Chapter 1: Revival Day
"The Blues - the sound of a sinner on revival day."
/ W.C. Handy
Later, she would come to appreciate the irony of the ditch they dumped her in.
Her dirt bed.
The bone orchard.
Her six-foot deathtrap.
The dirt they shucked over her was hard Mojave soil. The Mojave wanted her alive. It wanted her skittering across its bone-bleached expanses with a letter, a punchline to be delivered, an epistle as dry and acidic as everything else across its blistering tides. In the desert, barren truths lay scorched and peeling by day, but night is for the Mojave's dirty tricks; a bone-dry bush unveiling midnight blooms. A bullet rattles loose into the skull and maybe something out there dies. Maybe it doesn’t.
Dark settles across the valley, a shadow of black velvet. Orange blemishes break out across the expanse; pinpricks of hot desperation. Under the sun there is nowhere for shade. Under the stars there is nowhere for warmth. No comfort for the weary; nowhere except in the Valley of the Kings. Only under the blanket of Mojave grit does the world invert - dim and cool under a burning sky, soft and warm below a blue moon.
When the girl went to bless the world with her heels in the Dark Valley, the desert took her in greed. The Mojave wrapped its warm embrace tightly around her and waited. The wastes wanted her alive, and not even a coyote passed her pit beneath those coldly glittering stars. The desert held the girl and waited patiently for Vegas, for even a thousand miles away the night couldn't push back those lights. They were always watching; a city that never slept. Not even as its girl cashed out. Threw in her chips. Flat bust. The Mojave wanted her alive, and the House always won.
When the warm Mojave was shucked half-ass across her shallow hole, it held its girl and waited for Vegas to come. Waited for the light - light like a second sun, like how the war lit up the valley in a time before. Tucked away inside the womb of the blistered desert, the girl slept with the dead.
Later, she would come to appreciate the irony of the ditch they dumped her in. But right now, head a bloody hole to the world, cold decked, she folded.
And Vegas was still miles away.
Revival Day, Chapter 1
Chapter 2: The Cooling Board
I got a letter this mornin, how do you reckon it read? It said, "Hurry, hurry, yeah, your love is dead." I got a letter this mornin, I say how do you reckon it read? You know, it said, "Hurry, hurry, How come the gal you love is dead?" / Son House, "Death Letter"
The worst part about the good ol' doctor handing her a dusty ol' mirror was having to lie to the man who had just saved her life. Maybe that was the worst part. Maybe it wasn't. Maybe the bit that stuck and twisted was having to nod her head, fake that she knew the person staring back at her in that busted square of glass.
There was a lot about ballistic trauma that she didn't understand. Medical things. The kinds of things that Doc Mitchell had been trying to talk her through in that patient, meticulous way of his. He'd warned her about the swelling, the discoloration, the fluids and how all these things would give her some wicked picture reflected back in that glass. It could be startling, she thought she'd heard Mitchell say. Turns out the startling bit wasn't the misshapen clumping of needlework and damaged tissue. The startling bit had been when the girl recognized that she did not recognize herself at all. In any way.
She'd been a courier, that much had been known. The frayed Mojave Express patch over her left sleeve had been her first clue. The second had been from Trudy. The men who'd shot her point-blank had stopped off for a celebratory drink in the mayor's dusty little saloon. It was from the lips of those would-be murderers that the word courier had slipped, but if there had been any further secrets about the identity of the woman they'd shoveled dust over just outside town, they had been lost with the tumbleweeds blowing through Goodsprings during the night.
October in Nevada was a blistering summer with the worst of its bite worn down. While the girl had slept her first week away in Goodsprings, precariously balanced in the careful hands of Doc Mitchell, she spent her second week scuttling in the dust and idling over the front porch of Trudy's bar. She'd been fighting with the mayor's busted radio for days, unsure whether she was fixing the problem or making it worse, all to the occasional "ahum" of Easy Pete easing his days away under the shade of the saloon's patch-work awning.
When she wasn't wasting time being unhelpful, she found ways to earn her keep in town. She'd been gifted a rifle from Sunny Smiles - the woman had taken a streak of compassion for the girl with the rotten-fruit face - and the two of them would make a daily routine of clearing the territory around Goodsprings of unwanted menaces. It was just enough caps to keep her belly full and her throat wet. She'd taken residence out by the town's wells, out in a wind-blasted trailer left to peel under the relentless sun for two centuries. It was near enough to civilization and yet just far enough away that the woman's troubled nights could be toiled at alone.
It was hard coming to terms with a life you couldn't remember. It was hard when everything down to a name had been stolen from you.
Nights were for sleepless thoughts scratching behind the stitchings stretched taut over her skull. Days were for chasing coyotes and geckos and cold beers; for hot afternoons blasting empty bottles into a thousand dazzling shards under the searing sun. It was ironic that for all their effort defending against dangers blowing into town, they were unprepared for the danger Ringo brought.
It was during the ensuing gunfight that rocked into the sleepy little ghost town that Goodsprings became distinctly aware of the perplexing blessing they had in the large, rolling robot in their midst. For the second time in all the years the grinning machine had wheeled through their dusty settlement, Victor had pulled through. Pulled through, for the second time, in the favor of the courier with no name; the girl who brought with her a ruckus.
It was mid-October, in the ramshackle city of Primm, where the girl got her number and her first taste of Mojave calamity. The first of a string of shifting hands being played since the night she was shucked into a ditch under a sheet of hard Mojave soil. It was up along the blistering wind of the 95 where the courier marked Six got her first true ally; a wandering soul much like her own, another solitary figure in search of answers to questions nobody else wanted to ask. One a girl from California with stars in her eyes, the other blown in from nowhere with the puckered kiss from a slug through the head.
It was south, in the torched ashes of Nipton, where the courier marked Six received her first taste of something bigger; where her first glimmer of the real game being played under the shadow of Vegas came to first light.
The Cooling Board, Chapter 2
Chapter 3: Fruit for Crows
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck, For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop, Here is a strange and bitter crop. / Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit”
"It could have been at a place like that," she commented, tilting the warm bottle of Sunset towards the looming block they called Helios One. "We lost brothers over here as well. It's so strange sometimes, you know? To think about how much it must have meant at one point. I wonder if after enough years roll by and if any of us are even still around... if we'll forget what was so important about this spot too."
She had dark hair and darker eyes, and the scribe turned her hickory gaze sideways until her melancholy smile was in plain view. Six gave a small tilt of the lips in return, unsure of exactly what to say or how to comfort the disquiet in Veronica. She ran short dirt-embedded nails over the rusted metal of the car's hood, eyes sweeping over Gibson's garbage yard as she considered what to say.
The best the courier could come up with to ease the empty end of her conversation was, "I'm sorry about your folks. I'm sure when things settle down out here, the Brotherhood will pick itself back up," but it rang hollow in her own ears, and the scribe did not seem convinced.
"The thing is," Veronica continued, "is that you didn't see, or you don't remember, these other groups out here. It's not so easy as that. Regardless... at the end, one side is going to win. The thing I fear is that, when one side does come out on top, the Brotherhood won't be better off for it. At all. It's silly, I know. We have the tech, we have the training, and yet these other people will be the death of us. If we don't let ourselves die off first, anyway. I mean, we're already stuck in a hole in the ground. I guess you can say it's safe, but you could also say we've already fixed our grave."
Six listened silently and wondered at the sensation of helpless perplexity, wondered how Veronica coped with it every day. There was no easy solution, certainly not one she could think of to help her friend. It seemed an enormous task to even consider - trying to single-handedly devise a way to help out an entire group of people. Especially a group of people that didn't seem to want anyone's help. She sympathized with Veronica and felt shitty for being little to no help besides as a confidante to her companion.
But there was another thing that itched at the corner of her skull. She wasn't as naive as a newborn infant. It had been a long hike from Goodsprings to the 188, and the woman called Six had seen things along her road. She took a quick swallow of her Sarsaparilla, warmed from their afternoon baking over the hood of the corroded Highwayman, and countered.
"I met some of the groups out here," she began lightly to throw off that it was a defensive response if anything at all, "and you never know, the Brotherhood might have things worth offering. There could always be peace; an alliance."
Veronica made a funny little sound and turned her chocolate eyes back towards Helios One.
"The only way the NCR will make any kind of peace with the Brotherhood is if we integrate into their military or science divisions. If we aren't an asset to them, then we're a threat." The scribe waved her half-finished bottle in a lazy sweeping gesture. "And if you think we can make friends with the Legion, then you haven't met the Legion."
"I've met the Legion."
This time, Veronica turned to study the courier's face, see if the woman was trying to play a fast one over her. Dark, cropped hair growing back shaggy. Remnants of the operation done to save the woman's life from a bullet to the brain. A tawny face, shaped like a heart. It was with a pair of bright eyes that Six stared back wordlessly at the scribe, and Veronica knew her friend was not playing a game.
"You met the Legion and you aren't sporting a metal necklace? Good for you," she joked in typical fashion. "When did you run across that dour lot?"
The first time she had seen Legion, it was through the scope of Sunny's gift rifle. Black smoke was plumming up to a red sky; a russet sunset over the town of Nipton. It was the smoke that had drawn her notice. The smoke and the birds. The town was burning acrid rubber... and something more sulfurous, something musky. The smell was all wrong, and a place in the back of her mind hinted that it was a familiar aroma; a smell she should recognize.
She had a pair of binoculars, another gift, this time from Trudy. The town of Goodsprings had been sorry to see the girl they called Ruckus pick up and go, but the stir-up with the Powder Gangers had woken up something inside the girl's skull. It was an unspoken understanding and an itch beneath her heels that told her she had to move along. The same wordless confirmation she got whenever she gazed up at Victor's grinning-cowboy screen.
That she couldn't settle, she still had miles to walk.
It was with Trudy's gifted binoculars that she first saw them. They were moving around the town, most of them congregated before the broad building in the heart of the city. There was a mechanical, disciplined grace to the rhythm of their working. It was a strange waltz amid a burning town, and like a moth to the flame, curiosity drove the girl towards the razed ruins. It was the first trait she had come to relearn about herself: she could never leave it well enough alone.
She would come to see the Legion flag many more times over the course of her miles, but forever would she remember it at Nipton. There, at the entrance, she had looked up at the mounted and billowing banners. A golden bull over a red field. At the time, she hadn't known what to expect of this standard. She'd been in ignorant wonder. Had she known, she might not have continued further.
A sulfuric stench rose to greet her first, the source of the offense becoming known shortly after. Strung up like a different kind of banner along one side of the roadway and the other: bodies mounted to timber. People were lashed to poles, dead or dying but all baking beneath the searing heat. Within the plumes were the withered and scorched bodies behind Nipton's heinous fragrance. Beyond the noxious fumes, she could see where the flesh had been charred, where the ash was pulling away from the bone, where blackened juices bubbled and spat. She could see them piled like rubbish, twisted from the flame. A strange kindle, the worst kind to gather.
She brought an arm up to her nose. She gagged. In her morbid bewilderment, she hadn't noticed the men flanking her. Not until it was too late.
They forced her before him, a serene young man with a leering maw above his head. He could have been her age - though even that she couldn't recall - or he could have been younger. It was horrifying to think that she had survived one grave just to die in the ashes of another, in a town that meant nothing to her, at the hands of a boy whose gentle countenance belied the savagery orchestrated by his hands. If it hadn't been for the relentless grip the soldier had over her, she might have turned and run. Taken her chances with a bullet to the back rather than filling up a vacancy over a telephone pole.
When the blonde soldier tried to force Six closer, the fear jamming her knees caused her legs to buckle, and her palms had hit hot asphalt. It was in that instant, eyes shooting upward as the dog-hooded boy closed the space between them, that she remembered his face. On her knees with death looming over her, she recalled the face of the man with the checker-print suit. It was the first time, and it had stolen the breath from her lungs.
In the end, the jackal-headed frumentarius hadn't killed her. He hadn't done anything to her. He'd spared her life, allowed her back out onto the road, skittering away from leering fangs with a message - "I want you to teach everyone you meet the lesson that Caesar's Legion taught here...." It rang like a bell's knell behind the shattered chips of her skull, and the girl wondered at why she had felt compelled to do so.
Perhaps it had been something that had seeped into her flesh, something absorbed out of that death shroud choking the city. Perhaps it had been something about the devastation, a terrible melody that vibrated behind the hole in her bone, something the memory of the bullet thrummed to. The girl didn't know anything about herself anymore - but had she, she might have known that the poison had been there long before Benny blew it into her head.
Fruit for Crows, Chapter 3
Chapter 4: Down By The Highway
Early this mornin', When you knocked upon my door, Early this mornin', ooh, When you knocked upon my door, And I said, "Hello, Satan, I believe it's time to go." / Robert Johnson, "Me and the Devil Blues"
It was the last door to the left on the bottom floor.
The girls approached the room in single file, beneath the shade of the second-floor landing. When she rapped at the old motel wood, chipped and splintered from a couple centuries of wind and dust and burning sun, nobody answered.
"Maybe he's out?" Veronica had offered, but Six could never leave it alone.
The courier tried the handle and felt her wrist twist. The door slid open easily, a long strip of black widening out before them. The women shared a look before the nature of the pair had them pushing inside the darkened room. There wasn't a single light on within, the windows were battened over and the quarters held an eerie sense of unease. In the gloom, the stained carpet under their dusty boots brought the women to pause. It was difficult to determine the nature of the blotch, but there was an undeniable discomfort in the pattern of its splatter. There was a moment's flickering regret over having shut the door behind them. Would the stain have shown up red?
That was when a movement across the room captured their attention. The first look that Six got of Craig Boone had her thinking she was catching sight of a ghost. He came stalking out of a side door, a pale white face over a pale white shirt, and in the darkness of the motel, he looked like a wrathful spirit. He came advancing on the women like a predator.
"You shouldn't be here. Get out."
The courier felt herself taking an involuntary retreat until the handle of the door was brushing up against her lower back.
