The moon was a mirror. He never questioned it. He just watched. When a man spent months upon months keeping night lookout from the mouth of a godforsaken dinosaur, he supposed it might drive him a little crazy. And Craig Boone was well beyond the point of giving two shits on the matter.
Sometimes it showed the pretty face of his Carla, chin upturned in that regal way she had, looking down on him with a sad sort of smile that he could only hope was gratitude.
Sometimes it was the scope through which he had taken her life.
Sometimes he saw Cottonwood Cove asleep in its silver light. Then he saw himself striding into that nest of vipers, a man and his rifle in a blank haze of vengeance. Head shot after perfect head shot, legionaries falling quick and clean like practice bottles lined up on a wall. But no mercy for the slave master who had groped his wife on the auction block, ran a gleeful hand over her growing belly. That worthless fuck would be strangled with his own guts.
One night Boone gazed skyward and saw nothing of that sort. Only a dull orange disc, low and inert over the distant mountains. Boone didn't place much stock in omens, but he thought about that moon for a good long while. By the time dawn began to streak the horizon, he had made up his mind.
Manny Vargas came up with the sun to take his turn at the perch. Another morning, another shift change performed in the usual conspicuous silence. Manny had hated Carla, made all the arrangements. Danced on his pile of caps as the Legion scum dragged her from their home. Blown their brotherhood to hell, taken a great and steaming shit on their loyalty. On every target practice turned friendly competition, every bullet that had saved the other's ass in the field. Boone simply knew, as sure of it all as his aim. But then Manny cleared his name, and the real traitor was run out of town with one grazed shot to her leg - just enough hobble to stop a run, just enough blood for the deathclaws to smell. Months later, the tension remained. Boone never had a way with apologies.
Boone stopped Manny before he could sit down. He looked into the surprised eyes of his old friend, fixing him with a gaze that he only hoped was kindly.
Boone walked north along the broken stretch of highway. The wildlife kept their distance, as did a trader and his brahmin. Boone steeled himself, expecting a sales pitch for some hunk of salvaged junk from the animal's overloaded packs, but the merchant passed without comment on the far side of the road. Farmhouses appeared here and there, long since boarded up and abandoned. The desert matched his mood, flat and dry and empty. Bombed out, used up, fading away into dust.
The sun crept up, scorching the wasteland with its omniscient glare. Fractured asphalt shimmered through the amber of Boone's sunglasses. He relished the heat, reveled in it, as if its dry weight could bake him clean as the bleached gecko skulls laying off in the scrub. But that was bone, and Boone was flesh, and the motes swimming in his vision began to remind him that flesh would not be purified. It would be cooked. And he would damn well deserve it for blundering off into nowhere through the highest hell of noon.
Boone broke into a shack tucked into a rock outcropping. He scrounged some hard candy, choked down filthy water from the toilet tank. He stretched out on the worn bedroll, drifting in and out of an equally thin sleep until the cracks of light through the window boards began to dim. Sundown sent him back on his way amid blazing clouds and lengthening shadows.
The moon rose, distant among the cold glitter of stars. Flatland spread wide and unbroken on both sides of the road. Having long since lost track of time, Boone began to wonder if this span of nothing would ever end. He was an ant on a plate, circling around the edge, and steadily less hopeful of finding his way off before the bully came back with a magnifying glass.
The pavement swayed, tripping him up. The air rasped the mounting dryness in his throat. Boone took a clumsy detour through the roadside scrub, happened on a prickly pear with a lone bud of fruit. He carved off the tough skin, ignoring the prick of its spines, and wolfed down the resultant handful of blandly sweet meat. No refreshment, no improvement. No point in standing back up again. Boone could have raided an outpost, or the Cove, or the legendary fortress of Caesar himself. He could have at least taken down a Legion squad with him. Instead he was going to die of his own stupidity in fuck all nowhere without even a coyote around to mock him.
What a waste.
Yet he had to admit it was fitting.
A nudge. A shake. A pair of curious faces. Boone was lifted, hauled, set in a cart among pans and burlap sacks and assorted cans of food. Someone shoved a bottle into his hands, and he dribbled a stream of fresh water onto his shirt before remembering to aim at his mouth. It went down cool and pure, and he refused to nod off again until he had finished.
The journey passed in blinks of nightscape and the slow clop of brahmin hooves. At last they approached a high barricade cobbled together of plywood and corrugated metal. Civilian guards opened the gates, letting the caravan into an urban neighborhood. A sign arched overhead, labeled in a grab bag of scrounged neon.
Strange way to spell deliverance, but he wasn't about to argue.
