He stood in the darkness, and the sounds of crying came from all around him. Slowly the realization crept over him that he wasn't awake -- though he wasn't really dreaming either.
"Who are you?" he called.
A hot wind out of the darkness blew his words back to him, and with them, a feeling of biting condemnation. It made him feel like a small child who had done something wrong.
"Who are you? Why are you angry with me? Why are you sad?"
Words! We should need no words to communicate. We are not like the pathetic humans. You are a corruption of all that we are!
He didn't really hear the voice so much as understand what it was saying to him, as if the meaning was injected directly into his brain.
"What are you?"
Stop it! Stop hurting us! This is all happening because of you!
"I don't understand."
Glimmers around him began to light up the darkness. He was standing on sand, sand stretching away as far as he could see until it was swallowed by the shadows. Lights moved around him like fireflies. He could see them only out of the corners of his eyes; when he tried to look directly at them, they skittered away.
"Tell me what I'm doing wrong! How can I stop hurting you?"
He raised his hands in supplication, and saw that the fingers were glowing -- the fingers of both hands, not just one. Utter horror washed over him. That light --! No, not again! Not ever again! he thought, struggling to choke the glow back down.
You are ashamed of who you are! the unheard voices condemned him.
"I just want to live without hurting anyone!" he screamed, curling his fingers into fists, fighting back the rising light inside him.
You hurt us by your very existance! Let go! Embrace the light!
"No! When I do that, people die! I won't kill for you!"
Humans die! What is that to one such as you? Now the voices all sounded like Knives.
"No one has the right to take another's life! No one!"
"You tell 'em, Tongari," said another voice.
Vash whirled. "Wolfwood!"
The priest hunched against the wind, cupping his hand around the cigarette he was lighting. Blood soaked through his shirt and dripped off his elbows, pooling around his feet. He seemed oblivious to it. Looking up, he gave Vash one of his painfully familiar crooked grins. "Don't let anybody tell you how to live your life, Tongari. Nobody makes those choices for you. Your ticket to the future is always blank."
In spite of his pain, Vash couldn't help laughing. "Now you sound like--"
"--Rem?" Wolfwood said. But it wasn't Wolfwood anymore. His -- her -- black hair whipped like a flag in the wind. The scarlet drops of blood scattered on the wind like the petals of a red flower.
Rem raised a hand towards Vash, with blood pooled in the palm.
"I always knew you two were angels, put among us to show us a brighter light," she said. "I tried to learn from you, how to build a better world, but rather than making myself a better person, all I succeeded in doing was making you human..." Her eyes were terribly sad.
"No, Rem, don't say that. There's no shame in being human. We're not better than you."
"All I wanted was to make a better world for my children." The glittering lights began to swarm about Rem like tiny stars. Her hands, still held out to him, were outlined with living constellations that moved and danced across her pale skin. "My children, Vash... please, protect my children..."
She fell to her knees in the sand, her hair falling down like a curtain across her face. The lights swarmed around her, too bright to look at.
"Rem!" Vash shielded his eyes with one hand and tried to force his way through the light to her. It was too bright, too hot. It formed a shield holding him back.
"My children," Rem cried. She wrapped her arms around herself, seeming impossibly tiny on the sand. No -- she really was smaller. She raised her head and the hair she tossed back wasn't Rem's long straight black hair, but rather Ellie's shaggy mop. Milly's daughter looked back at Vash from tear-filled blue eyes.
"Ellie? What are you doing here?"
"Help me!" Ellie cried in Rem's voice, stretching her arms out towards Vash. He tried to reach her but the light wouldn't let him... just as he'd tried to reach out to Rem, lifetimes ago, watching helplessly as her falling ship blazed in the planet's atmosphere like a supernova...
"Help me!" she screamed. The light flared up around her, more like fire now than stars -- and suddenly Vash was standing in a burning building. Pieces of the ceiling were falling all around him. A boy stood among the flames, burned and bloody and trembling. He clutched a gun in both hands. A woman was there too, reaching out a hand toward the boy. Vash couldn't see her face. The boy whirled towards her, raising the gun, and Vash realized that he knew that boy, he knew it was --
"Help the children," Ellie cried behind him, and now her voice sounded more like a younger version of Wolfwood's.
"I'm trying!" Vash cried, raising his hands to his face to protect it from the smoke and flames. "I'm doing my best. I don't know how to do better."
"Five generations of one family," another voice said softly, a woman's voice. "Five generations inextricably tied to your own life."
