Chapter 1: Uneasy beginnings
War, war never changes…
In the history of every civilization, there are events of great importance which change the way we look at the world. Those events change everything and are marked in the collective memory, as a point of reference.
One such event was at the beginning of the twentieth century, when all the world powers collided in a violent clash. Millions of people died and empires of the past crumbled. Suffering people were finally granted the peace they demanded but it was brief and the world plunged into flames of war again, as it always did in the past. Another generation was forced to bleed, fight and suffer for a hollow victory: an era of peace guarded by nuclear fire and fear of total destruction.
Generation after generation learned to live with this fear and as they adapted, weapons of destruction became engines of prosperity. Nuclear energy pushed industries forward, creating further breakthroughs, new technologies were developed and spread among people creating a lifestyle of prosperity and comfort.
But that progress came with a price. Resources become scarce and one by one, countries held in check by the threat of destruction fell back to the old ways of conflict and aggression. As the world unraveled, there was still hope that, like before, a victory will come and with it - peace. Instead, a storm of nuclear attacks devastated the world.
The war ended, but the conflict remained. Those who survived had to fight for what was left of the old world. With only ashes surrounding them, some came together to form tribes, villages and eventually, new countries.
One of those countries was New California Republic, a powerful nation standing proudly on the west coast of what used to be America. And just like old nations before them, they too reach beyond their borders. Because even though the world has changed… war, war never changes.
Amberly Dale cursed under her breath. She's been struggling with the buttons of her uniform for a solid minute now, and they still didn't want to cooperate with her stubby fingers. Her focus wandered to a metal sheet hanging before her, polished to the point of an almost usable mirror. A tall woman with broad shoulders and short, fiery hair looked back at her, her deep, green eyes glaring in frustration. The thick, stubborn fabric of the faded brown shirt around her neck refused to come together, but she had to look perfect for this special occasion. Today was the day she's been waiting for ever since the moment she walked through the doors of the recruiting office. The bright yellow bar embroidered on her shoulder stood out against the dull color of the cloth. Today she could finally, officially, call herself a soldier of the New California Republic. The small metal button finally passed through the tight hole and she sighed in relief. Amberly flattened the shirt, making sure it fit her properly, fixed her ruffled hair and took a moment to take in the view.
"Looking good, girl." She muttered under her breath, turning around, admiring the slightly distorted reflection. She felt a familiar tingle of pride and excitement. Over the last year she's managed to accomplish things many have said were out of her reach. It took blood, sweat and tears, as they say, to prove them wrong and test her own limits. Blood, sweat and many harsh words from her drill sergeant, to be more precise. On top of that, she didn't just finish her training. She did it with her name figuring on top of all charts, putting many other exemplary recruits to shame. She smiled at her reflection, a confident shine in her eyes, ready to take on whatever the army and the wasteland had in store for her.
The sound of a trumpet hit her ears, catching her off guard. "Oh shit."
She rushed outside of her tent and bumped into someone as the sunlight that flooded her vision momentarily blinded her. She was then dragged along by a group of soldiers rushing towards the sound of the trumpet. Trusting their better sense of direction she followed suit, slowly regaining orientation in the yet unfamiliar military camp.
A group of about a hundred people gathered in the middle of a large, open square. A tall building loomed over them, but gave no shadow at that time of the day. Both men and women from all over the region filled the rows in a neat formation, standing tall and focused, brown uniforms uniting them all. Amberly sighed heavily. The scorching light of the early morning, desert sun blasted the soldiers, and the long-sleeved, thick clothes she squeezed herself into just moments ago were quickly becoming unbearable. The faces of the men around her, although covered in sweat, showed nothing but excitement and anticipation. She corrected her posture, inspired by their enthusiasm, and focused on the commanding officer of this base. General Andrew Abrams has just appeared before the crowd. He seemed to look about the gathered people, fix his jacket and clear his throat before speaking.
"Attention, soldiers!" He said from the makeshift stage set up in the middle of the square. His voice was rough and full of strength and confidence, hushing every last comments or whispers. "You have successfully finished your basic training, and from now on, you are a part of the New California Republic Army. From this day, your duty is to protect The Republic, its citizens, and those who seek shelter in its borders. I could spend a whole day talking about how much of a dangerous and important mission this is, but you know that already." His eyes seemed to shift over every face in the crowd. "You are first out of many recruits from these parts of America who will serve its cause in this yet unknown territory. Above all, your responsibility is to represent the NCR and its values with pride and commitment to ensure that those who live here feel safe and at home!"
