Chapter 24: Deceiving appearances
For Amber, the next couple hours stretched for eternity. Their team was scheduled the last to leave the base but first to arrive at the target location, using the most direct route. They were the least numerous and considered the most stealthy of the three recon teams. That was also why, at least according to the plan, they were supposed to get as close as possible to the targets. Amber's whole body was shaking with anticipation ever since they left the office. A couple of sleepless hours spent in her bed and another couple of hours of march in near total darkness did little to calm her down. To her credit, Ruth tried to discuss the mission details with her before leaving the base, but Amber was too focused inward, on keeping her emotions in check. It wasn't hard to notice that her partner was concerned, but she did not comment nor press for a conversation, for which Amber was really grateful. They spent the majority of their journey in silence. She was focused on him, and him only. The idea of finally killing the monster who murdered her family after getting away for so long burned with intensity in her mind as she was imagining every possible way to finish it. After years of nightmares and powerless rage she was mere hours from seeing the man she hated, above everything else in this world, dead. There was no excitement in her, only cold fear and determination. Nine elite soldiers from the reconnaissance squads, a Brotherhood of Steel strike team, and three NCR army strike teams with air support, with the element of surprise on their side against a couple of dozens of raiders, she couldn't dream of better odds. Especially with everything the wasteland had thrown at them over the last couple of weeks. And yet, she was scared like a little girl, even more so than all those years ago, armed with just a knife, when she stepped between her younger brother and four grown men, hoping to give him enough time to hide in the rubble. Those images were now more vivid than at any point in time before the briefing.
Her mutant eyes scanned the darkness half-expecting an ambush. In her mind there was a raider behind every rock, every dune, and every ruin, ready to jump at her. The occasional wind confused her senses, carrying the sound in such a way that the wasteland seemed to be full of voices and whispers and distant sounds of shooting. At some point she got so jumpy that her partner stopped her to calm her down. She grabbed her arms and told her to breathe. Amber rolled her eyes, trying to pretend there was nothing wrong with her, but even she had to admit she was doing a very poor job at it. Ruth counted, and the redhead counted with her, slowly steadying her heart. She told her to follow instead of leading for the rest of the journey, and Amber followed, slightly less on edge than before. The adrenaline was still there, unwavering, but at least this time she remembered how to breathe and push through the anxiety.
They arrived at the designated location just before sunrise. Both women crawled up to a small hill overlooking the shallow valley where their targets were supposed to meet. Looking ahead through her scope, Amber could see ruins of a small cluster of homes along a half-buried road. From the distance, the remains of those buildings looked more like whitened bones of a gigantic beast buried in the sand rather than something that could have once been someone's home. There were tarps and masking nets hanging between the few still standing walls. A couple of burnt out fires still smoldered between the ruins with small groups of humans huddled together around them. A distant noise of a diesel generator and flickering lights around the perimeter were a good indication that this wasn't just a random group of raiders. Hidden behind the covers and between weathered walls were at least two small cars and half a dozen motorbikes.
"You think this is all they have?" Ruth whispered looking through her binoculars. "They were the biggest gang at some point."
"If this is a decoy and their main forces are hiding somewhere else, our recon is shit." The redhead muttered under her breath, squeezing her rifle.
"We are the recon." Her partner chuckled.
"I know. If they have more than that, we're shit at our job."
With orders to break radio silence only in emergency situations, they were stuck taking turns in observing the camp. With nothing better to do and her adrenaline and anxiety finally dropping, despite being less than a mile from the raider camp, Amber dozed off. It felt as if she had only blinked, but when she opened her eyes again, the cold morning air was replaced with the heat of the closing noon. She shook her head, disoriented, trying to get up from the sand, but an iron grip on her shirt held her in place.
"Stay down, sleepy head." Ruth whispered through her teeth. Her eyes were glued to her scope.
"What time...?" The redhead muttered as her sluggish brain caught up with what just happened.
"Around eleven." Her partner replied looking back at her with concern in her eyes that always made her feel like she'd done something wrong.
"You were exhausted, but it's time to get yourself ready. We have a job to do in an hour."
Another wave of anxiety flooded, but she nodded and reached for the discarded pair of binoculars, looking at the shadows around her. With the sun above them there was the risk of a glare from her lenses revealing their presence. Making sure it wouldn't happen, she crawled into a shadow next to Ruth and scanned across the camp. Unlike previously, it was now bustling with life. There were people moving various pieces of equipment and crates. It was clear they were making space in the center of the camp. She looked around, trying to spot any signs of a planned trap, but she couldn't find anything immediately suspicious. That was until she noticed something weird under a tarp on the far side of the camp. The tarp in question was pinned to two barely standing poles and ran down to the ground creating a roof, which would completely shield it from the rest of the camp. However, from their vantage point, she could make out a cage similar to the ones Tombstone's gang was using to transport slaves. This one had only one person in it. She focused, and after a moment she could recognize it was a girl with short, bright hair, small and fragile, sitting in the corner where the shadow was the thickest. There was one guard nearby, looking about as bored as possible without outright sleeping on the job.
"They have prisoners." She whispered to Ruth. "South-west corner, under-"
"I know." The other woman cut her off. "One woman, probably a slave."
"We have to get her."
There was a heavy sigh. "I knew you'd say that... No. We can't, this is-"
"She'll die if we leave her there when shit hits the fan. Raiders couldn't care less about-" The redhead lowered her binoculars to frown at her partner in response, but her head jerked back a little when Ruth's palm pressed against her mouth.
"Quiet! We can't risk being spotted now! I know you want to save everyone, but we can't risk the entire operation for one civilian. Do you understand?"
