"Isn't technology wonderful?" Legato asked, dismounting lightly. "Imagine how long it would have taken to cross that much ground on foot, Vash the Stampede. Even riding in a motorcar. We can do it effortlessly."
In the better light, Vash could see him more clearly. The man who called himself Legato was a little wiry guy with ginger-colored hair streaked with gray, his narrow body almost lost in the depths of the long red coat. The only thing about him that was the same was his eyes -- gold-colored, killer's eyes.
Vash had spent most of the ride as far away from Legato as he could get on the small machine. He'd tried aiming his forearm gun at Legato's head and ordering him to take him back to March City, but Legato just laughed, and Vash could not bear the thought of pulling the trigger. He contemplated jumping, but at their height and speed, even he could probably not survive the fall; and to sacrifice himself now, after all he'd given up to follow Legato, seemed a further betrayal of his friends.
I hope they're all right, Vash thought. If they've come to harm... because of me...
He had tried to distract himself during the interminable ride by staring at Legato's coat. It couldn't be... but it sure looking like... It had to be a mere replica of his old coat. It just had to be. But some of those stains looked awfully familiar... and the way the third buckle was bent, just like on his old coat... It looked a little more beat up, with a few more loose threads and another bullet hole or two, but he would almost have bet money that it was the same coat.
Who is this guy and why does he have my coat?
"Coming?" Legato asked, strolling toward the entrance to the cave.
Vash recoiled at a movement from the darkness within the cave, and reached for his gun, touching only his own hip. That's right, I dropped it... But he was glad, then, that he hadn't had a chance to draw his gun, when a handful of dirty children tumbled out of the cave. They ranged in age from toddlers to near-adolescent, eight- or nine-year-olds. Most of them wore nothing more than rags wrapped around their scrawny torsos -- and even the youngest had the hilts of crude knives protruding from their rags. Some of the older ones wore guns.
The kids squealed happily: "Tony! Tony!" They tumbled into Legato's arms. Vash, astounded and horrified, watched Legato move his hands awkwardly about the children's heads. His hands tensed, ready to move if Legato tried to harm them in any way... but the kids let go themselves, and backed away, nervously.
"Tony? You okay?" one of the bigger ones asked.
"I'm quite all right," Legato said. "Where is -- Ah! Angie!"
The woman thus addressed stepped out into the dawn light. Vash thought at first that she was an old woman, then realized that she couldn't be older than her mid-to-late thirties. She carried an infant in the crook of her arm. Vash watched her stop out of arm's reach of Legato.
"Tony," she said, inclining her head in a coolly polite greeting. "Where are the others?"
"They're coming," he said, and Vash was startled at how his speech patterns seemed to shift. That accent -- where had he heard that odd accent before? Certainly not from Legato. "It's a long trip for them, Angie. As for me ... is there anything to eat around here?"
"Of course. You're hungry."Angie started to turn, then noticed Vash, and stiffened.
Vash smiled at her in what he hoped was a friendly and ingratiating fashion.
"This is my guest," said Legato/Tony, bowing slightly. "Please feed him as well."
Angie nodded without smiling and retreated into the cave, impatiently beckoning the children with her. Vash was looking back at the flying machine. He was fairly familiar with the model ... a pre-crash freeflyer, that was all ... it had had some crude modifications, not too surprising in the many years since the fall, but he thought he could fly it --
"Don't even think about it," Legato's voice said in his head, amused and now completely devoid of that interesting accent. "Unless you want them to die?"
Don't hurt them! Vash thought furiously.
Legato smiled. "Still the same Vash."
He walked casually into the cave.
Vash stared longingly at the freeflyer, then followed him.
They followed Angie and the children through twisting passages, which Vash carefully memorized so that he could find his way back to the exit if he had to. This place was like a subterranean refugee camp. The walls of the tunnels were riddled with caves, some shielded from passing eyes by ragged blankets, others uncovered to expose a pathetic collection of shabby personal effects -- dog-eared novels, lumps of clothing, dolls, bits of rusty machinery. Light was provided by a motley mix of candles, oil lamps, and naked electric bulbs supplied by some unseen power source. This intrigued Vash greatly.
