Milly jumped at his words, startled out of a brooding funk. She couldn't stop thinking about Ellie, desperately wondering where her daughter was now, if she'd been found by Vash or some kind person, or if she was wandering the streets of March City, lost, alone, starving...
"Home." Kaite pointed over the low windshield of their beat-up Jeep. "Just over the next ridge."
"Goodie for you," Milly muttered, folding her arms and slouching lower into her seat. Her usual good nature was at an all-time low.
They were riding in Kaite's Jeep at the head of a convoy of three covered trucks, each one loaded with stolen money and goods. Milly had to admit that it had been a well-planned attack. During the distraction, which she gathered had been caused by a gang member called "Tony," three separate groups of outlaws had entered the city and made for their individual targets. All got out free and clear and rendesvoused outside the city. They waited for Tony until it started getting light and Kaite announced that they had to take off. Tony might have been captured, or he might have left without them; in any case, every man knew the risk when he signed on, and they couldn't afford to go back for anyone.
Milly, who had been listening from her prison inside one of the trucks, had been shocked at this. Kaite? He'd seemed like such a nice kid. Well, she thought, grimly struggling with her bonds, once a bad apple, always a bad apple.
Over the next few days she had plenty of opportunity to curse the day she'd ever laid eyes on Kaite. Nothing she said would convince him to let her go -- tears, threats, screaming, begging, even descriptions of her daughter didn't sway him.
"I can't let you go," he said to her softly, one night when she'd started speculating on everything that could have happened to Ellie and driven herself almost to hysteria. "They'd kill me, don't you understand? It takes a hard man to keep these men in line. They're looking for some sign of weakness, and if they see it, they'll be like sand sharks on a sick lizard. You're lucky I didn't let them kill you."
"You're selfish! Completely selfish! You're afraid to do anything brave or noble. What happened to the little boy who risked his life to save those people on the sand steamer?"
"He grew up," Kaite said shortly, and looked away.
Milly made several attempts to escape, but one of the outlaws always noticed her trying to sneak out of the campsite and dragged her back to Kaite, kicking and screaming. Finally he started keeping one of her wrists tied by a short length of rope to the frame of his Jeep.
At least the outlaws had pretty much left her alone. Kaite had let them know in no uncertain terms that Milly was his woman -- those were his exact words. Milly proceeded to scream at him for a half hour or so, until she went hoarse, and then retreated into a cold silence for as long as possible.
She wished that she could hate him, but she seemed unable to do so. She'd never been good at that. She didn't even hate Knives -- she was mad at him, sure, but deep down she had the conviction that if someone could just reason with Knives, make him see the harm he'd caused, he'd be able to make amends for the awful things he'd done. And Kaite was far less, well, evil than Knives and Legato had been.
Meryl would say I'm a fool, Milly thought, gazing at Kaite's craggy profile as the desert whipped by behind him. She'd say I'm an empty-headed Pollyanna. I tried to tell her once that I believe there's good in everyone, even Knives, and she got so mad at me that she was very difficult to live with for the next couple of days.
Meryl would never get herself into a situation like this. Meryl always knows what to do.
I wonder what Meryl is doing now? Probably doing paperwork behind some nice big desk in a clean office somewhere.
Milly sighed and folded her hands in her lap, tugging fretfully at the rope around her wrist. She'd spent a couple of hours in the jolting Jeep trying to saw through it on a sharp edge of metal sticking out from under the seat, until Kaite noticed what she was doing and asked if she'd rather have her hands handcuffed to her ankles.
She hated feeling helpless. Hated it! Hated it!
Suddenly Kaite gave a sharp intake of breath. Milly looked at him, puzzled. He was staring at the horizon. Confused, she looked where he was looking.
All she saw was mountains. Milly had long since given up on trying to figure out where they were.
"That's not right..." Kaite whispered.
The undertone of fear in his voice drew Milly's attention. "What's wrong?"
