“I can’t believe I’m going to be late to my own war.”
Speed, stealth, and dignity: any Courier worth their caps knows you can manage at best two of three in any situation. With 38 weeks’ worth of the next generation planted hard on my gods-damned bladder, it’s a miracle I’m managing one of three. That miracle is my new servo-assisted climate-controlled piss-right-in-the-suit Power Armor, and as far I’m concerned, Elder McNamara has displaced every other god in the salt lake pantheon.
(Arcade) That’s barbaric! I can’t believe – no, actually, I can completely believe the Brotherhood would force pregnant women into battle. Of all the –
(Veronica) No, barbaric would be not designing power armor to accommodate pregnancy. In case you haven’t noticed, over half our initiates are female – and “forcing” them? You just try keeping a Paladin from her patrols. Go on. We’ll wait. And give your little pile of glowing ash a decent burial afterward.
“According to the NCR’s emergency radio broadcast, the Legion’s just attacked. We’ll make it.”
Arcade’s barely puffing as we swing through Boulder City – well, “swing” is too dignified for my loco-motion, a hopping hip-popping waddle that makes my knee servos buzz burr buzz plink – and I’m proud of him. The scrawny four-eyes we rescued from life-threatening ennui could barely walk a mile without three breaks to vomit from heat exhaustion, and here he is swaggering along in his daddy’s tesla armor like it’s no heavier than my pj’s. Lily’s bringing up the rear, quietly fussing with the minigun Raul fixed up for her before setting off to lead Freeside’s defence beside the King.
It’s not a sight the Mojave’s been blessed with often, I’ll wager: a Nightkin, an Enclave soldier, and a Brotherhood knight walk in…actually, I’m tempted to make a pit stop in Ike’s bar to see if a joke will break out.
No, no time.
Three of us in this wagon train, and still it feels too small. I could never even stand to partner up with another Mojave Express runner, but now I’m not me without several someones underfoot and arguing with every perfectly logical idea. I even miss Rex’s sneak attacks against the beret on my head. The King’s happy to have him back, but… No, it’s not safe. Ever since Doc Henry’s efforts, that dog has run straight into every fight, faster than lightening and nowhere near as bright. Using that crazy Fiend dog’s brain was a mistake…
No, Rexie, bad dog! That’s the third mangled head today – how’m I supposed to get any bounties? No Cram for you.
“Your old pals better be worth the schlep.”
“They will be. Trust me.”
“Why’d they have to set their secret base way out in the hills, huh? We should have been at the Dam yesterday.”
“No, you’re right. They should have built it on the Strip, with blinking neon out front that reads: ‘Secret Enclave Clubhouse, No Girls Allowed Except Daisy’.”
Tormenting Arcade is the only extracurricular vice I’ve been allowed to keep for the last six months. Well, Arcade thinks it’s his lectures that keep the booze and needles out of my pack. Actually, it’s the hungry then hangdog look he gets each time we come across a lovely double-barrelled Psycho.
“Would the secret clubhouse have a Happy Hour, at least?”
He touches the side of his helmet, ignoring my question. “Bravo Bravo Charlie is calling for a doctor – do you think they mean me?”
There’s a high ridge past the town we usually detour around, but I haul myself up to the top, suit groaning metal obscenities against gravity, and scope out the dry side of the Dam. It looks like a bombed anthill, all flames and scrambling bodies – Arcade calls up that the broadcast says McCarran’s under attack, and shit most of McCarran’s here – but I let my focus fuzz until only the colors pop out: red all over, but plenty of tan (and a red beret on an intake tower – Boone and the 1st Recon unit, good), dull silver blocking the bridge from the Legion camp (Veronica and her supremely dysfunctional family, very good), a flood of wheeled rust at the other end splitting toward the Strip (Yes-Man’s new siblings). Still, far too much red, and it’s massing suspiciously around…
“You remember the engineers bitching about an intake that was clogged?”
Arcade takes off his helmet so I can see his irritated ‘you have the memory of a half-eaten radroach’ look. “The one you never got around asking to Raul to have a look at, yes?”
So I’m sharper than I should be when I answer: “Forget it. There’s only hundred or so legionnaires dog-padding toward it through Lake Mead. Probably unrelated.”
Arcade mutters, “Pedica me!” (one of his Legion-speak curses he’s warned me not use around actual Legionnaires, for some reason) and slams the helmet back on.