Boone woke up in a medical tent with a peeling face, itchy hands, and the urgent need to piss. His rifle was parked in the corner, his beret atop a chair nearby. He stretched out to retrieve it, careful not to disturb the IV tube in his arm. The hat was his badge of honor, a remnant of service in the NCR elite. Its concealment of his baldness was a secondary benefit.
A doctor was chatting with his patient in the next bed over. Their conversation rambled in cheery and excessive detail about the bullets dug out of said patient's chest the day before, and Boone decided he had time to relieve himself. Might as well drown out the blather of someone with no business being that jolly about mooning Death and living to tell the tale. He found a portable urinal for the task, just zipping up as his own curtain parted to let in a tall blond man with glasses and a lab coat. The doctor sat down, handing Boone a bottle of water.
"Hello there. I'm Arcade Gannon. And you've been out for a while."
Boone drank languorously, savoring every mouthful. He didn't want to talk. He didn't want to be sociable. He sure as shit didn't want the pitying stares that his plain speech tended to bring, especially from overgrown schoolboys who looked like they read the dictionary for fun. But he did have a problem in need of solving, so he indicated the container in his lap.
"I had to go."
"Glad to hear it. Hydration to spare is a good sign." Arcade motioned for a passing assistant to take the urinal away. He looked Boone over, checked the fluid level in his IV. He rolled up a sleeve to pinch the unburnt skin of his forearm, nodding with approval as it snapped back down into place. "You're batting two for two with your indicators. That arm was like putty when we first got you in here."
"Does that mean I can leave?"
"Afraid not. Protocol calls for a forty-eight-hour stay, unless the alternative is to die of boredom. I'll try not to encourage that, but I can't make any promises."
Boone hadn't broken any bones, gotten anything sewn up. His sunburn was nothing special, and the cactus rash would fade along with it. "What for?"
"Rest and recovery. More work behind the scenes, so to speak. If you don't check yourself, you're going to wreck yourself. Trust me."
Maybe Arcade just Meant Well, same as anyone else who thought they knew Boone better than he did. Maybe he'd earned that lab coat of his for good reason. But Boone had earned his hat through the worst survival run the NCR had to offer - the Great American Challenge to the brass, Satan's Sphincter to everyone who had wrung themselves through it. Two solid weeks of crawling through caves and scrub-lined gullies, through sand that worked its way into boots and asscracks and everywhere else it had no right to be. Of gecko meat and bitter fruit made edible over campfires began with the focused glare of goggles. Of flannel mouths an hour away from the next supply cache, and a constant hand on the emergency radio that would phone them in defeated.
After all that, an overlong hike and subsequent recovery nap were little more than a scratch. A boo-boo. And Boone was supposed to sit around and mope like a peg-legged soldier on his way to permanent desk duty?
Hell with that.
Boone turned, swinging his legs off the bedside. He set hands on thighs and pressed himself standing. A wobble, a stumble, and he started to tip forward. Arcade caught him in a surprisingly strong grip, then guided him back into bed. Boone met his eyes in wordless defeat. Maybe he had a point after all.
Arcade made Boone comfortable before leaving the tent. He returned shortly after with a stack of books, depositing them on the chair with an apologetic shrug. "This is what passes for entertainment around here, unless you'd rather I bore you to sleep."
Boone hauled the entire pile onto his lap. Westerns and old magazines, relics of a long gone time torn apart from the bombs. When rangers ruled the desert with swift justice and bullets marked for outlaws alone. When women and children were sacrosanct rather than gunned down in shrieking flight with the faceless Enemy. The domestic blandness of the magazines provided some antidote until Boone came across an ad with an apron-clad woman gazing out the window, stirring a pot on her shiny new stove. Short blonde waves, a hopeful tilt to her head - through that softly focused lens, she may as well have been Carla. Twin fists of memory, a double punch in the gut, knocking the breath from him with equal cruelty.
The light through the tent canvas turned afternoon gold. A staffer brought in dinner trays of tinned meat and steamed fresh vegetables. Jolly Pincushion trapped her in conversation for what seemed the better part of an hour. After she left, he began to whistle.
And after he went to sleep, merciful silence dragged back into boredom.
Boone rolled over, tried to will himself into an early slumber. Morning was damn near forever away.
Arcade Gannon had never prided himself on his bedside manner. He lacked that nurturing instinct, that talent for coaxing out nuances of patient’s complaints. Plants were his preferred subject - all procedure, no psychology, and hopefully some medication concocted in the process.
When Julie Farkas suggested that Arcade come out of his cave for some human interaction, he suspected she had gotten into one of his failed experiments. Then again, his research had long since split itself between pipe dreams and drudgery. Perhaps he could stand a break.
