"I don't BELIEVE you!" Angie ranted, after they stopped to ask directions at yet another roadside fruit stand. "Mister 'I've been traveling through the desert since before your parents were born' indeed!"
"Hey, I haven't noticed you pointing out helpful landmarks either. You think I've been traveling through the desert with a PLAN? I just wander where my travels take me. I haven't had very much experience at finding specific places."
"You are such a complete dork," Angie sighed, leaning on the railing of the flyer. The fruit stand owner had given them directions and they were now sailing through open desert, possibly in the wrong direction.
"Stop blaming me! I went mostly on public transportation. Buses. Sand steamers. Hitchiking. That sort of thing."
Angie laid her head down on her folded arms, peering at him. "You've been doing this for close to a hundred and thirty years?"
"It's a real drag, isn't it."
"Yeah," Angie agreed, watching the horizon sweep slowly past.
Vash watched her staring at the desert, and stayed quiet. He still felt dazed with shock over the childrens' death. He had not once seen Angie cry, although sometimes her eyes were red when she looked at him.
How could she do such a thing? I -- I can't help liking her, even knowing what she's done. Is that wrong, Rem?
Angie sighed. "Well, we may as well have lunch. I bought a few things at the last place we stopped." She brought out a package wrapped in brown paper. "Let's see, I've got sandwiches, fruit... donuts for dessert..."
"Donuts?" Vash perked up immediately.
"Yeah. There was a little bakery at that last town... these looked good, and -- Hey! Give those back, you jerk!"
"Mmmmph?" Vash mumbled through a mouthful of donuts. Ahhh... this was bliss. He hadn't even thought of donuts in ... days. Maybe months. Ever since Knives' disappearance.
"Well, if I'd had any idea you liked them so much, I would have bought a few more. Save at least one for me, would you?"
"Mmmm...." Vash mumbled, lost in donut heaven.
Some time later, after they'd both eaten, Vash sat on the edge of the flyer and took his turn watching the scenery, while Angie drove, one hand resting casually on the thing's controls. The flyer practically flew itself; the only time Vash could imagine encountering trouble would be if they ran into a sandstorm. It was certainly less tiring than crossing the desert on foot... but hardly less tedious.
"I am lost in the desert," Angie said, speaking in a slow monotone as if chanting some kind of mantra. "I am lost in the desert with a donut-eating madman and we have not seen a sign of life in days--"
Angie let out a little shriek.
"Yeah," said Vash without looking around, "there's a cat on the back of the flyer. Has been ever since the last town."
The cat had been napping in Vash's shade. It blinked green eyes at Angie ("Myaa...") and then curled up and went back to sleep.
"Where did it come from? Why didn't I see it before?"
"I think it's a stray. It just climbed on board while you were using the restroom." Vash shrugged. "Maybe you didn't see it because you didn't expect to see it -- I mean, you don't go checking your surroundings for cats every time you leave or enter a room. Most people don't. It's surprising how many cats you see when you just look around."
Angie gave him a glare out of the corner of her eye, which he pretended to ignore.
"That is either a very profound comment or a very stupid one... I'm not sure which."
Vash shrugged and petted the cat. Angie went back to staring straight ahead at the white-hot horizon.
"I am lost in the desert. I am lost in the desert with a donut-eating madman. No, make that a donut-eating madman who makes random philosophical comments and a cat..."
"With a price on his head," Vash added, gazing off at the horizon.
Angie glanced at him. "A cat with a price on his head?"
"Why do you have a price on your head?"
Now it was his turn to give her a disbelieving look. "Well, I am Vash the Stampede, after all."
The flyer bucked wildly and almost took a nosedive into the ground. "You're VASH THE STAMPEDE? The sixty billion double-dollar guy? The Humanoid Typhoon? THAT Vash the Stampede?"
"You mean you hadn't figured it out?" Vash gazed at her in a kind of mild amazement. "Really? Me and my big mouth..."
Angie leaned over to take a good, long look at him. "Hmm, blond mohawk... check... red coat... check... evil gleam in eyes... not sure about that one..."
"Hey," Vash protested. "Don't get personal."
"I can't believe you're Vash the Stampede. I thought Vash the Stampede was dead."
"How many guys do you think there are named Vash on this planet?"
"I don't know. It could be a very common name."