"What is this place?" he asked.
Legato didn't respond, but Angie turned and looked over her shoulder. "How did you come to be here, if you don't know that?"
"I didn't come here by choice," Vash said.
An odd smile crossed Angie's worn, tired face. "This is the home of the Bad Lads, stranger. I suppose you won't be talking about it if you leave."
The Bad Lads? Vash wondered if B.D.N. was still leading the gang. He had no idea how that oddly honorable man might have fallen into an acquaintance with Legato.
The dim, dusty lights of the caverns gave way to slanting shafts of sunshine. They entered a naked crevice in the rocks. Vash could look straight up to the sky overhead, but there seemed to be no way in or out of this place save through the caverns. The floor was flat and sandy, littered with refuse and charcoal from myriad fires.
Angie bowed slightly.
"This is the place we call the Hall, stranger. We eat here, relax, play. Shall I bring you a meal?"
"That would be acceptable, Angie," Legato said.
Vash noticed the woman's slight flinch when Legato spoke. "Thank you, miss," he said quietly. "My name is Vash, by the way."
She raised her head, and her dark eyes flashed, briefly. He realized that she had not volunteered her own name, nor asked his.
She left without speaking.
Vash felt cold despite the early-morning sunshine turning the rocks around him to shades of pale gold. This place felt like death to him.
Some of the children crept out hesitantly into the sunshine, curious about the stranger. Vash watched them creeping like small, filthy animals. He hated seeing children in surroundings like this.
He thought briefly of Ellie.
Legato watched the children with a faint smile on his lips. Vash had half-hoped Legato would order them to leave, but he seemed to like having them around. Vash tried not to consider why Legato might want to have them nearby.
Angie returned bearing a tray with two bowls of soup. Bowing, she set them before Vash and Legato, and laid down silverware rapidly and efficiently. She's used to this, Vash thought.
"Is that all you have?" Legato inquired mildly.
Angie froze. "What -- do you mean, Tony?"
Angie frowned at him, started to say something, then said, "I'll check, Tony."
Legato inclined his head politely. "Thank you. Ice cream would be most appreciated."
"I'll -- I'll get some," Angie said, and fled.
Legato began eating delicately. Vash stared at his soup. He should be hungry. He hadn't eaten since the previous night. But fear and apprehension made the idea of food repugnant to him.
Angie came back with two bowls piled high with scoops of ice cream. She set them down in front of the two men, cringing away from Vash as she did from Legato.
"You don't have to fear me," Vash said to her softly. "I won't hurt you."
Angie gave him a flat stare... the look of an animal exhausted beyond fear or pain. "Call me if you need anything else," she said, and retreated into the shadows of the caves, herding the children before her.
"They make excellent ice cream here," Legato said, tucking into his. "You'd better eat it before it melts, Vash the Stampede. I hate to see good food wasted."
But wasting life means nothing to you. Vash managed to choke down a couple bites, reminding himself that keeping Legato happy might be the only chance he had to get Angie and the children out of here.
In spite of his stomach-clenching fear, Vash found his natural curiousity reasserting itself. He studied a spoonful of melting ice cream in the slanting morning sunshine. "How do they make this, out here in the middle of nowhere? They seem to have electricity, but how?"
Legato finished his last bite. "Ah! You should see this, Vash the Stampede. It might amuse you."
He got up from the table and Vash followed him down another corridor. None of the children seemed to be around. Vash hoped that they'd all fled, but he thought of Angie's beaten-dog subservience, and his hopes fell. Legato had the entire place too terrified to resist him. No, check that: he had Angie terrified. The kids seemed to adore him, and Vash wondered how he'd managed to warp their little minds in the time he'd been here.
The path ascended sharply, and finally they emerged into the sun. Vash gasped in spite of himself at the breathtaking view. They stood on top of a mesa in the foothills of the mountains. Around them, the desert spread out in its morning beauty.
