Angie ran a damp dishrag across the counters around the sink, turned it over and grimaced at the yellowish-red layer. She dusted every day, and still more dust seeped in, settling over everything like a choking yellow fog.
Sometimes she woke up and the knowledge that she would have to spend the rest of her life in this arid hell swept over her so forcefully that she couldn't breathe. It's easier for those who were born here, she thought, staring out the window at the hard, cloudless blue sky. They've never known anything else but this. How did the first colonists deal with this place? When they went to sleep dreaming of the Eden they were promised, then woke to this barren place of death, what made them get up and go on living?
She had survived by not allowing herself any hopes or dreams. She took what scraps of pleasure each day might bring her, and lived on those during the long, lean times.
Living in the present. Living with Lucas.
Angie looked over her shoulder at her son. He was curled up asleep on a blanket in the corner of the kitchen. She looked at him and felt the warm rush of pleasure spread over her. Peace. A sense that all was right...
... or wrong?
Angie frowned. Lucas... something wasn't right. He shouldn't be here. He shouldn't be... so young.
This isn't real, she thought, plunging her hands into the soapy dishwater. It's a dream.
No, not a dream. A memory. Or a dream of a memory.
I remember a day like this...
She fished another dish out of the water and wiped it clean and dry. There was not enough water to afford a wash and a rinse.
Angie heard footsteps approaching the door. She put the dish away, and got another. She recognized those footsteps. Daniel. She'd had plenty of time to learn to recognize, and dread, his approach.
That was wrong, too. Daniel was dead.
But this is a memory...
The door opened, and Angie knew what she'd do before she did it, knew what she'd say before she said it, knew what she'd turn around and see. Still, she went on drying the dish and put it away on the high shelf before she started to turn around.
"Well?" she said. "Did you get the other half of the Genesis Machi--"
Daniel was not standing in the doorway, but leaning against it, as if it was the only thing holding him up. His large, rangy body drooped bonelessly. He was covered with blood.
"Daniel," Angie breathed. She had long ago ceased to have any feelings for Daniel Saverem, but something deep inside her twisted... the last remnant of the girl who had loved him. "Daniel... are you..."
Daniel looked down at his blood-covered hands, coming back to himself. "It's not mine... Angelina, I... I killed... No!" He clenched his hands into fists. "It wasn't me! I didn't pull the trigger! Not this time."
"You'll wake your son," Angie said, though Lucas slept on, peacefully.
Daniel shook his head. "I never meant to --" He looked at Angie, and his face was actually pleading. She'd never seen that look on his face before. "I didn't expect it to go this far."
"You're a hired killer, Daniel." She didn't know where the sudden surge of courage came from. Seeing Daniel helpless... maybe that was it. "Why does it surprise you when people get killed?"
Daniel shuddered, and suddenly he spun around and pointed. Over his shoulder, she could see the part of the Genesis Machine that the two of them possessed, leaning against the porch and gleaming in the sun. "Angie! Take that! Hide it! Don't let them get it. It's killed too many already... If it falls into their hands, everyone will die."
"When has killing ever bothered you, Daniel?"
"Listen to me! I'm not talking about a few people here. We're in this thing all the way up to our necks, Angelina. Do what I tell you." He turned his back.
"Where are you going?"
"I've been summoned. I can't disobey Him." His shoulders stiffened. "But I can do this, at least. Take the damn thing, Angie. I wish to God my father had never built it."
"What am I supposed to do with it?"
"I don't know! Hide it! You know places, I'm sure."
Angie wanted to argue, but his voice was fading, fading -- and then she blinked, and saw blue sky above her. It's too blue to be hell, she thought, so is this heaven, perhaps?
Then she sneezed, and choked on dust. A sharp pain stabbed her ribcage. No, she thought; dammit, I'm still alive.
After a bit of struggling, she extricated her arm. The only reason she hadn't been killed, she realized, was because they'd been so close to the shaft to the surface. When everything collapsed, a hole to the surface had opened up, so rather than getting 500 tons of rock on their heads, it was just the sloughed-off sides of the shaft. Still, she was lucky to be alive -- if lucky was really the right word.
The children -- oh, please --
"Hold still. I'll help you. You shouldn't move too much."
That was Vash's voice. She felt a rapid surge of relief, followed quickly by fear -- and despair. If we survived -- then Tony --
"Where's Tony? Is he dead?" she asked.
"I don't know." Vash came into her field of vision. There was blood running down one side of his face, and he moved his right arm stiffly. "Are you all right?"
Though he seemed concerned about her, his face and manner were distant and cool, not warm as he had acted towards her earlier. Because of what I've done, she thought. I committed a crime as terrible as any of Tony's...
