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Et d’abord, ne pas nuire

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The first round to arrive was twenty millimetres in diameter, and arrived at just under a thousand meters a second. It passed through the armoured glacis plate of the powered armour with ease, ignored the protective underlayer entirely, and went through the flesh below like it didn’t even exist. Then, it exited out the back, along with most of the contents of the armour, and found a final resting place in the soil, still soft from the rains of spring.

The Knight went down with hardly a sound; nothing more than a dull clang, the sudden squack of radio circuits severed across the TACCOM, and then the clatter of his shredded armour collapsing to the ground. The boom arrived shortly thereafter, echoing around Lexington’s buildings like far-off thunder; the shell a lightning bolt from a clear sky.

It took a moment for his squad to make sense of it all. The sun was shining, the sky blue, the previous lack of opposition comforting, the simple patrol they’d been sent on so boringly routine—and here was their point man, splattered across the ground, arterial blood painting the lichens a shocking red. In that moment, a second shell arrived, and another man went down. His death was not so quick. It was a high-explosive round, and despite the famed resistance of powered armour to explosive forces, it still shredded through his right pauldron to remove his arm. After a moment of shock, he screamed, and his team went to ground, lunging to cover as quickly as their powered armour would allow. It was then that the third round arrived, and the plasma charge it bore liquified the front of the third Knight, cooking the wearer alive while he thrashed frantically, trying to trigger the armour’s melted quick-release.

The patrol frantically dug in. Most cover was useless against that calibre of weapon, but walls could still offer some protection. More importantly, the unknown sniper couldn’t shoot them if she couldn’t see them. The problem was, where was the sniper? There were a hell of a lot of buildings in front of them, and a heavy rifle like that would have a hell of a range. It was time to use the not-so secret weapon of the Brotherhood, the key to their dominance: air superiority. They called it in. Squad under attack by an unknown sniper; heavy casualties; unable to scuttle lost armour, requesting dustoff and close air support. The impressively calm report was only somewhat spoiled by the increasing weak groans of the armless Knight, as his armour fought and failed to keep him from bleeding out.

They had popped smoke, at one point, and tried to retrieve him, but an explosive round had showered them in shrapnel and dirt the moment they tried to break cover. The unknown sniper had multispectral gear—probably thermals—and smoke was useless. Instead, they could only listen over the TACCOM as their brother died in front of them. They had cursed the sniper’s cruelty, then, and privately wondered who the hell was insane enough to ambush Brotherhood forces.

They had their own private worries, of course. Ever since the…forcible transition in leadership, they had suffered mysterious losses. Before all communication was lost entirely, they had heard—through the grapevine, of course, nothing official—disturbing reports from the Mojave. Squads losing men to high-calibre sniper fire, and finding nothing after investigating. Landmines found under the bodies of casualties. Fusion cores rigged to torch a few minutes after being installed in armour, burning a hole right through their users before they detonated in thermonuclear explosions; fusion cells that exploded in guns, shredding unarmoured hands and wrecking the delicate finger mechanisms of powered armour. Attempts at pre-emptive nullification of Follower activities ending in the total loss of armoured squads. Defections of key personnel. Key intelligence—technical data, even—passed to the NCR. At first, they had assumed it was simply increased enemy activity; but privately, all agreed that the style of the attacks was…worrisomely familiar. The Enclave had been broken in much the same way, after all, and it was rumoured that, though Lyons had been confirmed lost to the wastelands, her counterpart had never been found. If those rumours were true? Well, everybody just hoped they weren’t true, and left it at that. The events of Washington had led to immense bloodshed and loss of technical data. At least, this time, there would only be one enemy to contend with…

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Curie lay on her stomach, and she watched the scene with awe. Et d’abord, ne pas nuire, that was her watchword, but she wasn’t doing anything, was she? She was just…observing, and keeping a friend company, and that was all.

She took another sip of her lemonade, and wondered what an actual lemon tasted like. She wrinkled her nose as the smell of burned cordite washed over her. Her human was reloading. Empty magazine out, fresh magazine in, and, as that gloved hand worked the bolt with a firm chunk, she marvelled at how effective two hands and five fingers could be, and how her human had never looked away from the scope once during the whole process. The shots were as surgical as her scalpel, in a way; herding the little lumps of powered armour one way, and then another, all while preventing their further metastasization into the streets of Lexington. Not that these streets were anything special, of course—the Brotherhood wasn’t near any strategic targets—not threatening the Railroad’s Mercer safehouse, like the Institute had—but it was possibly the most comfy place to hunt from, perched as they were on a nice, solid rooftop, with two locked doors between them and anything trying to sneak up on them. Plus, she’d planned ahead, and brought a few things to make life easier for herself while she observed. A nice clean dropcloth, for one; and a little pillow for her chin, and a bucket full of ice and lemonade, melting under the hot sun, that she had steadily worked her way though while they had waited. She’d also had a radio with music, earlier, but her human had made her switch that off once they heard the chop of distant Vertibird rotors approaching. They didn’t think that Brotherhood teams knew how to use their armour systems to triangulate radio signals, but it didn’t pay to be cocky.

