Christine glanced at Janice, noticing the gap between them had widened. She subtly dropped her gait down to a leisurely half-step swagger. The cripple quickly closed the gap and came abreast her. They’d traveled through most of the region containing the police station and now neared the gate to the medical district. Now with the pace eased, Janice managed to gather her breath enough to talk.
“How come you’re helping me?” She asked, taking a lumbering step. Christine passed her hand over her head in thought. She then pointed to herself, drew a five cornered shape in front of her body, and then pointed to Janice. She paused, shook her head and drew a wide circle around the girl then spread her arms and motioned to the whole landscape surrounding them. “You stay here to shield other people?” Christine shook her head and pressed her arms together in a standard block position. “To protect?” Christine nodded, and then pointed to Janice. She pointed to the ground below her.
“Why am I here?” Christine nodded. “Kind of a long story, really. After I healed up here,” She touched her hip. “Willow sent me off in the direction of a close Brotherhood patrol. I tagged along with them of D.C to Rivet City. One of them, a Knight, told me I should head out west to New Vegas. He said he’d heard life was easier. A cripple could make it out there. I left Rivet with a caravan and I headed west. I kept hooking up with caravans, Enclave patrols, even bands of scavers. Eventually the dynamic changed, I wasn’t seeing dead cities and super mutants. It was open sprawling landscapes with Yau Gwai, mole rats, and radscorpions. There were still raiders, but they were rare and mostly outcast tribals. I started traveling with the Crimson Caravan and avoiding Caesar’s Legion. I came to Shady Sands before I New Vegas, which is a geographical mystery that deals mostly with the current mission of the caravan I was with. I liked the New California Republic, so I hitched a ride out to Camp Mccarron with a fresh deployment. Over the weeks I spent there, I got friendly with the officer types. Eventually they offered me a nice handful of caps to go take a look at a town casually. So I did, and then afterward they just kept sending me. I became an unofficial scout for the NCR. My leg made me seem too weak to be trouble and I certainly didn’t have any sort of formal training. My scouting was mostly urban; I never claimed to be a ranger. I check out the trading posts and settlements and hope to get a feel for hostilities and black markets. The job fit me well, new places filled with new people all the time. Reporting back was good too; staying in a bunk tent with a bunch of battle hardened bodies was a treat. I also hung out near the ranges and learned to shoot, shotguns and pistols mostly. The pay wasn’t bad either.” Janice stopped for a second when Christine motioned for silence, scanning the dark alley beside them. She motioned for them to move on. “I came around after all the unpleasantries at the Dam, so I never met with the Courier everyone talks about, I’ve been out here almost three years now. After my last trip into Vegas, I got orders from the Mohave Outpost to check out the grand opening broadcast. They were hoping that the Sierra Madre could be an alternative to Vegas for NCR soldiers.” She paused again for breath.
“Waking up after the gas in the middle of this old world town filled with red haze was disconcerting. My first encounter with a Ghost wasn’t very impressive. I unloaded all my shells into him, and then beat him with my riot shotgun until his legs came off. I wondered through the town, finding hidey holes to sleep and observe from. It took two days to figure out how the Ghosts worked another two to modify the transmitter. Another five days for you to find me. Now I’m going home, right?” The question was weary, hopeful and wary simultaneously. Christine nodded. “How long is it going to take?” The mute frowned slightly, beginning to calculate. Normally it was a three hour journey, but at the snail’s pace they were traveling it would likely take a day. She moved her hand from East to West slowly. “A day?” She nodded.
Janice rubbed her hip and came to a stop, turning away from Christine. “I can’t keep this up for much longer, I ain’t much of a fighter and I’ve been doing a lot of it. Could we get some sleep?” Christine heard the gentle edge of pleading in her voice. Nine days in a hell hole with barely any sleep would destroy anyone. Plus the Madre chips were mostly scavenged so the vending machines were useless. Exhausted and starving weren’t conditions that anyone could be expected to thrive in. She herself was tiring a bit, but fatigue no longer had meaning after her obsessed goose-chase so she had barely felt it. The bald woman signaled affirmative and led Janice down a side street, through a short stretch of Cloud and into a dead end alley with a glowing vending machine. She pulled a few counterfeit chips from her pocket and slotted them into the machine. She stepped back and allowed Janice to make a choice from the food listed. The girl got five boxes of Fancy Lad Snack cakes, turning to the bald woman, obviously pleased. The mute felt the corners of her mouth turn up, another striking similarity.