Eventually his eyes traveled from the barren valleys to the slope immediately below them. He caught his breath in shock. The slope was blanketed with flat blue and black panels of glass, dazzling in the sun.
"Photoelectric cells," Vash breathed. "They gather the sun's energy... transmit it to hidden batteries... and that runs the whole facility. Lost technology!"
He looked at Legato. "But how?"
Legato smiled his thin-lipped smile, and spread his arms. The coat caught the wind and fluttered behind him like the wings of a great bird. "You are looking at one of the last survivors of Project Seeds, Vash. Tony Blanchard, captain of Project Seeds Unit 423."
Vash's heart fell straight to his feet.
"That's not possible," he choked. "You -- you're Legato Bluesummers. Damn you, I've seen you do the things Legato can do!"
Legato/Tony continued smiling, maddeningly. "But you killed Legato Bluesummers, Vash. You pulled the trigger and blew his brains out onto the rocks. You watched the blood seep into the sand, knowing that you had betrayed all the ideals of Rem Saverem and that her memory died at the moment that you --"
"Stop it!" Vash screamed. Without conscious direction, his hidden gun had folded out of the mechanical arm, pointing straight at the head of the man who called himself Tony Blanchard. It took all his self-control not to pull the trigger.
Still the quiet, maddening smile. "Are you going to kill me, Vash the Stampede? What do you have to lose? You've already proven that you are nothing more than the killer they all said you were."
Shaking at the violence of his own reaction, Vash lowered the gun. No... I am not like that ... the world is saved one soul at a time ... "I know now what it is to kill, and I will never take another life, no matter what."
"Really? What if I bring the children up here, one by one, and throw them over the edge? Watch their little bodies smashed to bits on the rocks? How many children would you allow to die before you would take action?"
"Don't! Don't you dare hurt them, Legato -- or Tony -- or whoever you are."
Legato/Tony, still smiling, turned his back on Vash and gazed out over the shimmering desert.
"Ah, Vash," he said. "So many secrets locked inside that spiky head of yours. My lord wanted you to suffer... but not to die. Never to die."
"Have you been in contact with my brother?"
Legato smiled at Vash over his shoulder. "Off and on. Now and then. As necessary."
How? Vash wondered. When? He hasn't been out of my sight in six years!
"You said that if I came here with you, you'd answer my questions,," he said. "You said you'd tell me of Alex Saverem. Who is he?"
Legato picked up a rock and tossed it over the edge. They both watched it arc downward, catching the sunshine, falling past the solar panels into the yawning chasm below. Vash did not hear it hit the ground.
"Do you know what they had to do to install those panels?" Legato said. "They built a scaffolding on the face of the rock itself. Men, roped together, lowered themselves carefully. They had the flyer for a bit of help, but for the most part, it was down to human muscle and sinew fighting gravity--"
"That doesn't answer my question--"
"--merely weak human muscle, fighting gravity. I could have lifted the panels into place myself, of course, but that would not have been nearly as entertaining to watch. Every once in a while, an improperly tied knot would slip, or a piece of scaffolding would fall. This was entertaining too. Sometimes when I was bored, the entire project would hit a run of bad luck. It's easy to make knots slip. Easy to make men fall."
Don't let him bait you, Vash thought, clenching his teeth. You already know he's a monster. Don't listen to him.
"And yet they'd still go back down onto the cliff, even after watching two or three of their own men fall to their deaths. It's rather funny, isn't it, Vash? It's like watching rats trying to climb up the sides of a glass case slowly filling with water. You know they're eventually going to drown, but it doesn't stop them from scrabbling at the sides until their claws bleed. Even when it's hopeless and all their fellows have drowned, the survivors still keep trying to climb."
"Human beings aren't rats."
"You think not? Ah, but aren't they funny to watch, from a vantage point like this." Legato waved his red-clad arm to encompass the desert. "I like high places, because looking down reminds me how pathetic and feeble the works of the human race really are."
"You're a human too, you know." I think.
Legato/Tony grinned his thin-lipped, deaths-head smile. "And so you should look upon me, too, as I look at them. Don't you?"
