Purple miasma swirled with intermittent bright spots. Eyes began to sting, lungs burned. Ten seconds left. Legs pushed harder, thighs burned. The purple parted, leaving only a red haze. Christine doubled over, coughing harshly. Her throat burned as she pulled air into her lungs. It wasn’t clean air like the Mohave but it felt better than the poisonous mist known as The Cloud. She coughed one last time before straightening. With a final glance back at the bloated Cloud she set her gaze forward.
Around her, two-story buildings created a maze of collapsed structures and cobblestone paths. She took another breath, straining her eyes for shapes against the background of red. Nothing stirred into jerky movements. She sighed with relief. No Ghost people yet.
Christine passed a hand over her scarred bald head, a habit that often left bloody or grimy hand prints atop her dome. She set out down the alley, eyes peeled and senses on high alert. Something was wrong; the very aura of the Villa screamed it. The colony of Ghost people had come alive in search of something. Hundreds of them stumbled about the Villa in a hyper aroused state, attacking everything that moved near them, even holograms. It put her on edge; the creepy inhabitants of the Sierra Madre hadn’t been this stirred up since the Gala Event nearly five years ago.
Whatever it was, it had to be big. Over the years, she had dealt with small disturbances, a person or small group occasionally fell for the allure of the Sierra Madre and ended up in the middle of one of Elijah’s old traps. These occurrences had always elicited a small hunting party, never full colony resurgence. Though if it was that big, she should have noticed it as well but she hadn’t noticed anything strange beyond the reaction of the Ghosts. That worried her. The worst part of it seemed to be that the Ghosts were completely scrambled. She had learned that they were simple creatures, basically like ants. They slept below the city and came up for food. They were efficient when it came to hunting, organized. They located the target, eliminated it and then ate. Now though, they were lost. It was as though they had suddenly gone blind. All of them stumbled aimlessly in a search for food they couldn’t sense.
Christine rubbed her head again, some deep part of her freezing over with fear. She had come to the end of the alley and found an open intersection crawling with Ghosts. She knew in this state the Ghosts would only perceive her if she walked a foot in front of them, but it was still unnerving to walk among so many. She picked her way through the intersection slowly, coming to the entrance of a small street and ducked into it. She watched the jittery movements of the confused Ghosts for a few minutes. They gasped to one another, perturbed by the sudden sensory blindness. Their dark, heavy clothes rustled with each jerky malformed step they took. Some even had bear trap fists that they activated with each step.
The mute had been watching this behavior all day, finding it more disturbing as she went on. She’d spent the entire day scouring the Villa for the disturbance. It was growing late now. It felt that way at least. The Madre had no sun, just a constant red haze that made telling time practically impossible. She’d searched most of the traps that people turned up in, checked all the buildings in those areas. That had turned up nothing so she had embarked on a linear search of the entire Villa. She was now around ten hours, she estimated, into that endeavor and the farthest from the Sierra Madre Casino she’d been in years. This section was also the last left to check for her disturbance.
She looked up at the street sign above her head. It was rusted and worn, but she could still see the symbols on it. She couldn’t read it, however. She cursed the Think Tank as she had thousands of times. Of all that had befallen her since beginning her quest to execute Elijah, the Think Tank making a flashlight out of her head had been the worst. Dr. Klein had called it ‘alexia’. She called it annoying, frustrating, and unfair. With old anger burning her gut, Christine started walking down the street. Without warning, sounds of a scuffle broke out of an alley toward her. She looked down the alley to find the bloated Cloud swirling tauntingly at her. The sound of a bear trap fist crunching closed on the haft of a spear gave her pause before she ran head long into the Cloud, holding her breath.
Christine broke through on the other side to find one of the small Villa streets filled with Ghosts. They stumbled about, jerking and fidgeting around a central figure. A Seeker stood almost in the center of the street, a few short feet from a fountain. It punched at something lost in the sea of red haze and dark cloth; occasionally it let out an ear piercing screech instead of the usual raspy gasps. The sound was terrible, something that projected beyond the auditory level and made the eyes water. This brought the Ghosts surrounding it to swipe angrily at its prey for a few seconds before returning to hopeless confusion. She smiled grimly, she’d found her problem.
