For a long time, Meryl, Knives and Lamia just stood, staring up at the great curving bulk of the Seeds ship. Then Ellie got bored, and started tugging on Meryl's hand. "I'm hungry," she whined.
"I'm sorry, honey. Of course you are."
They made camp out of sight of the ship. Neither Meryl or Lamia mentioned it, but there was something chilling about that great relic, and they didn't feel comfortable turning their backs on it.
Knives didn't come with them to the campsite. This made Meryl extremely nervous, picturing all kinds of ominous things he might be doing with the ancient ship. But she had to tend to Ellie.
Lamia helped her make lunch in silence, and then sat and stared into the fire while Meryl fed Ellie.
"Miss Meryl," she said at last, in a hesitant voice quite unlike her usual brash voice of command. "Do you know what that thing is?"
"It's called a ship," Meryl said.
"What is a ship?"
Lamia never questioned that Meryl would know the answers to her questions. For a moment, her adult guise had slipped, and the child underneath peeked through -- a scared child, looking to an adult to tell her what to do.
Meryl tried to remember what Vash had told her about Project Seeds. She had a good memory, but so many of the things he'd said had made no sense to her. While she never believed that Vash would lie, she had also let many of his stories slip into the part of her mind where she filed fantasies and legends and other impossible things. Yet here, before their eyes, was evidence of the other worlds Vash had described.
"It's ... kind of like a car, but it travels between worlds," she said. "It brought our ancestors here."
"Oh... lost technology!" Lamia's face cleared. This was something she knew, at least. "Like those metal monsters that chased my sister."
"Yes, but hopefully less dangerous."
Lamia glanced over her shoulder. "I wonder what Mr. Vash is doing over there."
Up to no good, probably. "I don't know," Meryl said. "Maybe one of us should go over there... just to check on him, I mean."
"Good idea," Lamia said, hopping to her feet. "I'll take him some food."
I didn't mean YOU. "I'll help," Meryl said.
Lamia glared at her, their temporary camaraderie lapsing. She set off with a small bundle of food, the rifle -- which she was never without -- tucked into the crook of her arm. Meryl sighed, and followed, holding Ellie's hand.
There was no sign of Knives near the car, so they walked along the side of the great ship. "Mr. Vash!" Lamia called. Vash... Vash... Vash... the echoes answered, up and down the canyon.
Oh, this is NOT good, Meryl thought. I was right all along. It's just been an act. Now he's showing his true colors...
"Oh, there you are," Lamia said. "We were worried about you."
Knives was sitting on a boulder, almost under the curve of the ship's side. He glanced up distractedly, and murmured "Thanks" to Lamia, accepting the food.
"What are you doing?" Meryl said.
Lamia turned on her. "Meryl! Let the man eat!"
Knives shrugged, and between bites of the sandwich he said, "Trying to figure out how to get in."
Meryl looked where he was looking. There was a strange round port set in the side of the ship.
"Is that some kind of door?"
Knives nodded, his mouth full.
"But how does it open?" Meryl asked, running her fingers along the metal. Paint flaked off on her fingers.
Knives pointed to a square box set into the side of the ship near her feet. "That's the key-box. The ship is twisted, you see. Normally the port would be high above the ground, and you'd have to climb a ladder to get there. And that key-box would be set at about the height of your shoulder."
Meryl knelt. Ellie bent down with her, inquisitive like a puppy.
"How does it work?"
"Open the cover," Knives said, and Meryl did. She saw a panel of keys labeled with letters and numbers.
"It's a typewriter!"
"Of sorts. You type in a code, and the door opens. If everything still works."
Meryl pushed a key, and jumped when a small flat panel beside the keyboard lit up with the letter she'd just pressed.
"After you type the code, you press ENTER," Knives said, at her elbow. Meryl jumped again. He was so damn quiet. She wished Lamia would put a bell on him.
"Like this?" Lamia said, leaning over Meryl's other shoulder.
"Don't--" Meryl said, but she'd already pressed it. The screen flashed the words INCORRECT ACCESS CODE.
"And you don't know what the code is?" Meryl said to Knives.
He shook his head. "No. I'd hoped she might be able to tell me, but she is too deeply asleep."
"The Plant on the ship."
Meryl looked up at the ship's bulk -- torn by rocks, massive sections of the metal hull peeled away like the skin of a fruit. "The Plant is still... functional? Alive? Whatever you call it?"
"Where do you think the power for the key-box is coming from?"
Meryl glared at him. "I have no idea. I've never seen one of these things before in my life."
Knives had a slight smile, and didn't even flinch at her tone. Double Suns, he was teasing her! No doubt about it -- he'd loosened up a lot in the last few days.