“I can’t fix it, but I sure can plasma-fuse whatever inroad they’ve made,” he says, unholstering his matter modulator.
I duck purely out of reflex. He’s put a lot of work in with Boone at the McCarran shooting range, and now he can hit the broad side of a barn seven times out of ten, if the barn’s holding extra still.
“Lily, go with him. I’ll cover your rear from here until you’re inside.”
Lily growls and flicks the mini-gun’s warm-up switch. “Leo can feel the battle coming, sweetie. He’ll chase away the monsters, don’t you worry.”
Arcade hesitates before following her. “I suppose there’s no point in asking you to stay out of the fray?”
I smile. That’s my Arcade, always making little jokes. “You can ask all you want.”
He snorts delicately and tosses off a mock salute, glove clanging against helmet. “See you in there.”
I settle into a sidesaddle sniping posture, the best I can manage with half my body weight poking out my gut, and quickly check through the anti-material rifle’s fabulous scope after that scrap of red on the tallest intake tower. I catch the back of Boone’s head for all of a second before he turns and aims at me.
We exchange one-finger waves before shifting, in unison, to investigate a rising drone from the north. It’s a brown shape, huge but fast, and my eyes keep trying to see it as a bird because it’s impossible such a huge chuck of metal is hanging in the air like a determined feather…
“Crap on a cracker, the B-29,” I mumble. “They actually did it.”
I hope little Pete isn’t at the wheel. Cass is up there, set to ensure the Boomer crew doesn’t get over-erect at finally achieving their dream and splatter every moving thing below them. She’d actually volunteered for the job.
Why would I want to go up in an untested antique with no guarantee we’ll come down in one non-flaming piece? Because that’s a tale no barfly will ever be able to one-up me on. Besides, I want a birds-eye view when that snake pit is finally atomised.
It all happens very fast.
I can’t watch them bombing the late Caesar’s camp into a toasty crater because my two de-saboteurs have already hoofed it into the edge of the action. The hot concussion of the blast warms my side and sways my scope at just the wrong moment. I almost take out a Khan instead of the Decanus swinging for Arcade.
Lily’s minigun fire cuts down the Khan and Legionnaire together, and I hope no one on our side noticed that. Leo’s the one who pulls the trigger, and he’s never been too picky about their targets.
I can’t worry about that now, anyway. A familiar coolness settles as I assess the shift of bodies below, leaving those in front for Lily’s attention and seeking out those on the periphery who now move to intercept from behind. Legion helmets implode and fall like squished buffalo gourds, almost unconnected to the recoil kick against my shoulder and automatic slide of another heavy bullet into the barrel.
The kid feels my concentration and starts squirming for all he’s worth, the way he usually saves for when I’m about to doze off. I smile; he’s going to be the best hunting partner ever, ready to take watch just as I need to get my six in.
“See, sweetie, that’s another bad man turned to mush, yes he is! Look at Unca Arcade run, and, oh! Arcade got a bad man all by himself, good on Unca Arcade, we’re so proud of him…for once…”
The kid expresses his satisfaction with an extra hard jab to my rib.
My back is a bouquet of stabbing cramps by the time Arcade reaches the intake door, shoving aside the shattered body my shot has just flung into it. Lily barrels in after him, her head poking out a moment later to lovingly blow a toothy kiss in my general direction.
I don’t remember much about my mother, but I once told Boone she must have been much like Lily. He’d agreed.
It would explain a lot.
There’s nothing else I can do from here, and I’ve got to walk off the cramps before they lock me up in knots. I shuffle up to the carnage surrounding the visitor’s centre just in time to catch Papa Khan, with a vicious smirk, drawing a bead on Ranger Stevens’ back.
“Knock that off,” I growl, and smack him on the back of the head. It’s the power armor boost, or just plain cramped-up cussedness, but he somehow goes flying into the dam’s inner safety wall and slumps, motionless.
Jessup and his irregulars freeze, weapons suddenly on the ground. I point at them to cover my embarrassment and snarl, “And that goes double for you meatheads! No shooting anything not in a leather skirt!”
They scatter, obediently firing only on reds, at least as long as they can see me. I promise myself I’ll get Doc Mitchell to put Papa’s brains back in, trying not to feel like too big a hypocrite. It’s not my fault the Khans always put themselves in the way. It’s really not my fault most of my allies have spent their lives attacking each other, and nothing keeps them from venting old grudges except my immediate presence and lingering threats.
