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Rot, Dust, and Steel

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Goodneighbor’s alleys were alive with that special, homey odor of souring booze, raw ozone, and rotting garbage, a fine sparkling of dew blanketing the cobblestones and sleeping drifters alike. Unaffected by the droplets clinging to her dusky chassis, the Assaultron K-L-E-O hawked bullets to a vagrant who looked like he could barely afford them. The general store’s shopkeep gave directions to a traveler, wiping down her counters with mottled, pocked hands. And The Third Rail’s stoop lay silent. Strangely, no one had started a proper bar fight yet today. Of course, it wasn’t even noon—but this was Goodneighbor, after all.

Still, the quiet in this town never lasted. Its mayor was on edge, a silent, electric storm following him through dark alleys—none of the usual kindly smiles on his face nor the easy chems in his hands as if he was a leprous Santa Claus for the addicts of few means.

Trouble was in the air. Whether it was the good or the bad kind remained to be seen.

“Hancock?” Fahrenheit grunted to his left, her armor clinking as she adjusted her assault rifle.

“Hm?” He tried to relax his jaw, teeth grinding. His morning dose of Jet had already run out—it could have been his distorted sense of time, but for the last few days, his highs had felt like they kept getting shorter. It was probably a problem in the chem purity, and it grated. Ultra Jet wasn’t the easiest to come by out here.

His bodyguard nodded to a corner a short walk away from the main gate. There stood full-time drifter and part-time fighter Finn, twitchy, eyes jerking this way and that. Veins popped in his neck.

Hancock knew a man who’d had a fresh dose of Psycho when he saw it. Either that, or Finn had found out about the weak-ass Jet batch flooding the town too. I feel ya, man. Today sucks.

Perfectly aware of the problem Finn presented, however, he sighed aloud. Most of the addicts here didn’t go for Psycho, but when they were feeling spicy enough, they usually shot up in isolation. Chem-fueled brawls weren’t really smiled on. It wasn’t, after all, the best thing for unity if folks decided that drifters were something to fear or hate.

Again.

But here goddamn Finn lurked, like he was ready to jump bad with the first person that looked at him wrong.

Well... if he didn’t start shit, there wouldn’t be shit. “Keep an eye on him,” Hancock whispered to Fahrenheit.

“Have been,” his bodyguard grunted. “Daisy already complained. Says he’s been heckling people coming in. They keep skipping her shop, trying to get past him as quickly as they can.”

A headache pulsed behind the mayor’s eyes. “He threaten anyone yet?” Finn could hold his own in combat, and if all that violence was spoiling for somewhere to go today…

“Not that we know of.” Fahrenheit clenched her fingers around her gun grip. It was clear she was thinking about aggressive prevention tactics. It was bad enough that the super mutants outside had escalated their little turf wars, mighty too close for comfort. If traders got spookier about even entering Goodneighbor because of the threats within, it wouldn’t go well for any of its people.

This place was a sanctuary and needed to act like it.

“Alright, alright.” Hancock sighed. “I’ll deal with it after breakfast. Maybe Finn’ll stay in the attic for a few days. Get this out of his system.” Even this guy wouldn’t be dumb enough to start trouble under the mayoral roof.

What a pain.

But then, the front gate opened with a war-weary creak. The air shifted. Finn’s twitchy body leapt at the sound.

Hancock snapped his gaze to the town’s newest visitor. How disappointing: it wasn’t the chem trader he'd been expecting. It was some tall, muscled guy in a vibrantly blue Vault suit of all the damn things—and he looked fresh. Clean. Plus, in addition to whatever extraordinary laundry-based secrets the guy was keeping in his skull, he was sporting two rifles, three pistols, and a bag that looked as heavy as a Brahmin.

He also had a Pip-Boy: a working one he was fiddling with.

K-L-E-O’s servos in the shop nearby pitched into higher gear, as if with glee. They could be heard well outside her door. That, more than anything else, made it clear that a big storm was coming in that gate.

“Goddamnit, there he goes.” Fahrenheit waved a hand at Finn.

“There who goes?” Hancock took in the delightful smell of salisbury steak wafting from a nearby apartment window. Mmmm. Breakfast.

Fahrenheit sighed.

Unfortunately for breakfast, Finn wasn’t going to let anyone forget him nice and peacefully. He was, in fact, squaring up. He was… ah, hell. He was yelling at the Vault guy to pay for protection—in broad daylight. In full view of half the town. A Vault guy who could barely walk for all the guns he was carrying.

