August 24, 2277:
There are certain persisting myths about women. One of the longest running seems to revolve around certain… bodily functions and odors.
Well, after years spent around Ria – who is rather open and matter-of-fact about such things – I’m here to tell you those myths are bold faced lies. After a late dinner of cheap vodka and overcooked mystery meat on a stick, females are every bit as capable of peeling paint from the walls and setting off smoke detectors as men.
Ria doesn’t mind my being around at such times – indeed, I’ve wondered on more than one occasion over the years if she has any shame whatsoever – but I mind.
So it was that I found myself in the early morning, on the couch in the den – and giving the lady plenty of space for her morning constitutional.
As I sat, Maeva plopped her considerable form down on the end of the couch opposite me; draping one of her almost unbelievably long legs across the back, curling the other up beneath her.
She had apparently scavenged clothes from the closet in the bedroom she claimed as her own – a pair of shorts, and a T-shirt that had had the arms ripped off to form a makeshift tank top. The trouble being that the shorts were rather short for her, and the top covered little below the tip of her sternum.
As you might imagine, Maeva’s dress and position conspired to give me an eyeful.
I love Ria, I want to say that clearly and without reservation; I really don’t have any interest in anyone else… but Goddamn does the universe like to mess with me some days.
Try as I might to not look, I now knew without doubt that the carpet matched the drapes.
“There’s something I want to talk to you about, Nos.” She began without preamble. “Where’s Arianrhod?”
“Erm… Busy, for the time being. Can it wait?”
“I’d rather not, but I’m willing to discuss it with just you, and fill her in later.”
I wasn’t sure I was going to like where this was going.
“As even a half-breed, there I’m expected to abide by The Code. Even though I usually don’t.”
“Code…?” I asked. “Is this a demon thing?”
“Ya-huh.” She nodded. “Think of it as a set of rules for us infernal types. Handed down from antiquity et cetera et cetera ad nauseam and other such pretentious bullshit.”
“And how is this pertinent to me? Don’t tell me there’s a shotgun wedding in my future or something…”
Maeva laughed. “No, no. The section of the Code that I’ve decided to abide by for once in my worthless life states that if a human saves our life, we’re supposed to serve that human until we can return the favor. In the old days of inquests and witch burnings it was a decent way of convincing people to avoid burning an unconscious demon at the stake. And served as a way of shaming us into being more self-sufficient. You and your girlfriend saved me.”
“That’s taking it a bit far. No one exactly had a gun to your head…”
“True.” She allowed. “But I couldn’t have gotten out on my own, either. You either saved me from an untimely end at the muzzle of a shotgun, or a life of being a rent-a-demon. I think I’d rather be dead than that last one, incidentally.”
“Why us?” I heard Ria ask.
Glancing over the back of the couch, I saw her standing in the doorway; expression midway between suspicion and simple disbelief.
“I like you guys.” Maeva answered easily with a small shrug. “You’re decent enough people, no qualms about killing, keep decent hooch, and don’t seem to mind what I am.”
“And this isn’t just a thinly veiled attempt to hang around?” Ria continued, moving towards us.
“I wouldn’t call it a veiled attempt at all.” Maeva retorted. “I’m not hiding it. You want me to say it? Fine: I want to stick around. I like it here; I like it with you, and I do feel like I owe you both for saving my nice ass from the abuses that were doubtless impending once they figured out how much psychotropics it would take to drug me into obedience. I think I could be useful to you.”
“You probably could.” Ria allowed.
“Plus, I’ve been around the DC-area for something like six years now. I know my way around it; without having to rely on those outdated satellite maps you two have.”
“And where were you before that?”
“How far back do you want me to go…?” Maeva asked, something akin to amusement sneaking into her face. “I’ve been around a long time; do you want to know where I’ve been roaming since the war, or the complete litany?”
“Just the recent history, please.” I cut in. Academic curiosity nagged to ask more… but practicality had to win at the moment.
“Well…” Maeva trailed off, leaning back and clearly thinking. “Ten years ago, I was a hired guard on a long-haul trade convoy from what’s left of Atlanta, up to Charlestown.”
“That’s long haul?” Ria asked in a loud undertone.
“It is these days. Anyway, on the last run I was a member of; we hit our destination, and were slated to offload and get paid the next morning – then anyone who wanted to sign on for the return trip would have the chance. The head of the caravan called me into his tent; suggested a few extra tasks I’d need to complete if I wanted to get paid… so I decked the old letch, took my pay from the cash box – plus a twenty percent sexual harassment fee – and walked off into the night. Banged around Virginia and the Carolinas awhile; until I heard a rumor that I couldn’t pass up checking out.”
“What rumor would that be?”
“Project Purity, they called it. A dream to actually produce clean water on command. I was always a fan of steam-distillation, myself… but I suppose that’s not really viable on the large scale. The water itself didn’t interest me. Word was, every major player on the eastern seaboard was coming in for this thing. The Brotherhood, Talon Company… there were even some other rumors that the Enclave was assembling a new expeditionary force. I figure that whenever you get that many big dogs in an area, a fight is bound to erupt; and mercenary work is one of the ways I prefer to make a living. Plus… DC was always a hotbed of bunkers; and the surrounding area was home to plenty of corporate and government research centers. Even after two hundred years, there might be some goodies laying about, thought I.”
“Got here, found out I was too late. Enclave was nowhere to be seen; Project Purity was a wash – the lead scientist had up and disappeared a decade before I got here; it hadn’t worked in the first place… and the Brotherhood wasn’t even bothering to occupy the test site anymore. Hell, I went into the place; had a look around. Whole lot of wasted money and time, you ask me – which of course no one did. So, I was right back to eking out a living on small-time endeavors. Had considered getting into running guns myself a few times, but the opportunity never arose.”
“You’re a big, scary half-demon.” Ria noted. “Can’t you just carve yourself an empire?”
