She hadn't been able to believe it when she'd read the preliminary report. Phrases flashed through her mind: utterly destroyed... hundreds homeless... miraculously unharmed...
She wouldn't even have known about it if one of her co-workers hadn't been complaining around the water cooler about being sent off into the middle of nowhere. They call the place God's Butthole for crying out loud, he'd said, then blushed and apologized when he noticed Meryl standing there.
She couldn't explain to him that he didn't have to apologize for a bit of crude language; she'd heard much worse, seen much worse, during her field days. But those days were forever behind her. She had a desk job now. Just to be polite and show there were no hard feelings, however, she asked him to tell her about his latest assignment.
And he'd told her...
Utterly destroyed... miraculously unharmed...
The destruction was, for once, not attributed to Vash the Stampede. Vash had supposedly died six years ago. Rumors of Vash sightings continued to abound, usually in wildly conflicting locations, but Meryl knew that they were mostly hysteria. Vash no longer wore the red coat. He was just a man now, and deserved to live in peace like any other man.
But if he'd done this...
Meryl's fists had clenched, crushing the paper cup of water. Now it was her turn to apologize before stumbling off to find a towel. While she dried herself, she pondered. Could it really be Vash? She almost didn't think so. For one thing, though the loss of life was much lower than would be expected for such a disaster, a few people had died, including the two old women whose wealthy relatives were filing the insurance claim. That was not characteristic of Vash at all.
But... Meryl reminded herself that people did sometimes die in Vash-related incidents, though usually -- she had to admit -- through no fault of his own. And if he was being hunted again... if some new pack of bounty hunters was on his tail, or Legato had somehow returned, or (God forbid) Knives had awakened...
Then Vash might need her.
To haul his scrawny ass out of trouble before he cost the company a mint and got her fired.
Yeah, that's it.
And before she knew it, she was using her newfound clout within the company to get herself sent to the last place in the world that anybody in their right mind would want to be.
And here she was...
And darn it, it did look like Augusta, after... after...
She couldn't imagine anything other than Vash that could have done this kind of damage.
"You sure you want out here, lady?" the bus driver asked her, looking around at the rubble. Nothing moved anywhere. All the residents of the town -- the survivors -- had moved on to stay with friends or relatives in other parts of this country.
"I can take care of myself, thanks," Meryl said as she paid him.
"Heeeyyyy..." The man squinted at her closely. "Don't I know you?"
"Do you?" Meryl squinted back at him. Unshaven, small, scruffy. Looked just like any other unshaven scruffy little guy to her.
"Yeah! I'll be damned! You're one of those folks I picked up off the sand steamer, back, oh, musta been seven or eight years ago now."
"You remember that?" Meryl asked, amazed. Come to think of it, he did look a little bit familiar...
"Sure I do! Never forget a face, especially as nice a face as yours." While Meryl was trying to figure out whether to get huffy or accept the compliment, he went on, "Besides, that was one trip I'll never forget. That was the time I went out of my way to pick that damn priest -- gave him a deal on the fare and everything -- practically got fried by killer robots for my trouble. And I heard later that Vash the Stampede was seen around that area, too. Man, I'm glad things have calmed down since then." He looked around at the debris. "You don't suppose Vash the Stampede is behind this, do you?"
"Of course not," Meryl said. "He's dead."
"That's what I heard. I dunno, though. Always seemed like a tough guy to kill, that one."
"How do you know?" Meryl demanded. "You never even met him." That you know of...
The bus driver shook his head. "Never met him, sister, but I've known guys like that. They don't just curl up and die. Why, if I was that Vash the Stampede, and I got tired of everyone knowing my name and trying to collect the bounty... I'd just start a rumor that I was dead, change the way I look a little bit... Hell, nobody really knows what he looks like anyway, all he'd have to do is ditch some of the really obvious stuff that everyone knows about, like the coat and the Mohawk, and he'd be a free man. Until his violent and antisocial nature started showing up again, of course."
"Don't you have a schedule to keep?" Meryl demanded.
He shrugged, glanced back at the completely empty bus. "I suppose so. Not like there's going to be anyone to pick up, though. Last person I picked up here was some little blond kid that survived the trouble. Poor kid was a mess... looked like she'd been surviving by herself in the mountains ever since the accident."
"I wonder if she was a witness?" Meryl mused, and then, realizing how that must sound: "I mean, I hope she's okay. Poor girl, she must have had a horrible experience. Where did you take her?"
"She got off in March City. That's as far as I go. Couldn't tell ya from there."
The bus driver gave her a jaunty salute. "Well, I'll be back through tomorrow, if you're ready to leave. Better be here or it'll be another week before I come this way again. And you're totally on your own, besides that."
"I know," Meryl said. "I'll be here." After a moment, she added, "Be careful." Now why did I say that?
