"You got what you wanted, so just pay up!"
The bonds were so tight around her wrists, and she was choking on the oily rag which they had stuffed into her mouth and tied tightly in place.
"You're crying in the rain, Pally." That voice was smooth, and she despised it with every fiber of her being! The dirt was rough against her side as she struggled with her bonds, but they were too tight to break.
She looked up, and there he was: Benny! He was flanked by a pair of Khans, their hair bright against the moon. The insects who had captured her, who had dared to interfere with the Legion's plans.
How dare he! How dare the Profligate silence her! How dare he tie her down. She would find him! She would find him and make him pay for this humiliation. She would see his smug face scream as he was lifted onto the cross.
The Profligate flicked his cigarette to the ground and exhaled, filling the air with smoke. He stank of alcohol and debauchery.
"Time to cash out…" the man stepped forward.
"Will you get it over with?" one of his lackeys asked. They had names, but she did not care to know them. They would die too.
Benny held up a hand to silence his companion. At least the degenerate understood a basic show of authority.
"Maybe Khans kill people without looking them in the face," he met her eye and she responded with a fiery glare. "…but I ain't a fink, dig?"
She could see him. The emotions and animal impulses: the hunger for power. Lust for her body, sympathy for her plight – he clearly had no idea what he'd stepped into…
So many levers… so many strings to pull if only she could talk! Just one word! One word!
He pulled the Platinum chip from his pocket. Her eyes widened – the goal. The key to all of Ceasar's plans for the west… all of Father's plans…
In the hands of a pleb. A degenerate. A nobody. He was not fit to touch it!
She struggled even harder against her bonds. Did he know who he was dealing with? The plans he had interrupted?
"You made your last delivery, kid." He buried the chip in his pocket and pulled out a beautiful 9mm pistol with a hand-carved ivory grip, "I'm sorry you got twisted up in this scene."
She froze, following the motion of the pistol.
Benny glanced down at his pistol and back up at her, holding it easily. Casually. "From where you're kneeling must seem like an eighteen carat run of bad luck."
That was putting it mildly. They had caught her on The Long 15, entering the Mojave. Her brother had always talked about training her to fight – one could not talk oneself out of every situation. For the first time, she felt that her own pride may have been working against her…
He pointed the pistol at her head, and she stared straight down the barrel. Fear and panic gripped her and she froze. He couldn't. He wouldn't dare…
"The truth is... the game was rigged from the start."
There was a sudden flash of li-
Jessica woke with a start, her heart pounding in the darkness. She felt sweat on her forehead, matting her hair, and on the small of her back. She took a deep breath and swiped Boone's beret off of her head, clutching it tightly in her hand as she tried to hold onto the dream. There had been… a smug voice. Bright hair something… It was like trying to grab water! The colors faded as quickly as they had come, but the voice lingered a little longer. It had sounded so familiar somehow…
Jessica sighed. It happened every so often, mostly in dreams. Flashes of her past. Memories from before Doc Mitchell's clinic. Some smells brought familiarity. Some colors were strangely comforting. Voices sounded familiar even when she knew for a fact she had never met the person before. Some days she felt as though she were living on the wrong side of a curtain, or trapped in veil; able to see light, hear muffled noise, occasionally make out a shape or two but never clearly.
This… the last time an episode had been this strong, she had been speaking to the Frumentarii Burke in the Wrangler.
Just days before Boone had died.
Jessica brought his beret up to her nose and sniffed, shutting her eyes to centre her senses, but all she could smell was her own hair. She exhaled and set it down on the bed beside her, trying not to think about him.
The floor outside creaked, and she looked up. A shadow blocked beams of light which poured through the porous walls.
Feeling the hairs on the back of her neck rise, Jessica tried to remember whether or not she had locked the door. More of the lights were blocked, and she heard the rasp of leather as something was unsheathed. The shadow was armed.
She stopped breathing when the latch, ever so quietly, began to turn. Her gaze flickered towards the combat shotgun which sat against the wall beside her bed – out of reach. "…Jericho?"
The latch froze, halfway through its turn.
