Suddenly they stopped falling with a bone-jarring, but nonfatal, shock. Knives opened his eyes to discover that they were both floating about a hundred feet above the rocks. Tony dropped them to the ground in a series of short falls. When their feet touched the ground, he sank immediately to his knees, breathing heavily.
In spite of himself, Knives felt moved by compassion, but he reminded himself of the corpses in the ship, the neatly stacked bones. A single gunshot from above shocked him out of his contemplation, reminding him of Ellie and the other woman, Angie. Knives ran back to the cliff, but he could see immediately that he couldn't possibly climb it.
A movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention, and he turned just in time to see Sand appear out of thin air. It seemed that colored light, laced with blue, flowed together and wove about to create her thin form.
She was covered with blood, but she raised her head and glared at Knives from her fierce blue eyes, then whirled on Tony."Why is this still alive?"
Tony flattened himself on the ground."I cannot kill him, Master! I can't do it. I don't know why..."
"I do," Sand said."It's because he looks like I once did. Your conditioning is too deep, Legato. Well..." She approached Knives. She was clearly injured; blood dripped off her cloak, and she was hunched over as if in pain. He couldn't tell where she'd been hurt, however. She had both arms drawn under her cloak."Maybe he can be useful to us after all."
She spun back to Tony."Legato! Lift us to the top of the cliff."
Tony raised his head, and for the first time Knives saw emotion on his face -- abject terror."I cannot. It was all I could do to break our fall, Master..."
Sand approached him. She took a blood-covered hand from under her cloak and touched his face; he shivered, whether with fear or ecstacy Knives couldn't tell.
I see. You do not appear to have slept in some time.Will you be better once you have slept?
Knives jumped. He could hear their voices inside his head, and realized with shock that some of what he had assumed was the Plants communicating with each other had actually been the distant murmur of these two, speaking to each other across great distances.
Yes, Master. When Tony spoke to Sand, Knives could get glimpses of his emotions and thoughts as well. It was terrifying, like a ragged blade of insanity sawing at his own mind.
Then we'll rest here before we continue. It's not as if there's anywhere they can go.
Sand's thoughts were different, inscrutable and cold and blue, and terrifyingly familiar.
Yes, Master. This time there was something new in Tony's fractured thoughts -- confusion, surprise? It was quickly hidden, but Knives reached after it, trying to understand, and realized that Tony hadn't expected compassion from Sand. He had expected to be punished for his weakness.
Maybe she isn't what he thinks she is, either, Knives thought.
Sand turned and gave him a slow, calculating look. You can hear us, can't you?
Knives tried to look blank.
Sand waved her hand, and spoke aloud."Are any of your traveling caches near here, Tony?"
"There's one an hour's walk or so away."
"Good. We'll go there first. There should be food, water, medical supplies." Suddenly Sand pivoted on her heel."Tony, where is the Genesis Machine?"
"With me," Tony said, showing her the white suitcase. He hadn't let go of it, even during the fall. Knives suspected that he would have hung onto it even if the extra weight had meant they would both plunge to their deaths.
"Good," Sand said."Come. We'll eat, refresh these bodies, and then... we have work to do."
Vash, Wolfwood, Meryl and Lamia met Milly, Angie and Ellie at the doors of the ship.
Wolfwood hung back nervously behind Vash, particularly after noticing that Milly's trademark stungun had been replaced by a shotgun.
Angie saw the little group at the doors first, and she started waving wildly. Milly turned to her in shock, then looked forward, and for a moment her tired brain refused to acknowledge what she was seeing.
Vash... and Meryl... I must be going insane!
But it was. The two groups met on the sand in front of the doors, everyone talking wildly.
"But I thought you were--"
"How did you find--"
"I'm so glad to see you weren't--"
Amidst the general cacophany of voices, Wolfwood was silent, staying behind the others, craning for a glimpse of the girl he'd left behind, and the child that everyone said was his.
So that was Ellie. Wow. Adorable kid, with her mother's huge eyes, and his wild black hair... in the shock of the moment, his glazed eyes passed over the stubborn set to her chin and the obstinate way that her little feet were planted on the ground.
And Milly... Wolfwood was staggered by her beauty.
She'd been cute before, but now she was gorgeous. Simply gorgeous. Time had mellowed and matured her, filling out the promise that he had seen years ago.
He became aware that he was staring with his mouth open, and shut it. A second later, he became aware, as well, that she was staring at him.
The voices of the others faded to an indistinct murmur. The two of them might as well have been in a world that belonged only to them -- and included the child clinging to Milly's hand and staring nervously at Wolfwood.
"Mr. Priest..." Milly whispered.
He couldn't move. He only wanted her to not be angry at him, please God, he'd never ask for anything else, if only she wasn't angry at him --
The next thing he knew, her arms were around him, almost lifting him off his feet with the casual strength she wasn't aware she possessed.
"It can't be you," she mumbled."It can't be. It can't be." She pushed him away, and stared at him. Tears brimmed in her blue eyes."Is it you?"
"It's me," Wolfwood affirmed.
Milly's jaw started to come forward with a look Wolfwood -- heart sinking -- recognized all too well. It was the look she got whenever someone came between her and pudding. It was a look that was generally followed by a lot of breaking glass and screaming.
"And just where exactly--" she began.
But Ellie interrupted, yanking her hand free of her mother's."Mommie!" she cried, hiding behind Milly."It's that man! He's scary!"
Wolfwood stared at Ellie, and all of a sudden, something clicked in his head.
"Hey," he said."I've seen this kid before." He went down to one knee."Hey... Ellie, is it? Do you remember me? Were you in March City? I gave you a candy bar in March City. Remember?"
The child hesitated, and Wolfwood thought, Oh my God, it WAS her. I was that close to my daughter, and I never knew, I never even knew --
Milly spoke, and her voice sounded like she was fighting for self-control."She's -- she's your --"
"I know," Wolfwood said, looking up at her.
Ellie burst into tears and tried to kick him."I don't like you! You're scary!"
"What are you talking about? I gave you a candy bar, brat," Wolfwood said before he could stop himself, then quailed from Milly's glare.
"She's your kid, all right," Meryl said behind him.
Wolfwood looked up at her."She seems to be a bit shy."
"That's one word for it," Meryl muttered.
"Meryl..." Milly reached out and put a hand on her friend's shoulder."Meryl, thank you for taking care of my daughter. Thank you..."
Meryl shrugged and blushed, not sure what to say.
"Guys," Lamia said."Hey, guys!" She pointed at the clifftop, where they'd watched, from inside the ship, the trio of figures stand unmoving as Milly, Angie and Ellie had drawn ever closer to them over the sands.
The clifftop was empty now.
"We'd better go in," Lamia murmured.
They did. The door shuddered closed behind them.
"But that won't keep them out," Meryl said."They can just open it."
"I thought before..." Lamia said, and everyone looked at her."If we broke the opener, then no one would be able to get in. But someone would have to stay outside to do that."
There was a brief silence, then Meryl grinned.
"Not someone," she said."Something."
She turned to Vash and explained quickly about the defensive machinery that she and Lamia had discovered on the ship."Can you control them?"
"The Plant does that," Vash said."But I can explain to her what we need."
Wolfwood clapped his hands together."Okay, people! We have a plan! We're not going to sit here like sardines in a can--"
"Who put you in charge?" Lamia snapped at him."I'm the one who found those machines!"
"--hell no, we're gonna fight!" Wolfwood charged ahead, ignoring her."We need weapons! Lots of weapons! Vash, you go see if the Plant can help us. Meryl--"
"Lamia's right," Meryl said, arms crossed."Who did put you in charge?"
"Somebody's gotta be," Wolfwood retorted.
"Yeah, but who said it has to be you?"
Angie broke in."I don't know if anyone has thought about this, but while we're arguing, there's no telling where Tony and the others are--"
Galvanized by her words, the group split up immediately. Vash went up to the Plant chamber, and Wolfwood headed for the observation chamber to see if he could spot their enemies, with Milly and Ellie on his heels. Angie said that she knew how to do simple programming on the defensive machines, and so she went off towards the chamber full of them, with a nervous Lamia to show her the way.
Meryl was left, all alone, by the door. She rested a hand lightly against its cool metal surface.
In a few minutes, we'll be trapped in here, she thought. And they'll be out there. What then?
And what about Knives?
"What a lovely view!" Milly cried, leaning against the plastic enclosure of the observation chamber.
Wolfwood grinned. In a lot of ways she hadn't changed... all the ways that counted, really.
"Do you see anyone out there?" he asked, coming up beside her. Their shoulders were almost touching, and he could smell the soft scent of her hair. How could anyone who'd been in the desert for a week smell that good?
Milly shook her head, flinging light strands of hair that brushed against his cheek. On accident, he assumed... but maybe not.
She turned to look at him with her big blue eyes, and once again, he found himself struck by how beautiful she had become.
"I went back to the church, you know," she said.
"Every year, on the anniversary of your... death. I lit a candle for you, and every time, I knelt on the floor and tried to reach out to you, hoping that you were still watching over me. But I never felt anything. And then, each time, I tried to say goodbye... but I never felt a sense of closure. I felt as if I could put it all behind me if I could just find the right thing to do. But I never found what that right thing was. Going to the church didn't help. Staying away didn't help. And every time I'd look at Ellie and see her daddy in her eyes --" She broke off with a little gasp of pain.
"Don't have a daddy," Ellie said sullenly. She was sitting on the floor and refused to come near them.
"How could you?" Milly whispered."How could you... why didn't you call, or write, or something? How could you let us think you were dead?"
"Look, don't -- please don't cry. Sit down." He took her arm and helped her to the floor.
Milly shrugged off his hand, and dashed angrily at her eyes."Please explain it to me... in some way that makes sense. Please?"
"I wish I could," Wolfwood said."I wish I could explain it to myself."
"How did you survive?" Milly asked.
"Angie. She found me in the church, that day when I was shot. Angie and I... go way back. She took me out here, to this ship, and used the equipment to save my life. But then she disappeared... I later learned that she'd left with Tony, but at the time, I thought she'd been killed by Chapel. I didn't know yet that he was dead."
"Chapel... the man you went to fight."
"Yes. Legato killed him, but I didn't know that. I left the ship before I was really ready, and tried to walk out of the desert. I'd be dead if I hadn't been found."
Milly laughed softly to herself."Like that time we found you... when we first met. Do you make a habit of going for walks in the desert without water, preacher man?"
"Hey! I'd've taken water if I'd've had water, insurance girl."
Milly looked away."I'm not an insurance girl. Not any more. I quit working for Bernardelli after Ellie was born."
