HUGO AWARD-WINNING SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY MAGAZINE
The Found Girl
Melissa stalked a trash compactor in the Elemental Caverns deep in the depths below the Street, where steam hissed from newly regrown pipes and oversized dendrites spread across the ancient brick of the connective tunnels. The glowing moss that dripped brown water filled the air with a faint glow, enough to let Melissa squint her way through the Caverns.
The Street gave her the mission the usual way: pictographs glowing on the side of the steps leading up to the two-storied, red-brick building the Found Children called The Castle. She had puzzled for a moment as to what the "trashcan + clamp" had meant, but eventually she'd figured that the Street lost a compactor and needed it retrieved.
And of course, she knew the quartered circle that indicated the caverns.
The Found Children didn't like the Caverns. They were haunted. With so few real people around anymore, ghosts and demons felt free to roam a world filled with buildings that moved and talked, where mysterious magics dusted the air and flitted around.
So Melissa accepted the Street's request. She wouldn't let any of the younger children risk waking the demons.
After all, La Llorona lurked this far under the Street. Melissa glimpsed her bedraggled hair and torn-up clothes the last time she'd rescued a lost machine for the Street. Held her breath and hid as the demon ghost snuffled and tramped around the darks of the Caverns.
"Hello," she whispered to herself. She stopped at the concrete edge of an ancient sewer and knelt to look into a puddle of muck collected in a depression. The telltale kinked track of the compactor looked fresh. The muck would dry out in six hours, maybe twelve on a humid day. He had been by here recently, then, headed deeper into the caverns. On tiptoes she headed deeper, swallowing hard and hoping she was being ghost-quiet.
Scuffling whispers echoed through the stale air from deeper in the caverns.
The sounds carried the scent of earth and water. She looked around a corner carefully. Somewhere, deep along one of the arrow-straight tubes, a faint fire flickered.
"La Llorona," Melissa whispered to herself, the back of her neck prickling.
Melissa knew the stories from her days hiding in the Outskirts. Alien and incomprehensible the old demon stalked abandoned, wet sewers, snatching up wayward orphans, devouring those who had lost hope.
If La Llorona showed, she would tempt Melissa with her demonic tongue. Melissa shied away from the tunnel, keeping her hope, keeping her strength.
She looked down at the tracks. The trash compactor had been wooed by La Llorona's voice and tricked into coming down here, no doubt. And the Street needed it rescued. And the Street was good to the Found Children. It had given them a safe building, and good food.
Melissa steeled herself and followed the tracks where they led, right down the tunnel toward La Llorona. The glow down that way was brighter, and the smell of smoke unmistakable.
"Infernal fire," she said softly. The smells of rotting things and burned flesh overwhelmed the purer smells of earth and water.
Smoke should be sweeter, but no one told La Llorona that.
Halfway down, the trash compactor shuddered in spastic circles, twitching a half turn to the left, then backing to the right one full turn. Back and forth he stuttered in little circles, and Melissa could tell the machine was caught between the call of La Llorona and the freedom and sweet air of the Street.
Right now Melissa wanted nothing more than to call on the beautiful, angelic, and pure Blue Lady to come save her. The same Blue Lady that had appeared in the Outskirts, and given her food. Then told her and the Found Children about the Street, and the safe place.
But the Blue Lady didn't always come when you screamed and prayed. And it was better to save your prayers for when you really needed them. So Melissa gritted her teeth and approached the wayward machine.
Fortunately, the Old Man on the Street had shown her what to do in cases like this. When the trash compactor paused to reevaluate its path she leapt onto its chassis, her muddy feet scrambling up and over its metallic arms and mouths. On top was a button covered by a clear plastic guard. She flipped up the guard and mashed the button down, then whispered, "I am lost, take me home."
Immediately, the trash compactor stopped twitching, oriented itself back the way Melissa had come, and trundled off. She clung to it, her bony knees hooked into one of its bumpers, her fingers clutching the front edge, her slim body laid across the top. The little treads whirred and the compactor sped up with a flurry of dank water and mud as it carried them away from La Llorona, and then eventually with a burst of light, out of the Elemental Caverns entirely.
"You did good work with the trash compactor," the Old Man said, walking beside her down the center of the asphalt strip, "that took a lot of courage. I know you don't like being underground." Melissa looked up at him. He wore a simple cream-colored suit with a pink tie. Sometimes he dressed differently—when she met him he had been wearing sandals, khakis, and a patterned shirt—but he otherwise always looked the same with his lined and careworn face and the shiny implants at his temples, forehead and base of his skull.
