A sleepover! It had been a very long time since she had last been on a sleepover, and there was also that bit about getting away from the boys for a night. They just didn't understand that there were certain things that she had to do in private, and simply waiting until they were asleep to do them just wasn't good enough. Her mother had been very clear on that. Sharing a room with another lady would be just wonderful, especially with how Mr. Vash had been getting lately. Wolfwood, though...
A little celebration was definitely in order. A little for the sleepover, and a bunch for herself- it wasn't every day that you'd get a marriage proposal! This called for cake! Well, no, that wouldn't really be fair to Rinnah. Pie, then? But who ever heard of pie on a sleepover? It just didn't sound right... Ah, pizza pie! As luck would have it, there was some sold right below. ...Oh dear, what toppings would Rinnah like? Well, when in doubt, little big sister always said that extra cheese never went wrong, so extra cheese it was.
After much celebration and a few odd questions from Rinnah (though why would she look like a cat that caught a canary? Had she grown cat ears and fur, then maybe, but she certainly didn't look anything like a cat regardless of what it had caught). Still, it was great fun to just sit and talk about things with someone who really understood, unlike the boys who would always have something important to do and weren't too keen on some subjects. However, her eyes felt droopy after a while, and she was going to try and get up early-ish tomorrow, so off to bed.
The pizza, while not of the highest quality- being made out of mostly grease with some cheese and bread added -did manage a bit of a struggle during the night. It found itself completely overmatched by the legendary Thompson digestive works, which had more in common with nuclear reactor containment vessels than a typical human stomach. It still put up a good effort, and managed to make things slightly more interesting than usual that night...
The four of them were walking along through the desert. It wasn't that hot, except for Mr. Vash, who was looking rather scary up front.
"You really shouldn't get so grumpy, it'll make you get old and wrinkled."
"GRRR! KNIVES MAKE ME ANGRY! HE WON'T LIKE ME WHEN I'M ANGRY!"
She jumped back at that, and hid behind Wolfwood. Mr. Vash was practically turning green, so he must be very angry indeed, and since most people just turned red when angry, this had to be angry angry. He also looked to be getting bigger. Weren't green giants supposed to be jolly? Oh dear, nothing was right anymore, not since Meryl...
"Don't worry beautiful, we're going to go make Knives very sorry for what he did, and then everything with be wonderful and we'll go get married and start a family. Doesn't that sound great?"
She smiled up at Wolfwood. That did sound great, though they had to go through Knives first, and that wouldn't be easy. It would likely be very tough. Still, they were friends and they had truth and justice and hope on their side, while Knives was all bitter and mean and downright nasty, so they could do this.
Suddenly they were there. There were trees and shiny solar panels and a few squat ugly bunkers around them. This was where Knives lived. The doors cracked open, and creepy black smoke poured out, rising up and covering the sky. Then lots and lots of minions came out, looking very dangerous and shouting all sorts of bad things at them. Then the really nasty minions came out, and yellow-eyes and that cross dresser, and lastly him.
She was trembling in her boots and wanted nothing better than to run away, but they were together in this, and had to help each other. Wolfwood patted her shoulder, and she gave him a weak smile. A mighty clanking came from behind, and she spun around to see Rinnah driving a loader-thing, like she had seen once in the big city working to load a steamer. It had looked very imposing back then, and still looked very imposing now, with those big claw-things for hands, like it was going to go fight some horrible Alien monster.
The minions all yelled and rushed them, and there was no time to think. She couldn't quite muster the nerve to shoot them dead, since they were just being tricked after all. She settled for punching them hard, and made them cry. It wasn't a nice thing to do, but they were doing a bad thing by working for Knives. Rinnah didn't look to be feeling to bad about hurting them as she tossed them around with the big claws and occasionally had the loader shoot flames that set their pants on fire. Soon all the minions were down on the ground, writhing and moaning.
Unfortunately, so was Mr. Vash. She knew that being all angry like that was the wrong thing to be, and sure enough, Mr. Vash just couldn't fight right with all those bad feelings in the way. Still, this wasn't good for them, since Knives and yellow-eyes and that nasty Elendira were still standing.
"Stand back honey, I'll take care of this."
She glanced towards Wolfwood and nearly swooned. He had somehow lost his shirt during the fighting, revealing a very well toned set of muscles. She could feel herself blushing and tried to do the proper thing and look away, but he as just so... so... She shook her head to try and clear it. Wolfwood was completely focused on the trio of bad guys. He very slowly brought up a strip of red cloth that had been saved from Vash's old tattered coat, and tied it around his head. It made him look very menacing, though she had the most peculiar urge to go over and tie it in a nice bow instead of the two ragged strips that hung down the back of his head.
"This will get ugly. I don't want you to see this."
She nodded, and closed her eyes. Right away, all sorts of horrible sounds broke out. Gunshots and shattering glass and fists hitting flesh and huge explosions were all around her. She held her head and wished it to stop, and it did. She peeked out with one eye.
Wolfwood was standing on top of a pile of bodies, just setting down his Cross Punisher. It thudded down on top of Knives' head, which was sticking out of the pile near the top, and a series of groans came from below.
"Okay you scumbags, you're going to stop all this evil business and live like good, decent people for once, or else!"
A series of affirmatives came up from the tangled mass of bodies, and she could tell that they were really really sorry and that they really meant it. They had won! She jumped with glee and ran over to Wolfwood, enveloping him in a giant hug. He just grinned back at her, then turned her around to where a church was standing. He dropped to one knee, and brought out a simple gold band.
"Well, now that that's over... Will you marry me?"
She couldn't have said yes fast enough, yet still wanted to save the moment forever. Before she knew it, she was walking down the aisle in an elegant wedding dress, to where Wolfwood and Mr. Vash, who was now smiling again, were standing. Her whole family had somehow managed to make it, as had the children from Wolfwood's orphanage, and everyone was looking on in rapt attention. It all moved so quickly! They had barely finished saying "I do" when Nicholas swooped her up and carried her off. She couldn't help but stare into his face, so content and joyous, a perfect mirror of her own.
