Chapter 13: Past sins
The girl from the poster looked at her accusingly. She couldn't tell whether the sketch was a faithful resemblance, as it portrayed a girl from... quite a long time ago, but the key features were on point. It showed her frowning, her slender face as if scarred by the paper worn out by time. The number underneath was so abstract it was almost easy to consider it fake. A cold shiver crossed Ruth's body as she blinked at the piece of paper in front of her. Everything around faded into the background and her vision blurred a little, her eyes glued to the warrant, confusion and helpless frustration interchangeably washing over her. The hand grasped around the handle of her knife became clammy as she read her own name over and over again.
"Answer for fuck's sake!" Amber hissed impatiently, finally breaking through her awkward silence.
She heard her previous questions, but she didn't seem to have understood them. The cold stares and the desert wind came back to her, together with the sense of the severity of their situation. Ruth turned to her partner, the redhead's distressed, intense stare piercing through her painfully.
"I... " She choked out, desperately trying to find clarity, anything in her mind that would correspond to this nonsense. "This is wrong. What town? What the hell are you saying?!" Ruth looked at the man in the dusty coat.
"I'm sure you don't need an explanation." He sent her an ugly smile. "Can we cut the crap now so I can get the prize? I don't care about your bullshit."
"No!" Ruth protested, taking a step towards him. This immediately brought the weapon's muzzle harder against her skull, together with the trader's pistol aiming at her brow again. "This is bullshit. Since when have caravans turned into bounty hunters? You don't just go arresting people for nothing, what are you, NCR?" She barked back, though his expression didn't change. "Give me a good reason for all of this."
"Does Big Bog ring a bell?" The man said slowly, as if talking to a kid having a hard time understanding.
Ruth's eyes widened and she unconsciously held her breath. She really didn't want to hear it. She didn't want to hear any of it.
"Ah, I see something's lighting up in that blue head of yours." The man continued with a smirk as all color drained from the woman's face.
"... What the hell did you do? You promised you'd tell me..." The disappointment she heard in Amber's voice made it hard to look up, as her green eyes drilled deep into the smaller woman's soul. No, she couldn't drag her partner into this mess. She couldn't. Ruth tried, but finding the right words, or any explanation whatsoever, was much harder than she thought. All she did was shake her head miserably, knowing that nothing would satisfy her nor the bounty hunter at this point.
The redhead lowered her weapon from the stranger's face and let his hand go. He massaged his wrist and walked past her.
"Enough of this." He was now clearly annoyed by the delay. "You can kiss her goodbye and get lost."
Amber's gaze moved from her silent partner back to him. "I'm going with you." She said coldly.
"Amber, you don't- " Ruth started, but was immediately silenced by her captor.
"Not a chance, lady. She's coming with us and you're not on the list." He waved at her dismissively. "We claim this find. Period." A few barrels aligned with Amber's head for emphasis. She stayed silent for a moment, her eyes darting from one man to the other.
The redhead nodded finally. "Fine. But I'm taking her stuff with me."
"What? That's not how it works!" Someone to her left exclaimed.
"It does." Her tone peremptory, she turned back to her partner. "We worked together, her gear belongs to both of us, so if she doesn't need it anymore, I'm taking it with me."
Shocked, Ruth looked at the redhead only to meet her cold, emotionless stare. She couldn't stand her gaze and her eyes dropped in quiet acceptance.
"Is this true?" The coated man turned to Ruth, who only nodded in response. "Then you can take your gear and fuck off." Her whole body was shaking, but she took off her belt and dropped it before the other woman's feet.
"This is not right... This doesn't-" She hissed through clenched teeth, but was cut off by the trenchcoat man grabbing her by the arm.
"Shut your mouth, missy. From now on to Big Bog, you're my ticket to the prize, and you don't jabber if not spoken to!"
"Don't touch me!" She tore her arm from him, shooting daggers from her eyes.
"Fine. Men, tie her behind Lucy and we're leaving. Now!"
Amber ended up carrying Ruth's rifles, her pistol, belt with both knives, all of her ammo, the remaining caps, and her backpack. The burden of the extra gear, however, was nothing compared to the sight of her companion being led away. The blue-haired girl said nothing and didn't look up at her throughout the whole ordeal. Neither did Amber for that matter. Both remained silent, dismissing all the petty comments made by the caravan guards. One of the men grabbed Ruth's hands, pulled them behind her back and tied her wrists tightly together with a rope. Then he formed a noose and threw it on her neck. She was led at the back of the caravan, tied by the rope behind two fully-loaded brahmins, surrounded by armed guards.
When the whole group began moving, Ruth turned her head to look at her. Her eyes were wide with honest fear, lips pressed in a thin line. She shook her head, as if saying "no", before being pulled forward by the huge beasts of burden.
The redhead waited for a few minutes, observing as the group headed north along the remains of an old highway. She continued to stand there as they became smaller and smaller, rooted to the spot, unable to decide what to do next.
There were footsteps coming from the gate. She didn't have to turn around to recognize the characteristic off-rhythm walk of her ghoul friend. He stopped right behind her, taking a moment before he spoke.
"I heard what's happened, kid. I'm so sorry." Jules said in his raspy voice. He lifted his hand to pat her on the shoulder, but she took a few steps away from him.
"Don't be." She stopped for a brief moment, turning back. Her face was cold, determined, and wet with tears. "I'm going to get her back."
