Chapter 5: Faint candlelight

Her knees were trembling. Her small frame appeared tiny at the large entrance of the pitch-black cave. She came here determined and confident, but as soon as she stepped inside, it all faded away in a single moment. Ruth tightened her grip on the straps of her backpack, hands covered in traces of dried blood.

"Come on, silly! You've got a good reason to risk it!" She told herself out loud so as to give herself some courage, her voice just barely echoing about the cave. She toned it down to a whisper, afraid of the darkness ahead and the potential dangers within. "It'll be fine, the rocks won't fall on you, just... breathe."

The woman inhaled and exhaled a couple times before finally forcing her muscles to work and move forward, one step at a time. Briefly glancing back at the already cold body of the deathclaw, she had to admit it brought her less discomfort than the cave itself. The hideous monstrosity now missing a limb and a chunk of its head, covered in its own blood and breathless, was far less threatening than the darkness stretching before her. It seemed alive in its own way. A bat fluttered its leathery wings and squeaked, flying out of the darkness and past the body. A breeze tugging at her ruffled hair gave a low, odd whistle. The sickening, surrounding stench of blood had already attracted a swarm of flies that were now buzzing about. Ruth could almost swear there was an echo of a falling rock somewhere in front of her.

"Fuck fuck fuck..." She squinted her eyes and pressed forward. As the gloom began to envelop her, she switched on her flashlight and the tiny lightbulb came to life, illuminating her way. The smell became more and more unbearable the deeper she went. Ruth's chest tightened and she had trouble breathing. Anxiety and the horrid stench of rotten meat clenched her lungs and creeped into her eyes, making them tear up. She didn't dare open her mouth, but in her head she kept reminding herself why she had to be there and to press forward.

She carefully approached the chests and crates in this cavern. None of them were locked and they contained only junk. She searched through a lot of scrap metal and other pieces used for raider armor, cigarettes, skulls and even more empty cans. The only things she found useful were some rags and vodka. She tucked them into her bag and moved on, doing her best to avoid the decomposing bodies in the center of the cave. She circled them, trying with all her might not to throw up just yet. Her head was spinning a little, but she wanted to scavenge as much as she could from this place before examining the fallen.

"Get yourself together, silly, you're halfway there... probably." Her own voice echoed within the cave. Ruth could've sworn she heard a rock crack somewhere high above her, which made goose bumps appear all over her skin. She picked a corridor far to the right and quickly squeezed through it, keeping her head and eyes down, blocking fear-inducing images from her mind. There were only a few bedrolls and garbage about the room, but she managed to find some ammo, caps, and weird golden chips with a woman embedded on them.

The same pattern repeated in another corridor, but it smelled and looked much worse. Ruth held back the gag reflex upon entering. The rocky walls were covered in dried blood splattered all around the cavern. Her boots felt like sticking to the ground, and just when she thought she'd taken in the whole of the terrifying view, her eyes fell upon several bundles of... something. Bloodied, covered in torn cloth and reeking of decay, she quickly recognized the pieces. A chopped-up body decorated the room, the parts flung about and unidentifiable at first glance. It seemed as if the monster slashed the person into pieces and attempted to eat some of it, but then changed its mind and left. Her head spun and a moment later she found herself leaning against the sticky wall, heaving up until there was nothing left in her stomach. Dizzy and sick, she was about to back away, but one detail forced her to stay. The dirty scraps of clothes of this unfortunate soul seemed familiar. Spitting the foul taste from her mouth, she approached the body. With shaking hands she turned a part of the torso with the head still attached and recognized it as one of the medics from their clinic. The man shared a shift with her once, although it was hard to make out his features with long gashes slashed across his face. The woman kneeled and began searching his pockets and satchels. Surrounded by this grotesque scenery, she found herself smiling and her spirits momentarily lifted. A few bandages, two stimpaks, a buffout, two bottles of seemingly clean water and a sewing kit landed in her bag. By the looks of it, the man wasn't of much help to his teammates before the creature took him down. If he had only made it to the others, maybe they would have got out of there with the temporary boost of medicine he had no time to deliver. Ruth nodded at the corpse in gratitude, packed the supplies as well as his bloody dog tag and left the corridor at once.

