Knives knelt beside it on the floor, staring at it. "I suppose..."
"The Plant told you it was there, huh?" Meryl said, retreating behind her customary sarcasm. "How did it know?"
Knives looked up at her mildly. "She."
"Whatever. How did she know?"
"She can sense its presence. She knows what it is... they all do."
"And what exactly is it, then?"
Knives stared at the suitcase, touching it gently with his long, delicate fingers. "Something capable of destroying... everything that she knows. That's what she told me."
"Destroying the world, you mean?" Meryl squeaked. I knew it, I knew it... But it was one thing to imagine the worst, from a safe distance, and quite another to be confronted with it.
"I don't know," Knives said, not entirely to her surprise. "The way she perceives the world is very different from our understanding of it. This machine could unravel all of existence... or it could be totally harmless from our perspective. Who knows?"
His long fingers began to toy with the clasp of the suitcase.
"Woah! Hold it!" Meryl cried, shielding Ellie with her own body. "What do you think you're doing? Do you have any idea what's in there? It could be poisonous! It could explode! It could jump out and attack your face! Are you nuts?"
"Hmm." Knives sat back on his heels. "You do have a point. Caution is probably in order."
"Probably?" Meryl took some deep breaths and tried to get her heart to slow down. "The sun must have fried your brains! You are holding a suitcase containing what just might be the biggest bomb in the world --"
She suddenly remembered that she was yelling at Knives, and trailed off, sputtering.
Knives looked up at her and grinned. During their days of traveling in the desert, his face had lost much of the blank, vacant look it had had when she first encountered him and Lamia; now his eyes were almost as expressive as Vash's, and at the moment had started dancing with what she would have sworn was amusement -- but this was Knives! Since when did Knives get amused at anything other than massive amounts of human suffering?
"I like it when you forget to be afraid of me," he said. "You're funny when you're mad."
"Ooooh!" Meryl was infuriated beyond words. She turned away from Knives, looking for something to vent her frustration on, something that hopefully wasn't likely to blow up or kill her in retaliation. She settled for kicking the wall, then hopped around on one foot for a moment.
Turning around, once she could put weight on her foot again, she found Knives and Lamia -- and Ellie -- bent closely over the suitcase, examining it. Meryl gritted her teeth and hurried over to drag the protesting little girl to a safe distance. Never mind that they didn't know what it did, what it looked like or how to work it. Never mind that it could blow up in all their faces... did they care? Morons.
"It's so heavy," Lamia was saying. "That thing weighs a ton. What could possibly be in there?"
There was a short silence, then some little clicking and rattling noises.
"Look," Knives said. "It looks like this little clasp is supposed to come up..."
"No, I think it slides to the side."
"It seems to be more of a hinge, really..."
"Be careful," Lamia said. "Don't touch it."
There was a small "click" ... magnified a thousandfold in the sudden silence that followed.
"You touched it," Lamia said accusingly.
"Apparently it does slide back, after all," Knives said. He sounded fascinated, but there was a note of fear underneath, to Meryl's horror. Anything that could frighten KNIVES... Dear Lord, please forgive me my sins, as I may be seeing You shortly, Meryl thought in a brief, fervent prayer. Drawn by perverse fascination -- after all, she reasoned, if it can blow up the world, there's no point in running -- but keeping Ellie behind her, she came a few steps closer.
The suitcase looked exactly the same, but then there was another "click."
"What'd you do that time?" Lamia demanded, her voice cracking with incipient panic.
"Nothing," Knives said. "I didn't touch it that time."
Knives and Lamia wasted no time jumping up and scrambling backwards to join Meryl.
As if it matters, Meryl thought. Ten feet, ten thousand feet, ten thousand iles... it doesn't matter how far away we get. Oh, they've really gone and done it this time...
She clung to Ellie, and suddenly, for no reason at all, thought of Vash.
Oh, GREAT. I'm going to die and the last thing I see will be that pointy-headed idiot's face.
I never got the chance to tell you --
"Look!" Lamia shrieked, interrupting Meryl's thoughts. The girl had jumped about two feet in the air and whipped her rifle in front of her. "It moved!"
It had moved. The side panels of the suitcase had begun to fold out. Then more of it unfolded, and more, like a piece of paper gently bending itself into a lovely origami butterfly. But this was no butterfly...
Meryl's jaw dropped when she began to realize what it was unfolding into. She was positive her face had gone chalk white. Looking at the other two adults, she saw that neither of them seemed particularly astonished -- apprehensive, maybe, but there was no recognition on their faces.
Well, of course Knives wouldn't reveal anything. Either he's really got amnesia, so he's never seen it before, or he's lying and he's known what it was all along. But I'm positive Lamia's seen it --
...no, wait! She never did, did she? It was covered up during the whole time she was with us ... Wolfwood used Vash's gun...
Hardly aware of what she was doing, Meryl released Ellie and walked forward, towards the Genesis Machine, which had finished unfolding and now lay quiescent upon the bare metal. Behind her, there was a small gasp from Knives, a strangled cry of "Meryl!" from Lamia. Meryl ignored them. She knelt beside the great silver-white cross and touched it. The metal was still warm from the transformation.
"Meryl!" Lamia cried. "What are you doing?"
