Chapter 9: I know where this is going
The Nuka Cola factory was known to be a highly dangerous place. All travelers from far and wide knew to keep their distance from the haunting ruins and avoided going anywhere near them in fear of being devoured by the ghouls and other beasts believed to dwell inside the husks of its buildings. Whatever treasures might have once been there were either already taken, or were not worth dying a cruel, painful death for. Amber knew that, Ruth knew that, and everyone in at least a 30 mile radius knew that as well. Yet, despite all of the nightmare fuel stories about the place, their intel told them there was something there worth seeking, especially in the light of the recent events. The two soldiers came out from among a patchwork of long-crumbled ruins, possibly of maintenance buildings and other infrastructure built around the plant. On their way they encountered a number of ghouls, though the majority was now dead and filled with bullets, the rotten blood staining the ground around them. A handful of stragglers could still be heard deeper within the maze of walls and car wrecks, but the girls sneaked past them and were now standing in a big parking lot situated just before the factory building itself. They immediately recognized remnants of a destroyed raider camp just outside the monumental, concrete structure, and exchanged glances. At least raider activity could already be confirmed. Carefully looking around for anything dangerous, they closed the distance. The area closest to them was quiet, safe for a few ravens loudly arguing over a piece of ghoul brain.
"I don't get it?" Amber looked past the camp and at the entrance of the factory. There seemed to be a lengthy, shallow trench someone dug to block the gate. "Why would anyone spend so much time and effort to fortify and defend this place?"
The camp itself mostly consisted of wooden and metal barricades set up around the entrance. A few huts were erected on the sides and around, and the area was adored with characteristic spikes used for impaling heads and bodies of unfortunate wastelanders.
Ruth shrugged, walking a few steps behind her. "Ghouls can be pretty nasty, but not to a place like this. A better question would be, why did someone attack it at all? The locals tell many stories, but if we're seeing an actual camp out here, then the place could be just an empty ruin by now."
Both women were impressed by the amount of bullet holes in the barricades and other fortifications. A number of shells, a few broken pistols, and shattered baseball bats littered the ground. Even more so, they found a few burn marks left by laser or plasma weapons on the walls of the huts, marking the factory wall as well. Unfortunately for their investigation, all the dead bodies had been piled up and burned by the local perpetrators. The dark mounds still produced an insufferable smell creeping into their nostrils when they passed them by. Scattered pieces of damaged armor and equipment were all that was left from the camp. A few more ravens flew by, sitting on one of the piles, and began pecking the leftovers.
"The patterned guys must've been here, destroying another gang, maybe? Or some other group?" The redhead wondered, crossing a narrow bridge to inspect the other side of the trench. "The whole place is looted to the bone. What the fuck, are we in the middle of some raider war happening around here?"
"I don't see any graves like the last ones we've found." Ruth joined her, looking about the place, confused. "No raider bodies presented as an example, either."
"Whatever it was, they're gone by now. And loaded with loot, probably."
"What if they're not gone?" The other woman lowered her voice and nodded at the main entrance to the factory. The building loomed over them like a mountain. Its walls were damaged with metal rods poking out of them where the concrete had crumbled off. All the windows were hollow, with only the metal frames and few pieces of glass left here and there. The metal fence was almost non-existent by now, and to their left a few silent trucks stood abandoned, crates and boxes still sitting inside them. A huge, once illuminated sign of Nuka Cola hung above the entrance. The heavy metal doors to the factory were clearly blasted open and they could tell the damage was pretty recent. Amber felt a chill run down her spine. The darkness beyond the entrance felt wrong to her somehow.
"When I was still traveling with my parents they warned me about this place." She muttered while approaching it slowly. "They said people go in there and never come out. It was sealed by the locals to keep people from wandering in and disappearing. As far as the ghost story goes."
"Yeah, I heard about that, too." Ruth said, though less on edge than her partner. "But I always thought it was just a story to scare off the competition. And, look, a raider camp at the very entrance."
"You didn't want to enter an ordinary cave, but you're okay with going into an old, scary factory?" The redhead raised her eyebrows at her.
"This isn't a cave. This is a spacious, concrete construction, with windows, and it's not underground." The other woman answered, gesturing with her rifle about the place. "I don't want to overthink it, though."
"You're weird." Amber replied and stopped at the entrance. The wide metal doors lay twisted on both sides, the thick walls were chipped by an explosion and punctured with bullet holes. Whoever did this had access to fairly strong explosives and was certainly not afraid of ghost stories. "Are you sure this is a good idea?"
Before her partner could react, they heard a muffled echo of gunshots coming from the pitch-black structure. Both women looked at each other, then rushed inside through the blasted entrance, keeping low and scanning the surroundings carefully.
