I am in a city that used to house a university. The university. For the smart ones, to sharpen their minds. In another life, I wished my mind could be sharpened like a knife to a cutting edge. With such a weapon I could survive in this dog eat dog world. Now I stand in the city of great minds surrounded by the mindless, with a weapon that is a gun. The mindless had shambled and shook as they lumbered about; zombies, like in the old horror shows. The last of them bends over next to a car, bony hands like claws tearing away at one of its own, mindlessly eating. Eating, it made me want to retch. No, the retch was from the rads. But the ghouls didn't help any.
They are not dogs. The pistol is heavy in my hands.
The ghoul looks up, little eyes like beetles shining in the moonlight, what remained of its face twitching with every unnatural movement. It? No, her. She wears a dress, like the ones I wore on dates in college. I wonder if she ever went on dates, before the end. Before she became an it. I watch her carefully from the shadows. Her ragged mouth chews noisily like a cow's, blood and flesh like cud between jutting yellow teeth. Chewing, chewing, consuming. Always hungry, never satisfied. Her stomach is distended and bulging, a sharp contrast from the withered limbs that poke out at odd angles from her tattered rags. Pregnant, she might have been, before. Perhaps she still is and the radiation burned it into her. Forever fused, forever together. Mindlessly devouring.
In some strange and horrible way I envy her.
I raise my weapon and fire. I miss. She sees me then, those beady little beetles, and that cow's mouth twists into an enraged snarl. The rage empowers her, flinging her entire being forward with a shriek like a bat out of hell. I fire again. And again. And again. Finally she falls, crumpling to the ground on top of her bloated belly, still. The night is quiet once more, the sour smell of ozone and seared ghoulflesh lingering. The wretched feeling returns, and I retch. Nothing comes out, no, I am as starved as the rest of them. I look once more to the slain ghoul, and see myself in her.
Good work, civilian, says the Soldier with a grateful nod. The exhaustion of battle is plain on his face and the sag of his body visible even behind the shining power armor. He adjusts the laser rifle in his arms and fires it at a still twitching body of a ghoul. He is handsome, in a rugged and dangerous kind of way, harsh and hardened by the ravages of war. A bead of blood rolls down his face, following the path of a scar. I do not remember who or what it had belonged to, that blood. But like sweat the soldier wipes it away with the back of his hand, unintentionally smearing it across his brow like primal warpaint.
The ground is covered in blood and the corpses of ghouls. I am reminded of the mangled bodies in ancient paintings of the supposed glory of war, splayed prettily along the earth, a flag or a rifle held with dignity against their bodies. There is no such dignity here, save for one lone soldier, his eyes transfixed and glassy in death, frozen in a final moment of adrenaline and defiance beneath a pile of ghouls. The armored soldier, seeing his fallen comrade, renders a steel-faced salute.
He turns back to me, his face grim. Thank you for the assistance, civilians. But what's your business here?
Beside me I see Preston frown. He touches my arm, a silent warning. His eyes are dark beneath the wide brim of his hat, his grip unrelaxed and tense upon his laser musket. Apprehension radiates off of him, so much so I could almost feel it oozing from him. Like sludge. Ugly and foul and black. It is not like Preston. Ever helpful and kind Preston. This one I do not know.
I avoid his question, Who are you, I ask right back, without fear even though I'm still trembling like a leaf in the wind. The soldier does not buy it, and narrows his eyes. He is in no mood for games of words and who is who. I cannot find my words. I see only a soldier in steel three heads taller than I, casting a shadow of lead upon me. I feel small, shrunken, squashed. Like a bug. I am a radroach, pesky and unwelcome in this heavy, crushing shadow.
It is Preston who speaks, stepping in front of me with a steely resolve. We followed your radio signal, he says, his musket primed but cast down, weighed down by gravity of the situation, We came to help is all. Glad to see how much the Brotherhood always appreciates a helping hand.
