Merrick was used to the silence of cities. His trade routes south passed by several abandoned places, where vines wound up through sidewalks and ivy shrouded over crumbling ruins. He had never grown up hearing the constant roar of traffic, or the wailing of sirens, or the thunder of planes flying overhead, so he didn’t miss it. The silence in the dead city, however, unnerved even him. There were no sounds of birds, or the skittering of small animals, or even the faint whine of annoying insects. There were no vines crawling up buildings either. It was all concrete smashed into rubble, as far as he and Margaret could see.
She didn’t seem to much care, at first. She marched straight forward, down the buckled streets, towards one of the few buildings still standing. Merrick, seeing the slope of the domed roof, wondered if it had been some sort of temple. He ventured this suggestion to Margaret. “No,” she said shortly. “Not nearly that. It was where the politicians met.”
Margaret sighed. “You know our camp meetings? Where we decide things? People met here to decide things for the whole land roundabouts. That was the idea. It didn’t always work. But they tried.”
The doors hung open, gaping like open wounds. They crept cautiously through the dark corridors, into the depths of the building. Merrick lit a torch as they got further inside, beyond the reach of the sunlight. Finally, Margaret stopped at a metal door that wouldn’t open to her. She waved Merrick back, then raised her hands. The door dissolved in a blast of golden light.
They advanced into a room cluttered with crates and workbenches. In the corner was what Merrick initially assumed was a larger metal crate. He would have compared it to a phone booth, had he been at all familiar with the concept. Phones had died out a long time before.
Margaret pulled on one side, and a door creaked open. “This,” she said, “is something else we tried. It’s a time machine.”
“It lets you go back in time, and change it.”
“How?” Merrick asked.
Margaret shrugged. “I asked the man who built it. Tachyon slip-streams, parallel realities, multiverses, take your pick. I could give you a lecture on the theory, but trust me, it works. I watched the Battle of Fort McHenry from the deck of a British ship. Tasted gunpowder. Saw the flag. It works.”
Merrick, naturally, was unfamiliar with that historical episode. Stockpiling resources to last through the winter, and the spring storms, took up more time than he could afford to spend studying battles of a vanished country. He gave a noncommittal shrug. “So, you go back-”
“Not me. You.”
Merrick blinked. “Me?”
“The thing runs on atomic power. I’ve got to fire it up. That means you get to go back.”
Others in his position would’ve protested. Merrick was a person of stolid duty. “Fine. What do I do?”
“It’s simple,” Margaret said. “I’m going to send you back to the point when I destroyed the world. You’ve just got to stop me doing it.”
“Ma’am,” Merrick said respectfully, “You melted a solid metal door a moment ago. How do I-”
“Well, I suppose you could try patient diplomatic reasoning,” Margaret suggested. “Or you could just hit me over the head with a stick. Whichever works.”
“Fine,” Merrick said again. “Might as well get to it, then.”
At Margaret’s direction, he stepped into the metal box. The door creaked shut beyond him. Margaret did something outside, and there was a flash. A panel lit up before Merrick, and on that panel a large red button glowed dimly. Merrick sighed, wondered what he had gotten himself into, and pushed it. He didn’t pause to reflect on the metaphysical ramifications of what he was doing. He probably should have done.
Merrick had two pictures in his mind. One was Margaret, the distant, slightly eccentric woman who lived by herself when most people bunked up to conserve resources, who never formally led the camp but showed up at all the meetings, who quietly volunteered to help whenever anything needed doing but never went on trading expeditions. She wasn’t wildly friendly, but wouldn’t hurt anyone. She had good stories, if you asked nicely, of the way things had been.
The other was the Nameless One, she who had destroyed the world. In Merrick’s mind, and everyone else’s that he knew, she was the wolves at night, the worst of the spring storms, the sickness that you couldn’t quite shake. She was the worst of all possibilities. Now both pictures had been shattered. She was Margaret.
He didn’t know what to say to that. So, he prudently said very little. They didn’t talk much as they walked south. They kept to separate tents. Merrick plodded on behind Margaret, trying to square the two pictures. He hadn’t yet done it when they reached the river. They crossed without incident. Merrick still didn’t say anything, until he realized that she was leaving the trail south, and walking steadily southwest. Southwest was right towards the dead city. “Ah, ma’am?” Merrick ventured. “I don’t think we should-”
“It’s where I’m going,” Margaret said. “You’re free to go somewhere else.”
“But there’s nothing there. No one. It’s dead.”
“Is it?” Margaret asked.
Merrick paused. He focused so much on ways of surviving; everyone did. Any shortcut, any way of saving time or energy, helped with that. And so he’d never questioned the story that everyone knew, that the city ruins to their south were completely dead, abandoned by anything living. Now, for an instant, he wondered. “I’ve never met anyone from there. I’ve been past on trading routes. It’s dead. Everyone says so.”