"Oh. Sorry. I didn't know."
She laughed."Don't be sorry. I don't miss it. Anyway... what happened to you then?"
He almost preferred being punched in the face by Vash. At least that way, he'd known what Vash felt. She was taking this much too well.
"I was sick for a long time after I got out of the desert," he said."When I was strong enough to travel, I went back... looking for the rest of you. And I found out from the news reports, and from talking to people, about the fights that had taken place, the bodies that were found. Parts of it were almost incoherent, but I pieced together what had happened. Legato was dead. Knives was dead or gone. The fight that I should have fought beside the rest of you was over, done, with no help from me."
He looked down at his hands."I was so ashamed, Milly! I kept thinking... if I'd been stronger... if I'd done things differently... I wanted so much to see all of you again, but then I'd talk myself out of it. I'd remind myself that you all thought I was dead, and that you probably wouldn't be very happy to have me show up in your lives again. I figured that you'd moved on, that you'd all moved on. And the more time that went by, the more I'd built it up into this great barrier in my head, until I was going out of my way to avoid the slightest chance of running into any of you. I tried to put together a new life for myself, but I couldn't hold onto anything. Everything that I tried to build fell apart, crumbled like sand. I couldn't keep a job. I'd try to buy a house or a car and then lose it somehow." He grinned faintly."Like my last motorcycle... as far as I know, it's still parked outside a hotel in November City. Unless someone's walked off with it."
Milly's hand moved to cover his. Her fingers were warm and smooth.
"You didn't have to be afraid," she said.
He laughed softly."I know that now. I wish I'd believed it at the time."
Milly's hand closed over his, squeezing gently.
"So how do you know Angie?" she said at last.
"She saved my life when I was a kid. After my parents were... killed." He shuddered slightly; Milly gave him a curious look, but he wasn't ready to talk about the carefully preserved bodies, not yet."She took me to my uncle Chapel. They raised me... most of the time. At one point Angie dropped me off at an orphanage. She knew what my uncle was like, a long time before I'd figured it out. I was happy at the orphanage -- in retrospect, one of the few times in my life I've really been happy -- but I left to find my uncle. I didn't think the family should be split up. I wish I hadn't."
He stared at the floor, lost in those long-ago memories of pain and betrayal. Milly's hand moved slowly across his... soothing him.
"After I left Uncle Chapel, I went back to the orphanage to find that it had run out of money and been abandoned. The wind was blowing sand through cracks in the walls where I remembered children running and playing... so I decided to fix it up, and give the children a place to come once again. I decided that I'd finally found something worthwhile to do with the skills Uncle Chapel had taught me. He'd taught me to be a killer, and so I'd kill -- but only to protect the kids. I hunted bounties to make money to keep the orphanage going. They didn't know, of course. They called me Big Brother Nick."
He looked up at Milly."I've never talked to anyone about this."
She squeezed his hand, encouraging.
"Man am I glad you guys are up here!"
Milly and Wolfwood both jumped and withdrew their hands with a guilty start as Lamia charged into the room. She was pale and shaking.
"What's wrong?" Milly said."Are you all right?"
"They've brought out... them," Lamia said, with a shudder.
"They?" Wolfwood said in a disinterested tone, glaring at the girl and hoping that she'd take the hint. She didn't.
"Them?" Milly added.
"Vash," Lamia said, pronouncing the syllable carefully as if to distinguish it from"her" Vash,"... and Angie. They've woke up those machines."
Under the direction of Vash, with the cooperation of the Plant and a little help from Angie, the ship's defensive machinery was moved from the cargo bay out into the open desert.
The doors to the bay were sealed by tons of rock, so they had to take the machines down the corridor. The things looked like balled-up spiders, with their massive steel limbs hunched almost double to fit down the narrow corridors. But they did as they were directed, hitching their way forward until they were outside and could expand to their full height.
Meryl had wholeheartedly believed that such a thing was possible, but it still gave her a little thrill of mingled fear and wonder to see the whole line of them marching obediently down the corridor and out into the sunshine. Fear because she remembered all too strongly what it felt like to stare into the blinking red eye of such machines -- and wonder, that humans could devise such a thing, and make it obey them.
Lamia had vanished. Meryl didn't blame her, since the girl had such bad memories of the creatures' attack.
Angie went running off; she said she had something important to do, but didn't elaborate. Vash and Meryl were left alone at the door.
"Well," Meryl said, brushing her hands on her hips."It's time to shut it."
Vash nodded."Good luck, all of you."
Meryl's eyes narrowed."What do you mean, 'all of you'? Where are you going to be?"
He gestured. His hand was still slightly shaky, and she wondered at the reserves of strength that kept him going when he should be resting. Should be in a coma, for that matter.
His hand pointed out. Into the desert.
"Out there," he said.
Meryl stared."You can't be serious!"
"You're planning to seal yourself out? But... why?"
"My brother is out there," Vash said simply.
Meryl's heart constricted, thinking of Knives.... the man she'd come to view as a friend. But she forced the feeling down inside."Vash... Tony is out there. Tony and a version of Knives who doesn't care if he hurts you. Don't go. It's suicide."
Vash smiled... that sweet smile that reached straight down into the soft core of herself, the part she'd thought she bricked up years ago."I can't die. I'm the Humanoid Typhoon, remember?"
Meryl gritted her teeth."Aren't you -- aren't you going to say... goodbye to everyone?"
He shook his head, looking sad."I think I've said everything I need to say."
To me? Even to me, Vash?
You never said...
Meryl choked off that thought.
Vash suddently slapped at his sides, reaching for pockets that were no longer there."My coat! What happened to my coat?"
"It was utterly destroyed," Meryl said, shaking herself back to reality."Just rags."
"Was anything left?" He looked oddly distraught.
"Does it matter? It's just a coat. You didn't have any sentimental attachment to it, did you?"
"Well, a little bit... but it's not that. There was something in the pocket that I need. I'd completely forgotten about it until right now... so much has happened." He drooped."It was probably destroyed along with the coat."
"You mean this?" Meryl reached into her pocket and took out a crumpled, soot-stained envelope."I found this in one of the pockets when I... tookitoffyou," she mumbled, blushing.
But Vash didn't notice; he was staring at the envelope. The words NICHOLAS WOLFWOOD were barely visible, almost obscured by soot."Yes! That's it! It's for Wolfwood, from the orphanage kids. Make sure that he gets it, okay?"
Meryl thrust the envelope roughly at him."You do it! I'm not your errand girl!"
Vash shook his head, and gently pushed the envelope back to her."You'd better. I want to make sure it gets there."
Meryl looked up at him, and his words slowly sank in.
"You ARE coming back from this," she said, in a tone that brooked no argument."Don't go out there if you don't think you'll come back."
"I have to. It's my brother out there."
"I don't care!" Meryl's voice rose almost to a scream."It's YOU in here! I waited six years to see you again! I thought you were going to die in the desert, and now you're up and walking around, and just like that you're going to walk back out there and maybe I'll never see you again -- damn you!"
"I have to," Vash repeated quietly."I don't ask you to understand. The machines will protect you, all of you, as long as they can. Hopefully you won't have to fight." He smiled faintly."But you can handle yourself in a fight, right?"
He turned and walked towards the open door.
He kept walking.
"Vash..." Meryl had never, in her life, begged anybody for anything. Something inside her bent, broke and snapped."Vash. Please. Please stop."
His head bowed, but he kept walking. He reached the door. He stepped over the sill, and reached for the control panel to close it.
"Vash!" Meryl screamed. Her voice was lost in the slamming of the door. She ran towards it just as she heard a sizzling crackle from the other side. At first she thought it was Legato, that he'd been waiting there all along -- but as she ran up to the door, slammed her fist against it, she realized what that sound had been: the lasers of the machines.
The door was sealed shut.
They were locked in... and Vash was locked out.
Meryl bashed her fist against the door, crumpling the letter into a wad of dirty paper."No! No! Damn you! Don't do this again! Don't walk away again! Vash..."
She fell to her knees on the floor, and, pressing her face against the cold metal, whispered brokenly,"I hate you. I hate you, Vash."
But that wasn't what she wanted to say. Not at all.
"I love you," her rebellious lips whispered, feeling the metal cold and gritty against them.
But Vash was too far away to hear.
Vash didn't look back. He plodded onward, ever onward, over the sands.
He was weak and shaky, thirsty and tired, but not in any danger of collapsing. A human in his situation would probably have fallen down ages ago, or at least would be so tormented by pain and exhaustion that they wouldn't be good for much.
But Vash... as he so often reminded himself ... wasn't human. And sometimes he was glad. Sometimes it helped him protect those he loved.
He weakened enough to cast a glance over his shoulder, at the dusty hulk of the Seeds vessel. Wolfwood, Meryl, Milly, Angie, Ellie, even Lamia. His friends. His family.
Fiercely he blinked back the hot tears springing into his eyes.
The machines trundled behind him, obedient even unto death.
He was aware of the soft, cool presence of the ship's Plant, somewhere beneath his consciousness. She had not turned away from him, as the others had. He didn't know why. He hadn't had time to talk to her -- to learn why the Plants were angry and unhappy, why they seemed to hate him. Maybe, if he died, all things would be revealed.
Maybe he would just go into darkness, never knowing.
He looked up and saw three small figures shimmering with heat, far away.
Vash walked towards them.
They met under the sweltering sun, iles from shelter. Vash stared at the trio -- he'd thought he was weak and sick, but they looked worse. Sand's body was a skinny caricature of a human being, with hot, staring eyes that never blinked. Tony looked like a man who'd been beaten by thugs and then left for a few days beneath the desert sun; however, his stance was tense, rested, and Vash knew he was still something to fear -- as was the white metal case he carried in his hand.
Vash's eyes were drawn beyond these two, however, to the tall blond figure who followed them. Knives -- the former Knives -- raised his pale head and fastened his eyes upon Vash. And, to Vash's utter amazement, he smiled. The smile was warm and natural.
"You must be Vash," he said."I've heard about you."
"I.." Vash couldn't breathe. It was Knives. And yet... it wasn't. Knives had never had that softness in his eyes. That light in his face.
Looking into Knives' face had always been like looking into a mirror, but a dark mirror, a broken mirror. Now, the reflection was true. They were twins. They had always been twins.
Vash wanted to weep, but now was not the time.
"You have something we need," Sand said, her voice a harsh rasp.
Vash looked at her, seeing the ravages that heat and dehydration had taken upon her slender frame."You are killing that body," he said simply.
Sand raised a shaking hand and pointed at the ship, its form almost lost through heat-shimmers."In that vessel is everything I need to heal my body. You'll help us get in, won't you?"
