Bittersweet Rivalry

1. The individual who holds this contract, where “hold” is to physically possess the contract or to have it in his or her personal keeping, is hereby known as the “Employer” of member 26, hereby known as “Charon.”

2. The Employer is not required to keep the contract on his or her person, but must have it in possession and must be the clear Employer of the contract for Charon’s terms to take effect.

3. Charon’s first objective is protection of the Employer in terms of combat, where combat is defined as the use of weapons or sparring to end threatening situations;

4. Charon is bound to protect the Employer from harm, where harm includes but is not limited to, physical attacks, maiming, dismemberment, and any action against the Employer that can result in death.

5. Penalty upon failure of any order given (provided that the order was specifically stated verbally) or to protect the holder of this contract from harm may result in Charon’s termination, should the holder of this contract choose to do so.

6. Charon will not flee from life-threatening situations to himself unless ordered to retreat by the Employer; however, physical violence on the Employer’s part invalidates the contract.

7. Charon must be within easy access of the Employer at all times, and never at a greater distance than one mile.

8. Charon must follow all orders given by the Employer at all times until otherwise specified;

9. However, Charon must refuse orders that separate him from his contract so that contract consistency and employ verification can be irrefutable.

10. This contract is null and void upon Charon’s death.

11. Upon death of the Employer, Charon is required to retrieve the contract and will protect it as the Employer until such time that an individual claims the contract again.

When I was a kid, I lost my parents to some raiders who were scavenging for supplies, and a few days after that, I was picked up by a slaver cult. Schafer was with them. They seemed nice enough to start, but then they beat me, tortured me, and for some reason, they were always shoving a piece of paper in my face with some writing on it.

I’ve memorized the articles on there. Even when I thought I didn’t know what was on the paper anymore, I knew it.

We were trained to use power armour, be the best of the best. I can remember each of the other kids I grew up with, but I can also remember how I didn’t feel anything for them, and they didn’t feel anything for me. I didn’t care about anyone or anything besides that contract. I’m sure they felt the same.

A couple of days passed in Paradise before anything eventful happened. First, their tech Morgan came back to town, and that in itself was anticlimactic. He was some asshole no one actually gave a shit about. Pretty weak-willed guy. He was worse than Gob was, if that was possible. But he did take out every last bit of data on the boss’s Pip-Boy, the fucker. If they could have taken that thing off without taking her arm with it, they would have. The only thing saving her was how many caps she’d fetch to the right buyer. Didn’t want to damage the goods, after all.

I’d never given a shit about previous owners. But I was fucking fuming inside. I’d stand at attention for Eulogy every day, hornets buzzing in my skull, seeing red everywhere. One opportunity, just the barest sliver of chance to interpret orders, and I’d blast any last one of those fuckers.

But he wouldn’t, and I knew that. Her and I were both trapped. Besides breaking one of the terms on my contract, this was the worst thing I’d ever had to go through. Some people deserve this fate, but her? Not her. And I couldn’t do nothing about it.

A few days later, opportunity came knocking.

Jones had me keeping watch over the slave pen, just to give Forty a break. I didn’t see Gob or the boss; I think they were inside the shack that was attached to the fenced off shit hole. I’d been hoping Jones would send me over here, or at least give me another load off, just so I could see if she would look at me. I slept a bit in between, but any chance I got, I was watching the pen. Either she was in the house, or if she was outside, she never looked up. I don’t know if she knew I was there or not, but she probably did, and she probably couldn’t look at me. I didn’t blame her, but I hoped she’d give me a glance.

Shit. I was getting pathetic.

I was standing there by the pen when shit started. It was sometime in the afternoon, and Grouse was calling for Forty. I didn’t glance over; I was supposed to keep watch on the slaves, but I listened to the confrontation.

“Hey, FORTY!

“I’m on fucking break man, what do you want?”

“Go get Mr. Eulogy. We’ve got trouble.”

“Why don’t you go get him?”

“I’m not even supposed to be away from the fucking gates, you moron. There’s a Talon company on our doorstep.”

