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Sand and Light

Episode 6: Fire in the Sky




Previously in "Sand and Light"... six years after the battle between Vash and Knives, another town is destroyed like July and Augusta. The cause of the destruction is a young woman named Sand, a girl who has grown from infancy to about age fourteen in only a few years. Traveling in search of her lost past, she meets a drifter named Alex Daniels who offers to help her...


The eerie light lit up the streets almost as bright as day. "What is that?" Sand breathed.

Alex pointed. "It's coming from the Plant. Who or whatever is attacking the city seems to be going after the Plant. Hell, maybe it is the Plant, who knows."

"Do Plants attack people?" Sand asked, amazed.

They were standing in front of their hotel, irresolute. Over the past two days, Alex had essentially been living on Sand's money. Well, Martha and Annie's money, really, but they had no use for it anymore, and Sand tried to control her guilt about taking from the secret stash behind where the house used to be by contributing to every charity she came across. Such as she had tried to do with Alex.

Alex kept apologizing for sponging off her, but each time she protested that she didn't mind, which was true. She was so desperate for human companionship that she had been about ready to start talking to random people on the street. It seemed that when she stayed around people, the voices stayed out of her head... mostly. Tonight had been different -- restless with nightmares, she'd been almost glad when she woke suddenly with the blue light blazing through her window.

"You'd be surprised at what any creature will do if it's pushed far enough, Sand."

Sand shivered and wrapped her arms around herself, though the night was not cold. "If it's really Vash the Stampede attacking -- why, those poor people!"

Alex chuckled. "You know what, Sand... I happen to believe that most of the rumors you hear about Vash the Stampede are lies."

"Why do you think that? Maybe he is as dangerous as they say."

"No man is as dangerous as they say Vash the Stampede is. Look, let's just say I've had a little practice with rumors and lies myself. Trust me on this one... I think if you push through the crowd there, you'll find that the man they're calling Vash the Stampede is really just a local bully-boy in a red coat. Pretty soon, the authorities will show up and haul him away. Emergency over. Everybody goes back to bed."

"Maybe we should help," Sand said uncertainly.

Alex shook his head and lit a cigarette. "Nothing we can do. Let's let other people handle it."

"But -- someone might get hurt, and there might be something--"

"Look, kid, trust me on this one! Let someone else handle it, okay? That's exactly how people do get hurt -- jumping into things when they don't know what they're doing."

"We won't get hurt." Sand looked him up and down. "You're big. You can fight, can't you?"

"Woah there, filly! What do you mean, I'm big, so I can fight? The two don't exactly go hand-in-hand, you know."

Sand folded her arms and glared at him. "I can tell that you know how to fight 'cause you move like you do."

"Now look -- uh?"

"Back in my village," Sand said, "there were some people who were brawlers, fighting all the time. And some people never fought at all, because they were really bad at it. And other people never fought, but not because they were scared of fighting. Because they were so good at it that everyone else was scared to fight them. And then there were the ones who were so good at it that they were afraid to fight, because they knew that if they fought, they'd probably hurt or kill someone. You look like one of those to me."

Alex just stared at her, open-mouthed. Then he shut his mouth with a snap and looked away. "Sorry to break it to you, kid, but you're not nearly the insightful student of human nature that you seem to think you are. I don't fight because I can't stand pain."

"Guys who can't stand pain don't usually have as many scars as you do."

"What?" Alex's head swiveled back towards her. "You've been counting my scars? What the hell?"

Sand felt a hot blush rising to her face. Oh, I've gone and made another social error, I bet... "Just the visible ones," she mumbled. "But if you've got that many just on your hands and face and neck..."

Alex had opened his mouth to say something else when a shrill scream rent the night.

"I don't care what you say!" Sand yelled. "I'm going to try to help!"

Despite his earlier words, Alex was right on her heels as they pounded through the streets. They found the source of the disturbance readily enough -- the knot of people here was thicker than anywhere else.

Alex collared the nearest individual. "What happened?"

"The sky!" the man gasped. "It just came down from the sky. Joe... he's... I think he's dying..."

