Chapter 21: Ad Victoriam
Ruth rushed towards the main gate, ignoring the heat of the afternoon sun. There was a rising sense of urgency at the back of her mind. How did they find them, how much do they know? She saw the three figures in the distance, walking towards the entrance to the settlement, and they definitely saw her, too, as they began waving.
"Hey guys, what are you doing here?" She yelled, as soon as the distance between them dropped enough for both sides to hear one another.
"Looking for you two, obviously!" Came Lee's reply. "Care to let us in?"
She hesitated briefly, turning around towards the main building. A couple of people went out into the front yard, and she suspected to be in the crosshair of the lady on the top of the watchtower. She hasn't fired yet, so it was probably a good sign.
"I said I know you, they didn't shoot you on the way here, so it should be enough for now." Ruth shrugged, but prepared for a warning shot at any time as she opened the gate. They quickly closed the distance and Billy was the first to rush up and embrace her in a bone-crushing hug, sending jolts of pain from her bruises.
"We heard what happened, it's so good to see you!" The giant yelled into her ear. "I knew that Bog was getting worse, but-"
"Stop... hurt...!" She gasped, tapping him desperately across his back.
He released her and apologized when the other two soldiers surrounded her.
"Ma'am, sorry you went through all that, I didn't know you-" Vasquez muttered chaotically, avoiding eye contact, but she interrupted him with a hand gesture, slowly inhaling to ease the pain.
"Don't... apologize. We'll talk later if you want." Her voice was somewhat strained, but getting back to normal. Billy smiled at her sheepishly, mouthing another sorry from behind the other man's shoulder. "Boss sent you?" She motioned at the main building and they began making their way up the path.
"Yes, the situation has changed considerably, we have new intel and new... assets." Derek stepped next to her, lowering his voice.
"Heavily armored assets?"
"Yes, armored and very mobile. Getting around the wastes just got a whole lot easier."
"I saw the cloud of dust you kicked up on your way here. That's not exactly blending in." She sent him a somewhat worried glance.
"I know, but when we heard you girls got into trouble again we couldn't walk all the way to Big Bog." Lee shrugged, looking nervously at the people gathered in front of the entrance. "When we got to the Refinery you were already gone and we tracked you to the Smiths. Stevens didn't want to suffer any more losses, we had to be quick."
"We'll discuss that later. Act friendly, those people mean no harm, but they don't exactly like strangers like us... ironically." Ruth muttered, cutting off further discussions as they walked up to the building. "I apologize for the unscheduled arrival of more guests, but those are my friends and coworkers. My and Amber's, we all work together." She addressed the small, clearly skeptical, and somewhat armed crowd.
Despite the less than warm welcome they received, the newcomers were invited inside and into the common room where Ruth proceeded to introduce them to the small gathering crowd of Amber's cousins, aunts, and uncles. As much as she could remember from all the names, anyway. It was a challenge to take on any conversation with the elders by herself, but they all seemed to listen, for the time being. To her surprise, neither the redhead nor her brother were present. She did see Jake shuffling towards her, which made her cringe and brace herself mentally.
"How long will those guys stay here?" He sounded worried. "We usually don't even allow caravans this far."
"I think we'll be leaving today." She replied, still looking around for her friend. "Probably as soon as Amber gets here."
"Aww, are you sure? You can stay here as long as you want." He gave her a warm smile, trying to catch her glance.
She wanted to punch the guy, at least verbally, but a glimpse of the red mane caught her eye and she heard her voice.
"Stop treating me like a child, bro!" Amber's voice sounded weird, weak, and somehow different than usual. A pang of anxiety hit her immediately as she recognized she heard her like that before, when they were at the verge of giving up in that cage. Ruth quickly pushed past the crowd. Matt was there at the entrance, helping her stand straight despite the redhead's clear protests.
"What happened?" Ruth asked, taking a good, long look at her. Amber was pale, worse than pale, it might have been a trick of the light, but her skin appeared almost greenish-gray. There were dark circles under her reddened eyes and her entire face and hands appeared swollen.
"She fainted on me in the workshop." Matt stated flatly, allowing Amber to stand still on her own.
"I did not faint." The woman protested. "It was hot and-" She stopped as soon as Ruth grabbed her hand and touched her forehead.