It's all an act. He's an evil, evil man and you're falling right into his trap, you fool!
"Look," Ellie said. "I can type my name."
"Honey, don't play with that!" Meryl cried, slapping the child's hands away from the keyboard. Startled, Ellie began to cry.
"Hush..." Meryl sighed, putting her arms around the child.
Ellie pushed away from her. "You're always mean to me!" she wailed.
"Ellie, look here," Knives said. He reached under his cloak and took out a candy bar. "I was saving this for later, but you can have it now."
Ellie took the candy, sniffling. "And what do you say?" Lamia prompted automatically, though her attention was elsewhere -- she was staring at the ground in front of the door.
"Thank you," Ellie said, and added, glaring at Meryl, "I like you better'n her."
"What?" Meryl demanded.
"Hey, you guys," Lamia said. "Check this out. Do these look like tracks to you?"
Lamia was right. The ground in front of the door was scuffed and trampled, more thoroughly than the four of them could possibly have done. Only in this sheltered place had the tracks remained; as soon as they left the immediate area of the door, the desert sands must have covered them.
"Someone's been here," Lamia said.
"Not recently, it looks like," Meryl said.
Lamia shook her head. "Shows how much you know. Out here in the desert, it can take no more than days to totally erase tracks."
"Do you have to argue with everything I say?" Meryl snapped.
Lamia bristled. "It's not my fault that you're a sheltered office girl."
Meryl reached for her guns.
"Ladies--" Knives began.
"Stay out of this!" they both yelled at him. Knives retreated.
But, though she'd never admit it, the interruption gave Meryl a chance to get a grip on herself. She sighed. "As long as they're not in there now, waiting for us."
"I doubt it's that recent," Lamia said, seeming a bit calmer herself, though not ready to apologize.
Ellie's pudgy, chocolate-stained fingers crept toward the keyboard again. "Honey--" Meryl said, seizing the little hand.
Ellie's eyes filled with tears again. "But I wanna--"
Didn't Milly ever scold this brat?
Lamia sat down on a rock and unwrapped a candy bar for herself. "I really don't see what harm she could do. I mean, she might even stumble on the right code by accident."
At least it kept Ellie from whining. The child typed her name on the keypad, watching in delight as the letters marched across the screen as she typed. The typewriter never did this! Meryl sighed and sat down in the sand while Ellie played with various permutations of her name. Knives sat near her, crosslegged, staring off at the horizon while who-knows-what went through his head.
Is it possible that he really doesn't know how to get in? Meryl thought. How is it that he knew where the ship was, but he doesn't know how to open the door?
"What the..." She turned and stared as the door began slowly to hitch backwards in its tracks. Ellie gave a little shriek and shrank away from it. Lamia dropped her candy bar, and Knives seemed surprised too.
The door lurched fully open, then began to slide closed again. They all stared as it slammed shut.
"Ellie," Meryl said. "What did you type?"
Ellie shriveled as the three adults converged on her. "I don't know!" she wailed, and started crying.
"Shh, shh..." Meryl soothed her.
"She just typed her name," Lamia said. "Didn't she?"
"Last I saw," Meryl said. She typed in ELLEN PHILOMELA WOLFWOOD THOMPSON.
"Maybe a part of her name... or a misspelling..." Meryl tried different combinations.
When she typed WOLFWOOD, the screen turned green and flashed THANK YOU.
They watched the door hitch open and then slide creakily closed.
"Wolfwood..." Meryl breathed. She typed it again, just to make sure, and hit ENTER.
"Well?" Lamia said. "What is it?"
"Wolfwood," Meryl said. "Ellie's middle name. Does that sound familiar to you?" She watched Knives' face for reaction as she spoke, but there was nothing there. He just looked at her blankly.
Meryl shook her head to clear it. Of course he knows who that is. He's just pretending that he's lost his memory, remember?
"Wolfwood!" Lamia said. "That was the name of the priest who helped my sister. Do you think he's been here?"
"No," Meryl said shortly. "He's dead."
Lamia's face clouded over and Meryl thought, That's right, I never told her.
Lamia stiffened her back, turning her face away from Meryl. "Everybody dies, right, Miss Meryl? Come on, let's see what's in there."
Meryl shivered, looking over her shoulder into the empty desert. When Lamia punched in the access code again, the flood of cooler air from inside the ship felt like the breath from a tomb.
"Hey, wait a minute," she said. "What are you planning on doing, feeling your way around? It's dark in there."
Lamia blushed. "I was about to say that," she snapped defensively.
They went back to the campfire -- the two women still glaring at each other -- and made torches. Ellie begged for one, but the grownups refused.