"But... she had a bounty on her head, didn't she? They claimed their find." Jules shrugged helplessly. "You can't just..."
"I'll make sure she gets a fair trial and be proven innocent."
"What if she really is guilty? What if they arrest you, too?" There was genuine concern on his raddled face. "Amber..."
"I hope she isn't." She responded quietly. "Because if she is, I'm going to kill her myself."
With those words she turned towards the road and set off, not looking back this time. The sun was high above the horizon and Big Bog was several miles away. Jules watched her walk away and shook his head in disbelief.
"As stubborn as her parents. Nothing's changed." He muttered, reaching for a hip flask in his pocket and took a swing. "Don't get yourself killed, kid." The ghoul turned back and soon disappeared behind the gate.
Amber climbed up a small hill made out of rubble of old buildings and fallen pieces of the highway which used to run across the country on tall, concrete pillars. Now only a few of those structures stood tall, most of the road having collapsed years ago, serving as little more than reference points for every caravan or wanderer.
She took a deep breath, fixing the bags on her back for a hundredth time. The weight could've been more of a nuisance, but the redhead didn't put much thought into it. She grabbed the rifle hanging on her shoulder and looked through the scope. The caravan kept its course. She could easily recognize Ruth's small frame escorted by two armed guards at the very end of the column, her face covered by her cowl. Amber considered a more aggressive solution to her current dilemma, feeling the weight of the weapon in her hands. With a few well-placed bullets, her partner would be free and they both could go back to their previous assignment, but she wouldn't be any different from a raider killing random traders to take what she wanted. The sun was high in the sky by now, scorching the dead desert under her feet. Amber sighed and continued her journey. She tried to reduce the distance between them, but without much haste, so as not to attract too much attention to herself as she stalked the group.
The caravan left the highway as their surroundings began to change. They were passing by rows of collapsed, pre-war houses, baked brittle by the dry desert heat and then blown in by the infrequent, but fierce night storms. The land was flat and dry, covered with an uneven pattern of cracked, dried mud. Oddly enough, there were occasional depressions filled with greenish water. Travelers usually avoided those and Amber didn't even consider approaching them, although puddles of water in the middle of the sun-scorched desert were a weird sight to behold. She wiped the sweat from her forehead. The burden on her shoulders seemed to be getting heavier with every step. Distant shapes distorted by the dancing horizon became clearer. She strained her eyes to see several thin pillars sticking from the ground, one of them significantly crooked. She took a swing from her water bottle and pushed herself forward.
It wasn't long till she encountered skeletons sprawled across the ground, with raider armor still strapped to their bare, white bones, picked clean by the ravens and other critters. She did not recognize any gang insignia, but judging by the varying pieces of equipment, these were the unfortunate members of many, many different groups. Some of them wore nothing but sun-bleached pieces of rags, slowly decaying under the many elements of the desert.
Amber closed the distance, nearly able to hear the conversations of the traders before her. The settlement of Big Bog was now clearly visible. The pillars she'd seen before appeared to be towering, weathered factory chimneys, one of them fallen to the side and broken in half. Several rooftops poked into view, but most of the settlement was hidden behind a tall wall built out of scraps of metal and rubble. Random pools of polluted water and sludge dotted the land around them as they walked across a reinforced path. Skeletons of a few boats rested forgotten in the dry dirt. Between all that, the growing number of decomposing bodies caught most of her attention. They were scattered around and judging by their positions, the raiders were shot on sight, looted, and abandoned to rot in the scorching heat of the sun. Looking around, she could've sworn she saw a couple of small, moving silhouettes on the dancing horizon to their sides, as well as dark shapes in the sky above them. Her best guess was that these were local, wild scavengers looking for an easy meal, probably dogs, vultures, or other creatures alike.
The group slowed down to cross a narrow bridge built above a sickly green stream. The passage was lined with dried skulls embedded on top of long spikes. The rest of the caravan seemed to ignore her presence, as all of their attention was focused on the structure ahead.
"... who knows, maybe you'll end up joining them!" Amber heard the deep laugh of the trench coat man, as they stepped off the bridge. Was that about the skeletons behind them, or the pierced heads? Ruth staggered and stopped in place, panting, before being yanked forward by the brahmin. The short woman hissed something incoherent back at him, but the words faltered on her dry tongue.
Amber only now saw what the bounty hunter meant, and it almost made her stop in her tracks, too. A trio of dried corpses impaled on reinforced, wooden poles loomed over the newcomers on top of the fence, on both sides of the entrance. Two bodies were covered with rags marked with an unknown gang insignia, one still bearing a few improvised armor parts. Other than that, they were impossible to identify, being little more than dried, cracked skin stretched across white bones. The third body was slightly fresher, clearly male and dressed in a familiar armor of the Legion. Amber turned her head away from the sunken faces and empty eye sockets. Even though she'd shoot any of those people on sight under usual circumstances, their fate tightened her stomach into a knot.
The double gate stood tall before them, guarded by two armed people. Judging by the number of corpses they'd passed on their way here, there must've been at least one sniper hiding somewhere on top of the wall. The caravan halted as the guards stepped forward, one of them with his hand up.
"Stop right there!" A man in a protective mask covering his features spoke. He was holding a shotgun, but didn't aim at the travelers. "Diego? We didn't expect you to come back so soon. What's your business?" His voice was muffled by the mask.