"I signed up to save people." She brought her voice down to an angry whisper when the hand was removed. "I can't just sit here knowing what could happen to her."
"This isn't about you feeling good about yourself and your consciousness." Ruth glared back at her. "This can have many people killed and possibly many more suffering if we fuck this operation up."
There was no denying that she was right, but Amber's blood was boiling at the thought of what could happen to the girl. She couldn't shake off the dread that filled her when they saw the terrified and broken faces of the people she released from similar cages just a couple of weeks earlier. The memory of the scars around Carla and Rita's necks at the farm, and the stories Ruth herself had told her made her skin crawl. She once again looked through her binoculars focusing on the small figure curled up in the cage.
"If I go now," she continued, "there'll be enough time for me to sneak in and wait for the show to start, then jump in and bring her out in the chaos. Everything around would be enough of a distraction. Aaaand, no one would suspect a third party, if our recon's good enough." She suggested, turning back to face Ruth. "Please."
"And this isn't about you wanting to be down there when the party starts so you could have an epic showdown with Tombstone himself?"
"What? No!" Amber protested, maybe even too eagerly. "Really no, please, let me do this. I-" The next sentence froze in her throat. The full extent of fear and anxiety she felt up to this point hit her like a ton of bricks again. "Listen... this girl, whoever she is? That could have been me if nobody saved me that day." Her voice cracked slightly as she tried to keep her voice down to a whisper. "I don't have to tell you how little a slave's life means to those fuckers, so you understand we have to do this. And we have to start now."
For a tense few seconds they stared at each other and Amber could recognize the hurt in Ruth's eyes. She wanted to bite her own tongue off for saying too much, but her partner finally broke the silence with a long sigh of resignation.
"You're on your own." She said quietly. "If you get caught..."
"If I get caught I'll make as much noise as I can so that you guys can do the job." Her heart was pounding as she only now started to fully realize what she was about to do. "Don't worry, we can do this. It's not the first time I'm sneaking around a raiders' camp." Amber added with a forced smile. "I get close from the back, wait for you guys to take down the bosses and swoop in to save the girl when the rest of the camp run around like headless chickens." It sounded so easy she almost believed it herself. "And I know you won't let them get me if things don't go as planned."
"I trust you can do it. I hate it, but I know you long enough to know you can." Ruth's words somehow sounded encouraging and disappointed at the same time. "I'll do what I can to cover you, but... please don't get yourself killed. It'll be really hard to explain it to Stevens." She added with an equally forced smile.
Amber couldn't identify emotions going through her face, she couldn't even identify her own emotions anymore. There was so much going on in her head and at the same there was calm determination that finally allowed her to focus. She thought that the idea of avenging her nightmares would be motivating enough to keep her mind in the game, but instead, she had to play the hero and save a girl from evil raiders in order to stay focused. She left almost all of her gear except for her pistol and a knife and crawled back behind a ridge. The descent down towards the camp took her more time than she thought it would, but barren dunes with only a couple of lonely rocks poking out every now and then really made her job difficult. She spent most of her way there with her face down in the sand, moving at a rate of a half-dead snail.
By the time she reached the edge of the camp she could hear the distant roar of engines. Tombstone and his minions were coming. Even though his arrival was expected from the opposite side of the camp, she still ducked behind a piece of rubble and waited. She could hear voices, orders being shouted, hasted steps, and old wooden boards creaking in the general rush of mobilization. Once she determined that none of the activities she could hear were getting close to her, she poked her head out. There were at least thirty feet of open space between her and the next viable cover, which was a severely eroded piece of wall. She could see two motorbikes parked behind it, hidden under a masking net just large enough to cover them from the front.
"Good thing I'm coming in from the back." She thought, smiling at her own dirty joke. Was it even a joke? She couldn't tell.
There was nobody in sight, even the cage and the girl inside it were obscured by the piece of tarp from her point of view. She weighed her options. Crawling all the way there would eat up her time and with the area being completely flat with tiny piles of rubble sticking from under the sand she could just as well paint a huge target on her back. Running was another option, but that would make more noise and while quicker, it would definitely bring more attention to her if she got spotted. She could clearly hear an engine roar nearby, and she could see dust clouds rolling in her direction from the opposite side of the camp.
They were here.
Amber considered staying behind the rock until the shooting started, but the dust cloud looked surprisingly inviting. Acting on an instinct, she jumped out of her cover and dashed towards the bikes, squinting her eyes. A couple of heartbeats later she was pressed against the wall, struggling to breathe slowly to avoid inhaling too much of the sand. She remembered the counting Ruth made her do on the way here, and she managed to steady herself after a few seconds. A quick glance at the nearby motorbikes made her smile. Not only were they prepared and ready to go, there were also additional canisters of gas attached to each of them just in case. Clearly, that had to be their escape plan if the negotiations went south. The engine roar died and most of what she could hear were voices, lots and lots of angry, shouting voices. She couldn't understand any words, she could barely identify how many people were talking, no, shouting at each other, but there was something going on. She poked her head from behind the bike hoping that the masking net would hide her red mane. A small crowd gathered in a semicircle on the other side of the camp with three men in the center. Opposing them was a small military jeep with at least five people sitting in it, and a couple of motorbikes, each carrying two people.
A cold shiver ran down her spine when she recognized that one of the men on the bike closest to the jeep was Tombstone himself. Both groups didn't approach each other, opting to shout at each other instead.
She collapsed back behind her cover, clutching her handgun. Her heart was racing and a paralyzing wave of cold washed over her, despite the searing heat of the desert sun. She didn't dare to look back at the other side of the camp, and the voices coming from there appeared to be more and more distant. She had to wait. Any second now there should be a distant gunshot, Tombstone will be dead, and the camp should erupt in chaos. Chaos, which she could use to run away, grab the girl, and get as far away from here as possible.
