Chapter 4: No good deed unpunished
"Explain this to me, please." Stevens said slowly, looking at them from behind his desk, his one good eye shifting from one woman to the other. They were dressed in their standard military uniforms, put on hastily after a short visit at the hospital to patch up all the newly acquired wounds and bruises. "How is it that I send two newbies on a simple two day patrol mission, you know, nothing fancy, just to see how well they would survive the wasteland... and they get back with a group of rescued slaves and at least five confirmed kills?" He paused and took a deep breath. "Not to mention that they apparently bumped into the boss of the biggest raider gang in the area? On their first run?"
"We got lucky, sir." Amber answered when the silence in the command tent became uncomfortably long. Ruth stood next to her, her lips pressed together forming a thin line. She was certain everyone in the room could almost taste her anxiety.
"Yes, very lucky..." The colonel said, his eyes stopping for a moment on Ruth's plastered cheek and ear, then sat back in his restored pre-war chair. He opened his drawer, took out a thick cigar and lit it. The sweet, burnt smell quickly reached their nostrils and filled the tent. He took a mouth-full of smoke, then slowly let it out. "So, tell me... Delassandis. What exactly happened?" He focused his attention back on the shorter woman.
"Sir." She tried to swallow the lump in her throat. "We... There was a hidden camp, we decided to go down there to investigate, and... uh... It wasn't actually a caravan, they jumped at us and-"
Seeing her struggle Amber rolled her eyes and stepped forward. "Sir, let me explain this clearly. We found what seemed to be a caravan camping in a suspicious place and decided to investigate the situation. We talked ourselves into posing as travelers, and with a bit of luck on our side, they bought it, letting us stay. While Specialist Delassandis was distracting the man who was supposed to keep an eye on us, I went out to investigate the camp and found the slaves locked in cages. Once we got our bearings we used the element of surprise and liberated them and eliminated as many hostiles as we could before they ran away. Bringing the prisoners here seemed like the best option and a chance for them to survive under the protection of the Republic."
Stevens shifted his gaze at the blue-haired woman, awaiting a word from her.
"Yes, sir. That's exactly what happened." She nodded, looking ahead. "Thanks to Private Dale's knowledge we confirmed these were the Tombstones, however, their leader managed to get away."
"That was a very stupid and irresponsible plan... and against my orders." The colonel said, looking at them with a deep frown. He brought the cigar to his mouth. "There's one thing I'm curious about. How were you exactly distracting the raider?" The tobacco stick pointed at Ruth, who looked a lot smaller than usual.
Amber couldn't help but smile seeing her embarrassment. "In the way only a woman can, sir." She said, earning a hateful glare from her partner.
He blinked and for the first time his stone-like face revealed hints of surprise and amusement. "The NCR does not approve of this kind of method... Fortunately for you, here in the recon we have... looser standards." He chuckled and continued. "And I must admit, I was wondering which one of you would lose their pants first." He shifted his gaze at Amber who now matched her partner's blush and looked away. "Was your cover compromised?"
"Y-" The initial anxiety of facing her superior has now begun to fade and Ruth started to piece together all the events from the previous night. "No, sir. I'm reasonably certain that they think we're just mercenaries and the only person who might have suspected something is now dead." She regained her confidence and turned to look at Amber as she spoke.
"Additionally, sir," the taller woman continued, "we learned from the rescued slaves that the designated caravan stop is safe. The raiders didn't even attempt to approach it as they had guards patrolling the site."
Stevens eyed them for a longer moment, puffed, and put the cigar on a metal tray.
"Despite not following my orders I can't argue with your results, soldiers. I must say, alternative ways and improvisation have always been more interesting than what's on paper... but you didn't hear that from me." The colonel closed the folders with their names and put them aside. "You earned some rest for now, but report to me tomorrow morning. I think I have a perfect mission for you two. Dismissed!"
Both women stood at attention and marched out of the tent.
The outside was cool, a pleasant change from the whole day of traveling through the desert. It was already getting dark, but many soldiers and a couple of civilians were rushing about the place, bringing in the newest equipment delivery, moving crates and other supplies. Rapid changes in the base were noticeable by now; it was clear that the NCR was moving here to stay.