"All life is precious," Vash said. "And you brought me here to tell me about Alex Saverem. Or is that a name you made up to lure me?"
"No, he exists. I even knew his mother in the old days. She was a friend of my Nadia... my beloved Nadia."
Legato had a ... girlfriend? Is that possible?
On the ships.
He can't possibly be that old... can he?
"His mother was... Rem?" Vash said through stiff, dry lips.
"Indeed. Rem Saverem. I slept while she was awake, though the computer woke me at long intervals to check on the status of my ship. My ship..." His golden eyes flickered suddenly, and his head twitched in a kind of nervous tick. Once, twice, three times. Vash watched in surprise. One of Legato's hands curled into a fist; the other remained flat and untroubled, resting against his leg.
This guy is more than weird...
"My ship," Legato repeated. "My ship. My ship. What was I saying?" The fisted hand flattened out, and brushed away an imaginary wrinkle in his coat.
"Your ship," Vash murmured, staring.
"On my ship. Yes. Alex was also on my ship. Rem's son. He was only a small child then. Of course, he is no longer a child."
He'd have to be ancient, no matter how young he was, Vash thought. And how is it that you're still so young, Legato? Or Tony? Whoever you are?
"And why do you want me along when you go to see him?" But he had a sickening feeling that he knew the reason, and got his answer in Legato's horrid rictus of a smile.
"Why, you'll get to watch him die, of course," he said. "After he tells us all about the Genesis Machine."
"Genesis Machine?" said Vash, thinking that a Genesis Machine sounded like something that could make this whole situation even worse than it had been before... if such a thing was possible.
"Alex built it," Legato said, and laughed. His laugh was even worse than his smile. "This is the legacy of your beloved Rem, Vash the Stampede. I haven't been this amused in years."
He waved a slim hand.
"You are free to wander about," he said. "You know what will happen to them if you attempt to leave. Make yourself at home. Get some sleep if you like. We'll be leaving in a few hours. Oh, and Angie will be coming with us when we go to find Alex Saverem. If you'd like, you can ask her why. The answer might amuse you."
Vash stood, shivering with impotent anger, staring at the slim red-clad back.
It would be so easy to push him...
The voice of the darkness inside himself, the darkness inside every man. And Vash fought it, as he always did. He turned away and went back into the tunnel to find Angie, and hopefully get some answers and figure out a way to get them all out of this alive.
And immediately got lost.
"Aw, man..." Vash moaned, as he passed a particular cave mouth for what he was positive had to be the third or fourth time. "Why can't Fate, just once, give me a break? What did I do to deserve this kind of thing? Why am I even here? This entire mountain is going to be destroyed before I leave here, and it'll be blamed on me as usual..."
Vash staggered and crumpled to the ground.
He didn't exactly pass out, but for a few minutes he was too disoriented to be aware of the small rustles and murmurs around him. When he began to come back to himself, he heard a voice whispering:
"Bobby, you dorkface, I think you killed 'im."
"Angie's gonna kill you, doofus."
Vash opened his eyes to see a cluster of dirty faces hanging over him. The children recoiled in shock and terror.
"What do you kids think you're doing? You coulda killed somebody!" Vash raised his hand and groped cautiously at his hair. His fingers encountered warm, sticky wetness. It stung. "I'm bleeding, you little idiots!"
The kids all promptly hid behind the biggest one, who crept forward, gripping a huge knife almost as long as his arm. Woah, Vash thought, still a bit dizzy; I guess these are outlaws' kids, after all...
"You'd better get out and leave us alone," the child snapped.
"I'm not your enemy."
Vash raised his hands towards the child, who cowered like a trapped dog, holding the knife in front of him in small, shaking hands.
"What do you think you're doing!" a woman's voice cried.
Vash looked past the kids and saw Angie standing in the corridor, holding a broom up like a club.
"Wait," he said. "Wait, ma'am -- I mean, uh, miss. It's not what you think--"
"Don't hurt them," Angie said, her voice hardening. "They're all I have. If you touch the children, I will kill you."