His final words were accompanied by approving voices and shouts from the ranks of the new soldiers. Everybody stood there proudly, curious of what their new responsibilities might cover. The officer finished his speech with a short command of "Report to your commanding officers!", and walked off the stage. Amberly exchanged smiles and last comments with the people she knew, before the crowd parted and everyone left to find the respective offices of their new bosses.
She looked around, taking in the sight of her newly found home. As she made her way towards a field of tents, she tried to remember all the details that one of the local soldiers had told her about this place's history. The whole area, surrounded by a tall fence, was NCR's only stronghold in this part of the old America. Despite the disastrous effects of the great war, ever since the army took it over, the establishment grew rapidly and was recovering fairly quickly from the damages done. The old buildings were secured, new were erected, and a radio tower appeared shortly after. Before the bombs fell and devastated the landscape, the base had served as one of the biggest airports in the area. The abandoned airplanes were turned into storages, scrapped for metal parts used to build new structures or left to themselves as a reminder of the days long gone. However, the runway still crumbled under the redhead's boots and the hangars were punctured with holes formed by rust and wind. The main building, the heart of Camp Imperial, stood tall over the whole base. Its heavy concrete form resisted two centuries of desert rage. A crew of army engineers took it over for restoration as soon as the base was taken by The Republic. Empty windows were filled, holes were patched up, walls and ceilings were reinforced.
Amber had to be careful not to trip or bump into anyone as she came upon the busy path towards the officers' tents. The opening ceremony was held at the biggest section of the base, the military area. Dedicated to the uniform-only soldiers, guarded and patrolled at all times, it was stuffed with a swarm of brown collars and army tents. It was connected with the other two sections by the main building. There was a civilian area where the main hospital was situated, as well as where the wasteland folk came to trade or work for the NCR. A true mixture of cultures, faces and businesses, a variety she'd only seen in the Refinery. There was the same amount of drunkenness and trouble, however, as there was an always busy pub built out of a plane's hull in the civil section. The third area, which interior she was certain she'd never seen with her own eyes, was a hangar surrounded by a tall fence built out of large metal sheets. There were no markings of any kind on the one large gate leading there, either. Nobody she asked knew what it was or they refused to tell her, which meant it was a secret way above her paycheck.
She shrugged off the thought of a nice, burning shot of whiskey at the thought of a pub and walked between the rows of tents. After circling for a bit she reached the designated place. Their new boss's office. Amberly looked around anxiously, trying to spot the familiar soldiers she was expecting to meet. Here and there, small crowds of recruits formed and loud voices of commanding officers could be heard all around. The initial stress faded as she recognized some of the faces standing beside the tent. There were three fairly young men whom she knew from the training camp, chatting eagerly. She wanted to greet them, but someone else drew her eye. A short recruit of a rather feminine build with a loose hood covering her features approached the tent. She stood out against a swarm of brown uniforms, wearing something that one would call a usual wasteland outfit. A civilian?
"Hey there." She said in her deep, but nonetheless feminine voice. "You're assigned here, too, I see." Amberly was at least a head taller than the other woman. She stopped right next to her, looking down at the hooded figure. There were strands of pale blue hair surrounding the slimmer, fine face adored with a pointy nose. Her eyes were of a faded, light green. Or was it gray?
"Yes, I am." The shorter woman replied, having to look up to see the other soldier's features. She literally blocked her view of the sun. "Reconnaissance team, right?"
The redhead took a second to reply, a realization striking her.
"Exactly… Reconnaissance." She said bluntly. It was time for a short interrogation. "There are five of us, rigorously selected soldiers from the whole bunch of new recruits, and all of us took part in the long range shooting competition. I know these guys." She pointed back at the three men, who peeked at them every now and then. "They're good soldiers, but not as good with guns as I am."
"That's all true." The small woman nodded, a shadow of a smile on her face. "Why are you telling me this?"
"I scored second. So you must be the one who beat me, isn't that right?" Amberly crossed her arms with a cocky smile.
"Brilliant deduction, soldier, you got the right person. The highest scoring sniper of the new kids." She rolled her eyes with a shrug and gave her the same confident smirk. "Ruth Delassandis, at your service." She slid off the hood before offering a hand. "Who do I owe the pleasure to?"
The light of the sun revealed more features to her face. There seemed to be a few discolored and faded to dull white patches of skin on her cheek and nose. She had short, light-blue hair, here and there of a slightly paler hue, as if the dye didn't cover all of the strands.
Amberly clenched her jaw. Small, with a freaky look and just as smug as she was. Yikes.
"Amberly Dale." She hesitated for a moment, but took the offered hand and shook it briefly.