"The mountains... Shit!" He jerked the steering wheel of the Jeep. In his distraction, he'd almost driven into a ravine. "It doesn't look right. It doesn't look right!"
Milly felt a cold chill. "What do you mean?"
Kaite ignored her and pulled to a stop, waiting for the trucks to catch up with the Jeep. The driver of the truck behind him hopped out and approached the Jeep. Kaite jumped down too and went to meet the outlaw halfway.
Frustrated, Milly tugged at her bonds, but the knots held firm. She'd never be able to get free before Kaite got back -- and even if she did, where would she go? All she could manage to do was die of thirst in the desert. She sighed and leaned back in her seat, closing her eyes. Snatches of the conversation carried to her.
"--noticed it too, huh?"
"What's goin' on, boss? We couldn't have come too far south, could we? Think those are the Twin Sister Peaks?"
"No. The Sisters are much lower. And besides, that's Gunsight Mountain there, all right."
The outlaw's answer was too low for Milly to make out, though now her curiousity was fully aroused. When Kaite came back to the Jeep, she looked at him. "What's happening?"
"I don't know," Kaite said shortly, putting the vehicle in gear.
"If we're about to start fighting for our lives, I'd like my stungun back."
Kaite grinned slightly. "There won't be any fighting. At least, I doubt it. There's no way any human could have done what we see here. I don't know how to explain it, though."
"What?" Milly demanded.
Kaite steered with one big hand, easily controlling the Jeep as it bounced over the rough ground, while he pointed with the other. "See that big peak there, with the notch in it? We call that Gunsight Mountain. It's a landmark. You can see it from a long way off, and we've been steering by it all day. As you come around Gunsight, you should be able to see a very pointed peak -- where we live. But ... look at it. The shape of the mountain is all off. It looks too rounded. And there should be some spires of rock near the top that are simply not there."
Milly looked. It looked just like a mountain to her. "Are you sure this is the right place?"
"Positive," Kaite said. His brow was creased with a frown. "It could be that there was an earthquake or an avalanche or something while we were gone. I hope the kids are all right."
"Kids?" Milly looked at him in shock. "What kids?"
Kaite sighed and waved a hand. "I'll explain later."
"Explain later, explain later. Everything is always 'explain later.' I want an explanation now. If you're going to drag me out here against my will, the least you could do is --"
"You certainly talk a lot," Kaite said.
"Hmmph!" Milly did her best Meryl snort and crossed her arms, looking off at the scenery.
All afternoon they drew nearer to the mountain. The suns were starting to get low in the sky when they finally approached a great pile of rubble. Kaite halted the Jeep, and just sat there, staring. The engine rumbled softly. Behind them, Milly heard the trucks approach, and stop.
"What the hell," Kaite said quietly.
He shut off the Jeep and climbed out. Milly got out on her side as well, though she couldn't go very far without being untied.
"What is it? What's wrong?" she asked him. Kaite was standing with one hand on the Jeep's hood, and she saw to her shock and dismay that the hand was trembling.
"This -- this should be..." He looked up at the rubble. As far as Milly could see, the mountainside was broken and jumbled, as if by some massive catastrophe. "There should be a canyon here, and halfway up, our secret entrance... but it's all gone... it's gone..."
Milly had a sudden, frightening image of Augusta, totally destroyed. But it's not possible ... it couldn't be... is Knives here?
She fought an overwhelming urge to run away.
The other bandits were drifting forward from the trucks, talking amongst themselves in low, urgent voices. They were clustered in little groups, as if to draw strength from each other. The sight of so many hardened killers in such a state of confusion and fear almost unhinged Milly.
What happened here?
"You've taken your time," said a voice from above them.
The bandits' voices fell silent. Everyone looked up.
A man stood on top of the jumbled boulders, silhouetted against the sky. He was slim and wiry, lean and graceful as a cat. A shiny black bodysuit, covered with odd wires and tubes, covered his body from the neck down. Milly couldn't see his face -- the sky was too bright, and shadows concealed his features and eyes.