"Hey! I opened the door! I'm a big girl!" She crossed her arms and refused to go anywhere.
Meryl considered leaving the little girl outside... but that raised the question of who would stay with her. Not Knives, certainly. She could stay herself, but that left Knives and Lamia to wander inside the ship unescorted, and she didn't trust either of them for a moment. Or she could leave Ellie in Lamia's care -- but that would mean going into the ship with Knives, and the thought horrified her.
"Here." Meryl made a little torch from a few twigs. "Just be very, very careful not to burn yourself."
Ellie giggled, waving the torch around like a carnival sparkler. Meryl sighed. They'd be lucky if she didn't set the entire ship on fire.
So the four traveling companions stepped through the ancient door. It slammed shut behind them, plunging them into a twilight lit only by the orange, flickering light of their torches.
They were standing in a metal corridor. The floor was slanting at a severe tilt.
"Up or down?" Meryl said. Her voice echoed weirdly in the close confines of the tunnel.
"Up," Knives said. The women looked at him. "The Plant chamber is near the center of the ship," he said. "We should wake her up first. Then we'll have light to see by, and possibly her help as well."
"Very clever," Meryl said, putting her free hand on one hip. "I see you're starting to drop the act, now that we've come so close to your goal."
"Miss Meryl!" Lamia snapped at her. "Leave Mr. Vash alone!"
He's not Vash, you poor deluded child... and now I'm starting to fall under his spell as well. If we go in here with him, we'll both die!
But they went. The women took turns helping Ellie over the rougher places. Some of the corridors were twisted at almost a 90-degree angle to the ground; they had to brace themselves awkwardly against the sides and clamber up or down, trying not to set their hair on fire. Ellie lost her little torch on one of those excursions, but at least it went out immediately when it struck metal, rather than starting an inferno.
Meryl wished they'd brought rapelling gear.
We'll never find our way out of here, she thought. Maybe Knives is deliberately getting us lost. He knows exactly where we're going.
Knives had an intent look on his face, rather like a retreiver following a scent. Sometimes he'd inadvertantly walk into a wall, back off, shake his head and try to find a way around.
Well, I THINK he knows where he's going.
"Are we there yet?" Ellie whined.
Knives paused to ruffle the kid's hair, a gesture that made Meryl blink with its disturbing Vash-ness. "If you three want to sit down and rest for a while, I can go on alone. We're quite near the Plant chamber."
"How do you know where it is?" Meryl asked.
"She's been talking to me while we travel, in my dreams," Knives said. "It's ... confusing. She doesn't really know how to communicate in the manner of mortal creatures. But I've understood some of what she's told me. You can wait here--"
"Nope, we're fine," Meryl interrupted, picking Ellie up in the arm not encumbered with her torch.
"I can carry--"
"No," Meryl said firmly. "I'm fine."
Knives met her eyes, and looked away. He turned without a further word, and started walking again. Meryl almost felt as if she should apologize. Firmly she squashed the rebellious impulse.
Knives was right; after only another few minutes, they emerged into a much wider space. The light of the torches gleamed off a great, milky globe in the middle of the room. The floor tilted gently, and Meryl had to set Ellie down so that Meryl could steady herself against the wall, fighting the irrational fear that she was going to fall towards that pale, glimmering thing.
"Please extinguish your torches," Knives said, his voice fallen almost to a whisper.
"Are you crazy?" Meryl retorted. "There's no way we can light them again in here! We'll be in the dark--"
"Please," Knives repeated. "It won't be dark, not in here. I need to be able to see."
"What are you talking about? It's completely dark."
"Please. Trust me."
That was the absolute wrong thing for him to say. Meryl glared defiantly. Until Lamia reached over and took her torch.
"I'm sorry, Miss Meryl. We should do what Mr. Vash wants." Lamia jammed the business ends of both the torches against the metal.
"Lamia!" Meryl cried.
As the light of the torches vanished, a great darkness swept around her. Meryl gasped. She'd never been claustrophobic, but now irrational fear made her tremble. She was buried -- buried alive in a metal tomb.
But as her eyes adjusted to the lack of light, she realized that Knives was right. It wasn't totally dark. The huge light bulb in the middle of the room did glimmer with its own light -- faint and pale as starlight. Within that elusive glow, Meryl almost thought she could make out a humanlike shape, curled upon itself. When she looked directly at it, it disappeared. She had to peer out of the corners of her eyes.
"Meryl?" came Ellie's little voice. Meryl found the girl's hand, and squeezed it.
"Don't worry, honey. It's all right."
As her eyes adjusted to the dimness, she could discern a shape against the faint light. Knives was walking towards the light bulb. He must have raised one hand, for Meryl could make out the outlines of his fingers, pressed against the glass.
