August 23, 2277:
It was just after four in the morning when Ria said what I had known since yesterday would be coming.
“I want to go check out Evergreen Mills.”
We sat on the couch in our bedroom; unlit save for the light over the pool table in the next room bleeding through the open doorway. I had woken up early and been unable to go back to sleep – chronic insomnia being a problem of mine when I’m not exhausted by engaging in running gun battles and such.
I had known since the moment the whack-job DJ mentioned it that she’d want to go, but it was still a little uncomfortable to hear. After all, I can’t say no to her, and the place was sure to be crawling with people who wanted little more than to kill me – and engage in other acts with her; the exact nature of which we won’t delve into here.
“Going to be dangerous.” I reminded the red hair that had spoken from its place on my chest. “Those office ruins had several dozen, and it was just an outlying outpost. Could be a hundred in a major, central base.”
“Doubt it.” Ria retorted. “They don’t seem to be able to get along that well. We’ll just have to be smart about it. Nothing says we have to go in, but at the very least we can get a good look. Might be able to at least pick off a patrol or two. We should know where they’re coming from, either way.”
“I hate it when you’re logical.”
“Uh huh. So, today? Or hold off?”
“I’ve got nothing better to do.”
“Today, then.” She concluded. “Let’s get ready then; it’s supposed to be out west, so I want to move in while the sun’s still at our backs.”
After a shave and shower, we made plans over breakfast. A close look at the map showed a mostly intact road that wound around and led to the west. We didn’t know the exact location of the mill, but we could plainly see a set of railroad tracks. If you’re running a foundry, you need rail access. With only one set on the LANSAT view, it was as good a bet as anything.
Path decided – at least initially – we stepped back into the bedroom to gear up. I grabbed my MK14, of course; along with a G41 and a Desert Eagle we had scavenged yesterday. Ria took along her Python, one of the little 22 magnums, and the pump shotgun. Not an arsenal worthy of an army, but hopefully it would cover most situations while still allowing us some mobility.
We pieced together some armor from bits found, scavenged, and bought. We had even found a pair of sunglasses. They were useless to me and my shitty eyes, but Ria found them useful – even if she did lament loudly that aviators weren’t her style.
The sun hadn’t fully crested the horizon when we struck off. Passing back through Springvale, we hung a right and went up the hill towards the collapsed overpass. Passed the entrance to the cave that led into Vault 101 – though we didn’t bother to stop. I think we had both already accepted that that part of our lives was over and done with; and wouldn’t be returning.
No point banging your fist against a granite wall.
Coming around one of the overpass pylons at the top of the hill, we ran across three men (I assume they were men, anyway) in powered armor. Pre-war T47, by the look of it, though I’d never heard of it being painted up like that.
Thankfully they weren’t hostile. We weren’t carrying anything that stacked up to dealing with powered armor, and that minigun would have cut us down easily. While not hostile, they also were not friendly. Tight-lipped, to put it mildly; telling us only to go away.
Shrugging and chalking it up as one of those oddities of life, we moved on.
The road wound around. We stopped behind the cover of a billboard. Ahead was what looked like a military checkpoint. I could plainly see a troop truck and sandbags. It followed that such a place would be ideal for Raiders.
It turned out I was wrong. The checkpoint was manned, but not by Raiders. Mr. Gutsy. Three of the bastards; still flying and in all likelihood still armed.
I dug through the old mental database quickly. Military robotics had never been a strong interest of mine, but I’d pored through dozens of technical manuals over the years – as well as old comic books and movies.
As I recalled, the basic Mr. Gutsy of the immediately pre-war period carried a standard armament of a plasma rifle and a flamer.
I wished the assholes in the T47’s were handy. That minigun would have been a Godsend. An anti-tank launcher would have been even better. My M79 only had fragmentation grenades and not shaped charges, so they’d be all but useless.
We might’ve been able to sneak around… but neither of us cared for the idea of leaving our backs to the trio.
While we didn’t have proper armor-piercing ammunition for either, the 7.62NATO and .357 Magnum were each more than capable of disabling the robots’ ocular sensors, and the joints between body and arms.
Taking a position under the billboard, I watched through my own optic. The ‘bots were on a close patrol path by the look of it. Probably originally programmed to hold the line at the checkpoint immediately following the bombs falling around DC.
I found if I looked close enough, I could just discern the minor color change of the robots’ combat AI controller box.
