Chapter 22: Heavy metal blues

She was sitting in a small corridor just outside the medical section, arms crossed. Her leg bobbed continuously as she stared blankly at the almost perfectly polished, gray floor before her. She either heard every little noise, every creak of the enormous building standing tall against the outside wind, every notion of a conversation somewhere around her, or she zoned out completely, hearing nothing but her heartbeat. Ruth was patient, but in this moment she hated everything about waiting out here, being unable to help in any other way than simply doing nothing. They've been keeping her in the dark for so long her anxiety was beginning to skyrocket, and the new, yet annoyingly familiar surroundings didn't help one bit.

The surgery began almost three hours ago and they didn't let her anywhere near the table. It was reasonable, of course, there were already three doctors jumping around the unconscious body of her friend, but sitting here instead of doing something useful made her chest ache and her mind scream. She kept imagining every single scenario, every single problem that could arise during a procedure as complicated as this. Her fingers held invisible scalpels and needles as she fought an imaginary battle for Amber's life. Every time she heard steps or opening doors she lifted her head, looking expectantly at the entry in front of her, only to see an unknown person in an orange pilot suit or a red robe. They almost always ignored her, going on about their business, and she in turn pulled her cowl further on her face and leaned forward, mindlessly biting the inner side of her lip.

She felt blood on her tongue when the doors startled her, this time almost flying open. Amy and Clarence came out into the hall and she jumped to her feet.

"And?" She rushed towards them, with her heart in her throat.

"The operation went well." The tall man with a blond plait started, his face tired, but radiating positivity. "Your mutant-cyborg she-bear is all stitched up and resting." Ruth exhaled and Amy came up to give her a little squeeze on the shoulder.

"I don't fully understand the implant business," the woman picked up, "but they have to keep monitoring her almost full-time now, in case anything goes tits up."

"You guys are amazing." Ruth grabbed both of them and pulled them into a double hug.

"The scribe lady did most of the heavy lifting, to be honest." Clarence took off his glasses and cleaned them with his shirt as soon as she let them go. "I couldn't feel any less at home here, but she certainly has the skill. It was hard to tell what she was doing most of the time, I'm not much into all the tech they've got, but it seemed to work. She shouldn't be conscious any time soon, but it's Dale, so I suggest you check on her tomorrow."

"Her first word after waking up will be a complaint, I'm sure." She smiled at them with gratitude.

Two Brotherhood knights approached them, one of them nodding at the doctors.

"We'll be getting back to the base now, it's getting late. Don't worry too much." Amy ruffled her blue hair like one would do to a kid, to which she submitted with a sigh, and they were both led out of the hall and back to Camp Imperial proper.

Ruth fixed the mess on her head a bit when the other knight stepped up to her. Some hairs on her neck raised a little.

"Knight Carther, ma'am." He politely introduced himself, straightening his back. "I am to take you to your temporary quarters for the time you'll spend here. Please, follow me."

She just nodded in response, and they headed to another section of the hangar. It was a wide, single room with several beds arranged in rows on each side. Two of them were currently occupied by already sleeping, bundled up women, and one more seemed to be taken. She was ordered to take the one farthest on the right and make herself at home. The woman scoffed under her breath, but forced a thank you before the knight left. Her and Amber's gear were already at the foot of the bed. Ruth gave their things a once-over, making sure everything was still in place as it used to, and was slightly more at ease to find that it was. She also found the unfinished knife her friend gifted her back at the Farm. It was longer and slightly heavier than her older blades, with its handle held together by straps of cloth and a wire, waiting to be put together for good. Ruth held it in her hands, smiling in the midst of her anxiety, then hid it back inside the backpack like a piece of treasure.

The next day was filled with restless anticipation and constant irritation. She woke up to the two women already rushing about their quarters, looking at her curiously. One of them with long, dark hair and a hardened face tried to spark up a conversation, but Ruth ignored her almost completely, hoping that enough silence would make them go away.

"Sorry about your friend." The woman tried again after receiving nothing more than a small nod for a greeting. "You must've been somewhere reaaal sucky to get this fucked up."