The terrible twos are going to be a cakewalk, after keeping these lunkettes in line.
I tuck my rifle – beloved, but far too slow on the draw for close work – behind the visitor centre door and draw my second favourites, two recoil-cushioned 10mm SMGs. Both handles are scratched with hash-marks, each representing one of those murdering slaving tribe-displacing bastards, none of them new.
I ran out of handle space months ago, in Cottonwood Cove.
It’s disappointing, at first, how few legionnaires my troops have left for me on the NCR side of battle. I’ve only picked off three when someone calls out, “Hey, Mama Bitch!”
Dusty tan armor, mohawk and a mantle: Razz. Ginger giant behind him: O’Harahan. Razz touches his middle finger to his forehead, while O’Harahan snaps off a perfect palm-down salute. Last I’d heard, they’d both improved their combat scores so quickly that the Rangers were sniffing around, which had to put a cactus needle up their squad leader’s nose.
Razz gets right to the point. “The brass knows about Yes-Man. They’ve just sent down orders about you.”
O’Harahan interrupts. “We’re supposed to shoot to kill, ma’am!”
Damn it. Forgot to send Raul to the intake tower, forgot to have Arcade or Veronica tighten Yes-Man’s protocols against “helping” allies…it’s a minor miracle I didn’t show up for battle in my underwear with a BB gun holstered in my ass.
“Are you gonna shoot me, Private?”
“What, ma’am? No! Never!”
“You just might want to get that helmet on and look especially Brotherhood before crossing the checkpoint, is all,” Razz advises, before adding: “Fucking hardpan-for-brains.”
I’d usually die before taking off Boone’s spare beret, but…now that the theory was tested, it didn’t hurt so much to tuck it safely into my armor, between my ridiculously swollen and sore breasts, and helmet up instead. “Thanks, slaphead.”
Razz’s hand hovers near my midsection before he turns away. I nod, sigh, and suffer through a quick rub on the armor over my bloated abdomen. O’Harahan does the same, more gently, and is rewarded with a kick that carries right through the metal.
“Gee!” he grins, giving me a thumbs-up before following his squadmate, probably convinced he’s received a sign from on high.
The goddamn lucky buddha belly of the Mojave, that’s me. There’s rumors among the Fiends I’m some god-touched warrior virgin, that the kid’s gonna pop out with an 18-carat halo. That gets almost as many snickers in Freeside as those who insist the smart caps are on suspiciously-attentive Arcade for babydaddy. I encourage that talk, at least. Maybe the power of suggestion will raise the kid’s smarts a point or two.
I force my spine into something straighter than a sway-backed hump and attempt to suck in my gut. The kid protests, trying to shove a heel up my throat. There’s no way just a helmet’s gonna fool anyone with eyes, but fortunately, the grunts manning the checkpoint are working their blind-and-deaf act.
“Greetings, Knight…Sir…ahem. The rest of the Brotherhood troops are through that barrier.”
“Thanks, uh, ignorant wastelander.”
I pretend not to notice the surreptitious lucky belly touches, easing through the tent slow enough so everyone can get one in. Unlike the brass, these McCarran fighters don’t forget their friends, a damn rare quality in the Mojave.
The communications officer slips me a couple frag grenades before tapping out a secret open-sesame knock on the barrier door. “It’s bad,” she warns.
She’s not kidding. The bodies, both red- and tan-armored, cover the walkway, trampled by and tripping up their scuffling comrades. Two medics crawl through the gore, checking for signs of life.
“Here!” one cries, “She’s breathing!”
I ditch the suffocating helmet and waddle to them as they leap to work, stabbing Med-X into the stump that used to be the soldier’s arm before tying a tourniquet. Legionnaires always have a hard-on for medics – after all, they’re expected to die on the battlefield; why should their enemies get to live? – and a half-dozen of the ugliest converge on the two red-crossed helmets. They’re hardened pros, fortunately, and barely look up as I clomp between them and their attackers.
“It’s her!” a recruit screams. “Kill the assassin whore!”
I’m not too popular with the leather-skirt crowd since the first time we took out every soldier in Fortification Hill, including old baldie himself…or the second and third massacres weeks later. You’d think they’d get the message and take their little scout jamboree somewhere else, but no.