Any second now.
"... yeah I'm going, I'm going, fuck, Carl, it's not like she's going anywhere on her own."
Amber snapped out of... whatever state she was in, and rolled behind the wall as a man in what looked like old cooking ware strapped to his body as armor emerged from the other side of the motorbikes. She flattened herself against the wall and slowly got up, unsheathing her knife. Adrenaline flooded her bloodstream sending her brain into overdrive. She saw the man's shadow emerging from behind the wall, heading towards the cage. In an instant, her left arm wrapped around his neck, pulling him down. Before he could even make a sound her knife slammed into his chest with bone-shattering speed. She felt him jerk as she pushed it harder and harder, simultaneously crushing his throat. His body tensed for a brief second before collapsing limply in her embrace. She stood there breathing heavily, too afraid to make any move or cause any sound. Seconds passed and there was nothing, only warm, sticky blood soaking into her sleeves. Amber slowly released the body and freed her knife from between his ribs. Her whole body was shaking from the boiling adrenaline in her blood. It took her another couple of seconds to collect herself and notice a small key on a piece of string the guard still had wrapped around his hand. She grabbed it and rushed towards the cage. Peeking from behind the cover she noticed the girl, looking even more fragile than from a distance, but standing in the corner with her back towards Amber, her arms crossed. She was clearly distracted with what was going on in the camp. Amber couldn't see her face, but she was definitely younger than her and only a little taller than Ruth. She had longer, straw-colored hair on one side of her head, while the other side revealed her natural, dark brown color, shaven close to the skull. There were many scars and a couple of bruises on her neck and shoulders and arms, but nothing that would look serious. And she could clearly stand upright without much of a problem.
Her brief moment of hesitation ended when another sound broke through the angry voices in the distance. More engines, deeper, more powerful, and much more noisy. Still no bang from a sniper. Amber was beginning to be really worried about that. The girl looked around, startled by the new noise, and froze as soon as she saw Amber standing close behind her. The redhead jumped towards the cage, grabbed her through the bars and covered her mouth.
"Be quiet!" She whispered, looking around, the girl's wide, blue eyes snapped towards her with a mixture of fear and confusion. "I don't want to hurt you, I'm here to free you. Do you understand me?" The girl nodded and Amber released her, leaving a faint, bloody smear on her face. "...Sorry about that." She whispered apologetically and started working on opening the cage as the girl wiped her face in disgust. The engine roar in the distance was joined by more shouting and rapid gun fire. Still no snipers, but with her rescue mission not taking priority, Amber focused on fitting the bloodied, slippery key into the cage lock.
"Who even are you? Did my father send you?" The girl's voice was a bit shaky, and a little bit raspy.
"You can call me Amber, I'm a mercenary and I just like freeing people from cages.'' The redhead replied, doing her best impression of a smile under their current circumstances. "I don't think I've met your father, but I'm sure he can thank me for saving you later." She finally threw the door open and reached to grab her hand. "And you?"
"Laura." She said, accepting the extended hand. "And I'm sure my father will be really grateful for my return." With a smile they both rushed towards the edge of the camp.
Now clear of most of the obstacles, she saw the source of the commotion and her eyes widened as they moved away from it. Two huge, armored trucks rolled into the camp, each sporting a shielded, heavy machine gun on the roof. Together with the Tombstone's jeep they created an effective crossfire in the center. A group of people clad in familiar, blue-ish, heavily ornamented armors jumped out of the two trucks. While the Vultures were spread across the camp, the big boss himself was standing proudly in the middle, facing the newcomers with a cordon of his raiders protecting him from all sides. But even as surreal as the scene looked, that wasn't what caught Amber's attention, and what made her stop briefly in her tracks. Sitting on top of one of the armored trucks was a female figure in what looked like black robes covered in black feathers. She's never seen her or even heard of anyone like her before, but her very presence and calm, almost nonchalant gestures towards those around her sent chills down Amber's spine. There was something out of this world about her and how she just existed in the chaos of the battle as if she wasn't in any danger at all. The woman walked slowly to the edge of the car and one of the armor-clad warriors kneeled in front of it so she could use his shoulder as a step. Amber grabbed Laura and hid behind the wall she previously used as cover, only to bump into two Vultures who apparently had the same idea. Her automatic reflexes took over and one of the raiders collapsed to the ground with an additional hole in his chest. The other one managed to lift his shotgun, but his head suddenly jerked to the side and the wall behind him splintered into pieces.
"What was that?" Laura gasped as Amber handed her her pistol and picked up the dead raider's shotgun. A very nice, drum-fed heavy shotgun.
"Backup." The redhead replied with a smirk, quickly checking the condition of her new weapon. "I guess sneaking is over, we have to-"
She froze as the still warm barrel of her own handgun pressed against her chest.
"Drop it," were the girl's only words.
Amber wasn't sure if she was more annoyed by the sudden betrayal or the fact that the girl in front of her found it necessary to poke her breasts. Looking up at Laura she no longer saw the scared girl she freed from the cage. Her blue eyes became colder and piercing, and her lips were twisted into a nasty wide grin. If it wasn't for the gun pointed at her chest she'd kick herself for not recognising a raider scum that one time it mattered. She wasn't stupid, either. The girl was using her as a shield, standing in a way that her backup couldn't do anything to help.
Amber gritted her teeth and tossed the shotgun towards the corner of the wall, far away to be out of reach for both of them. "Sorry to disappoint you, but I think I'll go on my own from here." Laura said as the metal barrel slowly trailed up across Amber's torso. "But I appreciate your help, I really do. I mean, daddy would probably come and save me anyway, but that was an exciting turn." Amber felt the metal snag on one of the buttons of her shirt, snapping it open.