"I guess so," she said, walking beside him. Her head came just above his elbow, and she wore the same long skirt and t-shirt that she had worn that morning into the caverns. The t-shirt had a stylized rocketship on the front with three colorful monkeys hanging off it as it shot into space.
"We appreciate it, nonetheless. Even if we lack courage ourselves anymore."
"You mean you're afraid?" she asked. "But you're an adult."
"No, we're not afraid, either. Not afraid, not courageous. It doesn't apply to us any more."
"Because you . . . transcended?"
"Yes," he said, steering her toward the front steps of the safe building. The Castle. The other kids, all younger than her, had finished playing for the day and were heading back toward The Castle. Most of them were dirty, a few nicked up from playing rough, but they were otherwise healthy and in good spirits. They had a freedom now that they had lacked before, and they reveled in it.
The only cost to that freedom was the occasional task laid on them by the Street. Most of the cleaning things she let them handle, but as the oldest, she took the difficult things like the trash compactor onto herself. She couldn't let any of the younger ones risk themselves with La Llorona.
"Do you miss it?"
"Feeling afraid?" he asked. "Or courageous?"
"Not yet," he said. She imagined a smile further creasing his face, but it remained calm. "We still remember it, after all. We remember the fear and courage of all of us. And that's enough, in a way. Though it's nice to actively see yours. We take some pleasure in knowing these things are still around and still possible."
"Is that why you like my art?"
"Well, we like neo-primativist compositions. And your color choice is fairly unique for someone of your age and background."
"Thank you. I think." She stopped at the base of the stairs, then turned to look up at him.
"What for?" he asked.
"For this," she said, spreading her arms, indicating the Street as a whole. "You make it safe and clean and okay for us."
"You make it clean, you and your friends."
Melissa glanced up the stairs. Darkness was settling and the others had all gone inside. When she looked back, the Old Man was walking away, his hands in his pockets. Far beyond him, down at the east end of the Street, a ten-foot-tall block of walking metal, a checkpoint sentry, ambled forward awkwardly and then squatted to block that end off from unwanted guests. Another such sentry blocked the west end.
As she kept looking to the east, a bright light flared over the city. The silhouetted skyline was darker than it had been this time a year ago. A pillar of light grew, glowing blue and white, reaching for the heavens. Melissa wondered what it was.
An invocation for the Blue Lady lingered on Melissa's tongue long after the pillar of light faded and vanished, but never passed her lips.
"What's out there?" Melissa asked the sentry the next day, craning her head as she looked up at the strips of steel along its side. "Now, I mean. It's all changed. I don't understand it anymore."
"You were out there before, weren't you?" the sentry replied.
Parts of the steel block could change and move, revealing barriers, maybe weapons even, but she couldn't be sure of that. It was doing that now, to talk to her. The booming voice coming from a new porthole opening up. Small machine irises bloomed and twisted to point themselves at her.
Nothing got past the sentry without the Street's say-so. Except La Llorona.
Melissa guessed that only the Blue Lady could stop the demon. But she hadn't seen the Blue Lady since she came to rescue the Found Children.
"Yes," Melissa said. The sentry must know her story, she thought. But then, he hadn't appeared until just after most of the adults in the city transcended. Maybe the sentry wasn't like the rest of everything here on the Street, knowing what seemed like everything there was to know. "My mother and I lived on the streets for years, when I was little. She died four, maybe five years ago, I don't know any more."
"How did you fare on the street?" the sentry asked.
"Well enough," she replied. "We sang songs for people on the streets, back when they were filled with people. Sometimes people put money in the cup. Sometimes we went to the shelters, but mom was scared of them."
"You still tell stories, don't you?"
"When the other children need them," Melissa replied. "To explain the world."
"How often does that happen?"
"All the time," she said, flashing a smile at the sentry, and stepped across a steel ribbon in the road that marked the edge of the Street. Over to the other side. Nothing much happened, though she felt a tingle that told her the sentry had looked at her very closely. She turned her head and smiled again at the steel block and walked out into the north-south road. No vehicles used it any more, and outside of the Street, she could see weeds and grass had begun to sprout in the cracks.