She heard the sound of those rotors approaching again, even now, as the Vertibird prepared to support the embattled team. She also heard the orders between the two, relayed from her humans earpiece—frantic requests for fire support and potential target locations from the team, and the cool professionalism of the pilots of the ‘bird. The ‘bird’s engines changed tone now, screaming louder as the blades changed pitch, the pilots setting up for what her human called close air support, coming in low and fast to minimise the chances of the sniper getting a lucky shot in on them. The ‘bird opened up, and explosions blossomed across the crumbling face of a nearby building as it was pummelled with missiles and gat-las fire. Beside her, her human glanced at her and smiled coldly, one lip curling to expose perfect teeth. Clearly, the Brotherhood team still didn’t know where they were firing from. A chainsaw-snarl heralded the ‘bird’s gunner opening up with the five millimeter minigun, and even as the bullets blindly flailed across the wall behind her, Curie’s human rose up from cover, rifle unwavering, even as the ‘bird banked around for a second pass. The rifle snapped twice, and Curie gasped as the shockwave grabbed at her lungs.

The first round went through the minigun, through the gunner, through the reinforced bulkhead into the cockpit, and out the bulletproof windscreen. The second round went through the right engine, through the engine directional motors, and then detonated at the root of the pylon, shredding the hardened metal entirely. After a moment, the pylon failed catastrophically, and the ‘bird fell from the sky in a stream of smoke and fire, cartwheeling across the sky above their heads. It ploughed into the ground in front of the building and then, a moment later, the fire reached the smashed fuel tanks, and it detonated. Lying low, Curie watched her human jerk unnaturally, her head snapping back, before she went down in a heap.

Shrapnel.

She was already moving, then—one hand clamped around her medical bag, and the other around her pistol. She was at her side in moments, and her terror at the spreading pool of blood was muted by her programming. Preliminarily, assess wound, even as she lifted the head out of the pool of blood, set it in her lap, and pushed the dripping hair aside. E4 X0 C1 V1 M1, but had it penetrated? Check the eyes: blank, pupils frozen wide, the ring of targeting lenses around the pupil black and inactive. For any normal human, she would conclude brain-death, but given her patient’s unique physiology, it told her distressingly little. Spread the wound, irrigate it with saline to see the damage, try not to collapse in relief upon seeing nothing more than a new, shiny scar against the metal skull. Fish out the twisted piece of Vertibird—four millimetres of lethal metal, by her estimate—with scalpel and forceps and trembling fingers, even as her human stirred and twitched under her hands, augmented brain already rebooting after the shock of the impact. Push the ragged flesh back together, sink the needle of a Stimpack into it until the tip clinked against the skull, and squeeze the trigger until empty, even as the lasers cracked overhead, boiling the air with their passage. The remaining enemy had their range now, and a bass thrum heralded the firing of a gat-las, the fat energy bolts cracking the concrete behind her where they struck. She was somewhat proud to know it was what her human had termed suppressive fire, buying time while they pulled back to a more defensible position.

And then, her human was back up, her dark eyes ringed a glowing blue as targeting optics and sensory data slid across them. Her skin was knitting already; partly from the Stimpack, partly from her unknowable augmentics and monocyte-laden blood. It would leave a scar, but even that would fade in time. Her eyes blinked, flickered, and then focused on Curie. Later, she would be grateful, and she would melt Curie’s heart. Now, she was full of atropine and butyrylcholinesterase and rapana thomasiana hemocyanin, and her pupils were already widening as her mind sped up. There was already enough synthetic adrenaline in her blood to stop the heart of a normal human, but her heart was cybernetic, and proof against those insults.

Curie had a very firm idea of her own purpose. She was a scientist and doctor; an impossibly potent combination of molecular geneticist and biochemist and a thousand different surgical and practical disciplines. She blurred those lines, of course—no doctor should have to go into battle with a pistol in her gloved hand, and murder in her eyes—but, at her core, she understood her role in life. She innovated and improved and created science and progress. As her human had put it—wry smile and all, at her own terrible pun—she pushed the needle forward.