"Manny Vargas sent me," Six stammered out. "I'm looking for a sniper. Are you -- are you Boone?"
"You looking for trouble?" came out more like a menacing threat than a question.
"I just -- Manny said --"
She felt Veronica wheeling her away, and then Six was back on the sun-blasted side of the door. She stood for a moment, squinting stupidly into the blinding mid-day haze. Veronica let out a nervous laugh and rubbed at the courier's shoulder, the side where day-by-day the faded Mojave patch frayed a bit more.
"Not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't that. Maybe we don't need help to clear out the REPCONN?"
The woman with the bullet-scarred forehead didn't know what she had been expecting either. What Six did know, effortlessly and with vivid conviction, was that she did not like Craig Boone. She did not like him at all.
It was the first door to the right on the top floor.
The girls approached the room in tandem, marching up the broken-down escalator. When she came before the officer idling out front, the man asked if she'd ever seen a Legion captive. He'd rapped at the door and a woman answered.
"Maybe it's like a zoo," Veronica had joked, "maybe they'll let us take pictures."
Slipping inside a stark and brightly lit room, they were allowed the chance to peer in at the caged legionary. While they loitered, an NCR lieutenant impressed upon her guests what a singular bit of fortune it had been to capture a centurion alive. Years spent warring across the span of the Colorado and this was the first the NCR military had ever taken a living, breathing Legion officer prisoner. The joke of it all was that beyond the opportunity to boast about their capture, beyond entertaining the curious with displaying their trophy, the NCR had made no advancements with their captive.
It was a vivid splash of color across the room that first captured their attention. The first look that Six got of the Legion centurion had her reliving a bad memory in a town lined with burning bodies. He sat placidly within an empty cage, ignoring them beyond a wall of glass, a pale white face over Legion red sitting on the only bit of furniture in the spartan cell. The casual indifference in the centurion's posture hid the truth Six had learned well of Legion soldiers - that they were all vicious predators.
"It's a goddamn nightmare, I'll tell you," Boyd drawled lazily. She lit up a cigarette while her guests observed the prisoner. "A real headache. We've had him for weeks, and still," she waved her wrist in a trail of nicotine, "this. Nothing. First Legion surrender in the history of the war, and he only opens his mouth if it's to insult you. The prick. It's goddamn mystifying."
Not once had the centurion turned to acknowledge his audience. It was only when Boyd stepped up to the glass and loudly rapped her knuckles against the paneling, calling out, "Hey, Silus, you have some new guests. Be friendly," that the legionnaire finally turned his notice upon those in the room. He shifted his focus for the sake of flashing the middle finger to Boyd and following it with a vulgar gesture. The lieutenant leaned into the glass, smiling, and unfurled her fuck you in return.
"And that's it," she intoned, stepping back to rejoin the pair of watching spectators. "All day every day. It can get tedious, sure, but don't you worry, I find new ways of making the most of it," the officer joked dryly.
Six watched the centurion lower his offending arm from Boyd's lost interest. There was a moment when their gazes met, a moment where the courier felt the radiating menace from the caged legionary before he turned his contempt away and back to the empty wall ahead of him.
It was a baffling conundrum, and the letter carrier felt that crawling itch start to scratch against the chipped cracks of her skull. Why would a person turn himself over to the enemy if he had no intention of negotiating? Why would this Legion officer surrender when none before him had? What made him so different?
"So why surrender? What's he waiting for?" Six asked.
Boyd shook her head, gazing wryly at the prisoner and sucking out the chemical burn from her smoke. "It's a riddle," the lieutenant drawled out in a cloud of nicotine, "a real puzzle. I should let your friend into the room with that scary-looking device strapped over her fist and see if a few taps with it doesn't loosen his lips a bit."
Veronica laughed nervously with a, "I don't want to risk denting your trophy," and Six was sure that the irony of an NCR officer speaking so amicably with a scribe from the Brotherhood of Steel was not lost on her friend.
"No go? Well, it was worth a shot. I'll still sleep soundly at night dreaming about the day this asshole stands in front of a firing squad. It's all about the little things."
With the overnight stain of the Crawford woman's blood still settling into the fibers of her jacket, Six and Veronica waited alongside the highway and watched the sunrise creep higher over the valley. When the sniper came out of his room, it was with only his rifle in hand. There had been nothing left for him in the highway-side settlement.
If Six had considered herself a skilled rifleman back in Goodsprings, firing off bullets at geckos and bloatflies, then she was humbled before the undeniable talent of a 1st Recon sharpshooter. He didn't speak much, but the marksman didn't have to; his skill behind the crosshairs of his rifle spoke volumes for him. He trailed behind the two women by yards, but his aim usually found a bullet lodging into danger before it ever got within striking distance of Veronica's metallic swing.
"Wish we had him from the start," the scribe had commented, and Six agreed.
With the extra help, they were quick miles up the 95. As the trio approached Vegas from the south, something loose began to rattle inside the courier. It hummed louder the nearer they drew to their destination bringing the hairs up in a dance along the back of her neck and arms. She wanted to buy some time, told them she wanted to see what McCarran looked like behind the big walls, but Boone had been against going inside the NCR encampment.
Six allowed Boone to rule uncontested; she was still reeling from gaining his company. Company that only required spilling bad blood to gain good.
With the figurative stain of the trooper's blood still settling into the fibers of her jacket, Six and Veronica waited alongside the highway and watched the sunset creep lower over the valley. When the disguised legionary marched out of McCarran, it was with only the smuggled pistol in hand. Weeks and three dead fiends later, and there had been nothing questioned of them in interrogating the prisoner.
If Veronica had considered herself skilled in hand-to-hand combat, learning how to take as much hurt as she gave out, then she was unsettled by the savage efficiency of a centurion of Caesar's Legion. He didn't speak much, but the legionary didn't have to; his skill wielding a bladed weapon spoke volumes for him. He marched ahead of the two women by yards, and his charge usually found a machete hacking into a body before a bullet needed to be fired from the courier's rifle.
"Wish we had him from the start," Six had commented, and Veronica weakly agreed.
With the extra help, it was an easy enough hike past the fiends of Vault 3. As the trio left the shadow of the airport up north on the I-15, the light of the NCR camp lessened. In the fading scorch of the Mojave sun, the wasteland stirred with untamed dangers. Dangers that brought the hairs up in a dance along the back of Veronica's neck and arms with every shifting of shadow. Borrowing the courier's dusty pair of binoculars, Veronica could just make out the prison garb of Powder Gangers through the settling dark. They had overrun some lonely old farmstead down the road, nestled just off the highway.
Veronica wanted to avoid the dynamite slinging inmates, but Silus had disregarded her advice completely to march on the camp. The scribe didn't know what she expected of a misogynistic legionary, but what Veronica did know, effortlessly and with vivid conviction, was that she did not like Silus. She did not like him at all.
Veronica allowed Silus to act uncontested; she was still reeling from the distrustful agitation of his company. Company that had required spilling good blood to gain bad.
Down by the Highway, Chapter 4
The meanest woman I most ever seen, I asked for water she brought me gasoline, oh, The meanest woman, boy, I most ever seen, I asked her for water and she come runnin' with gasoline / Muddy Waters, “Meanest Woman”
Later, she would come to realize that she was a poison; a slow venom working through the veins, a cazador that didn't recognize itself. The difference was in the sting, the sharp bite. Hers came as a kiss; came with soft lips, inviting. It was the nature of the beast, the nature of the girl. It couldn't be helped. Maybe it was the desert's mercy that made her blissfully unaware of it at first. A mirage, a hologram to mask her truth. Maybe it was one part denial, one part naivety, and two shots to the head.
Later, she would come to realize that she was a poison. She'd stand back in dismay and watch what she killed, watch her venom pump. Watch the Mojave fold in around its girl and whisper:
Do you see?
You're just like me.
Silus had taken the Whittaker Farmstead. Had taken it in true Legion form, laid waste in the fashion of the bull.
Aut vincere aut mori.
In the deepening twilight, Six and Veronica had watched the centurion advance on the farm. He had discarded the trooper helmet, he took only a blade. He went trotting. The Powder Ganger had noticed him approaching too late and had met bloody death. No gunfire. Silus had then gone inside. That part the girls had heard - shouts, shots, a ruckus. They followed after.
When they slipped inside the small homestead, they found the centurion standing over the carnage of the people who had been living there. For days to follow, Six would recall the way the dismembered arm of one dead powder ganger spasmed over the gore-soaked carpet. But always would she remember the look on the legionary's face.
Silus stood at the center of the crowded room, slick with the fresh spattering of blood. Six couldn't tell what had been his and what had been from the convicts. She had asked, but the centurion had either disregarded her or he hadn't heard her words. He seemed consumed by the fresh butchery at his feet. There had been a look on his face. No more cage, no more chains. He had been a Legion hound loosed.
The work they'd done with the soup kitchen in Freeside had paid off double. The jobs they took for the benefit of The King had become a benefit for themselves. While it hadn't been the dress Veronica was searching for, the new clothing and the bulging rucksacks had been an upgrade from the dusty gear they'd used before. While leather and denim was more in Six's favor, she promised her friend the quest for class was still on-going.
It was her best hand at distracting the Brotherhood scribe. The best opportunity to help. Her best friend had a lot of heartache these days. The worst part was that it came by way of her own family.
"If I didn't know any better," Veronica teased as they trucked down the sweaty trail of the I-15, "I'd say this feels a lot like you left me with the heaviest stuff to carry."
"Oh you know me," Six quipped back, "never miss an opportunity to give ol' Man-Hands a workout."
There was an affronted gasp of, "Man-Hands," and then a moment's break before the scribe broke into laughter. "I do have rather manish hands, don't I? Guess now I know why I'm single. Though your lack of procuring that perfect dress isn't exactly helping my cause here."
"I said it was a work in progress, goddamn!"
"Yeah, well you could work at it a little faster."
The girl's light-hearted banter was bled dry the nearer to the farmhouse they drew. Weighed down with the resources that they were, the pair had been prime targets along the road, but there had been little threat of raiding from the Fiends of Vault 3. They had hardly seen any of the strung-out marauders on their march down the highway. The raiders were being culled, every day their numbers dropped fewer. Every day since Silus took station over Whittaker.
They paused outside the house and Veronica dropped her heavy load into the dirt with a relieved sigh. Six followed by lowering her own rucksack to the ground.
"Do you think he's still there?" the scribe asked as she frowned over at the unassuming wooden door.
"The Fiends are keeping away," the courier replied, "and he's waiting for the rest of this. I don't think he'd leave just yet."
"He'll leave, once he has this."
"Maybe. Maybe not."
Veronica scoffed. "You can't exactly force him."
"Maybe I don't have to."
Six heaved the bag from Freeside back into her arms and strode to the farmstead. She pushed through the door into the shade of the small house and the first thing she noticed was how red the interior had grown. On the wall beside the door, a crimson mural had been painted. A red bull embellished the side of the room in vain crimson swaths. Beside the baseboard that ran along the bottom of the regalia, a pair of trooper helmets were turned upside down like bowls. Congealing within each one was the unmistakable soup of what had once pumped hot through veins.
"Oh," was Veronica's small sound beside her. "He's artistic too."
Six dropped the load at her feet. She left Veronica beneath the bloody banner to unload their provisions. In the kitchen, she found the Legion officer at the table. He sat draped in the unfinished wear of his centurion rank, tending a machete blade with freshly stained hands.
"Where did the helmets come from?" the courier demanded.
Silus barely lifted his gaze to regard her; didn't condescend to answer. Six wasn't surprised by his contempt. It didn't matter in any regard, whether he answered her or not, she already knew how he had gotten the helmets. She found it strange, but the idea of NCR soldiers growing wise to the wolf at Whittaker farm was more upsetting to her than the thought of two dead troopers. It was strange that she had no real feeling of guilt over it. She was just concerned. Too many of the flock go missing and they go searching for the wolf. Across the highway, the NCR held camp. Across the highway, 1st Recon was stationed.
She slid her personal pack off her shoulders and to the battered kitchen tile.
"Okay, so you can't stay here any longer. We'll find somewhere better for you."
Silus didn't say anything. He had grown sullen and bitter and resentful in his days at Whittaker. Six only had to look to see it. It started a clawing at the edges of her shattered bone. An anxiety to take action before the chance was taken from her. Six understood that her time to grab control over the situation was on its tail end. If she didn't move, if she didn't grasp it now, what she was trying to hold together here would fall apart. She'd lose her grip over the wolf.
The killer, she had to keep close; to protect it and to protect the rest.
"We brought the last of your gear. Little Buster is reliable, as long as he's getting paid."
Wordlessly, the centurion rose up from the kitchen seat. He left the machete on the table and crossed over to where Veronica had already deposited the last of his armor; two pauldrons and his helmet. The scribe turned away from the legionnaire to continue sorting through the supplies they had secured from the NCR soup kitchen.
"Buster said that was all that was left," Six commented as she followed the centurion into the main room, "so we can move off from here. I think we'll try east, maybe closer to the river."
"I'm not going anywhere with you," was Silus' acidic reply.
Six felt her pulse hitch. To the side, she noticed Veronica hunched over her rucksack, pretending to sort through their gear even though the scribe's hands had ceased moving. Six took a swallow, fighting to keep her hold.
"You swore that you would... and I need your help."
"My help?" Silus sneered at her, sparing the girl an ugly look. "You think if you say things like that I'll be easier to control. I know why you're here. You want me to follow you like one of your miserable, degenerate dogs. To simply roll over and concede to your orders. The orders of a profligate woman from that lascivious hole of gamblers and whores."
The centurion ended his biting tirade by pointing to Veronica's back, and Six felt an old but familiar heat flicker to life behind her ribs. It brought her hands to fists at her sides.