He soon set her down in their house, a beautiful two story building set on the corner of some good farmland. Looking out the window, she could see Knives and his ex-henchmen working on an orchard next door, while Mr. Vash was busy being yelled at by Rinnah for not keeping his Toma out of her petunia garden. Nicholas soon came back in.
"Aren't you going to join us for dinner? It's hard to keep the children sitting still!"
He ducked back into the dining room. She followed after one more glance outside, of Rinnah, Mr. Vash, and the Toma now chasing each other around a well until Mr. Vash tripped and fell in. Things really were good now. And oh, how nice their children were! Suzie and Mary were ever so politely waiting for her to join them, while Adam was looking much the same except for a telltale smudge of ice cream at the corner of his mouth. Nicholas was already trying to feed little Meryl some of the pizza, though she was mostly flinging it back onto daddy.
"Okay kids, settle down and let mommy say grace, then we can all eat."
They all bowed their heads and closed their eyes as she sat down. She did likewise, but someone began to gently shake her by the arm.
"Milly! It's time to get up! The early bird gets the worm, or in this case, some fresh-ground coffee!"
She blinked blearily a few times, trying to get her bearings. Where was Nicholas and the children? The haze lifted for a moment, and she suddenly remembered exactly what had happened, or rather, didn't. Rinnah noticed her sudden change in demeanor.
"I dreamed Knives was beaten and I was married with children..."
"Ooh, sounds nasty. No way I'm ever getting snookered into that! It'll be a cold day in hell before I let someone into my bed." Rinnah got up and paced a bit while lecturing at length about the benefits of being single. Most of it sounded more than a little odd, but she was right- it had been a bad dream. The worst kind of dream, really-
The kind that you never wanted to end.
It had hurt. He had sworn all up and down that it wasn't her, it was him, but that still left her with pain in a very sensitive and personal place. And, somehow, he had managed to get her back into bed for a little shut eye. As if that had done any good- no sooner than she had drifted off than the worst cramping ever jolted her awake. Even worse, that thrice-cursed arm of his was wrapped around her so she couldn't even get up and try to stretch. At some point in the future, she'd have to sneak in with a toolkit and remove the thing, then toss it into a singularity so it would never trouble her again. "Yep, just go on over to the town's conveniently located and publicly funded Black Hole and pitch it in."
Entertaining as thoughts of well-justified vengeance were, that still left her with a horrible gut-wrenching cramp. Damned anatomy brought her nothing but trouble. A little food might help, but the kitchen was way over there and he was keeping her here. "Whoever invents a portable wormhole to the nearest kitchen will be a billionaire. Better work on that later." In fact, she could almost smell the tantalizing aroma of a good pizza... Wait, she did smell the tantalizing aroma of a good pizza, mixed in among the scents of much less agreeable things. "Star holes! Did he really talk me into doing that again? I need spackle to plug up the holes in my head before all my brains slide out..."
All thoughts aside, there was pizza to be had, and rather close by at that. A little sniffing pointed her to the end table by the bed, and more specifically, the top drawer therein. Even better, she could actually get to it even with Mr. It's-Not-You-It's-Me's arm holding her down. A little straining netted her a slice of the crunchy, gooey, and ever-so-good smelling substance. Why it was sitting in the end table was beyond her- maybe a consolation gift from the Holy Hybrid for all the abject misery and indignity today had racked up?
In any event, a cautionary sniff revealed plenty of goodness and no signs of decay. She sprang onto it, letting the primitive instincts of her ancient human ancestors take over, from the times when humans had to don their loincloths and run across the plains to slay the deadly pizza boxes that roamed wild back then. A few seconds of snarfing, smacking, and crunching commenced as it was messily devoured in a display that would have surely shocked any onlookers. As it was, nobody was there, so she licked her fingers clean then turned to emit a mighty belch in her bed partner's face. He scrunched up in a satisfactory manner though he stayed quite asleep.
At least it was having the calming effect on her insides she had hoped for. She smacked her lips a few times as the aftertaste set in. It was a little funny. Maybe that hadn't been her brightest idea ever. Then again, considering what had gone on tonight, she was completely and totally out of it anyway. "Somebody get me some reactor coolant, I need to sniff it so I'll think better." Tomorrow had to be better. Statistically speaking, it couldn't be worse. "Okay, The Big Snooze, scene one, take two. Inaction!"
As the night wore on, the digestion process started to hit a few snags...
Overjoyed at the though of finally being in a real city after wandering from one scrawny dirt farming town to another, she burst ahead and ended up in the city far sooner than she had thought possible. Then again, it might have had something to do with the city being smaller than anticipated- by quite a margin, actually. The fifteen story building she was next to would make a pretty good armrest considering how much smaller the city actually was. "Doubt the shops have anything in my size."
Suddenly, she detected the smell of something burning at about the same time as a considerable heat began to spread through the toe of her boot. Glancing down, she spotted a small fire raging in the car she had accidentally half stepped on. She hastily moved her foot and looked around sheepishly in case anyone had seen her break it. Now that she was looking, there actually were quite a few people about. Rather tiny people, though they could run pretty fast. They also seemed to be doing a great deal of screaming.
"Sorry... Wha?" A sheepish apology came out, but what the heck was with her voice? A little baritone was good for command, but damned if this wasn't on the level of a tuba playing another, larger tuba. Deciding that making herself scarce was probably in the best interests of the wee little people, pots of gold to be had or not, she began to turn around. That was about when something hit the back of her knee. In the following attempt to avoid stepping on anyone as she stumbled, she overcorrected and pitched over. "Mayday! Mayday! Stabilizers fubared!" She flailed and got a hold on one of the buildings, but just managed to pull it over with her in a completely gravity-dictated course. The impact was loud and she was pretty sure something was broken under her. She cracked any eye open to see the damage, and promptly got an eyeful of a screaming lady, who was pointing pretty much right into her pupil while kicking up the decibels.
"Rinnahzilla! Must be to running now!"