"So what'cha gonna do now?" Amber replied, trying to shift her position ever so slightly to hopefully open a line of fire for Ruth, but a poke of the gun in her chest froze her in place.
"I had a couple of ideas involving you, me, and a lot of chains." Another button snapped and the hard metal barrel now rested on Amber's bare collarbone. "But your mysterious friend probably won't let me, so here's the deal." The hard point of the gun shifted even higher, resting just under Amber's chin as the girl got up on her tiptoes and whispered, her lips almost brushing against Amber's. "My daddy's people will be here in a couple of seconds. Once they are here, you can run. If your friend doesn't hold fire till you're gone, they will make a lot of new holes in you."
The redhead swallowed hard against the steel pressed to her neck, but said nothing. They both stayed there, bathed in each other's breath for what felt like hours, before she heard footsteps followed by a painfully familiar, screechy voice.
"Well well well, who d'we have here?'' She risked a peek to the side. Three men in full Tombstone gang colors just emerged from behind the tarp where Laura used to be. One of them was Face, scarred, bald, and somehow even more ugly than before. "The red lil' piggy wit a date wit my knife. Got yerself a nice set o'scars I see!"
"You know him?" Laura asked, not moving an inch away from Amber's face.
"You can call it a one night stand." The redhead forced a smile. She knew that as long as her body was covering Laura's, her own skin was safe from their bullets.
"Dat bitch killed Thorn." The older raider took another step towards her. Amber noticed he was acting differently than when they first met. There was a certain level of hesitation and maybe even fear, but it definitely wasn't towards her. The girl holding her at gunpoint clearly commanded more respect among these raiders than her fragile form would suggest. There were three machine guns aimed and ready to fire, but all three men kept their distance.
"Oh, I like you even more now." There was a hint of sick, sadistic satisfaction in Laura's voice. Amber could see the slight blush forming on her weird little face. It disgusted her and terrified her at the same time.
"The boss will want to ‘ave that one for a talk." Face said, stepping closer.
"Stop you idiots, there's a sniper somewhere in the hills." Laura barked at them, effectively making all of them halt in unison. "And this one freed me from the cage before you fuckers even got here, so she gets to go free."
"But... the boss," the older raider muttered, looking helplessly at both women before him, "he ain't' gonna be happy."
"That's my problem, not yours."
"If I knew you were some kind of a raider princess, I'd have blown your head off instead." The redhead muttered through her teeth.
"But you just couldn't stop yourself from saving a damsel in distress." Laura whispered in an almost seductive, but still mocking tone. "Good job, hero."
"Fuck you." Amber whispered back.
"Next time, I hope." Her ice-cold eyes sharpened. "But now you should listen carefully. I will count to three. On three, you run." She said slowly and loudly so that everyone could hear her. "If you do anything stupid, I'll pull the trigger. If you try to stop me, they kill you. Is that clear?"
Amber nodded slowly.
All of her muscles tensed.
She inhaled slowly, preparing for the wild dash for her life.
Their lips met for a second, causing Amber to recoil slightly.
The pressure on her neck lessened and in a blur Laura dashed towards the other three men. Something wooden exploded next to her and a bullet buried itself in the sand right where the girl used to stand. Still a little dazed, Amber jumped the other way, half expecting a hail of bullets to follow, but nothing happened. She reached the corner of the wall, kicked the discarded shotgun behind it and jumped for cover. Still no bullets. She picked up the weapon, now completely filled with sand and looked around. It was not good. She could see at least a dozen Tombstone raiders and warriors in blue armors around her. No more sniper fire, no Chariot and no vertibirds in sight. Instead, she witnessed a ridiculous scene of an old gang leader, a bald guy with a hook for left hand, kneeling in front of a woman in a black dress, surrounded by no less than five more blue-armored warriors with Tombstone himself slightly to the side, looking around nervously. If she had her handgun she could have finished the mission right then and there. She'd probably be dead before Tombstone's body hit the sand, but it would be worth it. Unfortunately, she only had the shotgun and at this range she could at best hope to wound him if the sand-filled weapon didn't explode in her hands first. Looking around she could only see one possible course of action. By the time she reached the nearest motorcycle there were people closing in and shouting at her to stop. She jumped on the nearest one and started it with a roar. It's been years since she sat in the saddle, but guided by adrenaline and sheer luck she burst through the masking net, kicking up another dust cloud. Then the hail of bullets came. She knew her bike was hit a couple of times, she felt bullets whizzing past her, kicking up dust and rocks around, but for some inexplicable reason the fatal hit she was almost sure she deserved at this point never got her. She went west, away from Ruth, the rendezvous point for recon squads, the Chariot, and everyone else. Not wanting to bring the enemy to them, not wanting to face them. Too afraid to look back to check if she was being followed, she didn't stop till her engine died. Once it did, she jumped off and ran till her legs could carry her no longer. Then she fell down, curled into a ball between large rocks, and cried.
"Repeat that, Chariot." Sargent Marshall's voice cracked in Ruth's radio. She'd heard him speak in person a couple times before, which was always mildly intimidating due to his unshaken eagerness and confidence, but it was the first time she's heard the official recon's leader stutter in uncertainty. She herself couldn't believe the recent report, either, and was awaiting an explanation.
"We have two groups of vehicles on radar." There was clearly concern in Sylvia's voice. "One will reach your positions in 5 minutes, you should have a visual on them by now. The other one is maybe 15 minutes delayed. They separated a couple of minutes ago."
"Do we know what they're packing?"
"Negative, but the contact is pretty big."
"Last thing we need now is a tank or some shit crashing our party." Came Lee's voice.