"I know you love my presence, Harris, I know, but a little birdy told me you were looking for someone!"
Amber noted the pure sarcasm of that statement as she saw a few of the wanted posters attached to the fence randomly. Some of them were covered in offensive graffiti.
One of the caravan guards untied the rope from the animals and led Ruth to the front, pulling the cowl from her face.
"And see just what I got! Came back to take my prize, so I hope the offer still stands." The man continued with a wide smile. The guard came up to her, looking over her through the slits in his mask, glanced at the other man, then back at her.
"Hell, you really did." He said in disbelief, and then motioned at his partner to get the entrance open. "Bring her in."
"We'll wait here." One of the traders pulled the brahmins away from the gate. He received nods from other caravaniers, who looked rather distressed. "I don't wanna be anywhere near that place, mind you. Get it over with and we'll meet out here."
"Suit yourselves. Johnny's coming with me, and you, Kelly, take care of the rest." The coated man motioned at the guard holding Ruth's makeshift leash to follow him, then headed for the gate.
"It's Kenny...." The man assigned to guard the caravan muttered in annoyance.
"I'm coming with you." Amber chimed in, stepping past the caravan quickly. She glanced briefly at the woman, but she didn't meet her gaze. Two guards immediately blocked her way, but the leader, apparently named Diego, stopped them. He took a step closer and lowered his voice just enough for the redhead to hear him.
"Look, I appreciate that you didn't cause any trouble, and I restrained my boys from filling your ass with lead, but this isn't going to help her. Or you, for that matter." He said almost sympathetically. "These guys don't mess around. If you have something to live for, I'd advise you turn around. Say your goodbyes or whatever, and I promise to take you safely back to the Refinery."
"I'm going in with you or we'll see how many of your boys it takes to stop me." She answered coldly, drilling him with her stare.
"Sheesh. Your funeral, either way." He chuckled and turned around, waving at his men to let her pass. "But don't expect the same courtesy from these savages." He muttered past his shoulder.
"I don't." She muttered as her hand backed away from her handgun. "Thank you."
The main gate cracked open and one of the town guards led them inside. Amber followed, and as soon as they passed the entrance, the large, reinforced doors shut behind them. Several more armed men arrived at their sides, surrounding the group, and escorted them through the gloomy streets.
The area behind the walls couldn't have been any different from where they came from. Dirt and mud under their feet was replaced with concrete slabs. Buildings and walls around them were constructed out of rubble, supported by concrete pillars and metal beams that seemed to have been remnants of a sprawling construction that the town was built on. Layers of scaffolding and other constructions surrounded them as the wide alley led them towards the center. Amber was looking around in awe at the intricate design of interweaving walkways and bridges all around, several people looking at them from above, their hushed voices echoing off of the walls. They walked out into a sunlit, spacious, round-ish square. She guessed now that it must've been a stadium or a huge hangar at some point in history. The thick walls surrounding the square were lined with three or even four layers of walkways and buildings stacked one on top of the other. The settlement looked like it could house hundreds and hundreds of people and still have some space left.
Throughout their journey the entire group was silent, but the same couldn't be said about their surroundings. A small crowd gathered around them as they walked, and more people flowed in from the square. They were silent at first, curious, but Amber could see recognition and strong emotions beginning to resurface in their eyes. Fear and anger were the ones she noticed most. She glanced at her companion, but she was walking with her head down.
They stopped at the entrance of a tall, concrete structure in one corner of the square. The double doors opened and a guard was let inside. By this time, the word must've quickly spread around, as the crowd around them has thickened, consisting of at least a hundred people. Many of them started shouting questions, curses, or other things she did not understand in the growing noise. The more they waited, the more impatient they became, pushing against the circle of guards around the prisoner. Amber and the two men from the caravan struggled to stay close to the woman. Ruth tried to avoid the hateful stares of the people around her, but there were fists and threats everywhere she turned.
The doors opened and the guard returned, accompanied by a group of elderly people. The angry mob eventually fell silent as the elders passed through the crowd and approached them.
"Finally..." A dark-skinned man with a short, gray beard and moustache stepped forward. He had an elegant, although slightly worn, pre-war suit. It had a slight silver shine to it. "We've all been waiting for your return. Anxiously." He spoke softly, slowly, but his eyes were piercing, and his voice strained as if his throat was permanently tightened.
Ruth lifted her head, recognition painted on her face. She didn't respond.
"Follow me, everyone, please." He looked at the caravan leader and turned back to the building.
They climbed up a set of spiral, wide steps and entered a spacious room with chairs and sofas. Under the walls were bookshelves filled with pre-war books and documents. The bearded man turned to the caravanier as the rest of the elders took their seats. "Don't worry, the money is not a scam, you'll receive your prize as soon as the council confirms it's her. This won't take long, you can listen if you want." Diego nodded silently, following the small crowd of onlookers who tried to get into the chamber used by the elders. Amber also squeezed into the room and stood in the back, receiving merely a glance. Everyone was focused on the blue head being led towards the center.
She was stopped facing a group of seven elderly people sitting behind a large, wooden table. The man who greeted them took his place at the central seat while a gray-haired woman seated to his right got up and approached the girl, looking at her menacingly. The masked town guard stood close, behind Ruth, holding her leash loosely.