This road itself seemed to be a no-man's land. "Her" street did not continue on the other side, there was just a blank wall, the side of what had been a large hospital that had declined rapidly in the last six months. There were hardly any patients any more. And those that needed help, she heard, got it from machines grown in their own homes.
"It's nice out there," the Old Man said from behind her. She turned back. He leaned against the sentry, but she hadn't seen or heard him approach. He was wearing jeans and sneakers now, with a tie-dyed t-shirt. "The transcended are pitching in to help the people left behind in a big way. It's relatively safe for a girl on her own, even one as young as you. Safer than it was before you came to join us in The Castle."
"I like the Street," she said, turning to face him now. A shiver ran down her spine as she stood in the middle of the road, knowing in that instinctual way that she should not be able to do this, to stand where cars had once whipped by, and more to stand outside the protection of the Street. Spirits were out here, demons and all the rest, like La Llorona. She looked around again and took in the vacant buildings, the closed off streets, the emptiness of it all. Far away, to the south, she could see figures moving across the road, dim outlines in the distance.
"The Street likes you," the Old Man said.
"Are you the King of the Street?" Melissa asked. Or President. Or leader. She didn't understand the new world.
She'd barely understood the old one. The busy streets, the cars, the busy and stressed people. Suits. Acrid air. Factories. Hunger. Steel buildings. Jobs and homes.
Planes. She wondered if she'd dreamed them. Like metal birds, filled with people, going here and there, far over head. She missed the contrails.
"No," the Old Man said, "this is just a facet of the Street. This body was once an individual that lived here in one of the apartments. Now he is part of the Street, speaking to you with the voice of all of us. One of us."
Melissa still didn't get it. She looked off in the distance, away from the Street and asked the same question she asked every week, just to reassure herself that she wasn't trapped. "Can I leave the Street?"
"If you want to," the Old Man replied. "You're not our prisoner. Or even our ward. Though we would have . . . concern for you. We would prefer you to stay."
"Accidents still happen. The world is safer, but not completely safe."
Melissa thought about La Llorona hidden away beneath the Street, hiding in the caverns down there. Was the Street completely safe either?
She wondered if the Blue Lady would help her if she left the Street? She thought so. She had seen her, after all, in the Outskirts.
But if Melissa left the Street, she would leave the Found Children alone. And who would warn them about La Llorona? The Street did not seem interested.
"I'll stay," she said, and walked back through the sentry's gates. "For now."
". . . La Llorona lost her children a long, long time ago. Some say she drowned them, and was cast back into the world after she killed herself. And that's why we must fear her. She's looking for lost children," Melissa said, looking around at the other children.
Only ten of the thirty in The Castle sat and listened to her tales on the benches by the sidewalk, mostly the youngest ones. They sat with their lunch—provided, as always, by the Street—and listened in fascination edged with disbelief. Last week she had twelve listeners. More the month before.
"I saw her in the Elemental Caverns," Melissa said, stomping a thinly shod foot on the concrete sidewalk. "Right here. Right beneath our feet. She will take you and bind you and make you hers forever."
That sent a shiver through them. "Stranger danger," muttered one of the kids, repeating one of the old warding phrases they'd all learned and passed on to each other. Even though they stayed within the long block that made up the Street, the freedom within it was nearly unfathomable. To be able to run and play, beyond the tightly fenced playground behind their building . . . this was a freedom they had never known in their lives. Food. Warmth.
Melissa thought back to the lessons she had been taught. The stories she'd been told about the world. "There is evil and there is good, in the world," she repeated. "Demons, like La Llorona, want to capture us and steal our energy. But there are angels out there. And they want us to be free, and to laugh and play. It makes them happy to see that."
Her mom had made angels out of bits of wire and bottles that she found. Twisted metal wings wrapped onto the bottles, with bottle-cap faces. When they'd stayed in the tent on the Outskirts, her mother had made hundreds of them. "They protect us," her mother had said. "From the government. They hide us from the bad people who'll take you away from me."
But then she'd died. Killed by the demon that ripped her up from the inside and made her cough blood. And Melissa had been left alone to sing on the street, to beg for food.
Alone while people started to fade away, and the city got silent.
Alone until the beautiful Blue Lady came out to the Outskirts and talked to her. Invited her to come to the Street.
A little boy with braided hair raised his hand and broke through Melissa's memories. "Is the Street an angel?"