"Relay this intel to the base, Chariot, and keep us updated." Marshall's voice broke through the static. "Maintain radio silence until we have new orders. Over and out."
Ruth swore under her breath, panning her scope across the desert, looking for Amber's red hair. Her partner disappeared between the dunes almost half an hour ago and ever since then she was mentally kicking herself for letting her go. No, she already regretted her decision when she agreed to the plan. Her scope stopped on the blonde girl inside the cage and she took a good look at the prisoner. A single slave in the whole, vast raider dwelling, purposefully hidden from sight. It didn't look like she was there for a very long time, either, judging by the amount of waste. And all this exactly on the day of the presumed negotiations? Ruth didn't buy any of it. The girl had to be a tool, some sort of leverage, and though she had no idea how and why the raiders would use her, she knew something was up. She also knew that none of such arguments would stop Amber from pressing to go and rescue her, anyway.
"I hope you're worth the trouble." She muttered to herself, placing the crosshair right on the top of her head.
The commotion at the other end of the camp caused her to shift her attention to the emptied area in the middle. The crowd there began to thicken as a caravan emerged from between the sand-covered ruins. One car and a couple of motorcycles were kicking up so much dust there could have been twice as many vehicles hidden within the cloud and she wouldn't be able to see them.
"Targets in sight." Cracked her radio. She wasn't sure if it was Marshall or Lee.
Ruth's scope scanned over the gathered men and stopped on a polished, bald head of a man with a hook for one hand, surrounded by three tall and armored warriors. This must have been the leading Vulture himself, the man so elusive even in NCR reports he was only ever called the gang leader. The arriving vehicles fanned out and for a brief moment it looked like both groups would try to outflank each other, before everything settled and there were two semi-circles of armed and armored men staring at each other.
"We have a visual of the second group!" This was unmistakably Sylvia's voice over the radio. "Two armored trucks, armed with heavy machine guns. Possible armored troops inside. ETA two minutes."
"Since when do raiders have their own tanks?" Came Lee's concerned voice.
"Any news from the common on what to do?" Ruth asked, looking back at the cage. The girl clearly heard the arrival as well, standing up and trying to see past the tarp. She paced around the cage, crossing her arms as if in impatience, like she was waiting for something to happen. She also caught a glimpse of Amber sneaking between the parked motorbikes. Finally.
"No word yet from the command, we just sent them intel on the second wave." The Chariot driver reported and added after a brief pause. "My orders now are to monitor and relay information. We can't engage those cars without additional support."
"Withhold your fire until we have more info." Came Marshall's tense voice.
"So we're on our own." Ruth muttered to herself. "Damnit Amber, why did you have to go there now." She got back to her scope just in time to see the redhead dragging away the body of a dead raider. Cold sweat washed over her as she watched her partner compose herself.
There was so much going on she couldn't decide on what to focus on first. The raider crowd was mostly just shouting, not any more angrily than before, but she managed to recognize Tombstone himself among the people. Her finger immediately moved to the trigger. She kept him in sight as he shouted something at the other leader, there were enforcers from both gangs around them. It didn't look like any negotiations she'd seen so far. Admittedly, she didn't see many negotiations in her life, but she would expect a lot more talking and a lot less angry shouting and finger pointing. It didn't start well and it didn't get any better over time. She kept her focus on Tombstone, awaiting the radio to finally speak up so she could pull the trigger. It would be so easy, he wasn't even trying to keep out of sight. However, the radio stayed stubbornly silent, and a bead of sweat rolled down her temple. Amber could wait. She was capable, she would be fine on her own for a moment longer.
The distant roar of the incoming second wave reached her ears. The arguing raiders also heard it and the mood of the entire crowd changed. Now the bald, hooked leader appeared to be the one shouting while Tombstone took a step back with a smug smile and appeared to be ignoring the other gang boss, looking around.
Ruth lowered her scope to look at the bigger picture just in time to see two huge cars roll into view with the accompaniment of heavy machine gun fire from the roof-mounted guns. She cowered a little more behind her rocky cover in case of any stray bullets reaching her spot. They weren't shooting at anything in particular, not even in the general direction of the camp, but the effect was immediate. The Vultures scattered at once, looking for cover, while the Tombstones surrounded their boss with a wall of armor and guns. They didn't fire back, and didn't even try to stop the retreating men.
She quickly looked back through her scope and her crosshair hovered for a moment over Tombstone's face, before she panned it back at the cage. It was already empty. Her heart skipped a beat as she desperately looked around for the redhead between the ruined walls and masking nets. When she found her, Amber just bumped into two raiders who ran away from the newly arrived trucks and happened to stumble upon their dead comrade. Her mind barely recorded the immediate calculations and the actions of her body. As the redhead shot the first man, Ruth's crosshair was already slightly above and to the right of the ear of the second one and her finger pulled the trigger. Between the loud bang and its muffled echo the raider's head snapped to the side and the wall behind him earned a wide, red-sprayed hole. It was only after his lifeless corpse fell at Amber's feet did the sniper realize she had just broken a direct order. Yet another one during her time in the recon. She halfway expected a very stern radio message, but with the cacophony of the roaring engines and gunshots, another bang didn't make too much of a difference. Or at least she hoped so.
With the raider down and no more threats immediately in sight, she took a quick glance at the chaos in the middle of the camp. Her eyes fell upon a whole platoon of soldiers with painted pieces of armor and she almost audibly gasped. The patterned ones were standing around a black-robed figure who was giving orders and talking as if it was a party they just arrived at. It was probably a woman wearing a rusted piece of metal on top of her black, curly hair. Her fingers seemed to be too long for her hands, but what made the least sense was the fact that she had a pair of wings attached to her arms. Huge, feathery wings! Ruth didn't understand what was going on, and she didn't know if she wanted to, so her scope jumped back towards Amber who was standing still instead of getting the fuck away from it all. She cursed in her mind, wishing she could shout at her to run, but she noticed a figure standing in front of, or rather from her position, behind the redhead. It took her a moment, but she realized her friend was taken hostage by the previously fragile and helpless prisoner.