Vash shook his head and squinted at the horizon, shading his eyes with his hand. "Hey, look! A road!"
"That's not a road," Angie said wearily. "It's a heat shimmer or a mirage or something."
The white ribbon winding through the distant hills turned out to be a set of power lines. Sometimes communities with no Plant of their own were powered by lines like these, stretching from the nearest city's Plant.
"I told you it wasn't a road," Angie said. "Vash the Stampede wouldn't have mistaken that for a road."
"I am Vash the Stampede!"
"Oh, really? Where's your gun?"
"My gun..." That's right. He'd dropped it while he was trying to catch Legato... or Tony. He wondered what had happened to it. Hopefully it hadn't caused any harm. He had tried several times in his life to get rid of the gun -- burying it in the sand, throwing it into a ravine. It always found its way back into his life somehow. He suspected that it would do so again.
"See? You don't even have a--"
"What about this? Huh?" Vash held up his left arm, fist clenched; a little bit of metal gleamed in the sun. He didn't unfold the gun; he hated doing that unless he had to.
"Oh, yeah." Angie drooped, then rallied. "But you never used it."
"I never use it unless someone's life is in danger. For cryin' out loud! You think I'm some kind of rabid mad-dog killer?"
"Of course not," Angie said. "I know YOU'RE not. But Vash the Stampede is. At least, that's what I've always heard about him."
Vash sighed, and gave her a lopsided smile. "Yeah, and don't we both know how everything you hear is always true, right?"
Angie looked away.
Vash sighed. "Well... this may not be a road, but it's got to lead to some kind of civilization, right?"
"True. I wonder which way?"
"Eenie meenie miney moe..."
"My gosh, do you make all your decisions this way? No wonder you're always lost!"
They gave up on "eenie, meenie, miney, moe" and played "rock, paper, scissors" to determine who got to pick the direction. Angie won, so they headed towards the suns, away from the hills and into open desert.
Soon a flat, boxy complex of buildings came into view. The power lines snaked down out of the hills, towards it.
"Not November City," Vash said.
Angie sighed. "All right, so my sense of direction isn't any better than yours, Mr. Humanoid Typhoon. But maybe they know if we're near it. We have to be near it!"
They hid the flyer in the rocks, and Angie triggered its camouflage. Vash couldn't get over how neat that effect was -- one moment the flyer was in front of them, gleaming in the sunshine, and then with a little shimmer, they were facing only rocks.
"Have you ever lost it?" Vash asked her.
Angie half-smiled. "Pretty near. One time it took me and Daniel two days to find it. That's why I always mark it carefully now." She made a little cairn of rocks in front of the flyer's location.
"Isn't it still possible that someone might stumble across it? They'd feel it if they bumped into it."
"Possible, I guess," Angie said. "But not likely. We never had anything like that happen in all the years we lived together."
They started walking downhill, towards the complex of buildings. As they got closer, they could hear a babble of high-pitched voices, screaming and laughing.
"Kids," Angie said. Her voice sounded strained. Vash looked over and saw that her face was white as a sheet. He felt sorry for her, but perhaps... perhaps it was better for her to suffer a little bit in the hell she'd built for herself.
They came closer. The buildings were made of crude mud-brick and formed a rough semicircle. A windmill jutted above the sunbaked roofs, perhaps supplementing the Plant's energy. In all directions the desert stretched to the horizon, white and shimmering beneath the suns.
"What a horrible place for children to grow up," Angie whispered. Then she hesitated. "Hey... I know this place. I think I've been here before..."
Vash looked at her. "You have?"
Angie nodded, pale again. "Years ago."
She didn't seem to want to elaborate, but she hung behind Vash a trifle as they approached.
The mud-brick buildings encircled a central courtyard where small groups of children played brutal games beneath the blazing suns. Vash thought briefly of the city of orphans where he and his friends had spent some time six years ago... shortly before Zazzie the Beast was killed, before Wolfwood -- but he couldn't think of Wolfwood's death. The pain was still too sharp, even after six years.
The kids noticed the approaching strangers, and their cries of laughter and mock aggression gave way to startled squawks as they fled into the shadows of the buildings.
"The usual Humanoid Typhoon effect," Vash murmured. He thought he spoke too softly for Angie to hear him, but she gave him a quick glance, and then looked away, and called, "Hello?"