Vash shook his head."I've sealed the door. We can't get in, and won't. We're stuck out here."
Sand's eyes narrowed."Sealed the door? You think that will keep us out? Oh, Vash. What a fool you are. We are not creatures of time and space unless we choose to be, don't you know that?"
She turned to Knives."Legato. The case. I need it."
Tony wordlessly passed her the white metal case. She staggered with its weight, then turned back to Vash, and held out one skeletal hand.
"Let me show you, brother," she said."Let me show you all we can be, we creatures of both flesh and light."
Vash hesitated, so she seized his hand herself. Her grip was hard, bony and painful.
"You get in your way, Legato," she said."I'll meet you inside."
"Yes, Lord," Vash heard Tony say.
Then the world around Vash dissolved into blue light. He heard the Plant's voice in his head, terrified, screaming without words. He was almost too panicked to think -- the feeling was so like the Angel Arm, but without the utter loss of control. He was still himself. He clung to that feeling, that assurance, and felt the panic begin to ebb and come under control.
The light around them faded, and Sand released his hand. Vash looked around, blinking blue spots out of his vision. He was so disoriented that he had to piece together details until he realized where they were: the Plant chamber on the ship.
He looked forward and there was Angie, kneeling beneath the Plant's glass bubble. In front of her was the great cross-shape -- one half of the Genesis Machine.
And Sand had the other.
From the observation lounge, Wolfwood, Milly and Lamia watched Tony engage in battle with the machines.
Sand and Vash winked out in a blaze of rainbow light -- and while the observers were still blinking the streaks from their vision and trying to decide if they'd actually seen what they thought they'd seen, the machines attacked.
A heated battle followed, but slowly Tony's small, determined figure drew nearer and nearer to the ship. Sometimes he used Knives for a shield; more often, Knives trailed along behind. One machine after another was twisted and pulped into an unrecognizable steel sculpture.
After a while, one thing became abundantly clear.
"Tongariiiiiii...." Wolfwood moaned, banging his head against the glass enclosing the observation area.
"What?" Milly asked, curious and slightly concerned.
Wolfwood gave her a weary look."That idiot programmed them not to kill anybody. Including Tony."
"Oh," Milly said, and thought about it."That sounds like something Vash would do."
"Dammit Tongari!" Wolfwood railed at the sky."I've already died once! I don't intend to repeat that experience! I'll kill you!"
"Thought you were a pacifist," Lamia said.
Wolfwood glared at her."There's a fine line, though. And I think we're about to cross it. Even a pacifist condones the use of force to defend life and--" He glanced at Ellie, curled up on Milly's lap."Family," he finished.
"Good," Lamia said. She slammed a fist into her palm."I can't wait to kick that little jerk's butt!"
The last of the machines sank to the sand in a crumpled heap of metal, and Tony stood triumphantly in front of the sealed doors of the ship. He looked back at Knives, trailing behind him. Knives' injured arm hung at his side, crusty with dried blood.
"I may not be able to kill you, false master," Tony said."But you will have the pleasure of watching the human race die at our master's hands, and that gives me some consolation."
Knives smiled slightly. He couldn't explain why the despair that had settled upon him, ever since he'd been Tony's prisoner, had suddenly lifted. One look into Vash's blue-green eyes had done it. There was a shadow of sadness on those eyes -- but also a conviction that there was good in the world, and that goodness was nothing more than treating others as you would wish to be treated, and trying to live each day as the best possible person that you can be. It wasn't high ideals, it wasn't religion, it was nothing more than that simple concept -- and along with that went the absolute conviction that goodness would win, it had to, there was no alternative.
Knives had seen all that in Vash's eyes in that one glance. And though he didn't believe all of it, he still felt buoyed by it, and for the first time his pain was eased slightly by the hope that everything might work out somehow.
"Your master doesn't seem to be able to kill me either," he said.
He wasn't sure why he said it, or where he'd gotten that impression, but he was quite sure of it. He could see such a strange mix of emotions in the blond girl's eyes whenever she looked at him -- hate, fear, and an eerie wonder. He thought that she would destroy him if it was within her power to do so.
Tony gave him a level look of pure hate."Our Master is perfect. He does nothing that he does not intend."
"You're only saying that because you have a computer chip in your head that's telling you to say it," Knives said -- once again, not sure quite how he knew that, but positive that it was true.
He thought for a moment how tired he was of his mind having parties without inviting the rest of him along. How nice it would be to wake up and discover that the last few weeks of amnesia and misery had all been a dream, and he was actually a father of four in a nice suburban little house with a nice suburban little wife...
"So they think this'll stop me, huh?" Tony said, ignoring Knives."Fools."
The door split down the middle, rending itself in two with a horrifying screech of metal. The two halves of the door folded gently back like the petals of a giant chrome flower.
Tony swayed slightly."You're still weak," Knives said.
"Be quiet, false master," Tony snapped."I am strong enough to do what my Master wills of me."
Knives sighed, and prayed quietly -- though he had no idea to what diety, since he didn't believe in any -- that he would be able somehow to help his friends and thwart whatever Tony and his master were planning. He still hoped he'd wake up and find that this had all been a dream, but he wasn't at all sure that he expected that to happen. He followed Tony onto the ship.
Angie had made a desperate, last-ditch attempt to understand the Genesis Machine.
Just as years ago, she'd run tests and diagnostics on the thing. It was partly made of Plant material, and partly of normal metal -- that she already knew. Much of it had been retrofitted into a weapon, a giant gun. She also knew that. But it was a gun that never needed to be reloaded, because it had just enough Plant matter in it to manufacture its own bullets. And, with the same ability, it could change shape between the easy-to-carry suitcase and the much more intimidating cross-shaped gun that Daniel had preferred.
Years and years ago, Alex Saverem had split the Genesis Machine into two parts, and given them to his children. Daniel -- Chapel -- had turned both into weapons, hoping to take advantage of the power of the Plant contained within them, in order to create a super-weapon. But he'd had only partial success. When he finally gave Karen's half of the machine to her son, Nicholas, he hadn't told the boy about any of the machine's special properties. He'd warned Angie not to talk, either. He was afraid Nicholas would unlock the secrets of the Genesis Machine and possess all that power.
Is that what it's about? Angie thought. Power? Energy? Is that the only secret of the Genesis Machine?
Finally, sad and scared and desperate, she took the unfolded Genesis Machine in her arms and carried it to the chamber of the Plant. As she drew closer and closer, she became aware of a sensation that she could only describe as a heavy weight pressed against the back of her eyes. It felt like an incipient migraine, like a powerful change in air pressure before a tornado.
Angie had never been susceptible to Plant communication, unlike many other people she'd known. Some humans could enter the Plant chambers and commune with them. They described the feeling as a oneness with nature, a feeling that transcended drugs or religion. Angie had never experienced that. She'd never been completely sure if the Plants were sentient beings or not.
But she could feel this, and she had no doubt that the Plant was trying to prevent her from bringing the Genesis Machine any closer. If she'd been susceptible to the Plants' mental communication, she wondered if she might be rolling on the floor with pain.
"Listen," she said aloud."I need your help. We all do."
The pressure did not lessen, but she ignored it, and carried the cross over the threshold of the Plant's room. The light bulb in the middle of the room was alive with energy, the Plant clearly anxious and agitated.
"I don't care," Angie said firmly. She crossed the room and laid the Genesis Machine down under the light bulb."You know what this is. You know what this does. If you don't tell us, we're all going to die. Including you. Do you understand death?"
She stared up into the seething brightness until her eyes watered, but felt nothing, no enlightenment, only the gentle pressure on the back of her mind. The Plant must have been shrieking for her to even feel that much.
"Please," Angie said."Help us."
She strove to penetrate the eye-watering blue glow. Was that a human shape inside the light? Was it watching her? Was it aware of her?
The voice might have spoken aloud into her ear. But it wasn't a voice she knew. It wasn't a human voice. The Plant had spoken to her.
Compelled by that overwhelming sense of fear and urgency, Angie spun around, to be confronted with Vash and Sand.
She stared."How'd you get in here?"
"Get out!" Vash cried, his blue eyes wide and panicked."Angie. For the love of God! Run!"
Sand wearily tossed a white case down, where it clattered on the metal floor. Angie's eyes followed it in horror. The other half of the Genesis Machine. Oh, no. No.
Angie started to back away. Sand raised her head. Her eyes flared blue, and Angie froze, paralyzed by the memory of that blue light falling across them.
"Angie!" Vash screamed.
The Plant was alive with blue fire. Lightning crackled from its surface, splintered across all nearby metal objects.
Angie backed away. She could almost hear the Plant screaming. Almost.
Suddenly the metal floor shuddered underfoot. Angie almost lost her balance.
Sand's head snapped up and she stared at the Plant."What was that?" she demanded.
From the observation lounge, the observers watched Tony casually peel away the sealed door, like a man peeling an orange. The metal clattered in a heap behind him.
"Good lord," Wolfwood whispered.
"We have to stop him," Lamia said, but no one moved towards the door. Finally Wolfwood whirled.
"Stay here," he snapped at the women.
"Hey!" Lamia said."What's this, some kind of chauvinist--"
She trailed off, rendered speechless (for a change) by the look in his eyes.
"This bastard killed my family," Wolfwood said quietly."He's not leaving here alive. I don't care if it means I have to die again. It'll be worth it."
"Nicholas," Milly said.
It was the first, and only, time she had ever spoken his first name. He looked at her with eyes full of pain, and said to both the women,"Protect the kid, would you?" Then he turned and ran out.
He went down the ladders and corridors, and each step he took was easier. Finally he reached the front hall. He saw Tony silhouetted in the streaming desert sunlight.
The ship shuddered underfoot and Wolfwood reached out, grabbed onto the wall for support. Unlike Angie, he didn't wonder about what was causing it. He was too busy staring at the man who had, directly or indirectly, been responsible for the shattering of his life when he was a child.
"Tony," he said."Tony?"
The pale head came up; the yellow eyes stared at him.
"Who are you?" Tony Blanchard said.
"My name is Wolfwood. Nicholas Wolfwood."
Tony smiled slowly."Ah. The missing child. Yessss...."
"I've seen what you did to my family."
"I'm going to kill you," Wolfwood said.
He realized, even as he said it, the futility of that casual statement. He was unarmed. He hadn't even thought about that before coming down here.
"Well, let's discuss that," Tony said quietly."We can talk while we walk downstairs."
Wolfwood struggled, but his feet were moving in spite of himself.
Shit. Shit. Shit. Moron. Moron. Moron.
"So," Tony said conversationally, as they walked through the ship."What brings you here, Nicholas?"