Immediately, Christine started climbing a pile of rubble next to her hoping to get a look at the Seeker’s elusive foe. She got high enough to discover a figure in a duster fighting off the Seeker with a knife spear. The mute began mapping out routes to rescue the Seeker’s opponent. She hopped onto one of the slightly inclined tile sections of the building and ran along it until she launched herself off of the building toward the fountain. Christine rocketed at the fountain, locking her hands around the slippery water spout.
The Ghosts around her came to a sudden stop, the wheezing from behind their gas masks coming to a quick end. Their jittery heads halting. Almost as one collective movement, their heads danced to the fountain. Water poured over her, chilling her to the bone but Christine didn’t move, didn’t breathe. Her arms cramped and thighs burned but her lungs felt like they were going to explode.
A terrible shrill scream shocked Christine into taking a gasping breath. The entire street was once again alive with the jittering of confused Ghost people. She allowed herself a few quick breaths before climbing carefully down the fountain spout and standing into the well. She scanned for the duster again, finding the brown leather easily among the dark swirling bodies. The girl, for upon closer inspection she could see the curvy extra bits of flesh that marked femininity, was looking down seemingly having killed the Seeker. She lingered over the body for a second before turning to find a path through the Ghosts. The girl set off toward an alley going deeper into Villa, past the police station.
Christine watched for a few more breaths, noticing something strange about her gait. She favored her left leg always stepping forward with it. Her right leg drug behind, causing her to stop every few steps to rest. A cripple, she realized with incredulity. A cripple in a brown duster had come and somehow put an entire colony of Ghost people into frenzy. Movement in Christine’s peripheral left drew her attention. A glance told her it was the Seeker from before. The girl must have left its limbs intact. The Seeker was trembling its way to the girl, much faster than her limping was carrying her away. The mute looked for a path to the crippled girl, but found the stumbling Ghosts blocking all potential paths. The Seeker was gaining quickly. Making noise would only bring attention to her, not the threat. Her voice was too unused to carry far enough. The Seeker jerked close enough to strike. Three seconds.
Without hesitation Christine puller her laser pistol from the waistband of her pants. She drew a bead on the Seeker’s leg and pulled the trigger. The shot sped through the air and missed completely, the beam embedding in the cobblestone in front of the Seeker’s foot. She cursed internally, she’d known it was a long shot, ten feet in a mass of bodies, but to miss that badly was embarrassing. It had at least drawn the attention of the Seeker to her, and gotten the cripple to turn around. It had also brought the attention of all the Ghosts directly to her.
The Ghosts all lurched toward her, coming to the edge of the fountain. Christine waded through the fountain and jumped into the crowd of thrashing Ghosts. She landed on a Hunter, making sure to destroy its shoulder before slamming her elbow into another’s face. She spun around, preparing to counter an attack, but found empty air. Confused, she found the nearest Ghost, discovering that it was still heading for the fountain. The mute looked around and found that all the Ghosts were heading there. Shaking off her dismay she headed for the girl in the duster, who had taken down the Seeker and ripped off its arm.
Christine ran up on the girl, clapping her on the back. The girl’s head swiveled about in a defensive pose ready to attack. The face that greeted her eyes stunned her so much she didn’t even see the fist flying at her face until it connected painfully with her cheek. The bald woman rubbed her cheek while the girl narrowed her green eyes. Green eyes? She looked again. The face was so similar, a small nose, broad forehead, soft mouth and large expressive eyes distributed with a sloped gentle jawline and soft cheeks. The hair looked similar too, the shade and maybe rough style, but most of it was hidden under the bandanna and biker goggles she wore. The eyes were the wrong color, green instead of brown and the chin was a little more prominent.
