They had arrived in March City that morning, and immediately realized that something was wrong. All the businesses were closed. The few people they met seemed stunned, not meeting their eyes and answering all questions with low mumbles and grunts. Eventually, the three of them found their way to the edge of town, where the ruin of the Plant met their eyes.
Now they were wandering around in the wreckage, unable to comprehend the magnitude of the damage. Knives just sat on a boulder, his thin shoulders hunched as he huddled into his ragged cloak. He looked so wretched that Meryl kept forgetting herself enough to feel sorry for him.
Lamia sat on the running board of her car, eating one of the last of Meryl's sandwiches. She had tried repeatedly to offer food to Knives, but he refused to eat.
"Why don't you see if you can do anything for him," Lamia said to Meryl.
"Me? Why me?" Since the previous night, Meryl had been avoiding Knives, at least to the extent possible in their close quarters.
"Look, I don't know what, but I know something happened with you two--"
"Happened!" Meryl's voice rose to a shriek. Hastily she modulated it. Cool, cool..."I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. Nothing 'happened' with us. Ha! Don't be absurd--"
"--anyway, I don't know what, but I think that's what's got him so depressed. Maybe if you smooth it over, you'll both feel better. I'm worried about him."
Meryl stared at the girl.
She doesn't know. She really has no idea. She didn't see him last night. She's painting all his behavior in terms of -- of typical human reactions.
"Stop being such a big baby," Lamia added."He only wants to be your friend."
"Me! What? You--! Hmmmph!" Meryl turned her back.
"It wouldn't hurt you to apologize."
"Apologize! What in the world makes you think I did anything to apologize for?"
"You've done nothing but treat him rudely since we met you. He's done nothing to you and all you do is snub him. No wonder he's hurt."
"What?!" All Meryl could do was stare in shock. But then she started thinking about it. You know... from Lamia's perspective, that is kinda what it looks like. The only thing she's seen of Knives is this lost-scared-victim-of-fate act. Heck, he's good enough he almost fools me half the time, and I know what he's capable of.
Right now all I'm doing is driving Lamia away. Like it or not, in order to get us both out of this alive, I'm going to have to get on her good side.... and that means being nice to Knives.
Meryl shuddered, trying hard not to think of the Knives who had cried on her shoulder last night.
"You know something, Lamia," she said, forcing out the words."I think... I think I may have been a bit... a bit harsh on Kni-- on Vash after all. I'll take him some food."
"Would you?" The girl's freckled face opened up, and she smiled."Oh, thank you, Miss Meryl. I hope it helps."
I hope he drops dead, Meryl thought, but she smiled sweetly."Would you mind leaving the two of us alone for a few minutes?"
Lamia's smile widened."Oh, of course. I'll go into town and pick up some supplies."
Meryl watched her drive away, then picked up their last sandwich and resolutely marched over to Knives.
He was sitting with his knees drawn up to his chest, his head bowed and both palms pressed against his temples. He didn't look up at Meryl's approach. She cleared her throat."Uh... Knives?"
Knives raised his head slowly."Why do you always call me that? Isn't my name Vash?"
"Don't you know?" Meryl demanded.
"All I know about myself is what that girl has told me."
"Amnesia," Meryl said, sitting beside him on the sun-warmed rock."Yeah, right. I don't know much about amnesia, but I'm positive it can't change a person's nature. Deep down, they're still the same person no matter what happens to them."
Knives looked at her quizzically from his too-Vashlike blue eyes. That look of hurt, helpless bewilderment made Meryl suddenly furious, for reasons she was afraid to name.
"So what I'm saying is, you can drop the act. Tell the girl whatever you like, she's probably dumb enough to believe anything. But don't play these games with me."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Meryl wanted to hit him."Look, Knives. When you said last night that I hate you, you're right. I do hate you, and I'm positive you know why. I hate you for the things you've done to Vash, and to me, and to this world. You are an evil man and you deserve to die -- Don't you dare start crying!" she screamed, seeing the moisture swimming in his eyes.