I let the two closest blunt their machetes on my armor for a few moments while I splatter the extremities of their heavier armed brethren with a tight hail of bullets. Impenetrable defence around the torso, but fetchingly bare legs and arms? Caesar’s fashion sense will be his army’s downfall.
“We’re good here,” a medic grunts, and I look down to see the two scuttling toward the barrier with their stabilised patient swinging between them.
My opponents are concentrating their blows on my stomach, and the kid thinks it’s a game, kicking back almost in rhythm. The cushioned plates absorb most of the jolts, but it’s really starting to sting around the edges. No point wasting ammo on these idiots…
I hook my foot behind the closer one’s ankle and knock him backwards Ranger-style, finishing him off with a kick to the neck. A synthesized trumpet blast warns me to duck, and the other soldier crisps to white ash.
ED-E beeps urgently as I pat his eyestalk in thanks. Veronica’s voice issues from his speaker.
“Caesar’s camp is toast, but the Boomers missed the Legate’s troops. I doubt Cass will let them come back for another pass so close to us, but (cough) the Centurions are (static). We’ll hold them back as long as we can, but (cough, cough), the Rangers have pulled back, and, slag it! *end message*”
Crap. Crap crap crap. The handful of ‘trons I didn’t send to defend the Strip should be hitting the Centurions from behind, but the Brotherhood will still get massacred in the frontal assault.
“Go through there, get to Boone, then Arcade and Lily,” I order ED-E. “Tell them to meet up with Veronica asap. I’m making my way there.”
I don’t fight my way up the dam so much as wade, missing my habitual Psycho kick more with every step. The closer I get to camp, the better armed the foes, until I’m taking hit after hit from the bastards’ thermic lances. My armor heats under the barrage, starting to crisp the skin beneath.
(Lorenzo) Here’s your little fellow, as safe and sound as promised! There was some great stuff in his memory banks – did you know, someone back east figured out how to integrate advanced ceramics into heavy troopers’ armor, making them practically heatproof? *sigh* If only I had time to play with such impractical things…
If only, Lorenzo. If only I survive this, you’ll have the time, if I have to personally abduct you from Hidden Valley and lock you in the basement with Raul.
If I survive this. It doesn’t look good. There’s at least three dozen of the best between me and the Brotherhood skirmish front, and more are turning back to face me as word spreads that the Legion’s boogieman is leading a one-woman charge.
No point in fussing, focus instead on alternately pulling triggers. Left, knees. Right, head. Left, knees. Right, head. Left…what the hell, head first, then knees. No, didn’t work as well. Arcade would approve of my scientific method, at least.
I see the fear in the Centurions’ eyes, looking past me and into the sky, before I hear the drone above again, and I know: this is it. Cass has run the odds and made the hard call to send the Boomers back around. She’ll take her friends out, but it’ll wipe out the Legion’s head and right arm in one fiery blow.
I’m proud of her. I wish it had gone down differently, but…I’m proud of my girl.
The drone increases to a high-pitched roar in seconds, and I turn into the sudden whoosh of air above fearing that the entire plane’s coming down on our heads and instead nearly catch Cannibal Johnson’s boot in my face.
“Sorry, little lady. That drab Brotherhood armor blends in with the concrete.” He lands heavily and releases the rappel line, allowing the other three Enclave infantry to slide out of the Vertibird. I can just make out Daisy inside, waving cheerfully before gaining enough altitude to start a missile barrage near the Brotherhood skirmish.
I hold my breath until the explosions break, fortunately within the Centurion troops rather than Steel. I don’t think I’d have a prayer of intimidating Daisy out of a little recreational friendly fire if she’d had a mind for it.
Kreger surveys the chaos and gives me a hard look I can feel right through his helmet. “You never mentioned we’d be supporting Brotherhood.”
“You guys hate everyone,” I mutter, watching the massed Centurions. Unfortunately, they’re a credit to Caesar’s training, already gathering to rush the new men with power armor and massive weapons.
“Better Brotherhood than the damned NCR,” Orion shrugs.
Kreger shakes his head. “You three, clear a path. Henry, you prepare the wounded for transport and help me secure a fall-back. Where’s those NCR troops, aren’t they part of this offense?”
“They’re holding the dam.” I decide not to warn the trigger-happy Enclave gang that those troops are likely to make this a two-front fight sooner than later.