Why they had left the damned thing exposed was anyone’s guess. I had always assumed it was a flaw slated to be fixed in a later model – except that of course there were no later models, on account of the government collapse and whatnot.
“Can you really hit it?” Ria asked in a whisper.
“No, not if they keep moving like that. When we get one singled out on our side of the truck, hit it for me. Try to go for an optic; but even a body shot will do – I just need you to get the damned thing to stop moving for a second.”
We waited in silence. It took more than ten minutes, but eventually the ‘bots’ seemingly random patrol paths had ended up where we needed them – one at our end of the truck, the other two behind the bed.
Without hesitation, Ria fired; and handily disabled the foremost “eye”. The ‘bot stopped, and swiveled its remaining two our way to determine the source of the threat. I, in turn fired, and skewered the box. It’s AI controller disabled the robot went effectively berserk.
Since the other two were nearer to it than we were, it chose them to attack. The ensuing light show would have been quite entertaining, if not for the fact that we were both preoccupied with being ready to run like hell should one of them survive and come our way.
Fortunately, they didn’t. It took the other two long enough to compute that their friend was now an enemy that they were both terminally damaged before they returned effective fire. They, in their death throes, terminally damaged the third.
From there, it was only a matter of waiting on them to ‘bleed to death’ and power down.
Once they had died, we moved in. Ria indulged me for almost twenty minutes, but I just couldn’t retrieve one of their plasma rifles. Even with an improvised stock, the thing would have been a major boost to our force projection… but as far as I could tell, the units were designed to become useless when the carrier ‘bot was destroyed or otherwise rendered inoperable. I managed to retrieve some power cells, and a bit of flamer fuel, but that was it.
Even the assault rifle that we had seen standing up against the sandbags proved to be useless – after two hundred years of being exposed to the elements, the damned thing was rusted solid and completely worthless as anything but scrap metal.
Moving on down the road, we spied a town – a collection of a half-dozen standing buildings, really. Abandoned buildings. The place was deserted. There was a metro entrance nearby, but we didn’t head for it. As we crossed through the center of town, two people in filthy rags came running past us, screaming. They were followed closely by Raiders.
Some kind of perverse hunting party, if I had to guess. Unfortunately for them, the Raiders were expecting to chase down and murder unarmed cowards, and not get into a gunfight with armed and armored fellow killers.
They didn’t live long, and neither Ria nor I took a single hit.
On that note, I have to mention that I’ve been shot at by Raiders many times now, and they seem to waste incredible amounts of ammunition. Doesn’t anyone know how to build a firing range, anymore? Practice, people!
After looting through the dead men and women, we turned towards the horizon, and were momentarily struck.
There was some kind of massive tower in the distance. We had no idea what it was, but it was a good ways out. Too far for our current excursion, surely, and probably not the kind of place where one simply drops in for tea.
Trek for another day.
Below the tower on the horizon, we could see a church, and down the hill from that some rail cars.
The overhead map confirmed that we were near the rail line.
As we neared the cars, we saw movement again. More of the ogre things – apparently they weren’t confined to simply being around the river. These were negotiated in much the same manner as their brethren had been – using suppressed head shots to pick off those who strayed from the pack and weren’t being paid attention to.
Once they were dealt with we moved down to the rails. The dead ogres were carrying virtually nothing of worth.
We followed along the rails, until the line moved into a canyon.
Bringing up my scope and peering down the tracks, I could see Raider sentries already. They paced back and forth on catwalks that ran over top of the rails.
Looking closer at the satellite view, I saw that the line led into a box canyon. Bordered on all sides by high rock walls, save for this ten odd meter gap where the rails ran in.
“I don’t like this.” I muttered sourly. “It’s a hell of a natural choke-point. We’ll be walking into a killing field. If we had ten men, maybe… but just you and me?”
Unfortunately, the LANSAT photos weren’t high enough resolution to resolve individual people; and the time stamp announced that this photo was almost three weeks old. Apparently, lacking any specific orders, the system simply continued updating every quadrant periodically as long as it had power to do so, and somewhere to receive the data streams.
“I bet whoever decided they should move into the Mill thinks they’re pretty smart.” Ria noted, peering closely at the map readout on her own Pip-Boy.
“Sure, why not? You’d have to wade through hell to get in there.”
“Stop thinking boy scout and start thinking cavalry!” She admonished, giving me a solid cuff on the head. “Why do you run your enemy into a box canyon?”
