'Twas the night before Christmas, long after the War
Not a creature was stirring, not even a Cazador;
The rifles were propped near the doorway with care,
In case an attack left no time to prepare;
The raiders were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of ultrajet danced in their heads.
December 24th, 2281.
"What the hell's this?" Betsy the Raider held up a greying, formerly green plastic item. It was sadly mangled by the passage of time, but had once been dearly treasured – why else would it be kept in a box, buried away in a closet and untouched by generations upon generations of scavengers? Dust fell off in clouds and clumps as she shook it. The box it came from had large black letters across it, but Betsy had never found a reason or an opportunity to learn the alphabet well enough to read them. She ran her fingers along the strange green hairs protruding off the central column. It reminded her of the dead skeletons of trees she sometimes saw dotting the landscape, or the more lively ones she'd seen once when she strayed a little too far into the mountains.
"How the fuck should I know? You think I know how to read?" Shirley snapped. Shirley had been Betsy's partner in crime going on five years now. She was tall and pretty and her hair was gold like the sun, and if you handed her a gun you'd find she had the sharpest eye and the steadiest hand Betsy had ever known. She was also currently knee deep in boxes, tossing item after item aside as so much junk as she searched for something valuable. There was a growing pile of tangled wires with long-extinguished bulbs dangling off them. Another pile was nothing but little plastic figurines.
"You think it's a weapon?" Betsy asked. She not-so-carefully turned the green thing around in her hands, examining the base. "Could we use it?"
"I dunno, Betsy, let's try it out. How 'bout I hit you a few times and you tell me if it hurts?"
"Shut up," Betsy complained. She set the tree aside in the corner, then rummaged around in the rubble some more, looking for food or bullets or meds or the kinds of odds and ends that might entice someone to part with a few caps. "Hey, look," she said suddenly, as she freed a box from the pile and pried open the lid. "Whaddya think, Shirl? These might be worth something, right?"
Shirley peered inside at the rows upon rows of glass globes, each neatly placed inside a single cubed-off space. They were all the same size and the same shape, but somehow each one was also different. Red and white and green and gold, some with words and some with little pictures printed on them. Some kind of animal like a Brahmin with a red nose. Leaves with red berries. An old man with a white beard. Three white circles with a face. Striped red and white canes. Someone had treasured these, once. Someone had laid them to rest with care.
While Shirley was still busy examining the box's contents, Betsy yanked on it to pull it free from the neat stacks in the closet. The globes spilled out onto the worn floorboards, their delicate glass shattering instantly upon impact.
"Damn it, girl! Now what are we gonna sell?!" Shirley grabbed a handful of some kind of sparkling red plastic grass and threw it at Betsy.
Betsy pulled the strands of plastic out of her hair and started to backed away from the pile of boxes and the broken globes. "It's not my fault! The box just came apart! They shoulda packed them better way back when-"
"I'll show you what's not your fault-"
The voices faded as the two raiders moved on to more plentiful bounties. Their boots crunched over the glass scattered across the floor. The house fell silent, empty once more.
The old plastic Christmas tree stayed where it was, propped up in a corner of a dusty old house whose owners had long since perished in the cleansing fire that had swept over the Earth. One day, the house itself would crumble and fall, the wooden beams losing their battle with time, the metal rusting through, the floors caving in. And then, at long last, the tree would find its final resting place among the ashes of the Old World. The New World had no use for it.
You better watch out
You better not cry
You better not pout
I'm telling you why
Vault-Tec is here to help you get through
And in Vault 105, preparations were underway.
Preparations were always underway in Vault 105. There were inventories to be done, heads to be counted, repairs to be made, children to be educated so they could build a glowing future when the Vault door finally opened to the outside world. But the preparations that were underway in Vault 105 tonight were a special kind of preparations. Once a year, every year since the bombs fell, for one single day, the inhabitants of Vault 105 set aside their duties and their worries and they celebrated.
Some of the more cynical inhabitants of Vault 105 liked to point out that there was little cause to celebrate. The world above was destroyed, food was stretched thin, the water chip could fail any day now, and still there was no hint of a signal from the outside. A sign to tell them, come back. It's safe now. It's time to rebuild. For all they knew, they were the last surviving people on Earth, and they were buried in a slowly failing Vault. Why should they celebrate?