It turned out to be a decent change of pace. Arcade examined freshly stitched stab wounds, calmed down drug-addled sad sacks needing their daily dose of Fixer. He even had some conversation, although it mostly involved getting his ear talked off. It still beat befriending a particularly cooperative mutfruit.
The 1st Recon sniper intrigued him. He alternated between sleeping and staring, speaking in gruff and monosyllabic simplicity. His lean face revealed nothing, almost defiant in its stoicism. After his initial overnight stay, he had been raring to leave. Arcade began to wonder if he actually had anywhere to go.
A leftover apple sat on the meal tray. The sniper spoke up when Arcade noticed it.
"Where did that come from?"
"Followers' secret." Arcade winked. "Not really. We built a grow room near our water treatment facility. Rudimentary, but it works." Other local co-ops grew maize, yucca, and similar hardy staples. The Followers tinkered with trickier crops, with cultivation techniques to hopefully go large scale. Their lone apple tree was uncurably thirsty. Its fruit would remain a treat, but at least it brought a smile to the patients' faces.
Except maybe this one.
"It's simple technology. The problem's with acquisition. The best grow lighting is salvaged from vaults, and you can't carry it all yourself. Well, I can't. And good luck getting anyone to help. I might as well be pulling teeth out of a deathclaw."
"So you've been?"
"I went into one. I have to say it was anticlimactic. Nothing but broken terminals and radroaches, a collapsed wall or two to send us around the long way." Arcade shrugged. "I suppose I shouldn't complain, but the kid in me had been hoping for an adventure."
"Those places all have a story to tell. That's the way I heard it." The sniper took a bite of his apple, chewing it patiently. "I guess some of them don't give it up easily."
A brief vulnerability flickered in his hardened eyes. It stuck with Arcade as he continued on his rounds, checking bandages and cataloguing symptoms and making the same old small talk.
Today was Boone's day. He was free to go.
Boone gathered up his gear, trying to figure out where. He thought of Novac, but he wasn't sure he belonged there any more. A dumpy hotel room by day, a dinosaur's mouth at night. Bad memories, broken friendship - clumsily reassembled, and the cracks would always show.
Hell with that.
The medical camp had been set up inside some old stone fortress that opened to the streets of Freeside. Drunks staggered out of the Atomic Wrangler, presumably the main draw for local misbehavior. Scantily clad women gyrated on street corners. A crier advertised robots performing similar services. Kids chased a giant rat with sticks. One sneaked up, trying to pick his pocket.
Boone grabbed his collar, shoved him away. "Get out of here, kid. Go home."
The boy glared, wide-eyed. "I don't have any."
Boone watched him amble off to some corrugated lean-to or distant alley. You and me both.
He turned around to retrace his own steps. Maybe there was something else.
Arcade left a patient's tent and nearly jumped out of his skin. The sniper stood nearby, his rifle slung across his back.
"Did you forget something?"
"I forgot to say I owe you one."
"No owesies needed. I do what I do." Arcade smiled wryly. "Besides, there's no point in keeping track. If we did, all of Freeside would be lined up to dance for us twice over."
"They'd do more than just dance."
"Don't remind me."
"Didn't mean to."
They stood without speaking. The sniper made no move to leave. Arcade's curiosity got the better of him.
"What sort of favor did you have in mind?"
"You talked about scavenging. Adventuring. Needing backup."
"I have nothing else. I'll go with you."
Arcade opened his mouth to tell the man not to trouble himself. He shut it again to reconsider. The usual gang of Followers had strong backs, decent marksmanship, reasonable senses of direction. They also had a fear of the underground, cemented by a cave excursion that wound up in a cazador nest. All had escaped alive. Arcade harbored hope of going back, recovering more of their valuable poison glands. And there was a particular vault he kept in the back of his mind, a rumored treasure trove of agricultural research.
He could also use a change of companionship. Two of the guys got into inane conversation for hours on end. Another kept singing the first two lines of the same five tunes. On the last trip, Arcade had gotten to wishing for a detour to the town of Agua Fria - wherever that was - or a spare bottle of wonderglue.
"What do you think about cazadores?"
"Target practice." A challenging pause. "What do you think about legionaries?"
"I'd say the same if I had your credentials."
Interest sparked in the sniper's eyes. Arcade extended a hand. They shook.
"Welcome aboard, Mr.-"
"Boone. Craig Boone."
Dawn broke on their day of excursion. Arcade had traded his lab coat for brown fatigues and a surprisingly stylish cowboy hat. A small computer was strapped to his wrist, some overgrown squirt gun to his belt.
