Chapter 10: Demons we face
A horrified scream reached every dusty corner of the factory and escaped through the hollow windows, echoing just like many others have before. Amber dashed to the side, narrowly avoiding the first few tentacles, but the torrent of thin, meaty limbs did not stop. She leapt over a rusted pipe to escape, but the tentacles reached her moments later. The slimy mass hit her back, pushed her to the ground, and immediately began wrapping itself around her body. She screamed again and tried to free herself out of the monster's clutches, but her efforts were fruitless. The mass of thin, swirling limbs tensed and tore her off the ground. There was a sharp change of direction, the world spun and blurred before her. She closed her eyes. Nauseous. Trapped. Her arms were tightly pressed to her sides, with no freedom of movement. Some of the thin tendril-like limbs stretched across her body, wrapping around both her legs. Few others shifted like snakes, moving and tightening around her chest and neck as she fought for every breath.
"Get it off! Get it off, get it off of me!" The redhead shouted frantically, forcing every muscle in her body to fight against the monster.
The swinging motion stopped abruptly, and she dared to crack her eyes open. The first thing she noticed was the glass ceiling, but it was far closer than mere moments ago. She found herself hovering above the floor and metal catwalks, held by numerous vine-like tentacles that wrapped around each other, resembling a trunk of a grotesque, slimy, pulsating tree. The tree was rooted in a putrid soup contained in the vat beneath her. What she previously assumed was the surface, was in reality a thin, gelatinous membrane, which disintegrated, torn apart by the body of this... thing. She felt her stomach tighten when the true stench of the rotten, slimy liquid hit her nostrils. Below, Amber's companions were staring up at her, mortified.
"Fucking hell, guys! Kill this thing already!" The fear-clenched throat changed her tone to a higher pitch.
Michael was the first to take action. A few gunshots echoed in the room, some hitting the pulsating "stem", some ricocheting off of the walls. One shattered the remaining glass of one of the ceiling windows.
"What the hell are you doing?!" Ruth shouted. The man next to her aimed his pistol and fired again. "You can accidentally shoot her! You know that, right?!"
"Don't worry, babe, I know my guns!" He pulled the trigger repeatedly, emptying his magazine. The lumpy, green mass of flesh shuddered. A deep, booming roar echoed through metal pipes and the whole floor shook slightly, as if the entire factory twitched in pain. Another arm hauled out from the slime, turned towards them and fell over the edge of the vat, slamming into the ground where they both stood moments ago.
Amber held her breath when the fleshy pillar swayed. She looked down into the swirling liquid of the tank. The substance appeared slightly translucent, revealing a dark shape hidden within. A cold shiver ran down her spine when she realized the size of the creature. It filled the entire bottom of the tank. A forest of its tentacles was whirling just underneath the surface. Every few moments, another tendril emerged from the vile liquid to wrap itself around her body, or to attack her companions on the ground. Some of those arms appeared to have small eyes hidden in slits. They appeared almost human, moving around rapidly and blinking. Something else floated up in the whirlpool. A flat beak like that of an octopus broke the surface and snapped at her, hungry for another meal, before it submerged again. The swirling, slimy liquid distorted the image, so Amber could only imagine how big the monster really was. She felt lightheaded and sick, but the creature gave her no rest, tossing her around like a ragdoll.
Ruth sprang to her feet and avoided another swing of the monster's arm. Unlike the smaller, thinner tendrils wrapped around Amber, this one was covered in thick, leathery scales, thorns, and bone-like hooks. One of the pipes next to her was reduced to rusty shards when the creature missed her. Michael ducked with a high-pitched scream and jumped behind a bank of valves under the support structure of the vat. The thick arm rose again to swing at the woman, but Ruth grabbed her knife and slashed across it when it came closer. The blade cut deep into the leathery body, leaving a gushing wound. The floor under her feet shook and the appendage retracted, disappearing back into the tank.
"Incoming!" She heard Mike's voice as he lunged from his protective cover and threw something towards the huge tank. The object never reached its destination, as it was deflected by one of the small vine-like tentacles. It flew across the hall and fell into a stack of wooden crates. Seeing that, Ruth dashed towards Michel, grabbed his shirt, and pushed him back behind the cover of thick metal pipes as the hale of glass shards and wooden splinters swept across the room. They popped and pinged off of the rust-covered pipes like heavy rain, drowning out all other sound. When it stopped, between the sounds of the slushing of the liquid, she could hear Amber's choking gasps for air.