Others, however, including Sammy Baxter's mother, believed something else entirely. Sammy, her mother would tell her, look at us. Down here, two hundred years later. Still alive and kicking. Still eking out an existence. You can't kill us, Sammy. If the bombs didn't do it, nothing can. We're here to stay. That's why we celebrate Christmas, see. Just because we can.
Sammy didn't really know what to believe. She liked Christmas - all the kids did - but she saw the grown-ups struggling, whispering in hushed voices about the hard times that had passed and the worse times that were coming. She couldn't say whether they had anything to be happy about. Any reason to be hopeful.
Then again, she was only nine years old.
She peered up at the ancient, somewhat-dilapidated plastic Christmas tree that they were setting up in the cafeteria. The branches were more sparse than in the picture books they had from before the War. Time had left the tree in a somewhat sorry state, but they still pulled it out, year after year. They still put it up, year after year. They still draped it with decorations, year after year. That was how it worked in Vault 105. Use it until you can't anymore. Use it until it falls apart.
Peter Powell poked her in the side to pull her away from her thoughts, and she giggled. He was the same age as her and shared her work detail and her living quarter block and her class schedule. They'd known each other since they were babies. It was a good thing she liked him, because she had to see him every single day of her life.
"What're your mom and dad getting you this year, you think? Last year, my dad gave me a whole box of Sugar Bombs," he said proudly.
"No way," Sammy said, shaking her head, her pigtails bobbing up and down vigorously. "I seen the food storage. My dad works there. There's no Sugar Bombs anymore. Not since the flood two years ago. It got all the candy. You didn't get no Sugar Bombs last year."
"Nuh uh!" he said. "Nuh uh. I'm telling you, I got Sugar Bombs."
"Okay, so how come you didn't share?" Sammy asked, hand on her hip.
"Well- well I-"
"You're a liar, Peter," she laughed, giving him a little shove. Then she grabbed his wrist. "C'mon, let's go see if they put the wreaths up on the doors yet."
"Children! Come here, children. Who wants to help decorate the tree?" Connie Goodman called out. Connie Goodman was the official Vault 105 archivist, and her family had been in charge of the Christmas decorations for as long as anyone could remember. Maybe since the very first Christmas after the bombs fell. The older records had been wiped out when a mole rat chewed through some wires forty years ago, so no one knew anymore.
Laughing and chattering, the children swarmed around the boxes holding the decorations. All the ornaments had Vault-Tec logos stamped onto them. Vault-Tec trees, Vault-Tec candy canes, Vault-Tec stars, Vault-Tec bells, little Vault Boys and Vault Girls all dressed up in Santa garb. When Sammy was very little, she used to believe that Santa came in through the ventilation ducts to leave presents for the Vault's children, but she knew better now. There was no way a whole person could slip past the filters or the locks or the purification system. Besides, if Santa Claus was real, there was no way he could leave his own Vault at the North Pole, not while the surface was still scorched with radiation.
Sammy picked up a box of reindeer ornaments wearing little Vault jumpsuits and began hanging them on the branches of the tree. Peter followed suit, reaching above her to hang ornaments in places she couldn't quite reach yet.
And when the tree was finally decorated, ornaments hung, garlands draped, lights glimmering, the inhabitants of Vault 105 gathered in the cafeteria. The children circled around the tree and joined hands. One by one, their voices rose in song. Then the adults began to sing, until the entire Vault had joined in, all one voice for just this one night of the year.
All is calm, all is bright…
On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
Twelve Atomic cocktails
Eleven packs of Mentats
Nine varmint rifles
Eight ballistic fists
Seven RadAway doses
Six pre-War suits
Five baseball bats
Four Tesla cannons
Three gecko hides
Two deathclaw eggs
And a chip made of platinum
And smack dab in the middle of absolutely nowhere in the Mojave, Veronica Santangelo was wishing she'd brought something to drown out the incessant chattering.