The first couple of rooms looked like warehouses filled with large boxes and crates. Most of them were forced open or completely broken. Amber cringed every time shattered bottles crunched under their heavy boots as they made their way towards the source of the repeated gunshots. They reached a long, wide hallway with one large, metal door on one side and a row of smaller doors along the way. A man wearing a set of combat armor with a blue jumpsuit underneath it was taking cover behind a huge flower pot, firing his pistol in a general direction of... something.
It took them a few moments before their eyes fully adjusted to the darkness of the factory, but once they did, both women inhaled sharply in horror. There was a creature slowly moving on the other side of the corridor. It looked like two or even three people melted together, forming a disgusting pile of meat. It supported itself on six arms or possibly legs, it was hard to tell, with two additional arms dangling uselessly on its back. It had a roughly human torso in the front, but it had no arms. Instead, there were multiple, short, tentacle-like muscles swirling on both sides as it swayed with each step. The creature's head looked like two faces squeezed together, with tendons and more twitching flesh hanging from its maw. It looked at the two with its three crooked eyes, its cheeks suddenly bulged and a stream of putrid goop erupted from its mouth, hitting Amber's chest. The redhead gasped and jumped back. Her nostrils were assaulted with a horrid smell of vomit and acid and moments later she noticed bubbles forming on her metal chestplate. Panicking, she unstrapped the armor and tossed it to the side. To her horror, the bubbling acid burned right through the metal, leaving a large hole in the center.
Ruth didn't waste any more time and before the creature had a chance to treat them with another portion of its substance, she put a round through its head and one through its torso. It staggered, but moved on. Amber quickly recovered, pulling the trigger as well right as the creature's cheeks seemed to prepare for one more burst, and destroyed its head with a shotgun blast. The monster whimpered and collapsed motionlessly with a long groan, its tentacles sprawling about and twitching for just a moment longer.
"Motherfucker!" Amber hissed, looking at the grotesque corpse and turned her shotgun at the man, who was just getting to his feet. "What was that and who the hell are you?"
"Woah ladies, easy!" He said, putting away his pistol as Ruth's rifle turned towards his armored chest as well. He had a complete, shiny set of combat armor. Shiny. It was a sight Amber only saw a few times in her life when she happened to pass the elite soldiers at the base. His dark hair was trimmed close to his head. "There's no need to get violent. Thanks for helping me with this centaur, by the way." He waved his hand in the general direction of the creature's corpse.
"Centaur?" Amber asked, looking at the few bubbles still forming on the chestplate.
"Never seen one before, eh? It's basically what radiation does sometimes, mixes up different people or mutants and breeds... these things that puke at you." His square face turned into a grimace. "You took it down pretty well, though. After I'd wounded it, of course."
The women exchanged glances.
"What are you doing here?" Ruth asked, taking a step forward.
"Exploring, obviously." He shrugged.
"Haven't you heard about this place? Don't you know there could be tens of those things further ahead?" Amber motioned at the pile of flesh.
"Probably, but think about the loot! This place is a possible treasury!" He exclaimed a bit too loud. "Aren't you here for that, too? With our joint firepower we could make it through these bastards in no time."
There was a moment of consternation before Ruth lowered her gun and nodded at Amber to do the same.
"Alright big guy, calm down." She said. "We could keep you company, if you make it worth our time."
Amber looked at the other woman, raising an eyebrow in a silent question, but she only got a small nod in return.
"Brilliant!" He exclaimed, but paused for a moment, as if realizing something. "Oh, excuse me, I didn't introduce myself." He bowed slightly before answering, "Michael Stone, an adventurer, a lone wanderer, if you may."
"I'm Amber and this is my partner, Ruth." The redhead replied, picking up the act. "We're mercenaries, looking for quick cash, offering assistance. For a certain price, of course."
"Hmm, partners as in...?" The man lowered his voice, darting his deep, brown eyes between the two.
"Business partners." The other woman said with a hint of annoyance. "We work together."
"Hmm." Michael simply gave them a disappointed look and turned around. "Well, I'm sure there's plenty of treasure in this place to fill all of our pockets." He motioned into the corridor. "Shall we?" Not waiting for an answer, he rushed forward.
Amber turned back for a moment, looking at the useless pile of trash that used to be her armor. "Fuck... I just fixed it." She muttered to herself, nudging it with the tip of her boot. Anxiety filled her chest as she thought about the recent images in her head of her new set of scars, feeling naked without any protection. With a frustrated grunt, she kicked the destroyed chestplate towards the monster.
"Easy there, Red, we'll get you a new one. Hang in the back for now, ok?" Ruth whispered when the redhead joined them down the hall.
The rooms on the sides looked to be small offices, completely destroyed and turned upside down by countless creatures who went roaming through them over the years. Decaying papers and folders littered the floor and desks were either knocked over or covered in a thick layer of debris and dust. Sunlight lit the rooms through small, empty windows. Amber spotted a few broken computers laying on the floor, the glass from the monitors scattered around them. She walked into one of the offices to her left. A single terminal was still sitting safely on the desk and she discovered it was in fact still working.