Ruth peeked from behind their cover and saw that a few of the small fragments embedded themselves into the tangled trunk. The fleshy pillar swung repeatedly, relaxing its grasps as several wounded threads retracted beneath the surface. Somehow, with the limbs loosened, Amber managed to pull her left arm out of the slimy hug. She watched helplessly as the woman braced herself against her fleshy bondage to reach for the pistol on her hip, but before she managed to as much as touch it, the creature reminded itself of its prey and tightened the grip on her. A vine quickly grabbed her wrist and pulled it back to her body, securing it tightly against her back. Amber groaned in pain and anger.
"Shit shit shit!" Ruth was biting her lip, trying to think of some way to tackle the monster. Guns only infuriated it and there were too many eyes to miraculously miss the incoming explosive. Maybe if she got closer...
She only then noticed a heavy, metal device of some sort hanging right above the vat.
"Guys!" She heard Amber's panicked, muffled voice. "Could you hurry the fuck up and get me down from here?! Seriously!" Slimy little fingers began to wrap themselves around her neck and face, drowning her words. Ruth's eyes widened at her partner being slowly converted into a cocoon and the adrenaline kicked in. Without a word she snatched Michael's pouch with grenades.
"Wha-" He was immediately silenced by Ruth's steel-eyed glare. She left him under a groaning metal construction and mounted the stairs, grenades clutched tightly in both hands. Depending on her luck, it was either the monster going down, or her. Her boots rang against the metal steps as she thundered up, as fast as her legs could carry her.
She saw it coming out of the corner of her eye. A misshapen limb crashed down in front of her with such force that the stairs bent beneath the impact, metal groaning under the strain. Ruth clutched at the rail with her arms, holding her chest tight against it to avoid being tossed over the edge. Her fingers wrapped around the explosives in her hands. The tentacle withdrew, raising for another strike. She sprinted. The limb fell again. She jumped, almost certain she'd feel the leathery flesh slam into her. There was a crash right behind her when she landed on the ruined portion of the stairs. It missed! Ruth managed to reach the upper catwalk just as the stairs ripped off of the rest of the structure. The rusted bars crumbled like paper and made a terrible noise as they hit the ground.
"Shit." She looked down for a moment and then back at the terrified Amber. Most of the redhead's body was now encased in the thick layer of swirling tentacles. Her shape was barely recognizable with only the head and legs still poking out of the mass. She could see the horror on Amber's face as her mouth was forced open by the nasty tendrils, stretching her lips and wiggling their way inside her. The woman's body convulsed, trying to expel the invasion, but it didn't look like it had any effect.
The path to the machinery was simple enough. All that was needed was to run along the pathway she was on and turn left to a catwalk leading straight to the device. She rushed towards it as two thick, leathery arms hit the road ahead. Trying to steady herself she took a moment to examine the device. It looked like a motor or a pump with remnants of hoses in several places. It had a few protruding pipes or shafts at the bottom and was attached to a suspended railway going over and across the tank. She pulled the pin out and tossed a grenade towards the scaffolding holding the machine. It bounced off one of the beams supporting the rail and continued to fall down, exploding a few meters below its intended target. She curled up on the catwalk as deadly shrapnel from the grenade filled the air. Few shards must have hit the monster, because the factory immediately shook in its foundations and the thick arms which previously attempted to smack her off the path now began to wrap themselves around it from both sides, cutting off her escape route. The metal construction groaned under the weight and one by one, the supports holding it in place began to break. Her time ran out. As the whole construction was disintegrating under her feet, she took the only possible way out. Ruth braced herself and jumped across the chasm separating her from the device. Her body slammed against the machine and the whole scaffolding began to rock like a two century old swing. She barely managed to grab it and was now clinging to the thing for her dear life. The remaining part of the catwalk collapsed to the floor in a few messy chunks of twisted metal and two massive tentacles returned their attention back to her. She took a deep breath, trying to calm herself down in preparation for what she was about to do.
"Hold on there!" Ruth shouted, hoping Amber could still hear her, then placed the other grenade securely between two metal bars. She took out the pin and held the safety lever. As soon as she felt something grab her by the leg, Ruth released the lever and kicked herself away from the hanging platform and into the embrace of one of the limbs. It immediately coiled around her like a huge snake, squeezing the air out of her lungs. Seconds dragged into eternity as she waited, feeling the slimy arm wrapping her tightly. She closed her eyes, trying to twist her body away from the device.
The explosion was louder than she expected. The shockwave blasted her and the tendril around her, sending them swaying away. When the boom quieted down, she looked up to see the device still attached to the rail. Her heart sank. Amber was now completely covered in vines, numerous eyes gazing down at her almost mockingly. Ruth began to panic as she found it almost impossible to move or breathe, and the damn machinery was still hanging there, unfazed.