Wouldn't you like to know where, Ruth answered in her head, turned around, keeping herself occupied with her backpack. Although Big Bog didn't do too much to endear itself to her, she'd rather take another dip in the radioactive sludge than discuss any of their misadventures there with the Brotherhood. They might just want to go there and trash the place in search of an old filter, or a pump, or something equally useless, with blind pride on their faces in the name of progress they almost exclusively limited to themselves.

"Our canteen is just left to this section, if you wanna hang. Should be enough breakfast for everyone." The third woman in the room grunted in impatience at that.

"Listen." Ruth bristled, turning just enough to face the dark-haired annoyance. "I'm not here because I want to, and even less so to make friends. I'll be out of your business as soon as I can." She looked back at her gear and sorted out her medication for the third time.

"Fine, I ain't pushing." The woman shrugged and motioned at the other to follow her out of their living quarters. Ruth just took her dose of painkillers for the day and headed for the medical rooms.

Amber hasn't woken up just yet and a man in orange didn't let her through. After a little reasoning, in as sensible words as she could bring herself to use, he let her at least look inside. The redhead was lying down on her belly, covered with a blanket, breathing steadily, a couple monitors with numbers and graphs she did not understand standing around her cot. This somewhat eased her nerves. Ruth looked around, glancing at the wealth of machines and puzzling technology under each wall, unable to really tell what either of them did, though she recognized some medical scans and x-rays pinned to the nearest whiteboard.

"Not dead yet, if that's what you want to know." A voice came from behind them as the gray-haired medic came past the doorway and inside the room.

Scribe Jolene Williams was probably the only person Ruth didn't immediately hate, but it was only the respect for her supposed skill that was keeping her from that prejudice. "What about the implants?" She was familiar with the idea of implants, even heard about those that improved one's intellect, vision, or even physical regeneration, but deemed most of such ideas fantasy.

"Her body was so exhausted we didn't have to do much to suppress her immune response." She replied calmly, turning her attention away from them. "There are no negative reactions so far and we already took her off most of the anesthetics and immuno-supressants. She's stable, and the implants are working. She should wake up soon." The medic was holding a clipboard and was filling the papers with data from one of the monitors.

"Thank you." Ruth said to no one in particular and left, not meeting her gaze once.

She slowly walked out of the medical sector, not really knowing what to do with herself. There was a thought, an idea tugging at her mind, but she discarded that for the time being and exited to the main hangar, which she was forbidden to leave.

... they never said anything about exploring, though. To keep her mind occupied with anything else, Ruth tried to imagine the structure of each floor, looking for anything suspicious or interesting on the way. What at first appeared to be a jumbled mess of rooms and corridors crammed into the ancient hangar, started to unravel into a well-thought-out floor plan once she got some time to figure it out. The main body of the hangar had its side walls tall enough to accommodate two stories and a slightly arched roof. There was the main open hangar area with the massive, armored vehicle parked in the middle, and a whole bunch of workbenches and other equipment along the walls. They were similar in size and scope to the workshop on the Farm, but shiny, clean, and thoroughly organized. There was a pair of large, towering doors through which they came from, jammed post-war into the longer side of the hangar. On both sides of the open area were two structures, basically separate buildings on their own, consisting of two levels of rooms made out of prefabricated metal, wood, and plaster pieces. The top levels on both sides were recessed slightly, creating ledges along both shorter sides of the rectangular structure, connected by hanging catwalks along both longer sides. One side had the medical section where Amber was sleeping, as well as a whole host of laboratories and office spaces filled with machines and equipment she didn't even want to guess the purpose of. The other side housed the room where she spent the night, as well as a couple more identical chambers. There was also a canteen, showers, and a couple of strategically placed toilets. Ruth didn't find a single window in the entire building and if there were more than two sets of doors, not counting the big ones for the Chariot, they were hidden way better than they had any right to be.

