chased each other along the low stone walls surrounding the garden of a tall Queen Anne Victorian, painted brilliantly in yellow and red and cream, that housed doctor's and dentist's offices. A Golden Retriever gazed up at them mournfully as, secured to a parking meter by her leash, she waited for her owner to emerge from a tiny, crowded bookstore.

As they walked the busy sidewalks, Megan picked out half a dozen different languages being spoken, including Spanish, Haitian Creole, Korean, Chinese, and Polish. There were a couple of people as tall as she was, a few adults who were short as children, a few aliens -- she noticed in particular a native of Arcturus Prime, with her featureless humanoid shape, scarlet hairless skin, and head of enormous feathery sense organs -- and even a few cybernetic beings. No one paid particular attention to Megan or G as they made their way past the clock tower and turned the corner.

"This is the original town of Staybird," G said, gesturing around at the little town center. "Founded in the late 1700s by a family named Staybird, who bought farmland here. Some of their relations moved to the area, and then someone figured out that gosh, there was a river here." She pointed at the old churches that stood shoulder-to-shoulder along this street: Methodist, Catholic, Baptist, Episcopalian. "The immigrants came in for the coal-mining, then the factories, and the docks perked up. It never made it as a steel town, and the coal mining operation fell apart. The town was dying by inches when Wilson decided he needed somewhere isolated to train and stage his paranormal forces."

Megan looked around again. She knew the history, but hadn't realized that the town had effectively remained intact when the Army engineers moved in. "I guess I assumed that everyone in the town had been relocated."

G shrugged. "Not everyone wanted to leave. The camp was set up south of town, away from the lion's share of the houses and factories, and that's why some of the older Wonder City houses are down there." She looked around, finally taking her sunglasses off as she did it. "I got to work on some of the renewal here when I was just out of school. This is, to me, the prettiest part of Wonder City."

Megan ran her fingers over the rough grey stone of the Episcopalian church's front, peered across the street into an old cemetery dotted with slate and marble headstones, and smiled at G. "Thanks," she said. "Just... thanks."

G grinned at her, tucking her sunglasses into her shirt pocket. "Well, there's a good pub down here. A block, I think. Want an early dinner?"


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