Five illnesses, one A/C breakdown during summer, chronic short-handed conditions at work had them drop pretenses and just schedule me for six days a week for a few months (nice overtime pay for it), my very first car accident (four car pileup, nobody injured thankfully), and all the joy of living in my own house.
Disclaimer: The author is only human. There are no fangs. Honest.
Rise of the Silver Stars
Chapter 35: Glimmer
His desk was the usual mess. Scattered piles of paper leaned precariously, ready to tip over the instant the steamer began to move. On top of the mess, front, center, and half folded, laid the worst piece of paper he'd had to see. Sometimes he'd flick it open, read it over, then flick it closed again. Sometimes he'd pick it up with one hand and twirl it between his fingers before setting it back down. Sometimes he'd just pray. He'd been doing those things for the past hour. It never changed.
He couldn't have believed it ordinarily, but things were anything but ordinary. He'd seen an army decimated in minutes, he'd seen lightning thrown around at will, he's seen someone, a friend, become someone... else. Now he was stuck with a simple little letter that effectively declared war. No, not war.
There had never been a war on Gunsmoke, but there had been plenty of battles. They usually ended with one side or the other surrendering, terms would be agreed upon, and then everyone would go on, some in more comfort than others. War was simply that on a larger scale. This wasn't war. There was no mention of surrender or terms. It simply told how it would go on, and there was no mention of people- just "pets". It lacked the simplest acknowledgement of respect, however begrudging, that each side had for the other in battle. No, it wasn't a declaration of war- it was a notice of extermination. Those that would be permitted to survive wouldn't go on- they'd just linger. Of the options given, he'd take death.
Of course, there was the chance they could win. However, the eye on the fifth moon stared down, unblinking. It wasn't readable, but the message was there, etched into stone on the grandest scale- "Forget it." Goddamn plants.
There was a knock at the door. "Come in."
Then again, he had gone and done something utterly ludicrous once before, inspired to madness as only love can do. Despite all those long odds, every hurdle had been cleared, and they'd managed to make a fairly good life for themselves. One built upon protecting the weak, not preying on them. Surely they could find a way once again... And if not, they could at least spit into fate's eye. How did that saying go? 'Do not go gently into the night'?
His train of thought derailed as Moore pushed the door open, beaming in a slight smile, more through her eyes than anywhere else. He'd never seen this look before. It was quite obvious that this had nothing to do with supplies or requisitions. He gazed at her quizzically as she tipped the door closed then glided across the room, as if she was not quite touching the floor. This was definitely new. "So, what brings you here?"
She just giggled slightly. Curiouser and curiouser... She swirled around the desk then hopped up to sit on it, scattering one pile of forms. She looked up, down, and to the sides, but somehow not quite looking at anything. "Are you okay?"
"I'm... not sure." Even as she said it, her grin grew, completely at odds to her tone. Now he was starting to worry. He reached out and clasped her hand with his.
"Talk to me, Moore."
Her eyes finally found his, and the effect was amazing. The world seemed to shrink until it was just the two of them- except that wasn't quite right, there was something else...
"We're going to be parents."
"I'm going to be a mommy, you're going to be a daddy, and we're going to have a perfect little baby."
"The doc just told me that I'm pregnant."
An incomprehensible number of thoughts and feelings were flooding through him. "Is this real? Are we ready for this? Can we raise a child on the steamer? What would the Cavalry think? Will the child be healthy?" Those questions and a hundred others swirled through him. Somewhere in the middle of it all, he stood up and wrapped his arms around her, hooking his chin over her shoulder. Now it was his turn to look about aimlessly. It wasn't long before his gaze stopped wandering, and what he focused on pushed aside the tumult, leaving a simple dichotomy.
Knives' letter sat right beside Moore. A proclamation of doom and the promise of new future. An end and a beginning. Death and Life.
It was now very personal.
The devil missed a great chance to buy up some souls at that moment. He would have signed his away in a heartbeat, for their safety. But there was someone rumored to be the devil himself riding on his steamer- one Vash the Stampede. However, it wasn't just him. This involved everyone, in a way he was just starting to grasp, and thus he should involve everyone as well.
"I'm calling a meeting. Me, you, Roy, Vash, those bandits, anyone else able to represent something. Tonight."