I guess people weren’t kidding when they said the Talon company took all the contracts the other mercs wouldn’t. Now they were prepared to paint the town red just to get me and Gob out? I’d never pictured a better looking piece of art.

Forty was all quiet for a second before I heard him leap off his bar stool and run for Eulogy’s cardboard mansion. A radroach could scamper through the camp and everyone would lose their shit, they were so unskilled. The other slavers started mumbling, drawing their guns and cocking them.

One or two slaves looked interested, trying to crane their necks to see what was going on. They caught me staring at them, though, and they looked away pretty quickly. I wasn’t trying to tell them to fuck off—I was just as interested as they were. I wanted to know how Jones was going to handle this, ’specially considering his motley crew of fuckups couldn’t seem to handle common sense on their own. Most of all, I was interested in what was gonna come out of this when the mercs found out Eulogy Jones’s personal bodyguard was their target of interest.

People came out of the old house. Eulogy called after me. “Charon, come with me.” His statement kind of ended on a high note, almost like a question. Either he was super pissed and trying to hold it together, or he had his head shoved just as far up his ass as his cronies. I turned from the slave pen, uncrossed my arms, and started off behind Jones’s little train. Other slavers started to trail behind him too, and I was pretty sure the entire town was following.

We got up to the gate, and this time they’d left it open. Sloppy. When we rounded the gate and headed toward the outer wall, I could see Talon company coming up the path, pushing aside Grouse on their way up. There were about ten of them. At the moment, anyway.

I could see Eulogy tense up the moment he saw the mercs snaking up to his gates. He started shaking his head, and he held out his hands like a peace offering. At least he was trying to go about this in an intelligent fashion. “Gentlemen, gentlemen, let’s not take this out of hand,” he said, strolling to a stop. The mercs, in V formation, came to a stop about ten feet away from Eulogy, their guns cocked and raised. I retaliated, but Eulogy muttered for me to hold fire. The other slavers aimed from the hip. A few of the mercs were staring right at me, and a couple more started to look around at each other, shifting their weight nervously. They knew who I was, all right. What I was.

I came to a stop a few feet behind Eulogy, and two mercs near the front pointed to me, while one of them said: “We’ve got some business with your slave, there.”

A lot of people tended to have business with me nowadays. This was getting fucking stupid. Eulogy said, “Any sort of business in Paradise Falls can be run by me.” His voice was grated. I could tell he really would rather be dealing with a pack of deathclaws than these bastards.

“Eulogy Jones, right?” the same merc said. “Turns out you enslaved two ghouls on a very, very important contract to us. We want them back, no trouble needed.”

“I’m sorry, friends, I can’t do that.” I could tell Jones wanted to say a few more choice words, but he was treading carefully over really fucking thin ice. He knew a bloodbath with a bunch of trigger happy mercs wasn’t the best of strategies. At least, I hoped he knew this. I didn’t take Eulogy for a dumb ass, but I’d been led astray before.

“Look, why don’t we strike some deal? Maybe you got some old business that needs taking care of. We can do a fair trade for the two ghouls.”

“Hold on, son—pump the brakes,” Eulogy said with a chuckle. “We don’t barter favours in Paradise Falls, we barter caps.”

“Come on, Jones. We don’t want any trouble, and handing over those ghouls now will save us both a ton of caps and blood.”

“If you’re gonna be a fucking smart ass, I’m gonna have to ask you to leave.” He was letting it slip. If he wasn’t careful, he was gonna fall into the ditch of the Point of no Return. “Gentleman, this is a lost cause; the amount of caps you’d need to buy back these slaves is probably more than you’re being paid to begin with. Let’s just drop this and move on, shall we?” Good recovery, I thought, almost fell apart there, Jones.

Some mercs stared at me, some stared at Eulogy. Their faces hadn’t changed. They weren’t going to back down. Whichever bastard in Underworld was paying for this bounty, it must’ve been pretty fucking big, just to get all these clowns to march into Paradise Falls and demand us back. They weren’t about to back down. I knew they wouldn’t.