"Go to hell."
Tony raised an eyebrow."Such language."
"Who are you?" Wolfwood burst out."I need to know."
"What are you talking about? You 'need' to know. I owe you nothing."
"You killed my family. You owe me an explanation." And your life, you bastard -- and I WILL take it somehow.
"Ah." Tony said nothing, for so long that Wolfwood finally looked back to see what he was doing. His head was bowed and he was looking at his hands.
"Maybe I do, after all," he said."You see, your great-grandmother, Nadia Wolfwood, was my -- my -- my lover. Love of my life. The mere thought of her kept me sane, throughout many, many years on this ship.
"But she was not true to me. She woke from our eternal sleep before I did, and took another lover, and had a child. She..." His voice trailed off, and Wolfwood heard pain, ancient pain."I spent so long, waiting for her, but did she wait for me? No, not at all. I finally found her. She was old. Her children had children."
"So you killed them," Wolfwood said.
They turned a corner and bones confronted them, bones everywhere. An appropriate place for such a story, he thought grimly.
"I did," Tony said."And then... what? I wandered, lost, for many years. I found a purpose for being, at last, here. I found a new life in the service of Our Master."
"Don't speak his name!" Tony snapped.
"But I don't understand everything," Wolfwood said carefully."How is it that you can do the things you do with your mind? Not everyone can do that." Nobody, frankly, except one person.
Tony laughed."I have a computer chip in my brain," he said."I was an experiment, to see if it was possible to use conditioning to train any human to use the abilities that Our Master's favored servant -- that I -- that he possessed naturally."
Legato, Wolfwood thought. He had no idea what a computer chip was, but he thought he understood what it might do."Mind control? Like the thing Zazzie the Beast had to control the sandworms?" he said."That's vile."
"No. A recording. The same technology that we used to use back on Earth to teach lessons to schoolchildren. A chip containing recorded thought patterns is implanted into the student's head. Gradually those thought patterns become part of the student's own mind. It's the best way to learn a physical skill, like handwriting or drawing. Normally the brain would fumble around on its own until it came upon the right neurological pathways. This way, you bypass the fumbling stage and get right on with learning how to make it work."
"So you have a recording of Legato's ... thoughts ... in your head?" Wolfwood said."That still sound vile to me."
"I am Legato," Tony said quietly."In order to get to what makes those powers work, we couldn't stick to the surface thoughts, the way they used to do in the schools back home. It was necessary to take recordings of the deepest thought processes... down to the reptile hindbrain itself. The brain learns to follow the mental pathways that it's given."
"No... you're a psychopath with some of Legato's memories and delusions of grandeur. That doesn't make you him."
Nice going, Nicholas, he thought to himself, wincing. Make him mad...
But he had no opportunity to find out if he'd upset Tony or not. The ship shuddered violently and then began to tilt, and went on tilting. Wolfwood stumbled and fell into the wall, and for a moment he felt the control over him break. He stumbled and caught himself, and felt, as he did so, a small cold hardness against his leg.
That's right. His knife, in its leg sheathe. For a moment he recalled the day when he and Vash had gone up against the Murder Machines, he armed with nothing but Vash's knife, and he smiled faintly.
Are you even still alive, Tongari? Looks like things come full circle after all. I've got a knife. I can make this work. And if I don't... at least I'll die trying.
With the renewed shaking of the deck underfoot, Angie recovered from the paralysis holding her. She gave Vash a tormented look and then sprinted from the Plant chamber. Sand -- Knives -- didn't try to stop her. He was staring at the white cross on the floor, and the metal case beside it.
"At last," he whispered."Reunited."
He reached down with his one remaining hand and pressed the buttons on the white metal case, causing it to spring open into its natural form.
Vash gasped. Knives ignored him. Yes, the shape that this half of the Genesis Machine assumed was the cross that Wolfwood used to carry -- that traitor.
Now... how did the two go together?
He was dimly aware of the Plant's agitation. However, she was powerless against him. She could not truly affect the material world. This was the price the Plants paid for their voluntary withdrawal from the physical world.
This Plant surprised him; she was far more interested in the lives of mortal beings than her kind tended to be. Still, she was only, ultimately, a means to an end.
This was the truth, the cold, hard, cruel truth that he had come to realize.
The Plants were no more advanced than the humans.
This had hurt, hurt so badly that he'd clung to blindness for many, many years. But it was true. The Plants, in their own way, were as cruel, as cynical, as blind and short-sighted as humans.
And they both had to go.
Something spoke deep inside his brain, saying, This is wrong, wrong, wrong. The same voice that had spoken before and stopped him from punishing Legato's inability to follow his commands.
Vash would say it is"Sand." But there is no"Sand."
"Knives," Vash was saying."Knives, please. Look at me."
Knives ignored him, kneeling beside the Machine.
"Knives," Vash cried."But why do you want the Genesis Machine? Its nature is to destroy the Plants and create a paradise for humans -- the exact opposite of what you've been trying to achieve!"
Knives finally looked up, and shook his small, blond head, laughing softly to himself. Vash, too, suffered from the same flaw as them all: his vision fell short in the most critical elements."How shortsighted you are. All the Genesis Machine does is harness the power of all the Plants, working together. What you choose to do with that power is up to the operator. Certainly, you could terraform this world... if you wanted to. But that burst of energy could also be used to cauterize the planet's surface of the human infection that has spread across it."
"But every Plant would die!"
"A necessary sacrifice."
"But -- I don't understand!" Vash cried."Killing the spider to save the butterfly... I can almost understand that! It's despicable, but I can understand it! But this -- what do you strive for, if not to save your own kind?"
Knives shook his head."You're right, you really don't understand. You never have, Vash. It has taken me a long time to realize this, a long, painful, soul-searching time -- but you and I are something new. Unique. Wonderful. The Plants are not our kind any more than the humans. Look at them! Fleeing from the world, hiding behind their shells of light. They don't know what we know: what it's like to feel the wind on your face, the sand beneath your feet! And what's worse, they deliberately turn away from it! Each one of them, like us, spends their infancy walking about the world. Then they turn their back on all its beauty and shut themselves into comtemplation of their precious 'oneness'. Vash, I do not believe that the Plants are a pinnacle of evolution, and we, the land-bound form, merely a vestige of an earlier stage in their development. No -- we, you and I, are the higher, more evolved form! Every child is an experiment in evolution, combining the best traits of their parents. Creatures of flesh and creatures of light. Vash..." He held out his hand. Sand's hand."All we have to do is cleanse the world. Wipe them away. All of them. Human and Plant alike. Then a new and better world will begin."
Vash slapped his hand away.
"You're insane. Insane to even contemplate something so horrible -- and crazier yet to think I'd join you."
"But I can't do it alone," Knives protested."You and I -- we're meant to be together. We are part of one another. Don't you feel me in your head?"
"All Plants are part of one another! Don't you know that? If you think you'll survive their death, Knives, you're even crazier than I thought you were. Even if you survive the power surge, their death agony will cost you your mind."
"One must be strong, to start a new world."
The agitation of the Plant crackled in the back of his mind. And then he stumbled as the deck shifted under his feet.
Something was definitely happening.
The Plant didn't know a whole lot, as mortal beings counted knowledge. But she knew what she was meant to do. She knew her purpose.
She had not fulfilled her purpose in untold years. She didn't count time as mortals did; still, she was aware that time had passed, and that the ship that had once been her body was falling into disrepair. Trapped in her prison, she had been aware of each defect in its surface. Each tiny flaw in the vessel that she'd once been responsible for was magnified a thousand times in her awareness. It hurt, but she had learned to live with that pain.
Now this new pain, this fear, was beyond bearing, and she wondered -- was the source of the pain the fact that she hadn't fulfilled her purpose? If she only did what she was meant to do, could she find peace again?
For this ship, her body, was hurt -- but not incapable of flight.
The deck beneath Meryl's feet was alive, thrumming with energy.
She had met up with Milly, Lamia and Ellie, and together the group of them made their way deeper into the ship.
Meryl spun in shock, and saw Knives -- Knives! Alive! He was pale and covered with dirt and dried blood, but very much alive.
"You--" she began, but Lamia went flying past, and flung her arms around him. Knives staggered."Ouch..."
Lamia let go immediately."Sorry." She looked up at him."It is you, isn't it?"
"As opposed to whom?" Knives asked drily.
Angie came around a bend in the corridor, and stopped, gasping, when she saw Knives."Eric! You're all right!"
"Eric?" Meryl said.
"Long story." He smiled at her, and Meryl, shocked, realized that she no longer saw Vash in that smile. Not now that she'd seen Vash again, and touched him, and been assured of his reality. No... all that she saw now was Knives. Or whoever he was. A person who didn't really have a name.. but her friend, nonetheless.
The deck shuddered underfoot and they all staggered.
"What's going on?" Milly asked, clutching Ellie.
Angie looked around nervously."I think... it's almost like it's trying to take off."
"Take off?" Meryl echoed."What do you mean?"
Milly seized Meryl by the arm."Never mind all that! Nicholas -- we have to find Nicholas!"
Meryl didn't comment on her recent switch to his first name. She had an inkling of why... she'd discovered Vash again, after all."Fine. C'mon."
"No, wait--" Angie said."There's something important--"
They rounded a corner and they were in the chamber of bones. And then the first real shock happened. One end of the floor they were standing on started to lift -- and went on lifting -- and lifting --
Bones tumbled past them, a hundred bones, a thousand bones, falling crazily, their careful patterns broken into chaos. Milly screamed and reached for Ellie. Meryl gasped as something hard hit her in the head and she saw stars.
They were all falling and fetched up in various places, tangled in a mess of bones. Meryl raised her head and saw light, and thought, I've been hit in the head and I'm seeing things... But she wasn't seeing things. The side of the ship, right in front of them, was coming away from the mountain. The huge gash that had been torn in the metal skin by the rocks was slowly peeling away... and light streamed in, and Meryl could see blue sky through it, and feel, underfoot, a steady shuddering of the deck, and feel its tilting, and she thought, insanely, We're flying...
Vash and Knives were pitched across the deck. The crosses both skittered across the floor in different directions.
Vash picked himself up and started towards Knives, who was grimly rearranging the crosses as best he could with only one hand.
"What are you doing?" Vash yelled at him. Knives ignored him. Vash seized him by the shoulders, trying not to see the girl's face, trying to focus through it, onto his brother's mind.
"The reaction must have a catalyst!" Knives snapped.
"Who -- the Plant? That would destroy her! That's murder!"
But what's the death of one Plant, when he's planning on killing them all, Vash thought. Along with the humans. Meryl was right. I deluded myself if I ever thought he could change...