The bus driver grinned. "Sister, trust me, if there's even a chance that Vash the Stampede is in the neighborhood, I'm keeping my gun close at hand."
"That's not what I meant by being careful!" Meryl shouted after the retreating bus.
She wasn't sure if she was more irritated at the bus driver or herself.
Meryl stood staring after the bus until only the dust cloud remained, shimmering in the desert heat. Then she sighed and looked around. One direction looked much the same as another to her -- jumbled rocks and freshly exposed earth every way she turned. Some kind of disaster had definitely happened here, but from the look of things so far, it could easily be natural: an avalanche, perhaps.
Or a typhoon.
She chose a direction at random and started off into the rubble, dragging her pink suitcase. Her cape bumped against her hips with the unaccustomed weight of the guns harnessed beneath it. Putting on the derringers again, Meryl had found, was much like wearing a skirt for the first time. At first it was incredibly uncomfortable and self-conscious, but it got easier until she no longer noticed it anymore.
It felt good to be back in pants for the first time in months, and it felt good, she found, to be wearing her guns.
She walked for a time before she realized that she didn't know where she was. She knew the town should be right here, but she couldn't even find it. This wasn't as bad as Augusta, it was much, much worse. The main problem, Meryl supposed, was that it was so much smaller. Augusta and July had been cities. This place was just a little village, and there hadn't been any buildings big enough to remain standing against the force of -- whatever had leveled it. So maybe whatever had done this had just been some kind of explosives. Yeah, that's it. Big, high-powered explosives.
Nothing to do at all with Va--
Meryl had just clambered up a massive pile of rubble, fully expecting to see the village, mostly intact, on the other side.
Instead, she found herself standing in the middle of a giant trench in the ground. The piles of rubble that had been giving her so much trouble were only little piles of stones thrown up by the force of something powerful enough to split open the ground itself. Straight as a string, it ran up into the mountains.
Meryl turned around, not wanting to look, and found that it ran into the desert the other way, once again perfectly straight. She couldn't see how far it went because the heat shimmers obscured it from view. Pretty darn far, though.
What could possibly cause something like this...?
A hole... in the moon...
"No," Meryl gritted, closing her eyes and willing this all to be a dream. Anytime now, she could wake up... "It couldn't be him. He put aside the coat and his guns. He wouldn't... he couldn't..."
Just when I was starting to get over him... that spiky-headed, pea-brained buffoon!
Meryl suddenly wished, with all her heart, that Milly were here. Even if she couldn't offer anything helpful, which was likely, she'd be a convenient target to yell at.
Meryl opened her eyes and kicked a rock off the top of the pile. As it bounced down the rubble, it glinted in the sun.
Meryl bent down to look at what she'd been kicking at. And choked.
She'd found the town.
She appeared to be standing on it.
Looking around her, she saw that what she'd taken for rocks and piles of earth were actually bits and pieces of adobe walls... roof tiles... items of household furniture so shattered that it was no longer possible to tell what they had once been, or in some cases, what they had been made out of.
The town looked like it had been picked up by a giant's hand, thoroughly mixed with dirt, and dropped from a great height.
Staring around her in disbelief, Meryl could only wonder: how under the suns did ANYONE survive this?
Overwhelmed, she sat down in the middle of the devastation, opened her suitcase, got out her portable typewriter, cranked a sheet of paper into it and started typing.
Preliminary report, Associate Supervisor Meryl Stryfe reporting...
It was funny, but typing reports seemed to be the only thing that calmed her down when she was about to have a coronary. A cup of coffee would have been nice too, but she didn't feel like making a fire to boil water and it was obvious she wasn't going to be able to stop into a nice roadside cafe.
She reported on her trip so far in as much detail as she felt was fair -- after all, she hadn't really done anything yet -- and finally cranked the page out of the typewriter, looked up and nearly had a heart attack all over again.
Standing right at the bottom of her pile of rubble, with his back to her, wrapped in a ragged cloak....
Meryl sat stock-still, her heart battering her ribs. It was him. She'd know him anywhere... that rangy frame, that shaggy blond hair ... he'd let it grow out a little, she saw... And more than anything else, she wanted to run down the hill, fling her arms around him and never let go.
Of course she wouldn't do that. She couldn't. She was the one who had walked away, after all. She'd be lucky if he was even willing to talk to her. But still... to have a second chance, after all this time... Meryl blinked her eyes rapidly, fighting back tears.
"Vash?" she said, her voice choked.
He stirred, and turned his head, and looked up at her.
It wasn't Vash.
It couldn't be. It couldn't be.
That face, the features so like Vash's, but without the softness and warmth... eyes like blue ice...
"Oh God," Meryl whispered, staring into those blue, blue eyes. "Knives."