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Chapter 14: Whoever tosses the first stone

Amber's legs were heavy as she trudged up the creaking staircase. She had to focus twice as hard on keeping her balance and getting to the top without tripping. Her mind was in and out of the present moment, a million thoughts battling one another. The general exhaustion after the long day took its toll on the redhead's body, her muscles additionally sore and tingling in a few strategic places. She reached the bridge leading to her temporary, borrowed home, and glanced back at the town. The night had fallen over Big Bog and most of the cargo containers were illuminated by slightly swaying oil lamps, while the entrance to the council's building was bathed in cold, artificial light. She heard some sounds of life, loud talks, and even celebrating, but the town was generally calm at this time. Amber didn't want to imagine how much it could change the next day. Her attention was brought back to Stan's home, as someone came out of the metal room, quickly closing the door behind them. The man gave her a startled glance, then hastily walked past her and down the stairs.

"Oh, you're back. Good." She saw Stan lock the door on the opposite side of the room as she entered. "How was your... visit?" He gave her a sympathetic smile.

"Your guards are really triggerhappy." She said with a shrug.

"What do you mean?" The man turned towards her. "Nobody got hurt, I hope?"

"No, nobody, and hopefully nobody will." The redhead reached for her backpack. "As for my talk with Ruth, I got what I wanted." She added, taking out her spare shirt.

Her host nodded, then turned to a counter. "We'll find out tomorrow if your friend was being honest with you." He poured two glasses of water and set one on the table for her. "Help yourself to whatever you need."

Amber looked at the glass suspiciously. "Who was your guest?"

"One of our residents. He had an issue with a pipe in his home, came here to ask if I could take a look at it." The man replied with a shrug. "Just another day's work, things break here all the time. There should be another ten pairs of hands or so to be able to keep up with everything, but we don't have that many people, as you know."

"Awfully late for a home visit." Amber noted, careful not to sound too leery.

"As you've probably noticed, this was a busy day." Stan smiled at her. "I try to keep my doors open for those in need. And people here are, usually, in need of something. You should know, that's why you're here after all?" It was more of a statement rather than a question.

She fell silent for a moment. "Sorry, I didn't mean to..."

"No need to be sorry." The man said casually and turned towards the other room. "I'm leaving for the night so you can have some privacy."

"Thank you for all the hospitality." She returned the smile. "Where did you say was the shower?"

It was a small room with a makeshift, but fully functional installation, and Amber had to count herself as lucky. Two showers in such a short time was a luxury not many wastelanders could experience, and she pretty much got it for free. She was, however, too tired, and her mind too occupied to really enjoy it. She didn't care about the plague, she just felt dirty and she had to wash it all off. Sweat and dirt were easily removed from her skin, but these were quickly replaced by guilt. She thought about her partner stuck in the cold, damp cell, surrounded by nothing but concrete, moss, and rusted bars. She did what she could to make sure she stayed safe till morning, but after that, it was all up to her. She turned off the water, dried herself, and returned back to her temporary home.

Amber collapsed on the sofa, feeling the energy seep away from her. She was exhausted both physically and mentally, but no matter how much she turned and for how long she closed her eyes, she couldn't fall asleep, for the second night in a row already. Stress and worry clenched her throat and the overloaded mind forced her to analyse her thoughts over and over again, looking for a possible solution. Lying here felt like a horrible waste of time, but there was nothing she could do at the moment. She could, in theory, explore the town under the cover of the night, but even the short walk back from prison told her it wouldn't end well. Not only could that make her look suspicious and further distance her from the council and their limited trust, but she would most probably not make it to the trial at all. There were eyes that followed her all the way back, and she noticed a couple people stalking her through the square. She wasn't normally afraid of a fight and even welcomed a challenge whenever she could, but today had given her enough of a kick already. Amber sighed helplessly, curling up on the sofa and pulling the blanket tighter around herself.