“…Because you’ve already taken the high ground, and it makes for an easy spot to cut off the avenue of retreat and then cut them to pieces where they can’t effectively return fire.”
“That’s right. I’d be willing to bet good money that these idiots didn’t think far enough ahead to post sentries or set up patrols around the lip of this canyon. We head up on the east side, here.” She pointed to the map. “Fire on them out of the sun. We’ll be a solid quarter mile from the entrance, and will have plenty of time and space to retreat if they somehow manage to mobilize a counterattack.”
She had a point. I could easily see where the ground rose off to our left; heading not only towards the church, but also to higher ground that would run into the canyon.
It seemed a better idea than trying to slog through.
We swung around, past the church, and up into the rocks that overlooked the mill yard. Inside would’ve been quite the mess, as I had feared.
There were dozens of armed raiders.
As I was surveying the situation, I saw something both amazing and horrifying. One of the ogre things… but it was massive. Twenty feet tall, at least.
It had somehow been corralled in a hastily-electrified cage. Judging by the way it thrashed against the cage, I guessed it was far from domesticated.
A particularly evil person resembling me may have had an idea at this point, and put a bullet into the generator powering said electric barrier…
I had found the distraction I needed to deal with superior numbers. While the giant rampaged, I picked off Raiders. Some of them, at least. I wanted others left alive to wear the thing down.
We had to get to the bodies to loot them, after all.
In the end, I let the monster rampage until only two raiders were left standing.
Both were pouring fire into it from handguns, and I added to the barrage. The giant’s constitution was astounding. It took nearly a hundred rounds from my rifle, in addition to the Raiders’ fire to finally bring it down.
It was the last thing standing in the yard.
Rather than chance climbing down the rock face, we returned to the rails and moved in that way. The path was temporarily blockaded by mines, but apparently the lion’s share of their defensive strategy had relied on the human touch.
In all, it took more than two hours to check all the bodies, and take what we wanted. When we reached the last one, we got a surprise: he was alive.
Shattered legs, a broken arm, broken ribs, and probably some internal injuries – but barely still alive.
“Just what I needed.” Ria noted happily, kneeling over him. “You’re going to tell me all about what’s inside this place.”
“Fuck you, bitch.”
Ria frowned ever so slightly. “See, now that’s just not nice.”
“Going to have your boyfriend shoot me?”
“Oh, no.” She grinned. “He’s the good one.”
Ria produced a knife from the back of her belt.
I won’t bore and/or disgust you with what took place over the next ten minutes, except to say that in the end, she got her information, and the Raider very likely considers hell a marked improvement.
“You, know, you’d really think…” Ria noted conversationally, cleaning her blade on the dead man’s shirt. “…That all those drugs would lead to a better pain tolerance.”
“Where did you learn to do that…?” I ventured.
“I don’t know.” She replied, shrugging. “Unnerve you?”
“You have no idea. Yep… not gonna ever piss you off, that’s for damned sure…”
“Silly boy.” Ria giggled softly, and tapped me on the end of the nose with the tip of her now-clean knife. “Didn’t you realize? You’re exempt. Come on now; there are people inside who aren’t, though.”
The… extracted information from the Raider was a boon to us. As it turned out, Evergreen Mills wasn’t a “base”, strictly speaking. It was the Raider equivalent of a resort.
The bazaar inside had food, drinks, gaming, a merchant; even a whorehouse. It was a playground for the elite of the scum of the wastes. Of course, to get to the bazaar, one had to traverse the foundry – which would be fairly well stocked with guards; though they were likely to be lazing about, since there were all the other guards outside that someone would have to get through to get to them.
We pushed inside through the doorway slowly. Sure enough, no one was waiting to greet us. The Raiders on guard duty in here stood little chance, and were taken down by the numbers.
I noticed that guarding here would seem to be a fairly cushy gig. Out of the sun; there were beds, chairs, refrigerators, even a radio. Granted, it was tuned to that obnoxious Enclave broadcast, but it would still beat nothing.
In a locked storage room on the second level, we found something I never thought I’d actually see in person. It was generally referred to as a ‘Fat Man’ – a personal thermonuclear launcher. Such things were huge, heavy, and unwieldy at best; and thus of limited utility. Still, it could be handy at some point to have the ability to fire mini-nukes. Provided I could manage to find any…
After looting the med-kits and ammo boxes, we moved on into the bazaar.
Here, again, were more Raiders. There seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of the fuckers.