There was one more area to check. She walked around another body, not paying too much attention to whom it belonged to for now, and directed her flashlight inside the last corridor. It was long and surprisingly empty, clean of rolling bottles and cans, and completely dark. She reached a turn and stopped before a weird structure at the end of it. The smell of decay hit her senses again. A number of bones and a pile of rags were dumped together into a large nest-like bed. She saw decomposed bodies mashed in there as well, not only human. The beast's lair was huge and horrifying, completely filling the space before her. She saw a few mangled bags on the sides, but couldn't bring herself to come closer and look through them. Was the deathclaw a female? She's never seen deathclaw eggs before, but there didn't seem to be anything egg-like in the nest. Covering her nose with her sleeve, she backed away into the main chamber. She had everything she'd hoped to find, but there was one more body to examine.

Before the creature awoke and terrorized her partner, Amber had managed to grab two dog tags from this cave. One of a woman and one of a man. Ruth found them in her pocket and read the names over and over again, refusing to believe what she was seeing. She directed the flashlight at the corpse and a cold chill ran down her spine. A wave of weakness passed through her body as she walked up to it. At first she didn't fully recognize him, dried blood and dirt covering his features, but there was no doubt it was exactly the person whose tag she'd seen.

Recon assignments were always kept secret. They weren't told exactly which team they were looking for, the mission was vague even to them, and Ruth was desperately hoping to find a different squad. She'd only seen the team's designation, RMS7, on the mission file, but it didn't tell her anything. She didn't know his code, she wasn't allowed to, and he never broke the rule to tell her. Throughout her whole time spent at Camp Imperial, she was never sure as to how many teams were actually stationed at the base, and NCR did a good job at maintaining their people undercover. Even though everyone knew about the RMS7 team, it was never by their designation, but by their nickname - the Scorpions. A group of elite soldiers, sent to parade NCR badges at the frontline. Renowned for their bravery, skill, and ambition, they didn't stand a chance against the wasteland's most fearsome beast.

Ruth kneeled next to the body, trying not to look too long into the torn, empty eye sockets. Her vision swayed and she turned her head away, hoping that if she didn't see the mangled, broken body on the floor, it would turn into someone else. Her hand reached out and she felt his palm. It was sickening in touch, cold and swollen, but still familiar in a sense. Her shoulders shuddered and she let the hand go almost immediately, scrambling back to her feet. Her vision began to spin and blur. Panic flooded her mind, an unbearable dread began to take over, taking control of her body. She felt the cave walls closing around her, crushing her, the whole mountain began to wrap itself around her presence. Shaky steps turned into a desperate dash for the exit. Her throat and chest tightened in fear, she was gasping for air, almost tripping on all the trash and rocks along the way. She reached the outside and darted past the deathclaw's hellish remains, almost colliding with the barricade where she finally came to a halt. Her legs gave up on her and she collapsed on the gravel.

The open space now surrounding her brought some relief. She was shaking and breathing rapidly as her mind emerged from the dark haze. The wind played with her hair and eased her tensed body. She looked at the cloudy late-afternoon sky above her. Her eyes saw small, puffy clouds lit by the last rays of the setting sun, but her mind only remembered the gruesome face of the soldier in the cave. Tears ran down her face and she didn't even attempt to stop them. She found it very bitterly, cruelly funny how much she'd lost over just the course of the past few days. It's been a long time since she'd last felt this broken, powerless, and alone.

Sorrow tightened its grip on her heart and she wanted to sob and succumb to this weakness, to fall apart right there. But there was no time for it. She still had her duty to fulfill, someone else to bring together.

She had responsibility.

