Milly Thompson forged through the milling people in the streets, for the first time in her life thankful that she was big enough to push them out of the way without trouble.
Occasional flashes of light illuminated the town, but Milly had no patience for anything but trying to find her little girl. Panting, crying Ellie's name, she ran down unfamiliar streets. Oh, Meryl, where are you when I need you...
Finally she stopped, panting. She didn't know where she was, though the light of the Plant over the city gave her a general idea. She seemed to have come a long way from the downtown district where she and Vash had stayed, with its crowded hotels and questionable businesses with their false fronts jammed one on top of the next. Here, the facades of the buildings were made of glass and polished metals, and no one was so crass as to push and shove their way into the streets to find out what was going on. In fact, no one seemed to be around at all, except some late-night workers engaged in loading something or other from one of the buildings into their steamwagon.
Oh, Milly, you really are a ditz, she thought, in her scolding mental voice that sometimes sounded like her big sisters, and more often sounded exactly like Meryl. There's no way Ellie could have gotten out here with her short little legs. You panicked and went running off like a complete idiot...
Maybe those workers had seen something helpful, or, if they lived in the city, at least knew somewhere she might look herself. "Excuse me?" Milly called, approaching them. "Please, can you help me? I've lost my little girl --"
Several of the workers looked up, and Milly quailed. They really hired rough types in these parts, didn't they? The men were all dressed in black coveralls, practically bursting out of the coarse cloth with their muscles and hulking shoulders.
None of them said anything, and Milly felt a stab of irritation. Just because it was late and they were busy didn't mean that there was no place for good manners...
"Excuse me! I said, can I ask you a question?"
They all looked at each other. Another guy came running out of the business -- Milly saw that the gilt letters over the door said First Bank of March City -- and skidded to a halt, his arms filled with bags.
"Uh... yeah?" the biggest of them said finally, studying her with disturbing interest. He was a scary looking guy... wide as a barn door, with a mop of shaggy black hair, his face a web of scars and his nose crooked in that broken sort of way.
"I'm looking for my little girl. She's five years old. About this high. Dark h--"
"Ain't seen her." The man turned back to the newcomer and pointed him towards the truck. A much brighter flash from the Plant illuminated the whole town, and he glanced up, but he didn't look afraid -- speculative, perhaps.
Milly decided that she had no intention of thanking these cretins for their dubious help and turned away. She'd only gone a few steps when she stopped in her tracks.
They're robbing the bank!
Milly, you fool...
She looked over her shoulder and saw the one guy, the one who had spoken to her, watching her leave, his eyes flicking occasionally to the light in the sky.
Like the flashes of light from the now-dark tower, Milly felt her brain light up with one of those leaps of insight that sometimes happened to her.
The Plant -- it's just a diversion! I don't know if they caused whatever's happening, but they're definitely using it as a distraction while they steal whatever they're stealing...
I shouldn't do anything... I have to find my daughter...
But someone has to stand up for what's right. How can I raise my little girl in a world where no one will help anyone else?
She whirled around with her stungun in her hands.
"Freeze, all of you! Get your hands up!"
"Now what?" demanded the guy who had spoken to her.
"Freeze! I said freeze!"
He folded his massive arms. "What's your problem, lady?"
"I demand that all of you stop your criminal activities right now! Or I will be forced to take ACK--!"
Pain exploded at the base of her skull. Milly fell to the sand, whimpering softly. She was dimly aware of someone standing above her, and looked up at a shadow against the too-brilliant sky.
"No," Milly whispered. "My daughter..."
"Looks like you got in the wrong place at the wrong time, sister." The shadow leaned over her.
"Hey, Harry! Need you over here!"
"Boss! What about her?"
"Don't kill her. We'll take her as a hostage."
"A hostage? What's that shit?"
"My shit," retorted the voice of their boss. "She could be useful to us."
"She could have a family that'll come after us into the desert. What is this?"
"I said, it's my shit," the voice retorted, and Milly saw, bending over her, the face of the huge scarred guy.
"Milly?" he murmured. "Is that you?"
"Faint. Right now."
"Do it. If you don't, they'll beat you until you're really unconscious. So do it, okay? For your kid? You want to see your kid again, don't you?"
"If you hurt my--"
"No, I didn't. Shut up. Faint. Otherwise you'll die and you'll never see your kid again."
"...okay." She closed her eyes and went limp. When somebody who looks like THAT tells you to do something, you just do it...
