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JOHN

Beacon Hill, MA

April 14th, 2288

It was late morning by the time John got back on the road. When he had grown too weary to continue his homecoming, he had spent the night on the third floor of a gutted townhouse, grabbing a few hours of sleep, plasma pistol in his hand, snuggled into a discarded sleeping bag; its owner had either left it behind in a rush, or been unable to return and claim it.

He had opted to take the safe route to Goodneighbor, one more preferable when traveling alone, and it had taken him in a wide arc, leading him through sparsely populated areas and avoiding the tightly packed streets of the Fens and Back Bay.  He passed over a few potholed and fractured bridges, skirting around the riverfront. The raiders at Camp Kendall and those on the other side of the safeguarded bridge to Beacon Hill gave him little trouble. Their guns had lowered at the sight of his costume, a vivacious red against the cool concrete backdrop of the riverfront, and they allowed him to pass freely. Plenty of raiders swung through Goodneighbor – a fact which Danse had adamantly opposed…Finn, too, come to think of it – using their spoils to purchase rarer varieties of ammunition, chems, or alcohol. Several even had Memory Den accounts. More caps passing through the merchants was never a detriment, so John had allowed their presence, one of the few leniencies still in effect from Vic’s term as mayor.

John’s long walk had been tedious and dull. Although two canisters of Jet clacked together in his pocket with each step, he refrained from using them. An additional concern beyond throwing away his attempt at sobriety at the vault was that getting high on the streets of Boston and being killed would be a rude way to repay Danse for his affections. In a self-imposed compromise, he slid a tin of Mentats from a different pocket and popped two tablets, grinding them with his teeth before swallowing.

As he cut through Beacon Hill, detritus clogged the streets, turning multilane boulevards into narrow pathways through the rubble. There were often minute changes in the route. Intermittent chunks of buildings would crash to the street, sometimes a few shards of glass, sometimes half a story would come crumbling down, blocking an intersection, and new paths would have to be made. When that would occur, he would send out work teams, clearing a path though or putting up new signage around the obstruction, both leading to Goodneighbor.

As he wove his way through alleys and narrow corridors that used to be wide thoroughfares, a mark on propped up piece of cardboard caught his eye. Two swipes of blue paint intersected to form an X. His stomach knotted at the sight of it, panic charging his body with white hot energy and making his pace quicken. The sides of buildings and hastily erected signs became visible, baring either those same marks, or phrases such as Turn Back or No Ghouls!, all written in identical shades of blue. He broke into a run, plasma pistol bouncing on his hip, leaving rousing ferals and barking mongrels in his wake as he charged towards home. Fuck. Fuck, no. Fuck, ran through his mind as he sprinted. Courtesy of the Mentats he had taken, the marks stood out like vibrant, sinister slashes on the white exterior of Mass Fusion.

The familiar glow of Goodneighbor’s neon sign came into view, along with more alarming warnings. The overhanging overpass creaked and groaned ominously above as he flew to his town. Rounding a corner brought the entrance into perspective, a large X painted on the entry door, the blue paint still wet and shining. Fuck. Fuck! With cold sensations of fear spiraling within him, he banged the door open and flung himself through the doorway.

The streets were empty. He spun in a hapless circle, searching for anyone who might be lurking just out of view. A hulking metal figure still stood in her shop. John raced towards KLEO as he shouted, gasping, “Is it here? Is it back?”

“As I’ve said before – the probability of an additional outbreak was always likely, Sir,” the assaultron stated. “You knew that.”

Fuck!” he finally screamed out loud. Rage and fear caused his limbs to tremble as he raced to find Fahrenheit. 

The Blue Pox. This was any leader’s worst fear come to pass – an illness running rampant in their community, with little opportunity to stop it. If John had a deity that he believed in, he would have prayed nightly to it to never witness that epidemic again. Twenty-three ghouls had been infected the last time the plague cut through Goodneighbor. Nine had gone feral, and were put down. Only four, including John, had lived.