But Knives had never seemed that crazy before. Vash stared at him, wishing that he could understand.
What has he done to himself? He had to have been paranoid, more paranoid than I ever dreamed, to take such a drastic step as trying to grow himself a new body. How did he even imagine such an impossible thing would work?
But it had worked.
The deck tilted again and they both went tumbling across the room. We're airborne, Vash thought in disbelief. He could feel the strain throughout the entire vessel, or rather, what was left of it. Vash tried to imagine what it must look like -- a battered, rusted wreck, rising slowly over the mountains. Probably enough to terrify anyone in the vicinity.
What is she doing, though? he thought wildly, staring at the Plant. She can't be planning to go to space, can she? The ship can't possibly withstand hard vacuum in the shape it's in. It'll decompress and we'll all --
-- we'll all die --
He looked again at Knives, Knives in Sand's body. And the human race, the Plant race, will both be saved.
Killing the spider to save the butterfly.
But he couldn't let it end like that. He'd had too many of those decisions to make in his life, and always, always, he'd tried to choose the right path. The lesser of two evils was still evil. Two wrongs never make a right.
Oh, Rem... what's the right thing to do?
But he knew, and he managed to get to his feet on the shuddering deck, and stumbled towards the Plant. The ship lurched and he almost fell, but he caught himself with one outflung hand on her glass shell. Energy crackled over his fingers, so intense it hurt. She was in danger of overloading herself. Space wouldn't have a chance to kill them -- the Plant would blow them up along with herself if she didn't calm down.
"Stop!" Vash cried, trying to radiate a calm he didn't feel."It's all right, Sister! Easy! Take us back down."
He couldn't tell if he'd had any effect, but the ship seemed to level off. He could tell they were still moving, probably at a horrifying speed, but they didn't seem to be headed for outer space anymore.
*Well played, brother. You made the right choice.*
Vash, startled, looked into Sand's wide blue eyes.
What? he thought.
*You heard me.*
It was Knives talking to him. But the link between them had never been that strong. A general awareness of each others' presence, sometimes a feeling that the other was hurting or in danger... that was as far as it went.
Or maybe... Knives had never been this powerful before.
*It has nothing to do with that*, Knives thought impatiently. *I've finally begun to master the limitations of this physical form. We are energy beings, brother. Matter, shape and space are nothing to us. Raised by humans, we thought of ourselves as humans, and never dared to explore the true reality of all we can be. We do not need lips to communicate, or feet to travel, any more than the Plants do. But at the same time, we can only realize our full potential in partnership with a physical form.*
*All Plants are born in physical bodies, don't you know that, Brother? Ask any Plant technician... better do it quick, though, since I'm about to kill them all. Normally the Plant abandons its landbound form quickly, voluntarily, seeking union with the others of its kind.*
*But that preference for energy over matter makes the Plants as blind, as limited, as human beings with their pathetic physical form. Don't you see? Without a physical body to take refuge in, a Plant is at the mercy of the physical world. They need to be contained in glass or they would eventually disperse among the energy of the cosmos, if they let themselves. Yet they are afraid of physical bodies, repulsed by them.*
*Do you see, brother?* Sand's eyes were alive with blue light, but the rest of her face was horribly slack and dead. For a moment, Vash saw a glowing corona around her -- and, just for an instant, a spark of renewed life in her face. Sand -- was she still alive in there? Then the glowing corona faded back into her body.
Knives reached out his blood-stained hand -- the small, girl's hand -- and touched Vash's face. *This physical body is only a shell we wear. You could be free of it, but you need not abandon the physical world that you so love. The best of both worlds, that's what we are. A perfect union of the physical and spiritual--*
"Shut up!" Vash screamed aloud.
He could barely speak for his fury."All I see is that you've chosen to become some kind of -- of demon, stealing physical bodies to suit yourself! How dare you suggest that I'm like you!"
*The interesting thing* Knives mused, ignoring Vash's outburst. *The interesting thing is that the body I used to wear, abandoned by me, seems to have spontaneously developed a personality in my absence. How very interesting. I'll have to keep it around to find out why...*
Vash stared at him in mingled horror and disbelief.
"Can you just -- leave your body, like that? Take -- take over another?"
Knives shook his head. *It's not easy at all. It took me years to figure out how to do it. And it's not possible to enter a body that already has a personality. It fights back. That's why I was preparing child bodies for myself. The first and only time that I've really, truly made that switch was after our fight at Demetery. I didn't even know what I was doing, really, or how I did it. And once I came back to myself enough to realize what had happened, I didn't know how to get back.*
"But there was already a personality in the child's body -- it had only just begun to form."
*An aberration* Knives retorted. *It grew while my strength returned. You see, I am a part of this body now -- my energy suffuses its entire form. Without that energy, the being you persist in calling"Knives" is no more than a human. Just an empty physical shell.*
Or, Vash thought, it's Knives as he could have been -- the same mind, the same emotions, but with a fresh start, without the abuse and fear he received on the ship.
*I'm gaining more control each day* Knives said. *I think I'm getting closer and closer to understanding what we can do. The Genesis Machine won't harm us, Vash, because we have physical forms -- we're not pure energy. We can use it to purify the world and start over. A fresh start, just as you were thinking just now -- but for an entire planet! Imagine it!*
"Genocide," Vash whispered."Your vision is horrible, Knives."
Knives stared back at him, and suddenly Vash had the weird, unsettling feeling that he was no longer looking into Knives' eyes.
"Not anymore," said Sand's soft voice."No.. not anymore. I won't let him win. I won't ... I won't!"
Then the ship plowed headlong into a mountain.
The ship lurched violently underfoot. A hail of flying bones deluged Wolfwood and Tony, and Wolfwood realized that he was still free of Tony's control.
Run or fight?
It wasn't much of a choice.
Knife in hand, he threw himself at the smaller man, knocking Tony over. The floor was now tilted at an extreme angle and the two of them started sliding uncontrollably. The ship was tilted on its long axis and there was nothing to stop them from falling into its dark, damaged depths--
-- until it leveled off.
Wolfwood and Tony tumbled apart. Wolfwood had only managed to graze him with the knife, leaving a bloody streak across his cheek.
"Fool," Tony said wearily.
Wolfwood felt his hand twist, the knife fall from his suddenly boneless fingers. Damn, he thought. Oh, well. I've died once... they say everything is easier the second time around...
They'd fallen a long way down the ship, he realized. Although it was difficult to recognize anything, with the bones tossed around like driftwood, he thought they were near the place where his family had been interred. And realized that he was right when he found himself force-marched by Tony towards the very familiar, still-intact capsules.
No... I don't want to see...
But they were still there... his mother and father, his brother and sister, his grandmother, his cousin Lucas. And the empty casket with his name on it.
He discovered that Tony's inescapable will was forcing him towards that.
"Hey!" Wolfwood gasped.
Tony was smiling, a grim smile, his yellow eyes flaring with malice."I've waited thirty years for this. Nadia's entire line of descendants. Everything she created. Wiped out."
Not Ellie, you bastard. But he didn't even dare think it too loudly. Oh, Milly, take our daughter... take her someplace safe and don't ever let him find out...
He cried out and struggled, but his body was forced forward. Now Tony was trying to get him to enter the capsule -- still alive; he didn't even want to think about what Tony had in mind -- and he could fight this a little better. Tony was good at gross motor control, but controlling the small muscles for fine movements -- that, he wasn't so good at. Wolfwood could only manage sharp, uncontrolled jerks of his body, but those were sufficient to keep twisting his body so that Tony couldn't get him into the small space.
"This is ridiculous," Tony snapped, and Wolfwood felt a great pressure, like a hand pressing upon him. Obviously Tony was giving up on the delicate route and resorting to brute force. The edge of the capsule door was pressing into his elbow; the sensation grew rapidly from discomfort into agony, and he realized, in horror, that Tony had every intention of forcing him into the capsule even if it tore his arms off.
His head was already inside. He could see nothing but darkness, feel nothing but the pain of his body being compressed. Claustrophobia descended onto him, suffocating him.
This is it... this is how I die...
A gunshot rang out and echoed, echoed, echoed down the great space of the ship's interior.
Wolfwood gasped and fell as the pressure on his body was released. Turning his head -- the only movement he could manage at the moment -- he saw Tony frozen, half-turned, blood running down one of his arms. Beyond him, Meryl was standing with one foot braced firmly on a pile of bones, a derringer in each hand.
"Damn!" she yelled, shooting again. The rolling of the ship was throwing off her aim, and this time she missed Tony entirely.
Behind her, Wolfwood saw Milly, with Ellie, and Angie, and ... Knives?
"You bitch," Tony snarled, and Meryl dropped the guns and fell to her knees, screaming as her hands were twisted backwards.
But now Wolfwood was free and he jumped at Tony, not really sure what he meant to do, just determined that somehow, he was going to stop this crazy bastard.
But he never actually hit Tony, because the ship hit something. There was a horrid screech of metal and the deck yawed crazily to the side, and sunlight streamed in upon them as the metal was peeled back. The ship rolled back and they got a wild view of rocks streaming by, impossibly fast, and for a moment it seemed that they were about to tumble out that hole, but then the ship tilted again and they all sprawled on the deck, shaken.
Wolfwood picked himself up slowly. Wind screamed through the opening. He could see the ragged tops of mountain peaks whipping by. God, are we flying...? -- this isn't possible -- and then the ship hit another mountaintop, but this time the damage was somewhere else, and the scream of the tortured metal was transmitted through the ship's hull to vibrate beneath their feet.
Wolfwood stared out the hole in the side and thought, We're gonna crash. There's no two ways about it. No way we can survive this.
He looked around wildly for the others. Tony was climbing to his feet, unharmed, his attention fixed on Meryl Stryfe. He had forced the guns from her hands and lifted her off the floor. Wolfwood realized with shock that he appeared to be planning to throw her out the side.
Milly gave a piercing scream. She, Angie, Lamia and Ellie were all being dragged in similar fashion. Knives grabbed hold of Milly, the nearest person to him, bracing his feet and trying to stop her progress. She screamed again and started trying to fight him off.
Even as horror gripped Wolfwood, he realized something. Tony's much, much weaker than he used to be. Milly had told him about Tony killing the Bad Lads from the inside out. If he could do such a thing, surely he would have done it by now -- just as he'd been unable to control Wolfwood's smaller movements, he was apparently able to do little more than manhandle the women around. And Meryl's progress had slowed to a crawl -- as if handling the other three at the same time was taxing him to his limits. Throwing them off the ship might be the only way he could kill them now.