"How to deal with Knives, because he has to be stopped."
He tightened his hold on her slightly- and on the new life she sheltered.
"He has to be."
¤ ¤ ¤
She should've snuck onto the steamer. Sure, she wasn't exactly invited to tag along, but the other option had been to stay behind and wait. That would have been the sensible thing to do, but it just wouldn't work for her anymore- if she stayed, he'd go away again, and even if he did come back, it would be too long to wait. Therefor, she had snagged a ride with a musclehead and his minions with a bit of passive/aggressive persuasion. Namely, she had faked a crying session, and shin kicked the guys that had tried to throw her off until they gave up and let her stay. It wasn't like she hadn't practiced the routine before- when she wanted a ride, she damn well got it.
Still, it was about as much fun as shoveling out a Toma stall. She had to fight for just about everything- food, water, a place to sleep, everything. Sometimes she just had to do without. Again, that was nothing new. What was new was the stench. It was like nobody could smell a thing except her, and when they took of their boots, ugh. Washing was out of the question- for this stench, the only solution would be fire, and lots of it.
At least it had been a fairly short trip. In a small twist of irony, while she had been last in line for nearly everything during the trip, she was one of the first to see the ship and steamer. They came up on them in the middle of the night, and since she had no proper place to sleep, she was still awake to stay warm. They pulled right up to the steamer, even though she had serious doubts about a gang of bandits sitting right next to a military ship and not getting blasted to kingdom come. Still, they didn't get shot at, and the soldiers even let Neon walk right on in. However, they weren't letting anyone else come in, and that seemed to include her.
As if a few soldiers would be able to keep her out. All she needed was a little time and to keep her eyes open for points of entry. There was one minor problem, in that the steamer seemed to have a great deal more armor than the ones she was used to, and therefor only had a fraction of the number of entry points. She had already tried one before the suns rose, but it was quite a bit tougher than the other hatches she had broken through in the past. Military grade was pretty darn good. It looked like she might be baking in the suns for the day, until she could try lockpicking again under cover of darkness. The Bad Lads were already quieting down as the wavy shimmers of the coming day's heat began to rise up. That was about when she heard a sharp ting from up above.
Craning her neck back, she just barely caught a glimpse of flapping red cloth at the tip of the steamer. She cupped her hands and shouted up, and was rewarded when a familiar head of hair poked over the railing. She waved to him, and he vaulted the railing and began to slide down the hull. Unfortunately, though she was half expecting it from what was below him, his coat snagged on a gun emplacement just as he was about to reach ground, changing his graceful landing into a faceplant in the flowing sand. She hopped down herself and strolled over as he picked himself up. She was about to wap him over the head for leaving her behind again when she got a look as his face.
He looked old. Not in a gray hair and wrinkles way, but in an infinitely tired way, like someone who was running short on hope. She recognized it from that time, years ago, when she had first stumbled across him in an alley. It was also a look she had seen in mirrors a few times too many while she had been searching for him. Even his normally bright and cheery smile was lacking its luster, and that was bad. He had kept grinning through so many bad times, so the only way something like this could happen would be if...
No. Nothing had happened until she heard it from him.
She winced as his composure faltered for just an instant, and she internally slapped herself for just blurting it out. She wanted to be graceful about it, not drop it like a sack of grain, but there it was, and he spoke.
"She's... It's complicated. I'm still trying to make sense of it myself. It's like... Ah, how can I explain this?"
He scratched his head while she waited, tight lipped. When he spoke again, she could hear the depression in his voice.
"I'm not certain, since she's still up and moving, but she's not Meryl anymore. Something happened, and I think- no, I know -that her, uh, I guess it would be her soul... Well, it's gone."
"Gone to heaven, I suppose. That's where good souls go when they leave the body, right? But she isn't dead. I don't suppose that makes any sense, does it?"
She shook her head. Trying to sort through his statements left her head spinning. Hell, he had pretty much just told her that Meryl was both alive and dead. She was quite sure that everyone was either one or the other, so what was with this?
"I guess you'll just have to see for yourself."
So saying, he took her by the hand and led her inside. His grip wasn't crushing, but it was very firm, like he was holding something delicate that might slip through his fingers at any moment. It didn't take long for it to get old- she was a big girl now, and didn't need to have her hand held. With a bit of whining and a few tugs, she pulled free and walked beside him until they found the person they were looking for.
