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Atom's Glow

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   Three stimpaks left.

   Rachel could feel the fractured bones of her cheek and eye socket grinding against each other with every step she took, but the burning sensation of the sharp edges jabbing into her flesh was almost completely dulled by the large dose of Med-X Piper had forced on her, despite her slurred protests to the contrary. She usually hated painkillers because she felt they took her edge off and made her less responsive, but right now she was actually grateful for the lack of sensation, since Grand Zealot Richter’s assault had left her battered, bloody and exhausted, feeling like she was being held together by nothing but strength of will.

   That was definitely what she needed right now, though, as the gaggle of ragged prisoners had begun to make their escape from the Children of Atom’s submarine base. Fortunately they weren’t alone any longer – Zealot Ware had organised a rearguard action of a dozen or so armed cultists who alternated between helping the less mobile members of the party and covering the escapees from the pursuing faction of Children still faithful to Tektus. Not that it had saved all of the captives, unfortunately – one of the Commonwealth settlers had caught a bullet in the back of his throat as he and his wife cleared the door of the base, and as his wife had instinctively stopped to try to help him, the loyalists had grabbed her and started dragging her back into the base. Seeing the settler struggling against the horde of hostile cultists, Captain Avery had aimed and fired her rifle without hesitation, putting several rounds through the woman’s head and body. Rachel had looked at her in momentary shock and disbelief, but all Avery had done to justify herself was to say “Better she die fast, not slow,” and then start moving again. As much as Rachel hadn’t wanted to agree with it, that explanation made immediate sense – more than once she’d had to make tough on-the-spot decisions regarding her soldiers as both a Brotherhood officer and as the general of the Minutemen, so she recognised the logic. No matter how many times she faced those kinds of choices, though, it never got any easier.

   And so they had fled from the Nucleus as fast as possible, towards the north, with a small force of Tektus’s disciples behind them and the dangers of the island in front, lurking in the thick, choking mist. Fortunately, it hadn’t taken long for the faithful of the Nucleus to retreat back to their fortress – clearly they had decided that the numerous horrors of the island would take care of the renegades for them. When Rachel was sure the pursuit had ended, she led her bedraggled flock to the ruined drive-in at Eden Meadows and had given out all of the Rad-X and RadAway she’d found in her pockets to the sick Commonwealth settlers. It was enough to make them able to walk mostly unaided, but it wasn’t enough to get them back to anything resembling full health, so she had to hope that they would hold together long enough for Knight-Captain Cade to heal them properly. For now, though, she and Piper were the only things standing between them and disaster.

   As the drive-in’s giant projector screen loomed ahead of them, its reflected light painting shapes on the ground in front of it, Rachel paused, coming to a complete stop and indicating that the former prisoners should do the same. She glanced at Piper and silently pointed towards the left side of the wide-open parking lot. Piper nodded, immediately understanding what Rachel wanted her to do, and moved silently towards the edge of the cracked, broken tarmac, her pistol raised and her finger hooked around its trigger. Rachel turned towards Captain Avery and said “Last time Piper and I were here we were attacked by a whole pack of ferals. Stay here and we’ll sweep the area to make sure they haven’t come back.” She attempted a reassuring smile but her shattered cheek’s protestations stopped her from doing so. Instead she simply reached out and briefly touched Avery’s callused hand to try to pep her up.

   Visibly disgusted, Avery drew her hand back and snorted in disbelief. “Don’t be so damn stupid, mainlander. You can barely stand,” she said, before she held up her rifle. “Besides, I have a better weapon than you. Let me go.”

   “I’m fine,” Rachel snapped sharply, every word feeling like knives dragging themselves across the inside of her face, “and that better weapon needs to stay here; you have to protect the group. We’ve got back-up now, but Piper and I can still move faster on our own.” She shrugged, deciding to offer a concession. “If we need you, we’ll holler. Okay?”

   Avery scowled. “Fine.” For a fleeting moment, her lined, severe features softened. “Be careful.”

   Rachel gave the Captain a silent nod of acknowledgement as she moved in the opposite direction to Piper, keeping the rifle she’d taken from the corpse of one of the fallen Children in the Nucleus at eye level, its stock braced snugly into her shoulder, after first popping open the pistol-holster at her waist.