Angie's voice echoed between the buildings. The two of them stood in the courtyard and Vash suddenly felt very exposed.
A boy stepped out into the sunlight. He was skinny and red-haired, maybe fourteen or fifteen years old.
"We don't see many people out here," he said, looking back and forth from Vash to Angie. "Whaddya want?"
Vash smiled and tried to look harmless. "We just need directions to November City."
"November, huh? That's kinda far." A sly look passed across his sharp features. "I'll tell you how to get there if you do something for me."
"What sort of thing?" Vash said warily.
"You gotta deliver a letter. That's all."
"I can do that," Vash said.
"Okay, then. It's not too hard to get to." He pointed towards the power lines. "You follow that, you come to December City, right? So from there, there's a road goes straight to November. Not hard at all."
"Oh," said Vash. "Thanks a lot."
"No problem. Uh..." The boy hesitated. "You gonna deliver my letter then, huh?"
"Of course I will. I don't lie. Well, not about things like that."
The boy took a grimy envelope and handed it to Vash. "It's for my big brother. Not my real big brother -- I ain't got none. But the closest I got, the closest a lot of the older ones here have got. I don't know if he's alive or dead, and I figure I'll probably never see him again. But if there's any chance at all... Whenever strangers come through, and that ain't often, I ask 'em to take a letter and see if they can find him."
"Sure, I'll take ..." Vash's voice trailed off as he read the name scrawled on the envelope.
"Whatsamatter, mister? You know him?" The boy's face was suddenly hopeful; it looked as if hope was not an emotion accustomed to sitting on his narrow features.
"No," Vash said softly. "No. I'm sorry, kid." He reached into the pockets of his pants and came up with a handful of crumpled doubledollars. "Hey, listen, delivering an old letter is hardly payment for helping us out, right? This'd help keep the orphanage going, right?"
The boy's eyes lit up. "You serious, mister?"
Vash thrust the doubledollars into the boy's hands and turned to Angie. "Do you have any money?"
She started to protest, saw the look in his eyes and wordlessly dug out a handful of cash herself, and gave it to the boy.
"Wow," he muttered.
"Don't spend it on yourself," Vash said. He waved a hand around him, at the low, dirty buildings where he knew the children hid from them, just out of sight. "Spend it on them, okay? Be the kind of person your big brother would be proud of."
The boy stared at the money, then stuck it away in a pocket of his filthy jeans, and grinned at Vash. "I will, mister. Say, you sure you never met my big brother?"
"I'm sure," Vash said quietly. "Thank you for your help. We should be getting along now."
"Good luck, mister."
"You too, kid."
As they started walking back down the path to the flyer, Vash muttered, under his breath, "I hate lying to kids."
"What's wrong?" Angie asked him. "That letter... is it for someone you know?"
"No," Vash said, thinking of the name scrawled on the envelope. Two words, almost illegible. NICHOLAS WOLFWOOD. "Not any more." He gave her a sharp look. "How do you know this place?"
Angie looked away. "I dropped a kid off here once. It doesn't matter... it's over now, and any good I might have tried to do was irrevocably erased by what followed. Forget about it."
Vash stared at her, but she said nothing more, and walked in silence, staring at the ground, until she found the cairn of rocks and her groping hand found the flyer.
The cat was gone, Vash noticed once they were sweeping across the desert once again. He commented on it to Angie.
She shrugged, gazing off blankly at the distant mountains. "Guess it ran off."
"Guess so," Vash said, but he suspected that he'd see, if not the same cat, then at least a black, green-eyed cat before too long. It was one of the more peculiar constants in his life.
They reached December City shortly before dusk, as a brilliant sunset flamed in the sky above the rough outline of the city's buildings.
"That's one thing about this world,"Angie said suddenly, causing Vash to look up from oiling his arm gun. "It has the most beautiful sunsets you could ever imagine..."
"Yeah." He gazed at the suns until his eyes watered and he had to look away. "It does, doesn't it."
They stopped to get a brief meal in a small restaurant on the outskirts of the city, and asked the way to the road to November City. It was easy to find: here on the edges of human civilization, it was the only road leading anywhere, except for a few dirt tracks wandering out to isolated homesteads, fighting their lone, losing battles against the encroaching desert. Neither Vash nor Angie considered stopping for the night. They were so close now... there wasn't even any question.
