She wasn't beside him or behind him. Frantically Vash scanned the crowd for the woman and the little girl, taking advantage of his height to see over people's heads.
Aargh! Of all the lousy times for Milly to run off on her own! He didn't have time to look for her. The urgency screamed in his head, growing to a shriek, blazing across all his senses...
HURTS LONELINESS PAIN DESPAIR STOP MAKE IT STOP MAKE IT STOP MAKE IT STOP
"I'm coming!" Vash cried aloud, drawing odd looks from the people around him. "Please wait for me!"
He ran through the city, following the instinctive pull drawing him towards the Plant, his own kind. Discharges of energy flared in the night sky. Some of them struck nearby buildings, sending showers of sparks into the air. Vash saw another injured person being dragged into a building. He wanted to stop and make sure they were all right, but he didn't dare. Every minute he delayed, someone else could be hurt, or killed.
This wanton disregard for life... This wasn't how the Plants were! But even as that thought crossed his mind, Vash remembered the Plant in Inepril City. True, Elizabeth had caused that overload ... but then, lost in its own fear and pain, the Plant had been uncaring about the population of the city, willing to kill anyone near it. Only Vash had been able to calm it down.
Maybe he could calm this one down, too.
When he reached the Plant at the edge of town, the entire area was ablaze with blue light. Vash squinted against the brightness. There were no people here... showing some discretion for once, the townspeople had fled the immediate vicinity of the Plant. Thank goodness. Maybe that would reduce the chances of anyone else being hurt. But if the energy discharges could reach so far away... Vash looked up at the blazing sky. The pain and terror shrieking in his head made him want to scream himself.
LONELINESS DIFFERENCE SEPARATION NO NO NO NO NOT ONE NOT ONE NOT ONE NOT ONE
"What do you mean?" Vash cried out, reaching out towards the light. "What's wrong? Tell me, Sister! It's all right! It'll be all right--"
A wave of despair almost knocked him physically to the ground. He had never seen a Plant this upset before.
Forcing himself to stand upright against that gale, he started across the barren rock towards the great glass bell of the Plant. He squinted against whipping wind, blowing sand. Energy discharges struck the ground all around him.
ALONE NO NO NO WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG
"What's the matter?" Vash cried, holding out his hands and stumbling blindly. "What is it? Tell me--"
He reached partial shelter at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the Plant's interface console. Flying rocks and bits of glass buffeted him. At this rate, the Plant was either going to explode or tear itself apart. Vash drew his silver six-shooter, though he wasn't sure what he'd do with it; he felt better having it in his hand. More complete.
"Sister. Listen to me. Cling to me... you can use me as a lifeline to find your way home..."
Vash looked up, stunned. He could just make out a figure on the stairs, silhouetted against the blazing light. But -- all the Plant engineers should be gone -- surely no one could be so stupid to stick around through all this --
"You always were a fool, Vash the Stampede."
The words were barely spoken above a whisper, but he could hear them quite clearly.
No, Vash thought. It can't be...
He knew that voice.
"You've deluded yourself about the nature of the Plants. The very nature of yourself." The slim figure turned; Vash could see, now, its coat whipping in the wind. He couldn't make out the color of that coat against the light in the sky, but he knew that if he could see it, it would be white.
"It can't be. You're dead. I -- I killed you..."
"You can't kill me, Vash the Stampede." The figure began to mount the stairs. "I'm not something you can kill. Don't you know that?"
"Wait!" Vash screamed, running to the bottom of the stairs.
The figure continued to climb, unperturbed. "You continue to persist in your illusions about the nature of life, of death. Haven't you ever wondered why your Angel Arm does nothing but kill, Vash the Stampede? Haven't you ever wondered if you are capable of anything other than killing? Don't you know the answer already?"
The voices in Vash's head rose to a crescendo of terror.
"No!" he cried, scrambling up the stairs. "Le -- Legato! Whatever you're doing, stop it!"
"Me? I'm not doing anything. You are, Vash the Stampede."