“All right, Eulogy. No hard feelings.”

Wait, what the fuck? He may as well have been waving a big-ass red flag.

“Good to see we’re on the same page,” Eulogy said with a grin. Fuck, I really hoped he saw through that. I knew without a doubt that they weren’t going to pull out that easily. They’d jam themselves up Eulogy’s ass for days before they backed out of this. I would’ve told this to him, but I wasn’t on any instruction to say anything, not unless he asked.

Thank bloody Christ I didn’t say anything; it would have screwed everything over. Nothing that night would have happened the same way. Jones wasn’t totally lost to the idea that these guys weren’t serious about backing off, but if I’d said anything, the mercs would have never stood a chance.

“See you around,” the head merc said, then all of them lowered their weapons and funnelled back toward the sub gate. Grouse was still standing off to the side where he’d been pushed, holding a pistol at his hip toward the flock. He looked really, really fucking mad. I could tell this wasn’t the guy who got pushed around very often, and he wasn’t taking to it one bit. I could practically see the steam blowing from his ears. He wanted to unload on those motherfuckers. I suppose he was like me, in a way, save for the contract. He knew better than to fuck up Eulogy’s plans. When the group of mercs got closer to the gate, Grouse started off behind them, marching real slow and deliberate like. Forty strolled after him slowly too, holding his assault rifle to his shoulder.

“Charon,” Eulogy said as the last of the mercs trailed off from view, “come with me. The rest of you, stay on guard tonight, just for extra measure.”

He was gonna need a whole lot more than that.

Jones knew I was trained for combat, but he considered me highly valuable, too valuable to put in harms way, if he could help it. Which is pretty fucked up, considering I’m built for the dangerous shit. So he had Forty and Grouse keep watch out front, while all the other slavers kept to key points in the town. I was by the slave pen again. I suppose he figured that if the mercs were to somehow get past all the other slavers (if they actually decided to attack), I’d be the last thing they’d get to, considering I was half the prize. The whole thing seemed funny to me, though; If I took a shit on the ground, it’d be more valuable to Eulogy than half his slavers combined.

I was to stand facing away from the pen, looking towards the path to the front gate. I wanted to glance over my shoulder every now and again though, just to see if the boss was there. She was so close, within a few strides reach, but I couldn’t see her. I didn’t care if it was daggers she was glaring at me, but if she was looking at me, that meant she was still there.

Flood lights were set up along Paradise Falls, and here and there a flaming barrel. So I could clearly see that slaver walking up to me from all the way across the yard. I’d seen her on the way in a few days before, then here and there when I was watching over the pen. Her head was shaved, save for two wisps of hair at the front, which she turned upwards into little horns. I thought she looked like a fucking retard, but all the power to her, I guess. Her eyes were kind of squinty, and her cheek bones were a little too jagged where her jaw was a little too small. Her clothes, not to mention, were filthy rags. Yeah, sure, being a Wastelander wasn’t a fashion show. You wore what you found, and you went with it. But it looked like she went for a pile of trash and got dressed in the dark. I guess what I’m trying to say is: I didn’t like the bitch, not since I first saw her. I could tell she was an evil scumbag, just like Ahzrukhal.

“So, you’re Eulogy’s new plaything, huh?” she grunted to me in a rough voice, like she was trying to be macho while retaining some of her femininity at the same time. She walked up next to me (lumbered up next to me is more accurate) and stood facing the same direction I was. She leaned against the chain link fence that preceded the slave pen and folded her arms across her chest. I didn’t even bother looking at her, but this didn’t discourage her. “The name’s Red. Carolina Red.”

“Don’t you have a post?”

“Take it easy, tough guy,” she barked, pulling a cigarette from one of her dingy pockets. “My post is right over there,” she struck a match, holding it to the smoke that was held loosely in between her lips, “I can see it just fine from this spot.”

“Go away.” I would’ve sworn her up and down under normal circumstances. I felt watched, though, so I kept it civil.

She snickered. “Hey, I like you. Strong silent type. ’Course, you could do with some more skin and hair, but the height’ll make up for it.”