Psycho is a hell of a drug.

Well, shit, this was it, wasn’t it? Everyone being welcome was sort of the whole deal with the mayoral speeches, and definitely the deal with the whole… violently hanging the last mayor. Finn was burning down his final chance before he’d even known he’d had it.

“I got him,” Hancock grumbled, feeling like he’d been asked to wash some particularly grody dishes. Christ, this Jet. Why you gotta do this to me today, Finn? He began to trundle on, feeling every bit of the weight of the red coat on his back.

Fortunately, it seemed like the newcomer had things mostly handled. Something the man was saying was clipping through Finn's red Psycho haze—he was backing up.

“Woah, woah. Time out,” Hancock muttered. The Vaultie’s gaze tore from the drifter to meet him—that face held glittering, hunted, weary eyes beneath a mop of black hair—and his was the kind of stare that had been through hell on its way here and would very much like to clap itself onto a bed. His pale skin was burned from sun. His broad shoulders were taut with exhausted tension. What was surprising was that his stance held little disgust or anger. For now, this stranger seemed content to simply size up Hancock’s approach.

Not some nut or a ghoul-hater then. Good.

So Hancock kept a respectful distance and informed Finn of his offense, knowing he had to go. This, of course, would be nice and instructional to the growing crowd… and to the newbie. Travelers had to know, after all, that Goodneighbor didn’t tolerate extortion at the gates.

But of course, cheated Finn the Psycho’d-up asshat just wanted a new punching bag. He looked about ready to start swinging. “You're soft, Hancock. You keep letting outsiders walk all over us, one day, there'll be a new mayor.” Those twitchy fists clenched and unclenched. Those eyes lolled.

Why the hell was this guy always like this? Always one goddamn stupid day away from mutiny.

Just not a neighborly fella. Not at all.

Hancock extended his arm, no longer hesitant about what needed to be done. His smile was a rictus grin. “Ah, come on, man. This is me we're talking about.” Here boy. Come on. “Let me tell you something.Think about that food I gave ya over the winter. There ya go. Remember the hits I gave you when you were out of caps and luck, ya ungrateful asshole. All the while, Hancock reached into his coat where he kept a bit of his personal stash. A crowd was starting to gather, and they knew what was coming. They were silent in the dew, a vigil.

Finn didn’t or couldn’t see. Hunger sprang up in his eyes: hunger for Jet from that lovely red coat. He stumbled closer.

He didn’t even cry out as the breath hissed from his lungs, the knife sinking deep into his shriveled frame.

Hancock stepped back, knowing by now just how to keep blood off of the white frills at his wrists. Finn fell gracelessly to the stones, never to move again.

Someone would clean that up. Probably Fahrenheit.

Vault-Boy was, in fact, much tenser now. Can’t imagine why. He was staring in a tight-lipped way at Goodneighbor’s citizens as they quietly, peacefully dispersed. Of course, for them, this was business as usual. Problems had been corrected.

Summoning up his very ghoulish best, Hancock flashed a pleased smile. If you didn’t know me before, you do now, buddy. “So. Welcome to town.” The tension eventually leaked like hot air out of the stranger’s frame—even if his hands didn’t stray far from his pistols. This was especially true when the mayoral knife was put away and Fahrenheit started heaving the body out of the road. Just to make certain he’d made his point, however, Hancock added, “This place is of the people, for the people, you feel me? Everyone’s. Welcome.So play nice. You know I’m here if you try fucking someone up.

The man stared, processing, stiff, but seemingly not allowing himself to show fear. What a rare thing. His back was straight and proud—a fighter, that much was for sure. Maybe a merc? A soldier? Finally, he nodded, green eyes piercing. “I feel you.”

Well then. No matter what he was, with a reply like that, he might fit in just fine.

Huh. And under that stubble, he wasn’t so bad to look at.

Alright. Enough of this. I’ve got a box of Mentats with my name on it and I need a breakfast to chase it down.

Hancock turned away, moving on. Those speeches weren’t going to give themselves, and people really responded well to a little public rally after an execution. It was a good reminder for any other problems to get their shit together. Goodneighbor, after all, wasn’t going to stand for it.

And maybe… maybe this town could use some new guy who liked lugging around more bullets than words.

 


 

Nate, the sole survivor of Vault 111, was certain of only two things as he sagged inside Goodneighbor’s gates: first, he was going to pass out from heat exhaustion, and second, politics in the Commonwealth involved quite a bit more direct action than they used to.

Like stabbings.