"People of Big Bog, esteemed elders." The dark-skinned man spoke, addressing the council. "The time for justice has come at last! I'm glad that you're all here with me today. We are gathered here, because the outside heard our cries and brought us the monster we've all been looking for." He turned to the short woman, a grimace twisting his lips. "For the sake of formality... Is your name Ruth Delassandis?"
"Yes." She stood there, completely still, all eyes focused on her.
"Excellent. You visited our town over two years ago. Is that true?"
"Now, you are brought before the council today to answer for committing crimes against this town the last time you were here. Are you aware of that?"
"Yes, I am." Ruth looked at his deeply wrinkled face. Amber studied her carefully from the corner, puzzled to find some determination in that look.
"Would you mind telling us what it was that you've done, Delassandis? And the circumstances of your stay here?" There was a hint of disgust in his voice when he spoke her surname. It was visible he took no pleasure in even looking at her. The woman next to Ruth sighed impatiently.
"Two years ago I came here seeking medical help for myself and a family member, but committed burglary and theft when I did not receive it. I am aware that it could've been highly detrimental to the people here, and for that I apologize." The room fell silent, everyone held their breaths as if awaiting something more.
"... Oh." The man commented, finally breaking the silence. He exchanged glances with the older woman. "Is that all you have to say?"
Ruth frowned, looking around. "Yes. I deeply regret doing it, and I'm willing to compensate in any way I can for the things I've stolen and the damage I've caused." The room stirred with unease. From those elders who turned to one another, Amber saw they were, to say the least, appalled.
"This mockery won't save your life. Besides, I doubt there would be anything you could compensate us with, girl." The woman next to Ruth spoke in a sharp voice. She neatened her silver hair, holding her head high. "I suggest you be honest with the council. There is absolutely nothing that would prove you aren't guilty of the heinous crime. Don't be shy, everyone knows already." Her words were dripping with venom as she spoke, growing more and more impatient.
Amber understood nothing from this bizarre situation. She studied her surprised companion and her accusers, trying to piece together what was really going on here. So far, every reaction in the room seemed authentic to her, and the people of this town were clearly not hiding their attitudes.
Ruth darted her eyes from the woman to the man questioning her. "I already confessed to my crime." Her voice lost some of its confidence. "And I'm here to stand trial for it. What more do you want from me?"
"We want justice." The woman continued, shooting her a glance before she turned her back to the girl, casually taking a few steps away. Her next words were louder and quickly brought the sudden discussions in the room to an end. "We want you to confess to all of your crimes, so that hundreds of lives lost due to your actions can be avenged, and their grieving families can finally find some closure!"
Both Amber and Ruth stared at her, wide-eyed and questioning.
"I'm... sorry, I don't understand." Ruth almost scoffed, but she was slowly losing her resolved self from moments ago. "I... what?"
"We don't understand your motives, either, but those hundreds of people listening from their graves, and those outside, aren't interested in your excuses. Justice must be served!" The older woman said flatly and the room filled with dread.
"H-hundreds?" She said quietly, stammering, and Amber saw her beginning to panic.
"What else did you think would've happened when you poisoned our wells? Maybe you expected more casualties? Did you want to wipe all of us out?"
"What?!" She gasped. "I had nothing to do with that!"
The room erupted in angry exchanges and shocked comments from the members of the council and the gathered townsfolk. People began to raise from their seats, shouting, barely containing themselves not to charge the woman in the middle of the room.
"Stop giving us this horseshit, Delassandis. There is nothing you can say that will clear your name." The mayor spoke, his watery eyes piercing through her. "We know what you've done, and you're going to answer accordingly. You caused havoc then disappeared. Your actions nearly destroyed this town and ruined the lives of everyone in it!" His polite tone completely gave way to his previously contained emotions.
"I'm not responsible for any of this!" Sweat appeared on Ruth's forehead as she darted her eyes around the room like a cornered animal. "It wasn't me, I swear!" She took a step towards the council, but was immediately stopped by the guard as he pulled on the rope, making her gag and cough.
"Ruth Delassandis!" The older woman turned back to her, a mix of anger and pride flashing across her face. The small crowd quieted a little, so that everyone would hear. "For poisoning this town's water supplies and causing the disease which killed three hundred and fifty two people, you are hereby sentenced to death." The demeanor of the crowd around them changed as the people began cheering, shouting for justice. "If there aren't any objections, her execution will be carried out-"
A single female voice broke through the cheers in the crowd as Amber stepped forward. Everyone in the room turned their attention towards her, their eyes wide with surprise and anger, as if they had only now noticed her. "I demand a trial for her!"
"A... trial?" The silver-haired woman asked dismissively. "By what right? Who even are you and why do you think you can interfere with the council's matters?"
"Amberly Dale. I've known this woman for some time now." Her voice and gestures didn't betray any emotions, only her gaze seized the elder woman. "I've invested a lot in our common endeavor and I refuse to suffer losses without a fair, lawful verdict. This town is a part of the New California Republic and she is a citizen, so she has the right to defend herself!"
"This is outrageous!" The woman before her hissed as her boney fist slammed against a nearby table. The other members of the council seemed equally confused by this turn of events, but remained silent. "The NCR came here to plant their flag, but they didn't move a finger to help with the disease!"
