Railroad HQ, MA
April 15th, 2288
Floating lazily in a vast sea of nothing, Deacon couldn’t find much to care about. Sure, he was slowly falling, but that was no reason to be concerned. This was one of his favorite places, one of the few times that he could be alone and safe at the same time. Well, at least it felt that way on this side. On the other side, zombie dinosaurs could be tearing the Commonwealth apart and he’d never know it.
His lethargic freefall came to an end. Sensation prickled as awareness returned. His body became solid again, and heavy, way too heavy, his arms and legs dead weight as he lay on his back. As his mind settled back into reality, the faint sounds of Railroad HQ beat against his eardrums. A harsh scraping echoed through the chamber – Glory disassembling a weapon. There was a sizzle and a pop – Tinker Tom doing things that he probably shouldn’t. Right beside his head, a match lit, scratching and whooshing into flame. He struggled to pull his weighty eyelids apart. Opening them a fraction, he found Desdemona looking down at him, a cigarette in her hand and a sour puss on her face. Orange lamplight climbed the stone walls, stagnant, with no air flow to disrupt the flames. Momentarily, he was startled. Everything was too clear, too bright, and it took him a few seconds to realize why.
“Shades, please,” he asked with a thick, dry tongue. His voice was hoarse and low, a side effect of time spent under anesthesia.
She stamped her cigarette out and leaned in closer, fishing something from a pocket. She affixed his sunglasses onto his face and familiar shades of gray fell over his field of vision. Something large and white fell into view. Carrington, in his lab coat, stretched across Deacon to pull an empty bag of saline down from the IV stand and replace it with a fresh one.
“I had the strangest dream,” Deacon rasped. “And you were there, and you were there –”
“I don’t need a recap, Deacon,” Desdemona said, devoid of mirth. His jokes never quite landed with her. “I need you to answer a few questions.”
He cleared his throat, wincing at the scratchiness in his windpipe. “Hit me. But not literally. My noodle arms would make for a lame defense.”
“Do you know where you are?”
“Somewhere over the rainbow. It’s a little drabber than I anticipated.” He rose up on his elbows, triggering a dull throb at the back of his bald head. His fingers brushed over the spot, finding a lump there. Great. Now he’d have to invest in even more wigs to hide the protrusion.
“Do you recognize me?”
“One of the witches. Did I get that right?”
“Seriously?” Carrington asked from nearby. “You expect that he’d give you accurate answers? The fact that he’s as infuriating as usual proves that there were no complications.”
Desdemona cast Carrington a wry look before dropping her gaze to Deacon. “Do you know your name?”
He hesitated to respond. Still emerging from the fuzzy, helpless bubble of surgery, he couldn’t be certain that he wouldn’t give her his real name.
Desdemona ignored his silence and rolled on. “Do you know what we’ve done to you?”
He sat up, albeit with some difficulty. “Augmentation,” he answered clearly. “Now I can carpool to the Institute with Fixer. Thank God, ‘cause that commute was killer.”
It had taken the Railroad time to figure out what to do with the courser chip that Deacon had taken from X6-88. Correspondence between Carrington and Pinkerton all the way in the Capital had been difficult and haphazard. HQ’s doctor did his job just fine, but the man lacked the legendary brilliance that Pinkerton had honed. While things would have been easier if Pinkerton was brought to the Commonwealth, the road was too long for a man as old as he was. Several Railroad agents had served as runners instead, delivering hand-written instructions and theories as fast as the old scientist could generate them. Deacon still didn’t fully understand the mechanics of what had been done to him – that was Carrington’s job – but he trusted both men with his life, and anyways, he never could say no to a surgery.
Music floated through the crypt, soft and relaxing. “Somebody trying to soothe the savage beast with that music?” Deacon asked. Their headquarters normally sounded as dead as the pre-war residents did in their tombs. “Why do we suddenly have ambiance? It’s like being stuck in an elevator.”
Frowning, Desdemona replied, “The radios are off, Deacon. There isn’t any music playing.”