Avoiding people and seeming inconspicuous at the same time wasn't exactly easy in this environment, but she managed to dodge a red-robed, balding man, and sneak inside a room that looked like an office. There were maps on one wall, and she recognized the section of the NCR territory they were in, red dots and lines marking certain locations. Ruth noted that the Brotherhood could've been true to their word, being still new to this land, as compared to the red jumble of lines up north. The only location marked in the valley they were in was Camp Imperial, with a few, red strings leading up. There was a terminal and piles of documents on the desk, a huge Brotherhood banner on the other side, and a chest in the corner she itched to crack open. After a few moments of battling herself, she finally crouched next to the metal box and pulled on the lid. To her annoyance, it wasn't even locked. Inside, she saw a laser pistol with some spare energy cells, a couple of holotapes with labels, a long, gray and yellow battery of some sort, and a few, neatly arranged, red robes. She pocketed one of the holotapes and closed the chest, before cautiously leaving the chamber. A few corridors down she followed a knight into the upper sections. Her disappointment at finding nothing else of interest was rewarded when the man opened a pair of locked, double doors at the end of one of the corridors. She only managed to get a glimpse, but it was a huge armory, its walls lined with a multitude of weapons: from the usual 10mm pistols, through energy weapons like plasma or laser rifles, to mines and grenades she could not recognize from this distance. A chill of both excitement and fright came over her, and she backed out carefully. On her way to the chamber she was assigned to, she saw the metal figure that drove with them in the back of the Chariot, the Knight Commander, encased in his power armor as though it was a set of your typical leisure pants. He turned his head and she was certain he trailed her through his visor up to the very doors of the living quarters.

Before she managed to disappear into her temporary room, though, she almost bumped into someone in the corridor.

"Oh! Sorry!" A young girl before her jumped away, startled. She was about her height, with long, fair hair and light skin. She was dressed differently than almost everyone she's seen in the hangar so far, not of the usual Brotherhood attire that were either modified flight suits, fancy, almost comical robes, or metal suits that made them look like walking danger toys. Instead, she was in a casual set of clothes similar to the higher-end fabrics she's seen at the Farm. The girl was just about to step around her and continue on her way, but she stopped abruptly. "You're the outsider! The one who came with the redhead, right?"

Ruth just looked at her, before stepping aside and heading towards her destination.

"W-Wait, don't go!" The girl appeared before her, blocking her path, which only made her frown in annoyance. "I just want to chat, if that's ok. You see, I barely ever get the opportunity to talk to people from the outside."

She seized her up, not really sure what to make of that. One thing was certain, the girl's eyes were glued to her and she was looking all across her person, as if wanting to note every little detail. It was plain creepy.

"What do you mean, from the outside?" Ruth asked.

The girl made an odd expression and seemed to... blush? "Um, those from the wasteland, from beyond the Brotherhood. Oh, I'm so silly, I'm sorry!" She stood straight and raised her chin a little. "I'm Scribe Tilly, but you can just call me Ashley."

"You don't look like a scribe." She noted. There was a growing noise from down the corridor, a hum of chatter. Ruth guessed it was coming from the kitchen, the canteen the others had told her about.

"I know, I'm actually an apprentice, but getting there!" Ashley chuckled nervously, fixing a loose strand of hair from her face. "Say, wanna grab lunch together? I hear the others are coming down as well. I won't take you long, just the meal, please?"

So far Ruth's been relying on their dry rations and didn't visit the canteen once. Truth be told, it was getting tiring and something else would probably do her good. Looking at the giddy eyes staring at her pleadingly made it a challenge to accept, though.

"Fine." She sighed after a moment, feeling she had no other choice and that the girl would otherwise stalk her until she agreed, anyway.

Ashley almost jumped in excitement, but quickly got her bearings and walked down the corridor. She fiddled with something strapped onto her shoulder, and they soon reached a white-painted, wide chamber with lots of small tables and a long counter opposite from the entrance. There were a few people already digging into their meals, the women from their room and the knights. Ashley greeted them on her way, while Ruth just followed behind, awkwardly, trying not to meet too many eyes. There were a few containers with today's food to choose from, and she settled on a small plate of fried veggies. They picked a table away from the others.

"So!" Scribe-to-be Tilly settled in her chair and grabbed a piece of... something from the equipment on her shoulder. It was some kind of technology linked with a cable to something else on her lap. It looked sort of like a radio? Similar to the one Lee had on him when they parted, but not really the same. She pressed a button on the small device she put on the table and continued. "Add to: Notes 02137. I have before me a resident of the southernmost parts of the NCR territory. A unique individual, young female, unnatural hair dye, with signs of possible beginnings of a ghoulification process, undecided yet. Say, how does the wasteland treat you here?"

"Oh, fuck no." Ruth frowned at her, bewildered at how quickly she turned a conversation into a scientific study. She could've expected as much.