In his arms, he carried a bundle wrapped in a blanket. A white suitcase leaned against one of his feet.
"Tony!" Kaite said. He sounded relieved. "We wondered what kept you. Do you have any idea what happened here?"
"I know exactly what happened here," Tony said in that same calm, quiet, uninflected voice.
I've heard that voice before. Milly strained, trying to figure out where. Had she met this man before?
"Thank goodness," Kaite said. "Are the kids all right? Is Angie?"
"Angie is the one who did this," Tony said. Though his voice was quiet, somehow his words carried to his listeners with perfect clarity. That was familiar too. Milly knew she'd met someone who spoke like that...
Then she knew. And her heart turned to ice.
No. It couldn't be. She'd seen him die. Damn it, she'd seen him die!
"Angie? What are you talking about? How could Angie possibly do something like this? And even if she could, she wouldn't --"
"Kaite." Tony's quiet voice stopped Kaite in midsentence. "Welcome to your first lesson in human nature. Human beings are infinitely petty, infinitely unpredicable and erratic. I have learned never to be surprised by their actions."
He stooped and placed the wrapped bundle carefully on the boulder. Then he leaped gracefully down the pile of rocks, reaching the ground in a few fluid bounds.
Milly felt a flood of relief that weakened her legs, leaving her shaky. It wasn't Legato. This man was a stranger. He had sharp features, an ageless face that could be anywhere between 30 and 60, and short-cropped, ginger-colored hair. His face was dirty and a bruise under his left eye was starting to fade to yellow and purple.
Kaite tensed slightly, and Milly realized that he did not like or trust this man called Tony. "I have no idea what you're talking about. I want some answers."
"Answers? I need give you no answers." Tony smiled, and his strange, golden eyes gleamed. "You've been very useful to me, Kaite. You have given me a place to stay and aid in obtaining necessary equipment from the ship. However, I do not need you any more. My lord's resurrection is at hand, and all I need from you is a vehicle." He pointed at the Jeep. "That one will do nicely."
Milly's heart was pounding faster and faster. It was like Legato all over again. Who is this guy? What's happening?
Kaite snorted, and drew a gun. "You're off your nut, Tony. Fact is, you've never really been on it, but at least you usually seem to hold it together pretty well, and that's all I ask from any of my men. I'll remind you, just once, that you work for me, not the other way around."
Tony smiled. It was a horrible smile, a smile that made Milly think of crawling slimy things, of long-dead corpses floating to the surface of fetid, hidden swamps.
"No," he said softly. "I serve one only. That One is not you."
Kaite gave a sudden cry of mingled pain and anger, and dropped his gun as if it had bitten him. "Fuck! It's hot!"
Tony continued to smile.
"What are you standing there for!" Kaite yelled at his men. "This man is dangerous! Don't let him go anywhere!"
The bandits looked at each other and then drew various weapons. "Okay, you heard the boss," one of them said. "Just stay right there, and everything'll be fine --"
He broke off with a strangled, horrible cry.
What happened next was a scene that Milly would see in her nightmares for years. She wanted to look away, wanted to run, wanted to collapse and give in to helpless, screaming panic -- but she couldn't do any of those things, because she couldn't move a muscle.
The bandits turned inside out. Their skin peeled back, their bones cracked and twisted, their bodies split down the middle -- and the worst part was that they were awake and aware for most of the process -- even after they could no longer scream, their bodies still twitched as they struggled. Milly finally managed to turn her eyes away from the horrific sight, but she couldn't close her ears to the awful cracking, popping sounds.
Through it all, Tony merely smiled.