Melissa opened her mouth. And didn't have an answer.
The others scattered as they realized she was done, their lunches finished, their attention waning. She didn't blame them, but she hoped they would take what she said to heart. Many of them didn't believe in La Llorona the way she did, they hadn't smelled her fire, heard her strange and demonic language. Some of them had been reading things, learning history from the Street.
Even some of the other children who'd hunkered in the Outskirts, near that abandoned factory that Melissa had hid in after her mom died, had stopped believing.
The Old Man was standing there, watching her. Today he had gone back to the cream-colored suit, but with a peach-colored tie.
"We really enjoy your stories," he said to her, "the way you teach the children what you know about the world."
"They need to know," she said. "And no one else wants to do it, I think. Is that why you want me to stay?"
"We want you to stay for many reasons," he said, "but your stories are a part of it."
"What do you mean? You must know far more than I do," she replied. "You transcended."
That was why everyone left. She hadn't understood, not talking to other people. Hiding in the parks. Begging.
Did you ever use your mother's old phone? the Blue Lady had asked. Or play with a computer? They get faster and faster. And better. And some people use mind interfaces. Or speak to them.
Technology got faster. Better. And then technology started designing technology. Evolving. What used to take a lifetime took a decade, then years. And then last year, months. Weeks. Days.
People transcended. Became other things. Many other things. Some were still here. Some had left. Some were different.
Some stayed the same.
The Found Children had been left behind.
"Transcending was the problem," the Old Man said. "In some ways, we're only the sum of our parts. The collective that is the Street is made up of only so many individuals, with so much life experience, with so much knowledge, or emotion, or wisdom. If we do not take care to find more, to cultivate more, we could easily stagnate and die. Believe it or not, it has happened to collectives already, others elsewhere have encountered this. It took one such collective in Switzerland just a week, in your time."
"In my time? Isn't my time the same as yours?" Melissa asked, walking along the sidewalk, watching the other children run and play. Some of them were playing tag, others had a more complicated game of make-believe going on. A couple of the others had started a painting project early, only they did not seem to be doing quite the nice, even job the Street had suggested. The Old Man took that in as well, but smiled with approval.
"Machine intelligence has multiplied us, in a way. Everything happens faster, your experiences seem exponentially slower. We can make very complex decisions in the blink of your eye."
"That changed you," she said.
"You could say that."
"I don't want to change," she replied, not sure where the defensiveness had come from, suddenly. She didn't want to become a robot body for some larger entity like the Street. Even if the Street was made of all the minds of people who had lived in these buildings a year ago. "I want to be me, forever."
"Indeed," the Old Man said, and that was all on that subject.
The next night, a tribe of adults entered through the western checkpoint and set up camp on the opposite side of the Street from The Castle. They rolled up in a small caravan of vehicles, including one large truck with tarp-covered objects on the back. Much to her excitement the people seemed mostly normal to Melissa, though they greeted her with a deference that surprised her. The other kids stayed away, mostly, only peering-through-the-windows curious right now. They had had so few visitors through the Street in the months since the transcendence, since the neighborhood became the Street.
"They're heading to the spaceport," the Old Man had explained to her. "We're giving them freeway and a camping spot in exchange for some things they will make for us in space, in zero gravity."
Melissa looked up as she crossed the Street, at the stars overhead, thinking about his words. What kind of people would want to go there? She was meet-them curious, so she approached a small group gathered around a grill. There were only a few others that she had seen, beside these three, and they were busy with tasks she could not see.
Once they had finished the greetings, and Melissa explained who and what she was—careful to emphasize that they were in the Street's safekeeping—she asked what they were doing, where they were going.
"To space," one of them replied, light in his eyes. His curiosity and passion lit a small fire in her. "We're going to be adapted to life in zero-gee, and we're going to explore the solar system. Maybe beyond, if we can figure it out. The transcended are making huge strides toward that, now."
"So you're not transcended?" she asked.
"No, but we're going to be modified, enhanced," said one of the women, a similar light in her eyes. "In those," she said and jerked a thumb toward the tarp-covered objects. "Some of our friends are already undergoing the changes."
