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Ad Aeternum

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part 1: the knife at your back


The world was a fuzzy golden brown, and something was wrong.

His arm was as heavy as lead; he tried to lift a hand to his face, but it would only drift across the rough sheets, shaking and weak. He blinked; the shining motes that filled his vision remained. Something was pulling uncomfortably along his inner arm. Intravenous line, he realized, and some blind scrabbling with his other hand pulled it free.

He tried to roll onto his side, anxious to move, to find somewhere safe, but something was wrong. A thick lump of nausea rose in his throat and he closed his eyes, breathing, trying to calm down and think. Pain shot through his ribs with every frantic breath.

"You're awake," a man's voice sounded suddenly, and Vulpes flinched, eyes snapping open and wheeling frantically toward the source. A hand pressed gently to his shoulder and urged him to lie still, and while it did nothing to calm him, he was too weak to fight it. Scratchy fabric swiped at the IV insertion point, wicking away blood. "You've been in and out for the past few days." The voice was like old leather, warm and creased and sun-worn.

"...Wrong," Vulpes croaked, trying to twist away from the man, panic rising through the fog.

"Now, try to settle down," the man soothed, "You've been through quite an ordeal."

"This is-" Vulpes swallowed futilely, his mouth and throat incredibly dry, "This is wrong, something is wrong- where is Lucius? Where..." He struggled against the hand holding him still and made no headway. His heart was hammering in his throat, and he could hear and feel the rush of blood in his ears over the high, deaf whine of tinnitus.

He could see the man, his vision sharpening as he blinked and blinked. An old man, bald and weathered with a bushy white mustache. He was glancing back over his shoulder, and shaking his head, and looking back down at Vulpes.

"Son," the old man said, and Vulpes bristled at the condescension, but froze because of the tone- bad news, it said. "I'm a doctor. Some men brought you here a few days ago. Do you remember?"

No, no, nonononono. There was the Courier and the creatures, then the flashing light, and Lucius- Lucius... And...

"You were hurt real bad," the doctor continued. Vulpes tried desperately to sit up, to look down at his legs, but the hand on his shoulder slid to his sternum, pinning him firmly to the cot. "You were in septic shock, and had a nasty case of radiation sickness."

"No," Vulpes said emphatically, his voice cracking, and he managed to bring his hands to the doctor's wrist, too feeble to remove it but too terrified not to try. After a moment's deliberation, the doctor sighed and let Vulpes go, even going to far as to slide a supporting hand under his shoulders so he could see.

"I had to take your leg."

Vulpes stared. His left leg, stretched bare and bruised. His right thigh, normal; thick gauze over the knee; and then, just below the joint, nothing. One shaking hand extended towards it as his face twisted with anguish.

"Breathe," the doctor prompted, and Vulpes sucked in a sharp breath. His hand fell to the sheets.

"...Kill me," Vulpes demanded quietly.

"You're not dying, son," the doctor replied, face a hybrid of confusion and concern. "You're slated to make a full recovery, and you're downright lucky at that."

"Kill me."

The confusion melted away.

"I ain't killing you. Your life's not over just 'cause you lost a leg."

"Give me- give me a knife."

The doctor looked over his shoulder again for a brief moment. Then he reached for something beyond Vulpes' field of vision. A moment later, there was a sharp prick on the inside of his arm, and the room faded out. His head fell back against the pillow. The world was a fuzzy golden brown.

He didn't know how long it was before he came back to his senses. He didn't know when that happened, either. One minute there was nothing, and then a rusted gear in his head gave a wheezy groan and turned a single tooth.

He was staring at the space where his leg should have been.

Once he realized he was conscious, he had worked up the energy to sit upright, leaning sideways into the wall his cot was pushed against. He didn't feel anything, staring at his stump. Imagining the twisted, abbreviated flesh hiding under that too-white bandage. Something so ugly, he found himself thinking, had no business looking so clean. His hand fidgeted at his thigh, thumb working under the gauze, absentmindedly picking and pulling at frayed edges as he stared and considered.

I am a cripple.

A thick wave of disgust washed down his spine, turning his stomach and finally forcing his gaze elsewhere.

Elsewhere, it turned out, was a small cart only a few feet away, sitting between the cot and a desk. On that cart were various syringes and tubes... and a scalpel. It would be messy, he thought numbly as he shoved against the wall, pushing his cot across the floor, but then, he had always known that his death would be. Legionaries didn't die quietly in bed.