"It's all right," Meryl said. She had to keep a tight grip on herself, or she was going to start laughing hysterically, or crying, or both. "It belonged to a friend of mine."
But looking at it closely, she saw it wasn't actually Wolfwood's Cross Punisher, after all. It was very similar, but perhaps slightly bigger, and double-barrelled.
She looked up to find Knives bending over her, his pale hair hanging down around his face. "Have you seen this before?" he asked.
I thought I did -- and you should, too! she wanted to say. But she didn't. "It just reminded me of something a friend of mine had. But it isn't. I don't know what it is."
None of them could figure out how to get it to fold up again, so Knives picked up the thing, with exceeding care, and they started back the way they had come. Meryl got another stomach-wrenching shock when she looked back at Knives, carrying the big cross. He looked so much like Vash had, when he walked away to confront Knives that final time...
Meryl clenched her hands into fists, and then had to apologize to Ellie, who was holding her hand.
This is driving me crazy. I don't know who to trust. I don't know what to think. I don't know where Vash is, I don't know where Milly is... and I don't know WHO Wolfwood is...
Before leaving, she had looked close enough to read the names inscribed on the other capsules. Karen Saverem Wolfwood and Steve Anthony Wolfwood were the adults. Sydney James Wolfwood and Rem Saverem Wolfwood were the little kids.
They must be related to Wolfwood somehow... and maybe to that Rem woman we saw in the picture. I KNOW Vash mentioned her. Someone he knew on the ships, wasn't she?
Even Knives looked relieved when they were out of the bone-strewn hallway. Lamia and Ellie were getting hungry, though Meryl thought she'd be happy enough if she never ate again. Knives showed them the way back to the door, still carrying the cross like a weird appendage. Then he turned to go back in.
"Aren't you coming with us?" Lamia said.
Knives shook his blond head. "I want to try to figure this out. Maybe the Plant can help."
And Meryl said, shocking herself, "At least come have something to eat first."
What's WRONG with me? Knives is the Enemy.
Knives looked at her for a long moment, his blue eyes unreadable. Then he smiled slightly, and said, "Well, I suppose a few minutes wouldn't hurt."
I just wanted to keep him from figuring out the Genesis Machine, Meryl told herself as they walked back to the campsite. Yeah, that's it. That's all.
They made dinner and ate. The white cross was propped up beside Knives, and Meryl's eyes kept stealing to it nervously. Maybe it wasn't the Genesis Machine after all. Maybe the Plant, or Knives, was wrong. It looked so much like Wolfwood's cross. And Wolfwood's cross hadn't folded up, had it?
Her eyes also kept stealing to Knives. In the red glow of their campfire, with his blond hair down and lying loose and sweaty on his neck, his pale coloring looked more normal. He might just be an ordinary young man, eating dinner with his family... She watched him tease Ellie with another candy bar, finally relenting and letting the little girl have it when Ellie threatened to kick him in the shins. Lamia scolded both of them through a mouthful of food, but she was obviously struggling not to grin.
My gosh, they do look like a family.
Am I listening to Knives more these days? Am I believing what he has to say?
It's just because the bastard's so damned convincing.
No... it's because I believe him. I do believe he's lost his memory. And maybe... lost something else as well. Something that made him Knives, the Knives we all hated and feared. I don't understand it, but I feel as if it's true.
Meryl stared into the fire, angry with herself and, by extension, with Knives. What's happening to me? Since when have I believed in things like that? I never used to believe in anything that can't be touched, measured, counted...
But she had changed a lot from the brash, self-confident Meryl Stryfe who had set off into the world, six years ago, convinced that she could find a dangerous outlaw and change his ways simply because the company said it had to be done. Meryl wondered what she would think of her younger self, if she met her now.
She'd probably get on my nerves as much as Lamia does.
Knives wiped his mouth and stood up.
"You're going back?" Lamia said.
He nodded. "I'll be careful. I don't intend to unleash anything. But I hope the Plant can help me understand the Genesis Machine... I don't think we'll be safe until I do."
"Safe from what?" Meryl said. Suddenly it seemed vitally important that she ask the question -- and shocking to herself that she had never thought to ask it before. "You've pushed us all the way out here so you can find the Genesis Machine and keep it safe -- but from what I saw, it's been safely hidden all these years. It's probably safer out here than with any of us."
Knives looked down at the ground.
"There's something I haven't told you."
Oh, here it comes.
"There's a man," Knives said, not meeting their eyes. "A ... bad man. The Plant doesn't know who or what he is, but she says she can feel the menace radiating off him like energy from the sun. He's been coming out here, to this ship. She is afraid he will find the Genesis Machine, so afraid that she finally managed to contact me... and bring me here."
Meryl looked at Lamia, staring up at Knives -- her Vash the Stampede -- with wide, trusting eyes. Meryl wished she could hate him for putting that look in Lamia's eyes. It would be so much easier if she could only hate him...
Meryl stood up.
"A bad man," she said.
Knives nodded, staring at the ground.
"What sort of a bad man?"
"The Plant doesn't know," Knives mumbled. "All humans look alike to her."