“Hah! I should have guessed those cowardly NCR boys would run away from the real fun. Let’s show those impostors how the genuine Americans protect our borders!”
Orion levels his minigun at the advancing horde and lets the hot lead fly, racing through the Centurion troops. Cannibal and I fall in behind him, taking out those nearer the Paladins with more precision as Orion wheels his rain of indiscriminate death away from his temporary allies. Impressed, the kid falls still for the first time since Boulder City, letting me feel just how bruised my insides are from his fussing.
Doc Henry cuts though the cleared path and begins barking orders at the stunned knights surrounding their wounded to help him set up a proper triage.
I recognise Veronica from her Mr. Handy-scarred armour before she whips off her helmet, wheezing out a shocked chuckle. “My mother was right – the Enclave really were going to come steal me away for not respecting my elders.”
“Good thing you were such a rebel,” I say, trying to rub away the pain in my abdomen through the armor. “If you’d only been bad enough for one Enclave punisher rather than five, we’d all be crucified right now.”
“No, really,” Veronica insists, watching a few paladins follow Orion up the hill, driving the remaining Centurions into reluctant retreat. “What the hell? The Enclave is practically a myth…”
“So’s your Brotherhood.” The breather was nice, but I’ve got to catch up to the boys before my body realises how badly it needs to fall down and die for a week or two. “Tell you later. For now, just keep your people from shooting at them, and be ready – I’m going in after the Legate, and that’ll drive his stragglers down here for you to take out.”
“Got it. We’ll be ready.”
“Oh, and if you see Moore or Oliver…they might attack. Up to you how to handle that.”
“How’d they…?” Veronica winces. “We forgot about Yes-Man, didn’t we? Damn. Well, if the NCR attacks, we’ll uh, have to shoot back. But nicely.”
Up the slope, Orion lets his minigun wind down, checking the hot metal for signs of fatigue. Nothing back on the dam can compare to the carnage in front of him, and the remaining Centurions glare warily over the camp fortification. If this is how the old man retired, Orion must have been Shiva incarnate in his prime.
“This the lesson you had in mind for the NCR?” he growls, and it takes every shred of courage I’ve got to touch his shoulder.
“Orion,” I begin, very seriously. “Marry me?”
He shrugs me off with a rusty chuckle. “Find some other sap to play house with. I’m not the settling down type.”
It’s the answer I expected, but a sigh slips out anyway. “I’ll never find another man toting a gun like that, not one who knows how to use it.”
Orion snickers and elbows Johnson, “You remember. That’s what they always said.”
“I could never make out their exact words, what with the screaming and slapping,” Johnson grunts. “Though I could have sworn it began more like ‘You limp cocksucking – ’”
Kreger steps between them.
“We need to strike now. You four,” he nods to the paladins hovering nearby, whispering and eying his elderly troops like a bad dream at dawn. “You up to it?”
“Sir!” they agree, coming to attention, and only one quietly moans, “Hardin’s gonna have our asses for air filters when he hears we went under Enclave command…”
My combined Brotherhood and Enclave honor guard fans out behind me as we rush the camp, and my only desire (other than one bathtub full of warm water and another of cold vodka) is to not be waddling like an egg-heavy lakelurk with two broken ankles. I’ll kill more centurions with gut-rupturing laughter than bullets.
Only halfway through camp, I reload with my last two clips and start to hope I’m right.
The voice booms across the camp’s training pit, magnified rather than muffled by his enormous ceramic mask. The legendary Lanius himself steps down from his tent on high – oh brother, another Caesar, perpetually lording over his troops – and poses. Unlike his troops, the Legate’s properly armoured from head to toe under his skirt, with no obvious weak spots. My allies tighten into formation at my side.
“You have proven yourself a worthy foe, and your name will live forever in song, as the final blood spilled that made the taking of Hoover Dam our most magnificent victory. This is the greatest honor we have ever, and will ever, bestow on a degenerate profligate. But your path of glory ends here.”
An epic song, echoing down generations? I do like the sound of that…but only if I get top billing. “Thanks, but, I’m already half a god to the local Fiends. Maybe some of them are musical.”
A growl rumbles, magnified into distant thunder by the mask. “Your flippancy does you no credit, Courier. This moment is not ours. It is history’s.”