Well. Not of natural causes. He didn't think suicide counted.

When he'd pushed the cot as close as he could, he carefully maneuvered himself further down the thin mattress, mindful of the suspicious length of plastic tubing that ran from under the thin cloth gown he was wearing to a bag of yellow-brown fluid that hung off the cot. He swung his legs- leg and stump- over the edge, leaning forward to reach for the cart. It was close, but the lingering fog of chems made it seem miles away. A finger clumsily snagged the edge, and then two, and then he was rolling it closer. His stump throbbed now that the blood was rushing to it.

The scalpel was in hand. He turned the steel over and over in his fingers, acquainting himself. The metal felt sticky and warm in the desert heat, but the blade was sharp, and he barely felt it as his flesh unzipped at its touch, the red blood streaming freely from the long cut he made in his arm.

No future, for cripples.

As the knife dropped from his hand he fell back flat on the cot, warm lifeblood pouring out and soaking in around him. The iron scent that hung in the air was almost comforting in its familiarity. He was distantly aware of a door closing, of heavy footsteps on old wooden boards, and then cursing and the crash of drawers and upturned equipment.

Some shred of him seemed to understand what was happening when foreign hands grasped his arm, an arm that barely felt like it belonged to him now, because all he felt as he passed out was disappointment.

When he woke up again, he was strapped to the cot. That didn't surprise or disappoint him as much as the fact that he did, indeed, wake up. He tested the restraints, but they felt solid.

"You gave me a fright," the doctor grumbled, and Vulpes cracked open his eyes. The old man was sitting at the cot's side, slumped back in his chair with clear exhaustion.

Vulpes stayed silent. He turned his head to face the wall. He wasn't ashamed of his attempt- he was annoyed at being thwarted.

"Now, I don't know much about you, but I know you're a fighter. A soldier of some sort. I saw your scars, and them boys who brought you in. And there’s the Dam. So I can understand that you might feel like there's nothing left for you, if you don't got both legs. But there's more to life than just fightin', and I intend to help you see that. Leg or no leg, I'm sure you have plenty to contribute, and I'll bet you could be happy at it, too. Plenty of veterans around the strip what are missing bits."

Vulpes scowled at the wall. The doctor paused only a moment before continuing, his tone slightly changed.

"Considering your... inclinations, I thought it best that you were kept restrained for a little while. Just until morning, I think, maybe a little longer. To be safe."

Vulpes didn't dignify him with a response. Instead, he stared intently at the wrinkled wallpaper, finding patterns in the chaos.

He was left alone in the night, but the old man was back at the crack of dawn, and showed no signs of going away.

The doctor was always in the room with him, reading a yellowed and dogeared book or listening to the radio with his feet propped up on a stool, but he checked in periodically. Vulpes dutifully ignored him as he checked his bandages, and sullenly accepted offered water. He burned with resentment every time the doctor propped his head up with one arm and held the glass to his lips. Some time around midday, the doctor brought him some sort of thin broth, and began the humiliating process of spoon feeding him. After a few mouthfuls, Vulpes turned his head away, wishing again for the scalpel and the restful silence it offered. Better death than this... degradation. It only got worse when the old man insisted on bathing him- his skin was peeling off in sheets courtesy of the radiation in the Divide, baring the raw flesh underneath to the dusty air. The doctor sponged delicately around the worst areas, carefully rinsing off the death and debris.

When it was over and he was left alone, he traced shapes in the whorls of the exposed lathe under the torn and faded wallpaper and crumbling plaster. It passed the time and distracted him from the insistent throb of his stump, and the sting of his arm under the tightly wrapped bandages. It also spared him from any possibility of making eye contact with the doctor. Somebody before him had made their own mark in the ancient wood- a clumsy smiley face was carved under a ragged flap of wallpaper. No matter where he looked, his eyes always wandered back to that hollow smile. Soon, though, the light faded, and he was just staring into the darkness, with the knowledge that the carving smiled stupidly back.

His eyes might have closed, for a minute. They shot back open at the tap of claws on the splintered hardwood, and the sound of animal breath passing tongue and teeth. On impulse, his body lurched, fighting his restraints. Every muscle stood tense and shaking; his eyes turned to the new lantern light that bobbed in the far doorway. His mind filled the blanks with glowing mismatched eyes and a feral grin, and metal arms that reached and invaded.