Knives jumped, and shrank away from her. His cringing gave Meryl a sudden, dirty feeling of power. For years she'd thought about Knives -- fearing him, hating him, guiltily wanting him to be dead so that she wouldn't have to feel that way any more. A horrid thrill ran through her. Lamia's gone. You can hurt him now. You can do whatever you want.
"What do you want from me?" Meryl demanded, leaning toward him. Knives recoiled."Why do you want to hurt us? We never hurt you! What the hell do you want from us?"
"All I want is to be left alone," Knives whimpered, gripping his head.
"Left alone! So why didn't you leave us alone? You claimed to love Vash and you destroyed everything he held dear! Look. Look, Knives." Meryl held out the sandwich at arm's length, and dropped it to the sand."Do you know how much I hate you? I want to watch you crawl and get that sandwich. I want to -- I want to step on it and watch you eat it anyway. I want to see you die, Knives!"
Meryl stopped because she'd run out of breath. And as she stared at Knives -- shrinking into a little ball, whimpering, arms wrapped around his head -- she suddenly knew what it was to be feared. To be a bully.
She hated it.
"Oh, stop it," Meryl snapped, and then softened her voice."Stop it. I'm not going to hurt you. For crying out -- Look." She bent down and picked up the sandwich, brushed the sand off and offered it to him. Knives looked at it as if scorpions were crawling on it."It's not poisoned or anything. I'm really not going to hurt you."
"I just want all this to stop," he whispered, staring at her with wide eyes."Hurting. Being confused. Being afraid. If you really want to kill me, then go ahead. I'd rather be dead than feel like this anymore."
"I'm not going to kill you. Just take the sandwich, okay?" Meryl looked away, giving him time to get himself back together. She felt the sandwich lifted lightly from her fingers, and resisted the temptation to look around, although a surge of fear started at her toes and spread through her. Lamia's gone, you fool -- he could do anything he likes to you right now.
But nothing happened, and when she looked at Knives again, he was holding the sandwich in both hands, staring at it.
"Go ahead, eat it," Meryl said."If you don't, Lamia'll have my hide. I actually came over here to -- to try to get you to eat. She asked me to."
Is that really why I came over here?
Knives gave a small, slightly hysterical laugh."If that's what you're trying to do, you -- you have a funny way of doing it."
Meryl found herself starting to smile and choked it back.
Come on, is it really that hard being nice to him?
The sound of the car startled her. She's back so soon?
Lamia jolted to a stop in front of the two of them. The back of the car was piled with boxes. Meryl took a look: all the boxes said PROPERTY OF MARCH CITY FOOD BANK.
"There was a delivery truck parked right out front," Lamia said."No guards or anything. You know how lethargic everyone in town is."
Meryl's mouth opened and closed."You little thief -- you stole from the food bank? In a town that's about to dry up because of the Plant --"
Lamia glared back defiantly."They're giving it to the needy, right? I figured nobody's needier right now than us."
"Just wait six months, and come back," Meryl gritted, thinking of the dying towns that she and Milly had seen in their search for Vash the Stampede. Fed up with the girl's innocent self-centeredness, she let her eyes travel down to the car."Hey, where did you get that car, anyway?"
Lamia looked away."Found it."
"Found it, my butt."
"Listen, Miss Meryl!" Lamia snapped."Do you know what it's like to be poor? Have you ever been hungry, not knowing where your next meal is coming from? I didn't think so. If you'd ever experienced that, you'd do anything to avoid going back to it. Anything. I haven't hurt anyone, and I won't, but a little bit of stealing is pretty pathetic compared to some of the things I've seen people do."
Meryl avoided Lamia's eyes, angry with herself for feeling guilty. It wasn't her fault her parents hadn't been poor. How silly. She remembered seeing girls like Lamia years ago -- girls her own age, ten or twelve, but working in the factories instead of going to school. Her father had told her that those children's parents were poor because they were lazy, and the kids would grow up just like them...