Brotherhood. Preston says the name with such disdain it is dripping. Like poison, like some horrid thing fished out of a sewer. From the dark and dank, a secret forbidden place underground where no one dares to tread. I think of secret brotherhoods, fraternities, cults. Cults, closed off and hushed, small whispers of secret worlds and secret places, insular. An island surrounded by mist, a paradise promised only to them. In the past I have heard of such cults, following some charismatic leader and giving their lives for no reason at all other than blind faith. The thought of such things, such control, frightened me as a little girl. The idea of brotherhoods.
At such harsh words the soldier deflates a little, standing down. Forgive me, he responds after a moment of careful thought, I am not used to, well, strangers. I am Paladin Danse, Brotherhood of Steel. Over there are Scribe Haylen, Knight Rhys and...
The pain on his face is plain, familiar.
I am in Sanctuary Hills, before the war, before the bombs, before the Brotherhood and before Preston and before, before ghouls. I am sitting on my, no, Nate's couch. This is his house. I just live in it. I hear the cooing of Shaun in his nursery, Codsworth floating nearby as he prepares breakfast. Beside me is Nate, his hair uncombed and face unshaven, expressionless as he flips the channels on the television. He had never liked television or the radio shows or comic books, not before Alaska and not now. But since his return it is all he does. I joked once of his newly formed love affair with the television.
He had not been amused. I touch my cheek, the memory of the sting of his hand as fresh as the day it had happened.
I do not joke anymore.
And so I say nothing. I have become accustomed to nothing in this house, like a ghost. I am nothing, I own nothing, and I must do nothing, lest I set something off. Like walking in a room full of trip wires on roller skates. I vaguely remember Nate, young and laughing like a loon as I fell for the umpteenth time while still clinging to the railing of the roller rink.
Don't be afraid, you can do it! Come on, honey! He had cried, beckoning me to come to him, teasing. Always with the teasing, my Nathan. My Nathan. Oh, my precious Nathan.
I miss roller skates.
No, no I shouldn't. What a horrible thing to think.
I look to him then, hoping to see that laugh and smile I had fallen so desperately in love with just two years prior. His face is dark and lined with some indescribable emotion I can't for the life of me place, and I think he looks like a corpse. A ghoul. Eyes staring at nothing as he absently presses the channel button again. And again. And again. He is not watching, he cannot watch. He is elsewhere. Another time, another place, someone else at his side. A rifle in his hand perhaps, the crunch of gravel beneath the heel of his boot as he ran, ran off to fight some invisible enemy. But here, in this place, he remains still and silent, his thumb scrolling through the channels like an automaton.
I reach out to him, over this impossible, unreachable distance of a few scant inches between us, and touch his arm. He flinches and stares at me then, his eyes wide and fearful, lined with an age he isn't and filled with a horrible emptiness that I do not understand, at least not then. Not yet. I say nothing, but through my touch I will my everything to him. My love, my understanding, my compassion, my desire my need and all that I am to him, to let him now that i am here, that this is real, and that Alaska is gone, far gone. Far away.
That he is home.
Singer's dead, he says quietly, his voice like a small child's, a whisper. A plea for help in the night after a nightmare, of begging a parent to rid them of a monster under the bed. Small, pitiful, alone. He grabs the sleeve of my dress, his knuckles white. His voice is tenuous and tremulous, and I ache at the horrible state of the voice I had loved so much, my heart broken for him as he is broken. He's dead.
I know. It's okay now. It's going to be okay. I hold him in my arms, cradling him like our infant son as he wept, and I repeat it over and over like a mantra. It's going to be okay, it's going to be okay.
I have forgotten who I am telling this mantra to. But deep down, in our heart of hearts that's hidden and locked away like a forbidden treasure never to be opened, we both know that it is not okay. It will never be okay. Not anymore.