"Let's see... It's been a while." She came up to it and upon pressing a few buttons the screen flashed with a green text saying that the system was in lockdown. "Shit."
"What is it?" Ruth peeked into the room.
"I wanted to get in, but it's blocked for some reason. Let's see if there are any more of those working."
"I've already checked most of these rooms, nothing worthy of attention, but go on if you please." Michael commented and leaned against a wall in the corridor, waiting for them to finish.
They searched the other offices, but the computers were either destroyed or locked. Out of any items of value were a few caps in the drawers, the rest was just documents, useless junk, and lots and lots of bird poop and feathers.
"Damn it. It looks as if someone was just typing in random words as passwords and blocked them all. I can't do anything with them." Amber gestured at the devices in annoyance.
Michael stood upright and proceeded forward, suddenly more interested in the wall on the other side of the entrance. There were several posters advertising the famous fizzy drink, its different types and flavors. Each of the posters featured a woman in a pin-up pose holding a full bottle, with a wide smile on her face.
They turned into another corridor which ended with a staircase. The passage was dark, narrow, filled with destroyed furniture and chunks of crumbled walls. Ruth stepped forward and took out a small clip-on flashlight from one of her pockets. They followed the bright spot of light up the stairs and after reaching the upper floor, they saw a flickering glow of vending machines. They were standing neatly lined up along the walls. The corridor ended on a set of thick, automatic doors that looked to be closed shut.
"So they could keep those running, but the lights were just too much?" Ruth groaned as Michael punched one of the machines and smiled like a giddy child when a glowing, blue Quantum Cola fell out. Amber shrugged and kicked it, too, getting herself a dusty bottle filled with an almost black liquid. She put it into her bag and continued to examine her surroundings. Between and above the vending machines, hung on both sides of the corridor, were framed articles and pieces of newspapers marking the company's numerous achievements. Most of the articles were illegible, faded, or simply crumbled into dust over time, but she noticed a large advertisement of something called Nuka World.
There was a large room to their right, mostly consisting of printers, paper with Nuka Cola labels, and a few tables. On the other side of the corridor was a sort of a metal niche, a long room with a desk and a few cabinets. One of its walls was largely a window, which gave a plain sight of a spacious production hall below, as if for observation. Amber leaned close to the window, looking down. There were two huge vats that stood empty, a conveyor belt blocked by boxes awaiting shipping, as well as various machinery standing along the walls. A metal catwalk extended from the niche she was in, still hanging above the vats despite being torn apart by a falling ceiling piece at one point. It originally led into a wall to the right, indicating a possible second, corresponding hangar on the other side that was currently closed behind the automatic doors.
They quickly searched the printing room but found nothing aside from a few more bottles of Nuka Cola and faded magazines. The terminal in the metal room was working and the redhead came up to it, tapping a few keys.
"Finally!" She said with excitement and sat in the old chair, cracking her fingers.
Ruth came up to her and looked at the series of words and random symbols sprawling on the screen, Amber's quick fingers typing in a few commands. Her eyes narrowed as she leaned forward, tracing lines of green, glowing text on the screen.
"Shipping notes, production schedules, something about that glowing Nuka Cola promotion." She listed items on the screen. "Nothing interesting here..."
"Let me see, maybe there are some juicy emails between the workers. You can find so much thirst in these sometimes." Michael looked over her shoulder as well.
"Did people seriously write emails about that during work?" The other woman asked.
"I once read a message some guy wrote to some chick he worked with about doing it in the office once everyone had left, and-"
"Forget I asked." She shook her head and walked up to the window instead, looking out into the hall. "This place is huge... looks even bigger on the inside."
"Tch, yeah, huge and empty!" Michael threw his arms to the sides in resignation, finding not a single remotely entertaining log on the screen as Amber checked entry after entry of boring business mails. "Honestly, isn't there anything interesting in this place?"
As if on cue, a loud, echoing wham suddenly disrupted the peace. All three jumped to attention and peeked out into the corridor, three different guns pointing at the wide doors at the end of it. None of them dared to move for the next few moments, but nothing else followed.
"What was that?" The man finally whispered, taking a hesitant step back.
Amber looked at her partner, but she shook her head, uncertain. They listened, but there was no other sound coming from the other side.
"Maybe we could crack them open and see. Not like we have anywhere else to go from here, that catwalk was busted." She turned her attention back to the terminal. Typing in another command, the screen flashed, displaying security options and lock controls.
"Alright... let's do this." She heard Ruth take a deep breath and move across the corridor. She took position on the left side of the doors and nodded at Michael to come.
"Are you serious?!" He stared at them in slight disbelief, but followed nonetheless. He took out his Quantum Cola and drank it all in one swing to everyone's great confusion.
"Ready? On three." Amber made sure her shotgun was loaded, looking from the screen and back to the others.
SECURITY DOORS CONTROLS
UNLOCK THE DOORS_
She pressed the button and jumped towards the doors, covering the right side.