"Ah, yes, now I recall. I'm sure I saw your name on the list, and your group arriving at Camp Imperial a few days ago. One of the largest groups I've seen so far. You weren't far behind, on the list, you know." Ruth dropped the cocky attitude. "It's very nice to meet you. Welcome to this dusty corner of The Republic, soldier."
"Thank you…" Amberly's tone didn't match the shorty's hospitality. Giving up so easily wasn't in her nature. The redhead leaned down, mocking the other girl's height and lowered her voice. "… nurse." Her lips twisted in a sarcastic grin." I saw you in the clinic when they brought us back from field training." Her eyes drilled into the smaller woman's eyes. "How did a nurse beat me on a shooting range? Are you just a civilian, too, looking to get an easy pay rise?"
"Excuse me?" Ruth blinked, taken aback, standing her ground despite the redhead's dominating posture.
"Don't get me wrong, but you don't exactly look like the type for such missions." Amberly continued with a smirk. She blatantly peered at the girl, tilting her head. The bitterness of losing was slowly replaced with confidence and satisfaction as Ruth looked away, frowning. "It doesn't add up too well, and I'm beginning to think there was some kind of mistake in counting scores and assigning teams. I was expecting a full-fledged soldier or someone like that, been dying to meet the winner. There's something fishy about this and I don't like any of it."
Amberly raised an eyebrow, waiting for the response. The shorter woman sighed briefly, then shot her a look.
"Private Dale… a word of advice. Do choose your words more carefully, or we'll see who's the civilian next time we talk." Ruth took a step forward, making the redhead yank herself back up. "The medical crew is not useless, and you will not cheapen their worth."
"No, no, of course not." The tall woman said defensively, her smirk now faded completely. "I have nothing against the med team, they are great at what they do. I'm just surprised… I was the best shooter at my farm, and in the boot camp. I just expected the person who beat me to have the advantage of skill, experience, and…"
"Well then, farm girl," Ruth bristled at her, rolling her eyes, "if shooting molerats and target dummies was all you've ever done, then I can guarantee that you were bested by someone with much more experience than that. You still have a lot to learn…. One of those things is that even a mere medic can beat a regular soldier. Another is that nothing you find in the wasteland will be as harmless as it was on some farm."
"Now hold on here!" Amberly snapped back, almost boiling. "You have no idea what I've been through."
"You have no idea what I've been through, either." Ruth smirked, now looking almost humored by the turn of their conversation. "So stop acting like it's some sort of competition. And you're making a scene." She glanced at the three other soldiers watching their little argument from afar with wry amusement. "We're done here, private." She crossed her arms and turned away, walking out of her shadow heading towards the other soldiers. "Please don't tell me there are more arrogants like her in this group." Amber heard her say, at which point the soldiers stood at attention.
"You're right, this is a stupid waste of my time." Amberly muttered under her breath and turned the opposite direction, arms crossed, running through a whole range of emotions. She kicked a small rock that flew past other tents. There was a distant "ouch!".
The storm in her mind and the chatting of the others was finally interrupted by a sharp voice calling them from the tent.
"Recon team newbies, report!"
The whole group rushed inside eager to meet their new boss. The flap of the temporary office closed behind them, raising some dust into the air. The tent's pale yellow color matched well with faded furniture and the aesthetic of the whole camp. There were a few chairs near the entrance, file cabinets lining the sides of the room and a large desk with a bunch of documents, a terminal and a lamp on top. A dark-skinned man sat beside it, filling some papers. His torso was wide and impressively muscular, showing even through his field uniform with colonel insignia on the shoulders. There was a red beret on his bald head and an eyepatch covering his left eye. Nasty-looking claw marks ran down his face and the left side of his neck, disappearing under his clothes. As the three soldiers entered the room, they stood right next to the entrance, two girls quickly followed them and joined the row.
Ruth took a good look at the male trio again. The first man from the entrance was tall, skinny and bald, with disturbingly pale skin. He was slightly taller than that redhead, Amberly. At first sight Ruth diagnosed him with severe radiation poisoning and maybe even first, odd symptoms of ghoulification, but his skin was smooth and his dark eyes looked sharply at the Colonel. Next to him stood a shorter man, whose uniform barely contained his muscles. He looked into the distance, almost avoiding his new superior's eyes. The third man was the shortest of the group, excluding herself, and the only one with his black hair longer than what would be considered appropriate for army standards. His eyes were focused, bright, scanning the interior and the officer in front of him. She also glanced at the woman next to her. Her face was speckled with tiny freckles and her red hair barely reached her shoulders. Aside from her height, she was also, as one could call it, generously endowed by nature.