The town was slowly waking up and the first citizens emerged onto the square. She looked at them from above, standing at the highest point of the scaffolding she could possibly get to. It reached a little above the ancient walls, giving her a chance to look at the whole settlement as the sun emerged from beyond the horizon. From here she could make out a few distinct buildings. She recognized the council's town hall, the prison, a place she figured could be the local hospital with a faded red cross painted above the entrance, and a tall hut amidst the residential spaces adorned with signs that could suggest a pub. There were remnants of merchant stands in the square, but the majority were left to rot, while only a handful seemed to still be in use for the local community. The town had to be decorated with a few green spaces between the makeshift buildings and in the center of the square, but with no one to take care of them, they were either overgrown with ugly shrubs or were completely dried to a crisp.

Wind hit her face as she turned away from the square and her eyes widened as she saw how far north the settlement reached. Behind the walls of the large, pre-war building was an extending landscape of the sad remains of a factory and a ruined power station. Rusted pipes were slithering like metal snakes between crumbled buildings and various machinery. Most of the rubble was cleared over time and numerous wooden houses were built in its place, having once been the homes to many families that lived there before the plague struck. Now, they stood empty and abandoned among other relics of the past. The three tall chimneys she saw from afar were now towering above her. One of them already succumbed to the merciless forces of time with its foundations weakened by rising waters. The other two still stood, but even from her distant vantage point she could see large cracks in their thick, concrete shells. She could read a painted name on one of them, Archer Industries. The lake which once powered the industry, despite the surrounding desert, expanded over the two centuries and slowly devoured the factories that used to shackle its waters. Piles of salt once extracted from the lake were dumped at the far end of the settlement. Years had turned it into a weathered, gray mass of solidified sludge. Past these masses, she could faintly see an abandoned farmland that at one point in the past could've been the local source of fresh produce.

Amber sighed after surveying the area for a few more minutes, thinking where to begin. Everything beyond the hall was dead and unmoving. The majority of people were now housed within the walls and near the gate, about a half of what was once called Big Bog was reduced to a little more than another wasteland ruin. She stepped down the scaffolding and headed for the center of the square, where a few merchants were open for business.

As soon as she reached them, though, the traders either closed their stands or turned away, wishing to have nothing to do with the newcomer. The same happened when she tried to approach any of the citizens. Some being more rude than the others told her to piss off, some redirected her elsewhere or simply walked away. She saw people of all ages, from children looking at her with wide eyes, to some older folk with their wrinkled faces twisted in disapproval and disgust. There were a few kinder souls with whom she at least had a conversation, but they either didn't know enough, or only confirmed the story she'd already heard from the council. The thing she noticed throughout her attempted interviews was that everyone in this town was malnourished. She'd noticed that before, when the crowd first surrounded them, but only now did she have the time to look closer at the individuals. Their skin was usually of unhealthy hues of gray, they were skinny, and there were visible bags under their eyes. It was sometimes hard for her to guess the exact age of the person she encountered. Eventually, after a long series of disappointments, she risked going into the pub.

A little bell at the entrance rang as the doors closed behind her. Amber didn't expect many people here at this hour, but she hoped to at least find the barkeep. The wooden benches were empty, save for one person sleeping in the corner. Opposite the entrance there were stairs leading up, faint light from the outside shining from the upper room.

"Anyone home?" The counter was lit up with rusted lanterns, giving the place a rather gloomy atmosphere. Peering past it and into the back room, no one greeted her at first, but she soon heard shuffling footsteps. A large, somewhat wrinkled woman appeared before her, standing even taller than the redhead.

"Well, look who we have here." The barkeep corrected tiny glasses at the end of her nose and leaned on the counter. Dark patches covered the weathered skin of her face and arms. "The little flea's protector, no less."

Amber frowned a little, but kept eye contact. "I'm only here to know what really happened, which may or may not help her. Could you answer a few things about that, miss...?"

"You can call me Donna, kid." The woman gave her a slight nod, studying her carefully. "And you better make it quick."

"What can you tell me about the break in? Did you see anything the day your wells were poisoned?"

Donna extended her hand, not looking away from the redhead. Amber reached into a pouch and took out a few caps that landed in the open palm. "Lucky find for you, I was the one who nabbed her."

Finally, she found something meaningful. "Please, tell me all about it."