"Shut up, Red, you're sick." Her mind ran through all the symptoms of the diseases she knew and whatever that could cause them. She immediately had a few suspicions, but she refused to accept them, as they would most likely be a death sentence. "We need to take you to the hospital as soon as possible. I can't do much for you here."
This revelation caused a great disturbance in the crowd that had surrounded them and listened in on the conversation. Some of the people took a step back, some began loudly asking for explanations, others just looked scared, while Martha rushed in, stopping right next to Ruth. Her eyes glanced from her to the redhead and back, her face falling and more unspoken questions stopping at her lips.
"I didn't finish it, but... it's almost done..." Amber muttered with a little smile despite her condition, giving her something she only now noticed to be a hastily clamped together knife.
"That's what you've been doing this whole time?" Ruth took the handiwork and quickly looked it over, the sense of dread of their current situation mixing with warmth and surprise. She didn't have the time to really appreciate it, as the woman next to her huffed.
"Amber, we have to take you to the hospital in the Refinery. Right now." Martha grabbed her hand, looking equally terrified and concerned.
"If I may, ma'am." Derek interrupted, stepping on the other side of Ruth. "I think Camp Imperial would be a much better choice. The hospital there recently got supplies from the heartland NCR-"
"Bah, NCR can take their toys and stuff them where the sun don't shine." Amber's oldest uncle's voice cut through the crowd. "If there's anyone who can help her, it's the ghoul lady from the Refinery, she's had centuries of experience!"
"What... what if she has that Big Bog plague?" Carla asked nervously, her low voice suddenly getting a lot of attention. "What if she's already infected us all?"
All the heads of the family turned from the scarred woman to the pale redhead, and a couple people took a step away from them. The crowd began to murmur in concern, louder and louder, everyone's eyes widening in fear as panic was quickly beginning to take over the saloon.
"There's no Big Bog plague, there never was!" Ruth spun around and snapped, silencing the entire room as everyone seemed to freeze, listening. "It was a poison and it's not infectious! The whole town is now safe, together with you and me, thanks to Amber. Spreading fear now is not going to help her." She gave them a stone cold expression before turning back to the redhead. Amber's unfocused eyes were now pleadingly looking back at her. "But it's not impossible that she could have been poisoned by it before we left, and that's why we need to go to Camp Imperial to make sure. I hope you can respect that decision, instead of fighting over who's right."
The temperature in the room dropped significantly and nobody dared to speak up again. Ruth was suddenly surrounded by a crowd of somber faces. Carla sat down on a couch and wrapped her arms around herself, making herself as small as she could as everyone looked to each other in questioning, sad, or conflicted glances. She wanted to cheer them up somehow, especially Martha, whose face was now almost completely drained of color, but her own throat was blocked by a dry lump.
An elderly voice broke the silence. "Don't just stand there like a bunch of sheep!" Everyone turned towards the tiny, old lady standing in a doorway across the hallway. "They need to get ready for the trip!"
The young woman next to Ruth immediately jumped and rushed towards the frail figure, who just waved at her in dismissal.
"Mother what are you-?" Uncle James exclaimed, but was immediately silenced.
"Don't you mother me now, I want to make sure I won't outlive another one of my grandkids." She walked towards Ruth, guided by whatever forces, with everyone around her stepping aside. She reached forward and grabbed her hand, tightening her bony fingers around hers. "Take care of her, girl. She's too stubborn for her own good, but she'll listen to you eventually."
All she mustered at that time was a brief nod, which she immediately thought was stupid, but the elderly woman let go of her hand, giving her an amiable expression. Grandma turned towards Amber.
"You have to hurry and you have to listen to your doctors."
"I will, Grandma, don't worry." The redhead replied weakly, as if each word was causing her pain.
"Good. Now get going y'all!"