Many things had changed since the bombs dropped, including viruses. New strains of old diseases mutated the same as everything organic had, finding new hosts and new methods of survival. Freshly evolving species and human variants provided additional hosts for innovative strains to transform into deadly deviations of the same malady. Some strains only attacked the lax immunity of vault dwellers. Some only provoked mutants and wildlife. And some, only affected ghouls.

The Pox had been crawling through the Wasteland for at least a century, occasionally disappearing for years before resurfacing with deadly vengeance. Doctors that focused their studies on ghoul ailments were rare and immensely valued. Some believed that the Blue Pox had evolved from aggressive strains of the New Plague, mutating to only contaminate ghoul hosts. It was common knowledge that the Pox was only transmissible to irradiated humans and that the vast majority of Wastelanders had nothing to fear. Being an illness that only targeted an already dismissible race, the Blue Pox received little attention from the medical community and few cures or treatments had been developed. The mortality rate was high and most outbreaks only ended once the virus had wiped out the entire populace.

Shoving the front door of the State House open, John bellowed, “Fahr?” into the higher levels. “You here?”

“She’s in the rear warehouse with the rest of them, boss,” a lone watchman answered from the above landing. He was a human, John noted, not a ghoul, and the sole person in the building.

He tore across the State House and out the opposite door, finding himself on another vacant street. Humans only, read a banner draped over the Rexford’s front door. Jerking his head in the opposite direction, John’s gaze landed on the rear warehouse, an abundance of blue Xs adorning the building, both on cardboard posters and on the brick façade. He hurried towards it, coat sailing behind him. Barging through the door, he almost collided with Daisy, cartons of dirty water mounted in her arms. She looked both exhausted and relieved when she said, “Oh, Hancock. Thank god. You’re back!”

Someone grabbed him roughly back the back of his coat and whirled him around. He found Fahrenheit glaring at him, her hand still twisted in his apparel. She hissed, “Respectfully – fuck you, John. Goodneighbor’s coming apart at the seams.”

He felt blindsided and took a moment to force a deep breath before asking, “When did it start?”

“For certain?” she asked. “The marks showed up the day you left, although, it seems that symptoms had been surfacing for a while. Fatigue, followed by cough, followed by boils.”

“Christ, Fahr. You know I would’ve come straight back. Why didn’t Kent radio Sanctuary?”

She leveled a disgusted look at him. Dragging him, she led him up a level and into a side room. Several lanterns littered the floor, leaving the room dim and dismal. On a mattress in a corner, wrapped up in blankets and looking like he was asleep, lay Kent. In the weak lamplight, the rounded blotches on his face looked purple, although, in any other light, it would be clear that the blemishes were blue in color.

Fahrenheit let go of him, and John sank to the floor by Kent’s side. “Goddamn,” he breathed, guilt churning in his stomach. Only now did John remember how poor Kent had looked when they last saw each other. “Hey, bud. I’m sorry I wasn’t here. But I’m back. I’m gonna fix this.”

Kent stirred, mumbling, “Oh…Mr. Mayor…it’s you.” He gave a frail, heartbreakingly warm smile. “I believe in you. You’d never let us down.” He opened his eyes. His sclera were pitch black.

John rocked backwards in shock. His composure was only lost for a moment. Quickly, he slid his features into a self-assured smirk. There was a time and a place for lies, and this instance was not only perfect, but necessary. “Hang in there, pal. The worst is over,” he said, leaning pat Kent’s shoulder. The heat of Kent’s fever rose up through the blanket to warm John’s palm.

When he looked up, Fahrenheit’s mouth was drawn in a tight line. He stood, bringing his head close to hers, and whispered, “Grab all the ice you can from the bar. Get Rufus’ crazy beer-toting robot in here, too. Anything cryo, bring it in. Use ‘em to make compresses and cold water. Gotta keep the fevers down. And put someone on the gate – keep all ghouls out.”

She nodded and left to fulfill his orders.

Ghouls were at a severe disadvantage when it came to illness. While fevers existed to kill viruses and send the host body back on the road to good health, they could mean swift death for a ghoul. Lingering radiation kept their bodies burning hot, several degrees above than the average human. While regular humans would sweat, ghouls were missing those first few crucial layers of epidermis that allowed for the regulation of body heat. Too high a fever could quite literally cook a ghoul’s brain, sending them into a premature feral state, from which there would be no return. 