"Vash.. the children..."
"I don't know," he said, his face tormented. "I haven't been able to find any of them."
After he helped her get out, they went in search of the children. They found total devastation. Parts of the complex were still intact, but most of it was utterly destroyed, including the hospital and other areas that Angie knew had been Kaite and Tony's labs.
"I-- I can't believe that tiny bomb could do this.... without destroying us..."
"Bombs like that are meant to destroy equipment, not people," Vash said. His voice was tired and defeated. "They set up a resonance that causes solid objects, like rock, to fall apart. It didn't hurt the tissues of your body, but it started a series of chain reactions that collapsed most of the mountain. It's designed to be used for sabotage without killing the user. But a bomb like that can kill plenty of people, trust me. That's what weapons do..."
And this one had. They found the children buried in rubble, their sleeping places collapsed on top of them. Vash and Angie had been close enough to the surface to survive, but the children, much deeper in the mountain, hadn't had a chance.
Angie found that she felt nothing. Nothing at all. She'd killed all the children under her care, and she couldn't even bring herself to weep, though Vash was crying as they uncovered the small bodies. There was nothing inside her but emptiness.
The legacy of Tony and Daniel's evil is mine now, I guess...
They buried the children in a soft patch of sandy soil, where the late afternoon sunlight slanted down between reddish canyon walls. Angie sat near the gravesite and watched Vash kneeling over the graves, speaking softly to them.
"What are you telling them?" she asked.
"That we're sorry. That they deserved to have a chance to grow up and make their own way in life... and that it's not their fault that they didn't get the opportunity."
"Do you really believe they can hear you?"
Vash gave her a level look. He'd put on his yellow sunglasses, so she couldn't see his eyes -- and for just a moment, she was almost afraid of him. "I don't know, but if there is even the slightest chance... it's worth doing. Don't you think so?"
She sensed a bit of challenge in his words. "I didn't mean to cause their deaths. Truly... I would rather have died myself than brought harm to them. I intended to die."
If anything, his face grew colder. "I've always believed that suicide is a coward's answer to life's problems. It doesn't take strength to kill yourself, or to kill someone else. Finding solutions that don't hurt anyone... that is the only true strength."
"You're very self-righteous, don't you think?" Angie said. "Have you actually put those beliefs to the test? Have you actually stood face to face with someone like Tony and found a non-violent solution to stop him from hurting anyone else?"
Vash turned white, and Angie looked on in amazement -- she hadn't really meant to hurt him with those words, but he looked like he was about to faint.
"You're right," he said. "I've failed, too. So many people are dead because of me..." He looked down at his bare hands, blackened with a mixture of dirt from digging the graves, and blood from handling the children's bodies. "I can never wash these hands clean."
"No, I didn't mean--" Angie found herself softening, a little bit of sympathy climbing up over the edges of the emptiness inside her. "Look, I've done things... I'm not proud of, too. I'll tell you my story, Vash. But first I'd like to get away from here."
The flyer was half-buried in rubble, and it took the strength of Vash's mechanical arm to unearth it. Riding in the flyer, they circled the rubble, searching for Tony, but found no sign of him -- or Lucas's body, either, though they searched and searched. Her heart dead inside her, Angie also looked for the white suitcase, but didn't find it, and didn't say anything to Vash. She knew deep in her heart that there was no point. Tony was alive... and the Genesis Machine was with him. Half of it, anyway.
"Unless he was buried a lot deeper than we were, he's probably still alive," Vash said grimly, echoing her thoughts. "I'd lay odds that he's alive."
"Why do you suppose he didn't steal the flyer?"
"I don't know. Maybe he is buried after all. Dead. I -- I know it's wrong to wish someone dead, but..." He looked down at his hands.
In spite of herself, Angie asked, "Why do you hate Tony? What did he do to you?"
"Nothing. I think. He -- he reminds me of someone from my past."
"If I tell you my story," Angie said, "you'll have to tell me yours."
"I will. I promise."
The sun had set and night was spreading across the land. Despite the darkness, Vash wanted to search for the Bad Lads, to warn them of what they would find when they got back to their hideout. They flew back and forth across the desert, until Angie insisted that they abandon the search.
"This desert is huge. We could fly around out here for days and days. Besides, they're not good men, Vash. If Tony kills them when they get back... most of those men would deserve it."
Vash turned to her, and she recoiled from his face. His eyes... for a moment she almost thought his eyes were glowing, but it must have been a trick of the moons. Then the cold lines of his face softened into its usual gentleness, and he looked away.