Christine turned to the wrought iron gate that closed off the alley. It was chained closed with a rusty lock. She waived at the top of the gate and looked at Janice. The girl looked up, gauging the height of the gate. “I can do seven feet.” She confirmed. She grasped two of the bars tightly and placed her left foot on the bottom reinforcing beam. She began pulling herself up with her hands until her left foot hovered above the bottom beam. She got her foot up onto the next beam three feet up. Janice took a break, leaning heavily on the gate for a few seconds before grasping the spit-like tops of the bars. She released with her right hand, moving to grab her bad leg under the thigh. Face contorted into a mask of pain, she managed to force her leg over the top beam. Now straddling the gate, the cripple looked down at Christine, who was watching with an amused expression.
“Didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s rude to stare?” She called down breathlessly. The mute shrugged and rubbed the toe of her boot against the cobblestone street in a gesture that might have been bashful. Janice smiled and swung her left leg over the top of the gate, kicking her right off the bar. Janice jumped down twice to return to the path. She flashed a thumbs up to Christine before leaning heavily against the stone surrounding the gate, gasping. The bald woman scrambled over the gate in seconds and dropped down beside her.
Janice turned to find a large building a few feet away. It was larger than most other buildings in the Villa and a little more decorative. Christine brushed past her and opened the door. Inside, the building resembled most others. It was full of rotting furniture, rubble from collapsed walls and skeletons. The mute spread her hands across the room, and then pointed to Janice. The cripple nodded and headed through the doorway closest to her. Christine found the stairs and ascended. A few minutes of inspection confirmed her initial assumption that the place was an old world whorehouse. Every room upstairs had a bed, and cabinet full of drugs along with dated contraceptives. All the beds were worthless, mattresses rotted through completely.
The mute abandoned the top floor, returning to Janice. The cripple was checking the cupboards for more food in what seemed to be a kitchen. She found nothing but scotch. “Any luck with the bed?” The girl asked, coming to rest against the counter. Christine shook her head. “ I found a spot we could use. It’s a big closet thing with a whole bunch of silk sleepwear and thick carpet. It’s a little cramped though.” Christine shrugged and extended her hand passively. Janice took the invitation and lead through a crumbling door way to an officious looking room with a desk, computer, and filing cabinet. Next to the desk a door stood open. Inside, mounds of abandoned clothes rose up like soft towers among the dark, stained walls. Janice continued into the closet, followed by the bald woman. The space in the closet was about two arm lengths across. Christine’s breath caught, she looked up. The ceiling was barely an inch above her head, in her peripheral vision the walls crept closer. Her chest contracted painfully, her breath coming only in short erratic bursts. She doubled over, her head beginning to feel light. She took a stumbling step back out the way she had come. A pressure on her shoulder caught her attention. Christine turned to see Janice peering at her. “What’s wrong?” The mute blinked at her, looking to the walls. They had returned to their normal positions. She cast a weary glance around — her chest still tight— then straightened to walk with dignity out of the closet.
She turned to find Janice eyeing her with concern from inside the closet. Christine frowned slightly. She pointed to herself and shook her head and half extended her arms, then mimed being unable to push farther out. “No small spaces?” The cripple asked. Christine nodded. “We’ll just sleep out there.” She bent and grabbed two brightly colored clothes out of the closet and tossed them out of the closet. Janice hopped out of the closet and used the wall to aid her in sitting.