Kaite still seemed to be free. He was down on his knees, going for his gun. As soon as his fingers closed on it, though, he let go with a gasped curse. Then he reached for it again and forced his hand to curl around the grip. Teeth gritted, he raised the gun. Milly stared. She could smell the scorched flesh of his hand, fancied she could see smoke rising from his fingers. He gripped his wrist with the other hand, trying to steady the trembling gun.
"Go ahead," Tony said quietly. "Fire."
Blood ran down Kaite's scarred chin. Trying to control his pain, he had bitten through his lower lip. Still, he managed to steady the gun, and squeezed off several quick shots. The harsh popping of the gun made Milly flinch, each gunshot flaying her nerves like a whipcrack.
Tony did not move, and the smile on his face never faltered. He hesitated for a moment, then raised a hand and picked something out of the air in front of his face. He opened his hand and the bullets clattered to the ground at his feet.
Kaite moaned something under his breath and let the gun fall. He went to his knees, gripping his burned hand.
Milly felt her head twist until she was looking straight into Tony's emotionless, golden eyes. He started walking toward her. In spite of the outside control that held her like a giant fist, she was trembling uncontrollably.
"I know you," Tony said, and touched the tips of his fingers to her cheek. The touch seemed to burn like a brand across her skin, a horrid brand that she felt she would never be able to wash away.
Milly couldn't speak, but she wasn't sorry, because she knew that if she could, she'd start screaming and she wouldn't be able to stop.
"Kneel," Tony said, and Milly knelt helplessly. He placed his hand on top of her head. "All humans are pathetic worms, and all women are whores and cannot be trusted," he said, speaking the words like a mantra. "I could kill you as easily as this," and he tugged on one of her hairs. The small, sharp pain almost unhinged her. She felt as if she was about to lose her mind from sheer terror.
"But I have learned," Tony said quietly. "I have learned much about the ways of fear and pain and humiliation." Milly felt her head tilt back. No, she thought, no -- she would rather be twisted and broken like the bandits than look into his eyes. If she'd been able, she would have collapsed, sobbing. But all she could do was meet his bottomless golden gaze.
"You must understand that you are entirely helpless, entirely within my power," Tony said. "Do you understand?"
Milly suddenly had enough control of herself to nod, and nod she did, as vigorously as possible. She couldn't stop herself, any more than she could stop the tears from filling her eyes and spilling down her cheeks. At that moment, she learned that she had it within herself to hate. She hated Tony for doing this to her, but she hated herself, she despised herself, for being weak enough to let him do it to her. She wasn't even able to fight as Kaite had fought. All she could do was nod helplessly, and wish to be dead, wish that this could all be over -- at the same time, and just as fervently, as she begged inwardly, Don't kill me, please don't kill me, please let me see my daughter again...
For the first time, Tony's voice contained a trace of emotion -- wonder, and surprise. "This is better than death," he said.
He picked up Milly's limp hand, and the rope shivered and fell away from her wrist. She put up no resistance. She was no longer certain if he was still controlling her, or if she was paralyzed with her own fear and self-hatred. She had been bitterly angry at Kaite for abducting her, but nothing Kaite had done to her could remotely compare with this.
Tony bent down and kissed her lightly on the lips. There was no love or affection in that kiss, no lust, no hunger. It was about power, pure and simple. Power and control. She tasted dirt and smoke on his lips.
"Live with this," he said, so quietly she could barely hear him, his breath brushing her ear.
He straightened, and, leaving her there, climbed back up the rocks. His dark figure shimmered, blurred by the tears in her eyes, but even through her fear, shock, and horror, some part of her noticed that he was no longer as graceful as he had been. His shoulders were stooped as if with great weariness, and sometimes he stumbled as he climbed the rocks.
He picked up the blanket-wrapped bundle, slinging it over his shoulder, and the suitcase in the other hand. Thus encumbered, he climbed down more slowly than before.
When he reached the ground, Milly saw that part of the blanket had slipped free, and she could now see what it was covering. She was beyond shock -- she just stared dully at the face of a dead child, a boy of perhaps nine or ten. He looked like he'd been dead for some time. His face was puffy and bluish-gray, the lips cracked, the eyes sunken.
