Chapter 3: New enemies
Amber was steaming. When she first confronted Ruth back at the base, she only suspected her superior to be somehow connected to raiders, but now she had solid proof for it. The worst part was that it wasn't just any group of raiders, but the Tombstones. That name echoed in her head repeatedly, making her sick and further fueling her anger.
"No wonder that bitch has my pendant..." The redhead muttered as she walked through the camp. The pistol she got was tucked under her belt and covered with her unzipped jacket. The coldness of the steel emanating through the fabric of a shirt gave her some sense of security and confidence.
"Who the fuck are you and where the fuck do you think you're going?" An unpleasant screechy voice pulled her out of her thoughts. She kicked herself mentally for letting her guard down so easily.
"I'm one of the travelers your leader permitted to stay for the night." Staying calm was not the easiest task at the moment, but she clenched her fists and squinted her eyes as a beam of light flickered onto her face.
"Oh, you're the butch one!" Only now did Amber realize she was talking to a woman. The light moved from her face and she saw a short girl with spiky hair and what could be called an armor or a fetish harness. "Why did you leave your tent? You're not supposed to, you know that?"
"I'm just going to take a piss." The redhead pretended to be annoyed. "I don't think you'd want me to piss in one of your tents... Or do you?"
"... Bitch!" She examined her carefully, then waved her rifle at her. "Do what you have to and get back to your place, or you'll be pissing blood from your head."
"If I knew I'd have an audience I'd drink more." Amber said taking a few more steps into the tall, dead grass and crouched to hide the distinct lack of urine.
"Oh fuck off." The other woman turned around in disgust. "Whatever, I hope a radscorpion will bite you in the ass. But you'll get a beating if I see you here again."
With that remark the raider walked away, leaving Amber weirdly satisfied with her small victory. She fastened her belt and walked back towards the camp, this time keeping herself close to the ground. She saw a few more tents and rows of crates. Opening them up would make too much noise and she didn't have that much time. Behind them stood two large, makeshift carts, covered with thick clothing. Amber was about to go straight for them, but a noise somewhere before her made her almost jump. She sneaked closer and saw a guard sitting in a chair behind some of the crates. A few empty bottles littered the ground around him and she could smell alcohol even from her hiding spot. After making sure there was no one else around, she sneaked past the half-asleep, half-drunk guy with ease. Hiding behind the cart itself, she risked a peek under the cloth. What she saw made her sick. She expected drugs, armor, guns or ammo, but certainly not this.
The cart was in fact a large, iron cage. Inside it there were numerous tied, gagged people, all squeezed together in the confined space. Two young men, three women and a couple of children, all bruised with hastily patched up wounds looked at her in silence. The prison smelled of blood, urine and fear.
She cursed silently and reached out to the nearest woman. She leaned away at first, but Amber convinced her she was not one of her captors.
"Be quiet, please. I'm only going to ask you a few questions." She whispered as she carefully took out a dirty rug from the woman's mouth. She breathed deeply in relief, thanking Amber repeatedly. "Where are you people from?"
"A small farm east from the Refinery." The woman coughed, trying to keep her voice steady.
"How long have you been locked up here?" Amber took out a pocket knife she stashed in her shoe and cut through the binds around the slave's wrists. She did the same for a few others.
"For over a week now... They carry us around, catch new people. They want to take us south... Please help us, they... they're monsters! They..." Amber grabbed her hands through the bars.
"I will help you. And they will pay for what they did to you." She added looking at the other people in the cage. "But I need you to stay calm and quiet. I need to get my... partner to help me." Amber slipped the grip of her blade into the woman's hands. "Free the others, but no matter what happens, stay here and be quiet."
With those words she left and headed back to their tent. Amber's mind was racing as she thought up different ways out of this situation. She didn't want to tell Ruth about this. She wanted to kill her, shoot her for everything she's seen here, but maybe... maybe she wasn't able to do this on her own after all.
Ruth was just in the process of examining various notebooks and letters. She flicked through them in search of any information on the gang, of any kind of correspondence they might have exchanged with their bosses or other groups, but there was nothing.
After the redhead had left, Ruth sneaked into the nearest tent. She managed to look into every bag, but none of these belongings were of any value, unless you were a junkie. Jet inhalers and Psycho mixes were in abundance here, same as empty bottles of whisky. She had to be careful not to accidentally poke herself with a needle. There was one tent in which she'd found some of the stuff previously belonging to the caravan, among them various notes. Neat writing mostly described income, routes, stocktaking and lists of people who owned the merchants their caps. Sadly, the raiders didn't think about reusing those to their own purposes, even a map of the area didn't have any odd or specific markings that would suggest raider movements or plans. What was she thinking, wasting time like that? Most of these bastards couldn't even read! She took the map and tossed the rest of the papers back into the bag.