His brows drew together. He concentrated on the notes, trying to place them and wasn’t too surprised when he succeeded. The barest hint of classical tunes echoed dully from within his own head. Fixer had mentioned some connection between the Institute’s transport frequency and the classical music station, but Deacon hadn’t guessed that it would translate to an ongoing, unavoidable resonance. Although it made him feel slightly akin to Beethoven, it was distracting and his brain felt crowded. He gave Desdemona a half-smirk. “Just joshing you. I know, one of my lamer jokes. Even I wouldn’t laugh at that. I mean, pfft, music. Who cares about the arts anymore, am I right?”
He didn’t feel bad about lying to Dez – he didn’t have much of an emotional response about lying to anyone – but having her panic and pull the plug on a backdoor option into the Institute just wouldn’t do. He was suddenly in a rare category with Fixer, able to slip in and out of the facility unnoticed or detected. Hmm. He was going to have to stock up on additional costumes. However, if a full synth recall ever came to pass, resulting in anyone owning a courser chip or a synth component being beamed directly into the Institute, Deacon was going to find himself screwed along with the rest of synthkind. The odds of that kind of maneuver being initiated on behalf of the Institute were nearly nonexistent – every undercover synth and Institute field agent would be compromised and decades of planning would be annihilated in a single instant. Only an endgame scenario would merit such an event. He shuddered to think of the day that the Institute would consider launching a full force attack. Would the Railroad be targeted first, posing a real threat, or last, to merely wipe out a nuisance?
Deacon sat and mused on that grim thought until Carrington allotted him his release. Pulling needles from Deacon’s arms, he said, “As there are no impediments from the procedure, I give you full clearance to return to your normal duties.”
Deacon slid down from the gurney, the stone floor cold beneath his socks. He rubbed his thumb over a pinprick of blood on the back of his hand. “Cool. That’s one thing to love about the Railroad – the free health care. That, and my very own cubicle.”
“Don’t wander,” Desdemona warned, stepping away. “We’ll want to get you to do recon with Fixer as soon as he’s back in the area.”
“Every lone wolf needs a lamb,” he told her affirmatively.
He rolled his head back and forth, adapting to the soft swell and fade of music. After a short hunt for his sneakers, he retreated to his workstation as HQ buzzed around him. Several holotapes containing images, schematics, floorplans, and last words or goodbyes were scattered across his desk. Wiggling the sneakers on, he scanned an abnormally stout pile of folders and paperwork. A fraction of a familiar face peered back, the photo slipping from one of the folders. He gave a grim smirk and flipped the file open.
The M7-97 case file was still unresolved, unusual for anyone in Deacon’s caseload. Most synths were damn happy to have someone give them a way out of their old lives, ecstatic for anyone to even talk to them as human beings at all. Danse and Harkness were too similar, stubborn and stuck in their ways – neither were wiped, relocated, or surgically altered after their reckoning. They had refused the standard Railroad offerings, as had Glory. Deacon blinked up at her, gazing over the folder. Was she even happy? Doubtful. He’d never seen her crack a smile for any reason other than for the promise of bloodshed or schadenfreude. Then again, she was probably one of those people that was comfortable in their own misery.
“Yo, D!” Tinker Tom shouted. Deacon closed the file and slid it under the rest his paperwork. “One of your Minuteman adjacent buddies is barking over the horn,” Tom said, poking his head out of PAM’s alcove, and gesturing with thumb over his shoulder.
“Personal parameters are being invaded,” PAM’s voice droned. “Please exit my research bay.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Tom muttered, scuttling out of her niche as Deacon strode in. Tom had a collection of copper wires and fiber optics in one hand. “You keep hogging the good stuff. Spread the wealth, baby,” he chirped as he exited.
Deacon was tall enough the reach the radio on top of PAM’s shelf with no trouble. He pulled the microphone down, punched the transmitting button, and said, “Welcome to the R&R Slop ‘n’ Go. Can I interest you in a Freedom Shake?”
“Hey, uh, Deacon. It’s MacCready.”