"Relax, son, it's me, you're safe," came the doctor's voice, sounding slightly alarmed. But there were still clawed footsteps, and something was walking his way, and he could feel his heart straining in his throat, and every breath tore ragged from between gritted teeth, and-

"Cheyenne, stay!"

A hand fussed at the lantern, and its light grew brighter. Three shapes resolved from the dim- the doctor, who was bustling around the room turning on various light fixtures, a young woman in leathers holding the lantern, and a large dog that panted dumbly as it looked back at the girl. Vulpes swallowed down his panic, squeezed his eyes shut, and pressed his head back into the cot. His hands betrayed him, trembling where they were restrained.

More lights came on, glowing red through his closed eyelids. Footsteps, and a shadow over him. He focused on his breathing.

"You're all right, son," the doctor soothed again, and Vulpes' face twitched with the ghost of a sneer, bristling at the kindness. "Sunny?"

"Hi," the woman said uncertainly, slowly coming closer, but still standing off the doctor's shoulder. "I'm Sunny Smiles. Doc Mitchell asked for my help to look after you, until you're better."

"She'll be here to get you anything you need while I sleep and take care of other patients," Doc Mitchell explained.

Finally satisfied that his panic was reigned in, if not entirely quashed,  Vulpes opened his baleful eyes and turned his head toward the woman, really looking this time.

She was small, and young. Her face was open and honest and kind; it was the same sort of naive country niceness that he'd seen in so many conquered tribes, and a near relative to the almost paternal care the doctor tried to inflict upon him. It was the dumb good nature that glued communities together and invited in the danger that tore them apart.

It was paired with a full set of gecko leather armor and a lightweight rifle, and in his eyes it all added up to an idealist do-gooder who survived only because she never left the relative safety of her town. It also suggested that her role here was less sicknurse and more prison guard, watching and keeping him from doing anything... permanent.

His eyes flicked to the doctor with some disgust. The doctor made a mildly dissatisfied hrm noise and checked Vulpes' bandages one more time.

"How's the pain?" he asked. Vulpes glowered at him, but he didn't respond. The pain was downright distracting, but he wouldn't give them the satisfaction of knowing. The doctor frowned, the corners of his mustache dipping. "I can give you something to dull it down, but without knowing how much you're hurting, it's hard to figure out the dosage."

Good, Vulpes thought bitterly. Get the dosage wrong. Let me die. As if he could read Vulpes' thoughts, the doctor's frown deepened, dark lines creasing into his forehead. Still, he measured out a dose of Med-X and carefully injected it into Vulpes' uninjured arm. Cold numb radiated up through his veins.

"Everything is looking good," he said at last, setting aside the empty syringe, "We'll take those bandages off in the morning and see how you're healing up. But I'm an old man, and right now it's time for me to go to bed. Sunny will be here if you need her. Good night."

There was a quiet moment as the doctor shuffled from the room, leaving Vulpes and the woman to their thoughts.

"I'm sorry if I startled you," the woman said after several long seconds. Her footsteps and a slight scuff told him that she'd taken a seat in the doctor's desk chair, but he wasn't about to crane his neck to make sure. "Doc Mitchell said you were asleep and we didn't want to wake you."

The dog padded closer to his cot, and he tensed again. When a cold nose nudged at his hand, he instinctively jerked away from the touch, straining against the leather straps. Oh, he knew it was just a mutt, but he could still hear the Courier's manic laughter ringing in the silence.

"Down, Cheyenne!" Sunny ordered quickly, evidently seeing his discomfort. "I'm sorry," she said again, "I didn't think that you might be afraid of dogs-"

"I am not," Vulpes spat, unable to stop himself, "afraid of dogs."

There was a heavy silence. For a moment, Vulpes anticipated yet another apology from the girl, but she stayed quiet.

"What's your name?" she eventually asked instead. He ignored her. The world was beginning to retreat pleasantly into the distance, far enough away that he just couldn't bring himself to care about it. It took the pain with it- it was there, but one step removed, and easily ignored. Just sound drifting in from another room.

He rested his eyes.

Sunny Smiles left at dawn, when Doc Mitchell woke up. After a coffee and a smoke, the doctor changed his bandages, and Vulpes got his first look at the stump.

It was smooth and raw pink, striated with angry scar tissue. One deep line crossed the bottom of the stump laterally, and there were strange bulges where muscle tissue had been cut short and folded over bone. The entire area was tender, twinging every time the doctor probed at it, but very much healed- they'd used a stimpak on him. Town this small, it must have been serious then. That kind of medical equipment might come easy to wasteland juggernauts like the Courier, but out in the boonies, it was a treasured commodity and a last resort.