Also again, having a suppressed rifle paid for itself a dozen times over. Far from silent, the rifle nonetheless had the twin blessings of not sounding immediately like a gunshot to the untrained, and also of not irreparably damaging our hearing in the interior space.
These Raiders, guarding the door in and out of the inner sanctum, were slightly smarter than most.
Unfortunately, having an IQ of 60 rather than 40 doesn’t help much when you take a round of M80 ball in the temple. Wait for the next idiot to see why the first one fell… rinse, repeat.
Rather like what I’d always read shooting Prairie Dogs was like, actually.
Taking the makeshift gangways up into the rock formations, we found ourselves in what would, we assumed, pass for opulence in this day and age. Pool tables, chairs that still had padding, couches, bottles of booze, and a few brass poles that I could think of only one use for – and it wasn’t getting firemen to their trucks.
Passing by an opening that led into a branch tunnel, we were accosted by a guard who hadn’t shown himself before.
Without so much as blinking, Ria turned, pointed, and put a bullet between his eyes. It was a simply elegant example of point-shooting.
That branch then, struck us as the direction to go to find more of the rapidly dwindling population of the resort.
I slung my MK14 behind my back, and pulled out the G41, resetting the happy switch to “auto”. In the tight quarters of a shoulder-wide hallway, I wanted to be able to lay down a wall of lead at a moment’s notice.
Ideally, a shotgun would have been better, I agree; but the fact is the old Winchester we had found was only a three-quarter tube – it held five rounds, and took half again as many seconds to reload once empty. If there were more than five of them in there, life would get interesting very quickly. Thus, I decided that thirty lesser rounds at a go with fast reload capability was better, from the practical perspective.
I suggested that Ria might want to use the Winchester; but she only shrugged and replied that the Python suited her fine. Given her track record with it thus far I wasn’t inclined to argue the point.
As we rounded the corner into the new room, a cry rang out. There were three of them; all men.
Ria nailed the first one quickly, and I got the other two with a long burst from my G41 – the fools had been standing so close they were nearly touching.
Looking around the room, we found that one of the men had been the merchant. It was a shame he was hostile; we would’ve done business in good faith. Still, his stock of ammunition was impressive – at least more so than you could find in Megaton – and there was even a Vault-Tec bobblehead in the back room.
After returning to the main chamber, we continued on our previous path, eventually reaching another opening. This one led up, but wasn’t guarded. Pausing just inside it, we listened.
Up ahead was apparently the brothel, and it was in business. Someone was certainly having fun.
Before we could move in, though, we heard another voice.
“Let me out of here!” Someone roared; a woman by the sound of it. “I’ll rip your fucking arms off and beat you to death with them!”
“Can’t imagine why they aren’t letting her out.” Ria quipped quietly.
“Watch this.” I returned, suddenly grinning quite madly. I produced one of our fragmentation grenades, and pulled the pin; but held the spoon in place. “Holy inquisition! Stand to and prepare to be judged, sinners!”
I flung the grenade side-arm up the ramp, where it banged into the wall and bounced to rest behind the counter.
Another woman yelled profanity just in time to be silenced by the explosion.
Ria was laughing so hard she nearly wet herself.
Getting hold of herself, Ria nodded and we moved up the ramp, stopping at the counter.
I peered over the top; my grenade had made quite a mess of a woman dressed in the kind of exaggerated leather bondage gear that one generally saw on a brothel madam in old B movies.
Then again, I suppose all movies are old at this point, aren’t they? Oh well…
“I guess it’s true.” I noted. “Nobody ever does expect the Spanish Inquisition.”
The source of the other woman’s voice wasn’t readily apparent. There was a cell on one wall, but I didn’t see anyone inside. A pair of closed doors stood on the opposite wall.
“Hey, I heard something.” A voice came from behind one of the doors. “Knock it off, fucker! I’m serious. Go see.”
I quickly vaulted the counter, and headed towards the door, stopping about six feet shy of it.
The door opened to reveal a quite naked man with a knife…
…Who was very surprised to be staring down the barrel of my rifle.
A filthy, skanky looking woman poked her head out behind him, and I shot them both.
Call it callous if you want, but I was really becoming okay with the whole notion of killing these Raiders. Even as bad as it was, I believed the world was still a bit better place every time I sent one to the next incarnation.
“Are you the asshole who threw that frag?” I heard from behind me.
Ria and I both turned, and I was momentarily awestruck.
The occupant of the cell that I had thought was empty was the one who had spoken. She must’ve recognized the grenade for what it was, and taken cover behind the solid wall when it flew in.