His murmured voice reached her. She couldn't understand the words.
And suddenly there was light.
Meryl gasped. So did Lamia.
The chamber was flooded with white light from many strip-panels set into the ceiling. The harsh white glare dispelled the shadowy mystery of the room. Suddenly they were standing in a rather dingy metal chamber, tilted at a slight angle, with a big light bulb in the middle of the room. The light bulb was glowing so brightly that Meryl couldn't bear to look at it, but from the corner of her eye she could dimly make out Knives, silhouetted by the light. He turned towards the two of them, and his soft voice came to them.
"I have some things to do here. If the two of you would like to look around..."
"Where are we supposed to go?" Meryl demanded, sitting down on the floor. Ellie immediately crawled onto her lap.
"Wherever you like." There was a hint of humor in Knives' voice.
"Come on, Miss Meryl." Lamia beckoned. "Let's explore, now that we can see."
"I don't wanna," Ellie whined, burrowing against Meryl's shirt.
"I think she's sleepy," Meryl said. "I wonder if we might find somewhere she could lay down for a nap?"
They left Knives alone in the Plant chamber, his face upraised to the radiance behind the glass, quietly communing. Meryl hated to do it, but Ellie's whining had reached a fever pitch. The little girl was definitely over-tired and cranky.
After some wandering through the twisted and broken corridors -- now illuminated by strip lights like the ones in the Plant chamber -- they came upon a room with some rows of odd, flat beds. Some of them had white sheets on them.
"It looks almost like a hospital or something," Lamia said, as Meryl laid Ellie down on one of the beds.
"Maybe it is," Meryl said. "These people must have needed hospitals too, I suppose."
While Ellie slept, the two of them wandered about the room, peering at all the strange pieces of equipment. Parts of the room had been gutted; exposed wires and disturbances in the dust showed where other machines had stood.
"Miss Meryl, there has definitely been someone in here," Lamia said, pointing at one of the beds. The white sheets were turned down and rumpled, clearly disturbed by someone sleeping in the bed.
Meryl shivered, but when she approached closely, she found that a fine layer of desert grit had sifted over the bed. "Not recently," she said. "Well, not that recently, I suppose."
"Look at this," Lamia said. She picked up a blood-stained bandage off a dusty countertop near the bed and turned it over in her hands. The blood was so old it had turned brown, and it cracked and sifted down when she bent the fabric.
Meryl took the bandage. It seemed to have been torn from a larger piece of fabric, printed with a faded pattern -- like a piece of someone's shirt. "So people do come here from time to time."
"I think you're right, about this being some kind of hospital," Lamia said. "Maybe people come here sometimes when they're hurt."
"People from where? The nearest town is days and days away."
"I don't know. It was your stupid idea," Lamia muttered. "I'm just agreeing with you."
Meryl found herself watching the girl as they continued to poke about the room.
She acts all brash, but she has no self-confidence at all. I guess that's not surprising, growing up the way she did...
"Lamia, do you mind if I ask a personal question?"
"Like it ever stopped you before," Lamia said, opening a cabinet and examining the bottles inside.
Meryl suppressed her irritation. "What happened to your mother? I know your sister's dead..."
Lamia gave her a level look. "Well, you're just all curious today, sis. She died not too long after we met you folks. She was tryin' to steal some bread to feed us kids and the store owner shot her. After that, we survived on our own, until my sister died too. Is that what you wanted to know?"
"I guess so..." Meryl felt guilt tighten in her chest, thinking of that brave woman with the tired, lined face. Wondering if she might have done something, when she met the little family on the bus, something to stave off their future tragedy...
Vash would say that one person's tragedy is everyone's tragedy...
Damn it, I'm so tired of thinking about Vash! How does that man do what he does? It's like he crawls under everyone's skin and gets inside them. Once you've been around him, you can't ever go back to what you were before...
She hadn't thought about the priest in years. After the whole thing with Knives was finally over (Well, we thought it was over, Meryl amended mentally) one of the first things she'd done was to look up Nicholas Wolfwood from some of her contacts back at the agency. And so she had learned of his background as a hired killer, and knew why she'd been uneasy when she first met him.
But, though that may have been the kind of man he was in the past, it wasn't how he was after traveling with us for a while. No, I'm kidding myself -- after traveling with VASH. I think Milly helped too... but surely he must have known women in the past, a man like that, and none of them were strong enough to change him.
I remember how he fought so hard to protect the weak... I remember the anguish in his face when he killed that little boy. That man was no killer. Not any more.