A breathless moment of silence passed. Then the door burst open ferociously, sudden light blinding her as she dove off the bed towards her shotgun, feeling her way ham-fistedly across the floor as the bed behind her was cut open with an ugly noise. She felt the weapon's solid wooden grip in her hand and rolled over, pointing it straight at the shadow, which was pulling a machete out of the mattress.
It froze, staring down the barrel of her shotgun.
"Just once I'd like a decent night's sleep." Jessica said, pulling the trigger. There was a click as the weapon jammed. She looked down at it in horror and betrayal.
The shadow moved towards her and she jabbed the shotgun forward like a spear, ramming it into the shape's sternum. The figure huffed and doubled forwards, halted momentarily. Jessica ran for the door. She felt a hot, stinging pain across her lower back as the tip of the figure's flailing machete hit its mark, and she spilled out onto the saloon's upper level, gripping the railing and pulling herself away from her attacker. "Help!"
She heard heavy footsteps behind her and dove to the ground. The machete clanged againsthte railing, cutting into it and bending the entire section. Jessica looked up at her attacker, finally able to see him in full: black Legionary armor – an assassin, with his arm raised for a killing blow.
The door next to them slammed open, revealing Jericho, looking furious. "Hey dipshit!"
The raider charged, too fast for the assassin to react. They went over the railing and landed on the floor below with a thunderous crash. The raider laughed as he wrenched the machete from the stunned assassin's hand and brought it down on the man's neck.
On her hands and knees, Jessica stared timidly over the edge of the gallery to the floor of the bar below. The assassin's body was spread-eagled, his head lying a foot away. Jericho grinned up at her and raised the machete. "Oh fuck I missed this! I kinda had enough'o Legion hospitality, what about you, kid?"
Jessica started to smile, but then remembered – "Nova!"
They had tucked the barkeep into the room nearest the stairs. Jessica stumbled into a run and wrenched the door open.
The former prostitute was lying motionless on her bed, a shocked expression on her face and her throat slit wide open. The mattress was stained red with blood.
Jessica shut her eyes and turned away.
Jericho peered in after her. "Well shit… I'm gonna go see where she stashed her caps."
"Seriously?" Jessica demanded.
The raider was already down the stairs. "What? She ain't usin'em anymore."
For a moment, Jessica pondered arguing respect for the dead, but a raider would have no use for such sentimentality. Nor would House, for that matter. Instead, she said, "Jericho, someone will have heard the noise. We don't have time to loot. We have to go."
He paused in the act of shoveling caps from the cash register into his pocket. "I guess yer right."
Jessica collected her supplies and hurried down the stairs. "Is there a back door?"
The former raider led her through the bar's back room, past a terminal and out a back door. They circled quickly and quietly around the edge of the crater, and exited the town just as Legionaries broke into the bar. The noises from the town grew louder and louder as alarms were raised.
Jessica and Jericho watched from a nearby hillock as the town erupted likea nest of angry hornets.
"What now?" the raider asked.
"I'm guessing we won't be welcomed back there any time soon…"
"Heh." Jericho sniffed, "never really liked the place anyway. Let's get the fuck outta here."
Driven by the need to put some distance between themselves and the likely search parties, Jessica and Jericho found themselves in the parking lot of a Super Duper Mart, trying to decide how to proceed.
A prospector was there too. Or forager. Scavenger. Whatever they were called out here. The man was crouched behind an immobile sentry bot, its heavy black pyramid silhouette instantly recognizable, even at a distance. She could see its enormous, thick arms. One a missile launcher, the other a gatling laser. She knew its plating was thick enough to render most small arms fire useless. One would need a .308 or a rain of 5.56mm ammunition to do any real damage.
The scavenger was wearing an enormous coat teeming with pockets and straps of tools. On his head was a ballcap with a set of dirty motorcycle goggles. He hadn't noticed them yet, so they crouched behind a rusted old car to assess the situation.
"That's a helluva find." Jericho said quietly, "Let's kill him and take it."
"Jesus, hold on a second." Jessica frowned, watching the scavenger.
"Missiles, energy cells, microfusion reactors, sensor modules, batteries, even the scrap metal itself. All worth good caps."