"Move aside!" Alex snapped. "Let me through! I might be able to help. I'm a--"

He broke off.

"A what?" a rough-faced woman demanded, clutching a jacket around her that she'd hastily pulled on over her nightgown. Sand recognized her as the woman who'd called Alex a bum when Sand had first met him.

"A medical professional," Alex said, but it didn't seem to have the ring of truth.

What was he going to say? Sand wondered.

The woman moved aside reluctantly, and Alex knelt beside the man on the ground. Peering over Alex's shoulder, Sand almost choked on the horrible smell of burning hair. She could see that the man's hair was melted to his forehead in dark clumps, his clothing stuck to his body in patches. She was selfishly glad she couldn't see the other side of his face.

If Alex was disgusted by the man's condition, he didn't show it. He bent low over the dying man's face, taking the unburned hand in his own. Sand could hear the soft murmur of his voice, but not what he was saying. He moved his free hand over the man's chest in an arcane pattern she did not recognize.

A smile touched the unburned side of the man's face. His one eye closed; Sand could see just enough of the other side of his face to tell that the other eyelid was burned away, the eye beneath miraculously, horribly intact. It stared unseeing at the sky.

"Joe..." another woman wailed, pushing through the assembled onlookers. Alex stood back to let her bend over the body in frantic grief.

Sand followed Alex, who stumbled through the crowd, moving like a sleepwalker. Some people glanced at him, but they took little notice. He had not, after all, helped the dying man; the death had been no less painful, no less swift, for Alex's presence.

"What did he say? Something came from the sky--"

Alex glanced over his shoulder. "Could be lightning from the Plant, if it's overloading and discharging energy. Yet another reason to get as far away as possible. These idiots... there's no reasoning with them."

Sand said nothing else until they were far enough away that she could walk by his side. Then she asked quietly, "That man... what did you say to him?"

Alex looked down at her, his face unreadable. "I gave him last rites."

"Oh." She thought about it. "Don't you... have to have special training to do that?"

A lopsided smile twisted his lips, and he looked away. "A guy picks up a few things along the way, when he travels as much as I do."

She started to ask another question, but then a jolt like electricity shot through her. Sand jumped and whirled around. It had come from someone who'd brushed against her -- she caught one glimpse of a tall guy with shaggy blond hair, and then he and his companion were gone into the crowd.

"What's wrong?" Alex asked.

"Those people... where did they go? I have to find them!" Desperately she started pushing back the way they'd come. When that man had touched her... she didn't know how to describe the feeling. It was something inside her head, a little like the Voice, only not bad and hurtful, but good, warm, loving. It seemed to calm the storm raging inside her. She had to feel it again.

"Sand! Hey, Sand! Slow down!"

"They're gone." Sand's shoulders slumped in despair. "They're gone and they're somewhere in this city and I'll never find them again."

You don't need them. You only need me.

Go away, Voice! she told it furiously, and for the time being, it did.

"Hey." Alex rubbed her shoulder awkwardly. "They're in this city, right, whoever they are? We'll find them. Someone you know?"

"Someone I want to know," she whispered, and all the fight drained out of her. "Someone who might be able to help me."

"Hey, look. When all the excitement dies down, I'll help you look for them, okay? We'll look all over this whole damn town if we have to."

Sand looked up at him, and smiled feebly. "Thanks, Alex."

"No problem. I probably won't be able to go back to sleep anyway. Come on, let's get out of the way. We can watch the people go by, and see if any of them are the ones you're looking for."

"They won't be. Those people were going toward the Plant, not away." Helping... as you should be helping, she thought. But she let Alex move her up against a wall, where they could watch the flow of pedestrians.

A sudden brighter flash lit the sky and Sand shivered. On top of fighting to keep the voices out of her head, she was developing a splitting headache. Her whole body vibrated with tension, like a taught-stretched string being plucked. More than anything else, she wanted to walk toward that light, but it terrified her more than anything had ever frightened her before. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw a bright flash behind her eyelids.