"You refused to let anyone in. For years!" The redhead replied coldly. "Not much was known about this town aside from you shutting your walls on the outside world, shooting anyone who was not a caravan on sight, turning everyone away! The Refinery wanted to help you, but you refused that as well, mistaking their messenger for a raider! And so I insist, if you kill her without a trial, I will make sure people in high places will hear about this."
"Guards, get her out!" The woman ordered, but was stopped by a member of the council, sitting right next to the mayor.
"Irene, please, wait." His voice was soft and quiet, but it was enough to get everyone's attention. He looked younger than the rest of the council members, his hair was still mostly brown and his eyes bright. "We can't do that, nor can we risk getting ourselves involved with the bigger politics of the world." He then leaned towards the mayor and whispered a few words so only he could hear them.
"Let her stay." The old man said slowly and turned to face Amber. "I understand your situation, but we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that she is guilty, as well as the rest of her family. But I will grant your request, only if you promise to accept the final verdict."
"If she really is guilty, she deserves the punishment." Amber said, turning her eyes towards her companion, who was watching the whole exchange with wide eyes. "But until her guilt is proven, I will defend her innocence."
"The court will decide on that." He replied, earning a disapproving glare from Irene. "The trial will take place tomorrow at noon. Take her away." His words caused an uproar of shouts and protests from the gathered crowd, but all members of the council remained seated.
The guard almost dragged Ruth out of the room, as her legs refused to cooperate properly. Amber's gaze lingered on her for a moment, catching her shaken expression before she disappeared behind the door. Still trying to figure out what she just got herself into, the redhead approached the large table of the council. Most of the council's members exchanged a few words with their leader and exited the room, leaving only him, the loud woman, and the soft-voiced man. Outside, she heard guards command the crowd to make way. The people's reaction was immediate. They must've seen the woman be escorted out and were now sounding like an enormous beehive full of angry insects. Not one of the people left in the room with her seemed to care.
"You are making a huge mistake by putting your neck out like that for a monster like her." Irene scoffed and looked back at her with cold, steel-colored eyes. "It is not worth your time, or your caps, child."
"Let's not be hasty here, Irene." The dark-skinned man interrupted her and extended his hand to Amber. "My apologies for not introducing myself earlier. I am Peter Howard, the mayor of this community." They shook hands and he motioned towards the woman next to him. "This is Irene Adler, our judge, and this," he turned towards the man on his other side, "is Stan Jones, who is my advisor and administrator of our water and provisions."
"It is a shame we meet in such unpleasant circumstances." Stan gave her a half smile, also greeting her. Amber nodded before turning to face the woman.
"I want her disarmed and searched before she leaves this room." Irene crossed her arms on her chest, in no way eager to exchange pleasantries. So much for the cooperation with the judge.
"I'm sure our guest will comply and we don't have to be so restrictive." Stan replied, trying to counter her stern tone. "She will surrender all her ammunition, as is the local custom, right? That'll be enough."
"Yes, I will." The redhead placed her weapons on the table in front of them as well as her ammo stash, still packed just like she picked it up this morning at the Refinery.
"You see, my dear, not all the outsiders want to cause trouble." The mayor smiled gently.
"This one already did." The judge just raised her chin. "That little blue-maned bitch should already be dangling on a pole."
Amber winced at the thought of raiders and legionnaires posing as a welcome sign above the entrance, and refused to imagine her friend hanging among them in a similar manner.
"If the judge already knows the verdict, how will this be a fair court?" She asked as she finished unloading her magazines. "This case should be sent to an independent NCR outpost-"
"Don't you test our patience, mercenary." The woman threatened as her fist hit the table, causing a few loose bullets to jump and roll around. "She's guilty and she knows it, just as well as we all do!"
Amber wanted to protest, but Stan's soft voice interrupted her again. "What she's trying to say is, we have evidence." She turned to him, curiously. "A very strong one, actually, that she and her companions are responsible for starting the plague by poisoning our water system with some kind of a virus." He explained slowly, shifting his gaze between both women. "I can tell you all about this poisoning and there were many people who saw her that day, sneaking in and out of our water processing plant and medical storage areas while her companions waited near the gate to escape."
Amber couldn't believe what she was hearing. She didn't want to believe it, but a seed of doubt had sprouted in the dark corners of her mind back at the Refinery gates, and was now only prompted to grow stronger. The previous conversation with Private Vasquez did not help her friend's case, either. She tried her best to quickly gather her thoughts.
"I want to speak with her about this, please." She wanted to sound as strong and demanding as before, but it was increasingly harder to argue with these people.
"Speak with her?" The mayor questioned. "I don't think we can allow that, miss Dale. She's still a suspect, and a dangerous one at that."
"How would we know you're not planning to help her escape?" Irene cut in again. "Not that she would be able to, but I don't trust any of you."
"That's understandable, but I need to know her story before the trial. Knowing her, it will be best if I speak with her in private, to get the best sense of the situation." She looked at both men, not even trying to hide her worried expression. "I just want to hear her out and leave."
They all looked at one another, then the mayor turned back to Amber.
"I suppose it could be done. I will let the guards know you are coming, they will supervise your chatting and make sure it's not taking too long." He said. "But I believe you should first find a safe place to spend the night. I don't want to sound threatening, but I doubt our citizens will be very welcoming if they learn that you're here to defend the girl." His eyes travelled to the windows for a brief moment. The crowd has quieted down already, but the previous wrath of the locals was overpowering enough to bring her spirits hard to the ground.