No big deal. Just… just a quick bit of murder before brunch and speeches.

And there the mayor emerged now, on the state house balcony. Hell, this guy was popular. His folk were cheering him on like he was throwing them money. Back in Diamond City, Mayor McDonough had barely managed to get butts into comfortable chairs so they could listlessly stare while he reassured everyone his town’s papers were full of baseless lies.

This John Hancock lived up to the whispered, fearful rumors Nate had heard in the alleys and bars. The ghoul was terrifying. He looked half-dead—though that wasn’t his fault—and in that dramatic, sweeping frock, he’d come out of those shadows to lay judgment on that extortionist like a demon of vengeance. Those black eyes… it was impossible to tell what they were thinking, but one might be fooled into assuming they lacked a soul.

Especially when the guy smiled like no one was bleeding at his feet, like it was a lovely day and he was in charge of the town’s tourism and welcoming committee.

That vagrant might have had it coming, and maybe harsh sentences were how someone survived in a harsh land, but damn, Nate did not want to know how they dealt with anyone else in the way here… like a loiterer. He forced his feet to press on. When I get Shaun back, this is not going on the list of places to raise a family.

Carefully, he placed his son’s return in terms of when, not if. Doing so would make his heart wail less with uncertainty and grief when night came.

Nate wearily crossed the dusty cobblestones and peeked around the door of the general store. It was manned by what seemed to be another one of those ghouls Preston spoke of. In fact, this place ran thick with them, all sunken eyes and zombified scowls—this settlement was utterly unlike Diamond City. Nate had left those walls not three days prior, and being there, he’d gotten the impression that perhaps ghouls just weren’t that common—one more thing he guessed he was wrong about.

The proprietor of “Daisy’s Discounts” eyed him with a glinting, opaque glare. Not soulless eyes. Don’t think of them like that. Her muscles were tense and wary under that withered flesh.

Nate knew better than to ask his burning questions about either her condition or her kind. He’d survived deployment in the war, and he knew there were very few people in this world that wanted to talk about their scars. “Hey,” he mumbled instead. “I’ve got some things to sell.”

She licked her puckered lips, so dry, the action was an audible whisper. “I can see that.” Her rasp sounded amused. “Well, you aren’t running away screaming, so sure. Name’s Daisy. What you have?”

A smile broke across Nate’s face. That was a hell of a name attached to such a pack-a-day voice. Slowly, he wrestled down his apprehension. Just some ordinary folks who look different, like Preston said. Treat them like it. “I’ve got all the junk I could grab from some dead mercenaries a few blocks from here.” His bag hit the counter with a resonant THUMP, his entire spine cracking as it sprung back into its normal shape. “This town… it’s not in any danger, is it? It’s an active combat zone out there.”

“Nah. We’ll be fine. We’ve got the walls, and we’ve got Hancock.”

Nate’s eyebrows lifted. “Ah. The guy I just met.” Senator Stabber.

Daisy’s uneven teeth glimmered in wide amusement. “Goodneighbor’s no stranger to excitement, kid. Not with him around.” She made a pleased, appraising noise as her nimble fingers started to dig in his hoard. “No shit. Energy weapons? Not a bad haul. Ooo. And cig cartons! Whiskey! Someone wanted to prop up those Gunners real nice.”

Nate gave a nervous laugh. “Didn’t seem to stop the big green guys from tearing through them like tissue paper. I barely had to fire a shot to finish them off.”

“Yeah, I swear, those super mutants don’t seem to care if you’re packing lasers or a pea shooter. Thank god they’re dumb as bricks.”

Super mutants. Nate tongued the inside of his cheek, soaking up the information, stomach fluttering nervously as he remembered blood-freezing war cries from bloated green maws. Preston sure gave him a lot to absorb in their short time together with the Minutemen in Sanctuary, but there was just so much he still didn’t understand. “Where’d they come from?”

“Who?”

“The super mutants.”

Daisy blinked, then shrugged, as if to say, where does air come from? “I’d care more about when they’re gonna leave. Minutemen kept them in line sometimes, but I haven’t seen those do-gooders in ages… Hey. Tell ya what. I like you, so I’ll give you a little extra for this lot. Three hundred caps. And if super mutants don’t freak you out, well, I’ve got a bit of a job I could give you too.”

Nate perked up. Three hundred caps was infinitely more than he had after Diamond City. Nothing seemed to be cheap there, not even supplies to survive. Hell, he’d only left that sanctuary in the first place to earn a few caps for food that night, maybe get a roof over his head. It was supposed to be a quick job: retrieving some paint.