The muscle of his calf twitched, and the bulbous tip of his stump twitched painfully with it. He could feel the gorge rising in his throat. He'd have preferred an open, gaping wound.

And then the doctor swept in with fresh bandages, glanced at his patient's face, and perhaps strategically situated himself so Vulpes couldn't see his leg anymore.

"Now, it looks healed, but it ain't really," the doctor said, laying down a base layer of gauze before moving to cotton bindings. The used bandages sat in a heap between Vulpes' legs, stained yellow with pussy drainage. "It needs time to set in. I had to anchor your muscles to the bone, and it'll be another week or so before I'd trust them to bear weight. And your leg will hurt, of course. That should get easier with time, too, but it's normal for you to feel some residual pain and sensation."

Vulpes knew about phantom pain. Enough Legionaries had lost limbs over the years that it was pretty common knowledge among the rank and file that some of them could still feel the limb they'd lost, claiming they could feel their fists painfully clenching even while there was no fist to see.

He couldn't feel anything in the leg that wasn't there. Just the dull, burning ache in his stump.

"So, in a week or so, we'll see about getting you on your feet again. Foot," the doctor corrected himself with a kind but joyless smile.

"What?" Vulpes asked as his attention drifted back to his caretaker, voice hoarse and muted with disuse.

"I said I think I got a pair of crutches around here, and soon we can try to put together a prosthetic for you, and you can be out and about again." A pause as the doctor's eyes bored into his. "Maybe find you some work around town, keep you busy."

Keep me distracted, Vulpes translated. Keep me from killing myself. Or killing you. But-

“I’ll… be able to walk?”

“With some practice, and time,” the old man replied carefully, “you should be able to walk just fine, I think.”

He was struck once again by the doctor's small town foolishness. It would be safer for him and his people to have let Vulpes die rather than risk the whole settlement and waste supplies on a stranger. There were reasons the Legion didn't treat the wounded indiscriminately. You don't patch a man up if you know he wants you dead, or even if you’re unsure. You just help nature along with a bullet to the head.

The doctor finished wrapping Vulpes' leg back up, clipped the end of the bandage to the bulk of it, and moved on to Vulpes' arm. It stung when the bandage was peeled back; dried blood pulled at his skin. This wound, he had no problem looking at- fine black stitches lined the long cut, keeping it closed. The skin was puffy and pink, but there was no sign of infection. Making a noise of thoughtful approval, the doctor pressed fresh gauze over the injury and neatly bandaged it again. When he was finished, he gathered up the dirty bandages and dropped them into a waste bin in the corner.

True to his word, the doctor didn't strap Vulpes back down to the cot. However, Vulpes noticed he had wheeled his cart of surgical implements elsewhere, leaving nothing behind that Vulpes could hurt himself with even if the doctor left him alone long enough to try something. And he didn't- he vanished a few times to relieve himself or get food, but he was never gone longer than a minute, and both men were well aware that Vulpes wasn't getting anywhere fast. When the doctor had taken a book into the bathroom with him the first time, he'd given the wall an experimental shove and found that, while the cot rocked slightly, it did not roll. The wheels had been locked. Between that, his stump of a leg, the inconvenience of the catheter, and the persistent fuzziness of chems in his head, it looked like he'd be doing a lot of staying put.

He picked idly at his leg bandages, sitting upright and leaning one shoulder against the wall. The doctor took a seat at his desk a few yards away, politely keeping his back half-turned as he scrawled out a few letters, referred to a few tattered books. He wasn't good at hiding his backwards glances, however, and soon enough he put down his pen and turned in his chair.

"So what's your name, son?"

Vulpes' eyes flicked briefly to the doctor, but his expression remained flat and disinterested. He quickly turned his attention back to his hideous stump.

"Those boys that brought you in..."

Wherever the doctor had intended to take that, he let it drift away with a shake of his head.

"You got any folks out there we can reach out to? Family, friends? A home?"

"...No," Vulpes heard himself reply. "No home." The leg bandages had come unclipped; he fussed with it for a moment before hooking it back into the fabric, pressing hard enough to feel the bite of the metal teeth in his tender flesh.