"She can stay at my place. There's always that spare couch I'm not using." Stan chimed in again, causing all heads to turn towards him. "If you don't mind, miss Dale. I promise it's as safe a place as can be."
"I... wouldn't want to cause any more trouble." The redhead was genuinely surprised by the invitation. "I can manage on my own."
"You will cause a lot less trouble there, than if you'd gone to the inn and started a riot." Judge Adler shook her head. "At least that way we'll be able to keep an eye on you."
Amber wasn't happy about this arrangement, but it didn't take a lot to notice just how much she'd already tested these people's patience and she didn't want to push her luck too far.
"I would be honored to stay with one of this town's council. Thank you." She nodded.
"In that case, it's time for you to go now." Stan motioned at Amber to follow him into one of the side entrances.
The stare of the remaining two elders burned into her back as they left. The hopelessness of her task dawned on her, weighing heavily, as the door closed behind them with a dull thud. She wasn't even sure if defending Ruth was really her task at this point. There was obviously a lot more going on in this place, and she felt like she had just signed a contract to seek out the truth, whether it saved her companion or not. It wasn't only her partner's story now. The whole town needed her help, and as an NCR soldier, she felt bound to see to the end of this contract. Nevertheless, the thought of possibly sentencing her companion to such a horrible end made her throat tighten. Her more and more depressing train of thought was interrupted by the man walking next to her, the presence of whom she's temporarily forgotten about.
"I admire your will, miss Dale." He glanced at her as she shook herself from the depths of her thoughts. "I'm sad for you, because you misplaced your trust."
"How so?" She asked, already knowing what he was going to say.
"There is little doubt in the hearts of all in this town that your friend is guilty." There was a hint of sadness in his voice, and unlike all the other people she heard speaking about the subject, she didn't hear any hatred or rage in it.
"Hearts make for poor judges." She replied dryly. "I'm here to know the truth, and if she is guilty..." She paused, once again remembering the dried, impaled bodies at the gate and the remaining words died on her lips.
"You said that." He stated. "I believe you'll respect our judgment when you hear the testimonies and see the evidence for yourself."
"I have to talk to Ruth first." She emphasized.
"Of course, but keep in mind your friend will probably do anything to save her skin. It will be her word against the entire town." The man's voice remained calm, but there was a hint of concern she picked up.
They were silent the rest of the way to Stan's home. Amber tried to visualize the continuing, winding path before them. She knew they were going up, passing by multiple sets of stairs and balconies, but the few clearings and windows did very little to help her orientate herself. They reached a small, metal bridge hanging over a gap in the floor and she finally realized they were at the very top of the ancient, pre-war construction. Beneath them were stacks of cargo containers transformed by their inhabitants into homes and many pathways leading from the building to other metal houses and staircases.
"Please watch your step." Her host broke the silence as he crossed the small bridge and opened the door on the other side. They entered a narrow, long room with an old, dilapidated couch and several shelves bearing ancient books. There was a small table under one wall and a makeshift fireplace with a few pots around it. There was another door on the opposite side of the room. "I hope you will find the sofa comfortable enough. We passed a shower along the way if you wish to refresh." He pointed at the construction at the other side of the bridge. "Just don't drink the water there, it's not treated properly."
A cold shiver ran down Amber's spine. His words reminded her that she was in fact in the town famous across the wasteland for their ongoing plague. "I think I'll stick to my own supplies." She muttered.
"That is always the safest, but no need to be worried. The filtering system for the town water is almost a hundred percent secure." Stan replied with a wide smile. "I designed it myself. That's what they called me here for."
"So what you mean is, whatever caused the disease is no longer there?" Amber asked and put down her backpack, only now realizing just how much her shoulders hurt from the exertion.
"Not exactly." Stan organized the pots and put them on the table. "We don't fully know what's causing the virus to return, but it does, every once in a while. It's still present in the contaminated waters around the town after the first wave, and doesn't seem to react in any way to what our medics have attempted. The filtered water has a very, very low chance of containing the virus, though."
"So why are there still new cases of the plague?" Amber questioned. "I mean, you'd take down the quarantine zone if there weren't, right?"
"I don't know that." The man admitted, sighing heavily. "People in this town are severely weakened, and there are concerns that maybe some viruses mutate, getting past anything we've tried so far. I can tinker with the pipes and the machines, but the human body is too complicated. Sorry I cannot tell you more about that. All I know is that it used to be much worse before we built the filter, the first and second waves were... well, disastrous."
Amber stood a moment in silence, massaging her aching shoulders, the burning anxiety spreading across her chest. "Can we go see Ruth now, please?"
Stan pointed her in the general direction of the prison and led her to a shortcut leading down, which was a long, makeshift stairway between two buildings. The whole construction was made out of scrap metal and wood and was secured with ropes and rusted chains. It wasn't exactly as stable as she hoped it'd be, but it wasn't nearly as complicated and twisted as her previous path up. Amber jumped off the stairway and took a moment to appreciate the stable ground under her feet. The sun was slowly disappearing behind the tall wall of the community, giving her very little time to work with. Although the crowd had dispersed completely by now, she could feel the eyes of the citizens following her every step as she was walking across the central plaza. Amber tried, and mostly failed, to organize her thoughts. There was no denying that she was not in friendly territory, nor was she welcome within these walls. She headed towards a small passage situated between two huge cargo containers, not far from the administrative structure where the council were seated.