This woman was easily the tallest I had ever seen. She had to have stood six foot six, maybe more. Fair skinned, well muscled… and quite possibly not human. She sported what appeared to be a pair of short horns, jutting from the top of her head, and a tail could be clearly seen flicking back and forth behind her. I’d have to say most disconcerting though, were the eyes. They glowed a mottled orange and yellow, akin to an open flame. When she spoke, I could also easily discern that she had a pair of two-odd inch fangs in her mouth.
“Well? Are you going to answer me?” She continued, hands on well-shaped hips.
“What the hell are you?” I returned.
“Nice to see manners are still fucking dead.” She snorted. “Let me out of here, damn it! That leather-bound cunt has the key. What’s left of her, anyway.”
“You didn’t answer the question.” Ria noted, moving closer to the cell door; apparently over her own shock.
“Neither did he.” The confined woman shot back.
Spurred by Ria’s lack of fear, I moved up as well. On looking closer, I noticed that there had been another occupant of the cell – now quite dead. Judging by the unnatural angle of her head to her body, I doubted it was the grenade blast that had killed her. My money said the big one had snapped her neck like a toothpick for some reason.
“I threw the grenade.” I confirmed. “What of it?”
“You nearly killed me, that’s what of it.”
“I’m sorry; you must have forgotten to announce your presence with the social committee at the reception desk.”
She glared down at me for a long moment. I kept expecting to burst into flame. Then, she gave a light sigh, and smiled.
“Fine. Point. You had no idea I was in here. You weren’t trying to kill me specifically. Apology accepted. Now let me out.”
“Why?” Ria asked. “You’re no friend of ours.”
“The fact that I’m locked up in here should tell you that I’m no friend of theirs, either.” The big woman retorted, clearly frustrated with her incarceration.
“Maybe…” Ria allowed quietly. “But she was. I’ve seen tattoos similar to those on dozens of Raider women now. So they obviously do lock up their own sometimes.”
“She drew the short straw.” The woman replied, glancing down at the corpse. “The pretty ones have to draw lots; losers become whores. She didn’t acquiesce. They locked her up until she decided to rebel less.”
“How’d she die?”
“Wouldn’t shut the fuck up, so I shut her up. Turns out locking me in here wasn’t the best of ideas on their part.”
“Still doesn’t explain…” Ria began.
“Look.” The other woman cut her off. “I’ll tell you everything, okay? My whole goddamned life story if you want; just let me the fuck out! I don’t like cages.”
I looked to Ria, who shrugged and nodded.
Sighing, I retrieved the key from the dead madam, and unlocked the door.
I heard the telltale sound of Ria’s Python being cocked.
For her part, the big woman was at least trying to appear non-threatening. She kept her hands out in plain sight, though her tail remained quite spastic.
“Thank you.” She offered.
“Get any ideas about hurting him, and you get to find out what it’s like to be paralyzed from the waist down and then bleed to death slowly. Understand?” Ria asked, leveling her revolver on the larger woman.
“Understand.” She replied with a small nod.
“Who… what are you?” I asked.
“My name’s Maeva; and you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“I’m… a demon. Sort of. Half-breed, actually… it’s a long story that usually requires hours of exposition.”
“No shit.” Ria muttered. “Suppose that explains the spade tail and horns.”
“If you are a demon…” I asked. “Why couldn’t you get out on your own?”
“Because I’m not.” She replied sullenly. “Half human. A full-blood? Sure, they’d be able to rip the bars out and walk right out of here – automatic weapons or no. I’m not that strong, though, and I’m still coming down.”
“Yeah.” Maeva nodded. “Judging by the hangover: I’d say to capture me, they gave me enough Ketamine to kill you and her twice over. I’m still not a hundred percent. Won’t be for awhile, yet; but at least I’m not seein’ shit this time.”
“You know a Ketamine high that well?”
“Yeah, well… it only takes a couple times to learn; and let’s just say the 1970’s were an interesting decade for us all… Say, you didn’t happen to run across one of these assholes wearing a black leather trenchcoat, did you?”
“Damn it. Do you know how hard it is to find one of those things in my size? Fuckers stole it while I was out. Along with my weapons, and a very nice Seiko Kinetics I’d been carrying for two hundred and fifty years now.”
“How’d you get caught?”