After a few hours, what he had said before made a great deal more sense. She also felt that maybe having him hold her hand wasn't so bad after all.
¤ ¤ ¤
No matter how she tried to look at it, she was in a pickle. Or in a jam. Or maybe in pickle jam, since she wasn't really in a pickle or a jam but people always said they were in one of those things if they were in trouble, and she had enough trouble to be in both. It made sense, since pickle jam would probably taste quite awful.
This certainly wasn't how she had thought life would go. As long as she tried to do good, things were supposed to work out okay, right? Things had gone rather well for a long time. She set out into the world and found a nice job. Not the best job, but certainly not the worst either, and it did put food on the table and a roof over her head, which were the important things. Later, she found herself making all sorts of friends, and eventually meeting the person who became her best friend and job partner. Those were easy times, as she just followed someone else's lead since they seemed so sure of the path forward. She almost didn't have to think at all, just adding a few bits of family wisdom here and a little different point of view there.
Even when her heart got torn and the world slowly turned to a terribly cruel and twisted place, she could keep going because her friend was just ahead of her, leading the way. Even as the two of them came to be accused of terrible things, she had faith that her friend could find a way out. She didn't have to do anything but keep following her friend, and everything would work out.
Except now, her friend was gone.
The loss itself was hard enough, but tougher still was the thinking that beset her. She couldn't stop thinking of all the times she could have done something differently, turned right instead of left, moving instead of waiting and waiting instead of moving... And it all kept coming back to the simple fact that she was completely out of control.
No husband, no job, a "Dead or Alive" bounty, and now not even a best friend. She was inconsolable, and most people who could try and console her were inconsolable themselves. Even her friend's last words, such as they were, were far from comforting. There was a message in the message, rather roundabout since it was mostly directed to Mr. Vash, but she supposed that was the only way it could get through. It was very simple, really, except in more complicated words- "I won't be there for you, Milly. Make your own decisions. Goodbye."
She wanted to make things better. She wanted to set the wrongs right again. However, there was so much that was wrong, and she had so little to work with. It almost seemed that the world might be better off without her around.
She really needed to find something to do. Living off the generosity of others just wouldn't do, she needed to pull her own weight, if only to keep her from dwelling on the might-have-beens too much. She had made a few rounds of the ship in the past hours, but everything that needed to be done was being done. Not even big big brother could offer her anything, as just about everything required months of training. Then there was the problem of the bounty. Indeed, the more she looked for something to do, the more clear it became that there was almost nothing left that she could do. Well, except become a bank robber or Toma hustler or even a real "enforcer" person, but those were all awful because she'd be hurting lots of good people. And just to top it off, she still had no idea why she had guards hovering near her at all times. It had something to do with Knives, but beyond that she was at a loss.
A little past evening found her sitting near the steamer's main stairway. There was a fair bit of movement up and down, and she could catch snippets of chatter. She eventually caught some familiar voices in the passage, as Mr. Vash and Mr. Julius talked on a landing above. Once she caught Knives' name, she leaned over to hear better.
"Won't you at least come and listen? You know him better than anyone."
"It's not that, it's just that I've never been able to find him. Worse, he knows me too well. Get me in a room with him and I can out-fight him, but when it comes to finding Knives, he's always two steps ahead of me. If you can figure out how to catch him, I can do what has to be done, but until then I'm not of much use."
"So you're just going to leave us in the dark? We need someone who knows Knives, and if you won't come, then who will?"
"Someone who knows Knives?" Well, come to think of it, she actually did know a few things about him. Mostly about how nasty a person he was, but aside from Mr. Vash, she didn't think there was anyone who had spent more time around Knives than her. Finally feeling like there was something she could do, she hesitantly called up to where they were.
"Um, excuse me, but I can help if you need someone who knows Knives."
Their heads poked over to look down, so she waved. Mr. Vash brightened up a bit and turned back to Mr. Julius.
"Hey, that's great! Milly can keep you filled in, and she's always been on my tail no matter how many times I tried to shake her. She's do a lot better than I would, I'm sure of it. Well, I'll just be on my way then!"