"A Pip-Boy. Lucky find from a junk salvager. April, our resident robotics expert, fixed it up. Half the circuits are fried, but the mapping system still works." Arcade clicked the amber display on. He scrolled west, pointing to a road around a mountainous area. "Vault 22 is somewhere in those hills. The way in should be self-explanatory."
"I meant your weapon."
"It's a plasma pistol. Nothing like cold hard steel, I'm sure, but it gets the job done."
Boone's rifle was simple, straightforward, time tested. He enjoyed keeping it clean, handcrafting his ammunition. Wad cutters and armor piercing rounds, jacketed soft points to scramble legionary brains like so many rotten eggs.
They left through Freeside, looping around to the road along the northern ridge. They passed a distant shack, a stretch of hills, a dilapidated farmstead where brahmin still grazed in the scrubby fields. Boone's scope revealed that a Viper gang had taken up residence. They gave the place a wide berth, sneaking by on the far side of the highway.
As their shadows shrank under the rising sun, they kept an eye out for noonday shelter. A crevice in the hills turned out to be a cave, an unremarkable nook the size of a large tent. Boone unsheathed his pocket knife, idly whittling at a tree branch he had picked up outside. Arcade brought out a book from his backpack.
Boone almost had to laugh. Of all the ways to pass time, especially out in the field. "What is that?"
"The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. Light on numbers, long on readability." Arcade held it up. "Want to have a look?"
Arcade glanced over at Boone's carving. He failed to conceal a grin. Boone started to ask why and then noticed himself.
"It's a soldier. With a helmet. Not a-" He trailed off, refusing to say it.
"Sorry." Arcade gave a rueful chuckle. "It's been too long."
Boone mulled over that remark as he whittled arms and legs and a rough face, making his subject as plain as the day outside. He thought he'd felt eyes on him, an occasional overlong gaze. No big issue. Boone had fought alongside men of that persuasion, shared a tent without incident. They all knew the same difference between their rifle and gun - which was for business, and which was for fun.
The field was strictly business, and the afternoon sun soon reminded them to get back to it.
Open road. Flatland. Power pylons stretching into the distance. A gap in the mountains, revealing a trail overgrown with strange vegetation. The usual scrub came in various shades of dull. These plants carpeted the hillsides in shocking chartreuse.
Something rustled, emerged, scurried toward them. A giant mantis, easily beheaded by Boone's machete. Up ahead was a warning sign.
A piece of plywood had been nailed alongside it, crudely labeled in red spray paint.
STAY OUT! THE PLANTS KILL!
Arcade snorted. "Some joker's been watching too many horror holotapes."
But he found himself hesitating at the curtain of greenery over the vault entrance. The place he'd explored was an unmentioned blip on a tattered old map. Vault 22 had spawned its share of ominous rumors. Nothing specific - and likely trumped up with their share of brahmin shit - but they all involved tell of people going in and never returning.
Then again, the same applied to any enclosed space that had ever existed. The incautious and misfortunate had their ways of getting hopelessly stuck. Arcade and Boone had both gone through their share of field experience. Hopefully their luck would hold out as well.
Boone turned to him. "Are we going in or what?"
Arcade revved up his ripper, tore through the tangled vines. "Open Sesame."
Vault 22 was a dank, humid maze stinking of rotten loam. Flowering ferns overran the hallways, fluorescent in the sickly industrial lighting. Vines thick as wrists wormed out of vent louvers, webbed the ceilings, choked doors shut. Neither machete nor ripper made a dent.
The elevator was ensnared in a nest of roots. They passed the offices, wound past dormitory rooms with matched pairs of beds and dressers moldering in the damp. Boone imagined living in a meat can like this, year after year with the same handful of people. Marrying and raising kids and being buried in here - where did they put the bodies? He shelved that line of thought.
Downstairs was a recreation area where creepers hung in ropy garlands from the vaulted ceiling. A billiards set lay scattered on the pool table, illuminated by dusty spotlights. The radio was lit. On a lark, Boone flipped the switch, bringing forth the crackled baritone of Mr. Vegas.
Arcade sharply shut it off. Boone started to ask what his problem was when a rustle sounded within the walls.
"Did you hear that?"
"Probably just a mantis gotten into a pipe somewhere."
"It doesn't sound like one."
As they went on, Boone realized Arcade was right. Mantises scuttled, clicking and dry. This noise was softer, somehow wet.
Maybe it was one of those unexplainable building noises, same as the nighttime creaks of the Dino Dee-lite Motel. No sense in worrying unless they heard it again.