"You owe it to me," was her low warning. "I got you out of McCarran when you couldn't do it yourself. You pledged your --"
In a flash of red, Silus was at her throat. It took Six a moment to realize she had hit a wall. All she could feel was the centurion's forearm pressing into her trachea like a steel rod. Six found that she couldn't feel the floor and that she couldn't breathe. All she could make were hollow gasping sounds. The labored breathing she was hearing came from the centurion, from Silus' sudden and explosive fury. This had spanned mere seconds.
"Owe it to you?" the centurion snarled. "You miserable worm. I owe you nothing."
Black spots emerged in front of the courier's eyes when she heard Veronica's shout. The Brotherhood of Steel scribe had charged Silus, gripping the centurion and ripping him away from the letter carrier. Six had hit the floor, sucking in great lungfuls of air. She watched Veronica land a left-handed blow to the side of the Legion officer's face that had the man staggering away - for a second. He rebounded instantly by taking hold of the scribe and throwing her against the far wall. Veronica, to the credit of her training, was rolling away before the centurion's boot stomped the carpet where she'd landed moment's before. Legion training had the soldier evading the explosive fury of the scribe's gauntlet as it crumbled the wall where Veronica's punch missed the centurion by mere inches.
Six was back to her feet. The courier went racing to the kitchen, running for her pack. Silus saw the girl's escape and went chasing after her. Veronica came after the pair. Six's hands barely gripped her bag when she felt the centurion reach her. The looming bulk of him was all she could think about. She screamed when he snatched the machete from the tabletop. Veronica was screaming as she flipped the table up into her hands. The blade cut inches through the furniture with a resounding hack. Silus ripped it free and cleaved at the Brotherhood scribe again and again. Veronica blocked with the table each time the officer swung.
Six reached out, gripping fistfuls of the centurion's cloak. The courier heaved backward with all her weight. Silus twisted on her, machete raised up above his head, and she flashed the golden medallion at him like it was the rangefinder of Helios One. The Mark of Caesar was held out like law between them.
Silus's reaction was what Six had hoped for. Even out at Whittaker Farmstead, the Mark held as much power over the centurion as it had back within Camp McCarran. Something in the officer succumbed like a habit at the golden sight of Caesar's will. His arm slackened and the machete was released to the floor. Veronica lowered her butchered table to peer out cautiously.
"You gave me your word," Six croaked out at last. She searched the centurion's furious expression. He was still heaving. "You gave me your word. Is there no honor in Legion word?"
Silus barely managed to tear his gaze away from the coin only to grind out in disgust, "You know nothing of the Legion."
"I know that you can't go back to them. Not without me."
Silus took a step away from her like she was something venomous.
"You can go back to the Legion with me," Six repeated. "I have allowances. They'll allow you for me."
Later, she would come to consider herself a poison.
They sorted through the provisions they had brought and left the Whittaker Farmstead behind. They headed east, passing the cement block of the REPCONN facility before making their way south along the 95 to avoid the dam and the ranger stations. They spent days on the march, traveling carefully and making light camp just before nightfall. It was good prospecting, poking around forgotten holes, searching for a place that would suit them right. It was good and it was dangerous, but Six had the advantage now. If the centurion was a danger to her, he was more so to whatever they stumbled across on their wanderings.
"Auribus teneo lupum," he taunted her at one point in their travel.
Later, the courier would wonder whether this was when she had doomed the Legion centurion. Whether it had been at Whittaker Farmstead or at Camp McCarran, or whether his fate had simply been a progression from the day his century had failed.
Later, she would come to consider herself a poison, a strange venom. But that would be miles away and pages of scars yet to collect. Right now, she still had an entire road to walk.
"Gasoline," Chapter 5
“Auribus teneo lupum, nam neque quomodo a me amittam invenio neque uti retineam scio.”
"I've got a wolf by the ears; for I neither know how to get rid of it, nor yet how to keep it.”
Chapter 6: To The Crossroad
And I went to the crossroad, mama, I looked east and west, I went to the crossroad, baby, I looked East and West, Lord, I didn't have no sweet woman, ooh well, babe, in my distress / Robert Johnson, “Cross Road Blues”
The placard outside the door had read Wolfhorn, and she couldn't think of a better place for him to be. Upon the ridge behind the house, the wind blew dust through her hair like Mojave whispers. Soft voices circling around her like ghosts of the valley. She liked the view; all around was the gentle roll of the desert, the broken stretch of the highway from western Nipton. It was quiet at Wolfhorn, and it gave the woman time to think.
The second time Benny had played the courier, she vowed to herself that it would be the last time. It had been a terrible disappointment for the girl, for Six to make her call on the smug chairman only to have him play his ace in the hole. It had been just enough to allow Benny to slip away. Always one step ahead of her, a coyote chasing after a snake, and there would be no justice for what he had taken from the courier unless she made it so herself.
Benny had gone for the Colorado. The smiling robot he had left behind at The Tops had given the girl enough of an idea why the chairman would attempt something so reckless. It was the chip - the hand that Vegas was playing. All the crisscrossing roads in the valley led to one brightly shining, opulent oasis in the desert - and Benny was looking to play it for keeps.
The head of the Chairmen had gone for Fortification Hill. He'd run from the coyote right into the jaws of the wolves. He'd made it so that it was through the Legion that Courier Six, at the end of the gambler's dusty road, finally caught her revenge. In Benny's final play, it was the courier, not the chairman, who had held the better deck. It had been her trump card - a golden medallion that fit in the palm of her small hand. She'd always been in the Mojave's favor, whether she had known it or not, and now she held Caesar's favor.
Any gambit of Vegas always paid off. The House always won.
Cottonwood Cove was a day's march east of the ranch. They had packed light, for Silus had warned her there would be no tolerance for profligate contraband. He'd inspected her pack, just to be certain, and then Six and Veronica parted.
It had been an odd sensation - a strangely overwhelming moment. There had never been a time since meeting the Brotherhood scribe that the two hadn't traveled together. It was terrifying for the courier to realize how very little she held, how much had been stripped from her.
That was okay, she told herself, players with fewer chips fought harder to hold onto what they had.
Veronica was going back to Hidden Valley. It wasn't safe to mention where she was headed while they kept company with an officer of the Legion - even a defective one - so she'd just told Six that she would be headed home. The courier understood. There was a face-to-face with the Elder that Veronica had been putting off. So the two women had hugged one another, and then one started north while the other turned east.
It was a dusty slide down the face of a hill. There had been the remnants of a farm sprawling over the slope of the ranch, boxes of flora with half the harvest dried out from neglect. Nailed to the front wall of the homestead was a bronze placard inscribed as Wofhorn. It was a ghostly and quiet patch of Mojave soil, and no occupants came calling at any point during their stay.
The courier enjoyed the ridge. While he would sweat on his knees in the midday heat, patching leaks from the siphon pulling water up from a single well, he would see her keeping solitary vigil over a lonely and nameless grave. She liked it up on the ridge, said she could hear the voices from the desert.
The other girl kept inside, making tidy work from the scrap that had been left behind. Silus knew that the woman with the power fist loathed his presence, and that was just as well for the centurion - they stood on equal ground then.
There was a point during their time at Wolfhorn Ranch, an evening when the girl with the scarred face had come down to the campfire he'd started, that Silus yielded. He was roasting gecko - he refused to eat any of the boxed or canned filth the degenerate pair of women enjoyed slopping down - when she'd materialized out of the heavy dusk like a coyote come sniffing.
"Let me see it," he'd asked, holding out a battle-scarred hand, "let me see the Mark."
She'd hesitated a moment before fishing it out of a back pocket. She'd always kept the golden medallion on her person after that day at Whittaker Farmstead. A part of Silus had gloated at that, but it was a weak part. Things had already begun to shift around the centurion, and the satisfaction that would have once mattered more seemed feeble in the face of what was promised to come. Silus had decided that if this was to be his new service, if this was now his directed path, then he'd be better served to make the best of this courier with a bullet-scarred face.
He'd studied the medallion in the flickering light of the firepit, searching the intricately hammered token as if he was waiting for a final confirmation. Eventually, he'd passed the medallion back to the girl. Then, like he was instructing one of his recruits back across the river in a red-tented landscape, he began to show the courier how to use charcoal to amplify the purification of water.
When the dark had settled and the embers had burned down to their angry and reddened cores, when the girl had retreated into the farmhouse for the night and Silus was left to his own company, he took a bedroll to the fortified guardpost and set himself up for the night. The centurion sat for his solitary vigil over a rusty chair, sleepless thoughts turning his gaze east.
Over the buckled and corroded highway, the pair traveled in the direction of the rising sun. In the early morning light, the girl felt cold with nerves. To gather her resolve, she distracted herself with the centurion, and Six was surprised to find Silus forthcoming with his words. When she asked, he told her about his century, about the battle he'd lost, and about why his campaign had failed. When she asked about his emperor, Silus told her about Caesar, about the Four States, and about the slave army. When she mentioned Nipton, he explained to Six what the Frumentarius Vulpes Inculta had been teaching there.
The centurion was uncharacteristically tolerant of her curiosity. He wasn't warm, but he never sneered or insulted Six for the questions she asked or the comments she made. It brought the girl to think on the night before, made her think of a modest lesson over the heat of a humble fire, and she thought that maybe she wasn't the only one afraid of what waited up the river.
To the Crossroad, Chapter 6
Chapter 7: Rising Sun Blues
Now boys don’t believe what a girl tells you, Though her eyes be blue or brown, Unless she’s on some scaffold high, Saying “Boys, I can’t come down.” / Doc Watson, "Rising Sun Blues"
When Silus opened his one good eye, his first thought was that the Devil had storm-colored eyes and a dusting of freckles over Mojave-browned skin. It took a moment for the clouded sky above the dark shag of hair to stop sliding out of his focus. It took a moment for the centurion to realize that he was not dead, that this was not Tartarus, that he was only lying over the blood-starved dust of the arena with the girl hovering over him. It took Silus a moment after that to realize she had been speaking. At first, he thought that it was to him, but everything was twisting around the centurion and Silus was blinded with raw agony. His senses were slow to clear, but the Legion officer could make out the unmistakable voice of Caesar's favored frumentarii somewhere beyond the limited reach of his gaze.
"He'll leave the pit," Vulpes was replying, "one way or another. If alive, it will be by his own two feet. Only the dead are carried from here."
Silus gagged. His body twitched forward and he spat out a mouthful of blood into the dry dirt to his side. The courier had made a move for him, but he'd lashed out at her, keeping the girl away at arm's reach. His fist swung uselessly through the dry desert air. It was a disoriented move and more of a flinch than a proper strike. New misery flared up with the attempt.
"Get away from me," he menaced, but it came out half-choked by the tang of copper down his throat.
There was a rise of chuckling from across the ring making Silus aware that Felix and Gallus were still in the pit. From a curtain of blood obscuring his sight, Silus could make out recruits strapping up the two centurions back into their armored vanity. Gallus Drusus was adjusting a bracer, laughing over the distance at the fallen centurion's show of anger. Beside the other man, Felix only stared back silently. It was a blood-hungry fixation.
"Get up," Otho barked out, "or perhaps Caesar will change his mind."
Silus had fought off his brother Legionaries with every ounce of training and rage he could muster forth to his defense. It had only helped at the start of the fight. Silus knew just enough about his two opponents to understand why they had been selected for his punishment. Where Gallus lumbered, Felix danced. It was designed to be a battle that Silus would lose - if a battle it could be called at all. It was more a lesson, a bloody example to the rest of his rank.
He'd been spared from it, and he knew it was because of the girl. He couldn't decide whether that knowledge angered him more.
In the crimson canvas of Caesar's tent, Benny had looked up at her through his one good eye. He had told her, "Baby, you must be the Devil. I shot you down twice but you just won't die. You're out to make me pay for my sins, doll, and maybe that's what you get when you spit in the Devil's eye."
Benny had a swan song for the courier he'd buried outside Goodsprings.
In Caesar's tent, Six had put an end to one man's road. In the fighting pit, Caesar had put an end to another man's. Two paths swallowed whole by the winding stretch that was the courier's mile. Neither one had seen it coming around the bend. It was an exchange. Where one life was ended, a new one was beginning.
In the blood-speckled dust of the fighting arena, Silus had looked up at her through his one good eye. Eventually, the legionary had accepted the courier's help. The centurion had been beaten so badly that Six had to guide him to the slave known as Siri. Silus had been half-blind from blood and swelling, and his balance had been unreliable. Siri was a medic, and she'd helped to set up the disgraced officer in a tent where the pair of women worked to clean and treat the man.
It had been the courier's first real glimpse into the brutality of Legion life for the slave army. There had been nothing to ease Silus's pain, nothing to clean his wounds or use for treatment beyond clean water, cloth for bandages, and the healing powder that Siri and several other women labored daily to produce. Whatever bones had been bruised from the beating were secured tightly with rolls of fabric. Whatever map of flesh had been brutalized to the point of splitting was packed with healing powder and covered over. Whatever bottle of water Six could grab, she gave to Silus until the centurion's piss ceased to run rust-tinted.
Siri had been a kind and helpful woman, and Six had fascinated the medic. There was something new, something strange and bewildering, about a free woman holding power within Caesar's Legion. Even as little of it as the courier held. Siri smuggled extra rations of powder for Six to use on her centurion, she visited almost daily to check on the healing progress of the courier's legionaire, and she cautioned the free woman about the men of the camp.
Siri warned Six about the comments the slave soldiers made about the new, unbroken female in their red-tented fort, and it frightened the courier. It brought Six to isolate herself beneath the low crimson canopy. To occupy idle hands, she spent her mornings nursing her Legion officer, afternoons working with the slave women to crush Broc flowers and Xander roots, and evenings reading books or roaming the mess tent of Caesar's fort. At nightfall, she would return to Silus below the low-hung tent like following a curfew.