Mr. Vash gave Mr. Julius a parting slap on the back, except that it was just a bit too hard and nearly sent the commander tumbling headfirst over the railing. Luckily, Mr. Vash hadn't gotten far and managed to get back to pull him up by the back of the neck, but not before a piece of paper slipped out of his jacket and fluttered down. It twisted open in midair and settled right into her hands, though it stayed there for just an instant before one of her guards snatched it up and ran it back up to the commander. However, it had been in front of her long enough. Having to sort through piles of forms every day had given her a rather quick reading ability.
She knew why everyone was so dreary now, and also why big big brother had these guards for her. She even knew why he didn't want her to know. The whole Thompson family was taught to do nothing less that the very best they could, and an opportunity like this, where one person could help so many... Well, it was simple, wasn't it? She had something nobody else did, and if they wanted to catch Knives, well, she could help, though the thought left her with butterflies in her tummy. It would be a big jump for her, and she was far from sure if she was ready. Then again, as dad always said, sometimes you just had to plunge ahead. Of course, there was always the question of whether or not they'd let her do it.
All that thinking had somehow managed to fit in her short walk up the stairs. Mr. Julius had tucked away Knives' note and was now gesturing down the hall.
"Well, I suppose we better get going. Everyone else is waiting, I was just out trying to round up one more for the meeting, and it looks like you're it."
He led the way to the front of the ship, and into a room that reminded her of the ballroom on a big passenger steamer, except smaller. It was still located just over the main deck, and afforded a wonderful view of whatever was in front, which in this case was a bit of the crashed ship and still-glowing sky beyond. The people in the room were a rather varied lot, but just about all people she knew. Big big brother was right there, engaged in a little arm wrestling with Mr. Neon, who actually appeared to be holding his own, and she had never seen anyone manage that against big big brother. Not far away was Mr. Marlon and Ms. Marianne who she hadn't seen in the longest time, both coated in dust. A little beyond them was an older fellow all decked out in pretty colors. She was fairly sure he had been up on the mountain back then... Goodness, that had only been a few days ago, hadn't it? It felt like months had passed. There were a few other cavalry soldiers in the room, though only Ms. Moore was recognizable. She took a chair as everyone settled down and looked to Mr. Julius, except for big big brother and Mr. Neon, who still hadn't finished.
"Okay people, here's the situation. As you all know, there was recently a major battle between us, an assortment of unorganized bounty hunters, Vash the Stampede, and forces under the command of one 'Millions Knives'. Of these, only the bounty hunters and Knives' troops came into direct contact, but the result was disastrous for the bounty hunters. Despite an overwhelming numerical advantage, the bounty hunters were virtually annihilated, and if my information is correct, the greatest of Knives' weapons was not used in the battle. After tracking Knives to this location, we've completely lost his trail and received notice that Knives intends nothing less that the complete eradication of everyone on the planet."
He paused for a moment to let that sink in, but she already knew all that, having lived through most of it firsthand. He continued shortly.
"From what I've been able to gather, this is not a new development. Knives has apparently been involved in nearly every major disaster on Gunsmoke since, and including, the Great Fall. Other incidents that involved him or agents acting on his behalf include the destruction of July and Augusta, the disappearance of the populations of several dozen small towns, and a nearly countless number of destructive incidents throughout history. This is the man that deserves the reputation of Vash the Stampede, and then some. He has achieved this through the use of a multitude of nearly unique abilities, most of which stem from his origin. He was born- or created, as the case may be -about a year before the Great Fall, and is evidently not a human at all, but the product of a plant. As such, he has access to the full power output of a plant, and has turned this into a weapon capable of devastating an entire city. I believe he is fully capable of carrying out his intentions."
A sudden shattering sound had everyone jump and a few roll for cover before noticing that it was only the table big big brother and Mr. Neon had been arm wrestling on. Without a table, they had to stop fooling around like boys were prone to do and actually pay attention, though she didn't doubt that they'd be looking to continue as soon as they could. Mr. Julius waited until everything had calmed down before starting again.
"The task before us is a doozy. We have to stop Knives from carrying out his plan no matter the cost. We've got Vash the Stampede on our side, and he's assured me he can take Knives down. However, he's made it clear that he can't locate Knives, so that task has fallen to us. So, let's hear some ideas, suggestions, observations, anything you've got that might be useful."