"... you little bitch..." Something in her chest burned, and as much as she knew she had to keep track of the events in the rest of the camp, she had to take out the blonde girl first. There was no way to aim at her without possibly hurting Amber as well. They were talking to someone else on the side, but a large piece of a ruined building covered whoever was standing there.
Ruth waited, the blood pumping in her ears blocking out almost everything else going on in the camp, and the two girls finally separated. Her hand twitched, her eye focused, and she fired as the blonde girl dashed away. It didn't hit. Ruth reloaded and followed her, but the rubble kept them away from her sight. When Amber started the motorcycle and wheezed past broken walls, first raiders emerged from different sides to chase after her. Ruth took a shot. Then another and another, falling as many as she could, before the group retreated into hiding and the bike was far enough for them to no longer be a threat.
"... over! I repeat, cease fire, operation over!" Sargent Marshall's voice finally broke through her senses. "We're going back. Get as much intel as you can and retreat to the extraction point when the Chariot is back. Avoid detection at all costs! Over and out!"
By this time, there were only a few sources of gun fire at the edges of the camp, and they soon died down as some side of the conflict pulled their trigger for the last time. Ruth found the blonde girl in the crowd again, looking roughly in her direction, but not yet finding the sniper. She gritted her teeth, almost pulling the trigger as soon as she saw her, but the new orders stopped her from doing so. Instead, she followed her walking through the camp, flanked by a few raiders, before someone jumped out at them. It was Tombstone, with few people behind him. She could have expected anything to happen in this moment, but certainly not what followed. The huge, intimidating, one-eyed gang boss ran up to the girl and embraced her. She tried to pull away at first, but returned the embrace before they separated and quickly returned to the center of the camp. The display of affection was so odd for her to witness Ruth had to blink a few times to make sure she was seeing things correctly.
She followed them back to the main square where the black, feathery figure approached the group of captured raiders, surrounded by the patterned ones. She was speaking, gesturing with her ornamented hands, the wings making her look outlandish, but royal at the same time, while the burly men were listening quietly. Tombstone stepped up to her side with the blonde girl half a step behind him. The mysterious woman lifted her hands up in a weird gesture and she could almost hear the echo of her voice as she spoke. The exact words were indistinguishable, but her voice was soaked with power which sent chills down her spine. The captured gang leader bowed down in front of her and all of his remaining raiders followed one by one. She looked through her scope as close to two dozens of hardened bandits bent their knees in front of someone she's never seen or heard about before.
With that, the "negotiations" came to a close and the slender woman turned around, soon disappearing in her vehicle. Both Tombstone and the Vulture leader shouted some orders to their people, while the blue warriors separated into two groups. One followed the robed woman inside the armored car, while the other spread out to explore the campsite. It appeared that a couple people with Tombstone markings were staying behind as well, to take stock of what the Vultures had in store. The Vultures themselves had nothing to say in the matter and she could see frustration and confusion on their faces as the newcomers turned everything in their camp upside down, while they began to gather the corpses of the fallen. Tombstone, the blonde girl, and the hooked man packed up and left, following the one heavy-weapon truck out into the wasteland where she could no longer track them from her spot.
Ruth set her rifle aside and fell onto her back, her muscles relaxing probably for the first time in what felt like eternity. She was mentally exhausted, but she knew her job wasn't finished yet. She wanted to punch and scream her frustration out, but she still had to remain hidden. While most of the remaining raiders were now busy securing the camp, there were a few who fanned out to patrol the perimeter and she knew it wouldn't be long before she had to abandon her post. She needed to stay focused, so she bit the inside of her lip hard enough to draw blood, until the pain calmed her down a little. The whole mission was a failure. She was a failure. Not only did she break another order, but her partner was nowhere in sight, her status unknown, and the two leaders were still alive, Tombstone apparently even more powerful than before, and she couldn't stop herself from putting the blame on her own shoulders. This job clearly wasn't for her. She should've pressed for the resignation when she had the opportunity, should've run away like she always did with everything else in the past. She was somewhat hopeful for Stevens to sack her himself after today.
The mental kicking she was giving herself was interrupted by the crack from the radio.
"Red, Blue," Sergeant Marshall's voice came through, "return to the Chariot, it's coming back around now."
"Give us a minute." Lee's voice came from the tiny speaker as well. "We had Vasquez on site, we'll join you as soon as he crawls out of there."
Ruth spat the blood on the nearby rocks and started crawling away from the camp. Now that the mission was over, there was only one thing on her mind. She had to find Amber. She had no idea where her friend was headed when she left the camp, nor if she had suffered any injuries on her way out. Her first instinct was to follow her tracks immediately, but at least from what she saw, the redhead went in the opposite direction of Camp Imperial, and there was no way she could catch up to her on foot, anyway.
It took her nearly ten minutes to reach the small rock formation where the other recon team was waiting for her.
"So she hasn't returned yet, huh." Lee said as soon as she reached the group. "What was Amber even doing down there?"
"Playing the hero she so desperately wants to be each and every time." Ruth muttered back, taking a swing from her nearly empty water canteen. "And now I have to find her."
"That mission was a clusterfuck! We should have gone shooting the ants instead..." Mook scoffed, looking quite disappointed. She had no idea what he meant by "the ants". "J almost got caught, too, when he was sneaking there to take a look at the crow lady."