"What the...?" Maybe she was more rattled by the fall than she thought, because what the lady was saying wasn't just garbled, but didn't even line up right with how her mouth moved. A white-helmeted man ran up and whisked the lady off, then something bit her on the butt. She sprang up and looked back, but didn't see anything. Than she got another bite and sprang around again, to still see nothing. "Come out, you bum-biting bastard! If you're hungry for a piece of me, I've got a knuckle sandwich for you!"
Instead of coming out and fighting like a man, whatever it was just bit her again. What was this, some sort of mosquito with steel jaws? Glancing around again, she saw a flash and a glint of something streak towards her at high speed. Before she could react, it hit, or rather, it felt like it bit her midsection. Quite fed up with this, she charged the erstwhile source and found a tiny tank. She picked it up and turned it around so it was pointing in the other direction. It slowly swiveled the turret back her way. "Not that easy, buckaroo." She just twisted her hand back and forth as the turret turned, smirking as it kept reversing direction to try and get her back in line. That was about when she felt another bite, and realized that there was more than one of the things around. She turned and looked for the offender, spying the telltale green and squat form a little ways off, along with quite a few others. "Great. Why does this have to happen to- OW!"
The one she had been holding had finally managed to turn all the way around, and, as a junior back at the academy had so quaintly put it before suffering a mysterious yet severe injury, rang the doorbell. Okay, now she was angry. "Bye-bye." She drop-kicked the tank into its friends. It rolled and tumbled down the roadway and smacked right into the formation, blowing them everywhere. She gave a victory pump. "Steeer-ike!" Of course, victory was short lived- something streaked under her nose, something a good bit larger than what those tanks were using. It kind of looked like an old jet she had seen hung on wires in a museum once.
A few more streaked past, and they were exactly like that old jet. That would make them jets, wouldn't it? "Brilliant deduction Holmes. Why thank you Watson." Well, whatever they were doing, streaking under her nose wasn't exactly a sign of peace. They turned around, and suddenly multiple missiles detached and rocketed her way. "Okay, er, um... Ducking is good."
The thought led to the action, and she hunkered down in the nick of time. Unfortunately, the building behind her couldn't duck as well. It erupted into a flaming mess of twisted concrete and metal, then slowly pitched over. While watching the building fall, a whole bunch of stinging pains crept up her back, then the jets whooshed past yet again. Great, now they were doing strafing runs on her. They turned around again, and this time she was ready for them. As the streams of tracers bore down on her, she hefted a good chunk of building and used it as a makeshift shield. As they buzzed past, she dropped the building and tried to swat some of them down. Most were too tiny and fast, thus evading her hands, but one was in the right place at the wrong time and suffered a good double-handed smack. Of course, it promptly exploded, and having a jet explode in your bare hand tends to hurt a bit. "Smart move, genius. Let's find some antimatter and touch it next!" She blew on her singed hands, then darted for the bay- cold water was good for burns, and hopefully the water wouldn't have so many people underfoot.
She was almost there when a brilliantly colored, er, something or other landed in front of her. Few people had ever accused her of having a sense of style, but one generally didn't dress each limb in a different primary color. "Oh, hello. I'm having a bad day, so if you could just step aside I'll be on my way and you won't get pounded into a power shunt." The vaguely humanoid thing, instead of proving itself a smart tacky dresser, instead began to yell at her with a slightly threatening and highly overbearing tone.
"Ultimate Bursting Lovely God-Sword Annihilating Sl-"
It was between her and the refreshing, cool water, so she spun around and gave it a kick to the head-equivalent right in the middle of its speech. The head flew off into a cluster of skyscrapers, bounced a few times, then disappeared in the dust of falling buildings. It was eerily silent for a few moments as the cloud billowed out. The rest of the thing was left standing like a statue. She suddenly felt rather guilty for the general mayhem.
"Look, I'm really not, er... Star Holes! It's your own flipping fault for getting in the way!" Having successfully delegated blame, she pushed past the headless statue-thing and finally got to wash off the jet bits, hoping that the reddish stain was some sort of hydraulic fluid and not mushy pilot. "Vacuum sucking idiots! I try to be nice, but no, they sent the army, the air force, and the mechanical freakshow after me! If one more thing goes wrong, I'm going to smash this city, burn the dust, and dump the ashes in deep space!"
"Sounds good, but why wait for them when you can do it right now?"
Just about every alarm went off, every red flag went up, and every sensor display began flashing in that irritating way they did when something dangerous got close. She very slowly turned her head to the side, the rest of her tensing up in preparation for fight-or-flight. Sitting back against a building, feet dipped in the bay and casually leaning back, was the one, the only...
"It's been a while, sister. Finally grown up, I see."
She stabbed a finger in Rellyn's direction. "You!"
The finger stabbed out again and shook around for good measure. "You!"
"I think we've already established that." Rellyn leaned over and pried the top off a church, then fished out a few very tiny children. "Want some orphans?"
"I'm a battle captain, not a caretaker!"
"Oh, they're not for raising, they're for..." She flipped one up and neatly caught it in her mouth. "...snacking."
Rinnah stood there in shock for a moment, until another orphan, this one about 40% frail snow-covered body and 60% gigantic sad little girl eyes, was flipped up, then fell down into the maw. She stabbed her finger out again in her very best commander's directive stance. "Stop eating children!"
"Oh, all right." Rinnah blinked. Had someone actually listened to her on the first try? Sure enough, the hand with the orphans was stuck back in the church- except when it came back up, it now had a bunch of nuns. "Orphans are a bit too sweet, anyway. Spoils the rest if you eat too many."
"No eating nuns!"
"Well, there is the disabled veteran's hospital, but they give me horrible gas."
"No eating people, period!"
"Don't knock it until you try it. Besides, it's not like humans are good for anything else."
That was it. She was not going to take the "holier-than-thou" lecture from a backstabbing turncoat, sister or no. "You know what? You can just crawl back to whatever dark corner of the universe the Antresslans crawled out of, take that nebula-brained philosophy, sit on it, and twirl! I'm nothing like you, and I'm staying with my kind!"
