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10 Minutes After Midnight

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“Alfred, slow down!” His mother called from down the hallway where he had left her in the metaphorical dust. Alfred giggled and shot off around the corner, breaking into full-blown laughter as he heard her groan.

He grinned wide, his heart beating hard in his chest as he ran like the wind through the corridors of Vault 50. He knew he should slow down before he crashed and hurt himself or someone else, but he was just so excited! His first day of real, honest-to-god school! Not nursery school to keep him out from under the adult's feet, not Sunday school where all they learned about was the Bible, real school!

“Alfred! Wait for me!” He heard another voice call. Smaller and softer, with a distinct wheeze in it, this actually made the boy slow to a walk so that his younger twin could catch up.

“Mattie, you know you're not supposed to run!” Alfred chastised. “You'll get all breathe-y and you might fall over.” He frowned, taking his brother's arm and wrapping it around his shoulder for good measure.

“I can too run!” Matthew insisted. “I ran all the way down the hallway to find you and I didn't even-” He paused to take a deep, rattling breath, coughing for a moment to clear his lungs. “I didn't even get light-headed!”

“I think you're a liar liar pants on fire.” Alfred huffed. “Don't run like that or you'll get even sicker.”

Matthew just glared at him. “Well maybe you shouldn't run so I don't have to catch up!” He snapped, pushing himself off of his brother.

Alfred hung his head and scuffed his shoe on the metal floor of the Vault. “I'm sorry.” He murmured morosely. “I'm just so excited! Its our first day of real school and I want to get there as fast as possible.” He whined.

Matthew chuckled. “I know, Al. Just...don't leave me behind.” He asked. His voice sounded weird, like he was real sad.

“Heroes don't leave their sidekicks behind!” Alfred declared with a grin, trying to chase the sadness away.

“Who said anything about me being your sidekick?” Matthew huffed. The sadness was gone, for now. Some day, he'd make it go away for good. He was gonna be the best doctor in the world and cure everyone in town, and heal Mattie so that he could run and play like all of the other kids.

“Well we can't both be the Hero!” Alfred protested, pouting. “And I'm the Hero!”

“Alright, Al. You're the Hero.” Mattie agreed, a small smile on his face. “Which means its your fault if we're late for class.” His smile turned to a smirk as he slipped out from under Alfred's arm. Alfred let out a squeak and scurried into the classroom after his brother.

~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~

“Tell me the story again, Grandpa!” little Alfred begged, his eyes wide and full of crocodile tears.

“Enough of that, boy. You don't want to hear any more of that silly old bedtime story.” Arthur rebuffed him gruffly.

“But I do! I want to hear all about the Wasteland!” He begged. “I want to hear about Canton and the Mutants and the Ghouls!

“It'll give you nightmares, boy.” Arthur scoffed.

“It will not!” Alfred insisted.

“That's not what your mother said.” Arthur smirked. “She told me you had nightmares for three weeks after I told you the first time.”

“That's slander! Defamation of character!” He protested.

“Have you been watching those legal drama holodisks again?” Arthur sighed.

“I object!” Alfred grinned, waved his tiny, chubby fist in the air.

“I'll take that as a yes, then.” Arthur shook his head, chuckling fondly.

“So you'll tell me the story, right?” Alfred beamed, looking up at his grandfather sweetly. Arthur could feel his resolve crumbling with every second he looked into those big, blue eyes. Just like his mother's.

“Alright, alright. I'll tell you the story.” He relented, a scowl on his face. “But for heaven's sake, lad, sit down!”

Alfred plopped his little 6-year-old butt on the floor in front of his grandfather, eager eyes wide and honed in on Arthur with laser-focus.

“So there I was, searching through the reactor level for the leak our sensors had detected, when suddenly I saw a crack in the metal hull of the Vault....”

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Alfred sighed as he trudged down the hallway to his Grandpa Arthur's quarters. He was already tired from his shift in the medbay, and he just wanted to go home and relax. But the old man had fallen down the stairs last week, and while his broken hip healed up it was Alfred's responsibility to check in on him as his doctor and his grandson.

“Quick, boy, get in here. You're letting the heat out.” His grandfather said, waving him through the door as it opened with a pneumonic hiss. His grandfather lay sprawled in his arm chair, his legs encased in a cast from hip to ankle. His green eyes were bright and alert, quick and dangerous like a cat's.

“You haven't been taking your pain pills.” He sighed, rolling his eyes and crossing the room to yank open the medicine box.

“They cloud my mind!” Arthur said, snarling. Al counted out two of the little white pills and dropped them into a cup.

“Pain clouds the mind. Take the pills.” Alfred said, handing him the cup and a glass of water.

“Pain sharpens the mind, boy. But what would you know about that?” He asked, staring at the pills like a couple of poisonous snakes.

“Take your pills, grandpa.” Alfred said, refusing to rise to the bait. He was tired of having this argument, he knew where it was leading. It seemed like all they ever talked about anymore.

“I've had worse than a broken hip, boy. When I was your age, I got shot straight through the shoulder. Didn't have any pain pills then, did I?” Arthur said, grumbling.

“Grandpa, you didn't get shot. You fell off of a ladder onto a rivet that hadn't been bolted in properly. Mom told me the story already.” Al countered listlessly.

“I did get shot!” Arthur protested, “I was in Majestic, drinking in Auditorium 9, when some upjumped Raider with a bad attitude comes in and-”

Alfred let himself drift off as his grandfather began his retelling. He didn't need to listen, he'd already heard every detail. He could recite the story by heart by now. The Raider accuses grandpa of sleeping with his wife. Grandpa denies it. Turns out its actually true. Cue huge bar fight. Grandpa escapes. Takes a misfire from some drunk idiot across the street. Cue joke about irony.

He sometimes wondered if maybe his mind was starting to go. The stories had been entertaining when he was a kid, but back then stories were all they had been. Now, Arthur seemed to think his fantastical bedtime stories were true. And he'd become paranoid, convinced the Overseer knew he knew the way out of the Vault and was out to get him. He'd even told Alfred that the Overseer had him pushed. He was starting to worry that maybe it wasn't safe to let him live on his own.

“Alfred, pay attention!” His grandfather huffed, rapping him over the head with his cane. Arthur Kirkland had no patience for his grandson's short attention span. Alfred rubbed his head and turned back to his grandpa, scowling.

“Were you even listening?” Arthur grumbled, scowling back.

“I heard everything you said!” Alfred protested. “I've heard the story a thousand times. And that's exactly what it is, a story. The Overseer says-”

“I know what the Overseer says, boy!” Arthur interrupted. “And I'm telling you, that old loon is full of it, drunk on power. I've been to the Wasteland. When I was a young boy, not much older than you, I found a gap in the reactor tunnel. I sque-”

“You squeezed through and it led to a crack in the rock, which let out into a cave, which led out to the surface. So you say.” He stressed. “But no one else has ever seen this gap, or the crack, or the cave, or the Wasteland!”

“So you believe this rubbish? About this virus that has failed to kill any of its carriers?” Arthur sneered.

“Of course. That's why they give us our medicine every day. To keep us alive despite the virus.” Alfred answered earnestly.

“Bah! Those pills addle your brain. Think, boy! Why would they pay good money keeping us alive for generations if we carry such a dangerous disease?” He asked.

“To study us and find out how to cure it?” Alfred shrugged. He just wanted to get back home and relax. He didn't have time for his dumb grandpa and his stupid stories.