There was a loud screeching sound, as if of metal tearing apart. The machine moved. The limbs kept dragging her down, closer and closer to the slimy surface. Something stirred in the tank and there was a low grunt coming from underwater. Suddenly, the rail gave up and the huge mass of metal dropped. It missed her by mere inches, she could feel the wind on her face as it passed her and fell into the tank. The green water splashed everywhere and the arms tensed, almost crushing her ribs. The creature's tendrils squirmed and flung outwards, twisting uncontrollably. It tried to free itself, tossing its arms frantically. More leathery limbs emerged from the tank, wrapping around the metal device, lifting it slowly. Ruth was tossed from left to right, but she felt the tentacle's grip loosen. She took a deep breath and reached for the last grenade attached to her belt. She managed to unpin it and drop it into the surrounding chaos of tentacles and bubbling slime as she passed over the tank. It disappeared in the goo just next to the partially submerged machine.
A moment later, with a loud THUMP, a huge fountain of slime, flesh, and metal erupted from beneath the surface. Tentacles holding both women tensed one last time before going limp. Carried by their momentum, the hideous arms and other tendrils slumped onto the concrete floor. The tank itself cracked in multiple places and streams of the liquid contained inside started to spill out rapidly.
Ruth quickly unwrapped herself from the heavy body of the monster and crawled away from it, gasping for air, her heart beating hard inside her aching chest. She took a brief moment to steady her vision and her legs before limping to the other side of the container. To her horror, she saw Amber still covered in the now unmoving cocoon of Nuka Cola meat. She kneeled next to her and began cutting the slimy vines away. Michael joined them moments later, drying his face from the slime that had to hit him when the vat collapsed.
"Quick, quick, we have to get her out before she suffocates!" Ruth cursed as they both frantically carved the redhead out of the mass of twitching vines. She had to gently pull tiny tentacles from her partner's mouth and nose. Several long, tense seconds later, they managed to free her upper body and pull her out. The rest of the tendrils wrapped around her arms, legs, or attached to her clothes were swiftly removed with a blade. Amber was lying flat on the concrete, unconscious, covered in bruises and slime.
"She's not breathing?" Michael leaned down, checking whether the woman's chest was rising. It wasn't.
"No." Ruth tilted the woman's head and opened her mouth, discovering a piece of a tentacle sitting in her throat. She carefully took it out to Michael's clear disgust, but it didn't help. She sighed, then took a deep breath and pressed her lips to Amber's. Her chest inflated slightly. She repeated, then folded her trembling hands and set her palms on the woman's chest.
Amber's entire body tensed. Ruth jumped back as the redhead coughed out a mixture of slime and blood. She turned to the side and heaved, expelling even more slime and pieces of tendrils out of her stomach. She took a few painful gasps, coughing and spitting out the vile mixture. Her companions helped her up and carried her away from the leaking vat and its putrid content. Michael laid her flat on the ground in the corner of the room while Ruth pulled her bag from underneath the crushed metal pipes and quickly gathered all their discarded weapons lying on the floor. Amber's breaths were quick and shallow, her eyes darting from one side to the other. She tried to say something, but her eyes watered in pain and it only caused her to cough more.
"Don't talk, it'll only make things worse. You're safe now." Ruth took something out of her bag and came over to them with a Med-X in her hand. She injected it into Amber's arm. "Amber, the monster is gone, you hear me?" She searched for any open wounds on her body, but thankfully she found nothing besides small cuts and bruises from the strain. She unbuckled her belts and made sure nothing was restraining her anymore, then draped a blanket over the trembling woman, not taking her eyes off of her.
Finally, the redhead grew still enough to speak. Her voice came out raspy and frail, as though she'd been screaming for days and every dry word came to her lips with visible pain. "Get me out of here." She begged, tears streaming down her cheeks.
"We will, we will." Ruth squeezed her shoulder before turning to Michael. "See if those doors are open, it could be a way out. And be quick."
"Yeah, I'll get us out. You monitor her, or something." He said and left towards the blocked door.
Amber was clearly in shock, still trembling with fear painted across her face. The drug was already working, numbing the pain, but it did little to calm down her upset, probably wounded insides. Ruth elevated her legs slightly for comfort and sat right next to her, repeating it'd be okay, her hands reassuringly resting on her companion's shoulders. She watched as Mike pulled away metal crates and other obstacles blocking their way out. With the catwalks destroyed, that path was their best option to get out of here. It took him quite a few minutes, and in the meantime, Amber's shaking died down and disappeared almost completely. Her breathing, although still raspy, grew steady.
There was a loud metallic noise as the thick metal doors cracked open. "Ah-ha!" Michael threw his hands above his head in triumph. "Got it!"
She helped her get up and walk towards the passage. Hesitant at first, with a bit of assistance she attempted to shrug off, Amber was soon able to walk on her own. She was marching through the ruined halls moments later, barely even looking around.
The evening breeze washed over them as they left the crumbling factory, now completely silent and hollow.