"And you -- you brought us here, knowing that someone comes out here, might be here, that even the Plant is afraid of -- you talked a girl who trusts you into bringing you here, and brought along a little child, and me -- you wanted us to trust you, on the basis of your word alone -- but you never even told us the whole truth."
Staring blindly at the ground, Knives nodded.
"Miss Meryl, please stop." Lamia sounded near tears.
"No. I won't stop. I want to know why he thinks he can be our friend, without even telling us the truth about anything. I want to know why--"
"Miss Meryl, stop!" Lamia cried fiercely. "I'm sure that if Mr. Vash didn't tell us, he had a good reason--"
"He isn't Vash, you stupid child!" Meryl screamed. "I've told you and told you! He's Knives! And he's evil!"
There was a long silence following her outburst. Then Ellie began to whimper. Lamia put her arm around the child and glared up at Meryl. Knives was looking away, not moving, not speaking.
Meryl felt her anger draining away, and tried to grab for it, tried to hold onto it. She need the strength that anger gave her. She'd never felt so alone, so unsure of herself.
"I need air," she mumbled, and whirled away from them, walking into the desert dusk.
"Meryl!" Lamia called after her, but Meryl kept walking. She strode onward, paying no attention to where she was going, her arms piston-pumping at her sides. She stopped walking only because it was getting so dark that she was in danger of falling into a ravine.
Looking back, she could not see the glow of the fire. Twists and turns of the canyon had hidden it from her.
It'd just be the perfect end to a perfect day if you storm off in a snit and get lost out here... wouldn't it, Meryl?
Sighing, she sank down onto the sand, folding up her legs and resting her arms on her knees. She was no longer angry, no longer really hurt... just sad and empty-feeling. She tilted back her head and looked up at the stars.
She hadn't really looked at the stars in years. When she was a child, when her parents would fight, or her hamster died, or sometimes just because it was too hot to sleep, she would sneak out and lie on the roof, picking out familiar constellations and making up old ones. Now she found all those old familiar sights... the two bright Twins in the southern sky ... the Ship to the north, the clusters of the Lady overhead.
Meryl felt the night breeze ruffle her hair, and slowly her stress and torn emotions seeped out of her body into the sand.
He could have told us, at least. The jerk. What else is he hiding, I wonder?
I should at least go back and apologize to Lamia.
One part of her hoped the brat didn't come looking for her... but the other side of her, the soft and hidden side, listened for footsteps in the sand, and wanted to weep when no one came.
Lonely. That's it. That's what this feeling was. She was lonely.
Meryl had never really been lonely before. She wasn't the sort who kept in touch with people. Usually she was just too busy. Sometimes over the past few years she'd found herself thinking wistfully of Milly, but she just found another form to fill out, another report to file.
There were no reports here, and no forms to take her mind off her thoughts... just the silent, accusing stars.
I'm all alone in the world. I have no kids, and I haven't seen my parents in years. The only real friends I ever had are all gone... scattered... dead...
So why am I lying here like an idiot, feeling sorry for myself? That's how you get yourself into these messes, Meryl old girl. Get up, brush off the sand, bite your pride and go tell Lamia you're sorry for yelling at her.
It was a plan of action, at least -- not typed up on a yellow form, but something tangible she could hold onto. Meryl jumped up and straightened her clothes, and headed back to the campsite.
She didn't have trouble finding it -- the moons were bright, and she'd left clear tracks in the loose sand. When she got back, though, Lamia was wrapped in a blanket beside the banked fire, Ellie in her arms, their breathing slow and even.
Meryl was tempted to kick Lamia awake so she could apologize to her, but she had a notion that such an apology wouldn't be much appreciated. Staring down at the two of them, she felt a twinge, thinking of Ellie's warm weight nestled in her own arms in the car.
They didn't even worry about me. They didn't even come looking for me.
She'd never felt so alone in her life.
I should go to sleep, too.
But she wasn't at all tired... and looking up at the ship's bulk, she saw small glimmers and flickers in that great darkness. The Plant was awake, and so was Knives. Doing God knows what to the Genesis Machine.
She didn't really feel like seeing Knives at the moment, let alone apologizing to him... but maybe it was time to sit him down and figure out what was going on. Who knows what other things he'd been keeping from her.
Feeling a little better in the grip of righteous indignation, Meryl strode off towards the door in the side of the ship. "Wolfwood," she whispered, typing the name, and the door slid open to admit her.
The corridors within were well lit, and to her own surprise, she didn't have as much trouble navigating around as she'd thought she might. After a few false turns, she managed to find the Plant chamber. Except for the glowing light bulb in the center, though, it was empty. Knives was nowhere to be found.
Meryl wandered out into the middle of the floor and stood under the gently glowing light bulb, stared up into it. Was that the graceful curve of a leg, the ripple of hair made all out of light? As her eyes adjusted to the subtle gradations of light, she could indeed make out an almost-human figure, flickering just at the edge of her ability to perceive.
Is Vash really ... one of those?
She reached up, hesitantly, and touched the light bulb. It was warm.
"Hello," she said, feeling foolish.
"She can't understand you."
Meryl jumped and spun around. Knives was standing in the doorway, watching her.
"God! Don't sneak up on a person!"