   Her worst fears were confirmed when she advanced far enough into the drive-in to see a pack of ghouls feasting on the corpse of a giant angler. They had obviously mobbed it to death and then dragged its body from the rusting van it had been using as a shelter, and now they were greedily stuffing chunks of its rich, fatty meat down their throats. As Rachel crept closer to them, she could hear their rasping, guttural growls as they squabbled over the more succulent parts of the carcass, hissing and jealously gnashing their jagged teeth at each other in between mouthfuls. She cursed under her breath when she realised she didn’t have any grenades. A single explosion would have killed or incapacitated at least half of the ghouls in an instant.

   Old-fashioned way it is, then, she thought sourly, taking cover behind the rust-encrusted remains of a Corvega automobile. Show time.

   When she was sure she was out of the horde’s line of sight, she lined up a shot and squeezed her trigger slowly, hitting one of the ghouls loitering on the outer edge of the feeding frenzy squarely in the centre of its back. Dead before its brain even registered that its chest was now non-existent, the withered feral slumped forwards onto another ghoul that was elbow-deep in angler guts, causing the rest of the pack to turn their attention to where the shot had come from, sniffing at the air to try to catch any kind of clues. In their moment of confusion, Rachel heard the bark of a solitary pistol shot, and an instant later, she saw another ghoul drop to the ground and lie there gurgling and writhing in pain, its right knee shattered to splinters. A second shot reduced the creature’s head to a red smear on the ground, and the pack of ghouls became even more confused and frantic as they tried to work out from where they were being attacked.

   Rachel used the ghouls’ disorientation to move closer to them, shouldering her rifle for a moment so that she could adjust her belt and make her chain-dagger easier to access. Stealth was one thing, but being able to defend herself against feral ghouls at both long and short range was just as important. She’d learned to her cost that ferals frequently attacked faster and more viciously than fully human foes, their sharp claws and teeth always ready to rend flesh from bone – the large bite-mark scar in the centre of her left forearm bore harsh witness to that – so it was wise to have every weapon just a fingertip away, especially when she wasn’t enclosed in her full suit of Brotherhood plate and didn’t have that extra layer of protection to rely on.

   When she’d finished shifting her dagger, she unhooked her rifle again and began creeping forwards carefully, taking the opportunity to pick off a couple more of the shambling beasts as they started to lope around in search of their attackers, having completely forgotten about their still largely-intact kill. With their rabid scramble for food over for the moment, the swarm of ghouls was once again united behind a single goal, and that made them infinitely more dangerous. Rachel briefly looked over to where Piper was crouching behind some jagged metal debris, seeing the reporter taking aim at another of their targets, her pistol barking twice in quick succession and hitting an unfortunate ghoul in the shoulder and throat. Taking advantage of the moment, Rachel took another few steps forward, keeping as silent as possible

   – until a sharp snap came from beneath her boot, a brittle twig breaking in half under her weight. The feral closest to her whipped its head around as it heard the noise, ropes of drool rapidly spilling from its mouth and its yellow eyes filling with bottomless rage. An instant later it charged, growling and slobbering as it reached out towards her with its broken, ragged talons, ready to tear her to pieces and cram them between its teeth. Rachel put a bullet through one of its eyes, causing it to collapse bonelessly to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut, but it was only the first of the onrushing tide of rotting flesh that had begun to surge toward her. She began to track backwards, unloading bullet after bullet into the wall of bodies until her rifle cycled dry with a metallic click. She cursed, throwing it contemptuously to the ground before drawing her pistol and dropping another three of the blood-maddened ferals before they got too close for her to properly line up her shots. Firing randomly into the throng until that weapon was empty as well, she fell back while also readying her chain-dagger to fend off those ghouls closest to her. When the first of them lunged at her, she slashed at its outstretched arm, the teeth of the blade carving a bloody chunk out of its flesh and painting the ground with droplets of liquefied, mushy gristle. Undeterred by the fact that its right hand was almost completely severed, the dead-eyed monster sprang forwards without hesitation, hissing and growling as it did so. Its jaws clamped down hard onto Rachel’s collarbone as it barrelled her to the ground, close to the still-tender spot where Grand Zealot Richter had stabbed her, and then ripped a mouthful of her flesh free. It didn’t get a chance to enjoy its morsel, though – an instant after it had raised its head to let the mouthful of fresh meat slide down its gullet, the side of its skull imploded as a pistol round punched through its temple. Her face spotted with blood from both the ghoul and herself, Rachel risked a sideways glance to see where the shot had come from, and saw Zealots Ware and Theil advancing shoulder to shoulder, their rifles blaring in unison, effortlessly shredding any ghouls unlucky enough to be caught in the line of fire. When the last of the ghouls had been despatched, Zealot Ware knelt down beside her, a look of concern etched on his craggy features. “You know, Emissary, you could have sent us in first. We’re yours to command – why not take some weight off your shoulders and let Theil and me handle things like this?”