I roll my sore shoulders, trying to hide their shudder. This is the voice of the unseeable thing in deep still lakes, the nothingness that smothers and chokes. Every nerve in my body twitches, wanting to leap out of my skin and flee.
“Because we share this glorious moment, I will grant you a gift: once I have snuffed the spark from your corrupt and degraded flesh, I shall cut the child from your fetid entrails and raise him as my own. He will be Caesar after me, and rule the conquered lands from sea to sea!”
My knights draw closer, muttering curses and frantic snatches of plans that all seem to involve me getting the hell out of there. The kid remains still, almost as if he’s considering whether he’s got the calves to pull off a leather skirt and boots combo.
I wonder if Lanius would still be interested if he knew where the other half of the kid came from, if he was prepared to raise a successor who prefaced each proclamation of victory with “Ring-a-ding jackpot, babies! We sure creamed those finks, huh?”
“No,” I reply, not loudly but firm enough, to Lanius and my well-meaning boys. “I’ll fall on my sword first, and kill the child with me.”
I’m missing something to make that an effective threat.
“…Orion, find me a sword.”
“You shall feel mine soon enough, Courier.” Lanius slowly unsheathes the largest bumper sword I’ve ever seen, half again as long as he is tall.
Now that, that was an effective threat. I just don’t have the gift for big speeches.
Also, my legs are frozen. Those nerves seem to have escaped while I was distracted. The kid starts squirming again, though, apparently voting thumbs down on the genocidal dictator future, and maybe he’s got enough nerve for both of us.
“I shall nail your bestial spawn to Hoover Dam, instead, facing west so that he may see your world die with his first and final breath. Centurions!”
A bullet hits him between the eyes, putting a small crack in his helmet.
Back at the gate, ED-E’s jingle is drowned out by Lily’s enraged shriek. “You are NOT going to HURT my BABIES!”
Lily can handle my big speeches from now on.
Centurions flow past me, seemingly intent on joining with my potential back-up instead. I let them go, trusting the abilities of my friends to defend their own skins, and keep my eyes on Lanius. He lifts his sword with careless leisure, holding it over his head so I can take in how easily his arm hefts the weight.
Another bullet pings off his mask, denting an eyebrow.
His eyes shift for just a moment, looking for the shooter, and I take that chance to open fire on the exposed armor gap inside his elbow.
He grunts and almost drops the sword, catching the flat of the blade on his shoulder. His next words surprise me. “Good. A worthy effort after all. But you must know now – ”
Lanius lets his wounded hand fall and snatches the handle with his other. “I am not right-handed.”
“I don’t care!”
Enough jerking off. That blade’s too big to do anything but swing. If I time it right…
I lunge toward him, acting, well, acting exactly as tired and slow as I feel. He twists unexpectedly and swings at me backhandedly, slicing a gash in the tough armor over my shoulder as I spin almost out of the way.
Okay. Forget timing anything. He’s tall…
Another bullet strikes him, this time drawing blood as his movement exposes a bit of neck under his mask. Good idea. I fall forward and awkwardly roll, landing in the few feet in front of him he can’t slice at without cutting off his own toes. Jamming both SMGs into the line where the heavy steel plates meet his reinforced skirt, I empty both clips. At least a couple of bullets finally punch through, but he’s already falling back and swinging.
This blow catches my back as I try to roll, metal squealing as he sheers through to skin.
Hah, shows what he knows! My back’s already so sore that it barely registers. I drop the guns and rock back on my heels, then shift forward to brace myself on the balls of my feet. I’m all out of weapons except for the raw power of the suit, so I’ll hit him like a goddamn gecko. Superhuman or not, 200 kilos of furious metal and meat will at least put a dent in his balls.
My gloves brush something at my waist that jingles, and I remember the checkpoint comm officer with the grim face…and the frag grenades…
I push off, slam into Lanius at crotch level, and when my arms go around his waist, there’s a pinless grenade in each. I tuck them in his belt just before he jerks out of my grasp with an indignant roar and kicks me in the chest. It knocks me ass over teakettle down the rough steps, and a face full of dirt means I miss seeing the bastard explode…and probably some shrapnel to the eyeballs, but it would have been worth it.
He’s still alive when I scramble back up on knees and elbows, all blood and broken loops of intestine but still growling, still stabbing at me with a simple boot knife, and now I sort of understand why he wanted me to co-star in the tale of his victory. I want everyone to know how damn hard he was to kill.