"Sorry," Knives said, and looked down. "Lamia says I move too quietly. I don't know any other way to move."
Meryl shrugged, and took her hand self-consciously down from the Plant's bubble. Knives came to join her beneath it.
"Does... she... know we're here?" Meryl asked after a moment.
"Not really. Creatures like us are incomprehensible to her... creatures bound up in time, bound up in physical flesh. Our reality touches hers only in places."
"I don't understand," Meryl said.
Knives smiled a faint, tired, sad smile. "Neither do I. That's only what she's told me. But she's different from her own kind, too. She's been isolated here for a long time, sometimes sleeping, sometimes waking. She's come to take more of an interest in the mortal world than her kind normally do."
He looked away, then looked back at Meryl, his eyes colorless in the soft glow of the Plant. "I... am sorry. For keeping things from you."
Meryl shrugged. The absolute last thing she wanted at the moment was Knives apologizing to her, but she had to admit that he'd actually done something that needed an apology. Unfortunately she didn't want to accept it, but... There's a reason you're all alone. "I don't understand why. Because you thought we wouldn't come if we knew the truth?"
"No. It isn't that at all. I'm just -- so bad at talking to people. Interacting with people. I didn't know if you'd believe me. I didn't know if the words would come out all wrong and you'd hate me."
He was so eager to please, to be liked. And she could no longer convince herself that it was all an act.
Knives stared at her while she tried to sort out her thoughts, her feelings. Finally he said, "Meryl... you know who I really am, don't you? You knew me in the time I can't remember."
"I.... I thought I knew who you are," Meryl admitted. "But I'm not sure anymore."
"Tell me. Please." He looked up at the Plant above them. "Am I -- human?"
"I don't think so," Meryl said.
He let his breath out in a long, long sigh. "I was afraid of that."
"You really, truly don't remember?"
"I don't remember anything. The first memories I have are confusing snatches -- being in the desert, being thirsty, tired, sick. I think... now... that the Plant actually had something to do with that. She's been reaching out, all this time, trying to find a receptive mind. She found mine, but I... don't know what happened before that. Lamia found me alongside the road, like she told you. She fed me and gave me water. I didn't know how to talk -- Lamia had to teach me."
"You certainly picked it up quickly," Meryl said, and then winced inwardly. She really hadn't meant to sound argumentative. It just happened!
Knives looked away. "I seem to learn things quickly. I asked her about that --" He glanced up briefly at the Plant -- "but she didn't know what I meant by learning. Apparently her kind acquire knowledge some other way. So many things in our world are strange to her. And to me. Meryl, please. I need to know who I am. What I am."
"You won't like it." Meryl took a deep breath; she couldn't believe she was about to say this. "Listen. Forget about it. If you really don't remember, you're better off not knowing. You seem like a nice person." I can't believe I said that... "Lamia is your friend." And maybe ... I am, too. "Just make a new life for yourself, and forget that you ever had another one."
"I wish I could," Knives said. He turned his face upward, and gazed at the Plant. "I wish I could be like them... never wondering, never wanting to know. They have no past. They have no future. They only have the eternal now. But I can't. Meryl, put yourself in my place for a minute. If you woke up without your memory, wouldn't you want to know who you used to be?"
"I think it's more than lost memory," Meryl said slowly. She'd done a lot of thinking about this, during their time in the desert, comparing Knives as she knew him to the Knives that Vash had described. "I think there's some piece of you that's actually missing. Maybe whatever's missing is whatever made Knives the way he was. Maybe if I tell you about him, it'll bring that piece back."
And we'll be enemies again... and I don't want that.
Knives shook his head. "Meryl, I know that I've done terrible things. I knew by the way that you reacted to me, when we first met. I need to know what I've done, if only so I can find a way to atone."
"I ... don't think you can atone for the things you did." But Vash wouldn't say that, would he? Vash believes that no one is beyond redemption.
"Please, Meryl. Tell me. I have to know."
So she told him. She gave him the bits and pieces that she knew: things Vash had told her, things others had told her, things she'd figured out for herself. She saw him grow pale and lean against the light bulb for support -- and she wanted to stop, thinking about how Vash would react to news of the sort that she was now giving Knives. But he'd asked. And he was right. He deserved to know.
"I -- I wanted to destroy...."
"Every human being on this world." Did he believe her? Could anyone believe something like that? It sounded so silly, like something a villain out of a child's tale would do. No words could adequately express the horror of standing in the desert dawn, knowing that if Vash failed to stop his brother, the sun might not rise for anyone, ever again.
Knives reached up and touched the light bulb -- Meryl was reminded oddly of a frightened child reaching out to its mother for comfort.
"Are you sorry I told you?" she asked, very quietly.
Knives looked over at her and smiled -- a tired smile, full of pain, but the same sweet smile that she'd gotten to know in the desert. If her telling him the truth had changed anything, anything at all, she couldn't tell.
"No," he said. "I needed to know. And now I can start figuring out how to put the pieces together again."
Meryl looked away from him. She couldn't meet those too-Vashlike eyes. Suddenly she realized something.
"Where's the Genesis Machine? Isn't it with you?"
"No. I couldn't bring it in here. The Plant is too afraid of it. It's in the medical bay."