They held their breaths as something clicked inside the mechanism and the doors slid upwards with a loud creak, finally disappearing in the ceiling with a dull thud.
Nothing happened. For a moment only some dust from the other room stirred the air, falling back onto the corridor floor. Michael leaned out to look inside. He took a hesitant step forward.
The man heaved from impact and was thrown across the corridor, smashing into a vending machine before falling heavily to the floor. A muscular, blue-ish arm with a power fist emerged from the other room, followed by an even more impressive body. The creature was almost twice the size of a regular human with its muscles bulging from between the pieces of heavy metal armor with familiar markings carved into it. He quickly turned his small, bloodshot eyes towards his next target, which happened to be Ruth. Her eyes widened when his crazed gaze locked on her and she pulled the trigger, the bullet stopping on a piece of armor. The redhead fired her shotgun, shredding the back of his calf, blood erupting from it in all directions. The monster staggered, but was intent on getting the other woman. He reached towards her and grabbed the rifle she was holding, tearing it out of her hands with ease and throwing it to the floor. His other hand encased in a power fist launched forward, but she ducked swiftly and rolled out of the way as the arm swung widely in the air. The mutant roared terribly, but was cut short by a sudden blow to the head. Amber threw away a slightly dented fire extinguisher, seeing it did not do as much as she hoped it would, and was about to grab her shotgun again, but the creature turned rapidly and grabbed her by the throat, pinning her to the wall. He was breathing heavily in anger, blood streaming from the cracked, thick skin on the head where she had struck him. The redhead tried to pry his fingers open, kicking futilely with her legs. Her chest quickly began to burn from the lack of oxygen and her vision started to blur. Her desperate struggle against the powerful grip on her throat weakened as the monster lifted his other hand to finish her off.
Something landed on the monster's broad shoulders and his grip weakened, her vision clarifying slightly. She saw Ruth clutching the monster by its back armor, and just as the mutant reached back to get rid of her, she thrust both of her knives into the sides of his exposed, bloated neck. All his muscles tensed as she slit his throat open, the blood spraying into Amber's face and down onto the floor. His massive hand threw the woman off of his back, sending her flying across the corridor. The mutant released the redhead, who collapsed to the ground, gasping for air. He coughed out even more blood and stumbled a few steps, grasping his slashed neck. The debris around them jumped as the monster fell flat to the ground.
Michael groaned and climbed back onto his feet. "Wow." He stared at the monster, a dark pool quickly forming below the still twitching body. "A super mutant, in here? Well that was something!" He said, massaging the back of his head. Most of the impact was absorbed by his armor, leaving a shallow dent on the chestplate where the power fist had hit him.
"Yeah... something..." Amber coughed and sat up, leaning against the wall. Her lungs and throat still burned with every breath and she felt light-headed, but it was slowly getting better. She looked at the corpse in front of her, swiping the remaining blood off of her face in disgust. "Weren't they supposed to be green?"
"Another breed, maybe?" The man replied and nudged the monster's hand with his boot.
"Whatever it was, we're lucky it didn't smash our heads." Ruth heaved herself up and stretched the aching shoulder. "Ouch."
"If this was a super mutant, there would be more of them around. We would be overrun by now." The redhead dusted herself and stepped up towards her partner. "Pretty good moves back there. Thanks."
Ruth nodded and quickly collected her blades and rifle, inspecting the weapon carefully. The stock and butt were loose, its surface was scratched, but the worst thing was the broken scope. The lenses were cracked and one of them fell out when she picked it up.
"Noo... fuck!" She exclaimed helplessly. "It was a really good gun!"
"It'll need some fixes, but it's not terribly bad." Amber commented, looking over it as well. "I can't fix the scope, but the rest is doable."
"Let's hope so." Ruth sighed and hung the weapon on her back. "It will have to do for now..." She looked at the body of the mutant and her eyes stopped on something in his armor. She kneeled next to it and examined the weaving pattern engraved in the metal.
"Yeah, I recognized it, too." Amber looked closely at the chestplate, the painted swirls very closely matching those she'd seen previously during the briefing.
"Same thing as on those raiders..." Her partner muttered, frowning. It seemed like she wanted to say something more, but the man interrupted them.
"You mean a human could wear this armor?" Michel approached the body, looking for any straps and fastenings.
"I first saw them on a person, yes." Ruth joined him in searching the corpse. "Maybe he has something useful on-" She paused when her hand touched the exposed part of his body. "Why is he so... squishy?" She poked his shoulder again, and it jiggled slightly like jello.
"He's leaking." Amber pointed at the gruesome bash on his neck. A steady stream of reddish-black liquid was still pouring out of the body and pooling in large cracks in the floor. "Looks like this guy was mostly blood."
"Not blood, exactly." Michael said, dipping his fingers in the liquid and sniffing it. "It smells like Nuka Cola."