"Talking to officers is really not my thing, but it went better than what I'd imagined." Ruth broke the silence between them as they walked towards their tents. "I say we're lucky it's Stevens that we got, not Collin or that other bearded guy."
The redhead pretended not to hear her. A brahmin carrying a few barrels passed them by. The overloaded animal dug its hooves deep into the ground, hardly visible puffs of steam coming out of its mouths.
"I'm off to write the report. It'll take some time to put it nicely into words again." She eyed the redhead, but there was still no reaction whatsoever. She turned at the corner of one tent, about to beeline to her own room. "Hey, Dale!" Ruth quickened her moves and stepped in front of her, making her stop. "Just one more thing. I... didn't really get to thank you, you know, for doing what my sorry-ass couldn't. And for not actually filing your complaint about me to the Colonel." She tried to make eye-contact, but the other woman was deliberately avoiding her gaze, the frown on her face only deepened. "So... thank you." She really started to feel uneasy, so she stepped out from Amber's path and turned back towards the road. "That's all, I'll see you-"
Amber growled and turned on the spot, almost making Ruth jump away.
"Look, princess, not everything revolves around your ass!" The redhead grit her teeth, now looking the smaller woman in the eye. "If I told them that this was just dumb luck and that it started with you screwing your raider fuckboy because you missed him, we'd both get kicked back to infantry, patrolling some ghoul-infested shithole." She poked her in the chest. "We went out as a team and we had to look good as a team." She punctuated her statement with another much harder poke. "You killed a few raiders and those people needed medical help, so you did your job; well fucking done, but you're not off the hook. Now get out of my sight till I have to see you again." Amber stepped away and turned towards her tent.
"You're saying that as if I didn't care." This caught Ruth off guard, but she had to defend her side. "You didn't have to force me to do it. I did everything for the mission, and so did you. I had no idea he'd show up to ruin the plan! In fact, it was you who started shooting in a camp full of raiders, without backup, all on your own!"
"Yes, because my backup was just getting down on some dirty wasteland asshole! You're making me regret saving your dumb ass." Amber groaned, towering above the other woman.
"Well, maybe you shouldn't have." Ruth hissed at her and squeezed her fists. "Because right now nothing is making me want to give you back that stupid necklace, and you just missed your chance to get it off my dead body!"
A second of almost tangible tension passed between them before Amber took a step back and without a blink punched her square in the face. The woman flew a few feet in the air before falling back in the dirt, carried by the momentum of the powerful hit. A cloud of dust hung in the air for a while, slowly covering the coughing woman.
"Will you stop whining already?!" Amber growled at her, her fists still clenched.
The blow was so powerful it almost made her black out for a second. Ruth heaved herself up, holding the already hurting side of her face, feeling blood on her fingers seeping through the patch on her cheek. On wobbly legs, she managed to stand up and look at her. "Better luck next time, farmgirl, so you can kill me like everyone else you hate. Because that's just what you do, isn't it?"
The redhead's eyes flashed with pure, almost uncontrollable anger, and for a moment she thought she'd be charged and made into paste. However, something held the other woman back as her face turned weirdly and she staggered.
"You're an idiot..." Amber blurted and hastily turned around, leaving the runway behind. Ruth followed her with her gaze until the woman disappeared among the tents.
Her empty tent didn't do much to calm Amber's nerves. All of her bunkmates were apparently on some other assignments and half of their bunks were already emptied of any belongings. She knew this was a temporary accomodation and according to her orders she shouldn't even be near other low ranking soldiers, but as with everything in this base, her new lodging was simply not ready yet. After cleaning her armor twice and mending a couple of tears and holes in her clothes, she found herself dressed in a civilian outfit in the camp's only bar. It served nothing but locally-made beverages, which was both good and bad for her. Good, because she already got used to it and built up immunity to its side effects. Bad, because it tasted like fermented piss with a delicate orange flavor. Despite all that she took a large gulp from her cup. Amber desperately wanted to get away from her thoughts, and it was one of the best ways she could come up with to do so.