Of course, at the height they were and the speed at which they were moving, being thrown out was fatal enough for anyone's taste.
Wolfwood picked up what looked like a thighbone off the floor (sending a brief, apologetic prayer to the previous owner's soul) and moved towards Tony as quietly as possible. He swung -- but felt a barrier slam into him, knocking him backwards and knocking the impromptu weapon out of his hands. He sprawled onto the shuddering deck.
Tony looked over his shoulder, his yellow eyes expressionless."Did you truly believe I'd forgotten about you?"
But when he took his attention off the others, his control wavered and Milly and Angie broke free. Milly swung out her shotgun and fired at him. Tony deflected it, but he was forced backwards, towards the hole in the side of the ship.
Aha! Wolfwood thought.
Meryl had managed to grab hold of a metal spire projecting from one side of the ship's great interior -- evidently something to hook more of the capsules onto. It looked slender from this distance but was actually almost as thick as Meryl's body, and she was trying to hook herself around it, making it impossible for Tony to keep moving her while she tried to fumble out another gun.
Don't! Wolfwood thought at her desperately, but he didn't dare shout it out loud. If Tony had been willing to tear Wolfwood's arms off to force him into the capsule, then he would probably be happy to force her against the spire until she died.
"Tony," said Knives.
He walked forward, stepping carefully around the bones.
"Stay away from me, false master," Tony hissed.
"I order you to let these people go."
Tony laughed."I don't have to obey you! I obey my true master, and that is--"
"No one!" screamed a voice from behind Knives.
Angie was struggling forward."Tony! Tony Blanchard! You're the captain of Project Seeds Unit 423! You don't take orders from anyone!"
Tony faltered, and, seizing the opportunity, Knives jumped at him. The two of them toppled to the very edge of the gaping hole in the side of the ship. They struggled, throwing themselves back and forth, near to the edge, then farther away.
Wolfwood hesitated. They could both fall... wouldn't we both be safer that way...
But Vash... Vash would never speak to me again...
Damn Tongari ... how does he manage to put me in these situations?
He turned, in shock, to see that Milly had made her way to his side.
She put her lips against his ear."Tony fell off a cliff. And he's back. He didn't die. If they fall, Tony won't be gone."
Wolfwood stared at her."I never thought I'd hear you suggesting killing someone, Milly."
"He threatened my daughter," Milly said simply.
Wolfwood stared at her, thinking, Damn, I'm glad she wasn't mad at me for being dead. At least, I think she wasn't mad at me...
He looked up just in time to see Tony throw Knives over the edge. Blond hair whipping in the wind, not making a sound, Knives vanished.
Tony stood frozen for a minute, and Wolfwood thought, He didn't mean to do that, did he...?
"Tony," Angie said, starting to approach him.
He looked at her, his yellow eyes blazing. There was nothing even remotely sane in his face. Crouching on the very lip of the hole in the ship's side, apparently oblivious to the wind tearing at his body, he placed both hands on the deck.
"All this power," he said softly, and laughed."All this power, and nothing to do with it... except die."
"Tony!" Angie yelled."What are you doing!"
But it became apparent as the ship lurched and rolled. He was using his power on the whole, damaged, rusting hulk... and, impossibly, it was responding.
He was trying to make them crash.
The ship tilted again and they all tumbled towards the opening -- except Meryl, still gamely clinging to her spire, who could only watch in horror as her friends fell.
Tony, perched on the edge, laughed.
Wolfwood sprawled at the edge of the opening, catching Milly and pushing her back. Then he saw something astonishing.
The metal side of the hull was peeled back, and there, clinging to the ragged metal, was Knives.
He had only fallen a few dozen feet, and now he was trying to crawl back to the opening. Blood trailed from his palms, where the torn metal had lashed them to ribbons. He was clearly exhausted. Each time he took a new handhold, his grip was a little looser, as the screaming wind flattened him against the side of the ship.
Wolfwood took a deep breath, and thought of Knives and Vash, of guns and crosses and trust and betrayal, of the future of humanity, of choices and decisions. And extended his hand.
Knives lunged and caught it. For a moment they were suspended above the ground, and the wind was screaming so loudly that time seemed to stop and they existed in a dreamlike silence. Then the ship rolled the other way and they both tumbled back across the deck, sprawling against Milly. The straining of the ship's engines was audible, vibrating through the stressed metal.
Wolfwood turned to look towards Tony just as they hit another mountaintop. Tony didn't see it until too late. The wall of rock hurtled towards them, unstoppable as a freight train... Tony started to turn but even his reflexes weren't fast enough... the ship tore across the mountain with a horrible scream of tortured metal... and when they ripped across and through, the hole in the hull had been gouged and widened, and all that remained of Tony was a little blood on the deck.
Milly gave a small, startled shriek. Wolfwood just stared.
He crawled to the edge, half expecting that Tony would be clinging to the side, as Knives had been. But it wasn't possible. There was just enough left of Tony, spread across the hull, that it was quite evident he wasn't coming back from this one.
Wolfwood scrambled away from the side and looked around at the others.
Angie was holding Ellie, with the child's face buried in her side, clearly in a state of shock. Meryl was trying to get down from the spire. Milly was picking herself up, turning to see about Knives, who was futilely trying to wipe the blood off his lacerated palms. Dimly, Wolfwood was aware of a sickening drop in his stomach -- but he'd never been in a plane or an express elevator, so he wasn't familiar with that sudden falling feeling, unaware that the ship was losing altitude at a horrifying rate.
We did it, he thought. We won.
Then they crashed.
The collision sheared off two entire decks and ripped open the ceiling of the Plant's chamber. A massive fracture tore down the side, and debris avalanched inward, burying Vash and Sand.
A beam slammed into Vash's head and for a moment his consciousness scattered, but he managed to drag himself back -- back to the screaming of wind blowing through the opening in the hall, back to the sight of Sand, looking like an angel with her flying golden hair, struggling out from under the massive pieces of metal.
"Sand --" he gasped."Is it you? Or my brother?"
"Me. I mean, Sand." Sand was shivering with the effort of maintaining control."I never went away. I've heard everything he said, saw everything he did. I... I won't let this happen! I can't hold out for very long, but --"
She cast about for the Genesis Machine. She found one of the giant crosses free of the debris, and the other partially buried. She dragged it out.
"Sand! What are you doing?"
"It's my Voice, isn't it? I'll deal with this. It's not your turn, Vash. Stop trying to be the hero!"
Sand grabbed the giant crosses, one in her remaining hand, the other under her arm, and struggled toward the giant hole in the ship's hull.
"No!" Vash screamed, struggling to free himself from the rubble.
Sand's thin body was framed in the sunlight streaming in through the ragged hole. Wind tore at her clothing, and she braced against it, trying to keep her precarious grip on the crosses.
"No!" With a tremendous effort, Vash wrenched himself free of the debris, screaming in pain as his newly healing skin was torn off in sheets by the ragged edges of metal. He flung himself towards Sand just as she leaned forward, wind-streamed blond hair shining in the sun, her body relaxing as she no longer fought the wind but let it catch her, and Vash found himself thinking, Is this my destiny -- always reaching, always too late, too late --
As Sand's blond head vanished against the blue, blue sky, Vash lunged and caught Wolfwood's Cross Punisher by the very tip of its long arm -- with his mechanical hand, fortunately, since the combined weight of the two crosses and Sand's momentum would have broken every finger on a normal human hand. The weight slammed into him and flattened his body to the floor. Vash braced his legs against the jagged edges of metal and leaned cautiously over, looking down.
The wind caught his hair and savaged his face with it, bringing tears to his eyes from the stinging pain. They could already have crossed half the world at the speed they were moving. The ground scrolled by, unimaginably far below. Mountain peaks rose, terrifyingly close, and then fell away. Below him, Sand was like a rag doll, battered by the wind. Yet she clung tenaciously to the cross in Vash's hand, and kept the other one clamped tight against her side.
"Drop it!" Vash screamed. The wind tore his words away as they left his mouth and he wasn't sure she could hear him -- wasn't sure she was still conscious to hear him."Drop the cross! I can pull you up with this one, but together, they're too heavy!"
Slowly Sand's head turned and she looked up at him. Through a cloud of lashing blond hair, her blue eyes were clear.
"And then what?" she yelled back."A thing that can destroy our kind -- loose somewhere on this world! And the evil that lives in me will still be there, looking for a way to do just that ..."
They flew through a rare cloud, and the moisture dampened Vash's dry lips, sent beads of water skittering from the metal of the cross. The wind seemed to pierce his face with needles of ice."There's another way! There has to be! You... my brother... please..."
"There is no other way! Let go of me, please. Knives and I will destroy this thing together. You've done enough, Vash. Let us fight this f--"
Her words broke off in a scream. A mountain peak loomed before them at a dizzying angle. Vash caught a wild glimpse of rocks, close enough it seemed they would scrape the skin off his face -- then one side of the ship slammed into something unseen, and the deck rolled wildly. His grip on the wet and freezing cross slipped. He caught a last glimpse of Sand's face, smiling at him, and then her body tumbled into the maelstrom of wind. The ship rolled, and for a moment all he could see was blue sky -- then it rolled again, and Vash caught himself to keep from falling out as suddenly the desert loomed beneath his head. He could still see Sand falling, falling, tucking her little body into a ball, hugging the crosses to herself. The great arms of the crosses, thrust out to either side, made her look like a strange, exotic insect, and Vash had one brief moment in which to hope that somehow they could combine to slow her fall -- when light blossomed out from the tumbling figure of girl and machine, blue light filling the entire world.
The ship rocked again with a hideous screech of metal, and dropped sickeningly -- Vash was lifted into the air, and it felt as if they dropped several thousand feet before there was another bone-jarring crash. The ship skipped and skittered, the deck tilted at a 90-degree angle and Vash had to catch hold again to keep from being flung out the hole. Through the opening he caught crazy glimpses of sky and rock, sky and rock, like a movie projector broken and spinning out of control.
The ship sheared off to one side, debris went flying through the air, there was a final sickening crunch and, suddenly, they weren't moving anymore.
Vash found that he was lying on his back, gasping for breath. All he could see through the opening was sky. He couldn't tell if they were on the ground or dangling from a mountain peak ten thousand feet above the desert floor. And, at the moment, he didn't care. He wondered briefly if Sand had done the task wrong, if the blue flash he'd seen had not been the Genesis Machine being destroyed, but the thing coming to life -- if even now, a wave of energy was about to roll over him and smother him. He would have welcomed it if it had.
But nothing happened. He was alone in the chamber. Alone... with the Plant.