   Even through the pain of the sizeable bite wound, Rachel couldn’t stop herself from laughing before she wiped the blood off her face with her sleeve, immediately wincing as her broken face protested at her amusement. “Thanks for the offer, Ware, but like my husband always used to tell me: the leader who stays in the rear takes it in the rear. ” She paused, feeling a touch of embarrassment burning briefly across her cheeks. “He never was much good with words, but I know what he meant. I’m a leader – I should lead. Set an example. Be someone who inspires others.” Reaching into a pocket she drew out a stimpak, jabbing the needle into the skin near her injury and pushing the plunger, releasing the contents of the syringe into her body. In a few seconds the bite mark was nothing more than an irregular oval of ridged, puckered tissue, another badge of honour to accompany the generous tally of scars already scattered across her body, and the pain in her face faded to a dull ache again as the fractured bones knitted themselves a little closer together. “If it makes you feel better, I’ll try to remember to ask you to do this next time. No promises, though.”

   Ware raised his eyebrows. “I’ll take that as a yes, then.”

   “We’ll see,” Rachel told him. “Now how about we start getting these people somewhere they can get some decent rest?”

  Two stimpaks left.


 

   One stimpak left.

   Rachel watched as the smaller wounds of the bloodied settler sealed in moments after the stimpak’s almost miraculous elixir had begun to flow through him. After making camp at the drive-in overnight, the group had been making good progress until they had run into a swarm of hungry mirelurks. One of them, a heavily-scarred hunter with thick ropes of acidic saliva dripping from its clicking mandibles, had managed to almost disembowel one of the weaker escapees because he had reacted too slowly to escape its brutal pincers. Had it not been for the swift actions of a pair of her congregation, who had bisected the beast with two bursts of irradiated rifle bullets, he would have been dead in a heartbeat. As it was, he’d been lucky to only lose a hand, his arm now ending in a ragged stump that Sister Emily had bound with several strips of cloth she’d torn from her own robes. He would still need qualified medical attention to really help the healing process, of course – and she pitied Knight-Captain Cade a little for that, considering how busy he was going to be once all the prisoners had been evacuated to the Prydwen – but for now a makeshift bandage would have to suffice.

   Kneeling down beside the man, Rachel entwined the fingers of his remaining hand between her own and squeezed them tightly, trying to sound as reassuring as possible. “You’re going to be fine,” she said, the words ringing hollow in her ears even as she spoke them. “I need you to stay strong for me now, okay? The Brotherhood of Steel will be there for us when we get to the mainland, I promise. We’ll make sure you get well again.”

   “The Brotherhood of Steel?” the man mumbled through pale lips, a look of confusion briefly contorting his waxy, unresponsive face. “Didn’t think you people cared about us ordinary folks.”

   Rachel shook her head emphatically. “Believe me when I tell you that the Brotherhood cares about everyone in the Commonwealth,” she said, slipping her tattered jacket carefully off her shoulders and rolling up the sleeve of her undershirt to reveal the emblem of the Brotherhood on her shoulder before gesturing to the Latin phrase etched indelibly into her skin underneath it. “See these words here? ’Ad victoriam’ is our motto – it means ‘to victory’. When we all get back to the Commonwealth, that’ll be our victory, and I want you to be there to see it.” She looked to one side, meeting Sister Emily’s concerned gaze as she did so. “Take care of him the best you can, sister.”

   “As you command, Emissary,” Sister Emily said, bowing her head for a moment, before she turned her attention back to the settler, who had mercifully drifted off into unconsciousness, and wiped his brow free of sweat with her sleeve. As Rachel began walking away, she heard the younger woman quickly barking instructions at two other Children, telling them to fashion a stretcher and place the wounded man on it so he could be moved more easily, and for a moment she felt a little involuntary twinge of pride. Perhaps Piper had been right about her wanting a disciple after all – although given the choice she would have preferred the term ‘aspirant’, considering her loyalty lay more with Elder Maxson and the technology of the Brotherhood than with the convoluted mysticism of Atom’s followers. Either way, it was reassuring to have a steady hand like Sister Emily at her side.