“Go—” I growled, shoving her by her shoulder, “—away.”

“What’s the fucking problem, asshole?” Red sneered. Her voice was muffled by the cigarette she held so steadfastly between her stained lips. I didn’t look at her. I stood straight again and brought my eyes back to that point in space where the path to the gate disappeared behind a burned and gutted car. “I’m practically throwing myself at you, and you act like a dick! Shit, maybe you ain’t got no dick.”

“There a problem, Red?” some blonde burly guy muttered from up ahead. He was stalking toward us, glaring me up and down. For fuck’s sake, this was the last thing I needed.

“Yeah, there a problem,” she slurred, “numb nuts here doesn’t know how to treat a lady.”

A lady.

“That so,” the blonde guy replied. Fucking piece-of-shit dick weed slavers—

The blonde guy stood less than a foot from me, peering up into my face. I gave him my meanest fuck-off face, the one where I looked ready to bite off someone’s nose. “You’d better watch yourself, ghoul,” he breathed. Fuck, his breath probably stank more than mine. “Just because your Eulogy’s new favourite doesn’t give you superman status.”

“Just get back to your post,” I growled one last time, looking away with a roll of my eyes. I was getting awfully tired of this nonsense bullshit.

“Your loss,” Red whispered to me as she walked off. “Probably the last offer you’ll get for the next fifty years.”

“Go fuck yourself,” I muttered. She didn’t hear me. The blonde guy walked with Red back through the dark, whispering together in angry tones. No one ever liked me, save for Schafer (supposedly), and maybe Gob, so I wasn’t surprised to hear them cursing me to all sorts of shit under their breath. I didn’t care very much either. I was wondering what the boss was cursing me to, if she was even thinking about me, when the mercs made their first move.

6. Charon will not flee from life-threatening situations to himself unless ordered to retreat by the Employer; however, physical violence on the Employer’s part invalidates the contract.

Somehow, without anyone noticing, one of the bastards climbed atop one of the tall walls on the southern side with a missile launcher. A fucking missile launcher. The missile whistled through the air before it collided with the small watchtower down the path, blowing the ironwork to bits, and sending the slaver on top flying through the air like a rag doll along with parts from his own launcher.

I pulled my shotgun and took off down the dirt path. Some slavers just started shouting and screaming, as if that would help the situation. Some took off down the path toward the front gate. Red and the blonde guy were running past the junked car ahead of me, when I noticed a small fire burning up the inside. They were old, but whatever people built them with two centuries ago, they made sure they were as dangerous as guns.

“Over there!” I yelled behind the two jackasses, and I threw myself behind a wall. Neither of them got the chance to even pay attention to what I was trying to say, because next thing the car blew up, sending flames and debris flying in every direction around the town. I felt scraps of metal pound into the wall behind my back, and I saw bits of flaming car shoot past. A few pieces embedded into the generator lining Jones’s house, and the lights went out.

Fuck!” I heard Red yell, followed by her vicious screaming. The other blonde guy didn’t call out. He was probably dead.

“What the fuck is going on?!” some guy said from my side, running from the bar. He threw a drinking glass of scotch to the side as he pulled out his shotgun, looking down at me.

“Mercs.” I stood and checking my weapon for functionality. “Ambush.”

“Fucking Christ,” the guy growled, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, then pumping his shotgun.

“Fucking bastards!” another slaver yelled, then gunfire opened up. The mercs were in Paradise Falls.

“Cover me,” the slaver growled, then ran around the corner. I was still checking up on my shotgun when the guy went guns blazing into a fight. Tough fucking titties for him. His orders didn’t mean shit to me.

A few seconds later, Eulogy came bursting through the front doors of his house with his two bodyguard slaves at his heel. He had two revolvers in his hands (he took the one Gob had when he pinned the collar on him) and his eyes were buggy and real frantic. I caught his eye from across the way, and he started off toward me, the girls running right behind him. A few bullets whizzed past them as he caught up to me. One of the girls got clipped in the leg and she fell to the ground. Eulogy didn’t so much as look back for her.