For his part, the centurion had appeared satisfied to sleep these days away. He was silent and obliging, saying no more than was necessary to answer any of the questions either woman posed to him in the mornings; a yes, a no. He ate what Six brought him, he'd drink every bottle of water, and then he'd lay back over the sleeping roll and remain unmoving until nightfall. Some evenings the courier would read aloud to him. Some nights she'd talk, too paranoid to fall into easy sleep with every passing a Legion soldier made beyond the scarlet canvas of their tent. If Silus heard any of her words, he never made any indication of it.
On the seventh night, Silus' rest had ended.
As the courier settled over her own bedroll to sort through leaflets of notes the slave women had written that day, the centurion had opened his eyes and turned to regard her. The courier hadn't noticed at first, and it offered Silus a moment to consider the woman on whom Caesar's favor fell. He determined, at length, that there was nothing remarkable about the girl. At some diminutive height, she was not an imposing figure, nor did she hold any statuesque bearing. Her skin was the color of baked Mojave dust, her hair the same shade as the dark soil beneath the roots of a Joshua tree. It must have been cropped low to her skull at some point, the shag of it now was the same as any of the slaves in Caesar's army.
A small runt with dusty skin and dirt-colored hair, that was it.
Even still, the uninspiring estimation could not hold back his hand. When the courier became aware of his lingering gaze, he'd acted. Silus had reached out and snatched one of those narrow wrists. It had taken no effort to drag her down to the ground, to pull the weight of himself on top of her. She'd struggled in vain against him, but she had been too frightened to cry out for help. Silus knew the reason why the girl lingered under the tent, he knew what she was afraid of from the legionaries of the bull. He knew she'd be too frightened to draw their attention.
"What did Caesar say to you?" he'd demanded, feeling the uselessness of her arms heaving against his chest.
Once the girl had learned the futility of her attempt to fight him off, she'd calmed her erratic breathing long enough to answer back, "He wants me to go into the bunker beneath the fort and destroy what's down there."
"What else," the centurion had rumbled.
"He gave you to me," she'd replied simply as if discussing an exchange of goods with the trader Barton. The legionaire could see the initial shock of his domination bleeding out of the girl. In those cloud-colored eyes, a storm was building.
"You will do Caesar's will?"
The courier only watched the man above her, modest breasts heaving beneath the thin fabric of a plain shirt, the one she wore beneath the jacket of some profligate gang from Vegas. She was growing angry, he could see it in her eyes and in the tension of her lithe figure beneath his. There was a challenge in that stormy gaze.
"I will do what must be done," she had whispered, and then Silus had felt her leg pressing up against him. He felt the pressure creeping up to his groin, reaching under the drape of his tunic. His thoughts became fixated over the curve of her beneath him, and when her thigh came up to brush against the throb between his own, he'd been as powerless to resist his lust as he'd been to resist a command from the Legate.
He'd pushed her legs apart to settle his weight between them. He'd made short work of her pants, stripping them down her legs. She didn't make it simple work, but it only took moments and then he was holding her wrists above her head in one iron grip and her hips in another. When he pushed up against the wet junction of her, he felt the girl's legs spread in final surrender.
She was a tight fit and the centurion grunted to slide his girth into her. She was a hot, quivering force all around him. She'd flinch, make some muffled sound, but otherwise, she'd kept silent as the legionary rode her. It did not take long for Silus to climax, and when he spilled himself between her legs, she allowed him to roll off her without comment.
Afterwards, Silus had stared up at the crimson canopy hung above them and said, "I will get you through the bunker and you will destroy whatever you find down there."
Six had said nothing to it. She cleaned herself with a strip of the cloth they used to tend to the officer, and then she had gone to sleep. Silus slept shortly after.
The man who met with her had a fatherly face and bright, intelligent eyes. That was where his redeeming qualities had ended. He was seated in a gaudy chair lined in fur, horns, and crimson embellishments. Around the man, his personal guard was assembled. Six would look back and recall how appropriately the blood-hued throne had complimented the man who sat upon it.
Caesar was tyrannical in nature, and it lent the commander of the Legion a petulant presentation. The dictator seemed almost to gloat as the woman from Vegas had stepped within his praetorian-guarded tent. He'd made it a show of gifting the Chairman from The Tops to the bullet-scarred courier, but she had known that it was nothing more than a Trojan horse act. Benny's road would end at The Fort, the Legion held to it. Caesar had merely extended the courtesy of allowing the chairman's death to be executed by the woman's hand.
Caesar did not gift, and he did not give things away for free. It was to be an exchange; justice for severance. Cutting House from his ace in the hole under Fortification Hill.
There had been many versions of the justice Six dreamed to one day bring to Benny of The Tops. When she looked in a mirror at the reflection of a stranger, she dreamt of one way. When she lay in bed at night, failing to bring back any memory of the person she might have once been, she dreamt of another way. When she introduced herself with a number or a moniker that had stuck from her stay in Goodsprings, she dreamt yet of more ways.
Never had the courier dreamt that she would be merciful to the chairman. Never had she dreamt that she would feel sympathy.
He'd told her, "Look, I ain't a harbor for illusions. I ain’t expecting to get out of this shindig alive. That’s why I’m trying to hand you my scheme, baby." And he had. Benny had given the courier his swan song. His cards were up.
In the end, the courier marked Six had put two in Benny's head, and that had felt poetic.
The poker chip, the platinum coin that fit in the palm of the woman's hand, was returned. The package that courier Six had never delivered, it was back, and it had been restored with instructions. She would go down into the pit beneath the hill, and she would put an end to House's machinations as she had put an end to Benny. She asked for the centurion, and while a demand hadn't been expected, the novelty had ultimately amused Caesar. If the woman destroyed House's gambit, she would be allowed to leave The Fort with the disgraced legionaire in her service.
Six had agreed.
The man who met with her had an ostentatious face and bright, intelligent eyes. That was where his winsome qualities began. He worked modestly from a tent at the back of the fort where he spent the majority of his time avoiding human contact. While the first time they had spoken, the man had been unimpressed with the wild-faced courier. The second time, he had been intent upon her. It had been so much so that Arcade Gannon had sought Six out on her last visit to the old Mormon Fort.
Benny's ace in the hole had blown a couple of holes into Veronica during the chairman's escape from the presidential suite at The Tops casino. While the Brotherhood scribe had been on the mend, the researcher from the Followers of the Apocalypse had found himself educating the woman from the Lucky 38 about Freeside and the communities huddled like homeless masses outside the neon gates of The Strip. Arcade had been her liaison for meeting with The King. He'd been at her side while Six worked running as an emissary between the greasers and NCR troops. He'd helped her carry out services for Julie Farkas. He'd also been with the woman when she had finally told Veronica about her invitation to Caesar's camp. He'd studied the golden medallion she had produced for their observation, and then he had asked Six what she planned to do with it.
"I'm going after Benny," she had told him.
"I understand that," Arcade had persisted, "but what are you going to do about Caesar and his Legion?"
Six awoke with the rising of the sun. She did not spare a word for the centurion, and Silus seemed content to hold his tongue. When they had fully dressed and marched down to the weather station, they were greeted by a squad of legionaries. For the first time since arriving, Six appeared unaffected by their show of dominance.
There were weapons inside the building from which the courier and her disgraced officer could arm themselves. The courier reclaimed her old hunting rifle and selected one of the semi-automatic weapons offered. Silus chose a shotgun and a fire axe. They loaded up on ammunition.
Then they descended down into the stronghold.
“Whatever’s down in that bunker is the key to the city called Vegas," Benny had told her. "So here’s what you do."
"What are you going to do about Caesar and his Legion?" Arcade had asked her, and it had been a fair question. A question she didn't immediately have an answer for.
It was a consideration the courier hadn't dwelled much over. Everything building up on opposite sides of the Colorado river felt leagues above one courier's solitary head. Wars for power and conquest felt worlds away from a single mail carrier and her humble mission to avenge herself, a furious hunt for answers. It was a battle against nations, and Six considered herself just another life skittering beneath the shadow of these raging titans.
It had left Six almost dazed by the complexity of a simple question, the question of what she was going to do.
"You go down there and you use the chip to do whatever Mr. House would have wanted you to do," Benny had said. "And when you get back to the Strip, you find Yes Man.”
In the bunker, the pair had bulldozed through pre-war security. It was an underground hive of machines, automatons that had waited over two centuries for House's platinum chip. With the courier's involvement, they awoke from their two-hundred-year slumber.
It was Six who picked their route through House's secret vault. When the pair had to terminate a robot, Silus was as effective a weapon as the fresh service rifle the courier had acquired. She allowed the legionary covered in heavy centurion defense to bring the attack and draw the assault. She utilized the flashy red distraction, she flanked and ripped holes into each machine with sprays of gunfire. When they arrived at the Systems Room, Six utilized the attacking protectron units to distract the centurion. While Silus tore into the machines with his axe, it was Six who slipped inside to the Operations Console.
"I guess I'll listen to him," the courier had told Arcade at length. "I'll figure out what he's up to."
"That's the best thing you could have said," was the doctor's grateful reply. "Caesar's a tyrant. The bad kind. And there's no way we're letting him take Hoover Dam."
"Caesar brings chains. The Mojave is a land meant to be free. The desert is wild."
"I'm not letting it happen," Arcade agreed. "You're not letting it happen."
Courier Six left The Fort, and she left it with Silus in tow. They rode a raft back down to Cottonwood Cove, and then they had marched west to Wolfhorn. The courier's second stay at the ranch had been short, and she left Silus to dig in and clear the territory. The courier marked Six then traveled north, making her way to the glow of Vegas. She stopped off at Novac.
Six had suddenly found herself at a grand table, playing a hand larger than any she had been dealt before. It was big, certainly bigger than one woman's call for vengeance, and the stakes were the largest the Mojave could cash. It was a game waged between titans: one a two-headed bear, one a golden bull, one the face of Vegas, and the Mojave's daughter - a Devil they called Six, a girl the color of the desert's sprawl.
With the 1st Recon sniper clearing her path, Six hurried back to the lights of Freeside. The courier had a message to deliver, had to tell the doctor at the Old Mormon Fort what had been done on Fortification Hill. She had to tell Arcade what she had woken up below the slave army from the land of the rising sun, what it was that she had left thrumming beneath the Legion's feet - and what had to be done next.
"It’s called having a legacy.”
"Rising Sun Blues," Chapter 7
Chapter 8: The Things You Lose
Once I had a pretty little girl, I lose my baby, ain't that sad? Oh, you know, once I had a pretty little girl, I lose my baby, ain't that sad? Well, you know, you can't spend what you ain't got, You can't lose what you ain't never had. / Muddy Waters, “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had”
The sky had turned gray and gold. The violent burn of the southwest sun was subdued by a dark, November veil. It burned like a lantern behind heavy cotton and threatened the Mojave with the water the desert so desperately needed. She found it beautiful; a looming storm over the valley. She watched the heavy shade roll over the desert dust and asked Arcade, "Think it's rain?" The doctor had given a skeptic's glance skyward, replying, "No, just making promises it won't deliver."
In Westside, the three made a light meal from a vendor selling grilled gecko tacos. The charred meat had been ladled over with Mojave salsa and wrapped in warm pinyon tortilla. It was a sweet and spicy dish, and they ate while they walked.
The tumbleweed community was a hive of activity, lives struggled sunup to sunset outside the gates of Vegas. There were desperados blown in by the wind, and there were locals with roots born deep into the hard Mojave soil. There was a grocery owner from the gangster-run city of sin and a super mutant freed from slavery under the Republic. There was a pawn shop, a liquor store, an independent militia, a prostitution ring, and a fighting pit. There was much to see and Six had many questions.
The courier wanted to understand the lives skittering across the rippling dust of the desert; the never-ending quest to discover a missing piece of her puzzle. Would she discover something she had lost in this slum surviving beneath the shadow of House's great oasis? Six had thought she'd find the answers to who she had been under the glow of the neon Strip, but the girl had been disappointed. Perhaps her history hadn't lived under twinkling headliners. Perhaps her history had come from the dirt and the wind of the desert. Places like Westside.
Arcade took full advantage of the woman's attention. The doctor had a lot to say about the state of the people surviving on the outskirts of Vegas. It was a heavy contrast to Boone's ever-silent vigil at their back. While the NCR sniper remained taciturn, Arcade was eager to educate, and Six was happy to listen to the Follower of the Apocalypse narrate what was wrong with how power and resources were handled in the Mojave. It was like a dam had burst, and the doctor was spilling long withheld frustrations.
"It's a broken system," he had said. "It doesn't need a rocket scientist to make an educated guess about it. The rich get richer and the poor die. Sometimes very quickly, often rather nastily. And if anyone actually makes something of a life for themselves out here, well, they're lucky if somebody bigger doesn't come around to snatch it out of their hands."
"It's a mess," the courier had agreed, "but from what I've seen so far, it's a mess everywhere. The NCR talk about a broken government and a failed system back west - and everyone talks about what's wrong with the Four States to the east."
"Yes, it's true. Wherever big power grows, bigger problems accumulate with it. When you plant a garden, inevitably you grow weeds. Sometimes all anyone can do is pick the lesser of two evils and stick with it. But out here..." And then the doctor had met the courier's eyes.
"Look, I understand that it's easier to just shrug it all off. Big problems for bigger people, it makes sense, and hell, I believed the same most of my life. I was content to waste my time in fruitless research just to tell myself I was doing my part to help noble ideals. But that's not enough. What we've been doing isn't enough. We can do more. We have the means to help people, change things in very real ways. Imperium in imperio."
"But this is too big," Six had laughed, "How can we change it? We don't have the power to do that."
"But we do," Arcade had countered. "We're getting caught up in something important out here. Hell, after how you handled Benny, you're practically right in the middle of all this. You have a tyrant's coin, House's chip, and the Republic's appreciation. You hold more power than you realize, and I think it might be just enough to get us a seat at this table. And maybe, for once, we can tip the odds in the favor of those with no power. Maybe we'll be able to do some good, leave the desert a little bit better than the way we found it."