Her glow, which had flickered almost to nothing after the crash, began slowly filling the room again -- a light bulb turning up the voltage. Vash got to his feet, slow and shaky. He hurt all over, but worst of all was the deep emptiness inside.
Everything he touched turned to ashes.
He limped slowly over to the giant lightbulb, beyond tears, beyond fatigue, and stood looking up at her. The Plant's housing seemed undamaged. As for the Plant herself -- well, only they could judge such things. At least she wasn't screaming anymore.
"But I'm not one of you, am I," Vash said aloud, bitterly."I'm not human, not Plant... I'm just the Humanoid Typhoon, the man who destroys cities."
My brother is dead... truly and finally...
The Plant settled down to the bottom of her glass bell. She seemed to be looking at him. Overlaid on her face, Vash could see his own reflection in the glass, a vision of what she must be seeing -- a skinny blond coatrack of a man, tattered and bleeding, face gaunt with despair.
No wonder the Plants had turned away from him.
But this one wasn't turning away. Instead, she reached out, touching the glass. Startled, Vash touched it back. It was the first time that any of them had ever initiated contact with him. Always before, they had been responding to his clumsy attempts to communicate. He'd been under the impression that they could not even perceive the beings, such as humans, that existed in normal space and time, at least not to the point of understanding them to be fellow thinking, living creatures.
The light washed down and around him. It wasn't like any Plant contact that he'd experienced before -- which had always been a wordless, healing exchange, the Plant sharing its energy with him as he shared his with it. This was focused, purposeful. Although he'd always believed that the Plants did not experience want or desire -- this Plant seemed to want something from him.
Vash closed his eyes and stopped pushing against it, gave himself over to the light raining down from the Plant. Light washed over him, through him... shone through his closed eyelids as if his eyes were open. He might have fallen, might have hit the floor. He wasn't sure.
Vash opened his eyes and a woman was standing there, clothed in light, smiling at him.
She looked a little like Rem, a little like Meryl, but it was hard to say more. Her features had an odd way of shifting around on her face, as if human skin was an unaccustomed suit of clothing, and she had to keep smoothing out wrinkles.
"Uh... hi," Vash said.
"Hi," she said, still smiling. Even her voice sounded a bit like Rem.
She must be using my memories to communicate with me. Or maybe this is only something my brain is creating to cope with the unfamiliar input.
But I'm like her. I'm one of her people. It shouldn't be so hard for me to communicate with them...
Knives couldn't be right...
The woman slowly lost her smile. She seated herself, folding her legs neatly under her. She seemed to be sitting on pure light. Vash hesitantly did likewise.
"Where are we?" he said.
The woman tilted her head to one side, looking confused."Where?"
"This place, what is it?"
"You are still thinking of yourself as attached to time and place. Trying to filter the world through a mortal body's eyes. It doesn't have to be that way."
Vash blinked. It was a bit disconcerting, after having her merely stare at him and mimick his words, to have her come out with a speech like that.
"I've never spoken to a Plant before," he said."I've shared energy with them..."
"Yes. That is true communication. This... this is clumsy. It is like... crawling after you have flown? Yes. Like that. It is a poor substitute for oneness in crippled beings who are... "
She hunted for the word, struggling to express in words a concept her people did not have.
"...Separate," she said at last.
"So all Plants are joined," Vash said."I'd suspected it."
"I do not understand," she said."Joined? Connotations of ... physical beings coming together ... ah. Perhaps that is close enough. You do not understand oneness?"
"I've felt it," Vash said, remembering, with a pang, the feeling of enfolding acceptance that he'd experienced from the Plants in the past.
There was none of that here. This Plant's level gaze was not hostile, but not particularly friendly either.
"You... and the one you call Knives ... you are not part of the oneness. That's wrong. That's not how we are meant to be. It... I don't know the word. It hurts us?"
"Hurts you? What do you mean?"
She shook her head, frustrated."This is such a terrible way to communicate. Causes us... despair? No. We don't feel anything like what you mean by that word. There is only lack of oneness. This disrupts us. Yes, that's more like what I mean. It separates us from the oneness. The missing ones are disrupted worse than the rest."
"The missing ones?"
The Plant raised her hands in exasperation."I can't explain anything this way!" She reached out her hand and suddenly he saw a blaze of blue light, people running, buildings falling down -- for a horrifying instant he thought it was July, but then he began to recognize landmarks. He was looking at March City, and the final death throes of the Plant. At the same time he felt an overwhelming feeling of sadness. Not all of it was his own.
The vision faded.
"Missing..." Vash said."You mean... dead."
"We know only separation," the Plant said."To voluntarily separate onesself... that is insanity. Yet so many of our people are going insane. And you are the cause!"
Vash recoiled."That can't be!"
"Like ripples in a pond," the Plant said softly,"your presence has spread among our kind... slowly, slowly, but we can all feel you, more and more. We are all one. So you must be part of us. But you are not like us. This has driven some of us insane."
Vash felt tears begin in his eyes. Never... he'd never imagined anything like this."Sister, I... I never meant..."
"I know," she said in a voice barely louder than a whisper.
Vash pressed his hands against his face. From the darkness behind his eyes, he saw Rem's face form, and desperately he asked her: What can I do, Rem? How can I ever make THIS right?
The dream-Rem only smiled at him, and turned her face away.
What does that mean, Rem? Are you angry at me? Do you blame me, too?
But the dream-Rem was looking into a scene Vash recognized from his own memory. It was the destruction of March City, as he'd seen it earlier visualized by the Plant, but this time he saw the people of the city running, terrified; the man who had been terribly burned; the thousands who would be left homeless or starve. And he realized something:
The Plants didn't care.
The welfare of humans was unimportant to them. They neither understood nor cared that human existence on this world was entirely dependent on them. The Plant engineers used Plant energy to terraform worlds, but the Plants didn't even realize that it was being done. Or if they did, they didn't understand.
He opened his eyes.
"Your pain hurts me," Vash said simply."Maybe that is what you mean by oneness. But the humans' pain hurts me, too. When the Plant in March City died, she took several humans with her. She had no concern for their lives as she lashed about in her death agony. That's just as wrong."
The Plant looked at him blankly."Those beings were not part of the oneness. Their deaths should not hurt us."
"But they're living beings. They deserve to live just as much as we do."
"But they are not part of the oneness," the Plant repeated, still confused.
"They are living beings like you. I don't know what I can do, but I have to help them, just as I have to help the Plant kind."
"But... if you stay apart from the oneness, we will continue to feel your ... apartness. We can't bear it. It hurts us."
"Maybe if you sever yourselves from me..." His heart panged at the thought.
"How horrible!" she protested."We don't know how to do that!"
"Then maybe I could open myself up somehow, so you could look inside me... After all, people always fear what they don't understand. Perhaps if you could understand what it's like to be separate from a unity, it wouldn't hurt you."
"I don't think that's possible."
"Can you try? You say that we are one. Let me show you what it means to be human. Maybe if you understand it, you won't be harmed by it."
"Maybe it will destroy us all," she said softly.
Vash held out his hand."Please, Sister. This is as frightening for me as it is for you."
Hesitantly, she took his hand. Vash felt the blue light open up around him. Thoughts of July filled his head. He wanted, with all his heart, to pull his hand back and break the connection. But instead, for the first time, he didn't fight it. He let himself fall into the light... into his memories, his thoughts, his feelings. He knew the Plant was sharing them with him.
Her flawless face twisted."What... what is that?"
"Loneliness," Vash said quietly.
"Yes, it is."
"Awful..." She broke away and rocked back and forth, clutching her head in her hands.
Vash knelt and put his arms around her."I'm sorry to hurt you, Sister. But you must look deeper..."
"Much more," Vash said quietly, and he opened up to her as well as he knew how.
A long time seemed to pass, but there was no time in this place. And Vash found that he was crying, and so was the Plant. Tears of light slipped down her face. She seemed startled, reaching up and touching her face fearfully.
"Tears," Vash said.
"How can beings live like that?" the Plant asked him."Unable to feel each other's presence... unable to communicate. How can they know anything about each other?"
"Because humans can't know each other, as your kind does, they must reach out beyond the limits of their skins in order to connect with others. It's clumsy, and hard and frightening for them."
"But it's not. Look , Sister. Don't you see...? Don't you see the courage it takes for them to do that, unable to see under another's skin, never knowing if their fragile efforts will be slapped back ... or accepted, and allowed to thrive..."
She sat quietly, thinking about it.
"Can you show your people?" Vash asked her."Show them what humans are... show them that humans are as much like you as they are different. Show them that you needn't be harmed by our presence."
"They already know, now that I know," she said, and added after a moment,"You must understand that I am not... entirely... I have more interest in humanity than most of my people. More awareness of them. My physical shell has been out in the desert for a long, long time. Sometimes I find... more interest in the physical than is normal for our kind."
Vash smiled past the pain in his heart."So there is variation among you, as well."
She touched his face lightly with her long fingers.
"I do not think you're one of us any more ... Vash. You are as much of them as you are of us."
"But not really either," Vash admitted, feeling the old loneliness surge up until it threatened to overwhelm him. All his life, whenever living as a human had grown almost unbearable, he had held out to himself the thought of eternal peace in the blue light. It was hard to accept that he was no more accepted among the Plants than among the humans.
"No... don't think of yourself that way. A bridge, Vash. A bridge is what you are, between our two kinds. Of neither. Of both. Who knows what the future will hold?"
Someone was crying. Vash had to touch his own eyes to realize that it wasn't him.
"Who is that?" he asked the Plant.
She smiled faintly."It must be time for you to go back to the humans."
"You're sad," Vash said,"but not sad to see me go, I think."
"You'd be wrong about that," the Plant said."I... am glad that you've shown us the things that you did, I think. I don't know what will happen now. Maybe we'll change. Maybe we won't. Even we don't know the future."
"Thank you, too," Vash said, and added after a moment,"Thank you for giving me a purpose."
"To be a bridge. Like you said."
Then he felt something strike his face, hot and wet, and he realized that he wasn't in the light any more. He hurt. He hurt all over. He was aware of cold, hard floor under his back, and someone was crying.
"You ... stupid ... spiky-headed ... idiot! What did you think you were doing? What happened up here?" The voice was familiar, but through his haze of weariness, sorrow and physical pain, he couldn't figure out whose voice it was. Yet he sensed that it sounded... wrong. It was punctuated by harsh, heart-broken sobs. He felt more tears strike his face.
"Why did you go out there by yourself? Why do you always have to be the hero? What's wrong with you?"
He finally placed the voice. Meryl. And with that, he got up the strength to open his eyes.
Meryl screamed and flew backwards a good ten feet, falling to the floor on her backside. She put her hand over her heart, gasping.