The guard at the entrance measured her silently as she approached, but didn't stop her from entering. The same happened when she passed a small lobby and headed towards the stairs leading to the basement, where the main prison was located. It was much colder and wetter down there, it felt almost as if she'd entered a cave. The bare concrete floor was darkened from exposure to the damp air and parts of the industrial walls were covered in dark green stains. Rusted metal gratings embedded in the floor revealed flooded lower levels of the complex. She cringed, thinking of what Stan had just told her, doing her best not to step into any water on the way.
She was halfway across the long, dimly lit corridor, when she heard elevated voices ahead. Among them, she recognized Ruth's distressed words, distorted by the echo. Feeling a sudden rush of adrenaline she darted forward and burst into the room at the very end. It was another lobby with a desk on the side. The blue-haired woman was lying on the ground, hands still tied behind her back and her suit torn open. Two guards were standing over her, now clearly startled by her entrance.
"What the fuck is this all about?!" Amber roared, taking advantage of the fact that one guard, a sickly pale and skinny-looking man with dark hair, was more occupied with fixing his trouser zipper, rather than reaching for his weapons. The other guard, a young, equally skinny woman with equally dark, short hair, took out her baton, but was clearly conflicted about what to do next. Ruth pushed herself away from them, as far as the small room let her, and squeezed herself into a corner.
"Who are you and what are you doing here?" The man quickly picked up his baton from a chair nearby. "This is a restricted area!"
"I'm here to represent the prisoner in the trial and I have the mayor's permission to be here." The redhead said coldly, staring him down.
Both guards looked at her as if she'd just told them that brahmins could fly.
"You can't be serious!" The woman exclaimed. She could see her face was slightly swollen, a boot mark on her cheek. "There's no way this bitch is leaving this town in any other way than with a stick through her ass!"
"Fuck off." Ruth mumbled under her breath as she got back to her feet, leaning against the wall.
"Maybe, but she was promised a fair trial and she can't be punished before her guilt is decided. Contact anyone from the court about this and they'll confirm my words." Amber replied sternly, standing tall.
The man muttered something under his breath before turning back to the other guard. "Toss her into the cell, I have to talk to miss...?"
"Dale." The redhead was watching as the woman scoffed and grabbed Ruth by the scruff, pushing her through the door on the other end of the room and walking in with her.
"Look, miss Dale." The man said as his companion disappeared. "The elders might have promised you the trial, but every single one of us townsfolk knows she deserves every little bit of pain she'll get, and to be honest, she should die once for every person who died because of her. Entire families were erased from existence!"
Amber listened carefully to his voice. There was anger in there and sorrow, but the disturbing bloodlust faded away as he spoke.
"I know you must have suffered and I'm not here to stop you from getting your justice." She replied softly, changing her attitude. "On the contrary, I am here to find the truth."
She took a step closer and smiled slightly. She could see the man's eyes had trouble focusing on her face as she spoke, drifting lower and lower towards the contents of her shirt.
"You say that now, but you think we don't know for sure it was her." He was no longer growling at her as his tone settled.
"Tomorrow's the court, and if you're right, it will be followed by her execution. Until then, I'd really appreciate her not be harmed." She lowered her voice and smiled even more.
"I can't promise that... the town's changed, accidents happen around here, you know..." He began, but stopped as Amber's face got closer and closer to his.
"I'm sure you can put an extra effort making sure no accidents happen this time, right?" She whispered sweetly as her lips were inches from his. "I promise I can make it worth your while."
"I mean..." He looked away, visibly troubled, but returned her gaze. "I guess we could arrange something..."
"Good. Now, let me talk to her first." She backed away, just as the doors opened again and the other guard returned. "I'll get back to you two when I'm done."
"But... wait." He shook his head as some of his blood returned back to his brain. "I can't let you in there alone!"
"Why?" Amber asked innocently, halfway through the door. "It's not like I can smuggle her out of there. Besides, you'll have a chance to thoroughly search me afterwards."
"Well, yeah, but... what about our... deal?" He stumbled over his words as his companion looked at them utterly confused.
"What about it?" She said with a shrug. "I said I'll get back to you and if I won't keep my side of the deal, nothing stops you from not keeping yours." With those words she closed the door behind her and entered the town's prison cells.
The prison was little more than a wide corridor with a couple of doors on both sides, with not enough light to uncover every corner. The cells were made out of empty rooms with metal bars and mesh separating them from the main corridor. The floor was dirty and wet with puddles of stale water, and sickly green moss grew from the many cracks between concrete slabs. Amber immediately noticed the small woman curled up in the corner right next to the farthest set of bars. Ruth stirred and stood up, beginning to say something, but the redhead interrupted her.
"Shut up and listen!" Amber approached the cell, grabbing one of the bars. "This is your last chance to be honest with me. Last one!" She hissed and took out a pistol from her holster, aiming it at the other woman's face. Inside were two bullets she managed to snatch during her disarmament in the courtroom.