As there was nothing else of use in the tent she sneaked into, Ruth peeked outside and was about to leave when a pair of feet appeared to her left. She jumped away from the entrance and kneeled next to it with her knife out. If the patrolling raider saw her and came in, she'd do it quickly and quietly. Her grip tightened on the handle as heavy footsteps closed in. The man outside inhaled sharply, then gave a booming sneeze. A series of unpleasant snorting noises and blowing in one's hand made her cringe. Then the raider followed down the alley and the coast was clear again.
Although she managed to sneak into a few of their tents, she found nothing of value. There had to be a different way of learning something. Raiders were always on the move if not in their dwellings, and this was clearly a temporary camp. What were they waiting for? As she came around the corner and towards her "room", a possible answer was already waiting for her at the entrance.
"Where have you been? And where's the big redhead?" Alan asked as soon as she got closer. To her surprise most of his armor was gone. He looked almost like a regular wastelander, apart from the painted face.
"We... kind of had a fight. She left to cool off, so I did the same." Ruth swallowed hard. If the other woman wandered off too far she could get into serious trouble.
"Hmm." He crossed his arms. "Then it'd be your fault if she accidentally got her ass filled with bullets."
Ruth looked away. Her eyes fell on the dirty flaps of the tent and she changed the subject. "All this time, and you still live in that shity tent. Can't believe that's one of the few things that made it out of home."
"I guess it kept reminding me of you, of the good old days. And it's the only tent I've ever owned." Alan shrugged then motioned at the entrance. "Please, let's go inside."
The flaps of the tent closed behind them carelessly and some dust flew into the light of the lantern. Ruth felt the weight of the knives on her belt. They were now alone, in a confined space, her partner probably too far to hear anything. Not that she believed the redhead would jump in to help her, anyway.
"I couldn't give you a bigger room." He smiled. "But I thought that my tent would still do the trick. You know, to give you something familiar."
Familiar, yes. The memories and feelings previously buried deep awakened with the sound of his voice, something that messed up her thoughts completely. Ruth had enough of that. She chose to act first as she stepped closer to him and grabbed him by the already torn shirt.
"What the fuck are you doing, Alan?!" She hissed in his face. "Caravan my ass, why the hell are you one of those psychos?"
"Look who's grown some balls. I like you this way." The man only smiled wide, not giving a single bother about her show.
"Listen, this is serious." She pulled on the fabric. "I'll-"
He leaned in and silenced her with his lips pressed onto hers.
Ruth's eyes widened in shock, her grip loosened. It was such a good feeling. The familiar tingle in her stomach now tickled awfully, but she pushed the man away with as much strength as she could muster. He stumbled back, fixing his shirt.
"No, no, no, stop it!" She stepped away, her anger growing as Alan simply chuckled. "Stop playing with me like this!"
"I'm just trying to give you what you want." He shrugged. "It's not that hard to guess."
"Shut up! It's not like I didn't manage without you." She snapped at him, then let her short fringe cover her eyes, the heat on her cheeks driving her crazy. He played the strings of her heart expertly. "Better tell me what's going on here. I need to know how... What happened to you? Why become a shitty raider if there are so many other ways?"
Alan sighed and crossed his arms again. "It wasn't an accident, if that's what you think. I chose to be one of them. There was nowhere for me to go after the show went down at our home and everything went to shit. So I let myself get captured, then one by one I persuaded them to give me a chance. I knew I could easily replace their dumb leaders, but it took even less time than I anticipated. I got my hands dirty, but in the end, I was on top. After a while the Tombstones came and gave us an offer I couldn't refuse. We joined them and they let me have a team of my own."
"... but you hated them." Ruth stared at him, almost in disbelief, some words cutting deeper than others. "You wanted all of them dead. And now this? For what?"
"At one point, I did. I despised them just as much as you did. But, you see, there is something great in being on the other side of the fence, you know? Bossing them around and seeing them jump to attention at my every word? Not being the one to do their shit for them? That's what I'd call a personal victory." Something glimmered in his dark eyes. Something evil, something that made her skin crawl. "But hey, you're not who you say you are either, are you?"
"What do you mean?" Ruth frowned at him, swallowing a lump in her throat.
"The reason you're here. Why you're snooping around and didn't shoot us on sight." Alan studied her, his gaze drilling through. He pointed at the gun on her back. "Those rifles you two have, I've seen them up close before. They're in great shape, military equipment. And you're not the type to rob a soldier to get one."
"Military? Are you kidding me?" Ruth smiled mockingly, but he quickly disregarded that.
"No, I'm not. The rest of the bastards here are complete idiots, they wouldn't know anything, but I see it. And I know you." Alan stepped closer. Cold sweat washed over her for a moment.
"No, you don't, you missed a few years. Besides, why are you telling me this? You know that if it were true, we'd have to eliminate the threat." She backed away but her rifle brushed against the wall of the tent.
"True. But you wouldn't do that. Not now that I'm here." His smile faded. "...Right?"
This caught her off guard. She didn't seriously think about killing him in cold blood, did she? Their objective was not to engage in violence, and she wanted to keep to that for as long as it was possible. But even if it happened... what if she couldn't do it? "Alan, I..."