My name is Sol, I say, interrupting him. I do not know why I give him a name. A name that is not my name. Perhaps it is out of desperation to find help, or perhaps out of sympathy, compassion -- to distract from a pain all too familiar. And I'm from Sanctuary. This is -
Preston Garvey. Commonwealth Minutemen. Preston thrusts out his hand with none of the boundless friendliness I had grown to expect of him. His eyes are cold, his stature like that of a dog protecting its territory. He stands tall, imposing and dignified despite the Paladin looming over him. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of it, the soldier took his hand and shook it. Acceptance and gratitude, or a challenge? The soldier's face does not change -- I cannot tell what he is thinking.
But he speaks, his voice rigid and unfeeling. Like a robot, I think to myself, as such soldiers do. Soldiers, faceless, unfeeling. A number, a pawn. Who is this man's king? The soldier of steel apologizes for his behavior, explains the troubles of his squad. He is hurting just as we are, despite his goliath's armor and weapons. He is hurting just as we are, as the world is. There is no end of hurt here, in this end of worlds.
He asks for help.
He needs a radio. A special radio, a deep range transmitter, like the ones on satellites. Flying high in space on rockets. Another world. No, the brotherhood. How many brothers, I wonder, and from what kind of world are they from? The Paladin asks for hand. Preston frowns deeply, perhaps knowing it is in truth an arm and a leg that is needed. But I need them as much as they need me. A favor for a favor, I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine, that sort of thing. The Paladin is a soldier, a man of honor. Even I can see that behind the armor. Or maybe because of it. He will honor my request if I help him, he has already not killed us in exchange for slaying the ghouls. The last Vault Dweller and the last Minuteman; tiny insects easy to squash. Yet he stays his hand, even reaching from behind the mists of secrecy and mysterious brotherhood for help.
I take that hand in mine. A handshake, an acceptance, a contract.
For Shaun, I tell myself, as we walk into the night, our weapons of steel in hand. I look up to the sky, at the stars and the moon, and for satellites. What do they see?
It is not my first time in ArcJet Systems. In another life I had gone there to consult with a client. No, I took notes. The lawyers spoke with a client. I was a translator, regurgitating the words of different peoples in different languages, from the jargon of science to the jargon of law. A consultant, they called me.
And a consultant I remain. The Paladin watches me as I rummage through the fallen robots for salvage. This is useful, this is not, I pick through the brains of these machinemen. Synths, he calls them, though it it's a name and concept new to me. They wear plastic faces of men over their metal skeletons, and their glowing mechanical eyes stare empty, powerless, a ghastly amber. They are not ArcJet, they are not from space. But being so otherworldly and bizarre to me, they might as well have been. Their weapons are cheap, mass manufactured for this small army of machines. The plastic has melted to their metal fingers from the rocket and laser fire.
I am thankful Preston and the Paladin had not suffered the same fate.
The test chamber is quiet and we know we are alone.
That was interesting, the Paladin lowers his weapon and wipes sweat from his brow. The blood of ghouls and men has faded from his face. He looks at me, his eyes of steel critical, analyzing. Sizing me up as if I am a slave of Rome ready for purchase. He is impressed. I look away, focusing on the scrap around us. I strip the wiring and precious microfusion cells from the robots. For caps, or for turrets or floodlights or radios. An apology for Preston, for helping the Brotherhood, and a gift to Sturges back in Sanctuary. Are you familiar with such prewar artifacts, Sol?
I almost miss the question. The Paladin is suddenly close, kneeling down to look at me, a friendly and more brotherly gesture. His face is hopeful, though his eyes remain the same. He helps me with the wires, ripping out the electric veins and arteries of the synths with ease. Not so much with rockets, I reply as I continue my work, but yes. General engineering, though my specialty was nuclear. I was a consultant for patent lawyers.
He does not know what a patent lawyer is. I do not explain, and evidently he does not need to know. My working knowledge of technology is enough for him. He nods curtly and we walk to the elevator, our prize secured with a little extra in our pockets. The Paladin rides up first, as the elevator is much too small for all of us. When the doors close, Preston places a hand on my shoulder.