Both women looked at him as if he were mad. "You gotta be kidding me." Ruth checked for herself while Amber just grabbed her blood-stained shirt and sniffed it. It definitely smelled like blood, but there was a hint of sweet, slightly fruity flavor.
They spent several more minutes examining the deflating mutant and removing its armor. They found a spare battery pack for the powerfist, meds, caps, and even a few papers on him. Though most of it was soaked in the blood-cola mixture, Ruth hid it in her backpack for later examination. Michael bundled the armor and weapon together with some straps and hung it over the shoulder.
"Why do you want this junk?" Amber asked, looking at the heap of metal.
"It looks way cooler than the one I have."
Once they were done with the corpse and took a short, but well-deserved rest, they entered the corridor ahead. It was almost a mirror of the interior of the previous space, with the metal room on the left and a few other spaces to the right. However, there were no vending machines; more cabinets took their place instead. The staircase here was blocked with desks and other furniture, same as the catwalk. What also immediately drew their attention was the poor state of this area. Plaster and paint fell off of the walls in numerous places, there was wood sprayed across the floor in splinters. Glass and other rubbish littered the floor, smashed into pieces. It looked as if someone punched everything around them repeatedly either with parts of equipment or their own fists.
They proceeded carefully, two beams of light from their flashlights sliding along the walls. It was exceptionally dark, as the window which brought some light from the huge hall below in the other corridor was thoroughly boarded up.
"Do you guys think it was all him?" Michael asked, looking at the inflicted punches on one wall and the makeshift barricades.
"Probably." Ruth muttered, massaging her shoulder. Being thrown against a wall awakened the soreness from the previous days. She was looking around as well and spotted something that looked like a pile of bones in one corner.
The first room to their right once had a pair of double, heavy wooden doors. Now, one of them was torn apart and was hanging loosely on the hinges. Peering inside, it looked like an office of whoever was responsible for the factory back in the day. The room was large, with a big, heavy desk, a rotting sofa, and some more fancy furniture lining the walls. The windows were covered with decaying remains of thick, faded curtains. Amber squeezed inside first, jumping behind the desk to look at the terminal standing on top of it. She smiled as it lit up and asked for a password.
"Tell me all your secrets, sweetie?" The redhead whispered seductively and began typing. Michael also came in and stood next to her, looking carefully at what she was doing.
Ruth looked into the cabinets and drawers, finding a lot of rotten, faded papers, documents and other junk, but one drawer in the desk had some ammo for a 10mm pistol, three packs of cigarettes, and a bottle of Sunset Sarsaparilla. "Employee of the month." She muttered, stashing the beverage for later and approached a large, fancy wardrobe, which looked a bit out of place in the office.
Its contents rotted away and turned into dust over the years, leaving only scraps of cloth and rusted hangers. The furniture looked odd to her, it didn't match the picture of the rest of the interior, which gave her an idea. She examined it from all sides and finally discovered faint scratches on the floor underneath the grime and dust around its base.
"Mike, come here and help me." She looked at their new companion. He grabbed the wardrobe and pulled it to the side, revealing a large safe built into the wall. Jackpot.
"I think we found one of its secrets." She said to Amber, who turned away from her work.
"A digital lock?" The redhead drew their attention to a tiny flashing light next to the lock. It was barely visible under all the dust that had gathered on the surface.
"Looks like it." Ruth kneeled next to the safe. "And thankfully a regular one, too. A buffy one, though."
"Give me a moment, I almost got it." Amber turned back to type a few more lines, but they heard the terminal beep disapprovingly. "Oh, come on!"
In the meantime, Ruth took out a set of tiny, metal tools and focused. It took her some fiddling with the lockpicks, but after a moment of frowning and swearing under her breath, something faintly clicked inside the safe. The narrow metal doors cracked open.
Amber turned to look at her in surprise when the terminal beeped again, alerting her of an unauthorized access to the safe.
"What did you just do?" She asked, leaning slightly to look past her shoulder.
"I've got my ways." Ruth replied nonchalantly, putting the trusty lockpicks back into her pocket.
"Nevermind! What's inside?" Michael pushed his way behind the wardrobe as well and waited eagerly.
Ruth pulled the thick metal hatch and grabbed her flashlight to look inside. The black square filled up with light, revealing several stacks of pre-war paper money and more cigarettes. She reached in and moved the money aside, letting some of it fall out onto the floor. Further in the back of the safe was a 10mm pistol with a suppressor beside it, some more ammo, and two caps. She let out a disappointed sigh.
"Hey, watch it!" The man scolded her, collecting the money that ended up in the dust at his feet.
"You know this isn't really worth much, right?" She eyed him as she took out the gun. It was dusty, but otherwise in a really good condition, as far as she could tell. She screwed on the silencer and it clicked into place. "Have you just walked out of a vault, or what?" She peered in and took out the caps as well. It turned out they were somehow special, as there was a blue star printed on the inner side of both of them. She hasn't seen anything like that before, so she put them separately from her regular stash.