"Well, we ran out of bourbon. My husband was running the tap, but he's been dead since the second wave, so now I'm here. Someone forgot to resupply the basement that night, so I went out to check if we had any imports in the storage." The barkeep paused to cough. A terrible, painful-sounding cough. "Saw the little rat already leaving the place when I got there."

"Are you certain it was the woman brought in today?"

The hand extended again, and was begrudgingly filled with a few more caps.

"Perhaps, I didn't get to see when they brought 'er. But I hope to see the execution." She gave her an ugly smile of slightly yellowed teeth. "Could hardly imagine someone as small as her could carry that much and still run like hell. I called the guards, but they didn't catch her. I saw the white on her, though, the warrants look pretty accurate to me." The barkeep leaned away from the counter and looked down at the newcomer. There was some movement upstairs.

"Thank you... Did you see the storage afterwards? The lock?"

"I did." Donna looked to the side. "But I think you asked enough questions, missy."

Two people descended from the upper floor and stopped at the stairs, glaring at the redhead in a very unfriendly manner.

"Wait. Tell me what you saw, Donna. This is important." She emphasized, putting her hand on the counter.

"No, I think your time's up. You haven't even ordered anything, and my boys are getting impatient." She smiled again, and Amber heard the previously sleeping man in the back stir and get up as the other figures slowly stepped a little closer.

"Is that how you always treat your patrons?"

"No." The woman lowered her head a little and leaned forward, close enough she could smell her breath. "But the town's changed, and mistakes tend to happen to nosy little rats like yourself."

She noted hearing that phrase here before. Amber glared back, but knew there was nothing else to be gained here. She nodded, then turned around and left the pub, the little bell ringing on her way out. Looking around the space, she considered seeing the storage area for herself, but the pub doors behind her opened and the goons kept watch as she made her way towards the local hospital instead.

"I'm very sorry, dear, but I cannot help you." Abby Moore said in a thin, colorless voice. She had distinct Asian features and neatly trimmed hair, but her face was sad and her eyes of a distant gaze. "I don't know anything more about your friend. Ever since the epidemic started, I barely had the time to do anything other than my work." The woman gestured around the spacious room with numerous beds and screens.

"I believe you, but... I expected there to be more patients?" Amber noted, following her movement.

"There's one at the moment, but I'm also the only doctor in here. The last one, after the disease took away the rest." Her voice was depressingly monotonous.

Amber sighed and crossed her arms. "I'm sorry. Could you at least tell me about the disease? What exactly happened?"

"To be honest, I don't really know. I was just a nurse back when it started." Abby looked at her hands clasped together. "My colleagues did some in-depth research, but we were too slow and understaffed to understand its nature or find a cure."

"I heard it was some kind of a virus added to the water," the redhead continued, "and that you can filter it out."

The doctor sighed. "We initially thought it was some kind of poison, a chemical of some sort." She sat down at her desk, turning to her guest. "The infection spread too fast and the symptoms didn't match anything we've ever heard about. Besides, it didn't appear to be contagious, at first at least. But Stan's filtering system worked and the number of infected people dropped significantly."

"So... is it contagious?" Amber tried to hide the nervousness in her voice.

"It seems to be, but only in certain conditions." Abby ensured her. "It probably needs to be ingested. I tended to various patients in all the possible stages and never got infected, but all the other doctors who tried to isolate the virus got it."

"Have you tried to continue their work?"

"No." She slowly shook her head. "I know how to ease their suffering and keep them alive as long as I can, but I just don't know enough to do the research." Her dark eyes drifted towards something far in the distance. "Besides, I am the last medic this town has. If I get infected like... like other doctors did, there'd be no one left here to help my people. I can't let that happen."

Amber processed her words in silence for a few moments while the other woman drank some water out of her glass and seemed to space out, her hands shaking slightly, but continuously.

"So, basically." The redhead said, her brow furrowed. "You don't really know what it was, but you know it's in the water since it stopped once you put those filters on." She tried to piece together what she's just learned.

"We still get infections every now and then." Abby added, setting the empty glass on the desk. "Only now it's more random, a few people now and then, the symptoms aren't as severe, but it still happens."

"What are the symptoms exactly?" Amber really didn't want to know the details. She heard horror stories about people puking their guts out and dying with intestines hanging out of their backsides, but at that point she needed to know everything she could.