He glanced around the room. Kent’s was one of four mattresses inhabiting this area, each occupied, the entire building a makeshift infirmary. Not for the first time, he kicked himself for not having a doctor employed. John patrolled the warehouse, finding each room on every level filled with affected ghouls, Ham, Daisy and a few others running back and forth, trying to make the ill comfortable.

He grabbed Daisy’s attention during one of her passes. “Dais,” he said to her. “What happened? Where’d it come from?”

“You missed the meeting, John.” He must have looked confused, because she continued. “About all the new Minutemen caravans put into rotation by your vault buddy?” John nodded. He had been preoccupied with Cait and flighty thoughts of sobriety. It certainly hadn’t been the first meeting that he had missed since Nate had first darkened his doorway. 

“More caravans mean more inventory,” Daisy explained, pausing briefly to hand a roll of Med-X off to a passing volunteer. “More inventory means a higher chance of trading contaminated goods. We got some drifters talking about how they’ve been on the run from this for a few months. Danse’s thoroughness at the gate was probably the only thing that staved off an outbreak for this long. Your boy probably saved a lot of ghouls’ lives without even knowing it.”

“Yeah,” John muttered. “Wouldn’t he like to know that.” He had been so angry at Danse for turning away unscheduled caravans, and for pulling unlisted merchandise from sales. He had never felt happier to have been wrong. A fleeting sense of gratitude towards Danse was overshadowed by the weight of what needed to happen now. Leaving the warehouse, he traveled up the street to snake himself in between the slots of the barricade at the end of the street. Reaching a slim arm though the wooden panel, he found the collection of wires that ran power to the neon sign on the opposite side of the wall. For the second time in his career, he unplugged the marquee with a swift tug. The hum of the sign died, along with any optimism that might have been lingering in him.

The last time the Blue Pox had swept through Goodneighbor, there had been little to do other than make the condemned as comfortable as possible. The truly human townspeople had been tasked with dragging those in the throes of feraldom out into the streets and shooting them with silencers on, keeping town panic at bay for as long as they could.

The rest of the day was spent taking names of the infected, and charting the rate of their decline. Depressing work, all told, survivors of the first flux watching it happen once again, and the smoothskins, ones that weren’t here the last time, getting fast history lesson.

Retreating to the Memory Den, John took up residency at Kent’s radio. He slipped a holotape into the recorder and prepared to loop a message. Fighting a numbness that threatened to consume him, John prepped his best authoritative voice. Ready, he began recording. “Message repeating,” he said. “This is the mayor of Goodneighbor. The date is April 14th, 2288. We’ve got an outbreak of the Blue Pox going down. Until further notice, the town’s on quarantine for all ghouls traveling in area. Repeat, quarantine is in effect.” His mouth twisted down, desperation fluttering in his chest. He added, “Hey…for fuck’s sake…if you’ve got fever blossoms, send ‘em our way. Goodneighbor, out.”

John manned the radio all night, sucking down one canister of Jet after another, his own voice playing over and over again on the recording. There were no replies.

It was Piper who woke him in the morning. As he slept propped up in Kent’s chair, she had slipped into the room and touched him on a shoulder, causing him to jerk awake. His hand had gone for his knife before he realized that it was her and that his knife was long gone, lost at the bottom of some waterway in Maine.

“Christ, Piper,” he snapped, rubbing at his face. Kent’s desk was strewn with empty chem containers, Jet and Mentats and a hit of Med-X thrown in for good measure. He sneered up at the reporter. “Come to chronicle my downfall?”

Piper’s expression was much softer than normal, and she shook off his attitude easily. “I go where the news takes me,” she said, shrugging. “I heard your message last night and I did a little digging. Word is, this weird ghoul Pox started near the southern border of the Commonwealth and has been traveling up. Somehow, Goodneighbor got passed over until now.”

“When did sick ghouls become news?” he asked, snidely. “People suddenly start caring?”

“That’s the power of the press. We kinda dictate what people should pay attention to.”