She finally managed to hit a raw nerve with Rellyn. "Oh, really? You think you can live with them? Ha! It's impossible to coexist! The proof is right behind you."
A glance back turned into a long, horrified stare. There was utter and total devastation behind her. Flames roared up from the twisted wrecks that had once been a city. As she watched, another building toppled over into the inferno. And through it all, she could clearly see, right along the very worst of the destruction, her footprints. She had done it all... A hand patted her shoulder as Rellyn whispered in her ear. "It's okay. It's our duty to weed out the inferior races. Besides, you saw how they reacted to you. You need to be someplace away from them, now more than ever."
Her retort sounded weak. "I can take care of myself..."
"For the moment, maybe. As your condition advances, you'll have problems."
"What do you mean, 'my condition'?"
"Don't you know?" Rellyn's hand grasped hers and held it to her midsection. "You're going to spawn soon."
"I'm what?!" However, even as she exclaimed, she felt something inside her, moving...
She bolted awake, and would have fallen out of bed entirely if not for the restraining arm. Breath came in short gasps as sweat poured down. "Just a stupid dream..." Then she felt the movement again, and instantly became frozen solid. The feelings of something rummaging around in her insides grew stronger and more directed. Good lord, was something going to pop out of her in a messy spray of blood and gore? She laid there, wide-eyed with shock, as the movement suddenly took a downwards turn, and then...
She blinked a few times. That had been... She practically melted in relief, then took a big calming breath... and she should have remembered what had just happened before taking that breath.
"Oh, god, somebody get a plasma torch! We're under biological attack! Where's my hazard gear?"
As the protests wore on and finally sputtered out, the dolt responsible for all this slept blissfully, completely unaware of the most interesting smell that had been generated by the lady, or the writhing misery that smell had placed upon her. As it turned out, most of the incident was forgotten, as dreams are ethereal in nature- as are smells, and this was one smell that was purged from memory.
Lose? That was impossible, he was superior. Then why was he lying on the ground while that half-breed was still standing? It had to be some sort of trickery, she must have cheated somewhere...
"I think it's time you took a nap."
And with those words, Millions Knives was sent into the black void of slumber. However, it did not remain a black void. Neurons started to fire, producing the various stimuli that together form a reality that is not real, the essence of a dream. These dreams would not be normal ones. A seed had been planted, a seed of doubt, ready to grow in fertile thoughts and feelings. As luck would have it, there was ample growing time, and a rich plot to grow in.
You see, Millions Knives had been rather excited of late, much like a child on Christmas Day, just opening all their new toys. Never mind that these weren't toys, but people, with wills of their own. No, all that mattered was what he wanted, and what he could do. In his haste to go and play, he had missed a fair bit of slumber- a critical omission that had likely cost him the battle, and quite possibly the entire war. Now the other area of self-neglect came into play. He had not eaten a good meal in quite some time, not having the patience to sit through a whole meal's preparation before running back to his newest toy. Thus, he had grabbed something from the back of the refrigerator and called it sustenance.
Woe be he, for what he snatched and ate without a second thought was the stuff that legends are made of. Some months ago, on one of the cravings that mothers-to-be tend to get, a pizza like no other was made. One with pineapple, custard, chocolate sauce, pickles, sour cream, onions, sand escargot, medium-rare Toma, anchovies, and whipped cream on top. It was mostly consumed- but not all of this arcane foodstuff was eaten. The remaining slice of this creation was placed into tubberware and relegated to the dark depths of the icebox, from which things of many colors emerge. However, for some reason, this item remained, at least in appearance, as it did the day it entered the unknown depths. For you see, it was waiting, waiting for the right time to spring forth and do as the great God of Foodstuffs commanded.
As Millions Knives entered into dreams, it sprang into action, weaving a web of experience that would not soon be forgotten. Once the master awakened, he would undoubtedly be running to the shrine of the porcelain goddess then spinning in place as each end in turn threatened with urgency. Just that alone would be quite memorable, but for now, the only sign of the epic unfolding within was an unconscious belch that nearly had his overly ambitious daughter stick herself while preparing to stick him.
And so it began...
It had only been a temporary setback. He was far too strong to be defeated, especially in the middle of his own fortress. Now, everything was the way he had envisioned it. A few taps on his console brought up a image of the next Plant Angel, and a small grin crept across his face as the streaks of frayed black were replaced with brilliant white. That was the fifth one today, she was adapting to her purpose well.
He strode over to the bulb and bared teeth at her in a way that looked like, but wasn't, a smile. She merely stared off, not even giving him the slightest acknowledgement. He tapped once on the bulb and her gaze shifted over and down to him, her exhaustion readily apparent in those hollowed blue eyes. She was lucky he had managed to restrain himself- while grievous and scarring, the injuries had healed adequately. If the blade that had pierced her throat been much wider, he would have lost this most valuable resource. At least it had shut up that infernal mouth of hers, which had been more annoying than the hand she had used to throw peppermints his way. That had been removed while he was persuading her to undo what she had done to his mental powers, though he hadn't thrown it out- it sat, preserved, on his desk. The fingers would curl in at times, usually when he wished for something to proceed a bit more smoothly.
She made a good match for brother. Obstinate, unruly, and now with mirrored missing limbs, the pairing was obvious. Besides, while he may of had all the good genetics, one had to plan for the long haul. A few generations with only his children would bring out too many recessive traits, so the gene pool needed expanding- not to mention that her regenerative abilities were sorely needed among his kind. She would carry his brother's line once her current task was done, in about a year or so. Hopefully his other main plan would be nearly finished by that time, and Tessla would be old enough to help rear brother's offspring. It was a good thing, too- neither brother nor his future counterpart were fit to properly raise a plant child. He'd need to keep them separated from the offspring from the very start so they couldn't impart any foolish notions to the next generation.
His musing was interrupted as an aide rushed in. "Forgive the intrusion my lord, but it's Lady Tessla..."