"Private James Vasquez reporting for duty."
"Private Billy Mook reporting for duty."
"Private first class Derek Lee reporting for duty."
"Private Amberly Dale reporting for duty."
"Specialist Ruth Delassandis reporting for duty."
They said one by one with salutes. Despite looking at the man sitting at the desk, Ruth could almost feel the sudden tension in the tall woman standing next to her. She managed not to smirk. Their new officer looked up and shifted his one-eyed-glance from first to the last person, nodding in amusement.
"So!" He said in a raspy, almost ghoul-like voice. "You're the best graduates in the latest batch of recruits. I'm Colonel Roger Stevens, and you'll have an undoubtful privilege serving under me." He said with a chuckle as he stepped around his desk to stand in front of them. "Do you know what the reconnaissance does?"
"Yes sir!" All five replied and were immediately silenced by his laugh, which could be mistaken for a coughing fit if it weren't for his smile.
"No! No, you don't." He chuckled and walked back to the desk. "What you were told is that we're the eyes and ears of the army. That we're scouting the area before the big guys with big guns come in."
He sat down and pulled out five files, each marked with their respective names. "It's a part of it, of course, but it's far from the only kind of recon we do. What they didn't tell you is that this scouting sometimes involves infiltrating local communities and identifying potential targets that could interfere with the glorious goals of the Republic." Sarcasm almost dripped from his lips. "That's why we only pick people from around the area for this job. You know how the local communities work and so on…" He finished dismissively and looked back up. "You won't be stationed with the rest of the soldiers at the base. In fact, you will be just ordinary civilians for most of them unless a situation arises that their cooperation is needed. That also means that the locals can't know you're part of the military, either. Once this meeting is done you'll each get a welcome package with all sorts of useful info on why you're not actually soldiers, but keeping the cover is your job. I don't care if and how you do it, as long as I like the result. You're also exempted from the standard uniform regulations - your goal is to blend in and uniforms won't help you with that."
The tent drowned in total silence as the five looked at their supervisor.
"This is of course the moment I offer you a choice to opt out and go back to infantry, but I've read your files and I'm pretty sure that not one of you would do that." He said, waving their files in front of their eyes before spreading them back on his desk. There was an uncomfortably long pause as his eye scanned each of their faces. None of them spoke up. "That's what I thought. Now, let's get to know each other… Ladies first." He pulled Amberly's file on top. His one healthy eye rose up to the redhead's face. "Born in Capital Wasteland? That's hardly local, care to explain?"
"My family came here shortly after I was born, sir." She explained. "Or so I was told. We settled north from here and later I lived on Smith's Farm before enlisting."
He scribbled something in her file and picked up another one, much thicker than hers. "What about you, Specialist Delassandis? Do you have any mysterious origins, too?"
"As it says in my papers, sir, a small settlement east from The Glow, but we traveled around as well. I joined the NCR medical corp over a year ago, took all the tests and transferred here." The blue-haired woman explained not missing a beat.
Stevens nodded and closed her file, putting it on top of Amberly's.
"Private Lee?" He asked, shifting his one-eyed gaze at the black-haired man.
"My family lives near the camp, sir, we've been working for the base ever since the Army took it over."
His file landed next to the stack. "Private Mook?"
"The Refinery, sir." The man answered. "My uncle runs the place."
The Colonel scribbled in his papers and put them on top of Lee's. "Private Vasquez?"
"The Big Bog, sir." The pale man answered in a slightly raspy voice. Ruth's heart skipped a beat. Now she knew where he got his slightly odd appearance from. "But my family no longer lives there, we all moved here near Camp Imperial."
She watched as Stevens held the file for a moment, thinking, then joined it with Lee's and Mook's. Relief washed over her, but she didn't let it show. The man stood up. "Alright then, I think it's time to give you something to do." He walked around his desk and picked up the two folders. "Delassandis, you and Dale take the northern patrol route." He handed her one folder. "Lee, you take the rest and go east to confirm reports in there." He handed him the other folder. Stevens looked over his new teams, his eye expressing no emotion whatsoever. He then saluted and ordered, "dismissed!"
The five reconnaissance team members would have questions and confusions that needed to be allayed at the sudden turn of events, but months of training kicked in and they marched out after saluting their commanding officer. It was only after they put some distance between them and the tent that they stopped and looked at each other, dumbfounded.