"Don't worry, Dancer. This stays between you and me, I won't tell the others." Ruth wanted to question this, but he continued. "Because you trusted me in letting you here. And I want to maintain this trust for a little longer."
"A lot has changed since I've last seen you." She looked him in the eye. "I'll pull the trigger if you make me. But... I'd rather not. Thank you, for keeping whatever you think between us, though."
"I missed you, too."
Ruth let him get closer and he gently put his hands on her shoulders. Guilt, longing and frustration pushed her forward and it was now her to return the embrace.
"You're a dick, you know that?" Her fingers clenched on his shirt. "Why did you have to appear now? And... like that?"
"I was lost, and things changed. We changed." His hand brushed through her hair. "But we're together now." He said in a calm, soothing voice. She didn't know how or when it happened, but soon her rifle rested on the ground and he began pulling the zipper of her suit down.
"We really shouldn't." She grabbed his hand, but he kept going.
"Relax. You won't have to be alone, even if just for today." He leaned in, whispering into her ear. "Let us have this, there won't be another chance." The upper part of the suit slid halfway down her arms.
She felt stupid and powerless for letting him go as far as he did, but something greater than her didn't object. Long-forgotten feelings flooded her mind, pulling her almost against her will closer towards him. Without a second thought, their lips locked in a kiss.
On her way back, Amber had to hide and wait for the fetish harnessed woman to go away. She took her threat seriously and didn't want to meet face-to-face with her rifle again. Her hand rested impatiently on the pistol handle, watching as the raider finished a bottle of Nuka-Cola and threw it into the dry grass. Amber sneaked past and quickly found the way back. Their assigned tent was made out of thin enough fabric for her to see the glowing lantern inside, but not only that. There were two embracing figures, casting their shadows on the walls. She stopped, straining her eyes to see. The silhouettes swayed slightly and collapsed on the floor.
Amber felt blood rushing to her face and she wasn't sure if it was because of anger or embarrassment. What was certain was that her partner betrayed her. Again!
"You... bitch!" Amber already forgot she was sneaking, her voice loud, almost trembling from anger. "Now you're both dead!"
She grasped the pistol and rushed towards the tent.
"Hey!" A familiar screechy voice yelled from behind her and she heard heavy footsteps of a running guard. "That's it, bitch, you're gon-"
The spike-headed woman never got a chance to finish her sentence. A single shot from the small 10 millimeter pistol sent a bullet through her chest. She stumbled back looking surprised at the redhead's angry face and collapsed. Amber jumped to the body and picked up the rifle.
Her shot echoed through the camp and disoriented, angry shouts could be heard all around moments later.
She marched right past another tent with her eyes and mind set on dispatching her traitorous commander, but someone distracted her again. A bald, one-eyed face with lush mustache emerged from between the folds of the other tent and a tall man, almost twice as broad as Amber herself, stopped in the middle of the path. She froze in her tracks, all of her fury at once replaced by dread.
"You morons trying to kill yourselves over a few caps again?! Who the hell started it this time?" His deep, growling voice rose above all the other shouts and hysterical laughter coming from the other side of the camp. He hastily strapped a piece of metal plate to his chest. "And who the fuck are you...? Wait, I know you..." He only then focused on the woman before him. Amber stood there, shocked, swinging between uncontrollable fear and overpowering rage. He squinted his one good eye, that now flashed with anger. "You're the brat who took my eye out!"
As he reached for his pistol, the fight response kicked in.
"You're the fucker who killed my family!" Amber yelled back, not giving him any time to react and blindly fired the rifle into his armored chest.
Her eyes shot open when they hit the ground and she broke the kiss.
"Alan?" He didn't reply, but continued kissing her on the neck, moving downwards. "Come on, that's enough." Ruth's heart raced like crazy, things were happening too fast and she knew it.
"I won't do anything you don't like." He answered softly as his arms wandered across her body.
"You're sweet, but... we really shouldn't."
They heard voices outside. Gunshot followed shortly after.
"Oh no. That's probably Amber, get off of-" Ruth tried to get up, but Alan's strong arms pinned her to the ground. The excitement seeped away and all the softness disappeared from the wild, dark eyes that looked down at her as she immediately realized her mistake.
"Seems like the show is over." His voice was low. He was smiling. "It was fun luring you here, almost too easy. Still so very naive..."
"What the hell, Alan, let me go!" She pushed against him, but stood no chance against his strength.
"I was never going to let you go. As soon as you appeared, I wanted to throw you to the guys as a play thing, but I thought, hey... what if I did that my way? What if... I made you my own, personal slave?"
The scuffle outside grew louder, more shots filled the air, one even pierced their tent. Ruth was breathing heavily, trying to think of a way out of this. Her hands were locked in place by her own clothes, his arm crushed her further into the dirt.
"I don't care what's going on there. You'll stay put and we're gonna have some fun." His other hand reached down between his legs, fiddling with his dirty trousers.