"I think we should camp here." Michael pointed at the sun, hanging low above the horizon. "It will be dark soon and you know, dark is bad."
"No." Amber shuddered. Her body felt numb from the drug, but it kept her standing. No amount of numbing would make the feeling of the many slimy tendrils crawling along her body go away. "We are not staying here any minute longer." It took a lot of effort for her to speak.
"Right." Ruth nodded. "We passed by a ruined settlement on our way here. It's not far and it looked deserted. We could stay there for a night."
"As long as she's able to walk, fine." Michael shrugged. "Just don't tell me that I didn't warn you if a pack of nightstalkers bites us in the ass."
"That's why we'll take shifts at night. Me and you. And before you ask, no, not at the same time." Ruth smiled at him when he rolled his eyes.
"Let's go." Amber hurried them and wrapped herself tighter in the blanket.
The evening was slowly falling and the first chilly breeze ruffled their hair as the trio left the factory behind. They didn't have to walk for long till they reached the familiar, bare walls of pre-war buildings. The place was already shrouded in darkness when they arrived. Partially buried, the ruins were little more than crumbling stumps poking out of the ground, but they offered enough protection to hunker down. The wasteland seemed unnaturally quiet. The yelping of coyotes, howls of wild dogs, distant sounds of shootings or tingling bells of brahmins led in caravans were the usual background noise of the desert. That night they encountered only a few tiny critters roaming around, a pair of geckos hissing at them as they scurried away, scared by their arrival, and the never ending jabbering of Michael.
With little time before the total darkness of the desert night set in, they chose the first remnant of a building they found with three still standing walls and a bit of the roof. It was little more than a shell with all the internal walls disintegrated by time and the surrounding desert, but it was enough.
Amber collapsed in a corner of the dusty walls and curled up into a ball almost immediately after their arrival. Her body simply refused to move once she sat down and her mind, no longer occupied by the need to find shelter, flooded her with thoughts she desperately tried to avoid. Both women didn't have time to clean themselves after the fight. The slime soaked into their clothes and quickly dried in the desert heat, turning into a stiff shell. As soon as they stopped, the smell became unbearable.
Ruth quickly started a small fire and sent Michael to find something to fuel it. She took off her bag and unstrapped all of her pouches and belts, leaving it on a stinky pile in the opposite corner.
"We have to get you out of those dirty clothes." She kneeled next to her partner. "Let me help."
The redhead jumped when she felt the other woman's touch. She smacked Ruth's hand away before even realizing it.
"I... I'm sorry." She muttered apologetically, looking up at her surprised companion. "I'll change on my own..."
"Are you sure you-" The smaller woman began carefully, but Amber shook her head.
"No... please, let me." Amber dragged herself up. Ruth took a few steps away and turned to tend to the fire. Unbuttoning her shirt, the redhead watched her partner from the side, only so that she wouldn't focus on her own filthy clothes, though Ruth's uniform was no better. It was covered in thick stains where the limbs held her, and she saw a tear on her side. She unzipped the upper part of the uniform down to her waist, revealing a grey, fitting tank top underneath, and wrapped the long sleeves around her hips. She could now clearly see the lighter patches of skin across her arms, irregular, reaching her hands and neck. Amber turned around and took off her shirt and trousers. Standing almost naked in her pants only she briefly glanced back at her partner who was now busy going through the content of her bag. The cloth wrapped around Amber's chest came loose and she tossed it to the side, disgusted. The feeling of tiny, slimy tendrils sliding across her skin, trying to find their way under every fold of fabric haunted her. She closed her eyes and swallowed a sob taking a few deep breaths and reminding herself that there was nothing forcing its way down her throat anymore. Kneeling down, she reached for her backpack. She put on a tank top and wrapped herself in the blanket again. Not having any spare trousers she checked the ones she took off. Fortunately, the thick material held and the damage was contained to a few torn belt loops and one torn pocket. Her shirt on the other hand was in a much worse condition. It was stiff with dried up slime, half of the buttons were missing, and one sleeve was almost completely torn apart. She grabbed it in disgust, turned around, and tossed it into the fire. It immediately burst into greenish flames, lightning up their entire hideout for a few seconds.
"You okay?" She heard Ruth's voice, startled by the sudden light.
"I'll live." Amber muttered sitting down next to the fire. "What about you?"
"Glad we left that place. I've never seen anything like it, and I don't think I will ever again, which is a good thing." She took her bag and sat next to her. "I need to give you something for radiation. Who knows how bad it actually was back there. We should really invest in a geiger at some point."
"I'll take radiation poisoning over..." The redhead paused to steady her voice. "... whatever that thing was. Even if it means barfing my guts out."