The room erupted in activity. Jake and two younger boys helped Ruth with bringing their bags and the rest of their equipment down, while Matt and Martha kept an eye on Amber. They were given a week's worth of food and water, together with extra ammo. They made sure that those extra supplies went to the trio that came to find them, since the soldiers weren't planning to come all the way back to Camp Imperial with them. They were supposed to continue on their own mission as soon as the other team was provided backup. The elders once again expressed their hopes that once that ordeal was over, the two women should get back to at least visit them, to which Ruth cautiously agreed. Fortunately, that was the end of that topic. She also wanted to offer them caps in compensation for the meds and services they had received at the Refinery, but the family refused. After asking Amber for a couple of basic symptoms, Ruth didn't want to voice her concerns and assumptions of what it was she was going through. Not just yet. She was really hoping to be wrong.
Finally, after a hectic half an hour or so, they were all packed up and ready to go. The family looked on as they left, crowded in the entrance, but they soon disappeared back into the building, leaving two figures to watch them last before they left as well.
Amber, stripped of all of her gear, was walking in the middle, leaning against Billy with Ruth right next to her. The other two guys walked behind them, looking around carefully. In a normal situation, Camp Imperial was a couple of hours' march away from the Farm, but this was not a normal situation and she was all too aware of it.
"So tell me doc, how bad is it?" Amber's voice was quiet and monotonous. "Will I change into a mindless husk?"
"No, you won't." Ruth replied with confidence.
"Cause if I do, please shoot my brains out." The redhead continued. "I don't want to-"
"Listen, whatever you saw in that damned town, it's not the poison that's causing this." She tried to control her voice and act calm, though if she wasn't supporting the woman at the moment, her hands would probably be shaking. "Amber, when was the last time you... relieved yourself?"
"Uhh..." The redhead frowned.
"When was the last time you peed."
"I didn't know you were into this-" Amber looked at her with a faint, dirty smile and Mook, despite his obvious attempts, failed to stop a chuckle.
"Just answer the damn question, this is serious." She glared at her.
"Dunno, didn't really want to drink much, so... yesterday, I guess? Maybe later?" The redhead said with a slight shrug.
Ruth walked a while in silence, weighting her words carefully in her head. She was almost certain she knew what was going on, but the very thought of it made her sick. "It might be your kidneys." She said finally, barely loud enough for Amber to hear. "Radiation poisoning from the cage, maybe even that from the Nuka Cola monster could have damaged them. It can... get pretty rough."
"Funny, I always thought my liver would give up on me first." The redhead chuckled weakly.
"Nobody's giving up on you yet, Red." Billy said, lifting her up a bit. "We'll get you patched up in no time."
Ruth again said nothing, just felt her face harden with anxiety. If she was right, her friend could only have a couple of very painful days left. There was no miracle cure for a failed organ, no daring, risky maneuver, or a brilliant act to save her. Not in any hospital she's been to, at least. She held the woman a little tighter as they walked away from the farm and past the first ruined building, and felt her throat tighten. Either Ruth was wrong, and she was almost sure she wasn't, or her first, true friend in her life was a walking corpse with a very short expiration date.
The grim silence was eventually broken up by a radio static followed by Derek's words behind her back. "Ants coming home, Chariot, get ready for extraction, over."
Ruth turned around just in time to hear a series of jumbled words come from a tiny device she just now noticed on Lee's neck. "What was-"
Her question was interrupted by a roar of an engine right next to them. As if from thin air, a massive vehicle on six wheels rolled out from behind a partially collapsed homestead. It blocked their path in no time; no warning signs, no time to run away from it. It was at least twice her height, and its tall, thick tires moved through the sand with ease no one would expect of a beast this huge. Her first instinct was to grab her rifle and jump into a ditch, but a familiar, painted logo of cogs and a sword encircled by wing-like shapes sent cold shivers down her spine, freezing her in place. The engine's roar died down to a low rumble.
"Your ride is here, ladies." Derek's words brought her back to her senses, though she still couldn't look away from the metal monster of a machine in front of them. "This is where we part ways, they'll take you back in no time."
"I... this?" She exclaimed, pointing at it.
"Lemme guess." She heard Amber's voice as Mook led her to the vehicle, leaving Ruth rooted in place. "I died, and this is my heaven?‘
"No, Red, you're gonna go back home and get better." Billy replied as the side door of the car hissed open. From within, a huge, metal-clad arm extended to help the woman get inside. It pulled her in quickly, as Billy waved her goodbye.