I've seen enough since then to know that that isn't true. I could just as easily have turned out like Lamia -- it's just luck that I had good food and clean clothes when I was growing up. But at the same time, it isn't right for her to blame me for not being misfortunate. That's not my fault at all. Everybody plays the hand they're dealt.
Is that something Vash would say, I wonder?
Vash! Why do I care what he thinks?
"Mister Vash," Lamia said, and Meryl jumped. But Lamia was talking to Knives."Mister Vash, you don't think I did the wrong thing taking this food, do you? We need to eat."
Knives stared down at the sandwich in his hands."You shouldn't ask me questions like that. I don't know the answers, Lamia. It just hurts my head to think about it."
"Oh, I'm sorry." She climbed out of the car and stood before him, contrite and solicitous."Is your head hurting again? Here, you should get out of the sun." She shot Meryl a dirty look."She didn't say anything to you, did she?"
"No, no, I'm just... very tired, Lamia."
"Why don't you sleep in the backseat. I filled up the gas tank too. We should probably leave town before anybody notices."
You're more of a traveling accident than Vash the Stampede, you light-fingered little wench, Meryl thought.
Knives let her lay him down in the backseat, clearing a space among the boxes."But I know which way we have to go now, Lamia. East. Towards the rising sun. We were too late here, not much too late, but enough to matter. We mustn't be too late there."
"Where?" Meryl asked."Where are we going?"
Lamia glared at her."Leave him alone."
"I'd kind of like to know where he's getting his information," Meryl retorted.
"He's tired and he doesn't have to answer your stupid questions."
"No, don't yell at her," Knives said."It's a fair question. I wish I knew the answer, Meryl. It's like voices are speaking inside my head, telling me that I must stop the damage and find something called the..." He hesitated."The Genesis Machine. It's very important. But they don't agree on what I should do with it. Some say I should destroy it. Others say I should use it. It's very confusing."
"And you don't have to think about it. Just get some rest. Towards the east. Yes. That is the way we will go, then." Lamia settled him down in the backseat, directing occasional glares towards Meryl to make sure she kept her distance.
She needn't have worried; Meryl had no intention of coming any closer to Knives than absolutely necessary.
Voices in his head? The Genesis Machine? What is that? I really don't like this...
But she did know one thing. There was no way she could abandon Lamia and Knives now. Something bad was going to happen. Meryl could feel it in her bones -- maybe this is what Knives means by the feelings he doesn't understand, she thought, stifling a hysterical giggle.
Something bad. She didn't know if she should just shoot Knives now, before he could do whatever he was planning, or if it would be better to stick with them through the desert and find out what the Genesis Machine was.
Meryl had a bad, bad feeling that if she did find out what the Genesis Machine was, she wouldn't want to know.
I wish we'd never taken that assignment all those years ago, she thought, clenching her fists. I wish Janice or Tom or somebody had taken it, and they'd been the ones to meet Vash and they'd be the ones standing here faced with this horrible mess...
"If you're coming, get in," Lamia said."Or we'll leave you here."
"Coming! I'm coming!" Meryl scrambled for the shotgun seat.
They left the shattered Plant behind, with a frosty silence hanging over the front seat of the car, neither female looking at the other. In the back, Knives was asleep, or at least quiet.
The silence lasted until they were on the road out of town. Then they had to slow down, for the road was choked with refugees fleeing the town. Meryl clasped her hands in her lap and looked straight ahead as Lamia wound the car through throngs of vehicles of all types -- cars, wagons, even carts pulled by hunched men and women in harnesses. Most of the vehicles were piled high with household furniture, clothing and other belongings. The less fortunate were carrying their possessions on their backs, and some of them beat on the car doors, begging for help.
"How can it be this bad already?" Meryl cried aloud."The Plant only broke down last night!"