So they rode on through the desert night. Vash drove, or rather, rested on the console and watched the stars. He turned to Angie, meaning to comment on a particularly bright star overhead, but she was asleep, curled up out of the desert wind. Her tired, lined face had relaxed, and she looked younger, prettier, more like the young woman in his dream who had held her hand out to the child Wolfwood in the burning building.
The letter to Wolfwood felt like a lead weight in Vash's pocket.
I dropped a kid off here once...
Surely there couldn't have been any truth to that dream...?
Vash shook his head, and turned his eyes back to the stars above them. The wind streamed through his short, spiky hair, startlingly cool now that the suns had set, like water pouring across his face. He tried to imagine having enough water to be able to do that -- just stand under a cascade of it, letting it wash away all the dust, all the sin. Rem had told him of streams, of waterfalls. He could not imagine such a thing.
"Rem..." He was not aware that he'd whispered her name aloud, until he tasted the salty tear trickling over his lips when he opened his mouth.
Oh, Rem. He looked up at the stars, and as usual, felt closer to her than he ever could during the day. The stars were piercingly bright tonight. Vash tried to imagine which one might have fostered life on her small, cloud-swirled, blue-green world, the world that he had seen in holograms on the ship, spinning slowly like a beautiful child's toy. The sky was as black as Rem's ravens-wing hair, and the stars glimmered, clear and sharp as ice crystals. To Vash, each one represented a world -- a life -- a possibility. Another place that their small convoy of ships might have landed, starting off a brand-new chain of events -- and who knew how any of them might have ended up?
But we don't have that. We only have the present... and it's no good thinking about what things might have been. This is a hard world, but a beautiful one, and it's all we've got.
Yet it isn't your Eden... is it, Rem? The perfect world you must have imagined for your son Alex?
Alex. He tried to imagine Alex Saverem, Rem's son. Surely an old man now, judging from Angie's story. How it must have hurt Rem to live her life on the ships, growing ever older, while her son slept without waking or dreaming -- a hurt so deep that she had never spoken of her son to the little boys she had raised as her own.
And what must it have been like for Alex, waking on an alien world with no mother, no father, just the burden of Rem's ideals? No wonder he had created a great weapon...
It must not be a weapon. There must be some other explanation...
He did not wake Angie that night. She woke on her own, as the stars faded with the first light of dawn.
"Ugh... V-Vash! It's morning! Didn't you want to sleep?"
"Wouldn't have been able to," Vash said. He lowered himself, stiffly, from the flyer's steering console and let Angie take over.
They were in the mountains again -- another range, or the same one, snaking back and forth across the skin of the oceanless world. Angie was stirred out of her apathy somewhat by the sight of the peaks, gleaming blinding white as the rays of the rising sun struck them.
"Look, Vash! Look at those mountaintops. It can't be... snow?"
Vash had to think a moment to remember what "snow" was -- another of the odd Earth phenomena that Rem had described to him. "It's just alkali salts, catching the light," he said, and then felt bad when Angie's briefly animated eyes closed down again.
"Oh," she said softly, and stared ahead, concentrating on driving.
Vash felt an impulse to apologize... but for what, really? He was sorry that she had left her world behind. Sorry that she was stuck in a place she hated. Sorry she'd had a horrible life, and lost everything she cared about.
Your life is what you make it, no more, no less. Rem's voice again. Vash wondered what Rem would have made of Angie, and Angie of Rem. He had a sneaking suspicion that they wouldn't have gotten along very well. Their life philosophies were too different.
By midmorning, the winding track they were following had become a smooth road, with small towns alongside. They had to retreat and travel through the broken country alongside the road, to avoid being seen, for they were starting to pass traffic now -- lone riders with canteens hanging from their saddles, farm trucks bumping along that looked a hundred years old if they were a day, families walking alongside the road dragging carts of merchandise to sell.
"November City is quite large," Angie said. "Have you been there?"
Vash shrugged. "Years ago. It wasn't large, then." He didn't want to mention just how many years ago it had been. Angie knew, intellectually, that he was over 130 years old, but he didn't want to throw the concrete facts of it into her face. He didn't want to mention that he had seen isolated clusters of farmhouses grow into towns, flourish and finally die under the merciless desert sun. He'd seen old men die whose grandfathers he had known as children. He doubted that Angie, as hard as her life had been, could imagine or would want to imagine such a life.