“Countersigns and codenames, man,” Deacon insisted.
“Dude, I don’t know what any of those are!”
“Then cut it short.”
MacCready gave a quick sigh into the microphone on his end, making static hiss from the speakers near Deacon’s ear. He leaned away from the sound and then back in.
“We, uh….well…we kinda lost Curie…”
His face pulling into a scowl, Deacon asked, “What, like, you misplaced her? Did you retrace your steps? Maybe look in the fridge? I swear, that’s where I leave my keys all the time.”
“No. Deac…she was taken. I’m sorry. It was a real shitsto – crappy situation and she took a proverbial bullet for us.”
Feeling a strange sense of overwhelmingly numb calm, Deacon asked, “…is she alive?”
“She was. Cait and I just got back from some town called Covenant, looking for some missing people. Seems like the place goes out of their way to nab synths. Figured you’d want to know and work whatever Railroad magic it is that you guys handle.”
Weird. Deacon didn’t feel much of anything. Curie adored him and they were hip-deep in a physical relationship. He should feel – what? Fright? Horror? Maybe his stance on not getting too attached to anyone had left some deep scarring that nothing could pass through.
Wracking his brain for locations, he mentioned, “Place with a big concrete barrier by the river? Looks like they’re keeping out the Spanish Inquisition?” If a place existed in the Commonwealth, Deacon knew about it.
“I…guess? Sure sounds like the place.”
“On it. Thanks, man.”
“You…you’re gonna get her back, right?”
“Goin’ in guns blazing. Just wait for it. I’m gonna be riding a radstag and wielding a blunderbuss in each hand.”
“That might make it difficult to shoot. Keeps us posted.”
“Will do.” With that, he replaced the microphone and switched the receiver off.
Deacon took a few strides toward Desdemona’s dais before zigzagging and staggering into the back hallway. Alone, he sank down on his haunches. Like a wave rolling forward, the numbness turned over and Deacon felt a surge of disorienting rage, a black curtain swinging down over his field of vision. A image emerged from his past of a woman, a synth, screaming his name, begging for him to save her. He had failed, and despite the bloody swath he’d carved he had still found her hung and dissected at the end of it. His head jerked back as he tried to clear his mind. Whoa now. Uh-uh. We don’t think about that. Did that ever happen? Were those memories even legit? Lies and reality were too deeply entangled, stories twisted and retold told too many times to be properly recalled.
In his career, Curie hadn’t been the first synth to lean on him a little too heavily. Take one scared synth viewing the world for the first time and pair them with a savior that had all the answers and, boom, instant case of hero-worship. Sexual relationships between newly liberated synths and their Railroad handlers were common, and the synths would remember nothing of the encounters post-wipe. He liked to think that most agents were above taking advantages like that, but the truth was that they weren’t. He certainly wasn’t. Although he hadn’t been Curie’s handler, he seemed to have all of the answers that she was seeking regarding her new status as a synth and he had been more than willing to oblige her request to experiment with physical coitus. Helping a synth out was what the Railroad – and by extension, Deacon – did best. Once, he’d loaned her his French maid outfit and, boy, that had been pretty much the best idea ever. And it was for science! Surely, that created a moral loophole that let him off the hook.
Although it had taken some explaining that sexual sensations did not equal being in love, life with Curie was blissfully uncomplicated. He was safe with her. She would never pry or ask him to make promises that he knew he couldn’t keep. She could live forever on a diet of insight and physical sensation. He could keep her at a distance and deny any romantic inkling. Emotions and him, they didn’t get along particularly well. Better to box them up and store them elsewhere. It was their agreement, something that he could easily do.
Deacon’s mind was caught in an onslaught of images. What was happening to Curie right now? Were her captors raping her? Maybe. Probably. That was one of those peculiar reactions that men had towards things that they hated and didn’t understand. Surely, that was an experience that didn’t belong in her notes. One picture that wouldn’t go away was the sight of a woman dangling from a chain noose, her entrails spilling from her open abdominal cavity. In a sporadic succession, her hair shifted from Curie’s short, dark pixie to Barbara’s flowing red curls.