"I did not!" Vasquez barked back. "It was a clean in and out, thanks to the distraction Red provided."
Billy grinned at that, shaking his head a little.
"And? Did you hear anything?" Her attention was now drawn to James. "Who was that featherly bitch?"
"Not everything." It almost looked like he hesitated for a moment, avoiding her gaze. "They called her Lady Morrigan, she's apparently from Archer City. Tombstone's been working for her and it looks like now the Vultures do as well."
"Fuck." Ruth muttered, clenching her fists. "I had her in my sights."
"So did I." Lee gently patted her on the shoulder. "But we got our orders. And hey, look on the bright side. Between what they and the three of us killed, they took only over half of the Vultures."
"Amber also took out two of them!" Mook chimed in.
"Wait, the... what's his name, from the third team, also fired?" She turned to look at Derek in surprise.
"Johnson, yeah, he took out a couple of raiders when the shooting started." Lee shrugged. "Not sure why, maybe they had eyes and ears down there as well."
Ruth considered for a moment how Amber would feel when she learned that all three teams sent someone down to the camp, yet she was the only one caught, but her thoughts were interrupted by a weird sound from just behind the nearest rock formation. It sounded like tires rolling on sand, but there was no noise of an approaching engine one could expect from a large, moving vehicle. They all turned their attention towards it, only to see a shifting, slightly glistening shimmer in the air, like a mirage, surrounded by a small cloud of dust and moving sand beneath it.
"Our ride is here." Mook declared with a grin.
Her eyes widened as she watched the seemingly invisible vehicle approach them slowly. It took her a moment to recognize the edges and shapes of the Chariot which now appeared to be made entirely out of slightly distorted glass; not the kind that would show the insides of the gigantic metal monstrosity. She could see straight through it and admire the slightly distorted view of the desert on the other side.
"Tin cans call this active camo." Lee commented, likely seeing the confusion on her face. "And before you ask, no, I have no idea how it works, but it's pretty awesome."
The Chariot stopped just a couple of feet away from the group, kicking up more dust. Only now she could hear a very muffled sound of the engine and a whistle of air which was cut short moments after the vehicle had stopped and a small pile of sand and dust was expelled from its sides.
"And they suck in their own dust cloud while they go around all stealthy and shit." Mook added with a nod of appreciation. "Impressive, isn't it?"
She would probably agree, if the whole display didn't make her even more wary of the people inside.
The transparent surface shimmered a bit. The distorted shapes on the edges of the door moved as they slid open, revealing the red-lit interior with a massive power armor looking straight back at her. Ruth immediately took a step back and her muscles tensed, preparing her to jump away at any moment, as the figure inside extended his hand towards her.
"At ease corporal, we're here to extract you.'' Despite the distortions in his voice she recognized it was the Senior Knight speaking.
"I... can't, not just yet. I have to go look for Private Dale." She took another step back, gesturing at the members of the other recon squad. "Take them and go, I'll catch up with you later."
"Negative on that, soldier. We're taking all of you in first and we'll go looking for Private Dale as soon as you're secured at the base." He gestured with the armored hand to hurry inside.
"With all due... respect, Senior Knight, she's a part of my team." Ruth said through her teeth, trying her best to stay collected in front of the metal-clad man. "I am not leaving her behind, you know it's dangerous here and so all of our soldiers should be taken into consideration, and as quickly as possible." She looked back at her companions for support.
"Sir, we can get Dale now." A familiar female voice came from inside the vehicle. "I have her bearings and we can trace her tracks easily. It shouldn't take too long in our schedule."
There was a brief pause and Ruth wondered what could possibly be going through the mind behind the armored helmet as the empty visors glanced a little to the side.
"In that case, agreed, we will fetch her now if we can find her. If we won't, it's NCR's responsibility to finish the job." Ruth felt both relief and overwhelming panic at the same time. Her companions swiftly jumped on board, already leaving her standing alone in front of what looked like a red tear in reality with a massive, metal golem waiting for her on the other side. She really, really wanted to, but found it extremely hard to even take a step towards it.
"Hey, corporal!" Sylvia's voice drew her attention. "You can ride shotgun if you want." With another quiet hiss a different set of doors opened in the translucent, shimmering mirage, revealing the driver's cockpit and a small ladder leading up to it. Ruth jumped towards it, not risking another look at the Senior Knight, and climbed up to join the lancer in her domain.
"Thanks." She muttered, looking around the tiny room. It was almost worse than the spacious main deck of the vehicle behind them, but it had two things Ruth was infinitely grateful for: large windows and the distinctive absence of the Senior Knight.
"The pleasure's all mine." The other woman replied with a wink as her fingers danced across the dashboard pressing various buttons and flipping switches. The cockpit didn't look like anything she had seen before, certainly not like any other car she's been in. The closest she could compare it to was the inside of a vertibird, but even that paled in comparison to the amount of glowing displays and controls she was surrounded with. The doors locked with a hiss and she suddenly felt very isolated. It almost felt like she had her ears stuffed with cotton, and yet everything inside the cockpit sounded normal. There was just no sound from the outside. No wind, no sound, nothing. It was an extremely odd experience and she could feel her anxiety growing. The vehicle started rolling through the sand, responding to the driver's gentle commands. The ease and grace with which her driver turned the wheel contrasted sharply with what she remembered Marco's driving was like. He looked like he was fighting the steering wheel, trying to tame it like it was some sort of a wild beast, while Sylvia was gently guiding it with her hands.
"She's my sweet little girl." The woman broke the silence. "The Chariot, I mean."
"It's an impressive car." Ruth pushed herself to speak against the slight pressure of stress on her throat.