"Of course not, I'm from Vault City, we came out of our vault many years ago." He began counting the amount of money, the paper almost falling apart between his bulky fingers. "You'd be surprised how many caps people give for these sometimes."
"Yes, actually, I would be."
They quickly checked the other two, small rooms, but there was nothing worth any attention, even Michael's. While he focused on looking past the barricade on the staircase, and maybe even thought about wrecking it, Amber walked over to the boarded up window. It had been smashed to pieces before, as thick glass covered the floor underneath it. She leaned closer to the boards, peeking through the cracks, but quickly took a step back.
"Guys." She muttered. "You have to see this. There's a lot more to this place."
Ruth left an empty first-aid kit she'd found and both her and Michael joined the redhead at the window. For a moment she wasn't sure what it was that she was looking at, but then her eyes widened. Through the spaces between the boards they saw another hangar, illuminated slightly by huge, albeit dirty windows on the ceiling and sides of the building. Same as in the other half of the production hall, there was a lot of machinery, boxes, and some junk surrounding the two huge containers. What was strikingly odd about this place, however, was a radiant, dark-green substance filling one of the vats to the brim. It gave the hall a very slight, lime hue. The other tank was closed.
"What the fuck is that?" Ruth squinted her eyes to focus on the liquid, but it was hard to see much detail from here.
"I have no idea, but it's definitely not a new flavor." Amber scoffed. "What do we do about that? Looks like it might be irradiated or something."
"We could check it out, but I'm not-" The blue-haired woman began, but was interrupted by Michael pulling aside one of the desks blocking the way to the catwalk, making a lot of noise in the process.
"Well, what are we waiting for?" He stopped and asked when both women looked at him critically. "We'd already made it through two freaks of nature, we can deal with some green goop just fine."
"But we don't even know what it is!" Ruth hissed, motioning towards the hangar.
"Yet you were the ones to open up the doors and set a mutant free! We can at least look from above, right?" Michael ignored her stern gaze and kept moving the furniture to the side. He was seriously getting on her nerves.
"Fine, but you're on your own if you accidentally trip and fall down there." She shook her head and took a step back just as he finished clearing the way.
"So? Ladies first?" He gave them a half smile, looking satisfied with his work.
Ruth looked to the redhead for an opinion, but Amber just rolled her eyes and walked through the now open doorway. The passage was narrow and the metal construction groaned under her weight as she stepped onto it.
"You were supposed to stay back, remember?" She said in a hushed tone, peeking into the hangar after the other woman.
"I'll be fine, but I think we should take it slow." Amber turned towards her. "This might collapse if we all go at the same time."
The metal passage led straight across the hall and spread in both directions, left and right. Turning left it disappeared into the other similar room they'd seen before, but the right offshoot circled the area and led to a stairway to a lower level of the catwalk. Amber took careful steps forward, looking around, her shotgun in front of her. Directly below were three huge, metal cargo containers lined along the wall. She saw two generators in the corner, several thick cables running from them to a platform in the middle of the room where two tanks were standing silently. There were numerous pipes coming from that platform which extended left and right, only to disappear in the walls. She focused on the odd, green substance. It was covered with a thick layer of some dark matter, but the radiant color pierced through it and illuminated the area ever so slightly. Amber wondered how it was even possible that the sweetest remnant of the old world could turn into such a disgusting-looking sludge. She felt the metal construction shake slightly. Ruth stepped down the stairs a small distance behind her, looking around cautiously. Aside from the glowing strange liquid, something else drew the redhead's attention. Upon looking down, she noticed a few shapes scattered on the floor and around the tanks. At first they seemed like bags of garbage with something leaking from them, but the shapes were all too familiar.
"Bodies." She commented, loud enough for her partner to hear.
"Yeah, I see. So that's why it reeks here." Ruth replied in a hushed tone, taking careful steps. She leaned a bit over the bent rail to take a look.
"Be careful, or you'll end up on the bottom faster than you want."
The catwalk shook again suddenly, groaning loudly as yet more weight was put on it. Both women looked behind them after regaining their footing.
"Careful, would you!" Amber hissed as Michael stepped down the path. He slowed down and gave them a sheepish smile, recollecting himself.
The trio walked past a piece of rusted machinery mounted above the tanks and made it down the partly damaged, dirty stairs, soon reaching the ground level. To their left there was a set of metal cabinets alongside the wall. A conveyor belt surrounded by boxes ready to be shipped ran across the hall and disappeared into a collapsed opening in the far wall. In front of them was an entrance leading to the lower story of the building, blocked with heavy metal crates. To their right was a metal platform with several consoles, most likely used to control production processes in the huge tanks. Michael rushed to look through the cabinets, while both women stopped to investigate the first corpse. It was a dried, partially mummified husk of a human body covered in simple rags.
"A scavenger?" Ruth asked, poking the leftover clothes that covered the body.
"I guess." Amber carefully opened a leather bag filled with pieces of old machinery. "Whoever they were, they didn't have any real armor and the clothes don't seem to have any gang markings."