"Excuse me?" The girl leaned a bit towards the thingy with buttons, as if whispering to someone else's ear. "Note: rude."

"Turn it off." She motioned at the device between them. "I'm not talking to you with that thing on."

"But why? It's just to record, so I don't have to write everything down." Ashley shrugged in disbelief. "You don't even comprehend how much paper I would have to fill every day without this! This is timeless!"

Ruth just ostentatiously jabbed a piece of carrot with a fork and started munching on it.

Ashley sighed in disappointment and pressed the button again, putting the thing back with the rest of the equipment.

"And for a bookworm you're surprisingly uninformed." Ruth said in-between her chewing. There was something added to the vegetables that made them slightly spicy. "Ghoulification starts with way more wrinkles, flaking, and thinning of skin."

"Whatever, I know that." The girl mumbled and retrieved a tiny notebook and pencil from her pocket. Looking at her features, her hair was very well-kept and her skin smooth, although there was a shadow of lack of sleep under her eyes. Ruth judged she was also much younger than her, and has most likely rarely been outside. "Let me rephrase that... " She wriggled the pencil between her fingers, thinking. "What can you tell me about the wasteland here? Are there any supermutants?"

"Not really, I've only ever seen a few in my life." Ruth replied honestly. The majority she remembered as barely distinguishable shapes she saw a couple of times at the edge of The Glow. She discounted the recently encountered Nuka Cola squishy individual. "It's safe enough if you stay on the routes or close to the settlements. It's not as chaotic here as up north, from what I've heard."

"And if you don't stay on the route?" The girl scribbled something down.

"You're either lucky and only have to take a detour to avoid radscorpions and ants, or have to deal with wandering ghouls or, the worst of all, raiders, during that detour." Partway through her meal she had to admit, spicy food was not entirely her thing. "Ever seen any of these?"

"Obviously!" The bookworm frowned, but then looked away almost in embarrassment. "Though not up close. Most of what I've seen was on our way here."

"Be thankful for that, honestly." Yes, definitely not her taste. "So did they never let you out of your bunker?" It felt as if her whole mouth was burning, and for a moment she was anxious whether it was poison and a trap that she has just so thoughtlessly walked into. Glancing around the room, almost everyone had already finished their meals and left, a small collection of empty plates was piled on the counter.

"I was never a part of any intel squad, and they won't let me on the one here, but I was always there to listen to their reports." She puffed up with confidence again. "You can learn a lot from just listening, and they took me down here to finish my apprenticeship."

"Good luck with that." Ruth gave her a smile and got up.

"Hey! I wasn't done! ...ugh!" Ashley grunted and quickly finished her own meal.

Upon returning her empty plate back onto the counter, Ruth heard a low humming noise coming from the kitchen. It grew louder very quickly and she jumped away when something emerged from the doorway, far too large for the little noise it was making. It was a floating machine with multiple, quickly turning arms and four eye-like visors on top of its round body. It was painted in gray and yellow colors. Ruth felt adrenaline in her veins for a moment. The last time she'd seen a Mr Handy-like robot it screamed and wanted to fill her ass with bullets and singe it with a flamethrower on her way out. This one was wearing a chef's hat and its "hands" were replaced with cooking utensils.

"Gooood lunch time, everyone! Hope the meal filled you with determination for today's chores!" The robot said in a mechanic, yet pleasant voice. As pleasant as it could've been for a machine. "Don't be afraid to drop me a critique every once in a while." It seemed to whisper to her and she noped away from the counter, heading for the exit.

"Thank you, Meatball!" Ashley smiled at the thing and followed her out. Of course she did.

"That was unexpected." Ruth said as the fair-haired girl shadowed her down the corridor.

"Why? Robots are amazing for labor!" She smiled. "The first few trials needed a lot of reprogramming as he would mistake coil springs for pasta, but it was way better than the last sentry bot we had."

"You had a sentry bot for a chef?" Ruth looked at her in disbelief. Sentries were bulky, military monsters with seemingly unending rounds of ammunition and rockets, able to rip a person to shreds in mere seconds. It had to be a nightmare on the battlefield, and she couldn't imagine how much worse it had to be in the kitchen.

"Yes, it was a poor choice, I know." The girl chuckled.

Ruth stopped near the entrance to the living quarters. Scribe Tilly stopped with her and gazed at her with those extremely round, brown eyes, still scanning for details.