She knew that what she did to her superior could get her court-martialled, but she also knew she wouldn't report her for it. The redhead had no idea how she could be so certain of it, but for some reason she wasn't worried. She was also sure that the blue-haired woman's last words cut her deeper than anything she has ever heard. Ruth was wrong, she had to be wrong, Amber repeated in her head. She didn't kill to solve problems, she killed to protect others. She wanted to protect her friends from the danger of her superior, the raider spy. She didn't want to take revenge on Ruth, the potential raider who may have got her mother's pendant by pure accident. Amber shook her head and took another sip of the vile substance she paid four caps for. The annoying voice in her head was telling her that she misjudged the poor little pipsqueak, but her pride didn't want her to admit it.
Dale wanted to forget about the whole issue, at least for the time being, but unfortunately their actions became the topic of the evening all over the bar.
"Did you hear about those refugees in the morning?" She heard one woman sitting at a nearby table and focused on listening in on the conversation. "They said two girls took out an entire camp of raiders and saved all those people."
"Yeah." A woman in a gray, blood-stained nurse apron chimed in. "I heard from a friend at the clinic they were in pretty rough shape, but they got them patched up and kickin'."
"Raiders... I hope our girls gave them hell."
Amber couldn't stop a smile creeping on her face as she took another sip from her cup. It didn't smell nice, it tasted even worse, but it had enough alcohol in it to sterilize a sewer pipe and it made her think less.
"I heard they were taken in by the soldiers for interrogation." The first woman continued. "They probably want to get all the glory for the NCR again."
"Bullshit, the soldiers probably wanted intel, that's all." The nurse replied. "And maybe those girls will even get some bounties for their kills! Wouldn't you like to get that?"
"You know that's not how it works, right?"
"A friend of mine from the base told me he saw them arguing." Another voice joined in the discussion. "He told me they argued and then the big one slapped the shit out of the other."
"If that were true, I'm sure I'd see her in the clinic right after." The nurse replied with a chuckle.
"But why would they fight?" The first woman asked, pausing for a second. "... Maybe it was the bounty after all. How much do you think goes for a raider?"
"As long as they kick raider asses I don't care if they fight or fuck each other." Another voice added. "Though I'd sure like to see them doing it."
A loud chuckle and annoyed voices followed, but Amber didn't want to eavesdrop further. She turned back towards the bar and wordlessly gestured at the bartender to refill.
"This won't help."
A familiar, deep voice made her jump up to attention.
"Sir... I-" She looked in shock at the officer sitting next to her with his own cup.
"Don't you 'sir' me, Dale." He smiled at her. "I'm off-duty here, just like you, so cut the shit, before you blow both our covers"
The redhead sat back on her stool and focused on her cup. "Sorry..." She muttered.
"You've been through a lot over the last few days." Stevens continued. "So tell me, what's bothering you? We all need someone to talk to sometimes, yet you're here all by yourself."
"Nothing, sir, I'm just... relaxing here." She studied the waves of the clear liquid in her cup, constantly making it spin so as not to see her own reflection. "Nothing to worry about."
"Really, now?" The colonel answered with a crooked smile. "Cause I could swear I saw Delassandis breaking the unaided flight record after you punched her today."
Amber felt like all blood drained from her face. "I... we had a misunderstanding, sir." She avoided his gaze. Her mouth was dry and her fingers clenched on the cup. "If you wish to suspend me, or..."
"Oh for fuck's sake, Dale." He almost slammed his own cup on the counter and turned in his seat to face her. "I can see from a mile away that you hate her and I want to know why! I'm just a bastard like that, so come on, it's that obvious." His one eye studied her as he awaited the answer. He no longer had a patch on his face, but a bandana wrapped around his head so as to cover the gruesome part of his features. "So?"
Her body was stiff and it felt like she was completely sober again, so she took a long sip and turned to him. "I do not hate her, sir." She said quietly. "I just really don't know what to think about her, because..." Amber struggled to come up with any justifications for her feelings, but the only thing she could think of would not go through her throat.
"... because she's a raider." The colonel finished for her. "Or rather was one."
Amber's eyes widened in shock, and the noise of the bar became a background hum.
"I suspected as much." He chuckled, the visible part of the scar on his face stretching into a weird shape. "She came to the Imperial over a year ago, looking like a recently rehabbed gang doormat. She probably knew some gang members in the area, probably that's why you two got into that camp yesterday, probably that's why we're talking here right now and you're not stuffed into one of those cages or used as a bed warmer for one of those psychos." He paused, taking a long sip. "But where she came from doesn't make a damn difference. She joined the army, she became a medic and a damned good one at that. Now, she came to me. She didn't do it because someone told her to, she did it because she wants to help others. So what if she might have been a raider once, you're from a damn farm in the middle of nowhere, should I assume all you know is how to grow carrots and that you fucked a cousin?"