"Angie, anyone could say the same thing about yourself ... or me. We're all the same under the skin. The petty things we all do in our lives fade into insignificance when you look at it from far away... a mountain or a hill, it's all the same from space..."
His voice trailed off and he crumpled bonelessly to the floor of the flyer. Luckily the machine was cruising along at a steady altitude; it bucked a little in updrafts, but Angie took over the controls.
His face was very pale. He must be hurt worse than he let on... Or maybe it was just shock, catching up to him eventually.
She flew for a time along the mountains, finally angling into a pass she knew of. Eventually there would be caves, and she hoped to find a place where she could tend to Vash's wounds and her own. A place they could rest and eat and regroup for what would lie ahead.
Her own mind was still closed to the reality of what had happened back at the Bad Lads' hideout. Soon it would hit her, and she would also fall to the ground... as she had fallen all those years ago, but not before she saved Hikari...
For a moment she was twelve years old again, standing in the wreckage of Steve and Karen's house. Their beautiful house... Angie remembered how she'd wished, seeing it from the outside, that she could live in a house like that. Built by hand, and built with love, a family home for a clearly close-knit and loving family. Now the house was in ruins, the family dead. Mostly dead....
Angie ran from room to burning room, searching for survivors. Outside, the sound of gunfire reminded her that she had little time to waste. If Tony caught her now, surely he'd kill her just as he'd killed Nadia and all her descendants, down through the years...
Angie screamed out Steve and Karen's names, even though she'd seen them, lying downstairs in a pool of blood. Surely someone had to be alive here... she wasn't throwing her life away for nothing, she wasn't going to die in an inferno in the desert on a godforsaken world in the middle of nowhere...
"Are you with them?"
Angie looked up and saw the little boy, standing at the top of the stairs and shivering in his ragged, bloodstained clothes, staring at her with wide blue-gray eyes. He was gripping a pistol in clumsy hands. Clearly he did not know how to use it, but he knew enough to point it at her head. Maybe he had seen his parents' killers hold their guns like that...
"Please." Angie held out her hands to him. "Come with me, quickly. They've got the house surrounded, but I know a way out."
"Who are you? Where's Sid and Rem?"
Angie didn't know how to tell him what had happened to his brother and sister. "Come on with me. Do you have anywhere to go? Any relatives? Friends of your parents?"
"I have an uncle," the boy faltered.
"Let's go to him. Come with me, quickly."
Come with me...
Angie's hands clenched on the controls of the flyer, almost sending the fragile machine spinning into the canyon walls closing on either side. I should have left you there, Hikari, she thought. Instead I delivered you into Daniel's hands... and an evil as bad as Tony's, only more insidious...
She looked down at Vash, lying beside her foot. Is it truly better to live than to die? Is there hope as long as we live, Hikari? Will I ever see you again?
She steered the flyer into a narrow cleft in the rocks, and soon brought it down lightly at one of the spots that Tony maintained as supply depots on his excursions. She had to keep reminding herself that Tony had no way to follow them here. He was at least two days' travel away by any conventional method. The cave was perfectly safe.
Angie dragged Vash's limp body off the flyer, leaving a smear of blood, and then touched the button to activate the flyer's camo net. It shimmered softly, and then faded perfectly into the rocks behind it. Angie smiled. The wonders of lost technology. Before she had allowed it to fall into Tony's hands, she and Daniel had traveled halfway across the world on that thing, serving Daniel's master... and no one had ever found it, even when they walked right by.
Vash woke as she was building a fire. He went from total unconsciousness to total wakefulness instantaneously, sitting bolt upright with his left hand upraised. The hand snapped back and a gleaming gun barrel slid into its place, pointing straight at her head, in less time than it took to blink her eyes.
They sat like that for a moment.
"I'm sorry," Vash said, and lowered his gun, allowing it to fold away. "It's my reflexes. I wouldn't have hurt you."
Angie laughed shakily. "Lost technology," she said.
Vash shook his head, took off his yellow sunglasses and tucked them away in a pocket of the red coat. "You and I don't need to use that word. It isn't lost to us."
"It might as well be." Angie looked away. "Listen, Vash... About earlier, about what happened... about the children... I really am sorry, you know."
"Sorry doesn't give them their lives back."
"I know." She stared into the flames. "Are you hurt bad?"
"I'll live. Yourself?"
Angie prepared a meager dinner that neither of them touched. Vash tended to his injuries, while she bandaged her small cuts, smeared ointment on her bruises.
Together, she thought, but a world apart.
"You said that you'd tell me about yourself," Vash said.
He smiled a little. His smile was very sweet, very sad. "Who should go first?"
