The walls of ice
The train carrying Eric from The Hague back to Leiden was making its usual noises, plus one or two that he would have noticed, had he been paying attention.
His friend Nina had finished drawing the first issue of his robot dinosaur story, and the way she had captured his main villain's personality was fascinating him. Earlier that day, he had emailed her, "Never imagined General Tyrannus Rex wearing a horned helmet, but it totally suits him." And the wingspan of his PteroForce Units, albeit somewhat shorter than he had estimated for their maneuverability, looked so good on the page that he neglected to mention it. The colors were so right, the detail in the mechanical joints was so believable, the clanking when they moved sounded so real—
Wait a second. A hand-drawn comic was not supposed to come with sound effects. Sure, his previous Batgirl project had used Slams! and Pows! and Thuds! generously, and his personal moment of artistic achievement had been to include a blatant Frak! that only half its readers noticed, but you weren't supposed to actually hear those things.
He got his head out of the page when the wagon began shaking with increasing violence. And before he could start wondering about what it all was, the entire train jumped and for a moment felt as if it were hanging in the air.
Then its own weight promptly smashed that delusion into deformed pieces.
Eric woke up with an unbearable pain in his left arm, not sure of how much time had passed. They had been crossing an area filled with farmlands, but rescuers shouldn't take long to come. He regained a bit more of his consciousness and noticed that his body was pressed between two opposite chairs. His arm was squeezed in a way human parts really shouldn't be. It was costing him strenous effort to merely breathe in, and his guts were protesting with a growing sense of nausea that he was doing his best to suppress. He feared he was about to burst into tears at the idea of not being able to avoid vomiting in such a confined space.
Suddenly the nausea vanished. He didn't know how, but what remained of his disorientation gave way to full alertness. To complete his puzzlement, his arm stopped hurting.
"This is what it must feel like to be Wolverine," he almost said out loud. Almost, because he saw a woman standing at the other end of the wagon and smiling at him.
"You can get up now. The chair below you is attached to the wall of the wagon, but the one above you is not."
He laboriously pushed the metallic mass off his back, and when he was finally able to stand, he took a moment to have a good look at that woman. She was wearing something resembling layers of loose veils with subtly inconstant hues of purple.
"I was hoping you wouldn't be too badly injured. I regret not coming sooner."
This can't be a rescuer, though Eric while dumbly staring at the barefoot, ethereal apparition in her semitransparent dress. And then he got it.
"You healed me?"
Oh well, perhaps I'm not Wolverine after all. So how did she do it?
Her face was of an undecipherable ethnicity. Why is she wearing so little clothes? If, as he found himself beginning to fear, she was a spirit, a more urgent question had to be asked.
"Am I dead?"
"You are very much alive, though I can see how you may believe otherwise by looking at this wagon."
It was only at those words that he recalled a vague impression he'd had upon entering the train: He was the only passenger. But then he had opened the first page of the comic and forgot about it.
"Where is everybody?"
"There is one more person, over there." She pointed to the next wagon. "An old woman. She needs to talk with you."
As the still-not-disproved spirit exited through the sliding door, Eric moved to follow her, complaining, "What, is it anyone I kno—"
The next wagon was empty. Where did the ghost go? And where's that old woman I'm supposed to meet here?
He ran a hand over his face to try to clear his thoughts. OK, let's see: we have already established that I'm not Wolverine, I've probably just had a hallucination about that multiracial Tinker Bell, I'm here alone, the sole survivor of a crashed train, well it's rather like a ghost train, I don't see anyone around, so it's a sort of ghost crashed train and I'm the sole survivor NO PLEASE DON'T LET ME BE BRUCE WILLIS IN UNBREAKABLE!
He quieted his mind's voice just enough to notice that his cell phone was vibrating.
"Hello? Oh, Dad, it's great to hear you. Well, yes, I'm precisely there. It made the news already? Wai-wai-wai-wait a second. Listen, I'm fine. I'm fine. Really. For a while I feared my arm was broken, but—listen, listen—it turned out to be nothing. What? I haven't seen any, I guess they should be here at any moment. What? No, no, Dad. That doesn't happen, it would have to be a really big one—he said wh—I'm telling you, it's just not possible. Well, that TV guy is wrong! Big earthquakes don't happen in the Netherlands."
Eric listened for another moment and breathed deeply.