She pulled her snack cakes from her duster. Christine was beginning to wonder what else she had in there. The cripple ripped the box open and freed two cakes from their cellophane wrapper gleefully. A whole sponge cupcake disappeared into her mouth, her eyes closing as she savored the sweet taste of the food. The mute sat down across from her, watching her eat with a soft half smile. The other cake in the wrapper was consumed quickly, as were the other four in the box. As Janice ate she got more talkative. “Why are you here?” She questioned as she finished the second box. She held out the third box for Christine. “You have anything to drink?”
Christine felt her stomach churn at the sight. It had been hours since she’d eaten. She accepted the box with a grateful nod, handing over the small canteen she kept on a belt in the small of her back. The mute sat the box next to her, ready to begin relaying her story.
She pointed to herself, then her eye; she held her hands in the air and clenched them, then drew a line from one side of her jaw, moving away from it incrementally as she moved across the line. She came to the climax at the point of her chin, and then sloped back in to her jaw on the other side. Janice nodded at her popping her fourteenth cupcake into her mouth. “Did you find him?” She asked around the sponge cake in her mouth. Christine drew her finger across her throat, almost tracing the scar there. The cripple nodded catching her drift. The mute read the question in her eyes.
She rubbed her hand across her head, feeling the hard stubble that had begun to grow, she held up a finger, and then grabbed the box of Fancy Lad snack cakes. Her mind cycled through the story as she ripped open the package and devoured a cupcake. A second disappeared before she’d managed to order her thoughts. The mute put her hand infront of her, miming a walking finger, then added another. She put her hand between them, and then pointed from herself to the finger.
He separated you from someone important.” Christine nodded. “Who?” The mute pointed to her chest, circling her heart. “Husband? Boyfriend?” The bald woman shook her head. “Girlfriend?” Christine nodded, eating a cupcake. She handed the box of Snack Cakes back to Janice. The cripple accepted them, but sat the box to the side with the last box. “Why didn’t you go back after he died?” The most gently scratched around the scar about her hear before pointing to it. She pointed to all of her scars in order, ending at her throat. She frowned deeply for a few seconds—it was a question she asked herself every morning and every night. Every time she passed the gate, the life she could have had rose unbidden to her mind. She chased it out with the same rationalization she was attempting to express. She pointed to herself and shook her head, pointing to an imaginary person then circled her heart again. “You’re not the one she loves?” Janice frowned. Christine nodded slowly, her own frown deepening. She pointed to the ground below them and closed her eyes theatrically. They cripple nodded, passing the bald woman a bundle of clothes.
The mute carefully positioned the make shift pillow before laying down on her back. Janice moved the remaining two boxes of Fancy Lad Snack Cakes far above her head. She stood and pulled off her duster, carefully placing it above the Snack Cakes. Next she removed the knife spear from the back of her shirt and propped it up against the wall next to Christine. Last, she pulled off her bandanna and goggles. Janice carefully lowered herself into a sitting position, and then lay down on her stomach with the nightwear pillow under her head. Christine frowned slightly as she noticed the pose the cripple had adopted.
The girl’s injured hip caused her leg to jut forward which put stress on her pelvis when lying prone. To compensate for this she had bent her left knee and brought it under her pelvis. The position relieved the pressure on her hip but added stress onto her knee. Resting like this would only slow them down tomorrow.
She tapped Janice on the shoulder and put her hands to the side of the body then shifted them on top of her. She pointed to Janice. The cripple shook her head. “No way.” Christine sighed, but grabbed Janice’s shoulder. She dragged her across the floor and then on top of her own body with ease.
Janice fixed her with a look of annoyance but dropped her head onto the mute’s shoulder without another word. Christine craned her head back, closing her eyes.
Her dreams were always a reprieve from reality. In them she was a simple scribe scampering around the Hidden Valley Bunker with supply lists and requisition orders stuck in her brain. There were embellished recollections of the pranks Veronica and Melissa played on one another. There was also a detailed depiction of the out of the way corners and storerooms that she and Veronica spent their off time together in. Usually they ended with the nights spent in the bunkroom they shared with eight other scribes. They usually ended with the hopeless attempts to remain quiet as Veronica sidled into her bed and lay atop her.