"In most cases patients experience fatigue, muscle pain, then fever and overwhelming headaches." The doctor started. "The fever gets really severe over a few days and soon dehydration sets in, due to excessive sweating. In the final stage patients lose consciousness, it almost looks like a coma at first. They never fully recover from that."

"What do you mean, they never recover? You mean they die in the coma? They never wake up?" She compared the story she'd heard before to Abby's words and she felt confused at how different from reality her previous knowledge was.

"They do wake up. At least their bodies do, but by then, their minds.... They're gone." Abby's extremely sad, tired voice turned into a whisper as she sunk deeper into the chair. "They... You can't communicate with them, they don't move on their own, barely react to any outside stimulation, don't eat or drink on their own... You have to stand by them almost at all times, live for them because they themselves no longer can."

"You don't have to tell me..." The redhead said softly. The doctor looked at her for a longer moment, then got up and motioned to her right.

"I can show you." She said, trying hard to control her voice. "I can show you what they did to my people."

She walked towards one of the beds hidden behind a curtain. Amber took a deep breath and followed stiffly, as if her legs were made out of lead.

At first glance the body on the bed looked like a corpse. It took her a moment to notice the person's chest moving slowly under the blankets. Their face reminded her of the dried corpses atop the gate, rather than a living human being. The greenish skin stretched across the bones looked as thin as paper. Some tubes went down into their mouth and nose. Their eyes were covered with a piece of cloth. She thought it was an old man, but there wasn't even a hint of facial hair on his face.

"His name is Gregory." Abby said quietly. "He'll be thirteen next month, if he survives that long. This is what the disease does to its victims. All we can do is watch them die over weeks, or months, at best."

"... How did he get infected?" She lowered her voice to a whisper, unable to turn away from the poor boy.

"We don't know, and he won't tell us anymore." The doctor replied, gently checking his pulse. "We found him near the filtering station, so he might have been exposed to the contaminated water."

"I see." Amber had many pieces of the puzzle, hardly enough to know what the entire picture was, but she could already tell that it wasn't what the elders were describing. She finally turned away to look at Abby. "Thank you so much for all you've told me, and I'm sorry for all the pain you've been through. I have to go get ready for the trial-"

"Wait." The doctor stopped her as her dark brown eyes locked with Amber's green ones. "I told you all this because I wanted you to know what your... friend did to us. I admire your loyalty, but I just want you to know... She doesn't deserve it. They didn't deserve it." She gestured at the patient.

"I know you believe so." The redhead replied softly. "And I know you have your reasons, but I think you, and everyone else in this town, are wrong." With those words she quickly left the hospital.

The sun had just climbed to the top of the sky as she neared the town hall. It was soon time for the trial to start and people gathered one by one under the empty windows. Amber took a swing from her water canteen and deeply inhaled the hot, desert air to calm down her breathing. She didn't have any actual proof of her companion's innocence. In fact, what she'd learned was much less than what she'd expected to find, but she hoped it was enough. It had to be enough, she thought, as she squeezed through the crowd and the guards let her inside.

The main meeting hall she entered changed since the previous day. There were two small tables added, one on each side of the room, and an additional bench in the center. The crowd inside was smaller than before. Their gazes and whispers followed her every step across the courtroom.

"Welcome, Miss Dale." The mayor addressed her, standing up from his chair. Most of the other members of the council were already there, too, seated respectively. The only one missing was the judge, but even her seat was missing.

"Sir." She nodded at him and Stan, who left the table to greet her.

"Please, reconsider your position, dear." The older man spoke softly. "You have to know your friend won't live till the end of this day. You really don't have to witness it."

"I know she didn't do it." Amber sent him a cold glance, her voice confident. "I will not abandon her."

Stan exhaled slowly and shook his head. "Such a shame. You should have listened to me." He walked away as one of the guards led her to the table on the left.