Be careful, Sol, he says, though he does not use that name. The Brotherhood of Steel is dangerous. They're out for themselves, they're just Gunners with bigger guns.
I know. But they are the best chance of finding Shaun. They have guns. Power armor. Supplies. They are organized. I think these things and say nothing. I know these things but I cannot say them. Instead I wait for the elevator. Preston is understanding. He knows these things, knows that I also do. His hand is reassuring, supportive. The touch of a friend.
The ding of the elevator and a gargling crackle of the automated announcement breaks the comforting silence. It is time to resurface. We step in and tap the button. The lights flicker and the elevator rises, shaking and rattling dangerously on its ancient pulley system. I think of rust, and of falling, but I am not afraid. Perhaps it is the adrenaline still, from the battle with the synths. Or perhaps I welcome death, of reunion with Nate, of leaving this horrible apocalypse behind forever. Of waking up from a bad dream in my home, my head in my husband's lap, to the sound of my baby's laughter. I think, for the briefest of moments, that death would not be so bad.
But my baby is still out there, somewhere. I cannot give up. Not yet, not ever. It will be okay, I tell myself. It will be okay.
I am blinded. The elevator doors have opened and the sun shines in, a sickly green that matched the dying world around me. How many hours had it been? The pip-boy would know, but that is not important. We step out into the air that smells of decay to meet the Paladin, waiting for us. He raises a hand in greeting. A friendly gesture, welcoming. The island beckons from behind the mists. Brotherhood.
Mission accomplished, he says, your extra guns gave us the edge we needed. I'm not sure I could have accomplished this mission alone. He pauses then, his eyes softening and a gentle smile gracing his otherwise rigid face. It is a strange, alien thing, his smile. He speaks again. We work well as a team.
A surprising statement from the soldier. I hear a sharp intake of breath from Preston beside me. It is not a lie, the synths were many and we were few. Had I not activated the rocket and sealed the blast doors, we would have been overrun. Yes, I say with a small nod, I suppose we are. But-
He interrupts. That being said, we have two important matters to discuss. First and foremost, if you'll hand me the deep range transmitter, I'd like to compensate you for your assistance during this operation.
I give him the device. I have no desire for it, I do not need to contact martians or mysterious brotherhoods. He nods his thanks and hands me his heavy laser rifle. I take it and hold the thing awkwardly in my arms, trying not to drop it, thinking to hold it until he can put away the transmitter. He places the transmitter in some hidden place of his armor and looks back at me. I hold out the rifle.
No, no. Take it. It is far more effective a weapon than the one you have currently. It's my own personal modification of the standard Brotherhood laser rifle. He smiles and renders a tiny, playful salute. Strange for someone so professional, and oddly friendly. I can only stare, confused. May it serve you well in battle.
This weapon is too big, too awkward for me, but he is not wrong. I struggle to hold it comfortably. Don't you need it, I ask.
This is not the only weapon at my disposal, answers the Paladin, and continues, Now, as far as the second matter goes, I wanted to make you a proposal. We had a lot thrown at us back there. Our op could have ended in disaster, but you kept your cool and acted like a soldier.
I remember screaming as mechanical men rained down from the ceiling.
He continues. There's no doubt in my mind that you've got what it takes. The way I see it, you've got a choice. You could spend the rest of your life wandering from place to place, trading an extra hand for a meager reward. Or, you could join the Brotherhood and make your mark on the world.
I imagine Mars at that moment, pictures I saw in books in school. Blurry images of a dead rock the color of blood, named after a warmongering, vengeful god of Rome. Alone and cold, suspended in an endless nothing. Nothing lived there, nothing moved, nothing breathed, nothing was what inhabited its impossible vastness. It was covered with craters.
The mark I see is a crater.
So what do you say?