“An arms dealer I had been patronizing for a few years had a little party. I was drinking some good whiskey… and then I woke up here. Short some possessions, with a pounding headache, and with a conspicuous hand print on my top over my left tit… Anyway, apparently someone decided I’d be worth a fat stack of caps to the slavers. Surprised they didn’t collar me while I was out. Would you mind pointing that somewhere else, by the way?”
After a moment, Ria relented and lowered her Python; carefully lowering the hammer as she did so.
“What are you going to do now?” I asked, as Maeva lowered her hands.
“Well, I was hoping I might be able to talk you guys into letting me take a couple pieces of the loot you’ve collected from these guys… and maybe let me tag along; at least until I get my head back together.”
“You don’t even know where we’re going.” Ria noted.
Though she had lowered it, she still hadn’t holstered her revolver.
“One place in the wastes is much like another. You guys are obviously pretty good at this sort of thing, so I doubt it matters much.”
“Sure.” Maeva nodded, and crossed the room; searching through some boxes stacked against the far wall.
“What do you think?” I asked Ria in an undertone.
“If she’s not a demon, she’s a hell of a mutant. Tall, strong, and judging by what she did to the other prisoner dangerous either way. I don’t trust her for a second, but she doesn’t seem hostile, and it would be that much more stuff we could carry back to Megaton…”
“I’d hate to leave her here if she is telling the truth.” I added. “Being alone sucks when you’re someplace safe.”
“Ever the romantic.”
“We can’t all be psycho-killers.” I replied, thumping Ria’s nose.
She giggled. “Okay, we’ll take her along then. For now, at least.”
I turned back to tell Maeva what we had decided, and was again struck silent. She was bent over, rifling through a box.
Now, it’s not what you’re thinking. I was actually staring at her tail. Maeva was humming to herself as she worked – apparently in quite the better mood now that she was out of the cell, and not having a gun pointed at her. As she swayed her hips in time with whatever tune she was thinking of, her tail moved as well. It now hung low and relaxed; swinging back and forth in a manner that suggested wagging more so than anything. It looked as though one could gauge her general mood by watching the thing, almost like a dog.
Abruptly, Maeva stood back upright and became silent. She held aloft a pistol that she had apparently found in the box.
I could tell from even my vantage point across the room that the weapon had seen better days, but she was apparently enough of a pragmatist to take what she could get. She was also at least functionally familiar with firearms. I watched as she cleared the weapon, performed a quick safety test and cursory inspection, and then reloaded it and slid the weapon into the waistband of her skirt.
Boxes inspected and weapon obtained, she returned to us.
“Yeah.” I nodded. “You can tag along for awhile.”
“I notice you found a weapon.”
“This? Yeah. Cheap Soviet-era crap… but it beats harsh language.”
“Well, this beats cheap Soviet crap.” Ria returned, handing over her shotgun.
This pleased Maeva immensely. Whether it was the meaning behind the act or she just really liked shotguns I wasn’t sure.
Once she had slung the shotgun, Maeva looked at Ria again, and seemed confused.
“Wait…” She leaned closer. “I remember you.”
“You should.” Ria retorted brusquely. “You met me five minutes ago.”
“No. It was longer. A week? Two, maybe… I don’t know exactly how long I was out between the party and waking up here.”
“That’s not possible.” I cut in. “We’ve only been in the wastes six days now, and we’d definitely remember having met you.”
“No, no.” Maeva insisted, nodding several times as she worked out whatever was going through her head. “You were alone at the time. Him I’ve never met before today. You don’t remember? We met in that rain storm; on the interstate? I invited you into this bus I had broken into for shelter. You were soaked to the bone, freezing; ended up trying to use me as a contact heater. When we parted ways, you kissed me as thanks.”
“I think you’re tripping.” Came Ria’s reply. “The only person I’ve ever kissed is the guy standing here with us, and up until six days ago I lived in a vault – a vault where I’d spent my entire life.”
“Hm.” Maeva mused semi-silently. “The hair’s different, but I’d recognize those eyes anywhere. What’s your name?”
“I think she means your birth name, Dear.” I added.
Ria muttered something foul under her breath before answering: “…Josephine.”
“No. This one was Natasha. You have family?”
“N-no?” Ria answered. It was rare to see her actually put off balance, but I knew family was an extremely uncomfortable subject for Ria. “My parents died before I was even old enough to walk. I don’t have any siblings. The vault overseer adopted me.”
“I don’t think so.” Maeva retorted simply.
“Are you saying I’m a liar?”