Amber sat on one end of the room, ignoring the mocking looks and voices from the back. A few minutes later, Irene Adler entered the hall, followed by a pair of masked guards leading the accused. Amber focused on her companion, looking for any new signs of trauma. Ruth's eyes were reddened and swollen, her torn suit was replaced with a simple, long shirt and a pair of leggings that covered most of her body and any potential bruises or wounds. She could only see the reddened marks on her neck and wrists, left by the rope from yesterday. As soon as she entered, the room exploded with angry shouts and a few people stood up. The woman walked slowly with her head low, visibly flinching at the verbal assault. Their eyes met for a brief moment and the redhead noticed a glimpse of hope on her friend's face. Ruth was seated on the bench before the council with a guard on each side.

"Shall we begin?" The mayor stood up, gaining everyone's attention and causing the shouts to quiet down. Both Irene and Amber nodded from the opposite sides of the room. "Good. There are long and boring procedures in the NCR law code regarding those proceedings." He continued. "I hope both sides agree that we're not here for that. Unless the defence wants to keep the accused alive as long as possible by stalling the court?" The man turned towards Amber.

"No, your honor. All I want is to find out the truth." She answered coldly, ignoring the hushed sniggers behind her back.

"In that case, we will begin." He waved at the other side of the room to proceed before sitting down. The room followed with only Irene, Amber, and Ruth standing.

"Ruth Delassandis." Irene began with her raspy voice, holding up a piece of paper in her bony hands. "You are accused of conspiring to poison the water supplies of this town, in turn causing the death of three hundred and fifty two people." She looked up from the scribbled text directly and the blue-haired woman. "How do you plead?"

"Not guilty." Amber replied sharply before Ruth could even react.

Another wave of angry shouts washed through the room, silenced only when the mayor spoke up.

"Miss Dale. We have testimonies of eye witnesses who saw the woman in question enter the water purification facility. We know she stole medical supplies from the storage nearby, she admitted to that already." He commented. "What is your explanation?"

"You're not accusing her of theft." Amber replied calmly, shifting her green eyes from him to Irene. "She already told you she stole that medicine. If it was kept near your water supply, is it possible this was exactly what your witnesses saw?" She turned towards the panel of elders.

"It isn't impossible, but pretty unlikely." Stan replied in his naturally gentle tone. "There are several ways to access both facilities, but this is the shortest way to break into both almost at the same time."

"And we know someone bashed open the door to the water purification machinery. Why would she do that if she wanted to get to the medical storage?" Irene looked at the redhead with a smug expression.

Amber shifted her gaze from the persecutor to the accused. Their eyes met again and Ruth shook her head slightly in disbelief.

"Mister Jones, I did not have the time to go to the crime scene to investigate it, but please tell me, how heavy and well protected was the door?" She turned, addressing Stan.

"Well..." The man stood up, clearing his throat. "I came to this town a few weeks after the plague started, so I can't be sure, but now those doors are pretty heavy, made of metal and have a new lock."

"It's the same door, the lock was similar, pretty old, but sturdy." Another man from among the elders spoke up. "What is your point?"

"My point is..." Amber spoke carefully as she processed the new information. "That the accused is a skilled lockpicker and at the time of the alleged crime she was basically a scavenger living in the desert. I doubt she'd be in any shape to bash heavy metal doors open, especially if she could open the lock instead and leave the crime unnoticed, as I assume was the plan." She finished allowing herself a brief smile. "Unless, of course, she broke the same way into your medical storage?"

The room fell silent for a moment before a familiar female voice emerged from the crowd.

"We discovered that the medical supplies were missing only after the plague had already begun." The town's only surviving doctor spoke up. "There were no signs of any break in."

"This doesn't mean anything." Irene replied dismissively. "We know she wasn't working alone, she came here with a family member."

"Yes, she did, with her uncle. They came here hoping to get medical help for her wounded father stranded out in the desert." The redhead replied coldly. "They were denied medical services, so she stole the supplies to save him from certain death. Ruth admitted to that, gave herself in, and submitted to your judgement."

She expected angry shouts again, but to her surprise, the room remained silent with only a few whispers in the background. Irene, however, appeared unfazed by her argument.

"Your Honor, please bring in the glass we found in the filtering system." She requested. One of the guards approached her and handed her a small bundle. The woman unwrapped the cloth and revealed a small, corked vial with a faded paper label.

"Miss Delassandis. Do you recognize this?" She approached the accused, showing her the evidence. Amber followed, paying close attention to her friend's reaction.