“Maybe.” Maeva gave a small shrug. “But I have to be subtle about it. The Elders get pissed off when we don’t keep a low profile. If I go waving a banner and posting ‘join the demon army today!’ flyers around the wasteland, they‘ll come looking for me… and it won’t be selling me to slavers they have in mind.”
“Okay, so you know the area fairly well.” I mused. “I don’t suppose you have any cached arms we could use? Ammunition’s fairly thin as it is.”
“No.” She shook her head slowly. “I was mostly mobile… but had a safe-house. A safe-house that got torched while I was away trading. That’s why I was visiting the arms dealer – I wanted some goodies to bring Hell to whoever did it. In retrospect, that bastard probably had a hand in my place going up. Either way, I lost all my kit and money while I was out. I’m surprised quite frankly that they didn’t strip me naked. I know some people… but I’m not sure anymore who can be trusted, and who will turn us over to the slavers the first chance they get. Afraid I can’t be much help in the equipment department. If you really need it… Rivet City’s probably the best bet. Couple guys in the marketplace carry all kinds of nasty toys.”
“And where is this Rivet City…?”
“The opposite direction from where we’re going to be heading, of course. It’s a solid day’s walk there and back. It might be worth it to delay… but I can’t promise they’ll have the ammo you need. Not exactly regular supply shipments these days, you know?”
“Fine, then.” Ria declared. “We’ll go without it. Push comes to shove, we can probably get at least some in Canterbury, by the sound of it.”
“Great. So, when do we leave?”
“Later. First, I need him a moment.”
Ria grabbed me by the collar of my shirt, drug me over the back of the couch, and into the bedroom; then kicked the door closed almost nonchalantly.
“…Problem?” I asked more than a bit meekly.
“You…” She replied softly, dragging a fingertip up the center of my chest. “Were looking at things you shouldn’t have been.”
I briefly considered lying. Very briefly. When I say I can’t lie to Ria, I’m not being figurative – I literally can’t lie to her, she always sees right through it.
“It’s… not like it was intentional. You saw the way she was dressed. I’m like any other predator – movement draws my eye…”
“Did we like what we saw?”
I glanced briefly past Ria – perhaps not the brightest of moves, given the circumstances… but as I said: movement catches my eye. I could just see part of a shadow in the light bleeding in under the door. Maeva was listening on the other side, most likely.
“Well, she’s not badly built, no…”
“I thought as much. You realize this requires that I re-lay my claim to you with great intensity.”
With this, Ria pushed me back onto the bed; and pulled her shirt up, over her head, and threw it into the floor.
“…You looked too, didn’t you?’
“I did.” She nodded. “Except I did it intentionally…”
* * * *
According to the bedside clock, it was an hour and twenty-seven minutes later when she finally finished with me.
At least, I think it was. It was also entirely possible that I’d been ridden clean into a hallucinatory state. I swear, that woman is going to kill me one of these days. Then again, if you have to go…
After a shower, we emerged from the bedroom again; only to find Maeva perched on the couch’s back. On seeing us, she bounded from the couch, and grabbed me by the arm; while looking at Ria.
“Holy shit. I thought someone was killing you in there! Listen, I need to borrow him for a little bit. Twenty, thirty minutes, tops. Promise I won’t break him. I’ll even give him another bath before I return him…”
Maeva was silenced when a heel impacted the side of her head, and fell silently to the floor.
Ria had thrown one of her signature spin-kicks; which normally connected her heel with her target’s temple. If she were wearing her stiff-soled Vault security boots, the move could actually be fatal to be on the receiving end of.
I wasn’t sure where this kick had connected exactly; but it sent all two hundred pounds of demoness sprawling to the floor easily enough.
Fortunately, Ria had been barefoot.
Maeva, for her part, was clearly not only not dead, but still conscious; gazing up at us from the floor. She blinked several times, as though trying to get her eyes to focus.
Ria bent over her.
“Mine.” She said simply. “Understand?”
“Good. We’ll be upstairs making something to eat; feel free to join us when you’ve showered and dressed. Oh, and before I forget again: there’s a bottle of chemical hair remover in the master bathroom. You might want to use some of it – the lawn definitely needs some tending.”
Ria took me by the arm, and led me out of the room; clearly not willing to leave me alone with Maeva.
I wasn’t sure Maeva had actually been physically stunned. I never did ask, but I thought it more likely that she had simply been surprised; that she hadn’t expected such a brutal response to what may have in all likelihood been a joke.
Some twenty minutes later, breakfast was nearly cooked when Maeva walked into the kitchen.
Ria possessed little in the way of cooking aptitude, which left me the job. I’ll confess, I’m not much better – meals in the vault were served in the cafeteria or diner; there was little cooking done in individual quarters. Still, I had ‘cooked’ a few times on a hot plate before or after our rendezvous in the deep vault, and shown some small talent; so I was elected to handle the task now that the act was actually required.
Maeva brushed past me, retrieving what looked like a beer from the refrigerator, before heading back towards the table.
“Your girlfriend’s psychotic.” She muttered under her breath as she passed my back the second time.
Didn’t I know it.
I had always known the Ria possessed a serious temper. What I hadn’t known was just how much of it she had been suppressing in the vault.
Without any sort of controls, any sort of boundaries… I worried more than a bit where her psyche was going to go in the future. As she had said: in a world with no central authorities, no police or militaries; where freedom was only a path of retreat or a secure fortress way… there was no such thing as extradition. Manhunts would involve actual hunting; and such hunting parties would be subject to all manner of traps, ambushes, and good old fashioned sniping. Kill enough of them, and eventually people would no longer be willing to go looking for you.
Universe help the DC-wasteland if the woman I love ever gets ahold of a set of functioning powered armor.
“Feel better after your shower?” Ria enquired cheerfully as Maeva took a seat opposite her at the table.