Although her only weapon was the broom, Vash believed her -- or, at least, he believed that she was prepared to die trying.
Then, to his surprise, one small girl piped up, "Miss Angie, he's not tryin' to hurt us."
"Yeah," said another boy. "He got caught in one of the clubhouse traps... is all."
Angie sighed. "I've told you kids not to leave those booby traps around where anyone can walk into them. If one of the outlaws trips one... even their boss can hardly control them."
B.D.N.? Vash thought. Does this mean he's really lost control of his gang? I wonder what that means...
The kids scurried to hide behind her, even the boy with the knife, as she cautiously approached Vash. He stood up, swaying a bit. The thing that had hit him lay by his foot -- a piece of metal, with a rope tied around it. He could see where the rope had been strung low across the tunnel ... where one of his feet could brush it.
He'd truly gotten careless in these past few years, now that he no longer had to hide from bounty hunters and Gung-Ho Guns. He was going to have to hone those old reflexes if he meant to survive Legato...
Not again, Vash thought. Oh, Lord, please not again.
He found himself taking a closer look at the piece of metal, bending down and picking it up. This wasn't just any hunk of iron off an old farm tractor. It was smooth and polished, even under the corrosion of years. Vash turned it over and his heart seemed to stop beating when he saw the faded letters.
JECT SE, it read.
Project Seeds! This is from one of the ships! But how -- how did it get here--?
"Are you all right?"
Vash looked up. Angie had come quite close to him, and though she moved back a trifle when he looked at her, he could see the concern in her face.
"Yeah." He grinned at her in what he hoped was a reassuring way, trying to wipe the blood off his forehead. "It's just a scratch. I've been hurt a lot worse in the past." Oh, if you only knew...
"The children didn't mean any harm. Please don't be angry with them."
"They're just high spirited." Vash looked down at the kids. The bigger boy waved the knife at him threateningly. He couldn't be more than seven or eight.
"Here. Come with me to the infirmary and I'll look at that."
Reluctantly, Vash let the piece of metal fall. His hand felt empty as soon as it left his fingers... this last little link to Rem and her world.
The Genesis Machine... what does that mean?
He followed Angie down the corridors. She moved surely and easily through the turns that had confused him. The children trailed behind the two of them.
"Whose children are these?" Vash asked her.
Angie shrugged. "Some are bastards of the outlaws. Their mothers are prostitutes or victims of rape. Others were orphaned in the Bad Lads' raids. They rarely leave an infant to die of exposure in the sun... whatever they may have done to the parents. Many of the younger Bad Lads themselves started out this way. We've created a whole generation that knows nothing but the gang. The Bad Lads are mother and father to these children."
"And they'll grow up to become killers, just like the rest. Doesn't that seem sad to you?"
"It seems like survival to me." Angie threw back a curtain. "Come on in, and sit down."
But Vash was frozen with shock.
When she'd spoken of the infirmary, he'd expected a typical bandit field hospital -- dark and dank like the rest of these tunnels, stinking of rotten blood and other, fouler bodily fluids... opened crates of supplies hulking in the shadows, and the moans of the wounded drifting from the dark corners...
This place could have been lifted straight from the medical bays of the Seeds ships.
Strings of electric bulbs running down the middle of the room lit the small space brightly. Under their glare was a bulky, older-model examining table -- still completely unknown on this world -- with an array of readout panels blinking softly above it. Beyond was another table, covered with a white sheet, with clean and neat trays of instruments beside it, and, to Vash's astonishment, a nondescript black box that could only be a sonic sterilizer. Beyond that were several cots, looking cobbled together from spare bits of metal, but the sheets on them were clean, and each had an IV stand beside it.
"Now I know this all probably looks pretty weird to you," Angie said. "Just sit down here and this won't hurt at all--"
She broke off as the look on his face finally must have dawned on her.
"How...?" Vash breathed. "Where did all this... come from?"
"Tony and Kaite built this place--"
"Kaite... the Fire Engineer. Our leader now that B.D.N. is gone."
Vash just stood there, blinking stupidly. This was all too much.