That was the conclusion she'd reached, reading the file on Wolfwood on a long dusty afternoon, a cup of coffee cooling, unnoticed, at her elbow. Whatever he may have been once, the man she'd known had been a good man. Her friend, and her best friend's lover. And so she'd closed the file on him, and let him sleep his eternal sleep, and thought about him no more. Until now.
That code to the door... surely it must be some kind of odd coincidence. Wolfwood must have had ancestors on the ships, like all of them here. Maybe one of his ancestors was on this ship.
Meryl looked around with a little shiver. I wonder if any of MY ancestors were on this ship? This is creepy...
"Lamia..." she began, meaning to apologize, then broke off, her eyes sweeping the room. Lamia was gone.
"Lovely," Meryl muttered. "Between Knives, the five-year-old and that little brat, it's amazing I don't have ulcers by now... Well, I'm not going to follow her. I don't care where she's going. No sense in us both wandering around getting lost."
She sat down beside the sleeping Ellie, suddenly feeling very small, very alone. Very aware that she was totally dependent on Knives to find the way out of the ship --
Of course not. Don't be stupid. I have an excellent sense of direction. All I'd have to do is go out that door and then turn left... or was it right...?
After a few moments' fuming, Meryl admitted to herself that she probably couldn't even find her way back to the Plant chamber.
"So that's great, just great," she said aloud. "I'm trapped in a wrecked piece of lost technology with two kids and a homicidal maniac with amnesia -- I mean, a homicidal maniac pretending to have amnesia. And we're actually trying to find something called a Genesis Machine, which sounds more like something that should be left alone than anything I've ever heard of..."
"Meryl! Meryl!" Lamia burst into the room, but not from the door -- from the other direction. Meryl jumped.
"What are you trying to do, give me a heart attack to go with the ulcers you've already given me?" I'm not relieved to see that little twit. Not in the slightest. But she was.
Ellie stirred and blinked. "Mommie?"
"Your Mommie's not here," Meryl told her gently, and looked over at Lamia. "What is it?"
"Meryl, there's another door back there, and you've got to see where it goes. It's -- really, really strange."
Meryl sighed. "Is it dangerous? What about Ellie?"
"Oh, bring her. I don't think there's anything harmful. Well, not that I can see, anyway."
Great, that helps a lot. But Meryl took Ellie by the hand, and the three of them walked through the hospital, or whatever it was. It was long and large, and at the other end were several separate chambers that could easily be isolation wards or intensive care units.
Past those chambers, there was a set of double doors, half open. Beyond them was a dark shaft. Meryl and Lamia had peeked into it during their exploration earlier, and beyond making a mental note to keep Ellie away from it, Meryl hadn't thought more of it. Lamia obviously had, though. As Meryl watched in disbelief, she leaned through the opening.
"In there? Are you nuts?"
Lamia disappeared inside. Meryl peered after her, making sure to keep Ellie -- who seemed quite fascinated by the whole business -- away from the edge. Lamia, she saw, was hanging onto a metal utility ladder running up the inside of the shaft.
"That's what you call safe?"
Lamia pointed down. "It's not far to fall. Look. Maybe fifteen feet, tops."
She was right; the shaft was blocked with rubble not far beneath them. Looking up, Meryl could see light streaming in, ten or twenty feet above their heads.
"It's just on the next floor. Come on up, chicken!" With that, Lamia scrambled up the ladder like a monkey, the ever-present rifle slung over her shoulder.
"Oh, wow!" Ellie tried to duck under Meryl's arm. "Neat!"
"Be careful," Meryl said wearily. She got under Ellie to catch the little girl if she fell, but Ellie seemed to enjoy the climb, and Meryl followed her.
They scrambled out into a large round room encircling a central pillar. One end of the room was covered, floor to ceiling, with dark glass or some similar material, reflecting their own shadows back at them. Banks of equipment lined the walls, along with a few other doors, some closed and some standing open.
Not all of the equipment was shut down. Glowing lights flickered from a few of the screens, ran up and down red and green wires, illuminated keyboards.
It must have come back on when the Plant was turned on, like the lights, Meryl thought.
"Don't go too far!" she called to Ellie, uselessly. The little girl was running around, looking at everything. Lamia, however, walked towards the pillar in the middle of the room.
"Is this what you brought us up here for?" Meryl said, following her. "It's a bit odd, but no stranger than anything else around here."
"No. Look at this."
The central feature of the pillar appeared to be a deep-set keyboard with a large screen above it, and a chair in front. The chair could be swiveled to face the pillar, or swiveled around to face the wall of dark glass. At the moment it was facing the pillar. And all up and down the pillar, all around the screen --
The photos were a variety of sizes and stuck up in what appeared to be random order. There were hundreds of them, but looking closer, Meryl saw that they were actually just copies of the same few images.