"Do you want to see?" said another of the women. And without waiting for Melissa's response, she climbed up on the back of the truck and started undoing one of the tarps. She lifted the edge, and Melissa could then see underneath. Machinery, wrapped around a green glowing tank, beeped and blinked at her. Inside, she could dimly make out a human form, only it wasn't quite so human any more. The body was changing, slowly, very slowly. Elongating here and there, widening in the limbs, flattening. New lumps on the body showed implanted machinery, perhaps, or new organs grown to perform whole new tasks the human body could never have evolved to perform.
"Are you still you?" she asked the woman holding the tarp.
"We're still individuals," she said. "Linked, by technology in our heads, some of the same technology that allows people to transcend. But we use it differently."
That night, Melissa stood on the rooftop of The Castle, looking up at the sky. Lights moved across the stars now, something she had never noticed before. Were they angels, going about a heavenly mission? Or more like these people, exploring the worlds beyond hers? Perhaps both, now that she thought about it.
But as she watched, shrill cries broke the night. She looked down at the visiting tribe, but they were all asleep, and undisturbed.
The cries went on for a full minute, and then trailed away. Melissa hurried inside. They had come from somewhere on the Street. They had to have been caused, she knew, by La Llorona.
Only La Llorona could sound that sad and scared.
The next day, the tribe readied to depart. Some of the orphans ran around, their hesitancy overcome, and they were now doing tasks for the visitors, little things that earned them treats or simple pats on the head. Melissa walked back and forth along the Street, almost like a nervous hen, keeping an eye on her chicks. Surely, La Llorona slipped up onto the surface with the tribe?
No, the Street would have noticed, she felt. It would not have allowed that. No, besides, La Llorona came from the depths, from the caverns, coming up from under the Street.
Once the tribe had moved on, she was joined by the Old Man again, walking the length of the Street. He asked her what she had thought of the visitors, if she wanted to go with them, what she had been working on artistically.
But she could also sense that he wasn't quite as engaged with the questions as he usually was. Something was missing in his attitude, and as they neared the western end of the Street, he guided her down an alley. It ended, a hundred feet down, in a blank wall erected since the transcendence, physically blocking the Street off and helping make it more of an enclave.
Between the street and the wall lay a boy's body, bloody and tattered, surrounded by sparkling shards of glass. She looked up at once, instinctively, but there were no windows on the buildings that formed the alley. She looked back down and whispered, "La Llorona. I heard the screams last night. I've warned you. Why don't you listen to me?"
She wiped tears from her cheeks.
"You think she did this?" the Old Man asked, walking close to look at the boy. He was not one of the Found Children. He was an outsider, from a nearby neighborhood. She had seen him before, a little younger than her, but at the time imperious, walking like he owned the world and smiling at the Found Children, but not talking to them. Now he was dead, the life gone from his body.
She looked up and met the Old Man's eyes, looking into them for what she thought must truly be the first time. She found herself falling into them, as though under a spell, seeing in him time and space, the stars of eternity, the soul of hundreds, maybe thousands. How many were dead now, like this boy?
"He was one of us, you know," the Street whispered, in the body of this Old Man. "He is one of us. But a piece of us was in there when this happened. And now it's gone."
Melissa turned and ran from him then, running back to The Castle, running to the hidden room she had once used, high in The Castle, and shut herself in. She held her knees to her chest and rocked back and forth, crying softly lest anyone hear her. She had not needed this room, this tiny closet of freedom since she arrived here, holding the Blue Lady's hand. Scared of the new children. Scared of the Old Man.
The close walls, the musty smell, the semi-darkness enclosed her, comforted her. Here she was trapped, and yet free, free from everything out there that wanted to consume her, from La Llorona and the Street, the Old Man and the other children. The dead child.
Death. The Street didn't seem to fear it, at least not the way she did. The violent, brutal murder of that child, the child who had no doubt been the source of the cries the night before.
Melissa cried herself to sleep.
The blue glow woke her, late in the night. It appeared first around the edges of the secret door that led into her private space, and then the door opened. Melissa tried to block the glare with her hand, but then it subsided on its own, revealing a beautiful woman, dressed in blue, radiating blue light from her skin. She had a soft and sympathetic smile, and reached a hand out toward Melissa.
Melissa smiled widely, her own hand meeting the Blue Lady's, feeling her fingers touch that warmth. She held on, and the Lady guided her out of her hiding place. Melissa climbed down and stood before her looking up.
"It's you," she whispered.
"Why did you come?" Melissa asked. "I didn't call you."
"You did," she said, "when you saw Rafael in the alley, don't you remember?"