Finally they had to abandon the flyer. The countryside was getting too densely populated. They found a nice, isolated pile of rocks, not far from a little farm road leading to the main highway.
"I wonder how much harm it would do, really, to ride it right into the middle of town," Vash mused.
"We don't want to make that kind of stir," Angie said.
Vash spread his arms, the red coat flaring around him. "As if I'm not going to make a stir wearing this."
"Everyone thinks Vash the Stampede is dead, right?" She squinted at him. "I'm still not totally convinced myself. We'll go in, talk to Alex Saverem, and then..."
Her voice trailed off.
Yeah, Vash thought. Then what?
They had been living moment-to-moment for the last few days, not thinking of anything beyond finding November City, and Alex Saverem, before Tony could beat them there. But what next? What could they do, hide Alex until Tony came looking for him? Then what?
And I'm neglecting my own responsibilities, Vash thought with a hard pang of guilt. There's not one, but two madmen loose on this world... and the other one is my brother.
Not for the first time -- nor the tenth, nor the hundredth -- he closed his eyes and tried as hard as he could to make himself aware of Knives' presence. They'd been able to do it when they were boys, but that connection had been cruelly broken during the crash, and after, when Vash hated his brother as he had never hated anyone before. He had thought the sense of each others' presence was gone forever, yet Knives had still seemed able to sense him, and find him, even many years later... and during the last six years, caring for Knives' comatose body, he had thought the bond had been forged again. Thought that he could trust Knives to sleep, trust himself to feel Knives awaken.
Trust KNIVES. What's the point of living a hundred years if you never learn from your mistakes, eh, Vash old boy?
He was about to turn back to Angie when he froze.
That time, he had felt something.
He'd felt it only once before, since Knives' disappearance -- that time in March City when he'd glimpsed the man who looked shockingly like Wolfwood. Accidentally he'd brushed against the blond-haired girl beside the man, and then he had felt a twinge like this. It was like the connection he shared with Knives, like the soft touch of Knives' mind against his own, but... changed somehow.
Vash spun around, scanning the barren rocks around them. The only movement was a scavenger bird, flying past high overhead.
"Just a weird thought," he muttered. "Nevermind."
Angie was looking at him strangely. He tried to recapture that odd feeling, but failed. It had only been there for an instant.
Vash stared toward November City, hidden from them by a fold of the land. Was it possible -- could the girl be there?
But that was silly. This was November City, half a world away from where he'd last seen the girl and her companion. Why would she have come here too? Of course she hadn't; he was imagining things.
Yet she had been in March City when the Plant exploded...
Vash shivered, cold even in the hot sun. The Plants were still agitated. He could sense their unusually strong emotions all the time, a low undercurrent that made him jumpy even in the middle of the day. Without actual contact with a Plant, though, he had no way of knowing what was upsetting them so much. He wondered if it might be a good idea to visit November City's Plant facility and talk to the Plants there. It was never easy to get useful information out of a Plant, but it might be nice to pay a visit to his own kind in any case.
His own kind... he'd never felt further from the Plants than he did right now.
"Vash?" Angie said, still looking at him with concerned. He forced a goofy grin, and laughed.
"Just thought I saw something up on the hills! Guess it wasn't anything."
"Tony?" Angie breathed, whirling around.
"No. Not Tony. Come on, don't worry."
Reluctantly, she followed him. As they walked away from the flyer, Vash kept looking over his shoulder, reassuring himself that it was still there even though he couldn't see it. Finally they crossed a ravine and he could no longer see the rock pile where they had left it.
They walked along the road for most of the day, and as evening came, they were standing in front of a small inn on the edges of November City.
"I'm so... thirsty..." Vash moaned. "Water..."
"You complain constantly," Angie snapped, but her voice grated in her dry throat. The two travelers staggered through the doors of the inn, and stopped.
They had stepped out of the day's heat, expecting the inn's lobby to be even hotter and stuffier than it was in the dusty street. Instead, it was shockingly, refreshingly cool.
Vash stared around in surprise. The inn's common room was small but tidy, a vast change from the dirty, dark frontier barrooms where he tended to end up. Small groups of people were playing cards or drinking at the little round tables.
Vash and Angie crossed to the counter and asked for a room. The price was high, but not exhorbitant.