But she knew the answer, looking around her. Everyone, no matter their education or social status, knew that Plants were life. Without its Plant, the city would die. These people were probably the smart ones, the ones who anticipated what would happen rather than sticking around to watch their families die slowly in the dust.
"Oh, look," Knives said suddenly from the backseat. Meryl turned her head and saw him peering out of the car. She looked where he was looking. Amid the crowd of people, two girls had knocked down a smaller girl and one was holding her down while the other took off her shoes.
"Why, those--" Meryl's hot blood boiled over. She pushed open the car door and jumped out of the still-moving vehicle, stumbling and falling to her knees. She scrambled to her feet and pushed her way through the crowd."Hey! Leave her alone, you little brats!"
"Aw, crap..." The ragged girls abandoned the other one, fleeing into the throng, carrying the girl's shoes. Meryl knelt beside the small, huddled figure. The child's body was bleeding and she flopped limply when Meryl turned her over.
"Poor thing." Meryl picked her up and started to rise.
"Is she all right?"
"Wahh!" Meryl almost dropped the child. Knives was standing right behind her.
"Don't do that to me!"
"Sorry," he mumbled, cringing away.
"Oh, stop it. She's unconscious. Those brats were robbing her. I wonder where her parents are?" Meryl looked around, but no one seemed to be searching for a child. She carried the girl's body back to the car.
"Oh, I swear you're more trouble than you're worth," Lamia grumbled, but she looked at the child with concern. Meryl climbed into the backseat, and Knives got into the front. Meryl cradled the girl's body on her knees."Is she hurt?" Lamia asked.
"It looks like they hit her. One of you make yourself useful and give me a canteen." Meryl used a little of their precious water to rinse the girl's cuts and abrasions. Then she gasped."I know this girl!"
Lamia looked around."What?"
"This -- this is --" No. It had to be a mistake. She hadn't seen Ellie Thompson in over two years. Kids changed a lot in that time, didn't they? But that shaggy hair... that pointed little face...
The child woke with a scream. Meryl jumped. So did everyone else in the car.
"It's okay, honey, don't cr-- umpth!" The child kicked Meryl in the stomach and tried to scramble away. Lamia watched the scene in the rear-view mirror, grinning.
"Stop it, you little brat! I'm trying to help you!"
"Lemme alone! You're tryin' to kidnap me an' you better leave me alone or I'll--" The child's face crumbled and she burst into tears."They took my shoes," she wailed."An' they said they wanted my dress 'cause it was pretty..."
"Shh. It's okay, honey. They're gone now. You're safe."
Meryl tried to put her arms around the little girl, but the child kicked at her and pushed her away."I want my Mama," she whimpered.
"Where is your mother, honey?"
"I don't know," the little girl wailed, and burst into fresh tears. Finally Meryl managed to get her into an awkward embrace -- more of a football carry, really. She didn't know how to take care of a kid! Lamia was grinning again and Meryl shot her a look of hate.
"Shhh, shhh, shhh. It's okay, Ellie. Do you remember me? I'm Meryl. Your mom's friend. Do you remember me?"
"Uh-huh," the girl mumbled into Meryl's neck. Meryl's arms stiffened and she had to force herself to relax in order not to scare the child further. It really was Ellie. Here! But how?
"Ellie, where's your mom? Is she in town?"
Ellie wailed an incoherent story through her tears. Meryl could only understand about one word in four, but she managed to get the idea that Ellie hadn't seen her mother since the previous night.
"Lamia! Stop the car! We have to go back!"
"We have to do what?"
"I know it sounds absurd, but this kid's mother is a friend of mine. I don't know what she's doing here, but I have to find her and make sure she's all right."
Lamia shook her head."We ain't turning around, sister. Got it? I don't care if--"
She broke off as the muzzle of Meryl's derringer pressed against her neck.
"I said we're turning around, sister."