She nodded, but couldn't actually remember. Her mind had been a whirl then.
"I must have," Melissa whispered.
"Do you really think it was La Llorona?"
Melissa nodded, though she had actually become less sure since leaving the boy's body. His death didn't mesh with anything she knew about La Llorona, and doubt had begun to creep into her mind that she wasn't real at all. The Blue Lady's presence threw those thoughts into disarray once more.
"Do you know where we can find her? You said you saw her under the Street, right?"
"Yes," Melissa said, then shook her head. "No. No. But, I do know . . . I did come near the lair of a demon once, a few days ago."
"You knew it was a demon?"
"Who else could live like that?" she asked, shuddering. Deep in the sewers, the burning reek of its lair infesting the Elemental Caverns and fouling the sweet smell of smoke.
"Can you show me?"
"I . . ."
"It will be safe," the Blue Lady said, "you called on me to protect you, and I will. But I need to see this place. I need you to lead me there."
"Okay," Melissa said, and took the Blue Lady's hand again.
Together they walked out of The Castle into the cool night. The other children were all asleep, or hiding themselves, and she knew it was better if they did not see her with the Blue Lady. They would be scared, even if they believed Melissa's stories, they would know this meant danger lurked nearby. And she did not want them to be afraid, any more, ever. She wanted them to be free of that, too. Fear was horrible, awful, and if the Street no longer feared death, maybe that was for the better.
Melissa led the Blue Lady to the entrance she used for the Elemental Caverns, a grate that had been stacked with boxes to keep it from being pushed up from underneath. Together, they pushed the boxes to the side and slowly crawled down the ladder inside to the concrete path inside. Melissa went first, swallowing her fear, and looked around carefully after beckoning the Blue Lady down.
Melissa began creeping toward the place she had last seen the glow of the demon's fire, but the Blue Lady walked without fear, her stride long, her feet loud on the concrete. Melissa tried to hurry quietly, but gave it up, drawing strength from the Blue Lady's fearlessness.
Before they reached it, she could smell the sickly smoke, see the glow reflecting on the walls. Within another minute, she was at the place she had found the trash compactor, the dried muck there still churned from where it had been turning its erratic circles.
Another few steps and she saw the shadows moving on the far wall, occluding the glow of the fire. Melissa froze in place as the demon stepped around the corner, ragged looking, long, straggly hair hanging from his head.
Melissa's thoughts swirled with confusion. The face she saw was certainly a man's. This was not La Llorona. Or was it? Was La Llorona tricking them?
She didn't have time to think further, as the demon breathed words in the demon language, and Melissa felt her knees shake with fear. He carried something in his right hand, long like a gun, but strangely shiny.
Melissa wanted to back away but could not, her body would not respond to her. But then the Blue Lady, who she'd almost forgot about, stepped around her. The demon started to raise the thing in his right hand, screaming something in his language at the Blue Lady. Her hands moved in a flicker and filaments shot from her fingers, glittering in the firelight. They whipped across the intervening distance and in a blink the demon was pinned against the wall.
His gun fired, the sound unmistakable in the confined space, but the filaments had pinned it to the wall as well, and it discharged harmlessly at the floor. The Blue Lady strode forward, her calm undisturbed. She had been right, Melissa was safe with her.
"It's okay, you can come closer," the Blue Lady said, beckoning Melissa to her side. She followed, coming closer to the demon, and seeing that he was not, in fact, a demon, but just an angry bad smelling man with long hair. He spat words at the Blue Lady and jerked the trigger again on his gun, but it would not fire now.
A thousand little shards of glass were embedded in the concrete around his feet. Melissa crouched down to look closer at them.
"That is what killed the boy," the Blue Lady said, reassuring her. "Not La Llorona, or anything else. Just this awful man's awful weapon."
"Who is he?" she asked.
"A man, just a man from across the ocean."
"From where?" she asked.
"Does it matter?" the Blue Lady asked, and Melissa had no answer.
"You were right, when you thought of him as La Llorona," she said. "Not everyone transcended, or chose to. He's an individual. He is the last remnant of a meme that has worked its way through all of human history, that believes a race or a nation are exceptional and destined to great things in history. He's a nationalist. Transcendence ignores such boundaries, but he wants them back and is willing to hurt people in the name of this desire."
Melissa nodded, understanding and yet not understanding at all. Her mind was unraveling, and then remaking connections.