Cold fear overwhelmed her for a moment, then the adrenaline kicked in. He swayed his hips, about to position himself on top of her, when Ruth lifted her leg violently into his crotch. Startled, he curled into a ball shifting some weight off of her. She took the chance and broke out of his grip, rolling to the side and jumping onto her feet swiftly. She fixed her clothes, finally freeing her arms as he struggled off the ground. Alan stared at her furiously and launched forward with his hand extended. Ruth took a step back, buying herself some time to grab a handle of her blade. His hand fell heavily on her chest. She cut from below. The knife went across his torso and pushed the arm aside. His fingers cramped on her shirt and ripped it almost in half when he stumbled back, roaring in anger and pain. She darted to the entrance.
The outside was dark, cold, and no better. Just as she stumbled out, she bumped into another raider. The collision was so sudden he didn't know when a blade struck him in the leg. The gun he was aiming shot blindly, accompanied by his scream. Ruth took a step back for a brief moment to take in the situation. To her right, there were a few people running about, taking cover and engaging in combat. In the light of several oil lamps hung about she recognized Amber, tangled up in the middle of the chaos. She dodged a series from what sounded like a heavy machine gun of some sort and fired her rifle at a tall, muscular man in heavy armor. Ruth cursed under her breath and turned her attention back to the raider, who had just reloaded his gun after accidentally emptying the whole clip.
Ruth jumped to the side just before the carbine sprayed its bullets. The raider was kneeling, blood flowing from his leg, his position unstable. It was an easy target. She took out her second blade and jumped back at him. Before he managed to reload again, a knife plunged into his uncovered side. His yelling was cut short by the other blade drawing a deep line across his throat. As his body slowly collapsed to the ground, she sheathed her weapons and grabbed his gun instead.
Amber's head was spinning. For a brief moment her mind could focus on only one thing, to kill the one-eyed bastard, but her training kicked in just in time to notice that she was now surrounded by no less than four raiders. Her preferred target roared in pain as fresh blood stained his unprotected left arm.
"Get that bitch alive!" He backed away and soon disappeared from her view as two of his men rushed towards her. One of them had a crowbar, the other one a rather nasty-looking, chain-wrapped baseball bat, but neither had armor or any firearms. They made up for their limited arsenal with erratic, but impossibly fast drug-powered moves. Her instincts acted before she could even think. Aim, fire, reload. One of the raiders stumbled, hit in the chest, but it merely slowed him down, the other raced past him and jumped at Amber. She stepped to the side. The heavy iron rod passed through the air where a heartbeat earlier was her head. Aim, fire, reload. Another bullet hit the chest of the first man at point blank range. His body tumbled to the ground, almost sweeping her off her feet in the process.
She jumped at the sound of carbine bullets, but they were not aimed at her. She turned around and saw Ruth in torn clothes swiftly dispatching a raider near the tent.
"Glad you could join us!" Amber shouted in her general direction, avoiding another swing from the crowbar-wielding man, and stepped away trying to gain some distance. "I hope we didn't interrupt anything!" Her opponent's wide swings and incredibly fast moves made it impossible for her to aim her rifle, so instead she used it to intercept his blow. The poorly-kept weapon rattled as the piece of metal hit it with all the jet-fueled force, but it was enough to stop the rain of blows. Pushing the crowbar to the side she swung the rifle into her opponent's face. He stumbled back, dazed, then his face jerked in a weird manner. A second later the raider collapsed into the dirt with a bullet hole in the side of his head. Amber blinked, surprised by his sudden death.
"Will you shut the fuck up?!" Ruth shouted back, lowering the just obtained carbine.
"No, I'm mad at you!" The redhead turned to face her, but before she could aim properly her left arm exploded in pain as a bullet grazed her skin. They both ducked from the incoming wrath of the machine gun.
Ruth rolled behind a stack of wooden crates. She peeked out, but almost immediately jumped back when the dirt right next to her exploded. A sound of a different weapon broke through the chaos of the machine gun, and for a split second she saw Alan. He just came out of the tent now punctured with holes, holding one hand on his bloodied chest, a revolver wielded in the other.
"It's not over yet!" He yelled and pulled the trigger again, hitting the crates and sending hundreds of splinters flying into the air. Ruth curled into a ball, blood pumping in her ears. She held the carbine close to her chest. "You brought yourself into this, and now you're gonna pay!" He said the last words with a hint of grim satisfaction as he made his way to her hiding spot. She leaned out and blindly sent a series of bullets at him, making the man back away. She must've hit his weapon, as she heard him curse loudly and something heavy fall to the ground. She sprung to her feet and ran in the direction where Amber should've been.
The machine gun stopped its assault, overheated.
"I'll get ya, oh I'll get ya!" Face, the man who first greeted them, laughed with the huge, smoking weapon in his hands.
Amber took a deep breath. Aim, fire... nothing. Her rifle clicked, but something in the mechanism gave up and the pressure on the trigger disappeared. She groaned, pulling the dead trigger again, but the weapon all but fell apart in her hand. Looking around, the redhead only now realised the whole fight was happening way too close to the metal carts still covered with thick cloth. She dashed to the side and ran towards the tents to direct the fire away.