Sand wondered what had killed Martha and Annie, and destroyed her village. All she could remember was waking up on the rim of the crater, hurt and bruised and utterly alone. Something deep inside her kept telling her that it had something to do with that light, and if she'd only go to the light, all her questions would be answered.

"Hey? Kid? You don't look so good. You wanna go back inside? It might be safer..."

"No," she whispered. "No. I need to stay out here."

People jostled against them.

"Hey, look," Alex said softly. "That poor little girl's lost her folks. She's terrified."

Sand looked. Across the street from them, a dark-haired child was sitting on the ground, her arms wrapped around her knees, shivering.

"We can't fight whatever's attacking the Plant, but maybe we can help her," Sand offered. She wanted to do something useful, anything, to get her mind off her own confusion and fear.

They crossed the street. As they approached the little girl, she scrambled to her feet and started to back away.

"Hey, hey," Alex said, crouching down to bring himself to her level. "I'm not scary, am I?"

The child stared at his leather jacket and scruffy beard. "Yeah," she said. "You are."

Sand stifled a giggle. She'd had the same reaction when she first met him.

"So where's your parents, kiddo?"

"None of your damn business," the child retorted.

"Man, have you got a mouth on you." Alex dug into a pocket of his jacket. "Hey, look what I've got for you! Want a candy bar, kid? You can stay with us until your mom or whoever comes looking for you."

The child kicked him in the shins and started to run off into the crowd. Alex was faster; he seized her by the back of her shirt.

"Are you nuts? You'll be trampled if you go out there!"

The girl tried to bite him.

"On the other hand," Alex said grimly, "maybe your parents left you here on purpose."

"Oh, that's mean," Sand said. "You're scaring her."

"She doesn't look scared to me," Alex retorted.

The child tried to bite him one more time and burst into tears.

"Well, maybe a little bit."

He sat down against the wall and held the child, who at first tried to resist but then collapsed against him, crying. Sand sat down beside them and petted the girl's hair.

"It's all right," she said. "He looks scary but he's not. We're going to help you. Where's your mom and dad?"

"I don't know," the little girl mumbled through her tears. "I can't find Mom."

"What does she look like? We'll help you find her."

"She looks like ... Mom," the child sniffled.

"Well, what's her name?"

"Mom."

They looked at each other over the top of the little girl's head. Alex jostled her into a more comfortable position on his lap. "What's your name, then?"

"Ellie."

"What a pretty name. It means light, you know."

Sand glanced instinctively at the light blazing over the city.

"Well, it's nice to meet you, Ellie," Alex continued. "I'm Alex and this is Sand. We'll just stay with you and keep you company until your Mom comes looking for you."

Ellie rubbed her eyes. "You're not gonna steal me or something?"

"Heck no. We wouldn't do that. You want that candy bar now?"

"It's prob'ly poisoned," Ellie mumbled. "And Mom says candy is bad for my teeth." But she took it.

"I think the correct response when someone gives you something is 'thank you,'" Alex said.

"Thank you," the child muttered through a mouthful of candy.

"You're welcome, Ellie."

"Are you cold?" Sand asked. "Would you like to wear my cloak? I don't need -- I -- ah..."

"Hey? Sand?"

She heard Alex's voice as if coming down a long tunnel, but all she could think about were the voices -- not just the Voice, but many voices, all screaming at her, begging her to help them -- Sand clutched her head. Go away go away go away --

"Sand? Are you sick or something?"

Sand ignored him and raised her head as another flash of light filled the sky.

It's the Plant. I don't know how, but the Plant is talking to me!

"Sand?"

The Plant... it hurts... My God, it's true, they're alive and they can feel pain and it's hurting...

"Sand!"

Alex was shaking her. When she looked at him, he recoiled from her. Ellie, cowering under his arm, stared at Sand in wide-eyed terror.

"What's ... wrong?" she managed.

"Uh... I don't know how to tell you this, but your eyes are glowing." Alex had recovered his equilibrium surprisingly quickly, and he put his free hand on her shoulder. Some distant part of Sand's mind was telling her that Alex seemed to be taking this MUCH too well... as if he'd seen it all before ... "Look, we'd better get you inside..."