With a painful groan Ruth heaved herself up, the weight of reality and emotions almost physically trying to pin her back down. With a sleeve she dried her tears and stood up, finding strength in what had yet to be done. Just as she lifted her head, something on the horizon caught her eye. She blinked, trying to make out the view. Beyond the hills were huge clouds of dust, slowly making their way in the direction of the cave. A sandstorm was coming. There was no time at all.

Amber slowly emerged from the chaotic darkness, scraps of thoughts and dreams coalesced into a conscious mind returning to the world of the living. She was cold. Every inch of her body screamed in pain. She could hear the howling wind and a very odd sound, a noise of some sort surrounding her from all sides. Amber opened her eyes but all she could see was a dark, blurred patchwork of shadows. She could guess it was late, maybe even middle of the night, which only made it even harder to make things out of the world. She recognized a warm flickering light to her side as some kind of a fireplace, but other than that she had no idea where she was or what happened. Her mind was still in pieces, but she tried to gather as much information as she could about her situation. Last thing she remembered was the fight in the cave, which she lost. She should be dead, but instead, she was out of the cave and in one of the abandoned trucks in the parking lot. Her chest was burning with every breath, her left shoulder and the left side of her face felt like it was set on fire, and when she attempted to move her legs she discovered one of them was immobilized. In addition to that there was a constant ringing in her ears and she couldn't focus her vision on anything. She lay there still for a few moments, first trying to remember what exactly happened, and then trying to forget what she just remembered. As her eyes slowly adjusted, she tilted her head to look around.

She was alone. Most of her clothes and what was left of her armor were piled up in the corner next to her emptied backpack and weapons. She could see pieces of her partner's equipment as well. Closer to her bedroll were a few emptied syringes and other medical supplies as well as a bundle of bloodied rags. Some of those rags, to her great confusion, were tucked into the bigger holes where the metal walls corroded through. She also noticed dust covering the floor, their bearings and her bedroll, and only then she recognized the constant sound that broke through the ringing in her ears. It was sand constantly bombarding the truck. She was in the middle of a sandstorm, bleeding, and alone. Fighting her rising anxiety she tried to move her arms and legs, but her body quickly reminded her just how badly hurt she was. Waves of pain knocked all attempts at moving out of her mind. She was stuck here, powerless, abandoned, and too weak to scratch her nose.

She opened her mouth to call out for her companion, but all that escaped her mouth was a painful, gargled moan followed by a coughing fit.

She heard some commotion outside and then the rusted double doors of the vehicle began to open with a loud squeak. The flickering fire twisted and turned in a gust of wind that came rushing inside. Amber's heart jumped up to her throat. Her weapons were so close, yet she couldn't muster any strength to reach for them. The broken car shook on its rusted springs as someone jumped inside, shutting the doors behind them. The figure was wrapped in cloth, its face barely visible, a bag on its back with sticks and other jagged shapes sticking out of it and above their head, a weapon in their hands. The fire burst again, casting dark shadows on the walls, making the figure look twice as tall.

Turning fully towards Amber, the person quickly unwrapped the cloth from their head, spilling sand everywhere. The light revealed Ruth's familiar face as she looked at her with an apologetic smile.

"Sorry! I didn't mean to scare you, I just heard you wake up and rushed back in." She set her rifle against the metal wall and took off the bag. Amber gave a small sigh of relief, flinching from the pain. Her tensed muscles slowly began to relax. "I went to get some wood for the fire, but it's blasting dust outside. The storm gives us at least some cover from whatever's lurking in the mountains at night." The woman said as she ran her fingers through her hair, scattering around some more sand, then knelt at her side.

"Ruth..." She rasped forcing her vocal cords to work. Ruth leaned in a bit, frowning, as she tried to hear her words over the constant noise around them. "How long..."