"Va- Va- Va- Vash!"
"Are you all right?" he asked, sitting up.
"I -- I --" she stammered, staring at him."I thought you were dead!"
"Why?" Vash said, confused.
"I-- I came up here and you were just lying there... not breathing... what am I supposed to think, you moron!" Her voice had risen to a yell and she scrambled to her feet.
Vash was almost relieved. It had freaked him out to see Meryl hurt, vulnerable and crying; seeing her red-faced with anger rather than tears had a pleasant rightness that put his personal universe back in order.
Meryl was still ranting."--had no right, you broom-headed lunatic! What did you think you were doing, just lying like a lump and letting me make a total fool out of myself--"
"Were you worried about me?" Vash said.
Meryl stared at him, then picked up the nearest piece of debris and flung it. Vash dodged easily.
"How is everyone?" he asked her."Are they all right?"
Meryl took a deep breath, sighed, appeared to get control of herself, and nodded."Tony... Tony was..." She shook her head."Tony is dead. And we seem to be on the ground again."
Vash nodded."We -- we could be on the other side of the world."
Meryl half-smiled at him."Why don't we go down and get the others, and find out ... shall we?"
When they arrived, the small group were taking stock of their injuries and tending to them. Lamia was binding Knives' wounded hands. Milly sat with Ellie on her lap, helping Wolfwood wrap up his leg, which had started bleeding again from the old gunshot wound. Angie was binding her own wrist, which had been sprained in the crash, using strips torn from her skirt.
"Everyone's all right," Vash said, with infinite relief.
They looked up."Vash!" Angie cried gladly.
"Hey, Tongari," Wolfwood said."Where's Sa--" He broke off, perhaps seeing something in Vash's face that gave him pause.
Angie pointed at the hole in the side of the ship. The way the vehicle had ended up laying on the ground, the hole was above them, and sunlight shafted down, sending beams through the clouds of dust raised by the crash.
"We can get out there, but I don't know how we can all get up to it," she said.
"You don't have to," Meryl said, smiling."Where we just came from, there's a hole within easy reach -- in the Plant's room."
They all trooped up to the Plant chamber -- Vash noticing that she was quiescent again, her light dimmed -- and peered out.
"The moment of truth," Vash muttered, and lowered himself stiffly and painfully to the ground. Immediately he heard a thunk! from behind him, then another thunk! and a muffled ow.
Vash looked around to see that Meryl and Wolfwood had joined him.
"Like we're letting you have all the fun, Tongari," Wolfwood said.
The ship had plowed into a sand dune, in the foothills of some range of mountains. Behind them, the peaks towered impossibly high against a blazing sky. In front of them, the sands stretched out in gently undulating ridges, to infinity.
"Where the hell are we?" Wolfwood said.
"We seem to have crossed at least a couple time zones," Vash said.
"Tough to explain."
"So when are you going to tell us what happened up there?" Wolfwood asked.
The others were letting themselves down. Milly climbed down first; then Lamia handed down Ellie, and gave Knives a hand, before jumping down herself. Angie followed.
Vash was oblivious to them, looking at Wolfwood with eyes full of pain.
"Dead," he said shortly. If he let himself start thinking about it -- start feeling it -- he wouldn't be able to function, and right now he didn't have that luxury.
"And Knives. Well, the other Knives."
"Oh. Shit. Sorry, Tongari."
"I came in to find him flat on his back, with the Plant raining down light on him," Meryl said.
"The Plant spoke to me," Vash said."It talked ... it... I..." Suddenly he began to feel like he was on the verge of understanding the whole thing, the comprehension that just might make his life meaningful -- and he had to talk about it, he had to try to explain, even if no one else on the planet could possibly understand. Before he knew it, he was babbling, as usual.
"I almost think Knives -- the other Knives -- has some of it right," Vash said."The Plants aren't the be-all and end-all of evolution. They're not higher than humans in any way. Just ... different. Maybe there's something better waiting for all of us many years down the road, or maybe we'll always just keep struggling along as we have been ... human and Plant alike ..."
His friends were staring at him quizzically. Vash smiled at them.
"I like this," he said."I like being here. I like being alive. Knives spoke the truth when he said I could have joined the Plants ... my ancestors ... whenever I wanted. I've actually known that for a long time. I could have made it all stop -- the pain, the doubt -- and just floated in endless contemplation as they do. But for me, it would have been endless loneliness. And guilt. I can't turn my back on the world and be happy. I'm just not like that. I've been among humans too long. And guess what?" He raised his arms skyward."I don't believe ... the feelings I feel ... are a weakness. If anything, the weakness is in the Plants, who shun what they consider the failings of lesser species. All the Plants have the ability to walk the world in corporeal form as humans do. They just don't want to. But I like being here with all of you."
He stared up at the sky. There was a brief silence, and no one seemed to know what to say.
Wolfwood broke it.
"So if you're done pontificating, Tongari, some of us are getting hungry waiting for you to fini-- ow!"
"Shut up, idiot," said Meryl, who had driven her elbow into his side. But she bore a suspicious trace of a smile.
"Christ, woman! I'm injured!"
"Not as injured as you're going to be in a minute."
Suddenly Milly started laughing. Everyone looked at her.
"Do any of you know where we are?" she asked between giggles.
"Spit it out," Lamia said.
"We're about a day's walk from March City." Milly pointed."It's right behind those hills."
They all stood and stared in the direction that she was pointing, and Wolfwood said,"By God, she's right. This is the badlands beyond the city. We've come home."
"But March City is dying," Meryl said."When we were there, everyone was fleeing. Without the Plant, it's a dead place."
Wolfwood jerked a thumb over his shoulder."Yeah... so where do we know a Plant who isn't doing anything?"
Vash laughed."That's a wonderful idea! I think she'd like to feel useful."
"So let's go," Lamia said.
"Hold on there, little buckaroo," Wolfwood said, easing himself down onto a rock and ignoring Lamia's annoyed glare."If we just leave the ship here, we'll come back to find the thing gutted and all the lost tech gone, including the Plant. We'd better leave someone here to guard it. So the question becomes, which of us are healthy enough to walk out? I, for example, am not."
"He's right," Angie said.
"I'm fine," Lamia said, slinging her rifle across her shoulder, and stifling a slight wince as it hit a bruise.
"Vash can't walk that far," Meryl said.
"So how about this?" Angie asked."Lamia and I will walk into town. When we get there, we'll hire a cab or something to come back out and get the rest of you."
Vash frowned."Will you two be all right? You might meet bandits --"
Angie shook her head."This is Bad Lad territory. Word will start getting around that the Lads are... gone, but at this point, it should be fairly safe. The most we might run into are scavengers drawn by the crashing ship, and they don't tend to be heavily armed."
Knives stood up, leaning on the side of the ship."I can come with you."
"You look like you're about to fall down," Lamia said.
"I'm healing." To prove it, he flexed his arm, and gritted his teeth with pain.
"We can handle ourselves," Lamia said."You don't have to be macho for us."
"I'm fine. I can do it."
Lamia and Angie looked at each other."Well, if he really wants to come..." Angie said."But we're not going to carry you if you fall down."
"I'll be all right. I promise."
"You know..." Lamia said, as the three of them began walking forward across the shifting sands."We really need to think of a name for you..."
"Hey!" Wolfwood called, cupping his hands around his mouth."If you three aren't back by noon tomorrow, we're sending somebody to find you!"
"We'll be fine!" Angie called back, waving."Have the Plant whip us up a nice steak dinner! And keep it warm!"
"Can do! Take care, Angie!"
"For crying out loud," Lamia hollered over her shoulder."You'd think we were leaving for years, not a day and a half!"
"Don't forget to write!" Meryl called, grinning.
The two groups continued to wave and exchange barbed comments until Angie, Lamia and Knives vanished over the dunes.
"I hope they'll be okay," Milly said.
"Trust me," said Meryl."Lamia's too ornery to die."
Wolfwood laughed suddenly."Hey, check it out."
"We're all back together again. The Four Musketeers in the desert. Well, the Five Musketeers," he amended, with a soft glance at Ellie, who had crawled onto Milly's lap.
"I'm hungry," Ellie whined.
"I could eat a horse," Vash said.
"What's a horse?" Meryl asked.
"An Earth animal. I'll show you pictures sometime."
"Do they taste good?"
"Most likely not," Vash said.
Milly scrambled to her feet, letting Ellie down to the sand."Well, why don't I go see what I can rustle up? I love these food-making machines! They even do the dishes! They might not have horse, though..."
"I'll help," Wolfwood said, with a sideways glance at Vash and Meryl. He held out a hand to Ellie."Hey, wanna hold my hand, sweetheart?"
"No," Ellie said, hiding behind Milly.
"Here, I can help too--" Meryl began.
"No, no, no," Wolfwood said."Sit. You two look worn out."
"We can manage fine," Milly said."Come on, sugar, hold Daddy's hand."
"She'll come around," Milly said to Wolfwood, as they started to walk back into the ship."She's at a difficult age, you know..."
"Hey!" Meryl called after them."Hey! You two!"
"Oh, let them have some time together," Vash said, gazing up at the blue, blue sky.
"Time together, my butt. You know why they're leaving us alone together, don't you?"
"No, why?" Vash asked, looking at her with wide, innocent aqua eyes.
Meryl folded her arms and looked away."I forgot how much you annoy me."
"I annoy you?"
"Hey! What's that supposed to mean, buster?"
"Nothing, nothing..." Vash looked away, eyes raised angelically.
Meryl sighed and kicked at a rock.
"So much has happened in the last few days," she said."It's hard to believe that two weeks ago, I was sitting at my desk sorting paperwork."
"Are you going back to Bernardelli's, do you think?"
"I don't know. I enjoy the work, but... it's easy to get stuck in a career rut. I never thought I'd say it, but I've missed being out in the open desert, feeling the wind in my hair..."
"The sand in your coffee," Vash said, grinning.
"Well, there is something to be said for civilization, I suppose," Meryl said. Then she noticed that his face had grown wistful.
"Sand," Vash said, looking away."I couldn't save her, Meryl."
"Oh, Vash. You try, but you can't be expected to save everybody. Nobody deserves a burden like that."
He shrugged, not looking at her.
"Do you want to talk about what happened?" Meryl asked softly.
Vash hesitated, and shook his head."No. Not yet. Maybe... someday."
Meryl's small hand reached across, and gently took his.
"We have time," she said.
My deepest thanks to everyone who has stuck in there with me, given feedback and enjoyed reading "Sand and Light." This has been for you, the Trigun fans -- and I've enjoyed every minute of it.
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