“Why cure it if all of the carriers live here in the Vault, and letting us die would be the same as destroying the virus?” Arthur reasoned.

“Because they aren't terrible? Of course they don't want to just let us die!” Alfred argued indignantly. “You just want to believe the worst in people.”

“Fine, don't believe me? Stop taking your pills for a week, see the difference for yourself.” Arthur sniffed, crossing his arms.

“Do you want to kill me, grandpa!? If I don't take my pills, I could die!” He screeched.

“I haven't taken a single pill in 30 years.” Arthur asserted. “And I'm just fine.”

“Just fine?” Alfred snorted. “You're delusional! You sit around all day, yelling at your Pip-Boy and insisting that America is a nuclear wasteland. You talk about Canton and giant green men and people that look like corpses, but no one else has ever seen any of this! No one else has even seen the gap you used to get out.”

“That's why they closed off part of the reactor level.” Arthur said, smug satisfaction written across his face.

“You're making that up! They closed it off because there was a leak and they had to shut that reactor down.” Alfred said, sighing and pinching the bridge of his nose.

“I'm not making it up! I have a map!” Arthur insisted.

“I've seen the map, grandpa! You drew that yourself.” Alfred said. It was a ratty old thing drawn on dirty leather, the distances crude and the markings confusing.

“I did not! I bought it from a traveling merchant who packed all of his wares on a cow with two heads!” Arthur insisted.

“And you wonder why I don't believe you! Cows don't have two heads, Grandpa! And your map is all wrong!” He grumbled, pulling out a map he had taken from the classroom. “We're 10 miles from Dallas, with 3 square miles of bare land above us, guarded by an electrified fence. It's on all of the maps in the Vault! But you have Canton less than a stone's throw away from the Vault, and what you've labeled “Dallas Ruins” is a lot smaller than downtown.” Alfred explained, gesturing to the map to illustrate each point.

“They update these maps every few years with fake projections, ideas of what Dallas would have looked like if it continued to grow. But the truth is that Dallas hasn't gotten any bigger since the day they sealed my grandfather in here. The bombs fell sometime after we were tricked into being trapped here.” Arthur explained, his voice somber and serious. The look in his eyes – a mixture of sorrow, contempt, and resignation – struck a chord within Alfred, and for a moment he opened his mind.

“What do they get from saving a bunch of sick people, when healthy ones were left to die?” He asked. “Why us?”

“Why us?” Arthur asked back. “That, I cannot say. What I can say, is that we aren't sick, not a one of us except your brother, and that's a whole different beast. I told you, I haven't taken a single pill they've given me in 30 years. And I'm not the only one. Watch your parents tonight at dinner, when they take their pills. You'll see what I mean.”

Alfred opened his mouth to argue, then closed it. It was a simple enough request. “Alright, I'll watch. But when mom and dad take their pills, you gotta stop it with this talk, alright? You're gonna get both of us in trouble!”

“Alfred, my dear boy,” Arthur sighed, giving his grandson a troubled look. “I wouldn't be telling you this if I didn't think we weren't already all in trouble.”

“What do you mean?” Alfred asked, frowning.

“That's a discussion for another time, when you trust me more. Go home, have dinner with your family. And don't say anything to Matthew.” He warned.

“Wouldn't dream of it.” He agreed, grabbing his lab coat and slipping out the door. “I'll see you tomorrow, Grandpa!” He called, waving goodbye.

“Of course. ” Arthur waved back, the light from the hallway glinting off the shotgun hung on the wall.

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Alfred scurried home, checking the time on his Pip-Boy. He had wanted to stop back by the medbay and pick up some of his paperwork, maybe ask Dr. Edelstein a few professional questions before his boss went home for the night, but arguing with his grandfather had set him back, and now he was running late for dinner.

“Alfred! Dinner is starting, hurry up!” His mother called, hands on her hips, as he rounded the corner. “Come take your medicine.”

'I will if you do.' He thought mutinously to himself.

He said nothing as he ducked into their apartment, sliding into the chair opposite Mattie, who slid a tray of food from the Cafeteria and a little cup of pills to him.

“You're late.” Matt sing-songed. Alfred looked around to make sure his parents weren't looking, and then flipped him off.

“I was with Grandpa Arthur. You know that. I've been late or cut it close almost every day since he broke his hip.” Alfred reminded him.

“Such a selfless act.” Matt teased. “It's almost like you didn't whine for the whole first week.”

Alfred stuck his tongue out at him and flipped a bean at him. It missed and landed in their mother's rubber plant.

“Boys!” She reprimanded them, taking her seat and giving them both sharp looks.

“Sorry, Mom.” They mumbled in unison, doing their best to look contrite while trying to stifle their laughter.

“So, Alfred, how was work?” His father asked, throwing back his pills with a drink of water. Alfred calmed himself, a smile still in his eyes even as he watched his father closely.

“It went pretty well, I guess. Same old.....” Alfred paused, noticing the telltale bulge of unswallowed pills in his dad's cheek, which disappeared suspiciously as he “wiped his mouth” with his napkin. “Same old.” He finished weakly, the laughter going out of his eyes.

His mother gave him a worried look. “Are you alright, Alfred?” She asked. His eyes darted down to her napkin. A wet spot gave it away, transparent enough to see the blue of one of the pills through. Neither of them had taken their dose.

“Uh...y-yeah, I'm fine.” He lied as the world spun around him. They hadn't taken their pills. Maybe they never had.

“Go ahead and take your pills, sweetie. You're running late on your dose.” She urged him gently. Alfred gave her a weak smile and picked up the cup of pills. An assortment of colors and shapes, with names Alfred didn't know, and probably couldn't pronounce.

He looked at them for a moment, taking a deep breath. His hand shook, and he could only hope that he was the only one who noticed. He was intensely aware of his own heartbeat, and how loud it seemed in his ears. He'd been told his entire life that without these medications, he would be dead in hours. And he was about to skip a dose for the first time. He's never been so grateful for a pounding heart before.

He knocked the pills back, shoving them in his cheek as he took a drink. “I'll be fine in a minute.” He assured her. She ran a hand through his hair, and for a moment Alfred wondered if she'd seen him do it.

He watched Mattie take his pills, not sure if he should be relieved or worried that he actually swallowed them. He'd always had a few more than the rest of them, and despite being the medical intern, he didn't know which ones helped and which ones hurt.

“So, you were talking about work?” Matt prompted, taking a bite out of his bread. Alfred spit the pills out into his napkin as discreetly as he could, laying it down on the table.

“Oh, yeah. Well, it was pretty uneventful, really. I'm just an intern, after all. Dr. Edelstein sees all of the patients and does all of the research. I just fetch and carry, mostly.” He shrugged.

“Don't sell yourself short, dear. I'm sure you're a great help to the good doctor.” His mother cooed fondly. “We are just so proud of you. We all knew you'd do well on the G.O.A.T.”

“Yeah, well, I'm still just learning. I'd like to do more, honestly. I feel like I should at least be sitting in on some of his examinations.” He sighed. He felt like he was learning a lot about what it took to run a clinic, but not much at all about how to treat patients.

“What about you, Mom?” He asked, redirecting the question.

“Oh, it wasn't very eventful. Did some paperwork, graded homework, taught my classes. Nothing out of the ordinary. What about you, dear?” She asked her husband.