All of them seemed to be pictures of one particular woman. She was rather plain-faced and had long, curly brown hair. Most of the pictures were candid shots and appeared to be taken by someone close to her, for she was relaxed and often laughing. Here, she was lying on a couch, reading a book; here, she was outdoors in some strange, lush green place, laughing as she stared into the camera. She was alone in most of the pictures, but in some, she was with a young man with short, ginger-colored hair -- holding hands, or laughing with his arms around her.
One pictures was a group shot and there seemed to be only one copy of it, unlike the rest. It showed the same brown-haired woman sitting on a patch of grass with two other people, a woman and a child. The woman also had long hair, but hers was straight and jet-black. The little boy had short, shaggy hair, and serious, piercing eyes. Looking at him, Meryl experienced the oddest sense of deja vu.
"Hey, whatcha doin'?" Ellie demanded, shoving up between the adults.
"Don't you agree, Miss Meryl?" Lamia said. "This is really weird. It's like a shrine or something."
"That's exactly what it's like," Meryl agreed. She reached out and took down the photo of the two women to look at it more closely.
"Miss Meryl, you shouldn't -- What if you make somebody mad?"
"Nobody's here," Meryl snapped, though she felt a slight edge of nervousness at disturbing the odd display. She turned the photo over in her hands. The paper was smoother and whiter than any photo paper Meryl had seen, though its edges were yellow and brittle with age. She discovered writing on the back, in a looping, feminine hand.
"My Dearest Nadia,
"Do you remember this day? Think of it often. On the new world, we will have more picnics like this, and we can show our children what it's like to walk beneath a blue sky without wearing an environment suit. I can't wait until you two have children of your own! I hope that our kids will be friends all down through their generations, just as you and Tony have been such good friends to me. I think they will.
"Your friend forever, Rem."
She knew that name from somewhere. Had Vash mentioned it?
"Miss Meryl, you'd better put that back--"
"Quit bothering me," Meryl retorted, but she stuck the photo back up on the pillar, having to stand on tiptoe to do so. When she brought her hand down, the back of her hand brushed the screen.
It lit up.
"Hello. How may I help you today?" said a soft, pleasant female voice with an unfamiliar accent.
They all gasped and jumped away.
A few moments passed and nothing happened. Meryl approached the screen nervously. "Hello?"
"Hello. How may I help you today?"
"Who are you?"
"I am AI679332, the guidance computer of Project Seeds Unit 423. How may I help you today?"
"I didn't understand a word you just said," Meryl said. "Well, except for Project Seeds. Is that really what this is?"
"I do not understand that request." The screen flickered, and somewhere in the room, one of the pieces of equipment crackled. "I appear to have some memory errors. Running self-diagnostic now."
"Huh?" Meryl said.
"There you are," said a soft voice from behind them.
"Mr. Vash!" Lamia said happily.
Knives wandered into the room from one of the other doors.
"How'd you know where to find us?" Meryl demanded.
Knives shrugged. "I asked the Plant. She sees everything that happens inside the ship... even if she doesn't understand most of it." He went to peer at the pillar, again showing some of the insatiable curiosity he'd shown in the desert.
"Hello. How may I help you today?" the computer said, with a slight crackle in its voice. "Oops... error... shutting down..." Blue sparks leaped from its screen, which flickered, guttered and then abruptly went dark again.
"Fascinating," Knives murmured.
"So what are you doing here?" Meryl said. "Did you finish communing, or whatever?"
"Miss Meryl," Lamia said reproachfully.
"I had a nice conversation with her," Knives said. "The Plant. She seems like a nice person."
He's so much like Vash...
"I just wanted to make sure that the three of you were all right and hadn't gotten into any trouble."
Yeah, right. Wanted to check up on us, is all.
"So where are you going now?" Meryl inquired.
He looked surprised. "Well, to find the Genesis Machine, of course. She told me right where it is."
"It's -- here?" Meryl said in shock.
"At the other end of the ship," Knives said.
Meryl smiled brightly. "Well, then, we'll just come along! After all, we've come all this way together, right? We're companions! We should finish this together!"
Knives and Lamia were both giving her odd looks. She wondered if she'd laid it on a little thick.
"...Right," said Knives.
They left that room and followed Knives deeper and deeper into the ship. Closer to the cliff, it was like wandering around inside a badly crushed can of cheap tin. They climbed over massive folds in the metal, and Meryl wondered at the forces that could have buckled steel like so much wet paper. Some corridors were smashed flat and they had to detour. The place was a maze, yet Knives never faltered.
"And where are we going?" Meryl demanded, but then she answered her own question. "Let me guess. You don't know."
Knives glanced at her over his shoulder, his blue eyes pleading, and then looked away.