"What was that about?" Lee looked at the folder in his hands. "That's it? I honestly hoped for more details, advice, maps, filling in…"
"Everything should be in there." Ruth shook the papers in her hand. "Seems like he thinks that's enough and we're capable of figuring out the rest. Which I don't really doubt."
"Guess he doesn't like to waste words." Mook just shrugged. "So… we get a real mission, the first real challenge. When you, ladies, only get patrol, and-" He was cut off by Vasquez, who stepped between him and both women.
"Please don't mind him, ma'am." He said stiffly, turning to Ruth. "He doesn't yet understand seniority in the army. He still needs time to learn respect."
Mook shot him an irritated glance, but said nothing.
"Most officers while on duty won't be very forgiving if you don't pay them proper respect. No need to get overly formal with me, though, we're all new here and have to stick together. But thank you for your consideration, Vasquez." The pale soldier's dark eyes made her uncomfortable and she couldn't easily look into them for too long. She quickly turned her attention to the file in her hand. "I admit that the meeting was surprisingly short, but it's my first time meeting our Colonel. I guess it's just his way of handling newbies. We'll see how it goes after we bring him our reports."
"We'll watch out for that, thank you." Lee nodded at her. "Speaking about reports, I guess it's time to see what kind of attractions the Colonel planned for us."
"Yes, we should see what we're up against. Good luck, soldiers, and return safely! Meet you at the pub later." She winked at them and put on her hood, simply out of habit.
As the other team was leaving, Ruth's eyes kept glancing around the base. She couldn't find what she was looking for, which only left her feeling anxious. Amber cleared her throat, reminding her of her presence. "So…Coming with me, Private Dale?"
"Yes, ma'am." Amberly answered less than enthusiastically and followed the hooded woman.
It was still pretty early, but the sun was assaulting them mercilessly with heat. Both women reached another row of large tents. Random soldiers rushed in and out of them, tending to their business, some chatted loudly with one another enjoying a moment of rest.
"Where is your tent, private?" Ruth asked as they were walking.
"The second big one, ma'am." Her new partner said after a pause. "We've just passed it."
"Don't get too comfortable. With what Stevens told us, it seems like we're here only for a little bit longer."
A moment later they entered one of the tents. The air inside was stale and hot, making the blazing heat outside a lot more inviting. There were four beds, one in each corner and lockers next to each one of them.
"What's the matter, Dale?" Ruth asked, looking around. Her roommates weren't there, everyone already out dealing with their own responsibilities. "How am I the one speaking so much now?"
"I didn't know you were my senior, ma'am." Amberly replied dryly. It was obvious these words didn't escape her lips with ease.
Ruth came up to a table standing in the middle of the room. It was littered with mugs, water bottles, cards and pieces of paper. She grabbed one of the bottles and turned back to her.
"Superior or not… we're a team now, titles won't play much of a role out there in the field. I just want us to work together." Her voice was calm as she poured some water into two relatively clean mugs. "And just as you said, I don't exactly look like the type."
"Still, it was uncalled for on my part, I shouldn't have acted the way I did." The redhead stood there stiff, her hands behind her back, as if awaiting orders. She was deliberately avoiding her gaze. Ruth took in the sight, unsure if it made her feel more honored or uncomfortable. Being a senior officer was still so… odd and new. She didn't want her inexperience to show, but it wasn't like she had to be formal all the time, right?
"Please, don't sweat it, Amberly, I'm not a big fan of all those military formalities, anyway. They can stay, if you really want, but I don't like using it as a tool to cut your bullshit. Have a sip." Ruth smiled and offered her a drink. "Looks like for now we'll be spending a lot of time together and most likely just the two of us, so there's no point in doing it by the book. Just don't be ridiculous."
The tall woman hesitated, but took the mug and smiled briefly. "I guess you're right. I'll watch out more." She paused for a moment, looking at the clear water. "One thing, though. Please don't call me Amberly, only my mother used the full name and only when I messed things up. You can call me Amber instead."
"You've got it." She nodded. "It's a pretty name, you know. So what do you think about the no uniform rule? I've been here longer and I'm pretty happy not having to wear that stiff shit each day."
Amber looked away again. "Well…" She glanced down at her outfit. "To be completely honest I was hoping to wear it a bit longer. I've seen a recon team once when they came to our farm to buy provisions, it was just after this base was established. They had uniforms and they definitely weren't undercover." There was a hint of disappointment in her voice, but it quickly disappeared.
"Not all recon teams are, we just happened to be the scruffy ones. Like the Colonel said, we are locals, we know how to blend in." Ruth felt the same pang of anxiety hit her, and she took a moment before continuing. "Honestly, I was kinda hoping to make it to the officials, you know."