"You better go, Delassandis." Vasques approached her from the side, gesturing in the direction of the armored car. "They need to know what's wrong with her and how to help." He nodded with a smile, his dark eyes finally making contact with hers. "You'll be fine."
Still mostly speechless and dumbfounded by what just happened, she nodded back and rushed towards the metal door, jumping inside after the redhead. The heavy metal cover slid back down with a hiss and slammed shut right behind her and she found herself in a cramped, metal box filled with red, artificial light, staring at a seven-feet-tall metal man.
"Welcome to the Chariot, Corporal." Came the muffled, distorted voice of the person behind the metal helmet that glared at her with green-tinted visors that looked nothing like eyes.
This really was heaven. Despite all the pain and the overpowering weakness of her body, Amber couldn't stop herself from analyzing every square inch of the Chariot's interior. Her eyes marveled at the construction, and if she were only able to stand without issue, she would probably touch every surface, trying to figure out exactly what was where and how. And the best part of it all was that Ruth didn't even try to stop her from reaching out and straining to touch some hanging parts of the machinery. The woman next to her was awfully quiet, curled up and looking ahead, strapped to the seat, hugging their backpacks. The redhead suspected it was due to being locked in a tight, shaky, metal box. Well, not really tight. The interior of this vehicle was enormous. Its sloped walls and ceiling were filled with all sorts of dangling equipment, but the central passage was tall enough to accommodate a standing power armor suit with a couple of inches to spare, and you could probably fit at least a dozen of them shoulder to shoulder along its length. She's never seen a power armor this up close before, and she cursed her eyes for being unable to focus on every detail at the moment.
It was really noisy, though. Her headache would be killing her if it wasn't for the efforts of the rest of her body trying to outshine itself in terms of just how much pain it could produce at once. The massive armored figure standing nearby was looking down at them ominously, but at that point, Amber really couldn't care less. As long as they would get her fast to a place with copious amounts of Med-X, she was fine with whatever.
As bumpy and loud as the ride was, it was at least a short one. They stopped only once, probably to pass the gate. Soon after that they reached their destination, the side door opened with a hiss and the engine died. Two people in weird flight suits, a man and a woman, came next to the Chariot with a hospital bed on wheels. The armored figure helped Amber get off the ledge and on the bed. Ruth followed, looking all too eager to jump out of the massive vehicle. So eager in fact that she almost bumped into Colonel Stevens waiting for them outside. They exchanged a couple of words the redhead didn't bother to register, as another figure in a white lab coat approached her. She took a quick glance around to figure out where they were, but all she could see was gray. They were definitely in a very large room with no windows. Massive, steel beams supported a tall ceiling with a whole host of pipes and cables suspended underneath. If it wasn't for the familiar face of her superior she'd suspect they went to an entirely different base. Her horizontal position quickly proved to be even more painful and disorienting for her as the massive room started to spin around and blur. If she had anything in her stomach, she'd probably puke it out on that pristine lab coat next to her. Instead, she just felt her muscles contract painfully.
"You're Private Dale?" The woman in white asked. Amber tried to focus on her features. She had a somewhat long face, covered with tiny wrinkles surrounded by short, brown and gray hair. Her voice sounded mature and authoritative, matching the stern, steel-blue eyes.
"Depends who's asking?" She replied, doing her best to look at the Colonel who just approached her bed with Ruth right behind him.
"This is Scribe Williams from the Brotherhood of Steel." Stevens assured her. "They are on our side."
"Then yes, I'm Private First Class Amberly Dale." The redhead clumsily saluted.
"Try not to move, soldier, I'm trying to help you survive this in one piece." The older woman replied coldly and Amber felt a needle entering her arm. "Do you have any ideas what is going on with you?"
"My doctor says it's kidneys." She looked at Ruth, who up to this point was quiet and still, standing behind Stevens.
"Yes." Her friend stepped closer to her bed drawing everyone's attention. "She... we had contact with highly polluted and radioactive water for a prolonged amount of time and had a couple of radaway treatments. She probably received a few packets over the last few days. Her symptoms could suggest severe damage to her kidneys, if not worse, a complete shut down."
"I see." The elder scribe tapped her fingers on Amber's bed for a moment, then turned to the two people standing on the other side. "We don't have much time. Knight Carther, get Miss Dale to the medscan, let Daniel handle that, Knight Webber, put on a lab coat and go to the poor excuse of that hospital, bring the two medics here, I'll need nurses."