"It's hard to say how... she died." Her companion corrected herself after closer investigation of the corpse. "There are multiple dislocations and broken bones. It's like something really big hit her or she fell from above." Ruth looked up, standing directly under one of the catwalks. "Maybe from there?"
"Maybe..." Amber squinted her eyes. The minimum light shining through the extremely dirty, glass ceiling still managed to almost blind her for a second. The railing of the pathway looked very uneven from down here. She looked around and her attention was caught by something else. A large, dried corpse, little more than a skeleton covered in thick, dried shell that used to be its skin, was lying on the floor with its upper body braced against one of the crates. There was very little clothing on it and most of that was made out of heavy metal plates and some padding underneath. "Is this what I think it is?" She approached it cautiously.
"Huh. Looks like the thing that attacked us upstairs, only... less squishy now." Ruth commented, joining her.
Even after being thoroughly dried and mummified by the searing desert air, the creature's size was impressive. Its outstretched arm was easily bigger than Amber's whole leg. The bones were still human, as far as she could tell, though larger and their surface porous, with weird deformations here and there. Next to the corpse was a large, faded bag with warning labels printed on it. It was open and empty, but they could see eight individual spaces inside, separated by thick padding into two rows of four. Each space was additionally padded and shaped into hollow cylinders.
"It doesn't make sense, though. Looks like it's been dead for years and its armor looks nothing like the patterned one." The redhead frowned.
"More like decades, maybe even longer, but it's impossible to tell." Ruth nodded.
"If Michael was right and those are super mutants, then this guy might be here since... well..." She paused, as if trying to think of the correct date. "Since really long ago."
Their further investigation was interrupted by urgent shouts from the other side of the large vat, followed by a few gunshots. "Girls! I need your assistance here!"
Both women rushed towards him, weapons in hand, but what they saw made them stop in their tracks. Hidden under a low-hanging catwalk was a pile of corpses, both animal and human. Most of them were little more than bones, but there were few relatively fresh ones. That wasn't, however, what caught their attention. A grotesque creature similar to the one they confronted after entering the factory crawled from between those fresh bodies, hissing and swaying as it descended from its nest.
Michael continued to shoot at it, hidden behind one of the crates and to his credit few of his mostly erratic shots found their target. The centaur seemed unfazed. Ruth fired a few times from her pistol, hitting the creature's meaty body, and ducked behind another crate. Amber just dashed towards the monster, firing her shotgun into the creature's chest. Bits of bloody flesh were blasted off by the deadly shards of lead and the centaur hissed at her furiously. Its cheeks and neck bulged, filling with the deadly, corrosive substance, but rather than dodging, Amber rushed even closer to an almost point-blank range and fired again, aiming the muzzle of her weapon at the creature's throat. The centaur reared up on its multiple, twisted hands, spraying its blood and acid spit. Its hissing turned into muffled gargling as the corrosive fluid leaked deeper into its body. The redhead ducked, trying to shield herself from the deadly droplets, but a few still landed on her clothes, burning small holes in the fabric.
Ruth immediately rushed towards the wounded monster and emptied her magazine into its skull. It gave a last gargling hiss and collapsed right next to the curled Amber. Seeing it was down, the redhead quickly stood up again and shook her hands, trying to get rid of all the remaining liquid.
"That was insanely fucking stupid!" Ruth turned to her, frowning deeply. "It could've burned off your face!"
"Yes, it was." Amber replied with a shrug, only slightly shaken. "But it worked, hah!"
"What were you even... ugh. You okay?" Her companion added after a moment, letting out a sigh.
"Yeah, I'm fine. But I just bought this shirt." The redhead pouted.
They both looked around, making sure there weren't any more monsters lurking in the dark corners of the hall, but they found nothing. The whole place became silent again, with only the echo of their steps jumping back and forth between the walls. In the meantime, Michel approached the pile of corpses, putting a slightly oversized air filter mask on his face.
"Hey, Blue!" He called out, waving at Ruth. "Any friend of yours?" He pulled one of the bodies from the top of the pile and allowed it to slide down to the ground. The women looked surprised and disgusted at a disemboweled corpse of a woman with deep blue hair, although slightly longer than Ruth's. Her arms and legs were clearly broken and dislocated, but still attached to the rest of her body. The same could not be said about her torso. Everything between her ribcage and pelvis was missing and her body was held together by the spine and a few strips of skin and muscles. Her face was covered in blood, but mostly intact with only her jaw swollen and probably dislocated as well. Her mouth was wide open, her faded eyes rolled to the back of her head. Her expression seemed frozen in the pure pain and horror. Somehow despite the large portion of her torso missing, her chest piece and one shoulder part were still attached to her body. It was the same type of armor they had encountered before, with swirling, painted patterns all over the surface.
Amber stumbled back, horrified and nauseous, while Ruth, covering her mouth and nose with a piece of cloth she wore around her neck, came up closer to examine the corpse.