Mr. Neon spoke up first. "I say we should swipe that big nuclear firecracker you Cavalry bums have stashed away and jam the button when the bastard shows his face."
Mr. Julius sputtered for a moment, then regained composure. "How'd you find out about that?"
"Easy. Just listen to the bar talk and you hear all sorts of stuff, and I'm the man who makes it his business to know all about the brightest sparklies out there."
"Well, even if we could get our hands on it, we still have the problem of finding Knives."
It appeared that Mr. Neon didn't have any ideas there, as he just scowled, tipped his hat down, and leaned against the wall. Ms. Marianne spoke up next, suggesting a large scouting effort, but the colorful old man cut her off. "Sí, señiorita, against any normal foe that would work, but this is no man we hunt, but a Diablo. Without great strength, even crossing paths with but one of his minions will be deadly, and over so quickly that it will be as if the sand swallowed them whole! We cannot spread ourselves thin."
There was a short silence, then one of the Cavalry soldiers hesitantly raised his hand.
"Go ahead, Engineer Mayers."
"Well, er, what about the satellite? It can look at any point on the planet, so we might be able to find him that way."
"That's not a bad idea, but the problem with the satellite is just that- it's the satellite. With only one, it'd take months to finish a single sweep with radar, let alone with something that can spot a person. Still, good job for having the first non-suicidal idea. Let's hear a few more."
This time, there was a long silence. Everyone was trying their very best to figure out how to find Knives, but the more she thought, the less it seemed that finding Knives was their real problem. After all, if someone's house was swallowed by sandworms, the real problem wasn't a missing house, but that the place the house had been might be along a worm trail, in which case a new house might just get swallowed up all over again. Dealing with the problem that you had right this instant might not work if there's a larger problem behind it. So what was the real problem?
Some time later, everyone was again startled when she suddenly jabbed her finger up in the air and proclaimed "I've got it!"
"You know how to find Knives?"
"Oh, that? No."
All eyes that had been on her either shut again or rolled back. Mr. Julius squeezed his temple, sighed, and that asked her what she did have.
"Well, I've been thinking, and finding Knives isn't really important. All we need to do is show him that we're not the threat he thinks we are. Then he won't want to kill us and we can all live in peace!"
"But he just about singlehandedly took out an entire army! How could he think we're threats?"
"Well, no, I suppose he doesn't consider us threats. However, I've been around him for several months, and besides the trying to kill everyone thing, he does have an very strong devotion to his family. In fact, they're the reason behind everything he's done, and he won't stop until he feels that his family is safe."
"But Vash doesn't want him to be doing any of this."
She tilted her head to the side. "Well, Mr. Vash can take care of himself. It's his other family that has him mad at us."
"There are more of them!"
Everyone suddenly began to pay attention, as if this was some big thing they didn't know. Her head just tilted a little further in puzzlement. "Of course, they are plants after all. They have relatives all over Gunsmoke."
There were a number of astonished murmurs across the room, though a few faces looked a bit puzzled to her. One of them, Mr. Mayers, spoke after a bit of hesitation. "You don't mean they're related to the power plants, do you?"
"Of course they are. Mr. Vash told me himself that one was their mother."
"So they are alive..." He sank back, looking half astonished and half gleeful. Mr. Julius just looked plain astonished. "If they're his family... Good Lord, no wonder he hates us..."
She nodded in agreement. "If someone was forcing my family to work and work until they couldn't work anymore, I'd hate them too. I'd hate them so much, I'd... I'd... I'd do something really awful!"
A lot of whispered words were exchanged. Evidently this was news to a lot of people, even big big brother. However, it all came to a screeching halt when Mr. Neon slammed his fist into the wall.
"Shut the hell up! So this bigshot's looking for a little vengeance. I don't give a rat's ass about that. All that matters is that he's trying to snuff out our lights, and nobody's gonna make me stop glowin', least of all some mama's boy!"
Arguments broke out all over. Some agreed with Mr. Neon, others wanted to look more into the plant side of things, and Mr. Julius was stuck in the middle trying to calm things down. He wasn't doing much good as the room got louder. The arguments grew more heated, though everyone had good points. It was just like another argument she had once watched, one that ultimately led to...