He nodded with approval as another set of yellow pins were stuck into the giant map that dominated the wall, and a cluster of yellow pins were replaced with red. Every yellow pin was one less nest of vermin despoiling his world, and every red pin was one more nest that could never be reinfested. His army of enhanced followers were carrying out their task well despite high losses, their fanatical drive and superhuman ability making them about even with the rest of the filth. At this rate, there would only be a meager handful left once the cleansing was complete, just as he intended. The gathering of the Plant Angels was also going smoothly, leaving the cleansed nests to be covered by the shifting sands. With the plants moved to the safety of his fortress base, the filthy scourge of humanity was being constricted into a smaller and smaller area on the half of the map not yet covered in the red pins.
He turned to the screen the dominated the other wall, and watched as it ran through another set of strategies, the flashing colors almost hypnotic. The AI preformed well, guiding the two halves of humanity into mutual destruction, always aiming for the perfect set of orders to leave both sides dead, when he could stand over the map and see it list "WINNER: NONE." It provided for excellent... entertainment. It helped to distract him...
"Wait, what was that?"
Whatever that thing he needed distraction from was, the thought left his mind as his most treasured possession entered. She always came by the war room right after the day's progress had been tallied, though he never had asked why. She too was fortunate that he had been so restrained while disciplining her for pulling that stunt some months ago, though it was only because of who she was and what had motivated her to betray him that she was spared the sort of punishment that had befallen Legato. It was simple enough to change the motivator of betrayal into a motivator of loyalty. If she crossed him again, he would simply have her large companion put to death by vivisection. Between that and an implanted locater beacon, she was completely under his thumb, though he did find himself missing how she used to get angry. Much as he had enjoyed the occasional verbal sparring, obedience was more important.
As always, she had her large companion in tow and Zazie keeping an eye on both. It simply made things easier to keep them together whenever they left the area they were restricted to, especially now that another child was on the way. She looked up at the map for a moment, then turned to leave. He turned back to the simulations when a choked sob floated out. Turning back, annoyed, he spied the large one supporting herself against the map wall, fingers splayed out through today's progress. One glance at the other two, and they hurried to lift her up and drag her out and she collapsed into sobs. He straightened out the pins, then spied one that had been knocked down. He glanced through the progress report and found the spot it had been knocked from. He pressed the pin back into New Orlando, and once again started up the simulations, aiming for the ever elusive 100% casualties.
A buzzing started up in his pocket, so he pulled out the small commlink he kept and glanced at the flashing code. Two fast blue pulses. He was out the door in under a second. His chosen was right behind him, leaving her companion in Zazie's hands. Technically, she was now required to always be accompanied while outside their wing of the base, but this was something far more important...
"What's so important? Why am I running?"
Well, that was that. The only human filth left was the small staff in his fortress, the most fanatical of his followers. They moved about in a blissful daze, convinced that they were to receive an eternal reward for their service. If only all of humanity had been such gullible fools... He would have them assemble later, for one last communion. They would never know what hit them- A quick and painless end. It was unfortunate that it had taken over five years to reach this point from the supposed "end" of his grand cleansing war, but the vermin had been incredibly clever in finding ways to persist. Taking to roving convoys, they had fanned out into the wastes, running on an old standby- oil. They also became more brutal, as road-roaming warriors. It made them so much harder to find and kill. At least now he could focus all his energies on the other major problem...
He returned to his living quarters after a quick stop in the medical wing. It was very quiet when he entered, a gentle hum from the kitchen the only noise. The two women in the living room both looked haggard, even as they dozed in large cushy chairs. His mate was obviously exhausted, ponderously swollen with what would soon be his sixth child. The other one, though, was simply sickly from a years long illness that eluded identification. Her features were pale to the point of being pure white, and she hadn't eaten in days. While his mate held out hope for a recovery, he had seen enough death to know when a human was past the point of no return. Dragging it out further would just cause his chosen more anguish, and he couldn't have that at this delicate stage. The needle pressed into her arm, and he suddenly felt a presence.
Looking up, he saw that she was now awake. He froze in place, knowing that when she cried out it would awaken his mate to the scene in the next chair over. Caught in the act, he would never be forgiven. However, that wasn't what happened. Instead, she merely brought up her other hand and grasped the small cross-shaped cufflink that hung around her neck, and silently watched as he finished. She only softly whispered to him that she would watch them for him, and then she was gone.
Decades had passed. He had kept her safe from every danger, but time was about to win over her, curse the human genetics that made her mortal. She had done so well, too- pictures of their children hung all over the walls. Twenty-eight in total, an extraordinary number, but then again, he had expected nothing less. She was laid out on the large bed they had shared for so long, nestled beneath the thin white cover that rose and fell unsteadily with her breathing.
He had been watching over her for the better part of the day now, ever since carrying her down after the morning's sunrises. She hadn't so much as twitched in hours. It would be any time now, as the grandfather clock in the corner ticked off every second. Suddenly, she looked over to him, right into his eyes, anger painting her features for the first time since that betrayal that had forced him to crush what remained of her spirit. She lifted an arm up to point at him, and spat out her last words with a venom he though she had lost long ago.
"It's all been your fault! Why didn't you ever give us what we needed..."
His eyes widened in surprise even as she fell back, now through death's door. Had she been harboring that resentment for all this time? And why? Had he not provided his family with good food, excellent medical care, and all the goods one could possibly want? What more would anyone need? Unfortunately, he'd never know now. He gathered up her body in the top sheet, and carried her out. He would bury her up above, with the others.
The base was remarkably quiet as he moved through it. Most of it had been shut down, since there was no large contingent of servants to maintain anymore. In the darkened hallways, he almost didn't notice Tessla standing in the doorway to her room, scowling at him. He opened his mouth to talk to her, but she backed into the shadows of her room and slammed the door before he could utter a sound. There was no point in following, he'd just find the room empty like he always did.
Further down, he watched Melanie twirl around with a flower grasped in each little hand. She looked up as he approached, then sprinted off down the pitch black corridor that led to her room before he got too close. He paused to look down the hall, but couldn't see anything in the darkness as the sounds of her footsteps receded. He turned back to the lighted path and continued on. He could feel the others watching him, though they didn't show themselves until he spied the twins up ahead, where the current hall ended at a juncture with another. Their heads both turned to the side in perfect sync as he approached, their pale blond hair and simple blue dresses not even showing a ruffle as they moved.