"Don't talk if you don't need to, it'll only tire you out, and we don't want that." She told her in the doctor's tone, but a moment later it gave way to concern. Amber waited patiently, too weak to protest, only watching her expression. "How long have you been out? Well..." She paused. "It's hard to tell exactly. Four to five hours, maybe, it's already night outside, but the storm hit shortly after I pulled you in here." Ruth frowned, her face tense. A few heartbeats of silence passed before she spoke again. "You're a strong one, Dale. You pulled through the worst, but it's not over yet. For now I need you to rest and drink."

Ruth turned to a pile of medical supplies and after a moment of searching she took out a half-empty bottle of water.

"Here, let me help with that." She reached behind Amber's head, very gently raising it just enough for her to drink. It still caused some pain, but only now Amber realised how dry her mouth was. The redhead felt embarrassed and helpless, left completely vulnerable in the hands of her partner. She took a few sips, her throat burning, a taste of blood still present in her mouth.

"This'll have to do. We're short on water by now." Ruth put the bottle aside, resting the woman's head back onto the bedroll, then focused on the bandages on Amber's arm. "How bad does it hurt?" She asked in a small voice, just loud enough for the woman to be able to hear her.

"Like I've been torn apart by a deathclaw and stitched together." The redhead replied weakly, her own voice sounding almost alien to her. Her mind was working slowly, she heard everything as if behind a curtain and had to really focus on processing the words.

"I pumped some Med-X into you, but it might not be enough. I shouldn't give you more, anyway."

"How bad is it, really?" She dreaded the answer, but she couldn't really see much from this position, and shifting to inspect the damage herself was pretty much impossible.

Ruth turned her eyes to the ground. For a brief moment the woman looked extremely tired and miserable. Her sleeves and hands still bore signs of blood, her eyes were puffy and there were visible bags underneath them. When she glanced at the redhead again she seemed to regain some composure.

"I take it honesty is preferable." She felt a tinge of panic, but nodded nonetheless. "It's, um... bearable, now. You're stable, and that's what matters most, but it's far from good. These wounds will leave a scar, no matter how well I'd stitch them. And I ran out of thread a while ago. Your left tibia is fractured, you have a concussion, and I suspect one of the ribs to be broken as well."

Amber closed her eyes seeing her mutilated body with her imagination. Her eyes burned, trying to produce tears, but apparently that didn't work, either.

"It's a lot to take in, I know, but all of that can be healed once we're back at the base. You're awake and talking, the bleeding has almost stopped." Ruth rested her hand on Amber's to calm her down. "It'll be ok now. It's not something you wouldn't recover from. You're very strong, but you'll have to rest and stay at the clinic for a while. As soon as you're there, they'll take proper care of you."

"So... what's the plan now?" She asked, not really knowing what to say and how to react. She closed her eyes again to calm down her spinning vision. "How do we... make it back?"

"I'm not sure." Ruth took her hand away. "Best plan I've got is we wait till this storm calms down, then I'll use a flare to call for help. Hopefully they will come for us. Can't carry you all the way back and we don't have supplies to keep you here for too long, either. They'd sooner label us dead than if we came back by ourselves, even if we set off right now."

Amber chuckled weakly. If the sandstorm was as bad as it sounded, there was no way the signal flare would be noticed by anyone at the base. Besides, vertibirds were way more expensive than a couple of stranded soldiers, so nobody in their right mind would risk sending them out in this kind of weather. If she died before the signal could be sent, the army might just as well save up some of that precious fuel. These grim thoughts nagged her mind for a moment, then, as if to remind her she was still alive, she felt a pang of pain in her chest. Ruth got up and grabbed a few pieces of wood from the bunch she'd gathered, placing them in the fireplace. Dried sticks immediately caught fire, pushing back the cold desert night. The wind kept howling through the cracks and the sand kept assaulting their hideout, creating a cacophony of odd and unsettling sounds. Ruth secured some of the loosened rags in the walls, then sat back across from her. None of them spoke for a long while. Amber tried to focus on figuring out how to breathe without causing herself too much pain. Her muscles didn't seem to be working properly, but the numbing effects of Med-X made it slightly easier to manage. She didn't want to think about it, but the images of the monster that had struck her down kept creeping back into her mind.