“Much, although thankfully that footprint you put on the side of my head is covered by my hair.”
“Yes, I’m considerate like that. Now, where exactly is Canterbury Commons?”
Maeva muttered something in a language I didn’t recognize, then motioned for Ria to hold out her arm with the Pip-Boy on it.
“This is Canterbury over here.” She indicated. “I met your sister back about here; where the highway runs along the Potomac. It’s nominally about a six hour walk; but at the pace I last saw her moving, and as skittish as she is… I’d figure on the walk taking her the rest of the day, and part of the next. She wouldn’t have wanted to move by night.”
“So?” I asked, depositing plates on the table in front of them. “Where do we start?”
“Judging by the date on this thing, I last saw her nine days ago. We should make for Canterbury; with any luck, she made it there and has either found work, or moved on for greener pastures. Either way, someone will have seen her, and can point us in the right direction.”
“And if she didn’t make it?” Ria asked, looking at the map.
I knew what she was thinking. There was a lot of ground between the two points Maeva indicated. The highway was broken in more than a few places, and Gods knew how many groups of Raiders inhabited the area.
“Then we backtrack. Follow the road towards where I met her. She won’t have ventured too far off the road. She grew up in the wasteland, unlike you two, and knew the area fairly well. If something happened, she’d probably try to go to ground; wait for whoever saw her to lose interest and look for easier prey. There are dozens of places to hide along the road – hundreds, maybe. We’ll search them all, if need be.”
“It looks like the best route to Canterbury would be back over to the bridge near the DC ruins; track north from there until we hit the road, and then head in back east.”
“Sounds good, but we’ll need to swing around these ruins. What’s left of Bethesda – the place is crawling with Raiders.”
“No, it isn’t.” Ria returned easily. “We cleaned it out a couple days ago.”
“Killed. Them. All. Where do you think I got my Python? Took it from one of their higher ups, after my boy here hit her and her flunkies with some forty-millimeter love.”
Maeva peered closely at Ria. “Are you sure you’re not hiding a pair of horns in that pretty hair?”
“Oh… fine. Whatever. I suppose that’ll just be that much less time it takes to get there.”
After shoveling in our respective plates of food, we geared up and headed out, locking the door behind us.
We had enough food and water to hold us for about a week; primary, secondary, and last-ditch arms, and whatever ammunition we had found for them. I packed along my cut-down M79, in the hopes that we might run across some more ammunition for it. I also divvied up the frag grenades, and made sure everyone had several stimpaks. They were hardly a cure-all… but would beat the hell out of nothing.
We moved onto the nearby road, towards the Super Duper Mart, and the bridge next to it. The going was blessedly quiet – it appearing to us that no Raiders had been jumping at the bit to move into the territory we had so recently exterminated them from.
As before, we stopped prior to crossing the bridge to survey the area. Again, nothing was seen.
Maybe the day wouldn’t turn out to be so bad after all…
Across the river and atop the nearby hills, we moved north towards Bethesda, and eventually the highway that ran east and west.
Bethesda as well was still quiet. Almost eerily so, considering the population it had had only a few days before. Several more corpses had been carried off by whatever night-faring wildlife inhabited the area; a few had been partially eaten in place. The smell, it was not what one would term pleasant. I wished loudly for a set of power armor – not for the armor itself, but for the attached air filtration system. I had to assume that a system made to shrug off chlorine gas would at least be able to knock the edge off of the smell of days’ old, sun-roasted death.
Moving east from Bethesda, traveled on until reaching an adjoining highway that ran north/south.
Consulting the map, we saw that north on this road would be best to head for Canterbury. Even repeated switches of direction to stay on the roads was apparently preferable to trying to cut cross-country. Along the way, we spied what looked like a government facility. Fences, walls, ruined buildings, and lots of junked army trucks.
On closer inspection, lots of Raiders, too.
Tempting though it was to try to pick up some more ammunition… this was a distraction we didn’t need; and so passed quietly by without drawing attention.
Trouble on the road was… surprisingly slight. A few feral animals, but very little in the way of human opposition.
Eventually, we found the crossroads that the map had indicated would get us one overly-convoluted step closer, and headed back east.
The area we moved into appeared to have been grazing land for livestock at some point. Some scattered head were still in the fences – ugly, mutated beasts with two heads and skin that was more than a bit disgusting. They looked vaguely cow-like; but I can’t say as they engendered the urge to try one of the ‘hamburgers’ I had read about in books over the years.
We surveyed the area well though my sniper scope before moving on through the fields; but saw nothing threatening. Through the fields, the road led up; into Canterbury.
Our small party was stopped again at the hill’s top. We had either wandered onto the set of a bad B movie, or the post-nuclear war world was even more batshit insane than I had already given it credit for.
In the street, just inside the town’s border, stood two costumed nutjobs. One dressed like an anthropomorphic ant, the other like a robot; and because my day apparently wasn’t sufficiently fucked up already, they each had a retinue matching their costume.
I asked Maeva; but she had no idea who they were. When the combat started between the two, I decided it was best to step in – since the lasers being thrown about were obviously real, and the giant ants not mechanical props.
I managed to put down the ant-woman, but the robot got away by sending his minions after me while he valiantly ran like hell.
After ‘killing’ the robots (and stripping them for parts…) we moved into town, only to be ambushed by one of the townspeople, who had apparently been hiding. The man identified himself, thanked us for taking care of the ant-woman, and scaring off the robot-man; and presented a reward. My understanding of the wasteland economy was still lacking; but it seemed that “saving the town” would have warranted a bit more money than that.
Still, it was apparently all we were getting.
The man – who had called himself Roe – said he hadn’t seen Ria’s sister. No one even close to matching the description. He pointed us towards a merchant caravan set up next to the town; that had apparently came in just that morning from back west.