   Maybe I should ask her if she wants to sign up, she thought, a little absently. At least I know she can follow orders well. She shook that notion from her mind almost instantly and refocused her attention on the rest of her charges. Most of them looked exhausted, their hunched and wilted body language saying more than any words could at that point. As she tried to assess the situation as fully as she could, she found Piper at her side, a deeply concerned frown creasing her forehead and casting a shadow across her cheeks, which were already stained with faint trails of viscous green mirelurk blood. “I’m worried about these people, Blue,” she said in a low, soft tone. “I don’t think any of them have had anything decent to eat in days.”

   Rachel nodded in agreement. “You’re probably right,” she said, before she aimed a gesture of her thumb towards the numerous mirelurk corpses strewn around inside the defence perimeter that Ware and Theil had established with around half a dozen of their subordinates. “Good thing we have a big pile of food there, right?”

   “As long as you’re doing the cooking? Absolutely,” Piper said, cracking a brief smile which instantly lifted Rachel’s mood, as Piper’s smiles almost always did. “Never could master seafood myself – too much preparation time involved for a reporter on the road all the time, you know? At least with a mole-rat you can just slice it up and have it ready to go in half an hour.”

   “Sure,” Rachel began, “but doesn’t that get boring after a while?”

   “You should know me better than this by now, Blue,” Piper replied, chuckling. “Practicality beats variety every time.”

   “I guess so,” Rachel said, raising her eyebrows briefly before she got to her feet and drew her chain-blade. “Let me gather up a few people and we can get dinner going…”


 

   About an hour and a half later, Rachel was sat around a large campfire and chewing on one of a handful of ragged, bite-sized pieces of roasted mirelurk meat from the feast which she and several members of her congregation (as well as a few of the Commonwealth settlers) had helped to prepare. The misshapen baubles of pale white flesh were a little rubbery and salty underneath their crispy exterior, but that was par for the course with this kind of food, so she had let it go. However she found the meat, though, it seemed the former prisoners were grateful for it. Some of them were actually starting to relax and look cheerful as they devoured their meals, which lifted Rachel’s mood to no end. She even felt her own bunched muscles loosening up a little for what seemed like the first time in years as Piper slid closer to her and rested her head on her shoulder. She set down the greasy chunk of mirelurk carapace she’d been using as a makeshift plate and put her arm around her girlfriend, kissing her on the forehead almost reflexively as she drew the smaller woman to her, trying to shield her from the evening’s gathering chill.

   “You okay, Blue?” Piper asked, looking up at Rachel with a curious expression on her face. “Cap for your thoughts?”

  Rachel smiled, gently threading her fingers through Piper’s as she did so. “Just enjoying the fire and the company, that’s all.” She laughed. “The food wasn’t bad, either, if I do say so myself.”

   “I gotta say, you do make good mirelurk cakes,” Piper agreed. “Still not convinced it’s better than mole-rat, though.”

   “You’re a lost cause, Piper Wright, you realise that?”

   “Yeah,” Piper said, “but I also realise there’s nobody else I’d rather be lost with.”

   “You always know just what to say, don’t you?"

   “So people tell me,” Piper replied, examining the nails of her free hand casually. “In between telling me to stop printing lies or go jump off a cliff, anyway.”

   “I guess I’d better stop doing that, then, huh?” Rachel asked, a smile quirking itself across her lips for a moment.

   “That would be nice, yeah,” Piper said, caressing the cusp of Rachel’s jawline before she gently turned the other woman’s face towards her and softly pressed their lips together for a moment. “Consider that an incentive.”

   “I just might do that,” Rachel told her, briefly running a hand through Piper’s hair. “You’re pretty persuasive, after all.”

   “That’s what I like to hear.” Piper traced a single fingertip down the bridge of Rachel’s nose before tapping its tip playfully. “It does make my job a lot easier, let's face it.”

   Before Rachel could respond, however, she heard a yell from the other end of the camp, a single word full of terror and urgency.

   “Deathclaw!”