Vash reached the top of the stairs. It was so bright up here that he couldn't see a thing, but he was aware of Legato standing across the Plant's interface console from him.
"You -- you caused this somehow..."
"How would I do that, Vash the Stampede?"
For a moment the light faded and Vash caught a glimpse of the man standing across from him. It wasn't Legato! It was someone else -- skinny, with short-cut hair. The coat whipping in the wind wasn't white, but red. And the face wasn't Legato's...
At the sight of the blood-red coat, Vash almost panicked -- but it wasn't Knives' face, either.
But... he had answered to Legato's name...
Something hovered behind him -- a great disk covered with mechanical lumps and protruberances, weird in the flickering light. It had no wheels, no visible means of support; it just floated at waist height. One of his hands was resting on it.
"How can you be here?" Vash yelled across the distance between them.
Legato, or whoever he was, turned his back, not answering.
"What did you do to this Plant, Legato?"
"I told you. I didn't do anything. You did."
"I don't understand!" Vash screamed.
"You don't have to. You know what, Vash? You are nothing to me anymore. I have another mission to do for Him. For myself, personally, I feel no enmity towards you -- I never have, except as He told me to feel. You are nothing but dirt. You don't matter in the new scheme of things."
"What new scheme of things?" Vash tried to run towards Legato, and found that his legs wouldn't move.
Damn him! He's never used his mind control on me before... I always thought that was because he was afraid of Knives... or because he wasn't strong enough to affect me ... What does this mean?
Legato, or whoever he was, looked back at Vash one final time.
"Two words for you, Vash the Stampede. Alex Saverem."
The bottom dropped out of Vash's world.
The person I loved died back on Earth... Rem had said.
What was his name?
Legato laughed, and shrugged and turned away, leaping lightly in a flare of coattails onto the floating thing. Vash recognized it then -- a flyer, of the sort used back on Earth. But there shouldn't be any on this world...
Vash wrenched at the force holding him in place. It felt as if he was swimming in plaster. Then, all in an instant, all resistance vanished... and something brushed his mind like a butterfly's wing, like a soft broom sweeping away dust... and the screaming of the Plant faded into the background, and he could think again...
Help us, single one... the new voice in his brain pleaded.
There was no time to think, to plan. He made his decision in a split second, knowing that all his long life he would let someone down no matter what he did.
I'm sorry, Milly. I hope you and Ellie will be all right without me. But if I let Legato go... I know someone else will die, and I cannot allow that....
Forgive me, Plant Sister. I can't help you. I can't help everyone...
Perhaps I have been given a second chance...
He leaped. The silver six-shooter went flying and clattered to the platform beneath him. Vash couldn't spare a moment to even care. One outflung hand caught a strut on the undercarriage of the strange flying machine.
Then the Plant exploded.
Blue light filled Vash's world, along with a rush of loneliness and agony that made him scream aloud ... but his voice was lost in a world filled with noise... Wind tore at him and all he could do was hold on until the flying vehicle straightened out.
Vash blinked. The world was dark except for the light of the moons in the sky. Below him, far below, he could see unfolding desert.
Oh, sister... I'm so, so sorry... Vash closed his eyes, tears trickling down his cheeks. He shifted his grip on the undercarriage of the machine, and for just a moment the crazy thought crossed his mind ... of letting go, and not having to carry all this sorrow anymore...
No, he had to hold on. He'd abandoned Milly and left the Plant to die alone in order to follow Legato (or the person who now bore Legato's name) to his destination. In order to find out who Alex Saverem was. In order to find Knives, and possibly prevent a greater disaster than the one that had just occurred.
"Killing the spider to save the butterfly, Vash. That's what you just did. The lesser of two evils is still evil."
"Come on up. I know you're under there. You made the right decision, Vash, the one I hoped you'd make... just another step closer to a glorious new age. We may as well enjoy the rest of our ride in comfort, and I'll tell you about Alex Saverem. Don't you want to know?"