Her human’s role was precisely the opposite of hers, which she supposed made sense, given that they did say that opposites attracted. Her human was a hunter-killer; something you set loose to remove enemy commanders in a nuclear battlefield; to find enemy strategists and political officers in their hardened bunkers, in their capital cities; to eliminate both enemy command structure and their strategic assets by any means necessary, even after the end of the world. She was a sniper and a close-quarters-combat specialist and a demolition expert and a hacker and a tactician versed in the battles of history and politics, her mind packed with a thousand different angles of killing, all wrapped into one enticing, cybernetically-upgraded package that was, regrettably, quite skilled in the use of violence. Over the years, Curie knew she’d blurred her own lines too; learning about medicine and science and technology; and hiding a bit of her terrifying presence (and glowing eyes) behind a cold charm and dark sunglasses. At Curie’s insistence, she’d even learned a bit of French.

She’d also learned how to kill Brotherhood powered armour from possibly the finest combatant the Brotherhood had ever produced. She liked the 20mm, but she didn't need it.

And even as she pushed Curie’s hand away, her other hand was already drawing her pistol from her belt. Her blood was up, and Curie heard the hiss of subdermal autoinjectors as she dumped more chemicals into her poor, abused circulatory system. Then, she was gone, dropping over the side of the building into the smokey mess of Vertibird below. It was two stories down, and Curie heard the dull clunk as she landed. Then, she was moving, her radioistopic signature bright against Curie’s sensor package. She was sprinting towards the Brotherhood soldiers, her pulse pistol drawn. It blipped twice, and Curie’s eyes watered as, even from a distance, the field effect made her brain tingle.

The first thing the Brotherhood survivors knew of her charge was the electromagnetic pulse that set two suits of powered armour twitching incoherently, their servomotors fried by the weapon that some Brotherhood scribe long ago had named a Circuit Breaker, and their wearers writhing in pain from the electrical feedback leaking into their undersuits. The survivors hadn’t heard of it, though, because, shortly after that scribe had reported her findings, she’d been excommunicated, and then the reinforced bunker the reports had been stored in had mysteriously collapsed, the surrounding area so hot from radioactive leakage that it was impossible to excavate. Then, she was on them, charging out of the smoke, an automatic recharger pistol in one hand, and a short sword in the other. One hoisted the gat-las, trying to turn it upon her, but she put a burst of energy into his face, and he recoiled screaming. The laser had only scorched the armour’s plating, but it had burned his eyes through the reinforced glass slit. And then, she was among them, and Curie watched as she used the pillaged gladius like an autopsy knife. A quick stab, using her inhuman strength to punch the blade through the vulnerable arm joint, before she ran it up the arm and all the way into the clavicle. A quick withdrawal—her arm now stained with the blood of the enemy—before she put it through the back side of the knee of the next soldier, sawing through muscles and veins. Curie suspected she had severed his femoral artery. His death would be excruciating, and despite her digital Hippocratic oath, she found that she minded it very little. The third had charged her then, hoping to use the mass of the armour to crush her. From the way her human had twitched out of the way before she drove the blade into his intestines, Curie could tell she’d dumped her entire GRX reserves into her circulatory system.

And then, the fighting was done. Curie guessed that some Brotherhood were still alive, slowly bleeding out inside their powered armour, but they wouldn’t be for long. If the blood loss didn’t kill them mercifully, the Commonwealth would, and the mosquitos probably had already scented blood. She packed up her things, descended the stairs, watched her human sway out of the smoke, and then caught her as she collapsed from exhaustion and overdose. She was as shockingly heavy as ever, but Curie needed only hold her for a moment, before she was already coming to, her filters purging the chemical residues and toxins from her system, and replacing them with fresh respirocytes and perfluorocarbons. Soon, she would be back to her old, distressingly-lethal self.

Curie…she would not regress so, though. There existed a time—some time ago, admittedly, when she had only just met her human—when Curie would have demanded that the wounded be treated sufficiently to survive, in accordance with the laws of war—Article 79 of the 1863 Lieber Code; Article 6 of the 1864 Geneva Convention; Article 10 of the 1880 Oxford Manual; Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions; Article 10 of the 1977 Additional Protocol I; Article 7 of the 1977 Additional Protocol II; Article 8 of the 1977 Additional Protocol II, and so many others that she could not possibly begin to forget with her perfect memory. There was also a time—somewhat less time ago—when she would have insisted that her human put the wounded out of their misery, to—at the very least—spare them the all-too imaginable sufferings that the Commonwealth could provide. But now, her hands still stained red, and her human’s bloody head limp against her own, she found that she couldn’t really think of anything but one particular individual.

Oh well.

Qui n’avance pas, recule.