PROLOGUE: change of heart

They moved quickly, three hundred identical, genetically altered soldiers draped in black armor, yellow hair cropped very short, eyes covered by a thin, black shields. Each man was precisely six feet six inches tall, weighing two hundred thirteen pounds three ounces. Over each left shoulder hung a rifle equipped with a laser site and scope. At each right hip, a black pistol was strapped into a black, leather holster. The massive army surrounded the colossal hull of the alien spacecraft in a matter of minutes.

Two soldiers slipped through the entrance, led by a man in a red coat with yellow hair slicked up into a spike, yellow sunglasses resting on the bridge of his nose. His left arm had long ago been replaced by a prosthetic limb.

The man stalked through the ship as if he knew where he was headed, and his men followed. The three of them made good time through the dark, twisted corridors. Finally, the came to the lone place within the massive, metal fortress granted power by the great generator. Light flooded the brig command center, though none of the consoles appeared to be operable.

"I go alone from here," said the man in red, and left the two alone.

He stalked the last corridor of his mission, came to cell where he knew the target waited, and pressed his right palm against the identification scanner.

"Identification confirmed," droned a computerized voice. "Welcome, Vash."

The man smirked as the door slid open to reveal a small, darkened chamber. Another man stood across from him in an armored casket sealed shut by the power of the ship's generator. The only visible portion of his body from within the mass of metal was his face.

The man in the casket squinted, peering to the silhouette in the cell's doorway. "V…Vash? Is that you?"

What luck. He was awake.

The man in red strolled over to his target. He eyed the man with a smirk.

"What are you doing here? I didn't think you'd be back for awhile."

The gunman shrugged. "Had a change of heart."

The other peered at him, skeptical. "Change of heart?"

"Yeah, Knives. That's about right. I decided you were too big of a pain in the ass to leave locked away like this. It only means I'll have to come back and check on you all the time. It's a little irritating, ya know? Decided I didn't want to worry about it."

"So…what next?"

"Oh, I thought you and I could just take a moment to settle an old score."

The man in the casket closed his eyes. "I always thought it had to happen. Maybe I was wrong. Hard to say, but it felt right at the time."

"Yeah, I suppose it would."

With that, the man in red drew his sidearm. He took a step closer to his target and aimed the weapon. He waited for the other to open his eyes. He wanted to see the look on the other's face before the trigger was pulled. He wanted the knowledge that Vash the Stampede had been his executioner to be the last thought that swept through his brain, just before the bullet joined it.

The target soon opened his eyes. They widened in shock at seeing a gun barrel only three feet from his face. Soon, his surprise shock faded and he relaxed. "So this is how it must be."

"Yeah. I guess so."

The crack of a gunshot echoed through the titanium fortress. The bullet tore through the target's right eye and exploded through the back of his head in a shower of blood and bone and brains. The metal casket protected the room from the spray of crimson, which would ooze down and eventually soak the fresh corpse in its own gore.

The very thought gave the man in red something to smile about.

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Quinn struggled into his clothes after Ariel summoned him, cursing every little nagging moment as he stumbled his way through the darkness of his room. It was the middle of the night, and Quinn hated being disturbed any time before the break of day. Throwing on his jacket, the old scientist stepped out of the clay hut and headed east along the ruins of the lost city.

As he started across the compound, he finished strapping into his leather vest. Fishing through his pocket for a cigarette, Quinn took a moment to glance up to the blanket of stars that covered the night sky. Two glowing orbs, the second and fifth moons of Gunsmoke, hung in the darkness. He lit the smoke and watched a puff of smoke fade into the darkness around him.

He had been here for nearly two years now, monitoring the progress of his steadily growing army. The existence of the city had been a well-kept secret for more than a hundred thirty years, a secret kept to this day by the remnants of the Gung-Ho Guns. It was the perfect place to build an army of thousands. From the beginning it had been a gigantic pain in the ass, but as Morgante had promised, things were running relatively smoothly, considering the difficulties brought on by Legato and the nut job he had served for nearly a quarter of a century. Besides, it wasn't as though they were being forced to feed thousands, as they had back on the old world.

Quinn grunted; the world was silent save for his own private rants. He finished his cigarette and continued on to the command center. The whole of the compound glowed faintly in the pale moonlight. Soon, he stepped through the doorway and into the command center, where he was immediately greeted by one of his men, a young gunman by the name of Henry Starks. The boy gave him an apologetic look.

"What's going on, Henry?" Quinn asked.

"I was hoping you might be able to tell me," Starks replied, towering over the old man. He shoved his hands into his pockets and peered silently about the chamber. "They called me, not vice versa." He turned his attention to the array of computer consoles at the front of the room, where his ragtag gang was hard at work. "I wish they'd get it over with. We have to be up early as is."

Quinn grunted. "Well, it'd better be damn good or heads will roll. Where's Ariel?"

"Hard at it, I suspect. As usual." Starks glanced back as a door opened, and a girl in red entered, flanked by a pair of tall blond twins with narrow shields over their eyes. Every curve of her slender figure was accentuated by blood-red leather, fitted tight against her slender form. Long, golden hair was pulled back into a neat braid, which hung daintily over her right shoulder. "And speak of the devil."

Quinn crossed his arms. "So?"

Ariel smirked. She enjoyed pestering the old man, and never made an attempt to hide her amusement. "I've received word from Bane," she said slowly. "He has been to see Knives."

The old man's brow arched in surprise. "Knives? This soon? You're certain?"

"Positive."

"He's done the job, then."

Ariel nodded. "Quite efficiently."

Quinn closed his eyes. Phase one, then, was under wraps. He chuckled quietly as the others watched him. The twins, towering male clones identical to the other soldiers within his genetically enhanced army, stood at attention, bore no obvious emotional reactions to the situation. Ariel, however, let a taut smirk slide across her lips. At the same time, a knowing grin revealed Starks' perfect teeth. Quinn didn't blame them. It had taken damn near five years to fully evade Knives' life-altering plans. To have finally avoided the "inevitable", as Knives called it, was worthy of celebration.

The old man reached out and put a hand to Ariel's arm, giving her an approving nod. She'd done her job precisely, as always, and he was proud of her. If only all of his help had been so efficient as her and her partner Bane. A smirk touched his lips and he touched her arm gently.

"Good," he whispered. "Very good, Ariel. You and your brother have proven your worth." Unlike some others who have been paid very well, he thought to himself. No need to voice his disapproval over some of his help. At the moment they were not really causing any harm. Not quite yet, anyway.

Quinn chuckled to himself and fished out a cigarette.

"Thank you for the good news, Ariel," he said as he slipped the smoke between his lips. "Get Bane's ass back here, if you would, and go get some rest."

She nodded and turned on her heel.

The clones followed her out the door. Quinn smirked and headed outside, Henry following at his side. He too had a pack of cigarettes at the ready. Tapping the bottom of the packet, a single butt appeared over the rim.

"She's a curse and a blessing at the same time," Quinn muttered as he slipped a pack of matches from his shirt pocket. He lit his cigarette with one and shot a look to Henry. "I see the flame of the devil in her eyes."

"No doubt." The young gunman stretched, heaving a lungful of smoke into the crisp, cool air. He flicked the rim of his hat, knocking it further on his head so he could peer at the starry sky. "Morgante brought in the bounty hunter from Devil's Bluff."

"Good." Quinn crossed his arms and leaned against a limestone wall.

The night went on, silent as the stars above, silent save for the soft breathing of the two men as they contemplated the duty at hand.

Phase one had been completed. Now phase two awaited.

Quinn planned on giving it their full attention.