"Oh, believe me, you don't want any of that." Ruth said with conviction. "But don't worry, we'll get you fixed. I have just the right things for that." She took out a few small packages, labelled carefully with names of things Amber didn't recognize or couldn't read in the dim light. She observed as the other woman mixed a few powders and dried herbs in a small can, then added some orange liquid to it. She didn't care about the recipe and just observed Ruth's nimble hands carefully measure and mix her concoction, the ritual somehow calming to watch.
"You saved me again." The redhead said, lowering her head. "Thank you."
"There's no one else to protect us out here but ourselves." She said, not looking away from her work. "And, Stevens is expecting me to keep this team going, no matter what."
The redhead nodded silently and turned her gaze towards the fire.
"Besides... I'm starting to get used to your bullshit." Her tone softened. "It would be a waste to lose you back there. Sorry I didn't manage to get you out earlier." Ruth handed her the can with the weird concoction. "Now drink up, all of it."
The substance didn't look particularly inviting, but it was better than anything she'd seen that day. Amber grabbed the can and took a sip. Her throat burned and swallowing was beyond unpleasant. The liquid was so bitter her tongue went numb after the first sip. She coughed and set the can down, looking at it with disgust.
"It'll make you better, I promise." Ruth poked the burning pieces of wood with a metal rod retrieved from the ruins.
"It's worse than the booze from back at the base." The redhead complained, watching some sparks fly up into the air, then grabbed the makeshift cup again and downed the rest of the drink in one gulp. Her whole body tensed in response and her sight blurred as tears ran down her cheeks, but she suppressed the coughing fit and took a deep breath.
Ruth couldn't stop a giggle as she watched Amber's face twist uncontrollably. "Wow, you really just did that." She took the can away from her patient. "I know how bad this tastes. I had to drink it several times when I was a lot younger, but I'd never drink it as fast as you did. It does work wonders if you want to recover fast."
Amber only nodded, calming herself down as warmth spread inside her. They both sat quietly for some time, listening to distant noises of Michael gathering fuel for the fire. She took another deep breath, her mind troubled by different thoughts, other than just those of taking disgusting medicine.
"Look... Dancer. I'm sorry for ever doubting you. Honestly, I am." She avoided her gaze, looking down at the fire, searching for the right expression for what she wanted to say, but she couldn't figure out her own emotions.
"Please don't use that nickname again. Name's enough." Ruth replied a little too quickly, before going silent for a longer moment. "And... Don't beat yourself up over what's happened before." She finally said, then placed her hand over the redhead's knee, making her look up. "We both messed up recently, but we have to get past that if we want to work together. I trust you can do that."
"I know, but... This was so stupid on my part, and-"
Amber's words were cut short by Michael, who stumbled into the camp, carrying a stack of wooden beams and several pieces of furniture.
"I think this should last till morning." He dropped the pile next to them with a wide smile. "You're welcome, ladies."
Ruth quickly turned her attention towards him and Amber squeezed the blanket tighter around herself. "Thanks, big guy. Come on, sit with us, we all deserve some rest. We need to get to the Refinery tomorrow if we want to buy some supplies, and we definitely have to wash that stink off." She wrinkled her nose.
"You didn't seem to have a problem with that when you kissed her." Michael shrugged, smiling mischievously.
Amber frowned and her gaze immediately shifted to the other woman, whose whole self seemed to tense up.
"That was a necessary, basic CPR procedure, you idiot." She gave him a death stare. "I'm a medic, we do gross shit sometimes."
Michael just snickered, unfazed by her threatening gaze.
"Did you just say that kissing me was gross?" Amber asked with a fake hurt in her voice, but couldn't hold back a giggle.
"No- I mean, yes, I mean, you were all..." She paused, before sighing in defeat and shifting her attention entirely to the contents of her bag. "Give me a break."
Still grinning, the man unstrapped his armor, tossing the pieces carelessly to the side. "I wanna rest, but I have to try on my new armor first. I've been carrying it all day now!"
"Wait. Do you seriously want to walk around in this?" Amber raised an eyebrow at him, glancing at the pile of metal in the corner. "You do know there may be gang markings on it, right?"
"Yeah, pretty, aren't they?" He replied, kneeling next to his new armor and unwrapping the straps holding it together.
"They may be pretty, but someone might think you're a member of that gang and attack you, or something."
"Girls..." Michael turned to face them, putting on the heavy chestplate, which appeared to be slightly too big for him. "We just defeated a huge monster and its mutated minions! Why should we be afraid of common robbers?"
"We? You-" Ruth clearly had enough of him, but Amber nudged her partner, stopping her.
"Seeing how we were supposed to get a share in this adventure," she motioned at his new shiny chestplate, "I think it's fair to say that half of this armor is ours."
"Yeah, but..." He started, instinctively embracing a shoulder piece he was holding. "It's a set, right, we can't divide it."