"No! I -- I don't know how to explain, but it's the Plant -- Alex, it's talking to me! It's hurting--" She gritted her teeth as a wave of weakness and nausea washed over her. "We have to help it!"

"You barely look like you can stand up right now--"

"If we don't help, it'll die!" Sand cried, and climbed to her feet, using the wall for support. She reached deep within herself, into some hidden reserve of strength she didn't know she possessed, and managed to stand independently of the wall. "I don't care if you stay here and hide behind your own cowardice. I'm going to go help."

"Jeez, where do you get off talking to people like that? You don't know the first thing about me, Sand --"

She turned her back on him, still talking, and staggered toward the light. People took one look at her face and moved hastily out of the way.

My eyes... are glowing? Sand raised her hand shakily to her face and realized, to her astonishment and horror, that her eyes were shut. She feel the closed lids, the lashes. But she could still see everything around her as clear as day.

The voices in her head were screaming... screaming...

If this is a nightmare, I just want to wake up...

Another flash, so bright it lit up the sky from horizon to horizon. Sand screamed along with the voices in her head, falling to her knees. The pain was so great she thought she'd die. Then, suddenly, the light and the voices all vanished at once, leaving only a bright smear of colors burned into her retinas. Sand blinked her eyes a few times, touching her face to make sure her eyes were really open.

The cries of fear in the streets turned into murmurs of confusion. Sand raised her head, her night vision slowly returning. Everyone was staring in the direction of the Plant, and not a bit of light shown anywhere, except the comparatively feeble glow of a setting moon.

A hand fell on Sand's shoulder. She gasped.

"You okay?"

"Alex..." She got to her feet, with his help. "Alex... I ... I couldn't help them..."

"Them?"

"The -- the..." She rubbed her hand over her eyes. "Plant. The Plants."

None of us is ever alone... Not the Voice, but its echo.

"Come here. Sit down."

Ellie, all but forgotten, trailed nervously after the adults. They might be strangers to her, but they were the closest thing she had to something familiar in this strange chaos.

"Sit down. Slow breaths. Slow."

Sand did as he said, and gradually her pounding heart slowed, the tingling in her fingertips eased.

"Feel better?"

She nodded. "A little." Raising her head, she stared up at the dark curve of the Plant, just visible above the buildings of the city. "Alex... I need to go over there. To see what happened."

"It could be dangerous, even now that the fighting's over. You saw that guy... something over there burned him."

"I have to. I'll go alone--"

"No," he sighed. "I'll come with you."

"You don't have to. I didn't mean to ask."

Alex shrugged. "I don't have enough excitement in my life anymore. What can I say."

"Thank you," Sand said quietly.

Alex looked down at the little girl clinging to his hand. "We shouldn't take the kid, though."

"No. You're right."

They both looked around helplessly for a place to put her. Now that the excitement appeared to be over, most people were drifting back to their homes and beds, some disappointed, some relieved.

Alex finally spotted someone he knew -- the rough-faced woman from before. "Flora! Hey!"

"Oh, great," she muttered. "What do you want, Daniels?"

Alex thrust Ellie in front of him; she shivered, trying to cling to him. "My companion and I found this child... I don't know who her parents are. We can't take care of a child, Flora."

Flora gave him a withering look. "I can see that." But her face softened as she knelt in front of the child. "What's your name, honey?"

"None of your business," Ellie snarled, trying to conceal herself behind Alex.

"She's called Ellie," he said, easily dodging the child's efforts to hide. "She's a little... abrasive. But she doesn't seem to be an orphan, or abused. Her folks will probably come looking for her before too long. I know you've got a good heart, Flora, and I've seen you with your kids--"

Flora looked up at Alex, and to Sand's surprise, smiled at him.

"You have a good heart too, I think," she said, "even if you bury it well."

"Quit trying to butter me up and just take care of the kid," Alex muttered. "If you really like me, you can pay off my tab at Jack's..."

"I already did," Sand said.