   Immediately Rachel scrambled to her feet, cursing herself for allowing herself to believe even for a moment that she was safe. She grabbed her rifle and swung around to try to determine where the shout had come from, and then she saw the hulking mass of the beast encroaching on the edge of the camp. As large as it was, even through the distance between her and the monster, she saw that the deathclaw’s horns were not as fully-formed as they should have been, indicating that it was most likely an adolescent which had not yet learned that large groups of armed humans were usually something to be avoided. She guessed it had been drawn to their location by the smell of the mound of butchered mirelurk carcasses while looking for an easy meal, and hadn’t expected to find so many other hungry mouths willing to fight to defend their kill. The brute loped inside the defence perimeter, shrugging off individual bullets without a second thought as they either ricocheted off or lodged themselves into its thick armoured hide, and started to lash out at any of her flock foolish enough to get within range of its meat-cleaver talons.

   Feeling a familiar sense of resolve clamping down on her shoulders again, a twinge of pain sparking through her cheek as it did so, Rachel glanced briefly at Piper, who had already unholstered her own gun. “Divide and conquer again?” she suggested, gesturing towards the lumbering monstrosity as it impaled an unlucky Child of Atom directly through the stomach, tore his twitching body in half and began slurping his warm, steaming guts from his upper torso after it had casually tossed his detached, mangled legs aside like a broken toy. Rachel felt her gorge rise watching the deathclaw feasting on its prey, but she fought back the urge to vomit, nevertheless still feeling the acidic sting of bile at the back of her throat. Using the monster’s momentary distraction to circle around it, she raised her rifle, exhaled gently and then unloaded several precise shots towards the small gap in its armour. Most of the bullets bounced back off the thick interconnected plates, but two rounds managed to hit the precise divide between two sections of the tough protective tissue, burying themselves deep into the muscle beneath it.

   The deathclaw bellowed, enraged, and flung away what was left of the cultist’s body as it turned to face her. It snorted out a single breath and cocked its head a little, as if it couldn’t quite fathom why a single small creature would dare to challenge it. Then it bared its bloodied fangs, flexed its claws and prepared to charge, before Piper’s gun barked out a single shot behind it, the round serving as little more than a distraction – but an effective distraction nevertheless, as the deathclaw glared balefully in the direction the attack had come from, snarling in annoyance and spraying thick ropes of pink-tinged drool down its chin. Rachel wasn’t sure if this particular tactic would work as well against the deathclaw as it had against the ghouls at the drive-in, but anything that allowed her flock to evacuate the settlers and Far Harbor residents as quickly as possible was worth a try. She advanced cautiously on the creature, loosing another couple of rounds towards it, but this time only causing the bullets to bounce off its armour. The deathclaw whirled around to face her again, and judging by the rage burning in its yellow eyes, the last of its patience had finally evaporated. It broke into a charge then, its footfalls almost shaking the ground. In between every thunderous impact of the monster’s taloned feet, Rachel could hear Piper’s pistol firing in a panicky, staccato fashion as she tried unsuccessfully to draw the deathclaw’s attention back to her.

   The brute had picked its target, it seemed, and this time trying to distract the enemy was not going to pay off. Rachel steeled herself for the deathclaw’s attack, but before it could unleash its murderous rage, a fusillade of rifle fire rang out from behind her. She risked a glance backwards as the deathclaw reeled from the sustained barrage that was being poured onto it. Zealots Ware and Theil, along with Sister Emily and Brother Joseph, were advancing as part of a tight formation formed by her disciples. Their unrelenting barrage of bullets and plasma fire caused the giant creature to stumble backwards for a moment, screeching in frustration, before it turned tail and began padding swiftly away in the opposite direction. Apparently it had decided that the mound of free mirelurk meat was not worth being shot at and had chosen to make its escape before it got hurt any further.

   As it moved off over a rise about fifty metres away from the camp, Zealot Ware shouldered his rifle and bowed his head respectfully. “I told you, Emissary,” he began, “Zealot Theil and I would handle this kind of thing ourselves from now on. I didn’t want to make myself a liar.”

   “Thank you, Ware,” Rachel said, taking his right hand in a firm handshake before briefly embracing him. “Just this once I’ll let you save the day.”

   Ware’s craggy face broke into a rare smile as she drew herself back. “The Emissary blesses me with her gratitude. I’ll try not to waste it.”