“No. I’m saying you were lied to. Look in the mirror Arianrhod.” Maeva said, expression suddenly intense and completely lucid. “You’re a mutant. A gorgeous one, but an aberration all the same. Red eyes don’t naturally occur in humans; except in the case of albinos – whose irises are technically translucent. Yours are red. If you grew up in a vault, you weren’t exposed to radiation; which means it’s a genetic aberration that your family picked up somewhere up the line. One of your parents will have had it, as might your siblings. In this case, a sister. Younger, I’d say. You’re how old?”
Maeva nodded. “I’d guess Natasha was seventeen, maybe eighteen. About right.”
“Whoa, whoa.” I interrupted. “Lots of people have been exposed to lots of rads over the last two centuries. Who’s to say they have to be related?”
Maeva leaned in closer to Ria, inspecting details of her face.
“If you saw Natasha, Boy, you’d agree with me. You know your girl here well enough that you’d be able to see the similarities. The eyes, the hair, the shape of the nose, the jaw line; all nearly identical. Hell, they even have the same basic stance.”
I could tell that having her personal space invaded so relentlessly was bothering Ria, and decided to intercept the problem before it became violent.
I took Maeva by the arm. Try as I might, I couldn’t so much as move her arm an inch – let alone the entire woman. After a moment, she glanced at me out of the corner of her eye, and then let herself be pulled away from Ria.
“She doesn’t like people getting too close.” I explained, making sure Maeva’s considerable form was planted in front of me and away from Ria. “Say it is true, just for the sake of argument. What does that mean to us? It’s not like Natasha has a mailing address we can look up. If she was roaming, she may not even have a home anymore. How are we supposed to find her? What’s to keep this from being nothing but an exercise in making Ria worry?!”
Maeva grinned, showing fangs. “It’s cute that you’re so adamant about protecting the woman you love, little boy. If she wants to go looking, we’ll find her sister.”
“Just like that?”
“Why not? Natasha told me where she was headed when we parted. It’s been a week or so… the trail shouldn’t be too cold, and I know more than a bit about tracking. Besides, people like them stand out in the wasteland, almost as much as my kind does.”
“Right now the only place we’re going is home.” Ria declared quietly.
She cut me off with a sharp shake of her head. “I need to think about this… and we can’t very well go searching across the wastes with a few hundred pounds of looted weapons and ammunition, either. We need to stow this stuff. We’ll also need proper supplies – we didn’t pack along enough food and water for even three days on this jaunt. With the Amazon there along, we’ll need even more; and there’s not exactly a 7-11 to stop into.”
“Home is out of the way?” Maeva asked.
“Not really.” I answered. “Less than two hours walk from here. In Springvale.”
“Ah, Springvale. Not a favorite hangout of mine.”
“We… appropriated a place. It’s nice.”
“I can come?”
“Yes.” Ria answered sharply. “I want you along until I decide what to do, at least. Come on.”
With that, Ria turned and headed down the ramp.
“Standoffish, isn’t she?”
“You put her in a bad mood, Maeva.”
“So I did.”
We followed, hurrying to catch up.
With Maeva along, we found our group’s carrying capacity greatly increased, and so revisited loot that we had passed over or left behind on the way in.
Maeva stopped and gave a low whistle, as we stepped down the stairs leading back into the yard outside Evergreen Mills.
“You people sure as fuck know how to throw a party. How’d you manage this?”
“Had some inadvertent help.” I noted.
As we continued on, I pointed out the dead giant when we cleared the fence.
“Behemoth.” Maeva noted. “Heard of them; never seen one. They really are huge.”
“Make you look downright short.” We heard Ria quip from ahead.
“Is she always this pissy?”
“When people other than me are around? Yeah, pretty much.” I shrugged. “She’ll probably warm up to you eventually – if you stick around that long.”
As we trekked back across the wastes towards home, I stayed a bit back with Maeva; giving Ria her space at the fore.
I’d known her many years, and thus knew the signs when her infrequent need to be left alone arose.
She was thinking, no doubt. Tossing around Maeva’s words – the idea that she did have a family. A family that had abandoned her for whatever reason.
A week before I wouldn’t have been able to relate, but now…
I knew though that she’d talk to me when ready. Ria and I didn’t keep any secrets from each other; but when you don’t know what you think yet, it’s difficult to discuss it.
I took instead the opportunity to watch Maeva as we traveled. She grimaced often; uncomfortable under the blazing sun, and more than once stumbled.