"Now come on, sit down and let me look at your head."
She hadn't answered his question, but he was too stunned to pursue it. He let her lead him to the examining table, and sat without complaining while she ran a medical scanner over his forehead. Like most of the other equipment in the room, it had a Project Seeds label on it.
"It looks like you're a little dehydrated, a little malnourished, but not badly hurt. Here, I can give you some pills that will make your head feel better." She dropped two small white pills into his hand. Vash stared at them. Aspirin! This stuff was like gold on this world. Did she have any idea --?
"How did you learn how to -- operate all this?" he asked, staring around.
She looked away. "You pick up a few things here and there, over the years."
There is definitely more to this woman than meets the eye...
Angie used a little handstitcher to sew up the gash on his scalp much more quickly than a needle and thread could have done. Vash followed the tool with his eyes when she took it away. It looked almost brand new. He didn't think he'd seen this much lost technology in one place in a hundred years, not even on the flying ship six years ago. Most of the things the colonists had brought with them had broken over the years, or had been gutted and converted to other uses in the interests of survival.
Angie noticed him looking at it, and held it out. "It looks strange, but it's actually quite simple. See, this little needle here..."
"...goes in and out faster than a thousand times a second, " Vash said. "I know."
Her breath caught in her throat. "Have you... seen one of these before?"
"Years ago," Vash told her, watching her eyes for reaction. "Many, many years ago."
The handstitcher clattered to the floor.
"You--" Angie whispered. "Have you heard of Project Seeds?"
"I..." Vash caught himself, just in time. I was there, he wanted to say. But the habit of hiding his true nature was too strong. "I have."
Angie turned away, looking around the room wildly. Vash stared at her. She seized an object off one of the shelves -- the first thing that came to mind, it seemed -- and thrust it at him. "Do you know what this is?"
"Yes. It's a laser scalpel."
"Yes! Oh, yes!" Her eyes were bright with excitement, her face animated for the first time since Vash had met her. The tiredness had dropped away, and she looked suddenly young, and beautiful. "Now tell me -- how do you turn it on? I'd think it would be this red button here --" She bent to show him, her hair brushing his shoulder, her wariness of him forgotten in her excitement. "But when I push it nothing happens."
"There's a safety lock." Vash turned it over and showed her. "Slide this over, like that, now -- no, no, point it away from yourself--"
Angie gasped in delight as the green beam stabbed briefly toward the ceiling and then flicked off. "Oh, how wonderful! I thought there might be something like that, but I couldn't figure it out. And -- come here! Have you seen one of these before?"
For the next half-hour she dragged him from one piece of equipment to another, and Vash explained them as best he could remember from Rem's lab. Angie was almost in tears with joy when he showed her how to work all the controls on the diagnoser. "Oh, just think how many lives I can save with this! I wish I'd known how to use it when little Jamie had appendicitis... he barely pulled through. Sometimes I'd give my soul for a case of penicillin."
"Are you a doctor?" Vash asked her.
"No. I'm the closest thing these people have, but I'm totally self-taught. I was only eight when--" Her mouth snapped shut, and the shutters slammed down again on her eyes.
"When you came to this world?"
Angie stared at him.
"You... are you from one of the ships?"
Vash hesitated. In all the time he'd walked this world, only a handful of people had known. Before he could speak, Angie raised her hand, her face hard again.
"No. Don't tell me. I don't want to know."
She did want to know. He could see it in her eyes. But she also looked scared, and Vash wondered why that knowledge might frighten her.
If Angie had been eight years old when the Seeds ships landed, how in the world could she still be so young?
She must wonder that about me, too...
So why doesn't she want to know...?
"Look, I'm sorry if I've said something wrong..."
Angie shook her head. "No, it's not that. You..." She trailed off, gazing at him. "I don't know what to make of you, Mister... Vash. You seem so genuine. You remind me of... someone I used to know. I haven't spoken to anyone so openly in many years. I--" She looked away. "I need to go check on my son."
Angie smiled at him briefly. "Would you like to come and meet him?"