Christine woke with the feeling of Veronica’s lips still lingering on her neck. She shifted her hips but found a weight on top of her. She opened her eyes slowly, brunette hair appearing. Her breath caught in her throat. Very carefully, she grasped the chin of the girl on her and turned her face toward her. Her heart leapt. It had all been a dream! She was still in the Bunker, with Veronica. Happiness swelled her chest and joy brought tears to her eyes.
Unthinkingly, she pressed her lips to those of the girl beginning to awaken on top of her. They parted meekly, allowing her access to the mouth beyond before surging back against her in a fierce assault. Christine poured all the passion her nightmare had inspired into the kiss. The brunette responded with equal intensity. The kiss was demanding and rough at first, lip bruising, but quickly ebbed into something gentle and exploratory before both parties pulled back.
Christine’s lips pulled back into a genuine smile as the girl on top of her hummed low in her throat. Her eyes began to open and the scribe found herself waiting with great anticipation to see those honey-brown eyes fixed on her. Eyes half-lidded the brunette, smiled at her, fully opening them.
Her heart dropped. The eyes fixed on her were not warm and brown. They were green and accusatory. Christine felt her own anger stirring. Anger at Elijah, anger at the circle, anger at herself, anger with the general situation burned hot in her belly it was the same anger that motivated her to chase Elijah across the Mohave and into the Big MT. Before she could harness it, it melted into a different kind of anger. Impotent rage, the anger that did nothing, now lay in her abdomen. She raised her fist above Janice’s head, noting that the girl looked only confused now, and smashed it into the wall.
Normally a punch like hers would leave only a hole in the wall, but in the Villa the whole thing shattered. Bits of plaster and dry-wall rained on them causing Janice to roll off of her and slide back across the floor using her good leg. The mute however seemed unfazed by the destruction she had wrought. She simply stared up at the ceiling unil the hollow the anger left turned to sorrow.
“FUCK!” She cursed aloud for the first time in years. Her voice did not express it well, resulting only an audible “CK”. Tears, hot and insistent burned in her eyes. She closed her lids against them but to no avail for they joined the dried tears of joy on her cheeks. A sob rose in her throat and escaped raw and choked.
For the first time since the night she had left the Bunker, Christine cried. She sobbed as she recollected all she had lost or sacrificed since leaving her lover and wished for it all back. Her cries quickly became silent as her voice left her again, leaving only her tear drenched face and convulsing body as signs of her condition.
After she had calmed some, but still lay surrounded by rubble with tears leaking onto her cheeks, Janice scuttled up to her and wrapped her arms around the bald woman tightly. Christine looked back with intent to swat her away but was shocked by the deep look of misery contained with those facets of jade. She turned and placed her arms around the crippled girl. They embraced for a long moment, sharing the misery with one another.
Christine and Janice walked along the streets of the Villa in silence. Both were unwilling to speak of what had occurred between them but neither was able to keep it from her mind. The silence was eventually broken by a screech from inside Janice’s duster.
The girl cursed and fumbled around in her duster. Christine’s ears pricked up as she heard the whooping gasps of the Ghosts. Janice pulled the transmitter from her pocket, unveiling the source of the noise. The cripple fussed with it for a few more agonizing seconds before the sound abruptly cut off.
“Wha?” She questioned in her raw crackly voice as the Ghosts got closer, two of them fidgeting around a corner and into the street.
“The transmitter isn’t working. Something must have burned out in it. The Ghosts know where we are!” Janice answered.
“It!” Christine cursed, watching dozens of other Ghosts shamble into the streets.
“We can’t fight this many!” Janice allowed her panic to creep into her voice. Christine grabbed the girl’s arm, half leading — half dragging her farther down the streets and towards a mass of Ghosts. The cripple had learned not to question the former mute by now and just concentrated on staying upright as she was drug along at a speed far greater than she had achieved in years.
Christine charged headlong into the growing swarm of Ghosts. As they passed, the Ghosts lashed out with knife spears and bear trap fists. The bald woman simply knocked them aside or caught the weapon and used it to remove a limb. They bounded the forward through the street and around corners. The Ghost’s numbers did not thin; in fact more seemed to be piling into their path. Behind them others simply turned and followed. Eventually, the numerous shot started hitting her and Janice.