"We're on the run in Legion territory. Or Vox territory. Whatever." Jessica waved a hand, "To whom do you intend to sell all of this?"
"I –oh. Right. Well…" Jericho chewed his lip and said, "There are scavengers around."
"You mean like the one you're about to kill?"
"Don't be a smartass."
"Sentry bots are Robco products…" she said thoughtfully.
"So… I've had plenty of experiences with Robco products." She rose to her feet. "Just… follow my lead keep your weapon holstered."
"What are ya doing?" the Raider rose and started after her..
Jessica marched straight up to the scavenger, careful to keep her combat shotgun on her shoulder instead of in her hands. Jericho, on the other hand, had decided not to follow instructions. He was gripping his assault rifle tightly in his hands, prepared to gun the wastelander down at the first sign of hostilities. Jessica shot him a dirty look, but he stared straight back in defiance.
"Hey hey hey back off." The man warned, picking up a Chinese assault rifle which he had set on the ground beside him, "This here's mine!"
He raised the rifle and stepped in front of the robot. "This is mine!"
In response, Jericho raised his own rifle.
"Whoa, easy…" Jessica held up her hands, "We're just here to trade."
"Yeah?" the man looked her up and down, "trade? Trade what?"
Jericho's aggressive stance was making him nervous, and his finger inched closer to the trigger.
"Chems. Caps. Ammo." Jessica said quickly but calmly grabbing the barrel of Jericho's weapon and forcing it down. "Do you have any fresh water? I am absolutely parched."
The man's eyes narrowed. "I might have a bottle. But don't fuck with me!"
"I promise I won't. How much for the water?" She smiled at him and watched him relax a little, his assault rifle lowering.
"That's fuckin' blackmail!" Jericho began to protest, but Jessica held up a hand. "Fifteen? Sounds fair. Very fair." She dug out the caps. The scavenger's eyes widened in surprise.
"The fuck are you doing?" Jericho hissed.
She sighed, "Jericho, just trust me…"
The former raider grunted in frustration and turned away. Jessica shrugged off her pack and shotgun and set them down beside her, walking over to the nervous scavenger and handing over the caps. He put a bottle of Aqua Pura in her hands and shooed her away. "Alright. We traded. Now get the fuck away from me."
"You don't mind if we stop a rest for a bit do you?" she asked, eyes wide and innocent.
"Well…"the scavenger seemed flustered. "Well. Fine but over there!" He pointed at a nearby car. "Just keep your distance. And no funny business."
"Mmhmm." She backed away about fifteen feet and settled on the hood of a car, slipping easily out of her sleeveless duster before she mounted the vehicle and leaned back against the windshield, the very picture of relaxed. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the scavenger watching how she moved, and the way the sunlight washed over her.
She let out a long sigh and opened the aqua pura, downing half the bottle in one go.
Jericho plucked her gear from where she had left it, and came up to stand beside her. He gave her a curious look. "What's happening right now?"
"Now? We're relaxing…"
"Uh, you know we're on the run, right?"
"Oh sure." Jessica grinned at him and tapped the hood of the car. "Have a seat?"
"No." the former raider said. He let out a long breath and shook his head in disbelief.
"Patience, Jericho. Just roll with it." She smiled.
The raider looked for a moment like he had a retort on the tip of his tongue, but then he just sighed and settled in beside her, his butt on the ground, and his back against the car door. Jessica settled back against the hood of the car and made a small noise of perfect contentment, she shut her eyes and smiled at the sky. "It's so sunny here."
"Yer a fuckin' weirdo, kid."
"Sure." She cracked an eye open. The Scavenger was back at his robot, glancing over at her occasionally. But he had set his assault rifle back down on the ground beside him.
She waiting a few more minutes, then propped herself up on the elbows and called out, "You must be really good at that, hey?"
The scavenger looked up. "Good at what?"
"Scavenging from robots. You must have years of experience."
The scavenger shrugged. "Well not… that much but y'know… enough."
"I watched a man mess with Robco military tech before." Jessica laughed as if sharing a story with an old friend. "He didn't input the disarm code and it blew his arms off."