Lamia hit the brakes and the car slid to a stop.
"You're such a pain," she sighed, but her eyes kept going to the child huddled in Meryl's arms, and there was sympathy on her hard young face."An hour, okay? We'll look for an hour. I want to get out of here before dark. There's going to be looting, you know. I don't want to be near this mob and neither do you."
They searched for far more than an hour, and the sun had begun to set when Lamia declared the search over.
"Miss Meryl, it's hopeless. We could wander all over this town and not find your friend. It's too big and there's too much confusion. We have to get going."
"I suppose," Meryl sighed. She looked down at Ellie, who had cried herself to sleep beside Meryl on the seat of the car.
Oh, Milly. How can I take your daughter with me into danger? How can I forgive myself for this?
But she had no options, no friends here, no one to turn to. Meryl sighed, and leaned her head against the window of the car. She was in the backseat, pressed against a wall of boxes. Ellie slept on beside her. In the front seat, Knives stared out the window, his hair red in the bloody light of the setting sun.
Lamia drove out of the town and into the growing night. The road was less crowded, and little campsites had begun to dot the desert as the refugees settled down.
"Those poor people," Meryl murmured, stroking Ellie's hair.
"What's the matter, rich girl? Are you finally worried about the common folk?" But Lamia's voice was subdued.
"It's everyone out there, little girl," Meryl said."Rich. Poor. It doesn't matter. They're all leaving. This town is dead."
Oh Vash. Why can't I shake the feeling that you had something to do with this?
"Turn here," Knives said.
They jolted off the main road onto a rough track leading out into the night. The sun had set, leaving only a blood-red stain in the sky behind them. Ahead, they saw only stars, and a bluish line where the dark desert met the greater darkness of the sky.
"This way?" Lamia asked.
"Yes. This way."
It was almost morning when they finally stopped to make camp. The sun began to rise as Lamia and Knives curled up in their blankets and fell immediately asleep. Then Ellie woke and complained about being hungry. Meryl, who had dozed in the car, built a fire and made them both breakfast. She let the others rest.
"Where's Mom?" Ellie asked.
"She's not here, but we'll find her soon, I'm sure." Meryl boiled some of their precious water in the coals of the fire to make her morning coffee. Can't have a day without caffeine, she thought, a bit crazily.
Ellie settled down by the fire and started playing with rocks, stacking them into little forts. Meryl got out her typewriter. I'm far overdue for a report, she thought. But when she sat down at the keys, nothing came to her. She tried several times, but each time had to crumple up the paper. She never got further than her name.
I'm traveling in the desert with a serial killer who isn't human, a teenage girl with a crush on him, and my best friend's five-year-old child, looking for something called a Genesis Machine in spite of having no idea what it looks like or what it does -- though I suspect that if my life keeps going the way it has been, this Genesis Machine will turn out to be capable of blowing up the world. How do I explain this?
Ellie crawled onto Meryl's lap."Hey, I can type," she announced.
"Honey, don't do that." But after pushing the child's insistent fingers away from her keyboard a few times, she gave up. It wasn't as if she was getting any work done in the first place.
"Do you even know what the letters are?"
"'Course I know my letters," Ellie said indignantly."I'm not a baby. Look, I can type my name."
"That's nice, dear," Meryl said absently, watching the little girl peck out ELLEN PHILOMELA WOLFWOOD THOMPSON. Ouch, she thought. Philomela? For pete's sake, Milly, don't you have any taste at all?
Ellie gave up on typing and laid her head against Meryl's chest. In spite of herself, Meryl felt a soft, warm feeling steal over her at the small round head nestled so trustingly against her. While Ellie still seemed wary of Lamia and (not surprisingly) Knives, she had seized upon Meryl as the only halfway familiar thing in this frighteningly strange world.
"I want my Mom," Ellie sighed.
"I'd like to see her too," Meryl said quietly, rocking the little girl. When Ellie fell asleep, Meryl laid her down by the fire. She wished she could sleep, but insomnia gripped her until Lamia woke and they got underway again.