Tony laid the boy's body in the backseat of the Jeep, and set the white case next to it. He smiled that horrid smile at Milly.
"Perhaps we shall meet again one day," he said. "There is a bond between us now. But perhaps not, since you'll be dead soon, along with everyone else."
He started the Jeep, and turned around in a shower of gravel. The tires crunched over what was left of the bandits' bodies.
Milly slumped bonelessly to the ground. She did not pass out, but she lay, dazed, for a long time. Finally the numbness began to fade, and then the shakes came, and then the tears.
When she'd cried herself out, she rolled over onto her back and looked up at the stars. They looked more beautiful than she could ever have imagined, and she was so emotionally wrung out that it took her a few minutes to realize why.
It's because I never thought I'd see stars again. Or anything.
The thought should have made her happy, but instead she just felt dirty.
"Milly?" a harsh voice grated nearby. "You okay?"
Milly raised her head and saw, in the moonlight, Kaite kneeling nearby, fixing an improvised bandage around his right hand, using his teeth to hold the bandage while he pulled it taut.
"I'm okay," she said. Her voice only shook a little, and she wondered if she said it often enough, if that would make it true. "What about you?"
Milly wanted to say something else -- something like, "You were very brave," or "You did everything you could have done." But she could tell from the look on his face that he felt the same way about his own survival that she felt about hers, and she didn't say anything.
They both sat still for a few minutes, and then Kaite got up and went over to the bodies. Milly dragged herself to her feet. Her body ached as if she'd been beaten soundly. "Should we bury them?" she asked. Her voice sounded too loud in the stillness of the desert night.
Kaite shook his shaggy head. "We don't have anything to dig with, and it would take too long... I'd better leave soon if I'm going to catch that bastard."
Milly stared at him.
"You're going after him?"
"What else can I do?"
"Well -- well -- how about going the other way! As fast as possible!"
"No," Kaite said. "The Bad Lads took me in, not just once but twice -- the first time when I was just a scrawny little kid, the second time after I betrayed them and then came crawling back, starving, on my hands and knees. I owe them this much. Besides... it's personal. That guy claimed to be my friend. I won't stop until I find him and hurt him as much as he's hurt me."
Milly clenched her hands into fists. "You won't even get close to him! He'll just kill you like... like he killed everybody else."
"There has to be a way." Moonlight cast Kaite's face into deep shadow, but Milly could see the stubborn set of his jaw. "I intend to find it."
He turned and started towards the trucks, then looked back at her. "Milly... I'm sorry I got you into this. If I'd known it would turn out like this, hell, I would have let you go. Really, I would have. You're welcome to take one of the trucks and go back to your daughter, if that's what you want to do."
It was what she wanted, with all her heart. But then what, she wondered. Suppose she somehow found her way back to March City, and didn't become lost and die in the desert. Suppose she managed to find Vash and Ellie. What then? Somewhere, a man was wandering with all of Legato's powers and all of Legato's venom towards humanity. A man who spoke of resurrecting his master... and Milly suspected who he might mean.
If we follow Tony -- we might find Knives.
And then what? What can I accomplish, except to get myself killed?
Maybe I can somehow find him, and then find Vash again...
There was no possible chance that it would work. None. If she went with Kaite, she would die. She was sure of it.
And if I go back to March City, everyone will die.
She was equally sure of that.
While she stood dithering, Kaite had walked back to the nearest truck and started throwing bags of gold and money out the back, heedlessly scattering the dead gang's haul to the desert winds.
"Wait," Milly said.
Her voice was so low she could barely hear herself. "Wait," she managed louder.
Kaite looked over at her. "Yeah?"
"I'll come with you."
Milly walked towards him, and with every step she took, she felt better about herself, a little more healed in the part of her soul that Tony had violated.