   He was about to speak again when a deafening howl sounded out from just beyond the rise the young monster had retreated behind, and moments later a massive deathclaw a full head taller than the adolescent they thought they had driven off stalked out into view, the smaller animal following behind it. Looking at the fully-developed horns and the bright dappled markings on the larger beast’s scar-covered hide, Rachel could see it was an older female, very probably the parent of the youngster trying to teach it how to hunt on its own. If she had to guess, the matriarch had seen what its offspring could do and was not impressed, so now it was going to give its hapless young a demonstration of how a hunt ought to go.

   “Fall back!” Rachel cried as loudly as she could, realising that two deathclaws working in tandem was not a threat to be treated lightly, especially with the number of sick and wounded settlers. Better to let the monsters have their free meal than to fight them and end up as extra meat. “Fall back, now!”

   As the rest of her congregation scrambled to evacuate the camp as quickly as possible, Rachel pointed towards the two monsters and said “We need to make sure those things head straight for the mirelurk shells instead of following us. Pull back in pairs, keep some distance between us and keep your fingers on the trigger, but don’t fire unless you absolutely have to. No need for any more losses.”

   Ware and Theil nodded in acknowledgement, raising their weapons to cover Sister Emily and Brother Joseph as they started to retreat. After a couple of minutes, Ware and Theil followed suit, leaving Rachel and Piper to watch the deathclaws amble through the remains of the camp, their nostrils flaring as they padded towards the pile of mirelurk carcasses. The mother huffed at her offspring, indicating for it to stay behind her. When she was sure that the youngster would stay still, she stalked forwards and picked up the mirelurk corpse closest to her, sniffing the carcass curiously and licking it once or twice as if she was making absolutely sure it was edible. Then she began tearing the body apart, throwing away the hard carapace and digging into the entrails with her snout, growling to herself in a satisfied fashion between messy mouthfuls of greenish flesh. When she had finished her meal, she swung around and called out to her youngster to let it know everything was safe. The youngster cocked its head slightly before it approached the waiting banquet, and then settled on its haunches to tuck in.

   “Looks like they’re busy, Blue,” Piper said. “Let’s go.”

   “Good idea,” Rachel agreed, pushing herself to her feet and getting ready to rejoin the rest of the group. “Guess they’ll be busy for a while.”

   Unfortunately, the moment she chose to start moving was the moment the deathclaw youngster angled its head up to swallow a large chunk of mirelurk meat, and then spotted her and Piper. In an instant, furious, it threw its meal aside and bellowed at the women as they tried to retreat. The mother deathclaw looked in the direction her offspring had indicated, pausing before she roared and launched herself into a charge, obviously angry at the puny creatures who had thwarted her young’s hunt. The mother picked up speed in the blink of an eye, a juggernaut of teeth and claws, thundering towards Rachel and Piper with murder in her eyes. She swiped at Rachel with such force that Rachel was lifted clean off her feet and thrown through the air, three long, searing lines of pain blossoming diagonally along the front of her body at the same time.

   She skidded several metres when she met the ground, feeling three ribs crack as she did so. Breathing became agonising. Her vision was full of stars. Her equilibrium was completely scrambled. Concepts of up and down, of past and future, became meaningless. Blood filled her mouth, hot and metallic against her tongue. All she could hear was the triumphant, guttural roar of the monster that would shortly be devouring her. Through her disorientation, she braced herself for the white-hot pain of the mother deathclaw’s jaws clamping around her body and ripping her into tiny pieces, but it never came.

   Instead, she felt a hand gripping her shoulder. It took a few moments for her ears to stop ringing and for her vision to coalesce into something more clear than an unruly swirl of colour, at which point she found herself lying on a makeshift stretcher. She saw Piper kneeling at her side, an anxious look on her face. Her lips were moving but Rachel’s ears were so full of static that she couldn’t hear her until the clutter began to fade.

   “ – can you hear me?” Piper said, her voice unusually frail. “Give me a sign you’re okay, Blue. Please.

   Rachel tried to speak but her mouth wouldn’t cooperate at first, a liquid gurgle all it could initially manage. Nevertheless it was enough for Piper’s tear-filled eyes to brighten just a little. She grasped Rachel’s limp left hand and kissed it in relief. “Oh, thank God,” the younger woman breathed. “Stay still. We’ll keep you safe, I promise.” She reached into Rachel’s jacket and drew out her last stimpak, jabbing it into Rachel’s arm and pressing down the plunger. Once again she found herself thanking whoever invented stimpaks as she felt her wounds sealing themselves. Her cracked ribs still hurt like hell, but at least the pain was numbed a little.