The scavenger froze, arms buried deep in the guts of the robot. "The what, now?"
"The disarm code? Robco military hardware was programmed to self-detonate in case of tampering by… Chinese agents…" Jessica trailed off, her smile fading. She sat up quickly and gave the man a serious look. "You do know what you're doing, right?"
The scavenger scoffed. "Lady, I bin doing this for years and I ain't never heard of any override codes. Or blowing-up robots. So shut up."
"Of course…" Jessica said fairly, "Not like anyone it's happened to was left to tell the tale…"
"Well I…" he trailed off too, gaping at her.
"Oohkay." Jessica clapped her hands together and hopped to her feet. "I think me and my friend are just going to leave now… quickly."
She picked up her pack and began to walk away at a brisk pace, Jericho following along behind her in confusion.
"Hey!" the man shouted. He untangled himself from the sentry bot and tripped and stumbled after them. "Hey wait!"
Jessica paused and turned as the scavenger caught up with them. He said, "You uh… you know a thing or two about robots, huh?"
She waved her pipboy. "I have some experience."
"Right." the man said slowly, eyes following the heavy green device. He took off his ball cap and ran a grimy hand through his sweat-soaked hair. "You must be from one of them vaults, eh? Know the old-world tech…"
"A little..." She allowed.
"Look, I uh, I ain't never heard of any override code." The man admitted, shifting from foot to foot.
"It really isn't my business." Jessica told him. "Enjoy your robot. They can be a lot of fun with the right program installed. I once reprogrammed this one securitron in an old factory in Freeside…"
"Look, what's the code? How do ya input it?"
"Well it's-" Jessica paused, and then grinned and wagged a finger. "Ahh – you nearly got me! You want the code, I want money."
"Well I got…" he sniffed and glanced around nervously, "I got… I'll give ya fifteen caps."
"Fifteen?" Jessica smiled. "Is my life worth the price of a bottle of water?"
"Alright…" the man was flustered, "twenty-five caps."
Jessica sighed and planted her hands on her hips. She turned to Jericho watching the amused twinkle in his eyes. "What do you think?"
"Fifty." Said Jericho, "and we don't blow ya fuckin' brains out!"
The scavenger tensed up and Jessica stepped between them, "No one is blowing anyone's brains out! Forgive my friend. He's just feeling a little insulted by that offer. How about thirty?"
"Thirty's good." The Scavenger said shortly, glaring at Jericho. Jessica couldn't help but notice the way the muzzle of his rifle was quietly trained on them once again. She stopped and held out a hand to him, "shall we?"
"You two first."
"No way, scav."
"We'll all three of us go." Jessica said, rolling her eyes and pulling both men along back to the sentry bot.
For all his efforts, the scavenger had not actually done much disassembling. A few wires were loose, and he had knocked a conductor out of place trying to reach further into the machine, but there actually wasn't much damage. Jessica plugged the wires back in, popped the conductor back into its slot, and replaced the panel. She reached up to a different, smaller panel further down the sentry bot's back and flipped it open. Most self-styled robotics experts these days could manage to deactivate the machines without incident, but most of them did not have a pip boy.
Jessica had a different plan. She plugged her pipboy into the sentry bot and ran a brief startup routine. Just enough to turn the lights on.
Lights slowly crawled up its body as servos deep within whined to life.
"Hey, what are ya doing?" the scavenger demanded.
"This is the trickiest part. Don't interrupt." Jessica replied, quietly inputting House's Lucky 38 Override Code.
The sentry bot's arms rose and it jerked to life. "Scanning… Robco employee detected."
"Hey!" the scavenger raised his gun, "You weren't supposed to activate it!"
"Wasn't I?" Jessica asked slyly, "Whoopsy..."
She stepped behind the sentry bot, keeping its thick armor plating between her and the enraged scavenger's weapon. Jericho was standing a few paces back, watching both of them as an incredulous grin spread across his face.
"You fucking bitch!" the Scavenger yelled.
Jessica smiled. "Beep boop, Darling."
"Hostile presence detected." The bot's Gatling laser begin to spool up.