"Come play with us, Knives."
He shook his head slowly back and forth. They moved off to one side as he turned to the other and pressed on. It did not take long for him to reach the surface. It was late in the day, with both suns low to the ground and casting long shadows. A sandstorm threatened in the distance, so he would have to hurry. He laid her down gently in the prepared plot at the end of the row of markers, and used one large blade to shovel the dirt back into place. The marker was large and ornate, but she deserved nothing less. He carved her name in with his blade, just as the area suddenly darkened. The storm had managed to blot out the suns, so he hurried to return to his fortress home... except it wasn't there.
He stopped short at the lip of a cliff, one that started very abruptly and plunged straight down as far as he could see, vanishing into an obscuring gray mist. Looking more closely at the edge, it appeared that the entire area had simply fallen into nothingness, as a few scattered power lines and tree roots bent down into the abyss. His back had been turned for only a few moments, and there hadn't been any noise... What on Gunsmoke had happened here?
His commlink suddenly crackled to life, spitting out radio static. The wind gusted slightly, and he heard cloth flap off to the side. Turning, he spotted a figure in a long hooded black cloak, standing in the middle of the grave markers. Blades sprouted from his arm and hung menacingly.
"Did you do this?!"
The shrouded figure did not reply, except to slowly raise one arm and point at him with a horribly burned hand. He snarled and rushed at the person beneath the hanging robes, but instead of slicing through flesh his blades passed through the figure like they weren't even there.
"Who are you? Where did you come from?!"
This time, the figure pointed up just as something flashed in the sky. He squinted in the sudden burst of light, then finally made out the object. As he watched, a SEEDS ship fell through the atmosphere, trailing flames before it exploded into a shower of debris. He dodged several jagged hunks of metal as they rained down, then finally got a glimpse of the figure's face as a falling panel's near miss threw back the hood with a powerful gust.
"It's been a long time, Knives."
It look him a few moments to recognize the face in front of him, because not only had it been badly burned, but it had also been centuries since he had last seen it.
She nodded. He snarled and rushed her again, this time pinning her to the ground. "What. Did. You. Do?!"
"Nothing. This is the world you created."
"This is not my world! My world is perfect, an Eden! You did this!"
She looked up at him sadly. "No, you did... Don't you remember why these graves are here?"
He looked up at the headstones. Come to think of it, why were they here? He looked back down, only to find her gone. How had she gotten away? Her voice came from the side, next to one small cluster of markers.
"Milly Thompson. Rinnah Blackfire. Vash."
"I had to put down that human, but those other two-"
"Died when you forced her to try and save your last child."
"I don't care how tired you are! If she dies, I will have you begging to follow!"
To prove the point, some of his blades phased into the bulb and repeatedly skewered one of her lower legs. She arched and silently screamed as the blades twisted through her flesh, but there was no time to waste. He withdrew the blades and pressed the tiny form to the bulb. She reached down shakily and began the transfer. The small form he held slowly became cooler despite the effort being poured into her. He demanded more and more, to no avail. He felt her heartbeat slow, then stop entirely. There was nothing more that could be done. He turned and slowly moved to the lift.
Something sizzled and cracked behind him. Looking back, he cursed. The hybrid had passed out during the transfer, and now the energy had nowhere to go. The entire bulb was filled with lightning, and it was starting to arc out of the bulb into the room. In a few moments, it went from just an occasional spark to entire sheets of raw energy, with no end in sight. He ran for the console to see if there was anything he could do, but it was too late. The bulb exploded with a thunderous roar, propelling him back until he slammed into a wall. It took a few moments before he could pick himself up and survey the damage.
"Disaster" hardly described it. The hybrid's bulb was gone, the blast having reduced it to dust and vapor. The ceiling and floor where it had been still glowed white hot, with occasional bits of molten metal dripping down. The heat in the room was nearly unbearable, and made the shattered bulbs beyond almost impossible to see through the shimmer. Circling around the spot that the hybrid had occupied, he finally got to see the true scope of the destruction. At least several dozen, possibly a hundred or more bulbs had been shattered or crushed outright by the shockwave. Dozens more were critically damaged, spiderwebs of cracks exposing those inside to the dangerous atmospheric mix of the room. Even working at his maximum, he wouldn't be able to save them all from joining their already decomposing brethren as tarry puddles on the floor. However, it was unlikely he'd be able to work at all for some time.
"It's not fair... Paradise was supposed to be for us..."
He numbly approached the form that was pinned against the far wall. He didn't need to actually check the body to know Vash was dead. He could plainly see the mutilated remains as they were held up by imbedded fragments of the very bulb that was supposed to have kept him safe. More than that, there was a horrible empty feeling in him that was far more telling than any physical examination. Taking down the body would take more effort than he could exert at the moment, so he just sat down and looked into Vash's unblinking eyes, wondering what had gone wrong.
"That was an accident! It wasn't my fault!"
"No, Knives. It was your fault. You-"
"I'll have no more of your lies!"
Blades sprang forth, and in under a second he had pitched her into the abyss. Leaning back, he found himself panting for breath while his heart drummed away. The sandstorm slowly grew darker, turning what little light remained into a dull crimson glow. The trees that dotted the area became silhouettes, the twisting branches reminding him of tattered cobwebs. The markers stood stark against the blood red sky.
The commlink began crackling again. He glanced around, wondering if that woman had managed to climb back up. However, this time it was something quite different. He almost missed it, as it was moving very slowly through the grave markers, the rigid shape making it appear to be just one more. While the dimming light had marked out all features on objects, he could tell by the shape that this was a coffin, hovering a few inches over the sand. It made absolutely no noise, even when it paused to turn towards him. The complete silence was suddenly interrupted by a low and smooth voice, one he knew quite well.
"Good day, Master. Have you been well in my absence?"