"Listen, kid, I have stuff to do." She dismissed her. "Go read a book or something."

"She's not awake yet, I checked before lunch." Ashley said, half smiling, which made something inside her twist.

"... I have stuff to do." Ruth frowned in response, and although it was probably not a very intimidating sight, the other girl stepped away.

"Ok, ok, jeepers. I'll talk to you later, then!"

"Please don't."

The young apprentice disappeared down the corridor and she sighed in relief, still feeling the slight burning sensation from the spices on her lips.

The rest of the midday she spent writing the report for Stevens. For a long time, nothing good enough came to her mind, and she had to crumple up a few pages, looking for the right way to summarize just what the fuck had happened during their mission. She was tired and frustrated at the end of it, but ended up with a rather satisfactory version.

It was already late afternoon when one of the knights approached her with the news she's been waiting for eternity to get.

"She's awake."

If it wasn't for her escort Ruth would have run through the hangar as fast as her legs could carry her. She stormed past Scribe Williams who was just leaving Amber's darkened room and only stopped at the side of her bed.

"Missed me?" The redhead's voice sounded quiet, but not as weak as a couple of days earlier.

"How do you feel? How's your back? Did they say anything? Did you tell them anything?"

"You know, a yes and a hug would be nice." Amber muttered, trying to shift position. An audible groan that followed pretty definitely signaled that it was too early for those kinds of maneuvers.

"Sorry, but they would probably throw me out for hugging you right now." Ruth smiled and gently squeezed her friend's hand for the lack of a better alternative. "And you shouldn't be moving yet, your stitches are still fresh."

"I know, but my boobs are killing me." Amber chuckled slightly. "And I feel like shit, but alive, so it's an improvement from feeling like shit and dying."

She examined her friend's face. In the dim, artificial light she looked almost sickly green and there were obvious signs of exhaustion, but compared to the last time she saw her conscious, the improvement was astounding. Her focus shifted to Amber's green, almost iridescent eyes. At least, green and iridescent was how she remembered them. Now, the irises swallowed almost all of the green, leaving shiny, emerald rings surrounding the black discs. Ruth had to blink a few times and caught herself frowning deeply, probably staring into them a bit too long for it to be considered comfortable.

"How bad is it?" The redhead noticed what she was looking at and shifted her gaze.

"It's... normal, just bigger.. I mean your iris is bigger, your eyes look normal." Ruth assured her and scanned the room looking for a light switch or something similar. "How do they feel?"

"Not itchy and weird anymore, but normal, I guess." The redhead shrugged. "The doc said they wanted to do more tests, but-"

"We can test it now if you want." Ruth interrupted, locating what she was looking for. The gratitude she felt towards doctor Williams was still far from allowing her to run experiments on her subordinates. She got up and approached the small knob on the wall next to the entrance.

"Now? You mean... how?" Amber shifted her head to follow her, raising an eyebrow.

"We can start with what is your comfortable light range. Is it good right now?"

Amber looked around the room as much as she could from her position. "It's alright, I can tell it's dark, but I can see everything."

Ruth twisted the knob slightly and the room darkened visibly to the point that she could only see the outline of her bed backlit by the glow of monitoring screens still attached to her friend.

"Well, most of the colors are gone now, but I can see most of the room." The redhead commented after a moment of blinking. "Can you see anything?"

"Not much, to be honest." She could tell there was a hint of fascination in Amber's voice. "Okay, brace yourself, I'm dialing it up."

The knob turned slowly the other way around and the room gradually began to brighten. She tried to do it as slow as possible, giving Amber enough time to adjust and stop around what she thought would be the normal brightness. To her surprise, the redhead didn't protest, or even flinch, like she did a couple of days earlier.

"Is this max?" Amber asked, looking around. "Feels like normal to me, weird colors though."

"I can dial it up more, but this is normal, I think, maybe a bit dimmer." Ruth left the knob and approached the bed again to look at her test subject. It was immediately apparent to her that the pair of emerald eyes were more than a bit unusual. The iris dilated unevenly creating a slightly elongated, vertical ellipse instead of the usual circle.

"I take that now it's bad." Amber muttered, but kept her gaze straight this time. "Tell me at least if they are glowing."