I’d never had Ketamine, but did have to be sedated once for dental work when I was sixteen. If her estimate of the amount of drugs she’d been given was correct, I couldn’t imagine how Maeva could even remain upright – let alone walk along with us.
Nonetheless, she soldiered on quite respectably, and we made it home without further incident in a bit under three hours – as the sun was beginning to dip towards the horizon.
Once inside we stowed our looted equipment, and gave Maeva the use of one of the spare bedrooms.
Ria and I now kept sidearms on at all times – even when inside our home – at least until we got a better feel for Maeva’s true intentions. For her part, Maeva seemed to understand our unease, and accepted it with grace and unconcern. Without being asked, she opted to remain weaponless while inside, and made no actions that could even be remotely construed as hostile.
In truth, she seemed to be more interested in a simple hot bath and resting in a dim, cool room than anything.
It was hours later, nearing midnight, when the three of us sat around the dining table. We had been drinking hard for over an hour, and were all more than a bit drunk.
“I want to find her.” Ria declared, setting down her empty glass and refilling it from the bottle of vodka we were sharing.
“I figured as much.” Maeva returned, glancing at us over the rim of her own glass of whiskey. “Wasteland isn’t a good place to travel by night if you can avoid it, though.”
“No, not tonight. If she’s survived this long, one more night won’t make any great difference.”
“Probably true.” Maeva allowed, taking another long drink.
“Tell me about her.”
Maeva shrugged helplessly. “Like I said: we only spent the one night together; part of a morning. It’d been raining all day when we met. I was soaked to the bone, and had kicked in the door of a stalled bus on the highway. Threw the dead out into the street, and tried to hole up. Couldn’t risk a fire, but just being out of the rain was better.”
“How’d you meet?” I asked.
“I was sitting in the bus, eating some cold chili out of a can and thinking how many people I’d kill to get ahold of a propane backpackers’ stove. I happened to glance out this window, and saw a redhead walking along the road. No armor, just a sidearm and small pack. Didn’t even have a poncho. She was shivering; stopped every few feet to sneeze. I’m normally a pretty heartless bitch… but I just couldn’t let her go. Did you ever see a half-drowned puppy? You know the damn thing probably has worms and the first thing it’ll do is shit on the rug, but you just can’t leave it to fend for itself…”
“No pets in the vault.” Ria corrected.
“Oh. Well, I felt sorry for her, anyway. Lowered a window, yelled out at her to come in where it was dry. Poor girl almost wet herself I scared her so bad. I think she would’ve said no – and prudently so – but she was desperate. I managed to talk her into coming in. She really was like a puppy; I fed her, and she cuddled right up to me and went to sleep. Next morning we chatted a bit until the rain let up.”
“And she kissed you.” Ria interjected.
“Oh come on. It’s not like she grabbed my ass and shoved her tongue in my mouth. It was a little thing – a peck, really. Poor kid was convinced she would have died without someplace warm and dry to sleep.”
“Where was she headed?” I asked, hoping to head off the impending argument.
“Canterbury. Looking for work, I think it was.”
“That’s where the trade caravans are based out of, right?”
“Uh huh. Helluva hike, though.” Maeva stood, and yawned. She took a few steps over to me, and laid her hand on my shoulder; leaning down to my level. “Do me a favor, huh? Your girl there needs her head cleared out and screwed back on straight. Give her a good fuck. Don’t worry about me – I’m going to bed. Won’t bother you two.”
I tried to protest, but Maeva was already walking away. She collected the bottle of whiskey, and waved back over her shoulder before disappearing into the next room and down the stairs.
Ria slumped over onto my other shoulder.
“What if she is my sister?”
I wondered briefly if Ria had even been paying attention to my exchange with Maeva moments earlier.
“Then I guess you’re not as alone as you thought?”
“I wasn’t alone anyway.” She corrected quietly. “You’re the only family I’ve ever needed, little brother. I accepted a long time ago that it would just be you and me. What if… I don’t want someone else to take care of?”
I slid my arm around Ria’s waist and pulled her closer.
“If you and she need to part ways, so be it… but you need to find out one way or the other. You’ll always wonder, otherwise.”
“You think I owe it to her?”
“What, you’ve got something better to do with your days?”
Ria began to laugh softly.
“Come on; let’s go to bed.”
“Thought it was a good idea after all, then?” I asked.
“You know I hate trying to have sex when I’m drunk. I just want to sleep off eight or so of these shots of vodka.”