"Yes. Of course."
She led the way out of the medical bay. "Do you really know what everything in there does?"
"Most of it," Vash said. "Some things I've only seen in books, or heard about."
Angie reached into a pocket. "Maybe you know what this is, then. It's my good-luck charm. I've had it for years. I always wondered what it is, and what it does. I think it's so plain that it's pretty."
She held out her hand. In the palm was a small gray cube with a seam around the center. At the sight of it, Vash sucked in his breath.
I thought everything like that was destroyed in the wars following the crash...
"Throw it away!"
Angie recoiled, startled. "Why? What is it?"
"It's a bomb," Vash said, his heart racing. "Where did you get that? I thought everything like that was used up years ago, and the Plants can't make more."
Angie closed her fingers around it. "I found it. Are you sure it's a bomb? This tiny little thing?"
"Yes! Be careful! They're very stable, but sometimes a shock can set it off."
"But it doesn't have a fuse or anything."
"No. To prime it, they'd twist the two halves -- Angie, don't! Once you do that, it'll go off in a matter of seconds. It's a grenade, but it's got enough power to bring this entire mountain down on top of us."
"Wow," Angie said, suddenly holding the little cube as if it was about to burst into flames.
"Weapons were banned on the ships, but some of the colonists smuggled weapons anyway. After the crash, when everyone should have been working together, there were horrible wars... You don't remember them?"
"I don't remember the years after the crash," Angie said. She closed her hand around the bomb, very gently.
"Angie! Throw that away. Please. Promise me."
Angie looked at him, and her face softened. "I promise. As soon as I find a safe way to do it. How do you make it inert?"
"One end has a little pinhole. If you insert something in there, like a needle, it'll become inert and you can unscrew it. It won't explode as long as the two halves aren't brought into contact with each other."
"All right. As soon as I get a chance, I'll get rid of it. I promise, okay?" She stopped beneath a vertical shaft with a rope ladder hanging from it. The shaft wasn't dark, but lit by light bulbs dangling from a wire strung up its side. Angie tucked the bomb into her pocket and looked up. "Home sweet home. Come on, Vash."
Vash followed her up the rope ladder. He wasn't happy, but he didn't want to force the issue. She didn't know what those bombs could do. She hadn't seen what he'd seen.
About halfway up, Angie climbed off into a cave mouth, pulling back the curtain hanging over the mouth. She unlatched a makeshift-looking gate across the entrance, the sort of thing used to keep small children from wandering.
"Lucas?" she called. "Hi, honey. Mama's home, and she's brought a friend to meet you."
Vash followed her into the cave, having to duck to fit his tall frame through the entrance. It was actually rather homey, with blankets hanging on the walls for decoration, and a small table with a vase in the middle that held a small spray of desert scrub brush.
The child sat on a folded blanket at the back of the cave, one thumb tucked into his mouth and the other arm wrapped around a ragged teddy bear. He seemed a bit older than the other children, maybe ten or eleven from his size. He didn't look up when they came in, but remained with his eyes fixed on the floor.
That boy --!
No. It wasn't possible. It simply was not possible.
What's wrong with me lately? Vash wondered. First Ellie... then those people in March City... I swear I must be losing my mind. He's just a kid who happens to look like -- No. He's just a kid. End of story.
"His name is Lucas," Angie said.
Vash knelt down to bring himself to the boy's level. "Hello, Lucas."
The child stared back, blank-eyed, and sucked his thumb.
"He doesn't understand you," Angie said quietly, stroking the boy's shaggy black hair.
"Is he all right?"
The boy Lucas began to rock back and forth, clutching his teddy bear, and made a high-pitched whining sound in his throat. Angie rubbed his head rhythmically in slow circles, and he calmed down.
"Daniel did this to him," Angie said grimly. "His father. Before we left."