"Legato. Aren't you supposed to be dead?"
"Indeed I am."
"Your speech would seem to contradict that. The dead don't talk."
"In the old world, that is true, but not in the new world you have created."
He didn't like where this conversation was headed, so he dismissed Legato with a wave. He began to move, suddenly feeling a need to be anywhere but here. However, he found that to be impossible as he nearly stepped into another abyss. Circling around, he quickly found that he was stuck on a small plot of land while everything else had vanished. Legato continued to slowly drift along in his wake. One circumnavigation later, he had firmly established that he was trapped on the tiny patch of ground that held the graveyard. A cold feeling ran down his spine. Was this... fear?
"This is all that remains of the old world. There is only enough left of it to provide a crossing to the new world of your creation."
"Where is this crossing?"
The coffin turned away and drifted towards the center of the remaining land. He followed, until it stopped before the largest and most ornate marker at the very center of the graveyard. As he tracked its towering form upwards, he nearly stumbled into a pit at its base. He fell back onto the sand, then looked at the pit. It was a well defined rectangle, and though the bottom was obscured in shadow, he could almost make out something.
"Why isn't this grave properly covered?"
The coffin slowly rotated to face him again. "That would be because it is empty."
"It wouldn't be empty if you weren't moving around like that."
"Oh, no. I am merely a wretched human, and we are undeserving of even the slightest memorial."
"Evidently not, as there seem to be quite a few memorials around."
"Thirty-three, to be exact." There was a chuckle before Legato continued. "Did you forget who is buried here?"
Come to think of it, he didn't know. There was the one towering marker over the empty grave, and over there was the one he had just laid his precious chosen in. Then there was the small cluster of three, one to mark where his chosen's friend had been laid for her benefit, one in the memory of the half breed and the potential lost with her, and one for brother. That left twenty-eight more, but he couldn't recall who he had placed under them. He wracked his brain, not wanting to ask Legato, who was now chuckling constantly. It shouldn't be this hard for him to remember. "Twenty-eight, twenty-eight, twenty... eight..."
He dived for the nearest marker and frantically groped for the writing on it. He finally found some, but couldn't read it in the dim light that remained. He gritted his teeth and began to painstakingly trace out each inscribed letter, though the edges were sharp and cut into his fingers.
"T..." "e..." "s..." "s..." "l..." "a..."
He withdrew his arm as it began to tremble. He moved to the next marker and began to trace out the letters on it, even as a cold hand squeezed his heart just a little bit tighter with each letter.
"M..." "e..." "l..." "a..." "n..." "i..." "e..."
He didn't bother going to the next headstone. There were twenty-eight of the stone monoliths... One for each of his twenty-eight children. Legato drifted over. "There is little time left for this world. You must hurry, before they arrive to clean up what remains."
He rose unsteadily, but hardly heard Legato. He stared at each monument in turn. How could this have happened? A peculiar buzzing filled his head, or was it in the air? Either way, he was too numb to do more than slowly turn and take in the upright stones. The buzzing grew louder, and the coffin bumped into him. "You must go now, Master."
He followed Legato back to the empty grave in the center, though going to his new world held little appeal. "So, just how do I get there?"
"Is it not obvious?"
The storm suddenly parted, letting in the light of the suns even as they began to buckle and twist oddly. It was like they were being sucked dry... One collapsed entirely, so he began looking for the mechanism that would take him away from this horrible place. He didn't look far before he saw something that made his blood freeze. There, on the grand monument over the empty grave, he could see a name.
He stared up at the engraved name, then down into the hole, then back up again.
"Hurry and get in, Master. Allow me to aid you..."
The coffin split open, spilling out an array of fragmented bones before swooping towards him. His blades sprang forth and ripped it to pieces before it could envelope him. He stared down at the grinning skull and wood fragments as they came to a rest at his feet, suddenly almost unable to breathe. His entire body was shaking now, and it felt as if he was in a freezer. The buzzing was much louder now, and the ground began to shake just as it reached a crescendo. The buzzing came from several directions, and tracking one, he spotted something that raised the bar for bizarre. It looked like a ball with one giant mouth, filled with grinding teeth. It swooped low and gouged a path along the edge of the landmass, the separated section dropping down into the mist.
Another came around, this one headed straight for him. He sent his blades lashing out, but they all broke and were devoured by the horror. He dropped and rolled out of the way as it bored into the ground, though his reprieve was brief. More of the things were circling the landmass, eating away at it from the edges in. Another came towards him, then another, and while he managed to avoid both, he misstepped and ended up falling into the pit below the marker that bore his name.
He kept falling for what seemed like hours, the dim light at the top fading and the sounds of the devourers growing more distant. However, he soon heard new sounds that made him want to go back up and try his luck with them. He could hear screams coming from below him, far away at first, but getting louder and closer. Terrible screams, full of pain, in too many voices to count. Then he heard her, and twisted around in a panic to look below.
The fierce red glow nearly blinded him, but he could see enough. His Chosen, his siblings, his children... There were all below him- and they were all in unbearable pain. They were being twisted grotesquely into shapes they were not meant to take, as flames raged around them. They were trying to get away, but the flames just followed, continually burning and adding to their suffering. He was nearly at the end of the hole and about to drop in with them when something grabbed him from behind. He turned to see who had saved him, and recoiled in shock. He never expected that this human would save him- he could hardly even stammer out a "Why?"
Rem just smiled in that sad way he remembered from what was a lifetime ago. "If you knew the answer to that, you'd never have ended up here."
"But... What is this place?!"
"It's the world you created."
He turned to look back into the inferno. "I would never create such a horrible place."
"But can't you see your handiwork? How they're being twisted by a power greater than their own, and how much pain they're in because of it? Or how they're surrounded by the destruction of everything they know and their pleas fall on an uncaring force? Deny it all you want, but this is the world you created."
He opened his mouth to retort, but looking down as he was, he could see the stark truth of the matter. What could he possibly say when that was right before them? He couldn't tell her she was wrong when, deep inside of him, he knew she was right, that he had created that, however unintentionally. When he did speak, he hated how small and weak it sounded.