Ruth halted and fell to the ground in order to avoid the spray of bullets. Face's weapon spun again and created a dead zone, marking wide arcs of lead across the camp. She waited, flat on the ground behind a small mound, gravel and small rocks kicked up by the assault of bullets covering her body.
Amber poked her head from behind one of the tents, desperately looking for any kind of weapon. The discarded pistol she got from her companion was lying halfway between her and the raider. Damn it. Close, but beyond her reach.
"Come out, come out!" Face shouted over the thunder of his weapon, taking a few steps forward and turning to the living quarters. "It won't hurt once yer dead!"
As soon as the rain of bullets changed direction, Ruth lifted her gun and fired at him, but she only managed to graze his arm. He hissed and swayed the gun at her. Amber used that and dashed towards the pistol, grabbed it and jumped to the side, as he turned to the tents again. With all of his attention back on Amber, who was now in the open, Ruth got a chance for a clean shot. She got up to her knees and grasping the rifle with both hands she held her breath, prepared to fire. Her finger rested on the trigger, the sight aligned with the man's head.
There was a single gunshot in the roar of the heavy machine gun just a heartbeat before she pulled the trigger. The sounds of the battle turned dull and muffled, then everything went silent and the world slowed down for a moment. Face's shoulder bloomed in red as his weapon fell at his feet. He was probably screaming. Her vision blurred, her ears were ringing and there was something hot running down her left cheek. Deafened by her own heartbeat Ruth turned around and fired blindly.
Amber peaked out from her cover as soon as the machine gun fell silent to the ground. She saw Alan's slanted figure slowly approach her kneeling partner. She was holding the side of her face, barely able to hold the carbine single-handedly as blood ran down her neck. Alan tried to rotate the damaged cylinder in his revolver, aiming at Ruth at the same time. The redhead cursed and jumped back to her feet, rushing towards them. A split second later Face, despite his wounds, closed the distance between them and slammed into her back head first. He knocked Amber to the ground, his eyes wide with rage as he pulled out his knife.
"I'm going to slit your throat like a pig!" He yelled, grabbing her by the hair.
Amber hissed in pain and tossed herself to the side throwing her opponent out of balance before placing a bone-crushing kick in his chest. The raider tumbled to the ground with a few fiery red hair in his clenched fist. She jumped back on her feet, grabbed his chestplate and punched his scarred face a couple of times just to be sure he'd stay down. The redhead looked around the scene full of lead, blood and bodies. There were only two left to deal with.
Ruth scrambled back, away from the revolver aimed at her head. She was vaguely aware of the struggle behind her, her world shrunk down to her and the black opening of the barrel. Her vision became clearer, the ringing slowly faded into the back of her mind.
"Die, damn it!" Alan hissed, but the firing mechanism was jammed, stuck dead between the shots.
Ruth stared at him, overwhelmed by fear and frozen in place. He would've shot her right then and there, just like that, but she couldn't do the same. He was right before her, wounded and slow. The carbine in her hand trembled.
Alan threw the gun away and took out a knife from his pocket. His hands and whole torso were covered in blood.
"I wanted this to end differently, but either way, you have to go." He took a step forward, his dark eyes fixed on her, drilling inside her head. "I've been dreaming of this moment. To kill the bitch who ruined everything. Who ruined me!" He spit every word with so much venom she could hardly recognize him from the person she got so close to back inside the tent. The words hit her like an invisible whip.
"D-don't..." She stuttered, the whole left side of her face and her left ear burning with incredible pain.
"Oh, you're begging? Good! So you know it was all your fault!" His hands shook as he approached her. "You stopped listening, and before you knew it there were corpses everywhere and my plans laying dead among them!"
"I thought the plan would work. It was our only chance!" Ruth whispered. She squinted her eyes but her vision was red and blurry.
"You mean the plan you and your idiot friends made up to fuck up everything we all worked for? The plan that got almost everyone killed? Well, you got your fucking freedom, congratulations!" He approached her, standing with his knife right before her. "Naive as always... you probably still don't know what was going on there, do you? Because if you had known, you would've killed me on sight!"
She tried to keep her hands steady, but her weapon became too heavy. Her vision blurred with tears as she looked down, unable to sustain eye contact.
He squeezed the handle of his weapon and prepared to swing. "You wouldn't believe he-"
"Oh will you shut the fuck up already!"
Amber's annoyed voice cut his words short, a loud bang followed. Alan's head jerked back, followed by a small trail of blood. His knife fell to the ground at her feet and his body collapsed moments later. Ruth gasped and pushed herself away from the body, but a stern voice stopped her in place.
"And you should be next." The redhead was right behind her. There was no doubt she was holding her at a gunpoint.
The carbine slipped through her fingers and hit the ground. Ruth whimpered, hiding her head in her arms, shoulders trembling uncontrollably. The situation overwhelmed her completely. Part of her hoped that her partner would really pull the trigger. She was way, way too exhausted both physically and mentally to care at this point. The adrenaline pumping through her veins burned out quickly and with it her consciousness. She felt like what was left of her was seeping into the ground below.