Great thorny vines blanketed the corridor to the food production laboratory. Someone had torched a path through, clearing the doorway. As they explored the lab level, breathing heavier in that congested jungle, Boone wondered if that someone had found their way back out.
An abandoned flamethrower gave him doubts. The cocooned corpse down the hall confirmed them. Arcade checked the fuel level, picked up the weapon. Smelling a strong whiff of rotten eggs, Boone told him to drop it.
Their lungs weren't just suffering from the humidity. This place had a propane leak.
The lab turned out to be an oasis of sanity. Various crops grew from racked planter boxes and large barrels sunk into the floor. Grow lights stood throughout the room, mounted on telescoping poles. Arcade flicked one on and dazzled himself momentarily.
Boone rounded up the merchandise while Arcade got to work on the terminal. He ran its cable through his Pip-Boy, hammering it with Vault-Tec authentication attacks until the requisite garble dump appeared. Arcade pored it over, swearing under his breath as he tried pattern after failed pattern. He hadn't expected the data holotapes to be sitting on a pedestal in an inexplicable sunbeam, but this process could stand to be a bit simpler.
Access forced. Databank found. Downloaded. Done. They each took two duffel bags and went to leave.
A rustle down the hall stopped them short. Same as the one they had heard upstairs. Wet. Slimy. And directly ahead.
They dropped their bags, drew their guns. Boone led the slow sneak down, long and lean and catlike.
Ferns bloomed tall in the far corner of the hallway, dwarfing their baby cousins upstairs. Arcade began to think that the sound had come from further along when something in the vegetation moved. Shifted and leaped and
Boone's shot punched a hole in its forehead. Arcade fired, hit home, repeated. The scaly green creature recoiled, its humanoid face twisted in pain. It shrieked. It charged.
They tag teamed the monster's knees, hustled back toward the lab as it fell and clawed forward. Another raced down the crosswise hallway. They shot, missed. Boone managed to partially hobble it. The mutant gave strident voice to its displeasure.
Down the corridor echoed the cacophony of countless others doing the same.
They shut themselves into safety. Boone raced for a heavy table in the corner, jerking a nod away from the wall. "Pull this out."
They hauled the table several feet, then Boone directed them to flip it over. Arcade almost asked why before he noticed the grenade.
"You work the door. I'll blow the gas."
Arcade flipped the switch. The panels began to part, showing a stampede of green down the hall. Boone's grenade arced through in seemingly slow motion as the doors reversed shut behind it. They dashed, dove into cover, made it. A blinding eruption blew through the corridor, miraculously contained by the thick glass portholes into the lab.
They waited for the heat to dissipate before approaching the far wall. Through the mottled residue on the windows, they saw only charred destruction.
Arcade tried the door with an unspoken prayer that it still worked.
They tied cloth over their faces, grabbed their bags, carefully waded through the thick ash blanketing the floor. And then rode their adrenalin rush all the way up to the surface.
A brilliant sunset washed over the trail away from the vault. They camped high on a nearby ridge, leaving their stash hidden behind a rock pile below. Boone lit a fire, and they wordlessly shared their canned food. Pork and beans, gelatinous bricks of processed meat - TV dinners taken piecemeal in the field.
Boone handed Arcade a bottle of water, opening one for himself. "What were those? They almost looked human."
"I won't have a clue until April gets her hands on this data. Its encryption is well beyond me. I'm a doctor, not a wizard." Arcade took a drink. "Even then, I doubt this particular consequence was recorded. We'd probably learn more from private journals."
"You didn't happen to find any?"
"No, and I was too short-sighted to look." Arcade indicated his glasses. "Ironic, given my prescription."
"I'm not going back in there."
"Wise man. I approve."
They clinked on that.
They gathered their trash, set out bedrolls. The first stars began to shine in the deep blue east.
Boone spoke up. "Nice shooting, by the way."
"Nice whiffing, you mean. Don't think you have to give me a gold star for effort."
"I meant what I said. You made good backup."
"I can do better."
"I'd like to see that."
Arcade surveyed the flatland east of their perch. Twilight gilded the edges of distant vegetation. "Poor unsuspecting cacti, all lined up for target practice."
"Can you hit that far with a short barrel and no scope?"
"I can try." Arcade quirked a brow. "What do I get if I win?"
"Maybe I'll let you fire one off."
Arcade swallowed a smirk. Boone's eyes sharpened in the dusk as the full meaning occurred to him.
"Don't get any other ideas."
"Break my heart, why don't you. I thought I might get a whack with that machete."
A snort. "I'm going to sleep."
Arcade slipped into his own bedroll, biting back a comment about joining him.