Six and Boone sit perched on the edge of scrap-welded ramparts, drinking agua frescas from paper cups and watching shafts of sunlight spill through the clouded canopy in golden showers across the valley. Behind, they can hear the sounds of the writhing community. Ahead, they can hear the sounds of the desert breathe.
Arcade had left the pair, making an excuse for seeing an old friend. Alone, the two riflemen sit together. Two rifles lay side-by-side at their backs. Two packs collapsed over the other where they've placed them. Two figures side-by-side but miles apart. After a while, it's the courier who deals swift death to their silence. Words were her trade, a nature never able to leave things well enough alone.
"What do you think, Boone?" the girl asks at length. She crumples up her empty cup and tosses it out into the dust. "You think we're right to do this?"
"Is this what you want to do?" is the sniper's calm reply.
Six thinks it over. She answers, "Yes. I think Arcade's right. I think we need to help, or at least try."
Boone nods. He places his empty cup down over the hot metal they sit over and he slowly flattens the paper out beneath his palm. "I get it. I felt the same way once. Signed up with a cause I told myself I believed in." Twin lenses flash back up, obscuring a gaze that searches over the cool sprawl of southwest soil. "I thought they were going to help. Make things better. Didn't turn out how I figured. Hurt a lot of people, got a lot of innocent folks killed along the way. You live with that weight, and it never gets any lighter. If you do this, win or lose, you need to be sure you can carry it."
Six watches the man. After a moment, he adds, "After a while gets you wondering if it isn't you out to bring harm."
The girl thinks she understands. She matches the man's stare, glaring out to the dark line of canyon crests. "Like a poison," she murmurs back.
They remain quiet for a while longer, and Six begins to think that the sniper has said his piece. The clouds are rolling east and the sun is winning back its hold over the valley. Sunrays pepper the golden dirt creating a kaleidoscope of shadow and light. Out over the cracked earth, the courier watches a lone coyote slinking along the brown wasteland.
"You do what you think you have to," Boone warns, "but be careful when you do it. We collect sins, and then the Devil comes to collect. He takes something back from you."
The woman turns, looks at the man looking out over the broken earth and she wonders what face he sees behind his eyelids when he blinks and tells her this. Wonders about the steady sniper and questions whether the steadiness is paid from a great weight over broad shoulders. Wonders if it's a cautionary trait; once bitten, twice shy.
The woman turns, looks at the man looking out over the broken earth. She wonders what the Devil can hope to collect from her when she has nothing, not even a name. She wonders how she can lose what she doesn’t have.
"What did it take from you, Boone?" she asks. The conversation dies there.
Without the Wolf of Whittaker Farm, the Fiends had taken back to marauding around the territories outside Vault 3. The trio watches a small gang of the strung-out junkies come charging. They were spotted by the raiders as they made tracks northeast across the empty stretch of barren cactus garden. The raiders are whooping and hollering, likely riding high and feeling a victory already secured. Six watches three faces explode out the back of their skulls as the 1st Recon sniper plants one bullet into each Fiend. The lone survivor takes off screaming, wiping the blood of his gang members from his eyes as he goes.
They make their way northeast, cutting between farmsteads and canyons. Arcade indicates a rise up to the foot of rocky slopes, and Six is able to catch her first glimpse of the safehouse. It's an inconspicuous little building nestled in the shade of towering canyon walls. A single wrought-iron emblem hangs over a wide front wall giving the only indication of who operates this shelter.
There's a problem, and they notice it the higher they climb up the pebble-lined slope. The front door has been blown wide open, the blue wreckage of it hangs brokenly off its hinges. When they enter the cool darkness of the safehouse, it's apparent that the retreat has been ransacked. A table has been thrown against a wall, two of the three beds have been tipped over, empty cans and broken bottles line the floor. There is a chaotic mess of debris scattered around.
Six shoulders her gun and shifts her pack to bend over and retrieve an object off the ground. From the corner of her eyes, she sees Arcade do the same. Boone is tightly coiled, his finger ghosts by the trigger of his rifle. The girl looks down at the empty bag she lifts in her hand. There is an echoing symbol of the emblem posted outside the building and a large "L" inscribed over the top left corner. She glances over to Arcade and catches the doctor sending her an identical look from across the room. In the man's hand, he holds two sticks of unused dynamite.
"That belongs to Doctor Luria," Arcade says to her.
"And those belong to Powder Gangers," Six responds back.
"The Things You Lose," Chapter 8
Chapter 9: Runnin'
An apology from the lunatic writing this story: I'm sorry for the confusion in the previous chapter. I love the Boomers. It's the Powder Gangers that try to make my days eruptive. Trying to stay five steps ahead, sometimes you trip up in your own tangle. It's been sorted. Thank you for your patience and following along for the read. c:
Well, there's two, there's two trains a'runnin', Ain't but one runnin' my way, Well now one runs at midnight, And the other runs at the break of day, At the break of day / James Cotton, "Two Trains Runnin'"
They picked their way south, following the evidence of the convicts' passing. They were lucky, the fugitives had a telltale choice of weaponry, and the evidence of their dynamite slinging made for a conspicuous trail to follow. It led the trio down into Fiend territory. West of Motor-Runner's hold, the charred earth, and the powder-blasted, sun-scorched remains were the first tangible traces of evidence Six had that they were on the right track.
The Gangers had gone west, avoiding patroling NCR and skipping around the worst of the raiders. The convicts had hugged the canyon, they had funneled down between Khan land and Fiend turf. It was a long stretch of drought-splintered earth, and if Six hadn't already known what the chain gang was making for, they would have lost the trail entirely. She did know. She had learned where the fugitives kept. All this time later, and the misfortune with Ringo at Goodsprings had turned out to be a fortune in the long making.
Later, it would be a lesson the girl would come to learn.
How one simple action could ripple across the wasteland.
Ripples like the heat of the Mojave sun, burning as it went.
A slow poison.
Six glares through a fine cloud of dust to the outline of the Quarry Junction. She knows that if the Gangers have made it south of Sloan, they'll be home free. She knows if they make it to the correctional facility, it would take nothing short of a full NCR platoon to get Luria back. The courier doesn't want to consider how long that would take, what could happen to the lady doctor locked in a prison crawling with violent, male inmates.
Doesn't matter, she tells herself. It's a pipe dream. The NCR can't even hold territories over which its flag flies, let alone lend squads of soldiers to the beck and call of a mail carrier. Certainly not for one doctor from a radical group of healers and educators.
It doesn't matter, she tells herself. The Powder Gangers never made it past Quarry Junction. There are shapes beyond the gusting of dirt. Six stares and beside her Boone lowers his rifle.
"Bodies," he says.
They trot out to the dead Powder Gangers. There are four of them total. Arcade crouches beside one. The convict stares skyward, eyes gone ghoulish like they'd burned out watching the sun cross the valley. Arcade takes up the man's arm carefully. The doctor looks to weigh the limb. After a moment, he lowers it back down to the parched soil.
"Maybe three days ago," the man comments. "Might be a little less. They've got a stretch on us."
He makes no comment about the manner of the fugitives' deaths. Doesn't spare a single word for the spear standing at full attention, like the stalk of a great flower blooming out of the dead man's chest. There are more of the same weapons scattered around. Every convict save one had met their end by the javelin. The last man... Six tries not to stare too long at his remains. The last one is nearly naked. The clothes and the flesh over his mangled body have been ripped away. She thinks about a toy bear being rent apart. She knows the dogs had been at him; there is one dead animal lying a yard away.
"We'll take whatever ammunition they left," the courier says after a moment. "Legion'll head back east."
Boone makes a movement. He's stiff, coiled, there's a different cadence to his breathing. The girl pretends not to notice.
"They'll make for the river," and she nods her head in the direction of Black Mountain. "They have slave pens at Cottonwood Cove."
Arcade looks grim, and Six realizes the doctor believes this is the end of their chase.
"How are we supposed to get her out of a Legion slave camp?"
Six stoops, gun jostling against her pack, and rips a pair of road goggles off a dead man's face. She slides them over her eyes. The wind whips against them and the dust begins to obscure what are freckles on the girl's wild face and what is just dirt.
"I have a plan."
Boone pulls her aside. She's running them east of Primm, doesn't want to take them far enough south to hit Nipton. They stand over the telling traces of a Legion rest camp and the sniper takes her to the side. Boone tells her, "I know the crossing we're headed to. If I go down there with you... I'm going down there to take out those bastards. Or die trying."
She watches the rifleman and she recalls a conversation held in Novac; guarded words under the shade of a giant pre-war monument. She hears the sniper and she recalls his warning in Westside, propped over a ledge listening to the breath of the desert. She watches Boone and she wants to ask, "What did the Devil take from you?"
She doesn't. Instead, Six says, "I understand, but today is about saving lives, not taking them." She tells Boone to head back to Novac, check in with Andy.
Much later, she'll realize that she's trying to save another life in the process.
There are pages yet to come and scars left to collect; miles yet to walk.
There will come a day she'll wonder whether she can save Boone.
Wolfhorn Ranch comes into view further along the road. It's identifiable by a pair of hills with a distinctive windmill twisting lazily above them. Arcade stops walking when the legionaire observing them from a patchwork bridge is spotted. He turns to the girl and is more outraged than surprised to find that Ruckus doesn't seem disturbed by the enemy watching their advance. It's obvious to the doctor that the courier is aware of the slaver, she's staring right at him.
"Wait, wait, wait a second," he stammers. The courier is digging in the denim pockets of her pants. She's pulling out a coin. "What's going on?" he demands, feeling more betrayed when he identifies the mint as Caesar's Mark. "That’s Legion over there. That’s a Legion officer. What's going on here?"
The man atop the ridge makes no move to attack them, but he makes no attempt at greeting them either. Even from the distance of a crumbled overpass at the foot of the farmstead's slope, the doctor can see the figure is tall, broad, and draped in the intimidating armor that Arcade understands is fashioned from the remains of defeated opponents. The doctor despises Caesar and his slave army, so naturally, he has dedicated time to learn about the enemy. Even without a helmet of crimson plumes, Arcade knows the armor signifies a soldier of consequence in their military.
This is enough to bring the doctor to a halt. It's enough to have him babbling at Ruckus - a child-faced wild card that he's still trying to get the full meaning of. It brings something dead and cold to rest along the bottom of his gut. It makes him feel anger towards himself, irritation that he hadn't imagined something like this coming from the nameless courier. Not for the first time does Arcade wonder if the girl is just spinning the great roulette wheel of the desert, waiting to see where her chances fall. Double down no matter the hand she gets dealt.
"Yes," she answers as soon as she has a grip on her coin. "He’s a centurion. His name is Silus. Caesar awarded him to me for services I rendered."
Despite how much he wants to give Ruckus the benefit of the doubt, Arcade is propelled a step back from her. Logically, he tells himself he should maybe hear this out. Emotionally, he's incredulous. There's a flare-up of emotions warring for dominance, and in the moment, logic has been burned back from the heat of it.
Arcade shakes his head in disbelief. He searches the girl's partially covered face and he thinks that the scar on her left forehead has had its last laugh, one bullet left inside to rattle her mind. It's shaped like a pale chasm against the tawny bronze of her skin, like a canyon splitting a line through the start of her shaggy hair, stretched across her crown over the goggles that mask stormy eyes.
"Well, we've had some laughs, you and I," he tells her, "but it looks like you're a crazy person and I'm going to have to leave."
She lunges for him, latching onto the doctor's right arm. Arcade knows he can shake her off but he doesn't immediately pull away. Now the girl is the one babbling, "Wait, hold on, just -- just give me a moment to explain --" and he finds himself hesitating. Desperation, he thinks. Desperate for any logical explanation. Desperation from the knowledge that he needs the courier, needs her if they hope to achieve any of the change they are striving for.
And he cares about her. Therein lies the crux.
Arcade can feel the self-depreciating corner of his mind pointing and laughing. The first time Ruckus had asked for his company, he'd rejected traveling with some wind-swept kid who called herself by a number. Now he can't seem to bring himself to abandon the girl, despite her sudden show of madness. So he slowly exhales, and he waits, and he listens.
She was out of sight inside the ranch for maybe ten minutes. It had felt like an afternoon. He waits under the shade of the broken overpass and tries not to think of all the ways this could go wrong. Arcade wants to be angrier with her, but he knows that he can't. Self-shame allows the man to allow the girl these secrets. After all, isn't he keeping his own from her? And despite it all, he can understand why she was reluctant to reveal the legionary. He understood her reluctance to expose the centurion she kept at a dusty ranch off the road over a stretch of nowhere.
He'd reacted poorly. Arcade didn't have to be a learned man to give an educated guess on how Boone would have handled it.
She had kept the doctor waiting under the overpass. She hadn't specified the reason, but Arcade could hazard several theories as to why; each one as probable as the next, and each one keeping him waiting on the girl with the bullet-kissed face.
When Ruckus finally emerges back out the single door, a narrow arm waving in his direction, Arcade takes it to signify that it's showtime. For a second, as he drags his feet over dust and through a dried-out corn patch, he wonders what she must have been telling the legionary. Just as quickly, Arcade dismisses his curiosity. As the doctor pads up a scrap-welded walkway, he decides that he doesn't really care. At all.
Inside the dim, one-room home, she introduces him as an agent of Caesar's will. He tries not to grimace, he really does. Arcade has no idea how convincing his expression comes off, but he suspects he's not a terribly enthusiastic liar. The centurion is staring at him and it's a look that has the medic's spine feeling as brittle as old brahmin cheese. He wants to look away - study the state of the rusty stove, or the battered lockers against the wall or the single bed tucked into a far corner. He wants to, but the room is spartan and Arcade is instinctually afraid to appear afraid.
Truthfully, he's just disgusted. Repulsed with the legionary, with himself, with the entire situation. The corner of Arcade's mind that had laughed at him earlier is laughing now. It reminds the doctor of the irony of a lifetime spent lying to everyone he's ever met about his own history. Capable in that only to now prove incapable of deceiving a man little better than a refashioned tribal.