“All's quiet in the reactor level. You can all sleep tight knowing there aren't any leaks.” He assured them. “What did you do today, Matt?” He asked.

“I watched a few holotapes, walked around the Vault a bit, read a book.” He shrugged.

“It's good that you're getting exercise.” Alfred nodded in approval. “Your strength will come back faster if you keep moving.” He assured him.

“Can do, doc.” Matt grinned, giving him a jaunty, teasing salute. Alfred kicked him under the table.

“You should probably get back to bed for now, though.” Al told him. “It's getting late.”

“You're right.” Matthew yawned, rising from his seat and shuffling to their shared bedroom. “I'm gonna call it a night. You guys sleep tight.” He called, setting his tray in the bin.

Alfred watched Matt go, only turning to his parents when he was sure Matt was in their room. He fixed serious eyes on them, sizing them each up.

“I think I'm gonna hit the showers and then go to bed, myself.” He said, finishing off the rest of his food and cleaning up after himself. “Goodnight!” He called. His parents bid him goodnight back, and he slipped into the showers to think.

This was gonna be a long shower.

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His mother was waiting for him in his bedroom when he got out of the shower. She sat perched on his bed, looking older and more tired than he had ever seen her. Crossing the room in a few faltering steps, Alfred sat delicately beside her, holding himself like a breath.

“I brought your clothes in.” She started, gesturing to the basket of folded laundry by the foot of the bed.

“Thanks.” He said, staring at it like a snake would jump out and bite him at any moment.

“Alfred....” His mother started, pausing as if to find the words. “You know I love you, right?” She asked.

“Of course, Mom. I love you, too.” He said, eyeing her warily. She smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes.

“I just....want to make sure you remember, okay?” She said, cupping her hand around his face and gently swiping a thumb across his cheek.

“Is everything okay?” He asked, a strange fear he couldn't quite comprehend coming over him suddenly.

“Everything's fine, dear.” She assured him, her hand falling to his shoulder as she bent over to press a soft kiss to his forehead. “Get some rest. The work day always-”

“Starts earlier than you think.” Alfred finished for her. “Goodnight, mom.”

“Goodnight, Alfred.” She said, slipping out of his room with one last, indecipherable smile.

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Alfred got to the clinic early the next morning, hoping to beat the doctor there and take a look at the pill labels. But as he rounded the corner, he saw shadows on the walls and heard voices coming from the clinic. He stopped, not wanting to walk in on an examination when he hadn't been asked, when one of the voices came out clear enough to be heard.

“Do you think the boy suspects anything?” Someone said. It was the Overseer, he'd know that voice anywhere. He flattened himself against the wall and trained his ears on the conversation.

“Alfred? He hasn't given me a reason to think so, no. He works hard, but I've never caught him snooping or trying to stay after hours. Nothing's come up missing, or where it shouldn't be. He hasn't asked any untoward questions.” Dr. Edelstein answered. “Why?”

“His grandfather is Arthur Kirkland.” The Overseer told him, his voice dripping with contempt.

“Surely even Kirkland wouldn't involve a boy in such matters?” Dr. Edelstein scoffed.

“You don't know the man like I do, Doctor.” The Overseer shot back. “It's best to be careful with that man. He's dangerous, even now.”

“I'll tell you if I come to suspect anything, but I assure you Alfred has given me no cause to doubt his loyalty, or his ignorance.”

“If he does, I want to be the first to know.” The Overseer asserted coldly.

“Of course, sir. You will be notified immediately.” The Doctor agreed.

Footsteps sounded through the hallway, coming right for Alfred. He hurriedly bounced off of the wall and started walking down the hallway at a clipped pace, fiddling with his Pip-Boy. He cleanly side-stepped the Overseer as he came around the corner, giving him a polite nod and a casual “Overseer, sir.”

“Jones. A moment, please.” He called, and Alfred stopped in his tracks, turning to face him.

“Yes, Mr. Overseer?” He asked, his heart racing. Had he been too loud coming up the hallway the first time? He had been so sure they hadn't heard him.

“How is your grandfather? I heard you've been taking care of him.” He asked, a deceptively kind smile on his face. The same smile Alfred had seen a million time and thought genuine.

“Oh, he's doing fine. You know him, nothing slows that old coot down. He'll be up on his feet scaring the Vault children in no time.” He laughed, hoping it didn't sound half as hollow to the Overseer as it did to him.

“Good to hear. You tell him I said hello, won't you?” He asked, patting Alfred on the shoulder firmly.

“Of course, Sir. I'll let him know you send your best.” He grinned back, wanting to throw the man's hand off of his shoulder and run the opposite direction. He could dismiss his parents not taking their pills, he could even brush off the fact that he wasn't dead after not taking his. But this was confirmation, beyond a doubt. Something was going on here, and it wasn't good.

“Don't work too hard!” The Overseer laughed, heading back down the hallway.

“Same to you, sir.” Alfred grinned, feigning tipping a hat. He didn't watch as the man left, hurrying instead into the clinic, still shaken.

“Good morning, Dr. Edelstein.” He greeted, keeping his voice light and cheery. He knew, there was no other way to explain that conversation. Whatever the pills were or weren't doing, he knew what it was. No surprise, as much as Alfred hated the thought. It was Doctor Edelstein who administered their doses.

“Good morning, Alfred. Did you sleep well?” He asked, not looking up from his paperwork as Alfred sat down at his own desk to do the same. As far as Alfred could see, running the medbay was 90% paperwork, 2% seeing patients for real ailments, and 8% lying to their faces about their fake one.

“It was a little rocky, but I'll be alright.” He assured him. “And you?”

“I slept well enough, I suppose. The baby finally started sleeping through the night.” He smiled softly, glancing at the picture of his wife, Eliza, and their newborn daughter.

“That's good to hear. My mom says the first few weeks are always the hardest. Not that it'll be smooth sailing from here on out.” He chuckled.

“Hopefully Theresa won't be too much trouble. Though,” He sighed, shaking his head. “If she's anything like her mother...”

Alfred's laugh was genuine that time. Eliza was great. She worked with his dad in the Reactor Level, and always seemed to have time to show him something cool when he was down there. But if rumors were to be believed, she'd been hell on wheels as a kid.

He realized with a start that Roderich probably let Eliza dose Theresa's bottle, like all of the babies in the Vault. Even knowing that the pills were a sham, he probably let his wife give them to their child anyway. How could he not, with the Overseer breathing down his neck?

“Good morning, Vault Town!” Feliks' upbeat voice, the same as every morning, knocked him out of his horrified stupor. “Happy July 4th everybody! Today's choices in the cafeteria include: beef stew or fried cram sandwiches for lunch, and there will be hot dogs and hamburgers for tonight's festivities! Today's birthdays include The United States of America and Alfred Jones. Al, honey, just let the cafeteria workers know who you are and you'll get an extra dessert portion. It's ice cream today, folks!”

There was a time, less than a day ago, when the news of extra birthday ice cream would have sent him into a euphoric high that would last all day. Now he could only wonder if they were drugging the food, too, and whether there was a way he could test it. He sighed, glancing up at the clock. It would be hours yet before he was free to go to his grandfather's apartment for answers.

Alfred ducked his head back down, staring at his paperwork. He blinked, focusing his eyes. Whereas only the day before the letters had swam on the page, mixing themselves up, now they held still in their proper places. He frowned at the paper, puzzled. Had the medications been causing his dyslexia? It was a common complaint in the Vault, 4 out of 6 residents had trouble reading, but he'd never connected the two truths until now.