"No, they are not glowing." She deadpanned. "Though it would be cool. It's not bad, either, it's just... unusual."

"Yeah, unusual just like my fucking scars and your freaky spots." She barked back, but froze suddenly, as if her own words just now reached her. It hurt just a little bit, like a needle, but it faded as soon as it appeared. "Sorry, I didn't mean to-"

"No, don't apologize." Ruth said calmly, sitting down next to her. "You have every right to be angry, this is a big deal. But I mean it when I say it's not bad. You still have your pretty green eyes, it's just the iris that changed slightly."

There was a long moment of silence between them and she could tell Amber was waging a war with herself. "Give me a mirror." The redhead said finally. "I want to see them myself."

It took her a moment to find an object that could serve as a mirror, and she wasn't going to ask for it, but she returned a couple of minutes later with a polished metal tray. While searching, she could hear the redhead muttering blasphemies to herself and cursing the wasteland. She held the tray up for Amber, who looked intently at her reflection from every angle her restricted position allowed her to. Then she asked her to change light settings again from the near darkness to way past the normal levels, where Ruth herself had to squint. Amber's eyes became large green circles with tiny vertical slits, but she could look up at the painfully bright light without squinting. The only downside they discovered was with how slow her eyes adjusted to those changes.

"That is actually pretty fucking cool." She said finally when the light intensity got back to normal and Ruth sat back next to her. "I mean, I still look like a fucking freak, but at least this time it's not completely useless."

"No, you don't, and nobody would notice it if they didn't know what they were looking for."

"Blue, we live in a desert, my eyes will look like fucking coin slots more often than not." There was definitely frustration in her voice, but Ruth could tell Amber was far more fascinated than depressed by her newfound powers.

"As fun as it was to watch you girls play doctor, it's long past your visiting hours." They both nearly jumped when doctor Williams's cracking voice came from a little speaker right next to Ruth's head.

"Shit!" She backed away from the speaker and huffed. "The witch's been watching us." She added in a low voice.

"Well, there goes my plan for some quality time later tonight." Amber muttered, scanning the room in search of a hidden camera.

"There go my plans to... " Ruth looked for the right word not to actually say too much. "I wanted to talk about... stuff."

"Stuff like?" The redhead turned back, raising her eyebrow.

"Our last mission stuff." She trailed the corners of the room, but could not see any device that could spy on them. It was useless.

"Oh, right, what did the boss say?"

"Nothing, I haven't submitted my report yet."

"Okay, so do you want me to help you with the report?" Amber gave her a puzzled look.

"No, I just..." Her thoughts were much more jumbled up now under the supervision, and she tried to remember exactly what she's already written for their superior. "Look, I'm not sure what I should tell him."

"The truth." This time it was Amber's turn to reach out and squeeze her hand. Comparably, the redhead's palm encompassed her pale hand almost entirely. "You did nothing wrong, we did our best and saved a whole bunch of people from a brainwashing maniac. And, we potentially discovered a much bigger plot that both Stevens and the rest of the NCR should look into. You can focus on that instead."

It felt as if something cold sank inside her at the thought of having to explain everything to her superior. "What about... the Professor?"

There was an uncomfortably long pause when the uniquely shaped, green eyes stared deep into her soul, and she had to peel her hand away. Amber finally said, with confidence, "we don't know who it is and we don't have to share our baseless speculations with him if you don't think it's true." The redhead carefully picked her words. "As long as we can agree that, given the opportunity, we will look into it ourselves."

Ruth slowly repeated those words in her mind over and over before replying. "Thank you."

"And don't forget to tell him how awesome I was at saving your ass." Amber added with a wide grin. "Now go, before they call in one of the knights to throw you out."

Ruth spent the next morning in her assigned bed, waiting for everyone to leave, fighting against herself on what to do. She tossed and turned, but finally decided to go for the idea that's been in the back of her mind ever since she stepped into the med bay of this base. The white-sterile rooms were as quiet as they'd been before, aside from the continuous beeping sounds of some machines and the tapping on terminal keys by Scribe Daniel. She noted, with relief, that the redhead was still sound asleep in her corner, getting better by the hour.