"An agent of Caesar?" are the centurion's first words towards the doctor.
Arcade finds that he hates the legionaire's voice; the sneering edge in the centurion's words. He hates the slave soldier's imperialistic glower; the haughty skepticism in bright green eyes. Hates the way the officer holds his bulk like a self-smug, overbearing bully. He even hates the commander's armor, every strap of leather and every fold of crimson fabric. It's ridiculous that he should despise a boy, easily a decade his junior, as much as he does this legionaire.
When Arcade opens his mouth, answers back, "Semper Fidelis," he wants to vomit.
Arcade was unhappy; he followed at the back in sullen silence. Silus was unhappy; he led them in an arch south of Searchlight in cagey silence. Six had felt squeezed between the tension, but it was all worth it when they reached Cottonwood Cove.
Aurelius had actually descended from his overlook to confront Silus. The two centurions were kept occupied in taut conversation as the courier led Arcade to the slave pen. Doctor Luria was huddled quietly in the spacious cage, a solitary and despondent figure. Whatever she had been wearing before, it had been replaced with standard slave garb.
Arcade greeted Canyon Runner with a smile that Six identified as more of a grimace. The doctor had raised a limp hand with an equally lackluster, "Ave, mi amice," and then Six had left the Follower alone to handle the rest of the charade; the courier had moved to intercept Severus. The decanus had noticed the distinct arrival of the second centurion. He approached the woman with Caesar's Mark and Six had distracted the man by dangling NCR dog tags from her wrist. He'd been satisfied with the girl's collection, had escorted her to his tent to pay her for each silver badge of the NCR military, had assumed the courier had killed the men herself. That the tags had been claimed off feral soldiers hadn't been a matter to concern the decanus with.
After Arcade had rejoined her with Luria in tow and a paper bearing Canyon Runner's mark, they left Cottonwood Cove as quickly had they had arrived. Six hadn't been sure how much more the doctor could have endured. It was bad enough that they had waited for the centurion to rejoin them below the decomposing bodies of crucified men and women. Poles strung up with the same strange fruit for crows as Six had seen at Nipton. Bodies lashed high along the cracked road that would see them headed back west.
Later, safely back at Wolfhorn Ranch, she pulls Arcade away. She smiles and asks, "What did you tell them?"
The doctor shrugs, tells her, "They have almost no medical knowledge. I told them that Luria is your healer but that she's sick. I made up a disease and the slaver believed me. Sold her back to us for almost nothing."
She laughs but Arcade does not smile. The courier's amusement is lost on the medic. There are images haunting his mind, decomposing faces lined up along a sprawling highway.
"That place has to be cleared," the man says at last. The laughter quiets a little.
"They'll eventually be gone," Six reassures him. "When their army pulls out and goes back east, that cove will be emptied."
"What are you doing?"
It's a sudden shift in tone and Six reels with it.
"You can't really be that naive. You must realize that you can't keep that centurion. What do you think he'll do when he finds out the truth?"
Six feels chastised, and she knows Arcade despises Silus and stands against everything the Legion brings, but she feels an old heat defiantly flare before the doctor's criticism.
"You have more in common with him than you might think," and Arcade openly scoffs at her remark. "You want something different, well, so does he. He hasn’t recognized it yet, but I think if I give him some time, I think that he will."
"Right," is the doctor's voiced doubt. "And what happens if he doesn't? He'll kill you, you must know that."
Six ignores Arcade's grim warning, asking instead, "What do you imagine the NCR would have done with him, at the end?"
"An educated guess? Execution. Not that he doesn't deserve one... or several."
"Well whatever the NCR would sentence him to, it would be a kindness in comparison to what the Legion would pick. See, east or west, it doesn’t matter. Silus has no future in either direction."
"So what are you saying? That the Mojave is a safe haven for him? Or are you suggesting that we'll make it safe for him - a slaving murderer killing for a megalomaniac tyrant?"
"No," the girl answers at length, "we're not going to make it safe for him. We're going to make it safe for us all. For him, for you, for me. The Bear and the Bull, they’re trying to claim what cannot be claimed, own something that cannot be owned. Each side brings its own chains, but if I have any play, the Mojave is going to stay free. We agreed to it."
Arcade watches the girl, wishes he could shoot what he knows and what he foresees into her brain. Two shots to the head, like the bullets Benny drilled into her skull. He wants to wrap his hands around the courier and rattle her until the slug churns sense behind those cloud-colored eyes. He feels helpless, like a man watching two trains charging down a single track, each headed for the other, but miles apart. Too far away to see the disaster waiting for them where they will meet.
Arcade shakes his head. All he can do is ask, "Do you know what you're doing?"
She smiles. To the doctor, it doesn't look happy. "I'm doing what you want. I'm playing the game. It's a legacy, Arcade. It's something inherited in blood. I'm playing it for keeps." After a moment she adds, "I'm just aiming to keep a lot."
One day she'd look back at the moment and she'd laugh at the pipe dream.
She'd eventually come to learn that when you're poison, you end up killing most things you touch.
"Runnin'," Chapter 9
Chapter 10: Right to Trust
I have a right to trust my baby, She always looks out for me, I have a right to trust my baby, She always looks out for me, But that sweet woman, ooh, is so good to me / Sonny Boy Williamson, "Trust My Baby"
When first they had arrived back at Wolfhorn, they had spotted the raider too late for the advantage. The ranch had the higher ground, and the marauder had the first sight of the group marching in from the east. The swollen hills and deep ravines around the farmstead were dotted with raider groups, primarily Vipers. They figured the woman to be one of the wild gunslingers of the valley. The bandit hadn't wasted any time in barricading herself inside the single home.
Within the ranch house, the woman had figured that she held the upper hand. Stretched over the perimeter barricades of the farm, the hides of two coyotes had been salted and left out to dry. Inside the busted stove, smoked strips of coyote meat had been stored. Empty milk bottles had been filled with purified water and lined over the rusted shelving in the single room. A tin can of baked beans had been cleaned and filled with prudently saved denarius coins. It may not have been a proper Legion camp, but Silus had left the subtle touch of the Bull strewn about.
The most important advantage at the solitary gunslinger's disposal had been what Silus had stored away inside the two warped and dented lockers - the guns and the ammunition of the dead raiders the centurion had already cleared from the surrounding landscape. As the party had flanked the building and Arcade tried cautiously nudging the door open, bullets had peppered the walls of the shack, bringing all four people outside ducking away.
"Come on, motherfuckers," the Viper had screamed, "come on in and try your fucking luck!"
Undaunted, Silus had marched on the homestead, spurred forward by the brazen challenge. He took his ax in hand. Six had pulled loose her service rifle and rushed to cover the legionaire. Behind her, she had felt Arcade fall in line to shadow. In single file, they advanced to the door. Bullets ripped new holes in the walls and Six heard the ping of several graze off the centurion's heavy armor. The doorway was wrenched open and all three had charged in, following the officer's lead.
It happened quickly.
Semi-automatic gunfire erupted in an ear-splitting raucous. In the dim of the interior, the muzzle flash had come in blinding bursts. Explosive light reflected in flashes from armored spikes. Silus raged across the room. Six had scurried from behind the billowing of the legionary's crimson cloak. The raider had been backpedaling towards the far wall. The helmeted centurion stormed at her with the fire axe arching back over an armored shoulder. Six had fired, bullets racing from the end of her weapon. Blood sprayed against the wall. The woman in metal armor stumbled against the side of the house. In the frenzy of the moment, the courier hadn't been able to distinguish the raider's emotion. Six hadn't been able to settle on whether it had been fear or fury stretched over the Viper's face. The gunslinger's lips had been bared back and her eyes had burned wild like a pair of coals. The ax swung down through the leather of the raider's chest.
The weapon lodging into the woman's torso had sounded strangely similar to the sharp hack of wood - just wetter, more brittle. Silus used a boot to kick the crumpled body free. The centurion had wanted to string up the corpse to the outer walls of the ranch, but Six hadn't allowed it. The legionaire had settled on dumping the body north of the grounds, just close enough to the farm to entice skittish coyotes within range of their rifles.
It would be the last thought Six would have of the dead Viper for days.
The first touch that Six gave to Wolfhorn Ranch was under the humble heat of a heavily fall afternoon. Together, the courier and Arcade worked to clean out the forlorn water trough in the broken-down livestock shed. The stone basin was old, the porous surface weathered down to a soft grind. The two had cleared out the forgotten shamble and had re-fashioned the haphazard spill of tin sheets into modest walls. Hauling bucket loads of water from the pump, they had eventually filled the trough into a rough tub.
In the few days Luria had spent as a hostage of the Powder Gangers, the woman had been subjected to the kind of humiliation and abuse that Six had hoped against. The convicts had arrived by surprise at the Follower's safehouse looking to loot drugs and supplies. The itinerary doctor had simply been at the holdout on the wrong day at the wrong time.
It was to be the first step in a slow process towards total recovery, but a rough bath and the promise of new clothes had been the best Six could do for the other woman.
Despite the flamboyant show and substantial coverage of the centurion's gear, bullets from the Viper's barrage had still wormed their way past Silus' armor. While Luria fussed and Arcade griped over tending to the legionary, Six had busied herself adding a second touch to Wolfhorn. She had done so by hauling up an empty crate of Sarsparilla to the lookout post and confiscating the single lantern from the front of the house to place atop the beverage box. The courier carried the sleeping roll that she and Veronica had brought to Whittaker Farm for Silus and laid it out over the wooden floorboards. As a final touch, the girl had rifled through Arcade's belongings until she found a book that had looked promising. There had been no cover, long lost to the ages, but the tattered first page read back, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers." This, she had left beside the lantern.
With the two medics and the one mailman lingering at the ranch, Silus had been evicted from the house back to the guardpost atop the ridge. In spite of the centurion's willingness to accompany them to Cottonwood Cove, and his indisputable worth in dispatching a raider from the farm, neither one of the doctors trusted the Legion officer within the shared quarters. Silus had sneered but had neither appeared shocked nor had he attempted to challenge the decision.
It was to be the first step in a slow process towards mutual trust, but a comfortable nest left for the legionary had been the best Six could do to show her appreciation for the centurion's help.
The courier marked Six is not a stationary creature. She is as windswept as a tumbleweed over the barren dust of the Mojave basin. Domestic life was for those who could place down roots, and the wandering soul has none to grow. She cannot stay still; there are too many miles to walk and a spirit that cannot leave things well enough alone.
The centurion of Caesar's Legion is no better a domestic animal. In the days that Six had left the legionaire at Wolfhorn while she worked seditiously under the gaudy lights and within the gaudy houses of Vegas, the garden had passed. To keep the ranch fed, the pair rises with the sun and flushes out game from the desert.
The rolling landscape stretches out in every direction. The golden dawn spills shafts of the Mojave's warm touch across the melting chill of the barren night. They watch bighorners lazily plod along sparse patches of summer-seared brush. They watch a family of nighstalkers silently padding through the gully of a yawning ravine. The delicate pink of yucca plants speckle the hillsides, broken occasionally by the dainty gold of barrel cactus. The girl watches Mesquite trees rustle like windchimes, and she listens to the whispers of the valley.
"The desert," she breathes after a while, "there's nothing more beautiful than the desert."
There's a stretch of quiet and Silus startles the girl by replying, "I've seen prettier things. I've campaigned in Sedona." Then he raises an arm and points out over the spill of desert dirt. "There's our kill. Move yourself."
Over the dusty stretch of bleached Mojave brown, they spot the movement of molerats emerging from their warrens. The scuttling beasts snuffle and snort into the sand, shaking off hairless hides from the stiffness of their cramped tunnels. They make easy shots. Six puts a bloody hole through the boiler room of a hefty rat and watches the creature lurch wildly, frothing cherry red at the snout before buckling over into the dirt. Skinning and carving the animal isn't as easy. With no experience, Six stands aside and watches the centurion knife their prize. The legionary is efficient, and the blade guts the kill like the knife is dancing of its own accord.
Silus nearly has the rat gutted as quickly as Six has her attention diverted. In the blossoming light of the morning, a shimmer catches the courier's attention. Back towards the direction of Wolfhorn, over the tumble of the valley north of the ranch, something over the tawny brown is reflecting out at her. When she squints through Trudy's old binoculars, Six makes out a body lying out on a rolling slope.
The familiar itch pricks against the broken edges of her skull. A twitch in her heel has her sliding down the hill, leaving Silus to finish with trussing up breakfast. The insatiable urge to move, to see, to never leave things to be, has Six skittering across the distance.
There's a man lying prone over the desert dirt before the crest of a plunging ridge. A pistol has been dropped by his right hand. In the Mojave dust, it glitters back the morning light. The man's shirt is stained with a bloom of bright red over the chest. It's undeniable that the stranger had run in a raider gang. Straps of studded leather and a snake emblem over his right shoulder marks the departed as a Viper. A steep cropping of boulders shade this corner of the land, and the sun has yet to properly light this patch of desert soil, but even in the shadow, she can make out the sigil.
Six kneels down, tosses her rifle over her shoulder and digs through the raider's pockets. She feels loose casings and a small tin. She pulls out a thin box of Mentats and realizes that she smells smoke. It takes her a moment to pinpoint the direction of the odor, figures that it's a pit located under the deepest pooling of shade at the base of the outcropping. She stares and thinks that she can make out the shifting of smoke. She turns back to the case of chems and her blood turns to ice. The raider is grinning up at her; it's a nasty baring of tinted teeth.
A hand flies up and snatches the girl's arm. "You killed her."
Six screams and goes to jump away, to put distance enough between them so she can use her gun, but the man's other hand swings forward and plants a fist into her face. The courier's head rocks back and forth. She's dazed. The sound of boots madly crunching over loose pebbles and sand brings her bloody face to twist around. She thinks she'll see Silus. She sees a second stranger, and then the raider pistol whips her and Six only sees black.