"The hell... Are you seriously going to cry over this asshole?" Amber kept the pistol aimed, but it felt much heavier in her hand now looking at the woman in front of her. "Make up your mind if you're a soldier or a fucking raider!"
"This... he... " Ruth tried to form a sentence from the raging chaos of emotions that was her mind. "I can explain... I-"
"Can it, princess, we don't have time for your tragic backstory." Amber barked at her angrily. "I just need to know if you're one of them?"
Ruth felt something twist inside her.
"For the last time, Dale, no. I knew him from before he became... this!" She gestured at the body, not looking at it. "I was hoping to find the person I knew, but not now, not here... Fuck!" Ruth punched the ground.
"I don't care." Amber replied coldly. "All I care about is that he and his buddies were raiders and tried to kill us." She lowered her gun and turned her eyes away from the kneeling woman. "And they more than likely killed a lot more in the past. Now stop being so pathetic, get up and make yourself useful. There's a dozen or so slaves needing medical help."
Ruth took a deep breath. She could've expected that. She should've, in fact, but it still made her blood curdle. She slowly lifted herself off the ground, half of her face red from dry and fresh blood.
"What did you say?"
"They were hoarding slaves and we have to help them. I need you to do your nurse shit, got it?" Amber rolled her eyes.
"Where?" The small woman sighed heavily.
"Exactly where your lover boy told us not to go, obviously." The redhead pointed at the three carts. "Now move before I change my mind about your usefulness."
Ruth looked at her cold stare and felt a dry lump forming in her throat. She followed Amber silently, fixing her torn uniform. The image and smell of the silent, bloody, wretched camp littered with bodies made the situation all the more miserable. Her shaky hands wrapped around her arms as they headed for the first cart.
The camp became completely silent. The remaining raiders vanished into the night. In the place where Face's unconscious body was before, there was now only a puddle of bloody mud with footprints leading into the tall grass behind the row of tents. The two women walked carefully, stepping over corpses of dead raiders. Faint glow of a few lamps and the nearly burned out campfire were the only sources of light, the stars above them now blocked by thick, gray clouds. Amber led the way, her pistol tucked behind her belt. She knew there was no need to push Ruth to the front, to watch her own back. She was no longer a threat, being hardly able to walk straight. As angry as Amber was, she felt a shadow of shame the way she treated the other woman. It was getting really late, the fight was short, but intense, and now when it was all over Amber felt exhausted. There was still work to be done, people to free, wounds to patch, corpses to loot, but with the adrenaline rush gone her whole body felt sluggish. Once they reached their destination, she pulled on the weathered fabric and uncovered both carts filled with slaves. People in both cages were curled tightly inside, clinging to the rusty bars or one another. Someone gasped, someone turned their eyes away at the sight of the blood-soaked scene behind them. One woman poked her head above the rest, sighing in relief.
"You're all safe now." Amber said and took her knife back from the woman. All prisoners in her cart were freed when the fighting started, and they were all eager to go out now, saying their thanks one after another. The redhead walked to the next cage where a young man already arched himself to expose tied wrists behind his back. "Check if you can open the lock." She turned to her partner. "And move it"
Ruth was rooted to the spot, but nodded slowly and forced herself to act. Amber rolled her eyes, but remembered how shocked she was herself when she discovered the gang's little secret. Seeing slavers on the move, holding their unfortunate victims at gunpoint was not such a rare sight in the wasteland, but a huge group like that was a novelty.
"They have a key." A tall, dark-skinned man with a thick accent said before the blue-haired woman could properly examine the padlocks. "No use trying to open them without it."
"Of course... " Amber growled under her breath. She cut the binds of another person, then turned to the camp. "I'll go look for it, while you better go around and find some water. Some wounds will need cleaning."
"I'm on it." Ruth seemed to have shaken off the greatest shock and was already checking her own supplies. The redhead simply walked away, looking for corpses to loot.
Growing up in the wasteland she saw many dead bodies in various stages of dismemberment, but even after all this, digging through the blood-soaked remains made her stomach turn. What was even worse, she couldn't find what she was looking for. She did stuff her pockets with a few bottle caps, bullets, a Jet inhaler and a stimpak, but there was no key. She then turned towards Alan's lifeless body. He rested in the dirt with eyes still wide open in shock. She took a long look at the corpse, trying to imagine what Ruth had seen in him in the past. As far as raiders go he wasn't exactly too bad-looking and she had to admit that had he not tried to kill them she would feel it was a shame to blow his brains out. She turned his body flat on his back and began to search it for the key. He didn't have any armor, his jacket was unzipped and his shirt was ripped open, revealing a long, bloody gash. She discovered with mild amusement that his trousers were still unbuttoned and rather loose.