The merchant was an… eccentric man by the name of Wolfgang. He offered us a deal on his finest ‘junk’. Declining, we pressed for information. What we got was not good.
He had seen a girl matching Natasha’s description the day before… in chains; being led with the rest of a group of prisoners to someplace called Paradise Falls.
“Shit.” Maeva muttered, sitting down underneath a nearby tree and leaning back against it. “How badly do you want to save your sister?”
“What the hell kind of question is that?” Ria retorted.
“Paradise Falls is the slavers’ local base of operations.” The demoness explained. “Dozens of them at any given time. Slave pens; processing facilities, auction sites. Getting in there is going to be messy. I owe you guys; I’m willing to try it if you want… but we may not come through unscathed. Is finding Natasha worth losing him? Is it worth him losing you?”
“There’s no back way in?” I asked.
“None that I know of. It’s built to keep slaves in, and rescuers out. Fences are topped with razor-wire, sewer pipes are too small to get an adult through… it’s pretty much front door or nothing. If we had some shaped charges… a roll of det-cord, we could go through the wall; but even so we have no idea where exactly she’d be.”
“It’s okay, we’ll find a way.” I concluded.
“No, Nos; she’s not…” Ria began.
I cut her off.
“We’re going. If we don’t do this, you’ll resent yourself the rest of your life – always wondering if you could have saved her if we only tried.”
“If we’re going, it has to be now.” Maeva noted, standing. “Your sister is clear-skinned, pretty; real red hair and unusual eyes. They’ll send out word to the high-rollers, try to jack her price up as much as possible before selling. Without telephones, it takes time to send out runners with messages… that’ll buy us a day; maybe two if they insist on making it an in-person auction to get a bidding war going. There’s little chance she’ll still be there day after tomorrow – and even today, odds are she may already be on compliance drugs.”
“How long to get there?”
Maeva thought a moment. “If we quit the road; go as the crow flies and double-time it? We can be there in about three hours, give or take a bit.”
We didn’t want to risk leaving the bulk of our caps at home – there was always the chance that a need might arise to purchase something expensive; or a situation might come up where buying our way out of trouble would be the preferable option. Though, since getting to know the new society a bit, I’d split up our “money” into several pouches under the idea that at least if I got pick-pocketed, we wouldn’t lose it all in one go. I carried a few of the pouches myself in various places; Ria had the remainder – I had never bothered to ask specifics, but I suspect that at least some were hidden in places even I’d have difficulty finding.
I retrieved one of the smaller pouches from its place attached to my belt, and threw it to Maeva – who caught it easily; a raised eyebrow her only response.
“Head back into ‘town’, such as it is. Grab whatever clean water you can, and see if you can scare up some meds. Sedatives, amphetamines, and anti-anxieties.”
“I’m not sure whether to applaud your ability to forward-think, or get depressed at your expectations for the day.”
“My mother’s dead; my father left in the middle of the night without a word; the other residents of my ‘home’ tried to kill me; and I now live in a post-nuclear-apocalypse wasteland. What kind of expectations should I have for my luck? You said it yourself: the girl’s skittish. The last thing we need is her having a screaming panic attack after seeing the things we have to do to get her out of there.”
“You’re the boss; but you know, in days gone by we just clubbed the hysterical over the head and drug them out anyway…” Maeva muttered, walking back towards town.
“Does the word ‘concussion’ mean anything to you?!” I yelled at her back.
“What are the amphetamines for?” Ria asked, glancing my way.
“I’m no pharmacist, but I’ve flipped through Dad’s PDR a few times over the years. I remember a lot of ‘compliance drugs’ are also sedatives. The thought also occurs that depending on how this goes, we may have to stay awake for a few days straight.”
“Have I ever told you how much I respect your ability to be a consummate pessimist?”
“I don’t think so, no.”
Maeva returned about five minutes later, bearing a small satchel that contained a half dozen half-liter bottles of water, and an almost laughably small stash of medicine.
“That’s it?” Ria asked, peering into the bag.
“This isn’t a major settlement.” Maeva shot back. “The caravan that deals in medical supplies hasn’t been by in a week; and isn’t slated to come back for another day or two. I took what I could get.”
With that, she held out the purse I had given her, presumably containing the remainder of the caps.
“Hang on to it. We’re not running short yet, and you may need it.”
Maeva nodded after a moment, apparently surprised. “Okay, then.”
She pulled out the string that had the pouch tied closed, and quickly re-knotted it to form a necklace; then placed the small stash of caps around her neck, safely situated between her armor and the shirt underneath.
“What exactly did you manage to get?” I asked, as usual not recognizing the trade names on the medicines.
“This one’s a sedative.” She noted, holding up a bottle of pills. “Glorified sleep aid, really; but a double-dose should keep someone at Natasha’s bodyweight docile for a few hours, at least. This one is technically a stimulant… but it’s not a full-on amphetamine; more an anti-sleep aid. This one is just aspirin – you never know when it’ll be handy to be able to bring down a fever or knock the edge off an ache. Also: you can crush it up and snort it if you want to see God.”
Ria’s only response was a raised eyebrow; I think I actually face-palmed.
“…That was a joke.” Maeva continued sheepishly.
“That was really all they had?” Ria continued, ignoring the ‘joke’.
“You’re lucky I got what I did.” Maeva retorted with a sigh. “Apparently there’s been a virus making the rounds lately, and Roe didn’t want to part with the aspirin.”
“How’d you convince him?” I asked, suddenly wondering if we were going to have to flee an angry mob of townspeople in short order.
“I’ve been doing business with Harith for a couple years.” She replied. “He was willing to vouch for the obscene amount of caps I’ve given the caravans. Turns out you actually can purchase good will – but the markup is a bitch.”
Glancing over, I noticed Ria was ignoring us, and watching out over the valley.
“Wind’s picking up.” She noted. “Weather coming in?”