"So I think you won't be needing your old, damaged armor, then?" She asked, her green eyes appeared to glow in the flickering light.
"Well..." He paused for a moment. "I thought I'd sell it in the big base down south, but if you want it..."
"Besides, we did most of the fighting." Ruth added with a mocking smile. "And as we said when we first met, we're mercenaries. I say that counts as bodyguarding."
"That's not how I remember it!" Michael protested. "Besides, you used all of my grenades!"
"We also fired a lot of ammo and I lost my armor." The redhead argued. "And you stuffed your bags with all sorts of junk."
"Alright, alright, 150 caps and the old set is yours." He said, rolling his eyes.
"That's how much a new, undamaged one would cost in New Vegas!" Amber raised her voice, only to regret it a moment later. She had to cough twice before she could continue. "You're not gonna sell that to anyone for more than a hundred and you still owe us for helping!"
"75, then?" The man was losing his confidence.
"Fifty and we're even." Amber replied in an unsparing tone, taking out a thick leather bag from her backpack.
"Alright, fine." He weighed his options, but finally gave up. "But that's only because you helped with those fights."
Amber got up, still wrapped in her blanket, handed him a hefty pile of caps and began to collect the pieces of armor lying around the fire.
Ruth chuckled at the whole exchange. "Now that we have that settled..." She took out two cans of two-centuries old pork and one with equally old beans. "We deserve a hot meal. Only Old World food on the menu today, but maybe we'll catch something tomorrow."
"Great! I'm starving!" Mike seemed to completely forget about his new armor and quickly sat down next to Amber with a plate and a red, plastic spork.
"Now hold on there." She smiled, opening cans one by one and placing them next to the fire. "This will take some time."
The redhead looked at the contents and felt her stomach twist. She swallowed hard and took a few deep breaths to calm her twitching guts.
"I'm sorry Red, but you'll have to pass on that tonight." Ruth sent her an apologetic smile. "We'll see how you feel tomorrow, but right now you have to go easy on yourself."
"I need a drink." She muttered.
"That's an even better idea!" Michael exclaimed enthusiastically.
"I don't think that's what-" Ruth started, but Amber's glare immediately stopped her mid-sentence. She just sighed and took out a beat-up metal flask. Soon, the contents were poured into two metal cans and one plastic cup.
"Never thought I'd be disgusted by alcohol." The redhead looked sadly into the clear liquid swirling in the metal container.
"I propose a toast." Michael said, lifting his cup. "To us, for surviving this adventure!"
The blue-haired woman gulped a portion of the liquid before realising he was looking at her. "...Was I supposed to wait for something?" She eyed him and then shrugged. "To survival, I guess."
Amber sat motionlessly for a moment longer, contemplating the stomach-clenching smell of alcohol, before raising it to her lips and pouring it down her throat. She coughed when her battered body protested and put down her can next to Ruth. "One more?" She asked quietly.
"No." Was the only response she got, as her partner poured again for herself and Mike.
"Ruth... please, let me have this." Amber looked at her pleadingly.
"No." She frowned at the redhead. "You coughed out blood before, remember? I don't know the extent of your injuries inside and we can't risk having you be strapped to a hospital bed again." She took out another syringe of Med-X from her bag. "If you're really in pain, I can give you this, but I can't allow you to drink more."
The redhead shifted her pained, green eyes from the empty can to the syringe, then back to her can, and finally, with resignation, she lifted her head to meet Ruth's gaze.
"Fine, you win, doctor." She switched the small can to her water canteen.
"I'll get you a whole bottle when you're better."
The two century old content of their cans cooked slowly by the fire and the roughly food-like smell soon started to fill the air. The pre-processed, preserved meat and vegetable substitutes never tasted very good, but this time Amber's aching stomach turned with hunger as she was forced to watch from the side as her companions completed their meal. Her consciousness soon began to fade as her body gave in to the exhaustion, despite the noise in the camp around her. She curled into a ball next to the fire in her sleeping bag, finally giving her body the much needed rest.
"And that's where I saw a group of Brotherhood knights and a paladin!" Mike exclaimed in a slightly raspy, vodka-tired voice. "I knew they were heading towards that NCR camp nearby! I thought, I'd look great in one of those armors they had and I wanted to attack them for a while there. You know, ambush them and take the armor, or two. But I let that one pass." He waved his hand carelessly.
"Someday you will fight an army, I'm sure." Ruth said, not even trying to hide the sarcastic tone. She finished her last drink and put the can aside. The fire was slowly dying out, sustained only by the few remaining pieces of wood.
"I'll take the first shift." She cleared her throat. "Go and lie down for a bit, I'll wake you up when it's your turn." She told him, as she glanced at Amber sleeping calmly next to her.