   “Where are we?” Rachel slurred as her mouth began grudgingly responding again. “How long was I out? What happened to the deathclaw?” As her vision continued to gather itself she saw Zealots Ware and Theil standing to either side of her, with Sister Emily flanking them, her hands clasped so tightly together that her knuckles were almost glowing white. The young girl was mumbling a constant stream of prayers under her breath, her lips moving almost imperceptibly quickly as she squeezed her fingers almost to the point where she might tear them off.

   “We’re about half a day’s travel away from Far Harbor, you’ve been asleep for almost six hours,” Ware began, “and from what we can tell, it looked like that deathclaw just wanted to teach you a lesson about not interfering with its kids. The way you fell seemed to make it think you were dead, so it went back to its food instead of attacking anyone else.” He glanced down at his rifle, patting it almost affectionately. “We helped put any… lingering doubts to rest, though.” Another uncharacteristic smile. “That’s two you owe me, Emissary.”

   “I guess so,” Rachel began, before she tried to rise and coughed up a lump of bloody mucus.

   “Easy, easy,” Piper admonished her. “Stay still. You need to let that stimpak take effect first.”

   “Gladly,” Rachel said, feeling the spittle spill down her chin before Piper drew her handkerchief out of her coat’s sleeve and used it to wipe the pinkish fluid away.

   “There you go,” she said, smiling. “Beautiful again. Now you let us carry you to the dock, and then we’ll be back in the Commonwealth before you know it, honey. I promise.”

   No stimpaks left.


 

   No stimpaks left.

   It had taken Rachel’s flock a little longer to reach Far Harbor then Ware had anticipated, thanks to an ambush set by a pack of radiation-enhanced wolves. Rachel had wished she could have taken part but her body felt like a well-worn punching bag and she had had to lie helplessly while Piper and Sister Emily covered her prone form, cutting down several of the pack that tried to get to her. Now they had arrived at the dock after Ware had scouted ahead, bringing news of the Emissary’s condition to the Children still occupying the town. Some of them had protested, demanding that they be allowed to nurse her back to health, but Ware had insisted that they let her return to the Commonwealth for proper treatment. Zealot Theil and Sister Emily had carried her onto the dock where the faithful crowded around her in shock. In a hoarse, throaty voice she had told them that she had let the residents of Far Harbor return to their home, and that they should not be harmed, but rather welcomed back as brothers and sisters, and then she had told her flock from the Nucleus to stay with them to rebuild the town, make it stronger, and help keep it safe.

   She didn’t know how long that truce would hold, but she hoped it would be enough to establish a more secure island, at least for the moment. Now she lay on the deck of Kenji Nakano’s automated boat, which was being followed by Allen Lee’s fishing vessel, full of the kidnapped settlers. Unsurprisingly, Allen had not been pleased to have his boat borrowed, but had agreed on the insistence of Captain Avery. She supposed he would be hoping this was the last time he would ever see her, which gave her a little amusement to distract her from her pain.

   Upon arriving at the dock outside the Nakano residence, Piper and Sister Emily helped Rachel to lie on their stretcher while the rest of the settlers disembarked, relief at finally being home etching itself all over their haggard features. As they carried Rachel off the deck, all three members of the Nakano family emerged from their house, looking shocked and awed by the small crowd. “Bring her inside,” Kenji said quickly. “We can give her a place to rest.”

   “No,” Rachel said shakily, pushing herself into a sitting position. “I need to use Kasumi’s radio to call the Prydwen –” A fit of coughing interrupted her words, and Piper instinctively reached out to try to help her get through the stabbing pain in her chest. Rachel clung to her as she tried to stand and kept holding on as the two of them climbed the stairs to Kasumi’s room. Sitting down next to the radio she picked up the microphone and tuned the radio carefully to the Brotherhood’s unique frequency. “Prydwen Actual, this is Survivor. Do you copy, over?” she began, but got only static in return. “I say again, Prydwen Actual, this is Survivor. Please respond, over.”

   For a few moments it seemed like nothing would come of the transmission, but then a voice crackled through on the other end. “Prydwen Actual to Survivor, we read you. It’s good to hear your voice again, ma’am.” She recognised the voice as that of Initiate Ellis, a young former farmer who she had personally recruited into the ranks of the Brotherhood after the fall of the Institute. She liked him, even if he was a little over-excited in his approach to his duties and hadn’t quite attained the right level of discipline necessary for his posting. Still, it was good to hear any familiar voice from the Prydwen, so she felt a tangible sense of relief. “What can we do for you, over?”