“Most likely.” Maeva answered. “I keep forgetting this whole outdoors thing is still new to you guys. Clouds off on the horizon look like rain, but I can’t smell it yet. Probably catch up to us some time after dark. You’re not afraid of lightning, are you, little vault girl?”
“I was just thinking maybe we should lay low outside Paradise Falls when we get there. Thunderstorm combined with darkness would make for good cover to pick off sentries…”
“By the Elders of Antiquity…” Maeva muttered. “Is she afraid of anything?”
“We’re all afraid of something.” I offered, walking towards Ria.
I gave her a firm swat on the rear as I walked by, and continued on towards the road that led back down into the valley. She followed along with a girlish giggle.
Again, I heard Maeva mutter something in a language I didn’t recognize before she, too, fell in behind us.
It was nearly an hour later, as we picked our way through some waist-high brush that I finally spoke again.
“Does that aspirin work on sinus inflammation?”
“Not really, no. You having problems?”
“Apparently mine don’t care for the air you folks have here in the ‘outside’; or so is the opinion of the doctor in Megaton. Said he hadn’t seen anything to treat it in years.”
“I’d imagine not. Most antihistamines have a shelf life less than a decade; and there hasn’t been a functioning drug store in DC in about twenty of those. I’ve heard rumors the Enclave has some small scale pharmaceutical manufacturing going for its personnel; Brotherhood too – but I don’t have any idea where we could find either.”
We walked on another half hour before Maeva called for Ria and I to stop.
“What is it?” I asked, looking back to her.
“Up there.” Maeva pointed to a ruined rail system; running in broken patches on raised pylons arranged along a ridge running east and west. “How fast do you want to get to Paradise Falls?”
“As possible, ideally.” Ria replied.
“The remains of the old light rail system run across most of the valley – there’s a spot where they overlook Paradise Falls. The area under the pylons is mostly clear, and we could make good time if we follow it…”
“But there’s virtually no cover. Not only will we be exposed the whole way, but walking along the highest point in the area we’ll also be beautifully silhouetted against the sky to everyone in the area.”
“How much risk are we talking about?” I asked.
Maeva thought a moment before replying. “Raiders stay out of the area for the most part – Slavers don’t like competition, and kill them on sight. Slavers themselves don’t patrol much in the area since virtually everyone knows it’s slaver territory and accordingly stays the hell away… There are three of us, and the slung weapons and armor will dissuade casual assaults… Offhand? Minimal risk, I suppose; but it’s not the most subtle of approaches if someone at Paradise Falls happens to be looking that way when we’re coming down.”
“We’ll risk it.” Ria declared, setting off for the ridge.
Once up underneath the rail pylons, we found an excellent view of the surrounding area. As Maeva had said it would be, the rail’s ridge was largely clear, and made for quicker going – not only from not having to circumnavigate brush and rubble, but because it was easier to keep an eye on our surroundings.
“You know where we’re going?” Ria asked, later.
“Yeah, you can’t miss it – just look for the Big Boy.”
“A statue, mascot for an old resturaunt. A guy in red overalls holding up a piece of food. Damned thing must be fifty feet tall.”
“Why would that be in a slavers’ den?” I asked, curiosity getting the better of me.
“Well, I’ve never been inside there for obvious reasons; but the rumor is Paradise Falls was once a shopping center. Such places often include restaurants.”
It was only a few minutes later that we saw why Maeva said we couldn’t miss the statue.
We came down from the ridge a couple hundred meters short of the shopping center. A quick glance through my rifle’s optic showed that the entire center had been walled off into a multi-building compound. While a military fort it wasn’t, it would certainly discourage most rescue attempts.
As we approached, I was again struck by the absurdity of the wasteland existence. Clearly, there were no organized military forces in the area. The slavers – ostensibly a powerful and feared faction in the region – were apparently staffed by utter morons who had not even the barest concept of security. Junked cars and rubble piles were commonplace along the road leading to the entrance; providing dozens of hiding places for potential assailants to hide where they’d be all but invisible to the guards at the entrance. In fact, by staying low and moving slowly, we were able to work our way to a particularly large pile of detritus within fifty meters of and directly overlooking the entrance; where I was able to observe the guards sitting at the tables, thumbs firmly planted in asses.
“These people are idiots.” I muttered, watching the gate through my scope.
“Yeah... the average IQ dropped about ninety points after the bombs fell.” Maeva responded. “I’ve always thought it had to do with the radiation – though I suppose maybe God just got too lazy to create decent brains on a large scale anymore.”
Watching a few more minutes, I saw a man come through barking orders at the guards. I couldn’t discern individual words, but even at fifty meters I could hear him yelling. The attitude combined with his being clad in what looked like salvaged military-issue body armor marked him as a higher-up on the scumbag food chain.
“You guys ready?” I asked, not looking away from the scope – whose crosshairs were firmly planted on the brainstem of the alpha-asshole, who was himself currently walking away from the guards and back towards the gated entrance itself.
“Tag ‘em.” Ria replied simply.
So I did.
The slaver wasn’t wearing a helmet; the 7.62mm slug tore into the base of his skull, and he fell like a puppet with its strings cut.
The guards at the table reacted; but couldn’t tell where my shot had come from, or even who had been hit – as it never occurred to them that someone would shoot past the person in the front rank, apparently. As I’d been doing the last several days, I worked my way from back to front, putting down the slavers as I saw them.
When the last guard had fallen, we waited; nearly holding our respective breaths. After five minutes, no one had come to check on the dead men.
My respect for the slavers fell yet another notch.
I hit the latch and removed the magazine from the rifle that was fast becoming my most treasured possession, and quickly topped it off with loose rounds from one of my pockets. When it was again full, I locked the magazine back into place, and pushed back to my feet.
We set off at a moderate walk, watching all around us for potential ambushers. None were found. After making sure the dead slavers actually were, we moved on; leaving them un-looted for the time being.