"So this might seem like an odd question," Vash said, as he paid some of their last doubledollars, "but how do you folks keep it so cool in here?"
"Air conditioning," Angie breathed, just as the clerk said without much interest, "Wha', you mean the air conditionin'?"
The clerk looked at Angie, who smiled at him tightly and said, "He's been sick." She dragged Vash away from the counter.
"Hey! What? I never head of anything like --"
"Vash, look." Angie walked over to one of several boxlike things, set along the walls. She stood under it and turned her face up to it, closing her eyes in bliss. Vash did likewise and felt the cool air flowing out of the device.
Oh. It was like the climate control on the Seeds ships, only specifically designed to cool the temperature in the room. Vash stared at it, wondering how it worked.
"But this is wonderful!" Angie said, and he looked down at her. "I haven't seen air conditioning anywhere else on this world! How widespread do you think it is?"
"The guy at the counter seemed surprised that we didn't know about it," Vash said, dropping his voice. They were drawing some odd looks.
"Maybe this proves that Alex Saverem is here," Vash whispered, feeling his excitement mount.
"What, you didn't believe me?"
They eased their thirst from paper cups filled at a water cooler in the corner. The regulars were watching them nervously. Vash grinned and waved to them. Angie glared at him. He subsided.
"So... do you know where in November City Alex Saverem lives?"
Angie shook her head. "We could ask the clerk, I guess."
After drinking their fill, they trooped back over to the counter. The clerk looked up from a girlie magazine without much interest. "What's wrong now? No towels? Roaches in the bed?"
"No," Angie said, suppressing a slight shudder. "We just wanted to know if you..." She trailed off beneath his bored stare, and Vash leaned around her.
"Hi," Vash said, grinning like a cheerful maniac. "We're looking for a guy named Alex Saverem. Know him?"
Vash saw a movement out of the corner of his eye, and tensed automatically, though his grin didn't falter. Several of the people at the tables had turned to look at them.
The clerk's eyes darted to the people at the tables, then back to Vash and Angie. "Never heard of him," he said, but his eyes looked a lot less vacant than they had just a few moments before.
"Are you sure?"
"I said I don't know him."
Angie slipped a crumpled twenty-doubledollar from under her belt. She, like Vash, had noticed that the two of them had become the center of attention in the room, and she tried without much success to keep her hand hidden from the general view of the room. "Are you sure you don't know him?"
The clerk looked from the money, to Angie's dirty face, as if he was staring at something that had just crawled out from under a rock. "I'm sorry," he said. "I just remembered. We've got a conference in town this week. All the rooms are booked up. Sorry. Here's your money back."
He pushed their money across the counter. By now, everyone in the room was looking at them. Vash felt the hostile stares crawl across his back. During the last six years, he'd almost forgotten what it was like to be stared at with hatred wherever he went. He hadn't missed it.
"Hey!" Angie snapped. "We paid for -- What are you doing?"
Now it was Vash's turn to grab her by the elbow and lead her away, scooping up the money with his other hand. "Thank you very much," he said over his shoulder to the clerk. "We're sorry to take up your time."
"Don't mention it," the clerk said in a harsh undertone, and continued to stare at them -- along with everyone else -- as they hurried out into the warm evening breeze.
"My gosh," Angie breathed. They sat down on the porch for a moment. "What do you suppose that was all about?"
"I don't know." Vash's heart was still beating fast. He'd been sure that one of those people was going to pull a gun -- and then there would be more shooting, more killing -- "He didn't like us asking questions about Alex Saverem, that's for sure."
"I wonder if Alex is feared or hated here. I admit I've never met the man, but from the things Daniel said about his father... I would never have expected that."
"I don't know," Vash said. "They seemed to fear and hate us more. I wonder if they were trying to protect him from us?"
Angie's eyes widened. "What sort of man could have an entire town trying to protect him?"
"I don't know." But Vash was thinking of Rem. She was the sort of woman who could inspire that kind of fierce loyalty, he was sure. For a moment he felt his heavy heart lift a bit. Maybe Alex Saverem was not the monster he had feared, after all...
There was a movement at their backs and they both whirled. The clerk of the hotel had stepped out onto the porch. Behind him, they could see the patrons moving in the shadows. "I thought I told you folks we don't have any vacancies. No loitering."