Asking for doctor Williams, she was directed to one of the adjacent rooms that served as her office. As annoyed as the woman was for being interrupted mid-work, her face seemed to soften at Ruth's request and they soon arranged a section for her. After a few more or less uncomfortable tests, she was told to wait for the results. For the lack of having anything better to do, she waited outside, watching the knights during their daily work-out routine under the watchful eye of the Commander. She also scanned the perimeter for the young scribe apprentice, having the distinct feeling of being followed since their talk the previous day, but saw no one like her. About an hour passed before she was called back inside.

"Bad news or good news first?" The doctor questioned when they entered the side room. She crossed her arms and leaned against her desk.

Ruth just frowned at her, unsure of what she was getting at.

"... doesn't matter, both are the same, though it depends on the perspective whether you like them or not." Williams gave a little shrug and reached for a clipboard sitting on the desk behind her. "The results are just as you predicted they would be. The ultimate answer is: negative."

She nodded slowly, not yet certain whether it was a relief or concern that she should be feeling.

"Here are your results." The doctor sighed and unclipped a piece of slightly yellowed paper and gave it to her. Ruth skimmed over the many tables full of numbers, percentages, and scientific words. "Judging by the extremely vestigial amount of follicle-stimulating hormone and the scans, there might be something wrong with the pituitary gland that's one of the reasons causing this. Additionally, and which is a curious thing to see..."

Still unsure of how to take it, Ruth just felt numb. She knew what to expect and was more than sure of the result herself for years now, but getting a confirmation still felt like a ton of bricks to the head. Looking at the results she somewhat understood what was going on, but it was such an odd experience, even her thoughts were empty and undecided. She vaguely listened to what the woman was saying.

"Hey." Williams put a hand on her shoulder, making her look up from the paper. She was actually giving her a reassuring smile, but in her case it still looked a bit like a sneer. "For what it's worth, there are some who'd love to get a diagnosis like this."

"That'd be a misplaced wish." Ruth muttered, folding the paper a few times before putting it in her pocket.

"Just thought it would brighten up the reality a little bit." She shrugged and stepped back. "It's not at all uncommon in the wastes these days, the environment doesn't really help and even if it's not that," she gestured at the folded piece of paper, "chances for a good and healthy resolution are less than 40%. Even with all the tech we have here... I'm afraid the effects of your previous exposure and treatments are not reversible." The doctor paused for a moment. "There are always alternatives. Many souls are waiting out there to be taken in by someone."

"That's... fine." Ruth looked away. "I wasn't planning to."

"Not in this line of work, eh? Then it's good news." Williams crossed her arms again. She didn't respond. "So, anything else you need help with, shorty? I need to get back to my scheduled work eventually, preferably right about now."

Ruth thanked her for the service and left the room, left the medical bay entirely, and returned under the thin blanket on the bed. In her mind, there was nothing but the oddest sensation of relief, simultaneously mixing with the kind of loss she did not quite understand, but it opened up a void in her she did not know could've ever been there in the first place.

Colonel Stevens closed the doors behind them and looked around the interior. It seemed to resemble a meeting room, with Brotherhood banners on the sides, chairs in the middle, the polished, gray floor and white paint on the walls.

"My God, do I get tired of this cleanliness." He picked a chair and pulled it aside in a way that it was facing one of the other chairs in the room. Ruth took the opposite one and sat down as well. "So, I got your report, now I wanna hear it, Corporal."

She forced herself not to roll her eyes. Was it him just being kind of a sadist, or was it really the procedure to reiterate everything every single time? Trying to remember as much as she could from what she'd written, she went through all of the events from the previous week. Their travel to the Nuka Cola plant, the encounter with Michael, the fight with the monster, and their visit at the Refinery, with a harmless skip of her secret stash. Then, her capture and trial in Big Bog, along with the detailed description of Amber's efforts to clear her name and subsequent explosive last minute rescue from the execution. She mentioned the cages as the possible reason for their condition, another rescue by scouts from the Refinery, and their family visit at the Farm, finally ending with their ride back to the base in the huge, armored vehicle.

All of this, while her colonel was carefully studying her every move, gesture, and expression. It wasn't the first time her superior was doing this, and by all means, she knew it wouldn't be the last. At least this time she wasn't about to break down and hand over her resignation.

"I must say, you two keep on surprising me all the time." He said finally once she finished her recap. "Both your resourcefulness and your ability to get into trouble are incredible. If it wasn't for the fact that we have reports from the second squad that corroborate parts of this story, I'd say you were making this up, not even trying to make it believable."