Passing the corpse of the alpha-asshole I couldn’t help but note that he was even uglier up close than through a telescope.
While I definitely wanted that ballistic armor of his… this wasn’t the time to be stripping corpses, so I left him lay.
The gates, surprisingly enough, weren’t locked. Apparently, whoever ran the place had serious faith in his idiot hirelings.
Moving through the gate, I was immediately greeted by a searing pain in the side.
Turns out there was a guard in a tower, overlooking the inside of the gates. He had recognized that we were not authorized to be coming in. Then he shot me.
Well played, slaving scumbags.
I slumped over up against a cement divider, hoping that it would offer some cover. As I did, I saw the man who shot me tumble to the ground; with a .357 planted firmly in his gut.
“Are you okay?!” Ria asked, kneeling in front of me, and shooting someone over my shoulder.
I could hear Maeva’s shotgun in the background, with rapidly dwindling return fire from the other direction – the slavers were either dying off quickly, or retreating to cover.
I managed to get my vest open, and look down at my torso, half afraid of what I’d see. Thankfully, there was no blood. The vest – outdated though it was – had miraculously managed to stop the bullet; though the stabbing pain in my side that accompanied every breath I took alluded to the fact that I was not, strictly speaking, ‘okay’.
“Doesn’t look serious.” I managed to return.
“Right. Up, then.” Ria ordered; grabbing my arm and pulling me to my feet.
I tried to shoulder my rifle, but the muscles on the left side of my torso firmly informed me they were having none of that. I left the rifle hang off its sling, and retrieved my sidearm – since I could at least use that with only my right hand.
“I can walk – go on.” I told Ria.
She gazed at me for a moment, as though deciding whether it was safe to trust me, then nodded and turned to aid Maeva in pressing the remaining slavers back.
Watching the two of them fight was like looking at opposite sides of the same coin. Immense skill in either case, but the way it was utilized were the polar opposite of each other.
Ria was all finesse – turning, placing perfect single shots with her Python; it was almost like she was dancing. Every shot a kill – no hesitation, no wasted motion.
Conversely, Maeva and her shotgun were brutality given form – she took her shots as they came, caring more about putting someone out of the fight than a perfect kill. Maeva’s 12 gauge took off arms and legs just as often as it hit chests or faces.
I have to confess, watching her around the house, even traveling through the wastes; I had had difficulty imagining Maeva being a “demon”. That disbelief vanished inside Paradise Falls’ courtyard. Not only was she blowing off every body part that was displayed to her, but the big demoness was wearing a huge, fang-bearing grin the entire time. She was enjoying every second of it.
My own kill count was markedly less impressive. The pain jabbing me in the ribs was making it difficult to aim; and one-handed pistol shots on moving targets aren’t a sure bet at the best of times. I managed to wound two, and got in a lucky shot that killed a third; but I was losing steam, and fast.
I did manage to keep up with the advancing women, though. We stopped in a central clearing near what appeared to be a large, mutated cow roasting over a fire. The smell was not particularly nice. Across the way was an open-air bar, now deserted.
Behind us, the doors burst open. A pair of women came out; armed with swords of all things.
In any good story, this is where a tense and honorable bout of melee combat would occur. This, however, was reality and not a bad dramatic moment. Both sword-wielding women got shot; and were dead before they hit the dirt.
Again: knives in a gunfight are not a good idea. Doubly so when one of your opponents has a riot gun loaded with buckshot; and the other is apparently an avatar of the severely pissed off God of Death.
Behind the two women came a man in a suit so garish – foppish, even – I was almost convinced I had taken a blow to the head and begun to hallucinate.
Showing no more sense in general than in fashion, he wasn’t even armed.
“You look important.” Ria noted, leveling her revolver at him.
“What the fuck you thinkin’, comin’ in here, killin’ my people? Do you know who I am?!”
“I don’t care who you are. I’m looking for someone – my sister. Looks like me, but with different hair.”
The man’s insult was cut off when Ria put a bullet into his left knee.
“Talk.” She ordered calmly.
“Ah! What the fuck is wrong with-“
Another bullet struck his leg; this time in the shin, about four inches below the destroyed joint.
“You’re beginning to bore me.” Ria noted conversationally. “If you continue to bore me, I’ll have to find new ways to amuse myself…”
“Alright, alright! Shit! A redhead, right? Yeah, I’ve got her. Sold her already; got four thousand caps for her sweet ass…”
A third shot rang out, this one striking him just above the ruined knee.
“Her owner hasn’t picked her up yet, fuck!” He nearly jabbered; clutching at the leg that one didn’t have to be a trauma surgeon to tell was going to have to come off, even if he did survive the encounter. “She wouldn’t cooperate so I threw her in the box!”
“Wh-“ Ria begin to ask, but was quickly cut off.
“Over there!” He pointed to what looked like an opaque phone booth near some chain-link fencing.
“And how do I open it?”
“Keys!” He practically yelled; fishing around in a pocket frantically, then handing the keys over. “Look, I’m a business man! I understand sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do… since I let you have her, just let me leave…”
“Nope.” Ria replied, and put a final slug between his eyes.
She nonchalantly opened the cylinder of her Python, and pocketed the four spent casings; replacing them with four fresh, live rounds. That done, Ria held out her free hand to me.
No words needed to be exchanged at that point for me to understand – she wasn’t willing to leave me alone. I did catch myself wondering for a moment whether it was concern for my safety, or simply Ria not wanting to be alone when she opened the door and met her sister.
I took her hand and let myself be hauled to my feet. We rejoined Maeva where she had taken up a guard position behind the ruined body of a car, and the three of us headed for this “box”.
No more slavers were in sight, and no one impeded our somewhat slow progress. As we neared the box, we saw that the chain link fencing was the slave pens – where normal slaves were apparently kept. They peered fearfully at us from wherever in the cells they thought would be safest to hide.