Succumbing to exhaustion she closed her eyes, listening to the howls outside. As she focused on them, she felt the car sway a little under the force of the wind. She heard as something small hit the ceiling, probably a can or other trash carried by the weather. The back of the car gave a low, long whine.

A moment later the doors cracked open and a strong gust of cold wind rolled inside the vehicle. Rusted to the core, the doors creaked terribly, almost falling off the hinges.

"Shit!" She heard Ruth curse as sand came blasting in. Amber couldn't even lift her arms to protect her face and could only turn to the side. She felt the car rock a bit as her partner jumped up to the opening. Amber had to squeeze her eyes shut to protect them from the sudden bursts of sand and the howling of the wind around her became even louder. After what seemed like forever of the storm assaulting her helpless, broken body, she heard the doors finally slam shut. The wind disappeared at once and the sand stopped assaulting her face. Coughing, she glanced into the back of the car, the short spasms for air making her vision blur from pain. Ruth stuck a piece of plank between the rusted beams to block the doors and tucked some of the rags in visible cracks underneath them. The car was relatively safe again, for the time being.

"That should do it." The other woman said, pausing to cough the dust away, then shook the sand off of her face and out of her eyes. "I hate sandstorms. Radstorms are so much better than that."

"I hate all storms." Amber muttered, trying to spit out the fine dust out of her mouth.

"Damn it, sorry. I should've thought about securing that earlier." Ruth swiftly dampened a piece of cloth in water and very gently wiped the dust off Amber's face and eyes that had started to water from irritation.

"I'll have to change your bandages now. I'm afraid the dust got under the bedroll as well." She heard Ruth's concerned voice as she opened her eyes, blinking out what was left of the sand. Amber looked as her partner got up and started to move about the cramped space gathering all the necessary medical resources. Then she stopped, as if lost in thought for a longer moment, before kneeling next to her again.

Ruth unzipped her jacket just enough to be able to pull out a silver string from underneath her clothes. Amber's eyes widened and locked on the piece of jewelry as she took off the necklace, holding it in her hand.

"I had a lot of time to think about this." Ruth admitted, as she held it up for a brief moment. The translucent amber pendant reflected the light of the fire, as if giving a slight golden glow of its own. "Whether you were telling the truth or not, I want you to have it back."

The redhead tilted her head a little to look at the piece of jewelry. "Keep it." She said quietly. "For now. It's not like I have too much use of it at the moment."

She seemed surprised, but then shook her head. "No. You're only beginning to recover, and you'll need all the strength you can get. And I'm pretty sure this will lift your spirits. You've been really angry at me for having it, so I hope it makes you feel better."

A number of responses went through her mind, but she didn't have much strength to argue. "You know I can't even pick it up, right?" Amber replied looking at her with a mixture of frustration and resignation. "No matter what happens, it's still safer with you than me."

"I told you not to talk, so shut it and listen to your doctor." She seemed only mildly serious, a shadow of a smile on her face. "It's too heavy for me, anyway." Ruth placed the necklace in her partner's hand, closing her fingers gently around it. "Now, time for the bandages. No more talking."

"I could use a drink first." Amber muttered, squeezing the warm piece of jewelry.

"I can give you some purified water, but we're running low-"

"I meant booze." The redhead protested and closed her eyes. "Forget it." She heard a shuffle and soon felt Ruth's hand gently slide under her back to lift her up.

"...You shouldn't drink this... But it will numb some of the pain."

Amber's eyes flickered open as soon as the strong scent of alcohol hit her nose. She looked down at the worn bottle filled with translucent liquid. "You're the best doctor I've ever had." She mustered a smirk.

"Just a few sips."

Ruth gently pressed the rim of the bottle to Amber's dried lips and allowed its content to pour in. The strong taste of alcohol hit her immediately, followed by heat in her throat. She swallowed the burning liquid ignoring her body's protests.