"This really is what happened, Sir." She was slightly taken aback by his comment. True, everything that's happened to them was... peculiar, but there would be no reason to lie to him, out of all people. "Why would I make it up?"

"Oh, I believe you." He chuckled, sliding her report into a folder. "But if it was anyone else, I wouldn't."

She sat there studying his face in silence. It was clear he knew way more than he was letting them believe. There was a dark, cold, and annoying thought at the back of her mind that slowly resurfaced.

"Sir. Did you know what was going on in Big Bog?" She finally asked.

"If you're asking if I knew that the plague was caused by a poison and not a virus," he started, looking directly into her eyes, "then yes, we were almost certain that this was the case. And we also suspected that one of the high ranking officials in that town was responsible and most likely was not working alone."

"What about... me?" A cold shiver ran down her spine at the thought, but she couldn't stop herself from asking. Stevens didn't answer immediately, instead, he got up and stepped closer to her. She also got up, but he gestured at her to sit down.

"Infiltrating Big Bog was not the mission I sent you on, it had nothing to do with it, in fact." He looked down at her with an imperceivable glare. "It was a series of unforeseeable accidents that had led to your capture, and it was incredible luck and skill on your and Dale's part that you not only survived the ordeal, but solved the mystery, saving many lives in the process." He spoke softly and his usually stern gaze turned to that of full sympathy. "I'll send my recommendations for another promotion for both of you, but it'll probably take some time to approve, seeing how you just got your stripes."

"Thank you, Sir." A massive weight just dropped from her shoulders and shattered on the floor, hopefully to forever be forgotten.

"You'll be sidetracked till you and Dale are back in full health." He stepped away from her with a smile.

"I'm fine, Sir, I don't need rest. If you wish to send me with the other team again, I-"

"Cut the bullshit, Delassandis, you're a mental wreck." Stevens slammed his hand flat on a nearby table, almost sending her heart through the ceiling. "If I sent you to the field in your current state, I might as well just shoot you myself."

There was no reply, Ruth just stared at him with a mixture of frustration and relief, waiting for him to continue.

"According to Doctor Williams, Dale should be able to walk tomorrow, so you'll be transported out of the base and dropped nearby to walk back. I will arrange a patrol that will conveniently find you and escort you to the base."

She frowned at that. "Sir, with all due respect to both you and Doctor Williams, I don't think she should be walking so early."

"It is not ideal, and Doctor Williams mostly agrees with your assessment, but she also claims it wouldn't have negative effects on her patient, other than the discomfort of moving in her current state. Private Dale will get the best care we can provide in our own hospital and Doctor Williams will still monitor her recovery, but we cannot keep you two locked here all this time, and we cannot risk you two magically appearing in the base out of nowhere."

"I understand that, Sir." Her mind was torn between wanting what was best for Amber, and wanting to get out of this cursed hangar to never come back. "If I may ask, why is the Brotherhood here and in such strong numbers?"

"The answer is the same as always, technology." The colonel replied with a shrug. "They suspect there's a lot of untapped tech in Archer City and want our help in getting it in exchange for their experience."

"And we're just going to give it to them?" Ruth couldn't help the surge of anger in her chest from rising, but she didn't let it show.

"I'm not their biggest fan either, Corporal. I lost a couple of friends in the Mojave back in the day, probably blasted about as many tin cans in return. But that was in the past, and now, they saved Dale's life and offered a lot of help in exchange for whatever we can dig out from the rubble."

She considered that for a moment, and as much as she hated to admit it, this NCR outpost as a whole could gain immensely from this continued collaboration. Not only did the tin-men provide the technology and firepower, their presence alone imbued people either with respect or fear, both very useful for maintaining control in the region. And, their hospital was amazing. She had to give them that. Still, the Brotherhood's arrogance and their unshakeable entitlement to technology made her sick.

"So, now that we're all caught up." Stevens took the folder with her report. "I expect to hear of both of you checking in to the Camp tomorrow. There's no need to further report to me, I'll call for you when it's time, Corporal."

He soon disappeared behind the doors, leaving her in the conference room surrounded by the Brotherhood banners with embroidered cogs and swords, and only the faintest buzz of strip lights above her head.