"Alrighty!" He got up a little dazed, took his stuff and stumbled to the ground under the opposite wall, falling asleep almost immediately.
Ruth gathered their things and rubbish into one corner of the room and threw the bits and pieces of what was left of the flammable material into the fire. It wasn't much and the light would disappear within minutes, but it would keep her companion warm a little longer. She left their hideout and watched the surrounding desert for a while, letting her vision get used to the dark. It was really peaceful, with only the cracking of the fire behind her disrupting the silence. The woman circled the remaining structure with a pistol in her hand, just in case, but returned within the walls soon. There were only embers glowing in the bonfire now, Michael was snoring under the opposite wall, and her partner was still curled up. Ruth sat beside her with the gun in her lap, listening to the slight breeze flying above the ruins. Boredom quickly took over. She sorted the medication in her bag and took out the things she might have to give to Amber in the morning.
Surprised, she also discovered a few pieces of blood-stained papers in her backpack, and only then remembered she recovered them from the corpse of the fallen Nuka mutant. The alcohol haze lifted a little from her mind and she scolded herself mentally for forgetting about it. With her flashlight flickering to life, she carefully separated the folded pieces where the liquid had dried, and looked them over. It was a map. There were several markings on it, and comparing the area to her own map of this land, she recognized the circled locations. One of them indicated the now-decimated Vultures camp, and one she figured must have been the Mountain People's campsite where the other recon team had found the first indication of gang violence. The two circles were crossed out, while the third marked the Nuka Cola plant, uncrossed. Unfortunately, there were no more circles pointing to any future plans of erasing more gangs from existence, or anything else that could tell her where the group must have been headed. What she also understood from the drawn arrows and lines were the marked territory of Camp Imperial and the main patrol routes. Whoever they were, they knew exactly which places to avoid. Curiously, there were also a few poorly drawn bull heads with question marks, placed randomly about the map. Legion patrols, maybe? Ruth turned off her flashlight and folded up the map after finding nothing else of value.
What she found was interesting, but at the same time, it only confirmed what they'd already gathered from previous missions. Still, the discovery unnerved her, to say the least. If that monster had the map, it couldn't have been long since the group arrived at the factory. A couple days at most, counting back to the presumed day of the decimation of the Vultures. Their intel reported nothing about a supermutant in their ranks, the scavengers didn't mention it, either. It must've happened at the factory. In mere days, something caused their man to transform into a raging, bulging mutant, who isolated himself from the horrid squid by barring all the windows and passages. Ruth glanced at the shape of her sleeping companion. There was cold sweat on her back where the mutated, slimy flesh embraced her. She shook her head, trying to block those thoughts away, and locked her gaze onto the sparks flying high into the darkness from the remaining embers of the bonfire. Soon, her mind began to wander, and the exhaustion of the day began to catch up with her as well. Her eyelids were heavier by the minute. It was time to wake up Michael.
There was a gasp from where Amber was sleeping. Ruth turned, listening, fully awake at once. The redhead's breathing was deeper and sharper than before. Ruth went through all the possible injuries she could think of that her friend could be suffering from, growing more and more concerned, the grim thoughts resurfacing again. She got up and kneeled next to her, very gently placing her hand over the woman's forehead. Amber shook her head, muttered something, and moments later her eyes fluttered open. She inhaled sharply and looked around frantically, pulling herself up to a sitting position.
"Shit, sorry! Amber, it's me, it's alright." Ruth panicked a little, too, grabbing her firmly by the shoulders to draw her attention. She calmed down her voice. "It was a nightmare. Just a nightmare, you're fine now."
In the darkness of their camp it took the redhead a few moments to understand what was going on. At first, her body reacted instinctively trying to shake off Ruth's hands, but she stopped as soon as reality caught up to her. She leaned back to look at her, and Amber's eyes focused on her concerned partner for a brief moment.
"Ruth, I..." She whispered. "I... I can't... " Amber's voice cracked and tears rolled down her cheeks. "I was so afraid... " Her eyes closed shut and her whole body shuddered.
Ruth let go of her shoulders and found herself at a loss. She didn't know what to do. Her own mind was all over the place and there was a sobbing woman in front of her; the woman she's seen almost only angry, sarcastic, or conflicted before, when she wasn't physically hurt. This wasn't just pain, this was sorrow she didn't know how to handle.
"Would, uh..." She asked, hesitantly at first, then her voice softened. "Would a hug help?" The redhead didn't respond, seemingly lost in her tears. Ruth pulled her into an embrace, anyway, and fixed her blanket to make sure it was serving its purpose. "No need to be afraid now. You're never going back there, the monster is dead. You're safe." Amber let out a whimper and began sobbing into her shoulder. Even though the woman was much taller and wider than Ruth, she managed to hold her and give her some comfort.