"You are the Street, aren't you?" Melissa asked. "Another aspect of it."
"I am," she said, turning now to look down at Melissa. "Abandoned children talk about the legend of the Blue Lady. We felt you would trust us, let us take care of you, if I found you."
But Melissa didn't answer, didn't say anything else, just walked away.
Melissa stopped telling her stories.
There seemed little point any more. La Llorona was not real. There were no demons, only sad and pathetic men living in a sewer, killing children because of an idea.
The children were safe, as safe as could be on the Street. No matter what Melissa warned them about.
The Street now understood how the man had snuck in. It knew about the "glass flechettes" and could prepare for them. The orphans were not in danger, and there wasn't much her stories could do. The world was strange. Stranger than the one she'd been born into. The children seemed to adapt to that easier than her.
"Why aren't you telling your stories any more?" the Street asked her. The Old Man was back, dressed in flowery shorts and a white t-shirt with sunglasses and a straw hat. The hat mostly covered the metallic growths on his head.
"I can't believe them any more, not after what I saw, what I know. I question everything."
"That's understandable," the Old Man said, his eyes sad. "We'll miss your stories, though."
"I'll miss them too," she replied.
"Do you want to join us?"
"Become like you, or the Blue Lady, or the boy in the alley?" she asked, looking up at him.
"Yes," he said.
"No," she said. "I . . . want to be more like them, the tribe that passed through. But I want to remain myself. It seems like dying, becoming part of the Street."
"It's not," the Old Man said. "I can even introduce you to the boy whose body you saw. He is alive and happy within us."
"But he isn't himself, alone. He can't ever be free and alone, like I was when the Blue Lady came to me. I can't be me."
"Are you still yourself when you work with the other kids to clean the street, moving as one unit to accomplish a task?"
"Yes, of course. But I haven't changed, I am still myself," she said.
"But who are you, yourself?" he asked. "Are you the same person here, right now, that you were before you learned the truth about La Llorona, or the Blue Lady? You have changed, even in that. Transcending would hardly be different. You are nothing more than colonies of bacteria and cells, all working together to a greater whole. We are not that much different."
She had nothing to say to that, for now, only looked off toward the east. The tribe had left days ago, and must be to the spaceport by now. She thought about trying to catch them, but it seemed like a long way to go on her own, even in a world mostly safer than the one she had grown up in.
"The children would be safe?" she asked.
"We are very invested in them," the Old Man replied.
"Like we said to you before, we need new input, to stagnate for us would be like death."
"So you're afraid of it?"
"As much as we are of anything," he replied.
"You want the children to join with you?"
"If they choose to," he said. "Otherwise, we'll enjoy their play and their art and their curiosity. Maybe they will go out into the world and return to us with their experiences. Maybe they will join us and add their individual creativity and spark to our collective."
She looked off to the east again and sighed.
"You are a strange guardian, Street. But better than none, I guess. Thank you for the offer, but I think I would like to leave. Is there another tribe passing through soon?"
"In a week, your time," he said, "or you can catch up with the last one. It's not that far."
"You would let me go?"
"Of course. We told you, you are not our prisoner."
"Then I'll go," she said. "I'll need to pack some food."
"No need. I'll make arrangements. Just ask and we will make sure you have what you need delivered. I will order the sentry to make a bike for you."
Melissa swallowed. This was it. This was really happening. They walked silently along the Street. At the end, once more, Melissa stepped over the boundary to the other side.
The sentry thundered from its niche between two houses, blocking out the sun as it approached. From inside something gurgled and belched, a puff of smoke leaked out, and then a bike slid out from a compartment in a gush of green liquid that turned into smoke and wafted away.
Melissa took the handles.
"The offer will stand, to join us, if you come back," the Street said.
"Of course," she said.
"Good bye, Melissa," said the sentry as it settled back toward its niche.
"Good bye, Street," she said, and turned back toward the world without a Blue Lady, or La Llorona, or Santa Claus.
But maybe, she thought, full of other wonders.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Klecha is a writer and Marine combat veteran currently living in West Michigan with his family and assorted computer junk. He works in IT to pay the bills, like so many other beginning writers and artists.
Tobias S. Buckell
Tobias S. Buckell is a Caribbean-born writer and NYT Bestseller who grew up in Grenada, the British Virgin Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. His latest novel is Arctic Rising.
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