Ruth examined the glass and she saw her frown, turning the vial in her fingers. A simple EXP 09 could still be recognized on the weathered material of the paper label. She looked up at Amber, then back at the label.

"It... it looks like it could belong to my uncle, yes. I recognize the handwriting." She muttered, swallowing a lump in her throat. "I've... seen similar things on him before."

"So you admit that the contents of this little glass is what poisoned the town?" Irene asked.

"No, she doesn't." Amber barked at the older woman and turned to face Ruth. "Who was your uncle? Why would he have those on him?" Her voice changed to a calm tone.

"He was a chemist. He lived off of making basic medicine, drugs... and other chems." Ruth tried to keep her voice steady, her eyes were locked on the offending piece of paper glued to the glass. "But... I can't tell you what this is. I just don't know."

Amber looked at the audience. All the faces were turned towards them, some people in the back even stood up to see what was going on.

"Miss Moore." She called the doctor. "Is it true that the cause of your plague is some kind of a virus?"

"This is the conclusion we arrived at with Stan." The woman answered, nodding. "Our doctors never got the chance to finish their investigation, but the fact that filtering helps at all means it's something in the water."

"Alright, thank you." The redhead turned towards the elders and Irene. "I'm not a scientist, I'm a simple scavenger and a mercenary, so correct me if I'm wrong here, but chemists don't make viruses, right?" She asked. "You need a big, clean lab with very expensive pre-war tech to make viruses. So how did a desert scavenger, who didn't have the caps to buy meds for his brother, could afford a lab to make a deadly virus that affects your town and nothing else for miles?"

"It landed on our doorstep like a ticking bomb, and she was there!" Irene protested angrily. "Where they got it isn't relevant!"

"Yes, it is, because you're accusing my partner of things she obviously couldn't do at the time." The redhead snapped back, looking into the old woman's gray eyes.

"We have proof for-"

"No you don't!" Amber interrupted her, raising her voice so that the entire room could hear her. Her mind was shuffling the pieces of the puzzle, putting it all together, and a completely new image began to emerge. "At best, you have proof that someone threw the content of this glass into your water supply while Ruth was out stealing meds for her father. Maybe it was her uncle, maybe it was someone who stole it from her uncle, it doesn't matter, because she's on the trail and not him!" She finished, pointing at the speechless woman on the bench.

"This is absurd!" Irene exclaimed angrily, but Amber could see a shadow of a doubt in her eyes.

"No, this is looking for a scapegoat!" She addressed the elders. "There is no doubt that the plague is a tragedy, and I agree that there is someone out there responsible for it." The whole room was dead silent, all eyes on her. "Someone who wants to redirect your efforts, to blame a poor scavenger girl and her family while this tragedy continues. Sentencing her to death won't give you justice, it's a show to blind you, distract you from something else!"

"What do you mean?" The mayor said, irritated, already getting impatient. "That is a fascinating story, but you better have some evidence to back this up!"

"Think about it, this whole plague makes no sense." Amber approached his desk. "There's a magical virus somewhere in the water of this lake and it affects only your people and only from time to time." She continued, gesturing randomly at the elders. "And it targets inconvenient people, like doctors, and teenagers who snoop around the filters. Doesn't it sound rather suspicious to you? You have never opened your doors to anyone since then and limited yourselves to one false belief!"

There was not a sound in the hall. It seemed as if everyone present held their breath, even the old persecutor stood seemingly overwhelmed by her words.

Someone stood up, breaking the silence, the scraping of the chair sounding loudly in the chamber.

"Can we all please get back to the topic at hand?" Stan asked, his usually calm and soothing voice now resonated with an unusual strength. "This mockery of a trial went for a bit too long and we lost our focus. There is only one possible verdict here and always has been, so can we please finish this?"

The crowd erupted into a hate-filled roar. People rose from their seats, shaking their fists and once again yelling for justice.

Shocked, Amber could almost see the mayor's old, wise eyes fill with anger in a heartbeat.

"You insulted us with your baseless allegations, hoping that your lies would clout our judgement!" He shouted at her, slamming his hands at the table before him. "We extended our hospitality and good will towards you, we wanted to respect your laws and in return, you wanted to poison our minds and hearts!"

