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Maybe if you just keep walking

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The house was a lucky find. It seemed to have been boarded up since the bombs and the interior was in good condition, save for the dust. It was not hard for Trace to pry loose a few boards over a basement level window to gain access, leaving the boarded doors as fortification. The recent storms had left a few inches of water in the basement level, so that as they dropped from the window the water splashed unpleasantly up their legs. I needed to wash anyway.

Trace slipped their revolver from its holster, readying the hammer silently. They stood still for several moments, their ears straining for any sound indicating occupants lying in wait. The periodic howling of the wind made it tricky, but Trace had keen ears. The Pip-Boy also had some capacity to detect motion and determine its direction, but its sensitivity was limited and they liked to minimize risk. From somewhere upstairs they could hear the faint sound of wind whistling through a gap, the occasional creak of the house, but nothing that sounded like activity. They began creeping up the stairs, eyes scanning every new angle. Like this they made a thorough search of the house, placing down the occasional trap as they went. Trace searched every cupboard and closet until they were satisfied they shared the house with nothing larger or more dangerous than a mouse, not that a diseased, radioactive mouse did not pose some threat.

Upstairs Trace found an intact bed and a thick wool blanket. The blanket had been wrapped in plastic and left in a cedar chest, so it was in fine condition, a real prize. It was gray with a yellow border and to Trace it seemed heavy with memory, as only certain objects can be. They unstrapped their Pip-Boy and set it on a table near the bed, tuning the radio to play quietly, just audible over the wind still occasionally shaking the boards. They unstrapped their gun belt, feeling the weight of it, heavy with shells, lift from their hips. This was set down beside the Pip-Boy. Trace pulled the gun gently from the leather. It was a single action revolver that was old even before the war. It had its scars, but was in perfect working order, and Trace intended to keep it that way. They applied a little solvent to a rag and rubbed at the surface of the gun, watching as the rag turned dark with the residue of regular use. With a rod and a wad of cloth they scrubbed the barrel too. Trace enjoyed the motions of the task, the busyness of their hands and the quietness of their mind, free to think on whatever they chose. They removed the cylinder with care to apply oil to the moving parts, before putting it back together and giving it a final rub down. The blue-black surface of the metal did its best to shine, and Trace appreciated it for its effort.

For a time Trace twirled the gun on their finger, this way and that, trying to expend some of that anxious energy so they could sleep. As a kid growing up in the vault, they read the same dozen cowboy comics over and over. Trace loved them. It was a random assortment that they had gotten trading with the other children. Mostly the plots were ridiculous and the character generic, but they had a charm Trace found irresistible and the last issue they acquired, number 107, was altogether different. It had...weight. In issue 35, the hero trapped the villain in a cave and while the villain plotted her escape she sat cross legged on the floor spinning her gun, waiting. To eleven-year-old Trace it was essential that they learn those tricks. All it took was daily practice, a pop gun, and having little else to do while confined in a tin can buried underground.

Trace's thoughts turned to the ruined Responder camp in Flatwoods. The robots had carried on as if nothing was wrong but the bodies and emptiness told a different story. Those people had worked hard to try to make something there, and now...nothing. Well, nothing but robots and bodies and holotapes, like ghosts wondering the halls.

From what Trace could put together, in the years after the bombs, a collection of volunteers and emergency service workers had formed the Responders to aid in the rebuilding efforts, establish safe zones and clinics, and help people. Flatwoods was one such location and from the looks of things it had been good for a time. They had established a real community. So far as Trace could gather, the Reponders had only been loosely affiliated with the regional government and had their own leadership based at the airport in Morgantown. They had originally planned to go there, but the radio chatter from vault dwellers in that area painted a grisly picture. All told it seemed to Trace that if any leadership, government or otherwise, still existed, Charleston would be the place to find it.

It would be a three day trip on foot, and they would need an early start. Trace crawled into the bed and pulled the blanket around them. As their face came close to the mattress the faint smell of mildew filled their nostrils and they imaged their bed back in the vault. Clean, warm, soft but not too soft. It had been hard for Trace to fall asleep back then, probably because it did not matter so much.

It was a few hours later that Trace awoke. They could hear people creeping around outside the house. The people were trying to be stealthy, and the wind was on their side in that endeavor, but they were failing. According to the Pip-Boy it was early morning. Trace could tell there was at least 3 of them. Men, judging by their voices. Peeking out from a small gap in the boards over the window they could see the men approaching, heading right for the basement window Trace had entered through hours before. The window had been obscured by brush, invisible from a distance, leading to a straightforward conclusion. They had watched me, and laid in wait. Their mistake.

Trace heard the splash as the first man dropped down onto the basement floor, and then a second, and then the loud snap of the bear trap Trace had placed beneath the water, halfway across the room. The man screamed in pain, and was quickly quieted by his compatriots, now urgently whispering to one another. Trace crept down the stairs to the first floor to better hear them. From this vantage they could see dim light cast on the wall opposite the door to the basement stairs, which Trace had left open.

“Watch the stairs, Harv, while he helps me out of this.” The leader, Trace guessed, speaking through teeth gritted by pain.

Trace could hear straining as the leader and his companion tried to pry the bear trap apart. Tricky even when your foot isn't caught in it.

Trace considered their next step for a moment. They could wait for the men to free their leader from the trap and make their way up stairs, where Trace would be ready and waiting. Or attack now, while two of them were preoccupied. Just then they heard the trap slip closed and the leader scream a second time, and in that instant the decision was made. They exploited the momentary distraction and made for the basement stairs. The man who was supposed to be covering the stairs, Harv, had turned to look when the one in the trap screamed. He turned back a moment too late to see Trace, halfway down the stairs, their gun held low with their other hand poised over the hammer. Trace put two bullets in him before he could so much as widen his eyes. The other two men had both been trying lever open the trap, and were now scrambling for their weapons. The unharmed man pushed himself to the side and tried to raise a rifle he had on a sling around his chest. Trace shot him in the neck while lazily descending the last few steps. He gurgled for a moment, his hands grasping at his neck, as if trying somehow to keep his blood where it belonged, and collapsed.

The last man, his foot still caught in the trap and his friends dead, threw his hands in the air.

“Please don't shoot, I surrender!” Trace saw his eyes lock on their Pip-Boy. “You! I remember you. I...I swear we didn't recognize you. If we had known we never would have come.” He was speaking fast, spitting words out in desperation.

Trace recognized him now, underneath all that facial hair. His name was Glen. And there had been a Harvey too, come to think of it. Had been, but no longer.

“Listen” he continued. “We never would have harmed a fellow vault dweller, I swear. Tracy, you have to believe me!”

Trace regarded him briefly. His eyes were damp and his mouth was quivering. Trace remembered him as a younger man, clean-shaven, enthusiastic. He would cheat at board games.

“I believe you, Glen. You just crept in here in the dead of night to murder a stranger.”

His expression shifted to one of disgust. “Oh now, look at you all self-righteous. You think I don't remember your little ep-” Trace didn't let him finish.

The men didn't have much on them. Trace found a little ammo and a few stims. Peering out from the basement window Trace discovered their bags leaning against the wall just beside it. They brought the bags inside and rummaged through them. There was a single Pip-Boy tucked into one of the bags, its screen cracked and its radio cable missing. They pressed the power button and the device only stuttered on briefly before shutting down again. If it had been working maybe things might have gone differently for them. Maybe they would have detected the trap. Maybe they would have identified Trace and known to steer clear altogether. Oh well. Trace took it apart, harvesting it for backup parts, and left the rest with the bodies. Another corpse for the pile.

It seemed a waste, but there would be other houses.