"I will," Angie said, surprising herself. "It's been so long... since I've talked about myself."
She clasped her hands in front of her and stared into the fire for a long time before she began.
"I was eight years old when we left Earth."
She stopped and looked at him. "Do you know what Earth is?"
Vash nodded. "I've never seen it... only holograms on the ships."
"Were you born on the ships?" Angie asked in surprise.
He pointed a finger at her, and for a moment his grin was sly and teasing. "You go first, remember?"
She found herself returning the smile. "Yes... you're right. Eight years old... I barely remember it. I haven't thought of it in so long. I used to dream of leaving this hell of a world, but now this is the only home I know. I think the Earth I imagine exists only in my memories. My name, on Earth, was Angelina Davis."
She stopped again, until Vash prompted her. "How is it that you look so young?" he asked. "That all happened a long time ago."
Angie smiled faintly at him. "There is no magic there. My ship crashed into the mountains, far from the others. It was badly damaged, and the equipment that was supposed to initiate the wakeup procedure was destroyed. Most of the capsules were destroyed as well.
"Tony Blanchard was the captain of that ship. His capsule's wakeup procedure was initialized at the time the first malfunction was detected -- but the damage prevented it from completing the procedure. He was aware, but his body remained in coldsleep. He spent the years like that, unable to summon help, unable to sleep or to dream."
Vash listened quietly.
"The only thing keeping him halfway sane was his memory of the woman he loved, Nadia, who had also been on that ship, and the hope that she'd survived the crash. Unknown to him, she had -- but she did not sleep his long sleep. The capsules are programmed to start waking up their inhabitants if the life support fails. Nadia's capsule was intact enough that when it finally sprung a leak, years later, it started the process that brought her out of deep sleep. She searched the wreckage for other survivors, and found a few, including a boy named Alex Saverem, the son of an old friend of hers named Rem. But she never found me and Tony... we were in a different part of the ship."
Angie paused to eat a bite, mechanically, without seeming to taste it. Then she went on.
"I learned all this later, from Daniel, Alex's son. Most of the other crash survivors died on the difficult trek to find help. Only Nadia and the boy made it to a city. The years went by and she raised the boy as her own. Nadia believed Tony was dead and she put her life back together as best she could. She fell in love, and had a son, although his father died before the child was born. I don't know too much about that. A lot of people died young, back in those days. Her son was named Tony; that's all I really know about him.
"Eventually Alex had two children as well, Karen and Daniel. The two families had stayed in touch, and Karen married Nadia's grandson Steve. Are you with me so far?"
"Yes," Vash breathed, thinking, More descendants of Rem? Is that possible?
"Then the autowakeup procedure in Tony's capsule finally initiated, brough about by the decaying life support, as in Nadia's. He woke up, and like Nadia, he searched for survivors, and found only me."
Angie turned her face away.
"I wish he'd left me there. Better... far better... to have died in the desert, never knowing... than to wake in hell, with only a madman to help me.
"Still, we survived. Somehow we survived, and Tony, finding Nadia's capsule empty, searched across this planet for her. I was dragged along, helpless. The things Tony did to me on that journey... I will never tell anyone.
"Finally he found Nadia, only to find her an old woman, living with Steve and Karen and their kids. He realized that seventy years now separated them. The dream that had sustained him through his long isolation could never be. Worse, she had cheated on him, as he saw it -- giving birth to Steve's father by another man.
"Tony..." Angie clenched her fists in the fabric of her skirt. "Tony hired gunmen to kill them all, Nadia and all her descendants that he said should never have been born. That's when I left him. I was twelve."
She bowed her head.
"The rest... it doesn't matter now. It's over... and buried with the dead, as it should be."
There was a long silence. Finally Vash said, quietly, "What about Alex?"
"Alex Saverem," Vash said. "Tony wants him because of the Genesis Machine, isn't that right?"
Angie's head snapped up. "How do you know about that?"
"Lega --Tony mentioned it."
Angie swallowed. "This is all because of me. Tony never knew about Alex, never would have known that Alex was still alive, if I hadn't told him."
"I did it to save... to save the life of someone I love," she retorted. "And I'd do it again, and again, if I had to. But one thing, at least, I did manage to do right. I hid the Genesis Machine from Tony. I don't think he'll ever find it, even though it's right under his nose."
"You had it?"
"Half of it. Actually, it was Daniel's. He got it from his father, long ago, before they had their falling out. Daniel was the one who told me about it."
"What does it do?"
"I have no idea. Alex Saverem built it... that's all I know. And he entrusted it to his children for safekeeping. Half to Karen, half to Daniel."
"What happened to Karen's half?"