I had to admit, the sight was probably more than slightly imposing – all three of us were splattered with blood here and there; I was clearly wounded, and Ria had just finished torturing someone whose screams doubtless carried as far as the pens. I’m sure the slaves couldn’t tell whether we were there to save them, or do something even more horrible than what was already in store.
When we reached the box, I saw that it wasn’t a phone booth after all; but rather a ‘personal shelter’ – one of the more laughable concepts to come out of the period immediately prior to the great war’s conclusion. They must have modified the latch mechanism so that it only opened from the outside. With the environmental system disabled, being inside that metal tube in August would certainly be punishment in fairly short order.
Maeva stood watch behind us while Ria fitted the key into the lock, and hit the release.
Maeva had been right – I could easily see the resemblance between them. In fact, they were very nearly twins.
Natasha was wearing a skimpy outfit that was wholly unsuitable for traveling in the wasteland – most likely a costume forced on her for the auction. She had a nasty bruise running down one side of her face, and a split lip; but aside from that seemed none the worse for wear.
“W-who are you people?” She asked, clearly terrified.
“That’s going to take some time to explain.” Ria replied.
“W-wait! Irina, is that you?”
“It is! Oh my God!” Natasha sprang forward and hugged Ria tightly. “Do you know how long we looked for you?!”
“Save the family reunion.” Maeva chided. “We need to get somewhere secure to get your boy treated.”
“Miss Maeva?” Natasha asked.
“Hello again, Little One. You just keep getting into all kinds of trouble, don’t you?”
“Will you please stop touching me before I bludgeon you with this revolver?” Ria asked through clenched teeth.
Natasha abruptly let go, and took a step back.
“Don’t you know who I am…?”
“No, I don’t. Nor is this the time for introductions.” Ria tossed the keys to Maeva. “Let the others go – we’re going to head towards the main building where Nos can lie down.”
“Right.” Maeva agreed, easily catching the keys and heading directly for the slave pens.
Ria drug me along back towards the building the head slaver and his two women had come out of. Natasha froze for a moment, confused, and then quickly followed us.
It took us a few minutes to get back to the building – I found that my side hurt more the longer I was up and moving around. It was getting difficult to breathe, depending on the position I stood in.
“Wait here.” Ria ordered, leaning me up against the frame of the double-doors leading into the building.
“I’ll try not to run off.”
She cracked a grin, and disappeared into the building.
“A-are you okay?” Natasha ventured.
“As well as can be expected, considering I got shot.” I noted.
“Y-you got shot for me? I’m sorry…”
“I got shot because I wasn’t paying enough attention coming through the main gates. Should have opened with a grenade.” I’d have tried to smile reassuringly, but I knew it would come out as a grimace and only have made things worse.
Ria returned about the same time Maeva caught up to us.
“Interior’s clear.” Ria offered. “Let’s go inside.”
Maeva and Ria got me in as far as a gaudy, heart-shaped bed before I decided it would do.
Laying down helped with the pain in my side, and made it much easier to breathe.
Ria knelt on the bed next to me.
“This is going to hurt, Boy.” She noted, not looking happy. “That armor has to come off, though…”
I nodded. “Just make it quick, huh?”
She managed to get my body armor off without it becoming abject agony; leaving me in just the T shirt I had been wearing underneath. The shirt, thankfully, was still free of ominous red splotches.
“Maeva’s securing the upstairs door now.” Ria added, rifling through a satchel. “Once that’s done, we’ll post a guard at the front door and switch-off on watch. You and Natasha get some sleep.”
“I don’t know that I’ll be able to…”
“I have that covered.” She continued, finding whatever it was she had been looking for. Ria held up an auto-injector.
“I know you don’t like them, but I think this comes under the heading of special circumstances. I don’t know how much to give, though…”
I thought back. It had been years, but I remembered the whole point behind those auto-injectors was that you didn’t have to know dosages for normal usage.
“It should be automatic – just give me one hit; I don’t want to be completely out of it.”
Ria unfastened my pants, and pulled them partway down – pressing the injector against my bare thigh. There was a hiss, and the fluid level in the injector’s cartridge lowered by one hash mark.
Almost immediately, the world began to get slightly fuzzy, and the pain dulled. These synthetic painkillers were obviously the good stuff. I could see why people would want to stay out of their minds on the stuff whenever possible.
Me suitably painkillered, Ria produced another injector from our “medical bag”. The basic shape suggested it was a stimpak, and not another drug. Most people think of the stimpak as a healing drug – this is not, strictly speaking, true. The stimpak actually stimulates the body’s natural cell replication process – it doesn’t heal you, it just makes you heal on your own faster than normal.
They’re wonderful chemicals and were a staple of nearly all military and traumatic medical kits for years before the war; and amazingly enough the shelf life is long enough that they keep on working even now, two centuries or more after production.
Stimpaks aren’t a cure-all, and damned well not an instant fix; but with one in me now, one in the morning, and perhaps a third in the middle of the night, I’d probably be able to walk under my own power again by lunch tomorrow – though I’d almost assuredly be sore for several days as the minor, secondary nerve and muscle damage fully healed.
The only real caveat to using a stimpak is that it needs to be injected as close to the wound site as possible. In this case, I had to be jabbed in the (inordinately sore already) ribs with a two inch needle.
Ria lifted my shirt, and gingerly as she could, hit me with the second injector. I distinctly felt like I should have been bothered… but I wasn’t.
“There, now.” Ria tapped me on the nose with a fingertip. “You be a good boy and sleep off this wound. I’ll check in on you later.”
Ria turned to leave.
“W-wait!” Natasha called after her. “What about me?”
“That bruise on your face bugging you? You hurt anywhere else? I didn’t see any other marks on your body – and that outfit doesn’t leave an immense amount to the imagination.”