Angie looked irked, but Vash, who was much more accustomed to getting thrown out of places, hopped to the ground. "We were just going. Have a nice evening."
The clerk vanished back into the hotel, but Vash sensed that the two of them were still being watched as they walked off down the street.
They walked for some time before trying another hotel. This one was even more expensive than the last, but at least they got a room without trouble -- or rather, Vash got the room while Angie wandered about, looking at all the unusual objects in the lobby... anachronistic, Earth-style lamps and bits of technology. This time Vash didn't mention Alex Saverem's name at all, and the desk clerk was perfectly polite to him and didn't mention any out-of-town conventions. He got a room on the second floor... his experience had generally been that it's better to make as difficult as possible for your enemies to climb in the window, but not to be so high above the ground that you can't jump out if you need to do so.
The room was small for its exhorbitant price, but neat and clean. Vash looked around, pleased. Angie looked less pleased. "So where's mine?"
Vash eyed the ceiling. "Uh... I only got one."
"One?" she snapped huffily, reminding him startlingly of Meryl for a moment.
"We can only afford one. Besides," he added (quite reasonably, he thought), "We've been sleeping around the same campfire for days now."
"Yes, but not in a bed! And I was planning on taking a bath..."
"Look, I'll take a walk while you take your bath. Would that be all right?"
"Do you mind?" She looked at him beseechingly.
"Yeah. Look, I'll check around for Alex Saverem. How about it?"
"Thank you, Vash. You're a prince among... homicidal outlaw gunmen." She smiled to deflect the sting of the comment. Vash had a suspicion that she still didn't believe him.
While Angie headed for the bathroom, Vash sighed resignedly, and went back downstairs. He had been so looking forward to a bath.
Outside in the street, the setting sun hung low on the edge of the world, painting the town the color of fresh blood. Vash shivered slightly, reminding himself that it wasn't a premonition, it wasn't a sign, it certainly didn't mean that the streets of this town would be running with blood before he left... aargh. He hit himself in the head with the heel of his hand a couple of times, trying to banish the negative thoughts.
All right. First things first. While he hadn't lied to Angie about searching for Alex Saverem, there was something that he wanted to do -- needed to do -- even more urgently. At least, unlike Alex Saverem, this person wouldn't be hard to find. Vash looked around until he spotted the great curve of this city's Plant facility, gleaming in the dying rays of the sun, and started walking towards it.
For the first time in ages, or so it seemed to him, he got a stroke of luck. He didn't have to break in. This Plant, like a few others he had visited over the years, was open to visitors. The technician on duty told him that visiting hours were ending in a few minutes, but he was welcome to walk through the Plant chamber.
Vash stood under the great, glowing curve of the bell, his face upturned and his hands gripping the visitors' railing, and reached out to touch the collective unconscious of the Plants.
He found... nothing.
Startled, Vash reached out again and again. It was like he'd hit a wall. He didn't get the impression that the Plant was unaware of his presence, but it didn't seem to want to talk to him.
That had never happened before. The Plants were distant, alien, somewhat incomprehensible even to him, but he'd never felt anything other than warmth and acceptance from them.
What is it? What's wrong? Why won't you talk to me? Please answer!
But there was only the light, that neither apologized nor explained.
"Heard you were looking for me," said a soft voice from behind him.
Vash almost jumped out of his skin, and spun around.
The old man limped out of the shadows into the glow of the bell. He leaned heavily on a cane, and peered at Vash over half-moon glasses sitting on the end of his nose.
"Yeah. Red coat. Blond spiky hair. What do you want with me, Vash the Stampede?"
Vash stood, staring stupidly, not sure if his immobility was the shock of being called by his name -- or the shock of standing face-to-face with a person whose existence he had not even suspected until mere days ago. He knew he should say something... but what?
The old man halted and stood staring at Vash, equally as curious, it seemed.
"Always wanted to see you up close," he said finally.
Vash managed to find his voice. "You -- you know who I am."
"Sure I do. Can't be too many people in this world that fit your description. Heard Vash the Stampede was dead, but I guess rumors lie, as usual."
"They do indeed," Vash said weakly. "So you're ... Alex Saverem, correct?"
Saverem nodded, and clumped around Vash, his cane thumping on the metal floor, studying the outlaw from all angles.