"Oh she's much more than that." The lancer laughed. "She's a real lady, you have to be gentle with her or she will show you just how temperamental she can be. But if you know how to handle her, you can make her purr like a kitten."
Sylvia smiled gently and Ruth somehow knew that despite looking straight at the road she was actually looking at her. As if her current anxiety wasn't enough, it made her even more uncomfortable than the idea of sitting in the back next to the armored knight. Back there she could at least try and squeeze herself into a corner, while the cockpit didn't provide as much comfort.
"So, how do we track Amber?" Ruth asked desperately, trying to change the subject from purring kittens. She wouldn't know the metaphor, anyway, since she's never seen one.
"This is her bearing when she left the camp." The lancer poked her finger at one of the small displays. Ruth recognized an elaborated compass with many additional arrows marked on it. "We'll intersect it and align with it in a couple of minutes. I just have to get us far enough from the camp to avoid detection." She nodded, and watched as they moved silently along the sandy banks, keeping close to the rock formations protruding from the hills.
"Thanks for the help." She said after a slightly longer moment of silence.
"Hey, no problem, it's not like we're running low on time or fuel despite what the Senior Knight makes it feel like. Amber's a great girl, I'd hate it if something bad happened to her." There was a hint of concern in her voice. "Pretty ballsy move to sneak into the camp, she was trying to save the caged girl I take it?"
"Yes, we thought she was a slave and could be hurt in the fight." Ruth frowned at that, remembering the most details she could about the girl in question. "Guess we were wrong."
"Worrying about the collateral damage in a mission this big is admirable." Sylvia glanced at her for a moment. "I respect that, but our bosses might not like the idea."
"I know." She muttered and her mind returned to the self-kicking mood.
"Don't worry, corporal, your bosses fucked up more than you guys did just now."
"What do you mean?" She took her eyes off the road to glance at Sylvia.
"I was passing on orders, remember? I heard what was going on at the command table. The infantry guys refused to go, your colonel was stuck with no support and was ordered to abandon the mission. And ‘ordered' is a pleasant way to put it."
"Wait, you're saying you were listening to what our command was discussing?" Ruth felt a cold shiver run down her spine.
"Girl, relax." Sylvia stopped herself, probably realizing how informal that was, and cleared her throat. "Your colonel was keeping us in the loop so we would know what the full situation was. Of course I had to know what to tell you." She shrugged a little. "Our CO was here, we had to know what the situation down there would be and what the NCR was planning so we could make the best decisions on how to support you."
"Then why didn't you pass the info on to us?"
"He told us not to unless the situation degraded further." Another shrug. "You were supposed to focus on the mission, once assassinations were out of the question, gathering info was your priority. Knowing your command was fighting itself on how to fuck you guys over wouldn't help you one bit."
Ruth struggled to piece any thoughts together after that revelation. She sat there, quietly piecing together what she already knew. The verbal jabs between Stevens and Hacket were now much more sinister in her mind than just a couple of hours ago.
"There's the bike." Sylvia's voice broke the silence and she felt the massive vehicle slow down. There was a motorcycle in the middle of a dune, lying on its side, covered with sand from the front.
"She abandoned it so close to the camp?" Ruth questioned.
"Four, almost five miles away." The lancer reported as they came as close as they could to the metal corpse. "The gas tank is riddled with bullet holes, it probably died on her right here."
She frowned, straining her eyes to see anything else, but she couldn't see too much from her seat. "Do you detect any traces of her?"
"I don't detect anything like that, corporal, I can only see." She replied with a smile. "I have a surface search radar, but that's pretty useless when you're looking for a human-sized human walking at human speeds between hills and piles of rubble."
"Okay, I get it." Ruth rolled her eyes. "Can you let me out of here so I could go out and check?"
"That I can do." She flipped a switch and the door opened with a hiss, letting a hot desert wind in.
Ruth quickly jumped out and rushed towards the bike. Sylvia was right, there were at least four bullet holes in the gas tank and a handful more all over the bike, but to her great relief, there was no trace of blood. Looking around the scene, she quickly noticed a line of footprints heading in the same direction the wheel tracks were headed before the machine refused to go further. Amber was clearly running. That was both a blessing and a curse. Even Amber couldn't run too far in a desert, but that also meant she could find the redhead exhausted, face first in the sand somewhere, scorching in the sun. She quickened her pace and started walking along the tracks, vaguely aware of the humming, shimmering mirage of the Chariot following her. The footprints soon changed from running to walking and turning towards a half-buried rock not too far away. Ruth glanced back at the almost invisible vehicle with a nod, then carefully approached the hideout.
"Amber?" She said, nearing the shadow cast by the rock. "Please tell me you're alright."
There was a moment of silence, but she heard some shifting in front of her.
"I'm not." Came a hoarse voice that she clearly recognized as her friend's. It was enough to bring relief. "Just shoot me now before Stevens does."
"Nobody's going to shoot you." She assured her, trying to convince herself of the same thing.
"Maybe they should, it would've been easier." Ruth reached around the rock to see her partner sitting with her back against the stone with a discarded shotgun between her legs. Her reddened and wet eyes looked back at her from under the red mane. "Be honest, how fucked am I?"
"I don't know, but probably about just as bad as I am. At least I don't look like shit." Ruth gave her a half smile, kneeling down next to her. "Come on, we're not gonna face that one alone. Let's get back now, they're waiting for us."
After a few moments of rubbing off her dried tears and a couple deep breaths, they emerged from behind the cover and joined the rest in the Chariot. Ruth gathered all of her courage to sit in the back with her, letting Mook take the shotgun instead. The ride back was extremely tense, though, strangely enough, not because of having to cope with her fears again, but because they all dreaded the return more than anything else.