He was very careful to not complete his work too much faster than normal, worried that he would give himself away, but now that he'd noticed the first signs of the pills wearing off, he began to pay more attention to the changes in his body.

The stomach cramps that had plagued him every morning as long as he could remember were gone, the fuzziness in his brain that he hadn't even noticed until it wasn't there was gone, too. Or maybe clearing, he wouldn't know what his brain was normally capable of until the pills wore off completely. His limbs didn't feel as heavy, and he wasn't as tired as he should be. He'd felt truly hungry for the first time this morning, as well, scarfing down his cafeteria food and still not feeling full enough. The food had tasted blander than usual, too, though he couldn't say for sure that was the pills.

“Is something wrong, Alfred?” Doctor Edelstein asked. “You've been staring at that form looking troubled for the past three minutes.”

Alfred looked up, blinking owlishly. “Oh...no, everything's fine. I'm just having a little trouble concentrating this morning. Dyslexia, you know.” He sighed.

“Don't push yourself too hard.” The Doctor admonished. “How about you go take a break from filling out the forms and go make sure the medications are stocked?” He suggested.

“Sure.” He shrugged, rising from his desk. As he made his way to the back room where they kept the medications, he wondered if he was being tested. He'd never been told to stock the medications before, and it was suspicious that the Doctor would start now, given that he was supposed to be under scrutiny. Giving him a chance to snoop could be his way of catching him in a trap.

He closed the door to the supply room behind him, looking around at the rows and rows of bottles. How to take advantage of the situation without getting in hot water with the Overseer?

He decided just to do what he was asked, and maybe take a peek at the names of the medications to look up later, when Edelstein took his lunch, or was in the exam room. As long as he didn't take too long or swipe anything, he should be fine.

Counting out the pill bottles went quickly enough, but the names on the bottles were long and hard to pronounce, let alone remember. He would have to settle for memorizing one pill and hoping it was enough to prove that the pills were harmful.

He chose the one they were short on, repeating it a few times to himself, and again as a mantra in his head as he exited the medicine closet. Hopefully this pill held the answers, because he wasn't sure he'd ever get the chance to go back in there again.

“Doctor? We're running low on...uhh...Methectylproximan? The one with the green cap.” He told him, tripping over the complicated name.

Doctor Edelstein looked carefully at him. “Alright, take this and go down to the lab. Tell them they need to synthesize some for us.” He said, writing out a note on his pad and handing it to Alfred.

“Thanks, Doc, I'll be right back.” He said, turning on his heel.

“Just a moment, Alfred.” The Doctor requested, and Alfred stopped in his tracks, turning around.

“Are you happy here, Alfred? Satisfied with your work?” He asked, still watching him carefully.

“Uhm...yeah?” Alfred asked, wary. “I mean, I feel like I should be learning more about being an actual doctor, but I know I'm pretty young, and I won't be replacing you any time soon.” He shrugged, trying not to say anything too damaging.

Doctor Edelstein smiled. “I understand being restless. I have you toddling around here doing nothing but paperwork and coffee runs. But Alfred, you have to remember that we're dealing with a very serious virus here in Vault Town. And I'm not just talking about how serious it is for us, the sufferers. Did you know that Vault Town's existence is itself top secret?” He asked.

Alfred blinked, feigning surprise. “Really?” He asked.

“Oh yes, a matter of national security. If China or Russia was to get ahold of even one resident of this vault, they could use us to manufacture a biological weapon to use against the United States. So you understand why we can't trust just anyone with our medicines.” He told him seriously.

“Yeah, I get it. I gotta put in the work if I want to prove myself worthy of the reward.” He gave him a jaunty salute. “I'll do my best to earn your trust, Doctor. I want to be the best medical professional I can be.” He answered, truthfully. And he did, even if that meant exposing the truth about the medical fraud that was going on in this vault.

“See that you do, Alfred. You're a bright young man, and I think you'll make a fine doctor.” Edelstein told him, a hint of fondness in his voice. It made Alfred's stomach sour to think that the Doctor hoped for him to follow in his footsteps and keep administering the pills.

“I gotta get this slip down to the lab. I'll be right back.” He excused himself, hurrying down to the lab and dropping off the slip. He dilly-dallied a bit on his way back, trying to process the cascades of information he'd been hit with since last night. But he still couldn't quite wrap his head around everything.

When he got back to the medbay, Doctor Edelstein was in the examination room with a client, giving Alfred a small opening. Keeping half of his attention on the door, he reached for a reference guide on the bookshelf. He searched it, his eyes continuously darting over to the examination room. But there was no mention of Methectylproximan. He put it back and grabbed another one, but it held nothing either.

He made his way through the 'M' section of three more pill dictionaries before finally giving up on finding it in anything the Doctor kept laying about. His newly cleared brain worked faster than ever, and it whirred to life trying to come up with a way to find out what the pills did.

He could ask Kiku, who worked in the lab, to try and find out the chemical makeup and he could guess based on that what it did to the human body. But he didn't want to get his best friend involved in this. Kiku was danger-averse to say it kindly, and valued his place in the lab. If he wanted Kiku to get the information, he'd have to let him in on all of it, and put him in the same vague danger Alfred knew himself to be in.

Maybe....maybe he could pick the lock on Doctor Edelstein's desk? If he was keeping the information anywhere in the clinic, that's probably where it would be. But was he really willing to do that?

He thought about Mattie, and how sometimes he would throw up for hours after taking his pills, and of little Theresa and all of the other babies who had no choice but to be doped up from birth.

Yes, he was really willing to do that.

He pressed his ear gently up against the door of the exam room and heard the Doctor discussing dosage instructions. There would be no time to do it now, and with people coming in and out for appointments....no. He would have to come back tonight. He'd have to break into the clinic.

~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~

Alfred waited until Matthew's breathing had evened out in the bed next to his before rising and padding out into the main body of the apartment. His parents' voices came in soft waves of babble from their room as he slipped out of the door into the hallway. The lights had been set on low for the night, and the shadows gathered at the corners, pools of darkness perfect for shielding Alfred from any prying eyes.

He slunk through the hallway, intensely aware that it was after curfew. Even if he wasn't caught rummaging through the Doctor's locked desk for top secret information, being caught out after curfew with no good explanation would definitely look suspicious. Why hadn't he had the good foresight to get a boyfriend? That would make a good excuse.

He wove carefully through the vault towards the clinic, stopping only once. He heard footsteps coming down the hallway and he ducked into an empty janitor's closet, closing the door just seconds before a guard shone their flashlight down the hallway. Heart pounding in his chest, he waited until he heard the guard's footsteps die off before he continued on his way.

Getting into the clinic was easy enough. He hooked the card reader up to his Pip-Boy and changed the time log to 4:45, only 15 minutes after he was sent home for the day because the Doctor had an important meeting with the Overseer and a few other important citizens. If Doc asked him why he'd gone back, he'd tell him he'd forgotten his jacket. Which was true, in that he'd left his jacket there on purpose just in case. He debated back and forth wondering if that was overthinking things, and it probably was, but it never hurt.

He slid the card and put everything back in place, ducking through the door and kneeling in front of Edelstein's desk. He thumbed quickly through his old copy of Tumblers Today to check the type of lock he was dealing with. He hissed, wincing at the projected difficulty level. He'd never picked a lock even half this difficult. Never even tried. But he knew how, technically.