"Have you found out anything about it?"
He shook his head. "Not really. It just seems like a gun. I can't imagine what the maker could have been hiding." He looked at her hopefully. "Maybe... it would help if you looked at it? You said you'd seen something similar."
"Yes, but the... other one... it was just a gun, too. I thought..."
She followed Knives out of the Plant chamber and they walked down the corridors to the place he called a medical bay. She was somehow unsurprised to find that it was the same place she and Lamia theorized must be some strange kind of hospital.
"So this is a hospital."
Knives nodded. "Of a sort. It's also a place for scientific experimentation. A lot of the equipment has been removed by the man the Plant fears, but I've managed to get some of it working again."
"How do you know how to do this?" Meryl asked, feeling her throat catch in involuntary fear at seeing the Genesis Machine surrounded with glowing wires and gadgets.
"My hands know," Knives said simply.
Meryl stared at those slim, long-fingered hands as they deftly moved over the machinery, making adjustments here, turning a knob there. What else do your hands know? Do they remember how to kill?
The night slipped slowly past outside the ship, but inside there was no night, just the artificial day of the ship's lights. Meryl assisted Knives as best she could as he examined the Genesis Machine from top to bottom.
"These readings are odd. It seems to be just a gun, made out of metal. But there are these interesting anomalies--"
She never found out what the anomalies were. The lights flickered, and Knives stumbled and put his hand to his head.
"What?" Meryl said. "What is it?"
"The Plant. She's upset." Knives looked up at Meryl in alarm. "She says... the bad man is here."
Meryl stumbled backwards, reaching under her cloak for two derringers. "Here? Where here?"
"Outside the ship."
Their eyes met, and Meryl saw the horror that she felt reflected in his eyes.
"Ellie and Lamia are outside the ship," Meryl whispered.
She started to run from the room, then realized that Knives wasn't with her, and turned to see him staring at the Genesis Machine.
"It is a weapon..." he said musingly.
"Don't even think about it! Do you want this 'bad man' getting his hands on it? You want a weapon? Here!" She threw him one of her derringers, choking down one small part of herself that screamed in horror, You're arming KNIVES? and drew another gun to replace that one. "Come on," she added.
They raced down corridors, clambered over twisted folds of metal. Meryl chanted over and over in her head, Please don't let us be too late...
Wind blowing down the corridors alerted them that something was wrong before they got to the door. Where the smooth surface of the closed door should have been, they saw a field of stars. The door had been opened and wedged with a rock.
Meryl realized belatedly that the Plant might have been able to do something -- lock the door somehow. It was too late now.
"He's in the ship," she whispered, staring at Knives, wide-eyed. "He's in here. With us. He'll find the Genesis Machine -- Knives, I was wrong, you should have brought it with you, we have to go back --"
Knives gestured to the door. "We've got to find Lamia and Ellie first. Hopefully they hid, or he didn't see them. They might not realize anything is wrong."
"We'll search for them first, then," Meryl decided. But she had only taken a few steps towards the door when a sudden, piercing scream echoed from deep inside the ship.
Both of them whirled around.
"Lamia!" Meryl cried. "Damn it, Knives! Ask the Plant! Where is he? Where's Lamia?"
"She can't answer that kind of question. She doesn't understand 'where.' She can't tell people apart--"
Meryl seized him by the front of his cloak. "Forget about what she does or doesn't know! Just ask her!"
Knives shivered and closed his eyes, his face turning inward. When he opened his eyes again, he had a look of great surprise on his face. "She says they're in -- Well, it's difficult to explain the way she says it, but in essence, it's where we found the Genesis Machine."
"Well, come on! What are you waiting for!"
Meryl surged past him into the bowels of the ship. As she ran, gun in each hand, she thought: In the chamber of bones. With Wolfwood's family. But why -- why would he take them THERE?
"Bit of a sudden way to wake up, but it gets the blood pumping," said a soft voice nearby.
Lamia sat bolt upright, reaching for her rifle. But her hand stopped halfway to the gun. It felt like an invisible hand was holding her.
Ellie ... where's Ellie? Who is this sonuvabitch? Dammit, I shoulda stood watch, I'm getting careless --
The speaker moved slowly into her field of vision. He wasn't a tall man, but Lamia got the distinct impression that he -- well, it sounded absurd to say that he radiated evil, but that was exactly the impression she got. His eyes glimmered in the moonlight. As he moved farther forward, she could see his hands, and in one of his hands -- Lamia choked with fear and fury. He was holding Ellie by the hand. The little girl shrank away from him, terrified beyond tears.
"Who are you, girl?" the man said. "What are you doing here?"
"Go to h--" Lamia was choked off in midsentence by a surge of horrific pain. Her body was being forced to twist in ways it was never designed to move. She could feel her joints popping, stretching to the breaking point -- She screamed in pain.
"Let's begin at the beginning, shall we? Who are you?"
"M--my name is Lamia," she managed to choke out.
"That's a good girl." The pressure eased and she slumped to the sand, relieved beyond measure. Her body ached, but it didn't feel as if any permanent damage had been done.
"And what are you doing here?"