"Well, that's not too unusual these days. But with the big fray at the Dam over and done with, maybe things can calm down and you can find a place to settle in." There was an odd glint of suggestion in the doctor's eye. If he was trying to tell Vulpes he could call his podunk little town home, he had another think coming. Part of Vulpes’ plans when they had won the Dam, if they had won the Dam, was to exterminate every last piece of dissolute scum in the Mojave. Vegas would have burned; the only thing that would have saved this place was its inhabitants sheer ignorance of the world around them and the fact that they didn’t even have enough chems or alcohol to abuse.

"Where am I?" Vulpes asked, following through on that train of thought and realizing he didn't know. Last he remembered, he was sprawled across a floor in Primm. And then, with a frown, he added, “And why are you helping me?” It was one thing to assume it was country foolishness that made the old man so hospitable, but Vulpes would have been a fool himself if he didn’t try to make sure.

"This is Goodsprings," the doctor said with a smile, maybe proud that he'd taken interest in his little town, maybe just glad his patient was interacting. "We're not a big settlement, but we're a quiet one. We don't get much trouble out here. The men who left you with me made a good call, bringing you here instead of trying to get you to New Vegas. As for why I’m helping you- it’s just the right thing to do. You’re not the first poor soul that I’ve looked after pro bono, and you won’t be the last, I’m sure."

"Goodsprings," Vulpes echoed. He knew of the village of course, but he'd never had cause to actually visit. It was never that important of a location; it was only recently settled, nothing happened here, nobody lived here, and it was so remote and inconveniently placed that there wasn't even cause to pass through. And yet, something about it niggled at the back of his mind. Goodsprings. Goodsprings...

Nothing came to him. Itching with dissatisfaction, he laid back on the cot, and gingerly rolled onto his aching side. His stump sat strangely on his other leg; somehow, knowing he should feel the weight of the leg made him much more unpleasantly aware that it wasn't there. With every movement, he could feel the catheter tube pulling unpleasantly against the band that strapped it to the upper thigh of his whole leg.

They thought they could get him "back on his feet again."  He didn't dare think too hard about that; he half wished the whole leg were gone, with nothing left behind to taunt him. The rest of him, though, ached to prowl the wastes again like nothing had changed. He still had two thirds of his leg, and he knew from old legionary amputees that it was easier to get around the more leg you had.

Get around. Not run, not hunt. He curled his fingers into his bandages, digging into the pain and grimacing. Get around like the cripple he was. To get around is to hobble and limp and hop. To get around is to survive, not live.

As if you ever really lived, he jeered at himself. All you've ever done is survive.

And even survival seemed unlikely. Sooner or later, the Courier would come for him, and no cripple can outrun a galloping night stalker. Honestly, his odds wouldn’t be great even if he hadn’t been injured in the Divide…

He flinched as he abruptly remembered the ghoul’s blade hacking down through his leg, and the sickening wet squelch of flesh being shaved away from bone. It hadn't hurt when it happened, not the way it should.  Now, a jolt of sympathetic pain shot through the leg that wasn't there. It was like the ghost of every muscle cramped at once; he could feel his missing toes curling, the sinews in the sole of his amputated foot pulled painfully tight. So this is what it was like. He pressed a hand to the back of his truncated calf, massaging the tense muscle.

“Wish I could tell you that’s temporary, but I can’t,” the doctor remarked as he passed by with a full ash tray, glancing to Vulpes. “Part of the package, I’m afraid.”

There was a clatter as Doc Mitchell opened the front door, knocked the ash tray’s contents out into the desert, and came back in.

“Do you read?” he asked, settling back in at his desk and lighting a cigarette. “It’s not much of a selection, but I got a small library here, if you wanted a book or two to pass the time.”

“No,” Vulpes replied. His voice was still hoarse. And then, surprising himself, “Thank you.”

He could read, of course. He wouldn’t have risen far in the ranks if he couldn’t. But as a child, the only reading he had to do was on the front of pill bottles, and as a soldier, he never had much reason to practice. And spying… that was more about talking and listening than it was reading and writing.

As such, his writing was a slow, meticulous block print, neat but too conscious. His reading wasn’t much better. It wasn’t something he did for fun, and it was a weakness he didn’t need the doctor to know about.

“Well, is there anything I can get you?” the doc pressed on. There was a mild edge of concern to his voice. “I don’t like to see a man stew with nothing to set his mind to.”

Vulpes thought for a moment. Mindful of his bruised ribs, he rolled over so he could look at the old man.

“A map.”