"What! You little -- I never asked you --"

"I know," Sand said. "I'm sorry. I made another mistake, didn't I..."

Ellie started wailing and clung to Alex's leg. He had to pry her off and hand her over to Flora.

"I ... want ... my Mom!"

"I think you're about to owe me a favor, Alex," Flora said between her teeth. "And we all know how you pay off those... I take back anything nice I ever said about you..."

"I'm really not a bad guy," Alex said to her back. "I'm not! Hey! And pretty good looking too, huh?"

A distant "Hmmph!" and a faint wail from Ellie were his only replies.

Alex waved his hand. "Flora will take good care of that little girl until her folks find her. She acts tough, but underneath it all, she's a marshmallow. I think she's got a crush on me, too."

"Honestly," Sand said. "You're so odd. It's like you listen, but then again you don't! What's up with that?"

She recoiled from the force of his glare. For a moment -- just a moment -- she was really afraid, for the first time since she'd met Alex Daniels, that he was going to hurt her, and she didn't even understand what she could have said to make him so angry. Then the shutters slammed down over his eyes again.

"I thought you wanted to see the Plant," he said, and he started walking.

Sand followed, trying to calm down her pounding heart.

It's Alex, she told herself. Just Alex. He's a nice guy, really.

Yeah... I've known him all of two days. He seems nice, goofy, fun to be around ... but ... there's anger under there. I keep thinking there's this violent side to him...

"Sorry about that," Alex said without turning around.

"It's okay. I didn't mean to insult you..."

"Forget it. Wasn't your fault. This night is making me jumpy."

"Me too," Sand murmured.

The streets were almost deserted now. Sand wanted to cling to Alex's side, but he seemed distant now, lost in his own world; so she walked alone, picking her way down the streets. They passed the place where Alex had held the dying man. All the moons had set but one, and that one shone eerily through the great curve of the Plant's bell, a cold and frosty glow behind the glass.

"Look," Alex whispered.

The moon's light, shining through the Plant's bulb, coldly revealed ragged edges of glass. A fine spiderweb of cracks ran throughout the great bulb, broken here and there by holes and long, jagged breaks.

Shattered. Destroyed.

"This city will die now," Alex murmured, almost to himself. "The land will dry up, the wells will dry up, and dust will move in to reclaim the bodies of the dead..."

Sand shivered, thinking about the tiny nameless village where she'd grown up. When she last saw it, there was nothing left. Nothing.

What force could have done such a thing?

Had the same thing happened here?

A faint, tinkling crash came from somewhere in the darkness ahead of them.

Alex froze. "Hear that?" he whispered.

Sand nodded.

Then they were at the last row of houses. Between the town and the Plant was a great stretch of bare rock. No one had built anything here, in the shadow of that relic of a bygone era.

Alex flattened himself against a wall, and motioned to Sand to do the same. She saw the gesture, understood the urgency... but something drew her to that great bulb, something far more important than her own safety, or his, or the town's. Dazed, she walked out of the shelter of the buildings, into the bulb's hazy moon-shadow. Broken glass crunched beneath her feet.

"Sand!" Alex hissed frantically. She barely heard him. Her whole being was focused on that huge bulb.

Nearer it came... nearer... It towered against the starry sky. Surely man could never have built anything so huge...

Something brushed her cheek and she almost cried out, still slow, still entranced in her dream. She raised her hand to her cheek and felt grit... Taking her fingers away, she held them in front of her face, turned them this way and that, watching the bits of broken glass sparkle in the filtered moonlight.

A tinkling crash off to her left made her jump.

She tilted her head back, staring up at the belly of the glass sphere above her. As she watched, another piece of glass let go and tumbled, flashing in the moonlight. The time it took to fall told her how tall the thing really was. It shattered on the rocks into a million tiny knives.

There's no one up there now, she thought. It's just falling apart.

This is probably a dangerous place to be, for the falling glass if nothing else...

But she didn't feel like moving. She was frozen, gazing at the moon through layers of scaffolding and cracked glass.

"Sand! Jesus!"