"What did I do wrong?"
Her voice drifted down, the sole gentle sound amongst the cries of pain. "We could spend years on that, but what you did is far less important than what you didn't do. Tell me, Knives... When was the last time you simply talked with your brother? Not lecturing, or making threats, or saying 'This is how things will be,' but just talking?"
He searched his memories, but uneasily discovered that he hadn't done so simple a thing ever since arriving on Gunsmoke, or if he had, that it had been forgotten.
"It's okay, Knives... Maybe I should have started with someone closer to you. How about your children? What are they to you?"
Ah, a simple question, and one he already had the answer to. "They are the future of my kind. Freewalking plants, to save the rest of my kind from the bulbs and assure our dominion over the world."
"Is that all? Isn't there more?"
"Well, they are also suburb thinkers and fighters, excelling in whatever tasks are set before them. ...at least, that was how it was supposed to be..."
She frowned, a crinkle of worry crossing her face. "But... Weren't your children ever simply children?"
"I don't understand the question. Of course they were children- they were born and had to grow to maturity. I gave them everything the needed."
She shook her head. "No, you didn't. You never gave them what they needed most of all."
"And that would be?"
This was getting ridiculous. "You keep talking and saying things that are completely absurd! I was their Father, and Meryl was the Mother."
"That brings up a good point... What about Meryl? What is she to you?"
"She is my mate."
"And how did that happen?"
That was actually a rather good question. It was a simple matter of necessity at first. The seed that would become Tessla required a place to grow, and through the nuances of genetic oddity she had been selected. His insides twisted somewhat- there had been other potential candidates, but by using her, he was also exacting revenge on his brother... and Rem. He had ordered Legato to keep her controlled, which he had carried out with his usual brutal efficiency. He had repeated told her that she was expected to die in the process. He had practically been gloating over it. It hadn't been until after Tessla had been born and she surprisingly survived that he expanded her role in his grand scheme.
"You don't have to say it. I've seen everything. Did you really hate me so much that you had take it out on her, just because of a distant genetic link? ...have the things I've done been so wrong that even the suffering of my distant kin will atone for them?"
"...You drove Vash away from me."
Her tone moved away from sadness, now accented with bitterness. "Did I? Did you ever sit down with him and talk about it? Except we already know the answer to that question, don't we?"
She was unfortunately correct. He had no reply. The conversation had also reminded him that what had happened during those first few months between him and Meryl had never been spoken of again. It was like that time had never happened. That was decidedly odd- she had been quite assertive until the incident with the half-breed, but for the entire time, she hadn't even muttered one comment under her breath about those months of misery. Even now, he could clearly remember how she had cried and screamed in agony...
He twisted around again to look down, mouth agape. She was still down there. Still screaming. Still in agony!
"She's been here the whole time... Rem, she's been here all along! I never though- I didn't know! I thought everything was fine!"
Now that he knew what he had been doing, things began to slide into place. How she would suddenly drop off in the middle of a good debate with a glassy look, how she had become almost ghostly silent when moving, why she shied away from looking him in the eye- she was absolutely terrified of what he could do to her, of what he had done to her. Of all the humans in the world, in his eyes she was the only one who didn't deserve such fear, and he had inflicted it on her more than any other. Now she was trapped in this unending world of misery that he was suspended over, and that he was now sure had been created by his hand.
"So you're finally starting to understand..."
"I put her here... I know that now. But why are the others here? What did I do wrong?!"
"The same thing, really... We're all given a blank ticket that we can choose our destinations with, but you tried to fill in tickets that belonged to others. You never saw them as independent people who control their own destinies. In effect, you tried to make all of them extensions of your own body, despite the fact that they aren't connected to you in any way. Tell me Knives, what happens to a cell when it is separated from the body?"
"It... dies." Even more was coming together now. By rigidly controlling everything, he had inadvertently ended up denying them something vital. Something dealing with children, parents, siblings, and mates- but he still didn't know what that something was.
"What is it, Rem? What was I missing?"
"I... can't tell you. It's only another word to you, as you rejected its very concept as weakness. It has no meaning if you don't understand what goes into it."
He sagged. "Then you might as well drop me. There's nothing to be done about it, anyway. The damage was done years ago, the graves are all filled. It's too late to fix things. Just let me fall so I can be with them."
"Why do you want to be with them? There's nothing but pain down there."
"I know that... but I want to be with them. I don't know why, but I do."
"Actually... Maybe you do know why, and that makes all the difference. I can't tell you, but if you do know, somewhere, why you want to be with them... then I can show you what it is..."
The grip that had been on his back strengthened enormously. "...by taking your place down there."
He was suddenly flung upwards, the force far greater than anything he had ever felt. Rem flew past, heading down into that pit of despair, yet she was smiling as she looked back. "Take care of them, Knives."
She entered the world he had created, a world that had no place for her- and that world shattered. He was tossed back out of his grave by the force, landing on the tiny speck of dirt left. A pillar of brilliant light shot up after him, pulverizing the monument that bore his name and toppling all the other graves. The devourers evaporated in its brilliance as it kept going, ever higher, until it vanished among the stars. Something fluttered down from where it had vanished, glittering as it twisted and turned. He reached up and caught it.
It was a blank ticket.
"Use it wisely."
And then it all turned black.
The foodstuff of legend settled down, having completed the task given to it. What would happen when Knives awoke was not its concern. It was even doubtful if he would remember any of what had transpired. However, Knives would awaken, and he still possessed great power in his followers if in nothing else. If he remembered the lesson he had learned here, then there was much to be done. The future he will write upon that ticket is his alone. However, that is a tale for another day.
Note from Ricki: So... Did you get all the cultural/movie/etc references so far? *grins* I know I'm still finding more each time I read this story! My apologies it took so long to get the last section up... But after we bought the pizza, we kinda had to you know, let it ripen for awhile... Or is that aging, like fine wine or cheese? XD Thanks for reading and make sure you drop IRS a line on how much you enjoyed it!! *GRINS*