Natasha blushed and covered her chest with her arms. “N-no, I’m not hurt. My face is kind of sore… but I don’t think anything is broken. I meant: we just found each other after almost fifteen years! Don’t you want to talk?”
Ria sighed, and adopted a tone of voice I’d heard her use when humoring small children and desperately trying to resist the urge to duct tape them to a chair.
“We don’t have the luxury of free time to chat at the moment. Maeva and I are the only ones fit for watch right now; and both of us need to be at it until we’ve identified all the potential points of entry for this building. I’d hate to be asleep and have a dozen slavers come in unannounced. I’m sure you’ve had a traumatic few days and whatever; try to get some rest and don’t annoy the boy. If you can’t sleep, let one of us know and we’ll dig out some sedatives.”
With that, Ria left; returning to the entryway.
“Does Irina not like me or something?”
“Ah, I wouldn’t worry.” I offered. “Ria doesn’t like anyone. I’m still amazed after all these years that she puts up with me.”
“…Why do you keep calling her that?”
“It’s her name?”
“No it isn’t!” Natasha insisted. “Her name is Irina Dimitrov.”
“Not according to the Vault overseer, it wasn’t.”
“What about our father? Didn’t he have a say in it?”
“Look, I’ve known Ria more than ten years to varying degrees, and I’ve never seen a father. As far as I know? She doesn’t remember ever having one.”
“W-what… and what’s this about a vault? Irina left home with our father. She had a fever; and he was taking her to Megaton to see a doctor, but they never came back. There was no vault. Our family had a small ranch…”
“I realize this isn’t making any sense to you; but it isn’t making any more to us. Ria grew up an orphan in the vault. She doesn’t remember biological parents or siblings or a ranch – hell, until yesterday, she thought she was an only child. Just… give her some time to work it through in her head. She’ll talk to you about it when she’s ready.”
Natasha’s mouth compressed into a thin line. She was clearly not happy; possibly even on the verge of pouting. Finally, though, she nodded softly; and blew out a breath – the poutiness of her expression deflating along with it. Without a word, she flopped down onto the bed – as far away from me as humanly possible without falling off – and turned away.
With the waterworks at least temporarily avoided, I let myself doze; fading into the gloriously indistinct haze of synthetic opiates.
* * * *
I awoke an indeterminate amount of time later. I was still on my back, and Natasha was still on the opposite edge of the bed; though at some point she had curled up into the fetal position.
It took me a moment to figure out what had woken me – I wasn’t in any pain; Ria didn’t appear to be molesting me that I could see, and was in fact nowhere to be seen.
A glance up past the head of the bed showed Maeva, standing over me and looking like a kid on Christmas morning.
“Hey, Nos! You’re never going to guess what I found upstairs!”
“…Case of Johnny Walker Red and a dildo modeled after a horse cock?”
Maeva abruptly clapped a hand over her mouth to keep from laughing loudly.
“That isn’t nice!” She returned. “It’s good, though. No – I was upstairs checking for secret entrances, and found this stack of boxes. It looks like that shithead in the cheap suit that your girlfriend put down had been having the personal effects of all the slaves brought through for his own personal looting. I found some of Natasha’s stuff… and my trenchcoat!”
Maeva unfurled the almost six feet of black leather, and pulled it on.
“Oh come on; do you know how hard it is to find one of these sized for someone my height? It took years. I ended up having to raid six different clothing warehouses – none of which are within easy walking distance of DC to go back to. I mean, granted it would have probably been nicer on the whole to find a strong-box of caps or My-First-Antihistamine-Lab Jr. or something, but sometimes you have to take what you can get…”
I saw Ria step out from around the corner behind Maeva.
“Will. You. Shut. The. Fuck. Up?!” She hissed. “Gunshot wound. Sleeping. Recovery. Annoy him with your inane bullshit tomorrow.”
Maeva turned, and frowned. “You, my dear, are no fun.”
“So I’ve been told. Now get your big ass into the other room – we need to talk.”
Ria disappeared back into the entryway.
Maeva sighed, slumping; and seemingly shrinking six inches in the process.
“I swear, I feel like I’ve wandered into a psychotic version of Amish country, some times…” She muttered, following Ria around the corner and out of my view.
If sober, I’d probably have wondered what she wanted to talk so badly about. I was, however, still more than slightly high; and so drifted quickly back to sleep.
As I slept, I thought I heard voices. Whether I was overhearing their conversation from the other room, or simply dreaming, I wasn’t sure.
“…I understand needing to blow off steam.” Maeva was saying. “But running off and abandoning your boy to do it seems a tish irresponsible, don’t you think?”
“I’m not running off, or blowing off steam.” This retort sounded like Ria. “I just want you to watch him for awhile. On the way in, we passed a sign that said ‘Clinic’ – I want to drop in there and see what I can scrounge up. Maybe some more meds. Seems like slavers would have plenty of sedatives and amphetamines. If possible, I wouldn’t mind laying hands on an X-ray machine or something, too; maybe we could find out whether that rib of his is actually broken, or just cracked.”
“As you like. I’ve got no problem guarding the one I serve. Just remember: this counts against your time off watch, though – so don’t take longer than four hours. I’d like to get some sleep, too, at some point tonight.”
As far as drug-dreams go, pretty boring. Aren’t Morphine dreams supposed to be more surreal?
I awoke twice more during the night. Once to find Maeva lying between Natasha and I; stretched out like a jungle cat and fast asleep. I was glad she wasn’t a sleep-snuggler – drugged as I was, I don’t know that I would have resisted if she tried cuddling up to me; and that would not have ended well for anyone when Ria came in and saw.
I awoke again later to Ria giving me another hit from the pain-killer injector, and a second stimpak. I think she did snuggle up to me on my non-injured side… but by that point I was well and thoroughly whacked and mostly doing good to remember to breathe.
Maybe I should find a safer line of work, after all.