"What!?" She shook her head in disbelief. She thought she'd made it; the whole courtroom heard her out and now they simply threw away the truth she'd given them? Her judgement of them couldn't have been worse. "What are you talking about? This is not..."

"Silence! We will deal with you later!" The old man exclaimed and turned towards Ruth, who was equally stunned by this situation, darting her eyes helplessly from Amber to him. "Ruth Delassandis! You are guilty of all charges. Your sentence is death by impalement, to be carried out as soon as possible!"

Her mouth went dry and her legs almost gave in. The noise of the crowd drilled into their heads.

"But..." Ruth struggled to find her voice in the overwhelming rage. "But you heard her! You listened to her!" Her words were barely audible. "She was telling you the truth! What is wrong with you people?!"

"You have no right to speak anymore." The mayor pierced her with his gaze. "You'd better save your breath for what's coming. Guards!" He ordered. "Take her away, and prepare the square."

The two men held her by the arms at once. "No!" Ruth somehow managed to break free, slipping her lean body from under their grip. She ran up to Amber, grabbing the woman's arms as both guards rushed after her.

"Amber, please! Don't let them do this to me!" She begged frantically, terrified.

Before the redhead could reply, the guards tore her companion away. She was dragged out of the room. She saw her kicking and thrashing, trying to escape, but her further protests became muffled and silenced by the uproar.

Amber found herself being surrounded and dragged away as well. "What the fuck is this?!"

"We don't want you running around or helping your friend again." The mayor walked up to the redhead, standing face to face with her. "You are no longer welcome here."

"Please, forgive my lack of judgment." Stan spoke hastily approaching them. "She might actually be her partner in crime. We will have to deal with her later."

"You will answer for this, for messing with our heads." The mayor barked at her and waved at the guards to take her away.

"I'm not the one messing with you, you old, blind fool!" She yelled, pushing both guards away from her. "Don't you see what's going on here?" She rushed towards Stan, who had to take a step back before two more guards jumped at her. "This dirtbag is-" She started, but her world turned black as one of the men restraining her hit her with a baton over the head.

"She should join her friend on the pole today," she could still faintly hear the conversation nearest to her, as Stan said dryly, "but she might know something that might help us heal this town. Lock her up in my home, she'll have a grand view of the execution, it should soften her up."

The unmistakable sensation of a floor hitting her face was enough to wake Amber up. She dragged herself off the ground, trying to convince her head that the room wasn't spinning, before she looked around. She was back at Stan's place, leaning against the couch. To her surprise, all of her gear was still there, including their rifles and other weapons. All of it was useless without their ammo, so she unbuttoned her shirt and pulled out a handful of rounds from between the faded wraps around her chest. Her eyes locked on the long, slim bullet Ruth gave her the previous night and she felt as if a bucket of cold water was dumped on her head. The world stopped spinning immediately as she jumped up to the window. A large crowd was already beginning to form around the raised platform in the middle of the square where several men were working on something.

"Fuck. Fuck. Fuck!" She repeated to herself, looking frantically around the room. Both the door leading outside and the door to the second room were closed. She could hear the lazy steps of a guard outside. Just one man, but probably armed. "Stan, you fucking bastard, how did you do it..." She muttered, looking around again, desperately trying to find something, some kind of a clue to solve this mystery in the next ten minutes or so. Her eyes stopped on the glass of water standing on the table, exactly where he put it for her in the morning. "You've gotta be kidding me." The other glass he'd poured for himself was standing on the counter, untouched.

It was so obvious, so in her face all the time, she didn't even notice it before. She smacked the glass off of the stand in anger and watched as it shattered to pieces on the metal floor. From there, she looked up at the door to the second room. The lock was pretty simple, but she didn't have the time to fiddle with it. Fortunately for her, it appeared to be the only part of the door which wasn't eaten by rust. One well placed kick later she had a clear passage to the room. There was a small workshop with what appeared to be a working propane torch on the far end of it, a small bed, a few chests stuffed with clothes and other junk, and a shelf with a few preserved books. But that wasn't what Amber focused on. Just next to the workbench was a heavy armored safe and next to it a desk with a working terminal.