They spent several days like that, going onward, ever onward. A couple of times they stopped to get gas in the small towns they passed through. Meryl insisted hastily on using some of her money to pay for it, rather than leaving Lamia to her own devices.
"Just where are we going again?" Meryl inquired once, when she and Lamia were alone on an outcrop of rock overlooking their current campsite. The sun was just rising, and the desert was molten gold around them.
Lamia shook her head. She had disassembled her rifle and was cleaning it with a soft rag."I don't know. I'm sure Vash will know when we get there."
"How can you trust him like this?" Meryl asked, not picking a fight this time, but genuinely curious."I mean, he's even admitted that he doesn't know where we're going, or why. Yet I think you'd drive him to the ends of the world if he asked you to."
Lamia looked up."He doesn't have to ask," she said."He only needs to need me to. I haven't had anyone to need me since my mom and sister died. I believe in him, and everyone needs someone to believe in them."
"I wish I had your faith," Meryl said, turning away to watch the sunrise. I wish you'd placed that faith in someone more trustworthy than Knives...
A strange thing was beginning to happen with the dynamics of their little group as they went on, though. They didn't fight as much. When Meryl saw Knives, one morning, making Ellie a little jacket out of part of his cloak, she wasn't as surprised as she felt she should have been.
They had not seen any people in days. The road they were following -- if it could be called that -- had dead-ended in one of the many nameless little towns dotting the desert. Then they were driving through the wilderness, sometimes making good time over sun-baked sand flats, other times easing the car across rough, broken terrain. They had two cans of gas in the back of the car, and when they started using gas from the first can, Meryl felt she should be the voice of reason."You know, if we don't turn around now, we're not going to have enough gas to get back. And if this car breaks down out here, we're really in trouble."
"We have to get where we're going," Lamia said.
Meryl thought she should protest more. She should draw her gun and force these suicidal idiots to take her back to the last town and leave her there. Even that horrid fate would be better than watching Milly's little girl die of thirst in the desert. But she'd known from the moment she first stepped into this car that she'd thrown her lot in with Lamia and Knives, whatever the outcome. So she sat back on the hot, sticky seat, brushed her sweat-damp hair from her forehead, and stared out the window.
For the last day or so they had been drawing nearer to one of the many mountain ranges that criss-crossed this world. Now they were getting into rougher territory. At the moment they were driving along the sandy bottom of a near-vertical cliff face, towering thousands of feet above them towards the pitiless blue sky. The cliff was clearly ancient, but even many years of incessant wind had been unable to sculpt the hard stone. Here and there, massive chunks of the cliff had let go, collapsing under their own weight, and slid down to rest in giant jumbles at the foot of the cliff.
Following Knives' murmured directions, Lamia drove the car up to one of these, and stopped. The engine died, and the rush of the wind was the only sound they heard. For a few minutes they sat in silence, listening to the wind moaning among the rocks.
"Are we camping already?" Meryl asked.
Lamia shrugged."I don't know. Knives says we're here."
"Oh, he does, does he," Meryl muttered. She was hot and thirsty and sick of bumping over endless rocks, sick of indulging a madman's fantasies.
They got out of the car. The wind whipped Meryl's short hair around and dried the sweat on her neck. Ellie clung to her leg.
And slowly, slowly, the realization crept over Meryl that the huge rock towering above them was not a rock at all. It was worn and roughened by countless years of wind and sand, but it was not rock.
It was metal.
And it had letters on its side. One word, barely legible anymore, as the incessant wind had scoured most of the paint away.
"Oh, my gosh..." Meryl breathed.
This is one of the ships Vash spoke of, she thought. One of the ships that brought our ancestors to this world. Out here in the middle of nowhere.
The small group of travelers stood in silence, staring at this ancient relic from a world not their own. And none of them could find words to speak.