"Thank you." Amber whispered suppressing a painful cough when her partner took away the bottle, her voice just a little bit more raspy.

"Stay still now, I'll be as gentle as I can." Ruth lowered her back onto the floor.

Amber prepared herself mentally for the ordeal. The warm, numbing sensation already began to spread across her body. Maybe it was because of her weakened state, maybe because of all the drugs sedating her, but her surroundings began to spin and blur. She focused on the necklace and took a couple of deep, painful breaths before nodding slightly. The other woman grabbed the part of the bedroll that was covering Amber's body this whole time and lifted it slowly, the sand gathered on it sliding to the side.

"I don't think you should look while I do this. Just focus on the thing in your hand and look away, please." Ruth added, giving her a concerned glance. As anxious as Amber was, she took a shallow breath and braced herself. The bedroll fell aside, revealing the patchwork of bloodied gauze, bandages, and rags covering most of her chest and her left shoulder. Her pants were ripped off at the knee on her left leg, which was immobilized by a metal pipe on one side and a plank on the other. Her shin was visibly swollen. There was a folded bedroll underneath it, keeping it slightly raised above the torso. Ruth reached for the gauze and began peeling them off as gently as she could. Amber held her breath and clenched her jaw tightly, trying to endure the unpleasant sensation, as even the slightest touch sent waves of pain through her body. Despite that she couldn't help but look down. With the patches gone she saw the full extent of the damage done to her naked body. There was a long, gnarly wound going across her torso. Beginning above her left breast it tear deep into the flesh around it, going down through the middle of her chest and ending in a jagged gash around her left side. Another, smaller wound where the skin must have split from impact went along her stomach. Multiple cuts and bruises inflicted by the rocky floor of the cavern appeared all across her skin. She couldn't move her head to check her left shoulder, but from the pain she felt it was obvious that it was marked with similar injuries. Those serious wounds were all stitched up, covered in dried and fresh blood. She didn't want to imagine how deep the claws must've pierced her skin, but the view made her stomach turn. Amber moved her gaze up onto the ceiling as both pain and despair sapped all of her energy.

"I told you not to look." Ruth said quietly, pouring some water onto a relatively clean rag before cleaning the blood off of her skin. A number of discarded cloth quickly piled up around her. "You were extremely lucky, you know. You survived a deathclaw attack without losing your guts... or anything else." Ruth mumbled, pouring a bit of water onto her skin. "Back at the hospital, I've seen and dealt with people attacked by those things. Not every one of them could continue their service. Heard there were more of them around here, but the NCR took care of most. Guess this one slipped from their radar." She removed the clotted blood and dust that got into the wounds. "Good we found it now. There was a nest at the end of that cave."

Amber listened to her calm voice and tried to breathe steadily. Despite all the pain, anguish and exhaustion, she felt herself blushing. If it wasn't for the gruesome circumstances she found herself in, a fairly pretty girl slowly washing her naked body would be pretty high on her list of desirable events. This thought however quickly drowned in even more pain.

"Your wounds might look bad, but you'll be good. To be honest your leg is probably the worst injury, so you might need to walk around with crutches for a bit." Ruth took a small glass container filled with some kind of an ointment. It was gently applied along her wounds and she soon covered them back with a new set of rags.

"Almost done." Ruth smiled apologetically. "We just need to take care of your head." She gently brushed strands of Amber's red hair off of the bandage and began unwrapping it. "Sorry, I couldn't do too much here, there's just nothing to stitch, even if I had enough thread."

Amber gasped in pain when thin strips of cloth were pulled away from the wound. She could only imagine how bad it looked.

"I'm sorry." Ruth whispered calmly, but her nimble fingers didn't hesitate for a second. "This will only hurt for a little while longer."

"It's ok." The redhead muttered back with her eyes shut. She clenched her fists as much as she could and focused on the small shape grasped in one of them.

When her head was neatly wrapped, Ruth injected her with their last stimpak and sat back with a sigh.