"I didn't expect she could fit this much in..." She muttered and stopped when she noticed a small metallic object on a piece of cable attached to his belt. Amber grabbed it, tearing it off of his corpse and looked at the dead raider again with renewed hatred. "If you weren't dead already I'd leave you to the mercy of those people in cages." She hissed and kicked his head so hard his neck snapped with a loud crack.
With all the bodies strapped off their precious belongings and the key in her hand, Amber returned to the carts. Her partner was just examining somebody's wounded arm through the bars, reassuring them it'd all be fine. The thick cloth from the cages was spread on the ground like rugs, a few water bottles and bandages gathered on one of them.
"Guess who had the key." She shot her superior an ice-cold glare as she passed her by. The key turned in the lock and the doors of the first cage opened with a loud metallic screech. Ruth said nothing and instead focused on helping the people out of their prison. Amber was slightly disappointed with the lack of reaction, but shrugged and opened another cart.
Her heart sank and then flared in anger time and time again as she looked at those poor wastelanders, dirty, dehydrated, bruised, taken by force from their homes. They were happy to be free, some had tears in their eyes, some showed no expression. Several children jumped out of the cage. Her hand tightened on the rusted bar, but upon closer look, they were in a better shape than most adults, probably the newest addition to the bunch. One girl with rustled, dark hair ran up to the woman and embraced her waist.
"Thank you, miss." She whispered with a smile.
"You'll thank me when you're home, kiddo." Amber returned the expression and the girl let her go, returning to the other youngsters. The redhead sighed heavily, then shut the dirty, smelling cage in disgust.
"Listen up, everyone." She heard Ruth's voice above the chatter. The woman cleared her throat and all eyes turned to her. "Before we all go to rest, I want every wounded person to come up to me, even if it's just a scratch. I'll do my best to get you patched up until you get proper help. Those of you who feel most capable, we still need to get you some food and more water, so please, gather what you can and bring it here so that you can share. Ammo and guns will be useful, too." She stopped for a moment, briefly glancing at Amber, then turned her eyes to the ground. "I...I know you're tired and hurting, but you can't stay here long. Our help alone won't be enough, and the raiders may always come back. Tomorrow morning we'll take you to the nearest NCR outpost, which is Camp Imperial. You'll be safe there. They'll provide you with a place to rest until you're good to come back to your homes. There are many caravans going in and out, I'm sure they can lead you wherever you need. Those of you who want to leave on their own, we won't stop you. If anything, ask my partner. Amber will help you pack and get the brahmins ready for tomorrow." She smiled, but it looked more like a grimace. Ruth gestured at the rugs and supplies. "Now, children and the most seriously wounded come first."
Amber looked at her for a longer moment and considered confronting her partner about the plan, but two young men approached her asking how they could help. She sighed and directed them to the brahmins. The animals were probably terrified after all the shooting and it was a miracle they haven't broken their ropes and ran away already.
By the time they were done, it was already far into the night. They dragged all the bodies away from the camp, in case any feral beasts were attracted by all the noise and smell of blood. Supplies were stored into bags and collected into one place. Brahmins were fed and calmed down, now resting their double heads on one another for comfort. After finally being able to eat and drink something in peace and with their wounds cleaned, the wastelanders' spirits were high, even if just for those few moments. Some of them equipped weapons and had sworn to guard the back of the camp, but most people went to sleep in tents or curled up on the cloth outside, gaining strength for the journey.
Only after everything was done, Amber allowed herself for a bit of rest. She grabbed a bottle of brandy from the supply dump and took a swing. It was a long day, but it hasn't ended yet. Ruth must've finished her own work just now as she saw her sit heavily near a bonfire, straightening her legs. The redhead took one more gulp of the liquid fire and joined her.
"Could you take a look at this?" Amber sat down and pulled up her sleeve. There was a bloodied gash on her arm, left after the bullet grazed her skin. "It's just a scratch, but it's very distracting."
Ruth looked the wound over, then took out the remaining supplies from her bag. It wasn't much, and instead of a proper bandage she tore off a long piece of cloth from some shirt. "Why didn't you come to me earlier?"
"Why didn't you patch that ear up?" The redhead asked in return.
Although her partner washed away most of the blood from her face and hair, the now chipped ear and deeply grazed cheek were still unattended to. "I was busy." Her voice trailed off slightly. "And so were you."
Amber's muscles tensed when an alcohol-soaked cloth touched her torn skin.
"Sorry." Ruth said automatically.
"You should be." Amber winced again when a piece of cloth went deeper into her flesh. "But... You did a good job with those people. Now they have a slightly higher chance of survival, at least."
"I hope so. Some of them were badly beaten, at least two have broken or fractured bones. It will be a long walk..." She gently applied an ointment of sorts, then wrapped her arm in the makeshift bandage. "Show me that hand, too."
The bandage got loose and dirty, the wound must've opened again in all the struggle. Ruth unwrapped the cut and repeated the process.
"Yeah, about that." The redhead watched her work. "You do realize you're breaking the mission protocol? Again." She gave her that drilling look. "Our objective was to get to the caravan stop."