She summoned her mental map of the Villa and decided on a course of action. The scarred woman gave herself one last burst of speed to skid around a corner and throw open the door of a building there. While Janice closed the door, she turned the knocked the girl’s legs out from under her. Christine caught her companion and bounded up the stairs before placing her back on the ground and resumed dragging her through a large hole in the wall.
They ran through three houses before Christine allowed them to slow to a brisk walk. “Mit?” She croaked out breathlessly.
“Transmitter?” Janice questioned, receiving a nod. “My fix was temporary, I think one of my filters burned out, and so it let a different frequency out. This one attracted them.” Christine nodded, and then considered something.
“Not likely, I used up all of my scrap electronics the first time and I need a workbench.” The cripple came to a stop as they came through a door way into a room with an intact wall. Christine exaggerated rolling her eyes and continued through into the next apartment. This action knocked practically the entire wall down, creating an impressive pile of rubble. The mute motioned Janice to come through the opening she had made.
The girl hobbled through the debris field into the next building, pausing to pat some of the drywall dust off of Christine. The scarred woman shook herself to remove most of the powder, but there were still yellow-brown deposits on her body. They forged on through the apartment to an actual door that led into a room that had once been a study. Now, one of the walls was knocked out, giving access to the slanted platform surrounding the building. Christine stuck her head out into the open air, doing a quick check of the surrounding buildings. The ground was a huge mass of agitated Ghosts. In front, of her was a crosswalk to another building. The bald woman motioned to her comrade to follow and stepped out onto unstable metal roofing material. She instinctively dropped into a crouch, for balance and to elude the Ghosts. Behind her Janice took the first noisy step onto the platform.
The mute crossed the crosswalk quickly, waiting in a crouch for her companion to make it there as well. With each of Janice’s steps, the crowd below them seemed to become more aware of their presence. Seekers were looking at them while beginning to search for a route to them. None had figured the path out yet but the attempts were getting close.
Christine glanced to the left, in her vision was only the swell of the building she stood on, but she knew that beyond it the gate to the Medical District stood waiting. The cripple ventured out onto the crosswalk, limping along as quickly as her leg would allow. Below, the Ghosts began to frenzy their distorted whooping blending into one eerie chorus of broken shouts.
Janice pitched against Christine with her momentum. The mute straightened, keeping a wary eye on the growing horde, as she steadied her companion. She jerked her head to the left, setting course for the gate. Behind her the cripple hopped along raucously, attempting to keep up with the mute’s quickened pace. The sound of her boots denting the ridiculous continued to agitate the ghosts. This frenzy kept them jumping wildly at the walls of the buildings. The fervor of the Ghost’s search seemed to hinder the results, any other day, the Ghosts would have been upon her and Janice on the first leap. She chalked up the sudden lack of bearing to the after effects of her companions crippling transmitter.
Janice shifted toward the wall as the building began to swell outward and the roof sloped a little lower. An enterprising hunter managed to scramble up between her and Christine. She fumbled to get her knife spear from the back of her trench coat long enough for the Ghost to lurch to its feet and launch a bear trap laden fist punch in her direction. The cripple ducked below a hit and sent a hard stab into the creature’s thigh. With a soft whoop the Ghost tumbled back over the edge. The girl turned a fierce grin on her bald companion, who had turned at the sound of the struggle. Christine offered her a lopsided smile and turned to continue on.
The companions cleared the rounded section of the building and paused. A few yards ahead, on the ground level was the exit that would lead away from most of the Ghosts. The mute grabbed Janice’s forearm in a firm grip, then set off at a double step pace. The cripple was equally anxious to leave the hostile environment and allowed Christine to pull her along. A few seconds later, the girl stood staring at the top of a scarred head as Christine descended into the horde of Ghosts. The gasping figures pressed in around the bald woman as she turned to help Janice from the rooftop. The cripple landed on the wiggling forms of four Ghosts, and sprang to her feet. The mute opened the gate and ushered her into the Medical District.