"He used to beat us both." Angie spoke matter-of-factly -- just making conversation, not saying anything of note. "Daniel would hit me with whatever was handy. Straps, tools, pieces of wood. Lucas was a very bright child, always asking questions. Daniel didn't like that. One day, when Lucas was three years old, Daniel crushed his skull with a wrench. Somehow my son survived. You can still feel the place, here..." Her fingers probed the old wound, hidden by the boy's shaggy hair. Lucas did not look up at her. His eyes stared past Vash, into a world only he could see. A little saliva drooled around the finger in his mouth.
"After that," Angie said quietly, "he didn't ask questions any more."
Vash couldn't speak for the horror choking him. To do that to a child --! He met Lucas's blank eyes with his own.
"May I?" he whispered, reaching out a hand towards the boy. Angie nodded, and Vash stroked Lucas's cheek with his fingers. The boy's skin was very soft. Lucas leaned against Vash's hand like a petted puppy.
"He likes you," Angie said. "Most people he just ignores." She smiled at Vash -- a warm, genuine smile. "I knew it wasn't just my imagination. You do remind me of my Hikari. You don't look like him, but under the skin, you have the same glow that he used to have. Poor Hikari...."
"Who is Hikari?"
"Daniel's nephew. Hikari was just my nickname for him. It means 'light', in a very old language from another world. That's what Lucas means too, by the way -- light."
Angie smiled wistfully. "Hikari was such a sweet child. I was very young then too... just a teenager when I started living with Daniel. I tried to protect Hikari from Daniel, but I was too young and scared."
"What did Daniel do to him?" Vash asked, sick with fear, thinking of Lucas and the wrench.
Angie closed her eyes. "Daniel killed the light. It didn't happen all at once, but oh, I remember... poor child. Poor, poor child. Every day his eyes were more shuttered. There was always that sweetness, but it was hidden, bricked up behind walls of pain. After a while... he wasn't my Hikari anymore. He was just a killer like Daniel."
"There's good in everyone," Vash said. "I've always believed that." Though the words rang hollow to him -- thinking of Legato, the one man he had been unable to defeat peacefully. "If you do see him again, maybe you'll be able to wake the little child buried in the man."
Angie's eyes traveled away from his face. "It's too late now. Hikari's dead. Dead and buried, years ago, along with Daniel. And for all the evil Daniel did to us, I sometimes wonder... if maybe by hurting Lucas, he did the boy a great kindness after all. Lucas will never be a killer. I'll always have my little son, my little light." She petted the boy's hair, lost in her own world of grief.
"But everyone should make their own choices," Vash protested. "No one should be able to make the choice for another, right or wrong."
Angie clenched her hands against Lucas's shaggy head. "It's easy for you to mouth platitudes, Mister Vash! You haven't spent your life watching people you loved die!"
"Haven't I?" Vash asked quietly.
Angie ignored him, her eyes flaming. "You didn't see the hate in a seven-year-old boy's eyes as he gunned down his parents' killers. You haven't watched good men consumed by evil until anything worthwhile in their souls dried up and blew away under the desert sun!"
"I have," Vash said. "More than you could imagine."
She looked at him, and the anger in her eyes faded.
"Yes," she said. "You have. I can see it."
She sat back against the wall, holding Lucas in her arms. The boy sat like a slab of wood, not snuggling against her as a normal child would. Vash could only imagine how that must break a mother's heart.
"There's food in the box under the table," she said suddenly. "Bread and that kind of thing. I noticed you didn't eat anything with Tony earlier. Help yourself if you'd like." She laid her head against the wall and closed her eyes. Lucas went on rocking slowly back and forth.
Vash realized that he was hungry, after all. "I think I would like that. Thank you." He found a loaf of bread in the box and broke off some for himself. "Would you like anyth--"
Angie wasn't listening. She'd fallen asleep.
Vash smiled and sat down cross-legged against the wall. Apparently she'd gotten over her fear of him. And he too found himself feeling at ease in her company. It was almost like being reacquainted with an old friend... though he knew he'd never met her.
And yet... there was Lucas's startling resemblance to Rem... Pure imagination, Vash knew, and he couldn't see any of it in Angie's face... but he couldn't shake the feeling.
Vash laid his head against the wall, and though he didn't intend to, he quickly fell asleep.