"Tony has it now. That white suitcase he was carrying."
Vash gave her a look of shock.
"If he's still alive, that is. If not, then it's buried with him, and good riddance. And the other half, Daniel's half, is hidden," Angie said. "And I won't tell you where. It's not safe. It'd be better if the knowledge dies with me, when I die."
"It's that dangerous?"
"Daniel thought so. It was so dangerous even he didn't want to use it for its intended purpose. Whatever that might be. He just used it as a weapon of minor destruction."
Vash buried his face in his hands. Angie sat in silence, her hands clasped in her lap. It felt good to have finally got that off her chest. So long since she'd had anyone to talk to... anyone who understood, or even knew what she was talking about when she mentioned the world they'd left behind...
"I had hoped..." Vash began, his voice muffled.
Angie looked up at him.
"I'd hoped... that in Rem's descendants, I could find... I don't know. Something I lost long ago. Innocence. Forgiveness. A second chance. Absolution for the mistakes of my past..."
"Who was Nadia's friend Rem to you?" Angie asked quietly.
So he told her. Everything.
Angie listened, while the fire burned down to ashes and the stars wheeled overhead in the sky.
"You're... a Plant? I didn't know that was possible."
"I -- think that it's a stage every Plant goes through. Sort of an ambulatory phase before they settle down to their existance... outside of time, as Brad called it."
"A larva?" She laughed at the mental image, and Vash laughed with her. But Angie sobered. "So if I understand you right, you've gone on in this phase a lot longer than most Plants do."
"I have. For most of us, it's over quickly. Most Plants yearn for the peace and security of the blue light. But for me..." He hesitated. "I met Rem."
Angie felt sympathy well up inside her again. "Now I understand why you reacted the way you did... when I told you about Daniel and the Genesis Machine. In a sense, Rem is your mother."
"Mother, big sister... I don't know if there are any human words to express it. The closest relationship to another person that I've ever experienced, besides the connection I have with Knives ... which is different. And now you've told me that her descendants have wrought as much evil on this world as my brother has.... That's hard to take, Angie."
"Not all of them," Angie said quickly.
Vash looked at her.
"Hikari is -- I mean, was a good person. In a sense, I suppose the two of you would be brothers, since he's one of the last descendants of your foster mother Rem. I wish you'd gotten a chance to meet him."
"I would have liked that," Vash said quietly.
Angie smiled, thinking of Hikari and his solemn blue-gray eyes. Vash would have liked him, she was sure. Then she sobered. "I hate to bring up bad images again, but you haven't told me what it is about Tony that frightens you so. From what you've said, you didn't know him from the ships."
"No. I didn't. And I still don't know... how to explain it. He seems almost to be... I don't know. A reincarnation of the one person that I --" He hesitated, clenching his hands into fists. "The one person that I killed with my own hands. He answered to that name. But he's not that man. That man is dead."
"Vash..." Angie looked down at her hands in her lap. "When Tony... when... you know..."
"When he... when he killed... you know who. I felt like... I couldn't move. Even though I tried. I was frozen in place. Did you feel the same thing?"
Vash nodded, and looked slightly surprised. "Then you've never felt that before?"
"No. What was it?"
"The man that Tony made me think of... He had the power to control people's bodies, like puppets. Tony seems to have that same power."
Angie gazed at him, and something that Daniel had once said about his master ran through her head. Daniel had been shaken and afraid, after watching his boss kill someone who'd displeased him. He just looked at the guy, and suddenly he folded up, like he was made out of paper. And I couldn't move...
"Nothing." Could this guy Vash is talking about... be the same guy Daniel worked for? But I KNOW that Daniel didn't work for Tony...
"It's getting late," Vash said, looking up at the stars.
Angie nodded. "I guess we'd better sleep. We have a big day ahead of us... We should travel on to November City and find Alex Saverem. Before Tony does."
"True." Vash rolled up in his coat, his dinner untouched. "Good night, Angie."
She banked the fire and settled down, gazing into the ash-covered coals. So many answers tonight... and so many mysteries.
Tony is alive. I know it. He's too much of a bastard to die. So where was he, during all those years I was with Daniel? Could he have worked for Daniel's boss, that Legato guy?
He did seem different when I met him again in the desert, but I thought it was because of all the years that had passed. A guy as unstable as Tony... he'd surely change over the years.
This Legato couldn't possibly have some way to transfer his essence... or whatever... could he?
She had not seen Daniel die, but she had seen what was left of his body, much later -- horribly contorted and mangled. Legato had done that. And Lucas's cruel death...
There in the darkness, her unshed tears finally began to come.
I know I deserve it, but I still don't want to die that way...