   Prydwen Actual, I need immediate evac – I have wounded civilians here who need treatment ASAP. Send as many Vertibirds as you can spare, over.”

   “Acknowledged, Survivor,” Initiate Ellis said. “Send us your coordinates and we’ll have you back here in no time, over.”

   Rachel checked her Pip-Boy’s map for a moment and then relayed her position. “Get here as soon as you can, Prydwen Actual. These people really need our help, over.”

   “We’ll try, Survivor. Over and out.”

   As the radio fell silent, Rachel felt Piper’s arms crossing themselves over her shoulders, and felt her lover’s lips delicately brushing her cheek. “You did it, Blue. You saved the day.”

   “I hope so,” Rachel said, exhaling heavily. “I guess all we can do now is sit and wait.”

   “Fine by me,” Piper replied. “Wanna make out to pass the time?”

   “Very tempting,” Rachel said, “but I should check on the settlers first. They need to be ready to leave as soon as those Vertibirds arrive.”

   Piper rolled her eyes. “Spoilsport.”

   “I’m in command. It comes with the territory.” She stood and held out her hand. “Help me downstairs, please?” Piper grasped her fingers and then drew her closer, draping Rachel’s arm over her shoulder before supporting her as the two women moved back downstairs.

   As soon as they made it back into the lounge, they found Brother Joseph and Sister Emily waiting for them. Rachel let go of Piper and stepped towards the two allies who had made her insane plan viable.

   She turned to look at Piper. “Can you give us a moment alone?” she asked.

   “Sure,” Piper agreed. “I’ll be just outside. I need a cigarette anyway.” She opened the front door and stepped out onto the porch, and, sensing Rachel’s need for privacy, the three members of the Nakano family followed suit.

   When they were alone, Rachel embraced both of her disciples. “You two did well today,” she said, feeling a twinge of pride. “I’m sure you made Atom very proud.”

   “Thank you, Emissary,” Sister Emily whispered, her head still angled towards the floor. “You honour me.” Rachel touched her fingers to the younger woman’s chin and lifted it up so that she could meet her gaze as warmly as possible.

   “You honour yourself, sister,” she said firmly. “Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” Then she turned to Brother Joseph, putting a hand on his shoulder. “And you did just as well, brother. Atom smiles on y–”

   The gunshot was deafening, a blazing pain spreading through her guts. She looked down and saw the pistol in Brother Joseph’s hand. He smiled a gargoyle smile, sadistic glee in his eyes. “Did you really think I trusted you, ‘Emissary’?” he gloated, before he turned his head and looked at Sister Emily, whose horrified expression spoke volumes. “Time to go back to the Nucleus, sister,” he said. “Tektus will need us to rebuild. Help me finish off this pretender and we can be home again within a few days.” Rachel felt her legs folding beneath her until she was on her knees, the bullet wound in her stomach tearing slightly as she hit the ground. Brother Joseph clicked back the hammer on his pistol and pointed it directly at Rachel’s heart. “We’ll make Atom’s will a reality together, just like we always dreamed.”

   “No,” Sister Emily snarled, tears flowing down her face as she drew her plasma pistol and curled her finger around the trigger. “No, brother. If you kill the Emissary, I swear to Atom I’ll kill you here and now. I swear it.” She sniffed back a trickle of fluid from her nose. “I mean it, brother. Don’t make me choose.”

   Brother Joseph smirked. “You wouldn’t dare. I know how you feel about me. You couldn’t kill me even if you wanted to –” Before he could even finish speaking, his head became wreathed in searing plasma which swiftly turned his flesh to sizzling mush. The smell filled Rachel’s nostrils over and above the scent of her own blood, which flowed over her hands as she clutched at her belly. She heard the front door being flung open as Sister Emily fell to the ground, wailing as she put her head in her hands, Piper rushing to her side and immediately cradling her as she felt her thoughts ebbing away.

   “Don’t die on me, Blue,” she pleaded. “Not now. Not when we’re so close.” Rachel felt her eyelids fluttering, the world going dark and cold. As consciousness slipped away from her, she heard Piper’s desperate begging. “Come back to me, Blue. Come back to me.”

   No stimpaks left.

   No stimpaks left.