It wasn't going to be easy, but he could do this. It had been a full day and some hours since he'd last taken his medication and his head felt clearer than ever, his hands more dexterous and less prone to shaking. And with every hour he put between himself and his last dose, he felt better. Better and more angry that they would steal this healthy feeling from everyone in the Vault for essentially no reason.

He set aside the magazine and fished the bobby pin out of his hair, sliding it into the key hole. Four pins and a fifth trick pin that would keep the drawer locked if it was set. He fiddled with the bobby pin, listening carefully to the clicking and sliding of the pins. When the first 4 were set, leaving the false pin in place, he turned the torsion wrench, grinning as the lock clicked open.

He opened the drawer slowly, almost afraid the sound of it would echo through the whole Vault. But it slid open with little more than a whisper, the files inside sitting unprotected. For a moment he wanted to shit the drawer and lock it back. It felt wrong to be rummaging through his boss' desk in the middle of the night with no permission.

He steeled himself with thoughts of Mattie and Theresa, and grabbed the top file off of the stack.

He turned his Pip-Boy light on and opened the file, scanning down the pages faster than he ever thought possible, the words seeming to simply jump into his brain as he read. They were data sheets, statistics gathered from Vault 74 residents. He was sure he could do something with this information if he knew more, but for now it was useless. He set the file aside and grabbed the next one. It was in Doctor Edelstein's handwritten scrawl, a sort of memo pad with notes to himself.

The Overseer has asked me to increase the dosage of hydroxephen to 100mg for all residents above the age of 18. He says he'd like to test the effects on the subjects'
docility, because some of the waste management team have been asking questions. I suggested that with careful dosing, teenagers could also be subjected to increases.

06/15/2275

The lab has switched out the Phenolyn with Triptolycol. I was advised to administer the doses as normal and monitor residents for complaints of lightheadedness and
vomiting. Confusion and forgetfulness are to be explained as rare side effects. It seems someone has been snooping around the abandoned wing of the reactor level again.

06/26/2275

I was right to advise that we check the trash before sending it to the incinerator. It seems they found more pills. I sent the Overseer a list of residents who haven't been
exhibiting expected side-effects.

07/02/2275

Alfred fought back a wave of nausea as he set the memos aside. This was so much worse than anything he could have imagined. The Overseer was changing their doses and switching out their pills on a whim, to control them, to keep them from asking questions. And Doctor Edelstein was actively compliant. He told them to check the trash, he sent out lists of patients who he thought weren't taking their pills, he even suggested experimenting on the teenagers.

He was going to be sick.

He gripped the side of the desk until the feeling of the wood digging into his palm grounded him, the pain clearing his head a little and battling back the wave of sickness. He didn't have the luxury of throwing up. Not here, not now.

He laid the memos out on the desk and scanned them into his Pip-Boy, replacing all of the files in meticulous order and locking the desk back. He had proof now.

He had proof.

The thought lifted something, some weight he had been carrying since he saw his parents skip their meds. Whatever happened next, he had proof.

Ducking back out into the hallway, Alfred contemplated his options. He should probably go back home and get some rest, wake up with his brother like he did every morning so as to not arouse suspicion. But he felt too keyed up to go to bed, and he needed to share what he had found with someone.

He turned and took off towards his grandfather's apartment.

~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~

When he got there, the door was open.

The doors on most of the rooms in the Vault were automatic, it should be closed. He told himself it had just stuck the last time someone had come or gone, but the hairs stood up on the back of his neck, and acidic anxiety ate at his stomach.

He entered the living room cautiously, not sure what he was expecting to find. Whatever it was, it wasn’t his grandfather lying in a pool of his own blood, clutching the shotgun he kept above the door and the crudely drawn map of the Wasteland.

Bile rose in his throat as he fought back tears, frozen in place as he tried to process the grisly scene in front of him. The blood was still oozing from a large gash in his head, which had been twisted much too far to one side to be natural. His eyes were wide open in defiant anger, a scowl frozen on his face.

“Oh god.” Alfred wheezed, trying hard not to be sick as the smell of rancid copper hit his nose. “Oh god.” He repeated, clutching desperately at his hair, pulling at it like the pain could make him wake up from this nightmare. But the scene in front of him didn’t fade, and he let out a choked sob as he fell to his knees at his grandfather’s side.

“Oh, Jesus. Oh god.” He whimpered, hands shaking as he grabbed the shot gun and the map. He had to get out of here. He had to find the hole in the wall, find the cave. There was no way that the Overseer wouldn't be suspicious of him now, wouldn't try to come after him or his parents next.

He tried to take deep breaths to calm down, but every gulp of air tasted like blood and panic as he stumbled out of the room and back into the hallway. The dim lights casting shadows down the long hallways of the Vault seemed more ominous now, hiding unseen assassins waiting to strike. He cast wild eyes around the hallway, knowing that he had to move but not sure which way to go.

Footsteps to the right made his decision for him, and he hugged the darkened wall as he tried to sprint quietly to the left away from them. The footsteps stopped, replaced by the murmur of quiet voices, which was replaced again by running steps and a shout of, “Vault Security, stop!”

Alfred broke out into a run, the guards thundering behind him as they called for him to stop. He skidded around a corner, slamming into the wall and bouncing off of it as he almost lost his footing. He lost precious seconds, and he could hear the guards right behind him as they started to close the gap.

He was breathing hard now, his lungs and limbs still weak from years of debilitating medication and a sedentary lifestyle. He could feel himself flagging, his steps growing uneven as his lungs burned. A hand grasped at his arm and he threw it off, ignoring the taste of ozone in the back of his throat as he put on a burst of speed.

But it wasn't enough. The wind rushed out of him as he was tackled from behind, he and the guard collapsing into a pile on the floor of the Vault. He choked on ragged breaths as the guard slapped a pair of handcuffs on him. His head swam, he tried to process what was happening as the guard started to speak.

“Alfred Jones, you're under arrest for the murder of Alfred Kirkland.” was what finally made it through the haze.

“What!? Are you insane! Why would I kill my grandpa!?” He protested, struggling against the guard on top of him.

“Good question. We'd love to know.” The other guard remarked sarcastically, a razor sharp smirk on her face. “I'm sure the Overseer will get it out of you.”

Panic renewed his strength as he bucked and squirmed against his captor, cursing and spitting at them as he kicked and elbowed anything that came within reach. But there were two of them, and he was already winded from running, and he knew that adrenaline and fear wouldn't be enough.

“Hey, what's going on here?” Came a disgruntled voice from down the hall. The struggle stopped as they all turned to look at Carlos, one of his dad's coworker's from the reactor level. The man frowned as he took in the scene. “Matthew? What's going on?”

Alfred bit back the urge to roll his eyes. Of course Carlos couldn't tell them apart, even at a time like this. He started to speak, but the guard shoved his knee between his shoulder blades and forced him down until his head cracked on the floor.

“This is Vault business, sir. I suggest you go back to sleep.” The guard told him, ice creeping into his voice.

“Not until you tell me why you're pinning a kid to the ground.” Carlos said, crossing his arms over his chest and standing like an immovable wall in front of his doorway.

“You'll know when the Overseer sees fit to inform the Vault as a whole.” The other guard said, baton clutched in his hand poised to be used.

Alfred slid his arms under him and shoved himself up. “Carlos, help! They're trying to frame me!” He said, crying out as the guard slammed his head back on the floor.