"Oh? Why?" The redhead studied her.
"Well…" She glanced to the side, looking for the right words. "Let's say they were an inspiration to me as well. The reason I transferred. But that's good, too. Least we're not about to be sent up north to fight off the Legion."
"I'm really glad to be in the recon team, even if we're supposed to pretend we're civilians now." The redhead continued playing with the mug in her hands. "Do you think they made up backstories for us, or are we supposed to make them ourselves?"
"Good question, but it's probably in those files we got. Let's see what this secret patrol is about."
Ruth finished her water and sat down on the bed on the right, next to the entrance. She opened the folder and flicked through its contents. There was a small copy of a map with marked locations, a few notes about their objective, standard information about the area and aims of the army, with some shortened version of laws and rights which she never read thoroughly. Her eyes scanned the pages for a moment, then again, looking for something more promising, before she closed the folder.
"And there I got excited." The papers landed on the bed. "We've got two days of travel to the caravans' meeting spot. The mission is to gather info about that area without blowing our cover, no violence. And that's… that's pretty much it." She glanced at Amberly who was toying with the empty mug. "At least a good warm up. What do you think?"
"I think they want to test us, ma'am." The redhead answered with a shrug. "But I hope we get to show them we can handle it."
"Of course we will. Doesn't sound like much of a struggle." Ruth smiled at her new partner. The broad-shouldered redhead looked like a lot of trouble, but not the kind of trouble she would be worried about, even in the light of their bad first impressions. Or so she hoped. "Relax, Dale, you're still standing there as if you had a pole in your ass. I'm not here to order you around like a patrol dog, ok? We'll make a good team, eventually."
"Let us hope so, ma'am."
"Well then." The small woman sprung from her bed and grabbed a patched, nearly packed backpack. "Let's not waste any more time! Be at the gate in ten minutes, and then we're off."
Moments later Amber was back in her tent. It was empty. All of the other soldiers were still on their first meetings, getting proper introductions and instructions from their commanding officers while she was hastily taking off the uniform she put on not even an hour earlier. She didn't have much to pack up. Her standard uniform was left neatly folded in her locker and she put on what she used to wear in her civilian life as well as her home-made armor. In reality it was just some scrap metal welded into a few moderately useful plates mounted on her torso and shoulders. Much heavier than the military grade counterparts and way less protective. It felt weird and surprisingly tight to wear her old clothes again, but it was something she never knew she missed.
"It'll have to do for now…" She muttered with a sigh and took up her sleeping bag and backpack. She stepped out of her tent and slowly walked towards the meeting place with her new partner. Her mind still struggled to accept that the blue-haired pipsqueak outranked her and ended up in the commanding position, but for the time being there was nothing she could do about it. She could only show the other woman what she's made of.
Approaching her superior's tent, Amber noticed that she was just putting on what looked like a one-part flight suit. She allowed herself to slow down and look. Bent over, Ruth slid her legs into the suit and wrapped a few strips of cloth around them to secure it in place. Weird, pale patches of skin covered her back and a nasty-looking scar went across her shoulder blade. For a brief moment she felt sorry for the smaller woman, but seconds later it was replaced by satisfaction. Not only would she be the first one at the gate, she also saw the other woman's underwear. A small victory, but a victory nevertheless.
Ruth turned towards the inside of the tent and stood up struggling with the zipper of her suit when Amber stopped mid-step. Her eyes widened in surprise and locked on a small, shiny object hanging from the girl's neck. She only managed to get a glimpse of it, before it was swallowed by her clothes, but the redhead would recognize this small piece of jewelry anywhere. She hasn't seen it in so long, it was impossible… yet there it was, right before her. Amber rushed towards the tent, pushed forward by her growing anger and adrenaline. She stormed inside, pulling down the flap of the tent behind her. The inside went almost completely dark, illuminated only by small gaps between the cloth covering around the blurry windows.
"Dale? What happened?" Ruth turned around, startled.
"What is that on your neck? Where did you get that?!" Amber stopped right in front of the girl, her eyes on fire, seeing nothing but the piece of a silver string poking from underneath the suit. She loomed over her like a furious supermutant.
"What? Dale, if you don't explain yourself-" The girl took a step back and was quickly cut off.
"It belongs to me!"
The redhead reached for the string without thinking. Her arm shot forward. Ruth jumped back, but was blocked by the table behind her. Amber's fingers clenched around the string and the suit. She pulled them to herself, together with the woman still attached. The moment her hand made contact, she felt a sudden, sharp pain in her arm.