Amber opened her mouth to protest, but the Colonel raised a hand to stop her. "The point is that I don't care who she was and neither should you." His voice was very calm. "You're both NCR soldiers now and you have a job to do. I can't have you two beating the crap outta each other or crying into a pillow every night, so you either learn to work as a team or I'm sending both of you back to infantry. And this is a promise."
Amber looked at her superior for a moment feeling like a small girl getting reprimanded by her father. She nodded quietly and looked around the bar. People were still talking about the events of the day, a couple of them were already feeling the side effects of their drinks, there was a girl in the corner clearly looking for customers and the radio was playing an upbeat song about a ranger with an iron on his hip. Other than a few passing glances nobody seemed to notice this conversation. She still felt the hot red blush flooding her cheeks.
"Ah, newbies..." He shook his head and emptied his cup in one gulp. "Now get the fuck out of here and get some sleep, Dale!" His hand landed heavily on her shoulder. "I expect you two sober and ready for the next mission first thing in the morning!"
"Yes... boss." The redhead nodded, tossed a few caps on the bar and left, almost running out into the chilly night, still feeling his piercing stare on her back.
Ruth was waiting outside her officer's tent in the early morning, slowly spinning her knife in one hand. The sun was still low on the horizon, only about to turn the desert into a scorching nightmare. Groups of soldiers passed her several times, fully equipped and ready for their own missions. Some of them glanced at her for a brief moment and then quickly shifted their eyes. It wasn't really surprising, as probably the whole camp already knew about their accomplishments from yesterday, and most probably about their pointless fight, too. Her roommates were thoughtful enough not to bother her with too many questions. Sitting at a bench she pulled her hood farther and lowered her head in an attempt to avoid the stares, her face was still numb and slightly swollen from the bruise on her cheek. She thought it would be even more humiliating if she went to the clinic with it yesterday, so she tried her best to patch herself up in the tent instead. She only visited the place today to grab the standard supplies for the road, getting an extra roll of thread and one more water bottle. The bullet that failed to penetrate her brain mutilated her ear and left a wound on the cheek, barely missing the bone. An additional punch only made it look and hurt worse than it actually was, though.
She heard heavy footsteps heading in her direction. Ruth only glanced at the woman to confirm it was her she's been waiting for, sheathed her weapon, got up and disappeared inside the tent.
"Specialist Delassandis and Private Dale reporting in, sir." She stood at attention and took off her hood as soon as they entered his office.
Stevens was already sitting there, looking over some papers. "At ease." He muttered and tossed a folder with a few documents and a map inside. "This here is your mission, a small cave system a few clicks from here. We got reports of suspicious activity, probably a raider nest." He glanced at them and both girls looked at the grainy, blurred photos of a cliff with a rounded entrance and several abandoned, pre-war vehicles around it. "I'm sure it's nothing you two couldn't handle."
Ruth grit her teeth, but didn't let it show. "Will do, sir."
"Good, because one of our other squads went missing in the area and I want you to investigate that as well. If you happen to find them, bring them or their tags back so we know what happened. They were supposed to come back three days ago." The man replied. She started doing the math in her head, recounting the events and possible teams out at the time, but the next words very effectively cut those thoughts short replacing them with annoyance. "Oh, and make sure not to kill each other before that, I'd really hate sending a third team to investigate the same spot."
"No need for that." Ruth replied, having her gaze fixed on the map. "Is that all, sir?"
"Yes, that is all. Dismissed and good luck." He said and paused for a second before speaking again. "Oh, one more thing. This temporary office is about to be moved into the main building in a day or two, and we're almost done with some more permanent arrangements for you and the other team, so that thing about pretending to be civilians... you better start getting used to it."
They saluted and left the tent.
When they passed the rows of makeshift homes and offices, Ruth glanced at the other woman. "Listen, Dale. Let's just do our job, complete the mission and get back in one piece. Is that clear?"