“Hey, you can't do that! Let him go!” Carlos snarled, tearing the guard off of him and slamming his fist into his face. The other guard cried out and tried to rush Carlos with his baton, but Alfred kicked a leg out to trip him and send him sprawling.

He felt a tug on his arm as Carlos dragged him up. His head was still spinning from being slammed into the hard floor, and he felt sick, but he wasn't given a moment to rest as he was pulled down the hall. “Carlos, what's going on? My grandpa...he...someone killed him.” He said, panic starting to bubble up as the weight of the situation hit him like a train.

“Shit.” Carlos cursed under his breath, “We have to get moving, now.” He half-dragged Alfred down the hall, not slowing even when he stumbled and almost fell against the older man.

“Carlos, what's going on? I don't understand.” Alfred said, trying to pull away from Carlos to get him to slow down for just a second.

“I don't have time to explain, kid. I need to get you somewhere safe.” Carlos answered, turning a sharp corner into an empty residential corridor. Three doors down, he swiped a security card and opened one of the doors. He pushed Alfred into the supply closet, a hard determined look etched into the lines of his brown face like gouges in the bark of a tree.

“Stay here.” He said, going to close the door.

“Wait!” Alfred said, panic in his eyes. “Don't just leave me here!” Carlos sighed and put a heavy, reassuring hand on his shoulder.

“It's going to be okay, chico. Just stay here until I come back for you. And don't open this door for anyone else, you understand me?” He said. “I'm going to disable the card reader from the outside. No one can get in unless you let them in.”

Alfred swallowed thickly and nodded, fighting the urge to cling to Carlos like a small, scared child. He was an adult now, and he had to act like it.

“I'll be back soon.” Carlos promised, mussing Alfred's hair. “Just stay put.”

Alfred felt the closing of the door like a weight pressing down onto him, the darkness crowding in on him as the light left with Carlos. The coppery stench of drying blood hit his nose and he fought not to wretch.

He stared down at his hands and the smears of blood that the shotgun had transferred onto them. His grandfather's blood.

He scrubbed his hands on his pants, but he could still feel the stickiness between his fingers. His grandpa's blood was drying on his hands, and on his pants now too. He thought about looking through the supply closet for something to wipe it off with, but he didn't want to draw attention to himself with noise.

He drew in on himself, clutching the shotgun to his chest and trying to keep his breathing slow and even. He could feel the quickening thump of his heart in his chest, and his stomach bubbled like a cauldron. Guilt and anxiety stretched each second into eternity as he strained to hear any sign of life in the empty corridor.

A group of running footsteps passed by, somewhere in the distance just close enough to hear, and for a second Alfred thought he was found. But they were gone as soon as they came, and he sank to the ground in relief.

Pulling his knees to his chest, he shut his eyes tight against the swirling mass of thoughts and worries that threatened to overwhelm him. He pulled himself in more, curling into a tight ball and tucking his face into his knees. It would be okay, it had to be. Carlos would come soon and he would get Alfred somewhere safe. He was coming back for him, he promised.

A knock on the closet door startled him, and he had to clap a hand to his mouth to keep from screaming. He shrunk back against the wall, hoping the person on the other side of the door hadn't heard anything.

“Alfred, it's your dad. Open up.” He heard his father's voice through the door. He started to lunge for the button, but stopped. Carlos had said not to open up for anyone but him. And Alfred still had no idea what was going on.

Pulling his hand back from the door lock, he bit his lip. What if it was a trap? What if the Overseer had already captured him and was using him as bait? What if it wasn't even him at all but someone doing an imitation?

“Alfred, son, open up. I know you're in there.” His dad said, voice soft and coaxing but with an edge of panic. “We don't have much time.”

He was right. Every second he spent debating whether or not to open the door was another second for the vault guards to round the corner and find them both. And then it would be over either way. He took a deep breath and hit the button, practically launching himself into his dad as the door hissed up and open.

“They killed grandpa.” He whimpered, fisting his hands in his father's vault suit. His dad sighed and squeezed him tight, his warm heavy hand a reassuring weight on his head.

“I know.” He said, burying his nose in his son's hair and wrapping him up like he might still be able to protect him the way he did when Al was little and his biggest worries were bullies and rats. He stepped back, holding Al at arms length and looking at him like he was seeing him for the first time.

“We have to go.” He said, looking at the map and the gun still clutched in Alfred's hands like they were somehow the problem.

“Where to?” Alfred asked, “There's no way out of the Vault but the door, and it's probably swarming with guards by now.”

“There's another way.” His father said, pushing his son gently down the hallway to get him to move. “You know where we're going.”

“The abandoned wing of the reactor level.” Alfred said, apprehension and awe in his voice. “Grandpa was right? There was no leak?”

His father paused for a moment before responding, peering around the corner and guiding Alfred down another hallway. “Yes and no.” He said, heading down a flight of stairs. “There's nothing wrong with the reactor, but radiation is leaking in from the surface.”

“From the surface?” He asked, confused for a moment before he remembered. Canton, two-headed cows, giant green men. “Oh god.” He breathed, his throat constricting and his chest tightening with the weight of it. Nuclear hellfire had wiped the world above them clean, and no one in the Vault would have been any the wiser if it wasn't for Arthur. Arthur, who was now laying dead in a pool of his own blood because of that. How many people had died in the blasts? How many people had died in the Vault to keep it from them? He tried to take a breath and realized he couldn't drag it deep enough. He couldn't breathe!

“Come on, champ. No time to panic.” His dad said soothingly, laying a steady hand on his shoulder that brought Al back into the present. “I've always been able to count on you to be brave, Al. I need to be able to count on you now.” He said, his steely blue eyes boring into Alfred's own, sternness there but also an overwhelming warmth that had always made Alfred want to live up to any expectation he set for him. “Can I count on you?”

Alfred nodded, resolute. “Yeah. Yeah, you can count on me, dad. I'll keep it together.” He said, rising up to his full height. He stared into his father's eyes and realized with a start that they were almost the same height now. When had that happened?

His father drew him into a hug, squeezing him tight enough to almost hurt. “Everything's going to be okay, Al.” He murmured, drawing back and squeezing his shoulder. “Let's get going.”

They slid through the shadows along the walls, ears perked for any sound. The main reactor level was empty, the majority of the workers having gone home for the night. He could hear the din of a holotape playing from the office, no doubt Nils was in there on the night shift. But the holotape covered the sounds of their footsteps, and it was easy enough to get passed him.

“Just a little longer, Al. Once we're in the sealed off portion of the reactor, we should be safe.” His father whispered. “The door's just down this next hallway.”

“What's going to happen to mom? And Mattie?” He asked, suddenly realizing that they weren't coming to meet them. His dad didn't answer for a moment, conflict warring across his face.

“They'll be fine, Al. The Overseer will want to brush this all under the rug. He'll say it was us, give your mom and Matt a chance to play dumb. They'll be okay.” He promised. Alfred tried to believe him.

“What happened to Carlos?” He asked, biting his lip. “He saved me, dad. If I got him into trouble-” His father cut him off.

“Carlos knew what he was doing, Al. There's a lot more to this situation than you know.” He said, his face a grim, resigned mask. “He can take care of himself.”

Somehow, that didn't inspire the confidence he thought his dad hoped it would.

They slipped into the hallway, silent as a shadow. Alfred could see the airlocked door that led to the closed off part of the reactor, and hope began to blossom in his chest. They were almost there, almost home free.