"Now, you should get some sleep." She covered her with the bedroll again, making sure no dust got underneath it this time.

Amber nodded weakly and closed her eyes, trying to forget the carnage she's just witnessed. She never considered herself beautiful, but until now all she had was a couple of shallow scars from her childhood. With the amount of damage inflicted on her by that monster, she could just as well consider herself a ghoul. If she survived that long, of course. The thought of not living long enough to see her deformed torso just became a lot more appealing.

The sound of liquid grabbed her attention. She opened her eyes and watched as Ruth took a hearty swing from the bottle of vodka before sealing it again.

Amber took the deepest breath her aching sides could muster and relaxed her muscles, allowing exhaustion to take over. Her mind, however, was still clouded with heavy thoughts. She looked at her partner taking some of her things and setting them under the opposite wall, preparing for the night's rest.

"Thank you... " Amber said finally, forcing her lips to work and her eyes to stay open. "For... saving me." She looked away. She hoped the alcohol and pain-numbing drugs still coursing through her body would make it easier to say it, but they didn't.

"It's part of my job." Ruth said, forming a pillow out of her bag. "I appreciate your gratitude, though. You're welcome." She squeezed into her sleeping bag and lay down with a sigh. "Try to get some sleep now, private."

"I'll try." She let the darkness begin to take over her consciousness.

"Really?" She saw Ruth glance at her from behind her bedding. "No arguing? No sarcasm?" She smirked.

"Not this time... but you're not off the hook yet, Delassandis."

"Yeah, I know, but you're the one stuck to the bed for the foreseeable future."

"Wait till I'm up." Amber muttered with a smirk.

She heard her chuckle, then the pain, exhaustion and the ever present sound of wind and dust pulled her to sleep.

It was still dark outside and the fire had already gone out when Ruth woke up with a start. She didn't really remember dozing off. The distant echoes of nightmares that kept her from resting and the heavy feeling of grief still fogged her mind. She heaved herself up and shook her head from the haze when she realized the body next to her was shivering almost uncontrollably. Ruth gasped, awake at once, and jumped to touch Amber's sweaty forehead. It was burning hot.

"Oh no..." Ignoring the cold around her, she unzipped her sleeping bag and tossed it over her partner's. She looked around frantically for anything to start up the fire, but what little wood she'd gathered before was already gone. Switching on her little flashlight she located the small stash of remaining meds.

"Last Med-X." She muttered. "You really shouldn't take more than you'd already had, but..." She took out the small red syringe and pressed it against Amber's exposed arm, then hesitated. Something caught her attention and she froze, listening. It was quiet, calm, aside from her partner's uneven breathing. There was no sand and no howling wind. Ruth put the syringe aside and spun around, grabbing a flare from her bag. She took away the wooden plank and pushed at the doors. They squeaked on the rusted hinges and began to open slowly, fighting with a mound of sand and dust gathered just beneath and around the truck. Ruth slammed her side against them and they opened wider, just enough for her to squeeze through.

The night was cold, the wind was gone and the sky was slowly clearing, revealing patches of stars between dark clouds. A very faint glow of the coming dawn lazily creeped onto the ink ceiling above her. Moments later the immediate area and the black sky turned furious red as the flare flew upwards, high above the hills. Ruth watched the red light go far up, then looked away shielding her eyes from the blazing light.

There was a sound not far from her position. In the now lit area she saw two mounds of sand erupting into dust, the silhouettes of radscorpions emerging from beneath. She cursed and darted back to the car, grabbing her rifle. She pulled the trigger and a chunk of the nearest radscorpion's body flew into the air, splashing yellow gore on the sand. The overgrown arachnid pressed forward, getting dangerously close to the car. She aimed and shot again, this time destroying most of its head. It swayed, its pincers froze open, then its body stumbled to the ground. None of the few that emerged to attack her were big enough to stand a chance against her weapon and in a moment the area around the car was littered with radscorpion parts.