"Yes ma'am." The redhead replied, but this time her voice sounded flat, lacking the venom from previous days. The simple response without sarcastic additions surprised her at first, but she just put her hood back on and nodded.
"Let's go, then."
The next few hours of walking could contend for the title of the longest awkward silence between two people traveling together. They were crossing through the NCR-patrolled territory, so little was needed to stay vigilant. They passed three patrols along the way, all three didn't even bother to stop them or as much as wave at them. No caravan, not even a traveling merchant. That only added to the fact that their minds wandered miles away from where their bodies were. Ruth led the way, trying to ignore the existence of the woman behind her. Even louder breathing played on her nerves that day, so she put her thoughts to something else as they passed by the rolling dunes and occasional cacti.
The one recon team that's gone missing. Stevens gave no clue as to which team it was exactly, and now she felt worse and worse for not asking. Ruth counted the number of teams for the n-th time and tried to remember which of those had left three days ago. The more she thought about it, though, the more worried she grew.
After what felt like ages of dirt road they reached a place on the map where they were expected to go off the trail. The wind got stronger as they traveled, sending tiny desert sand into their goggles. Despite the weather, they were able to make out a hillside which formed into a small mountain range not too far ahead, just as the map indicated. There were a few gray looking objects nearby, what must have been an old parking lot with long-abandoned vehicles, and a completely faded, torn billboard. A small black spot on the base of the mountain marked the cave entrance they were supposed to investigate. The closer they got, the more evidence of raider activity could be seen in the area. Just outside the cave was a makeshift barricade made out of rubbish, car parts, wooden benches and anything else people could've found around here. It was decorated with bodies and severed heads put on stakes and metal rods. They were rotten to the core, the choking smell hitting them like waves with every stronger gust of wind. A lot of empty cans and bottles were scattered everywhere, rolling under their feet as if on purpose. If it weren't for the wind whizzing in and out of the rusted cabins of cars and the sand scratching against metal, the area would've been completely silent.
"Try not to step into anything." Ruth's voice was muffled by a cloth wrapped around her face. She carefully approached the cave taking cover behind the vehicle wreckages.
Amber followed, step after step, doing her best to stay hidden as well. From afar the cave didn't look too intimidating, but as they got closer, the raider decour was visible everywhere. The stone walls were marked with vulgar and grammatically incorrect phrases and decorated with few dried heads and other body parts. Dirty mattresses were spread near the entrance, empty drug containers laying about. Ruth exhaled slowly and grasped her rifle. They neared the cave from the side. The wind died down, but it was still howling around the corroded corpses of the pre-war vehicles, which didn't help with the eeriness of the scene.
Ruth lifted her rifle and scanned the area through the scope. It was really an odd place. Raiders usually made a lot of noise and would have at least one person guarding the barricade, but she saw nothing. Not a single living soul.
"This place looks deserted..." She muttered more to herself than to her partner. "We should check it out up close. You go, I'll cover you."
"There are easier ways to shoot me in the back." Amber's cold attitude was back, but she only gave her a look and got up, approaching the mouth of the cave. She examined the scattered bones and other trash along the way. Most of those remains looked like they used to belong to animals, but few bones were clearly of human origin.
Ruth's fingers tightened on her rifle. She scanned the entrance, ready to fire at anything her partner wouldn't notice, but the longer she gazed into the dark, the more she felt her palms sweat. Her legs began to feel as heavy as lead. "Damnit..." She muttered, more conscious of her breathing than ever. Amber waved at her, signalling it was safe to approach, but her legs refused to move. She took a deep breath and forced herself to walk. One step at a time, she reached her partner.
"Was it too hard to shoot, ma'am?" The redhead's words broke her train of thought. "You took awfully long to lower that rifle."
"If you won't shut up it might be easier next time." Ruth shook her head and peered over Amber's shoulder into the quiet, endless darkness. A chill crawled up and down her spine, as this darkness seemed to beckon to them. She wasn't anxious about the dangers lurking inside, but rather about the crushing weight of the mountain surrounding said inside, of never finding her way back out once they were in.
"Do you know this place?" Her partner sounded more on edge now, too, peeking in and staring at the pale whiteness of several bones resting further on the ground.