A heavy weight, bearing her down... She screamed, as a fine spray of glass dusted her face, hair, cheeks... then stars exploded behind her eyes, and her ears were ringing. She licked her lips and tasted blood.

"Ow..."

"Serves you right, you little idiot," Alex snapped at her. "What were you tryin' to prove? You just about turned yourself into a shish kebab."

He was crouching near her, dividing his attention between glaring at her and glancing upward nervously at the glass still suspended over their heads.

"You coulda been a little gentler," Sand mumbled, spitting out grit and rubbing her arm. Every elbow, knee and shin seemed to have hit some rock or other. Sharp rocks.

"Maybe next time you'll listen to me. Can we get somewhere safer than this? Now?"

They took shelter beneath the central support tower, and watched the glass fall.

"That's so pretty, falling like that in the moonlight," Sand said.

"Pretty. Damn pretty. Everyone is going to die because of it, but it's still pretty."

"Quit making fun of me, you jerk!"

"Shhh. Not so loud. We may not be alone, you know."

They picked their way through the destroyed Plant. Signs of some kind of cataclysm were everywhere: girders bent like rubber bands, computer consoles melted into pools of plastic and silicon, great holes in the roof and walls of the various rooms.

Sand didn't know the layout of the Plant at all, and she had no idea of the names for most of the things she saw, but she knew where she was going. Alex followed her helplessly through rooms where electrical fires still flickered dimly, past collapsed walls and ruined, irreplaceable microcircuitry.

"I don't see any bodies," Alex said quietly. "The place must have been deserted. At most, there would have been a technician or two on duty, and they must have fled when things started going wrong."

"But They couldn't run," Sand whispered.

"The technicians? How do you know that?"

"No... I don't mean the technicians."

She began to climb a catwalk leading up to the very bulb itself.

"Sand... come down. You're a sitting duck up there, and besides, the glass hasn't stopped falling yet."

Sand kept climbing.

"I'm not coming up there! You're on your own, kid."

Alone, then. It was fitting that she should do it alone; so alone, she mounted the metal steps. Each tap of her feet rang out in the night. Alex was right -- anyone nearby would be able to hear her easily, and see her, silhouetted against the moon.

She climbed.

The stairs went up through a series of landings, and finally ended at a small platform nestled against the bulb. There had once been some kind of equipment in the middle of the platform, but it had melted into a pile of slag. Stalactites of melted glass hung to the floor, fragile as spider webs and laced with moonlight.

Whatever had happened, had happened here.

She reached up to touch one of the columns of glass. It was still slightly warm.

See what humans do to our kind?

Go away, Voice. How dare you violate the sanctity of this place.

Sand could tell that she was not quite alone in her head --

...our kind are never alone...

-- but at least the Voice had backed off.

Sand stood under the bulb in the moonlight, and strained herself as far as she could, trying to recapture that elusive sense of peace, warmth, rightness.

She heard nothing but her own heartbeat, felt nothing but the stinging of the scrapes on her elbows and shins. Then she began to feel ... pain ... wrongness ... a darkness greater than the night that lay upon the world. It terrified her and she drew back into herself, shocked and frightened by her own ability to reach beyond her own senses.

"Where are you?" she asked aloud, tears burning her cheeks. "Who are you? Are you dead too?"

She was afraid to reach out again, so she began to search the platform for a body, though she suspected that any heat great enough to melt metal would leave little trace of human flesh. She found no bodies, but she did find a very interesting gun.

It was unusually large, and gleaming silver. Bits of melted glass adhered to it when she picked it up, but it was not damaged itself. It nestled in her hand with an oddly comfortable weight. She had never held a gun before, and wondered if all guns were this heavy. But the weight didn't oppress her. It was easy to hold. Very easy.

Like the touch of that random stranger's mind on hers, this gun felt... right. But unlike that chance touch, this rightness was right in the same way the Voice was sometimes right -- a rightness that made her doubt her own senses. Someone else's rightness imposed upon her.