“Charon, I want you to cover the pen,” he demanded, ducking behind the wall. The blonde girl stooped beside him, loading her pistol.

I nodded, stalking off backwards toward the pen again. Like I said, I was built for the thick of it, but he wanted his most valuable assets all in one corner, well protected. A few mercs went to hand to hand combat with the other slavers. A few more were having a gun fight from behind a few piles of junk, but none of them bothered to shoot at me. They wanted me back alive.

When I’d backed up to the gate I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. A few mercs were dropping from the top of the wall, landing ungracefully into the dirt. Talon company was known for its brute force tactics rather than agility. I stayed put where I was, but I pivoted and took a shot at the idiots. I was a little far away to cause any serious damage, but I clipped one with a few pellets, making him stumble. They started towards me, drawing assault rifles. I kept moving. For mercs, they seemed to have piss poor aim too. One of them missed me and shot at the slave pen gate, chewing the lock to bits. They were getting closer now, and I opened fire again, unloading the remaining four shots at them. After the fourth shot, one of them was still standing, and for some reason decided to toss aside his gun and charge me.

I could have laughed. That was really fucking funny.

For shits and giggles I charged too, still holding my shotgun, but instead of firing I ran over the guy. Literally. He could have been half my size. Bowled him right over. I made sure to double back and give him a few swift kicks in the head. Yeah. Unnecessary, but you have to stop and smell the roses every now and again, right?

With the area secured, I reloaded my shotgun, then started to move back into position, when I heard a distinct squeak from the hinges of the gate behind me.

I turned around, holding my shotgun up, coming face to face with the boss. Hah, this holding her at gunpoint thing was starting to become routine. I saw more movement, and I twisted from her to the rest of the pen. Gob was standing at the gate, and he was holding it open for the other slaves to file through. They all paused, staring at me, probably expecting me to fire. How the hell did they get through? I stopped trying to sort things out, and I turned from them, bringing my eyes back to the fight ahead. I felt like the boss was going to say something to me, but she didn’t. Hell, I wanted to say things to her too, but even if I could have thought of something to say, I probably wouldn’t.

I didn’t fire because I wasn’t supposed to kill any slaves escaping—that was what the collars were for. I also had no orders on stopping them. Not really.

She moved past silently, never taking her eyes off me, and a trail of slaves stalked after her, their heads low and their steps light.

Gob was the last to pass through the gate. “Charon?” he whispered, but I didn’t acknowledge him. “Thanks, buddy.”

I wasn’t doing anything for him, but if it made him happy, then whatever. I kept scanning the area for threats as he rushed off behind the slaves. The boss ushered them behind the same wall where I had taken cover a few moments before. All the slavers and mercs had been fighting up close near the front gate, and nothing reached me from back here. Everyone had a weak strategy; they were pitting themselves up close and personal, with no sort of cover or distance in order to fight properly. At least, that’s how things were at that moment.

Then I watched a merc hobble up the path with a large launcher perched on his shoulder, looking like a pack brahmin.

Well, fuck me sideways. It was a mini nuke gun.

What in fuck’s name were these crazy ass mercs thinking? Why the hell would they drag a fat man all the way to Paradise Falls just to get two ghouls back? Why would they jeopardize killing their bounty? “Heads up!” I shouted from where I stood, but no one heard me. No one but the boss. From the faint light of the fire barrels, I saw her silvery blonde hair whip around as she looked to me. She peeked over the corner, and she could see the gleam of the fat man by the faint light too. The guy got down on one knee, and started to load a small bomb in the chamber.

“Lambert!” a merc called, disengaging to yell at the kid merc. “LAMBERT! WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?!”

“Clearing a path, boss!”


He closed the chamber.

Holy fuck! Holy fucking fuck! He was going to kill everyone, including all the mercs that were fighting. He would end up blowing himself away too. The fucking idiot kid!