In one smooth motion, she stood up, shrugged Nicholas up and off her back, and then slammed the long end into the floor with every bit of force she could muster. The reverberation sounded like an exploding artillery shell, and everything not welded down bounced. Everyone looked at her, and some glared, but enough was enough. "Stop all this fighting! Yes, what Knives is doing is awful, and yes, what's happening to his family is awful, but arguing about what's the right thing to do won't change what's happened! Many people have died, many good people, but all that matters is trying to save whoever we have left! That is why we're all here, and how we do it doesn't matter! We each do things our own way, but if we don't work together, we'll lose even more. There are a lot of us here, more than enough to try several things at once, so stop fighting over what to do. We can do this together, to support each other and watch each other's back, or we can go our separate ways, but I can't stand by and watch as everything falls apart again!"
Silence reigned. She looked around the room, moving from one set of eyes to the next. Each held for a moment before breaking away. Maybe she had gone a bit overboard with that...
A clattering from the back of the room made her turn. A vent grating had popped off and landed on the floor as a head of red hair emerged from the black hole. Lina stood up, dusted herself off, crossed her arms, and faced the group. "I'm here to help, however I can."
A pin drop would have made quite the commotion. Nobody moved, save for an arm that poked out of the inky depths of the vent, curled up in a fist, and gave a pump. "Me too!"
The room came back to life, this time with murmurs of assent intermingled with a few louder proclamations of support. She started to feel a little tingly, but in a wonderful way. Roy came over and shook her hand. That was the first time he'd ever done that. "Why?"
"Well, because nothing else felt quite right. Congratulations on the new job."
"What new job?"
"Why, saving Gunsmoke, of course. I've got a good feeling about you leading."
Well, she hadn't been expecting this. Still, now that she thought about it, there were a lot of good things she could do. It sure beat the other option. "Well, if that's how you feel, I'll do my very best."
"You've never done anything less."
He moved back as a whole swarm of well wishers advanced. She shook hands with them all, noting that they all had something about them though she wasn't sure exactly what it was. She thought about it for a bit, and finally decided that it was a little bit of hope and a little bit of faith. She prayed that it was not misplaced. Finally getting through the crowd, which settled back down into their seats, she thought for a moment. "Well then, who here knows about plants besides Mr. Mayers? ...er, just speak up if you do."
The room was quiet.
"Well, we'll need a little more know-how than that. I know-"
"Wait a sec."
Mr. Neon shoved his hat back up to get her in view. "It's too early to be getting into the grit of things. If we're gonna glow, there's one vital detail that you need to do now. After all, if you don't pick a good name at the start, people will call you whatever they dream up, and that just doesn't shine. So what's it gonna be, beautiful?"
"A good shiny name? Let's see..." Well, when it came to shiny, it'd be hard to do more than what Mr. Vash and Knives could do. Back on the mountain, Mr. Vash had been just as bright as the rising suns, and there was no doubt in her mind that Knives couldn't do something similar. So if they were the suns, then were they the moons? No, that wouldn't do, it sounded rude and Mr. Vash had nearly shot one down, not to mention that there weren't enough moons to go around. Odd, that- five has always seemed like too many until now. Then what about the stars? There were certainly plenty of those, but it just didn't sound right in her head. It was missing something. Her gaze wandered between the stars emerging up in the sky and the people seated below, until a flash of light from Ms. Marianne's uniform caught her eye. She smiled- it was just right.
"Then we'll be called the Silver Stars!"
Six and a half months. The sad part is that it's far from a personal record, though I'll hopefully never be making a run on that again. I bet there's only one of you left, clad in rags, who'll latch onto my leg and scream "Why did you abandon us!" Sorta like Wolfwood here.
Wolfwood: I'd hate you for that, but I'm too busy cheering on my big girl.
Legato: You already hate him, and master will have no trouble dispatching with this attempted move against him.
Yeah, because we all know that ragtag groups of people going up against overwhelming odds never ever works, and will surely result in lots of blood.
Wolfwood: That's sarcasm, right?
...Well, the reviewer responses have sadly been canned due to policy changes. However, this newfangled "Forum" feature just might be what's needed to fill in this empty void. Time to start mucking around...
Next Chapter: The just-formed group goes off on a recruitment drive, which may include some help for one of Vash's bigger problems.