"I--I..." The lie came glibly to her lips. "I was traveling with my little sister. I'm a tech scavenger, it's how I make my living. We'd heard about a really good haul out here that nobody knew about, so I decided to see if I could find it. But I can't figure out how to get in."
She was going over the story in her head, trying to find fault with it, when one of her arms was cruelly twisted behind her back. She cried out again.
"Truth, is it?"
"Y--Yes!" Lamia managed.
"Are you alone, girl? That's quite a lot of food in the car for two kids."
"We --Ah! Please stop!"
"Are you alone?"
"Yes! We take food when we can get it, Mister. Do you know what it's like to be hungry?"
She seemed to have said the right thing, for the pressure eased up and she fell forward, sobbing with relief.
"Get up," the man said. "I didn't break anything, and I need you to carry something for me."
Lamia got to her feet, assisted with little boosts from whatever force seemed to be controlling her. A dark bundle lay at the man's feet. Approaching, Lamia smelled a sickly-sweetish scent coming from it. She suddenly didn't want to know what was in that bundle, or to come anywhere near it.
"Pick it up. Do it now. I haven't got all day."
Lamia bent over and, skin crawling with revulsion, got her arms under the bundle and lifted. It was wrapped in a coarse blanket. She could feel rigid parts and horridly soft parts. She knew what it must be... she just didn't want to admit it to herself.
This is the guy who stacked those bones. This is another of his victims. And now he's going to kill me and Ellie too.
"If you hurt Ellie, I won't lift a finger to help you," Lamia snapped. "So you better not."
"Your sister? Don't worry. As long as you do what I tell you, no one will get hurt."
His voice cracked in the middle of the sentence. Taking a closer look, Lamia saw that his skin was drawn tightly over fading bruises on his face. His lips were cracked, and there were ugly dark shadows under his eyes. The guy looked half dead.
That must be why he wants me to carry this for him... because he's too weak to carry it himself. Maybe his car broke down or something. He looks like he's been wandering in the desert. I wonder if he's not the killer at all? Maybe just somebody driven half mad by the heat? This ... body... I'm carrying could be his wife or something. Maybe she died of starvation and thirst in the desert, and her death drove him mad.
But he didn't look mad, or if he was, it was a cold, calm type of madness, infinitely more terrifying than if he'd been screaming or running in circles.
"Walk," he commanded, so she did, carrying the drooping thing in her arms. The man walked behind her with Ellie. Lamia could hear the little girl making tiny whimpering sounds in her throat.
"Don't worry, sweetheart," she said, inwardly pleading with the girl to not mention Meryl, to not mention Vash. As long as Meryl and Vash stayed free, they could shoot this awful man and rescue the two of them, just like Vash had rescued her real sister.
The man directed her straight to the door in the side of the ship, and without hesitation typed in the code. Lamia's heart sank. So much for him being a lost traveler. He definitely had been here before.
Those tracks we saw. How could we have been so stupid?
The door opened, and light flooded out. The man hesitated in surprise, then turned on Lamia. "You said you hadn't opened the door?"
"No," Lamia said, trying to look shocked.
The man stared upward, presumably towards the Plant. "I wonder what could have woken it..." He shook his head and wedged a rock in the door to keep it open. "Move, girl."
He doesn't know about Meryl and Vash and the Genesis Machine. I think. I hope. I guess. Oh, I hate this!
Deeper and deeper they went into the ship. Lamia started to have a dreadful suspicion where they were going, and her suspicion was confirmed when they entered the corridor of bones. Immediately, he noticed the pile of jawbones that Lamia had knocked over earlier that day. He knelt beside them, not touching anything, and looked up at Lamia. "Haven't been in here, have you?"
Lamia shook her head fervently.
"You're lying," the man said quietly, and Lamia screamed as her legs were twisted until her feet were almost pointed backwards. Her hands tightened convulsively on the thing she carried. It was horribly squishy. Ellie began to cry.
"No... no..." Lamia gasped, shivering with pain. Once again the pressure let up, and she would have fallen if that invisible hand hadn't held her up.
"I need you to be able to walk," the man said quietly. "I'll have the story from you soon. Come."
He started walking again, dragging the sobbing Ellie. Lamia followed him quickly, her legs shaky but intact. She just wanted to get this over with and put down this horrid thing she was carrying. Yet she was also terrified, knowing that things would get much worse as soon as he no longer needed her.
Somehow she wasn't surprised when they stopped in front of the capsules containing the intact bodies of the family they had seen earlier. Lamia felt her heart drop to her toes when she saw that Knives hadn't put back the cover to the space where he'd found the Genesis Machine. The dark space yawned behind the old woman's casket. The man stared at this for a moment or two, leaned forward and peered into it, then looked back at Lamia. For the first time since she'd woken up, she saw him smile -- and that smile was like something from a nightmare.
"I will definitely need to hear this story from you, little girl," he said, and those quiet words promised pain, promised terror.
Lamia had spent most of her life being resigned to the possibility of her own death, and now that the possibility had become a probability, she found that she could think much more clearly than she would have believed possible. She cast her eyes about, looking for an escape, but there was none.
"Bring it here," the man said to her.