"Robot's mine now. I'd start running if I were you…"
The scavenger gave her a last dirty look, and then turned and bolted across the parking lot as fast as he could. Gatling laser fire chased him over a wrecked car and out of sight. Jessica waited for the man to disappear, then stepped in front of the machine, calm and steadfast despite the sentry bot's ferocious weaponry and intimidating bulk. "Sentry bot, your designating is… ED-E." she cracked a smile. "Acknowledge new designation."
"Acknowledged. This unit's designation: ED-E."
Jericho had wandered over, absolutely fascinated as Jessica conversed with the machine. "ED-E, set parameters: Parameter one: maintain patrol pattern five to seven meters of distance between unit and Robco employee at all times. Set Priority - Priority one: Protect Robco employee. Priority two: Protect companion of Robco employee. Priority three: pursue and destroy entities hostile to Robco employee. Acknowledge."
"Acknowledged. Parameters set. Priorities set. Initiating patrol pattern."
With that, the unit began to circle them, pausing every few seconds to scan the wasteland.
Jessica turned to Jericho, matching his grin with one of her own.
"Ha ha ha! That was… that was crazy good! You-" he jabbed a finger at her, "Ya don't fuck with you."
Jessica grinned mischievously, "I'm glad you enjoyed it."
"How did you even think of that?" He demanded, "Every other fucker in the wasteland would've scavved and walked, but you – you fixed it! Now we have a robot! How did ya do that?"
"Always stack the odds in your favor, Mister Jericho. My boss out west owns Robco. This is his property, and I am putting it to use on his behalf."
"An' now we have a robot!"
"We do. Speaking of robots, I'd like to make a pit stop at the Citadel. There's something I have to check…" Jessica sighed, and stared out at the ruined city. "But looking at the state of this place, I'll be surprised if it isn't scrap metal, too."
On a bluff a fair distance away sat two unnaturally pale figures, each dressed in heavily damaged, tattered pinstripe suits. They wore matching fedoras and tortoiseshell glasses. Each fedora had a set of three tightly-grouped bullet holes dead centre, right on their foreheads. Their suits were patched – damaged by more bullets and knives. Each face had the same high cheekbones, each mouth bore the same thin, serpentine smile. Each set of malevolent eyes was equally dead and colourless.
"She does look familiar, doesn't she, Mister Krupp?" One asked. His voice was thin and reedy possessed a certain low-key moroseness which set on edge everyone who heard it. He spoke with a slow, steady, hypnotic cadence.
"Quite so, Mister Martin," the other agreed, "I did tell you: more than familiar, yes. But what would she be doing here?"
"The Black Widow was never one to disobey orders, Mister Krupp."
"She always did her father's bidding, Mister Martin."
They paused, watching Jessica wind her way southwards, followed by the patrolling sentry bot and the former raider.
"The Frumentarius will be most pleased to see her, yes."
"That depends on why she is here. She was not mentioned in our orders, Mister Krupp. The Good Doctor told her to take the Mojave after Sallow's failures."
"She was to choke the NCR, Mister Martin."
"By destroying the Long 15, yes, Mister Krupp."
"She was to weaken them, Mister Martin."
"Poison their farms, yes. Sabotage their monorail. Kill their generals. Assassinate their president, Mister Krupp."
"Take control of the Strip, Mister Martin."
"Drive the NCR out of the Mojave, Mister Krupp."
"She was to kill Robert Edwin House, Mister Martin."
"And claim New Vegas for the Legion, Mister Krupp. For Caesar, yes."
"All by delivering the platinum chip."
They fell silent.
Then one said, "She was never one to disobey orders, Mister Martin."
The other nodded slowly. "She always did her father's bidding, Mister Krupp.
"She should not be here, Mister Martin."
"Something has gone wrong, yes, Mister Krupp."
"Oh, most terribly wrong, Mister Martin." Both sets of dead eyes narrowed on the figure of the courier. Their identical serpentine smiles froze, and faded into distrustful sneers. Pale, veiny fingers flexed in the sunlight.
"Most. Terribly. Wrong."