"All right, I'll take a look."
Until then it hadn't occurred to him to remove the pieces of metal to have a clear view through the windows. He had to duck to bring his eyes in line with the position of the nearest unobstructed one, and what little seismologic knowledge he had about the Netherlands got quickly reorganized.
For as far as he could see, deep fissures ran through the ground for hundreds of meters, and the place where the train had crashed was at the bottom of what he could only describe as a crater. Either something had fallen on the train from above, or the ground below had given way. It actually looked like it had broken. Eric thought of the farmlands they've been passing through, and had a frightening image about what would happen to him, trapped as he was below ground level, if any of their irrigation systems had been ruptured…
A voice behind him brought him back to his senses. He turned around, but the wagon was still empty. Then he heard it again. It seemed to come from outside. It was a woman's voice, very loud. And he had to wait until it sounded for a third time for his mind to take notice of what it was saying.
No, his mind yelled. The inundation couldn't be coming precisely now. Terrified, he moved a big piece of a poster that had detached from the wall and managed to get his head out of the window.
He was so dumbfounded by what he saw that all his thinking processes shut down and in the ensuing brain death he heard his father's shouts still coming from the phone.
"Dad? I'm sorry, I'm really sorry, I got distracted. Tell Mom I'm fine. Yes, don't worry. I'm sure the rescuers will find a way to reach us."
He managed to calm his father and end the call quickly so he could have another look before it vanished too. It's not possible.
A short woman with white hair tied in a bun was carefully walking over the cracks, with a cane in one hand and something which glowed very brightly on her other hand. It gave a deep blue light that he really wished he could appreciate more closely at a later time, because the rising wall of water that she had commanded to stop in front of her was doing a better of job of forcefully grabbing his attention.
The hand with the glow was making slow movements in the air, as if conducting an orchestra, and the water obeyed. After a short while, he realized what she was doing: the water was gradually freezing, part by part. She had already built other ice walls around the crater. When she finished, she turned to the train, and saw him. He gaped at the fragility with which her old body moved, when just a moment ago she had performed such tremendous magic. When she got nearer, he could see her face was Asian, heavily wrinkled, and radiating a gentleness that moved him inside.
"Are you alright, son? You look like you're going to faint."
"If you tell me your name is Katara, I'm going into a coma."
She smiled, and he felt a warmth that made his shock abate.
"Fortunately not. My name is Gi. And I was told to look for you."
When the helicopter ambulance finally arrived, the pilot explained that all rescue vehicles had trouble getting around because the entire province had been affected by the mysterious cracks in the ground. It had probably something to do with too much excavating near undetected subterranean water.
During the trip to the hospital, Gi said to Eric, "I was fearing precisely that might be the reason. Too many oil companies have been licensed to drill around the Dutch coast in recent years, but the Dutch coast is a complex grid of lands below sea level bordered by miles of water. I guess it must have found some way of leaking beneath the polder walls."
"Sounds much more likely than a regular earthquake."
"I would not discard that explanation too quickly. Who knows what the drilling has done to the earth below."
"Do you think this is more serious than some leaked water?"
"I fear so."
After a moment of silence, Eric remembered something.
"You said you were looking for me."
"That is right."
He now had a strange suspicion, but he wasn't sure if this old lady had had the same hallucination that had haunted him. Then again, he thought, I may as well try.
"Was it the crazy half-naked fairy who told you to go looking for me?"
Gi almost choked. "Please don't say those things about her. Her wisdom comes from countless eons. And if her intuitions are right, which they tend to be all the time, you will be seeing her often."
"Why? What does she want with me?"
"Haven't you wondered why you and I were the only two people in that train?"
"SHE MADE IT CRASH FOR US?"
"No! Quite the contrary, she was expecting to have us meet before anything like this happened. You see, I used to be something of… a warrior."
"I know. Back there in the crater, I saw you waterbend."
"Never mind. So, she's like your boss or something?"
"I guess you could call it like that. We had a team…"
"…and she was your Zordon."
Gi breathed deeply. "I'm afraid I really need to catch up with this generation's language."
"Sorry. Please continue."
"I think she can tell you the full story when you meet again. For the time being, I need some rest."
"Of course. We should be arriving at the hospital in no time. I promise I won't ask any more questions until you feel better."
"Just one thing. I want you to have my power."