Lying still, with her eyes shut, through the next few minutes, was one of the hardest things she'd ever done. Her gun was taken from her and she was subjected to the most humiliating body-search she'd ever imagined. Her body was lifted and carried, with many snickering jokes and complaints, to be thrown onto a pile of something lumpy and rough. Her cheek scraped against it, but she didn't dare open her eyes to find out what it was. Her hands were yanked behind her and bound with scratchy rope, and something was tied across her eyes, and still she didn't move.
You want to see your kid again, don't you?
If they've hurt Ellie, she thought, I'll kill them all -- fighting back the tears that burned her eyes.
She tried to distract herself by thinking about the bandit leader. He'd called her Milly! He knew who she was. But who was he? Someone she and Meryl had met in their travels? Come to think of it... She strained her ears, and could just barely make out his voice giving orders to the others. Yes, she did know that voice. But from where?
She heard him say, to someone: "But what about Tony?"
"Tony's not back. He hasn't checked in. Think he mighta lost it for good this time, Boss?"
"I don't know. We can't wait for him any longer. He's got the floater, though, so he can rendesvous with us outside town. Let's go!"
The lumpy surface under her jolted, and Milly heard the low rumble of some kind of engine. Moving... they were moving ... and she gave in to despair and cried quietly. Ellie... I shouldn't have tried to be a hero like Vash, I just should have kept looking for you... They don't have you, he just heard me ask about you and used me... Oh, please, Ellie, be safe. Please, God, let me see my daughter again...
A rustle and a clink alerted her that she wasn't alone.
Again that eerily familiar voice.
Milly stayed silent.
"Milly? Are you awake?" He spoke quietly. "We're alone back here."
Milly mumbled something uncharacteristically sarcastic. Her good nature had been strained to the breaking point.
A hand moved against her hair, freed the blindfold. Milly blinked her eyes. It was dark, but not totally dark, due to the blue light shining through the cracks and crevices of the canopy on the steamwagon. The lumpy surface under her... bags, she found, wriggling slightly so that she could see. She could guess what was in them.
She looked up at the hulking figure crouched beside her. He wore nothing but black, and all she could see of him was the pale oval of his face.
"Who are you? How do you know my name? Where is my l--"
"Shhh!" He covered her mouth with his meaty hand. Milly blinked furiously at him over his fingers. "Don't let anyone hear you, understand?"
"Aren't you their boss?" Milly whispered.
"Yeah. I am. But you have no idea what these guys are like. Showing weakness, or, hell, doing anything they don't understand... it's like throwing orphans to sandworms. I have only the most tenuous control over them."
His voice was so familiar, his speech oddly cultured for the leader of a group of outlaws. "Who are you? Do I know you?"
The big guy laughed softly. "Yeah, I guess it's been awhile, huh? These days people call me the Fire Engineer."
The Fire Engineer... she did know that name. She'd heard of him. He was supposed to be the leader of the Bad Lads gang, now that Brilliant Dynamites Neon was dead.
B.D.N. ... she'd never really believed he was dead, but here was living proof.
"So these are the Bad Lads?" she whispered.
"You better believe it, honey."
Milly glared at him. "What happened to all the ... you know? Glowing armor and what-not?"
He laughed. "The first thing I did when I took over was to get rid of that shit, sister. Do you have any idea how stupid it is to have a bunch of bandits that glow in the dark? And I'm sure you noticed ... considering that you and your girlfriend, wearing nothing but your night clothes, overwhelmed two armored men on the sand steamer ... the armor never was that helpful anyway. All it really did was look cool and slow our men down. As far as B.D.N. was concerned, that was a fair trade. I don't think so. We may not look quite as spectacular anymore, but we fight a lot better."
"You -- you must have been on the sand steamer!"
"What makes you say that?"
"There's no other way you could know how Meryl and I disguised ourselves as members of the gang, unless you were there. Were you a member of the gang, then?"
"Yeah," he said. "I was. Don't you remember me, Milly? You and Meryl dressed my wounds when I was hurt saving everybody on the sand steamer..." His scarred face twisted with the memory.
"Kaite," he supplied impatiently.
Milly's eyes opened wide. "You're -- KAITE?"
"Hmm?" He seemed amused. "Why are you surprised?"
Milly took in the massive body, the arms that could have wrestled a cow to the ground, the face like a truck wreck crossed with an avalanche.
"You grew up," she said weakly.