Just a stupid can of paint.

And after fifteen minutes in ruined Boston, he’d gotten lost. His Pip-Boy map had started to blinker and lose track of his location. The screen was already cracked, and it was getting intermittent about responding. It was possible there was water in it—the device had been smashed into a rock a week before when a rabid mongrel knocked him into a stream.

Lost, wandering, trying to fix his malfunctioning map, he’d then gotten shot at—and he’d had the nerve to shoot back. In answer, two green freaks the size of silverback gorillas started charging at him out of a hollowed storefront while brandishing beeping bombs, blowing up anything in their way, including themselves.

Even a career soldier knew when the fuck to get out of dodge.

And so Nate never found his way, dodging and weaving through desecrated, shattered streets, leaping over broken glass and burning rubber, eyes stinging and heart racing so hard that he nearly blacked out from how badly he was winded. He was lucky when the merc outpost he’d had to tear through to get to this new settlement was already decimated.

Needless to say, he hurt. He still didn’t know the way back to Diamond City, he had no goddamned paint to bring back anyway, and all his stimpacks were used husks in a ditch.

“Three hundred caps sounds fantastic,” was what he managed to say. “And yeah, I’ll do that job. But I might need a bit of a break…”

“Hotel Rexford’s up the way. Pretty cheap. If you ask for Fred, he’ll hook you up with some calm-downs.”

Nate smiled, warm satisfaction welling up in his core. I’m going to hug that mattress like it loves me. “Anyone in town good at fixing tech?” He tapped the Pip-Boy, nervous. This thing was his one godsend, his advantage in this fucked-up Bostonian future.

Daisy shrugged. “It’s beyond me… though, you could ask the doctor at the Memory Den. Someone’s gotta maintain those slick pods of theirs. It’s right across the way too.”

“Thanks Daisy. I’ll come by tomorrow about that job. Really appreciate it.”

She cracked that unsettling, jagged smile, a bit of a dangerous edge there. “Ha! Don’t thank me yet. What I need is for someone to clear out the super mutants that’ve set up a nest in the old library outside the wall.”

Nate stiffened, blood freezing.

More super mutants? Holy shit. Could he really agree to do that…?

Well… maybe.

If they were screaming and trying to blow themselves up, it wouldn’t be easy, but the others, without the bombs… they’d seemed terribly slow. Quick to anger; easy to distract. If picked off from a reasonable distance… throttled down tight hallways…

He ran a palm across the reassuring solidity of the sandalwood grips on his new revolvers, pulled from a dead mercenary not an hour ago.

Three hundred caps.

“Yeah,” he said, coming at the problem logically, preparing himself. “I think I could handle it.”

“Then I’ll see you tomorrow, soldier boy.” She gave him a knowing look, carting off his freshly sold junk.

Nate’s stomach twisted. Two hundred years later, and everyone could still see the army in his back and shoulders. Preston did too. No wonder everyone kept asking him for help on the road.

I signed up to protect my country. He sighed. And I’ll be damned if this place doesn’t need a whole lot of that too.

So it was. He just couldn’t say no when his training was the difference between someone’s life and death… and that included his own.

Nate began the slog to the Hotel Rexford. Even exhausted, he could pick up on Goodneighbor’s atmosphere; it exuded a grit, a realness that Diamond City seemed to have scrubbed away years back. Instead of whispers, rumors, and fear, everyone seemed very ready to look him in the eye and size him up. It felt like he’d strolled from a flock of protected, clean, yet highly agitated sheep, and right into a den of wolves.

He couldn’t help but like that a little. It was better to see threats in the open, where they could be handled, rather than jumping at every little shadow. Maybe it said something that the mayor had stabbed that guy in the front instead of the back.

But the spot between Nate’s shoulder blades suddenly burned, just for a moment. Leery, he turned, casual, as if he thought he’d dropped something.

Someone was staring at him from high above. The mayor was a splash of blood against the sun at high noon, his ancient tricorn hat tipped at a jaunty angle. Upon his balcony, the man was surveying his people, the sunlight sending into pitch the garish dark hollows of his scarred flesh.

Nate was suddenly certain that this keen gaze was watching him in particular.

His body flushed, nervous adrenaline readying his muscles. Determined not to let on how that black gaze rattled him, he turned and wandered toward the Rexford, pretending nothing was wrong.

That politician wanted something with him.

It might have something to do with more murder.

If that’s the case, this guy might just have to get in line.