"You've made a promise. You didn't say anything about Big Bog, yet now we're here. It's time you tell me the truth." Her stern voice cracked under the pressure of her emotions. "If you really did what they say, I will make it quick and painless. This much I can do. But if you lie to me... I'm letting those guards, and the whole town, do whatever they want to you." Her voice trembled and her vision blurred with tears, but she stood there motionless, waiting for an answer.
Ruth stared at her past the barrel, breathless and rooted to the spot. She finally nodded.
"No lies... I swear." She said quietly, almost whispering. "I didn't do it, Amber. I admit I did a lot of bad things in the past, but this plague is not my fault."
The redhead felt some weight lift from her shoulders. She knew she had to be critical, but those words were exactly what she was hoping to hear. She lowered her gun and blinked away the tears. "Tell me exactly what happened and I will do what I can to get you out of here."
"You shouldn't be in this mess." Ruth stepped closer to the bars, giving her a pained look, her voice breaking. "Why didn't you stay at the Refinery? What if they hurt you, too, for trying to help me?"
"Please, we don't have time for this." She glanced at the door behind her. "I'll be fine, but I must know what happened."
The woman before her nodded.
What I told the council was true. Roughly two years ago, right before the outbreak of the plague, I came here with my uncle, David. We've just lost our home and were on the road, looking for help, for some place to settle. My father, Samuel, was severely wounded. His state changed rapidly and soon he could no longer walk, so it was only me and David to come here, seeking help. The people here weren't as... hostile, as they are now, but they were still unwilling to help the outsiders, unless you were a merchant. Our appearances didn't help with that, either. We had very little to trade with. We offered our help in town, anything we could do in exchange for medical services, but it wasn't enough to convince them. We were just dirty stragglers to a prosperous town.
I... he was fading, Amber. I couldn't let that happen to the only parent I had left.
Breaking into their storage was easy. I'd done it countless times before, and I myself suggested it. The plan was to sneak in, take exactly what we needed, and leave. But... they had just so many... They were stacked for life! In the end I grabbed as much as I could carry, thinking it wouldn't be a problem to a town as well-supplied as them. Medication, purified water, emergency rations...
... and then I got busted. Someone saw me, sounded the alarm, and I ran, barely getting out of there in time before the whole town was on my back.
That saved my father. He could walk again two days later, and that let him move on from our hideout. Up until the word about the plague got around, I regretted nothing. Soon, I heard that the town had to cancel all their trades and quarantine themselves, that... there were many casualties, and not enough doctors, not enough medicine to deal with it.
I still don't know, if I hadn't stolen as much as I did, would it actually change the turn of events. I felt extremely guilty, for a very long time, but coming back here was out of the question. Not only because of the disease... I was just scared. I thought it was better to leave it in the past and never approach that place again in case someone recognized me. I honestly thought there was no danger looming over me unless I had to come here.
When that caravan ambushed us and said where they were taking me, it was only fair to give myself up. Whatever I would say in that moment, nothing would be good enough for you, nor for the caravan. There was no running away from that past anymore. Still... when I saw the poster, and the price on my head, I couldn't believe it. When we came here, I didn't understand their rage. I thought they would fine me, or send me to jail. I hoped I could offer my services as a doctor, that I could make things right, no matter how late it was. Nothing could've prepared me for this.
"So... you didn't know about the plague until you left?" Amber questioned, sitting on the reasonably dry concrete slab, across from her partner.
"No. It must've started after we'd already left." Ruth was sitting still, looking at the ground. "We drank their water and ate their food, we didn't get anything, so the infection had to start only afterwards."
"This doesn't help your case at all..." The redhead muttered. "What about David? Could he have done something like that?"
"Well..." She frowned. "He was... is, a chemist. From stimpaks to jets, he could make a lot of things. I'm certain he had a few poisons up his sleeve as well, but..."
"But poisons don't cause plagues." Amber finished. "And they claim it's some kind of a virus they can filter out from the water."
"A virus?" Ruth shook her head helplessly. "That's not his thing. Besides, engineering a virus is way out of our league. You need at least pre-war labs and lots of equipment for that. Back then, we didn't even have a stimpak." She wrapped her arms around herself. "Everything in this, just... doesn't add up. I'd have-"
Her words were interrupted by loud banging on the metal door.
"Enough of the chit-chat, girls!" The guard's voice rumbled. "If you're not gonna come out in a minute, I'll drag you out by force. Both of you!"
Ruth tensed and scrambled back, deeper into the cell, pressing her back against the stone wall. The redhead stood up slowly, looking at her from behind the bars.
"... Amber..." The imprisoned woman looked up at her, her eyes pleading. "Tell me you believe me."
She frowned, a storm of thoughts and feelings clouding her mind. After what felt like an eternity of silence, broken by a few falling droplets somewhere within the corridor, the redhead answered. "I believe you."
She heard her quietly sigh in relief. Getting back up to her feet, Ruth looked around her cell.
"I'll do everything I can to get you out of this mess." Amber continued, putting as much comfort into those words as she could.
The door behind her opened and the guard walked in, tapping his foot impatiently.
"That's it. I have to go." She whispered, but Ruth grabbed her hand through the bars.
"I... I have a request." She said in a hushed tone. "If this doesn't work... please, if you can, don't let them..." Her voice faltered and a warm piece of metal landed in Amber's palm.
Her eyes widened as she looked down at it. Her fingers clenched around a large bullet. Understanding her friend's last request, she nodded silently, and turned towards the entrance.