The desert became silent again as she watched the perimeter, but nothing else engaged her in a fight. The light of the flare has now dissipated and the surroundings were plunged back into darkness. Ruth sat down near the vehicle with the rifle on her knees, waiting. She repeated the procedure in her head. Fire the flare, wait for the next half an hour and then fire again, preferably from the same spot. After roughly the necessary time gap the desert flashed crimson red again, no annoying mutated scorpions emerging from the gathered sand this time around. Now, all that was left to do was a game of waiting that kept her on edge.

Ruth put her rifle away and jumped inside the car. Amber's body was still tugged on by the fever. Her eyes were shut, her breathing shallow. She'd done everything she could to keep her from slipping, but the fight was still on.

"Hold on a little longer... please?" Ruth whispered, receiving no answer. The blue-haired woman turned back to the outside, then stopped abruptly. She heard something beyond the creaking of the metal floor. She stood there, not daring to move a muscle, and there it was again. The sound of a distant humming. Ruth jumped outside the car and looked about the sky, straining her eyes in the dim light of the faint morning glow.

A black silhouette hung above the horizon, moving roughly in their direction.

"Yes!" Ruth couldn't help but exclaim with a smile across her face. She darted inside to reach for a signalling smoke grenade. Moments later a thick red cloud rose from the ground, marking their position. The vertibird started to grow rapidly and soon the sound of the engine was loud and clear. Minutes later it hovered above their temporary hideout, sending waves of sand and dust and red mist around it as it extended its landing gear. Ruth watched in awe as its black, metal body touched the ground gracefully, completely crushing the remains of one of the radscorpions. Two soldiers jumped out of the vehicle and approached her, holding their rifles.

"We came here to investigate an NCR distress signal. Could you explain what you are doing in this area?" He eyed her suspiciously while the other guy scanned the area around them, glancing at the car.

"Thank you for coming!" She strained her voice over the engine. "There's a wounded soldier in the back of this truck, she requires immediate medical care. I need help getting her out safely." Her voice was tough, confident and authoritative. She surprised even herself with how in command she sounded.

However, the two soldiers stood there unfazed. The one first engaging her tightened his grip on the weapon in his hands.

"A wounded soldier." He mulled over her words, piercing her with his gaze. "Can you explain that?"

At first she had an urge to punch him for not understanding her immediately, but then she remembered the procedure. She actually facepalmed, then hastily explained.

"Right! Time is of the essence here, and the midnight sun sets in the east! Now, could you please help me?"

Both soldiers looked at her with confusion that quickly turned into realization. Both stiffened and lowered their weapons immediately. A look of determination replaced their previously contemptuous attitude.

"Understood, ma'am! What can we do to assist?" He asked as the second soldier waved some hand signals at the vertibird. The intensive whine of its engines died down and the cloud of dust raised by its huge propellers began to clear.

"Get a stretcher, we need to transport her to the base, she needs medical attention." Ruth commanded and turned towards the ruined car. One of the soldiers followed her while the other rushed towards the vehicle.

The inside of their temporary hideout was still dark, but the soldier froze in the entrance. With the sun rising and its rays creeping into the vehicle, the torn bloodstained rags and dried puddles of blood on the floor became more and more prominent.

"What happened, ma'am?" He asked as Ruth quickly checked on Amber before picking up what little supplies there were left.

"We've discovered a deathclaw nest in those caves. It killed many people, including a couple of our soldiers, wounded her... " She stopped explaining as the nightmarish images creeped into her head again. "We killed the bastard." She added to calm down the soldier who seemed to tense up at the mention of the beast. She finished packing just as the other man appeared with the stretcher.

Minutes later Amber was securely transported on board the vertibird, together with their equipment. Both soldiers attached themselves to the side-mounted miniguns and Ruth sat next to the wounded woman.

"You're gonna get through this." She whispered as both engines roared and they left the ground. She grabbed the redhead's hand and discovered the amber necklace still between her fingers. "You have to."