“Alright, Al. Think you can hack the lock?” His dad asked. Al looked at him, mouth agape. “Come on, kid, you think I didn't know how you got into the liquor cabinet? I know you know how to hack a terminal. It's in the wall, just press the button.” He said, a confidence in his voice that warmed Al's chest.

He hit the button and the terminal folded out of the wall, the keyboard flipping out and nearly whacking him in the chest as he stepped back. Eyes searching the screen, he felt his head swim. He'd only just started learning COBOL a few months ago, and there was code in here that he wasn't even sure what it did!

“Dad, I don't know if I can do this.” He said, nerves jangling.

“Of course you can,” His dad said, gentle and reassuring as always. “Who got the highest score on the G.O.A.T. in Vault history, hm? You did. And who could have had his pick of jobs in the Vault, including IT? You.” He reminded him.

Alfred sighed. “I wish I had picked it, now.” He said, frowning. But he put his fingers back to the keys and went to work.

Once he had his bearings, he found that he knew more of the code than he had given himself credit for, and could fill in the blanks on most everything else. Confidence started to build as he poked at the system, finding weak points faster than he had expected.

The shuffling of feet down the hallway stopped progress in its tracks.

“Dad-” He said, panic riding in his voice.

“I heard.” His father said grimly, pulling out a 10mm pistol. “Just keep going, Al. Don't stop, no matter what happens. And the second you get that door open, you go through. You hear me?” He said.

“But dad-” Al started, cutting himself off when he saw the look in his father's eyes. He swallowed thickly, desperately willing away the burn in his eyes. “I hear you.” He said, his voice barely louder than a whisper.

“I love you, Alfred.” His father said, drawing him into a tight, one-armed hug. “Remember that.”

“I love you too, Dad.” He said, returning the hug and fighting not to cling to his dad. He let go and took a deep breath, setting his shoulders and turning back to the computer. “I've got this.” He said, not even taking his eyes off the screen as his dad ran off down the opposite end of the hallway towards the now clear stop of the guards' boots.

He tuned out the shouting as the caught sight of his dad and focused on the code in front of him. Whereas before it had seemed a breeze, now each level of encryption seemed agonizingly slow to detangle. He wondered, heart in his throat, how much more he even had left to go.

He heard the firefight break out somewhere in the distance, and refused to think about it. He couldn't stop the shake in his hands as he typed, though, or the way his pulse pounded in his ears. As he heard the gunfire grow louder and louder until it drown out even the rapid thump of his heart, he finally cracked the last encryption.

Relief so immediate and cathartic he was almost overwhelmed by it was quickly replaced by a new sense of urgency as the gunfire reached the end of the hallway. The door hissed open and Alfred ran through, pausing with his hand over the airlock button on the other side.

His dad was coming. He had to be coming because the gunshots were still getting closer. If he closed the door now he would likely be gone before the guards could get back through the door. If he closed the door now, his dad was dead.

He heard his father cry out, so close Alfred could hear as he hit the floor. Al rushed forward before he could think twice, tumbling onto his knees in the shadow of the doorway and peaking around. His dad was in a crumpled heap on the ground, clutching at a rapidly blossoming blood stain on his left side. Something in him, some instinct drilled into him by Dr. Edelstein, took stock of his symptoms before the fact that his father had been shot could truly register.

The bullet had entered between the third and fourth rib, almost certainly puncturing the lung. The shallow, raspy breaths he was taking confirmed it; and when his father coughed weakly, blood came with it. He was already in bad condition, but if the bullet was anywhere near his heart....

“Al...” He heard his dad whisper weakly, pressing his 10mm into Alfred's hand. “Go.”

The child in him wanted to fight, wanted to stay here at home forever and never have anything change. The doctor in him knew that his father was dying, rapidly, and his only chance was if the guards got him to the med bay immediately. Which meant their search for Al had to become too hard to pursue.

He stood up slowly and crept back to the button, the hiss of the door closing behind him sounding like a death knell.

He ignored the pounding at the door and walked deeper into the abandoned reactor. Cobwebs clung to the equipment, the only light coming from the red emergency lights he was sure were always on. He pushed through, refusing to think.

The geiger counter on his Pip-Boy started to click, and he stopped. Likely, the clicking was a good thing. It meant he was getting closer to the exit. But what if something had gone wrong since the place had been sealed off? What if he was walking into a hot zone that could kill him before he even knew what hit him?

He sighed and pushed on, realizing that at this point it didn't matter. There was no way to go back, no way to stay where he was, he could only go forward. The clicking kept steady pace, the rads not jumping too much as he wandered deeper into the shut down reactor. The shadows grew longer as fewer of the lights he encountered still functioned, and he turned the light on his Pip-Boy on to compensate.

As he scanned the wall with the light, he saw a corner that seemed to be shrouded in shadows even it couldn't penetrate. He crept closer, the 10mm his father gave him still in his hand and the shotgun from his grandfather's apartment still slung over his shoulder. If anything sprung at him out of the darkness, he would be ready.

But when he got there, all that greeted him was a cool draft of air that smelled of things Alfred had no words for. It wasn't the sanitized, recycled air of the vault. It was....something else.

He shined his light into the darkness and found something he had only seen in pictures. Rock lined the walls of what he had to assume was the cave his grandfather had told him about. He ran his fingers over it, gasping at the cool roughness of it. He slid a whole palm over the surface, marveling at the feel. A cool puff of wind from the cave washed over him, and that strange smell drew him further in. It was almost like the smell in the hydroponics lab, but more somehow. Deeper, more of something else Alfred had no words for because he'd never experienced anything like it.

He wandered through the cave, one wrist held high to scan in front of him with the light, the other hand trailing lightly over the rock. Soft, spongy wetness under his fingertips made Alfred stop. Shining the light on a patch of moss, another thing he'd only ever seen in books, he couldn't help but marvel at it. He pressed his fingers lightly into the soft surface, a little laugh punching itself out of him as they sank into it.

Suddenly remembering where he was and why, Alfred snatched his hand away from the moss as if it had burned him and hurried deeper into the cave. The arm that had been trailing the wall came to wrap around his middle as he curled in on himself, ashamed that he had stopped to admire moss when his dad might be dying.

The tunnel let out into a wider cave, about 10 square feet, with a pool of water to one side and a side tunnel off to the other. He noted the pool for later in case he got thirsty and headed into the tunnel, hoping there weren't too many twists and turns to get back if he needed to.

The floor of the cave started to climb upward, and Alfred with it. By the time he was using both hands to climb, there was enough light in the cave that he didn't even notice he didn't need his Pip-Boy until he was almost blinded by his first glimpse of the sun in his lifetime. When Alfred's eyes adjusted, he gasped.

The cave had let out almost abruptly into a small cliff side, the early morning sun bright and bold just over the horizon and bathing the plains below in its light. Dead golden brown grass stretched out for miles before him, only a few charred stumpy trees breaking up the monotony. If not for them, he might not even think a bomb had hit, it was so similar to the pictures he had seen from Before. And when he looked up at the uniform blue of the sky stretching out from horizon to horizon without a single cloud, he had to remind himself that his Geiger counter was still clicking.

It became apparent why as he looked around. The trail leading up to the exit almost seemed to be made of a mound of waste barrels. He was safe for now, in the mouth of the cave, but he worried that if he stepped out too far onto the trail, the counter would start to go nuts.