A chem headache throbbed to life and he rubbed his temples. His body was confused. It just wanted a steady stream of chems, none of this stopping and starting nonsense. He slumped in the chair and heaved a sigh. Exhausted and stressed, he didn’t feel like putting on the lovable leader act for her. “You shouldn’t be here,” he wearily stated.

She frowned, her brows creasing. “What am I gonna do? Take a strain back to Diamond City with me, where it affects all of no one?”

“Yeah,” he said, standing. “And send it right back out again on the caravans, infecting more and more ghouls as they sit in their homes, minding their own business.”

“Shouldn’t you be, I dunno, leaving?” she asked, incredulous. “A ghoul-based disease and you’re staying here at ground zero?”

He moved to push past her and check on the infirmary. “I’ve had it.”

She grabbed his arm and spun him back to face her. “Wait – You’ve had it?”

Irked, he pointed at his eyes with both index fingers, right up in her face, indicating the obsidian blackness that consumed his corneas. “Have you seen me? Think this is normal?” he disgruntledly asked, backing down only after she let go of him. “Had a bout come through in the winter of ’84,” he informed her. “Those of us that lived ended up looking like this.” 

She squinted at him. “Thought you said you had Rad Fever when you were a kid.”

“Yeah. That, too.”

Her mouth hung open. “Jeez,” she finally shrieked, finding her voice. “How are you even alive? John…you’ve had two major Wasteland illnesses. The odds of getting through either one of those are close to zero.”

“Guess I’m built scrappier than I look,” he said, making a move for the door again.

Static spat from the radio. “Goodneighbor? Can you hear me?” a voice on the other end of the line said.

John leapt for the receiver, shoving past Piper once more, in the opposite direction this time. “Hey, yeah. This is Goodneighbor,” he said into the microphone.

“Hello. My name is Arlen. I’m up north in a ghoul settlement. I think we may be able to help you out. We keep a stock of fever blossoms on hand because, well, you never can be too careful, can you?”

John stepped back and threw a series of wild celebratory punches into the air before answering. “That’d be an awesome and much obliged thing to do, friend. How you wanna arrange this?”

You know where Finch Farm is? We’re up the road a ways. On the other side of Saugus.”

Nate had dragged John to Finch Farm before and had gotten a flaming sword for his troubles. “Yeah, yeah. I know where both places are.”

Wonderful. We call our home The Slog. We’ll see you soon, Goodneighbor.”

“Got it. On the way.” He made a move to rush out of the Memory Den before whirling around and adding, “Thank you, Slog!” to his dispatch.

As he bustled out the door, Piper kept pace with him. “What’re you after, Piper? I’m busy.”

“I’m invested now. Call it expanding my horizons. Ghoul interest, instead of human. I want to write about how it ends.”

Back on the street, he said, “Then you gotta do it with your boots on. I’m not leaving you here to pepper folks with questions. Ask me all you want. I’ve got a long walk and I’d appreciate a second gun and another pair of hands. If I gotta pay The Slog one hell of a compensation for remedies, it’ll be worth it.”

As he curved around a corner, stepping into the U that connected the two main drags at The Third Rail, a woman yelled, “What the hell? You’re leaving again? Now?”

He swung around to find Fahrenheit with her fists clenched at her sides. Two watchmen carried a body, tightly wrapped in a sheet, out of the infirmary and down an alley.

“Gotta go, Fahr,” John said. “There’s a group of ghouls that wanna help us. They got supplies that we need. Somebody’s gotta walk the goods back here.”

Her eyes were cold and condemning as she said, “Explain to me why it has to be you.”

He paused for an exasperated moment, feeling almost sick with overwhelming guilt. “Because it has to,” he said, meeting her hard eyes. “I gotta do right by Goodneighbor, and that’s something that I’ve been letting slide for too long. I need to make it up to the people, make things right. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“Heard that before,” she groused, not intending for him to miss hearing it.

The pop of a silenced gunshot came from the alleyway, and John felt his blood drain. That hadn’t been a body under that sheet. It had been someone he knew becoming feral.

“Fahr, I’m going. We’re already out of time.”