“Who the hell are you?” The voice was different too. Not level and low with a high end when emphasizing a word. Not the soft wounding gentle croon either. This was higher and husky. The voice of a seductress, though hushed with fear and exhaustion. A rough hand on her shoulder snapped Christine out of her reverie. The girl’s eyes were flashing with fear, hardening as she made a decision. She hefted the knife spear and asked menacingly. “What do you want?” Her voice dropped low, losing a little of the husky, smoky quality with a subtle edge of fear dropping in. The bald woman held up her hands, pointing at her throat. She shook her head and opened her mouth. “You can’t speak?” The girl asked, Christine nodded, pointing to a building at the end of the street that the Ghosts hadn’t broken into yet. “Why should I trust you?” Christine gestured to the mass of Ghosts currently destroying the fountain head. The girl glanced up at it then gestured to her deformed leg. “It’s pretty far. Isn’t there a closer one?” The mute shook her head, walking around to the cripple’s bad side. “No!” The girl hissed. “I don’t need held. I can walk just fine.” Christine felt the scars at the corners of her mouth twitch up and gestured for her to lead the way.
Christine discovered that duster girl really could walk fine, when she was trying to impress. The effort of maintaining a fast walk had, however wasted her remaining energy reserves by the time the two of them had gotten into the building. It had once been a house, but now was an empty shell with half rotted beds. While the cripple struggled up the stairs to scout the upper floor for food and other aid, Christine checked the ground floor. She found some old processed food, Blamco Mac & Cheese and Pork N Beans in respectable quantity. The rest was just dilapidated furniture and peeled wallpaper.
She ascended the stairs, finding the girl collapsed at the top, gasping for breath. She offered her a hand but the girl refused. “I don’t need help. I’m just tired.” Christine frowned, settling down next to her. She shook her head, clasping her hands together pleadingly, then setting a determined look on her face, raised a hand in the air and pointed to herself. The girl shook her head. “Yes I do. I need to show everyone that I’m not a weak little girl.”
Christine shook her head. She set her face into a hard mask, flexing her muscles then made a face with a silly smile and crossed eyes. The girl sighed. “You don’t get it. It’s not to look tough.” Christine shook her head, drawing a circle around the girl and placing a hand around her ear. “My name?” Christine nodded surprise evident on her face. “Janice. Aren’t you used to people understanding you?” The mute shook her head. She spread her hands three quarters of the way apart; she flicked her wrist dismissively, put her hand above her head and straightened her posture, then pointed to herself. Janice nodded. “Why not just write things down?” Christine nodded, then held up a finger and mimed writing finishing with a shake of her head. “You can’t write.” The mute nodded and flipped through an imaginary book, then shook her head. “Or read?” She nodded again.
Janice pushed herself into a sitting position, resting heavily on the wall. Christine offered her the can of Pork N Beans, which she gratefully accepted. The mute watched as she easily popped the top and produced a spoon from her duster. She allowed the brunette to devour half of the can before she tapped the floor to gain Janice’s attention. The girl looked up questioningly. Christine waived her hand toward the street. “Leave, where are we going?” The mute shook her head. She put her hand on her face like a gas mask and mimicked the movements of a Ghost person’s arms. “What about them?”
Christine cursed internally, losing her voice the first time had been annoying but she had quickly adapted. Regaining her voice, well Vera’s voice, had been nice, at first. As the months wore on, however she couldn’t get used to the new voice. It became a nagging in the back of her mind, a stranger’s voice relaying her thoughts. After a year she stopped talking, Dean had been killed by the Courier so the only one that was still around was God. He wasn’t much for conversation anyway. He’d left a few months after her return to silence. He’d managed to tame Dog and set off through the gate. Three and a half years later she’d completely lost Vera’s voice and returned to miming. She took a breath and returned her focus to Janice.
The girl was eyeing her and scarfing down the rest of the beans. Christine held up her left hand and waived it toward the street. “Yes, them.” Christine shuddered and mouthed howling. “Ghosts?” She nodded again. She held up her left hand and moved it left. “Left” The mute shook her head. “Left is the opposite of right. Wrong!” She mumbled before coming to the realization. The bald woman nodded. “The Ghosts are wrong?” The mute grimaced and held her hand horizontally level, rocking it from side to side. She pointed at Janice. “Oh, you want to know what I did to them.” Christine nodded.