Overwhelmed with loneliness, she sat down in the middle of the platform, cradling the gun on her lap like an infant, and began to cry. She wept for herself, and for the unknown others who had died senselessly tonight. For the first time in her life, she cried until tears could no longer express her sorrow, leaving only a dull ache, beyond grief, beyond despair.

She tucked the gun under her cloak and descended the stairs.

Alex Daniels was waiting for her in the shadows at the base of the tower. All she could see of him was the glow of his cigarette. "Anybody up there, kid?"

"No." Sand rubbed self-consciously at her puffy face, aware of him peering at her in concern. "I thought maybe I'd find something up there to explain who I am... what I am... but there's nothing there. If anyone died up there, I couldn't find any bodies."

"Someone died tonight, all right," Alex said. "And not just the guy in the street, poor sap."

Sand looked up at him. His face was shadowed by the moon, but his voice frightened her again. It was the voice of the other Alex, the one she feared.

"How do you know?" she whispered.

"The light, kid. The light is gone."

The light... For an instant she felt a rush of soaring euphoria, surging from memory, and then it was gone and she was listening to Alex Daniels speaking:

"...but they're as alive as you and me. Maybe in a different kind of way, but still alive. I don't understand how it works, but I know they can think and feel. More than that. They're not just an energy source, not just an animal even. They're some kind of person."

"The Plants?"

Alex nodded.

"Why are you telling me this?" Sand whispered.

"Because I know what you are, Sand. I've known since I first met you, but I didn't really want to acknowledge it ... until tonight... I think you know, too."

"I'm..." She could barely speak, but she felt the rightness of the words as she said them, and heard the Voice in her head agreeing with her. "I'm one of them, aren't I? The people in the Plants?"

"I believe you are. That doesn't make it true, but --"

"No. No, you're right. I know it, I -- I feel in every part of me ... my kinship with them. I can't explain it, but I think that's why I came here, to March City. I think I was trying to come home."

"And now it's dead," Alex said softly.

"They. They're dead."

"All of them?" He sounded suddenly afraid.

"No. Not all of them... but maybe more than just the ones here. Something is wrong, Alex."

"I know." He sighed. "I might have known I couldn't stay out of this. My destiny seems to be laid out for me, no matter how I try to fight it. Maybe it's my family's great sin coming back to haunt us. Maybe it's just my own sins."

He turned away from her, retreating into shadow. His long hair whipped in the wind like a fragment of the night.

"Sand, I did a lot of thinking while I waited for you down here. I'm a coward... I hope you never have to find out just how much of a coward I am. I didn't climb up there with you because I was afraid. Not afraid of dying -- that's one event that holds very little fear for me, to tell you the truth -- but because I was afraid of what you'd find up there. I didn't want to see my worst fears come true... knowing that I was partly responsible."

"Responsible? How?"

He shook his head impatiently. "Maybe I'll tell you someday, if I live long enough. Maybe you'll figure it out, or someone else will tell you. In any case, I came to a decision while I waited down here. There's nothing I can do about the cowardice of my past, and I've fallen too far to go back now -- but there's one thing I've been running from since I was seven years old that it's time for me to face. Because there might be someone who can help you, Sand."

"Another Plant?" she asked hopefully.

"No... not yet. I need to take you to see someone. Quite possibly the only person still alive who remembers the old world... who was alive when the first humans left their first home. Someone who has not forgotten what humanity once knew."

"Is there someone like that?"

"One person."

Sand swallowed hard. "I know it's silly, but now that I know a little about myself... I'm afraid to find out more."

"Believe me, it gets a lot worse than that, Sand." He turned back to her and held out his hand. "Coming?"

Alex, turning, hand outstretched...

Another of those weird flashes of memory that wasn't her own. She saw a younger Alex holding out his hand just like that. She wasn't herself, she was someone else... and the hand that clasped Alex's was someone else's hand.

In another life, she knew she had taken this man's hand -- and changed herself forever.

"Coming?" he repeated.

Sand's small fingers settled in his palm, and he gripped them tightly. His own fingers were long, slim, and cool.

"Let's go," she said.



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