Amber rushed towards it and turned it on. Moments later, a well known RobCo welcome screen appeared prompting her to enter a password. She took a few deep, calming breaths, and began her work. Her sweaty, sticky fingers ran across the ancient keyboard typing override commands to enter the debug mode, but her concentration was ruined by a sudden roar from the outside. Amber rushed towards the window to see her friend being dragged towards the platform. Her heart stopped for a moment as her eyes shifted towards the sniper rifle waiting patiently next to the couch. She shook her head and turned back to the terminal. She still had time. Few more minutes to save her. Her fingers shook as she entered the last letters of the password.


The computer beeped silently and greeted her by displaying its menu.

Unlock the safe_

Her fingers almost missed the keys. She could hear the mayor's voice over the roar of the angry mob. The metal lock inside the safe clicked and Amber almost tore the door open.

"No..." She muttered seeing only a pile of papers inside. She grabbed a few of them from the top: letters, lists of parts needed for pump repair, notes on water consumption in the town... "Fuck!" She yelled as her vision blurred with tears. She kept digging, throwing documents out till there was nothing left and then she stopped. The old, rusted safe had a new, shiny plate at the bottom. She could no longer hear the mayor's voice. She felt along the edge of the plate and found a slight dent, just enough to force her nails under it and pry it open with her fingers. The false bottom of the safe clicked and opened, revealing even more letters. For a moment she felt as if the floor under her knees collapsed, that she had indeed lost, but she picked one of them up and tore it open. The ink was blue. She grabbed them all, stuffed them into her pocket and froze. Underneath them were numerous vials. Vials with handwritten labels. "EXP 09," she read out loud, "EXP 11"... she took another one with the name EXP 15.

The redhead grabbed them all and jumped to her feet. She had the proof, but now what. She rushed towards the exit, but stopped at the window. Two guards were now leading Ruth towards a tall bench. The clothes below her long shirt were already torn away. Four more men picked up a long, sharpened pole from the front of the platform.

"NO!" Amber yelled, bolting towards the locked door. "LET ME OUT! STOP THIS!" She kicked against them in anger. Her eyes snapped back to the rifle and the lone bullet lying next to it. The sense of defeat and sorrow filled her heart for a moment, but she slapped herself on the cheek and jumped back to the window. She didn't look at the platform, instead, she looked down at the scaffolding which supported the whole construction. If she could only...

"Go ahead, jump." She heard a familiar voice behind her back. "It will make my job a lot easier."

She turned away from the window only to see Stan standing in front of her with a laser pistol aimed at her chest.

"Or don't." He frowned at her. "Either way, you're dead."

"You son of a..." Amber hissed. Her muscles tensed, ready to jump and tear the man's head clean off of his shoulders.

"I must say I didn't give you enough credit, you're not as stupid as I thought." He took a step forward. "A shame, really, I gave you the chance to walk away, but you just had to stay. And now your friend will die and you will soon follow."

"Why did you do it?" Amber demanded. "You betrayed your own people..."

"Do you really expect me to give you a villain's monologue right now?" He asked mockingly. "I didn't shoot you in the back only because I want to make you see her suffer first. I want you to realise how much you've failed."

Amber focused on his gun, on his finger, on the rhythm of his voice and his breath. The moment his eyes shifted beyond her, towards the execution behind the window, her tensed muscles jumped into action. Like a coiled spring she rushed towards him. He squeezed the trigger and a beam of bright, red energy passed just above her left shoulder, melting the steel frame of the window behind her. She grabbed his hands and twisted the gun in them, feeling the sickening crunch of his fingers. Stan yelled in pain and kicked her, trying to free himself, but her grip tightened.

A sharp, terrifying scream shattered Amber's concentration. Time's up. She froze in place, looking around frantically.

"You lost, girl." He hissed, trying to wrestle his way out.

Her eyes focused on the workshop in the corner, more precisely on the large gas tank next to it. Amber closed her eyes. "Not yet." She whispered and turned them both around. She pushed his gun, aiming it at the rusted metal cylinder and using him as a shield, she pulled the trigger.

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