"No. Of course not, why should I?" Ruth growled and stepped inside, her legs stiff, but somehow moving. "Because it's a random raider nest? What kind of stupid question is that?" She almost jumped when a gust of wind hit them in the backs, as if pushing them deeper into the opening. She stopped abruptly and looked away from the gaping, cold darkness, her imagination going wild for a moment.
"You go in. I'll secure the exit." Ruth blurted out and turned back to the desert.
"Oh you've got to be kidding me. You want me to go into this cave with no backup?" The redhead sounded almost offended, her voice echoing a bit too loud inside the stone walls.
"Whatever's inside you don't want to have your escape cut off, right?" The smaller woman rationalized more to herself than to her partner. "Besides, what if the raiders left for a while and will be back just as we're plundering their place?"
"This is ridiculous, there's only two of us we can't split up..."
Ruth took the safety off her rifle.
"That's an order, Dale. You go, I watch our asses. Understood?" Her voice sounded off even to herself, like it wasn't really her speaking.
Amber shook her head and turned towards the cave. "Yes ma'am." She said through her teeth and lit her flashlight.
As soon as her silhouette was embraced by the dark, Ruth retreated behind the barricade and put away the rifle, terrified of herself and furious at her fear. She took a deep breath, then another, and another, but her heart was still racing. She kicked a nearby skull in frustration, shattering it on a piece of wood.
Amber moved deeper into the tunnel, swaying her light back and forth along the rocks, casting long, knifelike shadows into the visible field of light, narrowing the world around her into a shaky streak of light. The inside was much colder than the open wasteland, which helped her cool off a bit, but she didn't get to have too much time to enjoy the cool air or to rethink Ruth's weird behaviour. Soon, she reached a cavern filled with trash, bones, and the disgusting smell of rotten meat. She covered her nose with a piece of cloth. It didn't help much. In the pale yellow light she could see a few chests and crates stacked next to the walls and a few makeshift beddings and bed rolls. There were also scattered, mangled pieces of armor and clothing, broken glass bottles and empty cans all over the rocky floor, a landscape similar to the outside mess. Long shadows cast by shattered rib cages and broken bottles looked like teeth or claws emerging from the ground. In front of her she could see at least three more tunnels leading deeper into the cave.
"Somebody never learned to clean their room." She muttered to herself, stepping carefully on the uneven ground as she approached a roughly human-shaped object in the middle of the cavern. The smell made her nauseous, but the sight of a disemboweled, limbless and headless corpse finished the job. Amber stumbled to the side as her stomach violently expelled its content all over the stone floor. Struggling to stay on her shaky legs she backed away from the body. Soon, she noticed three other corpses in various stages of decay, randomly thrown around the room. Not good, she thought, not good at all. Amber felt a rising sense of panic. Doubling her efforts to stay quiet, she began to walk towards one of the openings where she noticed another body. This one, however, had few scraps of NCR uniform on, still covering the chest. Suppressing her gag reflex she examined the corpse. It was a woman, probably a bit older than herself, but most of her face and lower jaw were missing, as was most of the lower half of her body. Amber grabbed the dog tags still miraculously attached to the dead woman's neck and stepped away. She wanted to get back to the surface and kick Ruth's ass for leaving her alone in this slaughterhouse, but she noticed another body deeper into the corridor. Swallowing the vile taste of her own vomit she continued down towards the other fallen soldier. This corpse belonged to a man and to her horror, she realized that she remembered him. He was one of the soldiers serving at the camp when she first joined. His face was mostly intact, bruised and bloodied and missing both eyes, but still recognizable. His neck was snapped and parts of his spine were poking out from his body. Amber reached for his tags and as soon as she pulled the metal string off his head turned towards her and his empty eye sockets looked at her accusingly. A cold shiver ran down her spine and she backed away, stepping into an armor plating fragment.
The screeching metal noise echoed through the narrow stone passages. The woman froze in place and turned off her flashlight, plunging the entire corridor into total darkness. She stood there, motionless. Her suppressed breathing and rushing blood sounded like a thunderstorm in the surrounding silence. Her muscles started burning in protest, but she didn't dare to move.
A long groan echoed within the walls, somewhere deep within the cave something began to shift. To her horror, Amber felt the rocky ground shake slightly, repeatedly. Heavy steps sounded in the corridor, getting closer.