She doesn't know how long she's been stunned, but it's the constant, violent tugging that has her coming to. It takes the man finally wrenching her pants off to make Six aware of what's happening. She feels confused, disoriented, and the earth below her feels like it's heaving. The sky is rocking left and right, and then the girl becomes aware that her jacket is being ripped away.
The Viper who clocked her stands by her bare feet. He's throwing her pants over his shoulder, mouthing words to the figure crouched by her head. She can't make them out, her head is ringing too terribly. The hunched raider is glowering down at the logo painted over the leather jacket. He's mouthing the Kings to himself. She realizes that she can't see out of her left eye about the time the Viper's words finally catch and stick.
"...and slow for what they did. Fuck with us... well, now we fuck with you."
The raider was stumbling down over the girl, leering and huffing like a dog in heat. Nothing human smelled very pretty in a wasteland, but the closer the sweating man drew, the more pungent his odor became. The courier's dizzy gaze steadied just enough that she could focus on the heavy bulge in his leather pants. As the
spoiler came within striking distance, Six lashed out with one strong leg, planting her foot right into the prick's swollen groin.
There was a howling of pain and an echoing howl of laughter by her head. As her assailant danced away, clutching tenderly at his aching sack, the man still holding her jacket waved a finger over her bloody nose.
"No, now you done and got him pissed, kid," he chastised. "He already wants you dead fo' what you did to his woman. He gonna fuck you bloody now, girlie. Shoulda just taken it the easy way."
Six thinks about the raider they'd killed days ago. She thinks about a body left north of the ranch. A corpse left out in the sun for the animals. She tries to scramble, to get up and run, but the furious rapist is already back and brings the heel of his boot down into the girl's gut. All the wind in the desert is flattened out of her body. Six feels paralyzed; she can't even scream. She can barely pay attention as the Viper pulls out his pistol, the one that had lured her out in the first place. He aims it at her offending ankle.
"Bitch," he spits out at her, "see how well you can do that fucking shit again missing your goddamn foot."
Buckshot cracks the air in half with the bellow of thunder and the gunman's arm swings like a windmill from the junction of his elbow. The pistol goes flying out of Six's sight in a spray of red mist and the sky vibrates with a shrill squealing. The second raider drops the courier's jacket, launches to his feet just in time for Silus to slide further down the embankment and hurl his knife with trained precision. There's a wet bawl as the blade sinks to the handle in the raider's chest. The man staggers, and a second bellow from the shotgun knocks the dying bandit straight off his feet and into a cloud of loose dust.
It takes a while for the courier to process what's happened, but when she does, Silus has already approached close enough to knock the nearly-amputated raider into the dirt. The girl doesn't try to focus on the sounds of the centurion boot-stomping the man to death. She spends all her energy trying to coax her lungs into breathing again. After a great effort, she manages one painful, shaking gasp. She manages another. When she gets a steady rhythm going, she notices the legionaire standing over her, watching.
Six looks up at Silus through her one good eye. The Legion soldier makes no motion to assist her. He holds his shotgun pointed towards the dirt. He glowers down at her and it's a withering stare. The girl feels reproached, shrivels under the heat of the centurion's belittling glare. She feels vulnerable and exposed. She's humiliated. It's a miserable position.
When the officer's boot twists in her direction, the girl flinches. He doesn't make another move towards her, but instead demands, "Do we do Caesar's will?"
Six nods dumbly. She feels like she's trying to relearn how to talk.
"When?" Silus presses.
The courier's one good eye strains to find the bodies of the dead raiders. She locates the heavy lumps of them splayed out over the ground. She stares at their leather-clad corpses for a moment, just for the confirmation, before her head falls back flat and her voice croaks out, "Tomorrow. We go tomorrow."
"If you are lying, profligate," the centurion warns, "I'll make it feel like what these degenerates had planned for you was a gentle mercy."
There's not a lot of venom in the man's words. Not the same hatred that had burned so hotly at Whittaker, at Camp McCarran. Even still, when the slave soldier shifts to draw closer, Six cringes away. Silus pauses and turns his attention to the grounds around them. As if on a second thought, the man swivels about and collects the girl's articles off the ground. He throws them in a pile over her chest and then he reclaims her rifle.
"Get dressed, fool, before I leave you here for the coyotes."
"I should be going with you," Arcade says once more as he sticks Six in the arm. He looks at the girl's discolored face and tries to smile. "Well, at least they didn't crack your head open. Don't know how many more holes that thing can take," and he stashes the used Stim back into his pack.
"You think I look bad," the courier jokes, "you should see the other guys."
Arcade tries to look encouraging but he's too concerned to pull it off.
"Ruckus, are you sure about this?"
Six shrugs and then she pats the medic's arm.
"It'll be fine. Really. Besides, somebody's gotta get Luria back in one piece."
The lady doctor smiles softly. "It's not much further to Freeside," Luria comments while shifting her pack over her shoulders. She's dressed in the looted garments from the dead raiders, and while they're ill-fitting clothes, they're at least better than the slave garb.
Arcade presses another Stimpack and a pencil case into the courier's hands.
"Take this by the afternoon. The Med-X you can take as you need them."
Six thanks the doctor and then the pair stands in an awkward silence. The courier does her best to appear casual. Arcade's facade is less steady. The man lowers his head and rubs tiredly at the bridge of his nose, knocking his dark-framed glasses up towards his brows.
"Look," he says slowly, "if I don't hear from you after three days - that Eyebot, er, robot, whatever that thing is that you left with April - I'm going to send it after you."
Six actually laughs, amused by the length of her friend's concern. "How are you gonna do that?"
The doctor waves her off. "Don't worry about it. I'll think up something. I just want to hear back from you. Okay?"
Courier Six takes in Arcade Gannon. After a moment, she nods.
He watches Ruckus meet Silus out on the fork in the roadway. Both figures are laden with heavy packs; one short and narrow and the other less terrible-looking without the overbearing armor of the Legion. If Arcade didn't know better of the other man, he'd have passed the glowering figure off as merely some rancid hired gun.
The doctor watches both leather-clad bodies march northeast towards Boomer land until the shapes are swallowed alive by the rippling hide of the Mojave. After a while, when he's satisfied that they're both out of sight and beyond anything he can do to stop them, Arcade turns to Luria and both Followers begin their hike towards the glowing gates of Vegas.
"Right to Trust," Chapter 10
Chapter 11: Night Before
Apologies for the late updates, the holidays keep me very busy. I hope this longer chapter will somewhat make up for the wait. Merry Christmas! (:
You know, I'm motherless and I'm fatherless, sister and I am brotherless, too, That's the reason I been beggin' and pleadin' so hard, baby, to try to get along wit' you / Skip James, “My Own Blues”
In the red-tented fort on the hill across the Colorado, First Praetorian Lucius had tasked the woman with facilitating repair of the Legion's single Howizter gun. It was a massive weapon, and the potential for what it could unleash on NCR snipers and Rangers had set the woman's mind against ever seeing it in operation.
She thought on sandy tents. A canvas-covered messroom. A unit of riflemen that had welcomed her company, and genial Gorobets who had taken her under the wing. She remembered desert lessons from Sterling and marksman drilling with Betsy; humble 10 of Spades and choleric Bitter Root. Most of all, she thought of Boone.
At the time, she had told herself, "Never by my own hand." Never would she raze what she held close to the heart. She had told herself that it was enough to sacrifice one good life for the freedom of another. She was playing the game for keeps. Never would she extinguish what she cherished.
At the time, the girl did not recall that she already had.
A venomous root; toxic as the dry creosote bush.
She did not yet realize that she was poison.
In the airfield's hangar, in one small storage room where they had been permitted to stay, the courier and the centurion roll out their sleeping bags and set themselves up for the night. It's become disciplined routine at this point, and both work through the movements silently. Weapons are placed on the ground for maintenance. Ammunition is stacked for inventory. Food items are carded through. Medical items set aside for use. It's almost as if they were camping on the trail, only there is no need to patrol the vicinity, set up a watch, or build a fire.
Camping just off a crumbled highway, Six had grown adept at assisting in the removal of the bulk of Silus' legionary armor. The officer had instructed her in the practice like she'd been a recruit stationed in just another contubernium. For her part, the girl had learned quickly. With the centurion now dressed like any other dissolute of the wastes, there was no armor to toil with. Instead of prying loose the leather straps of metal gear, Six has Silus pry loose his jacket. The centurion next removes his shirt while the courier prepares healing powder and bottles of water.
She takes a small burlap pouch in hand and settles on the floor in front of the officer. She's chewing on the end of a strip of dried gecko they had packed as she begins the process of unraveling the bandages Luria had fixed. She works with the novitiate skill that she had picked up from her week spent learning under Siri. She peels back the fabric rolls and piles the wrappings to her side for washing.
The physical signs of the trauma Silus had endured at Caesar's order have nearly faded out of sight and memory. Over the heavy swells of muscle, a few faint scars from the worst of it can barely be noticed. They do little to stand out against the more prominent and significantly older marrings scattered over the rippling of the centurion's torso. Legion training, Legion skirmishes, Legion punishment - it's the brutal touch of the Bull.
Marveling over how many bullet holes a slave soldier could collect in a lifetime had lost its novelty back at Fortification Hill. Six goes straight to work rinsing her hands and flushing water over the newest additions the Viper had given the centurion at Wolfhorn. It takes mere moments and a single rag to pat the few bleedy patches dry. She preps her pouch of healing powder as Silus digs into his pack. Though now a defect in the army he's enslaved under, the legionary still maintains the Bull's strong aversion to chems. As the officer tears at a strip of jerky, Six gingerly packs the powder over each hole.
She's down to the last shot in the centurion's side when she suddenly looks up and asks, "Does it feel strange?"
Silus is staring across the room, chewing absently, and his gaze seems miles away. For a second, Six wonders where he's gone. She wonders if it's somewhere back east, over a red-painted landscape and a brazenly gold sun. But when the girl speaks, the legionary is instantly back in the small and dim-lit closet, surrounded by metal parts and the smell of oil and rusted hardware over a copper tang and the day's sweat.
She watches him and thinks his nose is too broad and his face is a little long. His hair has grown down below his jawline and hangs in limp, greasy strands. He keeps dark locks of it pushed back behind his ears, away from his pale face, away from eyes that pierce with how bright and keenly they stare down at her.
The centurion scoffs and remarks, "These? These are nothing. You dissolute truly have no comprehension of what it means to survive Legion training."
"I didn't mean those," Six corrects. "I meant more to ask if it feels very strange, you know, to be following a woman's lead. To travel this freely in opposition's territory. To live as your own master out here." She dusts off her hands and closes the burlap pouch with a tug. "It's probably a stupid question. I'm sure it feels very strange. It's just," and she looks up from fussing with a new roll of bandages, "I just care to hear your thoughts. You're the only legionaire I can trust out here, and I just want you to know that you can speak freely with me."
Silus watches her. His gaze is narrow and skeptical.
In a canvas-covered mess hall, she had idled long hours grinding root and flower for Siri and the women slaves. She had shied away from investigating most of Fortification Hill, but much of the Legion camp passed through the crimson tent. The boy from a burning town of burning corpses, the boy who had stood in serene silence beside a blood-toned throne, she had found herself before him yet again.
Without the grimace of wolfish fangs crowning his brow, the man had been made plain to Six. He was young, and again the girl wondered if he was younger than herself. Boys of the Legion became men very early, and they died even earlier. Vulpes Inculta noticed the girl with the grinding block and had set his course for her. Sharp eyes had replaced the coyote's sharp maw, and they had settled over Courier Six in their vivid fascination.
"In the folds of flaming Nipton and now within the folds of Caesar's camp," the frumentarius had mused aloud when he came to stand before the girl with the Mark. "I'm not fool enough to allow myself to believe that the lesson taught has reconditioned your western mindset. Tell me, did you spread our word?"
The tasks of the day had been utterly forgotten under Inculta's piercing fixation. Six had answered, "Yes."
"Yes, you did," Vulpes acknowledged slowly in his delicate, barbed-wire pitch. "So have I already gathered. Though you had been instructed, I hadn't spared much faith in your accomplishing the chore. Once out from under our shadow, there was no threat to hold you accountable to your word. I want you to tell me why you chose to teach the lesson."
"You want to know?" the courier had asked.
At the time, she didn't understand why she'd said it, but she had replied with the truth in unflinching resolve. Perhaps it had been the frumentarius. Perhaps it had been something in his voice; soft like worn leather, sharp like the glimmering edge of a well-polished blade. Maybe it had been something in the young man's gaze; eyes serrated and hungry, the only trait of his that gave away the blood-lusting animal beneath the serene disguise.
"I taught them the lesson they needed to learn," she had answered. "I told them what happens when people don't stick together against a common enemy. What happens when you let greed into the henhouse like a fox. I didn't do it to demoralize them. I did it so maybe one less township would be split apart and burned like firewood at your hands."
To the girl's surprise (and relief), the frumentarius had smiled. It was narrow and more intrigued than pleased.
"Then you see their sins and you hope to teach them virtue instead. Perhaps you are not so very unlike the Legion in that aim."
"I'll admit," the girl had granted softly, "that what the Legion preaches is something I don't have a lot of first-hand with."
"You seek to understand Caesar's Legion?"
"I have little pictures of it," Six admitted. "You kill people - in bad ways - and you enslave lives so they can die for your god. You use children and you destroy entire cultures. Anyone west of the dam could tell me this, and they have. But then I hear things from people who've walked lands east of the river. I hear about stretches of territory safe enough to travel alone. I hear about order and protection and lives going on living as usual... and it's like two different stories and I don't understand how they belong on the same page."
The boy with the bright blue eyes had shifted, his weight slanting to the opposite side. His cropped head had tilted almost lazily, and at the time, it had reminded Six of the way the old would tell stories to the young, passing on history in the fashion of the wastes. Once lost, always forgotten. Burned out of memories like a second nuclear cleansing.