The redhead chuckled at her commands as the hangar room began moving around her. She could still hear pieces of their conversation, recognized a few voices, but not words. The vast, blurred gray around her suddenly changed into a much narrower and closer white with painfully bright lights. She closed her eyes, feeling even more dizzy.
"So, Knight... Carther, was it?" She asked the man in a funny, orange flight suit. He remained silent with only his footsteps echoing in the corridor. "You come here often?" This time she could hear a chuckle. "Okay, so you can hear me and I'm not hallucinating talking to you." She risked opening an eye, but the blurred lights around her made her regret that immediately. "You know... I could be dead soon and you're not making my last moments on Earth very entertaining."
"You're not going to die, soldier, Scribe Williams will patch you up." He had a gentle, reassuring voice. She tried to remember his face from the brief moment between leaving the Chariot and lying down, but even her memories got blurred. "Try to keep your strength."
They passed another door only to find themselves in another brightly lit room. That was everything she could tell about it. It was bright. Her eyes were hurting even through her closed eyelids.
"Hey, Dan, get the medscan ready, we need a full diagnosis as soon as possible."
She heard someone murmur somewhere in the distance, a couple of switches were flipped and a couple of fans started spinning, accompanied by a series of beeps and boops.
"So do I get up or-" She asked, trying to lift herself up on her elbows, but a surprisingly cold hand grabbed her shoulder and gently held in place.
"Please don't move." A new voice said and she suddenly felt a shadow fall across her face and the noises from the machine got slightly muffled. She cracked one eye open to see a multicolor array of blinking lights surrounding her on all sides, very close to her face. She would hardly have any space to move even if she wanted to.
"Ruth would hate this." She muttered to herself, trying to focus on the pattern of wavy lights. "How long does this-" Her question was interrupted by the flash of light as the cover lifted, revealing the uniformly lit, white ceiling. She hissed, turning her head immediately, which in turn caused her stomach to convulse with twice the force as before, knocking mostly air out of her exhausted body. Her entire vision turned white for a moment despite her eyelids being closed as tightly as possible.
"Woah, hang in there, girl." A pair of strong, warm hands held her back against the table. She tried to take another deep breath, but her body still didn't finish retching after the first one and she felt the taste of blood in her mouth after something came out of her.
"Oh this is not good." The voice which she assumed belonged to Daniel hissed nervously.
"Yeah, no shit." She somehow managed to reply, getting her body under control.
"Those scans look as if you were drinking spent nuclear coolant for a week straight."
"So not as bad as I thought." The redhead chuckled, wiping her mouth with the back of her shaky hand.
Further conversation was brought to a stop when the doors opened and the older scribe's voice requested the results of the scan. What followed was a long and tedious conversation between two people who could have just as well been talking in a completely different language. Amber, despite her best efforts, could only understand a couple of words per each sentence and what she did understand convinced her even more that her body finally had enough of the abuse and decided to check out of this world. It amused her in a grim, self-deprecating way that after all she went through over the last couple of weeks, it wasn't the deathclaw, or the raiders, or even the tentacle Nuka Cola monster, but a piece of her own self that would manage to kill her. It was a shame how much effort from Ruth and the other medics would go to waste because of it. Probably a couple of soldiers could have been saved with the amount of med supplies spent on her.
The conversation stopped after a couple of minutes, someone opened the door and the room became quiet again. Amber was mostly just lying there motionlessly on the bed, avoiding any movement, tasting iron in her mouth. The Med-X jab she got was definitely working, but in the scale of things, didn't help much. She slowly brought her hand to her eyes, shielding them from most of the bright light, trying to look around. The room really was clinically white, even though she could tell the fresh coat of paint was layered over the ancient, patched up walls. Rows of weird beeping and blinking medical equipment lined the walls and a large, mostly intact desk with a small terminal was located across the room. A man in a red robe was sitting there, hunched over a pile of papers, looking very out of place.
"Hey." Her voice was raspy and weak. "Sorry about that ‘no shit' thing."