The boss shot up, pulling a few slaves by the scruff of their tunics as she tried to urge them back toward the pen for better cover. A few of them panicked, and started off toward the front gate, past the battle that waged. “No!” she tried to call after them, but they kept running. She had Gob help her urge everyone else back, even though he didn’t seem to know what the fuck was going on, and I stood there by the pen’s gate, hoping they’d make it in time. I couldn’t leave my post, but I could feel the urge to run up to her and help her burn in my feet.

Lambert yelled something out, and most of Talon company sprinted out of my sight, probably back through the gate. One guy looked like he was going to tackle the kid to get him to stop, but a slaver shot him in the ear before he could get there. That’s when one of them raised the cry that a small nuclear explosion was about to go off and they started running back toward me, screaming at the others to get a move on. I could see Eulogy and his slave dash away, the look of people who’ve just shit themselves, when the merc launched the bomb.

At that point, a few of the slaves with Gob were trailing behind the boss, and she was strides away from the pen’s gate. The moment I saw the nuke fly from the gun, I reached out to grab her by the arm, and I pulled her forcefully toward me, and shoved her over onto the ground so that I could cover her body with mine. She tried to struggle a bit, but I forced her down with my hands. “Stay down!” I shouted, and a split second later, the explosion went off.

The heat, the noise, the radiation washed over me. Blinding light illuminated the town. Bodies went flying through the air, a few of them still alive, screaming as they went. When the deafening roar reduced to a growl, and the bright light morphed into a billowing black mushroom cloud, I stood from over the boss to look at the damage.

The guy who’d launched the mini nuke wasn’t there anymore, and a sea of bodies lay strewn across the ground. Some people were still screaming, some were dead. The slaves that had been trailing behind the boss were still alive, but they were burned or burning. They tried to crawl to the pen still, as if somewhere in their minds that was the last thing they had to do before dying. The ones who were with Gob were smouldering bodies now, but Gob himself was okay. He rushed up towards me, and landed on his knees beside the boss.

“Hey, you okay?”

“I’m fine.” I could tell that she wasn’t.

I looked over the small body count, and I caught the sight of the Eulogy’s blonde slave lying there. I only knew it was her by the wisps of pink dress that were left behind, but her body itself was burnt like an overcooked brahmin steak. Poor bitch. I looked to the left of her, and I saw Eulogy’s body. He’d been hit pretty hard by the blast, and he seemed to catch a good chunk of the shrapnel and heat. The longer I looked at him, though, the more the uneasy feeling started to take me over.

My master was dead.

I’d failed to protect him.

I’d went for her instead.

The contract.

The abyss was pulling me back. I staggered backward from the force of it. Fuck, I was losing my mind—I could feel hell close in around me again and fuck no don’t make me go back there please let me out—

“Charon!” I don’t know which one of them said it. I slid down the gate and brought my knees up, resting my elbows on them, knotting my hands in what was left of my hair. What was I going to do? Someone pull me out! I WANT OUT I WANT OUT!

Someone shoved something in my face. I caught the glimpse of weathered, yellowing paper to see the boss holding out the contract to me. The edges were a little burnt, but it seemed to be intact. Most importantly, it was in her hands again.

Oh. Fuck. Yes.

I couldn’t tell you how relieved I felt, but I was still bewildered. I looked into her eyes for a second, still slouched on the ground, and I noticed how much more hollow she seemed to be. The light was faint, and her eyes blended in with the dark, but I could see the weakness in her face. Haggard, in a way, full of turmoil, and even more pale, if that were possible. She didn’t urge me on or anything, but she held my eyes for a moment, and it looked like she was struggling to hold on to herself. Gob was standing beside us, and I heard him shuffle his feet. “Come on, I think someone’s coming,” he said with panic.

“Get us out of here,” she muttered.

I stood abruptly, then reached down for the boss’s hand gently, pulling her up. When she was on her feet, I grasped my shotgun in both my hands again, then started off down the path ahead of them. I watched for possible targets, but I also couldn’t put the tingle in my hand out of my mind. Her hand was so…dainty.

That was the first time I knew she was in huge fucking trouble.

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