I catch his dropped sword by the blade and drag it several yards away. Somehow I get to my feet and work the sword up over my head inch by inch, distantly registering that the battle below me has gone silent. Lanius, gods bless him, is trying to drag himself closer, so I shuffle back another step before letting gravity take the blade, decapitating him almost by chance.
There’s a long, long stretch of grey before I feel the kid punching me in what I’ve come to interpret as encouragement.
“Yeah, Mama did good,” I murmur, or try to. My lips don’t seem to work.
Arcade’s voice. No chance it’s vodka, then. No, boring old pure water, and damn if it isn’t the best thing I’ve ever tasted.
“I’ve got to stim your back – don’t punch me when you feel the prick.”
There’s a joke there I should be making. Veronica would know what to say. I just nod instead and try not to count up all the places I hurt.
“Hi! It’s great to see you alive! And I’m really impressed at how much blood you had in that skinny body, now that most of it’s decorating your armor! Wow! Can we talk?”
“Yes-Man, can it wait?” Arcade again.
“Well, sure! Why should we even bother meeting with General Oliver? If we just wait for him to attack, instead, I calculate a sure victory – with only a 63 to 69% casualty rate!”
I groan and force my eyes open. “More water?”
The closest blur hands me a bottle, which I drain in moments. It doesn’t even seem to hit my stomach so much as sluice directly into all the cracks I didn’t know were inside me. Another bottle is pushed into my hands without a word.
“Freeside is secure,” Arcade tells me. “McCarran too. No reports from the other NCR camps yet. Oliver’s got to be concerned about that.”
“Okay. We can do this. Up.”
Hands haul me to my feet, hold me there until I stop swaying. “I’ve got your back.”
Boone. I blink until I can see him, mouth pursed just slightly (meaning: very, very concerned) and filthy with dirt and gore, except for that beret. Which reminds me…I fish mine out of my chest and plop it on, immediately feeling much better. Boone winces at the poor treatment it has received.
Not all of the blood I’m wearing is mine, since I seem to have – ew – passed out on the soft bed of Lanius’ spilled innards. The training arena below is crawling with Brotherhood, efficiently stripping the bodies and tucking away all the good tech. As I watch, Johnson helps himself to a pile of microfusion cells, baring his teeth at a knight who moves to shoo him away.
“Careful!” I call, then cough up what feels like a switchblade in my throat. “They call him ‘Cannibal’ for a reason.”
The knight quickly decides that Johnson should help her divide up the best loot into “Brotherhood” and “Enclave” piles.
“The rest of them killed themselves when they saw what you did to Lanius,” Boone tells me. “You missed watching his Praetorians punch themselves to death with ballistic fists.”
I try to think of them as tribals, who’d had the choice of Caesar, slavery, or death. My brothers and cousins could have been here, if we hadn’t decided to blow out on the winds rather than fight the oncoming Legion. No, not them; they wouldn’t have saved their own necks while their sisters were treated like beasts. These men chose death too late for me to have any sympathy.
Anyway, it saves us the hassle of dealing with prisoners. “We never remember to bring Michael Angelo’s camera and record the good times. And now it’s too late – we’re all out of Legion.”
Boone grunts (meaning: hysterical giggles). “I’ll learn to paint.”
I pick up Lanius’ sword and balance it on my shoulder, turning and crouching carefully to avoid decapitating Boone. Lanius’ helmet is intact, happily; unfortunately, so is his head.
Arcade sighs. “Do we need to find a pike? Or…I hope you aren’t planning to keep that head in the Lucky 38.”
I struggle one-handed with the mask’s straps, but they’re jammed tight with drying gore. “Just the mask – it’s for the nursery. Come on, I’ll scrape the head out later.”
Even downhill, it’s a long, quiet stagger to the dam. I can hear the faint roar of the Vertibird and B-29 above us, Daisy and the Boomers taking their time in surrendering the heavens to the birds. My friends fall in behind me, their troops mingling in the narrow passage. Khans slip through the NCR formations ahead, and it’s probably a hopeful sign that none of them are shot in the back as they join us, standing with armored knights and securitrons.
I still miss Rex, dammit. Hopefully he and Raul have both made it through the fight in Freeside.