Lamia walked forward obediently with the bundle, and he took it from her and began to unwrap the blanket. The smell of decay grew stronger. "Honey, don't look," Lamia said to Ellie, not sure if the girl would listen, but knowing she had to try -- because she had the suspicion that whatever was in that blanket was something that she really would rather not see.
Actually it wasn't as bad as she had feared. It was the body of a boy, older than Ellie but probably not yet a teenager. He had been dead for a few days in the desert sun, so the corpse wasn't pretty, but she had seen much worse in the alleys where she'd lived.
Ellie gave a little whimper, and Lamia knew she'd peeked, though she wasn't sure if the girl was really old enough to understand what she was looking at.
The man opened the capsule next to the old woman's -- not the empty one beside the others, but the one on the far side, where a row of empty, undamaged capsules stretched back into the darkness. He pushed the body in, and closed it. The child's bloated face rested against the glass. The effect was rather obscene and Lamia had to look away. After a moment, though, she looked back to see that the man had drawn a small penknife and was scratching at the metal nameplate over the capsule. He'd let go of Ellie, and she retreated to cling to Lamia's legs.
The man finished scraping the metal -- it looked like he'd carved a name, but it was difficult to tell -- and then turned the force of his cold yellow eyes upon Lamia, who shrank away. "You're probably wondering who these people are," he said.
"Actually --" she began.
"I don't mind telling you. Unlike you, I am not a liar," the man said, and chuckled. He touched the glass over the old woman's face. "Her name is Nadia. She was my one true love. Have you ever had a one true love, little girl? You don't look old enough."
"You're wrong," Lamia said, thinking of Vash. "I have."
The man raised an eyebrow. "Oh, really. Well, then you must surely understand that love, like all other things, decays under the desert sun. Nadia abandoned me, as women always will. I keep her here to remind myself of her betrayal, to think upon whenever I am tempted to trust another human being."
He tapped the glass over the faces of the man and woman. "Her grandson and his wife... and their misbegotten descendants. I have tried to bring the whole family here to this place. Together, these poor ones who never should have existed. I have everyone but one of the children, who escaped. He is probably dead by now, but I still leave the capsule open in the hopes that one day, he will be able to join his family. I hate nothing worse than seeing a family torn apart."
This guy's nuts, Lamia thought. Bonkers. More than just a few needles short of a cactus...
"Now this ..." He gestured to the recently dead boy. "The family is expanding, you see. This child is the nephew of the wife. I couldn't let him be all alone. It is only right and proper that he should rest here. Soon, I'll have his grandfather as well. The whole group will be together, and together, they can watch their world die at my master's hands."
He turned slowly, riveting Lamia with his cold stare.
"Now, it's your turn to tell the truth."
Oh god oh god oh god... Lamia thought, trying hopelessly to shield Ellie. Now I'm going to die.
Knives was right; there was no way to run quietly through the field of bones. Still, Meryl chafed at the delay as they picked their way along. She kept thinking about the pain-filled scream she'd heard. There had been only one scream... did that mean the girls were still alive? Or had the stranger killed one of them in a way that left no opportunity to scream...?
Stop it, Meryl scolded herself. Lamia and Ellie are fine. I have to believe that.
Knives held up a hand to stop her, a moment before Meryl, too, heard voices ahead of them. No... one voice. A man's voice.
They crept forward and peered over the stacked bones. Meryl felt relief surge through her when she saw Lamia standing with Ellie clinging to her legs. They're all right...
The slim, wiry man standing in front of the capsules containing Wolfwood's family, talking to the girls, didn't look like someone who would frighten a Plant. He could almost have been an accountant or something... well, an accountant in a black bodysuit, which was kind of odd, but he still didn't look like such a bad person.
The man took a step towards Lamia, and Lamia shrank away, trying to protect Ellie. Meryl couldn't hear his words, but obviously he'd made some kind of threat. She remembered the scream, and thought, This guy has got to be more dangerous than he looks.
Still, the only weapon she could see was a small knife in his hand, and he didn't even hold it like he knew how to use it. This won't be so bad...
Meryl stood up, pointing both guns at him. "You! Freeze! Drop the knife and step away from those girls!"
Lamia twisted her head around, and Meryl saw, in surprise, the despair on her face. "Oh, Miss Meryl, no! Run! Run, quickly!"
What did he do to frighten her so badly? He doesn't even have a gun!
The man made no move to drop the knife. A slow smile spread across his face, and suddenly he didn't look like an accountant anymore.
"Well, well," he said. "Meryl Stryfe. It's a small world."
"How do you know my name?" Meryl demanded. "Have we met?"
"A long time ago... in a different lifetime, you might say," the man said, still with that quiet smile.
"Quit talking in riddles! In case you're too stupid to notice, I happen to have two guns pointed at your head, buddy! That's two more than you have!"
"What? These guns?"
As Meryl stared in horror, the guns slowly began to turn around in her hands, the metal slipping through her helpless fingers, until the barrels were both pointed at her head. She tried to drop them, but she couldn't move.
She couldn't move.
Oh, no... no... she'd only met one person who could do this sort of thing... but it couldn't be him, no, please, it couldn't be...
It was like being in a nightmare. She felt her own fingers begin to tighten on the triggers. She couldn't even move her eyes. All she could do was stare down the barrels of her own guns, wondering if she'd be able to see the bullet leave the chamber... or if it would all happen too fast...