"Stop! Stop, damnit!" Ruth's words broke through the woman's rage.
Breathing heavily, she only now noticed a blade pressing against her skin. In her rage-filled fervor she fell completely blind to the other soldier's moves. Ruth managed to take out a knife and press its edge against Amber's arm, not far from her own cheek. A second blade aimed at her stomach.
"Let go of me." She ordered, her voice cold and piercing. "Let go, I don't want to hurt you."
"Oh go on, please!" Amber's hiss dripped in hatred. "I'll have all the best reasons to report you, you raider scum!"
"Raider- what?! Are you out of your fucking mind?!" Ruth's eyes widened. For a moment she thought she had her, then the woman's tone turned official and her brow furrowed. "If you won't let go right now, I'll make sure they'll never let you into Camp Imperial again, private! You'll be kicked back to that farm of yours before you know it!"
They stared each other down, not one of them even daring to blink, their heavy breathing guided by emotion.
"You little…" She reluctantly loosened her grip, but never let go of the string. Her mind was racing, trying to find a solution. A single drop of blood escaped from under the blade and fell to the floor. "Do you really think this will stop me?" She finally replied, pulling at the string and yanked it forward, revealing the hidden piece of jewelry. It was an amber pendant wrapped in a silver leaf.
"You can be my superior, you can order me around, but I know who you are." She growled, staring at the pendant. "I'd recognize this necklace anywhere. My mother had it on her all my life, until…" Her expression softened as the resin glimmered in the dim light. Her eyes began to sting and something tightened in her chest painfully.
"Your… mother?" Ruth asked quietly.
"… until a gang of raiders murdered her and took it from her corpse!" Her anger flared again. She tried pulling the pendant to herself, even though it was still around Ruth's neck. It sank into the smaller woman's skin. "I don't know how you got this, but the only way you could have it is from those raiders, and raiders don't trade!"
"Nor do they wear NCR uniforms." Ruth pressed the blade harder into the cut in response and Amber hissed in pain. "I don't have to explain myself to you, but this little thing was a gift. A gift that happened to be the only memory I have of my family now, and I'm not giving it back."
"Bullshit!" Amber ignored her protests and yanked the pendant even harder, forcing Ruth to take a step forward. "I will not let you have it!"
The short woman's face turned red from anger and effort. The tip of the knife sank into her skin and she had to let go of the string. Ruth jumped forward and pushed her away, making her stumble back to the entrance, almost tripping over her own feet. Amber grabbed her arm to stop the bleeding.
"I am your commanding officer and I am ordering you to get the fuck out of my tent!" The small woman almost yelled at the panting soldier before her. She hardly contained her own emotions.
"I will report you to the Colonel." Amber only glared, but the commanding voice effectively discouraged her from trying to jump at the girl again. She wiped the bit of blood from the cut on her trousers.
"And what? You'll tell them that you think I'm a raider? And that you attacked me in my own tent because of it? Good luck with that." Ruth scoffed and lowered her voice.
"Only a raider could have this pendant!" The redhead growled. "It belongs to my family and I will get it back one way or the other."
"This is ridiculous." Ruth tried to steady her voice as she rolled her eyes. "As I said, this pendant has a lot of meaning to me. And you will not have it. Now, stand the fuck down or we're both getting into trouble!"
The redhead stood there in silence, her mind was racing through all of her options. She realized she didn't have a lot. "This is not over." She said through her clenched teeth.
"You are an NCR soldier and so am I. We have an assignment to complete and I expect you to fall in line. Do I make myself clear? I worked too hard for this and I won't let you destroy it!"
Amber glared at her breathing heavily, her fingers were starting to hurt from clenching them into tight fists, but she said nothing.
The other woman sighed deeply. The pendant disappeared under her clothes again. "Meet me where you were supposed to in a minute, private. We're already past the scheduled time."
Amber punched the tent's entrance open and left without a word. A faint smudge of blood on the flap was all that remained after she was gone.
Ruth stood in the middle of her tent, slowly realising how tense her body was and that her fists were still clenched on the handles of her knives. They slid back into leather holsters attached to her belt. She sat heavily on a nearby bed and leaned forward to rest her face in her trembling hands. There was a raging storm in her mind.
"You've got this." She whispered to herself in a shaky voice. "No more failing. No more. You've got this."
After a moment she stood up, put on her hood, grabbed her backpack and reached for a rifle standing up against the tent wall. A deep breath later, she was ready.