"Don't look that dangerous," he said at last.
Vash opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, then said, "You knew an outlaw was looking for you... and you came to see me? Unarmed?"
It sounded just like something Rem would have done, he thought.
Alex shrugged. "They said you folks didn't have any weapons. I was curious what you wanted. That's all."
"I could be planning to kill you."
"Well," Vash admitted, "no."
"There you go, then," Alex Saverem said, sounding vindicated.
"But you can't -- you can't go around trusting people like that!" Vash protested, thinking at the same time, in some distant part of his mind -- Is that ME talking? What kind of effect have Knives and Legato had on me...
"Why shouldn't I trust people? I've lived here all my life, I've done my best to provide for the folks who live here and help them survive. I don't have any enemies."
Vash's heart sank. "That's... actually kind of why we're here."
Saverem merely looked at him, head cocked to one side.
"Look, can we go somewhere to talk? It's important. A matter of life and death, actually."
"Whose?" Alex Saverem inquired.
"Whose life and death?"
"Yours," Vash admitted.
"Well, then," Saverem said thoughtfully. "I suppose it would be in my best interests to hear you out. This way?"
Without waiting for a response, he clumped off. Vash followed, not sure what else to do. Alex Saverem said a cheerful hello to the technician, asked after her family, and then beckoned Vash outside.
Night had fallen while he'd been inside the Plant facility. The western sky was blood red with the fading glow of the suns (NOT an omen, Vash firmly told himself) and pools of lamplight gave a warm, homey glow to the dark streets. Vash followed Alex Saverem, numbly, thinking how peaceful it all seemed. Some children were playing kickball in front of an open door. Nearby, a woman sat rocking on a porch, knitting. Alex Saverem said hello to each person they passed, and all seemed to know him, though they glared at Vash suspiciously.
It's so peaceful. So happy. Every time a town looks like this, things always go to hell before too long. Just once, why can't a peaceful little town STAY peaceful with me around?
"Home sweet home," Alex Saverem said, pausing before a small adobe house with a white-painted wrought-iron fence around its small, tasteful garden. He shoved the gate open with his cane and Vash followed him through, pulling the gate closed behind him. They went down a narrow winding path through the garden, and Vash marveled at how the space had been effectively used to make the tiny yard seem much bigger than it really was. Although he couldn't see the garden very well in the dark, he brushed against a cactus by accident and realized that it was all planted with dry-climate vegetation -- beautiful, yet in perfect harmony with its enviroment, wasting no unnecessary water on extravagant greenery, even though Alex Saverem could probably have gotten all the water he desired.
He could live in a mansion, for that matter. I'm sure of it. The townspeople would probably build him one if he so much as hinted. Instead he lives here, in this tiny house.
So far, he's everything I'd hoped to find in a child of Rem. He seems so much like her...
Then why do I have this feeling... like everything isn't right, isn't right at all? Is it just that I've grown so suspicious over the years that I no longer know what to do when good fortune comes my way? Am I the one who has betrayed Rem's teachings, after all?
Damn it all to heck -- I CAN'T push down this fear. I don't dare, not with the lives of everyone in town depending on me. Not until I know what the Genesis Machine is... and how to reconcile something so fearful that even Tony respects it with this little house, this kind man...
Alex Saverem pushed open the door.
"You don't lock your door?" Vash said, startled out of his reverie.
Alex shrugged. "Why should I? I have no enemies."
"Look, I've just been trying to tell you--"
Something moved in the dark interior of the room. A lean figure unfolded slowly, straightening up from casually resting against the edge of a table. Black clothes, vanishing into blackness... only a faint glimmer of a pale face in the moonlight gave any indication that their visitor was human at all...
"And who might you be?" Alex Saverem said, quite calmly.
He's Rem's son, all right. He'd probably walk right up to somebody holding a gun to his forehead without even realizing he was in danger --
Yeah, and who else do we know who does THAT?
"Get down!" Vash yelled, shoving Alex Saverem out of the way and interposing his own body between the old man and the stranger. Alex fell to the floor and Vash fell on his knees next to him, unfolding his arm gun in frantic fear. Gotta get away from the door ... we're silhouetted against the streetlights, a perfect target...
"You have a bodyguard, eh, Alex?" the stranger said softly. "I wouldn't have expected it, but then I don't know you at all, do I?"