It wasn't that she wasn't interested – being with the Brotherhood her whole life, acquiring lost knowledge was kind of her thing. It also wasn't that she didn't like the newest addition to their strange little group of travelers. She was actually thrilled when the Courier picked up Arcade in Freeside; it was nice to talk to a man of science, even if he was a Follower of the Apocalypse. No, it wasn't anything like that making her wish for some kind of noise canceling device. It was that after a hard day of walking in the desert (broken by a few bouts of punching when they happened upon a nest of giant radscorpions and then, later on, a small Legion camp), she wasn't sure she was in the mood for a history lesson. Especially this particular history lesson.
"People used to get together and sing songs, give each other presents. Did you know it was based on an Old World religion? My family used to celebrate, back when- ah, never mind. Anyway, as I was saying-"
"Thanks, Arcade, I think we all know what Christmas is. Besides, you really think we should go back to doing things the way we used to? Sometimes people have to adapt. Otherwise they just... reach a dead end. There's nowhere else to go when you only look backwards."
"Okay, so maybe I was a bit too enthusiastic," he replied. "But no, I'm not saying we should all go back to living the way we did before the War, but we can at least try to learn from our ancestors. Some people just don't take an interest in history. I think it's really a pity. With everything going on in the world, we could use some holidays."
Before Veronica could reply, a low, ominous buzzing sound started up somewhere over the next small hill. The Courier held up her hand, and they all came to a halt. The little robot that followed them everywhere played its telltale warning chime. Veronica sighed and tightened her grip on her power fist. Insects. Insects were the absolute worst when it came to punching things. Sticky yellow guts everywhere. She almost preferred when they blindly stumbled across a deathclaw-infested cave. At least then her robes usually stayed clean.
On the other hand - there was never a dull moment with these people. There were far worse things out there in the Mojave than an overly-enthusiastic traveling companion. And hey - who knew. Maybe Arcade was right. Maybe those Cazadors had built their nest over a cache of Old World technology, and this whole trip would turn out to be her kind of holiday.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on, our troubles will be out of sight...
And in a small abandoned town nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, children were laughing.
Annette leaned against the door frame of her humble abode, listening to the sounds of the desert in the early evening. It was peaceful out here in the frontier. There were no smoothskins out here, giving her nasty looks, terrified that she might suddenly go feral, always telling her to pack up and go. She'd already gone. (The ass-end of nowhere, she'd called it the first time she saw it, five seconds before she fell in love with the view.)
Her small but ever-growing snow globe collection had been given a prominent place of honor on the table. She'd dredged up a box of long-expired Nuka-Cola flavored candy canes on her last foraging expedition into the ruins of the supermarket. Her workbench was decorated with sprigs of horsenettle and broc flowers. It was Christmas Eve, after all. Time to pull out all the stops.
She slapped the side of the corrugated metal board house, and the strings of little white and yellow lights flickered on. She'd spent hours fiddling with the wiring this year. Back in California – in another lifetime, before the War and then after – she'd been an electrician. Out here, though, there was less need for technical know-how and more need for that basic grit that kept people alive against the harsh realities of the wilderness and the elements and the other things that inhabited it. She made do. Still, once a year, it was nice to stretch those old muscles.
Her traditional seasoned radscorpion was already roasting over the fire, its rich scent wafting through the evening air. Her famous banana yucca and jalapeno pie was in the clay oven she'd built herself back in the spring, brick by brick, by hand. All in all, not a bad year.
It wasn't Christmas like she remembered, no turkey and gingerbread and hugs from her long-dead grandmother, but it was something. And something, Annette had learned a long time ago, was better than nothing. You could always get by with something. (Secretly, she thought her grandmother would be pretty proud if she could see her now. Even taking into account her appearance.)
Out in the hills, past the garden she tended so carefully, the children were playing. They weren't hers, not really. She'd collected them along the way, or they'd found their way to her. She could never say no to a bright smile, even if it was missing a few teeth. Especially if it was missing a few teeth. No one deserved to starve, and it wasn't like she needed much to survive on her own. Company was nice, too. She could hear them shouting in the distance:
"Let's play Legion and NCR!"
"I wanna be the President!"
"No fair! I was Caesar last time!"
They chased each other with sticks and stones and played at war. In the end they fell down laughing, and there was no blood. There was no fire. There were no bodies, only bruises and breathlessness and a safe home to return to with the smell of warm food cooking.
Men and women die. Cities burn. The world is born anew out of the ashes. And war… war never changes.
But people always find a reason to celebrate.