Ruth was silent for a moment, wrapping another piece of the torn cloth in a reverse spiral around the redhead's hand.
"I know, but... these people need help. Some of them could travel on their own, they seem strong enough, but how far will they get? At the Camp they will at least have some time to rest and resupply, there's still plenty of room to share. Maybe they will trust the Republic more this way, you know?" She lowered her voice a bit. The makeshift bandage was soon finished and she turned to the fire, pulling her knees up to her chin. "Besides... Our mission already failed, anyway."
Amber fixed her sleeve and took a gulp of the alcohol. "Is that so?"
"We were supposed to stay incognito and avoid confrontation. Instead, we got into a full-fledged fight with one of the gangs and allowed some of them to escape, probably blowing our cover that way... We fucked up. I fucked up. And for this I am sorry."
There was a long pause between them. Only the crackling of the fire and snoring from the tents behind them reminded them of the passing time. It would soon be sunrise in a few hours.
"It doesn't matter now." Amber broke the silence. "We have to get those people to safety. Like you said, this is our new mission." She took a deep breath and got up. "I suggest you get some sleep, we have a long walk home tomorrow." She said and turned away, leaving Ruth alone at the campfire.
Nobody slept well that night. While most of the freed slaves were happy, the guards looked into the darkness that surrounded them, fearing a potential retaliation from their captors. Amber stayed on guard till the sun began to rise. Her mind was trapped in a loop, bouncing between dealing with the unexpected confrontation with a monster from her past and trying to make up her mind about her superior. In the heat of the battle she ignored the flashes of memories which gave her nightmares for years, but now, sitting alone and surrounded by darkness, her mind began to wander. Only now it wasn't fear, but hatred that filled her.
The loop broke when she heard footsteps coming from behind her. Someone stopped a small distance away and took a moment before speaking.
"Hey. You didn't sleep, did you?" Ruth asked quietly.
Amber only shook her head.
"Do you want to sleep now? We still have some time before we move."
Again, the fiery head shook, looking north towards the base.
"Right..." Ruth sat down and wrapped herself in her blanket, facing the same direction. Amber didn't object, but none of them spoke for a while. The redhead finally got up and stretched her back with an audible crack.
"We should get ready soon, those people aren't used to long walks." She said and walked away towards the brahmin.
It wasn't long until more people emerged from their tents. Some of them were walking around looking for food, while others were already packing up what they saw as useful into bags. Amber quickly took over the lead in organizing the caravan. She dived into the role mainly to free her mind from nagging thoughts that kept her up the whole night. The rush of activity cleared her mind and gave her a much needed distraction from her own head. The newly formed caravan set out early in the morning. The dismantled cage served as a cart for all the supplies and most exhausted people. The rest marched with newfound confidence, someone in the back sparked up a song. Amber didn't understand many of the words, but the rhyme was joyful. She led the group, scanning their surroundings carefully and making sure the stubborn two-headed cows followed the path. A couple of wastelanders picked up old raider weapons and were on the lookout as well, travelling close to those who were too weak or young to defend themselves. Ruth closed the column, watching out for any unwanted hitchhikers, or if there was no raider tracking them.
They walked for a few hours before they encountered an NCR patrol. Five soldiers led by a corporal.
"Hey there, soldier!" Amber yelled, waving with both hands as the group approached with their weapons redied. She turned back to check if the rest of the caravan stopped as well. The singing came to a halt, replaced by a nervous silence. Ruth rushed to the front to calm the people down, ensuring they had nothing to fear from the soldiers. "We need your assistance!" The redhead continued, gaining the patrol's full attention. They turned from their path and came up to the group, eyeing them.
"The New California Republic welcomes you, miss. I must say, we don't have any intel on a large caravan like this in the area." The corporal looked at Amber suspiciously from under the short brim of his cap. A thought ran through her head to break her cover. It would be really easy to use the password and reveal their allegiance now instead of useless small talk, but that would go against her protocol.
"This isn't a caravan, sir." She lowered her voice. "These people are freed slaves, they require help and shelter, we need to take them to Camp Imperial."
"Slaves freed by whom?" The man asked, his gaze shifted from her to Ruth. Amber studied his face and noticed the faint shift in his eyes as soon as he saw her partner.
"By us, sir." The redhead continued barely stopping herself from smiling as she realized just how outlandish this claim was.
"I see." The corporal nodded slightly as he turned to one of his subordinates. "Private Thoren, radio the HQ, tell them that we're escorting a group of refugees in need of medical help." He ordered as he gestured at the rest of his men to spread out, before turning back to both women again. "We better get going, the camp is still an hour away."
The caravan started moving. The NCR soldiers walked alongside them in silence, carefully watching the area around them but both Ruth and Amber were all too aware of the glances they got every now and then.
"You didn't tell them?" Ruth asked, pulling her cowl tighter around her head.
"I didn't have to." Amber replied looking towards the tall mast and control tower peeking at them from over the horizon. They both knew that, as soon as they walked through the gates of their base, a certain colonel would like to have a word with them.