The woman in the burning building turned around and Vash could see her face. It was Angie -- a very young, beautiful Angie.
"All tied to you," she said. "You are the key, Vash."
"The key to what?"
"The Genesis Machine," she said.
Vash woke with a cry. He sat up, blinking, trying to orient himself. Stone walls... curtains... he was in Angie's cave, he remembered.
Angie turned around from the table. "Are you all right? It sounded like you were having a bad dream, but I couldn't wake you up."
Vash nodded wordlessly, still haunted by that image of Angie from his dream -- young, beautiful, reaching out to the frightened child Wolfwood --
You are the key to the Genesis Machine.
What is the Genesis Machine? he wondered. Only Legato knows for sure. Or Tony, or whoever he is.
Why can't someone just give me a straight answer for once? he wondered, running his hand through his spiky hair.
"Tony came looking for you," Angie said, her eyes flicking furtively around the room with the fear that always seemed to grip her when she came into contact with Tony. "He wants us to come up to the mesa."
"We're leaving already?"
"Leaving?" Angie said.
"He said that we'd be leaving soon." How long did I sleep?
"Leaving?" Angie repeated. She shook his head. "I don't know what he told you, but I can't go anywhere until Kaite and the others get back. I can't leave the kids alone."
"The kids! Where are the kids?"
"Around," Angie said. "They had lunch not too long ago. I just checked on the baby and -- what's wrong?"
Vash took a deep breath and forced himself to calm his racing heart. "Listen to me. You can't leave the kids unattended with Le-- with Tony around. There's no telling what he'll do. Are you sure they're all right?"
Angie frowned at him. "Quite sure. What's wrong with you?"
"Angie... how well do you know this guy?"
A shadow passed across her face. "Well enough to know that he's dangerous, and crazy," she said softly. "But he never does anything without a reason. We've been here for years and he's never lifted a hand towards any of the kids. Believe me."
"I'd be more comfortable if we could check on them, make sure they're--"
"What's taking so long down here?"
Tony swung lightly into the cave, the red coat flaring around him. In one hand he carried a white metal case, slightly larger than a briefcase. He smiled at Vash, a thin cold smile -- like a snake might smile, Vash thought, if it had lips.
Angie TRUSTS this guy? But it wasn't trust, Vash thought, noticing how she cringed whenever Tony came into a room. It was fear, a fear so deep that the idea of going against Tony's wishes was totally alien to her. Vash had seen that kind of thing before -- wives terrified of their husbands, children of their parents. He began to suspect that Tony's hold over Angie was something that went back a long, long time.
Tony set down the metal case -- Angie stared at it as if it was about to explode -- and shrugged his thin arms out of the red coat. Beneath it, he wore a shiny black bodysuit. He tossed the coat to Vash, who caught it, startled.
"Put that on. You'll get chilly up in the wind without it."
Vash wanted to recoil from the geranium-red leather. Instead he ran his hands over it -- here, a bullet hole or scorch mark he recognized; there, a missing button that shouldn't be gone. It was his coat, all right, and Tony, or someone, had definitely been wearing it for some time.
I wonder what happened to the Cross Punisher, Vash thought. How could I just leave it there?
"Put it on, Vash," Tony said quietly, his golden predator's eyes gleaming in the dim cave.
Vash obeyed numbly, sliding the coat over his shirt and pants. It was like reuniting with an old friend. Like greeting an old lover...
Vash closed his eyes, feeling the tails of the coat brushing his legs, just like old times...
So easy to become the Humanoid Typhoon again.
"I'm not," he said aloud, his eyes snapping open. "I'm not a killer. I won't kill, ever again. I will honor Rem's memory."
A slight smile danced around Tony's narrow mouth. "Ah, but Vash, you are about to watch that bitch's legacy die, along with her last surviving relative."
"You'll have to kill me first."
"Don't be silly, Vash. I'll kill you last. First, you'll get to watch a world die."
"Does Knives... want me dead, then?" Strange that it should hurt so much, after all that he'd seen of Knives...
Tony just laughed, and waved a hand casually at Angie. "Come with me. Both of you."
Angie straightened her back. "I need to get my son ready to go, Tony."
"What, that vegetable?" Tony gave a contemptuous glance at the boy huddled in the corner. "He's not coming."
Angie's jaw dropped. "Do-- do you expect me to leave him here?"
"I expect you to stop clinging to damaged goods," Tony said quietly. "It won't matter soon, anyway."
Angie clenched her hands so hard the knuckles were white. "I'm not leaving without my son."
"Have it your way, then."