Oh yeah, Meryl thought. The gloves are off now. God... we should run while we can...
Her eyes darted behind them. Now, while Knives was distracted... now might be their only chance... she could carry Ellie if need be...
But then she looked at Lamia, striding along resolutely with the rifle clenched in both hands. Lamia would never come with her.
I should just leave the little sucker...
What am I thinking? She's a kid, a deluded kid. I know all about Knives and I still keep falling under his spell once in a while...
Lamia stopped walking and Meryl stumbled into her back. "Idiot! What do you think you're--"
"Meryl..." Lamia whispered.
Meryl looked ahead of them, and her stomach lurched. "Oh, my...."
They stood at the mouth of a long tunnel. Once perhaps it had been straight, but now it was twisted and buckled like the intestines of a giant metal worm. The sides, ceiling, floor were lined with strange capsules, each larger than a man, but Meryl barely glanced at them. She was staring at the floor.
Bones. A field of bones.
They lay drifted on the floor like windblown sand. Some were stacked neatly, others tumbled in crazy piles. Meryl saw insane sculptures: skulls stacked in a tidy little pyramid, thigh bones laid out end-to-end like pieces on a gameboard, pelvises delicately interwoven.
Meryl covered her mouth with her hands. Belatedly, she thought of Ellie and looked down, expecting the little girl to be terrified -- but she was looking around with great interest. She seemed to be handling the situation better than the adults.
"We -- have to go down there?" Lamia said, her voice shaking a little.
"You don't have to come," Knives said softly. "This will be hard for you."
"Hey, if you're going, we're going," Meryl snapped.
So they went, picking their way and trying not to step on anything. At one point Lamia stumbled and half-fell against a neat pile of jawbones, sending them cascading across the floor, clattering like gunfire on the metal. Meryl jumped and reached for her guns before she realized what had happened. Even Knives looked rattled.
"Kindly don't do that again," Meryl said.
As they walked deeper, Ellie started to pick up on the adults' somber mood and clung to Meryl, staying so close to her that Meryl kept almost tripping over her. They started passing intact capsules, most of them open and empty. Some contained intact skeletons.
I guess we didn't have any ancestors on this ship after all, Meryl thought. They must have all died in the crash.
But... who did this to their bones? How horrible --
"Oh, Meryl," Lamia said in a choked voice.
Meryl looked, and wished she hadn't. The first thing she saw was a woman's face, young and peaceful and serene, and she thought, This one's still alive! but then she looked down and saw that the capsule was twisted and broken open just below the woman's chest. Her ribs gleamed whitely in the dim light. Her thighbones dangled towards the floor.
Meryl stumbled away, into Knives. For a moment she felt his thin body against hers as he caught and supported her, and she couldn't help thinking, Is this what Vash...? Then she got herself under control and shook his hands off roughly.
"I know that being here distresses you," he said.
"Yes, being here distresses me! Can we just go wherever the hell we're going and get out of here, please?"
She pushed away from him and tried not to look at the dead woman in the capsule, but her gaze was drawn back with sick fascination. At least it didn't appear that the woman had suffered. Her eyes were closed, her face at peace, slightly upturned as if waiting to bask in the sun of a new world. Meryl felt sudden pity. This woman, younger than herself, had gone to sleep eagerly awaiting her first sight of another planet -- unaware that she would never wake up.
There was a brass plaque above the capsule, and Meryl, taking a step closer, saw that the woman's name was inscribed on it, BRENDA MERIAM JOHNSON, followed by a serial number: 10278539652-423.
Sleep well, Brenda, Meryl thought.
"Miss Meryl," Lamia called, her voice echoing in the tunnel. "Mr. Vash. Come look at this. These people are ... intact."
She had not said "alive."
Meryl dreaded to look this time, fearing a repeat of the half-skeletal woman -- her face so grotesquely serene, her body in ruins. But Lamia was right: here were some undamaged capsules with whole humans inside them. Meryl lightly touched the glass over their faces, clearing off the dust so she could see. The first capsules held a man and a woman, both young and attractive. Next was a little boy, perhaps four or five, and a girl even younger. Next to the girl was an empty capsule, and then one that held an old woman. The capsules beyond were all empty.
Lamia trailed her fingers on the glass of the empty capsule between the little girl and the old woman. "It looks like someone else is supposed to go here. How creepy."
"Don't be absurd," Meryl snapped. "They're just people who survived whatever happened to the others. Well, sort of survived."
Lamia gave her a withering glare. "But the others don't have bullet holes, Miss Meryl."