“When I was young,” Margaret said, “everyone said aliens weren’t real. Everyone. Except fringe types with tinfoil hats who called in to late-night radio shows. Then there were capes, and we had powers, and one of us went way out into space. Turns out there’s a lot of other worlds out there. There’s worlds with sentient shades of paint. Worlds with talking otters. Worlds with beings I can’t even describe. Some of them came here. I spoke to one once. Nice guy, green, bit shy, all over eye-stalks. I told him I would give him a few pointers on Earth culture.”
Merrick had no idea what she was talking about. He knew there were people to the south, and some out west. But he had no idea who might be out beyond the horizon. Talk of other worlds was completely beyond him. The best he could make out, Margaret had once met someone from someplace else who was a little strange. “So…” he said awkwardly. “Did you talk to him again?”
“So,” Gaseous Girl said, as the police carted Hiccup Holly away, “Wombat. That’s an interesting name.” She didn’t exactly mean interesting in the dictionary sense, as in, “attracting one’s attention, creating interest, not dull or boring.” She meant it as a placeholder, for lack of anything else to say.
“Yeah,” said the Wombat. “Sadly necessary. Relates to my superpower. I burrow.”
“You burrow,” Gaseous Girl repeated.
“Yes. I can burrow through pretty much anything. Unstoppable underground, that’s me.”
There was a long, awkward pause. “So…has that been helpful?”
The Wombat shrugged. “You’d be surprised. Even the bad guys who can fly have to come down sometime. When they do, I’m there.”
Gaseous Girl could feel laughter bubbling inside her. It would be rude to laugh at a fellow hero’s power, no matter how dorky it was. She’d never laughed at Buttercup, for example, or the Shining Spork, or Captain Happily Married. She resolutely tried not to think of burrowing, and changed topics. “What’s your origin story? Parents killed tragically when you were eight?”
Two seconds after she said this, she realized she shouldn’t have. Fortunately, the Wombat didn’t seem bothered. “Actually, no. Both my parents are alive and well. They live in Iowa.”
“Oh. You’re the small-town farmer type.”
“Not that either,” the Wombat said. “My dad’s a corporate lawyer. Mom’s a nurse practitioner. Nah, after I got my powers I figured I should set up in my own city.”
Gaseous Girl raised her eyebrows. “Don’t tell me. You were bitten by a radioactive wombat.”
“Genetically enhanced, actually. It might’ve been radioactive too, come to think of it. Didn’t think to ask.”
“Naturally,” Gaseous Girl said. “So then you decided that with great burrowing comes great responsibility?”
“More or less. Seemed like the thing to do.”
Gaseous Girl felt the laughter rising again. Desperately she searched for a new topic. “Got a nemesis yet?”
The Wombat looked grim. “The Hummingbird.”
“Of course. And what’s his deal?”
“It’s a her. She spins. Whirls about like you wouldn’t believe. Never gets dizzy. And she wants to take over the world. Or at least the city block. I don’t think she’s ever got past the city block, actually. Bit myopic.”
“Your nemesis is the Hummingbird.” Gaseous Girl felt like she was repeating things too much. Still, a whirling supervillain? She had a picture of a cape whizzing around in circles like a top. This was not helping her urge to dissolve in giggles. “Look, we don’t have a formal association here in the city or anything, but sometimes we get together on Friday nights. Drinks and whatnot. You’re welcome to join us.”
“Love to,” the Wombat said, looking genuinely pleased. “I thought about joining some group like the Caped Coasties or the LMD, but the Coasties are way out west and I didn’t want to go that far. And the LMD’s headquarters is up on that floating platform carrier thing. Can’t fly, sadly. Just the burrowing.
“Of…course…” Gaseous Girl made a little choking noise. “I’m sorry. I have to go. Sudden emergency. Thanks for the assist.”
“No problem,” said the Wombat. “See you Friday.” He quite suddenly turned about and dove into the earth. It was a small patch of dirt, an interruption in the sidewalk just big enough to hold a wilted-looking tree. It was apparently sufficient for the Boundless Burrower, though. He was gone in a flash and a spray of earth. Gaseous Girl collapsed in laughter. She didn’t stop for several minutes.
In the city ash
I stand alone, with scorched cape.
I have saved the day.
I have destroyed the bad guys-
And also, everyone else.
What choice did I have?
All the other capes were gone.
I was there. Alone.
My powers are atomic.
There was no choice left. Was there?
This is me, experimenting with a tanka. A form so nice, I did it twice. Anyway, this one’s in the Megverse, which includes Between the Fire and the City, A Better Place Than This, Hello There!, and the latest, And Lightning, With Its Rapid Wrath.