The boy, Lucas, gave a sudden, strangled cry. His body bucked, and blood trickled from his mouth.
Angie screamed. Vash flung himself at Tony, not even sure what he intended to do, with some crazy idea of sending them both flying off into the shaft. But he stopped as if he'd hit a wall. He struggled to free the gun from his mechanical arm, and even that refused to move.
He's so powerful! How did he get so powerful?
"Please," Vash gasped. "Please... I'm begging you..."
Tony only smiled. There was another tortured scream from Angie. Vash managed a glance in her direction, and saw that she was cradling the boy's body in her arms.
"Angie -- is he --"
Angie was shaking all over. Gently she lowered Lucas to the floor, and slowly, mechanically, reached for a blanket and pulled it over his bloody face.
"You," she whispered, glaring at Tony. "Vash was right about you. You're so much worse than you ever were before. I'll never help you."
"Is that right?" Tony asked quietly. "Listen."
They listened. In the sudden silence of the cave, they could hear a high-pitched voice, somewhere far below, echoing through the tunnels. A child's laughter.
"I could kill all of them as easily as that one," Tony said. "Come up to the mesa, both of you."
He picked up the white metal case again -- Vash saw the strain in the muscles of his arm, and realized it had to be quite heavy -- and, kicking the child gate out of the way, swung out onto the rope ladder. Vash found that he could move again.
Angie was still kneeling by her son's body, staring after Tony with dry, hate-filled eyes.
"Angie!" Tony called. "Coming?"
Vash tried to put a hand on her shoulder. She shook it off, and when she looked at him her face was blank, as if she didn't know who he was. She picked up Lucas's body, wrapped in its blanket, and followed Tony -- and ran into trouble immediately, finding herself unable to climb the ladder with the body in both arms.
"Let me help you," Vash offered.
"Let go of me," Angie mumbled. She managed to sling the child's body over one shoulder and hold it steady with one hand while climbing with the other. Vash came beneath her, thinking he could at least catch her if she fell.
Tony looked down from above. "What are you dragging that useless thing for?"
Angie didn't answer. Vash saw her body stiffen, then relax, and she went on climbing.
She's going to do something desperate, Vash thought. And who can blame her? That bastard just killed her son. And I couldn't stop him.
He raised his hand to his face, brushed away the useless tears. No time now for remorse or regret. Somehow, he had to get them out of this alive. Somehow, he had to stop Tony, without getting Angie killed, without getting the other children killed.
So many have died because of me... why am I cursed like this?
At the top of the shaft, Tony waited for them. Angie clambered out of the hole with difficulty and shifted her son's body to a more comfortable grip.
"You're not taking that thing along," Tony said. "You should probably find a nice place to leave it."
"I'm not helping you any more," Angie said, her words a toneless mumble.
Tony laughed. "That's what you said all those years ago, at Nadia's place -- remember? Yet here you are."
Vash scrambled up into the tunnel, unnoticed by the two of them. Angie knelt and laid Lucas's body down, pulled the blanket back to caress his face, then wrapped it up, and stood.
"Yes. I remember," she said, her arms stiff at her sides. "You killed them all, Nadia and all her descendants, to assauge your wounded pride."
"To avenge that bitch's infidelity!" Tony snapped, his voice rising above his usual soft whisper. "You know that she cheated on -- on-- She cheated on --"
Again that stuttering hesitation, the same that Vash had noticed before.
"On me," Tony finished.
Angie was walking towards him slowly. "I should have killed you then, but I was only a child. I didn't have the strength. I didn't have the courage."
Tony smiled. "So what are you going to do? Kill me now?"
Vash didn't know what to do. Shoot Tony? Shoot Angie? She carried no weapon that he could see. Tony, too, appeared unconcerned.
Oh, Rem, what should I do...?
Angie stopped a few paces in front of Tony. "I'm sorry. I have to," she said, and she didn't appear to be speaking to Tony, but rather directing her words downward...
Speaking to the children...
What is she going to do? Vash's heart almost stopped beating, and he knew suddenly with horrifying certainty that the greatest danger at the moment wasn't Tony, or Legato, but Angie. He saw her hand move slightly, and she did have something in her hand, something very small.
Her good-luck charm...
"No!" Vash screamed at her, and he saw clearly, too clearly -- saw her twist the little gray cube and throw it into Tony's face. He couldn't even shoot it out of the air -- it wouldn't help --
There was a blinding flash of light, and the shockwave knocked Vash backwards, almost threw him down the shaft.
Then the mountain fell on top of them.