"This is weird." She muttered, using the tip of her gun to move a shred of clothing away from the exposed ribcage.
At first it seemed as if her stomach and everything around it was simply torn out. The whole corpse was covered in dried blood, but as she leaned closer, she noticed deep grooves marking the remaining flesh and what looked like scratches engraved along the bones of the pelvis. The bowels remaining under her ribs were squashed in an odd way, packed together tightly, although now shrunken due to drying and first stages of decomposition. Ruth then looked at the woman's face, a mixture of sympathy and horror overcame her. The corners of the corpse's mouth were ripped. She took a step back as the smell hit her through the cloth.
"Teeth." The cloth hung loose around her neck and she took a deep breath. "Her insides are covered in teeth markings." She said and looked away from the cadaver, fighting an urge to throw up.
"So what you're saying is..." Michael said, observing the whole scene from a safe distance. "Something ate her from inside out?" Ruth nodded hesitantly. "But you didn't say if you knew her or not."
"No, I didn't." Her tone quickly turned to annoyance. "Not all blue-haired people know each other."
"I was just thinking." He continued with a shrug. "Maybe you were buying your hair dye or something from the same people?"
"I make my own dye." Ruth barked back, shooting him an angry glare before turning away from him. "We should get out of here."
Clueless of her anger, the man just shrugged.
Amber stopped paying attention to their exchange. Walking around the tank she found the second shoulder piece from the dead woman's armor as well as a rifle with a familiar wavy pattern carved into its barrel. Leather straps on the piece of armor were snapped and the metal itself was bent and twisted by some enormous force. She picked up the weapon. It was empty, but in a remarkably good shape. She hung it on her back and continuing her investigation, she came across a metal cylinder lying on the floor right next to the tank. Judging by the layer of dust and sand it must have been there for a while. Amber picked it up and examined it. The mysterious cylinder was slightly rusted and there was a paper label placed across it, torn into two misaligned halves, with a groove in the middle where two apparent halves met. "F.E.V." She spoke the only readable signs on the faded, damaged paper, and braced against both sides of the cylinder trying to open it. The metal resisted her attempts and she groaned with frustration, hitting it against the thick walls of the metal tank.
"Amber?" Ruth asked from within the room, alarmed by the loud sounds. "Please tell me it was you."
"Yeah, I'm just trying to open this damn thing." The redhead tried again, grabbing both ends of the metal cylinder and twisting it with all her strength. Her knuckles turned white from the strain, but finally her efforts were rewarded and the halves turned. Ruth and Michael joined her moments later, looking curiously at the now opened container.
"Huh." The inside was made out of glass and was covered with tiny amounts of green residue. "It's empty." She said, disappointed, and closed it back. "Do you want it?" She turned towards Michael.
The man shrugged and stuffed the cylinder into his bag.
"So what else did you learn from the corpse?" Amber asked.
"Not too much." Michael said. "She didn't want to talk."
Both women rolled their eyes and Amber turned back towards the tank.
"I've never seen anything like this, and I think we should leave. Now." Ruth looked around nervously. "Something mangled her body and my best bet is that it ate her alive from the inside. Don't ask me how or why, I don't even want to think about it."
"How... how did it get inside her?" The redhead asked, scanning their surroundings.
"I said don't ask." The other woman replied as they both started walking towards the stairs. "Something dislocated her jaw, so my guess is it was that way..." She added and stopped, noticing something in the shadows between metal supports.
"And here I thought it's safe for a girl to swallow..." Michael began, but was immediately silenced by the barrel of Ruth's pistol inches away from his nose. He stumbled back, frowning, but then turned to the tanks as well, seeing both women freeze with their guns up. Focused on one dark spot under the huge containers, heartbeats began to feel like hours as they observed something moving slowly in the dark. There was no sound, not even breathing as everyone held their breaths. Then, in an instant, a green shape jumped out of the shadows and two gunshots echoed through the factory. A creature no bigger than a small dog flew past them, carried by the momentum of its jump, and crushed into the second tank behind them, before collapsing onto the concrete floor.
"What the fuck is this?" Michael exclaimed looking at the seemingly shapeless pile of thorns and tentacles still swirling around as its muscles twitched. The creature appeared to have a beak and few sets of small eyes as well as several crab-like legs. Parts of it were covered in small bone-like plates, while the rest of its body was leathery and almost translucent. All across its body were small boney hooks and spikes. Ruth approached the now dead creature and crouched next to it. The smell of sweet, fermented Nuka Cola and blood immediately reminded her of the weird super mutant, but before she could share her thoughts the whole factory shook and a deep rumbling roar reverberated through every pipe and piece of machinery around them.
"What the fuck was that?!" The man almost shouted as they frantically looked around to find the source of the sound. The dark, swirling surface of the rotten liquid in the tank behind them exploded as a forest of thin, vine-like tentacles shot up from within and launched straight towards them.