Grandpa Arthur hadn't gone into detail about how he'd gotten out of the cave itself, only about Canton and his adventures there. Maybe if he had just taken him more seriously, he would have more information. He hugged his knees to his chest and scooted his back up against the mouth of the cave, frowning out over the dead prairie.

“Come on, Al. You're smart, you can think of a way out of this.” He said to himself, willing himself to believe it. Okay, so if one way led into a bunch of toxic waste, where did the other way lead?

He peered down off the steep side of the outcropping, hissing to himself as he took in the drop. He was pretty sure he wouldn't survive that. So plan b was out of the question. He sighed and took another look around, spotting a pool of water sitting tranquil at the base of the cliff. Remembering the matching one in the cave below, he made his way back down the slope.

He looked dubiously down into the water, rethinking the whole plan. It was probably full of rads, and it wasn't like he knew there was a way out. Maybe he should just chance it with the barrels? No, he would be dead before he hit the ground. This was the only way he could think of right now, so he was going to try it.

The water was surprisingly cold as he slipped into it, his feet not touching the bottom. He had expected it to be warmer, this close to the surface, but he was shivering as he tread water. He took a deep breath and dove, trying to swim and shine his Pip-Boy light at the same time. He saw a deep indent of shadows and pumped his fist in victory, coming up for another big gulp of air before swimming into the tight tunnel.

The rocks crowded in on him, snagging at this clothing and scraping his skin. The tunnel was barely wide enough for him to fit through, and the lack of air made his head swim with claustrophobia. But he could see a literal light at the end of the tunnel, and he forced himself forward even as his lungs began to ache.

He surfaced just in time, drawing a deep, desperate breath as he came up on the other side of the rocks, the outcropping he had been sitting on a good 30 feet above him. He let out a breathless whoop and hauled himself out of the water, shaking some of the water out of his hair.

The wind picked up, goosebumps rising in a rolling wave across his body. He rubbed his arms and checked the map, the sun not quite strong enough yet to warm him through the chill of the early morning. If he could find somewhere to lay low until he dried off, he'd feel a lot better about the whole situation.

The map was old and worn, hand drawn with little care for distances or accuracy. There was a map in his Pip-Boy, but it was useless with the map he had. At least the cardinal directions were marked. It was placed almost due Southeast of his current location, which might put it as close by as Sunnyvale or as far away as Mesquite, or anywhere in between.

Sighing, he set off towards Canton.

~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~.-.~

The scorching sun beat bleaching down onto the plains directly overhead by the time Alfred realized that he hadn't slept yet. The adrenaline had finally worn off, his second wind had come and gone, and all he wanted was a roof and a bed. He'd even settle for a shade tree and a soft patch of grass at this point.

He rubbed his eyes and yawned as he crested another rolling “hill”, or what passed for one in the relatively flat area. When he took his hands away from his eyes, he had to blink again just to make sure all the rubbing hadn't messed them up. There, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, sat a neat little row of houses on a busted up street.

He ran for them, the thought of a shady place to sleep and maybe even a bed drowning all other thoughts out. It wasn't until he was almost close enough to touch the first house that he jogged to a stop. There, in the middle of the street, stood a lone figure with their back turned to Alfred. Their clothes hung off of them in tatters, their hair scraggly and half-missing.

Alfred approached the figure slowly, cautiously. His hand hovered over the pistol his father had given him, fingers twitching slightly as he raised the other in a greeting. “Hey, stranger! How's the day treating you?” He called, stopping just shy of 50 paces from the person.

They seemed to perk up as he called out, and Alfred froze in horror as they – it – finally decided to show it's face.

Sickly green skin sloughed off like dry paper, leaving wet bone and muscle exposed. Shiny, twisted burn scars made up what little of its body that wasn't falling off. Dead, bulbous eyes bulged out of sockets with no lids above a vacant, grotesque cavity where a nose had once been. And when those eyes saw Alfred, they filled with a hatred that chilled him to the bone and left him frozen in place as it rushed him.

Alfred screamed, feeling it more than hearing it as the world narrowed down to a pinprick. His hand seemed to move on it's own, grabbing the gun and firing off shot after shot until it was empty. The monster staggered back, taking the shots, but didn't go down. Still, it was all Alfred needed to escape back around the other side of the house.

He tore the shotgun off of his back and checked it with shaking hands. Two shells. It would have to be enough.

Gulping down panicked breaths, Alfred braced the shotgun against his shoulder and whipped back around the corner. Steadying the gun as best he could, he fired off a shot. The kickback was stronger than he expected, and he rocked back on his heels for a moment before regaining balance. Blood and tissue exploded from the monster's torso, but all that did was stagger it again.

Alfred turned to run again, but caught his foot on a rock and went sprawling. He scrambled to get up, hissing as scraped palms grated against the sandy ground. He had barely managed to rise to his knees when the creature was on him, smashing his face into the dirt and cracking his glasses.

Blows rained down on him from above as the creature tore at him with blunt fingers like it was trying to rip him open. He pawed at the ground desperately for the shotgun he'd dropped, starting to cry. It was too much, this was too much. He was being attacked by a zombie in a nuclear wasteland and his dad and grandpa were dead and he didn't even know if Mattie and his mom knew. It was just too much.

His palm skirted over the metal of the gun, warm from the sun, and he grabbed it, swinging it over his shoulder and smashing it into the creature's head. The thing roared out in pain and reared back, and Alfred took the chance to slip out from under it. He didn't look back or pause as he ran back out onto the street and between two of the houses on the other side, tears and snot streaming down his face. He couldn't do this!

But apparently, the grotesque deformities the creature was suffering from hadn't taken away its speed, and Alfred could hear its inhuman growls behind him again within seconds. He sobbed out and put on speed, wondering how long he could keep running before he fell again and the monster caught him.

Suddenly, the bang of a door being slammed open echoed from one of the houses behind him. Hopelessness overtook Alfred, and he nearly sank down to his knees and gave up. He couldn't even take one of these things on, there was no way he could deal with two!

But instead of more disturbing almost-human sounds, he heard barking.

He turned his head on instinct, wondering what the hell that sound was and where it was coming from. A medium sized gray dog had shot out of the house and launched itself at the creature, tackling it to the ground and holding it there by its arm while it struggled to free itself.

Alfred stared in wonder for a moment, not quite knowing how to react to his canine savior. But when the monster wrenched it's arm and almost tore free of the dog, Alfred gasped and ran over, pressing the shotgun to the creature's face and firing point blank between its eyes.

Blood, hot red blood he almost hadn't been expecting, sprayed out from the thing, covering him and the dog. Alfred fell to his knees, thoughts swirling so fast he wasn't even sure he was thinking anymore. The dog padded softly over to him and licked his trembling, blood-covered hand gently, ducking its head under to ask for pets.

He ran his hand absent-mindedly through the dog's fur as he rose to his feet. The world seemed to spin around him, and when it got to be too much he bent over and emptied his stomach. He spit out the last of the vomit and wiped his mouth, tangling his fingers into the dog's fur and stumbling with it back to the house it had busted out of.

Alfred barely registered the blasted-out interior or the signs that looters had come and gone a long time ago. He shuffled, zombie-like, into the nearest room and collapsed onto the bed. The dog joined him, curling up under his arm and laying its head on his chest.

The dam broke then, and everything Alfred had been feeling since the night before last came pouring out as he buried his face in the dog's fur and sobbed.