Amber's first instinct was to go straight to the Colonel, but as she sorted through her thoughts to form a coherent testimony, she realized that she had nothing that could possibly make him believe her story. She might know the truth behind the little amber pendant and she was certain that Ruth knew it too, but nobody else did. Simply knowing wasn't enough.
"Fucking raider bitch." She muttered to herself. At this point she couldn't bring her down, couldn't legally hold her responsible for anything… but there was always another way to get her pendant back. Amber turned towards the gate. "I'll have to deal with her myself."
The other three new members of the reconnaissance squad were just leaving the base for their own mission. She cursed again, realizing just how much time she had wasted already. The sun was climbing higher and higher on the clear, blue sky and despite the early morning hour the heat was eating through her protective clothes. Her hand was covered in blood and the cut was burning. She reached for a bandage in her bags and noticed the blue-haired traitor nearing the gate. She shot her a death stare, but the other woman ignored that completely.
"Follow me." Ruth simply ordered as she passed Amber without even slowing down.
A cold "Yes ma'am" was the only answer as she hastily wrapped the bandage around her hand.
For the next couple hours both women walked silently along an old, devastated highway. The sun was blasting, but a pleasant, occasional breeze washed over them, only sometimes blowing sand into their eyes. Ruth led, carefully surveying her surroundings, trying to focus on the road, but she couldn't shake off the sensation of the redhead's hateful gaze burning a hole in the back of her neck. A ruined building, or rather a few walls sticking out of the sand stood near the road. She welcomed the sight with relief. Some time has passed since their last stop and it was a perfect spot, offering some shadow and protection from the sight of unwanted strangers. She gestured towards the remains. Amber followed without a word.
When they reached the building, Ruth put her backpack on the ground and stretched her arms. She also discreetly checked her knives. She was on edge for most of the trip, and had to be ready in case her companion was really planning an assassination. She wasn't this stupid, though… was she? Amber sat heavily under one of the walls and sighed, closing her eyes. The heat was getting to her as well. The poorly-bandaged arm still had traces of smeared blood and dirt from the road. Ruth couldn't bear looking at it. It not only filled her with guilt, but as a medic she couldn't accept such poor treatment of a wound. A canteen, fresh bandage, a piece of cloth and a small container with an antibiotic ointment. She took all the items and walked up to the woman.
"No." Amber opened her eyes and frowned.
"Let me take care of it. You might get an infection." Ruth insisted. It was the third time now that she's offered to clean that wound.
"Piss off." She turned her head away.
"This won't stop you from being furious, but I did it. And I want to fix it. Besides, I don't want to use up all of my antiseptics on you when it gets bad." She stood there before the redhead anxiously, but there was no response. A few moments passed in awkward silence, then Ruth simply kneeled next to her and put the items in her lap.
"Hey, I told you to-" Amber raised her voice and almost jumped away.
"Shut up and let me help." She touched her hand gently and pulled it to herself, exposing the injured underside. The redhead tensed and stared at her as if she was about to bite off her blue head, but didn't take the arm away.
The bandage was already dirty and sticky from the sweat. She unwrapped it slowly, carefully, revealing the bloody mess underneath. It seemed bad, but it looked worse than it really was. She opened her canteen and began cleaning the wound from all the clotted blood and dust. Ruth glanced at the redhead. Her face was tense and she was probably holding back from punching her.
"Listen, private… Amber." She hesitated, but kept her voice calm. "It's not like I want to bring this up again, but we'll have to cooperate sooner or later. Could we, please, put aside our accusations for the time being and focus on the job? It's not a safe place to have your mind miles away." She didn't know what to expect, but this was all she could say in the matter right now. "And please stop coming up with different ways to kill me."
"Easy for you to say, ma'am." Amber replied coldly. She flinched as Ruth cleaned the stains away with a piece of cloth.
"Neither of us wants to go back to the base, empty-handed, on her first expedition, right? Let's show them we can do something as simple as patrol." With the wound thoroughly washed and clean, Ruth applied the ointment around the cut. It wasn't very deep, but it would take a while for it to heal completely. The redhead glared at her in silence. There was no warmth in those eyes, and she doubted she would see any in the coming days.
"I'm a soldier." Amber finally said in a voice that could freeze the desert. "I will follow our orders, ma'am. But the moment I notice any signs of your betrayal, I will kill you. Just like that. And I will not care for titles."
A cold shiver ran down Ruth's spine. Not even a flinch appeared on the redhead's face as she spoke. There was no doubt that she was serious and wouldn't think twice to do what she said if Ruth gave her a shadow of a reason. She quickly finished bandaging Amber's arm and got up to her feet.
"No need to thank me." She deadpanned. "Let's get moving."