Amber couldn't hold the flood of her emotions anymore. All her fears and nightmares rushed through her mind, reducing her to a sobbing mess curled up in her partner's arms. She didn't care how it looked. She lost the sense of time, drowning herself in tears until she had no more tears to cry.
"I'm sorry..." She said quietly once she calmed down a little and eased her grip on the smaller woman. "I shouldn't have..."
"Don't be. We're all afraid sometimes." Ruth whispered back.
"I didn't... I shouldn't have... " The redhead wiped away her tears, trying to hide her embarrassment. "I never have..."
"Amber, I have no idea what you just went through, and I can't even imagine how bad it must have been, but..." She clearly wanted to make sure Amber felt comfortable, but she just shook her head.
"It's not like that... not only that, I mean." Amber replied, taking a deep breath to steady herself. "That thing, it wanted to... those little vine-things tried to..." Her voice started to shake again.
"You don't have to explain." Ruth assured, but the redhead continued.
"The last time I felt so helpless and violated was when... during that raider attack I told you about." She looked away from her, placing her gaze somewhere beyond the horizon. Ruth listened patiently. "They murdered my parents. I fought them, killed one, managed to take their leader's eye out... but I couldn't stop them all." Amber paused for a moment, took another breath, but her throat seemed to tighten even more. "They pinned me down... If it wasn't for the people of The Farm, they'd...they'd..."
Her whole body shook and she began breathing quickly, wrapping her arms around herself, feeling like the whole world was collapsing around her again as she felt the weight of those memories push her into the ground below. Everything became a little distant and she vaguely registered Ruth pulling her in closer in a protective manner. She was gently caressing her red hair, giving her enough time to calm down before she spoke.
"I didn't realise it was this bad. I'm so sorry this happened to you. You were still just a kid, damn it... No wonder you hate them so much. Who doesn't, anyway." Amber felt anger coming from the other girl's words. Anger that seemed to have come from more than just common knowledge. The memories from their first mission returned to her, the image of that raider, Thorn, who she suspected was once her companion's romantic partner. The person whom Amber killed mercilessly. "I'm so sorry that it's been haunting you for so long."
"I thought I'd gone over it by now." Amber replied quietly. "I was hoping I had, but a lot has happened over the last few weeks."
"Sometimes it takes a long time, and that's ok." Ruth sighed and paused for a brief moment. "Someone once told me that sometimes, the curtain never rises from your eyes. You can peer past it, in time it can become almost translucent, but it's always there, no matter what you do or think. Everyone heals at their own pace and that's ok, as long as you don't let these memories stop you from growing and being you. Most times, you just have to learn to live with them and build yourself with the knowledge they've given you." She paused again. "And from what I've seen so far... You've built yourself strong enough to survive the worst of it, but it's ok to be weak sometimes. There's no shame in that."
They sat in silence for a little while, each reflecting on everything that's happened or could have happened. Amber watched the streaks of smoke escape the handful of ash from their bonfire, seeping away into the air. Ruth tensed for a moment when the sound of distant rattling broke through their thoughts, a pack of nightstalkers immediately coming to mind. Thankfully, it was only a thin silhouette of a rattlesnake that slid through the cold sand in the darkness. Ruth sighed quietly in relief as the shape disappeared behind the walls, just as soon as it appeared.
"I can't justify my actions," Amber brought her attention back, whispering, "but when I saw you with this pendant, I thought I finally found someone responsible for their deaths." She paused for a deep breath. "I thought I finally found someone I could blame more than myself for what happened on that day."
"You know I forgave you that by now, don't you?" Ruth said after a moment.
"Yes, it's just... "
"I understand." She said softly. "I'm glad I could at least give you this little closure." The smaller woman paused for a moment. "Could I, uh... Could I at least hold it? One more time?" She said hesitantly.
Amber nodded and reached for the string around her neck. Thankfully, it was still there, unharmed by what they had gone through that day. Slowly, she pulled the pendant from underneath her top, took it off, and placed it on the other woman's hand. Even in the darkness Ruth could easily recognize its shape, feeling its smooth surface under her fingers. She swallowed a dry lump forming in her throat as both of them locked their gazes on the little piece of jewelry.
"Don't blame yourself." Ruth gently placed the trinket back in Amber's hand and watched it disappear under her clothes again. "Whatever happened, it was never your fault."
"It's impossible not to blame yourself like that..." It took Amber a moment to put those words together. "You think about it every day, that you're alive and they are not... and that the bastard who did that is out there somewhere, alive."
"I know..." Ruth replied after a longer moment of silence. No more words were spoken between them that night. They both sat next to each other, wrapped in their blankets and lost in their thoughts looking at the glow of dying embers.