Oliver swallows hard when I step up to meet him, and the thought occurs – Nightkin-sized sword in one hand, the severed head of my vanquished in the other – I have not dressed well for the role of peace negotiator.
“You’ve done the NCR a great service today,” he begins. “I’d prefer it if we could celebrate together tonight, not just this victory, but the dawn of order and prosperity for the Mojave.”
“Sounds like fun.” I try on a smile. “I vote we hold that shindig in my place – your offices here are a little too…subterranean-smelling.”
The big blue veins at his temples pop. “Listen, you walk-the-wasteland fuck, this is NCR soil we’re standing on. The silly coup you’ve got planned is an act of terrorism! And, with child or not, after we’ve slaughtered your friends, I’ll see you dancing from a traitor’s noose before the sun sets.”
Leather and metal creak as my friends unholster their weapons en masse. There’s a subtle shuffling in the troops behind him, familiar faces moving to clump together and whisper, and they’re the only soldiers who don’t raise their rifles in response. My blood’s thumping in my ears, and I’m probably just mad as a March mole rat from missing half the red stuff that should be in those veins, but it’s only those rebellious faces that keep me from jamming Oliver’s words back down his mouth with Lanius’ sword.
The General hisses into the silence I’ve left him: “Hoover Dam is mine.”
I shrug the sword off my shoulder, letting the point jam into the dirt between us, and lean on the handle. The tension rolling through the NCR soldiers eases off a fraction at the diplomatic gesture, but, really, the damn thing was just breaking my spine.
“Think hard, Lee. Is it the dam you need, or the power? Because if I give you the dam today, you won’t have either by the end of the week.”
The General’s laugh is harsh and theatrical, meant more for his wavering army than me. “Save your empty threats, mailman. You’ve only gotten this far by working with the NCR, a few personal favors and lady luck – you’re tapped out, and we both know it.”
I shrug. “You’re right – either way, I’m going to spend tonight at home, in a very soft bed, and I might not bother waking up until this kid’s picked out a birthday. The nice people behind me, however…”
I adjust my 1st Recon beret. “These are only some of the local tribes you’ve made enemies of, tribes Commander Moore wants to wipe out, root and branch – and now they’re friends.”
Muttering behind me – a knight telling Jessup of Moore’s failed plot against the Brotherhood bunker. Hoo boy, have to wrap this up quick before Hidden Valley meets Bitter Springs.
“You’d be good as murdering every soldier you set toward holding the Mojave. You’ve already stretched them too thin as it is – an organised resistance would slam through them like a dose of the Radaway shits. They’re tired. Send ‘em home. Buy juice from an independent New Vegas, and it’ll be a bargain next to the lives and caps you’ve already thrown away.”
The General’s jaw works like he’s trying to shatter every tooth he’s got left, but he doesn’t refuse. He only stares at Lanius’ head, now dripping a ghastly mix of blood and brain matter through my fingers. I shift my grip to the top of the mask. Time for the sweetness, since he’s swallowed the bitter so nice.
“Your people and your ambassador are still welcome on the Strip. Any NCR citizens already settled can stay. The Mojave and the NCR could still be allies, Lee, and you’ll need us when the main Legion force back home in Two Sun comes after payback.”
“I…I accept the terms of treaty.” Lee’s shrunk a little, as if nothing’s holding him up but his uniform. Poor bastard looks like I feel, in other words. “I’ll send the order to begin evacuating immediately.”
Most of my allies are too dignified to let out more than a relieved sigh, but the Khans’ wildly obscene cheers are fortunately drowned out by the NCR troops’ noisy rush back to the dam before Lee can change his mind. I’m thinking that I should send Veronica and her people down right away to secure it before they get the brilliant idea to loot what’s suddenly no longer government property, but find I don’t actually want to rub our ownership in Lee’s face quite so soon. He’s still staring at the battle trophy in my hand like it should be his, in a sane and just land – something the Mojave can never be accused of. If the late and unlamented House was right, without a stunning victory, the General will find only a firing squad of politicians and auditors to welcome him home.
Really, Lanius’ sword alone is enough for the kid’s nursery…that and the mask on the walls would verge on tacky, as Arcade would surely argue.
“Here, General – you should have this.”
I toss him the mask, which he catches with both hands and a look of bewildered, somewhat disgusted gratitude as the head finally falls out, splattering his uniform and rolling downhill toward my independent New Vegas.