"Oh, sorry, I..." The man nearly jumped, hearing her voice as if he had completely forgotten about her being there. "No problem, it's... well, understandable in your condition."
"So anyone's gonna tell me how long I have?" She muttered, allowing her hand to collapse on her head.
"I don't know, a couple of days," He shrugged, approaching her bed. "Or a couple of decades. All up to the surgery."
A glimmer of hope appeared in her mind, but before she could react in any way, the doors opened again and a couple of footsteps entered the room.
"Can you give us a minute, scribe?" The unmistakable voice of Colonel Stevens asked and she heard Daniel leaving the room, muttering something under his breath. She lifted her arm to look at her superior, but to her surprise, the painful light in the room was gone with only a desk lamp illuminating the distant corner. She could finally blink with ease.
"How do you feel?" Ruth asked, approaching her carefully. She looked concerned, but smiled reassuringly. Next to her stood Scribe Williams with what must have been her scan results.
"Like shit, but thanks for turning that light off." The redhead replied, doing her best to move as little as possible and still see them all. "How bad is it?"
"I'll be blunt, there's a couple of bad news." The older doctor's eyes appeared to glow a cold, blue light. Amber felt Ruth's warm hand tightening around hers. "We can't do much with those scars, and unfortunately, your exposure caused irreversible changes to your cornea and iris, which I'm afraid classifies you as a mutant."
Amber blinked, dumbfounded, trying to process the information. "What about the part where my kidneys want to kill me?"
"What the good doctor thinks she can fix." Stevens chimed in approaching the bed.
"The damage is severe, but very fresh. We can mitigate that with a simple implant." The older woman continued. "If we perform the procedure immediately."
The faint glimmer of hope just brightened up to a megaton explosion. "So you want to put a thing in me that will fix my kidneys?"
"No." Her friend replied before anyone else could, looking at her with radiant, green-ish gray eyes. "They want to put a thing in you that will help your kidneys do their job."
"So what's the catch?" Amber had to admit that sounded a little bit less assuring, but still preferable to being dead. "Kidneys still bad, but I get a pre-processing filter?"
"It's a crude, but fitting comparison." The older doctor chuckled, making it the first time Amber noticed something resembling a smile on her face. "It's not a permanent solution, a full kidney implant will be required for you in five, maybe ten years, but it will be enough for now."
"It's not without side effects." Ruth's voice was quiet and there was concern that she couldn't ignore. "The surgery will be hard, and there might be complications. And even once it's all done, we... they might not get it working as it should." She took a deep, shaky breath. "But there really is no other alternative."
The redhead looked at the people around her. Ruth still looked concerned, Stevens was, as always, a mystery, and Williams looked almost smug. Ten years before her borrowed time runs out. Knowing her luck, she'd be eaten by a super mutant next Tuesday and even more resources would get thrown away to save her.
"How much will it cost?" She dropped the silly smile she realized she had. "I don't have any savings and I'm not asking my family for caps."
"Don't worry, Dale, it won't even be as expensive as putting you back together after the date with a deathclaw." The colonel chuckled, crossing his arms. "Footing the bill for your recovery is a way better investment on my part than paying for your grave."
There really was no point in discussing the matter any further. The colonel excused himself shortly after she agreed to the surgery, ordering Ruth to file a report for the next day and forbidding her from leaving the restricted area. Scribe Williams described the procedure and all the possible things that can go wrong with it, while newly arrived Amy fixed her up to an IV. It was at that point that Amber started to feel really tired. The excitement over the news that she wouldn't, in fact, die of organ failure burned through the rest of her remaining strength and she soon could no longer keep her eyes open. This day felt like an entire month and yet, she didn't remember much of it. Exhausted by the emotional rollercoaster and the dull pain in every part of her body, all she wanted to do was rest. She wasn't sure if it was something inside the liquid slowly dripping into her veins, or was it just her fatigue, but she felt calm falling asleep. Flashes of consciousness created a series of still images in her mind. Going back through the corridor, an annoyingly cold touch of water over her body. Someone at some point managed to flip her on a side and move to a significantly less comfortable bed. She felt the urge to complain about her boobs being uncomfortably squeezed, but a mask was fitted over her face. There were voices and beeping and other sounds, but it all was quickly fading away as her mind was swallowed by darkness.