“Well to start with, the Ghosts have poor vision, but very sensitive hearing. Their hearing ends up affecting their sight.” She put down the empty can and produced a hand sized device from inside the duster. “I took an old transmitter that I use to relay intelligence and modified it to a lower frequency output. Basically, it transmits at an annoying frequency that turns their senses to fuzz. It seems like that one with the bear trap weapon from earlier actually perceives at that level, so it was able to find me because it wasn’t affected by the sound produced and used the transmitter like a homing beacon. Your laser pistol also works to create a distortion that cuts through the fuzz.” Christine picked up the transmitter and looked from Janice to it. “I didn’t build it, really. I found it in an old broadcasting station and modified it to get a broad spectrum transmission. I also slimmed it down some. It used to weigh twenty pounds. I rearranged some stuff and made it run off of a lower power source. It runs off of a fission battery.”
Christine gingerly placed the device on the floor between them. She pointed to Janice’s bad leg. The girl sighed and began to stand. “It’s better if I just show you.” She offered in explanation. She shrugged off the duster, placing it down gently on the floor. Beneath it she wore the shirt of a pre-war business suit with the sleeves ripped off and a pair of black slacked. Both were terribly dirty. Janice began to lower the waistband of the slacks on the right side. The mute turned her face away as the girl’s pelvic bone came into view. “No, look.” She insisted. The bald woman glanced over, discovering the twisted form of the girl’s pelvis. The joint seemed half formed, causing the bone to stick out. Janice’s hip was nearly immobile. Christine motioned for her to pull her pants back up. “I shattered my hip back east, in D.C. Stumbled on a group of super mutants. I took them out with some frags, but not before one of them scored a good hit with a sledge hammer.” The girl struggled back down after donning her duster again. “I drug myself to underworld and the doc there patched me up. Well, he tried. As my hip healed it connected together too tightly and didn’t let my femur slide back in place.” The mute nodded, bringing her hand up to her throat scar.
“What’s your name?” Janice questioned, placing her transmitter back in her pocket. The mute frowned for a few seconds before carefully tugging her holotag from under her fatigue shirt. She pulled the glowing metal over her head and offered it to Janice.
Janice accepted the tag, squinting at the engraving on the worn surface. “Christine Royce.” She read aloud. “This is a Brotherhood of Steel tag.” She handed it back to Christine, watching as it disappeared below the lose fatigues. Christine passed the box of Blamco Mac & Cheese to Janice. She stood up and began to search the rest of the level. She found a book and a pencil. She returned to Janice and paged through the old book to find a clean page. While the girl cleaned up the Mac & Cheese she worked on drawing up a map of the Villa. It took a while so Janice ended up tromping around the house looking for salvageable junk.
The mute finished the map and called Janice’s attention to from a desk. The cripple hopped over to her, but motioned for her to stand. Christine complied and held out the detailed map she’d produced from memory. Two locations were circled on it, their current location and Vera’s fountain. The mute passed her finger between the two of them and pointed to the circle farther into the Villa. She traced the rough path they would take to Vera’s fountain lightly. She drew a line between them and pointed to Janice, then Vera’s fountain. Janice nodded. “I’ll get there.” Christine nodded and dog eared the page the map was on. She closed the booked and handed it to the girl.
Christine motioned toward the door, then pointed to Janice and put her thumb up. Janice nodded. The mute easily descended the stairs before coming to a stop at the base to wait for Janice. The brunette struggled down the steps, taking confident steps with her left foot but forcefully dragging her right down to the next step.
The mute watched her struggle with an appraising eye. She felt respect for the girl, finding her tenacity and pride to be refreshing. Years of life among the Ghosts had left her with a distant memory of true humans. All she saw of her own race were the cowardly, avaricious scavengers that washed up in the Villa. Most of them turned into sniveling messes at the sight of the Ghosts, curling into fetal balls in some dark alley to avoid the creepy cannibals. Janice was different, courageous and resourceful when faced with a challenge.
“Uh Christine?” The aforementioned girl panted, rubbing her bad hip. The mute’s head snapped up, her cheeks heating as she realized that she had been dwelling so heavily on the crippled girl. “Let’s go, eh. I don’t want to die when this thing collapses.” Janice suggested, looking up distrustfully. The mute nodded and opened the door. Janice followed her out, carefully shutting the door.