This was bad. Amber snapped out of the paralysing fear and forced herself to back away from the tunnel. She heard deep, whistling breaths and noticed a pair of faintly glowing dots on the other side of the dark corridor. They seemed to lock on her as she was moving. This was really, really bad. Amber turned and broke into a blind sprint, lifting her shotgun. The steps of the monster made the cave tremble as it broke into a chase after her, its roar filling every space in the cave, ringing in her ears. She fired blindly behind her, hoping to slow the creature down.
"Ruth! Get the fuck away from this cave! Now!" She shouted, firing all six rounds from her weapon and jumped to the side just in time to avoid a wide sweep of a clawed hand.
She busted into the large cavern, jumped over the dead soldier's corpse and rushed towards the cave exit. Somewhere in the distance she could hear an echoing, distressed voice of her partner calling her name.
"RUN!" The woman shouted desperately, reloading her shotgun and dodging razor-sharp claws.
In the light of the fire she saw the terrifying figure of the two-legged mutant, about twice her height. Thick scales covered its whole body and the head was crowned with two curled horns pointing forward. Slavering jaws presented a set of sharp, yellow teeth. The horned monstrosity roared just as the last of Amber's slugs clicked into place. She fired directly into the creature's maw. And again. And again. The monster recoiled and stumbled back, spraying blood all over the cave walls. A glimmer of hope sparked in Amber's eyes. It only lasted for so long and died a heartbeat later as she watched the creature regain balance and jump towards her as if nothing had happened. She pulled the trigger one more time, but her weapon was silent.
Time appeared to slow down for a moment as she realized what was about to happen. She saw with her mind's eyes her mangled dead body on the cave floor, devoured by the hellish beast. The monster's enormous claws launched at her chest. She tried to avoid them, but this time her opponent was far too close and her efforts were in vain. Blade-like claws tore effortlessly through the metal of her armor and her clothes, piercing her skin and flesh, pinning her down to the ground. She opened her mouth to scream but the impact pushed all air out of her lungs. The monster picked her up, claws embedded in her shoulder, and threw her against the wall. She slammed into the rock like a rag doll and fell to the ground coughing out blood.
The creature approached her slowly, its muzzle and chest dripping with its own gore. Amber could barely move, her vision was blurred and her ears were ringing, but she could clearly see its huge hand raised to deal the killing blow. Mustering all the strength she still had, she tried to roll out of the way as her opponent attacked. It missed by mere inches and got stuck in the rocks, where her chest was moments ago. She reached for her handgun but to her despair she realized that the belt it was attached to had been ripped off her body moments earlier. Desperately looking for anything else she could use as a weapon, her fingers reached a signalling flare gun, a standard issue for all scouts. She grabbed it and fired blindly into the creature's face.
The cave erupted with light. For a split second she saw the monstrosity in all its glory, before the flare blinded her. The deathclaw was huge with his back almost scratching the ceiling of the cave, numerous scars covered his head and its jaws and chest were shredded by her shotgun. It let out a surprised screech and for a moment she hoped it was over, but the creature tore its trapped hand out of the stone floor and grabbed Amber's head forcing her off the ground. It stretched and twisted her neck as if trying to figure out the best way to separate it from the rest of her body.
There was a tremendous bang and a warm shower of blood. The claws around her head loosened and she fell back on the cold, hard rocks, the scaled arm landing beside her. Amber saw as the creature swayed and looked at its torn limb. It let out a gurgling, agonizing roar, and bolted towards the entrance. She felt the ground shake with each step, heading away from her, and before her senses began to dull a few more deafening shots echoed within the cave's walls. The ground shook heavily somewhere behind her, and then there was silence. Her world quickly grew clouded and distant, the pain no longer there. She heard muffled footsteps and words as if behind an invisible, thick wall, somewhere far away.
"Amber...oh no, no, no..." She heard Ruth's distant voice, but the sound of her own heart desperately pumping what was left of her blood was deafening. She felt the woman's warm touch and then a needle injecting her with something.
"I... told you... to run..." Amber whispered, barely able to breathe and articulate her words. She felt another needle going into her body, this one directly into her chest, sending waves of heat through her stiff muscles.
"I'm your commanding officer," the woman's voice broke, "and I'm ordering you to stay with me, damn it...!..."
The world faded and her consciousness was consumed by darkness.