Bullet holes? Meryl looked closer. Lamia was right. The children each had a neat, round hole in their smooth little foreheads. So did the old woman. The young adults had been more badly injured -- the woman had dark bruising all over her neck, and the man had several bullet holes in his neck and chest. The edges of the wounds were soft and pale, showing a little clotted, dark blood.
Meryl shuddered in horror, imagining this family tied up in a line, as each family member was brought on their knees before their unknown executioner. She peered closer, looking at the name plaques above the capsules. They were so scratched and scarred that the names were almost obscured, but she could make out the letters if she squinted. The old woman was CYNTHIA JAMESON GREENE... the next capsule, the empty one, was labeled RONALD BYRON GREENE (her husband? Meryl wondered)... the little girl's capsule indicated that her name was PATRICIA JEWEL EMERSON...
"Look, the glass isn't broken," Lamia said, interrupting Meryl's perusal of the name plaques. "They must have been shot somewhere else and brought here."
Something crunched softly behind Meryl. "Iyaaaa--" She recoiled, half expecting some unknown serial killer to be standing behind her -- a man who would gather his victims' bones and stack them carefully in pretty patterns...
It was Knives. In the dimness, his pale eyes seemed to glow.
"Here," he said softly, touching the glass over the old woman's face.
"What's here?" Meryl demanded. "When are you going to stop playing your childish games?"
"It's here," Knives repeated. "Somewhere nearby." He seemed unaware of the girls' presence as he ran his fingers over the entire capsule, and then felt behind it. He moved off down the row of empty capsules, touching each one, feeling the wall. Meryl watched him nervously, but he didn't seem to be making much progress, so she looked back at the people in the capsules.
Are they truly dead? They look so alive. I wonder what would happen if we opened the doors and let them out. Would they be able to answer our questions?
But no... they were dead, as dead as Brenda Johnson with her legs decayed down to the bones. The bullet holes could attest to that. Yet even in death, the old woman's face, like that of Brenda Johnson, was peaceful. Serene.
And suddenly ... familiar?
Meryl leaned closer until her nose was almost touching the glass case. Of course! This was... it had to be... the curly-haired woman in the photographs they'd seen in that odd little shrine upstairs. Only much, much older.
Rather excited, Meryl turned to the younger man and woman, staring at them for any resemblance to the old woman. Perhaps they were children ... or grandchildren? She didn't see any resemblance, no matter how hard she stared, and after looking at them for too long they started looking weirdly familiar, as if she'd seen them before, or someone who looked very much like them. She looked back at the old woman. Cynthia Greene, according to her name plaque. But... that was odd... hadn't the photograph upstairs had the name Nadia written on it?
Something Lamia had said floated up into Meryl's conscious mind: They must have been shot somewhere else and brought here.
A sudden suspicion made Meryl squint more closely at the name plaque over the old woman's capsule. It was so scratched and scarred that she could barely read the original inscription... but was that an accident? She peered at the scratches, turning her head sideways, and suddenly realized that they were not random markings, but letters, inscribed over the original lettering with some sharp object.
The woman's real name.
Nadia... Amelia... Wolfwood?
It couldn't be.
Meryl's heart pounded and her mouth was dry. She took a deep breath and read the inscription over the capsule next to Nadia's... the empty one, by the little girl's. But she already thought she knew what she'd see...
The name inscribed on the empty capsule's nameplate was Nicholas Daniel Wolfwood.
Meryl realized that her mouth was open. She stared at the capsule, stunned, trying to recall Wolfwood ever mentioning his parents, his childhood. Had he? Even once?
"Could you move for a moment, please?" said Knives' voice behind her.
Too stunned to protest, her brain whirling madly, Meryl stepped away and let him move in and examine the capsules. "I know it's here," he said, sounding frustrated, and then, "Ahh..."
A loose part of the wall shifted under his hand, right behind Nadia's capsule. Knives tugged at it, then pulled, twisted. The metal gave way, revealing a narrow service crawlway, strung with bundles of wires.
And among the wires... something else...
Lamia craned around Knives' shoulder, trying to see, as he struggled to extricate the object. Meryl stayed a few steps back, drawn out of her reverie by curiousity. It was white -- that was all she could make out. Finally he pulled it loose and staggered, startled by the sudden weight (Meryl froze in terror), but managed to recover his grip and lower it very carefully to the metal floor. Meryl could tell by the strain in his arms that it was quite heavy.
It appeared to be a suitcase or briefcase. In the dim light, it gleamed dully; it appeared to be made of some kind of metal.
Meryl's breath caught in her throat, wondering what that metal could be intended to contain.
This is it, she thought, the mystery of Wolfwood's family briefly forgotten. The Genesis Machine... it's in there.
Whatever it is, whatever it does, however it got here, Knives has it now.
God help us all.