"What about your daughter?" Kaite said.
Milly closed her eyes in pain and regret, and when she opened them, he was still there, and closer, as she took another step, then another.
"I think this is the best thing I can do to take care of her," she said, and realized, as she spoke, that it was true.
Because if I don't do whatever I can to help, this entire world will die.
Kaite looked at her, then shrugged. "It's up to you. Give me a hand here."
"What are you doing?" Milly asked, climbing up in the back of the truck.
"Getting rid of weight. Our fuel will last longer."
"Are you going to follow the Jeep's tracks?"
Kaite shook his head. "No. The Jeep can go places the truck can't, and it can travel faster too. I'm going to try to head Tony off. I think I know where he's going."
"There's a piece of lost technology out in the desert. A ship capable of traveling between worlds. Tony and I have been bringing tools and technology back here from the ship. Well... we were." A shadow of pain crossed his face, vanishing quickly. "I don't know what his eventual aim is, but I would imagine he'll go back there at some point. I intend to be ready for him when he gets there."
"Who is this Tony guy?" Milly said. "How well do you know him?"
Kaite shrugged, throwing a pile of gold bars onto the sand. "He just showed up one day, wandered out of the desert, delirious and starving. BDN saw something in him... didn't kill him, but instead took him in. His hunch paid off. Tony was a genius with technology. A lot of that neon stuff they had, the vehicles and weapons, was designed or built by Tony. He taught me a lot of what I know... pretty much everything my dad didn't show me, Tony did."
He heaved one last bag of doubledollars out the back of the truck, and leaped down, offering Milly an elbow to steady herself as she climbed down. She helped him tie down the canvas top of the truck, which was difficult with his injured hand.
"But he was always a cipher," Kaite said, clambering up into the driver's seat of the truck. Milly got in on the passenger's side. "He'd disappear for months at a time. No one knows where he went. I realize now that a lot of those trips were to the ship, but not all of them. After I left and came back, Tony realized that I was skilled with technology, and I started helping him build things in his lab. Sometimes I'd go with him to the ship and help him bring stuff back. We got all kinds of things. Medical technology that can cure almost anything. Better engines... I don't know if you noticed, but that Jeep, and these trucks too, are partly powered by the suns. The engine helps, but it doesn't do most of the work. Uses a lot less gas than most of the engines you see around. Things like that."
He started the engine. Milly tilted her head, listening -- it was a lot quieter than other engines, now that she thought about it.
Kaite didn't put it in gear immediately, though. He stared out the windshield at the dark rocks. Suddenly he turned to Milly. "Have you ever seen one of those circuses with the wild animal acts? The ones that have, I don't know, a baby sandworm on a leash. Does some tricks for the audience. They eat it up."
"Uh, yes, I have," Milly said, startled by the change of subject.
"Last year, there was a big flap in Mai City. I don't know if you heard about it. One of those circuses had a quote-unquote tame sandworm get lose. It killed three people and destroyed a lot of property before the local sheriff shot it in a vital place.
"Tony's like that sandworm. He seemed tame, but there's also always been something under the surface, something you could never touch or trust. BDN swore he was perfectly trustworthy, but at the same time, he never really let Tony do anything without BDN having a hand in it. I've gotten lax. I have so many things to juggle, trying to hold onto my control, that I didn't have time to keep as close an eye on Tony as I should have.
"Milly, you can go back. Go back to your little girl. This is my hunt, and I expect it will end in my death, but at least I won't take you with me."
Milly shook her head. "No. I can't. I agree with you, I think we're going to die... but I don't have any choice but to try. And there are some things about Tony that I'd better tell you, if we're going to have to face him."
"Talk while we drive?"
Milly nodded. Kaite put the truck in gear, and pulled slowly around in a circle. They drove off under the silver light of the moons, leaving the former hideout of the Bad Lads to the wind, the rocks, and the restless dead.