He lowered his head into his head and gave a frustrated whine. Standing, he leveled one punch at the crumbling brick wall. The sudden burst of pain in his hand steadied him and he resumed his purposeful path to his superior.
He found Desdemona swathed in a haze of cigarette smoke and disorder. Drummer was yammering in her ear while she glowered down at the notices littering her workspace. Deacon’s keen ears caught a few words; “Stockton,” and “Synth” and “Covenant”.
“Hey, Dez,” Deacon interjected. “Looks like word is out on that Covenant place. Ya know, the one with the entry exam? Somebody I know got carted off there.”
“That fake synth?” Glory spat from nearby. Deacon turned to glare at her. Glory righted the minigun she had been working on and glowered right back at him. “She’s not even real person. She’s just riding around in someone else’s body.”
Glory had been ongoingly vocal about her displeasure at having Curie’s consciousness transferred to G5-19’s body. She argued that by choosing to endorse Curie’s upload, it validated Wastelanders’ claims that the Railroad was one step away from liberating vending machines, hurting their cause overall.
Deacon looked back at Desdemona. She was watching him without a shred of pity on her face, the red hot glow of her smoke centered between her lips. He shrugged at both women. “Look, I’m not an idiot,” he tried to explain. “I know that she’s the least real synth there is out there…but she makes me laugh and that is an increasingly rare ability these days. If you’re looking for an apology about me considering her one of ours, you’ve got a long wait ahead. This is what we do – help synths. All of them. And from what I just overheard, she’s not the first to disappear at that location.”
“Old Man Stockton’s daughter was out that way,” Drummer shared, his conversation no longer secret. “No word from her since.”
“Amelia Stockton?” Glory asked, standing, hefting the minigun. “Sweet girl. Can’t fire a gun to save her life. She’s gonna get eaten alive by those bastards that grabbed her. We rolling in after her?”
Desdemona shook her head, flicking ash. “We’d be too late. The location is on the other side of the Commonwealth. I’ll have Caretaker dispatch a team of heavies to handle it. They’ll pull any synths they find and bring them to the usual place for reassessment.”
“Meaning Bunker Hill?” Deacon noted, glad that Amelia’s peril could sway a rescue attempt, even if Curie’s couldn’t.
“Of course,” Desdemona said, returning her lit cigarette to her mouth. “Glory, build a team. I want an interrogation squad ready to meet the group post retrieval. We need to know what we’re up against. Covenant could be one of many places used to eradicate synths.”
“Lookit you,” Deacon gushed, giving Desdemona a wry smile. “So certain that no one’s gonna die in this.” He made for his workstation to retrieve his weapons. “C’mon, Glor,” he said over his shoulder. “Let’s go meet our intrepid heroes when they return from battle.”
“Not you, Deacon,” ordered Desdemona. “We didn’t entrust you with that tech in your head just to get it blown up. You’re here or you’re in the Institute with Fixer. We can’t risk you in the field. Not anymore.”
He turned so slowly to face her, disbelief churning in his gut. “Pardon? I must have been oxygen deprived during that surgery. Could’ve sworn you just forbade me from being a field agent.”
Sighing, Desdemona stamped out her cigarette. “I know that you wouldn’t approve. But I felt it the right thing to do. You’re our secret agent and our best hope for destroying the Institute. We have to keep you safe.”
Anger bubbled inside of him. “Hey, I never signed up to be an indoor kitty. You really think I’m gonna just stay put while you all go on fighting without me?” He wanted to be furious with her. Truth be told though, he had to honor her deception. Desdemona had taken a page straight out of his book – furthering the cause through doublespeak and paper thin promises. So this is what it felt like to be on the other side of a sham. Faint music still chimed in his head, the melody turned mournful and ironic.
“You will and you’ll be happy to do so,” Desdemona retorted. “Be flattered. You’ll be one of the first on site during the fight for the Institute. You might even get to fire the first shot.”