“You don’t understand because you did not see what we were before Caesar," Vulpes had begun in his fascinating drawl. "Petty, squabbling tribes. No purpose and no future. Surviving like primitive ghosts in the shadows of a greater world. What Caesar brought to us was salvation, a salvation with cause and virtue. He made us strong where we were weak. He brought order where there was only chaos. He brought stability where before there had been nothing but a rising and flagging tide of tribes. He brought it through blood and fear because these were the only common dialects our savage origins understood equally.
Caesar took men of different tongues and taught them to speak in the language of the civilized world. We learned to read, to write, to even articulate in the chosen Latin of Mars. The tribes had used sticks and stones to kill and conquer their lessers, it was Caesar who brought the hard and sharpened head of a spear to fashion a true weapon from those slovenly wastes. To take men of no means and to shape them into such a weapon as he has now...
No, you wouldn’t understand. All you’ve known is the glitter of your desert oasis or the greed-driven industry of the avaricious two-headed bear. If you were to ask any man or woman who lived in the Red States before the Legion, if you were to ask them what the Legion brought to that land, they would tell you: Peace.”
Silus watches her. His gaze is narrow and skeptical. He doesn't understand this woman of the dissolute Vegas desert. He cannot fathom what drove her actions at McCarran, what drove her to cross the Colorado and face the men of the Legion. He'd campaigned for hard years against the tribes of the West, and yet not once had a single profligate come to seek out the soldiers of the red and gold standard. The degenerates across the river were opposed to everything Legion laws commanded. Yet here was one who had come bearing Caesar's Mark, and it was a woman at that.
He had entertained long isolated weeks of reflection and speculation, but still Silus could not settle on the courier's aim. Nothing about the female's demeanor suggested humble subservience was her objective. A woman's role in the Legion did not fit this wild-eyed wastrel, and Silus would not believe it for a minute after traveling as long as he has in her company.
He had entertained the notion that the girl was nothing more than a degenerate spy of the Republic, but it was an unsteady opinion. If she was, it did nothing to explain her fixation with him. Why she would go to such lengths to smuggle him out of captivity. Why she would allow him to kill NCR soldiers to reclaim freedom from the Bear. Why she would so brazenly negotiate his service from a ruler who demanded that he die. If she had been a Republic dog, then why would she need to hide him away from the NCR. Why would she keep him isolated to some dusty farm beyond the reach of the Bear and easy notice of the Bull.
And if the girl was truly of the Legion, then she would have watched Gallus and Felix beat him to death in the dust of the arena. She would not have intervened. She would not have bargained for his life. She would have watched a just end come to a failed legionary and that would have been the end of it.
He doesn't understand what the girl is after. He doesn't understand what she wants from him, and it frustrates Silus. He voices his irritation when he demands to know, "What do you want from me?"
"Peace?" she had echoed. "If peace was really what you brought to the East, then why does every Legion slave know freedom only through death? From your legate to the girl who tends the brahmin. None of you will ever be free, none of you know anything beyond service through war. How can you say that what you brought was peace?"
"In the red lands," had been Inculta's slow and even reply, "there are many monuments that remind us of these lessons. Ghosts now, living on only to serve the purpose of strengthening our resolve, to whet our blades. In Black Mesa, a dozen different tribes had a dozen different ways of living. They all fought for resources and territory in a dozen different fashions. Squabbles, bickering. One tribe scalped their conquered, another ate of their flesh. Weak tribes existed by hiding from the wolves like rabbits. These tribes, their names, and their traditions were burned to ashes. What was forged in those flames was one more hardened spear of the Legion. Order from chaos.
In Two Sun, you had an industry of hedonism and corruption. Whores and drugs and perversions of every style. Degenerates practicing extortion and marauding. Lives already dead and wasted. When the Legion marched south, the death simply became more absolute. Below the banner of the Golden Bull, the city was reformed under a new standard: Honestas, Industria, Prudentia. Paid for and protected in Legion blood."
The girl had nothing to say. She sat in silence, wondering about ghosts whose blood stained the deep canyon walls to their bright crimson glory. Names and places that might have meant something more to her had she ever lived east of the Colorado. Or if she remembered it.
“Your reckless lifestyle in the West," Vulpes had reflected. "Selfless devotion is an unfamiliar beast. You see sacrifice and it terrifies you; the idea that you should give of yourself and receive nothing in return. You see chains and you spook away like a wild animal. Perhaps our chains, our collars, are more physical than what the West uses. But make no mistake, the Bear keeps its own slaves and it keeps its own bonds. When it kills, it does so on soft paws. You cannot hear it coming until the beast of it is already upon you. No warning until you are already within its jaws.
You believe yourself free, but under each flag, you are a slave to the will of a Master. I serve and obey the greater good of all, not simply the greater good of a few. The Legion will purify your Vegas, and it will have the army it needs to raise the city up to standard. The desert will be cleansed. Pax per bellum.”
He's staring down at her, waiting for her answer. He's grown tolerant of her since Whittaker Farm. He's become more patient since Wolfhorn and utilitarian since The Fort. She watches his face watching hers and she thinks about his question.
"I need your help," she answers at last, "and I want your trust. How can I get you to trust me?"
The centurion's face twists and the girl realizes just how very bright and green his eyes are. She thinks that they're beautiful.
"Why did you let the NCR take you prisoner?" she asks.
Silus is irritated, but he replies, "I already told you."
"You still believe in the Legion? In its creed and purpose?" she presses.
Silus sniffs. "Of course. Don't let my choices fool you into believing me corrupted."
"No," she acknowledges, "they don't. They've told me something else. They've told me that we're the same." When the legionary's face wrinkles doubtfully, Six adds, "Maybe different animals, but the same instincts. We both believe in something better, working towards a greater good, and we both have seen that gods aren't infallible. You've seen it and so have I."
Silus says nothing. He sits and his eyes have lowered down to the bend in his knees. He doesn't look so contrite as contemplative. He listens as the girl goes on.
"The West doesn't believe what the Legion follows. They don't want it, they can't understand it. It goes against their nature. Thesis and antithesis. I know what the West believes and I understand it. I don't want it, I can't use it. Not here. It's just more of the same, more of what Vegas already has. I need something different, new blood for the desert. Do you understand?"
Silus looks up. He doesn't say anything.
"Of the Legion, you're the first I've seen stand against the religion they burn into you at inception. You didn't lose your faith in the ideal, you just know the same thing that I do: that there are no gods, there is only Man. And any man, no matter how much power he keeps for himself, no matter what kingdom he takes for his own, can be killed. It is legacy that outlives us all."
There's a small, desert-bronze hand hovering in the space between them.
"I'm not going to command you, Silus. I don't own you. I'm not your Caesar. I'm asking you, as an equal, for your help."
“We have utilized women as agents of the Legion," the frumentarius had admitted, "but it is unheard of for Caesar to sanction a woman’s service in the fashion that he has with you. It is also unheard of to grant any pardon for any failed legionary, from recruit to legate.” Cold eyes bore curiously into the courier. "Tell me, what value is it that you find in the disgraced centurion?"
It was a question that she hadn't expected, one she hadn't been prepared for, but it was one she had answered before. It had been answered in a different place, under the sparkle of neon lights that outshined the stars, and it had been with a different man. Night and day differences, in more than just words.
She had told Arcade Gannon, "Because we’re the same. If I can tolerate his failures where Legion would not, then he can tolerate my differences where the Legion would not.” It was what she had told Vulpes Inculta.
"Then in these singular exceptions," the cunning boy had mused, "you and the centurion Silus are one in the same."
"Why?" he asks.
Silus ignores the small hand stretched out for him. He does not take it. His eyes search the face searching his own. The recession of the swelling from Wolfhorn gives the centurion a view of two dark, smoky eyes. A bronze face dusted with freckles through fading discoloration. A scar that splits a pale canyon through dark, shaggy hair.
He watches her and thinks her breasts are too small and her face is a little plain. Her hair has grown since McCarran and the wild jumble of it shows him that the girl has curls. Dark ringlets of it hang loosely by her ears, above her dusky face, away from eyes that pierce with how wide and keenly they stare up at him.
The girl's hand drops away as she responds, "There are good people out here. Hard working lives toiling just to see the end of the next day ahead of them. But they seldom get ahead, and they don't rise above anyone who can outbid them. I see lots of good people, but everyone's divided. They only worry about their own because they often barely manage to hold onto what little that is.
I see money and bureaucracy ruling everything kept in the shadow of its almighty glow, and I see the NCR coming closer day-by-day to grasp all it can hold in its clumsy paws, and I'm worried. I'm worried about all the little things, too small and insignificant for its massive hunger, all these things falling through this crushing grip. Little forgotten lives dropped off and lost in sand and dust.
The NCR wants to own everything that glitters, and nothing glitters in a desert more than an oasis. I won't let them have it. I can't."
Silus leans back. "So you'll turn to the Legion to fight your war against the NCR, is that it?"
"The Legion and the NCR will fight their war with or without me," the girl answers him. "I want them to fight. I need them to fight. The Republic is already in Vegas. They may not have breached the walls with blood and billowing banners, but they're already inside. The attention this war is bringing is providing me with the distraction that I need for what comes next."
He watches the courier and thinks that her gaze, dark in the humble-glow of their solitary lantern, glitters a little too brightly. It's not a warm shimmer, like the glamour of Legion gold. It's something cold and feral. It reminds him of the blackened skies over the wilds of a night-veiled desert; like bitter starlight.
It leaves the centurion unsure of his feelings. "What will come next?" he demands.
The girl replies, "Without compliance from The Strip, the NCR military cannot remain. To ensure that their treaty with House is severed, there needs to be a change in Vegas management."
Silus laughs. It's an incredulous sound. "You? You're going to kill the king of New Vegas?"
"I won't be alone," the courier states softly, "and I already have an ace in the hole. I'm asking for your help in this, Silus. I won't command you to do it. You can choose for yourself; you've already shown yourself capable of it. You can decline. You can even sell my plans to Caesar - whatever good you think that'll do you.
You could have killed me by now, you could have let others do the deed for you, but you haven't. Despite how you despise and distrust me, you've saved my life, so I'm putting my trust in you."
Something shifts and when Silus looks down he sees the small hand placed between them again.
"With the support from Vegas removed," she adds, "the Legion will stand a better chance at dislodging the NCR from the Mojave."
He stares at the girl's narrow palm and watches his own glide upwards to meet it. His pale grip engulfs hers. If not for the striking heat radiating from the courier's hold, Silus would have felt that he'd placed his hand around the tail of a rattlesnake.
He keeps his distance as he watches the girl fuss over the hovering machine. She speaks to the rusted thing as if it were human. She coos and laughs at each beep and blip the circular robot produces for her. Silus hates it. He stays away, and when he bothers to glance at the machine, it's only to glower distrustfully. The thing looks like a floating eye, and the strangeness of it unsettles the legionary.
They don't have the firing mechanism, but they travel south to deliver the news that the tribe called Boomers has pledged its support. Despite his objections, the girl has allowed the blipping nuisance to tail them down the long hike of the 95. Their march with the flying machine is rackety. Silus only half listens to the courier flip between recording messages for her pale and quibbling doctor and listening intently to updates echoing out of Radio Vegas.
It isn't until they've passed the remains of an El Dorado station that the centurion notices the disruption. It's a break in the chatter and grainy melody wafting from the robot. The sound comes in at breaks. It brings the courier to a halt, checking the clunky mechanical device wrapped around her forearm.
"Signal interference," she explains. She asks the bobbing robot, "Can you boost it?"
There's a chirp and moments after, a lonely voice is murmuring out of the static. Silus is hearing the metallic voice of a woman. They stand and listen to the broadcast for less than a minute before the legionaire dismisses it as worthless.
"Old world trash," he says. "Some advertisement that survived the Great Fires." Silus adjusts his pack over his shoulders and motions for the courier to follow. "Move yourself. The scrapyard is just ahead. We'll make camp there."
To the centurion's frustration, the girl disregards his order. She's looking east, her arm with the vault gadget still held out before her.
"It's close," she mutters aloud, "just south of Forlorn Hope." She shoots Silus a brief glance, tells him, "Go on to Gibson's, I'll catch up."
The legionary watches the courier trot eastward and feels his frustration mount.
"Damned idiot," he huffs.
Silus follows after Six.
They arrive at a steel grate over hard-packed rock and dirt. The broadcast is at its loudest. The woman's wistful tones vibrate steadily. It doesn't take much effort for the centurion to wrench the grating aside. It's heavy, but the metal comes away without much resistance. They leave their packs with the hovering robot and take only their weapons.
Silus climbs down first. The interior is all rusted shades of brown and gray. The girl drops down at his side. The air smells like stale beer and something foreign, something strange. Graffiti is scrawled haphazardly over the walls but the words mean nothing to the legionaire. It's clear they are standing in a bunker, a lit stairwell descends down before them. Like a moth to the flame, the courier advances lower into the pit.
Down into the steel catacomb, it's the radio that captures Courier Six's attention and the emblem on the wall that draws Silus' appraisal. The sword and gears of the heavy-armored laser soldiers stand out like a hieroglyph. The symbol sets the legionary on edge. His grip tightens around the fire axe. Like the machine floating up above the bunker, Silus finds the technology of the Steel soldiers alien and ominous.
Before he can voice his concern, Courier Six sets off the trap.
A noxious gas floods the room. Silus gets one picture of the girl crumbling over herself before his world tips violently sideways. It takes him a few seconds to realize he's collapsed against the wall. He fights to regain his legs and notices he's dropped the axe to the floor. The cloud is filling up the interior and the legionary's vision is washing out like fresh ink in a river. He thinks he says something but it feels like cotton has been jammed inside his head.
Silus doesn't notice he's collapsed to the floor until well after the fact. There was no pain. After a moment longer, there's no anything at all.
Chapter 11, "Night Before"