"Meryl!" Oh, that stupid... Knives had jumped out of hiding. He wasn't even using the derringer she'd given him -- instead, to her shock and horror, he dropped it and seized one of her guns in each hand, wrenching them out of her unresponsive fingers. Meryl gave a cry of pain -- it felt like he'd broken both her trigger fingers. The guns discharged into the ceiling, the echoes rolling back and forth down the great open space.
Meryl discovered that she could move again and fell to her knees, gasping. She raised her head to yell at Knives for coming out of hiding, half expecting to find that the stranger had stabbed him -- but instead, she saw something much more bizarre.
The stranger, like Meryl, had fallen to his knees. He was staring at Knives with astonishment, awe. "Master," he whispered.
And Meryl realized... if this guy was actually Legato, in some weird inexplicable way, then Legato served Knives...
"What?" Knives said.
He had that open, confused Vash-look. Meryl could have strangled him, in spite of the fact that he'd just saved her life. Play along! Play along! she wanted to scream at him, but of course she couldn't without giving everything away.
But the man she could only think of as Legato was getting to his feet, staring at Knives. "No," he said softly. "You're not Him. You're only an empty shell... and now you will die with the rest of them."
He raised his hand, pointed it toward Knives. Meryl could see by the tension in Knives's shoulders that he was afraid, but he started walking towards Legato.
And Legato lowered his hand, the first hints of fear creeping into his voice. "Why -- can't I affect you?"
"Because ... I am your Master," Knives said. "I order you to let these women go."
He sounded as if he was reading from a poorly prepared script. Aargh, Meryl thought. He's a worse liar than Vash.
"You are not the Master. You're an imposter. A liar." But Legato's hand hesitated, and Meryl thought, Whatever he does, however he controls people, it really doesn't work on Knives! And he doesn't know how to deal with it.
Legato reached out and seized Ellie's wrist. "Come no closer, false one. Or I'll kill her. Do you want to watch her little eyes pop out of her head? She'll be conscious for the whole thing, I assure you."
Knives stopped in his tracks. Don't let him scare you, Knives, Meryl thought, her hands clenched so tightly that her fingernails cut bloody crescents in her palms. You're the only hope we've got.
"I command you to release that girl!" Knives snapped, and Meryl saw Legato's hand falter on Ellie's arm. He's been conditioned to obey that voice. He doesn't have a choice.
"I can't kill you," Legato said, his voice shaking. "I can't kill you! I can't control you! But -- follow me, false master! Follow me, or I'll break this girl's neck. Control... control is always in the hands of those who know how to exercise it."
"I'll come with you willingly if you release all of them," Knives said.
He would, Meryl realized. He really would.
Legato shook his head, his breath hissing between his teeth. "Oh, no. Not a chance. This --" He shook Ellie, who whimpered. "--this is the only control I have over you, and I'm not letting her go. Follow me!"
Dragging Ellie, with Knives walking helplessly in their wake, he strode past Lamia, past Meryl. Try as she might, Meryl could not budge an inch, and since she didn't hear any noise from Lamia's direction, it appeared the girl was frozen as well.
Knives looked back at Meryl, and his sad blue eyes seemed to say, I'm sorry. I'm sorry I failed.
And Meryl wanted to say, But you didn't fail! I'm alive! Lamia's alive! Just hang on... we'll find you and Ellie both. We'll save you.
She didn't know how much of that made it across the gulf between them. Knives turned his head away, and the sound of their footsteps on metal faded away.
Time stretched out like a long, long thread, measured only by Meryl's short, hard gasps for breath as she struggled to break free of the iron-hard control holding her in place. Sweat ran down her face and dripped from her nose. Then suddenly she was free. The shock was so great that she fell forward, and had to catch herself on her hands.
Picking herself up, she saw Lamia similarly collecting herself.
"Are you all right?" Meryl asked. "Can you walk?"
Lamia nodded wordlessly.
"Come on. Quick. But quiet."
She picked up her dropped guns and gave them to Lamia, drawing more for herself. I'm a one-woman armory, she thought, and almost laughed, the hysterical laughter that comes from great tension.
The two of them crept through the field of bones. The silence hung upon them like a shroud of death. Meryl was sure that they'd come around a corner to find Knives dead, Ellie dead, and Legato standing over the bodies, looking at them both with his golden predator's eyes...
But they made it to the door without incident. The door was closed again. Meryl drew a deep breath, got to one side and gestured Lamia to the other side, then pushed the button.
There was no one on the other side. The suns were just rising over the horizon. And you didn't have to be a tracker to tell that the three sets of tracks leading away were fresh.
In the slanting dawn light, Meryl and Lamia followed the tracks, away from the ship, up into the broken, tumbled rocks at the head of the canyon. Before they had gone even half a mile, the tracks were entirely lost in the rough terrain.
Meryl stood unmoving, staring up into the mountains. Somewhere up there... her best friend's child, and a man who had saved her life, were in the hands of a killer. And there was nothing she could do.
"Meryl," Lamia said softly. "Let's go get some food and figure out what to do."
Meryl nodded. Lamia was right. Together, the two of them started walking back to the ship.